Homecoming – Matthias Kramer

            I stepped off the train back onto the streets of Baltimore in the late morning.  Snow swirled around grimy street corners and brushed against the boarded-up windows of foreclosed houses. It caught in the beards of the panhandlers I walked past, dragging my suitcase of belongings behind me. Though I wore a thick coat and a fluffy wool hat, I still felt a tingle on my nose where my scarf couldn’t reach. That chill spread down my neck and into my stomach where it froze my insides. I dragged my feet, fighting against the weight of the ice in my gut. The snow had begun to collect in gutters and on piles of refuse in dismal alleyways, just a thin layer of white coating the murk and the grit of the city. As little as I wanted to be back at college for my second semester, anything was better than being home right now.

            The walk to Huntington Conservatory from the train station only took about ten minutes. Though not the quickest way to my dorm, I decided to go through the main entrance, just like I did the first time I came to Huntington. I remembered saying goodbye to my parents in that doorway, together, and I remembered the smile on my father’s face as I pulled open those great wooden doors for the first time. I hoped that this semester would be a new start. Things hadn’t gone according to plan last fall, and I desperately wished that this semester would be different, somehow.

I opened the regal wooden doors and entered the great hallway of Huntington’s entrance. The marble carvings of long-dead musicians haunted the corridor. Huntington held its students to the highest standards. The message was clear—train here, and you too could one day be enshrined in stone. I lingered in the corridor, sneaking glances at the statues, watching my breath condense. Today they appeared to be carved from ice. With a shiver, I left the hallway and entered the small courtyard that separated the main building from the dorms.

I hadn’t spoken to anyone since I got off the train, not since I had said goodbye to my mother that morning. No one knew I had returned from winter vacation. I was alone. I didn’t have many friends at Huntington, not anymore at least. Right now, however, I preferred it that way. No one could ask me about home, or school, or anything. I wouldn’t know what to tell them even if they did ask. It was silent, as it should be. After all, Huntington was a home for ghosts. Forgotten music played by dying musicians echoed throughout the decaying halls of the conservatory. I didn’t want to disturb the dead.

            Huntington Conservatory, established with a generous donation from railroad tycoon Collis Huntington in the late 19th century, sculpted malleable young musicians into magnificent professional artists. The names of its alumni read like a roll call for successful American musicians of the 20th century. To me, however, Huntington was a place music came to die. It took its students and chipped away any musical imperfection, any personality in their sound, in pursuit of greatness. Students paid inordinate tuition fees for the privilege to be counted among the illustrious few who were accepted each year.

            When I first saw that acceptance letter in my mailbox, I was filled with a childish glee. My father, overjoyed with my musical success, insisted that I attend. It would be the smart choice after all, so I hastily agreed. I guess I didn’t see the coffins until I had already dug six feet deep.

 

            I arrived at my vacant dorm room and looked around. The meager light filtering in underneath my roommate’s black curtain, the acrid smell of mildew and moldy food still hanging in the stagnant air, the unmade bed—everything was exactly as it was when I left, exactly as it should be. Jarred, my roommate, must not have arrived yet, as both the fan and the A/C were shut off. He couldn’t travel without bringing the chill of his Maine hometown with him everywhere he went.

I began to try to tidy up. Last semester, I had let my room fall into complete disarray. I felt compelled to start fresh on this front as well. So, I pulled the bedsheet over the mattress and tucked in the corners. I spread the blanket over the top and placed the pillow on the head of the bed. This being done, I unzipped my suitcase and unpacked my belongings. I found the jacket I had received from my father as a Christmas gift—a long overcoat made of a thick material fit to keep me warm through even the coldest Baltimore night. I had been asking for one for years, as my father owned one just like it. While I had waited for the bus to come as a bright-eyed elementary school student, my father had waited with me, wearing that coat I admired so much.

Hesitating slightly, I lifted the coat out of my suitcase and brought it over to the closet. I noticed that I didn’t have a hanger for it, so I balled it up and threw it into the dark recesses of the closet.

After I had finished, I sat down on the now put-together bed. I felt the sudden urge to rip it apart, to tear the sheets off the mattress and throw the pillows out the window, but instead I sighed and lay down.

My father, I became sharply aware of how much he had shaped my life—from the college I attended, to the jacket I wanted for Christmas. It was he who got me into singing, and it was he who paid for me to attend Huntington. I had modeled my whole life in that immaculate image of him fabricated in my head. It looked warped now, his smile wicked, his arms threatening. He was not the man I thought he was, I knew that now. I had learned about his betrayal this morning from my mom. My hands began to shake. In desperation, I shut my eyes and begged for the thought of him to leave me. I wanted to cry but my tears had frozen solid.

            Sleep fell over me without my noticing its coming. It was hard for me to tell where reality ended and dream began in that bed.

 

I stood on a narrow rope-bridge stretching across two snowy mountain peaks. A deep valley cut between the mountains; it carved a path far below me. As I traversed across the treacherous wood planks, the ropes holding the bridge up began to fray. I started to run towards the safety of the other side. The ropes snapped.

