Russ finally slammed the phone back down in its cradle, ending his misery. Groaning in frustration, he retreated to the couch, his head in his hands. Arielle grimaced; for the past ten minutes, she’d been witness to a hysterical rant from one of his exes. Even from across the room, she could hear the high-pitched screaming and whining. It had sounded strangely to her like the sounds crows made when fighting over food. Damn! This is what he has to put up with? she marveled. Good Lord. Surprisingly, to her though, the singer had not once responded in kind. Instead, he let the verbal abuse go on and on, occasionally holding the phone up in the air while rolling his eyes. He’d even banged the phone against the wall a few times, held it back up to his ear-yeah, she was still going on-banged it against the wall again, then back to listening. No effect whatsoever on the harangue. Then, towards the end of the conversation, he finally spoke up, other than the “yeahs” and “uh huhs” he’d been spitting out the rest of the time; “I’m hanging up now.” he’d said, robotically. One last bang against the wall and finally the torture was over, the phone silent. Ari’s ears were still ringing.
She sat down next to him on the couch, studying him cautiously, unsure at first how to respond. No wonder they were exes! She tried to be fair and think oh yeah, I wasn’t there, I don’t know everything that happened, it takes two, but…still…damn!
Russ spoke first, though, so she didn’t have to. “Sorry about that.” his voice garbled by coming through his hands.
Arielle sighed in sympathy. “Which one was that? What was her problem?”
“Mandy’s mom.” he replied.
Ari had an instant mental picture of the little blonde girl who had played in the leaves with her last time. Adorable! Hard to believe she came from such a nasty troll.
“Wants more money. Of course.” Russ continued, “What the state takes out of my paycheck not enough for her, apparently. She thinks I have some hidden stash from ‘playing the rock star’” The singer added sarcastically. He collapsed back against the couch, his eyes shut. Letting out a long sigh, he continued, “Which, ha ha, I don’t, as you can tell.” When Arielle was silent, sensing he needed to get this out of his system, Russ went on. “I mean, I pay my damn child support! I am not a deadbeat dad! I provide for them better than any of their mothers do. I bust my fuckin’ ass”-he pounded the couch for emphasis, startling Kashmir, who until then had been sleeping peacefully next to him-”with two jobs, and still…that’s not enough?! What else can I do? Says she‘s taking me back to court again for more support. She just knows I have more I’m hiding and her attorney will dig this up.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “What else am I supposed to do?” he repeated, gritting his teeth in frustration. “I can’t afford to pay any more. But I can’t afford the attorney bills either. Dammit!”
Ari continued to study him, silently, processing everything. She hadn’t experienced any of the other exes yet, but was pretty sure this episode was representative. Then she spoke up. “So…I don’t get it…you have to pay for an attorney, but she…doesn’t?”
“She has a public defender.” Russ explained. “They go off your earnings.” He then went on in a rush of words, and it was obviously something that he needed to vent. “She claims disability off and on, so she doesn’t have a steady job to base it from. I, however,” he made a grand gesture with his arms, “make too much. So basically I’m screwed by a mathematical equation.”
Digesting all of that, Arielle finally said, “Disability? For….?”
“Because she’s fucking crazy!” the singer exploded. At this outburst, Kashmir leapt from the couch and tore across the room. “Sorry.” he said again, to both the cat and Arielle.
Ari reached out and put a hand on his arm. “No,” she corrected him, “I am sorry. For you. Is this…normal?” she asked, pity and amazement in her tone.
Russ shifted uncomfortably. “Well…no, I mean, they’re not all like that, you know.” He looked at Arielle again, not wanting to insult her just for being female, “I mean, it’s just… well, you know…it‘s…complicated.” he added, his voice trailing off. Then he continued, firmly, “My kids are my responsibility. I get that. I just wish things were more fair. But…fair is relative.” He immediately felt guilty; who was he to talk to her about ‘fair’? She was looking at him with nothing but sympathy, though, so he finished, “I will always have my kids’ backs.”
Arielle squeezed his hand. “I know that. And everyone else-unless they’re crazy-knows that too.” He nodded grimly, but despite that reassurance, she could feel the weariness coming off him in waves. “Listen,” she claimed, “I know what your problem is.” Russ raised an eyebrow, as if ready to hear another lecture. Instead, Ari pressed on, “You need a break. We all need one once in awhile. So… welcome to Spoiling 101!”
The singer looked up at her, his former exhausted expression replaced by a mixture of surprise/curiosity. He started to smile as Ari announced, “And it starts–with the right music!” She got up and went over to his stereo. It was the first thing she noticed when she went to someone’s house, and told her a lot about them. Like her, Russ had a massive collection of just about every style of music. She flipped through it, considering some, then discarding them. Russ had started to get up, but Ari turned around, stopping him by holding up her hand. “Nope-I got this.” she informed him. He gave her another little smile and sat back down, obedient.
Finally she found what she thought was appropriate: a collection of cello pieces featuring David Darling. She was surprised, but on second thought, not, at finding this amongst his music; she knew he liked cello as much as she did, and David Darling was one of her favorites too. Arielle placed it in the CD player, and hit “repeat all”. Looking over at Russ, she said, “Now..you don’t have to worry about lawyers, disabilities, money-anything. All you have to do for now is just relax.” She then went around and dimmed the lights, completing the peaceful atmosphere.
Ari came back to the couch to find him sitting there, watching every move she made, wondering what was in store. “Lie down,” she commanded, quickly giving him a “And no, it’s not what you think” look. His initial leer gave way to an embarrassed/apologetic smile. Ari just shook her head in amusement. Perv! “No, other way.” She gestured for him to flip over face first on the couch. Dropping to her knees next to it, she whispered in his ear, “Now, close…your…eyes…”
Wow, he is doing everything I tell him! Arielle thought. Hmm, I think I could get used to this! She smiled with one corner of her mouth as she reached out for him, putting a hand on each of his shoulders and pressing gently. She remembered when her dad was sick, and with all of the stress and pain that came with it, they had called in a massage therapist to come to the house. Watching, Arielle had learned a lot; not only did it feel good to get the tightness out of your muscles, but the therapist had explained that it released toxins from the lymph nodes, something especially important for someone who had cancer. Eventually, she’d had it done herself, and started practicing on others. Must have been the guitarist and sometimes pianist in her, using her hands to make things better. And really, what more could you ask for in life?
She moved from his shoulders to his back, just testing it out, finding where the worst spots were. For him, they were everywhere. She immediately felt a rush of pity; who would have known he held all this inside? He sure never acted like it. What a front! “You are really tense…” she remarked to him.
“Yeah…” he let out a bitter laugh. “Imagine that.”
“Aww…” she soothed, moving up to his head and neck. “I’ll do my best to make you feel better. Have you ever had a massage before?” she added.
“Well…uh…not this kind…” he replied. They both laughed. “I mean-not professionally. No.” he corrected quickly.
She explained briefly to him that she’d learned it from a real therapist and it was a form of Swedish massage. Russ only half-listened; he was already drifting off: the effects of it, along with the music, anesthetizing him.
She ran her fingers gently through his hair, marveling at it: long, shining, no split ends-damn, really didn’t deserve to be on a man, she thought enviously. Then she put special emphasis on the pressure points of the temples, rubbing in a circular motion. Then lightly on his head, down to the most important part, for him, his throat. She spent a lot of time there, massaging downwards, her hands graceful. He hadn’t moved once the whole time, it was like he was dead to the world.
Alarmed for a moment, she leaned down and whispered “Are you OK? How is it?”
In reply, Russ let out a long sigh. “Heaven.” he croaked sleepily.
“Well let me know if anything is too much or too little.” Arielle instructed him, moving on to his shoulders again.
The singer started to say “Uh huh”, but the words didn’t come out, so instead he just attempted a nod, his head lolling uselessly. Whatever, I don’t care, anything….
The testing over, she got up on the couch behind him and she slid her hands under his shirt, touching his skin lightly. Goosebumps! she smiled. Then, moving on, Wow, I can’t believe how tight his shoulders are! Ari marveled, massaging the area right next to them. She would have to get a little tougher here to work these kinks out. “This might hurt.” she warned.
His only response was a slight twitch as she applied more pressure. Then he went limp as a rag doll. Poor guy! She thought, continuing on, to his upper back, midsection, lower back.
