These people, these friends of ours, they are staring at me as if I’m a pharmacist. My drug of choice is music and for each of them I have a song, for every mood, for every moment, there is a song. See, these friends, they are power ballads, fugues, improvised drum solos, rhapsodies, electronica-enhanced remixes, and they're at that age, late twenties early thirties, when drugs become less a recreation and more a necessity. They are urban, successful, loud, trendy, and each insane; they are here, now, being themselves. So are Harper’s parents, who grew up in Brooklyn and have lived in Chicago for thirty years. They are non-practicing Jews and they are tapping their glasses in union with their friends, each on the final sip of their third vodka, a toast to us, Harper and me, to our engagement, and to our “cool fucking neighborhood.” I raise my glass, Grey Goose, rocks, with a lemon.
My parents are Catholic and farm-raised Ohioans and they are late. They will be strangers here. They will stare wide-eyed and pretend to drink. There is no song for this.
Those two over there, Lisa and Derek, the married couple, they yell in whispers as if that will make their misery less obvious. They each take half a dozen medications daily, the cumulative effect nothing more than the safest form of birth control. Our closest friends up until a year ago, they were our model: they’d met, moved in together after three months, and for five years they complemented one another. They were humble until their engagement and in those days they’d speak of eloping on a Caribbean beach. But when the ring came, the wedding turned into a $100,000 gala at a boutique hotel on Michigan Avenue. When they invested more in a wedding than in a marriage, they became a song without music and with lyrics neither could understand. Now they look up and smile, congratulate me. Lisa stares at Derek as he looks beyond me. I watch him watching Harper slip through the living room. She tilts back her head and with a flick of her wrist empties another shot glass.
Our dog, Kelvin, is howling over by the fireplace. We adopted him not long after our first dog, Calvin, died when my attempt at the Heimlich failed to dislodge a golf ball. That’s Lance, a trader at the Merc, trying to bite poor Kelvin. We grew up together in Ohio, and now here, reconnected in Chicago, our bond recedes with our hairlines. He is invested in a girl who I have never met, cloaking himself in stories of penthouse condos and maybe taking her to Pops for a bottle of Cristal and cheese that smells like a Paris bathroom. Her hair matches my blushed cheeks and she tilts her head and smiles as I walk backwards to the deck. She should be bottled, saved, and opened at just the right moment.
Mel, the girl who is dancing alone and will, most likely, knock over that Miller Lite, is spinning toward me. She has tried thirteen anti-anxiety medications this year alone and takes Ritalin, too. The upper swallows the downer and thus she talks like a Neil Peart drum solo. I shrug and raise my glass, a sip big enough to get me away, on my way to the deck without a word spoken.
The dining room table isn’t really in a dining room. We don’t have a dining room, so it’s behind the couch next to the fireplace. We’d made lists prior to the party, had purchased each of our guests’ drink of choice, hoping to keep them from acting like assholes: Grey Goose, Effen vodka, Crown Royal, Don Julio, Louis Jadot Beaujolais, Miller Lite, and Newcastle; and then the mixers, the lemons and limes, and because we pay attention to the needs of our guests, anchovy and blue cheese-stuffed olives, celery sticks and bitters. We’d ordered food, too, and that’s what sits unwrapped on the dining room table here, Caprese and Greek salads, marguerita pizzas, and they are spread out with bright bowls of chips, guacamole, and hummus. Everything, anything, at any cost to get these people drunk and bloated so that instead of being manic they would drift into that late-night melancholy of a night-out early, 9:30 or 10:00, at which point I’d turn the stereo volume up and let the music take over. Music that I’d queued in specific order onto a play list prior to the party. Neither of us wanted this goddamn party anyway, but we both caved to her parents, we’d shrugged and figured that we’d do this and then break it to them later, inform them that we’ll be getting married on a beach in Mexico. Maybe.
Harper’s younger brother is off in the corner with a group of my work friends, whose words reverb off of his glazed eyes. I acknowledge the refrain with a nod, ‘get away from them they will poison you,’ but he doesn’t notice and instead flicks a bottle cap in the direction of his father’s bald spot. The others continue talking, most likely about hedge funds and angel investors.
The deck is empty and the street is a festival of noise with bars and restaurants and clusters of people I wish I knew. My parents are never late. I call my mother and she answers but her voice rattles. She does not whisper when she yells at my father. “Where are you guys,” I say, and she says, “Your father got us lost.” I had urged them to take a cab from the hotel but these are not people who take cabs. My father is the type who thinks that, despite having been here only once, he can just find it as if it were the only house on the end of a rural Ohio road. “Oh,” my mother says. “Sam, you’re going to love this. We found a great Italian bakery and got you guys a pastry platter. Cannolis, cream puffs, lemon squares. Your friends like desserts, right? Is there anything that I’m missing?” I scrape my fingers hard against my scalp. She says, “Well, I think that it’s just beautiful. Oh, okay. I think we’re on your street now.”
