BY ARIELE LEE
I bite my nails when I’m nervous. It’s an annoying habit I’ve never been able to break. My mother used to wrap Band-Aids around the pads of my fingertips or paint the tops a sour blue color when I was younger in an attempt to make me stop.
“That’s not healthy,” she’d say, “You have to let it go.”
Her chides would work for a little while. But when the situation demanded anxiety, my nails would eventually find the edges of my teeth.
When I first met James, I hadn’t bitten my nails in six months. We ran into each other at one of those small home gatherings with tortilla chips and loud football rumbling on the television. I was rummaging through the cupboards looking for my friend’s lavender tea when my hands came upon the empty box.
“Sorry, I took the last one,” a voice behind me said. I turned around to see a young man with a speckled beard leaning against the archway of the kitchen, a steaming mug between his fingers. He was wearing army pants and a faint grin.
“You don’t look like a tea kind of guy,” I said to him.
He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t? What kind of guy do I look like?”
“A scotch guy,” I said.
“I don’t drink,” he answered.
“I don’t either,” I said.
His faint grin warmed into a smile.
James was somewhat of an enigma. He talked about himself in pieces, fleeting words caught on the ends of other stories. His fingers were always calloused with musical scars; ridges formed from the steel strings of his travel guitar and softened by the ivory of piano keys. He eventually told me he had joined the military at the age of nineteen, gotten sent to the heart of some middle eastern desert, and came back four years later with ghosts. Music was how he coped with the trauma.
“They used to play Frank Sinatra in our convoy a lot,” he once said, dark blue eyes blurring into the sort of haze you only see on widows and grandparents. “Do you know how strange it is to hear “Fly Me to the Moon” while gunfire erupts on your best friends?”
I didn’t. I came from a world of lazy mornings, microwave dinners, and friendships made of bracelets and foolish secrets. Silly things. I didn’t dare open my mouth when he told me about his life.
We hung out twice a week. Usually it was in a group setting, but James and I would sit on the same couch sipping lavender tea with our knees touching as the hum of the radio dipped in and out of different music stations. Sometimes he’d drift away, glassy eyes trained on some distant spot behind my forehead, and I’d have to nudge him gently. His eyebrows would crumple and for a moment severe lines would appear in the shadow around his lips. He’d look like a different person then. Colder.
“Hey,” I once said trying to bring him back, heart thudding against my ribcage.
“Turn up the radio,” he responded. I did. His lines softened. The station flickered. I cleared my throat, looking away from his eyes.
“I like classical music,” I went on, trying to change the subject as violins sang through crinkled speakers, “Other songs usually get stuck in my head until I can’t sleep. But classical music is like one long dream.”
James looked at me, warmth appearing back into his gaze. “I like classical music, too,” he said.
“Do you know how to play any of them?” I asked him.
“A couple,” he responded, “But I mostly make my own music.”
“Can you show me?” I asked.
“Maybe one day,” he responded. A smile colored his left cheek.
That night he sent me a text.
“I like you.”
The thudding against my ribcage roared. I didn’t know how to respond so I set the phone down, staring at its glow burning through the worn threads of my blanket. James was older than me. He’d been through more than I ever would. Why did he like me?Did I like him back?
“Say something,” he said, “You don’t have to answer. Just give me a note you got this message.”
I found myself plugging in my electric piano, raising the volume, and turning on my phone’s voice recorder.
I sent him the note “A”.
For a week James would occasionally get a little musical note on his phone. For a week I would occasionally get a little musical note back. It eventually became a small game of ours. Whenever the conversation quieted, a small blip would appear on either of our screens with the echo of a piano.
One Friday at two in the morning, I found myself smiling when he sent over a chord. It was an A minor. Soft, quiet, and sweet.
I talked to my friend Ebbie about it the next day.
“He’s funny,” I said, “And he plays the piano really well.”
“He had a girlfriend before,” Ebbie told me, eyes trained on mine, “Her name was Elizabeth. She left the relationship after one week.”
I paused. One week?
Later, I tried to find Elizabeth on social media. But there were a million Elizabeth’s on a million pages in the midst of a million pretty faces and smiling eyes. I gave up after an hour, shutting the lid of my computer until the darkness of the room enveloped my questions.
James and I hung out at the end of the week. We walked to an arcade with a group of friends, but we weren’t exactly good at those kinds of games. So he and I sat in the fast food section, watching people crush blinking buttons and push plastic levers. Eventually we ordered hamburgers. His came out cold in the paper.
“One second,” he said. He got up and left.
I heard yelling. A clatter of metal. He came back with a glassy look in his eyes and the severe lines around his lips. “Let’s go,” he said quickly, “I want to show you something.” Veins pulsing, I followed him outside leaving behind my half-eaten food.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he answered with the wave of his hand, “It was nothing.” He pulled out his phone. “I made you something.” He unlocked the screen quickly almost, like he was hurrying to get somewhere. The voice recorder came into view. And then James hit play.
A song cascaded from the speakers. Something strange and wonderful. Like a series of raindrops on paint. Suddenly, the moment from before was forgotten and a hundred colors were erupting behind my eyes.
“I took all the notes we’ve been sending each other,” he said, “And I made a song.”
I grinned. “Send it to me,” I said, “So I can take it home.” He did.
Later that night, I played the song in the quiet of my room, letting the notes drip into the space. My computer was still resting on the shoulder of my desk, lid cracked open as the faint glow of my search for Elizabeth peeked through the seam. I tried to ignore it for a second, content to listen to James’s notes sing through my phone. But after a long while, I realized I couldn’t stop staring at it.
Slowly, I cracked opened the laptop and began scrolling. I even texted Ebbie asking for more details. “Elizabeth’s got brown hair and green eyes. Freckles. She’s skinny. Like a twig,” she responded. Curling my legs underneath me, I searched until a girl appeared whose face matched the one in Ebbie’s texts.
I knew Elizabeth. As in, I’d seenher before, at my church. She’d dated someone mysterious awhile back. Someone she said was older. But they broke up about a week into it.
She had bruises on her neck and arms when I saw her afterwards. She said it wasn’t really his fault. He had PTSD and hadn’t gotten help for it yet.
I turned off James’s song. The silence was deafening.
He texted me later than night. “Can we meet sometime again?”he asked. I stared at my phone for thirty minutes before I responded.
“Okay,”I texted back.
We met at a café. He ordered lavender tea. I ordered coffee. We sat there for a while saying nothing. But I could tell James wanted to speak. I could feel it, pressing up against the back of his lips, burning on the cusp of his throat.
“Go on a date with me,” he finally whispered.
I inhaled slowly, unable to remember how to say words. The silence filled the space between us. My hands found their way towards my lips. Two crescent moons were no longer on my thumb or index. I stared down at the bitten nails on the black wood grains of the table.
The habit was back.
Folding my arms together, I met his eyes. It was time to let him go.