In an Upper East Side neighborhood marked by a preponderance of specialist dry-cleaners, after a full nineteen years of preparation with one outcome in mind, I made my concert debut as violin soloist. When we took our places on the waxed golden stage, the members of the month-old New Amsterdam Chamber Orchestra, we could have been in a cornfield in July. It did not matter that it was the first week of January, that ice had paralyzed the city like snakebite. It was summer under the hot lights. We had effected a better season. Outside, there could have been murders in the snow. There could’ve been lung-choking fogs. There could have been wild dogs on the loose. We were immune to it. The New York winter couldn’t touch us. It couldn’t get past the cloakroom door, though it lurked in the folds of our coats for our return.
The dress rehearsal finished at five o’clock. I had been aware of the pinch in my guts since that morning but had ignored it, there being no time to do anything but ignore it. I went along to the pre-concert dinner and smiled through the thank-you speeches delivered to mark the orchestra’s inaugural night.
The pain intensified sometime around seven. At first I had dismissed it as nerves—my debut was looming after all. But at five minutes to eight, just before we were due onstage, it stabbed me so hard that I buckled. I slithered down the wall and placed my violin on the dressing room floor. “Valentina?”
She looked around and then down. “Oh my god, Eva,” she exclaimed in her lovely precise English, and reached for my inhaler.
“V, it’s not asthma.”
“I’ll get Zach.”
“No, lock the door.”
She locked the door and hunkered down beside me. “Oh Jesus, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”
Someone knocked politely. “Eva?” It was Zach.
“Don’t answer,” I warned her. Another knife of pain and I clenched my teeth, the halogen lights suddenly blindingly sharp. Zach knocked again, loudly this time, his tension seeping under the door and infecting the room. I grabbed Valentina’s wrist. “Something’s happening.”
“Can you stand up?”
I shook my head.
“Eva? You in there?” Zach cursed when the handle wouldn’t yield to him. “Why is this door locked?” His voice was now addressed to someone behind him. “Where’s Valentina? Jesus Christ, it’s almost time.” He took off down the corridor.
“Valentina, I can’t go out there.”
She blanched. “Show me where it hurts.”
I showed her where the pain was. “I think my appendix is about to burst or something.”
“That’s not your appendix.”
Thump thump thump on the door. Zach was back. “Open the fucking door, Eva, it’s practically eight.”
The pain eased. I released Valentina’s wrist and told her to let him in. She rearranged my skirts for modesty and unlocked the door.
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“I can’t go onstage,” I said when Zach blustered in, unwelcome as a wasp.
“What? Why not?”
“You’re not sick. It’s stage fright. Get up.”
“She is sick,” Valentina insisted.
Konrad stuck his head into the room. “Eight o’clock,” he reminded us, then spotted me in a heap on the floor. “Superb.”
Zach shut the door on him and turned the key in the lock. “I’m not canceling the concert, so I don’t care if you can’t play, Eva, you fucking have to.”
Alarm was rising in the corridor like the water level in a sinking ship. I waited for another wave of pain, but none came. Strange. As if it had been listening. As if it cared about me and said, Okay, I can wait, but not for too long, mind. I lifted my face. “It seems to have stopped,” I said cautiously.
Zach helped me to my feet before I could change my mind. “Valentina, go organize the others.” She grabbed her violin and left. The ache was still there, but now the fear was more immediate. Fear conquered pain. Applause down the corridor as the others filed onstage. Zach put his hands on my shoulders and chanted words of encouragement. The usual stuff about my gift, his faith in me. He armed me with my violin and bow.
Panic surged as I stood in the darkness behind the stage door—a few seconds of my heart pumping so hard and so fast that I thought I might collapse. I watched the group onstage through the glass panel. Valentina sounded the clarion call, concert pitch A. The note swelled as each instrument joined it, then it died away. The audience coughed and settled. Zach pointed his baton at me.
“Don’t leave me standing out there like a fuck, Eva.”
“I mean it. Don’t do that to me.”
“I won’t.” He didn’t look reassured. “I won’t,” I said again.
The door guy pulled the door back and Zach strode out. He gestured at the orchestra it had taken him three years of begging letters to found, and this newborn orchestra of his rose to its feet for a maiden bow. There was something marvelous about...