By Leah O’Sullivan
From Fall 2017
On the first day of high school, I got first chair of the first violins for my school’s orchestra. I wasn’t surprised.
“Gabriella Merlo,” Mr. Boyle called from his office. I was sitting near the back of the class with a school-borrowed violin and bow on my lap. I went into his office, clutching the audition music that everyone had learned to play, and sat down. His desk, cluttered with paperwork, cleanly separated us.
I let my mind wander while I breezed through scales and the audition piece, and at the end Mr. Boyle looked at me with wide eyes through his thick glasses. “Huh.” He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Did you say you were a freshman?”
I had to sit in the front of the class; not only that, I also had to lead the orchestra every day in tuning. I wasn’t used to so many eyes boring into my back. I tried to sit up tall when I played an A for everyone to tune to, but the weight of the stares made me want to curl up under my stand.
I began making mistakes—stupid ones. My shaky fingers made my vibrato clumsy. My sweaty hands made all my notes flat. Shifting used to feel like sliding across a smooth floor in socks, but now my fingers tripped to go up the fingerboard. Mr. Boyle’s bespectacled gaze often lingered over to me, his peppery moustache frowning.
When I had played the violin just at home—when I was beginning to learn what “prodigy” meant—my mom would praise me in that way her friends warned would make me spoiled. She clapped for me even when I just practiced scales, beaming. “Gabby, baby,” she said once, burying me into a hug, my face squished against her belly and my violin dangling away from us so it wouldn’t get crushed. “You’re so special. You’re so perfect.”
That was before I played in an orchestra. Amid all those pubescent string players, suffocated by the immensity of the noise we produced, I felt like a broken piece of a machine.
Mr. Boyle started us out with a Beatles medley. The only song I knew by the Beatles was “Let it Be,” which my fifth grade teacher taught us to sing for our fifth grade “graduation.” This medley went through “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Hey Jude,” “Michelle,” and “Blackbird.” The first songs were okay—I thought the peppiness of the first one was a little grating—but for some reason, when the piece left “Michelle” and flowed into G major for “Blackbird,” the cellos and violas settling into steady eighth notes, my breath came a little easier, and the hard black chair didn’t dig so harshly into my back. The eyes of all the students behind me didn’t feel so heavy. The lilting background chords lulled me into security and I almost missed the first violins’ cue.
My mom had told me when I was a kid what my last name meant. Merlo. It was my dad’s, and I think because of that she resented it a bit. “It means blackbird,” she’d whispered to me in the city’s public library one day. “Here, look at this book.” She knelt down and pulled out a kid’s book on birds, flipping to a picture of a blackbird. It was chubby with tiny eyes like a fat cat’s and a bright orange beak. I was disappointed, maybe because I’d been secretly imagining someone like Batman except in bird form.
“Blackbirds mean you’re naïve,” she said, smiling at me. “I made fun of your father about that all the time.”
“What’s naïve?” I asked.
“It means you look up because you think gullible’s written on the ceiling.” I shot my head straight up and squinted at the blank ceiling. My mom laughed at me and messed up my hair.
But the song we were now playing in class sounded so sweet. I couldn’t find it in myself to make fun of it or to call it naïve. It was open and raw, like a child. With other stupid songs we played, glorified versions of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or imitations of Beethoven’s Fifth, I privately stabbed at the music with sarcasm, using it as a weapon to pierce through the song’s bullshit. But there was no bullshit in this song.
All of the first violinists auditioned, but I got the solo part, of course. When we practiced the song, I played through it impatiently, eager to get to my solo, and when “Blackbird” started up, all my tension released, and I got that school violin to sing; I even saw Mr. Boyle smile at me from behind his moustache. Playing that part didn’t feel like practice; it felt like a gift. And I never thought I’d get something so beautiful in high school.
The second chair first violinist graduated that year, and I could count our short conversations during the time I’d known him on one hand. Now, at the start of my sophomore year, a girl with mousey brown hair, a baby face, and a t-shirt depicting a dude with spikey hair was my stand partner. Her name was Paige. She was always in class before me, a sketchbook on her lap instead of her violin. Yes, her violin; it shone like a mirror, no scratches, and strung recently enough that the strings were still too stubborn to stay in tune. I knew this because she struck up a conversation with me the second day of class, going on about how she’d gotten her violin as a birthday present over the summer.
