The following week was filled with a bizarre, eye of the hurricane sort of calm. As the days slid by in a vacuum, the phone not ringing, the doorbell silent, it felt like time taken out of time. I had thought I would be a nervous wreck of anticipation, crying into pillows and staring moodily into space, lamenting my existence, but in reality, quite the opposite was true. I felt nothing but a steely, determined, almost tranquillised calm, holed up in Alex's apartment, neither reading the papers nor watching TV, leaving the house only once or twice for midnight trips to Tesco Metro to replenish supplies. It was almost as if I knew, without consciously realising it, that a decision had already been made, deep somewhere in my heart and in my head.
It was a Tuesday afternoon when the bell jar broke, the vacuum was dispersed, and the universe came crashing in. I was sitting reading my way through Alex's collection of novels when the phone rang, something out of the ordinary to start with. For some reason, the simple electronic bleating sounded uncannily like a cross between an alarm and a death knell, and my heart was heavy as I picked it up. "Hullo?"
"Kate?" It was Damien's voice, compressed and distant as if coming from a cell phone with a dying battery, and there was something that sounded like a football riot going on in the background.
"Damien? I can barely hear you! Where are you?"
"Bloody hell, all hell's breaking loose around here. Hang on, I'll try to go in another room..." The noise abated slightly, fading to a dull roar. "Is Alex there?"
"No, he's not home from the tour, yet," I replied, perplexed. Surely Damien knew that.
"Have you not heard the news? I'm sorry, I'm really fucking sorry, Kate!"
"What news?" I asked cautiously, sitting down on the edge of the sofa, folding my free hand into a perfect fist, feeling the fingernails dig into the fleshy part of my palm. There had been a horrible accident, Alex's plane had crashed, they were all dead... No, that was absurd. Damien wouldn't be asking for Alex if he knew he was dead.
"Do you not read the papers, Katie?"
Katie? That was a bad habit I was going to have to train him out of. "No... Damien, what's going on? What's all that noise in the background?"
"William from Mirage was just here... They're still trying to calm Jim down."
My stomach tightened at the mention of Alex's rival's name. "But...aren't they supposed to be on tour of the States or something?" Em had been crowing about it all over her ansaphone - my heart actually leapt at the idea that some misfortune had befallen her crowning achievement.
"No, Mirage broke up," Damien informed me carefully.
"So... what? Why? What are the condolences for, then?"
"You haven't read the papers in the past two days, have you?"
"No, I haven't left the house since yesterday evening."
"I'm coming right over," Damien told me briskly. "You need to see this in the flesh, so to speak, and you need to hear about this from someone who gives a shit about you, and not some stranger in the press. I'll be over in ten minutes..."
Pacing up and down the length of the corridor, I wracked my brains, trying to think of some connection between Mirage, Alex and myself that Damien could possibly think could hurt me so badly as to warrant personal attention. Had Jim Gallivant done something worse than merely wishing AIDS upon Alex? No, the very thought was absurd, but that was the only connection I could imagine at a moment's notice.
Racking my brain for an answer, I practically flew down the stairs when the doorbell rang, flinging open the door to reveal Damien standing with a somewhat concerned face, and a copy of the Sun tucked under one arm. Searching Damien's face for some grain of truth under the two days worth of stubble, I demanded "What the hell is going on? What are you being so bloody secretive about?"
He shook his head quietly, trooping up the stairs to the flat with me at his heels. "Sit down," he ordered. Impatient, but too curious to protest, I complied. "Take a deep breath."
"Damien," I growled in warning, but as he spread the morning's tabloid in front of me, I was glad of his advice.
MIRAGE GIRL'S SECRET POP PASSION
declared the headline, rather nonsensically until I saw the photos beneath. "Oh my god." My breath choked in my throat, my heart froze and my face flushed bright red from ear to ear.
The main photo was Alex, my Alex, my sculpturally beautiful, chisel featured Alex, all pale olive skin and sinewy muscles, gazing doe-eyed into the camera with that curious mixture of love, lust and admiration I'd grown to know and love so well, wearing nothing but his mysterious smile and a black bar with which the editors had seen to fit to hide the marble slabs of his buttocks from the prying eyes of school age youngsters and other persons of delicate constitution. Conflicting emotions swelled within my chest, unfurling and replacing themselves in a matter of seconds; red-faced embarrassment at the public unveiling of Alex's shame, mixed with a hint of stubborn pride at the thought that the content of this photo, that housewives across the UK were undoubtedly clucking their tongues over while simultaneously thrilling to, was a sight I'd experienced and enjoyed many times.
But then a second, smaller inset photo caught my eye. Although her haughty grey eyes and distinctive mole were shielded by a pair of sunglasses, I would recognise that wild mane of auburn brown hair and those wide, sensuous, lying lips anywhere.
"That fucking bitch!" I shrieked. "I'm going to kill her...No, I'm going to kill him! That lying, hypocritical, selfish son of a bitch! How dare he! How fucking dare..."
"Kate, calm down," protested Damien, moving towards me, then backing away again uncomfortably as I shot him the most evil of warning glances. "You don't need to read the article, Kate..."
"I do need to read it," I insisted doggedly, fighting the rising tears threatening to block my vision as I ripped through the pages, barely caring if I ripped the pages of the tabloid from their cheap staples. Why did I always cry when I was angry? It seemed so unfair, when I was an uncontrollable ball of rage inside, that all I could do was weep uncontrollably, as if I was a weak, compliant victim of a girl, when I wanted to rage and scream and tear his lying tongue out of his mouth. "I need to know exactly how far this goes!"
I turned the page, to be greeted by another shot, even worse than the first. Lying in a nest of rumpled satin sheets, Alex reclined on his back like a young Greek god, limbs splayed in glorious abandon, his lips parted, eyes smouldering with that come hither light of unquenchable libidinous desire. The ubiquitous black bar covered enough of his body to preserve some modicum of his decency, if not his dignity, but revealed enough of his hips and thighs as to leave the well oiled imagination in no doubt as to the completeness of his state of undress.
Dragging my eyes away from the tiny unruly tuft of hair that crawled up his belly like an intrepid explorer, I tried to focus on the text, but my attention was continually dragged back to the dark moles dusted across his chest. If it hadn't been for those tiny details, my forgiving nature could have dismissed the photo as a forgery, Alex's head crudely photoshopped onto some porn star's amply endowed physique, but no; I knew every inch of Alex's skin, had explored it with eyes and fingers and tongue, and that body splayed out naked and prurient on the page was every inch my straying lover.
True to Sun style, the accompanying text was long on wild accusations and hyperbole and short on actual facts or verifiable, liable information. As far as I could gather, Mirage had disintegrated in the middle of their American tour, amid bitter fights between the brothers. Somehow Em, linked romantically and otherwise with first one of the Gallivant brothers and then the other, had managed to obtain photographic evidence that implicated one, if not both of the brothers in acts of aggression against one another. The tabloids were fighting tooth and nail against one another in a bidding war for those photographs, with offers reaching half a million pounds, but Em staunchly refused to sell. Oh, how convenient, I thought to myself. She has no problem with using people sexually to get the scoops, but she has compunctions about who she will sell them to?
"She's probably just holding out to see if she can get more money from Mirage not to sell the negatives," observed Damien from over my shoulder, echoing my thoughts exactly.
"But what the hell does Alex have to do with all this?" I whined, desperately clinging to any hope that these incriminating photographs could mean anything other than what they so blatantly declared. "Where do these photos come from? They can't be hers! She can't have got that much money for them, compared to what she could have made from the Mirage photos..."
"Word on the street is..." ventured Damien, in a tone of voice that made it perfectly obvious he'd got it from some hideously in media magnate at the Groucho. "...that the Murdoch tabloids offered so much money for the damn Mirage negatives that certain parties - and no one seems willing to take the responsibility, so they may have been independents, if you know what I mean - actually broke into Ms. Evesham's apartment and ransacked the place, looking for them. Word is that they couldn't find hide nor hair of the fabled Mirage negatives - and people are hotly debating now if they ever even existed in the first place now - so they grabbed the first thing in her desk drawers... or without drawers, as it might be," he added with schoolboy glee at his bad pun.
"They're really hers." I stared down at the obvious look of lust and admiration in his eyes as he gazed at the unseen camerawoman. "That fucking bastard! That fucking lying, hypocritical, deceitful bastard! All this time he's been flipping out with jealousy over Peter and over you, he's been schtupping this Evesham bitch on the side!"
