"Holden, c'mon. This is the tenth time we've been through this song. Wake up, will ya?"
Holden jerked, as though he'd been zapped by an electrical shock. It had been four weeks since the incident in the park and no word from Alexis. She had failed to return to the apartment; one late, Saturday night, he'd arrived home from a business meeting and rehearsal to discover that all her belongings had mysteriously vanished. He had wanted to call her, but he was worried that it would further persuade the growth of her ill-feelings. He would give her time; but how much time could he possibly tolerate?
Now it was Friday night and despite the perplexed and frustrated band surrounding him, he was at an all-time low. It was just another gig on another street, but it meant a performance that emphasized the absence of Alexis. This was burning a hole in his heart; one more bodily movement and he would collapse to the floor.
The lights were blinding, the seats were randomly scattered with early birds. Dress rehearsal had been unsuccessful; they had about fifteen minutes until the performance began, but they'd been stuck on the same song for the last half hour.
Holden couldn't make it past the first verse; every time he opened his mouth to sing, his tongue would stick to the roof of his dry mouth and his usually graceful fingers would slide and fumble across the cold keys. It was as though he'd forgotten how to play. The band had gone past the point of slight irritation and the prospect of anger threatened to break the budding tension.
Holden had only been able to profusely apologize, start the song once more and then generate the same mistake. But what could he possibly say to explain himself without sounding like a hopeless fool? The answer had failed to present itself. Neville, the drummer, let out a sigh that sounded more like a groan and then reluctantly tapped out the beat.
Robbie, the disgruntled bassist that had scolded Holden's lack of concentration, played his opening notes. Holden sat at the piano, his limbs rigid and his eyes already wandering away, searching for something in the crowd that was invisible to plain sight. His environment began to fade away and he closed the steel doors of his eyes, somehow wishing that the temporary blindness would last eternally. Maybe then, if his eyes were shut, he wouldn't place her face on every stranger he encountered.
Holden let himself wash away with the assault of notes, as the band conquered the slow opening and he made his initial entrance.
That the sky would lift
That I'd find my place
That I'd see your face in the door
And the sun would glint
On a time well spent
On a time that ain't no more
Naturally, he had churned out song after song the moment he'd left the park. He'd always found that a melody was bubbling his mind, but now that his stormy romance had crashed and exploded, he'd found it very easy to transfer his unruly thoughts onto paper, a stream of words that launched themselves, gliding across like horses running wild.
However, this was the only song he'd chosen to add to his set-list. Everything else had either been too personal or labeled in an incipient stage too jumbled and unorganized to actually present to an audience.
A part of him fantasized that she would somehow walk through the door, hear this particular song and suddenly the world would be right again. She'd throw herself into his arms and they'd finally have a wedding, her train dragging across the floor and his hands shaking with nervous excitement as his eyes followed her to the alter.
But he knew it was best not to get lost in fantasy, because the dreamer soon forgot about reality. The song barreled on and he was aching, absolutely aching, could anyone tell? He was an artist, a musician and he was obligated to put his feelings on display. He was the main attraction.
I've been way down
A load on my mind
Honey lately I've been way down
Load on my mind
This song wasn't an SOS, it was a whole-hearted scream. He once had promised Alexis that he would save her; but who would save Holden from himself? His treacherous mind had turned against him, a sheep in wolf's clothing, a sinner against saints. But he couldn't stop…he just couldn't stop.
Someone tell me where did it go
Darling I'm damned if I know
I seen that look in your eye
No-one ever gave it a chance
I could have said in advance
You saw it all at a glance
He wasn't used to waking up without his eyes meeting her still-sleeping face. So he'd invited Gwen over; the most practical and beautiful distraction. But this plan had turned into disaster, only encouraging the demolition of his insides. She smelled too sweet, her smile was too artificial, and kissing her glossy lips was like biting into an orange that was surprisingly bitter and sour. He'd finally worked up the nerve to tell her exactly what he'd thought of her, and due to his polite conduct, she'd laughed and kissed his neck, thinking it was all a big joke.
But he wasn't laughing.
Thus, he'd rushed out of bed, pulled on his boxers, gathered Gwen's stuff and thrown it out the door. She was frozen with shock. He was just as surprised as she. When a few minutes had passed, she'd regained her voice and started begging with him, practically pleading. But he was too energized to yield to her demands.
