Karoline slips the vintage baby blue dress over her head and smiles. The 60s were a kinder time to women like her.
She already knows Chase loves it. He urged her to get it at the store in East Nashville that opened an hour early just for them. She’s not sure how she feels about special treatment, but after a day at Green Hills Mall ducking cell phone cameras every time they were recognized, she’s happy for opportunities to focus solely on shopping.
“You almost ready?” she calls through the bathroom door. “The reservation’s at 8.” As if it even matters anymore.
She opens the door to find Chase doing a line off an old copy of Vogue. She tries to maintain a neutral expression.
“My woman,” he says, referencing what Johnny called June. Like Johnny, his suit jacket is black. Unlike Johnny, it’s Versace. When he bought it, she recalled the only other time she’d witnessed the purchase of a suit jacket. Her boyfriend in high school had gone to Jos. A Bank to get one for her dad’s third wedding. He’d gotten a second suit for free, so he tried to pick out one for her younger brother. It was way too small.
“You look good. Ready?” she asks again.
“Almost,” he says. “I saved you some.”
She isn’t sure how long she can keep up the charade that she’s interested in doing coke. “I was sick last week,” she says.
He shrugs and snorts the last line, getting a little bit on the sleeve of his coat. Karoline licks her finger like the mother of a toddler and drags it across his sleeve. Then, not knowing what else to do, she brings her finger to her lips. They go surprisingly numb.
“I’m excited,” he says, locking eyes with her in the mirror. “Three years is a big deal.”
Her reflection smiles back at him. She remembers an article she read that said you could tell a fake smile by the eyes. She focuses on the outside of her eyes in the mirror to find her smile is apparently real.
“I know,” she says.
“No, seriously,” he says. “Really. What would I do without you?”
She laughs. “You’re Chase Pendleton. You’d manage.”
He stretches his arms around her waist, wrestling her to the bathroom counter. Hairspray hits the ground with a clink. He sticks his tongue in her mouth and she breathes in his fake-masculine Christmas tree smell. He puts her back down and looks in the mirror at the jacket. “It’s all wrong,” he says, shaking his head. “I should change.”
Karoline can tell he’s thinking about the press. People have been following them more since her cover story ran in Nashville Scene last month. “The Luckiest Girl in Music City” was written across the bottom. She’s been a size ten since before she was famous, and she told them she had no intentions to change. She was hailed for body positivity, but then they hit her with that sneak attack of a headline.
“Go ahead,” she says. “I’ll wait out here.”
She walks across the Italian leather living room and greets her violin like an old stranger. For years, she didn’t go a day without playing it. She starts playing Mozart’s “Lacrimosa.” The last time she played it was at a funeral for the former governor. His wife sobbed onto her sister’s silk dress, getting foundation all over it. But during the wake, her face looked perfectly painted as she thanked Karoline for the performance. “Like a funeral for a king,” she said.
Chase comes out sooner than she thought he would. He’s wearing the Diesel jean jacket. She thinks Versace was more his style, but she adores the way the denim fades around the pockets. It’s his turn to ask.
She smiles. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
The restaurant is a block away. As they walk in, she surveys the modern art lining the walls. It’s all too much.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she says.
“Why didn’t you go before we left?” he asks.
“I didn’t want to bother you.”
“But we have two bathrooms,” he says. The penthouse apartment in the Gulch is new. They used to share a rambler in East Nashville by an old woman selling bagels. She misses her dearly. They moved in the middle of the night. She’s not sure who tipped off the media, but there they were taking pictures of the moving truck at 3 am, parked on Demonbreun in a tow-away zone.
“I know,” she says with a smile. “I forgot.”
She hangs up her jacket on the back of the door, inspecting her underarm area for traces of white residue. She rubs the powder off, thinking of Chase and his trips to the restroom.
When Karoline thinks it’s time to hang it up with Chase, something always brings her back. Tonight it’s this jacket, the one that seems to be staring her down and judging her. It’s cheap and falling apart in ways a real leather jacket wouldn’t. It’s not that she can’t afford a real one. She now knows the freedom of walking into one of the shops in Hillsboro and buying something without consulting the price tag, like she’s picking out a bag of onions at Kroger. But she can’t seem to shake the feeling the old one gives her. She was wearing it the night they met.
It’s a common misconception that the perfect night has to be perfect in every way. Neither balmy weather nor twinkling stars graced Karoline and Chase that night. It was just an unremarkably cold evening in early February, hovering around 39 degrees. No patches of ice to slip on and rearrange fates.
He had his second single on the radio then, so a few strangers were starting to know him. But most of the patrons of Santa’s Pub were regulars who were too drunk to care.
