Kyle Ellingson

5th grade

Rita Jordan picked the clarinet to play in band class. Her parents had tried to pacify her with a tarnished trombone, an attic-dwelling heirloom that suffered at both ends from a coppery sort of halitosis. And anyway it was plain for Rita to see that girls were thought, generally, to play flute or clarinet—neither seeming odder to have picked than the other.

 

6th grade

The 13 members of the clarinet section were split up into three weekly lesson groups. Rita wound up in the odd larger group of five. Twice a week she had to sit and watch the instructor nod in approval at her—but shyly, without eye contact, and stifling all verbal acknowledgement of her, Rita’s, talents, all so as not to crack the four weaker egos in the room.

In full band rehearsals, Rita caught the instructor persistently sending glances of notice and acknowledgement to a certain student other than herself—the band’s only boy clarinetist. In spring, when all the band members were ranked and seated by rank in their seats, Rita won first chair and this boy had to “swallow” second chair. At last Rita could stop worrying whether the boy had some special genetic advantage over her. She slowly retracted, over weeks, her scowling stares, seated beside him every morning from 9:40 to 10:30, and permitted herself to hum and nod pleasantly in response to his very civil tendency to comment on the pleasantness of the music, despite it occurring immediately to her that the music he heard was arguably pleasant in large part because he sat so near her, no?

 

7th grade

The boy’s parents bought him a new clarinet, a majestic black entity with soft, satiny wood and three keys more than Rita’s clarinet had. Rita, by that time, was taking private lessons from a woman in town—the woman agreed that Rita, too, was probably overdue for an upgraded instrument.

A sales associate at the music shop politely insulted Rita’s old clarinet, calling it a beginner’s model. This was among the insults Rita was using in her own debasement campaign against her clarinet, which in the fondness of camaraderie she had once named “Tim” and which she was now publicly renaming “It,” and with less and less a sensation of treachery was dropping from a succession of heights onto the linoleum floors of empty practice rooms at school.

But Rita’s parents didn’t accompany her and the sales associate in smiling at the discount price on a new model. And so at home, Rita began to criticize not only “Its” battered appearance, but the sounds “It” produced, sounds which deteriorated in correlation to her no longer wetting “Its” reed before pushing breath into “It.”

Her parents were at a loss to make out the poorness of tone Rita got all flushed ranting about. Then again, they thought it was only expectable that Rita be refining her ears, sensitizing them to timbres they themselves weren’t sensitized to judge.

 

8th grade

Rita had no patience left for non-classical radio stations—in a lobby, an elevator, or at a mall. When a pop song came on in the car she was quick to lecture her parents on its historical insignificance as a composition. She told them that by surrendering access to their ear canals to commercial radio, they were nurturing a globally profiteering philistinism that was steadily downsizing her future job market by stunting the cultural growth and banalizing the ingrained spending habits of potential season-ticket buyers.

“The music is worse than the ads,” she said, paraphrasing a Juilliard grad student whose Twitter feed was a staple of her bedtime routine, “because the music is selling the ads. Same way the ads are worse than the product, because the ads are selling the product.”

“But don’t orchestras advertise?” her father asked. “Don’t they sell themselves? Posters and radio spots and ads online?”

“No!” Rita said. But she had to consult Twitter feeds a few nights before she could rally a counterpoint. “Orchestras sell music, they sell themselves. They don’t sell products.”

“What about their sponsors? Don’t they help ‘sell’ their sponsors?”

That night Rita tracked down some stuff on Twitter about “donors.”

“Donors, Dad, not sponsors. Whatever sponsors orchestras have, they’re more like donors. They just want good music.”

“So why not donate anonymously?”

“Because they want you to thank them. I would want to be thanked for that.”

“Hm. Might they just be trying to appeal commercially to an audience that likes classical music.”

“What? No!”

“But then can’t we think of pop radio as having ‘donors’ too? Can’t corporate sponsors act as donors, just wanting to bring people music they enjoy, and wanting recognition for that?”

“But you shouldn’t enjoy that music!”

“Why?”

