The whole autumn that I turned eighteen was hot. Hot like the inside of an orange might feel, growing on a tree: one more degree and it would just burst, sticky-sweet. August began in its usual way, with the dry, stiff heat that eked out of July turning into something slick and vaguely musty-smelling. That continued until September, which, for our town’s small grid of land bordering the western shores of Lake Michigan, was entirely normal; we wouldn’t expect lower temperatures until midway through the season, when winter blew down from Canada. But it never cooled off, not until almost January: October was hot and dusty, and November had more sunny days than the past decade of that month combined, and December was a warm mess of rain and fog. It put everybody on edge, and even though the city saved money on plows and salt for the roads, we all felt like we’d been cheated out of something.
I was a senior at an all-girls Catholic high school, and although when anybody asked me how I liked it I’d roll my eyes as if to say,well, what do you think?, I was secretly proud of it. I liked the gray wool skirts we wore as uniforms, and the emphasis on things like girl-centric learning and how we learned about the female athlete triad, and that our principal was a nun who wore sweater sets and orthopedic shoes. I even liked the smell: chalk dust mixed with something slightly floral. It was a safe place to be, a red tent housed inside a reclaimed, nineteenth century sandstone factory. It was our harem, our enclave of women.
But those months were strange, and it seemed, sometimes, like the heat was just a symptom of something much more important that I couldn’t quite identify. It was like looking through a window with bubbles in the glass: everything you see is shaped wrong, bulging out of itself, and when you try and remember what it used to look like you can’t. All that’s left is the afterimage, and the taste of what you’ve forgotten.
I had a best friend named Abby, whom I’d met in our French I class four years earlier. We were from different towns—I lived on the Lake; she in a slightly more interior village that trailed off into the farmlands—and were more different than I’d ever thought you could be and still end up having anything to talk about. Abby had worked since she was eleven, first as a field hand at a pick-your-own-fruit farm, then at a series of low-level fast-food joints. She had a game she played at those jobs, where she’d date her way into pay raises: first she’d go out with the cooks, then the cashiers, and finally she’d get to the manager, always some community-college kid with an earring and a whole mess of Rob Zombie CDs scattered in the backseat of his junker. At that point she’d either take him to homecoming, or would quit. I worked too, at a nighttime catering job which made my feet swell up two sizes, but only during the summers, because my parents said my first priority was school, or something like that—one of those things I claimed to think was holding me back, but really I was relieved about.
Abby’s house was the type that was always dark, even during the summers, because the rooms were all paneled with wood and there were no windows in the hallways. I liked when I got to go over there because we’d sit on a big saggy couch and watch trashy reality TV, and drink pop we’d get from this industrial cooler her dad had picked up from working as a Ponderosa Steakhouse manager. She didn’t like having people visit, though, you could tell: she’d never let you go into the basement on purpose, which was stacked to the ceiling with dishes, and sewing kits, and Tupperware, and cartons of cereal and Pop Tarts and frozen steaks, that her mom bought whenever she could. And if you had to drop something off, some homework or a school project, she’d come outside into the driveway to talk, even if it was ten below and snowing.
“Mohammed asked me out,” she said to me one day, toward the end of August. We were in French IV and supposed to be practicing our future tenses while our teacher, Madame, wrote emails to her son in college.
“Isn’t he married?” I asked. Mohammed was Abby’s manager at the Tastee Scoop out on Appleton Road.
“Oui,” she said, “but it’s still super funny. Like, she’s pregnant.”
“Like how pregnant?” I asked. I slid my verb worksheet over to her so she could copy it.
“I don’t know, a million months?” she said. “She’s huge when she comes to visit him.”
“Cette va aller mal,” I said.
“You know I can’t speak French,” she said.
“So what’re you gonna do about it?” I asked.
“Well, he’s sort of a Saudi? And you know I can’t deal with that. They think they can buy everything,” she said. A few summers ago Abby had spent a couple weeks living in Jordan, in some home-stay exchange where she was supposed to be learning Arabic, so she considered herself an expert on all things Middle Eastern.
“Awkward,” I said.
“Right?” she said. “But he’s super hot. Like, super hot.”
“I hear English,” Madame said from her desk. We got quiet for a couple minutes, pretending to copy down modifiers.
“Anyway,” Abby said quietly, after whispers rose from different corners of the classroom again, “I sort of want to see where this goes? I mean, he just wants to grab dinner at Denny’s when my shift ends tomorrow.”
