The pajamas were warm. The bed was inviting. The blanket was heavy on her body. After the longest day she could remember, Nicole was finally in her hotel room. It wasn’t the same as being in her own bedroom, but it was close enough. After all the exhaustion that had accumulated in her body and a drawn out bath, Nicole was practically dreaming about a bed.
She placed the glass of water she had on the bedside table, lay down and allowed her mind to drift into that unknown land between dream and reality. When she was almost getting herself to disconnect from work and the fight with her girlfriend and the sexy singer that occupied the room next door, Nicole heard a knock.
At first she remained motionless, sure that it was only exhaustion playing tricks with her mind. But the noise was still there, louder and more urgent as it kept echoing in the room. Cursing whoever insisted in disturbing her well-deserved rest, Nicole dragged her body out of bed, crossed the room and opened the door.
“I need to talk to you, Nicole.”
“Look, Simone, it’s almost two in the morning, it’s been a long day and I’m beyond exhausted. Can’t we talk in the morning? Whatever it is, I’m sure it can wait a few hours.”
“No, it can’t.” Her voice was strong and carried a sense of finality. “I need to talk to you now. With no Allison around.”
“Go ahead, then. I’m already up, anyway.”
“Like this? In the middle of the hallway? Can I at least get inside?”
“No. You’re the one that’s so eager to have this conversation in the middle of the night. But, since I intend on keeping this short, this is more than enough.”
To strengthen her point, Nicole crossed her arms in front of her chest and leaned her body on the door jamb. The silence between them stretched on for a few more seconds, with both of them analyzing the other, waiting to see who would make the first move.
“Very well.” Simone caved first. “I just want to warn you that Ally might think that this reunion between you two is some kind of second chance, and that’s why she’s trying to impress you with everything she has achieved, but I’ve got you all figured out, kid. I know that what you want, really, is to make a name at my client’s expense, but I won’t allow it. I know a lot of people in this town, so I would be very careful about what you print in that magazine of yours. I can make your life hell.”
“Is that a threat, Simone? Because the Allison that I know doesn’t need anyone doing that for her. She’s more than capable of doing that herself.” Nicole raised her eyebrow and when Simone doesn’t say anything back, she takes the silence as answer. “Of course. She has no idea you’re here, does she?”
“No, she doesn’t.”
“Great. Then I’m about to tell you two things and I honestly hope you understand them. One, I didn’t orchestrate a reunion with Allison and I don’t want a second chance with her. Our story was beautiful, but it’s in the past. What’s left is mutual respect and affection.” Nicole straightened her posture and made sure she kept her voice even. “And two, I’m a professional and that’s how I’ve been handling this interview. Nothing that I might know about Allison's life that hasn’t been mentioned during my time with her or her team will be mentioned in my final story. And if there’s anything you don’t like about my final piece or how I do my work, you can call my editor. I have her card with me, if you’d like.”
“There’s no need. I think we understand each other.”
“Agreed. Now I’ll go back to my bed and pretend this conversation never happened.”
And before the woman that was standing in the hallway could say anything back, Nicole slammed the door in her face with the strength of all the anger she felt. She could feel her hand trembling as it hung, limp, by her side. If there was one thing Nicole absolutely hated, it was confrontations like that one. She was just glad she had been able to keep the trembling away from her voice.
Who did that woman think she was, to knock on her door, in the middle of the night, to make threats?
Variations of that same question swirled around her mind as she walked back to the bed, more than willing to do as she said and forget about the whole thing. Before she could make it all the way back, Nicole heard knocking at her door again. She instantly thought it was Simone with a new batch of cheap accusations. Nicole saw red as she marched towards the door and ripped it open.
“WHAT?” She didn’t care that she might wake half the floor.
“Wow, Nic, I know you’re not exactly chipper when you first wake up, but I didn’t remember you being so bad.”
“I’m sorry, Al. I thought you were somebody else.”
“Expecting visitors?” Allison looked both sides of the hallway and turned back to Nicole. “Am I interrupting something?”
“No and no.” Nicole let her body sag against the open door. “Actually, yes. I really need to go to sleep. I’m exhausted.”
Nicole’s voice was nothing more than a whine at that point – her sleep had become something of a physical pain. And yet, she finished opening her door and allowed the singer to enter the room. There was no need to talk in the hallway with her. Besides, she didn’t want to run the risk of Simone seeing them, in their sleep clothes, talking in the middle of the night.
“Me too. In fact, that’s exactly why I’m here. Do you remember that time you spent in my apartment in New York?”
“I remember a lot about that time, but I’m not sure where you’re trying to get at.”
“Well, back then I had this really bad insomnia problem before performances. And the only thing that relaxed me enough that I could get some sleep was talking to you. So I thought that ---”
“You want us to talk until you can fall asleep?” Nicole wasn’t sure if she should be amused or offended. She went with baffled. “Are you crazy?”