"Just get the fuck out. You disgust me."
And Gwen had gasped and burst into silent tears. Mascara flowed down her cheeks and her face suddenly looked like a little doll, carelessly dropped on the floor. Her pretensions had cracked, her façade had been broken. His heart had softened for a minute, but only for a minute. He watched her clumsily put on her clothes and then stumble out the door, like a cripple without the aid of a cane.
He hadn't spoken to Gwen since his self-combustion. According to the grape vine, she had quickly finished her promotional tour and had headed back to America. The papers and gossip rags were having a field day, offering numerous and far-fetched speculations on Gwen and Holden's non-existent, soap opera of an affair. He was past the point of even pretending to care.
Drag a salted kiss
From this cup of bliss
Watch the new lie twist on the breeze
You can paint it red
Leave it all for dead
But it's in my head
He'd often wondered what love was. He wasn't much of a philosopher, but he figured that love wasn't about the sweet moments and the stolen kisses and whispered words; it was the longing you experienced when love was lost. Anyone could mistake infatuation or lust for love. However, it was quite the opposite to feel completely dead; buried alive, solely based on the scorn of a short-lived crush.
So this is how it ended. A tragedy masked by violent romance.
You saw it all at a glance
Honey, lately I've been way down
The song finished, the air still lingering with the ghost of the crisp notes. The band breathed a sigh of relief, just as the stage manager bounded onto the stage and informed them their time was up. The band waltzed down the stairs and disappeared back-stage, chatting happily and loudly. But Holden remained seated for a few extra minutes, the song echoing in his mind. He closed the piano cover and placed his head on the smooth surface, wondering how he would go on with the show.
The club was packed; he could barely distinguish one face from the next. He supposed his growing popularity was fairly connected to the rumors circulating about Gwen, but he wasn't protesting. Everyone melted into one another, faces bleeding together like different colors of candle wax. Everything was going relatively well; he'd only fumbled his notes once and no one had noticed, with the exception of the band.
Holden had somehow managed to force a smile and crack a few jokes; the audience loved him even more. If they only knew. It was the last song before the band would "finish" and then run back on stage for an encore. They were supposed to finish with Swallowed Speeches. Lately, his brand new song, was established for the encore.
They were about to begin, when Holden felt someone watching him. Granted, everyone in the audience was looking at him, but this specific gaze struck a chord with him, as though this stranger actually knew him, as though they'd seen right inside his very soul. His heart began to wildly thump and he frantically searched the audience, trying to pin-point the culprit. And as though the crowd had parted, he spotted her. Could it be? Could it possibly be? Or was he just so tired and deluded that his mind was beguiling his rationality?
He blinked a few times, but the mirage would not dissolve. She was still so painstakingly beautiful, though a little thinner. And she looked at him, with something that made him want to discard his hopeless pessimism. She had been broken, just as she had broken him. There was no use in continuing the war, when their battles had earned far more casualties than victories. It was time for a truce.
Holden turned his attention to the band, who were looking at him in confusion.
"I changed my mind. We're closing with Lately," he hissed.
Robbie furrowed his brow.
"But that's not until the encore!" he protested.
Holden scowled, adjusting his fingers on the keys.
"Just shut up and play, all right? What does it bloody matter if we switch the order?"
"Just do it!"
The rest of the band mumbled soft objections and prepared themselves for the change of plans. Holden glanced at Neville and nodded, who took the cue and obediently started. Holden deeply inhaled and once again, locked eyes with Alexis. She had attempted to hide in the back, but it had been to no avail. And he began, his eyes unable to leave her, the words directed to her.
…And the sun would glint
On a time well spent
On a time that ain't no more
This time, his performance had gained the emotion that the rehearsal had lacked. And he remembered…blocked out the fights and the tears and the heartache, and recalled her smile, her laugh, the feel of her skin pressed against his and the way that she had been the only girl to ever turn his legs to jelly. He envisioned her, stretched out on the couch, her head in his lap, staring dreamily at the TV, as she indulged in Breakfast At Tiffany's. The words became his apology that he wished she would accept.
