She remembered the first time she saw him.
He’d had the look of a boy who spent his summers moving bales on his daddy’s farm. Faded red mesh-cap, clothes that hung just a little too loose, skin that still bore a post-season glow. It was the beginning of autumn, but the air had not yet turned crisp. In the evenings, the temperature was still too warm for bonfires, the stars still bright enough to reflect in a lover’s eyes.
She was new in town. She’d grown up in Austin and spent her adolescence leaning from the window of her family’s food truck, clothes and skin permeated with the lingering smells of tziki and shaved turkey. She was Greek by birth, hair so dark it was nearly black, a smattering of freckles across the nose, eyes blue “as the Santorini coast”, or so her father told her. She had never seen Santorini. Her parents had met and married in Austin and had never made quite enough money to return to Greece, much less take their daughter and three older sons.
She loved Austin- the music, the culture, and yes, the food. Meandering through the Botanical Gardens at Zilker Park, watching the capitol light up at dusk, swimming in Barton Springs. Keep Austin Weird. She got that. She embraced it. The city represented authenticity, expression, life, color. It was vivid, wild. It was a cacophony of genre and song. Since she was little, she had imagined her relationship with the city as a romance. She had adored it, and it had set her free.
She had turned eighteen that summer. As she approached her high school graduation, she had felt that freedom closing in on her. Suddenly it was pregnant with expectation. Your parents want you to choose the family business. Your teachers want you to choose med school. Your friends want you to choose the band. You are so talented. You are so smart. You are so reliable. Stay here. Go there. Choose, choose, choose.
For the first time in her life, she had chosen escape.
It wasn’t forever, she promised. It was just for the summer. She needed to clear her head, to rid herself of the city sounds, the city hopes. She wanted silence. She wanted peace.
She had promised her parents she would make a decision by the end of the summer, but that time had come and gone. She had worked at a summer camp on the Guadalupe River, had struck up friendships with a few fellow musicians: a guitarist, a fiddler, and a sixteen-year-old who could play the hell out of a harmonica. She herself was exceptional with a banjo, a skill of which she was quite proud. Together they played gigs on the weekends, sticking to small towns and equally small bars and dance halls. They’d become a fast favorite among the locals. In Austin, everyone assumed you were a musician. In Kerrville, Comfort, Bandera, Fredericksburg, you were a pleasant surprise. You play? Well shoot, we’ll give you a bottle of wine and a tip can if you do a gig on Saturday night.
She blamed both for introducing her to him.
The band had just completed their first set and were taking a break. The boys- that was how she always referred to them- had gone to the bar to order a round. Fireball shots for the guitarist and the fiddler, a Roy Rodgers for the kid, and she had asked the bartender to open the bottle of wine for her. He was young- maybe a couple years shy of thirty- and though he knew she was not old enough to drink, he was in the habit of obliging her. He justified this by the fact that this was his bar. The girl carried herself like a woman, which made men want to treat her like one.
She had been taking wine with her family since she was young, but she did not often indulge in more than one glass. Maybe it was the quality of the wine that night, or maybe it was the packed house, but she felt good. Like celebrating. And when she saw him- his faded cap standing half an inch taller than the rest- she caught his eye, he smiled, and she abruptly looked away and poured herself a second. Suddenly her trembling hands needed something to hold, and she did not want to cling to an empty glass.
He didn’t approach her, but her curiosity grew. She felt her cheeks growing hot, her heart picking up speed. She could feel his eyes on her again, but when she looked up, he had moved away from the bar and out of sight.
Their first break ended, and she felt as though she floated through the second set. The room took on a sort of glow, and she felt warm inside. Her blood pumped loudly- happily- through her ears, and everything else was loud, too; the clinking of glass, the laughter and chatter of the crowd, the music. It all blended in a beautiful sort of conglomeration, a symphony of country night life. Well into the third song- as well as her third glass of wine- she realized she was smiling, and no matter how hard she tried, she could not stop. It was as if someone was pulling strings from the corners of her lips to the moon.
The mesh cap reappeared, and from her place on the stage she studied the face beneath it. Strong jaw-line, accentuated by the growth of a short dark beard, sharp nose, and stark green eyes which caught the lone backlight as he approached the tip jar beside her old moccasins. She watched as he dropped a twenty-dollar-bill into the jar, then he looked directly at her. Without the influence of the wine she would have grown uncomfortable, but it had made her bold, and she held his stare. He returned her lingering smile, and though she did not quite know what, she knew something had passed between them then, some sort of understanding. She knew this smile would not be the mere passing of two souls, but was instead a sort of awakening.
