A chance meeting, kind of.
He gets real close and sings I wanna make you cry.
Which is a thing he thinks he wants -- until she does it, and then he wants her to stop. She slaps him across the face, and he deserves it. They fuck in the dressing room. The argument they have after is maybe the worst one they've ever had, and JP doesn't know what it's about.
It works out all right: she comes to his show, and he apologizes as best he can through the music, but it is not what he would call a successful reunion.
A benefit concert. The Tennessee River's flooded. Nashville-area artists. They're both invited.
What if we both go? she asks. JP stares at his phone until it buzzes again. Not together, she adds. But can we seriously not even be in the vicinity of the Ryman at the same time?
He types: last time we saw each other it didn't go so well
He types: the ryman is mine
He types: go ahead and take it, you need this more than i do
He types: no
He types: all right
He only sends the last one.
Joy's a soccer mom now. She drives a van. They fuck in the back like teenagers.
A Waffle House in the middle of nowhere. 4 a.m.
It's a public place. There's a cook, a waitress, and a drunk at the counter. There's a table between them.
Joy's come heavy: she has a tablet and several notebooks, spread out on the table with her phone and half the shit from her pocketbook, like she's trying to build a fence. Her fingers -- long, thin, red-nailed -- shuffle restlessly through the piles she's made.
JP, hands locked on his coffee mug, is staring at the lines on her face.
"One show," she says.
"You're out of your damn mind."
She sags against the back of the booth, sad. He wasn't prepared for sad. More gently, he says, "We can't. You know what happens any time we're within six feet of each other."
Some of the old spark lights her eyes. "This table is two feet across, max."
"Mmm-hmmm." He can't really look her up and down with all the shit she's sitting behind, but he gives it a shot. "And I'm about two minutes from dragging you to the bathroom."
"Be still my heart." Her lips curve into a small smile, but she's still sad. She glances up through her lashes. "You wouldn't have to drag me."
She swallows. Licks her lips. Soldiers on. "We'd have a chaperone."
A witness, more like. They've got some now, and for the same reason, but it's not like she's saying they should set up in the parking lot. He shoves his coffee to the side of the table. "Nate?"
"Yeah." She snorts. "I'll bring Nate, you bring Jenny. It'll be like old times."
"Does he know you're here? Was this show his idea? It'd be real good marketing for the new record."
Her nostrils flare: a hit. Her tone goes flat. "Does Jenny know you're here? It'd be real good money for--."
She stops, but it's another hit. JP lets it land, tips his head back to look at the ceiling. She should have just slapped him again. "Well, that got nasty," he says, voice mild.
"What's your problem?" Her mug hits the table; he hears coffee slosh onto the placemat.
He almost laughs. "Where should I start?"
"It's been ten years," she says, the weight of every one of them in her voice.
"Yeah," he says, finally looking at her again, and all I want to do is kiss you. It surprises him, a little. He goes days without thinking about her. Weeks. He can hear her name without the back of his neck getting hot. He can see her picture without his throat closing up. He can't listen to her sing without throwing something, but maybe one day. He's happy at home, working on the house, going to ball games, producing records, touring his own when he feels like it, going out for a week or two at a time. Doing whatever the hell he wants. Except-- except.
"Coulda been a hundred," he says. "Nothing's changed." The lines on her face, maybe. The gray in his hair.
She closes her eyes. JP wishes he'd brought his guitar, that he had something to hold onto. "Did you actually listen to the new record?" she asks.
She waits. JP doesn't say anything.
Her eyes open. "You hated it, didn't you?"
He hates everything she does without him. He wishes she didn't she know that. Hell, he wishes he didn't know that, either. He scratches his cheek. "Yeah."
Her eyes soften. "I hated yours, too."
Fair. "Look," he says. "It wouldn't just be one show. We'd have to rehearse. I haven't played those songs in ten years. Haven't even listened to them. We didn't work out live arrangements for--"
She starts singing. It's nothing he knows, nonsense syllables, open vowels from her open throat, but he's helpless to do anything but follow. Same as it ever was. He closes his eyes, and sings.
"That was dirty pool," he says, when their voices have trailed into nothing. He's pissed off and blissed out at the same time, his body relaxed but his emotions in turmoil. He's staring at the table. The cook, the waitress, and the drunk are staring at Joy. Joy's staring holes through his head.
"You used to do it to me."
His head jerks up. "No." But he had. He remembers like it was yesterday, one sun-soaked August afternoon, sitting on her steps with his forehead to his knees while she talked, and talked, and talked, and he didn't know what she was talking about, or why she was doing it, or what she wanted from him. Shut up, he'd thought, shut up shut up shut up, and he'd reached for his guitar, and Joy-- Joy had shut up. It made him sick, later, thinking about it, that he'd taken what they did together and turned it into a weapon. Music was sacred, and their music--
"Once," he says. "I did it once. And then I threw it all away because I wasn't gonna do it again."
