Classes came to an end. With no Riot Band and with little else to do, I managed to turn my attention to the two courses I'd been neglecting all semester, and even managed to slap together a final essay for each one. I had two exams to write, and then that was it. I would be officially directionless.
I had no intention of carrying on with school after the holiday break, and with the band officially over and done with, Lise was about the only thing I had going on. On nights when neither of us were working we were usually together, and on the Saturday night leading up to my two exams we went downtown to a Vietnamese restaurant across from Philips Park, down on Sixth Street. The place was bright and cheap and the food was tasty, but there was a weird vibe between us. There were too many things that had been left unsaid. Too many issues had gone unresolved. Lise struggled to pick a single vermicelli noodle off her plate with her chopsticks. "You're taking off right after exams, aren't you?" she asked.
"I have to work Wednesday," I said. "I'm going to catch a bus Thursday morning."
"Will you be back for New Year's? We'll probably have people around to our place. Smoky usually has a party."
I took a sip from my tiny cup of green tea. "I'm not sure. I don't really have any obligations either way. I'll see how I'm doing for money, I guess."
"Okay," she said. She gave up on the noodle and set the chopsticks down. "You are coming, right? You're not planning the same thing that you did with Jasmine, are you? Not going to break up by just going home?"
"What? Shit, no." I put my cup down. "Okay, yeah, we've been over all this. I didn't treat Jasmine fairly, but the difference between that time and now is that I didn't really want to stay with Jasmine anyway. I want to stay with you."
She nodded. "So when are you coming back?"
"I don't know. I've got no obligations here except for you and the bloody convenience store. January's rent is paid. I might just spend an extra week or two up there just getting my head together."
"That would be okay I guess," she said. "It will be lonely here without you. You didn't want to come back here and start looking for a new band?"
"Forget that," I said. "To hell with it. I had enough trouble with Jed and Ryan. If things change and they want to try Riot Band again, that's one thing, but I'm not going to start all over again. What a nightmare."
"From that article in The Typesetter," she said, "it sounds like Riot Band is gone for good. I mean, Ryan says so himself. You might as well start looking for something new."
"Why do you read The Typesetter?" I asked. "You're not at GVU. Hell, you never even set foot on campus."
"I know," she said. "But copies always end up in the break room at work. I can read, you know."
"I know you can read. I didn't mean that."
"Going to university doesn't make you king shit, you know." She sat and stared at me with angry brown eyes. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. I'd forgotten one of the key rules for dealing with Lise: don't point out that you go to school and she doesn't. As a high school drop-out who often hung around with university kids, she could be pretty sensitive.
"Look," I said, hoping to change the subject. "Did you want to play or something? I know he wasn't supposed to tell me, but Jed mentioned you wanted to learn how to play drums. Do you still want to?"
"No," she said. "That was right after the fight with Meghan at the gig, and I admit it, the thought crossed my mind that maybe I could learn to play. Then I could be up on stage with you guys instead of vulnerable in the crowd. Jed acted kind of freaked out when I asked him that I knew that it was a bad idea. Then I thought I could get involved with the t-shirts and stuff. Not really as a member of the band, but you know, like how Nick helps you guys out with stuff. I thought I could participate somehow. Instead I started a fight that broke up the band."
"Let's make one thing clear," I said. "We did not break up because of the t-shirt thing. I gave them a hard time because they were rude to you, but that sure as hell isn't your fault. Anyway, let's forget it. Tell me something though, if you wanted to be part of the band, why didn't you just say so? Why go to Jed behind my back?"
She looked sheepish. "I was worried you would think I was meddling. Like Yoko Ono or Nancy or something. I didn't want to screw anything up."
I laughed. "We managed to screw it up anyway. Look, let's forget it all. This whole thing has been one long mess. I was getting so hammered all the time, ridiculous things kept on happening... it's just too much."
"Ridiculous things? Like what?"
"Well, like the fight with Meghan. Or punching Conrad. That's not really my normal character, you know? Or I didn't think it was anyway. There was other stuff that I feel bad about. Stuff I wouldn't even say was my fault, but wrong place ant the wrong time type of stuff, you know? Too many drinks and the situation gets out of hand, and suddenly you're thinking to yourself, 'What the hell am I even doing here?' You know what I mean."
"No," she said, with a concerned look. "I don't know what you're talking about. What kind of stuff?"
I could feel the knot tightening in my stomach. This was my opportunity, I knew, to clear the air and get some things off my chest. I could feel already to relief that would come from freeing myself of the secrets and lies, but there was also the anxiety of knowing I was about to hurt Lise's feelings. But keeping secrets was killing me, and I knew it might come out eventually anyway, so...
"Well, you remember Meghan," I began.
"The girl who tried to punch me out on the dance floor? The bitch that damn near ripped all my hair out? Yes, I remember Meghan. What about her?"
"When I was over at Dong Ha's house for The Urges' practice, she tried to kiss me." I could see Lise's face grow red and her mouth open, but before she could give words to her outrage, I continued: "I walked right out on her. I just turned and walked out of the house."
"But she tried to kiss you."
"Where was James?"
"The band was rehearsing in the garage. It was cold, so we came into the kitchen. She tried to kiss me, so I left."
"Does James know?"
"I doubt it," I said. "I'm not going to tell him. He knows better than to be dating that monster anyway."
"What else?" she said sharply."What other stories have you forgotten to mention?"
"I don't know," I said. "Ryan said I grabbed a girl's boobs when I was really hammered, but I honestly don't remember doing it."
"What girl's boobs?"
"The um, girl from The Pop Rocks."
"The one from The Pop Rocks."
I nodded. "Yeah.
Lise turned bright red. "Right. So, after Meghan beat me up on the dance floor, you dropped me off at home and then went straight back to the show so you could get drunk and feel up the girls in the other band."
"I swear," I said, "I don't remember doing it. We were drinking straight whiskey, and I was hammered. I'm taking it all on Ryan's work. His version of things. And he was drunk too, so who knows if it's even true."
"Oh it's true," Lise said. "Of course it is. You act like such a fool when you're drunk, I wouldn't be surprised if you told me you went down on her too."
My dinner did a little somersault inside my gut when she said that. Did she know? No, it was a coincidence. There was no way she could know.
"Look, it's over and done with," I said. "You see my point though, right? I was getting too hammered all the time. I used to be able to go to the bar on a Saturday night, party all night, and only have four or five beers. When I'd go to a gig with Riot Band, I would have ten. I would act like a cocky prick all night, and I'd end up doing something stupid. I'm better off not being in a band."
Lise didn't say anything. I could see she was still processing how she felt about everything I'd told her. I got up and paid the bill, and we went back to her place where we spent a very quiet evening together. And unlike most nights, I didn't stay over. Instead I took a very cold walk home to sleep alone in my own apartment.
As difficult as it was, I knew it was for the best. I believed in our relationship, and my faith was rewarded on Monday night. I called her from work, and she told me that she was mad, but she'd forgiven me. I told her I loved and she said the same.
On Tuesday I blundered my way through both of my exams. It wasn't any fun, but at the very least it represented the end of my university experience. That was that. Over and done with. I had one work shift left at work, and then I could head home to my parents house and relax for a while. Clear my head. Read a little, maybe. Plan what was next. Maybe visit Knelson and see how he was doing. And I could spend some time just forgetting about everything that had gone on for the last four months.
My shift on Wednesday night was with Nikki, on of the high school flakes, but I managed to catch James when my shift was starting and his was just finishing. I congratulated him on how well The Urges were doing in Riot Band's former slot at Jake's Restaurant. He thanked me and wished me a happy holiday, and we left on good terms. I felt a little bad that I didn't tell him about Meghan, but I thought it would be better to leave it alone. After all, some people don't want to hear all the time about what skank-bags you think their girlfriends are.
The night proceeded quietly. Nikki sat texting away on her little device every time there wasn't a customer directly asking her a question, and I spent a good deal of time peacefully mopping the muddy slush off the floor. It was all pretty quiet. And then Jasmine arrived.
I didn't notice her at first. It had been a few months since I'd seen her, and she was wearing a candy-pink winter jacket which I hadn't seen before, and her hair was covered by a wool hat. She came up to the cash desk, and when recognition finally kicked in, my heart almost flew out of my mouth.
"Hey Eric," she said. "How's it going?"
"Good," I said. "You?"
"Exam burn-out," she said, and put a box of chocolate-covered peanuts and a bag of chips on the counter.
I rang her items. "I heard Conrad moved out," I said.
"Yeah," she said. She looked really tired as she handed over the cash. "He didn't pay any rent, you know? And he was such a mess, and actually pretty difficult to be around. I heard he's got nowhere to stay now, but I can't take him back. You've got to take care of yourself first, right?"
"Absolutely." I dropped her stuff into a bag. "Very, very true."
"What about you?" she asked. "I heard the band broke up."
"Yeah," I said. "Maybe it's for the best. We'll wait and see."
She took the bag from me, and smiled a little. "Yeah. There's always another train coming around the bend. Take care, okay?"
"I will. And Jasmine? Thanks."
I smiled. "Just for...I don't know. You take care too, okay?"
She smiled again and left. Another train gone. A lot of trains had gone lately. And there I was sitting by the side of the track, waiting for another to come around the bend.
2010, Nolan Whyte