clara and the clarinet

Submitted into Contest #38 in response to: Write a story about someone learning how to play an instrument. ... view prompt

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I was clinging on, I was okay, until I put my AirPods through the washing machine. One-hundred and eighty dollars in broken plastic because I couldn’t be bothered to check the pockets of my only pair of jeans. Of course I can play my music out loud, but you know it’s not the same; earbuds are like a hug, whereas out-loud music is a wave hello from far away. I need sounds vibrating in my ear canals at all times, words and synthesizers pouring constantly into my brain. Otherwise my mind begins to digest itself, the way stomachs do when left empty for too long. Fuck. 


I put my AirPods in a bowl of dry rice on the windowsill, right in the sunshine. That’s what you do if your phone gets wet, right, maybe the moisture will get soaked up. I smile at Baba Nina, who is leaning on her own window sill in the apartment across from mine, but she doesn’t see me, she’s too busy smoking and staring. Her face is round and sags inward, like a once-plump apple left to rot. She is so calm, so placated, as if the world evolved for this very moment, shaped her lips to be just so, made cigarettes exactly like that, the two coming together in perfect harmony. I guess she’s not too worried about dying from the virus. She’s so old, she’s done everything she could’ve by now. At that point, every day is a countdown to the last. 


What to do now? I can’t just go out and buy more AirPods, it’s not worth the risk of a slow, strangulating death to go out in the streets. The Apple store is probably closed anyway. I could buy them online, but knowing these people, somebody’s gonna steal my package from beneath my welcome mat. 


Exercise. I’m getting tubby from sitting by the window every day, chewing through bag after bag of corn chips. My mom never liked corn chips, and the older I get, the less I like them too. She does like those dance-exercise videos though, with the ladies in sports bras who count measures so cheerfully. You look ridiculous from the side when you follow along, step-hop left step-hop right, arms one-two one-two, but there’s a little-girl delightfulness to it, something youthful, invigorating about jumping side to side for twenty straight minutes. I pull the curtains closed before I search some videos up -- Baba Nina doesn’t need to see this. 


I didn’t inherit all that much from my mother. I look like my dad, and am shaped like him too. She’s a big boss career lady, a go-getter, a checklister, and I pressure wash carpets for a living. She gets angry and yells, I bite my lips and never complain. She doesn’t like cheese or electronic music or modern art, or really anything that I consider worthwhile. Really all we have in common is an eating disorder and a love for big-lensed dragonfly-eye sunglasses and sundresses with little daisies. Though I must admit, the dance-exercise videos are also pretty good, and I enjoy the twenty minutes I manage before my heart pumps starts pumping too hard and threatening.


I think she never learned to be a real person is the problem. She went school to school to university to grad school to career, no breaks, pedal-to-medal, grind-all-day for straight A’s, paused briefly to marry my dad and give birth to me, then hiked a few more steps up the corporate ladder. They told her she was too short to be a dancer, and I think nothing else ever interested her but work. When she does take up this or that hobby, it’s always brief and intense. She wants to be the best at making bread or reading books, buys a whole bunch of expensive equipment, burns through a few loaves or volumes, then forgets all about it. I remember she dabbled in music, got a really fucking nice clarinet, then gave up after she couldn’t hit a fourth-octave G. 


I still have that clarinet. I dig through the dustier top shelves in my closet, stopping to fawn over this or that long-forgotten souvenir. There’s a small collection of doggy calendars from the 1980s. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, gave them to me. They were my mother’s once, another obsession she moved on from back in her teenage years. Why, I remember my grandmother told me mother had a moss-collecting phase. To imagine that serious little woman as a serious little fourteen-year old with skinned, bare knees digging through the woods for mosses, sorting them in boxes with tiny labels, trucking dozens of those boxes back home. What happened to that version of her? I guess they killed all such inclinations in Soviet medical schools back then. 


I found the clarinet, and it seems to have all the right parts. Assembling it is pretty intuitive, just pop the pieces into place, but then I get to the mouthpiece and everything is complicated. I have to look up a video to figure out where the reed goes, and once the whole contraption is assembled, I give a few test blows into the instrument. It requires an obscene amount of air to make a sound. 


I don’t want to be like her, never have. Everyone realizes their parents aren’t perfect at some point, that they’re flawed and human and really just big babies that ended up with babies of their own. But some imperfectnesses seem more bearable to me than others. To dedicate oneself so wholly to  career, something of no real consequence beyond one’s own lifetime, it’s unfathomable. I decide I will learn to play the clarinet, but really learn, slowly, patiently, with no expectation of greatness, simply a love for music. 


By mid-afternoon, I can finger an E, a D, and a C in a honking rendition of “Hot Cross Buns.” It’s much harder than I first expected, and I want nothing more than to take this mouthpiece out and put a handful of corn chips in its place. But I can’t give up so soon. 


I do though. The guilt is greater than usual -- people are dying out there, starving, unemployed and broke and hungry. I managed to not eat for eighteen straight hours, but the cycles are vicious, and with every great self-denial comes an even-greater giving-in, a massive binge. 


I cried to her about it once, how I’m always all or nothing, how I can never be just normal, not overweight or underweight, not depressed or manic, just straight-down-the-middle average. She threw her hands up, exasperated, saying she couldn’t understand why I always ricochete between extremes. I wanted to say I learned it from you, but she’s the one that does direct confrontations -- I just swallow bitter words the way I do handfuls of half-chewed chips. 


I manage to wrestle the bag away from myself, roll it up with bread clips, stuff it into a far corner of the cabinet. I know I’ll be back soon enough, but for right now, I feel like shit, bloated and taut like a water balloon prepared to burst, incapable of eating even another crumb. 


I always get worried when I feel like this. I watched a documentary about a supermodel once, a bulimic, and she died after a massive binge when her stomach burst. I’ve never eaten as much as her all at once so I suppose I’ve never been in real danger, but I always wondered what that was like, what raced through her mind in those final moments, in that pre-food-coma daze, where you feel nothing, think no real thoughts, just chew mechanically and mindlessly like a cow fattened for the slaughter. It’s an anxious thing to consider and I’m already biting my nails to bloody shreds. 


God, I wish I had my AirPods. I wish I could blast something hard and fast directly to my nerves, overwhelm the system so I don’t have to think about anything, about the people dying right outside, about that half-empty bag of chips, about the clarinet lying abandoned in my chair, about that poor supermodel, about my mother’s disapproving face constructed of harsh triangles.  


She’s got anxiety too. We took a walk just a few weeks ago, before it was clear exactly how dangerous it was to go outside. A lovely spring day, golden sunlight streaming down in beams, fresh-cut grass smells tickling the nostrils. I was listening to the birds, looking at the fat little babies running in the yards. She pointed to an open manhole, stopped to inspect it from up close. Look how dangerous that is. Anyone could fall in. Not even just a child, a whole adult. What a bizarre thing to point out on a nice mother-daughter walk, right? I reminded her of the time our neighbor’s dog fell down a manhole. The poor chihuahua's got the shakes now, he’s all traumatized, and they had to put him on Prozac so he could even function. She doesn’t think it’s nearly as funny as I do. 


Was she such a worrywart when she was pregnant with me? Probably, she had to study medical vocabulary in a foreign language those nine months, preparations for moving our entire family across the Atlantic ocean. Maybe the stress seeped into my bloodstream, right through the umbilical cord, the way they warn you second-hand cigarette smoke and prescription opioids will. It’s such a horrible thing, a curse, really. Anxiety steals an entire life away. But I always promised myself I would be different. I wouldn’t let my stupid little worries get in the way of my enjoying it all.  


I look at the clarinet laying limp and impotent and untouched. I’ve done enough for the day, right? I learned an entire song in three hours. That’s gotta be better than the average player. Plus my fingers are all greasy now and my breath control can’t possibly be good with all these chips pressing down on my esophagus. I pack it up and promise myself I’ll get back on it tomorrow. 


It’s about sunset time, and the most beautiful light of the day bathes my rice bowl with the AirPods in golden-orange hues. I used to walk down to the pier at this hour, but now I enjoy the view from indoors. I poke my head out to get a better look, and I see that Baba Nina is doing the same. She’s quarantined with her whole family, I think, and she’s holding a baby, perhaps her granddaughter. She’s put the baby on the windowsill, bony hands pressed into the infant’s soft tummy fleshy for support. It’s sweet, the baby can see more of the sunset that way. But all I can think about is how dangerous it is. One careless move, one lapse in attention, and the baby is falling ten stories down, skull split on the asphalt below. Wouldn’t that be just absolutely horrible?


April 24, 2020 05:48

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