An ash from my third straight American Spirit falls onto my Diesel jeans. I wonder if, along with the other awkward introductions, I, too, will have to extend my hand before them and whisper my name until they recognize the voice. A group of a dozen bikers pulls to the side of the street. One of them lifts his seat, pulls out a small disco ball and holds it up; another turns up his radio and blasts Erasure and they all start dancing. There is an available parking spot in front of them on the right and this is where my father attempts to parallel park his Ford Escort, his left flasher blinking as he backs in.
It was ten days after I moved to Chicago and I was wired. I had never lived alone before and this was the kind of night meant for wine and conversation. I knew nobody, so I turned the stereo up, a play list of songs sung by folks far lonelier than me.
I uncorked a bottle of wine and sat at my computer. A window popped up while I was browsing: free 10-day trial at StrikeAMatch.com.
It took two hours to glorify a profile. I downplayed my profession as a waiter and understated the starving in the line about my aspirations as a musician. I attached the one good picture I had of myself, a room where all but one light had burnt out and me, hunched over my guitar, my hair long and falling across my forehead. I spent the night chatting with one hermaphrodite, a lesbian, three gay men who were looking for a fourth, a stripper, a mother, a couple of swingers, and a girl named Harper whose profile matched mine 94%.
We chatted for days, falsifying interests, telling stories, debating religion, politics, music, our families, and then she told me that she worked at a coffee house in Evanston, to stop by one day.
Harper was a graduate art student at Northwestern. She was hunched over a book when I walked into the coffee house, closing silent the door behind me as not to interrupt her. I’d worn the same beaded necklace for years on which my favorite guitar pick hung, and as I stood there, watching her, I rolled the pick between two fingers. She spun curls with her skinny finger and chewed little impressions into her bottom lip. She was tan, looked more Spanish than Jewish. I said a soft hello and when she looked up at me with that crooked smile and the little dimples that dented her cheeks it was obvious that she’d heard me come in.
It was the coffee house’s inaugural open-mike night, planned on my behalf. She’d pushed aside the couches and tables for a makeshift stage in the corner. An hour in, though, and Harper and I were the only two there and so she said I might as well play for her, why not.
I played four songs, one comprised of sharp guitar riffs with chromatic movements and the others more lyrical, more rhythmic, and then she walked out from behind the counter and hugged me. Just like that. She wore a pansy cotton shirt with little pleats and it ruffled up around her neck. Her embrace was soft and her full hair fell in curls against my neck. It tickled and I shivered, tilting my head a bit toward her shoulder. She had one of those scents that memory sponges up, a blend of lotions and lavender and coffee, the kind of smell that’ll make you stop and remember the past with even the faintest whiff.
My mother’s palm has been ironing the curtain in the corner for an hour now and she is smiling with a clenched jaw at Harper’s mother. My father is slouching over the couch and forcing double-A batteries into his camera for the fourth time in twenty minutes. I took him, upon request, to the coop around the corner this morning, when they’d driven over from their AAA-approved downtown hotel to pick me up for breakfast. I’d given a dollar to Nads, the bum sitting on the front stoop of our four-flat, and in return my father gave me his lecture on economics and the value of frugality. He then bought the package that said “Batteries,” which came with eight for $5.79; the package of Energizers only came with four for $6.79. In passing, I say to him now, “You know, Dad. These batteries are cheap for a reason,” to which he shakes his head, slaps the underside of the camera, and tells me the camera is broken. He stands up straight, which for him is still a bit of a slouch, and he tucks his palm tree shirt in as far as it goes, his little home-cooked Midwestern belly leaning out over his rope belt, looking everywhere but at me. Pointing at the table, he says, “You really should tell people about this food.”
Harper’s mother says to my mother, “Well, your son signed a contract that he’d never take my daughter away. They’re never moving. Isn’t that right, Sammy?”
I shrug and pour vodka down my throat.
She says, “But it’s okay. You already have three grandchildren, right Mrs. Murphy?”
My mother’s shoulders curl up and around like a turtleneck sweater. I cringe, watching her teeth grind against her lip, waiting, just waiting to see that trickle of blood. “Oh, please. Joan. Call me Joan.”
Harper’s mother winks, says, “Right, Joan? You already have three grandchildren. We’ve got none.” She’s kidding, thinking that the reference to my mother’s grandchildren will create intimacy between them.
My mother laughs, too, three distinct guttural sounds that trail into a frown.
Here is Harper twirling her wine glass between two fingers as she slides across the hardwood as if on skates. I whisper to her, “I need help here, sugar. I’m serious. I’m dying out here. And anyway, where have you been?”