Karoline had been working for the Nashville Symphony--hardly a glamorous gig. Her violin was in the shop and she was feeling restless. She usually didn’t let it out of her sight. When she stopped at a rest stop on a road trip, it came into the bathroom with her. To get her mind off her poor instrument, she decided to go to karaoke in a doublewide trailer. Just to watch.
When she first saw him, he was singing “Cry Me a River,” a song she knew from having been a regular girl who liked pretty boys who sang--the prettier, the better. He was pretty. And he was hitting the high notes better than Justin Timberlake himself. From a strictly technical perspective, he was talented. Towards the end of the song, he lowered his voice to switch between Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, something she didn’t know was possible. All of the seriousness with which he carried himself, and he ended up screwing up the lyrics.
“Oh!” he cried. “This jammies here done so I guess I be leaving.”
She felt a grin spread across her face, like this was about to set it all off for her, but she wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t something she felt often.
Karoline knew she was average-looking. Not average like Drew Barrymore, but more like a senator‘s wife. Not a senator who used his power to marry someone obscenely young. Or one of those stern-looking wives made famous by the scandal of her husband’s cheating. No, Karoline looked more like a wife of a senator who would stay true. Not because of her remarkable looks, but because she is a very nice lady.
“Nice job,” she said, sliding into the barstool next to him, “until you fucked up the lyrics.”
He looked at her like a boy who’d just been told that the Tooth Fairy wasn’t real.
“No way,” he said.
“The jammies here done? What does that mean?”
He pouted and ordered a beer.
“I’d like to see you up there,” he said.
She laughed. “No way. The only way you’d get me up there is if you had a violin.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“Karoline,” she said, extending a hand. “Nashville Symphony,” she added, as if it was her surname.
He smiled. “I’m Chase,” he said in a way that sounded like he wasn’t so sure of it himself. “Excuse me,” he said and pushed out his barstool.
And that was that, she remembered thinking. Entertain the unattractive girl for a few minutes to avoid being rude, and then be on your way. It was the way meeting a man in public always ended for her. Quickly.
“Good patrons of Santa’s Pub,” she heard someone saying. “Does anyone have a violin?”
Her eyes widened. In any other city, it would have been a long shot. But someone was giving a thumbs up and running out to their van.
“Karoline,” he said, still on the mic. “Pick something out of the book with a violin and I’ll put us down for a duet. I can sing anything.”
The beginning notes rang from her fingers, creating a vibrato. All she could think of, on this makeshift stage inside a doublewide, next to this strange, confident man, was the first time she’d heard the song. Back in ninth grade when her dad left her stepmom, and they had to move into the apartment, some friends from school piled into a senior’s car and went to the hill overlooking the parkway to smoke weed. She couldn’t even remember the name of the kid driving, but the song was on and everything bothering her just disappeared for a moment. The next day, she looked the sheet music up online in a hungover haze. She played it in their crappy apartment for the next two weeks.
He hadn’t been exaggerating. He really could sing anything--going from Justin Timberlake one moment to Billy Corgan the next. She remembers thinking he was a little too sure of himself, but that it was okay because it meant he’d be good in bed.
The applause in the doublewide felt louder than anything she’d heard in response to the symphony. He hugged her and whispered in her ear. “Can I take you home?”
That was a long time ago. She strokes the sleeves of the old jacket, admiring its power. She takes it from the door, covering one arm at a time like she’s tucking her chubby twin daughters in to bed.
“You were gone forever!” he says when she emerges.
“Time’s a social construct,” she says. He likes this. When they’re both stoned, they end up in an endless loop of YouTube videos about physics and conspiracy theories.
“What’ll you be having, your majesty?” he asks.
“I think I want...what was the thing on the billboard?”
He laughs. “Honestly? That’s why I love you. Who else picks their dinner out from a billboard?”
She feels herself turning red. “I think it was scallops,” she says.
“Scallops with green harissa,” he says. “That’s right.” He hold her hands and stares at them. He’s beholding them like they’re a forbidden object in a museum. She swells with a love that catches her in the throat like an allergic reaction. His dark hair curving elegantly to his shoulders, his boy-like wonder, his voice that’s been described as “genre-transcending,” and “somewhere between a shot of Jack and a mug of chamomile tea.” What has she got? An average face, a well-styled medium body, a violin. No wonder the Scene would condescend her. Of course she knows she’s lucky to be with him. They didn’t have to tell her the score.
“What even is harissa,” she finds herself saying.
“A root,” he says. “Hey. New moon.”
She looks around. This is their code for the absence of journalists.
“It’s all thanks to me,” he adds. “I tipped them off, telling them we’d be at the East Nashville location.”
“Nice.” She sips a drink he’s ordered her. Its sourness makes her lips pucker.
“Hey,” he says again. “I have something I want to talk to you about.”
She has known this was coming for a while. They can’t keep up this comfortable arrangement forever. It’s the hardest thing to admit. So when they’re together, she pushes the feeling away. After all, his presence next to her, on a stage, at a table, in a bed--seems to be living proof that denies what she knows to be true.
“Do we have to do this now? It’s our anniversary.”
He cocks his head to the side. “What did you think I was going to say? Karoline, I’m not walking away. I told you that night at the Ryman. I’m in it for good.”
“But how will you be happy?”
“I’ve thought about it, and you’re all the happiness I need. Karoline, you’re amazing. You’re the strongest woman I know.”
She remembers the Presidential Fitness test in elementary school and snorts. “You think I’m strong?”
“You’re my woman! How could someone handle me and not be strong?”
She thinks of the blurb a year ago in the New York Times about artists to watch. “‘She saved my life,’ said Pendleton about bandmate Karoline Cassel. ‘I would’ve just ended up a washed-up druggie one-hit wonder. When I’m with her, I feel like I can do anything.’” She just says, “You know I love you.”
“I love you too. It’s all I need.”
The waiter comes to take their order. Chase eyes him and reaches into his wallet, pulling out a 100 dollar bill. “Please don’t tell anyone.”
The waiter grins. “Tell anyone what?”
“Scallops with green harissa for my woman. And I’ll take...what’s good?”
“I like the oxtail on a bed of rainbow carrots.”
“Let’s go with that.” He looks back at her as the waiter leaves. “I got tickets to Fiji,” he says.
He grins. “I spun the globe and my thumb ended there.”
“What if your thumb ended up on Antarctica? Or Toledo?”
He laughs and pulls down his shirt, revealing a logo taut across his chest. Lacoste. She feels gators circling beneath their table. “I just think about it, Kar, and there’s no one for me but you. That’s why we should go to Fiji and elope.”
She laughs until she sees his face.
“Think about it. We’re still so young. We could get married and start working on a family. I’m ready for our lives to start.”
“I’m sorry, is this a real conversation?”
“It’s realer than ever. Think about it, Karoline. Think about how good we could be together. Think about how good we already are.”
“But I thought--”
He shakes his head, silencing her the way he always does when she’s about to vocalize the words he can’t bring himself to say. “People get married all the time. Why not us? I just think, if you and I put our whole hearts into it, we could build the happiest home there ever was.”
She raises her eyebrows. “You do?”
His nose starts to bleed. He wipes it quickly with his sleeve. “Believe me, Kar. You’re all I need. I choose being all in.”
She looks at him a long time. He has the hopeful look of someone who never stopped to consider how incredibly fucked they are. Her scallops arrive, sad steaming reminders of how she felt when he ordered them for her.
“I love you,” she says, not taking her eyes off the scallops, “but it’s not a choice.”
She pushes in her chair, hoping $100 was enough to keep the waiter from snitching about her departure. She considers giving him more, but figures at some point, someone will have to deal with reality.
She doesn’t walk straight home. She meanders around the blocks of development as the Batman building looms above her like a Panopticon. Little hole-in-the-walls blare music from hopeful, naive people.
Before they played The Ryman that night, Nashville Guru’s event guide said “Nashville’s favorite couple to worship at the church of Rock n Roll.” When she found the pictures on his phone, he wasn’t mad. He looked relieved. Regardless of the glowing proof she held, he swore he never actually wanted to live that kind of life. He was trying to change, he knew he was capable of changing, he’d read countless accounts of people who’d done it. He thought he could try hard not to be that way--she could help him. And then it was time to play the show. “The first couple of Music City remain on top,” the Scene wrote online the next day.
She walks back to the empty apartment, knowing he’ll be out all night drinking in dark, unknown bars. She throws her jacket on the floor and changes into her Prada silk pajamas, the most comfortable pajamas she’s owned. But now they feel annoying, like tags itching her, nagging her to check something.
She walks to the shelf where she keeps the articles about them. She hasn’t had the heart to read her spotlight in the Scene. What’s a violinist without the rock star she accompanies?
But tonight she’s been thinking about herself in the singular. She looks herself in the eye on the cover of the magazine. The girl looks smug, like she knows something the rest of the world doesn’t. She opens up to the article and scans. Halfway down, a quote catches her eye. She reads it again and again before she believes it. Until she can remember the overzealous words spilling from her mouth.
“‘What can I say,’ says Cassel, laughing. ‘I guess I’m just the luckiest girl in Music City.’”
She closes the magazine and rushes to her jacket on the floor. She picks it up and puts it on a hanger. She stands back and takes a look at her closet. There are dresses and blouses and pairs of pants with the tags still on. There are Karolines yet to be.
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