Beginning notes: Written for Empathic Mystery, whose
writing I have fallen in love with. I hope this is even remotely what you had
After checking in and getting his room assignment, Dustin turned the corner and tried to keep the goofy smile from his face. After a semester of lessons, it was all coming down to today: the final lesson. And as soon as it was done, Dustin was finally going to take the plunge and ask his tutor out on a date. He’d spent months talking himself into this and hours today worrying that it wasn’t the right thing to do, so he had a thank you card burning a hole in his backpack just in case he chickened out or couldn’t find the words. Because so often around Sang-Ook, he had a hard time with words. Thank goodness most of their lessons only required there to be music.
Sang stood, tall and lanky, leaning with his back to the window at the end of the hallway. He wasn’t too far away for Dustin to see his wire-rimmed glasses perched a third of the way down his nose or his fanciful bowtie as a burst of color against his pale yellow buttoned down shirt. He held onto the handle of his instrument case with both hands, and he perked up the second he saw Dustin; Dustin tried not to read too much into it, but he loved when Sang looked at him like that. He loved everything about Sang, every morsel of information revealed offhandedly and every mannerism he got to know.
“We’re in practice room eight,” Dustin said, tilting his head toward the right. From opposite ends of the hallway, they met at room eight. Dustin swiped his student card to give them access then led the way in the tiny room. They unstacked two chairs and sat down beside each other. That was easier than trying to sit across from each other and trying to do the reverse. It also let them share a music stand. Dustin liked sharing. Dustin pulled his music folder out of his backpack, fingers brushing the card as he did so. It wasn’t the time to whip that out though.
“So how did your practicing go?” Dustin hesitated to answer the question, and Sang knew exactly what that pause really meant. “Oh come on! You’ve got a final this week, and you didn’t practice?”
“I practiced!” Dustin insisted. “Just… not much… and it didn’t go especially well.”
Sang sighed, and Dustin thought the disapproval would end him. He kept his eyes on the floor and kicked his backpack with the card in it out of the way. Should he apologize? “Well I’ll see where you are at the end of the session today, but we might just have to meet every day this week.”
Dustin’s head snapped up. “What?”
Sang popped open his instrument case and spoke with casual determination. “You hired me to make sure you passed, right? Because I know you didn’t hire me to get you to fall in love with the French horn. And if there’s a chance you’re not going to pass and this one grade is going to pull your GPA down way too far, we’re going to have to put in the effort together to make sure that doesn’t happen.” He took his French horn out, adjusted the parts, popped the mouthpiece on, and assumed his ‘let’s get down to business’ expression.
Something inside Dustin sang at this. He loved how seriously Sang-Ook took his job as a tutor. He loved that Sang-Ook wasn’t willing to let him fail. And he loved the idea of seeing more of Sang-Ook.
Even if it meant more of the French horn. With a reluctant nod, Dustin pulled out his rented French horn and plopped the bell on his thigh.
Sang was smiling again.
Sang shook his head. “You really hate this thing, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” he laughed lightly. “You completely hate it.”
“I don’t,” Dustin insisted. “I just don’t like being forced to learn an instrument. I’m a singer, not a player. The program requirement is a stupid waste of time.”
“Mmm.” Sang coughed through another laugh and cleared his throat. “In any case, I’ve got you for the next fifty-five minutes and during that time, you’re going to pretend you’re a player.” He coughed again. “Now, let’s warm up.”
They buzzed into their mouthpieces, which always made Dustin feel silly. They did some elephant calls, which were Sang’s favorite. And they did a few scales, which Dustin messed up, but not as badly as usual. He might just squeeze a passing grade out of this semester after all. He played a few more notes as Sang made sure they were as in tune as they could be.
“Okay. Let’s start with the piece you’re going to have to play for your exam. Let’s play through it in its entirety, and that’ll give me some idea of what to concentrate on for the rest of the lesson. Are you ready?”
Dustin wasn’t really ready at all, but he nodded. It was a boring song for a French horn player. The French horn so often provided the baseline or the background part of a song, not the melody. And Dustin was a big fan of melody. That was what he was used to singing, as a tenor.
Sang tapped out a beat in 4/4 time with his black converse sneaker and nodded when the first measure began. Conveniently, the French horn’s part didn’t come in until the third measure. Dustin readied his mouth, checking its position and readjusted the hand he had resting, cupped inside the bell of the horn. He counted along with the beats and came in precisely when he was meant to.
With the wrong note.
He quickly corrected, hoping Sang might not notice the mistake this time, but knowing that Sang always caught every single mistake. He was too good a player not to. Though only three years older than Dustin, and therefore already out of college, he had been playing the French horn since he was seven. But it was more than just seventeen years of playing the instrument that made him good.
Sang had a love for the French horn that Dustin admired, even if he neither truly understood it nor shared in it.
To Dustin, it was a heavy, shiny piece of twisted metal he couldn’t wait to return to the music store next week.
He managed the rest of the piece with only a handful of flubs. His timing was excellent, but the notes were off and the tone was amateurish. Playing alongside Sang made him realize how good the piece could be and, thus, how badly he played in contrast. When they got to the end, Sang gave a hard tap of his foot against the floor at the last crescendoing note. Dustin bit his lip, waiting for the critique.
Sang sighed and coughed and rubbed his hand at the back of his neck. “Ah, I think you’d better plan on those extra sessions this week. How’s noon every day sound to you?”
“Fine. I’ll be a lunch date!” He gritted his teeth at the sound of that. “Ah, not that we’ll be eating lunch. Or that this is a date, of course.” He was rambling now. “But my final in this is Thursday. I don’t know if we need to meet on Friday.”
“I like final lessons to be assessments. We can take a look at how far you’ve come and figure out what the future has in store for you as a French horn player.” Dustin managed to not laugh at the absurdity of the statement. It was obvious he was never going to be a professional at this. His talents lay elsewhere. “I see—” he broke off, coughing. This time, it wasn’t just a single or double, it was a small fit. Alarmed at its sudden takeover, he turned and buried the lower half of his face in the crook of his arm. When it had passed at last, he lifted his head. “Gosh, sorry about that.” His voice had sounded a little off before, and now Dustin realized it was ever so slightly deeper than usual, maybe even a little hoarse.
“You all right?” Dustin asked, mostly out of genuine concern but a little because it took the discussion off of the French horn for a few seconds.
Nodding, Sang cleared his throat. “Feels like I might be losing my voice or something. I’ve been doubling up on tutoring lessons lately with finals week coming up. Must be talking more than usual.” He cleared his throat again. “I’m gonna go grab a water from the machine down the hall. You want one?” Dustin did, and quickly forked over two dollars toward the cause.
Sang got up and placed his horn gently on the chair. Then he reached over to the music stand, riffled through the pages in Dustin’s folder, and pulled out a sheet of scales. “While I’m gone, I want you to work on these. Go slow. Really concentrate on each note before you play it.”
Dustin got his horn back into position and set to work. The first one he tried went well; he only missed one note. The next few weren’t much worse, but it all went downhill after that. He was pretty sure he had the right keys pressed, but he just couldn’t make the note go as high as it was supposed to go. That had always been his problem with the instrument. With only three keys, any given fingering had multiple sounds. And he was supposed to know by now how to suddenly produce the right sound the first time. It was all in the mouth. He tried again and again. Frustrated every time he hit a wrong note, he finally lowered the horn.
Following a deep breath, he sang the scale. His pitch was perfect. His notes were accurate. It seemed the easiest thing in the world to do. He sang the next scale and then the next. Then, reluctantly, he repositioned the French horn and tried to play another scale. This time it went better. Keeping the notes’ sound in his head helped, but he was sure most of his success was due to luck rather than skill.
