Life is not love, but then some people put life in a cardboard box with “LOVE” block lettered on the front. For those the world is special. And instead of being left with a dark and shadowy mind their memories will bend over backwards to show themselves in order.
Once upon a time, she was sipping tea and candlelight with the great navy sky held aloft by the wind, right outside her window. She was still and listened only to the faraway sounds of the street. She was free.
Once upon a time, a time very similar, he stood in front of the mirror with his tapping fingers and his stereo because he had been waiting all night for this song to play. He sang along, smiling, and with a pleading expression and an open hand pointed to the mirror like it was a private show. And he was free too.
The music reached its soaring final chorus. His heart leaped. It was almost over. He reached over and turned the dial all the way up, and the music went floating and flying through the streets, and he felt everything, lost in the music and the little world and his soul carried by the notes all the way through the doors of closed up little studio flats.
Right on over to her, where she scoffed, rolled her eyes, and shut the window.
It was, as they say, the beginning of a great love story, the kind where annoyance steeps so long, something goes wrong down the line, and it ends up curdling into fondness.
She brushed another strand of hair out of her eyes, embedding paint in her eyebrow. “Oh, hell,” she said, frustrated, and dropped the brush on the floor. Her voice sounded very lonely among the great breadth of air that enveloped her balcony. Although the fireflies dawdling near the door kept buzzing reproachfully at her. “Sorry,” she whispered, chuckling a little as she set the palate on her makeshift desk and wiped her fingers on her apron.
She breathed out in lingering dissatisfaction as she stared at the nearly-finished painting. The lighting was all wrong, for one, but even then something was still off. Something that even a warm yellow glow positioned just so would not forgive. There was no story to it, was the problem. The vision had been popping up in her dreams consistently for the last few nights - stars raining like viscose from the sky, a torrent of pearly white apple blossoms anchored in a tree, mountains and grass and the endless nighttime. She had been hoping that the vision’s realization might bring back a taste of the dream. It had been something impossibly beautiful, she knew. But it kept on flitting away when dawn edged into the sky. Like an elusive butterfly of infinite grace. It was not made to be captured.
She sighed, gathering her supplies and heading inside. As much as she liked to plan and plan, sometimes you had to sit there waiting until, like a wandering pet, the story realized it needed you and came running home.
The next morning, she woke up after a curiously uneventful sleep filled with blank space. She shook it off and walked to the coffee shop to type up some assignments that were due in an hour. There, she recognized an unfamiliar face - her neighbor, the new one, with the cute smile and the ripped up shoes and the guitar. She straightened and, when he wasn’t looking, checked her reflection surreptitiously in the window, hoping that she looked like a hot young intellectual and not a beleaguered grad student with a penchant for oil paints on the side.
Then she looked over and wondered why she had even bothered. His fingers were dancing on the counter, and he was humming quietly to a tune she knew all too well.
So he was the loud neighbor. With the music. She sniffed and returned to her work, but not without first locking eyes with the dreaded culprit. They were strikingly green. But not enough to tempt her, she thought. A pretty face would never be enough to distract her from all of that noise.
She told herself that. And it might have turned out to be true, except something that was even more true was the fact that when she went home that night, spent half an hour mixing that exact shade of green, and dabbed the barest trace of it to the edges of the blossoms, it felt like the dream’s breath was stirring right over her shoulder, with stars drifting like a waterfall from the sky.
Later, she would accuse him of knowing, but he didn’t, honest.
It was a fresh warm day, the kind where it feels like the sky has been embalmed in a floating sheer blanket and the cloth is fluttering, so the wind is gentle and stirring. It was the type of day that begged for sweet tea and sleeping till noon and strumming the guitar with the window open. It was the sort of day that called for dreaming.
Of course, work called, so he woke up at six, ordered an outrageously sweet concoction that could, generously, be called coffee at the café (because he was still human), and plodded to the office to fetch more coffee, though this time for other people, keep silent in important meetings, and file documents that he wasn’t allowed to read yet.
