The CD came on a Tuesday. Maybe. It was hard to say; John Paul ran a record label, got a million CDs in the mail. One more didn't mean anything, and this one meant less than the rest. There was no return address, nothing, just a plain white cardboard sleeve. It didn't even come priority mail.
It took him a few days to open it, and when he finally did, he found nothing at all. No track listing, no note. It was just some unmarked, off-brand CD, the kind he used to get at Walmart in giant spindles. Mostly they'd ended up as sticky coasters in shithole apartments, but this one had ended up here, on his desk, "JP" printed neatly on the label side in green sharpie.
He knew what it was. No matter how many times he told the grapevine to fuck off, the grapevine found ways to keep him informed, so he knew what Joy was up to. Writing songs. Making a record. Moving back to California. Leaving -- not that he had anything to say about leaving. He didn't expect he'd have much to say about the album she'd sent, either, but he slid it into the drive anyway. No way he could bear Joy's voice through a real sound system. He wasn't sure he could handle it coming out of the tinny laptop speakers, for that matter, but he pressed play before he could think too much about it.
He lasted ten seconds. "Oh," Joy sang, and JP was jamming the eject key so hard he hurt his finger. He tore the CD out of the drive and snapped the damn thing in half.
Eventually, when his hands stopped shaking and he felt less like he was dying and more like he just wanted to, he dug his phone out of his pocket. It took a fair bit of scrolling to find Joy in his text history -- it had been more than six months since he'd heard from her. Dad's gone, she'd texted when her father died. He'd typed and deleted I'm sorry at least a half-dozen times before he'd managed to send it, and that had been that.
To break that silence, he sent her a picture of the broken CD. He meant I'll need another one but it took him half a second to realize Joy wasn't likely to take it that way. Unfortunately, that half-second came after it was sent, and by then he reckoned it was too late to fix -- just like everything else. He poured himself some bourbon and waited for her to tell him to go fuck himself.
By the time she did (a picture of her own hand, middle finger extended), he was three drinks down and spoiling for a fight. Or he was until his phone buzzed again -- did you even listen to it? -- and after that, all he could do was ache. There was a time she wouldn't have had to ask, because she would have known what he meant -- and because she wouldn't have cut a record without him. It would have been their songs on this CD, music they'd made together.
No, he texted back. It broke in the mail. Send me another one?
There was no response, but she did it -- sent a thumb drive, this time, so there'd be no excuses. Then he was right back where he started: in his office, staring at her album, bourbon in hand, not sure what to do.
In the house, Jenny was washing dishes. He watched her for a while, shoulder to the door, and then grabbed a towel to help dry. Two frying pans later, he said, "Joy made a record."
A brief pause. "Any good?"
"Don't know yet."
A much, much longer pause. Water lapped against the sides of the sink. "Ah."
He took his laptop, the thumb drive, and two bottles of Woodford Reserve. At the last minute, he grabbed his guitar, too, the Martin he wrote with, even though he hadn't written a song in more than two years and wasn't looking to start. He still played, of course, still sang, still messed around with some friends, but writing new music had taken a back seat to the rest of his life: his family, his label, the Shoals.
The cabin wasn't far, maybe 45 minutes if he didn't get stuck behind some asshole who didn't know how to drive. He didn't, and then there he was, alone, no excuses left. He sat on the floor in front of the couch and drank. It took him half a bottle of bourbon before he'd swallowed enough courage to reach for his laptop and hit play. Then he braced for her voice, and if his knuckles went white around his rocks glass when she started singing, if he felt the harmony instinctively rise in his throat with every phrase, well -- there was a reason he'd come to the cabin.
The track was wildly overproduced, but all the synths in the world couldn't change his reaction to her voice. The lilt and soar of it made his stomach drop, his scalp tingle, his lungs open. He'd almost forgotten what it felt like.
The second track he'd heard before; it was about Miles. Joy had started writing it a day or two after having the baby, and she'd played it for JP when he'd gone over. It had been brutally hot, one of those summer days Nashville might as well have been someone's asscrack, 103 degrees on her porch, air so humid walking up the driveway felt like swimming. Condensation dripped from the beer in his hand as he listened to her play, and he'd had to close his eyes to avoid the smile on her face.
The song had been fine then. It was fine now, when it wasn't being overpowered by the drum machine. The next song was fine, too. It was all fine. He sat forward, frowning, surprised. He thought: I hate this. And then: Thank fucking god. If this was where she'd wanted to go, then he'd been right to walk away.
He poured himself another glass of bourbon out of sheer relief, and what's when he heard it: I could tell the truth about you leaving, she sang, and JP wished he had another CD to break.
Don't feel sorry for yourself, you got everything you want, everyone's watching you pick up and run.
Go big or go home, John-boy. He was absolutely terrified in a way he hadn't been since high school: hands sweating on the steering wheel, his insides fluttery and half-drunk as hope and terror squirmed through his chest. Then, he'd spent two weeks trying to get up the guts to ask the pretty girl to the dance; now, he was a grown-ass man, but it had taken him twice the time.
To cover, he bought flowers, chocolate, a bottle of wine. He put on a decent suit, trimmed his goatee and paid extra attention to his hair, tried to tame the frizz. He knocked on Joy's front door, and he could see confusion on her face when she pulled it open, but she didn't miss a beat: "I forgot your boutonniere. What's the occasion?"
Play it up, he thought, hoping to cover his trepidation with some low-key dramatics. He stared at his feet and scuffed his shoes, glancing at her through his hair with a shy smile. He wasn't faking it, but she didn't know that; she smiled back. He asked, "Wanna be in a band with me?"
Her joyful, incredulous laughter was the most beautiful music he'd ever heard.
They announced the band on Valentine's Day. Well, Joy posted on her Facebook page, and it seemed to work: their first show sold out. Which was fine, JP told himself. It had been a long time since he'd played live, but Nashville was more or less a hometown crowd, and the Shoals came out to support its own. He'd be among friends. It would be fine. Nothing to be nervous about.
"You're wearing that?" Joy asked him, when he showed up backstage at the French Quarter in jeans and an old v-neck. She was wearing a little black dress, heels, a big dangly necklace, and a decidedly unimpressed look on her face. She grabbed his elbow and tugged him over to the full-length mirror, bless your heart remaining unsaid. They stared at themselves for a good long time. Joy looked great -- exasperated, maybe, but excited. Alive. She was practically glowing. JP looked like himself.
"It's comfortable," he said, rolling his shoulders and trying not to sound defensive. Her hand was still on him, tucked into the crook of his elbow.
"I'm sure. What happened to that suit? It looked pretty comfortable when you came over and asked me to prom."
"I did not--"
"Wear that. You've got time to change." She was grinning, now, sure of herself. "Trust me."
"Okay," he said. "But I don't wanna hear one word about how bad I smell when I sweat through it."
It didn't dampen her enthusiasm any. "Deal," she said, beaming, and went up on her toes to kiss him on the cheek.
Lightning 100 streamed their first gig live, and JP had the engineer at Eddie's Attic record their second one. He got a DAT straight from the board, put the tracks online, and gave the album away for free. Why not?
Joy got a little line between her eyes. Not a frown, exactly; a question. "Should we be doing something else?" she asked.
"Like booking some more studio time? Looking for a label, a manager -- you know." She waved a hand in the air. "What other bands do."
"I didn't know you wanted to be like other bands."
Now it was a real frown. "You know what I mean," she said, but he didn't. Singing with Joy felt like coming home, and he was proud of what they'd done so far. If mostly that amounted to playing coffee shops and uploading live albums for no good reason, at least people were responding. How could they not? Their music was special, and anyone who listened to it could tell. They only needed more people to listen to it.
"We could at least get a manager," she said. "Someone to handle the business part. Oh"--she said it like she'd just now come up with a great idea-- "Nate could do it."
JP felt his eyebrows go up, but he surprised them both when he shrugged and said, "If that's what y'all want."
Joy looked tired. She was barefoot, curled up on the end of the couch in leggings and a baggy sweater, clutching a mug of tea. A fence of electronics surrounded her.
"Good week?" he asked, settling on the floor and stretching his legs in front of him. He carefully leaned against the couch and tilted his head back, his eyes closed as he noodled on the guitar. It was how they wrote these days: she talked and he played and eventually, something happened.
"Mmm," she said, which could have meant anything. JP waited, picking out a half-remembered melody line from God knows where, but Joy didn't say anything else. He could feel her eyes on him, but every time he looked over and tried to catch her eye in return, he found her doing something else: staring at her laptop, tapping at her phone, trying to read the future in her tea leaves. And then, eventually, staring at his hair.
He watched her over the tops of his glasses. "See something you like?"
"Hm? Oh. Yeah. I mean--" She blinked a few times and shook her head, a sheepish grin spreading across her face. "Sorry, I'm a little distracted."
He tugged on an errant curl. "My hair does have that effect on the ladies."
"I bet," she said, laughing. She reached out like she might feel his curls for herself, but she stopped just short of touching him. The smile disappeared from her face as her hand dropped. "You don't read the reviews, do you?"
"Not if I can help it."
She uncrossed her legs, paused, twisted, crossed them in the other direction.
"Didn't think you did, either," he said into the silence.
"I try not to." A wry smile crossed her face. "You're better at that than I am."
He gave her that one; he didn't much care what people said. Joy, though -- Joy cared enough for both of them.
"And Nate has to read them," she said, "so sometimes I see things."
"Bad things?" It didn't seem likely. "Jenny hasn't said anything. What's going on?"
"They think we're together," she blurted out, anxious. "Fans, I mean. Critics. Everyone."
JP stopped messing with his guitar. He thought of the way she moved on stage, the way she dressed, the way she smiled, the way she touched him, the way he watched her do all of it. He thought of her cheek against his as they sang. He waited.
