I sell Adrienne’s ticket to some kid wearing a sport coat over a hoodie. He uncurls his arm from around the bottle-redhead attached to his hip, a girl not much younger than Adrienne, twenty-two or twenty-three. She has the same look, like she knows something she’s not supposed to, not yet. She smiles at me as the kid digs in his pocket then comes out with a crumpled ball of bills. Jerking his thumb in her direction, he says the ticket’s for her and she shakes her head at him, disappointed maybe. I point out that face value is forty-five but give it to him for twenty just to see her smile again. She mouths, “Thanks,” as the kid turns around to get in the security line, and I cock an eyebrow, mouth “No problem,” as lasciviously as I can. She turns to follow the kid before I’m done, and I hang back under the marquee, wishing I had gotten more for the ticket, wishing I had a cigarette, just wishing.
Adrienne’s working right now, her tight jeans wiggling between the even tighter tables at Salome’s, ferrying frosted pints of craft beers to twenty-three-year-olds with handlebar mustaches or twenty-five-year-olds that bike to work in long-johns and cut-offs in February in Chicago, guys with names like Kayden, Blaire. They’ll tip her heavy because of her big blue eyes, her amazing ass. One of them might get her phone number, might even go home with her this very night.
And that, she made clear this morning, is no longer any of my concern.
Tucked in the corner of her bed, wearing nothing but sweat, hers and mine, she lit a cigarette and then broke up with me. I lay there as she spoke, hands wrapped in the damp sheet, catching my breath, everything still tingling. She said she was sorry, of course, but that I knew going in to this she was capricious. Her word. She told me she was wrong for me, too fluid, too flexible, too fickle, mercurial. She tapped ash into one of the empty Fat Tire bottles on the bedside table. Adrienne, she has a habit of speaking like she’s trying to justify her English B.A. It’s cute, like a little girl wearing mom’s high-heels, her smoke-strained voice, her vaguely Southern accent, saying things like “capricious” and “mercurial.” I always listened to her like she was my favorite record, bathing in the sounds.
I was too set in my ways, she said – eat at the same three places for lunch each week, listen to the same bands I did in college. She hadn’t even found out, at the tender age of 24, what her ways were, but she knew she didn’t want mine to become hers because I was, in her words, contagious. If she stayed with me much longer, my apathy, my lack of curiosity, my nostalgia – and I remember that word, too, spit out like a cherry pit – my nostalgia would settle in her bones, trap her in the same amber that was keeping me frozen, she said, in place. She assured me she had learned from me. Compared me to a museum exhibit. In the nicest way possible, she insisted. She said we were perfect for what we were but that the time had passed and she, like a wolf, or maybe it was some kind of fish or bird, whatever, that she needed to move on.
Butterfly. That was it. She said she was a butterfly. Which, I guess, makes me the cocoon. I rolled over at that point, told her about the tickets – a surprise, I figured, that would buy me at least one more night.
“Who’re The Unicorn Sonatas?” she asked.
“The band that does that song that you like so much every time it comes on the jukebox at work.”
She crushed the last of her cigarette on the bedside table, dropped the butt in the bottle, said, “Oh, that song? I only like that song because Kayden” – the tall, young, good looking manager at Salome’s whose name I know only because Adrienne is always telling stories about him – “he always puts that song on when we fuck in the walk-in.”
Suddenly, the way she talked wasn’t cute anymore. I stood up, looked at her. She lit another cigarette, inhaled, let the smoke out slow. She looked ten years older. She looked dangerous.
“Fine. You cheated. Whatever. We can–”
“I didn’t cheat, Stan, because I’m not your girlfriend. You were never my boyfriend. You’re just a guy that I sleep with because you’re okay looking and you have money.”
She did that slow exhale again and I couldn’t help it. It just came out. “But I love you.”
“No, you don’t.”
But I did. I could see us growing old together, me playing music, her painting or taking pictures, whatever it was that she settled on, kids and a dog, somehow the same age at the end.
