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Des Moines, Iowa - July 28th, 2012

 

It goes without saying that having a baby changes your life. Even if you already have a child (or four, if you're as crazy as I am), bringing another one into the mix can change everything. It can be a big adjustment or it may only be a subtle difference, but once that new life comes into the world things shift somehow. Hell, it happens before that. From the second that little line appears in the window of the pregnancy test, you know nothing is ever going to be the same again. I knew that before my fifth was born, I'd had plenty of past experience to draw from. I thought I was prepared.

I wasn't.

I had no idea how much my life and the lives of everyone around me would be altered by her birth. Nothing has been the same since, and there's no way to make it the way it was before. The equation has changed, and things just don't add up to what they used to.

"Are you freaking out?"

I look up from my iPhone to find Zac standing in front of me, gazing down at me with an unmistakably concerned look on his face. "I'm not freaking out."

I am. A little.

"You're giving off a very 'freak-y out-y' vibe."

"Sorry." I murmur distractedly, turning my attention back to my phone. "Didn't mean to 'vibe'."

He drops down into one of the uncomfortable folding chairs beside me, his shoulder bumping mine a little but failing to break the staring match I'm having with the text message on the screen.

"It's weird, huh?" He continues to press gently. "I mean, it's not like it's the longest we've ever gone without playing a show or anything, but it feels like it's been forever."

He's right, on both points. It does feel like it's been forever since we were on stage, especially in front of an audience this big. In reality it's only been eight months, almost to the day. We've still played music and made music back home in Tulsa, but this is the first time all year that we've performed for other people. I can't remember the last time we've gone this long without playing a single show. It must have been almost a decade ago, back during our stint in Island Def Jam hell.

It is weird to be sitting here, mere moments from taking the stage after being on "hiatus" for so long.

But that's not what I'm worried about. That's barely a blip on my radar right now.

"You okay?"

"Not really..." I sigh tiredly, stuffing my phone into my pocket without responding to the message, because there's nothing I can say or do from here that will fix any of what's going on at home. There's nothing I can say or do while I'm there that will fix it, either. "Ezra's acting up again."

"What'd he do this time?" Zac asks with a distinct note of dread in his tone.

"Threw River's scooter."

"That's not so bad."

"He threw it at the patio doors." I elaborate miserably as I push myself out of my seat and put my ear monitors in. "It broke a few panes of glass."

"Jeez."

"He's mad at me for leaving."

"Did he say that?"

"No, but it makes sense; the first time I leave the state all year, his behavior gets worse. It was one thing when he was just being difficult, you know? I could handle the back-talk and the tantrums, but this... this is different. What if that scooter had hit Penny or River or Viggo? Or what if they'd been standing by that door when the glass broke?" I wasn't really expecting Zac to have any kind of answer for me, but I'll admit that I'm more than a little disheartened by his lack of reply. I appreciate his silent sympathy, but it doesn't solve anything. "He's just so angry all the time."

"Maybe you could take him to see a therapist or something?" He suggests with a helpless shrug.

Helpless is a feeling I'm all too familiar with. "Maybe..."

 "You guys ready?" Isaac asks as he approaches us, his entire demeanor making it obvious that he's probably the most anxious out of the three of us right now. "We're on in five."

"Ready as we'll ever be." Replies Zac, cracking his knuckles for good measure.

I really hate it when he does that.

For the most part, the show goes smoothly. Especially considering the fact that it's been so long since we played outside of the confines of our studio. The audience seems to be made up of a pretty even mix of people who love us and people who aren't really paying any attention at all because we're not the reason they're here. Although there's a noticeable increase in interest when we start playing MMMBop, it's still very much a love-hate situation. The non-fans are the best and worst part about playing festivals like this, in my opinion. It's always a bonus to get to perform for people who wouldn't otherwise listen to your music, and we've never not won over at least a handful of naysayers. But it's always a downer to look out into the crowd and see people standing there with their arms folded and this expression of disdain on their face, like they're waiting in line at the DMV or something.

 I think I hate that even more than Zac's knuckle cracking.

After we're done with our set, and we've been hustled through the whole interview, photo op, meet and greet process that generally proceeds any radio station event like this, Isaac suddenly becomes very eager to get the hell out of Waterworks Park at the earliest opportunity. Normally he'd want to stick around and watch the other acts perform, especially when those acts include musicians that we're friends with. But not today.

