Light reflected off the punch bowls as if they were attempting to eclipse the radiant dance lights with their dull red shimmer. The feet of my school beat into the floorboards of our gymnasium, a ritual group giving their praise to the god of music. Confetti was scattered everywhere in a lame attempt to be festive for homecoming, but our student council was too lazy to try very hard.
I observed all this from my position in a chair close to the only fire escape in the gym. The punch in my cup sloshed as I moved my hand in a circular motion, unmotivated to approach the dance floor. I wasn't sure why, but I just didn't really care for high school dances anymore. Maybe it was because I was a senior; maybe it was because I didn't want to get into the mosh pit center and run into my ex-best friend, Reece.
As long as someone didn't put me into the "loner" cliché, I would be happy with any explanation someone threw at me.
My brown hair swept against my collarbone as I stood up, heading for the trash can near the refreshment table. The crinkle of plastic filled my ears as I crumpled the cup into a red mass. I was about ready to blow this lemonade stand; nobody really wanted to dance with me, regardless of my place on the homecoming court.
People had said I'd changed over the summer. Last year, and for two more years prior, I'd been one of the popular girls; a cheerleader, athlete, star pupil. I still had the great student thing down; no way was I letting that slip. But I'd grown tired of all the stigmas and expectations that came with being popular. Plus, my friends and I just drifted apart, and what they wanted wasn't what I wanted anymore. Don't get me wrong, shopping and sleepovers and pedicures are all good fun, but I was done with letting my life gravitate around them.
So, beginning of senior year, I'd cut off all my hair, which had used to reach down almost to my hips. Some people had called me a hippie, telling me that if I would have placed some flowers in my locks I could've passed by if I'd lived in the '60s. Now it was a layered bob-like cut, short and brutal in its stark contrast to my past do. Classmates gaped at me as I strutted down the hallways like a new model of myself, while teachers commented on my new style. The art teacher, Mr. Barnes, suggested that I was creating a new, artistic image of me, but in all honesty, I just cut my hair because I wanted to.
Well, I donated it to Locks of Love, but it was whatever.
Snapping back to the moment, I turned away from the trash can, my short green dress that matched my eyes swaying with the rush that came with swift movement. Suddenly remembering that the main exit to the gym was on the other side of the dance floor, I rolled my eyes and slipped off my heels so I could walk faster around the crowd.
People flailed their arms in rhythm to the bass and the command of some desperate rapper trying to create a catchy hook, and I had to dodge and spin out of their way. I was a dancer, one who took classes and competed, so it wasn't any hard work for me. Contemporary was my favorite, and tomorrow would constitute of a long day of practicing in my basement to end the weekend off on a positive but exhausting note.
Cold rushed up my arm as I touched the surprisingly freezing door handle, and with a rush of solemn want I eyed the dance again, saying a silent goodbye to everyone.
At least, until, I saw him.
He was captivating.
It wasn't even that he was drop dead gorgeous, or one hundred percent attractive, especially as his features were distorted by the blue tinted strobe lights. With every flash, a new attribute jumped out at me; his lip piercing that caught the small glints of light, the slight crookedness of his nose that hinted at an old injury, or the feathery texture of his spiked hair.
No, what caught me was the way he seemed to move, as if the room and the crowd were breathing, and he was the air circulating through the body's lungs. The boy wasn't even dancing. He, like me, was maneuvering around them, circumnavigating gyrating and jumping bodies as if it was second nature.
It took me a second to realize he was heading for the same exit I had.
Inhaling and exhaling quickly to pull myself together, I tried to look disinterested and pushed out the door and got blasted with a cold wind. The silky fabric of my dress brushed against my skin, and I wrapped my arms around myself as I made my way towards my car.
Footfalls sounded behind me on the concrete, and I laughed at myself. No matter how gracefully he could escape a crowd, it did not change how loud guys walked. They all seemed to have this heaviness that permeated their movement.
When the door of my car did not open while I pulled on the handle, I remembered that I'd locked it in case of some stupid freshman pulling a prank and vandalizing the senior's parking area in the school's lot. My fingers slowly becoming numb from early October wind, I barely got my small satchel-like purse open and began to fish out the keys.
"You skipping out on that excuse of a dance, too?"
A shiver, not from the cold, traveled down my spine as I looked up past the roof of my car and saw that Mystery Boy was parked right beside me. His jeep towered over my small coupe, and he had his back against his door, smoke trailing from the cigarette he'd just lit like a spirit escaping into the night. Now able to see that his eyes were a blend of blue and brown, I gazed into them for a moment before starting to rummage around my bag again.
