(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.)
I wish I was special
You’re so fuckin’ special
Radiohead | Creep
By September, after the show in Phoenix, I’d gotten word that all of the demos Shahid and I submitted for the next album had been summarily rejected due to a conflict of interest. They’d even discarded “One Chance To Dance,” the generally adored track that had been in talks to be the lead single for September. After the hammer came down, the label and producers refused to expound on this so-called conflict-of-interest further, only suggesting that Shahid may have crossed the line in discussing particulars of the upcoming album with the press without authorization.
I was distraught, but beyond that, I was disgusted. After four hard years on this relentless circus train, marching to everyone’s tune but my own and asking how high whenever the order came down for us to jump, I was genuinely sickened by this level of maltreatment. The tone in the meeting had been cold and dismissive; none of the executives keen on listening to my side of the scenario or heeding my appeals.
Shadid caved almost immediately. He bent over and took it right up the ass, unwilling to jeopardize the relationships he’d built with many of the London big wigs who’d made the final decision from overseas. Resorting to saying Mashallah as some sort of laughable Band-Aid for the whole situation. What a cowardly motherfucker. That left me scrambling alone to defend our tracks to no avail. I left the meeting and entered a void so abysmal that my darkest thoughts reverberated around me in an echo chamber of bitter hostility. Pure rage welled up within my core, making my hands lock into fists and my eyes twitch. Igniting a ringing in my ear. Blood-pressuring rising, whistling through my veins like the engine of an overheated steam train.
Aghast and humiliated, I refused to take Shahid’s calls because he’d hung me out to dry when I needed him the most. He had insisted there was no point in fighting the decision. That this was the way the industry worked sometimes, and we just had to chalk it up to the game. He suggested that we turn to Allah for the answers men seemed unable to provide. I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself, but settled for completely ignoring him instead. I knew he was just as upset as I was, but his hands were tied. And as the older brother, he was likely trying to keep it together for the both of us. The more I thought about it, I knew him too well to deny he was plotting some sort of retribution behind the scenes to make them pay for what they’d done to us. He just wouldn’t voice it yet. Until that time, I had nothing to say to him.
Haz had come to me the second he saw the official tracklist that morning, knowing I’d be outdone. I wouldn’t take his calls, so he came to my room every few hours to no avail. The next day he did the same, noticing I hadn’t left the room, and becoming fearful that I would miss the show that evening. He kept returning and speaking gently to me through the door, literally talking to a brick wall, until finally Preston let him in for a wellness check because I had missed rehearsal for the upcoming El Paso show.
Smoke poured out of the room for the brief time the door was open. He eased in, coughing and fanning a path towards me. I lay in the bed like a dead tree stump, rotting from the inside out. It was every bit of four in the afternoon, yet I was still sprawled across the mattress, buried beneath the covers despite the LA temperatures. The drapes were closed too, so he moved to let in a slither of light from the balcony, cracking the sliding door to vent the place as well.
“Hey…?” he asked quietly, approaching the bed where I lay on my stomach. I turned my face away from the light he’d let in. I just didn’t have the energy to answer. I hadn’t eaten in a couple of days and a migraine was currently splitting my skull.
He pushed the covers aside and rubbed my back, unperturbed by the drying dampness where I’d been sweating through my shirt. His touch was like a healing balm, doing me far more good than I’d realized I needed. Forcing the tension in my head and body to abate one stroke at a time. I teared up unexpectedly, mortified that I had to face him. That he and the other boys had had their songs approved while mine were rejected was a strange source of embarrassment for me. It made me feel idiotic for giving it my all and finally investing myself into such an intimate project, only to be told the resulting product was insufficient. Essentially that my ideas weren’t good enough to represent the band or its brand, and therefore had to be scrapped entirely.
Fuck, what was it about me and the things I had to say that were so different from Liam or Lou who broke their necks to write on every song? And even Haz who went off to write with producers who weren’t even on our bloody payroll? Why was I so different?? None of Haz’s shit got rejected, ever. Yet the first time I’d decided to truly commit to my own creative project to contribute to an album, it had all be rebuffed completely. Holy fuck, it hurt so bad that I couldn’t begin to explain it, let alone stomach it.
Now Haz was here and wouldn’t leave me alone. I’d been secretly pissed at him for going out so much in LA while I rotted here alone, but thought twice about that now that he was being so persistent. Somehow, facing the level of rejection I’d received from the label in front of the person I loved most hurt far worse than if I were to face it alone. What if he thought I was pathetic? Inadequate? Untalented? It also cut deeply because my offerings had been inspired by my relationship him, so in my mind their being rejected seemed to doom us forever. It was like a terrible omen I couldn’t back away from. Even the universe knew we were shit together, and that my perspective was underserving of being published.
My sniffling must’ve gotten to him, because he laid down and spooned me tightly, whispering that it’d be ok. That he understood how upset I was, and that I didn’t have to say anything if I didn’t want to. That he would stay right here with me all day regardless of if we ever talked. His whispers only made me cry harder, drenching the pillow until I fell asleep again.
Hours later when he sat up to check his phone, I curled up towards the head of the bed, burying my face in his belly. He smelled like the outside, fresh and pungent because I’d been breathing conditioned air for two days straight. I lifted his shirt to smell his skin instead, and the fragrance there was soapy and delightful.
“Heyyyy sunshine,” he drawled, petting my limp hair.
“Mornin'” I muttered against his navel, despite it being 7pm.
“Ok…just let me know when.”
“Sleep well?” I only shook my head. Then he mimicked my accent. “Why? Are youh, like, upset or sumthin, broh?” I suppressed a smile and nodded. Then he said, “Ah mate, sucks to be you!” He was such a jackass sometimes. I couldn’t hold back a laugh after that, and it was the first time I’d felt even remotely lighthearted in days.
“You’re such a dickhead!”
“I know, I know I’m so sorry! I just wanted to see you smile…” I sat up beside him, kissing his jaw.
“I missed you, stinky,” he sighed.
“I missed youh too, ugly.” We kissed a few times.
“Wait, how do you not have morning breath?”
“What?! You shower when you’re depressed?”
“I try to.”
“Good on ya then,” he snickered.
“You’re already takin’ my mind off things. Thank youh.”
“What’ve you been thinking about all this time? I know your mind’s been going nonstop since the news.”
“Whole lotta things really…” I rested my cheek against his shoulder, hooking my arm in his. “Y’know, Haz…I don’t even know why I bother sumtimes. M’thinkin’ about just runnin’ away, to be honest.”
“Not without me—”
“Of course not. Wouldn’t dare.”
I didn’t have it in me to tell him I was too afraid to run anyway for fear I would be unpersoned. The world would wish me nothing but ill. Undeniably, there’d be nothing pleasant in store for the unlucky bastard who brought on the end of 1D, and I wasn’t looking for that to be me.
“What else crossed your mind while you were in here?”
“Killin’ everyone.” We laughed.
“Hey, don’t take it out on us, mate! It’s the bloody label’s fault!”
“I’d spare youh.”
“Oh okay, then be my guest.”
“But seriously, maan. I’ve just been tryin’ to gather my thoughts a bit. Like, regroup and what not. I really dunno what to think just now…or where to goh from here.”
“First of all,” he set a hand to my knee which was bent over his leg, squeezing it reassuringly. “I want you to know that your songs were fucking amazing—”
“You’re just sayin’ that cause youh feel bad forh me.”
“No the fuck I’m not. They’re brilliant, mate! All the boys thought so. Seriously, Z, they were really sick. The fans would’ve gone mad for them. And, uh, we’d be lucky to have them on the album representing us. You’re a part of us, ok? And your voice matters. I hope you understand that…”
“Yeah…thanks, babe. I appreciate the sentiment. That was a nice lil’ pep talk. I needed it.”
“Look…I’m sorry I couldn’t do more. You don’t deserve this shit. You’ve worked just as hard as the rest of us and are a huge part of why this group even works. It really fucking sucks that they’ve done this, Z.”
“I know, I know…and it hurts too, if I’m honest. It actually breaks my heart, Haz.” With that, he gave an apologetic whimper and wrapped his arms around me.
“What do we even do now?” he muttered huskily. “Call Simon? Believe it or not, I actually tried speaking with the label, but, uh, they basically told me to piss off. I told them I didn’t want my songs featured either if yours weren’t, and they said if I withheld the tracks or refused to record them it would, uh, be considered a breach of contract—”
“Fuck no, babe! Please don’t get yourself in any trouble over me. Seriously, Haz, it’s not worth it.” I looked over at him pleadingly.
“Shuddup. If you’re in trouble, then I’m in trouble. I’m not gonna just leave you out there all alone. There’s gotta be something we can do about this, mate. Like…maybe if we can get the other boys onboard, we can demand that they—”
“Hazza, baby, please…it’s okay.” I sat up and kneeled beside him to look him in the eye. “Listen, I’m not gonna let youh guys jeopardize your jobs over me. This is you’re future. It’s not that deep. And these guys are not afraid to sue us all if we don’t march to their tune—”
“But how is any of that fair?”
