I should be unpacking. I know I should. The boxes have been stacked in the corner of my room for two weeks, their cardboard flaps sealed tight with packing tape I pasted on less than a month ago. My mom has been giving me gentle reminders for a while now, but I pretend I don’t recognize them. It’s easy enough.
And besides, I’ve unpacked the only thing I really need. The guitar rests in the crook of my arm, the urethane coating reflecting a distorted version of the fluorescent light above my bed.
I strum a chord. It rings through the room, echoing against the walls and thrumming in my ears. I pick out a new riff, one I made up just last night, and play with it, experimenting with different chords and adding flourishes. Under the hum of the music, I can just make out my mom moving around in the room opposite to mine; the pattering of her slippers, the water running in the sink, the clinking of lotions and crèmes and whatever else she uses to hide the wrinkles that have appeared on her face in the last several months.
I flip open my songbook, and my eyes flicker across the page.
Where do the ghosts come from?
I could tell you, I swear,
But my head’s not the same,
And the rules to this game,
Weren’t written to be fair.
There’s a timid knock on my door.
My mom’s head appears, wet locks of hair hanging limply around her face. “I’m headed to bed. Do you think you could keep it down for a little while?”
I nod. She smiles wanly and disappears, being careful to shut the door so it doesn’t slam. It’s her plea; maybe tonight she’ll get a good night’s sleep. It’s not always me that keeps her awake. I don’t really know what it is, I guess, but then again I’m an insensitive, reckless teenager. I don’t have to care about people’s feelings.
But tonight, I’m tired. It’s Sunday, and the evening weighs heavy on my shoulders, reminding me that tomorrow I’ll have to drag myself out of bed and force some food down my throat, before being shipped off to school. I could not go. I could make an appearance in my first period class and then disappear for the rest of the day. But that’s the one line I’ve kept myself from crossing. For my mom.
I lean my guitar against the wall, then stand up from the edge of the bed. In the bathroom—which is barely wide enough for my full arm span—I brush my teeth and run a comb through my matt of dark hair. It’s getting long, almost so it touches my shoulders. I’ll have to cut it soon.
I throw on an old, oversized tee shirt, and am about to crawl into bed when my cell phone buzzes on my nightstand. Caller ID informs me that it’s my dad. I don’t want to answer. But I do.
“Magnolia? How are you?”
“Tired,” I reply in a monotone. I pull back a corner of the duvet and climb in, nestling into the blankets.
“I know it’s late,” he says. His voice sounds disconnected, and I can hear the clicking of a keyboard in the background. I’m on speakerphone. Another chore to be completed halfheartedly, so he can go to bed with a good conscience. “I just wanted to talk to you. See how it’s going.”
“Where’s your mother?”
“Ah, well.” He always calls when he knows my mom will be asleep. And on the rare occasion he doesn’t, he never brings her up.
“Listen, Dad, I should probably go to bed.”
There’s a pause, filled only by the rhythmic tapping of the keyboard. Finally, “Hang in there, Mags. Things are still sorting themselves out. It’s a slow process.”
“All right. Just making sure. Have a good night, now.”
He ends the call before I do, leaving me with the disconnected tone. I shut off my phone and then toss it across the room. Not angrily. I don’t have enough energy to be angry.
I turn off the light and roll over to face the wall. I manage to fall asleep before my thoughts catch up to me.
Breakfast is a quiet affair, as usual. I eat my bagel, my mom her solitary piece of toast. The kitchen here is so much smaller, but the windows let in more light. My mom always used to say she wished our kitchen were lighter. I guess she got her wish.
“How did you sleep?” she asks, taking a long sip of her tea.
She doesn’t wait for me to ask her about her night; she knows I won’t. “So did I. Compared to other nights, at least.”
I pick up my plate and bring it to the sink. “I’m staying after school today. To practice.”
She traces the rim of her mug with her thumb. “Do you have money for the bus?”
“Don’t stay too late, okay?”
I nod. I wonder if all mothers are too afraid not to phrase orders as questions.
The practice room is dimly lit, with cement walls that vaguely resemble those of a jail cell. It’s funny the places we find solace, whether it be a peaceful forest clearing or a claustrophobic room in the basement of a high school.
For me, it’s the latter.
I lift my guitar out of its case and seat myself in the hard, plastic chair. I close my eyes and let the music take control of me, my fingers contorting on the fretboard, seemingly against my will. I can’t play in my room at home like I can here. At home, all I can think about is my mom tiptoeing past my door, trying her hardest not to disturb me, to let me play as loud as I want in the hopes that it will make up for everything she feels she’s put me through. Here, though, I know nobody is listening. Nobody cares what I do. And strangely, that’s what I need.
