Telephone Operator

So, Monday was the day Remo was due to leave the country and Jonathan was due to leave the TV writing business. I got up that morning to remind him to/cheer him on.

Of course, I’m never at my most articulate in the morning. So rather than some eloquent encouraging speech, I said, over cereal and coffee, “Don’t forget to quit.”

“I won’t.”

“What are you going to say?”

“Still working on that. Don’t worry. Words are what I’m good at.”

We both chuckled about that. Then I said, “Call me if you need a pep talk.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

He took a deep breath and accidentally breathed in some coffee or a rice krispie or something, and coughed, but when he stopped coughing he said, “When you say I have to quit, I know it in here,” he patted his chest, “that it’s true. But coming up with the explanation that makes sense to my head, and to other people’s heads, is a lot harder.”

“You need a reason?”

“Trying to cook up a justification anyway, that’s good enough to tell other people, even if I know the underlying reality is more complicated. I mean, I need to say something to them that doesn’t just translate to ‘I’m a selfish, fragile artiste. Woe is me.'”

“See, but that’s the thing. Who cares if they think you’re a selfish, fragile artiste? You have to do what you need to do to protect your…” I needed a name for that flame burning inside me. “Creative core.” I knew it beyond any shadow of a doubt, if that flame went out, it was curtains. I had to wonder if Ziggy’s suicidal thoughts had anything to do with creative burnout. Probably not because he was writing so much, but… In other words, for the millionth time since the summer I wondered what was up with Ziggy. That had been happening to me multiple times a day for months, so it wasn’t anything new.

“I know. I just hate the thought of coming off that way.”

“Have you talked to your agent?”

“She doesn’t start taking calls until ten.”

“J. She’s in New York. It’s three hours later there.”

“Right! Wow. I’m that out of it, I can’t remember basic facts. I’ll call her as soon as I get to the office.”

“Are you all right to drive?” I stood up, as if I were going to drive him in his own car.

“Yes. I’ll be fine.” He stood up. I gave him a hug. “You’re my best friend right now, Daron.”

“I know.” And Jonathan was mine. Well, maybe I had Remo. But I was thinking that Remo had left the country on a flight at the crack of dawn. “We’ll get through this, J. Seriously. If you need to call me, or need a drink, whatever, I’m not planning to go anywhere today.”

He left. As soon as he was gone I started rearranging the apartment. Our stuff in the bedrooom closet was all intermixed. I separated my stuff to the left, his to the right. I separated our CDs. I made a small pile of the books I’d collected, then decided it was probably better to let J. have them. Assuming that looking at them or reading them wasn’t going to make him so miserable with missing me that he couldn’t stand it? Hm. Better to ask him if he wanted them. Better to put too much thought into it than too little.

I know the word “break up” is supposed to be about the two of you breaking from each other and going your separate ways, but I felt like everything I touched that day, everything I thought about, could split into fragments of possibility. Even Remo going to Japan. I could imagine a future where I went with him. I could imagine one where I moved into his house again to babysit the place. I could even imagine a fragment where I went with him and Jonathan came along. A very slim fragment, that one. But if that was what I really wanted? I felt like I might be able to make it happen. Nothing was completely impossible. That is, nothing regarding Jonathan seemed out of my reach. Ziggy, on the other hand… Ziggy was in a different universe.

I wondered, for the millionth time, where the hell he was. Of course, the person who was most likely to have heard Ziggy’s whereabouts was in the ICU right now with liver problems.

Let’s put it this way. There was no way in hell I was calling Digger.

That did remind me to call Carynne, though. I picked up the cordless and dialed, cradling it on my shoulder while I poked through the kitchen cabinets to see if there was anything I wanted to keep. I was not going to miss this phone. I’d been on it way too much and it felt like it was making a permanent dent in my shoulder. This is what happens when everyone you need to talk to is three thousand miles away.

Carynne Handley’s office,” she said when she answered the phone.