Damien stared at me quietly, his eyes guarded and cautious. Perched on the arm of the sofa, he snaked his arm along my shoulders, stroking my arm reassuringly. In any other situation, I would have been furious at the casual familiarity, but I simply had too much else on my mind to protest, and in fact, I found the solidarity almost comforting. "Kate, I don't know how to tell you this. I thought I could protect you from it"
"I'm not a little girl. I don't need to be protected from anything." Damien remained silent, refusing to meet my eyes. "Damien, do you know something? Tell me!"
"I didn't want to be the one to have to tell you this," he finally sighed. "Kate... Alex has been in London since the day before yesterday, at least."
"What?!" So that was why he'd initially asked for Alex and not me on the phone. At least that mystery was finally cleared. "Where has he been then?"
Taking a deep breath, Damien ploughed on with his disclaimers. "I don't know for sure. I mean, I don't want you to leap to any conclusions, but..."
"But what?" I snapped, annoyed at his dilly-dallying.
"He came into the Groucho last night, but didn't come up to the billiard room, like he usually does. Someone told me he was down in the bar, so I went down to see him, but..." He took a deep draw from his cigarette and looked longingly towards the liquor cabinet, but I did not move. "He was standing at the bar talking to Em Evesham."
I let out my breath in a long, low hiss, but he squeezed me reassuringly. "He wouldn't even greet me. He totally snubbed me. As soon as he saw me, he turned around and asked Em if she wanted to go somewhere else. They got up and left together."
"So why didn't you call me then?" I accused.
"I didn't think anything of it until I saw the papers this morning! I thought that Alex had gone out for one drink and come home..."
"He obviously didn't come home last night," I snarled from between clenched teeth. "Oh god, oh god, Damien...You saw her? You're sure it was her?" Damien nodded slowly, refusing to meet my eyes.
"It was her. He even called her Emmie."
Emmie. The diminutive pet name irked me, adding insult to injury. "I have to leave him." The words sounded as dead and lifeless as my heart felt. The anger had raged through and abated, and I was sure it would return in time as soon as the shock and the numbness wore off, but at that point, it all felt like emotional tunnel vision. Damien said nothing, continuing to trace his circular spiral patterns on my upper arm with his fingertips. "I can't stay with him. Not after this. I mean, I'll put up with a lot of things. I'll put up with the fights, and the petty jealousy. I'll even put up with his constant flirtation with other women. It's part of our job as entertainers, and I understand and can even sympathise with it. But this?" I turned to Damien, my eyes pleading. "You're a man - do you think this is innocent?"
Damien shook his head slowly, refusing to meet my gaze. "No, I'm sorry Katie. I think it's exactly what it looks like. I painted and even photographed a fair number of nudes at art school, some of which might even border on the pornographic, but I'm sorry. Alex is just not that good of an actor."
Raising my hands to my face, I wiped my eyes and steeled myself inside. "I'm not going to cry."
"I think it would be perfectly understandable under the circumstances," began Damien.
"No!" I insisted. "I'm not crying now, because to cry would imply regret, and I don't feel anything like that right now. I have to get out. I have to leave now, and not look back, and not cry until I'm gone." Standing up, I shook off his arm, marching back towards the bedroom, where most of my clothes lay discarded in and around my suitcase. "I want to be out of here before he even gets back!" I snarled.
"I would at least recommend staying long enough to tell him precisely why you're leaving," suggested Damien, but stopped when he saw the look in my eye.
"No, because I don't want to even give him the chance to talk me out of it!"
Damien was about to say something, but was interrupted by the electronic bleat of his cell phone. Swearing profusely, he dug in the pockets of his coat for it. "Hullo? Dale, this is not a good time...Oh, fuck!" Pulling back the cuff of his jacket, he swore at his watch. "Well, tell them I'm just going to be late," he barked and stabbed at the off button.
"If you have to go, go," I assured him, bundling up my clothes and stuffing them into the suitcase without even stopping to fold them.
"I..." The phone rang again. "Yes?" A pause while the person on the other end of the phone rattled on in his ear. "I don't give a fuck if Hockney gets the fucking commission over me..."
"Damien, go!" I urged him. "If you've got business, go. I'll be OK."
"Alright, alright, tell Mandy 20 bloody minutes and I'll be there."
He grinned up at me apologetically. "Shite-ing bollocking Millennium Dome. I didn't vote for the thing, I wanted nothing to do with it, I think it's a tremendous waste of money, but someone on the fucking commission thinks I should be involved. Apart from the fact it's shed-loads of money for doing utter fuck-all, I've been trying to find a reason to get the hell out of it," he shrugged lackadaisically, then peered at me. "Are you sure you're going to be alright?"
