I desperately lunged to catch Daniel when his body began to limp forward, but he clutched my shoulder and straightened himself with a half-smile. He began to sing again hoarsely, grabbed the microphone stand and brushed the sweat from his eyes and forehead. He shook his head, loosening the clinging sweat from his hair, jumbling his thoughts so that he could disturb the images that popped into his head and brought buried emotions up out of his flesh, out of his fingers, out of his guitar. He screwed his eyes tightly and his mouth opened wide into a low scream. His cheeks erupted in semi-arched lines and he pulled his face away from the microphone so that the scream that had been pushing its way to escape all the shackles, locks, and binds could finally emerge into this awful world.
He twisted his body like a corkscrew, straightened himself again, and rigidly stood still. He began to sway from side to side, while the chanting crowd pushed its fists through the smoky air. His voice grew shriller; the nerves on his neck puffed out, sweat dripped down his forehead and temples, small droplets followed the contour of his smooth skin and then fell from the soft curve of his jaw. He did not cry, but I hoped he would so that the crowd would lose interest in his exaggerated anguish and that the room would gradually empty while his eyes were still screwed shut to embarrass and jolt him from his perceived melancholy.
His songs described dark rooms, angry words spewed out of dirty mouths, and hands flying across soft cheeks. He sang despairingly of old romance intertwined with anachronistic idealism. Of yearning and despising a person, of simultaneously needing and spurning someone. The piercingly loud guitars screeched in accompaniment and one gruff voice yelled out in a brief lull, right after a bitter line was spit out. His voice always screamed out during brief lulls before the sudden onslaught of guitars belted out individual tunes. The drums patiently waited during these moments, almost submerged in the background but keeping beat for the rest of the band as they raced through loose melodies that were roughly wrapped up at the end of each song or left open-ended and leading into the beginning melody of the next.
I grew restless, seemingly unable to stop myself from staring at him and finding him attractive onstage, but I also needed to scan the room.
His voice suddenly whispered, only accompanied by the lonely sound of his guitar. The drums entered, loudly repeating the tune, followed by the second guitar. Daniel’s guitar continued to belt out the same tune and the bass was barely perceptible in the conversation that ensued between the two guitars. The crowd waited until Daniel began to sing again. In the next stanza, he and Graham sang together, then allowed their guitars to continue the conversation. The second guitar began to persistently argue with the first, almost winning, before Daniel began to sing again. He repeated the same sentences, the other instruments falling silent as his guitar rapidly articulated, before he suddenly screamed out about futility. The two guitars softly cooed to each other. The second guitar dropped out of the tune and the first guitar ended the song with a plaintive note.
At the end of the set, he thanked the crowd for its attention and smiled, saying, “I’d love to play all night!” All the hysterics and showmanship disappeared and he regained his strict composure. He disappeared into the crowd. People began to file out the door and a small group lingered in front of the merch table. The rest of the band hastily began to pack up, carrying pieces to the van parked in the alley.
“So, what did you think?” Daniel said, appearing next to me.
“It was good. It was really really good. The crowd loved you tonight.”
“I know! Did you think it was too much?”
He wiped the sweat out of his eyes with the bottom of his shirt. I peeked at his thin flat torso.
“No, not at all. You were appropriately emotional. You’ve amassed quite a legion of girls there. They were so rapt with your performance.”
I redirected my attention to the main exit in time to see Ami leaving. I didn’t think he would come because of what had happened last night.
Outside, the night air felt fresh. My ears buzzed in the sudden silence. Most of the kids had turned corners and disappeared. Legions of them hunched over in black.
No sign of Ami.
“Hey,” a voice said nearby.
I turned to face the wall behind me and shook the hair out of my eyes.
“Hey! I was just looking for you.”
“I know. You didn’t think I would show up, did you?”
“Actually, no…you’ve never been a fan of them.”
Ami waited while someone passed between us and then approached me. His hands reached out toward me, but he stopped himself and instead thrust them into his pockets. He looked past me and a gust of wind stirred the heavy scent of smoke from our clothes. A stray lock of hair fell onto his forehead. He looked down, standing with his legs wide apart.
“Are you driving over to Daniel’s?” I asked.
“Yes, did you want to come?”
“Sure, why not. I was going to try to get a lift with the guys, but I’d rather not sit in the van inhaling their sweat.”
“Are you really leaving?”
“Yes, I wanna way out.”
“You’ll only be gone for six months. We’ll still be here.”
Entering the apartment, I could hear Daniel’s voice slowly growing shriller and finally break into a half-yell, half-satirical laugh. He stumbled around senselessly in the kitchen, periodically holding onto the countertop and letting go, the bright fluorescent lights showcasing every emotion that flashed across his face and deepening the hollows of his eyes.
