The Most Precious Substance on Earth
We are on our way to bandfest and we are going to win. Everyone can feel it. The band has a hive mind on the airplane from Halifax to Toronto; we’re humming an electric rendition of First Suite in E Flat, the woodwinds tooting out in forceful staccato as we begin the second movement. Brass players purse their lips to air-trumpets, extend the slides of air-trombones. Bandmates in the adjacent row thrum on their trays; I wet my mouth in preparation for my elegiac solo, when the conductor tells us to stop because we’re disturbing the other passengers. We’re doing a poor job of representing the band. He reminds us that musicianship is more than talent.
Earlier this morning the ratio of parents to band members at the Halifax Airport was nearly two-to-one. My mom befriended and exchanged numbers with the two other Indian moms, while my dad struck up conversations with the teachers, probing them about educational standards and confirming for the second time that boys and girls would stay in separate areas of the hotel. Amy rolled in with a crimson suitcase, shiny and hard like it was candy coated. Her mother waved at me and then headed over to Clearwater to buy a live packaged lobster. Eunice’s parents were the only ones who didn’t bother parking, just dropped her outside and sped away back to the Dark Side (aka Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, a city that blighted its waterfront with a power plant and refinery), so Eunice wandered in bewildered, eyes up at the signs listing departure gates, until she finally saw us. She’d never been on an airplane before, or to the airport. Corrine, who usually wore raver pants, was today not wearing raver pants. Her family, including an ADD-afflicted younger brother, all had the same dark bowl-cut; revelatory because Corrine’s hair defied shape and was the colour of lilacs.
But when the families left, it was just the forty-three of us in identical green band sweaters: a teenage forest in the airport lobby. Each sweater has a petite white treble clef embroidered on the right breast. When we put them on, it’s like on Captain Planet when the five teens flash laser beams out of the magical rings they wear, combining their powers to summon up Captain Planet from wherever he usually is. I don’t watch that show, so I don’t know what happens after that, but with the Platinum Band it’s like we turn into platinum and morph into an unstoppable force of concert band music.
On the plane, five of us are playing a whispered storytelling game. Each person adds a word to make a story: “There…”
I’m simultaneously working on an arrangement of the Jurassic Park theme music with Eunice and Corrine, who are sitting behind me. Corrine’s hair rises above her seat in a glorious froth.
Amy is asleep on my shoulder. Her elegant nose lets out the occasional whistle. She and I both play the oboe, which is a disproportionate quantity of oboe for pretty much any ensemble. But Amy has a shitty band attendance record, so I don’t exactly know why she’s here. She wakes up and yawns, checks her new bangs in a compact mirror. She pulls her reading material—last week’s Time Magazine—out of the seat pocket. On the cover, two teenagers smile in their school photos. Framing them are the black-and-white headshots of the thirteen people they killed at Columbine High School. Only the killers are shown in colour.
Eunice passes Jurassic Park over to me, and I pencil in a key signature before Amy interrupts with a whisper. “Did you hear Eunice was voted most likely to shoot up the school?”
“Shhhh, she’s sitting behind us,” I respond.
“Even worse, she’s sharing a room with us,” says Amy, and goes back to her magazine.
There is a rumour that when the yearbook staff collected anonymous suggestions for superlatives to list under everyone’s photos, they received an overwhelming number indicating that Eunice Lam would most likely kill us all. The faculty advisor didn’t let them print this (obviously) so next to her name in the yearbook it says, “Most likely to build a successful dot com company.”
It is clear to anyone who has ever spoken to Eunice that she would feel infinitely more comfortable holding a flute than any variety of weapon. Eunice is the youngest person in the band. She’s been taking private lessons forever, so was let into the Platinum Band a year early. She’s the kind of person a teacher would miss in a headcount. She walks with a hunch, though she is maybe five feet tall, and would look like a figurine of an old lady except that her face is perfectly round—a child’s face. She talks incessantly about her private lessons and sometimes disagrees with our band conductor on things like whether the timpani is in tune, which is uncomfortable for everyone. One time our history class visited the Alexander Graham Bell museum in Cape Breton and she lagged behind taking photos of the info plaques. They’re probably in a scrapbook now. At lunch she sits in the hallway or the band room, writing in a purple journal with a tiny heart-shaped lock on it, the kind your mom’s work friend buys for your birthday when you turn seven. If Eunice was more interesting, somebody would have stolen, photocopied, and distributed it by now. I try not to be irritated by Eunice, but it’s hard. I don’t hate her, though. Amy does.
Amy turns to me. “So look, when we’re downtown tomorrow, I’ll go meet up with my cousin and bring the stuff back for us.” She mimes smoking a joint. So this is why she came.