“It’s life in this industry, I guess. Didn’t know it before, but now we do. We signed the contracts, soh we just have to deal with it until it’s over. Fuck, maan…and there’s seriously nothin’ we can do either. I’ve already researched it. Stayed up all night. And I’ve spoken with Shahid about it. Even with his connects in the industry, he says his hands are tied. Said we’re mixed up with some seriously powerful entities in the US and U-Kay. That it’s best to just hold my tongue until the contract was up. Sumthin’ like that.”
He shut his eyes and despaired: “I can’t believe it’s actually come to this…”
“Tell me about it…” I plopped back down beside him. We sat shoulder to shoulder in silence, watching the light of golden hour peak through the slit in the curtains.
“How do you feel now?” he asked, sometime later. A bewilderment of words occurred to me at once, like they typically did whenever it was time for me to give a speech onstage, but this time I settled for the most efficient, no matter how few.
“But I feel small, yeah? Diminutive…useless. Just sort of…embarrassed, y’know? And super alienated…” I hung my head and he squeezed the back of my neck.
“You’re an incredible songwriter. I’m really proud of what you created, Z.”
“I appreciate that, babe…that sort of makes me feel better…since they were basically about youh.”
“Obviously,” I looked over at him, playfully cocking a brow. “Youh know I can’t dance for shit. You’re the only person who makes me wanna dance. Make a fool of meself—”
Before I could finish the sentiment, he was up on his feet, slinging the drapes open. I joined him in nothing but my hiked-up briefs, staring through the closed balcony at the universe below. All got on without me quite well. I heard him kick his boots off and key up “One Chance To Dance” on his phone. The opening chords put a sinking feeling in my gut, since now I knew they would never see the light of day. Now he pressed up behind me, crushing me in a way that said he knew what I was thinking.
Blasting the song, he pulled me up to stand on the bed with him and we danced like maniacs, scream-singing along. I bust out a few MJ moves halfway through, and he went straight for Jagger. They were always our go-tos, which is why they were mentioned in the lyrics of the song. The bedframe groaned beneath our combine weight and wouldn’t suffer the abuse much longer. Still, we sang at the top of our lungs, and I closed my eyes cherishing the crazy.
As things got a bit hectic, he jumped from the foot of the bed onto the seat of a nearby chair, then onto the table in the sitting room, all without touching the floor. How he managed to do that was beyond me. There, he continued to jump up and down and sing, and I watched with bated breath, knowing the table would give at any moment. That would be scenes. I readied my phone to capture the moment because it would be a video for the ages. Pure comedy. The fine for the broken table would be billed to my room of course, but I didn’t give a shit. It was totally worth it to see that play out.
To my disappointment, the table didn’t break, despite groaning in agony the entire time. He leapt back over to the bed unscathed, snatching me against him and growling,
“Look at those sleepy, sleepy eyes. Soooo, gorgeous. C’mere you,” he kissed me in a way that recharged my soul and made me see stars. I clung to him in a confused fidget of motion, forgetting my problems entirely. God he was all I needed to feel okay again. I couldn’t feel miserable when I was with him, not even if I tried. This wasn’t good. Sometimes I needed to experience the pain to build character, and he was depriving me of that, with his mindless antics and carefree lust for life.
I knew the high he imparted was but a distraction. Once he left, the room would grow cold and silent again, and the cruelty of reality would reassert itself. I would sink back into my depressive thoughts, endlessly questioning my value as an artist and at times my worth as a human being. In a lot of ways, Haz was nothing but a drug that offered a momentary and deceptive high. I needed to cast him away and wallow in my sorrow, which was sure to follow me for the remainder of my days in the band.
“You’re like a drug…” I muttered absently, between crooning Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” “You’re not real…” was my confused sigh, as I half expected him to vanish into thin air.
“I’m right here,” he promised, planting his hands onto my shoulder. “Do you need me to remind you?” His fingers slipped down the back of my briefs and grabbed a hold of my ass. I hooked my arms around his neck, succumbing to the physical, because the mental had become too grueling.