A knock on the door meant Sang was back. Dustin got up and opened it for him, receiving a bottle of water in exchange. They both drank in gulps and set the bottles down on the floor when done. “How’d the scales go?” Sang’s voice sounded no better after the water. In fact, it sounded a little more strained. Dustin could practically see his irritated, overused vocal cords contracting from the cold water. What he really needed was something warm and soothing like a good herbal tea. Sang didn’t really give him a chance to answer. “Let’s find out. Play me the C major scale.”
Grateful, because that was the easiest, Dustin gave it a try. His pacing was painfully slow, but he actually hit all the notes.
“Great job!” Sang’s face was alight with a smile that made Dustin want to do nothing more than earn it every time, as unlikely as that would be. “Now the E major.”
Dustin took another deep breath, centered himself, and envisioned the notes in his head. E, F♯, G♯, A, B, C♯, and D♯. He was fairly certain about the fingerings, but hitting the right notes… He gave it a try. And succeeded.
“Nice one!” Sang patted him on the shoulder, and the touch made Dustin’s insides sing with pride.
“No, this time I want you to do C major again…” He reached down and twist-pulled the mouthpiece off Dustin’s horn. “With just this.”
Dustin groaned. It never sounded right that way. It was his perfect pitch that helped him get even remotely close to begin with, and this took that largely out of the equation.
“Embouchure is one of the most important parts of playing the French horn. You’ve got to practice enough to have muscle memory, so you can hit the notes outside the scales, during any piece of music. You have to know what C, D, E, F, and so on feel like to your mouth. Remember, keep the corners of your mouth tight. Keep the mouthpiece higher on your top lip than your bottom. And keep your lips loose when you buzz. Take a good breath and go ahead.”
Sang always gave him too many factors to keep in mind at one time, but at least now he didn’t have to worry about fingerings and keys. And all his years singing had taught him good posture and breathing. So he gave it a try.
And failed miserably.
Sang rubbed a hand over his face.
“M’sorry!” Dustin insisted, that beautiful smile of Sang’s gone in favor of a look of disapproval. “I think maybe something wrong with my mouthpiece.”
Sang took it from his hand and buzzed a perfect scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. “And A minor.” He buzzed again with A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Then he handed it back over. “It seems fine to me. Embouchure, Dustin. If you don’t practice enough, you’ll never nail a piece of music. Let’s practice for fifteen minutes, do a few exercises, then finish with your prepared piece.”
Though Dustin didn’t like the contents of the plan, he knew it was a good one. He pressed the warm metal mouthpiece to his lips and tried again. Each time he missed a note, Sang played him the scale again on his own mouthpiece. It took eight attempts back and forth before Dustin got it. His hands shot in the air in triumph and his French horn slipped from his lap. It would have fallen on the floor if Sang hadn’t reached out to catch it. “Thanks!” He’d never get his deposit back if it was dented.
Sang smiled. Then he coughed and reached for his bottle of water. “Um, which was mine?”
The two bottles sat between their chairs, neither one further from each chair than the other, both with just about the same level of water. Dustin wasn’t sure. “I think… this one was mine?” he guessed, reaching down for whichever was the most natural for his hand to go to.
“Funny, I was going to say that one was mine.”
Dustin shrugged. “Doesn’t really matter.” He took one bottle and sipped from it while Sang drank from the other. “Time for exercises now?”
“Ha ha. You’ve got another five minutes working on embouchure. You can’t build muscle memory without practice. C, D, E… come on. You can do it.”
Dustin loved the reassurance, no matter how misplaced it probably was. So he buzzed. He made a mistake and buzzed again. And again. He made more mistakes than not, but he did get it perfect again twice.
And he had to admit, working on it made the exercises seem easier. And this time when they played the piece together, he got nearly all of it.
“Good work today. You might even get a good grade on this final.” They dumped their spit valves and put their horns back in their cases.
“Only if you’re there to play with me.”
“Well then, when you’re playing this for your exam, imagine I’m there with you. And when you practice, imagine I’m there with you. You will be practicing tonight, right?”
Dustin thought about his other finals this week; one on Tuesday, one Wednesday, and two others on Thursday, including a vocal performance. Picking up the French horn was the last thing he wanted to do tonight… but he knew he had to. And permission to imagine Sang right there with him as he did it almost made the idea worth it. “Yes, I will.”
“Good man. I’ll see you tomorrow at noon?” He coughed again.
“Sure. And take care of your voice. Tea will help. It’s what we singers do when our voices start to fail us.”
Sang nodded. “Thanks for the tip.” He tipped his almost empty bottle of water in a salute toward Dustin as they grabbed their cases and headed out. He took few more gulps to finish the bottle off and winced. “Ugh! Hurts when I swallow.”
“I’m telling you, tea,” Dustin insisted. “No sugar, if you can stand it like that. It’ll do wonders to your throat if you’ve tired it out. Trust me on that.” Sang patted his back in appreciation as they headed down the hallway, and that something in Dustin warmed and sang out to him once again.
When Dustin turned the corner on Tuesday at noon, he saw Sang-Ook at the end of the hall of practice rooms, waiting for him like usual. Unlike usual, this time Sang look tired. There were bags under his striking, dark eyes and his nose… it looked a little pinker around the rims than it should have been. “Hi there,” Sang greeted him, and his voice was a whole lot rougher than it had been yesterday.
“Whoa. Your voice…” Though not a singer, Sang’s voice had always had a particularly musical quality to it, as far as Dustin’s ears. “We’re in Room two today, by the way.”
Sang nodded. It looked like effort just to push off from the window and trudge back down the hallway, but he did it and followed Dustin into the room. “So how’d your practicing go? How are you feeling about your final?” His voice sounded even worse up-close like this, broken and cracking, rough and deeper; Dustin with his perfect pitch picked up on that right away. But there was also something else to it he couldn’t quite identify yet.
“Practicing went well,” Dustin replied, in that he had actually spent time practicing, not that he’d managed to nail the piece during his practice session. “But how are you feeling? What happened during the past twenty-four hours?”
Unstacking a chair, which he placed a foot and a half further away than normal, Sang answered, “Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure I’m coming down with a cold. I… oh… hold ohhh-on-hnyhhh!”He seemed to hold his breath, mouth tightly closed, even though his nostrils twitched and flared widely. He pulled a small, white square out of his pants pocket, unfolded it, and snapped it to his face. “heyitschhhh!” He followed the sneeze with a wet snuffle into the tissue, wiped back and forth beneath his nose a few times. Then he balled it up and stuffed it into his other pocket. “Excuse me.” He cleared his throat again, repeatedly, apparently accomplishing nothing by the act apart from irritating his throat more. “Started to realize it last night when I got all sniffly. And the first thing I did when I woke up this morning is sneeze. Thought for a second it might be allergies, but I’ve got a headache and this congestion that just won’t quit.” He cleared his throat again. “I think I might have caught it from one of the elementary school kids I tutor. I think one was sneezing last week during a lesson. Anyway, I’ll try to keep my distance today, all right? I don’t want to get you sick too.”
“That’s sweet of you.” Sang-Ook was sweet. And thoughtful. And just about perfect.
And sick. “Are you sure you feel up to this? If you need to go…”
“No, I’m…” He snuffled into another tissue and stuffed it into his bulging pocket as well. “You need this lesson.”
“And you probably need to rest so you can fight off this cold. I don’t want my awful French horn playing to actually make you feel bad,” he joked, though he genuinely meant it. He loved the chance of being with Sang more than usual, but he couldn’t live with himself if this was making Sang worse.
“The French horn is my passion. There’s nothing that makes me feel better than holding it in my hands. And I want to see you do well with it in yours.” He coughed and nodded toward Dustin’s case. “So break it out and warm up.”
Skeptical, conflicted, Dustin nonetheless followed his tutor’s advice and undid the clips on the case. The shiny gold smiled back at him, full of promise. Maybe if he played well, he would make Sang proud and they could cut this lesson short so Sang could get some rest. He was determined. Embouchure. Fingerings. Pacing. Pitch. He could do this. He had to. “What are we starting with this time?” Dustin pulled his music folder out of his backpack.