Over March Break Amy took a family trip to Vancouver and came back a stoner. She smuggled some weed back inside a hollowed-out jar of peanut butter, which is apparently what people from Vancouver do all the time. Airport security in Vancouver must think the city’s citizens just love ground-up nuts. Nowadays Amy uses words like “bud” and “roach” and “blaze,” which sound like the names of Uncle Jesse’s motorcycle buddies on Full House. I’ve never smoked before. For the month or so her supply lasted, every time she phoned me I’d hear OK Computer playing in the background while Amy recalled obscure memories from her childhood, like of the time she tried to whittle an anatomical heart out of a bar of her mother’s triple-milled French soap. “I remember so much when I’m high, Nina,” she says, and then forgets to practice for our group presentation on macrophages in Grade 10 Bio.
When I started playing the oboe it took me three months before I could make a sound. What came out was just tortured air. I’d soaked the damn reed for hours but I still wasn’t entirely sure what “embouchure” meant. The only reason I was playing was that my dad had purchased the instrument at a thrift store. It took me a year to manage a B flat scale. After two years, my dad invested in private lessons with this Slovenian woman named Irina or Alina or Galina…I’m still not totally sure. She sighed passive aggressively when I used incorrect fingerings, which must have been a crucial teaching tool because three years in I was researching how to make my own reeds and growing enraged when people referred to my oboe as a clarinet. Four years in—last spring—I auditioned and joined the Sir William Alexander High School Platinum Band.
The Platinum Band was originally called the Gold Band, but then a new conductor took over and explained to us that platinum was the most precious substance on earth. This is false; platinum is surpassed in value by twelve other substances, including diamonds, rhino horns, and meth. “Why not the diamond band?” asked the French horn player, but the conductor took it as a rhetorical.
Our hotel room looks clean but stinks of the thousand cigarettes that were once smoked here. When I open the window, noisy air rushes in; another brown building faces our brown building, with streetcars and delivery men grumbling between. We’re a fifteen-minute walk from Roy Thompson Hall, which to the Platinum Band is a mythical place. When instructing the band to be quiet, the conductor often reminds us of the time he heard the Toronto Symphony Orchestra perform there, and how during a long rest in the music it was so silent (and the acoustics so sharp) he could hear the ecstatic sigh of a woman on the other side of the hall.
The four of us ended up rooming together because we’re all girls, i.e. there were no other possible configurations. Amy tried to get a pair of female clarinet players to trade so we wouldn’t have to room with Eunice, but they had already hatched a scheme involving making out with percussionists.
Amy throws open her suitcase over the garish florals of the bed closest to the window. In one half are PJs, her band uniform, and a Ziploc of toiletries. The other half is full of candy. “Sugar for everyone!” she shouts, and scatters Pixy Stix over the comforter.
“Dude!” says Corrine, picking one up and biting an end between her front teeth.
“Didn’t you pack any clothes?” asks Eunice, but Amy ignores her and starts undressing, flinging her flannel shirt over the radiator, where Eunice eyes it, probably worried it will catch fire and the sprinklers will go off, drowning our sheet music and destroying our chances at winning BandFest. Amy goes to brush her teeth wearing just her flared jeans and a polkadot La Senza bra. Corrine and I start changing too, but Eunice waits on her bed, fingers threaded over a bundle in her lap until Amy is done. Then she excuses herself to the bathroom, re-emerging fifteen minutes later in cotton pajamas. There’s Vaseline coating her face, and a cocoon of towel around her hair.
“Should we practice?” she asks.
Amy groans. “Seriously?” She points at Eunice and mouths the words school shooter. But Eunice has already unpacked her flute and fitted it together; she’s trilling away.
This is what we did to get here: sixty mornings of our bleary, winter-coated parents shoveling out their cars in the blue dark to get us into our seats four minutes before the 6:00 am start of rehearsal; sixty two-hour rehearsals, me sitting second row, a trumpet player behind emptying a spit valve on the squelchy carpet, and a piccolo player drawing fancy-dressed cats on my sheet music, which we would furiously erase before turning the pages in at the end of the semester; sixty twice-weekly mornings that began and ended with the sound of noodling instruments and clacking cases and the conductor yelling “Quiet, please!” Fifty or more afternoons of solo practice in a rehearsal room coated with soundproofing the colour of a dried sea sponge; feeling around those walls for a light switch; playing until fingers felt arthritic; leaving that room to face the rest of school life, so empty of music and sometimes so unbearably bleak.
