E
Jul/Aug 2015 Fiction

Second Fiddle

by Ana Ottman

Photography by Lydia Selk

Photography by Lydia Selk


This is how I feel when I play the violin: like I'm levitating up to the sky, and what happens on earth becomes a distant reality.

I'd been playing with the UCLA Philharmonia, the campus orchestra for music majors, for a week, and already it hurt to watch Samantha playing Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 from a few rows back with the other second violins, same as in high school. Samantha played with the first chairs, her shoulder-length, bright blond hair swaying forward and back, keeping pace with her bow sliding confidently over her violin strings. What would it be like to sit up front near the conductor like she did?

During performances, the audience never noticed if I had to scratch my ankle or remove a hair from my blouse. People left the show humming the notes Samantha played. No one realized that without second violinists like me, there would be no depth to the music, no range and richness of the piece. My role was to support the orchestra without drawing attention to myself.

It's exhausting to be invisible.

 

I noticed Micah that first week during one of the freshman orientation events, a flag football game. When I saw him, I thought: what if? I'd never had a serious boyfriend in high school, but maybe things would be different in college. I wanted to wrap his brown curls around my fingers.

Before the RA split us into teams, we went around and introduced ourselves. Micah was a Music Performance major, a trumpet player, from San Diego. He was over six feet tall and had an easy, confident smile. Samantha was there too. She was the lean blonde from Chicago who wore denim cutoffs and looked bored, also a Performance major. She and Micah would go on to play in professional orchestras. I was a Music Education major and would teach in elementary schools after college. I'd come a short distance from Pasadena and never even contemplated leaving Los Angeles. Did I belong here, with these people? As Micah made the winning touchdown, everyone crowded around him, Samantha leading the pack, hugging and cheering, and I knew that he would be popular here.

Micah sat behind me in our performance ensemble class, so I wasn't distracted by the ability to look at him, but still, sometimes in bed at night I would picture those lips on mine instead of his trumpet.

 

In June, my parents had thrown a graduation party for me at our house. It was more of an excuse to get the local extended family together than a gathering where I was the center of attention. I had invited my two best friends, but they had already left on a trip for Europe, a surprise graduation gift from their families. My older sister Kate took time off from her prestigious ad agency job and drove down from San Francisco. A banner reading "Congrats, Alice!" stretched across the dining room over the buffet. The green and gold streamers hung patiently across the arches of our patio like ladies waiting to be asked to dance.

After a couple of hours of nodding and smiling while people congratulated me and reminisced on their own college years, I retreated to the kitchen to load the dishwasher.

Kate strode into the kitchen, her shiny chestnut hair charging down her back, a pristine white sundress hugging her chest and hips.

"Why're you in here?" Kate said. "I'm winning charades—come join us!"

"I will, I'm just taking care of some things," I said.

"Only you would be cleaning up at your own party." She picked some lint off my striped t-shirt, frowning at my makeup-less face and uncombed hair. "I brought some of my old clothes for you, the stuff I don't wear anymore. You should try them on later."

Wiping my hands on a dishtowel, I leaned against the kitchen island. "My clothes are fine."

"Your clothes are hopeless," she said, but she smiled and leaned against the island next to me. Together we watched everyone mill around the house, their conversations swelling and breaking like waves.

Papa, my mother's father, shuffled into view. He was a few inches taller than my 5'7" height, wearing khakis and a flannel shirt (the man was cold even in June), his white hair shorn close to his head. I was surprised that he had left his regular perch of the hunter green wingback chair in the living room and was headed directly for me, his brown eyes registering interest and affection. He nodded absently at Kate, who kissed his cheek and left to rejoin the festivities in the living room. "We'll go through my stuff later," she called over her shoulder.

My grandfather stood quietly regarding me, then said, "I heard your mother convinced you to be a Music Education major instead of Performance." His directness was startling but not unappreciated.

"It makes the most sense, in terms of job opportunities," I said.

He clucked his tongue. "That's too bad. You might've tried it out, just to see." Then he drew an envelope from his pants pocket and pressed it into my hands. "For you. Don't tell Kate. Try not to let yourself get so distracted with college life that you forget to keep practicing your violin. Treat your instrument like you would a good friend."

