FYI: this is a basic skeleton of the story

Not all chapters in order-just a basic frame work for now. Many gaps I have to add to, possibly change parts of it or add alternate endings-I write as I’m inspired, not chronologically. But I think you get the gist of it with what’s here so far 🙂

I have them numbered for now, but there are gaps in between chapters, so they will fluctuate over time. I wanted to get them in at least a somewhat chronological order until I’m finished.

Field trip with the chaplain (18)

A sudden knock on the door brought Russ out of his depressive fog. He shifted his gaze to see a head poking through at the same time as the door opened. He caught a quick glimpse of buzz cut, just as a voice called out, “Are you decent?” before stepping into the room. Standing in front of him was a guy about his age, clean shaven, in a suit. Russ frowned. “I told them I didn’t want a chaplain.” he grumbled, then deliberately turned his head the other way.

The stranger was momentarily mystified. “Huh?” he said, then looked down at his tailored suit. “Oh, this thing? I’m not a chaplain. Ah, hell no. I’m Mike, Shanna’s-I mean, Dr. Hainley’s-“ he corrected quickly, “husband. We’re on our way to some hospital thing later on.” When Russ at first said nothing, he went on, “Remember, you told her it was OK for me to stop by?”

Still scowling, Russ gave a quick wave of the hand. Oh yeah, “Recommended counseling”. Eh. “Yeah, yeah.” It was hard to get unused to living his life by doing what he wanted, when he wanted, and if he didn’t want to be bothered by something or someone, well then that was it. This disease had started to change that a little though. There were few people he would override his feelings for and do as they suggested. Dr. Hainley was one of them. He trusted her with his life. He had no choice.

Mike raised his eyebrows, cocking his head to the side, in a gesture similar to one Russ often used. “You don’t look too visitor friendly right now if you don’t mind my saying.” he observed.

The singer paused for a moment, then concocted a faux smile. “Forgive me for not being my usual ray of sunshine self, but I just got done having my very first sponge bath by a 70 year old, overweight, distinctly unattractive, male nurse. And this was after I threw up my delicious lunch of 4 cans of white paint-otherwise known as Ensure, into a plastic bedpan. So…” he finished sarcastically, “I’m not exactly the happiest son of a bitch you ever met right now.”

Mike gave him a long look. Then he nodded coolly. “Let’s take a little field trip.”

Russ blinked at him. “What?”

“I mean, get up, let’s get out of here.” He jerked a thumb towards the door.

The singer shook his head. “Uh-if you haven’t noticed…I’m not exactly mobile here, you know?” he spread out his arms to indicate the IV lines and pole. “I’m a…” he affected a scholarly tone “’fall risk’”.

Dr. Hainley’s husband just stared back at him. Then he looked around the room and gestured towards the corner. “Ever take a ride in a wheelchair?” Russ looked over too. He didn’t have to say anything, it was written all over his face.

Mike shrugged. “Unless you want to sit and admire the beautiful artwork for a few more hours until you fall asleep. Maybe.” He nodded towards the painting covering the wall directly in front of the bed. Russ had been staring at it for days now and counted every flower in the field, had memorized every detail of the bucolic countryside, the expressions on the peoples’ faces, even the way the dog’s one foot was lifted off the ground. He’d been debating with himself whether it was a Chocolate Lab or just a mutt. He was starting to see it even with his eyes shut. Enough. Russ sat up straighter in the bed and made as if to swing his legs over the side.

“Hold on.” Mike advised, pushing the wheelchair over. “Don’t get all jacked up on me now.” He arranged it next to the bed, pulling out the foot rests in a quick motion.

Russ looked down at him. “You do that so well.” he remarked drily.

Mike had a slight smirk on his face. “Yeah. Let’s just say I had a lot of practice.” Then he stood up. “It’s all yours.”

The singer looked at it at first like it was an instrument of torture. “I’m not handicapped.” he announced defensively.

“Of course not.” Mike retorted. “But you would be if you fell and broke your leg, hip, or worse. Then it would be…” he gazed at the ceiling dreamily, “sponge baths by ‘hot’ nurses indefinitely.”

Russ frowned and grudgingly eased himself off the bed into the chair. He reached around helplessly for the IV lines and poles, but Mike had already swept everything together expertly and clipped it to the top of the wheelchair.

“Ready to roll, rock star?” he quipped. The singer only grunted in reply. Nonplussed, Mike pushed him out the door, whistling as he did so. As they moved down the hallway towards the elevator, the nurses at first looked at the patient in the wheelchair, their eyes opened wide, then at who was pushing him, and were even more in shock. What are you doing with that asshole of a patient? was their silent inquiry. Mike just smiled and winked.

The entire way to the elevator, Russ kept up a litany of complaints: “Can’t believe I’m in a freakin’ wheelchair. Holy hell, a damn cripple!” Though his helper said nothing in response, the singer went on, regardless, mumbling, “Sponge bath! I’m a grown damn man.” Then, “Goddamn Ensure-tastes like shit.” He didn’t notice that he was by now on the ground floor and was going through the lobby. Mike just continued to push him, silently. “I haven’t puked this much since I was—” he suddenly shut up as they were outside, the sunshine bright and glaring in his face. He looked up at Mike, his expression half annoyed, half curious. “Where are you taking me?” he growled, not in the mood. He clutched at his emesis basin reflexively.

Ignoring him, Mike took a deep breath, smiling up at the blue sky. “Beautiful!” He was admiring it for so long, he didn’t notice Russ was staring at him expectantly. The singer cleared his throat.

“Oh!” Mike jumped, snapping out of it. “Places you’ve never been!” Russ rolled his eyes. “Somewhere your girlfriend goes a lot. She’s a popular visitor there.” he added cheerfully.

Russ wanted to punch that smile off his happy face. The whistling that accompanied it made it even worse. He grit his teeth and muttered, “It’s Dr. Hainley’s husband, be nice. It’s Dr. Hainley’s husband…

Mike glanced over in amusement. “Talking to yourself now too? Maybe I should take a detour to the Psych Ward?”

Russ gave him a glare, the same glare that usually warned most people to back off. Instead, Mike smirked. Who the hell does this guy think he is? He doesn’t even know me! Russ opened his mouth, shut it, then opened it again. Damn it, he was going to wipe that smart ass grin off this jerk’s face! Doctor’s husband or not. He cleared his throat again in preparation.

Mike raised an eyebrow, regarding him with that same condescending amusement, continuing to push him along his mysterious route.

“Maybe you live in a sunshiny world full of puffy white clouds & little butterflies, but not everyone does, buddy. You could work on your sympathy a bit! There are people out there who are suffering, you know…who have serious problems and illnesses that are out of their control.” He bit the last few words off angrily. “We’re not all walking around like you, smiling at everything, dressed in monkey suits, living in a fantasy world. Get real! I mean—“ His voice trailed off, noticing they were now inside a new building.

Unlike the ward he was in, the walls were painted bright, cheery colors like sunshine yellow, robin’s egg blue, cotton candy pink. He started to get a sinking feeling. He dared a quick look out of the corner of his eye up at Mike, but the oncologist’s husband’s face was expressionless and he said nothing, just kept up with the whistling. Then he saw the pictures. Some crayoned, some finger painted. Everything from stick figures with huge heads and unidentifiable blobs that were probably family members, to detailed drawings of super heroes fighting hideous monsters with arms like syringes and faces like IV bags. And yet, others that simply said “Hope”, adorned with flowers and smiley faces. He shrank down in his wheelchair.

Still, Mike continued to push him, silently. Nurses dressed as clowns and cowboys walked past, giving him waves. And…he could hear…music…laughter…coming closer as they were headed down the hallway. And then…they got to a huge room, full of toys, games, balloons…and…kids. Some of them sitting at tables, working on puzzles with the nurses or family. Some lounging on bean bags in front of a huge TV, watching others play video games. Some in wheel chairs like him, hooked up to IVs. Some couldn’t even sit and were propped up in hospital beds, pale and bald. Also like him. All young. The fire drained out of him. He’d been had and he knew it.

Mike stopped at the threshold of the room and leaned down to Russ’s level. The pleasant façade was off. “What were you saying about suffering?” he asked in clipped tones. The singer shook his head, speechless.

When Russ still could not respond, Mike took a deep breath, then continued, “Listen, I know you’re supposed to be this big shot rock star, but you whine like a sissy!” he shook his head in disgust.

By now, Russ had tears running down his face. Head in his hands, he was shaking. “God…” he gasped. “They are so young!”

“Knock. It. off.” Mike commanded with a frown. He grabbed a box of tissues from a nearby nurse’s station and tossed it at Russ. “We’re not going in there until you get a hold of yourself.”

Russ then looked up, gasping, fumbling at his nose with the tissues, surprise and dread in his eyes.

Mike pursed his lips. “That’s right. We’re going in.“ He looked at the singer with disdain. “Shocker for you though-being told what to do, right? Big spoiled rock star, with his entourage…groupies and super models, eh?” he sniffed. “Not used to someone talking to you like this, huh? Been a long time? Well guess what?” he leaned down again and said the next few words slowly, sternly, “Time to get over yourself.”

He stood waiting as Russ rummaged with the tissues, wiping his eyes, blowing his nose. “You know, you’ve been treating the nurses and doctors around here like crap!” he accused. ” And they are trying to help your whining butt.”

Russ nodded dumbly. There was going to be no escaping this. He wiped a hand across his eyes one last time and gulped. Mike shook his head again, muttering, “Pathetic!” as he pushed him through the doorway.

Instantly his demeanor changed. “Hey! Hey!” he called out cheerfully as the room’s occupants turned to look. Nurses and parents smiled. Some of the kids working at the art table waved and shouted, “Hi, Mikey!”

Mikey? Russ thought, randomly. That sounded like the name for a little kid, or a nice guy…not this…beast of a drill sergeant. He shook his head, trying to clear it.

“I brought a visitor!” Mike announced, gesturing down at the wheelchair. He kicked one of the wheels, startling Russ, forcing him to look up. “Smile.” He said under his breath.

The singer emitted a teeth baring grin, forcing himself to look around the room. “God, you’re not at a press conference…” Mike muttered, through the side of his mouth. “Quit acting like a stupid idiot.”

Russ’s faux smile faded, struggling to form into something more natural.

“This is Russ…” Mike introduced him to the room. “He’s a…musician.” He explained. “A famous rock star!” he expounded. Russ frowned. When the kids and parents gazed at him blankly, Mike looked down at the singer and shrugged. “Not part of your fan club, I guess?”

Then, deciding to lighten up on the sarcasm, he began pushing him around the room, stopping first in front of a boy who was working with Legos. Skinny, but with a bloated face, he wore his bald head with pride; someone had drawn a Superman symbol on it with Sharpies.

Mike introduced him as “This is Greg. He’s…16, now, right?” he teased.

Greg laughed. “Nooooo…. 8!” and continued with the Legos, staring at the box every now and then to get his bearings. It was a replica of the Titanic, intricate in detail.

Russ stared, impressed. He reached out his hand to touch it, respectfully. “You…you did all this yourself?” he asked, surprising himself by blurting it out to a kid he didn’t even know.

“Yeah.” he replied shyly, handling another piece.

Mike patted him gently on the shoulder. “Don’t let him fool you. Greg is a Lego master.” He gestured to a display case in the corner. It was filled with other Lego sets. Russ had just enough time to glimpse the White House and the Two Towers from Lord of the Rings before Mike pushed him on. “Greg has a rare form of lymphoma.” he explained. “Diagnosed when he was 5. He had a lot of stomach aches, throwing up… At first they thought it was appendicitis, but then he started spiking fevers and had complications. Turned out he had a tumor the size of a grape fruit in his stomach.”

Russ shuddered as Mike went on. “He’s had 2 surgeries now, chemo, radiation, the whole bit. They’re hoping the latest bone marrow transplant will help.”

Bone marrow transplant? Russ gulped. He’d heard about those. Couldn’t even imagine the pain. And two surgeries? He was afraid to try even one. “Is he…gonna be OK?” he whispered, out of earshot of Greg.

Mike looked at him. “I don’t know.” he replied honestly. When Russ appeared stricken, he went on, “We hope so. But you don’t know.”

He had already moved on to another kid, this time a little girl, seated on a piano stool. So that’s where the music had been coming from… “This is Kaitlyn. Katie.” he corrected, as the girl looked up with a smile. And what a smile! Freckled covered face, Russ could only guess her hair had once been red; she wore a Dodgers baseball hat to cover her bald head. He reached up to touch his bandanna covered one, feeling a sort of kinship, at the same time thinking he wasn’t worthy to be around these kids.

“9 years old and a virtuoso!” Mike informed Russ, as her mother sitting on a couch nearby beamed. “A musician, like you. Sometimes she and your girlfriend duet.”

Katie perked up. “Is Angel here?” she asked excitedly.

