It feels odd to be doing any sort of self-promo when so much of the country is feeling so down. But maybe distractions are okay, and maybe art helps us heal, and I don’t know, I just have to do something. Something that feels like some sort of forward motion, so I hope you won’t find the timing of this post crass.
I posted the backstory behind this book, and the charity that will receive a portion of each sale in a previous post.
I hope you enjoy the excerpt, and I hope you dig the cover, but more importantly, I hope that wherever you’re reading this, that you’re okay. That you’re feeling safe and supported, and doing what good you can, and being kind.
Cover by Allison Martin of Makeready Designs.
A Postcard Would Be Nice ©Steph Campbell 2016
“Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t fuck.” Ryan leans into my locker and glances around the crowded hall. “It’s pretty simple, Oliver. Just…” He pauses until I look up at him. Barely. He’s my best friend, and I can hardly stand to make eye contact with him. “Just tell me this shit isn’t true.”
I press the heels of my hands into my eyes, trying to slow the spin of an Earth that I’d just as soon let fly off its axis and fling me into a new galaxy.
Ryan shakes his head, his brows pinched tightly together as he says, “And don’t fucking lie, either.”
“It’s complicated.” My lips curl around the words in disgust. Because this isn’t how things were supposed to be. Being me, Oliver Wu, is all about tutoring trig and working at the art museum and playing in a mostly-straight-edge band. Being Oliver Wu isn’t supposed to be complicated.
“Uncomplicate it. You—” he lowers his voice before saying, “Tell me they’re full of shit. That you didn’t get drunk and then sleep with Tarryn Alridge.”
The words float between us. Dangling in the air, making every breath feel heavier and stale.
“I told you. It’s complicated.” I yank my black backpack from my locker. One of the straps gets caught on the hook inside, so I tug harder until it’s free, all while keeping my head down. “And I don’t want to talk about it.”
That’s the truest thing I’ve said in two days.
I push past him and into the thick sea of people rushing to class. For once, I just want to be lost in the crowd.
To blend in.
To go back in time.
39 hours earlier
I’ve heard that there are a million ways to fall in love with someone. A crush, an unrequited “romance,” that platonic “just-friends” crap, selfish crazy love, the unconditional real-deal that lasts until you die holding hands.
But in my experience, I’ve only found one way: from afar.
It probably shouldn’t even be possible, unless maybe you’re a serial killer and have a basement full of heads in jars. But I’m not. A killer, that is. And I did. Fall in love, I mean. With someone I don’t really know.
With Paloma Medina.
I watch her now, like I do most days, standing in the coat check line at the museum where I work. She tugs at the edge of her blue skirt, the same color as her tights, and stares up at the marble pillars of the lobby. The only time things really change here in the lobby is seasonally. A Christmas tree goes up in the far corner at the end of November, and they drag out some fake ferns and tulips in the spring. Even though Paloma is here nearly every day, she still takes it all in like it’s new, from the thick velvet drapes that hang between the gaudy columns, to the long gray rugs that cover the shiny floors. They’re mostly frayed at the edges and constantly trip people up, but management refuses to change them out. She looks at all of it.
Sometimes, she even looks at me.
I stash a few stray hangers on the rack before turning toward her again.
Paloma takes a map from the plastic holder as she moves up in line. She unfolds the pamphlet and examines it like the rest of the patrons, as if she’s planning her visit. I don’t know why, she’s gotta have this place memorized better than I do.
I hang another coat on the rack and give out another claim tag. The same thing, over and over. It’s a Saturday night, and there’s a members’ event going on upstairs in the Impressionist Wing. Lots of rich people, wine, and pretension tonight. Whenever we have these hoity events, I’m reminded of the place where Dad made us have dinner while we were on vacation in New Orleans. There was a jazz clarinet. I wanted to set my ears on fire.
The line moves up, and two people dressed for the event cut in front of Paloma. She lets her eyes wander and pretends not to notice. Standing in this line never seems to bother her like it does most people. Paloma shoves the map back into her bag, and then unrolls a mint from the foil. Most days she’ll throw back an entire roll of breath mints while she’s in line. She must not realize that some days, even though she’s successful in making her breath not smell like a distillery, the sharp bite of alcohol still clings to the heavy fabric that she hands over to me.
