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After dinner, I stayed downstairs on the couch and so did Conrad. He sat there across from me, strumming chords on his guitar with his head bent.
“So I heard you have a girlfriend,” I said. “I heard it’s pretty serious.”
“My brother has a big mouth.” About a month before we’d left for Cousins, Jeremiah had called Steven. They were on the phone for a while, and I hid outside Steven’s bedroom door listening. Steven didn’t say a whole lot on his end, but it seemed like a serious conversation. I burst into his room and asked him what they were talking about, and Steven accused me of being a nosy little spy, and then he finally told me that Conrad had a girlfriend.
“So what’s she like?” I didn’t look at him when I said this. I was afraid he’d be able to see how much I cared.
Conrad cleared his throat. “We broke up,” he said.
I almost gasped. My heart did a little ping. “Your mom is right, you are a heartbreaker.” I meant it to come out as a joke, but the words rang in my head and in the air like some kind of declaration.
He flinched. “She dumped me,” he said flatly.
I couldn’t imagine anyone breaking up with Conrad. I wondered what she was like. Suddenly she was this compelling, actual person in my mind.
“What was her name?”
“What does it matter?” he said, his voice rough. Then, “Aubrey. Her name is Aubrey.”
“Why did she break up with you?” I couldn’t help myself. I was too curious. Who was this girl? I pictured someone with pale white-blond hair and turquoise eyes, someone with perfect cuticles and oval-shaped nails. I’d always had to keep mine short for piano, and then after I quit, I still kept them short, because I was used to them that way.
Conrad put down the guitar and stared off into space moodily. “She said I changed.” “And did you?”
“I don’t know. Everybody changes. You did.” “How did I change?”
He shrugged and picked up his guitar again. “Like I said, everybody changes.”
Conrad started playing the guitar in middle school. I hated it when he played the guitar. He’d sit there, strumming, halfway paying attention, only halfway present. He’d hum to himself, and he was someplace else. We’d be watching TV, or playing cards, and he’d be strumming the guitar. Or he’d be in his room, practicing. For what, I didn’t know. All I knew was that it took time away from us.
“Listen to this,” he’d said once, stretching out his headphones so I had one and he had the other. Our heads touched. “Isn’t it amazing?”
“It” was Pearl Jam. Conrad was as happy and enthralled as if he had discovered them himself. I’d never heard of them, but at that moment, it was the best song I’d ever heard. I went out and bought Ten and listened to it on repeat. When I listened to track five, “Black,” it was like I was there, in that moment all over again.
After the summer was over, when I got back home, I went to the music store bought sheet music, and learned to play it on the piano. I thought one day I could accompany Conrad and we could be, like, a band. Which was so stupid, the summer house didn’t even have a piano. Susannah tried to get one for the summer house, so I could practice, but my mother wouldn’t let her.
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