"And because you're a fucking drama queen," she says, and he blinks. His mouth opens in surprise, but she keeps talking. "You think I went into some kind of fugue state where I had no will of my own -- is that what just happened to you? I'm a big girl, John Paul, I can make my own decisions, and musicians are allowed to use music to make a point sometimes."
"Or you could try your words, too, since whatever your point was, I'm pretty sure I missed it in the middle of"--he waves his hands around--"whatever that was."
She over-enunciates it: "We wouldn't need to rehearse. It's still there. We're still us."
His laugh is mean. "So we'll just go out there and ad-lib a cappella versions of everything? No. I play the guitar, remember? There's no band, there's just me."
"Oh, right." She snaps her laptop shut and starts shoving her shit back into her bag. "I forgot, everything is so much harder for you."
"That's not what I meant."
"Forget it," she says. "This was stupid."
But she's up and moving, and the sight of Joy walking away from him is maybe his least favorite thing in the world. He forces himself to watch it happen, but instead he watches her stop at the door, look over her shoulder, and keep walking.
JP finishes his coffee, pays the check, and follows her into the bathroom.
Three weeks later, he texts her. Send me a setlist.
His music room. Midnight exactly.
The old brown leather couch creaks as he shifts against it, clutching the side of his guitar the way he might a life raft. He stares at the setlist by his feet. He'd painstakingly written it out in sharpie back when Joy sent it to him, must have been a year ago now. It took him this long to get this far, and now he's here, he doesn't see how he's going to get any farther.
There are seventeen songs on the list, and a few of them he has to listen to for the first time. He approved the final arrangements for the second record and never went near it again. Eleven years doesn't feel like enough time. Eternity probably wouldn't be enough time for this, but he hadn't quibbled about the set, just slowly started listening to the music. Eventually, he'd even been able to do it sober.
He's sober now, and wishes he weren't. He takes a deep breath. He starts at the beginning.
Some of the songs are back under his fingers in an instant, like he never stopped playing them. The lyrics are there, too, shoved in the same dark place as the words to every Metallica song released in the 80s. He gets through the first two songs so easily his hands are shaking.
He sets the guitar aside and stands up, reaching for the Jack. Instead, he sees Jenny, watching from the doorway, her arms folded. He takes a swig from the bottle and hands it over.
"You haven't played that in a while," she says, when she's thrown back a shot of her own. Her tone is very, very even. Her eyes land on the setlist. "Or have you?"
"I haven't." He takes the bottle back and sits on an amp. His hands are still shaking. "We're talking about a show, just a one-off, but--" A third shot. "I don't know."
"Oh, you're talking," she says. "How long's that been going on?"
He needs to stop pouring booze down his throat. He only just started, but he feels dizzy. "What're you asking me?"
"Have you seen her?"
"A couple times, yeah, but it's not like we hang out."
"Jesus, John." She takes the bottle. While she drinks, he braces for her next question. It's not as bad as it could be: "A show?"
He holds out his hand, and she smacks the bottle into it. "You could come," he says, and she starts laughing. But the truth, they both know, is that she'd have to. She'd probably have to comment to some journalist about how happy she is to be there, how supportive. How absurd all the rumors were. "Fuck," he says, and puts his head in his hands.
"Scooch," she says, a while later, nudging at him with her knees. He moves on the amp to make room for her. Her side is warm against his. They sit and drink a while, passing the bottle between them. He's starting to feel it, but at least his hands have stopped shaking.
"I'd explain if I could," he says. "I didn't say anything because I don't see how it's gonna happen." The idea of playing a Civil Wars show with Joy feels like time travel, like something he could read about in a book and believe in for a few minutes at a time. It's not a real possibility.
"But you're practicing," Jenny says.
"I wanted to try," he says, spreading his hands. It's not like he's gotten anywhere. One year and he's managed to pick his way through two songs. "It was good, for a while. And some of these songs..." He drinks. "They deserve to be heard."
A low scrape of laughter. "Ah, there it is." She stands up.
He looks up at her, through the boozy haze, through his hair. "Are you okay with it?"
"Please." She rolls her eyes. "Don't pretend you care."
A few hours later, he texts Joy: no show.
He sends the screenshot to Jenny.
He keeps practicing.
Produce section of the Walmart, maybe three in the morning.
Joy meets his eyes in the mirror as he moves closer, but she doesn't say anything. He lifts the hair from her neck, brushes his lips across her skin. She sighs, shivers, leans. He runs his hands down her arms, settles them on her hips, bends his head. "There some kind of brussels sprouts shortage up in the big city?" His breath blows a strand of hair from her ear.
"I wanted to see you."
She turns and lifts a hand to his face without answering. Her eyes drill into his as she touches him. There's a tremble in her fingers as she traces the ridge of his brow, the line of his jaw, the curve of his lips.
