Cindy was seventeen when she developed a no-musician rule, too young to have it carry a real sense of threat, but heart-bruised nonetheless by the drummer who passed through her parents’ ice cream shop. He was the latest in a string of keyboard players, singers, bassists, and she was done. When you condense love or its lesser forms into a three-minute song, there’s no way you can take it seriously.
In college, she was Cynthia, and at parties, when she and her friends stood around with warm cups of beer while boys busted out their acoustic guitars for heartfelt renditions of “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” she’d smirk and point out missed chords or jumbled lyrics. But Todd’s looking right at you. He’s singing to you. And she would shrug and explain her no-musician rule. She figured it made her sound mysterious, like maybe she’d had a run-in with someone famous and was nursing a serious broken heart instead of a string of disappointments.
Back in her crummy shore town for the summer, scooping ice cream for sticky, screaming kids, there was no use in trying to get anyone to call her Cynthia, and no one thought she was mysterious. She was just the girl with the thick eyeliner and black clothes and forearms strong enough to rake a scoop through a block of mint chip like it was nothing. She was just the owners’ daughter.
She worked alongside a boy named Matt, who was a year ahead of her at the college the next town over. You had to be a real brain to go there. Matt wanted to be a writer, and in the lulls at the shop, when the kids were eking out the last of the daylight and the teenagers were just getting started, he’d read aloud. Usually it would be whatever book he was reading, thick texts with dizzying sentences, but sometimes he’d bring in his own stories and test out slivers of paragraphs about nervous boys and untouchable girls. He’d ask about a word here or there – should his stomach flip or clench? Was oceans of her eyes cliché? Are you talking about me, Cindy didn’t ask. It hung heavy between them.
In the thick of July, she decided anyone that careful with a sentence would be careful with a person. This was the difference between rhythm and reading. She was going to kiss him that night after they closed. She thought about how long it had been since she kissed someone she liked as she scooped ice cream, plopping full-size scoops on top of kiddie cones while the sunburned squawk of preteen boys sailed over her head.
She turned to holler at Matt that they were running low on the mini cones, and that’s when she saw him in the back doorway, pressing up against a girl in a bikini top, her blonde hair salt-stiffened into a tangle of waves.
It had just been words. Of course.
Later, she would walk down to the oceanfront bar and grill. She’d sway along to boozy covers sung by forty-year-old men who’d spent too many years in the sun. She’d let the songs touch the part inside she couldn’t name. And she’d listen until all it was was music.
For now, waffle cones for everyone.