fic: The Sky-High City
Gerard's first book is called Leonard's Purple Balloon, and it's about how it's okay to like purple balloons instead of red balloons or green balloons, even though your friends might make fun of you. Frank buys a copy at the Borders near his house at midnight, and he sits in his car while he reads it, the crisp pages illuminated by the parking lot's sodium lights. Gerard's drawings are careful and brightly-colored. It makes Frank cry a little, sitting there in his family-friendly hybrid, imagining Gerard working on the book, maybe hunched over the kitchen table in his house in LA, his fingers stained with ink.
He drives home. Jamia's asleep, but she rolls toward him when he climbs into bed, presses her warm face against his neck.
He calls Gerard the next day. "Hey, so, I read your book," he says.
"Yeah?" Gerard says happily. "What'd you think about it?"
"I thought it was great," Frank says, and he means it. "You're like, saving the kids."
Gerard laughs. "It's important to pick the color you want! You can't just settle for any old balloon."
"I like purple," Frank says.
"That's why I picked it," Gerard says.
"Oh," Frank says. He didn't know that.
There's a pause. "Are you okay?" Gerard asks.
"What? Yeah, yeah, I'm fine, man," Frank says. He twines the telephone cord around one finger. It's sunny outside, and through the kitchen window he can see Jamia watering her petunias.
"Okay," Gerard says. "You just sound kind of weird. You should come visit me! I'll let you feed Mr. Nibbles."
Mr. Nibbles is Gerard's hamster. "I don't think he likes me," Frank says.
"No, that's not true, he bites everybody," Gerard says.
"Yeah, I guess," Frank says. "Maybe I can come out next month?"
"I'll put it on my calendar," Gerard says. His voice sounds like he's smiling.
Frank looks out the window. Jamia's standing in the driveway, talking to their neighbor. As Frank watches, she turns her head and grins into the light.
Jamia thinks he should get a job.
"Only if you want to," she says. "Or find another band to play in. Maybe you could work at a preschool?"
"Toro doesn't have a job," Frank says. He bends over, chin on his knee, and picks at the grass growing between the cracks in their front steps.
Jamia sighs. "Toro also isn't moping around his house all day. Anyway, isn't he teaching guitar lessons?"
"Oh," Frank says. "I guess."
"I'm just worried about you, babe," Jamia says, rubbing his shoulder. "You don't seem to be transitioning real well."
"I just—I guess I need some time? It was eight years of my life, you know?" He finds a four-leaf clover and pulls it out of the cracked brick, twirls it in front of Jamia's nose.
She smiles at him. "Lucky, huh?" She takes the clover from him and tucks it behind his ear. "I know you're having some post-band ennui. But you'd let me know if it was more than just that, wouldn't you?"
"Yeah," Frank says. "It's nothing, Jamia, really. I'm just—I need some time."
"Okay," she says. "Gerard's worried about you, though. Maybe you should go visit him for a while."
"Yeah," Frank says. "It's just. LA's kind of far."
"It's like, six hours on a plane," Jamia says.
"I want to be here with you," Frank says.
Jamia looks at him. Her eyes are hidden by her sunglasses, and he doesn't like it; he can't tell what she's thinking. "Maybe you could help Nicky at the shop," she says.
"I just want to relax," Frank says, frowning. "Is that okay with you?"
"Sure," Jamia says mildly. "Is it okay with you?"
"Yeah," Frank mumbles.
"You just don't seem like yourself," Jamia says. "I want to make sure you're all right."
"What's like myself?" Frank asks.
"Happy," Jamia says.
Frank tries harder after that. On Monday, he goes over to Mikey's house. Mikey's sitting on the front porch, eating a Hot Pocket, and he waves when Frank walks up the driveway.
"Hey," Frank says. He shoves his hands in his pockets.
"Hey, what's happening," Mikey says. "You wanna see my new bass?"
"Yeah," Frank says. They spend the rest of the afternoon fooling around and playing video games. Alicia comes home and cooks pancakes for dinner, and then they all sit on the porch until it gets dark, watching the fireflies in the front yard.
He goes back on Tuesday.
"Mikey's at class, honey," Alicia says.
"Oh," Frank says.
"You need a hobby," Alicia says. "I could teach you how to cross-stitch."
"No thanks," Frank says, and goes home.
He calls Ray. "Hey, uh, what's going on, man?"
"Not much," Ray says. "I've got a kid coming over for a lesson in a few minutes, and I think Sharon wants to go see a movie tonight," and then he goes into some long story about how Sharon's puppy ate his new couch. It's pretty funny.
"Hey, remember that time Pete Wentz's dog ate Mikey's favorite sneakers?" Frank says.
"Yeah, that was hilarious," Ray says. "Listen, I've gotta go."
"Right," Frank says. "Well, uh. Talk to you soon."
