If You’re Listening / Sing It Back

I am going to tell you about the day my life changed.

The funny thing about that day was that it was different from the very start. I woke up in a foul mood. The winter light was too gray, everything smelled off, and my hair had tangled so much overnight that my scalp ached. I stumbled out of my room only to find the bathroom door locked, with the sound of my roommate’s latest playlist muffled by the running shower. I swiveled a chair around and slumped into it, waiting my turn with a frustration that compounded every minute. Finally the hum of the water sputtered out and the Savage Garden song playing reached my ears with its full range, “like-a-chicka-cherry-cola…” I stood up, resigning not to say a word when my roommate emerged, since my tongue was sure to be sharp this morning and nothing good would come of it. She didn’t know I was up so early and out here waiting, after all. But then the spray of the shower suddenly muted the overly-synthed bridge of “I Want You” once again. I flopped back into the chair and buried my face in the towel on my lap to stifle a yell of frustration. I remained in that posture until my roommate finally opened the bathroom door, sending billows of steam into the living room.

“Forget to wash the conditioner out?” I asked waspishly. So much for holding my tongue.

“Hmm?” my roommate squeaked, by way of a question. She was probably startled to find me there.

“What was with the start-and-stop routine?” I rephrased.

“Oh,” she said with a hint of a nervous giggle, making sure her towel was wrapped around herself snugly. “I was all done but I dried off in the wrong order. So I had to rinse off again and start over.”

My roommate can be a very unusual girl.

I decided against further conversation and dodged past her to enter the slippery bathroom. My bad temper blossomed as I grazed a bottle along the rim of the tub, making the whole row of body washes, shampoos and conditioners tumble like dominoes. The water temperature alternated between icy and scalding, twice making me flinch and knick my legs with my razor. And uncanny annoyances kept plaguing me as I rushed through the other preparations for the day: hangnail snagging on the towel, toe stubbed on the doorjamb, eye poked while I tugged on my shirt.

The foul mood simmered as I threw on clothes (my usual layers of black and charcoal), swiped on makeup (the iconic and miraculously easy combo of black eyeliner, mascara and red lip stain), and assembled a large tote of Saturday essentials (current book and magazines, iPod and headphones in case of noisy kids, camera in case I saw anything worth photographing, paper and pens and journal in case I felt creative). In a hurry I jammed on my parka, gloves and hat in the entryway, shouting a perfunctory “Bye!” over my shoulder just before the door slammed, heading off any possibility of my roommate tagging along.

I made it three strides out of my building before the cold hit me. For a fraction of a second I considered turning back, but my temper roared against any deviation from the plan, so I marched on. It was the kind of cold that is hard to describe unless you have experienced it yourself, the kind that makes you feel as though you perfectly understand the sensation of getting trapped beneath the ice of a frozen river. A steady wind of frigid air slapped my face and wriggled through my seams, down my collar and up my sleeves to freeze me through and through. In the brunt of such a chill, the nagging embarrassment of my rudeness towards my roommate my anger quickly evaporated, to be replaced by wonder at the stark emptiness of the streets on a Saturday morning, and then amazement that any human had ever lasted through a New England winter without indoor heating and polar fleece. Even my well-stoked bad mood got snuffed out on that walk. One by one, the cold extinguished all thought, like a fire deprived of oxygen, until only one pulsed through every fiber of my body: I am freezing.

Suddenly, through my frozen numbness, I found myself slamming the door behind me as I entered my safe haven, Trident Books. Once I had moved beyond the shivering stage to a state of frostbitten autopilot the walk had seemed absurdly quick. I followed the maitre d’ to the small café area and chose the table closest to the radiator. I shed my jacket, the cold clinging to it as though it had been soaked, and huddled up against the hot metal. After a minute or two I started shivering again, a sure sign that my body had survived and was coming back to life, because I suddenly noticed how atypical the scene was. Trident Books is the ultimate weekend destination, Boston’s last private bookstore complete with a to-die-for, postage-stamp-sized restaurant attached, and the usual wait could be up to an hour, easily. But the arctic conditions had apparently scared most Bostonians and tourists into staying home, as only a few other patrons occupied the tables around me, and the bar and booths in the back looked entirely vacant. With a surge of hope, I realize that I might be able to camp out here for the better part of the day, instead of wolfing down a delicious brunch and hurriedly making way for the next customer.

A couple of hours later, I surfaced from my book long enough to realize that the noise level and temperature of the café had risen considerably. Although still not at its normal Saturday capacity, the restaurant was certainly busier, and a line had even begun to grow. I saw my waitress, a goth-hipster with purple eye shadow, send a glare my way, and I pointedly took a few more bites of the remnants of my frittata and toast crusts. I tried to settle back into my book, but I knew my minutes at the table were numbered, and in fairness my waitress could only hope to score a tip of a few dollars on my cheap, two-hour-long breakfast. Before I could dejectedly reach for my coat, though, someone approached and pulled out the chair across from me.

