The Penny Drops.



You think their reactions are funny.  You’d been planning it for weeks, but until now you’d never had the balls to actually go through with it.

You knew there would be ripples.  You knew the rumors would accelerate and heighten like gas on a flame until all of a sudden the fires would be at your very door, and you would finally have that one chance to figure out exactly which three things you would take with you before everything burned to the ground.

You find it amusing that they’re going after him.  You planned it this way; you think it’s just desserts for the five years of standing behind an immense shadow and taking whatever scraps of fortune and affection the powers-that-be threw your way.

You knew they’d jump on him.  You were sure of it. Self-proclaimed “love” and “devotion” often leads to the worst kind of anger and hate, the kind of brutal malice that destroys life-long friendships and turns relationships into piles of rubble.

Life-long friendships.  You grin widely over that one.

Everyone likes to call it “friendship.”  Everyone.  It’s a buzzword, just like “boyband” and “dirty pop” and “two-step.”  Everyone also knows that it’s just a crock of shit.  You may be acquaintances, yes, but beyond that…there’s nothing.  You know what kind of music they like because you all try to drown each other out with ghetto blasters and souped-up stereos.  You know what they look for in women because you see them pick off girl after girl from crowded dance floors, from smoky clubs and from outside hotels.  You see it every time, and the only common ground between the four of them is “gorgeous.”

Even though they say that looks don’t matter.

You laugh out loud.  Looks don’t matter.  Which is exactly why your wholesome image is emblazoned on t-shirts and posters and, God, on fruit-snack boxes.  Looks don’t matter. That’s why he gets all the attention.  That’s why he’s the one who signed the contract and sold his soul to the head of Jive records.

And that’s exactly why you sprung the leak.

If you were honest, completely honest with yourself, you would admit that you had grown tired of the spotlight.  All of you had been looking for a way out; when the news of Backstreet’s impending demise had spread over the wires, you almost breathed a sigh of relief…but then…you saw they had booked studio time, and your heart sank.  Not again.  Not this rivalry again.

You had talked to Kevin about it during the Grammy Awards.  He was looking so fucking tired, tired and bored and ready to head home.  You knew how sick he was of the spotlight.  You were sick of it yourself.  And that’s why all of you bailed right after you did your little song-and-dance number with Nelly.  It was just the Grammies.  Meant to honor those with talent.  Meant to give rewards to the most noble, to the most marketable image, to the most innovative artist.

Boybands need not apply.

You remember getting drunk early, far earlier than you had before.  You don’t even remember the blonde bartender with the black tie and cummerbund cutting you off, nor do you remember how the hell you got home.  All you remember, with perfect clarity, are the hushed whispers in the back of the room, and the snickering between HIM and his little court of well-wishers.

“It’s about time, man…”

“We all know you’re the one with the talent…”

“You’re gonna blow them away…”

“Bigger than George Michael…”

And you laughed, a sad, tear-soaked, drunken laugh that had your so-called friends staring at you, not quite sure whether you were laughing or crying.  You weren’t sure yourself.

When you woke up the next morning, you stumbled into the shower and turned the water as high as it would go, but you couldn’t get clean…not even with your expensive thirty-dollar soap and the shampoo that promised to volumize your stringy, limp hair.

And so you stood, facing the mirror, wiping the steam off with one hand and your tears with the other, wondering how the hell Alice got out of Wonderland in the first place.

You came up with your plan later in the day.

At first, you felt almost bad for him.  He was always the baby in the group, the one that the rest of you had to protect, the golden boy with his golden voice and the perfectly-timed dance moves.

You spent five years trying not to hate him.

People liked to comment on how close the two of you were.  Some people even took it so far as to spin stories and novels about the two of you, which you brushed off with a tight-lipped smile and a locked jaw.

You were sick to death of hearing your own name.

When he came to you, gently breaking the news about his impending solo album, you thought you reacted relatively well.  You had seen it coming for months…remembered the whispers and the looks from those he had lined up to help him…saw all the signs…but…it still hurt.  You felt like one of those abused wives who finally breaks free from her husband but yet cries herself to sleep at night because she misses him so bad.  And you repulsed yourself.

You had a long heart-to-heart with him that night.  You wished him well.  You smiled and made dinner and the two of you talked like you hadn’t in all the years you had been thrown together.  He left with a smile on his face…and you almost felt bad.  Almost.