"What's it to you?" I questioned, triumphantly finding my tree-spirit keychain and withdrawing my key along with it. I was a fan of anime, and I'd been especially hooked on Hayao Miyazaki's work of late, so my mom specially ordered a keychain inspired by his work from one of those homemade sites.
A laugh came from his mouth, smoke giving shape to it since it'd appeared after a drag from his cigarette. The flick he gave it was percussive, and sparks flew to the ground softly. "Am I not allowed to think it's strange that a homecoming princess is ditching the last homecoming dance of her high school career?" His voice was rough in just the right way, on the borderline between gravely and smoky.
Instead of betraying my enjoyment I had received from talking shortly with him, I shoved the key in the lock and opened the door. "No, you can't. Sorry!" I tried to insert a small amount of snarkiness into my tone.
Before I could get my engine to turn over though, I saw out of the other window Mystery Boy stamp out his guilty pleasure and start to circle the front of my car. Opening the door just enough so I could stand up but still have a barrier between us, I asked, "Okay, I don't even know your name, so could you just leave me alone?" Wind blew a few bangs out of place, and I swept them back nonchalantly as I made eye contact with him.
He smiled a half-smile that was somewhere between confidence and curiosity. "Well if you want to know my name, why don't you just ask, Miss Aspen?"
People always commented on my name. They said it was beautiful, uncommon, an individual sounding title for a girl like me. Sometimes, I wasn't quite sure if they were being honest or sarcastic, but I didn't care either way. To me, it was just a name.
I rolled my eyes. "So what's your name, Mystery Boy?"
"The name's Rowan." Again, he laughed under his breath, like he was self-conscious about the way it echoed in the night air. "Kinda funny, we both have tree names."
I pondered for a second, and I responded with a small laugh of my own. "Yeah, I guess that is true. Did they name you that for your hair?" I questioned jokingly, taking note of his auburn hair and how it correlated with his name meaning.
Rowan shook his head, the spikes of his styled hair getting messed up just a tad. "Nope, my dad's an arborist." When I raised an eyebrow at him, he added, "He studies trees and the sort. My siblings and I are all named after kinds of trees."
"Oh, that's unique! What are your siblings' names?"
Tapping his chin, which was dusted with light stubble, Rowan looked towards the sky and began to recite names. "Um, I've got a sister named Maple, a brother named Ash, and another sister named Bamboo…"
I burst out laughing, realizing that he was drawing out a joke, and a fairly clever one at that. This stranger was growing on me a bit, with his simple way of moving through people and through conversation.
A twinkle appeared in his eyes, and he made a small bow. "Thank you, ma'am. I'll be here all year."
In a strange burst of flirtatiousness, I nudged his shoulder with one of my hands. "You're lucky I'm not the snobby girl I was last school term." I crossed my arms and leaned against the frame of the door. "So, are you a new student here?"
The beeping and clicking of an unlocking car rang out behind me, and I saw Rowan had just pressed a few buttons on his key fob. "How about we grab a bite to eat, and we will do further introductions?"
Considering the fact that my town consisted of a population of eight hundred in Southeast Iowa, there weren't very many places to go. I lived pretty much in Bumfuck Nowhere, IA, and the closest city was Iowa City, which was a total distance of forty miles away.
When Rowan suggested we go there, despite the late hour of eleven creeping up with the moon, I should have said no. Reese, the conservative and safe girl she was, would have called me crazy and held me back if we were still close.
Instead, I texted my mom and told her I was going to a late movie with my friend Jeremy, who was still in the center of the dance because of his love of Top 40 music. Ever since senior year had started and I'd turned eighteen, my parents had been trying to be more hands off since they'd be letting me go when college came around. Plus, they loved Jeremy and would trust him with my life.
Perhaps I was a bad person for using him as an excuse to go on a late night adventure with an almost stranger. I quickly brushed that thought aside though when I realized he would be dying to know the details once our weekly Sunday study date came around.
To help my mind leave those doubts, I rolled down the window slightly and let my hair flow in the rush of air that came with cruising down the highway. The black scarf I'd worn along with my dress flowed in the wind, rippling like a dark river in the night. Cautiously, I stuck my arm out and let the air wrap itself around and through my fingers, and I closed my eyes, enjoying the sensation.
I stayed like that for a majority of the ride to the Perkins in Iowa City, and the best part was that, even though I noticed him turn his face towards me to snatch a snapshot with his eyes, Rowan kept quiet and simply cranked up some indie music. The band was minimalist with backbeats, warping guitars, and dueling female and male voices. It somehow added to the effect of this release I felt, and a smile snuck across my face before I had the chance to stop myself.
