I can’t believe I wrote this short story nearly two years, at the start of the pandemic. It feels appropriate after the passing this week of my own Grandmother, a wonderful pianist/author to the end.
Pauline, a senior piano major at Belton University, nearly lives at the music school as she prepares for her capstone recital. Her boyfriend Trenton, a jazz trumpet player, convinces her to perform an insane duet with him for the final number. While they dedicate themselves to rehearsals, the Coronavirus sweeps the globe. The worldwide pandemic jeopardizes everything Pauline holds dear, including her recital, family, and romantic relationship. How will she adapt to this devastating twist her senior year?
Don’t forget to check out the Music Playlist for this story!
Pauline brushed a mass of curls away from her face as she watched the February snow swirl outside the window of the cramped practice room. The baby grand piano filled every inch of the limited space.
When she took a deep breath, she choked from the musty wood smell. If only the staff at Belton University would clean these rooms once in a while. She sighed. Nothing to do about that now.
Her senior recital, the capstone of her collegiate career, loomed only a month away. As a result, Pauline practically lived in this room. Might as well set up a cot and move in. What if she failed to perform the hour-long program well enough to graduate? And now her teacher insisted that Pauline add another piece. How could she possibly prepare it in time?
Her hands flitted over the ivory keys as she played the opening of Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No. 1. The first, halting notes filled the room with an eerie sense of foreboding. Pauline shuddered. What possessed her to choose such a difficult work in the first place? A battle of nerves raged inside when she pounded through the fast passages. As her fingers flew over the keys, she succumbed to the magic of the music. The tension in her neck lessoned as the beautiful strains filled the room. The music pushed away all thoughts of the deadly virus which had already spread its vicious tentacles through China had infected Europe as well. The muscles in her stomach tightened. Nana. Her grandmother had travelled to Italy a few days ago to perform a concert. Hopefully the illness wouldn’t affect her travel.
Time to focus. Pauline’s hands swirled over the keys like the Midwestern blizzard raging outside. Her tendons ached from so many hours of practice, but she couldn’t give up now, not with graduation on the line.
The door banged open, and a trumpet blast shredded the air.
“Trenton, you scared me.” She gasped. “I was in the middle of the Rachmaninov.”
A mischievous grin spread across Trenton’s dark, handsome face. Her boyfriend set his trumpet on the lone chair and moved to the piano. A shiver tingled down her spine as his strong, muscular arms slid around her waist. For a moment, all thoughts of the recital melted away as she leaned back against his firm chest.
He ran a hand through her curls and massaged her head. “You sound awesome. Why don’t you take a break?”
She spun around on the bench to face him. “Are you serious? My professor insisted I add another song to the program—the Chopin Waltz wasn’t ‘modern’ enough for my finale.”
He shrugged. “Throw in a jazz number like I did for mine.”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t think Professor Piano Queen will consider jazz an acceptable alternative.”
“All right. Play a duet with me.”
Pauline pursed her lips. “Be serious. We’d never get anything done.” He drew her closer, but she pushed him away.
He raised an eyebrow. “I am serious. I’d love to play with you.” He drew her to him again.
How could she resist those pleading, chestnut eyes? “Do you have a song in mind?”
“Yep.” He sprang to the door and yanked it open. “Be right back.”
Surely he wouldn’t suggest one of their pieces from the Jazz Ensemble. Heat crept into her cheeks at the thought of their first rehearsal together last year. She’d joined the group at the last minute because their pianist underwent carpal tunnel surgery three days before the Valentine’s Day concert.
That night, Pauline lost her place when Trenton crooned the solo “My Funny Valentine” on his trumpet. The pure, clear tone of his instrument combined with his innovative improv skills mesmerized her.
“You play like a suburban princess,” he told her after the rehearsal. “Give it more swing.”
“I’m a classical pianist,” she laughed. “Not a flapper girl.”
“No worries.” He winked. “I’ll teach you. It’s time you prepare for the upcoming era, the roaring 2020s.”
Pauline giggled at the memory. Now, a year later, she and Trenton were still dating, taking on the new decade together.
He burst through the door again, a score in hand. “Here.” He plopped the music onto the piano.
