Natural Light, Part 1
There was a time when I thought the world was split into two groups of people. Those who cheat, and those who don’t.
Kitty and I had been dating a few months. She was swamped with studying, I was breezing through my new economics course load. With the newfound time, I’d been gigging more and more. The coffee house liked me because the students I drew would hang out afterward and buy things. As freshmen, we were too young to go anywhere else.
This particular gig had been a breakthrough of sorts. I’d always been so focused on the technical operation of my playing — getting the tone right, knowing when to breathe — but for lengths of time that night I was able to let go of those concerns and just play. The physical tension melted away. I trusted the music. The emotions I felt rippled out through the audience, We were all part of the same experience.
A girl from my macroeconomics class had come out to watch and sat in the nearest cluster of hard-backed chairs. Close enough that anytime I broke off a melody, my eyes fell into hers. She was petite with dark features, wore a hand-me-down rock tee-shirt from her mother, and clipped back her shoulder-length hair with a barrette.
“Going to leave you guys with something new,” I said, strumming the first chords of the final song. “Could all change tomorrow.”
Small city glow lost its flame
Truth got a little less true
God hid the sun, he’s ashamed
Black’s just another shade of blue
Another life gave you my name
Promise grew a little too soon
Hymns drowned a faithless refrain
Black’s just another shade of blue
Go on and clutch your bible
I’ll stick to the lottery
We were never meant to be
In the pocket of tomorrow
I’ll sing our little lost tune
Sinners can’t sleep in the shadows
Black’s just another shade of blue
A crowd of ten or twelve lingered after the set — among them, my classmate. Although we’d spoken all of twice, there was an instant familiarity between us. She donned an attitude and teased me about my lyrics, calling me morbid. I teased her about her oversized glasses, calling her a librarian.
“I am pretty much a nerd,” she said. “I’m not creative in the slightest.”
“No, seriously. This is the only passable shirt I could wear tonight. Everything else is business attire or gym wear.”
“Well,” I said, “don’t expect me to take you shopping.”
“Ick,” she said, scrunching up her nose. “With those jeans, I wouldn’t want you to.”
“Extra pockets are awesome.”
“You couldn’t find a pair that fit better?”
“These fit fine.”
“Uh-huh.” She accepted a steaming cup of ginger tea from the barista, we slipped into an open pocket of space. “So my roommate is convinced we were abducted by aliens last night.”
“She says she woke up hearing this weird metallic noise, and then there was a light or something.”
“Who knows?” I said. “Maybe she’s right.”
“She isn’t.” She blew across the surface of her tea. “I’m more than a little worried to go back to our dorm tonight. I’m pretty sure she’ll have lined the walls with tin foil.”
“Would it really be that bad? If it actually happened?”
“How would you react?”
“I don’t know. I’d try to stay aware, I think. Take everything in.”
“Why in God’s name would that be your reaction?”
“I’d want to remember,” I said. “Write a song about it.”
“Such an artist!” she said, pushing me.
I took a moment to enjoy the touch of her fingers on my chest.
“So what’s the goal with all this?” she asked, gesturing to the space that had served as a makeshift stage. “You want to be famous?”
“I just want to create all day. No obligations.”
“You know, my mother wrote a book.”
“It’s pretty good, actually. Totally legit, sold to a publisher. She left her job to write the next one, and it just never happened.”
I paused, coffee to my lips. “What do you mean, it never happened?”
“She said, without the constraints of her day job, her energy just kind of fizzled. She went from having a set amount of hours each day to do something and cramming to get it done, to having boundless time to do whatever she wanted. Like you’re talking about.”
“So, to make sure I got this, I’m not allowed to get abducted by aliens, but I’m also not allowed to live a carefree existence?”
She smiled. “Maybe you’re different. But for her, when that tension diffused, she said it was like there was no battle to be won or lost. She ended up going back to work. At a higher level, actually. Her company was lost without her.”
Silence fell between us. I sipped my coffee, second-guessing why I was drinking coffee at night.
“I don’t really need these,” she said, removing her glasses. Most people who wear glasses look incomplete without them. Their remaining features seem to shrink. My classmate, however — with her ebony, animal eyes — only now looked fully realized, as though she’d been playing peekaboo up until this moment.
I glanced about the coffeehouse for anyone who might know Kitty and I were together, then felt like an absolute shitheel for doing so. “I’m going to add some sugar to this.”
I passed a pair of philosophy majors arguing to fix my coffee at the counter. No matter the nutmeg, it still tasted burnt. By the time I turned back, my classmate had drawn the group at large into a central conversation. Everyone’s faces carried the expression of having experienced a piece of art together, something that meant something. I paused to appreciate the moment. And wish Kitty had been there to share it.
As others spoke, my classmate and I drifted together. First our hands touched, then the length of our arms. At some point we began rubbing each other’s backs like a doting married couple. The fabric of her mother’s shirt was threadbare and soft.
Eyes glinting, she motioned for me to sniff the air. Sure enough, somebody somewhere was smoking pot. I detached from her to waft the invisible force toward my nose.
“Should we find where it’s coming from?” she asked.
I nodded and we stalked the coffee house, far from subtle in our search. At last, we tracked the scent to the backdoor. She climbed inside her jacket and we scooted outside. Students populated the cement, tiny groups scattered among the potted trees. None of them were smoking. Incandescent bulbs had been strung between the branches, transforming an otherwise bleak outpost into a beckoning escape.
My classmate drew into me, returning her hand to my back. Tracing a pattern with her fingers, she looked up at me. “Where do we go now?”
Instantly, I was imagining her tiny body arching on my bed. Her honey breath in my ear. Her soft lips on my neck.
“Where do we go?” she repeated, her mouth inches away.
I tilted my head skyward and sucked a deep breath. Clouds blocked the moon. Impotent light. Everything about this girl was soft. My heart beat harder. I sighed to the missing stars, every inch of me desperate for contact, and said, “I don’t think it’s out here,” I said, at last.
“We should probably go back inside.”
She blinked. It only took a moment, but the time without her eyes felt like an eternity. I wanted them fixed on me as I was inside her. I wanted to see emotions pass through them. I wanted emotions, period.
“Come on,” I said, guiding her back to rejoin the others.
Not long after, the crowd dissipated and we left the coffee house together. The campus had meager streetlamps that left huge patches of the school unlit. We passed young lovers congregated in the dark, kissing in hushed tones, as though their parents might still burst in. Our dorms were on opposite sides of the quad so we soon hit that moment of decision.
“Thanks again for coming,” I said.
“It was interesting,” she said.
“It was a shame I didn’t get to meet your girlfriend.”
“How did you know I have a girlfriend?”
“You strike me as someone who’s getting laid.”
“Not lately.” I hoisted the guitar higher on my shoulder. “She’s studying for her GRE. It’s this big exam for vet school, so all of her time is… Anyway. When I do see her, I sort of feel like the clock is running.”
“You care about her.”
“I just wish she could see me play.”
She held out her hand, we shook. “I’ll see you in class.”
I watched her go, flitting in and out of the light, feeling half proud of myself, half ashamed.
[To be continued]