I hadn’t always loved him. In fact, I thought he was by far, the rudest, most snobbiest boy in school and always steered clear of his ways, including his entourage. In fact, I steered clear of most people’s way while at the music conservatory. It was a school for the rich and prestigious. The lots like me were lucky to even have a glimpse inside.
As I watched him from the third floor of the studio building, the tinted glass sealed me away from the throngs of young girls and boys, but mostly girls with moppy brown hair. He emerged out of a black town car, his dark hair, raven-like, glistened as bits of sunlight peeked through the mostly cloudy day. It was as if the sun herself was afraid to touch of him more than she should.
He looked up, his eyes covered by a set of aviator glasses. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at how unfashionable those were but of course, it would look devilish on him.
His head turned from one side to the other, where it stopped. I didn’t have to follow his gaze to see what stopped him because I knew what it was.
On the top floor of this building, which wasn’t that tall, likely twelve or fourteen floors, was a billboard about 20 foot tall, ceiling to floor, a heavily photoshopped model with dark hair, far too long on the front, his white shirt gaping in the front as he looked up, his eyes stoked with some sort of anger and revenge. But a look of dark passion. Emblazoned across the bottom, with large flourishing type, was the name of my newest album, Always Perfect by Essie.
Taking off his glasses, his eyes seemed to squint as he stared at the billboard.
Did he wonder? Was he mad? Indignant?
I picked out the model specifically to look like him.
Like Matthew Brenneman, heir to the Brenneman Estate, old money from steel now converted to solar panel business.
The Brennemans were so rich, they had money to spare, opening a music conservatory. As I found out, his great-grand-aunt, Edith Brenneman loved music and donated money to build the conservatory I attended.
It was at this school I met Matthew.
Coming from a blue-collar family, my parents didn’t always have enough money to send me to music classes. The few times I was able to attend, I studied hard and worked hard. When I turned sixteen, my piano teacher sent me to a competition in New York City, at the New York City Opera and Ballet, across from Lincoln Center. I had wooed the heart of some investors and got additional fund to help with my music lessons. They, in turn, got me a scholarship to the Edith Brenneman Music Conservatory in Newport, Rhode Island.
I remember the first time I met Matthew. In truth, I only saw him from a distance. We were not formally introduced at the time.
As part of my scholarship, I had work-study money, where I helped tuned pianos throughout the school and take in various instruments, learning how to repair and eventually, learning how to use them. In the classrooms, I learnt how to read and play notes on various instruments. But during work, I learnt about the body and the soul from fixing them.
I had been on a task to repair a grand piano—the best—at the main auditorium. A special guest was supposed to arrive that evening.
At the time, I had never seen such piano so close. Or to touch it. I had been feeling risky and adventurous. And the piano kept calling to me, begging to be played.
The auditorium was empty. It was a Friday and the sun was setting for rest as night slowly started its shift. Many students had already gone home or gone out. I didn’t think anyone would see or mind me playing the grand piano.
As I sat down and felt the last warm rays of the sun beaming through the high windows, I played the ivory keys. The sun was my partner, playing each note with her stream of lights. We were like delicate creatures of God, meant to play like angels.
The sharp tone startled me, my fingers abruptly stopped its movement, jerking away, my back straightened, my eyes fervently glancing around to see the intruder.
I heard footsteps and saw a dark shadow striding down the east aisle.
“I don’t believe that that is yours to play,” he said sternly.
I scrambled up, picking up my tools. “I’m sorry. I was only tuning it up.”
“That didn’t sound like a tuning.”
He approached the low stage. I quickly got up and started to walk off the stage on the opposite direction.
“I’m sorry. I’ve fixed it.” I caught a quick glance and felt his burning eyes on me. “It’s a very wonderful instrument. Someone must play it wonderfully.”
“My sister plays it,” he said, running his fingers over the keys. “No one plays like her.”
“I’m sorry,” I repeated like a broken record. Not wanting to feel like a fool, I quickly took off, feeling his eyes boring a hole through my back.
“Essie,” my assistance, Becky called to me, still staring out the window. “Matthew Brenneman is downstairs. He should be up here soon. You sure you don’t want meet him before the reporters?”