In truth, giving a massage was almost as soothing for her as getting one. She drifted off too, thinking of that conversation with his ex, and the situation that had precipitated it. Thinking back over his life, from his father abandoning his mom when she was 15 and pregnant… becoming a father himself for the first time at 18…then all the drama that had followed in those relationships and marriages… Working 12 hour days in a factory and then coming home to either practice all night or go gigging…Plus taking care of his kids on top of all that. No freakin’ wonder he was a mass of nerves! He’d mentioned having chest pains over the past year and being afraid he was having a heart attack-but that an EMT friend had told him no, those symptoms sound more like a panic attack. And sure enough, when he’d seen the doctor, they’d confirmed it. Then worrying about his mom with all her health issues…he could use this, like, every damn week! she told herself.
The music went on, the masterful cello by David Darling, and she felt herself going into a trance too. The whole time Russ hadn’t moved or said anything, other than blissful sighs.
Arielle finally got to the point where she felt she could consider it “done” when she noticed his breathing had gotten deeper. She looked down at him. His eyes closed, face tilted to the side, he was completely out cold. Wow! she thought again, removing her hands softly, so as not to disturb him. He must have really needed it!
She sat there staring at him, thinking, hmm, now what? Then, it was about dinner time…she could make him something to eat. She tried to think, what would be something he would like, that maybe he didn’t have a lot? Hmm…a guy living alone, probably not used to home-made dinners or working like he did, time to make much more than microwave food. .
Arielle got up slowly, careful not to disturb him. She remembered he was a heavy sleeper, which would be to her benefit. Treading lightly, she made her way to the kitchen; that would be a start. See what he had to work with. Opening the fridge, she saw what she had almost expected: the obligatory bachelor fridge-half a gallon of probably soon-to-spoil milk, a dish with a stick of butter on it, some pops, other unidentifiable stuff, and of course, a case of beer. To be fair, she knew that since he’d been working so much, and especially when he didn’t have his kids there, he didn’t bother to stock up. Didn’t worry about himself, just them. Hmmm…looks about what I would have in mine too, Arielle observed.
She turned to the freezer, which had some frozen pizzas and a few packs of vegetables. She got one out, shaking it. It was hard as a brick and freezer burnt. Ugh, no. Then she glanced over in the corner and saw a bag of potatoes. Examining them closely, she noted they were still fresh. They’d do.
The sound of cello drifted into the kitchen as she took out a couple of potatoes, scrubbed, and poked them with a fork a few times. Aluminum foil, aluminum foil…I hope you have some…. Ari rummaged under his kitchen sink. Bingo! Half a roll left.
She wrapped the potatoes and poked them with the fork again, then reached for the stove, setting the oven to preheat. Hmm…now what? She stood there thinking, racking her brain for ideas, but creativity in the kitchen had never been her thing. Remembering there was a Bi-Lo down at the end of the street, she considered making a quick stop there. Start everything fresh and new. But did she have time? Would Russ wake up? Ari glanced into the living room to see him still comatose on the couch. Good.
Then she thought…how about a steak? And how could she cook it? Did he have a grill? Come on, all guys do! She hadn’t thought to notice the other times she was here. She went over to the back door which overlooked the deck and yard. Yes! A gas grill. Creaking the door open, she examined it, turned it on to check to make sure there was enough propane, did it work? Another yes. Whew, Ok, now I have something to work with…she told herself, going for her keys. And just in case he does wake up… she grabbed a Rolling Stone magazine that was laying on the end table. Taking out a Sharpie that she kept ever-present in her purse, she scrawled “Be right back!” across the front, laughing to herself when thinking of how she’d done that the last time with the Stats book. Glancing back again, she tiptoed out the door and closed it quietly.
Once at Bi-Lo, Arielle decided to get a shopping cart instead of a basket. Why not stock up for him since he hadn’t had the time lately? Unlike her last shopping trip with him, she knew she could make it in and out in a hurry. Hmm…a fresh salad would be nice…she thought, heading for the produce section. Probably he didn’t have time to eat too healthy either. She tossed a bag of the pre-made stuff-easier-as well as some cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, and chick peas from the salad bar. She did remember seeing a bottle of ranch dressing in his fridge that still looked edible-did salad dressing ever really go bad?-so no need for that.
Ari headed down the pop aisle and got him another case of Coke. Then on to the cereal aisle, throwing a few boxes in-some disgustingly sugary stuff like Fruity Pebbles and Cookie Crisp that she knew that kids would like when they came back. Oh yeah, Pop Tarts too-strawberry, Mandy’s favorite!
Then she moved on to the pasta aisle, throwing some soups, spaghetti, Ragu, in the cart. Spaghetti-Os-yes! She threw some cans in too, smiling as she passed over the Beef-A-Roni. She also put in some condiments-ketchup, mustard, even syrup-that was stuff you could always use.
Going up and down each aisle, Arielle scanned the shelves and tossed in her cart whatever she thought he might need. It was starting to be fun, surprise shopping for someone else. She got to the back of the store-the meat section-ugh! But hot dogs-yeah, kids always ate them-she threw a couple of packets in the cart.
She thought back to cooking for her dad-when he did eat, that is-she’d learned to mask her disgust at meat, block it out. Whenever he got an urge for something, whatever it might be, she was out the door and to the store, excited that he had an appetite for once. A lot of the time she would cook it only to have him eat a bite or two and then either say it tasted weird-an effect of the radiation-or he’d get sick-but, at least he’d gotten some nutrition for the day, for which she was always grateful. Not that she was by any stretch a cook, but she tried. Her family that lived nearby had finished off a lot of the meat meals she’d created that her dad hadn’t been able to finish. It was hard when buying for one; the portions were prejudiced; always in family size.
Arielle shook her head, bringing herself back into the present. Whatever she got for Russ, if he didn’t finish, he could give it to someone in his family or even Mick down the street. She studied the steak section-of course filet mignon was the best and that’s what he deserved. She tossed a packet in and then remembered…steak sauce, oh yeah! Do they use that on filet mignon? Better go back!
On the way there, she decided to add a loaf of bread, some more butter, peanut butter, grape jelly, some frozen items. Eggs and cheese too-kids liked grilled cheese-and PB & jelly sandwiches. Oh yeah-milk too-but not a gallon; that would go bad faster. OJ, yeah.
Arielle was tossing things in quickly, thinking she should get back soon, hoping he hadn’t woke up yet. Then, as she was dashing to the register, she thought…oh no, I forgot dessert! Hmm hmm hmm… something quick, simple. Yeah-hot fudge sundaes! She grabbed a carton of vanilla bean ice cream and some hot fudge sauce. Seeing a display of wine at the end of the check out, she added a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, hoping that they wouldn’t ask for her ID; fake though it was, it usually worked.
Quickly placing everything up on the belt, Arielle was just wishing she could be out of there fast and back in Russ’s kitchen, getting dinner ready. Luckily the cashier was a young guy, and could see she was in a hurry, and didn’t say anything to her. Whew! She got out of there hassle free, sprinting to her car, the cart out in front of her.
Once she got back to his house, Arielle wrapped as many bags as she could around her arms, wanting to make just one trip. She pushed the door open, peeking around it quietly. There he was, still lying like a puddle on the couch. Good.
She went back and forth from the car to the front door, dropping bags off on the door mat, then going back for more. Next she tip toed repeatedly to and from the kitchen, placing the bags on the counter, putting things away quickly, while placing the potatoes in the oven. Those would take longest. She’d bake them a little first before putting them on the grill along with the steak.
Arielle rummaged through his cupboard, getting the bowl ready for the salad. Plates, silverware, napkins-all ready. Wine-open. Two glasses-check.
She had just gone out to start the grill and was standing there staring down at it when she felt a presence behind her. She jumped as Russ put his hands on her shoulders. “What are you doing?” he asked in wonder, his voice still gravelly from sleep.
“Spoiling 101, lesson 3: a good dinner!” Ari declared, turning to face him.
He looked at her, his gaze moving from the items on the counter, to her face, and back again, what she was doing slowly starting to process in his brain. “Arielle, you don’t have to–”
She put a finger over his lips. “Shhh. Go back to the couch. This is my gig!”
When he paused, she gave him that same look he always gave her; the head tilted to the side, hands on hips. “Ok, ok…” he backed away, palms up, mock afraid, and retreated to the living room.
She got everything ready, put the potatoes on the grill with the steak, then poured two glasses of wine. Carrying them into the living room, she announced, “First course!” cheerfully.
Russ reached for his glass, still a stunned look on his face. “Listen, I’m sorry I fell asleep on you. That was rude.” He shook his head in disgust.
Ari gave him a look. “Rude? No way-that was a compliment. It had its intended effect.”
The singer considered that. “’Intended effect’” he repeated, the words rolling off his tongue slowly, as if he was testing them out. Then he raised his eyebrows, sighing, “You sure know what you’re doing!”