"Well?" Joy demanded, when she couldn't take it anymore. Tea sloshed over the edges of her mug. "Doesn't it bother you?"
"That people think I'm sleeping with a beautiful woman? Yeah, I hate that."
"Be serious." She shoved at his shoulder with her foot. Her toenails were green. "You're married!"
"Indeed I am," he said, nodding. "To a beautiful woman." He breathed on his fingernails and buffed them against his shirt.
"Is this you being serious?"
"Joy." He dropped the act and sat up. "We're a two-person band called The Civil Wars. We dress up nice and stare deep into each other's eyes and sing about love gone wrong. If people think we're together, or we used to be together, or we desperately want to be together, or whatever, it means it's working. It feels real. It ain't a bad thing."
She pulled both knees to her chest and propped her chin on one of them, thinking. "So we're just giving the people what they want."
"That's showbusiness for you," he said with a shrug. "And it's not like we're lying. You've been asked, I've been asked, we've told the truth. People are gonna see what they want no matter what we say. Might as well give 'em something to talk about."
She lifted an eyebrow. "A little mystery to figure out?"
"Well," he said, trying for a straight face. "Now that you mention it."
Her mouth curved slowly into a grin. "Could be fun."
"Could be at that."
Early September 2010
John Paul was bored out of his mind.
He'd been expecting it since they left. It wasn't his first tour, or even his first tour with Joy, so he knew better than to buy into the myth about the glamor of the road. There especially wouldn't be any glamor when it was just him and Joy in a van on I-40. But despite a litany of complaints -- most of which involved the accumulated aches of being too old to be living in a van -- JP had started to feel pretty glamorous.
All his previous experiences of the road had been overwritten by rooms of reverent fans who knew the words to their songs; by dawn breaking over the mountains as they drove east; by the wind in his hair at three in the morning as they sped down the highway, windows down, singing Guns N Roses as loud as they could; by the mischievous glint in Joy's eyes as she 'accidentally' sprayed him with the hose when they stopped to clean the bugs off the grill; by sprawling on the grass at a rest stop with his guitar, working through a new song as the sun went down; by the brush of her knuckles under his chin as she straightened his tie; by the smell of her shampoo.
It was, he knew, an infatuation, and so he tried to give it the attention it deserved: not much. He loved the music they made and the way their voices fit together, but anything more was a bad idea, and one he hoped would fade with time. They'd been almost six weeks on the road and were down to their last three shows, and then they'd go to their separate homes with their separate spouses and regain some perspective.
The problem was they had a night off, and so they'd checked into a weird motel in the middle of Chicago, one with dark wood panels and green shag carpeting, plus complementary parking and free HBO! And then Nate had flown up. It felt unfair; Jenny couldn't join him on the road, and even though he liked Nate fine, he didn't like playing third wheel.
He was in his room, trying not to think about what Nate and Joy were doing next door, or about much of anything at all, but he was getting no help. He'd picked up a new Kindle for the tour, learned he hated reading on a Kindle, and he'd just watched Derek Jeter hit a double for at least the third time that night. The Tigers had the best pitcher in baseball, and what was ESPN showing on repeat? Derek Fucking Jeter hitting doubles.
He turned off the TV with a sigh and punched his pillow a few times to fluff it up before flopping on the bed. He pulled out his phone to call Jenny, but one glance at the clock and he scratched that plan. Last time he'd called this late, it hadn't gone well.
His phone was still in his hand when it buzzed. You still up? Joy wanted to know.
JP considered ignoring it for as long as it took him to type, Yeah, why?
He shot a questioning look at the door separating their rooms, but it didn't help him figure out what to say. Options: I'm five feet away. ?? It's been like two hours. ???????? I miss you too.
Liquor store up the street, was what he came up with. Probably still open.
Meet you at the hot tub in 20? I'll bring snacks.
Fifteen minutes later, he got back to find Joy clutching a bag and staring disconsolately at the gate to the 'hot tub.' It was really just an oversized bathtub in the corner of the parking lot, surrounded by a low fence and some sad-looking bushes. What kind of lunatics put a hot tub outside in Chicago? He wondered if Joy was actually planning to get in the damn thing. None of this seemed promising.
"We should've sprung for a nicer hotel," he said. At least there were a few lounge chairs in there.
Joy rolled her eyes. "That's not the problem." She pointed at a hand-written sign: the hot tub closed at dusk. No alcohol allowed.
"That's a damn shame," he said, thrusting the booze into her arms. Then he hopped the fence, opened the gate from the inside, and bowed her on through. "Ma'am."
"Much obliged." Joy lifted her chin imperiously and swept in, but the second the gate clanged shut behind her, she was in his arms and laughing. "I do like a bad boy," she said -- purred, really, her fingers sliding under the sleeve of his t-shirt to play at the edges of the tattoo on his bicep.
Christ, he thought, knowing he should pull away but pulling her closer instead. His hand settled at the small of her back. "Not worried I'll corrupt you?"
She held his eyes long enough that he started to panic, worried he'd messed it up and come too close to talking about the thing they weren't talking about. "No," she said softly, and far too seriously, but then she laughed again and stepped away. She held up the bottle of wine. "Screw top. Very classy."
He tipped his imaginary hat. "Only the best for you, Joy."
"And for you, kind sir." She pulled a towel from her bag and unrolled it in one grand flourish like it was a bullfighter's cape.
"That's the best towel?" he asked, dubious. It looked a little ragged. "Or-- wait, am I supposed to charge?" He lowered his head and held two curved fingers at the top, like horns.
"Try it," she said, snapping the towel to the other side. "You will end up in the water, my friend."
"Not without you, I won't."
She pointed with two fingers. "That sounds like a challenge I will accept. But first, we picnic." The snacks she'd brought went flying as she overturned the bag. JP smoothed the towel over a small table, and they went about setting up their spread. Joy had managed to dig up a selection of the very finest mini-bar treats: trail mix with chocolate, sea salt potato chips, and two boxes of Raisinets. Very decadent.
"You really went all-out," he said, fishing some peanuts out of the trail mix. He tossed them in the air, caught them in his mouth, and tried not to feel smug when Joy looked a little -- a very little -- impressed.
"How many beers before you start missing? Or"--she gasped dramatically and grinned, looking delighted--"before you'll dance with me?"
He cracked open one of the beers in question. "You know I don't dance."
She folded her arms over her chest, one eyebrow arched. "You dance every night."
"No," he said, with exaggerated patience. "You dance every night. I bop up and down like a jack-in-the-box on meth."
She laughed and poured herself some wine. "One day I'll get you."
"I don't think so," he said, and wondered which of them he was trying to fool.
"Another challenge I'll accept." She lifted her glass and they toasted. They drank. Joy ended up in the tub in her skivvies and managed to talk JP all the way out of his socks. He rolled his jeans to his knees and dangled his feet in the water. It was dawn before they made it back inside.
Two weeks later, he was home. He was in his own bed with crisp, clean sheets -- not to mention his wife. Every morning, he made his coffee exactly the way he liked it, and he hugged his kids whenever he felt like it. It was all good, he thought, only it didn't feel good, and he wasn't real clear on why.
It took time to change gears from where on God's green earth are we right now, and what is there to eat? to what food does the five-year-old hate this week, and is he allowed to have peanuts inside this particular building? JP tried, but he'd never been able to flip a switch the way some people could.
But worse than that was the anxiety -- the feeling there were obligations he was shirking, the sense that he'd come back different, the fear that there wasn't a place here for him. His family functioned fine when he was gone, and coming back wasn't always so easy.
John Paul and Jenny knew all of that. They expected it, planned for it. But this time he wasn't getting over it -- or, more to the point, over Joy. Every thirty seconds he was reaching for his phone to tell her something. He looked for her in every room he entered, listened for her voice in every sound he heard.
It was not, he knew, a good look. He tried to tamp it down around Jenny and the kids, but he wasn't having much success. And although he and Joy hadn't talked about it, he could tell she was having the same problem. More often than not, when he looked at his phone, he found bunch of new messages and a handful of photos.
Got some new shoes for the next tour. Tall enough?
New coffeeshop downtown pulls a killer espresso. I'll take you next time you come up.
Can't wait to play you the new Jayhawks album. You'll love it.
Where are you right now?
He called her after that one. "I'm on my front steps," he said, before she'd managed 'hello.' It was two in the morning. "Where are you?"
"I don't know."
Well, that's not good, JP thought. Not good at all. "You okay?"
"No," she said. Then, "Yeah. I mean-- I couldn't sleep so I'm driving around. Not sure where I am, but I'm fine."
"All right. Are you--"
"Using the headset, yes, dear."
He didn't take the bait. "What happened?"
"Nate and I had a fight."
He squeezed his eyes shut. "You wanna talk about it?"
They were both quiet for a while. Over the crickets in his own yard, JP could hear the low murmur of the radio in her car. "When are you coming up?" she finally asked.
JP hesitated. He hadn't been planning to go up to Nashville at all -- not any time soon, anyway. They had a show in Austin in a few weeks, but he'd been planning to drive up the morning of and get on the plane. "Uh," he said.
"Because I was thinking. We should do a Christmas album."
He chewed on that a while. Christmas wasn't even three months away. "How you figure that'll work?"
"We've got 'Tracks in the Snow' in the can," she said, "but it doesn't fit with the rest of what we've got. We could do a Christmas song or two and put out an EP. Maybe include some live tracks? I don't know, we'll figure it out. But -- I told you I had lunch with Charlie today, right? What I didn't tell you is that someone canceled on him, so the studio's ours for the rest of the week if we want it. We just have to let him know."
"What else haven't you told me?"
"Please, I tell you everything." Except, he thought, why you've been fighting with Nate. "I just feel like we have to do something to keep our momentum up. It doesn't sit well with me, not working."
