The chords came first, easy and melodic, a deceptively simple progression.
The eighteen-year-old me looked up from my book. I stretched out my crossed legs on your bed, turning to smile at you as you grinned back at me, guitar in hand, from your perch on the floor.
“If a picture paints a thousand words,
then why can’t I paint you?
The words will never show
the you I’ve come to know…”
You had played in front of me countless times by then, on the piano, on your bass, on your guitar. The melody always came first, the ebb and flow of notes from your long fingers, your large square palms. Sometimes you hummed as you strummed along, recreating a song from memory, coaxing it out note by note with your fingers on the instrument of your choice.
But you had never sung before. In front of me. Just the two of us.
And so I listened, inhaling the sound of your voice, noting how it changed when set to music, memorising its shifting timbre.
Something slipped in me then, a slight tilt of my heart, sliding shiveringly in that moment to fall into a deeper emotion. Perhaps it was love.
I thought then, that you were singing to me. It was an old song by Bread, an evergreen, I later learnt. Certainly not a song you had written. In that instant though, in my mind, it became our song.
It was not a perfect performance. But it was to me, a perfect moment.
“Sing it again,” I said, when you finished. My eyes were a little wet.
“Why are you crying?” You asked.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, confused by the strange knot of emotions that was somehow surfacing in the form of tears. “I’m just… happy, I think. Sing it again?”
“No! I’m not going to do it if it’s going to make you cry!” You stopped abruptly, abandoning your guitar to pop a CD into your new hi-fi. A song played. Something quick and angry. I can’t remember what.
But that song. Our song. You never sang it for me again.
Years later, when you were preparing for your singing exam in music school, you told me that you would be performing this song.
“No,” I said, “Anything but “If”. It’s our song. I don’t want to share it.”
“But it makes my voice sound good.”
“No.” I said, suddenly afraid. I recalled the moment I heard you sing, and was terrified of the sudden shifting tilts your rendition might bring to someone else’s heart.
Music was your passion. You loved it, and you loved performing it. I knew this when I met you, that there was a part of you that would never belong entirely to me. I accepted this. It was your right and it was your life. You should be able to live it the way you wanted. It was how I’d want to live my life. But this song, this moment, was private. It was between us. And there were plenty of other songs in the world for other people.
“No.” I insisted.
You sang it anyway.
And people fell.
Or at least that was what you told me afterwards, your voice just ever so slightly smug. I believed you. Because I had felt it too, so many years ago.
Looking back, I was probably the one who had misunderstood. I had heard the chords first, but it was the lyrics that I listened to. I was moved by words, words that I thought promised a sentiment so maudlin yet so earnest. But you heard only the music, the notes, the pitch, the tone, the melody. Your voice too was music, your words, a way to capture a tune, a method of weaving individual components into a coherent whole.
“If” was the marker between our worlds. I saw the world in words, cataloguing each moment into lines of adventure, paragraphs of drama, stanzas of poetry. Life was a narrative told from ever-changing points of view, first person, second person, third person. But the world to you was a song, a symphony, a glam rock anthem to be performed. Life, to you, was music, and in that moment so long ago, we met briefly in a chorus of words and melody, a brilliant ballad that worked for a while. Then your melody changed, and try as I did, my lyrics no longer fit. We parted, remnants of our song trailing, broken echoes in the well of time.
I still hear this song on the radio sometimes. It only takes a second for me to recognise it. A snippet of chords, a splash of words, and the echoes resurface. That afternoon in your room emerges in my mind, sharp and clear like yesterday: the evening sun streaming softly upon your face, drawing out your shadowed profile, setting alight your earnest fingers plucking at guitar strings. I remember your voice, clear and bright and mellow, all at the same time, singing. Not to me, I now realise, but at me.
Yet I am again moved. Not because I miss you. What I miss is that glorious, luminous moment, now bathed in the warm glow of nostalgia. That moment when “If” meant only possibility and not regret, that moment when our worlds collided, and we made good music, at least for a time.