Zennen drives me in his rusty Bronco to Skinny’s to work. Since he found out I was really at football when I said I was at work, he’s insisted on escorting me every day after school. He idles in the back parking lot, eyeing me until I’ve disappeared through the kitchen door.
I sigh and trudge to the dining room, ready to bus tables and take orders until ten o’clock tonight. This has become my life: every day instead of going to football right after school, I get picked up by Zennen, do homework until quarter to five, then I work until ten or ten-thirty depending on how much needs to be done after close, Mom picks me up, and I go to bed.
I grab a rag and spray bottle with cleaning fluid and start cleaning tables. I gather pizza trays, cups, and plates and dump them in the kitchen sink. I spray tables and wipe them down, catching crumbs off the edges. When the bell over the door chimes, I stride to the cash register to take orders. I give back change and send order slips through the window behind me. When I hear the ting of the call bell in the order window, I grab the steaming food and deliver it to tables. I bring customers napkins, Parmesan cheese and pepper shakers, ketchup and mustard. I go around with Coke and water pitchers, refilling cups.
As I’m grabbing a highchair, coloring book, and crayons from the back, Skinny squeezes past me to his office.
“Hey, kid,” he says, his tone affectionate. “How’s it hangin’ out there?”
I set the coloring book and crayon pack in the highchair seat and lift it.
“It’s alright,” I grunt, carrying the bulky chair to the dining room. I realize too late that I said “I’m alright” wrong. I said it like how I actually feel. Now he’s gonna question me. Shit.
He follows me to the dining room, then to the counter, where I have the clean silverware bucket and a stack of napkins waiting to be rolled.
“How you doin’ really? Don’ lie ta me,” he says. His bag-laden eyes gaze at me, all sad and sorry.
I busy my hands with wrapping forks and knives in napkins. He knows I had to quit football cuz of my parents. I’ve been down ever since.
“Fine,” I say, but not convincing enough. I swallow a sigh. Skins throws up his hands and shrugs.
“Alright. You don’ wanna talk, don’ talk.” He turns away.
“There’s a concert tonight,” I say sadly, finally looking at him. “And I was supposed to go. Bought tickets and everything.” My attention returns to rolling silverware. “I’m just disappointed I can’t go. That’s all.” I shrug, scrunch my mouth.
Skins folds his arms across his chest and watches me for a while. He breathes noisily out his nose. Then he walks away.
I press my lips together, trying not to cry. I hate my life. I really do. It was horrible, and then it was amazing, and now it’s shit again. The fall after flying high is so much worse than last year’s shitfest. Because now, I’ve had a taste of it. And nothing else satisfies. What is there to live for now, other than getting the hell out of this town? What am I gonna work toward now that’s gonna make me want to keep living? What’s gonna make me want to keep fighting to keep living?
Shelly, the other hostess, bustles through the swinging kitchen door, a 7/11 Big Gulp in hand. She’s a twenty-something community college grad. She’s sassy to pretty much everyone but Skinny and me. She has a pink streak in her hair, often pulled into two space buns. I’m confused to see her here. Today’s not her shift.
“Hey,” she says, setting her keys and cup on the shelf behind the counter.
“What are you doing?” I ask. She pulls off her jacket and throws it on the floor in the corner.
“I’m taking your shift, dummy,” she says.
Skinny pops his head through the kitchen door.
“Get outta here, Cinderella,” he orders, smiling. “Have a fun night with your friends.”
My jaw drops. This isn’t real life. It’s not actually happening.
“You’ll cover for me?” I ask, my voice rising in pitch.
“Just get outta here!” he laughs, shooing me with his hands. “I don’ wanna see you ’til the concert’s over.”
“It’s in Cleveland!” I exclaim, reaching for the wall phone. People are always calling in to place carry-out orders or make reservations. The next caller can wait. I dial up Calvin’s house, and his mom answers.
“Hey, Mama Mac!” I say. “Is Calvin there?” I cross my fingers, hoping he didn’t leave yet.
“Let me see, I think he just went out the door...” She sets the phone down, and in the background I can hear her yell Cal’s name, muffled by the chattering of all his younger sisters.
“Stevie?” Cal speaks, his tenor voice wafting through the phone.
