“Hey, did you decide?” Her voice was sweet and careful. Coll had told her earlier in the day that it was obviously completely up to her how she wanted the two of them to travel that night and not even thirty minutes before this moment, they discussed it again.
“This morning you told me it felt like it could be something and then this evening you said it wasn’t plausible and so I’m just wonder-“
“Colleen, I have no clue what’s happening. I have one thousand percent never felt like this before.”
Coll paused and reached her hand out to Becka’s arm. “I get it.”
“I know you want-“
“No. No no. Please don’t care what I want. I can survive the night away from Nick.”
“I know you can, I just… still thought about it.”
“I’ll go with Howie.”
Coll perked up. “That’s completely what you want, yes?”
Becka smiled, “Yes.” She shrugged, “I don’t know, Colleen, what any of this is or means or whatever but, for tonight, yeah. That’s what I want.”
“Okay.” Coll nodded, her mind reeling over thoughts of Becka and Howie together. “Let’s go.”
With her suitcase rolling along easily behind her, Coll made her way to Nick’s bus with Becka in tow.
“Are we bad people?” Coll asked again.
“Coll, I’m positive that we aren’t.” Becka smiled, as Coll turned back to look at her. “Don’t feel bad. We are both getting what we want. We’ve spent our whole lives together.” Becka rationalized with a laugh, “What’s a few nights?”
Coll rolled her eyes with a smile. “I know, i just feel like … weird about it.”
“There are no rules, Colleen. We had fun didn’t we? Talked a lot… had experiences together… what does it matter that we sleep in different places tonight?”
“And every night you’ve been here practically.”
“Coll, if you really would rather snuggle with me tonight just say the word.” Becka teased.
“That’s why i feel bad! I would not rather!” She laughed.
Becka giggled, “Okay, then we are even.”
“This is what I mean!! Are we bad people?”
“No. We just wanna have fun.”
Obligated, Coll thought it over. “Fine. But when i’m back to Boston we are having a weekend just the two of us.”
“Okay.” Becka nodded, “Will do. I’m there. You’ll be back to America in a week anyway.”
“Oh shit, I forgot to tell you.” She paused her walk and turned to face to Becka. “I’m going to Florida.”
“With Nick. After the tour ends. Before I go back to Boston.”
“For how long? Weren’t you going to stop and visit the parents?”
“I actually have no clue. And yes, I was.”
Becka laughed lightly. “Okay, so I’ll see you in Connecticut. Remind me to congratulate him on getting you to Florida.” She sighed heavily as she pulled harder on her suitcase handle.
“I didn’t realize I permeated such an enduring disgust for-”
“Hey, why is your’s rolling with such ease?” Becka asked, exasperated as she motioned to Coll’s suitcase.
“Because I have the absolute bare minimum inside of it.”
“Multiple pairs of adorable matching pajamas is not the bare minimum.”
“For me it kind of is…”
“Ladies!!” Nick’s voice called out to them from down the line of buses. “We gotta go!”
He was laughing as he jogged over to them. He quickly took Coll’s bag from her and kissed her on the cheek before grabbing Becka’s from her as well in one swoopy movement.
“My hero.” Becka swooned sarcastically as she and Coll fell into rapid step behind him.
“Your stop, Ms. Parker?” Nick asked as they arrived at Howie’s bus, looking to Becka for confirmation. She nodded and he rapped his knuckles against the door. They saw Howie approaching the door and Coll quickly gave Becka a hug and said goodnight.
“Love you. See you in the morning.”
“Love you, too.” Becka said quietly.
“It’s okay to be a little afraid.” Coll whispered before backing away. Becka smiled softly at her as Howie opened the door.
“Night guys.” Nick waved quickly before taking Coll’s hand and the two of them continued on. Coll looked over her shoulder back at Becka who waved her off.
“You came!” Howie smiled. He was freshly showered and had a small towel hanging over his bare shoulder.
She laughed lightly as he reached out for her suitcase. She climbed aboard and the door snapped shut behind her.
“Well, plan A fell through.” She teased.
“Oh, so I’m just your consolation prize?” He asked as he let her suitcase down.
