3 : Wedding Bells and Commitments

•  Arcueil, Paris  •

50 percent remaining.  Enough for a 30-minute call.  Théo stretched out on his daybed and sat up after checking his phone's battery bars.  Growing impatient, he got on his feet and headed out the door.

The rooftop would be ideal.  Moonlit.  Spacious.  Private.  He could talk to his girlfriend for as long as he wanted.  His hand disheveled his clean-cut hair as he dashed across the hallway to get to the staircase. He glanced around the lonely apartment, then flipped the wall light on.

The loft, unusually still since the all-nighters left, reeked of male musk and sweat.  Théo grimaced.  A tolerable noise of rock 'n roll music playing over a speaker in the next unit was the only thing keeping their apartment from being eerily quiet.

Naturally, the place was a complete mess again. Dirty ashtrays, dirty shirts, and even filthier sneakers littered the living room.  He would move out of this place in a heartbeat if only he had his own house and lot just waiting for his presence.  But even a quick few days of apartment-hunting around the city seemed like such a chore.

An old friend had dropped by earlier, only to fetch the three die-hard partygoers he had for best friends. They'd hit a club, itching to meet new girls.  His excuse this time was a toothache — a really bad one — just so they would stop pepping him up to come with.

"Have fun talking to yourself, old man," was their teasing retort after flipping him the bird.

Lately, his moods only ranged in between numb and bored.  Just thinking about going out annoyed him enough.  The strain of the job and even the least of nuisances at work got on his nerve. 

It just gave him another moth-eaten reason to withhold his hundredth plan to quit smoking.  He'd been losing weight for months now, half of his clothes already a size bigger.

When Veronica heard from Jamie (their mutual friend, also a Paris-based model like him) about his recent health concerns, Veronica berated him right; she just wanted him to finally quit the habit.

"What was that?" Veronica asked on the other line.

He frowned when he noticed her quite rasping voice. "I'm going up the roof," Théo mumbled.  To get to his favorite spot, he practically ran up the stairs. He always loved chilling by the rooftop garden while talking to her on the phone.

"Connection's fine."

In a second, Théo spotted the empty, tatty couch hiding their portable fire pit. He sat on the armrest with his phone getting warmer on his ear. "Ça va?"

"Good. A little played out, but..." his girlfriend sighed. "You? Tomek said they all went out."

"Busy hooking up with twenty-year-olds." Théo tilted his head. Clusters of clouds obscured just about everything in the sky. "How's the recording?" He used his palm to muffle a resonant sigh.

"Busy, busy, baby," she replied cheerfully. "In the cold booth everyday. Songs aren't ready for mixing yet."

"Ah." Théo made a face. With both of them too wrapped up with work lately, he wished he could spend more time with her. Their schedules had never been in sync since they became "official".

He swore to himself.  It was going to be tough; he had known that from the start.  Their relationship must feel like a bother to her by now.  Just a waste of her time.  He couldn't blame her for thinking that. 

The thought just depressed him some nights.  If only their jobs would let them spend at least a few months alone together, he probably wouldn't feel like it was okay for him to be this surly once in a while. It had been the norm for a record-breaking two months now.  

Some days and nights, he wished he'd chosen a boring office job or just worked for the government full-time.  But those wouldn't give him enough money to make his goals a reality. 

Pay-wise, being a full-time fashion model and a part-time informant still trumped a nine-to-five office job.  By a mile.  No matter the risks.  Sometimes he just loved the element of danger too much.

"Something up?" his girlfriend asked when he kept quiet. Her quieter tone expressed some concern.

"Is Kyle there?"

"Inside, helping the sound engineer. I'm out back, takin' a five."

Fishing a cigarette from his pocket, Théo put the wrinkled stick in his mouth and lit it. He should just try his best to brush his unhealthy sentiments aside,  be grateful that she had time for a phone call today. "Really should've taken those guitar lessons instead," he muttered.

"Was that a lighter?"

He winced, then opted to crack a joke. "Ten points, Michel."

"Théo..."

"I'm trying," he grumbled.

Veronica tsk-ed. "What's up?"  Some disappointment weakened her voice.  "What's the matter, love?"

He took another drag, staring at the cigarette in between his index and middle finger.  He wished it were that easy to ditch a habit he'd been dependent on since he was a bored, lanky teenager.

He took one last drag—a really long one—and flicked the stick onto the floor. The subdued but constant noise of car honkings down the street was getting on his nerves.

Although he knew she already had a lot on her plate, talking to her would still feel a lot better...and so he began his monologue.  "I'm tired, not feeling good, damn paychecks are late, and—" he trailed off, inhaling the clammy night air to stop himself from sounding too complaining. "I miss you," he said with a groan.

"Same here, Supermodel."

