"You look like you're due for some happy."
I looked at the hand extended to me for a few seconds before looking at the face. "Do I know you?"
The campus library was the only quiet place I could think of to do my work. Nashville was the second most happening city I'd been. Austin still held first place.
"Gabriel Cruz," he turned his hand so I could shake it. "Now, that's my secret handshake so don't steal it."
I folded in my lips to hide a smile.
"And you are?" Gabriel asked tilting his head.
"Rae Butler," I answered.
Gabriel dropped his bag next to me. There was a table almost right in front of my spot along the wall. Gabriel didn't ask why I wasn't sitting there. At least, he hadn't yet. He was tall even as he sat down on the opposite side of his bag. I assumed he cam from the gym a short distance from the library, because his dark curls had a wet, rumpled look going for it.
"What are you looking at?" Gabriel looked straight ahead as he asked. His contradictions confused me. He asked a question, but wasn't looking over to see the answer. Gabriel wasn't even looking at me.
"My latest assignment," I hit the next button on my computer. If Gabriel wasn't going to look at me, I wouldn't look at him. "Photography major," I offered.
"The 'Real Life' assignment?" Gabriel whipped his head towards me.
"Are you in Finch's class?" I'd never seen him.
"Kind of, can I see what you've got?"
It wasn't my best work and I was in the process of weeding out the bad ones. I had a hard time with people. Emotion was a blind spot, of sorts, for me. A small egotistical part of me thought that Finch assigned the "Real Life" theme just to torture me. I knew it was for a good reason but I wanted to practice on my own before displaying my attempts in front of twenty plus students.
I clicked the next button a couple more times. "Sure. Don't be too harsh though," I gave a weak smile.
While Gabriel peeked through a small window into my soul, I took a gander at his. My view was much narrower. His muscle shirt gave me very little I hadn't already gathered from the sweaty smell, contained by a dose of cologne, and the biceps protruding from his shirt.
Gabriel wore a watch on his left wrist – making him right handed. There was a silver chain around his neck that disappeared at the collar of his shirt. The only other jewelry was a gold ring on his left ring finger. I only saw the band as he steadied the computer on his lap.
Gabriel chuckled and I threw my gaze to the computer screen. "What? I don't recall taking any funny ones."
"I'm sure it was unintentional. But I think you captured it perfectly." Gabriel swiveled the computer on his knee.
The original picture was taken at the gate of Music Row. My main subject was two amateur musicians. One playing an acoustic guitar, his companion perched on a five gallon bucket playing a makeshift drum kit. I thought it was decent.
Gabriel was zoomed in on the space to the left of my musicians. The picture was still in focus which shocked me because of the angle I was it when the shot was taken. I accidently captured a group of tourists. Three were posed in front of a statue of Elvis Presley, while a fourth held a camera. They hugged his legs clad in their classic tourist garb – solid colored shirts with catchy sayings: "I went to Nashville, TN and all I got was this stupid t-shirt" and their jean shorts, fanny packs, and backpacks like they didn't just step off an air conditioned bus. They appeared to be hiking everywhere on their Nashville stop.
"This is real life on Music Row. The musicians are great, but this is your money maker. I always liked those pictures of people taking pictures." Gabriel swiveled the computer to look at it dead on.
"How did you notice that?" I scrunched up my face.
"I'm good like that," Gabriel winked.
I snorted, "I'm sure."
Incredulity filled Gabriel's face. "You definitely need some happy. And it's getting late to find you some. Come on, time to go."
Gabriel saved everything in my program and closed it. He also took the initiative to shut down my computer and unplug it from the wall.
"Man, I'm glad I was done with that." I bit off.
"Oh, you're feisty, that should make finding your happy very interesting." Gabriel grabbed his bag while handing me mine.
"What is it you plan on finding at eleven forty-five? How do you know I haven't already found my happy?" I stood up to place my computer in my bag. And, in part, so Gabriel wouldn't look gigantic from my seat against the wall.
