Chapter three: a due
I didn't sleep that night. I lay on top of my covers feeling feverish, too warm and too cold. Too scared to sleep. I found myself playing with the leather string Jude had once worn around his neck.
His face swam before my closed eyes. And his scarred hands.
I thought about what he'd told me, and how desperate I was to see him again. I thought about ridiculous, untimely things like devotion to a stranger, or being in love with an idea. And I wondered how much sleep Jude would take from me. And if I would be able to move on if I saw him again, or if it would only get worse. If it could get worse.
But regardless of the cost, the lost sleep and the obsession, it wasn't a choice. If I could, I would see him again and again, in the hopes of soaking up some small part of whatever it was that made him fearless. What made him Jude.
It was a relief to feel the ivory beneath my fingertips. The touch of the keys was cool and solid; the most constant parts of my life were their feel and their sound. The beauty of their voices. As I started to play, I knew today would be different. I could feel the music behind each note, like it had never left. It seemed inconceivable that I'd spent an entire week without my music. How could I have forgotten this feeling?
My fingers flew against the keys, greeting them as old friends. Each note had a life and a personality. And when I strung them together, introducing them when it was right, melding them, giving them depth, my piano sang of the beauty of drops of rain beading on my window, condensing and dispersing, and the bending of grass in a wind from a storm still miles away. I sat on the piano bench, alone, telling myself a story about the refraction of morning light and the falling of dust in forgotten rooms. The spinning of webs and cocoons and lies.
This was where I belonged. On this bench, before this piano. The only place in the world where I really believed the narrative I told myself all day – that I didn't need anyone. That I could live on my own, shut everyone out, and be safe. That I could be untouchable. Fearless.
My fingers slipped and the music shattered. I cringed as my melody died without its harmony. My hands slid slowly down into my lap. I hated that every song had to end.
"What was that?"
I almost shrieked. I spun around, slamming my knee against the piano in the process, and found Jude leaning casually in the doorway.
I almost couldn't speak. I couldn't believe he was here. This was my space. The place where real life had no domain, where I was in control. Where I couldn't be surprised or afraid.
But everything about Jude clashed with the way I thought my life had to be.
"Jude," I gasped. I reeled, trying to catch up with this seemingly impossible turn of events. "What are you doing here?"
"What were you playing?"
I pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes. "Nothing. Whatever comes to mind." I removed my hands and he was still there. An enormous presence in my little insulated rehearsal room.
He pushed off the doorpost and came closer. Three steps and he was halfway to me, fully submerged in this space which had once belonged to me. Now that he was here, it seemed different. The air was charged and cold. The space was his. "You made that up? Or – composed it?"
"No, I…that wasn't composing. That was just…"
"Just you, doing what you do because you're alive?"
"No!" I swallowed hard, trying to regain my composure. He was right, of course. My music was closer to my identity than any other part of my life. But I couldn't admit it. I couldn't let him into the only part of me that I'd been able to keep safe. I felt so attached to Jude, for no comprehensible reason, but that didn't mean I was ready for this. I wanted access into his world, not the other way around. "I was just playing around. It was just noise."
He smirked. I felt so small and young, like I was simple and utterly readable. Like he could see straight through me. He sauntered closer and leaned his arms on top of the piano. "That's bullshit. Where the hell did you learn how to do that?"
I sighed. "How did you find me here?"
"You sound like you didn't want to be found."
"Or not by me?"
I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to scare him away, but I didn't want him to stay here. As sick as it was, I didn't want him to feel welcome. Because if someone else felt at home in my space then I really had nowhere left to hide. After all I'd survived, I was still such a coward. "Are you going to answer any of my questions?"
He came around the side of the piano and sat down next to me on the little bench. I went to stand but he caught my elbow and kept me next to him. "If you show me how to play."
My heart fluttered into my throat but I found myself nodding. He put his right hand up and left it hovering over the keys. Tiny silver scars laced over his knuckles. I almost didn't want to touch him. It was too much intimacy for this place. But I slid my fingers on top of his and positioned them on the keys. His skin was warm. "This is C," I introduced, as I pressed against his thumb. The note sang. I shifted his hand so he played C, E, and G. "A combination of notes like this is called a chord. Once you know what different keys and chords sound like, you can make any kind of music. They're like letters and words you can string together."
