Before We Were Strangers: A Love Story: Chapter 6

I Needed to Know You

MATT

Later that week, in the dark room, I studied the negatives. I couldn’t fully make out Grace’s expression in one picture so I enlarged it to make a print. When the image began to appear, I realized right away that instead of looking into the camera lens, Grace was looking down at me, adoringly. It made me smile the entire time I was in the lab that day. I took the print after it dried and waited for Grace on the steps outside of Senior House. I removed a cigarette from behind my ear and lit it as I waited.

A minute later, Grace walked up, carrying her large cello case. “You want me to carry that for you?” I asked as I got to my feet.

“No, sit down. You got another one of those?” She pointed to the cigarette and then sat next to me on the steps. It was late in the day but still warm. I had a T-shirt, jeans, and no shoes on. She was wearing a white V-neck and cut-off Levis. The skin on her legs was tan and smooth. She held two fingers to her lips, reminding me again that she wanted a cigarette.

“I only have this one, but I can share.” I handed it to her and then held up the photograph I had developed that day. “Our first photo together.” At the bottom I had used a grease pen on the blank photo paper. I had written “BFFs” on it so that when it developed, it stayed white.

She laughed. “Best friends forever? Already?”

“Wishful thinking.” I shot her a big toothy grin.

“I love it. I will cherish it always. Thank you, Matt.”

“Did you practice a lot today?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m beat and hungry.”

“Daria can probably warm you up some fish sticks if you want.”

Grace scrunched her nose up. “Why does she always eat those? It’s so nasty.”

“Probably because they’re cheap.”

“Speaking of . . . on Wednesdays there’s a diner that I go to that serves free pancakes if you wear your pajamas. You feel like breakfast for dinner?”

I laughed. “Sounds good.”

She stood and stomped on the cigarette. “Cool, let’s get our jammies on.”

I put on flannel pajama bottoms but kept my white T-shirt on. I slipped on giant slippers that gave me Sasquatch feet and walked over to Grace’s room. I pushed the cracked door open and inhaled sharply. She was in her underwear and bra, her back toward me. I swallowed hard and tried to will myself to turn around and walk out before she saw me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the round curve of her perfect ass. She had on white cotton panties with tiny flowers and a little ruffle at the top. The material rode up on one cheek. I felt an urge to drop to my knees and bite her there. My heart picked up and my dick twitched as I held my breath. Fuck!

Without noticing me, she lifted a pink T-shirt nightgown over her head and pulled it on. She turned to reveal white polka dots and a Hello Kitty logo on the front. I couldn’t stop the grin from spreading across my face.

She froze when she saw me. “How long have you been standing there?”

“Just a second,” I lied.

She glanced down at the front of my pants. I didn’t follow her gaze; I just tried very inconspicuously to adjust myself enough so that she wouldn’t notice what was going on down below.

“Oh.” She looked further down at my slippers. “Dude, those are so rad.”

I laughed, feeling a bit relieved that I wasn’t caught. “How far is this place?”

“We have to take the subway—it’s in Brooklyn.” By that point she was on the floor, tying the shoelaces on her blue Converse.

As she walked toward the door, my hand naturally fell to the small of her back. She stopped and turned toward me, her face just inches from mine. “Do you wanna bring your camera? It’s a pretty picture-worthy place.”

“Good idea.”

I went to my room, grabbed my camera, and then met her downstairs, where she was standing with a guy and a girl, also in pajamas. “Matthias, this is Tatiana. She plays the strings with me. And this is Brandon, her boyfriend.”

I hadn’t expected company, but I was excited to meet Grace’s friends. Reaching out, I shook Tatiana’s hand first. She was wearing red footy pajamas and a baseball cap. Although pretty in general, she looked plain standing next to Grace. Brandon was wearing a typical pair of gray college sweats. Brandon was on the short side, with dark cropped hair and frameless glasses. We exchanged grins at our outfits and headed out the door.

The diner was a ’50s-throwback type of place, with shiny red booths and little jukebox stations at every table. Grace scooted into the booth first and began flipping through the song pages. “I love these things.”

Tatiana and Brandon sat across from us, almost on each other’s laps. Tatiana reached into her bag and pulled out a flask. “Bailey’s and rum for our vanilla shakes. It’s to die for.”

Grace and I made appreciative ooh-ing sounds.

“How long have you two been together?” I asked.

“Three weeks,” Brandon said, before leaning in to kiss Tatiana. I noticed that Grace watched them with intense interest.

