You’re going to be a star.
That’s what Clair, my foster mom, said whenever she stood on the stairs of our basement rec room, smiling, listening to me pounding and pounding. I’ve never told Clair how much I hated being surprised that way. How embarrassed I got. It’s like when I was sixteen and the bathroom door at the movie theater wouldn’t lock. I tried to keep it shut by putting one foot out. Not easy. Not dignified. I cringed the whole time. It definitely wasn’t something I wanted a stranger to see. Some absentminded woman barged in anyway.
My music is . . . private. It’s a hole in me where anyone can look inside. It’s a damn bathroom door that won’t lock. The keys aren’t my friends when I’m so pent up. It’s only afterward, when I write down what’s flowed through me, that I feel in control again. The music doesn’t own me then. I own it.
It’s not that I don’t think I’m good; it’s being watched that gets me all sick inside. That’s the real challenge. My profs at Tulane tell me I’ll have to get over it one day. “One day” is coming soon. The winter recital is just over three months away. If I can’t make myself heard there, I might as well call music my hobby and go home.
Not an option. I’m a junior now. This is me.
I never feel more secure than when I’m in a private rehearsal room, like the one in Dixon Hall. Living in New Orleans had been my dream for so long that I don’t remember when or how it started. I’d wanted to smell the Garden District and walk the French Quarter. In spring, I want to find a place high above the glittering, cocktail soaked chaos of Mardi Gras. It’s a city of mystery and romance, like a sultry smile that never fades.
New Orleans has secrets.
Maybe that’s what sparked my fascination. I have secrets too.
I strip off my lightweight sweater. The rehearsal room is intentionally chilly. Serious practice gets hot real fast.
But I shed more than layers of clothing. When sitting on a piano bench, I can shake off emotional burdens—memories of my long gone parents and our lives on the run, knocking off liquor stores, cooking meth in the woods of a shady, scary as hell West Virginia commune, and even defrauding a securities company.
My tank top is so old that I remember Mom shoving it in her purse at a Walmart. My girl needs clothes, she’d said. But we need to eat too. Eat. Drain fifths of Jack in an evening. Forge IDs to buy more pseudoephedrine. You know, the basics of a life well lived.
The yellowed tank top is stretched to hell, leaving me free to move. It’s probably another reason why I prefer privacy. No one wants to watch a maniac musician playing with the grace of someone tumbling down a flight of stairs.
I begin by touching Middle C. The key is sleek. Cool to the touch. Ready for me.
The only way to banish the cold is to light a match. I start an ivory bonfire.
What emerges is always a mystery, dictated by my mood. Today I’m nervous about meeting the freshman pianist I’ve been assigned to mentor. But my nerves melt away as I begin to play and play. Verbs chase the chords—verbs like flutter, dance, seduce, fling. Murder. I abuse the instrument. I abuse my ears, my hands, my upper back. I smash the rules of harmonics.
When I finish, I’m breathless and limp. My forehead falls forward and thunks on heated stripes of black and white. The bite of pain snaps me out of my trance. The keys become my friends again. I turn my head to the side and pet Middle C. No wonder I’ve developed this weird habit of apologizing to pianos.
Clair thinks I’ll be a star. I think I’ll be something like an art house curiosity. A cult following, perhaps? Or a hermit holed up in a closet-sized studio, freeing the knots in my guts, writing pretty music for other people to play. Let them be the stars. I can deal with that. Most people like music to be pretty, but I’m not the lullaby kind. Knowing that fits hand in glove with my shyness on stage. I don’t want to perform in front of other people, and even if I did, they wouldn’t want to listen.
God, I need a shower. Thumping out an original composition is as hard as a Piloxing class. No one thinks twice about taking a change of clothes to the gym. To the fine arts building, though? Yeah, right. I’m a wad of wet cotton balls held together by jeans and the light sweater I button over my morning-after tank top.
Not that I have personal experience with mornings after.
A tingle of fear rushes in at the idea, followed by my distrust of being impulsive. After all, Mom got pregnant at sixteen. Really bad choices followed. I could use all eighty-eight piano keys to count reasons why waiting is a bright idea. Plus . . . well, I’m not very good at trusting people. It took years for me to relax around Clair and John.
A boyfriend would be nice, though. Someone to talk and laugh with. Touch. Explore. Kinda . . . I don’t know. Practice? I’m not the type to start without knowing where to put my hands. I’m used to knowing what to do with my hands.
The trek to my dorm awaits. I’ve done it only eight times since transferring from a Baton Rouge community college to Tulane. I don’t know this campus well enough to get back the shortest way. I’m useless with maps. Even poking at my iPhone is useless. What seems so clear on a straight grid gets fuzzed out by the actual shapes of buildings and trees. I’m Dorothy trying to get to the Emerald City. Only, someone forgot to paint the sidewalks yellow.
I’ll get faster. Or I’ll get over the silly reflex that other students give a crap about how I look. They hurry past. A split second is all. If they’re anywhere near as self-conscious as me, they’re sure as hell not paying attention to me.
I load up my purple—I love purple—messenger bag with sheaves of notes. Then I pull out my iPod and adjust my earbuds. Forget classical when I’m “off duty.” I search out Florence + the Machine. I like the songs of hers that no one wants to sing at karaoke. The good stuff. The stuff with soul so deep that I’ve developed a really unnatural relationship with her. She’s simply Florence. “Goddess divine” works too.
Maybe I’m too into the music—mine and Florence and a bit of Zoltán Kodály, because I can never truly escape the classics. They overlap in some weird mash-up. Or maybe I’m too busy reading the hieroglyphics of my phone’s tiny screen.
Or maybe it’s nothing but a dumb thing the universe throws at me, just to be mean . . .
Because there’s a man waiting outside the door.
