Crystal sat staring at a blank page of paper in a well-wrung notebook. She plinked Middle C on her electric piano and then slammed her head down on the keys, disharmony ricocheting violently around her studio apartment. She'd had writer's block for days on end. And it was all his fault.
Crystal's next-door-neighbor was a musician, too. Welcome to New York, right? Only he was a rock singer and she was a Classically-trained Indie-Soul Singer/Songwriter, as she liked to put on her posters. She'd booked another career un-altering show at once groovy bar, The Bitter End. If people were getting scouted at this place with its strange hand-painted walls depicting S&M women and, in completely unrelated scenes, animals roaming in backyards, then Crystal was not in on it. She, of course, thought she was good and she even secured herself a gig in a showcase at CBGB but then they closed. In fact, they closed without telling her. Crystal stood outside the boarded door, keyboard in bag - hanging from her shoulder, just staring for 10 minutes. Unbelievable, her luck.
When this guy, the rock singer, showed up he changed everything. Crystal went from having peaceful afternoons for composing on her keyboard and synthesizer to stuffing cotton balls in her ears, even at noon. Weren't rockers supposed to sleep their debauchery-induced hangover off until well into the evening? Well, today, Crystal had had enough of it.
She marched the three steps to her door, turned the two dead bolts and the flimsy doorknob lock and flung herself into the hallway. In a matter of seconds she was knocking at 19A, breathless with adrenaline. A dangerously thin model wearing a tiny white T-shirt and tight leather leggings opened the door. She blew a puff of smoke into Crystal's face and tapped the butt of her cigarette onto the toe of Crystal's pink fuzzy slipper sock.
"Yea, is right, honey. I'm here to see the guy making all the racket."
She raised an eyebrow and scoffed.
The skinny brunette turned into the apartment. Her bed-head was even worse in the back and Crystal couldn't tell if it was from a jar or an actual bed. Or couch.
"Michael - someone in baggy Wal-mart sweatpants is here to see you."
She gave Crystal the once over and slunk back into the apartment. Michael appeared around the door looking fairly typical and quite as Crystal had expected: leather jacket indoors, longish wavy dark hair, stubble, bright blue eyes. He was the boy your mother, well maybe not your mother but your mother's mother, would have warned you about. Crystal had prepared herself for this and so recovered quickly. Had she not she may have swooned right into his handsome arms. That or covered her still unwashed face and ran back to her apartment.
"What can I do ya for, sweetheart?"
"Yes, hi. I'm Crystal. I live next door. And, you see..." Michael's face scrolled into a brilliant ear-to-ear grin.
"You live next door!? That's great. Come on in, neighbor." He put his arm around Crystal and ushered her into his apartment.
"You must be the siren I used to hear all the time when I first moved in, singing all those, uh, indie-soul kind of songs. You some kind of singer slash songwriter, right?"
Determined not to be thrown into some lush haze of serendipity by Michael's word choice, Crystal fired back.
"Well, that would have been before you started playing full blast every single day in the middle of my composing time!"
She slid out from under his arm and stood firm.
"And I've just...I've just come here to say that I would really appreciate it if you could have some common courtesy for the rest of the people in this building who are trying to create something, you know? I mean, you could at least just play for a bit then give it a rest for an hour or so. We could come up with some kind of schedule, whatever. Just...you're not the only one here, you know?"
When Michael burst out laughing, Crystal realized she was hearing more than just him. She looked around to discover three other skinny rocker types and another skinny model slinking over the couch and the floor like sweaters lying out to dry, smoking and laughing and rolling their eyes.
"Honey, sweetheart. I dig. It's cool, really. You're very cute."
Michael swirled around, plopped down on a stool and picked up his electric guitar. He motioned to an upright under the window next to him.
"Why don't you do your 'creating' in here? We can jam together and share the space." His friends laughed some more.
"You can't be serious."
"True. But I've been known to try."
