eulogy in e-flat minor
I can’t breathe. The backstage is dark, illuminated only by the distant stage lights and the faint glow of controls on the sound engineer’s switchboard. The air is humid, humming with nervous energy and the smell of old sweat. The boy sitting next to me taps his fingers on the neck of his violin. My hands are shaking too much. The boy stops his tapping, reaches out, and clasps my hands in his. Cool skin against clammy.
The music swells to a finish. The audience bursts into applause, and musicians come off stage, exuberant. The applause dies down. Five hundred people sitting, waiting.
You should be one of them. Hell, you should be backstage with me, wiping your sweaty hands on your ball gown, pacing barefoot amongst the sea of music stands and electrical wires.
The boy nudges me. I stand up, and my shoes pinch my feet. Fuck it. I kick them off and follow him onto the stage. The occupants of the first few rows have an unobstructed view of my toes, chipped nail polish and all, and I think that would make you smile. The stage is smooth, almost chalky. I feel marking tape underneath my toes and it grounds me.
The boy holds his violin clumsily under his arm, and I can’t help but remember the way it used to be a seamless extension of your body. I look out at the audience, the spotlights blinding. I take one last look at my notecards, lift the microphone, and begin to speak.
“Thank you all for coming this evening. It’s an honor to be here. But before we begin, I’d like to take this opportunity to dedicate this performance to—”
My jaw clenches. I look up, and see your mother sitting in the third row. She grips her purse tightly. I can’t read her expression.
“A few of your might have known her. Most of you probably didn’t. She was a violinist, one of the best I’ve ever known. She came here last year. We performed together.”
I stop again. I can feel the back of my throat tighten and I know tears are about to come. Deep breaths. I look at your mother once more, see that she’s looking everywhere but me.
“She was my friend. She loved this piece. So this is for her.”
The audience applauds once more as I sit down. The boy looks over at me, a questioning look in his eyes. I nod at him, though my chest constricts. I touch my fingers to the keys, and you engulf me. This stage, where we stood together, feels impossibly vast. I feel impossibly alone. So I close my eyes, and listen to the boy begin.
You haunt each note, that half-smile of yours clinging to every chord. The boy’s vibrato is almost as sweet as yours, his bow strokes nearly as smooth. You linger in the way he breathes, the way he moves, and I see you in his shadow.
I start to play, but there’s something wrong. I feel hollow. The music feels empty. But still, I let my fingers fly, ignoring the boy, disregarding dynamics. I only think of you and how much you loved this piece and how, unlike you, this music is immortal.
My finger slips and a wrong note rings out into the hall.
You and I sat alone in a practice room, cross-legged underneath the piano. We shared the scotch you snuck from your parent’s liquor cabinet, throats burning with every sip.
“Let’s try drunk Dvorak,” you proposed, taking your violin out of its case.
“Tipsy Tchaikovsky?” I suggested, trying to clamber to my feet. You thought for a moment, eyes crossing slightly with the effort.
“Wasted Wagner,” you countered, and I collapsed with laughter, nearly knocking over the bottle. We tried to play, we really did, but you couldn’t seem to find your pitches and my fingers were too slow to keep up. We ended up belting out operas at the top of our lungs until a disgruntled security guard came in and told us to keep it down.
We quickly packed up our stuff, stashed the bottle underneath a couch cushion. You took me outside, brought me to the oak tree. You took off your shoes after we sat down and stretched your toes through the damp grass.
“How do you think we’re going to end up?” You asked me.
“After this summer? Probably not allowed back on campus,” I joked, feeling the warmth of the scotch spread through my chest.
“No, really,” you insisted. “Where do you think we’ll be when we’re old and gray and your fingers don’t work and I can’t even hold a violin up anymore?”
I looked at you, looked at how the sun illuminated the soft curve of your nose, and how you rested your head against the jagged trunk of the tree, your eyes half closed but earnest. I remembered how you kept granola bars and dollar bills in your glove compartment just in case you saw someone on the streets. I remembered how you were set to graduate two years early. I remembered how men looked at you, looked at you like I wanted them to look at me. I remembered how picture-perfect you seemed.
“I’m going to be somewhere right here on Earth,” I told you. “And you’re going to be somewhere up in the stratosphere. I promise you.”
We went on stage for the last time, barefoot, the spotlights warm. I closed my eyes as you began to play, listened to your sound ring out through the hall, listened to the way your feet brushed against the stage when you moved.
We were not a pair, we were one. That’s how it seemed, at least to me. The way we breathed together, the way a half-smile would dance across your lips when we looked at each other.
You gripped my hand as we took a bow, your palm sweaty. I didn’t mind.
