Friday, March 13, 2009

Chapter 23...the last one

*Hey y'all. This is the last chapter (see? It's not the Ongoing Saga). I like this ending better than the short story version of this that I wrote...but I still feel like there's something missing from it. I'm not sure what. Anyway, enjoy.*

“Cell phone, keys, wallet, ID, cash,” Lennon recited aloud from her spot on the couch. “Cover-up. Chapstick. Lotion.”

“Got it, got it, got it, got it,” Stacey said from the other side of the main room of their new apartment, head buried in the large purse she carried everywhere.

“Metrocard?” Lennon asked.

“In my wallet,” Stacey sang out.

“Debit card?”

“Got it! All right, I think I’m good. See ya, kids!”

“’Bye,” Lennon and her sister Hikari, who was visiting their apartment for the weekend, called as Stacey ran out of the door. Lennon grabbed the remote and hit the play button.

She’d let Hikari choose the movie, so they were watching Enchanted, which seemed to be her sister’s movie of the moment. Len watched Hikari frown when the girl and the man disagreed and then smile gleefully when the girl bought a pretty dress.

The man and the woman danced, realizing that they loved each other. Hikari went goodly-eyed. Hikari had begun writing recently, shyly showing. Lennon a few short fairytale stories she’d written. Len had read them all wryly, but also quite happily. She loved having anything new to read and having the people around her write anything thrilled her beyond the beyond. For Lennon, who wrote more of her inner thoughts down than voiced them aloud, reading was a way to understand another person’s intimate thoughts and feelings—even in fiction or poetry or lyrics, even when the person swore it was apart from them, some of those beliefs and feelings niggled their way in. Because those stories had sprung out of her sister’s mind, Lennon felt like she was learning her little sister’s personality all over again. Hikari was in a transitional age from believing in princesses and happily ever after to seeing reality. She was thirteen.

Lennon prayed that Hikari would be able to face reality better than she had. And, Lennon admitted to herself, that she’d find her prince someday.

“Boys don’t really do that,” Hikari said with a sigh when the movie ended. “Sweep you away to other places and dance with you and jump on the Empire State Building…”

“Well, some guys will dance with you,” Lennon said. “But think about it: would you want to fall in love with a guy who jumps on the Empire State? Or randomly decides to kidnap you—” She paused. “Well, you know, without asking you.”

Hikari made a face. “No. Lenny, does Gabriel kiss you?”

Not for the last two months, he hasn’t. “Mmmhmm.”

“How do you get a boy to kiss you?”

“Um,” Lennon bit her lip. “Why? Is there a boy you like?” Hikari nodded. “You know, Kari, it just happens. If you like a boy and he likes you and you spend time together, it’ll happen. Don’t let it get you down if it doesn’t, ok?”
----------------
Len and Stacey lived in a small two-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a brick building in Hoboken, New Jersey. From the end of their block, Manhattan’s skyline was visible, the skyscrapers dominating the night with lights. Lennon loved looking at the view, the majesty of her city, the power and strength and hard-edged beauty of it. But she was glad she didn’t have to live there. New Yorkers chuckled cynically among themselves about people who weren’t cut out for the city. Lennon would never put herself in that category of people, for she knew how to navigate the place. But the river gave her a mental separation from the bustle. It let her hold onto the peace she’d come home with from Missouri.

Stacey had gotten a day job as a telemarketer, where, she said, she acted every minute of the day because she had to be chirpy and cheerful, professional, and not take hang-ups personally. She’d auditioned for shows and had gotten a small part in an off-off Broadway black box theater. Where, Stacey confided in Lennon, the harried stage manager was awfully handsome.

Len had raised a mental eyebrow, not bothering to remind Stacey about her “single time.” Stacey felt that going after her stage manager right now would be a little too “showmance” and nothing beyond flirting had happened yet. “Yet,” of course, being the operative word.

Lennon returned from dropping her sister back at her house—no, wait, her parents’ house—and dropped her keys on the table by the door. The apartment had a lived-in feel—a euphemism for “a little sloppy”—but it was cozy. They’d combined Stacey’s ideal modern style of black and white and sparseness with Lennon’s taste in color and comfort cheaply. Which wasn’t hard, because they couldn’t afford a ton of furniture or appliances, so the place looked minimalist anyway.

Stacey was rehearsing tonight. The large main room, which included a kitchen and a round table with four mismatched chairs that served as the dining table, was a modern, open space. There was a tiny foyer area around the door, where they’d stuck an upright, podium-like table. A molded archway separated the door from the rest of the main area. The kitchen had a tiled floor with tiles missing and cracking. The stove, sink and counter space took up one side of the main room. The fridge was further in and the dining table was arranged in the middle of an open portion of the room, at the back of the apartment, near the window.

They had a blue couch—her pick—and a bright, flowery rug covering the rough patches on a wood floor that had seen better days. The TV sat atop a stand that Lennon had taken from her parents’ basement.
There were three rooms sprouting off of the main one. The bathroom door was on the kitchen side of the apartment; a small, windowless room nestled behind the kitchen. Stacey’s door was on the same side, but her door opened off of the dining area
and had a window in front.

Lennon’s room was on the living room side, her door opening off of the other side of the dining table. Without turning the light on, Lennon located a stack of papers on her desk.

She’d found a job as an administrative assistant at a literary agency. Her job mostly consisted of answering phones, but Lennon covertly took notes on how to get an agent. The information would be useful one day.

Winning the short story contest online had spurred her to write more shorts. She had several more in various stages of writing, all of which were shown to a writing group she attended a few times a week. It was a virtual thing, every piece posted on a forum online, but it did the trick. The authors on the site were varied. Some of them had recently begun writing and found that they had a knack for it. Others were ready to submit completed works into the world, but wanted feedback and polishing before they did so. Others weren’t ready to submit, but like Lennon, had been writing for countless numbers of years and needed an outlet and people to read their stuff.

It was her job to read each piece, every last one of them as individual as their creators, and sit with them, posting her own comments on the forum. They got into involved discussions on there and she thoroughly enjoyed them. It wasn’t any different from what she’d done in college workshops. It wasn’t any different from what she’d do if she were an MFA in Creative Writing student. At least, this way, she was being paid back in kind. The group was generous with their comments and encouraging. Perhaps it was the veiled anonymity of being online that let Lennon be more comfortable and frank and her quirky, sometimes crude self come through on the forum. Whatever it was, she felt like herself online.

Lennon liked to print out what she could and read them on paper. She looked at a computer screen throughout the day at work and her eyes needed something softer to read off of. So she spread the papers out on the kitchen table, sat with a cup of tea and went through the ones she hadn’t read yet. There was never a danger of starving for new reading material. She was in the middle of writing a detailed comment on one chapter of someone’s book to post later when her phone buzzed beside her.

“Hello?”

“Hi baby,” Gabriel’s voice filtered through the phone.

Len put her pen down. “Hi.” She checked the microwave oven for the time. “Did you just get off stage?”

“Yeah, yeah. It was a good set. Little crazy though.”

“What happened?”

“Um. I kind of got a bra thrown at me.”

Lennon burst into cackles. “You what? That’s random.”

“I need to go wash my damn face. It hit me in the forehead and we looked at it after and…yeah, it’s not the newest of bras.”
Lennon continued laughing. “I’m glad this is amusing you.”

“I’m picturing this right now. You, up there all serious with your guitar. Probably with your mouth open, singing, and a bra plops you in the forehead.” She wiped tears from her eyes. “How was the set beyond that?”

“Pretty good. We tallied up. The album’s sold two thousand copies.”

“That’s fantastic!”

“We have to get more shipped to sell. What are you up to?”

“Giving feedback.”

“What are you wearing? Flannel or Sgt. Pepper?”

Lennon glanced down at herself. “Both, actually. How do you do that?”

Gabriel chuckled. “You’re grading. Why dress up for it?”

“True. And it’s not grading, it’s ‘discussing.’”

Gabriel laughed. “To quote Lennon McKinney, ‘It feels like grading if it sucks’.” She heard voices in the background and heard a door shut. “So…”

“Yeah?”

“Another two weeks,” Gabriel mentioned.

Lennon smiled. “I can’t wait.”
-----------------------------------------
She pulled her Missouri cap snug over her head so that he could spot her. Of the baseball caps Lennon saw at the Arrivals gate in this terminal of Newark-Liberty Airport, none of them had Missouri stitched into them, especially in gold.

Just as she’d planned, the hat helped him find her. They gazed at each other for a few moments before she jumped up and his hands automatically caught her around the waist and held her up. They kissed, but she kept an eye open, peering behind him to keep his guitar case in view. It was part of his reason for being here. He had writing sessions set up with distant contacts and friends alike for the next two and a half weeks; this project, he was determined, was going to be his own.

“Nice hat,” he remarked once they pulled away from each other for a moment. “God, it’s so good to see you.” He slid her down to the floor.

She took in the sight of him, slightly disheveled from the flight. He wore jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt. “You look…”

“Exactly like I did on the webcam two days ago,” Gabriel grinned. “’Cept with more stubble.” He picked up his guitar case in one hand, laced their fingers together with his other hand and walked toward baggage claim.

Gabriel almost asked her for the car keys. Lennon could see it in his eyes. He was used to driving, particularly with his girlfriends. As they trekked out into the parking lot and she unlocked the driver’s door, she almost considered letting him drive.

Then again, he didn’t know where he was going in New Jersey. She opened the trunk and he put his bags and his guitar in and shut it.

“Are you ready?” She asked, watching him sit down, close the passenger door and drag the seatbelt around him.

“Is this my first time driving with you?” He asked. “It is, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Lennon confirmed, sticking the keys in the ignition. “I have not picked up any Jersey driving habits, so don’t worry.”

“Yet. You’ve lived here for two months.”

“Hush,” she said sweetly, turning the keys and starting the engine. “Let’s remember that I did a majority of my driving in Missouri. And you all are very courteous drivers.”

Gabriel chuckled. “All right, I’m braced.” Her eyes bulged out at him, half jokingly. He reached over the console for her hand. “I’m kidding. I trust you. A lot. Let’s go.”

Since the trip back to Hoboken from the airport didn’t include the New Jersey Turnpike, Lennon didn’t get to show Gabriel the full extent of the worst driving in the country.

“Holy shit,” Gabriel muttered as the car in front of them spun wildly in order to make a U-turn on a local street in Hoboken. Lennon braked suddenly and honked the horn, once, to get her point across.

“Asshole,” she mumbled. When she was able to pass the other car, Lennon said, “Look up. You might be able to see the Hudson on this next street.”

Sure enough, up ahead, the murky waters of the Hudson River were visible. It was a clear April day and Manhattan’s buildings were gleaming in the sunlight. No clouds were visible to mar the view today. Under blue skies, the skyscrapers gleamed and the stone buildings, which usually looked so dreary to Lennon, seemed full of life. She felt that it was an auspicious day to introduce her city to her boyfriend.

“Wow,” he said. “Lennon’s natural habitat.”

