Jack didn't know where to go. He didn't want to be at Talia's and he didn't want to be in the bunk room with the others…so he sat on the roof of the lodging house, listening to the laughter that floated up to him from the open windows of the bunkroom below.
He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the "fresh" air of the city. There was a breeze tonight and it tousled his brown hair and caressed his warm face. The cigarette between his fingers was getting shorter with every puff and the smoke filled his nose and clouded his thoughts. He just wanted to float away.
The roof was desolate and cluttered with abandoned things like molded newspapers and crates. He sat on a stack of crates near the edge of the roof and looked out over the sea of roof tops and chimneys, the sky barely colored from the city lights. It was around midnight.
He heard loud excited shouts from below and he caught Mush's voice.
"'ey, where's Jack?"
"On tha roof," Boots' voice echoed. "But I don' think he wants ta be bother'd, know what I'm sayin'?"
"Too bad," he heard Kid Blink say.
A few minutes later he heard footsteps and he sighed. So much for being irritated alone. His friends weren't the best at taking hints.
He heard the metal door to the roof open and when he looked up, Mush, Race, David and Kid Blink were standing next to him.
"'ey," Mush said, leaning an elbow on a high crate.
"'ey," Jack echoed indifferently.
Kid Blink stepped in front of him to see his face. "Ya left kinda quick, Jack."
"Some of that stuff wasn't easy ta move," Race said, rotating his shoulder as he sat on a crate.
Jack shrugged his shoulders, "Had betta places to be."
David scoffed, looking around the dirty roof. "Great spot."
"Not now Dave," Jack replied darkly. "I'm not in tha mood."
"Talk to us, man," Mush said as he sat on a crate below Jack's.
"I don't have nothin' ta say," Jack said curtly.
"Cut it out, man," Kid Blink said abruptly, tired of beating around the bush. "Stop playin' with Talia. She doesn't need this from you right now."
"Me? Play with her?" Jack said loudly as he looked at Kid. He stood up, feeling energy course through him as his frustration came back in full swing.
"She's playin' with me! 's what she does! She leads men on and then drops 'em on their asses when she gets what she wants."
"'s not true, Jack," Kid said through clenched teeth, shaking his head. "She's needin' you and you're turning your back on her."
"She tell ya that?" Jack was pacing back and forth with his friends' eyes following him. "What she need me for? Huh?"
"She needs a friend," David chimed in. "You know she doesn't talk with any of us the way she talks to you. You know her better than anyone."
"Yeah, sure," Jack snuffed. "Yet she keeps lyin' ta me. She says 'don't hurt me, Jack, don' fall for me, Jack' an' tha next minute she's treatin' me like one of her customas!"
"Whoa..." Mush said under his breath.
The boys watched him for a minute, practically seeing his heart beat faster with every pace. He flicked his cigarette butt over the ledge and he pushed his hand through his hair.
"I've neva met anyone like her. I wanna stay, I wanna go. She…she's so god damn frustratin'!"
"She's scared," David said gently. "Jack, think about it: every man that's come into her life only stuck around for twenty minutes. You're the one that's been there after they've left. She doesn't know how to take that."
"Well...she won't have that problem for long," Jack said quietly. "I'm done playin' her games or whateva the hell she's doin'. I told her how I felt."
He glanced at the guys and saw their incredulous faces.
"Yeah, I did," he said to them boldly. "Jack Kelly has feelin's, jus' like everybody else."
"So," Race said as he shrugged his shoulders. "How do you feel, Jack? 'Cause the way we sees it, ya got as much feeling as a loaded gun."
"All you've been is angry with her," Mush said gently.
"Because-" Jack struggled for a minute, suddenly feeling cornered. These were his best friends but still…
The hell with it.
"Because she doesn't know, a'right?"
"Doesn't know what, Jack?" David said, digging.
"She doesn't know anything!" Jack shouted, his voice carrying across the roof tops. "She doesn' know that she's in my head every damn day. Ev'ry day I see her face and I can' sleep at night. I wanna tell her somethin'…somethin' that'll make her smile but then the next second I wanna scream at her. She's my worst nightmare! She's tha worst thing tha's eva happened ta me and I wish I'd neva met her! I've neva been so god damn angry before in my life…and it's all because of her!"
