A small crowd gathering for a presidential motorcade jolts me out of sleep. I open my eyes, and I’m in Philadelphia. In my sister’s new apartment, to be exact. Everyone else is gone. Dina and her brand-new Albert Einstein hospital coat, so big on her five-foot-one frame she looks like a child playing dress-up. Her husband, who’d been sitting on the couch watching tennis for most of the last three days. My parents, staying in an empty apartment downstairs.
It takes me a moment to remember why I’m alone—that everyone’s gone to the shore, for Fourth of July. Then I’m relieved. I need a break from the constant tension that always seems to be present when I’m around them—a sort of forced intimacy laced with bitterness. And beneath that, a sadness so deep that even skimming its surface is likely to pull you down under its weight. That every time my mom is with us, it could be the last time. That I will spend the majority of my life without a mother. For years this information has shadowed everything.
I push it all out of my mind before it sucks me into its endless cycle. If I don’t, it will be all I ever think about. Cancer is like that—it sticks to everything it touches and won’t let go, even thoughts.
Instead, I look out the large, third-floor windows. The day is already dissolving, gray and blue like the cobblestone streets below, melting before dusk. Downtown Philadelphia at its finest, bustling with tattooed cyclists, bars you can still smoke in.
Like the day, my vacation’s nearly gone too: in the morning I catch a flight back to Chicago, to graduate school and grammar tests and short stories. But first, Dan will come over, like he has every day since I’ve been in Philadelphia, and for a while I will feel new again—full of excitement, that vague frightening kind you only feel when you’re smitten, the kind that makes you turn into a teenager. For a while, even if it’s only a few hours, I will walk forward with blinders on, thinking of nothing but boys.
I’d met Dan back in April, outside of a divey Lincoln Park jazz bar, where I was smoking a cigarette and talking to a girl named Sarah. I was twenty-four, halfway through grad school, had more piercings than friends.
“I just broke up with a trumpet player,” Sarah was saying. Then she pushed her short brown hair behind her ears and exhaled a large cloud of smoke into the gray air. “Oh, what he could do with his lips!”
“Yeah, I bet,” I’d laughed, taking a drag of my own cigarette and leaning against the damp brick wall. A guy I was casually dating – a blond guitar teacher named Andrew who’d been raised in China by missionary parents – was inside, talking to a friend of his we’d run into. I hadn’t even wanted to go out that night, had practically dragged myself there, but it became clear quickly that I would have been better off at home working on my final writing projects, that Andrew had likely invited me only out of politeness, assuming I wouldn’t come. But he obviously had no idea how desolate my social life had been since I’d moved to Chicago, that I never said no to anything.
“I just made a rule the other day,” I told Sarah. “No more musicians for me.”
“I’ve made that rule before,” she said.
“Yeah. Me too,” I said, and even as I was saying it I knew it was ridiculous, considering not only Andrew but that I was always making up these silly rules and lists of male attributes to avoid and it never worked. Musicians, especially the moody unattainable kind, were always exactly who I ended up dating. Then I’d just make excuses for it afterward.
A crowd of people escaped from the doors then, the remnants of guitar strings and saxophones and horns coming out with them. Andrew was not among the swarm, so I lit another cigarette. It was getting pretty obvious he was more interested in talking about music with his friends than dating me, but I was still very good at denial about these types of things. A light drizzle started, just as the conversation with Sarah was petering out into complete silence. I didn’t care though, as I preferred to be alone while I smoked anyway. Like many introverts and those burdened with social anxiety, I loved smoking the same way people love their dogs. It was also how I’d met nearly everyone I knew in Chicago. Smoking made it easy, instead of strange, to escape from a crowded bar onto a sidewalk and be momentarily alone. It made it easy to talk to someone and not look at them. Most importantly, though, it was beneficial in its disruptions, like inserting punctuation into an otherwise-unruly sentence—a time to pause, and even reflect, on what was going on around you. A time to measure the balance between things done and things still needing to be done.
Or in this case, it was also a great way to watch two cute foreigners who had just stepped outside. I turned my attention toward them, as they looked sort of Russian and I always wanted to meet more Russians. They were talking a different language, though I couldn’t quite hear what. I stepped forward slightly and asked them where they were from.