Crystal sat at the piano bench because her knees wouldn't hold her another moment. Her adrenaline had been quite drained by Michael's charm and her embarrassment at the other 'hipsters' in the apartment.
"Great!" Michael said. "I'll start and you join in."
Before Crystal could protest Michael started into a rock song. Crystal knew it well as she'd been getting a steady diet of it for the past week. He'd been playing it to death trying to finish it. And since Crystal couldn't concentrate on her own playing she'd started finishing it for him. She'd actually come up with a kicking piano part and suddenly her hands were forming their arch and floating toward the keys.
Crystal tried to keep them steady as she placed her fingertips on the ivories, centering herself with Middle C as her keystone. She tried desperately to imagine that the other band members and impossibly beautiful groupies weren't sitting behind her with bored or snobby looks wrinkling their eyebrows. She was only about four bars in when she succeeded. Crystal always liked to imagine herself at a white grand piano at the amphitheater in Central Park when she knew she was playing well. And she was playing well. The lyrics to the song, usually growled and groaned by Michael, came out of Crystal's mouth breathily soft at first and then louder, each note ebbing and lilting and skipping up and down riffs with her signature British-soul-singer-inspired sound. Crystal closed her eyes and imagined the crowd singing along, lit lighters swaying in the air.
Suddenly a bass, another electric and drums appeared behind her on the stage. A gruff voice began to sing along, blending his own sound with hers to absolute perfection. She hit the final note of the song and slowly opened her eyes to see that she was back in Michael's apartment but he and his band mates were all at their instruments, their faces full of glory.
The brunettes clapped at the men while stealing odd glances at Crystal which were starting to look a little like jealousy.
"Crystal! You did it! You're amazing!" Michael said.
"Thank you! What did I do?" Crystal replied.
"You finished my song." Michael became very serious. He slid his guitar to his back and knelt on one knee beside her. Taking her hand, he looked her in the eyes with uncomfortable sincerity.
"Crystal, will you join my band?"
Before she could swim back to the surface of Michael's eyes, one of his friends piped up.
"Hold on, hold on." His name was Lewis and he was British.
"That was fairly decent but we need to have a chat about this. One impromptu song don't make you one of the New New Yorks."
"Who's the leader of this band, me or you, Lewis?" Michael retorted, still on one knee, still holding Crystal’s hand.
"You are…but we've all agreed to make these kinds of decisions together!" The rest of the band agreed with Lewis.
Michael stood, bringing Crystal up with him.
"Crystal, love, would you let us sort this out? I'll be in touch."
He escorted her to the door, shined her a smile, and left her in the hallway to reel.
What just happened? Crystal wondered as she entered her apartment and leaned against the triple-locked door. She decided promptly to put the whole incident out of her mind, take a shower and go sit on the fountain in Lincoln Centre with her notebook.
Three weeks went by and Crystal heard nothing from Michael’s apartment. At first she was grateful for the silence to write in but then she began to wonder. She couldn’t put their encounter out of her head. And he had said he’d be in touch. Of course, he could be a liar.
It was a Tuesday, the day of a pre-Music Awards party that Crystal was helping cater in a swanky lounge on the Lower East Side. She tidied up her apartment and on her way out ran into her landlord, Angelo. They exchanged pleasant hellos – Crystal was always on time with the rent, always picked up random garbage in the halls, always gave him a small present on Christmas.
She almost left the building when something compelled her to turn around and ask Angelo how things were working out with Michael.
“Oh, you know. They are gone. They got some big music deal. They’re big shots now or something. Fine with me. They were too loud.”
“Yea, they were.” Crystal whispered. A music deal? Wow. I guess he won’t be getting in touch.
Crystal stepped outside and turned down the street towards the subway. She lived closer to the lounge than to the catering company so she figured she’d meet them there.
