Blood, Sweat, and a Breakup Bondage Set
The singer always walked up to her microphone. She always closed her eyes and she belted out the song. She’d sing all of the lyrics found on the walls of her soul and the words carved into the myocardium of her heart. She’d raise her head to the sky and hold her arms out to her sides and let the music say all the things she couldn’t, all the things she heard circling in her head but that were too heavy to push past her lips.
She has done this every show since him. She’d give it her all and then collapse in her bed and worry that it wasn’t enough. She’d let herself think desolate thoughts, would let all those unspoken fears in her head ring true in the silence of her bedroom. There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of words in my head, and the most powerless feeling is knowing that amongst such an ocean of diction there is still nothing I can say that will make you come back, she’d whisper, and then she’d close her eyes and allow herself to succumb to the pain.
She’d tell herself that every butterfly in her stomach should have been a red flag instead, because it would have made it easier to lose him if she’d hated him. She wanted nothing more than to learn how to let go but she feared she couldn’t. She told him when she let him go that she wanted to be a caterpillar and come back after a dramatic metamorphosis as a stronger version of herself, but she was too afraid.
Or she was – until, all of a sudden, she wasn’t.
Ainsley may have loved singing to her fans, but her favorite part of being a singer was coming hours after shows and getting to see the state of disrepair after previous concerts. She loved seeing the mess of empty solo cups and illegal joints, liked the abandoned trash out in the nosebleed section and the mess of confetti left behind. It gave her hope for her own personal disillusions, made her believe that just like the fieldhouses and massive arenas before her, she could go from broken and messy to something iridescent with life in a few hours. The sight of desolate stands and empty silence hanging over a once-riotous atmosphere made her believe in revival, if nothing else.
Now, though, she found herself sitting on the edge of the stage, a gift basket still unopened beside her. Today looking out over the empty seats that sat like a stormy, unbearable sea of stoicism, the singer felt utterly hopeless and alone. There was no air of revival around her, no shot at redemption. No pop song about being a girl boss to bring her up out of the pit she’d somehow found herself in.
Rather than allow herself to fall further into the well of self-pity, however, Ainsley turned her attention back to the gift basket beside her. She didn’t want to read the card, couldn’t find the motivation to, but she also knew that to ignore it would be rude. She pulled the card out from the side and began to flip it open –.
“I wouldn’t open that if I were you.”
Ainsley startled, turning to find one of the men in her light crew, Doran, standing behind her. “Why not?” she asked.
“Because,” Doran said, shrugging and then moving to drop down on the ledge beside her. “Don’t you see what that card says?” And before she could open her mouth to snap that she hadn’t even gotten a chance to read it yet, Doran snatched it from her hands, pulled a marker from his pocket, and scribbled something across the front.
Ainsley gasped and reached out, grabbing it back, but it was too late – the glittery cover was now coated in thick black words in a hasty scrawl. “Why would you do that?” She hissed.
Doran shrugged again, smiled. “Read it.”
She looked down, glaring at the words he’d added there. Here’s a “Give Your All” gift basket, for when even your all isn’t enough. “That’s not funny,” she said.
“I agree,” Doran replied smoothly. “It’s quite the cruel basket of gifts, if you ask me. I mean, looking through the contents would be ruinous to your internal monologue of self-loathing. Like, look at this one.”
Again, quicker than she was, Doran tugged a bottle from the basket and immediately began to write on it. Ainsley made a sound of irritation in her throat and pulled it from his hands, black marker smearing over both of them. “Stop ruining my stuff!”
“I’m just pointing out what it is,” he said innocently.
She looked down and read, once more, the messy scrawl marring her beautiful gift. “Will He Come Back?” Whiskey. “You’re being an asshole,” she said, turning and shoving the bottle into his arms. “Keep it up and I’m going to lose my mind, do you hear?”
He sat the bottle beside him and raised his hands. “Sorry, I promise I’ll stop.”
Ainsley made a face and then turned back to the basket, pulling out the next item. It was a smooth pink bottle of her favorite hair product, something that made her smile at the thoughtfulness of whoever had gifted it to her, but when she turned it and saw the familiar defacing of the bottle she felt her eyes widen in outrage. Heartbreak Hairspray.
Ainsley turned and threw the bottle as hard as she could at Doran’s head, feeling the slightest surge of joy when it bounced off with a satisfying “doink”. He frowned and rubbed at the spot where it’d hit but otherwise was silent, leaving her to fume as she pulled the next item from the gift basket. A CD of her greatest hits, but once more, with Doran’s handwriting all over it. A CD full of single jingles.
