So, this is how it’s become? This is what I’ve become? A walking contradiction? I’m surrounded by people and feel alone. I claim to crave a bit of normalcy but now that I have some, it’s like I don’t know what to do with it, don’t know how to be a normal person anymore.
I wander toward the Ramble, where the only people I’m likely to bump into are the kind who don’t want to be found. I buy a couple of hot dogs and down them in a few bites, and it’s only then that I realize I haven’t eaten all day, which makes me think about lunch—and the Vanessa LeGrande debacle.
What happened back there? I mean, you’ve been known to get testy with reporters, but that was just an amateur-hour move, I tell myself.
I’m just tired, I justify. Overtaxed. I think of the tour and it’s like the mossy ground next to me opens up and starts whirring.
Sixty-seven nights. I try to rationalize it. Sixty-seven nights is nothing. I try to divide up the number, to fractionalize it, to do something to make it smaller, but nothing divides evenly into sixty-seven. So I break it up. Fourteen countries, thirty-nine cities, a few hundred hours on a tour bus. But the math just makes the whirring go faster and I start to feel dizzy. I grab hold of the tree trunk and run my hand against the bark, which reminds me of Oregon and makes the earth at least close up for the time being.
I can’t help but think about how, when I was younger, I’d read about the legions of artists who imploded— Morrison, Joplin, Cobain, Hendrix. They disgusted me. They got what they wanted and then what did they do? Drugged themselves to oblivion. Or shot their heads off. What a bunch of ass**les.
Well, take a look at yourself now. You’re no junkie but you’re not much better.
I would change if I could, but so far, ordering myself to shut up and enjoy the ride hasn’t had much of an impact. If the people around me knew how I feel, they’d laugh at me. No, that’s not true. Bryn wouldn’t laugh. She’d be baffled by my inability to bask in what I’ve worked so hard to accomplish.
But have I worked so hard? There’s this assumption among my family, Bryn, the rest of the band—well, at least there used to be among those guys—that I somehow deserve all this, that the acclaim and wealth is payback. I’ve never really bought that. Karma’s not like a bank. Make a deposit, take a withdrawal. But more and more, I am starting to suspect that all this is payback for something—only not the good kind.
I reach for a cigarette, but my pack’s empty. I stand up and dust off my jeans and make my way out of the park. The sun is starting to dip to the west, a bright blaring ball tilting toward the Hudson and leaving a collage of peach and purple streaks across the sky. It really is pretty and for a second I force myself to admire it.
I turn south on Seventh, stop at a deli, grab some smokes, and then head downtown. I’ll go back to the hotel, get some room service, maybe fall asleep early for once. Outside Carnegie Hall, taxis are pulling up, dropping off people for tonight’s performances. An old woman in pearls and heels teeters out of a taxi, her stooped-over companion in a tux holding onto her elbow. Watching them stumble off together, I feel something in my chest lurch. Look at the sunset, I tell myself. Look at something with beauty. But when I look back up at the sky, the streaks have darkened to the color of a bruise.
Prissy, temperamental ass**le. That’s what the reporter was calling me. She was a piece of work, but on that particular point, she was speaking the truth.
My gaze returns to earth and when it does, it’s her eyes I see. Not the way I used to see them—around every corner, behind my own closed lids at the start of each day. Not in the way I used to imagine them in the eyes of every other girl I laid on top of. No, this time it really is her eyes. A photo of her, dressed in black, a cello leaning against one shoulder like a tired child. Her hair is up in one of those buns that seem to be a requisite for classical musicians. She used to wear it up like that for recitals and chamber music concerts, but with little pieces hanging down, to soften the severity of the look. There are no tendrils in this photo. I peer closer at the sign. YOUNG CONCERT SERIES PRESENTS MIA HALL.
A few months ago, Liz broke the unspoken embargo on all things Mia and mailed me a clip from the magazine All About Us. I thought you should see this, was scrawled on a sticky note. It was an article titled “Twenty Under 20,” featuring upcoming “wunderkinds.” There was a page on Mia, including a picture I could barely bring myself to glance at, and an article about her, that after a few rounds of deep breathing, I only managed to skim. The piece called her the “heir apparent to Yo-Yo Ma.” In spite of myself, I’d smiled at that. Mia used to say that people who had no idea about the cello always described cellists as the next Yo-Yo Ma because he was their single point of reference. “What about Jacqueline Du Pré?” she’d always asked, referring to her own idol, a talented and tempestuous cellist who’d been stricken with multiple sclerosis at the age of twenty-eight and died about fifteen years later.
The All About Us article called Mia’s playing “otherworldly” and then very graphically described the car accident that had killed her parents and little brother more than three years ago. That had surprised me. Mia hadn’t been one to talk about that, to fish for sympathy points. But when I’d managed to make myself skim the piece again, I’d realized that it was a write-around, quotes taken from old newspaper accounts, but nothing directly from Mia herself.
I’d held onto the clipping for a few days, occasionally taking it out to glance over it. Having the thing in my wallet felt a little bit like carrying around a vial of plutonium. And for sure if Bryn caught me with an article about Mia there’d be explosions of the nuclear variety. So after a few more days, I threw it away and forced myself to forget it.
Now, I try to summon the details, to recall if it said anything about Mia leaving Juilliard or playing recitals at Carnegie Hall.
I look up again. Her eyes are still there, still staring at me. And I just know with as much certainty as I know anything in this world that she’s playing tonight. I know even before I consult the date on the poster and see that the performance is for August thirteenth.
And before I know what I’m doing, before I can argue myself out of it, rationalize what a terrible idea this is, I’m walking toward the box office. I don’t want to see her, I tell myself. I won’t see her. I only want to hear her. The box office sign says that tonight is sold out. I could announce who I am or put in a call to my hotel’s concierge or Aldous and probably get a ticket, but instead I leave it to fate. I present myself as an anonymous, if underdressed, young man and ask if there are any seats left.
“In fact, we’re just releasing the rush tickets. I have a rear mezzanine, side. It’s not the ideal view, but it’s all that’s left,” the girl behind the glass window tells me.
“I’m not here for the view,” I reply.
“I always think that, too,” the girl says, laughing. “But people get particular about these kinds of things. That’ll be twenty-five dollars.”
I throw down my credit card and enter the cool, dim theater. I slide into my seat and close my eyes, remembering the last time I went to a cello concert somewhere this fancy. Five years ago, on our first date. Just as I did that night, I feel this mad rush of anticipation, even though I know that unlike that night, tonight I won’t kiss her. Or touch her. Or even see her up close.
Tonight, I’ll listen. And that’ll be enough.
Mia woke up after four days, but we didn’t tell her until the sixth day. It didn’t matter because she seemed to already know. We sat around her hospital bed in the ICU, her taciturn grandfather having drawn the short straw, I guess, because he was the one chosen to break the news that her parents, Kat and Denny, had been killed instantly in the car crash that had landed her here. And that her little brother, Teddy, had died in the emergency room of the local hospital where he and Mia had been brought to before Mia was evacuated to Portland. Nobody knew the cause of the crash. Did Mia have any memory of it?
Mia just lay there, blinking her eyes and holding onto my hand, digging her nails in so tightly it seemed like she’d never let me go. She shook her head and quietly said “no, no, no,” over and over again, but without tears, and I wasn’t sure if she was answering her grandfather’s question or just negating the whole situation. No!
But then the social worker stepped in, taking over in her no-nonsense way. She told Mia about the operations she’d undergone so far, “triage, really, just to get you stable, and you’re doing remarkably well,” and then talked about the surgeries that she’d likely be facing in the coming months: First a surgery to reset the bone in her left leg with metal rods. Then another surgery a week or so after that, to harvest skin from the thigh of her uninjured leg. Then another to graft that skin onto the messed-up leg. Those two procedures, unfortunately, would leave some “nasty scars.” But the injuries on her face, at least, could vanish completely with cosmetic surgery after a year. “Once you’re through your nonelective surgeries, provided there aren’t any complications—no infections from the splenectomy, no pneumonia, no problems with your lungs—we’ll get you out of the hospital and into rehab,” the social worker said. “Physical and occupational, speech and whatever else you need. We’ll assess where you are in a few days.” I was dizzy from this litany, but Mia seemed to hang on her every word, to pay more attention to the details of her surgeries than to the news of her family.
Later that afternoon, the social worker took the rest of us aside. We—Mia’s grandparents and me—had been worried about Mia’s reaction, or her lack of one. We’d expected screaming, hair pulling, something explosive, to match the horror of the news, to match our own grief. Her eerie quiet had all of us thinking the same thing: brain damage.
“No, that’s not it,” the social worker quickly reassured. “The brain is a fragile instrument and we may not know for a few weeks what specific regions have been affected, but young people are so very resilient and right now her neurologists are quite optimistic. Her motor control is generally good. Her language faculties don’t seem too affected. She has weakness in her right side and her balance is off. If that’s the extent of her brain injury, then she is fortunate.”
We all cringed at that word. Fortunate. But the social worker looked at our faces. “Very fortunate because all of that is reversible. As for that reaction back there,” she said, gesturing toward the ICU, “that is a typical response to such extreme psychological trauma. The brain can only handle so much, so it filters in a bit at a time, digests slowly. She’ll take it all in, but she’ll need help.” Then she’d told us about the stages of grief, loaded us up with pamphlets on post-traumatic stress disorder, and recommended a grief counselor at the hospital for Mia to see. “It might not be a bad idea for the rest of you, too,” she’d said.
We’d ignored her. Mia’s grandparents weren’t the therapy types. And as for me, I had Mia’s rehabilitation to worry about, not my own.
The next round of surgeries started almost immediately, which I found cruel. Mia had just come back from the brink of it, only to be told her family was dead, and now she had to go under the knife again. Couldn’t they cut the girl a break? But the social worker had explained that the sooner Mia’s leg was fixed, the sooner Mia would be mobile, and the sooner she could really start to heal. So her femur was set with pins; skin grafts were taken. And with speed that made me breathless, she was discharged from the hospital and dispatched to a rehab center, which looked like a condo complex, with flat paths crisscrossing the grounds, which were just beginning to bloom with spring flowers when Mia arrived.
She’d been there less than a week, a determined, teeth-gritted terrifying week, when the envelope came.