“Didn’t I tell you guys this story? The one about how she kicked me out of the car in the middle of the night and I had to walk ten blocks home? And I still called her when I got back to the apartment to apologize? Hey, Molly! Ami! What took you guys so long?”
Daniel fell into a storyteller mood, telling stories that he had kept hidden in the confines of his mind for such an occasion. He expelled words in a quick tumble, barely connecting nouns with verbs. The other guys laughed with him, relieved that he continued to laugh at himself. Every now and then Daniel’s feverish glance swept in my direction, and I smiled with my teeth. He lightened the weight of each word, deriding its meaning. His deep melodious voice, much loved on the phone, continued, and I grew uncomfortably aware of the need to escape to the balcony.
His dry laugh was distasteful and I hoped that he would stop confessing his most embarrassing romantic failures. At other times, he would zealously evoke a self-confident presentation of himself, deepening his voice and following each witty phrase with a hard look to check whether you were clever enough to understand his humor. But there was always that hint of desperation in his actions and conversations, an underlying message of needing assistance, and a constant requirement for understanding.
I couldn’t laugh. I understood the underlying truth within the hazy words contrived for their entertainment but only exposing awful irony to me. I watched him, and grew enraptured with his misery.
I finally stepped outside, shutting out the conversation with the rolling glass door. Holding onto the wooden balcony, I watched distant cars drive intermittently down the dark roads. The apartment complex was quiet for a Friday night. I sank into an unbroken lawn chair and zipped up my hoodie before glancing at my phone to see the time. I checked all of my messages, playing some of them again, smiling at the mumbling voices. I uncrossed my legs and wanted to go home without having to pass through the apartment. I stopped shaking my dangling foot and forced myself back inside.
Daniel looked up as I walked into the living room.
“Where’d you go? Were you outside? I didn’t even notice you had left. How long were you gone?”
Frank and Patrick redirected his attention to their interrupted conversation on, thankfully, a more innocuous topic. I was saved from replying, but Graham still stared at me. I forced a smile and staggered to the bathroom, quickly shutting and locking the door. I washed my hands, quietly opened the medicine cabinet and flinched when I heard it squeak. There wasn’t much in there; just a few over-the-counter medicines, a razor, shaving cream, some bottles of lotion, and hair gel. Disappointed, I shut it, pushing gently until the latch clicked softly, and then looked into the cabinets, which held towels, toilet paper, and other basic bathroom supplies.
I moved the toilet lid down and sat on it. The shower curtain was stretched across the entire bathtub and the bathroom was very tidy. Even the wastebasket was empty.
There was a knock on the door and Ami said, “Molly, are you okay? You’ve been in there for a while and we’ve started getting worried. Are you feeling well?”
I didn’t answer and instead reached down to retie my shoelaces.
The knocking persisted. “Molly, please answer. I didn’t think you drank at all tonight, but what were you doing on the balcony?”
Annoyed, I answered, “I’m fine. Just give me a minute. I’m a bit embarrassed to be using the bathroom but you know how when you have to go, you have to go. And having people wonder where I am is not helping.”
Ami laughed. “Sorry.”
I waited a few minutes before flushing the toilet and running the sink water, then flipped the ventilator switch on, and waited a few more seconds before opening the door.
Ami was sitting on the bed waiting for me.
“What gives? Don’t go in there. The ventilator needs some time.”
He rose from the bed and wrapped his arms around me.
“Are you okay?”
I unwrapped myself and stepped back. “Actually, I don’t appreciate you laughing at Daniel.”
“What do you mean? It’s just harmless fun. He doesn’t seem to mind and he’s still telling stories out there,” he said, nodding toward the other room.
“I’m serious. You don’t see me laughing at him, do you? You guys all think he’s just a big joke. It’s one thing that his neighbors always come over just for free entertainment, but we drove all the way here as friends and we should be acting as friends. You haven’t known him that long, but I have, and I know that he won’t appreciate you laughing at him tomorrow.”
“C’mon, Molly. Don’t be angry. You know I don’t mean anything by it. Don’t take it so seriously. He probably doesn’t care.”
“You know what? I don’t think this is working out.”
“What isn’t? What are you talking about?” Ami asked with widening eyes.
I examined his face, memorizing his dark complexion and large round eyes, then stared into his dilated pupils. I glanced down at his small mouth and then at his crumpled shirt.
“I have to go. I’m pretty tired.”
Daniel’s face lit up when I entered the living room.
“Hey, how are you?”
“I gotta go. I’m pretty tired.” I could feel a light pressure on my lower back.
I walked over to hug Daniel and wished the guys a good night before reaching for my bag. I heard Ami quickly saying goodbye behind me.
“Hey, come back again any time, Ami. Molly knows my number if you ever wanna stop by.”
MICHELLE ONG’S writing has appeared in Arabesques Review, Oriental
Tales Magazine, and JustSayGo.