It was early the next morning when you called her, that PR assistant with the big mouth, the one who was always first with the breaking news or the hot story.  She had told you once that she really wanted to be a reporter, and you had smiled and nodded, not really paying attention, but now her words stood out like a beacon.  Your hands shook as you dialed her number and you tried to keep your voice light when you invited her to lunch, but you knew anyone who really knew you could tell that something was wrong.

She didn’t really know you, though.  Like so many others, she liked to believe you were close but she was just another girl on the payroll, someone else along for the ride as long as it lasted.  She really had no idea what a pivotal role she was about to play…or that she would be the one to flip the “off” switch on this crazy roller-coaster.

You broke the news casually, nonchalantly, while your waiter was serving your salad.  You flippantly mentioned that you would need a new job in the fall, and then stuffed your mouth quickly with mixed greens and bacon dressing.

She took a minute to process it, like you knew she would.  Her eyes got wider and wider and then her breathing caught, like you had just jumped up from beneath the table and hollered, “surprise!”

What?!” She said, breathlessly, excitedly, and you could see, instantly, the course your words were about to take.  You knew she would tell.  She was just one of those people who couldn’t help themselves.

You told her everything, a confidant with a sinister smile, spilling your guts and taking some sort of obscene pleasure in the whole thing.  She tried to be sympathetic.  She tried to act like she understood…and yet…she was too thrilled over the sordid news.  She was far too giddy over the fact that she held your fate in her hands.

She cast the dice five hours later.

The calls came pouring in at about six PM, message after message on your machine, memos flying from Jive, press releases drafted and scratched and drafted again.

Nothing scares people quite so badly as the truth.

You found it strangely sad that you didn’t hear from the other four until the next morning.  You weren’t sure if they had been trying to process everything, or had spent the night drowning in a cocktail of denial and inevitability…or if they did as you did, and smiled beautifully through a thick haze of tears.

One message…two…three…and four…the last punctuated with sobs and sniffles.

“I’m sorry…It’s not like that.  You know it isn’t.  I didn’t do this to hurt you guys…you have to believe me…”

The baby, again.  The golden boy, knocked from his gilded throne.  You smiled, in spite of yourself.

They all knew it was someone on the inside.  You could tell when you stopped by the office the following day and noticed the looks of accusation on everyone who crossed each other’s path.  None of them were directed at you.  No.  You got the looks of pity. You got the sad little knowing looks of “oh I feel so bad for him.”  They all thought you would be crushed.  They all thought that you would be sick with grief.  And you let them.

After all, you were the quiet one.  The one who never said much in interviews for fear of tripping over your own words.  The peace-keeper.  The gentleman.  You weren’t a shit-stirrer, like the others.  It was widely acknowledged you wouldn’t know the first thing about rotating feces, but none of them knew the truth.

You had waited, prayed, hoped for this day for five long years.  You had schemed and dreamed and planned for this day, the declaration of your independence, the beginning of the end.  And you had to fight to keep from crying out in well-earned ecstasy.

It helped when you saw the other guys.  They gave you that same “I understand” look, even though they had no idea.  As far as they were concerned, the four of you were united against HIM.  For once, YOU were in the club and HE wasn’t…and you liked it that way.

No one really said much.  The studio time, after much thought, was canceled.  He tried to call each of you a few times, but no one felt like answering the phone.  You played along, the dutiful actor.

He finally got to the point where he couldn’t take it anymore and stopped in to the office a little after seven.  No one spoke.  No one said a fucking word as you each stared at each other, and it struck you that it was ending as it began: with awkward glances and suspicious looks.  And though you knew trivial things about each of them, it alarmed you a bit that you didn’t really KNOW any of them.  And you probably never would.

“I’m sorry…” He said softly, and the others looked away…studying the floor, glancing at fingernails, looking anywhere but at the broken young man with the messy curls and the quivering lip.

You finally met his gaze head-on, and smiled that sad, soft, smile…the one filled with pity.

“Me too,” You said, and his eyes filled with understanding.

He blinked, once, tripping over his own tongue like you had done so many times before.  His shoulders sagged in defeat, and he heaved a sad little sigh.  A resigned sigh.  He wouldn’t tell.  And you knew it.  He didn’t say a word as he walked out of the room.

You smiled as you watched him walk away.  For once, for the first time in five years…you sang lead.  The others were just four guys in the background.

“It’s about time,” You muttered softly, and your smile intensified as one by one the other three agreed.  You were right.  It was about time.



© 2002 ~A.