by Will Nuessle
“Dave’s Piano Moving, we’ll move the black keys for free.”
Having expected something normal, like ‘hello,’ X found herself at a complete loss. “Uh, I—Cliff?”
“Speaking,” the voice responded warmly. Then some of the warmth disappeared. “Oh hey, I know who this is!”
“What’s it been, a week? Nearly? I get the idea, X.”
“No need to call and make it official; the silence spoke loud and clear.”
“Do me one favor, though, please ask Tracey to back off? I swear she’s called me three times to check. Makes it hard to move on, you know?”
“You idiot, I’m trying to apologize!”
There was a very long moment, while X listened to the silence on the other end.
Silence broken by a snort, as though someone was laughing at himself. “Say what?”
“I said,” and X found she was also laughing, “if you’ll shut up for like two seconds, I’m trying to crawl over there on my hands and knees, begging forgiveness.” How could she giggle at a time like this?
How could he? “Sorry, I should have let you introduce yourself. Who’s calling, please?”
“Sheena, queen of the jungle.”
“Big fan of your comic book. Well, Sheena, what was this in reference to?”
“You do realize you’re still talking?”
Complete silence. X figured it out. “Finally.” But now she had to fight for words. Not that she didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry. After you’ve been so nice,” the charm bracelet swayed on her wrist as she leaned against the kitchen counter, “and patient with my deceptive and annoying friends—”
“And deceptive and annoying you?”
“And deceptive and annoying me, yes, you even let me have your number and all the relationship power and I swear I haven’t been putting you off, it’s just since last Sunday a bunch of piano-related things happened and I…forgot. I really didn’t mean to give you the cold shoulder.”
“Cold shoulder?” It didn’t sound like he was laughing anymore. “X, you gave me both shoulders, both knees and your—right elbow.”
“I know I did and I need to, again, say that I’m sorry.” Assuming this would be the end of it, adios Pepe, X tried to breathe a sigh of relief that Cliff Parker would be one less thing in her life to deal with.
She found it surprisingly hard to do. “If, um, if you were willing to accept my apology, at least briefly,” was she really doing this? “I know where there’s a coffeeshop that has amazing cinnamon buns. My treat.”
No chance he would say yes. After everything? But this way he could reject her. Even the score.
Except that once again, Cliff didn’t seem to care about the game. “Okay.”
“Really?” X could have done without the hopeful tone in her voice.
He was nice enough not to mention it. “See you there at five? If that works?”
It did. She took her time on the bicycle ride over, partly to enjoy the beautiful summer afternoon, partly to keep from getting all sweaty and gross, and definitely mostly to wonder what in the world this ‘first date’ would even be like.
If first would also be last.
Mrs. Churliss didn’t even try to hide her astonishment as X ordered and paid for not one but two of her famous cinnamon buns. “Saints be praised, herself has come into her inheritance, has she?”
“Turns out, the end of the rainbow was over on 46th,” X returned playfully.
“Glad you found it, then.” The owner eyed the purchase. “Especially hungry today? Or meeting your young man what kept shadowing this place for a week?”
Pretty sure it wasn’t any of her business, X nonetheless found herself in a gracious mood. Having a good reason to get out of the house, perhaps. “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
She left on the laugh, turning away to find a table, only to discover why Mrs. Churliss’s eyes had been twinkling as a Manhattan Register came down in the corner to reveal her ‘young man’ himself. “Those look good. Can I have one?”
X couldn’t figure out if she liked that he was there for her or was about to die of embarrassment; while she worked it out she walked over, setting the plate firmly on the table. “You’re supposed to arrive on time, Parker, so I can be sitting here watching you walk in.”
He shrugged, a smile tugging the corners of his lips. “Was so excited to finally have a date with you, I couldn’t wait.”
She spun the chair around and straddled it, bracing her forearms on the back. “Is this a date?”
“Do you want me to pay you back for the food?”
“Then it’s a date.” He popped some cinnamon bun in his mouth. “And it only took a year.”
“You always talk with your mouth full?” She grabbed the remaining bun and sampled some herself; still excellent. “Espeshially on a date?”
“Might as well be myself.”
“I don’t kiss on the first date.” As her inner self scoffed, Really? Since when? X bit her lip, unsure why she just had to keep the Hudson River between them.
“Now see, here with the offer of sugary treat, the time together, I was worried I didn’t get you at all.” He spread his hands. “I’m not expecting anything from this, X. You said you’d show up, you did; I have a snack as a bonus…” He tossed another piece in his mouth, talking around it. “You can tell me about that guy you’re sheeing, if you want.”
X sighed and looked away. “There’s no guy. Hasn’t been for awhile.”
“Then tell me about those piano-related things. The ones that made you forget me.” The corners of his blue eyes were crinkled, and she knew she was being teased.