Lennon opened the door to her small bedroom, leading Gabriel in to put his stuff down. She waved her arm around, indicating her bed, desk, dresser and a wire shelf. A flier that Gabe had scanned and emailed to her from one of his recent solo shows was taped to the wall near her bed. She had framed photos in one long six-foot high column along one wall. It gave the white-walled room some color. He’d seen the entire room already via the grainy images over a webcam, but the pictures were hard to make out.

“Is that Madeline?” Gabriel asked, pointing to the second photo from the top. “And that’s Nadine, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And Hikari.”

“The webcam hijacker. Yeah.”

“Your sister is so cute,” he said. “Much, much cuter than Gerry or Sam. They’re annoying.”

“Said like a true older brother,” Lennon replied. “Did Gerry decide where he’s going for college, finally?”

“Your alma mater.”

“No!” Lennon gasped. “Really? Boston?”

“Boston. He decided against Mizzou.” Gabriel shrugged. “He’ll be fine. It’ll be good for him. I think.”

They spent the afternoon lazily. She identified all the people and events in her column of photos for him: two graduations, the time she and Jack had painted their cheeks with green shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day, Lennon’s First Communion, Stacey with caked-on stage makeup after a show in college. She teased him for thinking that the picture of her on top of the Empire State Building was actually flattering because in reality, it had been as windy as fuck up there and it was obvious in her blown around hair and the stunned expression on her face.

“Is it really uninteresting that I want to go up there?” Gabriel asked, lying on her bed. Lennon was curled onto her desk chair.

“No. We’ll go. What else do you want to do? Where are your writing sessions at?”

“East Village, Lower East Side, Astoria. I have a jumble of music and lyrics. We’ll see what these guys can throw at me.”

“You’ll surprise yourself for sure, songwriting with new people. People who aren’t named Seb.”

A corner of his mouth lifted in a half-smile. Len’s hostility toward Seb remained unwavering. He turned to the pictures again.
“Where did that one come from?” He asked, looking at the picture below the windblown look. “That is pixilated.”

“Stacey took it on her phone,” Lennon explained. “That’s actually us, if you can make it out.” He sat up and studied the picture for a few quiet minutes.

“Can I steal this for a song?” He asked. “I’ll bring it back, I swear.”

She nodded. He sprawled across the double bed on his belly and yawned, his head now placed near the foot of the bed, where she sat in her chair.

“Take a nap, sweetie,” Len said, reaching out and rubbing his head, stroking back his hair.

“It’s really because you want to nap,” Gabriel muttered, eyes fluttering closed. Len crawled to the empty space beside him. “I missed you.” He flipped onto his back and drew her around him like ivy over a wall.

“I missed you, too,” she whispered. “I never really gave the long distance relationship thing much thought before.” He let out a long, hearty sigh in agreement.

Closing her eyes, letting the light breeze wafting through her window cool her body down, Lennon listened to Gabriel’s breathing as it evened out. His heart beat against her hand. She let any tension she held out of her back and neck and all of the other places she clenched in her anxious feelings. They had today and tomorrow and the next two and a half weeks. Beyond that—well, who knew? She’d picked up and moved to the Midwest once already. There was nothing, really, to prevent her from doing that again at a later date, only this time to a city out there. If his writing sessions went well, he could come out here to meet with people more or to perform or record...
As she fell into a deeper sleep, Lennon heard in her mind, Hey, it’s not ideal, it is what it is—you have to make the best of it is all. See the best in it.
Oh, yeah?
Yeah. You know that boy you’re snuggled into? You might feel alone—we’re all fucking alone—but he’s there with you, kid. How did you get him?
Oh, shut up. You know how I got him. It wasn’t exactly easy.
Well, no one would dare accuse you of being easy. Ain’t it worth it though?
A little struggle for self-assurance and patience and a really great guy to boot? I’d say so, yeah
.

Chapter 22

As far as her bespectacled eyes could see, there was mud: sticky, brown, mucky mud.
After swishing mouthwash around her gums and teeth, combing her hair, washing off the makeup she’d forgotten she had on last night and reapplying eyeliner and coverall, she’d gotten back into last night’s jeans and underwear, took a T-shirt that was definitely too small for Gabe and wore it, leaving her blouse open over it. After swiping on some of Gabe’s deodorant and tying her chaotic hair up tightly, Len joined Gabriel on the front porch.

“Can you get out of that?” She asked him, looking pointedly at his SUV, the wheels stuck.

“I can try,” Gabriel said. He glanced once at her feet. She wore boots, but they were not the mud-walking kind. “Come here.” With one swoop, he picked her up off the wood planks. One arm was under her knees, the other around her shoulders. He stepped off the porch steps, which squeaked under their weight.

Lennon heard Gabe’s boots slush in the mud, a squelching wet sound emanating with every step he took.

“Please don’t drop me,” she begged.

“I won’t,” he answered. “See? I’m walking carefully. Sloshing through mud with a hundred pounds of girlfriend in my arms.” Moving a foot forward, he wobbled as the ground swallowed his foot, sinking down. Lennon tightened an arm around his shoulder. She shut her eyes and waited to feel mud splatter her coat and hat less head.

Gabriel laughed. She could feel the laugh begin in his belly, even through both of their layers and heavy coats.

“You’re such an ass,” she said, smacking the back of his head gently and imperceptibly. “Boyfriend. Oh, my God. I have a boyfriend.” That was going to take a little getting used to. Even saying it aloud felt strange.

“Don’t sound so pleased about it,” Gabe replied, a teasing grin crossing his face. “It’s not that much different from what we’ve been like. Except we have a term for ourselves instead of, ‘Lucy, my friend…girl I like…muse…person...’ How did you explain me to your friends?”

“Gabriel…guy I hooked up with…turned him down and regretted it.”

He stopped slogging through. “You didn’t turn me down, not really. Don’t dwell. Believe me. It doesn’t do you any good.” He moved forward again. “No reason to, now. We’ve kissed, groped, rolled around in the grass, spent a night, spent way too much time on the phone, and in the future, I will attempt to take off your clothes when you’re not looking.”

“I like that you can pick me up,” she said softly.

“Yeah?” He leaned in and kissed the tip of her nose. “Here, sit on the hood for a sec.” The arm holding her knees dropped away, letting her feet perch on the front bumper. Lennon wiggled her butt up the hood a little bit. Gabriel regarded her for a few seconds. His eyes darkened.

“If Gerry’s window didn’t face the front…” She could read the thoughts crossing his mind on his face and voiced them. “And if it wasn’t January in Missouri…” She added.

“Hmm. You can read me like a book.”

“You’re not that hard to figure out, Gabriel.”

“Yeah? Neither are you, Len." Leaning toward her lap, he joked, "How do you feel about frostbite?”
--------------------
She had an idea. That was all it took for Lennon to try to find a pen in her crowded purse and finger through her pocket planner, looking for a blank page in the back.

Gabriel was driving them to Kansas City and they were currently on the rather bland Route 65. Afternoon traffic was “light.” Lennon saw maybe two other cars on the road. The January sun, unseasonably clear and strong, filtered in through the windows and warmed up the truck so that Len had slipped out of her heels and propped her feet up low on the dashboard. He glanced over at her as she filed between her wallet, cell phone, keys and a pack of gum in search of a pen.

“Len?”

He had a pen in his hand, pointing in her direction. She took it from him and flashed him a grateful look.

“Thank you, Gabe.”

He changed lanes on Route 65, headed toward I-70. He drove as if it were second nature, which it probably was considering that he’d been driving since he was fifteen. One big hand was curled around the wheel, while the other adjusted the heat. Len bent her head and wrote.

“It’s the song that was playing,” she finally spoke, still writing.

“Coldplay?”

“Stacey loves them.”

“Are you going to be able to read that later?” Gabriel asked after several minutes of silence.

Lennon laughed, turning the page. Her script was cramped to fit the page and scribbling in a car on a highway wasn’t ideal. “I hope so. It might be good.”
-------------------------------
“So where does your mother think you’ve been for the last two days?” Lennon asked Gabriel, whose head rested against her breasts. The two were entangled—Lennon wearing an oversized T-shirt, Gabriel in only his boxers—under two blankets on Lennon’s narrow bed in Stacey’s extra room. The tall lamp that came with the apartment illuminated the empty room softly. And empty it was. All the room contained was furniture and Lennon’s bag, which she’d hurriedly closed the moment Gabriel set foot into the room. There was no need for him to see the now-wrinkled panties she’d stuck in there in New York.

Gabriel laughed. She felt the warm air tickle through her shirt. “Oh, she knows where I’ve been. It’s Landslide. They all know.”

“Do they?”

His eyes met hers. “Does that bother you?”

“No. I mean, we’re not doing what they probably assume we’re doing.” She bit her lip. “Not yet anyway.”

Gabriel laughed into her chest. “Patience, Lucy.”

“I don’t have any, Gabriel.”

“You keep saying that. You’re more patient than you think you are.”

“You haven’t seen me in my natural habitat.”

“Oh, yeah, the exotic Lennon. Native to Queens. You can pick her out by her round ass, her boobs and her dark hair. Deceptively small. Highly intelligent and highly deprecating. May incite terror in the male species.”

“You fucker!” She cracked up, tears leaking out of her eyes as she shook with laughter.

“Ooh, she cursed at me,” he remarked. Blue eyes glittering, he urged, “Say that again.”

“What? Fucker?”

“Fuck, yes,” he groaned. She felt him smirk into her shirt. “Little Gabe is satisfied with that response.”

“Little Lennon isn’t.”

“Baby, you can’t personify your genitals.” His hand moved to her right thigh. “Your boobs on the other hand…”

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Chapter 21 (2 left)

Once up in Gabriel’s room, he rooted through a dresser drawer and threw her a scrunched-up T-shirt. Ironing it out on the bed with her hands, Lennon let out a laugh.

It was a black shirt and while it probably fit Gabriel fine, it would cover Lennon down to her thighs. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper cover was on the front, in all its insane mish-mash of faces and colors.

Gabriel passed by her, saying, “Let me get the losers settled down and make sure Gerry’s handling his liquor.” He closed the door on his way out.

His room was half-empty, but she could still see relics of Gabriel’s past in there. His high school and college diplomas were prominently displayed on a bookshelf, along with a trophy and a photo of him when he played Little League. She found a framed baby picture of him, crying or yawning, and stored the memory away to tease him about later. The frame had his full name, Gabriel Robert Harris, engraved in intricate cursive. His birthday, which was in April, making him a year, a month and two days older than she was, was written out. His birth weight was also engraved on the frame. Wow, he was a big baby.

Stepping away from the door, Lennon unbuttoned her jeans and bent over to undo the zipper on her high-heeled boots and pulled them off. She shimmed out of her jeans and slipped them down her short legs. She unbuttoned her blouse and slid her arms out of her sleeves, pulling Sgt. Pepper over her head. Yeah, as she’d thought, the shirt covered her to mid-thigh. Reaching under, Len undid her bra and slipped it off. She folded her bra under her blouse and left her clothes in a neat pile on a chair.

