After the broadcast, the fine gentlemen of NBC escort them to the curb, and they walk as far and as fast as their legs can take them. Donny stuffs his hands in his pockets and thinks of what isn’t waiting for them in Cleveland: jobs, gigs, a raucous homecoming. Sneaks a look sideways at Julia, who's not yet said a word.
“We need a bar,” Davy declares. Donny nods his head at a neon-glowing bar sign halfway up the block and offers Julia his arm. They head inside, unspeaking.
“What did we do," Nick says.
Donny stands up straighter. “We did what we had to do. We did what we came here for—we sang a song for the troops. The real troops, not the phony idea of what the troops mean for people who never set foot anywhere near the war.”
Wayne glowers, and Johnny frowns. Julia hugs her arms around herself. Donny slides closer to her; the boys fade into the back of the bar, settle into an empty table. Donny falters, and looks down.
“I know this isn’t what I promised you. It isn’t how we expected it to end. I’m sorry—“
Julia glares at him. “Do not apologize. For any of it. Okay?”
Donny rests his elbows on the bar, rests his head in his hands. Turns to look at her face.
She is—she is glowing, fierce and beautiful, and looks angrier than he has ever, ever seen her. Donny breathes, and realizes—she’s not angry at him. “Okay.”
Julia steps closer; Donny feels the cold from her jacket, the swish of her hair, the faintest hint of perfume. He swallows hard, and Julia softens, drops her voice. “Are you okay?” she asks, corners of her eyes tilting down, worried.
“I just—I’m sorry, I know, last night, we said we needed time, and I didn’t mean—“
Julia shakes her head; her shoulders relax. “Is that what you’re worried about?” She wraps her arms around him, leans into his chest. Tilts her head up to look at him. “It’s like we said. We’re taking it slow.”
Donny closes his eyes, nods. Wills away every single person in the room, in the city, in the world. Orders a martini for Julia, a scotch for himself. Smiles when she links her fingers into his, and leads him to the table in the back, to the band, to his brothers.
By the time they get back to the hotel, there’s a stack of messages waiting for them as high as the Empire State Building.
“Oh god, what’s the verdict?” Nick groans. “How thoroughly are we blackballed? Will we be allowed back in Cleveland?”
Donny thrusts a stack at Julia, a stack at Wayne. Starts scanning, his heart in his throat, flipping through them, one by one, and—
Julia laughs, tears in her eyes. “I think we’re gonna be alright.”
In the stack: calls from agents, from bookers, from seemingly everyone in the city. Requests for meetings, requests for contracts, requests for concerts.
Most, most importantly: calls from veterans.
Donny walks Julia to her room, kisses her, soundly against her hotel room door. Curls his hand around her waist, focuses on her lips, her tongue, her teeth. Breaks away, listens to her breathing even out. Her hands wander under his jacket, touch his back, his chest, his neck, his mouth. Julia says, wryly, “Slow."
“Slow”, Donny promises. Shoves his hands in his pockets, and walks to his room, alone.
The next few weeks are a whirlwind; they play at nightclubs downtown, they play uptown, they play midtown, and Donny wants to never, ever leave. They interview agents; they start talking about a tour, a record, exclusive rights. They sign contracts for the run at the Rainbow Room and start moving out of the hotel, one by one. Julia finds a walkup on the west side, close to the park. If Donny sticks his head out the window and squints, he can see the trees.
(Donny still can’t bring himself to leave Hotel Astor. When he and Rubber talked about the future, they never made it quite this far.)
“You’re going to break your neck if you keep that up,” Julia says, laughing, swinging her arm into her coat. It’s their first night off in weeks, and Donny promised Sardi’s.
“I will not,” Donny argues, but he pulls himself fully inside, anyway. Looks at her, laughing and easy, hair mussed and gorgeous and says: “You are so beautiful.”