“Let’s… um… let’s ease into it with a few exercises to get the feel of… things.”
Dustin narrowed his eyes, even as he flipped through his level one music book. They’d only made it through about half the book in class, but he’d done every exercise in it at least once now, thanks to Sang’s lessons. Most of them weren’t easy, but they were certainly easier than the final exam piece. He was confident he could play them. He wasn’t so sure about Sang, and he wasn’t so sure what to say about that. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Just trying… not to… cough.”
“Aw, Sang. It’s okay if—“
“If I start, sometimes it’s hard to stop.” He leaned over, barely able to reach the music stand, and flipped to one of the harder exercises that required quick fingerings in 6/8 time. “This one.”
Dustin’s first time through wasn’t perfect, as he’d hoped, but it wasn’t bad. It even earned an approving nod from Sang, who was clearing his throat repeatedly. “Again,” he said. He had come prepared with his own water bottle this time, but the water wasn’t helping much. He winced every single time he swallowed, clearly uncomfortable.
Dustin played it again. And again. And again, until he got it right. And that earned him that smile of approval he loved to get from Sang.
“Last week, you couldn’t have done that, and now listen to you,” Sang said, his voice rough, weak, tired.
“Listen to you,” Dustin began, but he didn’t have a chance to finish his thought.
Sang ignored the concern. “Get the final exam piece out. Let’s give it a try now.”
Dustin nodded He felt like he might actually do it this time. If he played it perfectly the first time, then he’d be able to do the same thing during his exam. And if he proved that to Sang, they could end early. Determinedly, he prepared himself during the first three measures, counting carefully. And when he came in, he did so with the right note. He got through the next measure. He got through the next line. When the key change came up, he got through that as well. This was it. The notes were coming easily. He could almost feel the next note. What Sang said about practicing really was the truth.
And then it happened: a wrong note. He meant to play a low C but got an F instead. Then he meant to play a D and got an A instead. He wanted to quit, but he was nearly at the end of the piece. So he fiddled with the note until it was a D, limped through the last few measures until he got to the crescendo. “Sorry,” he blurted out the second it was done. “I know that sucked. Ugh, I am horrible at this instrument!” He felt like throwing it back into the case and leaving it there. “I’m going to fail this final.”
“You’ve got to cough think about what you’re doing right. Luckily, you came into this being able to read music. And now you know how to breathe right.” Dustin cringed, remembering the way Sang had literally covered his face with his palm the first time Dustin had played anything for him. Sang explained that French horn players never puff out their cheeks. This wasn’t a trumpet and Dustin was not Louis Armstrong. From then on, Dustin had at least had good form, even if the sounds coming out weren’t the right ones.
“Okay, but I know my mouth wasn’t as tight as it should have been. I kept missing notes. I know I’ve got the right keys pressed, but I just can’t hit them the way I’m supposed—”
Sang burst into coughs. Harsh, full coughs that filled the small, padded room with their sound. He carefully set his instrument down and turned away from Dustin, burying his face in the crook of his arm to try to contain both the sound and the germs. His face flushed. Beads of sweat dripped down his forehead. “Sang?” Dustin asked, concerned. He reached out, putting a comforting hand of support on Sang’s back.
But Sang pulled away, coughing even more violently as he did so. “Can’t cough cough get cough you cough cough cough cough sick.”
Dustin’s heart sank. Sang sounded awful, and he was suffering through this because of him. “If I promise to practice, like, three hours tonight, can we cut this lesson short?”
Sang looked at him, face still buried against his bent arm. “What?”
“You sound bad, Sang. You need sleep and tea and apparently all the heavy duty cold medicine money can buy.”
“I’m okay,” Sang said, his voice strained. “Playing just… took cough more out of me cough cough than… I thought.” He took the mouthpiece off his horn, dumped the valves, and then placed his French horn back into its case. Then Sang-Ook drew his legs up onto the chair with him, bent at the knees. He wrapped both arms around his legs and rested his chin against his knees. “You play. I’ll listen.”
“It’s your final cough exam cough not mine. And you’re playing so cough well today compared to where you were last week, I believe you can get this piece right if you cough just concentrate.” He snuffled and cleared his throat. “Just… don’t stop playing if I have to cough or sneeze, promise? Just ignore that. Focus on the music.”
Never during his private lessons with Sang-Ook had he ever been able to focus just on the music. Not with Sang right there. So close. Dustin promised anyway and began tapping out the resting measures himself before coming in.
It took the rest of the lesson, but he managed to get through it without a single wrong note, despite his concern rising with every sniffle coming from his music tutor. Sang was too tired for his usual bright smile, but he managed a weak one. “You’re going to practice tonight, right? I believe you said three hours?”
Dustin nodded. “I will. And you’re going to rest, right? It’s your turn to promise me. Or I’ll come to your house and… make sure you… rest…” It sounded stupid coming out, he knew it. He flushed and focused on putting away his own instrument.
“I’ll rest,” Sang said, unfolding himself with another cough. “Not sure I have much of a choice, honestly. I feel beat. And my chest literally hurts from coughing.”
“Put a warm compress on it,” Dustin said. “A warm shower will also help. And sleep as much as you can.” He was distracted, momentarily, by the image of Sang-Ook in his bed. He wondered how Sang slept. All curled up under blankets? Sprawled out with limbs all over the place? With comfy pajamas? Without pajamas? Dustin’s flush intensified. “Uh, ‘cause you can’t cough if you’re sleeping.”
Sang nodded back. “See you tomorrow. Practice. Practice. Practice.”
When Dustin rounded the corner, he saw… nothing. Well, he saw a hallway with closed practice room doors. And he saw a large floor-to-ceiling window that looked out on the performing arts quad. There were students down there dancing, practicing instruments, and reciting monologues. They looked ready for their final exams. He hoped they felt more ready than Dustin did. Because he wasn’t feeling so great about his finals. And turning the corner to find the hallway without Sang-Ook in it wasn’t a good sign. Sang-Ook always got there before him for lessons. Always.
Dustin set his French horn case down and got his cell phone out of his backpack. According to the phone, it was 11:59 a.m. on Wednesday. And there was no Sang-Ook here for a lesson. Dustin typed in his passcode and checked his text messages. There was no message from Sang-Ook. He checked his voicemail. Still no message from Sang-Ook. The man was always habitually early; this wasn’t like him at all. Could he be hurt? Dead in a ditch by the side of the road? Seemed probable. He could have coughed or sneezed and run himself right off the road.
Before he had a chance to consider calling the police, he heard something behind him, a slow shuffling, and he wheeled around to see a girl struggling with a giant instrument case. “Should’ve taken up the violin,” she said, giving him a shy smile. She slid her card in a practice room door lock and shuffled inside, putting her body in-between the closing door and the expensive cello.
Dustin smiled but still wondered where his tutor was. Should he go in and start warming up without him? Should he call and make sure that whole ditch possibility hadn’t in fact become a reality?
“htchnshhh! heykschhhhh! Heh hnnnh! heyetchhhhh!” Sang came around the corner at a brick pace, a wad of tissues pressed to his nose and mouth. He coughed and snuffled into them. Then he lowered them so he could give Dustin a sheepish smile and an apology. “I ab so sorry. I did’t get buch sleeb last dight. I just could’t stob sdeezig. So I overslebt this bordig, add I’ve beed ruddig late all day.”
Dustin checked his phone again. “Four minutes late. That’s nothing.”
“Odly four? That’s great. I was fifteed late for by last lessod. Guess skippig ludch was the right… right… oh doe… gotta sdee… sdeh hehhngshhhhh! Uhhhh. Snrfff! I’b sorry.” He said the last bit with a bit of a song in his voice. Dustin loved hearing that. But he hated the rest—the part where Sang was sick and sneezing and having an awful morning after having a worse night.