In June, Bob comes to visit for a while. He's been doing sound tech stuff in New York, and Frank sees him every couple weeks when he goes into the city, but it's nice to have Bob hanging around the house, eating cereal in his pajamas. Mikey's stupid post-rock band plays a show at the Back Burner, and they all go, all four of them. It's almost like old times, except Gerard isn't there.
Frank goes outside halfway through the show and calls Gerard. "You're missing your dumb brother's show," he says.
"Mikey knows I hate post-rock," Gerard says. "Are you there now?"
"Duh," Frank says. "What are you doing?"
"Smoking some cigarettes," Gerard says, and exhales noisily. "Tell Mikey I love his stupid face, okay?"
"I will," Frank says. "Jamia thinks I should come visit you."
"You should," Gerard says. "She's worried about you."
"You've, what, you guys have been talking about me behind my back?" Frank scowls and scuffs his foot against the cracked sidewalk.
"Yep," Gerard says, unrepentant. "Come visit and we can party with the stars."
"You don't party," Frank says.
"No, but I go to parties," Gerard says. "Rub elbows with the rich and famous."
"Yeah, maybe," Frank says. "Soon."
"It better be soon," Gerard says. "You'll forget how wonderful I smell. Like a bouquet of flowers."
Frank goes back inside. The show's still in full swing. He finds Jamia by the bar, talking to Alicia. He leans his head on her shoulder and listens to her and Alicia talk about some band that Frank's never heard of.
"Hey," Jamia says, "you okay?"
Frank leans in and kisses her. "Perfect," he says.
It's just one night, though. After that, Bob goes back to the city, and Mikey goes back to his college classes, and Ray goes back to falling in love with his girlfriend. Frank doesn't understand why everyone else is making these great lives for themselves, meeting new people and doing all the things they couldn't do while they were in the band, and he's just sitting at home feeling sorry for himself.
Frank's not a complicated guy; he likes food, tattoos, sex, Jamia, playing the guitar, video games, and Gatorade. He's okay with that. He doesn't need to be an artist like Gerard or have deep thoughts like Bob. He's used to being pretty easy-going and happy, and he doesn't know what to do with all these feelings he's having, or even how to categorize them. It sucks.
It's like he's stuck in place while everyone else goes forward. It kind of—it reminds him of this one time, in Iowa or somewhere, they were in a mall and the other guys got on an escalator, but then some lady with a stroller cut Frank off, and he was stuck at the bottom while everyone else ascended to the food court. It's like that.
He makes a list of the things he wants to do:
1. Marry Jamia.
2. Travel somewhere. (??)
Then he can't think of anything else. He's got a scorpion tattoo on his neck, so that kind of limits his options. He can't get a normal job. He'd like to maybe be in a band again, but he thinks that after My Chemical Romance, everything else would suck in comparison. Maybe he could be a tattoo artist. He mentions it to Jamia during dinner.
"You can't draw," she says.
"I could learn," he says.
"Okay," she says. "You want some more pasta?"
He scrapes his fork against his plate. "You keep—I don't know, you keep telling me to do something with my life, but then you don't like any of my ideas."
"That's not true," Jamia says. "I just don't think you're being realistic about it, that's all. Last week you wanted to open a bike repair business."
"So, like, what—I don't know what you want me to do," Frank says. His throat's all tight and scratchy.
"I want you to be happy," Jamia says. "I want you to do something that makes you happy."
"I don't know what that is," Frank says.
"I don't either," Jamia says. "But I can't figure it out for you."
Frank props his elbows on the table and leans his head into his hands. "I don't know what to do."
"Oh, sweetheart," Jamia says, and rubs his back until he's ready to finish eating his dinner.
He barely leaves the house for the next two weeks. He spends a lot of time playing his guitar, and reading old magazine articles about the band, and reading Gerard's book over and over. Mikey calls him, and Bob, but he doesn't answer his phone. He thinks he could probably stay in his house for the rest of his life.
"Okay, this is ridiculous," Jamia says, toward the end of the second week. "You need to take a shower, and put on some clean clothes, and take me out to dinner."
"Okay," Frank says. He rubs his hands over his face. "Where, um. Where do you want to go?"
"That Italian place on Union," Jamia says. "Or that new sushi restaurant. You can pick."
"I don't care," Frank says.
"Just. Fucking pick one," Jamia says.
Frank thinks about it: lasagna versus tuna rolls. He's not even hungry, is the thing. "Um. Either one's fine."
Jamia starts crying, and that gets Frank off the couch finally. Jamia never cries. He puts his arms around her. "What's—hey, what's wrong? We can get Japanese, that's fine, that's totally fine with me."
"I can't do this anymore," Jamia sobs.
"Don't, hey. Don't talk like that," Frank says. He kisses the top of her head. "I'll, um. I'll go shower and we'll go get dinner, okay?"