Donny starts going to Julia’s church on Sunday mornings, sneaking in halfway through. He likes listening to the hymns while the rest of the city still feels soft and sleepy. He likes watching Julia stand up and sing. She trills the top notes of Ave Maria and winks at him.
They’d had a quiet night, Saturday—her place after the show, with Donny mixing them drinks made of honey, and lemon, and gin. He had to take a moment to collect himself (Julia’s bare feet, Julia’s waist, Julia’s silky green blouse, Julia, casual, at home).
Julia missed nothing, of course, quizzical look at the pause in conversation, eyes flashing to Donny’s flushed cheeks and embarrassingly half-tented trousers. Oh, she said, blushed and then—kissed him, quick and sloppy, and left him gasping.
Donny takes her for breakfast, after the service (mass, Julia says, teasing). She wraps her hands around her coffee cup, and when Donny doesn’t smile back, nudges him with her ankle, under the table.
He wants to press his face into her neck. He wants time to slow down, to speed up. He wants to never leave her side. He wants—
He takes her hand, kisses her wrist. Nudges her back, and smiles.
On nights Donny can’t sleep, he walks all over the city, takes in the lights and the sounds, the taxis zipping their passengers home. He wants to bring Julia back everywhere he goes and lead her by the hand, say see, here, this. Show her that this is a place worth staying in, worth living.
Their tour takes them to Rhode Island, to Baltimore. In Virginia, they stay in a hotel so sparkling, Donny can see his face reflected back in the gleaming brass banister. Their rooms have thick velvet curtains, glass shower doors, tiny bottles of booze tucked discreetly into their dressers. Best of all: Julia’s room has a piano.
They play a set at a club with twinkly lights hanging from the ceiling; they have a post-gig drink in their dressing room, and then another one at the bar, bobby-soxers clinging to Donny’s arms. He walks Julia home to their hotel, her hand linked in his elbow, both of them hunched against the cold. In Boston, they’d seen snow. Kisses her in front of her hotel room door. Julia laughs against his mouth.
“Donny, I know you’re thinking about a song. C’mon, come inside.”
He grins. There’s been a melody in his head since Boston, he’s been trying to get out. Something hopeful and achey, about love, about trust, about desire. Being with Julia, he has music bursting to get out.
Julia pushes the door open, tosses her bag on the bed. Donny sits down at the piano, and plays, and plays.
Minutes, hours, maybe days later, Donny looks up. Julia’s stirring in the bed, comforter pulled up to her chin. She looks blurry and warm. “You’re still here,” she says, surprised.
“Oh, uh. Lost track of time. I’m just leaving.”
Julia raises her eyebrows. Asks: “Are you going to sleep if you go back to your room?”
Donny looks at his hands. Donny looks at Julia, and her sleep-mussed hair. Donny thinks about piano keys and major chords and the way the band sounds when they’re riffing, totally free. He thinks about the line of Julia’s neck.
Julia pats the pillow next to her. “Come over here. No funny business.”
Donny toes off his shoes. Climbs in.
“Sleep,” she says, softly, like an order. Like a prayer.
He closes his eyes obediently. Listens to Julia’s rustling of the covers, listens to her breath evening out.
Before the band, during the worst of it, back in Cleveland, Donny would play all night, too wired to sleep, to feel, to dream. Chasing only the notes in his head, trying, trying, to make sense out of the chaos of returning. To make his surviving worth something, to someone. To make it worth it to himself. Now, Donny thinks: thank god.
Wakes up to muffled whispering, Julia’s saying “Yes, Mom, he’s sleeping but it isn’t like that. Well—yes. Okay, it’s exactly like that. No, but—”
Donny closes his eyes again.
They play a show in a too-packed club in St. Louis, their last night there, audience pressing in on all sides. Julia stands at the microphone and has the crowd on their side in a second, quiet and fierce, her fingers wrapped around the mic stand. Donny lets the sound wash over him, adrenaline zipping through his veins, focuses on the downbeats and the piano keys and cueing Wayne in for his solo at exactly the right moment.