Pauline’s breath caught in her throat. The title, Sonata for Piano and Trumpet by Hindemith, glared at her from the page. She shook her head. “No. We’ll never prepare it in time. I didn’t even know he wrote a piece for piano and trumpet. It’ll be too dissonant.”
“Come on, Pauline.” He rubbed her back. “Your teacher wants modern music. A twentieth-century German composer fits the bill, unless she meant contemporary.”
Pauline sighed. “All right, let’s give it a try.” She traced his stubbled chin with her forefinger. “But be warned, my graduation rides on this last piece.”
He caught her hand in his and held her gaze. “I know. But we can do it together. I promise.”
Dear God, I hope he’s right.
Pauline hung her coat on the peg next to the front door of her apartment. The scent of pizza and brownies wafted through the air. How delicious. Her roommates must’ve made dinner. She glanced at her watch. Eleven o’clock. No wonder she was hungry. She hurried to the kitchen and rummaged for the half-eaten pan of brownies, cut off a square, and headed to her room.
Her bed, covered in a light purple comforter and several throw pillows, called to her. She flopped down and hugged a pillow to her chest. The cozy room exuded comfort—a place to escape the pressures of the practice room. Pictures of her family and friends adorned her desk.
The rehearsal with Trenton, although rough, went better than she’d expected. The difficult piece would require extra practice, but Trenton seemed eager for the challenge. Either that, or he wanted time with her. These past few weeks she’d been so busy with rehearsal, they hadn’t had much romance.
He’d been busy, too, preparing for his senior recital. But he’d always found time for dates—early mornings before class, late nights at the coffee shop after practice. What would happen to their relationship after graduation? Would he propose? Or would they go their separate ways? She winced at the thought. She’d grown used to his encouragement, his perpetual smile, his touch. Her heartbeat quickened. If he planned to propose, he was running out of time. Graduate music schools expected her response by April.
Her phone chimed an alert as “Nana” flashed on the screen. Why would she call so late? Oh right, it was already morning in Italy. Thank goodness for free, long-distance.
“Buongiorno, my dear,” Nana’s voice trilled. “Did I call too late?”
“Of course not.” Pauline snuggled under the covers, still wearing her clothes.
The connection crackled. “How are you?” Nana asked.
“Busy. I spend all my time at the music school.” Pauline twisted her hands in her lap.
“Ah yes. You’re preparing for your recital. What is your repertoire?”
Pauline tightened her grip on the pillow. “Mozart, Rachmaninov, and Hindemith.”
“How ambitious,” Nana said in a cheerful manner. “I’m sure you’ll be fabulous.”
“I hope so,” Pauline said as she stroked the soft folds of the comforter. “You’ll be back by then, won’t you?”
“Nana, are you there?” A twinge of worry clawed at the back of Pauline’s mind.
“Yes, dear. I’m here. But this is why I called. Italy has closed its borders.”
Pauline froze. “Nana, you can’t be serious. Why?”
“The Coronavirus has spread throughout the country. Many people have already died, and more do so every day.”
Pauline blinked several times. How was this possible? “But Nana, I’m sure they’ll let you go, won’t they? When is your concert?”
“Cancelled. All concerts, public events, and large gatherings are prohibited.”
Fear gripped Pauline like an iron fist. How could the government cancel all public events in an entire country? What if Nana couldn’t leave?
“Nana, come back. Do whatever you need in order to return home. I can’t play this recital without you.”
Nana groaned. “I’ll try, dear, but I can’t make any promises. They may allow some flights for repatriation. We can pray.”
Pauline stifled a sob. “I will.”
Two weeks later, Pauline trudged down the narrow hallway to the practice rooms, the past several days a blur. She couldn’t wrap her mind around all that had happened. Although she and Trenton practiced together two hours each day, the Hindemith Sonata didn’t reach her high level of expectation.
She cringed as she turned the doorknob to the practice room. How many people had touched this handle today? What kind of germs lived on it? In the past, she’d never worried about such matters. But news that the Coronavirus had spread to the American Midwest plunged the entire university into a panic. Students carried antibacterial hand gel in their instrument cases. Teachers set up soap dispensers in classrooms.
