Let’s revisit the oboe. Specifically, the oboe circa 8th grade, spring concert, the only concert you ever played in, really, your tenure with the oboe so short, oboe as pupa, as larvae, as something before a real self could show its face, you played the oboe for the spring concert then, before fully knowing how to unwrap into the instrument of yourself, and so, a surrogate, a long-necked blackness, the ivory reed sliced razor-thin at the top, leaving a slim margin where your air could pass through.
That oboe needed practice, afternoons of it, stuck in a hot music room with your best friend Becky Tanguay, who played the flute like the real thing, not like you at all, inexpert, trumpety, you could never get that graceful sound you’d heard on the recording your music teacher had given you, could never strike that tone, not even close, and the best way you could tackle her instructions to be gentle was to hold back, push your neck into an awkward angle, tilt your chin down to minimize the sound that wanted to come out of your lips. What you gave that oboe was a fraction of what you wanted to give.
But anyway. A hot music room. Becky Tanguay. The spring concert coming just around the corner. Something of the stage calling you. An 8th grader’s fantasy of fame, a moment of attention, really, nothing grand, nothing too fancy, just a little stage time, but not for singing, which you weren’t quite sure of, did not want to test out on anyone just yet, your voice, your real voice, too much of an alto, and where were the songs for that, everything on the scale of musicals gave other girls such glorious solos but which only gave you the willies, not enough arch in your back, not enough breasts, that lope in your gait, not enough girl in your girl. An alto, it made sense to move toward the oboe. It was what people might have called a striking instrument, a handsome instrument, but it had the purr of a woman somehow, or it could, a low intimate invitation, or on the higher notes, something loose-limbed, jazzy, able to dance well and be seen.
No one had told you about the oboe. You’d picked it out yourself, out of a lineup of instruments, whatever the band room had on tap, there was a choice and it seemed right, somehow, to edge away from the clumsy, whalloping tuba, or the tinny violin which you knew would take you years to make audible in the right way. Becky had the flute, which was fine because you didn’t want it anyway, too effortful to make that kind of sound, impossible really, to imagine how just blowing around the throat of that instrument would give you anything.
She made it seem easy, Becky, casually dangling the flute by her side one minute and then like a kind of ballet holding it up near her mouth and offering the music with paper-thin delicacy. You could not imagine doing anything like that, but the oboe, with its thicker base and its substantial darkness felt like the right kind of place to go, and what with the annual spring concert, and a desire to at least attempt a certain femininity, a semblance of poise somehow different from the poise you felt, say, on the basketball court, which while a perfectly viable way of expressing yourself also kind of neutered you, even if was the point, playing with the boys.
But the problem with that was that they would not, could not see you in anything other than shorts, in any other way than a playmate with a reliable left-hand lay-up. And while that was fine you and enjoyed the camaraderie, the equality of gamesmanship, you were also keenly aware of that thing you were missing, a certain wanted quality, and you saw how this could benefit you, you saw this clearly those few times a year the school play would come out, those timeless musicals parents always sung along to with a strange look of nostalgia and embarrassment, and you’d go because everyone went but what really caught your eye was how the girls who had the solos looked so happy, so at peace, so in the center of things. It’s not what you wanted, exactly, because that required other things you didn’t have – braids, maybe, or blond hair, more friends – but what you were after was something just adjacent to it, a brief appearance that stuck, like an after-image, long after you’d left the stage.
It took months to learn how to play the thing, of course, but it was the kind of instrument no one bothered you about. It was almost obscure, like Latin declensions or French bidets, but also cultured, like being knighted by the Queen. You could walk around knowing you were doing something not too many people knew about, and just that, the foreignness of it, gave you an advantage. You knew that even if you didn’t end up playing the thing very well, you could at least tell people, in casual conversation or otherwise, after they asked you what your hobbies were, and you listed the obvious, like reading or sports, which no one remembered, you could deftly leave this tidbit for last, announce it like an afterthought, like a casual memory, “Oh, and I’m learning to play the oboe.”
It was nice to use on adults sometimes, because you liked the way their eyes would go wide and they’d smile and say “Ooh, how interesting,” because you knew that it was sort of interesting and at least they’d remember that. But to your classmates, you needed an actual demonstration of this new art, this unfolding skill, and the spring concert came right on time, after the early weeks of learning how to blow into the testy reed, after figuring the pedals, after priming yourself with sheet music and your teacher’s tireless instructions to hold the whole notes until they were through, you sped through those lessons because you knew this relationship would not last.