Kid Blink and Mush glanced at each other and then back to Jack, waiting…
"Ev'ry time I'm around her…'s like I can't…I can't fuckin' breathe," he was still walking back and forth. He couldn't keep still. He wanted to shut his mouth, to erase everything he'd just said but it was out now. They'd never let it go...he couldn't shut up. He felt like a balloon letting out hot air; it was exhausting keeping all this inside for so long...
So he kept going.
"She's so stupid, so god damn stupid. I'm not like the othas… ev'ry time she went with 'em, who was there ta clean up after 'em? They didn't give a shit that they'd just ruined my day. She sees every otha man but me. An' why? Because I don't have anythin' ta give her? I don't want what they want and she won't listen ta me! I can'...I can't undastand her, the way she thinks...she's afraid of me hurtin' her? It's the otha way around."
He kicked in a nearby crate and it fell in a small heap. He paused and the air seemed to hum with tension. He wanted to hit something. The guys were breathing heavily just by watching him.
Jack's chest heaved and he sniffed before speaking, "She doesn' know that I'm done."
"What-" David spluttered, not wanting to lose the ground they'd just gained. "Jack, she needs you."
Jack looked at David, "Tell her whateva ya want, it won' matter because I'm gone. She can keep away from me. I don' wanna see her."
"Yeah, ya do," Kid Blink contradicted.
Jack glared at his best friend, "No, I don', Blink."
"Ya tellin' me that when she comes around wantin' ta see you, you're gonna jus' walk away? What if she slips back into the brothel, huh? What if she bums with every guy in town, ya tellin' me ya won' think about it? What if she does kill herself, then what, Jack?"
"Shut it, Blink," Jack growled. The thoughts came back…sweaty men on top of her, their hands gripping her skin, the dreams he had every night… Her standing alone at the docks with her hands tied...
"You make her betta, Jack!" Kid Blink shouted. "Look at what's happened. She's out of tha brothel and livin' under Medda's roof. You did that, Cowboy. Don' tell her you're bailin' now…or else you would be like the other guys."
"Wow, Kid..." Race said, stunned. "That was real poetic of ya."
Kid shrugged; he was secretly beaming but he still glared at Jack.
Jack felt like Kid Blink had just emptied a bucket of ice water on him. He dropped his head, not wanting to hear anymore.
"Jack," David moved in front of his friend and put his hands on his shoulders, "Do yourself a favor and don't mess up the worst thing that's ever happened to you."
Jack looked David in the eye and after a long pause, he smirked at him.
Jack nodded in agreement, "Worst thing that's ever happened to me."
But Jack was still doubtful. Where would he go from here? He was tired…he was tired of knocking on a door that opened for him and then slammed shut in his face. This wasn't like him at all…he was too close.
Jack looked over the city roof tops, smoke rising into the sky effortlessly. There weren't any stars; they never shined over New York. But he knew they must've been up there, hiding somewhere.
He knew where he needed to go. But he didn't want to go. Not yet. He would wait as long as he could before these clowns pushed him out the door.
He huffed through his nose, looking at David with an exasperated expression.
The boys smiled at him gently, seeing the conflicting emotions raging war within his eyes.
"Girls, man," Mush said as he squeezed Jack's shoulder. "They'll drive ya crazy."
"Yeah," Jack replied unenthusiastically. "'cept I was already crazy."
"Ain't that the truth," Racetrack laughed, beaming with a cigar hanging lazily from the corner of his mouth.
Jack nodded a few times, thinking. "I'll talk ta her."
The boys smiled and clapped him on the back, saying words of encouragement.
Jack left the roof with his friends and they went to the bunkroom where the others were. He wanted to lose himself to the mindless New York accented conversations for a little while.
The next day, Jack waited until he had sold all his papers. It was around four o'clock. But even then, he still didn't want to go.
"Go, man," David said as they were walking down the street to the Lodging House. "She won't wait around forever."
Jack agreed and unwillingly left David's side to go to the theater.
Inside was cool and dark. He could hear a woman's voice, loud and demanding, and he squinted down to the stage, seeing Talia.
She was wearing a long flowing skirt of tulle and a leotard, the pink fabric soft against her skin. He hair was pinned up, exposing her face, and she was moving quickly across the stage in rhythm to the woman's shouts. She must have been the woman Medda hired to teach Talia.