She licks my neck and fumbles with my fingers, trying to intertwine them with hers, until I grab her hand and walk toward the long hall to our bedroom. My friend Ivan, a Russian-born but Americanized 6’7” documentary filmmaker who drinks Crown Royal with Coke, is breakdancing, doing rubber-bands, his hand holding his weight as he kicks his legs up and waxes the floor with a spin of his palm. Mel is leaning over, too, talking at him. When we’re further down the hall, out of sight, there is a crash and a shatter, that antique-looking lamp, most likely, the one we’d bought from Home Depot for our first place in Wrigleyville.
In the bedroom now and she is swaying so that her hair blows back and forth across her shoulders and she leans forward with her champagne smile. “Christ, Harper,” I say, “It’s not even 9:00.”
She brushes my foot with hers and wraps her sleeveless arms around my neck, almost knocking us backwards onto the bed. She smells like tequila.
“Your parents are having fun,” she tries to say. When she starts to sing a song not worthy of my 14,000 song collection, I know that I’m weaving through this night solo.
I kiss her hard and then whisper into her eye. She nudges my shoulder and we walk out and back down the hall, a couple seen together for the first of few times all evening. She walks to the couch, where her friends are gathered around and pointing at Lance, who is by the fireplace with my father, rehashing childhood football stories, fake throwing a football in my direction the way he fakes everything else in his life.
In the kitchen pouring myself another Goose when someone tugs my sleeve. It’s Mel. She has basil between her front teeth, a dinner most likely urged on by my father, who can’t seem to understand why nobody is eating. Mel’s words and syllables are strung together, unpunctuated things that wind like an unsolvable equation.
“-so uh huh he actually said that and I mean can you believe that someone would do-” she says.
I say, “Hi, Mel. Yeah, that’s cool. I like that.”
Derek and Lisa are sitting on the couch with Kelvin between them, petting in unison the wrong way across the dog's fur. Derek is looking for something, someone, most likely Harper, and Lisa watches Lance fake tackle my father. Kelvin's head leans off the couch and he is looking at me, wishing with me to be anywhere other than here.
The girl who I don’t know is alone browsing my bookshelves. She turns around and notices me noticing her. She waves. She can’t be here with Lance. Something is playing on my stereo and I don’t know what it is. I blush, point at the stereo, and raise my arms in a shrug.
Our mothers are still smiling, judging one another in silence.
Mel is telling a story to Ivan, something about monkeys and popcorn, and she inches closer, her face moving in front of me as I continue to scan the room. Where is Harper?
I nod at Ivan, who is wiping at his forehead with a soggy napkin. He raises an empty glass and it almost scrapes the ceiling. He’s wearing a tight black shirt and jeans, the same thing he always wears. I grab his glass, add ice, and fill it halfway with Crown Royal. Everyone here drinks vodka while the Russian drinks bourbon. Go figure.
"No, no, no," Ivan says to Mel, "it’s an old train robber trick. Like this." With a twist of the wrist, he flashes the napkin and then yanks it back into his palm. "Hey Sammy, you know the Highwayman's Hitch, no?"
I say nothing.
“-so he flicks his wrist whips that rope right back he does, right Sam?”
I say, “Yeah, Mel, that’s cool. I like that.” I had bought my mother Peach Schnapps and made her a drink knowing that she wouldn’t drink it anyway. I mixed it with lemonade, Grenadine, and a splash of orange juice. Now, she lifts the drink to her mouth but doesn’t sip. She chugs.
Ivan thanks me for the drink with a slap to the ass.
“-so the film you’re doing is all about this hitchy hitch thing and train robbers and what not right?”
Harper’s father walks up to the counter and asks me to fill his glass, says, “Hello, son. Do you mind?” A few of Harper’s friends are sitting on the counter, smiling at me. I nod. Harper’s father, sensing the audience, yells, “Give me the Effen Vodka.” When I hand it over to him, he reaches across the counter, grabs me by the shoulders, and gives me a hug.
I notice my own father’s head as it turns away. He listens to Lance, nodding and staring at the hardwood.
My mother is surrounded by Harper’s mother and her friend, as well as one of Harper’s friends. My mother is shrinking.
Even though I hadn’t found a break into the music world yet, Harper and I went about our courtship as if I had. One lucky break and we’d be off and so I wrote songs and she sat back on my couch in that tiny studio apartment of mine, nodding with eyes shut tight, and then later, always later because she never interrupted me when I played, we dreamt on about all of the places that we’d visit when I was finally signed to a major label.
We started to work less and play more. Wake up, make love, eat, make love, play music, drink, make love, play music, drink more, play music, fall asleep. Five-hundred square feet was all that we’d needed in those days.
