“That was the last time I smiled.”
This was Richard’s favorite catchphrase. If she wasn’t mistaken, he loved boasting about his sardonic nature. A smiling Richard is a rarity. So rare, that to see him emit any form of sheer joy seemed like a rare natural occurrence. Witnessing it was truly one for the history books.
A natural smile on Richard’s face is a once in a lifetime opportunity for some. But when it comes to her, it was all he could ever do.
Noel’s gallery openings mimicked the artist himself: colorful, chaotic, and wasted.
Richard, unfortunately, was the complete opposite of those three traits. He was a wallflower in social gatherings. Don’t get him wrong, he does try to do the whole social contract: mingle, drink, nod and smile politely.
But it always ends up with him leaning on the wall, nursing a glass of red he barely wanted in the first place.
This night wasn’t any different. Once again, he found himself as an outsider looking in, observing well-adjusted people find their own thrill. He’s more comfortable in his own skin than people perceived him to be. Although sometimes, he wondered to himself what it would be like if he wasn’t who he was.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he heard a woman’s voice swearing under her breath.
He turned to face the source of this voice. Luckily, he didn’t need to look far. She was just like him. She, too, leaned on the wall while observing everyone being happy around them.
He wondered if she silently wished to be capable of having fun at large social gatherings. Wearing a little knitted burgundy dress with a large black leather jacket on top of her shoulders, she hid the scorn in her eyes behind tinted black shades. She knew he was gawking at her, but paid no attention and drank the rest of her whiskey on the rocks.
Drawing a long sigh from her blood-red lips, she pursed her lips and decided to acknowledge his presence.
“I don’t fare well in parties,” she shrugged. He nodded in acknowledgment. They simultaneously stared back at the crowd before them. “I’m just here for solidarity,” he added to the brewing conversation.
A smile crept on her lips, which eventually emitted a light chuckle. “Damn, me too.” This was the first time he made her smile. Seeing this grumpy, aesthetically pleasing stranger smile for the first time made him bit his lip to suppress the grin forming on his face.
“You with the artist?”
“Only during panel shows, but it’s an open marriage.”
Her light, polite chuckle turned into a genuine one. Tired of holding back his grin, he let his hair down and gave her a smile. She didn’t know it was a rarity. Well, not yet.
“That means I have a chance then,” she mused while parting her lips to let another swig of whiskey in her system. He quirked his brow, “With the artist?” She stared at him for a long time.
Biting her bottom lip was her only answer to his query. Clinking her glass to his, she began to make her exit.
“I’ll see you around.”
It wasn’t a question. Rather, a promise.
Richard followed her with his gaze. Unknowingly, she left him with a smile that wouldn’t seem to go away. And he didn’t want it to go anywhere.
Richard tends to not meet people.
If he can avoid it, he would. But his default position on that somehow shifted after Noel’s gallery opening. He found himself agreeing to social gatherings more. Just on an off-chance that she’ll wander back to his personal bubble once again.
There have been two failed attempts, so far. She wasn’t at Noel’s Sunday brunch nor was she in a Big Fat Quiz after party. Unfortunately for him, putting himself out there in hopes to meet her again wasn’t working.
He gave himself one more attempt. Three attempts would suffice. If she’s not here, then he’ll stop. He accepted his life wasn’t an American rom-com. It was an Eric Rohmer film at best.
Richard’s last straw was the music video premiere of Arctic Monkeys’ “Cornerstone.” For his mate Alex, he would often make a brief appearance on these soirees then call it night before a.m. hits. It was a strange occurrence to find him at a gathering ’till 1 a.m.
And to everyone’s surprise, there he was.
“Erm…” Alex decided to confront him as he sat at a rounded bar booth reserved for his band. “Shouldn’t you be… dunno… at home?” his brows furrowed, eager to know why Richard was still around. Drinking a glass of Guinness, he shrugged.
“Change of scenery?”
Alex left it at that. He patted his director on the shoulder, before standing up and looking for his new brand of fun for the night. And just like that, Richard was alone.
He propped his elbows on the table. In silence, he questioned his life choices. The fatigue has seeped in hours ago. Sipping on a beer he barely tolerated, observing the moisture sliding down the glass. He wanted to call it a night.
The more he stayed, the more he’d wallow in unspoken self-pity.
So with one more swig, he got up and did a French exit. The cold evening wind blew past him as he left the pub. Securing his scarf for warmth, he buried his hands in his coat pocket and made his way home.
It only took him one right turn and two steps to find himself standing in front of her. With his mouth agape, she greeted him with a surprise expression, eventually melting into a warm smile.
“Told you I’ll see you around,” she chuckled.
He found her leaning on the brick wall below the pub’s neon sign. Pursing her lips, she took another drag of her cigarette. He never planned to be a smoker. But at that moment, he wished he was just so he can have an excuse to ask for a light.
