Dirty Old Town

National Concert Hall, Dublin

This is a draft of the first three chapters of the second sequel to Never Mess with Stravinsky in which Jason and Melissa join Colin for another summer concert series, this time in Dublin.

I. MELISSA: LET CONFUSION REIGN

“Ms. Carlson? Ms. Carlson, as much is your physical presence contributes to the ambiance of the room, we’d also like your mind, being greedy people by nature.” I summoned all the willpower my diminished capacity allowed to keep from sticking out my tongue. If we were in a different setting, I wouldn’t have bothered, but it was Orchestra class and Mr. Robinson deserved respect, no matter how annoying he could be.

“Diminished capacity?” you might ask. Let’s count the ways: it was the end of the school year with all the attendant garbage (including our final concert, for which I was supposed to be rehearsing), Jason — the love of my short life — had been making me crazy because it was what he did best, we were leaving for Ireland in two weeks and performing in at least two concerts, my mother had been giving me even stranger looks than normal and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why, puberty had put my brother into testosterone overload…need I go on?

Meanwhile, the problem at hand: time to swallow some serious crow. “Mr. Robinson, I apologize most sincerely for my unforgivable lapse and promise it will never happen again, knowing that your magnanimous nature will show me the mercy I don’t deserve…”

No reaction whatsoever. “Ms. Carlson.”

“Yes, Mr. Robinson.”

“Play.” He raised his baton, said, “From C,” gave a measure, and began with full confidence that we’d be with him, which we were, including the space cadet. There wasn’t a missed beat or a stray giggle to be heard, even from Jack. He’d transferred in second semester, fully convinced that he was, among other things, the world’s greatest clarinet player and the most clever person in the universe. The first dose of reality was when he found himself in third chair clarinet, especially after insult was added to injury when he wasn’t even given a chance to compete against Jason. That left the clever part, which usually was at the expense of fellow musicians or Mr. Robinson. It didn’t hurt anyone, but it was a distraction, annoying, and a waste of time for a group of people who didn’t have any. While we were always up for laughs, this was a case — as it usually seemed to be with people who were convinced they were entertaining — of, “Look at me, look at me.”

I’m proud to say I ended it. I confess that my first instinct was to refer it to Omar, but I’d never put him in that position. All it took was an introduction to Colin and a promise that I’d put in a good word for him with Jenny, one of the flutists who he had a crush on from the moment he walked in. Of course, I didn’t tell him she was attracted to him but was shy, but I did mention that she’d expressed doubts about his behavior.

Okay, I also admit that I introduced him to Omar and later told him that he was one of our biggest fans, with the implication that he might be upset if he learned that someone was messing up our rehearsal schedule with foolishness. Amazing what the thought of angering someone big enough to block the Sun could do to cramp your style and change your act. You might be wondering where Mr. Robinson was in all this. He wasn’t distracted and the music went well, so it didn’t exist as far as he was concerned. Because we did our jobs, we were able to move forward, but Jack made it harder than it needed to be and we didn’t need harder.

Back on Earth, Mr. Robinson called a break and I looked for Jason, but Carina had already turned around to yak at him. That’d definitely be a one-way conversation, so I didn’t feel bad about going up to interrupt her. “Excuse me, Carina dear, but for the good of the orchestra, I feel I must rescue Jason’s ears from your screechy voice.”

She batted her overdone eyelashes at me. “Melissa darling, the only screeching sound around here is the sound of you torturing that violin.” The southern accent was somewhere near Georgia. When she reached Louisiana, things always became interesting. “I was talking about our weekend plans but you can take him. I could tell that he wasn’t concentrating on what I was saying because he was distracted by my legs.” Of course, the little hussy was wearing a short skirt, and of course she crossed her legs as she said it.

“If he was distracted, it was because he couldn’t believe that anyone with such tree trunks would bother to display them so brazenly.”

Before she could answer, Tim plopped himself next to her. “Hey guys, still on this weekend?” Before we could respond, he turned to Carina, “Hello, luscious. Have I mentioned that you’re looking especially sexy today?”

She flipped her hair. The accent moved a bit further south. “Tim, dear. Melissa has said something hurtful and insulting to me. You must defend my honor.”

He was used to this. Without missing a beat, he turned to Jason, “Dueling swords at lunch time?” Jason just rolled his eyes and nodded.

They began to go into Carina-Tim talk, so I grabbed Jason by the arm and pulled him along before we felt the need for barf bags. On the way out, he finally caught up with something Carina said three minutes before. “This weekend?” That was my honey: in the conversation but a few beats behind.

“We’ll talk about that later, Babe. For now, you can pay attention to me in some creative way.” I led him over to the desk area.

“Are words required, my queen?” In preparation for our trip, he had adopted royal designations, even though they were misplaced for Ireland. I had to admit that I enjoyed it, especially since he had assigned Carina and Tim the roles of Royal Fools.

“No, but Mr. Robinson’s looking our way, so your non-verbal choices are limited.” Just saying that made me a bit itchy. Hugging and kissing opportunities had been scarce lately.

Have I mentioned that, using our experience in Paris and with the chamber series last summer as an excuse to work us to death, Mr. Robinson assigned a series of chamber concerts to Jason and me? Jason tried to point out that we had been paid in Paris and over the summer, which only got him a blank look, as if Mr. Robinson was waiting to hear him speak English. Jason gave him the same blank look back — he was really good at it — until the answer came, “I’m sorry, you weren’t looking for anything as silly as extra credit from me giving you an opportunity most high schoolers would kill for, were you?” Jason answered that we wouldn’t dream of it and that we had evolved into a monetary universe, which brought an instant belly laugh that resulted in hiccups. When he reached a point where he could breathe and talk, Mr. Robinson clapped him on the shoulder and said, “For a moment there, I almost thought you were serious and had lost your mind.” He then thanked us for the “…best comic relief in months,” and walked away shaking his head and saying, “Wants to be paid,” loud enough for us to hear. When his laughter had died away, we both remarked about how well that had gone and with eyelashes aflutter and bosom heaving (not an easy chore with the little I had), I designated Jason as my negotiation hero for all time.

Okay, I know that rambled on forever, but that was what happened from lack of contact of any meaningful kind with Jason. As soon as we sat down and Jason gave his non-nonverbal appreciation — he claimed to be ogling but I knew his mind had me undressed at least to my underwear — Mr. Robinson, perverse spoiler of romance, called for an end to the break. I could see him speaking to Carina and I had an idea that it might be about her outfit, which would provide me with lunchtime entertainment, if I so desired. I led Jason back to his chair (the little bugger may have gotten past my underwear with the amount of befuddlement he was displaying) before exchanging the usual greeting with Carina: “Slut,” “Tramp…” and going back to mine.

Our final concert was actually our final exam. Previously, Mr. Robinson had been forced to give a written exam to go along with it, but Colin managed to sweep it away with a dismissal about, “…bowing to the sexual inadequacies of some pencil-necked geeks,” at a school board meeting. Actually, that comment was enough to eliminate the exams in the art, drama, and dance programs as well. Most of what came out of Colin’s mouth was annoying, but he could get a lot done with a few well-chosen words when he wanted to. However, it wasn’t going to make much difference for our end of the year schedule since it was our Junior year, which meant AP-Everything in the Universe, so busy would seem like a vacation in comparison.

The end of class meant lunch, and I regretted that Carina and I had gotten started because I really needed some time with Jason. Maybe if I gave in early, she’d let me be. Mr. Stream-of-Consciousness was still wondering what plans we had for the weekend, having forgotten about our pizza-movie day with the Carinas, Lisas, and Alicias to celebrate the end of the concert and track season. Tim and Carina were already at the wall. Jason attempted to sit next to Tim, but Carina hopped down and plopped herself between them, leaving him with a look somewhere between confused and amused, accompanied by an eye roll when she “accidentally” flashed him way too much leg as she settled herself. Despite my putdowns, Carina had great legs (second only to Lisa’s, who also had twice as much of them), but Jason had seen this routine enough times to handle it.

He didn’t always do as well with Lisa. She usually dressed even more modestly than yours truly, but for one concert, she wore a fantastic dress up a few inches above the knee, still pretty conservative with her long legs, but I did need to hit him upside the head to keep him from staring. It didn’t bother me because Lisa’s my good friend and I knew she had eyes only for Omar. Hell, I could barely take my eyes off her. The real killer was when we went to Mario’s to celebrate. She sat across from us and crossed her legs (clear tables). I had to pull Jason out — with the excuse that we needed to tell Violetta something — to keep him from hyperventilating or staring enough to anger Omar, neither of which would be considered healthy by any reasonable person. When we got into the kitchen, I put him against the wall. “Lisa is our friend. She’s gorgeous and has great legs, world-class legs, and if you don’t stop staring at them, Omar — despite the fact that he’s almost as clueless as you — will notice and become offended.” I paused to let that sink in. “Do you want that to happen?” When the color returned to his face, he shook his head and we returned.

Back to lunch. Carina babbled on and on (guess it’d be hard to babbled briefly) about what she was planning to wear Saturday night and which movies she wanted to see and what Tim was to wear. We, being used to such nonsense, settled down to eat after I ceremoniously pulled the little tramp’s skirt down, which got me no reaction whatsoever. As accustomed as Jason had become to the sight and no matter how much I trusted her, enough was enough. I wasn’t terribly worried because Jason had begun to do serious damage to his sandwich, and I knew that it occupied ninety-eight percent of his resources. I was being immodest in assuming that sitting next to him took care of the rest. I wasn’t terribly hungry, so I pulled out my violin and began to noodle around.

The thing I loved about the wall was that I could do something like that and before I knew it, I was in the middle of a concert: Jason’s clarinet, Carina’s flute, Tim’s trumpet, Ahmed’s oboe, and so on. My hunger returned, so I dropped out and enjoyed. In the middle of it, I saw Omar and Lisa walking toward us. Despite the fact that they’d been to every concert that didn’t conflict with a game for more than two years, they still made most people stop, or at least pause. I felt for them because I knew they were really shy, and the only time they felt comfortable was when they were with their teams. They were still the biggest, but the contrast wasn’t that great. I went over to join them, feeling Jason’s eyes followed me all the way. I decided to be mature and try to keep my butt from doing anything my mother wouldn’t want to see, but it took a lot more effort than I thought it would. I was tempted to jump in between them. I knew they wouldn’t mind, but why risk injury because of a whim? I settled for sitting beside Lisa. “You two need an instrument so you can join us.”

Omar held up his hands. “What instrument would these fit?” Lisa followed suit.

I pointed to Lisa and said, “Piano,” and to Omar, “percussion.”

Omar broke up. “My mother made me take piano lessons once. I turned it into a percussion instrument.”

“Many consider the piano a percussion instrument. You were just exploring the possibilities outside the box.” I gave him a hug, or at least as close to a hug as I could give to someone that size. He actually blushed.

“What makes you think I could play the piano?” Lisa sounded intrigued but I did notice a slight momma bear glint from the hug.

“Long fingers, extremely coordinated. Actually, you have the physical tools to play almost every instrument.”

They thought about that for a moment until Omar finally responded, “Yeah, but coordination doesn’t necessarily translate from one thing to another. Jason has great musical coordination, but he can barely walk down the hall without tripping over a closed locker.” It was true. I loved holding hands or walking arm-in-arm with him, but part of the reason I did it was to keep him from running into things. Yet, he could do wonders with a clarinet, saxophone, or piano, and when he touched my back while kissing me…let’s not go there.

“Only one way to find out. Seasons are over, so you have time to begin your musical education.”

Omar smiled, “A little late, isn’t it?”

“You may never have a concert career, although I wouldn’t rule that out, but do the math. I’ve been playing the violin for twelve years. If you work at it that long, you won’t even be thirty. The numbers are on your side.”

He lowered his head. “Can I have something else besides math as a back-up?” Omar and math were never the best of friends. In fact, I got to know them because of his problems with it and need for a tutor.

Meanwhile, Lisa had become distracted by the music, or at least the spectacle of it, so we dropped it to watch. After a few minutes of silence, she nodded in Carina’s direction. “She’s good.” Slight pause, “Do you think she’s still a member of the club?” That was Lisa’s shorthand for asking if she was still a virgin.

“Pretty sure. Says she is.”

“I know she doesn’t mean anything by it, but I’d never let Omar sit next to her like you let Jason.” She gave a small shudder.

“Jason can handle her. Besides, the little witch knows I’d tear her stringy hair out if she went too far.”

Lisa just nodded but Omar, who we thought was lost in the music but surfaced long enough to sigh, “Amen. She scares me.”

Lisa patted him on the hand. “I’ll protect you from the bad girl, Babe.” They began to give each other that far-off look, which was my signal to collect Jason. As I walked away, I wondered whether I’d just made another commitment to what little time I had.

Jason must have seen me get up, because he eradicated himself and met me halfway. We gave a Queen’s wave to both ends because we knew they were too engaged to notice much and headed back to the building the long way. “How’re Lisa and Omar?” That was the translation because he was still chewing on some snacky thing.

“In love, as usual. By the way, I may have committed us to beginning their career as musicians.”

He barely missed a beat, or rather a bite. “No problem. I’m sure there’re thirty minutes somewhere in the week that we’re just frittering away.”

“Frittering?” I stopped and faced him. “Did you just use the word ‘frittering’?”

He thought for a second or two as he finished chewing. “I did. I’m very fond of frittering.” The smile at the corners of his mouth told me I’d regret saying that. I knew that over the course of the next few hours (or weeks…as long as it took to stop amusing him or for me to convince him that violence was imminent) the word would come up at every opportunity. Temporarily sidetracking the inevitable, I grabbed and kissed him, not enough to be inappropriate but sufficient to rewire the vocal centers, at least until we arrived safely at class.

Days passed by like that. We worked our tails off, we enjoyed, we decompressed when we could, we worked some more. The key was that we found ways to enjoy our work. That sometimes made our teachers and parents a bit crazy, but since we were always trying to be the best, they gave us leeway. However, that’s another lecture you may be fortunate enough not to hear. Meanwhile, we did what we could to more than abide. The Saturday date was an example of keeping things interesting: four couples switching dates for the evening (with many rules, so don’t get excited). Omar was with me, Lisa was with Jason, Carina with Matt, and Tim with Alicia. Because we were also close as couples, we were in danger of becoming too insular despite all the friends we had in our network. Once we convinced our parents that we weren’t entering some weird swapping universe, they relaxed.

The day usually began with lunch at one of the new date’s houses, followed by an afternoon doing something that interested one of us, and then meeting with the others, usually for dinner and a movie. While we sat with our new dates at that point, we were pretty much part of the group. Since Omar had the use of a car and a license — public transportation was claustrophobic and embarrassing to him — he came to my house at noon. This wasn’t a hardship. My mother was used to having mass quantities of food on hand for Jason and, being a music fan, he loved the chance to talk to her about music and to my father about recording. The downside was that he had to put up with Michael who, from the way he tried to climb over him, seemed to think he was a tree.

