Broken String By Cindy Song
High School Short Story Second Place Winner, Richard Montgomery High School
Sweat presses down on my cheek as smooth wood pushes up on it. A bead of perspiration slowly trickles down the side of my face like a snake sneaking up on its prey. It reaches the slim edge of my jaw, hangs delicately, and waits for the perfect time to strike—a moment later, it does. I shakily release my breath as it slithers down to my collarbone and under my blouse, where it disappears.
Summer days and I have a love-hate relationship. The humid, suffocating air feels partly like a fairytale, partly like a horror movie. It makes me think of billowy curtains, kisses under un-blanketed night skies and sand dunes. It also makes me think of rotting skin and crushed glass. No wonder so many people lose their minds Gatsbyesque; heat is a catalyst for trouble. Right now, I want to throw my instrument onto the floor where it will shatter into millions of pieces, each piece carrying a sliver of my broken, sweaty resolve.
Instead, I push the chin rest of my violin harder against the underside of my jaw until it aches. The red light of the metronome blinks unwaveringly, mocking me with each blink. Hurry up and practice, it urges. Time is slipping out of the crevices between your fingers. And slip away it does. Tick. Tick. Tick. Each tick of the metronome is a slap to my face and each slap is a reminder: how my rhythm struggles after the beat like a fat girl dancing the tango in heels. How my tempo spirals into despair like riding an out of control roller coaster. How my notes cut into the strings like rocks smashing into the head of a statue. My fingers flail around the frog of the bow in an attempt to steady my grip. The heat is unrelenting. Even the bow hairs look depressed, ladened with a heavy film of lethargy. I suddenly become aware of a strand of hair that is plastered to my right cheek, and it breaks my concentration. Using my right hand, which holds the bow, I reach up to remove the hair but my grip loosens a bit too far. The bow clatters from my fingers to the ground. I let out a loud sigh of frustration; it feels more like a scream for help.
“Can you calm it? I’m trying to study.” My older sister’s voice loudly floats from her room nearby.
“How can you study when it feels like hell?” I stoop to pick up my bow—and my bruised ego. At least it’s still in one piece. “I feel like I’m in an oven, like Hansel before he almost got devoured.”
Jaimy snorts. “All you need to do is focus. I don’t even mind the heat. Enzymes and acids are all I got on my mind.”
I roll my eyes at her tangy words. Jaimy is the perfect example of why students should be banned from purchasing copies of their own (absurdly expensive) textbooks. It’s only early August, yet she decides that it’s the perfect time to do some down-reading on her Intro to Chemistry textbook. Sometimes it gets pretty frustrating how hard she tries in literally everything.
I abandon my spot in front of the music stand and plop down on the couch, flinging my violin onto the spot beside me. Having long hair usually isn’t that much of a burden, but it’s torture in the summer. My hair, even in a high ponytail, clings to the base of my neck and smothers my scalp, making me want to grab a razor and shave it all off. Which I would actually be OK with, but my mom would send me to an asylum faster than the Presto movement in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
“What do I do?” I groan. “My audition’s in less than two weeks and I still don’t have my piece perfect.”
“Is it not obvious? Practice.”
“Then practice more,” Jaimy says, then retreats back into her room and shuts the door, leaving me with only the heat—and hours and hours of painful skin—as company. The heat only seems to intensify the blisters on the tips of my fingers, singeing the rough calluses with a red caress. Resignedly, I pick up my violin and prepare to take the next section sweetly home. The metronome’s pulsing light welcomes me back.
The following two weeks are more hectic than a beehive in its prime honey producing season. In between my attempts to cram practice sessions, a million other things are happening at once. Mom is buzzing around, collecting and packing things for Jaimy’s college dorm move-in. Announcements of back-to-school events and “Want to rule your senior year? Attend this seminar!” crowd my inbox and my sanity. Cheryl breaks her pinky finger and has to visit the emergency room. We lose part of our roof during a freak thunderstorm and have to get a new one installed, complete with drilling sounds and many sleepless nights.
Ironically, the only haven I have from this pandemonium is when I’m with my violin. True, the constant imperfection that plagues my practicing frustrates me like hell but at least it takes my mind off things. And I do start to see improvement. The tricky passages get less tricky. The tempo becomes less a sprint and more of a game of tag. The rhythm starts to develop a sense of momentum. Jaimy lays off her nagging. The only real downside to extra practice is that I’m forced to cut back on time spent with Haewon (my next door neighbor and boy friend—note that critical break there). Haewon was interesting in the way that sometimes, in the middle of a sentence, he would suddenly trail off and launch on an entirely unrelated topic. And whenever anyone said or did anything remotely funny, he would laugh and clap his hands like a child. But it didn’t matter; talking to him helped ease the two mountains of stress—one named “Senior Year” and the other “Youth Orchestra Audition”—looming before me.
