(Death By Tap Shoes & Cigarettes)
(Chapter I)(Sugar Never Tasted So Good)

Raphael is a god.

No, really, he is. He always has been. I would say that I'm in love with him, but that wouldn't be quite right; no one really falls in love with someone like Raphael. There's something unattainable about him that makes it hard to believe his existence isn't just some midsummer daydream that stole my heartbeat so I could pretend him into life at my own expense. You can adore a person like that, you can obsess over him, you could even kneel down and worship him, but no one can ever simply love him. That would be both too little and too much.

I everything him.

There is no specific word for how I feel about Raphael; he's too addicting to settle on one thing. That's why I've just decided to skip the whole complicated process and admit the only truth I know: I feel everything toward him that a girl like me can possibly feel for a single person. I everything him more than I've everythinged anyone else before.

"You're too sweet for me, Rilo," he drawls out in that distinctively mid-western way of his that, oddly enough, sounds like no other person's accent in Kansas. It's the kind of voice that knows how to build a home within a memory.

"I am not sweet," I protest, stashing my pen behind my ear as I snap my notebook shut, "I'm sour, bitter, and positively angsty."

"You're sugar. Sweet and simple sugar; absolutely pure."

As I wrinkle my nose at him and the lazy grin of amusement he wears at my expense, I pull my legs up onto the armchair with me until I'm able to rest my chin on my knees. He's right. I'm too sweet for him and yet he lets me stick around anyway. Then again, I put up with him too and his habit of sneaking down through my basement window at three in the morning so he can chain smoke cigarettes and play his latest gypsy jazz creation on a piece of junk guitar of his that he keeps on my couch as if it belongs there — as if he belongs here. It's just that being woken up in the middle of the night to keep a fallen angel company doesn't exactly feel like a test of my hospitality.

Releasing a final wisp of smoke from between his lips, he beats the remainder of the cigarette on the side of his guitar until it dies out, then flicks it in my general direction. I dodge his attack, sticking out my tongue with all the grace and maturity of a triumphant five-year-old, but he still gets what he wanted: my attention. "When are you going to let me see the inside of one of your precious notebooks?"

This is a favorite question of his. "When your eyes stop being so blue and prying." And that's a favorite answer of mine. Raphael has the bluest eyes I've ever seen and hair that he's managed to dye the exact same shade. It's electric... like the last breath of a death row prisoner strapped down and waiting for a switch to flick — enough to make a heart stop. The problem is, the insides of my precious notebooks are filled with line upon line of poetry. The obsessive kind. Each and every word of it is about the same subject: the most beautiful boy in Kansas.

Have I mentioned that Raphael is the most beautiful boy in Kansas? Because if I haven't, then I've been slacking off. It's difficult to pinpoint why. About a year ago I started trying to find that one perfect word to explain, but recently, I've given up. Clearly I have to coin a new one, because the linguistic tragedy is that either no word has ever been invented to explain this boy and the enigma of his fedora topped head or it was dreamed up before his birth and forgotten since he didn't yet exist to give it meaning.

Knowing, that even after all these years, there's never been a time when I've allowed him to read my chicken scratch writing — and that right now probably won't be that moment either — he lets his eyes drip shut and his fingers wander with abandon over the instrument in his hands. The notes are glittering and fast paced, humming and sparking through the air with a near-physical vibrancy, despite his currently mellow mood. It's a war pitting one note against another as ten thousand soldiers of sound echo battle cries before converging on each other and I'll never understand how his fingers move so rapidly, unless I discover one day that he's possessed by the soul of this guitar... or maybe it's the other way around and the soul of that guitar has been possessed by him. Yet, the rest of his body remains so still that if I didn't know better I might think he literally plays in his sleep.

Except I do know better.

I know that even when his back is slouched against a wall and his black fedora is tilted down to shield his face, he's usually not sleeping. This is just a thing he does to figure out how differently people will act if they think he's asleep, because people do. We all do. I remember the first time he did it to me; I started writing poetry out loud in a bare whisper — that's my favorite way to do it — and it scared me something crazy when he muttered at me to speak up so he could hear what I was saying. I didn't though. I might have if all the words hadn't been about him, but they've always been about him. "All hail Raphael, the most beautiful boy in Kansas —"

His eyes snap open in a shock of cobalt, "What was that?" He missed it, he always misses it, but I don't know why that matters. It isn't as if he needs to hear my poetry in order to enlighten himself. It's called a mirror, Raphael.

