“Nope. He wants me to have my own gig, baby. Two nights a week.”
I chew my toast much slower than necessary to allow for a brief moment of consideration. She never wanted to gig again, saying that she had left performing behind, so why the sudden change of heart?
“What nights?” I ask, not that it really matters, but struggling to work out what this really means.
“Mondays and Thursdays.”
“So, are you playing tonight?”
“No, I start Thursday, I wanted some time to prepare.” She takes a sip of her own coffee, eyeing me over the mug. “I may go tonight, though. He’s performing and it was real good fun last night.”
“The owner. His name’s Blue.”
“I know, right?” she chuckles lightly...oddly. “He’s actually pretty cool and I got talking to the others who work there. Everyone seems real friendly.”
Is that what this is about? Making friends? I should be happy, I suppose. I mean, she genuinely seems in a better mood this morning. I just wish it was because of me. “Maybe I’ll come with you. I can try and finish early.” Her face lights up and in response I feel like an ass. I know I won’t be finished in time, so why did I say it? Because I want to pretend that I’m a good husband? Just for a minute?
“I’d love that. I think you’d really like it there.”
I nod, unable to verbally lie again. Finishing the last of my coffee, I thank her once more for breakfast before fetching my briefcase and throwing on my jacket. I’m about to head to the door when I remember about her interview today.
“What time did you say your interview was?”
Against the little voice in the back of my head’s advice, I walk over to her and kiss her cheek, gently cupping her fine jaw. “Good luck, not that you’ll need it. Blow them away, Darl.”
She smiles sweetly, a little shyly. “Thanks. I’ll call you afterwards?”
“Of course.” Why does she feel the need to even ask? “See you later.”
Arriving late at work has really put a dampener on the whole day. I already had so much to do after securing the contract with the author last night and five more manuscripts have just landed on my desk. The morning has flown by in a wind of chaos and I’m momentarily contemplating how I’m going to fit in any lunch when my phone rings. I wait for the office secretary to pick it up, but when I glance to her desk she’s not there. Typical.
“Reid Daley speaking.”
“Oh, hi. I thought I’d get Karen.” It’s Darlene. Her voice is an instant soother to my taut mind and I lean back in my chair for the first time today.
“No, Karen is otherwise engaged, apparently.”
“Oh. Well, I’m walking to the store, baby, you want something nice for dinner?”
“Never mind that. The interview, how did it go?” I ask, knowing how little time I can realistically spare for this conversation.
“Really well, I think. The school is amazing and the principle’s fantastic.”
“Great, that’s really great,” I enthuse, physically crossing my fingers for her, for us. “Did they say when they’d let you know?”
“They have interviews all week, so by the weekend.”
“Perfect, we’ll be able to celebrate Saturday then.”
“Celebrate? That’s a little presumptuous.” Her words counteract the smile I can tell she’s wearing. “I mean, let’s not tempt fate, baby. We don’t know that there’ll be anything to celebrate.” “I do. I know,” I insist because I know how amazing she is, both as a person and a teacher. I can’t imagine them having any reason not to hire her.
“Well, I wish I had your belief,” she sighs so heavily I can hear it above both the background noise of the office and the cars whizzing past. “Don’t worry, Darl, I have enough for both of us.”
“Yeah, about that...I’m sorry, but I’m really behind here. I don’t know what time I’m going to make it home.”
“But, you said...”
“I know, I know. I’m really trying to get this shit done but more keeps coming, ya’ know?” As if proving my point an email pings to life on my computer screen. It’s from James about the contract. I rub my eyes beneath my glasses and exhale heavily. “Darl, I have to go. I’ll try, okay?”
“It’s fine. I’m going to The Nest later anyway so if you make it out past midnight, then stop by.”
I ignore the bitterness that oozes from her exaggeration. I wouldn’t work until midnight. She knows this. “Okay. Bye, Darl.”