“Israel!” said the one with long black hair curling around his shoulders, a damp leather coat.
“Oh really?” I said. “I’ve been there. Twice, in fact!”
They both perked up at this and approached me.
“Are you Jewish?” asked the other one, who I’d noticed earlier in the bar because of his striped red-and-black sweatshirt. He was tall and skinny and starting to prematurely bald, with a clean-shaven face and large forehead made to look larger by a too-short haircut.
I shrugged, which was usually my answer to that question. “I guess.”
Before I knew what he was doing he gave me a high-five. “I’m Danny,” he said. Then the one with the leather coat extended his hand, and I shook it.
“I’m also Dani,” he said. “With an i.”
Dani pointed to someone else, coming out of the bar wearing only a v-neck t-shirt even though it was barely fifty degrees that night. He had dirty blond hair, freckled, muscular arms, and bright blue eyes, the kind that look at you as if you’re the only person on the planet. “And that’s Dan.”
“Are you joking?” I asked. Dan came up to them, put his hands in his pockets. A large grin spread across his face for no apparent reason.
“Hi,” he said, cheerfully.
“You all have the same name?” Sarah asked. “Doesn’t that get confusing?”
“Not really,” Dani said.
“Only if you forget which one you are,” Dan laughed.
“We’re getting out of here,” Danny said, placing the hood of his striped sweatshirt over his head. It was the first time I noticed how thick his accent was—I even had a hard time making out what he’d said. He pointed to the bar. “The music here sucks.” Then he pulled out his wallet and took out a business card, handing it to me.
“We’re playing here tomorrow,” he said. “You should come.”
“You’re all in a band together too?”
“Just Dani and me,” Danny said.
“I don’t like jazz,” I said, looking down at the card and reading it.
“You’ll like this!” Dani promised.
Then they left, and the girl left, and I went back inside to where Andrew was still talking to his friend. Later that night we broke up, which I had already seen coming but was still made profoundly sad about. I’d been single for almost a year, the longest since I was teenager, and even though it was never going to be anything serious with Andrew—his parents were missionaries! He went to grad school for classical guitar!—it was still a nice distraction after many months of nothing remotely romantic in my life, unless you counted going back to Milwaukee and hooking up with ex-boyfriends once a month. Dating in Chicago was nothing like dating in Milwaukee, where you were basically tripping over men who would date you, or at least sleep with you a few times and then remain friends afterward. In Chicago, people spent their time in office jobs and endlessly long commutes, they fell asleep on trains, they chugged Starbucks lattes as if they were bottles of water. Like its architecture, it was beautiful, but predetermined, geometric, busy. Everything was made to get from one place to another. Every minute of every day was planned in advance. You never spontaneously ran into anyone you knew—it was just too large. It was easy to go months without talking to a single person. It was easy to leave someone, forget someone, never see them again. It was safe. That was really the difference—people seemed to take fewer chances. I once flew to Portland to visit a guy I had only known for two days. This type of attitude made no sense to me.
I understood the second Andrew left I’d likely never see him again, even though he’d promised we’d remain friends. But I’d heard the same speech more times than I could count since moving to Chicago and I learned that there, unlike Milwaukee, “Let’s be friends” really meant “There’s no reason for me to hang out with you anymore without the possibility of sex.” Of all the small disappointments since moving there, this was the worst. It seemed like such a waste of time to get to know a person, only to never see them again once you realized it wasn’t a perfect match romantically. I’d come of age in a very liberal sexual community, where half my male friends were also former lovers, so every time it happened it was like a big slap in the face.
But this time, after Andrew left in the morning, instead of throwing myself a pity party I remembered the intriguing Israeli men who’d invited me to their show. Even though I’d met them only very briefly, I could tell they weren’t the type of guys to just drop off the face of the planet for no reason. They were foreigners after all—they didn’t have a large group of friends in Chicago surrounding them since childhood, with no room for anyone else.