 

            I jolted awake. The alarm clock on my desk read 6 pm. The room felt colder, and I felt the breeze from the fan against my face. I rolled over and noticed Jarred’s black leather bag leaning against his bed, quite literally overflowing with musical fervor. Despite his best efforts to remain organized, countless pages of sheet music poked out of it. I turned my head and saw Jarred sitting at his desk across the room. He was quietly whittling away at thin pieces of wood; he played oboe and was making reeds. I hadn’t noticed him slip in.

            “Jarred, you’re back.” I hesitated, and then began to get out of bed.

            “Yes?” He extended the vowel and let the end of it curl up into a question, as if he couldn’t believe I would make such an observation. He didn’t look up from his work.

Oboe was Jarred’s life. He was good at it, and knew it too. He devoted upwards of five to six hours each day to practicing, either in our room or in a practice room, if one was open. Though Huntington’s long hallways housed countless practice rooms, finding an available room at any hour of the day proved a difficult task, especially at the beginning and end of a semester.   

            “Did you have a nice break?” I didn’t want to talk to him. We never really had much to say to each other.

            He sighed. “Yes.”      

“That’s good.” I began to head towards the door. “Do you want to get dinner? Have you eaten?”

            He set down his knife and turned to look at me. “No. I’m not hungry.” He resumed his work.

            I decided against pursuing conversation with him further. I exited the room and made my way down the deserted staircase to the dining hall.

 

            The Huntington cafeteria never smelled particularly appetizing. The predominant scents mingled somewhere between sour milk and overcooked broccoli. The food tasted about as good as it smelled. I poured myself a bowl of cereal and scanned the nearly empty room for a place to sit. At a table in the center of the room, a few people I recognized were eating dinner. Their faces reminded me of happier times. We used to be friends, but it had been months since I had eaten a meal with them. However, new beginnings being what they are, I began to approach the table.  

            As I walked over, Robert noticed me. “Martin, you’re back!” A grin blossomed on his face. Robert had the perfect face for laughing.

            “Yeah, I’m here.” I smiled rigidly. “Mind if I sit?”

            He gestured me to the seat next to him. Around the table sat a couple people who lived on my floor, Vincent and Marie, as well as a girl who I hadn’t spoken to in months. Her name was Nicole. I snuck a glance at her as I sat. Her charcoal hair drank in the light around her in a way that made it shimmer with each movement of her head. We had a class together last semester, and had danced at a party once.  She always smelled like cherry blossoms.

I ached for her, but after that night in October I was afraid to speak to her. I had admitted too much to too many people. I wondered briefly how much people still remembered about that night, as I certainly couldn’t remember much. I do remember saying a lot of ill-advised things to Nicole about how terrible her boyfriend was, and I certainly remember being carried back to my dorm room by Robert, but I know I said more that night. Did I really say I wanted to die?

I still don’t fully know what inspired my behavior that night—a particularly cold day, perhaps. Although, in retrospect, I had probably just begun to realize how truly hopeless studying music made me feel, and how lonely a place Huntington would prove itself to be.  

            The conversation drifted around what our respective breaks had been like. Marie had gone home to Bermuda, Robert skiing in Aspen. I said simply that my break was fine, and I was grateful that no one pressed me further. In comparison to the happy experiences they had with their families, my own relations seemed comically depressing. They already knew enough about my self-deprecation and dissatisfaction. I didn’t want to give them my father’s face to attach to it too. I took a bite of cereal. It tasted like cardboard.

            After a few minutes, Robert, Vincent, and Marie said that they were heading out. They gathered their empty plates and trays and departed. My stomach twisted into knots as I turned towards my remaining companion, Nicole. I hoped she had forgotten everything, forgotten me. Maybe she had, and we could start over and dance together again. A sweet scent caught in my nose—cherry blossoms.

            Nicole met my gaze and gave me a nervous smile. “It’s good to see you, Martin. After what happened, I wasn’t sure you’d be back,” she said. Her eyes darted towards the floor.

            I inhaled sharply. She remembered. The memories tasted like vodka and vomit. A night spent drinking and sobbing, wandering the dorms, ranting to anyone who’d listen; maybe I shouldn’t have returned, after all.

            “Oh, yeah. I’m doing a lot better now.” I paused. “Things were bad for a little while there.” I faked a laugh and began to chew on the side of my finger, a barricade preventing my thoughts from escaping my lips.

            She met my eyes and smiled apprehensively. “That’s good.” She glanced at the floor again and cleared her throat. “I think we have theory together, again.”

            “Oh? Maybe this semester I’ll actually come to class.” I tried to appear confident, but the thought made me stiffen. I hunched my shoulders. On some level I knew this wasn’t true. I knew no matter how much I wanted to start over, no matter how much I wanted to succeed at Huntington, I would still end up slipping away eventually. It happened last semester, and that was before I knew about my father. I began to feel sick.

            “Good! We were worried about you, you know.” She turned towards the door of the dining hall. “Well, I was worried.”

