Neon Red – Chapter 65

(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.)

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And be forever with my poison arms around you

No one’s gonna fool around with us

No one’s gonna fool around with us

So glad to meet you, Angeles

Elliott Smith | Angeles

Days after the news broke on March 25th that I’d left One Direction, Shahid got into another Twitter spat  with Louis and leaked “I Won’t Mind.” I went ballistic, calling him and cursing him out. Demanding that he take the track down because Pez would know it wasn’t written for her. Later when the track was removed from SoundCloud, we made up the excuse that it was a rejected 1D demo, which Louis called out as a lie almost immediately. I couldn’t help but think of how jarring it must’ve been for Haz to see it leaked, knowing it had been recorded for his ears alone. We hadn’t spoken in over week, and I knew he was upset for how things had played out, but it honestly and sincerely couldn’t be helped.

Apart from that, things were looking up for my mental

Apart from that, things were looking up for my mental. I headed back to Bradford for a stretch, just hanging about with old mates and all my younger cousins. Walking around those familiar roads unbothered by the press, hidden in my dad’s old sheepskin coat and reveling in normality. Overcome with felicity. That old homebound high I used to get towards the end of tour, except now it didn’t wear off because I could stay in Bradford as long as I wanted, unconcerned with dates and meetings and media obligations in the days ahead.

When I headed back to London, things became bleak again. Pez and I had given it a go for a while longer, but when I thanked the lads——all of whom weren’t speaking to me because I’d abandoned them without a single word of goodbye——in my Asian Awards acceptance speech in April, she flipped her lid and said I’d embarrassed her yet again. That she and her mum and a few friends had been watching and rooting for me all night, and that she just felt humiliated and belittled that I hadn’t mentioned her onstage. I told her I’d been offering an olive branch to the boys in hopes of making things right after how I’d left it, and that I’d totally forgotten about everyone else in the process. It was an honest mistake. 

After that, we couldn’t stop screaming at each other. Eventually we quit sleeping together and I knew it was over. An escape to LA had been in the making for a while now, because I longed to escape the relentless British paparazzi, as well as the deeply disturbed fans who had surrounded my home day and night since March 25th. Ringing my fucking doorbell in the wee hours and singing 1D songs throughout the day, hoping I’d comeback. Even the neighbors had begun to complain. This place was hell. Time for a change of pace, and LA seem like the perfect solution. The weather was more promising than what the UK was offering, and Simon had also helped negotiate a three-year record deal with RCA for me, which I needed to be briefed on and discuss further negotiations before signing. He’d also assigned me a legal team since I was on my own with no one on my payroll at the minute. So with that in mind, I decided it was time to take back control of my future. To start making music for myself and leave a mark on this industry far more consequential than my footprint from 1D.

With the stress of Pez on top of everything else that was occurring, I did what I did best at this point. Simply dipped. I packed a few essentials, then Jay and I booked a one-way flight to LA where we would stay for the foreseeable future. On the way to the airport, I texted Pez that she and I both knew it was over and had been for a while. I insisted that we quit pretending things would get any better. Then I informed her I’d be in LA for a while, looking into a new record deal, so there was no need for her to wait for me. I also told her it’d be better if she wasn’t there whenever I got back. Now I slapped my phone on airplane mode and listened to a few downloaded playlists while Jay watched a slasher film with subtitles because he’d left his headphones behind.

Oh my God, she’d be livid as fuck. Yes, I foresaw that and did nothing to ease her discomfort. Just like I knew Haz and the other boys would be hurt by my leaving, yet did nothing to soften the blow. I simply didn’t give a fuck anymore. I only cared about me right now. Fuck all of that other noise. I’d put up with it long enough. I know I was being arrogant and entitled and somewhat insufferable, but all I could see in front of me now was precisely what would make me happy, and it no longer involved any of those people. My mind was like a landfill of forsaken places, memories, ideas, and acquaintances, in bad need of draining. It was cold-hearted as hell, but at the end of the day totally necessary. Sue me.