"Yeah, me neither." He sighed like he was thinking about it, but he'd already made up his mind. "All right, call Charlie. I'll talk to Jen and see you tomorrow. Probably in the afternoon sometime."
"You do owe me that espresso," he said. And then, "hey, you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah." He could hear her smile through the phone. "I am now."
The Christmas EP came out in November. In January, they flew to LA and did Leno as a last-minute replacement. Backstage, wide-eyed and jittery, Joy held out her arm. "Pinch me," she said, breathless, and he did. They debuted Barton Hollow at a two-night homestand in Florence two weeks later to a crowd full of JP's extended family, and by the time they got to Nashville the next night, the record was number one on iTunes.
"We've got 85 more songs for y'all fine folks," JP told the sold-out crowd at the Belcourt. "They're all 'Barton Hollow.'" If the audience hadn't already been on its feet, that would've done it.
After, in the janitor's closet that passed for a dressing room, Joy was half-dressed and dancing, still coming down from the show. JP shrugged out of his suit jacket and asked dryly, "new bra?" Joy had lost her shyness years ago, which left him trying not to stare at her smooth skin on the regular, failing pretty often, and wondering if he'd rather she put on a shirt. She usually spared him that debate by changing pretty quickly when he was in the room.
Not this time. She turned her back and shot him a sultry look over her shoulder. "This old thing?" She slid her thumb under the strap and snapped it. "That tie, on the other hand..." Suddenly she was serious. "That actually is new, and you're about to ruin it."
He looked down at the hopeless knot he'd somehow managed to make of his tie, and then she was there, batting his hands away from his collar. "I can dress myself," he said, but it didn't come out half as grouchy as he'd wanted.
"Mmm-hmmm," she said, her smile wicked. "It's the undressing you need help with."
JP rolled his eyes to the ceiling and kept them there, staring fixedly at the stained tile as she tossed the tie aside and started on the buttons of his shirt. His phone buzzed before she was finished -- and buzzed, and buzzed again. Again. Again. He swore under his breath. There weren't many people who'd try to reach him ten minutes after a show, and one of them was unbuttoning his shirt. Resigned, he dug the phone out of his pocket.
"Are you done?" he asked Joy, who'd moved on from the buttons and was now yanking his shirt from his pants.
"Sure," she said, palm against his sweaty undershirt. Her own phone was going off somewhere on the other side of the room, and she patted the middle of his chest before going off to find it.
He looked down, unlocked his phone, and nearly fell over. "Holy shit."
"Holy shit." He wasn't sure any other words were going to come out of his mouth for a while.
She abandoned the quest for her phone, instead stepping behind him and hooking her chin over his shoulder. "Show me."
Numb with shock, he angled his phone so she could see it. His hand was shaking, and she wrapped her own around it to steady him.
@taylorswift13 Listening to 'Poison & Wine' by @thecivilwars. You can't push 'repeat' on vinyl so I keep setting the needle back on my record player.
"Oh my God," Joy said, her fingertips digging into his side as she clutched at him from behind. "I-- how many followers does she have?"
"I don't know, like a million? Or a hundred million?"
"Oh my God."
He turned his head to meet her eyes, and saw his shock and pride and vindication mirrored on her face. He was suddenly, staggeringly happy, and the feeling seemed too big to contain -- we did this, and people like it, and now they're gonna hear it. He felt he might burst with it, thought it might bring down the theater around them and he wouldn't give a good goddamn. And Joy -- Joy was right there with him. He swallowed.
"John Paul," she whispered, her breath on his mouth.
She lifted her arm. "Pinch me."
It startled a laugh out of him. "Nah, I'll do you one better. Let's dance," he said, which in turn startled a laugh out of her. He picked her up and swung her around, and they danced the rest of the night to the sound of her laughter.
In February, they toured. In March, they went to Paris for a week to write, and then they came home and toured. In April, they toured. In May, they got a bus, and they toured -- as Adele's opener. They all got matching tattoos in New York, ellipses on their wrists that took all of three minutes, one for each dot. But it was Joy's first time under the needle; she laced her fingers through his nervously and nearly broke his hand when the artist started working.
"Careful," he said. "That's my pickin' hand. Our meal ticket."
"We'd be just fine without your hand," she gritted out, squeezing even tighter.
He shot a dry look at Adele. "No respect from this one."
"Done," the artist said. He wiped Joy's wrist down and reached for the saran wrap. "How's it feel?"
"That's it?" Joy blinked at her wrist. "I barely noticed it happening."
"Sure felt like you noticed," JP muttered.
She gave him a sheepish look and started to pull her hand away, but he refused to relinquish it. "Nope," he said. "It's my turn. What if I get scared?"
Her thumb slid across his palm. "I'll distract you. Tell me about this." She nodded at the blackwork on the inside of his forearm.
"Deus meus," he said, not looking at the ink. "Ex toto--"
"I can read it. I want you to tell me about it."
He looked at his arm, and at their joined hands. The artist finished the stencil on his other wrist; he glanced over, decided it looked fine. "Go for it," he said, twitching a little when the tattoo gun started up. It was the noise that got to him more than the pain; he imagined he could feel the buzzing in his teeth. It took a few seconds to adjust to the sting of it.
"Yeah." He was still looking at their hands. "It's the Act of Contrition. Kind of a cheat-sheet for forgiveness, a little something for when you're really reflecting on your sins."
When he looked up, her smile was soft. "You do so much sinning you had to have it tattooed on your body?"
"Darlin'," he said, turning the drawl to eleven, "you got no idea."
A week later they were on their way to London, JP wedged into what he thought of as the corner seat. He and Joy were in the very last row, back where the seats didn't recline even the scant half-inch he needed to keep his legs from cramping. Joy was curled up and reading, looking about as comfortable as she might on a cruise ship, and he was trying not to resent her for it. He was not, on the whole, succeeding.
Nate was up in business class, alone because even a handful of dates with Adele hadn't made them enough money for everyone to be up there. John Paul suspected the seat had been for him. He was a nervous, cranky flyer, prone to motion sickness, and it was a nicer ride up there. Even so, and all resentments and cramping aside, he'd rather be in steerage with Joy than up there by himself. Her light chatter and her easy smile steadied him, and he needed the pressure of her hand on his leg when he started feeling green. Which he had definitely started to do. He took a deep breath.
She closed her book and eyed him speculatively. "Doing okay?"
"Peachy," he said, digging his palm into his thigh, trying to ease the ache. It didn't help; what he really needed was to straighten his legs.
"You're a terrible liar."
"No, I just tell obvious lies so you think I'm a terrible liar. That way when it really counts, you'll believe anything I have to say."
Her cheek dimpled. "Devious. Here." She folded up the armrest between their seats and stood. She didn't even have to duck her head to do it. "Swivel. Legs out. Stretch. Good."
He almost groaned with the relief of it, not to mention the irritation. Twenty-four hours in a van was no problem, but God, he hated flying. "Thanks," he said, when he thought he could move. He started to turn back around.
"Don't do that," she said, and tangled herself around him, her back to his front, their bodies angled so he could keep his legs out.
"You're like a cat," he said to her hair, bemused, but he settled his arm across her middle and shifted, trying to get comfortable. He shoved a pillow behind his back. This might actually work.
"And you're more of a dog person," she said, pulling the scratchy airline blanket over both of them. "Believe me, I know."
"Hey now, I like cats plenty," he said. "In fact, I was thinking about getting one for the bus."
She tipped her head back and gave him as skeptical a look as she could manage upside-down. "Who'd clean the litter box?" She pointed at her chest and shook her head. "Not me." She flicked at his chin with two fingers, nails scraping lightly against his stubble. "And not you."
JP considered. "We'll make Nate do it."
"Oh, he'll love that." She laughed. "I think those things need to be cleaned more than once a month."
"He's with us more than that," he said, and he must not have sounded happy about it, because Joy stopped laughing.
It was true: Nate was with them more often than he wasn't. On top of that, they'd started traveling with their opening acts -- they were a band that had support now, a concept JP still had some trouble with. They brought along a photographer, a tour manager, an engineer, a merch guy. The bus had started to get crowded, John Paul wasn't sure when he'd ever see his wife again, and Joy was sprawled across his lap on an airplane to London, using his chest for a pillow.
She said, "I didn't know it bothered you."
"If that was the lie I was supposed to swallow, you didn't set things up very well."
"It's not Nate," he said, groping for the right words. "It's..." He trailed off, uncertain, and then decided to just say it. "It's that Nate travels with us but Jenny never gets to see me play and so sometimes I wanna punch him in the face."
He stopped, suddenly and painfully aware he should have kept that to himself. What could she possibly say? What were their options? Even if he could afford it, he wasn't going to send the kids to boarding school so his wife could sleep on a tour bus. Jenny would divorce him for suggesting it. That left breaking up the band or firing Nate because JP was jealous, which might as well be breaking up the band, which was going to happen over his dead body.
What Joy said was, "Me too." Her voice was light, but under the blanket, her hand found his.
JP glanced down in surprise. "Do what?"
She pulled his arm tighter across her body and said, "It's hard to have any kind of work-life balance when my husband is my manager."
"Work-life balance? Is that some kind of California hippie shit?"
"It's confusing sometimes," she said. "That's all."
"Yeah," he said. "Nothing in my life makes much sense right now, either."
She brought their joined hands to her lips and brushed a kiss across his knuckles. "The music makes sense, John Paul. We just have to trust it."
