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A Hidden Gem
I was sitting there. At the computer. I was trying to write. About the Amazon. A story. It was hot upstairs. Maybe that was why. A headache. It wouldn’t come out. It had always come out in the past. It was effortless. But this time, I just sat there. I thought of things. I ruffled my hair a lot. But nothing I thought of seemed to fit the story. At all.
I walked downstairs. It was cooler. I got a glass of water and sat down in the living room. I didn’t read or watch TV. Just sat. The water made me feel better. A little. Not much.
My brother came home. He asked if I wanted to play soccer. I told him it was too hot. Maybe later. He looked annoyed, but didn’t say anything. He went into his room and listened to some music. He came out a few minutes later to get food. He looked at me. I tried to avoid him. Slouched into the chair and put my head back against the wall.
“Are you all right? When it’s hot you’ve got to do something. Either that or take a nap. If you don’t, you just sit there and get bored. You waste all that time. And also, it’s hard to do anything afterward because not doing anything makes you tired.”
“Thanks, Colin.” It came out with an edge. I tried to soften it. “I was just about to go up and work on my story, but you’re right.” He shrugged.
“I’m going over to Kai’s house. You want to come? Most of the guys will be there.” I shook my head and looked down. “Come on. You haven’t hung out with us all summer. I know you love being with those guys.” I yawned and mumbled something about having to get my piece done. I said I had to get it accepted and published before my college applications next fall. He didn’t buy it, but he gave up.
I went back upstairs to give a semblance of truth to my excuse. I sat down. The same thing happened. I waited for my brother to go out. I even typed a few lines to make it seem like I was doing something. When the door shut a few minutes later, I went downstairs, planning to take a nap. It was cool in my room, and dark, and my bed felt nice, and I was drowsy, so I should have fallen right asleep. But my drowsiness wasn’t natural, it wasn’t from a day of exercise and doing things, it was from not doing things, so I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there. And thought.
It hadn’t always been this way. In the past, I would have been the one nagging my brother to go out and do things. I would have worked in the mornings, and, in the afternoons, said, “So what if it’s hot? You only have so much summer.” I especially would have jumped at the chance to hang out with my brother’s friends. I was the kid who always liked to play with older kids. It was more exciting. And now, even though I knew enough about the world, and wouldn’t be enthralled by all the rebellious things older kids did, I would still have hung out with my brother’s friends as much as possible, because they were off at college most of the year. And they were my friends too.
Not today. It had started about two months earlier, in May. I thought at the time that I was doing something, but now I was back where I was before.
Back then, I was lying in bed too. That time it was cool. It was early, and the sun hadn’t risen above the trees in the school across the way, so my room was bathed in a soft dawn light. I was half awake, in one of those warm dreams of the morning, the kind where you sort of know what’s going on, so you can change things for your benefit. When my mom left for her run, she closed the door with a thud, and I came to. Normally, I would have been annoyed and tried to fall back and get as much cool peace as possible on a weekend morning, but this time I had a lot to think about, and it excited me.
In a few hours I would have a violin lesson. I was a good violinist, and I liked my teacher. And I liked the girl with the lesson before me. It was strange. Not strange that I liked a girl. But strange that I liked her. It had come about suddenly too. Overnight. That made it stranger still.
I had known the girl for a long time. Known of her is more accurate. She had had her lessons before me for about a year. She seemed nice, and she was always prepared. I never paid attention to her. I knew her before that, though. She had always been a year behind me, and I remembered her from elementary school. We were both in a “gifted” program. The school only had one gifted class per grade, so we all knew each other’s faces. I most clearly remembered her when I was in fifth grade and she was in fourth. That year I won the school geography bee over the sixth graders with no preparation. After I won, I had that feeling, that feeling where you’re happy, but it hasn’t hit you yet, and there are lots of people, so you act cool, like what you did was nothing. When I shook hands with the principal, I saw the girl, and she was looking at me. It was loud and chaotic and the other kids were talking to each other, just happy to not have to sit any longer, but her look was focused and unwavering. Her eyes were intense.
Nothing happened after that. I hardly ever thought about it. But a Saturday in May, the day before my lesson, the same thing happened again. This time it was the opposite.
