Before We Were Strangers: A Love Story: Chapter 8

You Changed Me

GRACE

Even though I had mastered the art of running while carrying a giant cello case, I was still late to class the next morning. Thankfully, Professor Pornsake liked me and his class was a breeze, though not because I was a teacher’s pet, as Tatiana claimed. All I had to do was play my cello, the one thing I did well. On most days, I would close my eyes, forget about everything, and escape into the music. But that Friday was different.

“You’re late again, Graceland.”

“Grace,” I corrected him as I pulled my cello and bow from the case. There were several broken hairs hanging from the bow, and I attempted to pull them off while Dan hovered over me in his khakis, belted too high, and his orange polo shirt two sizes too small. I shot him a peeved look to let him know I was irritated over the unnecessary attention. “What?” I said.

He grabbed the bow from my hand and studied it. “This is nylon.”

“I know.”

“You’re first chair, Grace. Get a quality bow. Why are you using this crap?” A bit of his mustache stuck out over his top lip and wiggled as he spoke.

“I’m a member of PETA. I don’t use bows made with horse hair.”

I could see Tatiana’s body shaking with laughter in the chair in front of me.

Pornsake smirked. “Come on. Really?”

I huffed. “I’ll get a new bow this week.” I knew I couldn’t afford it, but he was right—nylon bows were crap.

“Good deal. Okay guys, let’s start with Pachelbel’s ‘Canon.’ ”

Tatiana sighed audibly. We were so sick of playing that song. It was like every music teacher was preparing us to be in one of those string quartets that plays at weddings. Pachelbel’s “Canon,” Handel’s “Water Music,” and Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” were ingrained so deeply into our minds and muscles that I literally started to believe it was affecting my ability to play other songs.

Pornsake walked to the front of the room and started counting down from three. I kicked Tati’s chair and whispered, “Irish style.” We started playing the traditional way and then slowly picked up the pace, throwing off everyone in the room. Many of the others stopped playing and just glared at us as Tati and I turned the classic into an Irish jig. The music students with a sense of humor put their instruments down and started clapping to the beat, and some even tried to play along. We got a short round of applause at the end, but Pornsake stood still as a statue at the front of the room, his arms crossed over his chest.

“Really cute. Maybe you two can be street performers. God knows New York desperately needs more street performers.”

I didn’t say anything because I was already on thin ice, but Tatiana spoke up. “Professor Porn . . . Sake . . .” I slapped my hand over my mouth to hold in my laughter as Tati continued, completely straight-faced. “We just need to mix it up.”

He nodded like a bobblehead for five seconds straight. “Fine. I’m not feeling it today anyway. You’re all free to go. Practice in the park and get some fresh air. We’ll get back into this tomorrow.”

I reached down to open my cello case, celebrating for two seconds inside until I felt Pornsake hovering over me again. “Except for you, Grace. Stick around.”

I froze in my chair with my eyes fixed on his beige Top-Siders. I had a sick feeling in my stomach, wondering if he was going to wait for everyone to leave the room so he could proposition me.

Crossing my legs and arms, I sat back in my cold metal chair and waited as the other students packed up. Tati turned around and looked at me blankly. Smoothing her frizzy brown hair into a ponytail, she whispered, “Why does he want you to stay?”

I shrugged. “No clue.”

“Hey, do you and Matt want to hang out tonight? Brandon wants to get drunk.”

“Why do you always assume I’ll be with Matt? We’re not dating.”

She rolled her eyes. “I know, I know, you don’t date. I assume you’ll be with Matt ’cause you guys are always together.”

“I need to study, actually. I’m staying home tonight. Matt can do whatever he wants, though.” It seemed like everyone thought Matt and I were a couple. I was feeling the pressure to get my application in for grad school, which seemed like the logical next step, but it was like I had no self-control when it came to Matt. I wanted to be with him every second of the day, but my grades were suffering, and I knew I’d slip out of first chair with my stupid antics.

“Why don’t you and Matt just bone and get it over with already?”

Pornsake walked up at that moment. “Well, Tatiana, it’s a blessing, and quite frankly a miracle, that your vulgarity has not seeped into your craft.” Pornsake was always blabbering about craft. Tatiana was a phenomenal musician, but once she put the violin down there was nothing classical about her. She had a tough exterior and a lot of Jersey girl in her.

“Thanks, Teach, I’ll take that as a compliment. Bye, Grace.” She picked up her violin case. As she left the room, she called back over her shoulder, “Come over tonight after you and Matthias bone.”

Pornsake stared down at me, expressionless. “Take a walk with me?”

I figured being in public was a good option. “Sure.” I stood and followed him out the door. He walked at a faster-than-normal pace, and I quickly ran out of breath, lugging my cello case behind me, trying to keep up. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see. It’s just down here.” We walked four blocks until we got to the corner of a small brick building. We were standing in front of a music store. There was no signage but I could see musical instruments through the glass door. “This is Orvin’s shop. He’s the best bow-maker on the planet.”

I sucked air in through my teeth. “Professor . . .”

“Please, call me Dan.”

“Dan . . . I don’t have the money to buy a new bow. I was just going to have mine restrung.”

