Carmen, stop staring. You can’t force him to appear with your eyes,” Heidi said.
She was right. But I couldn’t risk missing him either. The backstage door of the Chicago Symphony Center was frozen shut, and it had been for at least a half hour. He had to be coming out soon.
“Trade you,” she said.
I took a quick glance at my dessert, a miniature chocolate cake with a molten center oozing out and a dollop of whipped cream on top. Then I looked at Heidi’s, a lemon drop cupcake nestled in an unnaturally yellow cloud of spun sugar. Both were missing one bite.
“What’s wrong with yours?” I asked, eyes back on the target.
“Nothing. It’s just too tart for me. Look at it, though. Isn’t it pretty?” She poked it with her fork.
“Um …” I didn’t really care. Where was he?
She smiled, sensing victory, and tucked her silky blond hair behind her ears. “I’m just in the mood for something richer.” She glanced at my plate again. “And you love lemon, right?”
“I guess.” I pushed my plate toward her. I didn’t hate lemon.
“You’re the best,” she said, her fork already sinking into my cake.
I took a bite of her dessert. The lemon curd was tart, especially after that bite of chocolate cake, but the frosting was painfully sweet. Elegant and trendy, like everything else on Rhapsody’s menu, but not something I actually wanted to eat.
I took one more bite, then slid the cupcake out of my way and propped my chin on my hands. I had selected the patio’s corner table specifically for its view of the backstage entrance to Symphony Center. We were close enough to see the paint peeling off the door, but sufficiently hidden by Rhapsody’s hovering gold umbrellas and the fat green leaves sprouting from planters. Perfect for hiding.
“Remind me what I’m looking for again.” Heidi licked a chocolate smudge from her thumb.
“Blond hair, violin case.”
“Right. Now remind me why you’re stalking this mysterious albino violinist.”
“He’s not an albino and I’m not stalking. Stalking implies some kind of romantic interest.”
“Sheesh. Lighten up,” she teased. “A little crush doesn’t have to be such a big deal.”
I wanted to ignore her, but she was just too far off. “Again, Jeremy King is not a crush. I’ve never even met him. He’s the competition.”
“But here’s the part I don’t get: Why do you need to see him? You’re a violinist. It’s not like you’re going to arm wrestle him. What is a visual going to tell you?”
“Nothing. I’m just curious.” I pulled my hair up and tried to smooth the mass of unruly curls into a ponytail. “Everybody is talking about this guy.”
I didn’t have to look at her to know she was smirking. My everybody was not her everybody. Occasionally I forgot that the rest of the world didn’t exist exclusively in the realm of classical music.
“I think this competition is finally getting to you,” she said. “It’s so bizarre to see you worried. You never worry.”
“I’m not worried,” I said. “I just want to see him. And I’ve been preparing for the Guarneri Competition for four years now. There would be something wrong with me if I wasn’t getting a little freaked out.”
Heidi’s eyes widened. “Are you going to make a Jeremy King voodoo doll? Is that why we’re here?” Then before I could glare at her, she gave me her signature sweet smile.
Heidi’s cuteness was her greatest weapon. She used it to win people over, and then, knowing she was too adorable to hate, said and did whatever she felt like. I loved her like a sister, but she drove me nuts. And I had to wonder, if I had baby blue eyes and butter-yellow hair (yes, Heidi was essentially Barbie minus the sexy pout), would I get the same free pass? It’d be nice to be brutally honest, even act like a brat occasionally. But my dark, curly hair and brown eyes just didn’t cast the same spell. The slightly oversize nose probably didn’t help either.
“No voodoo dolls,” I said, “but just think how much more interesting this is than physics or French, which is what we’re supposed to be doing right now.”
“Although, I guess that’s what my mom is paying you for.”
She sat up straight and looked around the patio, as if Diana might actually be lurking behind an umbrella.
“Looking for someone?”
Heidi shrugged. “Nope. Just a reflex.”
“We’ll do physics and French tomorrow. I’m almost finished anyway.”
Heidi couldn’t argue with that. They were my last two high school courses. I’d left physics to the end because I hated it, but my test scores were good. Not that it mattered. And French had been an afterthought. It wasn’t a GED requirement, but during my European tour last spring I’d fallen in love with the sound of the language, the way the words rolled around and tumbled out.
“You’re right,” Heidi said. “Spying on lover-boy is more fun anyway.”
“I hate you.”
“No, you don’t.” She smiled and ate the last bite of my cake. “I’ve got an interview, by the way.”
“For what?” I asked, without breaking my stare on the door.
“A real job. No offense.”
“None taken.” I paused. “That’s great,” I added, trying to sound sincere.
Heidi getting a real job was the inevitable. She had been tutoring me for six years, but now I was almost done, going to Juilliard in the fall. Of course she was interviewing. But for what? She had a degree in art history and I was her work experience.
“What kind of job?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Human Resources at OfficeMax.”
Neither of us had to say it, but we both were thinking it: She should have gone to dental school.
The server came with a new soda for Heidi and refilled my water.
“Anything else I can get you?” she asked.
Heidi shook her head no, and the server left. My eyes never left the backstage door. It didn’t budge.
“So how do you know he has blond hair if you’ve never seen him before?” Heidi asked.
“His picture,” I said. “It’s next to his bio in the Carnegie Hall program.” I pulled the booklet from the crocheted bag on my lap. The hemp purse was a souvenir I’d bought from Camden Market in London on the last day of my British Isles tour. It was stuffed with CDs—an array of the Bach Violin Sonatas and Partitas recordings. Yuri had sent me home with them after my lesson to listen and dissect.