“Are you stalking me?” he chuckled at the incredulous thought. She blew the smoke upwards and kept her smile on, shaking her head. “Had to write about the MV launch,” she justified her presence in the event.
“You’re a journalist?”
“A music journalist.”
He nodded, absorbing the information given to him. “You’re a director,” she phrased it as a statement, not a question. He moved closer to her. “Good to know you’re an inquisitive journalist.”
“Good to know you’re a brilliant director.”
Compliments were hard for him to swallow. But for her, he found himself flustered and grinning from ear to ear. He leaned on the brick wall next to her.
“I’m Richard,” he leaned his head slightly in her direction, so she can hear him.
“I know,” she mused. Taking one last drag of her cigarette, she stomped the bum on the ground with her black Chelsea boots. He watched her and marveled at her composure. Silently, he wished he had her aloofness.
“Coffee?” For once, she phrased it as a question.
“You’re incredibly unsocial.”
“Despite the bonhomie and massive charisma I exude, I am.”
Richard recalled their exchange at the cafe for days. Yes, he was unsocial. He never denied that. Not once. Not even for her.
But for her, he was willing to put himself out there. He was willing to go beyond witty banter and his shield of misanthropy to get to know her. So far, he has been successful.
These were the things about her that he came to know. In this after-hours cafe encounter, he studied her name and how to say it, he mused over the fact that the only New Wave Smith she acknowledged was Robert Smith, and the fact she looked beyond him every time she talked about anything she’s passionate about. He found these three things endearing and worth replaying in his head.
In her recollections, she remembered Richard smiling all throughout as they learned more about each other. She never liked putting her heart on her sleeve. If anything, her heart was surrounded by a fortress.
She replayed their encounter in her head too. While she spaced out, she felt the corners of her lips move upward, amused and delighted. She left him with a napkin where she had written her mobile number. Knowing he wasn’t the texting type, she made a deal with herself: she’ll only lay down her weapons, if he reaches out.
A week has passed after their after-hours cafe hang. Her notifications remained empty.
“Can I see you again?”
He posed a question over a phone call.
She smiled to herself, unsure if he can tell over the phone. He smiled too not caring if she envision him doing so. Biting her lip to suppress a swoon, she agreed to meet him again.
She knew it. He wasn’t the texting type.
“That was the last time I smiled, I think.”
Richard shared a childhood memory when they passed by a photo booth. He recalled the time his parents made him sit down for a photograph. Back then, he was happier and naive, as all children were before they become sentient.
Scoffing at the thought, she crossed her arms as they walked at downtown SoHo side to side. He looked at her amused. Although she loved seeing her on her favorite red and black color schemes, a touch of powder blue suits her as her flowy sundress proved. What she claimed after amused him more.
“You’re a liar.”
She went in front of him, walking backward. “You’re going to hurt yourself walking like that,” he chuckled, failing to put a front of stoicism. “You smile all the time,” she pushed him back playfully.
He kept a smile on as she made accusatory claims of his grins and laughter around her. To strengthen his argument, he kept his lips tight, hiding his amusement. It caused his cheeks to flush, knowing all too well she can make him happy with little to no effort.
“You’re smiling right now!”
“Nawr arm noyt,” he mumbled, covering his smile further.
It’s been months since they had a formal sit-down at that cafe late at night. Since then, they barely participated in any dreadful social events. If they wanted each other’s company, they were a call away. And they only had each other’s company ever since.
No third parties nor off-chance encounters. Just the two of them alone together. That’s all he ever wanted in the first place.
“Liar,” she pouted. Richard continued to watch her walk backwards. Soon enough, he was about to be proven right. She was about to collide with a stranger who’d probably ruin her whole mood. Acting on his instincts, he pulled her by the arm, causing her to land on his chest.
They both stopped on their tracks. He felt his heart thrum faster and so did hers.
She refused to look up with her cheeks turning beet red. He looked down at her, amused with how she’s trying so hard to keep herself together. “You alright?” his voice dropped to a low register.
“I’m fine,” she kept her head low. He held her close for a moment, entertaining his thoughts on what he wanted to do with her at the moment. He's not the smoothest man out there. Still, he wanted nothing more but to lift her chin and plant a kiss on her peach-stained lips.
Before he can make a move, she lifted her head and smiled at him.
“See?” she pointed out. “You’re smiling right now.”
“I am, aren’t I?” he mumbled, too drawn to her to argue. Their gazes met once again. She felt her breath stiffing, bracing herself. None of them were a fan of public displays of affection.
But Richard’s anxiety-ridden brain said, “Do it.”
Leaning down to her level, he planted a soft kiss on her lips. She didn’t fight it and kissed back. The two of them were too drawn to how their lips felt on one another. He held her by the waist, while she cupped his face. It was long, sweet, and a little sensual.
They eventually parted to let each other breathe. And just like what she’d been claiming that afternoon, he smiled.
She’ll eventually learn that he never smiled for anyone else—only her.