Because today, one of the other acts is Adam Lambert. And even though he hasn't said anything about it, I know Isaac wants to avoid any and all possibility that I might run into a certain member of Adam's band.

I've been trying my best to pretend that I don't care ever since we found out that Adam had been added to the roster a few months ago. But, of course, that's bullshit. I haven't seen, spoken to, or otherwise heard from Tommy since last summer in Los Angeles. There was nothing left to say, and even when I dared to think that there might be, I didn't feel I had the right.

As far as I know, this is the first time he and I will have been in the same city, the same state, in eleven months.

I can't help wondering if he's aware of that, too.

He has to know I'll be here.

I wonder if he's hoping to see me... or hoping like hell that he won't.

"Where's the van?" Isaac grumbles, glancing at his watch just in case we weren't all aware that he's annoyed. "How long does it take to load up a drum kit?"

"It's coming." Bex assures him patiently, completely unfazed by his attitude. She's spent enough time around us by now to have developed a very healthy (and necessary) immunity to it.

"I just figured they'd be done by now, you know? We finished playing over an hour ago."

"They must've got caught up with something else." She shrugs indifferently, which is almost enough to make me laugh. I thought Zac and I were the only ones who could get away with that amount of apathy towards Ike. Maybe we should make her an honorary Hanson; she's more than earned it. "Look, here they come now."

"Finally!"

Just as our van comes to a stop in front of us, I realize that I'm missing something. "Shit... I think left my camera backstage."

"Are you kidding me?" My older brother exclaims as he throws his hands up in defeat. "Every time, Taylor!"

I'd flip him the bird, but he's totally justified in his frustration this time; I can't go anywhere without losing something. "I'll be right back!"

"Just leave it!"

He must be more desperate to get me out of here before Adam's band shows up than I thought. And he must be totally insane if he thinks I'm gonna leave my Leica behind! It doesn't matter that it's one of the less expensive cameras I own, I love that thing. Besides, you don't just abandon your personal belongings in random places simply to avoid running into your ex; that's a level of pathetic that I hope to never reach. I don't care how completely torturous and upsetting the breakup was, or how much it'd probably hurt to see his face again...

On second thoughts, it is just a camera.

I only took a couple of potentially decent pictures on it today, and I can probably get another one on eBay for next to nothing.

"Lost something?" Inquires a nearby member of the venue security staff as I get up off of my hands and knees and brush the dirt from my pants.

"Nope, thanks." I force a smile, but judging by his quirked eyebrow it's not even slightly convincing. Probably because I was all but crawling under a chair five seconds ago and now I'm acting like I had no reason to. "Just... checking something."

Yup, here I am. Squirming uncomfortably in a level of pathetic I hoped to never reach.

The only way this moment could possibly get any worse is if the person I just backed right into turns out to be-

"Shit, I'm sorry."

I'm already in the process of instinctively turning around when I hear that all too familiar voice, but the second it registers that it's him I freeze. And the second he sees that it's me, he freezes. And now we're just standing here, frozen, staring at each other.

What am I supposed to say?

I know I have to say something... but what?

The corner of his mouth twitches ever so slightly, momentarily curling into a half-smile that is almost immediately chased away by obvious uncertainty. "Hey..."

Hey is a good start. Why didn't I think of that?

"Hi..."

Even though we're both clearly more than a little stupefied by what's happening right now, I think it's safe to assume that he was as aware of the possibility that we'd see each other as I was. But I have no clue how he's feeling now that we have. I don't even really know how I'm feeling, to be honest.

Besides entirely overwhelmed.

Technically, it's his turn to speak. I said "hi", so now the ball is in his court. But it looks like he's lost for words, so maybe I should try to think of some. Or one. One word would be better than the none I'm saying right now.

How's it going?

It's good to see you.

I miss you.

"Tommy."

We both look over at the person who just called his name in a similar tone to the one most pet owners use to summon their dog. It has that unmistakable note of authority to it. But the look on his friend's face isn't that of someone who feels that they have any control over anything, it's the exact opposite. In fact, he looks kind of terrified. If I wasn't so consumed by the multitude of emotions I'm already experiencing, I might be able to find it in me to feel bad for him.