“Is that so you can pretend you’re not there?”

“Yes. How the hell are you?”

“You didn’t call back.”

“I heard from Remo that you were probably, um, busy. How’d it go?”

“Under the assumption that what Reem told you was only vaguely accurate, I broke up with Jonathan yesterday.”

“He thought you might. And where are you now? Remo’s?”

“No, I’m still here. I convinced him that not only should we break up, he should get the hell out of L.A. So he’s giving notice on the apartment and we’ll be back on the East Coast by Christmas.”

“Wait wait wait, but you broke up?”

“Yes. I didn’t mean we’ll be there together. I agreed to stay until he moves out next month. You know how people always say they want to let the other person down easy? I’m trying to actually do that.”

“You think that’s going to work?”

“I don’t know, but my conscience wouldn’t live with me jetting like a heel.”

“But it’ll live with you talking him out of a big money writing gig? Daron, I–”

“He’s not writing. He’s in endless development meetings. This gig is killing him.”

“Is it? Or is this your way of leaving scorched Earth behind?”

“It isn’t. I swear. Carynne, honestly, I really think it’s best, and half the reason this relationship didn’t work.”

“But if you’re breaking up anyway, why shouldn’t he keep the job, then?”

“This isn’t just about the relationship.” I realized I’d been staring into the cabinet without really seeing the contents for a couple of minutes. I closed it and leaned on the counter. “You know, he said it today. We’re breaking up but I’m still his friend.”

“I hear rumors about people who stay friends after they split up…” She sounded skeptical.

“Quit it. Point is, I’ll be home for Christmas. Will you?”

“You bet. Want to have a party or something?”

“Sure. Hey, how’s Courtney doing? I got email from her a couple of weeks ago but nothing since.”

“She’s fine. A little nervous since she’ll be hearing in like two weeks whether she’s been accepted as a transfer student at Emerson.”

“Wait, when did Courtney apply at Emerson?”

“Dumbass. We told you she was applying.”

“You told me you were thinking about applying. You didn’t say you actually did.”

“Well, you know, if you were here, you’d be in the loop.”

“Ouch. Okay, tell me seriously, was this entire thing with Jonathan a huge mistake? I feel like my entire life took a left turn down a rabbit hole and I can finally see the daylight again.”

She was silent a moment. “I suppose if you get out of it with your heart in one piece, then, no. What would you have been doing if you’d flown back with me to Boston from Cancun? You’d have been sitting around with your thumb up your butt, that’s what. At least out there you worked. Hey, speaking of which, I hear through the grapevine certain parties at BNC are pissed that the best song on Sarah Rogue’s album is the one you wrote.”

“Co-wrote,” I corrected. “Speaking of which, you need to tell me if publishing rights on Candlelight are going to bring in enough this year to pay for Court’s tuition.”

Silence, then I realized she was stifling a giggle. “You are so sweet. Yes, dear, it should. She applied for financial aid, too. But right now everything is covered for the coming year. Her school, your mortgage, I think we’ll be okay. That is, assuming you don’t pick up a coke habit and that we don’t blow a hundred thou on a lawsuit against BNC.”

“I can’t see gambling that kind of money on a lawsuit, especially since Feinbaum doesn’t think the chances are good.”

“We’ll see what the audit turns up, but I am inclined to agree with you.”

“So there’s no band right now. Essentially.”

“Essentially.”

“So what are you going to do, Car’?”

“Daron, the band may be dead in the water but your assets still need managing, your solo career such as it is also needs a manager, and I only need one or two other aspiring bands to keep me busy. I’m really doing okay, and you still need me.”

“Oh god yes, I wasn’t saying you should leave. I was working up to saying please don’t.”

“Not going anywhere, honeybunches of oats.”

“Okay, good.”

“You want me to book your return flight?”

“Please.”

“Then hang up so I can call a travel agent.”

