Sunday, February 21, 2021

Some Things Never Change Chapter VII

Do I tell Tony during breakfast? It’s our last day at the café and I don’t want to ruin it. Do I tell him at the office? What if he makes a scene? I know he won’t. Tony doesn’t make scenes. But he has a lot in his mind right now. Should I wait until the whole business with the café is done? I go to bed worrying about it and it takes me forever to fall asleep. Then I keep waking up during the night. At some point, I even have a nightmare where he punches me in the jaw. After that, I can’t shut my eyes again. Shit.

I get up in the morning feeling like crap. I almost fall on my butt while transferring. Then, I’m extra slow getting everything done. I have to try three times to get my pants on my right leg, it keeps shooting forward with spasms. Wheeling to the café feels like a fucking marathon. When I get there, Tony’s standing at the sidewalk facing the coffee shop. He’s staring up at the big sign, “Valhalla”. He’s wearing his favorite wool coat, the collar’s up to protect his neck from the wind. His hands are inside his pockets. The sun’s barely out and it’s really cold today. I can see mist coming out of his mouth with each breath through his parted lips.

I wheel to him but I don’t speak. He doesn’t turn to look at me, he doesn’t move. At first, I think he’s just taking a minute, but then I realize he didn’t even hear me approach him. He’s lost in his thoughts staring at that sign. 

“Tony,” I say.

I startle him. He turns to his right where I’m sitting, but I’m obviously below his eye line. It takes him a second to find me, when he does, he looks disoriented, like he can’t understand why I’m here. 

“Tony?” I call him again. For a moment, I think he might be drunk.

“Hey man,” he says, finally getting his bearings. He’s not drunk, but he definitely looks like he slept less than I did. 

“Are you ok?” I ask because he certainly doesn’t look it.

“Yeah, yeah, fine,” he takes his hands out of his pockets and blows on them. A gust of mist floods the air. I notice now that his face is pale and his nose pink, like Jules’s gets when she’s cold, yet I don’t recall Tony ever looking this cold before. 

“How long have you been here?” I ask him.

He looks away from me and turns to face the café again. “A while,” he says finally. 

I stay quiet and let him stare at the sign for another minute. Jules turns the corner and stops when she sees us. 

“Jules is here,” I let Tony know, and he turns around. 

She tries to smile at us but her eyebrows curl up. I know she’s making an effort not to cry. Tony opens his arms and she rushes to him. He catches her. She rests her head on his chest and he hugs her tight. They stay that way for a while. When they let go, she comes to me, a single tear slides down her left cheek. She leans down and hugs me too. I hold her. She smells like lavender and soap. 

“I’m such a cry baby,” she says when she straightens up, and dries her tears using both hands. 

I shake my head at her. The truth is, I feel like crying too. 

She hands Tony the keys and he opens the lock pad and lifts the curtain. We go inside and I turn the lights on. 

“Music?” She asks with a sad smile.

I nod. She takes her phone out and stares at it. 

“What do I play?” She asks after a minute.

Tony walks to her and grabs her hands in his. I can almost see her shiver. He takes the phone away. He browses through her playlist and selects one. Coldplay’s “Fix you” comes out of the bluetooth speakers. We all listen to the song in silence. For once, none of us sing. Tony sets the chairs down and carries the tables. Jules goes to the coffee machine. I start struggling with tablecloths. Another Coldplay song starts while we work. My mind drifts to the past. We attended that concert. 

The three of us are standing. Jules’s face is cheerful. She lifts her arms and wraps them around both our necks. She’s almost hanging between us. She’s short. We’re tall. I see the lights of the stage in my memory and hear our muffled voices singing with the crowd. We’re still in our twenties. I look down at her. She tilts her face up and her long hair hangs back. When the song’s over, she lets go of us and dances to the next one. I get distracted with another girl who’s dancing a few feet in front of us. I lose track of them and when I look back, I find them tangled in a long kiss. I don’t dwell on them and keep enjoying the music. The other girl smiles at me. I step closer to her and we dance. 

Another song finishes and “The Scientist” starts. Tony looks up from a sugar bowl he’s refilling and he reaches for the phone. I shake my head at him smiling, and he stops. I know he’s thinking about the videoclip of this song, which is about a car accident that was actually very much like mine. I was run out of the road by a truck whose driver fell asleep at the wheel. I was wearing my seatbelt, unlike the girl from the video, but my car overturned and flipped in the air several times just like it’s shown on it. 