“Um, hello?” I said. “His wife?”
“And how is that my problem?” she said. “She’s met me.”
“You’re a terrible person,” I said, but I reached over to her worksheet to fix her conjugation so she’d know I wasn’t serious.
Soon enough the bell rang and we went to the hallway to change our books before lunch; Abby waited by my locker for me to finish packing my bag.
“Want to go to the Bay after school?” she asked. Our high school was a five-minute drive from a shopping mall, and without fail a quarter of the students showed up there within half an hour of the final bell, to spend their paychecks and parents’ money on overpriced jeans from the Gap and American Eagle, sipping Starbucks frappuccinos like we thought we were on Gossip Girl or something.
“Nope,” I said, “I have practice.”
“Track?” she asked, and I shook my head.
“Piano.” I shut my locker.
“You know,” Abby said, as we walked down the hallway toward the mayonnaise-smelling cafeteria, “you’re being a real bitch, going to piano instead of hanging out with me,” and we looked at each other and laughed.
My piano teacher’s name was Ludmila, and she was from Russia. Or really, the USSR—my older brother Jason had always insisted on the specifics when we were younger and tried to imagine what it was like for her there, back before she immigrated from St. Petersburg and ended up in a podunk Wisconsin town. “That’s what it was, technically,” he would remind me. “It’s in all the history books and everything.” But I never thought it mattered, since it wasn’t like a name was going to change anything.
I’d taken lessons with her since I was four and had to be helped up onto the bench, where my legs would dangle and grow numb from just hanging there for the hour we played. Thirteen years later and now I could touch the floor with my feet, work the pedals, span an octave between my thumb and pinky. This I was quite proud of—the reach of my fingers—since Ludmila had always pointed out how unusually short they were for a pianist. She meant it as a compliment, though it never sounded like one unless you knew it.
“Tiny fingers means you work harder,” she would say. “Tiny fingers have more strength.” And she’d hold out her own hands, rings on four or five fingers, manicured with thick white tips, to show me her own small fingers, just like mine.
I’d started lessons in the way I began most things: Jason did it, so I needed to as well. That lasted until he was fourteen and wanted to play jazz, and since it was Ludmila’s one blind spot—she claimed only Americans could really teach jazz the right way—he switched to a friend of friend’s uncle two towns over who gave lessons from his attic and ate Ramen noodles while he counted beats. When Jason left Ludmila just shrugged and clicked her nails on the music rack.
“Boys always leave first,” she said, “so now it’s just us.” And it felt good to hear that, since I understood it meant we had moved on to some different endeavor, one she had never planned to go with my brother. And though I was sorry for him when I realized this, I also felt it like a warmth under my ribs: beating, and secret, and sharp with pleasure.
That Tuesday we were working on a Chopin piece—piece, never song, she liked to remind me, songs have words, does this have words? —that had become a problem. It was his Fantasie Impromptu, Opus 66, and was more riddled with invisible syncopation and acrobatic fingering than I’d ever seen, and all at presto agitato—a speed which, though not especially difficult in itself, meant one mistake and you were finished; there was no coming back from losing your place in that labyrinth of black and white, of key shifts and sharp-to-flat-and-back-again mutations. It was dangerous, and frustrating, and I loved it entirely, loved to hear myself play it over and over, to watch my fingers on the keyboard, or just close my eyes and feel my way into the sound. There was a quiet line you could cross in the notes if you were patient enough to find it, where your hands moved and your ears listened but you were distant, watching yourself with an almost clinical curiosity, like the way dolphins shut off half their brain to sleep: you’re there, but you’re not. You’re in charge, but something else is too.
But we’d been working on this piece for close to a year, and things were falling apart. It had been my choice for the upcoming statewide Young Musicians competition—it had taken, in fact, only a few measures of hearing Ludmila demonstrate it, giving me my options, to know that I’d never want to play anything else—and now, with the contest just six months away, I’d lost my hold on the music. I stumbled over easy finger changes; my tempos were off and I choked on the final ritardando. Suddenly my memory would fail in the middle of a measure and I’d play on in a panic, waiting for my mind to catch up to my hands.
“Slow it down,” Ludmila said, sitting next to me on the bench. Her arm was cool when it brushed mine, and soft with light, downy hair. “Speed comes later.”
