“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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.