You saw what Becky went through with her flute, the almost religious fervor her mother had with keeping the thing intact, of making sure the investment held out for the long term, and it didn’t make Becky very happy. She now saw her playing as an inescapable pathway to her mother, a lifeline that brought her front and center with an affection and joy she might otherwise have been bereft. She had to keep playing, it was clear, if she wanted to get anything else out of her mother – clothes, an overnight at my house, a ski trip to Vermont. Everything came with that kind of cost, and I knew that even though my parents were not like Becky’s mother, I didn’t need to tempt fate and profess allegiance to something that came with such a heavy case and required so much cleaning.
The spring concert was a discombobulated medley of student offerings – a jazz vocal ensemble, memorized poetry by Robert Frost, a tap dance number, a soliloquy from Hamlet, one of the younger kids playing Ragtime on the just slightly out-of-tune school piano. You figured the oboe-and-flute performance would be a highlight, really, a soothing respite from bad acting and over-sung lyrics. You were aiming to strike a tone somewhere between casual indifference and knowing intimacy during your performance, something you’d seen on a soap opera somewhere that seemed like the perfect launching pad into emblazoning your image on the minds of the audience. You were not going to make a fool of yourself by looking too earnest, but you also needed to look connected enough to your instrument, like you’d been playing it for years and this was just another piece of music you knew so well, just a blip on your repertoire.
The path leading from the music room to the back stage of the cafeteria, where you were to wait with Becky until your performance was announced, seemed just the right length, like a red carpet only unseen and secret, and you liked that darkness, the dusty pencil-strewn walkway that smelled of another era, the squeaking floorboards, and then, arriving backstage, the heavy velvet of the curtains standing between you and the minor fame you were after.
It was wonderful to stand there, listening to the muted sounds of Tracy Cheever finishing up the last verse of some stroppy song from Guys and Dolls, and you savored these few last moments of anonymity, feeling the pulse of things beginning to change. The oboe felt light in your hands just then, simply a mouthpiece for your impending greatness, but it was then you loved that instrument the most, too, felt its gravity, its grace, its generous possibility, and it was totally without self-consciousness that you lifted it to your mouth and gave it a kiss, even with Becky watching, even though she wasn’t really watching, was she, she was wringing each segment of her flute, dispelling the last droplets of spittle from it, wanting to evince from its silver passageways the best sounds she could when it was time for us to make our entrance.
It doesn’t matter what the piece was that you’d decided on. It doesn’t matter not because that wouldn’t have said something about your level of intimacy with the music or your real feelings about the oboe or your friendship with Becky or what you were wishing and hoping for in an 8th grade spring concert. It doesn’t matter not because there isn’t music that so wholly encapsulates an era, a kinship, a vibrancy within, a split second in time that transforms one’s heart into unanticipated joy. It doesn’t matter not because there isn’t a good story in there about a girl budding out of her young self and into the bloom of a new self. It doesn’t matter because it was then, revving up to start the music, you and Becky comparing notes, making sure you were on-key, it was right before the beginning of this unnamed piece of music that your oboe chose to stop working. A sliver of reed breaking free from the rest of the thing, a fissure in the ivory, whatever it was, it led to the impossibility of playing.
So let’s return to that oboe, to an oboe that wouldn’t play when you needed it most, because the real story is how a girl manages that kind of performance, which is to say a non-performance, a performance she can no longer be in and must bow out of. The real story is about a girl who can’t play after all, who in her embarrassment and terror and impotence decides she must leave the auditorium altogether, a girl who forgets who it was exactly she was so eager to impress and who runs out of the room instead, clutching the oboe like a dead thing, like disease, like bad luck.
And yet, and still, something of this hers despite it, despite the horrible magic of a broken oboe, and you will see this now, the way you ran out of the room in a different kind of glory, the glory of the lost and dispossessed, a beautiful, aching shatter of glass, a single lightning flash of oboe and girl and everything you were wanting to be, and leaving behind you a comet tail of wonder and delicious, impossible hope, a piece of music unfinished, unplayed, and nevertheless remembered forever.