It was after midnight when the band completed their set. The bartender announced last call, but the place was still teeming with customers, and music was blearing through the loud speakers. Some girls had collected in the center of the floor and were drunkenly stumbling through the Cupid Shuffle.
She was assisting the boys with packing up their gear when he approached her, the brim of his cap sitting low, a beer sweating in each hand. Her back was to him as she crouched on the floor rolling cords.
“Blue Moon?” he offered, holding out a bottle.
“We’re not taking any more requests,” she replied.
“I can see that,” he said, “but I wasn’t talking about the song.”
She turned around then, her long dark hair concealing all but one twinkling blue eye.
“I got you a drink,” he told her.
When she saw it was him, the muscles in her stomach tightened. She eyed the beer.
“Never tried it,” she said. She accepted it and gave it a swig. “Nice. Smooth. Thank you. I don’t usually drink, but I’m making exceptions tonight.”
“Then it looks like I picked the right night to come out.”
“I guess so.” She tipped back the bottle to examine the label. “This is good.”
She looked at her boys, who were still cleaning up.
“I should probably help them,” she said.
But the fiddler heard this, and he waved her off.
“We got it, Jo,” he told her.
“Jo?” the guy in the mesh cap asked. “For Josephine?”
She nodded. “After my mother. And you?”
“Paul. For Paul. After my father.”
“Ah,” she grinned. “We have something in common.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He appraised her outfit. Wide brim hat, Bohemian lace top, leather vest with fringe. She wore those little high-waisted shorts that elongated her legs, and he made a conscious effort to keep his eyes from lingering on them. “You’re not from around here, are you?” he asked.
“I can’t tell you how often I hear that,” she replied with a smile. “No, I’m not. But I’m a little nervous to tell you where I am from.”
“Now I’m dying to know.”
“You country boys lose all respect for people once you do.”
“I’m not like all the rest.”
“So you won’t run for the hills when I tell you I’m from Austin?”
His face seemed to brighten in the low light. “No way,” he said. “I love Austin. I went to school there.”
“Really?” She was amused. “What did you study?”
“Anthropology and linguistics. I was there three years, then I spent a year abroad studying aboriginal language and culture in Australia.”
“I’m impressed. I never meet anyone who’s left the hill country, much less Texas. I would do anything to travel.”
“Where would you go? Top three.”
She held up her fingers to count them off.
“Machu Picchu, Rome, and Santorini, where my family is from.”
“All great choices.” His eyes sparkled as he said this. “All amazing in their own right.”
“You’ve been?” she asked.
“I’ve been fortunate to do quite a bit of traveling. One of the perks of having a rich divorcee for a father, I guess.”
Just then the music changed to something older, softer, more familiar. She closed her eyes and smiled.
“You like this song?” he asked, enjoying the expression on her face.
She opened her eyes again and held out her free hand.
“Dance with me,” she said. It was not a request, and he did not hesitate to hook his fingers around hers.
He pulled her close, and with his lead they fell into an easy two-step.
“George Strait is my father’s favorite,” she told him. “I grew up listening to this song. Over and over and over.”
He dipped his head close to hers and sang the words to Amarillo by Morning into her ear.
He could carry a tune, which came as a pleasant surprise. She sang the harmony, though the music was so loud it nearly drown them both out. They were the only two on the dance floor, but they didn’t mind.
“You’re not so bad on your feet,” he told her.
“I was going to say the same thing about you.”
“I can two-step easily enough. It’s the fancy spins I’m not so good at.”
So he did.
Breathless, she laughed.
“You are such a liar,” she accosted him. “You’re good at this. Real good.”
He shrugged and dipped her so low her hair swept the floor.
The house lights came on as the song ended, but even so he was reluctant to let her go. He wrapped his arms around her, drawing her as close as he could.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“How are you getting out of here?” he asked.
“I’m riding with the boys,” she jabbed a thumb in the direction of the stage.
He frowned. “I assume the kid is driving?”
She shook her head no. “He doesn’t have his license.”
She could see he was uneasy. He removed his cap and raked his fingers through his hair. It was thick, dark and wavy, and she was relieved. He wasn’t trying to hide anything.
“I would like to drive you home,” he told her. “I’ve seen your boys taking shots throughout the night and I want to make sure you get there safe.”
She swayed a little on her feet, and she was sure this was on account of the alcohol.
“You don’t think I can fend for myself?” she asked.
He laughed as he steadied her.
“I just think you like me,” she told him.
“Maybe a little bit of both,” he said. “Now come on. Let’s get you out of here.”
She gathered her things, and he grabbed her banjo. Together they sneaked out to his truck, her hips so close to his they occasionally bumped. She texted the band that she was tired and had found a ride home, not wanting them to know with whom in case they tried to intervene. They were protective in that way, which she appreciated. But she did not want them to come between her and this boy. This had potential, and she wanted to see it through.
“Where to?” he asked as he turned the keys in the ignition.
“You’re going to hate me,” she replied.
“My place is twenty minutes out of town. I live in the boondocks.”
“And the fact that we get to enjoy a nice long ride together is bad… how?”
He smiled crookedly, and she laughed.
The air was warm despite the lateness of the hour. They rolled the windows down and she let her hand drift outside on the waves of wind.
“So,” she said, “where in the world haven’t you been?”
He mused on this for a second, wondering whether or not he wanted to give her an answer that would lead to more questions.
“California,” he finally replied. “I’ve always wanted to see San Francisco.”
“Oh my god!” she cried. “I’ve been there! That’s one place I’ve actually been! We took a family vacation there a few years ago. My brothers and I had to pay our own way with tips, but we did it. It’s a fantastic city. You will love it. What makes you want to go there?”
“Lots of reasons. Culture, opportunity, art.” He glanced at her. “I actually am going there,” he swallowed, “tomorrow.”
“What? Are you serious?” She felt a lot of things then. Excitement. Jealousy. Disappointment that right now he was so close, and tomorrow he would be so far. “For how long?”
Again, he removed his cap and ran a hand through his hair. This time he left the hat on the seat between them.
“I’m going back to school for my masters. Classes begin on Monday.”
Her heart sank.
“Ah,” she murmured. “I see. You’re one of those perpetual students, aren’t you?”
“Maybe. I love to learn, and I love to travel. I don’t know exactly what I want from my life, but it’ll come to me. Right now I’m just pursuing my interests.”
She gazed out the window at the passing landscape washed in inky blackness. They had left town.
“I shouldn’t have come out tonight,” he said. “I have an early flight. My friends begged me, and I knew I was going to hate life in the morning… but right now I can tell you I don’t regret it. I’m right where I want to be.”
He glanced sideways, loving the way her face glowed in the soft blue light of the stereo.
She looked back at him.
“I’m right where I want to be too,” she said.
“This timing just sucks,” he groaned. “Where were you a few years ago?”
She smirked. “In California.”
They were quiet for a moment.
“You have to promise me one thing,” she said eventually.
The edge of his mouth twitched up.
“Oh yeah? What?”
“You have to go to the Fisherman’s Wharf and find some clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. It is the essential San Francisco experience.”
“Not riding on a trolley?”
“Well, that too. But I’m telling you. As a foodie, I am requiring you to try the chowder. And it has to be in a bread bowl.”
He nodded. “Okay. I’ll do it.”
When they turned off on the road that led to her home, she had to punch in numbers at a gate. He raised his eyebrows. They passed through the gate and made their way down the lane towards the house, which was an old mansion illuminated by outdoor spotlights and surrounded by gnarled oak trees.
“You live here?” he asked, unable to veil his surprise.
“No. Technically, I live in the servant’s quarters in an apartment above the garage. No one lives in the house. It’s historical. They use it for events and weddings and stuff.”
“Have you ever been inside?”
“No. But I’ve peeked through every window.”
The house was two stories high.
“Even the ones on the second floor?” he asked.
“How did you manage that?”
“Shutters, lattice, stonework.” She shrugged. “I’m a pretty good climber.”
“You know what they say about curiosity.”
“That it’s essential for an exciting and fulfilling life?”
He shook his head good-naturedly. “I love your sense of adventure.”
“Do you want me to show you around the place?”