I ran my fingers up the scale; she shook her head.
“You’re missing notes,” she said, “where did they go?” It was hot in the living room of her duplex, even with the blinds drawn and the fan turned up on high, and it was hard to listen when the band of my uniform skirt scratched at my waist.
“Again,” she said, and I struck the opening chord, but it was no good, and she pushed my hands aside.
“Listen,” she said, “listen to the sound.” She played the notes, letting them drizzle off into the air, holding just enough emphasis so that they swooped down into the beginning of the piece, and they were perfect each time.
“Do that ten times,” Ludmila said and, after rising from the bench, pushed her way through the swinging side-door into the kitchen. I could hear her boiling water for tea and shuffling paper, probably her mail.
I played the chord, trying to keep my hand flat and cupped at the same time, creating the right space for the sound to curl, safe, waiting for the moment when it could explode out into the rest of the piece, the entire impromptu coiled up in those two notes. They sounded flat. I held down the damper pedal and picked out the right hand melody, looking at the wall behind the piano as I did, where it held Ludmila’s Piano Teachers Association diploma, her Certificate of Citizenship, and a picture of her husband, Sergei, at their son’s college graduation. The phone rang in the other room; Ludmila answered. I checked my watch.
“Start the left hand,” she called through the door, so I did.
On my way home from the lesson I stopped at Culver’s for a shake. I knew I wouldn’t be hungry for dinner if I ate it, but I wanted something cold, so I dumped two dollars on the counter and ordered up chocolate with crushed mints. It was almost time for the dinner rush—or whatever type of rush a place like that could expect to have—but it was almost empty, and quiet enough so you could hear the freezers in the back running their motors, trying to keep ahead, as overworked as they were.
I sat in a booth and spooned up the custard. It was thick and creamy, and I took the plastic cap off so I could get more out. Through the booth-side window I could see outside, where a couple sat at one of the umbrella-topped picnic tables: a boy and girl, teenagers. She smoked, and he ate fries from a paper bag, taking them out one by one and dropping them into his mouth, like pieces of candy, or worms. Every few minutes the girl would hand over her cigarette and the boy would take a drag, and she’d eat just one fry, chewing it slowly, until they made the exchange again. They didn’t look at each other much, just at the road, where evening traffic was picking up, and the dust was beginning to rise on the gravel shoulders, but whenever they did it was quick and easy, like they’d spent their lives looking at each other. They’d look at each other, and then turn away again, just like that, to watch the road.
When I finished my shake I licked around the cap to get the last bits of milky sweet, and then tossed everything into the trash. I took the long route home, and only pulled into the drive when the gulls were winging east overhead, abandoning the landfills and flying to the Lake to spend the night.
“So I’m thinking of applying to Hardees,” Abby said to me. We were in my basement where it was cool, drinking warm Cokes and toying with our European History notes. I’d given mine to Abby to copy and she’d spent a few minutes drawing little circles all over the margins, which I would erase later when I had time.
“Done with Mohammed?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said, “and he’s being a real creep about it. Like, I feel super bad for his wife now.”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Such a weirdo.”
“But anyway, Hardees will totally be better. The manager is this kid I know, Mitch Miller,” she said. She sat with her back very straight, and fooled around a little with a strand of her hair.
“Mitch from Oakdale? The one who plays baseball?” I asked. She nodded.
“He’s super hot. It’s going to be fun,” Abby said.
“I need my notes now,” I said.
“I think he’s supposed to be pretty smart?” Abby said, tossing the thick packet of papers back over to me. “He’s definitely not going to stick around after he graduates.”
“Nope,” I said, “probably not.” From upstairs I could hear my mother in the kitchen, making dinner. My father was not yet home, and with Jason gone to college, two hours away, the rest of the house was quiet. The dehumidifier kicked on in the small basement closet next to where we sat, and my hair lifted from the back of my neck, drawn up by the new motion of the air.
“Pop quiz,” I said. “What year did the Franco-Prussian war start?”
Mostly September bled along slowly. The asphalt on the track, the one down the road that a couple high schools rented together and shared on rotation, melted in certain spots where the sun hit all day, little chunks of black that looked like lava rock, or blood. We had to avoid those places when we ran, and it never got fixed until the next spring, when the boosters could finally put together enough funds to cover it up.
