It was the kiss that did it. It was as sweet as a cherry ice on a hot blue summer day, but it finished with the warm burn of cinnamon that made him flush with the promise of mysterious things becoming clear and present and pleasant.
Her name was Astlyn, and she was wearing the t-shirt of a band he really liked. Not that he noticed that first. First, it was her eyes, the shape more than the color — almond-shaped and slightly turned in a permanent kind of snarky amusement. She looked right at him, her head tilted, and didn’t look away as he walked by the bench she was sitting on in the park.
“You have a nice smile,” she said after him.
When he stopped and turned, she added, “Or were you smiling at someone else?” There was an lilt in her voice, a kind of Irish thing, that made his ears dance.
He opened his mouth to reply, but just looking at her tied his brain up in knots and he couldn’t get a word out.
“Ah, mute. That explains everything.”
“I’m on my way to a lesson. Um…piano…lesson.” He kind of fidgeted his fingers in the air in lieu of more words.
“I had a feeling you were an artist,” she said.
He laughed. “No, not really. My mom makes me.”
“So you’re not a musician? That’s a shame. They always get the girl.”
Her smile was magnetic, tugging at something at the back of his chest, and he stepped, almost fell, closer to her. His heart raced. He glanced at his watch and saw his heart rate; it was twice normal.
She looked away, over her left shoulder, smiling the smile of a fisherman about to grab the pole and start reeling.
“You,” he said, “Are different.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “Different, how?”
“Well,” he huffed, trying to put the feeling into words without putting her off. “Most girls don’t talk to strangers.”
“We were in the same Classical Lit class, before I transferred out. I can’t believe you don’t remember. You’d have noticed that if you weren’t always asleep in the back.”
He tried to picture the warm, yellow room, full of dust motes and the droning beat of Mr. Llewellyn’s nasally voice chanting out lines from the Iliad and the Odyssey. He couldn’t picture her there, but then he could barely remember it, so often were his eyes closed.
“So,” she said. “You don’t look like a piano player.”
He shrugged and held up his hands. “I actually wanted to play guitar…or maybe drums. But my mom said I had to learn music first.”
“You should always listen to your mom,” the girl said, her eyes twinkling. He wondered if she was making fun of him.
“What’s your name?” he asked her.
She told him.
“See. Astlyn’s…different.” He’d wanted to say exotic or unique or something, but it sounded like a come-on. Not that he didn’t want it to be a come-on, but…
“Seems pretty normal to me.” She looked up at him through a cage of eyelashes. “I hope I’m not making you late.”
“Oh, yeah, right. I’ve got to…” He gestured in the wrong direction, then the right one, then smiled.
“Next time, bring your guitar,” she said.
And she did see him there, every day for a week. And he did bring his guitar on the days when he didn’t have piano lessons.
“How did you know I had a guitar?” he asked.
“Calluses,” she explained, and grabbed his left hand and ran the soft edges of her fingers over the rough tips of his. Every single touch was like a spark plug firing.
He played her the songs he knew, made up of a total of about ten chords — with a couple of barre chords that were very, very rough. And he sang quietly. He knew he didn’t have a bad voice, but it wasn’t…manly, or something.
She sang along softly with him, sometimes finding the harmonies, and it was a feeling like they were rising up out of the park into the ocean of warm, sweet air and sunlight, just spinning around each other, giddy. She’d smile at him, the tiniest, encouraging smile, and he would look away and fumble on the strings, and just keep going, trying to hide from the feelings rushing through him, forgetting the words and just repeating the refrain.
It was Thursday, and the song was a ballad that band they both liked did. It was about pain and love and memory. She leaned forward on the last, ringing chord, her eyes half-lidded, her mouth slightly open, smoldering. He leaned forward over the guitar, awkward and anxious, hesitated, and then, kissed her.
They hung there in the moment in-between, faces close, just breathing.
“You should write your own songs,” Astlyn told him.
“What?” He wondered if the kiss was bad or something.
“You have a poetic soul.” Astlyn licked her lips. “I tasted it.”
She squeezed her eyes at him in that way that promised she was always right.
And he felt it, like a bird fluttering in his chest, wildly trying to escape. Not words, not music, just a feeling, like he would explode if he didn’t…say something.
“I want you to write a song for me.” She was looking off, into the trees, at something far off he couldn’t see. Then she turned, and smiled at him again, and the bird fluttered madly.
And he wrote a song for her, many songs in fact, over many years, even after the last time he saw her, he was still writing songs about her. He’d stop there on that bench with his notebook and sometimes the guitar, and the little bird would sing in the long, dying afternoon, about that moment, the kiss in the beautiful place. And his pencil would scratch out the barest sketches, ever-looking back, ever-reaching forwards.