thirteen: you’ll heat up every corner of the world
Calling it a tour bus was being extremely generous and smacked of wishful thinking on our part.
The Bus was, in fact, not even a bus, but an old catering truck, the logo on the side half-worn off but still bearing the name “Paula” and a clip-art depiction of a sandwich. Inside, we had shoved in two metal bunk beds, leaving just enough room for our equipment and instruments, some suitcases (which we shoved under the beds) and a small Ikea futon, which we pushed up against the inside of the door and bungeed like a seatbelted child when it was closed.
Right now I was on the couch, my legs propped up against an amp. Emmy sat beside me, scribbling in her Moleskine and looking vaguely pissed-off. Dex was lying on his bottom bunk, despite our insistence that the bunk beds weren’t that secure while The Bus was moving, and besides, there were no restraints for him – if Cal made a sudden turn (or rather, when), Dex would probably go flying.
Cal was currently detailing to us the official rules of our tour. (Another generous name; we were only playing four gigs.) Either he was reading off of a sheet of paper, making his already frightening driving even more dangerous, or he had the rules memorized; both seemed equally likely, knowing Cal.
“Rule number seven: no sex on The Bus. Ever. On any tour.”
Rule number seven elicited an eye roll from me, a groan from Emmy, and a “Seriously, Cal?” from Dex.
“Yes, seriously! This is important. Our bus is sacred –”
“Like fuck it’s sacred, I think there’s a puke stain over there.”
“Is making love not sacred?”
“This isn’t even an actual bus.”
“Maybe if we were on a real tour bus, I would –”
“This is non-negotiable, guys. If I find so much as a single condom wrapper or a pair of panties –”
“Two of us wear panties, Cal.”
“What, are you the panty police now?”
“Are you just going to go on, like, a panty witch hunt?”
Cal sighed. “Whatever. Just keep it clean, okay, guys?”
We all begrudgingly agreed to at least “be respectful” of The Bus, because it was “our haven” and “a sign of how far we’ve come as a band.” And as much as I hated to agree with Cal on anything, we’d come a long way, and The Bus was a tangible sign.
This tour was riding on the heels of our first record deal, which had happened last year. A small, locally-run record company (a friend of a friend of the former manager of the Moonlight Café) had caught wind of us, and had decided to take a chance on a band of four queer losers with moody folk-pop songs and superiority complexes. We had been a bit dubious at first, Cal wondering if our little band of misfits was too “alternative” for the mainstream public (“We’ve got a black girl, a Hispanic-Italian dude, a lesbian, and a trans guy – we look like we’re trying to be as diverse as possible, guys!”) but it turns out that was apparently what the city was looking for. The record went over modestly well, copies being sold all the way out in Chandler Valley and Merinda Heights.
The album was successful enough that we got a few calls from places across the province, hoping for us to play evenings at their pubs and sports bars. So off we went on The Bus (which Cal had gotten dirt-cheap from Paula, a retiring caterer down his street), knowing literally nothing about the logistics of touring but hoping we could learn as we went.
“Can we stop for food soon, Cal?” Dex asked. “Burger King or something.”
“I second that. I’m seriously craving a cheeseburger,” said Em. She curled up on the futon, chucking her notebook away and skimming a hand through her short-cropped red pixie cut. She’d chopped it all off a couple weeks ago but still wasn’t used to the breeziness of it, the air cold on her neck.
We ended up at a little run-down Harvey’s off the QEW. We all piled out of The Bus into the dark and empty parking lot; it was nearly ten at night, and it seemed no one was craving burgers but us. The only employee in the front was a freckly-faced pubescent boy with a bad haircut; he smiled too much while taking our orders, especially at Emmy. “Don’t look now, but you may have a visor-wearing admirer behind the counter,” I whispered to her as we waited for the patties to heat up.
“I noticed that,” she replied. “Poor guy. I’m going to have to crush his dreams.”
We ate burgers with excessive bacon and discussed our first show, which was the following evening at a bar and grill in the Heights. As I sipped my coffee and went to grab the set list, my hand knocked against Emmy’s. A sudden surge of memory from our late-night stop at the diner almost three years ago stunned me with its strength. I didn’t pull my hand back, but she pulled away hers.
