Chapter 1 1
When Laura was sixteen she wrote a perfect song. It was the first song she’d ever written, so she didn’t understand how hard it was to write even an okay song, or how hard it was to make anything new, in general. She still thought, then, that making something was primarily a way to have fun. She didn’t know that the song was perfect, just that it was as good as anything on the radio. She played it on her guitar alone in her bedroom, and then for her best friend, Callie, and then for her mother. Her mother made an approving noise and went back to paying attention to one of Laura’s brothers. Callie asked where she’d heard it and didn’t believe her when she said she’d written it, because it was the kind of song that sounds like it has always existed. Laura started to think that she must have heard it somewhere and remembered it. She hadn’t, though. She had written it.
The next day she wrote another song: this one wasn’t perfect; it wasn’t even okay; it was barely a song. This convinced Laura that the first song hadn’t really been hers. She was embarrassed about the whole thing, and so she pretended to herself that it hadn’t happened. She didn’t think about that first song again for years, and by the time she remembered, it was almost too late.
Now, at twenty-two, she stood in line outside a bar on the corner of Lafayette and Grand, sweating through a black dress that was absorbing all the heat of the midday sun. The other women in line were also wearing black, and some of them clutched the page of the Village Voice where the help-wanted ad had appeared. Some had printed out their résumés. Laura had never worked in a bar or restaurant. In Columbus, she’d worked selling cheap electric guitars to teenage boys at her family’s shop, and then for a while at the Gap in the outlet mall. So she hadn’t brought a résumé, but it didn’t matter. A man came out and walked down the line of women, assessing each one for an instant, then made his selections.
He looked at Laura and saw the way she smiled and made eye contact with no hint of wariness in her giant dark eyes, the expression on her face constantly saying something mildly incredulous, like, “Wow, really?” He guessed correctly that she was very new here. He walked back a step, pointed to Laura and two others, and told the rest they could go home.
Laura and the other two women stepped inside and blinked as their eyes adjusted from the glaring heat and brightness of the sidewalk to the chilled darkness of the bar. It was painted black, and the banquettes were dark red velvet, meant to give an impression of luxury, but like all bars in the daytime it stank and was sad, like an empty fairground. The guy who’d chosen them started training them immediately, without even asking their names. He had no way of knowing that they even knew English—and, as it turned out, one of them, Yulia, essentially didn’t—but it didn’t matter, because they weren’t being hired as bartenders or even waitresses. The ad had read “front-of-house staff,” and their job, as the guy described it, was to greet guests at the door and usher them to a banquette in either the upper or lower section of the bar, depending on how much money they looked likely to spend. Other than that, their job was to walk around in the bar and smile and chat. They were there to provide ambiance, like the chandeliers and the nicer-brand soap in the bathroom’s dispensers.
The pay was twelve dollars an hour, he said, plus sometimes the bartenders would tip them out. Twelve dollars an hour, plus (possible) tips—she would only have to work fifty-four hours a month, at most, to pay the $650 rent that her best friend and now roommate, Callie, informed her was an incredible bargain, considering their apartment’s perfect location on Third between First and A. Callie had lived in New York for almost five years now, because she’d gone to college there. Callie knew everyone, had regular haunts, and would have told Laura (if she’d asked) not to take the job at Bar Lafitte, might even have been able to hook her up with a better—less gross, more lucrative—bar job, but Laura was determined not to lean too heavily on Callie. She was trying not to just let all Callie’s friends become her friends by default.
Laura put her name on the schedule for a shift the next day and walked back out into the daytime, which now seemed even brighter. The blast of warm air carrying the sunbaked smells of piss and pavement felt good on her chilled bare legs and arms. She had shrunk into herself somewhat while inside the bar, and now that she was outside, she could expand fully back into her skin. She tried to ignore how relieved she felt to be out of there, and instead tried to feel happy that she now had a job. Having a job meant she would be able to afford to stay in the apartment she’d just moved into and could start making progress toward her goal: play shows, write more songs, get signed to a label, and make an album. She was going to become a professional musician. She would never go back to Columbus if she didn’t want to. The next time she saw her hometown it was going to be because she was on tour.
For the past week, she’d been saying hi to people whom she saw around the neighborhood more than once, thinking maybe those people would become her friends. The rules around saying hi were very different than they had been in Columbus, she had noticed. The man behind the counter at the bodega on her corner, which sold all kinds of Cadbury candy from the UK, had seemed surprised when she’d introduced herself on her second visit. He had been reluctant to reveal his own name, as if no one had ever asked him before.
Laura had broken up with a nice but boring boyfriend in anticipation of moving, one of a series of nice boring boyfriends that had begun when she was fourteen. Chris, Jason, Alex, Jason again, Darrell. She had never been in love. She liked to always have a boyfriend whom she wasn’t in love with so that she could have sex whenever she wanted and not have to worry about going on dates or having her heart broken or catching diseases. She had never been in love. She was in love with her music—she really was, and she sometimes told people so. But now she was determined to avoid even having another convenience-boyfriend. She wanted to be single, to know herself as a single person and to focus on writing songs. She listened to the Joni Mitchell album Hejira every day on her headphones, using a Discman that predictably skipped during her favorite track, “Song for Sharon,” which was about being an adventurer and not worrying about conventional trappings of female life. In that song, someone suggests to the narrator (ostensibly Joni) that she should settle down and have children or do charity work, and Joni responds that the cure for her melancholy is actually to find herself “another lover.” Laura loved that line so much.
It was nice to have the validation of getting a job, even a very easy bar job. Laura hadn’t gotten a lot of ego boosts lately, or actually ever. She had never been a great student, but she would often make up the distance between a C and a B by writing poems for extra credit, like the one about the Bill of Rights she’d written in eighth grade that rhymed “probable cause” with “due process clause.” Though she had changed in a few crucial ways since then, she still loved doggerel and patter and songs with complicated, weird, funny lyrics. She had gone to Ohio State University and studied English lit and spent a lot of time alone in her room with her acoustic guitar. Occasionally at an open-mic night she would play her songs for other people, who clapped politely and came up to her afterward and thought that she would consider being compared to Weird Al a compliment, which it sort of was, though she would have preferred to be compared to the Moldy Peaches.
In New York, she thought as she walked south down the darkening cavern of Lafayette, people would “get” what she was trying to do with her music, although she had to admit that she didn’t always “get” it herself all the time. She described her music’s genre as “anti-folk” when she had to call it anything. Her best song, or the one that audiences typically liked best, was a sort of mock ballad about a breakup called “I Want My Tapes Back,” in which she rhymed “I hope you know where they are” with “under the seat of your car.”
Her father had been a professional musician at one point in his life. He had gone on tour with the Allman Brothers and had played on two of their albums; Laura had cherished a record sleeve that had his name in tiny print in a long list of credits. Then he had come back to Ohio, married her mom and had three kids—two boys and Laura—and opened a guitar store. He had died when Laura was ten, in a car accident that would likely have been survivable if he’d worn a seat belt. Her mother had reacted by becoming extremely—and, Laura felt, perversely—religious. Laura had felt like the whole thing was proof that there was no God. But that wasn’t how the rest of her family saw things.
She loved her mom and her two older brothers, but she often felt like she didn’t quite speak the same language that they did. Words didn’t quite mean, to Laura, what they meant to her mom. Most of Laura’s choices—her haircuts, her plans, her friends—were “interesting.” The music she liked and the songs she wrote were “funny.” Still, as long as she didn’t ask anyone for money, the worst her family could do was subtly disapprove. She was an adult and no one could actually prevent her from doing anything, and anyway, no one cared enough about what she was doing to try to change her mind. She was a free adult! She stretched her arms to the heavens as she walked down First Avenue, turning onto her street—her street!—then swung them back to her sides, suddenly self-conscious.
The key that Callie had given her didn’t quite fit the lock and required delicate pressure and just the right angle. She thought of knocking but didn’t want to disturb Callie if she was home. When she finally got the door open, though, Callie was sitting at their small kitchen table, so absorbed in her complicated beauty routine that she hadn’t even heard the jangling in the hallway. She had her makeup all over the table and a cigarette burning in an ashtray, a tumbler full of Diet Dr Pepper and vodka next to it. It seemed incredibly bohemian to Laura that Callie smoked inside their apartment. Disgusting, but also bohemian.
Callie looked up at her, taking all of her in for a brief moment. “We’re going out,” she announced. “You should wear my green dress; don’t wear your Ohio clothes.”
Laura went into Callie’s bedroom, where she extricated the dress (which wasn’t exactly clean, but smelled mostly pleasantly of Callie’s perfume) from the deep pile on the floor. She’d become aware within minutes of her arrival in New York of her entire wardrobe’s humiliating inadequacies. Most crucially, she had the wrong kind of jeans: flared denim with no stretch, so that there was an empty crease underneath her small butt, underscoring its smallness. Callie had jeans that looked like they’d been custom-fitted to her body and that ended just millimeters from her pubic bone. She worked in a boutique and also took photographs and did makeup, and her own makeup, as always, was perfect. Like Laura, she wanted to perform, but it wasn’t clear yet what her talent was exactly. Callie could get up on a stage and everyone would pay attention, but she hadn’t figured out what to do to keep that attention going. For as long as Laura had known her, Callie had always taken up to an hour to get ready to go out. When she was done with her makeup she would look like she wasn’t wearing much at all; she would just look like the most dewy, ideal version of herself possible.
When Laura came out of the bedroom, Callie gave her an approving once-over. “Perfect. Okay, so we’re going to see this band, and then we’re going out with the band afterward,” she said.
“Anyone I’ve heard of?”
“Maybe? They’re kind of becoming a thing. They’re called the Clips—I know, so stupid, but all band names sound stupid.”
“So true,” said Laura. “Like, Pearl Jam. Can you imagine the moment of thinking that was a good name?”
“Nirvana,” said Callie, rolling her eyes.
“Nirvana is actually a good name, though.”
“Forget everything you know about Nirvana for a second and then just think about the name. Aren’t you expecting something with panpipes that plays in the background at a spa?”
Laura thought about it and decided that Callie, as usual, was right. Laura had gotten in the habit of trusting Callie to point them both in the right direction. Ever since they’d first met, as high school freshmen, she’d happily submitted to being Callie’s protégée. True, Callie could be condescending; during that first year of their friendship, she’d coached Laura about what was cool and what wasn’t in a way that was sometimes brutal, and often shifted dramatically without warning. One week it was absolutely mandatory that they both wear cutoff jean shorts and peasant blouses, but then the next week Laura showed up to school in a version of the same outfit and Callie found it so unacceptable that she made her change in the bathroom. The next trend was baggy carpenter corduroy pants and Western-wear shirts, and Callie had actually brought spare ones in her backpack to prevent Laura from suffering the humiliation of wearing last week’s style one moment longer than necessary. It was mysterious and somewhat magical, the way Callie understood what would make them cool; she seemed to receive messages about it from the ether.