I’ve only been practicing for a half hour or so, when the band teacher, Mr. Kinner, interrupts me.
“Magnolia?” He pushes open the door, and I quickly cover the strings with my hand, muting the sound.
“Listen, I know I promised you an hour and a half of practice time today, but I’m in a bit of a crisis.” He sucks in his teeth and gives me a hopeful look. I already don’t like this so-called “crisis.”
“I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but every Monday we have a group of fourth-graders bussed over from the elementary school for an afternoon guitar class in the band room. Unfortunately, their instructor is MIA at the moment, so we have twenty nine-year-olds with guitars waiting impatiently for someone who may possibly never show up. Do you think there’s any chance you could just hang out with them for a while, at least until we get the situation under control?”
“Um.” No. There’s no way.
“I would do it, but I have a meeting in ten minutes. You don’t have to teach them anything, just make sure there are no problems.”
“I guess,” I mumble.
“Oh, thank god.” He rubs his forehead wearily, then turns and begins to stride down the hallway. I follow behind, carrying my guitar by the neck and trying not to feel too much resentment.
The kids don’t seem to notice my presence. They’re too busy playing Rock-Paper-Scissors and giggling behind the metal music stands to pay any attention to the dark-haired teenager sulking in the corner.
I try to pick out a song, but the chattering of twenty high-pitched voices breaks my concentration. I sigh and slouch down in my chair. Perfect.
“Who are you?”
My head snaps to my left. A girl has materialized beside me, her wide brown eyes staring, unwavering, into mine.
“Where’s Ms. Delilah?” she asks before I can provide her with an answer. Her voice is high and nasally. I wonder if I sounded this annoying when I was nine.
“I don’t know. Sorry.”
She points to my guitar. “Do you know how to play?”
I look down at the instrument in my hands. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Me too. But not very well.” She hesitates, her face contemplative. “Can you teach me?”
“I’m not really a teacher,” I try to explain. “I’m just supposed to watch you until someone finds your instructor.”
“That’s okay.” She grabs a chair and drags it over, then sits down opposite to me and picks up her guitar. It’s a half-size, but it looks awkwardly large against her petite frame. She’s small, even for a fourth grader. A late bloomer. Kind of like me.
She strums across the open strings. “I know the C chord and the Em and I’m trying to learn the G but my hands aren’t big enough.” She flexes her fingers and frowns, then looks up at me. “Can you teach me some more chords? Ms. Delilah said we were going to learn F today.”
I glance at the rest of the class. No one appears to care that their teacher has pulled a no-show, and they seem to have occupied themselves. There’s really no excuse for me not to help this girl.
“Here.” I reach out and gently take her hand. She doesn’t flinch as I guide her fingers to the neck of her guitar. “This is a sort of modified version of the F chord. For people with small hands.”
She nods, her bottom lip protruding in concentration. “That’s still hard, but it’s better.” She sits a little straighter in her chair. “Now help me with G.”
For the next hour, I show her all the chords I know, and she attempts to replicate them. Her curiosity seems to have no limit; I can’t remember being this engaged when I was her age. I’ve always been the girl in the back of the room, who would never approach a stranger to ask for so much as the time, much less a guitar lesson. Maybe if I could, I’d have some real friends.
Parents start showing up around 4:30, hustling their kids into their coats and out the door, making sure to cast an uncertain glance my way in the process. I’m in the middle of teaching the girl an Am chord, when she abruptly ceases playing and rises to her feet.
“My mom’s here,” she informs me.
She sticks out a hand for me to shake, and I grasp it hesitantly. “My name’s Jessie.”
“Magnolia.” It’s funny; this whole time I didn’t pause to wonder her name.
“That’s pretty. See you next week.”
“Oh, I don’t think….” I don’t finish my sentence. She’s already running towards her mother.
Her jacket hanging on the coat tree tells me my mom is home from work. I carry my guitar, locked in its hard black case, up the stairs and down the hall, pausing at the door to my mom’s room. It’s closed, but I can detect movement behind it: the rustling of book pages, the crinkling of the comforter. I consider knocking, to alert her to my arrival. I decide against it.
My dad doesn’t call tonight. I can’t say I’m disappointed.
The week drags on, the days a blur of empty phone calls and hesitant conversations, and soon enough Monday has come around again. When the final bell rings, I hurry down to the basement of the school and retreat into the practice room. Mr. Kinner lets me keep my guitar in the room during the school day, and it’s leaning against the wall when I arrive, waiting for me.
I sit down and ease the instrument into my arms, feeling my muscles relax. The music flows out of me, taking the stress of the day with it.
Rap, rap, rap.
I freeze, letting the chord fade out, and glance towards the door.
