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Under the Milky Way
I feel like that, in a past existence, I was a tambourine. Not for someone famous, but definitely for someone talented. Maybe it was a street singer, who would sit me down on the ground while he played a guitar and harmonica simultaneously and looked at people with big, sad, hopeful brown eyes. But no one would put money in me, and he knew that but he tried. And then, one day, a girl would come along. She wouldn’t look that interesting upon first glance and he would probably think her another one of those busy city walkers who would go by without a second thought. But there was something in her eyes: something deep and unusually placid, like the surface of a well that had frozen over. And she would hear his song as she walked by, and something on that surface would break. She would walk up to him and stop. Just stop. And she would stand and not know what to say, so she wouldn’t say anything at all. She would reach into her expensive handbag and pull out a twenty and drop it in me. When she got back up, he would have stopped playing.
“Please, continue.” she would say. “You play beautifully.” she would smile at how bashful she was being.
“Thank you.” he would say, equally as bashful. Because, I suppose, that’s really the only to react when you encounter something magical like that. And he would introduce himself and he would put his guitar in its case, and me in his backpack along with the money and they would walk along the city streets, talking, laughing falling.
And part of it would be thanks to me.
I tried to keep that in mind as I stood in my too-big dress on the squeaky gym floor next to my friend, Mina. You could say I was acting as a tambourine there. I was the one who told her she should go to prom with Matthew in our Calculus class. She was still too scared to be around him alone for fear that she would mess something up so I was there for moral support. So, while Mina and Matthew flirted I hung close to the punch bowl. I didn’t drink anything, because I saw the Prom King spike it as soon as we got there.
I don’t really know why I never ended up dating. Maybe it was because I knew that, in my past existence, I had been involved with real love, not fake teenage love like Mina and Matthew had. I felt lonely standing there, surrounded by happy, oblivious couples as much as I hated to admit it. They had something I didn’t: happiness. I had always been melancholy for no specific reason, like that Shel Silverstein book about the circle with the piece missing who keeps traveling the word to look for it. I wanted the piece, and I wanted to look for it, but I was so isolated and content that I didn’t feel as if I had the energy to find it.
A giggling and obviously tipsy Mina crashed into me, pulling me out of my thoughts. She placed a hand on my shoulder and said with over-seriousness “Me and Matthew are gonna make out now, so you can leave.”
I didn’t know why, but now that I had her permission to leave it was like someone had personally opened the door for me. I looked at her. She looked so happy, even with her put-on seriousness. She deserved to be happy. She was a genuinely good person, just without much depth to be found. Still waters run deep, and hers were always raging. “Have fun.”
Her façade crumbled. She giggled and I could smell vodka. “I will, oh I will!” She stumbled away to go make out with Matthew. I had never kissed a boy, let alone made out so I was slightly envious, even though I held no amorous feelings toward Matthew in the slightest. It seemed nice, like you were complete for a moment or two, like that missing piece would suddenly appear as another person’s lips.
As I walked outside, I realized something: Mina had driven me there. I didn’t have the keys to her car. So, rather than interrupt her night (or worse, allow her to drive in her inebriated state) I opted to walk home myself. It was only a few miles from the school and there were streetlights so I would be fine.
I wasn’t really scared that I was going to get kidnapped or anything. I just sort of figured that nothing that exciting could happen to me. I walked along and hummed a quiet little tune to myself. It was my favorite song, and it seemed fitting with the warm night air and the early summer constellations hanging over my head like a painted cathedral ceiling. I took a detour through a park. Normally there were stoners and hobos hanging around, but that night it was completely empty. I figured even stoners and hobos had things to do on a Friday more exciting than hanging around a park. About halfway through I heard something kind of…out of place.
It was a voice. It was singing the song I was humming. As I got closer I could hear a guitar as well. I picked up my pace slightly. When I found the source I stopped, stunned.
There, under a lone street lamp, was a boy a little older than me strumming a guitar in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night and singing. Lying in the grass was a small tambourine.
Maybe it was the fact that it was the first street lamp I had seen for a while, maybe it was the sudden onset of noise in the midst of the silence, I don’t know, but I was pulled. I felt like someone had a hand to my back and pushing me forward. Wordlessly I reached into my clutch and pulled out the biggest bill I could find—a twenty—and placed it in the tambourine bashfully. My eyes darted upwardly nervously when he stopped playing.
“Sorry for interrupting you.” I said awkwardly, running a hand through my already-messy hair. He had nice eyes: brown, warm.
“No, it’s fine just…” he paused. “Thank you, honestly.”
I laughed and I don’t know why. “You play beautifully. You’re really talented.” I hoped I didn’t sound phony.
“You think so?” he asked.
I nodded. “That’s my favorite song.”
“I like it too.” We stood there, silent, staring for a moment when he removed a hand from his guitar and put it forward. “I’m Sam.”
“Katrina.” I said, shaking it.
“Do you play?” he said, not letting go of my hand.
I shook my head. “No, I tried once but I stopped. I wasn’t very good.”
He smiled. “It’s not that hard. Really, I’ll show you.” He pulled me in front of him and placed my fingers on the appropriate frets. I held them there and he strummed. He switched my fingers with one hand and strummed with the other.
I don’t know why, but that felt completely normal. I had felt completely out of place at the prom, and yet here in a park with a stranger learning to play guitar I felt at home. “Do you know the words?” he asked. It took me a minute to get pulled out of the silence, as if I had been lulled into sleep, nodded. “Would you mind singing? The guitar sounds so lonely by itself.”
It did, now that I thought about it. I opened my mouth and my thin, quavering soprano came out like a frightened bunny, then gained gusto when I realized he wasn’t going to laugh at me.
When the song was finished neither of us moved. The moment broke when I felt my foot brush the tambourine and heard its soft noise. Awkwardly I detangled myself from him.
“May I ask why you’re in such a fancy dress?” he asked.
I looked down and realized what I was wearing. “Oh, I escaped from prom.”
“Escaped? Didn’t you have a date?” he asked seriously.
I laughed. “Me? A date? Definitely not.”
I shrugged. “I’m just not the dating type.”
He made a grand hand gesture. “Everyone is the dating type.”
“Not me.” I reiterated. “Boys think I’m weird.”
“Girls think I’m weird.”
“I’ve never been on a date.”
“Neither have I.”
“I’ve never been kissed.”
“Neither have I.”
We stood in silence for a minute as I tried to absorb this information.
“May I kiss you?” he asked. I blinked. Most guys I knew wouldn’t ask, they would kiss anyone without notice. But he asked.
And I felt the piece fill in. That weird little emptiness evaporated. As I felt my foot brush it, I kicked the tambourine aside. You could say I had come full circle. I wasn’t the tambourine anymore. Now I was the girl. And I wasn’t melancholy anymore.
I did something quite peculiar
Something shimmering and white
It leads you here, despite your destination
Under the Milky Way tonight.
--“Under the Milky Way” by the Church