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We Belong Together

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Frank Ridgeway was exhausted. It had been a long, tiring day. First he had to teach his English Lit classes to bored tenth graders who couldn’t have cared less about Wordsworth or Shelley or Keats. Then he had to sit through a faculty meeting, listening to his fellow teachers yammer on about matters he didn’t give a damn about. Once, he had approached his teaching career with enthusiasm, but those days were long past. He was burned out. He was counting the years till he was eligible for a pension, and there were far too many of them.

The faculty meeting had made him late getting home. He was just in time to catch the end of the network evening news broadcast. He turned on the television and took off his overcoat. He was loosening his tie, only half paying attention to the TV, when he heard the anchorman say, “Finally tonight, we have a story of a rock and roll resurrection. Legendary Sixties rock and roll star Eddie Wilson, thought to have died in an automobile accident twenty years ago, reappeared last week at the Montreal Spring Music Festival. Reliable sources confirm that the singer and guitar player fronting a band called Rock Solid is, indeed, Eddie Wilson. Wilson has been calling himself Joe West and supporting himself as a construction worker in Canada.” The report was accompanied by video of Rock Solid performing at the music festival.

Frank didn’t hear the rest of what the anchorman said. At the mention of Eddie Wilson’s name, he spun around to stare wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the TV screen. He leaned toward the TV, looking intently at the video. There was no doubt about it: The singer out in front of the band was Eddie. Frank thought he looked more muscular than he did twenty years ago, but otherwise he looked much the same, right down to the sleeveless black t-shirt he always wore to perform. Even his haircut was the same.

As the news program came to an end, Frank turned off the TV and collapsed into a chair. He was stunned. His chest felt tight. He tried to light a cigarette, but his hands were trembling so badly that he dropped it. Eddie was alive, and Frank was in turmoil. He knew that he was happy that Eddie Wilson was alive, but how did he feel otherwise? Was he angry? Was he hurt? Was he both? Frank and Eddie had been in love once, and now Frank knew that Eddie was alive but had kept Frank out of his life for twenty years. How did he feel about that? Was he still in love with Eddie? And what did Eddie feel about him?

Then the tears began to flow. Frank had never forgotten what it was like to be with Eddie, to feel Eddie’s arms around him, Eddie’s lips on his. Every day for twenty years Frank had thought of Eddie, missed him, and mourned him. Maggie Foley’s documentary on Eddie’s life and music had felt like ripping open an old incision that had already healed, but he had managed to get through it. It had even felt good to hear the Cruisers’ music being played on the radio again—after all, Frank had written the lyrics to most of their hits. But now this. Eddie was alive.

Frank spent a sleepless night in that chair, smoking cigarette after cigarette, trying to decide what he should do. In the midst of his emotional turmoil, he thought of Joann Carlino. She had been Eddie’s girl during their days in the Cruisers, but she had recognized that Eddie and Frank were in love long before Frank himself had understood it. It was Joann who had made Frank understand. He wished that Joann were there now. She would know what he should do. But Joann wasn’t there.

Two years ago, Frank and Joann had come together over the search for the missing master tapes of A Season in Hell, the Cruisers’ unreleased second album. During their days in the band, Joann and Frank had been attracted to each other. Now they were finally free to act on that attraction. Almost immediately, they began an affair. But then a year ago, Joann received a job offer from the Disney organization. It was a wonderful opportunity—Frank could see that—but it would mean she would have to move to Orlando.

Joann said that she didn’t know what she wanted to do. While Frank hated the thought of her leaving, he counseled her to take the job. Otherwise, he said, she would spend the rest of her life wondering “what if.” She took his advice and accepted the offer from Disney. By mutual agreement, they ended their relationship. There was sadness on the part of both of them, but no anger or bitterness, and they both knew they would always care for one another.

*-*-*

Finally, in the morning, Frank decided what he had to do. Regardless of whether he still loved Eddie or hated Eddie for cutting him out of his life, he had to see Eddie. He phoned the school. He told the secretary who answered the phone in the principal’s office that he needed to be away for a few days because of an emergency. Then he threw a few things into a bag, got in his car, and headed to Montreal.