She was quiet for a moment and he turned to look at her. She was smiling shyly and shook her head, tucking some hair behind her ear. “I think it only counts as consolation if you’re upset plan A didn’t work out.”
“Ahh I see.” He nodded.
Nick flung the door to his bus open hastily, pressing his back against it to hold it open for Coll who smiled and moved in past him. He followed her, carrying her suitcase up the steps and letting it down near the couch past the entryway.
She turned to face him and suddenly his hands were cupping her face in and he was kissing her. She relaxed into him for at least two minutes before he paused to ask her how her day had been.
“Not as excellent as last night but, overall it was pretty good.”
He smiled and pushed her hair over her shoulder.
“Jen made me wear a ridiculous hat all day.”
“Yeah. All floppy and big and … ridiculous.”
“A hat.” He stated, curiosity in his tone.
“She claims people might recognize me …? That’s insane right? How and why would that happen? Recognize me as what?”
Nick rolled his eyes. “She’s testing you. I’ll talk to her.”
Coll narrowed her eyes, “Testing me?”
Nick shrugged. “She is who she is.”
“Testing me for what? Does that mean nothing is going on?”
“Yeah. She’s crazy but she knows what she’s doing.”
“So she doesn’t actually think I’m going to get mobbed?”
“Probably not. I think she was a little worried after the photo but… no. She just wants to see if you’ll … do it.”
“Follow her lead.”
She looked at him perplexed.
“I’m telling you… you’re in.”
She pursed her lips to one side, “What does that actually mean?”
He took her hand in his at her side, “it means eventually people will find out how crazy in love with you I am and she wants to be ready for that. She wants YOU to be ready for that.”
“There’s nothing to worry about she’s just … she used the Spain thing as a launch pad for being paranoid.” He laughed lightly, moving one of his hands to brush her hair over her shoulder, noticing it looked particularly shiny.
“So I’m not going to end up in some tabloid or attacked by crazed teenagers or -“
“I can’t say it won’t happen but… that’s what she wants to avoid. She knows it gets a little nuts when people start asking us if we have girlfriends or whatever.”
“It did seem odd... she doesn’t make Leighanne wear hats…”
“Because it’s not necessary … she kind of hazed you.” He said with as much empathy as possible but he was smiling.
“I feel stupid.”
“I did it for you more than her.”
“I know you did.” His hand slid up her arm, “you’re the best.”
“Okay.” She conceded easily as he leaned in to kiss her.
“Did you do something to your hair?” he asked.
Her eyes met his and she smiled.
“I have wine.” Howie mentioned as he gazed into the fridge.
“What color is it?”
Becka shrugged, “that works.”
“Not sure where this came from but… it’s here.”
Becka smiled as she gave her hair a final squeeze into the towel in her lap.
“Shower was surprisingly nice.”
“Yeah,” Howie nodded as he poured out a glass of rose for Becka. “This one is pretty decent.”
“Tell me more, oh great mobile-shower connoisseur.” She giggled as she tucked her foot up under her.
“Just got lucky I think… good water pressure.” He explained as he brought the glass to her and sat beside her with his own.
“Thank you.” She said as she took the glass from him. She brought it to her lips and took a sip, silently considering a tangled string of thoughts. “Can I ask you something?”
A small pang of guilt reverberated through her chest. “This is almost against everything I believe in but… for the greater good. And just to be clear, I’m asking for your insight… your experience with him. Not his story.”
“Got it. What’s up?”
“Is Nick always like this or is it a Coll thing?”
She thought about it again for a moment, trying to honestly sort out her reasons for asking.
“Concerned.” She said, “Careful.”
“Did he say something to you?”
Becka’s eyes wandered, and she tried not to let on too much.
In her silence, Howie went on, “This is not his usual. Which is a good thing.”
“I see...” she nodded, “so he’s what...? Usually? Like...” she took a long breath and a stab at it, “kind of a player? It’s been so long since I’ve spent any significant time with him and I know he’s grown up …but he seems a little more… subdued. Not just compared to what I’ve known but compared to what I expected.”
