Hi again! And if you look just over there <– you’ll see us, and Roomies in the royal engagement edition of People magazine! We’re sort of losing our minds.
My new phone vibrates just as the credits roll on my third consecutive Vampire Diaries episode of the night. I wouldn’t normally be mainlining addicting teen dramas on a work night, but Robert balked when he caught me awkwardly trying to fold Luis Genova T-shirts and kicked me out after the Wednesday matinee, thereby exacerbating my guilt spiral. I can’t go to yoga, I can’t try to write, I can’t go have a drink because of these painkillers. I can’t even focus on reading without the intrusive worry about what Robert is going to do without Seth leading the orchestra.
My phone vibrates again and I cross the room to where it’s charging on the kitchen counter, next to the laptop I haven’t touched in weeks. I’m wholly expecting it to be my brother Davis calling to ensure I’m not out venturing the mean streets of Manhattan with only one arm to protect myself, but am pleasantly surprised to see Lulu’s smiling face light up the screen instead.
“Hello, there.” I open the fridge, scanning the contents. “How’s my little invalid?” Judging by the sound of voices and clanking silverware coming from the other end of the line, Lulu is at Blue Hill, where she is—like many in Manhattan— an actress waiting tables while awaiting her big break.
I tuck the phone between my chin and shoulder, and with my good arm pull a casserole dish out of the fridge and set it on the counter. “I’m home. Robert said I looked like a three-legged puppy at a dog show and told me to go home for a few days.”
“What a monster,” she says with a laugh. “Are you at work?”
“Yeah. Actually . . . hang on.” A few moments of muffled silence pass and then she returns, the background quieter now. “I had an early shift, so I’m leaving soon.”
“You’re off tonight?” I stop with my plate of cold lasagna just shy of the microwave, outlook suddenly brighter. “Come over and I’ll make you dinner. I’ll only need one of your hands.” “I have a better idea. I got a two-for-one on the cover to see
this ridiculous band, and Gene can’t go. Come with me!”
I know this story well: Lulu found tickets to a venue on Groupon and couldn’t pass them up because they were such a good deal. Most of the time, I love her impulsivity and obsession with random adventures. But it’s cold tonight and going out requires changing out of my pajamas—which means putting on actual clothes that I’d have to wrestle my way into.
“This is a pass for me, Lu.” I pop my food into the microwave while she whimpers into the line.
The sound is so pathetic, it chips away at my resolve and I don’t even have to say anything—she knows it. “Come on, Holland! The band is called Loose Springsteen! How amazing is that?”
“Don’t make me go to Jersey by myself.”
“A cover band in Jersey?” I say. “You really aren’t sweetening the deal here.”
“You’d rather stay home in your pajamas eating leftovers than have the night of your life with me?”
I snort. “You might be overselling it just a bit.” She whimpers again, and I break.
Lulu was absolutely overselling it. Hole in the Hall is a . . . bar? That’s really the nicest thing I can say about it.
The subway station lets out just across the street from a nondescript brick building and Lulu giddily dances down the sidewalk. The neighborhood is a mixture of business and residential, but at least half the surrounding buildings look vacant. Opposite the bar is an empty Korean restaurant, with shuttered windows and a sign hanging crookedly near the doorway. Next door is a converted house with neon letters that spell House of Hookah; the once-bright tubes are now dark and dusty against the tin roof. It’s not exactly a mystery why Hole in the Hall would need to seduce potential new clientele with Groupon deals.
Lulu turns to perform her dance backward, luring me across the shiny wet street. “This is promising, at least,” she says brightly as we join a small crowd of people lined up near the door.
The opening notes of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” can be heard through the brick walls, and each time the door opens the music rushes out, as if escaping. I have to admit it feels good to get dressed and leave my worries to languish in the apartment for a few hours. Leggings and a dressy top weren’t too much work, and Lulu and her two good arms helped me blow-dry my long hair. For the first time in a couple of days, I don’t look and feel like a troll doll. This night might not be so bad after all.
When it’s finally our turn to enter, Lulu brandishes her two-for-one coupon like a badge and shimmies through the line.
Unsurprisingly, it’s pretty no-frills inside. The walls are lined with old video games, and carved-up tables stand in clusters surrounding the bar. The decor is a questionable mix of Harley-Davidson, taxidermy, and Old West paraphernalia. A stripper pole stands proudly on a platform at one end, and a stage at the other. The lighting is dim and dusty, and combined with a makeshift fog machine, it makes the band members little more than backlit figures moving around onstage.
Settling at a table, Lulu flags down a waitress and we order drinks that materialize almost disturbingly quickly, like they were poured hours ago and left to grow stale behind the bar.
Lulu studies her cocktail, charmingly titled Adios Motherfucker. With a tiny why-the-fuck-not shrug, she takes a swallow, wincing as it goes down. “Tastes like 7Up.”