He tried smiling at her retort but only ended up scowling again. Though he appreciated her attempt at humor, it still bothered him that she didn't seem to understand just what his unusual crankiness meant. "I mean, I know it's your job..."

"Mm-hmm, go on, love," Veronica encouraged, her animated tone making him smile a bit.

"I know better, and I understand 'cause you love what you do, but...it's been months. Some things just...get into my head," he mumbled. Théo shut his mouth. Her brows must be furrowed now. "Not very nice things."

"Théo..."

"Yeah. I know. But, he's still a guy."

"We talking about this again?" Via uttered another sigh.

"Sorry." Here goes... "Just that...you're always with him."

"So you want me to hop on a flight to Paris now? Or...do we actually discuss this over the phone?" Her voice sounded low and full of disappointment and some hesitation.

"He's still a guy," he repeated, murmuring to himself.  It was the thought of Kyle being with her day in and day out.  It never left his mind. "Watched this video of your last show, or maybe it was that summer tour."

"And?"

"When Tomek left, I watched it again, and..." He cleared his throat.

"What?"

"You know he's staring at you all the time?" Théo frowned again, recalling Kyle's behavior that night. "Seriously, just fixated on you all hour." He swallowed the discomfort in his dry throat as images of the footage distracted his thoughts.

"T, come on..."

"It was weird. Okay?"

"It was probably the joint, babe." His girlfriend giggled, plainly dismissing his jealousy-fuelled theories. "Really, though. You okay?" Her tone sounded more serious. "Or are you just bored and...you wanna argue about something."

"Non."

"Je te connais."

His lower back started to ache so he settled on the couch. He placed his calves on the scruffy  armrest. "Je commence à devenir fou, tu me manques tellement et j'aimerais te revoir."

"Miss you, too. Stop sounding so dramatic." Veronica snickered. "Just a few more weeks."

"Miss me?" The reassurance from his ever busy girlfriend comforted him, so he refrained from whining again.

She suppressed a laugh. "Yes. What, you want me to say it over and over?"

On account of how comforting and cheering her laugh always was, he smiled and stared at the relaxing panoramic view of the twinkling city lights. "How much?" he teased. 

"I might need to drink myself to sleep one of these days-much." Veronica sighed out loud.

That got a chuckle out of him. "What else d'you miss?"

"Your big fat smile."

At that, a bigger grin got stuck on his face. "I'm smiling now."

"I know." She snorted.

He snickered.  Now he no longer felt like a hapless washout.  Thanks to her.  He should just look at the bright side and not dwell on how difficult and almost unmanageable it was having a girlfriend who lived a continent away.  "I miss your sexy butt..." Théo sighed.

"Reynaud, you best not be checkin' out anyone else's heinie these days."

He chuckled.

"So, how are the guys? And girls?" she asked, drawling the last word.

His brows crumpled. "And girls?"  When she didn't say anything, he went on.  "Whoa! Are you..." He grinned to himself. "Is that jealousy I hear, Veronica Solène Michel? Steam-blowing-out-of-your-ears jealousy?"

She scoffed and mumbled something in French. For someone who had only lived in France for some years—during childhood and college years—she was impressively fluent.

"Is that a yes?" he said puckishly. At last...she admitted her envy of the models he worked with and got to be friends with, since Veronica had often reiterated that his job shouldn't and didn't bother her.  It was practically code for "I just don't want to be that emotionally involved with you yet"—which then was much to his dismay.

"Don't be cute."

"Ha! No taking back," he exclaimed with a boosted ego and a laugh.

"What, you really think those women are totally okay  just friendzoning you?" she said when he kept chuckling. "Newsflash: I'm still crushin' on you, Reynaud. Only this time it's burying-my-face-in-my-pillows-every-night worse."

"You're not helping, Michel."   Théo now pressed his palm onto his warm forehead.

"Call you later. I'm back in the booth. Get some sleep. Yeah?"

"Deal."

•••

• Friday •

They were all taking an hour-long break.  Just so he wouldn't doze off, Kyle decided to busy himself with some electrical work instead.  He'd been helping the steward reinstall the studio's outdoor lights for the past half-hour.   

She let him be.  Enjoying the solitude, Veronica proceeded to the empty lounging area facing the recording studio's sunlit entrance.

Then her phone went off again.  Jamie's photo and name was on the screen.  Pleasantly surprised, Veronica tapped the 'Answer' button.  "Hey, babe," she greeted Jamie.

"He's gonna propose."

"Who, Laurin?" Veronica asked her mid-afternoon caller.  She chuckled at the mental image of the latter's boyfriend down on one knee, holding a box with a huge, shiny diamond ring in it—because Jamie wouldn't have it otherwise.

