Jane lay awake, searching for the secret of all existence in Caleb’s sleeping face. She was certain if she just looked long enough, she would find it there. And if there was no secret to be found, she would be perfectly happy to just go on gazing at him for an eternity anyway.
The constant clamor of music coming from the street below seemed not to bother him at all, as if he had been born from the belly of a snare drum and meant for no other world than the world of song—sweet melodies instead of blood pumping through his veins. The neon light filtering through the blinds painted red slats across his youthful face, and she watched as his eyelids flickered to the rhythm of some dream. When his lips curled into a slight smile, it was all she could do to keep herself from kissing him. But she knew he needed sleep, so she prayed to the music and to the night that his dreams might be dreams of her, and then she closed her eyes to dream of him.
She woke to the soft touch of Caleb’s lips on the back of her neck. He must have dreamed of her after all, she thought.
Jane kept her eyes closed and listened to her heart throbbing in her chest. She knew if she could live a thousand years, she would never tire of being woken like this. And it wasn’t just the primal, sexual pleasure of it, either. No, it was something more. It was the conscious awareness deep down in her soul that they were connected in every possible way—physically, emotionally, spiritually. That he was her, and she was him, and together they
were all that mattered in this world or any other. They were entwined and unbreakable.
His hair hung down over her shoulder, tickling her chest, and she shifted onto her back and brought her mouth to his.
When he finally pulled away, she said, “I love you.”
He motioned to his ear, as if he couldn’t hear her.
“I said I love you,” she repeated.
He reached and pinched her earplug and pulled it free. “I love you too, baby,” he said, laughing. “But there’s no need to shout it at me.”
Jane laughed and fished the earplug from her other ear. “I keep forgetting they’re in.”
He just smiled and kissed her again. Then he rolled over and got up from the bed, and headed for the bathroom.
“Do you use them because of the neighbor’s dog?”
She heard his question but was too transfixed by the view of his naked figure walking away to process an answer.
“Because I’ll talk to her if you want,” he added.
“The earplugs? No. These are for the music.”
She wanted to tell him she hadn’t had a good night’s sleep since she’d been in Austin. His apartment was just off the main strip, and the music and crowds raged on in the streets until at least three in the morning. Then she had to be up by eight to feed the parking meter.
The parking meter!
Jane glanced at the bedside clock—8:10 a.m.
She jumped out of bed, shimmied into her jeans, pulled on Caleb’s T-shirt, and rushed barefoot into the hall and down the apartment stairs.
The parking enforcement vehicle was just pulling away when she rounded the corner in a mad dash for her car. And there was the ticket, tucked beneath the windshield wiper, just like the dozen others she’d received in the last three weeks.
She heard laughter and looked up to see their neighbor sitting on her apartment balcony, wearing her tacky pink robe and smoking a cigarette. She seemed to relish Jane’s battle with the meter as much as she did pounding on their bedroom wall whenever she thought their lovemaking too loud.
Jane flipped her off. She was almost to the apartment door when she turned and trudged back. “I’m sorry,” she called up. “That was childish of me.”
The neighbor stubbed out her cigarette, gathered up her little yapping dog in her arms, then went inside and pulled the slider closed without a word.
Caleb was already showered and drying his hair when Jane returned to the apartment. He tossed the towel and pulled her to him and kissed her. His lips were warm and soft, and she could smell the soap on his skin.
“How do you shower so fast?” she asked.
“Easy,” he replied. “I turn the water on, soap up, and rinse off.” Then he kissed her again and added, “I’m happy to get back in with you for a demonstration.”
“Yeah, right,” she said. “Like two people could fit in that tiny shower.”
She placed her hands on his naked chest and pushed herself free, heading for the kitchen to see about breakfast.
“Men, men, men,” she said under her breath.
“What’s that, babe?”
The apartment was so small, they could practically hear each other’s thoughts.
“I said I miss my bath.”
“I do. You boys have it made. Society accepts you with all your hair just the way it grows. I’ve got to shave and pluck and polish just to be presentable.”
“You could go bohemian,” he called from the bedroom.
“Sure. We’ve already got the poverty thing going.”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“Baby, I’d love you if you looked like Sasquatch.”
“Yes, but would you make love to me if I did?”
Caleb leaned out from the bedroom and looked at her, considering her question. Then he smiled. “Yes. Answer’s yes.”
Jane chuckled and went back to making coffee and toast.
A minute later, Caleb called from the bedroom, “Although our kids might have a tough time in school.”
