Ann Arbor; September 2008
Darren wasn’t sure how he had ended up at this open mic night at all. There was tequila involved, perhaps, and definitely someone with a guitar that was easy enough to grab. And then someone mentioned a place where he could have the guitar and a mic and a stage and an audience, and, well. Irresistibility incarnate.
Performing drunk might be terribly unclassy, but it wasn’t as if the buzz of alcohol and the buzz from the attention of a rowdy crowd were that dissimilar. And, every once and a while, when classes were too much and the professors’ criticisms were especially sharp and he was grasping at why he loved acting and singing and creating at all, just letting go was invariably the best reminder.
Brian led him over to the sign-up sheet, where a bored girl with a nose ring took down his name and the song he was going to play (Dude, $20 says I can get these hipster kids dancing to Disney, it’s gonna be great, they’ll all roll their eyes but power of Mulan, yeah? Wins over the hearts of the most ironic of the skinny jeans. Darren, jeans don’t have hearts. They’re pants).
His back was turned to the makeshift stage when the speakers with the iPod deck start blasting a familiar beat. In the second it takes him to place the song, he whips around, and,
And the flesh machine
He's gonna do another striptease
Legs, he thinks dumbly. He’s the first to admit his brain might not be working on all cylinders because his thoughts just continue in disjointed fragments. She and growl and lips and that voice and this song and how does she sound how exactly how sex feels, and, finally, damnnnn.
'Cause of a lust for life
'Cause of a lust for life
Because there’s this girl on the stage and she’s screaming and belting this song out and she’s just might be the most gorgeous thing he’s ever seen, with hair wild and skin flushed, and she’s biting her lip and she’s not wearing pants.
OK, she’s in some sort of lacy stocking… things…. and she has some sort of bathing-suit-esque piece overtop, but (and the point bears repeating, Darren feels), no pants.
The song finally ends and, unbelievably, the girl glances over at him and smirks like she would actually notice someone like him, like she knows that just that smirk would make his cock jerk in his pants, and in what world is that even allowed?
Brian and Julia are smirking, too, at his slack-jawed face, and they should really just all go make t-shirts that say LET’S ALL MOCK DARREN, because god. Way to be supportive, guys.
Julia, apparently, finally manages to school her expression as she scans the room. “Oh, great, Charlene made it! So glad I still have the superpower of dragging ridiculous perfectionists away from their homework with only an unlimited texting plan and my persuasive wiles.” (You mean incessant chatter? Shut up, Brian. No one likes you).
“Darren, go say hi – I know your mother raised you to be polite,” Julia orders.
“Wha-? Oh, right, OK,” and Darren’s stumbling off, because Charlene’s possibly the sweetest person he’s ever met in his life and she won’t smirk at him, surely. He’s so focused on his goal that he doesn’t even notice that the girl is heading over in the same direction until he’s practically on top of them both.
Obviously, the only solution to this problem is to spin on his heel, attempt to make wobbling like a maniac look cool, and head back over to his friends. But Julia is still smirking at him and waggling her eyebrows in a way that clearly says Talk to her or I’m pouring beer on your guitar, Criss and he really, really needs to stop befriending actors who can communicate in full sentences with just their eyebrows.
When he turns back, Charlene is kissing the girl on the cheek and squeezing her arm like they’ve known each other forever, which, for all he knows, might be the truth.
“Good to know all that corporate shit hasn’t made you soft, jeeze. I’m woman enough to admit when I’m wrong – yeah, girl, you still got it,” Charlene gushes.
Darren just stares, trying to figure out a way to worm his way into the conversation, when No-Pants-Hot-Girl turns to him and says “You wanna introduce me to your friend? Way he keeps staring, I might have myself a new biggest fan.” He flushes deep, unsure if it’s a crack about height, but she has a definite twinkle in her eye that’s anything but malicious.
“Darren! Wear a bell next time, would you?” Charlene says, launching herself at him to hug. Disentangling, she attempts to make introduction. “Darren, Mia, Mia, Darren. Mia and I met in New York when I had that record company internship and she was working at the TV studio 5 floors up. Darren’s one of my classmates – acting major, singer, linguist, and resident studmuffin.”
Darren resists the urge to hide his face away – possibly forever – and instead holds out his hand for No-Pants-Hot-Mia to shake.
“New York, huh? What brings you to Michigan?”
“Road trip. I really needed to get the fuck away for a while, and somehow Charlene convinced me to come over to visit her cute schoolgirl ass. I can’t wait to get back, though – it’s easy enough to forget in the rush of things, but New York, you know? Greatest city in the world.”
Darren cocks his head to the side. “You really think so? I mean, just take… San Francisco, for example,” he attempts casually, ignoring the way Charlene’s beginning to roll her eyes at him, prepared for the rant to come. “People in New York always look so unhappy, with all the rushing around and none of the enjoyment of life at the moment. You should take your road trip to the Bay – and anyway, you haven’t partied until you’ve gotten drunk at the Sutro Baths and nearly died falling into the Pacific.”
“Yeah, I’m sure 24/7 fog and some wasted teenagers dancing on the remains of rich Victorian dudes is exactly the thing to cheer me out of my apparent New York-induced depression,” Mia remarks dryly. And god, she even knows her history, even from a city she doesn’t seem too fond of.
“It’s not 24/7. It’s just… nights and mornings. And it’s nice. Like, this blanket that just covers everything and makes it all … snuggly.”
Charlene raises her eyebrows. “That might just be the least impassioned defense of your hometown I’ve ever heard. You feeling OK?”
“Hey! Snugliness is important! And, admittedly, not a word, but the point still stands.”
“Well, whenever you want to crawl out from under your blanket and see what New York has to offer, let me know. I do enjoy a good ‘I told you so’ when people admit to their terrible ignorance.” Mia’s not smirking any more, but she is smiling and somewhat predatory and when did they just bottle up sex and pour it into a girl mold?
It’s dumb, but Darren will never forgive himself if he just lets this go without even trying. “Technically, Ann Arbor is closer to New York than San Fransisco. I might be willing to let you show me if they’re really anything New Yorkers have to offer, now.” It’s the absolute worst pick-up line ever and the logic doesn’t even make sense in his head, but he just hopes against hope that it’ll work.
“I’m already convinced that New York is the place to be, so I’ll just leave you two to it. Oh, look! Julia!” Charlene scurries off, unsuccessfully hiding her chuckles.
Mia stares at him levelly. Darren’s starting to think that this was all a horrible idea – she’s just going to laugh in his face and use him as a punch line when she tells all her super-cool trendy city friends about her road trip. But instead, she just asks, “What did you think of the song?”
It takes him a moment to process the non-sequitur. “You were amazing. I’ve never heard Iggy like that. Your voice … you know those gemstones before they’re cut? How they’re completely raw but even more beautiful because you can see what they really are, it’s not processed; it’s just organic and really real? It was like that.”
There’s a pause.
“The plan was for me to crash with Charlene. Do you have a roommate?”
“No – no. Senior, you know. Got my own bed and everything.”
And he can’t believe that this might actually be happening, this could be the best thing ever, when he hears his name over the speakers.
“Andy Gottlieb, up now. Darren Criss, on deck.”
He’s never willingly walked away from an audience, not ever.
But there’s a first time for everything.
“Do you want to maybe possibly see my big, grown-up bed?”
Mia laughs, big and genuine. “That would be the idea. You up for it?”
Darren has to literally contain himself from jumping up and down like a kid at a candy shop, and settles for hooking her arm through his and waving forward. “After you, milady.”