“We have to break up.”
Noelle made the phone call from outside her apartment building just before dinner with her parents. Something had been bugging her for weeks whenever she thought of her kind, cute boyfriend, but she wasn’t ready to admit what it was. She leaned against the brick and looked out at the traffic on the street. “This just isn’t working anymore.”
“What?” he said. “Where is this coming from? Why?”
“Travis,” she said. And nothing else.
“You can’t just dump me for no reason,” he said. “That’s so not fair.”
She felt a familiar meanness rise in her, and the feeling felt like home. “Actually,” she said, “I can do whatever the hell I want. And I don’t want to be with you anymore. Got it?”
She hung up the phone. And as free as she felt in that moment, she also felt a little like crying.
The cello could sound angry. Especially Noelle’s cello. It was what she liked most about it.
She was alone in her room, the only place she enjoyed being lately, practicing. One set of fingers moved skillfully along the neck of the big instrument and the other held the bow lightly, sliding it back and forth across the strings so quickly that her curly hair fell out of its bun and her glasses slipped down her nose. The song might not have been angry, but Noelle was, and so everything she played sounded loud and unsettled.
The school year had just started a little over a month ago, but she was already working to perfect the piece she’d play at the fall showcase. She’d mentioned the showcase at dinner earlier that night, and that had been a mistake.
“So, the fall showcase is coming up in a few weeks,” Noelle had said. It was when all the students at Augusta Savage School of the Arts performed or exhibited a special piece they were excited about each year. Everyone loved the fall showcase because it was the only fun program they had all year—the only one with no grade, no real pressure; just an opportunity to show off something they were proud of, to their teachers, classmates, and families.
Before she could even finish explaining that it would be a fun night, that they didn’t have to stay long, but that she really wanted them to come, her mother, an emergency room nurse, rubbed her dark eyes and said, “I’m sorry, honey, but I’ll probably be pulling a double that night.”
Noelle pressed her lips together and looked hopefully toward her father. She knew he had to be up at 3:00 a.m. every day to make it downtown to the construction site where he worked. He ran his hand through his spiky black hair and didn’t look at her as he said he wouldn’t make it either. “Won’t your friends be there?” her father asked. But friends weren’t the same as family.
Pierre said, “I’ll come, Noey.” She’d smiled at her little brother but still felt sad.
Her parents were always too busy with work to come see her play, so she didn’t know why she’d expected this time to be any different. The worst part was she couldn’t even be upset about them missing the showcase without feeling guilty.
Now, she played and played until the weight of the anger and guilt fell away from her tense muscles, because it was stupid. She was stupid to be upset about something like this when she knew her parents worked hard so she wouldn’t have to. Her mother, Anaïs, sent nearly half of her earnings back to Noelle’s grandmother in Martinique, so everything her father, Nick, made at his construction job went to their expenses. Plus, both her parents had been working extra shifts to pay for her music lessons and instruments for years. They made sure Noelle and her brother had everything they needed, and even a few things they wanted. They also let her keep whatever she made helping out at her grandparents’ restaurant in Chinatown. Who was she to want more?
But she was still disappointed about something. And it wasn’t just about her parents missing the showcase.
She knew part of her disappointment was about Travis, but she was trying not to think about how confused and hurt he’d sounded on the phone. She had a good reason to break up with him. Even though she hadn’t told him what it was.
So Noelle played to keep her mind off him, and her family. She’d started with a mix of famous concertos she knew by heart, but as the evening turned to night she practiced original nocturnes she’d composed on her own.
Often when she played her own pieces, her deepest, most well-kept secret filled her thoughts.
She started to play more slowly, and a new, original melody filled her room. This piece—a love song—had no lyrics, but Noelle closed her eyes and thought of the only person she’d want to hear sing them if it did.
When Noelle looked down at her phone to see a text from Tobyn saying that she was in the neighborhood and asking if she could come over, it felt like Tobyn knew that Noelle had been thinking about her. Pierre had just left for a sleepover at a friend’s house, so she had the room they shared to herself for the night. Noelle texted back, and when she let her friend in a few minutes later, her voice sounded strange and strangled when she said, “Hey, T.”
