By Jeanie Keogh
I belly-flop onto the king-size hotel bed. Tomorrow we are on the road at eight. Tonight is still in its package.
Rich is next door talking incoherently to himself. His words are sounds trying to stand on new legs. He gets into the shower and falls. I expect to hear expletives but there is only silence.
The door to his room is wide open. A Hansel-and-Gretel trail of clothes leads from the bed to the bathroom. Today’s music festival pass is hung over the bathroom mirror. He is lying naked in the tub, dead drunk. An umbilical feeling of concern curdles to accusation in my voice.
“Why didn’t you put the rubber mat down?”
“What do I look like, a geriatric?”
We still have ten more days of shows left and he’s slipping. He tries to stand up.
“Feel how slick this is. They must drive a Zamboni around this tub. It’s like Stars On Ice in here.”
“So you’re fine?”
“Fine?! I’m Kurt Browning.” He does an ungraceful imitation of a figure skater, teeters, and then catches his balance. He peels the wrapper off a tiny octagonal soap and it comes off in one piece, like a perfectly-peeled mandarin. I don’t nag that it will clog the drain. That’s the kind of comment that turns him into an unneutered pit bull.
He turns on the tap. Water bursts from the faucet and pounds on porcelain, doubtless waking someone on the floor below. I notice he is not too mangled to have an erection. He catches me looking and looks down at himself with his hands on his hips, as if the erection is a conundrum.
“Hello Little Soldier, what do you need? ” he asks.
I close the curtain.
“I’m going to hit the hay.” I raise my voice even though there is only a thin plastic sheet between us. The soap falls and bounces loudly around the tub.
“You’re calling it a night?” His rhetorical question buys us both time to figure out what comes next.
Later he will be wrapped around the toilet, his mess left for cleaning staff. I can’t do much for him anymore, but I’m not through wishing I could. We have a tacit agreement to love only the music we make and not each other. Still, it is a love that tugs.
“Big day tomorrow.” I hope this reminds him what we have to do – get to the airport, fly, get to the gig, set up our gear, line check, play the headlining spot.
“Sleep tight, Cinderella.” His bum cheeks touch the flimsy curtain and stick to it. I can see his skin where it meets plastic. His nudity doesn’t attract me, it only magnifies his helplessness. That said, I wouldn’t still be doing this if pity wasn’t a sick fetish of mine.
I borrow-steal his mickey of Jack Daniel’s from the telephone table so that he won’t drink the rest of it. I unscrew the cap and take a nip. I pace the hall between his door and my own, debating whether I really will go to bed or if I will stay behind and push my luck. I stand with my head pressed to his door, thinking about the epic, all-night fights we had and the subsequent mornings we woke to hangovers, sheepish apologies and fumbling pillow talk. Opening the door to my room, I realize that what I’m doing is normal and healthy, which makes me feel profoundly, unspeakably bored.
I get under the sheets that strait-jacket me in and hug the spare pillow like a stuffed animal. Once, when we used to lay together: his head on my chest, our legs pretzels, his ear folded in two like a fortune cookie in my half-clenched fist. He would organize my curls into coiled springs and fiddleheads, taking on the project like it was a daunting, but highly important task. Those were in the more sober days. Or rather, in the days when I was less sober.
I thumb through the bed-side Bible and watch the gold-edged pages flutter.
Fatigue makes last call.
Rich bangs a 4/4 rhythm on the hotel door as I am finishing the dregs of courtesy coffee.
I open it. He has passed from haggard rock star to homeless-looking. I want to hug him but I can’t or shouldn’t, I’m not sure which anymore. Something about respecting boundaries and learning to let go.
Like this, we go haltingly forward as professionals and not stumbling backward into a dysfunctional relationship.
“Party on the 14th floor.”
“Put it this way, I took advantage of the Do Not Disturb sign.”
He winks and does a few comedic pelvic thrusts. This is his way of hiding or reaching out for help, I’m not sure which or I’ve forgotten the signs but I don’t care because the jealousy comes on like period cramps in my heart.
“Must have been love, I didn’t hear a thing.”
Rich yawns and stretches, exposing the band of his underwear and his hip bone, which I know is strategically sexual.
“Just kidding.” He grandma pinches my cheek, sensing my jealousy. “Continental brekkie?”
“We missed it.”
He gets his bags and we walk to the elevator.
He reaches across me to push the down arrow and skims my lips with a drive-by kiss. It’s sweet and sour; sour from the fermenting concoction of alcohol and stomach bile, sweet from the dinner mints he uses to cover it up. I pull away from him. He stiffens and puts on his whatever, no-big-deal face.
The door dings and opens to squealing little girls in bathing suits. Rich smiles at them and enters the elevator like he’s going onstage.
On the way down, one of them pulls the spandex material away from her tummy. It makes smacking sounds as it suctions back against her taut skin.
Rich used to practice time signatures on my tummy when our would-be baby was a tiny, pulsing secret that I was keeping to myself. The miscarriage book told me to call it something so I named it Rhythm. I didn’t tell Rich. He’d just as likely have said: “It’s just a cluster of malformed cells” as he would, “Let’s make another one”. Most likely, he’d have said nothing at all and start singing bastardized lullabies while smashing bottles. When he’s in those moods, he uses his fists until he crumples into a heap and cries.