Back then, Laura had wondered what made Callie choose her; she’d thought maybe it had to do with her musical talent. Now that she was older she recognized that Callie had seen that Laura had the potential to be someone whose prettiness and talent burnished Callie’s own. She had been the one who had decided what kind of teenager Laura would be: the kind who played guitar and smoked cigarettes in the courtyard when she should have been studying. They had both still been near the top of their class, though; their school was easy, and no one tried too hard at anything besides football. Callie was known then as an “artist,” monopolizing the art classroom’s darkroom to enlarge giant black-and-white photographs of her own face.
“Your face is fun to put makeup on,” she had said one night when they were in Callie’s bedroom getting ready to go to a party (upperclassmen, parents out of town). Callie’s own face, already anointed with glitter that smelled like vanilla cake, hovered close to Laura’s as she dabbed something cool onto Laura’s eyelids with a velvety-damp wand. “I can make you look however I want you to look.”
Laura wasn’t an idiot. She understood, even at fifteen, that this would always be a good friendship exactly to the extent that she wanted to be molded. But also, taking responsibility for her own self-presentation felt, mostly, like work she could happily outsource. And Laura wasn’t purely Callie’s sidekick, or at least, like most good sidekicks, she could take over as the heroine if the situation demanded it. Once, junior year, they had been driving around aimlessly in Callie’s rusted-out old car, talking about nothing and singing along to the radio. Then the car had broken down. They weren’t far outside of town, but neither of them recognized their immediate surroundings; it soon became clear that they were really lost, and it was cold out. The joint they’d smoked had not helped. At first it was kind of an adventure. Then as they kept walking, getting colder, talking about how maybe they should flag someone down to help them and deal with the consequences if that person happened to be a serial killer or a molester, it became less of one. It was Laura who spotted the first recognizable landmark. She turned up a side street that led to a gas station and dealt with the details of getting a tow truck and a ride back to her house, where she made Callie a cup of tea and put her to bed in the upper bunk of the bunkbeds in her still-childish bedroom.
The only flaw in Callie’s plan for Laura was that it had failed to take Laura’s mom’s finances into account; though they’d both gotten into NYU, Callie’s family was willing and able to pay for it, while Laura’s family—reasonably, Laura thought—refused to let her take out enormous loans when she could go to a good school much closer to home. She had feared that they would lose touch once Callie was in the city. But Callie was not the kind of person who would leave a project unfinished. They also both found that it was hard to create the kind of easy intimacy they had with each other with anyone else. They had a legacy of secrets and inside jokes. Combined, they were more powerful than they were apart. So when the roommate who’d been in the second “bedroom” of Callie’s apartment moved out to live with her boyfriend, she’d called up Laura and told her there was a spot for her, if she had $650 and wanted to move to New York and claim it. She did.
“So how do you know … the Clips?” Laura asked as Callie circled her, tweaking the hem of the dress, smoothing stray pieces of her dark hair into a half-up, half-down situation.
“I had a class with the drummer once, and then I saw them play a few weeks ago at another thing and afterward I went backstage, etcetera.”
Callie shrugged and continued. “It seems like musicians are the people you should know, right? Plus, they’re all hot.”
“I’m looking for people who can help me book shows, not boys to hook up with. And don’t ask why can’t I do both—you know I’m not good at multitasking.”
Callie laughed. “I forgot about your vow of celibacy.”
“I’ll have plenty of time to slut it up when I’m famous. I mean, when I’ve accomplished something.”
“What are you going to write songs about in the meantime, though, if not love? Or at least sex?”
Callie’s desire to basically pimp Laura out had always been a little bit tiresome. Laura tried to distract her. “I wrote a song about egg sandwiches this morning. Want to hear it?”
Without waiting for Callie to respond, Laura put down her drink and grabbed her guitar from the other room. “?‘Bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll,’?” she sang. “?‘Or sometimes just egg and cheese. In a greasy paper sleeve, I eat you on the street.’?” She played a few more lines and then noodled around a little bit. “I’m still trying to figure out the chorus,” she admitted.
Callie scrunched up her nose. “I don’t think that one is going to be climbing the charts.” She motioned for Laura to come sit by her near the makeup mirror. Laura put down her guitar and complied.
A few minutes later Callie finished doing Laura’s hair and stepped away from her quickly, as though preventing herself from continuing to fiddle with and potentially ruin a perfect creation. They both looked at Laura’s reflection in the mirror for a moment with satisfaction.
Something about Laura’s looks hadn’t made sense in the context of their hometown. To be pretty there, you had to be symmetrical, straight-haired, and small-nosed, ideally white, ideally blond. Within those parameters, you could be pretty or just blandly palatable, like a pat of butter on a squishy dinner roll. Laura’s big eyes and off-kilter nose made her look different from different angles, which made figuring out whether she was attractive too confusing for the consumers of the buttered rolls. But with the city as her backdrop, she was starting to make more sense. She didn’t have the perfumed, deliberate, and commanding hotness of a Callie. But in their dim apartment, backlit by the lamp Callie kept next to her futon mattress on the floor, she had the look of an ingénue about to step onstage, lit with an anticipatory glow.
The band was playing at one of the terrible bars on Bleecker Street unofficially reserved for NYU students and tourists. There were booths and tables, and a waitress in tall black boots who smelled like patchouli came around and sloshed red wine into their glasses from a giant bottle with no label. It tasted like the smell of the industrial-strength cleaner that whoever mopped the hallways of their building used in order to push the ancient dirt around. After a few sips, though, it grew on them. Though the lighting left the musicians in a pool of dimness, Laura stared at them. Specifically, the guitar player. She hoped that he wasn’t the one who Callie had etcetera’d. He reminded her of a boy from her hometown who’d played Jesus in a high school production of Godspell, skinny and tall with long, pale stringy hair, and he never ever looked up from his guitar. His arm muscles were ropy and hard, and there were holes in his stained white T-shirt. He looked incredibly sad. Suddenly Laura was embarrassed to realize that she was imagining what it would be like to have sex with him. Embarrassed because it was so cliché, and because her imaginings were immediately so vivid and compelling.
The music he was playing, which she almost had to remind herself to notice, was objectively good but not in a way that Laura actually liked. She forced herself to admire his technical skills so that, if she met the guitarist, she could tell him about what she liked in a detailed way and impress him with her musician bona fides. The waitress refilled their wineglasses. Then the band took a break and everyone went outside for cigarettes. Callie put her head close to Laura’s as she lit her cigarette, leaning in so far that her hair brushed Laura’s face.
“So?” she asked. “You seemed into it.”
“I’m not really a fan of this kind of … purposely distorted, less-catchy Television-song thing. It’s just really heterosexual and derivative,” she was saying as the short black-haired drummer came up behind Callie and lifted her into the air by her tiny waist.
“You don’t like our music!” he said to Laura with a kind of prideful leer. Clearly, he didn’t care at all what she thought of his music.
“Owww, you’re hurting me,” Callie whined, batting ineffectively at her pseudo attacker.
He turned his leer toward Callie. “Who’s this?” he asked.
“This is Laura, she’s my new roommate. She’s a musician, too.”
“Are you coming to our party afterward? I promise it’ll be fun, even if you’re not into our heterosexual, derivative songs.”
She nodded mutely, unable to think of any interesting or clever way of saying yes. Letting Callie be her ticket into social situations made her feel like she was back in high school, both cozily familiar and disappointingly regressive.
The drummer gave Callie a squeeze and put her down. The guitar player was standing under a streetlamp alone, smoking, and Laura let herself stare at him. There was something about how he’d looked playing guitar—his focus and his passion, which he’d seemed to be trying almost to conceal. It wasn’t cool to be passionate, but he was, and that made her feel tender toward the part of him that couldn’t protect itself from being seen. He glanced up, catching her in the act of staring at his fingers and lips, and he caught her gaze and held it, held it and let his lips curl into a lazy half smile around his cigarette. She felt the blood rise to her face as she dropped her gaze, trying to pretend that she’d been aimlessly staring into space. She’d never felt so powerfully attracted to anyone before. When she looked up again he was talking to the drummer. The whole thing lasted a fraction of a second, but it was still enough to get Laura through the rest of the show.
The party was in a big, weird loft on Ninth between C and D, built out with lots of plywood dividers to make bedrooms for all the roommates, detritus hanging from the ceiling as decor, low light concealing general filth, and a big stand ashtray next to a rotting velour couch whose springs poked Laura in her bony butt as she sat on it, smoking and drinking more than she wanted to because she was both bored and nervous. She tried not to glance at the guitar player too often. He stayed in another corner of the party having an intense one-on-one conversation with the bass player, but she still looked at him often enough that he had to have seen her and sensed her attention. Hadn’t he?
As the party wore on, getting louder and later and smokier, she became more and more sure that she had imagined the whole thing, or maybe he just did that to girls at random, testing his eye-contact powers the way you’d press the blade of a knife into whatever was around to see how sharp it was. She hovered on the edge of a conversation that was happening near her, pretending with her head movements to be part of it, but there was no one she wanted to talk to besides him.
A joint kept getting passed to her. She smoked without thinking, then was unpleasantly surprised when she stood up and her head swam. She hadn’t eaten since the Juicy Lucy smoothie she’d had for lunch. Of course this was the moment the guitar player chose to begin to make his way toward her, but now Laura’s breathing was speeding up and her mouth was watering in an ominous way and her number one priority was to leave the party without throwing up. She said goodbye to Callie, who gave her a puzzled look and quickly turned back to whoever she was talking to. Being full of incipient barf and the threat of humiliation made Laura feel artificially sober; she noticed every detail of the stairwell tile, the uneven texture of the sanded-down stairs under her feet. She ran out to the street, and the stinking breath of the hot summer night hit her straight in the face. She crouched on the curb between two cars, and wine vomit spewed out of her in a torrent, foamy and pink. She stood up shakily and felt immediately better, then gasped as she realized that the guitar player was standing right next to her.
“That was impressive.” His speaking voice was deep and smooth, unexpected in a skinny, boyish person.
She shook her head and fished around in her bag for a tissue, but she’d borrowed the purse from Callie, and there wasn’t anything inside it that felt familiar. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”
He produced a packet of tissues from his pocket. They were clean and new-looking. She must have looked surprised.
“I have allergies,” he explained, waving them toward her. “My throat is so sore right now I can barely talk.”
“It’s brave of you to party in that condition,” Laura said, taking a tissue and dabbing at her mouth in what she hoped was a casual yet effective way.
He shrugged. “Davey said we had to. There were supposed to be important industry people here. There’s always some reason you have to go to a party, you know? In Davey’s mind, anyway.” He paused, and she wobbled slightly on the uneven pavement. “Sorry, are you actually okay?”
“I think so. Just humiliated. I’m Laura, by the way.”
“Oh, the musician!”
She looked at him suspiciously; he had to be making fun of her. No one had ever referred to her as a musician before.
“Callie told us about you.” He was clearly trying to put her at ease.