            “This is the semester where everything changes. I’m a new Martin.” I sat up a little straighter, but doing so made my chest feel tight. I deflated with a sigh and looked away. It felt good to say, even if it didn’t feel true. Saying so gave me hope. I tried to smooth away some of the wrinkles on my shirt.

            “I’m really glad to hear.” She shifted in her seat. “Look, I have to go practice. I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”

            I nodded. “Yeah, see you then.”

I searched my head for another thing to say to her, something to put all the pieces into place. I sat with my mouth hung open, hand raised in awkward farewell, perched on the edge of communication.

            Nicole didn’t seem to notice, or at least she pretended not to, a final act of pity. She gathered her things and left me alone sitting there. All alone, as I preferred it.

 

            The first week of classes began well enough. I sat in the front row. I turned in all my homework. My classmates hardly spoke to me, but I didn’t mind too much. Even my singing seemed to be improving, though I still didn’t practice as much as I should. I began to feel the slight heat of hope burning in my chest. Though Jarred and I remained distant, I fortified some of the friendships that I had let splinter apart last semester. Particularly, Robert and I spent a lot of time together, as he seemed to be the only one who didn’t regard me with that same forced sympathy that pulled at the faces of my other peers, and he shared my work ethic when it came to practicing.

The only thing that kept me from feeling at ease were the dreams. Nightmares tormented me every time I closed my eyes.

 

            I woke up, but instead of my bed at Huntington, I lay in my room at home. It was the Sunday morning of my train ride back to Baltimore, the last day of vacation. I got out of bed and made my way to the bathroom to take a shower. The hot water must have been used up because the showerhead bombarded me with frigidity. My teeth chattered as I washed my body. Once I had finished and wrapped a towel around myself, I walked back to my room. I stumbled down the hallway. Somehow it had become unnaturally tilted while I was in the shower. Upon entering my room, I noticed rain pouring in through the open window. I rushed over and closed it, and I began to get dressed. Before I could finish, my mother knocked on the door.

            “I brought you breakfast, sweetie,” she said. She was carrying a plate with eggs and bacon. It smelled delicious. She was crying.

            “Mom, what’s wrong?” I raced over to her and guided her to a seat in my desk chair. She handed me the plate of food.

            “Martin… I’m so sorry no one has told you anything.” She began to sob.

            I froze. “What are you talking about?”

The walls started to melt, candlewax feeding the flames of my uncertainty. The questions inside of me that I had, for so long, pushed away bubbled up to the surface of my mind. The room felt sweltering.

            “Your father, you deserve to know.” She didn’t meet me eyes. She picked up a book on the desk and began to flip through the pages absently.

            “Know what?” I sat down on my bed. I shivered. I finished putting on my shirt.

            But I already knew. It sank into my gut. Those months where they had separated, I was so young then, no one would tell me why. How can you tell a nine-year-old something like that? That my father, my hero, was nothing more than an abuser, a sexual deviant, a fraud.

            “What he did to your sister, what happened to us, everything.” She looked away, teardrops wet the pages of the open book in her lap. “We didn’t want to hurt you, you and him are so close.”

            “What did he do?” My heart began to race. The sky outside was dark with rain.

            “When Jennifer was eleven, your father—” Smoke began to pour out of her mouth. The bedroom wall ignited with a deafening roar.

            “How can you stay with him? Why didn’t you leave him?” I screamed over the blaze.

            “It was so long ago, Martin. We’ve all forgiven him now. Even Jennifer.” She reached out to me and began to stroke the side of my face. “And at my age, how would I live on my own?”

            The room filled with swirling flames and thick black smoke. I coughed as the smoke clogged my throat and poisoned my lungs. The flames licked my skin, which flaked and charred. I felt myself losing consciousness. My vision began fading to black.

“Martin, wake up!” A voice called out to me.

 

            I shook myself awake. I was lying on the couch in the chilly common room covered in sweat. I must have fallen asleep watching television. Robert stood over me.

“Are you ok, man?” he said. His eyebrows knitted together.

            “Yeah, I’m fine.” I pulled myself up to sit. “Bad dream.” I rubbed my eyes.

He smiled and patted my back. He sat down on the couch next to me. The dorm’s common room was empty aside from the two of us. My hands were shaking from the remembering. I needed to get away from those memories, somehow. It felt pretty late, 10 pm? An idea formed in my head.

I turned to him. “Are you guys going out tonight?”

            He drew his lips into a tight line. “Yeah.” He paused. “Do you want to come?”

            I looked at him seriously and nodded.

            He gave me an appraising glance. “You remember what happened last time?” He asked.

I looked away. “I’m in a better place now, I’ll be fine,” I said. My throat stung.

He shrugged. “Fair enough, we’d be glad to have you.” He jostled my shoulder affectionately.  

            We talked for a little about chorus, about how obnoxious the sopranos were in rehearsal last week. We laughed and it felt like nothing was wrong. Vincent and Marie joined us after a little while. With the group assembled, Robert announced that it was time to go.