Two semesters of classic high school concert band repertoire: Gustav Holst; Ralph Von Williams; a medley of film music from five years ago (Jurassic Park, The Wiz, Wayne’s World); a medley of the conductor’s favourite bands (Chicago, The Beatles, Night Ranger); an up-tempo ‘70s hit; plus the required performance pieces (Pomp and Circumstance, the National Anthem). Two fundraising car washes in the parking lot of the funeral home next to the school, one in frigid April, stalactite icicles dripping from the rims of our buckets, our wet hands raw as winter. One gingerbread house the music council co-presidents built to raffle off at the Holiday Harmonies concert, intended as a gabled Christmassy Victorian but in truth more crooked mansion, royal icing tubed like toothpaste atop precarious walls. Forty-three sets of parents opening their wallets, signing checks.
I wasn’t expecting this fierce, cheesy love for a band that is mostly in tune, where members share obscure jokes from the humiliating skits they’ve performed at assemblies or about the time the visiting professional flautist accidentally told the flutes to finger their parts and then blushed straight up to his scalp. Sometimes when Amy describes the transcendent qualities of marijuana, I think about one morning during rehearsal, when I took my mouth away from my oboe to sneeze in the middle of Ease on Down the Road and saw the whole band’s shoulders and heads moving in unison, a controlled wave; trumpets raised their bells and blared, tapped their toes; eighty-six eyes fixed on the slashes of eighth-notes sprinting toward the end of the page, the conductor shouting numbers over us as his baton drew violent figure-eights. When I put my teeth back over the reed, my shoulders latched into the rhythm with everyone else’s. It felt like running suicides in gym class: a mix of endorphins and gasped oxygen, blurring into euphoria.
In the morning we take the subway from our hotel to touristy destinations that we voted on back at school. We churn in single file through metal turnstiles, a chaperone handing each of us a token as we pass. In yellow walkways under the city, Amy casually greets buskers, clapping and doing a shoulder jig, offering them coins from her red vinyl purse. One of our first stops is the Toronto Reference Library, a building with the architecture of a dystopian government headquarters. Amy and I follow its white winding walkways and eye the university students, all half-asleep and wearing sweatshirts. We’ve been put into groups and assigned a worksheet on Canadian composers and instrumentalists. Corrine has gone in search of a restroom to fix her lipstick, so Eunice trails behind us.
“How do we distract her,” says Amy, under her breath. She’s figuring out how to sneak away to meet her cousin without Eunice reporting her to a teacher.
“Maybe with some microfiche,” I say. “Or by luring her into the rare books archives,” which apparently has one of the world’s foremost collections of materials related to the life and works of Arthur Conan Doyle.
“Oooh or how about a sexy grad student.” Amy tilts her head down toward me and makes googly eyes.
“Too bad she’s un-distractible,” I respond. “Have you seen her practice arpeggios?”
“Look, I bet she’s writing down everything I do in that creepy diary of hers.” Amy points discretely and I turn to see Eunice leaning against a stair railing and writing, frowning.
“It probably contains a hand-drawn map of the school with a big red X over the band room, and a heart over a rudimentary drawing of Mr. Rees,” I say, because I can’t help it. There’s this juiciness in targeting Eunice; she’s so small, so oblivious.
“Nina!” says Amy, and we’re both stifling laughter. For a second, I wish she’d just hang out at the library with me and stop making things so complicated. When she catches her breath, she says, in an exaggerated whisper, “The lonely man strikes with absolute rage.” I recognize it as a quote from Eric Harris’s blog.
A month ago, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve kids and a teacher at their Colorado high school. The crime was so graphic and irrevocable that it engulfed all other news. Amy’s family only got internet access a couple weeks ago, but now their phone line is consistently tied up by her reading the killers’ diaries. She has a crush on Eric Harris, though he’s dead, and I can’t tell if she genuinely finds him charming or if it’s part of this edgy image she’s cultivating. Harris is the guy in class who smirks at the back of the room, the guy you avoid eye contact with because if he bullies you, he will feel no remorse. But Dylan Klebold, he was just this goofy big-nosed kid with the hairdo of someone on Dawson’s Creek. If he went to our high school, he’d be the tuba player. Harris was a thin, slouching weasel. I can’t picture him playing an instrument, or walking our halls. The photos in the papers portray them as darkly heroic Batman types: The Trench Coat Mafia. Trench coats billowing behind them like black umbrellas against a ferocious wind. Kids crouching under the cafeteria tables, begging. The kindly teacher, splayed and bleeding in the science lab.
“Oh, hey,” I point. Eunice has left us to ask the librarian a question.
“Awesome, see ya,” says Amy, and darts back down the stairs, across the red carpet, out the revolving doors. When Eunice comes back, she doesn’t ask where Amy went. She beams as though this is her opportunity, as though she and I have something in common.