“Tell me noh again, baby …” I pleaded, staring with unconcealed lust at his mouth. “Keep it from me again. Punish me…make me crazy for youh…”
Late September 2014
It had only gotten worse. After my music was rejected, I began to take it out on myself because there was no other recourse. I surprised myself with how brutal I could be to my own body; eating very little in a show of defiance. Fighting through the violent hunger pangs onstage, drowning my stomach with water to suppress my appetite. Working out in my room in the middle of the night to speed the weight loss along. No one recognized the signs when it first began. I hadn’t taken the time to plan it out really, it just sort of unfolded on its own, and by then it was too late to stop. And I also refused to ask for help.
I became addicted to the rush of starving, because the agony it inflicted lent me the false impression that I was somehow standing up for myself. The others would begin to notice it eventually, and once Paul became aware of what was going on, he’d have no choice but to take the matter up with management on my behalf. Either that, or I’d croak and they’d be left with a corpse on their hands. Either way, it was ungodly satisfying to know they’d be consumed with guilt if anything happened to me as a result of their rejection of my art. My identity. My ideas. Three perfectly fine songs crafted with care for the band’s evolving sound. What then? Would they admit to the world what they’d done to me then? How they had each played a hand in my untimely demise?
Four days into my unofficial hunger strike, we met for a book singing in San Antonio, Texas; which was the day before the show. My clothes were hanging off me like they belonged to someone three times my size, and the lack of nourishment had begun to take a toll on my mental. I was hallucinating a bit, seeing grinning faces where there were none, and whirling holes in the floor and walls that beckoned me to step into them.
No doubt I’d seen the looks tossed my way by the others too, reflecting their increasing concern as the days fled and my diet dwindled to nothing. The water wasn’t cutting it anymore, nor was the milk I allowed myself to have on occasion to feel fuller. Salads were a cheat for me, and even those had been cut off lately. At the signing I’d sat beside Haz, listening to him banter with the fans, and tried to keep up so their joy wouldn’t end abruptly when they landed before me; the depressed one. Smiles and tears were all I registered, and the thankless hands that snatched the books away after I’d signed them. Haz elbowed me a few times, pointing out quirky signs and graphic tees in the crowd, and the endless series of girls who freaked out before they even reached the table and had to be lead away for a breather. Shuddering and squealing like stuck pigs.
Later as the event drew to a close, I wandered away from the crowd in search of quiet. The voices were more grating than usual. So were the lights and the smells. Haz’s cologne had given me a headache. Everything seemed to be making me nauseous, even the pattern of my own thoughts and the colorful tiles in the floor as I progressed. I made my way down a rear hall of the building, seeking peace and maybe a toilet to puke if need be. When the motion sickness got the better of me, I faded. My vision became a dark blur, then my lids shut involuntarily, refusing to reopen. A horrid condition like anesthesia awareness claimed my mind as my body convulsed from head to toe with pain. This was what I imagined hell was like.
At some point, I hit the floor. Tons of shuffling footsteps and panicked gasps surrounded me. Then he was there, freaking the fuck out. Somehow through it all, he’d found me, and was now angrily calling out my name. He must’ve followed me. Why was he so upset? He was furious with me. Furious with my condition. Angry that my body had given out. Angry with God. In that moment, all I wanted to do was reassure him. To soothe the rasping panic in his voice. Remove the fear from his hands, which were lightly slapping my face and checking my pulse. Now he shoved his head against my chest, presumably to make sure I was still breathing. I was…sort of…but couldn’t get a full breath if my life depended on it; which it did. From the outside looking in, it must’ve looked like I dropped dead.
After several minutes, I still couldn’t open my eyes. I just needed to see him for two seconds to reassure him I was ok. As I slipped farther under, his voice faded, and the white noise inside my head became deafening. As entered the realm of unconsciousness—perhaps a place of no return—he called me ‘baby’ openly and loudly, uncaring of the others who had gathered around to help.
Once I came to, he was carrying me. Rushing with me outside to a running truck. I had zero energy to let him know I was awake, only able to lift my eyelids and see him climbing into the backseat of a van. He sat with me slung across his lap the entire way, shouting obscenities at the driver, and I allowed my head to loll against his chest. Those few moments of consciousness had exerted whatever energy I had regained upon waking up. Now I lay there like a bag of bones; heavy in his arms. Listening to his heartbeat. His panicky breath. Knowing intimately and inescapably how it felt to be loved.
