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If I Stay, Page 5

Gayle Forman

Page 5


  Another time, we were sitting outside on her porch and I saw a red bird. “Is that a red crossbill?” I’d asked Gran.

  She’d shaken her head. “My sister Gloria is a crossbill,” Gran had said, referring to my recently deceased great-aunt Glo, with whom Gran had never gotten along. “She wouldn’t be coming around here. ”

  Gramps is staring into the dregs of his Styrofoam cup, peeling away the top of it so that little white balls collect in his lap. I can tell it’s the worst kind of swill, the kind that looks like it was brewed in 1997 and has been sitting on a burner ever since. Even so, I wouldn’t mind a cup.

  You can draw a straight line from Gramps to Dad to Teddy, although Gramps’s wavy hair has gone from blond to gray and he is stockier than Teddy, who is a stick, and Dad, who is wiry and muscular from afternoon weight-lifting sessions at the Y. But they all have the same watery gray-blue eyes, the color of the ocean on a cloudy day.

  Maybe this is why I now find it hard to look at Gramps.

  Juilliard was Gran’s idea. She’s from Massachusetts originally, but she moved to Oregon in 1955, on her own. Now that would be no big deal, but I guess fifty-two years ago it was kind of scandalous for a twenty-two-year-old unmarried woman to do that kind of thing. Gran claimed she was drawn to wild open wilderness and it didn’t get more wild than the endless forests and craggy beaches of Oregon. She got a job as a secretary working for the Forest Service. Gramps was working there as a biologist.

  We go back to Massachusetts sometimes in the summers, to a lodge in the western part of the state that for one week is taken over by Gran’s extended family. That’s when I see the second cousins and great aunts and uncles whose names I barely recognize. I have lots of family in Oregon, but they’re all from Gramps’s side.

  Last summer at the Massachusetts retreat, I brought my cello so I could keep up my practicing for an upcoming chamber-music concert. The flight wasn’t full, so the stewardesses let it travel in a seat next to me, just like the pros do it. Teddy thought this was hilarious and kept trying to feed it pretzels.

  At the lodge, I gave a little concert one night, in the main room, with my relatives and the dead game animals mounted on the wall as my audience. It was after that that someone mentioned Juilliard, and Gran became taken with the idea.

  At first, it seemed far-fetched. There was a perfectly good music program at the university near us. And, if I wanted to stretch, there was a conservatory in Seattle, which was only a few hours’ drive. Juilliard was across the country. And expensive. Mom and Dad were intrigued with the idea of it, but I could tell neither one of them really wanted to relinquish me to New York City or go into hock so that I could maybe become a cellist for some second-rate small-town orchestra. They had no idea whether I was good enough. In fact, neither did I. Professor Christie told me that I was one of the most promising students she’d ever taught, but she’d never mentioned Juilliard to me. Juilliard was for virtuoso musicians, and it seemed arrogant to even think that they’d give me a second glance.

  But after the retreat, when someone else, someone impartial and from the East Coast, deemed me Juilliard-worthy, the idea burrowed into Gran’s brain. She took it upon herself to speak to Professor Christie about it, and my teacher took hold of the idea like a terrier to a bone.

  So, I filled out my application, collected my letters of recommendation, and sent in a recording of my playing. I didn’t tell Adam about any of this. I had told myself that it was because there was no point advertising it when even getting an audition was such a long shot. But even then I’d recognized that for the lie that it was. A small part of me felt like even applying was some kind of betrayal. Juilliard was in New York. Adam was here.

  But not at high school anymore. He was a year ahead of me, and this past year, my senior year, he’d started at the university in town. He only went to school part-time now because Shooting Star was starting to get popular. There was a record deal with a Seattle-based label, and a lot of traveling to gigs. So only after I got the creamy envelope embossed with The Juilliard School and a letter inviting me to audition did I tell Adam that I’d applied. I explained how many people didn’t get that far. At first he looked a little awestruck, like he couldn’t quite believe it. Then he gave a sad little smile. “Yo Mama better watch his back,” he said.

  The auditions were held in San Francisco. Dad had some big conference at the school that week and couldn’t get away, and Mom had just started a new job at the travel agency, so Gran volunteered to accompany me. “We’ll make a girls’ weekend of it. Take high tea at the Fairmont. Go window-shopping in Union Square. Ride the ferry to Alcatraz. We’ll be tourists. ”

  But a week before we were due to leave, Gran tripped over a tree root and sprained her ankle. She had to wear one of those clunky boots and wasn’t supposed to walk. Minor panic ensued. I said I could just go by myself—drive, or take the train, and come right back.

  It was Gramps who insisted on taking me. We drove down together in his pickup truck. We didn’t talk much, which was fine by me because I was so nervous. I kept fingering the Popsicle-stick good-luck talisman Teddy had presented me with before we left. “Break an arm,” he’d told me.

  Gramps and I listened to classical music and farm reports on the radio when we could pick up a station. Otherwise, we sat in silence. But it was such a calming silence; it made me relax and feel closer to him than any heart-to-heart would have.

  Gran had booked us in a really frilly inn, and it was funny to see Gramps in his work boots and plaid flannel amid all the lacy doilies and potpourri. But he took it all in stride.