They came home from London and immediately hit the road, playing anywhere and everywhere people would have them -- ballrooms and bars, strip mall coffee shops, indie record stories, college radio stations, old movie theaters, office happy hours, churches, a really nice-smelling alley with decent acoustics. Sometimes they played two shows a night. They grabbed a drink or three, crawled into their bunks, and did it all again the next day. They knocked venue after venue off their mutual bucket list, met hero after hero. Roundabout the time they played the Newport Folk Festival, Joy started holding her arm out every day for him to pinch. JP felt perpetually giddy and shell-shocked, and he thanked God for the music, because Joy had been right: nothing else made sense. It was all coming too quickly for him to hold onto, and so he was left with just the two of them, alone on a stage and singing every minute people cared to listen.
In LA, he was pacing near the back doors of the club when she came to get him for soundcheck. He heard the click of her heels on the asphalt, and then felt her body press against his back. "Hey," she whispered, going up on her toes. "Look stoic for the cameras." He felt her lips on the shell of his ear, felt her arm snake around his waist, felt her rub her cheek against his shoulder, back and forth, back and forth. Somewhere to the right, JP could hear shutters clicking. He put his hand in his pocket and very carefully did not move.
In Vancouver, they went to the aquarium. They pet the stingrays and stared at the jellyfish and went to the dolphin show, where Joy leaned against him, laughing with simple delight. When it was over, she turned on her million-watt smile and looked at him like he was personally responsible for the miracle of dolphins doing tricks. He bought her some ice cream.
In Portland, they celebrated Nate's birthday. JP wandered Washington Park on his own. He thought maybe there were trees there.
By September they were back in the UK with Adele, playing to packed houses every night. Sometimes they watched her set, but more often they went elsewhere: to a different club to play another show, to hang out with their own fans, to wander whatever city they happened to be in. They rarely knew, and it never mattered. In Manchester they danced, after the show when the house lights were up and the crowds had gone home. The floor was littered with crushed plastic cups, and their shoes stuck to it as they moved.
The grueling schedule caught up with him when they got back to the States, laid him out flat in early October. They were forced to cancel a handful of shows, but at least they were in the south, already in Alabama and only a few hours away from home. He got three-quarters of the way there before he rerouted, deciding to recuperate at his brother's place in Loretto instead of inflicting himself on Jenny. His voice was shot, and he didn't think he could be in his house without talking to his wife -- not when he hadn't been there in so long. Plus, he hadn't seen his kids off Skype in months, and he didn't think they'd understand why he couldn't talk to them.
Tony settled him on the sofa, made him a hot toddy, and read the piece of paper on which JP had scrawled this explanation. "Big brother," Tony said. "You're a fucking idiot. Stay as long as you need."
Five days he needed, and then he drove up to Nashville. He honked the horn a few times in Joy's driveway, and watched, bemused and a little breathless, as she came tearing out of the house barefoot, hair flying, the sleeves of a giant flannel shirt rolled to her elbows. He cracked the driver-side window and peered over the tops of his aviators. "Yes'm?"
"Get out of the car!" She banged the side of her fist on the roof a few times.
He did, and found himself with an armful of Joy as she wrapped him in a fierce hug. He leaned against the car for support, hands settling on the flare of her hips. "Thank God you're okay," she said, with another squeeze. She was stronger than she looked.
"You planning on strangling me yourself?"
He didn't hear her laugh but he felt it, the soft puff of air on his skin. Her hands slid down his chest and curled into the open collar of his shirt. "I missed you," she whispered, pressing closer, nosing the hair from his neck and inhaling, her breath warm against his throat. His hands tightened on her hips. They stood there, not moving, and her every gust of breath felt like a hurricane.
"It wasn't even a week," he said, fighting for normalcy, for something like control.
Her lips were behind his ear, moving toward the hinge of his jaw. Don't look at her, he told himself. Don't look at her, don't look at her, don't look at her. He closed his eyes. She kissed his cheek once, twice, slow and with a mouth too open for decency, and then she leaned away. It was a relief and an ache at the same time.
"It felt like longer," she said. "I was worried."
He opened his eyes to find her watching him with one of the more serious looks he'd ever seen on her face. "It was laryngitis," he said, dry as he could manage. "Not ebola."
A corner of her mouth tugged up into a reluctant half-smile and she reached for the column of his neck. "But your voice." Her touch was light, he knew, but she might as well have dropped an anvil on his chest.
His throat moved against her hand as he swallowed. "My voice is fine." He wrapped his fingers carefully around her hand and brushed his lips over the thin skin of her wrist, across the same tattoo he carried on his own. "I promise."
She nodded, her breath shaky, and then she gathered herself: took a deep breath, tossed her hair, arched an eyebrow. "Come inside and prove it, then," she said. "Big show tonight."
The big show was the AMA Awards at the Ryman, where John Paul had dreamed of playing ever since he first picked up a guitar as a kid. It was just the one song, but he was so nervous he thought he might throw up.
By the end of the night, they hadn't won anything, but they didn't care. Their voices mingled and soared to the rafters, reached the stained glass at the back, brought the crowd to its feet in a relentless blur of noise and motion. In their dressing room, JP buried his face in Joy's hair and fought the tears away.
Joy didn't bother. She looked at him with a wobbly smile and mascara streaking her face and said, "pinch me."
He did it, and when she yelped in feigned offense over the pain, he kissed her arm to make it better. She caught her breath so he did it again, and before he was entirely aware of it, he'd laid a line of kisses down her arm and was tasting the bend of her elbow. She moved closer, her other hand tangling lightly in his hair and urging him on. He kept going, lips and teeth and tongue and stubble dragging toward her wrist, where he tasted the tattoo and tongued at the pulse point. Her heart hammered in time with his own. Her nails raked the back of his neck. His head swam. He scraped his teeth over the heel of her hand, sucked the tip of a finger into his mouth.
Felt her wedding ring.
By November, Joy was pregnant. She didn't say so, but JP wasn't completely clueless; he had kids of his own. He knew Joy's habits, her moods, her expressions, her body. They'd been living together on a bus for months, and before that in a van. It was impossible to miss the fact that she'd stopped drinking and started sleeping all the time, that she filled out her little black dress in ways she hadn't before, that every ten minutes she was hurling herself in the direction of the nearest commode. She was nauseous more than she wasn't, often staggering to the wings during their sets to be sick between songs.
JP took to carrying around barf bags, which he handed over with a deliberately bland look at the first sign of trouble. She thanked him in a voice as flat as his own, and they both pretended she wasn't pilfering the ginger mints he'd started keeping in his pocket, but she still didn't tell him she was pregnant. He knew better than to ask.
Grammy nominations were announced during one of the few weeks of the year they weren't touring. They were coming up hard on their 200th show of the year, and John Paul was on the couch in his house feeling the way he always did when he was home: shell-shocked and like he didn't quite belong. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to be doing with himself. Preparing for Christmas? It was only a month away but it seemed like some other life. It was a relief when his phone went nuts, followed quickly by the holy-shit sense of giddy unreality that never stopped surprising him.
He surged to his feet, shouting for Jenny. Two nominations, he told her when she came running, and she threw her arms around his neck. The room spun, and they spun with it.
"Joy and Nate are having a little get-together to celebrate," he said.
She nodded, and when JP didn't move, said, "Go on, then. I'll be here when you get back."
He was halfway to the door when he caught himself and turned on his heel. "Come with me. None of this would have happened without you, you should be there. We can get someone to watch the kids. My sister, or yours. Or-- hell, we could bring 'em."
"I'll call right now." His phone was already in his hand.
"No," she said. "I don't really belong there."
He stared at her. If she'd've told him she'd been abducted by aliens, it would have made more sense. He shoved his phone back in his pocket and went to her, taking her hands in his. He kissed one, then the other. "You belong with me."
Her short bark of laughter was incredulous. And, he thought, just this side of mean. "Really. Because you and Joy--"
"Christ," he muttered, letting go of her. "Not you, too. We're not sleeping together."
Her eyebrows went up. "That's not what I was about to say, but I'm real glad it's the first place you went. Let me tell you something, Johnny. I wish you were."
"What?" He took his glasses off. It didn't help. He felt totally out of his depth. "I don't think I heard that right."
"Then you could stop." She threw up her hands. "If you were fucking her, I could say 'stop fucking her,' and we'd have the fight about cheating and what happens on the road. But you're not, so what am I supposed to say? Stop singing with her?"
"Jen--" he started, but she rolled over him.
"You love singing with her. I love listening to you sing with her. And so does the rest of the world, they're gonna give you Grammys for it. You think I'm gonna take that away from you?"
He sat down hard on the couch, barely aware of doing it. His ears were ringing like he'd just come off stage, and he ground at his eyes with the heels of his hands. The cushions shifted under Jenny's weight as she sat down next to him and rested one pale hand on his thigh.
"I'm ruining your moment," she said softly.
He snorted and looked up, bleary. "I'm ruining your life. You can have my moment."
"You're not ruining my life. I signed up for this. But... God, John, you can't stand to be in this house for more than two hours at a time. You've been home for what, two weeks all year? You don't even unpack. Your kids don't hardly recognize you."
He closed his eyes, unable to bear the look on her face: disappointment, censure, pity. Understanding, acceptance. Love. He didn't deserve any of it.
"You and Joy have something no one else can touch. And I-- honestly, I don't want to. I'm not gonna try and make you pick. I know who'd win that one."
You would, he tried to say, you're my wife, of course you would, but he couldn't get the words out. Instead he said, "I don't."
"Well, you never were very smart." She patted his leg. "You'll regret it forever if you don't ride this out, and you'll hate me for standing in your way. I won't do it."
He tried to say something -- anything -- but no words would come.
"So go on. We'll pick up the pieces when it's done."
He opened his eyes, startled. Done? "What if it's never done?" That was what he wanted, after all: to sing with Joy for the rest of their lives. They were meant to be, and now that there were Grammys in the picture, anyone who didn't know it yet would know it soon.
Jenny gave him a long, unreadable look, and then she shrugged. "Nothing lasts forever."