I nodded half-heartedly and ventured a weak smile.
"Don't do that, it's fucking terrifying," he teased, then grew serious again. "You going back to New York?"
I blanched. I hadn't thought about that part actually, but I supposed that I was, and nodded with passable conviction. "I suppose I have to go back and face the music at some point... I have nothing else to lose at this point."
"The man with nothing to lose has everything to win," imparted Damien with a meaningful wink. "Promise me that you'll call me, the moment you get in to New York? Any time, day or night. I'm sure I'll be up."
I nodded again, but did not attempt another smile, watching his retreating back sadly as he disappeared down the stairs. Against my better judgement, I was actually starting to grow incredibly fond of the odd little man with the beautifully childlike grin.
Although I packed as fast as I could, every time I thought I was done, I would find another article of mine that had so bonded with Alex's apartment that I had missed it during the first few careful once-overs. Telling myself that I was preventing myself from leaving anything behind that might later tempt either Alex or I to try to make contact with each other, I think I was actually just prolonging my time in the apartment in the vague hope that Alex would indeed come home and attempt to stop me from leaving.
When I heard the key in the lock downstairs, and then the distinctive loping tread of Alex up the stairs, I froze in my steps. For a moment, I panicked, then I thought of Damien and his long talk of masks and roles, and slowly, I felt that same strange emotionless calm that had guided me through the past week descending like a blanket of snow across the peaks and valleys of my anger. The door at the top of the stairs opened and slammed, and I knew Alex was in the apartment.
"Kate..." he called out softly, as if afraid of the answer.
I turned around to see Alex standing at the door, suitcase in one hand, and the flight case containing his precious bass in the other.
"Thank god - you're here. That makes tracking you down easier..."
I merely stared at him, fighting the bile of anger rising in my throat. No, I am calm, I told myself, thinking of Damien's masks. But Damien was wrong - this strange, calm, rational creature that had taken control of my brain and my body was the mask, not the other way around. Sensing my tension, or perhaps disturbed by the fact that I had yet to verbally even acknowledge his presence, let alone greet him, he looked about the room wildly, his eyes finally coming to rest on the suitcase, packed up and standing on its wheels, my fake fur coat and my little paisley handbag draped across them in readiness.
Suddenly, panic started to creep into his voice. "God, Kate, no, please, you don't have to leave. We have to talk..."
My vocal chords were frozen, my mouth dry. I physically could not bring myself to speak even had I felt the urge.
He shook his head, twining his fingers in his hair, his voice ragged, abject, pleading. Come on, Alex, I thought to myself. Light the damn thinking cigarette already. "I've been thinking, I've been doing a lot of thinking. About what you said about Damien - you're right. It's the same thing as with Peter. I'm sorry. I have to learn how to trust you, because my suspicion is only ever going to drive you away from me."
I was holding myself under such tight control mentally that I was physically shaking.
"Kate, what's wrong? Say something, please. You're scaring me."
"It's too late. Read this." I handed him the tabloid with the dirty pictures, letting the anger and betrayal in my eyes speak far louder than any words. The voice bubbling up from the depths of vitriol in the pit of my stomach didn't even sound human, let alone anything like my own. If I had screamed, or cried, or thrown things, I think he could have dismissed or got a hold on and wrestled down my rage, but the chill in my voice caught his attention far more effectively.
"Oh god, Kate, no, it's not what it looks like!" he protested. "These are old photographs. God fucking dammit, the press stole them from her apartment! These are over two years old. They made up some story to go with the photos to cover the fact that there is no story. Everyone knows that we used to be lovers once - that wouldn't sell any fucking papers."
"Yeah - everyone except me," I added under my breath.
"Kate, you've got to believe me. It is not what it looks like. This is the last thing we wanted to happen!" protested Alex.
"We?" said the calm, dead voice, quite slowly and rationally. Extending my arms slowly, as if they were alien devices attached to my body, I deposited the slip of paper with Em's phone number on it, a recent phone bill with calls charged to her number on it, and finally the receipt for the flowers on top of the newspaper. I had looked for the 10 Most Promising Artists in London, but I suspected Damien had walked off with it.
Alex paged through the notes quickly, his face perplexed. "No, no, you've got it all wrong! This is all circumstantial evidence!"
"Alex, where were you last night?"
"You don't understand. I ran into her at the Groucho, and she was upset over the whole Mirage business! I didn't even know you were still in London!"
