I USED TO THINK HIS touches meant nothing. We brushed arms in the hallway of his apartment, and I let myself believe the space was simply too narrow. Our hands tangled and I figured it was because we reached to turn the sheet music at the same time.
Then his touches started to linger. I could feel the warmth of his palm on my shoulder through the fabric of my dress after he told me I’d played beautifully, and I convinced myself of something else: he has touched me far too many times for it to be happening by accident.
Today I will make it happen on purpose.
My bus turns onto his street. He lives on a hill claimed by two Seattle neighborhoods, Capitol Hill and the Central District. This hill and I, we go way back. I walked up it the year of the snowstorm when the buses stopped. I slipped down it once, skinning my knee to save my viola case from smashing to the ground. Arjun saw it happen from his fourth-story window, and he rushed down with a Band-Aid with a cartoon character on it. He explained the Band-Aids were for “the little ones,” his younger students. It made me laugh, made me forget about the smear of my blood tattooed on the concrete.
I mutter “thank you” to the driver as I step off the bus, my boots landing in a puddle that splashes water up my sweater tights. It’s the first good rain of the fall, the kind that pummels windows and roofs, making a house sound like it’s preparing for war. It is sweet, fresh, alive. I’ve been waiting for it all month.
Arjun buzzes me inside, and I press the faded elevator button between numbers three and five. By the time the doors swing open, my hands are damp with sweat. To relax, I play a Schubert sonata in my head. I’ve hummed eight measures before I feel calm enough to see him.
“Adina! Hello,” Arjun says, pulling the door wide. “I was starting to think you got lost on the way up.”
“Elevator was stuck,” I lie. My lungs feel tight, like I sprinted up the hill.
“Old building. Happens to me all the time.” He grins, brilliant white teeth between full lips. “Ready to make some beautiful music?”
A collared shirt peeks out the neck of his burgundy sweater, showing the lines of his broad shoulders. The sweater looks so soft, makes me imagine what it would feel like to touch him on purpose. I could do it now. But I don’t have the courage yet. The sight and sound of him have turned my muscles liquid.
I follow him to his studio, where portraits of composers, all grim and serious—possibly because most of them were dying of typhoid or syphilis—stare down at me. With trembling hands, I unbuckle my viola case and arrange my music on the stand in front of me. Arjun sits in the chair opposite mine. The ankles of his pants inch up, exposing his argyle socks.
Our first lesson was three years ago, but it wasn’t until I heard him play that he became someone I think about every night before I fall asleep. Dreamed about. I try very hard to forget that he is twenty-five, my teacher, and entirely off-limits. Sometimes, though, when he looks at me after I finish playing, I swear he feels the same pull.
His lips tip into a grin. “Don’t make fun of me, but I had studded tires put on my car last weekend.”
“No!” I gasp.
He shrugs, sheepish. “Have to be prepared for the worst, right?”
I shake my head, laughing, and relax in my chair. Each winter he prepares for an apocalyptic snowstorm, since he’d never seen snow until his first winter in Seattle. It doesn’t snow in Gujarat, the state in India where he grew up, or in New Delhi, where he played in the symphony.
“It’s September,” I say. “You’re absurd. Besides, we probably won’t even get snow this year. We only got, what, half an inch last year?”
“And it shut the entire city down! We’ll see who’s absurd when you’re stuck in your house for days and you haven’t stocked up on nonperishables.”
“You’d share your protein bars with me.”
“Maybe,” he says, but he’s smiling. He snaps his fingers. “Do you remember the New Year’s Eve symphony showcase I told you about, the one for musicians under twenty-five?”
I nod and scoot to the edge of my chair, my heart hammering allegro against my rib cage. The showcase will feature the best soloists in the Pacific Northwest. I play in the youth symphony, but the viola is typically a background instrument. Rarely do I get the spotlight to myself.
“It turns out,” he continues, “that the director is a friend of mine. I sent him some clips of you playing, and he was quite impressed. He can fit you in for an audition Friday after school, if you’re interested. Three thirty.”
I do some quick mental calculations. If the buses aren’t delayed, I should be able to make it home by sundown. By Shabbat. And even if I know the audition is more important, my family doesn’t have the same priorities. In their minds, tradition beats everything.
“Are you serious? Yes, I’m interested. Thank you!” This is the first genuine happiness I’ve felt in weeks. I turn eighteen this weekend, a birthday I have been dreading, and the genetic test is a couple days after. That test is the reason I need to make a move with Arjun now, before everything could change. Before I find out if the disease that is stealing the life from my mother will do the same thing to me.
“Test,” a word I’ve always viewed with mild annoyance, doesn’t have a fraction of the weight it should.
“You deserve it.” His dark eyes hold mine, replacing thoughts of the test with images of what we did last night in one of my dreams. “Have you decided where you’re applying yet?”
