When the radio host announced the next song, Nicole changed stations. The last thing she wanted, as she drove home from the airport, was to listen to one of Allison’s songs. She was having a hard enough time keeping herself together without hearing that voice.
San Francisco’s traffic was heavier than normal on that Friday night, giving Nicole too much idle time. She didn’t want to think about her life and about how she had just, probably, blown her last chance with Allison. The singer wouldn’t even remember about her in another week, while Nicole would be left to gather her pieces again.
She knew she was being dramatic thinking that, but when she just watched the woman of her life leave her for the second time – and again, because she let her –, Nicole thought that some dramatics were allowed.
As Nicole parked her car in front of her building, she noticed a known form hunched over, sitting at the stairs: Jake. A small smile twisted her lips when she found her best friend there. Despite every joke and all the sarcasm, he always knew when she needed him.
“Lost?” Nicole stood in front of him, still on the sidewalk, eyeing the big bag he had between his feet.
“No, but I thought you might be.” Nicole’s sad, half smile let him know he was right. “Which is why I brought a few friends with me.”
The gray bag clinked when Jake got up and followed Nicole into the building. He had brought along enough wine so that she could tell him everything that had happened on those days with Allison. Or go into an alcoholic poisoning. Whichever happened first.
Miles away, Allison observed the world through the plane’s window. She had her forehead leaned against its coolness as she watched the city lights below and the shapes of the clouds. But her mind wasn’t on the lights or the clouds or the trip home. Allison wondered how she had let her guard down like that.
If there was anything she had always taken pride on her life, it was her ability to remain detached. She had never exposed more of herself than she wanted; she had always protected her heart. Even before she became famous. And now she was there, with it shattered once again, because of the same woman.
“You okay, Ally?” Mike’s voice forced a smile on Allison’s face.
“Yeah. I was just thinking about my next album.”
“Oh, great. I received a few songs that I think would sound amazing with you.”
“Actually, I was thinking about writing some of my stuff this time, you know? I think it’s time.”
“Are you serious?” He made no effort to hide his surprise. He had been trying to convince Allison to record some of her own material for years with no luck.
“Yeah. I have a few ideas in mind already.” Before Mike could say anything back, Allison continued. “I’m going straight to the old apartment and work on that.”
It was Allison’s way of saying she needed some time alone. She only went to that small, cramped apartment when she had too much on her mind and needed the solitude to deal with it. The neighbors knew to keep her presence there to themselves – most knew her from before she landed her first record deal – and Mike fended off every business call that came. No one else knew about that apartment’s existence. Well, no one but Nicole.
Two bottles of wine later and Nicole had finished telling Jake all that had happened between her and Allison since they met in that café. At first, she had considered telling him the short version, saving most of the details for herself. But then she remembered that he knew her well enough to know if she wasn’t being completely honest and he would probably call her out on it. Besides, if she wanted his honest opinion, the least she should do was tell him everything.
“Wow, Nic. That could become a book.”
“Actually, it will be on a magazine cover.” They both laughed a little more than they should have, but the wines were to blame.
“What about after you finish the story? What do you plan on doing?”
That was the million dollar question – and the one Nicole had been trying not to think about. She had built so many barriers between herself and Allison that she had no idea what she should do when they had all fallen to the ground.
Thinking about it brought tears to Nicole’s eyes, because the hard truth was that Allison was gone and she had no idea what to do now. Jake took her hand, squeezing it lightly.
“What do you think I should do?” Nicole asked in a barely-there voice.
“I think you should turn in your story, ask for a few days off and go to New York after your woman.”
“And then what? Are we supposed to have a long distance relationship? We tried that already, Jake. And guess what? It didn’t work.”
“Yes, but you didn’t break up because of the distance. You broke off because you were just kids, back then. Insecure, naïve.” Jake pulled Nicole’s hand to his lap, making her look up at him. “Nic, you love Ally, that’s crystal clear to me. And by the way I’ve seen her look at you, it’s quite obvious that she loves you too.” A tear rolled down her cheek and he caught it with his thumb before continuing. “I know you have hurt each other in the past and that you’re scared to take the first step, but someone has to. You can be amazing together, I know it. But it will take some balls. The question is: do you have the balls to go after her?”
“Uh, Jake, you do know that balls would have no place in this relationship, right?”
“Oh, honey.” He chuckled and stood up. “First of all, sometimes, some balls are necessary in any relationship. And second, don’t deflect the question by making me talk about balls. Are you brave enough? To go after her?”
Jake’s question kept pounding inside Nicole’s hand long after the man was gone from her apartment. Would she be brave enough to try having a relationship with Allison again? Would she be brave enough to take the first step? Would she be brave enough to put herself out there so completely, with no guarantees that Allison even felt the same? Would she be brave enough?
Weirdly, it wasn’t the fact that the world knew who Allison was now that made Nicole so unsure. She knew Ally Strong was like an alter-ego and that she would be in a relationship with Allison Peters, even if the world saw her as Ally’s girlfriend. What made her so tentative about the idea of going after the woman, was getting hurt again. Even if they had said that what had happened between them all those years ago wasn’t anyone’s fault, Nicole couldn’t forget the hurt she felt when she watched Allison walk away from her house.