"The time doesn't really matter. Contrary to popular opinion New York isn't really the city that never sleeps, Nashville is. As for your second question, you would've smiled." Gabriel started to walk away.
"I'm sorry? You've lost me." I stayed rooted to my spot.
"When I walked up, you would've smiled. That shirt really brings out your eyes," Gabriel paused and cocked his head to his left shoulder. "I knew you had a smile in there. Come on, I need to change if we're finding some happy tonight."
My smile was accidental. My shirt had "My sister's a Roadrunner" printed in thin orange block letters.
I couldn't move still. I couldn't make my feet read the message from my brain that following Gabriel wasn't the worst idea. Gabriel poked his head around a book shelf, "You coming?"
I snatched my bag and followed Gabriel out the doors. My dorm was within walking distance from the library. That fact plus the time of night explained why only three vehicles were in the parking lot.
Parked in the farthest space from the entrance was the librarian's old school Camaro. That knowledge left me to play a guessing game between the Ford F-150 and the Harley-Davidson in the two closest spaces.
The Ford had bumper stickers galore on it. All boasted the hick mentality. None of them meshed with the personality Gabriel had presented thus far.
"Yours is the motorcycle, isn't it?" I stood at the edge of the parking lot.
Gabriel smirked, "Is that a problem?"
"Depends, are you gonna call my mom and tell on me?" I raised both my eyebrows at Gabriel.
Gabriel pulled a helmet off the handlebars. Then he removed a jacket from a storage spot on the rear end that was tagged with name Stella. It was the only addition to the bike. My perusal of Harley-Davidsons told me it wasn't standard issue.
"Who's Stella?" The question was almost involuntary. I thought it and my mouth opened.
"For tonight this is Stella. Hop on, unless you're scared." Gabriel developed a twinkle in his eye. He extended his arm to offer me the helmet, "I only have one."
"What a gentleman," I gushed.
Gabriel watched my every move as I put my bag over my shoulders. He only stopped watching me after the helmet was on. I studied Gabriel as he shrugged into his jacket. He pulled it snug and climbed on before peering back at me.
"You coming?" Gabriel's face was newborn innocent with naughty toddler eyes.
"Quick question," I stepped up to his side. "Did you come to the library for any particular reason? Or do you often pick up photography majoring students?"
"Andy Warhol's biography, now will you hop on?" Gabriel revved the bike to remind me I wasted gas standing there chatting.
I seated myself behind Gabriel. I didn't know how close was too close, but the seat only looked to hold one person.
"Happy here we come."
Gabriel released the clutch in one movement. We shot away from the library like a bullet. The only part of the ride I remember was Gabriel screaming that I could open my eyes and loosen my grip. I only did one of the two. And it wasn't loosening my grip.
We stopped in front of a tall building. Gabriel waited for me to get off first. Two points for the gentleman. While he gathered his things and put everything in order, I stared at the brick building. Architecture fascinated me, as a photographer and a person.
The coloring told me it was old. I loved it instantly. In a state like Texas, eighty percent of the buildings were old school and classic. Gabriel's apartment building appeared to predate some of my hometown favorites.
"You should be a rock climber with a grip like that," Gabriel lifted up his shirt, checking for bruises beneath the streetlamp.
Six-pack abs was all I saw. It took a lot of my will power not to take a picture of the human washboard. It took the rest of my will power not to drool over the human washboard.
"You coming up?" Gabriel tugged his shirt back down.
"Mhm, sure" I swallowed and followed him to the door.
My sister would never believe this. Gabriel unlocked the door to his apartment. He waved his arm grandly to usher me through the door. Mocha colored couches and a huge stereo system greeted me across the threshold. Sister would definitely not believe this.
"You like it?" Gabriel moved behind me as he spoke.
I couldn't spot a TV, but with a stereo bigger than my dorm bathroom I couldn't think of a reason why Gabriel would need one. I stood gaping at it, paying Gabriel no mind.
