Juilliard. It had been so many things to me before. A foregone conclusion. A point of pride. A rival. And then I’d just forgotten about it. I think we all had. But life was churning outside Mia’s rehab center, and somewhere out there in the world, that other Mia—the one who had two parents, a brother, and a fully working body—still continued to exist. And in that other world, some judges had listened to Mia play a few months earlier and had gone on processing her application, and it had gone through the various motions until a final judgment was made, and that final judgment was before us now. Mia’s grandmother had been too nervous to open the envelope, so she waited for me and Mia’s grandfather before she sliced into it with a mother-of-pearl letter opener.
Mia got in. Had there ever been any question?
We all thought the acceptance would be good for her, a bright spot on an otherwise bleak horizon.
“And I’ve already spoken to the dean of admissions and explained your situation, and they’ve said you can put off starting for a year, two if you need,” Mia’s grandmother had said as she’d presented Mia with the news and the generous scholarship that had accompanied the acceptance. Juilliard had actually suggested the deferral, wanting to make sure that Mia was able to play up to the school’s rigorous standards, if she chose to attend.
“No,” Mia had said from the center’s depressing common room in that dead-flat voice she had spoken in since the accident. None of us was quite sure whether this was from emotional trauma or if this was Mia’s affect now, her newly rearranged brain’s way of speaking. In spite of the social worker’s continued reassurances, in spite of her therapists’ evaluations that she was making solid progress, we still worried. We discussed these things in hushed tones after we left her alone on the nights that I couldn’t con myself into staying over.
“Well, don’t be hasty,” her grandmother had replied. “The world might look different in a year or two. You might still want to go.”
Mia’s grandmother had thought Mia was refusing Juilliard. But I knew better. I knew Mia better. It was the deferral she was refusing.
Her grandmother argued with Mia. September was five months away. Too soon. And she had a point. Mia’s leg was still in one of those boot casts, and she was just starting to walk again. She couldn’t open a jar because her right hand was so weak, and she would often blank on the names of simple things, like scissors. All of which the therapists said was to be expected and would likely pass—in good time. But five months? That wasn’t long.
Mia asked for her cello that afternoon. Her grandmother had frowned, worried that this foolishness would waylay Mia’s recovery. But I jumped out of my chair and ran to my car and was back with the cello by the time the sun set.
After that, the cello became her therapy: physical, emotional, mental. The doctors were amazed at Mia’s upper-body strength—what her old music teacher Professor Christie had called her “cello body,” broad shoulders, muscular arms—and how her playing brought that strength back, which made the weakness in her right arm go away and strengthened her injured leg. It helped with the dizziness. Mia closed her eyes as she played, and she claimed that this, along with grounding her two feet on the floor, helped her balance. Through playing, Mia revealed the lapses she tried to hide in everyday conversation. If she wanted a Coke but couldn’t remember the word for it, she’d cover up and just ask for orange juice. But with cello, she would be honest about the fact that she remembered a Bach suite she’d been working on a few months ago but not a simple étude she’d learned as a child; although once Professor Christie, who came down once a week to work with her, showed it to her, she’d pick it right up. This gave the speech therapists and neurologists clues as to the hopscotch way her brain had been impacted, and they tailored their therapies accordingly.
But mostly, the cello improved her mood. It gave her something to do every day. She stopped speaking in the monotone and started to talk like Mia again, at least when she was talking about music. Her therapists altered her rehabilitation plan, allowing her to spend more time practicing. “We don’t really get how music heals the brain,” one of her neurologists told me one afternoon as he listened to her play to a group of patients in the common room, “but we know that it does. Just look at Mia.”
She left the rehab center after four weeks, two weeks ahead of schedule. She could walk with a cane, open a jar of peanut butter, and play the hell out of Beethoven.
That article, the “Twenty Under 20” thing from All About Us that Liz showed me, I do remember one thing about it. I remember the not-just-implied but overtly stated connection between Mia’s “tragedy” and her “otherworldly” playing. And I remember how that pissed me off. Because there was something insulting in that. As if the only way to explain her talent was to credit some supernatural force. Like what’d they think, that her dead family was inhabiting her body and playing a celestial choir through her fingers?
But the thing was, there was something otherworldly that happened. And I know because I was there. I witnessed it: I saw how Mia went from being a very talented player to something altogether different. In the space of five months, something magical and grotesque transformed her. So, yes, it was all related to her “tragedy,” but Mia was the one doing the heavy lifting. She always had been.
She left for Juilliard the day after Labor Day. I drove her to the airport. She kissed me good-bye. She told me that she loved me more than life itself. Then she stepped through security.
She never came back.
The bow is so old, its horsehair is glue
Sent to the factory, just like me and like you
So how come they stayed your execution?
The audience roars its standing ovation
COLLATERAL DAMAGE, TRACK 9
When the lights come up after the concert, I feel drained, lugubrious, as though my blood has been secreted out of me and replaced with tar. After the applause dies down, the people around me stand up, they talk about the concert, about the beauty of the Bach, the mournfulness of the Elgar, the risk—that paid off—of throwing in the contemporary John Cage piece. But it’s the Dvo?ák that’s eating up all the oxygen in the room, and I can understand why.
When Mia used to play her cello, her concentration was always written all over her body: a crease folded across her forehead. Her lips, pursed so tightly they sometimes lost all their color, as if all her blood was requisitioned to her hands.
There was a little bit of that happening with the earlier pieces tonight. But when she got to the Dvo?ák, the final piece of her recital, something came over her. I don’t know if she hit her groove or if this was her signature piece, but instead of hunching over her cello, her body seemed to expand, to bloom, and the music filled the open spaces around it like a flowering vine. Her strokes were broad and happy and bold, and the sound that filled the auditorium seemed to channel this pure emotion, like the very intention of the composer was spiraling through the room. And the look on her face, with her eyes upward, a small smile playing on her lips, I don’t know how to describe it without sounding like one of these clichéd magazine articles, but she seemed so at one with the music. Or maybe just happy. I guess I always knew she was capable of this level of artistry, but witnessing it f**king blew me away. Me and everyone else in that auditorium, judging by the thunderous applause she got.
The houselights are up now, bright and bouncing off the blond wood chairs and the geometric wall panels, making the floor start to swim. I sink back down into the nearest chair and try not to think about the Dvo?ák—or the other things: the way she wiped her hand on her skirt in between pieces, the way she cocked her head in time to some invisible orchestra, all gestures that are way too familiar to me.
Grasping onto the chair in front of me for balance, I stand up again. I make sure my legs are working and the ground isn’t spinning and then will one leg to follow the other toward the exit. I am shattered, exhausted. All I want to do now is go back to my hotel to down a couple of Ambien or Lunesta or Xanax or whatever’s in my medicine cabinet—and end this day. I want to go to sleep and wake up and have this all be over.
“Excuse me, Mr. Wilde.”
I normally have a thing about enclosed spaces, but if there is one place in the city where I’d expect the safety of anonymity, it’s Carnegie Hall for a classical concert. All through the concert and intermission, no one gave me a second glance, except a pair of old biddies who I think were mostly just dismayed by my jeans. But this guy is about my age; he’s an usher, the only person within fifty feet under the age of thirty-five, the only person around here likely to own a Shooting Star album.
I’m reaching into my pocket for a pen that I don’t have. The usher looks embarrassed, shaking his head and his hands simultaneously. “No, no, Mr. Wilde. I’m not asking for an autograph.” He lowers his voice. “It’s actually against the rules, could get me fired.”
“Oh,” I say, chastened, confused. For a second I wonder if I’m about to get dressed-down for dressing down.
The usher says: “Ms. Hall would like you to come backstage.”
It’s noisy with the after-show hubbub, so for a second I assume I’ve misheard him. I think he says that she wants me backstage. But that can’t be right. He must be talking about the hall, not Mia Hall.
But before I can get him to clarify, he’s leading me by the elbow back toward the staircase and down to the main lobby and through a small door beside the stage and through a maze of corridors, the walls lined with framed sheet music. And I’m allowing myself to be led; it’s like the time when I was ten years old and was sent to the principal’s office for throwing a water balloon in class, and all I could do was follow Mrs. Linden down the hallways and wonder what awaited me behind the main office doors. I have that same feeling. That I’m in trouble for something, that Aldous didn’t really give me the evening off and I’m about to be reamed out for missing a photo shoot or pissing off a reporter or being the antisocial lone wolf in danger of breaking up the band.
And so I don’t really process it, don’t let myself hear it or believe it or think about it until the usher leads me to a small room and opens the door and closes it, and suddenly she’s there. Really there. A flesh-and-blood person, not a specter.
My first impulse is not to grab her or kiss her or yell at her. I simply want to touch her cheek, still flushed from the night’s performance. I want to cut through the space that separates us, measured in feet—not miles, not continents, not years—and to take a callused finger to her face. I want to touch her to make sure it’s really her, not one of those dreams I had so often after she left when I’d see her as clear as day, be ready to kiss her or take her to me only to wake up with Mia just beyond reach.
But I can’t touch her. This is a privilege that’s been revoked. Against my will, but still. Speaking of will, I have to mentally hold my arm in place, to keep the trembling from turning it into a jackhammer.
The floor is spinning, the vortex is calling, and I’m itching for one of my pills, but there’s no reaching for one now. I take some calming breaths to preempt a panic attack. I work my jaw in a vain attempt to get my mouth to say some words. I feel like I’m alone on a stage, no band, no equipment, no memory of any of our songs, being watched by a million people. I feel like an hour has gone by as I stand here in front of Mia Hall, speechless as a newborn.
The first time we ever met in high school, I spoke first. I asked Mia what cello piece she’d just played. A simple question that started everything.
This time, it’s Mia who asks the question: “Is it really you?” And her voice, it’s exactly the same. I don’t know why I’d expect it to be different except that everything’s different now.