I greeted him at the door. “Omar, my man of the day,” and took him by the arm to the music room, where my mother was just finishing practice. She’d extended it for him, and I enjoyed it since she was working on a piece I had to play in Dublin. She figured she could help me with it better if she knew it. Made up for the times she’s made me crazy, but only in looking back. I always loved having Omar as an audience. The look on his face when he was enjoying music made me happy that I’d spent those extra hours practicing. He looked like he was staring intently and off in some other world at the same time. It was the kind of appreciation I loved to see but couldn’t afford to focus on if I wanted to get through my performance, similar to Jason watching me perform except for the unbridled lust that was somewhere behind his looks.

When we finished, we both grabbed Omar and pulled him (or at least brought him back so he’d stand up because I doubt that anything short of a forklift could move him if he didn’t want to) to get lunch. One didn’t make Omar wait too long for a meal, even if he was otherwise occupied. Being Omar, he insisted that we sit — after holding the chairs for each of us — while he served.

“Please, tell me about the music.” With Omar, it was a much more complex question than it seemed. He didn’t want to know anything about the background, the composer, or the music. He could look that up, and by concert time, he usually knew more about what we were playing than everyone. He made us students of the music we played, even Jason, who wasn’t a fan of musicology. Mr. Robinson began to invite him to the final rehearsals to answer questions. Omar’s question involved what we had to do to put it together, how we got to the point where it was ready for performance. That was the part he couldn’t research.

Mom launched into a tour, from tricky fingering to problems with expression, dynamics, and timing. I was always happy to let her take that part because it spooked me a bit talking about the different snags in the way of a great performance. It’d probably be healthier to express it than let it bounce around in my head, so these sessions with Omar were probably good for me as a musician. Maybe it was Jason’s superstitions rubbing off on me, or maybe I was looking for an excuse for being too lame to want to talk about it.

He was clearly fascinated, but his eyes kept turning my way, like he expected me to contribute. Let me explain Omar. He was somewhere over six-foot six (I knew that Lisa was six-foot five and he was taller than her) and probably weighed well over three hundred pounds. I’d seen him pick up another football player who was over six feet tall like he was a pillow, turn him upside down, and shake him. He was also the gentlest person I knew. Jason was a homicidal maniac in comparison. He also had these unbelievable teddy bear eyes — I’d always been a sucker for eyes — that were wonderful unless he was feeling disappointed. I wasn’t sure if that was what he was really feeling, but my guilt interpreted it as that, so I took a deep breath and spilled. “Different pieces need to come from different places.” I pointed to my shoulders. “A lot of Beethoven comes from here.” I held my stomach. “Stravinsky tends to be more here. Of course, it’s never a rule, and most good ones require some from all over. This one…”

“Let me guess,” he interrupted. He closed his eyes and it was obvious that the music was running through his head. I recognize the look I had seen in countless concerts, the one that had pushed me to new levels so many times. Jason often gave me that look, but I had to avoid it most times: too intense and filled with complicated things. Omar’s was pure appreciation. I glanced over at Mom and she was clearly fascinated.

“Between the way Jason looks at you and having him looking like that in the audience, I don’t know how you can concentrate on playing.”

“I play with my eyes closed a lot,” which brought a smile to her face and broke the spell with Omar.

He opened his eyes and smiled, then pointed to his wrist. “Here. It comes from the wrists.”

I pulled his hand up his arm. “More up here: the forearm. The wrists come in with something flashier. This piece requires a bit more depth, more…oomph.”

He glanced over to my mother. “Couldn’t have said it better myself. Guess I brought her up right.” She stood. “And now, I have work to do so I’ll leave you two to your day.” She had a weird look on her face, barely perceptible because she really liked Omar, but she found our arrangement unsettling despite the fact that I had reminded her that there were other ways to add variety to our relationships. “What do you have planned?”

Big smile. “The planetarium: the Milky Way.”

Mom raised her right eyebrow. “Gotta love a man who thinks big.”

“I do, Mom. If it wasn’t for Jason, Lisa and I’d be having one big cat fight over him.” I hung myself on his shoulder as I said it. He blushed.

The afternoon was glorious except for the glimpse I got of Omar and Lisa’s world: the stares. They weren’t exactly kind. It became obvious why he had chosen an activity that happened in a dark room. I knew it bothered him but I had to ask, “Is it always this bad?”

He hesitated a long time. “Actually, it’s worse this time.” Another pause, “With Lisa, they stare because we’re both big. I get the feeling that they’re staring because you’re so small and they can’t figure out how we could be a couple.”

I wanted to laugh because I wasn’t used to being called small, being six feet tall and still growing, but I could see how much it bothered him. “Would that be so out of the question?”

He looked me over in a clinical way, then smiled. “Lissa,” his nickname for me that I loved because it was so close to his girlfriend’s name, “I weigh — what? — three times what you do.”

“Okay, it’s a weight thing. I can deal with it on those terms. Since I can’t be as tall as Lisa, I’ll try to look as heavy as possible.” That brought a smile and a very large arm around my shoulder. Tension relieved, we settled back to contemplate the universe.

I didn’t think about it again until I saw Lisa and Jason walk in. When everyone got settled, I recounted our experience and asked if they had the same problem. They looked at each other, then smiled before Jason answered, “There were a lot of stares, but I could tell that everyone was thinking, ‘Who’s that lucky bastard?’ so I just smiled back.”

Lisa threw her arms around him and planted one on his cheek before turning to me. “Melissa, I swear that if it wasn’t for Omar, we’d be having one big cat fight over this one,” which made both Omar and me break up and left the others staring with open mouths. Lisa never touched anyone like that except Omar, let alone kissed them, and the last guy who attempted to get that close to her has never walked quite the same since. Omar didn’t touch him. He saw the look on his face and ran straight into a garbage can. Omar recovered enough to pick him up and carry him to the Nurse’s Office. A gentleman to the end.

While we were catching up on the day’s activities and doing serious damage to several pizzas, Mario stopped by to snatch some stray smoked oysters. He was always confused by these dating things — he and Violetta had been together since they were teenagers — but the lure of the oysters made him tolerate the strangeness. He also cleared his throat rather loudly at the sight of the barefoot footsies that were happening under the table, ever the defender of our virtues. He asked some questions about Ireland and went over the summer work schedules with a Carinas and the Lisas before returning to the kitchen, scratching his head. Poor Mario: his job as Guardian of Purity was hard enough with just Jason and me. Eight of us were downright daunting.

I became quiet, easy enough to do with Carina, Tim, and Alicia in the crowd, because it occurred to me how much we held on to each other. On the surface, we were a pretty accomplished group — good students, musicians, athletes — but we were as lost as any teenager, unsure what we’re doing and insecure about just about everything at the same time that we were sure we’d come up with whatever was needed to save the world, at the same time that we found it almost impossible to see beyond our noses. Looking around the table, I felt pretty good about my choice of who I to cling to.

The sound of Carina going Southern kept me from becoming weepy, a big mistake with this group. She and Alicia were going back and forth about who had a better afternoon, Carina based her argument on the fact that Matt was with her while, no matter what they did, Tim was pining away for her. Her logic, but Alicia wasn’t used to dealing with it. Omar, Lisa, and Jason were already rolling their eyes, so I decided that it was time to jump in.

She had just finished declaring that, while Matt was sweet and attentive as could be, she couldn’t fully enjoy herself, “…because I knew that my Timmy was totally conflicted. He had to be a gentleman to you, Alicia dear, but he couldn’t wrestle his thoughts of me from his mind.”

“Carina dear, it was probably the most peace he’s had at one time since…when was the last time we dated like this?”

That puffed her up. “Well, I never — “

“We have our doubts about that, dear. It makes my head swim to think of what you’ve never.” The laughter, including from Tim until the pain from getting kicked under the table stopped him short, was enough to stop her so I could change the subject. “We have a new mission in life: Omar and Lisa are going to become musicians.”

Everyone thought it was a great idea (even Carina, who did a world record recovery from her vapors) and jumped on it.

“Lisa needs to take piano; look at those long fingers.”

“I could see Omar playing cello, or double bass.”

“Hands are definitely too big for violin or viola.”

“Brass? Size doesn’t matter there, and if he can control his breathing — “

Omar jumped in with, “Hey, finely tuned athlete here.”

“Percussion — tuned — xylophone, vibraphone, Marimba…”

“Yeah, but a bit pricey to learn on.”

“Back to Lisa. She could do almost anything, but I don’t see her on flute or piccolo.” Carina stuck her tongue out at that.

I could see that they were becoming overwhelmed, so I cut in, “Or, we could ask what they think, just for laughs and giggles.” With this group, it was definitely a revelation. I turned to each of them. “Well? Either you talk or they’re going to go through the entire orchestra.”

All eyes turned. Breaths were uncharacteristically held until Lisa sighed, “Don’t laugh, but I’ve always wanted to play the cello and piano.” She blushed and then let out a smile that’d melt even Ms. Burgess’s heart.

After a few more seconds, Omar mumbled something. “Didn’t catch that, big guy.” I knew I had to keep the momentum going or he’d fade away completely.

He cleared his throat. “Do you really think I could play the saxophone?” He held up his hands.

“We’ll find out tomorrow when you come to the rehearsal early. We’ll try you out before everything gets started. Any other choices?”

He was beaming, “Trumpet?”

Alicia counted on her fingers as she ran through the possibilities. “So it’s Melissa for the cello, Tim for the trumpet, and Jason for the sax and piano. While you’re in Dublin, I can work on the piano, and Matt very slyly works on learning the sax with the hope that he can become a sex god to all women.” His turn to blush.

I reached over and patted his hand. “A worthy ambition. Last year in Paris, Jason played ‘Still Crazy after All These Years’ on the sax with a metro musician and I had all I could do to keep from tearing off my clothes right there and offering myself.”

Jason nodded. “I did get a great kiss for my trouble. Couldn’t wrap my lips around a reed for two days after that.” I blew him a kiss and, after a quick glance around to see if Mario was nearby, slipped off my shoes to offer some barefoot footsies.

Lisa made a semi — horrified face and looked at Omar. “Maybe I should reconsider. That wasn’t what I had in mind.”

Omar smiled, and before he could get anything out, everyone except Carina shouted, “No way,” before breaking up.

“It’s settled,” I announced. “Lisa, I don’t have a spare cello but I can’t take mine, so you can use it until we scare one up.”

Jason joined in, “I’m only taking my alto sax, so Omar can use mine.”

Tim’s turn, “I do happen to have a spare trumpet…”

“…and we have a piano in our house,” Lisa said. “No one plays it, but my mother doesn’t believe a living room is properly equipped without one.” She thought for a second, “I’m not sure she’ll be pleased about it actually being used.”

“If she needs some time, you have the use of my keyboard while we’re gone.” For the second time in one evening, he got a hug and a kiss on the cheek. The universe was turning strange, as Jason would say.

No one noticed, but Carina had been strangely quiet. Tim brought us back by asking, “What’s the matter, Baby Doll?”

She had her arms folded and definitely didn’t look happy. “I don’t have anything to do. I don’t like being left out.”

“Aww, poor baby,” was the general response — pouting never got you sympathy with this crowd — before Tim leaned over her and said, “You can be the inspiration, as you always are to me.”

She managed just the beginning of a smile before the chorus began. “No way.”

“Worst idea I’ve ever heard.”

“Has to be something better than that.”

“I demand a recount.”

The smile disappeared, but she caught herself and stopped the pout before it could fully form. It came to me then, “You can be the coordinator: work out practice and lessons times.” It didn’t sound like much, but she immediately saw the possibilities for bossing people around so the smile returned and we were able to get back to doing serious damage to our pizzas. Talk among friends was one thing, but Mario’s pizza wasn’t something to be ignored for any amount of time. Any sophistication and cool we were able to fake at other times dissolved and we all became shameless. Despite the competition, my Jason was the clear winner in terms of ferocity. Sitting next to him or directly across a small table, I could appreciate the intensity, but sitting further away at a large table, I was able to witness the carnage in all its artistry. I thought I’d be able to avoid crumbs landing all over me, but I was sitting next to Omar.

We decided to break with tradition — if the third time could be called a tradition — and recouple for the movies because we were missing our significants. As soon as I could get him semi-alone, I pulled Jason close and whispered in his ear, “You must’ve had quite a day: two hugs and kisses from Lisa, that we know of…”

“You know all. It was unusual.” He hesitated for a moment. “You were sitting next to Omar. Did he tense up at all?”

I shook my head. “Relaxed. Now, back to your day.”

“Awkward. We went to Mom’s show. Lisa has a very artistic side. She understands a lot. However, the stares took away much of the enjoyment. Even with her long arms, she had to reach down to take mine. Mom was there, probably giving a gallery owner a piece of her mind about something, and stopped to talk. She hid it well, but she had a curious look on her face.”

“I know the look. We got it at lunch. They think we’re very strange. It doesn’t bother me much because I agree most of the time. We do what we can with what we have. Sometimes we get the b’ar, sometimes the b’ar gets us.” The Big Lebowski quote seemed to fit the mood.

Jason became very quiet, and when I noticed, I turned to him. He had that far-off look in his eyes that told me something had caught his attention. There were three choices: cosmology, music, or sex (although sex could be intertwined with either of the other two in his stream-of-consciousness universe) and any of the three meant he’d only being half there for anywhere between one and twelve hours.

That was where the dilemma of growing up injected itself. A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about introducing emergency measures to bring him back: flashing some leg or shoulder, or grabbing him and doing my best to curl his toes. Since, I’ve recognized it was a combination of poor impulse control and a power trip involving the effect I could have on males. After Paris, I began to worry about what I was doing, in addition to the fact that it got us into trouble almost every time. The perfect end to this story would be to say that I found other highly evolved methods and never stooped to those games again. Could I score a few points by saying that I’ve cut back significantly, and this was one of those times? “Something I said?”

“Actually, yes. Can I just leave it at, ‘We do what we can,’ for now because I’m afraid that if I go into it too much, it’ll go away?”

“Must be music or cosmology. If it was sex, you wouldn’t be wanting it to go away.” He was always wary around me. My fault because I always wanted to explore it. Another weakness: the workings of his devious little mind fascinated me, probably largely because I wanted to compare what I was feeling to his reactions. I knew that we wouldn’t interpret situations identically — being a firm believer in the fact that male and female brains were manufactured on different planets — but he gave me a frame of reference, at least when I was able to get him to talk. Lisa and Carina were more reliable, even though they were usually the yin and yang. I felt that if I was somewhere in the middle, I was probably doing well. For extreme reality checks, I could always call Felicia Bromwell. I knew that she’d keep my mother up-to-date with what was happening, but she knew how to translate it in a way that avoided heart attacks. “Besides, if it was sex, you’d have that look on your face.”

That got his attention. “Look? What look?”

Okay, so I hadn’t attained Buddhahood yet. “Somewhere between pleasure at what was going through those dirty neurons and panic that I might discover what it was.”

He recovered quickly. It had to be music for him to regain his focus so fast. “Then I must have that look on my face often.”

Not bad. A recovery with a bit of smoothness. In the good old days, the recovery might not have come for quite a while, and the smoothness definitely wouldn’t have been along for the ride. “Very good. Your compliment has shamed me into accepting your request. I’ll leave you to work it through, provided that your goodnight kiss makes it worth my trouble.”