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The first thing I did when I touched down in LA was book it to the Beverly Hills Hotel. There, I listened to nothing but the Beatles for weeks, writing deliriously in the middle of the night to “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “Within You, Without You,” and absorbing the essence of bygone artists who’d graced these halls, like Sinatra. I also scarfed down untold amounts of chicken wings from room service, and searched for a personal assistant and a rental house nearby. That’s when I was introduced to Sarah Stennett from Turn First Artists with a bit of guidance from the label, and she introduced me to a cheeky American bird named Taryn who would help me out until I found a proper assistant. She had a smart mouth, but I liked her vibe. She didn’t take my shit and I didn’t take hers either.

I later linked up with Ant and Mike Hannides in Hollywood, and partying became our nightly ritual. We went on a bender for a week straight. On the hunt for nothing but pure hedonism. Concert after concert. Strip club after strip club. Fucking ourselves stupid. Gambling, losing our money, losing our minds. One day I woke up in my hotel room and rolled over, and there was a gorgeous black bird with long blue hair lying next to me. We smiled sleepily at each other. I could tell we’d been busy, based on how limp and drained I felt.

“What’s your name?”

“Mallory.”

“Hi Mallory.”

“Hi Zayn.”

“I like your hair.”

“Thanks…”

We kissed.

The next morning we ate room service. She ordered a proper breakfast but I couldn’t stop eating the goddamn chicken wings. We listened to tunes from the early 2000s that she named off, such as Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” and “My Happy Ending” and a bit of Pink as well. I had to admit, “Just Like A Pill” was a fucking tune. Before she left, she smiled at me from the doorway, and there was an unspoken understanding that we’d never see each other again. It was bittersweet, but it felt so LA that I just let it happen for the novelty of it. I missed her about five minutes after she’d gone, but told myself there would be plenty of other Mallorys down the line. Plenty more distractions to come.

I linked up with Ant and Mike that afternoon and they kicked my ass in the gym. They said it was time to clean up our act since we had an album to make and needed to be in a healthy place to compete with other artists of my caliber. For them, health was wealth and would lead to creativity. To achieve true health, we would need to hit it at all levels. Mental, physical, and even spiritual. Mostly working out, eating right, and taking the time to slow down and meditate. To be mindful of the content and images we consumed. We challenged one another to see how long we could be sober. I had about two days before I caved and smoked a blunt. Sex was off limits as well. They said girls were distraction and it was time for us to become deadly serious about our craft. We all tried to go a solid month without it, and my hand was chafed for how much I jerked off.

I slowly became obsessed with the studio in these days, and hardly ever left it apart from our workouts. I was writing constantly. Letting my soul vent. Freestyling, improvising, experimenting, and experiencing some of the most potent highs of my life on music alone. Ant told me this was my reawakening. That it was time for me to be reborn. I took that shit to heart and started researching the symbolism behind rebirth and trying to channel it into my life. That’s when I rediscovered the lotus flower and fell in love with its beauty and allure.

I’d caught a good bit of heat for calling the music the Hannides brothers and I were making real music when I tweeted about the new record deal, and I felt guilty the other boys might’ve been a bit disrespected. In spite of my petty back and forth on Twitter with Lou and Shahid, who I’d kicked out of my life entirely after he leaked her another song in early July, I decided it was time to make things right and be publicly amicable with the boys. After I’d thanked them at the Asian Awards in April, they’d done the same for me at the Billboard Awards in May, and so here it was August and they had just released a new single called “Drag Me Down.” It was actually pretty sick. They were switching things up a bit. Sounding super grown this time around, and Haz outshined them all. For him, I tweeted that the tune was sick and that I was proud of them. That won a shit ton of the fandom back over to my side, which was an unexpected advantage of opening up.

