by Stacie Eirich
"See you in rehearsal tonight," I said, locking my violin case and slinging my messenger bag over my shoulder. Heavy with new music that I'd yet to organize, I felt the weight of my work ahead.
"We're doing the Haydn tonight," John Paul, a junior cellist whose penchant for musical perfection was commendable, though his snobby attitude irksome, reminded me. "So be ready for a long one..."
"What I'll be ready for," piped in Chaz, a sophomore who played a mean streak on the bass and had a reputation for partying as deftly as he played, "is a tall glass and some decidedly contemporary company after." He winked, flashing me a mischievous smile as he plucked a few strings in a jaunty motif. "I heard there's a new jazz act at Studio 54. You in?"
I rolled my eyes, aware that Chaz was also known on campus for his flirty behavior and ever-changing female company. Although I had my suspicions that underneath it was a guy interested in someone who was neither female nor a partier, I decided to let that mystery lie.
I preferred the quiet solace of Jane Austen and a cup of coffee to the frenetic din of jazz and martinis, especially after a full day of classes, studio, and evening rehearsals. But I'd let that remain a secret from my peers, as I didn't want to be labeled lame in the very beginning of my freshman year.
There was already a murmuring around me, and sometimes it seemed a light burning on me, since I'd auditioned successfully for a place in the string quartets. Few freshmen, I was told by more than one upperclassman, had done so. Even less, the prized possession of the violinist in a quartet.
"After Dr. Shultz is through with us," I quipped, smiling back at Chaz, "I doubt we'll be able to flex our fingers! Last week's orchestra session was a killer, and that wasn't even a quartet or Haydn." I shook my head, turning for the studio door.
"Aww-come on, Evie — you'll miss the apple martinis!" I heard him call behind me as I exited the soundproof studio into the noise of the wide halls beyond. I laughed, falling into step beside the guy who had quietly exited with me, his viola case in hand.
"Chaz doesn't get you yet," Liam said, "or he wouldn't bother inviting you to a club." He looked sidelong at me, his dark hair falling into his eyes. "And you're right about Schultz — he'll work your fingers to the bone." He swiped his hair aside, his green eyes shining. "He's brilliant, but mad — which is why everyone loves to hate him, I guess."
"Seems like you're a fan, at least," I smiled, picking up the pace as I heard the chime of the clock in the square. "I'm not sure I've decided yet. Maybe Haydn will change that?"
"Perhaps," Liam said, switching course as we swept through the doors into the greenspace outside Juilliard Hall. "But he may also make you wish you'd said yes to that martini, too..."
We chuckled together, parting as a throng of students pressed by, many weighed down with large instrument cases. Dedicated to their craft and ever-studius, most young musicians at Juilliard would sooner die than miss a master class. This became clear not only in the competition at every audition, but in the way the students moved as if on a mission at all hours day and night.
Choosing the life of a musician, even a student one, or perhaps especially a student one, I thought — was already a stroke of madness. But choosing to dedicate one's life to teaching the craft to a bunch of young upstarts who didn't know a thing about life outside of the cloistered music studio walls? Now that, I thought, was great madness and brilliance both. I wasn't sure yet if I would choose to teach, but perhaps Dr. Schultz could help me with that, too.
"Hey, Evie!" a bright voice called across the lawn, and I waved to Iliana, a freshman whom I'd met on our first orientation day. A singer originally from Kiev, she moved to New York City when she was sixteen to pursue a musical career. Though her family was across the ocean, she spoke of them often, sending home packages filled with trinkets from the shops on Times Square. "I've got next period free, want to go to The Treble Cafe?"
"Hey, Iliana!" I replied, meeting her on the grass. With her golden hair pinned in a chignon at her neck, a gauzy blue wrap that sparkled in the autumn sunshine, she looked the picture of chic on a Tuesday. "No, I can't today — need to arrange my music for Schultz's rehearsal tonight. Tomorrow?"
"Sorry, I've got a masterclass," She frowned, fingers at her throat. "With the way the weather keeps changing, I'll have to go on voice rest before midterms! It’ll be throat coat and honey for me by tomorrow, I think..."
I laughed, never failing to be amused with what Iliana called "singer problems." Though she was one of the most easy-going students I knew at Juilliard, her constant concerns were the amount of damp in the halls, chill in the air, and excess winds on her precious throat. But I was generally happier to listen to her gripes than those of my fellow players; the singers were cut from a cloth that both fascinated and mystified me, the stories she told of them and their peculiar antics never failed to entertain.
"It's Haydn with Schultz for me tonight," I said, dropping my messenger bag on the grass and sitting, my violin case nestled securely in my lap.
"First rehearsal with the quartet?" Her brows plucked up, interested. "Let’s definitely have that coffee later this week; I'll shush while you tell me all the details."
I knew Iliana wanted details not of the music or Schultz's instruction, but of Chaz, whom she knew was in the quartet. I waved a finger at her, shaking my head.
"I will not be your go-between," I said, resolute. "If you want to know anything about Chaz, just ask him. I guarantee you the guy has noticed you on campus." I didn't tell her I was pretty sure many guys had, and that, after her midterm opera recital — which would be open to the student body — she'd have an entire line of admirers.
"I didn’t say anything about him," Iliana fluttered her eyes in mock surprise, "but if you happen to talk to him..."
"We won't be talking," I answered, feeling slightly annoyed, "we'll be playing. But I will hold you to that coffee, and maybe an aria, if you have one to spare." Sometimes, yielding to Iliana's singer vanity worked in my favor.
"Definitely! Let’s plan on it — I’ll send you a text.” She brightened, her soprano voice bubbling as she drifted away towards The Treble Cafe, which served as part campus-lounge, part coffee-shop. It also housed a small store in one area, which sold Juilliard merchandise to the public, and was open in the evenings when the weather was seasonable, often featuring student musicians for small, informal performances.
I settled into my spot on the lawn, opening my bag to begin organizing and marking sheet music, which I desperately needed to be familiar with before that evening's rehearsal. No one at Juilliard came to practice cold, even if they'd just received the music. It simply wasn't done. Preparation was required for perfection, and that's what everyone strived for.
I picked up my pencil, the sun still warm despite a chill in the air. Then I poured over the staves, my ears lost to the shuffles of students as the notes took hold, Haydn's masterful phrases filling my mind.
Dr. Schultz proved to be an intense but kind maestro, his teaching as passionate as his flamboyant conducting style. When he stood beside me, his exacting gaze had a strange effect on my nerves, causing me to play with a fervor I hadn't known before. The result was exhilarating; at the end of a quarter hour, I felt flushed and excited, at the end of two hours I felt exhausted and filled.
"Still going to turn down that martini, Evie?" Chaz asked, though I wasn't sure if he was teasing, or if he had noticed the change in me.
"Still a no, Chaz," I answered, saying goodnight as I carefully slipped my violin into the velvet folds of its case. I knew I wouldn't go straight to my dormitory, feeling an unexpected energy course through my veins, the kind that usually only came after finishing a performance. But something told me not to tell Chaz that; something in the air felt secret, an electricity that moved me quickly, quietly into the night after leaving the music hall.
I slowed my pace, strolling around the campus, careful to stay in the lighted walkways. It was a clear evening, cool but seasonable for New York City. I could even spot a few stars dotting the sky, dim though they were, the lights of the city usually blot them out completely. I felt a pang of longing for my midwestern home, where the fields were long and the skies often laced with bright starry patterns, visible for miles. It seemed a small price to pay, leaving the open beauty of the country to chase my big city dreams - but I still wondered if I had made the right choice. I didn't wonder when I was playing, only before or afterwards.
As I passed the lawns to the front of campus, I stopped near the multicolored lights of The Treble Cafe. Just beyond, the streets of New York City bustled; there was never a moment without the steady sounds of passing traffic and the rush of passerby. But tonight seemed almost tranquil, the noise and shuffle dimmed by a gentle wind. A sense of serenity washed over me, slow and welcome, and the light, acoustic notes of a guitar tickled my ears. I turned toward the cafe, the smell of coffee and cinnamon wafting through the air as I stepped inside.
Settling into a corner table with a latte, I exhaled, my restless energy slowly giving way to contented calm. My violin case resting closed next to me, my music tucked away — I closed my eyes and savored time without study or practice, time only for myself and the pure enjoyment of listening.
The gentle sweep of fingers over strings increased their pace, then became frenetic as they plucked a tune I couldn't place. The player had the technique and precision of classical baroque training, but the lyrical tonality and heady emotions of jazz and blues. My father had played guitar when I was little, and I was well versed in recognizing the songs of B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen. But this was none of those.
Then the strings stopped, and above the din of the espresso machine and conversation, a voice began to sing, low and smooth. I opened my eyes, struck by its purity, haunting and beautiful.
The young man performing sat on a stool near the center of the space, his guitar slung over his shoulder, a gray messenger bag that mirrored mine at his feet. Eyes closed, his hands resting over the strings of his guitar, he sang, lingering over the legato phrases as the room quieted, became still. The words he sang were German - the crisp, distinctive consonants somehow muted in his smooth baritone voice — the vowels falling over me like whispers of angels. The song, I realized, was a German lieder, an art-song that spoke of unrequited romance.
Then he opened his eyes, his fingers beginning to dance along the strings lightly in an accompaniment. I stared, entranced deftly he played while continuing to sing, his entire body succumbing to the passion of the lieder.
"It's Haydn," I said aloud, struck by the realization, thinking of the quartet I'd played only a quarter hour before.
From his perch in the center of the room, the player's eyes caught mine, and he nodded his head slightly, seeming to acknowledge my assessment of the composer. His eyes were a shock of dazzling blue, and I felt the heat rise in my face as we continued to gaze at each other. His sandy-brown hair fell over his shoulders, his jawline dotted with a light stubble, he had the European, carefree look of a gypsy and the passionate performance of a maestro. I couldn't seem to look away, my mug and music-to-be-marked forgotten. I listened, frozen to the spot, until the final notes of the lieder faded, The Treble Cafe returning to its usual bustle, lively conversations again filling the air after a small applause.
I swallowed the rest of my latte, suddenly intent on busying myself after the young man’s eyes left me. I couldn’t help watching, though, as he moved to gently place his instrument in its case underneath the corner of the coffee counter. He turned, and I bent down hurriedly to open my bag, suddenly intent on marking my music, aware that we were only steps apart.
“He was really quite amazing, composing such romantic lieder and masterworks while he suffered greatly, wasn’t he?” I heard the smooth baritone beside me. I looked up from the staves slowly, cautiously, feeling with certainty that I could get lost within those blue eyes. “Haydn, I mean?” He smiled, and I saw that the boyish dimples in his cheeks would be my undoing, along with his eyes and that gorgeous voice.
He pointed to the chair across from me, and I nodded with an almost girlish giggle that I tried to quash along with my jitters - I had little experience with guys, and none with any as talented - or hot - as this one.
“Yes, he was.” I agreed, finding an easy connection with him in our shared knowledge of Haydn, his life and works. “I read that he was sick for years with syphilis, on his deathbed, when he composed his last unfinished concerto and was dead by thirty-one.” I stopped, drawing in a breath as I realized how quickly I’d jumped into full-on music geekery. “I — I’m Evie.”
“I’m Phillipe,” he said, his smile widening as he reached for my mug. His fingers touched mine briefly, and a delicious electricity ran through me. “Let me get you a free refill — that’s one of the perks of playing here — and I’d be happy to talk Haydn with you.”
I wondered if he was only playing the gentleman but smiled as I enjoyed my second mug along with conversation with Phillipe, about Haydn at first, then our shared love of music, then ourselves. A Parisian turned New Yorker, he was a graduate student with dreams of playing with the Philharmonic and returning to France to teach at the Sorbonne.
“The cafe’s closing soon,” Phillipe said after we’d talked for over an hour and a half; it was nearly midnight. He cleared our mugs, then stood by as I readied my bag, checking that my violin case was securely locked. “Can I walk you to your dormitory?” He offered his arm.
I decided that, even if it was an act, which I highly doubted — given his forthrightness during our conversation — that I liked his chivalrous attentions, and took his arm, feeling that wonderful spark of excitement course through me as I did.
“I’m glad you came into the cafe tonight, Evie...” Phillipe said as we walked across campus under the midnight sky; I shivered, and he pulled me in a bit closer, covering me with his long peacoat. “I could feel your passion for the music, and it made me a better performer, I think. Sometimes...it’s all about the vibes in the air where you perform, that make or break the music.”
“I agree,” I mused along with him, lingering as we reached the front of my dormitory, wanting to make the moment last longer. “But it was your passion that I felt, not just as you played - but while you sang. Your talent is tremendous,” he put out a finger to stop me as I spoke, but I wanted to finish my thoughts. “No! Really, it is. But what makes you unique is the emotion underneath, the intensity that you bring the phrases...” I trailed off, and Phillipe leaned closer, his lips finding mine in a gentle kiss.
“You must play for me, next time...” his voice rumbled, its smooth legato broken by a huskiness now. We quietly exchanged numbers on our phones.
“Haydn, perhaps?” I replied, smiling — emboldened by the kiss, caught in the ocean of his eyes.
“Perhaps...” he returned, his smile lingering as we said goodnight, and I slowly walked up the dormitory steps.
The moon hung full and bright, in a clear night filled with dusky stars. I took a long, slow breath, feeling I’d found another reason to love New York City. Another reason, beyond its music and dreams — to embrace life, and all it had to offer, within and beyond Juilliard’s cloistered halls.
And this reason was the deeply passionate, irresistible Frenchman who had strummed and sang his way into my senses, winning my heart over a latte at The Treble Cafe.
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