It wasn't on purpose.
Joy was in Chicago for a meeting with the Girls Rock! board. There was supposed to be a dinner, but it was flu season; between sick kids at home and the ominous cough going around, there weren't enough women to make a night of it. Joy had friends in the city she could have called, but she wanted a little time for herself. Crisp autumn air and a book, her fluffy scarf, maybe a hot pumpkin-flavored drink: just what the doctor ordered.
Her phone informed her it was a few miles to the lake, a straight shot she could walk in under an hour. It did not inform her that the route would take her by the hotel she and John Paul stayed in all those years ago. Siri had no way of knowing that she'd end up in a parking lot, staring at a crappy excuse for a hot tub. Joy could still see John Paul sitting on its edge, his jeans rolled to his knees and his feet in the water. He'd put the aviators on around two in the morning and broken into a frightening rendition of 'Sunglasses at Night,' Joy drumming on the side of the tub but laughing too hard to join him for the chorus.
The memory blindsided her completely. She was used to encountering his ghost in Nashville, but they hadn't spent much time in Chicago -- three shows, maybe four -- and so she wasn't ready. She didn't have her armor on.
That's what she told herself, anyway, as she snapped a photo of the motel and sent it to him. No message, because what was she going to say? Thinking of you? That much was obvious. She was moping in a parking lot because they spent a few hours there once, what was it, six years ago? Seven?
She sighed. She should not have sent that picture.
On the plus side, she might as well have sent it into the ether. Over the years, they'd tried different strategies to kick their addiction to one another: he went cold turkey, while she preferred to taper. He was better at it than she was, but both of them slipped; their text history was a years-long series of mistakes, of messages sent in moments of weakness, when they were sad, happy, lonely, drunk, all of the above. They both tried not to respond when the other slipped -- their drunken three-am text conversations rarely ended well -- but again, he was better at that than she was. Nine times out of ten, she never heard back from him.
Her phone buzzed: apparently this was number ten. He'd sent a picture of a familiar-looking bar, a flyer for his album tacked to the wooden door. Across the bottom, someone had scrawled today's date in Sharpie, and then 8:30pm.
"Siri," she said slowly. She was pretty sure she knew where the photo was taken, but she had to ask. All bars looked the same to her now. This one, Siri confirmed, was four miles away.
Joy sat hard on the steps of the nearest building and hugged her knees. Four miles was nothing. She could catch a cab and be there in fifteen minutes. She could walk.
John Paul did nothing thoughtlessly; he meant for her to know he was nearby. Past that, Joy couldn't follow him -- not anymore. In 2011, it would have meant get up here now. During her pregnancy, come to my show. Today? The possibilities were endless. You know I need at least fifty miles between us at all times. Or maybe, hey, we're almost breathing the same air. Maybe it was all of those things, or none of them.
"Whatever," she muttered, abruptly tired of her own crap. She was a grown woman. "Siri, call me a cab."
Twenty minutes later, she was standing across the street from the bar staring at taillights and trying to breathe. She felt sick -- and not from mild nerves or a bit of anxiety, either. No, this was the real deal: sweating palms, sour stomach, racing heart.
She sat down on a bus stop bench and sipped her water, trying to come to some decision. Either she could tuck her tail between her legs and get in another cab, or she would have to work up the nerve to walk in there with a smile on her face and say John Paul, it's so good to see you. It would be, too. She already knew he'd look good, and she wouldn't say anything passive-aggressive like how long has it been? Maybe they'd hug.
Okay, they would probably not hug.
Across the street, two guys in the standard roadie uniform -- black skinny jeans, hoodies, keys clipped to sagging belt loops -- were loading in from a white van with Alabama plates. Another guy was smoking by the open side door. Joy didn't recognize any of them, but that didn't mean anything beyond the obvious: none of these guys were John Paul.
A bus pulled up in front of her, but no one got off; when Joy didn't move, the driver shot her a dirty look and drove away. It was time to put up or shut up, but she was no closer to a decision. She couldn't just sit there. She couldn't leave. A drink, she thought. A drink or four might help. If memory served, there was a door between the bar itself and the venue in the back. John Paul could pre-game with the best of them, but he preferred to do it in the dressing room. The bar should be safe.