Teasing she understood. Could work with. “Since the Competition,” had that only been two weeks ago? “I’ve begun teaching a student, I got the World Festival packet about playing in L.A. next month, and every day I spend eight hours practicing so that I’ll be ready for an International Competition the month after that.”
“I stay busy.” Keep the monsters away.
“Previously, on ‘Cliff and X Start a Friendship’, you said” he knocked gently on the table, “that if I asked you next time, you’d tell me the Competition story.”
Last thing she needed was someone paying that much attention to the random things that came out of her mouth. “What do you want to know? I won, you might’ve heard.”
“I did. Two weeks later, I still don’t know what you played.”
He knew from Beethoven? That earned him ten points. “The third.”
An easy smile. “I love the third movement. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see that.”
“What’s there to see? I sit behind a piano playing music.” Not even feeling it.
“You’ve never watched someone doing something incredibly—beyond you? Something you couldn’t do that well if you spent every moment of the rest of your life trying?”
“Everybody’s seen that.”
“I get if you can’t see it, X, but when you played at my graduation, I certainly saw it. Your talent, the way the piece came out of you seemingly without effort, it was entrancing.”
She made a face at him. “You were entranced. By three minutes of Mendelssohn.”
“If that’s what you played, then yes.” A short laugh. “Ask Holly Freeman, sitting three rows in front of me. I talked about it so much afterwards, it was part of why we broke up.”
“Holly Freeman the basketball star?” She could break up relationships she didn’t even know about? “I’m not going to apologize for that, if you’re wondering.”
He looked surprised. “What? No! No, we were already drifting apart. She had a scholarship from Texas Tech, and, I dunno, I’m not a long-distance kinda guy.” He waved away Holly Freeman. “Tracey said something about a Plan?”
“It was pretty simple; I graduated with an open offer to attend Juilliard, starting this fall.”
His eyebrows went up. “Wow! Congratulations.”
“Until they wrote me a week later, ‘Sorry, some mistake, no room at the inn.’ Poof.” She would just as soon he didn’t ask her why.
“What’s the new Plan?”
“Pick the hardest piano music I can find, play it perfectly at Internationals, win there like I did in Long Island…and the powers that be at Juilliard say they’ll find room, since I’ve proven myself twice over at that point.”
He studied her, and she couldn’t meet his eyes for long. “Do you really want to put so much weight on a school that already pulled the rug out from under you once?”
X frowned. “If you have a better idea how I can become lead pianist for the New York Philharmonic, I’m all ears.”
Cliff blinked. “Not off the top of my head.”
“I’m sorry,” X said, rubbing her forehead. “You didn’t deserve that. It’s…just such a flimsy plan. So many things have to go perfectly.”
“Please, don’t say you’re sorry. I should; not like you asked for my two cents.” He smiled in apology. “New York Philharmonic, huh? Not Boston, or Seattle?”
“I’ll take what I can get, but that’s the dream.” She looked past his shoulder, out the window of Beans & Blooms towards the laundromat across the street, beyond which were towers and turrets and spires she couldn’t see but knew were there. “I love the City. If there’s a way, any way, that I can make a life there…I’ll teach first graders in some fifth-floor walkup if I have to.”
“But you have bigger dreams.”
“You could say that.”
“Bigger dreams are good.”
“They have a niceness to them, yes.”
The last of his cinnamon bun disappeared. “Sho,” he swallowed, “speaking of students, you have one of those now, too?”
X leaned her head back and sighed. “Somehow, unfortunately.”
“Tell Clifford the story.”
She snorted. “Sure, Big Red Dog.” And while he listened, X told him about the first lesson, and the Barnums, though she glossed over the parts that would make her sound especially crazy. “They seem like wonderful, normal people, like you see on television. When Laurie grows up, she’ll probably be able to give out her phone number like it’s no big deal.”
Cliff cocked his head. “Yeah, about that.”
Hmm. A bit too much of the real. But then, if this date wasn’t going to spontaneously combust, he probably needed to know sooner or later. “I’m not supposed to give out the family number.”
“I’m not supposed to explain why I’m not supposed to give out the family number.”
He cocked one eyebrow. “Bond. James Bond.”
“Sure, we’ll go with that.” Speaking of the family compound, it was after six. Where had the time gone? “I’m also not supposed to be late for dinner.”
And you’re how old? She could read it in his eyes. But all he said was “I like doing this. Wanna do it a second time?”
“You’re giving me the power? Again?”
The dimple was back. “Looks like.”
“I, this was fun for me. Too.” Forget teaching piano, she should teach diction. “I really do need to go, but—I will call you. I promise.”
Cliff could have said You better or I’ll believe it when I hear it but he didn’t. He just smiled, and stood when she stood, and waved goodbye through the window as she rolled away.
I like him, X noted to herself as she swung onto Hunters Point.That’s a problem.