At the height of singing the last note, when my lungs were still full and I was switching from pure physical power to emotional thrust, I was blindsided by last night’s dream. Like most dreams, it hadn’t had a story. I was on top of a grand piano on the rooftop bar of Hotel K. The fact that the real hotel didn’t have a piano on the roof notwithstanding, I was on it and naked from the waist down, propped on my elbows. My knees were spread farther apart than physically possible. Customers drank their thirty-dollar drinks and watched as I sang. The song didn’t have words, but I knew them well, and as the strange man with his head between my legs licked me, I sang harder and harder until I woke up with an arched back and soaked sheets, hanging on to a middle C for dear life.
Same as the last note of our last song, and I held it like a stranger was pleasuring me on a nonexistent piano. I drew that last note out for everything it was worth, pulling from deep inside my diaphragm, feeling the song rattle the bones of my rib cage, sweat pouring down my face. It was my note. The dream told me so. Even after Harry stopped strumming and Gabby’s keyboard softened to silence, I croaked out the last tearful strain as if gripping the edge of a precipice.
When I opened my eyes in the dark club, I knew I had them; every one of them stared at me as if I had just ripped out their souls, put them in envelopes, and sent them back to their mothers, COD. Even in the few silent seconds after I stopped, when most singers would worry that they’d lost the audience, I knew I hadn’t; they just needed permission to applaud. When I smiled, permission was granted, and they clapped all right.
Our band, Spoken Not Stirred, had brought down the Thelonius Room. A year of writing and rehearsing the songs and a month getting bodies in the door was paying off right here, right now.
The crowd. That was what it was all about. That was why I busted my ass. That was why I had shut out everything in my life but putting a roof over my head and food in my mouth. I didn’t want anything from them but that ovation.
I bowed and went off stage, followed by the band. Harry bolted to the bathroom to throw up, as always. I could still hear the applause and banging feet. The room held a hundred people, and the audience sounded like a thousand. I wanted to take the moment to bathe in something other than the disappointment and failure that accompanied a career in music, but I heard Gabrielle next to me, tapping her right thumb and middle finger. Her gaze was blank, settled in a corner, her eyes as big as teacups. I followed that gaze to exactly nothing. The corner was empty, but she stared as if a mirror into herself stood there, and she didn’t like what she saw.
I glanced at Darren, our drummer. He stared back at me, then at his sister, who had tapped those fingers since puberty.
“Gabby,” I said.
She didn’t answer.
Darren poked her bicep. “Gabs? Shit together?”
“Fuck off, Darren,” Gabby said flatly, not looking away from the empty corner.
Darren and I looked at each other. We were each other’s first loves, back in L.A. Performing Arts High, and even after the soft, simple breakup, we had deepened our friendship to the point we didn’t need to talk with words.
We said to each other, with our expressions, that Gabby was in trouble again.
“We rule!” Harry gave a fist pump as he exited the bathroom, still buttoning up his pants. “You were awesome.” He punched me in the arm, oblivious to what was going on with Gabby. “My heart broke a little at ‘Split Me.’”
“Thanks,” I said without emotion. I did feel gratitude, but we had other concerns at the moment. “Where’s Vinny?”
Our manager, Vinny Mardigian, appeared as if summoned, all glad-handing and smiles. Such a dick. I really couldn’t stand him, but he’d seemed confident and competent when we met.
“You happy?” I said. “We sold all our tickets at full price. Now maybe next time we won’t have to pay to play?”
“Hello, Monica Sexybitch.” That was his pet name for me. The guy had the personality of a landfill and the drive of a shark in bloody waters. “Nice to see you too. I got Performer’s Agency on the line. Their guy’s right outside.”
Great. I needed representation from the The Rinkydink Agency like I needed a hole in the head. But I was an artist, and I was supposed to take whatever the industry handed me with a smile and spread legs.
Vinny, of course, couldn’t shut up worth a damn. He was high on Performer’s Agency and the worldwide fame he thought they would get us. He didn’t realize half a step forward was just as good as a full step back. “You got a crowd out there asking for an encore. Everybody here does their job, then everybody’s happy.”
I listened, and sure enough, they were still clapping, and Gabby was still staring into the corner.
“Let them beg,” I said.
Darren took Gabby home after the encore, which she played like the crazy prodigy she was, then she blanked out again. Her depression was ameliorated by music and brought on by just about anything, even if she was taking her meds.
She’d attempted suicide two years before after a few weeks of corner-staring and complaining of not being able to feel anything about anything. I’d been the one to find her in the kitchen, bleeding into the sink. That had been terrific for everyone. She took my second bedroom, and Darren moved from a roommate-infested guest house in West Hollywood to a studio a block away. We played music together because music was what we did, and because it kept Gabby sane, Darren close, and me from screwing up. But it didn’t even keep us in hot dogs. We all worked, and until I got my current gig at the rooftop bar at Hotel K, I had to give up Starbucks because I couldn’t rub two nickels together to make heat.
Because Spoken Not Stirred had drawn more people than the cost of our guaranteed tickets, we’d made three hundred dollars that night. Fifteen percent went to Vinny Landfillian. Sixty-eight dollars paid for Harry’s parking ticket because he figured if he was loading his bass and amp, he could park in a loading zone on the Sunset Strip before six o’clock. We split the rest four ways.
Hotel K was a spanking new modernist, thirty-story diamond in a one-story stucco shitpile of a neighborhood. The rooftop bar thing in L.A. had gotten out of hand. You couldn’t swing a dead talent agent without hitting some new construction with a barside pool on the roof and thumping music day and night. The upside of the epidemic was that waitress service was the norm, and tall, skinny girls who could slip between name-dropping drunks while holding heavy trays over their heads without clocking anyone were an absolute necessity. The downside for someone tall and skinny like myself was my replaceability. You couldn’t swing a tall, skinny girl in L.A. without hitting another one.