“So why do you think you snapped?” Wayne asked as he bit into his chicken wings. We were at a restaurant downtown, having dinner after the entire episode I’d just had.
I shrugged. “I never liked it when people were better than me in the one thing I was actually good at.”
“A sound reason,” he grinned, and I bit into my barbecue-sauced kebab. “I don’t like it, either.”
That was confusing. “Aren’t you supposed to be the best director, seeing as you won the Oscar at the youngest age of anyone else?”
“Even if you’re good, there will always be someone better out there,” he said wisely, then glanced sideways. “By the way, how would you feel if the tabloids get a word of us eating here? Would you mind being exposed to the light?”
Thinking about it for a few moments, I coked my head. “Not really. It might cause problems to my father, though.” I grinned evilly. “Which I really don’t mind.”
“Great, because I spotted some paparazzi lingering around here,” he smirked. “The E! News would have a field day with that. I can already see the headline: ‘Academy Award-winning director Holden Knight has been spotted getting cozy with a beautiful anonymous lady.’”
“Not so anonymous,” I reminded him, “my father is pretty big in his own industry. They might recognize me as the ‘rebellious young daughter’.” I’d been called like that once in some magazine.
“And you really don’t mind, do you?” his smirk deepened. “I have to say, you’re all kinds of refreshing, Cleo.”
“Well, you don’t seem to mind both the publicity and the exposure either,” I gave him a pointed look. “So that’s not exactly refreshing on my part.”
“You’d be surprised how many women I dated were either lusting after fame or cowering away from it. There aren’t many people as laid back as you are about it.”
That made me wonder. “Who have you dated anyway?”
For some reason, my question gave him a pause. His gaze turned unreadable when he finally replied. “Before you, I’ve dated some supermodels and actresses who were good for my reputation and publicity as a good-looking bachelor on the hunt.”
Realizing what he said, I narrowed my eyes. “What’s changed after me?”
He shrugged, but it was a little off, probably feigned indifference. His eyes turned molten silver. “Nothing changed.”
I was about to say that he couldn’t have just said “before me” without meaning it, but before I could speak, someone caught my eyes. Glancing, I saw a gangly boy around fourteen enter the restaurant, a broody, teenager-y look on his handsome young face. He had a mop of disheveled dark blonde hair and brilliant eyes, such a light shade of blue, almost like a mix of Wayne’s and mine. Not understanding why he even caught my attention, I returned my gaze to Wayne, ignoring the kid.
We ate in silence for a few minutes before the sound of saxophone interrupted. Both Wayne and I looked at a small stage in the restaurant, where that boy I’d just seen was standing on, playing. I wasn’t an expert in jazz music, but it sounded like he was pretty good. I don’t think he even missed a note.
Wayne must’ve pondered that too because he murmured, “The kid’s one heck of a saxophonist.”
“I know,” I nodded, scrutinizing the wonder boy from the corner of my eye. “He’s also cute. I’m a goner for both cute and talented.”
Not missing the natural dryness in my tone, Wayne grinned. “Thank God I’m both, or this could get awkward.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Who said you were either?”
His grin widened as his eyes flashed pretty silver, completely taking my attention of the kid with the sax. “You know how physically proportional I am, and didn’t I please you earlier with my nimble fingers?”
Scrunching my nose in disgust, I gave him my haughty look and flicked my hair back. “You use such turn-off words, Wayne, it would be a miracle if I would ever be able to bring myself to sleep with you.”
He was prevented from responding – although from the devilish glint in his eyes he deeply wanted to – by the sound of enthusiastic claps as the kid finished playing. Both of us turned to look at him, and saw him looking almost indifferent at the audience. With a tilt of acknowledgment to the crowd, he took a deep breath and continued on to another solo piece for sax.
Under silent, mutual agreement, Wayne and I stayed in the restaurant even after we finished our food. We bantered here and there for the sake of it, but mostly we just listened to the kid. He was sweaty and seemed tired from blowing sounds out, but he didn’t give in, didn’t let himself stop being anything short of perfect. That was extremely admirable. I got it, because that’s how I was in the beginning as well. Now I was trained enough that perfection came as naturally as breathing to me.
Once the gig was over, the kid rested the sax against his chest, hanging only by his neck, and stepped forward, bowing deeply. Everyone applauded, including Wayne and me, and the kid took it all in with a blank face. When I looked at his eyes, I was almost surprised to see a reflection of something very familiar.
His eyes were dead. Disconnected. Far away. I knew that look. I had it in my own eyes, too.
* * *
I was standing in front of a body-sized mirror, dressed in the pinkest dress I’d ever laid my eyes on, styled in a Greek way with only one strap and flowing down to the floor with some sort of rope-belt around the waist. It looked like something out of a Disney movie – which was probably Emma’s intention – and I wanted to puke all over it. Maybe then the dress wouldn’t be so brightly freaking pink.
Next to me stood Deborah and Sylvia, dressed the same. While I wasn’t officially a bridesmaid, I was still accounted as one, and so I had to come today to the fancy bride-dress store today.
The dressing room’s door opened and Avery came out. As the maid of honor, she had a special dress for herself, it appeared, which was exactly the same style as ours, only slightly a lighter pink. It looked much more tasteful, and with Avery’s bright red hair, it fit her like a glove, if you liked the entire Little Mermaid vibes.
