Before We Were Strangers: A Love Story: Chapter 15

Gracie . . .

MATT

After the holidays, Grace and I spent as much time as we could together—mostly naked. It felt like we were trying to condense a whole relationship into a few short months before I left for South America. We must have told each other a million times that what we had was casual, but it didn’t feel that way. Grace avoided all conversations about what she was going to do when I left for the summer. She’d constantly reminded me that we were young, which sometimes felt like she was minimizing our relationship. I think she was trying to protect her heart. Maybe I was, too.

We hung out with Tati and Brandon a lot and went to seedy music venues on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn every Friday. On Sundays, we’d lounge around, playing games or studying together at Senior House. But as the winter ended and we headed into early spring, we all got busy preparing for the end of college and the next phase of our lives. If I hadn’t lived right next door to Grace, I don’t know how we would’ve seen each other.

Finally, on the first warm day of April, Grace, determined to get the four of us together, gave us strict orders to meet up outside of the Old Hat at ten in the morning. The Old Hat was a grimy dive bar we’d go to after nicer bars closed for the night, so it was an unusual place to start the day.

I rubbed my hands together and clapped once. “All right, lady, what’s this all about?”

“Whiskey,” she deadpanned.

Brandon chuckled.

“It’s ten a.m., Grace,” Tati said with her hand on her hip, clearly not amused.

Grace grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the door. “Isn’t that a beautiful thing, you guys? We have all day. C’mon, we’re young. Let’s take advantage of it.”

The bartender at the Old Hat greeted us. Grace held up four fingers. “Four whiskeys, please.”

“Oh, geez,” I heard Tati mumble.

“What are we doing, Gracie? For real.” I was totally confused.

The four of us sat in a row at the bar. “Everyone has been so busy lately and Matt’s leaving soon. I just want to spend some time with you guys, getting drunk and having fun and not studying. I have the whole day planned for us.”

Tati held up her shot. “You’ve convinced me. I’m game.”

“Bottoms up,” Brandon said.

After we drank our whiskeys, Grace turned to us. “All right, let’s hit it.”

“Where to now?” I said.

Her eyes lit up. “The dark room.” She handed me a roll of film. “We need to develop that.”

“Please tell me it’s not naked pictures of you guys,” Brandon said.

“No, they probably have enough of those,” Tati added.

“It’s not,” Grace said. “It’s a clue.”

“What are we gonna do while you guys develop that?” Tati asked.

“You’re coming with us,” Grace said. “Matt can show you guys how to make a print.”

I smirked. “Yeah, it’ll be fun.”

We walked to the photo lab on campus, soaking in the warm spring air along the way. There were a series of small rooms where students could develop film negatives and then a bigger room filled with red light, enlargers, and developing pans for students to make prints. I set up some negatives in enlargers from a roll of film I had left in the room, so Tati and Brandon could make prints. They were shots of me and Grace making stupid faces at the camera; it was kind of a throwaway project, but at least Brandon and Tati could amuse themselves while Grace and I developed the roll.

We walked down the hall and I pulled Grace into one of the smaller rooms and closed the door. “Thanks for planning today. This is fun.” I kissed her against the door and hitched her leg up around my waist, running my hand up her thigh and pushing her dress higher.

“I thought you told me people don’t do this in here.”

“I don’t know what other people do, and I don’t really care.”

She whimpered but pulled out of my embrace. “We need to develop that film, Romeo.”

“Killjoy,” I muttered. “Fine, I’ll get it started, but I’m gonna get some after.”

“I’ll be at your disposal then, but get that roll going first.”

“All right, I have to turn the red light off to develop it so it’s going to be completely dark in here for about twelve minutes.”

She wrinkled her nose. “What’s that smell?”

“It’s developer.” The chemical smells were overwhelmingly pungent inside the eight-by-eight room, which was warm and humid. There was a stainless steel sink and counter on one side, along with a tall, narrow vat where film negatives were dropped into developing solution. On top of the counter was a large timer with glow-in-the-dark hands. On the other side was a wooden bench.

I bent and flicked the radio on below the sink. Music came through a speaker overhead—some kind of smooth jazz from the university’s station. “I can’t change it, but it’s something.” I looked back at Grace sitting on the bench. “You ready? I’m going to turn off the red light now.”

“I’m ready.”

I hit the switch. Photo labs are so black and warm that you feel instantly sleepy. Grace yawned audibly from the other side of the room. All my other senses went into overdrive. I popped the film open and blindly attached it to a clip. Feeling my way over to the sink, I managed to drop it expertly into the vat without making a sound.

“You okay, baby?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said drowsily.

“Give me one more minute.” I set the timer and then a mental image of Grace riding me flew through my head.

“Get naked.”

She laughed. “Are you serious?”

“I can do a lot in twelve minutes,” I said as I felt my way over to her.

I gripped her arm first and then we were kissing. There was no need for any other senses; it was all touch after that. I kissed her from her ear to the base of her neck and then pulled her dress over her head. She unbuckled my belt and yanked at my jeans. I turned her around. From behind, I kissed her shoulder and smoothed a hand down her back, over her butt, and then my fingers were there, inside of her. She didn’t make a sound.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Don’t stop,” she panted.

And then I was sliding inside of her. Our breaths were hard but we muffled them as best as we could. I moved in and out, slowly at first, then harder and more urgently. She pushed back against me, matching my movements. There was no sound other than tiny mewling sounds and heavy breathing. When I felt her tighten around me, I lost it. The cold surge shot through me like all my nerves were breaking apart. I pulled her toward me and buried my face in her neck. In one motion, I pulled out, collapsed onto the bench, and lifted her onto my lap.

We were kissing slow, sleepy kisses when buzzzzzz! The timer went off. I stood and flipped on the red light. Grace stood beside me, stunned. I wrapped my arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “That was amazing. Are you okay?” Synapses must have still been misfiring in her brain because she just nodded.

I went to the sink and pulled about four feet of negative out of the vat and dropped it into a container full of water that acted as a stop bath. We quickly got dressed and left the room with the film.

After the negatives dried, I scanned them and found that most were black until the very end. There were three photos, each with a single word on a piece of paper. Piano. PBR. Peanuts.

I looked up at Grace. “Three Peas?” I asked, referring to a little dive bar near our dorm, which had a piano open mic night on Fridays. I often hassled Grace to play and sing for me there, but she never would.

“You got it. Let’s get Tati and Brandon. This is so fun!” she squealed, and then yanked me down the hall toward our friends.

Outside, Tati produced a flask of whiskey from her purse. “You don’t mess around,” I said.

“I thought Grace was gonna drag us to a bunch of museums. I had to be prepared. Want some?”

I took a swig and then Grace yanked it from my hands. “I’m the one who’s gonna need it. Let’s go.”

By the time we got to Three Peas, we were all sufficiently buzzed. It was empty except for a female bartender I didn’t recognize. Grace leaned over the bar. “I’m doing this little game for my boyfriend and my friends, and I was wondering if I could do a supershort song up there?” She pointed to the stage.

“Oh my god, she’s gonna do it,” Tati said.

The bartender looked up and smiled. “Knock yourself out. No one’s here. You want somethin’ to drink?”

“Sure. Four PBRs.”

The bartender served our beers, and we all watched Grace down hers in three large gulps. “Oh boy,” I said.

Just as she made her way to the piano, I heard the jingling of bells as the door opened. I turned around and watched a few suits on their lunch break enter and head for the open stools. There were seven of them. Grace’s audience had grown exponentially in a second.

She scooted the piano bench closer to the piano, which made a screeching sound across the wooden planks of the stage floor. “Sorry.” She mumbled into the microphone, which was set way too loud. The suits and the bartender turned their attention toward her. She looked thoroughly nervous. I smiled at her and her face softened a bit. She leaned back and turned a dial on the sound system. “Better?” I nodded.

Tati yelled, “You got this, girl!”

“Okay, here’s a song I wrote, but it’s also your next clue, so pay attention, you guys.” Her nervous laugh echoed through the silent bar.

“Grace writes songs?” Brandon asked.

Tati and I both shushed him at the same time.

Grace played a long rhythmic introduction that sounded like typical jazz bar fare and then picked up the pace until a melody emerged. She could play any instrument so effortlessly; it was mesmerizing. Still, when she started to sing, we were all holding our breath. No one had heard her really sing, but like everything else, she was a revelation.

Run to the place where your royals play,

Your friends gather and we hide away.

In the open but unseen,

How reckless those moments we have are,

How precious.

Why don’t we run to the place where the children dance,

Generals stand,

And we can wade to our knees in the summer . . .

When she was finished, we all stood up and clapped. “Bravo!” Tati yelled. The businessmen all clapped and shouted, “Great job!”