I instinctively rested my hand on Grace’s bare thigh where her nightgown had ridden up. She didn’t push me away but didn’t respond either. When I moved my hand higher, she gestured to let her out of the booth. She got up and danced toward the bathroom, singing along to James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please.”

“So, Brandon, what are you studying?”

“Music, but more on the recording and business side of things. You?”

“Photography.”

He pointed to the camera on the table. “I guess I should have figured that out.”

“It seems like you and Grace have been inseparable the last couple of days,” Tatiana said.

“She’s literally the only person I know here. I just moved to New York.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said with humor.

“Well, who wouldn’t want to be around her?”

“True.”

Once Grace returned, we filled up on pancakes and Bailey’s-spiked vanilla shakes while Grace sang along to every ’50s song she knew. Meanwhile, I studied her every movement, her little habits.

“You smell your food before you eat it,” I said with a laugh.

“What? No.” Her eyebrows squished together.

Tatiana laughed as well. “Yeah, she does. Just for a split second.”

“No, I don’t,” Grace protested.

“Trust me, it’s cute.” I winked at her.

“It’s embarrassing. I’ve done it since I was a toddler.”

I messed up the back of her hair. “I said it’s cute.”

She looked up at me, cheeks pink, and smiled.

On our way out of the diner, Tatiana and Brandon said their good-byes and then headed to a movie theater in the opposite direction.

“Your friends are nice,” I said.

“Yeah. They were all over each other tonight, huh? Good for them, I guess.”

“Wait, I have an idea before we get on the subway. I have color film in here,” I said, pointing to the camera around my neck. “I want to try something.” I grabbed her hand and pulled her up a flight of concrete stairs to the subway overpass. The traffic was fast on the street below us. I led Grace to stand on one side of the overpass while I rigged my camera to the railing on the other side, using the strap. Traffic lights shone behind her, silhouetting her. The bottom of her pink nightgown fluttered delicately in the wind. “I’m gonna set the timer and run over and stand with you. Just look right at the camera and don’t move. The shutter speed is really slow so the exposure is going to be long. Try to keep as still as you can.”

“What are you going for?” she asked as she watched me adjust the settings.

“The traffic lights will be out of focus behind us because they’re moving, but if we stay really still, we’ll be clear, along with the buildings in the background. It should look really cool. The timer is ten seconds long; you’ll hear it ticking faster and faster until the shutter opens, and then that’s when we have to be really still.”

“Okay, I’m ready.” Her legs were slightly parted, like she was about to start a jazz dance routine. I pressed the button and ran to stand next to her. Without looking over, I grabbed her hand in mine and focused on the camera lens. As the timer sped up, I could sense that she was looking at me. Right at the last second, I looked at her. The shutter opened and I said, without moving my mouth, “Kee stil.” She giggled but continued staring up at me with wide eyes, watery from the wind. Three seconds doesn’t seem like a long time, but when you’re gazing into someone’s eyes, it’s long enough to make a silent promise.

When the shutter closed, she let out a huge breath and started laughing. “That felt like forever.”

“Did it?” I said, still staring down at her. I could have looked at her like that all night.

On our way back to Senior House from the subway, we shared half a joint. “Did you have a lot of boyfriends in high school?”

“No. I didn’t have much time. I had to get a job right when I turned sixteen so I could get a car to drive my siblings to school.”

“Where’d you work?”

“The Häagen-Dazs in the mall.”

“Yum.”

“Well, at first it sucked because I gained, like, ten pounds, and then I got really sick after eating too much rum raisin. I couldn’t stomach the stuff after that. I worked there for three years until I graduated from high school. I still have a really big right bicep from scooping ice cream. I’m all lopsided.”

She made a muscle and held her arm up to me. I squeezed her tiny arm between my fingers before she pulled out of my grip. “Jerk.”

“Spaghetti arms.”

“I’m buff. Let me see yours.”

I made a muscle. Her small, delicate hand couldn’t even squeeze my arm. “Dude, that’s pretty impressive. What do you do?”

“I have one of those pull-up bars. That’s all I do, really. And I surfed a lot in L.A.”

“Do you miss it?”

“The surfing, mainly.”

She paused. “Shit, what time is it?”

I looked at my watch. “Nine fifteen. Why?”

“I wanted to be back by nine thirty.”

“What happens at nine thirty?”

“This beautiful dress turns into a shabby rag.” She twirled around. I bent and threw her over my shoulder. “Oh my god, put me down!”

“No, princess. I’m getting you back by nine thirty.”