But what could he say? Go home and get some rest clearly had not worked the way it was supposed to. And Sang’s voice was still all scratchy with soreness and now full of congestion too, so tea alone wasn’t going to fix it. He had nothing he could offer. He couldn’t even offer a hot, homemade dinner tonight, because he had a final at five o’clock and another two tomorrow. That didn’t leave enough time for looking after a sick tutor… as if Sang would even accept such an offer of caretaking.
“It’s okay. But if you don’t feel up to a lesson—“
“Your fidal is toborrow. Cough! Show be what you’ve got, Dustid.”
When Sang said Dustin’s name, even though his voice was all stuffy, Dustin felt another burst of warmth inside him and a song from out of nowhere filled his head with the urge to prove himself, to make Sang proud, to make all of this worth it. Quickly, Dustin led the way into the practice room, unpacked his instrument, and started warming up.
This time, they didn’t waste time on scales or exercises. They went straight to the final exam piece. Dustin had played it enough to know it well, but this time Sang wanted to walk him through it, as if he was sight reading it for the first time. “The biece starts softly; the Fredch hord bart doesd’t cub id udtil beasure four. The begiddig is about settid the bood, lodg dotes, so work od your tode. Your tode is ibortadt. There’s a key chadge here od the secod bage add thed the tebbo gets faster. Sniff! Sniff! Add it edds with… with… od gosh… sdeeze… heh! Cobig… heh hnnngh!” He pulled a tissue out of his pocket and clamped it to his face. “heyyyIHtchhhhh!”
“Bless you.” Dustin felt strangely self-conscious saying that. It sounded too personal, too caring. Though he wasn’t even sure Sang heard him.
“heyschhhh! Heh-tihshhhh! Heyy-IHTchhhh!” Sniffling into his hand now, as the tissue was far beyond use, Sang bent over and flipped his instrument case open. In the bell of his French horn he’d stashed a few packs of tissues and one bag of cough drops. He pulled a few tissues out and snuffly blew his nose into them. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. Sniff! Sniff! Sorry.”
“Hey, Sang, it’s okay, really.” He smiled and tried to make a joke about it. “It’s not like I didn’t know you had a cold.”
Sang coughed so hard tears squeezed from the corners of his eyes. Exhausted, he wiped them away slowly.
“It is just a cold, isn’t it?”
“I thidk so.”
“You’re not running a fever or anything?”
Sang looked doubtful as he touched the palm of his hand to his forehead. “I dod’t thidk so.”
“You can’t feel it yourself. Let me…” he hesitated, his hand shaking slightly. He stilled it by pressing down on all three keys of the French horn. Their soft, metallic clicks were strangely reassuring. So he kept going. “Let me check for you.” It was supposed to be a question. He had intended to wait for permission. But suddenly he was gently nudging Sang’s hand out of the way, feeling its damp warmth against his skin, and touching his tutor’s forehead. It was warm as well, but not fever-hot. He could feel a faint pulse, too. Sang-Ook’s heartbeat. And it was speeding up. So was Dustin’s.
And suddenly he realized he was still touching Sang’s forehead. He pulled his hand back at once. “Yeah… um, good news! You’re not hot.” Dustin’s face went red. “Um, I mean you don’t have a fever, not that you’re not attractive, because you are, of course.” Of course? Oh, he was such an idiot! “Um… how about we play this piece?”
Sang nodded. “Souds good. Let be just… snrfff! blow by dose ode bore tibe.” He did. And then they played.
And it wasn’t too bad. The tempo seemed a little slower than usual, but they stuck to what Sang had set. Dustin missed a few notes, but he was sure the performance would earn him at least a passing grade. “That B…”
“I know, I know. I’ll get it next time.”
“Blay a B for be.”
Dustin pressed the middle key down, took a breath, and played a shaky E.”
Sang shook his head, sniffling, and pointed a finger toward the floor.
Dustin adjusted his embouchure and the note changed to a B.
Sang motioned for him to stop playing, which was good, as Dustin was just about out of breath trying to hold the note. “Dow I wadt you to sing a B note for me.”
Confused, Dustin still did what he was told. He hit the note perfectly.
“Thidk about what it took for you to hit that. Thidk about your throat add bouth add breathig add all the thigs that go idto it. It’s dot so sibilar frob the Fredch hord, is it really?”
“I guess not. But I’ve been singing all my life. I barely have to think about how to hit a note now.”
“If you blayed the idstrubedt edough, you would’t have to thig about it either.”
Dustin nodded. He’d never really thought of it that way, like singing with an instrument instead of his voice. It was all just music, after all. Same notes, just a different way of getting to them. He took another breath and buzzed into his mouthpiece, creating a wobbly but accurate low B.
Sang smiled. Then he sneezed. “HEHYDShhhhhh!” And clapped his hand over his nose, startled. “Oh doe… so sor—”
“Sorry, I know. You’ve said. It’s okay. I don’t think you sprayed me. Don’t even think you caught the French horn. Bless you, by the way.”
Sang’s eyes shone with gratitude for a brief second. Then they quickly shut and he pitched forward in his seat with another sneeze. “heyitschhhh!” And another. “heh heh-Ingtchhh!”
Dustin got up and grabbed one of the tissue packs from Sang’s case. He offered it over. Then, realizing there was no good way for Sang to take tissues without exposing what was probably an embarrassing mess, Dustin pulled a few tissues out and swapped them for Sang’s French horn. Grateful, Sang turned and blew heartily, wetly, and repeatedly into the tissues.
After almost a full semester of lessons once a week, Dustin had seen Sang’s French horn many times, but he’d never held it before. It was the same sort of horn, with the thumb key and the pinkie rest. But it was so much different. It was so smooth and well-polished it was almost soft to the touch. It was bright and shiny, as though glowing with some magical, musical force that made it unique. Taking advantage of the volume and length of Sang’s blows, Dustin pressed the keys down. They barely made a sound, moving with a swift, well-lubricated fluidity. Dustin could see what love and care Sang put into this horn. And he kept it safe, holding it gently until Sang finished rubbing his nose and reached to have it back.
“Thadks,” Sang said, still sniffling through his words. “This cold… I cad’t stob sdeezig, it seebs.”
It did seem like that. “I’m sorry.”
Sang cocked his head. “For what? You did’t give be this cold.”
Dustin’s heart was racing again. He did all he could to blurt out something stupid. Just as if he were starting a song, he took a deep breath. “No, but I know how it feels to have an awful head cold. And I’m sorry you’re suffering from it. Is there… anything at all I can do to help?”
Sang smiled back at him, and that joyous, happy song started up inside Dustin at the sight of it. “You just did it. Thadks.” He took the tissue pack from Dustin as well. “Thidk I’d better keeb this close, yeah?”
“Good idea,” Dustin gave a little laugh. He wanted to be the one kept close. Of course, he wasn’t necessarily as useful right now as a pack of tissues, but he had his uses, certainly. At least, he hoped he did.
“Let’s blay the biece agaid dow.”
Dustin took his seat, picked up his own instrument, and began again. There were three measures of resting, and then he hit the first note with perfection. In fact, it had been a while since he’d missed it. That thought gave him an extra boost of confidence. Tone. Sang had said the beginning was about tone. He tried to keep the notes smooth and pure. They weren’t as good as Sang’s, certainly, but they weren’t too bad. At least they were the right notes. And he actually—
Immediately, Dustin stopped playing. He looked at Sang and, for one split second before the man covered his nose with his hand, he saw two trails his nose had not been able to contain during the sneeze. Sang hugged his horn to his chest and pulled all the tissues that remained—at least six of them—out of the pack at once. He held them all to his nose and started snuffling and wiping furiously. He cleaned himself up well and leaned back in his chair with a sigh. “I’ve beed blayig the Fredch hord for sevedteed years dow, add id all that tibe I have dever sdeezed idto it like that.” He looked mortified, so much so that he couldn’t even meet Dustin’s eyes. So much so that he might just pack up and leave and cancel the rest of their lessons.