We ran to the parking lot after that last bow, not bothering to change out of our ball gowns. The asphalt was hot and sticky on my feet, but I hiked up my hem and hurried after you. You swung yourself into the driver’s seat, a thousand flyaways haloing around your head, your dress slightly askew.
I slid into the seat, leather warm against my shoulders. As you peeled out of the parking lot, I looked back, saw your mother waving to us. You waved, but we were gone. I noticed you were wearing shoes.
“I can’t drive as well without them,” you explained. “I only drive barefoot when I’m alone.”
“How come?” I asked.
“I can handle not having control, having some freedom when I'm by myself. But when I'm driving with someone else, I figure I should wear them. In case something happens. In case I need control."
So I kept my shoes on too, stuck my feet up on the dashboard and rolled down the windows, watching as the world raced by.
We made it to the beach by sunset, the first time you had ever seen the ocean. The air was crisp, the tide low, and we sat there, dressed to the nines, neither one of us caring if our dresses got salt-stained or wrinkled. You slipped off your shoes, wriggling your toes in the sand. I watched you lift your face to the sky, watched how you closed your eyes against the sun. I listened to the ebb and flow of the waves, and, next to you, it was like I was hearing it for the first time too.
We lay there in silence for hours. Around you, I only had to exist, and that was enough for both of us.
Finally, you spoke. “Imagine something with me.”
“You’re stuck on a deserted island. Plane crash or something. You’re by yourself, no one else for miles. Just you and a record player. You can choose one song, one piece. What would you choose?”
“Wagner’s Ring Cycle,” I answered after some thought. “Fifteen straight hours. Think about how many times you could listen and not get sick of it.”
You didn’t reply, and I wondered whether my answer was wrong. I nudged you with a sand-caked toe.
“What about you?”
“Do you know that Bach Prelude? E-flat minor? I would choose that,” you answered immediately, leaning back onto your elbows. “It makes me feel full.” We didn’t speak for a long time after that, just buried our feet in the sand and breathed in the salty air.
We sat like that until my mother came to get me. Before she and I left, we waited for you to get into your car.
You were barefoot.
I waved as you drove away, but couldn’t tell whether you waved back.
Two weeks later you were gone.
For the first few days after the phone call with your mother, I listened to that Bach prelude again and again. But it didn’t make me feel full. It hollowed me out inside, reminded me that you were gone—not on some deserted island, but gone. Still, I listened to it, hearing nothing but the lack of you. It was a beautiful piece of music, but it was yours and not mine. Still, when your mother asked me to perform it at your funeral, I couldn’t say no.
I had to walk past your casket on the way to the piano. Closed, because the accident didn’t leave much of you behind. The sun through the stained glass dappled the glossy wood, and I inhaled the musty scent of the temple carpet. Sitting down at the bench, I wiped my hands on my dress. The dress I wore to the ocean, hem salt-encrusted. It still smelled like the sea.
I began to play, those first two chords ringing through the room. But I couldn’t concentrate, not with you behind me like that. Couldn’t make my fingers respond with your mother sitting there, fingers clenched into a tight fist, her face pale and drained and so very tired.
I was so very tired.
And the music was empty, even though you were so close. Just a few feet away. I could have reached out and touched you, but that would have made this real. I’d prayed every night since you left that somehow your presence would change something. That being near you would somehow reawaken something in me, would replace the numbness with anything else. But you were gone, and I could reach out and touch you and that wouldn’t change anything. And the music would still be empty.
I stopped. I stopped because you hated empty music, thought even wrong notes and missed cues were better than empty. I stopped because it was too hard to keep going and because you were too overwhelming and because I was right here on Earth and you were somewhere up in the stratosphere. I stopped and closed the fallboard, hunching over the keys. Tears came, for the first time, and they were devastating. Your mother escorted me back to my seat as I apologized in between sobs. You were crushing me and it was your fault, your fault for driving barefoot, your fault for leaving the rest of us here to put our pieces back together after you shattered us.
I slid into the pew, rigid and cold against my shoulder blades. I listened to the rabbi’s sermon about love and loss. He began to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, and I mouthed along silently.
“Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba.”
I remembered how you kept granola bars and dollar bills in your glove compartment just in case you saw someone on the streets. I remembered how you were set to graduate two years early. I remembered how men looked at you, looked at you like I wanted them to look at me.
“V’yit hadar v’yit’aleh v’yit’halal sh’mei d’kud’sha.”
You swung yourself into the driver’s seat, a thousand flyaways haloing around your head, your dress slightly askew.
“Aleinu v’al kol Yis’ra’iel v’im’ru. Amein.”
Yoko Rosenbaum is sixteen years old and attends the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, California. She has been published in The San Francisco Classical Voice as well as her school's literary magazine, Dark as Day. She was won a gold medal and two honorable mentions in the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards.