“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said, looking at the stage not far from us, on which sat a man with his guitar and played a cover for a popular song, his voice smooth and beautiful.
Diego finished his virgin mimosa and grinned. “I’m completely serious.”
“I’m not going up there,” I said firmly, glaring at him.
“That will be determined shortly,” he said and leaned back, his eyes dancing.
The moment the clock had hit nine, the rooftop bar hosted an open-mic night, but this wasn’t like the open-mic night Diego had taken me back in Manhattan all those years ago; this was meant for professionals only. This was why people reserved places in the bar beforehand; if they planned on performing, they had to be good, and apparently, Diego had told them I was, quote, ‘phenomenal’.
“If you think I’m going to let you talk me into doing this,” I said slowly, “then you’re in for a surprise.
He pushed the empty glasses away and put his left hand on the table. “Last time we arm-wrestled, I used my strong arm,” he said, smirking when he saw my eyes narrow in suspicion. “I promise I’ll go easy on you.”
“I’m not falling for this again,” I folded my arms. “You’re obviously way stronger than me, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend I have a chance of defeating you in this game.”
He cocked his head. “Scared, Harper?”
That made my fuse spike. After he’d finally stopped calling me that, for that one blissful moment, here he was, calling me by my last name again, and if the twitching of his lips was any indication, he liked how annoyed it made me.
Stupidly, I let my temper take over. “Fine,” I said, putting my left arm on the table. “Same rule from last time applies, though.” That I could use any and all limbs to put pressure on his arm.
“Deal,” he said, and his hand took mine. A shocking current slithered up my arm, causing goosebumps to cover my skin, and made me extremely happy I was wearing a long-sleeved dress.
Once in place, Diego locked his eyes on mine and said, “You know, even if I lose, they won’t let me sing.”
My eyes widened, my focus gone. “What?”
And my arm was flattened on the table a second later.
Diego grinned. “I win.”
“You cheated!” I argued, glaring at him. “You didn’t even count to three, and you didn’t tell me it would be moot if you lose - “
“Stop whining,” his grin grew, “I won fair and square.”
“Fair and square my foot,” I hissed, narrowing my eyes at him. “God, I could strangle you right now.”
“Want to hear something that would make you feel better?” he suddenly leaned forward, his grin a teasing one that made my heart hammer.
I had to swallow hard for a moment as I said, “Shoot.”
“Six years ago,” he said, “I’d used my right hand on purpose.”
That made me frown. “But you said your left hand is your weak one.”
“I lied,” his grin turned into a smirk as shock made my eyes widen, “I’m left-handed.”
Now I was irritated. “So you lied to me?”
“Think about it this way,” he said, leaning an inch closer, “I was trying to be a gentleman all those years ago. I used my weak hand to make sure you had a shot.”
“But tonight you were just being a complete douchebag about it so I would lose,” I retorted back, annoyed. “Well, Diego, knowing your sentiment six years later is kind of redundant, not after you just lied and cheated your way into victory.”
His grin slowly dissipated. “I can still remember you singing,” he said quietly, and I felt the air change, as if all amusement was gone, and what was left was… unknown. “I’ve been waiting for a chance to hear you again.”
I’d shared a lot about myself tonight, but I knew that this needed to be said, no matter how vulnerable it would make me. “I’m not sure I can,” I told him frankly, my green eyes meeting his dark ones. “There are… things… I can’t really tell you right now, but singing… it’s not as easy as… you know.” I finished with a heavy sigh.
Diego studied me for a few long moments, and then smiled. “You know what?” he said. “I think we should get the check.”
Everything inside me deflated, disappointed and somewhat hurt. That was it? We were leaving? “Okay,” I murmured, looking away, feeling a little strange.
Diego paid the check, then led me out of the rooftop bar and the building on which it was standing. He took me to the Charles promenade, where we walked side by side in silence, as I still felt a little down from the whole thing.
But then he stopped at a remote area, where it was just the two of us, and turned to me. “Sing here.”
I blinked, surprised. “What?”
“No one’s here but us,” he said, smiling, “so singing shouldn’t be that difficult for you.”
It wasn’t about my stage fright as much as it was about other things… Lack of self-esteem when it came to singing, for example… But Diego was looking at me with eyes gone soft and a small smile on his lips, and I found that I didn’t want to let him down. And that feeling was stronger than my own issues.
My cheeks heating up despite the cold, I closed my eyes, and sang the first thing that came to mind.
“There is a place unseen by the eye,
A place everyone never walks by,
It’s off the road that leads to the sky,
And no one can know what’s beyond the pines.”
It should’ve felt odd, singing acapella, with the music only playing in my head, but once I started, I realized I couldn’t stop.