He stepped into the kitchen, dressed for the day in his signature jeans and T-shirt. Jane had bought him other shoes, but for some reason he insisted on wearing his old boots that he’d worn all those months ago while working in her yard back in Washington.
“I was just saying that if you looked like Sasquatch, our kids might have a hard time.”
Jane glanced up at him from the toaster and frowned. “I thought we made a deal not to talk about that.”
“Sorry. It’s just that every time I look at you, I wonder what our kids would look like. Don’t you wonder too?”
Jane turned away and pulled down two coffee mugs from the cupboard, speaking with her back turned as she filled them. “I wonder about a lot of things. Like what it would feel like to parachute off a building. Or backpack across Africa. Or swim the English Channel. Or get a sleeve tattoo.”
“See,” he said. “I knew you were bohemian.”
She turned and handed him a mug of coffee. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to do any of those things.”
“Well, let’s talk about it later.”
“Let’s not,” she said.
He grabbed a piece of toast from the toaster and ate half of it in one bite, not bothering to butter it.
“Not even the tattoo?” he mumbled, choking down the dry bread. “It’d look good on you.”
The twinkle in his green eyes was so charming, she couldn’t help but smile. “Maybe someday,” she said. “You want eggs?”
“No, I gotta run.”
“I thought you didn’t work until noon.”
“I don’t, but I’m meeting Jeremy to go over the set list for tomorrow’s gig.” Caleb glanced at the time on the microwave. “And I’m late already.”
“You haven’t even finished your coffee.”
He went to the cupboard and pulled down a large plastic cup, poured his coffee in, added cream, turned the tap on, and filled it the rest of the way with cold water. Then he gulped the entire concoction down and put the empty cup in the sink. Jane just shook her head.
“Take the car,” she said.
“Please. I can’t be running out to pay the meter all day. And put the parking ticket in the glove box with the others.”
“I’m going to get you a monthly spot if I have to set someone’s car on fire,” he said.
“I’d rather you put your energy into finding me a place with a bathtub. Or how about air-conditioning?”
Caleb stepped up and wrapped his arms around her waist, no trace of impatience in his embrace, despite his being late. “Come on, it’s not that hot here, is it?”
“Are you kidding?” she asked. “You’re never here in the afternoons. This place is a sauna. And the few plants I bought for the balcony are already brown. Even the cactus.”
“Maybe you should hang a sign in the window and offer hot yoga classes,” he suggested.
She chuckled at the thought. “Yeah, right. I’ve taken one lesson and was nearly brought home by ambulance. All I can
remember beyond the first fifteen minutes is coming to in the studio lobby and mumbling to the instructor that downward dog is not a resting pose.”
“I agree with you there,” he said. “It isn’t. Although I’d love to see you demonstrate your technique for me in those jeans. Or maybe without them, even.”
“Aren’t you late, mister?”
He leaned in and kissed her. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
He grabbed another piece of toast, snatched the car keys from the hook, and turned to leave. He stopped at the door and looked back. “Hey, babe. Would you mind letting me use the apartment this evening? To rehearse with the guys. My gig this weekend is an important one.”
“Sure,” Jane answered, a little surprised, since he hadn’t mentioned it before now. “How late will you be?”
“Just until nine or so. Then maybe we can get a bite.”
“Yeah, no problem. I’ll go and see a movie or something.”
Caleb flashed a smile. “Thanks, babe. And I’ll see about finding us a used AC unit.”
She meant to tell him not to bother, but before she could, he was gone. She stood in the kitchen with her coffee mug in her hand, looking at the door and listening to his steps fading down the stairs. A familiar and unwelcome silence enveloped the small apartment, as if his very presence generated some beautiful sound that left with him each day.
She carried her coffee to the couch, opened her laptop, and went through her daily ritual of deleting spam, hoping that she might have a message about a job from one of the many sites where she had posted her résumé. There was nothing. Just twelve messages inviting her to use LinkedIn, whatever that was, and an e-mail from Esmeralda letting her know that her home sale had closed. She shut her laptop and sighed.
Jane looked around at the tiny apartment. The faded paint. The awful track lighting. The clouded window that seemed to get worse with each cleaning. Funny, she thought, but she never missed her home on Bainbridge Island when Caleb was around. It was only when he left that she even noticed her sad surroundings.
