“Jake, how’s your schedule for the rest of the week?”
“Why in heaven’s name are you calling me at the crack of dawn?”
“It’s eight in the morning, Jake.”
It was a well-known fact in the magazine that Jake Faulk was not a morning person. Nicole knew that first hand, but she had spent a good chunk of her night awake – first interviewing Allison and then fighting with Lauren. She wouldn’t be able to relax anytime soon, let alone get any sleep. Which is why she decided to go into work earlier than usual and deal with a few things before she had to start following a certain singer around town.
“First things first. How did it go last night, with our favorite sexy singer?”
“I got the interview, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“It’s not exactly what I was talking about…” Jake mumbled on the phone and Nicole could practically see the pout he was probably sporting.
“Well, it’s all that happened, J.” Nicole pushed open the lobby doors and waved at the security guard. “Listen, I’m on my way up to discuss a few details with Dianna and then I’m meeting with Allison. I’ll call you later to talk about the pictures, okay? When you’re actually awake.”
“Okay, baby. Now can I go back to sleep?”
“No! You can get your sweet ass in the shower and get ready for work. I need you with me on this one and I’m not letting you get benched because you’re late.”
“If I do this, do I get to ask a few more questions about you know who? I’m just dying to know--”
The huge windows behind Dianna’s desk let all the morning sunlight in. The setting made the office look bright and welcoming. It also made Nicole squint her eyes as she told her boss about her conversation with Allison and her PR the night before. She just hoped all that light didn’t make the dark circles beneath her eyes any more visible.
“That’s their proposition, Dianna. As her schedule in town is quite tight, I’d need to be stuck to her for the next four days. It wasn’t what I had envisioned, but I think it can be an interesting opportunity. I don’t think Allison has ever done something like that before.”
“I’ve read some of your old stories, Ms. Black. I think you’re a talented journalist and that you have what it takes to make an excellent profile on Ally Strong. And for that, the more time you two spend together, the better.”
Even though the words she heard were a compliment, Nicole had a hard time believing them. There was something about Dianna’s tone of voice that made her feel defensive.
“That also worries me.”
And there was the other shoe, dropping in front of her like a grenade.
“What are you worried about, Dianna?”
“Well, you said so yourself. You two have known each other for a very long time. I’m afraid this relationship might cloud your judgment and jeopardize the story.”
“There is no relationship.” Nicole took her time to choose her words carefully. “There was, once, a long time ago, but it’s over. And Allison and I are big girls; we won’t let that get in the way of this interview.”
“Good.” It sounded like a challenge.
“In fact, I think it may even help.” Dianna relaxed in her chair and waited for Nicole to continue. “Allison is a very closed off person, she doesn’t trust easily. All of her interviews so far have been more about her professional life. No one has been able to get her to talk much about her personal life.”
“And you think you can.”
“She already knows me. She trusts me. I definitely have an advantage.”
“Very well. I hope you’re right.”
“I am.” Nicole stood up and walked around the chair she had been occupying. “So, are we all set or do you have any more concerns you wish to discuss?”
“We’re all set.” Dianna took a moment to look Nicole up and down. “But I want daily reports, around this hour. Just for my peace of mind.”
“No problem. One other thing. Can I have Jake?”
“All four days?” She chuckled as if the notion was absurd. “No.”
“They wouldn’t go for it either. I’ll check her appointments and schedule with him. Is that alright?”
“Yes, but keep me posted.”
Nicole smiled and turned around to leave. Considering everything, she thought she could count that meeting as a success. Dianna had given her the go-ahead, had complimented her work and she would be working with Jake for some of the next days. It was probably the excitement that made turned around before she completely left the office.
“You have nothing to worry about, Dianna. It will be the best cover this magazine has ever had.”
“We’ll see about that, Nicole. We’ll see about that.”
Autographing CDs at a local store. That was the first item on Allison’s agenda for the day and Nicole got there around 10 A.M. The singer was supposed to be there one hour later, but Nicole wanted to get a feel of the place.
The lines were going around the block with mostly young girls wearing shirts with Allison’s face on them and holding anything that the superstar could possibly sign. It was the very first time Nicole actually realized how big and famous her former passion had become. For someone who knew her as simply Al, it was strange seeing the Ally Strong effect.
Nicole walked up the line talking to some fans. She was having a hard time getting them to speak in coherent sentences – a lot of them would start crying when they started talking about Ally – but she didn’t need their words, exactly. Nicole wanted to understand how that 5’3’’ woman had so much power over them. How she could make them stand in line, under the sun, on a regular day, merely because she would be there at some point.
She was photographing a group of fifteen-year-olds and their memorabilia when this collective scream almost left her deaf. It didn’t take a genius to understand that Ally Strong had just arrived. Since she was almost at the front of the line, Nicole had an advantage point to capture images of Allison stepping out of her car and into the store. She poised her camera and watched the scene unfold through the small screen.
Allison had on a white t-shirt, a pair of distressed jeans, flats, and her long, dark hair was pulled into a high ponytail. Nothing about her screamed award winner and yet, her smile would be able to light up the block. She reminded Nicole of the woman she had seen the night before, in a hotel room, after Allison changed from her performance clothing. She seemed so much freer like that; happier.
The inside of the bookstore was no less crowded, but Nicole didn’t have a hard time finding Simone. She was standing by the table that had been set up for Allison, watching the sea of teenage girls in front of her like a general.