“You ask so much of me, but I’ll do my best to accede to your wishes, my Queen.” He even added a slight bow.

I chose to ignore the big grin on his face. “It’s getting harder and harder to stay ahead of you. I’m not sure I like that, although I guess it’s not good to become complacent.”

Another big but slightly different grin. “One of my greatest pleasures in life is following behind you.”

Once again, I found myself confronted by one of those moments when I wanted to both kiss him and slap him upside the head. Having had these moments often, I was able to resist doing either. Fortunately, there was a movie to go back to. Unfortunately, I’d almost completely lost the thread. Fortunately, I was able to do the game we played whenever we turned on a movie halfway through: take the story where it is and invent everything that led up to that point. Unfortunately, we always found that our version was better, unless it was a faithful re-creation of a book, and then it was still better more than half the time. Fortunately, I could check my version with Alicia later: Lisa was always too wrapped up in Omar to follow a storyline, Carina’s interpretations always had to be filtered through…Carina, and Jason was watching through his own alien filter.

There were occasional returns to Earth when he squeezed my hand or played footsie, and he did manage to gather his resources for a goodnight kiss that more than filled my expectations, so I decided to let him live (after my brain had rewired from the kiss), if only because I was curious about this revelation he had. He was always thinking about that damn quartet and I had to admit that I’ve done some pretty shameless things to get his mind off it, but if this was going to take him where he needed to go, I’d need to suck it up. I hated when that happened. I guess the reward of a piece of music and being able to move on was going to have to sustain me.

Despite all those lofty thoughts, I felt my impatience getting the better of me. My fingers were itching to call him, which I knew he wouldn’t mind, but I also knew it was a bad idea. It’d get him off track and send a signal that I couldn’t handle waiting, which I obviously couldn’t or I wouldn’t be sitting in my room obsessing about it, which I was obviously doing despite the fact that almost every part of me knew that it was the last thing I should be doing, but there I was. The problem was the almost. Try as I might, I seldom seemed to be able to achieve the every, which left me with that one little glitch that let in all the problems. Jason would say that glitches weren’t his problems, that his were chasms. Believe it or not, chasms were better: easier to see and anticipate. You could never be sure when those nasty little glitches would come up and trip you.

I had to learn to accept the almost sometimes, at least when someone else was involved. I refused to accept it when I was the only one involved, like with music or my school work, and I was lucky enough to have a number of people around me who wouldn’t let me take shortcuts or the easy way out when I felt rushed or weak. We were all so busy that the temptations to shave a little off the top to save some time were pretty constant. Find an excuse here and it became easier to give in to one later. That was probably what attracted me so much to Jason. He definitely wasn’t the easy way out, whether it was from an intellectual, emotional, or hormonal sense. He never would be, and I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way (although I’d be hesitant to put that in writing).

II. JASON: PREPARATIONS

Knowledgeable music people would argue that anyone who attempts to write a string quartet before he’s thirty-five is a fool. I would agree, except I’d remove the age provision. I began my first attempt at sixteen, which probably qualifies me for royalty among fools. Not the king — I see too many far worthier competitors for that distinction on a daily basis — but at least a member of the royal family. Few know about my qualifications (Mom and Dad would be so proud) because it’s not something I advertise, even among my music friends.

If you find my argument acceptable, you’ll probably be even more impressed to know that, having come upon this grand realization, I continued the attempt. You’ll be even more amazed to know that I’m still trying to get it right. Is it stubbornness? Is it persistence? Is it delusional? Rather than worry about labels, I prefer to continue beating my head against the wall.

Most people might wonder why it’s such a problem. Four instruments: two identical, two similar, differing mainly in range with some differences in timber. If I could see it that way, I would have finished the piece a long time ago. The actual notes were the easiest part. They came quickly in the first draft. Like writers, most composers know what they want to say. We get surprises along the way, but that’s most of the fun involved: your head seldom takes you where you planned to go. In my case, it almost never does, but it’s not a problem. I’d be suspicious and even bored (for lack of a better word; I hate the B-word) if anything coming from my brain was predictable.

The popular notion is that you write your first draft with your heart, and then you revise with your head. I’ve never been able to make that separation. Maybe it’s meant to explain why a first draft is so messy. I do know that the head seems to be more responsible for the initial idea, but without the heart becoming involved, it never gets any further than an idea, mostly because it takes a monumental act of will to take it where it needs to go. No matter where your heart leads you, the head needs to intervene to keep it from flying off in all directions.

None of this explains the crux of my problem. It’s Melissa. If I had never met her, the quartet would be done. It’d probably stink up any room it was played in, but it’d be behind me and I could freely move on to something else. Pretty thought, but in the real world — a place she tells me I seldom inhabit — I love Melissa and she plays the violin and cello. Her mother, who I deeply admire (okay…but let’s not go there right now), plays the violin and viola. I’ve spent hundreds of hours in the presence of these two women, a fact that in my opinion qualifies me as the luckiest person in the universe, while they’ve played their instruments. The fact that I’ve been able to play my instrument during much of this time gives me faith that I really do have willpower because not only are they riveting women, they’re fantastic musicians. How could I watch and listen to them without having my understanding of their instruments changed forever?

Every composer knows what instruments sound like at every point of their ranges or he has no business writing for them. My clarinet is a very different instrument in the first octave than it is in the second octave. It plays completely differently. This degree of understanding is necessary because a composer can’t just write notes. He has to be aware of how those notes will come out. Because of Colin, I’ve been fortunate enough to observe musicians creating music, physically making those notes come out. That’s an entirely new level of understanding because it makes a deeper connection. They aren’t just notes coming out of an instrument, they’re connected to a movement a person makes. It’s a blessing because it deeply enriches the nature of the sound, like the difference between acquaintance and friendship, but it’s also a curse because it introduces the human element, an understanding of how much individuality goes into note production. I have to compartmentalize that knowledge to a certain degree while composing or nothing will get written.

Comparing it to a writer’s dilemma might make it clearer because words are easier to understand. And author has to be aware of his audience and in some ways temper his word choice with them in mind. On a certain level, he’s also aware that what his readers bring to the page affects their reaction to and understanding of that word choice. While it’s part of what forms his style, he can’t let it come too close to the surface while he’s writing or no words would end up on the page. The saving grace is that this knowledge is at a level that allows it to be submerged. My knowledge of music production gained from being a musician and from observing Symphony rehearsals takes me to this level for almost every instrument I might use in a composition.

That takes me back to Melissa and Mrs. Carlson, a place I’m always happy to revisit. Knowing them as well as I do, loving them, has taken this understanding of what can be behind a note and colored it to a much deeper level. When I write a note, a phrase, I imagine them producing it, but then I come to the realization that it’ll come out much differently with most other musicians I’ve observed, even the excellent ones. This creates a conflict: do I aim for what it can be or for what it’ll end up being in most cases? While Colin would offer a five word solution, “Just write what you’re thinking!” I can’t dismiss the idea of aiming as high as possible when I think of Melissa and Mrs. Carlson. Being inexperienced, both in composition and in love, I haven’t learned the tools that would help me to work through it, so I experience long periods of stagnation.

Time is also a problem. Anything so complex involves chunks of time: time to catch up on where I was before and decide whether I had a shred of sanity when I wrote it, time for my mind to quiet sufficiently, time to work on it uninterrupted. On the first point, I’m fascinated and frustrated by the fact that I have a great musical memory (it makes Melissa crazy that if I’ve heard a piece a few times, I can hum almost any part from any section, which is a gift and a curse) but need to do this step every time I’m composing, whereas when I write, it’s seldom necessary to do more than a cursory glance back, if that. It might seem logical to most people, but I’m at least as conversant in musical language as I am in the English-language, perhaps even more so if you talked to most people who’ve had a conversation with me.

The major problem with the time issue is that I’m a junior in high school. Free time in chunks is nonexistent. The junior year course load is well known as the heaviest, although senior year doesn’t look any more promising. Add to that the workload imposed by Colin in preparation for this trip. Where music is concerned, Colin believes that only breathing has any place in a list of priorities and he only begrudgingly acknowledges it for wind and brass players. String players and percussionist are only allowed as much as is necessary to play their parts without asphyxiation. Next, factor in the demands of a killer concert schedule that Mr. Robinson created because, “We need to show the taxpayers that their support was a wise and wonderful thing to give.” That was his voiced reason. We think he just used it as an excuse to work us to death. We didn’t play much that would be considered standard repertoire and many of our concert pieces are world premieres, so the normal rehearsal time has to be doubled (translation: after school time). Despite all that, there was still time available until the most important thing is factored in: Melissa.

Melissa. We had maneuvered our schedules so we were in almost every class together. We were together for all musical events, Symphony rehearsals, and the Sunday Melissa Archives sessions. There was also Saturday yoga and at least two dinners a week at each other’s house. It seldom was enough. We never got over being together all day every day for a month in Paris, and the one thing missing in all that time together was time alone. Occasionally, we practiced together, but that was busy time. I long to for time to stare into her eyes, to just sit next to her. Given the choice between time to work on the quartet and time sitting next to Melissa, I hope no one is too disappointed that the art loses…every time.

Time to stop whining and talk about the quartet. As I said, most of it is written — either on paper or in my head — but it’s not right and I’m not sure how to make it work. Anyone hearing that might smile and tick off resources I have available to help: Mr. Robinson, Colin Bromwell, Mrs. Carlson, Melissa, and any number of string players and composers I’ve met over the last few years. Any of them could advise me, get me on the right track, or literally/figuratively give me an Italian grandmother’s cuff upside the head. I often feel that the last choice would be more effective.

The problem is that it has to be right inside my head before I can open it to criticism. That might sound strange and maybe it is, but in my thinking, I need it to be worked out before I go to anyone. Otherwise, it can get away from me and it won’t be mine. I need to be sure of everything I’m doing before it gets torn apart. That said, let me muddy the waters further by saying that it’s right in my head, but that’s not enough because I need to get what’s inside my head down on paper.

I know you’re thinking, “You’re a composer. If you want to be one, that’s what you need to be able to do.” That’s true, but like everything else in life, it’s far from that simple. A successful author can translate a story in his head to a combination of words that will allow readers to enjoy the story. While a reader’s experiences color that translation, the story will come through. With music, I can translate from my head to notation — not perfectly because I don’t have perfect pitch — but it’s not as simple as with the writing because music requires a translator. Most people can’t read our notation, so we need musicians to “read” the music to them, and you can imagine how different readers can affect your reaction to a story. That’s our basic problem.

My problem is that I’m intimately (not that way) involved with two great readers, so I’m tempted to write those notes with their translation in mind, knowing that it won’t be read quite the same — or that well — by others. I find that daunting. Sometimes, I end up crossing out passages over and over and starting again. At other times, I find myself with pen in hand staring at the music paper and not moving.

Am I a head case? Perhaps. Am I going to spend hours of what little precious time I have worrying about it and wondering if I’ll ever be able to write anything but solo pieces? Apparently. Do I need a good slap or seven upside the head at regular intervals? Most assuredly. Fortunately, I have many people in my life who’re willing to administer anything I need.

The only thing keeping me going is that it’s not a complete and total obsession. Only Melissa fits that description. Because of her, I’ve written other pieces, mostly solo pieces for — you guessed it — violin, cello, and clarinet. To begin with, one must do what he knows. I’ve even done combinations where I branched out to the piano, flute, oboe, and bassoon (Carina plays the flute, Tim the oboe and bassoon). Some day, I have hopes to write for brass and percussion instruments and I’ve made a plan for that: Melissa has been given instructions to get better acquainted with, in this order, a trumpet, trombone, and French horn player, then a xylophone, Marimba, vibraphone, and tympani player. She was a lot warmer to that idea than my suggestion that she learn one or all of them, despite my assurances that I was only thinking of expanding her horizons as a future professional musician. I’m sure there was no connection between my suggestion and the fact that she accidentally bit my lip while kissing me or the especially grueling yoga session she put me through shortly after.

If you’re not a musically-inclined person, you might be wondering why I can write or other combinations but not for a string quartet. The answer lies in the contrast. Combine any of the instruments I listed and you get an automatic dialogue going. The best way I can explain it is with people. A conversation where males and females are involved always sets up possibilities for liveliness because you get the male, female, and the couples’ points of view. A number of avenues are open because of the contrasts, and there’s only so far it can go in terms of intimacy because men really are from Mars and women really are from…wherever.

By comparison, a conversation among females, no matter what their relationship, can go places the others can never go. I’ve excluded conversations among men because at our best, we produce grunting noises. Don’t ask me why it’s true, but it is. To explain it, I’d need to know way more about females than I can ever hope to learn. I doubt I’ll ever be able to figure out Melissa, let alone what happens when more than one gets together. Asking her to explain it brought a rare moment of temporary speechlessness, followed by a slew of words like trust, openness, and honesty, which of course left me just as clueless as before. Suffice it to say that a string quartet is a female conversation, and I’m apparently not ready to deal with that level of intimacy musically. We won’t go into the social implications because I’m depressed enough. Melissa has promised that she’ll explain it all someday, if I need it. The look on her face didn’t seem very hopeful.

Possibly my biggest problem with the quartet, other than the three thousand or so I’ve already mentioned, is a lack of focus. It’s like sitting down to write a novel or short story without any idea of what story you want to tell. I could sound high-minded and say that I didn’t have a unifying vision. The truth is that, unless you’re just doing an academic exercise, you need to know what you want to say because academic exercises almost always end up sounding exactly like that: here’s a little problem I set for myself and here’s how I worked it out. It may sound clever, but it lacks soul. There is nothing for anything but your brain to latch onto beyond the mental exercise, and that doesn’t make great music. Great music engages your brain, your gut, your heart. What I’m trying to say is that you feel it.

When Melissa said, “We do what we can,” something went off in my head. It didn’t really have much to do with her exact words, but she gave me the focus I’ve been looking for: the beginning of our relationship. Thanks to her patience — I did go away to some other land and she could easily have done something ranging between flirty and painful to bring me back — I had it worked out before the movie (whatever it was) was over. I had “said” it to myself enough that I knew I wouldn’t forget. That accomplished, I returned to planet Earth in time to admire Melissa’s leg flesh and enjoy the fact that I was holding hands with her, once again reminding me that I was a very lucky man. I also knew that my absence, and I wasn’t sure how long it was, was noticed and needed apologies, so I leaned over and whispered in her ear, resisting the urge to gnaw on her luscious lobe.

“My Queen, I have returned from my long quest in the land of the infidels, unsuccessful in my search for anyone who compares to you in any way but encouraged by the fact that, though I have lost these long years in a fruitless quest, I have returned to bask in your glory, wonder at your vast intelligence and talent, and be rendered awestruck by your beauty.”

“You’ve been gone a long time, Sir Jason.” That was the middle designation. When she was pleased with me, I was the Hero Knight. When in trouble, I became Sir Sludge. Sir Jason meant that this would only be slightly painful, nothing debilitating.

