ICYMI, here are Chapter One and Chapter Two.
I pull out my phone at least ten times between this morning and seven o’clock to text Gabby and tell her I can’t make it to the recital tonight.
But I can’t come up with a good reason to give her.
Which is stupid, because if I’m honest with myself, the real reason I can’t cancel is because I want to go. I want to see her again.
She looked stunned when that chick announced who I am in the coffee shop. But she ignored my offer of an autograph, even though she admitted to being a fan. Then she played off the whole exchange like they were nosy new friends butting into our conversation. And practically ordered me to come to the recital tonight.
It’s an intriguing combination—innocence and bold confidence mixed together in one gorgeous package.
But shit. She’s just a freshman. Should I even go through with this? Pursue anything with her?
I want to. I want to see where this might lead. Because I haven’t felt this kind of connection, these kinds of sparks, in … maybe ever.
Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s something. Maybe we’ll burn hot and fast and turn to ash in a matter of weeks. Or maybe …
I push that thought aside. No sense getting ahead of myself.
So after eating a quick dinner at six, I take a shower and make an effort to dress up a little, putting on dark wash jeans and a button-down shirt, cuffing the sleeves since it’s still warm. Though at the tail end of August, the evenings are starting to get a little cooler, the breeze hinting at the oncoming fall. I find a parking spot at the end of the row in front of the entrance to the performing arts center. Stepping away from my car, I pocket my keys and straighten my sleeves.
Several people mill around in the lobby. A few of them glance my way as I open the door and step in, but I don’t notice any of them once my eyes land on Gabby.
Her hair is pulled back away from her face with some clips, but hangs loose down her back. And she has on skinny jeans and a shimmery light pink top that’s cut in a deep V halfway to her belly button, leaving the inside rise of her breasts visible. She faces the door, but her attention is on a girl next to her with auburn hair. The other girl looks up and sees me, then nudges Gabby, nodding my way.
Gabby looks up, her eyes traveling over me, and my breath hitches when her gaze collides with mine. I give her a smile, and her cheeks turn ever so slightly pinker.
But she smiles back, crossing the lobby to meet me in the middle.
“You made it.” Her voice is pitched low, the warm alto sliding down my spine like a caress. God, I love her voice. I thought it was perfect this morning, and I like it even more now, seeing her again.
“Did you think I wouldn’t show?”
Her gaze drops, and one bare shoulder lifts in a shrug. “I wasn’t really sure. But I’m glad you’re here.”
“Me too,” I murmur, stepping closer to her.
A throat clears next to us, and I blink, suddenly aware that we’re in a lobby. With other people. And her friend is standing to my left.
Gabby blinks too, like she’s equally surprised to realize her friend is there. Then her eyes clear, her smile turning more polite. “This is my roommate, Lauren. She’s a music major too.”
I give Lauren my signature smile, and the look she gives me in return is a cross between a sarcastic eyebrow lift and a dreamy smile. It’s an odd combination, turning my practiced smile into something more genuine. “Nice to meet you.”
“And it’s very nice to meet you.” She leans on the very, which makes me look at Gabby again.
“I take it you told her?”
She nods, looking a little chagrined. She spreads her hands in a helpless gesture. “I couldn’t help it. I had to tell someone. But don’t worry, Lauren’s good with secrets. Aren’t you, Lauren?” Her question has an edge of warning to it.
In response, Lauren mimes zipping her lips and throwing away the key.
Gabby chuckles and rolls her eyes. “Oh, good. That means she won’t talk for the rest of the night. Thank you, Jesus.”
“Hey!” Lauren protests and nudges Gabby in the shoulder. “Don’t be mean.”
Still laughing, Gabby turns to the entrance to the recital hall. “We should go get seats.”
Lauren follows her. “Yes! I can’t wait to hear the sound in this hall. I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house.”
