On Friday, I drove up to my other brother’s house to pick up my niece. She came bouncing out of her home dressed in little black flats, and ruffled black skirt and a purple shirt. Her outfit was complete with jewelry and a purple bow in her hair.
I could see her mother laughing from the door as Sandra rushed over to me with the largest smile I’d ever seen.
She tore my door open before hopping in.
“Hey buttercup, are you ready for today?”
She nodded enthusiastically, “do you think Joe will be able to see me?”
I hid a smile knowing that Joe would absolutely bend over backwards to make her happy.
“Absolutely,” I promised. “In fact, I have a surprise for you.”
Her eyes widened in delight, “what is it?”
Her chunky cheeks could not be redder and I wondered how long she could hold a smile before her cheeks gave out on her.
“It’s a surprise,” I reminded her.
It took me longer than I’d care to admit to find the back access to the venue. When I finally did security kept trying to shoo me away before I could even speak to them.
“Tia Nena, I don’t think we’re supposed to go through here?” Sandra spoke up with concern beside me.
I bit my lip nervously feeling as though it might be best to do what they say. I stayed in my car not moving forward or backing up trying to calculate the best course of action. I heard a car honking behind me before I snapped out of the internal war going on in my head. I tried backing up before realizing the guy hadn’t given me much space. I got out of my car to ask him to back up and he rolled down his window.
“Nessa? Can you just drive up, I’m a little late and Nick is going to lose it.”
I felt awful for not having learned his name, yet, “I can’t they’re telling me to turn around.”
The guy got out of his car to address security before they got on the phone with the production team and finally waved me in.
“Who is that?” Sandra asked watching as the guy got back into his car.
“Uh,” I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know the guy who just got us into the back end parking lot so I lied. “He’s a friend.”
I pulled in to see the tour buses and production trucks lined up while everyone seemed too busy to notice anything around them.
I parked my car beside the guy who’s name I still hadn’t learned and followed him inside to the best of my ability. He really jogged his way in and out of sight while Sandra was still looking around confused by her surroundings. Honestly, I was kind of lost, too.
It took some wandering around before we ran into Nick’s younger brother in the hallway
“Hi, Franklin,” I greeted.
His face twisted instantly, “people don’t call me that, I’m Frankie,” he corrected me.
“Sorry, Frankie.” I apologized. “Do you know where we’re supposed to go?”
He shrugged, “Nick’s still in his room getting ready if you want to go there.”
Sandra pressed up against my arm and looked up at me shyly. “Do you want to go to Nick’s room?”
She nodded as a blush crept over her face.
“What’s your name?” Frankie asked her.
She looked up at me and I saw her cheeks expanding into a smile again.
I nudged her lightly, “what’s your name?”
She kept her eyes on me as she whispered, “Sandra.”
“Don’t tell me, tell him,” I encouraged her.
She looked over at him before speaking a little louder, “Sandra.”
“Cool name, mine’s Frankie,” he waved at her.
She hid behind me again and I tried to hold back a giggle.
“Nick’s room is this way.”
We walked through what seemed like a maze and I wondered how I’d find my way out. We finally knocked on Nick’s door and our last conversation flooded my brain. I was reminded of what a mess I was the last time I saw him and suddenly my stomach turned and I began to feel nauseous. Nick opened the door as his eyes fell on me and immediately drifted to Sandra.
“Hey, there birthday girl!” He smiled at her.
The grin on her face looked like it would be there forever.
“Sandra, say hi,” I reminded her.
She whispered out a greeting before hiding behind me.
Nick looked up at me with a small smile, “are you guys excited for the show?”
“Oh, yeah, my sister-in-law says ‘someone’,” I ticked my head toward Sandra. “Has been dancing around the house and practicing her moves for today.”
Nick chuckled, “no way, is that true?”
Sandra’s face was bright red at this point as she continued to hide behind me.
“Hey buttercup, you can’t hide forever. Speak up.”
Nick looked up at me again as I peeled my niece off from my body.
“How are you feeling today?”
I tried to ignore the embarrassment creeping in on my face. “Um, I’m… fine. I’m good.”
Nick gave me a tight lipped smile, “well, I gotta get going to the meet and greet so I’ll see you guys out there?”
Sandra looked at me shocked, like she hadn’t seen them just two months ago. I giggled at her reaction.
“Um, do you know where we're supposed to be?”
Nick stared at me for a while before leading the way. We stood in the meet and greet line for about ten minutes before we heard loud squeals moving up the line behind us. I turned to see Joe heading in our direction toward the meet and greet room.
