The Weight of Expectation
She sits in her black skirt and white blouse, barely breathing as she thinks about all that has led to this moment. Every hour spent practicing in the drafty church, countless hours on the bus between Forks and Port Angeles, the ever-present loneliness while she worked to elevate herself from her surroundings. She visualizes her mother's hands, red and chapped from scrubbing floors and washing dishes. Those same hands meticulously cutting the fine gabardine she now wears.
It would be impossible to tally the cost.
Her name is called and she mounts the steps to the stage with a calmness she does not feel. The lights are so bright, she's unable to see past the first row of chairs, but the voice of the committee chairman is strong and clear.
"Welcome, Miss Platt. What will your first piece be?"
"Bach's Prelude and Fugue No. 4."
"Excellent. Whenever you're ready."
Hands poised above the keys, she closes her eyes and narrows her focus to the instrument before her.
This is everything.
This will determine the very course of her life.
Without hesitation, she begins.
Adele Platt became aware early on there was something different – something uncommon – about her only child. It wasn't just that her delicate features and thick auburn hair made her stand out among her peers. It wasn't her quick intelligence, evident long before she began school, or her air of quiet reserve.
Despite her limited education, Adele was still astute enough to recognize that her daughter possessed a certain refinement that couldn't be explained by either blood or upbringing. And she was determined to protect and nurture this quality, sensing it was Esme's best hope for escaping their little logging town and the corrosive life that would inevitably follow if she failed.
How best to achieve this was unclear until one Sunday morning after the end of church services. While speaking with a fellow congregant in the empty sanctuary, she'd momentarily lost track of her five-year-old's whereabouts. A sprinkling of notes interrupted the conversation – without distinct melody, yet played with such surety she assumed an older child had escaped their notice and was making use of the piano behind the choir stalls.
Eventually the notes coalesced into something recognizable and were soon accompanied by a tentative line of lower harmony. Adele concluded her business, then called out, expecting her daughter to come running from the direction of the courtyard. Instead, there was an abrupt halt to the music, replaced by the surprising tread of her child's footsteps from the front of the church.
The Platt household was not a musical place. The vintage radio in the sitting room was rarely used, and then only for news broadcasts or the occasional baseball game. There was no piano passed down from generation to generation, nothing to suggest music had ever been of any consequence. Despite this, a seed was planted in Adele's mind as she regarded her daughter standing in front of her. This – this – could be Esme's salvation, her path to a better life.
While she knew nothing of music, she knew someone who did. There was no money for lessons, but that would not deter her. Neither would the objections of Mr. Platt, who saw little value in encouraging something he was sure would lead to nothing useful.
Bringing her considerable will to bear, she persevered, arranging a trade of services at first with the Forks Church pianist, and later with the most reputable teacher in Port Angeles. A further bartering of her time and domestic skills bought daily access to the church piano for practicing and lesson books of ever increasing difficulty.
And Esme excelled, immersing herself in her piano studies with single-minded intensity. Her fingers on the keys felt instantly familiar, the coordination between the bass and treble hands like breathing. As the music moved through her, it seeped down to the very marrow of her bones. She could imagine nothing better.
That her passion served to further set her apart from her peers did not trouble her mother. Adele turned the local children away from her doorstep with such regularity, they eventually stopped coming. By the time Esme was old enough to understand the importance of forging childhood alliances, she was already a permanent outsider. It was a gap she had no idea how to bridge, so didn't bother to try. Instead, she trusted her mother's assurance that she was meant for better things, and turned further inward.
Her devotion to music wasn't her only distinguishing characteristic. Unlike most children, she was acutely aware of her mother's efforts on her behalf, and the toll it had taken on her parents' marriage. One evening when she was twelve, she returned late from practice to find her father out and her mother hunched over the kitchen table, holding an ice pack to her bruised cheek.
"Is this because of me?" she'd asked, horrified.
Adele was quiet for a moment, before lifting her head and locking eyes with her distraught daughter. "You're better than this place, Es. Better than any of them. I'll do whatever I have to. This is a necessary sacrifice."