After he parked his jeep poorly, due to the inability of others to park at a good angle, I grabbed my bag with my change of clothes out of the backseat. I immediately rushed into the bathroom to change, waving a welcome to the hostess as Rowan approached her for a booth. He'd just thrown on an old blue sweater that was so worn out in the elbows that patches of grey had been sown to the fabric.
The mirror in the restroom was smudged, so I had to position myself in such a place that I could get a full view. My red thermal framed my body nicely, and it made my moderately average chest look good. I decided to keep the black scarf wrapped around my neck, since I was still cold. For some reason, I found skinny jeans to be infinitely more comfortable than regular jeans, and the charcoal ones I was wearing were my favorite pair. Simple grey Converse adorned my feet.
Thankful for my constant inner need to be prepared, I pulled a ponytail holder off my wrist and did my best to collect my short hair into a small, pulled back do. I ended up twisting it into a bun, sticking a pencil through it to help the holder keep it in tact.
Rowan held up a white mug with a green "P" on the side, tilting his head towards a silver thermos as I neared the table. "I went on ahead and ordered coffee, if that's alright."
I smiled in reply. "That's perfectly fine." Steam floated from the surface of my newly poured cup, and I sipped it, holding eye contact over the lip. "Besides, we'll be up for a while if things go my way."
Heat crept up his neck and into his face, flushing the skin from pale and lightly freckled to blush red. His eyes flitted nervously from side to side and fixated on the city lights outside the window we were seated by. "Ah… um… Aspen, I don't know what you think my motivation was for wanting to grab something to eat with you, but I'm not 'wine-dine-sixty-nining' you."
A snort slipped out as I kept myself from laughing with coffee in my mouth. "No, no no. And nice Alanis Morrissete reference." My coffee had a bitter after-taste, so I added another half-and-half to the concoction. "I said that because I have this tradition when I meet new people."
"And that would be?" He was slowly returning to his natural shade, and he chuckled at his misunderstanding.
"I usually play 20 questions with new people I meet that I want to get to know. We alternate asking each other questions, and that'll allow each of us to learn about our new acquaintance."
Before he could answer, our waitress, who looked strangely energized for the late hour, arrived and took our order. I went for my usual when it came to breakfast-serving restaurants; pancakes with peanut butter and one scrambled egg. Rowan got French toast, and after the waitress left, he told me it had always been his favorite food, period.
"I'll keep that in mind," I said before drowning my throat in warm coffee.
Rowan absentmindedly stirred his drink, watching bubbles froth up from the whirlpool of liquid. "So, who gets to go first?" When I gestured towards him, he immediately blurted out, "Favorite color?"
"Going standard? Red. Favorite kind of piercing?" Tension was filling the air, and I could tell this might be a rapid fire game.
"Lip piercing obviously." To illustrate his point even more, he swiveled the ring around with his tongue. "Favorite movie?"
"'Princess Mononoke', and no I don't expect you to know it," I tacked onto the end, even though by the way his lip turned up on one corner I figured he did. "Favorite band?"
Using his two index fingers he created an image of the letter "x". "'The xx' are a brilliant band from across the pond. They're actually what we listened to on the way here." He angled his legs so that his feet were rested on the empty part of the booth beside me, and I mirrored him. Our legs were crossed over each other, and I knew it shouldn't have been that intimate of contact, but somehow it was. "They're so chill, and you actually have to listen to the lyrics and the music to get the full message. What's something you do if you need to relax?"
I picked up my keys and gestured to my other key chain, a metal representation of a dancer leaping in beautiful motion. "I dance. I've been in classes since I was six, and my parents set up an area for me in our basement for me to practice." While I knew it was lame, I couldn't think of my own question, so I simply asked his back.
His eyes lit up as he began to answer. "I love music. Like, sometimes I think I am music because I listen to it so much." There was something childlike in his voice, an innocence that could only be connected to the simplest of pleasures. "When I'm stressed or have a tense situation approaching, like a test or whatever, I put on orchestra or indie music and shower." My eyes widened ever so slightly, but he didn't notice. He was in his own world, and I was surprised he was sharing something so personal. "There's something almost magical about water and music combined. The soundscapes wrap around you, and the water is just so calming that it takes you to another place."
Raindrops suddenly tapped against the side of the building, covering the glass with droplets that streaked downward like tears. It was a storm that materialized out of nowhere, but I was glad for it. It allowed for a break in our conversation, which I needed to recollect myself. Rowan was so honest that it'd taken me off guard, and I was positive he realized that as well.
Part of me hoped he didn't think that was a bad thing.