“Because,” she said. Wanting to settle the issue now, impatient to wait and investigate answers on Twitter, she went with her gut, “Because otherwise I might never get to play in an orchestra!”

Rita’s favorite albums were clarinet recordings available without commercial interruption on Grooveshark. She didn’t take any interest in recordings of other instruments, and she mostly stuck to the recordings that showed a clarinet soloist with his or her headshot on the album cover.

As it turned out, more boys than girls ever grew up to have their faces on the front of a clarinet disc.

“Why don’t girls take more pride in themselves?” Rita asked her mother. “Why aren’t more girls like me? What the hell is wrong with them?” Rita talked about it all the time, couldn’t seem to get over it.

 

9th grade

Rita started devoting all her practice time to the music of her private lessons and recitals. She let her band music fall by what her mother called “the wayside.”

“But you have a duty to do well in band,” her mother said, “your classmates count on you.” Then, with manipulative flattery, “You especially.”

Rita explained that she could meet and exceed her band teacher’s expectations without practicing.

“You’d better find a better attitude,” her mother said, “or we’ll be selling back that new clarinet of yours.”

And so Rita started practicing her band music again—but only long enough for her mother to lose track of the difference.

 

10th grade

A university band in a neighboring suburb scouted Rita to play third chair. She had thought the conductor would hand her the first chair spot—he didn’t. Nor was she appointed any solos to play.

“They don’t know how to run things,” she would say to her father, in the car on the weekly half-hour drive to campus. “They have computer brains. They punch in ‘high schooler’ and their computer brains spit out ‘third chair.’”

“But aren’t some of the university students good musicians?”

“Well, yeah, but they suck for how old they are.”

“Hey, come on. No ‘suck’ please.”

“They stink.”

“No ‘stink.’”

“They—well I’m running out of words!”

She said she wished professional orchestras held open auditions for high school students. Then she would just find a real orchestra and skip all the intermediate fiddle-farting.

“High schoolers can’t audition for orchestras?” her father asked. After Rita’s birth, he and his wife had promised to wait to have a second child until they’d witnessed “distinct traits” in Rita that suggested she would be a “supportive and noncompetitive” sister. A month after Rita turned six, they finally decided not to reschedule his standing appointment for a vasectomy.

Rita said of course high schoolers couldn’t audition in orchestras! But in fact Rita had never wondered about it. That night she ransacked Twitter, Facebook, and especially the Wiki pages of famous musicians, only to learn that many “prodigies” and “luminaries,” even nowadays, played in orchestras at upsettingly young ages.

“I’m so old,” she said in the car to her father, less upset than grave, tired.

 

11th grade

Rita’s high school bandmates finally showed signs of understanding what a bright future awaited Rita in what they had no richer vocabulary than to call “the world of music.” Rita was the only person in her band who had a career path picked out for real. A folder on her iBook was titled “Career”: it held two files, “Resume” and “Potential Reference Letter Writers.”

Many of her bandmates were surprisingly smart and nice people, Rita started to notice, now that they had noticed her. Rita hoped they would all achieve, in whatever career they chose, something on par with what she would achieve in Music. She liked to picture herself and them all celebrating one another in formal wear someday at a ten- or fifteen-year class reunion—raising glasses of champaign (which she assumed tasted like ginger ale but somehow much better) to the middle of a white linened table. She would sit among them as a representative of Music. She would remind these old friends of hers that if their school system had offered Dentistry or Law or Veterinary Science in fifth-grade, then of course they would’ve all found their life’s calling as early as she had.

 

12th grade

Rita, in emulation of a junior member of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra she followed on social media, spent the year commuting to a community college instead of high school, to complete 24 college credits of general courses—two Math, two Literature, one Chemistry, one Spanish, one History, and a Composition. She declined a Facebooked offer from a female classmate to carpool with the two, preferring to feel unique and alone, and incontestable in her choice of radio station.

The only thing tainting Rita’s sense of being liberated from high school was the looming requirement of her “walking” to receive her diploma. Her parents insisted that she might someday regret not walking, that people they knew who indulged hermitic habits tended later to wish they had erred on the side of publicity and fellowship.