He stares at me. I shrug and he goes back to the sugar bowl. This song doesn’t make me sad nor brings out any bad memories, although perhaps it does for Tony. I start singing it. Jules looks up at me and smiles. I stare at her. Her brown eyes shine on me.

Loss is a strange thing. I think back about the old me, standing at that concert, dancing with that girl, taking her home that same night. I think about the new me, sitting down. I remember what it felt like to be with a woman, my hands on her body, her touching me. Then I summon Julia’s touch on my cheek, and I miss something I’ve never felt. I imagine what it would be like to touch her skin. I remember dancing next to her at that concert, and all the times before when I didn’t stop to consider her presence, never once wondered what it would feel like to run my fingers through her straight hair. Then I scratch those thoughts away, because I shouldn’t think of Jules that way. Can you mourn the loss of something you’ve never had? 

I focus on the music again. 

We have breakfast like we always do, except we’re quiet today. Jules serves me pancakes. The coffee warms my throat and my heart. Both Tony and I spend the following half an hour looking at Jules. We follow her around with our eyes, oblivious of each other, focused on her movements, her soft hands placing dishes down, the tender smile she offers customers, her thin waist wrapped inside the apron. Every few minutes, she looks to us with a sweet grin. What a lovely woman she is, an angel. 

“Do you think we should stay?” Tony asks me at eight o’clock. We should’ve left by now, but both of us are frozen in place. Neither of us wants to leave her today. We do have a business to run, but I’m inclined to forget all about it. It doesn’t seem important right now. All that matters is her. 

At the end, we decide that one of us should stay while the other one handles things at the company. We discuss it over for a minute, but it’s obvious Tony’s the one who’s staying. So finally, I say goodbye to Jules and wheel away.

And the morning carries on, oblivious of our losses. The sky is clear, a bright blue covers the vastness above, it makes me feel tiny hunched down on my chair. I watch through the window as the sun travels it’s rode up until it’s in the highest part of the sky. I can’t see it any more, but its light floods the room. Soon, it will start its descent, slow and relentless, unavoidable as our own journeys. 

“You’ll get the job,” Tony says to me over the phone. I have a big interview today, at a record’s label. Not as a musician, but doing what I do right now, logistics. I recently organized a Publicity congress and apparently I did it really well, because it landed me a job offering from a Records Label that wants me to organize concerts and tours. That’s totally my dream job. I would love it! “Erick, don’t you hold back at the interview,” Tony advises. “Don’t be humble. You talk your ass off about music. Show the guy you know your stuff.”

“And wear your blue suit,” I hear Jules yell in the line, I must be on speaker. 

“Ok,” I smile at the phone. I know she’s talking about my dark blue suit. She’s told me before I look good on it. 

So I do as they say and walk into that office in my blue suit ready to talk music. 

“Do you play?” The CEO asks me after I make a comment about one of his guitars which hangs from the wall in the office, a Martin D-28.

I almost say “a little”, but I remember Tony’s advice and try to impersonate him when I speak with a confidence that is more his than mine. “I do.”

“Let’s hear it,” the CEO stands up and takes the guitar down to hand it to me. 

I’m nervous as hell but I keep it well hidden. I scratch the chords and tune the guitar to my satisfaction. Then I play, “Stairway to heaven”, of course. It’s a classic no one would argue about, and I also know it well enough that I can play it perfectly despite my nerves. I sing and play.

He listens to me but doesn’t comment. When the song’s over, he reaches for another of his guitars, an electric one this time. He plugs it in and hands it to me. 

“Let’s hear you on this one,” he says. 

I go for Jimmy Hendrix, because I want to show off. “Voodoo child”. I don’t sing this time though. 

“I think I’m offering you the wrong job,” he jokes. “Perhaps I should sing you for a record.”

I smile. 

“I can do both,” I joke in return. “I’m as good at logistics as I am at playing the guitar,” I keep pretending I’m Tony and speak completely sure of myself. 

“I like you,” the CEO grins.

I walk out of there in a high. I totally nailed the interview. I can’t believe how well I did. I call Tony from the car.

“So?” He picks up. “Do we have a new job?”

“We do!” I say ecstatic. 

“What did they offer you?” Tony’s thrilled too. 

“He almost signed me in for a record,” I boast. 

I buckle up and start the car. I tell Tony all about it. When we hang up, I play Led Zeppelin at full volume and head for the interstate. I drive at 90 across the same highway I will break my neck on less than forty eight hours later.

