If I Stay (If I Stay #1)(13)


by Gayle Forman

I took the CD home and listened to it over and over for the next week, pondering what Kim said. I pulled my cello out a few times, played along. It was a different kind of music than I’d played before, challenging, and strangely invigorating. I planned to play “Something in the Way” for Kim the following week when she came over for dinner.

But before I had a chance, at the dinner table Kim casually announced to my parents that she thought I ought to go to summer camp.

“What, you trying to convert me so I’ll go to your Torah camp?” I asked.

“Nope. It’s music camp.” She pulled out a glossy brochure for the Franklin Valley Conservatory, a summer program in British Columbia. “It’s for serious musicians,” Kim said. “You have to send a recording of your playing to get in. I called. The deadline for applications is May first, so there’s still time.” She turned to face me head-on, as if she were daring me to get mad at her for interfering.

I wasn’t mad. My heart was pounding, as if Kim had announced that my family won a lottery and she was about to reveal how much. I looked at her, the nervous look in her eyes betraying the “you wanna piece of me?” smirk on her face, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude to be friends with someone who often seemed to understand me better than I understood myself. Dad asked me if I wanted to go, and when I protested about the money, he said never mind about that. Did I want to go? And I did. More than anything.

Three months later, when Dad dropped me off in a lonely corner of Vancouver Island, I wasn’t so sure. The place looked like a typical summer camp, log cabins in the woods, kayaks strewn on the beach. There were about fifty kids who, judging by the way they were hugging and squealing, had all known one another for years. Meanwhile, I didn’t know anybody. For the first six hours, no one talked to me except for the camp’s assistant director, who assigned me to a cabin, showed me my bunk bed, and pointed the way to the cafeteria, where that night, I was given a plate of something that appeared to be meat loaf.

I stared miserably at my plate, looking out at the gloomy gray evening. I already missed my parents, Kim, and especially Teddy. He was at that fun stage, wanting to try new things and constantly asking “What’s that?” and saying the most hilarious things. The day before I left, he informed me that he was “nine-tenths thirsty” and I almost peed myself laughing. Homesick, I sighed and moved the mass of meat loaf around my plate.

“Don’t worry, it doesn’t rain every day. Just every other day.”

I looked up. There was an impish kid who couldn’t have been more than ten years old. He had a blond buzz cut and a constellation of freckles falling down his nose.

“I know,” I said. “I’m from the Northwest, though it was sunny where I lived this morning. It’s the meat loaf I’m worried about.”

He laughed. “That doesn’t get better. But the peanut-butter-and-jelly is always good,” he said, gesturing to a table where a half-dozen kids were fixing themselves sandwiches. “Peter. Trombone. Ontario,” he said. This, I would learn, was standard Franklin greeting.

“Oh, hey. I’m Mia. Cello. Oregon, I guess.”

Peter told me that he was thirteen, and this was his second summer here; almost everyone started when they were twelve, which is why they all knew one another. Of the fifty students, about half did jazz, the other half classical, so it was a small crew. There were only two other cello players, one of them a tall lanky red-haired guy named Simon who Peter waved over.

“Will you be trying for the concerto competition?” Simon asked me as soon as Peter introduced me as Mia. Cello. Oregon. Simon was Simon. Cello. Leicester, which turned out to be a city in England. It was quite the international group.

“I don’t think so. I don’t even know what that is,” I answered.

“Well, you know how we all perform in an orchestra for the final symphony?” Peter asked me.

I nodded my head, though really I had only a vague idea. Dad had spent the spring reading out loud from the camp’s literature, but the only thing I’d cared about was that I was going to camp with other classical musicians. I hadn’t paid too much attention to the details.

“It’s the summer’s end symphony. People from all over come to it. It’s a quite a big deal. We, the youngster musicians, play as a sort of cute sideshow,” Simon explained. “However, one musician from the camp is chosen to play with the professional orchestra and to perform a solo movement. I came close last year but it went to a flutist. This is my second-to-last chance before I graduate. It hasn’t gone to strings in a while, and Tracy, the third of our little trio here, isn’t trying out. She’s more of a hobby player. Good but not terribly serious. I heard you were serious.”

Was I? Not so serious that I hadn’t been on the verge of quitting. “How’d you hear that?” I asked.

“The teachers hear all the application reels and word gets around. Your audition tape was apparently quite good. It’s unusual to admit someone in year two. So I was hoping for some bloody good competition, to up my game, as it were.”

“Whoa, give the girl a chance,” Peter said. “She’s only just tasted the meat loaf.”

Simon shriveled his nose. “Beg pardon. But if you want to put heads together about audition choices, let’s have a little chat about that,” he said, and disappeared off in the direction of the sundae bar.

“Forgive Simon. We haven’t had high-quality cellists for a couple years, so he’s excited about new blood. In a purely aesthetic way. He’s queer, though it may be hard to tell because he’s English.”

“Oh. I see. But what did he say? I mean it sounds like he wants me to compete against him.”

“Of course he does. That’s the fun. That’s why we’re all at camp in the middle of a flipping rain forest,” he said, gesturing outside. “That and the amazing cuisine.” Peter looked at me. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t played with that many people, at least that many serious people.”