“No sweat. It was kind of a funny sound. And it was nice not being the one to mess a piece up for a change.”
He spoke casually with a smile in his voice. It was enough to draw Sang’s gaze back to him so he could flash his tutor a reassuring smile.
Sang returned it with a light one of his own. “You were doig so well, too.” He sounded so disappointed in himself.
“Well then, it stands to reason I can do it that well again. How about you pack up and just listen to my playing? Grab your tissues, suck on a cough drop, and give me pointers as I go along. How does that sound?”
Sang smiled again. “Okay.” He put emptied his spit valve and took off his mouthpiece. Dustin watched him lay the horn down with respect, as though he was sorry for having sneezed into it. Sang started to unwrap a cough drop then hesitated. “There’s goig to be a lot of cherry id this roob. You okay with that?”
Knowing this was not the time for a joke, or to bring up the fact that he hadn’t lost his virginity, Dustin bit his tongue and just nodded. Managing to hold back the nervous joke was probably more progress than he’d made on the song. But images of sex with Sang-Ook still ran through his head. That talented mouth. Those swift fingers. Sex with Sang-Ook would have to be amazing.
It was going to be harder than ever to keep his mind on the music, but he wouldn’t have traded this French horn tutor for any other in the world.
“heyy-YINtshhhh!” Even when he sneezed. “huh-Ngtshhhhh!” Because even the way Sang-Ook did that was kind of sexy, in its own way.
Dustin tapped his foot on the floor, counting out the beats, and started the song again.
When he was able, Sang commented on this or that. ‘Watch your tone’ or ‘a little softer’ or ‘watch this transition.’ Sometimes Dustin wasn’t able to decipher the stuffy talk in time to use the comments, but he kept them in mind during the next go-around with the song, then the next, and then the one after that. He did nothing else that lesson but practice the song. And by the end, with the room smelling of cherry and filled with the sound of quiet sniffling, Dustin was feeling pretty confident that he’d do better than a passing grade. With any luck, he might even squeeze out an A.
The realization that this would be their last real lesson ever was bittersweet for Dustin. While he definitely wanted to be done with the French horn for good, he didn’t want to give up the regular reason to see Sang-Ook every week. He could only hope that once their student-and-tutor relationship was officially over, it might make way for a different kind of relationship. Like a tell-tale heart, that card was calling out from his bag.
As Dustin turned the corner to the practice room hallway, he was full of hope. Hope that when he asked Sang out tomorrow, the man would say yes. Hope that choosing to learn the French horn wouldn’t completely destroy his GPA. Hope that he’d get through his last two finals today despite his tremendously sore throat. Hope that he’d make it through the next hour-long private lesson without Sang finding out Dustin was coming down with this cold.
Dustin had woken up that morning with intense pain in his throat and the roof of his mouth whenever he swallowed. The hot herbal tea with lemon had been the first thing out of the cupboard that morning and the last thing he’d had to drink before leaving the house. He’d felt better then, but now that he wasn’t mainlining tea, he was starting to feel rotten again. His head was a little cloudy. His voice was a little rough. And his body was a little achy.
But he didn’t want Sang knowing. He didn’t want Sang feeling guilty. Sang probably felt bad enough already with this cold stuffing up his head. He looked better today, though. There were still bags under Sang’s eyes and his nose was still pink, but he looked more alert and there was even a smile present at Dustin’s appearance. That made Dustin’s heart truly sing. “Room five today,” Dustin said, leading him to a practice room on the left.
“How are you feeling today?” Dustin asked, as they simultaneously unpacked their French horns.
“Better,” Sang replied. His voice was soft but didn’t have the heavy congestion from yesterday. “Cold meds seem to finally be doing their job. I think the worst is behind me. But your final is still ahead of you, right?”
“Tonight,” Dustin agreed. He was worried about his exam with the French horn, but even more worried about his vocal performance. The best thing he could do to make sure he’d still be able to sing today was keep the talking to a minimum. It was also good insurance that he not say anything stupid to Sang and mess up his chances for a date.
“I thought we could… hang on… I think…” He paused a moment, face contorting helplessly. Then his voice dropped down to a whisper. “Yep… yep I’m gonna hihhhh!” He pulled out a nice, folded tissue and had time to unfold it again this time. “hehhhh…” He wavered, rocking a little in his seat as the corners of his mouth drew down and his glasses slipped further down his twitching nose. “hnngh! Hehh! HEHPTschhhhhh! Uhhhh… sniff! Excuse be.” He sounded stuffy again, but Dustin thought it was kind of cute. Sang blew his nose and pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. “Better, but still plenty sneezy, I’m afraid. This is one doozy of a cold.”
“Sorry to hear it,” said Dustin, something clenching inside him. How long until he started sneezing like that? Would he at least make it through the performances tonight? This cold was like a time bomb inside him, waiting to go off with a germy explosion. He could already feel it taking hold in his head, despite the extra dose of Vitamin C he’d taken that morning and the medicine he’d already started taking to take the edge off the sore throat. “So what were you saying before?”
“Oh, I thought we could start with your final exam piece again, slowed down a little so you can really concentrate on the… the…” His face fell again, assuming that ‘I’m about to sneeze’ expression Dustin was getting so familiar with lately. “The heh hih hihh hih-Yihiptchhhhh! Oh man! Sniff! Excuse me. These tickles, you know?”
Dustin didn’t know yet, but he knew he soon would. It was only a matter of time now. He propped his French horn on his knee, positioned his fingers on the keys, and brought the instrument to his mouth so that he could stay straight and breathe properly while playing. Assuming the ‘ready’ position sped Sang along into changing the subject. Too much more of talking or even thinking about this cold and the symptoms were going to start feeling worse and worse.
“All right then. Half the pace of normal. Concentrate hard on a nice, smooth sound.” He tapped out the beat, slow but steady, and so the song began.
It was a lot easier slower. It gave Dustin more time to think about the notes, getting the fingerings and mouth positions right. Dustin kept wanting to rush and get back to a normal tempo in the parts he could play well, but Sang’s foot tapped steadily to keep him on point until the very end.
“It’s easier when you slow it down.”
“Now regular tempo. But keep in mind everything you did right the first time around. Cough cough! Ready?”
He wasn’t sure. His throat tickled too with the need to cough. Or was he just feeling that now because Sang had coughed? Could he risk just one cough without drawing suspicion, or would even that give him away? He could feel it pulling at him, and he knew there was no way he could play until it was satisfied. So he compromised with a half cough-half throat clearing that, mercifully, did the trick. And it was so quick, Sang didn’t even bat an eyelash at it.
Then Dustin nodded and readied himself, counting through the measures of rest until his entrance. One. Five. Nine and ready go—he hit the note perfectly. And he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a flash of a smile from his tutor. It wasn’t as though Sang-Ook were some Russian ice skating coach who yelled and never smiled. Earning praise from his tutor was nice but the thing he really loved was the way Sang looked when he smiled. A dimple in one cheek. Wrinkles at the corners of his eyes that the glasses couldn’t hide. Dustin wanted to do well in his final, but even more than that he wanted to see that smile as much as possible. And today might very well be his last chance to earn it.
His performance at normal speed wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good. All things considered—including this cold he was coming down with—the playing was a lot better than Monday. These extra lessons, and practicing for hours at home, had definitely done the trick.
Dustin felt parched, so he pulled a water bottle he’d brought along out of his backpack. Swallowing came with a sharp pain he didn’t want to show on his face, so he turned to the side. If Sang thought it was out of the ordinary for Dustin to be drinking water during a lesson, he didn’t say anything about it.