It was the spring concert for my high school symphony. We were playing in the local university’s new hall, and it was filled. In the spring concert, the symphony always features a soloist from the high school. This year, she won the competition for the solo, pounding out a flawless Beethoven piano concerto. Hers was to be the last piece of the show.
We had rehearsed with her a few times, and I remembered being impressed that violin wasn’t her only instrument. It was more of a curiosity than anything. That changed during the performance. After intermission, they brought the piano out, and she walked on stage. She was wearing a glittery gold dress, and the lights made her face look pale against her dark hair. She looked skinny, pubescent. We started, and for a few minutes she sat there erect and unmoving. When she began, there was no hint of teenage doubt, no fear, just a mature tone that permeated the hall. As we neared the end, we all dropped out. She played the cadenza. Eyes closed, swaying with the motion, hands floating effortlessly across the keys. She hit the final note, every muscle of her face etched into a smile of dreamlike euphoria. The deep sound bounced off the back wall. The bubble dissipated, and after a moment of still silence she opened her eyes. When she did, the audience broke into applause, but she looked confused, as if out of a daze. She caught my eye, and I didn’t turn away. Then someone gave her flowers, and she turned, and that moment broke too. But this time, I would remember, and, I imagined, so would she.
Overnight, I couldn’t think of anything else.
The sun rose over the trees, and the light flooded through my window into my eyes. I turned away, then the front door opened and shut a little violently again, and I decided to get up. Later, after a run, shower, and breakfast, I walked up the steps of my violin teacher’s house, opened the door, and sat down. I got out my instrument, and pretended to be interested in some worn spots in the varnish. When she finished, we switched spots. I tuned. She went into the waiting room, and bent down to tie her shoes near the door. She looked over a few times, little sideways glances. The corners of her mouth were upturned, creating a soft depression that connected with her light dimples to form a continuous curving impression from mouth to eyes on both sides of her face – an expression that seemed to define happiness.
After the lesson, on the drive home, I thought about that face. A lot of it was from the day before, but not all. Seeing something like that makes you want take action. People are rarely that completely happy, and when they are you should cherish it. But I didn’t know if I would. I didn’t know if I would do anything. It was always that way, for everything. I wasn’t shy. I was the opposite. I was articulate and confident. But when it had to do with something I really wanted, and when other people could see how much I wanted it, I hesitated. I preferred to act cool, to be above being genuinely interested. Mine wasn’t the Will Hunting problem that I didn’t want to be let down by others’ imperfection. It was that I didn’t want to be exposed, didn’t want people to see what’s there. That way I was protected from judgment. So, sometimes I came across as cold. I wasn’t cold. I was afraid. But understanding didn’t mean that I would do anything different.
The next morning, when I took my seat in Calculus, I was still thinking. I knew I wanted to talk to her, but my way had worked for so long. I just couldn’t imagine myself doing anything different. And anyway, I thought, she wasn’t a normal prospect. To most people, she was quiet and studious. Sure, they probably thought she was nice. But a girlfriend?
My elderly teacher walked in. He stood beside me, waiting for the customary good morning chat about the weekend. It took a minute to register that he was there. Then I was embarrassed and tried to explain it, but he seemed to know something was on my mind. He just patted me on the shoulder.
By the end of class, I decided to talk to her, to possibly begin something. My reasoning was that I was being a little kid and that a man would do it because it was right. When the bell rang minutes later, I saw her across the quad. Seventeen year-olds aren’t men. I walked off to my next class deflated, not because I would have to wait to talk to her – denying yourself what you most want throughout your life makes you very patient – but because I didn’t do it. And once again, even though I knew that I was being immature and would only be superficially happy, I ventured the thought that maybe it wasn’t worth it, that I should forget about her. Then I realized that I would have the same internal struggle every day until I did do it, and that that would hurt.
Luckily, it wasn’t long. And though the catalyst seemingly proves the foolish, fickleness of adolescence, it was more complicated. It got the job done.