"Guinness," she told the bartender when she got inside, and downed it fast. She'd ended up directly in the line of sight of the door to the back room. If John Paul came through -- and he might -- he'd be looking right at her. She ordered another beer, and when she ordered the third one, the bartender brought her some water along with it.
She almost spilled it when the door slammed open, but it was just a tech. No problem, Joy thought. No problem. But when the tech reappeared and went back in, she heard it: John Paul was in there, singing. Not even a hundred feet away. She was moving before she realized it, his pull on her as strange and strong as ever. Stronger, maybe, the old familiar lure heavy with years of growing fonder in his absence.
No one tried to stop her from going in. The door swung shut behind her and suddenly, with only his voice between them, she wasn't nervous. She was home.
She didn't need to know the song; she knew JP. She was as dead certain of him now as she had been on the day they'd met, and on every day in between: his breathing and his phrasing and the shape of the words in his mouth, his tone and pitch, his body. She knew exactly where he was going, and it was the most natural thing in the world to wrap her voice around his and go with him.
It was hard to tell when he realized she was there. It wasn't a big room, and she was singing full-voice, but she got most of the way to the stage before there was a hint of reaction out of him. Even then, that's all it was: a hint. He didn't open his eyes. There was no catch in his voice, no stutter on the strings. He simply took a step stage right, making room for her at the mic.
There was already room in the music. His record had hurt too much for her to listen to it properly, but she knew it was full of space, of a slight lingering dissonance, of off notes that never quite resolved. It sounded like he'd made an album with a ghost. Then he'd toured it with other women to fill the gaps. It had felt like a slap in the face.
Now, he was up there alone, and it felt more like an invitation.
She took him up on it. Climbed the stairs, stepped up to the mic, closed her eyes, and let him take her away. By the time they got to the end, they were cheek-to-cheek, her hand sliding down the familiar line of his back, his body curved over his guitar so he could get closer, and she'd picked up enough of the lyrics to join him with the actual line.
Oh well, there's always a second time around.
The final chord faded, and with it Joy's certainty. She didn't move. She was hot, suddenly, the lights burning her skin, JP's body a furnace.
"Um," the sound guy said.
It startled her eyes open, but not John Paul's; he had turned to stone. As far as she could tell, he wasn't even breathing. He straightened when she did, though, a slow peel reminiscent of the time she'd superglued her fingertips together when she was a kid and then pulled them apart. It had hurt, but the worst part was knowing it was her own stupid fault.
"Keep playing," she whispered without quite meaning to, an urgent under-her-breath plea. "Anything."
He opened his eyes, a banked fire roaring back to life. It drove her back a few steps. He hadn't looked at her in years, and the intensity of it now was breathtaking.
"So... that sounded great from out here," the sound guy called, hesitant. "My notes don't say anything about-- will she be--"
"No." They said it at the same time.
"Okay! Monitors sound all right?"
The monitors, Joy thought with an edge of hysteria. God, this was a soundcheck. Bar noise could have been screaming through the wedge and she wouldn't have noticed.
John Paul turned his head slowly toward the mic, but his eyes never left hers. "Yeah," he said, voice flat. "Thanks."
"Great. I'm gonna go grab a smoke." Footsteps. "Probably a couple drinks, too. Want me to leave the PA on?"
John Paul nodded, and he'd turned back to the mic and was playing before the door slammed shut. He picked out a twangy minor-key lament that drew her close, but she could see him decide not to start singing. Instead he played through a chord progression, glancing up at her to see if she had it.
She did. "Chorus?" she asked. He nodded again, and played through a second progression. "Bridge," she said, humming softly. "Got it."
He went back to the beginning.
Joy swayed closer, listening and lost as first real rays of hope gathered in her heart. He'd made room. He'd let her stay. He hadn't said a single word to her, true, but he'd started teaching her one of his songs. That had to mean something.
Then he lifted his head and, in his very sweetest tone, sang, I wanna make you cry.
The blank shock of it was blinding. Joy took a step back, anger and pain surging hot and then cold through her body. She didn't know what to do. She didn't want to move but the hook he had in her heart held fast, and she found herself shifting closer despite her resistance.