“I have a proposition for you,” said the black-haired, brown-eyed, scruffy boy who had plopped into the seat. “I told them,” he nodded to the increasingly frazzled-looking maitre d’ and waitresses, “that I was meeting you here. You can just hang out, keep reading, maybe get another hour at the table, and I can get some hot food in me and possibly survive the hypothermia I’ve contracted.”

I rapidly weighed my options in my head, the likelihood of an annoying crazy stranger ruining my lazy Saturday versus the very appealing prospect of staying indoors, and in spite of myself, I laughed. The moody waitress approached and scolded me in a nasal voice, “You shouldn’t have taken a table if your entire party wasn’t present.”

“When I got here the place was empty,” I replied, and with a final appraising look at the hopeful, very cute boy across from me, I added, “and besides, this wasn’t planned, we just happened to be in the neighborhood at the same time.”

The boy broke into a huge grin, and peeled off his gloves to warm his hands on the radiator. The waitress took his order, then pivoted back to me.

“You’re not going to make him eat alone, are you?” she raised one narrow penciled eyebrow.

“Of course not. Another cup of coffee, and the challah French toast, with extra strawberries and sugar,” I told her with a too-sweet smile.

“Oh my God,” the boy said when the waitress had slunk away. “Thank you so much. I didn’t think she would blackmail you into ordering more food!”

“Not at all, it’s no big deal,” I shrugged it off. “I kind of owed it to her anyway. I’ve definitely overstayed my welcome.”

“Don’t let her scare you off! We’ll win her over again,” he said with a conspiratorial smile. He extended his hand across the table, and I noticed densely intertwined lines tattooed around his fingers. “I’m Kieran.”

“Molly,” I said with a smile, briefly meeting his eyes, then focusing on the intricate designs on his cold hand. I kept hold of it and rotated it for a better look. The six parallel lines and irregular spacing of dots and dashes had to be musical notes. There were small words running along his knuckles underneath the sheet music, but I couldn’t make them out upside down. With a start I realized how intimate the moment suddenly felt. I released his hand with a casual, “Nice ink.”

“Thanks.” He watched me intently, trying to judge whether I recognized it, while his left hand automatically rubbed the places on his right hand that my fingers had touched.

I was pleased to see that my bad manners hadn’t made him feel too awkward, and felt encouraged. “What song is it?”

He broke eye contact and unconsciously shifted in his seat. “It’s a song that meant a lot to me when I first started playing guitar,” he responded evasively. With a forced laugh he added, “The tattoo artist told me point-blank that if I didn’t want it as a conversation piece, I’d better not put it on my hands!”

Before I could think of a response the overly made-up waitress returned with our drinks, and I was glad for the interruption. Between holding his hand and then bluntly asking him about a personal topic, I was clearly making the interesting and painfully good-looking Kieran uncomfortable. And the possibility that he was a crazy stranger sent by fate to ruin my lazy Saturday only seemed half as likely as it did when he sat down! All of these facts combined to start the hint of a blush blooming in my cheeks. I knew that having gotten so cold earlier in the morning, my almost-albino skin would flare bright red if I went on this way, and in the midst of the waitress’s intrusion I haphazardly stripped off layers of clothing until I got down to a tee shirt, hoping my flush was stillborn.

After the waitress had cleared my old plate and we had each taken a moment to tend to our coffees, a loaded pause hung in the air. My mind raced as I tried to come up with a roundabout way to ask him about his tattoo-melody, since obviously I was not invited to repeat my question directly, but then he broke the silence first.

“You have some ink of your own,” Kieran said, somewhere between a statement and a question. “Your collar…” he added by way of explanation.

“Yes,” I responded, a little jumpy, as my hand shot to my rumpled tee shirt to smooth the fabric back over the blue and pink lines just peeking out. “The reason I’m no longer allowed to wear anything strapless in the presence of my mother,” I said with a laugh, my usual diffusion of the topic. Kieran nodded politely and pushed his food around the plate with his fork. I hesitated, wondering how to steer the conversation back to a stranger-friendly, harmless place. He seemed unsure whether to reach for his book or not; after all, he had promised me a small talk-free meal in his bargain. I decided to push ahead. “Did you say you used to play guitar?”

“Oh, no. I mean, yes. I mean, I do, still,” he answered, caught off guard. “I’m finishing up at Berklee actually. I play classical and electric guitar.”

“Wow, that sounds awesome,” I responded encouragingly. “I play acoustic.”

“Yeah?” He sat up straighter in his seat.

