Joy tripped on her own two feet. She would have hit the ground, except she plowed into one of the tables instead, its hard edge banging into her thighs. Trying to keep her balance without turning her ankle landed her in a chair, conveniently pulled out, and she scooted it closer to the table and put her head in her hands. It all happened very fast.
She blamed the surprise: Nashville was supposed to be hers. She and John Paul had an agreement. She didn't show up anywhere near the Shoals without a heads-up, and John Paul let her know if he was going to be in Nashville. The only time he didn't warn her was when it was obvious: Dylan Fest, for example, at the Ryman.
For weeks, those blue posters had been plastered all over town. John Paul White -- just a name, but it was the only one she saw. She'd been convinced it was bigger than anyone else's, until finally she'd felt crazy enough to check. She'd been wrong. It was the same size as all the rest, somewhere in the middle of the list. Just a name.
She didn't know if that made her more crazy, or less. More, probably. How long had it been? And she was sneaking around in the dark tearing down posters so she could measure the letters.
Anyway, he hadn't told her he would be in town for Dylan Fest. He hadn't needed to.
But Crema, at seven in the morning on a Thursday? She'd never once considered the possibility of running into him, but that was him. Probably. She'd tripped before she got much more than a glimpse through the window, but she'd know him anywhere.
Then again, she'd been pretty sure about the poster.
She risked another glance.
It was him. Even though the window, he looked like he desperately needed the coffee: there were dark bags under his closed eyes, and he was sagged against the counter like he'd fall over if you breathed on him too hard.
Joy wanted to leave, but she couldn't move; she was stuck in the chair, trapped by all the other times she'd seen him just like this, after long nights spent laughing, drinking, making music. He'd emerge from his room or his bunk or the bench he'd passed on looking exhausted, unshaven, miserable. His half-open eyes would search until he found her, and she'd smile at him, and something in him would visibly unfurl. He almost never managed to smile back, but he tried, and her heart ached and grew with every attempt.
It was doing the same thing now as she stared at him, remembering, regretting. She couldn't go and stand there, let him lean against her, sleepy and groggy, while she dealt with the coffee. She couldn't run her hands through his messy hair and tease him awake until his eyes shone. She couldn't put her hands on his shoulders and turn him around and send him shuffling back to bed. She certainly couldn't go with him.
Oh no, she thought, her hand over her mouth. JP opened his eyes. Joy ran.
The text came that afternoon.
Sorry about this morning, he wrote. I was just passing through. Should be safe now.
Joy wasn't sure which word of that was most appalling -- safe? now?
It didn't matter. She had downed a few glasses of wine with lunch, and then she'd pulled out her laptop and disabled the browser extension that kept her off his social media, and now she was staring at a photo of Lera Lynn in a handmade JPW shirt. She'd probably made it herself. Cut the collar off, the sleeves. Bought the iron-on letters at what, Michaels? Joy made a face and tried to imagine doing something like that, but she was stuck again, staring. At least this time, staring was all she was doing. Feeling seemed to have vanished.
She picked up her phone. How was tour?
Did you tour with her more than once?
He stopped answering after that, and Joy didn't blame him. She googled him instead, john paul white lera lynn. If JP wouldn't tell her, she could find out for herself: she'd read a review, or maybe someone's blog post.
She was not expecting video of the two of them together.
It wasn't a long list. Only two songs, both covers. Joy chewed her bottom lip, thinking. There were a few very particular conditions that had to be met before she'd listen to him sing, let alone watch him do it: she had to be home, alone, with her laptop, and drunk enough that it seemed like a good idea -- but not so drunk she knew it wasn't and didn't care. Nostalgic drunk, in other words. Not maudlin drunk.
Of course, that scale applied to watching videos of him singing by himself, not videos of him singing with another woman. She didn't have a scale for that, and halfway through another glass of wine, she clicked the first link.
It wasn't good. It was low-quality footage from somewhere in the audience, the songs cut off, the camera shaky, the picture blurry. None of that stopped Joy from seeing JP lean back into Lera's body as they sang, her hand pale against his dark suit.
She slammed her laptop shut, and started telling herself things: So what? You sing with other men. It's not like they're writing together. It's been five years. You didn't have a claim on him then, and you don't have one now. He doesn't look at her the way he looked at you.
None of it helped; she felt bad. Her therapist would tell her to figure out where in her body she felt bad, and use that to pinpoint the reason she might be reacting like this, but Joy couldn't do it. She felt bad. That was it. She wanted to throw up.
Knowing she shouldn't, her hands shaking, she texted him: congratulations. She poured another glass of wine.
The buzzing of her phone woke her in the middle of the night. She sat up, groggy, maybe hungover, definitely confused. Nate was next to her, dead to the world. Her phone buzzed again. It took her a few tries to unlock it.
John Paul. What are you talking about? Congratulations for what?
He'd asked about an hour ago. It was now almost four, and he'd spent the time in between ranting about how she'd put out an album so he could do it, too, and just because she didn't tour didn't mean he had to stay home, and if she was jealous that wasn't his problem, and there wasn't anything going on anyway but even if there was, so what. It wasn't very different from the things she'd told herself.
Joy wondered how much he'd had to drink. A lot, she'd guess, and given the mood he was in, he'd probably tell her if she asked. He might tell her a lot of things, if she asked, but she knew he would never be drunk enough to answer the only question that mattered.
Another text. Joy turned her phone off without looking at it and curled up against Nate's chest, but it was a long time before she slept.
- END -