Peter scratched his ears. “Really? You said you’re from Oregon. Ever done anything with the Portland Cello Project?”

“The what?”

“Avant-garde cello collective, eh. Very interesting work.”

“I don’t live in Portland,” I mumbled, embarrassed that I’d never even heard of any Cello Project.

“Well then, who do you play with?”

“Other people. College students mostly.”

“No orchestra? No chamber-music ensemble? String quartet?”

I shook my head, remembering a time when one of my student teachers invited me to play in a quartet. I’d turned her down because playing one-on-one with her was one thing; playing with complete strangers was another. I’d always believed that the cello was a solitary instrument, but now I was starting to wonder if maybe I was the solitary one.

“Hmm. How are you any good?” Peter asked. “I don’t mean to sound like an ass**le, but isn’t that how you get good? It’s like tennis. If you play someone crappy, you end up missing shots or serving all sloppy, but if you play with an ace player, suddenly you’re all at the net, lobbing good volleys.”

“I wouldn’t know,” I told Peter, feeling like the most boring, sheltered person ever. “I don’t play tennis, either.”

The next few days went by in a blur. I had no idea why they put out the kayaks. There was no time for playing. Not that kind, anyway. The days were totally grueling. Up at six-thirty, breakfast by seven, private study time for three hours in the morning and in the afternoon, and orchestra rehearsal before dinner.

I’d never played with more than a handful of musicians before, so the first few days in orchestra were chaotic. The camp’s musical director, who was also the conductor, scrambled to get us situated and then it was everything he could do to get us playing the most basic of movements in any semblance of time. On the third day, he trotted out some Brahms lullabies. The first time we played, it was painful. The instruments didn’t blend so much as collide, like rocks caught in a lawn mower. “Terrible!” he screamed. “How can any of you ever expect to play in a professional orchestra if you cannot keep time on a lullaby? Now again!”

After about a week, it started to gel and I got my first taste of being a cog in the machine. It made me hear the cello in an entirely new way, how its low tones worked in concert with the viola’s higher notes, how it provided a foundation for the woodwinds on the other side of the orchestra pit. And even though you might think that being part of a group would make you relax a little, not care so much how you sounded blended among everyone else, if anything, the opposite was true.

I sat behind a seventeen-year-old viola player named Elizabeth. She was one of the most accomplished musicians in the camp—she’d been accepted into the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto—and she was also model-gorgeous: tall, regal, with skin the color of coffee, and cheekbones that could carve ice. I would’ve been tempted to hate her were it not for her playing. If you’re not careful, the viola can make the most awful screech, even in the hands of practiced musicians. But with Elizabeth the sound rang out clean and pure and light. Hearing her play, and watching how deeply she lost herself in the music, I wanted to play like that. Better even. It wasn’t just that I wanted to beat her, but also that I felt like I owed it to her, to the group, to myself, to play at her level.

“That’s sounding quite beautiful,” Simon said toward the end of camp as he listened to me practice a movement from Hayden’s Cello Concerto no. 2, a piece that had given me no end of trouble when I’d first attempted it last spring. “Are you using that for the concerto competition?”

I nodded. Then I couldn’t help myself, I grinned. After dinner and before lights-out every night, Simon and I had been bringing our cellos outside to hold impromptu concerts in the long twilight. We took turns challenging each other to cello duels, each trying to out-crazy-play the other. We were always competing, always trying to see who could play something better, faster, from memory. It had been so much fun, and was probably one reason why I was feeling so good about the Hayden.

“Ahh, someone’s awfully confident. Think you can beat me?” Simon asked.

“At soccer. Definitely,” I joked. Simon often told us that he was the black sheep in his family not because he was g*y, or a musician, but because he was such a “shitey footballer.”

Simon pretended that I’d shot him in the heart. Then he laughed. “Amazing things happen when you stop hiding behind that hulking beast,” he said, gesturing to my cello. I nodded. Simon smiled at me. “Well, don’t go getting quite so cocky. You should hear my Mozart. It sounds like the bloody angels singing.”

Neither one of us won the solo spot that year. Elizabeth did. And though it would take me four more years, eventually I’d nab the solo.

9:06 P.M.

“I’ve got exactly twenty minutes before our manager has a total shit fit.” Brooke Vega’s raspy voice booms in the hospital’s now-quiet lobby. So this is Adam’s idea: Brooke Vega, the indie-music goddess and lead singer of Bikini. In a trademark punky glam outfit—tonight it’s a short bubble skirt, fishnets, high black leather boots, an artfully ripped-up Shooting Star T-shirt, topped off with a vintage fur shrug and a pair of black Jackie O glasses—she stands out in the hospital lobby like an ostrich in a chicken coop. She’s surrounded by people: Liz and Sarah; Mike and Fitzy, Shooting Star’s rhythm guitarist and bass player, respectively, plus a handful of Portland hipsters who I vaguely recognize. With her magenta hair, she’s like the sun, around which her admiring planets revolve. Adam is like a moon, standing off to the side, stroking his chin. Meanwhile, Kim looks shell-shocked, like a bunch of Martians just entered the building. Or maybe it’s because Kim worships Brooke Vega. In fact, so does Adam. Aside from me, this was one of the few things they had in common.