The two-and-a-half-hour drive to Joy's place in Nashville had never taken him so long, but Joy was out the door and running the second his tires hit the driveway, in his arms before he was out of the car. He buried his face in her hair and held on tight, and it was a long while later he realized she was crying.
"I'm pregnant," she mumbled into his chest, still sniffling, the collar of his jacket caught in one small fist.
"I know." He pressed his lips to the top of her head, not quite a kiss.
"I know you do. I'm sorry I didn't tell you."
"Why didn't you?" he asked, but apparently that was the wrong question, because she started sobbing again -- huge, wracking sobs that shook the whole of her small frame. His own car was full of kids' crap and carseats, so Nate's it was. He steered her over there and bundled her into the back seat before crawling in behind her. He settled sideways against the door and Joy curled against his chest.
"I hope this is hormones," he said into her hair, "and not something I did. Already made one woman I love cry tonight."
She sniffed. "Everything okay?"
He stared over her head and out the window, not seeing anything. "I don't know." Not one damn thing Jenny'd said had been wrong. "I don't think so, but I don't know what I can do about it." Even as he said it, he knew it wasn't true. For example, he could be anywhere in the whole wide world other than in the back seat of a car with another woman, even one he wasn't sleeping with. Maybe especially one he wasn't sleeping with. "I can't see my way through."
Joy nodded against his chest and then shivered. It was cold in Nate's car, and Joy hadn't been wearing a jacket when she'd run outside. "Just a sec," JP said, squirming around so he could get his coat off. He spread it over her like a blanket.
"You don't need it?"
"I got you."
A weak laugh, and she looked up at him. "You're good to me."
"That so?" He wasn't so sure.
Her next words came out in a rush. "I didn't tell you because I was scared, and then I was confused about why I was scared, and then I felt stupid because you already knew, and then I just didn't know what to say. I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about." He brushed the hair from her forehead, the tears from her face. "Scared of little ol' me?"
Another weak laugh. "You're the only thing I'm sure of," she said, and his hand tightened on her waist. He had to go back to looking out the window until she started talking again. "I just didn't want anything to change, you know? We've got a good thing going, and I didn't want to do something that would mess it up somehow. Change our dynamic, maybe, or what if I can't play? I'm tired and sick and crazy all the time now, what if it just gets worse? Plus Nate and I have been trying to get pregnant for a long time, and talking about it seemed..." Her fingers fluttered against his shirt.
"Yeah." He knew about the miscarriages.
"And I'm still only two months along. But I'm so happy, JP. The baby, the band, every minute is a pinch-me minute now. I just. I don't know."
He sighed. He knew what that was like, having one thing that made so much sense and felt so right that it made up for the fact that nothing else did.
"All right," he said. "One thing at a time. You wanna keep playing?"
"Yes." She propped herself up on his chest so she could look him in the face. "God, yes."
"Then we keep playing."
"That simple." With his thumb, he caught what was left of her tears. "But Joy. This thing with us. We have to stop." It was a good time to do it, he thought. More than once he'd come close to sleeping with another man's wife, but another man's pregnant wife -- it was a whole lot of bridges too far. And that was ignoring the fact that he had a wife of his own.
She frowned at him. "Stop what?"
He lifted his eyebrows and waited, but it didn't help. She kept frowning. His stomach gave a sickening, sideways lurch.
"Seriously," she said. "What thing with us?"
For the second time in a few short hours, he found himself abruptly, hopelessly lost. Was it possible he'd been reading her wrong this whole time? That seemed insane. "I've got children," he said slowly. "I'm married. So are you. And now -- may I?" She nodded, and his hand slid down her ribcage to rest on her lower abdomen, his pinkie slipping inside the hem of her jeans. She closed her eyes and he knew he wasn't imagining her sigh, the way she arched into his touch. "We're playing with fire, Joy."
Her eyes fluttered open. She looked at his hand on her body and then up again. Her chin started wobbling. Shit, he thought, just as she launched herself to the other side of the car, as far away from him as she could get.
"I was never playing," she said, and her hands flew to her mouth to cover it. "Oh my god. I have to go."
The car door slammed behind her.
It was a long time before JP thought he could move.
He and Joy patched things up on the road as best they could, which amounted to Joy blaming their fight -- if that's what it was -- on pregnancy hormones and John Paul declining to argue with her about anything at all. She said she was sorry, he accepted it. She wanted him to dance with her, he danced with her. She asked him to use different aftershave because his was making her sick, he switched it. She said they needed to change the key of a song, he moved the capo. She told him his tie didn't match her toenail polish, he changed it. She thought the songs should be in a different order, he rewrote the setlist.
She put up with a week of that before she kicked everyone off the bus for a 'band meeting,' called him a condescending asshole, and told him to stop humoring her.
"All right," he said, in his most agreeable tone. She threw a pillow at him.
"I mean it." Her voice was tight. "I can't feel like I'm being coddled, or not an equal member of this band just because I'm pregnant. I will go insane. I will murder you."
"So you're saying my choices here are to humor the pregnant woman or argue with the pregnant woman." He pretended to think about that. "In my experience, which -- let's don't forget -- is considerable, neither one of those things goes well for me."
"I will murder you right now."
"Joy." He crossed to her side of the bus and went to his knees. "I'm not humoring you. You ask me to do something I don't wanna do, and I promise, we'll talk about it. But what I want most of all in the world is for you to be healthy, and happy. If making you happy means changing my tie, then I will. I don't give a shit about my tie. Not one single shit. Okay?"
She bit her lip and looked away, her jaw trembling. He settled next to her on the bench seat, an arm around her shoulders, and kissed her temple when she leaned into him. "But," he said, "I'm picking the movie tonight."
They took almost a month off for Christmas, which was the longest he'd been home in two years. He tried for quiet, spent it with his family, did his damnedest to be present. It went pretty well at first, but as the days passed by, Joy dragged him back and back, and then he was driving up to Nashville almost every day. He was helpless to resist the lure of the music, of the road, of Joy, of headlining the Ryman in January. They sold it out. Joy cried in his arms backstage, his own tears leaking into her hair.
In February, he managed to talk Jenny into going to the Grammys on his arm. They gave him a gift bag that contained, among other things, nail polish made of 24-karat gold. Why, he did not know. Joy threw up backstage and then plowed directly into Bruce Springsteen. It was a weird, weird night.
Jenny went home to Alabama the next day. JP and Joy played Leno.
Joy got the call in Cologne, while she and JP were eating truffles in the Chocolate Museum. She managed three words before she dropped her phone and sank to the floor; John Paul was the one to catch her. She was crying too hard to tell him anything, clutching at his neck like a lifeline, and it wasn't until Nate showed up at a dead run that JP found out what had happened: Her father was sick. Cancer.
They canceled the tour from the airport.
Joy and Nate went straight to California, and John Paul followed three days later. He'd gone home, first, but Joy's sad selfies from the hospital were too much for him to handle. They'd started thinking about the next album and had some work to do, songs they were trying to nail down, lyrics they were tweaking. I'd really appreciate the distraction, she texted, and Jenny spread her hands wide, and JP slapped a motion-sickness patch on his arm and got on another plane.
The Williams' house looked like something out of a magazine: white stucco, red tiled roof, palm trees lining the street. There was even a white fence. JP moved into an empty guest room. It was like moving into the twilight zone. He was ostensibly there to work, but after about ten minutes, he realized he was there for a different reason entirely, and that reason was that everyone else was a zombie. Joy's father was in the hospital, her mother and sister were exhausted and distracted, Joy was exhausted and distracted and pregnant on top of it, her pregnancy was difficult, and her husband was a rookie. John Paul was the only person in that house with his head on straight, which did not bode well, and which left him doing things like cleaning the house and doing laundry and making food runs.
He even went to Costco, where he spent hours wandering around with a pallet and a fluorescent-light headache, wondering if he was supposed to know the difference between golden quinoa and red, and debating whether to risk the environmentally conscious wrath of the Williams family by buying five thousand Solo cups. He, the person doing the dishes, would appreciate it. The family in question, he suspected, would not. Every choice he made seemed both vital and meaningless, but he was the only person making them.
JP did not get the Solo cups. He got too much chocolate instead, and on his way to the checkout line threw in a lower-back aromatherapy wrap. Jenny had sworn by one just like during her last pregnancy, and Joy's back had been bothering her lately. She had a heating pad but wouldn't use it -- what if it got too hot, or didn't turn off? -- and he thought this one was at least worth a shot.
Back at the house, Joy tried it out, sitting on the bed in his room and alternating between eating the chocolate he'd given her and chewing on the end of a pencil.
"I don't know," she said, "I just don't think it has the right sound. What if you switched to the dobro for the bridge?"
"Just the bridge? How we gonna do that live?"
"We wouldn't." She gestured dismissively. "Live it wouldn't matter."
"Then why's it matter for the record?"
"The record should be perfect."
"The record is never gonna be perfect."
"It should be as close as we can get it," she said, that stubborn set to her chin.
He sighed. "All right. We'll see how it sounds."
"Thank you." She made a checkmark on her notebook, then sang a line from 'Dust to Dust,' which they'd mostly written back in the UK, before her father got sick, before Joy got pregnant. "'You bear the scars,'" she said. "Do you think it should be 'wear'?"
JP closed his eyes. "Not really."
"Or 'carry'? That might match the imagery better, there's that real sense of weight around 'held your head up.'"
No, he thought. "Sure."
She threw her pencil at him. Missed by a mile, but made her point. "Stop doing that!"
He threw up his hands, frustration finally boiling over. "What do you want from me? You know how I feel about getting out the thesaurus for every line. I keep saying it, and you keep doing it. So, you wanna try it with 'carry,' okay." He reached for his guitar. "We'll do it right now."
