There is sunlight streaming in through the windows, brighter than the streetlights on the freeway that are still lit, brighter than anything Nate can remember in the entirety of his imagination. The sun is rising from the trees on the right side of the road. The car is fast enough that it doesn’t really feel like they’re driving, it doesn’t really feel like anything. The wheels spin and the pressure of the movement pushes him into the cushions of the passenger seat. The light is in his eyes, and, even when he shuts them, he can see reds and yellows and the morning has come.
The morning has come. With a deep breath, he shifts, removes his shoes from the van’s dashboard and blinks, pulling the visor from the ceiling to block the sun. It feels like morning. The world is speaking in whispers, today.
Sam is driving, and everyone else is in the back seats, sleeping, slow breaths and the rise and fall of shoulders, foreheads against pillows against side windows. Sam doesn’t say anything yet, his eyes are trained on the road, his eyes heavy-lidded, but… Sam always looks tired. The radio is off.
“So this is what the-” Nate begins to say. But Sam shushes him. Nate whispers, “So this is what the world looks like in the morning.”
Sam nods. “Good morning.” he whispers.
Nate nods in agreement. “Good morning.” He wants to say more, but he doesn’t think Sam wants him to say anything, to break the spell of sleep, the light streaming in through the windows. So he doesn’t say anything.
They say a lot without saying much at all.
Not to say they don’t talk, because they do, they talk about movies and music and books and other people and food and the color of her eyes or the shape of her chin.
But they don’t say much. Not really.
In this band, there is definitely a strong distinction between who makes up the band and who makes up the people around the band. Sam and Nate are The Format, with all of its quirks and song and heart and words and soul. And they are together in that, they are the only ones that can call themselves The Format and really mean it, really know what exactly is being said.
The guys are Mike and Don and Sean and Marko. Nate’s mom describes Mike Schey as a “Sweetheart”, and she calls Don Raymond “The Troublemaker”, Sean McCall is “The Prettyboy”, and Marko Buzard is “The Son I Never Had” (which was mortifying to hear, at the time, because Nate hadn’t realized immediately that she was joking). He always pays attention to what his mother thinks of his friends. She’s usually right about them, whatever she calls them.
But she doesn’t call Sam anything in particular. She calls him Sam and that holds a whole meaning within itself, she’s known Sam since he was a sophomore in high school and she has her own relationship with him that, instead of far away judgement, is more personal and friendly.
Whenever Nate calls her, she asks about Sam. (He doesn’t call her as much as he used to, but still often enough that, according to her, he’s a “mama’s boy.”)
The Format isn’t just a band, it’s Sam and Nate and what makes them Sam and Nate.
They tour, and then they pause, and then they tour, and then they pause, and then they tour. Now, they go to more parties, they do more illicit things, they play more sports with other bands, they go sightseeing.
Nate writes songs in a spiral notebook quicker than he usually does. When, within a week, he pens ten songs, he becomes very excited. In the morning, at breakfast at this diner on the corner before the town turns into the highway, Sam is sipping apple juice and they’re all waiting for their food and Nate slides into the booth having retrieved his notebook from the van and says “Read.”
Sam reads. He reads every word. And he doesn’t react, he doesn’t say anything, he just reads diligently. Don is making a jam carton tower, and Sean is taking pictures of it with his flip phone. Nate’s fingers play tricks on each other, watching Sam.
The emotional brick wall, the stone-faced master.
Sam looks up from the page when he finishes the last word and Nate holds his breath.
Sam nods. “They’re good poems.” he says.
“They’re good… poems?”
He slides the book back to Nate and says, with no pretense, “You can do better.” Then he goes back to sipping his apple juice, and their food arrives.
Their lives are permeated by music (they build their lives on notation and inflection), so Nate thinks that the most meaningful things are probably actually the times when there is no music.
But that’s a false dichotomy.
He tends to fall victim to false dichotomies.
Because the reality is the music is with the guys, and the lack of music is with the guys, and everything in between is with the guys.
The dichotomy is between time with the band, and time with Sam.
They sleep in dingy motels that smell like smoke and sex, but, as smokers, they only smell the sex. They’re here for two nights, two shows in three rooms to house them all. Nate and Sam are sharing the room and a king sized bed because that’s the better end of what they can get for their money as a band on tour. Nate showers, changes into shorts and a t-shirt in the bathroom and forgets, remembers, forgets again to brush his teeth.