“Davey, the rest of the band, my roommates. Callie’s a cool girl.”
“Oh! Yeah, she’s … she’s cool.” The post-puke reprieve from nausea was wearing off, and as much as she wanted to keep talking to this beautiful yet vulnerable (allergies!) guy who thought of her as a musician, she knew she should leave before she threw up again.
“I should go home,” she said, backing away so that he didn’t get the opportunity to do what it seemed like he wanted to do, which was reach toward her and touch her arm. The possibility that he would touch her was too exciting to deal with at her current level of shaky queasiness. It made her feel like she might explode, and not in a cute way. He shrugged and lit another cigarette as she slunk off down the block, hoping that her instinct was leading her in the right direction, away from the East River and toward her strange, filthy, exciting new home.
The next day Laura woke up with a disgusting hangover that made her head feel like a black banana. By 1:00 p.m. she’d managed to ingest a coffee and a chocolate croissant and was feeling much better. She was absolutely sure she would never smoke cigarettes again, until Callie woke up at 2:00 p.m. and started smoking her American Spirits in the kitchen, and without thinking about it Laura lit one, too. Callie was wearing her beautiful teal kimono, deep in the process of removing last night’s makeup with almond-oil-soaked cotton balls that she placed in a growing black-and-red pile on the table in front of her, studying her own face in the mirror with infinite fascination.
When Laura walked past the door of Callie’s room on her way to the bathroom she noticed that the drummer was lying asleep in Callie’s bed. Laura cocked her head toward the bedroom as she reentered the kitchen as if to say, “So?”
Callie looked away from her reflection for a second and smiled. “They’re a good band, right? They’re going to be famous soon. That’s definitely the last time they’ll play a venue that small; it’s almost for sure that they’re going on tour, opening for the Strokes. Did you end up talking to Dylan?”
“His name is Dylan?”
Callie smirked. “His parents picked his name, not him. Okay, so … let me guess. You either hooked up with him but were too drunk to remember his name—which, since I’ve met you, I know is unlikely. Or maybe you were too shy to even speak to him.”
Laura slumped in her chair and ashed into her empty cardboard coffee cup. “Worse. We did meet, but it was right after I threw up in the gutter.”
Callie’s naked face shone with oil. She was still beautiful without the makeup, but it was weird to see her without it. She looked pink and unfinished. “Well, he’ll remember you next time, for sure!”
“As the girl who barfed. Great.”
“So you’re into him! That’s good. We’re going to a party tonight that he’ll probably be at.”
“Except I have to work.”
“Come by after.”
“It’ll be late, though.”
“Well, still come, you’ll be sober and you’ll be able to swoop in for the coup de grâce with all your wits about you.”
Laura rolled her eyes. “That’s me, swooping in. Always very slick.”
Laura waded through the crowded darkness at Bar Lafitte, leading people to their tables, smiling and leaving them there, then strolling slowly back to the podium by the door. Whenever she was bored, Laura thought about the album she had been slowly assembling in her mind over the course of the past couple of years. She had a handful of tunes that needed words, and this was why she’d moved to New York—to live the kind of life that she could write songs about, instead of a life in an apartment above a music store that she rented at a discount rate from her mother. Aside from “I Want My Tapes Back,” she hadn’t mined great material from her utility boyfriends. Inspiration had to come from somewhere else—New York, she hoped. She wanted to be like the artists who’d enshrined her new neighborhood as a place for the dissolute and beautiful and doomed.
But the East Village wasn’t turning out to be like the mythic version of itself that existed in her mind. Rents were higher, people died far less often, and there were stores that specialized only in Japanese toys and hookah bars that catered to NYU undergraduates. There were also the internet cafés. There was something about an internet café that could never be glamorous, only grubby and desperate. On Avenue A, across from the park, there was a real café, where everyone languidly sipped their coffees, eyed each other, watched the street outside, chain-smoked at the sidewalk tables, and wrote in little notebooks or pretended to. In the internet café next door everyone just stared at the screens. They had bought their little bit of time, and now they had to use it wisely.
There were still fascinating and glamorous people around, though. The beautiful waitress at the BYOB cheap Italian restaurant on Ninth Street, the one with the giant eyes and acne-scarred cheeks. Yulia, whom Bar Lafitte had hired at the same time as they’d hired Laura, who only ever spoke to say, “Please, your table.” The guitarist Dylan. She wanted to write a song about Dylan. She wanted to do all kind of clichéd things, and she was just self-aware enough to know they were clichés but still young enough to think that things would be different for her.
She didn’t really like smoking, but there wasn’t anything else to do, so she took a cigarette break in the alley behind the bar, where a waitress was also smoking. It was almost sunset and there was a golden light on the stones of the building across the street, and they stood smoking in the fading light, silently finding some kind of comradeship in just standing next to each other. The waitress broke the silence by introducing herself, strategically waiting till both their cigarettes were almost to the filter. “Hey, I’m Alexis, I’m section five tonight.”
Laura turned to look at her more closely. The waitresses primarily distinguished themselves from the hostesses by their little black aprons, but there was also something else different about them. The hostesses were softer, newer—they all clearly had ended up there by accident—while the waitresses were professionals. Their eye makeup was dark and deliberate, calibrated to be visible in low light. Their cleavage pushed out of their tight black tank tops, not as if they were shoving their tits in your face but as if they couldn’t be bothered to conceal them. Alexis had a short brown ponytail and a dark even tan and perfectly globular breasts. She was intimidating, but there was also something about her that Laura trusted implicitly.
“Do you want to get promoted to server?” she asked as if it were an offhand question, but Laura could tell that she was being evaluated.
“Should I want to?”
Alexis laughed, and her globular boobs jiggled slightly, perfectly. “I’ll ask you again after you’ve had your first shift drink with Stefan.”
Stefan was the manager who’d hired Laura. “Oh, because he’s a perv?” She could hear herself trying to sound tough, as tough as hard-edged Alexis. “I can shut that down.”
“Well, then he’ll fire you. Just flirt, string him along a bit. You definitely don’t have to do anything, but keep his hopes alive.” Alexis pulled out a hot-pink Bic and lit another cigarette, and Laura felt a glow of approval; if she’d been a dud, Alexis would have gone right back to her section, she felt sure.
“To answer your question, though, yes you should want to get promoted! You’re making shit money considering what you’ll have to put up with here, and the bartenders will never tip you out, because you don’t do anything for them. The only exception is Max, and he’ll just be trying to get you to talk to him, which you shouldn’t do if you can avoid it. And you make good money here as a server. Really good.”
Laura wished she was a real smoker; her cigarette was out, but she was still feeling slightly too hungover for another one and she wanted an excuse to continue talking to Alexis. “How good?”
Alexis paused, maybe assessing whether she wanted to be honest with Laura, whether Laura merited advice or help. “On a good night you can make three hundred dollars. There’s a lot more bullshit, but it’s worth it.”
Even though the party where she might have been able to talk to Dylan was likely already petering out by the time her shift ended at four, a completely deranged part of her wanted to go to the party just in case he was still there. Instead of sprinting out the door and through the streets, though, she made herself sit down at the bar. She needed to ingratiate herself there if she hoped to be promoted to server. She ordered something disgusting from the bartender, rum and Coke, in the hopes that she wouldn’t be tempted to drink it too quickly. Alexis sat down beside her and put the contents of her money apron on the counter and began counting the bills. Laura noticed that there was another stack of bills nestled into the lace that cradled her boobs, and she didn’t count that one. When Stefan walked over to them she pushed it down out of sight with a subtle movement that might have been involuntary, like smoothing your hair or adjusting the waistband of your jeans.
“Shots!” he said to the bartender as he sat down at the barstool they’d left between them. Wordlessly and expressionlessly the bartender lined up four shot glasses and filled them with top-shelf tequila. Alexis helped herself to a lime from the tray on the bar and sucked it as Stefan asked them how their night had gone.
“Seven hundred and eighty dollars,” said Alexis, pushing the stacks of bills she’d made into one pile and shoving it toward the bartender, who took his tequila shot like a sip of water and then started recounting the money.
“Not bad! You reclaim your position as number one. Here’s your bonus.” Stefan nodded at the bartender, who dealt out a handful of twenties back onto the bar in front of Alexis. Stefan turned to Laura. “Interested in playing? Every night the servers compete for a sales bonus.” His eyes were unfocused, and when he touched her arm it seemed less a move than an attempt to keep from swaying. He smelled sickly sweet and powdery. She forced herself not to flinch at his touch.
“I’m not a server,” she reminded him.
“Oh, right. What’s your name again?”
“Laura.” She hadn’t told him her name before.
“Well, I should get going,” Alexis interrupted, and motioned behind Stefan’s head to Laura, who also slid down off her barstool.
“But the night’s just getting started! Come on, celebrate your first day,” Stefan said, but lightly. “Drink your drink.”
Laura watched Alexis’s face closely for clues as to what she should do, and when she detected a hint of a headshake she grabbed the rum and Coke and downed the remainder of it in a single gulp, then managed a smile. “Okay! See you tomorrow,” she said, aiming for the same light tone that Stefan had used. The trick with men like this, Laura thought, was to behave with complete neutrality so that they could project whatever thoughts or feelings they wanted to imagine you having onto you. She felt good about this realization, like it gave her some power.
“Let me walk you out at least,” he said.
Alexis shrugged, and her eyes conveyed “You’re on your own” to Laura.
When they reached the door of the bar, he insisted on hugging her goodbye, then delivered a lingering double-cheek kiss. She stood there mutely, disgusted by the sticky redolence of her boss’s dead-flowers aura so close to her own skin. He went back into the bar, and she wiped her cheeks.
When she turned toward the street, she saw Callie, Dylan, and Davey were there on the sidewalk, waiting for her.
“We thought we’d pick you up from work, ’cause the party got boring,” Callie said. “Want to go back to Dylan and Davey’s and smoke a bowl and watch dating shows?”
She wanted nothing more. But when she tried to catch Dylan’s eye she found that whatever had passed between them last night was gone, or at least submerged under some resentment or confusion.
“Who was that?” he asked, in a slightly accusatory tone of voice, like he thought she shouldn’t have let Stefan cheek-kiss her. That was annoying.
“Ugh, that’s my new boss. He’s like that with everyone.” She stopped just short of actually apologizing.
But then his hand brushed hers, and she forgot to be annoyed immediately. For an awkward, heartbeat-skipping moment she thought he might hold hands with her. Even though he didn’t grab her hand it seemed possible that he could, or that he wanted to.
When they got back to Dylan and Davey’s apartment everyone smoked weed laced with opium in front of the TV and slumped onto one another in a puppy pile, Callie’s legs on Laura’s and Laura leaning into Dylan’s shoulder. Eventually everyone but Laura fell asleep. Even anesthetized by drugs and exhaustion she was alert to each of Dylan’s breaths as he slept and how close she was to him, close enough to hear his heartbeat. She imagined kissing him and felt almost queasy with desire. But after maybe twenty minutes it became clear that he wasn’t about to wake up again and she finally passed out, letting her body relax tentatively into the side of his. She had fitful, flashing dreams.
