Love In Lyrics
2nd Place, Round Two, NYCMIDNIGHT Short Story Contest
Emma gets a shocking surprise from Sam, the one that got away. He says he’s found a way to cope with his inability to express his emotions, but she can’t let herself believe him.
Leaves crunch under my feet as I approach the park bench where we met. The foliage colors the backdrop in shades of gold and rust, but that’s not what takes my breath away. It’s him sitting there. It’s really him. And he looks the same, stunning with his midnight hair and five o’clock shadow.
I know I should be ecstatic to see Sam again, but all I feel are nerves. Trembling, I cross my arms over my chest like I’m cold. I’m anything but, even after filling my lungs with the crisp air. “Why are we here, Sam?”
As usual, he’s sitting ramrod straight. “Emmaline, we need to talk.” The sound of my full name is a punch to the gut. He’s the only one who’s ever called me that. To everyone else, I’m Emma. He smiles, and I realize there is something different about him. There’s a lightness to him now, and a mysterious banjo at his side.
Sam didn’t play the banjo when I knew him, but I bet he’s a skilled player now. He’s good at anything he sets his mind to doing.
“All right.” I sit down, breathing in his fresh laundry scent. I miss it like crazy. I miss him like crazy. But we can’t be together.
As if reading my mind, he says, “Things are different now.” As always, his words are clipped, emotionless, but I know he means it. Sam doesn’t lie, so I know he believes that to be true. I don’t.
An uncomfortable silence hangs in the air between us, so I smile before asking, “How’s work going?” I know Sam loves to talk about his work, and because of that, I enjoy hearing about it.
“Business is booming.” A twinkle flickers in his still blue eyes. “Equity markets worldwide are robust. We’re updating our 401K designs to incorporate adverse participant behaviors in ways that actually benefit plan participants.” He beams. “Get this. I’ve had three clients retire early this year. I’d selected portfolios that were higher risk, but I stumbled across this analysis on solar energy. The market was pre-peaked—” he stops and clears his throat. “Wait. I’m talking too much about work.”
“That’s wonderful.” I shake my head. “And no, you’re not. You don’t have to worry about that with me, you know that.”
“Okay.” He flashes me his crooked smile, and it’s the same as always. Dangerously charming. “I do know that.” He stares at me vacantly for a beat before saying, “Your hair is a darker shade of brown.” He nods. “It brings out your eyes.”
“Thank you.” I chuckle. “I’d forgotten how you notice everything.”
“That I do.”
A pair of joggers passes by, and it pulls my gaze away from Sam. They look so fit and healthy. “We should be jogging instead of sitting on our butts.” I nod toward the couple. “They’re going to outlive us by a decade.”
“Maybe.” Sam furrows his brows. “But they won’t be able to walk because they’ll have osteoarthritis in both knees. Look at their poor form.”
I laugh and shake my head. “That might be true.”
Sam’s smile broadens. “Tell you what. We can become smart joggers. On treadmills with shock-absorbing suspension.”
My stomach flip-flops. It’s not lost on me that he’d referred to him and me as ‘we.’ “Smart joggers,” I parrot, nodding.
Then just like that, his smile falls off his face. “We need to talk, Emmaline.”
“Sam.” My tone is soft but firm.
I shake my head, all too familiar with his pretense of innocence. “Don’t say ‘yes.’”
“Okay.” He blinks. “Sí.”
Again, I laugh despite myself. I can’t be firm with Sam when he’s like this, his odd brand of charming and funny. When I meet his eyes, they’re sparkling. I put a hand on his cheek when I say, “My sweet, funny Sam.”
His face goes serious. “Things are different now, Emmaline,” he repeats.
Looking down, I let out a long, shaky breath. He keeps saying that, but I can’t help but think he’s lying to himself. He can’t change who he is. Sam is like my father: someone who desperately struggles to access his emotions. My mother has infinite patience to deal with it, but it’s a quality I’m not sure I have. I need more from a partner.
“I know you don’t believe me.” Sam puts his finger under my chin, lifting my head. When my eyes meet his, he continues. “But I’ve been working on myself.”
In spite of my desperate skepticism, his words make my heart pound. I would love to believe him, but I don’t. I can’t. A gust of wind sends leaves whipping through the air, and I watch them flutter back to the ground. “You shouldn’t have to change for someone, Sam. Not even for me.”
“I know.” His voice is just above a whisper when he continues. “I didn’t do it for you. I did it for me.”
When I open my mouth to speak, the words get caught in my throat. I rest my hand on his, brushing over his soft knuckles, that one mole on the back of his hand that I used to circle with my fingertip as we fell asleep. Eventually I manage, “What did you do?”