I shook my head. “I’d rather not.” I was still too scared to face him.
Becky nodded her head, making her tightly wounded brown ponytail bounce. Having been with me the past two years touring, booking all my appointments, and being my friend on the lonely path of a musician, she was like my shadow, knowing all my secrets.
But everyone has one or two secrets. Even celebrities. Some secrets are so dark, even close friends don’t know those secrets.
Despite the fact that everyone publicly knows my fame was due wholly from the Brennemans, Matthew was always my secret.
Everyone at the school knows Matthew Brenneman. He was a legend before he arrived, they say. After all, he is the heir to the founder of the school. He could have been anything he wanted to be but he wanted to be a musician. His family couldn’t believe their heir was choosing a music career, hoping instead for lawyer or doctor or finance.
But he chose music. Not even classical music but rather punk, rock, and metal. I always joked that it was his way of rebelling.
The students on scholarship never interacted with the ones who were there by the grace of their parents’ fortune. We, scholarship kids, were normally set aside, often times, ignored. The ones who tried to climb up the social ranks were treated like servants and entourage.
I was never willing to stoop that low. I scoffed at them as much as I scoffed at the rich kids.
It was a joke when I heard that my junior thesis was a joint project with an upperclassman.
The school wanted to close the gap between rich and poor, lower and upper class levels. If it were successful, the government would entertain the idea of additional funding, garnet and loans for students like me.
The rumors went around after we were assigned that Matthew had asked a friend, “Is Essie the girl with the mouth too wide for her face?”
I’ve been called a lot of things. From my curly black hairs that was untamable to the exotic caramel color of my skin from interracial parent, who are the best parents a girl from my side of the track could ever ask for. I know my flaws and features and had accepted most of them. However, he pointed at the one flaw I was very sensitive about and it happened to be my lips. Indeed, they were too wide for my face, the lower lips tended to pout when I was deep in my music, the round cheeks and my big almond eyes made my lips stand out like a fish front face viewed from a bird’s eye view.
Having heard the rumors, I held a grudge against him. Even after introduction, I was very self conscience whenever I noticed his eyes on my lips. It only made me bite my lips more nervously each time he looked. I would blush when his eyes saw me staring at him, staring at me.
When we met at the atrium of the media hall, he stood up. He was so tall. Taller than me by two heads length, his dark hair was full and lush, slicked back like some dirty Italian. His eyebrows were thick and dark against his pale face, all full of sharp angles as if an artist had savagely carved him to life. It should look awful on him, no gentleness, no compassion. But his eyes made me catch my breath. They were such warm honey brown colors, so soft, I thought it could be like a teddy bear. It made me want to sink into him, to find haven in his arms. No wonder he had an entourage. I was being as silly as them.
“You’re the tuner,” he said when we were introduced.
“I heard you play,” I admitted, having attended the performance the same night he caught me playing. “I thought you said it was your sister’s.”
He nodded. “She had to miss that performance due to family emergency. I filled in.”
I sharply nodded. “Let’s get this project over with. I’m on scholarship so I can’t afford to fail this. If you’d rather, I can work on it alone.”
“Are you saying you have enough talent for the both of us?” He cocked his dark eyebrows at me, his eyes full of mirth and laughter. Was he mocking me?
“I’m told you are pretty good,” he continued. “But I’ve read many of your pieces and find them lacking. Even when you play, you don’t have any heart. It all sounds like some copy of Sarah McLachlan or Tori Amos. Too much like a woman who hasn’t been fucked properly. Where’s the passion? The heat?”
Speechless, I returned with a blush, hot with indignant retort that was caught in my throat. “Well, what about yours? It’s just a bunch of crap, hitting metals like you just like hitting things. As if yours is worth anyone buying or even pirating on BitTorrent!”
I have never been so rude to anyone but he made me so upset. I walked out on him at the moment without waiting for a response.
Despite our dislike of each other’s music, we tolerated one another as best as we could. Our ego often got the best of ourselves whenever we wrote measures and lines together. Some days I think we spent hours working on two measures. Most other partners had finished their pieces within a day or two. But our constant battling and silent treatment each other took us to weeks. It was almost a month and instead of a piece, we had a symphony.