He bobbed his head in understanding. “Grace, I don’t normally do these kinds of things for my students, but I want to do this for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m going to buy you a bow because you’re very talented. I love the way you play, and you have a great instrument there.” He glanced down at my case. “You should have a great bow.”

While he waited for my response, I looked at the way his eyes crinkled at the sides when he smiled, and for the first time I found charm in his good-humored face. “Okay,” I replied.

“Come on, you have to meet this guy.” He opened the door and motioned for me to go inside. Behind the counter stood a small man, at least seventy years old, with a bit of gray hair sprouting wildly from the sides of his head.

“Daniel, my boy,” he said in a thick German accent. “Who have you brought to me?”

“Orvin, this is my most talented student, Grace.” Wow, really? I had no idea.

I set my cello down, leaned over the counter, and shook his hand. He held my hand in his for a few seconds, inspecting it. “Small and delicate for a cellist, but strong, I can see.”

“Yes. Grace needs a new bow, and I’d like for her to have the best.”

“Sure, sure, I have something that would fit her perfectly.” He went into the back room and came out with the most beautiful bow I had ever seen. He handed it to me, and the soft wood at the base felt like butter between my fingers. “Wow, this is so smooth.”

“It’s brazilwood and real silver, made with the finest horse hair,” Dan said. Orvin nodded. A moment later, Dan pulled his checkbook out of his back pocket, looked over to Orvin, and arched his eyebrows.

“Eleven,” Orvin said.

“Eleven what?” I said, my voice rising.

Neither answered me. “Be right back,” Orvin said, heading into the back room and returning a moment later with the bow wrapped up.

Dan handed him a check, took the bow, and looked over at me. “Ready?”

I shot him my best hairy eyeball. “You’re kidding me, right? You just bought me an eleven-hundred-dollar bow?”

“Consider it an investment. Come on.”

Once outside, he tried to hand me the bow wrapped in paper.

“Really, Dan, I can’t accept this. I seriously cannot pay you back. I barely have enough money to eat.”

“Then let me take you to dinner,” he said, instantly.

I stared up at him, blinking my eyes, while he waited for my answer.

“I . . .”

“It’s not a date, Grace.”

“It feels like a date.” I was hesitant to agree; I still wasn’t sure what Dan wanted from me.

“It’s just a meal. We can talk about the orchestra I’m forming this summer. I was thinking I’d like you to be a part of it.”

“Okay. Um . . .”

“Come on. Please?”

My college music professor was begging to take me to dinner. I looked around for other signs that I had been transported to an alternate universe.

“What time?”

“I’ll come by Senior House at seven. You like Thai food?”

“Sure.”

“There’s a place about two blocks away from your dorm. It’s pretty good.”

“I know the place. I’ll meet you there.” The restaurant was right across from the photo store Matt had just started working at. I hoped we wouldn’t see him.

By the time I got back to Senior House it was freezing out. I scurried through the lobby and up to my room and practiced for a few hours with my new bow. It was amazing how much it changed the quality of the sound. It amplified the music even more, filling the room with crisp notes.

By six o’clock I was starving, and frankly looking forward to dinner with Pornsake, even though I knew it would be uncomfortable. My plan was to eat the crap out of the free meal and try to keep the conversation light. I chose purple wool leggings and a long gray sweater with boots. I pinned my hair up into a bun on the top of my head and then wrapped a thick black scarf around my neck. I added a tiny bit of mascara and lip gloss for good form and then smoked half a joint, against my better judgment. I thought dinner with my music professor warranted a little chemical mind alteration. I trotted down the stairs and into the lounge, where I made a cup of hot chocolate.

Carey Carmichael and Jason Wheeler, two students who lived on my floor, were sitting on the leather sofa, whispering to each other.

“Hey, Grace, where’s Matt?” Carey asked.

I fumbled through the stack of magazines on the console table behind the couch. “I think he’s in the darkroom at school, developing prints.”

I noticed Carey shoot Jason a questioning look.

Jason turned around to face me. “So, are you guys dating or what?”

Not this again. “We’re friends,” I said, cautiously. “Why?”

“Oh, good,” Carey said, laughing. “We thought you guys were together-together.”

“What if we were?” And why does anyone care?

“But you’re not,” Carey said. I shot her daggers. I’d never noticed she looked like the female version of Danny Bonaduce.

“What if we were?” I said again, trying to be nonchalant.

“The whole world knows that it’s just a big party on Fridays in the campus photo lab. Everyone sneaks booze in and they all fuck each other in the film-processing rooms. It’s like a giant celluloid orgy.”

My mouth dropped open. Matt had been going to the dark rooms every Friday night, and he always came back a little drunk and stoned.

“Not like an orgy,” Carey said, seeing my expression. “Everyone just goofs off. You know how tight those photography students are. There’re rumors that people do it in the private dark rooms.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. Matt hadn’t mentioned anything like that to me. I also didn’t know why I cared. It was his life, and I wasn’t in a position to tell him what to do.

“Carey,” Jason said, looking pointedly at her. “I’m sure Matt’s not just developing prints in there.”

I felt gut-punched. “Fuck you, Jason.”

“What’s your problem, Grace? You a goody-fucking-two-shoes or something?”

“Nothing.” I looked at the clock. It was almost seven. “I have to go.”


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