I’d heard the catchy refrain of “If Only” played countless of times on James’ redwood acoustic guitar, drifting in from the bedroom to the stained calico couch I was sprawled on, but each grunt of his frustration brought a small smile to my lips. “If Only” wasn’t written for me, but it was what James polished for performance whenever he invited me to drop by and visit. Sometimes while half-reading the dog-eared copy of “Pride and Prejudice” I kept at James’ apartment, I caught myself softly singing the harmony with him.
Funny, how on those visits, I didn’t actually spend a lot of time with James; we just happened to be in the same apartment. “An artist needs his space to create,” he’d say to me after the polite half hour of small talk and updates:
“Dyed it, too. Dark cherry; you like?”
“It’s different; not quite the You I know. I hate my job still.”
“Steal the Swingline, burn the place down.”
“It could happen.”
Scrawny, smooth arms hiding a wealth of muscle would lift me bodily off his messily made bed, ushering me gently but firmly from his room. Warm, callused hands would steer me by the shoulders around the scattered musician paraphernalia on the floor: stacks of blank staff paper, broken pencils, piles of CDs, keyboard littered with picks, guitar amps covered with crumpled paper wads, and four open guitar cases.
It was later than the usual when I got up from reading and knocked my goodbyes on the Ziggy poster a previous tenant expertly glued to his door, because he was just coming out as I raised a fist to tap. He was puzzled to find me still there, the sun long gone off to sleep and the full moon steadily bright in an otherwise inky black Los Angeles night. “Wild Horses” by the Sundays, I noticed, was playing on the stereo in the corner of his room; for a Bruce Hornsby, Sting-still-with-the-Police wannabe, he played an awful lot of ‘90s girl bands. Stepping around him into the room to sidestep the awkwardness, I took in the mess I was expecting to see. It was the four pages of handwritten sheet music with my name across the tops I didn’t anticipate.
Not asking, I took it to the keyboard and played the notes drawn in his god-awful chicken scratch that I could read. It was rough, but still beautiful. From the periphery of my vision, I could see James leaning in the doorjamb, looking like he’d just made a good decision. Proud with the simpleton familiarity I’d achieved after only few run-throughs, I asked, “Like that?” He’d sat down around me on the large bench while I was fiddling, his solid front heating my back, his arms finally reaching around mine to show me the song I couldn’t read. It was more elaborate than I’d imagined, his fingers holding down chords and sweet melodies that I was suddenly humming a harmony to, eventually leaning back flush against his chest. When he stopped, he turned to me and said with clear eyes before touching slightly chapped lips to mine for the first time in the year we’d known each other, “Yeah. A little like that.”