“Dude, that was pretty good. I didn’t even know she could play the piano,” Brandon said.

“She’s amazing,” I said quietly as I watched her step down from the stage. Tati nudged me in the arm and winked.

The bartender called Grace over. “You’re a million times better than most of the people who come in here on open mic night.” I pulled her into my arms, beaming down at her. She was looking up at me, smiling. Her face was beet red. I kissed her on the nose. “Washington Square Park?”

She laughed. “Was it that obvious?”

“Kind of. You suck at clues, but this is still fun. Shots before we go?”

The bartender poured us a round of whiskey shots, and then we bought hot dogs from a cart on our way to the park. We were severely drunk, and it was only one o’clock in the afternoon. I was afraid if we didn’t eat a lot more than hot dogs, I’d have to carry Grace back to the dorms by the time this was all over.

“I’m having fun. I’m glad you arranged this,” I told her. The truth was that Grace and I could have fun folding laundry, and Brandon and Tati were always up for whatever we had planned. It was just easy with the four of us.

Once we were in Washington Square Park, we sat together under our usual tree. Brandon lit a joint and we all took turns passing it around. I laid my head in Grace’s lap. “I can’t think of a better way to spend a Wednesday.” I yawned.

“You know, Graceland used to do this for her brother and sisters back home.” Tati said.

“You did?” I looked up at her and smiled.

“Yeah, just to pass the time.” Grace said absently. “But, actually, this case is a little different.” She paused and drew in a deep breath. “I wanted to gather you all together and tell you that I got into grad school. I get to stay at NYU!” She threw up her arms in celebration.

“Oh my god!” I stood and picked her up, spinning her around. “I’m so happy for you!”

I noticed that Tati was quiet and Brandon seemed clueless. Grace noticed, too.

When I put her down, she turned to them. “Aren’t you guys happy for me?”

Tati shrugged. “I guess. Yeah, Grace I’m happy for you.” She stood up and grabbed her bag. “Listen, Brandon has a paper to write and I was going to meet with Pornsake about the summer thing.”

Something flitted across Grace’s expression. “So you’re officially going?”

“Well, you got into grad school. Why does that bother you?” Tati asked wryly.

“It doesn’t. We don’t even play the same instrument. What do I care?”

“Seems like you care a little. Not sure why, though. You’re the one who turned him down.”

“I didn’t exactly turn him down.”

“He bought you an eleven-hundred-dollar bow, Grace.”

“So?”

I scowled at Tati. “She’s going to grad school. That’s why she’s not going to Europe with Pornsake.”

“No, she’s waiting around for you, Matt. For when you come back to New York.”

“Tatiana!” Brandon scolded her.

“What? It’s true.”

“I’m going to grad school because I want an advanced degree. You can gallivant all over Europe with Pornsake for the next year and a half. I don’t care.”

Grace turned and stormed off toward the chess tables.

I turned to Tati, furious that she had ruined Grace’s big announcement and our afternoon. “I didn’t pressure Grace to stay, if that’s what you think.”

“You guys can’t be away from each other for a whole year, even though this traveling orchestra would be an insane opportunity and experience for her.”

I looked at Brandon and then back to Tati. “You think you two can be away from each other for that long?”

“We’re solid, Matt. Brandon and I can spend five minutes away from each other and not go crazy, unlike you guys.”

“If you guys are so solid, why don’t you marry him then?”

“Oh, grow up, Matt. What are you, five?”

“I’d marry Grace in a heartbeat. That’s how solid we are.” I looked back to see Grace halfway across the park, playing chess with a short, gray-haired man.

Tati smirked and then stuck her hand out. “I smell a challenge.”

“What are you talking about, Tati?” Brandon said, suddenly shaking loose from his high.

“Oh, shut it, Brandon.” She looked back at me. “You don’t think we’d do it?”

I laughed. “I don’t know, Tati, Brandon doesn’t seem all that keen on the idea.”

She turned back to Brandon, who stood wide-eyed behind her. “You’d marry me, wouldn’t you? I mean, the things we’ve done . . .” She arched her eyebrows in a knowing way.

“I . . . I guess.”

Turning back around, she said, “See, Matt. You’re the one who’s all talk.”

I stuck my hand out. “I bet we do it before you guys do.”

“It’s on.” She glared at me.

“What are we even betting on?”

“Loser buys the married couple a night out,” she said.

We shook on it. “I’m in,” I said, although I would have done it for nothing.

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