“Is that a school violin?” she asked me, her quiet voice almost drowned out by the chatter of students and the clicking of instrument cases.
I tightened my bow, not looking at her. “Yeah.”
“That sucks.” She shrugged, as though she wasn’t sure whether or not it did.
I looked at her out the corner of my eye. “The violin only sucks when I do.”
Paige stared at her sketchbook in her lap and I focused on the sheet music in front of us, fighting the urge to run out of the classroom. For the rest of practice I moved the minimum amount while playing, worried I would accidentally poke her with the tip of my bow and then have to acknowledge her existence.
And yet, the next day, she talked to me. “That Bach song is kinda hard,” she said, taking a cloth out of her case.
My impulse was to say, It’s a great concerto, and the arranger butchered it so any dumbass can play it. Bach’s études are harder than this shit. But I’d learned since yesterday not to trust my impulses. “Yeah, it’s okay,” I said.
She rubbed the cloth against her violin strings, making a faint screeching noise that made me grit my teeth.
The week continued in the same way. Paige talked about how she went to Arizona over the summer to see family and had I ever been to Arizona? (I hadn’t.) Well the Grand Canyon is pretty cool. She asked me if I had English with Ms. Nurse (I didn’t—I had it with Mr. Porter) and if I’d ever read The Count of Monte Cristo for school (I hadn’t). Well, she had to read it over the summer and she thought it was kinda hard to follow. She asked me if I watched anime (I didn’t even know what that was). It’s Japanese animation. She liked it but she didn’t know anyone else who did. She was saving up to go to an anime convention during winter break.
At first I felt bad for Paige, since it didn’t seem like she had any friends, but then I realized I didn’t have any friends either. Our short conversations left me with paranoia that everyone saw me as just as awkward as she was, and that she maybe even pitied me for it. Thoughts like these made my shoulders ache with the weight of stares, and at the end of every class I was the first to pack up my violin and rush out the door, desperate to relieve that burden.
Two weeks into the year, Mr. Boyle kept Paige and I at the end of class.
“Gabriella.” He removed his glasses and rubbed off a smudge with his shirtsleeve. “Paige told me she’s been having trouble with the Bach piece. Would you be able to help her after school today? I want everyone in the orchestra to be ready for the Fall Concert.”
My stomach dropped as I grasped for excuses. “My mom wants me to be home right after school. She gets worried if I’m late.” That was all kinds of lies. My mom wouldn’t have cared if I’d needed to stay after school to help someone; she would’ve encouraged it.
Mr. Boyle put his glasses back on and looked at me, raising an eyebrow. “I can call your mother and assure her that you’re safe at school.”
Shit. I glanced at Paige, who was shrugging as though she wanted to be buried in her shoulders. “No, it’s fine,” I told Mr. Boyle. “I was exaggerating. She’ll understand.”
We sat in the practice room after school like we did in orchestra: side-by-side, sharing one stand. I’d never noticed before how much Paige was struggling with the songs. We went through the whole piece nearly three times before I realized I had to go to the bathroom.
When I came back, she was drawing. She didn’t notice me walk in. I peeked over her shoulder and was surprised to see my own face on the white sketchbook paper.
“What the hell,” I muttered.
Paige turned around in her chair so violently she bumped into the stand and knocked off the sheet music. Her face turned a screaming red and she clutched the sketchbook to her chest. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but no words came out.
And then I surprised myself. “Can I look at the drawing?” I asked.
The redness flowed down to her neck and she looked carefully at her sketchbook as if it was a bomb, but she handed it to me. It had been originally pencil-drawn, but she’d been beginning to outline it in a black pen. She’d drawn my profile from the waist-up—just me, without my violin. My hair didn’t look so frizzy in its ponytail like it usually did. My arms didn’t look as flabby. My short neck was elongated, and my big nose was elegant. In the drawing, I carried myself with confidence; usually I didn’t carry myself with anything. Staring at the drawing, I thought that this was maybe how my mom had seen me when she’d called me beautiful. And then it hit me that this was what Paige saw, too.
I looked at her over the sketchbook and she’d faded to pink now, like a flower was blooming from within her face, but her eyes were afraid. I gave her back the sketchbook, which she promptly stuffed into her backpack, and picked up the sheet music on the floor and stuck it back on the stand. “Let’s keep practicing,” I said, lifting my violin into position.
I could feel her eyes on my face, and I heard the faint strum of her fingers brushing the strings as she picked up her violin. Getting the words out was like pulling out a weed.
“You’re a good artist,” I said, my turn to blush. I didn’t look at her, and I let the silence linger for a few seconds before I broke it: “Anyways. Let’s go to measure fifteen.”
Uncle Marius was a mechanical engineer for a company that made noise-cancelling headphones, and he usually stayed late at night in the office. I often imagined him with his hands in his graying hair, poring over table-sized blueprints while his coworkers scribbled complicated formulas onto whiteboards around the room, desperate to create the perfect headphones. I was pretty sure that his work involved less of this and more of writing emails and making phone calls, but Uncle Mar never talked about what he did. I had a lot of time to myself at home, and I spent it procrastinating on doing my homework and heating up frozen dinners in the microwave. Sometimes he was home for dinner; other times he returned after I fell asleep.
On the day Paige showed me her drawing, the early autumn sunshine felt warmer than usual as I walked home. I wasn’t thinking about my uncle’s work as much as I was thinking about Paige’s drawing, and when I unlocked the door and entered the living room, I was surprised to see him sitting on the old blue couch, flipping through the television channels.
I let the door shut behind me, frozen in the doorway. Uncle Mar looked up at me and raised his eyebrows, as though he wasn’t expecting me. “You’re home late.”
“I was helping a girl from orchestra with one of the songs,” I said, dropping my backpack by the door. “You’re home early.”
“I have the day off,” he said, turning back to the television. “I thought I told you that.”
I kicked my shoes off and picked up my violin. “No, I don’t think so.”
He was never home this early. I usually came home, went to my room with my violin—which used to be my cousin Nina’s room before she left for college—and played everything that I’d played in orchestra that day. It was a sort of confession for me so that I could forgive myself for my own sins—or, rather, for the mistakes I’d made during class. And when I was through absolving myself, I played something ostentatious like one of Paganini’s Caprices, pieces that I used to play to impress family when my mom invited people over.
I went upstairs to my room, leaving Uncle Mar down in the living room as he watched television, and pulled out the simplified version of the third concerto of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. I had been tripping over my fingers throughout the entire song during practice, and now that I was alone in my quiet room with the white curtains and the faded pink walls that were beginning to feel familiar, I felt the weight on my shoulders that I carried during orchestra float away, and lifting my violin onto my shoulder felt a little easier.
I was about five measures into the song when I heard footsteps come up the stairs and a light knock on my door.
Uncle Mar stood in the doorway, the circles under his eyes seeming darker than usual. “Gabriella, I hate to ask you this, but could you give the playing a rest for the day?”
“Oh,” was all I said.
“Not that it doesn’t sound, uh, really good,” he said, scratching the back of his head. “I’ve just been stressed at work and I could use some quiet, at least for now.”
“Oh,” I said again. “I mean, okay.”
He gave me a weak smile and gently closed the door. As I put my violin away, I tried to think of the last time we’d had such a long conversation with each other.
Every day after school up until the Fall Concert in October, Paige and I stayed after school to work on the songs Paige was struggling with. I didn’t see her draw in class anymore, the sketchbook on her lap now replaced with her violin, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.
I found that practicing with Paige was making me better, too. Playing with other people staring at me was different from playing with Paige. Paige wasn’t people: she was just… Paige. She was innocuous, about as intimidating as a mouse. Plus, I was starting not to mind being around her. She talked a lot, but her voice was pleasant and soft. Her playing style was similar: she played the violin in a quiet way that made you want to lean in and listen. I kept thinking about the way she made me look in her drawing, and I soon realized that every day I saw her I noticed something I liked about her: her hair that now looked more soft than mousey, her face more sweet than baby-like.
It was a week before the concert, a rainy day that made me glad to be in the practice room with Paige. The storm outside picked up as the wind blew rain against the window with loud raps like little bullets, so Paige and I decided to take a break until the weather quieted down. She talked about her Halloween costume ideas while I pretended to listen, still not quite used to Paige’s ramblings. She then stopped talking, and I saw that she was looking at my hair.
“How did you learn to do that?” she asked. I looked down and saw that I’d been French braiding my hair, the strands twirled in my fingers.
“Oh, um, my mom taught me,” I said, rubbing my thumb up and down the braid.
“That’s cool,” Paige said. “My mom never taught me how to do anything with my hair.”
I tapped the violin on my lap with my fingertips and listened to the storm, loud as ever. I then put it on the ground and scooted my chair closer to Paige. “Here, I’ll teach you.”
Her hair was thin and fell just below her shoulders, so it kept falling out of the braid. After the third time trying to wrangle it, Paige wincing as I tugged and tugged, she turned to me. “What if I practice on your hair?”
“Sure?” I said, as though it were a question. We turned so that Paige sat behind me, and I felt her fumbling fingers combing through my hair and sectioning it off like I’d told her. The little tugs on the back of my head were soothing paired with the sound of the pouring rain. I closed my eyes and thought I could maybe fall asleep, remembering how my mom would comb my hair and braid it after I took showers at night. She would sit on the toilet in the bathroom while I sat on a stool in front of her, just at the right height so she didn’t have to bend over to reach my head. The smell of shampoo and soap still lingered in the bathroom along with the last remnants of steam from the hot shower, and everything felt warm and damp and safe as she ran her fingers through my hair.
I opened my eyes to the harsh fluorescent light of the practice room and felt my gut wrench. Paige’s fingers felt alien as they tugged on my hair, and I was filled with rage. I leapt up and whirled around to face her, my heart pounding.
“Stop it,” I demanded.
Her eyes were wide. “What did I—?”
“You can’t replace her, okay?”
She blushed, and I suddenly hated her. “What do you mean? Replace who?”
“My mom, dumbass,” I said, the words flying out before I could catch them. “She’s dead, and you’re trying to replace her because you have a creepy crush on me, you freak.”
She didn’t shrink away from freak like I’d hoped she would. She just stared at me with concern in her eyes. “I’m not trying to replace your mom. I was just trying to help.”
I remembered lying on the bed in my old bedroom after the funeral service, while downstairs everyone else milled around and spoke in soft voices. They’d kept looking at me, the pity in their furrowed brows making them look confused, as if they weren’t sure what to do with me. I got sick of it, so I went upstairs to sit in my room alone, staring at the walls for a good half an hour before the knob on my bedroom door opened. I jumped off the bed and ran into the closet, leaving the door open only a crack.
It was Uncle Mar and his wife, Tara—well, his ex-wife, or at least soon to be. They closed the door behind them and Uncle Mar sighed heavily, running a hand through his hair. Tara crossed her arms and studied his face carefully.
“What the hell are you thinking?” Tara asked him in a low voice.
“I’m being a good brother, Tara,” Uncle Mar said. “And a good uncle. Her father didn’t even show up to the funeral. She doesn’t have any other options.”
“How are you supposed to raise a teenager right now?” Tara whispered harshly.
“I have the money.”
“You don’t have the time.”
“I would if you had any interest in helping.” Uncle Mar’s voice was cold.
They were silent for a moment, staring each other down. I was trying not to breathe.
Finally, Tara pierced the silence. “I just don’t understand why you’re taking this on right now,” she said, crossing her arms.
Uncle Mar sighed again. “I’m just trying to help.”
And then I was back in the practice room. Paige was staring at me, and it caught me off-guard. People usually left me alone if I yelled at them like that, or at the most I got grounded.
“Everyone’s always trying to help,” I said. “But I can help myself. I don’t need help. I’m not a charity case.”
“Then what do you need, Gabriella?” Paige asked. The way she said my name in her soft voice shook my resolve for a moment.
I need my mom, I thought, but I didn’t dare say it. “I need you to leave me alone,” I said, walking out of the practice room and letting the door slam behind me.
It was still raining, and I didn’t want to walk home, so I sat underneath the awning of the music building, hugging my knees to my chest. I watched raindrops hit the chain-link that marked the edge of campus. On the street just past the fence, cars drove by, their tires sloshing through the water on the road.
The door opened and I turned to see Paige walk out, her violin case held tight against her side. I turned back around and stared straight ahead, but I heard her sit down next to me.
Excruciating minutes passed before either of us said anything. “I’m waiting for my parents to come pick me up,” Paige said, by way of explanation.
“Right.” I stared at my rain-spattered shoes.
“I’m sorry about what happened during practice,” she said, and I looked up at her.
“You’re the one apologizing?” I said. “I’m the one who blew up at you.”
“Well, yeah.” She shrugged. “I made you uncomfortable. I just…”
“I just really like you, I guess.”
“Well…” I swallowed, trying to find my words. “I figured that, since you’ve been drawing pictures of me, so you’ve got to at least have a shrine dedicated to me in your room.”
I froze. Had that gone too far? But then a smile burst across her face and she started laughing, her face turning a familiar pink. I’d never heard her laugh before, and the sound, soft like everything else about her, made me want to blush.
“I’m sorry,” I found myself saying. “That was mean.”
“No, that was funny,” Paige said, still smiling.
We sat in silence for a few moments, watching the cars drive by. “I didn’t know your mom had died,” she said softly, her voice almost drowned out by the rain.
“I never told you,” I said. “It happened right before freshman year. She got in a car accident. I haven’t told anyone, really.”
She looked at me, and I realized how close our faces were. “I’m sorry. Do you want to talk about it?”
That first part I heard often, but the second part, not so much. “I told her I wanted to play the violin when I was four,” I found myself saying, “and she didn’t even think about it—she signed me up for lessons. I was so little, I don’t even remember when I first started playing. I just always have.”
I looked at Paige, worried I’d said too much, but if she felt uncomfortable she didn’t show it. “Do you know what I mean?” I went on. “She didn’t have to do that. She didn’t have to be so… nice to me, but she was.”
“She’s your mom,” Paige said. “She loved you.”
“There are plenty of shitty moms out there that love their kids,” I said. “They’re still shitty moms. And now…” And now it felt like I’d been pushed out of the nest and I didn’t know how to fly. Now I’d lost a world where I went home every day to someone who loved me, and I had to be cold inside to survive in this new world that was so freezing with my mother’s absence. But I didn’t tell Paige that.
“I always feel like an idiot,” I said. “I never know what I’m doing. You’ve seen me in orchestra—I fuck up all the time. And I need to get used to it. I need to get used to the fact that no one’s going to tell me how talented I am all the time. I need to get used to people not treating me like I’m special.”
“I think you’re special,” Paige said, in a voice as gentle as her fingers were in my hair.
I hugged myself tighter and stared hard at the ground, my chest tightening. “You barely know me.” I ground my teeth as I realized that my eyes were watery.
“I think you’re talented, too,” she went on. “I don’t need to know you to know that.”
“Stop it,” I muttered, wiping my eyes.
Paige stopped talking and for a moment, I thought she’d stopped because I’d told her to. But then she continued. “I don’t know what it’s like to have parents that care that much. Mine just… kind of ignore me. I don’t know what it’s like to lose someone that cares that much, either.”
She was close enough that I could feel the warmth from her body even though we weren’t touching.
“And so I think… I think you might be afraid to like me,” she said. “But I’m not afraid to like you.”
Maybe I just don’t fucking like you, I thought about saying, but instead I just started crying. I buried my head in my knees and my body shook with sobs. I felt Paige’s warmth right next to me, and I leaned into her, my face on her arm, and let myself cry. The sky wasn’t raining anymore, maybe because now it was my turn. I felt Paige’s arm wrap around me, holding me against her warm body. When I was done, I sat up, using the sleeves of my jacket to wipe my face and looked out at the street. “Where are your parents?” I asked, my voice cracking.
Paige shrugged and smiled sheepishly. “I walk home.”
“Ah,” I said, nodding and sniffling. “We should walk home together sometime.”
She gave me a smile, and I glanced over her face for a moment, imagining how she must have looked at me in orchestra without me even noticing. I wondered if we could ever care about each other—not just like each other, but really care about each other.
“So. Um.” I cleared my throat. “You’re, um, gay?”
Paige’s blush returned. “Um. Probably? I haven’t talked to anyone about it?”
“I’m not,” I said quickly. It was a lie, and I didn’t like how it felt. “I mean, I don’t know if I am.”
A car drove by in the middle of our awkward silence, slow enough for me to hear a familiar song flow from its speakers: lilting guitar chords in G major, sweet and open and raw.
My shoulders relaxed, and the awkwardness faded.
“We can worry about that stuff later,” Paige said, standing up. “Let’s go practice at my house?” She offered a hand, pulling me off the ground; I felt light on my feet. I lifted my violin and walked with her away from the music building, still holding her hand.