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Wild Heart (A Jack Antonoff Story)

Chapter Text

There was blood.

Something that usually doesn't happen on a relatively quiet night at the Meat Locker. It was a weekday show after all, despite it being Thirsty Thursday. I watched a couple of younger kids thrash and skank around from the side of the dimply lit room, covered in graffiti and band stickers from floor to ceiling. It's the type of place first time goers felt they needed a tetanus shot after the show was over. But it's really not that bad. A few of them probably just got a little too rough.

"I bit my cheek so hard," I heard one kids say, spitting blood into a garbage container over flowing with empty beer bottles and cans. His friends laughed in response. They high fived and headed straight back into the pit.

I watched the band on a barely-raised stage, tapping my left foot and nodding my head to the rhythm of the music as if to reassure them of my approval.

Another push, but this time, it was my face that got smushed into the wall. I glowered at the rowdy boys who didn't so much as apologize for hitting me. I wasn't even anywhere near the pit!

An angry punk song, with a fast beat. Yes. I dove right on, acquiring my target. We were all pushing each other in this imaginary circle-barrier. Some guys, adding their own funky dance moves while they roughed around.

This kid - this jack off - had curly hair shaved into a mohawk and some hipster, Waldo glasses. Disgusting. I shoved him. Hard. Over and over again. He made no protest. Until suddenly, I realized I pushed him up against a wall. I stared at him, unsure of what to do next. The world around me faded. The music muted somewhere distant in my eardrums. His gaze did not falter. Brown eyes, a full lower lip, and a slight gap between his two front teeth all just... staring at me. I looked down to his neck, my fist wrapped around the nape of his striped shirt. I let him go, slowly backing away then bolted up the steep steps, leaving him to scratch his head.

I breathed in the cold November air deep into my lungs and let out a sigh. The streets of Montclair, New Jersey were dead at this hour, encroaching on midnight. All the quaint, little shops have long closed. The dusty bookshop, the old school movie house, all the restaurants. I was accompanied only by the ominous glow of the street lights overhead and the faint sound of a bass coming from the basement of the venue.

A group of loud drunken college kids passed by, stumbling over themselves from Just Jake's, the bar next door. Probably from Montclair State University. Headlights from cars passing by blinded me momentarily. Otherwise, I was left alone to think about the anger that welled up inside me when Jack Off pushed me. It was a show, after all. It's bound to happen.

A few minutes passed and my friend Stephanie came to check in on me.

"Hey," she said softly, touching my shoulder. I smiled weakly.

"You know I have to ask you what happened down there."

"I really don't know what I was thinking," I confessed. She was silent for a moment.

"Guys are dumb," she finally said, "let's grab some fat sandwiches at Cars." I nodded enthusiastically. All was well until I saw him again.

Chapter Text

If you're from New Jersey, you know Fat Sandwiches are the life blood of drunks and hungry, broke twenty-somethings. If you're unfamiliar, fat sandwiches are deadly combinations of french fries, chicken tenders, cheese steak - basically anything that causes obesity and heart disease - on a sub roll. Though I lived near the original trucks in New Brunswick, Cars was just as good.

Stephanie and I were listening to Minus the Bear with the windows down, even though it was cold. The drive was silent otherwise. That's what I liked the most about Stephanie. I didn't feel any pressure to fill silences in with useless conversations. It wasn't awkward.

But there was something that wasn't sitting right with me. I was perturbed by my sudden anger. I could tell that she sensed my uneasiness but said nothing. She didn't want to push because she knew I was struggling. I sat in the car thankful that my best friend had the grace to know when to ask questions and when to let things go.

We pulled into the parking lot after a quick drive. My stomach grumbled. My head felt a little like a swirling wine glass, probably from drinking a little too much at the show.

"I'll order ours," Stephanie said, "the usual for you, right?”

I nodded.

I sat down on the curb in front of an empty spot. The few seats inside we occupied. Most people ate outside on the ground. There were a few kids sitting on the curb to my right. I overheard them talking about the last set at the Meatlocker. The closers were a band called My Pizza, My World visiting from Texas. I dug them, the washtub bass, banjo, ukulele combo really got me. I started zoning out, watching the neon pink Cars sign reflect its light against my skin.I couldn’t stop thinking about his face. There was something about it that seemed vaguely familiar, like a memory I tried to block out. The thought struck me out of the blue.

I remembered.

He lacked the tight curls of an afro he used to have in high school and dressed a little differently from when I knew him, minus the baggy jeans and button down. I felt a sharp pain in my chest, like moths were eating my insides.

A few minutes passed and Stephanie returned, a little breathless, as if she came back from running.

"I tried to stop him," she said. Time seemed to slow. I cocked my head to the side, realizing who was behind her. She scrunched her face a bit, making her Monroe piercing jut out slightly.

"Hey," he said, "I know this is kind of awkward..." He trailed off rubbing the back of his neck. I stared in response. I found the situation difficult to process. My heart ached as it raced.

“But what's your deal?" He asked in the best way possible, "why did you want to wail on me like that?"

 

"My sandwich is getting cold," I said trying to excuse myself. He wouldn't let me pass.

"Hey, give her a break, man," I heard one of his friends say. Tears welled up in my eyes. Trembling. Anxiety.

“I…I…” I didn’t know what to say. I was overwhelmed with emotion. It’s been a few years since we last spoke, even longer since we’ve seen each other.

“No way,” he said. His eyes widened, his mouth agape.

“Listen, I really think I should go —”

Immediately he held me, gradually squeezing me tighter. I could feel his face on my neck, twisting to a smile. I didn’t hug him back.

"Oh, god," he whispered, his hot breath in my ear. He let me go still holding my shoulders at arms length, examining my face.

"You're so different now," he said, lightly combing his fingers through my bangs. He touched my glasses. They were new.

"You are too," I said, "Ducky."

"You know him?" Stephanie asked.

"He went to high school with me, Stephie," I said.

"Jack, this is Stephanie," I mumbled under my breath. He waved shyly.

"Nice to meet you," Stephanie said, almost questioningly.

Though I was happy to see him, the anger in me welled up again. I couldn’t forget why we became strangers. Despite all the time that has passed, the wounds still felt fresh.

"We're out of here," I said, pushing Jack away.

"Jack...Antonoff?" Stephanie asked, realizing who he was. Her expression was mixed with excitement and confusion. I never told her about what he did to me. I never wanted to see him again. She carefully walked next to me.

Jack tried to catch my arm and missed.

"I don't get it," he begged, his eyes a little dewy. His arms hung limply to his sides. His lower lip trembled. "What did I do?"

"The fact that you don't remember makes you the biggest asshole I've ever had the displeasure of knowing," I spat. He moved back, startled. I could tell he was hurt. My heart hurt too. It throbbed. Jack froze, not wanting to do or say the wrong thing.

"Goodbye, Jack. I hope I never see you again," I said glaring. A little dramatic. Stephanie and I walked away. Before I got into Steph's car I yelled, "Oh, and congrats on the stupid fucking Grammy’s.” She sped off.

In the rear view I could spot the pink neon Cars sign in the distance turn off. Business was closed for the night and I was done for the night too. I didn't even want to eat this god damn sandwich.

The car ride back to Stephanie’s place had a different vibe. The radio was off. The silence between us was maddening.

"Five years. I've known you for five years and you never told me you knew Jack Antonoff," Stephanie said.

I recalled the past summer. We'd take trips down to Long Branch beach and blast fun. in the car screaming like the world couldn't hear us. For a singing competition I did in college, the group number was “Some Nights” and I soloed the first verse. It sucked knowing Jack, that I was gripping onto the tendrils of his old life as he transitioned into fame.

My throat felt clogged up. I couldn't stop the tears from spilling. My face felt hot.

"I have to ask what happened," Stephanie pressed, "you're a mess right now. I can't leave you like that." Her eyes were glued to the empty stretch of road ahead of us. The Parkway was abandoned at this time of night, save for a few reckless cars that occasionally sped past us as per Jersey driver culture.

“I’ll tell you about it. I just need some time to gather my thoughts.”

I was silent the rest of the way home. We hit exit 129 and drove into our mediocre, hardly 2 square miles, town of Fords. When we got to her house, we got into our PJ’s, scarcely talking. I plopped down on the bed and covered my face with her comforter. I made a grumbling sound.

"What?" She asked, standing over me.

I shot up.

"It was in high school," I started. "We were best friends when I used to live in Bergen. I used to be friends with his sister, Rachel, too. We used to do our make-up and make outfits together.

Jack and I met at the end of the year in 8th grade. I mean, I knew him but we weren’t officially friends yet. One day during gym class, I saw him wearing a Green Day shirt with the Dookie album cover on it. I complimented him and we spent the rest of the period talking about music and skipping our turns to kick during kickball. In my yearbook he said I was a really cool girl and that he wanted to stay friends. I was there for his first gig in his basement. They were as shitty as you’d think 13 year olds would be in a band. I remember him being so happy, even though he knew he sucked. He was even happier to see that I came,” I said. I felt a tear escape from my left eye and wiped it hurriedly.

“I don't really know if our relationship was purely platonic,” I continued, “we spent a lot of time after school together and we took a lot of the same classes up until my sophomore year. There was one summer close to graduation, where we were hanging out by the woods near the reservoir in our old town. We talked about our dreams, our aspirations. We slumped down on a tree trunk and he talked about how badly he wanted to pursue music. He just started Steel Train. I told him I wanted to write and I wanted to change the world with my writing. We both encouraged each other. We both said to go for it no matter what. Then he held my hand tight and I rested my head against his shoulder and we fell asleep.

He was getting pretty heavy into the DIY punk scene, which I loved. I'd go to his shows. I was there for everything. Every milestone. I was there when he did his first recording in his kitchen. Still, we slowly lost touch. I moved to Fords my junior year of high school and he went to some arts high school in the city. We talked here and there during my senior year. I also started writing music because he inspired me so much. I told him I was playing at the Canvas Clash when it was still open. God, that’s how long this was. He never showed. I was up there hoping to see my best friend’s face and he didn’t even call me to let me know he couldn’t make it. Nothing. Then we stopped talking altogether. I never tried to reach out and he didn’t either.

Everything after that happened so fast. A couple of days after graduating, he went on tour with his band. Then I went on Facebook one day and read a tabloid article that said he was dating Scarlett Johansen. Scarlett fucking Johansen! How could I even compete with that? She's gorgeous."

"That's why you didn't want to come with me to watch Fantastic Four."

I chuckled, rolling my eyes.

"Yeah, that would've been torture for me."

"I still think you should clear things up with him.”

I scoffed.

"I don't know, Steph."

"You guys were so close," she said sitting down next to me, her big, green eyes dark and serious.

"Think about it this way, it's good for you to move on because clearly you’re still having a hard time with this.”

"He forgot about me," I said crying. I buried my face in my hands. I finally lost it. She handed me some tissues. "Man, I'm snotting everywhere.”

"Just think about it," she said, shutting the lights off. I drifted to sleep with the covers over my head and thoughts of him, dreaming, realizing how deeply I missed him in my life.

Chapter Text

About a month passed since I’ve seen Jack-Off. I was doing well. I didn’t think about him much during the day. Some nights were spent in rustling bedsheets while I tossed and turned, desperate to shut off my brain. I felt like I needed to scrape goo from my skull. My eyes felt like eggs baking in the sun. I questioned my actions relentlessly, whether or not I regretted hurting him that night. Anxiety would make my spine tingle until I felt my nerves inflamed. I wrestled with the idea of reaching out to him. I knew deep down that my stubborn pride was preventing me from picking up the phone and calling him. I wasn’t ready to admit my weakness. I couldn’t bring myself to apologize. I wondered if he was the same Jack that I knew when we were younger. I questioned his authenticity. Could the young boy in the garage with his shit $200 dollar guitar still be found beneath the glare of flashing camera lights? Grammy awards? Multitudes of adoring fans, biting their lips and blushing with red hot cheeks? Not possible. No one acquires this much fame in their twenties and stays who they were when they left their small, chump town in the armpit of the nation behind.

It was four a.m and again, I was trying to fall back asleep. I groaned, waking up my dog, Tank, who was asleep on his doggy bed. He glared at me before shutting his eyes again. I turned on my laptop, hoping that some mind-numbing videos would make me sleepy. Tank rolled over away from the light, my screen creating deep shadows in the folds in his fur.

I binge watched episodes of Bob's Burgers that I've seen countless times in an effort to fall asleep. I shut my eyes, letting Loren Bouchard to lull me to sleep with his voice.

Suddenly, a notification sound made me jump from my light sleep. I slammed my fists in into the bed. Tank jolted up and curled up in a corner in my kitchen.

I clicked on the Facebook message on the side of my screen. It was from Jack. I thought I blocked him. I definitely unfriended him a long time ago. I quickly shut my laptop. Breathing deeply, I burrowed underneath my comforter. I screamed until I felt like every tiny alveolar sac explode in my lungs. I resolved not to read it. If he knew that I was willing to read his messages, he might consider the possibility of us being friends again - which was absolutely not going to happen.

Ding! Another notification, this time on my phone. I screamed into my pillow, thrashing around in my bed.

Leave me alone!

I felt like I had a syringe in my back. I held my breath as I read the messages. My curiosity was too strong to contain.

"Hey. I know you told me to stay away from you but I still want to say I'm sorry and make it up to you somehow.” Below the blue message bubble I saw a link to a video.

“I don’t think it’ll even matter in the end, but I wanted you to hear this song I wrote. I’ve been working on a bunch of music while on tour. I think I’m really happy with this rough idea. I wanted you to be the first to hear it. You can tell me if you hate it.”

 

I clicked the link. He was wearing a backwards red baseball cap with his curls peeking through. He at his mom's house - I'd recognize it anywhere - playing guitar.

"I hear the voice of the preacher from the back room," he sang. "Calling my name and I followed just to find you."

I listened, amazed and shaken by the sound of his voice. I always believed he would do well. The tone was slightly different from his Steel Train days.

"I want to catch up. I want to tell you everything you missed. I want you to tell me everything I missed. I wanted you to be the first to hear this song because you'd be the one to understand and tell me an honest opinion. If you're up for it. Let me know when we can hang out, like old times."

There was no way I was falling asleep after reading that. The video of him singing haunted my thoughts until early morning twilight turned to dawn. His music possessed such raw emotion that it moved me enough to crack a smile. There was sincerity and passion in his eyes. I thought the embers of his old self have died a long time ago. There was a possibility I was wrong. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to take the chance, but by 8 am, I decided to give him a call. Sleeplessness and insanity were my only reasons for doing so. I swear it. I held my breath during the first few rings. I turned on MTV (actually playing music videos for once) when I saw the video for "We Are Young" come on.

"Fucking shit!” I said trying to lower the volume before he could answer.
"Hello?"
"Hey", I said awkwardly, lowering the volume.
“Oh, hi! Is this—?”
"Yeah, it's me."
"I was about to call you. I'm outside.”

"What?"
"Yeah! I brought breakfast."
"How do you know where I live? I moved of my parents' not too long ago."
"It's pork roll! Well, I'm having a plain bagel because you know, I’m a Jew. It’s from the deli we used to go to before school."
"Jack!"
"What?"
"How the hell did you find me?"
I ran to the window facing the front of my apartment and saw him outside. He hung up the phone, holding a brown paper bag over his head like John Cusac and his boom box in Say Anything.

"How did you find me?" I yelled.
"Let me up! Your breakfast is getting cold! I'm getting cold too!"
I went downstairs and opened the door, slightly weirded out. He hugged me tightly, a big smile spread across his face. I kept my hands to my sides.
"Thanks for letting me in," he said. He quickly took off his shoes, Doc Martens with yellow laces, and ran up the stairs, sliding into my kitchen with his brightly colored socks.
He rummaged through my cabinets and made two cups of coffee. He sat down, took out his food and started eating. I stood and watched him eat his bagel without saying a word. I didn't blink. After he was halfway through, he looked up at me, chewing a too-big-piece. He washed it down with coffee.
"How did you find me? How do you even have my number?”
Jack stopped chewing. He slowly swallowed his food while looking up at me with droopy eyes.
“I called your mom,” he said in a tiny voice. I let out a moan, running my hand down my face.
"My mother?" I asked incredulously. I sighed, rubbing my temples and closing my eyes, tight.
"I'm sorry!" Jack said jumping a bit in his seat. He tried to hold my hand. I withdrew.
"Why would you do that?"
"You weren't replying to my text messages!"
I rolled my eyes.
"I don't have the same number from high school, you idiot." A brief silence.
"Well, shit."
We chuckled a little. I slumped down in my seat, taking a bite out of my pork roll. I played out how their conversation would have gone, chewing with my mouth open from my absent mindedness. Jack put his finger under my chin and pushed it up a little. I closed my mouth, turning a slightly red.
"She missed me, you know," he said in a matter-of-fact tone.
"She says that to everybody," I replied, crossing my arms.
"So she invites everyone over for tea?"
I buried my face in my hands.
"So you had tea with my mom?"
"Yeah, I went to Fords."
"Dear God."
"The place is different from what I remember but there's still some things that are still there. Like that one time you got pissed at your ex-boyfriend in high school and you threw a sharpie at the wall and it exploded. Your mom painted over it but she missed a spot. That's one of the things I looked for when I came."
"What else did you look for?"
"The notches in your wall from when we measured ourselves to see if we were still growing when were freshman."
I laughed.
"I barely did. Maybe 2 inches tops."
"So how's my mom? How did it go?"
"Yeah, she's good. I had a good time. I just told her about the whole music gig. She was really excited for me. It was like being home again. You know what else I saw there?”
"What?"
He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a fun. CD.
"Our first album. This was before "We Are Young" blew up. You wrote a review on it. "A magical adventure for the ears" or something like that."
My ears and cheeks felt hot. I looked away, trying to hide or look disinterested.
"And?"
"Oh, I autographed it for you," he said sliding it down the table. He smirked.
"You're an asshole," I said, smiling.
He smiled back. I got up to toast my pork roll again. He finished his bagel as he looked out the window. The day looked bright.