On Tuesdays when I went to see Ludmila I would sit in my car outside her duplex for a while. I’d started doing this a few months back; I would turn the engine off and wait until I couldn’t stand it without the air conditioning, until my hands began to sweat on the wheel, and then I’d wipe them off and get out and ring the bell and go in. She always had the shades drawn, and when you were inside it was impossible to see out, but I sometimes wondered if she’d ever seen me sitting out there, and what she thought if she did.
It was never perfectly quiet inside the house: tea boiling in the kitchen; the television on upstairs, the volume set just one degree above mute. There was always something going on, some little noise, that made it seem like there were more people than there actually were—hiding in other rooms, in the basement, upstairs. Sometimes you could hear the neighbors, a husband and wife, talking through the thin walls. They fought a lot, over bills mostly. They went silent when Ludmila played, though. Not for her students: just for her.
Quarter-after five on a long afternoon, and it was looking like we were going to go over the hour. I was on the coda, and nothing was right.
“Relax your wrists,” she said, and I tried again.
“No,” she said, and moved my hands off the keys to stop me. “Swinging, loose.”
I played the measure. I could hear the neighbors start up again through the walls. It was the husband this time, talking about the American Express.
“Maybe?” she said. “Let me hear again.” She closed her eyes to listen, something she did when she wanted you to think she hadn’t already made up her mind. Her hair swung down over her forehead—tawny and straight, cracked at the ends and bristly from too much processing—and she dragged it back behind her ears. I got through six notes before she stopped me.
“Did that sound right to you?” she asked me. I didn’t know what to say. If I said no, she would ask why I had played it like that, then, why I hadn’t made it sound different. And she had a way of saying things like that so that you thought about it for days. But saying yes was worse, because it meant that I had reached the end of being able to hear the sound. It meant I had bumped up against the moment where the difference between what was good, and what was perfect, and what was better than perfect, right, was gone.
“No,” I said. She looked at me; her face was cool, her eyes dark. I thought, not for the first time, about how I had no idea how old she was, really. You couldn’t tell the usual way, by her face, and not even the more accurate way, her hands—they were smooth, and pale, and only slightly veined. Today she wore Cartier bracelets on both wrists, and a velour tracksuit with Juicy on the ass. I felt sweat drip down my back underneath my shirt.
“We’ll be done for now,” she said, and took the music off the stand. Through the walls the wife began to cry.
There was a boy that I knew, Mark, from when we went to gradeschool together. He lived in a subdivision across the river, and had eight siblings, and most of the time acted stupid and tripped over things, but sometimes was kind and certain and let you catch a glimpse of who he’d decided to be once he grew up. I think it was because people used to laugh at things like how he folded his gym shorts in his locker, or how one time he got gingivitis, that made him that way: sometimes shut, like a green ear of corn, and then folding open briefly, quietly.
On weekend nights we went to movies at the local Cineplex, really trashy teen-horror movies that had three or four sequels each. Most of the time we went with a big group of people, so that nobody felt too awkward about having to sit next to somebody that maybe they liked. Abby always said she hated how fake it all was, and how much easier it would be if we were all just open about it. But she never came much anyway, since she thought the movies we chose weren’t even corny enough to be a good waste of money.
One Friday night Mark called, and said that Cheerleader Zombie 3 was playing at eight, and would I like to go? So once I finished dinner and talked to my parents for a bit I drove over to the theater and went in.
Mark was waiting for me by the concession booth; he’d already bought a giant tub of popcorn and was eating it by the fistful.
“That’s disgusting,” I said, and he shrugged.
“I’m an athlete,” he said, “I need to bulk up.”
“You play third-string volleyball,” I said. He laughed, and took another bite.
“Where’s everybody?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said, “people had stuff.”
“Stuff?” I said.
“Like, stuff,” he said. “It’s just us.” And I thought he said it like he was asking me to challenge him, so I just rolled my eyes and went to the food counter and bought a Coke to settle my stomach which had roiled up all of a sudden in a way I didn’t like. The girl behind the register spilled the drink twice before she managed to get the plastic top on, so that when I picked it up it my hands got all gummed up, and I had to wipe them on my jeans when Mark wasn’t looking.
We sat in the middle of an empty row, halfway up the rising level of seats, where we could rest our legs on the backs of the chairs in front of us and let our feet dangle into the next row. The air conditioning was cranked up so high I wished I’d brought a sweatshirt, and the metal armrests were chilled, like they were from outside in winter, iced over. Mark held his popcorn tub between his legs and lined up kernels on his knees to eat them one by one.