When he exits, wet hair plastered to his ears, it takes him a moment to realize that Sam is seated on the bed - he hasn’t changed clothes or anything - with his acoustic in hand.
It’s like Sam never stops working - or, not that he never stops working but rather that, unlike Nate with his scribbled lyrics and hurried job of writing down poems, the music so much a part of Sam that it can never be extricated by circumstances.
(the acoustic guitar is magic, it spreads relaxation throughout it’s listeners, assuages apprehension)
“I like that.” says Nate.
“Lágrima, Francisco Tárrega.” says Sam. “Means ‘teardrops’. It’s classical.”
“Most of it is in major, but then there’s this one minor section.“
“I can hear that.”
“No.” Sam says, “but you have to listen.” Sam doesn’t mean listen to the song, he means listen to the instrument.
He picks out the second half of the song, and Nate sits next to him. Nate’s heels can’t touch the ground. “You’re acting like the guy who teaches Jackie Chan martial arts in every old kung fu movie ever made.”
Sam doesn’t say anything just yet, until he finishes the song with a definitive tug on the low E string, lets it ring out and dissolve into yellowing wallpaper and crunchy air conditioning units. He breaths twice, and Nate swings his legs out from the bed like he’s on a fucking playground swing. Sam says, with no pretense (he’s a man of few words, but what he says he says with surety), “I’m just worried that you’re going to start losing your faith in music.”
“I play music every night. I sing at the top of my lungs. What makes you think I’m losing ‘the faith’?”
“You’re not having fun anymore.”
They both, immediately, know in their hearts that what Sam just said was God’s honest truth, and there’s nothing Nate can do to counter. “But, I don’t…” Nate says - no pretense at all, between them, never has been, there’s no tenderness in Nate’s voice as he analyzes himself - “I don’t feel unhappy.”
“I know. But you’re not having fun.”
Sam puts the guitar away, his back curling into the angle while trying to keep himself where he was on the bed. Then he shuts the case, and doesn’t bother locking it (the guitar is an extension of himself. Nate can’t imagine Sam without that guitar.) Nate thinks aloud, “Did I ever have fun? Or did I just feel obligated to go into the one profession that I would feel good about myself taking part in?”
“Remember that time we camped out outside the festival that Phish was playing at, and we flipped open my guitar case and sang covers for three hours to the people sitting in line?” asks Sam.
“And that girl?”
“You were having fun, then.” It’s almost accusatory, the way Sam says this.
“I was nineteen.”
“Well, that’s what I’m saying. Maybe you’ve just forgotten how to care.”
“I’m fine.” Nate says, “I swear.” They’re sitting next to each other on the one bed, staring at Sam’s guitar case sitting there on the floor. “Are you fine?”
Sam makes a face (his beard twitches), “I’m fine. Disillusioned. I want… I think we need to… be aware. Of the music. More.”
Nate doesn’t say goodnight, he just decides to crawl under the covers and Sam leaves to go shower.
They had kind of believed that the rut would continue, that everything would stay in it’s place and that the only changes to their daily lives would be dust mote conversations floating inoffensively through the air. They believed that this was their natural state; musical nomads, vagabonds with nowhere to stay, nowhere to call home but their four-wheeled greenhouse of testosterone and smoke.
But things are moving. And not in the right direction, either.
They play the first show that night, and then they return to the same hotel, and Nate showers while Sam plays classical music, and Sam showers while Nate sits on the bed. For the first time in a long time, Nate feels unsure of himself. Not on a grand scale, but personally, physically. For the first time in a long time he’s uncomfortable in his own skin, he doesn’t know how to sit, or what to do while Sam’s in the shower, or how to fall asleep without making some sort of funny face while unconscious.
It’s not a good feeling.
Things are moving in the wrong direction. Nate’s emotions are flying south for the winter.
Because the thing is, Sam wasn’t asking Nate to be happy. He was asking Nate to be present, in whatever state. And Nate is worried that, for all this time, he’s been masking his feelings with steel-faced daily functioning and tight smiles curled around cigarettes.
Then, Nate worries that Sam has been doing the same thing.
He doesn’t… he’s not…
They often become things they’re not.