Rap, rap, rap. The knocking comes again, and this time the muffled sound of a high voice accompanies it.
“Can I come in?”
I purse my lips. “Yes.”
The door opens slowly, and Jessie steps into the room, a guitar wrapped clumsily in her arms.
“Hi, Magnolia. I thought you were in here.”
“How could you know that?” I ask, my voice sharper than necessary.
Her eyes widen. “I heard music when I was coming back from the bathroom. So I got my guitar…. I thought maybe you could teach me again.”
“Won’t your teacher be mad?”
“She won’t notice. She never even takes attendance,” she informs me, shifting on her feet. Her face is brimming with hope, the kind that flows out of little kids like water.
I hesitate. Finally I nod to the chair in the corner. “Okay.”
She wriggles into the chair, her face splitting into a grin. “Today,” she announces, “I want to learn the D chord.”
I’m aware of my practice time draining slowly away, as I demonstrate the chord for her. But she’s so eager to learn, so proud of herself whenever she masters a chord—I can’t tell her to leave. She reminds me a little of myself at her age, when my love of the instrument was new and exciting.
She’s in the middle of strumming a riff I’ve showed her when she pauses and cocks her head to look up at me.
“Who taught you to play guitar, Magnolia?”
My eyes shift to the floor. “My dad.”
“Does he still teach you?” She swings her feet, the tips of her toes barely brushing the floor.
“No. He hasn’t had time in a while,” I explain, hoping she’ll accept my answer and move past the subject.
“Um.” I swallow. “My parents just got divorced. I don’t live with him anymore.”
“Oh.” She gnaws on a fingernail, sensing she’s breached a touchy subject. “So they don’t love each other?”
“No. I guess not.”
“But they still love you. At least you make them happy.”
She offers me a little smile, and my throat goes dry. “Hey,” I say quickly, “keep practicing that riff, okay?”
Her attention diverts easily. I focus on teaching her, trying not to think about her words. Finally I glance at my watch and announce, “You should head back. Your mom is going to come soon.”
She nods, sliding off the chair. “Can I come back next week?”
I bite my lip, but the answer comes surprisingly easy. “Sure.”
My mom is in the kitchen when I arrive home, sipping a mug of tea and staring out the window, where a gentle snowfall has begun. Her hair is tied back in a loose bun, a stray lock curling around her ear.
She turns from the window to address me. “Afternoon, Mags.”
I lean my guitar case against the wall and sit down at the table, reaching for an apple from the fruit bowl in the center. My eyes catch a newspaper clipping lying beside it, the words “Blakk Katt” screaming out at me in bold lettering. Below it reads, “Monday night, 8pm, ArtSpace.”
I glance up at my mom, my eyes questioning.
“It came in the paper this morning,” she explains, smiling half-heartedly. “I thought you might want to go.”
Blakk Catt is my favorite local band. I’ve always wanted to see one of their concerts, but I’ve never had the chance.
“It’s a school night,” I say, rolling the apple around in my hands.
“Yes, well.” She bobs her teabag in her mug. “I know how much you like them. You should go, if it makes you happy.”
But they still love you.
I pick up the clipping and stare at the photo of the lead guitarist, head bowed as she performs for a roaring crowd. Then I look up at my mom. Her head is also bowed, but for different reasons.
At least you make them happy.
I turn over the paper, leaving a smear of ink on my fingers. The opposite side displays the movie listings in the local theatres. My eyes catch today’s date; I hesitate, an idea creeping into my mind.
“Maybe…we could do something else?”
Her chin lifts, her expression becoming quizzical. “Something else?”
“We could go to a movie?” I suggest, holding up the clipping. My heart has begun beating rapidly, for reasons I’m not quite sure of.
Her look of surprise makes my chest tighten. How long has it been since my mom and I did anything to connect? How long has it been since I resorted to my guitar for comfort, since she gave me all the space I could need and waited for me to come back to her? I wanted to distance myself, and she let me, because all she ever wanted was for me to be happy.
But what about her own happiness?
The corners of her lips turn up. She reaches across the table; I hold out the clipping, but she takes my hand instead. Her fingers fold easily into mine, the way they used to, before.
“That sounds good. What movie were you thinking of?”
“All right. Go get your coat, and I’ll meet you at the door.”
As I head upstairs, my phone vibrates in my pocket. I pull it out and glance at the screen; it’s a text from my dad.
How are you?
On any normal day, I wouldn’t reply. But today, something urges me to type back.
I slip my phone back in my jeans, grab my coat, and hurry to the door. I glance out the window. My mom is standing outside on the sidewalk, her hands in her jacket pockets, a small smile on her face.
People are so much more beautiful when they smile.