My father and I are standing by the dining room table. He grabs a tomato from the salad platter and shoves it into his mouth. He almost bites his fingers off. “Sam, you should tell everyone that the food is ready. They don’t know.”
I say, “Dad, really. They’ll find their way and eat at some point.”
He expects them to line up, wait their turn for a go at the buffet line, for us, all of us, to sit together with the music low, laughing and eating together as one big family. He’s waving people over, a makeshift dinner bell. They wave back and keep drinking.
Mel is teaching Harper’s younger brother, a junior in college, how to do the robot. With each movement, a small bit of their drinks spill over the edge and onto the hardwood. My mother has made her way across the room and grabs a roll of paper towels. She says to me, “Someone’s going to slip here, honey,” and then she kneels down and starts cleaning. After each swipe of the paper, a new puddle forms.
The girl who I don’t know is walking toward me now with her hand out and she thanks me for the party. I grab her hand and nod at her. That’s all I do anymore is nod. What is this music? It’s a club mix of something from the eighties, the first clue that it’s not something I’d own. There is a crowd over by the television flailing and bouncing and jumping. My father is motioning counter-clockwise with a half-closed fist, turn it down it says.
She’s so close now and she smells familiar and I shiver. I take a drink, the last it has to offer, and the cold liquid tickles as it flows down the back of my throat. I laugh. I lean in, whisper to her, “We have another deck out back and I’d love to have a smoke. Come with me?” Nobody notices, or maybe everybody does. It doesn’t matter because Harper is still nowhere to be found. “It’s right back there,” I say, pointing down the hall. “I’ll be right there.”
In the master bathroom, I splash cold water on my face, swiping at a few drips that have fallen down my chin. I pull my shirt down a bit, stare at the naked neckline. I comb my fingers through my hair and sigh.
My old guitar pick necklace has lived in a dusty box under the bed since the day I’d gone corporate. I untangle the beads and wrap it around my neck and tie it tight with two hands.
The bills were piling up, the paper changing from white to yellow to red. We’d known one another for three months and we hadn’t spent a night alone since. I’d received a letter one day from the landlord, explaining that my building was being converted to condos and that I’d have to move soon. And so, lying in bed that night we did what we do best as a couple and dreamt up scenarios, carving out a future. By night’s end, we’d convinced one another that we’d take this letter as an opportunity. She was living in a four-bedroom house with a few of her girlfriends. The next day we contacted my landlord, who agreed to allow us to pick a one-bedroom in a building by Wrigley. When Harper couldn’t find a boarder for her room and couldn’t get out of her lease, we moved anyway and added an extra $500.00 a month in collective credit card debt.
I’d quit my job at a Gold Coast restaurant to play free gigs at a small coffee house down the street. Harper had started, and quit, a job working for an architect downtown. We were unemployed and the credit card applications kept coming side-by-side with collection notices and so we were well-fed in our Pottery Barn apartment with exposed brick and ivy exterior, drinking Grey Goose watching recorded shows on our Tivo. I played a Gibson guitar on the screened-in porch and she read magazines and we drank our $5.00 lemonades and iced coffees and when friends came over we fed them fondue and Crème Brulee and top-shelf liquors. We’d hug and throw our heads back in laughter and when everybody was lost in a song I’d grab that red bill from off the desk and hide it with the other stacks.
Six months later we were drowning and borrowing money from our parents and mold was growing in the bathtub from standing water and it was summer so the gnats were chewing away at our skin.
We made love and drank in celebration when we pieced together a rent check. And then it was winter and I was temping and Harper was not and the arctic air off the lake froze us in bed evenings and weekends. We stared at the ceiling and made lists and plans and flow charts. My father was yelling at me daily to get a real job, a corporate job, to make something of myself.
We had no health insurance and so when Harper got pregnant what choice did we have? We didn’t talk about it because what was there to talk about? And so when I came home from work one day a few weeks later and saw the hospital band still tied around her left wrist, we sat silent on the couch together, our knees touching, handing back and forth a bottle of vodka, chain smoking until the ashtray overflowed with the weight of decisions left unsaid.
Later when I grabbed the guitar to ease the mood, she slapped at the fret board and said, “Enough, Sam, okay? That’s enough of that for now, please.” I put it in the closet and sat back down on the couch next to her and we carved our future in cigarette smoke.
We’d suck it up. We’d go get corporate jobs until I had enough money to produce my own record.
The deck is on the back alley. It’s usually quiet back here but tonight there must be a street festival because there is a bluesy-sounding man singing through a speaker. His misery echoes off the dumpsters, cars, and steel balconies. I roll my fingertips across my necklace and grab the pick between thumb and forefinger and start scratching at my neck in rhythm to the hollow alley music. The pavement is ten feet or so beneath me. If I had a rope, I could tie it loose around the deck’s steel, strong enough to get down but loose enough that a simple flick of the wrist could remove the evidence.
