Breakdown

I woke up the next morning in a vaguely familiar bed, with the glow of indirect sunlight on an eggshell white ceiling above me and the sound of a piano in my ears. It was pleasant and my hand stretched across the cool expanse of mattress beside me. A few high notes were tentatively played, then played again, like someone working out a melody.

Someone was working out a melody. I sat up suddenly with the vaguely dreadful feeling I was late for rehearsal…?

I was in the sublet and that had to be Ziggy playing around with the piano in the living room. I sat there listening to the notes and it was like each one made a ripple across the surface of my mind, like droplets in a pool. Each ripple crossed the others making a pattern of increasing complexity, spreading outward. (Time expands forward and back at the same time, unspooling from the moment that is now in both directions, you know that, right?) I could sense the boundaries, the edges of a song, like a bat sensing the walls around me by the echoes coming back. The outline of how it could sound from start to finish…

I forgot to breathe. And when I remembered to, the whole pattern in my head turned to dust. I pressed my hands to the side of my head like I could hold it together but whatever had been there was already gone.

I sat there listening. Ziggy didn’t really play piano, but you don’t have to be a musical genius to figure out how it works. The keys are the notes and the farther you go to the right the higher they are. He had come up with a string of notes he liked, that made a melody, and one or two harmony notes that suggested a mood. A kind of yearning mood. Or maybe that was just that it felt so unfinished.

Yeah, yeah. I’m sure I was projecting my own feelings into it.

I decided I should at least wash my face and put on pants before I was ready to face any angst, though. So I got out of bed. I couldn’t tell if the pair of underwear I found on the floor was mine or Ziggy’s, so I left them. I found a clean stash on top of the dresser, still couldn’t tell whose they were, and put them on anyway. I pulled on a pair of jeans and padded into the bathroom.

When I turned on the water, the piano stopped. I splashed my face and dried it on a fluffy maroon towel that had come with the place. When I looked up, Ziggy was in the doorway. He was wearing just a short satin robe and without his hair or makeup done he looked smaller than usual.

This is when you’re supposed to say something, my brain told me. You know, something like hey, what were you working on? Or, want to get brunch? Or anything really other than just staring at him like you are.

He was staring right back.

“What now?” I asked. “I mean, what’s next?”

“I was going to ask you that. Or maybe I should ask your sister?”

“She leaves for the Cape tomorrow, or maybe the day after? I take Claire back to Tennessee tomorrow.” I rubbed my forehead. “Assuming today is Tuesday.”

“It is.” He shooed me back from the sink and picked up his toothbrush.

I did the same and we brushed our teeth and then started packing up our toiletries. I didn’t have much there, but Ziggy did. I went to stash my toothbrush in my duffel bag and put on a T-Shirt. Scruffy the Cat. I hadn’t heard anything about them in a while.

Somewhere out there, I thought, someone is pulling on a Moondog Three T-shirt and thinking the same damn thing.

Ziggy came in and laid his toiletry bags on the bed, then unzipped his suitcase and put it next to them, partially propped open by one wrought iron bedpost. He’d put on a little eyeliner and gelled the front of his hair. He started emptying a drawer. Without looking at me he asked, “Are we about to have a fight?”

“I dunno. Are you about to ask me to do something I said I wouldn’t do?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then I don’t think we’re about to have a fight.” I began the search for a pair of socks.

“Unless you’re the one who was going to ask me to do something I don’t want to do,” he said with a shrug. “Are you?”

The sock drawer was already empty. I dug through the duffel bag on the floor. “Well, I’d ask you to come back with me to Tennessee, but you seemed to feel it was detrimental to your mental health to hang around with the dying.”

“No, it’s detrimental to my mental health to hang around with you while you’re hanging around with the dying.”

Ouch. I looked up. “I thought you didn’t want to fight.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t want to fight.” His oh-so-delicate jaw was set. “I asked if we were about to.”

“Well, forgive me for assuming you were asking so we could avoid it instead of barrelling right in. Does that mean you want a fight?”

