It was just another loud, lousy night in Berlin for the king of underground…whatever. The bullshit title most prevalent for Jett in the media changed on a regular basis. Sometimes he was halfway through reading his own press releases before he realized they were about him. Most of the time what he read about himself seemed to be about someone else, and he knew it wasn’t entirely the drugs’ fault.
But, he thought as he took a long drag off the communal backstage bong, it was probably at least a little the drugs’ fault. There weren’t nearly enough of those around tonight for whatever reason, and if someone didn’t fix that soon, the shaking in his hands was going to cause some sloppy, spontaneous arpeggios.
Tonight he was putting on yet another sold-out show for his adoring German fans. He felt at home here like he did in few other places because these crazy kids could sing along with Hasselhoff’s greatest hits and still know the words to his latest, “(Skull)fuck the World,” as recorded on the new bootleg released on the Internet a week and a half ago.
Also, there were a lot of natural blonds in Germany. Jett liked the carpet to match the drapes.
Color coordinated or not, though, the Germans weren’t the most forgiving audience, and if he screwed this up, he’d never hear the end of it.
“Hey!” Fatty yelled from the hallway outside the dressing room — room being a courtesy title for what was really a plywood stall with a sheet stapled around a string for a door.
“Hey, your fucking fat self!” Jett yelled back, matching Fatty’s belligerence out of habit more than emotion.
“You ain’t ready yet, man? What you want me to tell the crowd? ‘Jett said fuck y’all, go on home’?”
Jett dropped his head to rest in his calloused, ragged-nailed hands as he rubbed his throbbing temples. “I’m going to mushroom stamp your little sister if you don’t leave me the fuck alone.”
“Look, man, what did I say about my sister?”
When Jett looked up, he saw Fatty’s meaty fists flailing in his general direction in what was probably a menacing way.
“Uh…that if I ever did that again, you’d end my miserable, worthless life?” Jett raised a silver-studded eyebrow and gave Fatty a shit-eating grin.
Jackoff, the bassist, appeared beside Fatty in the doorway and gave him a nudge with the duct-taped headstock of his five-string bass.
“Dudes, what did I say about this? Fuck, Jett, quit talking about Fatty’s sister, man. You know he’s sensitive about her. Fatso, give Jett some space. If we stress him, he’s going to implode or some shit, and then we’re all fucked. Move along, wide load.”
Fatty cursed under his breath but moved along, his massive shoulders forcing him to waddle through the cramped backstage passageway at an angle. Jack-o gave Jett a look before he followed him out to the wing to watch the end of their opening act.
Jett closed his stinging eyes and exhaled, coughing painfully and clamping an arm over his skinny ribs as his eyes flew open again. The first person he laid his bleary eyes on was a slender, shy-looking boy lurking nearby.
Throat burning and head spinning, he barked, “You, kid! Single malt scotch, neat. Double. No. Aww, fuckin’ A. Triple.”
The camouflage baseball cap rested low over Goldie’s face, which was fortunate, because he knew he’d turned beet red when Jett addressed him. While he’d been able to obtain the baseball cap under the guise of irony, he’d bummed the T-shirt and jeans off one of his security guards, and both were several sizes too big for him.
Up until now, he’d managed to go unnoticed, slipping into the club along with some other kids. He’d been standing there, leaning against the wall, pretending to fiddle with the leather cuff on his wrist so as not to be caught blatantly staring at Jett.
The girls around him glared in a way he’d not seen since before he’d become famous. Biting his bottom lip, he spun around and headed down the familiar wooden stairs to the open club area. He’d played here back when he was first launching his solo career. Back then, everyone thought he was just another no-talent pretty boy who was going to die of a drug overdose.
He winced, thinking of the way Jett had coughed, his eyes…his whole manner. Maybe this wasn’t what he should be doing. But what was he going to do? Come back with a bottle of water and some clean-living advice from the antithesis of all Jett stood for?
The bar was in the back, painted black like the walls. It wasn’t crowded now since the opening band was still playing, but Goldie did have to work to weave his way to it. Normally he had security guards parting the way for him. On his own, he wasn’t an imposing figure, though all of the wirework for his show had given him a lot of definition. The club goers slammed into him, throwing themselves into the pounding beat with their arms flailing as they screamed along. By the time Goldie reached the bar, he felt battered and tired. He wasn’t sure how he was going to make it back through with a glass of liquid.
“Bottle of single malt scotch,” Goldie said, realizing too late that the owner of the club was the one staffing the bar.
Gerhard tilted his head as if he recognized him but couldn’t quite place him. “Oh ya, the whole bottle?”
Goldie pointed his thumb vaguely stage-ward and said, “Jett.”
