Love Song for No One
It had been a bad day.
I woke up, groggy, unable to rest. The song that had haunted me all week made no exception at night. The tune that had been so sweet and melodic upon unfolding in my head stayed with me, day by day, hour by hour. I welcomed the song at first, breathing in and trying new words, hoping to find the cadence that fit.
"You're awful chipper today," my neighbor greeted me as I locked the door to my flat. "You get laid or something, Cullen?"
"Like I'd tell you," I quipped, throwing the case over my shoulder and bouncing down the stairs. It was true; the song had affected me, and I felt light and free.
I fumbled with the change in my pocket, counting the coins, calculating their worth, and secretly wishing I'd find something foldable amongst the jingling. Nothing. I pulled out the coins and counted, reading the coins when I wasn't sure. Ninety-six cents. I sighed, and the tiny exhalation fit into the rhythm of the song. I had enough for a cup of bad coffee, which seemed fitting and on par with my lack of wealth these days. I knew it was an extravagance and chastised myself, telling myself I should save what little change I had. But this little change was all I had, and it wouldn't pay the rent or the electricity. Coffee it was, then.
I pushed through the door at the gas station, the song punctuating my movements. Even the drip-drop of the steaming liquid as it filled the cup seemed to fit; I inhaled the rich, biting scent and hummed a little of the song.
"That'll be ninety-four cents," the bored clerk said as the register opened.
I pulled my fist out of my pocket, flattening my palm. "Take it." I still wasn't used to this American money, and felt like an idiot when I made a mistake.
"Wow. Here dude," the clerk said, dropping two copper coins back into my palm. "You're rich." I closed my hand, dropping the coppers into my pocket, and scooped up the coffee. It did nothing for my ego to know I was broke and I looked it. I left the store and continued down the street.
I glanced up at the faces in the bus as it roared past me. No one was smiling, no one chatting. Their faces were staunch and stone, carvings that stared blindly holding rails on their trip to work, shopping, play. It reminded me of home and all the sour notes I'd left behind – parents, mates, and bosses, all expecting something I couldn't give. If they missed me, I'd never know. The song throbbed in my head, pushing me to wonder about the riders. Were they happy, the people on the bus? Did they go home to open arms, warm kisses, clean sheets? Did they do as they were told, as they were expected? I huffed along, letting the song take my strides.
The city pulsed with its own beat as I walked into the heart of the district. People on the street became more numerous and harried, paying no attention to each other or me. I kept my eyes down, watching the stream of sidewalk below my feet. Busking wasn't something I'd planned to do, but the career choices of famous actor and worldwide celebrity had never panned out. I could have opted to join the rat race, run the treadmill, and worn the same pinched, constipated look on my face as the passersby, but the problem with joining the rat race is – you're still a rat. Until recently, I'd gotten by with the few dollars I'd made singing, and the life was my own. I smiled to myself as the melody in my head seemed to confirm the choices I'd made.
It was still early, the sun still low in the sky. The buildings rose high enough to block the morning sun, and I walked on in the grey light of the day. I pulled the collar up on my coat, shaking off the morning chill. My guitar patted against my back with the rhythm of my pace, another element in the song buzzing in my brain. The persistent little tune wove around each landmark, each sight, each thought, building to some poignancy that eluded me. Where had this come from, what was its birth? That it was a love song was obvious; the sweetness and longing in the melody left little room for speculation. But for whom? The answer to my love life had been as empty as my pockets: I had about two cents worth of value, and not much else to call my own.
It wasn't for lack of opportunities. My accent here brought quite a bit of female attention. I could have easily picked up a night's worth of fun, but waking to a morning of regret just wasn't worth it. In any case, that wasn't what I wanted – I wanted more. I picked up and left what I had behind, willing to be poor and alone than be false, a slave to momentary desire or someone else's dream. It had become my way of life, my mantra of sorts, apparent in the dilapidated apartment on the northwest edge of the city, its barren décor, and my slipshod appearance. My guitar was my only luxury, a gift given to me in happier times. Perhaps I had taken the idea of the starving artist to extremes; I was no longer sure.
I came to an intersection and glanced at the street signs: Acheron and Dis. I knew this corner well; it had been my office, my first stop to sing for my supper. I set down the case, wincing as my stomach growled. Squatting on my haunches, I twisted the tuning keys on the guitar, bringing the strings into harmony with my need. I stretched my fingers, warming my joints a little before beginning. What should I play first? I suppose it really didn't matter; it wasn't as if someone were counting on a set playlist from the busking bum on the corner. Still, I wanted to brighten the day, chase away the gloom and hunger and poverty that seemed to shroud me. I could be myself and still wear a brave face, couldn't I? I answered my own question and started with a classical Spanish guitar song, one of my favorites.
As the guitar sounded, the melody in my head raged, more insistent, demanding a voice and air to sing. I struggled to keep the two separate, missing a note here and there and hoping no one would notice. The thump of the Spanish music became a throbbing as the song pressed on in my head. The war between the two musical pieces in my head was disorienting and confusing, transporting me away from the reality where I stood. A coin here and there fell into the open case, and I was grateful for the sound.
I finished the piece and a few people who had paused from the worries of their day clapped and threw in a little more money. I saw a hand flash a dollar bill into the case just before a handful of change dropped on it. I nodded my thanks to those standing by, proceeding with my set.