Jamia shakes her head. She sucks in a shuddery breath and wipes at her eyes with one hand. "I can't fix you, Frank. You're not—I thought you were ready to be an adult and marry me and have a real life, and you aren't, and I'm—I've been waiting for you for years, and I can't anymore."
"But," Frank says. He swallows. "Jamia, um. I just—I need some time, that's all, I still want to get married, shh. Don't cry."
"It's been four months," Jamia says. "And you're just getting worse."
"I'll be better," Frank says. He has a hot, terrible feeling around his eyes. "I'll be, I'll do anything, Jamia, I'll get a job, I'll—I promise, we can—"
"No," Jamia says. "I love you, okay, I'll love you for the rest of my life, but I can't be with you anymore." She pulls away from him and smiles weakly, her eyes red. She kisses him on the cheek. "Frank Iero," she murmurs, her voice packed with everything, their whole lives for all the years they've known each other, since the very beginning.
Frank closes his eyes.
He gets on a plane to LA the next morning.
He calls Gerard from the baggage claim. "Hi Gee. Um. I'm at the airport."
"Cool, where are you going?" Gerard asks.
"I'm, uh. I'm here. In LA," Frank says.
"You didn't tell me!" Gerard says. "Shit, okay, I'll come get you."
"I'll take a cab," Frank says.
"What? I'm not letting you take a cab, don't be stupid—"
"Gee. I've seen how you drive," Frank says.
"Oh. Um," Gerard says. "Well, okay. You know my address?"
"Of course," Frank says.
Gerard has a little house up in the hills, a two-bedroom bungalow that Mikey strong-armed him into buying. The driveway's lined with oleander trees. Gerard's waiting on the porch, smoking a cigarette. He stubs it out on the railing when Frank gets out of the cab, and comes bounding down the steps, arms open. He's cut his hair short.
"Frankie!" he says, and pulls Frank into a hug. He smells like cigarette smoke and fabric softener.
"Hi," Frank says. He drops his suitcase onto the driveway and clings to Gerard's shirt.
"Let's go inside," Gerard says. "I'll make coffee, do you want coffee?"
It's the middle of the afternoon. "Sure," Frank says.
The house is actually clean. Frank can't believe it. He runs a finger along the windowsill and it comes up clean—no dust or anything. Gerard's shoes are neatly stacked in a bin beside the door. There's a rug in the hallway, and plants hanging from the ceiling in the living room.
"Who are you and what did you do with Gerard," Frank says, which is really lame, but whatever.
"Oh," Gerard says, fooling with the coffee maker. "I've got a cleaning lady. She comes twice a week. Mikey told me I'm not allowed to live in my own filth anymore."
"Smart guy," Frank murmurs. There's a notebook on the kitchen table, and Frank flips through it, looking at Gerard's drawings, fragments of words, a few bars of music. "You're writing songs?"
"Sort of," Gerard says. "Maybe I'll learn how to play guitar for real and release a solo album."
"Sweet," Frank says.
They sit at the table together and sip their coffee. Frank's mug has a cow pattern on it and a pink ceramic udder. Gerard smokes and doodles on the newspaper.
"Jamia dumped me," Frank says after a while.
Gerard nods. "Yeah, she called me right after you did."
"What'd she say?" Frank asks.
"She told me to take care of you," Gerard says.
Frank scratches his neck. "I, um. I haven't really been doing so well."
"I've heard," Gerard says.
"Jamia said she couldn't fix me," Frank says.
"Neither can I," Gerard says. He ashes into his empty coffee cup. "But you can stay here while you figure out how to fix yourself."
"That's pretty deep, man," Frank says.
Gerard laughs. "That's what I do now. I'm a man of deep thoughts. And, um." He looks down at what he's scribbled on the newspaper. "Two-headed elephants, I guess."
"Maybe you could write a book about a two-headed elephant," Frank says. "The other elephants laugh at it, but it's twice as smart as they are."
"Like, I know you're making fun of me, but that actually sounds really awesome," Gerard says.
Frank picks at a spot on the tablecloth. "Yeah," he says.
It's only about 7:00 on the East Coast, but Frank's exhausted. Gerard makes up the spare room for him. He hears Gerard moving around the house, talking on the phone; hears the TV turn on; and then he doesn't hear anything else until morning.
Gerard wakes him up when the birds are still chirping outside the window.
"You're kidding," Frank says.
"Nope," Gerard says. "I'm an early riser now."
"You're old," Frank says, and pulls the pillow over his face.
"I'm thirty-three!" Gerard says. "Jeez. We need to go grocery shopping, I don't have any food in the house."
"You can go without me," Frank mumbles.
"Nope," Gerard says. "Remember when I got clean and I just wanted to stay in my bunk all day and sleep, and you and Bob made me leave the bus and do things?"