"To tell a story?" What was that tone? Insightful? Hopeful? Mocking?
I looked up and he was close. Closer than I'd realized. I dropped my hands and leaned away. "What are you doing here?" I asked again.
He turned to face me but kept his hand rested against the keys. "I wanted to see you." He had a day's stubble on his chin.
"How did you find me?"
"Google. There aren't many musicians in the area named Wren. I found a couple announcements of your old performances here. When I got here, I just asked around. Seems like a pretty small school."
I should have stood up then and run. I should have packed up my dorm room and left. I'd had instinctive warning bells that had kept me off the grid for years, but today they were broken. I didn't think about who else could find me. I didn't think that if finding me had been so easy for Jude, it wouldn't be much more difficult for my father. But I was caught in Jude's presence and I'd already forgotten the rest of the world. I forgot what it was to be hunted and scared. I forgot to keep running. No warning bells went off. No nervous tingle up my spine that told me it was time to move on. My defenses were broken.
I flushed and scooted farther away from him on the bench. "Why?"
I could feel that he was still looking at me, but I felt too vulnerable to return his attention. "Why did you want to see me?"
He shifted and I watched his hand as it brushed against his knee. "Mostly because I can't stop thinking about what you said at the party." He turned back to the piano. He played the chord I'd showed him, C, then, E, then G. "You had no way of knowing what riding was to me, but somehow you knew. Which means that, on some level…you must understand me. And that's not something I've ever been able to say about another human being." He added B, but the sound was discordant and unappealing. He pulled away from the keys. He looked lost as he stared down at them. "I don't understand this stuff," he said with frustration, and I didn't know whether he meant music or connecting with other people.
I took his hand again and returned it to the chord, but this time added high C, instead of B. The chord was complete and major. Happy. Simple.
"Will you play me something?" He moved over on the bench, giving me room to stretch my hands across the keys.
I bit my lip. Should I play for him? It seemed futile. I didn't believe in real communication. What he said was nice, but I didn't believe that two people could ever really understand each other.
But I looked up at him and saw the invitation in his incredible eyes and I had to try.
Putting my hands on the piano was like dropping an anchor, bringing me back into the world of my music. "I'll play you some of my favorites." My voice was quiet and somber. I bit my lip and smoothed my fingers over the keys before I started to play.
I played him pieces of songs and movements, not lingering on any one piece for very long. I played him Philip Glass and Carl Vine and Rachmaninoff. I played Liszt and Debussy. They were completely different, disparate and unrelated, but today they all seemed like part of a greater whole.
I don't know how long I played. It could have been a whole lifetime. But eventually I slowed. My hands tired and the notes faded. The music slipped away.
His fingers wrapped around my wrist. I looked up, surprised, and I didn't know how to interpret his expression. His eyes…I barely recognized them. If anyone had told me those eyes were capable of emptiness, I wouldn't have believed them. They were a beautiful, clear, pale sea green and so full of life and emotion, I could barely breathe. They burned.
I knew then that this person in front of me wasn't empty or emotionless. He wasn't untouchable. And knowing that made me want to touch him.
He moved his hand so our arms weren't between us. And he leaned closer. I couldn't tell what he felt or what he was thinking. Only that this was the intensity I'd seen in him when he raced and fought. The truth of action I'd envied so much. And suddenly I was a part of it.
He hesitated only inches away. His lips were close. He looked at me, as if unsure. His grip on my wrist tightened. He took a long, silent breath and suddenly his lips were on mine.
He kissed me and the world changed.
His free hand found my cheek and his fingertips were light across my skin.
I lost my hands as they found him. I clung to him but I was nowhere; lost, awash in him. In the storm and siege of his gentle kiss. And I didn't want to emerge. His fingers trailed fire across my skin and somehow he was holding me, pulling me close. I kissed him with quiet abandon.