“I don’t want to call him a player but he’s not usually really like ... trying to be anyone’s boyfriend let’s put it that way. I mean, he’s nineteen...”
“Sure. Yeah. So… he likes to date? Sleep around? He told me about Mandy.”
“Yeah, I mean ...”
Becka rested her arm on the back of the couch and pressed her hand casually into her forehead, swirling her wine around in the glass with the other.
“He likes that fleeting, no-commitment stuff?”
“He gets excited about the potential and then loses interest?”
“Well… not anymore it seems.”
“He wants to see how many people he can create even the slightest connection with because some other things are disconnected?”
“Are you really asking me anymore or...”
She smiled, “I get it.”
“You see this a lot, don’t you? In your program?”
“No, not really. I work with kids. I mean, sure, I’ve seen it… in case studies or whatever but, not with my actual people. But, they have their own things...”
“I get it because that’s how I was.” She said, “and still have to actively try not to be.”
“That surprises me.”
“Why? Because it’s the opposite of Coll? I told you, we are true opposites.”
“I don’t know her that well yet.”
“You know she’s a virgin.”
“She mentioned it.”
Becka wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “Either way, I get it with Nick. I don’t know what his demons are... I just know enough to know he’s used sex the same way I did. To escape and test and push the boundaries and see how far you can go...” She paused.
“So,” Howie hummed, “you’re saying Nick shifted because of Coll?”
“Well actually, that’s what I'm asking. Is that what happened? That’s more or less what you suggested.”
“And yeah, I do think that. I guess that’s true. When you get to something where it actually might matter if it breaks, you stop.”
Howie was looking at her, interested by not terrified.
“I don’t think he wanted to be that way he just enjoyed it while it was happening.”
“He loves her. I guess that’s the biggest difference.” Howie explained as he slid further into the couch, reclining into it deeper. “And she loves him which actually is maybe even a bigger difference.”
She could feel her palms starting to sweat and her nerves on edge. “Loneliness is such a powerful force.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t speak for Nick, but for me, a lot of it boiled down to feeling alone. That’s what I eventually figured out.”
His eyes were trained on her and she looked away briefly, “Loneliness is tragic.”
“Did you hear back from Mel?”
“Actually I haven’t checked my email today.” Coll replied as she finished buttoning her pajama top and slid into a sitting position on the edge of Nick’s bed.
He was running his hands through his hair and examining it in the mirror.
“I’ll check tomorrow.” She said as she was reminded of Melanie’s last email to her and what she had said about John, feeling annoyed again he had asked Melanie about her under the guise of something Melanie actually cared about. Why is he still so interested? Why doesn’t he get the hint? Maybe I need to be explicit. Maybe I *do* have to tell him about nick. Or not Nick exactly but … a relationship. What is this called? Does it matter?
“What’s up, SC?”
“Space cadet… you were out there for a minute.”
She hung her head, “sorry.” don’t talk about it. “Sorry, what’s up?”
He smirked at her but said nothing.
She smiled as he leaned in closer to her. “Did you smile at me during the show?”
“You saw that I did.”
“There were two girls behind me who did such an excellent job convincing themselves you were smiling at them I started to question what I saw.”
He laughed, “it was you.” His arm slipped around her waist and she turned into face him.
“I win.” She smiled.
“I like looking out and seeing you there.”
She nodded as he leaned in to kiss her.
She ran her finger tip along the rim of her glass, “Honestly, is there anything worse than feeling alone? It’s worse than being sad. Sometimes being sad is sort of… beautiful. But feeling alone… feeling lonely… it never is. Even when other people are around you can still feel alone and that’s the worst. To be in a room full of people and still feel so alone…” She looked at him and he nodded, feeling his heart rate increase with every word she spoke. “It’s horrible. Because it’s from within you. It took me too long to realize that.”
He watched as a tear rolled off her cheek and she pushed it away with her finger.
“Like just being sad is different. People feel for you when you’re sad - they can see it. Being sad is catharsis. You just… feel it and you let it out. And yeah, sometimes it takes a while to get it all out. Sometimes you won’t ever get it all out. But at least you can try. Loneliness is different, there’s nowhere for it to go. It just is. feeling alone… it’s so isolating and no one would know. No one can see it.”
