Illustration by Claire Xu
Claire Xu is a freshman at Gunn High School and lives in Palo Alto. A lover of music, she can often be found with headphones on and enjoys playing piano and cello. Besides writing, Claire devotes much time to Gunn Business as an officer and competitor. She also is a member of the Green Team. Claire said her inspiration for this story came from numerous COVID-19-related stories that she found moving and worth sharing: The incident of an Asian student in London who was beaten up during a racially aggravated assault made her deeply upset; an image shared on the Gunn Cares Facebook group of an elderly woman shopping alone in a nearly empty store filled her with sorrow. The videos of people singing and playing music together on their balconies, however, gave her hope.
"I brought all of these elements together, not only to shine a light on certain issues, but to commemorate acts of compassion. I wanted to honor the people who were still finding ways to be happy and help others, even through hardships."
This is a wonderful story. It has currency, figurative language, interesting characters, empathy and good surprises — A vivid memory shifts to an immediate social conflict, to a hopeful ending.
The sun cast streaks of vermillion and gold onto my desk as it dipped behind the apartment buildings. Sighing, I looked out the window at the faded structures, gray and worn from being lived in for decades. They were, in reality, quite hideous buildings; but at sunset, they seemed to come alive again and regain the colors they had lost all those years ago.
I reached out and watched as the light danced between my fingers. I was like those apartment buildings, always pallid and out of breath — it was as if spending so much time behind their ashen walls had made me a part of them. Only when the sun began its descent did I become more than what people thought I was: a sick child who rarely went outside.
I grabbed my violin and went to my balcony as the sound of an accordion filled the air. Gazing across the alley, I saw him standing on his balcony hunched over, the instrument pressed tightly against his chest. His typically nimble fingers were lingering on the keys, mindless drawing out random notes as if he didn't want to move onto the next one. It was strange to see him so dejected while playing music, for he used to always have a jovial grin on his face while performing ... but this time, it never came.
Neither did the flourish he always made with his cap before he started a piece, nor the neighbors and their usual greetings of "Ah, Frédéric, it's you!" or "I was waiting all afternoon to hear you play!" That evening, the air was eerily quiet as the last notes faded into the distant murmurs of the nearby streets. I could feel that something was off, and my fingers twitched on the fingerboard of my violin, itching to make a sound. But as Frédéric lifted his accordion and tilted his head to the sky, I let out a sigh of relief. I knew he was most likely gazing at its myriad of colors, marveling at its beauty like I did when I opened the window while Ma wasn't looking. He probably just had a rough day, nothing more.
How wrong I was.
The sun had fallen behind the apartments, leaving dark shadows where the vibrant hues of red and yellow once were. Then, as melancholy notes began to fill the air, the smile on my face vanished, too. This music was unlike anything I had ever heard him play, and it frightened me as the sorrowful melody grew and swelled, becoming louder and louder. It swept across the alley and reached for me longingly while I sat there in a daze, trying to understand what was going on.
Then, I realized there was no one playing the tambourine beside him either.
That was one of the last few times Frédéric played on the balcony. I would still go out every evening before dusk, hoping to hear the cheerful drawl of his accordion, and sometimes I was lucky. But a few years ago, either because the neighbors asked him to not play disheartening pieces or because of his own reasons, Frédéric stopped performing on his balcony. Then I forgot about sunsets all together.
I was met with the curt shouts of customers and the metallic clings of carts as I walked into Safeway. The shelves were so empty it seemed like they were the ones for sale; yet, the store was still full of people rushing about, clamoring to grab the last few available items. I watched as they pushed and shoved, as voices were raised and heavy bottles of cleaning supplies were knocked from the shelves. It was its own cacophonous symphony, but distant sounds made me feel at ease. As long as it wasn't completely silent it was tolerable.
I pulled out the list of groceries Ma had stuck to our refrigerator. 酱油 (soy sauce), 醋 (vinegar), the scribbled words read. 蚝油 (oyster sauce), 葱 (green onion), 蒜 (garlic).