  The audition was grueling. I had to play five pieces: a Shostakovich concerto, two Bach suites, all Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo capriccioso, which was next to impossible, and a movement from Ennio Morricone’s The Mission, a fun but risky choice because Yo-Yo Ma had covered this and everyone would compare. I walked out with my legs wobbly and my underarms wet with sweat. But my endorphins were surging and that, combined with the huge sense of relief, left me totally giddy.

  “Shall we see the town?” Gramps asked, his lips twitching into a smile.


  We did all the things Gran had promised we would do. Gramps took me to high tea and shopping, although for dinner, we skipped out on the reservations Gran had made at some fancy place on Fisherman’s Wharf and instead wandered into Chinatown, looking for the restaurant with the longest line of people waiting outside, and ate there.

  When we got back home, Gramps dropped me off and enveloped me in a hug. Normally, he was a handshaker, maybe a back-patter on really special occasions. His hug was strong and tight, and I knew it was his way of telling me that he’d had a wonderful time.

  “Me, too, Gramps,” I whispered.

  3:47 P. M.

  They just moved me out of the recovery room into the trauma intensive-care unit, or ICU. It’s a horseshoe-shaped room with about a dozen beds and a cadre of nurses, who constantly bustle around, reading the computer printouts that churn out from the feet of our beds recording our vital signs. In the middle of the room are more computers and a big desk, where another nurse sits.

  I have two nurses who check in on me, along with the endless round of doctors. One is a taciturn doughy man with blond hair and a mustache, who I don’t much like. And the other is a woman with skin so black it’s blue and a lilt in her voice. She calls me “sweetheart” and perpetually straightens the blankets around me, even though it’s not like I’m kicking them off.

  There are so many tubes attached to me that I cannot count them all: one down my throat breathing for me; one down my nose, keeping my stomach empty; one in my vein, hydrating me; one in my bladder, peeing for me; several on my chest, recording my heartbeat; another on my finger, recording my pulse. The ventilator that’s doing my breathing has a soothing rhythm like a metronome, in, out, in, out.

  No one, aside from the docto
rs and nurses and a social worker, has been in to see me. It’s the social worker who speaks to Gran and Gramps in hushed sympathetic tones. She tells them that I am in “grave” condition. I’m not entirely sure what that means—grave. On TV, patients are always critical, or stable. Grave sounds bad. Grave is where you go when things don’t work out here.

  “I wish there was something we could do,” Gran says. “I feel so useless just waiting. ”

  “I’ll see if I can get you in to see her in a little while,” the social worker says. She has frizzy gray hair and a coffee stain on her blouse; her face is kind. “She’s still sedated from the surgery and she’s on a ventilator to help her breathe while her body heals from the trauma. But it can be helpful even for patients in a comatose state to hear from their loved ones. ”

  Gramps grunts in reply.

  “Do you have any people you can call?” the social worker asks. “Relatives who might like to be here with you. I understand this must be quite a trial for you, but the stronger you can be, the more it will help Mia. ”

  I startle when I hear the social worker say my name. It’s a jarring reminder that it’s me they’re talking about. Gran tells her about the various people who are en route right now, aunts, uncles. I don’t hear any mention of Adam.

  Adam is the one I really want to see. I wish I knew where he was so I could try to go there. I have no idea how he’s going to find out about me. Gran and Gramps don’t have his phone number. They don’t carry cell phones, so he can’t call them. And I don’t know how he’d even know to call them. The people who would normally pass along pertinent information that something has happened to me are in no position to do that.

  I stand over the bleeping tubed lifeless form that is me. My skin is gray. My eyes are taped shut. I wish someone would take the tape off. It looks like it itches. The nice nurse bustles over. Her scrubs have lollipops on them, even though this isn’t a pediatric unit. “How’s it going, sweetheart?” she asks me, as if we just bumped into each other in the grocery store.

  It didn’t start out so smoothly with Adam and me. I think I had this notion that love conquers all. And by the time he dropped me off from the Yo-Yo Ma concert, I think we were both aware that we were falling in love. I thought that getting to this part was the challenge. In books and movies, the stories always end when the two people finally have their romantic kiss. The happily-ever-after part is just assumed.

  It didn’t quite work that way for us. It turned out that coming from such far corners of the social universe had its downsides. We continued to see each other in the music wing, but these interactions remained platonic, as if neither one of us wanted to mess with a good thing. But whenever we met at other places in the school—when we sat together in the cafeteria or studied side by side on the quad on a sunny day—something was off. We were uncomfortable. Conversation was stilted. One of us would say something and the other would start to say something else at the same time.

  “You go,” I’d say.

  “No, you go,” Adam would say.

  The politeness was painful. I wanted to push through it, to return to the glow of the night of the concert, but I was unsure of how to get back there.

  Adam invited me to see his band play. This was even worse than school. If I felt like a fish out of water in my family, I felt like a fish on Mars in Adam’s circle. He was always surrounded by funky, lively people, by cute girls with dyed hair and piercings, by aloof guys who perked up when Adam rock-talked with them. I couldn’t do the groupie thing. And I didn’t know how to rock-talk at all. It was a language I should’ve understood, being both a musician and Dad’s daughter, but I didn’t. It was like how Mandarin speakers can sort of understand Cantonese but not really, even though non-Chinese people assume all Chinese can communicate with one another, even though Mandarin and Cantonese are actually different.