But this is not a problem I want to tackle tonight. Tonight I have a different task.
At the bottom of the basement steps I imagine that it’s Tuesday morning. I’m walking along a hallway at Juilliard. Because I’m pretending that I’m actually taking my first audition.
I walk into the room and close the door behind me. I prepare my bow and violin and test the tuning. I nod respectfully at each of the faculty members, and I imagine what they ask me to play first. Then I look briefly up at the ceiling to clear my mind, and I begin. And suddenly I’m also imagining that the lights have clicked off, that no one can see me. And it helps. It’s only the music. And I don’t stop for anything. I play.
Getting into college is different for a music student. It’s not just, What were your grades? And it’s not, Which clubs did you belong to, and Were you the class president? And it’s not, What are your SAT scores?
The question for a music student is so simple, only three words: Can you play? Can you walk into this audition room and play—today, right now—without messing up?
And you only get one chance to get it right because that’s how you have to play music in the real world, in a performance. You practice and practice and rehearse, and when it’s time for the performance, you come on-stage and take your place. Then the conductor raises the baton and nods, and if you don’t come in on the right beat with the right notes and the right pitch and the right attack, then you’ve let down the conductor, and you’ve let down the other ninety-five musicians in the orchestra, and you’ve let down the audience. And, of course, you’ve stabbed your bow straight through the heart of the composer. Because the only question is, Can you play?
On Saturday night I feel confident, and it’s good rehearsal time, almost two hours, with Sibelius winning the prize for my most improved composer, and Paganini a close second.
When I come back up to the parlor, Robert is sitting in Grampa’s recliner, eyes closed, head tipped back, with his earbuds in and his iPod resting on the arm of the chair. I tiptoe over and look at the little screen to see what he’s listening to:
Kind of Blue
. It’s Miles Davis—jazz. And I remind myself that sometime I have to ask Robert how he connects his jazz with his classical playing. Because I’m sure he’s got a theory about that. I’ve known him less than two days, and it’s already perfectly clear that Robert has at least one theory about everything in the universe.
I touch him on the shoulder, and he jumps like he’s been half asleep, and it takes him a second to recognize me. He pulls out the earphones and I say, “Your turn. To practice.”
“Great,” and Robert gets out of the chair and heads downstairs.
First I finish loading the dinner dishes into the dishwasher, and then I put clean sheets and pillowcases on Grampa’s bed, and open a window to air out the room. As I put clean towels in the bathroom, that’s when I notice that Grampa didn’t take his hairbrush and comb. Or his toothbrush and electric razor. Which seems odd, that he’d leave in that much of a hurry.
And right away I want to try to figure out what it might mean. Of course, it might just mean that he decided to take one of those plastic disposable razors instead of the electric one, and that he took one of the new toothbrushes that his dentist always gives him. And who knows how many combs and brushes he owns? Or it could be that since he was in a hurry, Grampa just forgot. Everybody forgets stuff.
Even though I can find all these perfectly logical explanations, my worries follow me around like a dark swarm of bees. And I run to the creek, and I dive down deep, and I hold my breath as long as I can. But when I come up, gasping for air, I can still hear the buzzing.
And once again I try to take some shelter in Grampa’s last order to me:
You just keep about your own business and leave all the worrying to me.
Grampa and his orders. My dad said that time in the army does that to a man, makes him think like a soldier for the rest of his life, especially if he’s been to war.
I finish my chores and then I curl up on the couch with my book of poems. But I get up after a few minutes and go into the study. I roll Grampa’s desk chair out of the way, and I reach up and pull
Pride and Prejudice
off the shelf. For the third time. Because tonight doesn’t feel like a Yeats night. This is a Jane Austen night.
And I turn to go back to the parlor, but I stop. Because I can hear something. There’s music playing. And at first I think it’s a radio from upstairs.
But it’s not. It’s Robert. I pull out the chair and sit down, and I can hear the slow movement of the Haydn trumpet concerto drifting up out of the metal vent on the floor. It’s not loud, but it’s clear.
