Duet, Chapter One
The man at the bar had his back to me. He was wearing a dark blue plaid shirt and jeans, his long legs hooked around the legs of the bar stool in easy laziness. He was focused on his drink, and from where I sat on the small stage at the front of the room I could see that his body was lean and graceful, his hair dark. He was wearing a black baseball cap.
Frankly, even from behind, he was kind of hot, and I wondered what he looked like. The problem was that he wouldn’t turn around and look at me, no matter how well I played.
And I was playing pretty well, I thought. Considering it was a rainy Thursday night in Portland, and in the small jazz bar where I played piano regularly for a handful of bills and a few free drinks there were fewer than a dozen people sitting at the tables. Thursday jazz nights weren’t about packing the customers in. They were for people who needed a header into the weekend, a stress-free place to sit where there was dim light and good music, where you could drink a strong drink or two and no one would bother you. My fellow musicians and I appreciated it just as much as the patrons did, if not more. We all worked day jobs, and Thursday nights were our way of trying to forget that fact and wind down.
Tonight, we were a trio. I was on piano; David, who was barely thirty and worked days at an IT company, was on drums; Charlie, who was, black, over sixty, and had worked thirty years at a utility company, was on guitar. We cycled through a few classic jazz songs and a couple of numbers we quietly improvised, letting the smooth notes flow through the darkened room, the hiss of David’s snare and the melody of Charlie’s guitar letting the mind wander. I played counterpoint to Charlie, as I had done for many Thursdays, and I loved it as much as I ever had, but I felt my gaze wander back, over and over, to the man at the bar.
He wasn’t with anyone that I could see. He wasn’t talking to the bartender, either, though the looks that Ace kept covertly shooting him bordered on worshipful. Ace was happily married and definitely not gay, so what would make him have such a sudden man-crush was a mystery. I really, really wished the man would turn around. As we neared the end of the forty-minute set, it started to annoy me. Who came to a jazz bar on a Thursday night, then didn’t spare a glance at the band? What kind of guy just sat drinking alone without paying attention to the music? We were three real people up here, not an iPhone on shuffle. Not only were we people, we were actual musicians, and we were pretty good. I’d been playing piano for twenty-five of my thirty-five years, and Charlie had been playing since before David and I were born. We deserved, at the very least, a freaking glance.
We finished our last number to a hushed round of applause from the people in the room. Charlie leaned forward and spoke into the only microphone on the stage. “Thank you,” he said politely, as if we were wrapping up a meeting. “We were very happy to be invited here tonight. Have a nice night and drive safe.”
The three of us stood and nodded at each other. Outside of this bar once a week, we had no personal relationship. We’d never met before the owner of the bar booked us separately and told us to do a set together. Before our first set, we had shown up an hour early and rehearsed a few numbers, and then we’d never gotten together again outside of gig nights. We were professionals, not friends.
Still, I knew that Charlie would put on his navy-blue blazer, which was hanging next to the stage, and go straight home. David had a toddler now, something he hadn’t had when we first played, so he would go straight home, too. It was eleven o’clock on a weeknight, and anyone with a life would go home to bed.
Normally, I’d go home, too. I had a nice ground floor apartment all to myself and a cat named Elmer who was waiting for me. I had to work tomorrow. But tonight I was restless, something that felt a little like annoyance and a little like lust pricking under my skin. It had to do with the man at the bar. I wanted to see him for myself. I decided to stay for a drink.
I waved to David and Charlie and walked to the bar. The other customers tonight were clustered in twos and threes at the round tables, talking quietly over the ambient jazz that was now coming from the speakers. The only customer at the bar was the mystery man. I glanced down at myself, taking in my jeans, Chucks, and black off-the-shoulder top. I wore my golden-brown hair twisted up, the way I usually kept it when I was playing. I had silver rings on my fingers and a little makeup on. I looked pretty good, I thought. Then I wondered why I cared. Maybe the mystery man was awful-looking, or maybe he was gay, or married, or had a voice like a foghorn. This was stupid. I just needed to get it over with.
I walked to the bar and took the stool right next to the mystery man, even though I could have given him space. If you’re going to go for it, I thought, you may as well just go.
“Hey, Callie,” Ace said. “Nice set.”
“Thanks. How about a Southside?”
“Gin, huh? It’s that kind of night.” Ace smiled at me, but his gaze cut quickly to the man next to me, as if he couldn’t help it. “I’ll get on it.”
With nothing to do but wait, I put my palms on the edge of the bar and tried not to fidget. When I felt incognito enough, I risked a quick glance at the man next to me.
Okay, he still might be married, gay, or annoying to listen to. But he definitely wasn’t awful-looking.
His hair was dark brown, almost black in the dim light, and worn a little long, the ends curling on the back of his neck under his baseball cap. A straight nose, a beautiful mouth, scruff on his jaw. Even from here I could see the line of his eyelashes, and I wanted to know what color his eyes were. I also, shockingly, wanted to know what that mouth felt like on mine.
I didn’t usually have reactions like this to men. I wasn’t the horny kind of single woman, out on the prowl to get laid, though I wished Godspeed to every one of those women. I had my career and my apartment and Elmer, and I didn’t need a regular dose of dick to keep me happy. No, it was this particular man who was provoking this reaction tonight. Instead of being repelled, I got more comfortable on my stool, because there was no way I was leaving.
Ace mixed my drink and gave it to me, but his words were for the guy next to me. “Want another one, man?” There was—I wasn’t mistaking it—a tremble in Ace’s voice. It puzzled me, because men really, really weren’t Ace’s thing. I wondered if maybe the man next to me was famous, but then, wouldn’t someone else in this place have recognized him by now? Wouldn’t I have recognized him?
