The coffee shop murmured around him virtually unnoticed, most of it comfortably visible from the small table in the back corner he'd chosen for propriety's sake. There were few people around, but he felt the need for whatever privacy was attainable in those surroundings.
Neutral ground, he thought yet again. "That's a good one," he murmured aloud.
Steve had used the term when he'd called two weeks earlier, and it still made him flinch. mainly, he'd decided, because of the truth behind it, the fact that it was necessary. Steve had always been adroit in that capacity; if not always entirely truthful in fact, his words and actions had invariably been loaded with some form of honesty, something of himself given between the lines. Jonathan drifted over the conversation again as he had often since it's occurrence, almost unwillingly. Liz had answered the phone and held it out to him, eyes wide, the look requesting patience and caution.
An unnecessary formality, supplied only because the latter had known the former would be surprised. How the hell could he not know that voice, after hearing it more often over the years than he ever had his own? It was still an extension of the man he'd known, carefully modulated, eliminating any need for introduction.
"Look....I know this is sudden. And you have every right to tell me to go to hell. It sounds almost cliche'. But I've had a lot of time to think, and I'd really like to talk to you."
"For old time's sake?" Jonathan had heard himself ask, none of the reproach in his thoughts reaching his voice.
"Partly, yeah. It's been a long time. Since...we put the boxed set together. I was almost afraid you'd changed your number."
He heard Steve clear his throat, and then, "But mostly I let some things catch up with me, and...I got to thinking about the band."
Jon remembered that moment most of all, the shock of it clenching like a fist in his stomach. The feeling had held ever since. He'd been waiting for those words to be spoken, having made his feelings clear and knowing it was out of his hands. They were a near mirror of what he'd said to Steve more than a decade earlier, the call he'd made after Tane' had decided to go through with the divorce. When the band had become something to hold on to with near desperation. What had begun in a demonstration of personal anguish had ended the same way, regrettably, in Anchorage in 1987.
"About going on?" he asked with forced nonchalance.
"Yeah. I know John--Kalodner--has talked to you already. Can we get together for coffee, or something? I'm tied up for a couple of weeks, but after that...you pick the place and time. Neutral ground, I guess."
"Sure. Sure, Steve."
And there he was, waiting, trying not to consider the ramifications of pulling the still-breathing carcass of a still popular rock band out of the morass it had been relegated to. Financially, legally, management wise, it would be a nightmare of bureaucracy, if it got that far. And emotionally...
Jon glanced up, startled from his reverie into the realization that Steve had walked right up and was standing to one side looking at him expectantly and with a little bemusement, wearing a black mock turtleneck and long black coat that brought the old Bob Dylan song to mind. The only other thing that registered for a moment was that no one had called him Jay in years, not since the breakup of what had come to be know as the John Waite Show.
The smile he gave him in greeting was partially the result of these thoughts. The rest stemmed from the surprise he felt at how glad he was to see him. He braced his hands on the table and rose. "Stephen."
They stood for an uncertain moment, Steve removing his hands from his pockets and shrugging. It was more awkward than either had anticipated, and Jonathan thought, have we become this distant, that we don't know what to do with each other? Then they each offered a hand at the same time, shaking across the table, bridging the gap in at least that small way. Steve smiled widely.
"Well," Jon said, "you look great."
"So do you." Maybe they were both lying, but it didn't matter; it was a polite social dance reserved for dangerous, unfamiliar ground. They sat as if by rote, and almost immediately a waitress appeared. Steve ordered regular coffee, looking distracted while Jon requested a refill of his own. When she was gone, Steve raised his eyebrows.
"How's Liz? And Maddie."
"Great. They're great. I guess Neal and Dina are planning on a family sometime soon."
The coffee appeared, brought by a different waitress, and after they thanked her, Steve turned his cup carefully between his hands.
"Have you talked to Neal?" Jon asked
Steve shook his head. "Not yet."
And Jon realized then what was happening; Steve had always been closer to him than to Neal. Or maybe it was more accurate to say he had allowed him to be closer. Steve and Neal had shared a rapport difficult to define. By the time it had all ground to a halt, Steve had long since made himself a circle of one. The way things had been left, he probably still considered Jon the more approachable of the two.
Neal had called him not long after Kalodner had, but it had been a matter of asking each other questions that had been asked of them constantly over the preceding decade. It hadn't been the first time Kalodner, or Ienner, or any other exec had come up with the 'idea' of a reunion. They had shrugged it off yet again, leaving it open.
Because, no one admitted, they were waiting for Steve.
"Cain still comes before Schon, even in my Rolodex," Steve said wryly, causing Jonathan to smile. "Don Ienner called Bobby not long after the Medicine tour wrapped up. While I was sick, I started thinking about the unfinished business in my life, you know? After playing the old stuff every night, and..."
He paused, continuing to turn the cup in his hands, and Jonathan didn't leap in to fill the gap. Those meaningful pauses were as much a part of Steve as his voice and the unintentional wistfulness in his eyes, signifying the turning of somber mental wheels.
"Bobby mentioned it to me," Steve went on, "and you know, it's not like it hadn't been mentioned before. But right then, it just seemed to click, it seemed right. I know. Just because I think it's time, or right, doesn't mean everyone should jump. I mean, who the hell am I?"
Journey, Jonathan thought.
"So now, all I want to know is, can we do it again? It's a little early to say anything. But can we get to a place where we can discuss it, where we can simply talk to each other again, if nothing else? To see how it feels...maybe find what's left."
Jon took a deep breath, leaning back in his chair. "I would never discourage you in anything, least of all this. You know I want this, or we wouldn't be sitting here now."
"But," Steve said knowingly, a self-deprecating grin edging his expression and tone. "I hear a 'but'."
"I'm the last one who cares what it takes to do it. 'But', details like Herbie. Sony. Your management, ours, the fact that every move we make will be grist for the rumor mill. We'd be like bugs under glass again." He paused while Steve chuckled appreciatively, then continued. "Do you feel up to the stupid questions, and constantly reiterating everything we say, and wading through the red tape? This is a good part of what killed us before. The 'merry go round', as you put it so well."
"It's always been that way. That's what the music business is about, Jon. None of that mattered when we knew what we were doing, when we could count on each other."
Jonathan sighed, twisting his mouth into a momentarily bitter expression in response to the implied rebuke.
The uncomfortable motion was not lost on Steve. "You know how I meant that. Just listen, man, before it's too late. For reasons God only knows, there are a lot of people out there who love us, after all this time. More than I ever expected. It's like we never left. I saw some of them not too long ago. Maybe it's time to try again."
Jon kept his eyes to the table, unwilling somehow to wholeheartedly endorse the statement, but unable to discount it.
"If I hadn't really thought it through, like you said, we wouldn't even be sitting here. This is us, and the people who still love us, and what it means. What it's always meant. I think we have more to say. The rest is bullshit."
Jonathan sighed again, raising his eyebrows in acknowledgement, sipping his coffee.
"After all this, Jon, I'm not going to jerk you around."
"You don't have to convince me. I'm the easy part, remember?"
Steve smiled cordially, and Jonathan knew that no matter where it led, no matter what happened, Steve had him. It had always been virtually impossible to say no to the man sitting across from him. And indeed, rarely had anyone said it to him with any conviction throughout his life.
"I can take responsibility for the majority of it," Steve said, eyes straying suddenly off to the side and out the picture window facing the street. In most people it would have signified elusiveness or insincerity. In Steve it was only a pensive inclination. "I'm willing to. You've heard all the excuses and apologies already. But I have to thank you...for keeping a low profile. For not saying anything."
"I couldn't. I would never say anything about you, or anything that went on."
"I know. I know." Steve raised his hands a little, palms outward as if mildly warding him off even though the statement had been devoid of defensiveness.
"We were all assholes. Nobody has an excuse for anything. It all had to settle. We're older now, right?"
Steve snorted, laying his hands flat on the table.
"And the phone lines go both ways. No one knew how to handle you anymore, or what to say, so we gave up. You disappeared long before the tour ended, emotionally. No one could reach you. But it's not as if we had the patience to try. Too much was going on. It was never, 'what's wrong'. It was always, 'knock it off.'"
Steve shrugged noncommittally.
"I heard a couple of interviews you did. I asked Lora how you were doing, when I got the chance to stop by to check in with her. I think we actually missed each other in passing a couple of months ago."
"When Lora asked us to autograph someone's copy of the sheet music to 'Open Arms'," Steve supplied. "Yeah, I remember. It kind of brought it all back into focus, didn't it? That was one of the things that made me realize how much I missed...us. You'd already signed it, and I got to thinking about calling you."
Jon nodded. "I'm here. I'm willing to throw myself into it again. But not to pick up where we left off.."
"No," Steve agreed. "But we never have before, have we?" He made a sweeping motion away from the table with the flat of one hand. "Clean slate, no regrets."
"Then call Neal. The two of you just sit down and stare at each other for awhile, and if you're both still alive in a few days we'll get together and see what comes out of the woodwork. That's all we can call definite for now."
"That's all we need, for now. If nothing else develops, there's still that, that we could talk to each other again."
Jon tapped his spoon briefly against the tabletop, finding himself grinning across it at Steve.
"Anyway, what was I saying," Steve murmured sardonically, and Jon laughed aloud at the reference, familiar with the song and what it meant to Steve. It was the laugh Steve had been waiting for, a raucous crow's laugh reserved for genuine and unguarded amusement. He held his hand out again, without the hesitation this time, and Jonathan reached across the table to clasp it warmly. Examining the dark gleam in the singer's eyes, relief was the only emotion Jonathan could summon.