“You thinking about schools?” he asked.
“Like, for next year?” I asked. I chewed on my straw, pulled it in and out of the cap so that it would make that weird tuba-like sound.
“Yeah, college,” he said.
“Sort of,” I said. “Maybe music somewhere?” I hated these conversations about school, and hoped that he would get distracted by the ads on the screen.
“Sweet,” he said. “I’m gonna try for Madison. My brothers go there.” He flicked a piece of popcorn from his leg and it flew straight out and then stuck to the fabric part of the seat in front of him.
The movie was terrible; it featured a lot of blonde girls screaming and running from football jocks in letter jackets that were a decade out of place, and there was maybe a curse on the town because somebody’s elderly aunt had been snubbed at the prom when she was young. And sex: everyone was sleeping with everyone, and after a while I felt like I’d seen the heroine’s straining, tanned breasts more than my own. There was an uncomfortable moment during one of these sequences, when the baseball champ was sweating away industriously on top of the blonde, where I ran out of Coke to drink and had to sit very still while Mark took the popcorn from between his knees and shifted his legs around a bit, but we didn’t look at each other and soon enough the blonde was dead, so we didn’t have to worry anymore.
“They’re making another sequel soon, I heard,” Mark said, while we were filing out of the dark room. The last dregs of sunlight were softening into a greeny, indigo haze just over the treeline, and the noise from semis on the highway, a hundred yards east of the theater, seemed like it blended a little better into the cattails that bordered the parking lot, so the sound was muted as if from farther away.
“Obviously we’ll have to go,” I said. Behind us the doors swung open to let out a large group of people, talking and laughing and waving goodbye to one another, and Mark and I moved closer together to give them room on the narrow sidewalk.
“Oh, definitely,” he said, rolling out his shoulders and swinging his arms, like he was about to go up for a spike.
We stood for a minute; the light was now almost gone. Moths bumped against the lit-up posters that advertised upcoming films, their wings silhouetted against magnified faces, poreless and buffed and stiffly smiling.
“You need a ride?” I asked finally.
“My sister’s coming,” Mark said, “but thanks.”
“I’ll leave, then,” I said. He looked down and shrugged.
“Okay, if you want,” he said, and put his hand on my shoulder. “See you.”
“See you,” I said, and stepped off the curb so that his hand fell backward, brushed against my spine in one long motion.
When I reached my car I looked back and saw him under the theater awning, where he’d sat on the sidewalk to wait, stretching his legs out into the lot. The doors behind him glowed with the inside lights, reflecting flat shimmers every time someone passed in or out, and against this Mark’s face was dark, and although I tried I could not see if he was watching me or not.
Toward the middle of October I was late to practice one day: I’d sat outside in my car, like usual, except I’d fallen asleep, and it was only when a concerned, motherly woman knocked on the window—her Tahoe running behind me, kids nose-up to every window, fresh from their lessons—that I woke. Ludmila didn’t say anything about it when I rang the bell. We began, and soon enough I had to stop.
“Missing notes again,” she said. My hands felt heavy and my fingers sluggish. I tugged at my shirt, which was tight around my stomach. “What about the ritardando?” she asked. “It should be slowing down. Why are you speeding up?”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You need to practice smarter,” she said, “like I did in school. Everybody else practiced for hours, all night, but I never had to. I practiced smarter. It’s why I was so good.” She always liked to tell me about how it was for her in Russia when she was at music school. I knew this was something I should listen to, but I almost never did. I never knew what to say to her stories, like the ones about how she was forced to have a throat operation that was botched—botched was the word she always used—or how she saw her parents twice in five years. It was a strange mix of discomfort and pleasure that I’d never been able to reconcile: embarrassment at the disclosure of her own pain, and the sharp, secret happiness I took in imagining that I was her confidante. Maybe she told me these things because I was the only one she could tell. It hadn’t occurred to me yet that this might be true.
“Do you understand?” she asked. I nodded. She looked at me, silent; I blushed, uncertain of what she saw.
“Fine,” she said, “start again.”
“No movies tonight?” my father asked that Friday. It was dinner; we were having pizza from a restaurant downtown that made deep-dish how my mother, from Chicago, preferred it.
“I guess not,” I said. The pizza box was open in front of us, and my mother played with the greasy edge of it while she listened.