Working the coat check isn’t glamorous, and maybe it’s even a little pointless considering the fact that the number of days people in Southern California wear a proper coat are few, but we stay busy during events like tonight and the handful of real winter weather days we have each year. For some reason, Paloma wears a coat nearly every time she comes.
She tucks the pack of mints back into the leather bag that hangs at her hip and glances up.
Three. Two. One.
I look away.
Because everything about her—from her stance, to the way she tips her chin down when people near her start talking when the line is long, to the way she hugs that notebook to her chest like her world depends on it—says she’s here to escape, and anything more than three seconds of eye contact feels like intruding.
Plus, I doubt she even remembers me.
Which sort of makes the fact that I’m fucking crazy about her even more awkward/pathetic. And even if she technically knows who I am, I’m sure to Paloma, I’m just the quiet kid from middle school. The last time we had an actual conversation was in eighth grade computer lab, back when everyone knew me as the kid who had a freakish growth spurt—I shot up five inches from seventh to eighth, and my ears grew three sizes. Lucky me.
Now that I’m a senior in high school, the height thing isn’t as much of an issue, and I’ve grown into my ears. Or maybe it’s just that my hair is long enough to cover them now—except at work, where I have to pull it all back into a ponytail—and work is the only time I see Paloma.
“Next,” I call to the man in line.
I allow myself one more glance in her direction before I help the couple dressed in formal wear.
Dark brown eyes lock on mine. Her mouth curves up into a small, shy smile, and my eyes must go wide as shit because she laughs a little before looking away.
I run my hands down the front of my khakis, trying to avoid being the freaky kid with the sweaty palms.
We lost touch completely, if you could even call it that, in high school when she went to a private school, and I opted to go to public school.
I convinced myself that I’d pissed away any chance of talking to her, that it was never anything real or meant to be. Until three months ago, when Paloma started showing up at the Museum of Art where I work. Not just a day here and there—almost every single day.
We make small talk while I check her coat—if, “dropping off?,” “yep,” or “Enjoy the museum,” qualify as small talk. Sometimes I see her wandering the halls of the museum, searching for the perfect light for whatever she’s sketching that day. Some days she just sits in the Chinese Garden Court with a book.
I’ve spent months looking for a reason to talk to her. Really talk to her. I’ve been waiting for something to happen that would make her notice me before she disappears from my life again. But every time I have a sliver of an opening, I, as my pseudo boss, Colm, never misses a chance to tell me, “puss out” and never say a meaningful word.
“Next guest,” I call, waving the older woman with bluish-white hair up to the counter.
Paloma casually lets her fingertips graze over the soft red velvet of the stanchion as she steps up in the moving line.
“Picking up?” I ask, taking the claim tag from the woman in front of me.
“I’m not tipping you,” she informs me.
“That’s fine, ma’am,” I say with a smile. She doesn’t return it.
Most people don’t tip. According to Colm, tipping is a dying concept. He says things like that, all full of authority and wisdom, even though he’s only two years older than me.
“Forty-seven,” I say her claim number out loud to myself as I thumb through the coats on the rack. “Here we go, forty-seven. Just one coat.” I pull the old fur off of the hanger and lay it across the counter for her to inspect.
“Do you know what this coat is made of?” she asks.
“I’m not sure, ma’am.” From the looks of it, my guess would be a golden jackal, but I doubt she’d appreciate me saying so. “Is there a problem?”
“Grey wolf!” she yelps.
I don’t know enough about fur to know if grey wolf is good or bad. In all honesty, I thought naked celebrities posing for PETA ads had shamed anyone from wearing real fur at all—especially in Southern California—but what the hell do I know?
What I do know for sure is her voice is loud.
I nervously spin the leather bracelet on my wrist, and glance around to see if anyone (if Paloma) can hear me being chewed out.
“Do you think grey wolf deserves to be on a metal hanger?” she demands. Before I can apologize and try to explain that we only have a limited amount of wooden hangers, she continues, “Because I think not! You should feel lucky I’m in a hurry and don’t report you to your manager!”
She yanks the coat off the counter with far less care than I’ve just learned grey wolf deserves, and storms off, her rubber soled shoes squeaking loudly.