It was the worst piece composed, as all the professors agreed. They gave it credit that it had battling tones and contrast sounds but they couldn’t see how it could have lasted more than ten minutes of fighting and angst. They were right. There were no denouement to the piece. I was dejected by the whole project.
Because I had failed this project, the government cut its fund and I lost my scholarship. I couldn’t finish school without it. My parents told me to come home. I was too ashamed. I had promised them I would make a better life of myself and bring back fame and fortune. I couldn’t face them.
I was waiting for the bus, though which bus to go on, I hadn’t quite decided. I could go back home to the outskirts of Boston or venture further. Or I could play music like a homeless artist. Isn’t that the tortured soul?
Then Matthew came in, a perky blond by his side. Of course, he would choose a chic model-esque woman to show off. I berated myself at that moment, asking why I should care what type of girl he chose since I’m not interested in him.
“Essie,” he called me. “This is my sister, Tasha.”
I was hoping I could hide out of shame, suddenly feeling the weight of my poverty against his family’s vast wealth. Why would he even introduce me?
I shook Tasha Brenneman’s hands, her smile dazzled, blinding me. “I heard the piece you did with my baby brother and I think it is brilliant! When Matthew told me he cowrote it, I couldn’t believe it. My brother is a lot of thing but a composer of that level? I had to meet his inspiration.”
“I wouldn’t call myself an inspiration. The piece was a failure. The professors all discounted it.”
“Those old fools wouldn’t know the difference,” Tasha scoffed. “Matthew tells me you also write lyrics.”
Why was he talking about me to his sister? And what else does he know about me? He looked at me and I returned with a bewildered look.
“Tell me,” Tasha started, taking both my hands and pulling me close to her. “How do you feel about writing lyrics to the piece you and my brother wrote? I can submit it for Pop Idol was the winning song.”
It was really too much like a dream. One moment I was a college dropout and the next, I was in a studio writing music.
Matthew and Tasha were so good to me, helping me find an apartment in Brooklyn, sharing with two other girls. I worked at a local music school, tutoring children during the evening while during the day, I would write music and go to the studio to put the pieces together.
I took a piece of the music Matthew and I wrote, and wrote the lyrics! which came easily, as if they were meant to be part of the song. Matthew would insert his suggestion and sometimes, I felt like disagreeing just to argue with him. I hated that I had started to agree with him. I hated more that I enjoyed my time with him. I looked forward to the days he would come to the studio. I enjoyed our fights. I enjoyed being so close to him, I could smell whatever cologne it was he wore.
I still remember it to this day.
I never let him know how I felt or even showed the slightest hint of gratitude.
During that time, a producer, Quinn Sheldon started to talk to me. He was one of those guys who took advantage of innocent girls. I ignored his inappropriate and often lewd behavior to me. Matthew did not want me interacting with him. I talked to Quinn more just to rile up Matthew. He was always telling me that I should listen to him since he knows best. That only got us into more arguments than necessary.
One of the song I submitted for Pop Idol reached the top 10 choices by that point. Quinn was the first to congratulate me and offered me to record an album. I didn’t mind writing and staying in the background but it was tempting, the spotlight, that is.
Matthew came in and Quinn took that moment to kiss me. A slobbering kiss with tongue action. It was much like kissing a dog. The kind that breathes with their tongue out of their mouths.
That was the last time I saw Matthew. His eyes were full of anger, hurt, disappointment. Betrayal.
Tasha came in and pulled Quinn off of me. I found out then that Quinn was Tasha’s ex-boyfriend, who had forced her to get an abortion many years ago. The whole situation disgusted and embarrassed me. In the commotion, I ran out to find Matthew. But I was too late. He had driven away.
A part of me had died that day. All that had been good suddenly halted.
I didn’t return to the studio for a month. My time was spent tutoring and writing. When I had finished writing, I sent a demo to Tasha.
By the end of the month, Tasha came looking for me. She never talked about Matthew. I never tried to ask.
She took me to a different studio and became my producer.
Even now, after two years, she never talked about Matthew in front of me. It was odd that they were family and I was her artist and yet, I never ran into him.