“Hey, Simone.” Nicole greeted her, making her presence known. “Big turnout, huh?”
“Yeah. It’s usually like that whenever we have one of these events.” The notes of disdain on her voice irked Nicole, but she knew it wasn’t her place to say anything. She was there as nothing more than a spectator.
“Oh, good. Look, since I don’t have my photographer with me, I’m going to make some images, okay?”
“Go for it. Ally did say full access, so…”
Nicole could feel heavy eyes glued to her back the whole time she was taking pictures. She didn’t know exactly why Simone disliked her so much, but she wasn’t there to worry about that. She was there to observe Allison interact with her fans.
By the time she approached the table, a man in his forties was stepping forward.
“And who should I sign this for?” Allison asked with a smile, despite discreetly flexing the fingers on her left hand under the table.
“Lily. That’s my daughter. She’s a big fan. In fact, because of her, I am too.”
“Oh, yeah?” She looked up at the man with a playful smile. “I’m happy to hear that.”
“Y-yeah. Your music has helped us a lot through some difficult times.”
Something about the man’s tone made Allison put her pen back on the table and give him her undivided attention. Now that she was really looking at him, she could see his tense posture, hunched shoulders, wringing fingers. Someone from her team walked towards the table, but Allison held up her hand, stopping their movements.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, my Lily, she uh… She’s also… She’s like you.”
“Yes.” The man seemed relieved after acknowledging it and Nicole let the camera hang around her neck to pay attention to their conversation. “I was shocked when I found out. I couldn’t look her in the eye, I almost threw her out of our house.”
“I come from a very religious family, you know?” Allison was biting her bottom lip and Nicole knew it usually meant she was trying not to cry. “I grew up believing it was a sin. And then, one day, I got home and she was listening to your CD. I said I liked the song and she answered ‘Are you sure? Because this singer is just like me.’”
“Yeah, she is.” They chuckled and he smiled fondly at his memories. “That night, I read everything I could find about you. Your career, your life, your interviews. You were so different from what I was taught being gay meant that I didn’t know what to think anymore. I started seeing my daughter with different eyes.”
“Wow. That’s…” Allison swallowed the lump in her throat. “That’s amazing.”
“We’re still on the mends. I’m still not completely comfortable with everything, but she’s my daughter and I love her. I’d do anything for her. Even spend hours in line to get your autograph. She had a test today and couldn’t come, but I hope she sees this as proof that I love her no matter what.”
“Well, Lily is a very lucky girl. You’re trying and that’s all anyone can ever hope for. I know you two will find a way to be okay again.”
The man took the CD Allison handed back to him and left the place with a smile. He didn’t even notice the lonely tear that the singer tried to hide. Only Nicole did. Before the next person could reach the table, Allison called her manager and told him she would take a small break. She said her hand was hurting, but, in reality, she just needed to get herself together.
“Is it always this crazy, Al?”
Nicole had followed Allison until the small room that had been turned into a dressing/relaxing room for the singer. There were two chairs on a corner, a table with food and refreshments and a few pieces of equipment Allison’s team had brought.
“Pretty much.” She answered after occupying one of the chairs. She nodded towards the other and Nicole took a seat.
They remained in silence for a few minutes. Allison had her eyes closed and her head tilted back. Every now and then she would take a deep breath and let it out slowly through her nose. Nicole didn’t know what to say – everything sounded silly in her mind – so she stayed silent and took the time to observe the other woman. She watched the gentle curve of her neck, the very faint line on the corner of her mouth, a small scar on the underside of her chin she had never seen. This was a different woman, she was watching. A different woman built on top of the one she knew.
“God, you would think after this long I’d be immune to this.”
“What do you mean?” Allison had opened her eyes and turned her head to look Nicole in the eyes.
“Every time I do something like this, there’s always someone telling me some version of the same story that man just told me.” She smiled with her lips, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “And no matter what, they always get to me.”
“And why do you think that is?”
Allison took her time to formulate her answer. When she finally spoke, her voice sounded far away.
“Do you remember how hard it was to come out to yourself? To the world?”
“Of course I do.”
“Knowing that my music and my posture has been able to help someone like me, like us, to feel a little less alone and a little stronger is the best award I could ever wish for. That’s why I never allowed my label to put me back in the closet. That’s why I’ve been to countless Prides. I want my life to have meaning. And to help people.”
“You know, behind this strong façade” Allison smiled at Nicole’s choice of word. “You’re nothing but a big pile of mush.”
“Shhhh… Don’t tell anyone.”
“Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me. Besides, it’s good to see that those stories still get to you, even after all this time.” She placed her hand on top of Allison’s.
“And why’s that?”
“It means you’re still human.”
Before Allison could say anything more, her cell phone rang in her pocket. She picked up the device and Nicole could see the moment her expression turned into a scowl. It was the same thing that happened in the café and Nicole wondered if it was the same person calling her this time. Allison silenced the tone and put the cell back in her pocket.
“I should get back out there.” She was already up and crossing the room.
“Yes, of course. I’ll be right out.” Nicole tried to mask her disappointment. More than wanting to know what Allison was about to tell her, she wanted to continue the moment they were having. She wanted to continue touching Allison and talking about the things that were important to her.
But both of them had jobs to do.“Hey, Nic?” Allison called from the door. Nicole looked up and saw the same soft expression on the other woman’s face as she had seen just minutes before. “I’m really glad you’re here.”