“’scuse me, I’ll just be a second.” I swear I hear my best friend, Ryan’s voice, though that can’t be because it’s Saturday night and he’s probably—
I look up from the counter, and Ryan is there, pushing past the next two people in line.
And there go my tips for the rest of the shift.
“Ryan, what are you doing?” I lean in and whisper-yell. “Other than trying to make sure I lose my job tonight?”
“They don’t mind, do you folks?” He glances back at the line. Nothing but glares and crossed arms over tuxedos. These people are the opposite of sympathetic to whatever Ryan’s cause is. And truth be told, I sort of feel the same.
“I’m not cutting. See, no coat.” Ryan stretches his arms out to show that he’s only wearing a thermal shirt. Like that’ll appease the people who just want to get upstairs, get their glass of champagne, and be seen rubbing shoulders with other rich, important people. “Just here to share some good news.”
“What good news? Make it fast.”
“All right, listen. There’s this party tonight—”
“You didn’t even let me finish.”
“Fine,” I say. I re-tie the band around my hair. Even though it’s past my chin, Mom’s finally stopped harassing me about getting a haircut now that my grades are up across the board.
“So there’s this party tonight, and the band that was hired backed out—”
“No,” I repeat. “Ne—”
I start to wave the next person up, but Ryan cuts me off and swats my hand back down.
“Come on, dude, don’t be a prick. Casey says it’ll be cool. The money is good—”
“A friend of Casey’s?” Ryan may be my best friend, like family even. But his sister, Casey? She’s far from anything like that. The girl lives in trouble, and if she’s not in it, she’s trying to pass blame onto Ryan to get him into shit with their parents. “That’s really not helping your case, bro.”
A few years ago, Casey jacked the fireworks my parents had set aside for our New Year’s celebration, and nearly burned down the shed behind my house. My grandma was in from China, and to this day, every time she calls, she asks if I’m still friends with ‘the fire starter.’
“We’ve got nothing going on tonight, and the party sounds pretty cool.” His eyes are pleading. I don’t get it.
“Right,” I chuckle. “Cool is definitely how I’d describe a bunch of straight-edge kids. At a kegger.”
This is the dumbest plan I’ve ever heard. And not because we care so much about pushing our values on anyone else. If that were the case, Paloma would be off limits, since she clearly partakes in a little boozing. We don’t label ourselves a straight-edge band, but all but one of our members are straight-edge, so parties aren’t usually how we spend our weekends.
We don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone else does.
But we do care about legitimacy. The plan has always been to stick with playing weddings, bar mitzvahs, and community events, rather than getting sucked into the party circuit where the only thing lower than the pay is the respect we get.
Ryan taps his fingers on the counter like he’s waiting for a different answer than the one I’ve already given him.
I don’t have time to stand here and argue with Ryan. “This plan … it’s … nonsensical.”
“It’s money,” Ryan qualifies. “It’s one step closer to getting the dough we need to get new equipment.”
“I can help you here, sir,” Colm says, taking the spot in the line next to me.
Colm is about as laid back as bosses come. I’m not too worried about upsetting him, even with the long line tonight. But I’ll be pissed if I miss the one chance I’ll have today to talk to Paloma.
Even if ‘talking’ only amounts to, “Here’s your claim tag.”
I also don’t want Ryan to recognize her. He knows I’ve always had a thing for her. What he doesn’t know is she comes to the museum regularly. Mostly because there isn’t much to tell, but also because it felt a little more special if only I knew. I wouldn’t have to explain to anyone when nothing ever came of it. And if I told Ryan, he’d likely show up here and make a scene.
Sort of like he’s doing now.
“And we only have to sell our souls to do it,” I whisper.
“Don’t be an asshole. We aren’t hired to do what they’re doing, or even to judge what they’re doing. We’ll be there to play some rad music, collect our shekels, and go home,” Ryan says.
“I don’t know man, I have to work.” I point over his shoulder to the line behind him.
“What time are you off?”
I look away without answering. I’m off in a couple of hours, but that’s not going to help me with Ryan.
“Stop,” Ryan says. He leans over the counter and tugs on my shoulder. “Don’t even give me some BS about having something to do after work, because I know that’s crap. It’s Saturday night. We don’t have many of those left before graduation. We’re going to the party.”