Someone tell me where did it go
Darling, I'm damned if I know…
Honey, lately I've been way down
As soon as he had finished the last note, he didn't even wait for the roar of applause. He jumped off the stage and elbowed his way through the crowd, until he was standing before her. She was silent. She was dressed in simple attire; jeans, a red polo and a jacket, her curls in a ponytail. But it was as though he was looking at her for the first time, the way one must gaze at the Mona Lisa, who has only seen the painting in books.
The crowd was muttering amongst themselves, craning their necks to gaze at the pair. The band remained on stage, instruments still in hand, totally lost. Holden flashed a restrained smile, and then motioned to the EXIT door behind them.
She followed him without hesitation and they found themselves in a vacant alleyway. A single bulb provided faint light, the stale air mildly warm. They stood, face to face, staring at each other, waiting for the other to speak. He still couldn't believe it.
"You," he airily noted.
He had so much to tell her, but he was barely able to form sentences.
"It's been four weeks."
She let out a sigh, secretly terrified of where the conversation was headed, but did not break her gaze.
"I know. I count the days on my calendar. Feels longer than that."
"I know," he responded.
She was momentarily mute, her strength waning as her eyes finally dropped to the dirty concrete. She took a step out of the shadows and into the light. For the first time, he noticed the bags under her eyes.
"Was that song….was it for me?" she guessed, fearful of rejection.
He had to smile, though it almost seemed to hurt his cheeks and was not as genuine as it could have been.
"Yes. It was for you…no one else."
She let out a laugh to cover up her short sob.
"I don't know why I came. Bridget told me that you were playing tonight. I wanted to come; I didn't think I had the courage. And somehow….I made it down here and I thought, if you couldn't see me, then maybe it would make it all right."
He kept his expression artfully empty.
"I want to tell you that I'm happy to see you. And a part of me is. But I can't lie. Looking at you….knowing you're just going to walk out of my life again….I just can't do it. So tell me, why did you really come here? We can't drag up old wounds; if this is the end, let's not keep running from it."
He was quite shocked that his tone had come out so rough, but he wasn't about to apologize or seek redemption. They were past the point of apologies. He studied her, waiting for her to come to her own defense. He waited for her to do something, do anything, except the thing that she did. She laughed.
"I kept it, you know. I kept it the whole time, even when I was mad at you. And then I realized how much I missed you and I forgot why I was even angry in the first place."
She held up her left hand, flashed him the engagement ring. His eyes widened. And just like the flicker of a light switch, her laughter transformed into tears. Before he could stop himself, he'd enveloped her in his arms and was burying his nose in her hair, her cheek pressed against his neck, her lips brushing his skin like the whisper of a gentle breeze. He shut his eyes, feeling the ache slowly decompose.
"Oh, bloody hell, Lexi. Why did you wait so long?"
"I read about you and Gwen in the papers. I didn't believe it at first. And then I tried to call your apartment, but Gwen picked up the phone. And I felt sick. I thought it was over- I advised myself to move on. But I just couldn't forget you; I prayed to God that I'd be blessed with the strength to just move on with my life. But everywhere I turned, there you were."
Her voice was scratchy and muffled; he could feel her tremble in his arms. He pulled back so he could gaze down at her.
"I admit it; Gwen and I saw each other a few times. But I hated myself for every second I spent with her; I'm still disgusted with myself for doing it. But I kicked her out and she hasn't contacted me since."
She nodded and sniffled, and he wiped away a tear.
"I guess I deserved that, after the way I treated you. But I really hope you know that I never had intentions of hurting you. I was stupid and for too long, I put up all these-these defenses, thinking I could protect myself. But then I met you and everything backfired."
He grinned and good-naturedly shook his head.
"Please love, no more explanations. I'm tired of talking."
She coyly smiled.
"There's just one more thing I wanna say."
She elegantly stood up on her tip-toes like a ballerina and put her lips next to his ear. He could feel her breath lightly billow through his hair, flutter across his skin. Her voice was so low, that if he hadn't been intently listening, he would have sworn that he'd imagined that she'd spoken.
"I love you."
She recoiled back and he kissed the ring and then hungrily brought his mouth to her lips, punch-drunk with uncontrollable and consuming love.
Yes, this was love.
This was love.
Lately- Copyright/written by David Gray, off the album "Life In Slow Motion."