“It’s easy when you have the right subject.” she replied, raising her eyebrows right back.
He laughed, enjoying the pampering despite himself. What a change that was from what he was used to… He took a sip of the wine and pronounced it delicious. Then he looked over at her, not saying anything.
She felt his stare out of the corner of her eye and turned with a smile. “What?”
Arielle put her glass down. Studying him for a long moment, she then leaned over, put her hands on his shoulders, and began kissing him slowly, casually, like they had all the time in the world. “Sorry, I just…can’t resist you…” she murmured in his ear.
Russ sighed, leaning back against the couch, his eyes shut. “Who said you had to?” he quipped.
Ari smirked at that, and had just begun running her hands through his hair, something he always did to her, moving her lips down his neck, when she jumped up in alarm. “Gotta check on the steak!” she explained, dashing from his arms. Russ’s eyes flew open, his expression saying What? Huh? Steak?
She came back into the room a few minutes later, having flipped the steak and gotten the salad ready. “Just a few more minutes!” she informed him.
The singer was still trying to catch his breath. He nodded at her dumbly, and then she came back over, straddling him, back to where they’d been.
Just as he was getting into it again, Ari again jumped up, her internal timer having gone off. Before she left, she slyly ran her finger around the rim of his jeans, mimicking her actions on the first night they’d met.
His eyes opened wide. “Oh no you don’t!” he exclaimed, grabbing her wrist before she could do it again. “Don’t you dare tease me!”
“Who said I was teasing?” Ari tossed over her shoulder as she walked out of the room.
Russ collapsed back against the couch again. He closed his eyes, smelling the steak as she was preparing it, trying to get his thoughts and himself under control again.
Ari came back into the living room with a table-cloth. Clearing everything off, she put it across the coffee table. Then she went over to the stereo, choosing what, to her, was more appropriate dinner music. Jazz, of course. She put on a compilation CD, smiling back at Russ as she did so. Then she disappeared into the kitchen, coming back with a dinner plate.
As she placed it in front of him, Russ got down from the couch, positioning himself next to the table, cross-legged. “Wow! You, a vegetarian, made me filet mignon?” he gasped. Then it occurred to him, “Wait…Where did this …?” He looked up in amazement as she brought in the salad, baked potatoes, and more wine. He knew right away that she’d made a clandestine shopping trip. While he had fallen asleep on her, no less.
Arielle saw the look on his face and knew what he was thinking. Guilt. Don’t deserve this. She brushed that away. “Enjoy,” she coaxed. “That’s what Spoiling 101 is about-you!”
He shook his head, taking a bite of the steak. “Perfect!” he enthused. “You did it just right.” Then again, “Thank you.”
All these thank yous! “My, you are so polite!” Ari joked, then said, “My pleasure!” turning to eat her salad and potato.
They enjoyed their dinner, mixed with laughter and conversation about everything and anything-whatever it took to keep his mind off his problems, Arielle made sure. This was supposed to be all about him. Let him deal with attorneys and child support later. Not tonight. She could see that former stress and tension had disappeared from him; his body language was noticeably relaxed, and he laughed easily, the weight of the world off his shoulders, at least for now. Seeing that, knowing that, made her happy, and that was enough for her.
When they finished, Russ tried to get up to help her take everything back, but she refused, shushing him. “I saw in the TV Guide where there’s a good old movie on tonight.” she announced, switching on his TV. Something funny, to keep him in a good mood.
She smiled as she flipped the channels, and then Russ cracked up laughing as he saw it: Fast Times at Ridgemont High. “Oh my God!” he crowed. “This is so me! I swear to God they made this about me.”
Arielle smiled; she remembered him saying that once before. Now that he was otherwise occupied, back on the couch again, she gathered all the dishes up, taking them into the kitchen. Since he didn’t have a dishwasher, she took her time, hand washing them, putting everything away, wiping everything clean again. All the extra groceries were put away, and the leftovers wrapped up for another day. He’d had to do nothing and she was proud of that.
Going back to the couch, she snuggled in next to him, pulling the blanket over them both. The perfect evening! she thought. He was relaxed, he was happy, and it had taken so little. It was well worth it, she decided. Then as a commercial came on, she remembered, “Oh yeah-let me know when you’re ready for dessert.”
“Dessert?!” he asked. “You mean there’s more?”
“Of course!” she replied, starting to get up. “Do you want it?”
“Well…sure…” he replied, trying to get up too.
She gave him a look. “You’re being treated tonight, remember?”
“You always treat me…” he mumbled, out of earshot, as she walked away. Any minute now he was going to pinch himself and wake up in the real world again. Instead, he watched as Jeff Spicoli had a pizza delivered to Mr. Hand’s class and Arielle returned with a giant hot fudge sundae, topped with peanuts she had found in his cupboard after the fact.
“Mmmm!” the singer gushed, noting she had put extra fudge on it.
They continued watching the movie in comfortable silence. Russ was licking the spoon greedily and saw her watching him out of the corner of his eye, an amused expression on her face. Abruptly, he set the bowl down on the table in front of them. “Come here,” he said, in a low voice, reaching out with the remote to turn the TV down.
She moved even closer, and he impatiently took by the arms, pulling her over so that he was cradling her side by side. “What a night!” he sighed. “You…Ari…you are something else…” he marveled, unable to put it into words. Instead, he ran his hands through her hair and down her arms.
Completely soothed, Arielle thought, Ahh-nice! She tilted her head back to look up at him, a little smile playing around the corners of her mouth. “I know we didn’t go anywhere or do anything special, but I was with you so I don’t care” she confessed. When he didn’t respond at first, she lay her head against his chest again, letting out a contented sigh.
For a while, there was nothing but the sound of them breathing, the TV muted in the background. The feel of his fingers going up and down her arms, smoothing her hair away from her face. Then his grip tightened, and Russ leaned down to whisper in her ear, “I love you.”
Arielle felt her whole body stiffen. Wait? Whaaa? She opened her mouth to respond, but felt her breath catch in her throat.
Russ’s expressions mirrored the emotions going through his head. He paused, as if girding himself up mentally. She startled at the deep breath he took before speaking up again. “I’ve been wanting to say this for a while now but I just…” the singer started, then said, “And I can’t decide when I realized it…if it was because of George Harrison or the pig tails? I mean, Ari, I have never met someone as…as”-he fumbled for the appropriate words-”giving, unselfish as you! The band loves you, my kids love you… You have helped us so many times, you are always doing nice things for everyone.”
On a roll now, he rambled, “You…you cook meat for me even though you hate it, you like the same music as me… you ‘get it’, you know?” Another deep breath. “You kick ass on guitar, you’re…good at other things.” He smiled slyly. “I can talk to you about whatever without getting a screaming lecture. That’s nice” he sighed in reflection.
Russ stretched himself out on the couch as a more serious expression came over his face. “You’ve been through some real shit in your life, and you’re still…a beautiful girl. Person.” He corrected quickly. “Inside and out. So I decided…it was probably always.”
Oh. My. God. Arielle felt the proverbial insides-turn-to-mush. She flipped around quickly to face him, opened her mouth, ready to say something equally as touching, but what came out was, “George Harrison or pig tails?”
The singer gave her a look. “So I try to be all romantic and everything, I pour out my heart, and this is what I get?” Then he burst out laughing, lightening the tension he’d been feeling from this reveal.
Arielle continued to stare at him, zombie-like, as he went on.
“The George Harrison,” he explained with exaggerated patience, “was your church gig, remember?”
Ari had a mental flashback of the time she’d invited Russ, Mick, and Nikki to see her play at Mass. “My Sweet Lord” she thought, just as Russ said it aloud. He’d been bugging her ever since she’d met him that she should play out, not waste her talent. When she finally told him she had a gig, he sure wasn’t expecting this.
She thought back to his bemused expression as he had walked in the church doors; awkward, but instinctively reaching to touch the holy water. It was a tie as to who felt more out of place: Russ, a born and raised lapsed Catholic, or Mick, who hadn’t been in a church since he was baptized. He had kept teasing the singer that a lightning bolt was going to strike at least one of them as soon as they walked inside.
“When you started playing, you looked over at me and you had the cutest little smile on your face” Russ recalled, as the images came back into her head too.
I didn’t tell any of them what I was going to play. It was my choice, made church-appropriate. That’s why I was smiling. I know they were probably expecting a hymn or something. Not that. But…this simple little thing affected him…? My expression? If she remembered correctly, when she had looked over at them, Mick was smiling as always, Nikki rolling her eyes, and Russ just shaking his head. Typical Arielle. She’d had no idea it had triggered what he was telling her now. He hadn’t mentioned anything afterwards at the time either, other than asking why she hadn’t played lead-because I like the rhythm guitar better on it, she’d explained-and laughing about the nun playing the tambourine. They’d just all went to Denny’s for breakfast and that was that.
“Mmmm….” Russ reminisced, “I could have hugged you for about an hour. You looked so sweet, strumming up there, that smile on your face.”
Really? Arielle was amazed, as the singer continued. “And the pig tails. How could you forget?” he asked, mock offended.
It instantly hit her: Mandy. The hair- do! For as long as she could remember, little girls always liked to fix her hair; her younger cousins would want to brush it, fix it up, like a human Barbie head. Now it was Nikki’s job. She was used to it. It didn’t faze her at all. You want to try to tame this crazy hair? Go for it! But this…had an impact on him?
The singer continued, running his hands through her hair again as he elaborated, “You had a million pig tails all over your head. Every damn barrette in the house. You must have felt like a total idiot. But, you went out in public like that and thought nothing of it.”
Ari remembered: Rob had stopped by on the spur of the moment, and Mick, Nikki, and everyone else decided to go out for pizza. Mandy had just finished the masterpiece hair do; painstakingly, as Russ had noted, putting every accessory possible in her hair. She remembered the smirk on Rob’s face as he had commented, “Nice, Air!”
When she’d gotten up to join them to head out the door, Mick had turned around and said, “Uh…don’t you want to…uh…take those out?” The expression on Mandy’s face. She had just taken hold of Ari’s hand, wanting to ride with her in the back seat, and was gazing up at her expectantly. Arielle had smiled back, then declared, “Absolutely not! I want to show off my beautiful hair do!”
Everyone had shaken their heads, and they’d continued out the door to the pizza place. Nothing more had been said. Of course, she got strange looks from other customers, but Arielle hadn’t cared. She was used to doing goofy things like that and it didn’t bother her in the least.
“You did that, just to make a little girl happy.” Russ commented. For a minute it looked like he was going to get choked up, but he shook it off and switched gears. “I mean, I know you like Duran Duran”, he sing-songed, “But I can overlook—”
He was cut off, though, by Arielle, who had finally snapped out of her daze. Overcome, she threw her arms around him and kissed him.
After an instant of shock, Russ responded. “Ahh, Ari …” he said, squeezing her so tight she could hardly breathe.
“I love you too” she managed to get out.
“Of course I do, silly!” Arielle replied. “How could I not?”
He breathed a sigh of relief, and she could feel his whole body relax. Was he worried? Geez, how did he think she was going to respond? To something as beautiful as all he’d just said? She fought the giddy urge to blurt, “Tell me again! Tell me again!”, or go on to tell him more, all the reasons she felt that way about him too, but as she felt his arms tightening around her again, something told her that silence was better.
They lay together like that the rest of the night; Arielle on top of him, arms wrapped around, head on his chest like a pillow, neither of them wanting to break the mood. Russ pulled the blanket back over top both of them and turned off the TV. Ahh…total bliss… she thought, drifting off to sleep.
She awoke to a scream, not realizing at first that it was her own. Sitting straight up, eyes open but not seeing, in pitch black darkness.
Even Russ, normally a heavy sleeper, couldn’t make it through this. His heart thudding, he jolted upright too. “Ari, Ari! Jesus, what is it?” His eyes darted around the room-burglar?-while groping on the floor for the closest weapon.
Her hands clawed at the covers, she was looking around wildly, disoriented. Then he realized: nightmare. “Arielle!” Russ said firmly. “You’re in the bedroom.” Are you supposed to wake someone up during a nightmare? Dumbstruck, he couldn’t remember if it was that or sleepwalking, but then thought screw it, and continued breathlessly, “I brought you in here after we fell asleep! So you’d be more comfortable” he added. Remember? No, I guess not…
When his words didn’t register, he took her by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “You’re. in. my. room.”
She was breathing heavily, still not entirely conscious. Ok, ok, snap out of it! Russ thought, reaching for the bedside lamp and flicking it on impatiently. He looked over just in time to see Arielle’s hands clench, then open again-it looked like she had dropped something?- then she collapsed back onto the bed. The room now softly illuminated, he stared down at her for a few seconds, momentarily speechless. What the hell?!
It was then that Ari began to come to her senses. She looked up to see him gaping over her, a shoe in one hand, and her eyes widened.
Russ looked dumbly at the shoe. That had been the first thing he’d grabbed when he was reaching for something with which to defend himself. “Oh-” he apologized quickly. “I thought there was someone in the house.”
“And that was your weapon?” she mumbled, turning her head towards the nightstand. “Why didn’t you just use the lamp?”
“Well, yeah, uh…” Russ began, flustered, then stopped, semi-irritated. “Excuse me but, I wasn’t exactly thinking straight when I heard this piercing scream in the middle of the night, you know? I was trying not to piss myself!”
Arielle groaned and flopped an arm over her face in embarrassment. “I’m sorry. It was the nightmare.”
Russ nodded. “Uh huh. I kinda figured that out” he said sarcastically. Then he closed his eyes, letting out a long sigh, placing a still trembling hand on his chest. “Damn!” He took several deep breaths again to calm down. “I mean, Jesus, you scared the shit out of—“ he stopped when he heard her crying. “Ari!” his eyes got huge. “What is it? Are you ok?” Of course she isn’t-she’s crying, you idiot! He leaned over to see her nodding her head.
“I’m sorry” she repeated, while stubbornly shoving the tears away with her fists. It was futile, though, because as soon as he replied, “No, you’re not OK”, she burst into sobs.
The singer scooted closer to her under the sheets, propped up on an elbow. “Ari, Ari, What’s wrong? What is it?” he repeated firmly, soothingly. She was shaking and wouldn’t look him in the eye; instead she covered her face with her hands. He stroked her arm and with real concern, asked, “What is it? What happened to make you scream like that?”
Arielle took a deep shuddering breath. Ignoring his question, she instead burst out, “I’m so embarrassed!”
Russ waved that away. “You said ‘the’ nightmare.” He had picked up on the distinction. “What was it about?” he asked more quietly.
She squirmed uncomfortably on the bed, getting up her courage. Russ waited patiently, continuing to stroke her arms until they quit shaking.
“My dad” she then replied.
Russ nodded. With that emotional of a reaction, it figured. “Talk to me.”
“Uhh…” she let out. “It was…the night he died.”
The singer gulped and took her hand protectively, his expression saying, “Go on..”
“I relive that night over & over in this nightmare.” Arielle explained, still sniffling and wiping her eyes. Still feeling awkward. “It’s like I can’t shut my mind off about it.”
Russ squeezed her hand. “I’m sure it’s hard to” he got out, the words dry and chalky on his tongue.
They lay like that, no words, for a long while, then he said, “You want to tell me about it?” “You don’t have to.” he added quickly.
Arielle took a breath, then it all came pouring out. “I had a shit day at school. Flunked an Algebra test, and it wasn’t long after I’d broken up with my boyfriend, so I was feeling that too. Carrie had driven me home because my car was in the shop.”
She had been staring straight up at the ceiling the whole time, not meeting Russ’s eyes. “All I wanted to do was crash” Arielle sighed. “Go to my room, shut the door, put on my headphones, crank up the music. Forget about the day, you know?”
Russ nodded wordlessly as Ari went on. “I was thinking, great, it’s almost 4 o’clock, soon hospice will be here, they’ll hook up the morphine drip, and I can chill.” She paused, then said guiltily, “I admit it. I was not in the mood to be a caretaker that night.”
Again, Ross nodded. Understood.
Arielle’s gaze stayed on the ceiling as she recited the rest of the evening’s events as if she were reading them from a book. “Just as I walked into the kitchen, the phone rang. My first thought was, ignore it, but I picked it up. I was on autopilot after the day I had.” Another sigh. “It was the hospice lady. She was stuck in traffic. There had been a car accident. She was going to be late. Not sure how long.”
“Carrie was still there, she’d walked in quick to say hi to my dad. He was asleep so she walked right back out. Saw my face and when I told her about the nurse, she said ‘I’ll call my dad.’”
When Russ looked at her questioningly, Ari explained, “Carrie’s dad was a corpsman in the Air Force. Plus they were buds. Just like me & Carrie.”
“Okay.” It came out as a whisper.
“Did we ever tell you that?” she wondered out loud.
The singer opened his mouth, nothing came out. He shook his head instead with a slight shrug. He felt a sensation of impending dread, yet at the same time, anxiety, to find out what happened next. Gotta hear it. Don’t wanna hear it.
“And I was relieved.” Arielle admitted. “I should’ve said, been nice and said, ‘Oh no, that’s ok. I’ll handle it until hospice comes.’ But I didn’t feel like handling it.”
As she continued, Ari became more at ease in revealing herself to him; his silence, his non judgment, encouraging her to go on. “So, Carrie called her dad. And he was fine with coming over. They lived about…10 minutes away. So I figured, I’ll go in, check on him, see if he needs anything, then when Roger comes, I’ll take a shower, go to my bed, get under the covers, and-forget.”
Russ was spellbound; he’d been staring at her the entire time, unable to tear his gaze away. His hand travelled aimlessly, distractedly, up and down her arm, as she spoke. She appeared not to notice.
“So Carrie left for work, and..I went into the living room. That’s where we had the hospital bed. When hospice came, they brought all kinds of equipment: oxygen, walkers, bedside commode-which he hated-and the bed. It was easier to have him on the first floor.” Arielle explained.
“Sure.” Russ agreed.
“I’d been sleeping in the den next door for a while. On a futon. Just in case.” She paused, closing her eyes for a moment in reflection. “Ahhh…I slept like crap on that thing! Always listening for any sound, any movement-did dad need anything? Was he coughing? Was he calling me or just talking in his sleep? Did he need another dose of pain meds?” her voice trailed off. “I was always on alert. I jumped straight up at the slightest noise. And sometimes for no reason at all. I’d get up, look in, nope-he was ok, false alarm. Or, he wanted a drink, or had to pee. You know…”
As she was explaining all this, Russ continued to stare at her, shaking his head, amazed. It was bad enough for a person suffer like that, but what had it taken for someone else to have to deal with watching it happen every day?-and she was just a teenager! Damn.
“Sometimes he’d need a breathing treatment,” Ari kept on. “And I learned how to help him with those. But the worst was the pain, because I felt like I couldn’t do anything. He had about a dozen different pain meds, half the bottles were almost still full, because they’d say they weren’t working, or started him on something else… I had a whole grocery bag full of pill bottles.”
Russ closed his eyes, shaking his head in disbelief. She mentioned giving breathing treatments so casually, like it was something everyone did all the time.
“Sometimes I’d have to call the doctor. Sometimes take him to the ER. Ohhhh how he hated that!” she recalled. “All those swear words he learned in the military…”
It was the first time during the conversation that either of them were able to find humor. Arielle smiled and Russ companionably let out a weak laugh. But Ari quickly snapped herself back to the night’s events. “I walked into the living room. And…I needed to change the sheets.” she said quickly.
Russ nodded curtly; no further explanation needed.
“But he was in a mood! Would not work with me. So it went like this: ‘Dad-roll over, DAD-I need to pull the sheet out!’ I mean, he weighed less than me at that point, but still…hard to change the bed when he refused to move. And he cursed me the whole time. Well, not really at me.” she quantified. “I know it wasn’t his fault. I know he wasn’t in the right frame of mind.” Then she got a proud look on her face. “I want you to know, that, even after all he went through, my dad was one of the toughest men I ever knew. I tried as hard as I could to help him keep that dignity.”
Russ was nodding ruefully. “That’s a Marine for you” he agreed.
“But he was being a pain in the ass!” Ari continued. Russ took her hand, squeezed it. “It was a struggle. But I got it done. Just shouted back at him when he shouted at me. He hated being helped when he first got sick, but then later, only wanted me to do it. It was so frustrating! When we finally called hospice, he was ticked at me for days, wouldn’t talk to me. But it was a family decision. And I think in a way, he knew we had to. You know?”
“Sure.” Russ concurred.
“Put the bed stuff in the wash. Got him dressed. New sheets on. Got him settled.” Ari sighed. “Just as Carrie’s dad got there. Thank God. I just about ran up the stairs to the shower as soon as the doorbell rang. I didn’t have to say anything,” she added, “Roger knew.”
“I get in the shower-finally! Must’ve been in there 20 minutes” she laughed a little. “The water, the fan, drowned everything out. Went into my room. But stopped on the way, listening. It was habit, you know?” “Nothing.” Her expression showed relief. “Nothing. I just heard Roger talking to him, had the TV on in the background. I could relax.”
Russ had moved closer to her, feeling her emotions as she was describing all of this, almost as if he were experiencing them too.
“I was in my bed. Under the covers. Like this.” She patted Russ’s comforter. “Music on. Mind off. I don’t know how long I was zoning. I know it was still early but I was wiped out. Maybe I even fell asleep. But I heard this…voice, sounding like it was coming from far away. I thought I was dreaming it. I ignored it. But then, I heard this knocking on my door.”
Russ tensed up involuntarily, listening, spellbound again.
“It was Carrie’s dad. He was telling me my dad was hungry. Hungry! Well, right away I was excited. It was hard to get him to eat anything; he had no appetite. Or he’d want something, you’d make it, he’d take 2 bites, then not like it. If he wanted something, anything, no matter what it was…I got it for him.” “So Roger asked, could I go get my dad some sherbet. Ross’s cherry sherbet.” Ari took a deep breath. “But you could only get that at Fazio’s grocery store, which was in the next town over.”
“You weren’t feeling it.” Russ said immediately, picking up on her vibe.
Ari shook her head. “I remember staring at him for a minute. I know he could read my mind. But he didn’t say anything. But it was Roger asking. And I figured…he wouldn’t ask me if it wasn’t really important, so I got dressed again. Got up. Of course I wouldn’t say no. It was my dad.”
Her eyes flickered around the room. Russ noticed her lips starting to tremble and waited patiently, encouraging her by squeezing her hand again. He swallowed awkwardly, sensing what was coming up in the pit of his stomach.
“And that’s where the nightmare starts.” Arielle announced. She finished the rest, her voice like an automaton. “Came back from the grocery store. Walked in through the kitchen. Got a bowl. Got him some sherbet. All the lights were on but I didn’t notice until I walked into the living room. It was so quiet. I was holding the bowl. I walked in the doorway. And then…” Her voice started to get shaky. “All the faces. Looking at me. The nurses. Hospice. Roger. Their expressions. Sad. Pity. I can still see them. I was too late. He was gone.”
“Oh Air…” Russ breathed.
“I did not expect it!” Ari cried out. ” I know that sounds stupid, after all he went through. I didn’t expect it” she repeated. “Not that night. I thought I’d have…some kind of….warning?”
“Is that stupid?” she asked him.
“No.” he gulped, “Not stupid at all.”
Arielle sighed, not quite believing him. “I wasn’t…ready.” she added sadly.
“And…that’s why you…after you saw….the…your scream?” Russ struggled to get it out.
“No.” Ari replied quickly. “I didn’t scream then. Just the opposite. I fainted.”
“Fainted?” he echoed.
“Yeah,” she gave a short, tense laugh. “First and only time in my life. Passed out right in front of everyone. I came to and didn’t understand what had happened. I saw the bowl, the sherbet, the spoon, on the ground. And then me.” “I see that over and over too. Blue bowl with white stripes. Red blob of sherbet. Silver spoon on a tan rug.” She shivered.
Arielle had told the whole story, stony faced. Russ was amazed at her composure. He bit his lip, fighting to hold back his own tears.
She then looked over at him and said, “I’m sorry.” again.
Ari turned her head away. “For scaring you. And being all…emotional!” She used the word reluctantly.
Russ pushed himself up on one elbow, staring down at her, aghast. “Sorry?!” he exclaimed. “Sorry? You have every right to be emotional-that was your daddy!”
At that, Arielle burst into tears again, instinctively reaching for him, burying her head in his chest.
Russ gathered her into his arms. Oh great, I made it worse…just when she had stopped crying. “Ahh, Ari, baby, I’m so sorry.” he whispered.
“I…I was being so…so rude!” she burst out. “I was arguing with him earlier. I should have just shut up and done everything. He was dying, for crying out loud! Why did I have to act so selfish?”
“You didn’t know,” he responded quietly. “How could you have known?”
“I didn’t feel like helping him! How shitty is that?” Arielle chastised herself. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye to him, or tell him I loved him or any of that kind of stuff” she lamented.
“Ari, he knew. He knew” Russ insisted.
She didn’t seem convinced. Instead she sniffed and wiped her nose and eyes with her hand, at the same time apologizing for getting it on his chest.
He took a breath. “Would you please stop apologizing?” he commanded evenly, yet sympathetically.