A rumor spread that they’d gain an extra week of spring break to let the virus pass. An additional week of practice before her recital might be useful. But when would the panic stop? And what about Nana?
A few days ago, the airlines granted her grandmother a flight back to the United States. However, the seventy-year-old was placed under quarantine upon arrival. What if she couldn’t attend Pauline’s recital? Worse, what if she’d contracted the virus? A queasy feeling of uneasiness stole over Pauline.
Inside, the smell of body odor mixed with antique wood and dust nearly overpowered her and caused her to gag.
“Are you all right?” Trenton’s deep voice echoed behind her.
She spun to face him and flung her arms around his neck. “I’m scared. It seems the whole world has fallen to pieces.” She breathed in the scent of his rich cologne, woodsy mixed with spice. “The university might close for a couple of weeks, the stores are out of toilet paper, and Nana’s in quarantine. I don’t know what to think.”
As Trenton rubbed her shoulders, the tension in her arms eased. “It’ll be ok. We have each other, and that’s what counts. Besides, you can always use leaves.”
She drew back. “What?”
“Leaves. For toilet paper.” His impish grin returned.
“We all are these days.” He squatted next to his trumpet case and retrieved his instrument. After wetting his lips, he held the metal to his mouth.
Pauline moved to the piano. “Ready?”
This time, they performed the piece in perfect synchronization. She anticipated his every move, and he kept time with her. As she pounded the powerful chords, the dissonance she once considered jarring now gave vent to her feelings about the uncertainty of the times. In an odd, undescribable way, the music was the conduit to her voice lost in the chaos of a crumbling world.
She poured her soul into the keys, playing each note with added emotion. When they approached the climax, her heartbeat quickened. Beads of sweat trickled down Trenton’s temples. Their eyes met. For a second, she forgot about the moment and relished the comfort of his gaze. He nodded, and they finished the final chord together with a flourish.
Several seconds of pause ensued. Heat spread to her cheeks from the exhileration of the performance. Finally, Trenton set his trumpet on the piano, his breathing heavy. “We… made…it,” he panted.
She dropped her gaze, willing her adrenaline to subside. “Yes. Perfect performance.”
“Pauline,” he hesitated, then slid next to her on the bench, “I wondered…”
“Yes?” She lifted her eyes to his.
The door banged open. A Wind Ensemble player stood there, clarinet in hand. “They’ve closed the school.”
Trenton jumped up. “For an extra week?”
The clarinetist’s eyes clouded as he shook his head. “No. For the rest of the school year.”
Pauline slumped on the plush couch in her parents’ living room. Pictures Dad took on his worldwide travels as a professional photographer adorned the walls—Tower Bridge in London, the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
A sigh escaped her lips. In the short week she’d been home, every country had sealed its borders. Who knew if she’d ever visit those exotic places Dad loved so much.
Belton University had issued an emergency order to send everyone home right away. They didn’t want students to contract the virus from living and studying in close quarters.
She’d barely found time to pack, let alone say goodbye to her friends. And Trenton… Her heart cried in protest. He’d returned to his parents’ home on the East Coast. Tears wet the corners of her eyes. Who knew when they’d see each other again?
At least they talked every day. Yesterday they’d gone on a virtual date to a zoo that hosted live field trips. She’d enjoyed it but missed his calm presence and reassuring embrace.
And what about her recital? How ridiculous to worry about something so trivial in light of the global crisis. But she’d worked hard to master every nuance of those beautiful works, and for what? To have the notes die along with her dreams of the future? She buried her face in her hands as sobs overtook her.
Minutes later, she wiped her eyes and moved to Mom’s baby grand by the bay window. She hadn’t practiced in days, but maybe now was the time. Pauline took a deep breath and played the ivories. The first strains of Chopin’s Waltz in c# minor filled the living room, the minor key reflecting her dismal mood. Rich tones struck a chord deep within her that unleashed the fear she’d pent up for days. The music reflected her grief about the loss of her senior year, the end of an era. She closed her eyes as her fingers danced over the keyboard—unlike her—free to roam wherever they pleased.
A hand brushed her arm. She turned to see Mom whose tears streamed down her gentle face.
An icy chill stole through Pauline. “What’s wrong? Is it Nana?”