"This next piece is by Johnny Flynn," I announced to the small crowd. This was a simple, easy song, something I thought I could play without much thought. My fingers picked out the notes as I tried to relax and enjoy the unfolding music. The song seemed to become its own entity within me, fighting for dominance over my will. The war inside me raged, my need to perform beating against the tune in my head. Not now, not while I'm singing I thought, trying desperately to finish the piece. I focused my effort on the words to Brown Trout Blues, determined to finish, and found myself playing the notes occupying my thoughts. I ended the piece abruptly. People drifted away, returning to the things that mattered most to them and leaving me and my mental decay behind. A silver coin bounced from my case to the sidewalk as the last person left.
I checked my watch. Only thirty minutes had passed, but it was clear it was time to move on. I scraped up the money without counting and shoved my guitar back into the case.
Wandering through the streets, the song continued on. The morning traffic was picking up with businessmen shrinking in numbers proportional to the growing tourist parade. I had to do better today, I didn't have a choice. I saw the bookstore and headed across the street.
The bookstore's back entrance had been my lucky charm. One day, I'd made over a hundred dollars standing here, and if I had half that luck today, it'd be a miracle. Checking the proximity of other musicians, I saw there was only one other musician at the front entrance a block away. I set the case down, pulled out my guitar, and salted the empty shell with a few coins.
Once again, the song asserted itself, this time with an edge of loneliness and longing that made me ache inside. I didn't want to hear this, to feel this, but the notes became my compulsion, the words my obsession. I could not get it out of my mind. The strings on the guitar seemed to twang and clap loudly, punishment for disrespect to the angel song in my head.
Those on foot seemed deaf and blind as I stood by the door, singing. Was the discord in my head affecting the music around me? I shook my head and closed my eyes, willing my practiced set to cooperate. I tried to warble in wordless counterpoint to the music, letting my voice harmonize with the guitar. It wasn't any use; the song in my head persisted and struggled for dominance. I opened my eyes to find myself alone, the case empty except for what I'd thrown in there myself.
I had no idea how long I'd stood there, struggling against this benign, insistent song. A cop strolled by where I stood, giving me a short, sharp nod. Cops don't bother buskers, unless the slowness of the day made the street musicians eager to move into more lucrative spots and they complained. He pointed up the street with his chin as I strummed the last chord, and I nodded back. Time to go.
The sidewalk beneath my feet rolled by; the music in my head grew louder and more demanding. Fighting this song was useless. I rubbed my temples as I walked, trying to blot out the incessant melody. The slap of my feet against the pavement added to the unrelenting melody, pounding in my skull until I gave in. The song refused to stay silent, pulsing and pushing its way through my head until I gave it air through my lips. The people on the street paid no notice as I pressed on, looking for a place to sit and sing or scream or shout – whatever it would take to find release. Nothing good would happen today until I released this song from its mental prison.
I turned into the park, set down and away from the street level. The steps leading down took on treacherous proportions, forcing my surrender where I stood. Neither up nor down, I sat midway on the steps and took out my guitar.
The chords flowed from my fingertips, floating out into the empty air like a lullaby of deliverance. I closed my eyes, allowing the words to pour forth effortlessly into each note, matching in measure and meter. I let the song take me where it would, no longer resisting the melody or its divine origins. A song of love, aching and yearning, a song of love for a man alone in the world, it ended softly, quietly, the last note leaving my lips like a lover's kiss.
A thunderous noise brought me back to the world, and I opened my eyes. People were standing below and above me, clapping and smiling. What had been my empty guitar case now brimmed with coins and bills. I bowed my head guiltily, feeling as if I could not take credit for the acceptance and approval born from the release of the song.
The crowd slowly dispersed until a man in an expensive overcoat stood before me. "Hey, I liked your song. That is your song, isn't it?" He stuck his hand up to me in greeting.
"Yes, thank you," I murmured, taking his hand and shaking it.
"Think you could put that down on a track? I work right over there -," he said, throwing his thumb over his shoulder. "I think we can sell that song. Easy."
"Yeah, sure," I gulped. "When?"
"Here's my business card. How about tomorrow, say, two o'clock?"
I looked down at the card and back at the man. "Sure, two o'clock!"
"'Kay. See you then. What's your name, kid?"
"Hm. That could work. Okay, tomorrow, two o'clock." He threw me a thumbs up, turned toward his building, and strode away. I blinked several times glancing down at his card. William O'Brien, Sr. Talent, Cerebus Recordings. Wow.
"I really liked your song," a small voice called from behind me. I turned, looking up just as the sun broke through the clouds, framing the speaker in a halo of light. I raised my hand to block the glare, squinting. "Oh, sorry."
She climbed down to stand a step below where I sat. "I really liked your song," she said again.
Her eyes were a deep, dark, chocolate brown, fathomless as night yet warm, inviting. She was pale and pink, obviously not a sun-seeker, wearing jeans, a jacket and Converse tennis shoes.
At long last, I understood the words I'd sung only moments before. I'd thought I'd written a love song for no one, but I realized the music had led me here. To her. My heart felt light and free, and I struggled to keep from laughing. "Thank you," I chuckled as I stood. "I'm Edward, Edward Cullen."
"Bella Swan," she said with a ducking bow. "You have a voice like an angel. Did you write that song? I mean, it's good, it's really good."
"I'm so glad you liked it," I said, my voice low and breathy. "I wrote it for you."