Then she unpinned her hair. It fell to about shoulder-length now and curled up at the ends. The waves in her hair used to get on her nerves. She’d thought of it as indecisiveness on the part of her follicles. She liked it now. If she was going to straddle two races and two cultures and several states, then why should her hair be only one type of texture? Lennon shook her head, laughing at herself.

He knocked on the door and waited until she said he could come in.

“Losers settled down?”

He smiled at her crookedly. “Yeah. Two air mattresses in Sam’s room and the pull-out downstairs for the snorer.” He glanced down at her bare legs. “Are you cold? Do you want shorts or something?”

“Nah, I’m fine,” Lennon replied.

“You cut your hair,” Gabriel said, still standing close to the door. He fiddled around with his lamp, twisting the “on” knob. The light came on after a minute of his fidgeting with it, so he flipped off the overhead, engulfing the room in half-lit, gray light.

“Around Thanksgiving. Had to look presentable for the McKinney torture fest,” Len said. They stood on opposite sides of the room, staring at each other. Shadows crossed his face and his eyes were hidden.

“We’re ridiculous, aren’t we?” Gabriel finally said.

“Kind of,” she acknowledged. “When did we get so awkward with each other?”

“I wish I knew,” he said, walking toward the dresser. His fingers moved to the buttons on his shirt. “You know, maybe I should’ve taken you out to dinner or something before I kidnapped you.”

She sat on the bed, covering her legs with the comforter. He pulled the shirt off, revealing his back to her.

“This works for me,” Lennon muttered.

Gabriel looked at her over his shoulder. “Perv.”

“Dork,” she shot back. His belt slid out from around his slacks and dropped to the floor, the buckle clanging on the wood. “Is it still raining?”

“Yeah. The mud tomorrow will be interesting.”

“Maybe they should change the name of the town from Landslide to Mudslide.” The slacks came down next. “Aw. Bugs Bunny boxers!” My God, he has a cute ass.

“They were clean, all right?” Gabriel joked. He pulled out a worn t-shirt from an open drawer. He tugged it on. She thought he was purposefully flexing his arms, but she wasn’t about to complain.

“So. Hi.”

“Hi,” Len replied. “Are you tired, ‘cause I’m not. Not really.”

“You’re such a night owl. Every time I emailed at, like, two am, you’d respond back immediately.”

“Yup. And two am here is three am in New York.” She shrugged. “I’m kind of an insomniac.”

He crawled up the bed and sat beside her. “Be a bartender. You already work last call hours.” He reached for the top of the covers and shoved his awfully pale legs underneath.

“We match in paleness.”

“Ya think?” He held his left arm out straight and indicated her to do the same with her right arm. “God, Lucy, see the sun much?”

She playfully smacked his chest with the back of her hand.

“All right, so drink slinger is out. What are you going to do, babe?”

“I have no fucking idea,” Len replied after a few seconds. “I could freelance. I’m proofing a friend’s book when I go back. She’s paying me twenty-five an hour and it’s five hundred pages long.”

“Good start. You could teach.” Seeing her face, Gabriel hastened to add, “You know, like writing or something. Get Gerry to show you his latest stuff. It’s got so much more dimension to it. Because of you.”

“Let’s face it. With a name like Lennon, it’s either writer, groupie, musician or porn star.”

Gabriel burst into laughter, burying his face in his heads. Len chuckled, too, watching his shoulder shake as he continued laughing.

“It wasn’t that funny,” she interjected.

“Trying to picture you as a porn star kind of is.” He peered up at her from between his fingers. “It’d be so, so wrong. But hot.”

She knew that he was gauging her reaction. Lennon didn’t feel embarrassed. Instead she said, “Yeah? The guys in porn…not attractive.”

“I’m not looking at them!” He replied, his eyes running quickly up and down what was visible of her body above the blanket.
--------------------------
“You never told me the whole story with you and Skank,” Lennon said, voice raspy, into the darkness. Buried under blankets and lying on her side, spooned against Gabriel’s chest, Len stretched a foot between his sprawled legs. He twitched a little. Lennon’s feet were small and always cold and Gabriel’s calves were warm.

“I think you can guess the gist of it, right?” Gabriel asked.

“She cheated on you with Seb.”

“Yup,” he sighed.

“How could he?” Len replied, anger in her voice.

“We were on the rocks already,” Gabriel said. “It wouldn’t have lasted that much longer. It already lasted eighteen months and honestly, I didn’t expect to see her after two weeks.”

“Why? Was it a one-night stand that went eighteen months?”

“Pretty much. We met at a show in Evanston. She came up to me. I’d never had a girl like that interested in me, one who was really bold and blunt and…”

“Well-endowed?” She suggested.

“Mmm, yeah. We slept together on our second date. She and Seb flirted incessantly. I didn’t really think much of it. They were friendly. It was easier for me if my girl and my best friend got along, since they were the ones I saw constantly.”

After a long pause, Gabriel continued on. “We were already fighting a lot—had always fought a lot—and while the sex was great, everything else was kind of…not there. All of the times you and I have talked and kidded around and texted and emailed…she and I didn’t have that. And that was all right for a while.”

“How did you find out?”

“There were a lot of whispered phone conversations on both their parts. A lot of nights when she’d suddenly be working—when I knew that she hadn’t made her latest audition or gotten the photo shoot or whatever. At shows, she and Seb would be around each other a lot. She broke up with me right before Christmas that year, told me everything, said she was out of my league, and I came back here.”

“Out of your league? Who the fuck does she think she is?”

“The indie musician thing doesn’t exactly bring in a lot of money.”

“Neither does acting,” Lennon replied. “Did you love her?”

“I thought I did.” Lennon moved her foot. Her sole was warm now, but her toes felt cold. “Lennon, your feet are freezing.”

“They generally are,” she answered, rolling over to face him. “Sorry.”

“I’ll thaw you out. I promise.”
------------------------------
“Do you remember what you said to me before I left?” She asked, more to his clavicle than to his face.

“Yeah.” His eyes opened. She wasn’t sure how she knew they were open—all Len saw was a blur in the dark. “I’m going to take you being beside me right now as a positive indication of something.”

“Do you still—?” Lennon didn’t want to finish her question. What was she going to ask? “Do you still like me?” “Do you still feel the same way?” Screwing up her courage, she went on. “I feel like I’m more…”

“More what?”

“Ready,” she said. “Everything in its own time, right?”

“God, you’re quoting my lyrics…” He brushed a soft kiss on the top of her head and whispered back, “Right. Are you sure?” He rested a hand on her hip.

“Yeah…Yes. I am.” Propping her head up on an arm, she said, “I’m a lot more in control of things now. You needed time to get your head together.”

“I needed time? What about you?”

“We both did, dork.”

“You’re a wise soul, Lucy.”

“I don’t know about that. I…decided to jump off the subway platform.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing. I’ll explain later.”
---------------------------
A few hours later, Lennon cracked her eyes open to the feeling of being watched. She was lying on her back, in a room that was unfamiliar at blurry first glance, and Gabriel was folded beside her, leaning on an elbow, and looking down at her shirt.

“Um…what are you doing?” She asked, voice scratchy.

“Picking out faces,” he replied. “There’s Marlene Dietrich.”

“Did you find Marlon Brando?”

“Mmmhmm. And Poe.”

“Talk about alcoholic writers.”

Gabriel snickered. “And… I can’t tell who that is, ‘cause I’m too busy looking at your breast.”

“You know, they’re not fake,” she said, stretching, causing her back to arch.

“Oh, I know,” he said, eyes following her movements. “It’s one o’clock. Get up. Let’s go to Esme’s.”

“You’re making me get out of bed?” Lennon whined.

“I’m luring you with food, though.” He reached over to the nightstand for something and slipped her glasses onto her ears.

“That’s the same thing Stace used to do in college to get me out of bed on the weekends,” Len recalled.

“Great minds think alike. Come on. Let’s go out on a date.”

“A date?” She giggled.

“Yup. And then, I’ll let you help sort Stacey’s things out. And tomorrow, I’m taking to you to dinner in Sedalia.”

“Oh, are you now?” Lennon replied, pleased that he was making plans. She sat up, one bare leg dangling to the floor. “All right, I accept. Any other plans, Ricky?”

“We have five days. Let’s not waste it.”

Chapter 20

Lennon didn’t expect Landslide to change at all when she drove into the town in the second week of the following January. Stacey’s last performance at the Tallis was coming up in a few days; after that, Stace was moving on to a job in New Jersey.

There was some snow on the ground. Stacey had said there’d been a storm last week and there was no such thing as snow removal in Pettis County. Len drove past the Black Kettle, with its lights on, cars parked out front. A string of Christmas lights—every third bulb seemed to be blown out—hung over the door and fringed the roof of the building.

Lennon turned off the Paved Road onto the narrower, dirt road that led to Stacey’s apartment. Thank goodness no one was behind her because Lennon slowed down to a walking speed. She’d gotten her driver’s license in November, but driving on still iced-over dirt roads in the middle of Missouri was not her forte.

Stacey’s apartment was littered with boxes, half packed in with her possessions. The bigger things—the television, a shelving unit, and a large rug—had been sent to New Hampshire. Other things had been brought back East over Thanksgiving.

“Good Lord, Stacey,” Len said, surveying the living room. “I know you generally pack last minute, but an entire apartment is different from half a dorm room.”

“I know that,” Stacey gave a long-suffering sigh. “Jimmy got me the boxes and took some off to Sedalia, to send them to my parents with UPS, but I can’t afford to ship everything…”

“How much of this do you want me to take back with me?” Len asked.

“Maybe just a bag. Packed really tightly.” Stacey drew back onto the couch with a sigh. “I want these performances to be good. They’re my last here.”

Lennon smiled at her friend. “How’s Jim?”

“He’s wonderful. We’re not dating though.”

“You’re not?”

“No. You know that single period I’ve been talking about forever? Getting a little me time without a guy around?” Stacey shrugged. “I decided to do that. We’re very good friends. Like you and Gabriel. How is he?”

“Haven’t talked to him in about a week. He said something about shows coming up. They’re selling the album at them, but I can’t remember if Gabriel told me where they’re playing.” Lennon furrowed her brow in thought.

“Maybe in Chicago?”

“Probably. I see that nothing’s changed in town.”

“Except for the Christmas lights. The Tallis roped up all the trees around the theater with white lights. Like the ones they used to put up on Comm. Ave.”

“I always loved those lights,” Lennon said. “It was the best thing about winter in Boston.”

“And the Frog Pond opening up for ice skating…and the three feet of Nor’easter on the ground.” The girls pulled faces at one another.
-------------------------

Lennon was allowed to see Stacey’s dress rehearsal, but not wanting to spoil the musical for herself—it was an original and Lennon only knew that it was a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—she wandered through the cavernous theater instead.

Some of the makeup girls were around, preparing for tomorrow’s opening night. Someone, somewhere, was probably curled into a chair or on the floor, learning his or her lines.

And she heard drums as she passed the rehearsal room.