“It’s good to take a break sometimes,” she said, and looked at me like she wanted it to mean something important, but I wasn’t in the mood to connect, so I just said, “Whatever.”
“Ludmila called,” my mother said then, “she wants to take longer next week.”
“Ok,” I said.
“She says you need to practice more,” my mother said. “She says she can tell you’re not.”
“Fine,” I said. I took another slice and pushed it into my mouth, letting the cheese billow out into my cheeks. I chewed, and swallowed. The grease was hot on my lips but I didn’t wipe it off.
One day, the music came back. No more forgotten notes, no more slips on the finger changes and the scales and the key inversions. Accelerando evenly; no stickiness on the diminuendo: everything soft and muted like fog, smooth like water. I went online and downloaded an application to a music program at a Midwestern university—nothing too fancy, but known as a decent school with a few talented professors—and started filling it out in pencil. Seeing my name there made it feel solid, and I felt good about things. But maybe I’d grabbed onto it too soon, because soon enough everything drifted away again, only it was worse this time.
It was halfway through the Chopin, about to lift up into the swirl of rising sharps and jumps that would crash down to the largo, and I stopped.
“What is this?” Ludmila asked. She was next to me on the little stool she used, looking through a mail-order music catalogue. I looked at the empty music stand—we’d stopped using the sheets months ago—and shifted my hands, backing up a few measures. Again up the keys, until I reached the same point and couldn’t go on.
Ludmila looked at me; I stared at the keys. I focused on the black ones, the neat little packages they made on the length of white: three black, white space, two black, white space, repeat.
“We have four months,” she said, digging into the thick pile of sheet music that rested on the top of the piano. “Four months until you play.” She set the music on the rack and opened to the right page.
“Get it right,” she said. It was the only time she’d ever said something like that to me, and I imagined the neighbors listening through the wall knew it too.
It was around this time that Abby told me she’d slept with Mitch. She told me during French class, when we were out in the hallway supposed to be practicing our past perfect. We were sitting on the floor trying not to get dust on our skirts and leaning up against the lockers, and she said it. For a minute I didn’t say anything. Neither of us looked at each other.
“Was it good?” I asked finally. She shrugged.
“My sister says the first time never is,” she said, and I didn’t say anything else for a little while.
“Are you guys, like, together?” I asked. She shook her head.
“No way,” Abby said, “his family’s super weird. I’m not touching that.”
“Like weird how?” I asked.
“Like they’re the type of family that mouth-kisses,” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
We didn’t say much else, and when the bell rang we went back into the classroom, got our backpacks, and went to separate classes.
After school I went to Culver’s and ordered a milkshake. When I finished it I went to the counter and asked for another. I had hoped it might be a different cashier, but it was the same one, some girl with blue in her hair and too much makeup on, and I thought maybe I knew her from driving lessons at the community center, only everybody at those places looks the same. I wanted to ask for extra whipped cream but when she put the drink on a tray in front of me and pushed it forward a little, I knew she’d seen me sitting by myself.
“Anything else?” she asked. She had a nose ring, and it steamed up like glass when she breathed.
“No, thanks,” I said. For a minute I considered going outside to eat but it really made no difference. I sat at my booth and ate so fast that my head hurt. I felt bad and upset and when I finished the custard I regretted it but also wanted another one, but the girl was still at the counter so I just went to my car and left.
When I got home I realized I’d skipped my piano lesson. My mother was angry and embarrassed, mostly because she hated talking to Ludmila on the phone—she could never understand her accent—and since she was embarrassed she was mean, to cover it up.
“That was incredibly rude of you,” she said. I put my bag down on the floor and leaned against the kitchen counter. I felt cold and sick.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I had to make something up,” my mother said. She stood with the phone in her hand; she liked to carry it around when my father was at work, so she wouldn’t miss it if he called.
“You didn’t need to do that,” I said.
“And what, have her think you did this on purpose?” she said. “I don’t think so.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Do you know how much we pay for these lessons?” she asked. When she said it she looked a little surprised that she’d brought it up, and like she wanted to take it back, but of course now she had to keep going, so she did.
“Think about what a waste it is to miss these lessons,” my mother said. “Think about what a privilege they are.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. My head hurt and I could taste melted custard, gooey and thick, in the back of my mouth.
“Dinner is at six,” my mother said, turning away from me toward the stove.