Here's to new beginnings, I told myself

Here’s to new beginnings, I told myself. I tweeted an image of a lotus flower to document my rebirth, then had it tattooed later that day. Even though I tried daily——sometimes hourly——not to dwell on him, I’d still chosen to place the lotus in a spot that would mirror his rose, because I missed feeling a connection with him. A week of not speaking had quickly turned into months, with him ignoring my calls after I had management blindside him with the news that I wasn’t showing up in Cape Town. Eventually the calls and messages from everyone else had gotten so bad I was forced to change my number. That really was the final nail in the coffin of us, and slowly but surely I got accustomed to being out of touch with him. Even though it had killed me in the beginning, it was to be expected. Our thing was no longer tenable. To admit that was like choking down a chalky pill, but I wasn’t looking to run from the truth anymore.

At the beginning of August, when news broke that Pez and I were over, the media heat came right back down on my head. Yet another shit storm of hate and accusations. Someone had of course leaked that our last conversation had been via text, so they took it to mean I’d dumped her via text when really things had been over long before that, and I had just been trying to avoid further confrontation. Fuck…if felt like I couldn’t do anything right anymore. Laying low for a few days while the hype of our breakup blew over, I cruised around LA with Jawaad, allowing him to chauffeur me around in my new ’66 Shelby GT which he wouldn’t let me drive anymore. Drake’s “Know Yourself” filtered from the speakers. The sun was blazing, uplifting my mood. Coloring my world.

My phone vibrated and I saw that I had a new email

My phone vibrated and I saw that I had a new email. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered opening it, except the subject line stole my breath. It simply read: “It’s me.” There was no need to open it. I knew exactly who it was from. Later when we pulled over on the PCH to watch the sun set over the coast, I found the balls to open the email and read it. I was sitting on the hood while Jay was pacing a few feet away. There was no need to alert him.

"I hope this message reaches you ok," was the first line

“I hope this message reaches you ok,” was the first line. It sent a chill down my spine. Four months of radio silence and worlds of separation. Springtime without him. I hadn’t heard his voice in so long, and it disturbed me to see his face online because he just felt dead to me. Truth be told, I thought we’d never hear from one another again, so I’d programmed myself to get over him. Anytime I dredged up something I missed about him, I beat it back down with something he’d done to piss me off. After he became openly more close to Jeff Azoff, I knew he’d be signing him soon. There was also a new man in his life thanks to that Azoff bastard, and apparently his name was Xander.

While I had no idea what the true nature of their relationship was, all I could see was them fucking. Him taking and tasting what had once belonged to me. And he looked so fucking smug to have captured him too. Walking beside him like he owned the fucking world. To see him at his side so often, and to see the fans shipping and encouraging them made me sicker than Larry Stylinson ever did. With each new sighting I began to sincerely fret that he had moved on from me, but this time with another man. And he wanted the world to know it too. In an act of self-preservation, since the sight of them together was genuinely making me homicidal, I’d copped a new phone and a new number to ensure he could never reach out to me. It was for his own fucking safety. I’d also moved to a different country and adopted an entirely new friend group that was alien to him. I’d created an entirely new universe and peopled it with new acquaintances and things I was passionate about, and he was the only person from my past who would never be granted access under any circumstances. Yet somehow he had crept back in. Through my fucking email address of all things. How had I forgotten to change it?

Harry: “I hope this message reaches you ok. I’ve totally lost contact with you and it scares me. I know things didn’t end so well between us back in March, and that neither of us meant for things to end the way they did. I can admit I didn’t mean to cut you off for this long, but you changed your number pretty quickly, and no one on our team has it. Otherwise, I would’ve called. I also know you didn’t mean to lie to me on that last call and promise that you were coming to Cape Town even though you knew you weren’t. I get it. You felt like you had no choice. I hated you for a long time. I sincerely  hated you for about a month. Why? Because you have no idea how much you were ripping my world apart. How desperately I needed you to be there with me until the end of this. I think you still don’t realize how much you mean to me, and maybe that’s why you don’t get why I couldn’t let you leave. And maybe that’s my fault for not expressing it more fully, and showing you what’s really inside my heart before you left. And for that, I apologize. And I’m  also sorry about being a complication for you when you were making one of the toughest decisions of your life. I didn’t mean to be a burden. Can you ever forgive me?”

