Neon Red – Chapter 51

(DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. It’s important to remember this is all totally fabricated, embellished, and exaggerated for entertainment purposes.)

**********

Primal and naked

You dream of walls that hold us imprisoned

It’s just a skull, least that’s what they call it

And we’re free to roam

Frank Ocean | White Ferrari

Deeper we wandered into this thing as the months passed and made us crazed and inseparable. Behind the scenes, we spent every free moment together, the tour and its endless string of hotel rooms making it all possible. I thought back to the beginning of the year and realized I’d gone from listening to Jhené Aiko’s “The Worst” on a loop every day to barely containing myself until we met up again. Stolen hours weren’t enough. Neither were passing glances and innuendo-laced texts. I needed him in front of me always, or we both fell apart.

Something about this time around felt different. Our rendezvous were plagued by a gluttonous insatiability that drove us to inhumane amounts of sex, and self-medicating in between with varying substances. My go-to was weed. His was tequila. We’d dabbled a time or two with more potent remedies, but even the opioid-induced ecstasy of some of the most powerful pharmaceuticals on the market were no match for the high we experienced together. Limitless elevation; in and of each other. What made it far more compelling was that he and I had both been through the ringer and somehow survived. In fact, we had emerged more ruthless than before, willing to tear down anything and anyone who stood in the way of our being together.

During a momentary lapse in judgement, I tried calling off the engagement to honor what he and I had discovered, but Pez lost her mind, threatening to kill herself if I left. She said she’d be too humiliated to keep living after the media had made such a big deal of us looking to get hitched. I agreed in the end, determining it would look idiotic for us to call it quits within a year of getting engaged, but I still thought I owed it to him to eliminate the final hindrance to our peace. He had given up all for me, including random hookups and the birds he kept on speed-dial during our tour breaks. What exactly had I given up for him?

Having gotten back on the road in late May, we spent time together in Dublin and discussed where we wanted to end up in the long run as far as commitment and going public was concerned, and every scenario presented seemed implausible. We quickly determined there was no safe way to let society in and survive. My family would disown me, and the label would likely go ballistic. The meeting with Amy last year still played havoc with my mind from time to time, and all I could recall was that grainy footage of he and I fooling around in an elevator, and her using the word: gay. Hard-stop. Huge no for me. Fuck labels. Whatever he and I had was too fucking magnificent to be reduced to mere sexual orientation. It transcended all earthly constructs, and was far too lit to be neatly defined or filed away. For people to have us ‘pegged’. Even the suggestion was insulting.

Still, there was no realistic way to avoid particular labels and all the pejoratives and connotations that accompanied them. Not if he and I ever went public. So the choice became staying silent and preserving the dignity of whatever we had amongst ourselves, or taking it to the streets and allowing the world to rip us apart, limb by limb. No one, and I do mean no one could understand how complex our relationship truly was. Imperceptible. Inexpressible. Inviolable. Even to he and I. 

We only knew that we didn’t want to let others inside, and both lost our minds at the thought of anyone infringing. They would fuck it all up with their shoddy misconceptions and short-sightedness. Failing to understand the intricacies of a thing this sacred, because it so acutely rejected all manner of convention and commonality. I’d gone my entire life watching close-minded fuckers struggle with the simple concept that I was biracial, so trusting them to understand what was going on between he and I was a recipe for disaster.

For now, stolen time was the only thing that worked for us. Mostly stolen nights, from dusk till dawn, as being together in the daylight was next to impossible, and only made viable if we stayed inside 24/7. What kind of existence was that? It almost made me want to give up and let him go for good. Regain my Zen. Between he and Pez draining me from both ends, I didn’t know how to progress or how to locate any peace of mind. What’s worse was that I was beginning to feel used.

