"So what is Jackie short for?" came Leo's voice, breaking the solitude that had developed between us.
I hesitated for a moment, listening as the wave he had interrupted crashed against the shore, lapping at the sand and retreating back into the ocean. A breeze followed, leaving the scent of sea salt in its wake. I turned to look at him with his arms folded behind his head and his eyes locked on the sky above us, searching for the stars that were being outshined by the brilliance of the moon, save for an extra bright few.
"Jacqueline," I responded. "I'm named after my grandmother."
"That's a beautiful name."
"Do you have a middle name?"
"Well, what is it?"
There was a brief pause between us. He seemed to be thinking about something by the way the space between his eyebrows had developed a little crease, although his smile was still present. He turned and met my gaze, his starry eyes a lovely compensation for the lack thereof in the sky tonight. I couldn't help but return the grin, although I could feel my cheeks growing hot again, and so I lifted my eyes heavenward and broke contact.
"What does Leo stand for?" I suddenly asked, eager to probe him like he did me just now.
"It's embarrassing," he admitted, his voice becoming a little quieter.
"Is it like Leonard or Leopold or something?"
I couldn't help but chuckle. It wasn't because his name sounded funny, because in truth I thought it was a very masculine name- he had Gerard Butler's nude scene in 300 to thank for that- but because he looked so self conscious about it.
"Yeah. Leonidas Alexander von Wolfe."
Again, there was silence between us. Through my peripherals I could see the countenance on his features lighten up from having fallen at the coyness that accompanied such a unique name. He sat up, revealing little blades of dry grass and some leaves stuck to the back of his shirt, then stretched his arms out to the side of him. I could hear a yawn coming from his mouth, and I giggled at the odd sound.
"Long day?" I questioned, studying the back of his head closely.
"Very," he answered, but his tone revealed that he was grinning. "It was quite interesting, actually."
"So when I was staring at your guitar, I noticed a peso tucked in the strings... what was that about?"
"Oh, that? That's something I picked up from my grandpa. You see, he never seemed to have a pick handy but he always had coins. For some reason, the majority of those coins were pesos."
"How long have you played?"
"My whole life. He and I would have little jam sessions whenever my mom dropped me off his place. Since his stroke, he's forgotten how to play, but he still loves to listen to me."
"I'm sorry... that must have been really hard."
"It was, but then I see the joy in his eyes when I play for him. It's the same look he had when we'd play together."
I stayed quiet, unsure of what to say next. I wasn't used to this kind of intimacy, and neither was I certain why he felt comfortable enough with me to share that information, surely of which was quite personal to him. Turning over on my side, I fingered the grass that sprouted from the cracks of the cliff, sighing softly as I remembered what it was like to still have grandparents.
"What about you?" he inquired. "How long have you played?"
"Well, not very long," I confessed, my attention still on the grass and the little spider that crept out of it, irritated that I disturbed its hiding place. "My main interest is the piano. I picked up the guitar when my friend asked me to join his band."
"You were in a band?"
"Yeah... we never made it out of the garage phase, unfortunately, thanks to man's incapability to play well with others."
"Well, it's true! I don't understand why you guys are so competitive... the testosterone, perhaps?"
"Perhaps. Sometimes a girl is the cause, too."
"Uh, Trojan war?"
I rolled my eyes, grinning as I watched the spider crawl away into another crack a little distance from the one I had messed with. I turned to look at him, only to meet his gaze again, as he mockingly leered at me with narrowed eyes and a thin smile. I sat up next to him, dangling my feet over the ledge, letting the ocean breeze hit my face and taking in the ambiance I couldn't seem to get enough of.
"What was the name of your band?" he asked, nudging me playfully.
"Sally and the Skellingtons," I responded through a slightly embarrassed giggle. "I was Sally."
His eyes got a bit larger than usual, having piqued his interest on the topic of my singing. I then realized that I had admitted to doing such a thing, and was silently praying that he wouldn't ask me to sing for him right then and there.
"So you were the frontwoman?"
"Well, not really. Just the singer."
"Oh, so you sing and play piano and guitar. What else can you do, Wonder Woman?"
As I wiggled my brows at him in jest, a lighthearted laugh escaped his increasingly handsome mouth. It was a contagious sound, and before I could realize it, I was doing the same. I was grateful and relieved to find that he hadn't insisted I sing for him on the spot yet, which was the usual reaction from people I mentioned it to. He straightened his green beanie over his scraggly hair, and I could see his chest rise and fall as he took in a deep breath of the clean air.
"So what do you want to do in the next ten years?" I questioned, taking advantage of my turn in doing the interrogating.
"Get married," he answered, much quicker than I expected. There was a pause before he finished with, "and do some missionary work in Uganda, or somewhere in Africa and the Middle East."
"Those are probably the two scariest things you could ever do in your life."
"Right? What can I say, though. I laugh in the face of danger."
"Do you want kids?"
"Oh yeah. I want at least four."
"Yeah, it's a good even number."
"I'll bet you even have names picked out."
"I do, actually."
"Of course you do."
"What about you? Don't you wanna find Prince Charming and have perfect little Charming babies?"