She woke up as it began to get light out, and as she realized where she was and whose flannel shirt she was smelling because it was right up against her nose, her whole body went into a kind of flu-like feverish shock. She had to exert an enormous effort to stay where she was, not wake everyone by suddenly bolting off the couch.
Her breath, though, and her fast heartbeat were outside her control, and Dylan rustled awake. He kept one eye scrunched closed and looked up at her, then reached out an arm and pulled her up off the couch. Callie grunted something disapproving as her legs got rearranged but then rolled over in the empty space and went right back to sleep. Dylan pulled Laura along the hall to his bedroom.
He had a loft bed made out of raw, splintery two-by-fours, with piles of clothes and cables and synths littering the floor underneath. The mattress was so near the ceiling that Laura couldn’t help but think about how the only kind of sex they would be able to have would be close together, with nobody sitting up. She was desperate to have sex with Dylan, but she was also nervous. There were so many variables when you hooked up with someone for the first time; would he, after everything she’d imagined, be rushed or lazy or inconsiderate or just not really there? She had already experienced more than her share of dull, grabby hands and slimy lolling-open mouths and mistaken ideas from porn.
He saw her staring at the makeshift bed and caught her eye and smiled. “I know, it sucks,” he said. “I’ll get a real bed one of these days, I promise.” She felt a rush of joy at the suggestion that she was going to be around to witness his future bed.
The difference in their heights was thrilling but inconvenient; she had to crane her neck up a lot to reach his mouth. They clambered awkwardly up into the tiny bed and stretched out against each other. He ran his fingertips lightly around the edges of her still-clothed body. She was wearing her unfashionable jeans. There was no graceful way for him to remove them because neither of them could sit up all the way, so he said, “Let’s just take off our own clothes,” and they each hurriedly did, then lay down next to each other again. He was thin and pale, with only a few wisps of chest hair right in the center and a constellation of freckles in a semicircle near his navel. He’d kept his boxers on—a nice touch, to have taken them off would have been practical but still somehow presumptuous—and his dick strained against the fabric impressively. Without any of the delicacy and finesse he’d displayed in the way he touched her, she reached out and grabbed it. It felt almost improbably thick, and it pulsed in her hand. He made a little involuntary grunting sound as he pushed his waistband down to give her better access, and even though they were still kissing she managed to glance down to assess what she was holding.
Dylan had the most beautiful dick in the world. It was perfectly symmetrical, long, thick, and uncircumcised, and it was even a nice color—not purple or red at all, but the same pale white as the rest of his skin.
She wondered, in the tiny part of her mind that could still think, whether Dylan knew, whether his perfect dick had informed the direction of his life. Probably? If you came to New York with some musical talent and a perfect dick, why wouldn’t you take for granted that your band would soon be recording and touring, that you would be able to get by without a day job, that you would be able to get girls to come home with you by, essentially, existing in their presence? But the tiny pang of jealousy that Laura felt in that moment was soon eclipsed by what was happening in front of her. Dylan crouched awkwardly and somewhat perfunctorily between her legs for a moment, then put on a condom and gently, slowly, shoved about a third of his perfect dick in.
He made eye contact with Laura and said, “Is it okay?”
Clearly, this was a thing that he knew he had to do, which should have mildly grossed Laura out, but she was no longer processing this experience from a critical remove. She said, “Unf,” in a way that she hoped expressed okayness, so he continued.
It wasn’t ultimately satisfying, exactly; Laura was too excited and nervous to let go all the way, and she kept hearing the sounds she was making and getting thrown out of the moment by worrying about the people sleeping in the other room. But she thought that even so, something about this particular morning would end up staying with her, returning to her occasionally over the years in dreams or fantasies or even during sex with other people. There was just something pure about it, something fun and happy that made her feel like anything might be possible. The unavoidable metaphor was that it was her first hit of a drug, and she imagined that she might spend the rest of her life chasing this high and never quite replicating it.
A few hours later Laura slipped out of Dylan’s apartment into the quiet of what passed for early morning in her neighborhood. The people who had daytime jobs in other parts of the city had left hours earlier, but the people who had nighttime jobs and other kinds of work were still in their apartments, taking long showers, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, lighting incense, and reading their tarot card of the day. She splurged on croissants and non-bodega coffee from a bakery on First Avenue, taking a circuitous route toward the shop where Callie worked on Seventh Street. The sign on the door still read Closed, but the door was unlocked and Callie was inside, zipping up a dress that Laura recognized from the window display. It looked even better on Callie than it did on the headless, white-limbed mannequin.
“Oooh,” she said when she saw Laura. “So?”
Laura was grinning. “I don’t want to diminish the experience by analyzing it or giving you a play-by-play.”
“How selfish! Come on, just one detail. Please? I haven’t even opened the shop yet and I’m already bored.”
“Does anyone even come in here?”
“Oh yeah, it gets busy! I sell lots of dresses. I pick things out for people and make them feel like I’m making them look good.” She flipped the sign on the door to Open and then walked toward the mirror-covered pillar in the center of the store, staring herself down, smoothing the sides of the dress. Her mirror face was grim and determined, but satisfied. As usual, her makeup was immaculate, though her hair, never very clean, looked wild and slept-on. Somehow this juxtaposition was, on Callie, glamorous. Looking at her made you want to stop washing your own hair. It was easy to see why she sold lots of dresses; being around her made you want to try to look as good as she did, and also somehow made it seem like it might be possible.
“Do it for me, pick me out something.”
“You can’t afford any of this, even with my discount.”
“I have a job! I could get some new clothes.” Having sex had also made her feel pretty. There was no better time to go shopping.
“I get that you’re trying to distract me, but I’ll weasel some intel out of you before we’re done here,” said Callie, circling Laura and looking at her from all angles. “This is what I do: I stare at people like I’m computer-analyzing their unique proportions and going through a mental database of our whole inventory. Then I pick the most expensive thing I think I can get away with, or whatever is going on sale next week.”
“Well, don’t do that with me. Just show me the cutest thing,” said Laura.
“For you? It’s this.” The dress had a halter top that exposed the top of Laura’s back. She liked that it was a light color, so she couldn’t wear it at work; it was a dress for her actual life, not the dim black-clad half-life of the bar. It was perfect for summer and could even be worn under a cardigan in fall. It showed off Laura’s arms and shoulders, where her muscles were well defined from years of both playing and carrying around her guitar. She imagined standing near Dylan and having him reach behind her neck to untie the straps. As soon as she put it on she knew that she would have to buy it, no matter how expensive it turned out to be.
She waited until the flush that rose across her chest subsided and came out of the dressing room to get Callie’s reaction, but Callie was paying attention to an actual customer, so instead she walked around the store, pawing the racks. There was a shelf of “vintage” shoes near the back of the store, which the shop’s owner had found at thrift stores just outside the city, polished slightly, and marked up several hundred percent. They were good finds, though, pretty eighties pumps and barely worn leather sandals. Laura found a pair of heels in her size and slipped them on. They were lipstick pink, which looked good with the off-white dress and her dark hair. Callie’s customer left the store, and she walked back over toward Laura.
“Okay, very nice, but where are you going in that?” she asked. “I mean, how are you going to justify it to yourself?”
“I’m going to wear it onstage,” Laura said, without thinking. Callie nodded approvingly. She rang her up with her staff discount and threw the shoes in for free. “They probably cost the owner a dollar, let’s not sweat it,” she said. “Now, let’s figure out where your band is going to play.”
“I don’t have a band,” Laura said. She went back into the dressing room and started putting her dirty clothes from the night before back on. Callie kept talking to her through the door.
“You should get one. You know, I’ve been thinking about this. No one’s going to book a singer-songwriter, that’s some open-mic-night shit. I can pretend to be in your band till you find someone better. Then we just need a drummer, and maybe someone who can actually play bass, but that can happen later.”
“Pretend to be in my band?” She was still zipping her jeans, but she stuck her head out of the dressing room so that she could see the expression on Callie’s face and try to gauge how serious she was.
“Yeah, like a backup-singer type of situation. We’ve sung together before, remember? In high school.”
Laura came out of the dressing room, avoiding the letdown of the mirror. Without the dress on she was returned to her former self, dirty and puffy around the eyes. “If I’m onstage with you, no one will look at me,” she said.
“Of course they will, you idiot. You’re the one who can actually sing and play. I’m just going to help you get your foot in the door.”
The thought of wedging her foot into that door alone was terrifying, which was why Laura hadn’t made any attempts to do it yet. “Okay, I’ll think about it,” she told Callie. “I got you a croissant, by the way.” The owner didn’t like food in the store, so they ate sitting on the stoop just outside, watching as the sidewalk got more crowded as noon approached and the day properly began.
The Clips were leaving to go on tour in two weeks. Laura had sex with Dylan whenever she could. At 4:00 a.m., after her shift ended, she’d call to see if he was still up or even take the chance that he wasn’t and just walk to his apartment and buzz. Most of the time, he answered. Then they would stay in his tiny, uncomfortable bed till the middle of the next day, when he would leave to go rehearse and Laura would be back in the non-Dylan part of her life. She was dreading the tour, already imagining how empty she’d feel on the first day, when this part of her life would be all that was left and she would have to figure out something else to care about. A few times, Callie asked her if she was still thinking about the idea of a band, but she didn’t press it. Laura was, of course, but somehow it didn’t seem as important as thinking about Dylan.
The day before Dylan left, he invited Laura to meet him at a recording studio in Bushwick where he was supposed to be finishing up some alternate takes of songs the band was going to put on their next album. He told her to bring her guitar so that he could hear her songs for the first time.
The first part of the trip, the walk from her apartment to the J at Delancey, was blissful. Laura loved crossing Houston and looking west at the giant sky over the low buildings, feeling small but fast and purposeful as she marched in a mass of people across the intersection. Her guitar case bumped against her back rhythmically as she walked, reminding her over and over of the purpose of her trip. And the elevated subway journey into Brooklyn was beautiful, too, the same giant sky over the receding city. When she disembarked and walked down the dirty staircase to Broadway, Laura started to feel nervous. She craved contact with Dylan but also felt shy about singing and playing music in front of him. For a moment as she loped down Broadway, attracting stares with her guitar, she found herself unable to quite remember his face, or what his speaking voice sounded like. But, she knew, sex would immediately put everything back in order. If they couldn’t have sex at the studio they could at least make out. It had been days, and it would be the last time for a while.
She was passing a Dunkin’ Donuts that seemed reassuring in this alien neighborhood, so she went in. Her whole body was buzzing with adrenaline, but it still seemed like a good idea to get a cup of coffee. She got a limp, weird bagel with toothpaste-texture cream cheese, too, because even though she was too nervous to be hungry, she wasn’t sure when she was going to get to eat again and she didn’t want her stomach to make weird noises in front of Dylan.