"If this is all I needed to find your happy I'm just gonna stay in this towel," Gabriel stepped into my line of vision wearing only a towel.
"Well, that's halfway there," I mumbled.
Gabriel grinned, "You can plug your in your iPod if you want. I'll be in the shower."
Gabriel walked away looking Greek god gorgeous in a towel and rumpled hair. I docked my iPod on his stereo like Gabriel suggestion. I let the Matt Nathanson song finish playing before choosing an old Jason Mraz single. I spied on my new friend and host while he showered.
Quietly, I opened cabinet doors in his main room. There was a high potential that Gabriel was my soul mate. The cabinets closest to the stereo held CDs. They were arranged alphabetically. Moving one step to the right started the books.
Ray Bradbury, Kay Hooper, James Patterson, John Grisham stared me in the face. I opened the cabinet next to it. Jason stopped singing and Daughtry began. Books I didn't recognize looked back at me from the second cabinet.
"That's not even all of them," Gabriel leaned against the door jamb.
Freshly showered, Gabriel filled the same doorway where he'd stood in the towel. His gym clothes were replaced with dark jeans and a loose white shirt with a small V at the collar.
"Busted," I whispered. "I haven't heard of any of these authors." I pointed to the cabinet.
"You're not going to come up with some excuse?" Gabriel asked as he moved to the kitchen.
I noticed the music changed but I couldn't remember who was singing.
"What excuse could I come up with? You don't look like you're into anything too weird." I shrugged.
"We'll come back to that. Is this LLLF?"
I went over to where my iPod was docked. I started nodding before I checked the screen. Now that I was paying attention I recognized the music.
"It's their latest single," I added.
"Off of The Glory, right?"
"Nope," I moved to stand across from him in the kitchen. The eating bar separated me from Gabriel's confusion.
"That's the latest album though," Gabriel pressed.
"It is the latest album you can get from any place but the band. This album is The Journey. It'll be on iTunes in time for Christmas." I drummed my fingers on the countertop once.
"You know the band?" Gabriel's shocked would've been amusing if I didn't hate telling this to people. I didn't think anyone in Nashville would know about up and coming Live Life Love Forever.
"Joe and I have been friends since the fifth grade. In high school I was there for ever audition. Sixty guys thought they could be his bassist, only Paxton was right."
"You're the Rae Butler," Gabriel pointed at me. "You're the one who wrote Sweet Pain for LLLF."
I sighed and nodded my head. Texas had its share of country artists and a few pop singers. LLLF was the only alternative rock band to make it big coming out of Texas. I was famous in every city for my involvement in LLLF's first album. Joe only added fuel to the fire by making sure the list of thanks on the hard copy album made it to the iTunes' page. I thanked Joe with a friendly tap to the back of his head.
"Wow, my sister will not believe this." Gabriel peered into his fridge. "What do you want to drink? Wine, beer, something fruity," he asked with his head stuck in the shelves.
"Do you have a soda?" Maybe one with caffeine, I don't drink." I made a funny face even though Gabriel couldn't see.
"Are you twenty-one?" Gabriel had stood up slowly with an odd look on his face.
"Not quite, but that's not why I don't drink."
Gabriel passed me a generic looking can of soda and walked to the couch. He took a seat and smirked at me over his shoulder. If Gabriel ever gave me a full smile, I'm ninety percent sure I would have to physically force my mouth to close. It was that brilliant.
"So why don't you drink?" Gabriel raised his own bottled water to his lips.
"You already know one of my secrets, eye for an eye, my friend."
I sat down on the opposite end, back to the armrest, legs twisted Indian style. A stoic smile fixed itself to Gabriel's face.
"Is knowing secrets part of your happy?"
"In a way," I shrugged. "Secrets are part of my moonlighting job."