Donny paces the length of their train car, afterwards, tries to come down from the music-high. Julia strums her ukelele, and watches. Tips her face up to kiss him.
Back in New York: Donny goes shopping for rings. Just in case.
Julia sits crosslegged on the floor of Donny’s postage stamp kitchen, pen pushed back behind her ear, notebook in her lap. The band’s getting antsy, itching for new songs. Their agent's been talking about an album. She chews her lip, writes a line, catches Donny looking at her. Smiles.
Donny smiles back, and sees a lifetime of singing together over a piano, sees kids and Christmases and a Sunday roast, Julia’s toes tucked under his thigh, poetry books stacked high on the coffee table.
“Marry me,” Donny blurts out, easy as breathing.
Julia’s face breaks into a smile, sudden, like the sun coming out after the rain. She crawls into his lap, no hesitation. Takes his face in both her hands, says: “Yes.”
They send Julia’s mother a ticket in the mail; a weekend in the city, an engagement party, a welcome breakfast at Julia’s church on 71st. Donny goes with Julia to meet her in Grand Central; their hands flutter over each other, checking. When they pull away from their hello hug, two sets of eyes are damp. Donny stays out of their way and tries to look worthy. He has a speech all planned: how he knows it would be her second wedding, if she doesn’t want a big to do, if she thinks it might drum up too much grief because of Michael, he understands. How he can wait, if she needs more time How all that matters to him is them being together, and her mother being there to witness it.
Instead: Julia squeezes his hand, and beams, and says: “I thought maybe we could come home to Cleveland for the wedding? Sometime in the spring?"
Donny answers, grateful, "Yes."
Donny puts on his wedding suit with shaking hands and a too-fast beating heart. He fixes his cuffs, smooths down his hair. Pats his pockets. “Where’s the—“
“We’ve lost the ring,” Davy bellows.
“You lost the ring?” Johnny absently spins an empty water glass around in his hands. He looks at Donny. "Brother, you’re in trouble.”
“He’s not in trouble, per se,” Jimmy corrects. He turns to face Donny. “Where were you the last time you had them?”
“I was—“ Donny paces, tries to think. I picked them up from the jeweler. I had dinner at Julia’s, and I showed them to her mother. I went home, and couldn’t sleep, so I tried to work out the melody on that new number Julia wrote—the piano. I took them out of my pocket and propped the box up on the piano, so I could see them while I played. And then—I don’t remember after that. I don’t remember if I moved them after that. I don’t think I did? But I don’t—“
“One of us will go check,” Jimmy interrupts.
Nick and Wayne look at each other, nod. “We’ve got it,” Wayne says. “Be right back.”
“See,” Jimmy says. “It’ll be fine. Now calm down, and think about your vows. Julia’s Catholic, they’re pretty much legally binding.”
The band plays, as all of Cleveland files into the church, something hymn-like, Donny isn’t sure what, with every tenth bar, a subtle variation on “Taps." Donny closes his eyes and thinks of Julia, when he met her, a war widow, open and angry, wanting answers, thinks of Rubber. He thinks of wanting her, wanting to be near her, from the very first moment.
When he opens his eyes: Julia’s at the end of the aisle, gorgeous and sparkling and looking back at him, so, so sure.
Donny feels the crowd still, feels the nerves of the day fade, and fade, and fade, til all that’s left is Julia in front of him and his hand in hers. He beams, whispers, “Hi,” and utterly forgets whatever else he’s supposed to be doing. Somewhere in the distance he hears a priest talking about love, and second chances.
“At least try to look solemn,” Julia whispers back, but there’s a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth, and she squeezes his hand.
After: Donny remembers the vows, he remembers Julia melting into him, her hand on his neck when they kissed. He remembers the boys whooping as they walked up the aisle, he remembers Julia’s legs draped over his lap on the ride to the party, her head on his shoulder, gazing at the rings on their hands. Donny remembers, and remembers, and remembers.