"Yeah," Frank says.
"Payback time," Gerard says. "I'll let you drive."
They go to a yuppie grocery store in Beverly Hills. All the food is organic. Frank wears a hat and dark glasses, but nobody bothers them.
"That's why I shop here," Gerard says. "Nobody in Beverly Hills cares about some lame rock band. They're all too busy following Lindsay Lohan."
"Oh," Frank says. He hates LA.
Gerard pushes the cart around like he knows what he's doing. He buys peppers, spinach, whole wheat pasta. Frank wants potato chips, but all they have is those all-natural ones made out of like, Hawaiian sweet potatoes.
"I took a cooking class," Gerard says. "That was Mikey's idea too."
"Alicia's made him all domestic," Frank says.
"I don't think it's a bad thing," Gerard says.
Frank thinks of Mikey with his school books and his stupid band and his non-stop smile. "Me either," he says.
On the way back to Gerard's house, Frank stops at a convenience store and buys potato chips and Honey Nut Cheerios.
Gerard goes up to the attic when they get back and doesn't come down until lunchtime. Frank reads the paper, and watches Mr. Nibbles run circles in his cage, and then he makes a BLT for lunch. He thinks about calling Jamia but he doesn't know what he would say. He misses her already, like a big hole inside his chest.
"I smell a sandwich!" Gerard says, coming down the stairs. He's got blue marker on his chin.
"You drew on yourself," Frank says.
"Oh," Gerard says, and touches his face. "Oops."
"You working on another book?" Frank asks.
"Oh. Yeah," Gerard says. "My studio's up there. Leonard's been selling pretty well, my publisher wants another one by September."
"Cool," Frank says. He mops up some fallen mayonnaise with his bread crust. "You want a sandwich?"
"I would fucking love a sandwich," Gerard says.
That's what Frank does for the next two weeks. Gerard wakes him up every morning, and they go get coffee or bagels or just walk around the neighborhood. Gerard works until noon while Frank watches TV and reads. Then in the afternoon Gerard goes out and does stuff, and Frank sits on the porch swing and tries not to think about anything. He should probably feel worse than he does. Mostly he doesn't feel much of anything.
At the end of the two weeks, he calls Jamia.
"Frank," she says.
"Hi," he says. "Um. How are you?"
"I'm okay," she says. "Gerard says you're hanging in there."
"Are you guys all talking to each other about me?" Frank asks, tugging at his hair and frowning.
"Basically, yeah," Jamia says. "I'm. We've all been pretty worried."
Frank pushes his feet against the porch boards and sets the swing rocking. The chains squeak. "I'm okay," he says.
"Not yet," Jamia says, "but I have faith in Gerard."
"I love you," Frank says.
She's quiet for a long time. "I love you too," she says. "But I don't—"
"No, I know," Frank says. "It's over. I get it."
"I'm sorry," she says. "I miss you."
"Me too," Frank says.
He cries for a while after they hang up, and then he goes inside to eat the rest of Gerard's yogurt-covered raisins.
Bob calls him that night, while Gerard's out to dinner with some music producer types. "I'm saying this because I love you," Bob says. "Get off your stupid ass and go do something. You're wallowing in your own misery. Like a pig. In mud. You're a muddy pig, Frank."
"Um. Okay," Frank says, blinking. "Am I—what do you want me to do?"
"How the fuck should I know? Go get another tattoo. Or write a novel or something. Dude, you're single, famous, and in LA, I'm sure you can think of something."
"I want the band back," Frank says.
"Yeah, well, Peter Pan didn't want to grow up, and look how well that turned out for him," Bob says. "Get over it. Find something else to do with your life."
"You're mean," Frank says.
"Tough love, Bryar style," Bob says. "Now go eat some dinner, Gerard says you're skinny. And ugly."
"Jesus, fine," Frank says. He hangs up and cooks himself an entire box of Kraft mac and cheese. It tastes damn good.
He's still awake when Gerard gets home, flushed and kind of rumpled, with what looks like a hickey on his neck. Frank narrows his eyes suspiciously. "Is that a hickey?" he asks.
Gerard claps a hand to his neck. "No," he says.
"You're an awful liar," Frank says.
"I know," Gerard says. He flops down on the couch beside Frank and slings an arm over Frank's shoulders. "Anything good on?"
"Not really," Frank says. He's kind of curious about who's been giving Gerard hickeys, but not enough to push the issue. "Didn't SNL used to be funny?"
"That's the rumor," Gerard says. He yawns.
"Late night," Frank says. He ruffles his fingers through Gerard's hair. It's soft, and Gerard leans into him like a cat.
"The life of the rich and famous," Gerard says. "It could be worse."
"I guess so," Frank says.
In the morning, he stares at himself in the mirror after his shower. He doesn't look too muddy. Or pig-like. Maybe it's mud of the soul. He's spent the last two weeks sitting on Gerard's couch, eating the weird food Gerard cooks for him and watching a lot of TV. It kind of sucked.
"This sucks," he tells himself.
"I'm a muddy pig," he tells Gerard, who's eating a bowl of Grape-Nuts with sliced banana on top. Mr. Nibbles is in his exercise ball, rolling around on the kitchen floor.
"Don't get it on my couch," Gerard says.
Frank puts some bread in the toaster. "I need to—I want to do something, Gee. I'm tired of being all. You know."
"You're depressed," Gerard says. "It's okay, it happens to the best of us."
"It sucks," Frank says. "I want to, um. I don't know."
"You can do whatever you want to," Gerard says.
Frank thinks about it. "I could—join a book club?"
"Sure," Gerard says.
"Or, um. Learn how to surf?"
"You can do anything," Gerard says. "That's what I'm telling you."
"Yeah," Frank says. His toast pops, and he catches it neatly, one slice in each hand.
Gerard has his AA meeting that afternoon. Frank drops him off at the community center and then drives down to the beach. It's hot in that ferociously sunny Southern California way. He sits on the boardwalk at Venice Beach and people-watches for a while. He keeps his sunglasses on, and nobody so much as glances in his direction.
He and Gerard go to a used bookstore after the meeting's over, and Frank buys a book about dragons, and another one about Darwin. They eat dinner at a Mexican place near the beach. Frank has a margarita. Gerard has a Shirley Temple. Gerard talks about his next book, and about how Patrick Stump keeps bugging him to record stuff.
"Whoa, Patrick's here?" Frank asks, surprised.
"Yeah, they just finished up their tour, so he's out here for a few months. He's producing The Grapevine's new album." Gerard frowns at his enchilada, working on cutting it into tiny little pieces.
"Why the fuck do you always do that," Frank says.
"It tastes better when it's bite-sized," Gerard says, like that's an explanation. "Okay, but seriously, if you want to do music stuff, I can call Patrick and tell him you're here. He's always dragging people into the studio."
"I don't have a band anymore," Frank says.
"So what? He'll make you learn how to play the didgeridoo or something and lay down backing tracks. He's insane," Gerard says.
"I don't know. Maybe," Frank says.
"It's not the end of the world, Frankie," Gerard says.
"Yeah," Frank says. He tries a smile. It feels weird, but good. "I know."
He joins a book club. Everyone in it has tattoos and piercings, and none of them seem to recognize Frank. He likes it. They read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and he cries when he reads the part where the dog dies.
"What's wrong?" Gerard asks.
"The dog gave birth to a roll and then she died," Frank says, sniffling into his own t-shirt.
Gerard stares at him, knife in one hand and red pepper in another. He can kind of cook, but all the food he makes is weird shit like quinoa with hot sauce and mangoes. Frank eats it anyway. "Uh," Gerard says.
"Shut up," Frank says.
"You cry a lot," Gerard says. "Like a girl."
"You cry more than anyone I've ever met, you dumb motherfucker," Frank says, which is true.
"I'm in touch with my emotions," Gerard says.
"Yeah, and everyone in the country knows about them," Frank says.
"Hey," Gerard says, and sits on Frank until he begs for mercy.
There are other things. Gerard has a beat-up acoustic guitar that lives behind the sofa. Frank buys new strings for it and starts playing a lot when Gerard isn't around—old stuff he learned in high school, folk music and random blues stuff. He decides he wants to learn how to play some Bach, and wanders around the city at random until he finds a place that sells sheet music.
At the end of August, he sits on the porch and calls Patrick. "Hi," he says. "It's Frank. Um, Iero."
"Frank—dude! I didn't know you were in town! What's going on?" Patrick says. Frank hasn't seen him in at least six months, but he sounds just the same.
"I'm, uh, I'm staying with Gerard. For a little while," Frank says.
"Okay, I saw him on Tuesday and he didn't say anything about you being there," Patrick says. "I'm going to kill him. Can you play the didgeridoo?"
Frank can't help it: he starts laughing. It's just so absurd. "You, uh. The didgeridoo? Seriously?"
"I'm 100% serious," Patrick says.
Gerard pokes his head through the front door. "Was that a laugh, Frank Iero?" Gerard says. He pulls out his phone and flips it open. "Toro? Frankie just laughed!"
"Oh my God," Frank says, rubbing at the bridge of his nose.
"What's going on?" Patrick asks.
"I'll call Mikey if you call Bob," Gerard says into his phone.
"Gerard's being an ass," Frank says. "Um, so anyway. I only kind of know what a didgeridoo is, but I guess I can learn to play one."
"It was almost a guffaw," Gerard says.
"Gee! Go inside," Frank says. "Sorry, Patrick. He's. You know."