“Fields of gold show you the light,
Deserts of hope cover your sight,
A well of memories welcome the night,
Yet no memory of beyond the pines.
You walk the plains of pain and death,
You try to feel what’s in your grasp,
The shadows of your past won’t pass you by,
’Cause you’ll never find what’s beyond the pines.”
Three verses were enough. I opened my eyes and, nervously, met Diego’s. They were full of emotions, but the main one I saw burning bright in them was akin to desperation. It made my heartbeat quicken, and I murmured, “I know it’s not like singing with a live band or anything - “
He took me in his arms at that very same moment, wrapping his arms around my waist and hugging me to him closely. “Fuck,” he gritted out as he buried his head in my hair. “I want to kiss you right now so much.”
My motors shook badly at that. “We’re friends,” I said, but my voice was a breathy gasp. “Friends don’t…”
“Even if friends did,” he said, and there was aggravation in his voice that I just knew had nothing to do with me, “I don’t deserve you, Paige.”
My body locked at hearing him uttering my name again. “Why?” I asked, as, slowly, I put my arms around his neck, standing on tiptoes so I could hug him tightly, too. “You said that in the past, too. You said you’re not good for me. Why, Diego?”
He leaned back a little bit, and leaned his forehead against mine, his face contorted in what looked like frustration and torment. “I’ve told you about my past, about mixing up with the wrong people,” he said, closing his eyes. “I’m not the good sort, Paige. I’m the very, very bad sort.”
“I just don’t understand, Diego,” I said, my heart bursting at the seams. “There’s something here you don’t tell me,” the moment the words were out of my mouth, I knew they were true. “Something big that you don’t tell me.”
He froze, leaned back, and looked at me with torn eyes and a sad smile. “If I tell you,” he said quietly, “you won’t ever want to have anything to do with me.”
I couldn’t stand seeing him like this. My own fears reared their ugly head, wanting me to take a step back, to not fall into this trap again, to learn from the past. But Diego looked so lost, as if he was just waiting for someone to give him their hand, to help them up, to get them out of that dark hole, which seemed to be as very much present as it was six years ago. He might’ve changed, but some things were harder to change. Especially when it was some major issue like I sensed it was.
I knew what I had to do, then. “Let’s go somewhere where we can talk in private,” I said softly, “this is not a conversation to be held here.”
It was an attempt to cajole him into this conversation. If he shut down on me now, if he refused my offer of a listening ear, I didn’t know what I would do. But something told me we needed to have this talk, whatever this was about, and get it over with, or we would never be able to understand each other.
Diego looked at me for a few moments, until the emotions in his eyes abated. It made my stomach clench with uncertainty, with disappointment, because I knew that vacant, blank look. I knew it, and I knew he was going to shut me off, and that just fucking hurt -
“Let’s go to my place. We’ll talk there.”
The disappointment was gone, replaced by a wave of pure hope that made me hug him again. “Alright.”
Diego had bought a lavish duplex in Back Bay, at Copley. It had a beautiful view of the city, seeing as it was at the top floor, and I knew it must’ve cost a fortune to own it. But Diego could afford it, considering he’d basically invented Workeen and, as he said before, he was one of its main shareholders.
“Coffee?” he now asked as I took off my coat and settled down on the plush sofa in the vast living room.
“Yes, thank you,” I replied, feeling a little uneasy now that I knew he was going to tell me things about himself. He’d said I might not want to have anything to do with him once he told me, and while I tried to believe that he was exaggerating, I couldn’t help but feel a niggle of doubt. What if it was as bad as he said?
Coffee ready, Diego put the coffee cups down and settled on the couch across from me. I sipped my coffee, the latte Diego knew I liked, and looked at him. He seemed lost in thought as he looked down at his cup, not even raising it to his lips.
The silence was deafening, and I knew that prolonging the inevitable would be a very bad decision. So I said, “I’ll listen until the very end, Diego. I’m not going anywhere.”
He gave me a faint smile that didn’t reach his eyes, eyes that were now full of those damned shadows that had kept us apart for so long. Too long. “What I’m going to tell you,” he said softly, “only very few people know about.”
“I won’t tell a soul,” I promised at once.
His smile was gone, and he leaned against the couch. “When I moved to Queens,” he said, and I tensed, “I met Marco. You know Marco.”
I nodded. He was the co-founder of Workeen and, as far as I remembered, he was Diego’s best friend in high school right after he moved to Queens.
“Marco and I come from similar backgrounds,” he said, “only his is worse than mine. Marco spent a couple of years in juvie before I met him for attempting to kill his abusive father.”