Hands in my pockets, unable to stifle the grin at their antics, I follow them into the recital hall. A blond guy in khakis and a green button-down shirt hands us programs as we file in. The door opens into an aisle that unevenly splits the audience, the smaller section on my left, the larger section on the right. It’s a small venue, intimate, with large, plush seats upholstered in light gray fabric. The stage is all blond wood, with the same wood paneling on the walls behind it. A grand piano sits in the center of the stage, a chair facing the audience in front of it.
Gabby leads us to an open row about halfway down on the right. Lauren goes in first, then Gabby, leaving the aisle seat for me. Even though there’s a generous amount of legroom, I appreciate the ability to stretch my legs a little more here.
We’ve apparently gotten seats just in time, because I barely have time to open my program and glance down, much less say anything to Gabby, before the house lights dim.
Soon after, the door at the back of the stage opens and polite applause starts. A tall, thin man carrying a cello and dressed all in black except for the red slash of his tie walks on stage from a door in the back. He’s followed by a woman with a streak of white along the front of her shoulder length hair, wearing all black as well, but her sequined top shimmers under the stage lights.
The man stands next to his chair and waits for the woman to take her place next to the piano. With a glance at each other, they bow low from the waist, acknowledging the applause, which tapers off. The man settles into his chair, adjusting the cello and messing with his bow. The pianist waits, her hands poised over the keys, a young woman I didn’t notice come in sitting in a chair on her other side.
At the cellist’s nod, the pianist starts to play, the notes filling the space in the recital hall. No amplification needed. You can hear all the nuances of the music, the changes in volume, the way the pianist and the cellist lean on certain notes, giving the music shape and substance. It’s beautiful and emotional, and I’m enjoying it more than I thought I would.
It’s different than I’m used to, that’s for sure.
My mom was going to be an opera singer until vocal nodes ruined her career, but she played opera for us growing up. She loves Verdi and all those Italian guys. So I’m not completely ignorant of classical music.
But it’s not something I go out of my way to experience these days.
I’m much more used to a different type of concert. More energy from the crowd.
The applause at the end is just as polite as it was at the beginning, though maybe a little louder. There are rules that everyone seems to know about how often to clap and for how long. I want to lean over and say something to Gabby, but her attention is focused on stage, and other than the rustling of programs and the sounds of people shifting in their seats, there’s silence between performers.
At our concerts, there was always noise. Not the quiet rustlings of people waiting politely in their seats. No. Noise. Sound. Roaring crowds. Screaming fans. People jumping, moving, pounding their impatience on the floor, on the seats. The crazier ones trying to cross the barrier separating the audience from the stage. Thousands of voices singing together when you play their favorite songs.
It was exhilarating. Thrilling. The biggest rush ever.
These people all look like they’re about as excited to perform and the audience to listen as I feel attending a lecture. Polite interest. But that’s about it.
The chair in front of the piano is whisked away and the piano’s music shelf folded down. The polite clapping starts again as a different man comes and sits at the piano. He runs his hands through his dark hair, adjusting the height of the piano bench and testing the distance to the pedals, scooting back to make more room for his middle-aged paunch and longer legs.
The applause quiets down. This piece is much different than the cello one. Louder. Almost angry. His hands drift away from the piano after each strike of the keys, like they’re floating, the energy returning as he attacks again.
It’s fascinating. The difference between the performers and the audience. Between these performers and this audience and what I’m used to. Even the smallest venues we played weren’t this small, this silent. Even these days, when I only play for friends at house parties, there’s always something going on. When people clap, they whistle, they shout. They sing along to the songs that they know.
The recital is short, only an hour. A little over halfway through the program, the pianist and cellist from earlier return, along with another woman carrying a violin. Gabby leans over and whispers, “That’s my violin professor. She’s amazing.”
I make an effort to pay special attention as they play a piece by Clara Schumann, the short note underneath the piece in the program informing me that these professors take a special interest in compositions by female composers. Interesting.
But I’m distracted by the fact that Gabby never centers herself in her seat again after letting me know her professor is on stage. She stays close to me, leaning on the armrest between us, her shoulder brushing my arm. When she eventually shifts away, I follow, leaning closer, making contact between us once again. My arm now on the armrest, I let my hand hang off the end, my fingers brushing against her leg.