And while Rita expected an aura of grandeur to accompany her presence at graduation, the last return of she who was already “beyond,” she oppositely understood that this aura would brighten doubly around her absence, the absence of she who was already indisputably “beyond.”

When two nights before graduation, Rita’s mom threatened to revoke her gas allowance if Rita refused to “walk,” Rita felt nauseous with indignation and humiliating visions of “walking” amid peers who had maybe forgotten who she was in her year-long absence. After her shower that night, she tickled her uvula with a cleansed middle finger and did not flush the puke away until her mother, hearing her, had seen it. Surprisingly, Rita measured in at a temperature of 100.7°, and two or three times a day over the next three days the sense-memory of her finger pestering her uvula made her vomit. She lost approximately seven pounds and was profoundly freaked out by her pretty evident ability to intend herself sick.

 

Freshman Year

As she had planned for almost a decade, Rita “ascended” to a university. It was an in-state school, yes, but one of greater prestige than the schools her lesson instructor, band instructor, and university band instructor told her she could “count on” getting into. She had nevertheless internally “counted on” getting in, meaning she counted the days until she expected her acceptance email to arrive—which, according to her curated feed of undergrad blogs, typically arrived March 21-24, whereas the month of April was a gaping 30 day-wide receptacle for rejections, the most subtly derogatory coming late that month, at the time accepted students were expected to confirm their attendance—and felt justified in having done so by her eventual admittance to the program.

On campus, she strictly made friends with other music majors—according to Twitter, “friending” and “networking” were, ideally, synonymous. Many of her friends had grown up in Minneapolis or some other metropolitan area, and a mobbish majority of these poked fun at Rita for having grown up in a “small town,” totally discrediting as “the self-defensiveness of a townie” her argument that if you had Twitter it didn’t matter where you grew up because your primary community was web-based and global. A lot of upperclassmen, too, just automatically labeled her a “hick,” even though her hometown was only 34 minutes north of city limits, and was the site of a major regional hospital . . . and labeling her more often with glances and withheld sociability than with words, since to say “hick” was rhetorically unbecoming.

The first time Rita went back home for a holiday visit, she couldn’t believe how small her town looked. It was just a slightly modernized version of the shantytown farmers had established a hundred years ago on a random bend in the river, with a hospital plunked on some “back 40” lot, and was less a reflection of the sophistication of the community than its strategic proximity only to the interstate, the low cost of acreage, and a bid to direct suburban development in that direction, such that the town would, in a decade or so, no longer be just “rural-suburban” or what her classmates slandered as “rurban.” Rita had missed “suburbanite” status by twenty years, was stuck being a “rurbanite.”

That night she explained to her parents how being “rurban” would probably hold her back in her career, in the long run. People would see where she was from and just assume that the cultural mechanisms in her brain had been miniaturized in early childhood and adolescence.

Her parents were curious to know who might’ve exposed her to that perspective.

“It’s not a perspective,” Rita said. “It’s out there”—she pointed to the window—“in the world!”

That summer, Rita’s parents told her she had to get a job if she was going to live at home. She wound up teaching private clarinet lessons to teens and preteens who went to school in the district.

For the most part, Rita was an encouraging teacher——a stickler for posture and embouchure. But she saw no reason to be a stickler with students who had little hope of going on to do anything in Music.

 

Sophomore Year

Rita’s clarinet instructor in college was the principal clarinetist in a world-famous orchestra: the venerable Mary Wendelyn. When not dressed in black dresses for orchestral “appearances”, Mary Wendelyn dressed herself in chevron-print shawls and long wraparound skirts—had all her life, so far as the curated display of photographs in her office library told. Rita reacted to this series of photos as she might have to an exhibit titled “The Mystery of Success”—she always scowled in strained thought at the pictures, waiting for them to teach her something. Rita understood that she, too, would need to start thinking about a distinctive personal style of dress. Not shawls and skirts, of course—those were already taken.