"What? How? When?" Veronica sat still. Her brows furrowed at the idea of her good friend considering getting married and starting a family before hitting 30.

"I wish. Wait— No, I don't."

Veronica laughed and asked one more time. If Laurin really was gonna propose, she'd call him and play sulky because he hadn't mentioned anything to her the last time they got to chat.

"No,  dummy!" Jamie's tone sounded more serious now, her voice rather hushed. "Théo just bought a ring."

•••

"Say what?" Veronica reclined while she tried not to scowl. Her friend's stern tone just didn't convince her to believe  Théo would pop the question real soon.  "I know it's the weekend tomorrow, and as surprising as it may be to you, I'm not high right now," Veronica quipped.  "You're that bored? I thought you got that magazine job?"

"I did. It's not like I'm on the cover or anything, but, yeah," Jamie muttered on the other end, her tone less enthused. "I asked T flat out—  You got this one by the short and curlies, man." Her friend of almost four years sounded serious and fairly disgusted at the same time.

"Asked him what?"

"Théo bought the ring last week. The store along Rue de la Paix."

For a while Veronica remained tightlipped as she blankly stared at the neat beige carpet. She grinned, able to muster a comeback. "Be serious;  how drunk are you right now?"

"Dead serious, Via," Jamie drawled, imitating Théo's deep voice and accent before laughing at her own impression. "Dude...you're so done for."

To distract herself, Veronica got up to check if Kyle and their handy guys were done. She saw Kyle outside the entrance,  sweaty with his dark hair all over his face. He helped the guys get rid of the wiry mess near the door.  A minute later, her chest still felt heavy as her phone stayed pressed onto her ear.  "It's probably just a gift...for Christmas or— I dunno."

"Veronica Michel! He's gonna propose," Jamie insisted. "Stop imagining otherwise."

Veronica let out a laugh. "For the record, the last one was better than Bre's. This, however, not even the least bit funny." She craned her neck and sank in the soft couch, supposing Jamie was just as bored beyond words as Kyle at the moment. "Seriously, I thought he was gonna call it off last time," she admitted. Actually she was quite taken up with Théo, who, for some reason, had sent her a series of vague messages last night. "He just sounded...morose. Grumpy."

"He's gonna propose, stupid."

She bit her thumb, mulling and letting the news fall into place. "You sure you've taken your meds this morning?"  Veronica snickered at her own joke. 

"Quit it! I couldn't sleep, okay? I had to tell you."

At her friend's imperative tone, Veronica sank more in the sofa.  The covering made a scrunching noise against her back, and she just stared at the black-and-white painting of a creepy-looking farmhouse hanging by the doorway.  Once more, she tried to let the bombshells sink in.

"Sorry. It was just— I felt like I had to," was Jamie's next excuse.

She sucked in a deep breath, clueless on how to react naturally to the news. "You're not joking. Okay..." She cleared her throat. "Wow."  She held her breath and noted the same awkward silence on the other end.

"That guy's haywire."

"I know."  Now she was imagining Théo shopping alone in the jewelry store. What on earth was he thinking just buying an engagement ring?  Veronica gawked at the walls to try to come up with a reasonable response.

"The next day, though...shock's worn off," Jamie said next.

"You've no idea how ridiculous you sound right now."

"V, I really think it's not just 'cause...he feels kinda guilty, or something."

"Just to be clear, I still think this is another one of your stupid pranks—  I mean, I haven't seen him in months."

"The point exactly," Jamie retorted in a mumble. "He looked awful. Probably even depressed. Misses you a lot."

"I'm sort of takin' it all in right now, so don't say anything more."  Veronica pressed her cold palm onto her mouth. "I need my mom." She rubbed her eyes. She might have to tone her stupefaction down just so nobody around would notice her absolute mental shock.

"I do think he's more serious about it now...after what happened." Jamie sighed, then asked her if she was going to say no. Jamie knew she was thinking of suggesting to Théo that they take a breather for the meantime. Just to see how things would turn out.

Only because she didn't want him to feel like he had to act tied to her, as much as she didn't like pressuring him to find time so they could be together more often.

Now that they were both kept too busy by their jobs, she understood why he couldn't just hop on a flight to spend time with her.  With the band's string of international tours coming up, she doubted they would get to spend at least a week alone to unwind.

Jamie cussed, her grumbling cutting through her train of thought. "He looks like a raisin, like, two packs a day again.  Not used to him lookin' that skinny."

"I know. We had a video chat." Veronica frowned at the thought of Théo smoking again, instead of trying to kick the habit. Théo smoking more often also meant he was stressed and not resting enough or eating healthy.

"You were really going to tell him you need some time off. Right? Next time he's in New York?"

With her palm pressed on her forehead, Veronica closed her eyes  and sighed again. "What the f—  What am I gonna tell him now?"