Before the shows, Don is the leader, dark hair and darker eyes with a plan to do something mad, to lead these men into the daily battle against mediocrity. But when they leave the stage, Mike is the leader, because at some point, regardless of where they’re playing or how well they sound, Don always falls off his metaphorical horse halfway through.
Post-show breathing is loud in the night air as they head to the van. They’re sleeping in the same hotel for the third night because for the first time in a long time they can, because they are off tomorrow.
So, for three nights, they have a home.
“Sometimes I think,” says Nate, “about how being in a car makes me feel like… like my mind is a parachute, and the faster the car is moving, the farther back my mind is trailing behind us. Like it’s slowed down by the wind. Like we’re moving faster than the speed of thought.” He’s sitting in the back seat, with everyone else in the first or second row in front of him (except for Don, passed out next to him with his head against the window). It’s dark and his gesticulation is really only for his own benefit, to remind him not to trail off in the middle of his sentence.
Marko glances back over his shoulder at Nate. “You look wiped out.”
Sam is driving, but he checks the rearview and gets a look at his friend, then nods his agreement with Marko.
Nate shrugs. “Eight shows in eight days in five states. I like feeling wiped out.”
They get locked out of their room. It happens, its not something to get very upset about. Except its nearly two in the morning and their card keys don’t work. The man at the front desk is usually helpful and quick with solving issues like these, but the computers are fritzing. They don’t know what to do so they’re going to revert to real actual keys, from the janitor, but the janitor is nowhere to be found.
Nate falls asleep in the front lobby, slumped in an uncomfortable arm chair with headphones over his ears.
They fix the door.
"Nate,” Sam says, from the hallway just to the side of the lobby, “Come on.”
And then he doesn’t get a response so he comes over to his friend on the chair, (eyes hidden behind a curtain of too-long hair.) Sam kneels in front of him and his fingers cup the side of Nate’s neck to wake him, thumb brushing against his chin.
(It’s not a very platonic gesture, but Sam doesn’t think about that very often. It’s not a romantic or sexual gesture either. It’s a touch. Touching has never been off-limits, despite social conventions. Because they don’t operate on social conventions.)
He wakes up, swallows and then murmurs something quiet and inarticulate, and Sam says “Come on.” and takes Nate’s arm, helps prop him vertical. Then, Nate can walk to the room on his own.
Nate remembers what happened, when he wakes up in the morning. He watches the way the light from the bathroom paints ridges into the ceiling and can sense the empty space next to him where Sam had been sleeping.
All of the feelings that would normally be subjective are, at this point in Nate’s life, objective, out of body. Today, Nate likes touch, wants touch, any touch. Nate squirms under the comforter with the thought that, last night, the night before, and the night before, he slept in the same bed as Sam.
The world is hazy and early, because they have to get back on the road soon. They’re going to St. Louis, and then to Chicago, and then somewhere else. It’s just going to keep going and going.
Sam exits the shower (he’s funny looking with all of the droplets in his hair) and he gets dressed. Nate watches him, doesn’t flinch when, across the room in the half-light, the towel drops. He doesn’t say anything, either. Its less that he’s watching and more that he’s seeing.
A couple minutes later, Sam notices, asks lightly “Whatcha looking at?”
Nate shrugs. "Do I have to shower?“ he asks, instead.
"Well, it’s not like I’m going to make you.”
“I don’t want to.” he says, lazily.
“Alright. You’ll stink up the van, though. Marko’s gonna yell at you.”
They don’t spend all of their lives in moving vehicles. But sometimes it feels like they do.
The van isn’t crowded or anything. But regardless, Nate decides that he wants to sit in the back row with Sam at his side and the freeway flying by faster than he can think.
Mike is driving. He’s a terrible driver. He likes to drive on the right edge of the expressway and steer the right-side wheels onto the rumble strip because he likes the feeling when the van vibrates. He’s impulsive, is the problem, and Marko is sitting next to him, starts cursing at him, because why is he doing this? If he blows out the tire, Mike is sure as hell paying for it himself!
At that, Mike grins and swerves onto the shoulder completely, and now all of them are swearing at him but he’s laughing.
He tells them to shut the fuck up about highway safety and learn to appreciate this feeling of invincibility. Which is a valid request, Nate supposes. He does like to think that, in the second row of the van with his seatbelt clicked and the roadway nearly empty, the speed makes him invincible.