We finished up breakfast and he did the dishes. I leaned against my kitchen table and watched him in silence. I thought about helping him. I thought about telling him to just leave the dishes in the sink and I’d do them myself. But I didn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to change the way we used to act around each other.

“Keeping the rule?”
“What rule?”
“You know, whenever you’d go to my house and we’d eat lunch or something you’d wash the dishes and if I came over your house, I’d wash yours.”
“I forgot all about that rule,” he said drying his hands, “it was just something I got used to, I guess.” He walked around my apartment, hands on his hips, and his eyes darting around the space.

“Nice place. You’re really doing well.”
I scoffed.

“Please,” I said, “I’m sure my humble studio apartment on the fringes of semi-ghetto Newark is nothing like your two bedroom on the Upper West Side.”
He shrugged.
“You have a really nice view, though.”
“Yeah, you can see the Passaic River, the cleanest river on Earth.”
He laughed, making his way to the big window.
“It’s nice living with Rachel but we go home a lot.”
“Do you still have all your old stuff in your room? Like your Star Wars collection?”
“Of course,” he said pushing up his glasses.
“I’m so glad I wasn’t there for your bar mitzvah. How’s Rachel?” I asked, curling up on my couch,
“She good. Doing her fashion thing. We’re still really close.”
“I miss her a lot.”
He sat down next to me. He took my legs and put them on his lap. I folded my hands and rested them on my stomach, looking through the skylight.
“I’m supposed to meet up with her in her studio today,” Jack said, “you should come with!”
I smiled a little, closing my eyes.
“I don’t want to intrude,” I said, the lull of sleep almost taking me away.
“She’s your sister as much as she is mine.”
“Mmm,” I said, turning my face towards the cushions.
“Are you really that sleepy?”
“It’s like the tree.”
“That was nice,” he said. I could hear the smile in his voice.
I drifted off into a light sleep, a little afraid that he would’t be there when I woke up but every time I tried to feel him next to me, I realize he hasn’t left.

Chapter Text

I didn’t know how much time passed before I felt Jack’s hand on my arm, shaking me.

“Hey. Hey. Hey,” he whispered while trying to wake me up. I mumbled something inaudible.
“Let’s go! Hey. Hey. Hey,” he continued, poking my face.
“Bye, Jack.”
“Come on!”
“Goodbye, Jack!” I said while burying my face into the cushions.
“I already told Rachel that you were coming and she’s really excited,” he begged. He grabbed both of my ankles and dragged me off the couch. I fell limply with a thud on the floor. I rolled on the ground towards my bed, contemplating whether or not I should try to hide underneath it.
“No. No. No,” Jack said, throwing random clothes on me. I propped myself up against my bed, facing my closet. I clutched a plain grey t-shirt in my hands. He threw a pair of jeans at my face.
“Jack!” I exclaimed, startled.
“Sorry, I thought you were still on the floor.” He walked over to where I sat, gently placing my patent leather doc martens next to me. I chucked under my breath.
“So we can match? No way,” I said, waving my arms in protest, “I am not your sister. Though I think it’s very cute when you two match.”
I got up and went to my dresser and grabbed a bra and a fresh pair of underwear. I felt a wave of embarrassment when I realized that since he came so unexpectedly, my breath probably smelled like trash melting in the New York City sun. Plus, I just let my two sacs of womanhood flap as freely as they pleased. I shrugged, looking over at him petting Tank. I guess he didn’t care or notice.

I took a quick shower and threw on the clothes he picked for me. When I got out, steam escaping the door behind me, I found him sitting on my bed, watching “Teen Witch”. It was on my recent history on Netflix.

“I can’t believe you’re watching that,” I laughed. I went over to the dresser and brushed my wet hair, talking to his reflection in the mirror.
“Yeah, it was like, your favorite movie when we were younger,” he said, his eyes glued to the screen. It was like he was in a daze.
“Yeah, I remember going through an 80’s phase in high school.”
“I thought that was pretty cool.”
I put on my eyeliner, proud that I mastered the cat eye from my days of scrambling to get ready in college.
“I saw your "Top That" remake on YouTube. Aren’t awkward 80’s rap scenes the best?”
He chuckled.
“I didn’t think anyone in the world could make that scene more awkward but you did! Good job.”
“That’s not nice,” he replied, smiling shyly.
“Yeah, I remember. You were dating, whats-her-face, according to the tabloids. The girl with the freckles from Arrested Development.”
“Alia,” he said flatly.
“That’s the one. She’s pretty. And funny. Totally your type. I guess. Made way more sense than you and Black Widow.”
“Weird you know my entire dating history,” he said turning to me. He gave me a questioning look. I pretended not to notice and continued talking to his reflection in the mirror.
“Is it?” I asked, carefully applying lipgloss, “I guess it wouldn’t be that weird if you told me yourself instead of having to see a random article posted on the internet.” I grabbed my jacket and threw on the boots. Might as well. They were my favorite shoes. Jack shut off the TV and got ready to leave without saying a word. I silently kicked myself for creating the tension between us. We didn’t speak on the way down to the parking lot. I followed behind him, realizing that I didn’t know which car belonged to him. He opened the door for me and we started to drive. I couldn’t take the silence so I turned on his radio. Queen was playing Radio Ga Ga. He lowered the volume. His movements stiff, almost mechanical.

“So,” he said meekly, “what did you think about the song?”
“The song?”
“The one I sent last night?”
“Oh, that one.”
“Did you listen to it?”
“Maybe once or twice.” Try a million.
“You hate it.”
“No,” I said, touching his hand, “it was really good.”
He winced at the road.
“It was raw,” I continued, “you talked about a lot of personal things but the lyrics are something I feel like everyone can relate to. That feeling, like a hunger. You need to improve.”
“Hmm, I like that.”
I took my hand off his. Twenty minutes passed and we were in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of the City. I felt nervous seeing Rachel again. She dropped out of life along with her brother. We were pretty close because she was one of a few girls that i got along with. During my high school years and even up to now, I lacked the ability to magically bond with other uteruses. I had problems with my own once a month.

Jack lead me into a beautiful open space filled with fabrics and endless clothes on racks, where she greeted me with open arms, much to my surprise. She embraced me warmly then pulled away with her hands on my shoulders, holding me at arms length the way Jack did when we first saw each other at the Meatlocker.

“Wow, it’s really you! I haven’t seen you since you were a senior in high school. What are you up to now?” she asked, motioning me to sit down on a couch. An assistant came with coffee in a pastel pink mug. She asked to get another for me.

“Well, I guess you can call me a writer now,” I said.
“You guess?”
“I have a pretty established freelancing career in Jersey,” I explained,”I’m a regular contributor to the Newark Reporter and I’m a staff writer for the Aquarian. That all happened of course, after two years of grad school at Rutgers a.k.a hell where I studied creative non-fiction.”
“I love the Aquarian,” Jack said, “I still read it. That’s actually where I saw the review you wrote on fun.’s first album.”
“I saw that too,” Rachel added, “you’re so talented. At least one of us became a writer.”
“You survived working PR for fashion brands in the City,” I assured her, “there’s no way I would have been able to do that and on top of that, start my own business."
“I’m releasing something you’ll absolutely love!”
She got up and put a sweater up onto my chest. I looked down and saw a uterus stitched onto it.
“You were right. I’m in love!” I exclaimed, laughing.
“Keep it. You’ll be one of the first to have one,” she said smiling.
“I couldn’t possibly —“
“Don’t be crazy. I want you to have it.”
I smiled back.
“Thank you,” I said, “You have a really lovely space.”
The assistant came back with my cup of coffee. I thanked her quietly and took a sip.
“I always said I would leave fashion industry and here we are,” Rachel said, “funny how things work out.”
Jack excused himself to go to the bathroom. Once he left Rachel looked at me with intense eyes, lined heavily in black.
“You can’t leave now, you know,” she said. My eyebrows met in between my forehead, my eyes squinting.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” she said holding my hand,”Jack is hurt.” I let out a short laugh.
“How is Jack the one hurt?” She gave me a look.
“You left him.”
I left him?
“Listen,” she said waving her hand as if to dismiss the subject, “I’m so happy you’re here. Truly. I am. You were a great friend to Jack and that’s why I’m telling you all of this now. Because I know you care for him, deeply.”
I met her gaze.
“You’re right. I do.” I looked down, feeling the tears about to spill.
“He missed you so much and he just didn’t know how to talk to you. When he saw you that night he thought it was a sign that maybe you could be friends again.”
“I’d like that a lot,” I said squeezing her hand. She squeezed it back.
“And I missed you too,” Rachel said.
“I guess I have some things to think about.”
“That’s okay,” she reassured.
I spotted Jack talking to Rachel’s assistant.
“Jack, I think I’m going to go home now,” I said. He pouted somewhat in response.
“I was going to ask you if you wanted to join me and Rachel for dinner.”
I touched his shoulder. He leaned in a bit for a half-hug. I threw my arms around his neck and buried my face into his chest. He was taken aback. I was too. I couldn’t help it. For a moment, my stubborn shell was overcome by the soft heart underneath. He hugged me back, radiating warmth, familiarity. His scent reminded me of days spent listening to music together in his room, of passionate talks about our futures, and of comforting silences. The hug felt like it lasted longer than it should have but we were making up for lost time.
“It’s okay,” I said being the first to pull away. I cleared my throat.
“Let me at least drive you home,” he offered.
“No, I’m fine. I promise. I can take the train from here.”
“Are you sure?” Jack insisted.
“Spend time with your sister,” I said, “she really loves you.”
I said goodbye to Rachel and thanked her again. She hugged me and made me promise that we’d have a girls night out soon. I was more than happy to agree. Jack walked me out.
“I want to say something,” he said shaking his head, “I’ve been writing and writing and writing and I want to be on tour soon. But while I’m doing all of this, I want to rebuild our friendship again.”
“Okay, Jack,” I said. I walked away, not knowing what else to tell him. "Okay, Jack" seemed to suffice. I turned around to look at him before finally leaving but he already headed inside.

Chapter Text

The deafening sounds of guitars and clanging drums started to seem dull to me. Covering the music beat in the New York metro area didn’t have the same magic it used to. About a year after grad school, I started poking out the lenses of my rose colored glasses and craving to trade them in for something less draining. I still loved the raw electricity present at concerts both big and small but there’s less to enjoy with a soul crushing deadline that always seems to be fast approaching. My objective prevented me from fulling enjoying the music and instead, I was stuck in the crowd, analyzing every little detail of the performance. Some guy threw his beer at the crowd and I got hit. By the end of the show, my plaid shirt and hair reeked of alcohol. I was sure that I had a few bruises from being pushed up against the stage. I made my way out of the Studio at Webster Hall, thinking I had enough for my weekly review. I started typing it up in my head while I made my way to the nearest Path train station. I started down the block, hands in pockets. I kicked myself for forgetting my gloves. The night was frigid and the city that never sleeps had but a few stragglers on the way to dreamland.

My phone vibrated in my pocket. A text from Jack. It’s been about two months since he and I started speaking regularly. Our conversations were of mundane topics, mostly about our creative processes at work. He asked how the show was. Alright, I replied, the bands were ‘eh’ not bad, but nothing particularly striking. The local scenes seemed to be dying off. Many musicians and artists before my time blame the closing of CBGB, often referred to as the undisputed birthplace of punk. After it was converted into a high-end clothing store, the Roseland Ballroom closed and the vibe died down tremendously. Most local shows moved to Brooklyn and the other outer boroughs but it was well known that no one wanted to be out on a winters night for a band they haven’t even heard of.

I hopped on a train back to Newark, ready to pass out and get some sleep. The train ride home reminded me of my commute in college. Although rush hour has long subsided, the train continued to be packed. People bumped into each other, trying to make their way through the throng and to their stop. I was thankful for a window seat to watch the scenery roll by. I slumped in my seat, exhaustion settling in my bones, yearning for my favorite place in the world - my bed. I shut my eyes briefly before a ring interrupted my hard earned zen. An unknown number.
"Hi! It's Shira. How are you?"
"Yes?" I said hesitantly.
"It's Shira," said the voice on the other line, "Shira, Shira. Aunt Shira."
"Oh!" I exclaimed. I got glares and shushing noises in return. "I'm so sorry I didn't recognize your voice," I replied softly.
"It's alright," she replied, "listen, I need a favor from you if you don't mind."
"Anything."
"Jack is too embarrassed to ask but he needs a place to stay."
"I'm sorry. What?"
"To stay."
"What happened to his apartment?"
"It's getting fumigated! Unbelievable. You'd never guess. Roaches. In a nice place like that, you forget you're in New York City!"
I shook my head as if waking from a dream. The train incessant hum came to a crescendo.
"What?"
"Roaches!"
"Oh..." I covered my free ear with my palm.
"Rachel is traveling for business and Jack's recording equipment is all over his room. He doesn't want to move it around because we're getting some renovations on the house and -"
"I'm sorry, Shira. I'd love to take him in but maybe it's best that he stay at a hotel?"
"Like he does for more than half the year? He needs a home!"
"Okay, okay. He can stay a few days. "
"You're a doll! I figured he'd feel most comfortable there."
"There's really no one else? Not Andrew, Nate?"
"Thank you so much, dear! He really has nowhere to go." I rolled my eyes.
"Not a problem, Shira."
I hung up the phone, pressing my head against the leather seats in front of me. I shut my eyes and felt a tingling excitement inside of me that, for a moment, I couldn't deny. The onset of this unexpected giddiness quickly made me uneasy so I did my best to dismiss the thought of him from my mind. My emotions don't make sense. I ran my fingers through my hair and let out a deep sigh.
Another ring. I moaned under my breath.
"Hello?"
"I'm so sorry for the way my mom probably imposed."
"It's okay, Jack."
"I've been trying to find other places to go. Nate is in Arizona with family. Andrew is working on a project in California. Rachel is in London. My parents have absolutely no room for me. I need to be close to the city to record. I'm okay with going to a hotel if you don't feel comfortable with taking me in."
I paused for a long time. I thought about whether or not comfort was an issue. I was sure that he'd be an agreeable guest. I was positive that I was safe around him. I would feel guilty for denying him a home when he toured for a long time without the familiarity of the pillow he rested his head on. But he was used to that already. Would a few days really hurt him?
"Hello?" He said hesitantly.
"Yeah," I winced.
"Yeah?"
"Sure."
"Really?"
"Yep."
"It's fine if not."
"Jack."
"Yeah?"
"It's fine."
"Really?"
"Yes!"
"Okay. Okay."
"Go pack and I'll just see you whenever."
"Thanks."
"You're welcome."
I hung up. I almost missed my stop. I frantically sprinted for the doors, barely making it onto the platform. My face was blasted with a rush of cold. I quickly walked back to my apartment from the station. The sidewalks were empty but cars passed frequently. My winter gear was no match for the early February cold. When I reached my apartment complex, I sprinted through the parking lot and into the lobby. I greeted the security guard and hurriedly caught an elevator with open doors waiting for me. I got changed into fuzzy pajama pants and socks, wondering if I had to wear a bra all the time while Jack was around and how uncomfortable that would be for me. I'd have to light a match every time I poop. But if I light a match he's going to know I pooped. Who cares? Not me.

I turned on the TV for some background noise while I got ready for Jack to come over. I pulled out the sofa bed and put fresh sheets on. I gave him a spare comforter and my good pillows. He came late into the night, when my eyelids were heavy with sleep. I answered the door and let him in.
"Sorry I'm so late," he whispered. I yawned and pointed to the couch. He gave a thumbs up and I shuffled back into bed and slipped into a deep sleep.