“Yes, My Queen, but my heart and mind have ever been attendant on you.”

She snorted slightly before answering, “Your eyes certainly appear attendant, and it makes me shudder to think what messages your brain is receiving from them.”

She had me there, and it wasn’t worth trying to argue. One of the bad things about being involved with someone for a while was that your ability to wiggle out of situations went down in inverse proportion to the time you spent together. One of the good things was that you no longer needed to bother with expending all that useless energy. “I confess that it’s true and sincerely apologize for not being highly evolved enough to keep from engaging in such pursuits. I will submit myself at your leisure to whatever punishment you deem appropriate, while hoping for one of my favorites.” I lowered my head while at the same time attempting an eyelash flutter, unsuccessfully.

Another snort — not the most attractive sound unless it was coming from her — before, “Ogle away for now. We’ll deal with your impunities later.” After a slight pause, she added, “Was it cosmological, musical, or sexual?”

“A little of each, mostly musical.” It was hard to tell what the safe answer was at that point.

She smiled, “Some might call that answer diplomatic or cowardly, but coming from you I know it’s probably honest,” and she went back to the movie.

I attempted to do the same, beginning with trying to remember what we had decided to see, which I only figured out by fishing out the ticket stub. We went our separate ways when the movie was over. I was still a bit distracted — nothing unusual there — but I was fully aware of Melissa next to me, and she seemed to be growing more and more impatient so I launched into the plan, which piqued her curiosity. To give her credit, because Melissa loves to take an idea and run with it, she kept the questions to a minimum. Even though thousands of scraps were flying through my brain, she managed to scramble them more with her goodnight kiss before turning me around. “I’ll expect a full report tomorrow.”

“You’re assuming that I’ll be able to find some order in this mess,” pointing to my head.

As she walked in the door, she turned and gave me one of those looks. “You left me two hours ago. Better come up with something good to justify it.” Message received, loud and clear.

I’m not one to write things down because I usually lose the list. I was tempted but realized that the idea was so close to me that a lobotomy couldn’t take it away. Everything was falling into place suddenly and I had to fight the urge to get spooked by it and let it happen. When I got home, parentals were both reading in the library, a sight I loved because they could both be thoroughly engrossed but something was always touching. In this case, there was some intermittent footsie action (I tried to explain once to Mario that I couldn’t be blamed because it was genetic and had even shown him a photo of a similar scene that I had taken. He looked at the photo, asked what they were reading, and then ordered shoes back on). I waved, gave them the everything-is-fine sign, and headed upstairs by way of the kitchen for sustenance. Starved brain cells can’t be expected to work properly.

I wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed since there wasn’t much experience to draw from. I could run you through the entire fascinating process, but I’m aware of the fact that most of you would slip into a coma fairly quickly if you aren’t already there, so I’ll include it in the notes at the end for those of you who have a controlled gag reflex. After two hours punctuated by amazingly few self-recriminations and only one food pit stop, I felt I had it. There was no victory lap or even a kitchen visit. Fighting back the desire to call Melissa — her parents didn’t approve of middle of the night calls, even on the cell phone — I threw myself into bed. There was no problem with thoughts racing through my head. A scan would probably show no electrical activity at all, except the dreams I had would challenge that idea.

Sunday was the one day I got to sleep until what I would consider a more normal time: as close to noon as possible. Nobody around the house got terribly crazy if they didn’t see me. Dad was almost as much of a slug and Mom loved Sunday mornings for painting. I thought it might be tempted to do something insane like leap out of bed to work on the quartet, but looking over my notes, I saw that I had gotten it all down intelligibly — easily a first for me — so all I needed to do was let it fester (germinate would be a more elegant but not very accurate word for my mental process) in my brain to see what bubbled up. It might sound blasé, but the idea was there so all I needed was the individual notes. While they were crucial, I was confident that they’d fall into place.

All that festering made me especially hungry but while I was refueling, the phone rang. I knew that Mom wouldn’t answer if she was painting and if he was up, Dad would be absorbed in the Sunday paper or a book, so I jumped up and grabbed it despite being in mid-chew. Before I could get a greeting out, Melissa’s voice came through, “Finish chewing while I talk.” I mumbled something so she’d know she had me on the other end. She had once started her routine — thankfully she was mad at me so there was nothing that would get us into trouble — and almost jumped out of her skin when Dad told her that she obviously was referring to me because he’d already received his instructions for the day from his boss. It only took one of those to keep you careful for a long time.

Knowing it was safe, she proceeded on almost a Carina-like course about how ignoring her had psychically damaged her, possibly permanently, and the measures I needed to do to repair the damage. I knew better than to ask whether I should take notes. I needed to listen, make the appropriate noises, and assure her that the behavior would never happen again. She knew I wouldn’t get it right the first or even the fifth time, but that I’d accept my punishment.

We weren’t getting together for The Archives in the afternoon. Between preparations for the trip, the concerts there, and the final concert of the school year, there was too much going on to concentrate on anything else. Therefore, we weren’t planning to see each other until the concert rehearsal in the early evening, which would be highly overpopulated, so my lack of attention Saturday night was compounded. I told her about what I had done last night and hoped it didn’t sound too garbled. Ideas made perfect sense when you knew the fill-ins to all the blanks, but to anyone else they sounded like the ravings of a lunatic. I finished by telling her that the piece would be entitled Life Began with Melissa, which got me an invitation to go over to rehearse the Dublin pieces before dinner and the evening’s rehearsal. “Will your father be recording this afternoon?”

“No. Believe it or not, Mom and Dad he are going to be gone all afternoon and they suggested that I invite you over, so we could work on music, of course.”

“Michael’s home?”

“You could have played along for a few seconds.”

“Any chance he could be bribed into leaving the state for a few hours?” knowing that he enjoyed the role of killer of romance even more than Colin’s kids because it was his older sister he was torturing. Normally, he didn’t want to be in the same building as her, but let a situation come up were we might be alone, even if it was one room away from her parents, and he suddenly wanted to share quality time.

“About as much chance as my parents leaving us to house sit overnight,” which was about the same as a glacier coming down to wipe out Philadelphia in the next week.

“Okay, then let’s go back to the part where I asked about Michael.”

One of the things I loved about Melissa was that she was willing to indulge me on stuff like that. “Mom and Daddy are going to be gone all afternoon and they suggested that I invite you over.”

“So maybe I’m beginning to grow on them and they trust their virginal daughter in my hands?”

“Interesting way to put it. Maybe it’d be better to say that they think they know what you’re capable of, mostly because I’ve told them absolutely nothing that might make them suspect how vile and evil your thoughts really are.”

“I’d object to that if I didn’t know what my thoughts are, so I’ll plead no contest.”

“Remember Paris? That morning?” My thoughts went back, which meant I didn’t answer. “Jason?”

“Sorry, minor cardiac event. I’m kind of back, although any thought of that morning leaves my body chemistry in disarray for hours, or at least that’s the most delicate way I can think of saying it.”

“I believe this is the part when I mention that Michael is home.”

“Might as well. I don’t suppose he’s been given a worthwhile job to do, like mowing the lawn.”

“Charlie’s Lawn Service, same as your parents use.”

“That’s right. We both have busy parents with good incomes and a love for nature as long as they don’t need to feel responsible for making it happen.” They were probably instrumental in my belief that camping was a plot hatched by those who allowed too much oxygen to get to their brains. Contrary to popular thought, oxygen has a corrosive rather than a healing effect on brain cells if applied in too great a concentration. Don’t listen to those quacky people like doctors and fitness experts. They’d probably also try to tell you crazy things about the benefits of early rising, which we all know is detrimental because of the nature of solar radiation when it arrives at certain angles. I could go on and on, but you should know the arguments by now.

“Breakfast seems to be running into lunch. One o’clock okay?” She said it would be perfect and assured me that there were plenty of snacks around for the long haul between that and dinner. She was being very calm and not teasing me much about last night. That could mean many things. The least likely possibility was that she was okay with my fade out. While that might be partially true, I knew there had to be much more. Since my brain wasn’t being used for anything important, I tried to go through the possible repertoire so I could be prepared. The most likely scenario would entail a fairly serious run through punctuated by subtle physical and mental distractions. Nothing serious, just enough to throw me off a beat so she could give me that innocent but annoyed look. Fortunately, I felt secure enough about what I had put down last night — usually a sure sign that I should throw it out immediately, but not this time — that I could take it over and show it to her as proof that something other than a trip to another dimension had occurred during the movie.

Checking in with the parentals, a shower, and an unsuccessful attempt at putting everything in order physically got me to time to leave. One would think that twenty-one months of walking the same route would teach me how to do it without tripping. One would think. If I could shut off my brain, it might happen. On the way, I think about her. On the return trip, I think about her. When I walk with her I’m totally distracted by her. The result: I trip over cracks in the sidewalk every time. Getting a license might take care of the sidewalk problem, but I shudder to think about my head and driving combined.

Melissa didn’t ask and I didn’t tell — she because she knew and I because her outfit distracted me from anything else, leaving me with the need to concentrate on walking through the doorway without killing myself — so the entrance looked like a couple at ease with each other doing a greeting they had done thousands of times, unless the barely audible exchange of her, “Interesting fashion choice,” and my grunted reply was heard. I probably could’ve mirrored her comment since she was wearing shorts (the emphasis on short) and a sleeveless buttoned shirt with some kind of sleeveless t-shirt underneath, but as I said, she had my attention. Michael was nowhere to be seen and her parents were obviously gone, but she touched her index finger to her lips and touched mine before turning around and heading toward the kitchen without a backward glance, confident in the fact that I’d follow and that I’d be stumbling so she didn’t need to see the transit. I only bumped into one table and tripped over one area rug on the way, close to a record. In the kitchen, she gestured toward the refrigerator, knowing that as a male I preferred the adventure of the hunt and the thrill of the kill — opening containers — to having food laid out. Seeing the tuna salad reminded me of Mr. Carlson’s distaste for having too much of it left over, so I decided to make the sacrifice, fully aware of the tuna breath comments I’d be getting later from any kisses.

I realized that this was going to be more subtle than I thought. We’re going to be studious and professional and it’d be my problem if I was distracted by any exposed flesh. It meant certain failure. I couldn’t help myself. Maybe someday, but even if I went blind, I knew that the burned-in image would mess me up. The inevitable wasn’t such a bad thing, but something perverse in me wanted to hold out as long as possible.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology and Mr. Carlson’s recording talents — since working with the crew in Paris last year he had really gone into high gear and was as good as any pro in many people’s opinions — we could play the other parts as we rehearsed. Colin had even worked out a real-time transcontinental rehearsal once. Since Mr. Carlson had set the instruments up on different tracks, we could play with the whole ensemble or with selected combinations. The one problem was that we couldn’t work in any variations with the other parts, although we could manage slight variations in tempo without losing the pitch. All that worked best when he was there to work out our requests, but we knew enough about it to get what we needed on a limited basis. We sometimes used Michael, a poor substitute, but a comment or two from Melissa about his lack of coordination was enough to inspire him to new heights.

Fortunately, we didn’t need him there all the time and he wasn’t interested in hanging around to listen. The early rounds of Wimbledon were beginning, so he was happy to get us going and then leave. That gave Melissa the opportunity to send some zingers my way in terms of leg and shoulder flashes. I acknowledged each one but did my best not to let it affect my play. By the end of the Dublin pieces, I could see the slightest flicker of frustration on her face, but she didn’t let on. We talked about any difficulties we were having and then she excused herself while I went to forage before we worked on our school pieces.

Michael was in the kitchen doing the same. I told him where we were and that we wouldn’t need him anymore, which barely got me an eye roll before he said that he was going to be involved in a match beginning in five minutes, so we’d need to do without him. Mission accomplished, I headed back to the music room. Melissa was setting up, and when I walked in she barely looked up. “Your piano parts first, Cowboy?”

“As you wish, My Queen.” I sat down, all business, and began. I hate to brag, but I was smoking. When I looked up, she was sitting nearby following the score. Just as a little voice in the back of my mind was thinking the games must be over, she stood up, strode to the piano, and draped her t-shirt over my head before continuing back to her chair.

As she sat down, she looked to her shirt and looked up to me with a look of horror. “I wondered where that went.” The way she said it more than the physical presence of the t-shirt cracked me up and everything fell apart.

I handed it to her. “Your royal sash, My Queen?”

She stuffed it into her pocket. “I won’t be needing it for the time being, but thank you.” I suggested that we switch to her solo, and she agreed, “…since you seem to have lost your concentration.”

My self-actualization meter fell in a few notches because not only was I inattentive to the quality of her performance, I wasn’t even sure that I was looking at the correct score. The big part of my brain had taken over because she wasn’t wearing a t-shirt, and no matter how hard I tried to raise the level, it kept winning. The saddest part was that her shirt was a snappy denim thing that was closed except for the top button, so it was entirely my imagination, not that it needed much, apparently. At times like that, all the good things we did fell to the wayside and what was left was a blithering idiot, which must have been obvious because when she finished she put the violin down and said, “Your turn, if you think you can get your mind out of the gutter.”

I nodded and slowly moved to get my clarinet, trying to clear the hormone cloud enough to avoid biting the reed in half. I must’ve been taking longer than I realized because she stood up. She had a look on her face that I recognized as one that usually meant trouble. “I believe we need to step up the yoga sessions or something because your powers of concentration are definitely depleted.” Just as images of me in pretzel positions began to flash by, she smiled again and raised her hands to her shirt placates. “Or, maybe I just need to get it over with and do this,” and pulled the snaps apart in one motion.

A photo of my expression probably would’ve made any Hall of Fame. When the thought that triggered it — “Omigod, she’s opening her shirt” — caught up with what I was seeing, I really did bite the reed in half (something I had always talked about but never quite accomplished).

She had a very proper black camisole top underneath, which was probably there from the beginning. She stood there with her shirt open and a victory smile, knowing that this one would become legendary, until I put my hands up in surrender and crumpled to the ground clutching at my heart. She slowly snapped it back up and walked over to ceremoniously put her foot on my chest. “When you’ve prepared another reed, we can get going again, provided your breathing still works.” She walked back to the chair and sat down very primly. “If you manage to impress me with your playing, I may be inspired sufficiently to allow you to kiss me.”

I bowed and got to work. Preparing a new reed was tricky, especially when distracted. Too much and it’s sluggish, too little and you produce sounds that should never come out of a musical instrument intentionally. Memories of the last time I rushed preparing a reed made me temporarily block out the desire to hurry to the promised reward because I knew that there wouldn’t be one if I did. Melissa sat there very soberly, betraying no hint of what she had done except for the fact that one hand was twirling her hair while the other was playing with her top button. Cute.

I was brilliant. It had nothing to do with the tough getting going. The truth was that I was used to being distracted by her. After a minute, she sat up straighter and stopped playing with the button. When a fellow musician is on a roll, one never plays with it. The hair twirling became more intense, another sign that I was doing well. Sections that usually gave me pause breeze by without a hitch. Describing how it felt when everything was working like that was hard, almost like an out-of-body experience where my brain stepped back and said, “Wow, that sounds good.” The great part about reaching that point was that I knew I could do it again.