I am mesmerized by the blinking neon ice cube in her glass. “I worry your drink is going to give someone a seizure.”
She takes another sip and her straw blooms with fluorescent blue alcohol. “Actually, it tastes like sparkling water.”
“See, that’s the house-made moonshine killing your taste buds.”
She ignores this and turns her brown eyes on me. “Is the cast a giant pain in the ass? I’ve never broken a bone.” She grins. “Well . . . none of my own, ifyouknowwhatImean.”
I laugh, looking down at my purple cast peeking out of the black sling. “It could be worse. The camera’s a bit unruly and I can’t fold shirts very well yet, but I mean . . . I could be dead?”
She nods at this, taking another sip of her drink—which is already half-gone.
“I mean,” I say, “let’s be honest, I only need one hand to take people’s money during intermission, so it’s not that bad.”
“I hear you’re great one-handed.” She slaps a beat on the table and makes a rim-shot noise.
“The best.” I wink. “What about you, any auditions?”
Lulu shakes her head with a little pout and then does a shoulder shimmy to the beat of the music. She might waitress to make ends meet, but she’s dreamed of being an actress since she was old enough to know it was a possibility. We met in grad school, where she was studying theater and I was writing. She’s told me on several occasions that she should become my muse, and I can write script after script for her. This should tell you a lot about our dynamic, which—despite this Jersey sidequest—is generally more entertaining than tedious.
She’s been in a few low-budget commercials (she played an accident-prone chicken in an insurance commercial, and I have several gifs of this performance I like to occasionally text her out of the blue), attended almost every acting class offered in New York, and (as a favor to me) was given a small part in one of Robert’s shows. It didn’t last long—because, as Robert put it, “Lulu is good at playing Lulu and only Lulu”—but as long as she draws breath, she will believe that her big break is just around the corner.
“No auditions this week.” She watches the stage while taking another neon pull from her drink. I gingerly sip my watered-down Diet Coke. “Crowds haven’t died down since the holidays, so we’re all taking on extra hours.” Nodding toward the musicians, she says, “I feel like I’m being visually assaulted by the crotch of that guy’s outfit, but this band? They don’t completely suck.”
I follow her gaze to where the lead singer has moved to stand under a single bright spotlight. His acid-washed jeans are so tight I can see every lump he has to offer. A few more hours in those pants and I’m confident he can kiss his child-fathering years goodbye. The band shifts from the closing notes of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” into a cover of Great White’s “Rock Me”—I have my older brother Thomas’s addiction to hair metal to thank for this knowledge—and a brave (or drunk) group of women gravitate to the edge of the stage, dancing to the bluesy opening chords.
And why not? I sway a little in my seat, drawn in by the way the guitar player drags out each note, like a maddening seduction, his head bent low in concentration. Loose Springsteen might be a cheesy cover band—and most of them are wearing at least one dangly earring and/or an article of clothing covered in animal print—but Lulu is right: they aren’t half bad. With a little polish I could see them playing in a bigger club somewhere, or in an eighties revival off-off-Broadway.
The singer falls back and the guitarist moves into a circle of smoky light, beginning his requisite solo. There’s a surprisingly loud reaction from the women up front . . . and there’s something familiar about the way he holds the guitar, the way his fingers glide up the neck, the way his hair falls forward . . .
Oh, holy . . .
He lifts his chin, and even with his eyes in shadow and half his face turned away, I know.
“That’s him,” I say, pointing. I sit up straighter, pulling my phone out. I’m still on enough painkillers to not entirely trust my eyes right now. I zoom in, snapping a blurry picture.
I stare down at the screen and recognize the cut of his jaw, his full mouth. “Calvin. The dude from the subway.”
“Shut up.” She squints, leaning in. “That’s him?” There’s a moment of silence where I know she’s looking him over, seeing exactly what I’ve seen almost every day for the last six months. “Damn. Okay.” She turns to me, brows pointed skyward. “He’s hot.”
“I told you!” We both look back over to him. He’s playing high on the neck, screaming out the notes on his guitar, and unlike the meditative lean of his posture at the station, here he’s completely playing to the audience. “What is he doing here?” What if he sees me? “Oh my God. Is he going to think I followed him?”
“Come on, how would you possibly know he’s the guitarist for Loose Springsteen? You’re not exactly a member of their fan club.” Lulu lets out a happy cackle. “As if they have a fan club.”
She’s right, of course, but even now, the way I can’t take my eyes off him, I feel like a stalker. I already know so much about his schedule—I saw him just this morning, after all— and I know even more now. Is this the kind of thing he does when he’s not busking? Good Lord. Maybe this is why there’s such a fire to his playing at the station; he has to physically force this music out of his head.