A figure bumped past me as I read it, knocking it out of my hands. The flimsy paper fluttered just out of reach as my fingers snatched for it, grabbing at the air. But before I could catch it, something flashed in front of me and crushed my list. I looked up to see a stranger about my age towering over me, his pale face eclipsed by the harsh fluorescent lights overhead.
"Watch where you're going," he growled, and as he saw my face he added, "I don't want you bringing your stupid Chinese virus to the United States. Let it stay where it is."
"It's called the novel coronavirus," I retorted between gritted teeth. "Give me back my list!"
The corners of his lips curled upward into a sneer as he took the paper from under his shoe. "Oh, Miss Know-It-All, this was a list? Sorry, I couldn''t tell because of the huge stain on it. Oh wait, that's because I stepped on it. What a shame. "He held it to his face, his eyes narrowing as he tried to read it. From the back of the paper, the curve of his patchy shoe print almost looked like a deep scowl, glaring down at me.
"Give it back!"
To my surprise, he dropped it.
"Ew, this probably has coronavirus, too. Fine, have it. But go back to where you came from. No one wants your virus, and no one cares about your dumb list."
With that, he turned the corner and was gone.
I didn't get to see him leave. In the midst of my rage, the world began flickering in and out of focus as my lungs suddenly refused to take in air. It felt like they were filling up with water, as if there was something heavy sitting on my chest. My arms flailed desperately in the darkness for something to lean on, and it found the ledge of a shelf as I pressed my hand against my mask and began coughing violently into it.
Breathe. Just breathe.
Somehow above the raucous I was making, I could still hear murmuring and the shuffling of feet.
They think I have it, don't they?
I could tell people were trying to get away from me. As I looked up, mothers ushered their children away while younger shoppers frowned at me. A worker, who was putting up new bottles of hand sanitizer, hastened her pace before scurrying away. The entire aisle was deserted by the time my breathing returned to normal, and it was blurred from my tears as I blinked over and over. My coughing was one thing, but the fact that all of them assumed I had the coronavirus, without even caring to know I had been dealing cystic fibrosis all my life.
Ma's list faded in and out of focus. ... right, I was here to buy groceries.
'Where is it?'
I turned around in surprise and saw an old man at the end of the aisle, standing abnormally close to the shelves. He was squinting at the products from beneath his marron flat cap, trying to read what they were. I watched him fumble to find something — most likely his glasses — as he patted down his pockets, but that only led to him dropping the two boxes of cereal he was holding. They ended up sliding across the tiled floor before stopping near my feet.
"Where is it?" he repeated under his breath as he shuffled toward them. "I wish Elise was here. She would know where things were ..."
He stopped and stared at the boxes on the floor, his breath coming out in short gasps. For a second I saw myself in him — someone who could never do much before they were out of breath, someone who struggled to navigate a store to complete the mundane task of buying groceries — was he just as misunderstood as I was? Did he feel the same overwhelming sense of fear I did?
I reached down and picked them up. "Sir, what were you looking for?"
There was no fear or hatred in his eyes when he turned around and saw me. Instead, he just grinned and tipped his hat with a sweep of his hand. It was a familiar gesture; yet, I couldn't pinpoint where exactly I had seen it.
"Why, thank you! I was actually looking for toilet paper." He glanced at the shelves with a defeated look on his face. "Seems like they ran out of those for the third time this week. What is the deal with people and toilet paper anyway? It's not like you can eat it."
I laughed. Although I was slightly taken aback by his cheerful mood, at the same time, I was relieved that someone didn't want to run away when they saw me. The fact that he didn't immediately leave even though I just had a coughing fit in the middle of the aisle made me feel a little less lonely and a little less afraid. And I wanted to help him in any way possible.
"I have a few extra packs at home," I said. "Would it be okay if I deliver some to you?"
"Would that be possible?"
He smiled. "Thank you again. By the way, were you okay over there? I saw that boy call you slurs and saw people running away when you coughed. Are you doing alright?"
"Yeah, I'm okay." I still couldn't shake the feeling I'd seen him before. "It's just that ..."
Suddenly, something clicked.