Marko and Sam, however, are not amused, and tell Mike to pull the car over. He laughs but obliges, pulling to an easy stop on the shoulder. Sam moves to take the driver’s seat in Mike’s place, but Nate says that Sam’s done enough driving, let Marko do it.
And Sam sits down again with an eye on Nate, checking on him. That’s how things work. When someone acts out of the ordinary, they check if that someone is feeling alright. Because if they don’t check, that someone could be found dead. It’s that kind of industry. It’s happened before (not with them, never with them, but they hear stories, horror stories about missed shows and missing shoe laces and how “the only time we got in the national news was when so-and-so went and tried to off himself”)
Nate wants to lean against Sam but their seats are too far away and it would probably worry Sam and he doesn’t want to worry Sam because nothing is going on.
The inside of the van smells like cigarettes and fast food and the clear polish Don embarrassingly puts on his unusually thin fingernails so they won’t chip while he plays. They drive up a slow incline towards the mountain in the distance and Nate suddenly and inexplicably wants to be able to play acoustic guitar like Sam.
So that he could make music without saying a word.
So that he could express this feeling without using words to make it smaller or less coherent than it is in his mind. Because it’s coherent, when he thinks about it. He wants to be near Sam and he wants that feeling to be okay.
They speed down the highway with Marko at the wheel and the road curves around the base of the mountain, and the sun hits their eyes through the windshield sharply, each of their faces lit up in stark contrast to the dank inside of the van, the angle of the sun perfect for blinding them.
In Chicago, Don punches Nate in the jaw, and Nate’s a “fucking cunt” which is why he cries.
It was Nate’s fault.
So they spend their day off driving to California, and then they spend their second day off in Monterey. Marko (who Nate is sharing with due to… he’s not sure, maybe he didn’t protest loud enough?) wakes up in the morning at an outrageous time – seven thirty – and Nate wakes up but he doesn’t dare open his eyes for fear the light from the television will hurt (it will.) He listens to the sounds from the TV and feels the movement as Marko sits up and shifts his pillows to rest his back against.
Marko is watching a news report about Shark Week, but to Nate the poorly-recorded audio of white-crested waves and the screaming of beachgoers sounds like a cell phone recording of a mass shooting with a semi-automatic, and he shivers and buries his face further into the blankets wondering where this happened and how many were killed, afraid to look.
Things like that bother him. He hates that they broadcast things like that on the news. He thinks tragedy should be restricted to movie theaters and that sensationalist media is only built to keep him afraid. (September 2001 was practically yesterday)(two and a half years ago, but yesterday nonetheless)(he’s afraid of being alone without his parents in big cities in big crowds).
But it’s just a video of a hammerhead on a beach.
Marko wanted to go whale watching, so they go whale watching. It’s on a little motor boat with a guy their age directing the tour and teaching about the local wildlife. He’s a marine biologist, and they’re a little-known rock band and they smell like smoke and their clothes are older than they are. They could’ve been marine biologists by now.
His name is Chase. He wears sports sunglasses that reflect their faces in the blue-tinted lenses. Mike thinks it’s fitting that he chases whales and his name is Chase. No one else finds it as funny as Mike, who, the minute he hears it, claps Chase on the shoulder in a friendly way as he guffaws.
“Hey, Schey.” Don kicks him in the shin to get his attention, once they’re on board and out into the water past the marina. The boat rocks and creaks. (Chase said that the Humpback Whales they’re looking for in the water are bigger than their boat.)
“What?” responds Mike, seated on the bench above the lifejackets.
“Do you get seasick?”
“A little, but I took Dramamine before we left, so…”
Don tips his chin towards Nate, saying “He’s a mess.”
Nate actually doesn’t look especially green or anything - but he’s wearing really big sunglasses and sitting in the nook away from the edges of the boat. And the boat’s rocking is significantly more drastic and violent than Nate had expected from this trip. “I don’t know.” says Mike, “I think he’ll be alright. You alright, Nate?”
Nate shrugs at them. Sam is in the captain’s area with the steering wheel and the heavy equipment, even though the sign clearly says, notes Nate, that “Only Employees are Allowed Beyond This Point.” Sam is talking to Captain Cody about what it means to drive a boat, what are the main controls and how expensive are boats in general.