And Esme understood.
Two years later her mother watched proudly as she received a standing ovation after winning her first regional competition. Afterward, they were approached by a distinguished looking gentleman who introduced himself as Professor Rasmussen from the University of Washington School Of Music.
"Mrs. Platt, Esme shows amazing potential and is clearly gifted. But there's only so far she can go without more challenging instruction. I have mentored some of the finest pianists our state has produced. Would you consider allowing her to continue her studies under my tutelage? "
Adele's heart soared until she realized what he was proposing was impossible. Money was no easier to come by now than when Esme was young. Offering her domestic services in trade to someone living four hours away - even with her level of resourcefulness she didn't see how it could work.
As she began to demure, the man interrupted. "Apologies for not being clearer. Remuneration is not required. I would just very much like the opportunity to teach your daughter."
In her burst of gratitude, she missed the speculative way his eyes lingered on the girl.
As she hugged Esme close, she whispered, "This could be the answer to our prayers!"
Despite Adele's elation, Mr. Platt was less enthusiastic about entrusting his daughter to the care of strangers. From the safety of her bedroom, Esme listened as they argued, holding her breath as her mother's voice grew more strident.
"Alvin, be reasonable! It's only weekends. We can't say no."
"If he really wants to teach her, he can come here."
"That's not how it works!"
"Oh, and suddenly you're an expert on how things work?"
"I've gotten her to this point, no thanks to you. She has a real chance now. She can get out."
The last was delivered with such stinging bitterness, Esme knew it could not go unanswered. She waited for the inevitable sound of her father's retaliation, but instead heard only the slamming of the front door. That night he did not return.
In the morning, her mother assured her she would be allowed to study in Seattle.
Arrangements were made, and Adele dutifully drove her daughter every Friday evening to the ferry dock on Bainbridge Island. Esme would stay the weekend with the professor and his dour wife, her hours filled with the complexities of music theory and intensive private lessons on the couple's grand piano.
On those occasions Esme conquered a particularly difficult musical passage, the professor would reward her with dinner at one of the city's finer restaurants. One Friday she arrived to find an elegant blue dress hanging in the closet of the guest room. Instinctively, she understood it was for her to wear on their evenings out, and she worried she'd been an embarrassment to him in her usual clothes.
She didn't want to be an embarrassment – his approval meant the world.
Eight months into their arrangement, the professor's wife was called out of town to nurse a sick relative. That weekend he pushed her harder than he ever had, until she was exhausted and near tears with frustration. As she sat, arms folded and head down, his hands settled gently on her shoulders. He massaged her tense muscles, murmuring soft words of encouragement. When she finally began to relax, he brushed her hair aside and bent forward, placing little kisses on the back of her neck. His hands ran down her sides before wrapping around her waist.
The next weekend a new dress was hanging in the closet.
There was no doubt Esme's proficiency improved dramatically under the guidance of the professor. Her repertoire expanded to include Liszt, Chopin, and Prokofiev, and the summer she turned sixteen she was invited to play a solo recital at St. Mark's Cathedral.
If she appeared more drawn than usual, Adele attributed it to the rigors of balancing school and preparation for the upcoming performance. She wondered if it might be better for Esme to live and study full time in Seattle, away from the small minds and even smaller ambitions of the people around them. In truth, her real fear was more prosaic: that her daughter might finally develop an interest in boys and the focus she'd maintained all these years would be lost.
When Esme claimed illness two weekends in a row, insisting she was not up to attending her lessons, her mother began to worry in earnest. For the first time she sensed her daughter's dedication was beginning to waver and the possibility sent her into a panic. Under no circumstances could things be allowed to fall apart now - not when she was only two years away from college and the prospect of a permanent escape from Forks.
The third time her daughter tried to evade going to Seattle, Adele had had enough.
"You will not disrespect the professor and all he's done for you by canceling again."
"I'm not going back there. I hate him."
"How can you say that? Because of him, you'll almost certainly get a scholarship. All the time he's spent with you…he could have picked someone else, and then where would you be?"