The studio was in an old warehouse building with big windows right at the level of the elevated train tracks. A heavyset man buzzed her up and curtly informed her that Dylan hadn’t arrived yet, so after looking around at all the expensive gear in the cavelike loft, she just sat and ate her bagel, looking out the window at the trains, waiting. Every train that passed could potentially have him on it, and though waiting and watching like this made it seem like he would never come, Laura felt strangely peaceful sitting there at the window. The sun was beautiful, not scorching, somehow casting more light than usual on the elevated tracks and torn awnings and old dirty-windowed buildings. Summer hadn’t really gotten started yet; it was still cool in the early mornings and late at night, and you could still sleep under a blanket.
Laura thought about sharing Dylan’s tiny bed, being forced to have some part of her body touching his at all times even as they slept. The first few times she’d thought she would never be able to fall asleep like that, but the long nights had caught up to her, and she’d even dreamed a little and woken up staring into his face, watching his eyelids twitch, free to stare at him for as long as she liked until he woke up.
She got out her notebook and started to write down some of her lovelorn thoughts that could be turned into lyrics later on. Eventually she got bored of that and just started doodling. After half an hour she started to feel slightly angry, then even more angry, then resigned. Then angry again. In the end, he made her wait an hour and a half.
He looked hungover as usual, wincing in the sunlight that streamed through the big windows. He put down his backpack and glanced around the room, taking in Laura, her bagel, and her notebook. “Oh, good, you brought something to do. This might take a minute,” he said, and then he went back into the booth to confer with the stern large guy who’d let Laura in. When he came back out he hardly even looked at her again. He sat down with his guitar and tuned it, then nodded to the guy in the booth. The room flooded with the track that Davey and the band had already recorded, another fuzzy banger that wasn’t too hard to imagine playing over the PA in a bar or even at a baseball game. Dylan put his head down and played over it with the same detached intensity that he always did. Laura didn’t know what she was supposed to do. Stare at him worshipfully? Part of her wanted to, but she was also annoyed that their date seemed to consist of her in a corner with a bagel watching him play. Then again, this was what he’d invited her to do, and she’d said yes. She picked at the bagel.
About half an hour later the guy in the booth gave Dylan a thumbs-up and then, within minutes, had packed his stuff and left. Dylan stood up and shook out all his long limbs, then turned to Laura. “Did you bring any more bagels? I’m starving.”
She tamped down a rising surge of annoyance and shook her head. “I brought my guitar, though, I thought you said …”
“Oh, right! I still need to hear you play.” He made this sound like it was something he’d forgotten to buy at the grocery store, eggs or dish soap.
As she unpacked her small guitar from its dorky soft-sided case and sat tuning it, Dylan kept himself busy by rolling a small joint. By the time she was ready to play he was smoking it as casually as if it were a cigarette. He pushed the window open a crack and ashed on the sill.
She paused before starting to play. It felt like an audition. Or she assumed this is what an audition would feel like; she’d never auditioned for anything before. “Well, what do you want to hear?”
“I don’t know, whatever you want to play. Your favorite song? Your best one?”
“People seem to like this one,” she said, then played him “I Want My Tapes Back.” She didn’t know exactly what to do with her face and eyes while she sang, so she mostly looked at the neck of her guitar and out the window. Dylan stayed halfway across the room, smiling inscrutably. He laughed a small knowing laugh—thank God—at the line where the audience was supposed to laugh, the part about “I miss my mix of all Liz Phair / Heavens to Betsy and Huggy Bear.”
“That’s really cute,” he said when she was finished. “I feel like you could make bank if you busked on the subway.”
She stayed silent, hoping that he would say something else that would redeem what he’d just said.
“I mean that in a good way. You’re a great guitar player.”
“Oh! Thanks. No, I’m not.” She deflected compliments habitually, as though to accept one might be rude, though it was probably ruder to tell someone they were wrong. She didn’t play like someone like Dylan, who could probably do things like improvise a solo. She had mostly taught herself, but she liked how she played.
“So … ,” he said, stepping toward her. She became more aware of how they were alone in the studio and felt her whole body flush as she imagined fucking Dylan right where they were standing, or possibly, more comfortably, in the booth, in one of the large, cushiony chairs there. He reached past her, toward what was left of the bagel, and stuffed it in his mouth. “Sorry! I’m totally starved. Let’s get out of here and find a diner or something.” He brushed the crumbs off his mouth and, in the same movement, grabbed her by the hand and pulled her toward him.
“?‘I want my tapes back,’?” he sang in his dramatic, growling deep voice, nothing like Laura’s clear, no-nonsense alto. He spun her around the room in a little waltz. “?‘I hope you know where they are.’?” She was intoxicated by sheer physical proximity to him, and so flattered that he’d remembered the words to her song.
Dylan had been gone on tour for two weeks, and Callie and Laura were on their way to alt.coffee to check their email when they passed the magazine store on A and Fifth Street and saw the cover of NME with Dylan on it. The other band members were on it, too, but the photo was mostly Dylan, standing in front, looking into the camera like he was sad and annoyed about having his photo taken. They both saw it at the same time and came to such a screeching halt that the man walking behind them bumped into them.
“Fucking morons!” he shouted as he pushed on past. They ignored him and kept staring at the magazine.
“Oh my God, you’re dating a rock star,” said Callie.
“Dating?” said Laura.
“Oh my God, we’re groupies!” said Callie.
“Gross, no. Do you think he’s famous now?”
“Yes! If you actually want to be his girlfriend now, good luck. Girls are going to be throwing themselves at him after this.”
Callie was always so pragmatic, but she was probably right. The way Laura had felt about Dylan the first time she’d seen him play hadn’t just been lust, it had been admiration for his talent; his magic was real. It was inevitable that other people would acknowledge it, too.
She felt both vindicated and frustrated—it was good to have been proven right about Dylan, but she also wanted something like credit for having known him before he became more generally known. Mostly, though, she wanted to actually talk to him.
They hadn’t said anything about how they would stay in touch while he was away—it hadn’t seemed like a long enough amount of time to justify a plan for keeping in touch—but now Laura wished she’d said something. He didn’t have a cell phone, but that was probably for the best. If she’d been able to call him at that moment, she would have asked whether he loved her. Asking someone you’ve had sex with a handful of times whether they love you, especially if they’re turning out to be a famous rock star, is not the right move, she knew. But she also knew that if he called her at this exact moment she wouldn’t be able to stop herself. She decided instead to email him. She didn’t know whether he would be checking email, but she had his address that he’d scribbled somewhere and she would be able to control herself better if she could revise what she wanted to say to him as much as she liked before sending it.
They went into the café, which was dark and smelled like old couches and cigarettes, and ordered their drinks and their allotments of internet time from the guy at the counter. Laura stalled by going into the bathroom, where a bunch of computer parts sat in a bathtub, some kind of dumb art installation, and while she peed she thought through the decision she had just made to email Dylan. It was such a low-stakes way of reaching out to him. But what would she say?
She sat down at one of the shared monitors, trying to ignore the greasy feel of the keyboard, and began to type. She asked how the tour was going, what the different cities were like. She fished delicately for a response that would indicate that he was looking forward to seeing her when he came back, but she didn’t make any dramatic declarations. She tried not to mention her feelings at all. She needed to include at least a sentence about what she’d been up to, but this was tricky because there really wasn’t much going on in her life besides working at the bar, hanging out with Callie, and obsessing about him. So she lied a wishful lie about working on her songs and playing a small show that a friend of Callie’s had hooked her up with. Callie had mentioned something about introducing her to someone who booked bands at the Sidewalk Café, so it wasn’t exactly a lie. Plus, she could even use the lie as motivation to make it true before Dylan got back.
She went through the rest of her in-box unhurriedly, lingering over the details of spam emails she’d gotten instead of immediately deleting them. Really, she was waiting to see whether he would respond. This was crazy; the odds of his even being near a keyboard were so slim. She didn’t even know what city or what time zone he was in. Still, when her half hour was up, she went up to the counter for a refill and another passcode to unlock another half hour of internet access.
“Why do you need to stay here longer?” asked Callie, who had finished her coffee and her free issue of VICE and was tapping her long nails on the counter.
“I just thought maybe a person I wrote to might write back,” Laura admitted.
“A person. Jesus.” Callie rolled her eyes and went to wait for Laura in the park across the street.
But then when she got back to the desk, there it was: a response! She felt like the gross shared computer was a slot machine dispensing a flood of coins. He would be home in a week, he wrote, and would be playing a show first thing. He invited her and Callie to meet up after the show at Brownies. He said he missed her.
Laura floated into Tompkins Square Park and found Callie sitting on the patchy grass on the hill. The park was full of people their age with nighttime jobs or no jobs who could treat the park like a beach, lying on blankets with snacks and drinks and joints and cigarettes, getting sun, watching the dogs in the dog run and one another. Callie had bought a large bottle of orange juice, from which she poured out some of the juice and replaced it with the contents of a small bottle of vodka. Laura didn’t have to be at the bar until seven; there was still time to get drunk, then nap and shower before work.
This was how they’d been killing all the lengthening summer afternoons lately, but the surge of energy Laura had gotten from her communication with Dylan had made her too hyped up to enjoy lolling around. She told Callie about her email and the response, and the minor lie she’d told.
Callie ashed her cigarette thoughtfully on the patchy grass near the blanket they sat on. “Oh, that’s no problem. Let’s just go by there right now and see if Alex is working. Well, not right now right now. Like in half an hour? Let’s finish our drinks at least.”
“I have to go grab my guitar and stuff first! And I don’t want to get drunk.”
“You’ll just be relaxed. You need to.” Callie took a swig, then offered the bottle. Laura semi-reluctantly accepted. She was suddenly feeling too wound up, almost to the point of panic. Her initial joy at being in touch with Dylan was activating her brain and body in ways that were agitating if she couldn’t be around him physically.
An hour later she and Callie were in the dark daytime interior of Sidewalk, in the side of it that was a bar and not a twenty-four-hour diner. Alex, a short, skinny guy with bluish-pale skin who could have been twenty-five or forty, hugged Callie too long and then looked Laura over as frankly as her bar employer had on the day she’d gotten hired.
“So you guys are in a band together?”
“Well, it’s mainly Laura, but yeah, it’s kind of a band,” said Callie, smiling at Alex and doing her “you are the only person who exists in the world” thing.
“Great! Hop up there and do one of your songs real quick.”
They conferred quickly and decided to do the song that Laura had started writing at Dylan’s studio. For never having technically rehearsed, they weren’t as terrible as Laura had assumed they’d be. Callie had heard Laura sing the song so many times that she had memorized it, and she sang almost harmony and shimmied around a little as Laura tried to keep up with Callie’s innovations in rhythm. It was uncomfortable to make eye contact with Alex, so instead Laura watched Callie as she sang. She thought again about how anyone watching them onstage together would spend more time looking at Callie shimmying than at Laura playing guitar. But maybe it didn’t matter; it was Laura’s music, Laura’s song.
