If, p.22

If, page 22

 

If
 


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  “Yes?”

  “I was wondering if I could speak to you for a moment, privately.”

  “Uh, sure.” She excused herself from the conversation and seemed both annoyed and curious. Her grey eyes, lined in heavy black eyeliner, fixed on my face; my one-of-a-kind features. “Wait, you’re Fly Bird, Fly!”

  I smiled. “Yup. Bird Campbell.”

  “So nice to meet you.” Now that I was familiar to her, she warmed up. “What can I do for you?”

  “This is going to sound strange, but . . . WATT.”

  She scrunched her brow. “Mmhmm . . .”

  “I think I know—knew—him.”

  “I’m not allowed to discuss his identity with anyone. I’m sorry. He’d have my head on a platter.”

  “I understand. But, it’s important that I see him.”

  “I can take that back to him. I usually do that with women who would like to meet him.”

  That comment felt like a hot poker in my gut.

  “William Asher Thomas Thoreau. WATT,” I whispered.

  Her eyes grew briefly as if she might be in trouble just for being in the presence of the identity reveal.

  “I can’t confirm that. But I can take your info or your manager’s info and tell him you were here. He’s not here tonight. He doesn’t come to his shows for obvious reasons.”

  “Okay. You know what, never mind.” My hope was to ambush him somehow and demand answers. Leaving my phone number felt desperate, like one of those other girls who apparently did so, so he could decide if they were worth his time. “Could you—maybe not tell him about this?”

  I had come here confident, determined, and now I was bumbling.

  “Uh . . . okay. Are you sure?”

  “Yeah. I was just curious. I gotta go. Thank you. So sorry to interrupt your conversation.”

  It was hard not to run out of the show, but I kept my composure as I rushed out. I was a success in the dance world, independent, dating a sexy and kind man, and yet Ash had managed to turn me back into unsure the twenty-one year old girl, desperately trying to get into his head.

  ASH

  I spent the opening day of my show researching Bird. I had somehow managed to avoid much of her recent success. It wasn’t hard between locking myself in my studio, boozing, working out to get the booze out of my system and the occasional (more like frequent) lay. I did everything to forget her, but this morning, the image of her was branded into my psyche. I couldn’t stop thinking about Bird, and I wondered if, like me, she picked up the paper and saw us side by side again.

  I went through my kitchen and dumped all of my liquor bottles into the recycling bin, as if she might show up any minute. I didn’t want her to know that while I had kept my illness pretty stable, I still battled with the demons of regret that I suffered ever since I left her, numbing the ache with women and booze. When I was on lithium, booze wasn’t an option, but ironically, this new medication allowed for it. I’d be sober for weeks, but then I’d remember her or Sarah and the pangs of regret would be so strong, I would pour myself a glass, and then another, and then I would wake up with someone in my bed or maybe not. It didn’t matter. But when I did, I hated that it wasn’t her. I opened my eyes every time hoping it would be her.

  My track record wasn’t perfect. I might get overconfident or lazy with my meds, but I had learned much better to read the signs. I had a new system with Miller. He became my business manager and protected my money from me. If I got into a state, I couldn’t make stupid investments or sell my apartment. I understood I needed to lean on him instead of shutting him out. As a result, I had the occasional highs and lows, but I hadn’t ended up in the hospital since I left Bird.

  I wondered if Bird would be disgusted with who I had become. I had the career success, but I could never regain the feeling I had sitting on the roof with her in my arms. No money, no artistic success could match that.

  By the time I had filtered through every article and video I could find, the answer was clear to me: I was a distant memory. Maybe even a regret. She was an inspiration. I had become a bitter asshole who could paint. I had lost the Asher she had fallen in love with.

  As I am so often prone to doing, I had lost track of time, becoming fixated on learning as much about her as I could. My show had already started and I would be fashionably late. I didn’t always attend these things, but I thought there was a slim chance that maybe she would come. Whenever I went to a WATT show, I pretended to be some spectator, just another face. It was eye opening to hear unfiltered comments on my work, even the insults. No one was buying their paintings for millions, so I wasn’t too worried about their opinions.

