“Well, he has great hands,” is what she told her friends when they asked why she put up with it. “It” being the endless weekends at the bar, watching the band abrade through their way through yet another jangled song. “It” being the long Tuesdays and Thursdays on the plaid couch in the garage, feeling the nubbled wool scratch through her tights as the boys tried to pull together a hopeless tangle of chords.
Sam liked it when she came to the practices, for some reason, and so she went, sitting dutifully on the couch (though the iron bars of the pull-out bed pushed at her through the disintegrating cushion foam, though there were winter nights when the snow-bit air soaked through the cracks in the walls and numbed her feet through three layers of socks.) Sometimes, she did homework; sometimes, she braided her hair into a hundred tiny snakes; and always, she tried not to flinch at the countless moments when they lost the plot and the music clattered to the floor.
There were other things, too. He wouldn’t go to any of Donna’s parties, because Donna’s boyfriend “wore polo shirts”. Every week at the end of their shift, Donna asked her over, and every week, it got more awkward for Tina to say no. It was starting to drive a wedge. Finally, one rain-strewn Friday evening, Tina skipped the gig and went to Donna’s by herself. She spent half the night shoving off an increasingly drunk Tony Montello, culminating in a terrible kitchen scene where he ripped the collar of her blouse (it was lace, expensive). Panicked, she called Sam, and he came to pick her up.
He had a little pea-green hatchback. As it zoomed up, weaving like a drunken bee, she could tell he’d already pounded the better half of a six-pack. His eyes, hooded and strangely pale, had a dangerous glint. He hadn’t wanted to leave the after-party early; he hadn’t wanted her to come here in the first place. She realized she could already hear him; she already knew everything he’d say.
Tina hesitated a moment, shifting her weight onto her left stiletto, almost enjoying the way it strained her ankle, the pain traveling all the way up her calf. She looked at his cheekbones, preternaturally high and wide, gleaming in the streetlights. Then she walked towards the car.
He didn’t get out, just looked at her. She was conscious, suddenly, of her torn collar, the mascara streaks that had settled beneath her eyes.
“I told you what happened.”
“Yeah.” He paused a moment, raking her in. “Can’t blame him. You look like a skag.”
“Was that skirt for Donna? Or did you want him to rip your shirt down? I bet you did — I know you.”
She kicked the side of the hatchback, leaving a satisfying dent. “Fuck off, Sam.”
With every step she took, the cold concrete cut into her feet, the impact shooting from her heels to the base of her spine. A winter hammer, drumming out the rhythm of her sins, measuring them against her fogged breath. He idled along beside her for a few blocks, and then took off. A token effort at best, she thought.
When she got home (how wild it felt, to peel her shoes away from her blisters, to hear the sticky sound the leather made as it separated reluctantly from her flesh), she resolved to never talk to him again.
But her hand, a treacherous bird, flew to the phone when it rang the next morning; her shoulder meeting her ear to cradle the receiver between them, to listen not so much to what he said as to how he said it.
Donna thought she was an idiot and said so. But Donna didn’t know, not really. In her room (redone in dusty pinks and grays just last year, with satin sheets to keep her face from creasing in her sleep, her hair from shredding itself against the pillows), Sam maneuvered her hips, pulling her closer to him, his fingers so long they almost met across her belly. The roughness of his palms against her skin, as the sheets slid smoothly beneath her, was a pleasures that justified those nights in the garage. She wondered at herself sometimes, practicing telling her story to an imaginary audience to see what it sounded like: My name is Tina Fleming. I’m a 24-year-old waitress. I don’t like my boyfriend but I like how little he belongs with me, the moments when the distance between us is suddenly breached.
In her more lucid moments, she decided there was something wrong with her. She should free herself of it all — Sam’s strange cop father, his dark eyes following her above an oddly oily mustache; the eight-hour stints at half-empty clubs, tossing mic stands across shoulders still sore from a shift spent slinging seafood platters. Sam’s face, so empty when he came, alien in its beautiful planes and grotesque proportions.
She’d leave him, and this Pennsylvania mill town, for one of those postcard cities, like London or Paris … But then Sam would call, and once again, she found herself saying yes, pulled along in the slipstream of his will, his certainty that she would be at the show, and he would come over afterwards, and she would make him breakfast, and so on, and on, and on.
Standing in her tiny kitchen in one of his old T-shirts, scrambling eggs for him at the stove, she would take deep breaths, forcing herself to notice the medicinal scent of the minced parsley, to listen to the roiling burps of the coffee maker, and she’d promise herself that this was the last time.
But it never was.
And then, one day, something different. She’d skipped Sunday afternoon practice this time — she was getting better at that, to Donna’s delight — and so she hadn’t heard the news. Instead, she’d slept in, enjoying the sprawl of an empty bed, the cocoon-like stillness of a space occupied only by herself. And then he unlocked the door and let himself into her bedroom, face glowing like the ice rings of Saturn.
Sam brandished a newspaper. “Look at this.”
In 25-point type of the front page of the Daily: “Local Band on Hot Track.” A picture of Sam sat beneath the headline. He stood in front of Tom at the keyboard, wearing that stupid leather jacket and gripping a guitar, a bargain basement Mick Jones.
“Do you know what this means?”
“That you were in the paper? They should have put your band name in the headline.”
“No, stupid. Don’t you get it? There’s going to be an A & R man at the gig tonight. This could be the break we’ve been waiting for!”
“Oh. Well — that’s great. Shouldn’t you, um, be getting ready, then?”
He looked deflated. “What’s your damage, Tina?”
She looked at his hands, clenched at his sides. There was a pit at the center of her stomach, hard and cold. She tried to dissolve it, to smile for him, but her face wouldn’t stretch.
She swallowed. “No damage. I’m happy for you.”
“Well, let’s celebrate then.”
He raked his hands through her hair, and she found herself unbending. The pit was still there, but it was getting soft at the edges. “Maybe.”
“Come on.” He was hard to resist when he was like this — open, eager, like a little boy. He sat down on the bed and started pulling off his shoes. She sighed and closed the curtains.
When she awoke, it was close to seven. She knew his sound check was at seven-thirty; even if she woke him this minute, he’d be late. And yet she hesitated. She’d begged off going to the show earlier, hardly knowing herself why she lied. And now, watching him, she knew.
She’d never be rid of him unless he wanted to be rid of her. He wasn’t the type to let anyone go — even if he found somebody else (and he would, especially with her missing gigs), he’d try to keep her in the picture, mollifying her with silly gifts and soft words. At first she’d liked this possessiveness, but now it scared her. She’d been saying yes for so long. She could see herself saying it, again and again, becoming smaller and smaller. Dissolving.
She would, she realized, have to do something unforgivable. And so she slowly rose from the bed, being careful not to jar him, and slipped into her clothes. It was 7:10 p.m. Drifts of maple leaves had pasted themselves to the streets, and she kicked through them happily, never minding the finish on her suede boots. It was a wet Pennsylvania January, but she could feel spring in her bones.