“Hey! I can go! Can you pick me up from Skinny’s?”
“You can?! Awesome! Yep, be there in ten!” He hangs up the phone, and I head out the back door, waiting for him in the parking lot. The sun has set and the moon is out - a large, bright waxing gibbous. The wind tousles my hair and brushes my jacket. I stuff my hands in my pockets and lean against the brick wall of the restaurant, under a lamp. I watch my breath drift in puffs of steam until a familiar truck pulls up. I jump in the shotgun seat, my legs tingling like they’re ready to sprint for miles.
I glance back. Empty.
“Just us tonight?” I buckle my seatbelt and crank the heat up.
“Yep. Josh and Gunner bailed.”
“Oh, man. So...were you gonna go by yourself?”
He pulls out of the parking lot and onto the road. It’s gonna be an hour’s drive to Cleveland. I settle in, itching to get out of this town. Going to the city is something of an adventure for us townies.
He glances at me, half-smiling.
“Nah,” he says. “I woulda found a way to get you there.”
“Huh.” I look out the window at the dark road disappearing under the rumbling tires. Our headlights illuminate the black asphalt, reflective yellow dashed lines down the middle and white lines on either side. Dark blue corn and wheat fields, bare from harvest, roll like distant waves along the sides of the road. We pass clumps of dead-leaf trees, dilapidated barns and silos. The sky is spattered with stars. The air smells like burning leaves. The cab is toasty warm. The windshield is fogging up. I turn on the defroster.
“Why?” I finally ask.
“I told you,” he says, “Anywhere you go, I go. Always.”
“Always,” I murmur absentmindedly, still gazing out the window.
“That’s what best friends do.” He takes his right hand off the steering wheel and sets it, palm down, in the middle of the seat between us. He continues to look ahead.
I look at him, study him up and down. His shaggy hair swoops back over his ear, covering the side of his face. His mouth is set in the plainest, most unemotional expression. His eyes stare straight forward, eyelids set half-way from the top. He’s got long lashes, for a guy. His nose is perfect: not too protuberant, not too mousy. Where his jawline meets his neck...Something about that particular spot liquefies my insides, awakening the sense of hollowness deep within my chest cavity.
He’s got on a hunter green Henley shirt, top button undone, with a thick navy blue stripe across the chest. The shirt sleeve hugs his arm. I can make out the contour of his muscles. He is lean and strong from lifting hay bales his whole life.
I’ve always known he was good-looking, like one knows a fact they’ve learned in biology class. He’s got a nice phenotype. But it was never an issue, because I never saw him as anything more than a friend.
I stare at his hand, resting in the middle of the seat. There’s temptation in the air. Can he feel it? The desire, the compulsion pulling me in like the moon on the tides?
Do I dare take his hand? Do I cross that threshold?
“Let’s get some music up in here,” I say, breaking the silence. I reach for the stereo and press the play button. “Every Breath You Take” by The Police starts playing. My stomach drops. Nope, too romantic. Next.
“Can’t Fight this Feeling” by REO Speedwagon. Not helping. I skip it.
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler blasts through the speakers. I want to face-palm myself. This is ridiculous.
I click on the radio instead.
"Near, far, wherever you are
I believe that the heart does go on
Once more you open the door...”
Really?! “My Heart Will Go On”?! What the heck, universe!
I jab the radio off. Rumbling tires, humming engine, and blowing air fill the void. I cross my legs, shift further towards the door, and lean on it, staring out the window. I watch the yellow lines roll under the truck, swallowing the growing need to hold him.
When we arrive at Quicken Loans Arena, Cal leaves the car in a parking garage and we funnel into the throngs of people headed to the concert. People press in on all sides, and I can feel the panic starting to rise again. I’m going to get crushed.
I grab Cal’s hand so I don’t lose him in the crowd. His grip is firm and warm. He glances at our hands when they lock, but doesn’t say a word. His height and build is a guiding force through the horde. He leads us to the entrance, where attendants take our tickets and let us in. The tickets weren’t terrible expensive. We were able to get floor.
Still holding his hand, we make our way down flights of concrete stairs to the pit, rapidly filling with people. Most are jammed around the stage, so Cal uses his size to bump us through. We are front row. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
It’s pitch black and everyone’s screaming. A stench like skunk spray wafts up my nostrils - nauseating.