Tobyn didn’t notice.
“You’ll never guess what Ava did to me tonight,” Tobyn said, stepping inside. She went straight to Noelle’s bedroom and flopped onto the bed before kicking off her shoes. They were bright yellow sneakers, and Noelle had gotten her rainbow laces. “I’ll just say this,” Tobyn continued, and then she sang a line from a song: “She ain’t the girl I thought she was.”
Ava was Tobyn’s girlfriend. And in that moment, Noelle felt the anger and guilt reappear, and fill her up, hot and heavy.
Maybe this was the other thing stirring inside her. She knew she wasn’t only mad at her parents, or upset about hurting Travis. Maybe she was also mad because Tobyn was beautiful, like the cello and its music.
But her friend was always calling someone else’s name. Chapter 2
“Why are you even with her?”
The question flew out of Noelle’s mouth before she could stop it.
Tobyn sat up on her elbows and pushed her fingers into her short, curly afro, and Noelle noticed the streak of blue she’d had since freshman year. The streak was perfect, so her, but Noelle would never tell Tobyn that.
“I know you’ve never liked her, Ellie. But you don’t gotta say it like that.”
Noelle both loved and hated when Tobyn called her Ellie. She loved it because it made her feel like she was special to Tobyn. But Noelle hated it for the same reason, because she knew she really wasn’t—not in the way she wanted to be.
“I just mean,” Noelle said, trying to backtrack and push away her impatience, “that you complain about her all the time. She isn’t good to you. So I don’t get why you’re with her if you’re so unhappy.”
Tobyn frowned. “I didn’t say I was unhappy. I didn’t even tell you what happened yet,” she said.
“So tell me,” Noelle replied. She started putting away her cello so she didn’t have to look at Tobyn while she talked.
“So, we were at her house making out, right?”
Noelle felt grateful to be looking down at her cello case, taking too long to fasten the clamps. “Uh-huh,” she muttered, trying to ignore the pain that filled her chest when she thought about Tobyn kissing anyone.
“And when her mom knocks on her bedroom door, she goes to push me off of her, but my earring got snagged in one of her braids.”
Noelle knew she couldn’t look at her cello for the whole story, so she stood up and crossed her room to open her window. She imagined how close two humans would need to be for an earring to get stuck in a braid on someone else’s head.
“Ouch,” Noelle said.
“I know,” Tobyn agreed. “So I’m like, ‘Wait a second, I’m stuck.’ But Ava keeps pushing me.”
“I thought her parents were cool with you two dating?” Noelle asked. She needed to find something else to do to keep her hands and eyes busy, so she picked up Tobyn’s shoes and put them together by the end of her bed.
“Oh she’s out and they’re definitely cool with us going out, but we’re not allowed to like, hook up whenever we want. The same way your parents would flip if you had a boy in here and they caught you kissing.”
Noelle nodded, thinking about Travis. She liked kissing him, and had done it often enough in this room while they were together. But part of the reason she’d broken things off with him was that sometimes, especially lately, she thought about kissing other people, too.
“So anyway,” Tobyn continued, “she kept pushing, and it was hurting me more than her, you know? The doorknob started to turn and I was still saying, ‘Ava, gimme a second, I can just take my earring off,’ when the snag came loose and I fell on the floor.”
Tobyn reached for Noelle’s arm and said, “Will you sit down for a second?”
Noelle swallowed hard at Tobyn’s touch. It made her blush. But she played it off. She pulled her arm away and rolled her eyes, sat down, and looked at her friend. “I don’t know why I have to look at you to listen,” she said. Tobyn just continued the story.
“So her mom walks in, sees me on the floor, and I pretend I’m tying my shoe. My earring is dangling from the end of Ava’s braid but her mom doesn’t notice and just asks if I’m staying for dinner.”