She hangs up without saying goodbye, as if I didn’t feel shitty enough as it is. Can’t she see how snowed under I am? I’m still the new guy here, still trying to prove myself. It’s my own fault. I stupidly landed a major author in my first week and consequently got thrust into the thick of it. I’m the wonder kid, the lucky charm, tagged along to most meetings with everyone’s hopes pinned to my new designer suit. I do love it, and so far I have yet to fuck up, but while I excel at work I know that I’m failing at home and I can feel myself resenting both pulls equally. When things are great here I can’t help feel frustrated with the lack of support from Darlene, and then when I’m at home and I’m confronted with the sorrowful blue eyes of my wife I feel like an absolute asshole. Work is slowly tearing me away from Darlene and the procedure is torturously painful.
I need to find a balance, soon.
All thoughts of being let down, yet again, get pushed aside as I allow the prospect of another great night at The Nest to flood my mind. Opting for a ditsy-print dress with a short but fluid skirt, and my black cowboy boots, I remember the chill outside and quickly pull on some thick, black tights. I’ve given up trying to calm my hair, instead I choose to twist it into a loose braid and let it sit on my shoulder.
After shrugging on my coat I wrap a scarf around my neck, hoping to further protect from the cold. As I grab my bag I glance at the wild assortment of flowers that I just about managed to contain within a glass vase. They were such a surprise to see this morning, and Reid’s explanation did nothing to ease my confusion. They were congratulatory? An apology? Regardless of what they were meant to be they were obviously a last minute thought. There’s no denying flowers that have been purchased at a gas station. I guess it’s the thought that counts.
Making sure to avoid an argument, I drop my phone into my bag and head out, hastily navigating my way onto the street and across the short distance to The Nest. The music guides me in and as I enter I feel another unaided smile spread across my face. It swells further when I make it to the bar and Blue swiftly hands me a Corona, shaking his head when I reach for my purse. I really need to find a way to pay him back for all these drinks. I mean, not like that, but you know, like with money. Jeez.
Blue doesn’t have chance to say anything other than a quick hello as he hurries to serve. He looks just as amazing as he did last night, wearing a black shirt with the sleeves rolled up to expose his muscular forearms, and dark jeans and boots. I realize that this must be the uniform here because the other two bar staff, Veda and Nile, are also wearing black tops and jeans. They smile and wave when they see me but the bar is pretty busy so they’re unable to chat.
It’s beginning to look as busy as last night, if not busier, and it appears as though most of the clientele are regulars. Everyone seems to know everyone, and a few even recognize me from my performance. As I struggle out of my scarf and jacket and move to the side of the bar I’m accosted by a young guy with unruly blonde hair. I’d ordinarily feel a little unsure of strangers but his bright eyes and equally bright smile argue that there is nothing to be wary of.
“Hi,” he says, both waving and nodding at the same time. I smile in return. “You were pretty amazing last night.”
“You’re new here, right? I mean, I haven’t seen you before.”
“No, last night was my first time here.”
“How come?” he asks, oblivious to the many reasons I could rattle off.
“Well, I’m new to Chicago. I mean, I’ve been here a few months, but I still feel pretty new.”
“Well, I’d be glad to show you around sometime.” His smile is a little lopsided, reminding me of Reid, back in the day at least. It’s been a while since I have been honored enough to see it, but it means that I know exactly what Blondie is expecting. I’m just about to shut him down when a deep voice interjects and large hands grab the top of his arms, pulling him back playfully.
“She’s married,” Blue warns with a smirk creasing his mouth and crinkling his eyes.
I hold up my hand, using my ring as evidence and Blondie dramatically drops his head, mocking utter devastation. I laugh at him as he lifts his gaze back to mine.
“Oh well. We can all use more friends, right?”
I agree. “Absolutely.”
Some more so than others.
“It’s Darlene, isn’t it?” Blondie asks. I nod, offering my hand to shake. He accepts. “Great, I’m Zach.”
“Nice to meet you, Zach.”
“Nice to meet you, too. I’m going to go get a beer and then sit with the guys. You’re more than welcome to sit with us?” He points a hand to a rowdy group, mostly men but a handful of girls. Both Zach and I turn to look at said group, but Blue’s attention never wanes from me.
“Thanks, maybe I will.”
When Zach smiles once more and walks away Blue pulls up a seat next to me and leans in a little. I naturally do the same. Why do I feel so at ease with him?
“I’m thinking of making Pilgrim your official pet name,” Blue says, eyeing me expectantly.
“Oh, so I’m a pet?” He shrugs and pouts playfully, doing a good job of reminding me of his deliciously full lips. “I don’t think I know you well enough for you to be using any pet names on me,” I insist, striving for firm but having to fight a small smile. What is wrong with me? I should be put off with his banter, not relishing in it.
“I’m sure we’ll know each other very well, very soon, so I’m just saving us time.”
I shake my head, pouting my own lips. This is as much as I can do to deter his teasing because I’m dangerously close to admiring his boldness. It’s been a long time since someone has so unashamedly wooed me.
He laughs knowingly and I relax a little in the knowledge that he is, indeed, playing. When his chuckling lessens he leans in a little closer and regards me seriously. “Please don’t sit with them,” he says without any remaining humor. His sincerity is highlighted by his unyielding stare into my suddenly wide eyes.
“Because every single one of them will make a pass at you and I really don’t want to be worrying about you when I’m up on stage.”
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little thrown by this. Is he worried for my safety? I guess that’s sweet, but I barely know him and I really don’t think there is any need for his concern. The Nest seems like a pretty safe place to be and if the guys are as friendly as Zach then I don’t think his concern is reasonably justified.
“Why would you worry?” I enquire, a little nervous about his response.
“For the very reason I just said.”
“Because they might make a pass at me?”
“No, because you might let them.”
This isn’t right.
What concern is that of his? He’s still flirting. Do I need to be more upfront about my disinterest? I am disinterested, aren’t I? Yes. No. Yes, of course I’m not interested in him, or his concern for that matter.
“I wouldn’t, I’m married,” I reassure him, as much for my benefit as his.
Nodding his head in acceptance but biting back a self-assured smile, he clocks eyes with me. “So where is this elusive husband of yours anyway?”
“At work,” I reply, a little bitterly.
“And last night?”
“Same. He’s a very busy man.”
“Too busy,” he affirms, rubbing his hand over his neat, short hair. “He doesn’t even have a little time to spare for you?”
“Of course he does, it’s just that...well he...”
I’m cut off, and as a result saved from having to stumble upon a reasonable response. “I’m sorry, it’s really none of my business,” Blue admits.
“You’re right, it’s not.”
“Well, whenever he can’t give you his time, I promise you that we will,” he offers, gesturing to the room around us as he stands from his stool. I don’t know whether to feel grateful or affronted, but I nod my head and reach for my beer, suddenly needing it.
“I really need to pay for these drinks at some point,” I call as he makes his way back to his side of the bar.
“Oh, you will, eventually,” he replies rather obtusely, but the smirk on his face leads me to interpret his words in a way that I shouldn’t.
The night moves on and as expected I am blown away by Blue’s performances. His stage presence is electric. His talent and charisma combine to produce palpable energy in the room. Sparks fly as he sings and plays a variety of songs, many of them descending from the blues but also stretching to swing, Motown and a little contemporary stuff too. I’m deeply impressed, I’m more than impressed...I’m awed. It’s been a while since I have been so sucked into a performance that I have forgotten the world around me, and it doesn’t help that Blue has included me throughout, smiling at me repeatedly and throwing dance moves my way.
About half way through his set he calls out for a break and comes to sit by me again. Nile hands him a bottle of water and he consumes half of it in a split second.
“Are you enjoying it?” he asks.
“Of course I am.”
“It’ll be you up there on Thursday,” he says, nudging my shoulder with his. Again, he’s trying to make me nervous, and failing.
“I can’t wait,” I respond, my chin lifting a little with confidence.
I nod my head, delighting in being able to mirror his cockiness. I’m genuinely excited, especially having been reminded of the buzz that music brings in this place.
“Then sing with me tonight.”
“You heard. Just one song,” he pleads, releasing his killer weapon against my stubbornness – that dazzling smile.
“I haven’t got my guitar,” I reason.
“I’ll play mine.”
“No, I can’t sing without my guitar. I guess I could play yours though?”
“No, nobody plays my guitar.” I want to be offended by his inability to share but I feel exactly the same way about Cash. “Come on, we’ll sing together.”
“No, Blue. Really, I can’t.”
“Look, I’m going to call you up and if you refuse then you’ll have a hell of a crowd to deal with,” he argues, arrogance radiating from every ounce of him.
“You’re an ass.”
“A nice ass though, right?” he replies proudly as he walks back to the stage, grinning and taking another long glug of water. I mirror the action but with my beer, finishing the contents and immediately gesturing to Nile for another.
From the stage, I can hear Blue grabbing the microphone. He looks at me with that impish grin plastered on his stunning face. No, stop. I’m not going to appreciate his beauty now. I’m too pissed off. I want to sing, I do, but I have never attempted it without my guitar. I don’t have time to formulate an escape route though, for I am quickly called up onto stage.
Hesitantly making my way through the cheering crowd, I am growingly annoyed with myself for getting this worked up. Blue offers his hand and hoists me onto the stage. I scowl at him but when he laughs I can’t hold back my smile.
“What are we singing?” I ask, twisting my fingers together nervously, anxious that he’s going to start playing something that I’ve never even heard of.
“Oh, I have something in mind. Sing if you know it.” Sporting an impossibly mischievous smile, he winks and strums his guitar once, allowing the noise to reverberate around the room and consequently silence the crowd. The gesture is unsettlingly familiar.
Before panic can completely take over and before I am able to dislocate a finger, I hear the memorable chords of a much loved song. Watching Blue’s smile grow wider and even more devastating I quickly relax. I am a pilgrim. I should have known. His version is more upbeat than mine and leans toward soul rather than country but I still really love it.
Feeling suddenly at ease, I join in with Blue and his rich voice, finding the natural harmony and rejoicing in the sound of our complimenting tones. I’ve only ever sang a duet with my mama or daddy, so this feels completely alien and yet somehow completely normal. Who would have thought that Blue’s gravelly voice could mesh so well with my country twang, but it does, it really does. Blue seems to agree, playing up our easy partnership by turning to face me and singing directly at me, blocking out the loud, joyous crowd.
I completely let go of the nerves over not having a guitar to hide behind, gripping the microphone and finding pleasure in the light sway of my hips. Blue completely moves from his own mic and steps closer to share mine. We’re so close and the chemistry is so clear. Our performance is unbelievably natural, as if we have been gigging for years rather than only having met yesterday.
When the song draws to a close Blue’s face is triumphant. He takes my hand and holds it up as I have just won a fight rather than finished a song. I giggle at his gesture but take pleasure in the moment. That was exhilarating. A perfect partnership.
Addressing the cheering crowd, and still holding my hand, Blue clears his throat into the microphone. “Please, show your appreciation for the amazing, the heavenly, Darlene!” The already rowdy audience emits a deafening applause and I am maneuvered into a shared bow with Blue. “You’ll be ecstatic to know that you can catch this talented lady every Monday and Thursday, starting this week. Only the best for The Nest!”
Before helping me down from the stage Blue pulls me close, closer than necessary, and speaks directly into my ear. “Yet again, you astound me. Consider Pilgrim your new pet name, for sure.”
I can’t shake the smile as I make my way back to my seat. It takes much longer than it should, having to stop and shake hands with almost every member of the audience. When I finally relieve my jelly legs I find the dangerous eyes of Blue still watching me, and I begin to realize just how dangerous he has the potential to be.
The bright light from the bare window coaxes me awake and it takes me a few seconds to realize where I am. On the sofa. I stretch out, thinking that I’m alone, but when my feet meet something firm and warm I look up to find Darlene curled up on the opposing end. A thick blanket is cast over the two of us and my shoes have been removed.
I don’t even remember her coming in last night. I didn’t get back until late and expected Darlene to already be home. When she wasn’t I planned on waiting up for her. I took the weight off my feet and apparently fell asleep. Shit, what time is it? I check my watch, worrying that I’ve slept through my alarm, but find that it’s not even seven yet.
I relax and watch my wife undisturbed. Darlene seems completely different when she sleeps. The sexiness that clings to her throughout the day sleeps with her at night, leaving her to come across almost angelically. Her breathy, deep voice, silenced. Her doe eyes with lashes that flick out at the corners fan across her cheek instead. Her full lips, reminiscent of a pin up, sit parted, emitting the gentlest of breaths.
The confidence that she carries in consciousness, abandons her, leaving her seeking comfort in anything she can reach; a cushion, a blanket, or hopefully, my arms. She curls herself into the smallest ball cowering rather than peacocking, and I marvel at the change.
I love Day Darlene. I love that her sexiness and confidence is effortless, but it’s Night Darlene that appeals to the needy hero in me. Why I decided this self-assured, independent, difficult woman should be the one I’d spend the rest of my life with I will never know, but despite everything I thank God everyday that I did.
Darlene stirs at my movement and stretches her sleepy limbs. When she opens her eyes I can see the same confusion laced into her features.
“Morning,” I say, smiling warmly at my wife, who after finding me asleep here, covered me in a blanket, took off my glasses, and stayed with me. She stayed with me.
“Morning,” she yawns, rubbing her eyes. “You sleep okay out here?”
“I think so. I must have passed out when I got in. I wanted to wait up for you, I tried...”
“It’s okay, I got in late. You missed a good night though.” She smiles lightly, maybe remembering last night, and sweeps her hair away from her face. Her makeup is a little smudged and her skin is pale. She’s clearly hungover. Guess she really did have a good night last night.
“You look a little rough,” I blurt out before my brain to mouth filter has had chance to wake up.
Embarrassment flashes over her face before she adopts a look of heavy annoyance. “Yeah, well I obviously had too much to drink, didn’t I?”
I inwardly curse her, chastise her for putting her safety at risk yet again. Drinking alone in a bar with a bunch of strangers? Really? You’d think she’d know better after everything she has grown up with. She’s witnessed the bad that can come from bars and drinking, but she only chooses to see the good. That’s exactly why she needs me to look out for her. She just won’t accept that though.
“I don’t think you should be drinking on your own there, Darlene,” I push.
“I’m not on my own. I have friends there.”
“After two days you call them friends?”
“They’re the closest thing I have to friends, so yeah,” she bites, standing up quickly from the sofa before holding her head and swaying a little.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, shifting closer and holding her arm, prepared to steady her.
“Head rush. I just stood up too fast.” She flinches away from me. “Stop worrying about me.” I construe her words to mean more than the context in which she spoke them, and when she stalks to the bathroom I want to punch myself for pushing her away, yet again.
An hour later and Darlene is actually washed and dressed at the same time as me today. She normally waits to shower and change until after I leave, having no reason to be presentable so early. She looks great as usual, casually dressed in jeans and boots, cleaned of her hangover. “Are you going out?” I ask as Darlene hands me some toast. She doesn’t take any for herself.
“Yeah, I’m having breakfast with one of my new friends. She’s going to help me choose some music for my performance this week, so we might go record shopping. I’m not sure.”
“Oh right.” I choose to ignore the friend indictment. “Do you want some money?” I ask knowing she’s going to say no even though her savings are radically being used up with her joblessness.
“Okay. You staying local or catching the El?”
“The train,” I explain, wondering when I adopted Chicagoan colloquialisms.
“Oh right. Umm, no I’m meeting her locally, but I’ll walk with you.”
Cutting through the park in the midst of an uncomfortable silence, Darlene suddenly takes my hand. I’m so caught off guard by this I actually flinch, but then the connection resonates familiarity and I cling to her hand as if it is the emotive warmth that is tangible rather than her slender fingers. She’s looking straight ahead, unaffected by this rare, sweet gesture. When I follow her gaze I see someone adapt their path to turn and meet us.
The first thing I notice about the guy is that he is tall and well-built. I mean, I work out, but this guy is full on muscles. I don’t know why I find it threatening; he’s a perfect stranger. There’s something about the way he regards both me and Darlene though that makes me puff out my chest and pull her just a little nearer.
“Pilgrim,” he says by way of greeting. I glance at Darlene for an explanation but she just shakes her head in disregard for the name, or perhaps my curiosity.
“Hi,” she answers, waving pleasantly with her free hand before holding me a little tighter. “Reid, this is Blue, from The Nest. Blue this is my husband, Reid Daley.”
Offering his hand, he looks amused. “Reid Daley? As in, reading books daily? Don’t you work in publishing too?” The humor in his tone is forced and his handshake unnecessarily firm. I instantly recognize this alpha game and despite not knowing the reason for it, I accept. Commence operation ‘Who Has The Biggest Balls.’
“Yes, Blue. That’s my name. Unfortunately you missed the opportunity to call that observation your own a long time ago.”
His eyes harden a touch before he focuses his attention back on Darlene. She looks uncomfortable. She’s standing oddly close to me and her fingers are hooked tight around my hand. Is she frightened of him? No, can’t be. She was singing his praises just the other night. But I know I’m not imagining this tension between them.
“So, what are you up to this early? I thought you’d be hungover for sure,” he drawls while flashing a knowing smile.
“Was I that bad?” Darlene whines, hiding briefly behind her hand. She’s embarrassed. Did she really drink that much? I can’t remember the last time I saw her embarrassed after a night out. Probably not since college.
“No, you were that good.”
I’m immediately on guard and Darlene knows it. She interrupts before I can say anything, turning to me to explain.
“I got a little carried away last night, baby. When the bar closed a few of us stayed behind for drinks and I ended up singing and dancing on the bar. Oh, God.” She squeezes her eyes shut as if mentally reliving it. I don’t know what to say.
“Darlene...” I’m shaking my head. I’m completely not okay with this but how do I say so without sounding like an overprotective ass, especially in front of this guy.
“Dude, she was fine. Don’t worry.” Blue’s stance is so uncaring, so effortlessly blasé, that his words double in their agitating effect on me.
“She was in safe hands,” he adds, as if that makes me feel any better.
“She wasn’t in my hands.”
“Hey,” Darlene says, cutting through the tension like a high C. She turns a little to face me, consequently blocking out Blue. “Don’t worry about me. I was completely on top of things.”
“You know, you should come on Thursday. It’d be great to see you supporting Darlene,” Blue says, his words holding a challenge, that again, I gladly accept.
“Great.” He tosses me a false smile before giving Darlene the real deal. “So, where are you off to?”
“I’m actually meeting Veda for breakfast.”
“Really? I’ll come with. She walked home in my jacket last night. Last time I let her borrow it she kept it for months.”
Darlene can’t hide the unease she feels at the new plans, not from me at least, but she attempts to. Why does he unsettle her so much? Heck, why does he unsettle me so much?
“Oh, okay, umm…I’ll see you at home later then,” she offers me, smiling weakly.
Not too much, though. “You too.”
Tilting up onto her tiptoes, she leans in to kiss me. This alone is a rarity but the fact that she is going for my lips rather than my cheek throws me off guard. Who is this kiss really for? Is it for us, or him? It’s territorial, like she’s proving her loyalties to me. Has he been hitting on her? At least I know that his advances have not been well received. She couldn’t be any more uncomfortable in his presence if he was naked. I know just how I can help her out.
Taking her face in the palm of my hand I deepen the kiss, pressing my body to hers and holding her there long enough to feel the familiarity. My tongue flicks lightly against her cold lips and is immediately granted entrance. I’m almost shocked to the point of stillness, but at the presence of her tongue I am overwhelmed with recognizable heat. God, she’s not pulling away. I can’t recall the last time she didn’t pull away. I contemplate keeping this going forever, but when a deep cough intrudes, the moment is lost.
Darlene walks away with a true smile on her face. I want to cherish it, but when Blue offers her his hooked elbow and she accepts it I immediately deflate.
I hate him.
The candles that I purchased during our first week in Chicago have finally been lit. They flicker in the middle of a meticulously laid out dining table, enhancing the bronze hues of the tableware with their golden glow, as Sade sings softly in the background. I’d like to say that I go to this much trouble for evening meals often, but that would be a big, fat lie. This evening’s efforts are a by-product of too much time on my hands. Too much time leads to too much thinking and today’s thoughts have focused entirely on guilt. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t really done anything completely immoral. I haven’t physically swayed from my marital vows, but I’ve thought about it. And that’s just as bad, right?