Mary Wendelyn was not the kind of mentor who kept compliments in a huge bucket and handed them out for free. She always seemed half-bored during her lessons with Rita: checking her phone the instant it beeped (she had pockets for her phone in cuts of skirt not usually equipped with pockets), or pinching the craquelure of her elbow skin and applying requisite pumps of lemon-verbena lotion; Rita had to play like hell to liven her up.

Every now and then, when Mary Wendelyn went a long time without sharing her opinion of Rita—Rita endured these periods of silence like bouts of constipation, sitting next to Mary Wendelyn and ineffectually straining, at heart, for her to say something. Rita would call Mary Wendelyn an “addict of belittlement” behind her back—she diagnosed her with Aspergers, or whatever dissociative disorder it is that causes chronic underevaluation of  the people around you.

Most of the time, though, Rita couldn’t stop building Mary Wendelyn up to other people. It was clear to Rita that way down deep, she and Mary Wendelyn were burdened with the same personality—the same sensitivity to talent, and a relative boredom when you’ve sat too long in its company.

Because one time, Mary Wendelyn said, “You know you really teach yourself a lot. You’re really very good.” Mary Wendelyn seemed only to check back in on her surroundings once in a while, to make sure conditions were how she remembered them, like a landlord checking up on a property she doesn’t live in. Her face, tiny on a big head, had heavy, muppety eyelids and fanning lashes, and even at her most alertly present and expressive, her upper lids, painted in autumnal reds and browns Rita would laugh at on a less monolithic woman, only lifted to the equator of her eyeballs.

That spring break, Rita won a scholarship to attend a music camp at a university in Wisconsin. She made friends with a clarinet instructor there named Rick. Rick went out of his way to squeeze private lessons with Rita into his camp schedule. For a few days he loaned Rita his second most expensive clarinet. He even sent a note to Rita’s parents, giving them tips on what channels to take in purchasing the same model for Rita at “insider prices.”

A week later, back at school, Mary Wendelyn commented kindly on a tonal improvement Rita had made at the camp. Rita told Mary Wendelyn about Rick, but Mary Wendelyn gave Rita an older-sisterly frown that told her not to “embrace” a guy like Rick too closely—unless she, too, wanted to end up someday teaching at a tiny program in middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin.

 

Junior Year

The month came junior year to finalize post-graduate plans, and Rita asked Mary Wendelyn’s opinion on which Masters programs carried the greatest weight in the music world. Rita alternately paged through a famous website that ranked such programs, then hunted for less famous ranking websites that celebrated the schools where Mary Wendelyn’s contacts worked. Rita did not to waste time applying to any programs that did not appear at least on the top ten of some list.

That same month, Rita got a letter from Rick the Wisconsinite, wondering if she’d considered applying to his university in Wisconsin. He said it was very likely he could swing a full scholarship for her, since the program was new and small and had an unusual amount of liquid funding. Rita wrote him back a letter, a nice one, letting him down easy.

 

Senior Year

Something was suspect about the five schools Rita had applied to.

Two schools turned her down her right away. The rejection letters were short and non-specific, no evidence that her application was reviewed by a person and hadn’t simply been cycled back to her by a computer. Both letters congratulated her talent, but regretted the number of qualified applicants in the field.

The third school invited her out to an audition. And so she drove out to Massachusetts with her father, only to get turned down via email on the drive back—a rejection no longer or more specific than the others. All the way home, Rita lay with her head in a pillow against the window, saying how the whole trip was the biggest waste of time she could ever imagine—though she didn’t think she could have imagined it, and still refused to.

Rita didn’t see any reason why she had to pass any of her news on to Mary Wendelyn. And Mary Wendelyn did not send any letter or make any phone call to check up on Rita.

Rick, however, sent the sort of letter Rita might have liked to receive from Mary Wendelyn. Rita had no energy to fabricate a reply.

 

Postgrad

The June after graduation, Rita flew down to Florida, to audition for a professional orchestra, but only made it past the second round. One of the older girls auditioning told Rita the whole audition was “a hoax,” was “rigged,” and that oftentimes orchestras know in advance who they are going to hire. Rita found this easy to believe, but hard to accept.

