Woman at the Piano
My doorbell snapped me back to reality. Its simple, old-school chime was a huge improvement over the harsh buzzer at my apartment that had sounded more like an electrocution than an enticement to open the front door. I expected to find Jasper and Alice, but was instead greeted by the largest guy I’ve ever seen.
“You must be Bella. I’m guessing Jasper and Alice haven’t made it yet? I’m Emmett; I go to Penn with Jasper. So, where would you like it?”
“Where would I like what?”
“The piano. Though it’s just a spinet, I highly doubt you’d be able to move it on your own. So before the guys and I leave, you should be sure of where you want it.”
“I don’t have a piano.”
He smiled and gestured me outside. Four men were moving a dark-wood piano towards my porch.
Alice leaned out the window of the moving van. “Surprise! Don’t just stand there like a dumbass. Tell the guys where you want it to go.”
Still in shock, I went back inside and gestured toward the interior wall of my living room. I quickly got out of the way and watched as they counted to three and lowered the piano. I hadn’t realized Alice followed me inside until I heard her voice behind me.
“Happy housewarming. Now maybe you can finally learn to play.”
I turned and hugged my best friend. “Thank you so much, Alice. This was really too much.”
“Actually, it was nothing. One of Jasper’s professors was getting rid of it, free to a good home. Jazz knew you’d always wanted one, so he claimed it. It’ll need to be tuned before you can start taking lessons.”
Jasper walked into the room, carrying a load of boxes. As soon as he put them down, I ran over to him and threw my arms around him.
“Thank you for thinking of me.”
He hugged me tightly. “It was the least I could do, considering I’ve stolen your roommate from you. If you insist, you can thank me later with beer at McGillin’s.”
“Done,” I agreed, stepping away from him. “Now let’s get cracking boys. I only took two days off from school to move. Bright and early Monday morning I go back to beating grammar into unwilling freshmen.”
The rest of the move went quickly. By the time everyone left, I had my bedroom put together, my clothing put away, and my kitchen cabinets organized. I climbed into my bed and, in the silence of a winter night, I could hear the train to Philly running on the other side of town. I fell asleep smiling, knowing my friends were just that train ride away.
I woke up about twelve hours later feeling wonderful. I puttered downstairs to my kitchen, started the coffee pot, and reached for my bright red mug, marveling at how easily my old routine fit into my new surroundings. After I finished my coffee, I showered in my claw-foot tub. Climbing in and out of it proved an exercise in coordination, and I made a mental note that henceforth drunken showers would be out of the question.
I threw on make-up, jeans, and a slim-fitting black sweater— an outfit Alice would refer to as my uniform. I grabbed my coat and bag, stepped into a pair of flats, and jetted through the front door to the train station.
Contrary to what Alice claims, I am not lacking in style; I’m just not as stylish as she is. In all fairness to me, very few women are. She’s delicate and pale, with eyes strikingly similar to the saucers that came with my cobalt blue Fiesta place setting and naturally black hair that falls to her shoulders in soft, face-framing waves. Add a clothing collection that would put the Sex and the City girls to shame, and you have a modern style icon.
Physically, the only thing Alice and I have in common is our pale skin. I have long, dark brown hair and brown eyes. I’m on the lower end of average height and the smaller end of average build. Whenever Alice criticizes my attire, I remind her that the constant male attention I receive indicated that I must be doing something right. Though I’ve been single for about four years now, it’s been by choice. I’m far from celibate. When I want a man, I have him. I just don’t typically want one for more than one night.
When forced to indicate my relationship status, my adjective of choice was unencumbered. Single implied that I’m looking for a husband, and I was not. Single and not looking evoked imagery of a pathetic woman living alone with several cats while crocheting afghans for coworkers and wallowing in weekly Emily Dickinson poetry induced, Ben and Jerry fueled pity parties. Alice was on strict instruction to shoot me and dump my body in the Delaware River if I ever turned into that.
Once in Center City, I took a cab over to the Art Museum. I wasn’t meeting Alice and Jasper for a few hours, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art was my favorite place to spend an evening alone. On Friday evenings, they held Art After 5, a high-brow happy hour with live music and cocktails in the Great Stair Hall.
It was the perfect way to begin the weekend. I’d unwind by listening to the music while staring at the statue of Diana. I wandered into the museum, saw a jazz quartet setting up and was instantly excited. I headed over to the modern wing to visit a few of my favorite paintings while waiting for the music to begin.
When it did, it was heavenly.
I got myself a glass of wine and stood on the periphery of the Great Stair Hall. Despite the fact I was indoors, there was a slight breeze which made it so easy for me to close my eyes and melt away with the music. I stayed like this long after the band finished their first set, until I heard a quiet voice behind me.
“Would you care for another glass?”
A very young man appeared in front of me and took my empty glass from my hand before replacing it with a full one. His fingers brushed against mine, and I felt a flutter in my pelvis. Shocked by my reaction, I took a good look at him.
He was breathtaking—tall and toned, with wild red hair and bright green eyes. As he smiled down at me, the corners of his mouth formed tiny wrinkles.
I couldn’t stop myself from staring.
His smile became a laugh. “Do you always react this way when a man buys you a drink?”
Articulation reclaimed me. ”That depends. Is the man in question even old enough to get served?”
At that moment, I didn’t care if he was underage. He was gorgeous, and flirting was harmless enough.
“Thank you for this.” Smiling, I raised my glass to my lips.
“You’re welcome, Miss Swan.”
I choked on my wine then took another look at him. He definitely wasn’t one of my students—I taught high school, and he didn’t look that young.
“I’m sorry. Do I know you?”
“I’m Edward. Edward Cullen. I don’t believe we’ve formally met.”
I knew the name. He was the cause of all sorts of chatter in the teachers’ lounge. He was a genius. Brilliant. Perfect scores on every standardized test. I’d never had him in class because but only because he’d skipped ninth grade. Some teachers considered it an honor to teach him; others resented him because they had to redesign their lesson plans to keep him amused. Everyone found him fascinating. And here he stood—brazenly flirting after buying me alcohol.
How was this possible? Was he even old enough to drive?
He held out his hand and, not sure what else to do, I shook it. It was just a handshake. There was no reason for me to feel it in my knees, but shit, I felt it in my knees. I also felt it between my legs.
I yanked my hand away.
He smiled again, but this time there was color on his cheeks. ”I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I was just excited to see a somewhat familiar face here. I thought maybe until the music started again you might want to walk through some of the galleries with me, but it seems like it might have been a bad idea. I’m sorry if you think I’ve behaved inappropriately. Enjoy the rest of your evening, and maybe I’ll see you around school next week. Goodnight, Miss Swan.”
I didn’t recognize my own voice. ”Ms.”
He pivoted on his heel. “Excuse me?”
“Ms. Swan. I find ‘miss’ outdated and borderline offensive. Tell me, Edward—would you like to be verbally defined by your marital status?”
Looking dumbfounded, he slowly shook his head.
“Then I’m sure you can imagine why I feel the same way. Now, which collections did you have in mind?”
I swallowed the remainder of my wine and placed my empty glass on a nearby table as I headed toward the appropriate wing. He stayed cemented in place until I gestured for him to join me. Instantly he was by my side, and we made our way into the exhibition gallery.
He was so obviously nervous I couldn’t help but tease him.
“Come here often?”
He laughed. “Yes, though usually just when they have a jazz group playing.”
“That’s right, you’re a musician. I heard that you’re very talented.”
It was possibly the understatement of the decade. Edward was a piano prodigy. I’d watched two music teachers practically get into a fist fight over who would get to have him in class. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I’d heard quite a bit about Edward Cullen. I just had a difficult time reconciling what I knew with the soft-spoken man-boy beside me.
“Do you play any instruments, Miss—I mean Ms.—Swan?”
Good boy. He was paying attention.
“I sing a little. I’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano but never had the opportunity—well, until yesterday. My two best friends gave me a piano as a housewarming gift. Now I just have to find someone to teach me.”
He perked up instantly. “I would be happy to give you lessons.”
“Oh, I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“You aren’t asking me. I’m offering.”
“Don’t you have enough going on with school and extra-curricular activities and whatnot?”
He threw his head back and laughed. I decided I loved his laugh.
“You really have no idea, do you?”
I looked at him and shrugged.
“Why don’t I put this another way—there is nothing I would rather do.”
“Would your parents mind?”
He snorted. “Um, no.”
I sighed as we passed the Moorish Chief.
“I love this painting.”
“Really?” he asked.
“You seem surprised.”
“It doesn’t seem like you.”
“Based on the twenty minutes you’ve been in my acquaintance, what would seem like me?” My tone was a bit more flirty than it should be, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Something more like the Ashcan school. More modern. Like Hopper.”
I was dumbfounded. After knowing me for less than half an hour, Edward was able to guess my favorite artist.
“I do like Hopper.” I decided to ignore this for the moment. “What I love about The Moorish Chief is how Charlemont captured the light and the white on white on his robe. It’s stunning. But you’re right in the sense that it isn’t something I would hang on my wall.” The sound of the jazz quartet echoed through the corridor. “They’ve started again. We should go back before you miss the rest of the performance.”
“If that’s what you’d like.” He almost sounded disappointed.
“What would you like, Edward?”
He placed his hand on the small of my back and gently turned me around before gesturing to a bench in front of The Moorish Chief. “I’d like to have a seat and continue our conversation, but only if it’s okay with you.”