And I told her so. The future, the kids, the dog, all of it.
The next thing I know, Adrienne’s standing on the bed, yelling, “You fucking psycho! Get the fuck out!” The sun coming in through the crack between the heavy drapes sent a seam up the side of her, like she was cracking open, pure light spilling out. She was so goddamned beautiful. I wanted to kiss every part of her – her elbow, the back of her knee, the space between her shoulder blades, even the top of her perfect foot as it connected with my chest, sent me spinning around the room, gathering my things, stumbling out into the hallway. I didn’t look back as the door closed, afraid to look at her, so beautiful I might burn to ash. Instead, I looked at the mirror in the bathroom across the hall, and I saw, for a second, what Adrienne must have seen when she looked at me – a naked, middle-aged guy holding his clothes in a ridiculous ball in front of his slowly spreading stomach.
I decided to hold onto my ticket right then. Because fuck her.
Someone taps my shoulder, someone about Adrienne’s height. She said herself she’s capricious, mercurial. I scan the security line for the kid in the sport coat, pulling his twenty from my pocket while spinning the other direction, too fast. A stack of hand-cut flyers hits the pavement. This kid, the one that tapped me, drops to his knees, scooping slips of paper off the sidewalk, snagging them before they flutter off in the wind. One slaps against my chest. It’s for a show by a band I’ve never heard of, Tomorrow’s Children, at a place called The Dandy.
I remember standing out here like this kid. Me and Beth and Davy in the cold, trying to get people to come to The Sophomore Year’s first show at The Fireside Bowl. It was 1999 when they finally booked us, a triple bill on a Wednesday night in January opening for two bands we’d never heard of, but we didn’t care – it was The Fireside. The bands that made us want to be in bands had played The Fireside. Now we’d be one of them. So we cobbled together a flyer on Davy’s dad’s iMac, agonizing over fonts, trying to find just the right piece of clip art to represent our sound. Two hours in Kinko’s, copying and cutting, then we were out here, stomping our feet in our canvas Converse, the wind slicing through our thin sweaters, hoping against hope that someone, anyone, would keep the flyer, folded in a back pocket or wadded in a purse, find it later and decide to take a chance on us. Just standing out here with a purpose other than waiting to get in excited us, made us, we thought, more than what we were. Better. More real. Musicians. Rock stars.
I grab as many flyers as I can, press them into the kid’s hand with a smile, nodding in commiseration. “I was in a band, once, too, man.”
“Yeah. Awesome,” he says, melting back into the crowd of milling people. He doesn’t even leave me a flyer.
I met Adrienne at Salome’s on a Wednesday night, invited there to celebrate the birthday of this temp kid from the office, Marty. Marty had found out that me and a couple of other guys from work, Jeff and Doug, were writing and recording songs a couple nights a week in Jeff’s garage and he asked to jam with us. He could play a few chords and had a pretty decent voice. Nice kid. His temp gig ended and that was it; I hadn’t seen him since. Anyway, he invited the three of us to his birthday thing, getting together at Salome’s. Jeff and Doug bowed out, so I went alone.
I was the oldest person in the group. By a decade, at least.
Marty was cool, spent some time talking to me, but he had other things to worry about, friends to party with. When Adrienne asked me what I was drinking, I was wedged in a corner of the room. She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen – artfully messy red-gold hair, tattoos on both arms and one peeking out over the neck of her tee-shirt, old-fashioned cowboy boots, and a smile that reminded you of nothing more than home.
She touched my arm, said, “You okay? You look…melancholy.”
“Melancholy?” No one talks quite like Adrienne. I laughed. “Yeah, I suppose I am.”
I leaned in a little. For effect. “It’s probably the khakis,” I said, pointing at my pants.
I looked around the room at those young and beautiful people. “Honestly, I just feel a little out place.”