I busted through the door of Senior House and ran up the stairs, with Grace hanging over my shoulder and punching my butt. I heard someone behind me say, “Dude, that chick’s wasted.”

I set her down right in front of her door, looked at my watch, and put my hands up. “Nine twenty-nine, baby.”

She high-fived me. “You did it! Thanks, buddy.”

I looked behind Grace to see a scantily clad girl in a jean miniskirt and heels. Grace turned around to follow my gaze. When she looked back, I smiled innocently at her.

“You like that? Is that your type?”

I leaned against her door and crossed my arms over my chest. “Not really.”

“Were you a player in L.A.?”

“Not at all.”

“How many girls have you been with?” Her expression fell serious.

“Is this a trick question?”

“I’m just curious ’cause you’re a good looking guy and . . .”

“You’re beautiful. Does that mean you’ve been with a lot of people?”

She huffed. “Fine, don’t answer the question.”

“I’ve been with a few girls, Grace. Not a lot.”

“Have you ever been with a virgin?”

I jerked my head back and noticed that her lip was quivering and her eyes were wide and earnest. “No. I’ve never been with a virgin,” I said. I lowered my head to meet her gaze, but she quickly looked down and stared at her shoes.

I was very close to asking Grace if she was a virgin but I already knew the answer and I didn’t want to embarrass her.

“Well, I better get to practicing,” she said.

“Hold on one second.” I ran into my room and dug around before returning with Surfer Rosa & Come on Pilgrim by the Pixies. “This is a great album, one of my favorites. Track seven is the best.”

She read the title, “Where Is My Mind?”

“That’s the one.”

“Cool. Thanks, Matt. Hey, tomorrow after class”—she was hesitant—“I was gonna go up on the roof and study.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well . . . do you wanna join me? We can listen to music.”

“Yeah, let’s do it.”

“Okay, I’ll be done at three. I can make sandwiches?”

“That sounds great.” I gestured for a hug. As she wrapped her arms around my waist, I kissed the top of her head and smelled her lilac hair.

She pulled away and squinted. “Did you just kiss the top of my head?”

“Just a friendly kiss. Like this.” I bent and kissed her cheek. She stood still, her eyes wide. “Goodnight, Gracie.”

“Night, Matty,” she whispered as I walked back to my room.

GRACE AND I hung out practically every day after that, and a routine quickly formed. We would sell our blood and have pajama dinners and find other ways to save money. We studied together, and she played music while I photographed her. Her long blonde hair would fall across her face as she played with passion, tossing her head back and forth with the movement of the bow. It quickly became my favorite sight.

Throughout the fall and into the winter, Grace and I hung out a lot, mostly with her music friends. Brandon and Tati became our couple buddies, and though Grace and I weren’t a couple at all, it felt that way. Grace and Tati found ways for us to get free admission to all the museums, and they even dragged me to a free symphony. I thought Tati and Brandon were a little overly enthusiastic about listening to classical music for two hours straight, and I definitely thought they were going to kick me out for wearing jeans, but I was surprised by how much I liked it and how cool everyone was.

But as much as Grace was into music, she was always looking for stuff for me, too. She’d slip newspaper clippings under my dorm room door about photography exhibitions around town. We did everything we could to get out of the crappy dorms and the pervasive smell of fish sticks emanating from Daria’s room.

You know those frugal traveler books, like The Rough Guide to Hawaii or New York on Five Dollars a Day? I swear to God, we did it on two dollars a day. It involved a lot of ramen noodles and turnstile-hopping in the subways, but we managed to see the city inside and out.

New York has an energy that takes root inside of you. Even a transplant like me gets to know the different boroughs, like they’re living, breathing organisms. There’s nowhere else like it. The city becomes a character in your life, a love you can’t take out of you. The mysteriously human element about this place can make you fall in love and break your heart at the same time. When you hear her sound, when you breathe in her scent, you share it with all the people walking beside you on the street, in the subway, or gazing from a tall building across Central Park. You know at once that you are alive, and that life is beautiful, precious, and fleeting. I think that’s why people in New York feel so connected to each other; the city harnesses this collective love and admiration. Grace and I were falling in love with her together.

Almost every afternoon for the next couple of months, I would find Grace studying in the lounge, waiting for me. Our friendship had become so comfortable that brushing up against her, twirling her around, grabbing her hand, and giving her piggyback rides felt totally normal. Sometimes there would be quieter moments when it seemed like she wanted me to kiss her—and Lord knows I wanted to, but she would always break the silence or look away. I didn’t care, I just wanted to be around her. I found myself less interested in dating or even looking at other girls.