"If you'd talked to fucking Damien, instead of snubbing him like that, you would have known that I was!"
That stopped Alex in his tracks. "Damien stuck his head in to the bar, saw me, and ran the opposite direction, I assumed in guilt or fear."
"He was around along to see you leaving with Em Evesham," I threw back at him, unsure of who I was defending - Damien or myself.
"We went out for a drink, I walked her home because she was terrified that she was being followed by the paparazzi, and when we got back to her house, it was ransacked! I've spent the past two days trying to get her settled in her new place! It was totally innocent! All we did was talk!" he protested, the words spilling out of his mouth far too quickly to be convincing, as if they'd been rehearsed. "And for your information, mainly, we talked about you!"
"So you talked about me, did you, Alex?" I snarled back, my own voice gaining the upper hand for a moment. I was shaking now, so angry that I was fighting the urge to pick up the contents of the coffee table and hurl them at his head, one after another. "Did you sit around, singing your heart out about what a bitch I am, and how difficult I am, and how our entire relationship has been a mistake? Did you, Alex? Because I've heard that one before, Alex, from your own lips."
He hid his face, biting his lip, shaking his head slowly back and forth, still attempting to lie with his words, though his body told the truth. "It wasn't like that, Kate. She was upset; she needed to be comforted."
"And just how did you comfort her, Alex? For two fucking days? Did you not even stop to think that perhaps, you needed to go home and work things out with me - your fucking girlfriend, remember? Did you even think about me once this entire time?" The rage was getting harder and harder to control, the vitriol filling up behind the icy mask.
"Yes, I did," he replied in a very small voice. "And Em told me to go home, but I..." his voice trembled as he searched for the truth behind the layers of lies and defences. "She needed me, Kate!" he repeated.
"Yeah, she fucking needed you!" There was a paperback book on the coffee table. Before I knew what was happening, it was in my hand, and then it was flying through the air towards Alex's head, spinning like some antiquated World War One shell. "No, Alex, get it the right way around. You needed her. How much simpler was it for you to go off and play the big, bold hero riding to rescue the demure, frightened little maiden? You needed to feel big and manly and in charge and make everything better for Em fucking Evesham because you can't control your own life and you can't control your band, and you can't control me!" His face crumbled like a sandcastle hit by the surf, as I realised that I had scored a very palpable and devastating hit. "Well, that's the truth, isn't it? Little vulnerable, demure Em Evesham makes you feel powerful and in control again."
"I don't control Em. But people do need one another, Kate. She was upset and in trouble, and I could fucking help her."
"So why did you never help me? I demanded.
"What?" Alex shook his head slowly in disbelief, so exasperated he could barely speak. "Help you? As if you'd possibly allow anyone to help you!" he finally managed to snort. "Never once in the entire time I've known you have you ever once asked me for help! No, that would be fucking beneath you, wouldn't it? You can handle anything. You don't need anyone, do you? As you've been so fond of telling me for the past fucking year and a half. You have never asked for my help. Never!"
"I shouldn't have to ask, Alex!"
"How the hell am I supposed to know what you are thinking? You don't tell me what's going on in that head of yours. Except for one fucking weekend in San Francisco, when was the last time you told me how you felt about me? When was the last time that you told me that you loved me? I don't think those words have escaped your pursed lips more than three times during the entire course of our relationship, and even then, it's as if it's some punishment you're forced to endure but don't really believe. How am I supposed to know how you feel about me if you don't tell me? All you ever do is scream at me for things I don't even know I've done wrong. So how am I supposed to know what the hell it is that you want from me? No, you're always leaving me guessing - I don't have fucking ESP, you know!" His voice was raw and ragged.
"ESP? If you'd listened to me, even once! I'm fucking pregnant, Alex! I've been harassed by the press, dragged through the mud by tabloids, fucking attacked by psycho fans of Jeremy's... and what have you ever done for me? Nothing! Except sling jealous accusations at the people who have tried to help me." Alex stood silent, guiltily sucking at his cigarette. "Ooh, poor little Em Evesham getting a little rattled by the fucking tabloids. Where were you when some little psycho teenager had a stranglehold on my neck? Huh?" Alex turned away, his mouth twisted into a grimace of regret and longing. "No! You were bitching about an ex boyfriend that actually was helping me."
"That's not fair, Kate," sobbed Alex, curling up into a little ball, collapsing in on himself. "How was I supposed to know about that? It was an accident!"