“Well, let’s you and me and Mr. Alcohol do something about that. What are you drinking?” She tapped my empty glass with a jet black fingernail.
“Cap’n and Coke,” I said.
“I’m a Jack and Coke girl, myself.”
“There’s nothing sexier,” I said, “than whiskey on a woman’s breath.”
She leaned in, her lips brushing my cheek. “Like this?” She pulled back, titled her head, cocked an eyebrow, and faded backwards into the crowd.
A few minutes later, she handed me a drink without a word. I came off the wall, started joining conversations. Whenever my drink went empty, she’d show up, hand me another.
I was sitting at the bar when Marty shouted from the front door, “See ya tomorrow, Stan!”
I waved at him and almost fell off the stool.
“Whoa, there, soldier,” Adrienne said, grabbing my shoulders to steady me.
“You! You did this to me, devil woman,” I said as she guided me safely to my seat.
Another laugh. “In my defense, it was for your own good.”
“Bullshit. You just want to get in my khakis.”
She laughed again. I didn’t. She focused in tighter and tighter on my face. “What the hell,” she said, grabbed my hand, and took me home.
The security line has dwindled as the first chords of the opening band drift out into the street. I head inside, determined to have a good time. A short, heavy-set girl in a miniskirt and combat boots rises off her stool and sighs as I enter. While she half-heartedly pats me down, I can see her eyebrows are gone. In their place, ink in an intricate, looping design. I imagine her in her bathroom, wrapped in a towel and looking in the mirror, still steamy from the hot shower, razor in hand, nicks still welling blood here and there on her shins. She’s tired, I imagine, of what she sees. Or what others see, really, a fat girl hiding behind a facade of self-expression, thrift store dresses and incongruous shoes. She shaves each eyebrow off with one smooth, sure stroke. Commitment. Authenticity. I can see that. She’s brave as hell and beautiful. I ask if she drew them herself.
She says, “Naw, there’s a place at the mall does ’em,” as she wraps an over-21 band around my wrist without even asking for ID.
The opening band is a seven-piece outfit, two guitars, a bass, a drummer, a cello, a girl surrounded by racks of keyboards, and some scrawny guy who I assume is the singer reading out loud from a beat-up copy of On the Road. The main floor is jammed with people, under-21s mostly, swaying, some to the beat of the drums, some to the rhythm of the bass, which are, inexplicably, two different things. I head upstairs to the balcony, with its bar and over-21s, belly up and order a Captain and Coke. The bartender sticks a plastic cup in my hand and I drain it, order a second before he walks away. I order the third when the second gets to me. Songs, if you can call them that, start and end, running into, over each other as I drain a couple more drinks. Then the band goes silent, their set apparently over. In the gap after the applause, I hear a familiar voice nearby, a guy saying, “Oh, yeah, sure, I’ll take a Zombie Dust.”
Standing an arm’s length away is Dimitri Severin, guitarist for All the Trains Are Going to Paris. He’s chubbier, going bald at the crown, but the way he’s working the three girls surrounding him, there’s no doubt about it. It’s Dimitri.
We had played The Fireside that night in January. The other two bands on the bill were hardcore punk groups, screaming about socialism, the plight of indigenous peoples, whatever. The crowd was there to see them, didn’t take very kindly to Beth’s and my emo crap, lost loves and old photographs and all that shit. They did like my solos. And Davy’s drums – a couple of teenagers with freshly set liberty spikes tried to get him to join their new band. Only one other person came up to us at the merch table in the back of the room. Tall and confident, he moved like everyone in the room was watching him. And they were. We were. We all knew he was Dimitri Severin. We all knew his band. Even the hardcore kids. He bought one of Beth’s hand-screened tee-shirts and one of our crappy home-burned CDs, told us he really liked our sound. No one had ever said we had a sound before.
“We’re playing the High Dive in a couple of weeks. I want you guys to open for us.”