The drive from Vineland was long and exhausting. When Frank arrived in Montreal, he found a reasonably priced motel, took a room, collapsed on the bed, and went right to sleep. He woke up in time to get something to eat, and then to head to the arena where Rock Solid was playing. It was impossible not to know the location: Eddie’s face was on billboards all over the city.

When he arrived at the arena, Frank was lucky to get a ticket. Eddie’s return had created a sensation, and tickets were at a premium. The only seats left were way up in a high balcony. Ticket in hand, he stood leaning against a wall, trying to decide what his next move should be. It wasn’t only Rock Solid’s performance that Frank wanted to see. He wanted to see Eddie. In person.

Then he had an idea. He took a small notebook and a pen out of his overcoat pocket. Hastily he scribbled a note and tore the page out of the notebook. He took a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet and wrapped the note around it, leaving enough of the bill protruding to show the denomination. He looked around until he spotted a young man wearing a badge that read “Usher,” and he called him over. ‘Please,” Frank said, “take this to Eddie Wilson. It’s really important.”

The usher looked at the note, and at the ten-spot. “Yes, sir.” He took the note and hurried away.

*-*-*

In the arena’s back-stage dressing room, Eddie Wilson sat leaning back in a chair, his boots propped up on a make-up table. His friend Hilton Overstreet, the saxophone player in Rock Solid, sat on a sofa, polishing his sax. At a knock at the door, Eddie called out, “It’s open!” The door opened, and the usher walked in.

“Mr. Wilson?” the usher said.

“Yeah?”

“Some guy out front asked me to give you this.” He handed him Frank’s note.

Eddie opened the note, read it, and jumped up from his chair, his face white. “Who gave you this?” he demanded.

“Just some guy out front.” The usher shrugged.

“What’d he look like?”

“I dunno. Medium height, brown hair, about 40, maybe.”

“If he’s still out there, bring him back here. Okay?”

“Yes, sir.” The usher left the room, closing the door behind him.

Concerned by Eddie’s reaction to the note, Hilton asked, “Everything okay?”

Eddie handed him the note, and he read it. “’Remember the caesura.’ What’s that supposed to mean?” Hilton asked. He handed the note back to Eddie.

“Summer of ’62,” Eddie began, “the Cruisers had a gig at a place called Tony Mart’s, in Somers Point, in Jersey. We were rehearsin,’ and I got into an argument with Sal Amato over how I should sing this song he wrote called ‘Betty Lou Got a New Pair of Shoes.’ It was just some dance tune.” Eddie made a face. “I wanted to put a pause in some of the words, and Sal was afraid if I did, it would make people lose the beat.

“So there was this kid there, moppin’ the floor, and I asked him what he thought. He agreed with me that the words needed a pause—a caesura, he called it. It was Frank Ridgeway, became my songwriting partner. He wrote the words, I wrote the music.” Eddie slowly sat down. He did not tell Hilton that he and Frank had been more than songwriting partners.

“You think the note’s from him?” Hilton asked.

“Gotta be.”

In moments there was another knock on the door. Eddie stood up. “It’s open.” His voice sounded a little shaky. The door opened, and Frank entered. A look of fear in his eyes, Eddie quietly said, “Hello, Frankie.”

Frank had managed to keep his composure throughout the long drive from Vineland to Montreal, but now, face to face with Eddie after more than twenty years, he completely lost control. He lunged at Eddie, shouting, “You sonofabitch!” and swinging at him.

Eddie ducked, avoided the blow, and grabbed Frank’s arm. Hilton, alarmed, jumped up from the sofa and grabbed Frank’s other arm, twisting it behind his back, forcing the now sobbing Frank to bend forward at the waist. Eddie and Hilton could hear Frank repeating Eddie’s name through his sobs.

Eddie took hold of Frank’s shoulders. “It’s okay, Hil,” he said to Hilton. “Let him go.”

Hilton looked dubious, but he let go of Frank’s arm, allowing him to stand upright. “You want me to call Security?” Hilton asked.

