(Part of) A Sequel to Of Julie and Better Men...
When Morning Breaks
The band piled into the hotel, all feeling the effects of too many congratulatory drinks and an adrenaline high they giddily convinced themselves might last forever. After playing the gig of their life -- the gig that had finally made the hard work of the past 10 years fade into a blissful memory of only tonight’s success -- they were at last bona fide musicians…signed musicians… with a record deal that represented the first real freedom their leader, singer/songwriter Joshua Gray had ever allowed himself to fully believe in -- even savor.
As they made their way to the elevator of the posh San Francisco hotel, the manager on duty called out to Josh. "Mr. Gray! There’s a message for you…the caller’s on the line right now – do you want to take it here?"
Josh cast a nervous glance at his comrades, as they struggled collectively to decipher the elevator buttons. "Uh, could you transfer it to my room? Thanks." Then, quickly catching up to the rest of his band and selecting the right floor, he said, "That’s gotta be Julie wondering how the gig went. I can’t wait to tell her. She’s gonna be so happy! I’ll finally be able to help her finish her degree out of my part of the advance. Maybe soon she’ll even be able to quit her job at the diner. God, I feel like I’ve been waiting forever for tonight! I feel a thousand pounds lighter than I did this afternoon – than I did three hours ago. I can’t believe how fast life can turn around. "
"I can’t believe how fast everything’s turnin’ around," Tommy, the keyboard/second-guitar player replied. Reaching blindly for a solid surface, he at last came upon the back wall of the elevator and leaned against it gratefully, releasing a blissful sigh. The car jolted lightly as it began to rise, frightening Randy, the lead-guitar-playing girl magnet who appeared the most seriously worse for wear. "Aahh! What was that?" He shrieked, grabbing Chuck, the bassist’s, arm, who just peered down at him in drunkenly superior disgust. Randy failed to notice, still absorbed in his personal terror. "It’s an earthquake! Oh, man, we‘re stuck in an elevator in an earthquake. Help! Somebody, help!"
"Would you shut up, you imbecile!" Matt, the normally calm and collected drummer interjected testily. "There’s no earthquake, Randy. Just chill."
Josh, obviously accustomed to his role as the group’s den mother, let them bicker on, barely aware of anything being said. So lost in the daze of this new reality, he silently followed the car’s ascent through the numbers on the panel, jumping slightly when at last an intrusive high-pitched tone signaled their arrival on the 12th floor.
"What was that?" Randy began again, but shut up quickly as Matt shot him another warning glance.
"Home sweet home," Tommy moaned joyfully, as he dragged himself away from the wall, nudging the others who were yet to move out before him. Josh just waited patiently, holding the door open until his charges had all safely made their way into the corridor.
"Come on, guys, I’ve got a phone call waiting. Let’s go."
"Lead on, Joshua," Chuck replied solemnly. "Lead us into the promised land – a land overflowing with hilk and money…"
"What the hell?" Randy peered at Chuck in puzzlement.
Josh just shook his head and pulled the room key from his shirt pocket. "Oh, man. I knew I should’ve had a few more drinks."
The record company had set them up in a 2-bedroom suite. Josh, leading the way, unlocked the door to the central sitting area and the group stumbled to the couches and chairs. Josh headed for a small table on which the phone sat beside a large green floral-patterned lamp, and eagerly snatched up the receiver. "Julie? Sorry to keep you wait—oh, hi, Brian. Man, you sound awful…what’s the matter?" A pause as Josh’s casual demeanor transformed to grave sobriety. Then, slowly, "You can’t be serious…holy shit."
He started shaking, the warm flush of alcohol wiped out by a bone-chilling coldness. Even in their various states of inebriation, his bandmates realized something was terribly wrong.
Tommy was the first to speak. "Josh…you okay, bro?"
Josh stood unmoving, his eyes fixed unseeingly on the hideous green lamp as his complexion began to take on a similar hue. "That was Julie’s brother. He’s on his way to L.A. Julie…she…oh shit!" He sank to his knees, unable to continue through the sobs in which he suddenly found himself engulfed. Matt, his former irritability forgotten, quickly went to him and clumsily began patting Josh on the back, uttering the low shushing sounds one might use to comfort a crying child. Soon, they were all huddled together, holding Josh and each other, not fully aware of what was happening but instinctively realizing the need to draw together.
For several minutes no one spoke as Josh remained completely inconsolable. Then came the confused rush of words, directed more at himself than any of the others, as he tried vainly to sort things out, to understand the too unreal reality. Julie was dead. "I should’ve been there. I should’ve never come up here. Oh God, how could I not know?!"
"Know what, Josh?" Chuck asked, still not entirely comprehending.
"That she was so upset…she seemed so together today…. Jesus"
"You mean, she…?" Tommy began, finally putting the truth into words with all the bluntness of his still less than sober state. "She really did it this time…that’s it?"
"Oh, God, I can’t take this…" Josh rocked back and forth, his arms locked firmly over his head. "I can’t take…Oh, God…"
"Come on, Josh." Matt’s voice sounded a thousand miles away. "We’re gonna get through this, man. We’re gonna get through this…"
Josh didn’t respond, remaining too deeply trapped in his waking nightmare to hear anything but the rush of his own blood through his pounding brain. He had long ago accepted that life was difficult, and that living with a girl who had suffered from serious bouts of depression for much of her life was especially so, but this was too much to bear. This was impossible.
At last there were no more words and no more tears. Still, no one moved as the silence that overtook the group huddled so closely on the floor lent them an air of participation in some bizarre meditation ritual. At last Josh rose and headed for one of the bedrooms, closing the door firmly behind him. The others looked at each other questioningly, then paused to listen as the sound of drawers rapidly opening and closing became clear.
Just as abruptly as they had begun, the sounds from the bedroom ceased, and the group seemingly rooted to the floor outside looked to each other once more for an idea how to proceed. Finally, Tommy rose and slowly opened the door.
Josh was seated on the bed, staring into space beside a half-filled suitcase, clasping a pair of jeans and a couple T-shirts in his arms. He didn’t look up as Tommy, and then the others, approached, taking up various positions throughout the room as though standing guard over their troubled commander.
"What happens now?" Josh asked. "What am I supposed to do? I was thinking I’ve gotta get back there right away, be there when Brian arrives, but why? I can’t change things from there any more than I can from here." He looked helplessly at the clothes in his lap and sighed deeply. "I don’t ever want to go back there. I don’t know what I want. I don’t know anything."
"Listen, Josh, it’s really late," Matt intervened. "And you’re right, you can’t do anything about this by rushing back there. Let’s just try to get some rest and we’ll leave together in the morning like we were going to, okay?" A pause. "We’re all in this with you, man."
"I know. Thanks, guys."
As the rising sun began to peek through the heavy hotel drapes, Josh lay awake on the bed, staring sightlessly at the ceiling, the rest of the group still sprawled throughout the room around him, fast asleep. As expected, there had been no rest for him, despite his attempts to abide by Matt’s suggestion. Dully he wondered if he would ever know anything close to rest again. The demons which had instantly assaulted him upon hearing Brian’s words had begun to multiply like a fast-moving cancer since he’d heard the news, and now his head and heart felt so heavy with their weight that he half-waited –hoped? – for the bed to collapse under the strain.
It wasn’t fair. Julie had endured so much, lost so many people to abandonment or death, been physically abused by her uncle and yet battled her way through depression to hold onto her job and excel at her college work.
And she had loved him. Josh knew that above all else, knew that even in the midst of the worst times in their six years together – and there had been plenty of those – that she had never meant to hurt him, could never mean to hurt him. And yet he now somehow felt that she had killed him with herself, instilled in him a numbness beyond which there was only pain, a pain he knew would kill him once and for all if he allowed himself to face it, even for a moment.
Finally, Josh got up off the bed, taking care not to disrupt his slumbering friends, and headed for the shower. Turning it on full blast, to the hottest setting he could bear, he let the water gush over him, grateful for a pain he could at least understand and control. It wasn’t until he had nearly reached the shade of a well-done lobster that he finally turned the spigot off and stood dripping with water and self-contempt for a long moment before picking one of the luxurious hotel towels from the rack, and quickly running it over his stinging skin. He absently wrapped the towel around his waist and stepped to the sink to shave. Disturbed by his reflection in the mirror, he ran the razor over his face impatiently, cutting his chin rather severely in the process. He couldn’t keep from shivering at the unwelcome analogies floating through his mind as he blotted the blood from the wound with a piece of tissue. Carefully avoiding any more glimpses in the mirror, he hastily exited the bathroom, still dabbing at the cut that seemed determined to drain the last vestiges of life from him before eventually clotting.
Back in the bedroom, Josh grabbed a set of clothes from the suitcase that now lay beside the bed and went out to the sitting room to dress. He glanced at the phone as at an object of horror before settling into a chair from which the offending device could not be seen.
So this was it. The first day of his new life, the dawn of his success as a signed artist. What a victory. What a failure. His life had just begun. His life was over. As Dickens wrote, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." Wasn’t that always the way? Of course, who knew that the lows would occur as inverse proportions of the highs – that the pinnacle of his career would be multiplied exponentially into his deepest personal hell. God help him if the record he’d been signed to make actually sold.
The record. Yeah, right. Like he could just go on with his career. Like he could just go on with anything…like he could just go on.
And to think only hours ago he had marveled at how quickly life could turn around. Well, it had turned again, taken a hairpin curve so sharp the resulting crash had left incomprehensible devastation – and quite possibly no survivors.
He would go back to L.A. this morning. He would spend time with Brian, go through the motions of offering useless gestures of comfort, put up a polite front and repeatedly make pledges to remember only the good times. But already Josh knew the truth. Somewhere inside he had always known. He had just refused to let himself believe it. Love is a risky business even under the best of circumstances and anyone who goes in hoping to become somebody’s savior ought to realize that one day they’re going to end up on the cross. He had known. He hadn’t understood by any means. But he had known.
Unfortunately, he had also known that only one savior had ever come back from the dead – and realized now that a twenty-eight year old musician sitting alone in a San Francisco hotel room wasn’t about to become the second.
Josh walked over to the mini-bar, from which he removed several bottles and a glass. He poured one and carried the others with him back to the chair. Just as he knew all of the other disturbing realities he’d been pondering, he also knew that this wasn’t the way to deal with what was happening to him.
But, then again, what was?