The fluorescent light above our heads flickered, buzzed, threw Emmy’s face into eerie blue-white light. I pulled my hands back and tucked them into the pocket of my hoodie; the room was freezing. “No, that’s going to be too much too soon,” Cal was saying, tapping his pen against the crumpled piece of loose-leaf paper that was serving as our working setlist. The list had been crossed out and rewritten in a different order so many times that the paper was almost covered in dark blue. “Like, ‘My Spirit, Your Spirit’ is really intense, so putting it right after ‘Would You Catch the Wind For Me’ just seems too jarring.”
I took a hand out of my pocket and wrapped my fingers around my Styrofoam cup. I hadn’t put enough sugar or cream into my coffee, so there wasn’t anything to mask its sourness. The last time I’d had coffee this bad was back when I was still someone’s daughter; back when Emmy and I were a foot stuck in a door, catching it before it closed, instead of what we were now – deadbolted shut.
“But they’ve got completely different feels,” Dex argued, drawing curvy arrows between two songs, switching their order. “Catch the Wind is really dark and tortured, and My Spirit is super poppy. They’re different enough that I think it’ll be fine.”
The buzzing from the light was distracting. I glanced up at it but its bright fluorescence hurt my eyes to look at, like a small sun. I gulped down the rancid coffee and tried not to stare at the way Emmy’s new haircut revealed the curve of her neck, her collarbone. What the hell was wrong with me? I’d lived with her for a year now with almost no issues, then one bad cup of coffee and some accidental physical contact and I could barely put two thoughts together. Emmy wasn’t looking at me; she was doodling idly in her notebook, spiraling shapes that started small then grew and grew and grew. I finished my coffee, crumpled the Styrofoam in my hand.
I jerked my head up to see Cal looking at me expectantly, Dex raising his eyebrows. Emmy’s eyes danced, laughed at me. “What?”
“What do you think?” Dex asked, pointing to the setlist. There was barely any room left on the sheet to write on for all the scratching-out.
“Oh. Right.” My fingers traced a pattern on my crumpled cup. I could feel them all looking at me. Could feel Emmy looking at me; after knowing her for three years, living with her for one, I could feel what she was thinking like words on my skin, no need for sound. “I don’t think you should ask me; I’m bad at deciding things.” I finally looked up at her, and she met my eyes square with hers, almost like a challenge. After all, she would know better than anyone that I shouldn’t be trusted to make decisions.
* * *
“I never thought I would say this,” Dex whispered, “but I don’t think we ever appreciated how clean the Moonlight was.”
He was right. In comparison to Clem’s Roadhouse Bar and Grill, the first stop on our tour, the Moonlight was a five-star restaurant, one of those ones with a maître d’. The floor of Clem’s was covered in a thin layer of grime; the chairs were mismatched, some of them missing cushions. The few small windows let in little sun, but enough to light up the clouds of dust motes hanging in the air, making Cal sneeze. The whole place smelled of B.O. and beer.
“Are you guys The Entertainment?” A little greasy man with a straining shirt tucked into his corduroys came up to us, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
We all nudged Dex forward; somewhere along the way, he’d been appointed the unofficial spokesperson of The Entertainment, even though he only played drums and rarely sang. “Um…yep, yep,” Dex said. Emmy rolled her eyes. When Dex got nervous, he started to talk like an elementary school teacher. “We sure are. It was super nice of you to invite us!”
“Oh, it’s our pleasure,” the man said, flashing us his yellowed teeth. “I’m Charles Lynch, the manager here at Clem’s. I’ll show you guys where to set up.”
I stepped gingerly across the dingy floor, trying not to let the dust seep into my flats. Charles led us to a shadowy corner by the swinging kitchen door. There was no stage, no equipment, no sign that a band would be playing here at all. “So there’s an outlet there where you can plug your amps in,” Charles said, sweeping his arm towards the outlet in a grand gesture, like a used car salesman. “Does seven sound good for a start time?”
Dex looked back at us, waiting to see if one of us would actually say something. Cal crossed his arms. Emmy shrugged. I flashed him a cheeky smile. “Yep, that sounds perfect,” Dex said, shaking Charles’s hand. “Thank you so much.”