I walked over to the bench and sat. “You were saying?”
He gave me a glorious smile and took a seat at my side.
“Hopper seems much more like you.”
“Hopper is my favorite artist. Are you actually inside my head or are you just oddly perceptive?”
“I spend a lot of time watching people. It’s easy to do when you’re perpetually excluded. Most are fairly transparent,” he explained.
“Present company included, no doubt.”
“Actually, Ms. Swan, I find you very difficult to read.”
“How are things for you, Edward?” For whatever reason, the thought of hearing his perceptions of me made me extremely self-conscious.
“It’s better than it was. I’ve never felt all that comfortable around my peers. When I was in grade school it wasn’t too bad, but when I went straight to tenth grade from junior high school, I was barely fourteen years old. I was little, and I was different. It was terrifying. I was so sure I’d end up stuffed in a locker that I started spending hours each afternoon lifting weights. Now no one harasses me, but no one talks to me, either. It’s as if I’m not even there.
“My parents are great though. My father is the best friend I could ever want, and my mother has never been anything but supportive. It more than makes up for everything else. At least, I tell myself it does; admittedly, I wouldn’t really know, but I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. None of the whole high school thing holds any appeal to me. I kind of pity the people who claim these are the best years of their lives. For me, it’s been purgatory at best and the third circle of Dante’s Inferno at worst.”
“Don’t knock the third circle. Cerberus makes one hell of a house pet.”
“Pun intended, I’m sure.”
He missed nothing.
“What’s next for you then? I’m sure you have grand plans.”
“Well, I only have four months left and then I’m on to hopefully better things.”
“College.” I smiled.
“Princeton,” he corrected.
I should’ve known he’d be heading to the Ivy League.
“You know, Edward, this isolation and feeling in limbo is just temporary. No one of any substance actually enjoys high school.”
He smiled. “Is that’s why you decided to spend your entire life there?”
“It’s different when you’re being paid.”
“Most things are.”
“Like piano lessons, for instance. By the way, what’s your fee?”
“I wasn’t planning on charging you.”
“You should charge me. I don’t want to take advantage of you.”
“It’s not possible to take advantage of the willing.”
I noticed that the music ended and people were clearing out. I was late to meet Jasper and Alice.
“Fuck,” I muttered under my breath.
Edward looked surprised.
“I’m sorry,” I explained. “I wasn’t planning on staying this long, and I have friends waiting for me across town. I shouldn’t have sworn in front of you, though I’m sure you’ve heard much worse. Wait, how old are you, anyway?”
“A hundred and seven.”
“I am, too. There are days when I feel like I’m a hundred and seven. My father says I was born middle-aged. If that’s case, I should be geriatric by now.”
I rolled my eyes, and he finally answered me.
He didn’t seem sixteen. He seemed…well…he seemed like me. Like I could invite him to McGillin’s with me for karaoke with my friends and he would fit right in. Except I couldn’t do that because he was a student at my school, and they card at the door at McGillan’s.
If he hadn’t called me by my name, I wouldn’t have thought to ask his age. I would have assumed he was nineteen or twenty and would probably be making out with him on Drury Alley right now. Alice would make Cat Woman comments because I was being a cougar. Jasper would salute me with Mrs. Robinson when he took his turn at karaoke.
It would all have been so easy, and come Monday morning I would have been fucked.
Six fucking teen?
There’s nothing easy about sixteen. Sixteen sucked. Sixteen wasn’t even legal, was it?
I needed to snap out of it.
“Well, Edward, I had a lovely time with you tonight.”
He shook his head, almost in disbelief, and looked down at his hands which were crossed in his lap.
The thought that I may bruise his ego with my rapid departure was completely repugnant to me. I enjoyed every moment with him, and I needed him to that know that. Almost of its own accord, my hand reached over and gently nudged his face up toward mine. When we made eye contact, he seemed so dejected.
“Truly,” I assured him.
His green eyes seemed to brighten, and one corner of his mouth turned up in a hesitant smile.
“Now, about those piano lessons. I’ll need to make sure it’s okay with your parents.”
I was crazy. Associating with him was playing with fire, and I knew it.
“Give me your phone,” he said.
I reached into my bag and pulled out my iPhone, glancing quickly at the screen. There were seven missed calls, all from Alice. When I got to McGillin’s, I’d have a bit of explaining to do.
He took it from my hands and started typing. “Here’s my cell number.”
He handed it back to me, and I returned it to my purse. We walked to the coat check in silence. I retrieved my pea coat, which he insisted on helping me into, while he waited for his jacket.
“Would you like me to hail you a cab?” he asked.
Was he kidding?
“They line up out front, Edward. I think I can handle it. Good night, and thank you again.”
The frigid February air blew into my face, snapping me out of my haze.
I was fucked.