Songs of Submission - 1
C. D. Reiss
At the height of singing the last note, when my lungs were still full and I was switching from pure physical power to emotional thrust, I was blindsided by last night’s dream. Like most dreams, it hadn’t had a story. I was on top of a grand piano on the rooftop bar of Hotel K. The fact that the real hotel didn’t have a piano on the roof notwithstanding, I was on it and naked from the waist down, propped on my elbows. My knees were spread farther apart than physically possible. Customers drank their thirty-dollar drinks and watched as I sang. The song didn’t have words, but I knew them well, and as the strange man with his head between my legs licked me, I sang harder and harder until I woke up with an arched back and soaked sheets, hanging on to a middle C for dear life.
Same as the last note of our last song, and I held it like a stranger was pleasuring me on a nonexistent piano. I drew that last note out for everything it was worth, pulling from deep inside my diaphragm, feeling the song rattle the bones of my rib cage, sweat pouring down my face. It was my note. The dream told me so. Even after Harry stopped strumming and Gabby’s keyboard softened to silence, I croaked out the last tearful strain as if gripping the edge of a precipice.
When I opened my eyes in the dark club, I knew I had them; every one of them stared at me as if I had just ripped out their souls, put them in envelopes, and sent them back to their mothers, COD. Even in the few silent seconds after I stopped, when most singers would worry that they’d lost the audience, I knew I hadn’t; they just needed permission to applaud. When I smiled, permission was granted, and they clapped all right.
Our band, Spoken Not Stirred, had brought down the Thelonius Room. A year of writing and rehearsing the songs and a month getting bodies in the door was paying off right here, right now.
The crowd. That was what it was all about. That was why I busted my ass. That was why I had shut out everything in my life but putting a roof over my head and food in my mouth. I didn’t want anything from them but that ovation.
I bowed and went off stage, followed by the band. Harry bolted to the bathroom to throw up, as always. I could still hear the applause and banging feet. The room held a hundred people, and the audience sounded like a thousand. I wanted to take the moment to bathe in something other than the disappointment and failure that accompanied a career in music, but I heard Gabrielle next to me, tapping her right thumb and middle finger. Her gaze was blank, settled in a corner, her eyes as big as teacups. I followed that gaze to exactly nothing. The corner was empty, but she stared as if a mirror into herself stood there, and she didn’t like what she saw.
I glanced at Darren, our drummer. He stared back at me, then at his sister, who had tapped those fingers since puberty.
“Gabby,” I said.
She didn’t answer.
Darren poked her bicep. “Gabs? Shit together?”
“Fuck off, Darren,” Gabby said flatly, not looking away from the empty corner.
Darren and I looked at each other. We were each other’s first loves, back in L.A. Performing Arts High, and even after the soft, simple breakup, we had deepened our friendship to the point we didn’t need to talk with words.
We said to each other, with our expressions, that Gabby was in trouble again.
“We rule!” Harry gave a fist pump as he exited the bathroom, still buttoning up his pants. “You were awesome.” He punched me in the arm, oblivious to what was going on with Gabby. “My heart broke a little at ‘Split Me.’”
“Thanks,” I said without emotion. I did feel gratitude, but we had other concerns at the moment. “Where’s Vinny?”
Our manager, Vinny Mardigian, appeared as if summoned, all glad-handing and smiles. Such a dick. I really couldn’t stand him, but he’d seemed confident and competent when we met.
“You happy?” I said. “We sold all our tickets at full price. Now maybe next time we won’t have to pay to play?”
“Hello, Monica Sexybitch.” That was his pet name for me. The guy had the personality of a landfill and the drive of a shark in bloody waters. “Nice to see you too. I got Performer’s Agency on the line. Their guy’s right outside.”
Great. I needed representation from the The Rinkydink Agency like I needed a hole in the head. But I was an artist, and I was supposed to take whatever the industry handed me with a smile and spread legs.
Vinny, of course, couldn’t shut up worth a damn. He was high on Performer’s Agency and the worldwide fame he thought they would get us. He didn’t realize half a step forward was just as good as a full step back. “You got a crowd out there asking for an encore. Everybody here does their job, then everybody’s happy.”
I listened, and sure enough, they were still clapping, and Gabby was still staring into the corner.
“Let them beg,” I said.
Darren took Gabby home after the encore, which she played like the crazy prodigy she was, then she blanked out again. Her depression was ameliorated by music and brought on by just about anything, even if she was taking her meds.
She’d attempted suicide two years before after a few weeks of corner-staring and complaining of not being able to feel anything about anything. I’d been the one to find her in the kitchen, bleeding into the sink. That had been terrific for everyone. She took my second bedroom, and Darren moved from a roommate-infested guest house in West Hollywood to a studio a block away. We played music together because music was what we did, and because it kept Gabby sane, Darren close, and me from screwing up. But it didn’t even keep us in hot dogs. We all worked, and until I got my current gig at the rooftop bar at Hotel K, I had to give up Starbucks because I couldn’t rub two nickels together to make heat.
Because Spoken Not Stirred had drawn more people than the cost of our guaranteed tickets, we’d made three hundred dollars that night. Fifteen percent went to Vinny Landfillian. Sixty-eight dollars paid for Harry’s parking ticket because he figured if he was loading his bass and amp, he could park in a loading zone on the Sunset Strip before six o’clock. We split the rest four ways.
Hotel K was a spanking new modernist, thirty-story diamond in a one-story stucco shitpile of a neighborhood. The rooftop bar thing in L.A. had gotten out of hand. You couldn’t swing a dead talent agent without hitting some new construction with a barside pool on the roof and thumping music day and night. The upside of the epidemic was that waitress service was the norm, and tall, skinny girls who could slip between name-dropping drunks while holding heavy trays over their heads without clocking anyone were an absolute necessity. The downside for someone tall and skinny like myself was my replaceability. You couldn’t swing a tall, skinny girl in L.A. without hitting another one.
Darren and I had taken too long discussing who would watch Gabby. He convinced her to stay at his place for the night, though “convinced” might not be the word to use when talking about someone who didn’t care about where she slept, or anything, one way or the other.
I ran from the elevator to the hotel locker room, the fifty bucks I’d made for holding a hundred people in my palm light in my pocket. I peeled off my jacket and stuffed it in my locker, then pulled my shirt off. I didn’t have a second to spare before Yvonne, who I was relieving, started chewing me out for stranding her on the floor. I yanked a low-cut dress that showed more leg than modesty out of my bag and wrestled into it.
“You’re late,” Freddie, my manager, said. He stank of cigarettes, which I found disgusting.
“I’m sorry, I had a gig.” I kicked off my shoes and pulled my pants off from under my dress. I had no time to worry about what Freddie thought of me.
“Bully for you.” Freddie crossed his arms, scrunching his brown pinstripe suit. He had a mole on his cheek and wore a puckered expression even when he looked down my shirt, which was almost every time we talked.
I didn’t wait to argue. I slipped back into my shoes, slapped my locker shut, and ran toward the floor.
“Yvonne!” I caught her in the back hall as she folded a wad of tips into her pocket.
“Monica, girl! Where were you?”
“I’m sorry. Thanks for covering my tables. Can I make it up to you?”
“I don’t get home in time, you can pay the sitter an extra hour.”
“No problem,” I said, though it was a big problem.
“Jonathan Drazen is at your table.” She put her hand to her heart. “He’s hot, and he’ll tip if he likes what he sees. So be nice.” She handed me the tickets for my station.
Drazen was my boss’s boss. He owned the hotel, but we’d never crossed paths. Apparently, he traveled a lot, and he spent little or no time on the roof when he was in town, so our paths hadn’t crossed. This development was more annoying than anything. I’d just gotten the ovation of my life at a really cool club and was bathing in the warm validation. I didn’t need to prove myself all over again, and based on what? If it wasn’t my music, I didn’t care.
The place was packed: wall-to-wall Eurotrash, Hollywood heavyweights, and assorted hangers-on. The pool was a big rectangle in the center of the expanse. Red chairs surrounded it, and a large cocktail area with tables and chairs sat off to the side. Little tents with couches inside outlined most of the roof, and when the curtains closed, you left them closed unless someone looked as though they’d taken off without paying.
I stood at the service bar, flipping through my tickets. Five tables, two with little star punch-outs in the upper right hand corners. Put there by Freddie, they meant someone important was at the table. Extra care was required.
My first tray was a star punch-out. I put on a smile and navigated through the crowd to deliver the tray to a table in the corner. Four men and I knew Drazen right away. He had red hair cut just below the ears, disheveled in that absolutely precise way. He wore jeans and a grey shirt that showed off his broad shoulders and hard biceps. His full lips stretched across flawless, natural teeth when he saw his tray coming, and I was caught a little off guard by how much I couldn’t stop looking at him.
“H-Hi,” I stammered. “I’ll be your server.” I smiled. That always worked. Then I thought happy thoughts because that made my smile genuine, and I watched Drazen move his gaze from my smiling face, over my breasts, to my hips, stopping at my calves. I felt as if I were being applauded again.
He looked back at my face. I stared right back at him, and he pursed his lips. I’d caught him looking, and he seemed justifiably embarrassed.
“Hello,” he said. “You’re new.” His voice resonated like a cello, even over the music.
I checked Yvonne’s notes and picked up a short glass with ice and amber liquid from the tray. “You have the Jameson’s?”
“Thank you.” He nodded to me, keeping his eyes on my face and off my body. Even then, I felt as if I were being eaten alive, sucked to fluid, mouthful by mouthful. A liquid feeling came over me, and I stopped doing my job for half a second while I allowed myself to be completely saturated by that warm feeling. In that moment, of course, someone, a man judging from the weight of impact, pushed or got pushed, and my tray went flying.
For a second, the glasses hung in the air like a handful of glitter, and I thought I could catch them. I felt the sound of the impact too long after three gin and tonics and a Jameson on the rocks splashed over each guest. I was shocked into silence as everyone at the table stood, hands out, dripping, clothes getting darker at crotches and chests. A collective gasp rose from everyone within splash distance.
Freddie appeared like a zombie smelling fresh brains. “You’re fired.” He turned to Drazen and said, “Sir, can I get you anything? We have shirts—”
Drazen shook a splash of liquid off his hand. “It’s fine.”
“I am so sorry,” I said.
Freddie got between me and my former boss, as if I would beg him for my job back, which I’d never do, and said, “Get your things.”
Fuck it. Fuck that job and everything else. I’d get another one. I promised myself, I was going to make it big, and when I did, I would come in here with my freaking entourage and Freddie was going to serve me whatever I wanted for no tip at all. Not even a cent. And Jonathan Drazen was going to sit by me and look at me just like he did before I spilled gin and tonic all over him, but like I’m an equal, not some little piece of candy working for tips.