"Why did you never stand up for me with your fucking band? Why did you never tell Slur that you were as much to blame as I for the whole fucking mess?" Everything that I had been stuffing down inside me for months now was just flowing out uncontrollably.
"Kate, that's really not fair," he whined. "I mean, we agreed..."
"We agreed that I would take the blame for you running off to Iona. But your little outing to San Francisco..."
"Alright, so it was my idea, but you hardly said no!"
"Me? Say no? It was your responsibility, Alex! But no, it's easier for you to just say nothing and shrug the blame off on me, leaving me to clean up your little problems. And I wouldn't even mind so much if, once, just once, you had actually helped me with something..."
"Well, apparently, according to you, I am the bulk of your problems," snorted Alex.
"No, the fact that you won't talk to me is the fucking problem. The fact that you won't talk about our problems, and try to resolve them because goddammit, you might actually have to sacrifice a little of your pride in front of your band in admitting that you were as much to blame as me. But no, you can't deal with that because it makes you feel too ineffectual! So instead you go running off to play the hero and fuck Em Evesham because it's easier than dealing with me."
"I didn't have sex with her! You have to believe me!" he repeated, as if that simple fact he hadn't put his penis in her made up for all the other trials and tribulations we had been through in the past few months.
"Yeah, well, what did you do? Did you hold her tight when she cried? Did you tuck her into bed and tell her how you were going to make everything OK again? Did you stroke her pretty hair and tell her how much better and how much easier things were with her than with me?" I snarled as another paperback went hurtling across the room. We had had one of our first conversations over these books; we had bonded over these books. And now they were just another weapon in the combat.
"All right. We fucking kissed, OK?" he admitted guiltily. "It was nothing, it meant nothing. It was a mistake, because I felt so... I don't know. It was like nostalgia or something, for a time when everything was so much easier. I don't even know how I feel any more. But I did not have sex with her."
"It doesn't matter! Sex is not all there is to infidelity. You're a fucking cheater, Alex! And you're the worst kind of cheater, because you're not even the kind that does it for the sex. You do it so you can feel in control of the situation again, so you can have some sympathetic ear to fucking trash me to. You don't understand, Alex. I know you, I know how you work. I watched you do it to Mimi Mei with me - I remember how you used to talk me about her, and god knows, at the time, I sympathised. But now you're doing it to me with Em Evesham. And I would put money on the fact that in another few years, you're going to be doing it to Em Evesham with some other fucking slag."
"What about you, Kate?" he threw back, trying to make up the ground he had lost, refusing to acknowledge that this was just the last losing battle in a long and exhausting war that was dragging to a close, the troops bedraggled and demoralised, no longer caring which side won so long as they got to go home to safety again. "You're hardly the poster child for fidelity!"
I no longer cared what I let slip, dragging up every unsavoury event from my history to fling at him in a Pyrrhic victory. "So how does it feel, Alex? Do two wrongs make a right? You know what? I bloody well could have fucked Damien. And I nearly did!" He winced, his knuckles tightening, his face pale as I hit at his worst insecurity. Fucking hypocrite. "Yeah, it started as a stupid joke. But I was so angry and so hurt and so confused that I would have slept with Damien. No, make that fucked him, because I did sleep next to him."
"You what?" Alex was so livid his ears were starting to turn red at the edges.
"And where did you sleep last night, Alex?" I shot back in a nasty, taunting voice.
"On her couch!" he protested. "She was upset. I was comforting her. I did not sleep with her! Why can't you get that through your head?"
"Bullshit!" I roared. "And how did you think I would feel about that, Alex? How do you think it feels? I think you're getting a taste of it right now, Alex. How does it feel? I could have fucked Damien. And I didn't! Do you know why?"
Alex couldn't even speak, his face twisted into a bitter mask of anger and jealousy and guilt and hurt, but still, below everything else deep, deep unspeakable love. He only ever wanted me when he felt me slipping out of his grasp. At this moment, it seemed like he loved and desired and needed me more than he ever had in his life, simply because I was fighting tooth and nail to get away from him.
"Because he said no!"
Alex crumpled as if the breath he drew had been mustard gas. The trenches were flooded, artillery flying, gas everywhere, but goddammit, I was getting over the top and lunging that bayonet down his throat even if I was going to be killed in the process.