"What kind of syrup would you like with your pancakes, ma'am?" the waitress asked perkily behind me, making me jolt. The top of the pencil that was holding my bun in bumped against her arm and fell out, the ponytail holder being dragged along as well. Luckily, she wasn't holding any of the food. Accident averted!
For a second I began to collect my hair accessories from where they'd fallen on the seat, but when I saw Rowan grin shyly from across the table, along with the compliments about my hair from the waitress, I decided to let it be. She'd said I had gorgeous hair, and that I should wear it down more often.
After thanking her and then telling her simple maple syrup was fine, Rowan and I divulged ourselves with breakfasty goodness, not bothering to speak and just enjoying the other's company.
I dabbed my mouth with my napkin, hoping no sticky bits of syrup clung to the edge of my lips. One of my bangs fell and tickled the edge of my nose, and I pushed it behind my ear. "So, your turn."
Slyly he cocked an eyebrow. "So eager to move on?" The near perfect whiteness of his teeth showed even brighter when he tipped back his head and laughed softly. Though I didn't want to admit it because of my earlier plan to not get involved with guys senior year, I couldn't deny the pang in my gut that only reacted when I thought someone was cute, physically and personality wise.
And that in and of itself was, I now understood, okay.
But I wasn't letting my armor down just yet.
"Just shoot already," I teased.
"What is your favorite quote?"
A pen and a small slip of paper were quickly withdrawn from my purse, and before Rowan could ask what the hell I was doing, I interjected, "This quote is perfect for life. Period. So, whenever someone asks, I always give it to them." The ballpoint tip scratched against the paper, and it always seemed to give me a good feeling of satisfaction. "Don't judge."
Hands that were as large as my face with long, thin fingers flew up in a symbol of surrender. "My lips are sealed."
Embellishing the sentence with quotation marks, I put the cap back on my writing utensil and slid the slip of paper towards Rowan. He leaned on the table with his elbows, cradling his thin face in his palms as he read my scrawling script intently. "'Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.' Rilke, eh?"
Excitement bubbled up inside. "You know him!?"
The fabric of his shirt bunched up against his collarbone as he shook his head dramatically. "Nope, but he sounds very wise."
I shot him a smile with closed lips. "Trust me, he is."
Rowan folded up the note and stuck it in his wallet, a battered piece of black leather. After inserting it into his back pocket, he tapped his butt. "I'll keep it on me at all times. So, if you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?"
That was such a hard question. It wasn't like I hated a lot of things about myself, or whatever, but if anyone was asked that question, their minds scattered into a million places, like mine. There was something about trying to pin point something you disliked about yourself or wanted to change that made you analyze everything about your body and personality. It wasn't a place I liked to go, but I'd initiated the game, so I couldn't back out of it.
Did I want to change my eyes? No, I liked their shade of green. My hair I was content with as well; brown worked for me because of my olive tinted skin. The curves of my body were subtle because of my constant working out, but I was fine with being toned and not having an "hourglass" figure.
I didn't like my lips though. They weren't as full as Reece's, and even though we weren't really friends anymore and I didn't strive for her doe-eyed, full lipped style anymore, it didn't stop me from being jealous.
"I feel like my lips are too small," I blurted out, embarrassed by my seeming shallowness. I hoped he didn't think I was as non-deep as a kiddie pool.
The expression painted across his face changed from confusion to something I could only describe as admiration. "Aspen, they aren't too small." The skin on my face flared as I saw the slightest movement as he leaned forward a little bit. "Just because you're not like other girls doesn't mean you're less than them."
Unconsciously I leaned towards him as well, tilting my head to the side in such a way that my hair brushed the top of his hand on the table. "Well, if my humble opinion counts for anything, yours aren't that bad either." In an act of nervousness, I bit my bottom lip as we drew closer.
There's a moment before a kiss that holds so much tension. It's almost terrifying, that pregnant space between two people that challenges one to cross that final threshold. I could smell the mixture of smoke and coffee on his lips; I swore I already knew what his stubble would feel like against my cheek. It was the perfect time for us to kiss.
But, unfortunately, like when all good things come, something has to intervene.
And that would be my mother's ringtone blasting from my cellphone. It was so obnoxious at that instant, so blatantly terrible that I had the sudden urge to douse it in the coffee thermos beside me.
"Sweetie, when are you going to be home?" my mother asked when I pressed the answer button, her yawn filling my ears.
Before answering I looked at the time on my phone, the big white numbers reading 12:34. It'd taken us around an hour to get up here, so I was hoping that Rowan and I would have been able to talk a bit longer than just a little over thirty minutes. But I did need to get home… even though they were being lenient on my curfew, I knew they still worried about me, and I didn't want to betray the trust that they'd put in me.
