After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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I will soon be married, though it’s nothing I would have believed, nothing for which I’m prepared. The bride is asleep across town, and she and I have made no real plans. We’ve scarcely discussed it. Yet I feel a pang of anticipation each morning. I feel that same ache now while I sit with my guitar across my lap, drunk and trying to stay conscious at four in the morning. I’ve spent too many nights like this, drinking beer, holding but not playing my Telecaster, writing songs in my head. Mr. Galvez, my downstairs neighbor, pounds his ceiling (my floor), though I don’t know why. I’ve annoyed him many times with parties and loud music, but I haven’t made a sound tonight, haven’t had it in me to play a note while I compose “I Will Soon Be Married,” a song for my bride-to-be in her distant bedroom, her black hair arranged in sleep in ways I can’t imagine. Mr. Galvez bangs again, and I wish he would go to bed, that he would even be happy for me, that he would leave me in peace and let me finish writing my song.
Elzbieta, my fiancée, is the singer in my band. I met her a year ago, in the summer, after I lost my job at Record King. I was living in a rehearsal space and sleeping on a stinking mattress where something else lived that bit my legs at night and left scarlet marks that didn’t itch but still troubled me. I knew the bites came from that mattress because I would circle each one with blue ballpoint pen before I slept, and the next morning I’d find four or five new ones. I felt a simmering, sick anger all that summer, and I wasn’t sure if I’d been poisoned by what had bitten me, or if it was just the indignity of wearing those marks.
I had just formed a band called Farrago. I’ve been in bands for the past twenty-four years, since I was fourteen. The other members were old friends: Aaron, the drummer; and Carl, the bass player. We came together because we had few complaints with each other as human beings, unlike the members of my previous band, which had dissolved when I punched the drummer in the eye. Farrago jammed for hours in the space where I slept, captured ideas on a four-track when we weren’t too stoned to hit record. Over time we developed a repertoire of slow boleros, sleepy waltzes, and lugubrious country ballads that I sang passably.
One night we played the Love Hospital, a small club here in Toronto. In the sparse audience, a black-haired girl sat alone, her backpack balanced in her lap. A skinny punk at the next table was trying to make this black-haired girl, leaning his chair back and rattling his bracelets. A college boy two tables away was trying to make her too; I watched while he stroked his damp upper lip and gathered advice from his friends. Even the barmaid was trying to make this black-haired girl, trailing a hand along her freckled shoulder, pulling a braid aside to whisper in her ear. The girl smiled serenely at each of them but kept her eyes on the stage throughout our set, her braids bracketing her pale, serious face, her eyes the color of varnished teak. I decided if I was going to approach her it should be right after the show, while I was still stoked from playing. After the encore, I headed to the bar to plan my next move, but she was already at my side, so suddenly it startled me. I introduced myself and prepared to discuss what girls usually want to discuss after shows.
“I’m Elzbieta,” the black-haired girl said. “I would fit with you.”
She was younger than she’d looked from afar, twenty-four at most. I couldn’t place her accent, with its nasal lilt and swallowed syllables.
I smiled. “Fit with me?” I was about to ask what she had in mind when her eyes dropped. I thought maybe she was shy, until I followed her gaze to where my wool sock had fallen and saw she was staring at the ring of scarlet bites around my right ankle, some circled in faded blue. They looked like plague sores. I forgot the words I’d been about to speak, drew my foot back, and felt the same heavy anger I’d carried all summer.
“I’m sorry. I mean I would fit with your band.” She looked up with timid insistence. “I sing.”
“OK,” I said, and gave her the address of my rehearsal space before she hurried off. The next day she left two items there: a battered cassette wrapped in newspaper and a jar of fragrant cream with a Polish label that made the marks on my legs fade.
Each night for a week I lay on my infested mattress, headphones covering my ears, and listened to her singing over a Casio organ, her voice breathy and close against a cheap microphone. She sang mostly pop songs from the seventies — the Carpenters, Linda Ronstadt, Bread — along with a version of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” which she sang in the singular: “Raindrop keep falling . . .” Toward the end she sang along to Polish songs on the radio, very softly, sometimes too softly to reach the high notes, her voice dropping to a broken whisper.
It never occurred to me then whether her voice was good or bad, skilled or unskilled. It was just a voice in a distant room that had become a voice in mine, a voice singing late at night, trying to empty some restless sorrow while not waking the parents in the next bedroom. I listened to the tape every night, rewound and replayed it until the battery light on my Walkman dimmed to a tired amber eye.
I invited her to a rehearsal. Aaron and Carl sat and watched while she laid out her yogurt and bottled water, placed a small stuffed ape by her microphone stand, took off her shoes and socks, and stretched as if she were about to run a sprint.
“We would never subject you to this,” Carl muttered as I passed.
We began the first song on the practice tape I’d given her, her voice timid at first, then rising and gaining strength in the small room. I saw the others exchange glances during the second song, which was followed by a silence that Elzi broke with nervous laughter. We ran through our set once, then a second time. Afterward Elzi sat on Aaron’s stool and asked him to teach her simple drum patterns, then cooed at wallet pictures of Carl’s daughter. There was no consultation or vote. She came to our next rehearsal and sang at our next show.
Elzi and I dated for a few weeks, went to matinee movies where I gave whispered explanations when the actors spoke too quickly, window-shopped in front of Bay Street boutiques where we could afford nothing. She came to my place a few times, though she would never stay the night, because her aunt would worry. She always dressed and left after the evening news. One night, after a downtown gig before our largest crowd to date, she told me she didn’t think we should continue.
“I’m too old for you,” I muttered.
“It’s not that. I like you, Tommy. I just think our music is more important. It’s more important to me right now than anything. The band is just about to get big, right? If you and me stayed together, and things went badly between us . . .”
“Sure, I understand.”
“You are OK, Tommy?”
“I’m fine,” I told her, though afterward I walked the streets all night until the cold forced me into a busy cafeteria, where I stood in line with weary construction workers and cops for ten minutes before I realized I wasn’t hungry.
Elzi’s predictions about Farrago were right. Things have gone well in the year since then, better than any of us imagined, with growing crowds and a successful EP on a local label. Or, rather, things were going well until one night a week ago when I walked Elzi home after rehearsal. She’d been quiet all evening, not joking or teasing as usual. At her door she invited me in for coffee. Elzi lived with her aunt in an apartment squeezed into the right half of a two-story house. I’d been only as far as the small kitchen, which was just past the front corridor, with its hung jackets and vacuum cleaner. I’d never seen her aunt, only heard her muttering in Polish at the top of the stairs, seen her slippers on the bottom step, and drunk the coffee she’d brewed, though her doctor wouldn’t let her drink it.
I was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping strong coffee with whiskey and describing a scuffle with a bouncer the previous night, waiting for Elzi to sigh and scold me, when she asked solemnly if I would “get married” to her.
I laughed, too drunk to catch on.
“I’m serious, Tommy. My visa expires soon.” She smiled mirthlessly. “I have to go back. Or they deport me.”
“I thought you were getting your permanent residency.” I blinked at her. “Why didn’t you tell me this before? Jesus. What about the band?”
“Don’t be mad, Tommy. I’m embarrassed. I read it wrong, the information. I thought my aunt would be enough for them. But I got a letter.” She stared down at her folded hands. “You think I’m stupid, don’t you?”
“I don’t.” I stared at my own hands, scraped and nicked from the previous night’s fight, and laughed. “Why me, Elzi?”
“I don’t know anyone else I can ask.”
She cried then, muffling her sobs in the crook of her elbow. When I told her — when I promised — that I would do whatever she needed, she cried louder and kissed me on the temple, dark braids wagging, then said good night and climbed the stairs to her bedroom. I finished my coffee, let myself out, and walked home like a sleepwalker, in a spray of rain that failed to rouse me from my dream.
That was a week ago, and tonight our band is playing an “important” show — important because industry and media people might be present. Jonny Woodbine will probably make an appearance, as he has at a few recent shows. None of this means much to me. Over the years, in different bands, I’ve been wooed and courted and have even signed contracts. I’ve heard whispered promises that made me walk the streets all night, too stoked to sleep, predictions that made me quit jobs and lose friends and spend money I never saw. My expectations now are modest. Farrago is specialized and offbeat. We’ve built a respectable following, enough to fill most smaller clubs, but we’ve plateaued. Without a major financial push or solid distribution deal, we’re better off staying small and local.
Tonight I play guitar and watch Elzi, who stands between me and the faces ringing the stage in her thrift-store cocktail dress, barefoot as usual. I watch how her shoulder blades fan with each breath, how she leans forward on the balls of her feet when she comes to a note she’s struggled with, toes curling as if gripping the stage.
Elzbieta is our main attraction. No one but her would deny this. Many of our fans are young men who stand rapt as she sings in her closed-eyed, swaying style, cupping the mike in her hands as if it were a small bird. I suspect many of these young men imagine hearing this voice across an unlit bedroom. She appeals to women, too, though in them her voice awakens a pleasurable brooding. After our shows, the men look stirred, sharp-eyed with longing, ready for adventure. The women look pensive and morose, ready to go home early, to think and reevaluate. A small throng waits for Elzi after each show. She talks and shakes hands, accepts the adulation gracefully.
As I watch her sing tonight, it occurs to me, as it has in every still moment this week, that she and I will soon be married, and I’m embarrassed to say the idea sends an electrical current through my insides — until I remind myself that it shouldn’t. Though Elzi and I have hardly discussed our plan (at her request), it hasn’t much left my mind. Tonight, after our important show, Elzi makes the announcement to our bandmates over a bottle of wine backstage. Carl claps and whistles. Aaron says nothing, only looks from one of us to the other.
“Talk about taking one for the team.” Carl punches my shoulder.
“Oh, yes, so awful to marry me.” Elzi pretends to sulk until he kisses her forehead.
“I’d do it myself, sweetie, but they’d have me in jail for bigamy.” Carl frowns. “Though I’m still an accessory to immigration fraud now, right? Great.”
After the others leave, Elzi wants to finish the bottle with me and make wedding plans. I pretend to be annoyed, though it’s something I have thought about, late at night or in the morning before I’m fully awake.
“You must wear a suit and good shoes, Thomas,” Elzi announces, putting on the stuffy manner she uses to tease me now and then, “or I will be very embarrassed.”
“I’ll see what turns up.”
“And it must be in a church.”
“For fuck’s sake. Are you serious?”
“Of course.” I see a mischievous gleam in her eyes, but perhaps some sincerity too. “It must be.”
I scowl and sip wine. “OK, how about that little chapel in the Annex, the Polish one near the IGA dumpster that smells like cat piss?”
She gasps and wrinkles her nose. “Saint Stanislaus? No. So dirty.”
“Why are you the one calling all the shots? I’m doing you the favor. Saint Stan’s or nothing.”
She throws up her hands and sits back grumpily.
I lay out my other conditions: that we must be serenaded by a sweaty fat man playing mazurkas on an accordion; that I must have all the homemade pirogies I can eat, preferably greasy ones; that the service must be conducted in Polish by an old drunken priest with bad teeth and gin blossoms.
“What are gin blossoms?” Elzi asks. I tap the bridge of my nose, the broken blood vessels there. She leans close and squints but claims she can’t see anything. “Well, I want a little girl to carry flowers,” she says defiantly.
“Yes, an angry, ugly little Polish girl from the neighborhood who makes faces all through the ceremony, with a limp or a stutter or a lazy eye or —”
Elzi sniffs. “I should have listened to my friends. They warned me about you. I should have found a nice boy who will be good to me instead of . . .” She sighs and stands, unsteady from the wine, her expression one of convincing martyrdom. Then she kisses my cheek playfully and heads home to her worrying aunt.
After most of the crowd has left and we’re breaking down the gear, Aaron stops me and, with the same tone he might use to criticize a guitar solo in rehearsal, asks what the hell I think I’m doing.
“If I don’t do it, she’ll be deported. We’d never replace her.”
“That isn’t why you’re doing it.” He doesn’t look up from the patch cords he’s untangling. “You know she could find some nice guy to help her out. You don’t have to be that guy.”
I say nothing, feeling shamed and cross, like a schoolboy caught passing love notes in class. I’m not sure how he knows, what exactly he’s witnessed from his perch behind the drum kit. Though I know he’s right, I also know that I will do whatever Elzi needs.
Jonny Woodbine has appeared, sniffing around the stage with his Chairman Mao hat, engineer boots, spiral notebook, and tattoos. He greets Aaron but not me. Jonny is a local boy made good. Over the years I’ve watched his cranky reviews move from a student paper to a ’zine to an entertainment weekly to a column in a Toronto newspaper. In the photo by his byline he twists around to get his Celtic shoulder tattoo into the shot. I’ve seen him in panel discussions on rock culture, where he lectures like some combination of Iggy Pop and Robespierre. Jonny has his own midnight alternative-music show on the local cable channel, which he ends every week by shouting, “Live it, people!” and giving the camera a supercilious salute. He’s on every guest list in town, and his drinks are always paid for.