She didn’t say anything else, and the lights in the kitchen hurt my eyes, so I went upstairs and, after I slipped off my shoes in my room and folded my uniform skirt and placed it on my bed, I walked down the hallway into the bathroom, where I vomited everything up over my shirt.
On a Friday night halfway through November Abby texted me to ask if I’d go to a football game with her. Right away I told her I’d go. It was easier than admitting why I hadn’t talked to her in a while, even though I was sure she knew. And anyway I liked football games; you’d drive out to them and it would be dark and chilly, and you’d drink cider and buy popcorn for a dollar from the families that lived across the street from the field, and everybody spent most of the time just talking and gossiping. If the game was really exciting, maybe you’d watch. We always cheered for the team from the all-boys school, because we liked to pretend they were our boys, our team. And the boys acted like it annoyed them but really it made them feel special that they had two whole schools rooting for them. It all worked out in the end.
I drove out to the game and parked in the big lot attached to the school, and walked over to the field to look for Abby. I saw a lot of people I knew, mostly grouped behind the bleachers where they could sneak a smoke or just sit for a while in the dim light, away from their parents. The game had already started and there was this violet light in the sky as the sun went down, and for the first time that fall it felt like maybe it wouldn’t be so hot that night. I went over to the concession stand and bought a Slurpee, and I sipped at it while I walked around, chewing on the bigger ice chunks that made it up the straw. Every so often a big cheer would come from the stands, and parents would stamp their feet and the little kids would bang things on the metal railings, and all the high school kids would rush to the sidelines to check the game; I wondered if the players ever looked over and were surprised to see everybody in those moments paying such close attention, everybody so excited to watch them. I wondered if it made them feel good.
“Hey,” I heard, and I turned around and it was Abby walking toward me.
“Hey,” I said, and she came over and nudged me with her hip, which felt nice and like it was normal.
“How’s the game?” she asked.
“You think I know?” I said. She laughed.
“God, it’s such a waste of time, isn’t it?” she said.
“As if we have better plans,” I said, and she laughed again, and that made me feel good, and I realized that I’d been scared for a while, like I’d been holding my stomach clenched tight, or my breath stopped just under my ribs, and I’d only just now let it go. We stood on the sidelines and watched the game; the ice in my Slurpee was melted and it was all runny and thin now.
“So do you have work tomorrow?” I asked Abby.
“No,” she said, “I’m going to the movies with Mitch.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Why don’t you come?” she said.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said.
“Not alone,” she said, “duh, how awkward. Bring that one kid, Mark.”
“Like, just him?” I asked.
“Uh, yeah,” she said.
“I don’t like him like that,” I said.
“I don’t believe that,” she said. She didn’t wait for me to respond; instead she turned to me and put her hands on my shoulders, and leaned forward so she was almost touching my forehead with hers. She spoke slowly.
“I’m going to tell you a secret,” she said. I listened.
“If you tell him you’ll blow him at the movie, he’ll do whatever you want,” she said, and she pushed me backward a little and laughed so loudly that a bunch of other people turned to look at us.
“You’re disgusting,” I said, my stomach hot.
“It’s true,” she said. She crossed her arms; standing like that I thought she looked like nobody I knew.
“Whatever,” I said.
“Don’t get mad,” she said.
“I’m not mad,” I said, and she rolled her eyes. On the field the players were lined up for a field goal, to tie the game. Their helmets were glinting under the lights and their muscles were tense with concentration, waiting for the whistle that would launch them into motion, send their cleats churning into the turf. It was quiet while the crowd watched and waited for their accelerando.
“I’m telling you, just suck it up,” she said, “literally.” She grabbed my Slurpee and popped the plastic cap, tilted her head back to drink.
“Jesus, you drank it all,” she said. “Maybe don’t ask Mark, actually.”
I understood something then, and it hurt me very badly. The noises all around us were getting louder and louder, a rhythm building up slowly from the mass of bodies on the bleachers.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean that.” I stepped away from her. She grabbed my arm to stop me but I let it hang limp until she dropped it.
“I didn’t mean it,” she said, “please? Really, I didn’t. Please.”
I didn’t say anything, and just watched the field. The whistle shrilled; there was the snap, and the kick. It was good; the crowd clapped and cheered.
December moved in with rain and thick wind that made the cars on the roads swerve and shudder. We shut all the house windows but they fogged up with humidity and made the rooms fill with stale air, so that you weren’t sure which was better, inside or out.