The music is beautiful, but that’s not why my eyes fill up with tears. It’s because I never knew. Grampa could have had the carpenter block every bit of sound from below. But he didn’t. He saved some. For himself. Just a little, so he could sit here when he wanted to and listen to me play my violin. And I never knew.
I smile when Robert ends the movement with a long fluttering trill, and then I wipe my eyes and carry
Pride and Prejudice
back into the parlor. I lie down again on the couch, and I open the book and begin to read.
But on this particular Saturday night, I ask myself, Why do I like this book so much?
Because someone could read this book and think that it’s just a sappy story about this girl and her sisters, and how they’re all trying so desperately to get married, to find the men who will save them from being old maids.
Truth: I have given no serious time in my life to love and romance. Almost zero. Since seventh grade I have never dreamed of anything except becoming a great violinist in a great orchestra. And even now, that’s still my top priority.
But here I am, reading
Pride and Prejudice
I flip ahead until I find the last chapter, and after reading a page or two, I realize that it’s the main character, Elizabeth. She’s the reason I love this book. Lizzy is smart, and she’s not just going along with what everyone expects her to do. And she’s got everyone figured out, except Mr. Darcy. And herself. But that comes full circle by the end.
And I love Jane Austen’s use of language too—the way she takes her time to develop a phrase and gives it room to grow, so that these clever, complex statements form slowly and then bloom in my mind. Beethoven does the same thing with his cadence and phrasing and structure. It’s a fact: Jane Austen is musical. And so’s Yeats. And Wordsworth. All the great writers are musical.
Thank you again, Miss Page, for more brilliant literary insights.
When Robert comes back upstairs, I don’t tell him that I listened to him playing from the study. That’s a secret, mine and Grampa’s.
Robert and I serve ourselves some ice cream, chocolate for him, vanilla for me. We turn on the tube and catch some
Saturday Night Live
, but I’m too worn-out to keep my eyes open.
“I’ve got to sleep now.”
Eyes on the screen, Robert says, “Okay. See you tomorrow.” Then he turns and smiles. “And thanks for asking me to stay. This is really great.”
I nod. “For me too.”
And I go downstairs and get ready for bed, and before I close my door, I listen at the bottom of the stairs. I don’t hear the TV, so I call, “Good night.”
But Robert must be in Grampa’s room already, because he doesn’t answer.
So I shut my door and lie down and turn off the light.
Then I count my blessings.
And the last thing I do is say a prayer for my grampa. And I hope that he has a nice new toothbrush.
I sleep until ten on Sunday morning, and when I go upstairs to the kitchen, Robert’s already there reading the
, and then he makes breakfast for both of us, scrambled eggs and toast.
“So what should we do today?” he says. “I mean, besides practicing? Want to go out for a while?”
I shrug. “It looks like a decent day. I’d be happy with a walk along the Hudson or something. Or do you want to be a real tourist—Statue of Liberty? Empire State Building? Something like that?”
He shakes his head. “No, that’s too much. But I do need some new running shoes. And I’ve heard that the New York Niketown store is pretty cool. How’s that for excitement?”
I call the store to check their hours. The place is open until seven, and we decide there’s enough time for each of us to practice for an hour before we go. So we do, because we’re both such insanely responsible young musicians.
Then it’s a subway ride down to Columbus Circle.
I love to watch people in New York, but if you make eye contact with the wrong person, it can get scary. Like the woman who was singing her own opera on a bus one afternoon. I was new in town, and I smiled and nodded at her, and suddenly the lady stands up and points, and begins singing at the top of her lungs. About me:
This child, this child of deadly Zeus,
She brings ruin and destruction down upon
Shun her, shun her, fear her evil eye,
For she has sold her soul to the bloodred moon.
Her performance ran for more than thirty blocks, and all the time my face was beet-red because everyone was looking at me. And when I got off, the lady rushed to the back of the bus and kept singing at me out the window.