"I gotta go." Tommy tells me, obediently taking a step back towards Isaac, and every cell in my body screams at me to reach out and keep him from leaving.

"Sure..." Words, Taylor. Say words, any words. "Um..." Um is not a word, it's a sound. Try again. "Have a good show."

Lame.

"Thanks. You too."

"We already played."

"Oh... right."

Damnit. Would it have killed me to just say "thanks" and keep my mouth shut so that he wouldn't feel like an idiot? "I should let you go..."

Why? Why?!

"Okay." He takes another step back, that flicker of a smile reappearing on his face and making me feel inexplicably weak. "It was good to see you."

"Yeah..."

I mean to say "you too", but I don't. I'm not sure why, it's like my mouth just refuses to work anymore. Or maybe it's because all of my brain function at this moment is being channeled into keeping my hands at my sides so that I don't do something horribly embarrassing, like throwing myself to the ground and latching on to his feet so that he can't walk away.

Which he does, because what else is he supposed to do?

I remain glued to the spot until he's completely out of sight, and even then the only movement I can manage is an unsteady retreat back to the chairs behind me so I can sit down until my legs work again. It feels so surreal, like maybe I fell asleep in the van on the way back to the hotel and all of that was just a dream. It had to have been a dream, because I had no control over anything I said or did. And I'm completely numb. I was prepared to feel all manner of agonizing things if I saw him again, but I wasn't prepared to feel so... dazed.

So detached.

Eventually I summon the presence of mind to get up and walk back to the van, but I still feel like I'm in some kind of trance (which further reinforces my dream theory). My brothers and Bex watch me in confusion as I make my way over to them and wordlessly climb into the back seat, and it's only a matter of seconds before the questions start.

Where did I go? Why did it take me so long? Where's my camera? Why do I look so weird? What's wrong with me? Why aren't I talking?

"Can we just... go?" I finally interject, offering them no answers whatsoever.

I don't have the energy to give any answers. And if this is just a dream, they don't really need them.

The drive from Waterworks park to our hotel is so short that it seems as though the van barely moves before we're pulling up at the main entrance and the doors are opened again. But my mind is so hazy right now that the journey would have passed in just as much of a blur even if our hotel had been a hundred miles away. I'm vaguely aware of Ike and Bex talking to me as we walk into the lobby and head for the elevators,  but I have no clue what either of them are saying. I nod like I understand, and I think I say "okay", which I'll probably regret later when I figure out what I just agreed to, but luckily I'm still too lost in my own thoughts to care.

Just as I'm about to go into my hotel room, someone grabs me by the elbow and pulls me back. I'm not really surprised to find Zac standing behind me when I turn around, and I'm definitely not surprised by the worry in his eyes.

"What happened?" He asks apprehensively. "Did Ez-"

"I saw Tommy."

He inhales, as though he's about to breathe a sigh of relief over the fact that my son didn't do something else destructive (yet), but that sigh of relief gets stuck in his throat when what I've just said fully registers.

"Oh."

"Do me a favor?"

"Uh... okay."

"Pinch me?"

With an uncertain chuckle, he shakes his head in bewilderment. "What?"

"Pinch me."

"No!"

"Please?"

"Why?"

"Just do it!" I reply insistently, and he rolls his eyes as he grudgingly submits to my request. "Fuck."

"What?"

"That hurt."

"Well, duh. That's why I didn't wanna do it."

"It hurt, and I'm still here, which means that I'm awake and I wasn't dreaming." I explain wearily, pushing my keycard into the door lock and waiting for the little light to turn green before I open it. "That means I really did just see Tommy, and it really was weird, and I really did make a total ass of myself."

"Well... what happened?" He asks, following me into my hotel room and watching me flop backwards onto my freshly made bed. "What did you say?"

"God, I don't even remember. I just know it all came out stupid."

"Most of what you say does."

"Not helping." I glare at him as he sits down on the edge of the mattress and playfully nudges my knee with his. "I just... I didn't know what to say to him, Zac. I always thought I knew exactly what I'd say if I ever saw him again, you know? I've had enough time to think about it and play every possible conversation over in my head a million times. But then he was standing right there, and I just... fuck, he probably thinks I couldn't wait to get away from him."

"Why?"

"Because I barely said anything. I was trying so hard not to say something dumb that I didn't say anything!"

He laughs softly, like he thinks I'm exaggerating. If only he knew. "It can't have been that bad. You must have said something."

"I think I said 'hi'. And maybe something like 'you should probably go'. I don't know, I'm just acutely aware that it was awful."

"Well... what did you want to say?" He pries carefully, probably unsure that he even wants to know.

Life hasn't exactly been a piece of cake since Tommy and I broke up, but it's sure as hell been a lot more stable than it was when we were together. At least, it's been stable for my brothers. For me, not so much. But I'm used to that.

"I don't know." I tell him honestly, gazing up at the ceiling above me as I rake my fingers through my unruly hair.

"Do you want to get back together with him?"

Yes. "Of course not."

"Why 'of course not'? You make it sound ridiculous."

"Because it is."

He shrugs faintly, offering me a small, sad smile. "You are single now."

Sometimes I honestly think that I'm unaware of that fact. I was married for so long, it became a part of who I was, like my name or the color of my eyes. I haven't been single since I was a teenager, and I became single so suddenly, so unexpectedly... I'm not sure it's actually sunk in yet. Not entirely, at least.

"I'm not single... I'm a widower. There's a difference."

"Which is?"

"Single men can do whatever they want, and see whoever they want, and no one cares. But when a guy whose wife died less than a year ago starts seeing someone else-"

"Tay, you can't spend your whole life worrying what other people think. There are people out there who are never gonna approve, no matter what you do. You could wait ten years to start dating again, and someone out there will probably still think you're being disrespectful to Natalie. Especially if the person you start seeing is a guy."

"But it's only been six months, Zac. It's too soon."

"For other people, maybe. But it's your life. You've spent too much of it trying to do what you thought you should do, and all it's done is make you miserable."

"Why are you pushing this? Do you want me to get back together with Tommy or something?"

"Honestly? Not even a teeny tiny little bit." I can't help but smile at his bluntness, just for a second. I love how he doesn't even try to sugar-coat it, and yet it's still not at all harsh. "But I do want you to be happy. If that means being with The Ambiguously Gay Bassist, then... that's what it means."

"So you're saying that, now that Nat's gone, you think I should just say 'fuck it' and do whatever I want?"

He solemnly shakes his head, giving me a look I've seen a lot of in my life. It's a look that practically screams 'my poor, slow, big brother'. "I'm just saying that... if everything that's happened this year has taught any of us anything, it's that life is way too fucking short. We have no idea what's going to happen from one minute to the next, we can't know. One minute you're celebrating birth and the next minute you're mourning death. But one thing I do know is that if we spend all our time worrying about what might happen, or what people might think of our choices, we'll never do anything. Every day that we're alive and we don't live our lives the way we really want to, we're just wasting time. And who the hell knows how much of it we're gonna get. I understand that you feel guilty for moving on so soon, but... you wanted to move on a long time ago."

"Yeah, and I felt like shit about it then, too."

"Right. So you felt like shit for wanting to move on when she was alive, and you feel like shit for wanting to move on now that she's gone. Do you think you're ever not going to feel like shit for it?"

He makes more sense than he has any right to, way more often than I'm sure most people would probably expect. He's actually always been the most rational and level-headed of the three of us. Well... about most things, anyway. It's kind of completely annoying. He's my little brother, I'm supposed to be the mature, worldly one imparting wisdom and offering advice. Instead, he's always had it together more than I have.

I'm a walking disaster of a human being, and he's... Zac.

"It doesn't even matter what I want or how I feel." I stubbornly dispute, returning my attention to the ceiling. "It's been over a year since Tommy and I broke up. He's moved on. I have no right to just waltz back into his life and try to drag him into my mess of an existence."

"What're you gonna do, then? Pretend like today never happened and you never saw him?"

I don't want to. What I want to do is call him and tell him that I still think about him every day. I want to ask him if he ever thinks about me. I want to tell him that the ten seconds I spent in his presence today made my heart beat faster than any ten seconds I've spent doing anything since the last time I laid eyes on him.

I want to tell him that I miss him. So much.

But I don't know how.