            Robert led the way out of the back door of the dorm. As I exited the building into the cold night air I felt my pace quicken. A bead of sweat began to form on the crown of my head underneath my wool cap as we snuck through Huntington’s gates and began to walk down the lonely Baltimore streets. The fresh layer of snow that had fallen on the city that morning set the normally stark light of the streetlamps glistening as it reflected off the waist-high banks of pure-white snow that flanked the icy road. A smile broadened my face.

            As we rounded a corner, I saw our destination, a small nature park in the middle of a residential district. We slipped on the slick pavement as we crossed to the far corner of the park. Overhead, a few police helicopters buzzed around the city, pouring light onto the earth with their spotlights. Robert announced that this would be as good a spot as any to set up shop. He procured the glass pipe from his bag and filled its bowl with green leaves from a baggy.

            Marie turned to me. “Hey Martin, you’re cool to smoke?”

            I looked at her, not quite sure what to say. The first time I smoked with them was just days before my big meltdown last fall. I guessed she was worried it would happen again. I clenched my jaw. A helicopter passed far overhead.

            “Come on, Marie, the kid can handle himself,” Vincent said. He clapped me on the back. I relaxed.

            “I know he can, I’m just asking.” She turned back towards Robert who nodded.

            Robert handed me the pipe and smiled. I sparked the lighter and lit the bowl. I felt a rush of smoke fill my lungs as I inhaled. A tightness caught in my throat. I choked and coughed. Robert chuckled. I passed the pipe to Vincent.

            The rotation continued. We smoked with the quiet determination characteristic of overworked conservatory students. In no time, the bowl was filled with ash. I felt a cloudburst behind my eyes, sweet raindrops, and a gust of wind pulled my thoughts across the canvas of my mind. It felt good to be in the cold air. Removing my hat to let the wind blow through my hair, I ran circles in the snow with my boot-prints laughing high and wild like a child spinning around and around until, too dizzy to stand, I fell giggling into a snowdrift staring at the dark sky above me gasping for air.

            “Martin is cooked.” Vincent marveled. He trudged over to where I lay, making wings in the snow with my arms. “Come on, buddy.” He extended a hand to me.

            I took it and let him lift me up off the ground, noticing the others looking at me with measured concern. The world around me shimmered and spun.

            “Have you ever noticed how many different colors of snow there are?” I asked to no one in particular. “Purple snow in the shadows, orange snow in the light, blue snow in between.”

            Vincent chuckled. “Yellow snow too, gotta watch out for that.”

Errant syllables rushed out of my mouth. “I always thought of snow as plain and simple, but it’s so colorful!” I slipped on an icy patch, and almost fell. I righted myself and smiled helplessly. “I’m not making any sense am I?” My tongue felt like rubber. I laughed.

            Robert and Marie exchanged glances, and then laughed along. Vincent grinned, “I see it man, colors.” He led me over to the others who stood with their arms tucked into their pockets, staring off into space.

            I felt good.

            We collected our things and began to make our way back to campus, joking and laughing the whole way. It had been so long since I felt this warm. On the way back, we stopped at a nearby convenience store. I purchased a handful of candy, a bag of chips, a donut, and a large soda. Those colorful things called out to me; I hadn’t really noticed them before.

            By the time we returned to the dorm, I could barely keep my eyes open. I sagged onto the couch in the dorm’s common room. Vincent said that he had a lesson tomorrow and needed to practice, so he took his leave. Marie said that she wanted to go make some food, and also left. Robert joined me on the couch.

“How are you feeling, man?” He grabbed the television remote. “Feeling good?”

“What? Yeah, I’m good. Real good.” I gave him a lazy smile and closed my eyes. “I feel

a bit like a pie, freshly baked.”

He nodded. “I feel that.” He flipped on the TV and began to hunt for something worth watching.

I felt the urge to say more. Erratic thoughts still swirled around my mind. “You know, last semester I felt real homesick when I first got here,” I said.

“Damn, that feels like it was years ago,” he mused.

“Yeah, well, I was worried I’d be homesick again after the break, but I don’t miss home at all.” I opened my eyes and looked at him. He had settled on a channel, some cooking show, and was checking his phone. “Isn’t that weird?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Nah, it’s easier now for me too. I guess we’re used to it.”

“Yeah, something like that.” I turned and watched a chef on the TV break an egg in a pan. It sizzled and steamed. It reminded me of the omelets my father used to make for me when I was young. A bitter taste filled my mouth. I tore open a candy bar wrapper.

Marie returned bearing Hot Pockets. She handed one to Robert and sat down next to him. We watched the television for perhaps longer than necessary.

“Guys, I’ve got class at ten,” Marie said at last. She stood up from the couch and began to walk out of the room.

As if a spell had been broken, Robert and I made our goodbyes and returned to our respective rooms. Upon entering my room, Jarred sighed audibly. Ignoring him, I lay down in my soft bed and let my mind drift across the far-away night sky.

 

            The chirping of my alarm pulled me from my restless sleep. Monday’s morning always seemed to arrive sooner than Sunday’s. Cold sweat coated my body and the thin bedsheet clung to my moist skin. I felt wrung out. I shut off the alarm and peered out the window. No light came through the glass. Baltimore winter blanketed the earth with cold and dark. Jarred stirred in his sleep. I shivered.