He let her come, his eyes heavy on her mouth as he sang about making her beg, as if she hadn't done exactly that, as if she hadn't cried, hadn't been hurt. Her anger built with every new line, until she was wondering if she could work go to hell into the song. But she didn't want to give him even that small satisfaction; instead, she leaned in close and sang right back.
They got through the bridge -- I'm breaking your heart -- but it was too much for her. No matter how angry she was, she couldn't control the flood inside her, and by the time he got again to I wanna make you cry, that's exactly what she was doing.
When the song was over, she reared back and slapped him across the face as hard as she could.
His head snapped to the side and she had a brief moment of panic -- she hadn't hit anyone before, and it stung her palm, and what if she'd hurt him? She hadn't meant to hurt him. Not really. But he rubbed at his jaw and nodded, something oddly thoughtful in the gesture. Then he turned to unplug his guitar. He set it on the stand. He drank some water. He waited right there, shoulders stiff, head down.
"How dare you," Joy managed. Her voice was shaking. "And now you can't even look at me?"
Apparently the answer was no. He climbed offstage and headed for the door.
"Oh no you don't," she said, and went after him. There was absolutely no way she was going to let him walk away from her now. Not again.
She trailed him to the dressing room, where she slammed the door so hard it shook. He didn't turn around, so she grabbed for his shirt to make him face her. She missed. Her hand landed on his arm instead, her palm sliding against his bare skin. That did it. He rounded on her, eyes dark, and she thought she managed to say 'oh, god' before they were kissing. His body was warm, familiar, a solid weight trapping her against the door. They fucked right there, hard and half-dressed and with a desperation Joy had never known, her legs wrapped tight around his waist, her nails shredding his shoulders, his teeth against her neck.
It was over quickly -- too quickly, she thought, groaning in frustration as he shuddered against her. But he gave her a wry half-smile as he pulled away, and then he picked her up and laid her on the couch and played her body with as much skill as he'd ever shown with a guitar. He knelt between her legs and stayed there until he was hard again, and then she climbed on his lap and rode him for what seemed like hours, his touch gone reverent, her anger drained away.
"Goddamn," he said, much later, falling to his back, his chest still heaving.
Joy's was, too, but she sat up anyway. "Is that really the first thing you have to say to me in... how long, almost five years?" She thought about standing up to better make her point, but she didn't even try. She felt dizzy and half-asleep, and she was trapped under one of his thighs. "'Goddamn'?"
John Paul didn't even have the grace to look sheepish about it. He watched her from under his heavy eyelids and eventually said, "Guess so. What do you want me to say?"
"That you're sorry."
"I'm sorry." He didn't ask what for.
"And that you missed me."
"I missed you."
Joy glared at him. "And that you're a wreck without me."
He had the gall to look amused, eyes crinkling at the corners. "And I'm a wreck without you."
She flicked at his leg and he threw an arm over his face to hide his smile. "Yeah," she said. "You seem like a wreck. You're fine." She tried to get up.
"Joy." He caught her hand, but it was her name in his mouth for the first time in years that stopped her. It was warm, rich with that old mix of deep fondness and mild exasperation. A sob caught in her throat. God, she really had missed him. "It's been five years. I sang 'I wanna make you cry' at you until you did it, like we were in some kind of bad Fleetwood Mac tribute act, you hit me, and then we fucked in the dressing room. Twice. And that's been in just the last, like, two hours of my life. Some part of that seem fine to you?"
No, she thought, but it was too much, too soon. She narrowed her eyes and asked, "Which one of us is Stevie Nicks?"
"Well." He tugged on his goatee, giving the question some serious consideration. "You're the obvious choice, but darlin', you could start snorting coke right now by doing a line off my dick, and you'd never catch up to Stevie."
"You have coke on your dick?" She glanced down, as if to check. "That's disgusting."
"I said I was a wreck without you."
The laughter she'd been fighting finally broke free to careen through the room. Shaking, she sprawled across his chest and he wrapped his arms around her, shifting to settle them more comfortably on the couch.
"You feel good," she murmured later, taking a moment to revel in his skin against hers. "And you're going gray." She kissed up his throat to the spot under his chin, where the goatee was almost completely white. "I always thought I'd get to watch that happen."
