There’s something exhilarating about that split second when the wheels leave the ground… that moment between driving and flying… that instant when you’re just hanging there, as if the pilot could choose in that second whether or not she wants to continue the journey upward.
In that state of hanging, I find myself looking at the faces of those who are joining me on the trek from JFK to Phoenix, and I wonder about the reasons behind the trips. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t try to assess a traveler’s frequent flyer status by their expression during that momentary state of limbo. A few rows back, in coach, I see the college girl who, if I’m reading it right, is not exactly enjoying her first experience on a plane. There’s the 40-something businessman who has been asleep since the moment his platinum-level butt hit the seat that he occupies at least twice a week. The blood-shot eyed grandma shows the wear and tear of a day spent far differently than the assisted living facility she’s accustomed to. The millennial in the next row up is using the hours away from his wife and little kids to catch up on the latest obscure indie flick that all his single friends are talking about.
I wonder how many of them are headed off to vacation, or home, or work, or to write a story that more than likely will change the course of their career. Ok, so maybe that last one’s just me.
I can’t believe how nervous I am. I haven’t felt butterflies like this in… well, I don’t think my stomach has ever felt like this. I woke up this morning way before my alarm. That never happens. But this is the day I’ve been anticipating ever since that snowy, silent morning in Dominic’s office, ever since that night, ever since the trick door in the phone booth and Simon Monaghan’s words that scared the crap out of me, since that moment on the balcony where I gave in to the fact that this story has to be the best thing I’ve ever written.
And that was before the craziness of yesterday. I can still hear the sound of the cell phone slamming against the glass wall. The whole bullpen stopped; every computer click and ping pong ball and voice just ceased, everyone trying to squint past the crooked, half-open blinds of our boss’s office. We all just stared, wondering what in the world had caused whatever that was to make that awful noise against the glass.
And I can still feel the collective jolt of everyone in the room when the door swung open and Dominic’s large frame appeared dramatically in its place.
“Copeland, get in here!”
I can still feel the pulsing of my heart when I heard my name. I’d never heard him call me that before… Copeland. Honestly, it was one of the scariest moments of my life. What had I done that had caused my boss to throw a $600 phone against a glass wall… less than 24 hours from when I’d be suspended between driving and flying, heading toward the biggest story of my career?
The whole office silently judged me with their eyes as I seemingly walked the plank toward the completely different silence of the Editor-in-Chief’s office.
Dominic had disappeared inside by the time I’d made it across the bullpen floor and to the door that had taken the beating from the phone.
“Shut the door.”
I tried not to stare at the broken glass of the iPhone as I walked past. Dominic was standing in front of his chair now, his face fallen, staring down at the desk that was holding him up by his palms.
He didn’t speak until he heard the latch of the door click behind me.
I know I responded, because I can still taste the dryness that kept the words from coming out smoothly, but I have no idea what I actually said. I do know, however, that I was cut off by the bang of Dominic’s fist against the desk and the most intense f-bomb I’d ever heard in person.
“We have a problem, Ella.”
I was certain that I’d unintentionally done something to cause this outburst. I’d heard stories of the Dominic Graham of the 90s, the punk rocker whose principles were the only thing stronger than his right hook. But I’d never seen it. I only knew him as the man who was passionate about his wing-tip shoes and his designer watches.
In this moment, I was absolutely terrified, thinking that I was the cause of all this rage… until I heard two letters fall from his mouth.
Though he now shared cocktails with the former CEO, the LA-based entertainment magazine had been the bane of Dominic’s existence for most of In Stereo’s lifetime. It seemed that everything that happened in our office on the East Coast was just a step behind the company that sat three time zones behind us in California.
“Those bastards convinced Riley Martin’s people to give them the story.”
I can still hear the word come from my lips. In that instant, I’m not sure if I felt panic or relief. Maybe both… I began to make a list of the calls I’d have to make: the flight cancellations and the friends I’d already hit up along the tour route. But in the same breath, I was exhaling and calming myself with the fact I wasn’t the cause of this outburst, and that my days occupying this silent office were likely farther away than they’d been an hour ago.
Dominic returned my question with a blank stare and a shaking head.
“What does it matter?”
