Taylor has never been in a room that feels so unmistakably boy.

From the band posters on the wall, to the action figure collection on the dresser, to the faded NFL blanket, this is uncharted territory. She perches primly on the bed with its unfamiliar musty odor she will, years later, immediately recognize in countless dorm rooms.

Kneeling by the closet, Grant tunes an electric guitar attached to a small amp. “Ready?” he asks.

“Ready whenever you are,” Taylor replies, attempting to maneuver her body into a shapely pose on the bed.

He turns up the amp volume and begins to play, loudly and with flair, his skinny body fusing with the guitar as they both move forward and back to the solo. Taylor is sure a more musically talented person would be impressed by his playing, but she simply finds it loud and involuntarily cringes a bit as she backs up against the bed. Grant becomes quiet. “You don't like it, do you?” He looks so dejected, Taylor wants to give him a hug. “But you like the acoustic, right?”

For the past two weeks, Taylor has diligently listened to Grant play guitar in the band room during lunch, lounging on the carpet with his friends from marching band—who actually seem pleased by her presence and once complimented her sneakers. “I really do.”

“Have you ever thought about learning an instrument?” The electric guitar hangs limply between his legs.

“Not really. I'm not very talented.”

“How do you know if you've never tried?” Taylor doesn't know how to explain that he consistently overestimates her capabilities. “Here. My dad has an old acoustic around here somewhere.” She follows him out of his room toward the attic, wondering why Grant's place is so much grimier than her own. It's not so much a matter of too much stuff, though the house doesn't seem large enough, as it is the sense of dirt seeping through every crevice. “My dad stashes all his old shit in here.”

Reached by narrow, painted stairs and marked by low sloped ceilings, the attic is the epicenter of Medina family clutter. Forgotten books and records with dusty covers crammed into built-in shelves form a backdrop for cardboard boxes, no fewer than three telescopes, a pile of suitcases. Hands stuffed in her hoodie, Taylor lingers in the doorway. Above her, a naked lightbulb faintly swings to cast erratic shadows across the wooden floor.

Grant pushes boxes out of the way to reach an acoustic guitar dangling from a hook on the wall, and Taylor appreciates the way he commits his entire body to the motion, much like the way he strums his electric, lanky limbs contorting to support each other with dancelike precision. “It's this one. It's not as old as it looks.” He reaches toward the instrument in his black t-shirt, exposing slender, extended arm muscles. The guitar, large and old-fashioned, is accented by a rainbow strap—one of those designs that tries to look indigenous despite being made in China and purchased from a chain store. “See, hold it, it's pretty light.” Taylor grasps the instrument by its knobs, acutely aware of how close Grant stands to her, and by doing so reenters the heady, paralyzing space of boy world. “No, hold it from the base. Like this.” He places a spindly hand around hers and slides it down the neck of the guitar until it rests a few inches above the body. Taylor isn't sure why she's so apprehensive about looking up into Grant's face, but once she does is pleasantly surprised to realize his eyes are waiting for hers. The pause is unbearable. Finally, she sneezes. “You can learn on this one,” Grant says.

In the living room, cross-legged on the floor for the lesson, Taylor doesn't want to appear untalented and so watches carefully until the guitar is handed back to her. She successfully strums a C chord. The shaky sound widens the air between them but Grant explains eagerly that she did it, she played a C chord, and on the first try, too! “I could sense you were a natural.”

“Is it supposed to sound like that?” Her fingers clutching the fretboard, Taylor continues to strum and admits the tones, combined like this, do sound like they're meant to go together.

“Loosen up your fingers just a bit.” Facing her, Grant pries them apart gently, using his own fingers to create space between her frozen ones.

A lifetime from now, while her lanky engineer husband flips pancakes in the background, Taylor will teach her eleven-year-old how to play a C chord. She'll explain that it's a “beautiful, full chord,” and when her son's eyes light up at the sound of music ringing through the kitchen, her mind will shift back to this day, in appreciation of the twenty whole years since she sat on a dusty rug in her high school boyfriend's living room and held an instrument for the first time. Her memory will piece it together perfectly: television muted yet glowing, the tacky cream veneer of the guitar, Grant's tanned neck at eye level, and how surprisingly salty it tasted once she gathered enough courage to kiss it.


chapter fifty-four