Huh. Is he late or is Nick early? I’d imagine, given that Nick hates tardiness he was just a few minutes early. I wondered what would actually happen if Joe was ever late to something involving Nick. Is he as temperamental about timeliness as he is about sports? In the admittedly short time that I’d known him, I’d never seen him angry. I’d seen him frustrated and annoyed from time to time but even then, it was hardly more than an eyeroll. No raised voice, no punches, nothing.
Even after Joe had arrived, the line still hadn’t started moving. I looked up to the front of the line to try and figure out what was going on. It didn’t seem like anyone was going in there yet. It was another fifteen minutes before the squeals picked up again. I looked back to see Kevin walking by with a very serious look on his face. He’s gotta be late right? I mean, Nick wouldn’t be almost half an hour early would he? Finally the line started moving as fans were being ushered in for pictures.
I used my new camera to snap a picture of Sandra with the guys before we were ushered out toward the arena seating. We found our seat in the third row waiting for the concert to begin while Sandra bounced around in her seat excitedly. Half an hour after start time, the band still hadn’t come on stage.
“Tia Nena, I’m getting hungry.”
I looked at my watch wondering what was going on before I decided to just get her some nachos. As soon as we walked out of our row, the lights turned down and music started playing. I looked over and saw two people standing on stage before a pop song came on. Pretty sure that’s not the Jonas Brothers.
I got some nachos for Sandra and two waters before heading back to our seats. Sandra danced around to Karmin songs during their set.
Finally, when they came on stage, their first song came through the speakers. The opening chords instantly made me smile. My mind flashed back to the first time I heard this song. This was when I first started crushing on Nick.
“When you look me in the eyes, and tell me that you love me, everything’s alright.”
I took pictures of the guys on stage while everyone around me screamed at the top of their lungs.The majority of their set I knew by heart aside from a few songs that were likely from the new album that they’d yet to release. I saw Nick look down at me every once in a while with a smirk as I snapped a few pictures of him. I tried to ignore the bubbling feeling my insides would produce every time he looked at me. Joe found me in the crowd and shot me a wink while I rolled my eyes at him. After some time I put my camera away and decided to enjoy the show. I danced along with Sandra beside me, I even learned her moves so we could do them together. I jumped around with her and just allowed myself to be excited and not feel the need to hide it for once.
Toward the end of the set Joe started searching the crowd before smiling down at Sandra. He asked security to bring her up to the stage so that he and Nick would be able to serenade her.
I watched her wiggle around on stage completely excited and blown away as they sang Hello, Beautiful to her. When it was over they helped her back off the stage before Nick looked over at me with a huge smile. The girls around me were louder than I assumed possible at the sight of an open mouthed smile from him. I could hardly hear the strumming of his guitar over their screams.
I understood the smile he sent me when Joe started singing, “Tonight, we are young.”
I beamed up at Nick remembering the adventure we’d been on just last week.
After the show, security escorted Sandra and I backstage again toward Nick’s dressing room. We got in his room just as he was getting in the shower. It was about 10 already and I noticed Sandra starting to yawn.
We sat on the couch to wait for Nick while she began to nod off. Nick stepped out of the bathroom fully dressed before reaching for a juice from his minifridge.
“Hey, partner, what did you think?”
“Shhh,” I whispered as I ran my fingers through Sandra’s hair as she slept.
Nick looked back at us and whispered, “she’s had a long day.”
I smiled, “No kidding, she’s burned off a week's supply of energy in two hours.”
He took a sip from his juice, “do you want to head into the green room? Hang out with the crew for a bit.”
I shook my head, “you can go ahead, I should get her home.”
Nick eyed Sandra, “she’s safe here. We have security, we can just let her sleep for a while. Frankie does it all the time.”
“I’m sorry, but while she’s in my care, I can’t let her out of my sight.”
Nick was silent for a moment before he smiled, “you’re cute with her.”
“As opposed to my regular ugly self without her?”
He shook his head, “no, I just mean, you’re almost maternal. It’s sweet.”
Honestly, it wasn’t about being sweet to her or being a fun aunt or any of that. I just felt like I needed to keep an eye on her and keep her safe. The last time I let my guard down it didn’t end well for me. I couldn’t risk making that mistake again. Especially not with Sandra at stake.
“Thanks for having us, Nick. But I think I have to get her home.”
“I’ll go with you.”
I slid out from under Sandra and rose to my feet
“That’s not necessary,” I assured him as I got up. “I’m sure you’ve had an exhausting day and you just want to celebrate with your team. We’ll just get out of your hair.”