“Did you do this to everything?” She seethed.
“Yessiree,” Doran said, watching her for a reaction. “Just keep going.”
She did, finding Existential Crisis Energy Drinks and Chakra Balancing Chocolates and Let Him Go LED Lights. With each ruined present her previous melancholy turned into something sharper, and when she set the final item down and turned back to Doran she was practically shaking with unnamed frustration. “What the hell was the point of that?”
Doran shrugged. “It seemed a bit self-pitying, honestly, so I decided to spice it up a bit.”
Ainsley held up a pack of lavender scented candles with Can’t Move On Candles written across them. “You know what you should have called these?”
Doran frowned. “I happened to like what I put.”
Ainsley stood up and Doran did the same, but he didn’t even get a single word out before the candles slammed into his face. “CASTRATION CANDLES,” she shrieked, and then she lunged.
His answering sound of panic echoed throughout the empty concert venue, but he was fast. He made it off the stage and was running between the seats before she even made it to the stairs. She chased him, racing to the end of his row only for him to double back with surprising agility, his smile exuberant each time he evaded her.
“Stop running!” she shouted.
“Never!” He called over his shoulder. “I don’t like dwelling on things. You’ve got to always keep moving!”
She kept chasing him for as long as she could before it felt like her lungs were going to burst and she had to stop. Standing at the end of a row, him only a few feet apart at the beginning of another, she looked into his warm brown eyes and felt a sea of irritation well up within her. “You can’t just run from everything, Doran.”
“And you can’t just sit in everything praying someone helps you out,” he said back.
Raising a brow in defiance, Ainsley dropped down into one of the seats, wincing as she landed in a mysteriously wet spot. “Watch me.”
Doran moved to sit beside her, cautious, but she was too exhausted now to do anything. She could always kill him later, she supposed. Doran handed her a piece of paper with a smug smile from the pocket of his jeans and, glaring, she opened it. How’s that Rock Bottom Rocking Chair feel?
She dropped her head back against the seat. “Was your plan to get me to sit down?”
Doran didn’t reply, instead they just sat in silence and watched the stage for a long moment. Ainsley couldn’t remember the last time she’d looked at everything from this vantage point, out in the nosebleeds looking at a stage that seemed so untouchable and distant.
“I like to pretend I’m a god up there,” Ainsley said. With the note in her hand she motioned towards the lights and smoke machines and the lone microphone standing in the middle of it all. “Exotic and utterly invincible.”
“Sure that isn’t you just trying to keep others out?” Doran asked.
She turned her head to look over at him. “I wish I could find him,” she said. “I wish I could tell him what it’s like.”
“What what’s like?”
“Loving and then losing him. Letting him go knowing he’s never going to come back for me.”
“Sounds like you don’t need that whiskey to answer any questions,” Doran said, and Ainsley couldn’t help the faint smile that spread across her lips. He waited a moment before prodding. “How would you describe it?”
“I’d go up to that microphone and I’d say ‘Loving you is like holding an ice cube over an open flame and begging it not to melt.’”
“But it’s in the ice cube’s nature to melt.”
Ainsley shrugged. “I suppose I just expected the ice cube to fight against its nature, then. To try.”
“Maybe it did,” Doran said. “Maybe that’s why it lasted five minutes instead four. But when you think about it, the ice cube turns to water and as that water evaporates, it becomes a part of the air.”
“So, air is what feeds the flame. In a way his departure is what will make you burn brighter.”
“So he’s the villain helping my hero,” Ainsley said dryly.
Doran shrugged. “Doesn’t matter either way, does it? The past is in the past.”
Ainsley wanted to argue that ignoring the past is just a coward’s move, but she got distracted as he pulled a box from under the seat. He opened it to reveal a dozen macarons, pink and purple and blue and bright red. “Want a Man-Hating Macaron?” he asked.
She snorted and held out a hand, accepting the dessert.
“What else would you tell him?”
Ainsley took a moment to eat the cookie, savoring the momentary beauty of it before it was gone and she immediately forgot what it had tasted like. She looked out at the stage again, saw how dark and desolate everything was, janitors coming from the cracks in the walls to begin picking up chunks of soggy confetti, stagehands beginning to pull down the theatrical decorations of her set like she’d always been a secondary priority to the pristine image of the stadium.