“No, it’s okay. Just give us a minute.”

“Okay.” Hilton picked up his sax and walked slowly to the door, looking back at Eddie and Frank. “I’ll check on the boys,” he said, referring to the younger members of Rock Solid, “see if they’re ready.” He quietly closed the door behind him.

For a long moment Eddie continued to hold Frank’s shoulders while he looked into Frank’s eyes. Then he let go, and Frank wiped his eyes on his coat sleeve. With a pained look on his face, Eddie managed to rasp out, “Frankie. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. Can you forgive me? Please?!”

At first Frank said nothing. Then, as his face crumpled into tears again, he threw his arms around Eddie, pulled him close, and kissed him. That was his answer to Eddie, and also to himself. The twenty years of pain, sorrow, and anger were in the past. Here and now, Eddie Wilson was alive, and Frank Ridgeway forgave him and knew that he was still in love with him.

The embrace was interrupted by a loud knock on the door. Eddie and Frank both jumped back, turning toward the sound of the knock. The door did not open, but outside a loud voice called, “They’re ready, Mr. Wilson!” Reluctantly, they separated.

Eddie reached for his guitar. “I gotta go,” he said quietly. “You’re gonna watch us play?”

“Yeah,” Frank replied quietly. As he made his way to the door, Eddie stopped him.

“You’ll stick around after the show? We can talk?”

“Sure,” Frank smiled.

*-*-*

Frank was impressed by the show. Eddie had whipped Rock Solid into a first-rate band. And Eddie himself? As soon as he walked on stage, the audience began chanting “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie!” He still had the charisma that had captivated audiences at Tony Mart’s. His performance was just as energetic as it had been twenty years ago. His enthusiasm for the music hadn’t changed a bit. His new songs were great, too, especially “Runnin’ thru the Fire” and “Pride & Passion.” Frank smiled. It seemed that in twenty years Eddie had learned to write his own words. Throughout the show Frank found himself alternately smiling broadly and wiping away an occasional tear as he remembered what it was like to play piano in the Cruisers.

*-*-*

When the show was over, they met up and went to the bar where Eddie frequently hung out, the place where he had first met Hilton Overstreet. Hilton went along. For Eddie’s sake, he was still concerned over Frank’s behavior in the dressing room, but he soon relaxed as he watched the two old Cruisers together. Clearly violence was no longer a threat. Hilton said good night and left Eddie and Frank alone together.

Left on their own, the two of them leaned on the railing facing the bar’s bandstand, smoking, drinking, and talking. Eddie talked about how he had come to be working construction in a city in Canada, and how he had joined with guitarist Rick Diesel to form Rock Solid. He also told Frank that he had a new girlfriend, an artist named Diane Armani. The news of the girlfriend momentarily shook Frank, but he didn’t let it show. He briefly sketched out how he had ended up teaching high school in Vineland. He also told Eddie about Joann and himself. As it grew late, Frank finally brought up the subject they had both been avoiding. “Why did you do it, Eddie,” he asked quietly, “disappear for twenty years and let all of us believe you were dead?”

Eddie didn’t answer right away. Finally, he shook his head. “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

“What do you mean, you couldn’t take it anymore? I don’t understand.”

“I couldn’t take it,” Eddie repeated. He went on. “The pressure. First Wendell died, and then I—we—spent a whole year workin’ on A Season in Hell. You know how proud I was of that album. You remember what those recording sessions were like. And then that bastard Lew Eisen at Satin Records said it was crap.” His voice sounded angry. That music had meant so much to him. Even after twenty years he was still bitter over its rejection. Eddie shrugged. “It was too much. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I had to get out.”

“So you disappeared for twenty years.”

Eddie swallowed and nodded. “Yeah.”

“Why didn’t you come back? All of us, Joann, Sal, me, we all loved you.”

Eddie looked into Frank’s eyes. “After, runnin’ away like that, I was afraid to come back.”

“What were you afraid of?” Frank was puzzled.

Eddie turned away. “I was afraid none of you could forgive me.”