Afterward, dragging himself home, he stopped by the array of food carts he always passed by in favor of saving time. He thought of, inexplicably, the pretty girl from the coffee shop. She was pretty. Very pretty. She had blond hair that fell over her face in wisps and the kind of shrewd brown eyes that made him feel like she could see every thought he’d ever had. And for some reason, she had seemed to like what she saw.
And then she had looked very deeply, movingly annoyed.
Right at him.
What had he done? He just wanted to get a coffee! And obviously she had too, so where was the sin in that?
The rest of his day hadn’t been so great, either, but somehow it was this beautiful girl’s fault for making him think he’d done something wrong at seven o’clock in the morning, which was way too early to be digging into all of his inherent personal flaws anyway.
Feeling very sorry for himself, he bought a sandwich, a caramel apple, and a miniature bouquet of little white flowers because goddammit, he deserved it. And he walked home smiling like a little kid. That was better.
On the way back to his apartment, arms full and mood much assuaged by the promise of sugar, he swung his gaze up to the sky. You could never see the stars in New York City, but he liked to look anyway, in case he saw something else interesting.
At his building, he stopped dead. It was the girl from the coffee shop. She had followed him around in his head all day with her little disapproving frown and here she was again, like magic, or a very persistent cloud of flies. Though if flies looked like that he wouldn’t mind too much.
The girl from the coffee shop sat at a small wooden stool on what must have been the balcony to her apartment. She lived really close to him. He eyed up the building. She was probably only two apartments left of his own. Out on her balcony, she was holding a flat brown thing in her left hand that looked like - a plate? and in her right, a metal instrument. Going from the painting in front of her, though, and her splotched-up blue apron, they were probably art things. A palette and its knife, then.
Even from the street, he could see that she was good at painting, which was bad news for his heart. He glanced up again. God, she was really perfect, wasn’t she? Except that she hated him.
He sighed. He looked at the caramel apple and the flowers and thought, no, this was about him, the girl wasn’t even part of the picture at all, because the sweet things in front of him were real and she in all of her supposed perfection wasn’t real one bit.
Yeah, he told himself that. And it was never going to be true because the very next night he took the flowers right out of their makeshift vase (an empty bottle of wine), wrapped them in some old sheet music (for that artsy touch), and knocked on her door (and shoved the flowers in her face and asked her out).
(She said yes.)
“Though,” she added the next Friday, through pink, glossy, lips, “maybe you could keep the music down? Some neighbors are getting annoyed.”
“Watercolors,” she said at once.
“Watercolors?” he asked, furrowing his brow.
“Watercolors,” she repeated, looking at him and wondering how he didn’t see. It was everywhere. It was the kind of autumn where the colors of the earth and sky blended and streaked down together, where drops of musky water clung to every surface and the street lamps made the colors shatter and gleam. “The mist and the rain. They make all the colors of the leaves wet and they drip down together. If you imagine the colors streaking down with the water, it’s like a watercolor painting.”
He looked around like he was trying to understand.
She glanced up at him expectantly. “Well?”
For a moment, the only sound was her boots, alternating between clicking and splashing on the cobblestone.
“I did a watercolor painting once,” he said finally.
“Yeah. I was six and my sister bought some watercolors, but I thought they were finger paints, so I finger painted all over her wall and figured she’d like it.”
She smiled a little bit. Her heart made itself known in her chest. “That’s sweet. Did she?”
He laughed fondly, his eyes caught up in memory. “She started crying and I had to scrounge up all my birthday money - which was, like, five bucks - to paint over that wall.”
“And she didn’t even let me paint it over. She did it herself. And I wasn’t ever allowed into her room again.”
“Well, I can’t blame her.”
“I can. It was a damn good painting.”
They laughed together, and the street lamps blinked owlishly at them for stealing all the spotlight.