“It’s been a while now, and I’ve naturally had some time to think and adjust to the idea of you being gone. Don’t get me wrong…it still hurts like hell, Z. Everyday, mate. Every single day. But I manage. It’s just not the same as it was, but I tell myself to keep going for the people around me and for the fans. I sit and I think about it sometimes. If I left too, right behind you like I wanted to, then I would be leaving millions of people to feel the same why I felt when you left me, and that wouldn’t be cool. So I’m going to see the tour through to the end, because I owe it to them, but after that, I’m done. The hiatus talks began straightaway after you left, and I didn’t take no for an answer. I knew you’d be proud of me. I did it, Z, just like you and I talked about. I quit, but I promised to finish the tour. The other boys hated me so much for this, but I think in time they’ll come to see it was the right choice.”

“I’m saying all this to you because I want you to know…and I NEED you to know, that my feelings for you have not changed in the least. They never will, mate. I care about you so deeply that it scares me sometimes. I watched everything you’ve done since you left. I’m totally embarrassed to say I’ve been cyberstalking you. I’m so proud of you winning the Asian Award, and that you mentioned us in the acceptance speech made us all so happy. We’re so proud of you, Z, don’t ever think that we resent you for leaving. We just miss you so terribly.”

“I saw the new hair at fashion week too. Quite bold of you.” I could almost hear his smirk through the phone screen. “I also saw that you signed a new record deal with RCA, and it totally blew me away. You’re really doing it, mate. No matter how many people doubted you or called you crazy for taking off and leaving all this behind, you’re really doing it, and I couldn’t be more inspired. I also heard that you and Perrie have called off the engagement. I know this is probably something you don’t want to necessarily talk about, but I just need you to know how bloody brave I think you are. To leave that dishonesty behind and have the courage to start over completely from scratch. I’m not sure if this is why you tweeted it and got it tattooed, but I read that the lotus flower symbolizes REBIRTH, and I love that you used it to symbolize what you’re doing right now. And I hope you won’t mind, but I’d like to use that symbolism myself when my time comes to start over. You’re my main inspiration in everything I do…and you will always be my muse. No matter what happens between us.”

I guess I’ll stop talking and boring you now. I’d kill to see you again, but I understand that it’s your decision. Just know that I’ll be waiting. I’ll never stop waiting for you. All my love. -H.”

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I’d been a huge fan of Frank Ocean since NostalgiaUltra, then fell equally in love with all his other work. Because of him, one producer I’d always dreamed of working with one day was Malay. His work on Channel Orange was revolutionary, and his influence on Frank’s work was nothing short of transformative. Coming from a place of such conformity and creative oppression, I became convinced he was the only man on earth who could liberate my artistic faculties. He was something of a legend and a mystery in the music world, and that made him all the more alluring to me. I deified him in my mind long before I met him, and knew it would be a life-changing honor if he ever condescended to work with a fledging artist like me.

Right away when my team and I began recording after signing the record deal, I had my managers reach out to Malay to see if he was available anytime soon, and whether or not he’d be interested in working on a new project with me. That was a bold move. I was brand new to this solo shit and was already seeking out the best in the game like an entitled boyband brat. Thankfully, the transition between finishing up with Ant and Mike and starting with Malay would be quite seamless, since both teams seemed to have a somewhat similar vision to mine. I just hoped with every fiber of my being that Malay would sign on help launch me to the next level in the game. Having his shrewd eye and ear in my corner when the time came for me to present my work to the world would no doubt give me the confidence I needed to own my place in the sun.

Once he agreed, I was on cloud nine and got into the studio with him as fast as humanly possible. Man, he was a handsome bloke and super smooth. His quieting, trustful stare often gave me pause. He was American, but biracial like me, and part Asian so we clicked right away, exchanging tidbits about our mixed heritages and discussing how different our parents were, culturally speaking. We then got onto music and our ideas married and fell divinely into sync. It was the most harmonious I’d ever felt with a producer in my entire career, despite him being the one I knew the least. The trickiest song I had in my stash at the moment was a tune I’d worked on with the Hannides brothers, but for some reason none of us could quite figure out the beat. No matter what we tried, it just wouldn’t work, and that’s where Malay got to showcase his mastery over the console. It took him all of five minutes to tweak a few microscopic things before the song lost its previous flaws. After that we named it “Borderz”. I smiled to myself, sitting at his side in his immaculate studio, and just watched him nod along to this new creation, content that it was only the beginning of a long and promising partnership.

