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The Music of Love
I glance up at my grandmother. She is staring at the passenger seat, though I don’t see anything very interesting on it, or in it. She bends forward and mutters something to my mother. Something about my grandfather.
I pull on her sleeve, and she turns to me. “Grandma, how did you and Grandpa meet?” It was a random thought, though I admit my interest in the past.
She sighs. “It was long ago.” She looks back to the front seat and gazes at it for a second. But I am already too curious to let it go.
“But how?” I plead. “Tell me!”
“It will be hard. The memories are even harder to remember than to forget.” But I know by her tone that she will try, that she was glad I asked. “It seems like only yesterday,” she begins. “I was young, new, fresh. Alive.” She has a distant, far-away look in her wrinkled, cerulean eyes as she adds the final word.
She was sixteen years old when her violin instructor told her that she was ready for what was perhaps the most thrilling voyage of her life. She was to journey to America, to attend a music festival in New York City. It was the experience of a lifetime, and she knew she’d never forget it. She arrived at her room in the dormitories. She had no roommate, and she was in a large room, big enough to fit a football team in, all by herself.
Her first day there was the first in the country, and, of course, a lot went wrong. She had several near-vomiting experiences of the strange American food, and a few conflicts with some complicated technology she did not know how to use. The year was 1938, and the small village in Russia from which she came was completely behind in the development of society, especially in comparison to the U.S. The first day, she had a private lesson and signed up for recitals, competitions, and master classes. She survived breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and heard a few concerts. Once, she thought she heard someone else conversing in Russian, in the cafeteria. It was during lunch, and she got so excited she spilled her glass of water on the floor and did not get a chance to say anything. Her teacher, however, did speak Russian so she was able to communicate with her.
“Maria,” she told her, “your hands are too tense to play.”
It was fine to play with tense hands in Russia, she thought. The tension was what kept her in tune, and in rhythm.
After a long and tiring day she dropped on her soft, high throne of a bed and fell fast asleep, with dreams full of memories of the friends she missed and of the little everyday traditions America just didn’t seem to hold.
The second day she had chamber for the first time, which is where she first met him.
“I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on him. He was—” she pauses climatically, looking at her granddaughter, “—he was shy, out of place, and lonely. Just like me.”
He played first violin, and she was second. They also had a violist, a cellist, and a pianist, but she didn’t get to know them nearly as well. It was a flea of a room, disproportionately small in a large building, in which the six of them were forced to squeeze like freckles on an otherwise pale face. Their teacher was a short, stump woman with a large suitcase full of scores for them all, which obviously weighed her down even more than her enormous glasses. She handed out a Dvoräk quintet, a very quick-paced piece full of tricky rhythms and very high positions, especially in the first violin part.
“Richard, Maria, Cathy, Jordan, Anna,” she said, addressing all of them in position order in her strong, conspicuous Korean accent. “In this class you will learn to play together, in tune, in tempo, in time. There are five of you here and only one of me, so please try to cooperate and this will be easier for us all.”
My grandmother, however, had not understood a word of what she said and had a Russian translator later conveniently clarify it. But at that time, she merely smiled and nodded, deciding not to give herself away.
As they began to play, she looked around, observing the others. She was not the only nervous one; the first violinist, my grandfather, was also unconfident, although he still played exceptionally well, whereas her insecurities tangled with her performance. After they sight-read through it once, the teacher provided them all with comments, but Maria didn’t understand them, and, it seemed, neither did Richard.
They went on to the next movement, where the two violinists played a solo together. Maria felt the bond between them, through their violins and the music they played. He felt it too, and he gave her a timid smile when they ceased. Their teacher let them conclude and the others left while Maria and Richard walked to the cafeteria together.
“You—you like play?” Maria struggled to say something he might understand.
He looked at her for a moment—straight into her eyes while his scrunched up like a napkin—then nodded his head and exhaled. “I like play.”
She beamed and he led her to the cafeteria, where they sat and ate lunch together. They did not say a word the whole time, though. Maria often considered other things that she could try to say, but eventually gave up in despair.
When they were finished eating, they walked outside and both sat on the steps with their cases. “Play?” one of them said.
Five minutes later, they were both in Maria’s room, practicing their solo. It was their only common language, the song they played, so it was all they could do. They played it over and over again, each time feeling closer to each other. Before they knew it, it was late and they found themselves running to the cafeteria again before it closed. They each consumed about a total of one small piece of bread and half a drumstick. They implicitly decided to go to a recital playing that night, with a guest musician from northern Europe, and both enjoyed his repertoire, and his interpretation of the song.
The next day they sat together on the bus to the school in which their orchestra rehearsals took place. She stared out her window at the windmill they passed and sighed. Two days in America, and she already had a friend, maybe more. She turned around to look at him and he smiled.