Stuff like that can make a deep impression on a young newcomer to the big city.
So now I do my people-watching in quick glances, and in our subway car I don’t spot anyone who grabs my imagination. In fact, Robert and I may be the most interesting people around at the moment. Everybody else is probably watching us.
And as I think this, I notice that I’m enjoying sitting next to Robert. And I realize that when people see us sitting like this, they might think we’re together, that he’s my boyfriend. And suddenly I feel like Lizzy in
Pride and Prejudice
, and Robert is Mr. Darcy, and I’m writing Robert into my story, imagining what the two of us would be like as a couple.
The thought makes me blush, and to punish myself I say, “So tell me about your girlfriend—you said her name’s Alicia?”
He nods and gets this smile on his face, a sweet one I haven’t seen yet. “Right, Alicia. Well, she’s real, real smart. And she’s a great writer, and we like reading the same kind of books. We listen to a lot of music, and she’s heard me play my trumpet more than anyone else on the planet. And I’m not kidding—she is not afraid of
. Makes me feel like a wimp.”
The train stops at Seventy-second Street, and our conversation is interrupted by the noise of twenty people getting off and thirty others getting on.
When we’re moving again, I say, “Do you have a picture of her?”
He shakes his head. “Not even one. I know that sounds strange, but she’s never seen me at all, what I look like. So I keep her pictures in my head, like she does. I mean, she’s really pretty and everything. It’s just not why I like her.”
I let that sink in. And now I’m really curious. “Doesn’t it bother you sometimes, like, that you can’t go see a movie together? And do other stuff?”
He shakes his head. “We watch DVDs all the time. I describe what’s going on right while it’s happening. I’m a genius at it. So I get to watch the movie, and I also get to watch her face as I tell her about it. It’s the best. And if you’ve never been the guide for a blind person who’s riding a bike in front of you, it’s an experience. I mean, we only do that at night in this museum parking lot. It’s huge and flat, and all I have to do is keep her from hitting the light poles. And we work out at a gym together, and we’ve been camping and kayaking—even skiing on some little hills up in Wisconsin. So it’s not like we don’t do stuff. It’s just different, that’s all.” I can only imagine how different it would be. Like learning to see the world all over again. Or maybe like learning how to play the violin in the dark.
We get off at the Fifty-ninth Street station at the bottom of Central Park, walk down Broadway to Fifty-seventh Street, and then go east. He wants to go into the big bookstore on the corner, and normally, so would I. But I’m watching the time. I really do want to get back to my practice room, so I suggest that we save that pleasure for some other trip.
A block later, I’ve got a surprise for him, but he sees it before I can tell him.
“Hey, look—Carnegie Hall!
played there—even Miles Davis.”
And watching Robert’s face, I remember the first time I saw the place, all lit up at night, with banners announcing a performance by Yo-Yo Ma. At this moment it looks more like a drab hotel than the world’s most famous concert hall. A glass and metal marquee reaches out over the sidewalk, and if the fancy old bronze poster frames weren’t hanging on either side of the doorways, it would be easy to walk right past the place. My teacher told me that his namesake, Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, was the conductor at the very first concert here in 1891. And when I told my uncle Belden that I’d actually attended a performance at Carnegie Hall, he said, “So, what, is it like the Grand Ole Opry?” And I told him, “Yes—in a way, I guess it is.”
After we hike east and cross Fifth Avenue, the Nike store’s right there, and unlike Carnegie Hall, there’s no way to miss it. The façade is mostly polished granite, and there’s this huge arched window that goes up and up. It’s not your everyday shoe store at the mall, which is the full extent of my relationship with footwear. This place is more like an athletics theme park, or a high-tech Greek temple that specializes in foot worship. We wander around for almost an hour, just gawking at the plastic and the polished metal and the wall-sized graphics of the sports gods, plus all the multimedia displays—five floors of it. And then Robert finally picks out a pair of ridiculously expensive running shoes. After he pays, we start to head for the exit on the far side of the atrium.