“Nah, not today.” replied Mike. Both Katie and her mother looked disappointed, but they quickly masked it when Mike asked what she was working on next. Smiling, she started out with the notes Russ instantly recognized as “Hey Jude”. Unconsciously he began singing along under his breath, mouthing the words. She was halfway through the song before he noticed that she was playing both parts with her left hand, her right hand dangling uselessly by her side. Huh?

When Katie finished, both he and Mike joined in applause. She stood up and gave a little curtsy. Man, did she have a mega watt smile! Russ was instantly charmed. As she was showing something to Mike in her piano book, the singer gathered up the courage to talk to her mother.

“Umm..hi…” he began, holding out his hand to shake hers. “I’m Russ. Your daughter is a great pianist. She’s gorgeous.”

“Thank you. I’m Carol.” She responded, accepting his gesture. “Nice to meet you.”

“I noticed…” he started, sneaking a quick glimpse back over to the little girl, “That Katie is only playing with her left hand…?” he let the end of the sentence dangle, not sure how to go on with this, how to word it, what to say without sounding like an idiot.

But this mother was a veteran. She knew what he was wondering and had a response, probably well rehearsed, before he even finished. “Katie had a brain tumor when she was 7. Started complaining about headaches, her stomach hurt…” she had a world weary expression as she went on. “Thought she was just trying to get out of going to school, you know, typical kid. Do you have kids?” she interrupted herself to ask Russ.

He nodded, looking down at his lap. “Yes. 4.” he whispered, picturing them all in his mind now.

“So you know.” Carol continued. “You don’t think-oh-brain tumor. We’d give her a Tylenol and send her off…things would be OK. Then she had problems balancing too, more headaches, throwing up, so we took her to the pediatrician. And that’s when…”

Russ was shaking his head as she kept going. “She actually used to be a guitar player. Really a prodigy. But the surgery and treatments caused nerve damage to her right hand. She tried, but…couldn’t play anymore.”

By now Mike and Katie had finished what they were doing; she had noticed they were talking about her, and with an expression that showed she was embarrassed at them doing so,  cut in: “So I switched instruments.” Shrugging, as if it was as easy as that.

Russ shook his head in wonder, sneaking a glance at her mother, who raised her eyebrows as if she couldn’t believe it either. “Some people have that gift of musical ability. But he said you…you’re a musician too?” she queried, then, “Sorry, I…don’t follow the stuff out today….” If you’re supposed to be famous, I don’t recognize you…was unspoken.

Russ waved away her apology. “It’s OK. Yeah, I’m in a band. I’m the singer. Or…I was…”

Carol gave him a questioning look and he pointed at his neck. She nodded, tacit understanding. Before she had a chance to say anything, though, Mike stood up. “I want you to meet someone else before we go back” he told Russ.

“Nice meeting you” he said to Carol, too overwhelmed to know where to begin to say anything else.

She nodded again, with a polite smile. Then, in a low voice, “I wish you well.”

“Thank you” Russ choked out, giving one last glance to Katie, who was happily moving on to another song, oblivious to, or maybe, transcending, the drama of so many sad stories in the room.

He was quiet as Mike rolled him across the room to a corner by the window. Gazing around the room, watching the kids, trying to read their parents’ expressions, wondering how the hell they could stand sitting here, helpless to some freakin’ disease that was ravaging their baby?  He could not even fathom…

He was startled out of his ruminations by Mike’s voice. “This is Elizabeth” he announced. Russ noted that his tone of voice was different than with the others; not as upbeat and joking. Then he looked up and saw why: an impossibly tiny little girl lay in a  huge hospital bed. Bald as the others. So damn small! His heart flew up in his throat. Oh my God, how do you let this happen? When he turned to look up at Mike, he saw beginnings of tears in his eyes too this time.

“Elizabeth has lymphoblastic leukemia”, he said softly. Then he nodded acknowledgement to the nurse who was by her side.

“Jesus…” Russ breathed. “How old is she?” he felt he was going to lose it any minute, despite Mike’s warnings not to do so.

“A little over a year.”

Russ closed his eyes. The same age as Devon, his grandson. Good God.

“She likes to watch the bigger kids” the nurse explained quietly. “We bring her in here when her mom’s not able to be with her. It seems to calm her down.”

The singer could not think of a single thing to say, he kept staring at this tiny girl with the bluest eyes and the face of an angel.

“She’s a single mother. Father not in the picture. 3 other older siblings” the nurse went on to explain, seeing Mike nodding for her to go on, to tell Russ her story. “So she’s working two jobs, raising her other kids. She comes in as much as she can. Sometimes spends the night. Sometimes other relatives come in too. They try not to leave her alone too long.”

Jesus…Russ repeated to himself. The father in him couldn’t resist; he reached out and stroked that tiny arm tenderly, whispering, “Hi, baby…” she turned her head and just stared at him, at this stranger touching her. She just looking at him, silently, as he continued to whisper, “You’re such a pretty girl, Elizabeth…”

Mike and the nurse gave each other looks over the singer’s head. He didn’t notice, he just kept talking to that little angel, transfixed by her constant gaze.

Then it was Mike’s turn to clear his throat. Looking at his watch, he announced, “We’d better get going or Shanna is going to come after me.”

The nurse, knowing Dr. Hainley, laughed a little. “And we don’t want that!”

“No, we do not.” Mike agreed, laughing in return. “She’s already ticked enough that I rode here with the suit on. Just got it dry cleaned! she said.”

“Only you, Mike!” the nurse admonished, shaking her head. She gave a polite smile to Russ as Mike grasped the wheelchair handles in preparation for their exit.

“Bye sweetie…” Russ called to Elizabeth as they turned.

They left the room, back down the hallway, to the elevator. Retracing their trip back to Russ’s building, they did not say a word the entire time; they didn’t need to. Mike knew the silence was doing its work.

They got to his room, Mike wheeling him in, pushing the foot rests back, rearranging the IV pole to its original position, everything in reverse. He watched as Russ gingerly moved from the wheelchair to his bed, this time without a word of complaint.

They looked at each other and nodded, man to man. “Bye, rock star.” Mike quipped with a wink, heading out the door.

After he left, Russ lay in the bed, unmoving. The silence was deafening. He closed his eyes, mentally exhausted, and fell into the deepest sleep he’d ever had at the hospital.

 

He awoke much later to the sound of a cart creaking into the room. Blinking, startled, he shook the images of his trip to the pediatric unit he’d been dreaming about out of his head. Looking from his bed, he saw Mike again, this time in regular street clothes. He threw his hand over his eyes in dismay.

“Ahh shit, not you again!” he groaned.

Mike only laughed. That’s when Russ noticed the cart had balloons and a cake on it. “What the…?” he began.

“Hey I heard someone was having a pity party in here…” Mike joked.

In response he got a middle finger. “Screw you, Hainley!” Russ grumbled, struggling in his covers to sit upright and get a better look. Strangely, he felt after that experience, that he could talk to him that way, even though they’d only just met. There was something about this guy.

Mike pushed the cart closer, then grabbed a chair, casually pulling it up next to the bed, and sat down. “Nah, just kidding. It was my birthday. They got me a cake at that thing we went to. Thought I’d bring some back to share with you, if you’re up for it.”

Russ frowned. “You are going to be nice to me? Now there’s a switch.”

Mike averted his eyes for a second, chuckling to himself. “Yeah….” he began. “Shanna told me to pay you a visit. Sometimes she sends me in for her ‘special’ patients..”he explained. “But…when I told her what happened, she said maybe I went overboard. A little?” he raised his eyebrows with a little smile. “But…I think I got my point across.”

“You bastard.” Russ replied, but then smiled grudgingly. “Point made. Point taken.”

Then it was as if the walls went down. They were immediate buddies.

“Great.” Mike responded. “Now I don’t have to worry about Shanna kicking my ass. Too much.” “Anyway,” he went on, gesturing to the cake, “Dig in. Have some, please.”

Reaching up, Russ took a tiny slice, unsure how this was going to go down after the earlier episode with the Ensure. But he knew that whatever the results, it wasn’t going to be the end of the world. So he threw up again. So what. He was getting to be a pro at that.

“Elizabeth is adorable, isn’t she?” Mike asked.

“A sweetheart.” Russ agreed solemnly. “God, how do these parents do it?”

His new friend shook his head. “How do any of them do it? You just keep walking, one foot in front of the other, brother. What choice do you have?” he swallowed his mouthful of cake, rinsing it down with some chocolate milk he’d brought along. “Shanna told me you have kids, right?”

“Yes, “ Russ nodded quietly, “4. And a grandson, not much older than Elizabeth.”

Mike was nodding also. “We have kids too. Twins.” He expounded. “Angus and Alice.”

At that, the singer shot him an incredulous look. “Angus and Alice?” he repeated.

His friend laughed. “Yeah. Shanna’s a classic rock fan, what can I say? They’re 2.” He added in explanation. “Little hellions sometimes. Take after their momma!” he laughed and popped another piece of cake into his mouth.

“How many times do you have to go into that ward before you stop losing it?” Russ wondered, hesitatingly taking a bite of the cake.

“Oh…” Mike replied. “You don’t ever get over it, you just learn to mask it. You try to concentrate on the kids, what you can do for them, or…a lot of the time, what they can do for you. They don’t sit around crying about their illness. Why should we? It’s a waste of the life they do have left.” Then he added. “It took a while for your girlfriend Angel to get used to it. She said she had to give herself a pep talk the first couple of times. Then even later, sometimes she would walk out smiling and then go into a storage closet and bawl her eyes out.”

This time Russ picked up on the “girlfriend” part. “You said that before…” he mused, remembering, now that the focus wasn’t all “Me Me Me”. “Girlfriend. What girlfriend?”

Mike laughed long and hard. “Oh, I forgot you’re a rock star! One of the many, I guess. How do I expect you to remember just one?”

The singer rolled his eyes. “Riiiight… money for nothing and my chicks for free. Seriously, what are you talking about? Angel?”

Taking another swig of the milk, Dr. Hainley’s husband waved his hand in the air, gesturing. “Tall, blonde? Wears black a lot? Visits you sometimes? She comes in to play guitar for the kids.”

Ohhhhhh! It dawned on Russ. “You mean Arielle. Not Angel.”

“Ok” Mike shrugged agreeably. “I just know that’s what everyone calls her. Nickname?”

Russ closed his eyes, groaning a little. “No. If it’s a nickname, it’s my fault. I uhh…one of my drug induced ramblings in here…” he explained, not wanting to go into detail.

“Mmm…”

“Now she is never going to get rid of it.” the singer lamented with a sigh. “And she’s not my girlfriend.”

“No?” Mike looked up in surprise. “She’s here to see you enough, I just…assumed. Met her a few times, seems really cool.”

Russ nodded slowly. “Oh yeah. Very. “ he got a wistful look on his face and repeated, “But not my girlfriend.”

“Why not?” his friend asked, then jumped in, answering his own question, “You have too many others, right? Living the life?”

“No.” Russ said with studied patience. He had been 100x more annoying to Mike than the other way around. “She has a boyfriend already.”

“Ahh!” from Mike. Then, “Hey, sorry for the slam in the kid’s room, but honestly, I’ve never heard of your band. Don’t listen to the stuff that’s out now either. It’s mostly crap. Shanna told me the name of it, but, well…”

“Stone Cold.” Russ told him. “We’ve been friends since grade school, grew up in the same home town. That’s actually how I met Arielle. She and her friends went to a club where we were playing once. We all ended up becoming friends. Her best friend even married my drummer.”

“Cool. So, you guys never even dated?”

The singer paused for a long time before answering. “Yeah. We did.” His expression was melancholy though. “Long story.”

Mike looked up in interest. “Didn’t work out, eh? Incompatible differences?”

“No…” Russ began slowly. “We had a lot in common. Clicked right away.”

“High maintenance, then?”

“Never. The most easy going girl I ever met. She could have fun grocery shopping!” he marveled, remembering.

“Jealous then? You said you were in the band. One of those ones that wanted you to spend more time with her? That kind of thing?” Mike guessed.

“No. Not Arielle. She was either jamming with us or off doing her own thing. She actually helped promote us a lot. Got us some big breaks.” Russ admitted.

“Ok, then, you had kids. She wasn’t the kid type?”

“Oh my God, no, my kids loved her! She was always doing and buying little things with them. They were so pissed when she quit coming around.”

“The…?”  Mike raised his eyebrows up and down knowingly. Then he added. “Sorry. If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Nota problem.” Russ said quickly.

“Then?”

Russ let out a long sigh. “I was married.”

“Ahhh….” Mike nodded. “I get it. She was the other woman.”

“No!” the singer exclaimed adamantly. “She wouldn’t let herself be.” He added quietly.

Catching on, Dr. Hainley’s husband said, “Oh…so you had this picture perfect marriage you didn’t want to mess up?”

At this, Russ shook his head miserably. “No. Far from it. She was a cheating, alcoholic, drug addict. Has nothing to do with our daughter.”

Mike stared at him. “Let me get this straight: you had a girl who was easy going, not after you for the money, loved kids, sounds like she loved you, good looking, good loving…and you choose…the crazy one? Dude, what the hell?”

The singer was still shaking his head.

“Man-“ Mike blurted out. “You are an asshole!”

Russ smiled grimly. “Thanks, bud.”

“So.. who dumped who?”

The singer thought back to the scene in Ft. Wayne. Then later in Toledo. He shrugged hopelessly. “It was a draw. I guess you’d say.”

“Sorry, but…”  continued Mike, “sounds like you screwed over your soul mate. Any chance of…?”

“No. I told you-she has a boyfriend. She’s dating Joe Elliott.”

At this Mike sat straight up in his chair, his eyes huge. “Joe Elliott? Def Leppard! Daaaamn…Now I see…”

“Mmm hmm.” Russ pursed his lips. “So you know who they are, huh? But not us?”

Mike was grinning while shoving more bits of cake into his mouth. “Ah hell yeah, who doesn’t?” He started singing “Photo-graph! I don’t want your…photo-graph. I don’t need your…”

“Right.” Russ cut him off quickly. Then he sighed. “Well it’s too late now. That’s water under the bridge.”

“Why the hell does she come to visit then? Too nice for a guy like you.” Mike shoved the plate over closer to him. “Eat the rest of this. Or dump it. Whatever. I gotta roll.” He reached for the leather riding jacket he had slung over the back of his chair. “Later, brother.”

Russ stared down at the remainder of the cake as Mike opened the door. Then he stuck his head back in briefly. “Joe Elliott?!” he mocked one last time.

“Screw you, Hainley!” the singer growled. He could hear Mike’s laughter echoing all the way down the hall.

Hospital Visit II (16)

Arielle breezed through the lobby, stopping by the front desk to pick up the hospital’s version of a backstage pass. She silently thanked God no issues with that today, at the same time wondering again why she was here. What is the point? I have no inspiring insight!

Despite the encouragement Mick and Nikki had given, that they thought she’d be helping Russ just by talking to him, Ari was dubious, jaded. We haven’t seen each other in years, come on, get real…what am I going to tell him that is going to make any difference?  But then she checked herself, remembering her new revelation, inspired by Nikki : if she was here now, it must be for a reason. Most important mission today: get him to tell others in his circle so Mick can have some backup.

All the medical knowledge she had gleaned from her research online swam in her head as she went up in the elevator- statistics, treatments, figures… It was overwhelming. She struggled to remember the gist of it-at least she could be more knowledgeable and helpful in that way. Maybe.

As she headed down the hallway, her musings were interrupted by a throaty growl: “Get. Out. Of. My. Room!” She stopped cold. Oh my God. It was Russ! She could hear a flurry of soft voices in reply, their words indistinguishable. Then, as she got closer, “Leave me alone!” Arielle’s heart thudded in her chest. Good Lord, what am I walking into?  So much for my “mission” today. She stopped at the door, hesitant. It was wide open and she could see a group of nurses around Russ’s bed, bending over him. One of them looked up, turned her head as she heard the clicking of Arielle’s shoes on the polished floor. “Oh!” she gave a sigh, half of irritation, half of relief. “I think Angel’s here!”

Arielle gave them a confused look. “Excuse me?” she looked from the nurses to Russ. “Should I come back at a better time?”

“Oh no, you’re fine.” one of them replied. She looked back at Russ’s incensed face with a placating smile. “Mr. Gibson, Angel is here to see you!” she said in a sing song voice. “We’ll come back later.” she advised, as they fled the room.

Ari stood there stunned, wondering what had been going on. She didn’t have long to wait. After a count of 10, Russ burst out, “Bunch of freakin’ fuck ups! They’re supposed to be the best of the best and they can’t even take my damn blood! Look at this!” He held out his arms for her inspection. They were sprinkled with multiple needle pricks, some of them starting to bruise. “I look like a goddammned junkie!” His eyes blazed and his already damaged voice grew even more hoarse as he raged on. “I can hardly sleep, but whenever I do, they come into the room sticking me with some shit, then they come back a ½ hour later to get my blood pressure. Then they come back again to give me some kind of treatment. Let me freaking sleep!”

Arielle just listened to his outburst, saying nothing. He was all anger, but she somehow sensed more to it. “You’re scared” popped out of her mouth before she even realized she was thinking it.

That jolted Russ out of his tirade. For a split second he looked at her with a combination of panic and appreciation that she seemed to understand what he was going through, but then he blinked and glared at her, his expression  saying “Dumb statement!” He wavered between denying and admitting it, then blurted out, “Hell yes I’m scared! What do you people think? This sucks! I’m tired of it.” He said faintly, “I don’t want to die!” but then changing his tone, went on, “But if I have to have one of those fucking robot voices, I’d rather be dead!”

“Fucking robot voice”? Only Russ! Ari curbed her natural response, which was to rush in with, “Don’t talk like that! You’re going to be fine!” Everyone always wanted to say things like that. But they weren’t always going to be true. A lump in her throat, she instead managed to get out, “Of course you’re scared. Anyone would be. That’s normal.”

He let out a weary sigh, as if relieved to have been given permission. They sat there in silence for a long time. Then he added, irritation now masking the embarrassment he felt at revealing that to her, “I don’t want to ‘be brave’ or any of that bullshit! I don’t want to be some poster child for cancer patients.”

“You don’t have to be. Be whatever you want to be.” Arielle responded calmly.

He sighed again, staring at the ceiling.

“When have you ever listened to what people told you to do anyway?” she added, smiling a little.

Russ looked at her out of the corner of his eye, with a grimace that looked like it may have become a grin, but stopped when he groaned, “Dammit, now I gotta take a piss!” He rolled over awkwardly, stiff from lying in the bed so long. Arielle moved back to give him his space. He gripped the metal bedsides, pulling himself upright and planting his feet on the floor. Yanking his IV pole irritably along with him, he stood up, started to take a few steps, then stopped, closing his eyes. “Whew, head rush! What the hell?” he mumbled, shaking his head to try to clear it.

Ari looked at him in concern. He took a few more steps, then started to crumble. Alarmed, she immediately reached out and took his arm. He looked sharply at her, at her hand on his arm, as if he wanted to shake it off too, but muttered “I’m ok.” instead. Still, she followed him to the bathroom, watching anxiously as he kept pulling the back of his hospital gown together.

“Don’t be checking me out!” he warned. Arielle rolled her eyes, but relieved, at least, that a bit of his smart ass attitude still existed. He disappeared inside, and she let him, knowing there were grab bars just in case. Then he called out, “No peeking!”

Ari just shook her head. She wanted to retort “I’ve seen it before!” but instead held her tongue. She could hear him muttering to himself, then silence. Then, “Dammit, I can’t even piss!” He came back out, and looking at dignified as he could manage, stomped back to the bed. Arielle lingered close by, trying not to look like she was ready to help him even though she was. Despite his attempts to keep himself covered, his gown flapped open at the back anyway. She struggled not to laugh, at the same time thinking, should I be finding humor in it at all? Where was the sweet, repentant Russ from the last visit?

As soon as he settled back onto the bed again, the nurses reappeared at the door. His eyes darted over. “Ah, hell no!” he bellowed, hiding his arms under the covers.

The younger nurse, wearing scrubs with pink frogs all over them, pursed her lips in determination. “Mr. Gibson, you know we need to take your blood.” she began, sounding as though she were speaking to a toddler. “The doctor needs to check your levels.”

He picked up on her condescending tone immediately and gave her a black look that should have killed. Arielle grimaced, remembering that same look he had often given to promoters, bar owners, other bands-anyone who was trying to give him shit. Oh boy, they don’t know they picked the wong guy! she thought, settling down in a nearby chair to observe this scene with raised eyebrows.

The two nurses, working in a team, moved closer to the bed, Russ staring at them as if gunslingers facing off. Then they moved over him, fussing with one arm, then another, trying to find a good vein. Neither could, after multiple tries. They looked like two birds fighting over a piece of bread. The older one attempted to smooth things over. “Now, Mr. Gibson, I know this is a bother, but please, try to be patient. It’s Amber’s first time drawing blood…”

What?! Arielle snapped to attention. All those needle pricks…the bruising…and they have a newbie taking his blood a thousand times? Her mind was jolted by a flashback of her dad going through the same thing once. Ah hell no was right! She looked at Russ; by this time, he had given up, staring at the ceiling in surrender. “Enough!” she announced, standing up from the chair. They looked at her in surprise. “Can’t you see what you’re doing to his arms? You don’t keep sticking him over & over!” Ari shook her head in disgust. “Where is his doctor? You need to get someone else-someone who knows what they’re doing-to take care of this!” she commanded. By this time, Russ was staring at her too, his mouth hanging open.

The nurses attempted a reply but Ari cut them off with a curt. “Now.” They both darted out the door.

The room was completely silent, Russ still staring at her.  Then a female doctor strode into the room along with the older nurse. Long dark hair, with a slight build, she nevertheless carried herself with authority. Surveying the scene, she demanded, “What is going on with this patient?” Her in-charge tone shut even Russ, who was about to go off on them again, up. Then she moved over to him. “Mr. Gibson, what can I do for you?” Arielle noticed that Russ recognized the doctor and immediately relaxed, an expression of trust on his face.

The nurses spoke up. “We were trying to take his blood but he’s not being cooperative.”

The doctor gave them a quick look. “I was talking to Mr. Gibson.” she corrected, turning her attention to him again.

Whoa! Score one for you! Arielle thought. She liked this doctor already.

In response, Russ just held up both badgered arms. “This  is what they’ve been doing. All damn day!” he added.

“They can’t find a good vein and he’s having trouble standing up, had a dizzy spell, and can’t go to the bathroom.” Arielle chimed in, ignoring Russ’s glare. “Could he be dehydrated? Even on an IV?”

The doctor was shocked. “Samantha-“ she barked to the older nurse. “Get an IV team in here-stat.” Wordlessly, both nurses disappeared. The doctor followed them with her gaze, then turned again to Russ. “Mr. Gibson, I’m sorry you had to go through that. They should have stopped when they realized it wasn’t working. I apologize. We’ll get a team of experts in here now to make it better.” She stood up, examining the bag of fluid on his IV pole. “It’s rare, but you can still be dehydrated even on an IV.” she commented. “We’ll adjust the flow and that should help.” “And you’re right,” she nodded towards Arielle, “When you’re dehydrated, the veins shrink, they’re harder to find. But there are ways around that, don’t worry. The dizziness could also be from low blood pressure. I’ll have that checked for you again.”

She glanced over towards the door, seconds before the IV team came in. After giving a few instructions, the doctor turned to Arielle, offering her hand. “Hi, I’m Dr. Hainley, Russ’s oncologist. You must be Angel!”

There it was again! Angel?  Arielle frowned in confusion. “Uh-no-my name’s Arielle…?

“You were here earlier too, right? You’re the first visitor for him I’ve seen, and I think he needs that.” She lowered her voice a little. “I’ve been treating him since the beginning. And he’s having a rough time of it. It’s nice for him to have his girlfriend for support.”

“Umm…I’m not his girlfriend…” Arielle corrected. “I mean, I used to be, but…that was a long time ago, and…” she stopped, seeing Dr. Hainley’s vacant look and knowing she sounded like an idiot. “I’m not his girlfriend. Just a friend.” she finished.

The doctor nodded. “Well, ok. Friend is good too. Russ is one of my…” she smiled, “model patients. He has quite the rep here!” They both looked over at Russ, who was now being attended to satisfactorily, one of the IV techs having wrapped his arm in a warm towel to open up the veins. Then they laughed, instantly on the same wavelength.

Arielle could see why that look of trust had come over his face as soon as Dr. Hainley walked in the room; she liked her immediately too. “I’m sorry,” Ari mumbled an apology, “I didn’t mean to tell you your job. I just…well, I’ve been in this situation before, and…”

But Dr. Hainley waved that away. “No worries. We are a big hospital, and do have some of the best care in the country. But unfortunately sometimes things still happen. It’s good to have patients and their…friends…involved in their care.” There was no typical doctor ego tone in her voice. “I’m glad you made me aware of it.”

Ari smiled slightly in relief. “And..what is this…Angel stuff?” she asked in a low voice, so Russ couldn’t overhear. “Those other nurses…they both said that to me too? I wasn’t sure if they were being sarcastic or what?”

“Ohhhh…” the doctor laughed. “That was from yesterday. He had some…discomfort..” she explained, “and the medication made him…a little happy.” “And he kept talking to everyone about how Angel, or an angel had come to visit him Monday. Kept asking where the angel was, when was she coming back?” She smiled. “Some of the meds do that sometimes. But he was fine. We finally put two & two together when we realized he had actually had a visitor, he wasn’t just hallucinating.”

Arielle was stunned. Angel? He thought of her as angel?  She stole a quick glimpse over at Russ to make sure he hadn’t heard their conversation, not wanting to embarrass him. Now she felt even more guilty for not coming back the very next day. She shook her head in disbelief as Dr. Hainley excused herself, moving over to Russ’s bedside again to check on him.

Two other nurses came in-not the Dumb & Dumber team, Ari noted with satisfaction-one checked his blood pressure while the other adjusted his IV. In less than 10 minutes an issue that had taken all day to develop was resolved. Just on one doctor’s word. Amazing! she thought. As all the nurses left the room, it was quiet. Only Dr. Hainley remained.

“So, Russ…” she began. “How are you doing otherwise? What’s on your mind?” Ari was surprised to see that she grabbed a chair and sat down next to him, waiting expectantly when at first he said nothing. “Come on, I know there must be something.” she prompted, the hint of a wink in her eye.

Russ gave her a look as if to say “Are you serious?”, opened his mouth, shut it, thought for a moment, and then replied, “Since you ask…”

“Go on.” Dr. Hainley nodded, waiting. Arielle’s eyes darted between the two of them, waiting for the barrage she had experienced from him earlier.

He propped himself up on his elbows, gestured with his chin towards his arms, then looked back at the doctor. “Thank you.”

She nodded again. Understood.

Russ then cleared his throat. “This bullshit of being woken up every hour on the hour. I’m trying to sleep, I can’t freakin’ sleep, just as I think, ‘ah hell yeah!’, they barge in again, sticking me with something, adjusting something, dammit! I told them to knock that shit off but they said ‘Mr. Gibson, we are under orders, there are tests we have to do and this is part of the procedure’…” his voice had become high pitched, mimicking a female. “I get that. I realize I’m not at the Hilton. But…” His eyes blazed again and he left the sentence dangling. “Whatever food they bring me…” he glanced at the tray table nearby. “I can’t eat it. It tastes like crap. Like…metal or something…” he let his voice go softer, reluctant to admit it, and added, “I can’t swallow much.”

Dr. Hainley was nodding, taking notes on a clipboard, as Russ continued, emboldened by her willingness to let him get up on his soap box.

“I have a dozen different people coming in, telling me all this different shit…” He sighed. “Look, I’m a musician, not a medical expert. I can’t understand what they’re talking about! Speak English, you know?! Can’t get a straight answer out of anyone. All I know is I’m not getting one of those fucking robot voices! You can just kill me now if that’s the plan.” “And,” he gestured under the bed sheets. “You gotta do something about these gowns. I’m tired of my ass sticking out.”

Arielle covered her mouth with her fist, her eyes wide. This was vintage Russ Gibson! She then looked over at the doctor out of the corner of her eye, curious to see her reaction.

But Dr. Hainley had been unfazed by his rant and continued to listen without interruption. She waited politely for a few beats to make sure he was finished, then asked, without a trace of irony, “Is that all?”

He gave a terse nod. “For now.”

She looked down at her clipboard for reference and then responded. “I get you on the interruptions. They are annoying. And yes, we do have to do tests. Some are unavoidable. But I will check with the nurses to see what can wait until you’re awake. And if you’re having trouble sleeping, there are medications we can give you. Just let me know.” “The food.” Dr. Hainley continued. “We can have a dietician come up to speak to you about more…appealing alternatives. But if you continue to have issues swallowing,” she looked him in the eye, “We may have to use a gastro tube.”

Russ looked at her as though she had just mentioned using a medieval torture instrument, opened his mouth to protest, but the doctor cut him off firmly. “I remember we talked about this before. If you don’t-or can’t-eat properly, it affects your treatment and recovery. I see here where at first they gave you…” she consulted the clipboard, “Ensure. And you didn’t care for those.”

“They tasted like paint! No one should drink those.” He grimaced.

The doctor nodded. “I know they’re not exactly a shamrock shake,” she agreed, getting a smile out of Arielle. “But they’re full of nutrition and calories, and right now-“ she eyed his gaunt frame, “That is priority #1 for you.”

He frowned like a petulant child, but kept his mouth shut.

“As far as the gowns…” Dr. Hainley went on, “Say no more. We can get you some scrub pants that are more…fashionable.” She smiled. “Less revealing, for sure.” Then she paused. Out of all of that, Russ seemed most pleased about the pants. “But…on ‘thefuckingrobotvoice’-“ she ran it all together just like he had-“I have no clue what that’s about?” She cocked her head to the side, the only thing that had stumped her. She looked questioningly at him.

Arielle struggled not to laugh, wondering again if it was appropriate to do so, as Russ, looking uncomfortable at first, said nothing. Then he burst out, “You know what I mean-those…those damn things they put in to talk”-he grabbed at his throat. “They sound like  robots! ” He did his best rendition of one: “They-are-really-creepy-ass.”

This time Ari couldn’t help herself and finally did laugh out loud. Dr. Hainley just stared at him for a moment. Then she said, slowly, “You’re referring to an electro larynx.”

Russ shrugged. “Whatever. Weird sounding things. I don’t want to scare little kids away from me. And I can’t sing like that.” His expression showed quite clearly that he expected to sing again. Not to be able to do so was not even an option.

“Russ…” the doctor began slowly. “How much do you know about your diagnosis? Those are for laryngeal cancer. The voice box. You have what’s called oropharyngeal cancer. Different area of the throat.”

He looked both embarrassed and defensive at the same time. “See what I mean?” he waved a hand in the air. “All this terminology! I’m not dumb, but…there are dozens of you different medical people telling me things, and it’s all been thrown at me at once.” He looked down at his lap, picking at the blanket which covered him. “It’s not like I was ready for this, you know! It’s overwhelming.”

Dr. Hainley nodded quickly. “Sure it is! It’s a lot to absorb. That’s understandable.” She gave him a look. “And I know you’re not dumb.”

He bit his lip, nodding back. With that gesture, he looked both proud and vulnerable at the same time, and Arielle fought the urge to go over and hug him.

“It is confusing, for sure. And with the stress of a bad diagnosis, you’re not in the right frame of mind to process much at all, let alone the complexity of something like cancer. And it’s harder when you’re doing it alone.” The doctor added. “But”-she said sternly. “That was by choice. Your choice.”

Russ looked up sharply and Ari was even surprised by her sudden change in tone.

“I’ve been seeing you as a patient over these past several months”, Dr. Hainley went on. “You came to your treatments alone, never once did you have someone with you during an appointment.” She glanced over slightly at Arielle and continued, “And even now, you’ve been hospitalized all week, and you’ve had no visitors until now. You specified it that way.” Russ was just staring at her, silent.  The doctor nodded, to herself,  continuing, “I know your profession. I can understand wanting to keep things private. I have many patients in similar circumstances. I get that.” “And…I know it’s a lot at once. Hard to decide what to do. You’re…” she searched for applicable emotions-“confused, overwhelmed, afraid, and, quite frankly, pissed off!” He nodded at all of those. “It’s hard to accept. And even harder to tell your loved ones.” Dr. Hainley acknowledged. “But you aren’t doing yourself any favors by going it alone. It’s too much for one person to carry.” she finished.

Russ was completely silent. Arielle gazed at the doctor in amazement. Wow. She just said it all! I know she’s an oncologist, she’s used to dealing with this, but…

“So I was glad to see that you really had a visitor the other day.” Ari was relieved to see that the doctor didn’t bring up the “angel” episode; she didn’t want to embarrass him any more when he was starting to open up about it. all. “That’s why I first didn’t believe it and neither did anyone else.” she explained. “It seems to have made a difference.” Russ looked out of the corner of his eye at Arielle as the doctor went on. “But I saw your face when she told me about your dizzy spell, trouble urinating… We have signs all around here”-she pointed towards one near the door-“telling patient friends and family to alert us immediately of any changes or concerns in your behavior or symptoms. It’s important they do this, because we’re a big facility and things can fall through the cracks if no one tells us. We have many patients, the families just have one-you. They are the ones who know you best and can see these things first.” She took a breath, then shook an accusing finger at Russ in a gesture that reminded Ari of Nikki. “She was trying to help you. And I suggest you take that help.”

Whoa. Arielle turned her head slowly to stare at the doctor in admiration. She had never seen someone put someone else in their place as well as Dr. Hainley had just done. And without raising her voice.

Slowly, grudgingly, Russ nodded.

The doctor shook off her lecture tone. “Ok, I’m done being a mother. Let me switch back to doctor mode.” she laughed. “Now, I have some time here. I’d be glad to explain your diagnosis and treatment options for you. You’re a fighter. I can tell.” She smiled. “And you can fight better when you know what you’re fighting. Agreed?” Again, Russ nodded. “But I can’t discuss a patient’s personal information with someone else without your permission.” Dr. Hainley explained. “That is totally your choice.”

He turned his gaze to Arielle, still sitting in the chair. For a long moment they just looked at each other, then he whispered, “I don’t have a problem with that.” Ari gave him an encouraging smile in appreciation, knowing he was taking a big step. Instinctively, she got out her phone and started typing in notes.

“Ok then.” Dr. Hainley began. “And I’ll explain this in non-technical, confusing terms. The throat is divided into different areas. What you have is oropharyngeal That’s in the back of the tongue, the soft palate, the tonsils.” she explained, making a quick drawing on a spare piece of paper to show him. “Nothing to do with the voice box. She moved closer to him and handed him the paper, pointing to each area. “Remember your first symptoms?” she queried, “The sore throat? The trouble swallowing? Well, that is because it started here…” the doctor made a circle at the base of the tongue, then looked up at him to make sure Russ understood. He was nodding.

“Cancer is divided into stages. We figure that out by doing tests-biopsies, scans…” she continued.

“Those damn needles.” Russ grunted, remembering the biopsy.

“Yes.” Dr. Hainley agreed. “They take samples of the tissue to see if the tumor is benign or not. Unfortunately yours was malignant. Then we did the other tests to see how large it was, how far it had advanced, if at all, did it go into the lymph nodes or other organs…”

Russ’s mouth was set in a line, concentrating. Arielle could tell it was all starting to gel for him. Whether that was enlightening, or even more scary, she wasn’t sure.

“So after all of that, we were able to determine it’s Stage III. Which means it’s spread into the lymph nodes. Which can be treated.” The doctor advised. “And I’ll be honest with you. Stages can change, it can spread. Every patient is different and all have choices. It can be treated by chemo, radiation, or a combination of both, like you’ve had…or…surgery…”

At the mention of that word, Russ snapped to attention. “No way. Not doing that. No one’s messing with my throat.”

“And that’s fine.” Dr. Hainley replied. “It’s your body, your choice. All of the treatments remain your choice. No one can force you to do anything. Depending on the patient and the diagnosis, chemo and/or radiation are used first sometimes to shrink the cancer. Then we keep doing scans to see how much, or if, it has. If not, we can do surgery-laser now-to remove as much or all of the tumor that we can. Then,” she finished, “if it’s gone, we monitor. If not, we use chemo or radiation again to follow up.”

No one said anything for a while, digesting all of that knowledge. “Stage III orolaryngeal cancer can be treated. All stages can be treated. Not always cured, but treated.” The doctor informed them. “There is always hope.”

Russ sat up straighter in the bed, considering. Then, “Yeah. That’s another thing…all I wanted to know at first was, ‘Am I gonna die? How long do I have?’” he admitted in a low voice. “But all these doctors could say to me was shit like ‘Oh, Mr. Gibson, we don’t like to get into that…each patient is different. I could go out after I’m talking to you and get hit and killed by a bus!’” He demonstrated yet another example of his vocal mimicry. “God, I hated that condescending bullshit tone!” Russ shook his head. “Comes down to it, they probably aren’t going to get hit by that bus. But I do have cancer. Which could kill me.”

Dr. Hainley was nodding in sympathy. “I know how you mean. I hate to hear them say those kinds of things too. Such a glib answer to someone who needs the truth. I’m sorry not all doctors are straight up with you.”

Russ looked up at her with childlike honesty. “I’m sorry not all doctors are like you.”

The doctor smiled. “Thank you. I appreciate that.” She came over and patted his hand. “But doctors are human too. It’s uncomfortable for them to give time frames. They don’t want to be proven wrong. Or to give false hope. But I’d rather be as honest as I can so that my patients can live their lives the way they choose. It’s true every case is different. But from what I see, I think you have a good shot at beating this.” she informed him. “But a lot of that is up to you.” She raised an eyebrow, then looked down at her watch. “I’m sorry, but I have to get going. I hope I’ve been able to answer at least some of your questions.”

“You’ve answered more than anyone has since the beginning.” Russ replied. “And I thank you for that.”

“You’re welcome, Russ.” Dr. Hainley stood up from the chair. She gazed down on him for a long moment and then said, “I may not always have good news for you. But I promise I will never bullshit you.” Then she turned to Arielle, noticing that she had been taking notes the whole time, “And just to let you know, there is a patient library down the hall. You can get more information or use the internet to check into any other questions you have. Or let me know. I’ll get to you as soon as I can if you need anything.”

He nodded. “I will. Thanks again.” he rasped, then grabbed his water bottle.

The doctor noted this. “Are you in any pain?” she asked quietly.