"I wish it had been someone else. You don't know what it's like. You can't make me go back!"
Blind to the note of hysteria in her daughter's voice, Adele moved closer until they were standing eye to eye. "You will go back. I didn't work myself into the ground so you could blow it off when things got a little tough. This isn't just about you."
"Do you even care what I want? What if I don't want to do this anymore?"
"I didn't want to be seventeen and saddled with a kid. I didn't want to spend my life in this horrid town, living with your father. And I certainly didn't like doing what I had to do to make sure you had a real chance. But I did – I made those sacrifices for you. And you can goddamn do your part and make sure I haven't wasted my life!"
Esme recoiled as if she'd been slapped. Closing her eyes, she remembered her mother's bruises. She saw her, spent after a long day at work, coming home to a sink of dirty dishes and stacks of Mrs. Johnson's mending. She recalled rows of Mr. Ayala's freshly ironed shirts, and her mother icing her knees after scrubbing the rectory floor.
She understood what her mother had endured for her and why. It was her turn to make the necessary sacrifice.
Tearfully, she reached out. "I'm sorry. I won't disappoint you, no matter what."
And she didn't.
Everyone agreed Esme's performance at St. Mark's was nothing short of inspired. The Seattle Times music critic wrote a glowing review praising the depth and maturity of her playing. An overture was made by the director of the Seattle Symphony to discuss the possibility of Esme joining them as a youth soloist during the upcoming season. And the professor boasted to anyone who would listen about how he'd brilliantly guided his young student to her current level of accomplishment.
Throwing an avuncular arm around her shoulders, he'd declared, "After graduation, she'll continue her studies with me at the University. I have no doubt you're looking at the next Martha Argerich."
But Esme had no intention of attending the University of Washington. If her triumph at St Mark's had taught her anything it was that, for the first time, she had options. She quietly researched schools and scholarships, wrote essays and filled out admission forms. Six months later, she packed her favorite black skirt and white blouse and boarded a plane for Boston. When her acceptance letter arrived in early May, it was accompanied by an offer of a full-ride scholarship plus stipend.
The first thing she did was tell her overjoyed mother. Her second act was to make the phone call severing her association with the professor.
When she left for school, the totality of what she brought with her fit into one suitcase.
She sits bundled against the cold, barely breathing as she thinks about all that has led to this moment.
University has been everything she could have hoped for. Not only does she love her classes, but for the first time she's found herself surrounded by people who share the same drive and passion for music. Within weeks, she managed to do something she'd been unable to in all her years in Washington: make friends.
While careful never to let her studies suffer, she's permitted herself another first – boys. There's been no lack of handsome schoolmates vying for her attention. Somehow her natural reticence coupled with her genuine talent has transformed her in their eyes into someone worthy of pursuit. She wasn't savvy enough to understand that, for many males, a large part of the appeal lay in the novelty of the chase.
One night she'd allowed herself to be caught, only to have the boy refuse to acknowledge her the next time they met. The humiliation was sharp, but it would take more than that to break her.
The positive pregnancy test six weeks later nearly did.
For days she stayed in her dorm room, frantic with indecision. No matter how she shuffled her options, the end result was the same. She'd be forced to leave school. She'd lose her scholarship and her coveted slot in the highly competitive department. Everything she'd strived for could be lost.
She didn't want to think about what the news would do to her mother.
Eventually she worked up the courage to call home, but at the last minute could not bring herself to confess her predicament. Her shame. Hanging up the phone, she realized that in every way that mattered, she was on her own.
She would need to make one more necessary sacrifice.
Her name is called and she walks slowly to the front desk, handing the receptionist the clipboard with the required information. She's ushered to a treatment room and handed a gown, but hesitates before finally slipping out of her clothes.
This decision will determine the course of her life.
A/N – A great big thank you to the people who kindly read over the various drafts: Alla, Ro, Xtothey, Wendy, Nicole, and Michele. Your patience and time is very much appreciated!