As much as I’d enjoyed my summer in Florida, I was looking forward to going back on tour. The day after Howie and I flew to L.A., we met AJ, Kevin, and Brian for our first rehearsal.
It had been almost nine months since our last show together, and we were all a little rusty with the choreography. But dancing is a lot like riding a bike: even if you haven’t done it in awhile, it comes back to you quickly. Once we heard the music, muscle memory kicked in, and we were able to remember most of our moves. It helped that we had worked a lot of old, familiar routines into our show, so we spent most of our time rehearsing the newer songs.
The last number we ran through before breaking for lunch was “Love Somebody.” This had been one of my favorites to perform on the first leg of the tour. I was a bit biased, of course, having co-written it, but it was a fun, upbeat song that always got a good reaction out of the crowd. The choreography was simple, too: point, step, touch, repeat, every time we sang the chorus. I liked to do my own little dance on the verses, which the guys made fun of me for, but the fans seemed to love. I didn’t feel much like dancing to it this time, though.
As soon as I heard the jangly intro of the music, my heart dropped into my stomach. It was my first time listening to it since I’d broken up with Lauren, who had been the inspiration behind my lyrics: “You’re the reason why cavemen drew on the wall, the reason why after every summer we fall. You’re the reason I never wanna sleep at night, ‘cause nothing I can dream is better than you by my side.” Hearing those words made me miss her so much.
“You know that I… woo-whoo… love somebody, love somebody…” I watched the five of us point and step-touch in the mirror on the wall. Howie was in the middle, standing next to me. He caught my eye and winked as we sang the chorus. “I’m so in love, I can die right now and be fine; I need you tonight. You-you-you know that I… woo-whoo… love somebody, love somebody…”
Feeling my face flush, I shook my head a fraction of an inch. Quit flirting, Howie, I thought furiously, hoping he’d get the message. He couldn’t keep doing stuff like that in front of the other guys, or they’d figure out something was going on with us. It made me wonder, though: who had Howie had in mind when he wrote the song with me?
When we finished with “Love Somebody,” it was lunchtime. Brian left right away to meet up with Leighanne and Baylee, but the rest of us lingered in the rehearsal room for a few minutes. I was just about the suggest that we all go out to lunch together when AJ asked, “Hey Nick, wanna grab a bite with me?”
I noticed he didn’t extend the same invitation to Howie or Kevin, which was weird. Before I could answer, Kevin looked at Howie and said, “There’s a new Chinese place that just opened down the street. You wanna check it out?”
“Oh, yeah, sounds good,” said Howie, giving me an awkward look.
I just shrugged and told AJ, “Sure.” So the four of us split into twos and went our separate ways for lunch. AJ took me to a vegan cafe, which I thought was an odd choice for a burger-and-fries kind of guy. “You giving up meat, bro?” I asked, as we sat down at a table on the sun-soaked patio. It was a warm day, but the umbrella overhead gave us some shade.
AJ laughed. “Hell no. I’ve just been trying to eat healthier and get back in shape for the tour.”
“Ah.” I opened my menu, scanning the options. “I was afraid Lauren had bribed you to make sure I only eat from her list of immune-boosting superfoods or something.”
“What?” AJ said, laughing again. When I looked up from the menu, I saw that he already had his phone out and appeared to be sending a text. He finished and set his phone facedown on the table. “I’m not the friggin’ health food police. You’re a grown-ass man, Nick. You can eat whatever the hell you want.”
That sounded more like the AJ I knew, but still, something seemed off. I realized what was going on a few minutes later, when he suddenly said, “Speak of the devil…” and started waving at somebody behind me. I turned around to see a smiling Rochelle strolling across the patio towards us, holding Ava on her hip, followed by none other than my ex-fiancée.
To her credit, Lauren looked just as surprised to see me as I was to see her. I could tell AJ and Rochelle were acting, though, when they exclaimed what a coincidence it was that we should end up at the same cafe for lunch. “We were enjoying our girls’ day out, weren’t we, Monkee?” said Rochelle, smiling down at her daughter. “But I guess we could join Daddy for lunch. You don’t mind if we crash your lunch date, do you, Nick?” She batted her eyes sweetly at me, until I had no choice but to pull out one of the extra chairs for her.
“Nope,” I said shortly. “Go right ahead.”
“Thanks! Lo, you sit there. Ava and I are going to go potty first. If the waitress comes, will you order me a water with lemon?”
“Sure,” said Lauren, sitting down next to me.
At the same time, AJ jumped out. “I actually need to go potty – I mean, use the bathroom – too.”
Lauren snorted with laughter as he scurried away with the rest of his family, leaving the two of us sitting alone at the table. “I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head at me. “I swear, I didn’t know they were going to set us up. Ro invited me out for a girls’ day with Ava. We got mani-pedis this morning, and we were supposed to go shopping this afternoon. I knew nothing about this part.”
“Me neither,” I said, “but now I know why AJ wanted to come to a vegan cafe so bad.”
She smiled. “They’re not very good at the whole ‘stealth’ thing, are they?”
