Leon stood in front of the bathroom mirror inspecting himself. His curly hair had grown a little toward the mangy side. He was long overdue for a trim, but had been so wrapped up in work that he thought of his appearance very little, that is, until he had met Elise. She brought out a new sense of insecurity in him that he was not used to. He felt nervous, almost giddy, in her company. She had such a steely way of assessing someone, almost as if she were penetrating the soul to see if it was worth her time to invest (which she seldom did). He had never met anyone as intensely unapologetic or direct as she was. It frightened him, but also made him quiver with an intensity that he normally reserved for his most focused culinary masterpieces.
His hair was overgrown, his five o’clock shadow was more like two day’s worth of stubble, and he did not own anything but worn out oxford shirts, blue jeans, and various Chef uniforms. This dating thing might be a bit of a challenge in the wardrobe department. He picked out the least wrinkled shirt he could find and tucked it into his dark blue Levi’s. I look like such a nerd he thought to himself, dramatically pulling the shirt back out of his jeans. He grabbed a faded tan leather jacket, a graduation gift from his Dad a few years prior, and headed for the door. As he was locking up his flat, he determined to go buy a few new outfits before the weekend was over.
The dusky air was settling into the city, crisp and clean, with the subtle hint of lilac lingering on the breeze. It was a perfect spring evening. Leon walked with a step of excitement as he took the Lakefront Path from his apartment toward downtown. Two miles would have normally seemed far to him, but tonight he felt as if he could walk for an eternity, as long as Elise was at the other end. She had drawn him in, as an Impressionist painting often does: the overall image compelling, but only in further examination of the tiny strokes of artistic measure does the appreciation truly lie. She was his “Water Lillies” and he was Monet—transfixed by the need to explore the texture of the water and the delicacy of the plant life above and below it. And just like a water lily, she was a beautiful blossom that floated only ten percent on the surface and ninety percent under the liquid abyss of blue, out of reach and firmly rooted in the depths of her own soul. Leon did not know if he would ever be privy to that secret place inside of her, but he was willing to go crazy trying. He smiled to himself at the thought of someday being able to hold her in his arms, to kiss her tender lily lips, to know her intimately.
The Lakefront path was full of people enjoying one of the first nice evenings of the season. Cyclists sped by on their expensive multi-gear machines—weaving in and out of meandering tourists who were too busy taking pictures of the lake at sunset to notice the steady stream of fast-moving people all around them. Others were enjoying games of chess or backgammon on the terraced seating near the waterfront. Dogs sniffed and children laughed. Everything seemed right with the world. But Leon knew it would only last so long.
He had seen this behavior year after year since moving to Chicago. Soon, summer’s oppressive heat would set in and stifle any good feelings that people had toward being together in the great outdoors. Air conditioning units would block window views, buses would overcrowd with sweaty bodies, and people would pine away for autumn and its crisp Nor’easterly breezes. For now, everyone seemed content to mingle among the parks, open-air cafes, and beaches scattered throughout the city. One of these favored locations was the Pritzker Pavilion located in the heart of the city at Millennium Park. And on this particular night, Leon had invited Elise to listen to the Grant Park Orchestra play “Highlights from Puccini” in association with the Lyric Opera.
The park was as green as it had been in years. The rain this spring had been particularly kind to the city, cleansing and renewing it as only rain can do. People walked about the abundant new foliage twitterpated with longing—a feeling that permeated in the very air they were breathing. Each color seemed to pop out of itself as a sight that had never before been realized. Everywhere were brilliant white blossoms, neon green grasses, flame-red tulips the color of a sunset in Tuscany, deep royal purples peppering tree branches. An ardor for life had taken the city by surprise after a morose winter of damp, long nights.
The outdoor auditorium was packed to the gills. Despite Leon arriving early to get a good seat, he had no such luck. They would have to settle for sitting on the lawn: the great expanse of greenery that filled a city block full of blankets, coolers, and picnic baskets. He would have to find Elise first, then make his way into the sea of blanket-dwellers. Leon headed over to Cloudgate, more commonly known as “the Bean,” and stood on a table to see over the crowds. He scanned from left to right across the courtyard, through bodies all shorter, taller, darker, and lighter than Elise, his eye trained to spot her green eyes and long golden locks.
“Hi,” a direct, lyrical voice said from below him. Leon turned around and looked down to see Elise standing below, smiling and inspecting the scene in front of her. “You know you look ridiculous standing up there.”
“It was the only way I could see over the crowd,” he said sheepishly. He towered over the average person walking around by at least four feet from that vantage point. He looked around in a mischievous way and then reached for her, pulling her up onto the table with him. She stifled a squeal as he strong-armed her toward him. “It’s a great view, don’t you think?” Elise was not amused to be center spectacle among hoards of strangers.
“You’re crazy” she said, tersely.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Leon beamed. Sensing her discomfort at his silliness, he jumped spryly off the table and helped Elise down, delicately sliding his hands around her waste to lift her. As she was looking down to get her footing, she accidentally brushed her nose against his cheek. A surge of energy pulsated between them and they both blushed. Both on the ground, unsure of how to proceed, they briefly gazed into each other’s eyes looking for some sort of sign.
Unable to shake her feelings, Elise played it casual, “you need a haircut.” She passed her hand over a strand of curls across his brow, instantly relishing and regretting that she had been so bold.
