Los Angeles, CA
He hadn’t even wanted to go, when Larry invited him to stay for a weekend and check out the music scene.
I don’t need to check out the scene, I have a band now.
The words didn’t matter, now. He’d been wrong.
Steve stared up at the stage, feeling his jaw drop and not caring about it. He was barely aware of anything outside what was happening onstage. Not even onstage; just the one figure, lost in the music, obliterating everything with it. He’d never heard anyone play guitar like this, not Hendrix, no one. And the guy didn’t even seem to realize what he was doing. Not really.
Steve was looking at something akin to an idiot savant, sans the idiot. Musicianship in its purest form, channelled through someone born to it and hardwired with it, like Mozart must have been. Here, in front of him, the nearest you could get to a physical embodiment of music.
Love was too light a word.
He’d been drinking, and maybe that helped the assessment. But no way did it affect the plain truth of what he saw and heard.
He sat through the rest of the show paying attention only to the guitar player.
Afterward, having seen what was going on, Larry asked that guitar player - Neal - if they could snag a ride home.
“Yeah, I’m headed that way,” Neal said. “Cool, I can drop you. You guys here for the whole show?”
“Yeah,” Larry said. “Kicked ass.”
“Thanks,” Neal said. “Journey’s pulling a gig tomorrow at the Starwood, you up for that?”
“Yeah,” Steve said, not caring who Neal was talking to.
The ride was uneventful, small talk about the local music scene and what Larry had been up to. It was over too quick, and Neal dropped them on Larry’s block when Larry said they’d walk the rest of the way.
“What was that all about?” Larry said.
“Nothing,” Steve said.
“My ass. What the hell’s with you? You look like you’re in love or somethin’.”
Steve screwed his mouth into a line of repugnance and rolled his eyes, but his stomach clenched a little at the phrasing Larry had used. “Fuck off. It’s just some Latin fusion band. I’m not hot on that.”
“Okay,” Larry said. “Bullshit. What the fuck would you classify Alien as?”
Steve looked at him sidelong and tilted his head, an expression that had pissed a lot of bandmates off so far in his life and would go on doing so. “I’m kind of tryin’ to avoid classifying Alien Project,” he said.
“Well, la de da,” Larry said. “They’re playing again tomorrow night. Journey is. Another fusion band. And I’m gonna go back and hang with them after the show. So if you can tear yourself away from your unclassified fusion band, you might wanna come along. They’re as cool offstage as they are on.”
Steve shrugged like he didn’t care, playing it off. “Maybe. We’ll see. I’m goin’ to bed.”
But he knew he’d go. He just had to be careful about how bad he wanted it.
The next night, Steve watched Journey from the side of the auditorium, watching how it was put together. Careful not to drink this time. He wanted a clear head to see if he was right. If he hadn’t been sure the night before, he was sure then. Anything he’d been looking for was right in front of him; Azteca had been good, but Journey was something else. After awhile he kept his eyes on the guitarist only, and didn’t question himself about it.
The set ended at about 11, and after a lot of folks had cleared out, Larry broke off from a pair of girls he’d been talking to and gestured at Steve.
“Wanna talk to them while they’re breaking down their gear?” Larry said.
Steve glanced around again, then shrugged. “Might as well.”
Larry looked at him like he wasn’t buying it. He’d known Steve too long. “Come on, wiseass.”
And he walked away, waving at a heavy guy with a beard and shouting something Steve didn’t pay attention to. Neal had come out to break down his Marshall stack, looking distracted.
Steve wandered closer, was introduced to the band’s manager – Herbie - as Larry’s ‘cousin’. Again with the cousin thing. Larry and Herbie ended up talking about where the band was playing next and what kind of reception they’d gotten from the college-age crowd so far. They obviously had an established rapport already, so Steve only interjected the occasional comment about how the show had been. Just a fan, pretending he knew basically nothing about what went into a band.
“You wanna meet the guys?” Herbie said, not realizing what he was about to initiate. Years later he would alternately praise and curse himself for the utterance, and tell himself it made no difference who opened the window because the wind always got in anyway.
“Yeah,” Steve said.
“Neal was cool enough to give us a ride home from the Azteca show last night,” Larry said. “So I guess we shouldn’t bug him.”
Steve shot Larry another sidelong glance, finding Larry grinning widely. Bastard. “He’s something,” Steve said, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice, trying to keep from sounding interested.
“Yeah,” Herbie said, turning slightly to take in the stage and the people still on it. “Just a kid, you know. Mostly self-taught. Almost lost him to Clapton’s band.”
“No fucking way,” Steve said, then snapped his mouth shut again.
Herbie shrugged a little. “England’s a little far for a kid,” he said. “Got him to agree to Santana instead. Then to this. This is gonna be something, when they get done with the jamming thing. Two albums of nothing but is beginning to piss the record company off. Got a third coming up.”
“Aw Herbie, everything pisses those assholes off,” Larry said.