Lennon peered in, wondering if her ears were tricking her. They weren’t. She saw a drum kit and a tattooed young guy with bleach-blond hair sticking up in fifty different directions sitting behind it. Two tall guys had their backs turned to the door, facing their drummer.

“I’m not sure that fill works,” one of them was saying with a sharp Chicago accent. “Don’t you think, Gabe?”

Gabriel, who was sitting, looked up. “He only has three measures. The fill doesn’t have to be so choreographed. Let him do his thing.”

So he was back. His hair was shorter, although his bangs had grown out a little. His face was turned away from the door, enough for Lennon to see his profile. She realized how the sight of him was utterly inadequate to talking to him over electronic means. Her chest actually fucking ached looking at him.

Lennon intended to go on her way then, to leave them to their rehearsal with the intention of sending a text to Gabe later, but the sound of a female voice inside the room stopped her.

“Aww, Gabey. And that’s why I think you’re the perfect leader for the group.”

Len stood for a moment, absorbing the cloying tone and the low purr of the woman’s voice. Then she strode away.
-------------------------

“She just belted the shit out of that song,” Gerry Harris said, still in amazement, after the opening night performance. “I didn’t even know Stacey could sing like that.”

Lennon giggled.

“Oh, well, you probably knew she could,” Gerry added.

“Yup,” Len replied. “It’s a good extended note for her to go out on here.”

She was plunged into darkness. Two hands covered her eyes.

“Guess who.”

Gabriel. She knew that instantly.

“Gabriel.” He turned her around to face his button-down shirt. “Nice shirt.”

He laughed. “Thanks. How are you?” His arms were around her and she was aware of his hands resting on her lower back. “When did you get in?”

“Two days ago.” Len said. She craned her neck up to look at him. “What are you doing back here?”

“I came home for the holidays, then went back to Chicago. Played a show in KC. Played a show in Minneapolis. Played another show in KC. I’m back for a little while. We have a show in St. Louis in a week and we’re learning new songs.” He shrugged. “Not tending bar.”

“Always a good thing,” Len remarked. “Although you’re a kickass bartender.”

He hugged her. “Thanks, Lucy. Coming from a one, two drink drunk, it means a lot.” She snorted a laugh into his shirt and sniffed him. He smelled like soap and Tide.

She met the other four guys in his band that night, as they stood around the front lobby in a cluster. Seb, Gabriel’s college roommate, was slighter than what Lennon expected. His hair was jet-black, even darker than her hair, and it hung down floppily on the sides and the front. He had piercing light blue eyes and delicate features. His face was covered with a tentative goatee, which was little more than the fuzz that Gerry Harris sported on his cheeks.

It wasn’t long after that she saw the girl: not as tall as Stacey, but with fairly long legs. The girl wasn’t nearly as proportioned. She was taller than Lennon, but her long legs were much thinner and her knees were knobby. Her breasts stuck out like a shelf, out of nowhere, and she had no discernible waist or butt. She was blessed with thick, but heavily bleached curly blonde hair. And she stood much too close to Gabriel.

“The hill, for old times’ sake?” He said a few minutes later as they stepped out of the front doors. “You know Stacey’ll be the last to come out.”

“Are you nuts? It’s freezing out here,” Len shivered for emphasis. “And there’s still snow on the ground.”

“Just for a minute.” She acquiesced and they went up the hill behind the theatre slowly, Gabriel gripping her gloved hand in his. The sparkly, star-like lights wrapped around the trees lit their way.

He dropped to the ground at the crest, uncaring of the snow or the ice, and tugged her down as well. He settled her on his lap, enveloped within his arms and his coat.

Her eyes rolled up to the sky. The stars were always so clear here, the night even darker than in New York. She could gauge how much she’d grown by those stars. She didn’t belong in the constant bustle of New York City, but it was familiar. She didn’t belong here, in the cold, open expanses of central Missouri either. Madeline, in her infinite wisdom, was right. Picking a place to belong to forever, at the age of twenty-three, was too fatalistic.

She belonged to herself. The pieces fit now.

“I’m not with her,” he broke the silence.

“With who?” She asked, thoughts veering away from the stars and the sky and the remaining snow.

“The girl you were glaring at about five minutes ago,” he said. “That would be my ex, who’s now stalking the lead guitarist.”

“You dated that?” She blurted out. “No offense, hon, but I could spot the fake boobs a mile away.”

“Huh. Yeah. And they are. Fake, that is. They’ve officially broken it off.”

“So why’s she here?”

“Fuck knows,” Gabriel said. “She’s in the motel with Seb. The others are staying at my house, but I can’t deal with her.”
Clearing his throat, Gabriel said, “How long are you here for?”

“A week.”

Another beat of silence, followed by, “Will Stacey miss you if I kidnap you for the night?”

“We took her car, so I guess not. “ She threw him a look over her shoulder. “What does this kidnapping entail?”

“Just come home with me. We’ll hang out. Gerry can supervise.”

“Oh, great. Your not-quite-eighteen-year-old brother is going to be our monitor,” she teased. “I’ll come. But let me call Stacey real quick. I don’t want her to worry.”
---------------------------
“So your parents are in Columbia. Are they trying to convince Sam to come home?” Len asked Gabriel much later that night. She stood at a large window in the Harris’ kitchen, looking out into the dark night. They’d heard thunder roll overheard hours ago and now there was lashing rain outside.

Despite that, Seb and the girl—Lennon had been introduced to her by name, but she let it slip her mind—had left about an hour and a half ago for the short, but sure to be water-logged drive to the motel. Gerry and the other three guys were playing video games in the living room, yelling. Len had sat among them and demonstrated how terrible she was at video games before coming in here to seek Gabriel out.

“She came back for the holidays,” Gabriel said, stepping up beside her. “Sammy’s not a one-horse town girl. She’s more of a mid-size city girl.”

“We call those places suburbs where I’m from,” Lennon said with a laugh. “So how come it’s all good for Seb and Skank—” Gabriel laughed, face lighting up in delight and incredulousness. “Oh, what? She’s a skank and he’s a manwhore. And if my supposed best friend slept with you, she and I wouldn’t be on speaking terms. At all.”

“You don’t go by chicks before dicks?”

Lennon threw her head back and laughed. “That only applies in cases where…ok, for example, Stacey and Jim. I am Stacey’s friend. Should she spend all her time with him and forget about me? Or should she at least attempt to spend time with me because I’m her friend and when he’s gone, who’s she going to eat massive amounts of ice cream with?”

“That sounds like the general principles of friendship,” he said. “Are Jim and Stacey…?”

“Undefined,” Lennon replied. They went quiet, the word lingering in the air between them. The rain came down harder. At least the snow would melt; Lennon wondered if there would be flooding and whether the ground could handle the sudden rush.

“Seb and I only talk when necessary.”

“Well, you’re a much more forgiving person than I am,” Lennon replied. “As I was saying, why is it all good for them to go out into the rain and drive off, but I’m still here and it’s like two in the morning?”

“Usually, people who’ve been kidnapped don’t get to choose when to go home.”

“No, really?” Lennon asked, opening her mouth in fake astonishment. “You an experienced kidnapper?”

“Not in my mother’s house,” Gabe laughed. “I want to see the driver’s license. I want proof. You wouldn’t even freaking drive to Wal-Mart a few months ago.”

Rolling her eyes, Lennon reached into her purse, found her wallet and dug out her ID, handing him evidence of her growth. Look what I accomplished, she thought. It’s not much, maybe, but it’s something tangible.

Gabriel flipped the light on and looked at it.

“Whoa. The watermark’s trippy,” he said, holding the card away from the glare. “That’s a startlingly good picture. I look like crap in mine.”

“I’ve lost the big cheeks, compared to my old ID,” Lennon pointed out.

“Well, you’re a woman now,” Gabriel replied, giving the license back. With a tilt of his head, he asked, “Stay? Please?”

Lennon breathed out one word: “Ok.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Chapter 19

“Why did you walk away from him?”

Lennon glanced across the small table to see the aghast expression on Mady’s face—eyes bulging out, mouth formed into a perfect ‘o’ of shock. Alexandra, who was sitting on Lennon’s right, raised her eyebrows, but didn’t look shocked. Nadine was stirring her drink. Etta’s attention was wavering, although she was the one who’d asked the question in the first place.

Lennon grabbed for her cranberry and vodka. Apparently, she was going to need it.

“Do you want another one, Lennon?” Mady asked.

“Yeah. In a sec,” Len replied, downing the one she had in her hand.

The five of them were sitting around a table at the latest chic eatery in Forest Hills, a rare gathering. The dinner was a manifold occasion. It was December, which meant Etta’s birthday was coming around. Christmas was next week and this counted as a holiday gathering. Lennon had completed her certificate program after a hellish finals week. And instead of having to buy each other gifts, a few of them had decided to pool money for a meal a little above their normal range of food.
Which was how they’d ended up sitting around a black varnished rectangular table near the wall, with black benches on one side. The place was trying to be undeniably trendy with moody lighting and well-dressed servers and an assortment of alcoholic beverages. Lennon had ordered a cranberry and vodka because the pink color seemed to the suit the atmosphere.

Etta came back to the conversation she’d begun by asking, “Why did you walk away from him?”

Mady asked the approaching waiter for another drink for Len.

“Because I was leaving in two weeks,” Lennon said, giving the surface answer, hoping that would be the end.

“Oh, yeah. But you liked him, right?”

“Yeah,” Len glanced to the left, hoping that a waiter, who was sure to have a halo surrounding his or her head, would appear with her next drink. All she saw was the couple at the neighboring table.

“And he liked you. So why…”

“So,” Nadine chimed in. “How do you think the Superbowl’s going to stack up, huh?”

Len shot a grateful look across the table to Nadine.
--------

“Oh, my God, I wanted to kick her ass like nobody’s business!” Nadine fumed a half hour later, as she was touching up her face in the restaurant’s restroom mirror. Recognizing the signs of Lennon’s imminent loss of equanimity, Nadine had asked Lennon to accompany her to the restroom. Lennon dried her hands on a paper towel.

“She’s amazingly restrained. Aren’t you, Len?” Mady called from a stall.

“I suppose,” Lennon answered, searching her purse for lip balm. “She was curious.”

“She was prying,” Nadine replied. “Whatever happened with you and Guitar Hero is between you and Guitar Hero. If you want to talk about it, then we’re here, but it’s your life and your business.”

“Huh. So y’all aren’t curious at all?”

“Well, of course we are,” Mady said over the toilet flushing. Lennon heard the stall unlock and the click-click of Mady’s heels on the tiles as she joined them at the sinks.

“But it’s your business,” Nadine reiterated.

Lennon sighed. “You know what, I’ve never had to do this before…”

“Beat up Etta?” Nadine mumbled.

Lennon ignored her. “This whole…potential boyfriend thing. Here’s the deal. I’m an insecure mess and he shouldn’t date that.”

“Yeah, but he’s like two thousand miles away. He won’t know when you’re being an insecure mess,” Nadine reasoned.