When I finished, she didn’t do anything for a moment, then stood up and kissed me on top of the head. “Be back in a minute.” I took the opportunity to break my clarinet down, pack up, and straightened the room for a bit, which would explain why I didn’t hear her reenter. When I turned, she had the shirt off and I stood wordlessly admiring her. I loved camisole tops. Hers wasn’t revealing in the transparency idiom, but the amount of flesh revealed in the shoulder and neck regions was enough to make me sigh. “It’s kind of long. It has to stay tucked, so do what you can.” Slight pause, “And no roving eyes.” I put one hand over my eyes and gave the Vulcan peace sign with the other. “This is annoyingly loose on top, which Carina was nice enough to point out wouldn’t be a problem if I had something to tighten it with.”

“Never a complaint here, My Queen,” and I put my arms around her to collect my reward. My fingers concentrated on the exposed back and shoulder flesh.

When it was over, we stood there for a minute continuing to hold each other loosely. “I’d really love to sit on the couch and explore that idea some more, but if you keep that up, I’m afraid I could easily get into trouble, so I’m going to excuse myself to take this wicked thing off and put the shirt back on while you go to the kitchen to forage and imagine what I’m doing.”

Like I could concentrate on anything if I followed the second suggestion. Even eating was a chore, but I am a professional so I did my best. I knew it’d be at least an hour before dinner, and fainting or having my stomach make inhuman noises wouldn’t do, even though it wouldn’t be unusual. I wasn’t nearly done when Melissa came in, stopping me in mid-chew. Even after almost two years, I could look at her and wonder what I had done so right to deserve even a second look from someone like her. Sensing that I was in ogle heaven, she got some juice to drink and sat down without saying anything, and we stayed that way until Michael came in to refuel. He frowned and then shook his head before saying, “Don’t you get tired of being around each other? All you do is play music and talk forever and stare at each other. Don’t you ever do anything fun?”

Melissa must have been in an indulgent mood. Without looking in his direction, she said, “Like?”

“I don’t know, play sports or go to a water park or places like that. Something more fun than working on music or sitting around mooning at each other.” The frown had transformed to something between disgust and frustration.

“You want to handle that one?” with no change in expression and a sip of her juice. She was obviously looking for some guy thing.

“Michael, if I give you a dollar, will you go away?” Bribery was as good a guy thing as any, and it worked. I fished out the money and handed it to him. He laughed, although he didn’t look any happier than he did before. She counted to twenty on her fingers and then offered me a high five and a bow, after which we returned to our reverie. It might’ve continued forever but the doorbell rang, followed by Michael’s bellow that it was Omar and Lisa. I had completely forgotten about the deal from the night before. They were followed by the rest of the gang, and before it could disintegrate into anything else, Carina herded everyone into the music room including Michael, who had made the mistake of leaving his room to find out what was going on. Actually, he became our go-fer with a big smile on his face because he had a big crush on Carina (Melissa said something about young males being attracted to the trampy types), aided by her outfit and the fact that she took advantage of the situation by shamelessly flirting with him. I felt a bit sorry for him, especially since I knew that Melissa would torture him endlessly about the way he blushed whenever Carina called him “Mikey darlin’.”

She actually did have a talent for organizing things, despite all the tongues that were stuck out both behind her back and to her face, and had obviously thought about it since the night before because everything went quite smoothly. By the time everyone left, Omar — he looked like he didn’t know whether to laugh or to be horrified by Carina’s behavior — and Lisa had been introduced to their chosen instruments and a few others, and everyone had been handed a limited tutoring schedule for the next two weeks.

Dinner was interesting. Mr. Carlson was full of questions about Dublin recording plans, Mrs. Carlson was showing signs of slipping into My Baby’s Leaving Across the Big Ocean mode, and Melissa was torturing her brother with, “Mikey darlin’, would you pass me the vegetables?” while slipping in a Carina-style eyelash flutter. I concentrated on my food and only spoke minimally when spoken to. She was good, and I had to admire her while it made me shudder at the same time.

By comparison, rehearsal was a piece of cake. All I had to worry about was playing a few complicated pieces of music. No sweat there. All went well and we were pretty up but tired as we waited for my parents. “Can we discuss your scary thing with your brother this evening?” It was a safe question because there were still a number of people around. I didn’t want to talk about music and I knew she was dying to give me a hard time about the afternoon because when she wasn’t torturing Michael, she was playing with the top button of her shirt and glancing my way. Nothing that anyone would notice except me.

“Just a brother and sister messing with each other. Believe me, he’s done much worse to me.” She batted her eyelashes and tried to act like it was nothing.

“Noted, but the messing part has me worried. That Carina imitation specifically.”

Another flutter. “It was necessary to ensure the proper level of torture. We’ve been at this for quite a while, so one can’t aim for ordinary methods. We’ve reached the stage where they’d hardly be noticed.”

“Understood. The part that scared me the most, however, was the quality of the impersonation. The idea that you can do Carina so well makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”

“I’ve known the little witch for five years. Some of it has to rub off.” She made a dusting motion on her arms.

“True, but the fact that you could summon up so much of her…” Just then, my father pulled up.

She flashed me a wicked smile and said, “It’s good that I can still surprise and frighten you after all this time,” before getting into the car. By the time I got into the back seat, she had switched over to discussing Dublin must-see places with Dad, who barely acknowledged my presence with a hand wave in the middle of telling her about the pleasure of walking through St. Stephen’s Green on a nice day, especially discovering all the statues, which we could miss if we weren’t paying attention. “Do you have an overall guiding plan like with Paris and the Sabrina tour?”

It had been one of our most involved discussions over the past few months. We had compiled list after list. Melissa was twirling her hair. “It’s not as simple as Sabrina. We haven’t seen any movies that fit the bill as well. We also lack a bit of focus because there aren’t nearly as many bridges as in Paris.” I couldn’t believe she said that. My parents knew about our accomplishment of kissing on every bridge in Paris. It didn’t kill them, in fact they were impressed, but it wasn’t something that should be brought up any more than needed, which was never around adults as far as I was concerned.

I needed to change the subject. “Dad, Melissa scared me this afternoon.” It sounded a lot whinier than I was aiming for, but it worked.

He glanced over to Melissa, and then he reached to pat her shoulder. “No offense meant by this,” and then turned back to me, “but you’ve told us that Melissa’s scared you at least twenty times over the past two years, and that’s just the times you’ve told us. You need to be more specific.”

He was obviously amusing himself. I let it go because there was no victory with her there. “She did a scary imitation of Carina.”

“Really?” more to her than me.

“My brother has a crush on her. Torture material too exquisite to ignore.” She came close to fluttering her eyelashes.

“Can you give me a sample?”

“I can’t believe you’re encouraging her.” I sounded suitably horrified. “This is the woman I love and want to spend my life with, and she can do a convincing Carina.” I shuddered for effect, but it wasn’t entirely an act. “It’s disturbing. Someday, I hope to be married to her, which means I’d have to close my eyes at night.”

“Son, you’ll find many other more real things to be scared of.” He turned back to her. “Maybe another time.”

She nodded. “It’s a date.” Talk then shifted to more mundane things like the concert and the end of the school year, and I was left sitting there once again wondering if I was the crazy one for thinking that my concerns shouldn’t be made light of or ignored. The answer, apparently, was yes.

Such was my life. I might complain, I might be disturbed, I might be genuinely frightened by aspects of it, but it also included the kiss from Melissa when we arrived at her house. Before I could move, she kissed Dad on the cheek, hopped out, knocked on my window, and said, “Stick your face out the window and kiss me quick, Cowboy, because I’m running right in and hopping into bed.” What could I do but comply?

“Stay in the back, Jason. I know you won’t be able to talk until we get home.” There was that amused tone again; I’d reached a new usefulness in life: comic relief for my parents. One might argue that I needed to lighten up. One might argue that I’d created stress in their lives over the last sixteen years, so a little amusement was small payback. One might argue that this and many other moments would create great stories later in my life. I happily would let “one” take my place during any of those life-fulfilling moments because I was tired of them. The fact that his assessment was totally accurate made it even more annoying.

Time passed. Melissa glided through while I stumbled, except when music was involved. The final concert wasn’t a problem, except for the fact that we were going to be losing too many seniors, making it part sentimental farewell and part Omigod-what-are-we-going-to-do-next-year? The temptation to sit around and whine about how the younger kids needed to step up was overpowering until Mr. Robinson happened to overhear a gripe session. It didn’t put him into a happy place. I had to bite my lip at first because I noticed immediately that there were five furrows on his forehead, which made me think of a music staff. That thought immediately went into the mental dumpster — in my case more like a landfill — before I could give in to an inappropriate reaction. “Have we become music critics at a tender young age?”

“No sir,” was everyone’s answer.

After an appropriate (at least in her mind) pause, Melissa had to go there. “We’re losing a lot of good people, Mr. Robinson. Doesn’t that worry you?”

“No more than when your sorry butts dragged into my band room the first time.” That was a good point. We all come from somewhere other than music heaven. “I distinctly remember thinking, ‘Oh Lord, what have I done to deserve this?’” After a beat, he topped it off with, “Just like I have every day since then,” before he walked off with a Queen’s wave.

Carina was the first to speak (how unusual). “You know, I believe that man has become much more sarcastic of late.” Carina was the only teenager I knew who could or would use the phrase, “of late,” and actually pull it off. Of course, she couldn’t leave it there. “I blame it all on Melissa’s attitude, which try as I might to fight, is infectious and has obviously rubbed off on a once sweet man.”

“Carina dear.” She went right to the Southern accent, which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I glanced at Tim and he had the same deer in the headlights look I was sure I had. “Carina darling, you really aren’t the one to be talking about rubbing off on someone.”

It was a shame she didn’t have a fan available because I could picture it going like crazy. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Melissa.” The name was drawn out at least ten seconds. They were going from zero to choke hold in record time. “I’m sure Tim would be happy to tell you that I’m a wonderful influence on him.”

Large smile. “Honey, I wasn’t referring to influence. I was referring to the physical sense and how you constantly try to rub against any male in the vicinity.” She fluttered her eyelashes. “Sorry, Tim, I know she loves you, but it’s a sickness.” She turned back to Carina. “I believe the medical term is trampiness.”

It went downhill from there. Most would say that it began pretty far downhill, but there really was an art to it. They said the most vile things to each other but never came to blows. In fact, they never got mad at each other. It was verbal jousting to a degree few could imagine. After two years, I had come to appreciate its many varieties, but I always kept my peripheral vision alive for an escape route in case things began to fly, recognizing that with my relationship to gravity, hurled objects were likely to come my way.

Amusements like that got us through a lot, even final exams. It wasn’t that I minded them that much, but few teachers came up with the kinds I really enjoyed. Regurgitation of facts was boring and almost an insult, challenging little more than to see if anyone was conscious during the year. Actually, with study guides and some teachers’ habit of reproducing them on tests, you probably could go through most of the year semi-comatose and do a burst of studying to get by. I doubted that the results would be an A, but I also doubted that anyone who operated on that level would care.

Off the soapbox. There were other diversions with rehearsals for Dublin, lessons for Omar and Lisa, and a visit from Colin on his way to Dublin. As usual, Mrs. Carlson began to mentally hyperventilate, more from the time rehearsals took away from studying, which I found it amusing because the closest Melissa ever came to a B was the flying kind.

The lessons were more than interesting. Lisa had decided on the cello for the time being and Omar wanted to begin with the sax, so it was our job to get them grounded enough in each so they could practice while we were gone. Omar made a tenor sax look like a toy when he held it, but almost from the beginning he could get a good tone out of it. Lisa had surprisingly few problems with the idea of fingering, but bowing was a problem in the beginning, probably because of her large hands. Because they were athletes who knew that practice and muscle memory were important; they didn’t get discouraged and showed an amazing amount of patience with repeating things over and over.

The first practice session was like a party. Everyone came over to be a part of it, but we had to send them home — Carina pouted for days, which made Melissa’s millennium — because they were too much of a distraction. It wasn’t all work. The first time Omar blew four notes of a scale with no hinkies (my term for those little distortions that were always waiting to get out), Lisa fanned herself and turned to Melissa, “Lordy, I can see what you mean about a man playing a saxophone.”

Omar beamed from ear to ear and grunted something about a woman with her legs wrapped around a cello, which ended the practice for an hour because it took that long before anyone could do anything with a straight face, and that only happened because we refused to look at each other. I used that time to refuel because control required energy to resist temptation and Mom always said, “If you’re using your mouth to eat, you can’t be using it for more dangerous things.” Smart woman, my mother.

Thanks to borrowed instruments, Omar and I had the pleasure of watching our girlfriends working together. I’ve always thought that anyone playing a string instrument became more attractive as she was playing. Maybe it was the sympathetic vibrations between them and the instrument. That happened with all instruments, but with winds and brass the facial reactions weren’t as evident. Lisa wasn’t producing the great sounds that brought the best expressions, but the concentration was there and the body language was coming along. Both of us were fascinated. I seldom had a chance to watch Melissa play because I was usually somewhere else on stage, so the most I could manage was a glance or two in her direction. Omar saw a my fascination and whispered, “I love the music, but this is why I go to concerts.”

“I like to watch.”

He smiled and nudged me. A nudge from Omar was usually enough to knock me over, but he was gentle this time. “Chauncey Gardner in Being There.” The great thing was that I knew he was referring to the Jerzy Kosinski novel more than the Peter Sellers movie. I knew that because he turned me on to the book and I turned him on to the movie. Omar taught me much about not going by appearances.

Because she was a beginner, I had to focus on the visual pleasantries and block out the sonic. Surprisingly, I found doing that fairly easy, partly because as an auditory creature, I had to learn to block out to avoid overload. Having Melissa and Lisa to focus on certainly helped. When it was our turn, they left the room, promising to come back, “…if you give us something to listen to.” I rolled my eyes and was about to say something clever or sarcastic until I saw the look on Omar’s face. I had seen that look before when he was on the sidelines and the game wasn’t going as planned, or when he wasn’t getting the distance he wanted from the shot put. It was a look that made me feel sorry for the opposing team and that metal ball because I knew something was going to happen. In this case, Omar was going to produce some good sounds or the borrowed sax was going to have a new configuration.

“Let’s try a scale you feel the most comfortable with, but first I want you to take several deep breaths,” I ordered — if that word could be used with someone big enough to block the Sun — him, “because your usual way of bearing down is going to get you nothing but a chewed up reed.” I gave it a few seconds to sink in, and the smile came on his face. “Me first, then you.” He nodded and we plodded our way. He was still too tense and we didn’t get very far until I got a brilliant idea, more out of self-defense than inspiration, and asked him, “Do you know the fingering?” He nodded. “Close your eyes and listen to me.” I played this scale. “Keep your eyes closed and picture yourself doing the same thing. Breathe.” It actually worked. Before we could celebrate — and more important, before he could think about what he’d just done — I told him, “Again.” On the third, I began to play along. We repeated over and over again varying the rhythm, until Melissa and Lisa appeared, looking quite surprised. They sat down and Lisa closed her eyes, a signal for me to drop out.