Jonny Woodbine never lets on that he knows me, though we’ve drunk together a few times, and though he’s written a dozen reviews of my bands over the years and even mentioned me by name, seeming most intrigued by the fact that I don’t move much onstage. In reviews he’s described me alternately as “the band’s brooding, still center . . . emanating a Brian Jones-like menace and charisma,” and as “a do-nothing weak link . . . a drunken, inert lump.” I think I’m caught at some awkward intersection in his imagination.
Jonny is looking for Elzi. For a week or so he’s been pursuing her, like so many others, though he might have a better chance than most. I’ve been present a few times when he’s impressed her with his name-dropping and impassioned rants or made her giggle with his gossip about other musicians. Tonight Jonny makes small talk with us before asking, with practiced indifference, “So, where’s la jolie chanteuse?”
“Gone home,” Aaron says.
Jonny glumly helps Aaron tumble the kick drum into its case. I suspect he is considering how to ask for Elzi’s number without making his intentions too plain. A respected music journalist shouldn’t have to stalk an artist like some groupie.
“I like how your sound is developing,” Jonny tells Aaron. “You’re moving into this polyrhythmic, early-Beefheart territory that I really dig. And, of course, the vocals are tremendous.”
“Of course,” Aaron says.
Jonny regards him uncertainly. “Anyhow, I’m going fishing with Doug Gordon from Archer Records this weekend. If you gave me a tape, I could play it for him.”
Aaron and I exchange looks. Archer is a successful Chicago indie label that would be a good match for us. Aaron digs through his backpack and flips me a cassette. While Jonny Woodbine pauses to write some pressing thought in his notebook, I hesitate. In my own pack I have Elzi’s worn cassette, the one she gave me a year ago. On impulse I put away the band’s cassette and hand Jonny Elzi’s in its place.
“Need it back when you’re done,” I tell him, though I suspect I won’t see it again.
Jonny looks puzzled, then pockets the tape and salutes us before he leaves, just like on television.
“Live it, asshole,” Aaron mutters behind his back.
Later that night, I lie on my mattress like a capsized tortoise, unable to get to my feet or even pick up the beer I set on the milk crate just a moment before. I wonder why I gave Jonny Woodbine Elzi’s tape. Maybe it was a joke. Or an experiment. Or maybe I wanted Jonny to hurt like I did when I first listened to it — not just the pain of knowing you will never hear that voice singing only to you, but the ache that you were not present at the moment the sounds were made in some dark Krakow bedroom.
My amplifier is switched on, sizzling, and I have the cord in my hand. I touch the bare lead to my tongue, and the amp faintly pops, but I feel nothing — no energy, no charge, no release. Mr. Galvez downstairs bangs on his ceiling, but I’m not making any noise. There’s just the hum of the amp and the ringing of tinnitus in my ears. I wonder what he hears that I don’t. Perhaps he’s banging in his sleep, an angry reflex. Or maybe the music in my head, my “Soon to Be Married” song, is keeping him awake. He’s a bachelor too, and if he’s hearing the same song I am, then he won’t sleep a wink tonight.
© Igor Malijevský
“Get married onstage,” the owner of the Love Hospital insists at a table in the club’s back room. “We have nothing booked Wednesday the twelfth. You got it if you want it. Play a set, then get hitched.”
“No way,” I say immediately, though the others at the table are grinning.
“We could make it a benefit show for Canada Immigration,” Carl says, and everyone laughs but me. “Sponsored by the Polish-Canadian Friendship Society.”
“I’m not taking part in some freak show,” I grumble, though I seem to be alone. “I’m not Tiny fucking Tim.”
“It could be fun, Tommy. Don’t you think?” Elzi asks.
I study her earnest, amused eyes, then tell them they can do whatever they like, and laugh along with the rest. Later, when the others leave to check out a show across town, I beg off, and Aaron follows me.
“If you don’t want to do it, tell them,” he mutters. “Tell her. I will if you can’t.”
I break away from him and duck into the bar down the street.