“Ah ya, so on their tab?” Gerhard looked a little worse for wear. New, deeper lines on his face and doing double duty working the bar told Goldie he wasn’t doing so well. His dark hair glinted with a few more strings of gray.
Goldie reached into his pocket, where he’d stashed a handful of euros of varying denominations just in case he ran into trouble. “No, I’ll pay for it.”
He peeled off a five-hundred-euro note, noticing too late how Gerhard was squinting at him. “Billy? Is that you?”
Goldie’s eyes widened. He looked around, as if anyone here would know his real name. He peeled off another couple of notes and pressed them on the bar.
“No. It’s not me. It’s somebody else.”
Eyeing the money, Gerhard frowned.
“I do not know why you are sneaking around, but…” Gerhard ducked in conspiratorially and lowered his tone. “Rolling Stone?”
“No, no, no. I’ve never met him. He doesn’t know I’m here. Please don’t say anything. I just wanted to see who he was. It’s not…it’s not anything. Just please, please don’t tell him I was here. Please.” Goldie pushed the money closer to Gerhard.
“I do not need your money.” Even as he said it, Gerhard looked at it longingly. He was a good man in a world where it didn’t pay to be scrupulous.
“It will make me feel better if you take it. Get a new sound system or something. Or just take a couple of days off, will you?” Goldie took the bottle and swung around. He quickly blended in with the crowd so Gerhard couldn’t make him take it back.
Heading back through the crowd was a little easier since he wasn’t swimming upstream. Unlike his shows, there wasn’t much security to keep people out of the back, so he took the short flight of stairs two at a time and shouldered past the crowd.
Now came the awkward part. He pulled the brim of his hat even lower and stepped past the crowd of groupies to where Jett was. He felt like he wasn’t walking right, a terrified fawn testing out its long new legs. He held the bottle out, afraid if he got too close that Jett would recognize him.
Jett smelled of old weed and alcohol. It should’ve repelled him, but Goldie just wanted to remain in a bubble close enough to him that he could breathe in Jett’s scent.
“Um…here you go.” Goldie blushed, thinking those were stupid words to say, but he couldn’t think of anything witty.
Jett took the bottle and wrenched the top off to swig down the booze. Goldie winced, knowing how much the alcohol would burn. Jett seemed to sway a bit, and then his eyes cleared, and he let out a long, guttural moan. He took another gulp and then offered the bottle back. He squinted at Goldie, peering like he might recognize him, and Goldie felt his pulse jump with adrenaline. He tried to make himself look like just another crazy fan boy trying to suck up to his idol and prayed that Jett didn’t look more closely than that.
“Oh God, thank you,” Jett mumbled, looking up at his timid savior with bloodshot brown eyes still smudged with what looked like last night’s liner. “If I try to move anywhere that isn’t in the direction of the fucking stage, they’ll eat me alive, and if I ask one of them for a favor, the others will eat her alive.”
Jett gestured to the throng of girls fifteen feet away, and just the motion of his hand in their direction sent them into a squealing tizzy. A tall chick in the back of the group stood on tiptoe and lifted her skull-and-crossbones crop top to flash them her fake rack. Jett gave her his trademark cocky grin and a little wave and then looked away, the persona fading into weariness as he tried to fix his stage makeup in the cobweb-cracked mirror.
“It’s a fuckin’ circus, man. Anyway, what’s your name? I’m Jett, in case you missed the part where everyone was screaming that at me.”
The fact that Jett was talking to him like this, like they were buddies, bros, made Goldie feel simultaneously giddy and crestfallen. He loved getting to see this more human side of Jett, but then, the fact that Jett wasn’t trying to seduce him meant Jett didn’t see him as a sex object. Theoretically, that should have been a good thing, but Goldie felt let down.
What did he expect? That he’d show up and Jett would just bend him over right there? He was there as Billy, not Goldie. It was Goldie that Jett wanted. No one wanted Billy.
“Ich bin…Billy.” It wasn’t even correct German; he didn’t attempt a German accent. It sounded completely ridiculous.
To cover that awkwardness, Billy took the bottle for a quick swig and immediately regretted it. He managed to swallow, but it burned. Billy sputtered, blinking madly as if that would keep Jett from knowing he wasn’t a scotch drinker of any malt.
Jett appeared so busy with his makeup, there was a chance he hadn’t noticed, so Billy took another swig. This time he managed it better. He felt the tension in his back melting away and a sense of light-headedness.
Watching him struggle with his eyeliner in the mirror for a moment, Billy reached for Jett’s shaking hand and steadied it. When Jett didn’t recoil, Billy gently pulled the kohl pencil from him. With the other hand, he tilted Jett’s face up by the chin, taking in the hollows of his cheeks, the sharpness of his face, but also the lost look in his eyes.