When Omar finally stopped, Lisa kept her eyes close and Melissa had a big evil grin on her face. She signaled me to follow her out of the room and didn’t say anything until we got to the kitchen, where she stopped and wrapped her long arms around my neck before kissing me. “I believe Omar is getting his toes curled at the moment, and I figured that the person who got him there should be rewarded too.” I was beginning to like this teaching thing.

I was into my second helping of warmed up spaghetti with tuna sauce when they joined us, all packed up and ready to go. Melissa and Lisa whispered something to each other, ending with Lisa pinching Melissa’s arm, which made her laugh before they hugged each other and Lisa said, “Remind me again why I like you.” Omar, in the meantime, gave both of us a big hug and Lisa followed suit with me. When she let go, she stepped back and then planted one on my lips that got me all miswired: she was a good kisser but I automatically looked over at Omar to check his reaction. When I saw he was smiling, I relaxed. As we saw them to the door, we made plans for one more practice session before we left.

When she closed the door, Melissa had a strange smile, the kind that got me nervous because I didn’t know what was coming next, and said, “Lisa’s a good kisser. I could tell from your reaction.”

Because of her tone and because I knew their relationship, I knew that wasn’t a problem. “She is, but you could give a guy some warning.”

“What makes you think I knew she was going to kiss you on the lips?” Miss Innocent had walked into the room.

“Because I know Lisa well enough to be pretty certain she wouldn’t do something like that without telling you first.” I had picked up on one or two things over the past two years, possibly no more than that, but I took small victories where they came.

“Looks like you know her much better now.”

I really didn’t want to go there, even if it was joking around. “Why did she pinch your arm?”

The evil look returned. “That was for sneaking out of the room when I knew what Omar’s playing had done to her. She said she almost jumped into his lap and gave in to what she was feeling.” I must’ve had a blank look on my face. “My answer was that he’d probably need a few days before he could do justice to a reed, which was when she pinched me for some reason.” The innocent look returned.

“Poor baby. Some people can be so unpredictable.” As we walked back to the music room, I added, “Please tell me that I won’t need to defend your honor.”

She patted me on the head. “We’ll let it go this time, but the proper response would have been to insist on it.”

I could picture the headlines: “Musician Performs in Full Body Cast,” but I didn’t mention it because I doubted she’d see the problem if her honor was at stake. Luckily, that discussion usually came up with Tim and Carina, when we didn’t have to worry about being broken in half. Talked to death would probably be the worst punishment in that case.

The only blip on the screen was the arrival of the Bromwells two days before we left. Colin had to go ahead, “…to prepare Ireland for the four of you,” so we met them at the airport and hung out until it was time for his connecting flight. In a little over an hour, he was able to get in enough instructions between the kids and us to make our heads swim.

At one point, Melissa interrupted and said, “I don’t mean to sound disrespectful [actually, that was exactly what she was aiming for], Colin, but if you need to tell us this much now, it sounds like a serious lack of planning on your part.”

For a few seconds, she had him, but then he gathered himself back together by remembering who he was talking to. People our age seldom — as in almost never — talked to him that way. People our age seldom got a chance to talk to him at all. The first look he gave her (where was the camera when I needed it?) quickly gave way to a wicked smile. He began to say something but Felicia cleared her throat and he glanced over at the kids. The smile became even more evil and all he said was, “Later for you, Carlson,” which got a mock shudder in response. At least it cut short the barrage of instructions, because I was sure he could go on and on until he had to get on the plane.

We did make him semi-happy with the latest recording from our rehearsals. He took the iPod and walked away to a corner. I looked at Melissa and she shrugged. We both looked over at him for any clues. He didn’t seem overjoyed and he wasn’t jumping into the air. Melissa leaned toward Felicia. “You may have full time babysitters after all.”

Felicia made a face no mother would love and gestured toward Michael and Janine. “As much as I’d like an occasional break, I’d need a new husband if he fired you because I’d shoot him.” She looked over at Colin. “That’s just his listening to music face. He doesn’t like iPods. Hates sticking stuff into his ears.”

“The man who once arranged a transcontinental real-time rehearsal gets weird about an MP3 player?”

I thought I had a great revelation there, but Felicia laughed. “We are talking about Colin Bromwell here, aren’t we? The rehearsal was something he needed. He would’ve arranged for a satellite feed from Mars if he needed it.” An evil smile came to her face. “He would’ve preferred that you brought your instruments and played them here in the waiting room.”

Melissa sighed. “We might as well get comfortable. It’s over a half hour long.”

Felicia patted her arm. “Oh honey, he’s not going to listen to the whole thing. You do have a fast-forward on that thing, don’t you? He’ll be done in a couple of minutes at the most.” True to her word, Colin returned with a slight hint of a smile. “That’s pretty close to an all out smile for him. There go my babysitters.”

Overhearing Felicia, a frown immediately replaced anything that could be mistaken for a sign of pleasure. He didn’t say anything for a full minute, which would’ve been nerve-racking for some, but we knew that it was his lame attempt at being dramatic. If he wasn’t happy, we would immediately have known. We let him play his game and finally, he said, “I am not displeased.”

Melissa rolled her eyes and let him have it. “We had to wait all that time for a line from The Money Pit that you didn’t even say as well as Alexander Godunov? Really, Colin, you need to work on your delivery and what you’re delivering.” He didn’t appear affected at all. In fact, I could tell he was pleased but trying to hide it. She knew what he was doing and they didn’t put her in a happy place. “Could we have a critique that sounds like it’s from someone who knows music?” She knew that she had fallen into his trap, which was easy when you weren’t around him all the time.

It brought a full smile, the one you only saw if he knew he had you or if he was really pleased by a performance (less frequent). Melissa had a fleeting look on her face that unwillingly acknowledged his victory before she gathered herself and did her best to look bored by the whole thing, but we knew it was too little too late. We both knew from experience that it wasn’t necessary, but he’d go there anyway. Felicia, much more of a veteran at this than we were, tried to send him in a different direction. “C, remember the quest for self-actualization.” When she saw that it had no effect, she tried, “Your children can see and hear you.”

It didn’t faze him. “My children will never be harmed by something like this. Nay, it will make them strong.”

Felicia shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Does the fact that continuing may have negative effects on our relationship, if you know what I mean, have any effect on you?”

He smiled that I’m-on-a-roll-and-therefore-invincible smile and everyone knew that even the harm it could cause to his love life wouldn’t pale in comparison. “Colin, I know we’re heading to Ireland, but nay? Will we be jousting by the third week?”

“Lame attempt at diversion, Stacconi.” He turned to Melissa and the smile returned. He pointed to himself and put up two fingers, then pointed to her and made a zero sign.

She recovered some dignity by smiling and saying, “Think of it as giving you the handicap you need.”

Felicia’s, “You go, girl. That was good,” definitely helped the cause.

One thing you could say about Colin: annoying as he was, he played the game. A quick frown — probably more from Felicia’s remark — was followed by him pointing to Melissa and putting up one finger. Before magnanimous could ever enter your assessment, it should be noted that Colin always thought he had the upper hand, so conceding a point wasn’t a sacrifice in his mind. He also forgot who he was dealing with, because Melissa responded by pointing to herself and holding up two fingers, and then pointing to him and holding up the same two. He held up one, and the next thing I knew, they had their fingers locked and were finger-wrestling. Melissa pulled out quickly — Colin had her by a few inches and several pounds — but danced away holding up both arms with two fingers extended from each hand. He watched her for a second and then muttered, “How juvenile.”

“She’s sixteen, C, what’s your excuse?” Felicia wasn’t in a happy place.

It didn’t faze him. “I’m a conductor. I have a free pass on growing up.”

He was so pleased that even Felicia’s answer about remembering that the next time she needed a real man didn’t ruin his moment. As much as I knew that behavior like that would get me killed with Melissa, I had to admit that I admired the attitude.

III. MELISSA: ARRIVALS

Somewhere in the family tree, a tall gene has been laying dormant, waiting for a generation to strike. I’ve never met a relative who did much damage to the six-foot barrier: Dad barely tops it, Mom shades over the mid-fives, and the tallest relative doesn’t do any better. Then there’s me, and I don’t know when it’s going to stop.

Thankfully, Jason’s been able to pretty much keep up and I’m only a tad taller than him. He doesn’t seem to mind at all. My wardrobe, on the other hand, is creating problems for me and heartburn for my mother. Anything that was modest two years ago was inadvisable. Anything that was short before has become downright obscene. Case in point: The Dress. I knew in Paris that it had become a thing of the past. For giggles, and to torture Jason one more time, I tried it on shortly before we left for Dublin. Suffice it to say that he instantly knew what color my underwear was. We held a ceremony to mourn its passing, and I thought I saw more than one tear well up. What I didn’t tell him was that I bought a substitute.

Fast forward two weeks. A lifetime compared to all that could happen — and usually did — in a day, but this is about Ireland and music, and most of what happened over the past two weeks wasn’t. Yes, there was talk and there were preparations, there were bouts of nerves — I thoroughly believe that Jason performs so well because he don’t so much garbage beforehand imagining all that could go wrong: material for another time — and a reunion and party with the Bromwells. Interesting to us, but we must move on. That brings us to the beginning of my section.

Our residence wasn’t quite as special as the one in Paris — hard to beat a view of the Louvre and the Pont des Arts — but it was something I’d never be able to afford, at least for quite some time. It had a view of St. Stephen’s Green and was within an easy walk of the National Concert Hall. Janine and I were once again sharing a bedroom and unpacking was interesting. She’d become quite a clothes horse in the last year. When I commented, she looked at me wide-eyed. “Middle school is tough. You need a lot of stuff.”

“Too bad. It doesn’t look like you have room for this.” I pulled The Dress out and held it up. She grabbed it immediately and made a squealing sound that could shatter glass. It didn’t, for some reason, but it brought Jason, Felicia, and Michael (Colin was out, thank God).

Felicia walked in looking very annoyed. “Girl, there’d better be a good reason for you to make that noise and mess with my nerves.” She stopped short when she saw what Janine was holding.

I jumped in. “Remember that we’d talked about it…” I turned to Jason, who was staring at it with his mouth open, and knew he’d be no help.

Without diverting her eyes, Felicia said, “Jason and Michael, finish your unpacking, now.” Michael opened his mouth but said nothing, to his credit, and they both left. As soon as the door closed, she smiled — not a terribly warm one — and said, “Let’s see.” When Janine began to put it over her head, she held up her hand. “The way you’d wear it if you meant it.”

She looked confused, so I said, “You don’t have the right bra, so panties only.” She registered a moment of shock but then removed her clothes and put it on.

She wasn’t as far from it as I thought. Felicia walked around her a couple of times while she stood like a statue that might be wrecked at a moment. Finally, Felicia opened the dresser, pulled out a knit top, and tossed it her way. “Until you grow into it, you can wear it with this top underneath. When you do grow into it, you’ll need to submit to another vote, with your father present.”

The look of terror in her eyes was priceless. She only nodded and said, “Yes, Ma’am.”

Felicia nodded and turned to leave, but she managed to pinch my arm and whispered, “Always knew you were a troublemaker,” before she did.

We waited for an appropriate (safe) amount of time before dissolving into giggles. When we had recovered enough to be able to breathe, I put my finger to my lips, stood up, and got the new dress out. I put it on and she gave me the approval sign. I told her it had to be our secret until I found the proper moment.

Our fun was cut short by Jason’s knock on the door and announcement it was time for sightseeing. “He sounds like he’s in a hurry. Where’re we going?” I pointed out the window. Our bedroom faced north. “St. Stephen’s Green?” I nodded. She looked again, “The Liffey?” I touched my nose, nodded, and congratulated her on her knowledge of Dublin geography. “Like I haven’t had my father pushing me to learn it for the last six months.”

After an admirable eye roll, I changed to more appropriate clothes while she went upstairs to calm Jason down. He didn’t know about the new dress. He’d like it, but I doubted that anything could ever replace The Dress in his mind and libido. This one didn’t have spaghetti straps, but I was sure that the halter and lower back would make up for any losses. I thought my shoulders looked better with a halter, and he certainly wouldn’t argue about more back flesh. I hadn’t decided when to show it to him, but I knew I had to do before the concert to give him time to adjust. That sounded boastful, but remember that Jason only spoke of its predecessor in capital letters. The last thing I wanted to do was take the chance of messing up a performance. That said, the evil part of me — a separate entity from Bad Melissa and less troublesome — did fantasize about what would happen if I showed up in it without warning. Buddhahood took another hit.

We weren’t performing in the first concert, which meant we’d be schlepping. I bought a new pair of black Levis, our traditional outfit, and like any good jeans they required breaking-in. What better way to accomplish that than walking around Dublin? When I arrived upstairs, I laughed when I saw that Jason was doing the same thing. Growing taller meant saying goodbye to old friends far before their time. It was almost a crime to buy them before I was sure that I’d stopped growing because jeans didn’t become good until they were at least three years old. I was confused by people who bought jeans that were made to look old. Where was the fun in that? It took work to develop a good pair, but it was always rewarding because I ended up with something that fit so well because it’d become an old friend.

Cameras, Michelin, and MapGuides packed away, we set off. Michael was feeling lingering jetlag and was grumpy. Janine was entering that magical transformation that came with the seventh grade: she was growing physically and suffering from occasional mind transfers to planet Airhead. I remembered it, and it was a frightening time. Walk down the hall one minute, wonder where you were the next. We decided that the Green might be the best starting point: a bit more expansive to allow the moods to air out.

I began to wonder if I’d get used to the scale of this new place but got interrupted by an argument between Michael and Janine. It was something I didn’t want to deal with, so I stepped between them, took Michael by the arm — excessive fingernail pressure may have been involved — and left the other to Jason. I tried to ignore the whining, but I did distinctly hear, “he’s just awful, Jason.”

I turned to Michael. “Don’t get all proud. When I told you last summer that it was old, I meant it.” When we reached a quiet corner, I waited for them to catch up, took a deep breath, and made my voice is soft and steady as possible, a technique I’d noticed Felicia using when she was aiming for just short of stopping their hearts. “You aren’t teenagers yet, but you’ve traveled to enough places in the United States to make most adults jealous. You’ve gone to Italy, Germany, spent a month in Paris, and you’re beginning a month in Ireland. If you refuse to realize how lucky you are and can’t find a way to appreciate it, think about this: your bickering threatens our enjoyment of what we are thinking of as a trip of a lifetime.” I took a deep breath, more for effect and to let that sink in before the next part. “With that in mind, would you rather spend time with Happy Melissa or Angry Melissa?”

A very sober, “Happy Melissa,” was the immediate answer, leading me to believe that I had come close to achieving Felicia-level results. She was a great teacher. I suggested that if they couldn’t handle the brother-sister relationship, they should think of each other as fellow tourists stuck together. They rather like the idea of being strangers to each other, and the problem was solved, at least temporarily.