For her I was a trophy and a financial security net. For him I was a life raft. Not much room left for me to take care of myself or even come to terms with what I wanted out of life. And it was my own fault really, because I still desired them both for my own selfish reasons, unquestionably aware that they fulfilled needs I was powerless to do without. Losing either of them would signify a major blow to my ego, as earning their affection had been an uphill battle from Day One. It would also leave behind a gaping cavity in my being. More mental with Pez; more emotional with Haz. She sustained me and he completed me. I couldn’t live without his love or his body, but equally, I couldn’t live without what she represented in my life. A pillar of respectability.

Simply put, there was no escaping that she provided a security blanket for my image. Without Haz, I couldn’t breathe. But without her, I couldn’t function. My own guilt over what he and I got up to in the dark would overtake me in a heartbeat the moment she left. It was an awful notion to face, but at the end of the day, the thought of people knowing how big of a fiend I was for his cock and how I allowed him to fuck me until my hips were realigned destroyed every ounce of self-respect I had in the tank. I was still trying to figure out why that was the case. Even worse, what exactly did it mean with regard to my love for him. Did it undermine it? Did it cheapen it?

Sure, I knew I loved him with every morsel of my pitiful being, but the thought of other people knowing I loved him set me on edge. I dreaded to call it shame. But wasn’t it shame? Wasn’t I ashamed of him? Why else wouldn’t I want people to know, if it was the case that I wasn’t embarrassed by our relationship? I couldn’t quite explain it. I was pretty progressive in my manner of thinking and supported same-sex couples 1000%. And for the most part I didn’t put much stock into the opinions of perfect strangers, yet the idea of disappointing the millions who idolized me and expected me to be oriented a certain way was nothing short of devastating.

I couldn’t process that sort of blow at the minute. So most of the time I didn’t bother trying to work through the two relationships, and after a while it became second nature to juggle them. For my sake, Haz had stopped fighting the ordeal because he’d come to the conclusion that he wouldn’t survive me leaving him. He walked on eggshells around me of late. In a way, the fact that he was so needy and emotionally unwell worked in my favor. One less problem for the time being. As dizzy as it sounded, the events that took place in Rio had frightened him so much I could rest assured he wouldn’t be straying from my side anytime soon, no matter what I did or failed to do in the meantime. No matter how poorly I treated him, and no matter how neglected he felt whenever Pez was around. He was here to stay, and now I could breathe easy.

Yes, it was vile in theory, but also it wasn’t necessarily my doing. I was just capitalizing on the present circumstances to keep my ship sailing smooth. Ideally, I wanted to talk to him about his feelings and not take advantage of how fragile he was, but that just wasn’t a practical option right now. It would open a ginormous can of worms, and all I could think was: Why rock the boat? And how could I ever explain to him without ripping his heart from his chest that I needed her? That she balanced me; reminding me that I had a right to normalcy? That he didn’t make me feel normal, and sometimes this was frightening? That I sometimes felt like an embarrassment to my race after I left the bed with him? How could I realistically say any of that??

How could I make him understand that he was the problem? That despite being the greatest joy of my life, he was also the ringleader of my degeneration. My sexual depravity and confusion and ever-growing addiction? So, until there came a time when I had a better understanding of these things myself, this setup would be the status quo. Haz, then Pez, then Haz, then Pez again. I would make time to be with him as often as possible, and afterwards I would shed that version of me and return to the masked conformist at her side. Presenting myself as the perfect gentlemen and the dutiful fiancé, ecstatic to be wed as soon as our work schedules allowed.

**********

I’d asked him to marry me. It had been a panicky, knee-jerk reaction to him finding out about the tattoo. When he first saw it backstage in South America, I’d earned a ‘sick tattoo’ but only in passing. We hadn’t discussed it further because we hadn’t been on speaking terms at the time. Even when we hooked up again in May, he’d still been under the impression that the ink was meaningless and likely an image I’d picked out at the shop.

Unfortunately in Dublin, he’d studied it while I slept, waking me as he lifted my arm in examination. When I pulled away and hugged myself, he instantly knew. Anger was the first reaction, just as I had anticipated. His biggest concern was that Pez would recognize him in the ink we’d be exposed. That wasn’t an unreasonable estimation, to be fair. It did look unmistakably like him if you caught it at the correct angle, but I vowed to not let anyone get that close. Still, he insisted it was the most reckless thing I’d ever done, particularly for someone so insistent on hiding what we were. The only way I could shut him up was asking him to marry me. He must’ve said yes a hundred times after that, smothering me with kisses.