“Just for fun,” I clarified with my hands raised. “Really nothing special. I search out tabs for songs that I like and learn to play them, mostly to amuse myself. I’ve been at it for ten years, but I swear I’m still totally amateur.”

“No, that’s cool that you keep at it,” he said with a wide smile, stretching out his hand. “Let me see those calluses.” I placed my left hand in his, palm up, and he poked at my fingertips with his nail a bit. “Now those are not the calluses of an amateur.”

Another ticklish wave rushed from the fingertips he was prodding over the rest my skin. I pulled my hand back and nervously ran it along the neckline of my shirt again. “I’m not even intermediate, I swear!” I countered, trying to lighten the moment. “I still use silk and steel strings, since they’re softer.”

“Hey, classical uses nylon,” he responded with a shrug. “It’s not the gauge that makes the musician.”

“I like that,” I smiled back. In the safety of a shared interest, we talked over guitar brands, tablatures, and musicians well after our food arrived. Kieran had the simultaneously well-rounded and eclectic taste of someone who spent most of his time thinking about music, and I found that it comfortably overlapped with my more limited catalog. We had just discovered that we had both been at the same House of Blues show a few weeks earlier, when our purple eye-shadowed waitress reappeared and dropped an unasked-for bill between our plates. I looked around and saw that the afternoon had finally packed the store to its normal sardine-can level.

“Would you let us keep the table for a twenty?” Kieran asked. I swiveled back around to see that he had pulled out his wallet and was brandishing a crisp bill at our server. She gave him an appraising look, then pointedly glanced over her shoulder at the line. Kieran met my eyes with a sheepish smile, clearly saying, it was worth a shot.

“Make it forty,” I said, pulling out my own wallet.

“Done,” purple-eyes agreed, stuffing our bills into her back pocket. “It’s all yours.”

Alone again, Kieran and I shared a quick laugh over our victory, then lapsed into another tongue-tied moment. I felt embarrassed at so boldly investing in this conversation, and I could tell he did, too. Any chance of politely pulling out my book or heading back into the cold to do some shopping had been forfeited. Bribing the waitress had definitely pushed this chance meeting into something more serious, and in an unexpected wave of panic my mind went totally blank. Across from me, Kieran fidgeted, then lifted his coffee mug for a sip, forgetting he had already emptied it. My eyes lingered on the lines and dots woven around his fingers.

“It’s a peony.” He looked up again, and I tugged down the neck of my tee shirt deliberately, showing a purplish-pink flower under my left collarbone, with delicate script curling over and under it. “It says I was spinning free with a little sweet and simple numbing me. It’s from a Jimmy Eat World song. People give me shit about, like, having emo lyrics tattooed forever over my heart, but I don’t really care. It’s a powerful song.”

“‘Sweetness’? Really?” Kieran leaned as close as the table would allow, his face all lit up. He even let out a laugh, but it sounded like amusement or relief, not the derision I was half-expecting.

“Like it?” I asked, a little surprised at his enthusiasm, but mostly glad that I had decided to concede my secret. My smile matched his, and I laughed too.

“Yeah, no, absolutely,” he said, sitting squarely back in his chair and looking into my eyes with a renewed intensity. “I – I love that song, too. They’re the best…”

“…just not live,” we both said at the same time, then started laughing again.

After that there was no stopping us. The chatter of the crowded restaurant fell into the background as we raced through topics: albums, movies, books, pet peeves, childhoods, future plans. All of my usual ambivalence about explaining myself to someone new, picking and choosing what to reveal and how to present myself, simply melted away. This was fun. When a short, blonde waitress interrupted us, it took us both a moment to remember where we were.

“How long have you been here?” she asked curtly.

“Oh, um, a while?” Kieran responded.

“Where’s the waitress with the purple eye-shadow?” I asked.

“Her shift ended,” the waitress said. “Can I wrap anything up?”

“No, that’s okay, we’ll get out of your way,” I said, gathering my things as Kieran dropped a few bills on top of the check. Back on the street, the wind had stopped, and the air felt so mild I didn’t even bother putting on my hat or scarf. Maybe the brutal chill earlier in the day had simply skewed my body’s conception of cold. We kept talking as we ambled down Newbury Street, until we reached my cross-street.

“This is me.” I stopped on the corner, and he did too, turning to face me. “Thanks for lunch.”

“Hey, thanks for letting me join you.” He shot me an enticing smile as he tugged off a glove and began fumbling with his cell phone. “I’m getting your number, right?”

“Not so fast,” I said, and he looked up, surprised. I reached up and pulled his uncovered left hand toward me, and read aloud the words printed along the base of his fingers. “What a dizzy dance.” My stomach flipped, and I pulled the glove off of his right hand. “The sweetness will not be concerned with me.”

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