"I've never really thought about it, to be honest."
"Are you serious right now?" he seemed incredulous to the idea that I hadn't considered marriage yet, as though it were such a concept for a girl. I just shrugged and let my gaze fall to the bottom of the cliff, where the black ocean swirled and bubbled against its face.
"Yeah, I mean, I'd love to get married. But right now that's not what I'm concerned about."
"Well, what are you concerned about, then?"
"I really just want to reach all my goals... I want to be able to say that I traveled all around the United States sharing my music with people who share their stories with me, living off of tips and ramen noodles and thirty minutes of sleep every night."
There was a brief pause while Leo thought it over, I suppose. The crease in between his brows confirmed my assumptions, and I wondered what he had been pondering so deeply.
"Then let's do it," he suddenly said, and I almost choked.
"That's what you wanna do, right?"
"What? Are you afraid now that the opportunity's presented itself?"
I struggled at a loss for words, which were tumbling over each other in my head that I was afraid if I opened my mouth it might sound like some alien language. He watched me expectantly, a mixture of mischief and pleasure brightening his features, though he seemed quite eager to hear my approval of his outrageous idea. He flashed me his perfect set of pearly white teeth, and my knees started to shake a little, so I broke eye contact.
"But I-I mean... I don't really..." I stammered.
"I mean, we just met a few hours ago."
"I think if my intentions were to kill you, I'd have pushed you over the cliff a long time ago."
He chuckled again and turned away, though for some reason I could tell my rejection of his idea hurt him a bit. I had to admit, the idea of traveling the country with a perfect stranger (not to mention, as gorgeous as Leo with his magnitude of talent) was, although terrifying, simultaneously kind of exciting. And what did I move to California for, anyway, if not to be spontaneous and live out my ambitions? Maybe it was time to stop being such a coward and just go for it. I wasn't getting any younger anyway.
"Fine," I said. "Let's do it."
He turned and looked at me suspiciously.
I paused again for a second, suddenly remembering the girl he had spoken on the phone with earlier and confessed his love to.
"Wait... don't you have a girlfriend or something? What would she say about you traveling the country with a girl you just met?" I inquired, probably a little colder than I actually intended.
"Me? a girlfriend?" he laughed, as if the probability of such a thing were so amusing. "I haven't dated anyone since I graduated college."
"Really? So then who were you on the phone with earlier?"
He narrowed his eyes at me, as though he were inquiring why I had been eavesdropping on his conversation, to which I responded with heavily flushed cheeks and eyes cast to my feet.
"That was my little sister, Angelina."
"You have a little sister? How old is she?"
"Eight. She's staying with our grandparents in Riverside. I haven't seen her since Christmas."
"Oh... I-I'm sorry, I just..."
I was unable to finish my sentence. Like before, where all my words and sentences snowballed over each other into a huge, incoherent mess, I found my mouth just gaping open with no sound coming forth. He studied me, and I couldn't read the expression on his handsome face either. Though even if I wanted to, I wouldn't have been able to- by the way the moon was glowing against his chiseled features, I grew far too distracted with admiring him.
All I could hear above the tide was my heart beating inside my chest. It was growing louder and faster as he looked at me and I gazed right back at him, feeling as though he could see the very contents of my soul. Then he chuckled through his nostrils, his lips curling, though his teeth were hidden as his eyes also fixed themselves on the ocean gurgling below us.
I instinctively reached for my phone in my pocket, then suffered a mini-heart attack when I realized that it wasn't there. Suddenly flying into a panic, I leapt to my feet, searching every pocket in my jeans and twirling round frantically. Leo stood up slowly, watching me with furrowed eyebrows and a quizzical expression.
"What's wrong?" he asked me cautiously, as though he might have been dealing with a frenzied animal.
"I can't find my phone," I said, my words rushed and barely coherent. "What time is it?"
He took out his cellphone from his pocket and I saw him press the home button, but there was no reassuring LED to light up his face in response to his touch. I almost started ventilating as I realized that my phone was lost and his was dead- we were in the middle of nowhere and our friends had no idea where to find us or what happened. I started sweating with anxiety, but Leo remained unnaturally too calm.
"What are we gonna do? Do you know how to get back? What if Lucy and-"
Before I could say anything else, Leo grabbed me by the arms, pulled me close, and kissed me hard. I felt my knees turn to overcooked pasta noodles and my heart quicken in its erratic, fast-paced rhythm. I buckled in his grasp, but he held me so that I couldn't fall. Though his lips were firm against mine at first, they softened gradually, leaving a feeling of peace in their wake.
I felt them pulling away, so I took initiative and kissed him back. It was like a feeling that took over my body and had control of its limbs. As we stood there at the peak of the cliff, the tide smashing against the face of the rocky hill, and the moonlight shining down on us, nothing else existed in that instant. We were perfect strangers, exchanging kisses and overcome by the moment which I had failed to recognize the romance in until then.
And then my defenses kicked in, so I turned my face, which he still cradled in his hands, and finally stepped away from him.
Songs played: Getting Scared by Imogen Heap, I Will Possess Your Heart by Death Cab for Cutie