            The events of the night before had filled me with so much life. I had felt truly happy. Except, I couldn’t remember the sensation anymore. All that was left was a feeling of grey, empty dullness. The remnants of last night’s high drifted on the edge of my thoughts, shrouding them like a sheer curtain pulled across frosted glass. That pale white smoke filled my mind and sank into my mouth. It tasted bitter. I lay back down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Around me were scattered remains of the night’s merriments. I felt sick just looking at those wrappers of half-eaten candy bars and empty soda bottles. My stomach rumbled. I hadn’t eaten a real meal since Friday.

            “Make sure you go to class every day,” the memory of my father’s voice chastised. Except now the advice was caustic and empty. His voice sounded twisted. The man who said that was not my father. I had no father. My father was gone, and in his place was a man wearing his skin like a suit.

            My music theory class started at eight-thirty. This gave me half an hour to get up, get dressed, get my shit together, and get to class. Once there, I’d see the room fill with my dedicated peers. I could hear the diligent scratching of their pencils on paper and see my own lying still. None of them would look at me, or speak to me. Perpetual silence. I would sit in that solitary prison and watch my vacant life fly by, out the window and into the exhaust-blackened snow. Left to melt.

My head began to ache. A sharp stab of ice pierced my consciousness. I wanted to scream, but my throat felt raspy and dry. I couldn’t speak.

I couldn’t breathe.

I hated theory because everyone in the class knew everything about me. I hated all of my classes because of that. Everyone knew everything at Huntington. From the idle gossip spread on parted lips they knew about my meltdown last fall. They knew about my isolation, the afternoons I spent lying face down in my bed with tears soaking the blankets. They knew. Oh, how Jarred loved to tell those horror stories. I was tired of half-hidden glances and false kindness. I choked on the smoke pouring down my throat.

“Fuck it.” My voice came out louder than I had meant it. Jarred groaned and turned over.

I closed my eyes, settled into the covers, and fell back to sleep. My mind swam with images of drowning and falling, and feeling completely alone in a crowded concert hall.

 

Almost a year earlier, I was sitting on a bench facing a large set of double doors in a winding corridor somewhere in Huntington. My dad sat beside me. We were playing 20 questions, anything to keep my mind off of the audition at hand. My dad was a professional cellist, and so he had auditioned countless times and knew what I was going through.  

I had watched him when I was little whenever he performed recitals or gave talks about music. He seemed so beautiful and bright. I wanted to make people smile the way he did when he played. He must have felt the admiration I had for him, and so he became attracted to the idea of “my son, the professional musician.”

“Is it a musical instrument?” I asked. I readjusted the tie around my neck, had it always been so tight?

“Yes…” he replied. His voice sounded tired. He had driven us all the way from Raleigh earlier that morning.

Around us sat other Huntington aspirants communicating in hushed tones with their entourage. Some of them warmed up their voices; they sounded amazing.

I cleared my throat before speaking. “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

“It is unless you step on it.” His eyes twinkled.

I smirked. “Is it a viola?”

He laughed and threw his arm around my shoulder. “How’d you know?”

I looked at him seriously. “There’s only one instrument you’d joke about stepping on.” I joined him in his laughter.

The door opened and an official-looking woman carrying a clipboard poked her head through. “Martin?” She glanced around.

I stood up. It was my turn. My dad patted me on the back and wished me well, he couldn’t follow me where I was going now. I’d been preparing for this moment for years, all of the hours spent alone in my room practicing the repertoire that I’d be singing today. I was a tightly coiled spring, all potential energy and hot metal.

As I stepped through the double doors into the audition room, I first noticed the large windows on the wall. The light from those windows illuminated the faces of the six people sitting at a long table facing a piano. These would be the people who decided my fate. I glanced at them and took my place in the crook of the piano. I handed a binder of music to the man sitting on the piano’s bench, and turned to address the adjudicators.

“My name is Martin Hoffman.” I met each of their eyes. “My first piece is ‘Deh vieni alla finetsra’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.” It felt good to address them like this. There was no reason to fear these people. I’d impressed countless people with my voice before, and they wouldn’t be any different. That confidence swelled inside me, pushing my nerves to the fringes of my consciousness. I wound around myself tighter, and then I sprung.

My voice felt strange in my ears. In my head I was no longer Martin, but rakish Don Jon, seducing the lustful maid. I wove the winding melody around itself like a thick tapestry. In the second verse, a thread broke, a split end, a crack. I choked. I felt the beginnings of icy panic welling inside of me.

After the song concluded, one of the adjudicators requested to hear my French piece, another serenade. This time I was Don Quixote proposing my desperate love to my dear Dulcinée; I was anyone but Martin. “Et je mourais, vous bénissant,” I professed not only to Dulcinée, but also to the judges before me.

Once the final notes died away, the judge in the middle nodded. “Thank you very much, Mr. Hoffman. We will let you know the results—”

            “Now hold on a second,” a man sitting at the far end of the table spoke up. He had a magnificent blonde mustache. “I want to hear the psalm.”