When Crystal emerged from the subway and onto the street she wasn’t surprised to see the line at Felt wrapping around the block, even at 8:30pm. Big black body guards, almost as wide as they were tall, stood at the door, lifting the literal red velvet rope to those who were either on the list or wearing skirts the right length and heels the right height.
Crystal looked down at her black pants, black wedge-heeled Mary Janes and black tank top. She was very glad she had a uniform to wear, otherwise she would have felt quite self-conscious marching to the front of the line wearing something out of her own closet.
A van marked “Queen Street Catering” was just pulling away and several of Crystal’s co-caterers and set-up crew were collecting their trays and bags to go inside. She fell in line, pinching the upper arm of her work-friend, Shanna.
“Hey. I’m freakin’ out!” Shanna said, beaming.
“Why? What’s the big deal?”
“Justin Timberlake! Cameron Diaz! Taye Diggs! Who knows who else is going to be here!” Shanna slipped a neatly manicured finger into her front pocket and pulled out a few business cards – actor business cards with her photo on them.
“Shanna, you know you can’t pass those out while we’re working!”
“Crystal, you know I can set them down with a glass or a plate of chicken satay. C’mon! I am hustlin’ tonight! Maybe the next time I’m here someone will be bringing me a drink.”
“Let’s go, ladies.” Rick, the assistant manager and lead on this event called out to them to enter Felt. The rope had been lifted and they soon slipped in through the narrow hallway, down a flight of stairs, into a private lounge and through a door into the small kitchen.
Fifteen minutes later they were back upstairs with small trays.
“It’s not very crowded,” Crystal commented.
“This is the pre-pre party. There would be way too many people to cater the full one.” Shanna sighed. “They’ll be wearing amazing clothes, dancing and sweating all over each other. It’s going to be phenomenal. You’re staying, right?”
“Staying? I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“What? Oh, I knew I should have called you when I went shopping. You are the worst for parties. I bought this crazy hot dress – I won’t be able to afford food for like two weeks but it will be worth it. I brought you something, too. I knew you wouldn’t have anything. Just an LBD but you’ll look hot in it.”
Someone waved Shanna over for a refill and they parted ways. Crystal stopped off at the bar to pick up a drink order. Squeezing between two leather-jacketed men, Crystal slipped her arm between them, muttering, “Excuse me” when the one on her right grabbed her wrist.
“Well, if it isn’t my friendly, neighborhood Songbird.”
It was Michael.
“Oh, uh, Michael. Hi.” Crystal stammered.
“I didn’t know you worked here.” Michael held onto her wrist and gave her a heart-breakingly coy smile.
“I…don’t. I work for a catering company. What…what are you doing here?”
“I’m on the list, love.” Michael winked.
Crystal needed to switch modes. She was in severe danger of being swept off her feet.
“Yea? So, does your uncle’s friend’s cousin do Cameron Diaz’s hot stone massages or something?”
Michael laughed and caressed Crystal’s wrist, moving up to her hand, interlocking their fingers.
“Let’s just say, this is a professional obligation. And now that I know you’re here, it is a joy as well.” He seemed to want to say more but instead looked down at her hand, stroking it softly.
A bartender snapped his fingers in Crystal’s face and pointed to the three martinis sitting there waiting to be delivered.
“I have to work.” Crystal spat out, wrenching her hand away to grab the drinks and nearly spilling them before sliding into the crowd.
Shanna pulled up next to Crystal’s ear and yelled over the music.
“Who was that at the bar? My God!”
“My next door neighbor. Remember? I told you how he’s always rocking out in the middle of my song-writing time.”
“That’s the guy? You’re complaining about that guy? Crystal. Seriously. Change your damn song-writing time and find a way to invite yourself over there, like, every day.”
“I don’t think so.”
“What’s wrong with him? Is he an asshole or something?”
“No. Not really. He’s a bit cocky. ”
“He’s a man! What do you want?”
“I don’t know. I just spent so long being angry at him, now that I’ve met him I don’t know which way’s up.”