From then on he wouldn’t stop professing how deep in love he was. Texting it at all hours of the day. Repeating it compulsively whenever we spoke on the phone. Leaving handwritten notes in my luggage. Leaving small gifts in my bunk on the bus—like lighters from every country, cartons of cigarettes, loads of snacks, sick rings and pendants and other adorable keepsakes. Then finally he began turning to me onstage during his verse in “Little Things”. Staring me dead in the eye as he crooned: ‘It’s you…it’s you they add up to. I’m in love with you…’

How was a person supposed to handle that? Oh fuck! The first time it happened, it scared the living shit out of me because he had been so blatant about it. It would’ve left no doubt in any onlooker’s mind precisely what the nature of our relationship was and just how strongly he felt about me. God he was crazy. I had glanced around afterwards, sure someone else had saw, but eventually calmed when the show progressed as normal. I was further relieved when none of the boys or musicians mentioned a thing backstage. Not even a backhanded dig or two. The fact that they hadn’t picked up on it was mindboggling. It had seemed so obvious to me, but perhaps that’s because I was  dialed into him 24/7. Naturally I began to wonder just how much he and I could get away with in broad daylight without the public catching on. The answer seemed to be: a great deal.

I thought I’d give it a go myself by glancing to him during specific lyrics, mainly during the hook of the same song. It worked like a charm and got me seriously laid that first night. But when we got a bit too loose with it in subsequent shows, Liam made it clear he had sensed what was going on. He went out of his way to make us both jealous, whispering with Haz a bit too frequently and pressing against him from behind, something he knew would make me go absolutely apeshit. Engaging in all these petty antics he knew would set me off, bringing me just to the brink of losing my mind onstage. He also made a few too many comments in Haz’s direction about the engagement and got told off by him more than once.

Once I finally pulled him aside and told him to back off, he tried to manipulate me into confessing what was going on. I told him I just felt protective over Haz since he’d been dealing with some pretty heavy mental health stuff lately, and although I was sure he knew more existed between us, he had mercy on me and left me off the hook. But Payno wasn’t the only one catching on to how loved up we were, since it was falling out of our pours in rainbow-colored torrents day-by-day. 

I was beginning to feel Shahid was sensing something strange in the songs we’d written and demo’d together. Mainly one I’d written back when I was lost in my feelings about Haz at the beginning of the year and thought he wouldn’t come back to me. I also knew that if he ever did, I could never enjoy what we had fully or freely. Now that I was engaged, there would always be the involvement of other people, and that had convinced me all hope was gone.

I still decided to record it in my free time, and Shahid cut it together in a stripped back guitar-driven track. It was the most honest piece of work I’d ever made, and because of the nature of its hard-hitting honesty, the world could never hear it. Maybe one day in the distant future I’d grow the balls to share it with Haz himself, but until that time, it stayed safely tucked in the hard drive of my MacBook, collecting dust.

What I hadn’t anticipated, though, was that Shahid was a remarkably observant man. There was no slipping anything by him, even though we’d recorded so many other meaningless tunes just for fun. He knew right away this track contained sentimental value, and couldn’t cut it without asking questions that made my nuts rise into my throat. Mainly why I was singing about someone who could ‘never be mine’ while I was engaged. It was the most logical question for sure. 

I told him it was complicated, and only then did he cut me some slack. But that didn’t stop him from snooping a few days later and seeing that I had someone saved in my phone as ‘Dimples’ . He then when a step farther when I accidentally left my screen unlocked during a toilet run. He entertained himself by reading through the text thread while I was gone. As I came back and saw the screen unlocked, a deep, intestinal embarrassment overcame me. It rapidly turned to rage, though, and I visibly shook all over. 