I picture myself walking out of that building on my dark blue suit. Walking! Feeling all mighty. I’m high like the sun is right now outside my window. I wonder, does the sun know this is the highest it’ll reach? Does it know there’s nowhere else to go but down? I picture myself behind the wheel, pressing the pedals with my feet. I have never felt that happy again. I wheel from behind the desk and park my chair in front of the window. I conjure up the image of myself dancing at my full height at that Cold Play concert, looking down at the face of that girl. I remember her flirty smile and the way she looked at me. I’d been looked at that way enough times for me not to ponder over it. How easy it is not to know when you’re up there. 

My phone is silent. I’ve gotten almost no work done. I’m so distracted. It’s lunch time now, but I’m not hungry. Jules’s image appears in front of me asking me to eat. The scent of her food makes me smile. I’d wish she were here right now, or that I was there with her. I feel so lonely. 

I shake my head to scare the feeling away. I should really get myself a girlfriend. I’ve been single for way too long. I would blame it on the disability, except I was single before, so maybe I don’t get to play that card. Perhaps I’m destined to be alone. I had many girlfriends back in the day, but I never settled with anyone. I just never seemed to find the right girl, no one I felt about the way Tony and Jules felt about each other.  I’ve never had that in my life, that certainty that you’re with the person you’re supposed to be with. Maybe it’s just not in the cards for me. I sigh. I’m getting depressed now and I can’t allow myself to go there. 

I better get off this trail of thought. 

I’m not a self help poster boy who lives his life by bumper sticker phrases, but I do consciously control where my thoughts go, so I don’t end up drowning in a pit of self pity. I try my best now and dig deep inside me for an image that will keep me off the cliff. Jules’s kind face appears on my mind. Of course it’s her. She’s always the one who saves me. 

A little after four, my office phone rings. I know it’s neither Tony nor Jules, because they would’ve called me on my cell phone. 

“Hi Erick,” it’s Lou.

“Hi Lou,” I say into the phone. I’m pretty sure I don’t sound weird because right now my mind is much too occupied to worry about her. 

“There’s a problem with route seven,” she says.

“I’ll come over to your office,” I hang up before she has a chance to object. 

I wheel to her office. The door is opened so I go in. She stands up to meet me. I wish she hadn’t. Lou is short, shorter than Jules, but I still have to look up at her. 

“Hi Erick,” she says again in that strained tone. 

I ignore it. 

“Hey,” I say. “What’s the problem?”

“We double booked a truck for routes two and seven. I don’t know how it happened. So now, there’s no truck for route seven,” she explains.

“But then, shouldn’t there be a free truck?”

“There isn’t because we have two drivers on vacations.”

This mistake was hers for sure, it’s her job to assign the routes to the trucks. But I’m not about to bite her head off over it. 

“Ok,” I say. “Who has a free day tomorrow?”

“McGregor, but he’s out tonight, he’ll probably be back before dawn though. We could ask him, as a favor…”

“No, no,” I stop her. This is what happened to me, a worn out driver fell asleep at the wheel because he had been forced to work double shifts. I’d sooner lose the whole route before I let that happen. 

She looks down at me embarrassed. “I’m so sorry, Erick.”

I shrug. “We’ll fix it.”

So we sit down at her desk and go through every order trying to merge routes together and get them covered. It takes us about an hour but we get it done. When we finish, she looks up from the pile of papers on the desk and smiles at me.

“Erick,” she starts. “The other day, you caught me off guard. I’m sorry. I was surprised, that’s all. But, now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think it would be nice… uh… if we tried it again... A date, I mean.”

This is a surprise. I stare at her in silence. She takes a deep breath.

“I would like to go out on a date with you, if you’d like to give it another try,” she blushes in a cute way. 

I nod. “I’d like that.” I return the smile. 

My cell phone finally rings once I’m back in my office. I’ve closed my computer and I’m ready to head out. It’s Tony. The landlord showed up as expected. And Jules is vacating the property tomorrow, also as expected. We will keep her things here at one of the company’s storages. He asks me if we have a free truck, which we do but no driver. Tony says he’ll drive it and carry the stuff. I ask if they’re closing early and he says they're not. So I head to the Valhalla for the last time.

We stay there late, way past when all the customers have left. Jules takes a scotch bottle out from her high shelf and we drink it empty. We sing some old songs and tell stories about our glory days. Man, we’ve gotten old. We drink the last drops with a toast for the Valhalla praying better things come ahead. And then we close the place up and Tony drives us both home. 

The next morning, we empty the place. Jules sheds a few tears on my arms once Tony drives away in the company truck. I caress her hair and promise her everything will be ok. Then she settles on my lap. Oh how I love it when she does that! 