A week later, Rita told her mother about another audition, one in Maine. Her mother asked her to come sit at the kitchen table. She walked Rita through some old bills and bank statements—a reminder of how much her bachelor’s degree had cost, and what the monthly loan repayments would add up to after the grace period was over, and how there wasn’t much money on the fringe of things to afford many more plane tickets. Honestly not even one more. Her mother offered to let Rita live for a while at the house and teach more lessons locally—to save up for airfare.

Rita stood and walked away from the table and put her face in her hands. She thought about brain aneurisms, and the only thing that mitigated her minorly suffocant pressurization of her own head was the now habitual fear that she could intend herself sick, could successfully intend a brain aneurism.

“Why did I even go to school?” she said. “It was just a big waste of money! I could’ve been in an orchestra by now if that’s what I’d focused on doing from the start!”

Her mother watched her sit in the chair facing the window. Strands of Rita’s hair wandered and nodded above her head, as if some lightning had selected her as its next target. Something definitely had selected her in this way, her mother thought. She thought Rita should just get struck by whatever it was, and maybe it would “reset” her. She had begun to relate to Rita as a computer program that was glitching and freezing in weird ways, and she just wanted to hold the power button and see if the thing rebooted back to normal.

Rita gazed at a speck on the window pane, framed by the blur of the yard beyond. “I don’t feel like I decided to be where I am.”

Rita lost 18 pounds during her long visit home that summer. She ate buttered Ramen noodles and carrots mostly, suffered alternate episodes of constipation and diarrhea, which the internet said were plausible symptoms of colorectal cancer. Her back and legs started to get stiff and atrophy—and when she tried to jog or do jumping jacks, felt inflamed for days. All her joints seemed to click when she stood up from her bed. Whenever she had to go out into the sun for some reason, she squinted a lot and felt colorless, flammable, like paper.

She cancelled her lessons whenever she didn’t feel like watching anyone play music. A lot of her students’ parents had no patience for her, and Rita didn’t end up handing her dad many checks to take to the bank for her.

Rita watched seasons of television shows she’d never had time for at school. One of the characters in one of the shows was discovered to have ordered a vibrator from Amazon, but that wasn’t the kind of thing Rita could safely mail to her parent’s house. Sometimes she walked down with her laptop to the public library overlooking the river to loiter on the internet. She had physical difficulties getting her eyes to focus on reading books or magazines, which she thought of like little medications that would keep her brain from turning stupid. Her clarinet slept all day and all night in its case under her bed, like a clinical depressive.

The one thing that could always make Rita cry and “drain emotional buildup” was the prospect of her school reunions. Everyone would wonder what the hell had happened to her.

One afternoon in early autumn, Rita’s mother came into her room and sat on her bed and patted her awake from a nap. She told Rita about a part-time musicianship opportunity with the church in town, one of her accounting clients. They needed a clarinetist to play at service twice Sundays, once Thursdays.

“They’re willing to pay you a little,” her mother said.

Rita said nothing. Hearing her mother approach in the hall, she had lain so as not to face her, if she should come in.

“It would at least give you a chance to play some music again,” her mother went on. “You could play anything you want, within certain limits. I know it’s not an orchestra—but doesn’t it sound better than laying around here all day, every day? Doing nothing? Rita? Doing absolutely nothing?”

“No,” said Rita. “It doesn’t. And I don’t like churchiness.”

Her mother went out of the room.

Rita lay feeling that Music was a window Greatness had flown in through—now the Greatness had wandered off out the same window because she had not offered it anything it wanted. In the clarinet-free decade that came, it mattered less and less to Rita what sort of window the Greatness might come back in through. Any window would work just fine. Marriage was fun in a humbling way, and as a relief from conclusions that she was culturally asexual—but it wasn’t a window. She just needed to find a window that would open wide enough for her to fit through. She worked at an insurance agency, in a basement office with no literal windows. Being urban was not a window, but was like having a house with windows. She feared she had the ability to actually intend her eggs to be infertile. In a corner of the unfinished basement of her urban home lay the black, oblong window of her clarinet case, and not once did she go down there without her eye compulsively seeking the glint of the case’s three bronze clasps, such that she often forgot what it was she’d walked down there to do.