Sitting, I collected myself as best I could while he pretended to be busy with the console. I knew he’d read it because my phone was in a different position than I left it. If it weren’t for the fact that he was mourning his missing cat, Naughtybob, I would’ve choked his fat-ass out right where he sat for disrespecting me and violating my privacy. In a move that surprised me, likely because I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I got it all out in the air, I spun my chair to face him and confronted the situation head-on.

“What the fuck, broh. Did youh read it?”

“What’s that, mate?” he pulled a headphone off his ear.

“I said: Did youh read it, broh? My stupid fuckin’ phone? Might as well admit it, yeah? I already know youh did.”

“Look, Z—”

“Don’t bullshit me…”

He slowly spun his chair away from the console and faced me, huffing and briefly shutting his eyes. “Alright, alright—”

“Soh youh did?!”

“Yeah…safe, bro. It’s alright. No harm, no foul.”

“How much did youh see?! Huh? Youh devious bastard!”

“Chill, mate, chill! Just a few days’ worth!” he chuckled. “That’s all!”

“Youh think it’s funny?! Youh think it’s a game, broh?!”

“I dunno, bro! Can we just chill a minute…alright?! What’s the big deal? Aren’t we mates?”

His shiny brow furrowed, and his sausage fingers were spread in surrender. I nearly scratched my hands down my face as I growled and tried to regain my composure. Resorting to fighting and shouting insults wouldn’t work here. He had me over a barrel, to be honest, and it was time to be civil and attempt to gain his sympathy. Maybe then I could also allow him into my confidence and finally have a support system to unburden myself of this weight.

“Why’d youh do it?” I asked with a shrug, tongue stabbing the inside of my cheek. “That’s, like, mad disrespectful, broh.”

“I’m human, Z, ain’t I?” he chuckled, trying so hard to bring levity into the situation. “I’m really sorry mate, I didn’t think it’d upset you so much. But I’m super curious, ain’t I? I’m like a kid sometimes, you know that. And you left the thing wide open, alright? I assumed you maybe wanted me to read it in some way? Like some Freudian subconscious shit, bro. You’ve clearly been stressed. I genuinely thought it was a call for help…know what I mean?”

I watched his beady black eyes closely, incapable of discerning whether he was full of shit or not. Regardless, he was still correct. I had been stressed, and apparently wasn’t hiding it as well as I thought I was. With a sigh, I took the hem of my t-shirt and buried my face in it. What made it all worse was that he and I were wearing matching black tracksuits. Gifts from Adidas which read Naughty and Zaughty respectively. It was incredibly lame, but also sort of endearing. Until now I had been rocking mine with pride.

“Z, look…it’s ok, bruv. No worries. You know I got you. My lips are sealed. Ok?” I nodded defeatedly from behind the shirt, still pressing it to my face. “I just have one question, mate. Who is she?

The amount of tension that fled my body at the sound of that measly pronoun was mind-numbing. I couldn’t express how relieving it was to know that despite him reading the most intimate and descriptive messages in my phone, he was somehow still of the impression that I’d been speaking to a female. Thank fuck I’d Haz saved as Dimples earlier this year. It was proving to be an absolute lifesaver.

No longer gutted, I pulled the shirt away and took a deep breath. Now this was just a bro-to-bro conversation and I’d had a million of those. No coming out ceremonies necessary. Even better, I could finally unload about Haz to another person, and if I was cautious, it just would come off as me speaking about some cheeky little bird I’d hooked up with on the side. Again, thank fuck.

“Fancy a vent?”

“Uh…yeah. Maybe.”

“I’m all ears…”

“It’s been crazy, y’know…” I began, clearing my throat. “Soh, uh, I met her late last yearh, yeah? We hung out a few times—”

“Where’d you meet?”

“Uh…Hampstead. Visitin’ Haz, actually. She’s a neighbor of his…” That oughtta be an extra layer of diversion that would justify my being seen around his place so much if I ever got followed.

“She beautiful? I’m surprised Harry didn’t get to her first.”