Jamie sighed noisily. "Men." A drawn-out silence lagged before either of them spoke again. "So...you're saying no?"

"Can't just...say no." 

"Sure?"

"No." Veronica wanted to shout in frustration. "It's only been two years. For him to decide on something that huge and imperative— I haven't even met his family yet."  She clasped a chunk of her hair.

"Met grandma and sis."

"Yeah. But, I just think he's jumping into things 'cause he's getting frustrated, and 'cause...I dunno.  Maybe it's eating him up."

"He's so distraught. Texted me five times today," Jamie droned on. "It's like, he knows you're gonna say no, but he's doin' it anyway.  Crap. Tell him you'll just take a rain check."

"Freakin' insane."

Théo? Proposing?  She couldn't even recall him having any recent talks with her about their particular plans in the future. Their lists of life goals to strive for in the years to come. Let alone a discussion about a future together.

"Sorry," Jamie muttered. "I know you guys are real busy with the recording and everything."

"No, babe— Thanks. Thanks for calling."

"Hey, by the way, you're moving to New York this year?"

"I dunno, babe," Veronica mumbled. "I mean, if I get the cash before Christmas."

"Call me tomorrow or next week. I'll be out all day this Sunday. Casting calls."

"Yikes." Veronica shifted in her seat the second she heard someone walking towards her. "'Kay. Bye."

•••

• That same night •

Veronica looked to the door when she heard a few thuds from outside.  She rushed out of her hotel room, not minding that she was barefoot and merely an oversized shirt hid her underpants. The dim hallway of the hotel's fifth floor was soundless.

The hall was empty.  It was past two in the morning.  Maybe Kyle was still working on something?

Her third knock made him open up. Veronica went straight inside his room. 

But Kyle rushed to the bathroom, as if avoiding her. His old electric guitar lay on the unmade bed. Score papers spread out all over the sheets.  Only the night lamp by the window was left on.  Guitar picks lay scattered on the floor, along with his leather jacket and some pens.

"Kyle," she called out. She tiptoed around the mess to get to the bathroom. She found Kyle by the black-tiled sink. His back was to her, so she took a few steps forward. She leaned against the sink and watched him wash a cut on his thumb.

His wavy hair that reached his broad shoulders was all tousled. A pair of boxers and a shirt was all he had on, but she knew he wasn't turning in anytime soon. "Why're you still up?" he mumbled.

"You know I'm working on the last verse," she muttered. Her feet curled against the cold floor as she took notice of his mood.  He was mopey again;  it had been going on for days now.  She studied him for a moment. 

He'd never seemed this distressed.  Moody.  It was starting to concern her.  They'd been writing songs and touring  the past several years they'd been in the band, and, despite them having encountered dozens of ills and setbacks along the way, he'd never had such a bad temper.  It bothered her more than his cut that was still bleeding.

Kyle turned off the faucet and walked away from the sink, grumbling an expletive.  Before he could get any closer to the medicine cabinet, she squeezed into the tight space between him and the cabinet to grab the first aid kit. She took the gauze roll, tape, and the bottle of disinfectant out of the small transparent pouch.

She'd patched him up in a minute.  He grunted when she intentionally squeezed his finger before heading out of the bathroom.  She picked up his guitar and let him complain.

"I'm not done."

"Go to bed, Thompson," she teased while cleaning up his stuff that sat scattered on the thin carpet.  Veronica tidied up the whole room while he watched. She stacked the score papers on the desk by the corner window, then faced him and propped a hand on her hip.  "What's up?"

Kyle stood taciturnly in the corner.

"You can talk to me."

Kyle scoffed at her assurance and plunked himself on the bed, ignoring her.

It only annoyed her more.  "What? I'm tired of guessing. You don't talk."

Instead of answering her question, he averted his eyes again. "Go to bed. S'almost morning."

Veronica stepped closer to where he sat and crossed her arms. "You can talk to me about it." She stood before him. The yellowish lamplight cast a shadow on his figure.

"I'm fine. Shoo."

To keep herself from making a sound close to a shriek, she looked away and counted to five in her head. "You really won't tell me?"

"I know you know but you don't acknowledge it as it is so why should I bother?" Kyle shook his head, got up to turn off his computer on the desk, then switched off the bathroom lights.

She watched him tread across the room with his distraught expression not changing at all. She glared at him.  Why was he acting so odd?  "I'm serious. What is it?" she sighed, still barefoot.

He had his back to her again. He looked like he was ready to say goodnight and would probably just ignore her middle-of-the-night interrogation.  "You're gonna say yes," Kyle replied. He walked past her to shut the door before they could rouse everybody on their floor. He retraced his steps.

She clasped his forearm. "What?"

"If he asks you to get married."

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