I nodded solemnly, wondering where this instruction was coming from. He'd always attended my music recitals with Nana, sure, but that was just what grandparents did. As far as I knew, his retired life consisted of yard work, reading the newspaper, and eating three small meals a day. I'd never seen him so much as turn on the radio. What did he know about music?

He turned to go, then stopped. "Maybe I'll check in on you, just to make sure you're keeping up with things. I'll get your number from your mother."

As he shuffled away I peeked inside the envelope. It contained five crisp twenty-dollar bills. The most he'd ever given Kate or me was ten dollars on our birthdays.

 

The practice rooms in the music building were open to everyone in the program; you just had to sign up online. But I never felt like I could have that space for myself. All I could think about was a musician in another room or a teacher walking by overhearing me practice in my less-than-perfect moments.

One day I was walking past the rooms on the way to see my advisor and through a door window I saw Samantha inside. She probably used this room all the time. Other musicians probably asked to sit in and listen to her. Then she would emerge from the room looking like she'd just had an expensive spa treatment.

I leaned against the door, listening to her practice a vibrato, and could hear her struggling. She kept re-starting. I knew what she was doing wrong, and even whispered, slow down and keep your arm stable.

She stopped playing and looked up. I scooted away from the door window and hurried down the hallway. Behind me, I heard the door open.

"Hey, Amanda," she said.

My ears burned. She didn't even know my name. I kept walking.

"Hey, you, girl in the blue shirt!" Samantha called.

I turned around. "Yeah?"

"Why were you watching me?"

"Oh, I was just listening. I have trouble with that section too," I lied.

She ran her fingers through her hair, flipping her part. "I wish we could play some modern pieces. One of my friends at Julliard plays Taylor Swift."

"That's cool," I said.

"I know." She sighed. "Okay, I better keep practicing. See you around."

 

My roommate, Tanya, another Music Ed major, was hardly ever home. A tiny, aggressively cheerful girl, she was like the Energizer Bunny going from one activity or event to the next. I saw her most frequently outside our room, between classes, which suited me fine. She would ask me to join her for whatever she was up to that day; I always turned her down, though that never seemed to impact our relationship or her mood. "Are you sure?" she'd always ask, her ponytail swinging. I'd nod and smile, relieved to have gotten out of another social function. Most days when I got home, the dorm room was empty and quiet and smelled of my cinnamon oatmeal. Usually I read a book or studied, enjoying the silence.

When I got back that night after talking to Samantha, I wanted to practice.

I opened my violin case and took out my instrument. The rich brown sheen was like a horse's coat. It was almost too beautiful to look at, though I ran my fingertips along its side, the rib.

I started playing the same song Samantha had with no problem, though the second violin's part was less challenging than hers, so I quickly moved on to playing Chopin, my favorite composer. The violin and I became one; I wasn't thinking about anything but losing myself in the music.

After about an hour, my next-door neighbor pounded the adjoining wall with her fist. Embarrassed, I put my violin back into the case immediately.

It was only 8 PM, too early for bed. I went to my desk to study for an upcoming mid-term when my cell vibrated. The number wasn't familiar, but the location was Dana Point.

"Alice, it's Papa," said my grandfather when I answered. "Am I interrupting you?"

He'd mentioned calling me at the graduation party, but I thought he was just being polite. We'd only ever exchanged generic pleasantries at family gatherings. This was a first. "Of course you're not. How are you? How's Nana?"

"Fine, fine. Nothing to report. I wanted to see how your playing is going."

I thought about the day's events, decided it was too much detail to go into. "I'm keeping up with everyone."

"Everyone like the Performance majors? I've heard you play; you're good enough to play with them. Have you changed your mind about your major?"

"Teaching is where I belong, Papa, not a position where I'd be on stage every night."

We talked about an upcoming performance, which he promised to attend, and the weather here on campus and in Dana Point. "I'll check in again next week," he said. The call lasted all of seven minutes. But as I lay awake that night, his words repeated in my head: You're good enough to play with them.

 

Papa's words were echoing inside me the next day at the student union when I saw Micah walking alone toward Sbarro. I worked up the courage to put myself in his path so we would have to say hello.