Russ stopped mid sip. Then nodded, not wanting to admit it.

She patted his arm. “I’ll get something for you stat. Take care, and let me know if you need anything.”

She began to walk away, and Arielle followed her to the door. “Dr. Hainley?” she began quietly, so Russ couldn’t overhear.

The doctor turned around.

“I just wanted to thank you again, for being so…having such a good bedside manner. I could see that took a huge weight off of him. I know doctors are busy and it’s nice you took the time out with him.”

The doctor smiled. “No problem. I like Russ. He’s a character!”

Ari wanted to respond, “You ain’t said shit!” as her father would have said, but instead she laughed along with the doctor.

“He’s a straight shooter.” Dr. Hainley went on. “I like that. He reminds me a lot of my husband Mike. Neither of them give, or take, any crap.”

Arielle nodded in agreement. “Oh noooo, not Russ!” Then she added, “And it’s easy to see you don’t either. Sorry if I’m being personal, but you seem to speak from experience?”

It was a moment before the doctor responded, a far away look in her eye. “You’re right. I’ve been there too, unfortunately. Mike had lung cancer-Stage IV. Went through living hell. But survived. So that’s why I told Russ there is always hope. You never know.” Then she gave Arielle a questioning glance. “But you said you’ve been in this situation before? Are you a cancer survivor?”

At this, Ari looked down at the floor, her throat suddenly tight. “No,” she finally choked out, “It was my dad…Stage IV lung cancer too. Only, he didn’t survive.”

In Dr. Hainley’s eyes, Arielle saw concern.  But she didn’t immediately start in with any of that empty stuff Ari had heard from people when they found out her dad died; “I’m sorry for your loss”, “I’m so sorry”- meaningless things people said when they didn’t know what to say. No-she’d been there too. With that sad similarity, they didn’t need to say anything else. Instead, the doctor nodded, tacit understanding.

Then she  continued,”I’d like him to meet Mike someday. When the time is right. He’s a certified counselor.” She added in explanation.

Arielle raised her eyebrows, imagining Russ’s reaction at the recommendation of a counselor. But knowing it was probably necessary.

“Of course I respect the patient-doctor confidentiality, but if there is a special case I think he might help with… I make sure to ask my patients first if it’s ok. Though…I don’t want to push it with Russ… I’m not sure he’s ready for more visitors yet, at least, not strangers…but maybe this will get him thinking, open him up more?”

“I hope so.” Arielle whispered.

“Well, nice meeting you.” the doctor said in polite dismissal. “I have a feeling I will see you again sometime .” She smiled, then reached out, shook Ari’s  hand warmly before heading down the hallway.

Ari started back towards Russ’s room, then stopped short. a sudden heaviness in her chest. The polished gleaming hospital floor, the nurses walking past, the smell of hospital food mixed with disinfectant… the constant beeping of machines from throughout the hallway…. it was too much. Instead of walking back in the door, she leaned against the wall, then bent forward, the blood rushing to her head. Breathe. Breathe. Get your head straight.

Looking up again, though, every patient going past in a wheelchair was her dad. She averted her eyes, looking across the hall to the patient laying in his bed, but instead saw her dad’s face. Taking deep breaths, Ari closed her eyes, trying to block it all out. Come on, come on…she told herself…quit being dramatic! You are not having another emotional outburst like the other day!  If her dad were really here, he’d be shaking his head wondering what the hell her problem was. She could see in her mind’s eye that silent stare he used to give her when she was doing something ridiculous. Never had to say a word-the stare always did it.

Frowning, Arielle shook it off and turned towards Russ’s door with determination. As she walked in, a nurse was just finishing hooking up an IV of the pain meds Dr. Hainley had ordered. Russ’s eyes were shut, but when he heard her, they flickered open, settling on her.

Ari sat down again and for a while they were silent, just staring at one another. She fidgeted with her shirt sleeve, picking off imaginary lint. “Dr. Hainley seems really nice.” she observed.

Russ grunted. “Yeah.”

“And that’s a big thing, having a doctor you can trust.” Arielle added.

The singer only gave a jerk of his head as a nod. It was so quiet that Ari could hear the hands of the clock moving. She looked out the window for a while, vaguely watching the clouds drift past. Tick tick tick

Finally Arielle couldn’t stand it anymore. “So, good news about the fucking robot voice, huh?” she burst out.

Russ’s nearly got whiplash from swiveling his head to face her. He stared at her, unblinking, then burst out laughing. Soon, she couldn’t help it and joined in too. They gave each other incredulous looks-should we be laughing about this?-but kept laughing, wiping tears out of their eyes.

Finally forcing himself to stop, the singer gave Arielle a long look. “Thank you.” he said simply. “It’s been a while.”

Ari gave him a little smile in return, nodding.

Then he leaned back onto his pillow, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. “Ahh shit…” he let out. He lay there for a while, not saying anything, tapping his fingers distractedly on the bed rail. Then he lifted up the water bottle, took a sip, started to put it back, hesitated, then took another sip. Back to the finger tapping again. Then, “So you think I should tell everyone?” His tone was half defensive, half uncertain.

Finally, after an hour, we get to the real point of my being here! Arielle opened her mouth, shut it, then looked at Russ out of the corner of her eye. He was watching her carefully. He’s testing me! she thought.  She opened her mouth again. “No, not everyone.” she began carefully. “Believe me when I say I understand where you’re coming from.”

Russ raised his eyebrows, waiting for her to go on.

“But I do think you should tell a few select people in your circle. Only ones that you can trust absolutely. Until you know more of what’s…” she started to say, but Russ cut her off with a nod.

“And that way it’s up to you…to reveal how much, and when, to everyone else. When you feel you’ve got a plan. Then you have the power.”

The singer kept his gaze on her. “The power, huh?” a mix of sarcasm/bitterness in his tone.

Ari shrugged. “That’s just my opinion. You asked.”

He was clenching his jaw now, staring at the ceiling.

Boldly, she went on. “At least tell your family for God’s sake! Do you know what you’re putting them through, not knowing anything, not hearing from you in…in…a long time? I mean poor Mick has had to run interference for you, getting all the calls, putting people off, making up excuses…he’s wrecked, Russ! Nobody but him knows what’s really going on. They think…they think…” Ari finally ran out of steam, too emotional to go on.

Russ turned his stone cold stare back to her. “They think what?” he bit off each word.

Arielle lifted her face from her hands to look back at him. “They think you’re in rehab!” she blurted.

The singer’s eyes grew wide. A long pause and then they both started laughing again.

“ME?” he was incredulous. “If anyone, it should be-”

“Nikki & I both said if anyone, it should be Darin!” Ari said simultaneously and they both laughed again. In the back of her mind, she wondered again, should I be finding humor in this? After what Steve was going through? But then again, she had a feeling that he’d be joining in, sharing their gallows humor.

“Jesus!” Russ exclaimed. His tears from laughter had started to turn into real sobs. Arielle stopped laughing, studying him carefully as he tried to compose himself. “What the fuck is my problem?” he wondered aloud, echoing the same thoughts Ari had just had out in the hallway about herself. He rubbed his eyes forcefully, then sighed. “You don’t get it. I can’t tell my family. It would kill them. My mom….” he looked up at the ceiling and shook his head. “You remember her being sick off & on…well now the diabetes has gotten worse. Lots of complications. She can’t handle my health issues on top of her own!”

“And my dad-” he let out a derisive bark of a laugh. Arielle just nodded, pursing her lips. “My brothers & sisters?” he left that one dangling, uncertain. Still, she said nothing. “My kids?” he choked out. His gaze was on the ceiling again, as if looking to it for answers. He said nothing for a long time, just shaking his head, then, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it”, his eyes glistening.

Ari reached out for his hand. “Yes you can” she responded softly. “Russ, the doctor was right…now, of all times, you need backup. A support group you can trust.”

A long pause and then, sotto voice, “Well maybe Jimmy… I can call him…he’s close by…yeah…get him to call the kids…”

This time Arielle shook her head. “No, Russ” she interrupted. “You can’t ask your brother to do that.”

The singer blinked in shock at her calm, but insistent tone.

“Russ,” Ari cleared her throat. “People have already covered for you long enough. Mick is at his breaking point.” She knew he was desperate, and she was going to have to rain on his parade, but… “This is your responsibility.” He listened as she went on. “I know it’s hard, I’m sure it’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever do,…” She struggled for words, trying to think how Nikki would put it. Her life coach way of speaking. “You have to find a way to start dealing with this. Your kids deserve to hear it straight from you-no one else.” When he said nothing in response, she ended with, “You were always the tough guy, so now’s the time, you’re really going to have to be.”

He looked at her long and hard. “You give me too much credit.”

She shook her head. “No,I don’t think I do.”  Shifting in her chair, she continued, leaning forward to look him in the eye, “Look, I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. Be warned…you’re going to get a lot of different reactions…”

She tilted her head to the side, remembering. “People who you thought were your best friends…your family…avoiding you, not knowing what to say. Or blaming you, somehow, for causing it to happen…”

Russ was nodding as she explained. He knew exactly how she meant because he’d been blaming himself ever since his diagnosis.

“I’ll be honest with you…the first thing they will say-maybe not to you, but to others, is, ‘Oh, he smoked, so what does he expect?'” Ari mimicked. “You’ll get the emotional ones who say they want to help, what can they do for you?” She looked down at her lap. “But then they fall apart the first time they see a bed pan or hear you throwing up.”

“But then…” she recalled, “you’ll also get the ones who stand by you no matter what. They’re there to drive you to treatments, run out to do your errands, come over and mow your yard…” She ran a hand tiredly through her hair, pushing it back. “One thing throughout this-you will find out who your real friends are. You’ll be surprised.” Arielle finished, bringing herself back into the present.

The singer considered all of that. “But how…so…how did your dad tell you?” It came out in a near whisper.

That stopped her short. “He didn’t” she replied bluntly. “I found out. By overhearing him talking to Carrie’s dad. Actually-” she corrected herself bitterly-“It was more like arguing. Roger was lecturing him that he needed to be honest with me. Sit down and talk about it.” Ari pictured the scene, walking into the house, seeing the looks on their faces, surprised she was home so soon, wondering how much she had heard. She’d heard all of it.  “He knew for a long time and never told me. Thought he was sucking it up or protecting me, I never figured out…” Ari mused, then looked up at the bed to see Russ’s eyes fluttering closed, then opening. He didn’t hear a word I said…she thought ruefully. Oh well.

She watched as his eyes continued to open and shut, he was drifting off somewhere into his med-induced la la land. Good, he probably needed that. She wondered how long to stay, was she tiring him out? Had he had enough? when suddenly his eyes opened wide and he announced, “I’m hungry!” He said it with surprise though.

Arielle looked around her for the tray table, but it was empty. Then she looked towards the phone. “Oh- good! Do you…want me to call & have them bring you something?”

“For Oreos!” he continued, as if he hadn’t even heard her. He had a dreamy smile on his face. “But only the white part.” he clarified, as if giving an order. Then he let out a guilty giggle.

Ari gave him a strange look. The drugs have officially kicked in she thought, then laughed a little too. She couldn’t help it.

She looked again at the phone. I really should call the cafeteria… “But Dr. Hainley said…you’re supposed to be eating…nutritious things?”  Ari finished hesitatingly. The threat of the stomach tube still lingered in the air.

Shhh!” Russ was holding several fingers over his lips, the sound buzzing through them. “Dr. Hainley doesn’t have to know.” Then he laughed again.

Oh boy

The expression on his face brought back memories: that “Don’t worry about it, everything will be OK” grin. It had always been infectious. Ari started to get out of her chair, paused mid motion, then thought, Oh hell, at least he’s eating SOMETHING.. and grabbed her purse.

When he saw that she was really going to do it, Russ looked at her, raising his eyebrows. Questioning.

“Ok.” Ari whispered, nodding.

“Yay!” he shouted.

She turned around, halfway at the door, finger on her lips. “Russell James!”

He gave her a guilty smile and then closed his eyes again, drifting off.

As she headed down the silent hallway, Ari thought, what am I doing? Like I’m on a clandestine mission, helping a little kid get away with something? Then she remembered her dad, and his odd cravings for things like powdered sugar donuts-or Slim Jims-and his favorite, cherry sherbet-at any hour of the day, and she kept going, down the hall to the elevator, figuring the cafeteria was probably on the first floor. There had to be vending machines around there.

Once down there, she followed signs, and then the smells, of food. Sure enough, several vending machines arranged like sentinels across the one wall. She scanned them critically: you have to have Oreos! Yeah, this was a hospital, and it was southern California, but…

“Yes!” she shouted, her hand shooting out at the same time that she finally spied them. Double Stuff even! A stranger studying them next to her jumped in alarm. “Sorry” she apologized, fishing in her wallet for change. Change? These things were $2 a piece! Are you kidding me? “Ridiculous!” she mumbled, then shrugging, stuck in a $10 bill. It’s been so long since I had Double Stuff…yummm…

Arielle grabbed the handful that fell out, while the guy next to her gave her an odd look. She smiled back and headed to the elevator again. Halfway out the door, she noticed a refrigerated machine full of Ensure. Guilty, she stopped. She wasn’t exactly helping him to have the right kind of eating habits he needed for this. And he wasn’t like her dad, he didn’t “belong” to her. She didn’t want to be responsible for encouraging him in a negative way…

Impulsively she paid the cashier for a bottle of chocolate Ensure too, reassuring herself on the way out. She was KINDA helping him…right?