Last to come out was Emma, dressed in an elegant white dress with swirls and lace and shit. She beamed when she turned to the mirror, and the girls almost immediately flocked to her, showering her with compliments and telling her how Ford was a lucky guy. Emma was aflush, so happy with the entire thing, I knew she wouldn’t notice if I escaped.
I took my dress off quickly and brought it to the shop worker. “I need to go,” I told her, “so tell Emma the dress fits.”
“No problem, ma’am – “ she started but I was already grabbing my bag and storming out of there.
Not wanting to go back home yet, I went to visit a small park at the other end of the city. It was a beautiful place I loved to visit sometimes, and now was the best of times. I needed to think.
When I arrived, I saw that my regular bench was empty. Taking it, I leaned against the back of it and watched the sky. While it was almost the beginning of July, the sky was cloudy and the air felt a little colder than usual. But it didn’t bother me much.
What did bother me, more than I thought it would, was that thoughts of Darren invaded my mind when I’d seen Emma wearing a wedding dress. While I wasn’t in any way jealous, and I didn’t think Emma was making a mistake – or rather didn’t care about it – it just that it reminded me that one should never be so blindingly happy with another person.
Because one could never truly know what that other person was hiding.
Darren had been the perfect example for it. I’d thought I know him. I thought he was the easy one to read. The entire thing blew up in my face because I was acting stupid like that. While there hadn’t been true love there, there had been trust. I wouldn’t have minded marrying him. It would’ve been perfectly okay. But the humiliation... That was something I could never get it over with.
I suddenly wanted Wayne to be here in the park with me. He could’ve helped me seek thoughtlessness. But he wasn’t here. Instead, he was with the other best men, in their own shop, preparing for the wedding with Ford. That sucked.
Looking around me, I tried to find something to do when I realized there was a piano slightly hidden among the bushes. It was old and deserted, the wood torn, the keys faded, but it looked playable nonetheless. Walking forward, I slid into the matching squeaking chair and placed my hands on the keyboard. Then I played.
It was a lullaby I composed when I first started understanding piano on a fundamental level. It was when I was around sixteen or so. This lullaby I composed when Emma couldn’t sleep. Later on, she told me that was the lullaby our mother used to sing. I was only four when she died, so I had no recollections of her doing so whatsoever, but Emma had been six, and she did. Apparently, subconsciously, I remembered the tune and translated it into my own musical language.
The lullaby was soft and slightly melancholic. When Emma and I had been on good terms, when I composed this piece, she told me the words were talking about a war that was over. I liked the thought that my lullaby was in fact a post-war song. It sounded much more deep than simply a lullaby.
Just as I thought of the melody of the song itself, how the words were supposed to be sang like Emma had once sung to me in her horribly off-tune voice, the sound of a sax interrupted, and for my utmost surprise, sounded to play the line of the song itself as I played the basic background music of the lullaby.
Glancing sideways, I saw the boy from yesterday at the restaurant standing with me, his eyes closed, playing the sax and complementing my own playing.
Feeling something almost electrical in the air when we played together, a more artistic kind of electricity, I turned back to the keyboard and decided to give the boy a musical test run, using this melody he apparently knew. Taking a deep, quiet breath, I began adding more notes into the lullaby, making the melody grow thick and rich with sounds. Now the boy would have a hard time to thread between the net I wove with my fingers, to pluck out the notes I specifically avoided for him to hear and catch.
It took him a few moments of adjusting to the change, but then, I was pleased to hear, he managed to pluck those notes skillfully with the sax, and creating an almost different variation of the post-war song.
But that had been easy. Everyone with good musical hearing could do it. Now I needed to step it up. And I did.
Pressing the chord right before last, the one that gave suspension to the melody and made you want for you to reach the next so the piece would finally be over with, I lingered, sustaining the suspense, and then, just when I lifted my hands, I shifted the melody from major to minor and started it slowly, almost sadly, from the beginning, pressing the high-notes for emphasizing the transformation.
The boy stumbled a little, obviously because he wasn’t experienced with my kind of improvisation, but the longer I played, the better he became, and soon he knew how to complete the melody by himself, where I only played the piano part, he managed to collect the strings and singing parts and modulate them for his sax. It was pretty impressive, considering.
Once small droplets began falling from the heavily clouded sky, I pulled the melody into an end, and rose from my seat. I looked at the boy, who took his mouth off the tube, and opened his eyes. They were just as stormy and ambient as the sky, a mix of gray and blue. He was almost my height as well, so it felt like he staring me down.
Just as I debated whether I should just go, he grabbed my wrist. “Next week, same time, same place,” he said, voice a deep bass that contrasted with his handsome, boyish appearance.
I found myself nodding to him, and then he took off, leaving me standing there a little stunned. Then I wondered why I wasn’t snapping like I did with Wayne, and I realized the major difference here.
Here, I knew I was the one who controlled music better. I was the one who was superior to him, musically speaking. But I also wanted to challenge him to get better, to teach him, to mentor him, so he could complement me better. Unlike with Wayne, who could easily best me, this kid was still a fledgling musician, and I wanted him to be better, for no good reason other than I simply wanted to.
So I would be here next week at the same in the same place, and I would make sure he answered to each and every one of my challenges.