The female chaperone knocks on our room door to make sure we’re all here and there are no boys hanging around trying to steal our underpants, or whatever she thinks teenagers do away from home. “Don’t stay up all night gossiping, girls! Get a good night’s sleep,” she advises us. The competition is tomorrow morning.
It’s almost 9:30pm and we’ve just come back from dinner at the Hard Rock Café, where I lied to the conductor to cover for the hours Amy spent buying gothic couture on Queen Street West. During dinner, Eunice seated herself between me and Corrine, and ordered a veggie wrap when everyone else ordered burgers. She talked about Schubert for twenty minutes, and didn’t even get it when I said Schubert died of syphilis because he was a Romantic.
Amy’s on the hotel bed with an array of shopping bags. From one of them, she pulls a bulging Ziploc. I go to sit by her, because I’ve never seen drugs up close, or really at all, except on TV. They’re a dusty olive green, small bunches clumped on dried stems, the curled leaves woven through with saffron threads. The smell through the bag is pungent but fresh, like the tufts of herbs my mom buys at the Indian grocery. Corrine peers over us. “Oh, now we’re in trouble,” she says.
Amy shreds the weed with plum-coloured fingernails. I think of the anti-drug PSA that’s been getting lots of play lately: a couple of puppet children singing, Drugs, drugs, drugs. Some are good, some are bad. Drugs, drugs, drugs. Ask your mom or ask your dad. I start to hum the tune and the other two join in. We’re all giggling when Eunice comes out of the bathroom in her PJs, showered and once again having applied a shiny mask of Vaseline. “Gosh, your skin must be soft,” says Amy drily. “Like a baby’s bottom.”
“Oh burn,” says Corrine.
“What are you guys doing?” asks Eunice. “What is that stuff?” Is it possible she doesn’t know?
“Corinne, put a towel under the door,” commands Amy, and pointing at the ceiling, “Nina, cover that up.” I grab a shower cap from the still-humid bathroom and, standing on a chair, use a hair elastic to secure the cap over the smoke detector. Corinne cracks open the window. Amy carefully dusts bits of plant matter off her fingers and back into the baggie, then pulls open the drawer next to the bed and removes the Bible. She flips to one of the blank end pages and tears. Eunice gasps on cue. “I don’t have rolling papers,” explains Amy (though she was out all day and could have purchased them at any time). “Please apologize to your god,” she says to Eunice.
“…I don’t believe in god,” says Eunice. “Guys, I think this is a bad idea.”
“Chillax, will you,” says Amy. She twists the end of the joint, holds the other end to her mouth, and lights it with a hotel match.
“Corinne, if you get caught, who’s going to play your solo?” asks Eunice. By now all four of us are sitting on the bed, drawn closer like cavemen and Amy has just ignited the first fire.
“What, her three-note solo in a movie soundtrack from five years ago?” says Amy. I watch her inhale, memorizing her movements so I can copy them. When she passes me the joint, I put my lips on it and breathe in deeply. I’m thrilled by the ring of orange that glows gradually bright, in sync with my inhale. I cough a cloud of smoke.
Because we’re total nerds, we put on a recording of our Holst performance piece, played by some distant, professional orchestra.
When the joint comes around to Eunice, she sniffs it first, then takes a shallow puff. “I don’t like it,” she says, scrunching her face and thrusting it at Amy.
In minutes, my head is floating. I squeeze my eyes closed and it feels like an eyeball massage. Violins come slinking through the Allegro, strings vibrating like hummingbirds. Even on Corrine’s tiny cassette player, the audio is like surround sound. I smell shampoo flowers coming from Eunice’s hair. Eunice stays. It’s obvious she wants to be a part of the group, though she’s staying quiet. She reminds me of this cat I had that would eat its own vomit. I used to wonder if it was motivated by shame.
“What’s the difference between an onion and an oboe?” asks Amy.
“Nobody cries when you chop up an oboe!” answers Corinne, laughing with absolute joy, falling back on the bed.
“Okay, okay,” says Amy, “you won’t know this one: What’s the difference between a bull and a band?”
“Nobody cries when you chop up a band!” answers Corinne.
“That’s enough out of you,” Amy says.
“A bull has the horns in front and the ass in back,” I say, because I’ve heard all of Amy’s band jokes.
“Nina!” Amy screams, gripping my neck and pretending to strangle me, then loosening into a hug.