The chime of a metronome echoed around me, its pace increasing throughout the race to hospital. That was all I registered before I was out again. Coming to in the bed of a private room, I saw that Haz was at my side, clinging to my hand. He looked up as I shifted and the end of his cross pendent was caught between his lips. He almost looked like he’d been praying. As our eyes met, fear fled his and he kissed the small cross tattoo on his left hand a few times. He informed me that I’d fainted, and that I was dehydrated and underweight. Apparently a fast-declining 90lbs wouldn’t cut it for a male my height. I needed to put on weight immediately. The doctor was gravely concerned, particularly once Haz informed him I’d exhibited a pattern of not eating even when there was food available.
I almost called him a traitor, but knew he was only concerned for me. Plus, I hadn’t informed him about the hunger strike, so he likely thought my rapid weight-loss was solely due to body dysmorphia. The doctor insisted my condition was severe and only worsening. My organs were being overtaxed and placed in danger from the malnourishment. That risk was only compounded by my chain smoking, which Haz had also confessed to while I was out; along with my migraines and exhaustion. Such a fucking snitch.
I was discharged the next morning after being monitored overnight. He’d slept in the chair beside my bed, resting his head on the mattress at my hip. When we got back to the hotel, he still wouldn’t leave me unmonitored. He helped me to shower, joining me inside and washing my hair and toweling us both off. Then went out and got me soup, which I still only sipped at until I grew nauseous. At this point, the IV of fluids from the hospital were my only saving grace.
All I wanted to do was sleep, which I couldn’t be talked out of. They asked if I wanted to cancel the San Antonio show, but I insisted I would be fine to perform and just wanted to sleep until showtime. Still, Haz never left my side. He lay with me however long I wanted, regardless of whether he was able to nap or not. Likely becoming bored out of his mind as he lay there awake, listening to me breathe.
Sometime later, I woke lying on my back and he was lying atop me, snuggled contentedly against my chest. I was still wearing the hospital band. There was a fresh bowel of soup on the nightstand. Campbell’s’ Chicken Noodle. Michael Bolton’s “To Love Somebody” was playing softly on his phone before I fell back asleep. When I woke again I was lying on my belly and he was once more atop me, head resting against the back of my shoulder. I woke one last time in the evening before the show, and this time he was facing me. His head was on my pillow; fast asleep and snoring in my face. He wouldn’t let me out of his sight for one second. Wouldn’t let me take a single breath unless he was there to measure it, because he was petrified each one might be my last.
This must be the definition of ‘smothered by affection’, I thought. His obsessive attention wouldn’t ease up for some time. It would carry on into the show that night, and manifest more and more as I dwindled away before his eyes. He’d come close to force-feeding me one night when he got fed up, pinning me down in bed and trying to shove a taco into my mouth. Ground beef and sour cream went everywhere.
And in all that time, Pez had only mentioned my weight in passing. She had no clue I’d been to the hospital or how bad things had become. If it were left up to her to save me, I’d be done for. Thinking long and hard about how much he meant to me and how badly he wanted to help despite my stone-walling him, I felt true remorse for the first time since the engagement became official. On one of the few nights he took off because Pez had blown into town for a few shows, I finally sent him the untitled track, no longer caring how pathetic it made me sound. If it was ever a possibility that I’d go to sleep with this illness and not wake up again, I needed him to hear from my own lips how much I cared for him and how much I cherish what we’d discovered.
During our Tulsa show and the iHeart Radio festival, he was relentless, following me around the stage with his eyes and waving at me whenever I zoned out. I had not known love could be this terrifying and unremitting. The untitled track had set him off on a new leaf of devotion, and with my sickness still being front and center, his obsession over me only grew.
There was no reprieve from his love. Every time I looked up, his eyes were glued to me. I felt so self-conscious of every move I made, hoping to not lend him any more cause for concern. The body-watching became nerve-wracking as well, his gaze constantly on my spindly arms and legs and protruding collarbones, hardly meeting my eyes anymore. God I missed our connection. Missed his trust. I wondered if he was even seeing me anymore or just a skeleton. Likewise, the heart and cross tattoo kisses had increased at an alarming rate, and each time we found a moment backstage, he would pull me away to hug me like I was a puppy bound for euthanasia. I sensed the nearness of death in his embrace, and knew it was time to make things right, even if I didn’t know how.
I started by looking him in the eye and reminding him that I was alive. He apologized profusely, promising to ease off, and only then did we make love again. I’d been needing that. He’d forced me to abstain for a while, thinking I was too fragile and would easily become winded. Fuck that. A guy like me was sure to be fucking on his deathbed, I assured him. But he was scared for me and there was no holding that against him. I’d hurt us both with this.
(Thanks for reading!❤️)