She glared at him while he picked out the intro but her body was moving to his tune and she came in on her mark and that was that; they were locked in, worries long gone as the music bound them together and took them away. It had been a few days since they'd sung together, and impossibly, JP had nearly forgotten it was like this. Relief and contentment unfurled inside him, vast as the ocean, and he tore into 'I Had Me A Girl' without stopping. He didn't want to stop. He didn't want to ever stop.
Eventually, of course, they had to stop, but the wide-open smile Joy sent his way was almost as good. He hadn't seen her smile like that since Cologne. "I needed that," she said quietly.
"Yeah. Me too."
"You were right about the line."
"Oh, don't be smug. It was worth trying."
He held up his hands in surrender and didn't say a word, discretion being the better part of valor and all.
"Thank you for this, by the way," she said, settling back on the bed against the wrap he'd gotten her. "It's helping."
"And... what you said before, about what I want." She took a deep breath. "John Paul, having you here has been so amazing and helpful for all of us. I can't even begin to tell you how much we appreciate everything you've done."
He looked down at his guitar and shifted on the edge of the bed, waiting. He knew he was hiding behind his hair, but he already didn't like where this was going. She was talking about him the way she talked about him to college radio DJs.
"But?" he said, rolling his pick between his fingers.
"But I don't know. You're just so polite--"
"I'm a guest in your parents' home." He propped his elbow on his guitar and his cheek on his fist. "You want me to be an asshole?"
"--and distant, no, I'm making a mess of this." She ran her hands through her hair. "Look, the stuff for my family is all really above and beyond and you don't have to do it. I want you to know that."
"I do," he said slowly, still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"But speaking just for myself, or for me and Nate, you're the only one of us who's done any of this before, you've got kids--"
"Who I never see," he snapped, cutting her off, surprising her. "Because I'm here. With you. Doing your laundry and--"
"I never asked you to do my laundry!"
"Yeah, but you get pissed when it's wrong."
Her eyebrows climbed to her hairline and JP thought, fuck. That was not a sentence he should have said out loud. Joy bit her bottom lip. "We're not talking about the laundry, are we?"
He closed his eyes with a sigh. Maybe he could just pretend he hadn't said it. "I'm a grown-ass man," he said, as gently as he could. "I'm where I wanna be, doing what I wanna do. But don't act like this is easy for me, or like I'm just not trying hard enough, or whatever. I don't need a lecture about being distant."
"John Paul," she said, genuinely shocked, moving across the bed. "No. I wouldn't-- I wasn't going to lecture you, I was going to tell you to go home."
"Oh." He stared at nothing as her words sank in, the pattern of the bedspread going blurry.
"I'd miss you. It helps, having you here. But if you want to be with your own family, you should be. The last thing I ever want is for you to be miserable, and you've seemed miserable."
She slowly reached out to move his hair out of his face, dipping her head to force the eye contact. "I was trying to thank you, you jerk." She put her foot on his thigh and gave him a tentative, half-playful shove.
"Right." He swallowed and looked down, absently wrapping his hand around her bare ankle, hoping the simple contact would help. "I'm not miserable. I'm..." He trailed off, gesturing vaguely.
"Going a little crazy? I think we all are. I just wanted to make sure you're all right." Her smile was on the wobbly side. "Why don't we go for a walk, have some tea, then we'll work on the album some more. That'll help, I think. Maybe we can knock some more stuff off my list."
He shot a dubious look at the list in question.
"No thesauruses, I promise." She held up three fingers.
"Thesauri," he said, giving in.
Her laughter soothed him as she stood, grabbing his wrist and pulling him along in her wake.
Joy's father was discharged from the hospital and they were back east in time to sing the anthem for the Braves' home opener. They set up in the plaza before the game -- "Nothing like playing a ballad in the parking lot of a major baseball stadium," JP said to the assembled crowd -- and even though the Braves weren't his beloved Tigers, it would've taken a belt sander to get the smile off his face.
They went to New York the next day to watch another game. Still not the Tigers, but JP wasn't complaining. They were getting their flying in while Joy could still fly, and he suspected she was trying to load up his springtime with baseball to make up for having to cancel the European tour and, very possibly, for getting pregnant. She was due at the end of June and there were only a handful of gigs left on the calendar -- award shows and festivals, mainly, things that could be easily canceled.
"If you're trying to buy my love with baseball tickets," he told her afterwards, "it's working. Please feel free to continue."
"That easy?" She bumped her shoulder into his with a smile and then tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow, holding on tight in the press of the crowd.
"Easier," he said. "I'm a pretty cheap date."
They stopped for coffee halfway back to their hotel, not that either one of them got coffee: Joy was off caffeine and JP wasn't drinking it in front of her. They ordered some herbal tea loaded with honey, and then the barista looked at Joy's stomach, beamed at JP, and congratulated them both.
"Thank you," Joy said, her smile not quite reaching her eyes, her fingers digging into his arm. "But he's just a friend."
The barista fell all over herself apologizing, and the two of them sat down with their tea. "Hey," he said, eyeing her over the top of his steaming mug. "Speaking of the baby. You know I'm okay with it, right?"
Her eyebrows went up as her hand slid over her stomach. "Well, that's good to know," she said, her tone arch.
"I mean--" What did he mean? He rubbed his jaw. "You know don't owe me anything because we're slowing down a little. This trip isn't some kind of... apology, or something?" He never wanted her to feel bad. About anything, really, but especially about this.
Her eyes shifted to the table, and he knew he was right. That's exactly what this was. He sighed. "Joy--"
"Just wait, please," she said. "Let me explain."
He waited. She reached for his hand across the table.
"I miss you," she said, and he squeezed her hand in response.
"I'm right here."
"Yeah, but you seem somewhere else half the time and things are different. Not bad different, just different, and I thought before we take this break we should have some fun. We don't know what might happen when I have the baby, how I'm going to feel, and I just wanted you to know how much I--"
She paused as an old lady stopped at their table to, once again, offer them congratulations on the coming birth of their child. New Yorkers had a reputation as being rude, but this was a weird kind of rude. Then again, Joy was visibly pregnant and they were holding hands over the table.
"Do you know if it's a boy or a girl?" the woman asked, presumably trying to be friendly.
JP offered up his sweetest smile and said, voice like molasses, "a boy. We're gonna call him Beauregard. Right, honey?"
"Wow," Joy said. "Beauregard?"
"Yes, ma'am." How much more could he turn up the drawl? "That way we can call him Bubba like you wanted."
"That's sweet." Her voice was flat.
"Bubba J," he said.
The old woman was unfazed. "A lovely name," she said, beaming. "So old-fashioned!" Then her order was up so she covered their joined hands with hers, wished them luck, and was on her way.
Joy watched her go with a frozen smile and then snatched her hand away. "What was that?" she said through her teeth, eyes flashing. She was furious.
JP sat back in his chair, surprised. "Nothing. Just messing with her." He didn't see the big deal, but he'd only seen this look on Joy's face a few times before and he wasn't inclined to push.
"But you keep doing this," she snapped, her voice low as she leaned across the table. "You are my partner. Nate is my husband."
Slowly, and oh-so-gently, he set down his mug. He turned the handle to the left, and then back again. Looked up. This ice was paper-thin. "Believe me, I am very well aware of that."
"Are you? Because you keep--" She broke off with a sharp exhale.
"I keep what?" His voice sounded distant, even to him, but if Joy could bring it up, so could he. "Thinking about the taste of your skin? Your mouth on my neck? And?"
"Fuck you, John Paul." She said it loudly enough to turn heads.
"Wow. I didn't think you knew that word."
Her lip curled. "I swear to god--"
"And I swear to god I have no fucking idea what we're arguing about right now." He stopped. Breathed. Waited for his heart to settle. This was not what he wanted. "Tell me, and we can fix it, but"--he grabbed her clenched fist and murmured against her knuckles--"darlin', I am lost." He massaged his thumbs into her palm, waiting for her hand to relax, but she yanked it away as soon as it did. She crossed her arms over her chest and slumped in her chair, glaring at him like a sulky teenager.
He waited her out, more patient than she was even on his worst day. Finally she held up one hand and said, "You." She held up the other. "Nate." She spread them wide. Then she raised her eyebrows like she expected this to make sense to him.
"I didn't do too good in college," he said slowly. "Gonna need a little help."
She rolled her eyes, which he thought was progress, but she was still agitated. "I don't know how to-- they're different animals. You and the music, Nate and the marriage. And whenever you talk like they're not, it just-- I can't..."
Her shoulders sagged, and JP looked away, sipped his tea, gave her words some time to sink in. He still wasn't sure what she meant, but he didn't know what it might cost for her to spell it out.
"I feel stupid," she said, quietly, but she didn't sound stupid. She sounded lost, and miserable.
"And I feel like shit," he said. "Okay. We spent a couple years letting people think we were together." That probably hadn't been the best idea, but there wasn't much they could do about it now. They couldn't change the past, the gossip, the speculation. JP had been aiming for an older-brother vibe since that night in the car, and it was sort of working, but Joy was as flirty as ever. "You want to stop? Because--"
"It's not about other people," she said, dismissive. "I can't control other people."
"I'm not trying to control you, either, I'm just saying I can't have things get mixed up like that."
"Fair enough," he said, but it didn't feel fair enough. It felt like they still weren't connecting, but for the life of him he couldn't find the gap. He didn't know where to start building the bridge that could mend it. He tried, "I'm sorry."
She stared into her mug, but it was clear the instant she decided to forgive him. Her chin lifted; her eyes cleared. She wagged her finger at him. "You upset a pregnant lady."
"Mmm. And for my sins?"
She put one finger to her lips, pretending to think. "Gelato," she said, leaning over the table. Her voice was a conspiratorial whisper. "And I am getting two scoops this time."