We did. The show was awesome. And that’s how The Sophomore Year ended up touring with All the Trains Are Going to Paris. There was just an article about them in The Onion AV Club. It was a “Where Are They Now?” kind of thing, but still, they’re remembered. He’s remembered. And we toured with them. That’s not nostalgia. That’s historic.
“Dimitri,” I say, sticking out a hand like some goddamned ad exec on TV, my voice too excited. He looks at me blankly. Not maliciously, no; I can tell he actually has no idea who I am. “Stan,” I say. I can hear the desperation in my voice. I push past one of the girls ringing him, grab his free hand and start pumping. “Stan Stivek. The Sophomore Year?”
“Oh yeah,” and his arm starts pumping. “Stan,” he says, then shakes his hand loose from mine.
“So, what do you think of this garbage?” I jerk my head back toward the stage.
He glances briefly at the three girls, all of whom are looking at me like I just farted. “Still Life Carnival? They’re awesome, man.”
I get it. I do. I once agreed with Adrienne that The Hangover was funnier than Blazing Saddles, so I know exactly what he’s doing. I chin a knowing smile at him and he just stares at me but that’s okay, we’re on the same wavelength now, and I sip my Captain and Coke, waiting for him to introduce me. He looks past me to the stage. The girls fidget. “I’m mostly here to see The Unicorn Sonatas,” I say, pulling his attention back. Another sip of my drink and I decide to make my own opening. “Still playing?” I don’t even wait for an answer, just lean conspiratorially to the closest girl, a mousy brunette whose over-21-band has obviously been cut off of someone else and taped back together around her wrist. “I’m a guitarist, too,” I say. “Played in the band that toured with All the Trains back in the day. The Sophomore–”
“Yeah, I still play.” Dimitri puts his arm around the mousy brunette, pulls her away from me. “In fact, we’re doing a reunion show, headlining the Mixtape Festival.” The girls start to coo and burble in excitement.
“Yeah, I’m still playing, too. Some really talented guys. We’re recording some tracks. Hoping to start playing out soon.”
The girls are still focused on Dimitri when he says, “Sounds great.”
Then he laughs.
It’s such a little thing. A chuckle, really. His shoulders shrug a bit. But it’s still a laugh. Heat rises from the bottom of my stomach, up through my throat, spreads out behind my face. We’re not on the same wavelength. Not at all. I’m a joke. No, not even a joke. I’m nothing. This guy, there is nothing, not a thing, better about him. But he gets to be here talking to these girls, gets to play with his band, treat me like this. Me, I work in a cubicle, play guitar in a garage with guys with wives and kids. I get dumped. It isn’t fair. It isn’t right and it isn’t fair. It’s funny, the way time will color things because suddenly I remember that I hate this guy. He’s a slimy ass. He didn’t like our band. He liked Beth. And he didn’t even like Beth; he just wanted her to want him. I remember, one night in a parking lot in Madison, at the end of the tour, finally beating the crap out of him for screwing with her for so long. And now she’s gone and this guy, this guy gets all this?
I want to beat his ass again. I want to scream. I want to cry. I want, just want, so desperately, so completely, the emptiness of it filling me. I realize my mouth is open. Shut it. Turn around. As I walk away, Dimitri hollers, “Good to see you, Steve!” The girls’ laughter gets swallowed up in the opening chords of The Unicorn Sonatas’ first song. It’s the one that Adrienne likes. The one that Kayden guy fucks her to.
I beeline for the back of the balcony, stumble into the empty men’s room. The thick bathroom door swings shut, muffling the music. I lean back against the sink, the pooled water and who knows what else on the countertop seeping through my tee-shirt, and tilt the plastic cup in my hand toward my mouth. A drip rolls out of the ice, over the cup’s ridges, breaks against my lip and it’s gone. I throw the cupful of useless, boozy ice at the far stall door, miss by a mile, and laugh like a crazy person, high, loud, sharp as a knife. The sound scares me, so I stop.