I light a Spirit and sit Indian style on the wooden deck. The girl does the same.
“I’m Sam,” I say to her.
Her hair is short, sort of folded across her freckled forehead. She says, “I’m Emma.”
The bluesman settles into a steady refrain. The lyrics of this song are unclear so I make them up in my head:
Hanging there like a promise,
Of what was and what could be,
A rope that dangles
Between you and me
Tangled knots with a quick release,
A highwayman’s hitch,
An end too tight and an end too loose,
And with a yank the bight is gone,
Nothing left between you and me.
I wipe at my mouth with the back of my hand. I close my eyes for a moment and scrape my tongue across the back of my top front teeth. “So I’m sorry,” I say, “but who are you here with?”
She takes a sip of her beer, a Newcastle, and then she starts laughing, leaning forward and her whole body quakes. She slaps at my leg and then her face turns sober as if she hadn’t meant to do that. “Well, I’m kind of not here with anyone? Lance, technically. With him, sort of, but not really, you know?”
I spit an ice cube back into my glass. “Lance? Of course. That’s what I figured.”
“Yeah,” she says picking at the bottom of her platform shoe, “we used to date.”
“Oh,” I said. “Used to date?”
The bluesman is hitting a high note now. Maybe he should find a different street on which to hock his sad songs.
“Yeah, but we’re friends now. It’s cool. It’s been a long time.”
“Yeah,” I say.
She says, “So I get this email yesterday, from Lance? And he says that he’s got this friend who’s having a going-away party for himself? That I should come with him, that he’d love to catch up.”
She watches me, waiting, peeling the label off the bottle. I didn’t speak with Lance; I hadn’t actually spoken with Lance in years. We talk at one another every now and then but never actually converse.
“Oh,” I said, swinging my legs out from under me. My knee brushes hers and so I pull away and we both watch that cat batting at a beer can down in the alley. “So it’s over? With Lance?”
The pick sways when I look down at it. It’s smooth between my two fingers.
“What a funky necklace,” she says.
“It’s the pick I used the first time I played in front of a crowd,” I say. “I’ve been wearing it for years.”
Lance pushes through the door with a rocks glass in each hand. “There you are,” he says. I stand and reach out to grab the drink, but he gives me a look, are you crazy it says, and hands it to Emma, who thanks him while looking at me.
“Anyway,” I say, “We’ll catch up in a bit. Nice meeting you.”
I grab Lance’s drink, swig until it burns, and place it back into his hand.
I walk back inside.
My father had sent me a check for $500.00 to buy a suit and a pair of shoes for my first day of work. Harper was driving me the three miles to the Loop because it was raining and I was too depressed to walk the two blocks to the train. I’d called record companies, producers, and larger venues in desperation looking for that last minute break, to no avail.
My hands were unsteady, folded in my lap. Harper was looking at herself in the rearview mirror, flicking the curls from her forehead. We just passed the Prudential Building, where I was supposed to be in six minutes.
She said, “What if we go get married on a beach in Mexico, how would you like that?”
“In Mexico,” I said. “Okay. Let’s go right now.”
She patted my leg and said no, not right now, but maybe later, in a few months. I asked her why not now, what’s wrong with right this moment. We’ll drive.
“You can’t drive to Mexico,” she said. She spoke as if every word mattered and her forehead was crinkled, which meant that she was getting serious. “Thanks for doing this, honey. I know how hard it is for you to go to an office.”
“Whatever. It’s fine,” I said. There was an itch in my throat and it’d been there for days. “I want us to be happy, to have the life we want. Things will work out. It’ll be temporary. I know it. Something will come through.”
We were at a light now in front of the Sears Tower, pedestrians with their eyes down and hands in their pockets, roaming half-asleep down streets and into another day. I couldn’t be one of them. I slid my foot over toward the gas pedal, get me out of here, but Harper’s knee pushed it away.
She was tired all the time now and every night when we made love she’d moan for a moment and then when we were done and I rolled onto my back, breathing hard, she’d bury her face into my chest and cry until it passed and when she’d curl up beside me I’d caress her blotchy cheeks and kiss away the salt from her lips.
“I’m going home and looking for jobs, I promise, honey. Really,” she said as she slammed her hands against the horn. “And then we’ll move, and get married, and everything will be fine.”
I wished she would cry because that’s when I loved her most, the only times when I felt close to her anymore. I made her a play list the previous night to get her through the day, each song sadder than the one before it so that when I walked through the door later she’d run across the room and burrow into me.
“Of course,” I said. “Mexico it is.”
Her upper lip overlapped her bottom, subtle, and the corners curled into a half grin with each breath, her dimples open closed open closed, as if a team of little miners were digging caves in quicksand. “We’ll walk barefoot and have fires at night and all of our friends will be there, and our families, and we’ll sit around and tell stories.