On the first Tuesday of the month I went to Ludmila’s like usual, only this time I didn’t wait in the car; I went right inside and was even a little early, so I got to hear her finishing up with another student, a boy whose feet were a foot from the floor when he sat on the bench. It felt strange watching them, but there was nowhere else to wait, really.
We started with some Clementi, for a change. Then an old Brahams, and a Bach that I didn’t particularly like but was good at—I’d never had a problem with syncopation, and I could do this one mindlessly, which felt soothing. Finally we got to the Chopin: I pulled out the music and laid it gently, closed, on the lid of the piano, and raised my hands to the starting position. But before I could begin, she stopped me.
“You know,” she said, “I played this when I was much younger than you.” I listened.
“It was just after I’d gone to St. Petersburg, for music school,” she said. “I was twelve when I left my parents.”
I nodded, and looked at the keys. Her hands would have been tiny, back then.
“It was so cold in the city,” she said, “everything was stone, all the buildings, and it was cold. All the time.” I pressed down a key as gently as I could, so it made no sound, but I could feel the hammer hit the string, softly, in the belly of the piano. I held it there, and she didn’t look at me while she spoke.
“There were a couple other students my age, from other villages. One, a boy, had to leave. He broke a finger playing in the street, so they wouldn’t keep him. And one of the girls couldn’t memorize as fast as me, so she had to go home too. We were there because we could play, and if you couldn’t, there was no reason to be there. They didn’t care.” She didn’t say who they were. I don’t think she ever would have. On the other side of the duplex I heard the garage door open and shut; her husband Sergei, home from work. He went into the kitchen and I could hear him at the fridge, the sink. He moved glasses, poured water. Small, homey sounds.
“There was a winter that was terrible, after we’d been there a few years,” Ludmila said. “And my friend Nadia walked onto the ice, on the river.” She looked at me, and there was almost nothing on her face. I lifted my hand from the keys and laid it in my lap, slowly. She kept talking, though now she watched me, making sure I was listening. I found it hard to meet her eyes.
“She put a couple stones in her pocket, and took off her shoes. She left them at the edge of the river where there was still ice. They said she only made it a hundred yards out before she broke through. When they pulled her out her eyelashes broke like icicles, because they were frozen.”
The light coming in through the blinds was golden, like sap. It hit the piano and lit up the wood so it glowed from the inside, showed the dust on the black keys.
“They’d told her she had to go home,” Ludmila said. “Her hands hadn’t grown enough.”
“Do you understand?” she asked. I did not.
“Yes,” I said.
“Now begin,” she said, and we did.
I never went back. A couple weeks later I told my parents I was done, and we fought about it, and kept fighting, until finally my mother called Ludmila and apologized and made some excuse, and Ludmila said she understood and just hoped I kept playing on my own, and then it was over. I sent out a couple applications to mediocre state schools with good science programs, and when a few months later I was accepted into one I figured I could be happy about it, or that I could learn to.
Sometimes after school I would drive way out on one of the country roads, where the houses are all white-sided and have satellite dishes on the roofs, and I would pull off the road next to a wide wheat field and sit in the car. The sky would be gray and the crows in the stubble would pick out the scraps and dried-up snips of wheat, barking their strange voices so that it was all I could hear in the car besides other vehicles—a car, a truck—going by every few minutes.
When the sun began to go down I would turn the car back on and wait to pull back onto the road, where the traffic would now be heavier with workers returning home. While I sat I would roll down the window and let my hand dangle outside; the air was finally cool, and it felt good to run my fingers down the cold metal of the car, touch the smooth glass mirrors. And while I did that I would think about the winter in St. Petersburg, and how cold it must have been there, how cold your fingers would have gotten trying to play. How you had to play, how there were no choices involved in that transaction, how you played for pride and for country and learned that those reasons were enough. I’d think about that, and about Ludmila, and even Nadia. Sometimes I called Abby and if she was on a shift break we would talk, and trade homework answers, and make plans to meet up. But sometimes she was working, and couldn’t answer her phone.
And then, when the tempo was just right in the traffic and I could nose out onto the road, and the wind was coming in the window so my neck was cool and my hair just brushed my shoulders, I would get back on the road and head east, toward the Lake and the rising night and the soft lights winking over the town, making the underclouds dappled gold and purple, and I would go home.