The song ends and the lead singer slips his mic into the stand, muttering that they’re taking a break before smashing his bottle of Rolling Rock to his lips and triumphantly draining it.
I’m out of my chair before I know what I’m doing. People shuffle back to their seats to refuel on bad beer, and the lights go up just enough that I see Calvin disappear into the shadows and reappear a moment later at the opposite side of the bar.
Whereas the rest of the band is a veritable cover spread of 1980s fashion don’ts, Calvin is in a black T-shirt, with the hem tucked lazily into the front of his dark jeans. He’s wearing his black boots, too, and the left one is presently propped on the brass rail near his feet. The bartender places a dark beer in front of him and he lifts it, staring ahead.
I’m not sure how to approach him, and he still hasn’t seen me standing a few feet away. Saying his name somehow feels sincerely weird, so I square my shoulders and slide onto the barstool beside him.
Only once I’m seated do I register that there were about ten other women working up the nerve to do the same thing, coming at him from all angles. He turns slowly, like this happens at every set break and he’s never sure what manner of companion he’s going to end up with.
But when our eyes meet, he startles, face immediately relaxing into a genuine smile. “Hey, it’s the girl from the Netherlands.”
And I can’t help it. Incredulity makes it burst out of me: “ ‘Hey’?”
Calvin’s smile turns a little sympathetic, like he gets it, and waves to the bartender, who immediately approaches. “Whatever she wants,” he tells the older man.
I hesitate. I didn’t come over here to have a drink with him. I came here to scratch that tickle of curiosity in my head that’s been plaguing me for the past few days . . . and maybe tell him off a little. But his inherent easiness is disorienting. I expected him to be shy, or stiff. Instead he’s nothing but relaxed, smiling charisma.
The bartender taps an impatient finger against the bar.
I apologize under my breath before ordering, “Club soda with lime, please.”
“A real wild child you are,” Calvin teases.
I meet his eyes, giving him a forced grin. “I’m on painkillers.” I nod to the cast. “Broken arm.”
He grimaces playfully. “Right.”
The question is so much easier to ask than I’d expected: “So why didn’t you tell them what you saw? They told my family I jumped.”
He nods a few times, swallowing his sip of beer before speaking. “I’m sorry. I am. But I didn’t think the police would believe my version.”
Pre-subway-platform-dive Holland would be losing her mind right now at the way his accent moves every word to the front of his mouth, and think comes out as tink—a tiny coin dropped into a cup.
Okay, Holland of today is losing her mind a little, too, but she’s at least trying to keep her cool.
“Well,” I say, “they didn’t believe my version, either. They handed me a couple of self-help pamphlets and probably aren’t even looking for the guy who did it.”
Calvin turns, meeting my eyes. “Look. Being in the station, I see . . .” He shakes his head. “I see people do terrible shite all the time and then report it themselves. Crime fetish, or somethin’. That’s all I could think about in that moment. Your bum ran off, and I was more concerned with getting you safe than stopping him.”
As he talks, he reaches into the front pocket of his jeans for a tube of ChapStick, absently pulling off the cap and running the balm quickly over his lips. The move is so distracting that I don’t realize I’m staring at his mouth until the bartender loudly deposits a tumbler of sparkling water and limes on a napkin in front of me. Calvin slips the tube back into his pocket as he nods in thanks.
My brain shuffles through memories of Monday night, and I have to admit that what he’s said makes sense—even if it doesn’t explain why he lied to the EMTs. But does that matter? It was embarrassing to be handed the suicide prevention card, yeah, but in reality, Calvin called 911, and stayed to make sure.
I was okay. Now what feels remarkable isn’t that he fled after I was safely awake in the ambulance, it’s that he stayed that long to begin with.
Calvin holds out his hand. “Apology accepted?”
I take it, and grow a little breathless knowing that he plays his guitar with the fingers he currently has wrapped around mine. A hot pulse works its way down my spine. “Yeah. Apology accepted.”
Releasing me, he stares at the cast for a few seconds. “I see you’ve got no names written on there.”
I follow his attention down. “Names?”
“It’s required when you choose a little-girl color, love. You beg your mates to mark it all up.”
Oh. Something turns over inside me at his playful smile, exposing my vulnerable underbelly. I realize now that a significant fraction of my brain was hoping he wouldn’t be so amiable when he saw me, that he would be defensive and sharp, so I’d have a good reason to tuck my crush away.
“I’m still traumatized by the gore of my friend’s sweaty, smelly, graffitied cast in fourth grade.” I grin over at him. “I’m trying to keep this one pristine.”
The band begins to reconvene on the stage, and Calvin glances over his shoulder before draining his beer.
He stands, and then grins down at me. I’m overcome by his exultant smile. “Well, if you change your mind and want it dirtied up, you know where to find me.”