Late that night I get into a fight outside the Jerk Pit. My opponent is a big kid with blond dreads who thinks I’m someone else, though this is probably only a pretext to fight, and I’m too drunk to point out his mistake anyway. I have my chance to run, but I stay and go down quickly. The beating is nothing special. As I feel his fists and boots, I know it isn’t the last pummeling I’ll receive. That thought and the alcohol give me the patience to wait it out. My attacker’s bored friends eventually pull him off, and I sit up and catch my blood in my palm, cupping it as if I could pour it back into me. A waitress I know, Kristine, stops to help. She’s a nice girl who sells leather goods on the street on weekends. I’ve sat by her stand once or twice, talked and flirted. Her hands gently touch my face.
“I live just down the street,” she whispers. “C’mon.”
I feel in her touch a desire to comfort and care for me. I almost go with her. I might have only a week ago.
“Sorry,” I lisp through swollen lips. “I’m getting married soon.”
She helps me to my feet and watches me stagger off.
Back home I look in the mirror. The bridge of my nose and my lower lip are so swollen I look almost simian. The beating has chipped a top front tooth, and I feel the shocking absence with my tongue. I look less like a bridegroom than I do the bum in the alley beside the church who watches the bridal party leave with an uncomprehending stare.
Before our next rehearsal, Elzbieta sees my face.
“What happened this time, Tommy?” She’s angry, almost.
I say I don’t remember, which is mostly true, and continue unloading the van.
She grabs my sleeve. “Tommy, will you talk with me?”
“Aaron says I should talk to you.” She studies me carefully. “We don’t have to have the wedding at the club if you don’t want to. We don’t have to do it at all.”
“It’s fine.” I lift the high-hat and snare through the van’s side door. “I just don’t like that fucking stage they have over there. It smells like beer and sweat, and the boards are rotting, and the lights are too hot.”
“Maybe I don’t like it there either. Maybe we cancel.”
“No, the show’s booked. The flyers are up. I don’t care.”
Her brow is knit. “It’s strange to think we are married soon.” She chuckles. “Married people, how do they live? What do they do? How are they different? I have no married friends, so I don’t know. How do you be married?” She’s not entirely joking.
“From what I’ve seen, you mostly ignore each other and collect grievances to use at some later date.”
Elzi’s face shows alarm, then incredulity. “That’s what you think?”
I shrug, but I’m glad that she disagrees.
“But did you ever think you would get married like this, to some stupid foreign girl at a rock show?” She gives me a shy smile.
“I never thought I’d get married at all.”
“Me, I have thought about getting married from when I was small, but I never thought it would be like this.” She looks up quickly. “I don’t mean you. I feel so happy you would do this for me. But I mean on a stage, in a bar. It isn’t what I imagined when I was a girl. Do you understand?” Her eyes fall. “Maybe we could go to a church. Maybe even that one you like.”
I resent how she can seem so earnest, how she can make me hope for things I shouldn’t.
“Elzi, it doesn’t matter where or how we do it, because it’s pretend.” I can’t keep the exasperation from my voice. “We wear pretend rings. We pretend to live at the same address. We go on a few pretend trips and take pretend pictures to show at the interview. I’m doing this as a favor. So please don’t lay some trip on me about spoiling your girlhood dreams.”
Her eyes are moist as she walks off.
Aaron comes out soon after. “Just so you know, I told her to talk to you. I told her I thought she was taking advantage. That I didn’t think it was right. That she should find somebody else.”
Aaron rubs his eyes in exasperation. “Tommy, I don’t get it. Why?”
“Maybe it’s a selfless act.”
“I don’t believe that. What do you hope is going to come of all this? Until you tell me something that makes sense, any way I look at it, she’s using you.”
“It’s OK.” I lift the kick drum with a grunt. “I wasn’t using me much anyways.”
The big day has arrived. Some of our friends have draped a banner — Congratulations Elzi and Tommy!! — across the stage. They’ve drawn a caricature on it of us holding hands. I’m shaggy and troll-like, with my chipped tooth. Someone has added a beer bottle and a burning spliff to my picture with black marker. For some reason the artist has given Elzbieta pointed ears, like a pretty elf.
For the occasion I’m wearing a tuxedo and a bowler hat that Carl dug up. The tux is too small and doesn’t reach my wrists and ankles. I look like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Charlie Manson. “I feel like an idiot,” I whisper to Aaron, who doesn’t reassure me.
Elzbieta arrives late. Her hair is tied back in a way I’ve never seen it, coiled above her nape. Her skin is so pale that I can detect the fine blue veins at her temples, perhaps even their quick pulse. The gown she wears is real, I see with surprise, white floor-length lace with a bodice. Only when she turns do I see where the hem has fallen in ragged strips and a safety pin holds a shoulder strap together. Elzi’s hand shakes as she sips a beer at the bar. She’s avoiding me — I don’t know how much out of wedding-day superstition and how much because of our argument a few days back. When I approach, her eyes look naked and frightened.
