Eight years ago
I woke with a jerk, screaming.
‘Nurse!’ someone called out. ‘Nurse!’ A face leaned over me. Cindy Heller, Mom’s best friend. ‘Landon, honey – it’s okay. You’re safe. Shh, you’re safe.’
I felt her cool fingertips on my arm and tried to focus as her red-rimmed eyes filled with tears. She bit her lower lip so hard it was colourless and trembling. Her whole face was crumpled, like paper wadded up tight and then smoothed back out.
Her husband Charles appeared next to her, one arm slipping behind her back to pull her tight. She slumped against him as if she’d have tipped right over without his reinforcement.
His opposite hand was warm on top of mine, then, enveloping it. ‘You’re safe, son. Your dad is on his way.’ His voice sounded grainy, and his eyes were red, too. ‘He’ll be here soon.’
A nurse materialized on the other side of the bed with a huge syringe, but before I could pull away, she stuck it into a bag suspended from a metal stand, not into my arm. A clear cord extending from the bottom of the bag looped down. I knew it was attached to me when I felt whatever she’d just injected into it, like I’d been shot with a tranquillizer gun.
‘Mom!’ I said, but my mouth wouldn’t cooperate and my eyes kept trying to close. ‘Mom! Mom!’
Cindy couldn’t bite her lip hard enough to stifle the sob that escaped. Tears overflowed and trailed down her cheeks. I couldn’t feel her touching me any more, and she turned into her husband’s chest, hands flying up to cover her mouth – too late to muffle another sob.
The pressure of Charles’s hand diminished bit by bit as everything grew fuzzier. ‘Landon, sleep now. Your father will be here as soon as he can. I’m here. I’m not leaving you.’
His face became less and less distinct, finally fading altogether, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
Mom! I screamed her name in my head, Mom! Mom … Mom …
But I already knew she wouldn’t have heard me, even if my voice was as loud as a jet engine.
In a lecture hall of 189 students, it’s unusual for one of them to stand out the first day, but not unprecedented. When one separates from the herd that early, it’s typically because of something negative. Like asking stupid questions. Or talking during the lecture – and missing the evil eye from the professor. Excessive body odour. Audible snoring.
Or my personal anathema: being a trendy douche.
So I wasn’t too surprised when I became aware of such a guy during the first week of fall semester. Typical previous BMOC of his high school – used to toadies toadying. Still expecting it, still getting it. Frat guy. Casual but affluent clothes, expensive haircut, self-important smile, perfect teeth and the requisite cute girlfriend. Likely majors: econ, poli sci, finance.
He annoyed me on sight. Biased of me, sure – but it’s not like my opinion mattered. He paid attention in class and asked competent questions, so he was unlikely to need tutoring, though that didn’t preclude him from showing up to the study sessions I administered for Dr Heller three times a week. Often the brightest students made up most of the group.
The first semester I did supplemental instruction – last fall – I paid close attention during Heller’s lectures. I’d made an A in his class, but it had been a year since I took it, and economics isn’t a stagnant field. I didn’t want a student asking me a question in the middle of a tutoring session that I couldn’t answer. By the third semester – my fourth sitting through the class – I didn’t really need to be there, but class attendance was part of the tutoring gig, and it was easy money.
So there I sat – bored off my ass on the back row, working on assignments from my senior-level courses, sketching out design-project ideas, keeping an ear on where the lecture was going so I could stay on topic during my sessions, and resolutely ignoring my pointless dislike of the conceited sophomore sitting in the centre of the class with his accessory of a girlfriend.
But by the end of that first week, my attention was straying to her.
Since childhood, drawing has been a comforting diversion, and sometimes an escape. My mother was an artist, and I don’t know if she discerned that I had a natural aptitude for it or if it was a learned skill resulting from her early encouragement and plenty of practice. All I know was that by the time I was five or six, paper and pencil were my way of relating to the world. My personal form of meditation.
Once I began college, most of my drawings became mechanical or architectural in nature – probably unavoidable, given my mechanical-engineering studies. But even in my free time, I rarely sketched bodies or faces any more. I had little desire to do it.
Entering and exiting class, her boyfriend sometimes held her hand. But it was like he was holding a lead, not the hand of a girl he cared about. Before class, he talked football, politics, music and frat particulars like rush or upcoming parties with other guys like him and guys who wanted to be like him. Nearby girls bestowed sidelong glances he pretended to ignore.
Somehow, while he was preoccupied with everything and everyone around him except her, I suddenly couldn’t see anything else. She was beautiful, sure, but in a university with thirty thousand undergrads, that was hardly riveting. If not for my initial annoyance with her boyfriend, I might never have noticed her at all.
Once I realized how often my gaze drifted over her, I consciously fought the inclination – but it was no use. There was nothing in the room as interesting as this girl. What fascinated me first and foremost were her hands. Specifically, her fingers.
In class, she sat next to him, wearing a loose smile, sometimes quietly conversing with him or others nearby. She didn’t look unhappy, but her eyes were almost vacant at times, like her mind was elsewhere. During those moments, though, her hands – her fingers – were performing.
At first I thought she had a nervous habit, like Heller’s daughter, Carlie, who’d never stopped moving since the day she was born. Carlie was forever tapping a fingernail or a foot, jiggling a knee, talking. The only thing I’ve seen calm her was petting Francis, my cat.
This girl wasn’t tapping her fingers restlessly, though. Her movements were methodical. Synchronized. Sitting far enough to the left of her to study her profile, I watched her chin bob, so subtly it was almost undetectable – and at some point, I realized that when her expression was remote and her fingers were moving, she was hearing music. She was playing music.