“And I can play the guitar.”
“Yes, that too.”
When we spoke anymore, this was the conversation we had, the details more colorful and illustrated each time.
I walked into work at 9:13, forty-three minutes late. It was fine because nobody noticed me anyway.
Nobody is eating the goddamn dessert. The icing is melting, the fried dough drying out. My parents are standing together now by the sliding door to the deck with their heads down, a makeshift board meeting. They’d seen enough for one night. Everyone here is a self-indulgent bastard and so when I grab three cannolis, four squares of cheesecake, a lemon square, two cream puffs and squish them into my fist, nobody notices. I throw them into the empty garbage can, the one surrounded by used paper towels, empty beer bottles, and a red-laced shoe that I’d never seen before. In the kitchen, I wash the evidence off my hands.
With my parents now, my mom swaying a bit, she says, “Are you going to open our gift, honey?”
I don’t want to, no, but I can’t say it, so I nod. “Head to the bedroom, Ma. I’ll be right there.”
The front deck is supported by slabs of steel, but everything has its limit. When mine isn’t the weight that sends us all falling, I sigh, a sound that is lost in the smoke and laughter, the familiar voices of a choir yelling in unison. Harper is here, smoking, drinking, laughing as if a guest and not the subject of honor. I raise an eyebrow at her. I do this and it means business, it means anger, it means we need to talk. She hesitates for a moment and I see her, the real Harper, beyond the red tide that clouds her eyes. Choking dogs and blue babies and shells of ourselves crashing to shore. She wipes her cheek with her left hand and in the depth of her diamond there are canyons only we could see. I mouth “I loved you” and our lips form smiles that flicker. The deck smells like sulphur. I walk inside and slide the door closed behind me.
Lisa and Derek are still on the couch. She is picking ice from her glass and he is chewing his thumbnail looking out through the sliding door. Kelvin is gone. Lance and Ivan are arm-wrestling at the kitchen counter. Harper’s brother has found my guitar and he plays Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There for You” while his parents dance, yet another song not worthy of my collection. Mel sits alone against the wall, her hands combing through her hair, face pale. Emma is with the group of girls in the kitchen and she is laughing with them but watching me as I walk. The vodka tells me to wink at her. Emma looks to the floor smiling at that lemon that shouldn’t be there.
In the bedroom my father is shaking one of the gifts. He puts it down when he sees me, says that he was making room on the bed to sit down. Eleven boxes are Pottery Barn, fifteen from Crate and Barrel, three from Williams-Sonoma, and one lunch bag, scribbled on in rainbow beams of crayon by my nieces and nephew. There is pink tissue paper puffing out the sides with a light blue envelope jutting out of it. The vodka is making my eyes water.
My father tugs at his shirt, pulling with his bottom teeth at a hair from his mustache. My mother sifts through her purse. When I was younger, we’d drive hours down South, to Myrtle Beach, the radio off the whole trip. We’d amuse one another. With every passing bridge, we’d say, “Oh no not another one,” or we’d urge my mom to write that state down, there’s another one, a Nebraska, another Pennsylvania. Oooh, Oregon. That’s far. But now it’s different. My sister’s fifteen minutes away from where we grew up and my parents are there every day, or my sister is at their place every day. When they all drive together, what do they say when the car’s plate in front of them reads “Illinois,” or “California?” Do they remember these trips, or do they all sit quiet? This song that now plays in my head, it has no volume button. They can’t hear it and I can’t sing it because I’ve forgotten all of the words.
“There you guys are. Now let me see those grandchildren,” my future mother-in-law says as she enters the bedroom. I call her over as my mother goes for her purse. For now at least I relax. Pictures are the great unifier.
All of my dreams then were lit like offices, hundreds of florescent bulbs shining on my little cubicle, and people spoke in static. This is not my life, I would tell Harper in our fifteen phone conversations a day. She’d gotten a job again, finally, hocking paints to builders who spent more time working on her than on the buildings. Her tone would get soft and she’d tell me that she knew, that it all would change soon.
Our bills were getting paid. We were working harder but we were living in her parents’ basement in the suburbs. We didn’t see our friends. My parents were jealous. We weren’t drinking because in the suburbs everything was a car-ride away, even the mailbox. It was the only moment of suspense each day, the off chance that there was a letter from a record company awaiting me.
We weren’t having sex. We weren’t even talking most of the time.
We went to Ohio that Christmas, her first holiday with my family. The wine at dinner was pink and chilled. We ate ham baked in honey and all carved at it when my cousin told jokes about Jews. My aunt and uncle, the Catholics, they stared at Harper searching for tentacles or horns, and when my cousin asked what it is that Harper’s people did on this day while the rest of the world was celebrating Jesus, I stared at this place these people that day and wondered aloud whether or not ignorance was, in fact, a contagion.
