He was startled a little as she plopped down across the cafe table from him.
"Wow, it's too early to be so… peppy."
"Ugh, trust me," she sighed "I'm not actually. Was just happy to see you." She adjusted the chair underneath her. "No, but seriously why are you awake?" She asked and looked around a bit. She spotted Billy a few tables over with a newspaper in front of him and waved a little.
He shrugged, "just wasn't sleeping well, had a lot on my mind." He rubbed the inner corners of his eyes with his left hand, pressing the bridge of his nose.
"Anything you wanna talk about?" She asked kindly, briefly making eye contact with him that sent a little shiver up her back.
He shrugged again.
She sighed and tried to wave the waiter over.
"Just like, so much happening. Here, at home, then I've got Mandy all up in everything."
She hadn't heard him talk about her so much, she actually heard everyone else talk about her more than he did. And in the past week, she put it together on her own that they were still some level of together though it definitely was not exclusive. She was afraid to bring the subject up at this point; she knew the basics from past emails. Nick and Mandy met at a show she was one of the artists at, she was trying to launch a music career, she was recording an album, she was blonde...
"What's going on at home?"
"My mom has been acting kinda nuts lately." He sighed heavily. "It's all of this. She gets carried away. It's the money."
Coll nodded, understanding. Nick had mentioned that a few times in passing over email, but she was never able to get more of the details. And she didn't push for them. He knew he could talk to her about it if he wanted to.
"And Mandy?" Coll realized she might have sounded a bit more interested than she intended. She had to admit, she did want to know what they were doing, and what he was doing without her, but she didn't want to let on that she was quite so interested.
Nick pressed his lips together.
"It's just for fun." As the answer slipped off his tongue, he knew it was the truth. Though lately, it felt less and less fun.
Enough said. So maybe it is just casual.
Coll nodded as the waiter came over, she placed her order and clasped her hands together on the tabletop as he retreated.
"Fun is ... good."
Something inside him hurt. "Good" was not a word he would use to describe any of his romantic relationships. "We do have some fun. But it's not ... serious. Not for me, anyway." He spoke over the unfamiliar guilt that flowed through his chest. It caught him off guard.
What was there to feel guilty about?
"Is it serious for her?"
"She wants it to be more serious than it is. I guess that's why when she is all up in my business, it feels annoying - because, for me, it's not what it is for her. That's part of the reason I need to break it off with her."
"Oh, I didn't realize it was … ending." Coll said casually, not sure what else to offer. She still wasn't clear on their relationship or what either of them was trying to accomplish in it. But she wondered what he meant by 'all up in his business'... because she was the one here, following him around Europe.
"It should." There were many reasons he had considered breaking up with her, but truthfully, guilt for sleeping around wasn't one of them. Until Coll mentioned Mandy's name today, Nick had never once felt guilty messing around with other girls while he was with her. His desire to have the freedom to be with whomever he wanted, whenever he wanted was selfish, and it was why he convinced her to go along with his open relationship scenario. What usually felt like age-appropriate selfishness and surface-level questionable behavior suddenly felt like a giant ball of tar sitting in the pit of his stomach.
He didn't get what he wanted from Mandy, but he still had not felt a satisfaction beyond fleeting instant gratification with anyone else either. He knew his behavior was erratic, reckless, and generally irresponsible, but he had no known reason to change it.
Keeping Mandy in the picture was selfish; it gave him the trappings of a relationship without commitment. Mandy got to call him her boyfriend, and he got to maintain his lifestyle. Everyone could be happy with that, right? Except he knew it wasn't right, but he never really felt it was so wrong either.
"I'm not a good boyfriend." But that was what she wanted, so at least he tried to give her something.
Brushing it off, burying it a bit deeper, he assured himself he would fix everything with Mandy when he saw her next. Letting her go would be the best thing for both of them, he told himself. Then he could do whatever he wanted without guilt... right? He was feeling guilty for wanting an open relationship with Mandy, not for actually pursuing things outside of her once she agreed to it…
... that had to be it.
But just in case it wasn't, he tried not to let on too much about his reckless behaviors to Coll. It was embarrassing.
"Just break up with her and be single."
Coll assumed whatever it was Nick was doing was not too far off from what most of the people she knew at school participated in, and she used that to justify the things he had revealed, though they were minimal. He did not explicitly say he was sleeping around, and she assumed he didn't know she knew he was.
She was one of the only people she knew of who had not slept with half a dozen people or more, so maybe she just didn't get it.
The next two hours were spent just talking about anything and everything. They eventually moved to a more comfortable booth and hung out till 7 am when they both felt sleepy. Nick suggested they go back upstairs and watch a movie and hopefully doze off, Coll nodded in agreement, her senses suddenly heightened, and they went back to Nick's suite to browse the options available. After settling on something and watching it for twenty-four minutes, they both fell asleep on Nick's bed.
That night at the show, Coll and Leighanne toasted Guinnesses to their standard, "infinite possibilities" and also "rainbows on everything," which Leighanne added at the end. The two of them were developing their own relationship - one that was separate and unique from the relationship of the group or of Nick to Brian and Nick to Leighanne. Both of them felt so lucky for it.
As Coll watched the show that night, she sipped her beer and focused mostly on her own thoughts... and also closely tracking Nick around the stage. She hadn't nailed down what it meant, and she wasn't sure it mattered, but watching him on stage felt nice. Underneath the murky, unfamiliar feeling, she decided it was oddly enjoyable, so she did as much of it as possible.
Was there anything so wrong about wanting to feel good? No. She justified it.
She was looking for - or waiting for - clues.
