The park gazebo sparkled with strings of icicle lights, white light against white paint. In fading daylight, the effect was charming. I wiped the sweat off my nose, scrambling off the ladder to reach my phone in time. Suits and summer don’t mix well. Sara’s “Never Without You” ringtone was almost through, and I ached to hear her voice again.
“Hey birthday girl, where are you?” I smiled into my phone.
“Hi babe, we’re at Prue’s house. She just finished my hair for tonight.”
A five-foot string of lights slipped off its nail and sagged, breaking my concentration. “Great, sweetie. I’m just about done with your surprise. Can I pick you up in fifteen minutes?”
“Umm, sure.” Even distracted by faulty decorations, I heard the waver in her voice.
“Is everything alright, Starlight?”
“Yeah,” she said, too fast, her voice higher than usual.
I chalked it up to nerves. It’d been two years since we first saw each other at the Fall Fair—a cheesy first meeting in line at the Ferris wheel. To be honest, I was only standing there because of a stupid dare. Brody bet I wouldn’t toss my drink from the top. Juvenile, I know, but we were fifteen back then. Sara was a year younger, but always more sophisticated.
Brody got his ten bucks, and I got Sara.
Two years later we still hadn’t kissed…I mean, not really kissed. Her parents were super strict. She wasn’t even allowed to date, technically, but we found ways around that. Tonight the sneaking ended. She was sixteen now, old enough to hold hands in public, go on full-fledged dates, and call me boyfriend—even in front of her regimented parents.
“Don’t worry,” I almost whispered. “Everything will be perfect. First, your surprise. Then, the party will really start. Can’t wait to see you.”
“Me, too,” she said. The line went dead.
That was sudden. Maybe I’m making her nervous with all the build-up to her surprise. I shrugged it off and got back to work. The errant lights back in place, I stood back to survey my art.
Several of the swooping lights looped lower than the rest.
I’m a musician, not an artist.
It still looked awesome against the coming darkness. Sara will be blown away.
After a quick call to Brody to check on the status of the rock band we hired, I stopped by my house to pick up my clarinet. Dorky, I know, but Sara thought it was cool. Granted, her reasoning was a little off (“It sounds just like a saxophone.”), but at least she didn’t think I was a dork for playing in the woodwinds section.
Prue’s house was the only purple house on the block.
“It’s lavender, Gabe,” she insisted when I pointed this out years ago.
“Okay, Prue. Whatever floats your boat.”
Prue never liked me much, but Brody wasn’t bonkers about Sara, either. We weren’t dating each other’s friends, so it wasn’t usually an issue.
Before I could knock, the door swung open. Prue, Tara, and Sara stood waiting in Three-Musketeers formation, smiling except for Sara.
“Hello, ladies. Might I borrow fair Sara for an hour?” I winked at her friends, who rolled their eyes at my sentence structure.
Cheerleaders. Sara was one of them, but I didn’t hold it against her. She, at least, knew charm when she heard it.
She took my arm and looked back at her friends with a strange mixture of regret and excitement. “See you guys at the party.”
“Good luck,” Tara called after her. Prue elbowed her in the shoulder. “What?” Tara whined, rubbing her arm.
I didn’t comment to Sara about her bizarre choice in friends. Tonight was all about making her feel like a goddess.
“So what’s my surprise?” she asked once we were on the road.
I shook my head. “Like I’m going to blow it when we’re two blocks away.”
“That close?” Her blue eyes widened just a little, and I could almost see her stomach flutter. I couldn’t imagine what made her so nervous, but I guessed the sixteenth birthday was kind of like the wedding day—anticipated from childhood, played out with Barbies, all that weird girl stuff.
I reached over the gear stick and squeezed her manicured hands. “You look beautiful tonight, Starlight. You always look beautiful. Tonight I’m gonna make you feel like a princess.”
She smiled. “Gabe, I have to talk to you about something.”
“Shoot, kid. I’m all ears.”
Her hand weaseled out of mine, and she stared at the dim road ahead.
“What’s wrong, Sara?” She used to love it when I called her kid, but maybe turning sixteen changed that.
For a long minute, she said nothing, but her face bent in earnest concentration over something. “Uh, nothing,” she finally muttered. “Just nervous about the party.”
“Well, hey, it’s just gonna be close friends. Your parents are even coming. I guess they don’t hate me as much as I thought.” I grinned, trying to quell her anxieties with a look. If only it were that easy.
“My parents?” she sputtered. “What possessed you to invite them?”
I pulled into the parking lot, trying to think of some way to answer this sudden hostility. Sara had never yelled at me before.
“Obviously, I made a mistake,” I apologized immediately. My eyes darted up again at the sound of her gasp.
“Oh my gosh, Gabe. You didn’t have to…”
My smile returned as I watched her take in the sight of the lit gazebo. “Starlight for my Starlight,” I whispered, then got out to open her door.
My extended hand went unnoticed for what felt like forever. “Sara?”
When she looked up at me, her face streaked with tears. Black makeup ran from her eyes across her perfect skin, threatening the white dress.
I retrieved some Kleenex from the glove box and gently dabbed the stains from her cheeks.
“I hope those are tears of joy.”
But then there was a sob from her lips that didn’t go away. It kept building. I reached for her, guiding her to the benches, my clarinet clasped firmly in my other hand. There was absolutely nothing I could do about her tears. They were coming too fast.
Stick to the plan. It was all I could do. The low, slow melody of “Never Without You” waltzed from my instrument as she sat beside me, quieting.
My eyes closed as the sweetest part of the song played through my mind. I knew she was thinking of those words, too, feeling what I felt.
We dance on
To this song
At the end of the last long note, I opened my eyes, setting the instrument down beside me on the bench. But my smile evaporated as my gaze came to rest on Sara’s face.
She glared at me.
“Why do you have to make this so difficult?” she asked, every word tense through her teeth. There was nothing lovely about the way her reddened, black-smeared eyes flashed now.
The stupid faulty light strand slipped off its nail again, an echo of my heart’s downward motion, and I gulped at thin air, struggling to reconcile her reaction with my actions. “I’m sorry. I-I-I thought this was what you wanted. What did I do wrong?”
Eyes closed and head bowed, her frame trembled with emotion, and even I could tell it wasn’t the good kind. There were a million ways I imagined her responding to my song: smiles, kisses. Nostalgic tears, maybe. Anger and disgust were nowhere on my list.
Her eyes continued to avoid mine. “It’s over, Gabe.”
The light in the gazebo dimmed. The air held stock-still. The easy breeze that played with Sara’s hair two seconds ago vanished.
I sat still, too stunned to speak.
Her voice filled the empty air instead. “Look, don’t…I can’t stay chained to one person anymore. My parents expect me to date other people. I mean, we’ve been together so long, I don’t even know who I am anymore. With Tara and Prue, I’m one person. With you, I’m just Starlight, this perfect picture of a girlfriend you made up sometime between the Ferris Wheel and this godforsaken gazebo. I’m sorry, but we’re not soul mates. And I can’t waste anymore of my teen years acting the part somebody else made up for me.”
I’m sure my jaw dropped, but I don’t recall exactly what my face did after that. All I knew was Sara dumped me. Her scripted break-up speech crashed into the lingering glow of my love song, and by the time the band showed up—and our friends started arriving at the park—I was long gone.
My tie and suit jacket lay balled up in the corner behind my bedroom door, atop my sealed clarinet case.
“Gabriel? Home so soon?”
I slammed the door before my mom’s feet hit the stairs. No way was she going see me like this. Nobody would. Not now, and not ever.