I tried to slip my hands under Sandra's sleeping form to try and carry her but I found myself struggling. It would seem that a ten year old child is just outside of my range of abilities.
“I’ll give you a hand,” Nick quickly scooped her up before turning back toward me. “Lead the way.”
I bit my lip, “I can’t.”
His lips turned up slightly at the ends before he turned toward the door, “can you give me a hand?”
I opened the door and followed behind him as he led me out into the backlot. “Where did you park?”
“Next to Matt,” I responded, finally knowing his name after Joe introduced him during the show.
I opened the door and slid the seat forward so that Sandra could sleep in the back. Nick put her in before turning to look at the closed fence. “Uh, do you maybe want to wait for a bit? Just ‘cause Some fans might still be waiting out there and it might not be entirely safe to leave yet.”
I looked over at my sleeping niece, “I need to get her home, I can’t just leave her lying around.”
“I’ll go with you, then.”
I shook my head, “stay, enjoy your opening night.”
Nick looked over at me wearily, “it’s not very safe right now, Ness. I’d rather not send you out there alone.”
I bit my lip knowing that Nick was stubborn and wouldn’t let me get my way. Is that such a bad thing, though? I mean, I kind of do want to be around him, didn’t get much of a chance to hang out earlier.
I handed him my keys, “careful, the clutch is getting a little finicky. I suspect it’s going to give out soon.”
He slid the driver’s seat all the way back, “what kind of Tinkerbell-sized…”
He smirked at me as he slid into the seat, “stop, I have short legs and the clutch has to go all the way in.”
He squeezed my thigh, and my stomach did the floating thing again, “I don’t think you can call it short legs when the entire body is proportionally-sized. I think at that point, we’d just call you short.”
I shook my head as the security opened the fence to let us out onto the street. I was surprised to find people on the street screeching at the sight of Nick driving my car. Girls started snapping pictures and I started to wish my windows were tinted.
“This is crazy,” I whispered.
Nick chuckled quietly, “yeah, it can get to be a bit much.”
We got onto the freeway and I kept my eyes on the rearview mirror trying to figure out if someone was in fact following us or just headed in the same direction.
“So how did you learn to drive stick?”
My attention was snapped away from the mirror and toward Nick. “Oh, my brother. I insisted because I really wanted to make sure I knew how to drive one in case I found a vintage model that I really wanted.”
Nick nodded, “that’s pretty cool, most people only know how to drive automatic nowadays.”
I shrugged, “well, I haven’t learned how to drive that one, yet.”
He looked over at me with a smile, “you’re funny.”
“I’m serious, I’ve accidentally shifted into reverse or neutral at a stop, it drives my mom insane.”
“Well, it takes some getting used to,” he allowed.
The car fell into silence and I immediately felt uncomfortable, “I’m sorry about… last time.”
I peeked over at Nick to try and gauge his reaction. There wasn’t one.
“I didn’t mean to do any of that in front of you. I just… I lost control for a bit and… I’m not usually like that- I’m never like that.”
Nick didn’t take his eyes off the road, “when you say that, are you referring to the state of mind you were in or the vulnerability you displayed?”
I didn’t know how to respond.
“I’m not someone who would get upset over your bad days. I might not be able to understand why you feel the way you do, but I can respect your feelings and support you through them.”
I looked away and out the window hoping this conversation could be avoided altogether.
“I worry about you, Vanessa. I get the feeling that’s a side of you that no one knows. I don’t want you to suffer alone.”
“I don’t,” I lied. “That’s never happened before. I think it was just- I was overwhelmed by the stuff and everything and I was drunk from the Joe thing and-”
“Stop lying.” His voice was low and heavy. The gravity of it sent everything in my brain into a screeching halt.
I bit my lip trying to figure out what he wanted to hear from me. How am I supposed to make this go away? My fingers traced the threading on my jeans while I tried to piece together some sort of explanation.
“For this to work, you need to stop lying. Stop hiding things from me. I can’t help you if you won’t let me in.”
I looked out my window feeling conflicted. Am I really supposed to tell him the truth? What happens if I tell him and it’s too much? What if I’m too big of a mess?
Nick reached for my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Talk to me.”
I can’t. I sat silently before Nick turned the music off completely. He was trying to make the environment so uncomfortable that I was cornered into talking. We sat in absolute silence for a few minutes and I felt completely out of my element. My nerves were twisting and squeezing my insides. My palms started sweating and there’s no way he didn’t notice. I sighed in defeat.