The backstage is guarded by a floor-to-ceiling curtain. No one is in front of it, except all the instruments set up and ready to go. Suddenly, a guitar riff rips through the stadium - the screaming explodes to its loudest decibel - the spotlights flash on, bathing the stage - and there’s Oasis, instruments in hand, playing the opening bars of “Be Here Now”. Liam Gallagher’s scratchy voice bleeds through the speakers. It’s deafening.
I catch myself swaying to the beat. Everyone around us has their hands in the air and are shouting the lyrics. They’re so close, I could just reach my hand up and touch their shoes...
“THIS IS AMAZING!” I yell to Calvin.
“WHAT?!” He leans his head down real close to my mouth and taps his ear.
“I said, THIS IS AMAZING!”
He smiles and nods.
“’ELLO, CLEVELAND. ARE YOU HAVING A GOOD NIGHT TONIGHT?” Liam asks us through the mic. We all whoop through cupped hands in answer.
“THIS NEXT SONG, I’M GONNA WANT A LITTLE AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION. SO WHEN I GIVE YOU DIRECTIONS, YOU’LL FOLLOW ME, DEALIO?”
More screaming. It pounds my ear drums.
“GOOD.” He starts tapping on his tambourine as the guitarist and drummer pick up the beat of the next song - “Stand By Me”. It’s bluesy, and the staccato melts my soul.
“Made a meal and threw it up on Sunday I’ve
Gotta lot of things to learn
Said I would and I’ll be leaving one day
Before my heart starts to burn
So what’s the matter with you?
Sing me something new...don’t you know
The cold and wind and rain don’t know
They only seem to come and go away
Times are hard when things have got no meaning
I’ve found a key upon the floor
Maybe you and I will not believe in the things we find
Behind the door...
ALL RIGHT ’ERE WE GO!”
Liam lifts his hands above his head and claps them together to the beat of the chorus. We all follow, and the room is breaking with timed, synchronized blasts.
“Stand by me
the way it’s gonna be
Stand by me
the way it’s gonna be
Stand by me
the way it’s gonna be...”
The air is electric. There is an energy, a current running through me. It’s euphoria, heat, and sweat. It’s floating, out-of-body invincibility. It’s enough to make life worth living, if life could be strung together with moments like this.
The spotlights flash, shift, and rotate a rainbow of colors through the haze of smoke. The band members perform every stereotypical concert rock band move onstage. The guitarist slides on his knees while shredding chords. The drummer head-bangs, tosses his drumsticks so they flip in the air, crosses his arms and plays like a maniac. Liam runs the length of the stage with his hand in the crowd, letting people touch him.
I’m one of them. I scream with the rest of the groupies and joke to Calvin that I’m never washing my hand again.
Finally, the guitarist trades his electric guitar for an acoustic, and we know what song’s coming next. I squeeze Calvin’s arm in excitement.
The unmistakable sound of “Wonderwall” fills the stadium. Shrieks and whistles pierce the air. As soon as Liam belts the first lyrics, we’re all on board with him, singing our hearts out. One by one, hands shoot up and flick on Zippo lighters. I spin three-hundred-sixty degrees, mesmerized by the sea of flickering flames waving to the beat. It’s like the midnight sky glittering with millions of stars. It is elevating.
I slip my hand into Calvin’s. He grounds me so I don’t float away. The trembling soundwaves flood me. I am rocked, swept over, consumed by the music. It engulfs every part of me, drawing out the leaden pain that’s weighed me down. It’s a purging. I find relieved, joyful tears running from the corners of my eyes. Nothing can hurt me here, in this moment in this place in this time. The bad things, the sad things wash away, and all is here and now. I’ve spent my whole life searching for something - I don’t even know what it is - but this is a taste of it. I swallow, not allowing a second of the sweet, savory something to escape.
“LET’S DO THIS FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES,” I speak into Cal’s ear. He looks at me, mere inches from my face, his hazel eyes shining in the blue stagelights. His pupils are wide. I can see myself reflected in them.
“ANYWHERE YOU GO, I GO,” he replies, his warm breath tickling my face. “ALWAYS.”