I drew my earbuds out of my pocket and plugged them into my ears. Nothing like New York City at night with a soundtrack. Time to fire up some Ash Black. My boots powered down the sidewalk. With his deep, growling voice stroking me through the chords, I felt powered up and ready for anything.
That was what I loved about music, the adrenaline, the freedom. That surge when you heard the opening chords of your favorite song.
My ex-boyfriend Stan had never understood that. Stable and level-headed, hardworking and loyal, he had all the makings of a wonderful husband and father. My parents had loved him. They were only getting older, already in their mid-to-late-sixties. They wanted to know when I was going to give them grandbabies. Stan had been ready to sign up for the job, buy the house down the street from my parents and unfurl that future.
The only problem was me. I knew plenty of other girls who would have loved the stabile, predictability of Stan. He was a handsome guy, polite to my parents. We ate spaghetti together every Monday night, take-out Chinese every Wednesday and pizza on Fridays. Sundays we had dinner with my parents. We went to the gym Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and had sex Friday and Saturday nights. In his apartment, we’d turn out the lights and have our five minutes in heaven missionary-style in his bed. It wasn’t even long enough for me to work out my to-do list for the next day or figure out what I needed at the grocery store, though I usually got a good start on both while we did the deed.
Ultimately, I couldn’t do it. Stan and I already had long stretches of silence, nothing to say to each other while we sat on the couch in front of the TV. I tried to tell myself that meant we were super, duper comfortable together. But if we were already like an old, boring, married couple before we even got engaged, what did that mean? How was that going to play out?
I’d broken things off a year ago. I’d heard from a friend back home that he was already engaged to someone else, some girl I didn’t know whom he’d met online. I wished them luck.
Who knew, it had probably been a stupid mistake to end things. I was probably just a ridiculous dreamer, holding on to fantasies in blatant defiance of reality. The kind of guy I dreamed about probably didn’t even exist in real life. I knew I’d read too many romance novels, grown all too enchanted with the archetype of the strong, tough, sexy bad boy with the heart of gold.
But I was only 24. Wasn’t it a little too soon for me to turn up my hands and say ‘eh’, all right, I give up, I’ll settle. Couldn’t I be allowed a little more time to dream?
Because, what if? What if there was a guy out there who made my blood rush and my heart beat, a guy who could make me laugh and feel wild and reckless and alive. A man who gave me the kind of thrill I felt when listening to my favorite music, that sense that the future was limitless, that I could do anything I wanted and more.
I’d always been a good girl, but I’d always had a thing for bad boys. There’d been a guy at my high school with a motorcycle and a black leather jacket. He’d been a year ahead of me. I’d watched him, shy and quiet, and he’d never noticed me. Until one day after school, he’d caught me looking, stepping through the autumn leaves holding my books. He’d given me a sexy wink and a beckoning smile, then invited me over with a tilt of his head. He’d patted the seat behind him on his bike as if to say, “It’s yours if you want it. Let me take you on a ride.”
My eyes wide, I’d looked down and scurried away. I didn’t even know him. I wasn’t about to hop up on a motorcycle with him. Besides, my mother had told me a million times I was never allowed to ride one because they were so dangerous, death traps she called them, shaking her head when we saw one on the road.
But that moment had stayed with me. It wasn’t so much that one guy. It was the idea of him, of that moment. The path not taken. The opportunity missed.
I’d played it safe for a good, long time, but I’d been slowly spreading my wings. Finishing my degree at a four-year SUNY a little further from home, pursuing a degree in library science, finding a job in the city and moving to Brooklyn. Step by step, I was building my own life. Nothing wild and crazy. Yet.
But I had a feeling inside. It wasn’t something I could name, nothing I could put my finger on. But I tingled with possibility. I was young and the city expanded before me, the driving beat and sexy voice of Ash Black in my ear. Anything could happen. I didn’t know what would happen next. But I did know that the next time a hot guy patted the motorcycle seat behind him and invited me to hop on, I wasn’t going to say no. I was going to run over, jump up, wrap my arms and legs around him and say “Hell, yeah! Let’s go for a ride!”