On Wednesday, Chelsea lost the final of the Champions League, the most important club soccer tournament in the world. But it wasn’t just that they lost, it was the way that they lost that convinced me. The game finished tied after regulation and overtime, so the upstart Blues and the old-guard Red Devils of Manchester United headed to a penalty kick shootout. After United’s much loved (hated?) pretty boy Cristiano Ronaldo missed, Chelsea took the early lead. They held it until the last of the five normal-time rounds. Then, Chelsea’s captain – my favorite player on the team – missed what would have been the game-winning shot. The momentum swung the other way, and seconds after the Blues seemed assured of the title, they were relegated to second place.
Losses like that can make philosophers out of anyone. I had a sweeping vision of the fragility of everything, and I wondered why I wouldn’t take advantage of what could soon be gone, and mainly I wasn’t thinking very clearly. When I got back from lunch after the game, she was sitting there by herself in the shade. I couldn’t help it. She was looking down, with her arms resting on her lap, with an MIT shirt, and looking very proper, and very different from anyone else I had ever met.
At that moment, I wondered why I liked her. It wasn’t that she was outright beautiful, though she was pretty. It wasn’t that by her playing the piano in front of more than one thousand people I somehow thought she had a great depth of character. I had no idea, and not all the girls in the school were superficial. Mostly, it was that she was there, and that I had realized it. And that I was going to do something about it. At that moment, she looked up. That was that.
I walked over. My mind raced, trying to think of the right thing to say. I came up with plenty of reasons to explain my being there. But I couldn’t quite figure out how to phrase them. How to be friendly and memorable, not exaggerated and meaningless. Nothing fit. So I reverted to being cool.
“I liked that performance on Saturday.”
“Which one? Yours or mine?” Her face emotionless. I wasn’t sure if she was serious or if she was pointing out that what I said was lame. I had expected something quiet and polite. It unsettled me.
But then she grinned. And laughed. She held my eyes in another steady look. This time, though, it was different. It said there was something there, something she was holding back, something that I needed to find out. So I decided to be honest. It felt weird. But I risked it. And I had a feeling that I might like the consequences.
“Both. Yours especially.”
“The symphony played well too.”
“Yeah, but yours was different. It was mature. There was a passion, and the skill needed to touch people with that passion. It left a feeling.”
She finally looked away, to the ground. And when she looked back up, there was no mysterious challenge, no, “this kid likes me, but he won’t say it, so I’m going to toy with him.” Instead, she was earnest, like in fifth grade and at the concert. She looked thoughtful, like she was carefully considering how to acknowledge my honesty as something greater than the polite compliments she had heard all week. But then the sprint bell rang, and her friends who had waited and watched from the side lost their patience and came over, and she left.
It should have been easy. I should have felt relieved that I had finally taken a chance, and that it had worked out. It should have been the start of a more complete and honest enjoyment of life. But the disruption at the end left some doubt. I had the rest of the day to think about my daring, and let time twist my memory. By evening, I couldn’t be sure whether she was slowly thinking of a heartfelt thanks or internally laughing at my sentimentality. By the next morning, I was certain of the latter.
I didn’t see her for the rest of the week. I looked. She just wasn’t there. I tried to joke with my friends, but my mind was elsewhere, and it was awkward. When I awoke on Saturday, I decided I had made a bad decision, and warned myself against doing it again. Wait ‘til college, I said, with the vague idea that with a new start in a new place with new people things would work themselves out.
But then I got a call. She asked if I wanted to join her and her friends downtown for lunch. My initial impulse was to apologize that I was busy but offhandedly mention I would love to some other time. Then I thought about it. She was still talking, explaining something, but I didn’t listen. I remembered the look on her face before she left on Wednesday at lunch. I knew that my thoughts throughout the week were a simple defense mechanism against doing something out of the ordinary. I knew that I would have to get over it sometime. And I knew that I would probably have fun. I really would – at least there wasn’t much to lose. So, I decided to risk it. Again.
When I got downtown, I found her right away. She was sitting next to a fountain in the main square. She was looking proper again. Same erect posture with her hands in her lap. She was alone.
“Hey, how are you? Are your friends running late?”
She looked up, and grinned with a forced tinge of embarrassment. Her eyes gave it away. “No. They called just a second ago. I guess they decided to do something else.”
So, that was that.