Our company was losing thousands of dollars in ad revenue, and here I was, worried about which writer at our rival was taking my story.
I can still taste the awkwardness of the silence that followed. Was Dominic questioning my loyalty to the magazine? Was he trying to figure out how to get me my story back? Was he wondering if Apple Care would cover the damages to the phone that was in pieces on the floor?
“Alright,” I can still hear the resolution in his tone. “I guess that just means you’re going to have to get something he’s not.”
Excuse me? Wasn’t I just taken off this story? Hadn’t some unidentified journalist over at ID stole this exclusive from me?
And that’s how I ended up here, my trusty pen to this trusty paper, moments after that split second of limbo between driving and flying, on my way to the first show of Riley Martin’s nationwide tour.
It turns out that Riley’s people hadn’t taken me off the story; they’d just taken away my exclusive. And so now I get to spend the next ten weeks competing for quotes with the magazine that flies off the shelf just a bit quicker than ours.
Did I mention that I slept horribly last night? I’m going to take advantage of the extra eight inches of space that first class offers and try to catch up a bit. Until next time…
Ella closed the journal, set it on the bed next to her, and leaned back until her head hit the pillow. She was grateful that Kristina had sent the journals, she really was, but the knot that sat firmly in her stomach was a bold reminder of the life she’d finally begun to leave behind these last ten days in her hometown.
Ella could still hear the jazz record coming from the porch. It had been about half an hour since the sound of the FedEx truck pulling away gave way to the Admiral.
She couldn’t help but consider the butterfly effect. If any of the details inside these journals had transpired even an ounce differently, would she be laying on the bed in her parent’s attic right now?
Had ID not been brought into the equation, would she have made the same decision? Had she been the lone journalist on this tour, would her father have ever had the opportunity to Google her name and read the headline that was still burned in his daughter’s mind?
Has Ella Copeland Destroyed In Stereo Magazine…
Ella closed her eyes to try to rid herself of the sight of that computer screen in the dark office on her first night back home. Almost out of habit, she found herself mouthing the words she’d said so many times over the years.
You’ll look back and be thankful for the hard times.
Ella opened her eyes and was a bit surprised to find a smile forming at the corner of her lips. She said it again, this time trying to find Jake’s voice in her memory.
The butterfly effect… had the events in these journals not occurred, she never would’ve even met the boy who was living in the house next to her parent’s. She wouldn’t have woken up every morning in her parent’s attic, this same smile on her face, counting down the hours until their unspoken daily date every even ing. Maybe Ella was grateful for the events that led her here. Maybe, just maybe, she’d look back in 10… 20… 30 years, and not be able to imagine a life where the In Stereo debacle hadn’t occurred.
So Ella rolled over, picked up the notebook, flipped a few pages, and kept reading.
Ok, so I know I’m supposed to be a professional and all, but it’s kind of difficult to not completely fan girl every fifteen seconds on this tour. You know I can’t write like this, or even talk about it, for the magazine… or even the blog, so it looks like you’re going to be taking the brunt of it these next couple months.
For real, my Uber from the airport wasn’t yet out of sight when I could hear the sounds of high school coming from inside the building. I showed my press pass and ran my bag through the gun-finder, and there I was, an empty arena filled with I’ll Make My Way To You, a song that I can still hear Adeline and I singing on the front porch.
I knew that I needed to be taking notes. Dominic and I decided that the only way we could stay ahead of ID was with our blog. For some reason, our site generates so much traffic that most of our competitors put their money into Twitter or some other form of marketing. With the exclusive gone, our only competitive advantage is our online presence.
But I wasn’t taking notes. I was eating up the nostalgia of watching the man who had spent so many hours in my headphones play songs that I still knew by heart.
Around me were all of the comings and goings of a major tour. Full-time employees whose only job was to count and sell t-shirts. Audio engineers and guitar techs and cleaning crews, all preparing for tomorrow night: night one of a 60 city tour. Four-five shows a week that traveled with four busses, two semis, and a staff of more than a few dozen.
I think that’s when it hit me, between the chorus and the bridge of I’ll Make My Way To You, just how incredible these next weeks will be. In the chaos of Manhattan, the loss of exclusivity and the discomfort of the silence I found in Dominic’s office, I had lost sight of just how amazing this job actually is.