“Sorry! she sniffed again.
Russ rolled his eyes, then shut them. He could feel her body still shaking from crying. He kept on smoothing her back helplessly.
Then, for lack of anything else he could think of to do, Russ sang. Starting with a hum, then into quiet words, he sang, “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad… take a sad song, and make it better…” The first song that came to mind.
It did the trick, though. As he sang it the second time around, Arielle’s crying gradually subsided, and the desperate grip she had on him loosened until, as he shifted, her arms fell away from him, slack. Her eyes shut, Russ could feel her breath coming out slowly against his neck. At peace. Maybe. Finally.
Russ stared up at the ceiling, wide awake although he was mentally exhausted from being witness to that episode. And she said she had that nightmare before? How often? Damn.
All around him was only the buzzing sound of silence. He lay there, trying to process what had just happened, what she’d gone through. Then he looked over at her face; reddened, puffy eyes ringed with smudged black from eyeliner, a trail of tears down her face through the rest of the make up, her nose still wet, her hair, as usual, wild, everywhere. She was worn out. Asleep, like he should be. Though he knew there was no way he was going to be able to fall back asleep after all that.
Russ looked back at her face again, the strands of tear-wet hair stuck to it. He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. She didn’t stir.
The singer flopped back against the mattress, staring at the ceiling again. Then, groaning, he surrendered to the inevitable and dragged himself out of bed. Might as well get a cup of coffee after taking care of business, he told himself, stumbling into the bathroom. He stole a quick glimpse in the mirror on the way out: the same visage with blue-grey eyes and sunken cheekbones stared back at him disinterestedly. He frowned and flipped it the bird. You skinny bitch, he told himself. Skeletor. Ehh. What the hell did someone like Arielle see in him? He’d never look like one of those hottie big hair rock stars. Good thing Keith Richards started the heroin chic look.
Still feeling anxious after listening to all of that Russ told himself, I need a cigarette…bad. Coffee could wait. Priorities. He fished a pack out of his jacket that was hanging over one of the kitchen chairs where he’d casually tossed it the night before. Then he headed outside to the back deck. Although he’d been a lifelong smoker, and this was his own house, he’d never smoked in it. He remembered what his childhood home had smelled like growing up, how his mom had scrubbed the walls until they ran with yellow-tinged water, that musty scent that clung to the curtains and the furniture… The family had gotten used to it, but when visitors came in, that was the first thing they noticed. And couldn’t stand it. He didn’t want his kids to have to deal with that. After all, it was his bad habit. So he’d always taken his cigarette breaks outside. At least I’m not a total inconsiderate ass like my exes say…he thought ruefully, as he lit one up, leaning against the railing. The wind was starting to pick up, so it was a couple of tries until it took. He cupped his hand around the cigarette, then inhaled, feeling the calmness come upon him.
His mind kept going back to Arielle lying in his bed. Poor kid. Kid? Sometimes she seemed like one, but…other times she was mature beyond her years. He exhaled as he looked into the back yard. The snow was really starting to come down now, landing on the play set and sliding board he’d built for the kids in the fall. He thought about when the guys came over to help put it up. And Arielle making and jumping into piles of leaves with Mandy. He could still hear his daughter’s infectious giggle. And Jake climbing the trees with her. He smiled, taking another drag off the cigarette. How badly Mandy had wanted to play on the set but it wasn’t finished yet. Ari had taken the kids inside and distracted them by making cookies with Nikki. It had made the job go that much easier. Oh, how Mandy had cried when Arielle had to leave! Russ smiled again, watching the snowflakes falling; small, steady flakes that meant business. It was now on the streets and driveway. He sighed. It would mean shoveling later on. He took one last drag and then tossed it into the little sand filled coffee can he had sitting in the deck corner. Pushing himself off the railing, he decided to make that cup of coffee.
As he headed into the kitchen, he flicked on the kitchen light, pausing at the coffee maker. Had he remembered to get coffee the last time he was at the grocery store? Shit. Probably not. And he knew the milk left in the fridge was too far gone. Probably had chunks in it by now. Greaaaat. Honestly, with working 12 hour shifts and then practicing…he had to admit grocery shopping was the last priority on his list. Usually he counted himself lucky if he grabbed a burger and fries on the way to a gig. A cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts on the way to work. Breakfast of champions! He’d make a point of stocking up on a few things if he had the kids that weekend, but otherwise…
By that time he had opened the fridge to check on the milk. To his surprise, instead of the probably rotting carton and the few cans of pop he remembered seeing in there last time… it was…stocked! Salad, ketchup, mustard, butter, eggs…jelly… Russ stared, then started moving things around to see better. Actually having to move things around! That was a first. What the hell…? he wondered, rubbing his eyes, wondering if maybe he was still half asleep.
Then as he opened the cupboard to get the coffee…not only coffee, but there was cereal, Pop Tarts, spaghetti, sauce, a loaf of bread…peanut butter…not the generic kind!… soup, Spaghetti O’s… even cat food-the expensive kind- for Kashmir. Oh my God, Arielle! She’d struck again!
He opened the freezer, knowing, before he did so, that it too would be filled just like the fridge and cupboards. Ahh, Ari… he shook his head in wonderment. You are a sweetheart! Was there no end to the spoiling?
He pictured her back there still sleeping, who knew what kind of dreams were going through her head now? Somehow, with all the favors she did for him, the band, and his family, he felt he could never repay her, would never able to measure up to that. Though, at the same time, he didn’t think she expected him to. It’s just that…he felt guilty he couldn’t do more.
Then he thought…everything Arielle did…was so simple, so natural. Somehow it was always just what someone needed, something that was perfect for them. Nothing dramatic or forced. Russ decided, as basic as it might be, he’d do what he could. Comforting her, singing to her…and…he would make her some breakfast.
He glanced out the window again and noted the sun was coming up. Better get started. Pancakes…he thought with a smile…lots of syrup!
Balancing everything on a tray, the singer entered the room. Hazy light was beginning to stream in through the blinds, and Arielle started to squirm as she heard him.
She blinked up at him, as he grinned, holding out his offering: pancakes, heavy on the syrup, scrambled eggs, toast, and a cup of coffee in his other hand. Gasping, Arielle first felt for her face, patting the tear ravaged, make up worn areas. Then she ran her hands frantically through her hair in an attempt to fix it. Useless. Groaning, she finally just held a pillow in front of her, blocking his vision.
“Stop it. You look fine. Now, would you please take this tray before I spill it all over you?”
She hadn’t thought of that. “Oh! I’m sorry.” she apologized, immediately dropping the pillow and reaching for the tray.
Russ gave her his look. “What did I tell you about apologizing?”
Ari lowered her head and bit her lip to avoid saying “Sorry!” again. “Pancakes! ” she gushed. excitedly. “And oooh…look at all that syrup!” Then she stopped herself and, attempting to get up from her prone position, said, “You didn’t have to do anything for me, I’m the one who freaked you out in the middle of that night! I’m-”
The singer held a hand up in the air before she could continue. Then his expression softened. “Angel Eyes…” he began, using his private nickname for her, “You do so much for other people. Please, for once, let someone take care of you.”
She hung her head, and, with effort, said “Ok.” Then, “Thank you!” quickly.
Russ set the tray down gently on her lap, the coffee on the end table, then disappeared back into the kitchen to get his plate. Returning, he bent down, inquiring politely, “Mind if I join you?”
Her mouth full of pancake, Arielle smiled, the syrup sticky on her lips. That was all the invitation he needed. Leaning over, he kissed her softly. He had intended it as just a friendly wake up call, but as they said about good intentions… Every time he moved, though, he felt a weight on him, moving from his legs to his back. “What the hell?” he questioned, stopping in the middle of a kiss. Then they heard the purring: Kashmir. Arielle giggled as the cat stuck her nose into both of their faces. She reached out to pet her, but Russ said firmly, “No. No! Get out of here!” He tried lifting her from them, but she kept digging her claws into him and climbing right back up again. “You are ruining the mood!” he declared as finally, tired of the constant struggle, he scooped Kashmir up and dumped her outside the room, shutting the door firmly. “There!” he sighed, then came back to bed.
They ended up making love, and it was soft, gentle, and comforting. Afterwards Arielle lay back under the covers, eyes closed, a little smile on her face.
Russ looked over, past the breakfast tray that had been casually pushed out of the way. “What is it with you and pancakes?” he wondered aloud.
Ari’s eyes flicked open. “Best…breakfast…I…ever…had” she quipped, in imitation of him from that first time back in her dorm.