She looked down. I stood there, not sure what to do. Then, she looked up. “You know, I already told you on the phone. But I really appreciate what you said. Most people . . . I don’t know. Most people they go up to you and they’re smiling. It’s just too much. So . . . so, yeah.” I told her I knew what she meant.
She got up, and we walked around downtown. She told me about an overnight English fieldtrip to watch some Shakespeare in the city that she had been on during the week. I laughed at my vanity that I had imagined everything had to do with me. After a while, we got a bite to eat at a hole-in-the-wall pizza and bread shop. Then, we walked around some more. She laughed a lot. Smiled. I was surprised how much she talked. The thing I liked was that whenever she did she actually had something to say.
It was heating up. I asked her if she wanted some gelato. She said she had never had any, but was up for trying it. We went over to the Austrian café by the old Varsity Theater. The café has a window in the theater so you can buy tickets, order a scoop, and watch an indie without even going outside. But it was a nice afternoon, and something weird was showing, so we skipped the full experience.
We ate in the shade of a Seville-like orange grove beside a restored Victorian. For the first time that day, neither of us said anything, too focused on the gelato. I wondered what she was thinking. I imagined that she was enjoying the warmth inside of knowing that someone else cared. I knew she was good at a lot of things, took satisfaction in what she did. But I thought this must have been new for her. Unexpected, which made it hat much better. I have a feeling it was, but that she was more certain of herself and less awed than I fantasized at the time.
She finished, and then looked like she had something to say. I waited. I stared at a fat pigeon squawking on the ground. “You know. Sometimes, I’m not sure.” She leaned forward. Held my eyes in that same earnest expression that had captivated me before. “Sometimes, I walk around here, and I look at this.” She leaned back and motioned in a sweeping arc. “You know, you can’t help but wonder – whether we deserve it. You hear about war survivors who wish they had died, and their friends had lived. It’s almost the same. How do you rationalize it? How can you sleep when you realize your parents drive you in a new Volvo, wherever you want, whenever; and, in other towns, other people also can’t sleep – but they can’t do it because they don’t know whether their parents can pay the bills, or if they’re going to have to go out on the street, and they’re scared?”
She looked at me, held me there, captivated. Then, she started, and it came out again, faster this time. “You could say we should pay it back. You could say it’s our responsibility to work as hard as we can to help. That’s why I go to those clubs at lunch. We read about these poor people. We hear presentations. Then we say we’re going to do something. And we do. I know it helps. But I’m not sure if it’s real. We shouldn’t feel good about ourselves because we’re polite to the cleaners and we give them a little bit extra when they’re in need. We say, ‘Well, they’re better off here than in Mexico or Guatemala or wherever it is they came from.’ We don’t think about what it must be like to leave what you know behind and come up here. Extra money doesn’t cut it. When they have problems, they have real problems, much more real than ours. But we don’t think about it that way.”
A thought stopped her, made her laugh. “I don’t want to sound like Holden Caulfield. He represents no part of most teenagers. But I do wonder. I mean afterward we pat ourselves on the back. We go home, and we feel good about ourselves. It’s almost like we start feeling better than the people we help. We’re just kids. But since we do have an education and we see the world,” she motioned downward, “and we eat gelato, we sometimes look at these adults, at the cleaners, and we think they’re below us. We treat them like kids . . . But we’re the kids.”
I didn’t know what to say. She was so earnest, and her eyes were so pleading, and it all just came out. I wanted to say something to show I knew, to show I had thought and worried and doubted just the same for years. I wanted to say that it was alright and that those doubts were just part of growing up. To say that in a few years we would understand and be able to go on with our lives carefree. But I couldn’t. It scared me. It scared me that I thought the same things everyday, but that I could see myself – I could feel myself doing it already – putting those thoughts in the back of my mind, ignoring them. I could see myself living my life and enjoying it and achieving all sorts of success, but at some point realizing that it wasn’t real, that my success was built on a broad foundation of other’s failures. It scared me.
Finally, I said, “Maybe, that’s just the way it is.” She nodded, but we both knew neither believed it.
The earlier excitement was gone. We made some attempts at a new conversation, but nothing got going. We went home.
That evening, I thought about what she said. She put it all out there. Asked for understanding, for some acknowledgement that she wasn’t alone, that others thought the same, and that it was alright. And I didn’t give her any. I distanced myself. I didn’t want to think about it. I had become cold.