And so I just stopped. I must’ve looked ridiculous, but I just stood there, right in the middle of the arena floor, no one within 100 feet of me. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and took it all in.
All of those days crafting stories back at Heart on Burnside…
The thousands of hours of reading in the attic at Mom and Dad’s house…
The years of lectures and papers and exams at PSU…
The hundreds of columns and articles that had consumed my last half-decade in New York…
The nights underneath the stars at Tanner Springs Park, telling myself that everything was going to be ok…
It all led me here.
As I’m reflecting on it now, I wonder if I was basking in the idea of making it. I don’t think my thought process was that coherent in that moment. It didn’t feel like the climax in one of those rap videos from the late ‘90s, you know the ones… where hundred dollar bills rain from above on the artist while he laments about all the problems his fame and fortune have caused.
It wasn’t like that at all. It was as if life had slowed to a snail’s pace, allowing me more than enough time to dig through the chronicles of my days to find the hard work, determination, and fortunate circumstances that brought me here, to something much more satisfying than a stack of money falling from the sky.
I don’t know how long I stood there. It could’ve been just until the end of I’ll Make My Way To You, or Riley and his band might’ve run their entire set. But the next thing I knew, I was being pulled from my trance by the sound of my name.
“You must be Ella.”
It’s a wonder I heard the voice at all. Between the montage playing in my head and the hundred plus decibels playing in the room, the words that were directed my way were spoken far louder than normal conversation.
I turned and instantly looked at the laminate on the man’s belt. Even though I was more than a bit star struck by being in the same room as a man who had provided the soundtrack to my most formative years, this isn’t my first rodeo. In the world of tours and festivals, you trust the words of no one. But the tour laminate doesn’t lie. If you see the words “Day Pass” around someone’s neck or on their belt loop, they’re probably the bass player’s cousin, and no, I can’t walk you to the green room or get you a beer from catering.
The laminate that I’ll be wearing for the next 10 weeks reads “Preferred Media,” giving me access to everywhere in the building, save for the tech and dressing rooms. The laminate attached to the man who was yelling to me over the music was the coveted “All Access” pass.
“I’m Chandler, Riley’s tour manager.” He reached out a weathered hand to greet me. Even without the laminate, I could’ve guessed that he worked for the tour. He had that I spend way too much time away from home for this job that requires 18 hours of every day and doesn’t pay nearly enough, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world look.
“Come with me.”
The thump of the bass shook my insides more with each step we took toward the stage. Awake Til Morning. I still remember the first time I heard this song live. The Crystal Ballroom in Portland. At that point in life, Riley was one of my favorite artists, his show a bucket list item for sure. But my excitement as I walked into that venue on west Burnside was for the opener, a kid named Ryan Owen. His music was fine, nothing spectacular. But he had agreed to let me interview him for the PSU paper, granting me my first “Day Pass” laminate.
I know, I know… I scoff at the “Day Pass” people these days, but then… that little three by five laminated sheet of paper was a major source of validation for my 19 year-old self.
Anyway, back to today… Chandler led me backstage to what I figured would be the media room, that awkward 10x10 closet where a dozen reporters wait for hours next to a moldy mop bucket, hoping to get a quote or two from an artist who really wants nothing to do with them.
But when he opened the door marked “Green Room – Riley Martin,” I assumed that he forgot I was following him.
I took stock of the room, the tables of food that could feed a small village, the leather sofas and ambiance that had likely been created just for this night.
“No media room?”
“Nope,” he quickly replied. “We don’t do media. Remember?”
Oh yeah. This was yet another reminder that this tour was going to differ significantly from the dates and festivals that have thus far marked my career.
“Alright,” he continued, pulling his phone from his pocket. “I gotta run. He’ll be here in a few minutes to go over everything… how all this work with you on the tour.”
Ok, let me jump out of fan girl mode for a moment and talk as a journalist. This never happens. I mean never. Even backstage in 500 seat venues, there’s always a buffer between the writer and the artist… let alone arena shows that travel with a crew of 40 and do $17 a head in merchandise.