I couldn’t say I didn’t seek him out. I often read the music news to catch a glimpse of his name as he had started a community where artists, writers, and composers could partner and create without having known each other. Much like blind dating or online dating for the creative mind. One or two times, I’m certain Tasha must have seen me reading the paper. There were times, I noticed she left papers and magazines Matthew was written and interviewed on.
But the two years I was with Tasha, I worked hard. I played hard. I toured nine months out of the year. When I wasn’t touring, I was writing songs for myself and other artists.
It became life. And life became half a void I was trying to fill in.
Tasha greeted me at the door to the interview room. “Your face is gray. Come on, smile. Get some blood flowing. You wouldn’t want Matthew looking at a corpse? He’s used to seeing you quite photoshopped.”
Always bringing smiles to those around her, Tasha knew exactly how to make me laugh, even with the smallest jokes.
“Is Matthew upset?”
“I think he has more questions than being pissed off at finding a billboard that looks like him.”
I could see Matthew being freshened up by a make-up artist, the camera light heating up his face.
“Even after two years, he still makes me nervous and crazy at the same time. I want to scream at him. I want to yell at him and demand an answer. The other part of me just wants to cry.” I felt myself falling apart again like I did two years ago.
Tasha was quick to hasten me to keep my courage up. She took my shoulders, slightly shaking me. “I’ve kept my silence for far too long. I should have locked you two up in a room a long time ago and made you talk out this silliness. For two people who I admire so much in the world, you are so stupid and slow with your own feelings. If you could just face it, be brave about it, and just admit it. But instead, you write these beautiful songs and made me so much money, which I’m not complaining about. But seriously, how long were you going to wait? Until he married? Until you married like a gazillion times like other celebrities?”
I half laughed. “Marriage is a far fetch notion.” But Tasha is right. How long would I wait?
I looked at Matthew, almost wincing at how beautiful he has gotten. He was becoming a man, his shoulders were broader, the length of body was sleek and slim, not lanky like a teenager. Even though two years had passed, my heart still quickened its pace, my breath caught in my throat.
Maybe it was all imagination. I’ve invented this man to be more than what he really is and a dream, after all, is a very dangerous illusion.
“Ah, here she is!” Someone announced, all heads and cameras turned to me.
I walked into the room with heels steadily gliding forward, having grown accustomed to the spotlight.
Matthew stood up slowly, his hands by his side. I swallowed hard and looked up. Was he always this tall, my neck tipping my head back. He stretched out a hand, I caught it, and leaned in, his eyes surprised. I tipped my head up, my feet picking me up, and he leaned in. At the last moment, I shyly turned my head, feeling my face grow hot. His lips caressed my right cheek. I felt shivers trembling up my arms.
“Hello.” Was that me or him? Or was that our awkward simultaneous salutation?
I looked at him, my heart pounding loudly. He gave a glimpse of a smile and nodded, turning back to the reporters.
I took a deep breath, turned around and took a seat behind me. He came to sit beside me.
“I want to thank the media for coming out to this press event. Though I’ve already released the album, I wanted to official announce it with the help of AMOS, Arts & Media Open Source. I’ve worked with many new and young artists and have met many writers and composer through the board. Mr. Brenneman has been so kind to let me partake in this technology and I’m proud to help endorse it. I’m sure my agent has sent you the notes and snippets about this venture. As you know, an artist must always continue to learn and grow and continue being fresh and abreast on all news front. Now, I open this up to you.”
As usual, the news always start off asking questions about my love life. I’ve automatically always respond, I’m too busy.
One reporter, a red headed whose curls were like mine but pulled back into a pony tail got a chance to ask a question.
“This question is for Mr. Brenneman and you,” she started, her hand clutching a pen and pad, the other a voice recorder. “On your first album, your song, The Night Isn’t Through, the one that launched your career, I remember the name Brenneman being a composer. Everyone assumed it was your music agent, Tasha Brenneman who helped you. In coming here and hearing about Mr. Brenneman’s presence, I found out that you attended the same college, though different years. Is he one of the writer for that song?”