“I know.” he blushed. He shook his hair from his face and turned back toward the pavilion. They looked out across the swarms of people waiting for the concert to start and tried to spy a small patch in which they could sit. Elise took his hand, another bold move for her, and led him toward the center of the chaos. She hated crowds, and frankly did not know whether or not she liked classical music. Yet somehow she found herself here, with this man, trying something new. She smiled to herself as she realized all of these things. He was changing her, and though she was apprehensive, she forged through her emotions like she forged through the dizzying crowd at Millennium Park on this perfect spring evening.
At last, they found a spot sandwiched between a small group of young executive types with a full blown picnic on a collapsible, low-lying table, and an older couple with their squat lawn chairs and half-consumed bottle of wine; all clearly professionals in the Chicago parks music scene. Leon and Elise had not realized what a commitment they were getting themselves into. Chicagoans did not take music festivals halfheartedly and tonight was a prime example. They both felt a little foolish at not even thinking to bring a sheet to sit on.
The crowd seemed to murmur a little more quietly than the dull roar that had been heard previously, causing Leon to sit up a little higher to see what was happening. Almost in the same instant, the conductor walked onstage, took a bow, and turned toward his orchestra. They played their opening pitch, gently tuning and tweaking their instruments until auditory perfection was achieved. The crowd clapped ravenously as a rather portly woman in a sage colored silk gown entered on stage right, accompanied by a tall man with a full beard and far too much stage makeup. This was the famous duo from the Lyric Opera that would be performing classic love arias from the master composer Giacomo Puccini.
From the first haunting soprano line in “Volgliatemi bene” Leon was mesmerized. He kept his eyes clenched shut in resolute passion for the duration of the first three excerpts of Madama Butterfly, barely even breathing. Elise watched him, not really interested in the high pitched wailing that she heard coming from the speakers scattered throughout the park. She wanted to know what he was experiencing. What had this music done to his brain to transport him so far away from the eight inches his body was from hers? She loved gazing at his face when he was in such a rapture. She had seen it once before when he had been making a particularly challenging dish and had wondered the same thing.
Elise had no idea how much time had passed, or how many songs had been sung, but she found herself thinking that no time could quantify this passion, this intensity. She could stare at his serene face forever. In a fitful musical rage, the music climaxed and then came to an abrupt end, causing Leon to open his eyes. He looked over at Elise, who was still staring at him, and felt an overwhelming surge wash over him. Her piercing green eyes were full of longing, full of trust. It did not matter that they were surrounded by a crowd of thousands—others who were probably just as overwhelmed by their senses—they were alone in a tunnel of their own construction. She saw only his rapture, he saw only her water lily depths, and they both gave into their consumption.
Leon inched his way closer to Elise, leaning toward her face. He whispered in her ear, “you okay?” His scent was sweet, musky, mingled with spearmint and some other herb she could not identify. She let him stay in that closeness, feeling his rough beard against her cheek. She wanted to kiss him so badly, wanted him in his rapture. She dared not speak to break the spell, but merely nodded to affirm her comfort. Just as the orchestra began their second set, with various highlights from “Tosca” and “La Boheme,” Leon stood up, motioning for Elise to follow him.
Leon slipped his hand gracefully into Elise’s without hesitation and led them toward the back of the park, out past the crowds, and into the Lurie Memorial Garden across from the Art Institute. It was growing dark by now, the sun having set and the city having begun its nightly ritual of colored lights and dimly glowing skyscrapers. There was a rich smell in the air: blossoms in their peak, swaying gently as the two lovers walked under their boughs in silence. The music was muted from this distance, covering them in a mist of Italian-infused romantic strain, as the arias wafted across the park. Puccini’s music had never sounded sweeter to Leon that it had this particular night.
He stopped them near a bench that was facing a large hedge of roses and sat Elise down. The silence between them only seemed to intensify their being together, forging an unspoken cord of solidarity that neither of them wanted to break. Leon sat down next to her, closer than he had been in the grass. Elise could feel every fiber of her being: every muscle tense, every vein full of blood pulsating through her. She had never felt this way before, never given herself over to such an urgent, visceral sensation. Half of her felt airborne, while the other half felt like a dozen boulders dragging her down into the sea. Leon was serene, his face glowing in the lamplight.
He sighed in contentment and reached up to touch her hair. Elise closed her eyes, trembling at his touch. Leon ran his hands gently through her hair, moving strands from her face, delighting in the foreign sensation of her elegant, long locks. He found a place on the back of her neck, a little nub of bone and hair that was softer than all the rest and gently explored it. Elise moaned softly as he massaged this hidden place, his place. She opened her eyes fully, pupils large and yearning, and gave him the sign. Leon kept his hand at the back of her neck for leverage and gently kissed her on the mouth. It was a tender, exploring kiss; the kiss of a young man desperately in possession of the knowledge that he has found the mouth that he will kiss for the rest of his life.
A thousand thoughts and feelings were revving through Elise as she kissed him back. Fear, passion, doubt, desire, foreboding, happiness, completeness; all the things that a young woman feels at discovering that she has found the man she will commit to for the rest of her life. A strange relief settled over her as she opened her eyes and saw just how devoted Leon was to that kiss. He would be an attentive lover, not a selfish one. She knew that from the first time he touched her. She ran her hand across his cheek, tenderly feeling his beard and the warmth of his skin underneath. He was beautiful in this state. She would log this night away deep inside her as a memory to cling to in old age or difficult times. This bench, this park, this night, this kiss.
The last strains of music seemed to hover over them, blessing them in their amorous state of discovery. Puccini, the Lurie Garden, a first kiss; Leon and Elise sat content until long after the music faded, swept up in the magic of the evening and the budding of their new romance.