Being with Lauren was predictable; no excitement, no pain. And going after Allison was the complete opposite. There was nothing about it that Nicole could predict, with a big potential for excitement and an even bigger one for pain.
Nicole got up to get a glass of water, but the alcohol in her blood system made her steps clumsy. She stumbled on her way to the kitchen and when she caught herself on the dining table, Nicole knocked down her purse on the floor. Its entire contents scattered around and among her cell phone, notepads, pens and makeup, she found the CD that Allison had given her at the airport.
The case was clear and the silver part of the CD caught the light, casting multicolored rays across the living room. Nicole picked it up as if she was holding some kind of old relic that could shatter and turn to dust if she held it too tight. She placed it on the table and got her laptop she had left on the couch. There was this kind of bustle happening inside her as she waited for the device to start.
She didn’t know what to expect of a recording made in a moment stolen out of her busy schedule. All she knew was that it would be no professional recording. There would be no studio, no technician, maybe not even instruments. And precisely because of that, Nicole wanted to hear it as if it held all the answers to the questions she hadn’t found the voice to ask. Because Allison made sure she got that CD. Because maybe, just maybe, that CD held all the words Allison hadn’t found the voice to speak.
At first, there was just a guitar. Alone, echoing inside Nicole’s apartment. It felt like Allison was sitting on the couch, the instrument perched on her crossed legs, a small concentration wrinkle between her eyebrows, her lips twisted to the side. The first notes were a bit shaky and Nicole saw this imaginary Allison take a deep breath before the melody became smoother. It was a simple one, meant more to carry a message than to move bodies.
Nicole wasn’t ready for the moment Allison’s voice rang from the speakers. She had noticed the cue, but she wasn’t ready. It was raw and grainy and powerful and was speaking directly to her. She gasped after the first line. She had been right. The song was for her, it was everything Allison hadn’t been able to say. But it was more than just about their time together this week. It was about their breakup and Allison’s guilt. Nicole could hear the hurt in her voice as she apologized through song.
By the lyrics, Nicole imagined Allison wrote and recorded the song before she came into her room the other night, before they set the record straight about their faults for their break up. It was easy to hear Allison’s remorse and it matched the way she felt when they started their talk. What Nicole didn’t understand was why Allison wanted to make sure that Nicole got that CD and heard that song. If they had already forgiven each other, what more could there be?
And then the chorus came in.
Allison’s voice cracked a bit, high pitched and strained, but the message was clear. She wanted to begin things again, she wanted to be a better person and she wanted to do it for Nicole.
It was hard to hold back the tears at that point. Nicole was basically hearing everything she wanted to have said herself, but couldn’t. This song was an apology and a love declaration all in one. And it was also a request. A request to be the one Nicole chooses.
She caught herself thinking about what Jake had said earlier. Would they be ready for a relationship? A full blown relationship. Did they even stand a chance at making it? The truth was that they had hurt each other badly on their first try, but Nicole knew that the people that had fallen in love now were very different from the stupid little girls from ten years before.
The recording ended with Allison’s uncomfortable laugh, a sound Nicole had no idea she had missed so much. And it decided for her.
The hot water from the shower ran down her body, taking some of her drunkenness with it. The rest could be dealt with a lot of coffee. She would need it. She had a lot of work and not much time. Nicole felt like she needed to do Allison’s life justice. She sat in front of her computer, straight spine, gathered all her notes from the previous days and faced the blank screen that shone in front of her.
It would be a long night, but she had a home-made music recording to keep her company.
Dianna was sorting through her mail as she entered her office and was startled when she noticed someone was sitting in one of the chairs in front of her desk. She went around it and found Nicole fiddling with a flash drive in her lap.
“Nicole! So early! Did you miss the office?”
“Actually, I came here to give you this. I finished the story.”
“Already? You do know the deadline isn’t until next Monday, right? You don’t have to give me this right now.”
“I know, but I need to deal with some personal issues.” Nicole raised her eyes to look Dianna straight in the eyes. A lot hinged on her answer and Nicole felt like her heart was about to leap through her mouth. “I need to ask for a few days off, that’s why I’m submitting the story early.”
“Personal issues? Anything I should know about?” Something about the way Dianna looked at her made Nicole think that maybe she knew everything already, but she didn’t want to jinx any chance she might have.
“Not for now.”
Nicole felt uncomfortable under Dianna’s stare. It was like she was under a microscope and the editor could see everything that she was thinking and feeling and wanting. It was an unnerving sensation, but she fought with herself to remain steady.
“Alright. One week. I’ll see you next Monday.”
There were very few reporters at the office when Nicole left Dianna’s office. It meant she was able to make her way out without anyone asking about her time as Ally Strong’s shadow. Normally, Nicole would love to share her experiences with her colleagues, but she had more important things to take care of.
As she waited for the elevator, Nicole searched her phone in her bag and sent Jake a text. Just four words, but she was sure he would get their magnitude.
‘I got the balls.’