“It’ll be fine, sweetheart,” I whisper. She smiles, though her hand holding the bottle still trembles.
I’m right, as it turns out. We play that night with pleasing synergy, that one-mindedness that happens every few shows. I sweat through the old tux by the third song and feel a clammy chill the rest of the set, but it doesn’t matter. At midnight, after our three-song encore, the Unitarian youth minister from down the street mounts the stage, gangly, red-haired, and thin-wristed. He squints uncertainly at us before he begins. The ceremony is brief and ironic. The audience prompts Elzi when she stumbles, blushing, on her vows. Aaron plays rimshots on his drums after mine. When we chastely kiss, Elzbieta stands on her toes and leans against me, her small fingers splayed on my chest. The audience cheers, and cameras flash. Our wedding will be a back-page novelty story in the entertainment weeklies.
Afterward my drinks are on the house, and my back is slapped sore. The DJ plays polka music with wheezing accordions. There’s dancing. The bar is filled with our friends and fans and, later, people who’ve wandered in from the Blue Jays game looking for a party, out of place but happy. I sit for a long time on the lip of the stage with a beer. Elzi is dancing in a whispering huddle of girls, their faces close and conspiratorial. Watching them, my heart is full, and I couldn’t move or speak if I wanted to.
Then I see Jonny Woodbine moving through the crowd, heading toward Elzi. He whispers in her ear, and she exclaims and clutches his shoulders. He stays near her through the next song, and I’m mildly gratified to see that Jonny Woodbine can’t dance, only sway self-consciously, as if balancing on a plank. I drink more, and to my surprise I’m soon dancing, too, in a huddle of Jays fans who encircle me with their arms and keep me on my feet. I feel light, my legs rising and kicking until the song ends and they lean me against the wall by the side exit.
Aaron comes to check on me twice and bring me a fresh beer. Then Jonny Woodbine is before me, his face flushed with drink. He moves like a man who suspects he’s being observed from a number of positions at once.
“Congrats, dude,” he shouts into my ear, the one that is not pressed against the cool brick. “I was just talking with your lovely wife.” Is that an ironic emphasis he places on the last word?
“Thanks,” I say, uneasy with his new interest in me and with his broad grin.
“I think you gave me the wrong cassette the other night,” he says, looking slightly troubled. I’m pleased that Elzi’s tape has wounded him in exactly the way I intended. He clears his throat. “It’s OK. I gave Doug my own copy of your EP. He’s excited and wants to meet all of you. He thinks Elzi’s amazing.”
“I’ve got better news.”
“Better. Doug Gordon’s just been offered a job at Matsuhiro Music. The big leagues. If he takes it, you guys will be the first band he signs.” He waits for this to sink in. “Doug and I have a few ideas for you. We want to develop a sound that will showcase Elzi’s voice to a broader audience. Doug knows some great musicians in Chicago. We’re thinking about experimenting and adding a few players. If that’s OK.”
I’ve had a lot to drink, but the “we” hasn’t escaped me, nor has his proprietary tone. I’ve been through this dance before. The fire-exit door opens, and a draft chills me through the damp tux. “I suppose you’ll be subtracting players too.”
“We haven’t thought that far ahead.” He prods my shoulder with his knuckle. “Hey, I was digging your playing tonight. That solo in the new song — Django Reinhardt on acid, I’d call it. Too much.”
“Can I ask you a question, Jonny?”
“You remember me, don’t you?”
His expression shows no disagreement for the first few seconds. Then he frowns and shakes his head. “Should I? Maybe I’ve seen you around.”
“We’ve talked before. We’ve had drinks together. I’ve read reviews where you used my name. It’s no big deal. I know I’m not somebody worth remembering. None of my bands were any good. Until this one.”
Jonny squints, as if taking me in for the first time. “Sorry, dude. I’ve lost a lot of brain cells over the years. Yeah, maybe I remember. You were in Ubik, right? And the Headtakers? Good stuff.” He gives a slow smile, though it’s too late now to be gracious, to reminisce.
“This band is the best I’ve been in. And it’s because of Elzi. I want good things for her. Which is why I’m not sure I like your ideas.”