“Shit, they can fuck up a wet dream in a whorehouse,” Herbie said.
Steve laughed aloud, cracking up before he could stop himself.
“Go over, hassle the guys,” Herbie said, nodding at the stage. “I gotta go beat the shit out of the guy who was on the boards, he keeps Rolie’s mic low even after I told him about a million times to raise it.” He waved at Larry. “See you later on.”
Larry shoved Steve a little and said, “You first.”
Steve shot him a look and walked to the stage. Larry walked over and put his elbows on the raised surface, then rapped on it with his knuckles.
Neal glanced up, waved a little. “You back for more abuse, man?”
“Yeah,” Larry said. “Brought my earplugs, though. So I’m okay.”
Neal shook his head, snapping a guitar case shut and flipping Larry off with his free hand.
“That’s one ugly chick you got with you, Lar,” a voice said from Larry’s left. A man with straight blond hair was headed toward them on the floor, wiping his hands on the silver lame’ jumpsuit he was wearing. The bass player.
“Steve, this is Ross’s way of saying he wants to be introduced,” Larry said. “Nice, Ross.”
Ross put a hand out, a loopy grin on his face. “Sorry, but if you’re with Larry, offensive is what you get,” he said.
Steve shook his hand while Larry introduced them. He met Gregg and Aynsley, watched everyone interact with each other, and tried to get a sense of things. They were tight. They’d already been together for years. And they knew what they were doing. His chances of getting in were small.
But that had never stopped him from anything.
Neal went about taking gear down, basically ignoring them, and Steve broke away long enough to walk over and stand in front of him. He had no idea what to say so he said, “You guys here again tomorrow night?”
“Why?” Neal said. “You a groupie?”
Steve stared at him for a moment, and Neal laughed. “Jesus, lighten up. Yeah, we’re here tomorrow, most of the week. Then I don’t know, we don’t have it all lined up.”
“You guys looking for a singer?” Steve said. It sounded casual. He thought.
Neal paused to actually look at him this time, almost sizing him up. “Got one,” he said. “You happen to notice the guy on keys?”
Neal was taunting him, and for some reason he didn’t mind. “I mean a front guy, I guess. Ever think about it?”
“Think about a lot of things,” Neal said. “We ain’t lookin’ for a singer, though.” Then he rose and walked away, winding a cord over his arm as he went.
Steve had blown it, and he wasn’t exactly sure how. Neal had picked something up, catching on to the ulterior motive.
Less than a year later, Journey put their third album out, another fusion jam with a slightly increased focus on vocals. Steve caught them every time they were in town, but he didn’t try and talk to them again. They wouldn’t remember him. And Alien was getting ready to be signed by Chrysalis. It didn’t stop him from watching Neal every chance he got, from keeping track of him.
That summer, while Journey was opening for ELP on the road, Alien’s bass player was killed in a car accident. Any attempt to replace him met resistance from Steve. He couldn’t do it.
Convinced he was cursed, he went home.
When Larry called him to say Journey was really looking for a singer this time, did he want to put a tape together, he said no. But he didn’t stop Larry from taking Alien’s demo and sending it to Herbie.
When Herbie heard it, he knew who it was immediately. Perry had been hanging around the fringe of the band long enough to be recognizable.
“We don’t want this guy,” Gregg said in an incredulous tone of voice less than an hour later. “He’s…crooning, for crissake. We want someone who’s gonna scream.”
“Guess what,” Herbie said. “He’s in the band. Live with it.”
They glanced at each other, wondering what had gone into that choice. Wondering what the hell Herbie was thinking, and what he’d gotten them into.
Herbie walked away, leaving them to look at each other with impatience that none of them even tried to hide.
“We can scare him off,” Ross said.
“I don’t think so,” Gregg said. “He’s been around awhile, he’s been trying to get in here for a couple of years. If he’s that stubborn, I don’t know how we’d get rid of him. Might as well give the guy a chance. Maybe it’ll work out.”
“And if he slips up, we scare him off,” Ross said. He gestured at Neal. “You scare him off, sing for him a little.”
“Fuck off,” Neal said, trying to sound surly and missing the mark. He didn’t know if he cared about the change or not. It wasn’t where he’d wanted the band to go. They couldn’t go on playing endless solos the rest of their career, he knew that. The ultimatum from the record company had been pretty clear. And he didn’t want to start another band from scratch. “We’ll give him, like, thirty seconds,” Neal said. “See if it pans out. Can’t be that bad.”
“There goes our sound,” Aynsley said.
“It was goin’ anyway,” Gregg said. “We’ll still have our signatures. There’s stuff nobody can take away from us. We were gonna move for vocals anyway.”
“Anybody know how to write that kind of shit?” Ross said.
Gregg shrugged. “Maybe the new guy will.”
Ross nodded a little. Then he said, “Maybe he better.”