"Wait, you're Frédéric, the musician who plays the accordion almost every evening on your balcony!"
His eyes were far away. "Played. I used to. But don't worry about it," he added hastily when he saw my apologetic expression. "I'm surprised you still remember. You've heard me perform before?"
"Many, many times," I replied, remembering all the evenings I had spent on my balcony. "I was stuck indoors a lot as a kid because I have cystic fibrosis, but I found solace in going onto the balcony and hearing your music. I would often dance inside my room as you performed. Sometimes I even played the violin with you. I only recognized you because you always started your pieces with that flourish with your hat!"
He smiled. "I thought I always heard someone playing alongside me. We would've been a good trio. You, me and ..." He drifted off.
"Elise?" I said gently.
"Elise." His voice broke. "Oh, my sweet Elise. She wasn't musically inclined in the slightest but she would always tap the tambourine with me. Back then I had a beat, a rhyme to life. Now I'm just lost without her." He gazed off into the distance. "I can't even get around this darn store fast enough."
"I'm really sorry to hear that."
"It's alright, I"m getting used to it. But I'd love to hear you play your violin again at some point, especially, that one song ..." He hummed a few notes as he tried to remember which one it was.
"Oh, 'Czardas' by Vittorio Monti? That's my favorite piece!"
"It reminds me of when I used to live in Italy," he said with a reminiscent look on his face. "I heard that people living there have been playing music on their balconies and singing together to keep their spirits up. Maybe, we should try that here, too."
I hesitated as I stepped onto my balcony and began setting up my stand. It was already reckless of me to go into a crowded grocery store in the afternoon, and my parents certainly wouldn't allow me to stay outside for much longer. But an hour more wouldn't hurt, would it?
The alley was dark. I couldn't see much except for the few bikes leaning against its gray walls and the dusty street underneath, but I was determined to bring the livelihood back into this empty place. I looked across at Frédéric's balcony, the spot where he once used to do just that. He wasn't there as I had expected. Although I had seen him earlier when I went over to deliver a few packages of toilet paper, he didn't mention if he was going to pick up the accordion again.
But it was alright if I was going to do this alone. My only hope was that I would be able to bring joy to others like he did for me all those years ago.
I took a deep breath and began to play, and the world disappeared from view as I closed my eyes and lost myself within the melody of "Czardas." Everything that had happened today flooded back to me as the notes leapt off the vibrating strings, echoing through the air. The grocery store. The boy. My coughing. Frédéric. The thoughts overwhelmed me at first, but I let them go with each stroke of my bow, allowing them to float off into the alley. My mind became at ease as I simply let myself forget for a while.
Wasn't that why I enjoyed music so much anyway? Because it could help me escape, even if it was just for a fleeting moment?
Suddenly, I felt something warm against my skin. I opened my eyes as the sun peeked out from behind a cloud, its radiance flooding the alley. Streaks of magenta and orange bloomed on the gray walls as it sank towards the horizon, imbuing the apartments in a dazzling array of colors. I had forgotten how beautiful the sky became at sunset, and my fingers froze on the fingerboard as I stood there, transfixed.
"Well, why'd you stop?" a voice called.
The old man grinned as he lifted his accordion. "It's been too long, my friend. Let's make tonight worthwhile." He patted the instrument affectionately before turning to me. "Are you ready?"
"Ready as always."
"Then, let us begin!"
The rest was a blur. I could recall the rich, organ-like tone of his accordion accompanying my violin as the music soared through the air; I could remember the neighbors opening their windows, their excited voices beckoning others to join us; I could recollect watching the sun as it painted stunning hues of color into the apartments; but, perhaps the best moment was when a group of children ran through the street carrying tambourines. Their feet skipped and danced as they frolicked between the ashen walls, their hands tapping to the rhythm of our music. Frédéric smiled as he watched them, and he stopped playing to pull a handkerchief from his shirt pocket.
"Are you okay?" I called.
"Don't worry about it," he replied as he dabbed his eyes. "I was just thinking of her ..."
I'm sure Elise would've liked this, I thought to myself as I watched the children pass by and disappear into the evening sunset sky.