There’s a roof directly under Haewon’s bedroom window, and oftentimes at night, we’d sit there together while sipping at ramen noodles. Lately, I’ve been coaching him in English since he’d only moved to the U.S. a mere three years ago and was only half-fluent in the language. A Sunday night, after a long and grueling practice session, I join Haewon on the rooftop.
In the midst of a peaceful discussion about American versus Korean ginseng, he suddenly asks, “What do you think about the world?”
I laugh at the almost hilarious change in conversation topic. “Hae, what the—” I start jokingly, twisting around to face him. But his expression stops me. His eyes are tilted upwards to the stars, his broad mouth slightly parted and brow furrowed in concentration. “—what do you mean?” I said.
“It’s so big. And….” He searches for the right word. “Mind-boggling?” I give him a nod of encouragement. “But at the same time, it’s not, really.”
I laugh. “I used to think about it a lot when I was young, but not as much now. Because if you think about the big things too much, they wrap around your head and sort of distract you from the present, y’know?”
“But what if you’re a giant and can walk around Earth in three steps? You can do it in seconds.” Haewon laughs deeply and quietly with gleaming eyes. “Pretend you also have a long string to wrap around it so everyone holds the string at the same time. Weird, right? Everyone can hold the same string? But it’s only because of distance, a few hundred miles.”
I smile. “Well, you wouldn’t want to crush half the world either, especially with your big feet.” I gently knock into his shoulder with mine. The moon casts long shadows across the roof like black pools that you could swim in forever and never climb out. “It’s getting late. Come on, we should go back.” I push myself up and hold out a hand to help Haewon up.
When I return home to start another practice session, I think about infinite strings and ginseng as my bow spins out its vivid melodies.
“You’re all right, you know that?” Jaimy tells me, looking sternly at my face then down at my sweaty hands. “But if you get more nervous, you’re going to flood the room with your sweat.”
“Stop,” I complain, but proceed to wipe my palms on my dress. It’s a nice cerulean blue with a stripy design. The color reminds me of the sky or a calm summer day next to the pool.
“Don’t worry. You’ve practiced so much. All you can do now is relax.” Jaimy places her hands squarely on my shoulders. Her dark brown eyes meet my light ones. I nod, forcing down a hitch that threatens to break my steady breathing. In and out. In and out. In and out.
They finally call my name. In an almost dreamlike state, I collect my armament. My precious body armor, encased in rigid and honey brown varnish. My nimble rifle, escorted by the finest of horse manes. My staunch shield, decorated by sheets of sacred lines and dots and circles. Decorations I have memorized down to the last detail, the last ethereal carving. I barely feel Jaimy pull me in for a light hug or her whisper: “You don’t need luck.”
I traipse into the audition room, my heartbeat feeling as if it will rip through my chest cavity. The room spins and the only thing I can focus on is not dropping my violin, but that still proves difficult. The neck is a slippery hose under my restless fingers, the frog even more so. Two judges sit behind a long white table in the room’s center with papers stacked before them, neat like Jaimy’s textbooks. One is an Italian man with a mop of wavy blond hair. The other is an old woman sporting bright red lipstick. The lipstick smears on the left side of her mouth like half of a broken heart. Trying to maintain my composure, I walk up to the table and place the music and score sheet in front of the judges.
The man looks down at my name, then up at my face. He shoots me a bright grin, seemingly disproportionate with the gloomy aura pervading the room. I squint.
“Nice to meet you, Candice. What do you have for us today?” the man asks, grin still plastered to his face.
“W-Wieniawski’s Polonaise in D Major.” The words spill out of my mouth in a jumble, names tasting foreign although I’ve pronounced them countless times before.
“Sweet. Whenever you’re ready.”
I raise my violin up on my shoulder and get my bow in position. I take a final confirmation glance at the judges. The man nods expectantly. The woman stares at me with hawkish eyes. I take a deep breath, then launch forth.