When Sam grows up, he wants to take his wife on a boat trip. That’s what he tells Nate, sometimes, when he’s reading books about married couples and he’s thinking about his girlfriend - fiancee - back home. He always says it like that, “When I grow up…”, because this isn’t Sam’s adulthood. Not really.
It’s like there’s a part of Sam that won’t accept that he is an adult and this is his adulthood.
Marko is at the stern next to Chase looking at dolphins or some shit in the water. The wind is cold and it’s scratching at their skin and Marko’s scruff twitches and blows around a bit. He seems to be getting along well with their guide.
Don stands up and steadies himself on the railing, then holds out his other hand for Nate to take. And if Nate stands up he’s going to be dizzy so he doesn’t take Don’s hand. But then Don insists and grabs his arm and pulls him to his feet and Nate whines some but doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t want to be here, yeah, but right now he’s more concerned with keeping himself not-nauseous than complaining. Mike stands up, too. He’s grinning.
“Vomit is shark bait, you know. They can smell it. I wanna see a shark, Nate.”
“Fuck off, Don.”
“Watch your tongue, mind the kids.” Don chastises. Nate minds the kids. There are about six young children and eight other adults on this boat with them. Sean is with them, interacting with them and talking to them about their favorite marine life. He’s good at that kind of thing. It’s not really as crowded as Nate had expected, but certainly more crowded than he had hoped. Don’s fingers grip the sides of Nate’s shoulders and jostle him around a little with the movement of the boat.
Nate grips the railing with white knuckles but doesn’t say anything.
He’s not seasick, he’s just sick of Don being a… being a fucking cunt.
“What was shark bait, Don?” Marko asks. Don lets go of Nate and says “vomit,” and Marko nods. There’s a glassy look in Marko’s eyes.
He really wants to see a shark.
And Nate kind of already knew this already. Marko’s childhood room, which Nate had visited during high school, had walls covered with pictures of sharks and fish and whales and sea lions and puffins and great blue herons and jellyfish. But poor Marko lived in Arizona.
And Nate knows how heavy a childhood dream can be on one’s psyche - his childhood dream had been to be a rock star, and he’s a singer by trade, yes, but this need for more itches at the darkest places in his mind.
Sometimes he wonders what he would do, for more.
How far he would go, to give that part of himself closure.
Marko is staring at Nate, in between rocks of the boat, in between “Look! There’s the whales!” and the delighted screams of toddlers and the humpback breaching. Chase is right; the whales are enormous.
Marko wants to see a shark.
It’s a five hour boat trip. Chase, the marine biologist, is a very kind, decent, intelligent guy. The people who run this whale tours company really make sure the boating experience they offer is more friendly than that of other providers - to make it worth the extra $25 per person.
Nate feels sick, but it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t appreciate where he is and what it means. Because he’s out on a boat far out into the water, and the double smokestacks of the factory behind the marina are barely visible this far away. And the water is dark, and real, and hollow and mighty. Nate’s seen it, and he appreciates it.
But now he’s hiding in the cabin in the middle of the boat, because he’s seasick. And this is the worst place to be on the boat if you’re seasick, Chase had said, because you can’t see the horizon so much. But it’s the best place to be if you want to hide from everyone.
Marko is outside the door to this little cabin. When Chase comes by and asks about Nate, Marko nods, says Nate’s fine and that he just didn’t sleep enough. And Chase gives Marko Nate’s gingersnap for when Nate “wakes up” (he’s not asleep, he just wants to fall asleep…), and Marko eats the gingersnap himself and-
He really wants to see a shark.
It’s two hours in when Nate loses his lunch off the side of the boat. The horizon, at the time, looks beautiful, and the sun’s finally come out, and the water glitters, even when stained with Nate’s… fluids.
Don laughs and claps him on the back when he’s done, which is really not the appropriate response at all, and Nate coughs, because his throat burns. Chase comes round the side of the boat, a flurry of questions and apologies, and he offers Nate some water and everything that’s left of the gingersnaps box (except Nate is not very interested in eating, or talking, or being alive, so he tries to just ignore the other man and wander back into the cabin, despite Chase’s protests that that’s the worst place to be.)
He walks purposefully through the little cabin, and his knees buckle when he tries to get up the steps to the captain’s area, but he catches himself and he doesn’t fall. The captain’s area is really only built for two people to be in there at once, and Nate makes a third, but he doesn’t care, he throws himself into Sam’s arms.