Though he seemed to have other things on his mind. “hnng! Nhhghh! Hehyehhhh…. Hehptschhhhhh!” He pitched forward, tissues already in hand, “Excuse be,” he muttered and blew his nose. It seemed exhausting work, keeping up with his nose. And when he spoke, there was empathy in his voice, even though he didn’t know most of what Dustin was actually feeling. “I don’t want to tire you out today before your finals, but is there anything that would make you feel better to work on? Maybe the half dozen measures after the time signature changes?”
A tickle suddenly flared up in Dustin’s nose. He held his breath, clenched his teeth, and tried to will it away. When that didn’t work, he faked a yawn just so he could press fingers to his nose and quash the urge.
He took a careful breath. Everything in his body was so delicate, and the slightest misstep would give him away. But the sneeze seemed to be backing away. “Yeah, um, I was just thinking. But, sure, that sounds good,” he said.
They worked on that part for a little while, until Sang stopped with a coughing fit and Dustin snuck in some more water to keep himself from coughing. It felt great against his burning mouth and throat but terrible going down. Oh, he wanted his tea. He would settle for one of Sang’s cough drops, but couldn’t ask him for one or the game would definitely be up.
The smell of cherry was maddeningly tempting, however. And the cough drop in Sang’s mouth clicked against his teeth as he moved it around inside his mouth. “Hopefully, this will keep me from coughing so much for the rest of the lesson. Sorry about that.”
“It’s okay.” It wasn’t really a distraction, and Dustin had already caught the cold, besides. “Do what you gotta do.”
The cough drop clicked again and Dustin saw Sang’s Adam’s apple bob up and down with a swallow that wasn’t painful. Dustin was a little envious.
“Do you know what the worst part of being sick as an adult is? Cough! Sorry. It’s all the adult responsibilities. When I was a kid, I got to stay home from school and watch television with my mom. But now, I’ve got my jobs, rehearsals with my performance group, bills and rent and… sometimes I just want to call my mom to have her look after me.”
“Where’s your mom?”
“She moved back to South Korea last year.”
“My grandmother had a stroke, so Mom cough went back to look after her. Halmoni is in her late eighties and it wouldn’t be fair to bring her to America to live with my parents, taking her away from her familiar surroundings and people. So my mother is staying there indefinitely. I miss her, but airfare to South Korea is expensive. That’s one of the reasons I do so much tutoring, so I can save up for a roundtrip ticket.” A look of shock appeared on his face. “Oh no. Cough! That’s not why I suggested extra sessions with you this week. I wasn’t trying to greedily take your money or anything, I swear!”
Dustin laughed. It hurt his throat a little, but he couldn’t help it. “I know. I needed them. I’m horrible at this.”
“No you’re not. You’re not the best player I’ve ever taught, but you’re hardly my worst student.”
Dustin was still laughing. “Sang, you tutor fifth graders!”
“Your… point… being?” But he was laughing a little too now. It must have tickled his throat in just the wrong way, because he broke off, coughing. Once he’d caught his breath, he gestured toward the sheet music. “How about just one more time through for me?”
Dustin gave his nose a hard rub, pretending to be recovering from laughing when really his nose was already a little itchy and prickly with tickle. Feeling this cold coming on, little by little, and knowing who’d given it to him was an interesting experience. Trying to hide it from someone who was sick and would surely notice the symptoms was even more interesting. This was Sang’s cold. Sang’s cold in his nose. And pretty soon, Sang was going to realize it too.
But not yet. Dustin rubbed the sneeze out… or at least held it off. “One more time,” he agreed with a nod. He felt like he’d do anything for Sang.
Even though his throat was scratchy and his nose itchy, he was glad he gave the piece one last practice, because he played it perfectly. He tried to harness that feeling so he could use it later, during his final.
“You’re going to do well in your exam, Dustin. I believe in you,” Sang said as they were heading out of the practice room.
And Dustin, despite feeling his cold setting in, believed him.
Dustin snuffled and coughed into his shoulder as he approached the practice room hallway. This was the last time he would be doing this with this rental French horn. This was the last time he would be coming around the corner and seeing Sang-Ook waiting for him. He wished he were doing it with a clearer head and a clearer nose.
There was no hiding these symptoms now. His nose was positively streaming and his throat was so red and raw and scratchy. Post-nasal drip irritated it endlessly. He really wanted to be back home under a blanket with a bowl of steaming water for his sinuses. But he couldn’t cancel on Sang-Ook now.
And, when he rounded the corner and saw Sang-Ook’s expression of excitement and anticipation, Dustin knew he had made the right choice in dragging himself out of bed in this condition. It was like Sang had been saying yesterday about adult responsibilities. Dustin needed to be here. He wanted to be here.
“Ahhh-GIHSchooo!” Dustin sneezed loudly, suddenly, making him bounce in place halfway down the hallway. He worked a Kleenex at his drippy nose and opened his eyes just in time to see Sang’s expression fade to something more along the lines of looking distraught. “Room eighteen,” Dustin said, walking down the long, cold hallway with his French horn case swinging a little in his hand.
When they got inside, Sang immediately put a hand on his shoulder. “I have to apologize. I can’t tell you how terrible I feel that you caught my cold from me.”
“Oh sniff sniff! So you noticed then?” he joked.
“It’s okay. I managed to get through my finals yesterday before it really hit. And the instructors judging me took it into consideration, I think, once they saw me succumb to this embarrassing sneezing fit on my way out of my vocal final. It was a little mortifying when one of the instructors offered me his hankie, though.”
“I’m so sorry.” Sang looked it, too, like the idea of it all physically pained him. “I really didn’t think you’d catch it. I washed my hands. I tried not to breathe in your direction.”
“I think I’d probably caught it before you even realized you were sick.” This head cold had kept him up late last night, which had given him time to think. He remembered the touches, the possible water bottle mix-up, and the shared mouthpiece. But he didn’t blame Sang for it. It hadn’t been intentional.
Dustin’s voice was sounding scratchy again, and his instinct was to clear it, but the fire in his throat told him that would be a bad idea. So he coughed lightly into a tissue instead. His voice was the most important thing in his life, and he wanted to protect it, even if he didn’t have an upcoming vocal final exam to worry about. “It was probably inevitable anyway, locked inside this small space together. So I don’t blame you. I really needed those extra lessons in order to make it through that final.”
Sang gave a weak smile, as though he still felt bad but maybe not as guilty now. Dustin was doubly glad now that he’d managed to hide the cold from him during yesterday’s lesson. “So tell me how the French horn final went. Did you cough cough do well?”
Dustin hesitated, to build up suspense, and then nodded. “I only missed one note.” And that had mostly been because of a ticklish throat distraction, but he didn’t feel the need to tell Sang that part. “My performance wasn’t perfect, but even my tone was pretty good. Grades were posted this morning. I got a 91 on it.”
“Oh my God! Dustin, that’s fantastic!” He bounced in his seat, looking like he might want to give his student a hug, but refraining. “Congratulations.”
“It’s all thanks to you.” Dustin leaned forward, hoping that might hint that a hug really would be appreciated.
Instead of getting the hint, Sang coughed and shook his head. “No, I only did the pushing. You did the playing. It’s all you, man. I’m so proud… of…” As his nostrils twitched with the need to sneeze, his hand slid into his pocket. His expression made it painfully obvious that he was out of tissues.
So Dustin grabbed his backpack, unzipped it, and took out the huge box of thick Kleenex. He pulled three out of the box and stuffed them into Sang’s hand.
Sang looked surprised but grateful and lifted them to his face at once. “Hehnn Hehhh EHBTttshh!”
“Bless you.” Dustin leaned forward a little more. “You… want another one?”
Nodding, snuffling, Sang took another tissue from the box and blew his nose.
“I’ll just put the box here, in case. Help yourself if you feel sneezy again.”
Sang sniffled. “Whed.”
Sang blew his nose again. “When, not if. When I feel sneezy again.”
Dustin laughed. “Understood. I haven’t been able to get a foot away from a box of Kleenex all morning.” He had a tissue balled up in his hand that he’d been rubbing at his nose to keep it from running visibly. He could already feel his nose starting to get sore from all that attention.