When she looked out at Alex next, he was grinning. “Come back tonight, I’ll put you on at eleven thirty,” he told them. “What should I say you’re called?”
“I can’t tonight, I have to work,” Laura said.
“Weird name for a band,” said Alex, then laughed at his own joke.
“You can call in sick once. You’ve been there long enough to get away with it,” Callie said.
“I’m sure you’re a lifer by the standards of that place.” Callie turned back to Alex. “You can call us the Groupies.” She wrinkled her nose and laughed like she’d made a hilarious joke. The vodka-OJ was cold and acidic in Laura’s stomach.
“You’re on the bill,” Alex told them. “You get two drink tickets and a cut of the door that you share with all the other bands, so tell your friends to come.”
Laura was silent as they walked home, scuffing her Chinatown mesh slippers against the dusty sidewalk, walking like her guitar was heavier than it actually was.
“What?” Callie finally said.
“Well, we’re going to make pocket change, for starters. I can’t afford to miss my shift or to lose this job.”
“But this is what you came to New York to do!”
“Not like this,” Laura said.
Callie stopped and turned with her hands on her hips, so close that Laura could smell her breath, orangey and rotten in Laura’s face. “Like what?”
“Like … the only reason he booked us is because of you.”
Callie smiled and turned around, her anger immediately defused. She let Laura walk next to her on the sidewalk again. “That’s not true, I’m just training wheels. You’re doing it on your own. It’s okay to let people help you sometimes!”
“Callie, I’m not blind. When both of us walk into a room, all anyone sees is you.”
“Dylan saw you,” Callie said almost too quickly, like she’d been planning to say it. And Laura couldn’t argue with it, because it was true. Maybe whatever he saw in her would translate now. Maybe things would be different, and Callie was right, and Laura was going to be the one people looked at this time.
It was Callie’s idea to both wear the dress Laura had bought from the boutique where she worked, Laura’s in white, Callie’s in red. Laura wore her dark hair down around her face, so that when she bent her head toward the neck of her guitar it was hard to see her. Callie wore her straight blond hair pushed back. They wore winged eyeliner, applied by Callie’s unerring hand. On Callie, it made her light eyes more visible from the audience, but on Laura, it was just another dark thing receding into shadow.
A friend of Davey’s was recruited to play drums at the last minute, and to loan them a bass guitar, which Callie pretended to play. The drummer, a sleepy-eyed but highly professional guy named Zach, was actually great to have. They were allowed a little sound check before the show started and he gamely fleshed out Laura’s songs, making them sound less folky and more upbeat, like a low-fi version of a sixties girl group. Despite still being slightly disturbed that Callie had hijacked and reshaped her dream, Laura had to admit that the Groupies weren’t that bad, especially for being put together in one afternoon. They would have to figure out a different name, though.
They sat in the small audience comprised of the other bands’ friends and drank their free vodka tonics till it was their turn, then awkwardly shuffled up onto the stage as the previous band was leaving it.
Laura said, “Hi, we’re the Groupies,” in a flat quiet monotone into the mic, then pushed into the opening lines of the song she’d written about Dylan. She’d named it “Can I Call You?” It was about not wanting to scare someone off by coming on too strong, but the joke was that of course the narrator of the song, because she was thinking about whether it was okay to call the guy (on the phone) or to call him (her boyfriend), was sort of obsessed. It was supposed to be humorous and pathetic. Callie was so charismatic, though, and so sexy as she tossed her ponytail from side to side, that by chiming in on the choruses she transformed the song into something different. A guy would have to be an idiot not to want to be her boyfriend, she seemed to be saying. She swayed from side to side as Laura played a plinky, cute tune during the song’s bridge, her version of a guitar solo. Even though Laura was singing lead and playing guitar, it was somehow Callie who made it work. It was because of Callie that everyone in the bar was clapping with more than the perfunctory politeness they had showed the other bands.
After their set was over and they were back at the bar, Alex came over to congratulate them. “You guys are invited back whenever,” he said, looking at Callie, and he gave them their cut of the door: thirty dollars. They ended up giving it to Zach so that he could take the bass home to Williamsburg in a cab.
Brownies was unassuming on the outside, just another storefront-size bar on Avenue A, but inside it was a dim, noisy deep cavern, a whole alternate world. The stage lights were sharp and perfect, so bright that they illuminated motes of dust buzzing around them, flecks of sweat bursting from the band as they strutted and thrashed. The floor was packed and writhing, moving in waves pressing closer to the stage. Usually Laura wasn’t into close contact with strangers, but this wasn’t like being on the subway. It was like being a cell in some larger organism, everyone joining together with the same aim in mind. It was just loud enough so that their bodies were enveloped in sound, just on the edge of discomfort, a vibration rattling up through everyone’s shoes, re-regulating their heartbeats and breathing so that everyone exhaled in time. Some people even knew the lyrics of the Clips’ songs. A few weeks ago the band had been unknown, playing shows that people came to for the promise of free wine. Now they were galvanizing hundreds of people, maybe thousands before long. Laura was close enough to the stage to see the look on Dylan’s face as he played. She thought he seemed happy, but at the same time uncomfortable. There was a twitchiness in his expression she’d never seen before. Maybe he was anxious to see her; she was so anxious to see him that when the show ended, she prayed for no encores. But of course there was an encore; the crowd demanded it. The band waited a desultory minute before strutting back out onstage. Thankfully they played only that one song, though, and then it was finally over.
The basement underneath the venue was a dark cave, too, full of scuffed leather couches and surfaces littered with bottles and half-full ashtrays, bottle caps and empty thin black plastic liquor-store bags. Dylan looked up when Laura entered the room with an expression of pure happiness, almost like he hadn’t expected her. When she got closer, though, she saw that the look she’d thought was shocked joy was actually a more abstract kind of euphoria. His pupils were huge, and he had trouble focusing on her face. He smelled sweaty, and she wanted him to close the distance between their bodies immediately, murmur in her ear, and get her out of there. Instead, he just stood there, smiling a goofy smile. She opened her mouth and realized she had no idea what she wanted to say. The two weeks since they’d seen each other seemed like a huge gulf of experience.
Laura had settled further into her new life, carving out patterns of her days, writing lyrics in the non-internet café on Avenue A, riding the subway, eating egg sandwiches in the morning and pizza at night, drinking dozens of cups of sweet light bodega coffee, getting incrementally better at being a cocktail waitress at night, making friends with Alexis on their smoke breaks, teaching Callie the new songs she was writing to prepare for their little shows. They had played twice more, once at Sidewalk again and once at a terrible NYU bar on Bleeker, which had gone less well. Part of her still felt Ohioan and alien. No matter what clothes she borrowed from Callie or how much makeup she wore, she didn’t quite look right. She still smiled too much at people on the street and at patrons at the bar. She didn’t know how to act in this loud smoky basement full of strangers. She wished that she and Dylan were alone and naked. She looked over at Callie, who was drinking from a tallboy can of malt liquor and letting Davey drape his arm around her.
Laura moved closer to Dylan so that he would put his arm around her, too. She relaxed into him. He handed her the beer he was drinking, and she took a long sip and thanked him.
“You were great,” she said, trying to look into his eyes so that he could tell she really meant it, wasn’t just saying it by default because it was the thing to say. For a second, his face lost its vague look and he really seemed to appreciate the compliment. He even seemed hungry for it, like he wasn’t already sure of himself. He led Laura to a low velvet couch with a coffee table in front of it and introduced her to the band’s manager, who was already sitting there, wearing a green army jacket with deep pockets. As she watched, he pulled handfuls of drugs out of them: cubes of perfectly intact marijuana buds with shimmering crystals on each folded leaf catching the light, bottles of pills, a small pile of plastic bags full of powder.
“It’s the world tour of drugs,” said Davey, diving toward the table and scooping up a handful of bags. Laura laughed; it was ridiculous, a caricature of rock-star behavior. Dylan didn’t laugh. He started dissecting a cigar, removing the tobacco to refill it with weed. He licked the paper, and she felt a shiver of desire at the sight of his tongue. He reached for pills from the pile and ate a couple of them like Tic Tacs.
“It’s just Adderall; we’re exhausted,” he explained, but he also shook some of the powder out of one of the bags on top of the weed before rolling up the blunt.
“So are you back here for a while?” she asked.
“No, they’re sending us back out again soon. We just have a couple of weeks, but we can hang out the whole time I’m here.”
Laura fought back the urge, again, to tell him that she loved him, to claim him officially somehow. The thought of him with random girls in different cities made her want to peel off her skin. She wished that they were married. She wanted everyone he met to know they were together. There was no possible way to express any of this to him.
He lit the blunt and took a deep, desperate drag on it, then passed it to her and lit a cigarette. She wanted to ask what the powder was but was worried about seeming naive. She tried to take a small hit, but the flavor of the smoke was delicious, and she could feel it relaxing her into the couch, making the situation seem normal much faster than the beer could. She smiled at him through half-lidded eyes.
“Are you good?” he asked. “I’m sorry we’re not alone. I have to stay here, but you should go home and get some rest. Tomorrow we’ll hang out, just us.”
He was swaying and slightly slurring as he said this. Laura understood, without wanting to, that Dylan was much more interested in getting fucked up than he was in having sex with her. She still couldn’t make herself give up and leave. After he finished smoking the blunt, he started walking around the room playing air guitar, dancing unsteadily. Laura got up and followed behind him, unsure what she should do next. Callie extracted herself from underneath Davey’s armpit and reached over and pulled Laura toward her.
“We’re getting out of here,” she hissed in Laura’s ear.
“I’m just going to stay another twenty minutes, I’ll see you at home,” Laura whispered back.
“No, you’re coming home with me. It isn’t happening tonight, and you look stupid. Let’s just go; you’ll see him again when he’s more sober.”
She waved at Dylan as Callie forcefully grabbed her arm and moved in the direction of the door. He waved, smiling in her direction, then turned his attention back to the world tour of drugs.
When Laura came over to his apartment the next afternoon, as he’d asked her to, Dylan still wasn’t alone. The whole band was there, and there were some girls who looked vaguely familiar from the night before, and everyone seemed to be wearing the same clothes and not to have slept. It was the hottest, sunniest part of the afternoon, and the apartment had one window air-conditioning unit that wasn’t doing anything to cut the fug of smoke and bodies and sickly sweet spilled booze. Cigarette butts marinated in the dregs at the bottom of beer bottles. Laura almost turned around and walked back down the stairs and out onto the relatively less gross street. She didn’t even see Dylan at first. But he was there, on the couch, slumped over and holding his head. She rushed over to him.
“Are you okay? Can I bring you anything?” she asked, realizing as she said it that she was acting like she was at work.
He looked up at her, pale and grateful, annoyingly still beautiful. He stood up, and she thought he was going to greet her with a kiss or a hug, but instead he grimaced and went into the bathroom, and a minute later she heard him vomiting.