Over coffee and pie, we played board games, a family tradition. When someone asked how we’d met, Harper clutched hard against my thigh. I told them all that we’d met in Lincoln Park when the strings of our kites got tangled. They clutched at their chests and looked at one another, oohs and ahhs, and for a moment we were left alone, just two white elephants sitting together, hand in hand.
I’m sitting on the back deck with my head in my hands when Emma finds me. “You’re not okay, are you?”
I rush through the list of excuses: allergies, smoke in my eyes, dislodged contact lens. Instead, I say no. She sits beside me, our backs against the brick wall, and when our knees touch, neither of us flinch or move.
“As I’m sure you’ve figured by now,” I say, “this wasn’t supposed to be a going-away party.”
Out here, it’s quiet now, the bluesman having called it a night. The moon is a sliver and an autumn chill has claimed the air.
Her shoes belong in a bowling alley; the glitter of her gold eye shadow stretches wide when I brush my palm across her faded jeans, a style having been in, and gone out, two years ago.
“I’m sorry,” I say, pointing at her leg. “It was an ash.”
Her lips pucker together when she smiles. A pout. A challenge. An invitation.
“So, you dated Lance,” I said. “How was that?”
She sighs, her shoulder rising, tilting her head, looking up at me. “You know Lance. Short bursts of passion? Then, poof. I don’t hear from him for two weeks? And then he’ll be back, and it’s all good, and then poof?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Sam?” She has a tongue ring and it gives her a faint lisp when she says my name. I wish she’d say it over and over. “Before? When we talked out here? You didn’t know anything about me? It’s the first you’d heard of me, wasn’t it?”
I can hear voices inside, footsteps. I adjust, move closer to her. “Honestly? Yeah. But you know, Lance and I don’t really talk much anymore. I probably just missed an email or something.”
She grabs one of my smokes and rolls it over and over between her thumb and index finger. “I understand that, I guess?” she says, “I mean, I knew of you. Because Lance used to tell me about you? About how talented you are?”
“No way. He did not,” I say, lighting a match, taking her chin into my hand, not wanting to burn her.
There are two voices at the other side of the sliding glass door. One is Harper’s and the other is Derek, I think, and they’re arguing. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but maybe they’ll come out here, maybe they’ll smell our smoke and hear our laughter, they’ll want to find out who it is.
I say, louder, “You know, I haven’t touched the goddamn guitar in who knows how long.”
Footsteps again, fading.
We exhale smoke at the same moment and stare silent until the little cloud breaks and fades away. “When you ride the train, you listen to music sometimes, right?”
“Of course,” she says. She gives me a look but turns her head quick when I catch it.
A man is pushing a shopping cart through the alley, lifting lids off garbage cans and grabbing what he can. It’s Nads and he waves at us; we wave back.
"You know how sometimes everything just sort of comes together? The train moves at a perfect pace, the sway of the cars in sync with the rhythm of the song and maybe you’ve caught a certain angle of vision so the lights flicker just right, you know?”
“Totally.” She is watching each word as it forms on my lips.
I say, “Yeah, and it’s not too crowded but nobody’s saying anything and everyone looks like a character in a ballad and the lyrics of the song, right, they pull everything together and for this moment, just this moment, you sort of feel this overload of emotion? Everything jammed together and so fucking clear that you don’t know if you should swing open the door and leap from the train or pull everyone together and tell them that it’ll work out for them, that shit just falls together somehow.”
It’s getting colder and I’m shaking. Somehow our fingers have become intertwined.
“There’s this sort of distance,” I say, “No, not distance, I guess. More of a vantage point, kind of watching a memory but live. The kind of distance that you get when something intimate has aged.”
I know by this look that she gives me that she understands and so when the vodka brings us together in a hug, I don’t pull away, I can’t pull away, not out of guilt or discomfort, not even when my own father swings open the door, sees us and says, “Oh, Sam. I’m sorry. Hi. This isn’t the bathroom, is it?”
Money was becoming less and less an issue and so we moved here, back to the city, why not and besides maybe everything would go back to the way it used to be. My eyes burned holes in the pavement at 7:00 am and 7:00 pm on weekdays. I consulted, managed crunched revenues and expenses, reorganized and restructured, compartmentalized and consulted and each week the paycheck grew larger. Harper was happy, an interior designer for a firm in the Merchandise Mart, her paychecks equal to mine. Our sex was like our careers, cold and aggressive.
We were sipping wine on a private deck in Napa, a chilly night, and I proposed with the kind of ring reserved for the glossy pages of a style magazine. We made love in our suite and it was like pinot noir, complex and temperamental, our legs and arms slipping in and out of knots.