The walls are covered with band stickers, a patchwork of colors and words, little logos like hieroglyphics. I run my hand across the uneven surface. In places, it must be a hundred layers deep. If you could take a core sample, chances are you would recognize one, maybe two names out of the dozens. I walk around the room, reading the braille of so many kids’ dreams. Somewhere, buried under 14 years of ink and desperation above the left-hand urinal, is one of mine, a sticker for The Sophomore Year. It was our last show, the only time we played the Arcadia. Me and Davy and Beth, all of us in here. Drunk. Laughing. But we went silent, all three of us, holding the sticker as we pressed it to the wall. A ceremony. Important. I leave my hand over the spot, hoping to feel something. All I feel is pressure in my bladder.
I undo my fly and let my head loll, eyes closed. The band sounds good from in here, the edges blunted, the melody clear.
The music sharpens a second then goes dull again. Four staccato clicks cross the tile behind me.
“You peeing?” Her tone is casual, like this happens to her all the time.
“Yup.” And I am, still, head tipped back, eyes shut.
“Awesome.” The heavy kerchunk-kerchunk of the paper towel dispenser, the whisper of cloth wiping across the counter, then the rustle of fabric and the groaning of formica as she settles herself down.
“I’m not bothering you, am I? The line was just so long for the ladies’.” She has the voice of one of those underage popstars, a foal learning to walk, barely aware what it’ll be capable of.
“Not at all.” I’m done but I stand still, facing the wall, imagining her. I wonder if she ever says “capricious” or “mercurial.” Of course she does. They all do. I become acutely aware of my dick in my hand.
“Mind if I smoke?” The click of a lighter punctuates her question. I close my eyes, imagine the cigarette between her lips, the droop of her eyelids as she inhales. She’s gorgeous there in my mind, young and bold, sitting on the men’s room counter, smoking, unafraid and unconcerned.
I turn around without zipping up.
Dark brown hair shot through with wide stripes of silver-gray, nose sharp above crimson lips that part, exhaling a smoke-filled, “Oh, Jesus!” All arched eyebrows, sweater set, and crossed legs. She looks like a third-grade teacher. Or a secretary. Mid-thirties, easy.
I tuck myself into my pants. “Sorry. Sorry. I’m drunk.”
Hopping off the sink, stabbing out her cigarette on the formica, she can’t look at me. “No, it’s my fault. There’s no line for the ladies’ room. I just…oh, Jesus. Look, I saw you coming in here and…I’m drunk, too, you know. I’m not like this. I’m a project manager.”
“So’m I.” She flinches as I reach for the sink next to her. I wash my hands, dry them on my jeans, extend one toward her. “Stan.”
She considers my hand, head tilting left and right, looking for the trap. Something suddenly satisfies her and she wraps a warm palm and cold fingers around mine. “Sheila.”
I squeeze her hand. Then I let go, lean back against the counter. “Can I bum one of those cigarettes?” From her purse she produces two cigarettes and a lighter. The filter is recessed, a blue diamond printed on the paper just above it. “I used to smoke these.”
“So did I.” She lights hers, holds the lighter toward me.
I lean in, touching the paper and tobacco to the flame, inhaling hard, watching the tip flare. “So,” smoke leaking around the words, “you saw me coming in here?”
“I haven’t been to a show in years. I haven’t drunk…drank…”
“Drinken, I think.”
She laughs. It’s not a pretty laugh — it’s from her gut and it doesn’t care. “Drinken whiskey in almost that long. And you’re a cute boy and I would have done this when I was twenty-two.” A drag, an exhale, a drag. “No, I wouldn’t have. Which is why I did it now.” That laugh again. She lifts her dark sweater, revealing a few inches of pale skin and the glint of a flask tucked in at her waist. She unscrews the cap, takes a pull, wipes the rim with her sleeve pulled over her hand before offering me a sip. The whiskey strips my tongue. I grind the last of my smoke against the porcelain, leaving a brown and black mark.