I caught onto his obsession with red wine

I caught onto his obsession with red wine. He was a proper connoisseur, and would regale me of the details of the featured bottle and the region it was from, and what I could expect from the body of each wine throughout the studio session. I was never quite big on wine before, but this was a new journey and I was willing to try anything to stay in his good graces. He made me drink it properly too, by first swirling it around my glass to ‘open it up’ and then by inhaling the aromas to assist with tasting it. It was quite an experience, even though I lost all the technical flare rather quickly, and to this day just gulped my wine down like a caveman.

He understood music to a degree that I hadn’t encountered or contemplated before. I had once been impressed by Shahid’s endearing fastidiousness and the wild creativity of the Hannides brothers, but this guy right here operated on a level that could only be described as god-tier. It wasn’t just spiritual or cathartic either, but quite mechanical as well. He was one hell of a practitioner too. He approached the recording process with all the precision of a surgeon. In addition to being able to play just about any instrument you threw at him, he was also capable of reverse engineering any equipment to tweak things internally and get them to sound the way he wanted, such as a microphone for instance. He would even implement random everyday objects to achieve certain vibrations and sounds, such as condoms and empty water bottles. That was the level of conscientiousness he brought to all projects, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was in over my head and that he intimidated me.

Everyday before recording, he would make me sit with him, molest a couple of glasses of wine, and then he would pick up a guitar and ask me to describe my day. It gave me the distinct impression of being massaged or forced to do some other extremely relaxing thing. Whenever I lied to him or prevaricated, he somehow knew. Fucking human polygraph. I would then retrace my steps and attempt to become more honest. A few sessions in, I stopped lying about the email altogether.

“How we feeling today, Z? We feeling good? What was our morning like? Anything you need to get off your chest?”

“Uh, yeah…”

“Shoot.”

“I got a message from an old friend,” I bit my top lip indecisively. “An email actually. I’ve had it for a while now…but lately it’s been bugging me.”

“Have you responded to it yet?”

“Noh…not yet.”

“Will you?”

“Probably not.”

“Why is that?”

“Because, maan…it would just reopen soh much shit. Bring back a lot of pain in my life that I was positive I’d moved on from. But I guess not.”

“Who’s it from?”

An old friend…” I smiled, unwilling to divulge more.

“Did this friend hurt you?” he cocked an eyebrow, his trademark move.

“Uh…yeah, I guess. In a way. But maybe not really.”

“That’s awful. How’d they hurt you?”

“They cut me off for a while, for needin’ to do sumthin to save myself. And then afterwards, they began seein’ someone else very publicly. Or at least…I think they did.”

“So it was your ex-fiancé?” 

That was like a slap across the face and instantly made me realize how big of a fucking hypocrite I was. How could I be mad at him for theoretically moving on to someone else when I’d left him, and also had been engaged for the last few years? All while he and I had been seeing each other.

“Uh…noh, actually. Not her, broh. It’s a bit more complicated than that.”

“Ah, I see,” he grinned, sipping his wine. He later began to improvise a tune on the guitar, and as usual it seemed to magically match the mood I was in. It also coaxed me to vent more. He was a wizard if I ever saw one.

“So this email…” he began, swiveling in his chair, watching me unflinchingly. His voice was so comforting. “What did it say?”