He closes his eyes. She wraps her arms around him, and holds on tight.
"Wanna grab a drink?" he asks her.
"Where?" she asks. Even if anything were open, she knows as well as he does there's no place in this town the two of them can go.
He grins. Just so happens he's got a bottle of moonshine in his car. Joy buys a couple of mason jars to drink from, probably because it makes him laugh.
Neutral ground: Charlie's studio.
Charlie's there, at first. John Paul doesn't notice him leave. Neither does Joy.
They try singing in the same room, but he can't do it. They try separate rooms, but neither one of them can do it. They go back to the same room, a screen between them. Joy can't do it.
JP smashes a coffee mug, cleans it up, and is so ashamed of himself and his fucking infantile behavior that he sits on the couch in the control room in dead silence for three hours, staring at nothing.
He's got big plans to stay there forever except Joy walks in with his guitar. She hands it to him and sits on the floor, back to the couch, head resting against his leg. "Just play something," she says, exhausted. He does.
That works for a while, their oldest songs not really a problem. They'll be fine with some practice.
The second album breaks them apart all over again, everything going to hell somewhere between I wish I'd never ever seen your face and I'm gonna name names.
They fuck on the stairs, angry and hard, and if it hurts her back half as much it hurts his knees, JP doesn't give a shit.
Jenny kicks him out the day Julianna leaves for college.
It's not like he didn't see it coming. She's been sick of his shit for a while now, but was sticking it out for the kids. She told him so, more than once, but he hadn't thought she meant to the day.
He'd thought, when it was just the two of them, they might work on things, get to know each other again, figure it out. He'd thought it would be like when he left the band, that they'd muddle through somehow.
He'd thought wrong.
JP rents a place in Nashville. It's cheap. It's got a bedroom, but he fills it with gear and sleeps on the couch.
He's there about a month before he realizes it's ten minutes from Joy.
Dive bar around the corner. He's four drinks down when he texts her, and two more are gone by the time she shows up. JP's all right if he doesn't try moving, so he's careful to keep his head still as he slides a look her way.
She holds up a finger.
"I've got some catching up to do," she says. She throws back two shots, fast, and then sits on the stool with her eyes closed.
"Are--" he starts. Again, the finger.
"Give it time to hit," she says.
"Okay," she says, eventually. She swivels the stool in his direction and eyes him, the look sultry, heavy with booze. "Go. What are you doing here?"
"I live here."
She sits up so quickly she almost topples from the stool. He grabs for her, but he's wasted, and all it accomplishes is that she pitches forward into his arms. He's fine with that.
"Where?" she demands, stepping away from him, her eyes narrowed.
He points over his shoulder, sees her eyes catch on his hand. She grabs for it, and her finger traces the dent where his wedding ring used to be.
"John Paul?" Her voice is unsteady. Maybe it's the booze.
He doesn't say anything.
"You live-- in Nashville? Close by?"
In the morning, she's still in his bed.
John Paul staggers into the kitchen for painkillers and coffee, and when he makes it back to the bedroom with a cup for Joy, she's sitting up, knees to her chest, sheets wrapped around her bare shoulders, hair down her back like an oil spill. Maybe she dyes it. He can't be the only one who's aged, who's softened, whose spots are changing, whose ink is fading.
Twenty years ago today they were probably on the road, barreling down some highway, their hearts light. He might say something about it, except now she's on the phone. She turns away, shoulders sagging, leaving JP to stare at the curve of her spine, the angle of her bowed head. His chest is tight, and he's old enough now to wonder if it's his heart, if it's Joy. If there's any difference.
He crosses the room. Hands her the coffee. Kisses her hair. Says, "Tell Nate I say hey."
A different Waffle House, this time, but it might as well be the same. Same cook, same waitress, same drunk at the same counter. Same table between him and Joy, same weighted years, same lines on her face he can't stop staring at.
"One show," he says.
She leans back and wraps her hands around her coffee mug, and it gives him something else to stare at: no rings on her fingers. None at all. She sees him looking and lifts an eyebrow, waiting, but he refuses to ask her. Maybe she took her ring off to do the dishes or go to yoga, and didn't put it back on. Maybe it's on her necklace. Maybe she and Nate are finished, and there's someone else. It's not like she'd called him.
He digs in his back pocket and pulls out a piece of paper, soft with age, holes worn along its creases.
She's careful as she unfolds it. The ink's faded, but it's obviously a setlist. He's been carrying it around since she sent it to him, years ago.
"I've been practicing," he tells her.
She closes her eyes.
"John Paul," she breathes, so quietly he barely hears it.
The setlist drifts to the table. Her hands are shaking, and he reaches out and takes them in his own. They're cold.
"Please," he says, and lets go of one hand to brush a tear from her face. "I'm sorry."
"Thanks for coming out, y'all. This here's Joy Williams."
"That's John Paul White."
"We're the Civil Wars."