The first year we played the Beethoven Ghost Trio. The second year we played the Archduke. The third year you graduated, and I studied abroad. The fourth year you lingered in my brain like a tumor. We never kissed. We never hooked up. It was college of course. Maybe other people were having a lot of sex, but all I felt was pain.
You were not handsome. Your face was broad and opaque with prominent cheekbones. You often tucked a pencil behind your right ear. You had terrible posture. You were slightly chubby. To offset how exquisitely you played the cello, you were always late and sometimes you didn’t show up at all. Fed up with your truancy, I once wrote you an indignant email in which I threatened to cut off your nose and make you drown in your own blood. I did not know how to flirt. Maybe I went a little nuts.
Your mother came to our first performance at the end of the fall semester. She was an anesthesiologist from New Jersey and drove up four hours just for you. She sat in the back row holding a camcorder, which must have been deeply humiliating. I complimented her on her Burberry jacket.
“All Koreans wear Burberry,” you muttered dismissively.
She invited all of us to dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant downtown, though this was easily a ruse for her to spend more time with you. She gazed at you in the candlelight over the thick white tablecloth. Suddenly I saw you through her eyes. I saw you as a boy with a mop of coarse black hair—though now, it was spiky with clamorous red highlights—carting around a cello twice the size of your torso to the endless merry-go-round of lessons and orchestra rehearsals and competitions. Maybe that was the moment I started to fall for you.
“Music is just a hobby,” your mother chided over dessert.
If you heard her, you didn’t show it. You plowed through your crème brûlée with grim determination and then ordered an espresso.
Sometimes the Archduke comes on the radio when I’m driving my grey Subaru Outback. I think of you when the air is cold, cold like the January day when you said to me, “I like you, but…” I used to analyze the words you said after that, churning them over and over in my brain like numbered balls rattling inside a bingo cage. Now I’m old enough to know they didn’t matter.
I hope you never went to medical school. I hope you still play the cello sometimes. I hope you are financially secure and have health insurance. I can’t picture you with a family, but I hope you are not lonely. I hope I never see you. I hope I never Google your name. I hope you have not kept those unfortunate highlights in your hair.
I also think of you when I see my old college friends. We laugh, drink wine, complain about sleep-training our kids, and play showtunes badly on the piano. They remind me that college was real, the younger me was real and you—you must have been real too.
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