“You’ve felt that way before.”
He wasn’t asking but she answered anyway. “Many times.”
His mind drifted back to the day after the award show last year, the phone call from Pollyanna… the deep loneliness he felt.
“I understand.” He breathed, “you’re right.” How does she articulate all of this? She’s had a lot of time to think about it.
“Exactly. You must know how it feels especially. Everyone paying attention to you, people everywhere… but still feeling alone because no one gets it. Whatever ‘it’ happens to be. There is no other word for it… it’s tragical.”
“That’s very true.” He agreed. “So what do you do when you feel lonely?”
She shifted uncomfortably. “Well, it’s been a while actually. But… stupid shit.”
“I didn’t realize it when I was a kid that I felt alone because no one had experiences like I did. The aloneness wasn’t from being by myself physically it was from feeling so separate from everyone. So as I grew up I kept trying to feel less alone… physically. Thinking that would solve my issue. But it doesn’t. Because feeling alone is an inside thing. But it took me forever to really understand that. Sometimes I think maybe I did know it, but I didn’t understand it. Like, I used to tell people everything about me thinking that if I told them they would understand and I guess I hoped that would help. But no one understood. And a lot of them left. So I stopped telling people who I really am.” She felt a tear roll off her cheek, “I did so many reckless things. I got it in my head that if I was with someone ‘special’ … they would make me feel less alone. They didn’t have to know everything about me, they just had to be with me in a way no one else could be. I don’t mean physically… but that’s where I figured it would start. I’d be with people and hope it turned into something more. So I stopped telling people everything. I stopped telling people who I really was and none of it made any sense but … I just thought, maybe if I could be with someone that way, I would feel less alone.” She shook her head, “obviously that was stupid. But I believed that for so long. And I just… kept trying to find that person who would make me feel less alone. I slept around a lot. Like, a ton.” Her stomach turned. He didn’t wince. “I was just… waiting for something to click.”
She looked at him briefly, trying to get a sense of how much he actually wanted to know.
“Did it help?”
“No. Sometimes, temporarily. I mean, it was fun at times. But no. I never felt like...” she paused to think about how to say it without saying it.
“You don’t do that anymore.” He said before she could continue. His eyes were intent on watching her, the air between them felt warm and heavy.
She smiled shyly. “Eventually I got bored. It wasn’t exciting anymore, even the gamble of doing it and seeing if it might work the way I wanted it to, it wasn’t exciting anymore. It was all neutral. Just a holding pattern... Sure having sex is fun but, I got bored of just having sex. And that’s all it ever was.” She hung her head and he reached out, placing his hand above her knee. “Which meant there was nothing to be afraid of. But not having anything to be afraid of made it hard to stop, and hard to protect myself.”
“You didn’t have anything to be afraid of because…” They looked at each other and she let him twist his fingers into hers and she looked away again. “Because nothing could be as bad as whatever came before? Because you had already been hurt?”
Her eyes darted up to meet his. “What?”
“You felt like it didn’t matter what happened with people because you weren’t afraid of being hurt by them… because it wasn’t any worse than the hurt you already felt, or - the hurt of feeling alone.”
Her mind went into overdrive. How does he know that? Colleen knows that but she wouldn’t tell him that, would she? When would she have even seen him today to tell him that? Was it before? Why would she? “... did Colleen tell you that?” she asked nervously as she took her hand from his.
She stood up quickly and took a step back from him. A splash of wine spilled over the side of her glass a bit from the sudden movement.
“No, how did you know that?”
“That’s what you just said.”
“You said when you get to something where it might matter if it breaks, you stop.”
She looked at him, startled and warm and feeling completely overwhelmed.
He stood up next to her. “Becka.” His voice was calm and quiet.
His hand moved slowly to her arm where he touched her shoulder and she didn’t flinch. The heat spread instantly across her skin. “How do you feel right now?” His tone was somewhere between concerned, curious and flirtatious.