Part One: Summer
This is a long story, and one that starts way back before Boyfriend and I got together, or even met. I promise I won’t pull a How I Met Your Mother, but context is important here…
We met at a summer festival. But not just any summer festival—the one where my family had been… how should I say it? Influential, for two generations before me. (We have things named after us, but not because we gave tons of money. We don’t have people-crushing money.) It is, without a doubt, My Summer Festival.
I was introduced onstage there as an infant, and my parents started working there when I was a toddler. I went every summer, first as a faculty kid, then as a student, until I was 18, then a couple times after that. When I was 4, I was in my first opera there. (La Boheme, for the record.) When I was 6, I lost my first tooth in the cafeteria. When I was 13, there were some episodes of puberty that I’d rather forget. When I was 14, I played the first concert that truly terrified me, and when I was 15, I played the first concert that truly changed me. I’ve moved around, I’ve loved and hated where I lived, I’ve gone to other festivals—but I keep coming back. This place is my home.
So I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise when, in the place where I’m happiest, I met the best person I could ever have asked for as a mate.
But let’s back up for a minute to the summer before we met. That was, at the time, the one summer I had spent anywhere besides My Festival. I was 18 that year, and my teacher had decided it was time that I go to Aspen (the story of which will be detailed in a later post). Let it suffice for now to say I hated every goddamn minute of it. Seriously. It was awful. But, in the short time between returning from Aspen and starting undergrad, I went to a party with a couple of my high school friends. I promised one of them that I was definitely NOT going to meet a guy and abandon her.
By the end of the night, I had met my ex-boyfriend—whoops. Let’s call this ex “T.” T was 21, an engineering student, tall and strong, and the first guy in months who didn’t treat me like crap. I fell for him immediately.
We dated throughout my freshman year. It was fun, but it was my freshman year—there were other guys interested in me, and I enjoyed the attention. Maybe even encouraged it. I never cheated on him, but I didn’t let the fact that I had a boyfriend hold me back from having all the fun I wanted.
I may have been a little naïve at times.
And of course, we had our private troubles. He was incredibly irresponsible and would often tell me stories about it like it was funny. (Like the time he drove home “just tipsy” from a night with his friends and wrecked his car’s suspension by jumping a curb. He said he “got lost.” Hilarious!) And I wasn’t comfortable expressing concern because, often when I did, he acted like I was trying to strip him of his hard-won independence. (I realized later that, while I completely trusted him not to cheat on me, I didn’t trust him with my life. He wasn’t worried about his own safety, let alone mine. And I’ve just realized that reflecting on what you learned from your past relationships makes you sound like Oprah, no matter what. So, victories on two fronts.) But it seemed like a minor problem at the time.
Then came summer—the first summer I would be able to spend in the college division at My Festival. I was so. excited. They got to do all the fun things, like play in an orchestra with faculty, not just teaching assistants, and in the new music ensemble, and play the really good chamber music. And I knew the system—there would be no disappointments this year.
Plus, I knew for a fact that they had great parties.
I got there and did my audition. I was ranked first and placed in the advanced chamber music program, just as I had hoped. It meant that our quartet would have dedicated rehearsal time every day, and (on the orchestral front), that I would be assistant principal in the first concert, with Famous Conductor X, Famous Soloist Y, and Famous Concertmaster Z all at once—it was a huge concentration of awesomeness. (I wish I could tell you who the famous people were! But it’s too specific a combination.) It was also a huge time commitment, so I told myself that I would definitely not be able to do the new music ensemble, too, no matter how much I wanted to.
Cue my violinist friend N. He was in my assigned string quartet, sitting assistant principal second on the Highly Concentrated Awesomeness Concert—I got to know him quickly, in that way that you can only do at a festival. So when he asked me to read a student composer’s string quartet, I already trusted his judgment. I couldn’t say no.
The quartet showed up at the reading, which turned out to be during the composers’ class, in a little tiny classroom where they teach French during the year. All fifteen or so of the composers sat glued to the back wall, and still, there was hardly enough room for the four of us in the middle. We sat down, staring awkwardly at the music and the other composers and each other in the expectant silence.
Then Boyfriend got up to introduce the piece. He and I had already met briefly before, but I only had fleeting impressions of him. It was only the second week of the program, after all. He seemed so much older, at 25. (He’s since told me that his first thoughts upon seeing me were something like, “You can’t do anything to her; she’s too young. No matter how much you want to.”) He wore button-downs and slacks at what basically amounts to a summer camp—he was cute, but he dressed more formally than most of the teachers. In our only previous conversation, he had seemed smart, witty, and intimidating as hell.
I wanted to impress him, and I was pretty sure sight reading highly chromatic music in 7/8 wasn’t going to do the job.
With his other composer friend J conducting, we got through it, if shakily. By no means did it sound good, but we got the general point across. I was too embarrassed to look Boyfriend in the eye—I wanted to get the hell out of there and joke about it later. I prayed to whatever deity I could that they wouldn’t make us do anything again. Then, the professor got up and thanked us, laughing. “I’m sure it’ll be better by the time the concert comes around!”