“Super beautiful, mate. Like…noh words to describe how gorgeous she is. Her smile…it’s all I ever see—”

Ah…dimples…I get it now.”

“Yeah…” I chuckled. 

“I knew there had to be something, like, extraordinary going on…because y’know Pez is pretty fit too. What more can a man want?”

“Tell me about it….”

“Sorry, bro, don’t let me interrupt. So you were saying…?”

“Oh yeah…soh, uh, she’s real special, y’know? Really loves to take care of me. Best massages. Best kisser of me life. Best head I’ve ever had. Best fuck I’ve ever had, too. Gorgeous body…she knows how to work it for me too. And the way she calls out my name when I’m deep in it…” I shuddered. “It’s the little things too. Like the way she holds my hand even when we’re already layin’ soh close in bed, headed to sleep. Such a sweetheart, broh. Hardly ever gives me any shit. Great listener. Always tryin’ to learn somethin’ new about me. Learnin’ my culture and surprisin’ me with certain meals and desserts and movies and new music she picked up on. I’ve got her watchin’ Shah Rukh Khan religiously, broh!”

“Now that’s dope, ain’t it?” he laughed. “Aw, mate, she’s a keeper!”

“Maan, I love being around her… even if we’re not sleepin’ together. Just to be around her feels like Christmas mornin’—”

“Damn, bro! How’d you get so fucking lucky!”

“I’m tellin’ youh, broh. I can’t stop once I start thinkin’ about her or talkin’ about her. Soh, uh…it’s been really great. We chilled at her place a few times when Pez wasn’t around…and I’ve sorta gotten addicted.”

“That good, huh?”

“Fuck yeah. Again…indescribable. Even the scent of her skin. I swear, broh, if youh had any clue what this felt like, youh wouldn’t judge me for one second—”

“Again, safe. No judgment here. Let Allah be the judge. Remember what the sign over the door says?”

Judgement Free Zone…” I grinned looking off to the side to gather myself. It was becoming difficult to keep track of the pronouns.

“Now basically I can’t let her goh…but also, I can’t move forward either. Pez is right there waitin’ all the time. Sumtimes it feels like noh matter what I do, I can’t win.”

“Why can’t you just be honest with yourself then? Who do you want more?”

Fuck…I dunno. I guess…” To say Pez would be an outright lie, but to say ‘Dimples’ would just beg the question: Why not just call off the non-existent wedding and leave Pez? Then I’d be stuck, because there was no rational way I could explain why I needed to keep Pez around if I was interested in another girl. Not like with Haz. That sort of duplicity was unjustifiable if the dilemma was between two females. So better to go with the lie and save face.

“Pez…it’s Pez I want. I love her more than anythin’, broh…that’s why I can’t let her goh. But at the same time…”

“You want the best of both words?”

Exactlyh. Even though that makes me sound like a shit person.”

Mashallah. You’ve come to this point for a reason. As Mum would say, God’s trying to open your eyes to something. Time to wake up and discern it, bro. It’ll all work out in the end.”

“Hope soh…”

“It’s the greatest human conundrum, innit? Caught between two loves,” he grinned, teeth shining. “So, what’s it gonna be? You thinking about coming clean, or are you just gonna ride this out till the wheels fall off?”

It was a superb fucking question, one I needed to start taking seriously if I didn’t want my life falling to shambles. I could sense that one day this would all be exposed. Far worse than it was today. I couldn’t keep up with the lying and hiding and narrative-spinning for much longer. One day I would slip up or he would slip up, and then we’d both be fucked.

“The song makes so much more sense now as well…” he mentioned, referring to the untitled track I’d recorded for Haz. If he only knew who it was truly for, he’d flip his oily lid.

“Y’know them emotions were pretty raw,” he observed. “I was shocked when we cut it together. I’ve never heard you be that honest before, Zayn. I’m really proud of you. It’s a beautiful piece of music. Your best yet.”

“Wow…fanks, broh. That honestly means more to me than youh know.”