I’d grown up in New York, but it was a funny thing. Once you’d lived in California for a couple of years, all that biting wind and slush? You realized there was another way. Sure, you could brave it all, charge through the fiercest storms as tough as nails. But once you’d lived in California you realized that you didn’t have to. There was a land, a golden land, with beaches and palm trees and sunshine. OK, where I lived in San Francisco it was mostly fog but at least it never did this shit, with the driving sleet coming at you from an angle that just seemed deliberately vicious.
I ducked into a coffee shop. My buddy Vance lived around here in SoHo, or at least he had when we’d last partied, which now I realized had been a year or so ago. Things got hectic in the Ash carnival. I texted him again:
Two o’clock on a Friday afternoon, I guessed Vance would be into hanging out. Vance was the kind of cavalier rich kid I’d grown up with, the type who drank Krystal for breakfast and ate pussy for lunch. Right now he was probably flanked by hot chicks, one to the right, one to the left and one right between his legs. He was always up for a party.
I’d flown in from S.F. last night and checked myself into a hotel because I’d be damned if I’d see my family any more than I had to. I’d headed out, figuring I could meet up with Vance, and now I guessed I might as well grab a coffee. Baseball cap down low over my face, I got in line like the rest of the poor schmucks in New York, standing around and waiting to order.
Day four of Mandygate as my agent, Joel, had started calling it, and this thing wasn’t going away. It wasn’t getting any better. If I were honest, it was getting worse. I’d lost a sponsor, our biggest one for the New Year’s show.
Before the video, I’d been all set to headline the Super Bowl halftime show. The t’s were crossed, i’s dotted, the big news was going to be announced in a couple of weeks. But now they were having second thoughts. Was I family friendly enough? As if before I’d broken up with Mandy Monroe I’d been a cuddly teddy bear, but now the world saw me as a grizzly.
Yesterday Mandy had leaked 30 seconds of a new song, all about her heart twisting and aching and breaking. Over-the-top bullshit, all of it, but people were eating it up. And sending me hate mail. With death threats on Facebook, “#DieAsh” was gaining alarming popularity on Twitter. I didn’t spend a lot of time with my fan base on social media—make that any time—I had people to handle that. I was too busy out living life and actually doing the shit that made me fans. But the last couple nights I’d stayed up late, alone and sober, watching the waves of hate roll in. Because something about it, all that trash talk, a strange, small part of me had to agree. I was an asshole. How had i
t taken the world so long to realize it? I’d known it all along.
Shit, someone recognized me. The worst kind, a girl, maybe around 17. They didn’t hold back, the young ones, like wild tigresses after a meal. I popped the collar on my jacket and tucked my chin into it. Brim pulled down low, hands in my pockets, everything about me gave off the “stay the fuck away” vibe.
She started whispering with her friend. I took my phone out of my pocket. Nothing back from Vance. Something from my agent Joel, of course.
Find her yet?
I rolled my eyes. He’d cooked up some half-baked rescue plan last night, something about getting back at Mandy with her own medicine. I hadn’t followed all of it, told him he’d lost his mind. This had to blow over soon. Not yet, though.
By the time I got up to the counter, I could feel a rumble behind me. Like the start of a small earthquake, a tremor building up. Whispering and phones clicking, the girls were snapping photos of me and spreading the word.
“Double tall latte.” I leaned in close to the girl behind the counter so I didn’t have to speak loudly. That was the problem with having one of the most recognizable voices in the world. My deep, gravelly snarl had made me famous, working my way into bedrooms and hearts all over. Now it made the barista scowl.
Giving me the stink-eye, she punched in my order. Then she turned her back and whispered to her co-worker by the coffee machines. The other one looked over her shoulder at me like I’d committed war crimes. They must be raging Mandy Monroe fans. God knew what they’d do to my coffee.
My phone rang. Joel again. I’d already ducked three of his calls.
“Hey, man.” I tucked myself into a corner, trying for inconspicuous. A couple more people walked into the coffee shop, joining the girls in line, staring over at me.
“I almost got you on Good Morning America.”
“Cool.” I didn’t really mean it. I hated morning shows and all the smarminess that went along with them. But I knew if I needed to hang onto all this, keep the Ash Black brand on top of the world, I needed to do it. I needed to hang my head and show America I wasn’t such a bad guy after all. But the strange thing about all this crisis was the part of me—a growing part of me—asking why exactly should I give a shit about any of this? Why did it matter so much for me to stay so famous? Why did I have to care if I did Good Morning America or not? What was the point?