He kicks at the wooden counter with his battered Chuck Taylor, and Colm glances over at us. Colm is decent, but the look he shoots me from under those freaky white-blond eyebrows that don’t match his red beard says that Ryan and I are seriously treading on his patience right now.
I slide my phone out of my pants pocket and glance at the time.
“Fine,” I concede, blowing out a long breath.
“Ah, see, I knew you’d come around,” Ryan says. “Trust me, it won’t be so bad. We’ll jam; we’ll collect our dough, and get the hell out of there. We can still hang the rest of the night once we’re done. We need a chance to try those new songs live anyway. This is the perfect opportunity.”
“I said fine.”
Ryan claps his hands together. “Really? Cool, bro. Let me call Case so she knows it’s a go before they find someone else.”
“Hey, before you call her, let her know that—”
But he’s walking away before I can finish.
“We’ll pick you up at eight!” he calls over his shoulder.
I scrub my hand over my face and waste no time apologizing to Colm.
“No sweat,” he says. “Next.”
But it’s her.
“I’ve got it,” I half-yell the words, hoping the desperation doesn’t seep through every goddamn syllable.
Colm chuckles and shakes his head while he arranges a few hangers on the curved rack, then calls the next guest.
“Hi,” Paloma says.
She sets her sketchbook and bag on the counter, while she shrugs out of her coat.
“Hi,” I say.
The front of her book is covered in thick, black doodles and words I can’t make out. I want to spin it around so I can see it more clearly and try to decipher them all.
To try to figure out this mysterious girl.
I have so many damn questions I want to ask her.
None of which are, “Dropping off?” which is what I actually say. Even though it’s obvious.
Why does she come here almost every day? Is it really just to read or draw? And why can’t she do that at home? Why is she always alone?
Wait, not always. Twice she brought a guy with her. He looked like a prick and slapped her on the ass when she walked in front of him. That was months ago, though.
Why does she sometimes smell like alcohol, even in the middle of the day on weekends? Why does she try to cover it up with a roll of breath mints before she says two words to me?
Like the front of her sketchbook would really unlock all of those mysteries.
I still want to try.
Colm calls up the next person in line, who happens to be the last one. At least for now.
“Yep,” she says. She slides the corduroy jacket across the counter to me.
“Cool,” I say.
I can practically hear Colm saying, “Smooth, Oliver Wu, real smooth.”
The thing is, I’m not a moron. I know she’s just a girl and should be able to talk to her like I talk to anyone else. I’ve always been great at reading people. But Paloma? I’ve got nothing when it comes to her. And that alone is equal parts frustrating and fascinating.
I barely know her, and can’t read her at all, but I love the way she twists the ends of her hair when the line here is super long. I love the way I catch her sitting on a bench staring at a Rousseau landscape with more wonder than I’ve ever felt about anything.
Except maybe her.
And maybe I’m a masochist, but the biggest reason I love the mystery of Paloma is because when everything is so unknown, at least she still feels hopeful. And I cling to that. So, for now at least, I’m content to just check her coat and be a small, albeit insignificant, part of her day.
I slide her coat onto a hanger—a wooden one—and take care to button each snap so there’s no chance it’ll slide off.
“Just the coat?” I ask, motioning to the scarf still tied around her neck.
“No, just the coat is fine. I’m still chilly. The wind is crazy tonight,” she says. “Santa Anas are really kicking up. You’ll want to bring a jacket if, you know, you go out after work.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” I say. “When I’m out. Later.”
I hand her the claim tag and realize that this may be the longest conversation she and I have ever had, and that feels pretty damn awesome.
Even if it is about the weather.
Of course it’s about the weather.
It doesn’t even matter that it’s about the weather.
I feel like maybe this talk is leading somewhere. Or it could, based on the small smile tugging at the edge of Paloma’s mouth, except Colm feels the need to butt in.
He leans onto the counter and asks, “What are you two kids talking about?”
“Nothing,” I say. “She was just checking her coat.”
Paloma backs up a few steps, and, with each one, I want to throttle Colm a little more.
“Thanks,” she says, holding up the claim tag. “See ya.”