Steve looked around the gym. It wasn’t going well. They were waiting for him to do something stupid, say the wrong thing, hit a bad note. He didn’t want it to matter, but it did. The record company had handed down one ultimatum, and Herbie had handed them another. It would have pissed him off, he decided. So he didn’t blame them. Much.
It was an outdoor show, they were due on that afternoon, and a local high school gym was being used for warmup and for the bands to store their gear.
“Nice if we could learn how to harmonize,” Gregg said.
“I got something,” Steve said.
“Is it catching?” Ross said.
Steve looked at him warily.
Gregg sighed and said, “Gimme a key, then.” He was tired of the bullshit, wanted the soundcheck over, wanted Ross to cut Perry a little slack.
Steve glanced at him and said, “D’s okay. It’s something I’ve had awhile, something never got done. You want the chorus?”
“Yeah,” Ross said. “All parts, at once.”
Steve grinned, and for a moment Gregg wondered if the guy would actually do something to Ross. But Steve just took a short breath and launched into an even, catchy melody that he broadcast in full voice with no warmup.
“When the lights go down in the city, and the sun shines on the Bay, ooh I wanna be there in my city, whoa, whoa…”
Gregg played it back, adding three other parts of harmony, then played the chords the harmony created. “Do it again,” he said.
Steve did, and Neal layered something over it while he did, it came together that quickly. Then he did it a third time, and when he did, Gregg and Ross added their voices to the mix, making the whoa, whoa, whoooooa into what it was intended to be.
At the end of the fourth time, Steve launched right into the bridge, there’ll be mornings out on the road without you, and it was a capella when everyone paused to listen to it. The result was a soaring entreaty that took advantage of the gym’s acoustics. Just the right amount of echo. The high, clear voice filled the entire space.
Gregg shifted his eyes slightly to his left, catching the look on Neal’s face. The guitarist had a look of consideration where before there had been nothing but mild curiosity. It was all over then, and no one had to say so. What had been on the tape had been a poor representation of the living, breathing version.
Now if they could actually write together…
Maybe there was something to having a singer, after all.
Perry watched the show from the wings, going so far as to mess with the soundboard when no one was looking. Gregg’s mic stayed fine for once. The sound guy didn’t quite know what he was doing, so Steve told him to go get a beer, he’d keep an eye on things. He didn’t bother telling anyone he’d worked at Crystal Studios for a summer before Alien had come together. There was no point, yet. They’d find out.
He didn’t mess with Fleischman’s mic, though. He didn’t want in the band bad enough to screw someone else over. Not yet. And anything he did wouldn’t matter anyway.
Afterwards, back at the hotel, Neal sat on the bed in his room and picked things out, playing for the sake of playing. Steve sat on the other bed and listened, and Neal didn’t mind it. They exchanged some small talk while Neal looped from a Hendrix riff to a Cream riff that segued in just the right way, then to another Hendrix riff. The combo created something different altogether, and Steve started humming along with it, picking out only five or six notes. Neal paused and switched gears suddenly based on the chosen notes, and a new riff came straight out of it.
Steve sat up straighter, not bothering to wonder how they’d done it, only that it had happened. Only that they had known each other less than a day and something was happening, was clicking. Neal played the new riff several times, looping it, grinning a little, and Steve put a melody right over the top without thinking about it. A moment later, words came that he didn’t bother to question.
“Here I stand, so patiently, for your lights to shine on me, for your song inside of me…”
It was easy, almost a little too easy. Five minutes later there was a song. Half an hour after that there was another.
All Neal had to say was, “Cool.” But there was a gleam in his eyes and a smirk on his face impossible to ignore.
Later on, Steve wished he had just been able to keep the impulse to himself. But between making a connection with the guitarist and the euphoria of the success of it, he flew on the moment.
Neal realized Steve had quit singing and was staring at him avidly. He slapped a hand against the fretboard, raising his eyebrows. He’d known the guy for less than a day, and the weirdness was already starting. He didn’t like the look on Steve’s face; the singer looked like he was gearing up for something. And he had yet to see anything good come of a singer gearing up for something.
“We gonna finish this thing?” Neal said.
Steve looked away for a second. Then before Neal could say anything else, the singer had stepped close and was leaning in, leaning over. Then he was in Neal’s personal space, obliterating it. He pressed his mouth to Neal’s lightly without touching him otherwise, a swift moment of surprise and warm connection.
As quick as it happened, it was over, and Steve backed away, looking as amazed as Neal felt. Looking like he hadn’t known it was coming, even though he’d been the one to instigate it.
Neal’s eyebrows were halfway up his forehead, and it was all the reaction he could come up with. Steve stared at him for a moment longer, then couldn’t look at him at all anymore. He walked out of the room, shutting the door behind himself carefully, shutting the door on his time with the band and his career.
Neal went on sitting there without moving, hands poised on the Les Paul as if he might pick up the chord he was still fingering. He couldn’t move his hands, though, didn’t want to break the silence. His eyebrows finally lowered again while he tried to decide what had really happened, and whether it was a big deal.