She leaned back on the couch and closed her eyes, recalling the beauty of her island backyard. She remembered Caleb out there working in the rain, his wet shirt clinging to his body, wildly hacking down blackberries and ripping them from the ground. She remembered the day she had come home and found him constructing a Slip ’N Slide down into the creek. She remembered the new grass. The fountain. The silly old goat. And she remembered making love to Caleb for the first time, how excited and nervous she had been. She remembered the baseball game later, his ripping off her clothes when they had returned home, and bending her over the kitchen table like a man possessed. There were earlier memories too. Memories of her life, long before Caleb. Memories of her daughter, Melody. Of her best friend, Grace. But she kept that box closed on most days, today being no exception.
The ancient refrigerator whirred loudly to life, rousing Jane from her memories. She stood and looked out the window. At least they had a view, she thought. Even if it was of parked cars and dingy bars. She watched the daytime machinery of old Austin working in the street below. The booze delivery trucks. The traffic going by. The people. She knew she should be out there pounding the pavement, job hunting again. But she just couldn’t stomach another day filled with rejection.
Maybe a little nap first?
No, it was already too hot for that.
She glanced down at her laptop, a thought playing at the edges of her mind. If her house sale had closed, that meant she
had some money again. And even though she intended to save it for another house someday, and she wasn’t working just yet, there wasn’t much she wouldn’t pay for the luxury of a warm bath and a cool room to rest in.
Jane opened her eyes in the dark room.
She listened to the alarm, wondering for a moment where in the world she was. She had just been driving down the most dreamy country road in an old Mustang convertible with sunglasses on and her hand out the window, riding the breeze.
She rolled over and silenced the hotel alarm clock, glad that she had set it before lying down. She used the bathroom, freshening up her makeup in the mirror. Then she gathered her purse to leave and paused at the door to look back into the room—the comfy bed rumpled and waiting, the bath she had soaked so luxuriously in, the room-service tray sitting on the table. She felt somewhat guilty, as if she’d had some secret rendezvous with herself. But she also felt more rested than she had in a long time. It seemed a shame to leave when the room was paid for, so she kept the key, thinking maybe she’d surprise Caleb later. It had been a while since they’d had a queen mattress to play on.
“Thank you, Hilton,” she said. Then she stepped out and gently pulled the door closed.
The night sky outside was warm and electric. To Jane, Austin was more a city of sound than anything else. The old church bells tolling the hours. The great-tailed grackles calling in chorus from street-side live oaks and ancient pecan trees. The constant wail of distant sirens patrolling the edges of downtown, as if there were always some emergency on its borders. And the music. All night long, the music. She passed
bar after bar with every form of amplified sound pumping from their open doors, the dim light inside showing just a smear of drunken, hypnotized faces swaying to the beat. So much music and so little time. How could any man, woman, or band hope to make it when so many talented ones had already tried and failed, and settled on covering old hits for free drinks and a little money to pool toward making rent? It made her worry for Caleb. But then he seemed perfectly happy just producing music, whether anyone cared to listen to it or not. And if any talent might stand out above the crowd, it was Caleb’s; she’d never heard a better voice than his. But then she might be biased.
The blocks passed in a blur beneath Jane’s thoughts, and before long she was standing in front of their building. The lights were off in their apartment, even though Caleb had said they’d be rehearsing there. She looked at her phone—thirty-five minutes after nine and no missed calls. She shrugged, fishing her keys from her purse. The dog was yipping away behind the neighbor’s thin door when she reached the landing, and she cursed the little devil under her breath as she hurried inside to close out the shrill sound.
The apartment was dark, save for a lone candle burning on the coffee table. She called Caleb’s name, but there was no answer. She set down her purse and crossed the small living room to the candle, and found a single long-stemmed white rose and a card. Was it their anniversary? she wondered. They didn’t even really have a date to go by, did they?
She opened the envelope and pulled out a note.
I know you’re not a fan of flowers with thorns, so I stripped them off by hand. The other eleven roses are waiting for you on the roof.
She’d never been to the roof and wasn’t even sure how to get there. Carrying the rose and the card with her, she went into the hall again and up the stairs, so curious about what awaited her that she didn’t even hear the barking fading behind her. Three flights seemed to be thirty tonight, but at last she was standing at the roof-access door. For some reason she expected it to be locked, but the handle turned and the door opened easily and swung away. When she saw the scene before her, she clapped a hand over her mouth, as if to keep her heart from leaping out.