“Peabody, Oberlin, New England, the Manhattan School of Music.” My father, who unlike my mother doesn’t believe someone can make a living off music, has begged me to apply to at least one state school. Just in case, he says. In case what? In case I fail spectacularly at being a musician? Conservatory has been my path since fourth-grade orchestra, when I fell in love with the mellow, melancholy sound of the viola. It was less obvious than the violin, less arrogant than the cello. Bass I’ve only ever seen played by guys with huge egos, as though the instrument is inversely proportional to penis size and they’re trying to make up for their shortcomings. Each year my orchestra classes shrank as kids discovered they liked other things more than strings. And each year I was the one my teachers asked to play solos—never mind that violas don’t usually solo. I vowed to become one of the first to do it professionally.
“Solid choices,” Arjun says.
“And Juilliard, just for the hell of it. I’m still working on the recordings.” Arjun and my school orchestra teachers will write my letters of recommendation. To my other teachers, I am simply a body in a seat. I’m always waiting to stop pretending to take notes on Chaucer or entropy or the quadratic formula so I can go to orchestra, or on Wednesdays, to go to Arjun.
“You’ll get an audition. I know you will.”
I pull at a loose thread on my tights, exposing a triangle of skin. My nerves unravel too many pieces of clothing. The truth: conservatory applications will have to wait until my test results come back. Right now, the uncertainty of it all is paralyzing.
Arjun pages through his music as I get to my feet, positioning the instrument under my chin. He likes his students to stand while playing so we are always performing. I warm up with scales, dragging my bow along the strings in smooth, fluid motions. Then I move on to Bach, Mendelssohn, Handel. Soon my feet are rocking back and forth, my fingers flying up and down the instrument’s neck, the room full of sound that tugs at something deep in my chest. I breathe in minor chords, out major chords.
Sonatas and concertos tell stories. They make you feel every possible emotion, sometimes all within a single piece. They’re nothing like three-minute pop songs with predictable patterns and manufactured sounds. They are joy and tragedy and fear and hate and love. They are everything I never say out loud.
“Your C string is a little sharp,” Arjun says after one piece. “Linger on that last note for a few more seconds,” he says after another. Every few bars, I steal a glance at his face. The looks he gives me are all fire, warming me down to my toes.
After I play my final piece, Debussy’s “La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin,” translated in English as “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” Arjun stays silent. It is a delicate, emotional prelude. The flaxen-haired girl is a symbol of innocence.
I love irony.
I put down my bow and lay my viola in my lap. His eyes are half closed, dreamy, like he wants to stay inside the song for a while longer before rejoining the real world.
Nearly a minute passes before he says, “That was incredible. Flawless.”
“I practiced a lot.” Three, four, five hours a day, except on Shabbat, of course.
The rare times I’ve heard him play, he’s been flawless too. Arjun’s hand is on the desk, and before I can let myself overthink it, I cover it with mine. His skin is so warm. My hands are always ice; my twin sister, Tovah, and my parents make fun of me for it. I have dead-person hands, they like to joke. Even in the summer, even when I’m playing viola, they never heat up. But if my hands are too cold now, Arjun doesn’t say anything.
So I take a deep breath and lean in. I want to bury my fists in his sweater and wrap my legs around his waist and push our hips together. I want to forget everything happening at home, the way Tovah seems to do so easily. But I restrain myself. I simply bring my lips close to his, waiting for him to move the last inch. I imagine he would taste like all decadent things you aren’t supposed to have too much of: tart cherries, espresso beans, wine the color of rubies I once saw in his kitchen. My adrenaline spikes, anticipating the rush that comes with doing something you’re not supposed to do and getting away with it.
Something I’m well versed in when it comes to guys who are older than me.
Suddenly he pulls away. A miniature orchestra inside my chest strikes an ominous minor chord. I’m seriously considering moving in again when—
“Adina.” His accent, the one I love so much, clings to my name like it belongs there. Like that’s the way my name was always meant to be said. “This . . . You know it can’t happen. I’m too old for you, and I’m your teacher, and . . .” Any other reasons get lost in the wave of shame that begins to turn my face hot.
His words crash and explode in my skull, making word confetti. Making me feel tiny and stupid and worst of all, young.
“I—I’m sorry. I . . .” I thought you’d kiss me back? How could I have gotten this so wrong? I was so sure. I was so sure he wanted this too.
His lips make a tight, thin smile. A smile that says, “Hey, it’s okay,” but nothing is okay. I am going to combust. I have never been this embarrassed in my life. He won’t meet my eyes, and his hand drops to his lap, leaving mine cold, cold, cold.
“I should go. I’ll go.” I pack my viola as fast as I can. Suddenly I’m fourteen years old and in Eitan Mizrahi’s bedroom. Except that time, I got what I wanted: I was able to change his mind.
“That’s probably a good idea,” Arjun says to the floor. Clearly there’s no changing his mind.
As I race down his hallway and into the elevator, my heart, which swelled when I laid my hand on his, shrinks to the size of a pea. Maybe it even disappears completely. It occurs to me he might be so uncomfortable that he’ll drop me as a student. Give up on me. I’d have to find a new teacher, and no one understands my music the way he does.
It’s not until I get back on the bus that I wonder why, if he was so eager to shut me down, it took him so long to move his hand from mine.