The more I thought, the angrier I became. Why had she asked me? Why did she have to put that out there when she was just getting to know someone? It was going so well, we were having so much fun, and then she had to ruin it. Deep down, I knew she had hoped that I was deeper, that I would be the person who would understand. And I knew that was the reason she liked me. She had seen it in my face, and it was what she longed for, what I longed for, not the forced jokes, gossip, and mutual convenience of most high school relationships. I had let her down. But I didn’t want to think about that.
The next morning, at my lesson, I ignored her. When I was waiting, getting out my violin, she made more mistakes than usual. When she was done and walked out, I could tell she was looking at my face, hoping for a smile, something to show that I didn’t think she was weird, that I hadn’t rejected everything she had put in front of me. But I looked down. At one point, I noticed her facial muscles twitch, unnaturally, in complete contrast from their calm contentment little more than a week ago. The unnaturalness hurt me. I thought about meeting her look, making it alright. But to do so seemed to me the equivalent of admitting that I was wrong, and I couldn’t do that.
It got worse from there. I made sure I was always talking to someone during school for the rest of the year. When there was no one to talk to, I altered my route between classes. Still, I saw her a few times. Each time, she looked at me for a second, with a weak, fleeting hope that I would change my mind and acknowledge her. But then she would see that I wouldn’t, and she would turn away. She stopped looking sad. She borrowed the cool face from me, but neither of us hid anything.
When summer came, I hoped time would give me a chance to move on. But it didn’t. I couldn’t enjoy what I normally did, so I sat or lay. And thought.
. . .
The door shut loudly, and my brother’s friends came in. They were laughing, rowdy. The sound of them having fun carelessly – I couldn’t stand it. I was lying there, wasting my summer.
I rolled off the bed. I searched in my drawer and found my cell phone. I dialed the number. I held my breath. She didn’t answer. I thought about giving up. It would have been easier that way. But then I thought about her honesty, about how she had put herself out for my inspection, and about how I had rejected her – just like I most feared someone would me.
I called her home phone. Her mom picked up. I said who it was. Her voice became bitter. I ignored it. She must have walked into another room because all of a sudden I heard the piano being played – with passion, and the skill needed to touch people with that passion.
The music stopped. I heard her breathing on the other end of the line. It was slow, expectant, waiting for me to talk first.
“I’m sorry.” She didn’t say anything. “That’s all I can say, is I’m sorry. I was stupid, and there was no reason for it, and I’m sorry. It’s just that what you said was so true. I didn’t have an answer for it. And I couldn’t accept that, so I did what was easy. But if you want to come over, we could go for a walk, and talk about it, and I think we would both like that.”
I waited. She was silent for a long time. I almost wondered if she was still there. But I didn’t want to interrupt. I wanted her to make the decision. I thought if I waited long enough she would. And she did.
“If you accept yourself, others will too.” Then she laughed, but it was a sad laugh. Almost a cry. “Alright.”
She came over later that evening. She knocked on the door, and we walked on a curving bike path to a vineyard on a small hill. We sat at the top of the hill, and looked at the sun descending into the fog of the coastal mountains. We still hadn’t spoken. Then she did. She seemed to have a purpose for what she said.
“What have you been doing this summer?”
It was unexpected. I was still thinking about what I had done. I said, “I’m sorry.”
She turned toward me. “I know. You already told me.” She looked back to the sunset. “So, what have you been doing this summer?”
“I don’t know. Nothing really. I’ve tried to write. I’ve tried, but I have no story. I’ve lived seventeen years, I’ve gotten good grades, I’ve played soccer, I’ve travelled, I’ve done all sorts of things. But I have no story. I’ve never gotten close enough to anyone to have a story.”
She turned back to me. And she held my eyes. And it was earnest. And she laughed. And she was pretty. “You’re an idiot. You’re a blind idiot.”
She gave me a hug. We walked back to my house. On the way, a small calliope hummingbird was pollinating a late blooming cherry tree. Bouncing around from one pink flower to the next. Dull green with a brilliant splash of red beneath its beak. It was a tiny thing. But with a hidden quality you would have to look to see.