Frank could think of nothing to say. He put a hand on Eddie’s shoulder.

*-*-*

For some time neither said anything more. Finally, Frank cleared his throat. He had been working up to something all evening, and it was finally time to get on with it. Still, he eased into it. “Do you remember the time you taught me to play ‘On the Dark Side’ as rock-‘n’-roll?” he asked.

Eddie smiled at the memory. “I sure do! I remember Sal and Doc laughing their heads off at you.”

Frank lit another cigarette. He looked at Eddie. “You know,” he began deliberately, “I remember something else besides you teaching me to play rock-‘n’-roll.” He lowered his voice. “I remember you and me together.”

Eddie’s face turned somber, but he said nothing. He knew what Frank was referring to.

“Benton College? Behind the bleachers? My old place above the candy store? Remember?”

Eddie nodded slowly. “I remember.”

Frank went on, keeping his voice low. “All those times you and I were together, I wanted to be with you. I wanted what we were doing, you and me.” He took a drag on his cigarette and blew out a cloud of smoke. “You did, too. Remember? The day before we all went to Satin Records? We both said we didn’t want to stop. I never forgot that.” He was quiet for a moment. Then, finally, he said it: “I was in love with you, Eddie.”

Eddie’s eyes widened. “Frankie,” he began, but Frank cut him off.

“Times are different now. Back then I didn’t even know it was possible for a guy to love another guy, I mean, more than just friends. I didn’t realize I was in love with you until after you were gone, and even then it took Joann to make me understand it.”

“Joann?” Eddie said.

“Joann,” Frank nodded. “She knew. About us. She said she could see in my eyes that I was in love with you. And she said something else, too.” Frank paused. For a moment he looked away. Then he turned back to Eddie. “She said she could see in your eyes that you were in love with me.”

At that Eddie gave a start. He turned away. He couldn’t look at Frank, though Frank continued to look intently at him. For a long while he stared off into space, his eyes seeming to focus on something far away that only he could see. Finally, he turned to Frank. “You got a place? Someplace we can talk?”

“Sure,” Frank smiled. “Let’s go.”

*-*-*

They stopped and got a six-pack of beer, and then they went to Frank’s motel room. The motel was a budget establishment, and the room was far from luxurious, but it was clean and well maintained. There was a double bed with a nightstand and lamp, an easy chair with a reading lamp, a credenza with a television set, and a small refrigerator. A coffee maker sat on the counter in the bathroom. Frank took off his overcoat and tossed it on the bed. He popped the top on a can of beer and handed it to Eddie. He opened a beer for himself and sat down on the bed. “So,” he said, “what do you want to talk about?”

Eddie took a swallow of beer and set the can down on the credenza. For some time he looked at the floor, saying nothing. Then, finally, he looked at Frank.

“Ya know, Frankie” he said slowly, “in all those years since I split, I always had this feelin’ that somethin’ was missin’ from my life. I could never figure out what it was. Until now.” He paused a minute, again looking at the floor. Then he looked back at Frank. “Now that I see you again, I know what it was that was missin’. It was you.”

He was quiet for a minute or two, while Frank looked at him but said nothing. Then he went on, “Joann was right. All those times we were together. I was in love with you, too. I see that now.” He shook his head. “How couldn’t I’ve understood it? How could’ve I been such a dumb shit?”

Frank stood up and put his hand on Eddie’s shoulder. “You weren’t ‘a dumb shit,” he said. “I didn’t understand it, either, until you were gone.” Now it was Frank’s turn to look away. When he turned back to Eddie, he said quietly, “I was in love with you then, and I guess maybe I never stopped. I’m still in love with you. Maybe I have been since the day you walked into Tony Mart’s.”

Momentarily, neither said anything, but then suddenly Eddie grabbed Frank and kissed him fiercely. The kiss reminded Frank of their first time, behind the Benton College bleachers, but this time Frank did not push away. He held Eddie tightly and returned the kiss hard, grinding his lips against Eddie’s lips and forcing his tongue into Eddie’s mouth. It was almost as though those twenty years apart had never happened.