She drains the flask, tucks it back into her waist, lifting her sweater higher this time. I see the bottom edge of her bra, only a shade darker than her skin and frayed. Adrienne’s bras are all tiny works of art, lace and satin, contours and colors, meant to be seen, admired. Showy. Butterfly wings.
“Should I dye my hair?”
“The gray. My friends all think I should. They say it makes me look old.” She pulls a few strands in front of her face, her eyes crossing, going screwy. “I think it’s cool. The big gray chunks. Like those strippers with the brown streaks under all that fake blonde. I’m like a retired stripper. That manages projects.” She lets her hair fall back into place. “I stripped once.” She smiles at me. “Amateur night. Back in college.” She shakes her shoulders, her breasts jiggle. “I was good, actually. Won. 500 bucks.”
“I was in a band in college. We toured with this one band, All the Trains Are Going to Paris?”
“Seriously? I loved them. You toured with them?” She drags her smoke to the filter. “You’re, like, a rockstar.” She lights another cigarette with the remains of the first. ” You know, I’ve always wanted to have sex with a rockstar in the bathroom…”
I’m aching to. This naughty project manager. Her ridiculous truck-driver laugh, her gorgeous cobweb hair, her completely nondescript bra. Kissing her, pushing her up against the counter, it would kill time, be the next thing before the thing after it.
That first morning, lying in Adrienne’s strange bed, cradling her against me, I was happy. I remember fingering chords against her spine. My favorites. G. Dm. Cm aug5 maj7, just good old E at the fifth fret, pinkie down on the seventh. Sad in the middle, hopeful at the end, the sound, I realize now, of nostalgia.
I don’t want to be that guy. Because fuck that guy.
Something inside me splits, I push off from the counter like I’m crawling out of myself, walk to the urinal, tap the wall above it. “Here. Under here. Come here.” Eyes narrowed, she comes to me. I take her hand and press it against the wall. “We played here once. We stuck a sticker on this wall.” I let go of her hand, start working on the edge of the sticker next to it, peeling up tiny pieces. Her face is inches from mine, her breath on my cheek. She curls her fingers, digs her nails under the edge of another sticker. She laughs, smoky and crisp with alcohol, and tears a long strip. It flutters into the bowl of the urinal as she starts on a second, pulling it free.
We bring our other hands into the fray. Peeling. Stripping. Laying bare. I reach across, around one of her arms. Her skin touches mine. We scrabble harder at the wall, tearing away, half an inch down, ink and paper and glue under our nails, years shredded in the toilet, littering the floor at our feet. Her hip is against mine, bumping rhythmically, not to the music but to me, to us. We have a beat.
“What color was it, the sticker?”
“Light blue. And white letters. The Sophomore Year.”
She pushes against me. I push back. Our hands brush. There are chunks of paper stuck to her face, glued by sweat. Her hair smells sweet, strawberry. The paper comes away in thicker and thicker pieces, half an inch down now. I step behind her, reach over her shoulders, press myself against her. She pulls another piece from the wall, reaches her hand back over her head. She lets go of the paper and runs her arm along the side of my face on its way back to work. Our hands are a blur, pulling at the same flaps and tears. Finally a peek of light blue, when the sky and the clouds are a single color. She reaches both arms back, leans her shoulders into my chest, her head on my shoulder. I rip one more sticker loose.
“There it is,” she purrs, rubbing herself against me.
I dig my nail under the sticker’s edge, rip it right down the middle. Sheila straightens, turns to me, confused. I kiss her, lightly, on the forehead. “Don’t dye your hair,” I say as I step away, out into the music.
After 15 years in the Chicago comedy scene as a performer, writer, and director, Eric Rampson has turned his attention back to his first love, fiction. His stories have been published in the Logan Square Literary Review, Trembles, and Change Seven. He is also editor-in-chief of Lonely Robot Comics through which he publishes several titles. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Fiction from The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He lives in Chicago with his wife and son.