"Did you finish Mr. Hansen's assignment?" he asked after greeting me. "I'm still struggling with mine."

"Yeah. I mean… it was definitely hard." I willed myself to figure out something else to say. Samantha would know exactly how to keep the conversation going. "Any big plans for the weekend?"

"Heading to Zuma Beach at some point for my surfing fix. And I think the guys are going to this club downtown on Saturday." He unleashed his trademark grin on me and my heart started racing.

"Oh!" I blanked. No witty comebacks, nothing.

"What about you?"

"Probably just studying and doing some practicing."

He said goodbye and walked off. I stood there staring after him, my cheeks hot with shame. Practicing my violin? Studying? He probably thought I was a loser, not sexy and exciting like Samantha.

Actually, he probably didn't think of me at all.

 

Once, as a child, I was actually forgotten. We had gone to the zoo, Kate and me with our mom and our mom's friend with her own four kids. We were all looking at the polar bear exhibit, and I remember how awkward the bear was on land and how graceful he was in the water. It was almost like he was two different animals: one environment emphasizing his weaknesses and the other showcasing his strengths. I watched him go back and forth between the rocks and the water, and stared at his fur, which wasn't white at all like in children's books, but yellowish and disheveled.

When he lay down for a nap, I snapped out of my trance and realized I didn't recognize the people beside me. I walked out of the viewing cave, blinking in the bright sunlight, and didn't see my mom or Kate, either. So I started walking until I got tired and sat on a bench. A zoo employee came up to me and asked where my mother was. He took me to the zoo offices and fed me peanut butter crackers until she came to get me. "Thank you for taking care of her, she must have wandered off," my mom said. I remembered thinking: no, I stayed put; you were the one who wandered off.

 

As I practiced a Wagner overture in my room that weekend, I schemed about how I could make Micah notice me. Papa's words played on a melodic loop inside my head alongside the music. I was good enough. There was a music department social on Friday. I would talk to Micah there, make him see that I was smart and interesting.

Then Kate called Monday morning with the news of Papa's heart attack.

My own heart felt like it was a balloon being blown up, expanding in my chest. I was just getting to know him, the real man, not just the grandfather.

The funeral was scheduled for that Friday in Dana Point, the same day as the music department social. I thought, there goes my big plan to capture Micah's attention. And then, shame. Fast and hot, spreading through my body. What did the social matter? Papa was dead. The man who had suddenly and mysteriously become my champion, my supporter, was gone.

 

The service was straightforward without any extras—just like Papa. He was being cremated, because that was the most practical option, and there were no flowers or eulogies—also his request.

"This is what he wanted," Nana said with a shake of her head when my mother complained about the spare service. "You know what your father was like."

Afterwards, all seven sons and daughters and their families went back to Nana's house to eat cold cuts and cookies. The men drank beer and the women drank iced tea and the kids drank lemonade. While Kate and my cousins were having loud, playful conversations throughout the house, I escaped out the screen door to the backyard. The air in Dana Point smelled of salt and was cool against my skin. The lawn was taller than Papa would have allowed if he were still alive. His tool shed was in the back corner of the yard. I could make myself useful. The lawnmower would be too disruptive and attract attention, but some garden shears might clean it up, at least at the edges. Good thing I was wearing pants, not a dress like the other women in my family.

Once I unhooked the latch on the shed door, the smell of metal tools and dirt and cut grass rushed out at me. The shed was meticulous; all the tools had a proper spot on the wall. I walked inside for the shears and noticed a large taupe utility storage cabinet in back. Its doors were locked. What could he have in there? The air was colder in here and I felt goose bumps forming on my arms, but I was drawn single-mindedly to the lock.

It was a tiny flimsy thing made for girls' diaries, and it broke easily when I hit it with a hammer. I'd never done anything like that before, brazenly breaking into something that wasn't mine. Hoping no one inside heard the noise, I opened the doors to find more tools, but also a few cardboard boxes; one held old nails of all sizes, another what looked like old newspapers. A big box sat on the bottom shelf. I had to slide it out in order to open it.