"Just talkin' to myself, as always," I murmur, hiding my face behind my notebook so he can't catch a glimpse of the impish grin mischievously attacking my lips. Yeah, I'm pathetic. I get a thrill out of slipping up and unconsciously reciting lines of my own poetry to myself. The thing is, I screw up like this a lot. It's difficult to keep all these words to myself, so sometimes I have to let a few loose to prevent myself from setting all of them free. If Raphael happens to be present at one of those times, like right now, I get this incredible adrenaline rush.

"Rilo," he speaks slowly, with an over-release of air so it sounds like he's winded from running for his life, "I don't want to do it." Quirking an eyebrow as I sink back into the cushions, I watch with baited curiosity as he pushes his guitar away. The white undershirt he wears crinkles beneath suspenders trailing down the sides of his stomach in a vision of nineteen-twenties blue collar glamor, like a steel worker home after a long day of building skyscrapers, gritty from too much time spent balancing in the jungle gym boneyard of new world promises and the haze of pollution that will be all he ever experiences of it. Maybe today was the first time he saw another man fall to his death from six dozen stories up; maybe he's decided he doesn't want to risk his body being splayed out on the pavement like that; maybe he finally wants to give up the beautiful madness that makes people want to use buildings and daydreams to feel like they can own the sky. "I mean —" Shaking his head, he backtracks on his declaration and rewinds me into reality. "I want to do it," a hesitant pair of eyes flick over to watch for my reaction as he steals a quick bite at his lower lip before continuing, "but I only want to do it for you."

Clutching my notebook protectively to my chest, I leave the safety of my chair to collapse onto the couch beside him, practically drowning in the layers of vintage petticoats I wear beneath my white eyelet skirt, as if cotton turns to armor if a wallflower wears enough of it. "I have no idea what you're on about, Raphael," I whisper coyly into his ear, unwilling to venture into this incoherent fit of melancholy with him.

He frowns slightly, impatient for my comprehension. "Guitar — no," he stops to correct himself, "Jazz. Jazz, Rilo. I don't want to do anything else." Allowing his forehead to drop against my bare shoulder, I shiver as he reconfesses the second half to my skin, "and I don't want to do it for anyone but you." I know a lot of people would immediately tell him how talented he is and how he needs to share his gift with the world, maybe even swear that he has what it takes to become famous, but I'm not one of those people. All the little pieces fall into place and I finally get what he means, because I understand him. Well, I understand him as much as any one person can understand complex boys in pinstriped trousers who dye their hair the color of blue bubblegum. "Some guy offered me a gig for tomorrow night."

If I'm ever going to share my poetry with anyone, it'll be him. Things like jazz and poetry are personal arts that shouldn't necessarily be shared with cruel strangers who always seem to act as if they have a right to an artist's soul. Still, sooner or later, all persistent daydreamers are forced to confront that unholy conundrum: How much do you love it? If we're honest, we'll find a way to admit that we love it more than our own skin. After that, we have no choice except to make the overwhelming decision of doing what we love most for the whole, terrible world or doing it only for ourselves on our time off from menial jobs at the local gas station or elementary school. The thing is, when someone is real like Raphael or I, we can't help lying to ourselves that there might be a loophole to have it both ways. To the point of desperation, we want to do only that one thing we love most and we want to only do it for ourselves.

That's why I knock his fedora out of the way and rest my cheek against the crown of his royal blue head, willfully lying through my teeth as I tell him the only thing I can come up with that might fool him into believing everything will be alright if he does this. "If you do it, I'll go. I'll sit right in front of you and you can stare at me, pretending that I'm the only person there with you. Then you can, kind of, have it both ways." Already, I feel this world of make-believe safety we've built for ourselves in my basement burning down around us. There will be nothing here for us to come back to; the ashes of an era are being thrown to the wind even as the words slip across my tongue. "If you want me to, that is..."