At the time, on top of dating two Andrews in a row and meeting three Dannys at once, I was also friends with two Ashleys that lived next door to me in my studio apartment in Lakeview. Besides our overpriced dog-friendly apartments—more than three times the rent I’d been paying in Milwaukee—and our poor pets stuck in the tiny confined spaces with us, we had nothing in common at all, but still we occasionally attempted to pretend like we were friends. Sharing cigarettes, letting our dogs play in the hallway. Or, once in a while, inviting each other to things. To differentiate them in my phone and in my head, I called one Fat Ashley and the other Black Ashley. Black Ashley was only half black, and actually, was also pretty fat, but she was never willing to go anywhere other than Wrigleyville, so I knocked on the door of Fat Ashley. While her pug—also quite fat—snorted and huffed in circles around our legs, I begged her to come with me to the show that night so I didn’t have to go alone. I didn’t have class so we could take the train together, I said. Plus, what better things did she have to do?
She agreed, though she didn’t seem too thrilled about it. She wasn’t much of a drinker and when she wasn’t at work, waitressing, or at her unpaid theater internship, she preferred to stay home and smoke pot in front on her television.
“They’re all kind of cute!” I told her, even though I knew she didn’t have a chance with them. “Maybe you’ll hit it off with one.”
“Are they really all named Danny?” she asked, when I came by to get her that night.
I shrugged. “I guess if you think about it, it’s only confusing for other people.”
In the hallway of my sister’s apartment that hot July evening, I hear voices—Dan’s deep booming one, and another, quieter, more polite version. This is what happens with Dan, the second you turn around he’s having a deep conversation with a stranger. Or a doorman, in this case. Eventually he knocks, and I open the door. “Hello!” he bellows cheerfully, a guitar case in his hand. His freckled muscular arms are bursting out of a gray v-neck, and he’s smiling, the way he always smiles, genuine and absolute, like he’s just had the best meal of his life.
“Come in,” I tell him, dreamily. He puts his guitar case inside and the first thing we do is go downstairs to share a cigarette. I complain again that he left Chicago too soon, just a day before my birthday, right when we were starting to get to know each other. The four of us had hung out constantly before Dan had disappeared back to Philly and spending time with the Dannys just wasn’t the same without him. It didn’t help that I’d been casually seeing Danny and he’d just broken it off with me, giving me the speech I hated the most: “Let’s just be friends.” For some reason when men did this to me my first instinct was to get back at them by hooking up with one of their friends—though I rarely ever went through with it. I had on one occasion dated an ex’s brother, but it really backfired, and I’d just ended up being in love with both of them at once. In this case, though, it would have only been a plus, because at least physically, Dan was the most attractive to me.
“You could have stayed one day,” I tell Dan. I don’t tell him I nearly cried when I found out he’d left, that only then did I realize how important they’d all become to me. I’d lived in Chicago a year without making any close friends, and now that I’d had I was terrified to lose them, to go back to spending my nights binge-watching Joss Whedon shows I’d already seen two or three times before. Because of a ridiculous misunderstanding between Dani’s brand-new girlfriend and Danny’s decision to just be friends, I already barely saw them anymore. But it had all started with Dan leaving. So when my parents said they were coming to Philly to visit my sister, who’d just moved there with her husband to start their residencies, I practically begged to go with them. Though of course I didn’t tell them why.
“It wasn’t anything personal,” Dan says, for the second time. “I just had to go. Sometimes when you feel a thing, you just gotta do the thing.”
When I first heard my future husband playing the saxophone, I was completely awestruck. Ashley and I walked into Lilly’s while he was halfway through what is still my favorite song, “Down Goes the Day,” a sad, short little melody that made you tingle and feel alive. Instead of going straight to the bar for a drink like Ashley did, I stood in the middle of the nearly empty room and stared ahead until the song was over. When talent caught me off guard like that, I knew enough to try and stay in the moment. It happened so rarely, even less than a spark with someone from the opposite gender, that momentarily I was able to shut off my anxiety and wandering mind and just focus.
“Did you hear that?” I asked Ashley, afterward, when I slid up beside her to wait for the bartender. “That was awesome.”