He got up and went out, checking the lobby of the hotel and finally checking with the other guys. The singer was probably walking the whole thing off.
When he got back to the room, the singer’s things were packed and sitting on the bed.
Neal went back out and glanced around again, knowing this time exactly where the singer was going. Herbie was back at the auditorium already, checking out how the stage was coming along for the next day’s show, probably bitching about the lights. Not a good time or place to quit a band. Herbie would either kill him or beg him to stay. Neither would be pretty.
What’s the big goddamn deal?
So the new guy was into guys. So what? Why leave the band over…
Neal stopped in the lobby, physically held in place by what occurred to him. Unless you’re really crazy about one of the other guys in the band. Perry wasn’t hot for him, was he? It was just some kind of crush, or something. Big deal. It had to be something else, something he didn’t see yet. The chick at the front desk told him someone by Perry’s description had called a cab and left maybe a minute earlier. Neal cursed and went back to his room, got his wallet, and went outside for a cab. He didn’t want the other guys to know what was going on. He didn’t know what he would do, either. Kill him, or beg him to stay. It wasn’t a big enough deal to freak out over. He’d seen worse. Hell, he’d done worse.
It was weird. But he could live with it. Perry wasn’t that bad to look at, either, and…
Jesus, did you actually just think that? Did you like what happened a few minutes ago?
“I don’t know,” he said aloud on the sidewalk, not caring that a couple of folks nearby gave him a weird look. Fuck ‘em. “I don’t fuckin’ know, what difference does it make?” He just hoped he could catch the singer before he got to Herbie.
Steve watched the stage from a small distance, waiting. He could’ve been on it, had he waited, had he not fucked up his only real, final chance to do something.
Over a guitar player, for chrissake. And he didn’t even really like guys.
Neal was probably relaying every gruesome detail to the others by then, and Ross was probably making jokes about how he’d known from the start. Too bad. He’d kind of liked Ross, even though he wasn’t sure how to take him. Aynsley wouldn’t even notice anything had happened, and Gregg would sort of shake his head and be disappointed. They’d all move on and forget him and he’d go back to the goddamn farm where he belonged. And stay there this time. Never sing again. No point to it.
The awful thing was, he wasn’t sure what he mourned more: the loss of a chance with Journey, or the loss of a chance with Neal.
“I need my fuckin’ head examined,” he murmured to himself. More than that, he needed to get out of there with a minimum of fuss.
When it became apparent that Herbie wasn’t showing himself indoors, Steve went out the back and headed for the trailers, one of which was Herbie’s office while on the road. After that he’d check the busses. He didn’t even know what he was going to say. Sorry, I’ve realized this isn’t gonna work out. You guys need someone who isn’t completely nuts.
Then there was a hand on his wrist, someone grabbing him like they knew him. He spun around.
“Hey,” Neal said. “Wait.”
“For what,” Steve said, too conscious of the grip on his wrist, torn between jerking away and listening to what the guitarist had to say. The dull shock of realizing Neal had known where he was settled over him.
“You’re gonna leave over this?” Neal said. When Steve opened his mouth to answer, Neal made a motion with his head toward the trailers. “Not out here,” he said. Then he dragged the singer after him without waiting for agreement.
When they were out of sight in the afternoon shadows, facing each other, Neal put his hands on his hips and looked everywhere but the singer. Gauging how alone they were. Steve folded his arms across his chest, watching, leaning his back against the metal of the trailer. He wanted to concentrate on small external things - the cold of the metal, the annoyance of a breeze blowing his hair across his face. They were easier than the big external thing. “I’m sorry,” he said finally. “That was kind of –“
His voice seemed to startle the guitarist, who interrupted him. “Look,” Neal said, “it’s no big deal, you know. I get it. If it’s some cultural thing, I mean. I can understand that. If that’s like a tradition with Portuguese folks, or something.”
Steve stared at him, trying to catch up. “Cultural?”
Neal shifted his weight from foot to foot, gesturing with his hands. “You know, people from different places...”
Steve stared at Neal for a long moment, listening to him trail off, watching him scuff the ground. “I’m from Hanford, Neal,” he said wryly. He wanted to laugh, once the ground was done swallowing him. He’s trying to give me a safe way out, to let me save face. Tryin’ to save himself.
It was attractive. But not as attractive as the truth.
Neal looked at him, finally meeting his eyes. “Um...”
“My parents are from Portugal,” Steve said. “But I’m as American as it gets. Thanks for tryin’, though.”
Neal nodded a little, looking panicked. Then he said, “So...”
Steve said something in rapid Portuguese, intensifying the guitarist’s frown. Neal went on staring at him, unsure of how to ask what it was about without sounding as dumb as he felt.
“I said, ‘You’re fuckin’ amazing, and I’m not into guys but I’m into you’. Okay?” Steve said.
Neal stared back, searching the singer’s face, looking a little paler. He folded his arms over his chest, mirroring Steve’s pose. Then he said, “I’m not into that kind of thing.”