She was repulsed, of course, but then quickly remembered that he’d watched her puke on the night they met, and also there was nothing he could do, by that point, that would have truly turned her off. “I’m going to the deli, back in a minute,” she shouted through the door.
At Sunny & Annie’s she bought a liter of ginger ale, a handful of Advil in little foil packets, and three bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches. The store had a friendly smell of bacon, burnt coffee, disinfectant, and cut-up fruit sitting on ice. She felt cheerful and competent, like a nurse in a starched white uniform taking brisk care of a bunch of invalids.
Dylan and Davey looked at her with pathetic gratitude when they saw her come in the door with the supplies. They consumed them sitting on the couch in front of the TV, passing another joint, watching a movie. The girls sat on the floor for a while and then got bored and left. For a moment Laura thought she might go with them. There wouldn’t be an infinite amount of summer sunshine, and she had to work later in the dank velvet gloom of Bar Lafitte for hours. She wanted to walk around in the daylight as much as possible, to let it sink into her skin and bleach away the residue of the time she’d spent in this smoky, filthy apartment. But she also wanted Dylan, even if all he was up for was some light cuddling and aimless conversation. She wondered if he would think it was dorky or weird if she cooked him a meal. The movie was something only stoners would watch, an experimental Italian horror film that had lots of tomato-saucy blood, and Laura realized that she was hungry. She hadn’t eaten any of the egg sandwiches herself. She got up to look at the kitchen and determine whether cooking in it was even possible.
The counter was stacked with empty bottles of malt liquor, and there was a crusty George Foreman grill, but the fridge wasn’t disgusting because it seemed never to have been used to store food, only beer, and there were no dishes in the sink. She found a saucepan and a frying pan, a spatula and some forks. She could work with this. She made another trip to the deli and came back with the ingredients for a soup she’d perfected in college, consisting of one can of cream-of-potato soup and one can of creamed corn, plus milk, salt and pepper, and red pepper flakes.
“Dylan, your wife is the best,” said Davey as he ate, stoned and ravenous. Laura felt offended, a little ashamed of herself, and also thrilled. She looked down at her bowl so she wouldn’t see Dylan’s reaction.
That night after work she told Callie about the day and what she’d done, cringing preemptively in preparation for her judgment.
“So you were supposed to go on a date, and instead you sat around with him and his friends, and then you cooked for them?”
Laura couldn’t see Callie’s face—she was at the kitchen counter, mixing bran cereal into nonfat yogurt for dinner—but she could imagine her look of lightly amused pity and contempt.
“What was the date supposed to be, even?”
“I don’t know, he just said we’d be alone.”
“So it was a booty call, and then you didn’t even have sex.” Callie sat down at the table to eat her gross meal directly across from Laura, so that Laura couldn’t evade her eye contact.
“It wasn’t to have sex—well, not just to have sex. I had thought we would … go to a museum or something.” As she said it out loud, Laura realized how laughably improbable the idea of going to a museum with Dylan actually was. She tried to picture them holding hands and walking through a gallery, Laura maybe explaining or criticizing some aspect of the artwork on display. It was so patently a fantasy that she might as well have been imagining them riding bareback on unicorns through an alpine field of wildflowers.
Callie nodded like she could read the realization on Laura’s face. “Yeah, I see where you’re at with him. You’re thinking, Maybe someday. I’ll teach him. I’ll train him. When we’ve been together longer.”
Laura was embarrassed, but she had to laugh. Those had been her exact thoughts.
Callie didn’t laugh. Her brow creased, and despite her perfect makeup, she looked older. “There’s no evolution for guys like him. You can be with them, but the version of him you’re seeing right now is who you’re going to be with. If you’re okay with that, by all means.”
“But I …”
“But I luuuuhv him,” Callie mimicked. It was what Laura had been about to say. Callie was right. But what was Laura supposed to do, stop?
Laura was checking her email at alt.coffee again when she got an unexpected message: her sophomore-year roommate, Amanda, had found out she was living in New York from one of their mutual acquaintances and she wanted to hang out. They’d had very little in common then, but maybe they had more now? And they had lived together for a year, so there was an automatic semi-intimacy; Laura could remember how Amanda had smelled and what noises she’d made in her sleep, though she was hard-pressed to remember what her major had been. Via email, Laura made a plan to go over to “check out” Amanda’s apartment that night.
Amanda lived in one of the strange brand-new apartment buildings on Houston below Avenue C. Laura walked down beautiful First Street and then cut over onto the charmless blank concrete stretch and past a gas station to arrive in the lobby of the gray square building. To get upstairs, she had to tell the doorman where she was headed, and then he actually called Amanda to let her know Laura had arrived. She had never been in a doorman building before.
Amanda greeted her at the door and ushered her in with a hug. She still smelled the same, like Secret antiperspirant and gum and onions. She looked basically the same as she had in college, except that she’d traded her ironed-straight brown hair for a studiously stylish angled bob. Her makeup was perfect and even and thick, like a layer of fondant icing on a fancy cake. The apartment was big, and Laura knew she was supposed to be impressed, but it was deeply charmless and seemed not to belong in New York. One of the things that Laura liked about the apartment she shared with Callie was that it was a dark little warren of tiny rooms, basically a tunnel with space to turn around every so often. You could imagine the people who’d lived there a hundred years earlier; starving garment workers squinting over their piecework by lamplight. That appealed to Laura.
This place was carpeted. You walked in and you were immediately in the entire kitchen/living room. It was of a piece with the large prefab houses outside of Columbus where she’d hung out when her richer high school classmates’ parents were out of town. Amanda pulled her toward a coffee table and poured her a glass of red wine in a real wineglass, then one for herself in a wineglass that matched. She set the glass down on a coaster. Laura remembered suddenly that Amanda’s major had been communications.
“So how long have you been here? What are you doing? Isn’t it great? Tell me everything!”
Laura smiled and sipped the wine, which tasted salty and sweet, almost like food, not like sugared gasoline, as the jug wine she drank with Callie did. “This place is great,” she said because she knew she was supposed to. “Do you live here alone?”
Amanda cackled. “Oh my God, no; I have two roommates! It’s just like college, basically, we have to put a sock on the door when one of us is sexiled, but it’s worth it to be in a doorman building. I just feel safer. And I’m never here, anyway, I work all the time.”
“Where do you work?”
“I’m the assistant to the editor in chief of SPIN, it’s literally the hardest job ever. I have to be at my desk by eight, but I also have to go to all these shows. I never sleep. And my boss is such a slave driver.”
“Oh yeah, I know SPIN,” Laura said. It was a music magazine that covered mostly stupid arena-filling bands and was just starting to pay attention to bands that Laura knew and cared about. Maybe she and Amanda had something in common after all, apart from their hometown.
“Do you still do music at all?”
Laura summoned all the self-confidence she could. “Yeah, I’ve been playing a few shows. And I’m working on an album. I’m still writing the songs, but I’m hoping to have enough finished to start recording them soon.” This latter part was a lie, but like the one she’d emailed Dylan, it was the hopeful kind of lie. “I’m kind of in a band called the Groupies with my roommate, Callie. I’ll let you know when the next show is; you should totally come see me. And also …”
She paused. She both did and didn’t want to tell Amanda about Dylan. It was still thrilling to tell other people about him; talking about him conjured him and made it almost like he was there. In some ways it was better than actually being around him. For the past week he’d been so stressed out that when he wasn’t practicing or in the studio or gone, he only wanted to sit inside and smoke blunts and watch movies. Eventually they would crawl into his tiny bed, or she would have to leave for work. It seemed like whatever he was going through was a natural reaction to the sudden onslaught of attention and pressure, and therefore, she hoped, temporary. When she went to watch band practice—which made her feel gross, like she was a cheerleader watching her quarterback boyfriend—she still saw him radiating joy in his skill, magnetizing something in her that wanted to, simultaneously, fuck and be him.
All of this raced through her head as she tried to figure out how to describe him to Amanda. “The guy I’m seeing is in a band, too. But, like, a real band. A successful band.”
Amanda drank the remainder of her glass in a single gulp and made a wincing face as though she was about to do something difficult or brave.
“Okay, I have a confession. I heard you were dating him. That’s part of the reason I wanted to see you.” She gave a cute little shrug, then refilled both their glasses. “I wondered whether you might be able to get me an interview with him. If I could do a profile timed to the release of the new album, it would be my first long article for the magazine. They’d have to promote me! Or at least get me off my boss’s desk. I’m so sick of answering his phone. If this is too awkward of a request, don’t worry about it. But I just thought, if it was easy, you could introduce us, and then I’d convince him it was a good idea.”
Laura tried to figure out what she was supposed to do. “I think stuff like that has to go through their label or their manager or whatever.” She wasn’t inclined to do favors for someone who had just admitted to using her.
Amanda shrugged. “I figured. I mean, I’ll try that, too, but they haven’t been doing much press, and … okay, well, just think about it.”
Laura had an impulse to make the ensuing silence less awkward but squashed it. Let Amanda feel awkward. She deserved to. Laura wished she’d stayed home, maybe finally picking up her guitar and working on new songs. It probably wasn’t too late, though she’d absently already drunk too much wine to get anything done well.
“I’d love to hear your songs sometime,” said Amanda as she walked Laura to the door.
Before she could stop herself, somehow, Laura found herself telling another hopeful lie. “Well, we’re opening for the Clips soon, so maybe you’ll hear them then.”
Laura decided to ask Dylan if she and Callie could open for the Clips the next time he was in the right mood, which was tricky. She rarely saw him during daytime, conscious, sober hours. Even in the noonish times they spent together after waking up late he was often preoccupied, smoking joints with his headphones on as he fussed with the piles of electronics that lined his cavelike bedroom.
She knew that if she waited for the perfect moment, it would never come, and of course part of her didn’t want it to. The thought of playing for a large crowd that had come to hear the Clips and would likely hate her music was terrifying. But she didn’t want to look like an idiot to Amanda, and she also wanted to give herself a chance to be serious. If nothing else, Dylan would have to take her seriously after seeing her perform on a real stage. He would finally understand that she wasn’t a subway busker. He would start to see her as an equal, a partner.
They woke up the morning after a late night, hungover as usual. There was a cool breeze blowing in through Dylan’s open window from the direction of the East River, bringing with it a briny smell that cut through the dirty laundry and ashtray fug of his bedroom. Laura rested her head on Dylan’s chest and traced his bicep tattoo, an outline of an anchor.
“What are you doing today?” she asked.
“Practice, write songs, meet up with everyone at Joe’s later,” he told her.
“What if we went to the beach instead?”
“I don’t know, Coney Island? We could just get on the F and be at the beach in an hour. Summer’s almost over, and I haven’t been to the beach.”
“Is this a date?”
