A small, perfect storm of guilt and anger and frustration was building in the pit of her stomach, turning her inside out.
What had Pierce told her? You’ll always choose playing over everything else. Even me. Even yourself.
Etta couldn’t even argue with him—she had made the choice to break up with him. She loved him in a way that still made her heart clench a little, from memory alone. She missed the light-headed giddiness of sneaking out at night to see him, how reckless and amazing she’d felt when she let herself relax all of her rules.
But a year after they’d gone from friends to something more, she’d placed second in a competition that she—and everyone else—had expected her to win. And suddenly, going to movies, concerts, hanging out at his house, waiting for him outside of his school, began to feel like lost hours. She began tracking them, wondering if Alice would let her debut with an orchestra sooner if she dedicated those precious minutes to practice. She pulled herself deeper into music, away from Pierce.
As she had done with everything but the violin, she’d shrugged him off, and expected that they could go back to the way they’d been for years—friends, and Alice’s students. The only way to get through the breakup was to focus, to not think about the fact that no one called or texted her, that she’d chased away her only friend.
Just a few weeks later, she’d run into Pierce in Central Park, kissing a girl from his school. Etta had spun on her heel to walk, and then run back up the path she’d just taken, cut so neatly in half by the sight that she kept looking down, as if expecting to see her guts spilling out of her skin. But instead of letting herself cry, Etta had gone home and practiced for six straight hours.
Now not even Alice believed in her.
She should have asked Gail for a minute, a second, to get her head and heart straightened out. Instead, when the woman appeared, chattering into her headset, Etta found herself following her, walking out into the flood of soft blue light on the stage. The applause rolled over her in a dull wave.
Don’t drop it, don’t drop it, don’t drop it.…
Etta found her mark and took a moment just to study the violin, turning it over in her hands, fingers lightly skimming its curves. She wanted to still everything that was hurtling through her as she stood under the stage lights; to freeze the fizz of disbelief and excitement, remember the weight and shape of it in her hands.
The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium in the Metropolitan Museum of Art wasn’t the grandest venue Etta had ever performed in. It wasn’t even in the top ten. But it was manageable, and more importantly, hers to command for a few minutes. Seven hundred faces, all masked by shadows and the glare of the lights high overhead as they shifted into a final, rippling blue that reminded her of the ocean, with wind moving over the surface.
You have this.
The applause petered out. Someone coughed. A text alert chimed. Instead of sinking into that calm, the deep concentration, Etta felt herself hovering on the surface of it.
She dove into the Largo, pausing only for a steadying breath. Seven hundred audience members stared back at her. Two bars, three bars…
It crept up on her slowly, bleeding through her awareness like light warming a screen. Her concentration held out, but only for another few seconds; the sound that began as a murmur, a growl of static underscoring the music, suddenly exploded into shrieking feedback. Screams.
Etta stumbled through the next few notes, eyes frantically searching the technician’s booth for a sign about whether she should stop or keep going. The audience was still, gazing up at her, almost like they couldn’t hear it—
It wasn’t a sound a human could produce; not one anyone could get without ravaging an instrument.
Do I stop? Do I start over?
She crossed strings and flubbed the next three notes, and her anxiety spiked. Why wasn’t anyone doing anything about that sound—about the screaming feedback? It crashed through her eardrums, flooding her concentration. Her whole body seemed to spasm with it, the nausea making sweat bead on her upper lip. It felt like…like someone was driving a knife into the back of her skull.
The air vibrated around her.
Stop, she thought, desperate, make it stop—
I’m messing up—
Alice was right—
Etta didn’t realize she’d stopped playing altogether until Gail appeared, white-faced and wide-eyed at the edge of the stage. Pressing her face into her hand, Etta tried to catch a breath, fighting through the sensation that her lungs were being crushed. She couldn’t look at the audience. She couldn’t look for Alice or her mother, surely watching this play out in horror.
A nauseating wave of humiliation washed over her chest, up her neck, up her face, and for the first time in Etta’s nearly fifteen years of playing, she turned and ran off the stage. Chased by the sound that had driven her off in the first place.
“What’s the matter?” Gail asked. “Etta? Are you okay?”
“Feedback,” she mumbled, almost unable to hear herself. “Feedback—”
Michelle, the curator, deftly plucked the Antonius out of her hands before she could drop it.
“There’s no feedback,” Gail said. “Let me get you a glass of water—we’ll find a place for you to sit—”
That’s not right. Etta swung her gaze around, searching the faces of the other violinists. They would have heard it—
Only, they clearly hadn’t. The sound of the feedback and her own drumming heart filled the violinists’ silence as they stared back with blank faces.