This is an ongoing piece that has been written and re written and will probably be re written several more times. Right now it is entitled “Strings.”
He knew the moment she pulled away. He knew from the way she got up to help clear the plates from the table, balancing the paper disks on her hand and scraping dirty napkins onto the stack. The stiffness in her spine, the way she laughed at something Jana said in the kitchen and hurried through the door to join her. He could still feel the texture of her black jeans, where his fingertips had rested lightly on her knee a moment before. The warmth that he felt through the denim, the way the muscles in her thigh tightened, flexing away from his touch. He idly reached into the front pocket of his shirt for a pack of cigarettes that he knew wasn’t there. She didn’t like them, so he was trying to quit. He rubbed his thumb across the inside of his middle finger, longing to balance a cigarette between them. He heard murmurs from the kitchen. The faint rushing of water was enough to muffle their voices. David shifted on the couch, consciously training his eyes on the movie—documentary—they were supposed to be watching. But within moments they wandered again to the others in the room. Ryan was leaning forward, elbows on his knees, holding his beer loosely in one hand as he stared at the screen. Stephen lounged on the floor with one arm around Kacie. The spot on the couch still felt warm and he breathed in smell the hint of mint in the shampoo she used. Or was it eucalyptus? His ears strained to hear the conversation in the kitchen.
She was quiet in the car. For once she didn’t immediately adjust the radio to her favorite station. She didn’t curl up in her seat with one foot on the dash and she didn’t drum her fingers on her knees. He glanced at her when they stopped at a red light. She didn’t look at him. The street lights threw melancholy shadow-shapes across her face; her upturned nose, the sprinkling of freckles across her cheeks, the red tints in her dark hair. The light turned green on her face, turning her skin pallid. He carefully maneuvered down the street, packed with cars on either side, and came to a stop in front of her townhouse. He automatically went to put the car in park but she turned to face him.
“Not tonight,” She said. “I’m really tired, do you mind?”
He heard the click of her seat belt as it unlatched and the whisper of the belt as it retracted. Her hand was already easing the door open.
“S’fine,” he heard himself say, cheek muscles contracting to bare his teeth in a smile.
She shut the door and gave him a wave over her shoulder as she started toward her red front door, not even turning around. He could tell when she didn’t look back. The clicking of the blinker was irritating and he flipped on the radio to drown it out.
“I think it’s great that you’re so into doing what you love, I do, but…” she’d shrugged, leaning against her kitchen counter.
She used to sit on top of the cool counter top in a giant t-shirt with the big green coffee cup, laughing at him over the top of it as he made scrambled eggs and cursed at the uneven electric coils that always made one half of the pan hotter.
“Don’t you think it’s time to, I don’t know, grow up? What are the chances you actually make it?” her voice was painfully practical, rational. She turned away and reached up into the cabinet. She grabbed the big green mug and stood cradling it in her hands for a moment.
Must be nice to love something marketable. Must be nice to have found a great paying job in the same field where you earned your degree.
“I just…I don’t see this going any farther,” she handed the mug to him and finally looked him in the eye. “I have things I want to do and I can’t wait around…. You know, David, we’re not in college anymore.”
She stood with her arms crossed, staring at him as the silence grew.
“Well, thanks, for uh packing it all,” he said, turning and grabbing the box and tucking a t-shirt around the green mug.
“David…” she broke off, and he could hear the question mark hanging in the air.
What else was there to say? His things had been packed for him when he arrived—besides the green mug. He cradled the box with one hand and opened the door with the other, stepping out onto the porch. He knew she was standing there but he didn’t look back. He wondered if she thought he would yell or beg her to change her mind, if that’s what the line between her dark brows meant, the way they pulled down over her hazel eyes. Maybe she was hurt that losing her didn’t crush him, but she didn’t know he’d been losing her by inches for weeks now, maybe even longer. He just hadn’t noticed at first.
He was glad he hadn’t accepted the offer of a key. His single box of possessions slid from side to side in the back seat of the Volvo as he made the turns away from her house. A few t-shirts, some books, a spare toothbrush and contacts, an old pair of converse he’d forgotten he owned, a pillow. A giant green coffee mug that was also perfect for soup, a few movies, and an old baseball cap that was so faded he couldn’t remember what color it used to be. It was so much easier this way, he told himself. No dividing of spoils, no arguing over yours and mine. If he’d forgotten anything she would mail it, no need for him to bother picking it up. Don’t bother. The sun beat down through the sunroof and the breeze ruffled the hair on his bare arms. The smell of her perfume and the faintest hint of mint wafted towards him from the box in the back seat. The wind through the open windows and the smell of hot concrete almost drowned it out, but not quite.
It’s a good thing there was only the one box, because the trunk is full. The box thumps against the door of the Volvo again as he turns left and he hears the coffee mug clink as it shifts in the box, escaping its t-shirt wrapping. The Taylor 300 he bought in high school with money he earned working at his father’s accounting firm was cradled in a scruffy case and propped against the passenger seat. Stickers plaster the outside: City and Colour, Pearl Jam, Coldplay, Kings of Leon, Snow Patrol. A Georgetown University sticker clings forlornly to the edge. He rests a hand against the top of it as he drives out of town, the case absorbing the warmth of the sunlight streaming in through the window. The almost empty pack of American Spirit cigarettes shifts in the console, the vibrantly colored Indian brave on the packaging stares up at him. He draws deeply on the cigarette in his mouth, feeling the coarse smoke enter his lungs, tasting the bitterness of the nicotine on his tongue. He picks idly at the peeling Georgetown sticker as he sits in traffic on I-40, the blue and white sticker faded and filmed with dirt. He smiles through the smoke, Three semesters at Georgetown and all I got was this lousy sticker. That’s what it should say. Maybe they would make one for his parents, too; My child dropped out of Georgetown or Former Georgetown Dad. They were alumni; they could probably make that happen.
There is a job with his father’s firm back home in Dallas, even now. He would be the oldest intern, true, but it was respectable. It won’t be there for much longer. A futon that smells like stale smoke and old beer is waiting for him in Austin, too, along with the memories of the first weekend he spent there. He flicks the ash off the end of his cigarette out the window and shifts in his seat, remembering the heat from the pavement striking up at him, softening the rubber of his worn out Converse and sending a trickle of sweat snaking down his back. He remembers standing with his scuffed guitar case gaping open at the sky like a hungry bird.
The sun streaming through the open window of the Volvo and the smell of exhaust as he sits in traffic on the freeway is oddly peaceful. He shuts his eyes against the smoke of his cigarette and remembers.
Pedestrians passed, eyeing him with varying degrees of interest or disdain as he stood on the drag in Austin. A handful of coins—mostly pennies—and crumpled bills littered the bottom. He didn’t look like much in his faded shirt and ragged jeans. Tattoos ran down his forearms and rippled across his wiry muscles as he picked up his guitar and slung the strap around his shoulders, pulling it against his chest like a girl for a slow dance. His fingers effortlessly took their places on the neck and, caressing the strings, he began to play and a few more bills and handfuls of spare change peppered the worn, green suede interior of his case. His husky voice, sounded out soothingly in the late afternoon sun. The words to “Rise” by Eddie Vedder hung in the air and pedestrians slowed.
“Such is the way of the world
You can never know
Just where to put all your faith
And how will it grow
Gonna rise up
Burning black holes in dark memories
Gonna rise up
Turning mistakes into gold”
In that moment, all that mattered were the strings beneath his fingers, the words on his lips.
A honk behind him makes him shake his head and toss his spent cigarette out onto the highway. It was his parents’ demand that he take up an extracurricular activity besides football and baseball that had started it all, but they would never admit it. If they had ever met Callie, they would have agreed with her. They were always calling it a “phase,” too. The last time he’d talked to them, the usual stilted phone call, they asked how he was, what he was doing. His mother’s inevitable sighs and his father’s silence always hastened the end of the conversation.. They never asked if he was happy, they knew he couldn’t possibly be.
He met Callie at a coffee shop near Georgetown, during what would have been his fourth semester. He was playing for the patrons; getting paid with free coffee, stale pastries, and a pittance. She and her friends were regulars, always sitting at the same table and poring over their homework. Her eyes were bright as she watched him play, ignoring the chatter of her girlfriends. They began giggling when she got up, wound her way through the tables and worn armchairs, and dropped a five in his tip jar.
“Play “Yellow,” by Coldplay,” she said, waiting until he nodded and began to play the opening chords.
She was back the next day, and the day after that. She found out what kind of coffee he usually drank and started giving him those along with her song demands. One night she stayed until the shop closed, her face buried in a huge textbook, mouthing along with whatever was playing on her headphones. As the manager handed him his minuscule paycheck, he glanced over to see her gathering her things and stuffing them into her bag. He held the door for her as they walked out and the manager locked the door behind them. He shifted his guitar to his left hand and held out his right.
“I’m David,” he said as they walked down the sidewalk.
“Callie,” she replied, shaking his hand with a laugh. “David what?”
“David Steel,” he grimaced.
“Seriously?” She giggled. “Are you sure you didn’t get that off the cover of a Harlequin novel?”
“Oh that’s not the worst of it,” he groaned, enjoying the way her eyes crinkled when she laughed. “It’s actually David Richard Steel III.”
“No, it’s not,” she doubled over laughing, but in a way that didn’t make him feel insulted.
“Blame my parents,” he shrugged.
She looked him up and down and raised one eyebrow, “Oh, I will.”
The suggestive tone in her voice made him glance away and he realized she was fumbling for her car keys. The bus stop was further down the road, but he paused while she found them at the bottom of her bag.
“What about you?” he asked as she threw her bag in the backseat.
“I don’t give my last name to strangers,” she said with another peal of laughter as she climbed in and shut the door.
He stood in the cold for a long moment, watching her drive away before the sound of his approaching bus sent him skidding down the icy sidewalk just in time to catch it.
He grits his teeth as the final strains of “Yellow” end before ripping the auxiliary cord out of the top of his iPod. Silence was better. Using his knees to steady the wheel, he fishes another cigarette out of the flat package and lights it, letting the blue smoke curl up and out of the sunroof. Too many of the songs on his iPod will make him think of Callie and the radio was dicey too. One more love song is going to make him physically ill. The glove box falls open as he hits a pothole and something falls out. He glances down at a CD jewel case, its plastic scratched and smudged, lying on the floor. The EP he recorded the summer after high school graduation. His own songs that he recorded in a studio back in Dallas, using up the last of his hard-earned money from his father’s firm. Ten songs he wrote and rewrote and rewrote again. He took it to a small label; with his guitar in his trunk and all of his shining dreams pinned right on the front of his carefully chosen, faded t-shirt. He remembered thinking that the producers could clean anyone out at a game of poker. After they listened to a few tracks, they shook his hand and told him he had “promise,” but that what he needed was a unique sound, an edge. Something to distinguish him from all the other guys with good voices and an acoustic guitar.
So he tried Georgetown out and made it three whole semesters before everything came crashing down. He thought meeting Callie was a godsend, a sign he was on the right path. She was smart and ambitious and if she believed in him and his music, then who was he to object? Callie’s mom had the same furrow between her eyebrows when she found out he was a “musician,” that he hadn’t graduated from Georgetown, that he hadn’t even finished two years. It took a little bit longer for Callie to have that same furrow when she looked at him, but it appeared all the same. That’s when he really knew that things were heading towards the end. He almost laughed when he remembered how they had even tossed around moving in together, marriage, kids—the whole domestic dream. He had looked at rings, had almost decided to tell his parents he thought he found someone special. Then, that little wrinkle of doubt had appeared and he knew it was just a matter of time.
She started asking about what a job at his father’s company would be like—she had a friend who might be interested. He caught her scanning jobs online and pretended to believe her lame excuses. He wanted to tell her that working at a music store was better than nothing, that he made enough to pay his rent and buy groceries and take her to dinner, but he kept his mouth shut. She started rolling her eyes when he would pull out his guitar to work on a song, or when he would ask her to listen to a new track he had recorded. He stopped staying over and she never offered to stay at his place. And he realized how much easier it was to write when she wasn’t there—clicking away at her laptop or grumbling over the latest environmental scandal.
The grumbling in his stomach sounds loud in the silence and he pulls off at the next exit that advertises the golden arches of MacDonald’s. Soon, he is balancing a sweating Coke, a bacon cheeseburger and a supersized order of fries on his tray, the large cup teetering dangerously. Setting the greasy plastic tray on the Formica table, he slides into the seat and stuffs three French fries in his mouth. He flips open his wallet and as he shoves his card back in its slot, the corner of a something sticking out from behind his drivers’ license catches his eye. He slowly pulls it out and stares down at it, thumbing the grimy edge. It is the business card from an up and coming independent record label in Austin—at least they were up and coming five months ago when he’d been playing at an open mic night in D.C. .
“Gimme a call if you ever come down to Austin,” the guy said, handing him the card when he finished his set. “Might be I can do something for you.”
He’d shaken the man’s hand and slid the card carefully into his wallet, like some sort of good-luck talisman.
He eats a few more of the fries and washes them down with fizzing Coke, even though his appetite has faded. He finishes the cheeseburger anyway, and heads to the bathroom. He leans on the sink under the flickering, fluorescent lights, examines the circles under his eyes, the lines on his face that he hasn’t noticed before. He splashes water on his face and dries it on the harsh brown paper towels, patting his back pocket to make sure that the wallet—lucky card and all—are still in his pocket before heading back out to the car.
He didn’t tell his parents he was heading back to Texas—he barely told his landlord he was moving out in enough time to get his security deposit back. He didn’t tell Callie he was leaving; anything she bothered to mail to his apartment would get forwarded to his parents’ house. Would his father shake his hand and tell him he could start on Monday? He knew his mother would cry. He hadn’t seen them in at least fifteen months and he hadn’t spoken to them on the phone in weeks. An email now and then to let them know he was still alive was all he had been able to make himself do. He grimaces at the thought of moving back into his old bedroom while he looks for an apartment. The walls were probably still papered with his football pictures and trophies, his homecoming king crowns, the honor roll certificates his mom insisted on framing every year. His mother would immediately call her friends and tell them the prodigal had returned, that he would be starting at the firm immediately and following his father’s footsteps to corporate greatness.
The card in his wallet felt like a firebrand, burning its way through the leather and his jeans. He never heard anything about the record label, but he hadn’t looked. He’d thought about calling the number so many times, but he never did. Maybe they went under, maybe they never existed, and maybe they had other, bigger artists to worry about. Maybe, maybe, maybe. He doesn’t stop to sleep, only for gas or to stretch his legs. 3:30 a.m. shines on the dashboard clock and he pulls off the highway where signs indicate a rest stop. No one else is there and bugs swarm the flickering lights in the quiet darkness, interrupted only when he slams his car door. He cranes his head back to stare up at the stars, leaning back against the hood of his car, feeling the heat soak into his jeans. He can feel the slight trembling in his hands, brought on by the nicotine and caffeine.
He paces away from the car, gravel bouncing away from his shoes and sending up small clouds of dust. The choice is glaringly obvious: security, stability, normality—they’re all waiting for him at the price of an apology and a handshake. That handshake could probably even get him back into school, maybe not Georgetown, but he could get a good degree. A few words and some groveling—and a lifetime of financial and social success. The cigarette burns down until he can feel the heat singeing his fingers and he lets it tumble onto the gravel, watching the glowing red flame flicker and fade until it dies out completely. The night feels oppressive now, the darkness crowding down upon him and his little Volvo and the stars, cold and bright, are remote.
He gets back into the car and pulls back onto the barren highway. The lights of cities and towns flash by in the darkness. Hours tick by as he drives in silence, other than the wind whistling through the cracked windows to let the smoke out as he finishes his last cigarettes. The signs for I-35 and Dallas loom out of the predawn light as the Texas sky began to turn from deep purple to pink. The roads are nearly empty at this time as night blends into morning. He moves his foot to the accelerator and takes the exit towards Austin.