The mystery man pulled the stir stick from the ice at the bottom of his glass. He drew it once over his tongue, absently, as if unaware he was doing it, getting the last drop of alcohol from the end. “Sure,” he said. “One more.”
The words trilled up my spine like a piano scale. Point number two, then. This man was definitely not a burden to listen to. His voice was like whiskey poured over cold stones.
Cold sweat started on my palms, and for the first time, I started to think maybe I should get out of here. This man was some kind of danger I hadn’t encountered before. I’d met attractive men, even dated a few of them. But this? He’d said three words, none of them to me, and I was turning to jelly. I should walk away.
But my Southside was fresh, and it looked so delicious. I wasn’t much of a drinker, which is a little odd for a musician. When I did drink, I liked to pick a cocktail that cost a few dollars and packed an extra punch, as a treat. Then I’d drink only one or two, savoring them, happy until the next time I decided to treat myself.
Treating myself was one of the ways I got through life. I was good at it. I pulled my drink toward me and took my first sip—not too deep, so it wouldn’t hit too hard straight off the bat. The gin and lime rolled over my tongue and slid down my throat. Perfect. I’d have a little more of this, and then I’d go home.
“That was a nice set,” said the voice next to me. “You’re good.”
I froze. For a second, I had the urge to squeak, Me? Like a ten-year-old girl. Then I got it together. This man, no matter what he looked and sounded like, had nearly ruined my set, and was now about to ruin my cocktail.
“You weren’t even listening,” I said.
The man was looking at his fresh drink, not at me, but I saw the corner of his mouth smile. “Of course I was listening. It was the only thing to hear in here.”
“Okay. You weren’t watching, then.”
“I don’t have to watch you to know you’re good.”
Now I was annoyed again, my skin prickling like it had before, probably because I’d been unable to stop looking at him, and he’d never once felt the urge to look at me. “Fine, then. If you don’t need to watch, which instrument was I playing?”
He moved his stir stick through his drink, making the ice click in the glass. “You play piano. And the reason I know you’re good is that you made it work, even though that piano needs to be tuned.”
There are small moments in your life, and there are big ones. Then there are moments that seem small but change everything. I felt on the edge of one of those for some reason, and it was both exciting and terrifying. Because this man, whoever he was, knew music.
“You’re a musician?” I asked.
“Sometimes.” He turned and looked at me, and at last I got a full look at his face. His eyes, under the brim of the black baseball cap, were hazel, and he was fucking gorgeous.
He didn’t say anything else, so I took a second to stare at him, not bothering to hide it. Not just his hotness, which was stupidly apparent, but his features. “I don’t recognize you,” I said. “Do you play the clubs around here?”
He paused before answering, seeming to study my face the way I studied his. I had no idea what he was looking for, but finally he answered. “No. I’m not playing clubs right now. You don’t play like a beginner.”
“I’ve been playing piano since I was ten,” I said, taking another sip of my drink. “I made my mother bring me to piano lessons, and when I was old enough I’d take the bus to the music school at PSU. Now I teach.”
“Yeah?” He leaned an elbow on the bar. “It’s your living now? You like teaching?”
“I do. I teach all ages, some kids, some adults. Even a few seniors. I think I knew since those first lessons that I wanted to make music my career. It hasn’t been easy to do, but I manage it.”
I couldn’t keep the note of pride from my voice. Making a living at music—anything at all to do with music—had seemed like an unbelievable dream for years. In my early twenties, when I worked office jobs and tried to get gigs on evenings and weekends, I’d lie awake at night, certain I could feel my dream dying right there and then, like a limb going numb and beginning to wither away.
“That’s very cool,” the mystery man said.
I laughed. My drink was strong, and the first few sips were getting to me. “No one thinks being a piano teacher is cool. People picture an old spinster lady who gets five dollars here and there.”
His expression said this was absurd. “No one thinks that.”
“My mother does.”
“She thinks you’re an old lady?”
“You know what I mean. She thinks I’m a failure. She can’t understand why anyone would want to take lessons from me, since I never became a successful concert pianist or anything. Every time I see her, she asks if I’m still teaching piano, as if I’m supposed to grow out of it. I’m thirty-five.”
Now I was not only hot for this guy, I was spilling my guts to him. Painful things. The fact that my mother had never believed in me was one of the things I carefully put in a box and buried, never to be looked at too closely.
But the mystery man just shrugged, as if my lifetime of pain and insecurity was an everyday thing for him. “If your parents don’t hate what you do, then you’re not a real musician.”
I stared at him. Pieces were moving inside me, some of them clicking into place, others jarring free. It wasn’t that I hadn’t thought I’d meet a man like this one; it was that I had never believed that men like this existed. If he wasn’t gay, married, or an asshole, then he couldn’t possibly be real.
“What is your name?” I asked him.
He seemed hesitant for a second, and the tip of his tongue briefly touched his bottom lip in a move that was so unconsciously seductive it melted my knees. “Denver,” he said.
“Like the city?”
Another pause, and then a self-deprecating smile. “Like the city, yeah. My parents chose it, not me.”
“I like it.” It was fitting that a man unlike any other I knew would have a name unlike any other, as well. I held out my hand for him to shake. “I’m Callie.”
Yet again, a split second of hesitation. If this man weren’t wildly good-looking and unspeakably hot, I’d almost think he was shy. But he took my hand and shook it, the sparks from the contact flying up my arm and making my blood go warm everywhere in my body.
“Callie,” he said.
That was it. Just my name.
Sometimes I think the rest was destiny.
And sometimes I think that I could have turned and run in that moment, and the rest of it would never have happened at all.