“Shhhhhhh,” I say, leaning my head on her shoulder. The woodwinds emit the purest sound: no breath, no clicks, only exquisite tones radiating through metal. Every chord is like biting into a stack of twenty crepes. My stoned brain remembers our “taped test” for the Holst piece, where we had to record ourselves playing individually at home and bring in the tape to be graded. I spent six hours on mine even though the section was only a few bars long. When I finished, my lips were chapped white at the edges and my index finger stung from the repeated pressing of Record, Rewind, and Play. The day it was due, I met Amy at her house on our way to school in the morning, and right before we left, she said, “Hang on a sec.” I saw her pick up her oboe from the living room sofa, and lithely reach across to her dad’s complicated sound system. She played this graceful rendition in a single take, so flawlessly I wanted to tear the ribbon out of my own cassette tape.
“It’s really time to sleep, guys,” says Eunice.
“That’s the only thing you’ve said in like an hour,” says Amy. Behind her on the wall there’s a mass-produced oil painting, shining and full of rolling hills. The whites of her eyes are disappearing under blood vessels, and she’s chugging water from a plastic cup. “Go to sleep if you want to so badly. Why are you even here?”
Eunice says nothing. She remains where she is, and looks down at her hand, which is tracing swoops of thread on the quilted bedspread.
“Taking notes for later? Go write about us in your diary,” says Amy. “What do you even write about in there? What could such a loser possibly have to write about?”
I’m trying to decide what to say. Corrine observes, slowly chewing a Fuzzy Peach, and it occurs to me that she and Eunice aren’t friends; they’ve only been thrown together by default.
“Have you ever smoked weed? Ummmm…no. Do you have any friends? Ummmm…no. Does your family even love you? Why did they just, like, abandon you at the airport? Have you ever stayed up past 11:00 pm? Do you have access to explosives?” Amy pushes her face toward Eunice. “Do you research automatic weapons, Eunice? Do you? Do you dream about shooting us all to death?” She blinks, eyes drooping and detached. Eunice’s hand has stopped moving on the bedspread. Corrine and I don’t look at each other.
“Have you ever been naked with a guy? A girl? Have you? Has somebody else ever run their hands over your body? Have you ever done it?”
Eunice doesn’t say anything. She’s shaking her head. “Have you ever been fucked?”
Eunice’s eyes go dark and ancient. I think of how she begs the teachers to leave the band room unlocked so she can stay after school to practice. One night I forgot a textbook in my locker, and when I came back to get it I thought the only people in the building were the janitors, sweeping ragged grey brooms in wide arcs down the empty halls. Then I saw the fluorescent lights of the band room, and when I peeked in, there was Eunice, alone, in her usual chair. Her flute wasn’t even out of its case, and as I came up behind her I glimpsed her scribbling in her diary. She’d written in millimetre-high sentences I couldn’t read. Her hand gripped the black felt-tip pen as she scratched fervently, each word an abrasion.
Eunice sobs once, and curls her arms around herself. Then: “Yes,” says Eunice, lifting her head and looking Amy in the eye. “I have. Have you?”
I think of the way Eunice hunches and slouches, making her body small. We all realize it at the same time. Even Amy has the decency to look away.
At 7:00 am, when we wake up, Eunice isn’t in her bed. I change into my band uniform. The three of us venture out to the lobby, where the band has congregated in sleepy groups, draped over leather armchairs or bunched up by the free coffee, greedily splashing cream and opening sugar packets. Eunice is there, in her uniform, holding her flute case, with her music folder tucked under one arm. She’s standing next to the conductor, between two potted palms. I have this new awareness of her body, though I’m trying not to notice it—her question mark shape, her pink skin. As the conductor approaches us and takes us aside, Eunice avoids looking at us, and I know what she’s done.
By noon, Amy, Corinne and I are on a flight back to Halifax, sitting in separate rows because those were the only seats available. We’re absurdly still in our uniforms. Our parents will have to pay the flight change fees. Behavior that is detrimental to the effectiveness of the band or to its reputation is grounds for dismissal, the conductor said back at the hotel. Besides that, the school has a zero-tolerance drug policy. We’re lucky not to have been expelled.
As flight attendants mime safety procedures, I hook the headphones of my Walkman around my skull and sink into my seat. I’m listening to a recording of us at the Spring Serenade. I’m pretending that the Walkman is a time machine and that I have returned to April. I’m sitting not in economy class but in my row on the stage in front of everybody’s parents, turning the clean edges of sheet music. When the concert ends, we click off our stand lights in the dark auditorium, like the swift wink of a city losing electricity. On the conductor’s cue, we exit in disciplined single file. I follow the dark green shoulders of the clarinetist ahead of me, careful not to rattle the rows of music stands as our line of musicians curves out the door. I want to forget that without the band I’m just me. That nothing will ever again be that good.
Photo by Flickr user Sven Graeme