First thing: chocolate. That’s all I can think. I catch a glimpse of chocolate brown hair that’s long enough to curl at his collar, but really neatly styled. The sunlight from a window at the end of the hallway makes the tips of those curls shine.
Second thing: an honest to goodness three piece suit. He sure isn’t a student. He isn’t one of the music profs either. They only dress up for performances. Normally they resemble me, half possessed and raggedy. This stranger looks like a full blown executive, but young enough to pull off posh guy trends straight out of Details. Coupled with that sunshine-touched hair, the suit makes him into a heady combination of young and mature.
Third thing: oh holy damn, he’s ungodly handsome.
Air sucks up from my lungs and into my throat. Breathing, talking, even thinking—they crunch together like a car smashing into a concrete barrier.
I start with his eyebrows because they’re a language all on their own. Something like surprise instantly changes into sobriety, and I can read it all across those expressive brows. They’d been lifted in an elegant arc that framed his face and gently furrowed his forehead. Now they flatten into a line that accentuates his sharp features.
I’m used to unmistakable sternness. I’m also used to sternness moving double quick to fury. Is this guy . . . calm? Assured? Detached? It’s bugging the hell out of me because I can’t read a thing. He stares at me with so much intensity. That doesn’t help how stuck my breath still is.
“And I thought Katrina was a helluva storm,” he says. “Do we really need more hurricanes in this town?”
He was listening?
I cringe, then my skin goes hot. Probably flaming red. To be so exposed to a drop-dead gorgeous guy—a man, really . . . Words fail. Brain cells fail. I stutter a meaningless sound.
I haven’t been at a loss for words for years, not even when I gave testimony to the judge in San Joaquin. That had been a helluva lot scarier than getting attitude from a souped-up preppie.
He’s still staring at me with that harsh but oddly unreadable expression. He’s almost beautiful. His features are elegant, as if bred from perfect aristocratic lines. Cheekbones to die for. Lashes tipped with gold. Piercing, heart of a flame blue eyes.
Then the strangest thing happens. My idiot brain remembers to act like a grown-up. “Where do you get off?” Okay, sort of grown-up.
His expression barely changes except that his eyebrows again lift into elegant arcs, but these are condescending. He’s talking to an ant and wants me to know it. “Nowhere public.”
It takes me a few seconds to catch the innuendo. I wind up even more embarrassed. I know the mechanics of a guy getting off, but that’s where my knowledge ends. I want to find some snappy sexual retort that’d really shock him. . . .
“I’m serious,” I say, my anger rising. That’s what my family does. Did. Confrontation means hackles up and voices raised. “Do you dress up and skulk around the music halls, waiting to insult someone?”
“I don’t skulk.” He waves a derisive hand toward the open door to my rehearsal room. “Whatever that was would’ve bent anyone’s ear.”
Speaking of ears and listening, his voice is really getting to me. It’s refined but with that unmistakable New Orleans saunter. Down here people still believe in juju. Or pretend to. Where else can you openly carry voodoo dolls and tarot cards and be taken seriously? New Orleans tops the list. His voice is voodoo. I want to melt into it. Be hypnotized by it.
Instead, my pride gets the better of me.
“Maybe you shouldn’t limit your skulking to this place.” He scowls and seems surprised by my words. That gives me another kick of courage. “Why don’t you head over to the art department and knock the wind out of someone else? ‘Sorry, sugar, that color palette is an insult to my eyes.’ ”
His lips, which had been pressed tight and thin, relax a little. “I didn’t call you ‘sugar.’ ”
“If I want to talk about how things look.” He flashes his gaze up and down my body. It’s definitely not appreciative. “You give me a lot to work with.”
Talk about hitting a girl where she lives. Better yet, we’ve gathered a small crowd. Five or six students carrying different instrument cases stop to watch the drama. I would’ve, myself, had our places been reversed.
“I’ve been rehearsing for an hour,” I say, proud that my words are steady and forceful. “You’ve been, what, primping for an hour? Give me that much time and I could look like a pretentious snob too.”
He doesn’t get mad. I don’t know what to do with that. The way I was reared, a moment like this escalates to vicious levels—or worse than that, like when my mom threatened to turn state’s evidence against my dad.
Instead, this guy seems amused. The relaxed lull of his lips has turned into a half smile that would outshine most I’m really trying smiles. “You really don’t know who I am,” he says with a chuckle nearly as hypnotic as his voice.
I’m burning from the skin inward, but I stand my ground. “What’s so funny?”
“I’m not even sure myself. I appreciate the laugh, though.”
It’s not even his words that bug me. It’s his tone and the way he’s looking at me, like I was put on this earth to be his jester. I so want to hit him. A messenger bag can be turned into a weapon, right? I think the little crowd of onlookers wants it. I can feel expectation like a rising wind.
But I behave. I’m a living, breathing example of what amazing foster parents can do for a kid. Catfights are for girls on recess yards. I owe Clair and John better than that. They taught me that I owe myself better than that.
“Fine, be a jerk.” I lift my chin and tug the strap of my bag. “Yeah, I’m loud and I’m a mess, but I’m damn good at what I do. You, however . . . You can get out of my way.”
He steps dramatically back, even offering a condescending bow. “Like this, sugar?”
I turn away before I make a bigger scene. The impulse to run is really strong, but I’m okay. Right? Sure. No biggie. Just walk away as if I know where the hell I’m going. Which I don’t. I’m blinking past a wash of red.
“Dead end that way,” the stranger calls.
I come to an emergency door.
I slam the door’s horizontal exit bar. It gives way. I let that get out impulse take over. I’m so wound up. I can’t think of anything else. Just get down the stairs and escape.
As alarms ricochet through Dixon Hall, I really don’t care.