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At the End of Another Lost Highway

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If Heather were a different kind of girl, she'd call the situation ironic.

Okay, maybe she used to be that kind of girl, but she's not any more. Not since... well, she's just not.

Most people who move to LA do it because they're striving for something. A new career, a better climate, a different dating scene, whatever.

Heather moved to LA to get away from something.

And no, she doesn't want to talk about it.

Instead, every day except Monday she goes to work at the vintage store job her friend Debbie's friend Norah's sister got her when she and Lukas moved down here. They don't care that she brings him in with her to the shop -- she just sets him down in his basket behind the counter, easy as that, and takes him into the back room for feedings whenever he needs them. If he cries, she picks him up and carries him through the aisles with her. The regulars have made a game out of seeing who can make him laugh the most.

She drives them there in her ancient, beat-up, bright red Honda Civic, a hand-me-down her Aunt Cheryl gave her when she turned sixteen, Lukas strapped into the car seat she got off Freecycle. After she cashes out and does the books each evening, she drives them back home, to the run-down but serviceable house she and Lukas share with six other people. The kitchen might have a bit of a roach problem, but at least they have their own bedroom, and the water stops running brown if you let it go for a minute or two.

Miguel walks into the store on a busy Saturday afternoon. He walks out with leather pants, a shiny green star sticker Nellie, the other clerk working that day, gave him for making Lukas giggle after less than thirty seconds of making faces at him, and Heather's phone number.

On their first date (pizza and bowling, Lukas in a sling across her body for most of it), when Heather finds out he's a musician, she almost walks out on him then and there. But they still have seven frames left to bowl, and when he promises to sing her a song on their next date, she thinks, oh, what the hell.

She's still not sure if that was a mistake or not.

Miguel's the total opposite of--

Miguel's deep in the throes of rock stardom, which is both good and bad. On one hand, he's always working on something. The guy is never idle. On the other, he's always going somewhere. For a while, tagging along with him was part of the fun. She found a film student who didn't mind taking over her shifts at the shop sporadically, and she saw more of the country in those first three months of dating Miguel than she had in her entire life prior.

Recently, though, Heather's kind of been a fan of staying home. At least in their neighborhood, no one cares if she sings along to the radio at the top of her lungs, and there's no tiptoeing around sleeping band members or dealing with their ridiculous shit -- she's had enough of that for a lifetime, thanks.

So when Miguel says, "Come with me to San Francisco," Heather says no.

She says no, and then she dreams of food for days afterward. Buckwheat crepes and rosewater ice cream, salt-and-pepper shrimp and baked pumpkin with beef. Chicken and waffles, farmer's market satsumas, cheese from the Ferry building, buttered sourdough bread. Perfectly-ripe mango with two kinds of sticky rice and yellow custard. All of her favorite SF and East Bay meals dancing through her mind.

After about a week of that culinary torture, her mind moves on to music. She visits the Independent, the Fox, Cafe Van Kleef, the Fillmore, stops by the Great American Music Hall, Cafe du Nord, Stork Club, and Twelve Galaxies, and pokes through Amoeba for a good hour or two -- or what feels like an hour or two within the dream, anyway.

She wakes up exhausted and sad, and once, so angry she could scream, but she doesn't because waking Lukas up would so not be worth the momentary catharsis.

A week after that, her subconscious moves on.

She and Will go to the park near their high school. They bring a six-pack of PBR one of the guys Will knows from the scene buys for them, and sit together on top of the run-down metal climbing dome, drinking and laughing. She accidentally kicks him while swinging her legs once or twice, but he just smiles at her and takes another drink.

They sneak into school in the middle of the night, after even the janitor is done with her rounds. Heather tears down some Spirit Week banners and Will sharpies up a bunch of posters exhorting people to come to the Homecoming Dance, but they otherwise keep the damage to a minimum. They end up in the band room closet, in amongst all the brass and woodwinds, making out until the tiny window starts to show the beginnings of sunrise.

Will is on the couch. He's been on the couch for the last three days, getting up only to go to the bathroom and snag more beer from the fridge. She's thinking about throwing it all out, but every time she goes to do it, the baby cries. How is it possible to love something so much, yet be so frustrated with it? She feeds Lukas, changes his diaper, and carries him into the living room. Will's asleep again. She turns off the TV and goes to bed, taking Lukas with her.

She meets Will at Gilman when they're both fourteen. She's seen him around school before, but it's different, here. He bumps into her at the bar, literally, and it's so cliche that she laughs in his face. He laughs with her, and when he says, "Let me buy you a coke?" she says yes.

They're in the living room, passing a joint back and forth. He's got his guitar out, they both make sure to ash away from it. He hands her the spliff and starts to strum. He gets halfway through "Plateau" when the doorbell rings and Johnny and Tunny walk right in and collapse onto the armchair and the floor, respectively. She passes Tunny the joint, and Will starts up the song again. All of them sing along.

After the fifth straight night of dreaming about Will, Heather fucking caves.

She texts Miguel (who's playing Seattle that night, if she remembers correctly): Fine.

He replies: YESSSSSSSSSSSS.

And then: You should take Lukas to visit Will.

She almost throws the phone across the room, but doesn't, because Lukas is asleep and phones are expensive. (Miguel keeps telling her he has the money, just let him buy her an iPhone and call it done, but she likes her crappy old Nokia flip phone. It's sturdy.)

Two days later, she texts Miguel back: Okay.

They move into the Alameda house after Miguel gets back from tour. Heather hauls Lukas into the city and all around the East Bay -- well, everywhere except Jingletown. She knows what ready feels like, and this is not it. (She also knows what not ready feels like, but that's old news.)

After about a month, though, Miguel takes an afternoon off from recording and buys her lunch at Chez Panisse. He gestures with his chin vaguely in the direction of Oakland.

"Well?" he asks. And just like that, she knows it's time.

Which is how Heather ends up standing on the doorstep of her old apartment, Lukas in her arms and Miguel behind her. She kisses Lukas's forehead, then rings the doorbell.

Unsurprisingly, Will looks like shit. She can see from peering over his shoulder that the couch is sagging worse than ever. He's got several days' worth of stubble along his jaw and the circles under his eyes are nearly as dark as his hair. He smiles when he sees her, though, and holds onto Lukas like he knows, now, how precious he is, and even smiles at Miguel, who comes in with her.

She's missed his smile.

The universe seems to have, too, because while she and Miguel are still standing around in the living room while Will holds Lukas and sings him Misfits songs under his breath, Tunny and Johnny show up. It's almost like old times, only Will stares at them in shock for a moment before handing Lukas back to her and hugging them both, hard.

Will's smiling so big it almost hurts to see, and she hands Lukas back to him so Johnny and Tunny and Tunny's gorgeous girlfriend can ooh and ah over him. She hugs them all, one after another, and from the way Miguel's looking at her, all happy and smug, she can tell that she's smiling, too.