A path of white rose petals lined by candles burning in crystal urns led to a table covered with white linen and topped with a vase of white roses. And beside the table stood Caleb, freshly shaven with his hair slicked back, wearing a suit and tie. She’d never seen him in a suit before, and the silhouette he cut standing there in the candlelight, together with the roses and the rooftop table for two, made her eyes well up with tears of joy until the entire scene blurred together into one gorgeous and shimmering vision of something she might have dreamed. It wasn’t until she blinked the tears away that she noticed Jeremy standing off to the side with his electric violin cradled beneath his chin, the bow ready on the strings. They seemed to be waiting for her, so she pulled herself together and walked the rose-petal path toward Caleb.
When she reached him, she opened her mouth to speak, but he pressed a finger to her lips. Then he took her hand in his and knelt before her. Jane felt a tear run down her cheek to the tip of her nose as she looked at him there. He smiled, and she noticed that his eyes were wet too. They were still for several moments, him on his knees looking up, her standing and looking down. There was a silent promise in that pose and in his eyes that wasn’t lost on Jane, an intimate gesture of the position he wished for her in his life. A covenant to always place her above
himself in all things from now until forever if she would only accept him, here, now, as he was, however he would be, together in joint harness wherever this ride might lead.
He had hardly asked, “Will you marry me?” before Jane nodded yes and pulled him up, kissing him and running her fingers through his thick hair. She could have kissed him there forever, but the electric violin began to play, and she remembered they were not alone on the roof.
She pulled free and smoothed his hair back with her hands, feeling slightly embarrassed. Caleb smiled his charming smile, and then he held up the blue felt box and opened it to present her with the ring—the ring he had worked so hard for all those long afternoons at Mrs. Hawthorne’s place. He lifted Jane’s hand to slip it onto her finger. It fit so well that she knew he’d had it sized. She took his hand in hers, interlaced their fingers, and held them up together to look at the yellow diamond, sparkling in the candlelight. The rooftop and the city seemed to fall away, the sirens and street noise fading, until only she and Caleb were standing there among the stars, floating on the sounds of an electric violin, their entwined forms cutting from the firmament a new constellation dedicated to love.
Jane was still lost in the dream of it all when Caleb pulled out her chair. She sat, and he uncorked a bottle of sparkling cider and filled their glasses.
“I hope it’s a good year,” she joked, remembering his saying it once at dinner.
He just smiled and stepped away from the table.
“Aren’t you going to join me?” she asked.
He reappeared with a serving platter. “Yes, but I’m also your server,” he said. “The friend I had lined up couldn’t make it.”
“Well, at least the music made it.”
“Isn’t Jeremy great?”
“Yes. I’ve never heard anything like it, and I love it.”
Jeremy seemed to have heard them because his smile stretched a little wider and he played a little louder. After seeing that everything was set, Caleb joined Jane at the table and held up his flute of cider to toast.
“To love,” he said.
“Okay,” Jane replied. “To love. And to me becoming Mrs. Caleb Cummings.”
“You sure?” he asked.
“Not about marrying me,” he clarified. “About taking my name. Because it’s fine if you want to keep yours, or even hyphenate them. McKinney-Cummings sounds nice.”
Jane laughed so hard, cider splashed out of her glass. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve been waiting to get rid of my stupid family’s name? Now, can we toast before the food gets cold?”
“I’m afraid it’s already cold,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “I was expecting you at nine.”
“Look at this,” Jane said. “We’re not even married yet and we’re already arguing. To Mr. and Mrs. Caleb Cummings, and that’s final.”
“You wanna know something?” he asked, holding back his glass. “I’m crazy in love with you.”
Jane smiled. “I’m crazy in love with you too.”
She clinked her glass against his and held his gaze as they sipped. The violin played on, the candles flickered in their crystal urns, and never before had a cold meal and warm sparkling cider tasted so great to anyone anywhere on earth.
“Ooh,” Jane said after they had finished their main course. “He even has chocolate-covered strawberries for dessert.”
“No”—Caleb shook his head—“this is pre-dessert.”
“Yes, because when we finish with these, I plan to take you down to our bedroom and have my way with you.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” Jane said.
“You do? Please tell.”
She pulled out the Hilton room key card. “How about I take you back to my suite at the Hilton and have my way with you?”
“Your suite at the Hilton?”
“Well, it’s a regular room, really. But it has a queen bed.”
“And why do you have a room at the Hilton?”
Jane bit into a strawberry and grinned. “I’ll explain it on the way, my sweet fiancé.”