“Soh much, broh. Soh much. They miss me of course. They apologized forh what they did. They explained where they were comin’ from when we fell out. They even explained how they new where I was comin’ from…and then they told me how much they cared for me. And ended it with them sayin’ they’d kill to see me—”

“Damn, man…I felt that.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Hell yeah. Just listen to the wording. ‘I’d kill to see you.’ Who talks like that? And with everything else they said, it’s pretty clear they aren’t bullshitting you. They were pretty direct, Z. It’s the exact response we’d all hope to get from someone who upset us. It had an apology, it took accountability, it restated their love for you, and they even went out on a limb and told you they wanted to see you. They broke first. You gotta love it, man. It’s perfect!”

That was by far not the response I was expecting from him. I wanted him to validate my annoyance with the email and support me in ignoring it. Not breakdown precisely why it was the perfect olive branch and how I’d look like the petty, bitter one for not accepting it.

“I know, broh, but I just went through soh much with him.” I’d said it without realizing pronoun slipup. He didn’t make a big deal of it either, just continued to listen intently like he always did. “I miss them too, y’know? I’d be lyin’ if I didn’t admit I think of them every single day. Sumtimes hourly. But none of it is healthy. And I don’t think things could ever be right between us again if they actually were with the new guy. It’s clear they wanted to hurt me…which is why they made a point of being seen with him everywhere. It’s such bullshit, maan. I know this person better than anyone. I know their tricks, and I know when they’re doing sumthin’ to purposefully make me jealous. They like the mind games, y’know? They fucked with my head soh much before. I’m just not ready to goh down that road again.”

“Well if it wouldn’t bring you peace to reconnect with them, then it’s certainly not worth pursuing.”

“Right…exactlyh.”

“And you’re sure this person wouldn’t bring you peace? Even seeking a bit of closure from them?”

“I’m positive.”

“Then fuck him.”

“Yeah…fuck ’em.”

**********

Boy was I gone for this dude

Boy was I gone for this dude. I was such a Malay fanboy that I began dreading the day my album would be completed and we’d have to part. Trying to extend our relationship beyond the studio, I began inviting him out with me and Jay whenever I knew he was free. He hit the club with us a time or two, but like me, he appreciated his downtime, so this wasn’t the best place to get better acquainted with him. On a whim one day as we lounged at the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel, ideating over a new song where I intended to sing in Urdu, the language of my grandfather, I invited him to go camping with me. I had no idea where the notion had come from, but I just knew I wanted to escape with him. LA was beginning to feel like a bad rash, and nature was just the cleansing I needed to reset my mind and focus totally on my craft. When he agreed I was ecstatic, and went out with Jay to buy all the things we’d need for the trip. At the checkout line, I informed Jay he wasn’t invited.

Why did I want to be alone with him so badly? To such an extreme degree as a remote camping trip? I wasn’t really that into camping and hadn’t gone since the last time I went with Pez’s dad and brother, but for some reason I wanted to experience it with Malay. To share that quite space with him. I just yearned to absorb his intellect, his insight, his warmth. And for some reason I assumed he’d be a natural at this sort of thing. He picked me up from the hotel a day later, and we headed straight for the Angeles National Forest, his idea, with no stops along the way. I’d brought two large tents, one for recording and one for us to sleep in, as well as loads of snacks and food and water. He’d brought along a portable recording gig, a grill, an air rifle, and a bow and arrow. We weren’t looking to hunt or anything, but he’d brought the protection along in case we ran into any unfriendly wildlife, and the idea of him using it in an emergency really impressed me.

Our trip was planned to last about two weeks, and during that time I was deeply inspired by everything around us to write

Our trip was planned to last about two weeks, and during that time I was deeply inspired by everything around us to write. The murmur of the trees. The clean air. The night sky. The isolation. The silence. All of it forced me to set pen to paper continuously. So did the improvised little tunes he played on the guitar. Whenever we weren’t writing and recording, we were talking endlessly about anything that came to mind. Our childhoods. Our first crushes. His wife and kids. One Direction, simply everything. We also drank a lot at night to celebrate the successes of the day. We cleaned up a lot of tunes I’d started before I met him, and wrote a few more together. Some of my best vocals were captured right there in that makeshift studio tent in the middle of nowhere. 

