The answer is no, okay?
I saw the question in the eyes of the people I passed as I struggled down the icy street to Fenbrook, case strapped to my back and a determined expression on my face. They looked at the long neck of the case rising up over my head like I was carrying a brontosaurus in a backpack, the wide base whacking against my calves, the sheer weight of it hunching me over, and they frowned and muttered to themselves, “Didn’t she ever consider the flute?”
No, I didn’t. When I was six, my father took me to see the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. I was forced into a scratchy purple dress and made to sit absolutely motionless (“No Gummi Bears, Karen—the packet might rattle”), fuming at my father while I dreamed of how much better the orchestra would look if they were all dressed like my Barbies. Then the music started and my little jaw dropped, two hours gone in two minutes. At the end, I raised my pudgy hand and pointed to the cellist, her long limbs wrapped around the massive instrument, its varnished wood and smooth curves somehow a part of her. “I want to play that!”
I wasn’t to know I’d stop growing at 5’4”.
But I loved my cello more than anything else in the world and I had a stubborn streak a mile wide, so I strapped the damn thing to my back and I’ve been carrying it now for fifteen years. Boston was easier, because you could park a car—there’s an old joke that the most important accessory for your cello is a Volvo, and no sane cellist is without one. In New York, though, it’s subways and sidewalks and endless waiting at side streets for the “Walk” sign (I don’t jaywalk, even if there are tumbleweeds blowing past).
I’d forgotten my gloves and the biting wind meant I was steadily losing the feeling in my fingers. I passed a coffee shop and longed for a warming Americano, but even trying to lift a cup to my mouth would have killed what little balance I had, sending me tottering sideways until I fell flat on my back like a turtle, legs kicking in the air.
Ahead of me, Fenbrook’s cheery, red-brick exterior, so different from my first college back in Boston. That had been all polished wood floors and silent tension—
My stomach tightened as I thought of Boston. The ever-present fear that I was going to be hauled back there, the knowledge that my life in New York was enjoyed at the end of a tightly-held leash. I could pretend it wasn’t there, but I knew my father could give it a sharp jerk at any time.
Or, if I messed up, he wouldn’t even need to jerk it. I’d have no choice but to go scuttling back on my own.
I climbed carefully up the ice-covered steps and hauled open the doors. Warm air scented with linoleum polish hit me in the face, a physical accompaniment to the wall of sound.
The din of Fenbrook had taken some getting used to. The first day, the confident chatter of the actors on the first floor had almost pushed me back onto the street. I’d been used to musicians—we let the playing do the talking. And I’d been starting a semester late, so even the other freshmen had a head start on making friends. But—slowly—I’d come to love the place. Having people around me who weren’t obsessed with tuning and bowing technique was good for me, even if my father couldn’t see it. I fit in there—as much as I’d ever fitted in anywhere.
I took a step forward into the warmth and the cello case straps dug viciously into my shoulders. I staggered backwards, almost falling. While I’d been reminiscing, the heavy door had closed on me, trapping the cello case outside in the cold. I tried to turn around, but the case just banged around outside and the shoulder straps held me tight. I tried to back up, but I was off balance and didn’t have the leverage to push the heavy door open. I was trapped.
Worse, as I banged and rattled, all the actors—who were standing around gossiping about who’d got which part and who was sleeping with whom—started to turn and look. Understand, these were actors: every woman had cheekbones you could slice ham on, every man a chisel-jawed, muscled hunk. It looked—as the first floor always did—as if a movie was being filmed there. The only interloper on their scene of genetic perfection was me, wedged in the door like a kicking, grunting beetle stuck in a spider’s web, only with more frizzy hair. I felt myself flushing beetroot as twenty pairs of heart-breakingly beautiful eyes focused on me.
People think that actors must be cruel—they are effectively the cool kids, after all, so it follows that they’d bully the geeks—the musicians. But they don’t look down on us so much as wrinkle their perfect foreheads and wonder why we can’t just be calm and confident and outgoing like them—as if it was that easy. I got a few pitying expressions and two of them walked over to help.
At that moment, someone opened the door from the outside and I went stumbling backwards—right off the edge of the top step. Dragged down by the cello’s weight, I fell with a surprisingly loud scream, my head heading for the sidewalk—
I snapped to a halt, the cello case pressing hard into my back. I was lying in mid air, face up, feet skittering at the top step. Almost all of my weight was held by one shoulder strap, stretched out in front of me and anchored by….
I followed the strap with my eyes. A fist, grabbing the nylon. A strong wrist, skin almost as pale as mine. A cracked leather jacket. I got all the way to the shoulder and his tight, powerful frame before it clicked.
I looked up into his face. Blue-gray eyes, like a lazy summer’s day that’s darkening into a storm. Hair cut short and messy, glossy black against his pale skin. And the lips—those soft, full lips that had been the downfall of so many Fenbrook girls in downtown rock clubs or at drug-fueled parties. Even now, they were twisting into a smirk.
“I seem to have you helpless,” he told me, and his broad Belfast accent made it sound at once both inn