We exchange a glance, but she doesn’t move away. In fact, she seems to press her leg closer, making it easier for me to touch her. So I do.
For all it’s an innocent touch, in public, surrounded by a hundred other people, it lights me up.
When the last piece is finished—a brass quintet—all of the faculty members file out on stage, taking a bow together as the audience stands, one by one, giving them a standing ovation. Which is funny, since the audience didn’t seem especially carried away by the performance while it was going on, but whatever.
I stand too, glancing at Gabby, her program pinned under her arm as she claps, her face radiant in the low light.
The performers bow once more and file off through the door at the back. The house lights come up, and the space is finally filled with the quiet murmur of voices, people gathering their things and starting to make their way to the door. Gabby and Lauren are both looking around as though trying to find someone.
Lauren says, “There,” and points across the aisle toward the back and Gabby nods.
Reaching up, Gabby gives my arm a squeeze, her face turned up to mine. “We have to go get our programs signed so we get credit for being here. You can tag along, if you want, or we can meet you in the lobby?”
I give her a wide smile. “You didn’t want my autograph earlier, but you’ll get one of these tonight?”
Lauren gasps behind her. “You didn’t tell me he offered to give you an autograph,” she hisses.
Splitting her attention between me and her friend, Gabby looks a little flustered. “I didn’t think he was serious. And that wasn’t the point.”
“I’ll take your autograph,” Lauren says to me.
I open my mouth to respond, but Gabby hushes her friend. “Seriously? You promised you’d be cool. This is not being cool.”
“If he’s offering, I see no reason to turn him down. Wouldn’t that be rude?”
Gabby just shakes her head, giving me a look like see what I have to put up with? Tugging Lauren behind her, Gabby squeezes past me. “We’ll meet you in the lobby. I’m pretty sure I heard someone say there’s cake.”
She’s right. But I don’t find out right away, instead staying where I am, watching her chat with Lauren as they wait for the professor in the audience to sign their programs. Once they reach him, I move into the aisle, making my way to the door so I get to the lobby less than a minute ahead of them.
Someone is behind a table cutting a chocolate sheet cake with white frosting into squares for people to take. Gabby and Lauren head straight for the table, me trailing behind them. They balance their plates and programs on their hands, taking bites and conferring quietly. Then Lauren drifts away to talk to another group of students and Gabby turns her attention to me.
Her smile looks almost shy, and she moves to stand next to me, looking all around the room as though she isn’t sure what to say and hopes the clusters of people chatting and eating cake will provide some inspiration.
I wait, watching her. Taking perverse enjoyment in her sudden lack of confidence. She’s a study in contrasts.
The pieces of cake are small, and we both finish quickly. Turning to face me again, finally, she holds out her hand. “I’ll throw away your plate for you.”
I let her, waiting while she moves to a large trash can then comes back to me. Her cheeks are pink again, but she meets my eyes. “Um, I’d like to go put my program in my locker so I can turn it in tomorrow. The office is locked, or I’d do it now. Do you want to come with me? Or do you need to go?”
Arching an eyebrow, I ask the first question that comes to me. “You have a locker?”
She grins. “I know. Funny, right? It’s like high school all over again.” She starts to move to the hallway, expecting me to follow. “I asked my brother if other departments have lockers, and he looked at me like I was crazy. He said he had a locker in the locker room, but only because he was on the football team. And that if you have a PE class you might get one while you’re in that class for your workout clothes, but otherwise no. Most departments don’t give their students lockers. I haven’t seen them in any other buildings either. But I have to admit, it’s nice to be able to leave stuff here.” She laughs lightly, leading me upstairs to another hallway with a bank of lockers on one wall across from classroom doors.
They’re the half lockers like I had in middle school. She goes to one about halfway down on the top, twisting the dial to put in her combination, talking to me without glancing away. “I actually have two lockers. This one, and one for my violin downstairs off the rehearsal room.”