His chest hitched beneath hers. He took her face in his hands and kissed her, slow and sad, a bone-deep ache for all the things they'd never had but still managed to lose. It made her want to cry but she wasn't going to do it again, so she kissed him back, licked her own taste from his mouth. The sadness morphed into urgency so slowly she barely noticed, and by then his hands were the only thing holding her together.
"Goddamn," she said, dropping her forehead to his collarbone, and she didn't need to see his smile to know it was there.
"What'd I tell you?" His arms tightened around her, and he kissed the crown of her head. "I did miss you," he said.
It took him a while. "But I should probably call you a cab." He sounded a little hoarse.
Joy sat up so fast she nearly cracked her head on his chin. "Call me a cab?" she said, her voice icy. "Like I'm-- I'm some kind of--"
"I can't have you here." His voice had gone from a little hoarse to a lot of cigarettes. It probably hurt his throat, but he stood up anyway and walked to the other side of the room, where he cleaned himself off and started getting dressed.
Joy stared at his back, stung, and waited for him to say something ridiculous to fix it. He didn't. He had his shirt on before she managed to start looking around for her own clothes. She got her underwear on, and when she glanced up again, he was leaning against the wall, watching her with his arms crossed, his appreciation clear.
"What?" she snapped.
"Just looking. You look good."
She rolled her eyes. "You're just trying to make up for being a jerk."
"Oh, there's no making up for that."
"I look different."
"Better," he said, sleepy-eyed and still looking, taking his time. Her skin was starting to heat up under his gaze, goosebumps rising on her arms, her nipples drawing tight. He noticed, and she could see him trying to keep the smile off his face when he did. "Come over here."
"You just told me to leave! You were going to call me a cab. Now you want to go another round?"
"I do appreciate the vote of confidence, but there is no way I can go another round. I'm just offering my assistance."
She pointed. "You stay away from me."
He held up his hands in surrender, his grin breaking free, and Joy had to turn away or she really was going to go over there. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and paused, trying to see what he did. She knew she looked good, and probably not even all that different, but more than the calendar had changed since the last time they'd been together. Joy had been a new mother then, isolated from her husband, disconnected from a body she no longer recognized as her own. It had been John Paul who'd brought her back, his touch an anchor, a reminder, sometimes a revelation.
Not once had he ever made her feel less than beautiful, or less than herself. It had taken her a long time to realize that, let alone to see its rarity, and to understand what it meant.
"For years," she said softly, turning to meet his eyes, "I thought you hated me."
He was shaking his head before she finished the sentence. "Never," he whispered, enough of the present in his eyes that she had to turn around all over again to put her clothes on.
Then she was dressed, awkward, fidgeting, five feet and five years between them and no closer to an answer. "You're sure I can't stay for the show?"
"It's not like I took out a restraining order. But..."
"You don't want me there."
"No," he said. "I don't." His voice was gentle, but he meant it. "And frankly, you don't wanna be there. Take two seconds and think how it'll go. We couldn't even make it through a soundcheck."
She frowned. "We weren't trying to make it through a soundcheck. I'm not talking about playing, I'm talking about standing in the back and--"
"It's not a good idea," he said, less gently this time. "Someone'll recognize you, and if you can't keep it together--"
"If I can't keep it together?" She hadn't been the one to start in with that damn song. She'd been hopeful. She'd been home. "Well. Thanks for looking out for me, I guess."
"Give me your hairbrush." The faux-leather couch had not been kind to her hair, and she wasn't having any luck untangling it with her fingers.
The brush he handed over was familiar -- it had basically been hers. He'd hated it. It had only ever tangled his thick curls, but on her thinner, straighter hair, it had worked well. So, he'd kept it. And apparently, he still did.
"Thanks," she said, her voice weak. She needed to stay focused. "But riddle me this. If you didn't want me to come, why'd you tell me where you were? And then-- I mean, you could have asked me to leave."
"I didn't want you to leave." Frustration was starting to fray the edges of his voice. "I still don't. I just-- fuck." He slid his fingers under his glasses and pressed on his eyelids.
"Wanted to make me cry?"
"No." He dropped his hands and met her eyes. "That was a dick move. I apologize."