As she got back to the singer’s room, she peeked in cautiously, not knowing what to expect. He’d been from one emotional swing to the other since she’d been here-angry, afraid, crying, laughing… Bi polar. No, tri polar, if there was such a thing.

But this time, he was motionless, his eyes shut. Oh great, he fell asleep after I went to get this junk! She was just thinking of leaving him alone, cutting the visit short, letting him get his rest, when his eyes flew open. He spied the cookies clutched in one hand and clapped. Then he saw the other hand and frowned.

Before he could protest, Arielle gave him a look that she hoped was as stern, but concerned, as Dr. Hainley’s had been. She held up the Oreos. “You can have one of these—” she informed him. “When you drink some of this.”

Russ stared at her. “You’re evil” he accused her.

Ari raised her eyebrows, holding up both items. “Double Stuff!” she taunted. Then, “Deal?”

He scowled. Mumbled something. Then nodded reluctantly.

She unscrewed the lid of the Ensure and handed it to him. He looked at it as if it were poison.

“Come on, it’s chocolate…” she encouraged him. “How bad can it be?”

Russ gave her one of his infamous looks. “Have you ever tasted this nasty shit?”

“Actually, yes I have.” Ari responded, thinking, but not telling him, and you’re right, it IS nasty shit! She waited, watching as he slowly put it to his lips. She dangled the Oreos enticingly.

He started to sip it, then stopped. “How much do I have to drink before I get a cookie?”

Oh, we are bargaining now? Arielle smiled. “One BIG sip, one swallow, one cookie.”

The singer sighed. Shuddered. Then took a big gulp.

Ari handed him a cookie. “Here’s your chaser-quick!”

He snatched it and immediately twisted the chocolate part off. “Gotta get rid of the lid!” he announced, discarding it on the bed. Then he scraped his teeth across the white part, greedily. “Oh yeah, that’s what I’m talking about! Good stuff.”

Arielle watched in amusement. Russ noticed and gestured towards the remaining Oreos magnanimously.

She took one, imagining Nikki’s disdainful face, then shrugged, twisting the chocolate “lid” off and joyfully scraping the filling off with her teeth. It had always been her favorite way to eat them too.

They continued that way, the exchange of an Oreo for another sip of Ensure, until finally Russ shook the bottle triumphantly: empty!

Ari gave him a thumbs up, then handed the remaining package over to him as his reward. His eyes lit up for a second, then he closed them with a smile, ignoring the cookies.

Let him get some rest…she thought, and used that pause to go to the bathroom. While inside, she remembered him stumbling in earlier, telling her not to peek. She smiled. It was good to know despite all this, he still had some of his old self in there. He was going to need that part of his personality, she thought grimly. It was going to be a battle.

Arielle pulled out her phone from habit and saw several texts and voice mails had popped up. She had had it on DO NOT DISTURB since the night before. Scanning through to see who they were from, she was surprised to find out how little she cared. She thought of returning some of them, then had second thoughts. No, they could wait. She did tap out a quick response to Joe, though, who was checking in to see how things were going. Doing so made her “homesick”. She missed him…

Well, by tomorrow night…she thought, giving herself a quick glance in the mirror on the way out. Then she’d be back to her crazy life again.

As she re-entered the room, she heard Russ in a deep discussion. With himself. “I know you did.” He was saying. “Everyone did. How could you not?”

Ari approached him slowly, frowning. “Russ? Are you OK?” she queried.

He ignored her, his face growing more animated. “Well, you can’t always get everything you want! I know you’re used to that. You’re ‘the hottie’, I’m just the skinny piece of shit!” He paused, as if hearing a response.

Arielle kept staring. He really thought he was talking to someone else.

Then his smirk faded. His voice got quieter. “I know…I know.” he was agreeing. “I should’ve. But then…I couldn’t. It would’ve been better. I should’ve, but I couldn’t.” He kept repeating that phrase,  “I should’ve, but I couldn’t, I should’ve, but I couldn’t”, his voice drifting off. Then he growled, “Dammit, I missed the boat!”

At the sound of his rage, Ari went over to his side. “Russ? Russ!” she interrupted him, smoothing his arm. “Who are you talking to?”

“Rob.” the singer replied with an exasperated sigh.

Even though she knew it was pointless, Arielle turned around, scanning the room. His gaze was on the chair she had just left. “Rob…Richardson?” she verified.

He gave her a stupid look. As if it wasn’t totally obvious.

Ari shook her head a little. “Uh..Russ..” How do I say this to him? “Russ, umm..Rob’s not here.” She said quickly.

The singer stared right at her. “So what’s your point?”

Ooookay… Arielle nodded, biting her lip. So..wonder if I can sit back down or if I would be disturbing “Rob”? But Russ had already moved on, conversation done, his eyes shut. She gingerly approached the chair, half expecting to see a ghost, and sat.

Whoa. He’d been through a whirlwind of emotions today. It was exhausting for her, she couldn’t imagine how it must be for him. What was going on inside that head? She sat in silence, just watching him. Hoping the pain meds were doing their job. His conversation with imaginary Rob hadn’t sounded too positive. Whatever it was they were discussing. She hoped he was in wherever his happy place was now.

Then she decided it was time to leave. She started to get up, but somehow he sensed it and woke back up again. “Don’t go yet” he whispered, and reached for her hand. Did he even know who she was? Was he imagining someone else there?

“Okay…” she whispered back, sitting back down yet again. “Ok, I’ll stay for a little while longer.” She stroked his arm distractedly. She’d always been one of those “touchy feely” types, she couldn’t help it. Half the time she didn’t even know she was doing it.

“I missed the boat…” he repeated sleepily.

“What boat?” Ari asked, going along with it.

He didn’t answer her directly, just shook his head. “It was my fault. All of it. Rob is right.”

Not knowing where he was going with this, Arielle just said soothingly, “There are other boats. Don’t worry.”

“I ruined it.  I’m sorry…” he kept mumbling.

She shushed him. Whatever it was he was worried about, whatever imaginary world he was remembering, there was nothing he could do about it now. “It’s ok, it’s ok …” she told him.

Then it was back to the present. “How am I going to tell my kids?” he protested again, tossing his head side to side in agony.

“You will find a way. You will.” Arielle assured him softly. “Let people help you, Russ. They’ll want to. Accept it.” Was any of this getting through to him?

A long moment of peaceful silence. Then his lips started moving. It sounded like he was… singing? Ari bent closer.

Angel…angel eyes…angel eyes…” he was repeating.

Oh. A shock went through her and suddenly it all made sense. “Angel Eyes”…her old nickname.  Oh my God. That’s what he’d meant! Oh no… She was surprised to find tears gathering now, but they were happy ones. Yeah, it hadn’t ended well, but…those were some fun times while they lasted. And I was going to hate him forever... she reminded herself. What was the point? She leaned down and said with a smile, “I’m not an angel, Rusty.”

Then she brushed all the cookie lids into her hands and into the trash can. Getting rid of the evidence. She stuck the one remaining half finished pack into his tray table drawer.  “For later.” she advised, though not certain he was even listening.

He said nothing. Eyes shut, relaxed by the combo of the meds and her hand on his arm. They sat in silence. Memories were flooding back to her, only they didn’t upset her anymore. More like she was warmed by them instead.People made mistakes. Life happened. No sense dwelling on it forever. Ahh, that was an innocent time and so much had happened since. Now that she’d gotten that sudden burst of forgiveness-what a relief it was. She hadn’t even realized she was carrying that weight around with her all these years.

She was brought back to the present by Russ. He was laughing again. Quietly.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

He started to whisper something, then coughed. She bent down towards him.

The singer laughed again. “You were a bitch to those nurses… I loved it!” he smiled sleepily, then drifted back off once more.

Arielle sat there, smiling, holding his hand. Then, finally, when she was satisfied that this time he really was asleep, and it was really time to go, she got up. “Bye Rusty” she whispered, then quietly left the room.

.

“The Houseguest” (17)

Russ made his way down the hall into the kitchen Saturday morning. Spacious, and with Nikki’s stylish touch, it was definitely the center of the household, the gathering place for all get togethers, and the meeting place first thing in the day for Nikki, Mick, and whomever their guests were at the time. For the moment it looked like it was going to be him, Russ thought ruefully. Ever since his first hospitalization, Nikki especially had been bugging him-ok, she was ‘concerned’ for him, he conceded-to come stay with them. Said she was worried he wasn’t taking care of himself-not eating right, not exercising, not taking meds or vitamins or whatever he should be doing. Probably a thousand things I shouldn’t be doing, he thought wryly. Hell, that’s what got me into this condition in the first place! A shitload of chemo, drugs, radiation, puking…oh yeah, but wait-there’s more!-don’t forget about hair loss! Diarrhea from one drug! Constipation from the next! Constant fatigue, dry mouth, mouth sores too. “The Big C”. He shuddered as he got down to the last few steps into the room. Who’d have thought? Hmmm…maybe somewhere along the line of drugs, drinking, smoking…he would have thought, maybe, just maybe…there would be consequences? No. Russ stopped that train of thought immediately before it could grow and roll around in his mind all day, tormenting him. He replaced it with the new mantra he’d been given: This is not the time for blaming yourself. Use your energy to get better.

Russ sighed as he got to the entrance of the kitchen. Get better. That’s what I’m going to do. Yeah, right. Well, maybe at least eating something would make him feel better. Maybe give him more energy. Although with all the treatments, what he ate either tasted weird/bad or he didn’t have an appetite at all, Dr. Hainley had told him he needed to force himself to eat, even small things, throughout the day. Make him fight this better. No way he was going back on the feeding tube! Fight. Yeah, that’s what it was-a continual battle. For many things. He pushed that out of his mind though, and walked in. Sunshine was streaming through the windows and skylights, sounds of birds outside, the smell of coffee…Mmmmm…for a moment Russ closed his eyes, basking in it. Life. It was still good, right?

“Morning, Russ!” Nikki called out cheerfully from the sink, her back to him. “I got your place all set.”

“Hey, thanks.” he mumbled, moving over to the huge center island to sit. A bowl of so-good-looking-they-almost-looked-fake fruit practically sparkled in the middle. Beautiful, probably hand made by Nikki, place mats and napkins adorned the table top. The scent of fresh flowers filled the air. He felt like he was living in the middle of a Martha Stewart dream. Ahh yeah, some bacon and eggs, maybe, a cup of coffee at least…

Instead, Nikki handed him a large glass of some mysterious greenish-gray liquid. “Here you go!” she announced with a smile. “And the rest is on your plate.” Dumbfounded, he looked from the liquid to his plate, seeing a grayish-green muffin. Huh?

“Spinach, broccoli, and beet juice!” she informed him. “And kale bran muffins.”

Russ could only continue to stare. He felt Mick’s gaze on him, and looked to see the drummer holding up a homemade granola bar, making exaggerated mouth smacking noises. “Delish!” he chuckled.

The singer looked from the plate, to Nikki, and back again. “Jesus, I don’t have to worry about the cancer. YOU are gonna kill me!”

Nikki spun around from the sink. “Russell James!” she exclaimed, as Mick laughed, spitting out the carrot/cucumber juice that he’d dutifully attempted to sip. “It’s full of nutrients.” she attempted to explain. “Spinach has lots of iron for the blood, bran for your heart,  broccoli is good for diseases like….” She stopped her listing for a moment.

“Like cancer, right?” Russ cut in. “Hmm, well a little too late for that!” he muttered sarcastically.

“Now, Russ!” Nikki sighed, a little embarrassed at her slip up. “It is made with pure love!” she insisted. As Russ stared at her dubiously, she continued, “The more you drink it, the more used to it you’ll get.” The singer glanced over to Mick, who started shaking his head in the negative until he caught Nikki looking at him. He quickly corrected himself: “Sure. Sure, babe. Absolutely.”

“You two!” Nik shook her head in mock disgust, turning back to the sink. As she did so, Mick felt he was safe again, and rolled his eyes at Russ. “I saw that!” she cried.

The singer gave Mick a triumphant look, raising his eyebrows as if to say “You’re busted too, bud!”  Then he held onto the glass and stared at it, the dread plain on his face.

His drummer, suitably chastened at first, laughed again when he saw Russ’s expression. “Just like Arielle!”

At the mention of her name, Russ turned his attention from the glass to Mick. “How do you mean?”

Still laughing,  Mick started to open his mouth to reply, looked over to see if Nikki was paying attention, then shrugged and continued anyway. “Oh yeah! She tried the same thing on her. Except I think it was spinach, broccoli, and brussel sprouts.”

“Brussel sprouts?? What the hell?” Russ shuddered. He shot a sharp look at Nik.

“Avocado and fennel.” Nikki corrected. “Good for stress.” she informed them. “And God knows, that girl needs something!” she tsk-tsked, always in concerned mother mode.

“Good to know.” Mick replied glibly, then continued to Russ’s questionning look. “She had the same face you did-‘what the hell?’. But, you know, they hadn’t seen each other in a while and I think Ari felt kinda…obliged?” the drummer guessed. “So…she takes a sip…and…” By this time Russ was starting to smile with him, just picturing it. “And I have to tell you…” Mick went on, “those years in California before she moved to New York she must’ve really learned some acting skills!”

As he was saying this, Nikki started turning around from the sink, her ears immediately perking up. Russ’s smile grew wider.

“And her face. When she saw Nik looking her way, though, her face went totally blank.   She takes the glass slowly, tilts it…” Both Nik and Russ were paying rapt attention now. “She takes a sip… ” Mick pantomined with his glass, “And…pauses for a minute. Then she says ‘Wow. Interesting.'” At that, Nik smiled. Russ frowned, thinking…You mean she LIKED it?

Mick was grinning though, he waved a hand in the air. “No-I’m not done yet. She takes this sip, says this, then as soon as Nikki turns away, she has that same expression that she started out with: what the HELL?! I swear it was like Linda Blair in the Exorcist! ”

The smile on Russ’s face was now stretched wide. “And then she whispers to me…’Mick-iHop!’ We snuck out later when Nikki was staring at her candles again.”

“I was meditating!” Nik protested, before saying, “You two did NOT!”

Russ burst into laughter; real, genuine, laughter. The first that Nikki and Mick had heard from him in a long time. For a few moments, they just listened, enjoying the rare moment of pleasure for him. Then they looked at each other and smiled.

The singer laughed a long time, then wiped the tears from his eyes. “Ahh, Arielle…” he reflected, a soft smile on his face. “That so sounds like her!” Then, “How is she doing lately?”

Nikki shook her head. “That girl! She’s all work. Never takes care of herself. Between the Michael Jackson gig and dealing with Steve’s issues…”

Mick frowned as Russ nodded. Kept quiet with the fans, it was well known in the rock & roll circles that Steve Clark, Def Leppard’s guitarist, was having alcohol issues. In and out of different rehabs, unable to play like he used to…

“And I don’t think Joe appreciates how she’s trying to help him!” Nik then announced sharply.  Russ looked up in interest as Mick shook his head. He had met Joe a few times now and liked the guy. Steve was a cool guy too. But he loved Arielle too and someone else’s issues were the last thing she needed.

Nikki stopped herself from going into it too much. Not her business. Ari was a big girl. “Well, it’s just a lot on her right now. Barely hear from her. I had her on Skype the other day and I asked her if she was taking care of herself, eating right, you know? And what does she do? She grabs a Twinkie, shoves it in her mouth, and says ‘See? I’m EATING!’ Then she blows me a kiss, shouts ‘I love you!’ and hangs up.”

This time, Mick and Russ were in hysterics. Typical Ari. Despite the years that had gone by, some things about her hadn’t changed.

Russ kept smiling, enjoying the sense of release that fit of laughter had given him. But then Nikki interrupted his happy place: “So. Though she DID go to iHop…” she rolled her eyes in disapproval, “She DID take a sip. And so, Russell…” she gave him a stern look.

The singer gulped, looking at the glass and then at Mick. Mick shrugged, as if to say, “Hey, dude, I can’t help you now”. Panicking, Russ said, “But…but…I don’t know, I have this restricted diet now. I probably should check with my doctor first. Maybe I’ll give her a call tomorrow!” he said brightly.

“Oh, I took care of that for you already.” Nik smiled sweetly. “I talked to Dr. Hainley and she said that would be a great idea. Lots of nutrients. And easy on the throat.”

The look on Russ’s face was priceless. He slumped on the stool, defeated. Dr. Hainley. Damn her! Then, hell, it was better than that damned Ensure they’d forced on him at first. Well, maybe. He shuddered.

Seeing his expression, Nikki softened a little. She came over to him and put her arms around him, hugging him from behind. As she squeezed him, she said, “Russ Gibson, you know I love you, don’t you? We ALL do. Just trying to look out for you.”

Russ nodded grudgingly. “I know…” he muttered, still not completely happy about the situation. “Next best thing to a mom since she can’t be here.”

“Or a big sister!” Nikki suggested. The singer rolled his eyes in reply.

 

 

 

“Spoiling 101” (Ch. 11)

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?”

“Thank you.”

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 coach 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.

“You do?”

“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.

“For?”

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.”

Ari shuddered.

“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.

“Seeing him again”/after Ft. Wayne (Ch. 13)

All night long he’d been watching her and she knew it. Whether up on stage performing, or during a break between sets, Arielle could feel Russ’s eyes on her. She stood in a corner of the club, enveloped in shadows and smoke, and smiled to herself. He’d tried all the tricks. Making all the moves he knew she’d liked, pouring all the raw sex and energy into every note and drawn out scream. The band had played so many of her favorite songs, she was surprised there hadn’t been a mutiny. The singer had even stooped to exaggeration of his usual stage antics, making suggestive remarks and ogling all the girls in the front row. He’d even gone so far as to pull one of them up on stage with him and do a bump and grind routine. Of course it was the one with the gigantic fake boobs spilling out of her too small bustier.  She was certain he was doing it purposely, knowing how she felt about her lack thereof.  Ooh, good thing his troll isn’t here! She would have raised hell, Arielle thought wryly, pregnant or not! She remembered him saying to her one time: “I always told any significant other that they didn’t have to worry about the ones throwing themselves all over me, the obvious ones. It’s the one watching me quietly in the corner, giving me the eye, that you should worry about.” Hah, she thought. She can have your lame ass!

Why is he trying so hard to hurt me? Ari wondered, when I didn’t do anything!  Was he really that cruel?  What he was really doing was making a total ass of himself. And for what? Why?  He was the one with the wife. His rationale made exactly zero sense to her right now.

She hadn’t intended on coming tonight at all. Nikki had had other plans and Carrie, or course, wasn’t “allowed”. Problems with the boyfriend. Again. When Mick had called and told them Stone Cold was playing up at Roxanne’s in Toledo, for probably the last time, Arielle had had second thoughts. And third ones. Even though Mick and Nikki weren’t dating anymore, and even after all that had happened, they had remained friends with Mick. At first she’d been pissed and wanted to hate all of them, but then thought, is it really Mick’s fault his singer is a cheating asshole? Is the entire band responsible for one of their member’s actions? When it came right down to it, the responsibility for revealing Russ was married was Russ’s and Russ’s alone. Well, maybe they could have told her, but…as Nikki had said, there was that “guy code”.

Although she was still somewhat involved in the band’s promotion through Steve, she hadn’t actually seen any of them since that night in Ft Wayne. Did she really want to put herself in that position again? Then the image of Russ’s face popped into her mind: his eyes downcast, hurrying off the stage past her, not even acknowledging her with as much as a glance! The bastard hadn’t even called her to apologize-to explain-whatever. Nothing! Was this what she deserved after everything?  Then she knew: she had to do it for herself. She would show Russ Gibson that she was made of far tougher stuff than he imagined.

A nudge on the shoulder brought her back to reality. It was Rob Richardson, his guitar slung low around his neck. The band had taken another break and she hadn’t even noticed, lost in her thoughts.

“Hey!” he exclaimed, giving her a big hug. The axe banged against the barstool as he did so.  “Oops!” They both laughed. Then he added, “Good to see you again.”

“Hi Rob” she smiled. “Same here.” The guitarist backed up and took a long look at her. His eyes scanned from her black body suit to her face and back appreciatively. “You look great!”

Arielle pushed a stray wisp of hair out of her eyes and sighed. It was amazing what a few months without an appetite could do to you. “So do you, Rob. Like always.” She smiled up at him. She could say that without worrying about it sounding like a come on, because it was so obvious.

Rob tossed his hair self-consciously, the closest he would come to a blush. Covering his embarrassment, he gestured towards his guitar. “Got a new one.”

Arielle leaned closer. “Another Gibson!” she remarked.

“Of course.”

“Of course”she agreed, reaching out to handle it. “Les Paul…this is one of those new Custom Lites, isn’t it? What a beautiful color!”

“Sonic Moon glow.” Rob informed her. Then he reached for the strap. “Do you wanna?”

Arielle nodded enthusiastically. “Sure, thanks!” When Rob had removed it from around his neck, Ari took the axe respectfully, the way  a guitar aficionado would, running her hands down its body and across the strings. “Pearl inlays. Humbucker…” she was murmuring. “That’s great.” Her hands traveled up to the frets. “Rob, this is a sharp looking guitar!”

“Well, I got it from the advance.” Rob grinned. “So I can thank you for part of it.”

Now it was Arielle’s turn for modesty. She leaned down so that part of her hair hung across her face. “Oh, stop!”

Rob looked around quickly. “So, did you come here alone?”

Arielle stood up straight. “Yep!” She could have brought someone, but that would’ve meant she cared enough to make him jealous.

Rob nodded, immediately understanding. “To tell you the truth,” he said more softly, “I didn’t really expect to see you again at all. I mean, after…” He let the rest trail off.

Arielle waved it away, but Rob continued, “I never got a chance to talk to you that night, and well, I just wanted to let you know I thought…” He paused, swallowed, and then finished with  “Well…I’m just glad you stuck with us anyway.”

“There’s more to a band than the lead singer.” Arielle said wisely, continuing to handle the guitar. “It takes each member to make the band. Just because one of them happens to be a lying, cheating, son of a bitch asshole—“she let out a deep breath—“doesn’t mean the whole band is that way.”

The corners of Rob’s mouth twitched in amusement. “No comment” he remarked, then glanced down at his watch. “We still have a little bit of break left. Could you use a drink?” He gestured towards the bar.

“Sure.” She replied, handing his guitar back to him. They made their way across the room, past pool tables and the usual bimbos in their revealing outfits, staring like dogs in heat at Stone Cold’s lead guitarist. Wondering who that bitch was with him? Some things never change, Arielle thought with a smirk. But then again, a lot of things did… She realized with a start that soon she wouldn’t be doing this, walking through clubs with Rob or any of the rest of them. Just sitting down at a regular bar and being waited on like any other customer. That night at Crucial with all its excitement and promise was only the beginning. With their extensive promotion, performances, and of course the recording contract with Atlantic, SC was starting a whole new road to fame, fortune, and whatever else the music business threw their way. Instead of little bars and clubs like The New York, Crucial, and Skiddles, they’d now be playing fair grounds, halls, even arenas. Being the opening act for groups they used to cover. Unreachable, like all the rest.  And even now, struggling to remain neutral, she still  saw only the best for them in the future. Though now that she wasn’t involved with Russ anymore…she wasn’t part of their future. She had to keep reminding herself of that every now and then.

As they sat on the barstools Rob noticed the change in Arielle’s expression. “Something wrong?”

Ari blinked. “Oh-no…I was just thinking…all this—“she spread her arms out to indicate their surroundings. “It’s not going to be much longer. You guys will be leaving it.” Unable to help herself, she finished quickly, “And pretty soon you’ll be on tour and famous and I’ll never see you again.”

“Oh stop!” Rob mimicked her earlier remark. “I know that you know that’s not how it works.” He looked at her with his  air of authority, then decided, “Ari, you need a beer. Badly.” He pushed an ice cold Mick Dry in her direction. “This is on me.”

“Thanks.” Arielle said shyly, embarrassed at her outburst. Then she pivoted around, looking for the band bitch table. “Hey-looks like you’re here alone tonight too,” she observed. “Where’s Tina?” Tina was one of his more “steady” girlfriends-what the band would refer to as a “wife”-although that word had a  different meaning for her now. Was I ever considered a ‘wife’ by anyone? she mused, but then quickly put that question out of her head: of course not, I wasn’t obvious. And for good reason.

Rob let out a long sigh, pushing the hair back off his head. For a moment he said nothing, just took a swig of beer.

“Uh oh,” Ari said, a note of apology in her voice . “Sounds like forget I asked?”

Rob’s expression turned sour. “Long story.”

“Oh well then. None of my business.”

“No, it’s ok.” Rob responded. “She dumped me a couple days ago. But pretty much shit was going on the whole time.” When Arielle nodded at him in understanding, he went on. “A lot of things. She didn’t like my crazy band schedule, never seeing each other, not being able to go out like a normal couple…you know how I mean.”

She raised her eyebrows in reply: Hell yes, I know! At least.. I used to know…

He continued, “Well, I heard she was going out with Brent now anyway.”

Brent? You mean your old guitarist?!” Arielle cried in disbelief.

“Yeah.” The guitarist looked down at the bar. “I kinda always wondered if she was messing around with him when he was still with us. Something was always weird…” he trailed off.

“Wow, she’s crazy!” Arielle blurted out. Then, recognizing a kindred broken heart, she said simply, “I’m sorry.” They had been together for a long time…

He laughed bitterly and took another sip of beer. “Well I guess we’re in the same boat now, huh?” He raised his bottle to hers as a toast. “Single again!”

“Please. Like it’ll be a problem for you!” Ari scoffed. “You could have any girl you wanted, always could. Look around this room!”

Rob shook his head. “Been there, done that. I don’t want just ‘any girl’. What’s the point?”

“Well, Geez!” Arielle replied in mock amazement. “I didn’t know a man could think that way, let alone a musician!”

“Well then, I guess you picked the wrong musician.”

Before Arielle had a chance to respond,  the guitarist  got up  from his stool. “I got some stuff I want to check on…maybe we’ll catch ya later?” he mumbled and dashed off into the darkness of the backstage area. His beer was still sitting there, unfinished.

Arielle sat still, trying to absorb their conversation.  So he was single now, huh? She smiled. Oh boy, wouldn’t these girls here just go wild if they knew? Although most of their type wouldn’t let a girlfriend or even wife stop them. Hmm…there’s that nasty word again-wife-she thought cynically. She hadn’t known Tina that well, only maybe said hi to her once or twice when they bumped into each other at gigs. She and Nikki had never been part of the “band bitch” group, never sat at the designated table, had not wanted to be involved in that drama. They were the outcasts by choice. Why had she even bothered dating Rob if she knew what his lifestyle was like? Ari wondered. Maybe she expected him to give it all up for her? Like supposedly Brent had done for his girlfriend? Hah! Well, that hadn’t worked for Russ and any of his previous relationships either. And Rob especially, always had the women all over him. That couldn’t have been easy for her to deal with. Ah hell, another waste of a relationship… And “the wrong musician”? What had he meant by that?

As if on cue, Russ came sauntering up to the bar. Arielle could just see him out of the corner of her eye, looking at her but trying to act like he wasn’t. She could almost hear his thoughts: Oh yeah, I’m just here to get a drink, minding my own business, yeah, that’s it.. Her heart was pounding and she could feel herself stiffen. Jerk! Prick! Asshole! she wanted to scream. Scream while ripping his hair out. And a kick in the balls for good measure. She was sure those were all things Carrie would have done, and she was mad at herself for not being good at it. Instead, she prolonged the last few sips of her Mick Dry, trying to steady her shaking hands. Then maybe he would get his drink and leave and she could go back to the dark corner again. That way it would be him who had walked away. Again.

No such luck. He sure was taking his time, staring at the drink menu. Come on, you dick, a Jack and Coke, you know that’s what you always get! she thought, gripping the barstool with one hand and her beer with the other. And oh yes, he had to reach closer her way to grab the bowl of peanuts. You don’t even like peanuts! Arielle wanted to shout. Nevertheless, he ate each one methodically, pushing the shells onto the floor. The crunching was getting on her nerves. And now her beer was down to backwash. No way was she going to go down there to order another one! She reached for the napkins instead, killing time by wiping imaginary foam from her mouth. Come on, leave, you S.O.B.! she shouted inwardly. Just piss off and leave me alone! Go back to your ridiculous stage pantomimes, your stupid dancing bimbos, and…

“So what are you doing?” It was Russ. Somehow he had made his way to her side without her noticing. The moment had come-and she sucked at confrontations. Gulp! Ok, quick-how do I do this? How do I act? What do I say? Bitch him out? Or play it like I don’t give a damn? After a pause, in which she prayed her voice wouldn’t betray her, Arielle replied, “Having a drink. This is the bar, you know.” Then she added, “Getting on with my life” with a flash of bravado. Screw you and your casual attitude!

“Yeah,” Russ agreed snidely. “I can see that!”

The gasp came out of her mouth before she could control herself.  “What the hell do you mean by that?” She swiveled to face him, jumping down from her bar stool, nervousness overcome by surprise.

“I saw you hitting on Rob. Falling all over him and his guitar, just like all his other little groupies!” The singer smirked, taking a swig of his drink.

Ari could only stare at him.  He had never talked to her like this!  She was speechless. Russ took advantage of it, continuing in his wise-ass tone, “I mean, really, a guy in the same band? It’s pretty obvious…not too original…” he added, leaning closer to her, a condescending look on his face. “Arielle, don’t make a fool of yourself. It’s not worth it.”

“No, Russ,” she replied, “You weren’t worth it.”

For a moment they stood there staring at each other. Then his facade was gone. “Really?” he choked out.

Seriously? You have the balls to act hurt?  Disgusted, Arielle wanted to turn away but she forced herself not to. He needed to hear about what he’d done and she was going to be the one to tell him. Come on Ari, you can do it! she told herself. Don’t let him get away with this!  He probably expected her to just…fade away? Oh no, I’m not going to be like “the others”. Those ones that you just….and on to the next. Nor was she going to turn into the hysterical female and cause a scene. Nope,she was going to do this her way. It wasn’t Carrie’s way, but… Continuing to look him straight in the eye, she replied evenly, “Can you blame me for thinking that?”

The singer sighed, closing his eyes. He gripped the side of the bar, looking as if he was about to collapse. Ari said nothing, letting the silence do its work. Then he reached out as if to take her arm, to offer affection, but had second thoughts. His hand hung awkwardly in the air as Arielle glared at him. “Do not touch me.” she warned. “And-” she added, becoming more confident, “Don’t you ever talk to me like that again.”

He pulled his hand back as if it had been electrically shocked. “Ari…” he began, tripping over his words. “I-I-I…” He looked down to avoid her razor sharp gaze. “God…” He glanced up again, checking for a sympathetic look. Instead, she was silent, her eyebrow raised, as if to say, “Yes?” She refused to make it easy on him.

“I’m…sorry” he was finally able to get out.

Arielle gave a terse nod. “So am I.”

Russ tried again, looking at her, his eyes pleading for…what?- understanding? empathy? Honestly, how had he expected her to act? she wondered. Then he sighed again and whispered, “Come here. I need to talk to you.” He turned, looking back to see if she was following.

Ari shook her head. “We are talking.”

“No. I mean…somewhere more-private.” the singer explained. He saw her dubious expression and added, “Please.” He motioned towards the corner. Arielle followed his gaze. Well. They probably had to get back on stage soon anyway. This shouldn’t take too long. Huh! Let’s hear what he has to say! A bunch of B.S. no doubt… She reluctantly followed him back to the dark area where she’d just been. As they got there, she could tell Russ was girding himself up for what he was about to say. He alternated between looking up at her, then at the ground, his hands fluttering around helplessly; they were used to reaching for her, touching her, but now they couldn’t. She regarded him coolly as he struggled to speak.

“Ah, Ari…” he started. “Dammit!” When she didn’t reply, he went on, the words tumbling out of his mouth, “I didn’t know-I didn’t know she’d show up! We were separated. I hadn’t seen her in months. She’s-we-” he paused to push the hair off of his forehead, “We haven’t gotten along in…well, forever…it was fucked from the beginning. It’s been…I’ve been wanting to get out…it’s been living hell.” he admitted. “And then…I met you.” He sighed, full of sighs tonight, finally getting the courage to look at her face for more than a fleeting glance. His hand reached out again for hers, but stopped. “And you were just so….different! You were the first one to make me wanna go home and say ‘that’s it!’…and…then I find out she’s….. ”

Arielle’s eyes grew wide despite herself. He was going to leave his wife for her?

“But…you know how I feel about kids. You know what happened with my dad. God Ari! I never meant to hurt you, I swear I didn’t! But… I can’t hurt her either. Or my child. I’ve fucked everything else up I ever touched-I need to try to..do it right this time?  I should’ve told you sooner. I know it. But I couldn’t resist you! I’m a fucking asshole!” He noted her expression: Yes, you are, and???? “Jesus, Ari…” Arielle heard the agonized tone in his voice and for the first time, looked at him without complete hatred. “I loved you-I love you! I wouldn’t lie about that.” He reached for her hand again and this time she let him take it, but made it as limp and lifeless as possible. He sighed at feeling her touch. “How could I not?”

It was touching him again that did it. Arielle felt herself weakening, but forced herself to keep steady.  “Do I look like an idiot?” she demanded. He jerked his head up quickly in shock. “Because you made me feel like a…total fucking idiot.” Russ shook his head in the negative. “No, no…you’re not…” he mumbled frantically.

“You broke my heart!” she cried out.

Aww…Arielle…” Russ turned his head away and she could see that he had completely lost his composure. Wow, she thought at first, but then, Good. Now you get some of what I’ve had for the past few months. Don’t you dare, don’t you dare! she warned the tears that were starting to form in her eyes too.  Yet at the same time she felt her stomach drop and bit her tongue hard.  Why did it have to turn out like this? Dammit! The back and forth conflicting emotions were driving her crazy. Ari fought between the urges to punch him in the face or to collapse in his arms. No, couldn’t do that anymore. He belonged to someone else now. Correction: he had never belonged to her in the first place.

He finally turned back to her, and she willed the tears away so she could at least have the satisfaction of looking at him  dry eyed while he wasn’t.  “We could-can we-still…talk? See each other?” he asked, desperate.

She knew how he meant. Arielle shook her head. He kept staring at her,  as if that would change things. “I won’t put myself in that position” she replied firmly.

Russ bit his lip and nodded. He reached out to hug her, then stopped awkwardly.  In that instant, Arielle caught a whiff of his cologne. The kind she had bought him…not just for Christmas or a birthday, but just to do it, just like so many of the things she had done for him over the past year . She closed her eyes to block out the memories. Unthinking, she put out a hand as if to touch his face, then dropped it. Instead she forced the emotions out of her expression,  squared herself up, and turned to leave. She had to walk away-to get out of there. Now.

She didn’t know where she was going as she walked-couldn’t see, couldn’t think straight. The people, the pool tables, the booths-they were all a spinning kaleidoscope before her eyes.  Her heart pounded and she felt seasick. Russ’s face. His tears! And then—Arielle kept walking, now heading to the exit sign-the air inside had suddenly turned oppressive; she could hardly breathe. Air-I need fresh air-she thought, desperately, hoping no one was following her. She felt hot too and realized it was from her face, now red and streaked with tears. Oh thank God it’s dark in here! And thank God he hadn’t seen her in this condition. She dodged cocktail tables and their former occupants, her mind continuing to spin. Music was blaring from the juke box. Some Alice Cooper song. Where was the door? The noise started fading away as she got to the hallway. She passed someone retching in the corner and kept moving. The ticket booth. The bouncer. A push on the door…

Then Arielle was finally outside. Relief. The contrast between it and the club was like a slap in the face. Cool air. Quiet. She looked up and saw stars everywhere. And then she paused.  Did I make a mistake? The thought suddenly gave her hysterics and she stood on the sidewalk, bawling, then trying to catch her breath.  She turned around to look at the club door, for a split second wanting to run back in, change her mind. But no. And did she expect to see him coming running out after her? No. Instead she forced herself to take deep breaths, focusing on finding her car. She finally spotted her Firebird under a street light and rummaged in her purse for the keys, just wanting now to get out of there as fast as possible.

Once inside, Arielle collapsed in her front seat, the crying beginning to hurt, and the images in her head starting to make her sick. His face, cocky, when he first approached her. Her smart ass responses. Then that hurt look when she told him he wasn’t worth it.  In some corner of her mind, though, amidst all the hurt and anger, was this…when I smelled his cologne…for a second there, standing next to him…I might have done it!  The realization of the choice she had made and what she had come close to making caused Arielle to gag. She suddenly leaned out the door and threw up.  My God, am I to the point that I would make myself that low? Just to get some kind of…attention? He’d just said he ‘loved’ her. Is that what it was-love? Well, maybe it had been, but not anymore. What the hell did she know about love anyway, she had to ask herself. Obviously fuck all!

All that time between Ft. Wayne and now…with the tears, moping, not eating-Arielle had tried to convince herself she was getting “over” him. And the other guys she’d met since then, when Nikki or her other friends forced her to go out…in reality she had been just going through the motions. Deep inside she had  still wanted Russ, no matter what she tried to tell herself. His picture on a dartboard.  Shredded notes. I hate him! He’s a jerk! All of that bravado had been a farce. It had all come down to seeing him again.  She still felt wounded. I’m weak! She told herself. I hate it! I hate it! I hate him for making me that way! And I hate myself even more for letting him.

Arielle finally composed herself enough to turn on the radio and start the car, pulling out onto the highway. She could just hear her dad saying, “What a pretty mess you are!” with disgust.  She  resolutely brushed the tears off her face. Enough. Between sniffs and gulps of air, she asked herself, did I keep my pride? Yes, I think so. At least, in front of him.  She then took a look at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were already pink and swollen, the makeup a soppy mess. She wanted to remember this face. How pathetic. And she vowed to herself, never again…..