Steve nodded, careful not to say anything. He’d get through it, it would be over and he’d move on in a lot of ways. He’d survive the moment. He’d gone for it, and lost it, and that was better than never knowing.
As if sensing Steve’s mortification, Neal said, “I mean, even if I was, which I’m not...I can’t mess with people I’m workin’ with. And I don’t know you, really, who you are or nothin’, I mean we barely met, right? And stuff like that never works out, so it’s not like you’re bad or anything, I mean, for folks who are into that kind of thing...”
God, Steve thought. God, please make him shut up, or strike me dead, or something.
“...can’t just pretend like that stuff don’t matter. And...”
Neal trailed off, staring at him again, but intently this time, hands finally still.
Then he stepped forward and took Steve’s face between his hands, leaning in and kissing him. It was hesitant and respectful, but there was just enough weight behind it to make Steve open up beneath it, breathe into it. It was only a span of seconds, a warm instant of what could be, and then Neal’s hands were on the side of the trailer and he was shoving himself away.
Breathing hard, Neal stared at him for a long moment, looking ready to bolt. Then he said, “Not sure about this.”
“Me neither,” Steve whispered, his eyes a little dazed.
Then Neal walked away. Conversation over.
Soundcheck the next day was awful.
Nobody had anything to say about why Steve and Neal absolutely had nothing to do with each other. It sailed right over everyone’s head at first. They’d only known each other a day. So what if there was no eye contact, so what if both of them had shut completely up? It didn’t matter. They let Steve jump in on a song called ‘For You’, pushing him to sing it without telling him why. Without telling him that they way he sang it was getting Fleischman fired before the day was out.
Steve agreed to tag along for several dates before committing fully to the band. Herbie wanted an answer by the end of the week, and there was only one answer he wanted to hear.
During that week, Neal spoke only one sentence to the singer: something to the effect that it would be dumb to leave.
On October 28th, Steve went onstage with the band for the first time, performing ‘Lights’ and doubling up with Gregg on two songs. The crowd hated him; it was no longer the Journey they were used to, and they let the ‘new guy’ know it.
17 songs were written in the time it usually had taken them to write one while they had Perry on the road with them. More than enough for a new album. As soon as the tour was over, they’d go straight into the studio. There was a momentum gathering just from having him along. He’d find a stage presence eventually, Gregg kept saying. The fans they had were hardcore, but they’d get over the change the way the band would get over it. They’d accept him.
Two months later
Aw Jesus, not again.
Ross came down the hallway and found Steve pacing it again. He paused to stare at the singer, wanting to ask why he and Neal couldn’t get along. He kept his mouth shut, because if he kept quiet and threw the occasional joke for smokescreen, he’d get ten times further in half the time. “You boys having fun?”
Steve gave him a sour look. “They kicked me out of the lobby. I’d hang out somewhere else, but there is nowhere else.”
“You keep hanging out in me and Gregg’s room, everyone’s gonna start thinkin’ you’re afraid of the walking tumbleweed,” Ross said, tossing a thumb at the closed door.
Neal had been at it with every groupie that came near him since Perry had joined the band. That in itself was nothing big to worry about, he was young and the band was taking off. It didn’t help that some of it was getting filmed. But no big deal.
“Whyn’t you join in, break up the pattern?” Ross said, the tone only half joking. He had a grin ready for when Perry turned his head, but it faded when he got a look at the singer’s face.
Then it was gone, replaced with a careful indifference. Ross knew he hadn’t imagined it. He let it confuse him for a moment. He was missing something. But he’d file it all away and let the pieces come together when they should.
“I don’t think that’ll work out,” Steve said, tone carefully neutral. There was a blush to go with it, though. “He’s fuckin’ everything that moves, but I’m not his speed, you know?”
Ross nodded a little, careful to keep it a noncommittal gesture. “Aynsley’s already asleep, but you can hang with us. I promise not to tell anyone you’re afraid of the tumbleweed. Yet.”
Steve shrugged again. “Thanks. I guess if I’m gonna get any sleep, it ain’t out here in the hallway.”
Ross had been kidding. Just kidding. But the idea wouldn’t go away.
So, three weeks later, when Neal was drunk enough to not only be getting into it with a groupie backstage in front of everybody but actually taunt Steve while doing so, Steve took him up on it.
There was never agreement, later, about who was sorrier. If the groupie noticed that she was being used as a poor, almost nonexistent shield, she didn’t let on.
It backfired. Hard.
Neal went back to ignoring him, if he could. Steve let the space go for two days, then cornered Neal in their room again. He sat on the opposite bed, watching Neal silently play an unplugged electric. There was no sense dancing around it.
“Can you handle this?” Steve said. “You want me to leave?”
“No,” Neal said, and neither of them were sure if he was saying ‘no’ to both things or just the latter.
“I didn’t hear you complaining,” Steve said. “You also kinda didn’t want me to leave originally, so I’m wondering who’s stringing who out, here.”
Neal shook his head a little. He didn’t want to have this conversation, but somehow he didn’t want to not have it, either. “I thought you’d give it up, you know? I thought it would just wear off or something.”
“It didn’t,” Steve said flatly.
There was silence between them or a long moment. Then before he even knew he was going to say it, Neal said, “Are you in love with me?”
Steve thought about it for a moment, not what he would answer but how.
Neal mistook the hesitation. “What the fuck do you want, then?”
“I am,” Steve said. “In love with you. I didn’t think it would be good to admit it.”
“Nice to know you know me well enough to decide what I’ll understand or not,” Neal snapped, not sure what had set him off and not caring. “You like the image of me, the idea of me, right?”
Steve looked at him steadily. “Nice that you know me well enough to decide what I’m feeling,” he said. “I’m not a fuckin’ groupie, even though I pretty much let you treat me like one.”
Neal sighed, taken a little aback. He shifted, more than a little uncomfortable.
“I’ve never wanted anybody this bad,” Steve said. “I don’t know how to do this.”
“Join the fuckin’ club,” Neal said. Then he looked up and stared. “What’d you just say?”
“You heard me,” Steve said evenly.
“Yeah,” Neal said. “Say it again.”
“What difference does it make?”
“Goddamnit, if you meant it –“
“Neal,” Steve said, “when somebody admits somethin’ that’s fuckin’ amazing to them, you sort of just let them say it once.”
“Steve,” Neal said, that same taunting tone returning, “when folks really mean something, they’ll scream it off a fuckin’ rooftop without bein’ told. You got something you wanna say to me, Perry?”
Steve stared at him for a long moment. Then he deliberately said, “I want you bad enough to drop everything else over it. I don’t even care if it lasts, I don’t care if you get tired of me after a…fuck it, I’d settle for a fling. Do you get it? Do you want me to draw you a diagram?”
“No,” Neal said. “I get it.” He paused. “I wish stuff was different, you know? I just don’t…I mean…I don’t know what I mean.”
“Could you see it happening?” Steve said.
“No,” Neal said, and he meant it.
It was silent between them for a long moment. Then Steve rose and came toward him, and Neal didn’t even have time to see it coming. The singer was on the bed with him, in his lap, insinuating himself in his space, in his life, across everything. Knocking him over with a laugh.
And then stuff was different.
Really, really different.
Unfortunately, different enough that after about 15 minutes or so, despite best intentions and more than a little willingness, laughter was the only result. They ended up on the floor laughing hysterically and inarticulately, still mostly clothed. It was a good thing, because no one had locked the door, and Gregg opened it a few minutes later with only a light knock for warning to say they were going out to check a few bands and maybe get shitfaced, did they wanna come?
The reception he got was too close to hysteria for two supposedly sober guys, so he wondered what he’d said and what he’d really walked in on. Then he shrugged and closed the door again after calling them assholes and telling them to hurry up.
It was a long evening.
They saw three separate bands at a local bar, one of which Gregg and Neal already knew the members of. After some jamming, the other band’s drummer came down to their table to talk to them and was introduced to Steve.
“Yeah,” Neal said. “This is the new guy, and we’re not sure what to do with him.”
“Or how to do it,” Steve said.
Uproarious laughter followed from both. Ross was staring at Gregg, trying to ask what was going on without asking. Gregg shrugged. “Boys’ll be boys,” he said. It had been pretty obvious that Steve and Neal were up to something, but it was also obvious there’d been a hell of a lot of tension over the last couple of months. And it was even more obvious that they were both drunker than hell.
“So you guys come up with any new stuff?” Ross said, watching Aynsley beat the hell out of someone else at pool.
“Lost of stuff,” Neal slurred. “No wait. Lots. Lots.”
“Keepin’ the creative juices flowing,” Steve said, and Neal slid to his knees on the floor of the bar, laughing.
Ross said, “We gotta get these clowns outta here.”
“No argument from me,” Gregg said, stepping over Neal and leaning down to help prop him up. Ross pulled from the other side, and they got Neal back on his feet, trying to ignore the raised eyebrows of the other patrons.
“You guys’ve had enough,” Gregg said. “C’mon, back to the hotel. Busy day tomorrow.”
“Busy night, too,” Neal said, and went on laughing. Steve was leaning on the table with a bemused look on his face, head tipped forward so that he was watching them from below.
Ross watched the byplay and had one small moment where the context insinuated itself into a pattern he could identify. But he shook it off, choosing to throw a few bills on the bar and start them all moving for the exit. He was tired, and the low lighting had made it seem like...
Perry was a flirt. That was all. A flirt with large, luminous eyes, a willowy frame, and a penchant for taking Neal’s antics with groupies badly.
And there it was.
Jesus, Ross thought. There’s no way Neal would –
“We got studio time in the morning,” Gregg was saying, waving to get Aynsley’s attention. “We’re gonna put you assholes to bed so Herbie doesn’t kill us.”
“Yeah, okay,” Steve said. “Bed.”
Neal went on laughing, unable to stand up straight as a result.
“What the fuck is wrong with them?” Aynsley said, holding the door open.
“I’m not sure they even know,” Ross said.
Between himself and Gregg, Ross managed to get Neal back to his room without anyone getting hurt. Perry was still under his own steam, trailing along behind them with a sly smile on his face that probably only seemed like it was sly because the singer was drunk.
“You guys gonna be fine?” Ross said, watching Neal collapse on one of the beds, still laughing.
“Sure,” Steve said. Gregg had waved his hands at them and vanished down the hall.
Ross shook his head, turned the lock on the inside of the knob, and shut the door firmly behind himself.
He was almost afraid to do it.
It was dark in the bar, I’m tired, and I’m imagining shit, Ross thought. He moved down the hall to his own room, locking the door and turning the bed down, too tired to watch TV or anything else. Gregg was already asleep and snoring. It was later than he’d thought. He washed up and crawled into bed, turning the lights off before he did so.
There was a thud from the room next door, followed by a yelp.
“Didn’t imagine that,” he muttered. They had to be just stumbling around, or something. That was all.
There was a loud, heartfelt moan from the next room, and Ross recognized the voice. He put his pillow over his head and hoped it would either block the noise, or suffocate him. It didn’t matter which. Fuck, he thought.
There was the unmistakable sound of a headboard being slammed against a wall.
Yep, he thought. That’s an affirmative on the ‘fuck’.
Gregg slept through it and remained oblivious, and Ross was grateful.
It was a long night.
The next morning, Herbie called a meeting to ‘see how they were getting along’. It was a thinly veiled attempt to warn the existing members of the band to play well with others, hangovers notwithstanding. It was short but not painless. Steve stood against one wall, trying to lean casually without looking too sick.
Unable to resist, Ross said, “Room to sit down over here,” and gestured at the extra chairs scattered around.
Steve focused on him blearily, not catching on. “No thanks.”
“You sure you don’t wanna sit down?” Ross said.
Steve looked at him, and his eyes widened a little. He looked a little sicker. Ross began humming ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’ under his breath.
When Herbie had gotten his point across, and was nearly jumping up and down over hearing about the writing that was going on, they broke it up. Steve vanished almost immediately, claiming he was going to go look for some aspirin and orange juice.
Neal dragged himself outside and sat on a retaining wall in the hotel’s parking lot, finding the daylight offensive but wanting fresh air anyway. Ross followed and sat down next to him.
“Jesus,” Neal said.
“From what I heard, Perry found God last night, and it had nothin’ to do with the bible in the nightstand,” Ross said.
Neal refused to look at him, but Ross saw him flinch a little. He tried to remind himself that Neal was just a bigheaded kid trying to be things he wasn’t, while being too much of what he already was.
“Keep it quiet, okay?” Ross said.
“Is that a warning?” Neal said.
“No, Neal. It’s a desperate plea.”
Neal glanced up for just a moment, and Ross realized it was a quick, dull search for disapproval. Ross shrugged and grinned. “I’m just sayin’. Stuff like this fucks up a band, especially...”
“I’m not gay,” Neal blurted, eyes down again.
“That’s not the point,” Ross said.
“I’m not,” Neal asserted.
“Don’t matter,” Ross said. “I’m not judging you, shithead. I owe it to you to have it come from me, before it comes from Herbie, or the press.”
Neal was silent, fidgeting a little. Then he said, “Especially what.”
Ross shrugged again.
“You said, ‘fucks up a band, especially,’ and there was somethin’ after that.”
Ross sighed a little, bringing his hands down on his thighs.
“It was just a one-off,” Neal said. “Nothin’ serious, just wanted to see what it was like.”
“No,” Ross said. “You know better. Don’t kid a kidder, kid. He’s got it bad for you, so bad that if you walk up and say ‘one-off ’, we’ll be short a really good singer. And you won’t see what’s really happened.”
He wanted to say what’s gotten into you and he didn’t because he knew Neal would only say he didn’t know. And he’d be telling the truth.
“You don’t have to pay attention to me,” Ross said. “I could just keep my damn mouth shut. But I’m minding my business. You’re my business, jackass.”
Neal nodded reluctantly, sort of a rueful side-to-side motion that said yeah yeah I know you’re right.
“I don’t care who you’re fucking,” Ross said. “Don’t matter if you’re gay or not gay or polka-dotted or upside down or inside out. Be careful and be happy.”
Ross stood and walked away.
“Ross,” Neal said.
Ross paused without turning.
Ross nodded a little and walked on.
There was no one moment where either of them realized it had become a thing. Morning-after regrets faded, embarrassment about what Ross had discerned went with it. Curiosity won out, and not long after that they were a thing.
Nearly a year passed. Groupies were fine. Girlfriends were fine. When Neal got married that fall, that was fine. They had an understanding that so long as they realized what was happening, that the two of them weren’t some passing phase, it was okay. So long as they were together and kept it quiet, it was okay. So long as they acknowledged that it was better between them than with anyone else, that it came out in the music, that they were crazy about each other while driving each other crazy, it was okay. And it made everything else seem okay. Somewhere along the way affection went with it.
Sometimes they fought just to make up.
When the Infinity tour finally ended, they went right back in to the studio for another album. And when the result, Evolution, came out, they went straight back on the road. The pace was grueling, but the work was worth it when radio started playing the album. Things couldn’t have been any better.
Halfway through the tour, Steve caught what he thought was a cold he couldn’t shake. He ignored it.
The St. Louis show went off without a hitch. Steve hit every single note, but drew none of them out. He didn’t have the breath.
On the tour bus, Neal plopped down next to him, following his gaze out the window. “You oughta see a doctor,” he said. “This shit’s hangin’ on forever.”
Steve nodded a little, too tired to do more, too tired to talk.
“Whyn’t you go lay down in the back?” Neal said.
“Nah,” Steve said. “This’s comfortable.” He didn’t want to say that lying down was impossible, that he could only breathe sitting up. He’d go to the doctor in a couple of days. They’d have a day off after the next night’s show. He’d make it. It was just the flu, after all. Anybody could handle it.
Neal looked around a little, checking to see how alone they were. The same way he’d done it the first day they’d known each other, nearly 18 months earlier. Then he slid an arm behind Steve’s shoulders and pulled him in. Steve’s head came to rest on Neal’s chest, and it was comfortable enough that they sat like that for several minutes.
“Be okay?” Neal said.
“Yeah,” Steve said.
Then Neal kissed the top of the singer’s head and left him alone, moving off elsewhere in the bus to give them both a chance to sleep.
When they pulled into a rest stop the next morning, Gregg tried to awaken Steve. But he was long since cold.
He was buried a week later in Hanford, with his parents and bandmates in attendance. A handful of cousins. A double handful of friends. It was quiet and low key and partly cloudy, and Neal didn’t hear a word of the sermon because he was still hearing the results of the autopsy being spoken over and over. Walking pneumonia.
Neal had said, “I told him to get to a doctor,” and he hadn’t said anything about it since.
“It’s like we got punished,” Neal said later.
“You don’t really believe that, do you?” Ross said.
Neal shrugged. “I don’t know, maybe it’s just easier than thinkin’ he’s gone for no reason, that it was a dumb accident.”
“Nobody fuckin’ dies of walking pneumonia,” Neal said.
Ross kept quiet, knowing that people did in fact die of it. The point didn’t do anyone any good now.
“Teena don’t understand why I’m goin’ on and on about it for so long,” Neal said. “You know, I sorta thought for awhile that maybe I wished we’d just been friends, that we didn’t…get involved. But it’s dumb. I’d do it again, today, even if I knew it would fuckin’ kill me later on.”
That told Ross all he needed to know, about how equal it had been from both sides.
“We gotta go on,” Neal said. “Journey. I just…I don’t want nothin’ to do with replacin’ him.”
“I know,” Ross said. “But you gotta have some input. You got to.”
“I don’t wanna hear the songs anymore either, but we gotta play ‘em, don’t we?” Neal said. “Otherwise, it was all for nothing.” He paused. Then he said, “I never said nothin’ to him, you know? We didn’t talk about it. We were just…us.”
Ross waited a beat, then said, “You didn’t need to say anything.”
“Yeah I did,” Neal said. “He came right out and said how he felt, and I never said anything because it wasn’t like me. Now he’ll never hear me. Better to have loved and lost, right?”
Ross looked at him and said, “I think you guys heard each other in ways other folks can’t. You told me about that first day, how the music came out of the air. It’s ‘cause you guys got stuff across to each other pretty easy. So, out of all the music you wrote the last 18 months, you’re telling me you’ve never said anything to him?”
Neal thought about it a moment. “I think we’d’ve gotten tired of each other eventually, and it woulda sucked.”
“And that would be easier?” Ross said.
“He’d be alive,” Neal said. “Be better to have him alive and pissed at me.”
“You didn’t have anything to do with it, Neal,” Ross said. “It just – “
“It was too perfect,” Neal said. “I don’t think I’d’ve had the patience to chase him all over the fuckin’ place and try to get into a band and wait months while he got his shit together.”
There was nothing Ross could add that would make anything better, that would comfort. He didn’t try to stop Neal when he rose and walked away.
Journey went on with another singer, and they wrote as much new material as possible. Trying to bury the old material without burying the memory of the person who’d written it with them. When Gregg retired a year later and Jonathan came along, things got easier. The band got to be everything they’d been trying to make it and then some, and nobody talked about going back. No one dwelled in the past.
Never once did they play ‘Patiently’ live again. The only time it was played was once every September, and only by Neal to an audience of one in a small cemetery in Northern California.