He thought I’d look older with a drink in my hand. During the shows he leaned against the wall to my right, always watching the crowd. We passed a whole season this way. Small sips and secret glances. My father wasn’t the kind to notice I was gone.
When we met, I was too young to get into the shows by legal means, but I had a big smile and an impressive collection of band tees—a currency that ingratiated me to him early on. I found the shirts in thrift stores I wandered into by myself. Soft and loose and two sizes too big, but I liked the way they felt against my skin. We lived in a small town. Maybe some of them were his.
The night before his band left on their first summer tour, he wrote his email address on a napkin and slipped it into the pocket of my cutoffs after the show. I examined it at home, my legs dangling off the fire escape as humid night air thickened to a cocoon around me. The at sign swirled in blue ink, a whirlpool waiting.
I sent him my favorite YouTube links: grainy acoustic performances recorded in the ’90s, shimmering periwinkle glimpses of stars clutching mics and guitars. Dark dreamy chords and a piano’s soft lilt, secrets set to song—there were girl-shaped gaps in his musical education I’d decided I should fill. He sent his own music back to me, steely vocals shaping rough poetry through winding chains of mp3 files. I typed my secrets in reply, condensing my history into tiny digital missives that I cast out into the ether, hoping they’d reach him. The screen beamed out a pale electric glow that made me feel less alone.
I unearthed a creased road-trip atlas from my father’s glove box so I could track the band’s cross-country progress with a pink gel pen; I wanted to see where my messages would reach him on any given night. I imagined him folded into the backseat of a battered tour van, fitting his chin into the palm of his hand to hide his smile.
I knew what he wanted when he came back to see me in August. The band had a few days off between shows and he’d decided he couldn’t wait. I pictured the Greyhound drawing a line through the few states left between us, the miles disappearing as he moved.
When he arrived, we went to chain restaurants and record stores, drank bitter gas station coffee and watched a horror movie in the theater’s last row. We sat on the same side of the booths but never touched; I wondered what the waiters thought we were to each other. On his last night we took our shirts off on my bed in my room—just to see what it’s like, he said. Later on I’d tell myself it was a natural progression. When he left, I stripped my glossy girl-band posters from the walls, stuffed them into the trash beside the twin mattress, and stared for a long time at the bare space that remained.
His band concluded their tour at the venue where he’d once worked; their audience chain-smoked and drank beer in the almost-dark. He introduced me to his bandmates, who exchanged glances over my head they thought I couldn’t see.
As the set began, I found myself at the edge of the stage—closer than I’d ever been—and for a moment I envisioned myself moving among them, holding my own mic and winking in and out of the hazy purple light.
When their single hit big, he started calling me from the road. Weekends, holidays, the middle of the night—they were all the same to him. I was an inbox for his emotions, a sounding board for his ideas. A bare slate.
As the song climbed the charts, he confessed he felt a mounting pressure to recreate its success. He was afraid of fame but also desperately desired it, and this made him difficult to deal with. His voice crackled through the landline, a constant refrain. Tell me I’m going to be OK. I wound the overlong cord around different parts of my body: my wrist, my leg, my neck. Sometimes I cut off circulation without noticing, pulled back into focus only by a sudden sharpness. That pin-and-needle prick.
I stayed home in case he called, the phone nestled beside me on the pillow, derivative romances flickering on the screen in my bedroom. The women talked about love like a sickness, an infection. Some nights the phone never rang.
These days he’s the quiet kind of famous. Always a glowing review from the right publication when there’s a new album to promote. The band plays extended tours that routinely sell out, scalpers hawking inflated prices that his fans will always pay.
I can enter the venue without him now. I stand in the crowd, swaying among the other bodies, but still I feel separate. I spend the whole show imagining he’ll return. That he’s behind me somewhere. That he can see me clearly now.
Sometimes I pull on the shirts I wore when I was younger, soft band tees past their prime and full of holes. I live in the same apartment. I work at the venue where we met. I serve beer to young faces full of hope and I double-check their IDs. I’m going somewhere, their expectant eyes invariably say. They smile and wink. I run my fingers over the plastic; I hand the cards back over and over again. On nights like these I can still remember gazing up at the stage from my place in the audience, convinced I’d caught his look with my own. But the way the light shone into his eyes, he told me, it was hard to see anyone at all.
At each shift’s end I roll the windows down in my father’s truck, peering through the skylight at every stop sign. I pretend the stars are closer than they are.
Abigail Oswald is a writer whose work predominantly examines themes of celebrity, crime, and girlhood. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, Wigleaf, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, DIAGRAM, Split Lip, and elsewhere, and her short fiction was selected for Best Microfiction 2021. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, lives in Connecticut, and can be found at the movie theater in at least one parallel universe at any given time. More online at abigailwashere.com.
Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson