At fourteen, Nicky was a quiet girl. Just a bit taller than she should have been, with tan hair and tan eyes, nothing special, her poor clothes were as carefully put together as could be, so as not to incur the torture that was meted out to her former best friend, Maria, a chubby, pimply, harmless girl. A girl who talked endlessly, as she would go out of her way to share her body with boys who hated her, while she still waited for their calls.
As long as she would ignore Maria, she would be safe. Nobody noticed her, boy or girl, and that’s all she really wanted. Her town was ruthlessly divided between the poor and the rich; there was no middle. The old fishing bungalows, a few blocks behind the rocky and stinky bay, were devoid of any nautical charm. They were winterized by their owners’ descendants, many of whose children were able to move on, with some just barely holding on. Nicky lived in one of these houses her whole short life, keeping the same distance from the “shanty kids” as she did the rich ones.
Because where there is water, the prosperous eventually come and build their new airy homes on the ocean side and bring in their blessed children, the ones who might eventually know hardship, but not yet; they had some golden years before the complications of alcoholism or divorce would render them human.
As much as she missed the overly generous Maria, Nicky knew that she had to stay away; but no one can control their own fate, can they? For she fell in love with the music—the music that would expose her and make the devil laugh at her, as he pulled her in through the celestial sounds.
She was fiddling with her radio, and came across sounds that cut right through her, almost causing her to levitate. A violin played with an orchestra behind it, the latter daring the former to continue on, and it did, victoriously, as they fused triumphantly. She could not understand how the announcer could so calmly announce, “You have just listened to Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor OP.64, as performed by Yehudi Menuhin.” She had never heard “classical” music before, or at least in a way that singularly caught her attention.
“Hey dear, what was that coming through your room last night? It sounded like a thunder storm!” Her mother, a sad, short, little woman, was getting ready to go to her dreary but steady job as the secretary at Island Glass, a company just two boulevards horizontal to the bay area, in a small industrial section, lined with car collision shops various home improvement businesses. On a small pressed-wood brown table near the back of the living room there was a shrine of pictures memorializing her dead father, a tall skinny guy she didn’t remember, who went crazy in Army, an undiagnosed PTSD case, “Your daddy used to listen to music like that. I never really understood it. But he loved it. He was supposed to play it in the US Army Band and then they sent him to Kuwait.”
“How come you never told me that?” Nicky almost screamed; “All you ever said was that the Army ruined him, I didn’t know…”
“What good would it have been to tell you? I never even thought of it until I heard you last night… Anyway I got to go to work, be good.”
“I am always good.”
“I know, I know, it’s just an expression, stop taking everything so seriously…see you tonight.”
It wasn’t long before Nicky was biking weekly to the library and checking out all the violin music CDs in the place. Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Beethoven et al. Soon her fingers itched, as she would listen to the stream of sound coming out of her cheap, but loud boom box.
She started to sneak glances through the window of her school’s band room, and after a week she was drawn in when the band cleared out for a ten minute break. She asked one nerdy straggler if she could try his instrument, and the boy started stuttering when she grabbed it from his defensive posture. As she cradled it next to her neck, she found that the thing felt like a lost limb and the bow, a tool of soothing massage. The boy looked at her in angered astonishment as she played. Yes, she was clumsy and missed notes, and made up her fingering as she went, but her sound was unique, brilliant. When she came to out of her feverish seizure, she saw the band teacher, Mr. Pressman, staring at her with narrowed eyes. The boy grabbed his instrument from her and she ran out of the room dropping the bow before the teacher could stop her. What if some of the “cool” kids saw what had happened? She knew they looked down on the “band geeks,” and was afraid that she would catch their attention. She jumped on her bike and rode home.
That night, after dinner, the phone rang, a rare occurrence since she had stopped taking Maria’s calls. Her mother picked it up and Nicky saw her eyes light up although she could not get a world in edgewise with her caller.
Nicky went into her room and grabbed her worn copy of The Bell Jar, a book that she had read three times, compulsively, as reading was her only pleasure before she heard the music. She wanted to block out what happened that afternoon, and tried to concentrate on the dark emptiness that only Sylvia Plath could offer.
“Honey, come out, come out, I have exciting news for you! That was Mr. Pressman, he said he never heard anything like it, that you needed much work, but he would teach you privately, to prepare you for conservatory! Why didn’t you tell me what you did today?”
“No Mom, no lessons, I just wanted to see what it felt like, I don’t want to do it again.” How could Nicky explain the fear that came after exhilaration of picking up that instrument? The exposure! The danger! She didn’t even know she was having those feelings, the inarticulate youngster that she was.
“Just try it. Mr. Pressman will be waiting for you in the band room. Don’t worry about anyone seeing you; you’re so strange! I should’ve known; I don’t know why I didn’t; you’re so much like your father.”
Yes, Nicky thought, the man who put a gun to his head rather than stay with them, “I’m NOT LIKE HIM!” Nicky started crying for the first time since her father died; “I’m NOT like him! Leave me alone!” Nicky spent the next day in school telling herself that the incident was over, that she was not going near that band room ever again, but the pull was too hard to resist, and at 3:45, after most of the kids left, she opened the door of the room and the teacher was waiting for her, blinds drawn, sitting at his desk, looking up after she was seated a minute or two, just staring at the violin that was on his large desk.
“You know, Miss Young, at your age…. By the way, how old are you?”
“Okay, fourteen. Well, that is really too old to pick up an instrument of any kind.” So why am I here, she thought, but he went on a talking jag that lasted about ten minutes, with the tantalizing instrument still on his desk, its draw forcing her to stay. Her hands started itching again and her stomach went sour. It was torture. “But,” he finally said, “You are different. There’s something about you. The way you play is like an adult; do you have a boyfriend?”
“Uh, no, no…”
“Good, they will just waste your time right now.”
Of course she thought about boys all the time, what would it feel like to kiss one, to have one kiss her, to touch her, but no one had ever even looked at her and she wouldn’t know what to do if they had; but this man asking her, was that even okay? “What’ve you been listening to?”
She listed off the concertos and he put his hand in the air to stop her, “Those are too complicated right now for you. Start with this.” Then the teacher put a disk in the CD player; the “Meditation” from the opera, Thais. This piece was different. The line was pure and not complicated by virtuosity. She did not merely listen to the music, as much as she felt it enter her pores and caress every cell of her body, making them cry out. If the concertos stimulated her head, this music dug even deeper.
“You will play by ear until you learn to read music, you don’t read—do you?” She shook her head no, “No more of the concertos until you get this right. And listen to the opera, as well, if you are going to be a rounded musician you have to listen to music that has stories so you won’t be a robot. I have a DVD you can borrow. Please take care of it and bring back next week.” Nicky still said nothing, not that she would have been able to, as he spoke quickly and non-stop as if he were bursting, “Okay Ms. Young, I want you to memorize this by next week. Use a You Tube video to learn how to read music. If you want to be a competent musician, you can’t just play by ear. Take the violin, it’s a loan. I don’t have to tell you how careful you need to be with it. Okay, that’s enough for today.”
That night he called her mother again and told her that Nicky had great potential even though she got such a late start, and he was going to work with her and get her up to a level where she could audition for conservatory, though it would take about two years. She needed to practice every day after school. He went on; but her tired mother did not mind, and was even energized by his prattle. After all the woman had experienced in life, she was still an innocent.
As her lessons progressed, Nicky did get used to doing scales and exercises, with Mr. Pressman sometimes standing too close as he corrected her posture and stance. If he brushed against her, she pulled away and he seemed not to notice. Every session would include a lecture, mostly on music, sometimes about his recent divorce. She cringed when he spoke of the latter wishing to stick to the Masters.
After about a month of lessons, Nicky ran into the bunch that Maria ran around with, while she was unlocking her bike, “What’s that in your case Nicky, a machine gun? You gonna take us all out?” Once ignored, the violin started to bring the attention to her that she dreaded.
“Oh, Nicky you look so sexy today, you want to hang out?”
One guy, Allen, saw a bruise on her neck and called after her, “Hey, look at Nicky. Nicky with the hickey. Looks like someone’s doing the nasty with old Pressman. You make beautiful music together? Hey I’ll do ya, when you are tired of the old man.” Allen laughed, took a long drag on the joint pretending he was fellating it. He then burst into a fit of coughing and laughing as the bunch though it was hysterical. After all the effort she made to avoid them, it seemed inevitable that this meeting would take place.
The first thing Nicky did when she got home, after she tossed the case on her bed, was to check the left side of her neck, above her clavicle where the violin rested. She tried to cover the bruise with her mother’s foundation. Maybe the boys would forget her. She did not practice that afternoon and once again turned to the Bell Jar.
“What is that stuff you have on your neck?” Pressman wanted to know when he saw the girl’s attempt to hide the mark. He took a tissue out of his pocket and slowly wiped it off her, shaking his head and leaning in too close. She wanted to tell him to stop, and run from the room, but she was paralyzed, “Every violinist has a black and blue mark” he said impatiently, remaining just inches from her. If you want to play you have to get used to it. It is time for you to grow up. You play like a thirty year old, but sometimes you act like a child.”
He still did not move and he took hold of her arm and leaned in against her just slightly, barely touching her. Nicky felt herself leave her body as the teacher breathed down her neck, kissing her bruise, while running his hand up and down her thigh. She felt something hard pressing against her. She went slack and let him touch her, and no longer felt it, because it was no longer her he was touching; she did not exist. After he was done he pushed himself away from her, turned around, and talked to her as if nothing at all happened, “Alright then, I will see you Wednesday, Ms. Younger?
“Yeah, okay.” She hastily put the violin in its case and lined up the bow in the front. As she snapped it shut she almost smashed her fingers. Pressman was already on to the next, silently scoring arrangements on his desk, as if Nicky did not exist. When she exited the room she saw Maria scuttle down the hallway, and was not able to even wonder why she was there, of all places. As Nicky returned to her body she understood the enormity of what had happened in the practice room.
She ran down the stairs and tossed the violin case onto the bushes near the exit, as she stumbled towards her bike, hyperventilating and throwing up her lunch. She would never ever play again. Fuck conservatory. She hated them all, the boys, Mr. Pressman, and especially her mom, who did not keep her safe. When her mother came home, she found her daughter already in bed, sleeping fitfully. “Hey, Hon, what’s up with you, are you okay?”
“MMM, Mom just let me sleep, bad stomach ache.”
“You do feel a little hot,” Mom said as put her hand on her daughter’s forehead. Do you want to stay home tomorrow?” Nicky was never one to cut school or fake illnesses; she was a good girl.
“Okay, and Mom, I want to be called Nicole from now on, okay? I don’t like Nicky.”
Her mother laughed and shook her head wondering what brought that on, but did not question her “strange” daughter, just letting her fall back asleep. She was still in bed the next day when she heard a persistent knocking on the front door, “Nicky, Nicky open up! It’s me, Maria. Please open up; I know you are home today.”
“Maria, go away, I’m sick, leave me alone!”
“No, I am not going; just this one thing, I promise, then I will leave you alone.” Nicole got up and opened the door to see a much altered Maria standing in the mist, and smelled the fishy aroma emanating from the bay. Her ex-friend looked radiant, “I lied about my age and am taking cosmetology classes. What do you think of my skin?
Nicole could not help but laugh, as Maria always did make her laugh. And it was miraculous, the girl in front of her, with the mist of the day haloing her sea-green eyes and red curls. Nicole never noticed Maria’s small, even, white teeth and cupid mouth. She looked like a seraph.
“So yeah, I learned how to take care of my skin, it’s called deep ‘European Facials’ and soon I will be learning to cut hair, but I’m not into hair, but I have to. And I am not letting those boys touch me again. I feel great. But I miss you.” The new improved Maria was as hyper as ever. “Can I come in for just a minute?”
“Okay, just for a while.” Maria turned toward the side of the door and grabbed the discarded violin case and bounded in, “Hey what are you doing with that? I don’t want it here! I never even told you about it. You should go. I’m glad that you look good, and that you’re not being a rag anymore, but this is none of your business. Please leave and throw that thing in the bay.”
“It is my business! Shit I never heard anything like it. You are so lucky!
“Lucky! Yeah right.”
“Yes you are! And you got me here to help you. I saw what that fuck Pressman was trying to do to you. I was listening to you play and hiding my head, but I could see what happened yesterday, when I peeped through the blinds. That’s why I am here! I got the dope on him. You don’t need him. Fuck everybody. I would die to be you. Okay, you want to throw it away, fine. I just want one thing from you and I will never bother you again. Play me that piece, the one he had you start with. After that I will never bother you again. Okay?”
Maria opened up the case and handed Nicole the instrument and bow. She sat down on the couch and her friend started to play Meditation, somewhat stiffly at first, but melted into the music and her friend, who now looked like an angel had just one tear on her freshly soft cheek. Nicole was sniffling also, Not from sadness, but with relief, reveling in the ascension from her trepidations.