The singer caught on right away and let out a dirty laugh.
She then rolled lazily over, snuggling next to him. As her eyes flicked open again, she caught sight of the bedside clock. Immediately she sat straight up. “Wow! I should probably get up & get a shower & everything…I know Nikki wanted to get an early start back because she has to work.”
In reply, Russ got up and pulled the curtain aside. Outside was a white blur. He could barely see his car in the driveway. “You’re not going anywhere” he concluded, shaking his head.
Ari gasped. She hadn’t even realized it was snowing.
“You can go take a shower though…let me heat up the breakfast, since we got…distracted…” He smirked as Arielle blushed. “I’ll give Mick a call over there & see what’s going on” he added.
Ari grabbed the sheet and wrapped it around her as she disappeared into the bathroom. Russ was watching her appreciatively as she did so, then picked up the tray and headed back to the kitchen.
Arielle stepped into the shower, turned on the water as hot as she could stand and then basked in it as it streamed down on her. It was a relief to get feel clean again, waking her up, snapping her out of that nightmare. Ugh, that emotional explosion she’d just dumped on Russ. She shook her head. Poor guy! Like he wanted to experience all that. She couldn’t wait to get makeup back on and look decent again. She got out of the shower’s warmth reluctantly, dressed, and started putting on her makeup. She couldn’t get rid of the embarrassment-of freaking him out-and bawling like a baby in front of him. And this wasn’t the first time, she reminded herself; she had gotten teary eyed at Darin’s that one night they’d gone to practice. Ugh. She would really have to start sucking it up better. No guy wanted to be around some girl that cried all the time.
She didn’t realize she had drifted off until she heard a knock on the door. “Hey, how long are you going to be in there? Your food is getting cold…again!” Russ informed her impatiently.
“Oops-sorr-” Ari began, then cut off the apology, not wanting to tick him off . “Almost done!” She told him instead, deciding to just forego the hair dryer and let it dry naturally. At least her makeup was on. Thank God. How he’d seen her just now was bad enough. Ugh. She took one last look in the mirror and opened the door to find Russ sitting back in bed with the tray on his lap. He gestured her towards him. The smell of hot coffee was heaven. She felt her stomach growl and so gratefully got under the covers, eager to get back to breakfast.
“Ok, let’s try this again…” Russ took a debut bite of scrambled eggs. “I mean, who knew that pancakes were an aphrodisiac?” Arielle blushed. “I mean, I’m seriously going to have to stock up!” he went on with a grin.
They ate in companionable silence for a while, watching the snow coming down harder out the bedroom window. “Oh yeah-” the singer spoke up, “I called Mick and he said they heard on the news that it’s not supposed to let up until later on. They haven’t even gotten the snow plows out yet.” “So,” he raised his eyebrows, “you are going to be stuck here for a while.”
Ari made a mock disappointed face. “Oh damn!”
Russ just smiled. He had actually been thinking the same thing.
“This is really good, ” she told him, taking a bite of pancake. “Thanks!”
“Not a problem”, he replied. “I mean, I owe you one…or two…or 100…” Ari started to shake her head when he continued in a sly tone, “I noticed you went grocery shopping…”
She opened her mouth to protest; that it wasn’t that much, don’t worry about it, but he stopped her with a simple, “Thank you. You know you did not have to do that. But I appreciate it. I appreciate everything you do” he added seriously.
They continued to finish their breakfast as the wind picked up outside; they could now hear it howling. It was officially a blizzard.
“So, uh-” Russ started gingerly, “I was just wondering..” “And you can tell me to fuck off, it’s none of my business or whatever you want, but…
Ari raised her eyebrows at that beginning.
“This nightmare,” he began, more strongly this time. “You said you have had it before?”
She nodded reluctantly, swallowing a bite of scrambled eggs.
“Have you ever…seen someone about it?” he questioned.
“Seen someone?” Arielle asked. “You mean a counselor or something?” she shook her head, lips turning up in distaste . “It’s not like that in our family. I mean, I wasn’t raised that way. We just…I don’t know…deal with stuff on our own.”
“But,” Russ persisted, “do you have anyone you talk to about it? Nikki? Carrie?”
She shook her head. “I mean, they know the basics, but…honestly I don’t talk about it much.”
“I don’t want to bother you then” the singer interjected. “Like I said, tell me to mind my own damn business if you want. I just feel bad for you to have this happen all the time.”
“Well, ” Ari informed him, “this was the only time I ever disturbed anyone with it. So I’m sorr-I mean, I apologize”, she corrected herself quickly. “Usually I’m by myself. Thank God. And I don’t think I scream all the time.” She shuddered, still embarrassed.
“I wonder what triggered it? ” he mused.
Arielle shrugged. “I don’t know…maybe from getting the groceries, I was remembering going to the store that night?”
“Or maybe nothing did.” Russ reasoned. “Sometimes things make no sense.”
“I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to follow any pattern. I guess it’s like…it’s like it’s my mind trying to convince itself that he’s really gone?” she deduced.
“How long has it been since he…passed? I don’t think you ever told me?”
“It’ll be 9 months next week.” Arielle replied immediately.
“Wow, that’s…not so long ago.” Russ observed. “No wonder you still think about it. I mean…you’re always going to think about it…that’s not what I mean. I mean, I hope you don’t have dreams about it like this all the time…” He was starting to blubber and he knew it. “Oh fuck it! I sound like a total ass. I’m sorry” he told her finally. “I’ll just shut the hell up.”
She smiled a little, squeezing his arm. “No, it’s OK. It’s not as much anymore. It’s getting better now. I’ll be OK” she reassured him. “To be truthful”, she added quietly, “You are really the only one I’ve really…said much to about all this. I actually can’t believe I went on like I did…”
“You must have needed to.” Russ guessed. Then he looked straight at her. “I’m flattered then. Thank you for trusting me.”
Arielle smiled again. Somehow with him it was easy. He’d been easy to talk to from the first night they met. It continued to surprise her.
They finally finished their breakfast and Russ moved to get up and take everything out to the kitchen, but Ari stopped him. “No, you go take a shower, I’ll clean up.” When he started to protest, she gave him a look. “I insist.”
“Ok, okay…” Russ waved her away and sprinted out of bed. A warm shower would feel great right now, he thought as he took a look out the window again. Seeing the swirling white mass made him shiver, even being inside.
Arielle headed out to the kitchen, stopping to pet Kashmir, who was back to sleep on the couch again. She put the eggs and syrup away, wiped off the stove and counter. She was just starting to rinse off the dishes in preparation for washing them, when the lights flickered, then went out. She paused, a dish in hand, the water still running, looking up at the kitchen light. Nothing. She nudged the water off with her elbow. Then she looked out into the living room. Complete blackness too. Not even the hum of the refrigerator.
So the sound of Russ in the shower was even made even louder by the lack of any other sound. She went into the bedroom and politely knocked on the bathroom door.
“Yeah what’s up?” he called out, in the midst of rinsing his hair.
“Uh-the power just went out” she informed him.
Russ opened his eyes, noticing now the bathroom lights were off. “Aww shit!” he exclaimed. “Ok, let me finish up and I’ll be right out.”
In the meantime she went back out into the kitchen. Might as well finish the dishes. At least that still worked. She could see what she was doing a little bit from the windows. She opened the curtains more to let more light.
Russ joined her, freshly dressed in jeans and a Zep tshirt. “Shit!” he mumbled again. “Bet some dumb ass hit a pole.” He stood there for a second, thinking. “Well, it’s going to start being as cold as a bitch in here soon. Electric heat.” he explained. Then he too noticed the lack of noise, specifically from the fridge. “Fuck! And you just stocked it up!” he ranted. “God knows how long it’s going to be like this….” his voice trailed off.
A light bulb went off in Arielle’s head. “Well look-“ she gestured outside to the snowdrifts. “We got a natural fridge and freezer!”
The singer looked at her as if she was a genius. “Yeah!” he agreed. They immediately put their boots and gloves on. Ari handed him items one by one from the fridge and he made little holes for them in the snow drifts that had gathered on his back deck. Then she started on the freezer items, sticking the ice cream, hot dogs, pizzas, and frozen meals wherever she could make room. In disbelief, they looked at each other and laughed.
“This is like Little House in the Prairie or something!” Ari declared.
“You know what is gonna taste damn good after it’s been in here awhile?” Russ announced, “Beer!” He started taking single bottles from the case and sticking them in the highest drift. “I’ll see you in about….an hour” he told the bottles as he did so. Arielle was in hysterics by now. This was so reminiscent of the Beef-A-Roni episode!