When I play my music, I hate when songs end. Each time I pray for them to last, to keep me safe and whole a little longer. And that was how I felt in his arms.
But nothing lasts forever.
"Please, Wren, I'm begging you," Caleb said yet again. "There's literally nothing in this world I wouldn't give to hang out with Jude Moore again. Seriously. Take everything in my bank account. Take my girlfriend. Take my right arm."
Sophie rolled her eyes and generously tried to run interference. "Crimony, Caleb," she said in the very tactful way in which Sophie can sound gentle and scolding at the same time, "do you see how you might kind of be imposing here?"
We were in the student center, chugging coffee and cramming for our upcoming final in baroque music history. Or rather, Sophie and I were cramming. Caleb was seemingly only there to pump me for information and plead for an in with Jude.
I'd have given in to his request hours ago just to shut him up, but I honestly didn't know if I'd even see Jude again. He'd surprised me so completely when he had found me in the practice room the day before, and his departure had been just as abrupt. No ceremony, no lingering goodbyes. He'd basically fled after our kiss. And I had no fucking clue what that meant. I didn't know if the kiss had meant anything lasting. I didn't have his phone number. I didn't know where he worked. Or rode, assuming that was what he did on a daily basis. I had no way of contacting him to ask him what exactly we were doing, or if it would happen again.
"Just give me some hope!" Caleb demanded. "I'm dying! My whole life has been leading up to hanging out with Jude Moore."
"Caleb," I said, more gently than was really called for, considering how obnoxious he was being. "I have no idea if I'll ever see him again. If I do, I'll be sure to put you two in a room together. Now leave me the fuck alone about it."
Caleb opened his mouth to protest but Sophie shot him a glare and he shut it again. "Fine," he said and focused on the textbook in front of him, harrumphing and sighing.
I propped my cheek on one palm and tried to focus on the massive textbook in front of me, but I'd barely made it through half a page before another distraction plopped down into the seat next to mine. I jerked out of my studying reverie and found Micah Robinson grinning at me. Something about his smile seemed vaguely lupine. Maybe it was the slightly hooded look to his eyes, almost predatory. Or maybe it was just my imagination.
Micah and I were friends because, through an unfortunate twist of bad luck, he had found out my secrets. He worked as a nurse assistant for nine and a half dollars an hour in the long-term care facility where my past lay gaunt and pale in a hospital bed. Not dying but never improving. Stagnant in a way that wasn't natural. He kept my secrets because that was part of his job, but the knowledge was enough to make him a dangerous and seemingly permanent part of my life.
He had taken me on a couple uninspiring dates when we first met, and even though nothing had come of it, he'd been casually pursuing me ever since. He was persistent. And I wasn't ready to give him the hard "no" because I was afraid that the rejection would be enough to spring a leak in the as-of-yet untainted confidentiality ethics that held my secrets at bay. It's hard to describe the complicated combination of resentment and attachment you feel for a person who knows your secrets. But because of it I felt a certain connection with him that my friends didn't share or understand.
He put his hand congenially on my back. "Wren, Saturday: you, me, house party on fifth street. Okay? You guys should come too," he added to Sophie and Caleb, clearly as an afterthought.
I tried to hide my revulsion at the idea as I subtly twisted away from his offending hand. "I'll have to check my schedule," I replied, with as little sarcasm as possible.
"Right. Your thriving social calendar," he said, laughing. "I'll see you there?" It was a question, but only in inflection. The expression on his face was nothing if not self-assured. He bounced to his feet, the picture of boundless energy, and planted a quick and unavoidable kiss on my lips before jogging off to catch up with some of his frat brothers as they walked by. I watched him go with distaste.
I sighed and tried not to make eye contact with my friends.
Caleb was looking at me like I'd drowned his puppy. "What the fuck?" he gasped, clearly aghast. "Jude Moore is interested in you, and you're still dating that fucking guy? That is…that's insanity. That's sacrilege!"
I fidgeted, wondering if it would be worth it just to get up and leave. "We're not dating. He's just…overly familiar."