Mom nodded as she struggled to stifle sobs. “Nana has a confirmed case of Coronavirus. She’s in the local hospital for breathing treatment.” Mom collapsed on the bench. “The virus is worse for senior citizens. I hope she can survive.”
Pauline enveloped Mom in her arms. Dear God, please let Nana live.
A week later, now mid-March, the satin material of Pauline’s white concert dress swished at her sides as she stepped up to the baby grand in her parents’ living room. How different she’d imagined this day—the recital hall at the music school filled with her professors, family, and friends— Trenton. And Nana. A tear threatened to fall. Keep it together. Power through. For Nana.
Dad, who’d promised to send the recording to her professor as credit for graduation, situated his video camera on a tripod. How anticlimactic.
Mom smiled as she propped a computer on the coffee table. The previous day, she’d insisted Pauline conduct a live, virtual recital online.
“No one wants to watch an hour-long classical piano performance on a phone,” Pauline protested.
“People crave hope in periods of uncertainty,” Mom said. “During this time of limited physical contact, your sweet ivory touch might offer comfort to those in isolation.”
Maybe Mom was right. Maybe this was her contribution to a world in pain.
She adjusted her skirt and drew a deep breath. Dear God, let this music soothe the pain and suffering we face in the world today. Amen.
Dad gave her a “thumbs up” behind the camera. Time to start.
The gentle, familiar notes of Mozart’s Sonata No. 11 rang through the room, calming her nerves. The tension in her hands loosened as the nostalgic theme filled her with thoughts of a more peaceful time.
The many hours of practice on the Rachmaninov paid off as her fingers flew over the keys. After its conclusion, she paused for a moment. The next song should have been her duet with Trenton. If only he were here with her. Instead of the Hindemith, she’d substituted the Chopin Waltz. She raised her hands—
The sound of Trumpet Voluntary blasted from the entryway. Pauline glanced at the door where Trenton stood poised in a black tux, trumpet pressed to his lips. She jumped to her feet and ran to him.
“Hold on, I haven’t finished my solo yet.” He laughed.
“I’ve heard it before.” She giggled as she threw her arms around his neck. “How’d you get here? I thought people were required to stay home with their families.”
A wide grin spread across his face. “That’s why I’m here.” He dropped to one knee. “To ask you to be my family, during this quarantine, and for the rest of our lives.” He pulled a tiny box from his pocket. “Pauline, will you marry me?”
Electricity sparked through her arm as he slipped the diamond ring on her finger.
A fountain of emotion bubbled up from somewhere deep inside. She wouldn’t have to face this scary world alone. “Yes, yes!”
He pulled her in for a kiss, and she tightened the embrace, savoring the moment and the taste of his lips.
When they broke apart several glorious moments later, a loud cheer erupted from the computer. Mom flipped it around to reveal the audience as they applauded the couple.
“Mom, you knew,” Pauline gasped as she knelt in front of the computer. The sight of her college roommates, piano professor, friends from the university, and Nana took her breath away.
Pauline’s heart leapt. “Nana, how did you manage to watch this?”
A nurse in a crisp white uniform replied. “Easy. Your grandma insisted you were playing a recital she couldn’t miss, so we connected the TVs to your link. The whole hospital watched you perform. Bravo! You’ve been an inspiration to us all.”
By now, tears streamed freely down Pauline’s cheeks. “Thanks. It’s the least I could do.”
The nurse arched an eyebrow. “Now Nana wants to meet this fiancé of yours—make sure he’s good enough for her girl.”
Trenton popped onto the screen. “I assure you, I’m not.” He laughed. “But I’ll do my best to take care of your granddaughter.”
Nana’s eyes sprakled as she nodded.
“Should we finish with our duet?” Trenton gave Pauline’s hand a squeeze.
She met his gaze as she strode to the piano. “Do you think we can do this?”
He raised his trumpet. “Absolutely. We’re in this together.”
Musical References in this story:
Piano Sonata No. 1, by Rachmoninov
Sonata for Piano and Trumpet, by Hindemith
Waltz in c# minor, by Chopin
Sonata No. 11, by Mozart
Trumpet Voluntary, by Clarke