“Indeed, you’ve solved a mystery,” I admitted, putting my hand on Matthew’s hand to show amicable friendship. “Matthew did most of the composition, in fact. I wrote the lyrics.”
“And also, one more question,” she injected, before she could lose her chance. “I couldn’t help but notice a resemblance of Mr. Brenneman to the man on your new album cover and music video, Always Perfect. I know you say you’re too busy but are you just too busy with Mr. Brenneman, perhaps?”
“You reporters sure do cut to the chase. Mr. Brenneman and I don’t have any current attachment to each other. He and I used to write music together. There were my best pieces. I do hope we can get busy again to write more music together. I hope that answers your question.”
Matthew rarely spoke unless to answer a reporter’s direct question to him. But this time, he interjected, “I thank you for comparing to the model. He’s quite handsome, would’t you agree? More handsome than me. I highly doubt Essey needs to chase someone like me when she has men like that around her.”
It felt like I was being brushed off. I must have gone gray again because Tasha came in and quickly wrapped up the interview. I stormed off, ready to jump into my car. Who did he think he was, deciding who was good enough for me?
I turned around, my car had already started, not ready to leave without a fight. I wasn’t going to repeat two years ago. He ran out on me. I was going to stand up and demand an answer.
And he stood there, only 20 feet away, heaving heavily, out of breath.
I accused him, “Are you saying I’m not good enough for you and your family? Is that what you meant? Or do you think you have the right to choose who’s good enough for me. Listen to me when I say, I choose who I want to be with and I choose what’s good for me. How would you know what’s good for me? You left me!”
He crossed the distance, closing the gap between us. “You walk fast when you’re angry.”
“That’s not my question!” I shouted, not caring who would hear us in the underground parking lot.
“I know what you asked. I just think it’s a stupid question. Before you shout again, let me repeat the question. Are you, Essie, not good enough for me or my family? Are you questioning if you could be part of my family?”
I bit my lips. Did I really just implicated that I wanted to be his family?
He reached out his right hand as I stood still, not realizing I was holding my breath back. His hand, sculpted and trimmed like a rich man’s hand, tainted with ink, wrapped around the nape of my head, and before I could reject him—not like I would have—he pulled me forward.
“Whenever you bite your lips, I want to suck on them. So yeah, you are good. More than good. You’ve always been perfect for me.”
“Why I left? Because it was time. Your wings needed to open and fly. Because I loved you and you had to become something wonderful. Because I loved you and I didn’t want to hold you back. Because I still love you and I didn’t know until now, if you had ever loved me and I was afraid of rejection, afraid to take chances. I was young. I was scared. And you seemed so taken by that asshole.”
“Quinn was nothing to me. Tasha told me about him. I never did anything with him.”
“I know. But it made me even more scared and indecisive.”
“I’m scared too.” I confessed, unable to control my tears. “I’ve always been scared when it comes to you.” His lips touched my forehead, my eyes, my cheeks. “But I had never been more scared than when you left me that day. I felt a part of me ripped out and incomplete. These past two years, I searched and wrote, hoping it could fill the void you created.”
The salty tears remained on his lips and he searched for mine. “I half hoped that your songs were written for me. But I discarded the idea that someone so wonderful, so talented, so beautiful would want someone who accused her of not having been loved properly.”
I laughed, my arms swung up around his neck to balance myself. “I think the exact words were, ‘fucked properly.’ And I haven’t. At least not by you.”
I sealed my offer with a kiss, my heart pounding wildly, my arms shaking nervously with want and desire. He pushed me up against the car, his body warm and perfectly molded for my size. It was not how I imagined it would be. No romantic whispers, no tender kisses and caress. But it was so much better. Words can never describe that moment.
Becky and Tasha came running down the lot, shouting at us to get in the car. It looked like we were caught by the paparazzi and needed to escape. But what escape did I need when I was already in my haven?
I had hoped it would be perfect, I didn’t think I could have it for always. And though we weren’t perfect human beings, we were always perfect for each other. It was as if it was always meant to be and we just fought our way against it.
Until we gave in and chose to try it out together. I could never ask for it to change again because though it wasn’t always perfect, to me, moments with him from that point on were always perfect.