“No!”

“So which is it? You do or you don’t? And don’t give me some bullshit about fake dichotomies or whatever.”

He slammed the empty drawer rather hard and began stuffing the clothes in his hands into his suitcase. “What I want has nothing to do with whether we fight or not.”

I sat against the edge of the bed and asked the only question that made sense: “What do you want?”

He sucked in a breath and I couldn’t quite tell if his grimace was from frustration or pain or what. He took a moment before he replied though, and his answer was as simple as my question: “I want you back, Daron.”

My turn to suck in a breath.

“I don’t just mean I want you home, or with me, or doing what I want. I want all of you, your mind, your soul, whatever. All in one piece. Present.” He gestured at the apartment. “You were getting there. When we moved in here, you were starting to put the pieces together, getting back to your old self–”

“My old self was a hopeless closet case.”

“Not your old-old self,” he said, definitely frustrated. “Your real self. You know what I mean.”

I nodded. “I know. I don’t know why I said that.”

“I do. Because remembering what you’re not is part of remembering who you are.” He climbed onto the bed behind me and hugged me from behind, his satin-wrapped arms around my bare chest. “I’m not jealous of your mother. That’s not accurate. But I’m resentful that your relationship with her is changing you–maybe even damaging you–in ways that are really outside my influence.”

I put my hands over his. “You know that’s how I felt every time Jennifer Carstens’ name came up.”

“I know. I know.” He buried his face in my hair. “And it’s why fidelity makes sense, why it makes our partnership work instead of bogging it down.”

His fist was pressed right over my heart. I agreed wholeheartedly. “Yeah.” I felt a pang of guilt. “I wouldn’t have started drinking the other night if I’d known you were coming.”

“Shh. It was fine.”

“I thought the reason we weren’t drinking or doing drugs was because we didn’t like who we became?”

“Over time. You didn’t turn paranoid overnight.”

“True.” I could feel my heart beating under his hand and his breath warm against my neck. “But who said who I become when I’m with Claire is outside your influence?”

He froze. I felt him stiffen. I froze, too, worrying what I’d said wrong. When he didn’t reply after a couple of beats, I said his name. “Zig?”

“Ask that again.”

“Who said that who I become when I’m with Claire is outside your influence? Who said that?” I stiffened up further as I had a flashback to an argument. Was that in the rental car on the way to the airport or was it after that? Some time around then. I’d as much as said it: “You mean me. I pushed you away because I got protective of my relationship with Claire.”

“Well, yes–”

“Except didn’t we determine I only acted that way because Claire drove a wedge between us? So isn’t Claire the answer?”

“What matters isn’t which of you is responsible for shutting me out. It’s that you do, and that you see that you do.”

“And what if I said you should come back to Tennessee with us, to make sure I didn’t just fall completely under her spell?”

“I’d say you’d be unhappy about feeling pulled in two directions and we’d all end up in the loony bin,” he said.

That had an unfortunate ring of truth to it.

He had put on his earnest, reasonable face. “Look. She told me herself it’s a waiting game now. She’s not doing any more chemo and the operation’s not going to happen. You’ve got her in a care facility now so you don’t have to be the one to drag her out of a puddle of her own vomit or whatever. You said you were going to talk to your sisters about making sure you had coverage but that you didn’t have to be there every minute of every day. Did you?”

I swallowed. “I started the conversation.”

“Daron!” He clutched me as he said it and that made me break free.

I stood up and face him. “I did! Court’s going to come down next week after she has her vacation. She’s working on Janine. I’m sure I can get away when Court’s there. No, we didn’t figure out exactly when. But I’m working on it. I’m sorry I don’t work quickly when it comes to emotional stuff. But it’s being worked on. All right?”

He licked his bare lips, considering. “All right. I’m just… impatient.”

I leaned in to kiss him on the cheek. “Yes, you are. I love you, anyway.”

He kissed me back. “Only you could get me to admit I’m less than perfect, you know.”

Heh. Maybe it was true.

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