“I’m a mess.”
I pulled my hand away from Nick before wiping both of my palms on my jeans. “I feel like I’m terrified of everything. Everything makes me nervous.”
I looked over in his direction but explicitly avoided his face and instead set my eyes on his hand on the wheel. “I know you told me not to, but I still feel like I’m intruding in other people’s lives. I feel like I’m taking opportunities from others. I feel so selfish and self-involved whenever anything is focused on me. I hide during my own birthday parties. I don’t really join a conversation, I just sit and listen.”
This is too much. Tell him you’re doing better! Give him proof! Build a wall that he can’t get through. “ I- I want to study psychology because I feel like it might fix me and at the very least I can help others and then I won’t be in other people’s way so much? I’ll be doing more good than harm?”
I saw Nick look over at me from the corner of my eye and whatever wall I was trying to rebuild just came tumbling back down. “I want to leave a good impact on the people around me but whenever I’m not doing that I feel this extreme guilt. I don’t think I deserve to be your friend, or anyone’s friend really. My dad is just-”
Tears began to form, “when he left, I didn’t hear from him for a whole year. I haven’t even seen him since he left over two years ago. He used to talk about me like I was this thing that his world revolved around. But when they separated… he forgot I existed.”
I wiped my tears but they were quickly replaced with more, “he left the day before my sixteenth birthday. I didn’t hear from him until after September of the following year. I tried calling him, so did my mom. But I never heard from him… He said he loved me but he disappeared overnight. If my own father can do that, what does that say about me?”
I wiped away the tears again before bringing my knees up to my chest. I rested my head on my knees and directed my eyes out the window. For a minute, I was able to breathe deeply and just relax. I pretended I was the only one in the car. I pretended that entire jumble hadn’t just come out of my mouth. I closed my eyes and just focused on my ability to breathe. How did he get me to say all of this outloud? I’d never done that before.
After a few moments I felt Nick’s hand stroking my hair. I felt more at ease in the moment than I’d felt in a really long time. We drove around in silence for a while before Nick spoke up.
“Um, where are we dropping off Sandra?”
I smiled thankful that Nick was allowing my confessions to slip past, “Remember the party?”
He nodded, “got it.”
After we dropped off Sandra we sat parked outside Nick’s home, “wanna come in for a bit?”
I looked over at him and bit my lip. Yes I want to be around him but also, I’m kind of afraid of what is happening with our friendship. I had never allowed myself to be this open or honest with anyone. I don’t know what to say in that situation.
Nick pressed his lips together, “I can see you debating in your head, you know?”
My mouth widened in shock, “wha- how?”
He chuckled before undoing his seatbelt and stepping out of the car. He walked over to open my door and held a hand out for me, “need a hand?”
I took his hand as he led me into the house.
We sat on his couch eating celery sticks while the tv was set to a music channel.
“I know you’re probably hoping I’ll let this go but I have to say something.” He confessed.
I quickly averted my gaze and held my breath afraid of what was coming next.
“I think you’re a good person. I think you’re something special and I think you could be brilliant but you keep letting things dull your shine. I know I’ll never understand the pain you’ve gone through but…”
He took my celery free hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I want you to stop carrying the weight of everyone else on your shoulders. You’re not responsible for everything that happens around you. You are entitled to all the happiness in the world. As your friend, I’ll help you carry the load if that is what it takes. I’m here for you, no matter what.”
What? Why would he even want to do any of this?
Nick stroked my hair and kissed my forehead, sending my stomach back into zero-gravity. “Because I like you, Vanessa; and more than anything I just want to see you happy.”
My eyes widened as my brows raised in confusion. “How are you reading my mind?”
He chuckled, “I don’t need to, your face says it all.”
“It’s unsettling that you can read me so well,” I admitted.
He shrugged, “I’ve been paying attention.”
“That sounds exhausting,” who would ever want to put that much effort into me?
He smirked, “it’s not nearly as bad as you might think.”
I licked my lips, “well, you’re by far the best friend I’ve ever had.”
His smirk slowly stretched into a smile, “you’re my best friend, too.”
That wasn’t actually what I meant to imply although I suppose it is true.
I took a bite of my celery stick feeling unsatisfied and wishing I had gotten some nachos for myself at the concert.
He raised his eyebrows to let me know I had his attention.
“How would you feel about a midnight taco run? I’ll buy.”
He chuckled, “yeah, being healthy sucks, this celery just makes me sad.”
I beamed at him before wrapping my arms around him, “I’m happy right now.”
He chuckled before wrapping his arms around me. It felt like a relief to not be afraid to be this close to someone. My stomach had another moment of free fall and I tried to hide the blush creeping onto my face.
I opened the door for Nick while he chuckled, “so where is this taco place anyway?”
I bit my lip, “I worry that if I tell you, you’ll back out.”
I closed the door after he slid into the passenger’s seat before making my way to the driver’s side of my car.
“Can’t do that now, I already have my seatbelt on.”
I got in and slid my seat forward again, but not before getting even. “Some crazy giant…” Nick breathed out a laugh.
“It’s in East LA.”
Nick raised his eyebrows at me, “that’s a drive, you sure you’re up for it?”
“I’d do anything for tacos.”
I started the car and took off. I saw Nick gripping the strap of his seatbelt as I drove.
“I thought you didn’t want to be a part of Hollywood?”
I looked over at him confused, “what?”
“I’m just trying to figure out why you’re driving like this is an audition for Fast and The Furious.”
I rolled my eyes, “very funny, so funny I forgot to laugh.”
He chuckled, “geez that’s gotta be from like the nineties?”
“Stop picking on me,” I whined.
He reached for my hand that rested on the gear shift before pulling it up to his lips and giving it a kiss. “Sorry, Ness.”
I blushed before pulling my hand away from him; the floating stomach thing can’t be normal, can it? Is this what a crush is supposed to feel like? I looked over at him and saw a small smile on his face that made my heart forget how to function. He looked over at me as the smile on his face expanded.
I turned back to the road as my face began to feel warmer and I was thankful for the dark night that hid the hue on my face.
I shook my head, “nothing?”
I could see him watching me from the corner of my eye before biting his lip and shaking his head and turning his attention back to the road.
I sat in my therapist’s office staring at the clock not sure whether I wanted it to speed up or slow down.
“So, Vanessa, I know you graduated recently. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about that?”
I took a deep breath, “um, I did it, I guess. My mom and my siblings and my niece and nephews were there… my dad didn’t make it. We tried but…” I shrugged.
“How did that make you feel?”
I shook my head, “Um, Nick threw me a surprise party later in the week. There were a bunch of people and they were all happy for me. They invited me on tour with them.”
“That’s a big gift.”
I bit my lip nervously.
“How do you feel about it?”
“I feel like if I can’t figure out how to be happy on this tour it might never happen for me.”
He nodded before jotting a quick note, “why do you feel like you wouldn’t be happy?”
I started to trace the stitching of my purse, “um, I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been unhappy for so long and it’s just… what if I’m like my dad? What if I’m incapable of ever being happy?”
I looked up to see him writing again, “so you feel that if this doesn’t make you happy nothing will.”
I started at the clock again still not sure which way I wanted it to go.
“If I may, don’t spend too much time worrying about being happy. Live in the moment, without worrying about what happens next. Just appreciate the time for what it is.”
I looked around my room at the clothes piled on the floor, on my bed, on my closet floor… really everywhere but the hooks on which they belong. I did not expect packing to be this difficult. I heard a knock at my door and turned to find my mom standing in the entryway.
“What time are you leaving?”
“Nick said he’d pick me up in an hour.”
She nodded before scanning my room, “you’ve got a lot of work to do before then.”
“I’m almost done. When I finish packing I’ll start putting the other clothes back.”
She walked into my room and sat at my desk chair while I stuffed as much clothes as possible into my bag.
“Be careful out there okay?”
“I will, I promise,” I smiled. I was too far from being anywhere near reckless.
“Call me if you need anything or for any reason.”
I nodded while I tried to zip up my luggage. I looked over at my mom to see a slightly sad look on her face.
“I’ll be okay, momma. I’ll be back in a few weeks for Jenny’s wedding.”
She nodded with a sad smile, “did you talk to your therapist?”
I sighed, “yeah.”
“It was good. I’m fine, I feel better,” I lied.
My mom nodded, “okay, well I hope you’ll have fun.”
With that she got up and left my room again.
An hour later there was a knock at my door. “Vanessa?”
Nick walked in and looked around at my now almost-tidy room before shoving his hands in his pockets, “I expected a bigger mess.”
I smirked, “I’m never messy.”
“That may be but packing for tour is a whole other monster.”
“Not for me,” I lied.
His brows raised in surprise, “does this count as a superpower?”
I laughed, “it definitely doesn’t.”
I hung up the last of my items to turn and find Nick holding my luggage... Both bags… big bags.
“Did I overdo it?”
“For two weeks? Not at all.”