"Wren, why do you hang out with him?" Sophie asked in complete bewilderment. She wasn't one to sugar coat. Especially not when it came to Micah. This wasn't the first time I'd been subject to her piercing and clinical analysis of his character. "He's an ass."
"He's not that bad," I responded automatically.
"He really is. All social obnoxiousness aside, I've heard he's really bad news." She had that supremely insufferable tone in her voice that meant that she was concerned for me. I heard it all the time and it never got less annoying.
There was more than one rumor in circulation about some unpleasant encounters Micah'd had with girls in our school. He could be loud and insulting and boisterous. He could even be abrasive and intimidating. But to me everyone was like that. Micah was just another insecure jerk with something to prove. Like all of us. But I couldn't tell Sophie and Caleb any of that. Just like I couldn't tell them that he probably knew me far better than they did. He knew my secrets. Not all of them, but enough. And I was afraid to push him too far because I didn't know what he would do with them.
"He's harmless," I denied, unsure whether I really believed it or not. "Now can we please study?"
Caleb and Sophie made disbelieving faces at each other, but I pretended not to see as I buried my face in the textbook.
It didn't matter what they thought. And it didn't matter what Micah did; how obnoxious he was or how unwanted his advances. This was just the monotony and regular inconvenience of interacting with other people. This was how it always felt, being burdened with the expectations and interest of others. I hated it, but I couldn't avoid it. Being around other people had always felt this way to me.
With one glaring, unavoidable exception. Being with Jude had felt different. Like a blinding bright light in a sea of murky gray. Like finding out that, despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary, there's true good in the world. I'd been forcibly casual with Caleb when I'd admitted that I didn't know if I'd see Jude again. But the possibility of it weighed heavy in my mind, pressing in my consciousness in a way that felt unmistakably like fear. I had to see him again.
The next night when I was walking to the music hall to practice, I found Jude waiting for me outside the building's main door.
He was beautiful. Spread across the door frame, he seemed impossibly tall. His t-shirt clung to the definition in his chest and I tried not to stare. I saw a string around his neck, disappearing under his shirt, and self-consciously touched the leather cord I was still wearing wound around my wrist.
He didn't try to kiss me, or even touch me. He just said, "Hey."
I bit my lip and said it back.
"You busy practicing?" he asked, eyeing the stack of sheet music I was carrying under one arm.
"Blow it off," he suggested.
He didn't have to ask twice.
Jude grinned and took my hand.
My heart leapt into my throat.
"Have you eaten?"
I hesitated, but eventually shook my head.
"Let's get a burger."
He led me to his motorcycle, where it was parked illegally in front of the music hall, and tossed his helmet to me.
"Isn't it dangerous to ride without a helmet?" I asked warily. He only had one.
He brushed the comment away. "If you're going really fast. But sometimes the risk makes it better." He grinned at me and mounted the beastly motorcycle.
I donned the helmet, considering his words. I couldn't pretend to understand. I didn't appreciate risk the way he did. I couldn't abide the feeling of being unsafe. But Jude thrived on it. It made him feel alive.
I slid onto the motorcycle behind him with minimal awkwardness, and Jude drove us off campus and swiftly onto the highway. I clenched tight against him, arms and legs frozen in a terrified effort to stay aboard while hanging onto my sheet music, but I did manage to keep my eyes open this time.
Jude took me to a little hole-in-the-wall burger joint in a less-than-savory part of town. The woman behind the counter knew him; her face lit up as we walked through the door. She was tall and platinum blonde, and her enormous breasts strained against her t-shirt, which had the company logo stamped across it. She had a porn star body and a voice to match. It took me less than two seconds to compare myself to her and come out feeling insecure.
"Judy!" she greeted with all excitement. "Where've you been, gorgeous?"
Jude grinned back as we approached the counter. "Big race last weekend. I had to get in shape."
"Well you should have called me! You know I give you a work out." Her huge grin was suggestive and a little desperate. Her bubblegum pink lips stretched thin over straight, dull teeth.
Jude ignored that. He turned to me, ushering me closer. "This place has the best burgers in the city. Well-kept secret."