And with that, Chandler left the room, leaving me alone in the dressing room of a man whose posters had adorned my college dorm room.
I knew that the right thing to do was just sit there, on one of the couches that had cost the promoter an ungodly amount of money, and stare at my phone until Riley arrived.
But I simply couldn’t help myself.
And so I poked. I prodded. I mean, I’m a journalist, right? And what’s a journalist if not an investigator. If I knew that it was going to be ten minutes before he opened the door and found me in the room, I would’ve pulled you from my backpack right there and made notes on my findings.
But I didn’t have the knowledge that I now carry, and so I spent my time attempting to log my findings in my brain… for this moment. Here we go…
-Snack table: Riley eats a lot healthier than I do. Is he a vegan? So many vegetables… I don’t think there was one preservative on that table.
-Coffee table: A copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray: bookmark at page 67. I knew I’d like this guy. Even the sight of the cover brings back memories of my room at Mom and Dad’s house, and when I opened the book, I thought I caught a whiff of the attic. I ran my fingers over the pages that I’d spent so much time with over the years.
A few magazines were stacked neatly on the table as well. American Songwriter, Rolling Stone, ID… oh yeah, where was their writer? Wasn’t he supposed to be here, too? There was an ESPN Magazine, and the most recent In Stereo. I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t a bit flattering to see my hard work on the shelf at Barnes & Noble or at the street vendor in Times Square, but this was at a whole new level. I guess I knew that Riley liked my writing. I mean, he did specifically request me to write this story. But seeing the evidence on the coffee table in his green room was, I don’t know… surreal.
I picked it up, foolishly wasting my precious time alone in my subject’s dressing room flipping the pages of the magazine I’d seen a hundred times, all to see the tiny one inch photo of myself.
I was passing a full spread of Kristina’s work when I heard the familiar buzz of cell phone against the plastic-y finish of an IKEA end table. Out of habit, I reached for my back pocket, but my phone was there, silent.
I knew I shouldn’t have, but I did. The bright light of the phone next to the stack of magazines was just too appealing. Now, sitting in my bunk on the tour bus, I feel a bit bad about it, but it’s easy to justify. I’m a freaking journalist, remember? If I were to tell Dominic that I was alone with the buzzing cell phone of the biggest story of the year and I didn’t look, he’d fire me on the spot.
And so I threw the copy of In Stereo on top of the issue of ID and grabbed the slender, case-less iPhone. The screen was blinking, a text message from a contact simply titled “Z.”
We’re over the border. We’ll pick up the package tomorrow. I’ll be in touch.
What in the world does that mean? What border? What package? I had half a mind to reply and ask “Z” to elaborate, but the other half of my mind won.
I’m glad it did, too…
I was still holding the locked phone when I heard the handle of the door jiggling from the other side.
I threw the phone onto the table and fell into the sofa in one awkward motion, certain that I was caught red-handed. This would be it. Riley’s people would call In Stereo and tell them of my snooping, that they’d be sending me back to New York, and then Dominic would send me packing as well, throwing another phone against his window as he yelled about how I shouldn’t have gotten caught.
So there I was, probably breathing so heavily that I appeared to be hyperventilating, wide-eyed, watching Riley Martin himself come through the door.
There he was, even closer than he’d been as I walked by on the stage, deep in conversation with the tall blonde that followed him into the room. For a moment, they didn’t even notice me. I was so worried about being caught with the phone that I have no idea what they were saying, and I’m kicking myself for that now, especially after the words that followed.
“Oh my,” it was the blonde who spoke once she spotted me in the room.
Riley’s eyes followed hers straight to my face, and he cut in. “Ah, Ella.”
I stood, and he walked across the room, past the still lit up cell phone, and shook my hand.
“I’m sorry that you had to hear that.” Wait, what had I heard?
He continued. “I’m really glad you’re here.”
Ok, back in to fangirl mode for a sec. If you would’ve told me a decade ago that I’d be sleeping on a tour bus connected to Riley Martin, I would’ve called you a liar. Let alone the fact that he personally welcomed me by name and was glad that I’m here. Are you freaking serious?