“Is there a pool party and I wasn’t invited?” Rich asks. They answer with giggles. One of them shyly brushes her lips with her blond braid. “Which one of you can hold your breath longest under water?”
A chorus of “Me! Me! Me!” I remember how instantly loveable he is.
“For how long?”
“A whole minute.” She has an outie bellybutton that is visible through her one-piece suit. She is young enough that her bellybutton is still bigger than her nipples. I can’t decide if she is old enough to flirt.
“That’s a long time.”
Rich pulls the top of her bathing cap. It makes a tiny bubble where it releases from her scalp like the top of a condom. She swats playfully at his arm. More giggles. I watch the floor numbers light up. The elevator reeks of the booze emanating from Rich’s pores. He stands very close to her, which I know is just a space issue, but I can’t help fast-forwarding her ten years. It’s the way they smile at each other – the innocence in it, the excited curiosity – that brings on stupid, girlish tears.
“And who swims the fastest?” He winks at her conspiratorially while riling the others. I tell myself he is just being paternal.
“I do!” She has contenders.
“Is she really?” he asks the braid girl.
“Only with flippers.”
We arrive with a ding.
“Have a good swim.” As we tow our suitcases away, the girls whisper behind their hands.
“Cute kids,” he says and then, because he sees I’m upset, gives my shoulder a squeeze and a few pats, like mothers do when they burp babies.
The lingering aftertaste of Coffee Mate, Rich’s ill-timed kiss, and the uncomfortable tangled knot in the back of my throat are things that brushing my tongue until I gag will not take away.
Standing by the window at the departure gate, Rich puts his forehead on the glass and looks out at the runway. When he lifts his head away, he leaves a greasy smear that reveals a fossil-like imprint of his hair. A thundercloud on the horizon lets out rain, grey bleeding from it like sludge from a can of black beans.
“Wouldn’t want to be that guy,” he says about the ground traffic controller shuffling around on the tarmac, waiting with his orange batons to direct a plane. I think about the anonymity of his job, the predictable routine. I have a brief, hormone-laced fantasy of Rich and I working normal jobs, having a life with a permanent address, and a family we come home to. The soundtrack to this fantasy is in E-flat major.
“The Astro-turf is always greener.”
Compared to us, he’s lucky. Not win-against-all-odds lucky, but the kind that makes you count your blessings. The irony is that five years ago, both of us would have given anything to be where we are. Now, aside from the fleeting high of being on stage, it is just business. Lately, I think about what percentage of CD sales I will put toward retirement savings.
“Have you ever been to an airport church?”
I don’t answer because I want him to just say what he wants to say instead of making polite conversation as a precursor.
“Great places to sleep if you have a layover.”
This is when I should mention something casual and off-hand about rehab. Not counting last night’s booze, there is nothing in his system so I figure it’s a good time. I know I can’t say the word Alcoholic. It’s a habit, something we are all creatures of. One drink or two per night for years can easily become a sip or two more until it is not tipsy that you go to bed, but blind drunk. I’m to treat it like it’s easy to undo, unconnected to the years of seeing his mother beaten by his father and his actress sister end up with a re-occurring role on a psych ward for multiple suicide attempts.
“Are you going to try and take it easy tonight?” He coughs, clears his throat, and then starts chuckling. Between good and bad timing I have chosen wrong and my tone is off because there is residual anger in it.
I wait for him to erupt or lower his voice to a sneer, grab my arm and spit-whisper staccato fury into my ear. But he doesn’t.
I can see, but not hear his answer because it is drowned out by a boarding announcement.
The night ahead that we both know so well plays out before me — He’ll pull the first bottle from the beer on ice in the green room. To take away the jitters. He’ll settle on an IPA, sip it like a seasoned connoisseur. Nice and hoppy. The band-mates will join him because drinking comes with the job. He’ll bound on stage with several in his pockets and stash them by the kick drum. He’ll pace himself through the first set but will break a sweat, his drumsticks, and his sober promise because he can no longer play without it. The show will close with the stage floor slippery with beer and empties shored against cables. Before the after party, he’ll make a trip to the off-license for supplies. The party’s just getting started! Tomorrow he’ll joke about food poisoning, looking everywhere but in my eyes.
Foreign airplanes ferry past on slick runway. We will soon be on the other side of the overcast cloud cover in the dizzying, nauseous brightness of the sun, pulling down the blinds to keep it out of our eyes.
He clears his throat and adopts a pose. “I know someone who can get me, you know, on the straight-and-narrow.” Something pitter-patters through my veins. In the silence, his words reverberate between us.
I grab his calloused hand and his fingertips curl around my knuckles. I try to remember everything I’ve been told about right and wrong things to do in these situations. Then I try to forget. I visualize kissing him with all the unconditional love my body can pack into three seconds, think brazenly about actually doing it, and let go of his hand.
I pray that this be the coda.
We watch the traffic controller walk out to the middle of the wet runway. He lifts his orange batons in a Y, a grounded bird showing a big-winged beast how to rip through the bruised sky, and fly.
Jeanie is a freelance journalist, writer and former member of the gypsy circus band Blackberry Wood. She has been previously published in Grain, Freefall and The Puritan. Her creative non-fiction piece The Constant Variable received an honourable mention in Room magazine’s 2011 contest. Her play Baby Making was produced at The Habourfront Centre. The Offbeat is dedicated to a fabulous drummer she once knew. She thanks you for taking the time to read her work and voting!