A few weeks later when I came home early from work, Derek, Lisa’s husband, was sitting on our couch facing Harper. They’d been deep in conversation, they had to have been. They’d not budged until my shoe clanked against the hardwood and there was something in the way they’d both flinched, in the way that they’d spun around and greeted me with their choreographed smiles. I walked around the couch and placed my palm against her blotchy cheek and the taste on her lips reminded me of childhood vacations at the beach.
And then there was last Saturday and it’s just Lisa and me at the table, small talking, because off in the corner where they think the jukebox hides them Derek is flipping fallen curls off Harper’s forehead and when she laughs, she throws her head back and means it.
Tonight, after the food was delivered and as we were arranging everything on the dining room table moments before the guests were to arrive, I said, “Well then maybe Mexico will fucking have to wait.”
She yanked the aluminum off the Caprese Salad and threw it to the floor. She said, “Yeah, well maybe it wouldn’t have to if you’d realize that it’s never going to happen, Sam. Give up, it’s not coming, nobody is calling. Get over it. Move on.”
“Don’t you dare,” I said, picking a tomato from off the floor, “I don’t want to hear it. It takes time, Harper, don’t you get that?”
“You need to get over it.”
“No,” I said, “because you know what? This is your fault, okay? It’s your fault. You made me get the goddamn job.” I grabbed my shirt and then slapped my left palm against my Diesel jeans. “And you dressed me in this sell-out bullshit, okay?”
“Bullshit, Sam? You couldn’t even find your guitar, it’s been in that closet so long buried under a pile of dust.”
“Fuck you, Harper,” I said. “At least I’m chasing a dream and not someone else’s husband.”
Back in the bedroom now and I’m alone, the door locked behind me. The rainbow crayoned bag is crackling as I pull out and open the card, on which there is a duck and a swan wading through rough waters. Perhaps she’d written in the car, as my father swerved through missed turns, because the handwriting is unsteady, the swirls of the letters exaggerated. “Harper and Sam,” it says, “It’s just so beautiful how you’ve found one another, how your lives ‘tangled,’ haha, together the way they did. We’re so happy for you guys. We love you!” I fold the tissue paper to the sides and pull out the thin white box. I don’t open it, I don’t need to, because I know that’s it’s a Pampered Chef paring knife, a gift based on a conversation that we’d had with her two years prior. I place the knife back in the bag, fluff the paper around it. The vodka is weighing me down and so I sit there, with my head in hands, until the fog passes.
I scrub lipstick and fingerprints from off the shot glasses and then line them up on the counter. I call over the fathers as I pour the Don Julio. Cheers, I don’t say aloud, cheers to the medicated and the lonely, to goodbyes and long journeys, and to this, Harper, our final song. And we clank our glasses and when my father finishes his shot I come around the counter and hug him until he lifts those limp arms and pats at my back.
On the deck with Harper and we’re alone. Her embrace is choking me and her curls are like razors on my cheek. To Derek, who stares at us through the organza, and to anyone else watching we’re two silhouettes embracing, maybe whispering about the future. But here, in her arms, we are aknot waiting to be released. This is how we will talk now because everything at some point becomes past tense.
Back inside someone has turned the volume as high as it goes and the song, it is one of mine. There is a looping guitar riff. The lyrics are building to a high-note sung in the type of vibrato only a smoker could produce as a woman’s voice weaves into the melody, both voices in perfect harmony. There is Lance and he is clutching Lisa, Derek’s wife, and he says to her, “There are so many things I want to say to you right now,” and she leans into him as Derek, her husband, looks over her shoulder out the window at Harper, who stands alone on the deck. And there is Kelvin, our dog, smiling as he sleeps with his head on Mel’s lap, who is fine now with her strung-together syllables, the words an unpunctuated lullaby. There’s Ivan with the bottle of Crown Royal to his lips, a bond too strong to be contained in a rocks glass. Harper’s mother is folded into her husband’s arms as they sway, and my parents, standing side by side in the kitchen eating lemon squares, words not needed after all this time together. Emma is standing next to me now and watching, too, and when the singers close their final note, she leans up and says, “Like that, right?”
I say, “Yes, like that,” and now it’s my turn to push my lips against her ear like a headphone.
At a rest stop somewhere in Colorado, maybe, or Utah, I walk to a payphone, Kelvin panting beside me, to call my mother. When she hears my voice, she says “Thank God” over and over and though I’m not sure whether the exclamations refer to my having left Harper or out of relief that I’m alive and well, it doesn’t matter. At some point, it’s all just semantics.
In the car now and Kelvin is in the passenger seat. He groans, his tail wagging, and only then do I turn to face the road, sliding my foot gently atop the gas pedal. My necklace hangs, tied tight around the rearview mirror, the guitar pick dangling and dancing to the rhythm of the road.