About a week into our off-grid excursion, I was becoming antsy and needed to blow off a bit of steam. He taught me to use the bow and arrow and most days I spent a portion of the morning making the surrounding trees my target practice. However, today that exercise wasn’t quite setting me at ease. Living off grid for so long, my dreams were starting to be bizarre. I had a nightmare our campsite was attacked by bears and I’d been drug away into the darkness. Another one featured me in a rowboat on the middle of a lake, with no oars to help me back to land. I was quite literally up shit creek without a paddle. For that I drank more in hopes that I’d been too blacked out to slip into these hellish visions each night. 

Tonight our ritual played out as it always did. We ate dinner, which consisted of Ramen Noodles because they were easy to cook with boiled water from the fire, and I gulped down a good bit of whiskey to see me through the night. He declined a drink as he wasn’t much of a hard liquor guy himself, so I gulped down his. I smiled at him in the firelight, so happy with all we’d accomplished. All our work had brought us here, to this one moment, and I couldn’t help but acknowledge how powerful it was. He’d done a lot for me in such a short time. Introduced me to the healing side of music. Therapized me when I didn’t even realize I was being therapized. Getting deep down inside my head and rearranging my thoughts to make them more bearable to me. 

In a way I was like one of those old, discarded pieces of equipment his dad used to collect and that he liked to break down and repurpose. One that had been through the wringer. And he taken me into his hands and tinkered carefully with my insides, the crummy parts I was too ashamed to show other people, until I was refurbished and whole. Yes, he and I had arrived at a super intimate space together, and though it sounded crazy, sometimes it felt like we were making love through the music. Insane, I know. Fuckkk me, it was crazy. And perhaps my feelings for him were totally misplaced. Perhaps he had become some sort of fucked up emotional rebound for me after what happened with Haz, and even after Perrie. But that’s just where I was. How twisted was that?

As we headed into the tent to retire for the night, I lay on my sleeping bag and watched the swaying treetops and stars through the skylight. I was a bit tipsy, so I couldn’t stop thinking of Harry. How long I’d been without making love to him. How I missed being dominated. Missed that masculine intimacy. Missed being held by strong arms and taken care of. Loved without inhibition. Loved in secret. Malay had helped me work through a lot of shit, but so much of it remained untapped and unresolved. Mostly the Harry bits. In some ways, Malay was beginning to open those same doors for me. And although I knew he would never walk through, I could still sense them being set ajar. He wasn’t my fix. He wasn’t my Haz, but in many ways, I wanted him to be my retribution. To have these experiences with him tucked in my back pocket as artillery in case it was ever confirmed that Harry had been fucking that Xander bloke.

As if he could read my mind, Malay rolled over in his sleeping back, and through he darkness, he snaked a hand down my sweats. Straight to the sweet spot. I groaned and let him do as he pleased. He stroked me off and it was mindnumbingly good. To be touched by a man again sent me reeling. Big warm hands. Rough motions. How I had longed for the oh-so-familiar shame and panic of a moment like this. Wanted to feel disgusted by myself again. Wanted to feel the need to hide. To abuse myself.

When I unloaded, I lay there shivering. He rolled away, and I knew that was all he wanted to give me. Just that one moment. It was such a pity handjob that I was partly embarrassed, but God I wanted more. So much more. I leaned over him now, seeking his mouth in the shadows. When our lips touched, he grabbed ahold of me with both hands, but only to halt me.

“Zayn?”

“Huh?” I kissed him again.

“Z…Z…Z, stop. Please. We can’t take it too far. I’m married man. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Z. I don’t know if I gave you the wrong idea…but I love my wife. I was just trying to help you out.”

The sky seemed to fall. My mortification was so acute I couldn’t begin to process it. I simply fled my skin. I got up and ran out of the tent, running a distance into the blackened forest until my knees buckles and I vomited. I then lay paralyzed on the cold ground before falling asleep. In the morning, I was shaken awake by Malay who is squatting beside me with a smirk. Except, I wasn’t out in the woods and I wasn’t lying on the ground. What the fuck had happened? Did anything happen?