“You’re hilarious,” Lennon replied, heavy on the sarcasm. “I don’t want to be the clingy girlfriend, but God, do I want that man so much.”

“Then flash him over the webcam,” Nadine said.

“I’ve got some things of my own to work on.”

“We all do. I’m sure he does, too,” Mady put in.

“Yeah, he does but…you know how some girls become so entangled with their boyfriends that they completely lose their sense of self? Beings that I had to go to Missouri to figure out my sense of self, I’d rather not lose it again.”

“You know,” Nadine remarked, putting her compact back in her purse. “Lennon, you think too much. I think we need to get you drunk.”

Which was exactly what her friends proceeded to do.
----------
Lennon waited on the subway platform, tapping her foot to a non-existent beat. It was late at night and the subway always took a little bit longer to get from place to place after midnight. She forced herself to find that laid-back Midwestern patience she’d acquired over the summer. It wasn’t hard to find. She’d had a few drinks and felt relaxed and happy. All was right with her world at that moment.

With nothing else to do, her eyes roved down to the tracks. She estimated that they were about four or five feet below the platform, but her sense of measurements were shaky when she was sober. There was trash on the tracks: balled-up, wet newsprint, a pink plastic bag, and dirty water. A rat scurried from one side of the track to the other. She followed the rat’s meandering progress as it wove under and over the steel structures down there. She stepped closer to the edge to watch.
The rat gave a broken Corona bottle a wide berth. Gabriel drank Coronas. Lennon knew what would happen if she were to go over the edge of the platform onto the track. She wasn’t tall enough to reach up and pull herself up on her own. She’d need help.

She used to think about what would happen if she stood on her tiptoes on the edge, right where the thick yellow lines warned passengers about being too close. Sometimes those strange thoughts would permeate her dreams and Lennon’s knees would buckle with anxiety in sleep, as if she were really on the edge of a cement subway platform, as if the dirty, messy, dangerous tracks were rising up to meet her as she fell.

On her tiptoes on the edge of the platform, she could both back away and save herself or she could give in to the inevitable loss of balance and fall, gracefully. She’d pick her way into one of the indents on the other side of the tracks and be grateful that there was something there to save her from being plowed over.

She was right on the edge of the precipice when it came to Gabriel. Lennon came to her conclusions as she stood there.

She felt better than she did a few months ago.

She felt more capable, more stable, more independent and optimistic.

She wanted Gabriel. And the latter scared the living crap out of her. But how could she stand not to be with him?
Where had she heard that doing things that scared the crap out of you were good for you? A little trepidation went along with the things one wanted most in life. Or something like that. She was probably remembering it wrong.

Fuckin’ hell. It’s Gabriel. You know Gabriel. You lo—No!

Having that “talk” with Gabriel backstage in Columbia had made her nervous—terribly, terribly so. A case of “be careful what you wish for.” Because it was one thing to wish for something, to wait for it happen, to wait and wait, to resign yourself to the possibility that it would never happen, but then when circumstances granted you that one wish, what happened then? It either didn’t resemble anything it was supposed to be or reality didn’t add up to fantasy.

And Lennon’s fantasies always trumped reality. Or at least she thought so. Many of them made up her mental list of things she hadn’t done yet, a list that had grown much shorter in the last few months. But the list still existed.

And yet, when she woke to find her cheek practically resting on the tent in his pants, she hadn’t been nervous. She’d had a few drinks. She was fascinated, really. Her inhibitions had been swept away in tequila.

And when she finally, finally thought herself to sleep that night in bed, Dream Lennon returned. Dream Lennon jumped off a subway platform to the track with a blissful grin on her face. The scene changed from the dank subway station to behind the Tallis Theatre. And she was no longer jumping to certain death with a train bearing down on her small body, but she was leaping down the hill’s slope.

Gabriel stood at the bottom.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Chapter 18 (5 more to go!)

Lennon heard Hikari above the din of the airport before she spotted her younger sister, who was jumping up and down behind taller people, trying to get her big sister’s attention.

“Hikari-chan!” Lennon called, picking her sister up for a brief moment before putting the preteen down. She was too heavy to lift and her legs dragged and bumped into Lennon’s own.

Jack stood behind Hikari. Under the glare of airport lighting, Jack shone pale, freckles standing out on his face.

“You did not get taller,” Len said to him rudely, looking at him up and down. He seemed taller than what she remembered. His hair even looked more orange-tinged than what she remembered.

“Maybe you shrunk,” he replied, equally rude. “Now Hikari has to get out of your room.”

“Welcome home!” Their parents said, engulfing their eldest in strong hugs.

When the family arrived home, Lennon stood at the doorway to her room and stared into it. Her posters were still on the wall. The picture frames were each in their places. Her books were shelved the way she’d left him, except perhaps a little neater. The mini Louisville Slugger her cousin had brought her after a pilgrimage to Kentucky was in its place of honor on the shelf closest to the door. Her CDs were piled haphazardly, covered by a film of thick dust. That blasted alarm clock was sitting on the dresser, but it was at least an hour ahead. No, wait, she was an hour behind.

Several of Hikari’s favorite DVDs littered the carpet. The girl’s pajamas were strewn on the bed.

“Oh, sorry,” Hikari said, rushing into the room like a twister, grabbing for her pajamas. “You can have your room back. Sorry. I know it’s annoying when I move in.”

“You know, actually, I don’t really care,” Len said honestly. “Why do you like it in here so much better?”

Hikari shrugged. “I don’t know. I just like it better.” She sighed. “Did you find yourself, Lennon?”

Len bit her lip. “I think I did. I found out a lot of things.”
------------
“I don’t know what you’re so stinking cheerful about,” Lennon’s friend Nadine grumbled a week later, as the two girls sat down to lunch in the city. “Summer’s over. Now it’s pointless to try to tan on Rockaway Beach.”

“You’re talking to the wrong person,” Len replied, holding out a pale, but freckled arm. The waiter came by and asked them if they wanted a refill on their sodas. “Yeah, I’ll have another, thanks,” Len replied with a smile. “Maybe I shouldn’t fill up too much on pop…”

“'Pop?’” Nadine repeated, horrified.

Lennon laughed. “I knew that would get you going! Relax. I haven’t gone that Midwestern on you.”
Nadine narrowed her eyes in suspicion.

“Three more months and I’m done,” Lennon said. “I’ll have my certificate.”

“I repeat: why are you cheerful? You hate school.”

She shrugged. “Being productive. Getting things done. It feels good.”

Nadine rolled her eyes.

The next day, Lennon needed to take the subway in to the city to meet with Alexandra. It was an easy subway ride to the Times Square area. Lennon had been riding the subway since she was in junior high school and it had grown to be a normal experience to be in a beat-up, speeding train underground.

Stepping on a Manhattan-bound E train, Lennon found a seat immediately. The doors slid shut and the train lurched into life. She didn’t have to make any transfers on this trip and her stop, 42nd Street, was a fairly large one. It took about forty-five minutes to get to her destination and by that time, Lennon was dying to see something besides dark, gloomy train tunnels and stations and platforms that had seen better days.

The subway ten years ago had made her feel like an adult. Ten months ago, she’d hardly thought of the subway at all; it was how she traveled, imperfectly, from place to place. Ten days ago, she’d driven a car in a small town called Landslide perfectly.
As she waited for Alexandra outside of a movie theater, Lennon peered into her wallet. Her learner’s permit, which would expire in the spring, was in its place behind clear plastic in the center flap of her wallet. She didn’t even look like that girl anymore. In her photo, Lennon still had baby fat in her cheeks and a pouty little frown.

“You really want to do this?” Madeline asked her three days later, as the two sat in Madeline’s car, which was parked along a service lane on Queens Boulevard.

Lennon nodded emphatically. “I’m actually a pretty good driver.”

Mady grinned. “That’s good to hear! Can you handle this?” She pointed out of her window to the mess on the main portion of the road. Queens Boulevard was a highway disguised as a street. In Lennon’s lifetime, it had come to be known as the Boulevard of Death because so many people had been killed trying to cross it.

She swallowed thickly. Here, in Forest Hills, Queens Boulevard was something like twelve to sixteen lanes wide, with traffic coming from every which way.

“Not right now,” Lennon said quickly.

“But you drove on highways in Missouri?”

“Empty, boring highways with nothing on them,” Len said, picking at her nails. “I miss it. This place is a little too busy for me.”
Mady pulled the gear into drive. Then she asked, sounding genuinely curious, “Did you feel like you belonged there, Len?”

“Yes and no,” Len said. “Theater people will adopt anyone. But Landslide is a tiny, tiny town. It’s a farming community. I couldn’t do that forever.” She shrugged off the seriousness of their conversation and said, “I’m a New Yorker. Queens has ruined me for a lot of other places.”

Mady snickered. “You know, I love Queens. But I don’t believe in choosing a place to be forever. It’s too restricting.” Glancing up into her rearview mirror, Mady turned the wheel slightly and began turning out of the spot. “You miss him, don’t you?”

“Yeah…God, Mady, I’m an idiot. I turned him away.”

“Did you have at least a good reason for it?” Mady asked. Her chin rose high to see the end of her car hood.

“I think so.” She had reasons, sure, but they were vague threads. Lennon wasn’t sure if she could voice them aloud.

“Then that’s all that matters.”

School began and she fell into the routine of commuting, studying, and trying to figure out what to do when it was all over.
Lennon had received good grades throughout her education. She liked learning, but the structure of school irritated her, with the stupid rules and deadlines and annoying quizzes and exams. She kept her head down and studied, however, knowing that there was an end in sight soon.

The emails began after Labor Day. Gabe wrote to tell her he was back in Chicago and that he was rooming with his old drummer, who’d agreed to come back into the fold to hammer out new material.

She wrote back, venting her frustrations on how slow the subway seemed to her now and how she’d scheduled a road test, with her brave brother sitting in the backseat as a passenger while Mady and Nadine alternated as the supervisory licensed drivers she needed.

A week later, he sent her a link to a revamped MySpace music page, the band’s, along with his solo one. Lennon spread the links around her small circle of friends. She sent him a CD she’d been listening to a lot a few days later.

In mid-October, Lennon received a CD in the mail with a short letter wrapped around them: “Lucy—Good luck with midterms! Kick ass on press releases—may need one someday. Thought you might want a listen; they’re tentatively going on the album and they’re not posted on MySpace yet. ‘Talk’ to you later. G.”

So she listened to the fifteen tracks contained on the CD over and over again. Some of the songs were harder-edged, loud rock songs and Gabriel wailed out notes that made Lennon smile widely every time she heard them. There were gentler songs, which sometimes brought tears to her eyes and sometimes made her reflective. All fifteen of them made her constant subway commutes easier to bear. Hearing Gabriel’s voice in her ear calmed her.

She forced her friends to listen to his stuff. Hikari heard it often because it was all Lennon listened to for about two weeks. The sisters went around singing his songs. Gabriel’s music traveled up Lennon’s Top 25 Most Played Songs list on Lennon’s iTunes swiftly.