“Yeah, love you, too, Carynne.”

“See you in a couple of weeks.”

I hung up and then seriously considered calling Jonathan to see if he needed moral support. But I didn’t want to seem like a nag or a control freak. So instead I went out and pruned the dead flowers off the vines growing on the wall of the courtyard. I did not see either of our upstairs neighbors.

When the phone rang I figured it was Carynne calling me back with the date of the flight, or maybe Jonathan, so I was surprised to hear Remo’s voice. “Daron?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be on the way to Tokyo right now?”

“Flight’s at midnight. I’ve got a couple of hours.”

“All right. What can I do you for?”

“I wanted to call and see how you were doing.”

“What, with my epic breakup?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Almost there. I told him I’ll play out the string and then we’ll go our separate ways.”

“How long is this ‘string’?”

“A month. I’ll be in Boston by Christmas.”

“Ah.”

“You sound disappointed.” I wasn’t sure I could take Remo criticizing my breakup strategy.

But that wasn’t what he was disappointed about. “You remember Philip Constantiou?”

“Um, no?”

“The guys call him Flip? He remembers you. You talked to him at some party for an hour about Guitar Craft.”

“Oh, him! I liked him, I just forgot his name. What about him?”

“Well, he was going to be my guitar tech on this trip.”

“What do you mean was?” Cue the anticipatory violins, sneaking up on the soundtrack.

“Broke his ankle this morning while loading the shipping container. He’s still game to go on the trip but… He’s going to have the crutch under one arm while he carries a guitar with the other? He’s a trooper, but still.”

“So have another roadie do the mobile stuff. He can still do all the tuning and maintenance and restringing.”

“Or I could hire someone else.”

No.

“Whaddaya mean, no?”

“You’re about to ask me if I’ll go with you to take his place and tech for you.”

“Well–”

No. You rescued me once with this story, remember, Reem?”

“I’m not saying that you can’t–”

“I said no. If you were desperate, you know I wouldn’t leave you high and dry. But you don’t really need me. So don’t be doing this to try to be a white knight swooping in to rescue me.”

“You know…” He paused to get his gumption up. “I still feel guilty about leaving you behind in New Jersey.”

Hearing somebody admit their guilt years after you’ve ceased to care… still feels pretty good. But I didn’t need to rub his face in it. “When I was too young to come with you. I’m over that, Reem. You should be, too.”

“All right. I don’t have a lot of mother hen in me, you know, Daron, but what little I do seems to come out around you.”

“Back into the shell, mother hen. I’ve got it under control.”

“Roger that. I’ll send you a postcard.”

“Send it to Boston. That’s where I’ll be by the time it gets here. When’s the first show?”

“End of the week. Rest of the band doesn’t leave until Thursday. I’m going early to do some promo stuff at the Takamine headquarters.”

In my mind the thick, warm sound of the Takamine guitar he had given me was associated with the foggy air in San Francisco. So different from the crystalline sound of the Ovation. “Have a good trip.”

“I will. Have Carynne check on your dad once in a while, will you?” I guess he knew better than to ask me to do it myself.

“I will.”

And then I thought I was done with the phone for a while, but then while I was sorting the laundry that had accumulated on the floor of the closet, it rang again.

Sarah Rogue. “Wow, Mills really hates you,” she said, after the initial helloes.

“Does he? What did I ever do to him other than be hard to categorize?”

“He is so livid about that song. But everyone else there loves it. It’s going to be the first single. It’s amazing. You should hear the arrangement. It’s brilliant.”

“Did they let you play the piano?”

“We compromised. There is a piano track. But Gregg Rolie played it. Can’t really complain too much about that.”

Rolie is a legendary keyboard player. If you don’t recognize his name, you might the names of some of his former bands: Santana or Journey ring a bell? “Yeah, no, can’t complain too much about that. When’s the album come out?”

“Next year. Hey, are you going to be in New York for Christmas?”