Sam - startled - holds Nate up and hugs him back. “Nate, what are you doing?”
Nate doesn’t say anything.
“Did you just-?”
“Yeah.” mumbles Nate, into Sam’s jacket.
“You smell like-”
“I know.” he says.
Sam sighs. “You should get some water.”
Nate just holds on tighter with his faced buried in Sam’s chest, breathing in his scent instead of the sea salt air which is getting more disgusting by the minute, until Sam has to push him away.
Time is relative. The time it takes to get to the venue is very different from the time it takes to play there. And that’s also different from the time it takes to get back to the hotel. It all happens so fast, though. It’s only slow in the moment, and even then, it’s not that slow, and Nate recovers his dignity from that afternoon and he screams indignation into the hearts of many.
And that’s the way it is. He’s a lover, not a pacifist.
“Marko!” he shouts to Marko on stage, in the middle of the set. “Marko, did you end up seeing a shark yesterday?”
This is definitely not the place for Nate to confront Marko about his actions. But, the thing is, this is where Nate is confronting Marko about his actions, and it’s too late to rethink this. The screams of people in the audience - he never thought he’d be this famous - are deafening. Nate tries to focus on Marko, but it’s hard, with the bright lights and the fact that this wasn’t planned.
Marko grins at Nate, but doesn’t say anything into the mic. Nate says, to give his audience context, “We were on this boat, right? And he finds out that sharks are attracted to vomit so he manipulates me into getting sick.” And he says it in a joking way (maybe, not really, he never really jokes about anything, nothing this serious), but Marko’s looking down at his instrument, fiddling with the tuning of the guitar and not looking at Nate. “So, did you see your shark?”
“Yeah.” says Marko.
“A big one?”
“Well, that’s good.” A pause, screaming people. Nate says, “You’re such a motherfucking dick.”
It’s aggressive, yeah. But the stage is Nate’s territory, he can say and do whatever the fuck he wants. People laugh, and cheer, because they like when Nate swears, and they think it’s funny. Marko frowns, and meets Nate’s eyes to challenge.
On Nate’s cue, they play the next song, immediately diffusing the situation and sending Mark into a scramble to finish tuning before his section comes up. Nate is pleased… vicious.
They end the show, and they retreat into the backstage. Marko seems upset. He puts his guitar away and leaves the building in a rush, to smoke, to get some fresh air. He leaves with his hands in his pockets and his eyes - haunted - shielded by his hoodie. He doesn’t say anything. He nudges past Nate on the way out, doesn’t look him in the eyes.
The end of a show is like a rainstorm. Thunder takes the form of crashing cymbals, rain in the beady sweat and lukewarm showers, the moist smell of concrete hallways and the dark world outside humid with leftover heat.
Nate hides himself in between his silent bandmates, assists in carrying things to the van. Sam doesn’t say anything until they’ve finished packing, not even when Nate tries to talk to him. He shoves a guitar case against Nate’s chest and directs him to march back down the hallway. And the hallways are long, and Nate doesn’t know if he regrets the confrontation but he definitely regrets the way his mouth tastes sour.
They pile into the van like before. Marko deliberately chooses to sit in the far back, and Don - silent, but wary - joins him. Sean and Mike take the middle seats and Nate takes shotgun while Sam drives. As they pull out of the parking lot behind the stage, Sam breaches the dark silence around and between them all. He says, finally, “That wasn’t right.”
“I’m sorry.” says Nate. He’s been waiting to say that for three hours… thinking that it would help with the way his stomach feels.
“Do you understand how unprofessional that was?” Sam asks. He’s about to scold Nate. It’s in the tone of his voice, he sounds like an angry parent, it makes Nate want to disappear into his seat.
“I didn’t know professionalism was the crux of the issue.” muses Nate, his calm exterior a lie, “We’re a punk band, not a corporation.” He grips his own fingers and stares out the front windshield.
Sam shakes his head and stares steely at the road, other people’s headlights shining shadows onto his face as they pass. “It matters, Nate.”
Nate bites out, “But Marko - you don’t think what he did was unprofessional?” Marko is in the back seat and therefore within earshot but he’s not saying anything and Nate wonders if, to him and Mike and Sean and Don, it feels like their parents are fighting.
“It doesn’t matter what Marko did.” says Sam.