The first note is a loud and bellowing man. The second note is an elegant and poised lady. There are a pair of lovers standing at opposite sides of a chasm, but the third measure unites them. The intro plays out like a romantic play (featuring me as the playwright). The man and woman’s relationship bounces unevenly back and forth like a rickety seesaw, signaling the constant cycle of breakup and make up. Playfulness swings throughout the entire piece, with tension and madness occasionally joining in. My bow bounces from one string to another without missing a beat. It gradually picks up momentum as the next breakup approaches. It’s not a pretty sight; the man and woman’s tempers escalate and a flower vase is thrown at one point. But of course, they get back together and everything is fine. I staple this narrative to my brain as I work my way through the piece: the aching heartbreak, the yearning to reunite.
The initial part of the piece goes surprisingly smooth, and I cross into the next section with barely a hiccup. But the hardest part is the end, filled with impossible double stops and string crossings that I’ve labored over for hours in practice.
My breath catches as my fingers embark on their last stretch. Together with the bow, they work in harmony: each caress conveying the woman’s longing, each vibration the tenderness of the relationship. I climb higher and higher on the string, my fingers crossing into dangerous territory. I don’t even realize that my eyes are closed, perhaps from emotion or perhaps from fear of falling off this treacherous path that I’m on. The peak rapidly approaches. Everything escalates until it doesn’t. An orgasm. I stretch mindlessly into the abyss in hope of catching the perfect note, the epiphany. I find it drifting in the air and muster my courage to reach out for it. The moment my finger grabs onto the string, the vibrations cease. It trembles for a beautiful nanosecond—the note singing out everything it contains—and then it collapses. I feel it in my fingers right before it happens. The tension drumming inside the string mirrors the tension thrilling inside my body, sending a fragile pulse through my fingertips.
The snap of the string yanks me back to reality, leaving the remnant of a horrible screeching sound in the air. My eyes fly open and witness the massacre lying before them. Beside the three silver strings stretching across the neck, the fourth one lies in two pieces. A heartbroken string. A string cut by the Sisters of Fate.
My armor has betrayed me.
“Oh, Candice,” Jaimy whispers as I come out of the audition room, tears clinging to the corners of my eyes.
I rush towards Jaimy. She envelops me in a hug. As soon as I am encircled in Jaimy’s embrace, the tears break from their harbors. The audition had seemed like a dream. Without successfully completing my piece, I have close to no chance of making the orchestra I had yearned to make for the past two and a half years. Everything was over. The two judges had showed me the way out with a “thank you for auditioning.” Lipstick woman had pursed her lips and stared at me with unreadable eyes. But I thought I’d seen a flash of something like regret in them.
I was blubbering incoherently. “So then,” (gasp) “it just lashed out,” (gasp) “I don’t know what happened,” (gasp) “it coiled up and snapped.”
“Shhh,” Jaimy consoles me while stroking my hair. My dress feels too tight, choking me under its cerulean waves.
“Candice.” A deep voice. I reluctantly lift my head from Jaimy’s shoulder.
Haewon stands behind Jaimy, holding a large box that was encased by a tight sheen of plastic wrap. His eyes are dark when they meet mine.
“You’re talented. It’s their loss.” He shrugs, but his voice holds trembling tones of soft anger. “Sometimes fate isn’t kind. There are so many chances out there for you. The world’s too big for one broken string.” It seems like he was going to say more, but instead, he holds out the box. Inside the transparent lid, I could see an array of assorted homemade sushi with red ginseng stuffed between them. The sushi is painstakingly arranged in the shape of a treble clef, under which the words “good luck” are shakily spelled out in soy sauce.
“I wanted to wish you luck before the audition,” he continues with an embarrassed smile. “But I messed up the time. Sorry.”
The almost unintelligible loops of Haewon’s soy-sauce writing combined with his attempt to stick the ginseng at aesthetic angles made the situation seem that much more absurd. I take the sushi box from Haewon, perhaps a little too forcibly. The salty seafood smell radiates from the meticulously wrapped rolls, still warm from being microwaved. It fits comfortably in my hands, which are numb from sweat. I stare down at the box and think about how crazy everything is, and realize that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe all the nights spent wishing on a full moon, on a wandering star, were wasted for something. Maybe the broken string was a sign that this fate wasn’t meant to happen. Maybe the world wasn’t that big after all.
In the middle of the interaction, a single tear had made its way down to the edge of my jaw, where it was on the verge of falling. I reach up to capture it, then wipe it on the side of the sushi box. Fate isn’t kind. The words ring in my ears alongside the death note that still faintly resonates in the abyss.
I give the sushi box back to Haewon. Then, using my now free hand to grab his and my other to grab Jaimy’s, I smile. “Come on, let’s go home.”