As soon as she’s out of earshot, Colm’s large hand slaps my back, nearly knocking me over. “Oliver Wu! You spoke to her! And only sort of sounded like a robot!”
I shove him off me and mutter, “Dick.”
“So angry, Oliver Wu. So angry.” He laughs.
Colm’s called me by my first and last name since the day I met him. I don’t know why, other than he’s a moron. But he and I joke and have a good time, so I don’t really give a shit what he calls me.
My dad’s family emigrated from China to New York in the eighties, so Dad grew up in Brooklyn. After high school, he slowly made his way to California, where Mom has lived her entire life. Dad’s parents went back to China about ten years ago, and, because Mom’s family is all close by, the traditions she grew up with are the ones we’ve kept more than what Dad is used to. I’ve got two older half-siblings from Dad’s first marriage. One lives in Oregon and the other in some desert state. I don’t know much about them because they only come around when they need something, like the little dickheads they are. I also have a younger brother, Kevin, who unintentionally turned my mom from a successful chemist to a neurotic stay-at-home mom.
I smirk, and half-laugh, half-sigh, which is how I respond to ninety percent of what Colm says.
“Big plans tonight, Oliver Wu? Drinking bubble tea? Studying to bring up your crap A-plus average? Installing a spoiler on your neighbor’s car?”
“Huge generalizations that are mildly racist, as usual,” I say. “And I think that last one is recycled material, old man. Are you even trying tonight?”
Colm gives as good as he gets, and he takes my jokes about him being a stereotypical drunk Irishman well. It helps keeps things light with the guy who is technically in charge of all of coat check, and was even hired for security, which basically makes him a glorified guard of the lost and found.
“Oh, just wait ‘til you ask to leave, little punk.”
“Tonight, I’ve got a gig,” I say. “Some party Ryan lined up.”
Colm drums on the counter and asks, “High school party?”
“So, a straight-edge band … playing a rager?” Colm raises a pale eyebrow.
“Nah, it’s not like that.”
It’s completely like that.
I want to throttle Ryan right now.
“We aren’t a straight-edge band. We’re just—never mind,” I say. “I can help you over here, miss.” There’re a few more people in line. The night feels never ending now.
“I can handle this one if you want to chase after your girl,” Colm says.
“Don’t you have something to do? Like hang with Bono or grab a pint with Darby O’Gill and The Little People?” I ask.
Because she isn’t my girl, and chasing after her is pointless.
“Am I cool to go?” I ask Colm.
The museum has been dead for the last hour, and we only have two coats that need to be picked up. Colm can handle it from here. When the bar upstairs shut down, the guests scattered around ten seconds later. I hope they all made massive donations to the museum and that’s why ninety-percent of them couldn’t manage a tip.
I’d missed Paloma picking up her coat while I was in the back sweeping, but I guess that’s okay. She’ll be back tomorrow or the next day.
And goddammit maybe one of those days I’ll be brave enough to make a damn move, or at least a connection. Just something before I finish up high school and go to school up north.
I will. Soon.
Colm runs a hand down his ridiculous hipster beard like he’s thinking hard about not letting me leave. I sort of wish he’d make me stay, then I wouldn’t have to play this stupid gig.
“I can’t believe management doesn’t make you shave that squirrel on your face, but they make me pull my hair back,” I say.
Colm smirks. “Oliver Wu, you just don’t understand the power of the ginger beard. Management is helpless when it comes to the beard’s mystical powers.”
I pull out the old metal box that I use to store claim tags and tips and pop it open. I smooth out the few bills it holds before tossing them into the joint pool on the countertop that Colm and I will split.
“You’re a moron, you know that, right? That beard is a woman repellent. I read once that the average beard has more germs than a public toilet. No wonder the ladies stay away from you.”
“Bullshit. I call total bullshit on that article. And because you lied, I think you should have to stay late tonight.”
“All right,” I say with an ambivalent shrug.
Colm shoves me a little. “Not a chance, Oliver Wu. I’m already tired of looking at you. And you have a gig. That crazy friend of yours will physically drag you out of here before he’ll let you out of that shit. Go grab the lost and found treasures from the gift shop, then you’re good to leave.”