He woke later that night to a quiet but persistent knocking on the door. Assuming it was Joy, he staggered over, trying to pull a shirt on, but it was Nate. He was ashen with worry.
JP took a sharp breath. His stomach was suddenly somewhere near his feet. "What--? Is Joy--? Did something--?" He couldn't even say it.
Nate shook his head quickly, eyes wide. "No, nothing," he said. "She's fine."
JP sagged against the wall, his relief overwhelming all his strength. "Don't do that to me," he said. He smacked Nate on the back of the head.
"Sorry." Nate pushed into JP's room and proceeded to lurch around like a drunk in flannel pajama pants. JP waited, and the words finally came out in a rush. "She can't sleep, she can't eat, she can't keep her anti-nausea meds down, I thought-- do you have any ideas we haven't tried?"
JP sank to the foot of his bed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Weren't y'all just at the doctor? What'd she say?"
"That Joy is healthy as a horse and we have nothing to worry about. But man, you should see her."
JP didn't need to see her. He was still carrying around barf bags and every kind of ginger anything he could put his hands on: ginger mints, ginger tea, a good half-dozen varieties of ginger candies. "Has she eaten anything?"
"I just said she can't eat. What do you think?"
He shoved his hands through his hair. "I think you gotta at least force some crackers down her throat or something. Um. B6?"
"I think we've tried it, but I'll check." Nate pulled out his phone and started tapping away. JP had to assume there was a list somewhere, or that there soon would be. Nate had a list for his morning routine.
JP tugged on his goatee, thinking. They'd had this conversation at least twice already, and nothing seemed to make much difference. Some women just had tough pregnancies. It sucked, but--
"Oh," he said, brightening as he watched Nate tripped over his suitcase. "Hold on a sec." He crossed the room and dug through the inner pocket. "Here," he said. "My motion-sickness patches."
Nate reached out a tentative hand. "Aren't these prescription?"
"Yeah, but they're safe as long as she doesn't put 'em on all at once or something."
"Okay, but don't you need them?"
"I'll get more. And in the meantime, at least all these barf bags I carry around won't be going to waste."
It took another few seconds, but Nate pocketed the patches. "Thanks, man," he said, sighing. "Appreciate it."
"No problem. You holding up all right?"
Nate looked startled, as if that question had never once occurred to him. His mouth opened and closed a few times, but no sound came out.
"You gotta"--JP pressed on his diaphragm to demonstrate--"try breathing from down here."
Nate rolled his eyes, flipped him off, and said, "I'm terrified, thanks for asking."
"That's the spirit." JP reached out and clapped him on the shoulder. Then he said, more seriously, "Anyone smart enough to be terrified is gonna be fine."
Nate looked at him doubtfully. "I'm worried about her. I don't think she can..." He trailed off, but JP could imagine the rest of that sentence without trying too hard.
"Worried about who?" he asked. "Joy Williams? It sounds like you're standing there telling me there's something she cannot do, which leads me to believe you've never actually met the woman."
Nate's lips curved in a reluctant smile.
"Don't be too scared, Nate," he said, with all the gravity he could muster. "Be present. Now go. Shoo. At least one person needs to be getting some beauty sleep around here, and that person should be me."
They shared a manly one-armed hug, and then Nate was gone, leaving JP standing with his forehead to the door, thinking about Joy, wishing he could stop.
Miles was beautiful. Born on time, no complications, everyone healthy and happy. JP got the text from Nate and took a deep breath, lungs filling fully for what seemed like the first time in months. He'd been more worried than he'd cared to admit; only when his own children had been born had he known this level of bone-deep relief.
Joy was more beautiful yet. JP hadn't thought it was possible, but sprawled on the floor of her porch with his guitar, watching as she sang to her son, he had to admit the truth. "You just get better looking," he said. "How do y'all do that?"
She beamed at him over Miles' head. "I wrote him a song."
"Let's hear it."
Joy, being Joy, was raring to go back to work the minute her mother went back to California. JP, being JP, showed up on her porch with his guitar, arms spread wide. "At your service," he said.
"You look like you're about to curtsey," she said.
He gave it a shot and almost fell over. Joy started laughing, and her lips were cool against his cheek when she kissed him hello. Inside, she perched on the piano bench with her laptop, hair in a messy ponytail, glasses on top of her head, pencil in her mouth. "You're staring," she said, not looking up.
Can't help it, was his first thought, and it took him a minute to come up with something he could say out loud. "Just waiting for my marching orders," he said. "You keep the list. Unless..." He strummed idly at his guitar, thinking about the old days, the way they used to write when she would talk and he would play and magic would happen. They hadn't done that in a long time.
When she shook her head no, JP felt a sharp, vicious stab of disappointment. She still hadn't looked up. "I think we should try to get rough cuts of what we have and then we can see where the holes are, maybe come up with a theme so we know where to focus, and then when we get in the studio we'll be able to knock it out."
"Theme," he said, pick in his mouth.
Now she looked up. "You don't think we need a theme?"
He rubbed his jaw. "I think," he said, but he didn't know what he thought. Her plan didn't sound all that great to him, but they'd done it his way last time. Maybe it was her turn. But he didn't know how to do it her way, and doing it his way had brought them success beyond their wildest dreams. I don't want to be coddled, Joy had said. Stop humoring me. "I think the theme'll emerge organically. I don't wanna decide ahead of time like I'm back at EMI writing to spec."
"Oh," she said, looking hurt. "Why didn't you say so?"
"This is the first time you've said anything about a theme." He thought back. "Maybe ever."
"I know, but-- it's different, this time. We can do so much more now."
"More?" They sure as hell couldn't play more shows. He supposed they could win more Grammys, get more gold nail polish. Somehow, he didn't think that's what Joy meant. "More what?"
"More influences or instrumentation, more production, I don't know."
"So we can finally cover Metallica?"
She ignored him. "The point is we have options that we didn't before, and I'd like to consider them." Her eyebrows climbed as she watched him. "You look like I just said we should consider murdering every member of the Tigers and replacing them with orangutans."
"Chimps would be better in the outfield."
He sighed. She wasn't wrong, exactly. It wasn't like he wanted to make 'Barton Hollow' over and over again for the rest of his life. But he might rather do that than talk the music to death, and he didn't much want to make a pop record, either, which was where she veered on her own. Trying for compromise, he said, "Then I wanna play my electric."
She beamed at him, apparently delighted. "See? That wasn't so hard."
But it was hard. They didn't have any shows booked for months. JP had agreed to that -- it made sense; the schedule gave Joy the time she needed, meant they could focus on the new record, and he'd thought he might be able to spend more time at home.
He didn't. He spent the time in Nashville, sprawled on Joy's floor or her porch or her grass, having that exact same conversation, frustrated by the process and his own helplessness to do anything about it. They went back and forth about melodies, modalities, moods, but since JP's stance was I don't wanna talk about it, which did not actually qualify as a stance, it left him without a leg to stand on. He preferred to let the music come to him -- it always did -- and he didn't seem to have the vocabulary for whatever it was Joy was trying to do. Worse, he didn't understand why she was trying to do it.
There was, he soon realized, one way for him to win any argument they had, and it was to pick up his guitar. It worked every time. He'd start playing, and in a matter of seconds, the two of them were gone, swept away to wherever it was they went, voices mingling, bodies straining. The chemistry was still there, as palpably intense and inexorable as it ever was. JP had never known anything like it, and he found it an extremely effective way to put them on the same page.
It also made him feel like shit. Music shouldn't be a weapon he used to win arguments, to control her somehow, make her dance to his tune. And anyway, the harmony never lasted. The last chord would fade from the air and they'd grin stupidly at one another, she'd agree to whatever it was he wanted, and then the next issue would rear its ugly head. The second their dopey contentment faded, someone said something wrong.
So he didn't play much, and nearly stopped talking altogether. He was more exhausted those weeks in Nashville than he'd ever been on the road.
"What's this?" he asked, trudging into her house and stopping short. The dining room table was set with flowers and candles. At its head was Joy, wringing her hands and wearing a nervous smile and a new black dress. She'd done her hair, put her game face on, broken out the heels. "You look fantastic," he said, moving into the room to kiss her on the cheek.
"I thought we could have a music date," she said, sounding a lot more confident about her plan than she looked.
"I don't know what that is, but you got me Sundrop and"--he sniffed at the air a few times--"is that barbecue I smell?"
"From your favorite place." There was an awkward set to her shoulders, something fragile in her demeanor. "I thought we could play a while. Instead of working. Since working..."
"Ain't working," he supplied.
"Yeah," she said softly, sadly. "We've become pretty dull boys." She looked like she was about to cry. JP couldn't stand it.
"You could never be dull," he said, tipping her chin up. His mouth quirked. "Or a boy."
There was the dimple. "Oh, you," she said, her tone light, playful. She swatted at his shoulder -- or meant to, he suspected, but when her hand landed on him, she left it there, burning through his t-shirt. He'd managed, somehow, to ignore any inappropriate feelings for months, had subsumed them so successfully he thought they'd gone away. But the second she put her hand on him, he realized what a fool he'd been. Even his skin was trembling with the sheer shocking force of his want.
As for Joy, he didn't know what she was thinking, where this had come from, if they were really standing on this cliff together or if he was out here by himself. Maybe this was what it used to be: skirting danger but both of them keeping one toenail on the proper side of the line. Maybe it was something else.
Her eyes probably held some clue to these mysteries, but JP absolutely could not stop staring at her mouth. Her lips were slightly parted, and he wondered what her lipstick tasted like, what color it would be smeared across his skin. Her tongue darted out, and he nearly bit through his own.
"Do you want to eat dinner?" she asked, her voice low. Her thumb had worked its way inside his shirt to find the hollow of his collarbone. His was on her chin and moving up. He pressed at the corner of her mouth, dragged his thumb across her lower lip.