Ainsley held out her hand for another macaron and finished it before she spoke, the words pouring from that part of her that she’d only ever learned to release in the solitude of her bathroom, her sobs echoing against the shower walls. “I’d talk to him about why we don’t work, but also how we perfectly compliment one another and should work, if we both just stop being so extreme.”
“Give me an example of that.”
“I’d say ‘You don’t want to watch things go up in flames and I accept that at least I can make stick figures in the ash. You don’t want to drown in all the feelings and I come up to that lake with a pool floatie and snorkel mask. You isolate yourself in the eye of a storm so you can tell yourself that at least you’re safe from the destruction raging all around, and I surround myself in a thousand metal objects so when the lightning strikes it can hit me and hurt me and remind me what it’s like to give so much and still fall short, so it can illuminate me with what it means to be alive.’”
Doran was silent for a long moment, so Ainsley felt the urge to add one last thought. “You’re afraid to live and I’m afraid to die, but we’re both petrified of being forgotten.”
Still he was silent, and Ainsley cursed herself for oversharing, but he simply rose from his seat, set the macarons down, and held out a hand. “Get out of the rocking chair, Ainsley.”
She took his hand and rose. “You’re right. I am in a world of self-pity.”
“Maybe,” Doran smiled slightly and gave a one shoulder shrug. “But the past is the past.”
“So what’s next, then?” Ainsley asked. “How do I just move on from the single best thing to happen to me?”
Ainsley followed Doran back out of the nosebleeds and up to the stage, where he turned to lift her up. They walked side by side past the basket of discarded gifts, past the janitors and lights and stagehands. He led her to the side of the stage where the light crew worked, pointed to a ladder that ascended towards the top of the set, and then began to climb. Though faintly afraid of heights, Ainsley continued to follow him, thankful every time he glanced back to make sure she was still there. Not giving her a way out, a way to run.
They made it to the top of the set, large metal beams crisscrossing above the very spot she would normally stand and sing to all of the people just as heartbroken as her. She stood on the edge as Doran moved over the precarious beams with ease, not once faltering as he jumped and danced his way across them. Her heart was in her mouth until he grabbed the package he’d come for and made it back to her side, she didn’t remember to breathe until he pushed the box into her hands.
She looked down and laughed out loud. Breakup Bondage Set (for when you’re still tied up in all the feels). At his prodding look Ainsley opened it and found hundreds of pictures of them together, found the scraps of lyrics she’d written about the light crew head who had stolen her heart, found all the knick knacks she’d given him over the years. And most importantly, she found something new – a copy of the same card from the basket, but on this one he drew her, in beautiful shades of orange, a butterfly. A metamorphosis.
“You’re the one who won’t come back,” Ainsley said in a broken whisper.
Doran shrugged for the hundredth time, his eyes never leaving hers. “I know. It feels horrible to say out loud, but I know. I can’t… I haven’t figured out my place in this world yet, Ainsley. And you’re right, I am a coward. I am scared of the flame and of drowning and I am more than capable of not melting… but I can’t give that to you, not yet. I’m too goddamn selfish.”
Ainsley held up the box between them. “Then what’s the point in this?”
“Now that you’ve got it in your hands, you can let it all go. Maybe if things work out for you, it’ll all come back, but as of right now you’ve got to stop holding the ice cube to the flame and expecting an extraordinary outcome.”
“You didn’t correct me when I said you’d never come back,” Ainsley pointed out.
Doran’s smile was at odds to the tears in his eyes. “I can’t tell the future. I can’t promise you never’s or forever’s or even what if’s. And I know today is my last day on tour with you, so I just wanted to… I don’t know what I wanted.”
“But you can’t dwell on it,” Ainsley whispered.
“No,” he said, and the words broke her. “I can’t. The past is the past.”
She watched him turn to leave and she wanted to strangle him, wanted him to change his ways and realize she’s something worth fighting for, but her heart knew what she couldn’t admit. No matter how many times you tell an ice cube not to melt, it will never work to go against its nature.
The singer had long since learned how to hold pictures up to flame and watch them burn, just as she’d now learned how letting go is the largest sacrifice there can ever be in the game called love. She had long since learned how happy endings aren’t promised to all those who seek them and how not all that you release into the world will come back.
But as she stepped up to her favorite microphone, years later, she couldn’t help but feel the power in the words messily written upon it.