“Rad, thanks,” I say.
I text Ryan that I’ll be five minutes as I walk across the lobby to the gift shop, and he quickly replies that he and the band are already outside waiting.
The gift shop is near the entrance of the museum, and, with the entire front of the building being made of glass, I immediately spot the big white van that is parked illegally by the upstanding members of the band. Of course.
Now that my shift is basically over, I untuck my polo shirt as I step into the gift shop. It’s weird how a simple thing like untucking your shirt can make you feel more like yourself. Inside the shop, there are shelves full of snow globes that have L.A. cityscapes, stuffed animals, and umbrellas and scarves printed with The Starry Night, even though we haven’t had that painting here since before I could walk.
“Hey, Maggie, how’s your night?” I ask.
Maggie is a sweet older lady, who, rumor has it, works for free, because every time they’ve tried to lay her off, she cries that she has nothing in her life but this museum. I don’t actually believe she works here without pay, but I swear if I ever hit it rich, I’m totally buying this woman a hobby. She’s always here, and Colm and I could learn something from her, because she is always smiling.
The glass counter I’m leaning on is full of ridiculous baubles like creepy bee earrings with rubies for eyes, some weird art deco brooches that probably cost more than I make in six months, and some knockoffs of ancient religious pendants. My mom would probably love some of this stuff.
Maggie pats her fluffy hair, which is a shade of white that looks sort of lilac under the bright lights.
“Can’t complain, Oliver. Cold out tonight. Bet you all were busy.”
“Yes, ma’am, we stayed steady,” I say. “Plus we had that event upstairs. They clear you out in here?”
“I sold a good bit.” Maggie yawns a little, then pats her hair again. “Nothing wrong with an honest day’s work, though. What can I do for you?”
“Got any treasures in the lost and found for Colm to lock up?”
“Let me go see, hon,” she says. “Give me just a minute.”
Maggie slips through the squeaky door to the tiny storage room, and I turn around for the first time since I came in. The murmur and light laugh catch me off guard.
The dark hair is unmistakable. The way that navy skirt clings to her hips without looking trashy is literally the stuff that my dreams are made of. And her voice…
I should turn back around. I don’t think she was even talking to me. She’s probably on her phone. I take a step closer and say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
Paloma spins around and laughs a little.
“Oh, sorry, was just talking to myself,” she says.
She pulls her black hair behind her head like she’s going to tie it back, but instead lets it swing back in front of her face, revealing the tiniest bit of blush peeking through her dark skin.
“Okay, sorry about that,” I say. I shove my hands deep into my pockets and then add, “Didn’t mean to intrude.”
Paloma waves her hand like I’m being a moron. I fucking love that, and take it as my open invitation to step in even closer toward her.
She points to the display and says, “I said, ‘Who the hell even sends postcards anymore?’” She spins the rack of cards, and the sign taped to the top falls off.
We both bend down to pick it up, but I get to it first. I flip the orange piece of cardboard over, knowing she’s the one watching me this time. It feels strange and incredible all at once.
I’ve been waiting for the chance to really talk to you.
Do you want to come to this lame party tonight?
Neither one of those things slide out of my mouth, all confident and smooth.
Instead, “Holy crap, a buck a piece?” I reach behind her shoulder and press the side of the card that is still reasonably sticky back to the rack. “I remember when they were a quarter.”
I’m trying to joke. I hope she knows that. Colm is right; I’m a fucking robot when it comes to her.
“Right? That makes me feel ancient already.” Paloma laughs and spins the rack again. “I don’t remember the last piece of real mail we got at my townhouse; it’s usually just ads and junk. And I know for sure I’ve never seen a postcard delivered.”
She plucks one of the glossy cards from the rack and flips the blank side to me.
“See?” she says, holding it up. I take a few more steps and realize that I haven’t been this close to her before.
No countertop separating us. Just me and Paloma. Nothing between us but Greetings from Los Angeles!
“There isn’t even enough room to write anything meaningful. What could you possibly write in this tiny space?”
I pluck the card from her hand and clear my throat. “Maybe that’s the point. No dicking around with extra words. One small space to say exactly what you want. What you mean.”