“Not likely, but I haven’t figured out exactly what I’m doing. Why?”

“I want you to come see the tree with me.”

“What?”

“You know the big tree in Rockefeller Center?”

“Yeah?”

“You should come and see it. It’ll be great.”

“The big tree right near the BNC offices? Where they hate me?”

“Aww, busted. Come on. It’ll be fun.”

“Annoying your record company is not a formula for success, Sar.”

“Are you sure? Hey, have you heard the latest about Digger?”

“I was going to ask you that. Last I heard maybe he was getting out of the hospital today. Did you hear I cut him off completely?”

“Yeah, before.”

“Remo cut him off, too. He showed up here uninvited on Thanksgiving, got drunk, and spouted abusive bullshit at me. Remo threw him out, or was trying to, when he collapsed. And then we found out about the liver problems.”

“Holy hell, you’re kidding.”

“I’m not. Called me the f-word–I mean, the other f-word–said my career tanking was my own fault, yadda yadda.”

“Ugh. Well, my mother’s finally getting with the program and thinking about firing him. But we’re moving carefully, you know, making sure we do it the right way and don’t get sued.”

“Yeah, I know a little about trying to extricate yourself without leaving maximum damage to both parties.” I was talking about Jonathan, of course.

“It’ll happen after the album release. That way if he tries to fuck us over, you know.”

“Smart. Yeah. Okay, but seriously, what the hell are you asking me about Rockefeller Center for?”

“Daron, honestly, if there’s even the slightest chance Mills is right and your big problem is that people perceive you as queer, the best way to combat that is with a pretty girl on your arm at one of the most romantic spots in the world. Which just happens to be right outside their offices and also crawling with paparazzi, or at the very least we could arrange for it to be.”

“Wait. You’re saying do this on purpose to generate publicity… fake publicity about us dating?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, but let me be clear about something, because I don’t want you getting the wrong idea.” The last thing I wanted to happen the minute I got out of this accidental relationship with Jonathan was to fall right into another one. “I’m actually gay.”

She laughed. “So am I, stupid!”

“Wait, what?” I wonder how many people, when I tell them I’m gay, feel like a sledgehammer hits them in the face? Because that’s how I felt right then. “You’re not joking?”

“Wow, are you that thick? I thought you knew.”

“How would I know?”

“Does your gaydar not work with women? Some guys are like that.”

“Holy shit no it does not work with me, and remember, I was raised under a rock.”

“Well, also when you met me was when I’d just had my straight ‘it girl’ makeover. Maybe it was convincing.”

“I’ll say. Now that you tell me, I’m thinking about your previous album and… okay, yes, I can see it. So you thought I knew all along?”

“I was sure you did! I thought that’s why we got along so well. And you seemed so understanding about so much about it.”

“Well, in a general sense, yeah. You’re one of the first people I can think of, actually, to know about me without me having to make a big speech about it.” It only occurred to me right then that she was. “You seemed to know.”

“Because first, you never made a pass at me, which was clue number one, and then, yeah, other stuff filled in the picture.”

“Wait, you mean every guy you meet makes a pass at you or they’re gay?”

“In the music business, yeah. No exceptions.”

“Jeez. I wonder who else I’ve given myself away to by dint of being a polite guy. But back to the topic. If we do this, it’ll be to make us both look straight, is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes. I’m not saying we make any kind of declaration. Just start the rumor going. It’ll make Mills shut his face and it will drive your father up a wall, too. Don’t tell me that’s not tempting.”

“It is, but I don’t know, Sar. I’ve got to think about it. I’m not big on being in the tabloids.”

“That’s fine. Think it over and let me know. I’d way rather it was you than I look for some jerk who will actually take it as an unwelcome opportunity.”

“You don’t know any other gay guys to ask?”