*******

"You were the one that hurt me," he muttered. He was snuggling into the sheets now. I sprung up. I was speechless.
"This was all your fault," he blamed.
"What?"
The lights dimmed. He got up and walked towards my bed. He didn’t break eye contact with me. The shadows that contoured his face made him look menacing. I started shivering. I shrunk into my comforter, sitting with my back against the wall.
"IT WAS YOUR FAULT!" He screamed. I covered my face with my hands.
"What did I do?” My lips quivered. Tears started streaming. “I’m sorry,” I pleaded. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
"It's always your fault! That's why you're always alone.”
He threw me off the bed. He took my shoulders and slammed me against the wall. My body hit the floor with a thud, pain running up my spine. I groaned, rubbing my back. I tried to get up but I couldn't move. I couldn’t feel my legs. I screamed, trying desperately to move. I was certain that Jack injured my spine. Panic surged inside me. I attempted to crawl away with my arms. He towered above me, stepping slowly to match my pace. He tilted his head back with a laugh, lifting his foot ready to smash my skull. I sobbed and shut my eyes tight, preparing myself for the pain I was about to receive.

******

Until I felt myself being shaken. I opened my eyes slowly. Jack was sitting on my bed. I inched away from him and to the corner of my bed with my back against the wall.

"Hey," he whispered.
"I had a really weird dream," I said.
"You were whimpering and stuff," Jack said, "I had to see if you were okay."
He leaned in closer to me. He reached over to take stray hairs out of my face. I flinched. A few tears escaped my eyes.
"It was just weird that's all," I dismissed, "it just felt too real."
He gently touched my arm. He winced as if trying to get a good look at me. He scrunched his nose.
"Are you sure you're alright?"
"Yeah I'm fine," I said, looking away.
He got up off my bed but I caught his arm. I motioned him to stay. He stayed on my bed and watched me until I fell asleep. In a state between sleep and consciousness, I thought I felt his arms around me. I thought I felt his rhythmic breathing against my face on his chest. When morning came, he was laying on the sofa bed as if he never got up to see me.

I tip toed over to him. He looked peaceful, tired. I was glad that I helped him rest after a long night at the studio. I sat on the empty side of the sofa bed. He stirred a bit and his eyes fluttered open. The sunlight from the window behind us made his eyes look like the color of raw honey. He closed his eyes again and pulled the comforter over his face. I got up to draw the thick curtains over the window before returning to him. I sat down again, staring at the lump beneath the sheets. I took a deep breath as if getting read to dive underwater and joined him under the covers. He turned towards me. His eyes met mine. My heart leapt. I allowed a smile to creep onto my face. He let out a coy half-smile in return. Without a word, I inched closer to him, resting my head on his chest with his arm around me. He peered at me over his shoulder and squeezed me tight.

“Are you feeling better from last night?” he whispered. I nodded. There was something tender about the way he spoke to me that I couldn’t quite get my finger on.
“What happened in your dream?” he asked.
I turned my face away from him.
“I don’t know if I want to say.”
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know. I guess I think felt real but it’s very unrealistic.”
“How?”

I felt his breath on me. I realized that this is the closest we’ve been physically — and emotionally for years.
“You said it was my fault.”
“What was your fault?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I felt the concern in my voice.
“Do you feel guilty about anything?”
“I don’t think so.”
“There must be something.”
I bit my lip.
“I mean, if anything you’re the one who should feel bad. You’re the one who left.”
He immediately let go of me, ripping the covers off. As soon as I found myself sitting up, I missed the feeling of him holding me. He chuckled under his breath. He shook his head.
“What the fuck are you talking about? You were right. It was all your fault.”

Chapter Text

I gasped. I stood up off the bed and stomped to his side. "MY FAULT?" I screamed.
He shrugged, crossing his arms. He nodded once.
"I mean, yeah. I thought you knew."
"Jack, you didn't show up to my show!" I fumed. I had one arm over my head, clutching a chunk of hair while the other was in a tight fist. He chucked again and got off the bed and walked towards the kitchen, rubbing the back of his neck. He brushed passed me as he walked by. He turned around to face me on the other side of my apartment.
"You never thought once to ask me why I didn't show? You didn't think that maybe, just maybe, I had a good reason."
I rolled my eyes, unconvinced.
"Don't act like you didn't change when you went to that young, gifted school for whatever," I spat. I glared at him. My brown eyes surely turned to fiery red.
"How the fuck do you date Scarlett Johansson in high school and then tell me you're the same person I knew from before? Tour all around the world while you left me behind like this? It's your fault, Jack. Not mine. Because I was right here," I said, stomping and pointing to the ground,"right fucking here, like I always am." Tears streamed down my face like hot lava. I resented myself for crying. Our faces were inches apart. He grabbed both of my shoulders like in my dream. More tears were falling. I opened my mouth to breathe because my nose was getting clogged up. My heart was racing wildly. I felt like the butterflies in my stomach a found their way out of my mouth. A part of me thought that he was really going to throw me against the wall.

"I was fucked up," he said behind gritted teeth, "I was fucked up and you didn't even care." His voice started cracking. "My fucking sister died! My cousin died. Where were you then?"

He let go of me. I could tell that he was holding back tears. His lips rolled into his mouth. My lips quivered. My hands were trembling. I touched his face. My heart sunk.

"I tried," I sobbed, "I thought I wasn't good enough to be in your life anymore."

I moved away from him but still kept close. My eyebrows met in the middle of my forehead. My tears were drying and I felt them stain my cheeks.

"You were barely there for me. I was in a dark place. Whenever you called, you seemed like you didn't want to talk to me."

"It's not like you were easy to get a hold of either, Jack. You toured right after graduation. You were gone," I sniffed. "You were gone."

"I just wanted you to be there for me," he confessed, "I'm sorry. I thought you'd be waiting here when I got back. Even now. We hardly talk about anything deep anymore."

"I have a life just like you do, Jack. I wasn't going to wait for you. I don't wait for anyone."

I crossed my arms and leaned on one side of my hip and raised my head up high.

"So what now?" Jack pushed, "now, you're just going to throw out the last few months of our friendship because of something that happened ten years ago?"

"I don't know," I replied curtly, "we're both here now. What do we do?"

He advanced towards me. He put his hand on my face.

"Now is what counts. I'm here now," he said sheepishly.

I touched his hand. He leaned in and I followed suit. I felt like I was in a daze, surrounded by a swirl of faint smoke like the ones in movies when someone is dreaming. I could have sworn I felt his other hand on my back, gently coaxing me forward until I suddenly felt my lips gingerly touch his. It was an innocent, quiet kiss. Our lips lightly puckered. My heart soared. I felt like a champagne bottle that just burst or a tea kettle that started whistling. Overwhelmed. Pure joy from something that was waited on and long over due. The world around me melted into bright colors. Sparks, like Roman candles. After a few seconds felt like an eternity, time came crashing back when it was over. Reality creeped into my mind without warning, the same way an eerie fog settles on the road after a flash of hot summer rain.

I stared at him with wide eyes. I gulped, unsure of what to do or say next. My hands were still in tight fists. I walked over to my vanity, staring at his reflection in the mirror. I sighed. I felt like deflated balloon that died out after a wild trip of loop-de-loops and zig zags in the air.

Jack's reflection was rocking back and forth with his hands behind his back, like a kid who stole a cookie from a cookie jar. He was looking back at me with tired, worried eyes.

"Just because you kissed me, doesn't mean I'm going to get over being mad at you like that," I said, "what are you trying to do, anyway? Have me forget about everything that happened between us?"

I spun around to face him. He jumped back a bit, startled.

"You think I'm just some sort of girl you could sweep off her feet with your stupid, charming ways, don't you?"

No response.

"Don't you?" I demanded.

"I'm not one of those girls who will just fall all over you," I continued, "I knew you before anyone gave a shit about your music."

He stared at me with the half-lidded eyes of a bored teenager. He swallowed, then took a deep breath.

"Those weren't my intentions," he assured, "and I don't know what your motives are, because you're the one who kissed me first."

I threw my hands up in the air, laughing at the ceiling.

"You are being uncharacteristically immature, Jack Michael Antonoff." My hands were on my hips. I gritted my teeth.

"Well," he said hesitantly, "you are too..." he trailed off. I felt the argument has reached its final movement. I paced around the apartment while he watched me. He didn't move an inch. I went into the bathroom, slamming the door behind me. I changed into a t-shirt and jeans. I spotted my docs near the kitchen table. I didn't notice that the laces were replaced with yellow ones, no doubt Jack's doing. I placed my pair next to his and stood back, looking at our matching pairs while rubbing my chin.

His pair was tattered, the leather peeling in some places, while mine had been shiny and barely worn. I realized then how much Jack was a part of me. My heart ached because his heart ached. I was left stunned and wounded because I hurt him. I felt that I wasn't ready to admit how much of my heart he managed to hold.

"Surprise," Jack said, smugly.

He constantly stupefied me. I blamed him for challenging me when I became too comfortable and accustomed to being alone. Like a thief, he had stolen the deepest, most vulnerable parts of me. Slowly, he picked away at the defense that guarded my heart. I wasn't ready to fully admit that I'd been defeated.

I angrily threw my Doc Martens in my closet and opted to wear my chucks instead. I grabbed my jacket and headed for the door with my laptop in hand. I couldn't stand to be with him. He knew better than to follow me.

"If you're leaving later, lock the door," I muttered, "I need a little space." He started rocking back and forth again with his hands in his pockets. I looked back at him before closing the door. He didn't look away. I felt relief flood me after the click of the door assured me it was closed. I was happy for the thin barrier between us, even if that meant that he could open up at any minute. He didn't. I was alone again.

Chapter Text

I took the elevator down to the parking lot and got into my car. I headed down Parkway South but I didn't know where I was going.

It was an early Saturday morning, so the Parkway was fairly clear with the exception of a few sleepy cars on the road. The sky was ablaze with the waking of the sun. I drove without music - which doesn't happen often - to allow myself to think and breathe and navigate my labyrinth mind. I knew my thought processes was not the easiest to follow and I can become irrational when angry. Away was where I needed to be.

I remember my first and last performance in painful, vivid detail. I came from a hyper critical choir background. I was casted as a mezzo, which in music terms, means I can't reach high enough to be considered soprano but can't reach low enough to be an alto. Since I was the only mezzo in my section, I was tossed around depending on the song. On both sides I was greeted with snark. I hated everyone there, especially after being compared to multiple vocalists and then commenting on how "not as good" I was in comparison to someone else. I quit the choir to my mother's dismay and sometimes, saw those girls in the halls of my school with their heads up high so they could look down on me.

"You have a really strong voice," Jack said one day when we were at school. A group of choir girls passed us in their black, beaded floor length gowns.
"Really?" I blushed.
"Definitely! I think you should start writing you own stuff."
I looked down, twisting my feet into the floor.
"Music is your thing, Jack. I'm nothing special."
"Music is everyone's thing!" He smiled, "so it's yours too." He looked at me with joyful eyes, his mouth curled into a smile. I hugged him tight with the weight of his backpack on my forearms.
"Sing a note," he said.
"Ah," I sang.
"Ah," he harmonized in the third.
"Ah," I harmonized in the fifth.
"See? You know what you're doing! I'll be there for your first show," he promised. He picked me up and spun me around. I laughed. "I'll drop whatever and just be there."

I worked up the courage to play a show at the Canvas Clash when I was a senior in high school in Woodbridge and Jack was at school in New York City. The Canvas Clash was an old venue in New Jersey that has been closed down for many years. It was in downtown suburbia, Boonton, in the northern part of the state. Usually these venues would be in quaint-feeling cities, in the heart of what small town New Jerseyans would consider a booming metropolis. During its glory days, snotty teenagers and dumb college kids would pay an over priced amount for a local show to support someone they knew. By some miracle, I got on the bill, probably because the guy thought I was cute or they were desperate. It was a weekday night show so I was sure that I was going to at least survive. I was wrong.

I threw up in the bathroom twice. I heard some girls talk about me over the sound of my gagging. Something about me purging to get skinnier.

"I can tell she's not that skinny because of her ankles," one girl whispered. They both laughed quietly. I peeked underneath the stall to see what shoes they were wearing. They were wearing matching, bright pink flats. I tried to clear my head to forget about what they said about my fat ankles, though I never noticed their girth before.

My nerves wouldn't calm. I felt the jitters take over my body. I felt like I was vibrating at a different frequency, hoping to disappear. Although I had a weak stomach embarrassment, I had a weaker stomach for walking away from a commitment. I knew that I was capable of getting over my fear.

I rinsed my mouth out and splashed cold water on my face. I got a good look at myself in the mirror. The overhead fluorescent lights made me look pale and sickly. I nodded at my reflection, accepting that I wasn't going to look any better. I hurriedly wiped my face with those brown-paper-bag-like towels and rushed to the stage.

I overheard the crowd talking about the last band. I faintly heard their set echo through the tile walls of the bathroom. My music was much different from theirs. I didn't have fast beats or intricate riffs and bass lines. I just had my voice and a guitar I got for Christmas - an acoustic electric Ovation Celebrity. I didn't know if I was good or not but what I wrote was mine. Despite all of my confidence, I still felt my knees shaking and my head woozy with adrenaline.

Suddenly as I plugged in, the screw fell into my guitar. I panicked, trying desperately to fish it out. I attempted to reach inside for it but couldn't find it. The strings were starting to cut into my hand. I carefully took my hand out, afraid that I would pop my b and high e strings. I shook my guitar, the rattling sound of the screw inside heightening my nerves. Then screw fell onto the floor. I scrambled to grab it then it fell in between loose floorboards on stage. I looked up to see the two girls with the matching pink flats whispering to each other while watching me. I gulped. The crowd started thinning out while one of the sound guys mic'd up my guitar. I scanned the crowd for Jack's face. He wasn't there.

I spoke into the microphone so they could check sound levels. I got a thumbs up. I half expected him to come rushing through the door. I thought about him apologizing for being a little late. Then he'd reward me for my valiant efforts with a bite to eat. A few lights shone on me. They were hotter than I expected. I was sweating more than a glass of lemonade in the middle Georgia.

"Thanks for coming out," I said shyly. The handful of people that remained didn't respond. I cleared my throat. When I realized he wasn't coming, I took a deep breath, knowing that I'd have to carry on without him.

"This first song is called 'Better Things'". I played the opening riff and then started strumming.

"You had me going for awhile now
Just a stupid, little thrill to me
I hate getting these feelings out of nowhere
but I'm nowhere near as shallow as you think
So I moved forward.

You, you make me feel like
Like I have wasted
My time on better things".

I looked at the girls again, who were talking to each other and laughing.

"Get off the stage!" one of them yelled. The other one followed suit. A few people turned heads but for the most part, ignored their rowdy behavior. The sound guys or other employees didn't come to my aid.

"You made me think that you were a reminder
of everything that I'm afraid to be."

They both let out exaggerated yawns. They stretched their arms up as far as they could, blocking my face from the people in the back, who were already losing interest.

"I don't give a damn if your heart's broken."

"Boo!" They both repeatedly screamed, "Boo!" A few others chimed in as well.

"Get off the stage!"

"You suck!"

"Go home, cunt!"

"...or if you can handle being friends with me
So I moved forward!" I yelled.

They kept yelling nasty things at me. It eventually became a yelling - singing match between myself and pink flats. I was irrefutably pissed off. I was like a game of Jenga about to topple over. One more block and I was done.

"Shut up, bitch!" the girl screamed. I felt something hard hit my temple. I stopped singing. The guitar mic crashed, sending high pitched whining noises through the speakers. Some people covered their ears until the sound guys turned off the sound board. I gently set my guitar down and picked up the pink shoe. I examined it carefully, as if seeing a shoe for the first time. Nobody dared to move or talk. The room was a stagnant pool of anger and tension. I noticed the sole was about to come off. I cackled like a Disney villain. The two girls continued to watch, their faces mixed with fright and confusion. I ripped the sole of the shoe. The rubber and fake leather frayed. Each popped seam was an earned victory. I slammed the sole on the ground and threw the remains at the girls.

I was ushered off stage by some crew. One of them tried to restrain me and I violently pushed him off.

"Don't touch me," I sneered. I packed up my guitar and amp. I was headed for the door when I saw the pink-flats-girl hobbling without a shoe on. I hissed. I threw my head back again in a hearty laugh. She shrunk away. I put my gear in the back of my car and sat in the driver's seat, at first satisfied that I lashed out. Now everyone can know that one can mess with me. But I couldn't believe that happened during a small show a weekday night. I figured they were probably drunk.

Slowly, the shame started to settle in. I knew that I didn't handle it well. I hugged myself, wishing my feelings of disgust would melt away. They didn't. I yearned for the warmth of a familiar embrace. I longed for gentle words to brush against my ear. Jack wasn't there to give me those things. Jack wasn't there for support or encouragement or even just to check my sanity. He hasn't been there for a very long time.

I exited on route one south and headed for Metuchen, a few minutes away from my hometown. I was thinking about visiting my mom and Stephanie after I finished writing the review of the show at Webster Hall.

I stopped at one of my favorite thinking spots, a colonial graveyard near Metuchen train station. It has been around since the 1800's and I was convinced that it would be there long after I passed.

I parked my car and dropped a few coins in the meter then I walked up the wooden staircase to the cemetery. I heard a train whistle in the distance. Dead leaves covered the ground like brown confetti, crunching under my feet. There were a few naked trees. The headstones intricately carved were worn down with time.

I found the graveyard while I was in college, waiting for the bus. The passenger area had wooden benches in front of it. I looked up one day and found a headstone peeking between the branches. During the summer, I'd see a people reading under shady trees or playing guitar.

I sat down on a bench and looked up at the sky. A few grey clouds loomed. I winced, shielding my eyes from the whiteness above me. I picked up a stick and started absentmindedly doodling in the dirt as I watched cars drive by. The train station clock chimed 9 a.m. A woman jogged by with a high pony tail bouncing up and down. An elderly couple crossed the street to the post office. I laid down on the bench with my hands folded on my chest. I pretended to be in a casket. I wondered what life was like during the war of 1812, to be one of the people that I visited here living under the Earth.

Then, footsteps. I sat up and saw Jack timidly waving from the top of the stairs. I snickered.

"How did you find me?"

"I knew you were going to be here," he said walking towards me.

I leaned away from him. He stood in front of me, hands in pockets.

"Really?"

"No," he joked with a flash of a smile. He quickly resumed his serious expression. He fished his pocket and held my house keys in front of me.

"You forgot them," he explained while handing them to me, "I figured you'd need them when you get back."

"Why?"

"I don't think this is going to work out."

Chapter Text

I felt crushed, like I had to swallow my heart back down from my throat. I looked at the weathered tombs and wondered whether or not this day could get any worse.

"What do you mean?" I asked. I looked up at him, squinting as if staring at the sun. I felt my heart shatter. My leg was shaking up and down.

I watched him as he surveyed our surroundings. He gave me a questioning look, the cupid's bow of his lips pointing upwards, his two front teeth peeking out behind them.

"I mean," he said holding my hand, "I think your request for space meant for longer than just this afternoon."

I took a deep breath. I met his sad eyes, my lower lip jutting out.

"Please, Jack," I pouted, "I'm over it now." He shook his head and looked at the ground, a phantom smile briefly appearing.

"You can't just get over something like this during a thirty minute drive," he said in a matter-of-fact tone, "trust me on this one."

"You seem to be over it pretty fast," I said. He squeezed my hands and rubbed them with his thumbs.

"That's because I had the time to really think about it. I had ten years. I thought a lot about you on my first tour with Steel Train. It's hard leaving home like that for the first time. You think about what you miss," he explained, "sometimes the baggage."

I pictured him on the road, windows down, wind and sunshine through his curls. I imagined him eating junk food all the time, the stinging smell of alcohol and cigarettes lingering. There would be good shows with dancing and scream-singing and a handful with a barren crowds. I smiled as if the memories were real and belonged to me. I laughed to myself, absurdly happy to have known him when the world was still something to be conquered.

"Then why didn't you say so? You could have told me exactly how you felt," I paused, "But I guess I could have too."

"I don't know," he replied while looking up at the sky, "I guess I could have have but I thought I missed my chance. Didn't want to probe old wounds. For both of our sakes."

I nodded. I sat with my elbows on my knees, staring at the lifeless ground. A strange, surreal feeling enveloped me. I never thought Jack and I would talk about our past. I didn't feel like speaking in fear that I would kill the silence with insincere words.

 

So we sat and watched the suburban sprawl from our dead hill for a while. A group of kids raced each other to the bus stop, their laughs echoing through the trees. A train stopped at the station. The sounds of footsteps on the platform like the rhythm of rain. The train station clock chimed, ominous and piercing.

I grabbed his hand again and led him to the back of the graveyard where ivy climbed midway up gnarled trees before dying. The headstones were crooked from tree roots and storms that knocked them over. Tiny American flags dotted the the lawn in front of soldiers who died during the Revolutionary War. We passed a towering tree, its trunk swallowing two crumbling headstones.

After exploring the historic site a few times, a particular row of headstones caught my eye. Jack carefully read them, tracing the fading letters with his index finger. Three in a row had the same last name. Both husband and wife died days apart, then their child shortly after.

"He was two months old when he died," he said, turning to me. I let go of his hand. I dug mine into my pockets. I craned my neck up a bit to met his gaze.

"I usually like to come here and think because being around dead things brings life into perspective," I said, "when you're on tour you think about all the people you leave behind, the things you miss. When I report a good story, I think about what would have happened if I wasn't at the right place at the right time. Imagine that night at the Meatlocker. If I didn't see you, if you didn't follow me to Cars, I would have eaten my sandwich in peace, my whole life would have gone completely uninterrupted." I snickered.

"And now?"

"I don't know," I said rubbing my chin, "I'm just so happy to get to know you. I think that means more to me than being angry."

"What changed?"

I shrugged.

"Everything."

"How?"

"Jack, you're a rock star! I'm a reporter. Our futures are both ahead and behind us now."

He simpered, holding my hand again. I inched closer to him, hugging him from the side. He turned to face me and pulled me into a tight embrace. I felt like I was melting into him. I hugged him back, breathing in his scent.

"I'm sorry," I muttered into his shirt.

He held me at arms length.

"What?"

"I said I'm sorry, okay?" He laughed. I stood on my tippy toes and kissed his cheek. He smiled wide.

"Let' start over," he offered.

"I'd like that."

I knew what he meant by starting over. He didn't mean starting from the beginning. If we did that, we'd forget about the memories we shared. We still recognized the hurt but had to draw strength from our friendship to push forward. I felt like a healing scab that didn't have skin growing on top of it yet. The cut just crusted over. Still, I felt a glowing warmth inside of me, bursting out. I felt like I was floating.

I groaned, sliding my hand down my face. The bottom eye skin sagged, revealing startling red underneath.

"My deadline," I said. I blew a piece of hair out of my face.

We headed down the rickety stairs and to my car to get my laptop. It was around noon and my review was due at six. We walked down the street and to Brewed Awakening, one of my favorite cafés. I needed a strong cup of coffee after my emotions were stretched and worn. I ordered at the counter and sat on a couch next to the window. Jack took a seat in front of me. Soon after, a waiter came with my "Jamaican me Crazy" blend with a small silver cup of milk on the side. I readily poured it in alongside four packets of sugar. It was a lot better than my usual six.

"Sorry," I said, "I shouldn't be more than an hour."

"No worries, I'm going to be doing some writing of my own," Jack grinned.

I started typing, taking occasional sips of coffee. A few patrons entered, adding to the low chatter and light clinging of forks and spoons on eaten-clean plates. A man rode past us on his bike. The sun peeked through the clouds and drenched the street with a gold wash. Jack stared as his phone with his headphones plugged in, nodding slightly to a beat. After I finished writing, I checked the clock. It was a little past one o'clock. I added the title, "Local New York bands Debut at the Studio at Webster Hall." I let out a sigh of relief. I started typing up the e-mail then realized I didn't have WiFi. I flagged a waiter down.

"Excuse me," I said. A young girl came by our table with a pad and pen in hand. She leaned in.

"Yes? What can I help you with?"

"I just need the WiFi network name and password."

She looked apologetic but still maintained a cheery disposition.

"I'm so sorry. We actually had to cut the WiFi."

"Why?" I asked. I let out a sharp breath. She leaned in closer, her voice a whisper. Jack took his headphones off to hear what she was saying.

"I'm not supposed to tell you this, but since you used to be a regular, I'll let you know."

I stared at her with big eyes. She covered the side of her mouth with the back of her hand.

"Someone was watching...," she paused, "inappropriate material..."

"Oh my God. That's disgusting!" I said.

"Yeah. It just happened a few days ago. The owners are still debating whether or not they'll bring it back."

I nodded pensively. I thanked her and settled the bill. Jack offered to pay but I politely declined. He's not my boyfriend.

I hurried to the door. On the way out, I flipped their WiFi sign in the window to the blank side.

"WiFi!" I screamed. We walked up Main Street. None of the neighboring businesses offered a public network. I guess word gets around fast in small towns.

"Why?" I asked, staring at the sky, "Why?!"

"Aren't we close to your mom's house?"

"Don't say it," I pleaded. I unlocked my car and put my laptop on the passenger's side.

"It's better than going WiFi hunting," he reasoned, "besides, your mom loves me!"

I rolled my eyes.

"It's weird going home when you're with me."

"Why?"

"You know."

He stared.

"Like, a guy and a girl, and my mom..." I explained. I tried to be as vague as possible. I didn't want to explain that bringing him home to my parents after years of lost friendship seemed like it would send the wrong message. Still nothing.

"What do you mean?" I couldn't believe it wasn't clicking. The deadline was approaching. I had a few hours but didn't want to risk it.

"Fine!" I said, "maybe we can at least get a nice meal out of it." Jack beamed and walked to his car.

"Meet you at my old place," I murmured.

Chapter Text

The drive was quick but definitely not painless. I stared at route one north with dead eyes. My mind was a whirlwind. I drove with hand on the wheel, gripping so hard I thought my knuckles would rip through my skin. My lead foot was on the gas, going 70 in a 55 mph zone. It's customary in Jersey to add at least another 10 miles onto the speed limit but I didn't feel like letting up. I growled under my breath, matching the sound of the engine revving. The road felt like it was being pulled from under me, the green expanse of trees a series of blurred pixels. I lost Jack a couple miles ago, passing him in haste. I thought that if I beat him to my house I could act surprised when he arrives, like I didn't know he was coming.

"Yeah, that's it!" I said to myself, "I can be like 'oh me, oh my! Who ever could be knocking at our back door?'" I waved my hand around while I spoke, pretending to be looking at my mom, her brown, beady eyes full of confusion. In this fantasy, I somehow acquired a southern accent and was wearing a puffy dress.

I would hesitantly open the door.

"'Oh Jack?"' I'd say, "'Is that you? It's been oh so long!'" Then I'd wrap my arms around his neck and my mom would smile and think we haven't been talking at all.

I turned up the volume, in hopes that music would drown out the questions in my head. Then the car ahead of me stopped suddenly, its break lights flashing an alarming red. I slammed my brakes, hardly missing his bumper. I screamed and slapped my steering wheel repeatedly. My face felt hot. I breathed heavily, wiping my long hair out of my face and mouth, leaving some strands dangling wet. I could see my exit but had to idle my way over. Traffic jam. Great, another accident, I thought. Then I realized that since I was ahead and there was traffic, I would definitely beat Jack home. I laughed, relieved that my brilliant plan can be put into action.

When I finally reached my exit, I drove down my street, passing my old church. The stone hewn cross on the roof was a shadow against the sun. Sometimes, I see my town through sepia tones like an old snapshot. Fords is almost void of commercial businesses but mom and pop shops are thriving. There's a 7-Eleven, QuickCheck, and WaWa. (And I'm almost positive the latter two are found either only on the Northeast or in-state). Other than that, there's the convenience store on my block, a couple of restaurants with really great food, and my neighbor the bee keeper and owner of That Honey Place. There was even a travel agency down the street (literally called Travel Agency), its sign looking like it was cut from a Hawaiian shirt. With the internet, I was surprised was still open.

My neighborhood was definitely not as fancy as Jack's town of New Milford. "That's a rich town," my brother told me once. Jack moved there from Bergen. I came from a simple upbringing since Fords is all middle-class and mostly blue collar Americans.

I finally reached my drive way when my heart dropped. Jack's car was already parked in the back. It looked like the newest thing in the whole neighborhood. I was flustered, struggling to take off my seatbelt. I snatched my bag from the passenger's seat and sprinted to the door. It was unlocked. I scurried up the stairs from my foyer and into the kitchen. My mom was cooking, a wooden spoon in her hand and Jack was talking to her about something. I was in such total disbelief that I didn't even hear words coming out of his mouth. He leaned against the sink with his arms crossed. They were so engrossed in their conversation that didn't realize that I was in the house.

"Hi!" I yelled. I gave a stiff wave. My mom whirled around, startled.

"Hi," she said, "Jack and I were just catching up!"

"About what?" I said with a half laugh. I set my bag and laptop down on the island table.

"Oh, you know." I turned to face Jack and gave him a strange smile with angry eyes. Jack ignored me and continued with his story.

"So there I was, playing like usual when I just fell off stage!"

My mom gasped then laughed. I watched them silently with my arms crossed.

"What was that like? Was it embarrassing?"

"You don't really realize until you're down. And then you're like, 'Oh my God, is this going to be on YouTube?"

She laughed.

"Jack," I interjected.

No response.

"Jack!"

"Yeah?"

"How did you get to my house before me?"

"Took the back roads."

"You what?"

"Took the back roads," he shrugged, "I have the Wayze app so I saw the traffic from miles away. Literally."

I stared blankly at him.

"Honey, can you set the table? We have a guest so we're not going to eat in front of the TV like we used to."

I reached into the cupboard and got out the same plates we've had for years. I went into the half living room half dining room next to the kitchen. It was dark but I didn't bother to turn on the light. A lamp in the corner was the only source of illumination. I set the table muttering under my breath. I made funny faces while I heard my mom and Jack talking.

"What's for dinner? It smells amazing!" Jack said.

"Slow cooked beef stew. It's my husband's recipe," she replied over the sound of metal clanking.

"How's he doing?"

"You know, sleeping as usual. He has the graveyard shift at the airport. It kills him."

Jack made a sympathetic noise and came into the room with forks and spoons.

"Hey, you should turn the light on," he said. I shielded my eyes. Too bright. He placed the utensils on the plates. I still had my arms crossed.

My dad entered, yawning and stretching. He donned old plaid pajama pants and a white t-shirt. His salt and pepper hair was sticking out in all directions. He absentmindedly scratched his crotch.

"Dad!" I scolded. His head snapped up. Jack looked down and laughed to himself.

"Jack, my boy!" He said slapping his back, his glasses falling to the tip of his nose.

"Hey, Allan," he heaved, pushing up his glasses with his middle finger.

"Looking good as always, Jacky." My dad left the room, closing the bathroom door behind him.

My mom came into the dining room carrying a large pot. The scent of fragrant herbs made my mouth water. My dad came out of the bathroom and I excused myself to get into the kitchen to get my laptop. I checked my phone. It was five o'clock. I almost forgot about my deadline. I ran into the living room and plopped down on the couch. I breathed a sigh of relief when I connected to the WiFi network. I typed up my email again, my fingers sliding over the keys.

"There she goes again," my mom said in a disapproving tone,"you're always typing up something. We're not starting until you're at the table."

I groaned.

"Yes, mom. I just need to send this out before deadline. Please," I said.

"Okay. But we're waiting!" she exclaimed in a sing-song voice.

"Yes, mom!" I called out, growing more irritated, "you can eat without me I'll be right there."

"Don't be like that."

"Be like what?" I groaned louder, hitting myself with a throw pillow.

"See, Jack? She hasn't changed one bit."

"No, she hasn't." Jack chuckled.

I bit my tongue. My younger brother, Ryan, came out of his room and silently made his way to the table.

"What are we waiting for?" he asked.

"Your sister," Jack replied.

"Hey," my brother greeted in a monotone voice.

"Hey," Jack said.

I attached my document and hit send. I shut my laptop and went to the table.

"Alright, let's dig in," I said with a forced smile.

I sat down between my mom and Jack. I didn't need them bonding anymore. I helped myself to some beef and vegetables and a scoop full of rice from the rice cooker. The beef was tender. I cut it with my spoon.

"Have some manners, dear," my mom said, slapping my hand. I dropped my spoon.

"I'm so sorry Jack," she said, leaning over me. She put some food on his plate.

"This is fine Nadia, thank you," Jack said.

I rolled my eyes.

"So Jack," my dad said, "Nadia tells me that you need a place to stay for a few days."

Jack shrugged.

"I think I'm going to stay at a hotel."

"Nonsense!" my mom exclaimed while waving her hands as if she was getting rid of an annoying fly, "you can stay here!"

I choked on my food.

"What?" I asked with an incredulous gasp.

"Yeah, I talked to Shira," she said excitedly.

"Did you?" Jack asked, "you and mom still talk?"

"Sometimes," she shrugged.

"I'm glad," Jack said in between chews.

"You know," she said turning to me, "Shira was under the impression that you were still living at home. When I asked her she said you didn't mention it."

"Your point?"

"Nothing," she said raising an eyebrow, "it's just you mislead her I think is all."

"I didn't mean to," I responded pointedly.

"So, Jack stays here."

"Jack is a grown adult and can do as he pleases."

Everyone ate in silence. My back started hurting from hunching over. I didn't want to look at her. Jack remained silent and stopped eating altogether.

"Fine," she dismissed, "but no hanky panky."

It was Jack's turn to choke on his food. My dad took a big swig of water.

"I wish this was liquor," he breathed.

"What the hell is hanky panky?" I challenged.

"You know what I mean," she said staring at her plate.

"What is that? Like a dance?" My sarcasm stung.

My brother laughed, looking away. He coughed in attempt to cover it up.

"Like the hokey pokey?" I continued.

"No hokey pokey either. I don't need anyone poking your hokey. I'm not old enough to be a grandma."

Jack excused himself to go to the bathroom and rushed out of the room.

"God!" I screamed before I heard the door close behind him.

"Best dinner ever," my brother declared. I glared at him, my face flushed beet red. I wanted to crawl under the floorboards and never come out. I kicked myself for allowing Jack to come over. My dad noticed my despair and gave my mom a warning look. She quit for the rest of dinner. The TV was on when Jack shuffled back in. When we finished, I silently gathered the plates. Jack offered to help me wash but I declined. He stayed with me in the kitchen. After the disaster over dinner I didn't blame him.

"I'm sorry for how crazy my family is," I whispered, "well, just my mom mostly."

"It's fine," Jack said rubbing my back. He abruptly stopped, his eyes darting around the room.

"You can stay with me, Jack," I offered. He gave me an apologetic look.

"Really," I said, "I want you to. Rachel comes home tomorrow night anyway. One more night couldn't hurt." Jack smiled and thanked me, looking bashfully at the floor.

"You look exactly like your mom," he said, "black hair, olive toned skin. But your eyes are more of a hazel color."

"I'll take that as a compliment." My brother entered as I was drying my hands with a dishtowel. He told me that my parents were asleep. They're usually knocked out by 9 P.M.

"You're a champ," Ryan said, shaking Jack's hand, "And your band is cool." He laughed in response and thanked him. I gave him a hug as we said our goodbyes before brother disappeared into his room again. I shut off the kitchen lights and headed for the door.

"Dinner was great," Jack said. He held me by the waist. The night was brisk, the cold eating away at my nose. The vibe changed for a second, like a brief rest for tension in a song. He pulled me closer but I turned away heading towards my car.

"See you at home," I said before shutting the door.

Chapter Text

Jack and I were on my bed.

We were eating ice cream and watching Pretty in Pink. Admittedly, I never got over the 80's. It was a time where everyone was unapologetically cheesy and into cheesy stuff. We first watched the movie when we were in high school when I was dating my ex, John.

We were sitting on my couch in the basement, his guitar laying on the coffee table in front of us. The smell of fresh laundry in the next room made me happy. We spent the afternoon together after school, trying to motivate each other to finish our assignments when we decided to pop in a movie instead.

"Sometimes, I think I'm a Duckie," he said.
I threw some popcorn in my mouth, staring intently at the screen.
"Why do you say that? Because you like Molly Ringwald?" He laughed.
"I don't know," he shrugged.
"It's not like you're crushing on anyone like that."
"How do you figure?"
"Duckie is cool. He wants her happiness even if its not with him. Plus, he's kind of weird in a quirky kind of way. I guess he's like you in that sense but you're not crushing on anyone like that," I said turning to him, "are you?"
"Probably not," he ruminated. I was left with an unsettling feeling, like he kept a secret I wasn't in on. He didn't delve further and I didn't want to probe.
"Let's finish our homework now," I said with a half laugh, "Duckie." He grudgingly picked up his abandoned homework assignment and sat cross legged on the floor, answering some basic algebra questions.

My ice cream started to melt when I finally came out of my day dream. Jack dug his spoon into my mug, leaving me with one less scoop full of ice cream. I slapped his hand but the bite already made it to his mouth. He wrinkled his nose, smiling at me.
I grinned then took a scoop from his mug too. We were almost done with the movie and were at the scene where Andi goes to prom alone in her DIY prom dress when she runs into Duckie who can't stop gushing over her. I turned to Jack who just finished his ice cream. He got up to go to the fridge for some more.

"You're not Duckie anymore," I called.
"What?"
"I said, you're not Duckie anymore."
"What do you mean?"
He plopped down besides me again, shoving more ice cream into his mouth.
"You don't remember?"
He cocked his head to one side.
"We were watching this in my basement and you said that you were Duckie," I said.
Jack made a humming noise. His eyebrows furrowed as he tried to recall the memory.
"We were sophomores in high school, I think."
He snapped his fingers at me.
"You know what? Yeah, I had a huge crush on this girl."
I rested my head on his shoulder, my face feeling flushed.
"Who was it again?" I asked with a hint of a giggle. I looked up at him, listening with anticipation.
"Racheal Warnoch. Yeah, she was so cool."
"Yeah?"
"She liked the Mets," he shrugged.
I gave him a look.
"It was weird though. I ended up not being that into it because she has the same name as my sister. Spelled different but still. Too close."
"Racheal Warnoch? Great..."
"Yeah, she even had blonde hair like my sister. I was like, 'this is too weird'".
"Yeah, sounds like it," I nodded pensively, "so why were you Duckie with Racheal?"
"I don't know. She liked some other dude even though we hung out a lot."
"But in the movie Duckie and Andi were best friends."
"So?"
"It was a lot different."
"What?"
"It was," I insisted.
"How?"
I curled my lips into my mouth, scrunching my nose.
"I thought," I began. I trailed off unable to finish.
"What?"
"Never mind."
I shut off the TV before Andi got a chance to kiss the not-Duckie boy.
"Why were you Ducky on instagram?"
"You found me on instagram?"
I got up from the bed and wagged my finger at him as I spoke.
"First of all, I didn't find you," I said using air quotes on the word 'find', "you're a celebrity so you're not that obscure."
"Okay."
"So?"
"So what?"
"Why were you Ducky on Instagram?"
"I liked the movie."
"You spelled it wrong, by the way."
"Well, you said I wasn't Duckie anyway so it doesn't matter."
"What's with you?"
"I don't know. What's with you?"
I rolled my eyes. I picked up our mugs and put them in the dishwasher. It was nearing midnight. I plopped down next to Jack on the bed. He was facing the wall and I wasn't sure if he fell asleep. I shut the lights off and laid down next to him, facing the opposite direction. I hugged myself, unable to place my emotions. I felt like I've been setting up dominoes just to tip-toe around them. It didn't make any sense. Someone had to be the prime mover.
"Jack?" I whispered shaking him. No response. I shook him awake. He rubbed his eyes and turned to face me for a moment before rolling over again to face the wall.
"I stole your bed," he said.
"I know."
"Do you want me to move?"
"No, I can head over to the couch," I offered.
"It's alright, I'll move."
He sat up. I touched his wrist before he could get off the bed. He gave me a questioning look, his mouth slightly agape. We stared at each other, waiting for the other to make a move. I tried hard to keep my breathing even.
"Just tell me why you were Ducky," I pleaded. I looked down at the sheets. Still no response.
"I know why I used to call you that but I just want to hear you say it."
He squirmed and looked away.
"Imagine what life would have been like if I never went to that damn Jewish elementary school," I continued, "I honestly don't even know why my parents sent me there. I'm not Jewish." I laughed a little, shrugging. "I guess it was a good school."
I got up and opened a window, letting the faint whining of an ambulance break the silence. I sat on the window ledge. The wind gave me goose flesh. I pulled out a pack some loose tobacco and rolled a cigarette. I licked the paper to seal it and lit it with an old lighter from my desk. I took a generous puff, the bitter smoke bringing deep satisfaction.
"Since when do you smoke?" Jack asked. I laughed again.
"I've smoked then quit, then smoked then quit. Crazy. We haven't talked since before two smoke-and-quits ago," I replied, "now I just smoke when I feel a bit on edge to be perfectly honest." I finished my cigarette and threw the nub out the window. I sat in front of Jack. This time he was looking dead at me. I stared back, trying to figure out how he felt when he looked at me. His face was carefully constructed expressionless stone.
"Why do you feel on edge?"
"You always make me feel on edge."
"I'm sorry."
"You don't need to be."
"What do you mean by 'on edge?'"
I sighed.
"I'm not sure."
"Who else makes you feel on edge?"
I chuckled a third time.
"No one."
He nodded pensively.
"You thought you were Andi in high school?"
I couldn't help but to let loose a nervous smile. I rolled my eyes as if to dismiss the conversation but he wasn't letting up.
"Until tonight."
"Why is that?"
"Now, I think I was Racheal."
He let out a hearty laugh.
"And why do you think that?"
"I don't think it. I know it."
"Yeah?" he mused.
"Hell yeah," I replied counting on my fingers, "I was Hannah, the girl you made out with at the Sadie Hawkins dance freshman year, I was Racheal, both your crush and your sister. I was Alia and I was Scarlett, no matter how many sad songs you wrote about her. All the girls you probably hooked up with on tour and everyone in between." I crossed my arms. His mouth twitched.
"Now, you're making me want to roll a joint."
"We're in Newark. You can buy pot from the security guard in the lobby."
He was quiet again, consumed in thought. I clutched my sheets, trying to slow my heart. It was beating so fast I thought it would burst out of my chest and into his hands. Another siren. The sound was nagging, maddening. I wanted to break the silence but didn't know what else to say. Then the feeling crept up on me, gradually like waves sweeping the sand at high tide. It immersed me until there was nothing left to do but burst. I tried desperately to cling onto the words that flew out of my mouth. It was too late.
"Jack, I love you," I said through gritted teeth. My frustration peaked. I wanted to bash my head into the wall. Instant regret. He looked up at me, his eyes soft. I looked away, tears welled up in my eyes but I refused to let them spill. He sat for a while before transferring to the couch.

The sheets swallowed him whole. I turned around, not wanting to see the lump under the covers. I spent the rest of the night with my eyes closed, facing the wall. My head throbbed. I pretended to sleep but cried instead. I didn't make a sound, just let the tears fall freely. I knew I couldn't take the words back but I also wasn't sure whether or not I wanted to. I was confused and angry with myself. I could have kept it in but I've been keeping it in for years. I was Hannah, Racheal, Alia, and Scarlett but he was also Jerald, James, Ray and to the end of the list. There was nothing more that I could do. I was ready to own up to my actions. I couldn't bear to hope for the best. I was anxious to see what would happen when the sunlight filters through the gaps between the curtains. Would I wake to find the couch folded up? Alone with this heartbreaking silence again?

I got up and gingerly walked to the bathroom. I turned on the faucet and let the cold water flow over my face and hair. I couldn't feel the tears falling that way. I hummed Amy Winehouse's version of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," trying to console myself. When I opened the door to sullenly crawl back into bed, I found Jack sitting up. I approached him and he lied down, making room for me to get in with him. I reluctantly followed suit. My face and eyes were red from crying. He could probably tell how swollen my face was despite the darkness. He brushed wet hair out of my face. He placed his hand behind my head, gently moving my head towards his. Our lips met in a tender kiss. His embrace was warm and I was overtaken with joy and relief as he continued to give me slow kisses in his tight embrace. I rolled on top of him, pulling the comforter over us. His hands moved up and down, exploring the grooves of my shoulders and back. He rested them on my hips, caressing my thighs. I gave in. I melted at his touch. It happened too fast and before I could collect my thoughts, the night was filled with heat and desire. I went along with the motions and the rhythm of his breathing. I was happy but he still hasn't answered my question. And I still didn't know what would happen once morning came.

Chapter Text

People are most vulnerable when they are asleep, as the saying goes. It was early when I woke up on Jack's chest. I looked up at him, mouth agape and snoring. He was not the prettiest sleeper. I carefully extracted myself and wiped drool off my face. I noticed his matted chest hair wet with my spit. I smiled, a little grossed out. I tried to wipe it off with my sleeve without waking him. He mumbled something under his breath and buried his face into the pillow. He swept his arm on my chest, bringing me face down on the bed. He pulled me closer. I struggled to turn away from his breath. I inched around until I got into a comfortable position and managed to fall asleep, snuggled up against him.

We slept for a few more hours. I turned over, startled because I expected to roll into Jack. I slowly got out of bed, throwing on an extra large shirt and new underwear. I realized that it was the first time I wasn't afraid he'd be gone when I woke up. I eagerly walked into the kitchen, more aware of the grumbling of my stomach the sound of sizzling from a frying pan. I found Jack cooking eggs.

"You like your eggs runny, right?" he asked, still facing the stove. I stared at him, wearing cut offs in boxer briefs. What happened last night? I felt like I was drifting in from another dimension.

When I didn't respond he turned to face me. I tried not to look down, hoping to God he would throw some pants on. I nodded yes and he took the egg off the pan and onto a plate. He was about to crack open another egg when I started giggling. He turned around again, hands on his hips.

Twice, I stepped towards him with my left foot, then stepped back. Then I shook my foot, hopping on one leg and danced in a circle. He seemed weirded out. I did the same with my right foot. Then I threw my left arm out and in. He started laughing, finally realizing what I was doing.

We both did the hokey pokey to the music in our heads - a kind of celebratory dance for the previous night. I blushed and couldn't stop laughing. I was at first afraid that it would be awkward between us but then I realized we didn't have secrets between us anymore. My heart was at ease. Almost.

I toasted some bread and made coffee, singing all the while. I didn't notice until Jack commented, a sly smile on the side of his face.
"What are you smiling about?"
"I missed that," he said while setting the table, "it's been a little over ten years since I've heard your singing voice."
I laughed to myself, covering my face. He took a seat at the table across from me.
"Thank you for breakfast," I said. He beamed back.
"My pleasure. Thank you for having me."
"It's been a fun couple of days."
He smiled again while chewing.
"What were you doing that night at the Meatlocker anyway? You're too high profile to be at a local show."
"So are you." I was taken aback.
"What do you mean?"
"I noticed you before you wanted to punch me. That's why I flagged you down."
I was confused.
"I was talking to a dude from one of the bands that read a review you wrote."
"What? No one ever looks up what I look like."
"You'd be surprised. He said you were pretty harsh." I laughed.
"Please," I interjected, "I'm honest. And I always put in positive comments."
"I agree," he said. I was shocked, not realizing that he's read other articles before. But I kept my composure.
"Anyway, he pointed you out. I didn't mean to hit you though," he explained, "that was an accident. But I'm glad I did."
I laughed again.
"I was there trying to feel out the scene," he explained, "I want to eventually start a music festival in Jersey."
"That's awesome!"
He shrugged.
"It was just a thought. Everyone skips over Jersey because the city is right there."
"I'll always love the scene here. Everyone comes together. Not like in the city. There are a lot of different scenes but not one cohesive community. At least not anymore."
He nodded. I mopped up the rest of my eggs with my toast.
"I'm going to have to finish up mixing in the studio tonight."
I cleared my plate and put it in the dish washer.
"And?"
"Can you pick up Rachel from the airport?"
I gave him a look.
"Please," he pouted, "she's coming in at Newark International and you're literally right there."
I scratched my chin, twisting my mouth into a smirk.
"Fine," I said grabbing his empty plate, "but only because I miss Rachel and because you cooked me breakfast."
"You're the best," he said.
"When do I have to get her?"
"In like... an hour."
"What?" I gasped. He took me by the waist and kissed me deeply. I was lost in the moment but tried to pulled away first. He didn't let me go.
"Last night was great," I said in a low voice.
"I'm glad isn't not the only one who enjoyed it," he replied sheepishly.
I returned to his embrace. He kissed the top of my head, hugging me from behind while I sauntered over to my closet for a change of clothes. I saw my docs in the closet, toppled over a pile of laundry. I picked them up, smiling at the yellow laces and placed them next to my bed. I hopped into the shower and Jack followed in to brush his teeth. We got dressed in front of each other, doing our regular morning routines. We packed up our things and tidied up the apartment before heading our separate ways. I was sure that Jack and I were going to see each other again. We were going to talk, laugh, and maybe cry again someday. He's always been a part of my life. The realization was comforting but at the same time, wonderfully frightening and surreal. He awakened a part of me that I couldn't yet describe. He was smiling at me from across the room. I smiled back. He picked up his duffel bag and motioned me to leave. I locked my door and we headed down to the parking lot together. He walked me to my car. He turned his red baseball cap around before leaning in to kiss my nose.
"I'll see you later."
"What do you mean by later?"
He shrugged.
"Maybe tonight or something. You should go out with Rachel though. You promised her."
I nodded and smiled at him before heading out to pick up his sister.

I reluctantly drove into the the airport, squinting at all the signs and jug handle roads. Usually when I go to the airport, I end up at the wrong terminal or somehow back onto some major highway. That didn't happen this time and seeing Rachel's sunny face made me smile. She packed her luggage into my trunk and hopped into the passenger's seat. She was wearing light blue pants with skinny pin stripes, a plain white t-shirt underneath her baggy peacoat with black and white oxfords on her feet- the epitome of effortless style.