  I scanned the crowd for red hair, or a soft purple glow, but it was all the same humdrum. In the drone of a crowd, I didn’t see any colors or shapes. Something had to stand out: a scream, a laugh, glass shattering. I laughed softly to myself, realizing how ridiculous it was for me to think she’d show up. I left her. She wanted nothing to do with me, of course.

  I saw Paula, my right hand woman, mingling in the crowd. We tried to be discreet about our interactions. Only my family and trusted business associates, who were also my friends, knew of my dual identity. Everyone knew Paula was the outside world’s contact to WATT, so we didn’t want people wondering if I was him or her.

  My phone alerted me to a text.

  Paula: Follow me.

  She drifted away from the crowd and I followed her to a room apart from the show. Pedestals, tarps, ladders and tools were scattered throughout, clearly it was some sort of workroom.

  “Hey, Mr. Thoreau,” she said cheekily. We were close, and I didn’t ever make her address me as Mister.

  “What’s with the 007 act?” I asked, as she kissed me on the cheek.

  “Something weird happened earlier.”

  “Okay.”

  “Someone was asking about you. Apparently snooping in the crowd, and then she found me. And before you say that’s not unusual . . . She knew your name.”

  “Did you—”

  “Of course not! Haven’t I proved myself at this point?”

  “Of course.”

  “Here’s the kicker. She’s kind of a big deal.”

  The temperature rose around my neck, but I couldn’t allow myself false hope.

  “Are you going to tease this out any longer?”

  “Have you seen that viral video? Fly Bird, Fly?”

  I had, today, when I crawled out of my self-imposed Bird ban and watched it over and over.

  “Bird . . .” I said under my breath.

  “So you do know her?”

  “Oh shit. Shit. Did you get her info?”

  “That’s the thing, I tried to get it and then she got all fickle and left. She asked me not to tell you. Of course I was going to anyway.”

  “Is she still here?” I asked, almost frantic.

  “She left like a half hour ago. Whoa . . . what’s going on Ash?”

  “She is the girl on the roof. She’s the fucking girl!” I yelled, frustratedly pointing to the event just outside the door.

  “You know I couldn’t make an exception. How could I have known she was someone you really knew?”

  “I’m not upset with you. I—I just. Shit.” Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the possibility of seeing her again. What would I say to her? What was she hoping to get out of finding me?

  “I didn’t know she was real. You always make her so . . . magical.”

  “That’s because she is.”

  BIRD

  AFTER A WONDERFUL show, and spending some time backstage with fans, including little Sarah whom had I met at the coffee shop, I headed out through the back of the theatre. As usual, fans lined the outskirts, hoping for pictures and autographs. Javier waited for me in his black SUV just a few steps away. I hated how it made me feel like I was being whisked away from the commoners.

  The dark New York street was slick with fresh rain. The sound of cars driving through puddles overlaid the buzzing
of the people around me. I always loved how in New York, when it rained at night, the red and orange street lights reflected on the ground like a dark mirror.

  I had reached the end of the line of fans, gazing out onto the fresh streets, thinking I would tell Javier that I wanted to walk home instead, when I saw a mirage. He stood across the street watching, like he was waiting to catch my eye.

  “I’m sorry, uh, who am I writing this out to again?” I asked a fan who had shoved a pen and program into my hands.

  I signed the autograph and then I almost crossed without looking. A cab honked its horn and I jumped back as it splashed into a puddle, thrashing my pants with filthy water. It jarred me out of my daze. I put a hand up to tell him to wait and went to Javier’s car.

  “I’m going to walk home. I just saw an old friend and we’re going to catch up. You just go back to your place. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

  “Everything okay?” he asked. I lied and told him it was.