I handed Heidi the Carnegie Hall program, which flipped open to the exact page. “Diana brought it back from New York.”
“She heard him play?”
“No. The program is from a year ago. She just picked it up for me.”
“And did she bring it home from New York with the spine split open to this page, or did you do that?”
I ignored the bait. She was either suggesting that Diana was a pressuring stage mom or that I was obsessed with Jeremy King. Neither was entirely true.
Heidi examined the picture. “Cute kid. Dimples, curls, he’s like a male Shirley Temple. How old?”
I shrugged. “That’s what his bio says.”
“More like twelve.”
I checked my watch. 1:37. “His rehearsal should have ended at one fifteen. Maybe we missed him.”
“How do you know when he rehearses?”
“I saw the CSO rehearsal schedule last week. I had yesterday’s noon slot, he was supposed to have today’s.”
But the door still hadn’t opened. At least not since we’d sat down thirty minutes ago, which meant Jeremy had to be still inside.
Heidi picked up the program again and brought the photo closer to her face. “He can’t be your age.”
I shrugged and looked back at the door. Maybe it was locked, I reasoned. Maybe he’d gone around to one of the front exits, but that was tricky from the backstage dressing rooms if you weren’t familiar with the hallways and side entrances and tunnels. No, it would be this door.
Suddenly, the door swung open. I inhaled sharply before I realized it wasn’t him. It was a tall, lanky guy wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a baseball cap. A stage hand, maybe. But there, slung over his shoulder, was a violin case. I squinted into the glare. Why hadn’t I brought sunglasses? Blond hair curled up around the back edge of his hat, and under the shadow the bill cast over his face, I could see the dimples that creased his cheeks.
My stomach fell. That could not be Jeremy King. That was not the boy in the photo or the picture I’d seen online. Unless those pictures were old.
Really, really old.
I forced myself to take a slow breath. If that was Jeremy King, he wasn’t a child prodigy. At least not anymore.
The guy in the cap—a Yankees cap, I could see now—glanced right and left, trying to orient himself. Then, without warning, he turned and stepped in the least likely direction. Toward me. I had been counting on him cutting through the parking lot and across Wabash for the El station. Instead, he walked along the side of the building over the crumbling parking blocks, toward Rhapsody. He was whistling, and the fingers of his right hand trailed along the red brick as he walked. Long, slow strides propelled him closer and closer to me. I sat frozen, hypnotized by his fluid movement.
I should have looked away. If I’d been thinking, I would have pretended to drop something or I could have at least rooted around in my purse with my head down. But of course I wasn’t thinking.
And then he looked right at me. His eyes locked into mine like two magnets. His face held the blank expression people give strangers in elevators or on sidewalks.
I still could have looked away, while his face was still empty, in that moment before it happened. But I was too stunned. This was Jeremy King.
That’s when his face changed. His eyes narrowed and his mouth formed a smug grin.
Before I could think, my head jerked down and my hand shot up to cover my face.
“What are you doing?” Heidi hissed.
I’d forgotten she was even there. “Nothing. I don’t know.” What was I doing? “I don’t want him to see me.”
“Too late, genius,” she said.
“Is he still looking at me?”
“Yes. And just because you can’t see him doesn’t mean he can’t see you. Move your hand.”
“But he’ll know I’m spying on him.”
“Trust me, he already knows.”
She reached over, took my wrist, and pushed my hand into my lap. I forced my eyes up.
He was still staring at me, not more than ten feet away now, but the grin had become a full-blown sneer. And just when he was close enough that I could have reached out and grabbed his arm, he lifted his hand and saluted me.
I did nothing.
He walked by and was gone.
Heidi and I sat in silence. My stomach churned and I wondered whether those few bites of bitter lemon drop cupcake would come up. Why hadn’t I taken my medication? I should have known I would need it.
Heidi spoke first. “Wow.”
I heard myself groan.
“That was bad,” she added.
“How did that happen? How did he see me? How did he recognize me?”
Heidi shook her head. “Really, Carmen? I mean, it was bad luck that he happened to walk this way, but not that surprising that he recognized you.”
“But he’s never met me before!”
“Maybe not officially.”
“No, not at all,” I insisted.
“I could walk into any music store in the country, probably the world, and find a stack of CDs with your face on the cover. Do I need to remind you that you won a Grammy last year? Of course he knows what you look like.”
I could barely hear her. My heart was still thundering in my ears.
“Think about it,” she continued. “You’re scared of him. He’s probably scared of you.”
I put my cheek on the tabletop and closed my eyes. I needed an Inderal. Why hadn’t I brought the pills in my purse? “I’m not scared.”
Across the street the El thundered by, making the table buzz beneath my cheek. Even with my eyes closed I could feel Heidi’s stare, sense her harshness melting into concern.
“It’s just a competition, Carmen,” she said softly.
But it wasn’t just a competition. Heidi couldn’t grasp that and I didn’t expect her to. I didn’t expect anybody to understand. I wasn’t just scared of Jeremy King. I thought about him constantly, googled his name and read his reviews, listened to his CDs, and studied that stupid outdated photo from the Carnegie Hall program. If I wasn’t practicing or thinking about music, I was thinking about Jeremy King. I was obsessed, and I had every reason to be.
Jeremy King could ruin my life.
© 2011 Jessica Martinez