Sam yells, now. He is very angry, and that’s scary, because Sam is never angry. “It doesn’t matter what Marko did because it’s your band, and he’s on your payroll, and you can’t deliberately try to humiliatehim in public.”
Marko’s back there, listening. But it doesn’t matter.
The highway is busy and bright with tail lights, and traffic lights and streetlights and the backlit signs of department stores. Their hotel is fifteen minutes away, and fifteen minutes is a long time. And the radio is playing at a volume of two, and no one is listening to it, and Nate is perhaps not the best at handling things like shame and regret. “It’s our band.” says Nate.
Sam shakes his head “no.” Nate doesn’t know exactly what Sam is saying, but he doesn’t want to know.
All of the lights are out, and they are lying in bed together, watching for the small, dreamlike changes in the popcorn ceiling as they drift off to sleep.
But they aren’t really drifting, because Nate’s still wide awake. Because he’s regretting getting vicious on stage.
And that’s the problem - he feels like a child. He doesn’t want to feel like a child and so he’s beginning to resent Sam and…
It’s silent except for the crickets. They’re on the first floor of this hotel and they can hear everything. And it’s silent except for the crickets. It’s three in the morning and Nate wants to listen to the acoustic guitar some more, but Sam is in bed already and Nate’s heart hurts.
Nate asks, in a whisper, so as not to disturb Sam if he’s sleeping already, “Do you still feel disillusioned?”
“Yes.” whispers Sam. Nate turns over to look at him. Sam’s eyes are shut.
“Even more so after I blew up at Marko?”
“Even more so.”
Nate rolls over.
He pulls himself towards Sam and he wraps an arm around him, closer, pressing his body against Sam. Nuzzling into him and trying to breathe him in, because maybe… maybe if Nate is more like Sam, Sam will like him more (he needs Sam to come back to him, he needs Sam and…)
Sam’s not a big guy, his shoulders are sharp, and his hips are too, and when Nate straddles him - boxers against boxers - Sam finally opens his eyes, looks up at Nate with that impenetrable gaze. “We can do this,” Sam says, “but it’s not going to make you feel better.”
And Nate will never be able to understand Sam. And he flushes with embarrassment, and it’s dark and loud with ambient noise. He stutters out, to Sam, “I think I want to.”
“No, you don’t.”
Sam picks Nate up under his ribs and pushes him back down to the left of the bed, and the touch makes an exhausted Nate whine to himself.
“You can do better.” Sam says again, after browsing Nate’s new lyrics. It’s morning and Nate hasn’t said anything for the two hours they’ve been awake. Not a word, he just handed Sam the lyrics notebook after he got out of the bathroom, and Sam took the book and began to read.
And so the first words Nate says in the morning are, “I hate you.”
Don isn’t Nate’s enemy and neither is Marko. And there’s a part of him that thinks his enemy is Sam,that this is all Sam’s fault, that if Sam wasn’t so unyielding and discriminating about every single issue that maybe Nate wouldn’t be so fucked up. He learned everything from Sam. Nowadays that sentiment just feels cheap, because he learned everything from Sam, but that doesn’t mean that Sam cares about him, and it doesn’t mean that he likes Sam, and maybe the conflict between Nate and Sam stems from the fact that maybe Sam wasn’t all that great a role model to begin with.
But that mindset changes as the day goes on, and dust mote conversations filter through Nate’s consciousness.
When Nate told Sam I hate you, Sam’s eyes softened.
And now - with no apology, no fallout, no conversation other than those three words hanging in the air throughout their morning together - they hold hands in the back of the van, while Mike drives and Marko goes nuts, and Sean and Don trade stories about girls they fucked in the eleventh grade. They hold hands, Nate leans his head against Sam’s shoulder and doesn’t say anything, as the highway speeds by.
Because Nate’s biggest enemy is himself, and Sam has been, unbeknownst to him, Nate’s only defense against himself. And now that, despite the hurdles, that particular piece of information has passed between them, they are beginning to relax back into their roles as… Nate and Sam.
Like acoustic guitars, they can’t be anything other than they are. They can’t sing things beyond their emotional vocabulary. Their communication takes place on their own level.
Nate squeezes Sam’s hand and Sam doesn’t say anything, but Nate can feel Sam’s beard against his forehead and the warmth from Sam’s neck and that’s comfortable.
From now on, this is what the world will look like, before noon.