In between everything, Lennon sat up way too late some nights and wrote volumes. She emailed Gabriel a finished piece that she submitted to a web contest for short stories at the end of November. He was the first person she called when she found out she won.

“That is fucking amazing, Lucy!” He said. “Really! I’m so proud.”

“Well, you know, listen to enough of your stuff and it gets a girl writing. I got fifty dollars as a prize,” Lennon told him.

“That’s great,” Gabriel said. “Since you said I inspired this, feel like splitting the money?”

“Hell, no, boy!” They laughed together. “How’s the album?”

“Making progress. I have to get to the day job in a little bit.”

“What’s the current day job?”

“Waiting tables. Studio time’s crazy expensive,” he said. “Even all the tips from the Kettle that I saved haven’t quite covered all of my bills. Rent, food, phone, car, water, heat, electricity, beer…”

“Porn,” Lennon added.

“None of your business,” Gabriel teased.

“Oh, please, you’re a twenty-four-year-old man,” Lennon replied. “I have a nineteen-year-old brother. I know how you think.”

“Oh, do you?” He said, making his voice low and breathy.

“Gabriel!”

He let out a booming laugh. “I miss you. So does Little Gabe.”

“Oh, lord,” she replied with a laugh. “I’m sorry about that, by the way. I’m sorry it was so…awkward.”

“Don’t apologize. I’m the one attached to Little Gabe.”

“And here’s an awkward transition: so, my friend Alex was listening to ‘Shy Girl’ the other day…”

“Your friends must be so tired of listening to my annoying voice,” he said.

“They probably are, but they wouldn’t dare say it to my face. Except Nadine, but she’s honest like that and at least she’s up front about it.”

“Mmm. ‘Shy Girl’?”

“Alex has a theory that that song is about me,” Lennon said.

“It is. I wrote it after you left.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Hence the lyric about having you in my lap and now I’m the one blushing.”

“I don’t blush,” she protested.

“You did around me, babe.”

Chapter 17

“How’s everyone doing tonight?”

And with that, Gabriel kicked off his set. He was alone on stage, standing behind the front center microphone. His electric acoustic guitar was plugged in, the wires pulled out of the way of his feet. A drum kit stood in the darkened background behind him.

It wasn’t terribly crowded in the club, but it wasn’t empty either. Sam, Stacey, Jim and Len sat around a small table. Gerry and Mary stood closer to the stage.

Gabriel strummed out an introduction. It was slow; the chords were low and dark. Sam recognized the song from the first chord and turned to the others, saying, “This is one of his old band’s songs.”

Gabriel had a flexible voice; he slid easily between his upper and lower registers. She’d noticed it at his gig in Landslide. The song was soft and his voice was smooth and deep, with its undercurrent of grit, a hint of a country twang in his inflections. She closed her eyes, listening and absorbing.

The second song started out deliberately quiet, building into Gabriel’s voice wailing sustained high notes. He had his eyes shut tight as he belted out raw, brutally honest lyrics about heartache and lying and betrayal.

Lennon felt stinging in her eyes, watching him. She wondered if he really had experienced everything he sung about. He held himself in a straight but relaxed posture in the spotlight. His fingers placed themselves in the frets precisely without him glancing down even once.

His jeans fit him well, snugly. Even his white T-shirt clung to his chest in the best way possible, showing off those shoulders that she found herself so fixated on. His hair was in its usual disarray. She didn’t know all of the songs he sang, but there was emotion and even some humor as he sang every word.

In other words, Gabriel Harris was a fucking rock star or at least, a super talented musician. He was off stage forty minutes later.

Sam’s phone beeped and she flipped it open. She closed it decisively.

“Len, Gabe wants to see you. Backstage.” Sam raised an amused eyebrow in her direction.

“Backstage” was a misnomer. As Len slipped through the door to the side of the stage, she found herself in a hall with four doors, two on either side. She found him in the first room—glorified broom closet, really— and she poked her head in.

“Ricky?” Len said, walking in. There was a couch and a table. Guitar cases covered the rest of the ratty green-carpeted floor.

Gabe sat on the couch, face flushed pink. He was sweaty, with a telltale smirk on his face.

“I made you cry,” he said.

Lennon debated whether she should be sarcastic or honest. She decided on honest.

“You sing so beautifully,” she said simply.

“You can come in, you know,” he said, patting a spot on the couch beside him. She sat facing him, folding her legs under her. “How do you think it went?”

“Are you crazy? You owned that stage.”

A smile played around his mouth. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” He ran a hand through his hair. His finger crooked, motioning for her to come closer. So she did, settling into his side.

“Sorry. I’m sweaty.”

“You’re fine,” Lennon answered. He ran his fingers through her hair, combing the fine strands. She closed her eyes again and rested her head on top of his shoulder. I think I could fall asleep like this.

“Lucy, what do you think we’re doing exactly?” He said.

“I wish I knew, Ricky. We’re friends, aren’t we?” Len said, biting her lip.

“Not the most platonic of friends,” he said, stroking her back in long, sweeping strokes. She felt simultaneously relaxed and like a deer in the headlights.

“Are you going to stay back here for the rest of the night?” Lennon asked, glancing around, looking out into the hall again.

“Nah,” he said. “Just wanted to talk to you. Without interference.”

“We’ve come to no agreements.”

“No,” he said, voice low. “No, I guess we haven’t.” He turned those intensely blue eyes into hers again. “Let me say one thing. I’m ready for whatever this might be.”

Lennon shook her head and opened her mouth, ready to point out that they only had a few weeks left of being in the same state. And hadn’t he mentioned this morning that he was finally “over” some chick? But Gabriel kept speaking.

“We have this attraction. That’s pretty undeniable.”

“You’re the one,” she said, “who pointed out that you finally got over your resentment for your ex.”

“The point is, I got over it,” Gabe said, standing up suddenly, sitting on the table across from her. “What’s holding you back, huh?”

“Don’t turn this around on me this time, Gabriel,” Len said. Leaning back, her face facing the yellow-stained ceiling, she said in a hushed voice, “You make me nervous.”

“You make me nervous, too.” She took her eyes off the ceiling and looked at him. He doesn’t have a nervous bone in his body. Look what he just did on stage. Shrugging, sighing, Gabriel said, “I’m willing to plunge in if you are.”

She let out a sigh. “I’m not very good at this…whole…thing. As in, I have no romantic experience. That’s why I’m fucking nervous.”

He looked like he didn’t believe her. Arms folded across his chest, Gabe’s eyes questioned as his lips parted in surprise.

“No romantic experience? What does that even mean?” He said. “I knew you weren’t exactly a serial dater or one-night-stand kind of girl, Lennon, but what do you mean by—“

“Nothing,” Len said flatly. “Nada. Zilch. No boyfriend. Ever.”

She stood up, wanting to get away from him and this musty closet of a dressing room. She wanted to drink, sit with her friends—old and new—and forget that she’d let this guy in this far. It only led to heartbreak anyway and frankly, if she wanted heartbreak, real or imagined, Lennon was capable of conjuring it up herself.

Her belly was rolling. Her hands shook. She walked a step, legs feeling leaden. Gabriel’s arm stopped her from getting beyond that first step. He swept her to him, sat her down beside him. Peering through the corner of her eye, she saw him watching her.

Lennon looked him in the eye, near confrontational.

“You’re full of surprises,” he said. “If you’re willing to give this a shot…to give me a shot…”

“Gabe, I would. I want to. You have no idea how much, but…”

“You’re leaving. I know,” he nodded, eyelids sweeping over his irises so that she couldn’t gauge his reaction. “Regardless, you’re the woman I want. And unlike you, I can be really patient.” Sweeping a kiss on her forehead, he whispered, “Just think about it, ok?”

She did think about it, the only one awake besides Gerry, who drove, on the long trip down I-70 back to Landslide. It was late—early—in the morning and once they reached the outer limits of Columbia, there were no streetlights. Gerry slowed down accordingly.

Mary sat in the front passenger seat beside him, head lolling with the movements of the vehicle. In the second row, Stacey’s head was pillowed on her awkwardly placed arm. Jim was veering toward the window.

Beside her, Gabe was asleep, from a combination of exertion onstage and being a little drunk. She heard him snore every few seconds. Her own eyes drooped.

So Lennon did in sleep what she couldn’t conceive of doing when awake. She wiggled as far to the side as she could and had enough room to lie her torso down on the seat, her head pillowed in Gabriel’s lap, facing him.

One of his hands came to rest on her head, gently. That hand shook her awake much, much later.

“Lennon?”

She wrinkled her nose and cracked her eyes open. Her glasses had pressed into her face and she wiggled them a little looser with a finger. Her neck felt stiff. After a moment of trying to remember where she was, she realized that she was facing Gabriel’s belly.

“Do you wanna get up?” He asked, voice scratchy.

“Where are we?”

“At a rest stop,” he yawned. “You’re breathing on my crotch.”

“It’s not my fault your groin is right there,” she replied, turning onto her back as best she could. Her eyes slipped to their right to look at his jeans, out of pure feminine curiosity. The darkness couldn’t quite conceal the bulge a few inches away from her face.

“You look ready to bust out,” she murmured. He leaned his head back on the top of the seat and sighed.

“Stating the obvious,” he whispered. “You wanna get off my lap now?”

She considered it. He was obviously uncomfortable and probably thought she’d freak out because there was an erection mere inches from her face.

“No,” she whispered back, her voice cutting through the quiet in the van. One finger reached up to the button on his jeans. He grabbed her wrist, immobilized her. She sat up, dizzy with drink, reached for her Mizzou cap, which had fallen on the floor, and handed it to him. “You need a minute or are you getting out?”

He snatched the cap out of her hand and covered his fly with it. As the van pulled out of the gas station, Len put her head down on the other side of the seat and stuck her legs onto his lap, careful not to bump the cap away from where he was holding it.

After a few miles and a few deep breaths, Gabriel gave the cap back to her. And he wrapped his hands around her ankles, keeping them away from his body.
--------------------
Two weeks later, Stacey tucked a printed version of a photo into one of Lennon’s bags. Most of Len’s things had already been shipped back to New York and her room had become barer and barer as the end neared.

“I guess that’s it,” Lennon said the night before her flight. She dusted off her palms on her jeans and sighed, stepping over her overstuffed duffel bag. “This is weird.”

Stacey, who was leaning against the doorframe, smiled wanly. “This is weird. I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m going to miss you, too. But hey—you know, I will see you again.”

“Oh, I know that,” Stacey said. “But…I don’t know. It was kind of like college again, living together.” She paused. “Shit, Len, we’re old.”

Lennon burst into laughter. “Yeah, we are.”

“When did I stop pretending to be an adult and actually become one?”

“Speak for yourself. I still feel like a teenager half the time. I’m actually worried about going back to New York.”

“And maybe you’ll find that you don’t feel comfortable there. But, hopefully, you’ll be more comfortable with yourself.”

Wrinkling her nose, Lennon asked, “Been watching Oprah, Stace?”