JP drew a shaky breath and forced his gaze up. Her eyes were huge, dark, and her eyelids fluttered when his thumb slid into her mouth and out again. He swallowed. He said, "No."
"Me neither." Her voice was nearly a whisper, and the way her lips moved against his thumb was almost a kiss. "Shall we?"
Somehow, the two of them made it to the living room. JP's hands were trembling as he strapped the guitar on, but they were steady on the strings, and he started 'Tip of My Tongue' like they were playing a show. You own me, he sang, never taking his eyes off hers. You're my favorite song.
He had no idea how far they made it into the standard set before it was their bodies entwined instead of their voices.
JP couldn't stop thinking about it. A whiff of Joy's shampoo hit him like a gut-punch, and if she came within six feet of him, he felt like he was back inside her, her voice in his ear, her sweat on his tongue, her hair tickling his chest as she rode him. A breathy 'oh' in a song, and all he could see was the look on her face as she came. He couldn't sing into her microphone without leaning that extra inch to taste her bottom lip, couldn't feel her hand on his shoulder without wanting to turn, press her to the nearest surface, and kiss her senseless.
He hadn't done it, but he hadn't exactly not done it, either. He'd kissed her, but not senseless. He'd tasted her, but not as deeply he wanted. They were back in no man's land, where every breath brought new danger. It was just a matter of time, and he desperately needed to talk to Jenny before this went any further.
"I think I'll go home this weekend," he said to Joy, who was stretched out on the couch, her head on his lap, hair fanned out beneath her. His hands ached to gather it up and run his fingers through it -- it was cool, he knew, and soft, and it smelled good. He'd made a fist to stop himself before remembering he didn't have to do that anymore. He could touch her if he wanted to, and so he did. She lifted her head and let him gather her hair to the side, and sighed in contentment as he brushed through it.
"Feels nice," she murmured, eyes shut. "When will you be back?"
"Depends on how bad it is." He wasn't under any illusions about how the talk with Jenny was going to go. It was going to be bad, or it was going to be catastrophic. Thinking about it was making his stomach hurt. Would she try to keep him from seeing the kids? Oh, Christ, he thought. Jenny.
Joy opened her eyes and looked up with a frown. "How bad what is?"
"Hm? Oh." He realized he hadn't actually told her why he was going down there. "The talk with Jenny." Joy sat up. JP reached for his tea. "You wanna talk to Nate while I'm gone, or wait till I get back?" He wondered if she'd want him there, or at least nearby.
The answer was in the split-second of naked shock in her eyes. The mug in his hand hit the floor, made a mess of tea and porcelain. "Oh," he said. It felt punched out of him. "You aren't gonna talk to Nate." It wasn't a question.
Joy had backed all the way to the opposite end of the couch. "I can't," she whispered. "The band..."
"The band?" JP repeated incredulously. He almost asked what Nate had to do with the band, but bit it back at the last second. As successful as they were, they were still on an indie label -- Nate's indie label. Untangling it all would be a nightmare. But, he thought, not impossible. One thing at a time, he said to himself, the way he used to say it to her. One thing at a time.
Trying to sound reasonable, he said, "We can hire a new manager, and a lot of labels have been sniffing around. We don't have to figure it all out right now." Except they did, because they were deep into tracking vocals for the new record and there was a tour coming up and videos to shoot and probably a lot of other things he was forgetting, because Nate was the person who remembered.
It would be ugly, but bands went through messier shit than this and came out the other side. One look at Joy's face, however, was more than enough to keep him from saying that out loud. She looked appalled, like he'd suggested they murder Nate, eat the body, and move to Mexico. JP shut his eyes.
She said, "I thought--"
"Let me guess," he snapped, hurt and feeling mean. "You thought things weren't going so well so you could lead me around by the dick the way I lead you around by the--"
He broke off, cursing, but Joy wasn't having it. "By the what, John Paul?" Her body was rigid, voice ice-cold. "Finish that sentence, please."
Sighing, he pushed his fingers under his glasses to scrub at his eyes. "Throat," he said, thinking of picking up his guitar and getting her to sing, of both of them floating away. If only it actually worked.
"Oh," she said, softening. When he looked at her, she had her hands over her heart. "It's not my throat. It's more like..." She pressed on her sternum to demonstrate. "Somewhere back there. You know?"
"Yeah," he muttered, because it was exactly the same for him, but he didn't see how any of this made any difference now.
Joy inched closer. "And you know that's not why I invited you over here that night, right?"
He nodded, unwilling or unable to make her wonder about it. JP was starting to feel cold. A hundred degrees outside, and he was shivering. He tried to rewind. "Tell me what you thought."
She looked down. "We talked about this."
"When the fuck did we--"
She jabbed a hand in the air. "Me and you." There went the other one. "Me and Nate." Her arms swept wide. "We talked about it in New York. You said you understood."
He stared at her in blank astonishment. This was what they'd been fighting about in New York? He sank into deeper the couch, dropping his head back to look at the ceiling. "The main thing I remember saying in New York is 'darlin', I am lost,' and I gotta say, I still am."
The pain of that was one more drop in the ocean by now, but it was one he noticed: they didn't understand each other. They weren't going to find common ground. They'd always been so naturally in sync about everything else that he assumed it always be would true. He guessed not.
A sound of helpless frustration tore from her throat. "This is us. Our connection is... God, I've never known anything like it, and neither have you." He didn't even try to deny it. "It's practically cosmic. It always felt like it was just you and me, somewhere else where nothing and no one could touch us, and that whatever happened..."
"No!" She looked absolutely horrified. "It matters more than almost anything. Just... in a different way. I don't know how to explain it any better than that." Her smile was sad, small, uncertain. "I thought you understood."
"Ah." He thought he finally did, but he didn't like it any. "So. No reality need apply. And I keep messing it up saying the word 'affair' out loud and talking about leaving my wife."
Her body jerked as if he'd hit her, which only seemed fair, given that he felt like she'd just plowed into him with their tour bus, backed the thing up, and laid on the gas for another hit.
"Don't," she said, and then she was kneeling on the couch next to him, her hands fisted in his shirt. "Not for me," she said, quiet and fierce. There were tears streaming down her face. "You'd never forgive me. That is not a choice we can make."
"But we can't just not make a choice, either," he said, incredulous. He felt like he'd swallowed ground glass. "It would mean... I'm not gonna be your bit on the side."
"I could never think of you like that." The disdain on her face for the idea was genuine. "I'm not picking up men at the bar, John Paul. This is you. You're my..." She sank away as she tried to name it. Muse, he thought. Partner. Favorite song.
"JP," she finally whispered, her hand on his cheek. "I'm sorry. I'm not going to leave my husband."
"Okie-doke," he said. He stood up, and had to put his hand against the wall to keep himself from falling over. He wanted to throw up. "I'll see you at the studio tomorrow."
"What?" She reached out, but dropped her hand before she touched him. "We're not done."
"Oh yeah, we really are." He didn't see that there was anything left to discuss, and if he stayed, they'd just go in circles, saying the same things over and over, hurting each other for the hell of it. "It won't happen again."
But it did happen again, and again, and again, when the process wasn't working but the music still was. The walls had come down, and there was no building them back up. They didn't talk much, but they fucked against every surface that could bear their weight. Every time they fell into bed, the sex was better, and he felt worse.
The handful of songs they managed to write for the new album were, in a word, tense. Joy stopped asking him about a theme.
"Ready to hit the road?" Nate asked, bounding into the dining room with Miles strapped to his back. JP looked up. Nate flinched. "Whoa. You look ready to hit something, but I don't know if it's the road."
"Could you give us a minute, please?" he said quietly. Joy was on the same side of the table he was, an empty seat between them. He didn't look at her, but he could feel her brace for impact. "Band meeting."
There were a few seconds he thought Nate might refuse, but he didn't. "Sure," he said. "We'll be outside."
When the front door closed, JP put his head in his hands and asked, "What are we going to do on tour?" Even thinking about it made every muscle in his body pull like a string tuned tight, one quarter-turn away from snapping.
"Austin was fine," she said, which was true. They'd been there ten days ago, and the music had seen them through.
"That was a gig," he said. "Not a tour." Which was also true. It wasn't living on a bus with Joy and Nate and Miles and the fucking nanny, watching them be a happy family while he-- what? He crossed his arms and shot her a sideways glance. "Maybe after the shows we can sneak out back, fuck in the alley."
"Don't be crude."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend your delicate sensibilities."
"Just stop," she said. She sounded tired. Looked it, too -- there were plum-colored bruises under her eyes, and her cheekbones were sharp. She slid over to the seat next to him, and into the miserable silence, said, "The music still makes sense."
JP wasn't so sure about that.
"Doesn't it?" She rubbed at her forehead. "It's always been there when we needed it. We just have to keep trusting it."
"You think we'll get out on the road and things'll magically work themselves out through the power of song?"
"Are you mocking the power of song?"
She was trying to lighten things up, he knew, and never in his life had John Paul wanted so badly to believe in something. He was willing to try it -- he'd try almost anything for her -- but he couldn't believe in it. All he could do was stare, feeling raw, hopeless, wrecked.
"You hate this, don't you?" Her voice was barely audible.
"Then stop! There has to be a way to stop." At some point, she'd started crying. Or he had; he didn't know anymore. The lines between them were still blurry.
JP's heart broke with every beat. He looked at her for a long, long time, and by the time they got to London two weeks later, he couldn't look at her at all. He took the red-eye home.
Don't feel sorry for yourself, you got everything you want, everyone's watching you pick up and run.
JP's rocks glass shattered against the wall but he barely heard it, already reaching for his guitar.
So bitter, in my heart and in my mouth. She's a quitter, but I guess we're both quitting now.
- END -