“I haven’t told my mom about it yet,” she cringes.

I dry a tear from her cheek with my knuckles. She’s so close to me, our faces are but an inch from each other’s. 

“At least you’ll be moving out of there soon,” I try to comfort her.

She nods at me with a grin. 

“Have you talked to Tony?”

I shake my head at her, fearing she might get up from my lap, but thankfully, she doesn’t. “Haven’t found the right time. I’ll do it later today.”

“Oh, Erick, thank you for doing this for me,” she hugs me again. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

I hug her back tight. I wish we could stay this way forever. 

So now, it’s time to talk to Tony. I’ve been cowering down all day. But Jules and I made an appointment to go see that apartment tonight and I really should talk to my friend before that happens. I’m scared shitless though. I hope he takes it the right way, I really do. 

“Hey man,” I wheel into his office. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something.”

“Sure, what is it?” He looks up from his computer screen.

I park my chair in front of his desk where there is only one chair and a free spot saved specifically for me. 

“So you know how Jules hates living with her mother,” I start. “So, I thought I…” Jesus, this is harder than I thought. What if he thinks I’m trying to make a move on his girl? Although Jules is technically not his girl. Man, I run a hand through my hair. 

“What?” He asks squinting at me while I’m still trying to find the right words. 

“I asked her to move in with me,” I rush out the words.

“To your mother’s?”

“No. I thought we could share an apartment,” I say without meeting his eyes. 

He’s quiet. Shit. I raise my sight. 

“I hate living with my parents too, and I thought we could be roommates,” I continue. 

Tony's expression is blank. He has a poker face on. 

“What about Sean?” He finally speaks. 

“Oh, him too, of course. Three bedrooms.” 

“Who would pay the rent?” He asks.

“I would,” I swallow hard.

He stands up. Oh shit! I look up at him. He stares down at me for a full minute. I want to cowardly avert my eyes, but I force myself to hold his gaze. I’ve no clue what he’s thinking. Not “It’s such a great idea, Erick!” That’s for sure. 

He finally looks away.

“She liked the idea, didn’t she?” He asks in a lower tone than I expected.

I nod.

“Sean too?” He says softly and his tone breaks my heart. 

“We haven’t told him yet. We wanted to run it by you first.”

“Oh, he’ll love it,” his voice is tainted with sad resignation. 

He attempts a grin but doesn’t really achieve it. 

“I’ll chip in on the rent,” he sits back down. 

I want to tell him there’s no need, but I think he’ll feel insulted, so I stay quiet. I can refuse his money later. 

When I wheel out of there I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I immediately call Jules and tell her about it. I’m sure she feels the same way. 

So we go see the apartment and we love it. I make a deposit, and a few days later we sign the lease. Sean loves the idea like Tony predicted. It makes me feel guilty how happy he is about it, because deep down, I think Sean would like me to be more than friends with his mother. He’s never said it in so many words, but he’s been pretty obvious about it on more than one occasion. I’m flattered by it, but I’m also worried about it. 

Tony helps us move in. All the while he pretends he’s happy for us, but he looks sadder by the minute. He’s quiet all the time, at the office, when we hang out, on the phone, when he shows to pick up Sean and take him out. He looks miserable. I’m really worried about him. Still, he comes by to make renovations on the bathroom, he takes down the shower door and replaces it with one I can wheel in with. Like I said before, Tony’s freaking Mother Teresa. I could never thank him enough for everything he does for me. 

Living with Jules is wonderful, even better than I expected. We hang out every night when I come home from work. On the weekend, we stay in bed and watch movies. She does end up having to help me a lot more than I’d like. It makes me realize everything my mother did for me. She’s sweet about it though, she never makes it seem like a chore. I wish I were more independent and also that I could help more around the house, but at least I can cover the expenses so she doesn’t have to worry about money. 

We decide to have Christmas at the new place. Jules spends two whole days cooking. She loves her new kitchen. I’ve never seen her happier, which in turn makes me happy, but then I feel guilty about Tony being miserable. Damn!

We sit at a plastic table we brought from the office, we still don’t have enough furniture. Jules makes it look beautiful though. She places a red tablecloth and arranges the dishes, cups and napkins to make it look like a banquet. And we share a feast she cooked for us, my angel. I don’t eat too much, though. I know my stomach can only handle so much. I serve myself a little bit of every course because I want to try everything she made. She looks beautiful serving the dishes. She has a big smile plastered on her face despite everything she’s been through. Nothing could break this woman, she’s so strong. 