Just as they finished, the phone rang. Russ shut the back door, with a “Whew!” and a shiver and went over to answer it. It was Mick.
After listening for a while-as usual Mick’s mouth ran a mile a minute-Arielle and Russ giving each other knowing looks the whole time-the singer held his hand over the receiver and turned to Ari. “Mick says that it’s our whole block and the next 5 over.” Then, “The electric company said it’s going to be a while.”
“What? No dumbass hit a pole?” Ari questioned.
Russ laughed. “Well, probably that too.” Then he turned back to the phone. “Oh-Nikki wants to talk to you.” He handed it over to her.
“Having fun yet?” Nik joked.
“Yeah, we just put the contents of the whole fridge out on his back deck” Arielle replied.
“That’s a great idea.” She turned away from the phone and yelled out to Mick. “Mick-they just stuck their stuff in the snow!”
Ari could hear the drummer responding. “Good idea-let’s do it!”
“It’s freezing in here!” she told Nikki.
“Arielle Chagrin Xander…” her friend started in her ‘are you an idiot?’ tone, “Just stay in bed all day-get busy!” She said in a perfect Bleaney imitation, then laughed long and hard so that even Russ could hear her. Arielle shook her head and handed the phone back to Russ, who said a few more words to Mick and then hung up.
They stood for a few second and looked at one another. “Well?” the singer shrugged. “I think Nik has a great idea too.” He pointed to the bedroom. “I’ll get a bunch of other blankets.” He started for the hall closet.
“And I think the coffee is still warm.” Arielle advised, heading back to the kitchen. She rummaged around in the cupboards until she found some of the kids’ lunch boxes-Thermoses! She quickly filled them up, just as Russ shouted, “Hey, there’s a bottle of whiskey above the fridge!”
“Another great idea!” Ari yelled back, pulling over a chair and climbing up to retrieve it.
They met back in the bedroom. She was starting to shiver. Russ went over to his dresser and started going through it, pulling out sweatshirts and socks. “Here-“ he commanded, tossing them over to her. “Put on as many layers as you can.” He started doing the same. They glanced at each other and laughed again; they looked ridiculous.
“I was always known for my fashion sense” the singer quipped. He was shivering too. “Come on-“ he pointed to the bed. “Let’s get under the covers!”
They dove under the comforter, and yanked every blanket he had found over top of them. Russ pulled her close to him, their arms around one another. They snuggled desperately together for a moment and then he looked down at her tenderly, and out of the blue, said , “I do love you.”
She’d spent the night wondering to herself if he’d really said that. Wanting him to repeat it but not wanting to sound like a girly girl asking him. So she smiled and hugged him tighter. “I love you too.”
“This isn’t so bad, is it?” he asked. “Freezing. In the darkness. But, he held up the Jack Daniels bottle, “We got whiskey!”
Ari held up her G.I. Joe Thermos. “And we got coffee!”
Russ quickly grabbed his Barbie Thermos and clicked it to hers as a toast. Then they laughed again.
“So…doesn’t it feel weird not to have had a gig last night?” Arielle asked him.
Russ opened his Thermos, pouring in a splash of the Jack. “Yet another great idea!” he announced. Then, “Yeah, doesn’t happen often” he agreed. “But that’s the life. My life.”
Ari was nodding. “I feel naked without my guitar sometimes.”
“Well hey-“ He struggled out from under the mountain of blankets. “I have an acoustic. Maybe you can play a little. Before your fingers freeze anyway.”
He brought over the Martin and she handled it gently, tuning it quickly by ear.
“What are you in the mood for?” he asked.
Ari responded by starting up with “Dear Prudence.”
“Good one!” Russ approved, then started singing softly along.
They went through several of their favorite Beatles songs until Ari finally had to put the guitar down. “Sorry-I can’t feel my fingers anymore.” she admitted. He nodded.
Their conversation then naturally turned to music, as it usually did. She told him about the Paul McCartney concert she’d seen with her dad; how he did a whole tribute to John, with huge video screens showing a montage of pictures of the former Beatle. Then, how the whole crowd had put their arms around one another as he sang “Hey Jude”. She’d looked up in amazement to see tears in her dad’s eyes.
“A good memory of your dad, huh?” commented Russ softly. She nodded. “Tell me about him… You know, something I always tell my kids when they have nightmares,” it suddenly occurred to him, “I say, ‘replace that with something good. Think of something fun, something happy instead of what made you scared’.”
So that turned into a conversation about her dad, the concerts he’d taken her to, the times they played guitar together, the little lawn concerts she grew up doing at her grandparent’s farm.
“Sounds like a great dad”, Russ mused. “I wish I had good memories like that.”
“You don’t?” Arielle queried. “Not even a few?”
He shook his head. “Not really. All I remember of when he was around was him fighting with my mom. Making her cry. Trying to smack me around.”
“He was and is a total dick.” Russ said. “He never even sees my kids. So I have no time for him.”
“So compared to you, I was lucky…” Arielle thought out loud.
Russ considered. “I don’t know…what do you think? Which is worse-to have had a good dad and lost him, at least knowing what a good dad is like, or to have a dad who was never around so it was like you lost him already?”
Neither of them could answer that. And Arielle was starting to feel sleepy again. Russ let her go, and eventually drifted off himself, cozy next to her.
They woke up sporadically, to have another sip of coffee/whiskey and made a quick dash to the bathroom. Checking the weather outside. Listening for snowplows. Then falling back into a lazy sleep again. Sometimes they would talk about something random, then fall into a companionable silence.
Hours past and the phone rang, jerking them out of their lethargy. It was Mick again. It was starting to clear up some; the roads were looking better and in fact some cars were passing by and sounded like they were doing OK. He and Nikki were shoveling off the front porch.
Russ looked over at Arielle and groaned. “As much as I hate to…” he started. She knew what he meant and immediately got up to find her coat, hat, and gloves.
He waved her away. “No no no! You don’t have to help me-go back and stay warm.”
But she insisted. “Of course I’m going to help you.” Just as she said that, though, the lights flickered, came back on, then flickered off again. Both of them stood open mouthed, staring at up the ceiling light. It stayed on. Then they heard the hum of the fridge again and the blinking of the microwave clock.
“Woo hoo!” Russ shouted. “Let there be light!”
Arielle laughed, but at the same time, was thinking, Dammit, I could stay here all day…and all night again! Instead, she went over to the deck to retrieve all the fridge items, as Russ headed outside to shovel the sidewalk.
When she had finished putting everything back, she joined him to do the driveway. He had an extra shovel by the front door. Working together, they finally cleared everything out. They took a break, panting, leaning on their shovels, just as they saw Nikki’s big boat-like car pulling up. Ari’s stomach did a nose dive. No, I don’t want to leave yet! she screamed inside. But…
Russ was his usual gregarious self, laughing and joking with Nikki, explaining how they’d been drinking whiskey and coffee to stay warm. Asking how all of Mick’s cats and dogs were doing over there in the cold.
He sounds so happy! Arielle thought. And I just want to start throwing a temper tantrum because I don’t want to go back. Ugh.
Finished with their job, the singer invited Nikki into the house to get her a Thermos-Batman-of coffee for the road. He warmed up Arielle’s. “Just give them back next time I see you” he shrugged. “The kids have plenty of these.”
Nikki sat and chatted with him as Ari gathered her stuff, prolonging it as much as possible. Looking at the couch, where he’d told her he loved her for the first time, longingly at the bedroom where’d they’d spent the day together under that mound of blankets…
Finally, she could put it off no longer. Nikki was telling him she had an Econ test tomorrow and she would have to cram for it now because she’d spent the whole time here.
Arielle wanted to cry. Didn’t she feel as bad leaving Mick as she did Russ? What is wrong with me? I’m like emotional Jell-O today or something? She kept petting Kashmir distractedly. The little gray cat purred contentedly. She was the lucky one, she got to stay.
Did Russ feel the same way she did? It was hard to say; his face was his normal self. He told them to be safe on the way home. He was reassured to see that Nikki had chains on her tires.
As they were heading out the door- a trip which Ari made as slowly as possible, letting Nikki get to the car way ahead of her- the singer stopped Arielle and hugged her, hard. It seemed like he was waiting for Nikki to get away from them. “I don’t want you to go” he whispered firmly in her ear. Ari could only shake her head in agreement, those embarrassing tears starting to form in her eyes again. Then, as if sensing this, he released her from his grip with a big smile. “Call me when you get back so I know you’re OK, alright?”
She gave him a quick kiss and headed out to the car. Back to school. Reluctantly.