  Ash still had his boyish good looks, and he was still lean, but he had filled out, his shoulders were broader and his jaw more pronounced. He had traded in his uniform of faded paint-stained jeans and white T-shirts for a slightly less casual look. His canvas jacket was swapped for a hooded navy jacket that was newer and more tailored. He still had the light stubble, and the wild hair I used to run my fingers through, though now his haircut looked expensive.

  I didn’t know what to say as my eyes filled with moisture. I was so angry with him. I was so bitter. And yet, joy is what tried to break through those emotions when I finally found myself face to face with him.

  “Hello, WATT,” I said, emphasizing his new identity.

  He smiled at me. I smiled back. Then we embraced. I felt myself getting weak, slipping back into the girl who loved him, and I had to harden myself. I deserved answers.

  “Can we talk?” he asked, his eyes reddened.

  “Yeah. I uh, got splashed,” I said, pointing down to my soaked, muddy pants. I was on the verge of shivering from the cold.

  “If you don’t mind, I think we both want privacy. My place is a short cab ride away.”

  We rode in silence to his building, a brick five story in lower Manhattan. He was on the top floor. The apartment was huge, with original wood floors and white walls, all covered with art work, some of it his own. Pieces that did not find a place on the wall leaned randomly against walls and pillars. Stacks of books of differing heights stood throughout the expansive apartment. There were so many windows, yet not a single shade or curtain. His loft was completely open, no rooms, just partitions where needed.

  He never liked walls.

  “Your apartment is amazing,” I said.

  “Thanks. Do you want something to drink? Tea?” he asked.

  “Sure. Do you have a washer and dryer I could maybe use? I don’t want the mud to cake.”

  “Oh. Of course. Of course.”

  Ash handed me a towel led me to the bathroom where I put on some tights from my bag of dance gear. He politely insisted on loading my pants in the wash for me somewhere on the other end of his enormous loft.

  I waited for him to return at the kitchen island, hypnotizing myself with the tea bag as I always did when waiting for my tea to cool.

  “I can’t believe you’re here,” he finally said, jolting me out of my daze.

  “Neither can I.”

  “I’m so happy for you, all the success you’ve had.”

  “It looks like you’ve done well for yourself, too.”

  He shrugged as if it was no big deal.

  “How’s Jordan?”

  “He’s great. He’s a pretty big deal now, too. Head of choreography for Danse Nocturne. He and Trevor live in the Bay area. They have a little girl now. I’m her godmother.”

  “That’s great.”

  I couldn’t do it any longer; go through pleasantries like he hadn’t ripped my heart out and smashed it five years ago. I couldn’t let him ease into this.

  I choked down the lump in my throat. “Why did you leave?”

  Ash sighed and shook his head as he gripped the edge of the countertop. “I know you won’t believe this, but I did it because I loved you. More than any desire for my own happiness.”

  “You’re right. I don’t.”

  “Bird, look at the life you’ve had. All you’ve been able to accomplish since I left. None of that would have happened if I was in the picture.”

  “You don’t know that.” I hated that it sounded like I was begging for him. I wasn’t, but I was speaking as myself five years ago. There was a part of me that was stunted, never able to get an answer to that question, and I needed to go back to that part of me to give it closure.

  “I do. You went on tour right after, didn’t you?”

  “How did you know?”

  “Because I followed your career, Bird. Leaving you was the hardest thing I ever had to do. The only thing that rivals it is burying my sister.”

  “You know what was the hardest thing I ever had to do? Dance through tears on my first big night. I cried during that whole show. It was supposed to be the best night of my life and it was the most painful. You said you weren’t going anywhere and then you were gone!” I took a breath. I didn’t want Ash to see my tears. “You brought back joy to my dancing. And then you took it away. You stole it from me. The thing I loved most in the world hurt because it reminded me of you. I cried through every set. Every single one. I kept looking for you to appear in your seat because I refused to believe you could just abandon me. For a year after that, every time I danced, my heart ached. It was empty. And the worst part was not knowing why or where you had gone. You owed me that much. You didn’t even say goodbye.”