"Hi!" she squealed, kissing both of my cheeks.
"How was London?" I asked, cautiously making my way back to the highway.
"Great," she said, "I know I've only been there a few days but once English accents are all you hear you forget what American English sounds like."
I laughed.
She looked down at my shoes and gave me a smirk. She crossed her arms, staring out the window. The New York City skyline was in the distance behind and haze of blue.
"You know what?" she asked, "why don't we grab a drink before you drop me off? On me."
I made an inaudible noise.
"Aren't you tired from your trip?" I didn't look at her.
"No I'm fine. It was only a five hour ride."
"I don't know..."
"You have to tell me everything. Well, like not everything. I don't want the details."
"What are you talking about?"
"Come on," she insisted, "you have yellow laces on. The only other person Jack matches with is me."
I shrugged. She let out a sigh. I felt her gaze on me. It did not falter. I was thankful for a brief moment of darkness in the Lincoln Tunnel, save the flashes of light from the bulbs that lit up the side of the road. Once we reached the City, Rachel grabbed the wheel.
"Quick! Make this left!" she screamed.
"What are you doing?!" I exclaimed, pressing down on the breaks.
A faint honk in the distance. I barely beat the yellow light. My heart pounded wildly.
"I thought we were headed to the Upper West Side?" I asked.
"The bar I want to go is on Lafayette. You'll love it. It has books and stuff."
"What's it called?"
"The library."
"Nice."
"Why don't you want to hang out with me?"
"It's not you, Rachel. It's just..." I trailed off. She waited keenly for a response. I said nothing. I knew I was under her line of fire. I grunted, typing in the name of the bar on my GPS. After an excruciating attempt at finding street parking, I masterfully parallel parked between to mom vans, dropped a few coins in the meter and headed inside. I didn't want to admit that I fell in love the minute I walked into the bar.
Dark wood bookshelves extended from floor to ceiling. The dim glow of the lights were warm and inviting. A bartender was washing glasses and nodded at us when we entered. Most people sat at tables. There weren't many nerds out to day drink.

We sat down at the bar. Rachel asked for a vodka soda and I asked for a whiskey sour. Rachel daintily picked up her drink and took a sip from a skinny straw, her dark-lined eyes staring intently at me.

"I know."
I took a generous sip of my drink too.
"What do you mean?"
"Jack texted me right after. He was freaking out."
"Why are you telling me this?"
She squeezed my hand. I shivered.
"Jack loves you. He just doesn't know how to say it."
I rolled my eyes.
"Listen, it was great having him around and all -"
"But?"
"But that night was just that. One time. Boom. It's done," I said crossing my arms, "he didn't say it back. He couldn't. That speaks volumes to me. Maybe I hurt him more than he could stand." I stopped, after feeling myself choking up. I drank again, finishing the rest of my drink in one swig. I asked for another.
"I'm not sure if that's true. I know that pain doesn't go away just like that," she explained snapping her fingers, "please try to reach out to him. He's been reaching out a lot - "
"I know. I want to reciprocate. I really do. When I told him how I felt, that took a lot out of me. I can't take being rejected by him. It's way too much for me to handle."
"But he won't reject you!" Rachel's voice heightened. She was clearly frustrated with me. I downed my next drink and asked for a third. She was only halfway through her first.
"I guess I'm driving..." She said.
I drank again.
"You're driving me nuts, Rachel."
She sighed.
"I don't like being the meddling older sister. I want you both to be happy and I know that's with each other." I hugged her, spilling her drink a little.
"I love you, Rachel. You're like the older sister I never had. I know you mean well, so I'm not mad." She hugged me back, lightly tapping my back. I pulled away. I felt my ears stinging and hot.
"Remember when you used draw all over your homework? You got in trouble for drawing all over your test once. You're so cool now," I said, "You were cool back then but you're like super cool now. Successful and creative and just awesome."
She smiled.
"Consider what I've said. I have a feeling that if you want to be with him, you're going to have to reach out again."
"I love him. I love him. I promise we'll treat each other really well."
"I know."
I finished my third drink. It's only been a little over half an hour.
"Jesus," Rachel said. I giggled.
"If you guys don't do something maybe I will. And I usually make it a point not to act on Jack's life."
"No way! You have to promise me, Rachel, promise that you won't do anything." She sighed again and made a vague noise.
"I'll take that as confirmation then," I said.
I finished my drink and pulled out my wallet. Rachel stopped me.
"You promised a drink," I said, "I had three."
"Don't worry about it. Just spot me next time."

Rachel drove me back to her studio so I could nap on her couch before leaving. My head was dizzy with thoughts of Jack. It's impossible to demand restitution for a heart that was already given to someone. I thought about talking to him again. I dug deep to try and find the courage and right words to say but I came up empty. It wasn't the time to think about that. It was time to sleep. I stretched out, shutting my eyes to the room without him in it, wondering when I'd see him later.

Chapter Text

Jack and I haven't spoken in weeks. I called him once every few days. Then eventually, I stopped altogether. But I wanted to call him one last time. I picked up my phone and slowly dialed his number, silently wishing that despite the unlikely event that he would answer, I'd hear his apologetic voice and maybe an explanation as to why he had become a ghost. The rings continued. I didn't have high hopes and did not react when I ended up on his voicemail instead of hearing a friendly hello. A click and a pause.

"Hi Jack - "
"The voicemail box is full please try again later."

I hung up and mumbled some profanities under my breath.

I texted him instead.

"Hi Jack. Hope mixing and producing is going well. At least tell me you're alive."
Sent.
"I miss you..." I deleted it and threw my phone on my couch and plopped facedown on my bed. I screamed into my pillow. Tank didn't budge. He was used to my constant distress. It didn't matter the time or place, I was constantly berated by the thoughts in my head. What could I have done differently? Could I have treated him better? Did I even try? I felt as if there was a Jack-shaped hole in my life. I tried to fill the gap with other mismatched pieces, work, friends, writing, that would never quite fit, despite how tightly I'd push them together.

Though I've been promoted to a deputy editor at work, the nagging feeling that I messed things up between us damped my achievement. I was proud of myself but being unable to share my joy with him made me feel unfulfilled. There were days that whizzed by me in passive complacency and days of agonizing sluggishness. It didn't matter when deadline came around and the newsroom was so quiet you could hear a pin drop; there was an overlay of blue on everything I saw that even the most exciting stories turned pale. I tried my best to enjoy myself and to work hard. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I lost him for good and I didn't know why.

Rachel and I have been speaking more frequently. She let me in on a thread she uses to ask people about her designs. She texted me, asking what's up, probably to check and see if I was okay. Nothing much, I responded, Stephanie is coming over with some soup. Stephanie let herself in carrying pho from my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. I thanked her and set two bowls and two Chinese soup spoons on the table. The warmth of the broth gave me instant comfort.

"Bean sprouts are healthier than ice cream," I said, "or potato chips...or potato chip ice cream."
"That actually sounds really good," Stephanie replied.
"I already filled my 'eating one pint of Ben and Jerry's Late Night snack' quota this week."
I squeezed Sriracha and sweet hoisin sauce into my bowl before slurping more rice noodles.
Stephanie was looking through my phone, scrolling through instagram.
"You know I'm on a social media cleanse except for when I have to edit social media posts at work," I said.
"It doesn't count as a cleanse if you just make me tell you everything on your feed."
I shushed her.
"Okay, tell me what you see." I closed my eyes and tried to envision the photos.
"You're so strange," she said before continuing to scroll, "Okay, I see several fashion bloggers."
"Next."
"Someone's dog. Aw, he's so cute!"
"And."
"A really gorgeous ring."
"How gorgeous?"
"This rock is huge. And the setting is vintage looking."
"I hope I get a nice ring like that one day." Stephanie was suddenly quiet. I opened my eyes. She had one hand over her mouth.
"What?"
She slowly slid my phone over to me. The diamond must have been at least 6 carats. It was hard to judge by the angle. The setting was antique gold and had intricately carved swirl patterns partly encrusted with smaller diamonds. I could picture the ring on anyone lucky enough to be in the one percent.
"So pretty!" I gasped, "I wonder who's getting married."
I held the phone up to my face. The caption read, "Going somewhere special."
Then I saw who posted it and swallowed my heart.
"Jack?"
"He posted it ten minutes ago and he almost has a thousand likes."
"His comments are blowing up too," I said pushing the phone away, "I don't want to see them."
I buried my face in my hands. I started lightly banging my head against the table. Tank started barking at me.
"Stop," Stephanie demanded. She pulled me up off the table. I glared at her with tears in my eyes.
"I'm so mad," I said in a shaky voice, "who could he possibly be proposing to? It's only been three weeks since we saw each other. Three weeks!" I tried to stop myself from sobbing. I buried my face in my noodles, simultaneously slurping soup and snot back up my nose. I went into the bathroom without excusing myself. I couldn't take it anymore. I needed some release. I let cold water fill up the sink then smashed my face into it. I screamed as hard as I could, the sink bubbling like boiling water. I erupted, dripping with wet hair sticking to my face.
"You are not affected by this," I panted at my reflection. I had crazy eyes. I knew then that I snapped. I wiped my face and hair with a towel so hard I thought I'd rip them off my head.
"You are not affected by this," I repeated, "you are not affected by this." I took several deep breaths, trying to take my heart out of over drive. When I collected myself enough to walk back into the kitchen, I found Stephanie with my phone in her hands. She hugged it close.
"What's on my phone, Stephanie?" I asked, eyeing her down.
"I will let you see it but first you have to promise me that you're calm."
"I'm as calm as I could be now give me my damn phone!"
She stuck it in her cleavage.
"Take another breather. It can wait. Let's walk Tank or something." I let out a maniacal scream before pouncing on her chest.
"No!" Stephanie screeched, holding my phone over her head. She fell off her chair and I crawled on top of her, trying to reach. Tank saw us both on the floor and ran towards us. He bulldozed Stephanie and I snatched the phone from her hands before telling him to heel. He let out a low growl then retreated back to his doggy bed, his ears perched and still ready to jump. I unlocked my phone and saw twenty or so text messages all congratulating me. It felt like the room was spinning. I stumbled my way over to a chair in the kitchen. Stephanie poured me a glass of water, despite being clearly annoyed at me for attacking her. I opened the top text from a number I didn't recognize.

"I know we haven't formally met yet," I read aloud, "but I wanted to congratulate you and Jack on the engagement. Hope to meet you soon. Andrew Dost....Andrew Dost texted me?!" I was ecstatic but perpetually confused.
"What does he mean by engagement?"
"Who is he getting engaged to? Not me!"
"Unless he didn't ask yet?"
"It can't be me. It doesn't make sense! And even if he did I would say no."
"What?"
"Yeah! I would say no. We don't really know each other like that yet. We're still getting reacquainted apparently," I said rolling my eyes, "I bet he's messing with me." I clenched my fists. I was shaking a little. I let out a deep breath.
"Time to break out the Ben and Jerry's?"
"Like the stereotypical girls that we are," I said, "I have four pints in the freezer."
"Maybe you should ask Rachel if she knows anything."
"Are you kidding?" I asked thankfully accepting a mug of ice cream, "that's so strange. I don't want to make her feel like I'm prying into Jack's life. He clearly didn't want to tell me about this goddamn ring for a reason."
"Maybe your mom might know something?" Stephanie inquired taking a seat next to me.
"My mom?"
"She talks to Jack's mom, right?"
My face fell.
"My mom is insane."
Stephanie laughed.
"She means well," she said.
"Yeah, you're right," I sighed. I picked up my phone again, trying to ignore the growing number of texts and missed calls. My mom answered on the first ring.
"Mom?"
"What do you need?" She replied curtly.
"You still talk to Aunt Shira right?" I shoved another spoonful of ice cream in my mouth.
"Yes, why?" Stephanie urged me to continue.
"I, uh, wanted to know if you...heard any news about Jack lately."
"Well, he's almost done with his album. He's just making tweaks now. But I didn't hear that from Shira."
"What do you mean?"
"Jack told me."
"Jack told you?"
"Yes."
"You speak to him? How often?" I was fuming.
"Yesterday."
"WHY DOES HE TALK TO YOU AND NOT ME?"
"At least one of my children still talk to me, even though he's my honorary one," she scoffed.
"Please, mom."
"No, you're right. You're right. What do you need to know."
"I need to know about the engagement."
"The engagement? I don't know anything about that," she paused, "I wonder why he didn't tell me about it." I threw my hands up in frustration, cradling the phone between my shoulder and my ear. Stephanie shot me a questioning look. I raised my finger to tell her to wait.
"I also wonder why he didn't tell me about it, Ma."
"Hmmm. Ask Aunt Shira."
"I can't."
"Why not?"
"I haven't seen her in years. It seems a bit rude."
"It's not," my mom insisted, "Just call her up first. Ask her to feed you. She'll cook you an entire Thanksgiving dinner!"
"Mom, you don't think it's rude for me to barge in there? Like an interrogation?"
"Wouldn't it be nice to see her?" I clicked my tongue against my teeth in contemplation.
"Yes, but --"
"Ask to have dinner at their place. Bring dessert or something. Then, I don't know, congratulate her on the new addition to the family. See what she says."
"Can't you just ask her, Ma?"
"No way! He and I spoke yesterday and he didn't tell me about it. It would be weird if I asked her."
"Just say you saw it on instagram."
"I don't have Instagram."
"So?"
"Just talk to Shira!" she demanded before hanging up on me.
Stephanie looked at me with her green eyes wide.
"Well?"
"My mom said to call Aunt Shira and try to talk to her about it. Like...make dinner plans and head to their house and everything."
"Okay, so call her up."
"No!"
"What? Why not?"
"What if Jack's there?"
"Then talk to him."
"I can't talk to him right now. He's being an idiot."
She gave me a look.
"How about this, you ask her who else will be joining for dinner so you know how much food to bring over." I snapped my fingers at her.
"Perfect."
"Okay, go on then. You got this."
I let out a deep breath and reluctantly picked up the phone. She answered after a few rings.
"Hi, Aunt Shira. What are you doing for dinner?"

Chapter Text

"Stephanie, I'm begging you to come with me. Please," I said, giving her the best pouty face I could muster.
"They don't know me. It might be weird." My eyebrows slanted to the middle of my forehead.
"Please," I asked again, "I don't think I can do this alone." My hands were clasped tight. Stephanie wouldn't budge.
"I'm sorry, I can't," she shrugged, "this is something you need to do on your own. You need to confront your fear." She poked my chest. I dramatically fell over and rolled on the ground.
"I don't wanna!" I screamed, thrashing around like a child.
"Alright," she said, raising her hands in surrender, "you can do whatever you want. But don't complain when you could have done something about it." I was facedown on the carpet.
"Fine," I mumbled. I rolled over, facing the ceiling. Stephanie stood above me.
"I can see up your nose," I said. She lightly kicked my side.
"Get up," she commanded. I huffed and dusted myself off.
"What do I even wear?"
"Something nice but not too dressy. You don't want them to think you're a bum but you also don't want them to think you're going to a party."
"So my usual t-shirts won't cut it, huh?"
"Nope."
I sighed and made my way to my closet. I changed into a knitted electric blue sweater with a statement necklace and black jeans. I saw my Docs buried beneath some clothes and other shoes. I picked them up and inspected them.
"Not those," Stephanie said, "they'll see you matching and know something's up." I scrunched my mouth to the side of my face and rubbed my chin with my free hand.
"I haven't worn them in weeks. Actually, I wanted to forget them altogether."
"I didn't say you should," she assured.
"I don't know. I guess they're just reminder about how used to stick around." She responded with an apologetic look.
"Wear them if they'll make you feel better." I smiled.
"Yeah, I think they would."

Shortly after I got dressed, Stephanie went back home.
"Let me know how it goes," she said hugging me, "I'm rooting for you. And if you end up seeing Jack for whatever reason and he still doesn't go for you...Grammy or not, he's an idiot and you deserve better." I chuckled.
"Yeah, right. How can I get better than a rock star with the net worth of $4 million?" I sniggered.
"I mean it. Your heart is worth more than that."
I smiled weakly.
"You're a good friend," I said. And with that, Stephanie was out the door. I straightened my hair and did my makeup. I carefully painted on my eyeliner, thinking of the first time we bickered about his past girlfriends. Talking to his reflection made it easier to show him how I was feeling. I could see him without him seeing me. I came to the realization that love doesn't work that way. "
Waterproof," I said to myself after wiping a stray tear. I drove to the Ironbound section of Newark to pick up a Portuguese rotisserie chicken with veggies and yellow rice. I also bought cannolis from a mom and pop bakery for dessert. If I was going to embarrass myself, at least I was going to do it over a good meal.

The Antonoffs lived about a thirty minute drive from Newark. New Milford was a straight shot down route 21, so it was easy to turn my mind off while I was driving. At first glance the town seems completely unremarkable but a few notable people have called New Milford home. I don't know any of them, save for Bobby Steele from the Misfits. But then again, it seems as though the Misfits bred more famous people than anyone from North Jersey. The town has a pretty tight knit community where all the neighbors silently (or not silently) judged each other but also baked apple pies for anyone who moved into the neighborhood. It seemed only right for a well off, predominantly white town to do so, like in the movies. And of course, everyone knew Jack, who was unofficially deemed a "failure son" for being in a non-commercially famous band during his Steel Train years and then subsequently diagnosed as "crazy" while in fun. I took a deep breath when I pulled into the drive way and carefully made my way to the front door. Aunt Shira opened the door before I had a chance to knock. I was shot with an overwhelming blast of Jack's scent, which managed to linger despite his bourgeois residency on the Upper West Side. She kissed both my cheeks and invited me in. I set the food on the table.
"Hi, dear!" Ricky said. I hugged him bashfully.
"Change of plans," Shira said. I cocked my head to one side.
"Rachel will be joining us."
"Oh," I exhaled, clutching my chest.
"Is there something wrong?" Shira asked.
"No, no," I reassured. The table was already set and I was informed Rachel would be joining shortly. Now wasn't the time to be shy about getting answers.
"What about.... Jack?"
"He won't be joining us," Ricky replied, "he's finishing up the final details on Strange Desire."
"I'm excited to hear it," I half-lied.
"He hasn't shown you anything?" Shira asked.
"No actually," I replied twiddling my thumbs, "I haven't spoken to him in a little while."
"Oh," she said, awkwardly pushing up her glasses. Ricky looked down at his empty plate and clapped his hands once.
"Rachel texted. Said we could start without her and she'd catch up soon," he said.
"Alright," Shira said, carving the chicken and putting a chunk of white meat on my plate, "some for you."
"Thank you." I helped myself to some rice and veggies. We ate quietly for some time before Shira broke the silence.
"How's work? Your mom tells me you got a promotion."
"Oh yeah. I'm deputy editor at the Newark reporter."
"What does that entail?" Ricky asked.
"Editing, proof reading, some fact checking," I replied between chews, "all print, social media, and online material passes through me before the higher ups give the approval."
"Wow, congratulations," Shira said.
"Yes, that's pretty impressive," Ricky added.
"Thank you," I said, looking down. There was a click at the door, indicating it had been unlocked.
"Hello!" Rachel called. She helped herself to some food.
"It's down to the wire for New York Fashion Week. There's still so much to do. I'm famished," she said between mouthfuls. She hadn't even sat down before shoving food in her mouth. She waved at me, gawking from across the table. I gave her a meek smile.
"I didn't know you were going to be here," she said to me. Her face flashed bright red.
"Mhmm...hi," I mumbled.
I took a gulp of water. "Congrats to you all on the new family member," I said. Rachel choked on her food and took a seat at the table.
"What?"
"Are you fucking pregnant?" Ricky demanded, turning to Rachel.
"No!"
"The engagement?" I reminded.
"You're getting married?" Shira gasped.
"No, no. Nothing like that," Rachel said. She gave me a menacing look. I shot her an angry glance.
"I saw a ring on Instagram."
"You're obviously thinking about something else," she laughed, putting her hand on top of mine. I withdrew.
"What's going on?"
I was getting upset. Rachel stared back at me with beady eyes, clearly at a loss for words. She shrugged.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," she replied sweetly. I was livid. I couldn't express how angry I was at Rachel for withholding information. It was obvious she knew what was up. I wondered what she had to hide. I didn't want to show Shira and Ricky how upset I was, so I excused myself to go to the bathroom. I stumbled upon Jack's old room from when we were kids. I thought about walking away but I couldn't resist. I flipped the light switch and my face instantly lit up. I felt like I was walking through a time capsule. I gingerly walked through the room, mindful not to step over any recording equipment he left strewn across the floor. His extensive Star Wars memorabilia was prominently displayed on shelves and some things kept in his closet. I saw a record player in the corner and his first guitar on a stand nearby. His bed wasn't made, as if he was going to sleep in it again tonight. I sat on the mattress, thinking about how badly I wanted to see him and came to the realization that I wouldn't know what to say if we did. I felt aimless and lost. I was desperate to fix whatever went wrong the night we saw each other last. I was overwhelmed with regret but had nowhere to place my frustration. So I closed my eyes and tried to remember the times we had before life turned us into callus adults, born from pain and experience. I tried to remember the joy I felt in simple conversations inflated with dreams and aspirations, when we were both hopeful even without direction. I wondered if those times were lost to us both.

A gentle knock at the door snapped me back to reality. Aunt Shira sat next to me. I kept my eyes on the ground, resting my chin on my knuckles. She rubbed my back. It soothed me.

"It wasn't that easy for Ricky and I at first either," she said. I didn't respond in fear that I would say the wrong thing or reveal too much about my feelings for Jack. I knew that she was aware of how I felt but I didn't want to admit it aloud.

"He came into my dorm room in college one day, clearly stoned, with pumpkins," she continued, "he made me feel giddy. He made it seem like he traveled distant lands for those mini pumpkins. That was of course, after I yelled at him and his friends for being too loud for having a party next door."

I smiled, still looking at the ground.

"Aunt Shira, none of that seems difficult to me."

"Well, we weren't dating after that. What should have been a relationship ended up being really good friends. I just burst out that I loved him one day. He was on vacation in Europe and I missed him badly. We wrote letters while he was gone but Ricky claims he doesn't remember those," she scoffed, "anyway, it took a year for me to realize my feelings for him. When I told him I loved him for the first time, he left the room right away. I was devastated. I thought I messed things up. Then he came back and stuttered that he loved me too. It takes time. Admittedly, longer than others but you know what? It happens in its own time. Give him room to turn pumpkins into love."

I nodded and smiled back. I felt my cheeks turn pink. She reached underneath his bed and pulled out an old photo album. I was relieved they weren't 70's porn mags or whatever he was into looking at when he was a snotty teenager. She told me to flip through the pages. I saw old photos of us together and couldn't help but crack a wide smile. His curly hair seemed way too big for his head. He wasn't built. I wondered what my younger self was thinking when I thought he was cute back then. I was worse. I laughed at myself, my stringy black hair and awkward stance. At least my teeth were nice though I couldn't say the same about Jack.

"It's been so long since middle school," I said. I finished looking through the pages of our youth, Aunt Shira invited me back to the table to finish dinner. Rachel had already left in haste. I caught up with Aunt Shira about my life outside of her son. She seemed genuinely excited for my career and side projects I wanted to start. I checked my phone during dessert. It was getting pretty late. I vaguely looked at the congratulations texts and growing missed phone calls. On the top of my menu bar, I saw Instagram notifications. I haven't posted in about a week. I got over a hundred likes on a picture of a ring I posted, except... I didn't post it. It was the same ring Jack posted earlier but from a different angle. The ring was 8 carats and definitely did not belong to me. I couldn't stop staring at my phone. I was frozen. Shira came to my side.

"That's a pretty ring," she said, "I wish you would have told me before I went on and on about how Ricky and I got together. Thought my son was the lucky man."
"Is this some sort of joke?"
"I'm sorry?"
"This isn't my ring!"
"What?"
"I don't know how many times I have to tell people. This isn't my ring!"
"Then who does it belong to?"
"I honestly have no idea," I said, bugged eyed and panting, "I didn't even post this!"
"Then who did?"
"I feel kind of faint." I chugged some water which made me feel more nauseous.
"Your daughter knows something," I claimed, "I don't know exactly what it is, but she knows but she knows something."
Shira didn't respond.
"Sorry for being rude," I said, "I just saw a picture of the same ring on Jack's Instagram so now I'm very confused. I feel like I'm on a reality show."
"If you think Rachel has something to do with it then you should call her."
"You know what? I'm going to call Jack instead. Maybe he doesn't even know what's going on." I paused.
"But can I use your phone instead? My battery is going to be shot." She reluctantly gave me her phone and I dialed Jack's number. I pressed the power button to show her that my phone wasn't turning on. She didn't know that I took the battery out when she wasn't looking. I felt guilty for lying to her but this was the only way I'd know for certain he'd answer my call. Jack doesn't refuse a call from his mother. "Hello?" Jack said.
"Jack?"
"What are you doing to me?"
"What?"
"You put that picture of that ring on my phone," he accused.
I laughed to myself.
"You're insane. I called you to see if you knew anything about this."
"Why are you using my mom's phone?"
"I'm hanging out with her. Anyway, I saw a different photo of the same ring somehow posted on my Instagram without my knowledge. Would you know anything about that?"
"Why would I know anything about that when I don't even know how the first photo got up on my profile to begin with?"
"Then you didn't do any of this?"
"I can't do this right now. Talk to Rachel."
"Hello?" I said, "what's going on?" It was quiet. I could make out the subtle sounds of Rachel's breathing.
"I know you're there," I continued, "Rachel, please put Jack on the phone. I heard shuffling and words I couldn't make out.
"Jack? Jack? Hello?"
"Yes."
"I'm tired of this. Please let's sort this out in person."
"I'd rather not."
"Okay, let's sort it out right now."
"No, I mean, I'd rather not sort this out."
"Well, you leave me no choice. I'm coming over."
He hung up. I handed the phone back to Shira.
"I'm so sorry," I said hugging her, "I have to go see Jack."
I hugged Aunt Shira, offering to help her clean up. She motioned me to shoo. I swiftly gathered my things to leave. I was about to turn the knob to the front door when she stopped me.
"Honey?"
I turned around blushing after seeing what was in her hand.
"You almost forgot your battery."

Chapter Text

It's hard to separate rage and confusion. I tried to slow my breathing. My lead foot wouldn't ease up on the gas. My heart beat to the tempo of an angry song I couldn't remember the name of. I gripped the wheel hard as if my bones were about to rip through my knuckles. I usually loved the way the night blanketed the Hudson River with colorful reflections of the city. I tried to focus on the dark stretch of road. But I was reminded that Jack was just beyond reach.

Even our lifestyles were different. The Upper West Side is where the ritzy yuppies congregate to scoff at working class people who live in the outer boroughs, like Queens or the Bronx. It's the part of Manhattan where people push their tiny dogs around in strollers and pay forty dollars for a meal you could fit in the palm of your hand.

I took a deep breath. I wanted to smash my head through my windshield. I lost control of my emotions and I couldn't do anything about it except stew in my frustration and scold myself for being naive. Despite his careless rockstar occupation, it was clear that we belonged in separate worlds. His life was walking on red carpets and mine was photographing them from a distance. I tried racking my brain for what I did wrong. I was desperate to close the distance between us. I didn't want to go back to a life without him. I would do anything to have it back the way it used to be, even if we were just friends. But I wasn't sure if that was enough.

After a difficult run-in with the security guard, who grudgingly let me up, I knocked and rang the doorbell for a while before Rachel carefully tip toed to the door.

"Jack isn't here," she whispered, the door half closed. She had her hair up and was wearing fuzzy pink pajama pants.

"Let me in," I demanded.
"Can't."
"Why?"
She shrugged.
"It's dirty."
"It's highly doubt that."
She yawned and stretched her arms.
"It's also really late," she added.
"So I drove all this way, just for you to tell me to turn around?"
She shrugged again.
"Can I at least use your bathroom -- I see him!" Jack was coming towards the door.
"I don't know what you mean," She looked away.
"Cut the shit, Rachel," Jack said. He shuffled over, hunched in a baggy t shirt and boxers. My heart leapt. It was obvious that it had been a rough couple of days for him. His eyes were sunken and he was much paler than usual.
I lightly pushed Rachel aside and held his face in my hands. His glasses were slipping past the bridge of his nose. I slid them up, looking intently at him. He held my gaze.

"Jack," I said in a tiny voice. I hugged him tightly, breathing in his scent. He hugged me back, loosely placing his arms around me. We didn't sat much until I spontaneously combust into tears.

"I'm sorry," I sobbed into his shirt. He didn't move. I buried my face into his chest. "I don't even know what I did. What did I do?"

"Nothing," he mumbled.
I sniffed, hurriedly wiping the tears from my eyes.
"I just didn't want to see you."
"What?" I released myself from his embrace. I pushed him away. Anger welled up in me again.
"You didn't do anything. I was just confused, I guess." He looked at the floor, his glasses slipping to the tip of his nose again.
"You can't just do that!"
"What?"
"You can't just up and leave like that. You can't keep doing this. If you need space, tell me, just tell me!"
"I know, I'm sorry."
I sighed, running my fingers through my hair. Rachel took the cease-fire as an opportunity to tip-toe away. I gave her the side eye but she managed to sneak away without Jack noticing.
"Is this how you deal with your problems, Jack?" I shoved past him. He followed behind me. He swirled me around and I plopped down on his couch, cross armed. He stood in front of me, cross armed too.
"It was wrong of me," he admitted, "but I was so caught up with life. I didn't want to deal with you because I thought things would just get messy after that night."
"Deal with me?" I asked taken aback.
"You know what I mean."
He got down on his knees and took my limp hands. I hated to admit that his droopy eyes were enough of an apology for me. Still, I smirked and looked away. He jumped up with a toothy smile, seeing past my tough exterior. He sat down next to me, pulling me into another tight embrace which I grudgingly accepted.
"I'll do better next time," he promised, his lower lip jutting out.
"Jack," I said meeting his eyes, "aren't you mad at me?"
He scrunched his face, looking at the ceiling.
"I was at first," he said, "but then I thought about it and I realized that I wasn't really angry."
I tilted my head to one side, squeezing his hands.
"How did you feel then?"
He shrugged and looked at the floor.
"I don't know. Scared, I guess."
"Of what?"
He smiled with one side of his mouth, the same way an child does when admitting to something wrong.
"Losing you to someone else."
I curled my lips into my mouth. I nodded slowly, at a loss for words. Before coming, I was afraid that he wouldn't forgive me for something I didn't do. Funny how life changes as fast as ripples through the night time reflection of the City on the Hudson. He stared at me, expecting me to say something - anything but the words were stuck in my throat like a chunk of dry food. I leaned against his chest, taking in his scent again.
"I was afraid too," I said in a small voice. He draped his arms around me. I looked up at him and he reached down with his neck to peck my lips. I kissed him again, the sensation of his warm breath making me shiver.
"I know I wasn't always in the best shape."
"Jack, stop."
"No, listen," he said holding up his hand, "I was a mess for most of my early twenties. You were such a straight shooter compared to me. You went to college. You worked your ass off. You didn't screw around with drugs and things like that. You did it right. I guess that's why we never talked. You couldn't take me being that way. I would have messed you up."
"Jack, please. It wasn't like that."
He smiled at me, as if I was prodding a small wound.
"It wasn't like that," I insisted,"I still think you're amazing and you've done amazing things. I wasn't always a straight shooter, Jack. Everyone messes up."
He remained silent, squeezing my hand tighter. I felt I didn't deserve him.
"I didn't do it, you know," I said. He rested his head of my chest, his curls hair tickling my chin.
"What do you mean?"
"I didn't post the photos, Jack."
"You don't need to do this."
"What are you talking about?"
"Pretend."
I snickered, playing with his hair.
"I'm not pretending, Jack," I replied, "Rachel--"
"Rachel told me all about it. She explained why you did it. It's a PR nightmare but we'll figure something out." My fingers froze on top of his head. I stared blankly out of the floor-to-ceiling windows, the high rises black with the glow of a few yellow lights.
"And what did she say?"
"I know you did it because you just needed me. You needed to get my attention somehow because I was pushing you away."
I didn't know how to respond. He made me sound desperate and a little crazy. Was he wrong? The past few weeks have left me yearning for him. I wasn't sure about how far I'd go to keep him in my life.
"I get that you care about me," he continued, "the intention speaks louder than anything. Better than a few phone calls." I smiled awkwardly.
"You're right," I lied, rolling out the words as if they were coated in honey, "I did do it." I felt tingling in my spine, like the anticipation of going down a steep roller coaster. It was too late now. The words have materialized. When that happens, very rarely does anyone get a chance to take them back. Jack rolled over to face me. He kissed me again, his body pressing against mine. I wrapped him in my arms and he earnestly smiled at me, the innocence behind his eyes a mixture of jubilation and pure love.
"It's okay," he said, "I thought about it a lot since it happened and I think it's sweet in a weird way." I responded with a questioning look.
My eyes widened. I was dumbfounded.
"That's the craziest thing I ever heard."
He chuckled.
"I'm just happy you're here now." I smiled despite the stress of my tingling back that wouldn't disappear. I excused myself to go to the bathroom. I turned on the light and Rachel swooped me in unexpectedly, her hand covering my mouth.
"What are you doing?" I glared. She shushed me.
"You can't do that," she whispered.
"What are you talking about?"
" You guys can't get together like this! That wasn't the plan."
"What plan?" I asked incredulously. I spun myself away from her grip.
"I was supposed to take the fall for it eventually."
"It was your idea?!"
"Yeah, okay? It was my fault. I shouldn't have meddled but look, you have to tell the truth. He thinks you did it."
"Who cares? Why does it matter?"
"Because," she said staring at me with big eyes, "because it's not honest!"
"What were you even thinking, Rachel?"
"You both just needed a push, that's all. I thought it would scared you both into getting together. Now, he thinks you cared right when you were about to give up on him."
"I wasn't about to give up on him!"
"Save it. That's all you ever talked about with me besides opinions of fabrics and things. You have to tell him that it wasn't you."
"It doesn't matter."
"It does," she assured, "he needs to get the right picture. And it might end up biting you in the ass later."
I stormed out of the room and found Jack sitting on the couch with his hands folded. His face lit up when he saw me. I drifted over to him and he pulled me close with his arms around my waist.
"Jack?"
He looked up at me with raised eyebrows.
"Yes?"
"What if I did something not that great. How would you feel about me?"
"I know I didn't say it that night," he cooed, "but I love you too. That will never change."
He pressed his face against my stomach. I grimaced but nonetheless, gently kissed the top of his head, thankful that he was mine and wondered whether not it mattered how I got here.