They arrived at orchestra and she opened her case, putting aside the Russian flag she used to cover her violin. To her surprise, he opened his case and she saw a German flag sticking out of it. She stared at it for a moment, mesmerized, until she blinked and returned to her own instrument. There wasn’t enough time to audition them all for seating orders, so they were placed almost randomly. Richard was put into first violin and Maria into second, but since she sat up in front, they were still near each other. They played Schubert’s infamous Unfinished Symphony, along with a Mozart concerto in which they were accompanying a girl who won first place in last year’s competition.
And so, it went on for the next few days, which turned into weeks, as both their concerts loomed closer and closer. Before they knew it, they were all dressed up and standing backstage, silently wishing each other good luck for their final concerts, in both chamber and orchestra. The orchestra performance went smoothly, and no mistakes were heard, at least not by the audience. Then came chamber, and the five artists were waiting backstage for the previous group to end. Finally, the anticipated applause came, and four small girls exited the stage, beaming at the world and wishing Maria’s group good luck.
They walked out onto the spotlight, Richard, followed by Maria, and then the others in their order. They exchanged a look before they started. It was part of the plan, they were supposed to, but there was something more in that look than was required. It lasted forever, seconds broadened into weeks, into years. Richard took a quick breath, their cue for an upbeat, and they began. They began to play, and Maria, at that moment, saw and heard nothing more than him, and her violin expressed how she felt, vibrating as she tore through the strings with her bow. The concert ended (they closed it) and the crowd went wild with applause. They all bowed synchronously, grinning at each other in triumph, and exited the stage.
That night, all of the other children threw a party, but Maria and Richard decided not to go, and opted instead to spend their last night on the continent together. They walked outside, where it was getting dark and the stars were just coming out and winking upon the couple. They looked at each other, joyful, yet still miserable deep inside that they could not use words to tell each other how they felt. They couldn’t make a promise to both come back to America next summer, or to visit each other if possible. They weren’t even able to express their love to one another. That night was when the two shared their first kiss. It was a spontaneous kiss, with no warning or even words before it; they both simply bent in after walking a distance and connected.
It was their last day before a year of no contact, for they had no way of keeping in touch.
“Those were hard times for us all. I had every reason to doubt he was even alive, let alone that we would both come back to New York and I’d see him.” Her voice turns forlorn, and I realize how hard the memories must be to tell. “But then, finally, after a long, presumably endless year, we met again.”
Maria was split right in half trying to decide what to do. Half of her wanted to race to that camp faster than the swiftest bullet on Earth and waste no time in trying to find him. But the other half was more cautious, more hesitant, more afraid of disappointment. During that year, she had taught herself a bit of German with every hope of being able to speak to him. She wanted nothing more than to surprise him with his familiar language, a feat she knew he would love. She breathed slowly and impatiently as her train came closer and closer to her destination, staring out of her window as she passed animals, farms, people, and, as she came even closer, the familiar windmill which she so acutely remembered.
She couldn’t help jumping out of the train, regardless of the heavy bags weighing her down. She had to walk to the campus, and she stepped inside the office to check in. The receptionist recognized her from the preceding summer. She received the key to her new room, and made her way upstairs until she saw the door. Suddenly, she heard someone say something, and she could have sworn that it was in Russian. She turned around, hoping perhaps her roommate was able to speak it, but instead, she saw another.
As her head turned, she realized something, and her eyes widened; she knew that voice—as little as she heard from it, she had dreamt of it every night. She turned fully around and almost banged heads with Richard, as her heart danced around in her chest, full of life, harmony, and completion. Her eyebrows camouflaged into her copper-colored hair as she thought of something to say. What was the word she had memorized on the train ride? What was that phrase her German acquaintance told her to say, should the need arise? She could not remember a single word of the language which she spent every waking moment of the school year memorizing. She stuttered something in gibberish as she looked up at him. He, however, was smiling, as he repeated, perfectly and clearly in Russian possibly better than her own.
“Welcome back,” he had said, “I missed you.”
Absolutely perfect Russian. Better than even mine, she claims! And he’s never heard a word in his life!
“Me, too,” she answered in Russian, then shook her head blinking and repeated in German. “Me, too.”
“I doubt anybody was more surprised than I was. All the obstacles were put aside and we were able to truly communicate. In my whole life, there was never anything nearly as magical.”
“But what happened?”
“Well, the summer went by too quickly, and we were incredibly lucky that both of our families had been planning on moving here, and it turned out we both eventually did. Not only that, but we were close enough to see each other if we both walked a long distance. It was worth it, though, every single day.
“After the move, everything worked out by itself. A few years after, we got married and had our first child, your aunt.”
My grandmother dazes off again, until my mother stops the car and lets her out.
She opens the door, turns, and looks at me. “Come quickly,” she says, beckoning to me like there was some fatal emergency.
I whine something about being bored and sleepy.
My mother looks at a watch on her wrist, grabs my hand, and pulls me, all the while talking to Grandma. “If she doesn’t hurry, we won’t make it!” and my grandma gives me a look, so I follow the two women, into the night, tracing the path of murmuring graves under my minuscule footprints.