“Well, see the thing is, three reasons you’re perfect. One, you’re straight-acting, straight-looking enough to be believable, when a lot of other guys would be too obviously a ploy. Two, we just wrote this song together and the tabloids love the whole ‘creative juices leads to love’ storyline. Three, repeat previous comment about how it’ll drive Mills crazy AND who knows, maybe solve your publicity problem. Or at least remove that crutch from their argument.”

“Okay, I’ll think about it. Don’t be too disappointed if I say no, though.”

“I promise, no pressure. Take my New York number so you’ll have it.”

I was writing the number down when I heard the sound of Jonathan’s car in the driveway. A glance at the clock showed it was only two in the afternoon. “Sarah, I’ve got to run. Talk to you later.”

“Okay, ciao.” She made a kissing sound.

I stuck the phone in the cradle and noticed the light was blinking telling me the battery was low. I’d been on the phone all day so far.

Jonathan seemed to be having some trouble opening the door. I pulled it open and he was standing there, carrying a cardboard box full of papers and knickknacks and things which was making it hard for him to get his key into the lock.

He looked a bit dazed. I still hadn’t figured out why he was carrying the box.

“Did you quit?” I asked.

He shook his head.

It sank in, though, that the box was everything from his desk at the office. “Did they fire you?”

He set the box down, then sat down heavily on the couch, like his legs wouldn’t hold him up anymore. I sat down next to him, waiting for him to tell me what was going on. I know I’m usually the one who’s speechless; least I could do is be patient.

“They called off the whole project,” he said, so quietly that I barely heard him.

“Because you were pulling out?”

He shook his head. “Had nothing to do with me. I didn’t even get to deliver my resignation speech. Apparently they were going to can us before the holiday party, but someone decided that was heartless. Isn’t that funny? Heartless! So they decided to hold off until after Thanksgiving! But not Christmas, no, that was too much to ask for, I guess. Ha, heartless.”

He started to laugh and put his arms around me. Then he started to cry.


(P.S. For those who missed the previous announcement, I did write a “breakup sex” bonus scene between Daron and Jonathan, and as usual, it can be yours for any donation in the Tip Jar OR help out DGC by tweeting, reviewing, recommending, linking to us!)

Flattr this!

Like this serial? Please tell a friend! Or click here to vote daily for us at Top Web Fiction!

Comments 5

  1. Connie wrote:

    Decisions.
    Sorry, J, that they took the wind out of your sails. Quitting would have been so cathartic.

    [Reply]

    ctan Reply:

    Yeah, poor Jonathan got all psyched up to quit! He’ll have to put that “I quit” speech into a book or something.

    [Reply]

    Posted 10 Dec 2013 at 11:25 am
  2. Joe wrote:

    Another great post. The story is really humming along.

    [Reply]

    ctan Reply:

    When the dam breaks, everything goes rushing out…

    [Reply]

    Posted 10 Dec 2013 at 11:55 am
  3. LenaLena wrote:

    Please tell me this is not where Daron gets sucked back into the relationship.

    [Reply]

    ctan Reply:

    No spoilers! :-P

    [Reply]

    Posted 10 Dec 2013 at 12:12 pm
  4. amandagayle wrote:

    I love Sarah. And I guess my gay-dar is off too, really didn’t catch that. I’ve got to say, also, Jonathan has always gotten on my nerves, big time. Maybe it’s because he reminds me of me too much, but he makes me cringe way too often. In that vein, I’m hoping “friends” works, but so glad there’s no more boyfriend pretense.

    [Reply]

    ctan Reply:

    I think Jonathan gets on a lot of people’s nerves because he reminds them of their ex-boyfriends, too… ;-)

    [Reply]

    Posted 10 Dec 2013 at 3:46 pm
  5. Peter Wilcox wrote:

    Hope he can keep Jonathan, somehow. He loves Daron so.

    [Reply]

    ctan Reply:

    Jonathan has a good heart.

    [Reply]

    Posted 11 Dec 2013 at 10:14 pm

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *