brown string instrument selective focus photography

Stories No. 89 – Jeanne Althouse

Parallel Octaves

by Jeanne Althouse

Lena was raised on violin lessons and minimal parental supervision. 

Maestro Ludwig, her first violin teacher, was spiritually her only family. After early morning lessons, before she went off to school, they liked to relax together on the cool sheets of his unmade bed in his private studio in the Hyatt Regency, her violin lying between them. They smelled plumeria and coconut-scented sunscreen lotion from Kaanapali Beach through the one open window.

Maestro, who was twenty years older than Lena, knew her young body better than anyone—her left-hand fingers with callouses from the expensive gold-series Pirastro string set he bought for her, her neck with the dark red chin-rest mark under her left jaw, how her newly developed breasts shuddered when she attempted the highest note, the shrill, ear-piercing A-7. Yet he had acted toward her only as a teacher should. He occasionally hugged her, but it was the way she imagined a father who loved her would hug.

Lena’s unhappy parents had lived in the Presidential Suite on the top floor of the Hyatt Regency until they divorced, and her mother moved back to the mainland. A spacious living room decorated with wicker furniture, popular in the 1980s, a large master bedroom with a king size bed, and a den with a pull-out sofa bed made up the two thousand square foot suite she knew as her childhood home. Her father was busy, constantly gone on trips. Lena had slept on the pull-out sofa bed for as long as she could remember, grew up on snacks from room service, and was used to sand, from tourists’ beach walks, tickling her bare feet in the elevator as she played around the hotel, watched out for by the maids.

“Time for the daily feeding,” Maestro said, up on his elbow, looking across the violin between them. In addition to teaching private lessons, he worked as penguin habitat manager for the Regency which gave him room and board. The daily penguin feeding on view in the atrium lobby for hotel patrons and visitors, was scheduled every morning at 9:30 a.m. The South African Blackfoot Penguin was originally from the Cape of Good Hope, but the hotel penguins were born in Ohio. 

“Just like me, my family originally from Samoa, but I was born in Honolulu,” Maestro said, smiling, comparing himself to his penguins once, when she was much younger and easily impressed.

Due to lack of attention at home when Lena started her lessons, she was a repressed seven-year-old with extreme shyness, afraid to fail, afraid even to lift her bow to the strings. She was like the instrument, Maestro said, hollow inside to allow sound to vibrate within. He explained it was his job to let the music into her heart, to help her soul vibrate. No matter what he said, in the beginning Lena could not play. Finally, in one desperate moment, he pointed out how, just as the violin must emerge from its rigid fiberglass case, in the same way, she might, if she wanted, emerge from her clothes. Lena slowly took off her dress, leaving on her girlish panties covered with flamingoes, picked up her violin and began to play. In some strange subconscious way, like swimming in the ocean, she felt free without her clothes.

Until she was eleven, Lena undressed before each lesson, but once her breasts developed, she began to be embarrassed in her underwear and slipped on a silk robe. She had been in love with Maestro for as long as she could remember. By eleven, in everything she played, her vibrato pulsed with the tremulous effect the Maestro’s nearness had on her, her wrist shaking, finger moving below pitch and back, as if landing on pitch became the yearning she felt to kiss, to touch, to hold her teacher as close as she held her violin. He did not guess she had a crush on him. After each lesson she dressed, folded the robe carefully and packed it inside the top of her violin case.

She first heard the Paganini Caprice Number 24 on a record, an ancient Itzhak Perlman recording which Maestro played. This was her goal, to play this piece, with its parallel octaves, extremely fast scales and arpeggios, high finger positions, left-hand pizzicato, complex trills, and quick string crossings. Maestro said she had to practice and practice and practice, learning each technique so well that when she played, the music came as if it flowed from her body. He called it being in the zone, like a sports player. At night in bed, she practiced parallel octaves, tracing invisible notes up and down her sheets.

“Moana keeps trying to be my new mother,” Lena said, touching her violin on the bed next to her, absently rubbing the skin of the tailpiece. Her dad had a new wife, Moana. She had moved into the Penthouse Suite with her dad and Lena. “She wants to meet you. My father says he never met you since my mother hired you.”

Lena had suspected, for a long time, that Maestro Ludwig was not his real name. He was different from the few other men she knew, her wealthy Jewish father whose business as “investments” was a mystery to her, her two male teachers at the private girls’ school who were old men, their bodies hidden in suits. Compared to them, Maestro was young, wore shorts and open shirts which revealed black hair on his chest. He had dark curly hair and a gentle, soft, Islander accent. On a desk he had a pile of business cards which had the words “First Chair Coaching” and “Orchestrates Success.” Once a year he took a month off from lessons when his sister was home from her job as a housekeeper on a Princess Cruise ship. In Lena’s life, this had always been the longest, most lonely month of the year.

“Suggest a dinner in the Swan Court,” he said. “I’ll wear a suit. Perhaps she’ll like me then.”

But the dinner was cancelled. Moana discovered the silk robe inside Lena’s violin case.  Despite Lena’s arguments that “nothing had happened,” Moana convinced Lena’s father to fire Maestro. Moana said a hotel Wildlife Manager was not qualified to call himself a violin teacher. Lena was puzzled at the strange prejudice Moana, who was an Islander, seem to have against other Islanders. 

When Lena and Maestro said goodbye, he hugged her for the last time. It was the old Maestro hug, the way she imagined a father who loved her would hug. Lena never saw the Maestro again. She was immediately enrolled in a private school on the mainland and sent to live with her mother. A few years later, she was accepted at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music and she moved to Los Angeles.

In January of 2020, when Lena was forty-seven, she was appointed the first woman music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of only six women in the United States who headed symphonies. Three months later Covid-19 closed hotels, shuttered the orchestras, and prohibited in-person lessons. She had never married and lived alone, forced to shelter in place by herself. For months the only intimacy, the only touch she experienced, the only sound of another voice in the empty rooms of her house, except for Zoom screens, was her violin, vibrating. 

After early morning practice she and her violin liked to relax together on the cool sheets of her unmade bed, the old memories of plumeria and coconut on her mind. Once, when she felt scared and lonely, she thought of the Maestro’s sister, wondering if she was still on a cruise ship, quarantined for months because Hawaii wouldn’t let her return. But she might be dead, the Maestro too.

“Lena-light, moon-light, sunlight,” she heard Maestro’s voice, chanting her name in his deep voice, sweet as a cello. How did he learn the violin? How did he learn to feed penguins? She never asked him about his training, about his education, his background, about his life. Did she dream Maestro and his lessons? Did she make him up, like a child’s imaginary friend?

During the worst moments of isolation, when she felt like screaming, instead she turned to her instrument and played the highest note, the shrill, ear-piercing A-7. Afterwards, relieved, she cuddled her violin like a lover, spooning. She was the big spoon, cocooning the violin’s smaller body in a sideways hug, her chest to its back, her breasts, remembering.

Jeanne Althouse
Jeanne Althouse

Stories by Jeanne Althouse have appeared in numerous literary journals including Gravel, The Examined Life, Birdland Journal, Penman Review, Inkwell and The Plentitudes Journal. Her story, “Goran Holds his Breath” was nominated by Shenandoah for the Pushcart Prize. A collection of her flash fiction, Boys in the Bank, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks. She writes each morning, watching the sun rise, hoping to capture the light in words.

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