“Shut up. I gave you a copy of the photo.”

“What photo?”

“From my phone. It’s kind of blurry and pixilated, but I got it off my phone, onto my computer and printed it out. You and Gabriel.”

“Oh,” Len turned away from her friend. “Thank you, Stacey.” Len felt close to crying, felt the physical sensation of tears pooling in her ducts and the bridge of her nose tingling. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve been a fucking river since I’ve been here.”

Stacey enveloped her in a warm, familiar hug. “Better a river than a desert.”

The girls got into Stacey’s car and drove out of town toward Kansas City the next morning. It didn’t faze Lennon too much that she was the one driving, at least until they hit any major highways. Stacey would take over then.

“Why are you pulling over?” Stacey asked.

Lennon put the car into park, then unbuckled her seatbelt. “We have time, right?”

“More than enough. What’s going on?”

“I have to say bye to Gabriel.” Lennon turned to Stacey.

“Well, of course you do. Go!”

She found him as she had so many other times, leaning forward against the bar, eyes downcast. The Black Kettle was completely empty this early. The door banged shut behind her.

“Lennon?” He said, standing up straight. “Aren’t you leaving today?”

“Just now, actually. But, um, we never really…” Her voice faltered. “We never really said goodbye or…”

“I’m not very good at goodbyes. And this is completely inadequate, but see you later?”

She smiled. “That might fit better.” He came around to her side of the bar and held her to him. Her head only reached to the middle of his chest.

“You’re tiny,” he said softly, encircling her waist with his large hands and picking up her off the ground. Len steadied herself with her hands on his shoulders and threw his legs around his waist. “Keep in touch, all right? Do I have all your various numbers and email addresses?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding. At eye level, there was nowhere to hide from him. “You keep in touch, too. When are you going back to Chicago?”

“Next week. Might have a record out by the New Year. We’ll see.”

“That’s exciting.” She smiled.

“Yeah.” Turning his head, he kissed her on the cheek, pecked her on the lips, capturing her bottom lip between his easily, their tongues rolling together for a moment before he pulled away. Then he slowly lowered her to the floor. “Oh, Lucy, don’t cry. Please don’t cry.”

“I can’t help it,” she said, wiping moisture off her bottom lashes.” I was telling Stacey yesterday that I’ve become such a watering pot since I’ve been here,” she said, wiping away a few escaped tears. “Granted, I always was kind of a watering pot, but not, like, recently.”

“Aw, baby,” he said, with a small laugh. He cleared his throat and Lennon secretly thought that his eyes looked pretty shiny, too. “I want you to think about what we talked about, k?”

“I have been.”

“And?”

“I don’t think I should lay anywhere near Little Gabe,” she cracked. He grinned. “Gabe, you deserve a fully formed, confident, intelligent woman. I’m not there yet. I’m just a girl.” Even as she said it, her lip trembled. He touched it with the tip of his index finger as she read the expression on his face, a deep look of somber concentration coming over him.

It was a memory she’d carry with her for a long time and, in the next few months, in the darkest portions of wintry nights, Lennon would burrow her face into her pillow and regret not telling him that he was the only guy she could sincerely see herself being with.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mizzou Columns

A visual companion to Chapter 16:
From the University of Missouri website

Chapter 16

It didn’t escape Gabriel’s attention that Lennon slid away from him slightly. She couldn’t escape him completely; they were in the last row of the van and only had a few inches separating them. Her head was turned to the right, staring blankly out at I-70 as they whizzed by. The highway swung through the entire state of Missouri. Out here, it was only two lanes on either side.

“Len?”

“Hmm?” She turned her head to look at him. “Yeah?”

“When was the last time you were in KC?”

She blew some air out of her mouth, making her loose forelocks blow up into the air for a millisecond. “When I got here. Can’t say I really saw much except the airport and the train station.”

“Columbia’s smaller, but still, it’s a city. Gerry and our sister and I grew up there.”

“Oh, yeah?” Len replied. Her eyes glimmered with some interest and the sides of her mouth relaxed. “I didn’t know that.”

“You never asked,” he replied. “Sam’s in college in CoMo. She’s working.”

“What’s her major?”

“Psych,” Gabriel said. “She’s obviously the practical one in the family.”

“Yeah, the smart one,” Gerry said from his seat, craning his neck back to see them. “Dad had a heart attack when Gabe didn’t become a teacher.”

“Did he really expect you to be a teacher?” Len asked quietly.

“To a point,” Gabe said. “I’d finished my student teaching. I did some assistant teaching stuff at a high school out in the suburbs—”

“In Illinois.”

“Yeah. It obviously didn’t stick,” he replied. “Teaching will always be there, if need be.” Lennon nodded. He leaned toward her, making his seatbelt work, and whispered, “So what’s bothering you? Is it this?”

“Is it what?” she replied.

“This.” He purposely blew warm air into her ear. Her head angled away from his again. “Sorry.”

“You’re not sorry,” she said.

“Yeah, you’re right, I’m not,” Gabriel said playfully. “Baby, what’s wrong?” He trailed a finger down her cheek, but received no answer.

A half-hour later, Lennon spoke to him again, directing a question to him.

“Hey Gabe? Why are there so many billboards for strip clubs?”

“I really don’t know,” he replied. “It’s a boring ass highway otherwise.”

They sailed into Columbia in time for lunch. Lennon’s eyes remained focused on the scenery. From across the seat, Gabriel noticed that she seemed more alert as they snaked through the city on the way to the club, to drop off the equipment. Her head moved to and fro, looking at the unfamiliar place. No matter what she said, Len was an urban girl. She’d be gone soon, back to her real life, and one day, maybe she’d tell her kids stories about the people she met over a summer in rural Missouri.

They stopped at the venue first, where Gerry and Gabriel unloaded guitar cases and an amp into the back of the club. Duty discharged, they had a few hours until Gabriel needed to be back at the club for sound check.

“Where are we meeting Sam?” Gerry asked, once they were back in the car.

“On campus,” Gabriel replied. “By the columns.”

“Columns?” Len repeated.

“You’ll see,” he said.

The University of Missouri, Columbia was a huge campus that took up nearly three miles of land just shy of downtown. Jim parked and they all got out of the car and walked.

There were six graying columns in a row in the middle of the quad. Behind the columns was the edifice of Jesse Hall, with its tall, classical white dome. Jesse Hall was a rambling, colonial-style red-and-white building, classical in its proportions. The main part of the structure, under the dome, branched out into two wings. The dome had a spire on top, poking up into the flawless blue sky.

When Gabriel thought of the word “university,” Jesse Hall came to mind. The quad that the hall faced was large and had paths landscaped through it, with thick green grass growing in the center. The students milling around the quad ignored them, going on with their usual activities. The academic year hadn’t officially started yet and the crowd was thinner than on other visits Gabriel had made. He didn’t see his sister.

Lennon was walking beside him, nearly in step. She was holding a hand above her eyes, blocking the bright August sunlight.

When they stopped on the path near the columns, Len looked up at him and asked about the columns and why they were standing in the middle of the quad.

“They were part of Academic Hall,” Gabriel began, reciting the story by heart. Until he’d broken tradition and went off to the University of Chicago, his entire family had attended Mizzou. His parents had met while attending the university. “The building burned down, but the columns were fine. They left them there as a memorial.”

“That’s because they had room to leave them,” Len said.

“Does your alma mater have anything like that?” He asked. He didn’t know much about Lennon’s college.

“No, no line of ionic columns,” She quipped. “No real campus. But we did have a restored working theater. It’s beautiful. It was red inside with gold molding. You half expect the Phantom of the Opera to appear there.” She smiled. He recognized it as a genuine smile on her part, slow and simmering to appear, with dimples in both cheeks.

“I got to work in there a few times,” Stacey called to them. “That place was beautiful.”

“Did y’all have a quad?” Gerry asked.

“No. But we had the Esplanade and the Common,” Stacey replied. “The Common’s beautiful this time of year.”

“The Swan Boats are out, Stace,” Len said to her friend. Looking up at him, her neck bending back at a sharp angle, Len told him, “The Public Garden has a pond and there are these boats with fake swans on the front and tourists get on them. You know it’s spring when you see those.”

“Or when you almost get run over by the Duck Boats,” Stacey chimed in.

Len kept looking at him, with her neck bent backwards. Her hand came up to her forehead again, acting as a visor.

“You’ll get a crick in your neck doing that, Lucy,” he remarked.

“It’s your fault for being tall,” she flipped back. He slouched first, bent at the knees and slid down to bring him closer to her height. “You dork. You’ll hurt your back.”

He gave her a loud, smacking kiss on the cheek and popped back up to his full height.

“Gerry!” Gabriel heard Sam’s voice calling to them. A moment later, Sam was tackling her younger brother. Samantha was three years older than Gerry, four years younger than Gabriel, and as befitted the middle child, she looked nothing like either of her brothers. Sam’s face was rounder and she had a button nose. But, like Gerry, Sam had long, wavy nearly black hair and like Gabriel, she’d gotten the blue eyes.

Sam let go of Gerry and ran to Gaberiel, throwing her arms around him effusively. “Hey bro!” Standing side by side, Sam’s head came up to above his shoulder.

“Hi Sammy,” he replied, hugging her.

“Who are your friends?” Sam asked him, before turning away. “Jimmy Larkin!”

“Samantha Lee Harris!” Jimmy exclaimed.

“I hear you’re back in Landslide,” Sam said.

“Yup. You’re looking at the new drama teacher at Truman-Landslide High,” Jimmy laughed a little.

“Well, good luck with that,” Sam replied. “Ugh, Landslide.” She pretended to shudder. Sam had left home as soon as she’d been accepted into the university and didn’t return terribly often, even less so than Gabriel did until eight months ago. And Sam lived in the same state. “Hi Mary.”

“Hi Sam,” Mary said quietly, a sweet smile crossing her face.

“Sam, this is Stacey Meissner. She’s a friend and works at the Tallis,” Gabriel introduced the women. “She got the lead for the August show.”

“Oh, wow! That’s so awesome!”

“And this is Lennon McKinney. She runs the Tallis these days.”

“I run it clerically,” Len replied with a smile.

“I run the psych department clerically,” Sam said with a laugh. “All right. Are we getting food or are we getting food?” She spun around and led them all down one of the wide paths out of the quad.

Snaking her arm around his, Sam questioned him, quietly, “Is she your girlfriend?”

“No,” Gabe answered. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Lennon talking to Stacey and Gerry. He heard the crack of her laughter.

“You like her,” Sam said.

“Yeah.”

“Are you sleeping with her?”

“Sammy!”

“What?” Sam asked, irritated. “I love you, Gabe, but you’re a moody bastard when you haven’t gotten any.”

“I’m going to pretend that I’m not having this discussion with my little sister,” Gabriel responded. Sam’s grip on his arm tightened.

“Is she the one?” Sam asked. He glanced down to see her arch an eyebrow in irony. “It’s been, what? Eight, nine months? Nearly a year. That doesn’t qualify as a rebound.”