Under the flaps were layers of tissue paper, which I carefully removed until something brass peeked through. I kept pulling out the tissue until I revealed the full object.

A French horn.

Why did Papa have a French horn in a locked cabinet? I was expecting to find his war memorabilia or some old Playboys. But this? The man who stopped sharing a room with his wife once they were done having babies? The man who walked five miles every day? The man who hadn't bought a new item of clothing for 25 years?

"Ooh, what's that?" Kate's voice boomed behind me.

My heart ricocheted into my throat. I turned around. "It's, well, it's a French horn."

"Papa, a musician?" Kate laughed. "What a secretive guy! That must be where you get it from."

She walked over and lifted the horn out of the box. "This is so cool. It would look awesome in my loft, on the wall above my record player."

"No!" It came out louder than I intended. Her eyebrows rose. "I mean, you're not a musician, why would you even want it?"

"I told you. To decorate my place. This would cost a fortune at the thrift stores in San Francisco."

"Well, we're not the ones to decide who gets it. Nana is. She may want to keep it."

"I doubt that. But you're right. I'll ask Mom to ask Nana if I can have it."

"Let me tell Mom about it, since I found it."

Kate pursed her lips and considered this. "Fine. I'm the oldest grandchild so I'll get first dibs anyway." She set the horn back in the box. "Come back inside, we're watching old family videos."

"In a sec."

Why did it have to be Kate who found me? Of course she wanted it for all the wrong reasons. Papa would have been horrified for his horn to be hung on the wall of a trendy loft, that I was sure of.

I returned to staring at the instrument sitting in the box. Finally I put all the tissue paper back into the box, securely folded the flaps, and slid the box back into the cabinet. The broken lock went in my pocket.

When everyone headed out a few hours later, I asked Nana. "Did Papa ever play an instrument?"

Nana's forehead twisted in grief and bewilderment. She looked at me like I was talking about a stranger. I knew then that Papa had kept his French horn a secret. And I didn't want to expose him. When and where and how he played, I didn't know. But the knowledge that this war hero, devout Catholic, and employee at Pacific Bell Telephone Company for 35 years had ever let himself experience the joy of playing music turned my world upside down.

What else had I gotten wrong?

 

A month into the quarter at the end of a performance class, I was slow to pack up my violin. Samantha's laugh floated back to my row from the front of the room. I looked up to see her flirting with Micah, touching his arm as she spoke. She actually had boobs compared to my flat chest; her hair always looked shiny and straight unlike my half-wavy mess. I felt like a different species altogether; she'd already experienced much more than I had, growing up in Chicago, then moving across the country for college. Where did she learn to lightly touch a guy's arm while flirting? I must have missed that lesson in Woman School. Lesson Four, How to Make Him Want You.

One week later, Tanya confirmed it: they were dating. Papa was wrong; I couldn't keep up with them. I wasn't even in the game. Samantha got everything. First chair. Micah. Everything.

 

I couldn't stop thinking about the French horn. Somehow I knew it was mine, that it was waiting for me to claim it and take care of it with the safekeeping one would give a small child. I was the only one who really understood and valued it. I imagined Papa practicing when Nana left the house on Mondays for weekly grocery shopping, Wednesdays for her hair appointments, and Fridays for shopping with her daughters. Nana was a notorious heavy sleeper; maybe he practiced at night in the shed when she went to sleep. Maybe he slipped out of family parties and went to the shed just to open the box and run his fingers over the instrument. What if he had actually come out of hiding and showed off his talent? I pictured him sitting in the center of the living room playing it for us during family parties, practicing with a group of other octogenarians in a quartet, and performing on stage in a tux with a full orchestra.

One day I would drive down to Dana Point, pull up in front of Nana's house, walk around back to the tool shed, and gently lift the horn from its box. I would load it into the passenger's seat, buckle it up, and say, You're safe now. I've got you.

 

It was Tanya who convinced me to go to the party at the end of the quarter, after finals were over.

"I'm not taking no for an answer this time. You've got to get out of this dorm room. It's not an obnoxious frat party, just the music crowd at a junior's apartment," she assured me, her ponytail swishing. "All the freshman music people will be there."