I want to drop the card so that I can shove my hands deep into my pockets and look at the ground instead of staring at her. But she’s staring right back at me. Eyes locked on mine.
One. Two. Three.
Her hand is resting on the curve of her hip like she’s thinking about it. Her mouth quirks into a smile and her eyes go soft.
“Maybe you’re right.”
“Here you go, Oliver,” Maggie says.
This time I allow myself five beats before looking away. It’s amazing what a couple extra seconds of looking at her can do, especially when she’s smiling at me. Two more seconds of Paloma means noticing the tiny scar above the left side of her lip. The way her hair is tucked behind one ear and not the other, and how I’d never realized how goddamn beautiful ears could be before now.
I probably would have given myself even more. Maybe I would have just stood here all night, looking at Paloma. Trying to make her smile like she just did.
But ignoring people is rude, so my manners win this round.
“I’ve got to go,” Paloma says, glancing out the windows that line the side of the gift shop. She gives a quick smile and a nod before saying, “See you around, Oliver.”
“Yeah, you too,” I say.
I glance over at Maggie and quickly turn back toward Paloma but she’s already gone.
And somehow, the last couple minutes were enough.
At least for now.
“Friend of yours?” Maggie asks as I turn back toward the counter.
I shake my head. “Just someone who comes here a lot.”
I can try to convince myself that’s all it was. Paloma was just being polite, talking to me more than she ever has before.
It wasn’t flirting. At least not from her. But something still tugs at me, insisting it was more. Or that it could be.
That’s what I’m thinking when I take the lost iPod and scarf from Maggie to bring back to the lost and found, and slide a dollar toward her for the postcard.
“Tax, too, young man.” Maggie smiles as she taps her finger to the display on the cash register.
“Oh, sure, sorry,” I say. I dig in my pocket for a couple coins and give her those as well.
“Don’t sell many of those lately.” She hands me an unnecessary receipt, tells me to have a good night, and starts closing up the shop before I’m even at the door.
I drop Ms. Maggie’s coat off to her on my way out.
Outside, the night air is drizzly and cool. I zip my jacket a little tighter as I survey the parking lot for Ryan and the rest of the band. I wonder if they moved to because they grew some sense of moral upstandingness, or if they were towed. I sort of hope for the latter. I don’t see them, so I walk down a couple of steps before sitting on one of the concrete benches under an awning. I watch as a small figure approaches and start to stand so I can give up my seat when she says, “Don’t move. We can both sit.”
It’s her. Holy shit, it’s her.
Paloma takes the empty space next to me and pulls her hood off her hair to shake it out. The flowery smell of her damp hair swirls around us.
“Didn’t expect to see you again so soon,” she says.
I … I’m a droid.
“I thought my mom was here, but it wasn’t her,” Paloma says. There’s a drop of rain near her eyelash. I want to brush it away, but I guess that’s creepy. Plus, I’m sort of paralyzed.
“We went to junior high together,” I say. “Do you remember.”
Paloma lets out a light laugh. “Of course I do. It was four years ago, not forty.
A few moments of silence tick away.
“Are you waiting for your parents?”
I shake my head. “No. My band. We have a gig tonight.”
“I remember that!” She snaps her fingers. “I remember that you liked music.”
She does. SHE DOES?
“Yeah.” I straighten up my posture a little. “And you’re into art.”
A smile quirks at the corners of her mouth, and she hugs her sketchbook to her chest.
“Why?” I ask.
Paloma’s brows pull together.
“I mean, what do you love about it?” I qualify.
Paloma pulls her bottom lip in and bites down for a minute before answering.
“I don’t know,” she shrugs. “I guess it just makes me feel less foggy.”
I smile because I get it. “Music can do that for me too. But I think…” I pause, and motion to the sketchbook she holds clutched to her heart. “I think it’s different for you, though.”
She pushes out a soft breath. “Everything is different for me.”
She murmurs so quietly, I’m not sure she even realizes the words came out.
I open my mouth to ask ‘why,’ but I clamp it shut again. I do this three more times, unable to work up the nerve to ask this girl the secrets that I’ve wondered about for so long.
“I’ve got to go,” Paloma says. She stands abruptly, grabs her bag from the bench, and leaves without saying another word.
That was our moment.
And I let it go.