She shot him a thin smile and started brushing her hair out, not yet willing to let him off the hook. "It was more than a dick move, John Paul. It was mean."
"It was. How many more times do you want me to say I'm sorry?"
"I'm just trying to understand." Even at the end, with the UK tour burning down around them, he'd never been cruel. "Did you think you didn't hurt me?"
He shook his head. "I know I did. The song..." He waved a hand in the air. "It's not really about you. It's just a song. I thought if I pissed you off, you'd leave."
She frowned, trying to pull the brush through a tangle. It wasn't working very well, and JP wasn't making any sense. "You just said you didn't want me to leave."
"Oh, come on." He didn't roll his eyes, but it was a near thing. "I don't love you, and I always will. We can want the contradiction. But if you'd left, we could've avoided the rest of this."
"The rest of what? Dammit." The brush snagged again. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"God, give me that," he muttered, snatching the brush away. When she tried to grab it back, he held it over her head like she was a little kid.
"I hate it when you do that," she said. "Forget it. I'll put on a hat. The world's not going to end because my hair looks bad for a few hours."
"Or," he said, eyes gone soft, "you could let me do it. You know I'd consider it a favor."
Her glare was half-hearted -- he had liked doing it, once, and she'd liked letting him -- and when he lifted his eyebrows in hopeful amusement, she gave in and turned around.
His touch was gentle, and neither of them spoke as he brushed through the worst of the tangles. By the time he was finished, she was so relaxed she was in danger of falling asleep. Then he said, "I'm still married," and she was wide awake again. "So are you. This-- today--" He laughed, almost. "It was real bad. I mean, it was good. But..."
"I get it," she said. "It was bad."
"That's what I was hoping to avoid."
"Was it so bad you wish I hadn't come?"
There was silence as he kept brushing, even though he didn't need to do it anymore. "To tell you the truth, I don't know. I ain't even started thinking about it. I wanted you to leave, but you didn't. I still do, and you haven't. So here we are, and I thought we might as well take a few minutes to..."
She looked over her shoulder. "Be happy?"
His hands froze. Oops, she thought. His face was very carefully blank. "You're not happy?"
"I..." She turned, lifting a hand to cover her mouth as she stared at him in slowly dawning horror.
"There it is," he whispered, dropping the brush and catching the back of her neck to tug her into his arms. It was hard to say which of them held on more tightly, or for how long.
"But I am happy," she mumbled into his chest, when she thought she could manage it. She was. "Or I thought I was. Until..." Until I walked through the door and remembered, she thought, but there was no getting the words out. They weren't even the right ones. Not really. "Shit."
"That about sums it up."
"What about you?" She looked up. "Are you happy?"
"I thought I was."
She stepped away, eyes narrowing as they caught on the hairbrush he'd dropped. "Really?" She picked it up and waved it in his face.
His brow furrowed. "What?"
"You're still carrying this stupid brush around. You hate this brush!"
He only got more baffled. "So?"
"So." She crossed her arms. "So I don't think you get to stand there and tell me you were happy until I walked through the door, and suddenly you're a mess and it's all my fault."
John Paul was staring at her like she'd lost her mind. And maybe she had, but she was tired of him making all the decisions for both of them and then acting like he was the only one impacted.
"I never said--" He stopped. He exhaled. "You're reading a lot into a hairbrush."
"And let me guess, you don't want to talk about it. You have a show, there's no time, and you got your rocks off anyway, so hey, what do you care? You're going to call me a cab."
"Jesus Christ." He threw his arms up. "Call your own cab if it bothers you that much." He started to turn away, but snapped back around to face her like she'd jerked on his collar. "And you know what? All of that was bullshit, but don't talk to me like I'm some kind of fucking pussy hound. I'm not the only one who got my rocks off today, Joy, and we were together for years before I touched you."
"That is not how I remember it," she snapped. "And I don't think it's how you remember it, either, you're just trying to score points."
"And you--" He stopped, the fingers of his right hand spreading wide and then clenching into a fist. "You know what? Fine. You're right. I forfeit all my points. You win. Now take 'em and go." He crossed the room in three strides and yanked the door open, sweeping his arm out.
