“Dude, I can’t believe you’re doing this.”
Mike’s shaking his head at me from the doorway. Ignoring the disbelief in his voice, I toss my empty Coke can in his recycle bin and grab my guitar. “You’ve said that like five times now. I’m doing this. Let’s go.”
Let’s go before the event is over. Let’s go before Mike’s asshole roommate, Zach, shows up. Let’s go before I decide trying to win my ex-girlfriend back using the very same method that made her hate me is not the best decision I ever made.
Let’s fucking go.
Mike unlocks his car, and I carefully strap in my guitar case on the back seat. Smacking a mosquito, I climb in the front. Let’s go before I contract Lyme Disease or Triple E.
Neither of us say much on the drive to Eliot Beach. I don’t know what Mike’s thinking as he plays with the radio, but my mind is so far away I can barely hear the music. Connecticut, New Hampshire, Connecticut… My memories ping pong back and forth until I’m dizzy with them.
For the past two years, my last memory of Claire was the way her lip trembled that day in the mall, her brown eyes wide and almost eerily unseeing. Her face vacant and distressed. It didn’t make for a good last memory, not for a girl whose smile used to make my heart stop, and whose one-liners used to make me wonder how I’d duped her into thinking I was smart enough to hang out with her, and whose lips on my skin…
I should stop there. She’s not mine to kiss anymore, and if I follow that line of thought, I’ll just get depressed.
Point is, that scene didn’t make for a good last memory, but I’m the one who made it my last memory. Until a few weeks ago, that is, when I ran into her in the strangest, most unlikely place in the entire country. How does that happen? What kind of twisted deity arranged for that?
I hadn’t wanted a second chance. I’d told myself I’d moved on. But her constant presence was too much.
I didn’t deserve a second chance. So I told myself she was better off. But the way she played that day in the park was too irresistible. I knew then I had to have her back anyway. She’s either my muse or some demon sent to torment me.
So here I am, either about to do something really romantic or something incredibly stupid. With my luck, probably stupid. If I hadn’t been an idiot two years ago, I might not have lost all that time.
My stomach twists thinking about it, and I consider that downing that Coke so fast was not a good move. I close my eyes, concentrating on my new song and playing air guitar with my seatbelt. It helps relax me, but it’s not performing the song tonight that’s making my insides roll like the waves.
Finally, Mike parks under a streetlamp by the house where Claire’s family is staying. I force myself to breathe. I inhale the scent of the beach through the open car window and realize I’m about to spin my thumb ring off.
Mike realizes it too. “You sure you—”
“Yes, damn it.” I pry my fingers away from the ring and open the door. “Don’t ask me that again.”
But he asks me that again when we reach the coffee shop, too.
I shoot him a nasty look, and he laughs, and now I know he’s just trying to bug me. “Come on.” I push him into the crowd.
The shop is packed, laughing and whispering people spilling onto the boardwalk. Over the ocean, the sky is already turning dark and the temperature is dropping as fast as the light is fading. But inside the store, it’s barely brighter.
The show’s begun and the lights have been dimmed. I follow Mike to the counter, grateful that no one’s paying any attention to the guy the with the guitar case for a change. That’s because some other guy with a guitar is already performing, regaling everybody with my least favorite Dylan song. I tune him out, just like I always try to tune out Dylan whenever anyone puts on his music.
After signing some paper and buying some over-priced coffee, I worm my way to the back. Mike’s head is swiveling around, searching for Claire and company, I guess. I let him look out for friends. I have to look out for my guitar. There’s not enough room for all of us.
“Found them,” he whispers at last, just as the guy on the makeshift stage finishes. Mike motions with his cup to the other side of the room, and I push hair out of my eyes, squinting through the mass of bodies that block my view.
It’s Claire that I find first. Of course. It could be that crazy orange hair—what the hell was she thinking dyeing it orange of all colors?—but I think it’s just that my gaze will hone in on her no matter what. Especially with that hair, she’s like a flame. I can’t not stare.
But she doesn’t seem to notice me. She’s not noticing much if I had to guess. Her face is strained. She looks nervous. I can’t tell from here, but I’d bet she’s gripping her case strap with white knuckles.