“So this is the part of the lesson where I talk with my students cough about their futures with the French horn. What are your hopes? What are your next steps? I’d love to see you continue with it, but I know your heart isn’t really in it. And I have a sneaking suspicion that your next steps are going to be straight to the music store to return your instrument. Am I right?”
Dustin laughed again. “You know me so well. It’s been… well, it’s been an adventure. But I don’t think I’m cut out for this. I think I’ll just stick to making music with my… my voice…” He broke off, coughing wetly. He coughed and coughed, getting nowhere, not stopping. Finally, with one hand over his mouth and another splayed over his paining chest, he did what he was used to doing inside this practice room and instead of bending forward, he sat up straight. The air seemed to flow in easier. The coughs seemed to come out smoother. And he was finally able to take a deep breath and let it out without his itchy, burny throat causing another cough. He smiled weakly. “Though I might have to wait a while before my voice is ready to make music again.”
“I understand,” Sang nodded. “I was going to suggest we play a few songs here during your last lesson, your last chance to do so, no pressure to get anything right so you can just have fun with it… but maybe you don’t feel up to it?”
It was true that Dustin didn’t really feel like dragging his instrument out and playing. But, then, he didn’t need a cold to make him feel like that. He was never going to love playing the French horn the way Sang did. But he admired Sang’s love for it. And he liked the idea of his last time playing the instrument being with Sang. “Bring it on.”
Sang had brought a few different, short pieces that he claimed shouldn’t be too difficult for Dustin. “It’s okay if you make mistakes this time. Just enjoy playing, okay?” The title of the piece was “Springtime,” and Sang walked them through it before they played. Dustin was admittedly a little nervous. But once they started, he was glad Sang had suggested it.
The notes weren’t too hard to hit. The changes weren’t too quick. And this time, instead of worrying about the accuracy or worrying about his cold, he tried to just enjoy the experience of playing. He tried to see the French horn the way Sang-Ook did, as a thing capable of making beautiful music. He lost himself in it, following Sang’s lead, matching his notes. Sang’s playing made it so much easier and so much more fun.
But, as they approached the halfway point, Dustin’s nose started bothering him. His erratic breathing made hitting the right notes at the right time difficult, so he dropped out. Sang kept playing as Dustin grabbed desperately for a tissue. Without time to apologize to Sang, he buried his nose in the tissue. “ahh-IKXXT! KETCHHT! Ah-KDHXXT!” The sneezes were quick but strong. He massaged at his running nose, producing tiny squelching sounds and making him cough from the congestion. He balled up the tissue and brought his French horn back up. Scanning the music, he tried to figure out where Sang was. But he didn’t know the song and couldn’t pick out what Sang was playing in order to match the two.
Sang took his hand out of his horn for a second to point. Dustin nodded and hopped back in. They finished the piece together without incident. And they were both smiling at the end. “Sorry about the sneezes,” Dustin said. “I couldn’t help it.”
“Not a problem and not your fault. Did you enjoy the song?”
Dustin nodded. “Sight reading isn’t really my favorite, but I enjoyed it with you.” He had a feeling he could enjoy just about anything as long as Sang was involved. “Is there another we can play together?”
Sang’s face lit up, brighter than Dustin had ever seen it. The song in Dustin’s heart was so loud he was surprised Sang couldn’t hear it. For a moment, Dustin thought about asking the man out, right then and there. But then Sang put the music on the stand and started walking them through it.
This one was a little more complicated. Actually, it was a lot more complicated. More notes. More changes. Dustin felt a small burst of panic wash over him. But Sang’s reassurance that he’d be all right made him pick up his horn and give it a try.
It actually wasn’t so bad. There was more melody for the French horn in this piece than Dustin was used to. He hadn’t really realized there could be such French horn-centric pieces, outside the exercises in his book. He stumbled through a lot of it, trying to enjoy himself and not judge. But Sang was so good at this and he was so terrible. So after missing three measures straight, he dropped out entirely.
He justified it with some forced coughs. But those coughs irritated his throat and caused real ones. Strong, moist, productive coughs. He muffled the sound with a fresh tissue and his hand. He wiped tears from his eyes. And he set his French horn down so as not to drop it. His head throbbed and spun dangerously. Dustin was going to pass out. Right here. In the middle of his last private lesson with Sang.
Then he caught hold of the melody, and it grounded him. He focused on Sang’s playing every note, every rise and fall, every beat. The dizziness passed, but he kept listening. Sang’s tone was so clear, so beautiful. Dustin couldn’t even consider jumping back in. He just closed his eyes and enjoyed the music until the song was finished.
“You all right?”
Dustin opened his eyes slowly, returning from this dreamy world of music back into reality. He rubbed at his nose. “Yeah.”
“Is it the head cold?” Sang pulled a couple tissues out of the box and offered them over. “I was worried when you didn’t jump back in.”
Dustin took them and snuffled into them. “I’m okay. I just… you’re so good at this, I didn’t want to ruin the music.”
“You wouldn’t ruin—“
“Yes I would.”
“I’m good because I’ve been playing since I was a kid. And because I’m good, you hired me as a tutor.”
“Best decision I made all semester.”
Sang coughed. “Even if it made you end up with a head cold?”
“Absolutely worth it.” He nuzzled his face into the tissues again to hide whatever flush he might have in his cheeks. He should say something. He wanted to say something. This was the moment. He’d rehearsed it in his head a hundred times. And now that it was here… the words stuck in his scratchy throat. Dustin felt like crying. Dustin felt sick. Where could he possibly go from here?
As it turned out, he didn’t have to say anything. Sang cleared his throat and changed the subject. Sort of. “Hey, before I forget, I have something for you.” Dustin gave him a look. “In addition to the bad head cold, I mean.” He leaned forward and took a wad of tissue paper out of his back pocket. “I didn’t want it getting mixed up with the, um, used Kleenex. Here.”
Dustin took it and slowly unwrapped it. There, against the white tissue paper, lay a shiny, gold French horn tie tack.
“To remind you that just because something’s difficult, it doesn’t mean you can’t succeed at it. And it’s to remind you of the semester you spent understanding what it’s like for us down there in the orchestra pit, providing the accompaniment for the music your choir sings.” He paused for a moment, swallowing. “It’s really been a joy working with you this semester, Dustin. I wish you all the best for your music career, even if that won’t involve the hands-down best musical instrument ever.”
Dustin laughed and closed the little pin in his hand, where the metal warmed against his skin. “Thank you. This is beautiful. I’ll wear it during my next concert for sure.” He should have thought of getting Sang something like this, something he could hold onto forever and remember Dustin by. But it hadn’t even crossed his mind. Granted, he’d been somewhat preoccupied by finals and this blossoming cold and the prospect of asking Sang out. “Now I feel bad all I got you was a card.”
He froze. He hadn’t meant to bring up the card. That was supposed to be his last resort, something to give only if he couldn’t figure out how to say what needed to be said. He really didn’t want Sang finding out this way.
“That’s so nice of you! Can I see it?”
But now it was too late. Too late, and he still didn’t know how to say it. And with his throat all cut up like this, he couldn’t even sing it. Instead, his tutor of three months was going to have to find out he liked him by reading it in the margins of a stupid Hallmark thank you card.
So Dustin dug around in his bag, pulling the envelope out. His hand shook, and he couldn’t meet Sang’s eyes. He just thrust the thing in Sang’s direction, clenched his jaw, and hoped for the best.
With care, Sang slid the card from the envelope. He smiled that dimple-filled, heartwarming smile of his as he looked at the front of the card. Then he opened it and his gaze traveled around, trying to pick out the starting point of the note Dustin had written. Then he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and read. And then, if Dustin was tracking his eye patterns, he read again.