Billy licked his thumb and wiped away the messy smudges of the liner. The one time Billy was out without a makeup kit, and he already needed it. He smiled wryly and then held the pencil steadily under Jett’s eye. “Look up so I can get this on evenly for you, please.”
Though Jett looked uneasy, he shrugged and did as he was told. Jett dropped his ass on the dressing table, stretched out his long legs, and looked up at the filthy ceiling. “Y’know, it’s like…some days I just can’t get my shit together. Once I’m out there with the mic, the lights, and the applause, I can get lost in my head, and it’s all right. It doesn’t matter out there, but offstage, it just…” Jett trailed off with a rueful chuckle. “Seriously, though, don’t spit on me again without warning, or I might break your pretty face.”
It took all of Billy’s willpower not to stroke Jett’s hair and say, “I understand.” He knew all too well the appeal of being caught up in the music. In that moment, nothing else mattered.
“Sorry. I don’t usually spit at all.” Billy blushed when he realized how that sounded.
Chewing his bottom lip, Billy decided just to go with the existing smudges and traced it into a design to make it look purposeful. “Just because you feel like a mess doesn’t mean you have to look like one.”
Billy allowed himself to slide his fingers lightly on Jett’s cheek. “Have a look.”
While Jett turned to the mirror, Billy cast around the room for further reason to detain him. Spotting the black nail polish, he grabbed the bottle and reached for Jett’s hand.
Giving Jett’s palm a light stroke with his finger, Billy said, “I can neaten up your nails really quick. I mean, if you want me to.”
Jett looked hot with the intricate swirls of kohl around his eyes. The black liner made his dark eyes look enormous and soulful rather than exhausted.
“Yeah, all right, might as well.” Jett settled in with the scotch in his free hand to let Billy fix up the other.
After another sip, he added, “Thanks, Billy,” as if making a point of using his name so Goldie’d know he hadn’t forgotten it like he probably did most people’s.
It was so bizarre how guilty Billy felt that Jett didn’t know he was Goldie. He wasn’t lying, exactly, just withholding important information.
Billy imagined telling Jett the truth. He’d probably be lucky to get out without his “pretty face” broken.
Still, the name was so distant to him now. Billy. Billy was a fourteen-year-old boy who hoped someone would notice him. He was the anxious music nerd who got more than his fair share of swirlies for being “too fucking pretty.”
Billy forced those thoughts away. If this was going to be his only time with Jett — ever — he didn’t want to waste it thinking about his past.
Billy carefully measured just enough polish onto the brush to fill in the cracks, wiping away the mistakes with his fingertips and letting the residue dry on his skin. He didn’t play guitar nearly as much or as aggressively as Jett. Jett’s fingers were so hard. Working hands. Real hands. Billy wanted to kiss those fingers but left it at just blowing on them.
“I used to do this for my sisters.” Billy was lying again. He had no sisters. He wanted to say something and wanted Jett to think of Billy as a random fan who could do makeup. Jett liked that boy. Liked Billy. That would have to be enough. He took Jett’s other hand and patched the holes in the polish.
Billy sighed. His time was up. There were no more excuses to detain Jett without it getting awkward. “Is it okay if I stay back here to watch the show? I promise I won’t bother you when you’re off. The sound is better back here. Gerha — I mean, the guy who owns this place sort of got the sound thing backward.”
“Yeah, man, do whatever! I’ll let the stage manager know it’s cool for you to be here. I appreciate the help and shit. Really, ma — Billy.”
Jett inspected his nails, taking a moment to gnaw absentmindedly at a rough cuticle before reaching for the scotch bottle again. He looked far more enthusiastic than he had half an hour ago, as if Billy’d recharged his batteries. “I didn’t think makeup and nail polish made so much difference, but then, maybe that’s why all those chicks in the crowd have so much energy for screaming and throwing panties at my head.”
After an awkward pause, Jett cleared his throat and adopted his trademark casual, cool demeanor, complete with whiskeyed rasp. “Look, I don’t know if you’re into the souvenirs or whatever, but if you are, I’ll do you one before I go on. You want? It’s just this thing I do with the used strings, but if it ends up on an online auction site, it’s like…worthless. It’s not signed or anything. It’s just a you-know-and-I-know thing.”
“If you gave me something, I’d never sell it. I’d keep it with me forever.” Billy said it before he could stop himself from sounding like a lovelorn puppy, but he couldn’t stop smiling that big, broad smile that had sold millions of records for the past decade. His body flushed, and he was — stupid as it made him feel — hard over the prospect of a used guitar string. He didn’t know what he’d do with it, but it would be his. Billy’s piece of Jett to keep forever.
Billy wasn’t going to think about whether Jett had done this for girls he’d fucked. He was going to allow himself this moment.