Later that night, the girl stared up at the dark ceiling, still lit with shuddering city lights that forced their way through his curtains. She tried to close her eyes. Snuggle herself into his sheets, which were admittedly nicer than she’d expected. The apartment was nothing like her own - none of the art on the walls, or the hanging plants, or the knitted throw blankets, but it was comfortable. With wooden tabletops and retro posters and old guitars propped up against boxes he had never gotten around to unpacking (and that dreaded stereo of infinite volume). Over the past few months it had become cozy and familiar and warm, and she usually slept like a log there. Sometimes she even dreamed of seeing those boxes and posters and guitars keeping her own apartment company. But tonight she only saw the autumn leaves behind her eyes.
“Can’t sleep?” he mumbled into her shoulder.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
“Nah, don’t be,” he said, turning onto his back. “Tell me about the painting.”
She smiled. He had a way of making her feel radiant, like her creativity could pulse and flow without resistance. She flicked the lamp on, and described it, all of her thoughts and words that sounded right in her mind and came out wrong when she spoke, all of the thoughts that she never used to say because people would stare at her like she was a crazy person after.
And he said, “Okay.” Chuckling, his voice still scratchy with sleep. “I like it a lot.”
“Well, anyway,” she said, flushed, “I like it too.” She paused. “I haven’t painted in watercolor in a long time. But I really want to.” And she really did, wanted to capture the blushing cheeks and the illuminated ground with its dazzling carpet of leaves and rain, and she wanted to infuse the hand holding and the laughter and the newness and familiarity until you could feel it, until it was the first thing you would notice.
It was going to be good, she knew. It was spilling right out of her soul. No holds barred.
She hadn’t had trouble finding a story for a while now.
He lay back on his palms, considering, hair dipped in twinkling starlight. Their picnic was long finished, but still they sat among the trees. It was nice. He was sure that she was thinking of ways to savor the rare serenity, was trying to take a mental snapshot to apply to a supple canvas later.
He took a deep breath, though he took great pains to ensure that his posture stayed perfectly liquid and calm.
“That’s a really cool vole,” he said, pointing. She glanced over and scrunched her face up.
“I think that’s a squirrel.”
“You know,” he pushed on, determined, “‘vole’ has the same letters as ‘love.’”
“Are you—” She put her hands over her face. “Oh my God.”
“So!” he announced, standing up, “Just as the vole loves- his? her? their - mate, or whatever, I love you.”
“Like a vole.”
“Like a vole,” he confirmed, smiling grandly.
“Voles don’t mate for life,” she felt compelled to say, her voice muffled.
“Good thing I’m not a vole, then?” he tried, smiling somewhat less grandly.
“Squirrels don’t either, dummy.”
He deflated for a moment. “I’m sorry. I thought it’d be romanti—” but he was interrupted by her, launching herself at him and flinging her arms around his neck. He embraced her cautiously. He couldn’t quite believe his luck.
“You’re an idiot,” she told him in a kiss. She pulled back. “I love you too.”
He grinned at her, a mischievous look dancing over his features. She rolled her eyes.
“Great,” she said, giggling, and buried her face in his neck. “Now I’m an idiot too.”
He just kept on grinning, and nestled his arms around her. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” he hummed happily. “Sounds like music.”
He could feel her smile against his chest, and that felt like music too. Like how there was music in the start of their love and how that night his soul had skipped on down through the hovering sky, right into her open window, and there was music there because he knew she thought that too. It all worked. The tracks lined up and harmonies clasped onto each other to create, in some unassuming fashion, art.
Love. Love, love, love.
All around them, the squirrels chittered their approval.
Now, it is what used to be the future, and this little love is not what it used to be. It took place once upon a time, after all, a time when their lives were young and the oceans of their experience were not yet deep. Shallow. Magical and shallow and enchanted, as it were, a perfect love.
Of course, paradise is ephemeral on Earth, and their love was perfect in the same way that a young girl’s teeth can be perfect. But then those baby teeth fall out and there’s simply not enough room for the grownup ones to come in. It’s plain as that.
They are still both deeply in love. Deeply in love with each other from the past, deeply in love with themselves in the past, but this love doesn’t fit anymore, so pack it up in a box for your closet. Take this life and label it “LOVE,” and go find something new.