The porn star waitress eyed me with distaste. The feeling was mutual, but I hoped that I was masking my emotions a little better than she was. "This your new girl, Judy?" Her eyes performed a full head-to-toe sweep across me, and she didn't look impressed by what she saw.
He looked at me and his expression was completely good-natured. "I dunno. Are you my girl?"
I sensed that he was making fun of the blonde more than he was actually asking me, but the question still made me nervous. I smiled without mirth. "Depends on how good this burger is," I joked. I didn't feel like joking. I felt awkward and indignant. I wanted to leave.
Jude laughed and turned to order, but the porn star interrupted him in her little-girl voice. "You usually get a girl with more tits. What are you, sweetie, an A-cup?"
It took me a few seconds to summon a wry smile, but I managed. I tried to block out the intrusive mental images of Jude fucking this slutty waitress.
Jude laughed, seemingly incapable of awkwardness. "Don't be so mean, Chris. It makes you look desperate."
Something flared in Chris' eyes, something out of line with her babydoll persona. "Well why don't you order already. I got shit to do, you know. You want the usual?" Her tone was considerably less cutesy than before.
"Yeah," Jude said, and gestured at me. "What do you want?"
"Uh," I began haltingly, "just a burger. Whatever."
"Whatever? That's a dangerous choice."
I smiled without humor. "Well I can't be a daredevil on the racetrack like you, so I've got to get my excitement somewhere."
He grinned a lopsided grin. "She'll have the same," he said, and paid for both our meals.
"Thanks," I said a few minutes later as we slid into a booth with our burgers and cokes. "You didn't have to buy me dinner." It felt strange to thank him for taking me to meet his fuck buddy.
He shrugged. "Isn't that what guys are supposed to do on dates?"
My stomach did acrobatics at the word. I smiled a little, despite myself, and mumbled under my breath about outdated gender norms.
Jude dug into the burger, nestled in its paper packaging. He took two huge bites and his eyes rolled back with pleasure. He pounded one fist on the table. "So good," he said enthusiastically. "There's some kind of secret sauce," he explained with his mouth full. "It's amazing."
I laughed a little and unwrapped my own burger. It was enormous, exploding with cheese and meats and various condiments. The smell of it was a living thing.
I took a bite, mostly for show, and smiled at him.
Jude decimated his burger, but it became rapidly apparent that I wasn't keeping up. Or even close.
I looked down at my burger with its one bite missing and waited for the inevitable scolding that always came with social eating.
"You don't like it?" Jude asked regretfully.
"No, it's great," I said without any real conviction. "I'm just…not much of an eater."
"Oh," he said. "You're one of those."
I cringed. How many times had I had this argument before, with how many strangers? It seemed endless. "No, it's not that. I'm not…you know…"
"Anorexic," he said, filling in the gap.
Now that the label had been thrown out, it was going to be hard to shake. Once you told someone that you don't like to eat, they decided you were in denial about your condition and any explanation you gave was useless.
"No. It's not about body image or weight or anything. I'm not…I don't care about that kind of thing. I just don't really enjoy eating. I don't like to do it."
"That's fucked up," he said bluntly.
I pushed my burger at him. "More for you," I said, trying to placate him with jokes.
He didn't laugh. "Why don't you eat?"
I sighed. "It's a long story. And even once they hear it, most people aren't satisfied by it."
"Tell me the story," he said, and plucked a few fries from the plate.
I took a long, slow breath. "Well…I used to eat with my dad. Family meals. And…and I don't like my dad. So I don't like to eat."
Jude blinked at me, waiting for me to continue. "People aren't satisfied by that explanation? You're kidding. It's so rich and insightful."
I looked away from him, annoyed at his jabbing. "Well, that's the explanation. I eat when I'm hungry and I've been this way for years and never had any health problems. So I'm sorry if you don't like it but-"
"Alright, alright," Jude said pacifyingly. "You don't need to get defensive. I'm plenty fucked up. I'm not going to begrudge other people being fucked up too."
