Claire had first seen Jake in the same fragrant coffee shop where they later spent their first date. The coffee shop was Claire’s haven. She often abandoned the fierce creativity of her downtown office in favor of the coffee shop’s cozy comforts and the unbridled imaginations of the artists and writers who favored out-of-the-way cafes over the busy, popular chains common in the city. In this quiet coffee shop, she could break away from the fast-paced demands of the other editors and photographers at the boutique fashion magazine she worked for in the city. She could simply sit, absorbing inspiration around her as she sipped sweet steaming mugs and shrugged away the melee of the world outside. For a barely-thirty, single girl living in the Big City, this was about as close to feeling like home as she could find.
Ever since the day he brushed her sleeve as he passed beside her chair, clutching a bundle of books in one hand and the neck of a guitar in the other, Claire had been curious about the boy with the emerald eyes. He was easy to pick out in the dim coffee shop—wearing the same faded leather jacket and fingering his guitar. He had a line of pens tucked under the brim of his newsboy cap, and he would pull them out and push them in again at random as he scribbled notes on coffee-stained napkins. Sometimes he twirled them between his fingers before slipping them back into place. Mostly he sat perched on the edge of his chair with his eyebrows knitted together over closed eyes, lost in thought. On one particular evening, when he lifted his arms to pull on his jacket, Claire spotted a small tattoo inked near the curve of his hipbone. It was a tiny brown acorn with a smooth body and diamond-etched cap. She had thought it a curious tattoo, but from that night on, she had secretly called him “the boy with the acorn tattoo.”
How she’d never noticed him before was a mystery. From the day she’d first seen him, her eyes could find him without looking. Sometimes, between scribbles in his tattered notebook—the one he carried around curled up in the back pocket of his faded jeans—he’d catch her watching. She’d snap her eyes away, praying he hadn’t noticed, but he was gracious, smiling a little to himself, and leaving her to blush in privacy. For many weeks, they never exchanged more than those stolen glances. Then one evening, the boy with the acorn tattoo was suddenly standing at her side, guitar hanging in his hand and pencil poking out of a dune of the desert bound under the newsboy cap. “Would you like to hear it?” he asked her casually, as if they’d spoken hundreds of times before. His voice was soft, low and calm, and had a faint lilt to it—a cadence she couldn’t place. “The song. It’s finished.”
Claire’s mouth froze. The hundreds of carefully articulated greetings she had obsessively rehearsed over and over in her bathroom mirror escaped her entirely. Without worrying over her answer, he seized a chair from the next table, twisted it under his free arm, and sat down facing her. He was so close that his knees rubbed up against the side of her thigh. Claire struggled to regain her composure, and noticed, oddly, the contrast of the worn denim of his jeans against the dark linen of her skirt. She blinked at him—each blink a tightening of the coils in the drawbridge of her still-open mouth. As silly as it was, she had never seen him this close before, and Claire felt star struck. He was oblivious to her struggle and lured her in closer, his finger bent in an arching, beckoning motion that implied both she keep quiet and lean in nearer to him. The familiar, telltale heat was crawling up her cheeks, but Claire leaned in anyway. The boy with the acorn tattoo began to sing.
For as low as it had been before, his voice was deeper than she expected it to be. It flowed like water toward her—soft, heavy, and slow—and carried her on a warm, rocking current, as if she sat beside him on a ship that was sailing deep into the midnight ocean along a path lit by the glow of stars on endless water. She listened to his song, hearing simultaneously every word and none, mesmerized by the way his mouth caressed each word as it breathed between his lips.
Claire hadn’t realized that Jake had finished singing until his tongue licked across still lips. She peeled her eyes away from his mouth and slowly lifted her eyes to his. “You sound like the ocean,” she said dumbly, her words betraying her. She was surprised at how drowsy her voice sounded.
The boy with the acorn tattoo cocked his head to the side, bird-like. “Do you like the ocean?” he asked curiously. His words, as sincere as a true southern gentleman, didn’t match his mouth, which was just the tiniest bit mocking. Claire blushed pink and nodded. For a split second, she was terrified she might have offended him, but gradually a slow grin spread across his face. He shook his head slowly from side to side, his grin widening with every turn. Looking away from her, he set his guitar on the table. His knees stayed firm against her thigh.
“Claire,” she returned, grateful the word came out with no other surprises. They spent the next several hours unaware of the strangers around them, each minute loosening the awkwardness bound between them until they were talking and laughing as easily as old friends. Jake strummed a few more of his songs for her, and every time Claire was whisked away on the same rocking ship as the first time he’d sung. Claire was utterly unaware of time passing, reveling in moment after moment of conversation. It was freedom; a feeling akin to what Claire imagined flying might feel like.
“These songs are too sad,” Jake declared after a while, tapping his palm sharply against the strings to cut short the first notes of a melody. “Let’s write a happier one, shall we?” And, dismissing Claire’s feeble protests, he leaned behind her chair and laid the guitar over her, setting it down gently like a babe in a new mother’s lap. It was lighter than she’d expected, but then, she’d never touched an instrument before.
“But, I don’t know how to play,” she protested, craning her head toward him. “Or sing!”
Jake grinned down at her, green eyes twinkling behind a curtain of fallen hair that lapped across his forehead. Taking her hands in his, he placed her right hand on the sound hole of the guitar, and then wrapped her left so that her fingers rested on the strings that laced across the neck. His hands were warm on hers, with fingers long and lean and slightly rough on the end, as if they were tipped in sandpaper. They curved easily around her smaller ones, a full knuckle’s length longer than hers. Claire sat stiffer than the wood of the guitar, trying to relax around its slippery body that felt thin and fragile in her arms.
Ever her contrast, Jake folded gracefully back into his chair, waiting and peering expectantly at her with his index finger crooked in the length of space between his nose and chin. Claire noticed that he had another tattoo—a tiny star—etched like an afterthought on the pad of the first lower knuckle of his pointer finger. Claire desperately wanted to know what they meant. In the meantime he looked positively serene, an undisturbed idol, as Claire gawked at him over the lump in her lap.
“Oh,” he said casually, as if he’d remembered something only mildly important but not seriously so. He leaned forward. He produced a shiny red pick from his pocket and handed it to her, demonstrating a smooth, strumming motion over his stomach as he rested back against the chair. “Top to bottom, easy as pie.”
Claire awkwardly tugged the pick over the strings. To her horror, the guitar belched out a grotesque noise. She wrinkled her nose at the sound. Jake laughed from his chair, a rich masculine sound that managed to vibrate off Claire’s heart. She slit her eyes at him, which only made him laugh harder.
“All right, all right,” he relented, chuckling a bit smugly as he lifted the guitar from her lap. He flashed her that coy grin. “I’ll play. You sing.”