Tobyn smiled to herself. “It’s actually kinda funny when I think about it now, but I was pissed then. So I told her mom no, I wouldn’t be staying. And once she left I said to Ava, ‘What the hell?,’ yanked my earring out of her hair, and left.” Tobyn leaned closer to Noelle and pointed to her earlobe. It was a little torn and a tiny bead of blood sat right near her piercing.
“Jesus,” Noelle said, and reached out to touch it. “Does it hurt?”
“Duh,” Tobyn said. “And look, I get why she didn’t want to get caught but . . . something else happened tonight, too.”
“What?” Noelle asked. She watched Tobyn’s eyes as they traveled all around her room. Her friend looked sad. “Tobyn. What?”
“When we were kissing, it felt different for some reason.” Tobyn squeezed her hands together and Noelle stayed quiet. “I don’t know if she loves me anymore.”
Noelle had barely been holding it together having to sit so close to Tobyn, having to hear her complain about her girlfriend. But the worst of it was the hope that rose up inside her as Tobyn told this last part of her story. The hope that if Ava didn’t love Tobyn anymore, maybe there would be room for Tobyn to love . . . someone new. It reminded Noelle too much of hoping her parents would come see her play, and she hated hoping for things that might never, ever happen.
The anger returned again, but this time, instead of feeling hot, Noelle’s whole body went cold.
She imagined the hope was a candle. She blew out the flame.
“God you’re so dramatic, Tobyn,” Noelle said. And she knew her voice sounded mean. “She ripped your earlobe open. You’re literally sitting here bleeding, and you fight with her all the time. Don’t be dumb. Just dump her if you think she hates you so much.”
Tobyn’s eyes turned hard. She stood up and grabbed her shoes, but she didn’t even put them on. “You’re such a bitch sometimes, Noelle. I don’t know why I even came here. I don’t know what your problem is.”
Tobyn slammed the bedroom door when she left and Noelle didn’t move. She just sat there, imagining Tobyn on the floor in Ava’s bedroom, wearing one earring, pretending to tie the rainbow laces in her yellow shoes.
Noelle hadn’t been looking forward to school on Monday, especially orchestra class. She knew she’d have to see Travis. And as soon as she walked in, there he sat with his saxophone, glaring at her. She nodded at him, but he looked away from her immediately.
She was also dreading orchestra because she hadn’t spent as much time practicing as she should have. Between the breakup, perfecting her nocturne, and adding to the new ballad, she just hadn’t had time. She was first chair, so whenever she didn’t practice enough or missed a note, Ms. Porter, the instructor, noticed.
As Noelle expected, she was not prepared. As Ms. Porter directed the class to play a symphony, Noelle’s lack of practice combined with Travis’s heated looks, and she stumbled through it several times.
“Noelle,” Ms. Porter said, pulling her aside after class. “I really need you to be the example for the rest of the string section, and really the rest of the orchestra. If first chair is too much responsibility . . .”
“It isn’t, Ms. Porter. I promise.” Noelle couldn’t lose first chair; she’d worked too hard for too long to get it. She knew she’d have to do better.
When she stepped out of class, Travis was waiting for her in the hall.
“So,” he said.
“So what?” she said.
“I want to know why.”
Noelle sighed. “I can’t do this right now,” she muttered. And she left him there, alone in the hallway.
At home that night, when Pierre stepped into their bedroom, Noelle saw that his jeans were ripped and his knee was bleeding. His shirt was also all grass-stained and dirty.
“What happened to you?” Noelle asked her brother.
“Nothing,” he said.
“You know you’re a bad liar,” Noelle replied.
Pierre paid her no attention, grabbed a change of clothes, and went back down the hall to the bathroom.
He returned to their room in a clean T-shirt and shorts, with a Band-Aid over his knee. When he started playing a video game in bed, he seemed fine. But Noelle watched her brother closely for the rest of the evening anyway.
Copyright © 2021 by Ashwin Writing LLC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.