"He's Gerard," Patrick says. "So anyway, I'll be in the studio tomorrow at like, 10ish? You should come."
"I'll be there," Frank says, and then goes inside to kill Gerard.
He gets to the studio the next morning at exactly 10:01 and goes inside with his latte. Patrick really is just the same—he tugs at the brim of his hat and grins at Frank, effortlessly happy. "Frank! Hey, I'm glad you made it, I wasn't sure if you'd show."
"I said I'd come," Frank says.
"Yeah, well, the whole didgeridoo thing kind of scares people off," Patrick says. "I tried to get Joe to do it but he started singing "I Would Do Anything For Love" at me."
"But he wouldn't do that, right?" Frank says.
Patrick laughs. "Yeah, exactly. So, anyway, I don't really know how this thing works, but it can't be that hard." He hands Frank a long stick. With a hole in it. Frank eyes it.
"Um. Patrick, I'm not—is this really an instrument?"
"What? Yeah, it's an ancient Aboriginal thing. Australian," he says, when Frank stares at him.
"Well," Frank says. He turns the thing in his hands.
It takes him a week, but he figures it out eventually. He practices in a little room walled off with glass and watches the constant stream of people coming and going from the studio: producers, musicians, people Frank knows well and people he only recognizes from award shows. Patrick's the real thing. The Grapevine are the latest hot band, media darlings, and Frank watches Patrick put them through their paces, making them play a song over and over again until it's perfect. It's kind of terrifying.
"Okay," Patrick says one evening, when Frank's getting ready to go home. "You think you can play that thing?"
"There's a fifty-fifty chance," Frank says.
"Let's find out," Patrick says.
"Um. Now?" Frank says, grimacing.
"Chill out, everyone's gone home," Patrick says. "No pressure, dude, seriously, I just wanna hear what it sounds like."
What is sounds like is kind of fucking ridiculous. Frank hasn't really mastered the breathing pattern, so he can't keep it going for more than a couple seconds at a time. He stops after a few minutes, red-faced from blowing. "Sorry," he says.
"No, it's fine, I can just splice it together," Patrick says. "It's only gonna be in the background, anyway. It sounds totally awesome, dude, how are you doing that breathing?"
"I don't know, Gerard found something on the internet," Frank says, and tries to describe the circular breathing.
"Well, whatever, it sounds awesome," Patrick says again. "How do you feel about learning how to play the lute?"
"The what," Frank says, even though he definitely knows what a lute is.
Patrick laughs. "Come back tomorrow. Plus, that'll give me time to layer your track in. It's going to be fucking sweet, just wait until you hear it."
He goes home. Gerard's on the couch with Mr. Nibbles in his lap. "Hey," Gerard says. "I made some food."
"Yeah, uh, what is it," Frank says.
"Don't look at me like that, it's delicious," Gerard says. "It's tortellini with squash and marinara sauce."
Frank puts a lot of parmesan on it, and then he eats two bowls, sitting beside Gerard on the sofa. "This is fucking tasty," he says, mouth full.
"I told you," Gerard says. "Here, Mr. Nibbles wants some snuggles." He gives the hamster to Frank, who cups it in his free hand, close against his chest.
Mr. Nibbles is warm, and he scratches at Frank's chest a little, his claws catching in the fabric of Frank's t-shirt. Frank can feel his little heart beating. He's soft. "He's so little," Frank says.
"Yeah," Gerard says. "He makes me think about how special life is, you know? Because he's so fragile. I could squish him and not even notice."
"Yeah," Frank says. He looks at Gerard, who's biting his nails and watching Frank instead of the TV. "Thanks for letting me stay here."
"Frankie. Man. You saved my fucking life. Remember when I was on coke all the time, and you yelled at my drunk ass until I sobered up? I'm just returning the favor. You can stay here as long as you fucking want." Gerard's got that angelic earnest face on, the one he used to use in front of crowds of screaming teenagers who adored him without reason. Frank kind of adores him too.
"This fucking sucks," Frank says.
"You'll get over it," Gerard says. "I'm not, like. I'm not being an asshole, either, or dismissing what you're going through. It's just that nothing lasts forever, man. And maybe you won't be the old Frankie again, but you won't be like this, either. Stuff changes."
"I guess," Frank says. Something tickles in his chest, and when he opens his mouth to let it out, he's surprised to realize that it's a laugh. "This is so surreal. Gerard fucking Way is talking me through a nervous breakdown."
"I hear experience is the best teacher," Gerard says.
"Yeah, who told you that shit," Frank says.
"Probably some hobo on a street corner," Gerard says.
Frank feels—he isn't sure what the feeling is. But it's a good one, for once. He cups Mr. Nibbles closer and finishes his tortellini.
Once Gerard's put the idea in his head, there's no stopping it. Frank starts getting up on his own every morning. Sometimes he makes French toast for breakfast while Gerard smokes and does the crossword puzzle. He goes to the studio most days, and sometimes he eats lunch with Patrick and his musician buddies, and it's—it's almost like he's a real person again, a person who knows people, who sometimes runs into them at the grocery store and makes small talk for a few minutes.
And then he's got his book group once a week, and he likes to go to thrift stores and buy knick-knacks for Gerard's house, and in September he starts taking Spanish classes at the community college. He's really fucking bad at it, but that's okay. He's doing things. He isn't okay yet, but maybe he will be.
He calls Jamia. "Hi," he says. "I still love you. How are you?"
"I'm good," Jamia says. She tells him about the band she's started with Alicia, and the puppy she adopted. "I miss you," she says.
"I miss you every day," Frank says. "Do you—maybe we could try again."
"We can't," Jamia says. "We had our chance, Frank. Second chances don't happen in real life. You know that. We tried, and it didn't work."
"I know," Frank says. It hurts to admit it, but he knows she's right. Christ, they were just fucking kids when they got together, and neither of them are those people anymore. "I just—God damn it, Jamia."
"I know," Jamia says, and she starts crying, and then Frank starts crying too, and they cry together for a while, separated by a whole country. He gets all snotty and disgusting, but after he hangs up with her, he blows his nose in the bathroom and washes his face and he feels clean inside, like something unpleasant has been lifted out of him.
"I talked to Jamia today," he tells Gerard over dinner. They've ordered pizza.
"Oh yeah? How'd that go?" Gerard asks, cigarette dangling from his mouth.
"Good," Frank says. "It was, uh. It was good."
"Good," Gerard says. "Are you ready to stop moping around my house?"
"Maybe soon," Frank says. "Also, shut up, you ass."
Gerard grins and reaches for the last slice of pesto with artichoke hearts.
"Come on," Gerard says after dinner, standing at the foot of the stairs.
Frank blinks, TV remote in hand. "What? Come where?"
"I want you to see my book," Gerard says. "You're ready, my child."
"What the fuck, Gee," Frank says, rolling his eyes, but he gets off the couch and follows Gerard up the stairs. He's never seen Gerard's studio before. There are no curtains on the window, and it looks out over the city lights, down into the messy tangle of the city. There's an easel set up in one corner, and a big drafting table with papers spread out all over it.
"Here," Gerard says, handing a sheaf of papers to Frank. "It's kind of not in any sort of fucking order, but you can probably figure it out."
Frank sits cross-legged on the floor and flips through the pages. It's a book about a little boy who lives in a city in the clouds, where all the houses are tents and people wear paper wings to travel between different clouds. The boy isn't happy, though, and every day he peers over the edge of the cloud he lives on, looking at the rolling green earth below, dotted with houses and fields and tiny animals. He wants to know what's on the earth, and what kind of people live there.
"There's nothing down there," his mother tells him. "Only silly people live on the earth. Everything you need is up here." But the little boy doesn't believe her, and so he puts on his paper wings and flies down to the earth. He meets another little boy, and at first they're kind of scared of each other, but then they realize that their smiles are the same, and they become best friends.
"It's wonderful," Frank says, after he's read it through twice.
Gerard blows out a cloud of cigarette smoke. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Frank says. "Totally. And the drawings are—fuck, Gerard. I had no idea you could do stuff like this."
"I've been working on it," Gerard says. He hesitates. "Do you really think it's good?"
"Yes," Frank says. "Jesus. Your publisher is gonna love it."
"I don't have a title," Gerard says.
"I'll think of one for you," Frank says. He traces his fingers over the drawings, simple black lines filled in with bright watercolors, everything that Gerard believes in condensed into twenty-five half-size pages.
"I have to send it to New York in a week," Gerard says. He's leaning against the windowsill, backlit by the orange night sky. Frank can't see his face, only the outline of his shoulders, and the glowing cherry of his cigarette.
"I'll think fast," Frank says.
He goes to Santa Monica the next day. There's a tattoo parlor there that one of the dudes from The Grapevine recommended to him. He goes in with a shitty tracing of one of the drawings from Gerard's book, the one with the little boy leaning over the edge of the clouds, his chin on his folded arms, and he gets it tattooed on his hip.
"That looks pretty fuckin' sweet," the tattoo artist says.
"My friend did it," Frank says, but he's not sure if that's the right word for Gerard anymore.
He leaves the tattoo parlor and goes to walk along the beach, sand getting in his shoes. The thing about life is that it keeps going, good or bad, until it stops. Frank isn't ready to stop yet. It hurts and it's terrible and wonderful and difficult, and he doesn't want it to stop.
Two days later, Patrick says, "I've got a proposition for you."
Frank's in the middle of tuning his fucking lute. "What's that," he says.
"I know some dudes who have a band," Patrick says. "And their guitarist just quit to get married. So they're looking for a replacement."
"Yeah, and," Frank says. He still isn't really listening.
"So I told them you might be interested," Patrick says. "The thing is, though, they're based in LA, and they don't do a whole lot of touring outside the region, so you'd pretty much have to relocate here—"
"I'm not, uh, necessarily opposed to that idea," Frank says. He strums an A major chord. "Who are they?"
"The Victoria Bitters," Patrick says.
Frank tries to stop it, he really does, but he feels his eyes getting wide anyway. "The—are you fucking serious? The Victoria fucking Bitters? And you told them that I could fucking play guitar for them?"
"You're awesome, Frank, whatever," Patrick says. "Just think about it, okay? They're practicing at the Blue Devil tomorrow afternoon. You should show up."
"Yeah, maybe," Frank says, and strums another chord.
That night, he and Gerard are watching the news, and Frank says, "You know The Victoria Bitters?"
"Fuck yeah," Gerard says, and ashes his cigarette into his half-empty cup of orange juice. "Their last CD was fucking kick-ass. Mikey sent it to me for Christmas and I don't think I listened to anything else for a whole week."
"Patrick thinks I should be their new guitarist," Frank says.
Gerard grins. "Really? That's awesome, Frankie. You should go for it."
"I'd have to live here," Frank says. "Like, for real. Move all my shit out here for good."
"Hmm," Gerard says. He picks at a hole in his jeans. "Are you, um. Is that not something you want to do? You'd rather stay in Jersey?"
"I don't know," Frank says. "Maybe."
"There's room here," Gerard says, super casual. "If, you know. If you wanted it."
"Maybe," Frank says again. He gets off the couch and stands in front of Gerard, lifts up the hem of his t-shirt. "I got another tattoo."
"Oh," Gerard says. He drops his cigarette in the orange juice and leans forward, his fingers brushing the healing outline of Frank's tattoo. Frank hisses through his teeth but doesn't flinch. "That's my—it's my drawing," Gerard says.
"Yeah," Frank says.
Gerard touches the tattoo again, even more gently this time. "Frankie," he says.
Frank looks down. Gerard's watching him, eyes lidded. He licks his lips and his eyes dart away, dart back. Frank hasn't even thought about it until this moment, but suddenly he wants it like nothing he's ever wanted in his entire fucking life. He drops to his knees and hooks both hands around the back of Gerard's neck. "Gee," he says.
"Oh," Gerard says. He touches Frank's mouth where the lip ring used to be. "Are we—can I?" he asks.
"Yeah," Frank says, "yes," and he closes his eyes when Gerard leans down to kiss him, because that's what a real kiss should be like.
"I got a job," Frank says when he calls Jamia on Friday. "Or, kind of a job. Half of one. Or like, three quarters of one."
Jamia laughs. "Well, what is it? You can't keep me in suspense forever!"
"I'm the new guitarist for The Victoria Bitters," Frank says.
"Who?" Jamia says.
Frank rolls his eyes. "Whatever, they're a band, is the point, so, um. I'm kind of moving to LA."
"Oh," Jamia says. "You're moving."
"You said there aren't any second chances," Frank says.
"Yeah, no, I know," Jamia says. "It just sounds so permanent."
"Nothing lasts forever," Frank says. "Plus I'll be back there all the time, anyway, my mom gets mad at me if I don't come home for at least three holidays every year."
"You'd better still come see me," Jamia says.
"Always," Frank says. He thinks about telling her about Gerard but decides not to—it's too soon. Maybe in a couple of months. It feels kind of like cheating, but then he reminds himself that he isn't her boyfriend anymore.
"Call me again soon," Jamia says, and Frank says, "You know I will."
Gerard's in the kitchen when Frank goes back into the house. "Jamia says hi," Frank says, even though she didn't. She would have, if she'd thought of it. It was implied.
"Hi, Jamia," Gerard says. He's working on the crossword puzzle, which he really fucking sucks at.
Frank takes the cigarette out of Gerard's mouth and puts it in his own. "You smoke too many fucking cigarettes," he says.
"You smoke like a fucking chimney, shut up," Gerard says.
"You're still worse," Frank says. He sidles in close and runs his fingers through Gerard's hair. "I thought of a title for your book."
"Oh yeah?" Gerard says. He drops his pencil onto the table and looks up at Frank. "What's that?"
"The Sky-High City," Frank says.
"That's stupid," Gerard says. "But I love it."
"Don't insult my title," Frank says. "I worked hard on coming up with that."
"I'm sure your three brain cells had quite a workout," Gerard says.
"You're mean," Frank says. "Good thing you're cute."
"It's my best quality," Gerard says, and slides his hands around Frank's waist when Frank kisses him.