“So, why do you hate talking on the phone?” Ziggy asked, a couple of nights later, after we’d gotten into a bit of a habit of talking every night after I came back to where I was sleeping. I appreciated that the place was basically right down the road from the care facility—close enough that I could walk if I didn’t mind walking along a road that had no sidewalk and clearly never had pedestrians in mind. Which was why I drove. (Was it technically the “road” that was unsafe or was it the drivers?)
Anyway. “I don’t hate it. It’s just not my favorite thing.”
“Let me rephrase the question, then. What don’t you like about talking on the phone?”
“I like talking to you just fine.” I sat down on a very squared-off style couch that made me feel like I was living in a furniture store diorama. “I mean, it beats not talking to you, you know?”
He chuckled and I had the feeling I really hadn’t given him a satisfactory answer. But really, what else was I going to say? It wasn’t like the phone hurt my ear or something.
“I’m just not a talker,” I said.
“Except when you are,” he answered. I didn’t ask what he meant by that. Sure, sometimes I got on a roll. But when he and I got on the phone, he did most of the talking, which seemed to suit us both fine.
“I’ve been giving the idea of us moving in together in Boston some thought,” Ziggy said.
“Yeah. You know who I need to get to buy in on this plan, though.” He answered his own question before I could voice a guess. “Barrett.”
“He seemed fine with us moving there for a year. Why would he be against a more long-term sort of thing?”
“I’m sure it’ll seem sensible to him once I warm him up to the idea. But, you know, he’s a mother hen.”
“You mean he likes being able to keep an eye on you when you’re in the apartment right below him.”
“Ye-e-e-s, but.” Ziggy sniffed and I wished I could see his body language. “There’s a weird way in which I almost enjoyed having a babysitter when I first moved in here. I know it sounds backwards—you’d think I’d have chafed under the oversight. But I kind of… basked in it.”
“Of course you did. You love getting away with stuff and pushing the envelope.”
“I suppose that’s true. But this was more fucked up than that. I really was at my most self-destructive. It didn’t feel self-destructive at the time. It just felt decadent. Like all the drugs and sex and whatever were my due. Like some kind of proof that I’d made it to the A-list or some shit.” He made a shuddery, revolted noise. “Ugh. This was… before we got back together.”
“This is why Barrett trusts you, though. Because from his point of view I was a star-powered monster hellbent on self-destruction, and now I’m a career-focused artist hellbent on maximizing my creative potential. Because of you.”
“I’m pretty sure your therapist probably has more to do with that than I do.”
“Without you I wasn’t motivated to figure out any of it, though. That’s the difference. I don’t need to be sane and functional and emotionally stable to succeed in this business. But I do to succeed in this relationship.”
“Oh, I see what you’re saying. I didn’t make you sane. You made yourself sane in order to be with me.”
“Well, both. I’m both saner when I’m with you and I maintain my mental health so I can maintain our relationship. Which isn’t to say it’s easy.”
“Especially when I’m not there. I know.” I felt a little bit of guilt curdle in my chest. But it was manageable. “But back up a second. You said you didn’t need to be emotionally stable to succeed in this business.”
“I think that’s true of a lot of people. It’s why so many burn out or get run into the ground and the industry itself doesn’t care who gets chewed up and spat out the other side.”
“Yeah. I think though… maybe… I think for me it’s the opposite.”
“You need to be emotionally stable to succeed?”
I had a strange feeling fizzing through me, like maybe I was figuring something out and some sandcastle facade inside me was eroding away on a foamy, opaque tide. “Or I need to succeed to be emotionally stable.”
“That… would explain a lot.” He wasn’t chuckling this time. “But that puts high stakes on success, dear one. And success is dependent on so many other factors, so many other people…”
“You just described why the music industry is my own personal hell,” I said, with feeling. I had never laid it out so plainly like that before. “Or it could be, if I built my self-esteem on album sales numbers.”
“Um, you don’t?”
“No. Well, okay, the gold record is nice. Very nice. It’s a feelgood thing for sure. But I have to define myself by my creative success, my artistic success, more than by my…” I fished around for the right buzzwords. “Than by my reception in the marketplace. I have to judge myself based on the things that are in my control, not the things that are outside my control.”
“I mean things like is the song good? Did it say what I want? Does it have that feel I want? Does it work? If the answer is yes, then if no one buys it because the record company hates it… well, that’s a bummer but it’s not a blow to my ego. Where it gets messy is if I’m depending on that song to pay the rent. Or mortgage, as the case may be.”
He was silent. Thinking.
Me, the non-talker, went on. “I got into music because it was the only thing in my life that made me feel like I had any worth as a human being. It was something I could do, could do well, enjoyed doing, made me feel good about myself, and made other people like me for the first time ever. So of course I went into doing that for a living instead of flipping burgers or selling shoes or whatever.”
“But what happens if you have a song you aren’t satisfied with and it makes it big? Does it undermine your self-confidence?”
“I’ve already had that. ‘Blues Skies’ was pretty much that.” I shrugged. “I was fine with that. What’s hard is…” I trailed off, because I realized I was about to repeat something I’d told him before. Well, maybe it bore repeating. “What’s hard is…” I faltered again because I didn’t want to start a fight. I wanted to just talk with him to replace the feeling that we were isolated from each other, to close the miles as if he were there, murmuring in my ear. And so I didn’t want to say something that would throw a wall up between us.
He was silent again, and I knew he was filling in the blank in what I hadn’t been able to say. What’s hard is being asked by your lover-partner-muse to go through the motions on stage every night with some music you really don’t believe in, so he can sell more records.
The silence stretched until I broke it. “This is why I hate talking on the phone.”