“Oh, he knows which way is up, trust me. You know what? Give him my card. I’ll take him.”
“Knock yourself out.”
“Thank you, I will! Introduce me.”
They turned back towards the bar to find Michael and the biggest hip-hop producer currently on the planet standing at the DJ booth. The music skidded to a halt and the DJ took the mic.
“PARTY PEOPLE – are you getting down at the hottest party in New York tonight, or what?”
The crowd cheered.
“Well, we just getting it poppin here at Felt Lounge. Things are gonna get hot enough to melt up in this piece. But first, “ the DJ paused to let the partiers finish cheering and toasting. “But first, let me hand the mic over to my man for a very important announcement.”
The heavy-set producer took the mic.
“What’s good, ya’ll? You know your boy. Who you don’t know is this young boy right here, Michael York, straight outta Brooklyn – born and raised. He’s got the hottest band I’ve heard in a minute, straight up. They’re called the New New Yorks, and their album is dropping TOMORROW. It’s gonna blow yo’ minds, for real, ya’ll. No doubt. We ‘bout to play the single right here so I want ya’ll to give it up and keep giving him dat New York love all night long! Drop it!”
Michael gave a nonchalant wave, dripping with the right amount of humility and confidence. The track started to spin and Crystal recognized it immediately. The song she’d helped finish – with her lyrics being sung by some new British artist who sounded exactly like her.
For a moment the room appeared to swirl and empty, leaving only her and Michael. Her heart pounded with anger and confusion and hurt. And yet she felt stupid on top of it all. She’d made no attempt to ensure she got credit for the lyrics in any way. She never thought in a million years that he’d actually use her stuff, let alone get a woman to sing on the track, replicating that…magical moment they’d shared. Why didn’t he tell her? Why hadn’t he asked permission? Why hadn’t he asked her to sing it herself!?
Crystal stood there as if cursed and turned to stone for the entire 3 minutes and 24 seconds of the song. When it was over, everyone clapped and people began to swarm around Michael, patting him on the back and shaking his hand. But he seemed distracted. He was scanning the crowd and finally locked eyes on Crystal. She stared back at him, unable to think or do anything else. He smiled and pointed at her as if to say, “Stay where you are” and made a beeline for her.
Crystal suddenly came out of her shock and looked frantically around the room for a place to hide. The way to the stairs down to the kitchen was absolutely clogged with people. The pre-pre-party had ended with the song and now more people were being let in by the second. The place was being flooded and then the people-sea parted to reveal Michael, who stepped up toe to toe with Crystal.
He put a hand on her shoulder and pulled her in close so that he could talk in her ear over the music. His breath was warm and now and then his lips would touch her ear. Crystal tried desperately to deal.
“I had no idea you were going to be here tonight. I was planning on talking to you about this whole thing. There’s no excuse, honestly, Crystal, but I needed those lyrics more than anything. I can’t thank you enough.”
“But,” Crystal stammered, trying hard to care that she was taken advantage of when all she wanted to do was be excited and love struck. “But those were my lyrics.”
“I know, Crys, I know. And you’ve got full credit, I swear. And here’s the best part.”
Michael pulled away from her to flash her another coy smile and a wink. “My manager wants to set up a meeting. If things work out, you’ll be writing and singing your own stuff instead of just rescuing my sorry ass.”
Will I ever catch my breath? Crystal thought?
Michael laughed and embraced Crystal with a squeeze.
“Stick with me, kid. We’ll go places.”
Just then, Shanna walked up and tapped Crystal on the shoulder.
“Oh, hi. Michael, this is my friend Shanna.”
As Shanna raised her hand to shake Michael’s, Crystal saw her business card sticking out between her fingers. She nabbed it and put it on the tray of a passing fellow caterer. She shook her head, ‘no’, at Shanna who shrugged and walked away, leaving Michael and Crystal to grin at each other.
“Those are my lyrics.”
“Yes. Yes, they are, Songbird.”