Poor Claire. I used to tell her all the time she shouldn’t be nervous about performing because damn, she’s good. But I don’t think she ever believed me.
If she’d let me, I’d make her believe it. But I’m not sure she will.
My hand runs to the Buddha charm hanging around my neck, a tiny silver thing that she once gave me for my birthday. Although I’d stopped wearing it because it was too painful after we split, I kept the charm in my guitar case this whole time. When I finally put it back on tonight, I was thinking I needed the Zen. From the looks of it, though, Claire might need it more than me.
That’s it. I have to go to her now. I have to say something.
I pick up my case, ready to risk clocking a bunch of innocent people with it in order to cross the shop, but then the guy at the mic calls out her name. Too late.
As usual for me.
I settle back against the counter instead, drinking coffee I don’t really want.
“You coming?” Mike asks while Claire gets settled up front.
There’s only one seat open at the table since she got up, so I shrug. Not worth assaulting people to get to it. “I’m good.”
As soon as Mike moves away, I return my attention to Claire. She’s tuning her guitar and saying something to the owner. Even from this distance, I can feel the spark in her—the heat and the life—and I wonder if other people can too. It’s this crazy way she lights up a room that make my lips dry, as though needing her to wet them for me. Her wide nervous eyes and that smile filled with self-doubt only add to her presence. It makes her charming too. And it’s making me crazy.
Some girls think they’re the hottest things on the planet, and I’ve met way more than my share of them. But they have no idea.
She is, without question, the hottest thing on the planet, and she doesn’t even know it. And if she did, she wouldn’t care. That’s part of what makes it so true.
Claire’s talking, and I have to refocus to hear her. “But I did have an ex who wrote more than one unflattering song about me. So this is the song I wrote about the experience.”
I cringe and drink more. If that’s the worst she has to say about that whole ordeal, she’s being too nice. I’m guessing “Romeo Must Die” is one of the least angry songs she wrote in retaliation. Not sure I want to hear the others.
Then she starts to play, and even though I’ve watched videos of her performing this song online, watching her live is amazing. She’s changed so much. Gotten so much better.
And right there I decide she’s the hottest, most talented girl on the planet, too. I might be a bit biased, but screw it. I’m allowed to be. She sounds damn good. Someone else can play critic.
I can’t drag my gaze away until she finishes, and then I assess the audience. They’re smiling and staring at her like I was. That’s my girl, I start to think, except she’s not.
“Um, yeah. New song,” Claire’s saying. “Let’s hope I don’t forget it like I’m forgetting what I’m saying, you know? It’s called ‘That Girl.’”
I lean forward with interest until I hear her lyrics. The words wrap around my chest like a rope, pulling me toward her and crushing the life from me at the same time. I’m not sure what to think, what to make of this plea that she’s singing. But it’s directed at me. I can sense that through and through.
At one point I almost catch her eye but she quickly looks away, and for a half beat, she fumbles. I hear the rhythm crash like the breakers on the rocks. Then she recovers, almost seamlessly.
I don’t, and I close my eyes.
“So why can’t I make you see?
That girl is gone
This girl is here
That girl’s a ghost
This girl is near
That girl hurt you
This girl hurts too
This girl’s sorry for what she did to you”
As her clear, silky voice fades, the room bursts into applause, but I can’t move. Why is she apologizing? I’m the one who’s supposed to apologize. She did that years ago. I’m the one who refused to listen.
I’m the one. And she’s the one. It’s my job to make her see, not the other way around.
For the first time tonight, I feel a little less crazy about what I’m going to do. Not any less nervous because there’s probably never a time when telling the girl you love that you need her in your life is not going to be vomit-inducing, but less crazy. Hopeful even.
I remain by the counter, finishing my coffee for several more performers, but I don’t hear a damn thing until my name. When the owner calls out “Jared Steele,” sounding hilariously confused, I’m ready. Inside, I know I’ve been ready for longer than I care to admit. Claire’s been stuck in my head and heart like the catchiest damn tune ever, so it’s time to make good on this unexpected second chance.
What music hurt, it must also be able to heal.