That business taken care of, much to the amusement of a few passersby, we decided to make a diversion to check out the Green, where we were instantly and pleasantly surprised. It was bigger than we suspected and compartmentalized enough to allow us to feel comfortable: very Paris like. There was plenty for the eye, but not so demanding that we couldn’t just sit and enjoy if we wanted. Unfortunately, there were plenty of pigeons, and Michael hadn’t shed his obsession for torturing them. At least he had switched from physical to psychological torture, but it required attention from us, which killed the ambience to some degree. A warning from Jason about negative pigeon karma knocking him upside the head someday got him off that path and we were able to achieve some measure of peace, until Michael found some large squirrels. With a sigh, Janine stood up from the bench and volunteered for the rescue mission, leaving us alone for the first time.

Knowing it’d be brief, Jason slid next to me, an evil smile on his face. “Knew I should’ve worn the garlic necklace today.”

“I have no intention of biting you,” while continuing his approach, “although it’s not such a bad idea.”

As much as I loved this banter, I needed to move us on. “Love, she’s going to tire of protecting the squirrels soon. I appreciate your playfulness, but I’d appreciate your lips even more, unless you’d prefer to dazzle me with your cleverness instead.”

“Okay, but I reserve the right to return to this moment in the future if I have creativity gaps because of the stress created by this incident.”

I held my hand up to his lips. “Only if I can refer to this moment in the future as one that initiated our breakup because of alienation of affection.” He got the idea.

After a short pause, “May I erase everything I’ve said since sliding over and kiss your luscious lips?”

I decided to skip all the remarks I could’ve made it, knowing that they’d probably come up another time, and let him off the hook. “You may. Please be sure that you make up for the wait I had to endure.”

“I promise to try my best,” together with a sincere look that worried me and the Vulcan peace sign. I let him give it a try and he succeeded.

Just in time before the monsters returned, strangely quiet. Worryingly quiet, so I gave Janine a look and she signaled that everything was okay. All of this took place completely unnoticed by Jason and Michael, of course. We decided to walk around the park to get an idea of the neighborhood beginning with the northwest corner. Janine immediately fixated on the shopping mall, but we pulled her along with promises that it wouldn’t go away. Looking around, I had the feeling that there was a lot of unfinished business in Ireland but no one was terribly worried. They were working toward something, confident that it’d happen someday. No one thinks about not being around to see the end, but the knowledge that you’ve begun something that can be admired, even inspiring, can be more than enough. I thought about Antoni Gaudi creating the Sagradi Familia in Barcelona. He knew it wouldn’t be completed in his lifetime — it still wasn’t — but what mattered was that he had begun something that would live on. That was all he needed.

It occurred to me that with a bit of a sideways twist, we could be doing the same thing with our recordings. What we created could live on, and so could the music, especially if we gave it all we had. A smile came up because thoughts like that always gave me a push and made me feel good about what I was doing, but they sent Jason into spasms because all he could think about were the ways he could mess up. We always ended up in the same place: my reaction inspired me to see if I could take my playing to a new level, while Jason’s fear made doing the even his best barely acceptable. It was interesting (and often frustrating) that his approach usually got him to performance level before me: stomach acid must be more effective than inspiration.

Probably because of his ambition to be a composer and his gift for being able to get inside a composer’s head, he also became totally determined if he actually got to meet him (or her). Thanks to Colin and Mr. Robinson, there’d been many opportunities for determination overload, which provided me with many of my favorite moments. When you combine musical directors of their caliber with someone like Jason, the result was startled looks on composers’ faces as they heard what was inside their heads reproduced aurally. Being a part of moments like that was enough to get me through even the most snarly practice sessions. My other favorite moments came when Jason got a chance to talk to the composers. At some point in the conversation, they all realized that not only were they talking to someone who could get inside their heads, but his age sank in. The facial expressions and body language were always memorable. The combination had to be disconcerting. It caught me off guard sometimes.

My lofty thoughts were brought back to earth by Jason snuggling up and putting his arm around my waist while he made a decidedly non-stealthy approach toward nuzzling my shoulder. I wasn’t annoyed about the descent because Jason’s dedication wasn’t something to be ignored. His timing was often terrible, but there he was with that look in his eyes, part little kid in a candy store and part worshiper at my altar. Unfortunately, mood number two was broken by some whiny squeaking about moving on, so we grabbed a hand each. I whispered into Jason’s year that the shoulder wasn’t going anywhere and he muttered something unintelligible.

Once we’d made the complete circuit, the look of distress on Jason’s face told me that lunch needed to happen soon. The Green wasn’t far from Temple Bar, and I wanted to try a Nepalese restaurant I’d read about with a name no one could resist: Monty’s of Kathmandu.

The first part of the trip was a bit harrowing: even though parts of Dublin appear to be on a grid, the reality turned out to be quite different. We found that we had to turn right to go left on Grafton Street and follow and an even more confusing similar detour to get on lower St. Stephen Street the right time to South Great Georges Street with another little kinky turn from Dame to Eustace Street. All the little bends and turns gave us a chance to really study our surroundings.

Finally, we arrived just in time from the sound of Jason’s stomach growls. The waiter, Ahmed, looked a bit confused by our combination, but we placed ourselves completely in his hands. He smiled and became our teacher, not only bringing us practically everything on the menu, but also explaining what each dish was. I didn’t think it was his original plan, but when he saw the level of appreciation (and carnage), everything came out. That may have been an exaggeration. All I did was sample, standard when in his company, unless I wanted to shop for new clothes to wear. Jason and Michael, on the other hand, made Ahmed smile more broadly with every course. It reminded me of the look I’d seen many times on Mario’s and Violetta’s faces. Jason was universally loved by people with the need to feed.

I found myself wishing I had a tape recorder. Normally, I could rely on Jason’s auditory memory, but I wasn’t sure how much got through with all the chewing so I concentrated more closely on what Ahmed said about each dish. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Janine turning on the charm for him at the same time that she was keeping her eyes on the boys, an instinctual survival mechanism that went back to the cavemen: when in the vicinity of a ravenous eater, be sure he doesn’t begin to eye you as food (or get it all over you as he ate). I recognized the pose and we gave each other a conspiratorial smile.

It was too much, so I asked Ahmed for a copy of the menu, telling him that we’d need to bring Colin and Felicia many times so we could get it right. With the pressure off, I could devote all my attention to the flavors. Michael interrupted his business long enough to take a deep breath and smile, but because he was still chewing, no words came out (thank God).

Even the males were stated by the time we left. I felt like I’d better move before I turned into a blob. We decided to give the river a bit of a walk, making note of all the galleries on the streets for future visits. When we arrived at Wellington Quay, Michael decided to be smart and yell out, “Oh look, another bridge. Should we cross it?” I decided that the best response was on his level, so I stuck my tongue out. It was the Millennium Bridge and it fit in very nicely, unusual for a fairly new bridge.

“Hate to disappoint Michael,” Jason said with a shrug and a smile.

“True, but there is a certain value to unpredictability, and I hate to give him what he wants.” We were whispering as we walked arm-in-arm, not an easy task but we’d practiced diligently over the past year or so.

He thought for a moment before her leaning a bit closer. “On the other hand, how much do we want him to control what we do?”

It was a real dilemma, one that may not have come up if we hadn’t been slightly jetlagged and disoriented by the new surroundings. “You’re right. Lay one on me.” So much for subtlety, and Jason completed the circuit with his kiss.

“That was a good one. I could tell,” Janine whispered as we continued on.

I was still trying to recapture my frame of reference, or was it equilibrium? When I got to the part where I could tell the difference, I whispered back, “It was. Mind telling me your basis for judgment?”

She rolled her eyes before answering, “I was in Paris with the two of you.” The key was the hesitation before the eye roll and the answer, so I gave her my best look (borrowed from Felicia). She caved. “Can we talk about this later?” In other words, without Jason and especially Michael around. I signaled my agreement by pinching her arm, sideways repayment for Felicia’s earlier pinch.

Meanwhile, the view grabbed our attention. I was slowly making the adjustment from Paris, which was much larger and had kings who were intent on making it grand. The only kings associated with Dublin were English, and their intent was keeping them down, certainly not making it grand. Looking at it within the context of perseverance against all odds, it was pretty amazing. Ormond Quay was very personable, as was everything we’d seen so far. Paris could be personable at the street level, but overall, its intention was to knock your socks off. Dublin wasn’t especially friendly at the street level, but since its intention was intimidate, that made sense. What I’d seen of Dublin so far was like the people I’d met: a bit feisty but happy to give you a try. I was definitely intrigued to do more research. I wasn’t sure if a month was enough, but I was willing to give it a try.

Another bridge, Grattan, presented itself and we did as expected, which was probably why it didn’t feel right. “We need to return to that one.”

Jason looked confused. “Try it again? I can do better.”

Have to admire someone focused on improvement, even if the prime motivation in this case was worry that he’d done something wrong. “No, I think it’s the context problem,” while glancing at the kids, “plus I’m not sure that we should be repeating a Paris thing.” He looked confused. “This isn’t Paris. I think we should give Dublin a chance to inspire us.” We obviously were on the same wavelength — despite the expected male/female outlooks, which happened amazingly infrequently with us — so he shrugged and let it go at that.

One of Jason’s greatest strengths was that he never approached anything with the assumption that it had to work out or make sense. Some might define that as pessimism, but his outlook didn’t hurt his approach: if anything, it pushed him to try out possibilities others might not attempt. I didn’t understand exactly, but I’d seen it happen too many times to question it. The biggest benefit, of course, was in music because his universe for acceptable was much greater than most people’s. Translated, that means that others would dismiss things as not making sense because they had a certain tolerance. Anything outside that field was rejected as not making sense. Jason’s view of acceptable, especially for music, was far wider, so he didn’t dismiss things as quickly as others. In terms of efficiency, it wasn’t a very good perspective because having the narrow field allowed others to move on to other problems much quicker. Jason went to places others wouldn’t think of going because they’d automatically rejected them, so his processing took more time. Unfortunately, with Jason that extended to language also, which explained why he was such a glib conversationalist.

Fortunately, Essex Quay offered diversions so we didn’t have to dwell much on it. The house with frescoes between the first and second floor was an immediate attraction and we of course had to walk around s-l-o-w-l-y so Jason could take it all in. The rest of us actually went from beginning to end and back again three times before he was done. The good thing about it was that it put him on the visual overload so we were able to get to the end of the Quay fairly quickly until we got to the Bookend Building, so different in its stark modern lions but worth an extra look.

We were on time to make our way down Fishamble Street, where we were due to meet Colin and Felicia at the Contemporary Music Center. I was looking forward to that because they’d done such great work on Irish composers. In fact, we did all our research for the concert series through them and their recordings. I knew their headquarters would mostly be offices, but I figured there’d be someone to thank for making our job easier.

Did I mention the “independent study” class we discovered we were signed up for? By the end of the summer, Colin had bagged plans to try a series in London: too many contingencies. We were a bit mystified by the Independent Study class on our schedules, but since we got them two days before classes began, we let it get lost in the shuffle. Mr. Robinson was listed as the instructor, which both intrigued us and made the hairs on the backs of our necks stand on end.

When we arrived at the designated room at the designated time, the mystery grew. Tim and Carina were in the room, and before we could say anything, we were followed by Matt, Alicia, Omar, and Lisa. No one had the slightest idea what was going on except that Mr. Robinson had found a new way to torture us that was sanctioned by the school administration. When he finally showed ten minutes later, we found out it was even more diabolical than we’d imagined, being “… Young innocents unfamiliar with the wicked ways of the world” (an actual quote from Carina, who either made you want to laugh out loud or choke her, sometimes both).

It turned out that he and Colin had cooked up a plan to have us do all of Colin’s work for a concert series in Ireland. We had to do research into contemporary Irish composers and their music — Colin had even set up a generous iTunes account and another for buying sheet music — and set up a series of four concerts a la Paris. We even had to come up with musicians who could play the music. Whatever possible, we were to learn that music, although considering our course loads and the fact that all that had to be done before the end of the semester, they were willing to make that a lower priority. Colin: generous to the end.

We made the mistake of asking what we were to do the second semester, since there wasn’t anything else in that slot on any of our schedules. Mr. Robinson just smiled and said, “We’re working on that,” which brought a groan from all of us. When he was out of earshot, we decided to include child labor laws in our research. We didn’t imagine what it would do us any good, but it was a diversion. Lisa and Omar wondered what they’d do when it came to the part where we were learning the music and playing it. “You have until then to learn recording and conducting. When we set this up, I made sure that I have to do as little as possible except pointing out your shortcomings.” He sat down at his desk and put his feet up. “My concern is that you learn how to do this well and then let things happen.”

“Might want to think about having your shoes resoled before then,” I observed. The idea of Mr. Robinson sitting back and letting things happen was pretty foreign, especially when it came to music. It turned out that he never got the desk routine right, but he did stay in the background and only gave the occasional nudge when we were chasing our tails for too long. Omar and Lisa did really well in the conducting role, and thanks to having to Dad as guest lecturer (with periodic visits to Archives Sundays), recording wasn’t a problem except for equipment with very small but it’s (Omar trying to manipulate and iPod with his huge hands was a study in frustration).

Fishamble Street was very different area. I was already beginning to appreciate the absence of a cookie-cutter look. Even Paris had a certain predictability about it, but Dublin was, so far, full of surprises. Here, there was both an open and closed look: some areas where the buildings were close to the street and more imposing, like our destination, while others like the castle across the way, were set back. I was also interested to note that I felt a certain tension from the arrangement that I kind of liked. It was very different from Paris, where everything was designed to flow and be harmonious. In Dublin, things seemed to want to get in your way and surprise you, but only in a semi-a serious way. No matter what, there was always the Irish) in the background, slightly amused that you’d gone so far off the deep end, but not to the point of angering you.

Colin and Felicia were waiting for us when we arrived at the Contemporary Music Center. Colin had his usual impatient look that came whenever everything didn’t happen as soon as he arrived. Felicia had told us that she checked with his parents and he had that look almost from birth so it wasn’t a conductor thing, which was why we not only let him live but ignored it too. In this instance, we had to let it go because he deserved our respect in front of these people. Besides, he wasn’t taking advantage for putting on airs. He honestly expected that when he was ready for something, it was supposed to happen. I never could figure out how all those years with Felicia hadn’t knocked it out of him. Knowing that she or possibly I (be still my heart at the chance) would get him later was enough to allow me to put it away without grinding my teeth.

Jason and I were sufficiently gushy with everyone about how their recordings and website had helped us to develop the program to make friends for life. The fact that it was sincere made it that much more rewarding. Since it was our first real contact with Irish people, I began to notice some things. The first was that they approached everyone graciously but with an almost imperceptible sideways glance — probably the result of being screwed with by so many for so long — but once they saw you were okay, it was open arms. I didn’t have a handle on how the decision was made, but the transition was obvious. Something to study: school was never out.

We left with invitations for them to attend any rehearsals they could make. They already had a block of tickets for each concert and a contract to distribute the recording rights. Colin wasn’t keen on extra people during rehearsals but these were people who never got in the way. They knew what they were you listening to and they were staunch supporters of music, not themselves.