A chill ran up my spine. Diego said they had similar backgrounds, so did that mean… But I said I would listen, so I bit my tongue and did just that.
“Trouble always found Marco during those times,” he continued, “and, after we became fast friends, he started getting into some shady business, with the same type of people I had mixed with in San Francisco. I tried to stop him,” he grimaced, “but Marco was self-destructive at the time, and he couldn’t care less where that road would lead him. Unfortunately, it led us both to hell.”
He looked at me with weary eyes that were years older than he was. “Marco called me one night, saying he was supposed to meet a client of those people. That client was a poor excuse for a man, who lived in the Bronx, and Marco was terrified to go there alone. The people who sent him to get money from that man were laughing, saying they would truly miss Marco if he suddenly disappeared and found months later, his body only bones floating in the Hudson.”
A bile rose up my throat, but I kept my silence, my eyes fixed on Diego
“I went with him,” his face turned distant, his voice almost detached. “I was worried about Marco too much to care that I might be risking getting into this world again, something that made my family move from the west coast to the east to begin with. It also didn’t help that the NYC ringleader was on my case, trying to recruit me.
“The man lived in a shithole,” Diego’s eyes were faraway now, reliving that memory, no doubt. “He was also ready for us. He knew we would come to collect the money he owed those people, and he wasn’t ready to give us a penny. So he aimed a gun at us first thing as we came through the threshold, told us to go away if we didn’t want to get shot. I knew we had to get out of there, but Marco, who wasn’t in this world long enough to understand, tried to get the man to lower the gun, to say we could talk this through.” A bitter chuckle left his mouth. “The man was beyond listening. He pulled the trigger and shot, but his aim was bad, and I was already moving. I know MMA,” he explained dully, “and so I managed to disarm him while Marco was frantic. But just then, the man went for Marco, closed his hands around his throat, and started strangling him.
“I tried to intervene,” Diego closed his eyes, and his face wasn’t so composed anymore. “Marco managed to push him off, and I caught the man, trying to restrain him from attacking us, but I lost my grip on him, and he lost footing and hit his head at the corner of the dining table. He didn’t move.”
I paled, realizing what was coming now with stark clarity that made me feel cold to my bones.
“A neighbor heard the shot and called the police,” Diego said, looking at the floor, his coffee forgotten in his hands. “They found us with the man dead. Marco tried to take the blame, thinking it was his fault, but I told him to shut it. It was me who did it, after all. If Marco took the blame, the prosecutors would’ve taken one look at his record at juvie, and would throw him in jail without so much as a trial. I had a clean record, since I never got caught in San Francisco, and besides, it was me who did it. Not Marco. Me.”
“I got convicted for involuntary manslaughter,” Diego said with a grimace. “The self defense clause in the law wasn’t applicable, since the man lost his gun in the skirmish. I also got a fine to pay, a fine my dad had to pay, along with the payment to the top-notch attorneys he got me. I was sentenced for two and a half years.”
My eyes widened. I was in shock. Diego… Diego had done time?
He gave me a broken, defeated look. “Now you know.”
Something occurred to me, then. Workeen was a platform meant for employers to find employees based on their resumes only, not knowing anything about their sex, race, religion, not even their names or ages. Diego, being an ex… ex-con, must’ve been unable to get a job with his criminal record, and the same probably applied to Marco, who’d done time in juvie. It didn’t take a genius to connect the dots here. But Diego had gone to the same uni as I did, and universities usually didn’t accept people with criminal records, either…
But this wasn’t what was important right now. Diego was tense, high-strung, waiting for my reaction. He thought I would leave him, run away from him, because of that. I knew that it might be the smartest thing to do, for most people, when they learned an important person in their life had been hiding such a big secret all this time.
I would be a hypocrite to turn my back on him, though. I wasn’t as pure as he once called me. I had my fair share of baggage, and maybe it wasn’t as large as his was, but comparing baggages was redundant and childish. Because Diego’s actions spoke louder than words. He took responsibility for his actions, risked his entire life to help his friend out, and he’d done the same for me, reverting back to a man, the boy he loathed, to protect my brother and me from harm.
Diego was the best man I’d ever known, despite his faults, or maybe thanks to his faults, because now everything became clear. He’d pushed me away all those times because he thought him being an ex-con made him not being good enough for me. He thought he didn’t deserve me, because of what he’d done. He was trying to protect me from that underworld he got entangled with after Danbury, tried to protect me at all costs, and never, not even once, he asked for something in return.
He told me everything so I would understand. He could’ve just as easily shut me down and pushed me away again, but he didn’t. He wanted to make me understand. And at that moment, I knew one thing for sure.
No man would ever love me as much as Diego Rivero did.