“Considering that my insomnia only reappeared when you came back into my life, I don’t think so.” Allison smiled and Nicole had to avert her eyes. That smile was able to get her to do anything. “Come on, Nic. It won’t hurt a bit. Besides, you also need to get some sleep. You said so yourself.”
“Yes. And my only problem with that is people knocking on my door at ungodly hours.” She pinched the bridge of her nose and exhaled heavily. “And why did you knock on this door and not on the one that connects our rooms?”
When Nicole went to stay at the hotel with the rest of Allison’s team, the singer insisted that she take the room that was connected to hers. Usually, Simone had that room.
“Because I didn’t think you would have opened it if I had.” There was something behind Allison’s hazel eyes that Nicole couldn’t read. It looked a little like regret. “But don’t change the subject, Nic. Can we talk? Please. Twenty minutes. I promise.”
“Twenty minutes and you go back to your room?”
“And anything you say can be used in my story?”
“Yes, Ms. Reporter. But, I don’t wanna talk shop, alright?”
“Alright. You got yourself a deal, Bluebird. Come to bed.”
At first, there was an awkward silence, filled with years growing apart. They each sat on one side of the king sized bed, their backs to the headboard and legs stretched out before them. Nicole played with her fingers on her lap as Allison toyed with a loose thread on the comforter. Neither woman could remember a situation when they didn’t know what to say to each other. Not even on the first night they spent together, the very same night they met, they didn’t have to deal with this weighting of words and hanging silence.
“So, can I ask about this girlfriend of yours or is she a forbidden subject?”
Allison was the first to be able to voice any words. Nicole looked to the side and found a small smile on the other woman’s face. She couldn’t be sure if Allison was genuinely interested in hearing about her relationship or if she was fishing for information. Maybe she was just looking for an ice-breaker. Whatever it was, as she sat there, thinking about her fight with Lauren, Nicole remembered why she and Allison had worked so well for the time they were together. There was never anything that they couldn’t talk to each other.
“Honestly, at this point, I’m not sure what she is, exactly.”
“What happened, Nic? Did you guys have a fight?”
“Well, she wasn’t particularly happy with me when I got home in the middle of the night, the other day.”
Nicole thought to the night in question; her first interview with Allison. They must have spent almost three hours, alone, in that hotel room and, not once, did she think about her girlfriend. And even if her logical side tried to convince her that it happened because she was working and really shouldn’t be thinking about Lauren, Nicole knew different. She knew the only reason she didn’t think about her girlfriend was the woman sitting beside her. Allison was all she could think about that night and every other moment since Dianna chose her for this interview.
“I’m so sorry, Nic.” There was real remorse in Allison’s voice.
“It’s alright. It’s not your fault. Things weren’t great between us for quite some time. Besides, that’s my job.”
“It is, but I didn’t have to make you stay for so long that night.”
“I chose to stay.” Nicole turned on her hip to face Allison. She felt like there was a lot being said in the silence between their words and Allison’s eyes had never been able to lie to her before. “But, why did you want me to stay?”
Allison couldn’t face Nicole. Her eyes were glued to the way her fingers picked at her shirt’s hem and she tried to ignore the movements of the woman beside her. Until another set of fingers wrapped around her hand and she was forced to look up. She sighed. She knew she would never be able to lie.
“Because that was the first time I was seeing you in about a decade?” She didn’t try to make it sound like a question, but that’s how it came out. As if she was asking Nicole if that was a valid enough reason. “I don’t know. I guess I was afraid that you might rethink this interview and I would lose my chance to talk to you again.”
As much as she tried not to smile at that answer, Nicole couldn’t contain it completely. It was still strange to her to get these glimpses of the Allison Peters she knew after spending the whole day surrounded by everything Ally Strong. Now she could understand how the singer used that stage persona to protect herself. Ally has every bit of Allison’s strength and power and charisma, but none of the vulnerabilities.
“Why did you stay that night?”
The question caught her off guard, but maybe it shouldn’t have. Nicole looked up and found a ten year younger Allison staring back at her, hope and uncertainty mixing with the hazel in her eyes.
“Because it was the first time I was seeing you in person in ten years and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it all again the following morning.” They both sighed and leaned back against the headboard, facing each other. “But, enough about me. What about you? Is there anyone special in your life?”
“Don’t tell me you believe everything the tabloids publish…”
“I don’t.” Her answer was a little more than a whisper. “I just find it hard to believe that a beautiful, smart, funny, loyal, successful woman like you is single.”
“Well, I also have the craziest schedule and I’m never home. So, it’s not exactly easy to have a relationship with me.”
“I guess it would be hard to follow your girlfriend’s life on the internet.”
A new wave of silence rolled in and settled between them, less awkward and more understanding. Something akin to what they used to have.
Nicole could feel thousands of questions crawling up her throat as she watched Allison from the corner of her eye. But those were questions she wanted answered for herself, not the general public. And even if she had the perfect excuse to ask them, she chose to remain silent.
An almost-not-there touch to her right leg pulled Nicole from her thoughts. Looking down, she found Allison’s finger following the discolored lined that ran the length of her knee. There was a scowl on the singer’s face, like its mere existence offended her.