After dinner, we exchange gifts. Tony’s gift to Jules is a keyboard. I know he wishes he could give her a piano, the only reason Tony kept his and didn’t let her have it is because his father spent a whole year saving to buy him that piano. But this is the next best thing. Jules loves it. She stands up and throws her arms around him. Then she kisses his cheek and Tony’s mouth twists into a genuine smile for the first time in weeks. 

She plugs it in and presses the keys. A carol, of course, Deck the halls. I smile and lean back on my rest to watch her. Then, Sean requests Carol of the bells, which surprises all of us. I guess he likes to hear his mom play and sing like the rest of us after all. Only Jules could sing this song. I listen to her mesmerized. This is the song they made us sing in church choir when we were kids. We all know the lyrics, but no male adult would be able to sing it. Tony and I look at each other with a smile, sharing the memory. 

“Time for my one carol, Sean,” Jules says.

“Oh no, no way,” Sean laughs.

 Jules rises to her feet and pulls his hand to make him stand up. 

“It’s your obligation,” she says jokingly. “Come on, what will it be?”

We all stand by expectantly waiting for Sean’s answer.

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” he finally decides.

Jules looks taken aback for a second, so does Tony. I’m pretty surprised by his choice too, but none of us say anything. Jules sits back down and plays. Sean sings, alone. He has a great voice, similar to Tony’s but with a wider range. My friend is watching his son in awe, his mouth is literally opened. I have heard Sean sing many times before and I know how good he is, but I think Tony’s just realizing the extent of his child’s talent. 

When the song is over, Jules hugs and kisses him. 

“Mom!” He complains. 

Tony is still staring at him with fatherly pride. Sean meets his eyes briefly but quickly turns away.

“Your turn uncle Erick, but enough of carols, please.”

We all laugh. He goes into his bedroom and fetches his guitar. He sits back down and sets his hands in place, but then something stops him, perhaps it’s Tony’s look. He’s watching him intently, holding a smile in, restless like he’s about to receive a gift he’s been waiting a long time for. 

“You play,” Sean holds the guitar out to him.

“No,” Tony wipes the smile off his face. “I wanna hear you play.”

Sean is still holding his arm out with the guitar, but Tony doesn’t take it. 

“Come on, baby,” Jules says.

“Yeah, Sean, come on. Play something,” I encourage him.

He looks at me for a second and finally takes his arm back and sets the guitar in place. He plays Stairway to heaven, the song we’ve practiced the most, and he makes me so proud for whatever part I had in teaching him. He’s pitch perfect. 

“Wow,” Tony lets out when the song ends. “Damn, you’re good!” He speaks in a low voice.

And Sean finally meets his eyes, he holds his gaze for a moment and then reaches the guitar out to him again. Tony takes it.

“I’m not a perfect person,” he plays The reason, looking at Jules. “There’s many things I wish I didn’t do.” She stands up and sits next to him. “I never meant to do those things to you.” 

When he finishes, he puts his arm around her shoulder. Sean stands up and takes the guitar from Tony’s hands. He starts playing my song, the one I wrote. He’s learnt it by heart. He plays the first notes but doesn’t sing. I don’t either. He stops.

“Uncle Erick, your turn,” he says. Everyone looks at me.

Sean starts the song again, but I remain silent. He stops again.

“What song is that?” Tony asks.

“It’s a song uncle Erick wrote.”

Tony turns to look at me. Damn it.

“Well?” Tony presses. “Let’s hear it.”

Sean starts playing it for the third time. So I sing. 

“That’s beautiful, Erick, did you write that?” Jules is looking at me with tender eyes. She’s sat up, leaving Tony's arm behind. 

“It’s really good, man,” Tony speaks. “How come I hadn’t heard that before? When did you write that?”

“Uh… It’s new,” I blush.

“He wrote it about a month ago,” Sean says. Thank you. 

“Is it about Lou?” Tony winks at me. 

I haven’t gone out with Lou again, I keep putting it off because I’ve been too busy. But I did tell Tony what she said. 

“Who’s Lou?” Sean asks with a frown.

“Uh…” Tony turns to look at him. Tony is usually pretty discreet. It’s not like him to give my secrets away. I’m pretty sure he’s regretting his question now. 

“It’s not about Lou,” I hiss. “It’s not about anyone in particular, it’s just a song.”

Sean gives me a look and I beg him with my eyes to keep quiet. Thankfully, he does. 

“Well, it’s a damn good one,” Tony says.

I let out the breath I’ve been holding. 

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