“It’s no problem. Let me know if you guys need anything!”
“How about a bath?” Emmy whispered as he walked away.
We all just stood there for a moment, silently acknowledging the grossness of the venue, the lack of preparedness of the host, the clear lack of money the place had which would probably translate to lack of money coming our way. “Well,” I said. “Why don’t we go bring in the amps and make this place look a little like a stage?”
“Agreed,” Cal said, and so we ventured out to The Bus, disappointed and grumpy and more than a little nostalgic.
Seven o’clock came, and with it, a tidal wave of middle-aged businessmen, mothers with toddlers balanced on their hips, sun-browned construction workers in bright orange. Not our usual crowd of twenty-something hipsters, but we’d try our best to win them over anyway. Dex grabbed one of the mismatched chairs (a rickety metal one, rusted and peeling) for his drums, Cal unfolded his portable keyboard, and Emmy and I regretted only bringing one mic in.
“The house is full,” Emmy stage-whispered back to the guys. “Go time.”
“Can we just take a minute,” I said, “to appreciate that no one has to sit on the edge of the stage right now?”
“I would appreciate it more if there was a stage at all,” Dex admitted.
For all our grumbling, music has a certain transcendent quality to it, and nowhere was that so apparent than at Clem’s. As soon as Emmy’s violin, bare and unaccompanied at the start of Would You Catch the Wind for Me, sang out bright and clear, the room stopped moving. Suddenly we weren’t stuck in the back corner of a grimy bar and grill, shoved in beside the kitchen doors like an afterthought – we could have been in the Moonlight on a busy Friday night, or playing a Canada Day show in the city park while kids held sparklers into the evening air. I joined in on guitar and Cal brought in his piano line and finally, Dex with his starting drum fill, and the four of us were in a different place, somehow both completely separate from the crowd and hopelessly intertwined with it. If I closed my eyes, I could almost feel the warm spotlights that used to shine in that old café, the soft worn black paint of the stage, and for one second we were home.
In the end, we didn’t get paid much, but it was enough that we all felt justified in going out for post-show drinks. Dex dragged us to some upscale club called Electrik in the central district of the Heights, one of those places with neon blue lights around the bar counter and tiny thin couches that didn’t sink in when you sat down. I ordered a mojito and watched as Cal flirted shamelessly with the stubbly bartender. “He’s got no game,” I observed.
“None,” Emmy agreed. “Think I should give him some pointers?”
“From you? Absolutely not.” I fiddled with a mint leaf, bit into it, remembered cookies Jamie had made me once. “You wouldn’t know what subtlety was if it socked you in the crotch. Remember that girl from the Christmas party –”
“We don’t talk about the girl from the Christmas party,” Emmy cut me off.
“Besides, this is more fun,” I said, sitting back on the stiff couch and sipping my mojito. “Drinking fancy drinks and watching Cal flirt terribly is pretty much my ideal good time.”
Emmy laughed, low and throaty, and took a long drink of her vodka cranberry.
Dex, who had been sitting with us, took off to go pursue some girl with a high ponytail and tight red dress (but not before fending off comments from Emmy, concerned with checking if Ponytail was legal). We watched him sidle up to the girl at the bar, his wide shoulders curving toward her. I was nearly finished my mojito; only ice was left now.
“It’s sort of hot in here,” Emmy said, polishing off her drink. “I think I’m going to go outside. You done your drink?”
I gulped down the remains, ignoring the icy burn down my throat, and followed her out of the club, dodging some drunk girl’s grabby hands.
We sat on the tailgate of The Bus, our heads a little light from the cocktails, and counted one night stands coming out of Electrik. “Blondie and Glasses,” I said, pointing to a lanky guy and a girl with spiky platinum hair leaning against each other for balance. Blondie lit a cigarette, Glasses bending over so she could light his.
“Nah, they’re too familiar,” Em said, tugging a sweater over her shoulders. “See how close their faces are there? Those aren’t two people who just met.”