“Bro, you were so wasted last night,” he laughed, shaking his head. “And you smell like an ashtray.” He popped me on the leg then left the tent. I didn’t know if it was his way of giving me an out for my mortifying behavior and pathetic advances, or if nothing had happened at all. If something had, he was far too gracious to force me to relive it now. And if nothing had happened, then it made sense because I’d never left the tent. Oh my fuck I needed to get home and figure this shit out. I could barely look at him anymore until I knew whether it had happened or not.

**********

Regardless of whether anything had happened with Malay or not, I knew the root cause of the issue was Harry

Regardless of whether anything had happened with Malay or not, I knew the root cause of the issue was Harry. What I’d experienced with him, man-to-man, had been a major fucking thing. I was slowly coming to understand that it had been severely traumatizing. Although I never quite understood why he’d acted so desperate and childish in Hong Kong and wouldn’t let me out of his life, the longer I was apart from him I began to grasp his behavior with an uncomfortable clarity. We were going through the same things, just at different times. We also expressed our grief in different ways. 

The way things ended between us was not alright, and that was beginning to manifest in every aspect of my life no matter how confident and fulfilled I pretended to be online. He was always there, from my writing, to my vocals when I recorded, to my everyday speech, to my ability to socialize with or trust others. And it wouldn’t be right again until he and I sat down face-to-face and sought closure together. I wasn’t sure if I was man enough to handle that just yet, but every day I stared at his heartfelt email from August, trying to build myself up to draft an appropriate response. It would take time, though, and that was okay.

In November, the On The Road Again Tour ended and I lost sight of him

In November, the On The Road Again Tour ended and I lost sight of him. I was no longer able to track him from country to country and state to state. No longer able to log on and see a plethora of images and clips of what he’d gotten up to onstage. I had taken it for granted how much I relied on those things to assure me he was alright. I freaked out a little for the first couple of weeks without daily content from him. His fans began to call it the drought. If they had any idea how much I read their shit, or how I could’ve ran some of those update accounts with far more accuracy, they’d be mindfucked. They didn’t know the real him. They only knew the outward him. The carefully curated projection. The real him had only been seen by me. 

Finally I got word from a reliable source that he was house-hunting, and I was glad to know he wanted to settle someplace in LA for his first year on his own like I had did. He was gathering himself now that the band was on an indefinite hiatus, and would be remerging soon like the beast I knew he was. His takeover would be even greater than mind. The world would await his debut with baited breath, and I was certainly included in that group. On that note, I finally sat down at a piano and finished a tune I’d been working on ever since my camping trip with Malay. It came in tiny, painful fragments, but it still came to me nonetheless. In the end I called it “Golden,” because what he and I had never seemed more golden than when it was unattainable.

Later I found the courage to sit down at my laptop and put all the remainder of my thoughts that I couldn’t fit in a three-minute song into an email response to him. When the drafts were finally complete, I’d poured my heart and soul out to him in an essay over multiple emails. But I got a call before I could hit send. It was my manager Sarah. She said she had someone she wanted me to me. We set up a time to meet at restaurant in West Hollywood later that day, and when I arrived, she escorted me inside to a private dining room in the back. Seated in that room was by far the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life. Gigi Hadid. And she was accompanied by her mother, Yolanda Hadid, along with both our publicists and loads of paperwork.

“Remember when I said you’d need something massive to announce your return to music? To grab the world’s attention and refuse to let go?” Sarah said beneath her breath as we made our way to the conference table. “I think this is it. I think it’ll be explosive.” 

(Thanks for reading!❤️)

This is officially the final chapter of Neon Red 🙁 Please remember, this isn’t actually the end of the story, per say. It’s technically the beginning of “This Thing Upon Me”. Thank you so, soooo much for staying with me along this journey through all its crazy bumps and ups and downs. I love and appreciate you all so much! All of your lovely, funny, and emotional comments and reactions have helped give this story life and kept me motivated the entire way. You all rock and I can’t wait to share new stories with you down the line. Take care loves! See you all soon! 🙂

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