We motored from there because Colin wanted to look over the National Concert Hall. For anyone following with a map, we headed down Werburgh past Dublin Castle (our first and probably least impressive Irish castle) into Bride past St. Patrick’s Cathedral (worth investigating later), and then left onto Kevin Lower feeding into Cuffe Street and St. Stephen’s Green West. Traffic patterns necessitated going around the Green to get there. Conversation along the way was minimal except for Michael and Janine, who seemed to have revived, probably from being on their best behavior at CMC. Playing nice for an extended period of time (translation: more than ten minutes) was stressful for preteen nervous systems and release was required. Fortunately, the rest of us were preoccupied with sightseeing and able to block out the babble, although Jason seemed to be having a bit of a hard time, being especially auditory. I might not have noticed but we were holding hands and the pressure increased gradually as we went along. In the interest of being able to use my hand for the concerts, I leaned over and whispered, “Establish a baseline,” a variation of Mr. Robinson’s, “I hope that what I just heard was a baseline,” when he wasn’t pleased with the level of playing he was hearing.

He reached over to Michael and across to Janine, gave them the look — I didn’t even know that he had the look — and whispered, “Ambience.” It worked immediately, and to his credit he didn’t try to take it any further. Felicia and I smiled at each other, but Colin didn’t seem to notice. No surprise there. He was either wrapped up in what he’d need to see and do or he’d gone to Planet Colin, a strange and potentially dangerous place where few people dared to venture. Either way, a bomb could probably go off without him noticing, but it rated an eye raise and smile from Felicia. The urchins seem shocked that Jason had done it, but they were unsure enough about the situation to not try to push it.

Colin wanted Felicia and the kids to go to the concert hall but she begged off so she could find a place to burn some energy off the chatterboxes. She rejected duct tape and bungee cords because it was too early in the trip and she’d end up having to beat them by the second week.

They giggled until they noticed that everyone else was perfectly sober and nodding in agreement. Just before we got out of the car, she said, “I was thinking about you two someday getting married and having children. My first thought was that they’d be pretty amazing. My second thought was that when they got to this age,” throwing a sideways glance, “I will be sure that no matter how old these two are, they will make themselves available as babysitters.”

As they pulled away, we could hear Michael whining, “Won’t we be in our thirties by then?”

Colin came back long enough to smile and say, “My son is very good at math. Shall we?”

From the outside, the National Concert Hall was kind of confusing. Symphony space is tended to be rather tall because of the acoustics. However, we’d been known to perform in gymnatoriums: school speak for a gym that has a stage on one end; if the stage designed didn’t suck the life out of your sound the gym did, even if they thought to raise the baskets. We were willing to withhold judgment. We were met outside by the director, Mr. O’Hara, and Colin became the diplomat. Let me qualify that. Colin didn’t suffer fools gladly and he wouldn’t associate himself with what he called The Suits — anyone in it for any reason other than music — unless it was to take their money so he could cause more music to happen. The diplomat came out when he was dealing with someone he knew was genuinely about the music, and Mr. O’Hara was as genuine as they came.

We were conflicted as soon as we walked in. We rescheduled for the main concert hall, it was a great space, but fell in love with the John Field Room as soon as we saw it. Without knowing anything about the acoustics, we knew it was where we wanted to be. We also knew that at this point it was probably impossible because of differences in capacity and the publicity that already went out. I whispered to Jason, “Damn, I know better than to go on appearances, but this room feels good.”

“I agree. Wish there was something we could do about it, but I definitely don’t want to bring it up to Colin.” I knew what he meant. Colin was open to any musical discussion that was doable — and his threshold was pretty high — but I was pretty sure this would be considered a waste of time.

“What are you two whispered about when you should be hanging on my every word?”

He had to pick this moment to be aware of his surroundings. “Nothing, Colin. Love talk.” That usually got him off the scent.

Didn’t work. He laughed. “I’ve been around you two enough, unfortunately, to know that your faces get weird during ‘ love talk.’ Out with it.”

Jason sighed. “We were just talking about what a great space this is, how we wished we were doing the concerts here instead of the main concert hall.”

“Based on what? Have you ever heard music played here?” We both shook our heads. “Then what? Do you like the pretty rug? The chandeliers?”

He was being annoying, but we were with Mr. O’Hara and we couldn’t treat this like a discussion we’d have privately. “Sometimes you just have a feeling for a place.”

He nodded. “Explain please.” For most people, there would have been a comma in there but Colin’s syntax seldom contained them. The punctuation would have been an invitation. Take it away, and it became more of an order.

He smiled and turned to Mr. O’Hara. “Told you they were good.” He smiled and nodded back Colin let us stand there with confused looks for an annoying number of seconds before, “I had the same feeling, so I checked it out a month ago and switched. We’re playing here.”

From the look on Jason’s face, I could tell he felt like strangling him too, but we both settled for saying that it was great and let the mayhem happen in our minds, until later. I couldn’t resist one question. “How did you get past the promoters? The concert hall must seat three or four times than this room does.”

Another exchange of knowing smiles. “Almost four, to be exact, which is why we’ve played with the schedule a bit, depending on the reception to the concerts.” He turned to Mr. O’Hara, who grabbed his phone and excused himself. Colin went on. “The main concert hall is great — I especially like the fact that we can be surrounded by the audience — but I checked out the acoustics both here and upstairs, and knew this would be what we wanted. As you guessed, the concert for the promoters was ticket sales, so I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: a percentage of the recordings and one other thing.”

“This wouldn’t involve anything like our firstborn child, would it?” Couldn’t resist because I knew it would make him gag.

It worked. “Please, that’s disturbing in so many ways.” He threw in a world-class shudder for punctuation.

We were rescued by the return of Mr. O’Hara. “We’re grand. Only a few left to some of the concerts, but not enough to worry about. The new contracts have been sent out in the publicity’s on schedule.” They shook hands and said their farewells, which were repeated with us, and we left.

Before we got out of the building, he began quizzing us. “What problems do you see with the space, especially for recording?”

Jason began with, “The rug — “

I cut them off. “Colin, it’s bad enough that we want to shoot you for that little game you played with us poor trusting teenagers [snort from him], but the least you could do is tell us what’s going on. Surprises are the arsenal of those who haven’t the ability to attract attention any other way.”

As expected, he turned to Jason. “I thought so too at first, but it turns out that they’ve run a number of feeds below the stage and can do some amazing stuff with wireless. Melissa’s dad would be salivating if he could work with some of the equipment they have.”

Jason didn’t respond. Smart boy. He didn’t even need a glimpse at the look in my eye. “You’ve been away. We’ve been recording The Archives wirelessly for months.” That got an eye raise from Colin. “Now, if we could please leave the boys-and-their-toys discussion for later, tell us what’s going on.”

He was thinking about another tactical question, but thankfully he didn’t go there. “Any other plans for the summer?”

I knew he couldn’t pull what he did last summer, throwing a chamber series at us to manage, but I’d also learned never to underestimate him. Jason gave him a wistful look. “The thought of relaxing and recharging before our senior year had crossed our minds.”

He shook his head. “So ordinary, but you’ll be able to do that. You just won’t have as long as you originally planned. We’re going to be here a few weeks longer than we originally scheduled. Your parents have a rough idea and have already approved it, although I suspect that part of that may be because they plan to join us for a while.” He let that register and didn’t try to hide that he fully enjoyed our reaction. “After all, Felicia and I can’t be expected to keep you two apart for that amount of time without help. That’d be exhausting, daunting, frightening, and a whole bunch of other -ing words, to say nothing of the irreparable damage to our gag reflexes and our poor children’s psyches. It’s taken almost a year to undo the harm you wreaked on them last summer. We came close to calling for an intervention.”

Thank God for the need for air, although when he was slaying himself, Colin could go on and on. “Did you say two months? How’s that going to work?” I did my best to avoid reacting to anything he said and sound as nonchalant as possible. I threw in wrapping myself around Jason’s arm for good measure.

He obviously didn’t want to play. A shame. Instead, he rattled off, “Two performances of each concert — sorry, no more Wednesdays off — first concert is in for almost three weeks. On the good side, it gives us time to get a feel for Ireland. We even had a guide hired to take us around. On the plus side, double concerts mean that you get double the performance fees.” He paused for a second. “Enough for now?” We nodded and both masterfully held back the excitement we were feeling. Our one disappointment with the trip had been that the schedule wouldn’t allow us to see anything but Dublin. “Okay. By the way, my sneakiness, as you so rudely labeled it, allowed Frank to see that you weren’t just a couple of teenagers I had in tow. He’s listened to the recordings from last year, but being able to play music doesn’t necessarily mean you know much about it. I could tell him a lot, but showing is always the most effective way. You learn that one two years ago.”

Amen to that one. Following that tact saved our music program. Time to be humble. “Thank you, Colin.” We’d arrived at the house.

He nodded and returned to his previous tracks. “Problems?”

“Tell us about the upper-level.”

“I thought it might be a problem, but it actually enhances the sound. You’ll see tomorrow. Do you have the CDs of your recordings, or are they packed away?”

I pulled my iPod and ear buds out of my purse. “CDs are so last year, Colin.” I handed them to him.

He gave me a look. “You don’t think for a minute that I’m going to put these into my ears, which are finely tuned instruments and insured for millions. Who knows what that come in contact with in your ears.”

We rolled our eyes and laughed, not the reaction he expected. “My mother wins.” He let that hang for a few seconds. I continued, “Mrs. Stacconi bet us that you’d come up with some lame excuse to cover the fact that you don’t know how to use an iPod.”

Jason patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry. We brought a sound dock along so you can plug it in.”

He straightened his shoulders and snapped, then handed the iPod back. “I leave the technical details up to minions,” before proceeding into the door. We both laughed, on the verge of uncontrollably, which caught Felicia’s attention. After getting over the surprise that she was there and that the kids were nowhere to be seen or heard, Colin tried to explain that we seemed to have come down with something, but we repeated the conversation, which made her day.

Jason was looking under sofa cushions. “Where are the terrorists? We didn’t expect you to get back so quickly. Did you throw them out of the car somewhere, and if you did, was the car still moving?”

I ended, “If that’s what happened, we want you to know that we have your backs. Our story is that the kids were here one minute and suddenly they were gone.”

“What kids?” Jason added.

“I appreciate your support at the same time that I’m a bit disturbed that you’ll be responsible for watching them, but the truth is even stranger.” She took a sip of her tea. “We had barely started out when something earthshaking happened.” She looked at Colin. “Did you feel the earth move shortly after we left?”

“Darling, my earth moves every time we part because of the imbalance caused by your absence.”

Jason turned to me. “That was a good one, wasn’t it?” I nodded and he reached into his pocket to pull out a pen and pad of paper before turning to Colin. “May I use it?”

He gave a Queen’s wave. “Feel free, but don’t you think that it’ll lose its effectiveness a bit when the person you’re going to use it on is standing next to you?”

I sat down across from them. “This is someone who repeatedly quotes from Moonstruck, a movie we’ve both seen it at least ten times.”

“Of course, I’ll clean it up and improve it.”

Felicia put her tea down. “Could we say the rest of this for some future bonding moment that I don’t want to be near and return to my earthshaking experience with the kids?

“Oh, that.” He and Jason did the secret handshake (the one that ended with a nose picking motion: yuck) before he turned back to Felicia.

She took another sip of tea, mostly to make him hold that stupid expression on his face, I think — he really should know better after all these years, but there was also a weird part of men that seemed to want to feed into something like that — before proceeding, “We had just pulled away and I was gathering myself for a truly magnificent performance when Michael: that’s our son Michael, although I haven’t ruled out demonic or alien possession — turns to me and says that he’s sorry, knows that he needs to behave, and promises to try harder.” Colin raised both eyebrows and leaned forward. “This amazing display was topped by our hormone-addled daughter telling me that she realized that she needed to grow up and control herself. We returned to the house and they went to their rooms to read until you returned.”

Colin whistled and shook his head. “You two are closer in age. Any ideas?”

Jason was first. “My first guess would be that special look Felicia has, which scares the hell out of me.”

“Me too,” I added.

“Unanimous, but you did say you were gathering yourself.” She nodded. “That look usually comes spontaneously and independently.” He paused for a second. “Foolish as it might be, I’d like to travel to the other end and suggests that our children are growing up and allowing maturity to seep in among the other toxic waste that’s swimming around.”

“Wow,” was all I could think of.

“At least we have a big middle to explore between those two boundaries.” Jason was being very verbal. He was more comfortable with the Bromwells than most adults, but the response time was unusual. He was still far from glib around others, but the processing speed and the fact that so much was actually being verbalized was unusual. I had the feeling that I need to study that more than any aberration from the kids. There may have been some signs during the school year, but there was no way to judge such an artificial situation. In classes, Jason operated from his brain without social or psychological barriers. He saw a classroom as an open forum for ideas — interestingly, he was quieter when the purpose of the class was to parrot back information — and everything clicked there. Otherwise, we were around our friends, parents, or Symphony musicians, all artificial situations for making a judgment in this case.

We all agreed that the spell shouldn’t be broken by looking in on them, no matter how great the temptation. “I take it we can discuss the new schedule now,” Felicia redirected. “Sorry guys. I was sworn to secrecy.”

“I can’t imagine what he could have had on you, poor woman.” I put an arm around her shoulder. “Bad Colin.”

He chose to ignore. “We have ten days to tour Ireland — I’m told that isn’t nearly enough — with a guide, followed by a little over a week of rehearsals. Somewhere in the middle, we have another week to travel. Performances on Tuesday evenings and Wednesday afternoons.” A slight pause as if he was being so put out. “Need more detail?” We knew Colin well enough to be aware that we weren’t likely to get any.

I decided to go sideways. “How are we going to work out the touring thing with six of us and a guide? Sounds a bit tight, especially since the squirmy ones take enough space for four.”

“Not my job.” In Colin’s world, he happily took care of the gnarliest details that related to music, which when he thought about it was a large part of his life. Anything outside of that was up to everyone else. If that seemed trusting and cavalier, you also needed to be aware of the fact that most of the people handling those other details were at the top of their fields, and if they weren’t at the top of their games, they weren’t around long.

The guide was stopping by after dinner to meet everyone and plan our travels. Jason had that look in his eye. I suggested a nap, which brought both a grateful and surprised look that I had read him. To tell the truth, I was feeling a bit lagged myself, so we asked to be excused with promises that we’d help with dinner preparations. Felicia said that they’d handle the preparations, bringing a surprised look from both of us because she obviously included Colin in the “we” and he was never known to be much use around the kitchen except to direct things. She said that we could do the cleanup with the kids.

Our suspicions were confirmed when we reached our rooms. The kids were sleeping. Jason had a big smile on his face. “Almost brings a tear to the eye and a catch to the throat when you see young people following the proper path in life.”

I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a, “Yes, dear,” before giving him something else to think about with a kiss. His response showed that he wasn’t entirely into nap mode yet. Feeling a sense of accomplishment, I told him I loved him and sent him off.

Two months in Ireland making music, being with people I loved, and seeing Jason all day every day. I was beginning to think I could handle it.

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