“I dunno, they got us both here, didn’t they?” I countered.
“Good point,” Lauren admitted. “How long do you think they’re gonna leave us sitting here by ourselves?”
“Knowing AJ, he probably took Rochelle and Ava to the nearest McDonald’s to get some ‘real food.’”
She laughed and shook her head. “Yuck. This sounds a lot better to me,” she said, looking at the menu. “Since we’re here anyway, should we go ahead and order? You must be hungry, after dancing all morning.”
“How’d you know I’d been dancing all morning?” I asked, narrowing my eyes suspiciously at her.
She blushed. “Well, Ro did say you guys were starting rehearsals today. That’s why she asked me to do something, since AJ wasn’t going to be around. I think she gets bored at home, trying to keep Ava entertained all day by herself.”
“Yeah, I could see that. Toddlers just wanna do the same stuff over and over again.”
Lauren looked at me curiously, raising an eyebrow, as if to ask, How would you know?
Smiling self-consciously, I said, “I spent some time in Florida with Howie, you know, and James and Holden were there for the summer. I’ve learned a lot about little kids.”
“Well, I’m impressed,” she said, smiling. “How is Holden doing, anyway?”
“He’s great, actually. Other than having to make him take medicine twice a day, you would never even know he was sick. He’s a happy little guy.”
“That’s good to hear. And how about you?” she asked. “How have you been?”
“Better,” I said. “A lot better than last time you saw me.”
“That’s an understatement,” she replied, shaking her head. “You were so sick… You scared the shit out of me, Nick.”
I felt guilty for inadvertently making her fly all the way to Tennessee to check up on me. Thank God she had, though, or who knows what would have happened. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know I was in pretty bad shape then, but I’m in a much better place now, physically and mentally.”
She nodded. “I can tell. You look good. You look healthy.”
I smiled. “Thanks. So do you.” She had gained some weight, but I didn’t mind her with a little extra meat on her bones. I guess she was no longer worried about maintaining her ‘wedding body.’ It didn’t matter, though. She would always be beautiful to me.
Lauren blushed and ducked her head, allowing a few loose waves of her hair to fall in her face. “Thanks.”
Once we ran out of small talk, an awkward silence settled over the table. We both stared at our menus, taking an insanely long time to decide what we wanted. Where was the waitress, anyway? I wondered if AJ had told her to wait awhile before taking our orders so we’d be forced to talk to each other. Would he and Rochelle really just leave us there?
Watching Lauren turn her menu over, I noticed she was no longer wearing her engagement ring. Her left hand looked naked without it. I’d thought it would make me feel better to see such a clear sign that she was moving on, but instead, it hurt. Even though I was reasonably happy and certainly less sexually frustrated with Howie, I still missed her. Seeing her without the ring only confirmed that, no matter what AJ and Rochelle were thinking, Lauren and I were never getting back together.
She must have caught me staring at her hand because she suddenly said, “Do you want it back?”
Her voice startled me out of my own thoughts. “What?”
“The ring. Do you want it back?”
“Oh… no,” I said, shaking my head. “No, you keep it. Or sell it or something. Either way, it’s yours, so do whatever you want with it.”
She nodded. “Okay. You can have the condo back, though. I moved in with my dad until I can find a new place to live.”
I set my menu down, suddenly not hungry anymore. My heart had started beating faster, and my stomach felt sick. It was really happening, I realized. She was moving on without me. “You didn’t have to do that,” I said. “I told you, it’s yours to keep.”
“But it’s not mine, Nick. Everything’s in your name, and I’m not gonna let you keep paying for a place you’re no longer living in so I can stay there for free. Despite what your fans may think, I’m not a gold-digger.”
“I know you’re not,” I replied, frowning. “We can transfer it to your name, if that’s what you want.”
She shook her head. “You know I can’t afford that. If you don’t want to live there anymore, then you should sell it.”
I should have known she wouldn’t want to mooch off me for long. That was one of the things I loved about Lauren: she was an independent woman. She didn’t need me. I didn’t need her either… or, at least, that’s what I tried to tell myself.
After what felt like an hour but was probably only about five minutes, the McLean family finally rejoined us at the table. “Sorry about that,” said Rochelle, sliding into the seat across from me. “Did you two have a chance to catch up?”
Lauren and I looked at each other. I started laughing first, and she quickly joined in. “You guys can drop the act,” she said to Rochelle. “We know you set us up.”
AJ and Rochelle exchanged sheepish glances. “We just wanted to get you talking again,” AJ admitted. “Did it work?”
I looked at Lauren again. “Well… we did talk,” I said with a shrug, “so… yeah, I guess it worked.” I smiled at her, and she gave me a tiny smile in return. It didn’t quite reach her eyes, though; I could still see a shadow of the pain I’d put her through.
As my eyes dropped to her bare left hand, I started to wonder if Lauren was really over it or just trying to hide the fact that she wasn’t. I remembered the word AJ had used to describe her after our breakup: devastated. She may have moved out, but she hadn’t moved on from me yet.