“What happened to us, Nic? Why did it all go wrong?”
“I think we both know the answer to that, Al.” Nicole sighed heavily and looked down at her scar, before looking Allison in the eye. “I think we’re both to blame for that.”
“No, we’re not.” Allison’s eyes turned fiery in an instant. “None of that was your fault.”
“Of course it was. I practically kicked you out of my house.”
“And I should have stayed.” The sad smile that stretched Allison’s lips tugged Nicole’s heart. She could still remember how much they both suffered back then. “Do you know what the first thing I thought when I got the call from the hospital, saying you had been in an accident was?”
Allison had to take a deep breath before continuing. They had never talked about those weeks before and, as much as she had turned them over and analyzed them in her head, it still pained her to remember the image of Nicole laying on her bed, a cast immobilizing her right knee and a distant look in her eyes.
“Nothing.” She chuckled. “I couldn’t think. I just… I felt like I was on auto-pilot and my only programming was to get to you.”
“I was so happy to see you that night.”
“I was glad the hospital called me. And then the surgeon came to talk to you. To tell you had to have surgery.”
The third wave of silence that filled the room was the heaviest yet. Demons whispered painful memories in their ears and Nicole could feel tears burning the inside of her eyes. Another burning sensation started along the line of her scar, but she knew that one was only in her head. It always happened whenever she remembered the accident or the weeks after.
Allison placed her hand on top of her scarred skin and the burning subsided.
“Do you remember how full your room got that morning?” She asked with a smile. “There was me, your parents, your roommate, your coach, the team’s doctor and a bunch of the girls from the team in and out all day.”
“God, there was a moment I thought it would run out of air.” The two women laughed together. “But you never left my side.”
“I couldn’t. Your roommate practically forced me to go back to the dorms with her, so I could shower and change my clothes.”
“Well, as much as I loved that dress on you, you really needed a shower.”
“I know.” Allison moved on top of the bed and the mood changed. “And then you went back to Iowa with your parents and I went back to New York.”
The regret was evident on Allison’s voice. That was the one thing that, if she had the opportunity to do differently in her life, she would. There was nothing else she would change – everything, every mistake led her to where she was in life. But she would like to be able to go back in time and not travel back to New York like she did.
“Al, I told you to go home.”
“Yes, but --”
“But nothing.” Nicole took the hand that was resting on top of her leg and squeezed. “You were there for my surgery and I went home to recuperate and start with physical therapy. You couldn’t lose so many gigs, honey. It wouldn’t be fair to you.”
“At least I would be with you when you learned you wouldn’t be able to play again.”
The confession fell between them like a grenade, leaving behind it a bashful Allison and a baffled Nicole.
“Is that what this is all about?” She asked with her softest voice. “That you weren’t there?”
“I should have been there, Nic.”
“It wouldn’t have changed what the doctor said. He would still tell me that I would never play volleyball ever again.”
“And I should have been there for my girlfriend, instead of playing every gig there was.” Allison was looking Nicole’s fingers between hers as she added. “At least, you wouldn’t be so mad at me.”
“I was never mad at you, Al. I was mad at the world.”
“That’s not what it felt like.”
“I know and I’m sorry for that.” She took a moment to choose the words she wanted to say next. “My biggest dream had just been shattered. I was not in a good place. I accused you of some pretty horrible things.”
“I deserved some of them.”
“You deserved none of them. I never blamed you for leaving.”
They came to a standstill, none of them letting go from the guilt they had carried in silence for so long.
“No matter what you said, I should have stayed. I knew you needed me and I ran away. Can you forgive me for being a coward?”
“Only if you can forgive me for being an ass.”
Ever since the day Nicole and Allison met, their bodies were better at communicating their feelings towards the other. That time was no different. Allison fell into Nicole’s arms and let a decade of pent up guilt pour out of her through tears and the sobs that racked her small frame. It was the first time they touched so freely (so fully) since they met again and the feeling of Allison’s body against hers overwhelmed Nicole.
But her body knew how to react. She leaned back against the headboard and took Allison with her, tightening the embrace as she did so. A few tears leaked out of her eyes and met the ones that soaked her shirt. She threaded her fingers in Allison’s hair and scratched her scalp the way she hoped still calmed her. When the singer’s sobs had been reduced to a few sniffles, Nicole leaned down and whispered in her ear.
“Even if I don’t think I have to, of course, I forgive you, my little Bluebird.”
The words, spoken so close to her skin, were absorbed by Allison until they became a part of her bloodstream and the very fabric of her being. Until that night, she had no idea how much hearing those words would mean to her. Allison leaned back, her eyes shining with tears. She looked deep into Nicole’s eyes and, for a moment, it felt like no time had passed at all. They were still the same young girls they had once been, careless and in love.
Allison look down, at Nicole’s lips, and was about to lean in when a small, sad smile graced the journalist’s face and she remembered they were not young and they were not in love anymore.
“I forgive you, too.” She said instead. “Even, then?”