He clears his throat before releasing my hand. Then he stands and slings the banjo over his shoulder. “This is going to sound strange,” he says, carefully adjusting the strap. “But I took a songwriting class.”
I fight to keep the smile off my face. That’s so sweet, but I don’t know how that can help Sam with his emotional struggle. Placating him, I nod.
“I know you’re just humoring me, Emmaline, but I need you to listen.”
His demand reignites an old anger in my gut. “Why should I?” I look down, my face hot. “You walked away.”
“I was overwhelmed.” His lips quiver. “I’m sorry.” The day he left, we’d had the most amazing afternoon, hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains and taking in the breathtaking views between kisses, the kind I’d only experienced in fantasies. I’d never felt so close to anyone, not even Sam himself, and I’d known him forever.
“You never even bothered to turn back.” I purse my lips. “You shut the door and you didn’t turn back,” I say again, louder. “Who just walks away like that?”
“I was wrong.” His voice is even.
My anger cools as a lump grows in my throat. I try to clear it away, but it’s useless. “Why couldn’t you just say it?” I croak out. Our relationship had been amazing, but for so long, too long, I’d been waiting to hear those three most important words. They’d never escaped his lips. On that gorgeous day, my request had been simple. Say you love me, Sam.
“I wanted to.” His voice turns sharp. “I couldn’t.”
I know that now, and I knew that then, but I also understood that I’d never be fulfilled with a man that couldn’t express what was in his heart. I thought of my father, living in a constant shell. My love would grow cold.
It was a dealbreaker.
I continue. “So, you got out of the car. And that was it.” With pain in my eyes, I meet his. There’s hurt in them too, but right now, I don’t care. The memory continues to play on a loop in my mind, like it has countless times. That day, after a long, brutal silence during the ride home, I’d told him I couldn’t be with him if he couldn’t say it. He looked out the passenger window, and with his typical flat tone, quietly asked me to pull over. He didn’t look back as he closed the car door.
Still standing with his banjo, he says, “I’m sorry.” He swipes a hand across his brow. “I—I…” he stutters, flustered.
He’s struggling, and it pains me to see him like this. It’s a reminder that he couldn’t completely help what he did, and my anger subsides as guilt settles in like a heavy fog. I tap the bench seat. “Sit.” I know he does better sitting down. I release a long, jagged breath.
Sam pulls a pick from his pocket before he sits. Then he says, “I wrote you a song.”
I stay quiet while he stares at his pick. Finally, I say, “Take your time, Sam.” He’s not the only one who’s changed. The years since he left reshaped me. My patience has grown, and sometimes I can’t help but wonder if I’d been too hard, given up too quickly.
There’s no one like Sam.
He nods. Then exhaling, he closes his eyes. He takes the moment he needs, then when he’s steady, he starts to strum the strings. As he plays, I’m drawn in, each note pulling me deeper. The banjo’s song is textured, rich, heart-stopping. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. Sam always surprises. By the time I see his lips ready to sing, I’m in breathless anticipation.
“We were only twelve years old
The weather was rainy, cold.”
Yes, Sam and I were children when we met. Even through the shakiness, Sam’s voice is penetrating, rich. More than that, there’s something in his tone I’ve never heard from him before. Tingles skitter up my spine.
His voice breaks up around the words. I’m afraid to move a muscle, like I’m invading Sam’s privacy. I hold my breath. He continues, his voice raw.
“With a broken jelly shoe
And a wet, moppy hairdo
You were the most stunning view.”
He’s doing it. Hearing Sam say things I know is almost impossible for him to say makes me feel like I might burst.
He goes into an acoustical break, and the sound lifts me, like he knew just the tune that would resonate in my bones. Then his playing slows as he sings again.
That day was when I knew
It would always be you.”
My pulse races. He meets my eye and gives me a wink. We’ve known each other so long, yet all this is so new. Sam is speaking to me. He’s saying the things he’d only ever said to me in my dreams.
“I know you had to move on
But what am I going to do
When my retirement plan
Never stops including you?”
My heart slams against my ribcage and I struggle for a breath. Tears well in my eyes, but I don’t want them to fall. I don’t want Sam to see them, to break the spell. He is transformed, his stutter a distant memory. He’s a swan, gliding through the words, smooth and effortless. They’re beautiful. He’s beautiful.
His strums slow, and his voice goes soft.
“My heart. My soul. My forever queen,
I love you, only you, Emmaline.”
Tears stream down my face despite my best efforts, and for once, it’s me who doesn’t have any words. I stand, reaching on my tiptoes to interlace my fingers behind Sam’s neck and coax his forehead down to meet mine. After a moment, he pulls me close, clutching me to his chest. It heaves, hinting at a sob. Everything fades but his smell, his touch.
“I love you too, Sam. Always.”