“Guess not,” Gabe answered.

“Are you over her?”

Licking his lips, he nodded. “I’ve been talking to Seb again, making some plans.”

“Good,” Sam said, blue eyes flooding with contentment. “You’re also a miserable ass when you haven’t played in a long time. So…what’s keeping you two apart, huh?”

“She’s nervous.”

“About?” Sam whispered.

“I’m not sure. I intend to find out.” Letting out a sigh, he added, “She’s going back home soon.” Sam gave him a pat on the back and let go of his arm.

Sam led them to one of the many on-campus bookstores. Mary’s older sister worked at that particular one and she and Gerry went to the textbook section to seek her out.

“Here. I’ll get this for you,” Gabriel told Lennon, placing a black with gold lettering baseball cap over her long hair, which she’d worn loose today. Len pulled it off and looked at the front, where “Missouri” was emblazoned on the front.

“Consider it proof that you lived here,” Gabe said.

“It’ll look nice next to my Yankees cap,” she said. He winced. “What? At least my Yankees are doing well. What’s with your Royals, huh?”

“Let’s agree to disagree on baseball teams, ok?” He said, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet.

“I can pay for it on my own, Ricky,” Lennon said, tucking the cap on her head after adjusting it. “How does it look?”

“Perfect,” he replied. Against the black cap, Lennon’s long, wavy tresses looked brown, smoothly streaming down her neck and shoulders. She liked wearing black, he remembered. “And no, I’m getting it. Don’t argue.”

“Go Royals!” Lennon said facetiously, with an impish smile. “Or is Columbia Cardinals country?”

“Debatable,” Gabriel replied. “I say it’s harder to love the Royals, but it’s hard to love many things.”

“Like the Mets,” Len replied, wrinkling her nose. He walked toward the register, pulling the cap off of her head.

“If you’re from Queens, how did you become a Yankee fan? I mean, going by territory, shouldn’t you be a Mets fan?”

“It’s not about geography,” Lennon answered. “It’s about…city identity. The Yanks have been around longer. They’re iconic. They represent the entire city to me, not just dinky little Queens.”

“They win more,” Gabriel put in.

“True. Dat.” Lennon shot back, watching as he handed the cap to the cashier to ring up. “Plus, I look better with a navy blue cap. Orange and blue don’t really do it for me.”

Gabriel handed the cashier a twenty-dollar bill.

“Now you can go back to New York and be mistaken for a tourist.”

Lennon grinned. “Yeah, I probably will be mistaken for a tourist.” She clapped a hand on her forehead and muttered, “Oh, shit.”

“Lucy?” Gabe asked, taking the bag with her cap in it off the counter.

“I just said ‘tewer-ist'. Holy fuck. It took me at least four months to pick up a Boston accent!”

“How do you say tourist in New Yorker?” He asked, walking toward the front of the store.

“’Tore-ist.’”

“Now say something in Bostonian.”

“Uh…” She bit her lip. “Get on the T, take the green line up to Pahk Street and transfer to the ah-range line.” To Gabriel’s unknowing ears—the only time he’d come close to hearing a Boston accent was in movies or on TV—it sounded perfect.

“Why aren’t you an actress, Lennon McKinney?”

“The thought of being the center of attention at all is wicked frightening. I don’t know how you and Stacey do that kind of thing. Gives me the willies.” Len reached into the bag and pulled out her new baseball cap, adjusting the Velcro on the back.

“I’ve never been afraid of being in front of a crowd,” he thought aloud. “But put me alone in a one-on-one sich and I get fuckin’ twitchy.”

Lennon snorted, tugging the cap on her head. “Liar.”

“You look beautiful.”

Once again, this time with her eyes hidden by the brim, she said, slowly, "Liar."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

15.3

Three days later, when Lennon was working, Gabriel strode into the theatre’s office. She glanced up from her desk, where she was on the phone, at the sound of his footsteps. Covering the phone’s mouthpiece with a hand, she said, “Hi. What’s up?”

“I finished reading your story,” he said, taking a seat. “You look busy.”

“I’m on hold,” she replied. “Nice elevator music playing. It’d be better if it was the Beatles or the Ramones or you or something.”

He chuckled.

“So you finished it? Questions, comments, complaints?”

Gabriel bit his lip. “Is Mark really the guy she should be with?”

“He came out of the blue,” Len answered. “I thought it might be a good harkening back to Amanda’s struggling performer days. Did it feel too…rebound to you?”

“A little. But it’s not really about the relationship. I liked Jake, though. Felt sorry for him.”

“So did my best friend,” Len remarked.

Gabriel smiled, briefly. “The thing is…I sort of feel like Amanda wanted stability. And Jake’s steady. But Mark? Eh.” He stopped. “I like Amanda, too. She’s got issues, but she progresses.” He reached into his backpack and pulled out her manuscript. “I scrawled on it a little bit.”

“You did?” She exclaimed. “Seriously?”

He drew his eyebrows together. “It’s not a critique or anything. Just a few questions and comments, I guess.”

“Thank you,” she said, mustering up every ounce of sincerity she had, which seemed to grow the longer she stayed in Landslide. “Just a little bit of reaction goes a long way and I’ve exhausted most of my reviewers.”

“Who are they?” He asked, standing before her.

“My friends. A lot of them had to read half-formed ideas and crappy execution along the way. I was never that girl who liked to show off her writing—”

Gabriel fixed her with a look. “Lennon.”

“Yes, I know, my appalling lack of self-esteem. I’m working on it. I gave this to you, didn’t I?”

He leaned down, caressed her forehead with his lips. He returned to the chair, dragging it a little closer to her desk. “So what would your friends do?”

“Well, the generic ‘it’s good.’ A lot of them stayed at that level. I used to tell them, ‘If I’m going to be a serious writer, then I need a little more than that. You guys read. Give me suggestions.’”

“I guess music’s a little easier. You play it. They either sing along and clap or they sit there with no expression on their faces.”

“When have you ever played for an expressionless audience, Rock Star?”

The corner of his lips quirked up in amusement. “Oh, I could tell you nightmare audience stories, but I’ll save them.”

“You know how when you read, you imagine the characters, the setting. You analyze the situation, what the message is, the way the words resonate. The emotional impact of the sum of the parts.” She shrugged up her free shoulder. “It’s personal. It’s between you and the book. I can’t have that kind of reading experience with my own stuff, so maybe I want to know what my selective readers got out of the story? It’s not really possible.”

“It might be,” he said quickly.

“They all know I write. It’s all I can do, really. So, sometimes, when they don’t say anything about it or they tell me they read it and I know they didn’t, it kind of hurts a little. You know?”

“Once again, the immediacy of music,” Gabriel replied. “How did this story come about?”

“Well, I had to read The Outsiders in middle school and…Oh! Hello? Hi, may I speak to James Green, please? This is Lennon McKinney from the Tallis Regional Theatre. Sure, I’ll hold.” With an elaborate roll of the eyes, which made Gabriel chuckle, Lennon listened as classical strains pumped through the receiver again. “Anyway. Yeah. So I read that and that’s where the idea of a town run by gangs came from. And maybe too much Godfather. My brother’s obsessed by that movie.”

“Are you going to revise it again?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “It’s not my ideal piece of writing. It’s not what I aspire to be as a writer, but it’s a start. Least I finished something. It’ll make it easier next time around.”

“That, Lucy, sounds remarkably like realistic confidence.” He smiled at her, face beaming. “Hey, Len, what are you doing this weekend?”

“I’ll probably still be on hold.”

“Well, if you ever get off hold, I have a gig in Columbia on Saturday, opening up for a buddy. And Gerry and Mary and Jimmy—have you met him? He’s the new drama teacher at the high school.” She shook her head. “Well, yeah, him and I used to play basketball together. Except he whooped my ass.”

Lennon laughed. Gabriel narrowed his eyes in a mock-glare before bursting into full-bellied laughter.

“Anyway,” he continued. “We’re going to head down there Saturday morning. Why don’t you and Stacey come along?”

The Tallis usually held separate staff meetings for casts and staffers, but that day, Bob had scheduled everyone to meet in the auditorium. Lennon slid into a seat beside Stacey and held a legal pad in her lap. Stacey kept glancing around, saying under her breath how much she didn’t want to run into Nick.

“Feel like going to CoMo this weekend?” Len asked to distract her.

“What’s in CoMo? And since when do you call it ‘CoMo’?”

“Gabriel has a show and a group of people are going. Would you like to come?”

“Maybe. Len, who’s that guy over there?”

“Who?” Len glanced to her left. She recognized everyone on that side.

“Up front. The tall guy.” Stacey discreetly pointed a finger to a very tall man standing, talking to Bob in front of the stage, which was bare and only had a ring of fold-up chairs on it.

The guy struck Lennon mostly because of his height, well over six feet tall. Basketball player size, in her estimation. He had a mop of curly brown hair on his head and a day’s worth of beard on his jaw and cheeks.

Lennon felt amused as she observed Stacey’s glances toward the guy. Nick was sitting on the other side of the auditorium, glowering into space. Nick was relatively slimly built, in a slightly effeminate way that leant itself well to acting. He could be anybody that way. He was certainly no basketball star.

Bob clapped his hands together and projected his voice, saying, “All right, y’all.” The room quieted down, slowly but surely. “I called this meeting to go over the schedule for later this month and the fall season. We’re having a lot of people leaving us at the end of the month, actors, crew and staff. You’ve been phenomenal! And I’d like to introduce you guys to a man who will soon become a familiar face around here. This is Jimmy Larkin; he used to act here every year in high school and now he’s a drama teacher at that school…”

“Oh, that’s Gabriel’s friend,” Len whispered to Stacey.

“Really?” Stacey said back. “Gabriel has handsome friends.”
------------------------------------

“What’s with Stacey?” Gabriel whispered into Lennon’s ear, inadvertently blowing hot air into the whorls. Len leaned away from him, ostensibly to get a better view of Stacey leaning forward to talk to Jimmy Larkin, who was driving Gabriel’s mother’s minivan to Columbia. There were six people in the van, two guitars and one amplifier.

Lennon relaxed back into the seat and whispered back, “She’s just being friendly.”

“Did Nick leave yet?”

“No, not yet. Don’t bring him up if you want to survive today. Just because she’s being nice to Jim doesn’t mean she’s let all men off the hook yet.”

“I think I finally let all women off the hook.”

“Good for you,” Len chuckled. She said, slightly confused, “I didn’t know you had a grudge against women.”

He shrugged. “Only a small one and only against one particular woman.” His head leaned in the direction of her ear again and he murmured, “I’m over it. It’s time to move on.”

“At least you know that it’s time,” Len replied.

They made eye contact. Two weeks; that was all she had left in Landslide and she felt that time keenly now. His eyes were relentless. She held his gaze, studied the curve of his eyebrows, his thick eyelashes, but especially the warmth behind the coolness of his irises. Len heard a quick snap and broke away from Gabriel’s amazingly blue eyes to see Stacey holding up her phone, smiling.

“That,” she said, “is a priceless picture.”