“It’ll mean a lot to her too. You should go ahead and give it to her, mate. Let her know how you feel, especially if you plan on walking away to marry Pez. It’s the least you could do.”

**********

Can I believe the magic of your sighs?

Will you still love me tomorrow?

Carole King | Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow

I waited and waited for the perfect time to send the track to him, but choked at the last minute every time without fail. I had opened and re-opened that empty email with the MP4 attached, and each time I would work myself up by thinking of his reaction, which resulted in me rapidly closing the window. Months passed with him singing his heart out to me so tenderly onstage, insisting that he was in love with me, but I still couldn’t find the balls to show him this small, vulnerable side of myself. Was I really that spineless?

Not even after I’d recorded a few tracks he’d written for the upcoming album, clearly inspired by our relationship, was I able to hit send on the email. I’d been in love with “Stockholm Syndrome” for a couple of years, as he’d written it a while ago and demo’ed it on a trip to Sweden; so I was stoked when they finally approved it to go on the album. The title was too fitting and perfectly described our relationship. Both the emotional and the physical. We were prisoners of each other, both demented and refusing to let go. Equally refusing to be relinquished either. I enjoyed holding him captive in every capacity imaginable, and without doubt I knew he would say the same.

Unlike the first track, he wouldn’t let me hear “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” until the moment I was forced to record it. I’d choked up in the studio a bit and Julian had to give me a minute to cool off, totally oblivious as to why I’d been so moved by the track. Later I took a copy of the demo back to my room and listened to it on a loop for the remainder of the night, high on the fact that he’d regretted every second of leaving me last year. With that, every wound those cold six months had inflicted was nursed back to health and I felt like a brand new man, dangerously confident and feeling more invincible than ever. Brazil had left me feeling too powerful, if I’m honest. He needed me just as much as I needed him, and no other notion could make me sleep more soundly.

It was difficult to see him with his hands tied in July when I threw Pez a huge carnival-themed birthday party, something she’d always dreamt of. It tore him apart when I’d left him in Barcelona to head back to London for the party a couple of days before her birthday. We had a show in Madrid on the actual date and I wouldn’t be able to spend it with her. Haz lost his mind calling his good friend Cal, our tour photographer who I’d hired for the day, wanting to know what I was up to and asking him to keep tabs on me. I suspected he was drunk when I started getting the calls too that night. He’d timed them for when he knew I’d be in bed with her. When I returned to the tour on her birthday, he wouldn’t speak to me for a while. That is, until I caught him backstage and shoved him into a closet and made him forgive me in the best way I knew how.

That was all it took, some tender love and care. His jealousy was monstrous at times, making him vindictive and hateful, but this time he’d become more childlike. Literally pouting that I had never thrown him a party, and whining that I wouldn’t even publicly tell him happy birthday on social media. But we’d agreed recently it was best that we didn’t converse on social media anymore to keep things under wraps, and I reminded him that the reason I threw such a big party was to compensate for the fact that a whole year had passed and Pez and I still had no plans to be married. The public was waiting with bated breath, and I had to do all I could to sell the wedding narrative a little longer.

The pacification didn’t last long though, because a few days later when paparazzi shots of Pez and I kissing were cropped up, he lost it and texted me that he hated me. Then he tweeted lyrics to a Ray Lamontagne song, “Burn” which was clearly a response to the staged photos. I had opened Twitter that morning and nearly spat my coffee all over my computer screen. I called him up immediately and he deleted the tweet without answering, knowing he had crossed the line and was now putting us all at risk of exposure. The results of one petty act of jealous could be catastrophic for so many parties, and he called me afterwards apologizing. That left me gutted. That he was the one apologizing for literally being hurt made me feel like a monster. I honestly was at a loss for how to handle this situation anymore. He told me that he loved me, but that he wanted to spend some time apart. We went our separate ways for the break between the European and US leg of the tour; he in LA with friends, and I in London with my fiancé.

(Thanks for reading!❤️)

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Felice Cherry Wingate
Felice Cherry Wingate
4 months ago

Amazing!

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