Talia did a jump of sorts; he never realized how long her legs were...
Jack hung in the back of the room with his arms crossed, watching. He saw a figure move out of the corner of his eye and saw Medda coming towards him from the isle of seats. She beamed at him, glancing to the girl on stage.
"She's a natural," Medda said proudly. "People will love watching her."
Jack tensed, "Jus' hope it's the right people." He gave Medda a look.
"Ah... afraid of old unwanted company, huh?"
Jack didn't say anything.
"Can't do anything about that, Cowboy. But I can guarantee no one will touch her."
She glanced at him and he shifted his arms uncomfortably.
"Thanks," he mumbled.
"But you didn't come here to talk ticket prices," Medda smiled at him gently, pushing back his hair.
"I need ta talk to her."
Medda nodded, "So, the boys got through to you."
He looked at her and she nodded.
"Oh, yes. They were in...quite the mood when they left last night. She was too. Broke a few plates..."
Jack huffed, "She has that habit."
"She has a lot of habits, Jack," Medda said softly. "She's a bird in a cage just looking for a way out. So much anger, so much hurt...she's a broken woman. So many men have taken pieces of her that when they left, she couldn't piece herself back together. She's good at lying, I'll give her that. But she's also been lied to; so many times by those she thought she could trust."
Jack glanced at Medda, "She's told me lies."
"And she's terrified to tell you anything different."
"What, tha truth?" he said angrily. "I've always told her tha truth."
"But you're a man, dear," Medda said sweetly. "And there were plenty before you that lied to her. In her mind, you're just another."
He grimaced at the chairs in front of him.
"She's aching, Cowboy. I think you distracted her from that ache long enough that she felt whole again."
Jack thought for a moment and his eyes trailed up the seats to the girl on stage.
Medda smiled sadly as she watched his face. "You're a good man, Jack. Like your father...you've got so much energy; wanting to change everything for the better. Start here; start with her. The real Natalia is under that cold exterior, she just needs a little encouragement."
Jack nodded, inhaling and letting the air out in a huff.
Medda squeezed his shoulder then turned to leave him. "You'll have to wait 'til after her lesson. Go up in the balcony to your old seat; I'll send her up."
Jack hadn't sat in the old corner seat in years. It's red velvet was still faded and in the wall his knife carving was still there: "Jack's seat".
He remembered sitting here as a kid with his father, watching Medda dancing and hearing her sing his favorite songs. He watched Talia dance now, allowing himself to forget why he came here. She had such grace and beauty when she danced; hard to think that she was such spitfire off stage when she was angry with him.
After thirty minutes, the lesson ended. Talia met with her teacher below the stage and then Medda approached her. They hugged and Medda whispered in her ear. Talia glanced up to the balcony.
Jack looked away but he knew she saw him. She disappeared under the balcony.
She was so quiet when she entered the balcony that he didn't hear her until the floor creaked. He glanced at her and she was hesitant as she approached him. She walked down the steps and rested her hands on the balcony railing, ten seats down from Jack's. Her posture was already different, no longer lazy and seductive. Her back was straight and her arms were light as they rested on the cool metal railing. She even held her head a little higher.
A completely different woman. On the outside at least.
Man, if dancing did all that...
"'ey," he said.
She didn't say anything, only stared down to the stage, watching Medda talk with her teacher.
Jack huffed and stood. He went to her side and leaned on the railing, looking at her face. The lights from the stage lit her eyes. Though she did not look at him, he could see the pain, the disappointment.
"I'm sorry...Talia," he said slowly, his voice deep.
She inhaled deeply, her chest expanding.
"Why did you come back?"
He was taken aback by her question.
"I wanted ta see you."
"So here I am," she said evenly, meeting his eyes.
He felt cornered again. He knew this was a bad idea.
He dropped his head, resting his forehead on his folded hands on the railing.
"Look, I said I was sorry."
"Every man says they're sorry," she snapped, her accent cruel. "But no man ever says what he's really thinking."
He scoffed, "Shoulda been on tha roof with me last night..."
"What?" she asked.
He stood up straight and turned towards her, "Talia, every time I tell ya what I'm thinkin', I get a slap in tha face or a plate thrown at me."