"I'll be home in a little over an hour," I promised, a weak smile of appreciation crossing my mouth. "You don't need to stress about me Mom, I'm responsible."
Something rustled and plopped on the other line, and I was fairly positive that it was my mother resting her head on her pillow next to my father. "I know honey, I'm just watching out for you."
"Well thank you. I love you Mom."
Another yawn. "Love you too. I'll see you in the morning."
Before I could ask Rowan if we could go, he was already out of his seat and heading for the counter to pay for his ticket. I gathered my things and followed him, retrieving my debit card from my purse. Most of my friends had credit cards, but I figured debit was smarter; it made you feel like you had money, but it actually stopped you if you didn't.
Rowan side-stepped out of the way and spun on the balls of his feet to go leave a five dollar bill on the table as a tip. I began to hand my card to the manager behind the counter, put she stopped me by putting up her hand. "Ma'am, your bill has already been taken care of." She smiled at me and winked. "You've got a cute one there."
For another time tonight, my skin turned into a fiery tribute of my emotions. "N-no… we're not together." I nervously giggled as I shot a look at this not-so-strange stranger, thanking him and cursing him simultaneously.
"Well either way, he's a keeper."
A firm and slightly muscular arm worked its way into the crook of my elbow, and although I knew that I should've have stepped away from him to justify my statement only a second again, I eased into Rowan's body. "Should we get you home, Miss Aspen?"
My heart skipped a beat. I liked the way he said my name, like it was lyrics to a song, or something. "If you would be so kind to oblige."
By the time we arrived at the school parking lot again, the stars were in full on the canvas of the night sky. They created a mosaic of light and dark, a perfect contrast that was beautiful in a way that only light and darkness could be. The lot was empty of cars, and if I looked out from where I was standing, with the corn fields barren and flat, it looked like the night extended forever.
"I love Iowa in the fall," Rowan observed thoughtfully, the wind blowing his hair into tufts. It'd fallen down from its spiked style, and I now saw that his auburn hair was a little on the long side, falling every which way, so it almost looked like the downy of bird feathers. I had the sudden urge to run my fingers through it, but I restrained myself and kept my arms crossed against the cold.
Dramatically, he waved his arm out in front of him in an arc, motioning towards the vast landscape stretching before us. "There's this… immensity to it. I know a lot of people think our state is all farms and corn and hicks and whatever, but I see it differently." His blue eye caught the gaze of my green one as we glanced in a sideways manner. "There's all this ground, all this possibility. You can explore, see what you want to see, make it what you want it to be."
My elbow made contact with his upper shoulder, and he stumbled a bit, over-exaggerating my force. "You're such a hipster, liking the "unpopular" state." When he stuck his tongue out at me in a cartoonish manner, I covered my mouth and laughed.
"I am not a hipster!" Rowan gave himself a once over, taking note of his outfit with its patches and non-trendy fashion. "Okay, well, maybe a little." He took a step towards me, and as he neared, I could feel the heat emanating from his body. It caused the goosebumps on the arm closest to him to recede ever so slightly. "But you like it."
I pivoted my body so I was facing him, the light wind blowing strands of hair in his direction. The scarf around my neck flapped in the wind as well, and I saw it brushing against his shoulder. It was funny, how in the quietest moments you notice things that you wouldn't normally see. Like how in his left iris there was a pattern of color that almost looked like the imprint of a leaf. Or how at the tips of his hair it got lighter, shifting from auburn to a lighter red, making his hair appear like fire as it moved.
I swallowed anxiously, keeping my eyes fixated on his eyes as we took a small step in the other's direction, almost like the wind was pushing us together. "I… I suppose I do."
Tension filled the air like electricity, a force that I knew we could both feel. My heart was beating fast, and all I wanted him to do was kiss me.
And, finally, he did.
Kissing Rowan was like nothing I'd ever experienced. Sure, I'd had boyfriends before, but my past first kisses had been eager, the boys trying too hard to impress me. They were too aggressive, attempting to show their "passion" for me, or whatever other emotion they could pull to try and get me.
But this boy was different. When he'd closed in for the kiss, he'd been gentle. In an action that made me want to melt, he'd weaved his fingers into my hair. With the same grace that I'd seen him move with as he exited the dance floor, he maneuvered me so my back was to my car, and pressed our foreheads together. Rowan took it slow, and with patience, and when his lips met mine, it felt like he actually meant it. It felt like he wanted what I wanted.
It felt like Rowan actually cared.
With the wind blowing our clothes and hair every which way, we kissed under the stars and in front of that vast space of possibility Rowan had told me about. I felt what he felt; that this was a place to explore, a place to be.
And, perhaps, one of my journeys was beginning now.