The next moments were spent introducing me to the tall blonde, Rebecca, who had been married to Riley for the past two decades. In a world of tabloid cheating and superstar divorces, the two had withstood the industry and the celebrity.
I sat back down on the sofa, relieved that they’d been consumed by their own conversation and not by the fact that there was a journalist looking at their phone in their dressing room.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the conversation that followed. I was praised for my previous stories. Riley offered constant encouragement about my work, and Rebecca offered to show me around the cities we’d be visiting these next two months. Maybe it was the charm, and maybe it was the secret to the success, but if one didn’t know any better, they might think that the multi-platinum artist in the room was me, and not the one who was doting out the praises from the other side of the coffee table.
The Martins asked about New York, they asked about In Stereo, they even asked about my family. Even now, as I’m lying in my bunk, surrounded by half-drunk guitar techs and merch guys, I’m still on a high from the seven minutes I spent with Riley and Rebecca Martin. Perhaps that’s why my words are coming out in a daze, almost blurred in the stillness of the night.
As long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way Riley looked me square in the face and singlehandedly made me feel like the most valuable twenty-something in the world.
“Ella,” the way he said it told me that what would follow was something worth hearing, “I have a story to tell. And honestly, from the first time I read your work, I knew that you were the one to tell it with me.”
He stopped there. I’m glad he did, too, because I was far too mesmerized to coherently grab my notebook and begin taking notes. I just wanted to bask in the words that I was hearing from my high school hero.
Anyway, tour starts tomorrow. Let’s do this thing.
// TAKE A BREAK HERE //
Ella’s mother had replaced the jazz record with Death Cab’s Transatlanticism. Despite the Pacific Northwest connection and Ella’s music blog, she was late to the game on the Bellingham, Washington band, much preferring the record she’d been first introduced to, Plans, over these 11 songs that were released two years prior. She’d connected her own story to tracks like “Summer Skin” and “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” but contrary to most, found the record that was coming from the porch bland and uninteresting.
But today, sitting in the attic, reading the words she’d written just weeks ago, something about the lyrics of the opening track caught her.
So this is the New Year, and I don’t feel any different…
She was again hit with the disparity between her life now and when she penned these words. The calendar hadn’t rolled over to a new year, but the difference she felt was enormous. Sitting here, cross-legged in her gym shorts, it was difficult to even remember the feeling of laying in her bunk as the tour bus chugged along down the road.
The song continued…
So this is the New Year, and I have no resolutions…
Despite the fact that the calendar hadn’t changed, Ella was frustrated that she had no direction since 34E. Outside of her evenings with Jake, there was nothing to wake up for, no reason to, as the song said, “put your best suit or dress on,” even if it was simply for the purpose of pretending or putting on a face.
Maybe she was longing to remember what her old life felt like, or maybe this was just a way to pass the hours until it was time to walk across the yard and up the stairs at Jake’s house, but she couldn’t put the journal down.
She read the entry that had turned into her first blog of the tour. She admired the angle she had taken on the story, spending most of her time on the behind the scenes aspect of the tour, and very little time explaining the music that everyone had already heard.
It was on the morning after meeting Riley and Rebecca that she had gotten the details about Tim Locker, the writer from ID that had made this exclusive not so exclusive. It wasn’t as bad as Dominic had anticipated. Apparently, someone on Riley’s team had a relationship with someone at ID, so they threw out a bone, giving a comp ticket to Tim for every night of the tour. Ella had been thankful that the ID writer was not on the bus, not backstage, and not nearly as close to Riley as she was.
She turned the page and read her recollection of her first encounter with Tim Locker. Just reading about this conversation brought that knot back to her stomach, that anxiety she felt after every talk with a certain brand of journalist. You know the ones, the type who spend far more of their day digging up gossip than working on their craft… the type whose stories would be far more at home in a grocery store tabloid than in a respectable magazine.
“I’ve heard a lot about you, Copeland.” The smirk on his clean-shaven face made Ella’s skin crawl. His hair was slicked back, bleach blonde, and completely in place. His attire was an awkward mix of frat boy and luxury car salesman.
He continued. “I hear that you’re an OK writer.”
He’d heard that? Ella wanted to snap back that In Stereo was on every newsstand in the country, and that he could judge for himself in less time than it would take him to watch an episode of Jersey Shore.
“Thanks,” was all that came from her mouth.
“One question, though,” he paused, completely for effect, another trait that Ella loathed. “How’d a magazine like In Stereo get an exclusive for an artist like Riley Martin? I mean,” another pause, “it doesn’t seem like the best PR move to give that kind of access to… well… I don’t know… you guys. It’s crazy to think that more people will read my measly comp ticket report than your backstage exclusive.” Another pause, this one even longer and more offensive. “So yeah, Copeland, how’d you get the story?”
As she read it now, she was proud of herself for her boldness. “Well,” she paused, mocking him. “Apparently Riley actually reads the articles instead of just glancing at which magazine pays to have its cover screaming in everyone’s face. Oh, and In Stereo got the exclusive because Riley specifically asked for me.” She paused again before repeating the last word.
He laughed as he walked away, and it frustrated her that she didn’t know why.
“We’ll see, Copeland,” he yelled over his shoulder. “We’ll see.”
Ella was surprised at how much she enjoyed reading these words. It was like a part of her was still on that tour. In fact, she realized at this moment, sitting in the attic on Ladd Avenue, that the tour should still be going on without her. This story was so fresh, the ink on the page barely dry from the narrative that had played out just weeks before.
Ella followed her journal from Phoenix to San Diego to LA. She flipped page after page of tour stories and candid moments; little snippets that had been posted on the In Stereo blog and that were being saved for the cover story that never happened.
She turned the page to find her recollection of the day off in San Francisco, when she’d received an unexpected text from an unrecognized number.
Heading out to find some coffee. You want to join?
Ella rolled over in her bunk, assuming that this morning buzz from her phone came from a friend who hadn’t realized she wasn’t in New York, and didn’t consider the time difference from east coast to west.
Sorry, her fingers typed, the light from the phone causing her to squint. Who is this?
She kept her eyes on the screen, those little three dots telling her that a reply was coming.
Whoa. Ella had enjoyed this first week of the tour, but her access to Riley Martin had been frustratingly minimal. Actually, it was very similar to most of the other artists she’d covered. It was just that after that first night, being invited into his green room, meeting he and his wife personally without the buffer of management, she’d hoped for more than just a few quotes and column fillers from the road.
She glanced at the clock toward the top of her screen. 8:20.
Absolutely. She typed the word, deleted it, and began again.
Sure. Can you give me 15 minutes?
15 minutes later, she was stepping off the bus and into the fog and sunlight of the city.
Tour life was so incredibly different than “real life.” In real life, you fall asleep and wake up in the same spot. On tour, you step onto the bus in one city and wake up in another, the rumble of the overnight road the only reminder that you’re moving.
Ella took two steps out of the bus before turning around and running back inside. Past the sofa and television that they called a living room, past the bathroom, and past the sleeping bodies of the crew members who were paid to be here, she ducked in to her bunk to grab her favorite gray sweatshirt.
The air coming off the bay was considerably more crisp than the Southern California smog that they’d abandoned last night after the show.
The stillness inside the bus was a stark contrast to the bustle of the city outside. When she stepped onto the sidewalk for the second time, she found Riley standing, looking down at his phone. A blue Dodgers cap covered his short, black hair, and his hoodie and gym shorts were not at all like the skinny jeans and trendy jackets he wore on stage and on his album covers.
“Hey.” The latch of the bus door caused him to look up from his device. “Thanks for meeting me.”
“Of course,” she said, suddenly wishing she’d asked for 30 minutes to get ready.
They simply stood for a moment, the city buzzing around them while Ella looked to Riley for the next word of conversation.
“Are you up for a walk?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “Absolutely.”
“Nice. My favorite coffee shop in the entire world is only about a mile away.”
Usually, it bugged Ella when people said things like that... my favorite “fill in the blank” in the world. Such hyperbole was a lazy attempt to make a point. But for Riley Martin, he literally had been all over the world, and was more qualified than most to make such a statement.
“Sometimes,” he continued as they walked, “Rebecca and I will make the drive up from LA just for the coffee.”
Ella couldn’t help noticing the vibrancy of this city. It reminded her of New York, but younger, more optimistic. Every warehouse seemed to store another startup, multi-million dollar investments and acquisitions around every corner.
The two weaved in and out, up and down the steep, busy streets of San Francisco, ignoring the turned heads and murmurs of those perceptive enough to notice the man underneath the hat and hoodie.
Though Ella was the journalist, it was Riley who was asking all the questions. Ella was flattered to find out that Riley had read most of her published work, and his questions came across as those from the mouth of a great friend or a big fan.
“In that piece about millennials, you talked about the tension of chasing your dreams while trying to be a productive member of your family.”
It was almost as if he’d invited her on this walk simply to ask questions he’d compiled while reading her work. “I felt that strain growing up, even though I’m not quite a millennial.” He smirked. “In fact, I still feel that tension with parents. Four platinum records later, and I can’t get past the feeling that I’m letting my family down by not…” he paused to find the words. “…being normal.”
Ella couldn’t have articulated it better. “Wow, that’s encouraging.” He chuckled at her sarcasm. “I always figured that if I became really successful, that feeling would go away.”
“Nope,” he said matter-of-factly, looking straight ahead. “There are days that I wish I’d just became a businessman or a teacher, bought a house in the suburbs, had two and a half kids, and lived a normal life. Ah,” he stopped again, shaking his head. “There’s that word again… normal.”
“Yeah,” she watched her feet move along the concrete beneath her as she spoke. “I haven’t talked to my parents since leaving Portland five years ago, mainly because of that tension. Even the thought of them gives me anxiety.”
“Sorry,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I don’t mean to bring up bad memories.”
They walked in silence for a few blocks, the noise of the city the only sound filling the air.
“Do you and Rebecca have any kids?”
“I’m sorry?” His reply told her that his head had been in another place.
“You said that some days you wished that you had two and a half kids.”
“Oh,” he said, recognizing the question.
Riley didn’t answer right away. He stared at the street ahead and pursed his lips together, as if contemplating how to answer this simple question.
Ella wondered if she’d said something wrong, or if his mind was still working its way back to 7th Street, where they were walking.
Two more blocks and they arrived. This place reminded Ella of the Pearl District in Portland, the restored warehouse decked out with wood and pipe. A wall of bicycles greeted them at the entrance, a subtle reminder of this city’s reputation.
The shop was far bigger than it looked from the outside, the large lower level more than big enough for the bar, the enormous roaster, and ample seating. The second floor, with even more wood, pipe, and seating, overlooked the lower from the south.
“Oh my god, are you Riley Martin?”
The uber-hipster barista didn’t even try to play it cool. She was already pulling the phone from her pocket when she spoke.
Ella took note of Riley’s reaction: not annoyed, not angry, but maybe saddened.
“Oh my god,” she said again. “Can I get a picture?”
Riley and Ella, with coffee in hand, found a table upstairs away from the buzz of the crowd. From up here, Ella noticed a third level to the shop, which overlooked the first two from the north. It appeared to be some sort of office, a shared workspace or a co-op for freelancers and designers.
They sat, sipped their coffee, both of them looking at the other, as if hoping someone would steer the conversation.
Ella wasn’t sure if she should step in to work mode, but in her head, she could hear Dominic’s reply, if he knew she was here and didn’t at least try to get a story.
“Is it cool if I ask you some questions?” She made a face, as if to apologize for the inconvenience.
“Yeah, for sure,” he said, pulling the mug away from his mouth. “That’s why we’re here.”
Ella pulled her phone from the pocket of her jeans, opened the voice memo app, hit RECORD, and set the device on the table between them.
For the next hour, she asked and Riley answered. Ella didn’t consider herself overly competitive, but some of his answers brought a wry smile to her face, thinking about Tim Locker reading these words on the In Stereo blog, cursing the fact that she had this kind of access on the road.
She learned about Riley’s childhood, the family business that he had abandoned in order to pursue his dream of singing songs for a living. He got emotional recounting his father’s reaction to his announcement about leaving town.
“Singing songs isn’t a living… get a real job,” he had said.
She was mesmerized as he told stories of his early days on the road; opening for divas and classic rockers that Ella’s parents had listened to growing up.
He made her laugh more than once, tales of a younger Riley Martin, his first steps with stardom and fame. He was giving her so many stories that had never been told to the public. She had more than enough material, and could fill the pages of the magazine with the hour of conversation inside Sightglass Coffee.
It was at the close of that hour that Riley paused, glancing at the phone turned audio recorder that sat between them. He leaned in, as if he were about to whisper.
“Would it be ok if we went off the record for a little while?”
Now it was he who had the apologetic look on his face, but Ella happily obliged, grabbing the phone and placing it back in her pocket.
“I know the stuff I’ve said makes my life sound amazing,” he paused and stared into the bottom of his now empty mug, “and in many ways, it is amazing. But more often than not, I go to bed wondering if I want to wake up the next morning.”
Ella stared wide-eyed at the man across the table. His eyes were still pointed directly inside the mug, as if he couldn’t bear to see her reaction.
“For most of my twenties, life was a consistent high. Being noticed and loved was so freaking exhilarating. Like what happened down there.” He nodded toward the bar, where the barista had almost certainly posted the photo by now. “That type of stuff made my day. I ate it up. The longer the autograph line at the CD table, the better… the more radio interviews on a tour, the better…”
He paused again to collect his thoughts, still not looking at the girl across the table.
“The past few years, I’ve lost that high. It’s a little scary, honestly, because I keep trying to find it, but it’s not there.”
His face turned into a smile. “For awhile, I’d walk down Hollywood Boulevard and just let people stare. I’d take pictures with anyone who would ask, I’d sign autographs and I’d sing along with buskers on the street.”
Ella remembered seeing a YouTube video of that once, Riley Martin singing with a homeless man on the street corner.
“But that didn’t do anything. So I kept looking.”
“If you wanted the attention,” Ella spoke for the first time since turning off the recording, “why have you been so private when it comes to the media? I mean, I get people wanting to keep their private lives private, but if you craved the attention, why nothing besides surface level radio interviews?”
He said it without emotion. “She doesn’t want to end up on the cover of a tabloid.”
Ella wanted to ask what had changed; why Rebecca’s husband was sitting across from her right now, knowing that at least some of Riley’s words would end up on newsstands, but he continued before she could ask.
“So these last few years have been this constant search for the next high. I did the super stereotypical things… bought cars, went on vacations, cliff dove in the French Riviera… how very rock star of me, right? I’ve tried just about every drug I could find; I’ve broken more laws than I can count. It’s insane, and I just want it all to end.”
“Oh my god.”
The way the words fell from Ella’s lips was so incredibly different than how they’d left the barista’s.
Ella knew that all of this was off limits when it came to her story, but she was genuinely curious about the bomb he’d just dropped on her.
“How long ago was this? How long ago did this behavior stop?”
He skill wasn’t looking at her, his lack of eye contact showing his shame.
“Stop? It hasn’t stopped. None of it stops.”
Here was the poster boy for the good guys. A married, late thirties celebrity who kept himself out of the tabloids and out of trouble. He sang about love and loss from the perspective of a perfect American hero. And here he was, confessing to Ella that he’d was chasing a high wherever he could find it… that he had broken the law more times than he could count. Was this even the same guy who just last night had sung to a sold out arena? The same man who just an hour ago had given her literary gold with his talk of his picture perfect life?
“I don’t know what to do,” he continued, still examining his empty mug, “this is probably my last tour. I just want to hit RESET.”
“Is that why you invited me on this tour? To document the end?”
“I don’t know,” he finally looked up, finding her face with the saddest eyes she’d ever seen. “I just read your writing and I can tell that you get it.”
Ella had no clue what that meant.
“I have no idea what life will look like. I have more money than I know what to do with. I don’t need to tour. I don’t need to record.”
“What do you need?”
“I don’t know,” he said again, still staring deep into her eyes. “There’s so much that I just don’t know.”
There was another silence, but this one was different than the others. The two never took their eyes off each other.
“Can I tell you something that I’ve never told anyone?”
Ella’s heart began to race as he leaned in even closer.
“Of course you can.”
“Every day, when I wake up…” he paused again, this time deciding if he should continue. “…The only consistent thought I have, is that I can’t wait to leave Rebecca."