“It’s late, huh?” she remarked on one of many nights we spent together, just hanging out.

“It’s two,” I said, glancing at the clock.

“I should go back to my room.” Grace was lying across my bed horizontally, on her stomach, with her head hanging over the edge. She was in sweats and a Sex Pistols T-shirt, with her hair twirled up in a messy bun. I knew she didn’t really want to leave, even though we were both exhausted.

“Wait, let’s play Never Have I Ever.”

“Sure. You go first,” she mumbled.

“Never have I ever stolen something.”

She looked sad for a moment and then put a finger on her hand down.

“What did you steal?” I asked.

“Well, there have been a few things. The worst, I’m too embarrassed to tell you about.” She rolled over and buried her face in the comforter.

“Come on, tell me. I won’t judge you.”

“I stole forty dollars from my neighbor,” she mumbled into the blankets.

“For what? Come on, tell me. It’s part of the game.”

“I don’t like this game anymore.”

I rolled her over to face me. “What was it?”

She looked up into my eyes. “I stole it to buy my senior yearbook, okay? I feel like a total asshole and I have every intention of paying her back.”

My heart ached for her. I had no idea what it was like not to be able to ask my parents for forty dollars. She had stolen money to buy herself a yearbook, of all things—something most kids take for granted. How sad. “Let’s play something else,” I said. “How about Fuck, Marry, Kill?”

She perked up. “Okay. Yours are . . . let me think, um . . . Courtney Love, Pamela Anderson, and Jennifer Aniston.”

“Ugh, kill, kill, kill.”

“Seriously, you psychopath, you have to answer.” She bonked me on the head with her palm.

“All right, kill Courtney—that’s a given—fuck Pamela, and marry Jennifer. There! Your turn. Bill Clinton, Spike Lee, and me.”

“Ha! That’s easy. Fuck Bill, marry Spike, and kill you.”

“You’re a terrible, mean girl.”

“You love me.” She sat up to leave.

“Grace?”

“Yeah.”

“Nothing.” I wanted to ask her what was going on with us. I wanted to know if we could be more than friends. I turned back and looked out the window.

She plopped down onto my bed and wrapped an arm around my shoulder. “I guess I’d marry you.”

“Really? I was hoping it would go more like, kill Bill, marry Spike . . .”

“Ha!” She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “You’re a good guy.”

I wanted an award for the insane amount of restraint I had shown so far. My lips flattened. “That’s it?”

“What are you fishing for, Shore?”

“I’m not fishing for anything, Grace. I feel like sometimes this”—I waved my hand between us—“it’s unnatural.”

“This what? Us being friends?”

I laughed. “Yeah, kind of.” I worked very hard to avoid the sex question but I would often catch Grace staring when I changed my shirt or when I put a belt on. It was hard for me not to think she wanted me as much as I wanted her. And I was becoming secretly possessive of her. I could see how men looked at her without her even knowing it, and I was terrified that she was going to give herself to some dickhead with no heart.

She stood and headed for the door. Just before she reached for the knob, she turned and leaned against it. Her eyes fell to her feet. “Don’t pressure me.” She looked up and met my gaze. “Okay?” She wasn’t irritated. Her expression was sincere, almost like she was begging.

“I haven’t.”

“I know.” She smiled. “That’s why I like you so much.”

“Did something happen to you? Is that why . . .”

“No, nothing like that. My mom had me when she was eighteen. I don’t know, I guess in some ways I felt like I ruined her life.”

“That’s terrible that she made you feel that way.” I got up and walked toward her.

“She didn’t make me feel that way. I just didn’t want that life. I always felt like my dad resented her. I don’t know, Matt, I guess I’ve been focused on school so I can stay on track. That’s why I don’t really date. I like what we have, though. There’s no pressure.”

“I get it.”

She might say these words, but I knew she was feeling the increasing tension between us as much as I was. Half the time, I was trying to hide a raging hard-on while she tried to avoid staring at my arms. Who were we kidding?

“Thanks for understanding,” she said.

“You’re welcome.” I bent and kissed her cheek. “You’re a good girl.” I felt her shiver, and then I whispered, “Maybe too good.”

She pushed me back and rolled her eyes. “Night, Matt.”

I watched her saunter down the hall and then I called out to her, “You’re smiling! I know you are, Gracie.”

Without turning around, she held up a peace sign.


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