            The interrupted judge looked momentarily offended, she turned to the mustachioed man with icy eyes. He met her gaze and smirked. Apparently mollified, she turned back to me. “Well, alright. Martin, would you mind singing your third piece for us?”

            I approved and mentally prepared myself. The 23rd Psalm, set by Maer Finkelstein, was my signature piece. I had sung it at churches and recital halls all over my hometown. It had brought tears to the eyes of many listeners. The song was more technically challenging than most of the music sung by singers my age, but I had the range for it, and the talent. Though it was listed as one of my three audition pieces, I rarely sang it in a live audition because it was such a risky piece. One wrong note, one slight hiccup of tone, would ruin its magic.

            It began simply, piano scales and shapes sailing up and down the keyboard, my voice a lantern leading the way through the valley of death. It swelled and sank and burst forth.  A sudden thunderstorm. The final “forever” coursed out of me like a raging river. I was a conduit for sound, a hole through which music escaped.

            The judges clapped. The mustachioed man nodded. “I love that piece,” he said.

            I turned and walked out of the room, muddy thoughts racing around my head, a whirlwind of doubt and dizziness. I felt hollow. All of the music had absconded and left me with nothing. As I crossed the threshold my father caught my eye and beamed. He stood taller than ever.

“I could hear you through the door. You sounded incredible!” He pulled me into a hug.

My voice was muffled against his thick jacket. “Really? I wasn’t listening.” Around us the world began to dissolve into smoke and haze.

 

            Groggily, I opened my eyes. Midday sun poured in through my dorm room window. My days and nights blended together as I began to skip class more and more. My life had been superseded by a meaningless cycle of waking up at dinnertime, smoking, going to sleep after breakfast, repeat. Everything felt wrong, and I couldn’t stop falling asleep. I smoked almost every night because it felt so novel, so exciting to feel whole, even for only those few hours. When I was high, I felt a fleeting facsimile of joy, and the sharp pain of my father’s betrayal became nothing more than a dull ache. Due to this, my grades began to suffer. I began to slide down the same slope I had tumbled down last semester. I felt powerless to stop my falling.

            The door banged open. It was Jarred. He stomped across the room and began to gather up some music on his desk. “Are you going to go to ear training, Martin?” He asked. Venom spat out of his mouth.

            I sighed and rolled over.

            “Because you didn’t go yesterday, or the day before.” He walked over to my bed. “People are beginning to worry.” His voice sent a shiver down my spine.

            “Whatever.” I tried to squeeze my eyes tighter, tried to sink deeper into my bed. Maybe if I closed them tight enough, I would disappear.

            “You can’t just lay in bed all day. I have things to do in here.” His voice froze into ice around the edges.

            “Then do them, I don’t care.” I turned over and glared at him.

            He grumbled and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him. “He’s still in there sleeping!” I heard him yell to someone in the common room.

            It was Thursday, the day of my weekly voice lessons, which I still attended regularly. I rolled out of bed and threw on some dirty clothes laying on the floor. It’d been weeks since I’d done laundry, or cleaned, or made the bed. I gathered my wrinkled music, though I hadn’t looked at it since my last lesson. It stung my eyes to see those black notes floating across the page.

 

I sat in a thick velvety chair outside the wooden door to my teacher’s studio and waited to be summoned. At last, Dr. Stockard poked his mustachioed face through the door.

            “Martin, come in.” He beckoned me with a nod and opened the door fully.

            The magnificent snow-white piano drew my eyes to it when I entered the studio. I’d never seen a piano like it before, with its red trim and gold writing. It looked like something out of a movie, or a dream.

            “I’ve been hearing some troubling news about you from some of your professors,” Dr. Stockard said. He pulled his mouth into a frown.

            Even the professors enjoyed gossiping about the students’ affairs. “Oh?” I asked. I walked across the room and sat in a plain wooden chair next to his desk.

            He closed the door behind me and followed me to the desk. “I hear you haven’t been to diction class in almost two weeks.” He sat down in his rich leather chair and faced me. “Your performance as of late strikes me as perturbing.”

            “I’ve had a rough couple weeks, I guess.” I crossed my arms. I just wanted to sing and leave. “I looked at the new music you gave me.” I trailed off.

            He shook his head. “The Huntington Institute is a place for serious musicians. I expect you to adopt a more mature attitude when it comes to your studies in the future.” He eyed me like a hawk spotting prey.

            I lowered my head. “Yes, sir.”
            Shame sank deep into my stomach. Dr. Stockard was the reason I had even been accepted to Huntington at all. He believed in me that day, and now I was failing even him.

            “This isn’t the military.”         

            I looked him in the eyes. My jaw tightened. “Yes, Dr. Stockard.” I blinked and looked away. The room started spinning.

            I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. I felt lost.

            The voice lesson was mediocre at best. My voice wouldn’t cooperate and nothing Dr. Stockard said made any sense. I strained to reach high notes, my pitch flattened, my tone trembled. I was weakness. Dr. Stockard heard it in my voice, heard my disillusionment, my frustration.

            “Martin, why did you come to Huntington?” He finally asked as he showed me to the door.