Which included Micah, I was sure. I wished I could call Papa and hear his voice: You're undeniably as good as they are. You belong there. Just imagining that conversation calmed my anxiety.

So I put on the jeans that made me look like I actually had an ass and wedge sandals and stood in front of the bathroom mirror. I have a large stack of memories, like old magazines, of past events where I've wanted to say something other than what came out. As I got ready, I practiced conversation and facial expressions in front of the bathroom mirror.

The party was on the outskirts of campus. I could hear the top 40 songs blasting as Tanya and I walked down the hallway to the apartment. Multi-colored Christmas lights were strung in the living room and a requisite green and blue college tapestry covered a wall. The plush tan carpet had mystery stains. Tanya made a beeline for the liquor bottles spread out on the kitchen bar. I stepped inside and leaned against a wall while I got my bearings. As always when I enter a room, any room, I tensed, waiting for someone to ask me, "Who invited you?" But no one did.

Across the room, Samantha was dancing in a red tank top, and I noticed several pairs of eyes glued to her boobs bouncing up and down. I could hear Micah's voice and followed it to the kitchen, which was big enough to fit a keg. He was holding court, telling a story from his European backpacking trip that summer. I smiled when he nodded at me. Maybe there would be an opportunity for me to ask him a question, talk to him directly, talk to him once he was alone. I accepted a beer from the guy pouring at the keg, and sipped it slowly.

About thirty minutes later, the kitchen crowd scattered. Micah hadn't even glanced my way beyond the initial nod. Not that I'd said a word. I was close a couple of times but had barely opened my mouth before someone else jumped in with a story or a joke. I tossed my cup and went out to find an empty seat on the living room couch. Tanya was hanging out with a cute sophomore and gave me the thumbs up when I raised my eyebrows from across the room to ask if she was okay.

And Samantha. She must have learned how to party in high school. While I sat there, I saw her do at least five shots, along with gulping down several beers throughout the night. Her voice got louder and her eyes got sadder.

When I got bored of watching everyone, I collected empty cups scattered around the apartment to the trashcan, and righted a speaker that had fallen over. By midnight I had avoided looking or sounding stupid in front of anyone, and longed to wash my face and slip under my duvet. It was time to go.

On my way out, Samantha stumbled into me, blocking my exit. I tried to maneuver around her. Her head sank forward and back and I thought I was free.

Then she vomited. On me. Down the front of my shirt and jeans. It was orange and chunky from the Cheez-Its she'd been eating all night. I could feel the liquid on my shoulders and chest where it soaked through my shirt. Oh God. Oh God. People were staring. Micah was staring. My face burned and I was afraid I might burst into tears.

"Oh my God! I've never done that before, I'm so embarrassed," Samantha slurred, covering her mouth with her hands and stumbling back.

"You're embarrassed? I'm the one with puke on me; I'm the one everyone is looking at. Not you," I blurted before realizing I'd said aloud what I was thinking.

Micah rushed over with paper towels. "Are you kidding me, Sam? Seriously?" He tore off some sheets from the roll and started wiping my shirt at the stomach. He was touching me, he was actually touching me. Before I could enjoy it, he stopped and handed me more clean towels. "Here, I'm sure you don't want a stranger wiping your chest."

He must have been so grossed out. I managed to say thank you, and walked to the bathroom. I'd be out of there as soon as I could wipe off most of the puke. I got inside and locked the door, and then someone knocked.

"Occupied," I called. "Go away."

"It's Micah."

I opened the door.

His curls were wild around his solemn face. "Here's a clean t-shirt from the guy who lives here. I thought you might need it."

I took the shirt, my fingers tingling when they grazed his. "Some people just can't handle their alcohol. I thought Samantha was a party girl," I said, shaking my head.

"Nah, that's just her act. Her parents were actually really strict; in high school they would chaperone her dates."

The stench from my shirt wafted to my nose. I felt my face start to flush.

"I should finish cleaning up. I'll be right out."

He nodded and stepped outside the bathroom as I shut the door. Maybe he would wait for me.

I washed my shirt in the sink and wiped off the vomit on my jeans and shoulders. When I found some puke in my hair I thought I was going to scream. I put on the gray men's t-shirt that read "San Luis Obispo High School Orchestra," and pulled my hair back into a ponytail. "You've got this," I said to myself in the mirror.

I opened the door hoping to see Micah. Tanya was there instead. I felt winded, looking at her. Deflated.

"Holy moly," she breathed, squeezing my upper arm with her small hand. "I can't believe it! I can't believe she did that to you!"

There was no reason for him to have waited. I was just some girl from orchestra who had the misfortune to have been puked on by his girlfriend. "It's fine, really, I'm just ready to go home."

"Want me to go with you? I totally can. This guy is cute but I already got his number."

I knew she meant well, but the last thing I needed was Tanya's perky sympathy.

"No, stay, have fun. I'd rather walk by myself."

 

On the way back to my dorm, I walked along one of my favorite paths, the one scented with eucalyptus. A noise behind me made me startle and turn around. Behind me was a familiar, stumbling shape.

"Samantha?" I asked when she caught up to me. "Are you trying to get back to your room?"

Her normally perfect hair was tangled and matted in places, one bra strap was hanging off her shoulder, and she swayed as she stood there. She couldn't look at me. Guilt? I hoped so.

She nodded. "Everyone was mad and no one would walk with me."

"You're in Hedrick, right?" I asked.

"Yup," she hiccupped.

I held her elbow with one arm and wrapped the other around her waist to keep her upright. We made progress slowly. When I got up to her room, I deposited her on the bed and poured her some water from her Brita filter. I helped her off with her clothes, noticing a small scar on her stomach and stretch marks on her thighs, and got her under the covers.

She was drifting to sleep when she mumbled, "Alice, you're awesome. Thank you."

Now she knows my name? And is thanking me? I looked at her sleeping face: she was snoring; a line of drool inched toward the pillow from one side of her mouth.

Samantha was human just like the rest of us.

 

Nana got sick at the beginning of the winter quarter. It was stomach cancer. She was in the hospital for treatment, and then she would be moved to a nursing home.

Kate called me. "I'm driving down this weekend to help Mom pack up Nana's house."

Please don't let this be about the horn, I thought. "Really?" I tried to make my voice sound casual. "Don't they need you at work?"

"I'm using some sick days. Also, I know you never told Mom about Papa's French horn. She was completely confused when I brought it up."

I felt my stomach start churning. If I lost the horn to Kate, I'm not sure I could forgive myself. I took a deep breath and lied: "I didn't see any reason to rush."

"Well we're divvying up their stuff this weekend; the kids get first pick, then grandkids. Mom said she'd claim the French horn for me."

I had to get to it before Kate did.

When I pulled into Nana's driveway early that Saturday morning, the fog from the marine layer blanketed the house, and Kate's car was there. I walked inside and heard voices in the bedrooms. Maybe they would never know I had been here.

Outside, the shed doors were wide open. There were tools in piles on the grass. Inside, the taupe utility storage cabinet was open too. The box on the bottom shelf was gone.

I ran inside, my heart pounding. Kate must have heard me come in because she walked into the kitchen to meet me.

"You're just in time to help us move Nana's dresser," she said.

"Where is it?"

"What?"

"The horn. Papa's horn."

"With our family's stack in the dining room."

"I was the one who found it. It's mine," I said.

Kate folded her arms and sighed. "But you don't even play the French horn."

"Papa would want me to have it. It belongs to me."

I walked into the dining room, Kate following close behind. When I spotted the box, I opened the flaps and lifted the horn out, hugging it to my chest, and walked out of the room.

"Seriously, Alice, that's enough," I heard Kate call behind me.

But I kept walking. In the foyer, I stopped at a table that held a framed photo of Papa as a young man, around my age. He was shirtless and wearing shorts, leaning against a shiny car. His hair was thick, his arms folded confidently across his muscular chest, and he was grinning. That man could not have imagined he would keep this instrument private from his family. That man would know there was no shame in playing music and no sense in keeping unnecessary secrets. That man would not allow himself to be half-seen.

I shifted the horn so that I could grab the frame, then walked out the door with both of them. This is not my story, I thought as I strapped the horn into the passenger's seat, rested the frame on my lap, and backed out of the driveway. I've only just begun.

 

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