I shifted in the hard plastic seat and pulled one leg up under me. I watched him eat and tried to push down the discomfort. "So you and the waitress seem like a perfect match," I said sarcastically, and picked at the wrapper of my neglected hamburger. "What went wrong?"
He chuckled a little and started swirling the ice in his soda. "Nothing. It went exactly how it was supposed to. We hung out for a while and then went our separate ways."
I smiled grimly. "So why motorcycles?" I asked, changing the subject.
Jude smiled but I could see a frown begin to pull at the corners of his eyes. He sighed and reached across the table to move a strand of hair away from my eyes. His fingers lingered on my skin. "Because they're greater than the sum of their parts."
Conversation flowed easily, even with Chris the waitress glaring at me from behind the service counter. But even though Jude was funny and honest in a way that I'd never encountered in another person, I couldn't stop fixating on the notion that, at least in his mind, we had a course to run, and in the end of that natural progression, we would go our separate ways. It was too early to worry about that kind of bullshit. This was only our first date, and I hadn't even been sure it was that. But already the thought of losing him was crushing. I didn't even know what he was to me, but I knew that, whatever it was, I couldn't stand to lose it.
"Morning Wren." Louise was the warmest of the cold, detached nurses. She liked me. And she pitied me. But that was kind of to be expected. Not something I could avoid in this place. At least she had the decency to try to hide it.
"Morning," I responded, trying to simulate cheerfulness. "How's she doing?"
Louise grimaced a little in the corners of her lips. "She's having a hard day."
I stifled a sigh. My mother didn't change, but it was starting to seem like the years were taking some kind of subtle toll. Like as she aged, she somehow became angrier, weaker, without any increase in cognizance.
I'd wasted so many years waiting for life to become more manageable, more fair. But it never does. It just spins further and further out of control.
"Alright. Thanks for the heads up," I said wearily. My mother's door was ajar and I knocked and let myself in. "Good morning, Madeline," I said sweetly.
My mother was sitting on the window sill, all bones and thin skin, her hair lank down her back. She looked up at me. "Oh," she said absently. "Hello."
"I'm just here for a visit," I said in my most non-threatening tone. "Would you like to talk today?"
"I found something disturbing. Just moments ago. And I can't make any sense of it."
I held in a groan. "What is it?" It gets old, asking questions to which you already know the answers.
"It's this piece of paper." She held up a little slip of notebook paper. "It's in my handwriting, and it has my name on it, but I never wrote this."
I hadn't seen this particular piece of paper before but I knew what it said. Fragments about being awake for the first time. About consciousness slipping away. About being aware. Little scraps of cognizance that fled inevitably from her memory.
The nurses weren't allowed to remove the patients' private possessions but I could. I tried to take all of her little notes with me when I left but she generated new ones and hid them and rediscovered them later. "Madeline, would you like to play some music with me today? I brought Lizst," I said, holding up the sheet music.
She sighed. "No. I'd like to be alone. I need to figure this out."
I swallowed, and my throat was dry. "Alright. Some other time." I left the sheet music on the piano and turned to leave. Sometimes I would just wait for her to forget and come back and try again but today I didn't have it in me.
"Wait," she called, and I turned back, full of old, stale hope. "Is my daughter going to visit today?"
I felt sour and bitter and resentful. Jealous of a past version of myself. Jealous of a little girl who would always be wanted but no longer existed. "No," I said spitefully. "Not today."
Her face fell and she looked down at the paper in her hands. "Oh. Maybe tomorrow."
"Maybe," I echoed, and left.
A/N: Thanks for reading! I feel like the story starts to pick up a little in this chapter. Eager to know what you guys think.
Guest: Your review made my day. I totally see them as being intrinsically the same, but wasn't sure that that would really translate. Thanks!
That Beach Girl: Thanks for coming over from Evolution! It's so cool that you relate to the story so much. I'm not a musician (had to do a bit of research for the story) but I think that I put a lot of myself in Wren, in terms of dealing with a rough past, like you were describing. It's a huge compliment that you found something personally meaningful in the story, so thank you!
Ava Oxalis: Thank you! Hope you like this chapter too.