But then Eddie’s shoulders began to shake, and Frank felt something wet on his cheeks: tears. Frank held onto him tightly as Eddie’s tears gave way to sobbing, his shoulders shaking. Pulling Eddie with him, Frank sat down on the edge of the bed. He held Eddie against his shoulder and murmured, “Sh-sh-sh. It’s okay, it’s okay.” Again Frank was reminded of another time, after Wendell Newton died, when Joann had called on him to comfort a grieving Eddie.

Gradually the sobbing ceased, and Eddie turned and looked Frank in the eyes. “Frankie,” he said, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Twenty years. …”

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Frank said quietly, taking Eddie’s face in his hands. “It’s over. It’s past. We’re here together now. That’s what matters.” Very gently he brought Eddie’s lips to his own.

Slowly Eddie stood up, taking Frank by the elbows and raising him up, too. He pushed Frank’s jacket off his shoulders and loosened Frank’s tie. Frank in turn pushed off Eddie’s leather jacket. Then he took hold of the black t-shirt Eddie was wearing and ripped it open from the neck almost to the waist.

“Hey!” Eddie exclaimed.

Frank gave him a sly smile. “That’s what the girls always tried to do at Tony Mart’s.”

“Ha!” Eddie wrapped his arms around Frank and kissed him again.

They were not young men anymore. They both could see middle age on the horizon. But that night they might have been teenagers. The sex was passionate and energetic. It was as if they had picked up where they had left off the day before Eddie disappeared. It went as it always had, Frank on the bottom quietly moaning, “Fuck me, Eddie, oh, God, fuck me,” as Eddie, on top, eased himself into Frank and began the slow thrusting that made it last, all the while kissing and nuzzling Frank as he always did all those years ago, murmuring, “Oh, geez, Frankie, Frankie.” They had a lot of lost time to make up for.

*-*-*

In the morning Eddie was still asleep when Frank got out of bed. The bedcovers had slipped down to Eddie’s waist, and for a few moments Frank stood watching the rise and fall of Eddie’s chest as he slept. Then he took a quick shower and began to get dressed. He had a long drive ahead of him back to New Jersey. He was seated on the edge of the bed, putting on his shoes, when he felt Eddie take him by the arm. Frank turned and smiled at him. “Good morning.”

Eddie was propped up on one elbow. “You leaving?” he asked.

Frank grimaced. “Long drive back to Vineland,” he said.

“Please don’t go.”

Frank looked at his watch. “Check-out’s not till eleven. I guess I could stay a little longer.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

Frank looked at him closely.

Eddie’s voice sounded husky. “Please stay, Frankie. Don’t go back to Jersey. Stay. Here. With me. Please?”

“What?” Frank stared.

“Stay here. In Montreal. With me. Please?”

Frank turned away. His shoulders slumped. He bowed his head. He had a life in Jersey, he told himself. But then he asked himself, What kind of life? A job he was burned out on? A cramped house trailer for a home? Joann gone to Florida? No close family? No close friends? What kind of life was that? And now here was Eddie Wilson, the love of his life, asking him not to go back to New Jersey, asking him to stay.

Eddie sat up, still holding Frank by the arm. Frank turned to look at him. “Frankie, the dumbest thing I ever did was cut you out of my life for twenty years,” Eddie said. “Serve me right if you went back to Jersey and didn’t ever wanna see me again, but please don’t go. I need you. I didn’t know it back them, but I know it now. I love you. Please stay?”

For a long time Frank said nothing as he looked deeply into Eddie’s eyes. Those eyes were just as hypnotic as they had been twenty years ago, but Frank wasn’t hypnotized. He knew exactly what he was doing. “I love you, Eddie Wilson,” he murmured. He pulled Eddie close and kissed him for a very long time.

Frank Ridgeway did not go back to New Jersey.

*-*-*

Baby we belong together,
If I had you by my side,
Meet me out tonight on the open road.

Those days are gone forever,
Time to kiss the past good-bye,
Meet me out tonight on the open road.

--Eddie Wilson, “The Open Road,” 1984