"Yeah, Damien said no, Alex. Your best fucking friend - because he said valued his friendship with you more than some fuck. And that's a concept you just seem unable to get your head around. There was a time when I would have said we were friends. But no, you just fucking threw it away so that you could go and play knight in shining armour for poor little defenceless Em Evesham. Well, if you want some weak, defenceless thing that you can rescue at every turn, who will sit and put up with all your fucking crap and kow-tow to Damon fucking Adams and kow-tow to Slur, well, you go get her, Alex, because I am leaving you."
"No..." he sobbed. "You can't leave me. Not now, not like this. Please... let me explain."
"No!" I snapped, cutting him off coldly. "There is no explanation for this. All the things you've accused me of over the past few months... they're all products of your own guilty conscience! As they say in France, a man never looks under his wife's bed, unless he, himself, has hidden there."
"Kate, no!" His voice slid out of pleading towards anger as he realised that I had wrapped my coat about my shoulders and was starting to walk towards the door. "Kate, please, we have to talk... No matter what else you want to think about me, you have to believe me. I did not sleep with Em Evesham! This talk is not over until you believe me."
"No, Alex. We had to talk months ago, weeks ago, two days ago. And at every fucking turn, you've put off talking things out with me for Damon Adams, for Slur, and now for Em Evesham. Well, you know what, Alex? It's too little, too late. I hope you are happy with them, because you have made your decision, and you don't get me, Alex. You don't get me."
"Kate, don't you dare walk out that door."
"A little ironic, don't you think?" the icy voice retorted, though all I could see was myself a few months ago, lying in a crumpled heap at the top of the stairs, begging Alex to come back, the first time he ran out on me, after he found out that I was pregnant. "Except I, unlike you, am not coming back."
"Please!" he bargained, his voice ragged with frustration and unexpressed emotion. "What do you want me to do? Apologise? I've apologised. Do you want me to get down on my knees and beg? Is that what it's come to? I'll do that, if that's what you want. I have no pride left. Do you want me on my knees? Is that what you want?"
I shook my head slowly, amazed that the tears were remaining so obediently in my eyes. "You are not the Alex I knew; who I fell in love with. The Alex I loved had pride, the Alex I knew had honour, and the Alex I knew had integrity."
I had always thought that Alex was stronger than I was, but in the end, he utterly broke down, sinking down and weeping on the stairs of his apartment. "No. You don't mean this," he sobbed, utterly unable to reconcile himself to the fact of my leaving. "We fight, but you are going to come back, like you always do. This isn't the end, Kate. This just isn't. It can't be."
Fighting every urge in my body and my heart to go back and wrap my arms around his neck and comfort him, kiss his tears away and tell him that I loved him and that everything was going to be alright again, I turned around, hardened my heart, and walked away, wrapping my sense of betrayal around myself like a suit of armour.
A zombie with my name and my passport flew back across the ocean, staring resolutely at the movie screen in front of her, utterly entranced with the action adventure flick, completely absorbed by the BBC world service news shorts, mesmerised by the process of customs and immigration, attempting to totally lose herself in any mundane detail that could distract her from the whirling void inside her head.
Staring at the subway map as if it was a secret archive that could point the way to some hidden and unfamiliar solution in my soul, I dug for new meanings and answers in a diagram I'd read a thousand times until I'd memorised every winding coloured line twisting its way underneath the landscape of the city. No; no matter how many times I stared at the thin blue line of the A train, it would never divert from its course up the West Side and deposit me safely at my home. No; no matter how many times I tried to lose myself in a relationship, it would never take me home to my self...
Stop it! I told myself, doggedly dragging my suitcases across the platform at 53rd Street. You're being maudlin and self indulgent. As I dragged my suitcases up an endless escalator underneath Lexington Ave., I cursed myself for not splurging on a taxi, but I managed to convince myself the subway ride was good for me, grounding me back in the ordinary world, reminding myself of who I was and where I came from, and how far I'd come since those not too distant days before I'd been caught up in this whirl. It was little over a year since a frustrated office girl with blue toenails under her pantyhose had dragged herself up this same, endless escalator to work, exhausted from playing until well after midnight in smoky bars and dingy clubs.
Even after I climbed up to the surface, the crisp, fresh winter air a relief after the confining atmosphere of the subway, I stared down the long blocks towards my home, cursing the suitcases that seemed to grow heavier by the minute. I felt like a fool, a top-heavy, teetering buffoon, my pregnant stomach jutting out to the front while I dragged the suitcases behind me, but I bore my trial bravely, viewing it as penance for my heedless impulsiveness in running away in the first place. One block at a time, sometimes even only a hundred yards at a time, I crawled towards the warm, beckoning lights of my house. I could see it from 3rd Avenue, the top floor of the brownstone ablaze with warm yellow light. So Maddie was home. Half of me dreaded the coming lecture, but the other half craved the comfort of familiarity.