She agreed, though less excitedly. She wasn’t one to get excited about things, unless they involved theater or men having sex with her. Which, given her lisp and large midsection, was unsurprisingly rare. We sat and watched the rest of the short set from a high table close to the bar, chugging five-dollar Long Islands. During the show, I had plenty of time to watch the Dannys and imagine what kind of men they were without their instruments, which was usually where my mind went when looking at people on a stage. Danny, though taller than I remembered, seemed quite stiff, less comfortable in the spotlight, a little shy even. Dani, though more relaxed in front of a crowd, during his endlessly long solos, would make all sorts of convoluted faces similar to someone trying to stretch out their mouth in every direction to make sure nothing’s broken. It was so bizarre I almost laughed out loud. When he wasn’t making faces, it was clear that he was very confident in his body and movements, arrogant even. Like the kind of person to practice in front of a mirror—a fact, I learned later, that was actually the case. I barely even noticed the bassist and drummer, besides their mere existence on the stage.
When the show was over, we waited. At least ten minutes worth of awkward small talk passed between Ashley and me, even though there were only a few other people in the bar, before the Dannys came to our table. First Dan, in yet another gray v-neck. He felt urgently like he needed to buy me a copy of the band’s CD, which I let him, even though I knew I probably wouldn’t listen to it. Most of the set had been way too guitar-heavy, and I didn’t feel like listening to that in my free time. Though I could appreciate everyone’s incredible skills, I was more of an indie-rock fan. I told him this, but he bought it for me anyway. Then he and Ashley talked about Philadelphia, where Dan was from and usually lived when he wasn’t in Chicago recording an album with two other Dannys. At first he seemed perfectly normal, but you could tell as the conversation went on that there was something a bit off. Talking to him was like reading a poetry book when you weren’t in the mood. You could almost never get a straight answer.
Ashley didn’t mind this however, as she did most of the talking herself. Soon the other Dannys came over too, and convinced us to get out of there. I suggested Delilah’s, a punk bar a few blocks down the road that I often went to after class. There was nothing else around except college bars so we walked the five long blocks in the rain to go there. It was loud and packed with too many bodies in leather coats, as usual, and immediately a very drunk girl sat down next to me and said, “Wow, all the guys you’re with are hot.” I shrugged. I didn’t feel like screaming over the music, so I didn’t continue the conversation for very long. Plus, I hadn’t really thought about them physically all that much—I was just so excited that I might have finally made some real friends in Chicago. Everyone I’d met in graduate school was always too busy to go out, or just not that interested, or just not interesting. I was sick of it.
The girl disappeared, then half our table, so I went outside to smoke. Dani and I talked while it continued to drizzle, about a girl he’d just broken up with after eight years of dating. I was surprised to hear that he’d had such a long-term relationship, as I was reading him as the untrustworthy player type. Everyone kept coming up to him to tell him he looked like Russell Brand, which only made me more confident in my assessment. Plus he was quite charming—which simultaneously intrigued me and repelled me, as it would cause me to recall the many unfortunate experiences I’d had with charming long-haired musicians.
I wasn’t even done with my cigarette when Danny came through the alley, his lip bleeding.
“We have to go,” he said.
“Why?” I asked. “My drink is inside.”
“I’ll get you a new drink.”
Dani looked at him, ready to laugh.
“Fuck,” Danny said, licking his bleeding lip.
Dan came outside then. “What did I miss?” he asked.
Danny shrugged. “We got kicked out.”
“Kicked out?” I said. “You didn’t mention that part.”
“What were you doing in that alley, Danny?” asked Dani.
“Were you with that super drunk girl?” Dan said. “Zhanna’s friend?”
“What! She’s not my friend. She just sat down next to me and said all of you were hot.”
Everyone looked at me. “Really? We thought you knew her,” Dani said.
“No. I don’t know anyone in Chicago.”
“What about Ashley?” Dani asked. She’d already headed back home, saying she was tired, but more likely anxious to smoke more pot.
“She’s just my neighbor.”
Danny didn’t really elaborate much further about the alley, but we could tell from his silence what had happened—or at least in the ballpark of what happened.
“This will not be good for playing saxophone,” he complained, numerous times, as we walked to another bar.
“You’re lucky that’s all that happened,” I said, suddenly questioning my first impression of him, which was that he was quite inexperienced with women, shy even. He was also hitting on me all night—so this alley excursion was a little counter-intuitive.