She wheeled around, her wild eyes searching his. But she knew he was right.
"Ya never want ta hear what I'm thinkin'," he said loud enough to fill the balcony. "Because you don't like what I'm thinkin'."
"And what's that, Cowboy?"
She looked away. He went on the other side of her, trapping her. His body leaned towards her, encircling her almost. She even looked uncomfortable.
He tried to speak in a softer tone, his face down next to hers. "You're not used ta that...you're not used ta havin' someone think about ya. You're in my thoughts every damn day."
"Stop it," Talia spat. "You need to stop it, Jack. You can't come along, expect me to give you everything, to feel, and then run away like a child."
"You're one ta talk," he said darkly.
"I knew this was a bad idea," she said as she turned to leave.
He grabbed her arm, pulling her towards him.
"Talia," he said huskily.
He struggled, more than he had ever struggled in his entire life. He couldn't find the right words. What was it he said to the guys last night...he had never had a problem talking to her before...
Then he took her hand in his, rubbing his thumb over her knuckles absentmindedly.
She watched him doubtfully.
He looked her in the eye and decided to speak whatever came to his mind, not caring what came out of his mouth. Up in the dark balcony, he felt safe and that no one else could see or hear him. Only her.
"I don' care about what men have done to ya. I don't care what lies they've told ya or what ya told them. I know you're mad at me. But it doesn't compare to the anger I have for myself for letting you go as many times as I did."
She looked at him carefully, trying to understand.
He licked his lips, thinking of how to say it...
"Every time ya left ta be with 'em, I let ya go because I thought there was no point in stoppin' ya. But I should've. 'cause now that I think about it, you were waitin' for me ta give ya a reason ta stay."
She blinked a couple of times and looked away from him, trying to hide her eyes.
He tilted his face to see hers, "I'm tha reason, Talia. But I can't make ya stay. Only you can do that."
She looked back and when she turned her face, his face was nearly touching hers. He could see every spec of icy blue in her eyes. They were glassy, like a frozen lake, and they were fierce. But as he looked at them, they seemed to soften under his gaze. He felt like he could see right through them to something inside her that he was never meant to see. But she let him in.
And then it was gone; he could practically see the wall inside her come up.
She nodded slowly, swallowing, and her voice was barely audible. "Alright, Jack."
He exhaled, feeling drained.
She looked down at Medda, "She really is wonderful...she talked with me for five hours last night, telling me her story. If she can over come the scars of selling yourself, I can too."
Jack's eyes grew twice their size and he looked down at her face, reading her eyes.
"Medda was neva-"
She smiled gently, "You'd never be able to tell. I almost didn't. Then she did something every prostitute does."
Jack's brow furrowed.
"She touched the rim of her corset above her left breast. She's right handed; every prostitute puts money in their corset, usually under the arm. She said she stopped selling when she was twenty and joined the theater but the habit stuck with her. She still keeps money there, just because it's a 'damn good spot to put it'."
Talia laughed but Jack's face was still white as paper.
Talia shook her head at him, "Don't you dare think differently of her, Jack. She is who she is today because of who she used to be. But she grew from it instead of shriveling up into nothing. I can do the same."
She looked at him, smiled, and quickly kissed him on the cheek like she had so many times to Kid Blink and Mush. She leaned away from him and she looked almost confused...
He stared at her for a moment, noticing how the shadows fell across her face from the stage lights. Something glinted in her eyes, like she wasn't satisfied, and her smile faded as she examined his face. He suddenly felt naked the way she looked at him.
She leaned closer again, hesitantly, until her nose brushed his. He could feel her warm breath as she stood still for a moment, her wide eyes staring into his. He saw the terrified look in her eyes but for some reason he felt that she enjoyed it. She slowly placed her lips on his, her tongue grazing his lower lip.
It was the first time she kissed him. He had kissed her twice but this...this was all her.
And if his body had been on fire before, it was nothing compared to how he felt now.
He stood still, his eyes still staring at her. She kissed him for a long moment, the longest minute of his life, and when she pulled away her lips were still touching his. She opened her eyes and looked at him, reading his expression.
Without a word, she quickly turned and went up the stairs, leaving him alone on the balcony.
It wasn't until he inhaled that he realized he hadn't been breathing.