Fighting the strange lump in my throat as I unlatched the door and let myself in to the building, I stared at the long flights of stairs, then back down at the nemeses of my luggage, then shrugged resignedly and left them at the foot of the stairs. Let the landlord complain, I had got them this far and they were going no further tonight. As I padded up the stairs, exhausted, but glad to be free of the suitcases, the sound of music came spilling down the hall, sweet harmonies floating above a chugging insistent beat. I dug in my bag for my keys and let myself in, slipping into the apartment like a warm bath, following the sound of the music, which I now recognised as one of the tracks Maddie and I had been working on a few weeks ago. Pushing the door to the spare room open, I saw Maddie and Beth sitting with their backs towards the door, heads furiously nodding as they fiddled with the mixing board, while Emma rooted around the back of a huge stack of Marshall amps. That was when it hit me - I was home.
"Come on, turn the bass up!" directed Emma. The mechanical throb of the synthesised back beat swelled in response. "No, not that bass, silly. The real bass. I need to hear what Kate is doing so I can find the harmonics."
"Shit, I've lost it. Where is it? Track three?" muttered Beth, twiddling knobs at random.
"Track four," I directed quietly.
The three of them whirled around, staring as if confronting Lazarus freshly raised from the dead. "Kate, where the bloody hell have you been!" exploded Emma gruffly. "These two can't seem to mix a bassline to save their lines..."
"Never mind the bassline, Amy has been going mad looking for you," chided Maddie. "Could you at least have told her where you were going?"
"Never mind Amy - we've been fucking mad with worry," added Beth.
I raised my hands quietly, my lower lip trembling. "Please, just... you can lecture me all you like later, but just not... right... now..." My voice was ragged, fraying at the edges.
Beth looked alarmed. "Kate, are you alright? What happened, sweetie?"
"I... I..." The words which had been so simple and so forthcoming earlier failed me. I could feel a huge wave building inside me, threatening to choke me, threatening to drown me, and I could no longer keep the mask on my face or the tears in my eyes. "I broke up with Alex. It's over. For good. I don't really want to talk about it," I finally managed to choke out in a single, unbroken stream before succumbing to the rising despondency and bursting into uncontrollable racking sobs.
"Oh my god, Kate, no!" exclaimed Beth, leaping up off her chair and rushing over to me, pulling me into her arms. "What happened?"
"I don't want to talk about it," I insisted, standing stiffly in her embrace.
"It's OK, it's OK," soothed Beth, smoothing my hair with the same habitual gesture that she used to comfort children and animals in pain. "Come on, sit down. Let's go in the living room... Emma, go make a pot of camomile tea!" she directed, taking me by the hand and leading me out to the sofa.
"Kate, Kate..." Maddie plonked herself down on the other side of me, wrapping her arm gently around my shoulder until I was surrounded on both sides, wrapped in a warm blanket of sympathy. "It's OK, cry it out."
Realising that I no longer had to pretend to be strong and hard; that I was finally safe, at home, encompassed in the secure arms of my best friends, I rested my head against Beth's shoulder, closed my eyes and allowed myself to bawl.
"It's OK," assured Emma, kneeling down at my feet and handing me a cup of tea. "We've been through worse than this together. It takes a hell of a lot more than that bastard to make a Charm cry." I ventured a weak smile, rubbing my eyes and sniffing. "I know people. If you want, I can call a hit man, and we can get the bastard whacked, if you want," she offered, with a fiendish gleam in her eye.
Despite the overwhelming emotion, the very thought made me grin. "Somehow, Emma, I don't doubt it. But I don't think that will be necessary."
"Made you smile, though."
"I don't want to smile right now. I want to be miserable. Dammit, I've earned it!" I huffed.
"Go ahead, then. Be miserable," assured Maddie, rubbing my shoulders, but for some reason I no longer felt quite the same urge to cry. "You will survive."
I actually ventured a smile, not a pitiful, sad and self-pitying grimace, but a genuine, deep smile of gratefulness and friendship, wrapped in the warm embraces of my three best friends. "I will survive. No, we will survive."