I feel his lips curl into a smile against my arm, the right corner rising a little higher than the other so it's deviously lopsided. "Yeah, Rilo, I want you —" There's a strategic pause and up goes the left corner. In that moment, breathing becomes an act of fiction. "— to," he finishes after a long while. It's a torture of a long while; shame on that boy and his word games. Bumping my shoulder up, I wrinkle my nose at him for the second time that morning as he half-lifts his eyes to peer out at me from beneath his dangerously rumpled hair. He's still smirking to himself as he reaches out to tuck a few of my own short, black ringlets behind my ear, gently dragging a finger down my jawline as he drops his hand back. "Rilo?" Lowering his voice to a rare level of seriousness, he aims his breath in puffs against my arm as if shamelessly begging goosebumps to break out in his honor.

It's all I can do to roll my eyes and pull the pen back out from behind my ear, twirling it gingerly between my fingers, as if completely unaffected by his antics. "Yuh-huh?" Hitting just the right note between feigned boredom and exasperation, I'm triumphant in my act of resistance. Yet, there's an echo haunting each beat of my skittering pulse that sounds an awful lot like you've won the battle, but lost the war.

Releasing one final breath against my arm, he falters and pulls back, latching onto his guitar once more. "Nuthin'."

"Right," I yawn sarcastically as I slouch down, my eyes collapsing shut with the want of sleep at several hours too far past midnight on a Tuesday morning. That sounds ever so believable.

As a throaty laugh jolts out of him in reply, I'm struck with the foreboding sense that I've claimed my victory too soon. However, I refuse to be so easily ensnared in his satisfaction by looking for the evidence of what I'm missing, resiliently clinging to my attempt at nodding off into the ever-creeping dawn. "You even smell like sugar."

Yeah. I bet so. "And you smell like crap, Raphael," I say, blindly flicking at his arm in pseudo-annoyance, "because you're full of it."

Another laugh echoes throughout my basement, but this one is more open and carved from unbridled honesty. It's enough to stir my thoughts back to life despite all my efforts to ignore him, my fingers fidgeting with the pen still idly clutched in my hand until I'm pressing the tip of it to my chin out of habit, unknowingly putting a small blue dot there as I contemplate synonyms for that very same color. "Just out of curiosity..." I'm too involved with translating the arcing descant of his amusement into a new notebook entry to pay attention to his whisper; a debatable mistake on my part. All at once I feel him tap the pen away as he slides his guitar-calloused fingers into my hair until his palm is cradling the corner of my jaw, and suddenly our mouths are bound together by an achingly slow, open-mouthed kiss.

My eyes flutter open only to be blinded by blue.

Without concern for any idea that my body might need to function again after this moment, a haze of incoherent static gradually devours me alive, numbing my lips, my tongue, my throat — on and on, winding through my chest and into my belly. I'm being systematically paralyzed by each lazy movement of his mouth and I'm content with my ruination. He tastes like Sunday nights and pinstripes. Unhurried, his lips pry at mine and there is something warm and easy about the way he's leaning into me, both of us with our eyes wide open as if daring the other to be the first to surrender to the moment.

God help me, I think, because I certainly can't help myself any longer, eyes flickering shut as his teeth graze my lower lip and I gasp against his mouth. "I was right," he drawls as though in answer to my unspoken plea, licking his lips with a calculated flick of his tongue as he breaks the kiss. We're still close enough that his lips catch on mine with every word he speaks, "You taste like sugar too." My breathing is cracked and sporadic, coming out in sharp little wisps that shudder feebly from my lungs. There's deprivation in that breath, but not for a lack of oxygen. I don't even care at this point, wanting anything except for him to pull away, and even though I'm certain he knows that, it's exactly what he does.

"Sugar, Rilo. It composes every piece of you." Suddenly his hands are back on his guitar instead of where I want them to be — all over sweet, greedy me. However, he's made his point and won an argument I obviously underestimated the importance of, so jazz floods my ears once more in an upbeat tidal wave of oceanic bravado. I can't think straight, but I'm writing furiously in my notebook anyway, line after incomprehensible line. Raphael slips into a smug grin, certain for once of what my poetry is about, and with this newfound knowledge still scorching my lips he allows velvet words to slip from his own mouth.

"Sugar never tasted so good, it never tasted so good to me..."

(1.18.14: I didn't mean to pick this story back up right now, but I accidentally rewrote the whole thing in my head during work yesterday and now I can't stop myself. I'll be reworking the rest of the chapters ASAP — switching back and forth between this and writing Sorry About Dresden — although I may hold off on rewriting the poetry for now and come back to that later? I'm impatient. Either way, I have definite plans for this. Evidently I'm back to FictionPress with a vengeance.)