"Fine." She snatched her bag off the floor where she'd dropped it and looked around for her jacket, her scarf, her shoes. John Paul waited, face pale, jaw clenched. He was still looking at her, but his eyes had taken on that ghostlike vacancy she remembered from the end. But even then, they had never fought like this. The acrimony surprised her. Time was supposed to heal wounds, and theirs had only festered. "John Paul--"
He swept his arm out again, more emphatically this time, like: come on, hurry it up.
"Fine," she muttered again, and marched through the door. She kept walking as it slammed shut behind her, and she didn't look back when something shattered against it.
She made it three blocks before the adrenaline deserted her, leaving her knock-kneed and short of breath in front of a 7-11, trying not to throw up. She hated arguing. She'd never figured out how to do it right and it always seemed to end with this same sour fear curdling in her stomach, wondering how badly she'd messed up this time.
Feeling drunk, she lurched into the 7-11 to get some water. Her own bottle wasn't in her bag -- it was back in JP's dressing room, presumably, but she'd be damned before she'd go back for it. But once she was standing at the counter clutching her Smartwater, she wasn't sure why she couldn't go back.
John Paul had made it clear he didn't want her there, and he'd made it equally clear he did. Meanwhile, the only thing she was sure about was that JP was not as smart as he thought he was, and his insistence on telling her how she felt, what it meant, and how to handle it was old, and frustrating, and unfair.
She just didn't know whether he was right.
She was happy. Her marriage, her son, her friends, her family, her career. That last maybe wasn't what she'd hoped for when she'd been twenty, or even when she'd been thirty, but she was following her passions and carving out something that mattered, making music people loved.
Her regrets about John Paul, overwhelming and heartbreaking as they were, didn't invalidate any of that. She loved listening to him sing, and a few hours spent doing it weren't going to ruin her life. The hardest part, she suspected, would be keeping her own mouth shut. Singing with him was still one of the most natural things she'd ever known, and fighting it would be difficult. It would not be impossible.
None of this was impossible.
Joy bought a disguise -- a pair of cheap sunglasses and a White Sox hat. It would work, she thought, examining herself in the polished chrome of the hot dog case. The show would be dark, and no one would be paying attention to her. John Paul would recognize her if he saw her, of course, so she wouldn't let that happen. She could text him a photo from the back, later, so he'd know she'd been there. That would be enough.
But at the show, John Paul blew that plan out of the water the second he opened his mouth. His voice pulled her forward, his hold on her undiminished despite her irritation and her intentions. He sounded different from the house, his voice warmer, his guitar fuller through the midrange, and she was right in front of him by the time he started the third song.
He only made it a few bars in before he saw her. His eyes flicked down, and then he did a double-take and dropped his guitar pick.
"Sorry 'bout that," he said to the crowd, when he'd retrieved it. "One of those days." He looked at her, and for a stretched-thin moment, she thought he might still be angry, as angry as he'd been when she'd walked away. He could have her thrown out, he could tell everyone who she was and release the gossip hounds, he could sing hateful songs right into her face.
"Nice hat," he said.
He hated the White Sox. Behind his impeccable poker face, she could swear he was laughing. She folded her arms. A few people glanced her way, but by then he'd started the song over from the top and pulled everyone's attention back where it belonged.
The next handful of songs were marked by tiny mistakes no one noticed except the two of them -- Joy mostly because John Paul glanced her way every time. He got more and more flustered, and finally she put her hand over her heart and then pointed over her shoulder in question. If he wanted her to leave now, she'd do it. No one cared about an off note every once in a while, but she would hate for him to have a bad show. She wasn't there to mess with him; she was there to listen, to enjoy herself. She was a little surprised to realize that's exactly what she was doing.
John Paul shook his head once -- go ahead and stay -- and after that, he was fine.
"I've got a, uh, friend in the house tonight," he said at the end, his voice careful, his eyes locked on nothing at all. "You know who you are."
Joy didn't think he'd do it, but she braced for 'Make You Cry' just in case. But no, it was the other one, his voice aching with regret, his grief offered up as an apology. She stood rapt and full of feeling as her heart swelled, bent, maybe even cracked, but didn't break.
John Paul didn't look at her until he hit the very last line, the sorrow in his voice cut through with hope, and Joy finally let herself sing along.
Oh well, there's always a second time around.
- END -