Without asking, Jett grabbed Billy by the wrist and dragged him a few feet to the stool where he’d changed his strings earlier. Jett pushed him to sit and then knelt to grab a stray G off the floor. He deftly looped it around Billy’s pale, slender wrist and wove the string in on itself until it ran out of length. Then he inserted the end through the little steel ring at the bottom of the string and crimped it together with the pliers in his tool kit. Jett eyed it critically, gave it a tug to be sure it was secure, then pressed a noisy, theatrical kiss to the metal before thrusting Billy’s hand back at him and rising to his feet.
“There, now you have my G-string.” Jett gave him a cheeky wink and then stretched as if to work out the stiffness in his muscles from crouching like that. “Treasure it, Billy; it’s a worthless piece of used metal, but it was made with grateful affection by the infamous king of underground…whatever. Be the first kid on your block to give a shit.”
Billy slid his fingers over the metal, thinking about Jett’s lips there, so close to him. It all seemed too good to be real. “No one’s going to think I’m a skank who performed some unspeakable act if they see me with this on, are they?”
Billy clutched his arm to his chest, cradling it with the other as Jett picked up a guitar. This was it; the moment was ending. His Jett was about to dissolve into the real Jett, and the real Jett wouldn’t like Billy. He’d like Goldie even less. Goldie was losing him.
Billy clutched the bracelet tightly, tracing his fingers over it. “I know you’ll be brilliant, Jett. You always are.”
He gazed up at Jett, not even trying to disguise those distinctive golden eyes, and then back down at the bracelet. I’ll never forget this.
Billy should make his exit before the show ended. Seeing Jett leave with a woman would make Billy cry. This was dangerous — a crazy, stupid, reckless thing to do — and Billy would be lucky if he managed to hurt only himself with it.
“Have a good show. I love you…r music. So always do that — make music. Do it more if it helps keep you together. The world needs more of you.” Billy frowned at what a rambling idiot he’d turned into.
Jett paused with a quizzical look on his face, staring at Billy as if he was speaking a foreign language. He nodded slowly, brows furrowed and drawn inward. He held his ancient, scarred guitar by the neck in one hand and strode over to slip his free arm around Billy to give him a sideways hug. Jett’s chin tucked atop of Billy’s head for a moment as if Jett could embrace him with his neck too.
Jett stood back and gave Billy a lopsided, puzzled smile. “All right, man. I’ll try to remember that.”
Jett started for the stage, then hesitated and barked a laugh, looking back over his shoulder to grin at Billy. “Oh, and the most lasting thing I give the groupies is cervical bruising. Those are friendship bracelets, man. Sh, don’t tell. You’ll ruin my rep. Peace. I’m gone.”
Jett gave him a mock salute and disappeared into the wings, leaving his real self behind as he stepped onto the stage — a rock star to be greeted by the screaming of fans who’d been waiting just long enough to get desperate.
As soon as Jett left, the girls pounced on Billy, trying to steal the bracelet. Billy was lucky Gerhard decided to keep an eye on things at the back of house. Gerhard ordered the girls farther from the stage, affording Billy the ability to stand right in the eaves, just out of sight so he could enjoy the show.
Billy didn’t have much to say to Gerhard. Not now. Not when the music — Jett’s music — was playing, growing into unexpected, violent crescendos. Closing his eyes, he recalled Jett hugging him, holding him. Billy thought of that scruffy chin on his head. Jett’s throat had been so warm and close to Billy’s lips. He’d just wanted to kiss it, wanted to touch him, but that wasn’t something Billy could have.
The wailing guitar and the primal screams matched his mood.
Gerhard shook his head. “You have got it bad.”
Billy fingered his bracelet. “That’s going to be our secret. I couldn’t take the humiliation of him not wanting me. Not in person, certainly not in the tabloids. This was our night together. It’s all we’re ever going to get.”
Gerhard folded his arms. “That is not fair; he did not even know it was you! You heard how he spoke to you. He does not talk to people like that. Not ever. He has played here enough that I know.” Apparently Gerhard had found someone to tend bar and followed him backstage.
Giving one last look out at the show, Billy tried to memorize everything about it: the lights, the aggression, the time he thought Jett looked back to see if he was there. But it was all getting to him. Billy couldn’t keep torturing himself like this. He had to go. Billy turned toward the exit.
Gerhard stopped him. “Stay. Stay to the end. You can talk to him more. I overheard. He remembers your name. Your real name. Just stay here, right here.”
Billy stared at the silver around his wrist. The rims of his eyes were wet again. He needed to go before he really humiliated himself. “I can’t. I can’t, Gerhard. I can’t. He’ll come back all adrenaline and feeling king of the world, and he’s going to want to fuck someone, and… And that won’t be me.”
“But it could be, Billy.”
“Billy’s gone, Gerhard. There is no Billy anymore.”