Only then did I realize, I had signed on to perform the damn thing.
After the initial surprise, my summer started to settle into a predictable, wonderful pattern. A breakfast of horrible coffee and whatever food I could grab before orchestra rehearsal in the morning. A quick slice of cafeteria pizza on the porch before official quartet rehearsal in the afternoon. A bit of wandering through the pine trees, a meager dinner, and maybe a concert—where my friends and I would organize our activities for the night. Some warm, glowing nights, we would rehearse for Boyfriend’s quartet. We laughed, drank the beer that he brought to rehearsal, and learned his music. By the second rehearsal, we were all talking like we’d known each other for years. Then, we all would go together to join the rest of our friends for the rest of the night’s plans. Usually, that meant sitting by the mosquito-laden lake in the glittering twilight, drinking and talking into the wee hours.
And each morning, I would wake up in my tiny, standard-issue camp bed from dreams of Mendelssohn and Elgar and 7/8 time, with a smile still lingering from the night before.
Time has a strange way of moving at a festival like that. You’re so thoroughly immersed that each day feels like an age, each conversation seems to go deeper than it should, each new friend can become a close one in a matter of days. And while every night felt different in that rich air, a surprising number of them included me and Boyfriend, off on our own—simply by chance. We would be talking about something (whether you can really hear sarcasm in Shostakovich, for instance, or the literary merits of the Harlequin romance novel we bought on a beer run) so intensely that, somehow, everyone else would peel away, and we wouldn’t even notice.
All the while, I was getting less and less concerned with T’s flakiness, his lack of ability to call me when I asked, the fact that I had to ask. (Except the time he casually mentioned that he had tried acid about a week ago, as though this wasn’t news I’d have liked to hear as more than an afterthought. That was a treat.) On the rare occasion that he would text or call me when I was with Boyfriend, the difference was thrown into sharp relief. It’s the distance, I told myself. Everything will be fine when I go home.
Really, though, I wasn’t sure I was in trouble until the night of the first concert.
I can’t exactly remember how the concert went. I’m pretty sure we resorted to one of our “Oh shit” spots at one point, but whether it was J’s conducting or one of the players that caused it is lost to time. But we got through it and no one threw things at us, so it was good enough.
Fulfilling his professorial duties, the composition teacher was to throw a (booze-soaked, minor-serving) post-concert reception at his swanky faculty lodgings that night. I’m still not entirely sure how it happened, but after the concert, the rest of the group sort of evaporated. They reappeared later, after changing or buying drinks or whatever. But at the time, all it seemed like they were doing was leaving me and Boyfriend to walk to the reception alone.
And I vividly remember that. My heart was pounding more than necessary as we climbed the hill to the professor’s place. I was probably speaking a little too loudly and a little too fast—I tried to blame it on leftover adrenaline from the concert, but I knew what the real problem was. I had never really been alone with him. Our late-night conversations had all occurred with other people nearby, just waiting to rejoin us or pull us off to some other activity. But on that deserted road, I was suddenly, uncomfortably aware of our aloneness. We were vulnerable, exposed. It made me nervous.
We were some of the first to arrive at the party, but it was a minor relief to be in the presence of anyone else, even if it was the awkward composition teacher and a couple of wind players I’d never met. I reveled in the free pizza that meant I didn’t have to speak anymore, and the bourbon that meant I could soon stop thinking, too.
Most of what I remember from the rest of the night is a series of impressions. Not really because I was so totally wasted, but because they stick out as important, even years later. There was the point at which more people had arrived, and I was talking to J, the other composer, and M, our cellist. But I was still sitting next to him, and it took all my will not to be talking to him instead. Not that J and M and I weren’t having an interesting conversation. Not that he would even have particularly enjoyed the conversation we were having. Just that I wasn’t talking to him, and I wished I were.
Then, there was the point when we were talking to each other again. It no longer felt dangerous, in the din of the party, to be talking to just each other about Mahler. But then, I mentioned that I loved the Adagietto from the Fifth. He asked why—the answer stuck in my throat. Because Mahler wrote it for Alma and sent it to her as a profession of love and I think it’s the most romantic thing in the world. But I couldn’t say that, not to him. Not to this composer, this man, sitting in front of me, who, if I said that, might take it the wrong way. Why would he take it the wrong way?
Because, I admitted, he liked me—and, below the surface of conscious thought, I liked him too. And talking about Alma and Gustav would be like revealing what I knew, and maybe—even worse—implying that I felt the same.
Then, the party was almost over. Everyone was gone but me, Boyfriend, the composition professor, and one very drunk conductor. The night was beginning to chill, and as we extricated ourselves from the tipsy adults, his arm wrapped protectively, warmly, around my bare shoulders for the first time.
I was so screwed.