“Is this something that you do a lot?” I asked, looking behind me as we walked, my socks drenched from the wet street.
“No,” he said. “Never.”
I looked to his friends, and they were all nodding.
“I just thought it would make a good story,” he shrugged.
“That’s never a good reason to do anything,” I said.
“It’s the only good reason.”
Dan and I finish our cigarettes and go back upstairs to my sister’s apartment. The dark red curtains ripple in the breeze, and I sink into the soft leather sofa, while Dan takes out his guitar to play some songs. I hadn’t even known he was a singer or what instrument he played when he was in Chicago, as he had never played in front of me before. Then, when he was already driving back to the east coast, I stumbled across a video of him online singing at Lilly’s one night, months before I met them. Again, I was in awe, the same way I felt when I saw the Dannys play. I must have watched the video a hundred times. Soon it becomes clear that his voice is incomparably better in person. I sit back and listen to it, deep and melodic, the best thing I’ve ever heard and I’ve spent ten years around musicians.
“I love this song,” I tell him, about the one I’d heard in the video a hundred times and forced him to play immediately. “It makes me really happy and really sad all at once.”
“Yeah?” Dan says. “That’s an interesting reaction.”
Orange lights pour in from the streets, voices seeking out liquor, coffee, frozen yogurt. But I can hardly hear them. After two songs, Dan says, “Let me know when you get bored.”
I can smell his cologne from across the room. Butterflies are born, their tiny wings flapping with nowhere to go. “I could do this all day,” I say, and I totally mean it. I am unusually present, in the combination of the only things that seem to cause my full attention: talent, and an attractive boy. There’s no place I’d rather be than in that room where he is singing. Promises I’ve made about not dating anymore musicians quickly disappear, even though I’d just restated this with large bold letters in my journal after Danny’s Let’s Be Friends speech.
Dan smiles. “Okay! Here’s a new one, then.”
After that first night out with the Dannys, I spent weeks debating which one I should hook up with. But I kept deciding it would be better to just stay friends with them all. I also wasn’t that attracted to any of them. Objectively this made no sense, as, like many girls had mentioned, they were all quite good-looking. And single. But the year of bad dating had done something to me—turned me into someone romantic comedies were always objectifying. Someone afraid, someone who couldn’t see what was right in front of her eyes. Then one night in May, after many nights like it, Danny had driven me home from some bar we’d all been drinking in, and when he gave me a hug goodbye, something felt different. Maybe I’d had too much to drink, or maybe I was just lonely. Maybe it was even because I’d had a dream about something happening between us, and I always saw my dreams as prophecies. Maybe I just wanted him to meet my dog. Whatever the case, I asked him if he wanted to come upstairs.
“You want to come meet my dog?” I asked him.
“Sure,” he said.
For a while, we continued much like before—I’d come to shows, we’d all go out after, Danny would drive me home. But now, he was also staying over some of those times. A couple weeks later, Dan went back to Philadelphia. Then, Dani met a friend of mine from Milwaukee who’d come up for my birthday and began wooing her, buying her roses and taking her for dates on rooftops, serenading her with Leonard Cohen songs—even going with me to Milwaukee once. Instead of the road trip bringing us closer together, it only made it clear how little we had to say to one another when there was no alcohol involved or no other Dannys around. Everything felt tentative, shaky, unstable, whereas before, it had felt like looking out at a long horizon: full of possibilities, but close to perfect as it was.
Unfortunately perfection doesn’t exist, let alone last. One day in June, the Dannys played a show at a Jewish center for a group of young people going to live in Israel—making Aalliyah—and the next day at Lilly’s, a thin twenty-year-old Jewish girl with long black hair showed up at their show and spent the entire night making out with Dani against the windows. Dani immediately dropped my friend from Milwaukee and pulled all the same moves—roses, rooftop dates, Leonard Cohen—with this new girl. She said she was a model—she would call herself many different things in the future, but at the time that’s the only thing she was doing, besides moving to Israel in September. She didn’t even manage to do that, coming home after barely month.
“Do you think they’ll start dating?” I asked Danny one rainy day when he was driving me home from school. “Dani is always saying he doesn’t want another girlfriend because of his crazy ex.”
“People always say that they don’t want girlfriends. Until they meet someone they like enough.”
“You told me you didn’t want a girlfriend,” I said. In fact, this had surprised me too, as he definitely seemed like a monogamous type. It was one of the things I thought might make us a bad couple, as I’d spent most of my youth in various stages of open relationships and I liked it that way. There was freedom without freefall, security without monotony.
“I know,” was all Danny said.
One night when the band was on tour, after meeting up with Dani’s girlfriend and drinking like I was twenty again, I would wake up the next morning to find that she’d misheard something I’d said, and no matter what I did to convince her of it, she refused to believe it. She convinced Dani to be furious too, to the point where he didn’t want me to come to shows anymore. I only learned about it from Danny, once they were back in town and he called me. We were supposed to go on our first real date that night, to Chicago Diner, but I spent the whole night depressed. No amount of reasoning would change Dani’s mind, even coming from Danny. Which I thought extreme for something I hadn’t even said, let alone even if I had said it. More than likely she had made it all up out of jealousy—she couldn’t stand any woman talking to Dani even briefly at a bar, so being friends with me was probably never a possibility—but either way, I was devastated. The same night when Danny drove me back home he didn’t come up. Over the weekend, he’d also decided we shouldn’t date anymore. I’d heard the speech enough to understand it even before he said a word.
“I can’t believe you chose this night to tell me that,” I said, more upset at the dissolution of our fun little group than anything else. Our dating experience had been more awkward than exciting, and since we were always hanging out as a group and drinking, we’d never really got to know each other that well. “One of the first things you told me when we met was how stupid Andrew was for leaving me.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry about that. I really am.”
“Whatever, I have this speech memorized. Next you’re gonna say we should still be friends.”
“We will be friends,” he said. “I promise.”
“Sure,” I said, miserable.
“I don’t have enough friends in Chicago to not keep hanging out with you.”
“I’ve heard this all before,” I repeated, and he seemed bothered only by his unoriginality.
At two in the morning in Philadelphia, weeks later, Dan and I are under the awning. We are many drinks in, rain falling around us. The middle of the night; silence, longing, sparks. Uncertainty. At any given time my brain is thinking about five different things at once, but now it was at least double that. I was thinking about my mom, and simultaneously trying not to think about her, then about the Dannys and how they’d turned out to be yet another disappointment in a long line of disappointments. How I wanted to make Danny mad for what he’d done, right as I was starting to like him. About how I had no idea where I’d be in a year when I’d be done with graduate school. About how I had no control over anything, even this.
But at the forefront, it was all about Dan, and his incredible eyes, the kind of eyes that burned bright all the time—which, while captivating, also made it impossible to tell if it was towards you or just toward the world.
“I really want to kiss you,” I say, finally. It was what I wanted for days but could never get the courage up for it. That wasn’t me—I didn’t just do things. That was what I couldn’t understand about Dan—how he just did what he wanted the moment he felt them. Usually I thought about things endlessly, and then did nothing at all. Even then, I was doing nothing. Saying it out loud was the closest I could get, and that took just about every nerve I had.
Dan smiles, a little sad, like he’s known it all along but when the moment came just couldn’t go through with it. He says, “I’m actually seeing someone right now. I’m kind of a one-thing-at-a-time kind of guy, I think.” Then he looks at me and says, “Come here,” and pulls me into another hug, the fourth one in a row. His arms are warm and genuine, and feel like home. Someone else’s home. Soon they’d be holding his future wife, my future close friend, and I’d be glad that nothing ever happened between us. Soon, beating all the odds of failed casual dating, I’d be back together with Danny, on the road to marriage. Even sooner than that, I’d feel very stupid for all of it. I’d seen enough movies to know that when a guy is into you, he lets you know. It was the first time I was ever wrong about it.
Around us, I hear the hum of a car driving through the wet street. A dog barking. The smell of cigarette smoke and rain. He lets go. I’m more anxious than sad. Somehow this encounter has made things even more uncertain. Not only with Dan, but with my life.
“Don’t be a stranger, okay?” he says, smiling again. Then he picks up his guitar case, rests it on his shoulder, and walks away.