He parked his truck beside her old green Wagoneer. Together they walked along the front of the old mansion, cupping their hands around the glass on the windows and peering inside. She pointed out some of her favorite features: the winding staircase, the elegant foyer, the library, the elaborate antique mirror and vintage chaise lounge. When they rounded the back of the house, there was a stone patio with wrought iron benches overlooking a vista of the surrounding hills awash in moonlight. There were black splotches in the distance, longhorns on a midnight graze. An owl hooted from a nearby tree, and a perfectly manicured lawn stretched out towards a garden gazebo and fountain.
“This place is amazing,” Paul said.
“I love it most days,” Jo replied. “The only downside is the weekends when there are events. I try to stay in town with the guys, which works out because sometimes we’ll play at the bar until two in the morning and it’s nice not to have to drive all the way back out here. Fortunately there’s nothing planned this weekend. Tonight we have the whole place to ourselves.”
He didn’t tell her how much he liked that idea. Instead he took her hand and led her to one of the benches, where they sat quietly for some moments enjoying the contrasting warmth of his palm within the cool grasp of her fingertips.
“You should probably be getting home, huh?” she said, hating the words as they came out.
“Do you want me to go?” he asked.
“No, of course not. I was just thinking of your early day tomorrow.”
“I don’t care about that.”
She told him about her family. Her brothers, the food truck, her parents’ aspirations to return to Greece. She told him about music and med school and her struggle to choose.
An hour had passed when their conversation was interrupted by a shooting star. Instead of stretching across the sky, it seemed to burst high overhead before falling vertically to the earth. The vision stole their attention and robbed them of speech. Jo gasped.
“I have an idea,” she said. “It’s ridiculous, but you’re only here a little longer, so why not? I’m not risking anything if you think I’m crazy, so I think we should pretend.” She stood and gestured to the house. “Let’s pretend that all of this is ours. This is our home, and we’re disgustingly rich, and those are our cows, and that’s our bedroom.” She pointed towards the room directly above them on the second floor, the one with the French doors leading onto an ironwork balcony. “You’re crazy about me, and I’m crazy about you, and this is where we dance every night under the stars like the two crazy people we are.”
She pulled her phone out of her pocket and put on a playlist. The first song was by Ella Fitzgerald. She set the phone on the bench and grabbed Paul by the hand.
“Come on,” she said. “Dance with me.”
He took her in his arms, and they moved slowly in an improvised way. It was not quite a two-step, and not quite nothing at all. If he was honest, he did not want to commit to the dance at all. He just wanted to be near her, to be encased in the clean smell of her shampoo and the soft floral scent of her perfume. He breathed her in. Wildflowers. He imagined her laying in them, wearing nothing but bluebonnets and zinnias and goldenrods woven in her hair. She was quite possibly the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. She was like the stars over Enchanted Rock, or the sunrise on the Tanzanian coast, or the Eiffel Tower as it glittered over the Seine. But she was better, because in that moment, she was his.
His feet stopped moving as he dipped his forehead to hers. Her breathing quickened, but though she was nervous she lifted her mouth to his. She was overcome with a chill, but he drew her closer as she trembled.
The swiftness of the passing hours was like the slow and steady loss of oxygen. Every moment gone was more than they could spare. As he prepared to leave her, they leaned against his truck and he brushed the hair back from her face before telling her goodbye.
“You’re somethin’ special,” he told her.
“And you’re dancing away with my heart,” she replied.
He laughed. She said the craziest things. He knew what would happen if he left, but for the tiniest fraction of time, he considered the repercussions of staying. Could one night be enough to justify changing one’s mind… one’s life? He was a rambler. He had never believed Texas could hold him, but in those hours, Texas had ceased to be a place and had become a girl. Yesterday he had been going somewhere, looking forward. Now he was leaving a place, looking back and wishing he could carry some of it with him. All of it. All of her.
“Don’t forget me,” she said.
He kissed her one last time and whispered, “Couldn’t if I tried.”
She gave him nothing to take but a memory. A month later he sent her a picture of himself eating clam chowder in a bread bowl. He was sitting outside, and she could faintly make out the trace of the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, looming behind a sheer veil of fog. She cried and sent him a copy of her favorite book, Cold Mountain, with an inscription on the back cover. I remember the first time I saw you, she wrote. It was only a moment, but it is forever in my mind.
Years later he would read it, and he would wonder if there was ever a rambling man who had stopped rambling once he’d made his way to her. He’d hoped so, and yet there were still days when he’d wished it had been him.