After her morning chat with Nick, she found herself turning his situation over in her mind all day. She was preoccupied with it. She couldn't shake the fact that he seemed moderately depressed - at a time when he should be euphoric about the things happening in his life. And why was he still hanging on to this Mandy thing? He didn't seem joyful about it at all. And what exactly is the allure of sleeping around that she just couldn't seem to grasp?
Her thoughts ran away from her, but she made sure to keep her eyes on Nick.
"What do you think they think about while they're up there?" Coll asked Leighanne, not taking her eyes off the stage.
Leighanne smiled at her, "you should ask them!"
"You don't have any inside scoop?" Coll laughed.
Leighanne shook her head, "You're an insider, too!"
Coll raised her eyebrows, "Not the same way you are."
"Trust me, whatever it is Brian thinks about is WAY different than whatever it is Nick thinks about."
"Oh, I wasn't asking specifically about Nick…"
Leighanne smiled, "I know."
Leighanne hopped along to the music for a few seconds before smiling at Coll again, "You're really cool, you know that, right?" Coll laughed and shook her head. "No, I am not. I am the most basic, boring, normal person. This is the most excitement I've seen in my life."
Leighanne looked at her with a raised eyebrow. "You so totally are not. And …this hasn't even started yet." Leighanne gestured widely to everything. "Not even close."
The following morning Coll was on her way to the hotel restaurant to grab some breakfast when she decided to stop by Nick's room and see if he wanted to join. They would be in London for another two nights before heading back to Germany, and though the guys had a few press events, they had the next two nights off. Coll hit a hard left at the end of her hallway and made the paces to Nick's suite door. She knocked four times and waited.
Nick opened the door, surprisingly more awake than she had expected.
Instantly he knew he had made a massive mistake. Again. It was one thing allude to his reckless and questionable behavior and feel bad about it, but it was entirely another to be looking at her while he was going about it. This was exactly what he wanted to keep her in the dark about.
"Hey, I'm going to get breakfast, do you-" She trailed off as she heard a female voice say something inaudible from somewhere in Nick's suite.
"Oh. Oh god, I'm so sorry…" She whispered as a crushing embarrassment flowed through her body. She covered her mouth with her hand. Nick's face was pale but flushed red through his cheeks. She suddenly noticed too that he was holding a towel around his waist, and a warm fog crept out of the room behind him. She felt her heart lurch up into her throat, and a feeling of incredible loneliness swept over her.
He hung his head and shuffled his feet uncomfortably. At that moment, every piece of him knew he had to stop doing this. He also discovered that whatever enjoyment he got from these escapades could not make up for the lowness he felt right now. "I was just about to take a shower." He stated evenly, his guilty conscious banging at every space in his chest.
Coll nodded and backed away slowly. "So sorry!" She mouthed to him, cringing, backed away quickly, and hurried off.
As she waited for the elevator, she reminded herself that Nick's private life was none of her business, and she didn't and shouldn't care whether he was committing any relationship fouls or who he was committing them with.
Of course, it is normal for a friend to care about that stuff, though, she thought.
Her stomach flipped over a hundred times as she rode the elevator down, her imagination was running wild.
Who was he with? How did he meet her? Was she a fan? Does he do this often?
How much longer could she play it off like she didn't care? And why was she so turned on while simultaneously being so put off?
Salacious thoughts whirled around without aim. She walked through the motions of gathering breakfast and going back to her room without a lot of cognitive thinking in the matter. Her brain was too busy processing Nick's situation. Her stomach felt nervous, and her back tingled.
Upon arriving back to her room, she set her plate down on the desk and threw herself into her bed. Her phone vibrated in her back pocket.
It was so uncommon to receive text messages from anyone at all, but her phone was letting her know that she had one from John.
_ r u in boston at all?
_ im in europe w a friend
_ :( but also wow
_ hows ur summer?
_ fine. wanted to hang.
Coll rolled her eyes and slipped her phone back into her pocket. She had bigger things to worry about right now.
Everything moved slowly for the rest of the day, painfully slowly. Coll called Billy to let him know she was heading out for the afternoon and would be back before dinner. He asked if she needed anything, but she assured him she was okay. Which was true. In all the ways Billy could help her anyway. Coll disappeared into the dampened city, eager to be somewhere no one knew her, and she could be away from the hustle for a while.
She was preoccupied all day again about Nick. What she had witnessed this morning lasted a maximum of one minute, but it unlocked a floodgate inside. Thoughts she had been trying to suppress for weeks flowed out, thoughts she didn't even know she had poured over the barriers she had built up.
She popped into a cafe for a coffee and sipped it slowly at a small table, thinking about Nick's sex life to an unhealthy degree. She had her self working overtime keeping her thoughts to even just X-rated.
The history of London and the draw of royal and beautiful places were no match for the thrill of the quest to somehow quench whatever thirst had been activated this morning.
London could wait, she had to indulge herself first.
She jumped from one department store to the next, making excuse after excuse to no one but herself to wander through the lingerie department, linger by the perfume counters and even convinced herself to try on a slinky little slip of a dress. She grinned at her reflection in the dressing room mirror, thinking about the sort of compliments she might receive while wearing it, and from whom. Her entire body felt like one frayed nerve ending, but she continued to tell herself it was nothing more than curiosity - something she had imagined - a story she should probably write maybe … a task she had put off entirely thus far.
Innocent curiosity, nothing more.
That seemed logical.
It was four o'clock when Coll arrived back to the hotel, as she turned the corner of her hall, she saw Nick sitting outside her door with his head in his hands. Her heart began banging away in her ears from the inside.