Chapter Text

"Jack," I mumbled, rolling over. I was facedown on my pillow. He pulled me closer to him but I haven't moved from my position. He made an ambiguous noise. Warmth surged inside of me when I felt his bare skin, the trace of his touch lingering. He had his arm on top of my chest like a fallen tree. I traced the grooves of his muscles with my eyes and then onto his sleeping face, his lips moist with drool and slightly agape. I inched my way over to him, feeling the depth of his breaths on my face. I smiled shyly when he opened his eyes, the sunlight resting on them.

"Morning," he mumbled with a hint of dragon breath. I smiled wide and jumped up on the bed. I threw a pillow on him and belly flopped on top of him. He grunted.

"Ow!"
"You did it!"
"What?"
"Turned 31!"
He laughed to himself, rolling over. I hugged him and kissed his neck. He turned around to kiss me. I winced at the smell that escaped his mouth. He blew it in my face.

"Jack!" I screeched, covering my face with a pillow. I burrowed under the comforter and he dived down the sheets to meet me. I stared at his sleepy brown eyes and felt like I was in high school again.

"Happy birthday, smelly," I said.
"Thank you," he half-smiled.
"What do you want to do today?"
He shrugged.
"I planned on tightening up a few details on the album."
I rolled my eyes.
"Hey," he replied, "the release date is coming up fast."
"I know."
"Have you listened to any of what I have so far?" I rolled away from him. He pulled me close, his mouth by my ear.
"I haven't," I said in a tiny voice.
"Well, I'd love your input. I trust you." I scrunched my nose and frowned but he didn't see my expression.
"Let's go to a diner for breakfast," I suggested, "we'll go to Tops."
"Taking me back to Jersey?"
"We're going to see your parents later anyway."
"Back to Newark?"
"Mhmm," I said, putting my bra on. I picked up my clothes off the floor from last night, wiggling my jeans up my hips. Jack sat up and kissed my hand. I gave him an earnest look.
"How sweet," I smiled, "Don't you like Tops?"
"Yeah, it's great," he said.
"Then what's wrong?"
He shrugged again.
"Diners in New York can't beat Jersey Diners. It's a fact."
He chuckled.
"No it's not that," he said.
"Then what?"
His eyes glossed over. He gave me another half-smile, this time weak and forced.
"Let's go eat," he said, putting on a pair of pants.
We did our normal morning routine. I stayed almost every night, especially after nights I had to review a show. I didn't get weirded out when he peed in front of me and he didn't get weirded when I brushed my teeth in the shower.

Rachel wasn't home. She tries to be nice to me when I'm around. She can't get rid of the pained looked in her eyes when she sees me. I try to avoid her and in turn, my guilty conscious. I held Jack's hand on the way to his car. He didn't squeeze mine back. I gave him a quizzical look but he kept his eyes foreword. We didn't exchange many words on the way to Top's (which by the way was the best diner in New Jersey). He rubbed his chin and winced at the road often. I stared at my feet or out the window, watching the trees pass by like a blur of pixels on a screen.

Tops was a gem in no man's land between Harrison and Newark. The 1950's architecture made its patrons feel like they've entered a time warp. Their portions were decadent and the food, delectable. My friends and I used to swing by for a hearty meal after midterms and finals and find our professors sitting near us doing the same.

"Jack," I said, waving my hand in his face, "Hello?"
He peeked up from behind the menu.
"You haven't spoken to me all the way over here. What did I do?"
He reluctantly reached for my hand and held it as if it were a thin piece of glass.
"Nothing," he replied. He averted his eyes.
"I'm not convinced."
"I was thinking..." he trailed off.
I waited patiently. He seemed to be mentally gathering his words. He looked like a two year old struggling with speech.
"Just say it," I demanded.
"I was thinking, you know, since you're always over and stuff -"
"I'm sorry! I'll back off. I didn't want to impose."
"No, no!" he yelled. A few customers looked over.
"I just thought that maybe..maybe," he stammered.
"Hi!" We both jumped. A waitress both smiled at us, pen and mini notepad ready.
"Hello," I responded, in a daze.
"Do you want to start with appetizers?"
"I think I'm ready," I said turning to Jack, "you?"
"Uh, yeah," he said. He ordered a stack of pancakes, each one bigger than his head. I ordered chicken and waffles. The waitress left. Jack continued to struggle with his words.
"Maybe. You could, you know. Move some stuff over," he said.
"Oh?"
"Yeah," he replied faintly, pulling out alcohol wipes to clean his glasses.
"Well, I already have a tooth brush and an extra set of clothes..."
"That's not what I meant," he said.
"Then what?"
"You know, move, like, all your stuff? Maybe? Into my apartment." I laughed. I was beaming.
"I mean, I know you like your place and all. And I get it. You have your own thing going on. But hear me out. You're over a lot, which I love. Absolutely. But I was thinking it would be easier on you too since you've been covering more things in the city."
"Jack," I smiled.
"Yeah?"
"I'd love to."
"But?"
I looked down. I couldn't stand to see his disappointment. The waitress came out with our food. I hardly looked down at my plate.
"Can I think about it? You're right about me having my own thing going on and as much as I love you, I'm used to living alone. Plus, I wouldn't want to kick Rachel out."
"Rachel gave me the okay," Jack said.
"Well, I'm still getting used to you too."
"What do you mean?" he asked, taking a generous bite of his pancake. I poured syrup on my waffles.
"Sometimes, I stop and think about you being a part of this world that I only see from a distance. I feel like I don't fit in."
Jack nodded at a loss for words.
"Just give me some time," I said.
"Okay."
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah," he assured. He reached over the table and pecked me on the lips.
"I have your birthday present," I said.
Jack grinned, rubbing his hands together.
"I wonder what it is!"
"It's nothing crazy," I shrugged. I pulled a wrapped rectangle out of my purse and handed it to him. It was wrapped in left over free issues of The Aquarian. He laughed, ripping the newspaper. He found his copy our old high school yearbook underneath. He cocked his head on one side and flipped through the old pages, some of them worn and stuck together. He saw my picture and laughed. As a joke, I drew hearts around my face.
"Your smile used to be so awkward."
"Shut up."
"No, it was great. It was one of my favorite quirks that you had."
My cheeks felt hot. He flipped to the end where our old classmates wrote their messages - promises to keep in touch over the summer, recounting funny moments in class. Near the binding on the left hand side was what used to be a blank spot, rumored to have been reserved for me. He was surprised to find a message written inside.

"Jack--
I know you'll be a great musician one day. I've had the biggest crush on you since kickball. I hope you like me too.
xoxo The Andie to your Ducky."

"I know it's not much," I said, "but with all your fancy synths and keyboards I didn't know what to get you."
"It's perfect," he muttered.
"What?"
"It's perfect!" He jumped up from the booth and came over to me. He gave me a fat, sloppy kiss.
"I wanted to make up for lost time," I explained, "I always wanted to write that in your yearbook."
"Why didn't you ever sign it?"
"I chickened out I guess. I wanted to write that or nothing at all. I was surprised you didn't have someone else sign it."
"I promised you that space."
Suddenly, my phone rang, breaking the moment between us.
"Hello?" It was Stephanie.
"You have to see this article I'm about to send you!" she urged.
I groaned. "I'm out with Jack for his birthday. Can I check later?"
"I think you're both going to want to see it."
I hung up and saw a photo of Jack and I outside of his apartment. I almost choked on my spit.
Jack stared at my phone, mouth and eyes wide open. The article read, "Jack's New Beau? What About That Ring?"
"This is happening way too fast," he said, "I didn't anticipate this so soon."
My phone went off again.
"My boss sent me an e-mail. He says he wants to see me in the newsroom later today."
"I'm so sorry," Jack said.
"It's not your fault. Let's just finish up and hopefully I can meet you at your parents." My hands were shaking. I took my phone from him, fumbling to put it back in my bag. I dropped my chicken and waffles, the plate shattering on the floor.
"How long could this possibly last?"

Chapter Text

The newsroom at the Aquarian had a generally laid back atmosphere. The office was located in the suburban sprawl that was Little Falls, sandwiched between Montclair and Clifton, it was the lesser known middle child of North Jersey. The newsroom was an open floor with a labyrinth of cubicles with offices towards the back. It was abuzz with overlapping telephone interviews and conversations. I spotted my boss watching me from across the room. He wasn't much older than I was and has been the editor-at-large at the Aquarian since before I started writing there. His upper lip twitched when we made eye contact, the ends of his thick mustache, moving up slightly.

"Giorgio," a clerk called from her desk, "we have a staff meeting in five." He waved to indicate that he would follow later.

"Giorgio," I said flatly.
"My favorite deputy editor!"
I moved back when he approached me.
"What?" I asked.
He held his arms wide for a hug. I inched my way into his embrace, shortly tapping his shoulder to indicate that I wanted to hug to end.
"You're moving me up?" I asked in a daze, "why?"
"Well, not yet."
I glared at him.
"I mean," he continued, "I'm leaving to be an editor for the Alternative Press. My replacement wants you to move up."
"Giorgio, you can't leave!"
"Shh," he replied, covering my mouth with his hand, "I haven't told anyone yet."
The newsroom was nearly empty, save for the marketing interns in the kitchen eating snacks. His eyes darted around the newsroom before he continued.

"You better watch out, though," he cautioned.
"Why?"
"I saw that photo of you leaving Antonoff's place. You don't have to tell me your business but I can feel that it'll go badly if new management finds out."
"New management?"
"Everyone's leaving. They're dropping like flies. Myself included."
"What's it matter to them anyway?"
"Look," he said rolling his eyes, "have you ever seen a musician date a music journalist?"
"No," I muttered.
"Buzzfeed just published an article about why journalists should never date celebrities not too long ago."
"Come on, Giorgio. It's Buzzfeed, not the most reliable source of information, don't you agree?"
He shrugged.
"I'm not sure how they'd react but you better think of something before they think you can't handle yourself."
"Fine," I huffed. I turned to leave when Giorgio caught my arm. I glared at him again, taken aback.
"You'll be great, kid. Congrats on the new job!"
I gave him a crooked smile. My eyes softened.
"Same to you."
"And if it means anything, I hope it works out." Doubt flickered in his dark eyes but the sincerity in them didn't falter. I nodded vaguely before leaving. I spotted the staff writers through the glass walls of the large conference room. A couple of writers were fighting over the marker to the pitching board. Others laughed or rolled their eyes. I shook my head and let out a deep sigh, dragging my feet as I walked out to my car. I checked my phone a saw a missed call from Jack. I shoved my phone into my back pocket and tilted my seat back as far as it could go. I opened up the moonroof and stared at the sky. Night had already crept up on the day. The stars hid behind thick purple clouds. I let myself lay back for awhile, staring at the sky. I wanted to flush out of the thoughts that saturated my head. I asked myself a string of what-ifs, pretending that I knew we could work it out. The truth was someone was going to bend and our dreams had no room for that. The tears escaped before I could stop them. I wiped them angrily, leaving a pink streak of irritated skin across my face. The sound of my ringtone made me jump. Jack called again. I ignored it and threw my phone in the back seat where it landed with a soft thud. I looked to the front and saw Patrick, one of the junior writers, with his face pressed against my driver's window. I rolled it down.

"You have to do a story about Jack," he said.
"What?"
"It wasn't my idea, okay?"
"New management?" He nodded, his lanky frame melting into the darkness. I groaned and hit my head against the car horn.
"Shhh!"
"What?" I snapped.
"You can't tell them I told you first. I figured I could buy you time."
"They want me to do a story about Jack?"
"Yeah," he whispered. He leaned in closer. "A tabloid bought us out. I don't know which one yet but that's what everyone's saying."
"What about a story about Jack?"
"They want you to talk about what he's really like or something. He's Jersey's sweetheart and our soon to be boss hates anyone without something to dirty them up. He says anyone who's as clean as Jack has something to hide or is really boring."
I was livid. I wanted to explode.
"I could just quit, you know."
He shrugged, indifferent.
"I could! I'm a deputy editor at the Newark Reporter now. I can't do two editing positions. I'd die."
"We need you here. The Aquarian won't be there same."
I scrunched my face and rubbed his shoulder. He looked down at the pavement.
"We're going to be moving and everything," he said.
"It wouldn't be the same even if I stayed here anyway."
He continued to look down.
"Hey," I said, "you're fresh out of college. I say blow this pop stand before is blows itself up."
He smiled weakly, the same way I smiled when I was unsure about what to say next.
"I'll be in touch. Be good."

Sniffling, I brought my seat back to a driving position and rushed out of the parking lot. The screeching tires echoed through the still night. I shut the roof to the non-existent stars, looking back to see if Patrick waited for me. He was already inside.

-----

I missed dinner by the time I reached Aunt Shira's house. I found the Antonoff's gathered in the dining room, with a whole chicken carved to the bone and almost empty bowls of sides on the table.

"Hi," I said, "I'm so sorry I'm late. I had something to take care of last minute at work."
"It's okay," Uncle Ricky replied, "life of a journalist, huh?"
I laughed awkwardly.
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Well, sit down! I saved you a plate. I'll heat it up for you,"Aunt Shira said.
My stomach growled. It felt like it was doing flips.
"Someone's hungry," Jack laughed. I sat next to him and he kissed me.
"Hi," he said. My face turned to the color of beets.
"What is this?!" Aunt Shira asked with my plate in her hands.
I froze.
"Um," I said.
"I didn't know about this. Did you know about this?" She asked, turning to Uncle Ricky.
He shrugged.
"I don't know. Wasn't it obvious it was gonna happen eventually?"
"What?" Jack chimed in.
"Yeah, you kids, when you were younger...I'd walk by your room while you were listening to music to make sure no hanky panky was going on."
Rachel stared at him and stopped her spoonful of ice cream mid-mouthful.
"Come on, what is with our families and calling sex hanky panky?"
Jack gave me an icy look. I shut my mouth.
"Why am I the last to know?"
"Mom," Rachel cut in, "it's fine. Just let it be."
"Well, I'm happy it's you and not some Hollywood whore."
"Mom!" Rachel said.
"What?" she replied, disappearing into the kitchen.
"Oh you know I also liked Alia. I wasn't talking about her."
I stared at my feet.
"Sorry," Jack whispered. He held my hand and I squeezed it tight.
Aunt Shira returned with my food.
"Well, I would welcome you to the family but you were already a part of it." She hugged me while I took a generous bite of chicken. I was too hungry to care that it was a little dry.
"You knew about this too?" Aunt Shira asked Rachel. She took the rest of her ice cream and headed to her old room without responding.
"Make sure you clean up after yourselves," Aunt Shira said, making her way to her room. Uncle Ricky followed.
"Hanky panky, hanky panky, hanky panky!" he exclaimed while exiting.
I pushed my food aside and Jack led me to his room. He placed the yearbook I gave him on his bookshelf with his other memorabilia from high school. We laid on his unkempt bed. He probably hasn't made it since before he left for his first tour. I snuggled up against his arm and we both looked all the band posters he had covering his walls.

"I can tell something's wrong," he said.
I buried my face into his armpit.
"I don't think you want to go in there."
I responded with a muffled sentence.
"What?"
"I love you."
He kissed my forehead.
"I love you. I know that. What happened?"
"I'm quitting the Aquarian."
"What? You can't!"
"I have to, Jack."
"It's not because of me, right?"
I sighed.
"Not really, no."
"Not really?"
"I don't want to think about it right now."
We held each other for a while. He comforted me while stray tears stained my cheeks.
"I'm sorry I ruined your birthday."
He kissed me forehead.
"You always make things better."
The tears were flowing more.
"We'll figure it out together."
"Yeah," I sniffled, "we can do it."
I shut my eyes while he quietly sang "Fall Asleep". I smiled at the sound of his voice. I could feel it reverberating in his chest and on my cheeks. I have never felt so at peace with uncertainty before. I was more than happy for the next step, as long as he was taking it with me.