“Two lockers? In the same building.” I follow her, leaning my shoulder against a locker a couple feet away while I wait.
She looks up at me and grins. “I know, right? But it means I only have to take books with me when I have homework. And my violin is always where I need it to be. It’s not like I’m going to practice in the dorm. Could you imagine? Everyone would hate me.”
After slipping the program inside, she slams the door shut. When she turns and steps toward me, my eyes automatically go to her lips. They part on an indrawn breath, and I have this sudden, insane desire to kiss her.
But it’s too soon. A coffee this morning and sitting next to her at a recital? Straightening to my full height, I cross my arms and look around. “You know, they just opened this building last year. I haven’t even been in here before.”
“You want a tour?”
Looking at her again, I smile. “Sure.”
She gestures to the doors across from us. “These are two of the classrooms.” She points at the one closest to us. “This is the smart classroom. And that one’s the dumb one.” She points at the other door.
I let out a quick laugh. “The dumb classroom? Is that for the remedial classes or something?”
She grins, and I want to do whatever I can to keep her smiling as much as possible. “No. The smart classroom has all the technology. The other one doesn’t, so we call it the dumb one. It’s kind of a joke.”
I fall in step beside her as she leads me through the hallway where the professors have their studios, then to another hallway full of practice rooms. We head downstairs next, and she says, “You’ve already seen the lobby. The rest of the classrooms are in the basement.” She leads the way to another set of stairs and takes me down, showing me a room with mirrors on one wall, and then another room full of electric pianos. “That’s where I have my theory class. Sight Singing and Ear Training are upstairs.”
She stops and looks around, her bright expression turning more uncertain as she chews her lip, avoiding my eyes. “Well, um, I think that’s everything. You’ve already seen the recital hall.”
“It’s a nice building. Thanks for showing me around.” I take a step closer, drawn to her, but I stop when her eyes finally meet mine.
“Sure!” she chirps, her eyes sliding away again. “So, um, what do you want to do now?”
What do I want to do now? I’m not ready to leave yet. I want to spend more time with her, keep her talking, see if I can make her laugh some more. “It’s a nice night. How about a walk around campus?”
“That sounds good.” The chirpy quality is gone, and she seems more relaxed at my suggestion. I let her lead the way up the stairs and out the door. The recital crowd has dwindled, and now only a couple of people are left cleaning up the remains of the cake and putting away the table.
Gabby smiles and waves at one of the women before we head out the door. I take the lead, gesturing with my head in the direction I want to go. We walk side by side, and she chatters about her classes. She’s funny, telling stories about her English professor who thinks he belongs in Dead Poets Society. I know exactly who she’s talking about, I’ve had him too, but it’s funny to hear her talk about him. It’s dark out now, but the campus is well-lit enough that I can see her expressive face as she talks.
Our hands bump into each other a few times before I finally give in to the urge to wrap my fingers around hers.
Her sentence trails off and she stops talking, her eyes darting down to our interlaced fingers, then up to my face. I give her a quick smile and squeeze her hand. She smiles back, returning the squeeze. We walk in silence for a few more minutes while I lead her to my favorite place on campus. It’s not exactly a secret, but it’s a little off the beaten path, and there’s a bench almost hidden by a group of tall pine trees. It’s a little island of seclusion on the busy campus, and looks out over the city. The view at sunset is perfect, but the moonlight streaming down over the lights on the buildings is almost as magical.
“Wow.” Her voice is full of wonder. There aren’t any lamps here, but I can still make out her parted lips, her eyes looking all around. Woman impressed. Mission accomplished. And we get some time alone while still in a public setting. Which means I could kiss her before the night is over.
Then she says, “I had no idea this was back here. I haven’t explored campus much outside of the places I need to go for classes.”
And it hits me that she’s just a freshman. She’s only been here for a few weeks. And I’m graduating in May. Leaving.
What am I doing here?
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