"You're not the Gossip Girl are you? Cause that totally ruins the show for me and I bought the whole series." Gabriel appeared sincerely bummed.
"That's one secret I'll never tell." A bubble of laughter burst from me.
"Very nice," Gabriel tilted his water, toasting me, before taking a sip.
"Stella was my little sister. I grew up in a darker side of town, not here, but somewhere else. Stella was shot and killed my senior year." Gabriel did what he was doing in the library – talking to me but not looking at me. He absentmindedly nodded his head a few times.
"You lost your happy," Gabriel tweaked the corner of his mouth.
"No, I'm fine. I'm just really sad for you and your family. I thought my grandfather's death warranted something," I shrugged, "A billboard, possibly a TV commercial just so no one would forget him. He died because of cancer." I gave a mirthful laugh before finishing.
"Well, I'm sorry for you and yours. If he was anything like you I'm sure he was an amazing person," Gabriel nodded his head.
"You barely know me, Gabriel." I smiled.
Gabriel chuckled and continued drinking his water. I watched him fidget between sips. He didn't look eager to ask or answer another question. I stared at his face for a sign he was going to speak. After five seconds, I let my gaze wander to the walls of Gabriel's apartment.
I became aware of prints I hadn't bothered with after discovering Gabriel's book collection.
"Is there anything you're not a connoisseur of?" I blurted the question before I could stop myself. Gabriel glanced at me before following my gaze.
On either side of the front door nine prints were arranged in perfect 3x3 squares. The center photograph was a colored shot surrounded by black and white photos. The arrangement presented the photographs beautifully.
"How long have you lived in this apartment?" I let another question slip.
"Since my senior year of high school," Gabriel set down his water and stood up. I took that as permission to rise and get a close look at the photographs.
Gabriel stood to the left of the door so I planted myself in front of the set on the right.
"Wait," I held up my index finger as a physical pause. "You're the photographer."
"Don't sound so shocked, it's a little insulting," Gabriel chuckled a small bit.
The nine shots I enjoyed were taken in a city. The color photo was almost a textbook shot. Taken from behind a trashcan drummer in a subway station, Gabriel captured the drummer mid-beat with two subways passing in front of him and people streaming around the fringes of the frame. The photos wrapping the subway drummer were cityscapes at odd angles, juxtaposition of old and new buildings, and a city essence shot.
My iPod seemed quieter as Gabriel and I stared at his work. I could hear my heartbeat and my breathing. I felt the smile spread as I remembered why I enjoyed photography: this feeling of peace as I took in what the entire photo had to say.
"Your work is incredible," I complimented.
"Thanks," Gabriel's voice whizzed past. "So why photography?" Gabriel stood just to the right of me. He still smelled soapy from his shower. I could feel heat coming off his body. I concentrated on the prints and not looking at him.
"Why'd you choose photography?" I countered.
"I asked first."
"Ugh, fine you six year old. Because I notice stuff, I prefer being behind a camera, than in front of it. Cause it's the best way for me to communicate since I'm a little on the shy side. Are any of those what you're looking for?" I laughed a little before turning to glance at Gabriel.
"Almost," Gabriel whispered. He grabbed my chin and tilted my face up. Before my brain could put two and two together, Gabriel's lips were on mine.
1…2…3…4…5…6…6 ½ …
"That's more what I was looking for," Gabriel smiled.
"Oh, well, of course I chose photography so I could kiss handsome men I barely know in their apartments."
"I knew it," Gabriel laughed. "See, I chose photography so women such as you would be wooed by my brooding, artsy talent."
Gabriel leaned in once more. My thoughts became a bit fuzzy. I tried to contain a smile for a while. I had to give up, trying not to, I had to smile.
"So I guess we found my happy," I beamed.
That tingly feeling girls always claim to feel in their lips, I had that. The butterflies – they were present. My breathing pattern was slightly interrupted, just like they say.
Gabriel chuckled, his grin making my knees go even weaker.
"Yeah, mine too."