He leans in closer. “I want the same thing you want, Tommy. And to be totally honest, I can help her a lot more than you can. If you want to keep playing shitty little clubs and passing out a box of CDs to your friends every few years, go ahead. But that’s not for her. I can take her a lot further.”
“I’m not arguing that,” I say. “I know you’re going places. And if you’re really going to help her, that’s great, and I thank you. But if you’re not, if you mess up and drop her off somewhere along the way . . . well, I’d have to cut your throat.”
Jonny smiles uncertainly when he sees me smile. “It’s up to Elzi to decide what she wants to do next, not you or me, right? Go sleep it off, bro. We’ll talk later. Again, congrats.”
“Live it, Jonny.” I salute while he heads back out to the dance floor. Moments later, someone flips off his Chairman Mao hat, and it falls under dancing feet and is trampled into a flat blue wad. Jonny stoops to retrieve it before remembering his dignity. Then he straightens, chuckles, and runs his fingers through his hair. I’m about to laugh until I see him beside Elzi again, whispering in her ear for a full minute before the two of them leave by the back door.
© Jennifer Bisbing
I stumble down the sidewalk outside the club at two in the morning. I know I’m heading due west, but little else. Too many nights I’ve navigated like this, the CN Tower a compass needle on my horizon. I feel a spray in the air, something between mist and rain. Then I hear the sound of pursuit behind me, the rapid footfalls, and a weary part of me wonders what beating I’ll receive now.
But it’s only Elzi, her gown lifted to reveal sandals and painted toenails. She stands beside me expectantly, and we burst out laughing like a con man and a shill rendezvousing after a swindle. I almost topple.
Elzi takes my arm, and we walk, not speaking. I don’t know where she’s leading me. We pass a Portuguese club surrounded by patio torches, with garlands and vines hung from wooden frames. Old men speak in urgent voices around a table, leaning forward, smoking cigars and drinking port wine. They turn and watch Elzi and me in our wedding gear, and we stare back until one of them lifts his small glass and toasts us solemnly. We wave to them and walk on.
“Did Jonny talk to you?” Her eyes are so bright I could see them without the streetlights.
“He said he will do everything he can. Use all his connections with promoters, with TV, with radio. I still can’t believe this is happening.”
“It’s great, Elzi.”
She’s leading us through a suburban neighborhood, away from the city streets, a block with Portuguese and Italian and Serbian flags on lawns, with meticulously baroque gardens, soccer balls and nets. She hums a tune.
“I like that house.” She points to a stately Victorian with a rock garden. “A nice married couple could live there. Don’t you think?”
“How about that one?” I say. “Great for kids. Roomy. A nice yard. I could fix it up, put a swing set and a barbecue pit in back. What do you say?” What began as a joke has come out sounding oddly mirthless. I’m grateful when she doesn’t laugh.
Elzi stops walking. To my surprise we’ve arrived at her apartment by an unfamiliar route. She gestures me up the narrow stairs in front. We sit in the kitchen and drink her aunt’s coffee. When she takes my hand and opens her mouth to speak, I’m afraid she’s going to thank me. I’m relieved when instead she begins to sing — quiet and embarrassed, two short verses in Polish. I sit and listen. It’s the voice from the tape, aching, hushed so as not to wake her aunt upstairs.
“A wedding song,” she explains, blushing. “I can’t remember the rest.”
It occurs to me, through the haze of drink, that these few minutes may be the only chance I’ll have to sit like this with the woman I love, who is now my wife. And though it doesn’t feel anything like I’d imagined, it’s sufficient.
I’m about to speak when Elzi leans across the table to kiss me. I’m surprised again because the kiss is gentle and tentative and sad. And it may contain a question and maybe a careful, generous invitation, though I understand that any offer made tonight will be good only for tonight.
Elzbieta heads to the stairs, her dress’s torn hem trailing, and though I know I’m free to follow, I remain at the table. Whether I follow or not seems irrelevant. Whether in the next hour I am in Elzi’s bed or walking the streets back to my apartment in the spray of rain, it couldn’t compete with this present moment. Whatever I’ve denied in the past, whatever regrets I’ll suffer in the future, I can live with them. I’ve lived with worse. No, I’m digging my heels in for just a minute or two, and I won’t be budged. I know I should move or act, that anyone watching would hasten me beyond this instant to the next. But I’ve just been married, and I wonder why I can’t stay here awhile and have my moment’s peace.