The fresh coolness of one a.m. air made goosebumps rise on my arms. I wished for something more substantial than the skirt-and-blouse combo I’d worn to the show; the wind blew right through the gossamer fabric.
“Those two.” Emmy pointed at two girls exiting the club, their arms gripping each other tight. One brown leather jacket covered both their shoulders, shivering in tiny tank tops. “It’s ladies’ night for them tonight, let me tell you.”
“Really? I don’t see it.”
“I do. The girl with the longer hair, she’s covered in tattoos. The other one’s got the sides of her head shaved off. One of them is wearing army boots. I don’t know what you’re seeing here, but I am seeing a clear image of two homos.”
I rolled my eyes. “I think your gaydar is faulty, Em.”
“It worked fine for you.”
My mouth closed in a hard line. I looked up at Emmy. She wasn’t looking at me, was looking at her feet in one of her pairs of stupid dumb Converse. “Emmy,” I said, “you know I don’t like –”
“To talk about it, yeah, I know,” she said, her words short and clipped. “If you want to just erase the gay out of your life, that’s fine. I just wish you…” She drew in a deep breath, let it all out. “I wish you wouldn’t pretend like there’s never been anything here.”
The moon was full tonight; Em’s face was lit up in profile. She bit her lip, kept her eyes down, rubbed the sleeves of her sweater between her fingers.
“I’m not saying that, I just thought we agreed to move on from…what happened,” I said. The parking lot was quiet and my voice was too loud. “You agreed, right?”
Emmy sighed shortly. She reached up to run her hands through her hair, but came up empty. “Yeah, I did. But moving on doesn’t mean ‘pretend it never fucking happened.’”
I stood, dragged the toe of one of my silver flats through the gravel of the parking lot. This wasn’t the first time we’d had a conversation about this, but Emmy wasn’t usually so direct – so accusatory. But she was right; all this burying of truth was directly my fault. It had been my idea to tamp down any feelings I might have for Emmy, my idea to go about life as if we’d just pressed backspace on that part of our story. It wasn’t sustainable; I’d known that from the start. But that hadn’t stopped me from trying.
“I’m sorry,” I said finally, looking back at Em. She looked up at me, her elbows leaning on her knees and her hand cupped under her face. “I have to though.”
When she spoke, she didn’t sound mad anymore, just tired. “I know,” she said. “I know.”
Emmy had never been completely on board with the idea, mostly because she didn’t think it was healthy. But for me, it had seemed the only option. Acting on my feelings had only brought on pain, rejection; I’d lost my parents, and later, Andy too. How many more important parts of my life could I lose before I started feeling broken, fractured? It would be easier on everyone if I just kept things inside, covering it up like a hand shielding from the sun.
The guys were coming towards us now, Dex dragging a very smiley Cal behind him. “I caught him trying to go home with the bartender,” Dex said, “but he looked like bad news to me.”
“Wow, his flirting actually worked?” I said.
Emmy snort-laughed behind me. I turned and caught a quick grin flash across her face; it never took us long.
Once we got everyone loaded up, Dex (the only one sober enough to drive) found an abandoned Canadian Tire and we camped out in its parking lot. We passed a bag of Miss Vickie’s around and listened to Cal dish about his almost-score. By the time he’d finished, I could have drawn an accurate police sketch of the guy; Emmy and I kept jokingly prodding him for more details, as if he hadn’t given us enough. “Cal, you didn’t tell us about his mother’s hometown,” Em said. “Was she a small-town girl or did she grow up in the big city?”
“What about his grades? What if we almost let you go home with a man of sub-par intelligence?”
Cal just laughed, drunk and delirious. I yanked off my show clothes and pulled on some pajamas; after three years with the band, none of us were concerned with modesty anymore. I climbed up onto my top bunk and listened to the faint whir of cars gliding down the highway nearby; the bunk squeaked under me as Emmy crawled into her bed. Underneath, the guys finished off the bag of chips and crashed in just their boxers. As soon as Cal hit the pillow, he started snoring, and I wondered briefly how lovely he would be to deal with the next day. I listened to Emmy’s breathing from underneath me; I couldn’t even begin to fall asleep until I could hear her breaths, measured and slow, like a metronome I could count to.