“I won’t,” Etta promised and then, trying her luck, asked, “What is it of?”
“A desert in Syria…I haven’t been for years and years, but I had a dream about it a few weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.” Rose smoothed the last few stray strands of hair back and spritzed hair spray over them. “It did remind me, though—I have something I’ve been meaning to give you for ages.” She reached into the pocket of her old, worn cardigan, then opened Etta’s hand and placed two delicate gold earrings in her palm.
Two brilliant pearls rolled together softly, knocking against small, heart-shaped gold leaves. What Etta sincerely hoped were dark blue beads, not actual sapphires, were attached to the small hoops like charms. The gold curved up, etched in meticulous detail to look like tiny vines. Etta could tell by the quality of the metalwork—slightly rough—and the way the designs matched imperfectly, that these had been painstakingly handcrafted many years ago. Maybe hundreds of years ago.
“I thought they’d go beautifully with your dress for the debut,” Rose explained, leaning against the desk as Etta studied them, trying to decide if she was more stunned by how beautiful they were, or that her mom, for the first time, seemed to genuinely care about the event beyond how it would fit into her work schedule.
Her debut as a concert soloist was still a little over a month away, but Etta and her violin instructor, Alice, had started hunting for fabric and lace together in the Garment District a few days after she found out that she’d be performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto at Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic. After drawing out her own sketches and ideas, Etta had worked with a local seamstress to design her own dress. Gold lace, woven into the most gorgeous array of leaves and flowers, covered her shoulders and artfully climbed down the deep blue chiffon bodice. It was the perfect dress for the perfect debut of “Classical Music’s Best-Kept Secret.”
Etta was so tired of that stupid label, the one that had chased her around for months after the Times article was published about her win at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. It just reinforced the one thing she didn’t have.
Her debut as a soloist with an orchestra had been coming for at least three years now, but Alice had been staunchly opposed to making commitments on her behalf. As a young girl with crippling stage fright, one who’d had to fight with every ounce of nerve she possessed to overcome it at her early competitions, she’d been grateful. But then Etta had grown out of her stage fright and suddenly was fifteen, and sixteen, and now close to eighteen, and she’d begun to see kids she had squarely beaten making their debuts at home and abroad, passing her in the same race she’d led for years. She began to obsess over the fact that her idols had debuted years before her: Midori at age eleven, Hilary Hahn at twelve, Anne-Sophie Mutter at thirteen, Joshua Bell at fourteen.
Alice had dubbed tonight’s performance at the Met her “soft launch,” to test her nerves, but it felt more like a speed bump on the way to a much larger mountain, one she wanted to spend her whole life climbing.
Her mom never tried to convince her not to play, to focus on other studies, and she was supportive in her usual reserved way. It should have been enough for her, but Etta always found herself working hard for Rose’s praise, to catch her attention. She struggled to gain it, and had frustrated herself time and time again with the chase.
She’s never going to care, no matter how much you kill yourself to be the best. Are you even playing for yourself anymore, or just in the hope that one day she’ll decide to listen? Pierce, her best-friend-turned-boyfriend, had shouted the words at her when she’d finally broken things off with him in order to have more time to practice. But they’d risen up again and again as a hissing, nasty doubt in the six months since then, until Etta began to wonder, too.
Etta studied the earrings again. Wasn’t this proof her mother cared? That she did support Etta’s dream?
“Can I wear them tonight, too?” Etta asked.
“Of course,” Rose said, “they’re yours now. You can wear them whenever you like.”
“Who’d you steal these from?” Etta joked as she fastened them. She couldn’t think of a time in her mom’s forty-four years when she could have afforded something like this. Had she inherited them? Were they a gift?
Her mom stiffened, her shoulders curling in like the edges of the old scroll she displayed on her desk. Etta waited for a laugh that never came—a dry look that acknowledged her stupid attempt at humor. The silence between them stretched past the point of painful.
“Mom…” Etta said, feeling the stupidest urge to cry, like she’d ruined whatever moment they’d been having. “It was a joke.”
“I know.” Her mother lifted her chin. “It’s a bit of a sore spot—it’s been years since I had to live the way I did, but the looks I used to get from others…I want you to know, I have never stolen anything in my life. No matter how bad things got, or how much I wanted something. Someone tried to pull a fast one on me once, and I’ve never forgotten what that felt like. I almost lost something of your great-granddad’s.”
There was a hum of anger behind the words, and Etta was surprised that her first instinct wasn’t to back off. Her mother so rarely spoke about her family—less than she spoke about Etta’s father, which was next to never—that Etta found herself reaching for the loose thread and hoping that something else would unravel.