            My father wanted me to, I thought bitterly. “I got in, and got a scholarship,” I said as I reached for the door’s handle.

            He motioned me to stop. “No, not why you chose to come to school here. Why did you decide to pursue conservatory training in general?”

            “Um,” I paused. I had never really thought about it. Classical singing was what I did, what I’d always done. I couldn’t imagine a Martin that hadn’t sought out higher musical education. “I’ve been singing for years. I always had a classical sound, so I figured here would be a good place for me,” I said. My knees shook.

            He smiled. “Conservatory life isn’t for everyone. You should take some time to reevaluate your decisions.” He nodded to himself. “Find some motivation.” He opened the door for me and bid me farewell.

            His words spun around in my head like autumn leaves. Dead things floating down to the cold earth. When I walked outside, it started to snow.

 

            That night, I decided to go for a walk. I needed to leave. I needed to escape Huntington, and music, and the bitter memories of my father. I wandered around the streets of Baltimore. The flurries from the afternoon had evolved into a thick, driving snowstorm. The world spun with shimmering tornadoes. I was caught in their turning. I took sharp turns into blind alleyways, and crossed streets without looking. I threw a 20-dollar bill on the sleeping form of a homeless man curled under an awning. I couldn’t have cared less what happened.

            I was being cut to pieces, rent apart from within. The blizzard of my mind, the smoky haze of my thoughts, it all ran together into a sea of dull white. I was lost in that sea, set adrift. I closed my eyes and walked down the unending sidewalk; I didn’t know where I would end up. When I opened my eyes, I stood on a high overpass stretching across two snowy highway lanes. The beams of headlights carved a path far below me. It looked oddly familiar.

            Tonight, few braved the snowstorm in their cars. Only a couple large trucks carrying snowplows parted the inky darkness with their headlights. Those cones of light tore a hole through the storm, throwing deep shadows across the ground. I stared out over the highway for what felt like hours, shivering and shaking from the cold. The streetlights looked unnaturally orange, like flame. I wondered what it would feel like to jump. Perhaps then I could truly break this frigid cycle, this hollow circle.

“Ey, kid! Whatcha doing sitting up there?”

Without realizing, I had climbed onto the slippery railing of the overpass, and was dangling my feet over the abyss. I turned towards the voice and saw a ragged man trudging slowly towards me through the snow. He wore a tattered coat with a dark hood shrouding his face, and a backpack slung on his shoulder. His deep-set eyes were dark circles; a skull. He held up a 20-dollar bill.

He is following me. He must not have been as asleep as I had thought. I felt strangely calm. “Admiring the view,” I said.

He let out a hearty laugh. “I prefer to stand on this here side of the rail.” He climbed up onto the railing and sat next to me. “But, the view is nice up here.” His voice reminded me of soot and soil.

I stared at him, my mouth parted slightly. “Who are you?” I asked.

His lips curved into a grim smile. “I’ve got a lot of names.” He spat onto the street below. “I’m a drifter, go from here to there.” He chuckled, revealing a yellowing set of jagged teeth. “Who are you?”

I shook my head. “Dunno.” I faced the highway. “Martin, I guess.”

A car cruised by underneath us. Its passing caused the railing to shake slightly. My stomach clenched. Bright tail lights streaked off into the distance.

I turned back to him, my voice filled with a sudden cold panic. “Why’d you follow me?” The cold wind whipping past threatened to blow the hat from off my head. I held it down with my hand.

He gestured around us with an open palm. “This here is a dangerous road, Martin.” His mouth spread into a wolfish grin. “Not everyone who walks this way comes back.”

A tremor shot down my neck. I shuddered, something in the air felt colder.

“I, myself, have sat here a few times,” the Drifter said.

The wind picked up again. The force of it momentarily threw my balance off. I grasped the railing of the overpass with white knuckles. In doing so, I allowed the wind to succeed in snatching my hat. It tore off my head and fluttered in the gale. It circled over the highway for a while, being pulled from here to there, until landing on the snowy median.

“Why here—this bridge?” I asked once the wind died down.

“It’s not so much the bridge but the ledge.” He looked away from me. I noticed now a pink scar cutting across his nose from cheekbone to cheekbone. “It’s quite the jump.”

“Quite the fall,” I corrected.

“However you like.” He smiled again and scooched towards me.

I felt fire in my throat. “Don’t come any closer.” My knuckles burned.

He stopped and held up a hand in a placating gesture. “As you say.” He pointed far down the road. “See that?”

My gaze followed his bony finger to the two little red dots shrinking away. “The car?”

He nodded. “Wonder where he’s off to. Wonder if he knows.” He scratched his beard and turned back to me. “Wonder if any of us know. I sure don’t.” He winked. “Do you?”

I shrugged.

He patted my shoulder. I didn’t flinch. “Come on, kid. Let’s get off here, eh?” He tilted his head away from the highway in front of us.

“Ok.”

We climbed off the railing. I leaned against it and breathed into my numb hands.

He readjusted the straps on his shoulders. “The only difference between me and you is that I leave a city when it’s done with me,” he said as he turned away. He waved goodbye and walked off, whistling a foreign tune.

As the snow spiraled around him, he began to fade away into whiteness. I ran after him, but around me the whole world was beginning to be consumed by white.

“Wait!” I yelled to him, to no answer.

I sprinted faster, pumping my arms desperately. I could hear him laughing as he faded away. As the ground under my feet disappeared, I began to slip deeper and deeper into the empty blankness around me.

 

I shot up out of bed. My body felt weak, my legs sore. My head ached and pounded. I looked at my clock, 10 pm. I let out a deep breath and felt my muscles relax. There was a knock on the door.

            “Hey, man.” It was Robert. “We’re about to head out, want to come?”

            I pulled the blankets off of me. “Yeah, give me two minutes.”

            I stepped out of my dorm room and walked into the bathroom. I splashed cold water on my face and looked at myself in the mirror. My reflection looked older, somehow. I decided I needed to shave. I turned off the water and began to dry my face with a paper towel.

            I leave a city when it’s done with me.

            I threw away the paper towel and stepped out into the common room to join my friends. Something about the room felt different, perhaps the lights looked brighter, perhaps the walls were a lighter shade of grey, or perhaps the difference was within. A new light then? I frowned. Maybe it was time to come home. Face things that needed to be faced.

Out in the common room, Vincent was telling some funny story. Marie was giggling helplessly, clutching at her sides. Robert was smiling and nodding along. He greeted me as I walked over to them. Nothing had changed, after all. Once I united with them, we set off down the stairs and out into the winter night. The sky was clear, and no snow fell.

 

The next morning, I woke up early. My mind had been made up, I was going to leave this place, leave Huntington. I was done with its vaulted ceilings and frozen statues. I was done with the false sympathy of my peers, and the weed, and the dreams. That uneasy feeling of never quite being awake, it needed to go. I needed to find a new way to cope. It seemed to me that I was done with this cold city, and it was done with me. I trekked across the frozen courtyard to my teacher’s studio, all alone.

As I passed the main building, Nicole noticed me from across the courtyard. She looked momentarily perplexed and dashed over to me.

“I didn’t expect to see you out here this early. Morning practice?” She asked. She carried her violin and a thick binder of music.

I couldn’t stop myself from bursting out laughing. “Not quite. I’ve got to talk to my teacher about something.”

She laughed without certainty and looked at me with a slightly more intense look of concern than normal. “Oh, well, I hope it goes alright,” she said.

“Thanks, I hope so too.” I paused. My feet felt unsteady. “Hey, good luck practicing.” I pointed at her violin. “I heard you the other day, Tchaik’ 5, right? You sounded really great.”

She blinked and touched my arm.

“Wha…” I stammered. My face felt hot.

“Sorry, I’m sorry.” She pulled her hand away. “I’ve just been having a rough week and it’s nice to hear some encouragement.” She brushed the front of her shirt. “Just, thanks.”

“Oh, yeah, sure. Uh, I’ll see you around.” I said and began to walk towards the building.

“Bye, Martin!” She called after me.

The way to my teacher’s studio took me past a hallway lined with practice rooms. A window looked into each room. Through the glass, I saw the haggard faces of Huntington students practicing away, each fitted neatly into their own little box. They sawed on violins and pounded on the keys of pianos. A voice trembled with unsteady vibrato. With their eyes trained on the music in front of them, not a single one noticed me pass by. I paused momentarily before passing the last door. The sounds of a well-tuned oboe resonated out of the room. I crept down the hallway, casting a quick glance through the window as I passed. Jarred sat on a wooden stool in the center of the room, eyes closed, arms steady. He swayed with the melody as it flowed languidly out of his instrument. It sounded like beautiful sorrow, serene weeping. I silently wished him well and continued down the hall.

I reached my teacher’s studio and knocked on the door. I rehearsed in my mind the words I would say to Dr. Stockard, and laughed internally at the realization that the first person to welcome me to Huntington would be the first to learn of my homecoming.

The wooden door opened and I stepped through it, without knowing or caring where it would take me, and knowing I could never return.

The conversation with my teacher went better than I expected. Dr. Stockard wished me the best and said that I’d always have a place in his studio should I ever change my mind. He closed the door behind me as I stepped out into the great hallway of Huntington’s entrance.

Something about the place felt different today. This morning, the usual sounds of music pouring out of the practice rooms and the echoing thuds of distant footsteps melded together into a voice. It seemed to be whispering to me, telling me something, or mocking me.

“My son, the professional musician.”

A shudder coursed through me and sweat began to bead at the top of my brow. I felt the twisting of terror in my gut as I started to run down that hallway towards the main entrance. The statues I passed glared at me, frozen in time. Their threatening arms reached out to me. I threw a panicked glance over my shoulder and saw behind me the corridor stretching off into infinity. Uncountable frozen statues stared at me as I fled. I pulled the main doors of Huntington open and the phantom whispering faded away into nothingness.

As the morning sun touched my face, and the crisp February wind watered my eyes, I felt like I had just woken up for the first time.