  “I couldn’t . . .”

  “Why, why couldn’t you? Because you walk away when things get hard? Because you can’t face the pain you cause?” Knowing his issues, it was a low blow, but he had earned it.

  “Because I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I saw you cry. And I needed you to hate me. I needed you to forget me.”

  “Well, that worked, didn’t it?” I sneered. “I would have done anything for you, Ash. Anything.”

  “That’s my point.”

  “I don’t even know why I’m here,” I said, contemplating forfeiting my pants to the washing machine and escaping right away.

  “You know why you’re here.”

  “Oh, don’t you dare, Ash. I have a great life. I have a great boyfriend. I’m not here to rekindle puppy love.” His face sank, and instead of enjoying the pain like I hoped I could, I felt sympathy. I had imagined seeing him one day and throwing my wonderful life and hot boyfriend in his face, but it wasn’t nearly as satisfying in real life as it was in my fantasies. Maybe it’s because those were the things he wanted for me all along.

  “If it’s all so perfect, what are you doing here?”

  “You came to me, Ash.”

  “You came to me, too.”

  I balled my fists up and pressed them against the counter as if, like anchors, they could keep me from being drawn into Ash’s spell.

  “Bird. I promise you that the past five years, I have wished I could be by your side. It’s all I ever do. I tried to put you out of my mind and tell myself I did the right thing. And I believe I did. But I didn’t want to do it. I never wanted to do it. I did it because I promised to do what was best for you. I would’ve done anything for you too. And I did. We were young and you would have made bad decisions. And I needed to learn how to live life on my own. How to cope with my illness. I’m not perfect, not even close, but I have a good handle on things.”

  I softened my voice. “I’m happy for you.” The mask of resentment couldn’t be held up any longer. “Ash, I worried about you all these years. If you were back out on the streets, if you had had a relapse. I worried so much.”

  As the emotion poured out, I felt Ash’s arms wrap around me. He whispered in my ear “we needed to grow on our own. I needed to let you go so you could fly Bird . .
. fly.”

  I let out a snotty laugh through the tears. “I can’t believe that. I can’t believe all that pain was for something good. You hurt me so much.”

  “I know.”

  It just wasn’t the same when Javier held me. He and I had been together for months, but I couldn’t have a conversation as raw as I was having with the man whom I hadn’t seen in five years. We saw each other inside out. We didn’t have to dig.

  “I’m sorry, Bird. I did the only thing I thought I could do. I knew you were strong. I always knew you would succeed, and I refused to be the one to hold you back,” Ash whispered into my ear.

  And I didn’t want to believe Ash. I didn’t want to make it so easy on him, but I felt his sincerity. He was right. I would have not gone on tour, seen the world, become one of the faces of one of the most successful dance franchises of all time, become the woman who so many girls looked up to for strength in the face of obstacles. Ash leaving made me stronger. I could hate him for it, or I could just accept what was.

  “Bird, you still shine brighter than anyone else. You still smell like lavender and you have an aura around you that radiates. Your laughter is still a buttery gold and your voice still looks like the clearest teal waves of the ocean. I still paint you all the time from memory. And I would wish that somehow it would bring you back to me. So many times I painted and played a record and it ached because I just hoped I would peek over the easel and see you dancing.”

  I felt myself slipping back to that girl who was foolishly in love with a tortured destitute artist.

  “And you’re here. And I can’t help feeling like somehow it all brought you back. My pain, splattered all over hundreds of canvases. Bird . . . please. You don’t have to invite me back into your life, I just want you to understand that I did what I did out of love. A love so pure I have never been able to find it again. We’re all just trying to do the best we can, right?”

  I sulked back tears, stubbornly trying to hold on to my bitterness. “I guess.”

  “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that ever since I came into your life all I have done is complicate it. If I could go back and make it so you had never seen me—“

 
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