“Yes, this is an extremely romantic date,” Laura said, rolling her eyes at him. Being opposed to “dating” was one of Dylan’s things; he had drunkenly rambled something once about how the construct was artificial and oppressive. But he was malleable today for some reason and smoked a cigarette instead of a joint as she hurried around his apartment, throwing things into a tote bag: towels from the floor of the bathroom, a soda bottle refilled with water from the tap, an opened bag of pretzels. They were both pasty and would need sunscreen, but she could buy it on the way. Her black underwear would be fine as a bathing suit. She hustled them down the sidewalk toward the F so that Dylan wouldn’t have time to think better of the plan. They ate the pretzels on the way and looked out the window, sharing headphones attached to Dylan’s Discman, listening to Belle and Sebastian with their shoulders and hips pressed together. Her hand brushed his accidentally, and he reached out and grabbed it, which made Laura feel a stunning burst of happiness.
It was a perfect beach day, with a high, blindingly blue sky. Neither of them had brought sunglasses, so they bought novelty pairs with neon pink rims from a boardwalk vendor. When they passed a photo booth Dylan wordlessly grabbed her hand and pulled her into the darkness inside it, put money into the slot, and then ducked down out of the camera’s frame so that it would catch only her expression as he knelt between her legs for a few insane and unexpected seconds, then, grinning, stopped when their time in the booth was up and pulled her back out into the sunlight, reeling and dully aching with unsatisfied desire. They didn’t wait for the photos to come out. The beach was crowded and filthy, littered with trash and suntan-oil-glistening bodies of all kinds, from very large older people to impossibly wasp-waisted teenagers in tiny bright-colored swimsuits. Laura ran down the wide expanse of sand, dodging bodies on blankets all the way to the edge of the water, then stripped down to her bra and underwear. She coaxed Dylan into taking off his shirt, and they stood in the knee-deep surf where the waves were breaking. She reached down into the water and grabbed handfuls of it, using her hands as paddles to splash him so that he’d have to go in all the way.
The waves were wild and huge, and the water was a thick, soupy beer-bottle green. They dove and then floated, trying to ignore whatever brushed against them and hope that it was seaweed. Laura was a good swimmer; she’d always loved the water. “I’ll race you to that soda bottle that’s floating over there,” she said breathlessly after dipping down and then hurling her wet hair back away from her face.
“No, I can’t,” said Dylan. His deep voice wavered in a way she hadn’t heard before.
“Yeah, you can, come on, it’ll be fun. I’ll give you a head start.”
“I really can’t. I mean, I can’t swim,” he said quietly. He was tall enough that his feet touched the bottom where they were standing, even though Laura was treading water.
“Oh! Well, if you start to drown, I’ll save you. I’m very strong.”
Laura paddled over to where Dylan was standing and rubbed her mostly naked body against him. He felt so warm against the cool water. She ran her hands down the length of his long pale back, loving how it tapered down from his shoulders. He had the kind of body that would always look good, no matter what he did to it; beauty inhered in his proportions, his graceful slender hips, angled perfectly to press into her exactly where she wanted to be pressed. She lifted her face up so that he could lean down and kiss her, but he was shivering.
“I’m gonna get out, okay? I’m too afraid of losing my balance,” he said, and headed for the shore, leaving her no choice but to trail after him, awkwardly bodysurfing the small wave that carried her all the way in.
They dried off with the gross towels Laura had packed, then put their clothes on and headed back to the boardwalk because Dylan wanted to get a beer and go on a ride. Laura got an ice-cream cone and licked it pensively while Dylan chugged his entire first beer, then bought another one right away. They walked down the boardwalk toward the Cyclone, and Dylan reached for Laura’s hand again. Laura thought about whether anyone they passed would recognize Dylan and wonder who his girlfriend was.
They rode home as the sun was setting, watching the last of the day wash over the exotic faraway neighborhoods as the elevated train passed avenues far into the alphabet, beautiful and ugly streets alike rendered cinematic by the golden light. Dylan smelled objectively bad, because he was unshowered and sweaty and had alcohol oozing from his pores, and though Laura was a little bit self-conscious about what their fellow passengers thought, to her he smelled good.
The train was full of smells of its own, and raucous noises of sunburned families coming home laden with inflatable toys and buckets and chairs, shouting at one another. Dylan swayed and nodded. She had to ask him now. The worst he could say was no. It would be humiliating to admit to Amanda that she’d lied. She could always say it had been canceled or called off for some reason beyond her control, but Amanda had barely believed her to start with and would definitely not believe any excuse she proffered. On the other hand, who even cared what Amanda thought? She had just given Laura an excuse to do something she’d wanted to do anyway.
She didn’t want to seem pathetic. She wanted to seem triumphant, like she was conquering her new New York life and beginning her real musical career. And she also, despite her fears, wanted to play for a big audience. Some of them might like her music, and those people would become her fans. Then her band would be real, and playing in a band could become the focus of her life, the way it was the focus of Dylan’s. She wouldn’t have to feel like she was waiting to fail definitively so that she could give up and get back to real life, the way her father had. That was the version of her future that her mother and brothers probably envisioned, if they even bothered to envision her future. But Laura now had access to a different vision: given the chance, she now knew she could be like Dylan, or better. If Dylan could manage to be Dylan even though he barely bothered to make an effort at anything in his offstage life, then she should be able to do as well as he did. She tried so much harder than he did all the time.
She thought about explaining all of this to Dylan, but he would probably fall asleep before she got to the point. So instead she just asked, point-blank, whether he thought her band was good enough to open for his.
He was breathing with his mouth open, head on her shoulder, almost dozing, but he perked up for a moment. “Of course you’re good, baby. I love your little songs.”
“Okay, well, do you think you could talk to someone about putting us on the bill before your next show?”
He shook himself more awake. “It’s in DC, next Tuesday. You work Tuesdays, right?”
“I can get someone to cover for me,” she said, trying to keep her tone casual as the thrill of terror and joy vibrated through her entire body. Dylan probably wouldn’t have noticed anyway. He curled up and dozed off for real just as the stations began to be more recognizable, and then the train dove back underground for the final time. Soon she was shaking him awake at Second Avenue, wiping at the spot of his drool that had pooled on her shoulder, composing a triumphant email to Amanda in her mind. She couldn’t wait to tell Callie. They would have to practice with Zach, but there was a whole weekend to prepare. They could become professionals by then.
Sound check was a train wreck. At first Laura couldn’t hear Callie or Zach, only herself, and they played half a song before the guy in the booth’s agonized shouts overpowered Laura’s nervous determination to just muscle through. They must have all been playing at completely different speeds; she heard a moment of Callie’s amplified voice and registered how bad it sounded, how clearly she was improvising some unrelated tune rather than actually singing harmony. But then they got the levels adjusted and somehow all managed to chug through “Can I Call You?”—even beginning to have fun by the end of it, getting excited by the sound of their voices so loud and clear in the enormous empty room and prancing like horses from end to end of the enormous stage.
“It feels like we’re getting away with something. Like, is this all a joke?” Callie asked as they packed their gear away again at the end of their allotted fourteen minutes. “How is it possible that we’re playing a venue this big with no album, no single, and a set that’s five songs long?”
“We can write more songs—I mean, I’m already writing more songs,” said Laura. “This is how we get to record an album. Someone will see us tonight and make it happen.”
They clambered clumsily down off the stage, into the darkness of the cavernous empty room. There were several hours to kill before the show, too long to spend backstage, and it would have been a perfect time to get dinner if Laura hadn’t been too nervous to eat. Instead, she sat at a diner with Zach and Callie and watched them eat pancakes and burgers, listlessly sipping a Coke and nibbling the hard edge of one of Zach’s fries. The Clips had traveled separately, in a giant black van with their expensive guitars and amps. She wanted to at least see Dylan before she played. She didn’t think he would give her a pep talk or anything, but she knew that touching him for a minute would ease her fear and replace it temporarily with brainless lust. They were probably there now, unloading, sitting backstage and passing one of the ludicrously oversize blunts that Dylan rolled. It seemed almost possible that he’d forgotten that he’d arranged for the Groupies to open.
But when they got back to the dressing room, no one from the Clips was anywhere she could see. The sound guy told them with bored, irritated indifference to hurry up and get onstage, so they did. Laura looked out at a sea of studiously indifferent faces. Clearly, the crowd was just holding their places near the stage so that they wouldn’t have to push through and fight for them when the Clips came on. The music from the PA died, but the crowd didn’t stop talking. Callie and Laura stood there waiting for them to stop for a few minutes, but they still didn’t. Laura made eye contact with Callie and smiled, but Callie looked pissed-off and scared. Laura had just had a weird flash of inspiration. If they were going to be completely ignored, then this was a chance to do whatever they wanted, without trying to please anyone. She put down her guitar and picked up the toy piano that she used to plink out a solo on “I Want My Tapes Back,” and began to play that song’s opening lines on it. Callie walked over and whispered in her ear, “Um, what the fuck are you doing?”
“Who cares? It doesn’t matter, they don’t care what we do. Isn’t that kind of great?”
“No, it’s humiliating!” Callie hissed.
“Or it’s great! Let’s just sing the song and see what happens, okay?”
Callie gave her a freaked-out stare, but she sauntered back over to behind her own microphone. They started to sing “I Want My Tapes Back,” accompanied only by the plink plink of the little piano. Laura sang slower than usual, making sure every word was crisp and audible, and for once Callie was actually able to harmonize, so that they sounded funny and sweet but a little bit eerie, like a pair of creepy baby ghosts in a horror movie, singing about a high school breakup.
The chatting, indifferent audience was still louder than they were, but some people in front, at least, were turning their attention toward the stage. Laura could see them looking up at her—the lights in this room were focused on the stage, but there were scattered spots on the audience, too, and she could see individual faces. They looked befuddled, but some of them—girls, mostly—were smiling. One girl, standing in front of her taller boyfriend who had his arms wrapped around her from behind, was beaming up at the stage. The dude behind her looked off to the side, too cool to even deign to notice whatever was going on.
Laura put down the toy piano at the end of the verse and picked up her guitar, letting the crowd noise rise into her silence. Callie looked over at her again, and without exchanging words both of them understood themselves to be on the same page. They launched into the chorus of the song with gusto, amplified louder than they ever had been before, shout-screaming over the pounding of Zach’s drums. They sang the chorus through again and again, getting faster every time. It sounded unhinged, but every time they did it they got a little bit better. By the fifth and final time, a few people were singing along. When they stopped playing there was a smattering of applause, and some laughter.
Were they laughing because the Groupies were ridiculous? Or were they just laughing at the spectacle of girls having fun, doing whatever they wanted in front of a huge crowd that wasn’t there to see them and couldn’t care less? It didn’t matter, Laura realized as she started playing “Can I Call You?” The point was for her to have fun, and for Callie to have fun, playing, and for the rest of their set that’s what they did. They marched all over the giant stage, told jokes, danced with each other, theatrically tossed their hair and leaped in the air like they were in a metal band from the eighties. The crowd never completely stopped ignoring them; near the bar, out in the room, the low hum of conversation still competed with their music. But that girl in her indifferent boyfriend’s arms in the front row eventually broke free of his grasp and stood a foot in front of him, eyes closed and dancing like she was in her own private universe.