Nervous, Dustin packed up his French horn, trying not to let the flutters in his chest overwhelm him. His hands shook as he closed the latches of the case. And he kept glancing up to try to gauge Sang’s reaction.
Sang didn’t laugh. He didn’t look disgusted. He didn’t even look like he was searching for something to say. He just read, with a blank expression. Then he lay the card against his chest and plastered his hand over it. “I…” His voice broke. He pulled the card away, looked at it again, and then pressed it to his chest again.
Dustin saw tears welling up in his eyes and started panicking. “Um, the thing about that is I wrote it last week, so maybe—“
Interrupting him, his voice cracking, Sang spoke, “Of course I want to go out with you. I couldn’t… you were my student. I wanted to, but I couldn’t say…” He smiled, glancing down at the card. “This… this card… what you said here… this is the highest compliment anyone has ever given me. And of course I want to go on a date with you.” He leaned over and planted a tender kiss on Dustin’s lips. Dustin barely had time to register it. He wanted to record this somehow, cherish the memory of this sensation forever. But it was fleeting, like the most beautiful melody, and gone far too soon.
Dustin beamed with happiness, actually beamed. A sunlight straight through the darkest of clouds, giving him all kinds of hope with a song to go with it kind of beam.
And then he sneezed. “ahhh-TIHTXXXXSHH!” Ruining the moment in every way possible. He rolled his eyes and reluctantly blew his runny nose with a fantastic gurgle.
“But let’s wait until we’re both over this head cold, okay?”
Dustin nodded, agreeing whole-heartedly. He blew his nose again.
Sang tucked the card back in its envelope then put his French horn, sheet music, and the card into his case. They stacked their chairs and put the music stand against the wall. Dustin took a couple tissues for the road and then packed the Kleenex box back into his backpack.
“You know there’s something else I’ve been wanting to ask you since I met you. Your-ahhh-your ehh-ahhhhh…” Glad for the tissues now stuffed into his pocket, he hunched over a little, burying his face in the pale yellow softness as it caressed his sensitive nose. His nostrils flared against his fingers, and his breath hitched soundlessly, jerking his body back in tiny amounts. Then he snapped forward with the inevitable release. “AhhhKCHXT!”
Though slightly embarrassed about the sound, Dustin had no choice but to empty his nose into the thick tissue with a few more gurgling blows. As he did so, he felt a hand on his back, stroking in a soft, reassuring circle.
“What did you want to ask me?”
After giving his nose and firm wipe clean with a new tissue, Dustin lifted his head. Sang was closer now. Just about the width of a French horn away from him. “Your name. What does it mean in Korean?”
Sang laughed. “When I came to America, I found out a lot of people had trouble with the second part of it, so I let them shorten it to just Sang. I don’t mind that at all.”
“I like that for its meaning in English,” Dustin said softly. “It’s what my heart did every time you smiled at me.”
Sang’s hand slid down to the small of Dustin’s back and rubbed from one side to the other, affectionate and moved by the statement though not quite to the extent of Dustin’s carefully chosen words in the card. It took Sang a few moments before he could speak again. “Thank you,” he said. Then he leaned over and placed a soft kiss on the man’s cheek. “But, um, my full name, Sang-Ook… you probably won’t believe what it means in Korean.”
“Musical?” Dustin guessed. Sang shook his head. “Talented?” Another shake. Dustin’s voice got quieter as he tested the waters. “Incredibly handsome? Sexy? Irresistible?”
Sang grinned at this. “I’m not…” He bit his lip and shook his head. Then he coughed. “Um, actually it means ‘always well.’”
Dustin’s eyes widened and he tried to hold back his laughter, but the second laughs exploded from Sang, Dustin was helpless to keep his in.
Five Years After
Falling in love was like learning a new song. When you first see the sheet music, all you really know about it is the tile, the tempo, and the key. Maybe you are attracted to it or maybe it’s mysterious, but you don’t know what it truly is yet. The first time you play it, the song sounds rough and hesitant, and you miss some of the little things here and there without realizing they even exist. But the more you practice, the better it becomes, until it actually starts resembling a work of art. And then all those little details you missed before come alive and turn into the things you cherish most about the piece. By the time the song comes out polished, there's a commitment and an appreciation of what makes the song special.
“Earth to Dustin?”
His head snapped up. He stared at Sang-Ook, whose tender lips rested against the mouthpiece of his French horn. “What? I’m here.”
Sang lowered his instrument. “Uh-huh. You were doing it again.”
Dustin looked over to see that his hand had indeed pushed up Sang’s sleeve and had been absentmindedly tracing the treble clef tattoo there, probably the entire time Sang had been playing. His fingers slowed and stopped with a swirl to finish off the last part of the figure. “It’s just so easy to get lost in your music. It’s so beautiful.”
“Thank you. As always, you remain my favorite critic.” Sang leaned over with his neck bent in order to kiss his husband’s cheek. “But you’ve got your own beautiful music to make. You need to get in the shower right now to make it to the hall in time for your rehearsal.”
Dustin checked the time on his phone and swore. He fled the studio, making straight for the stairs that led up to their bedroom. Sang dumped the valves of his French horn and put it back in its case. Then he followed Dustin’s trail of discarded clothes that he ultimately dumped in the hamper in the corner of the bedroom.
Sitting on their bed outside the master bathroom was his favorite way of appreciating Dustin’s music. The concerts and CDs were all well and good, but Dustin singing in the shower was a treat reserved only for his husband. Sang fell back upon the bed, hands under his head, arms akimbo, and let the unrestrained, unashamed melody fill all the spaces in his heart.
Twelve Years After
It was surprising how quickly the room had filled up. Dustin felt a little guilty saving such a good seat—three rows from the front, right on the aisle—when the room was already standing room only with people in the back and along both sides. He’d sent five text messages in the span of half an hour, not one of them returned.
But then, in a hectic rush, raincoat flapping and dripping, good shoes screeching on linoleum, breath coming in labored gasps, Sang appeared and just flopped down in the seat beside him.
“I was starting to worry you wouldn’t make it,” Dustin said, glad to be able to prove to the people around him that he really had been saving this seat for someone who was coming.
With his long arms, Sang had difficulty maneuvering out of his raincoat while sitting, but once he managed it, he draped his arm around Dustin’s back and squeezed his far shoulder as a kind of reassuring hello. “There’s a downpour out there. Accidents all over. Too much traffic. Surface streets were absolutely crazy, I had to take the subway.” He looked around. “Did you get us programs?”
Dustin nodded. “Picked up a whole handful: one for each of us, one for the album, and a couple extra for your parents and mine.” He brushed the side of a hand against his nose. “Hey, do you happen to have a tissue, by any chance?”
“Uh, I think I might… let me check…” Sang had folded his jacket up and put it under his chair. He dug it back out now and fished around in pockets until he produced a small pack. “What’s wrong? You sound congested again. I thought you were pretty much over your cold.”
“I am. Just an odd sneeze here or there now. It’s…” His voice rose half an octave and he choked back a sob. “It’s our baby girl’s first performance!” he said, waving his hand in the direction of the piano which sat up on the stage, on the far side. He pulled a tissue out of the pack, dabbed at his eyes, and honked his nose.
Sang rested his head against his husband’s and rubbed his hand up and down Dustin’s back. “She’s gonna be great.”
“Oh, without a doubt.” It was the first time in the school’s history that a first grader had earned the position as the lone pianist for the sixth grade musical.
They’d both listened to her practice hours a day for weeks on end. They probably knew the songs as well as she did by now. They had complete confidence in her abilities. And they both clapped and waved excitedly to her when she took the stage. But the moment she started playing, they were transported. The sound was magical, like nothing they’d ever heard from her before. Dustin, overwhelmed with pride, burst into silent tears and had to hide his face in Sang’s shoulder. Sang hugged him close, not realizing he had tears streaming down his own face as well until they dripped off the end of his chin.
Fifteen Years After
Their home, which wasn’t all that large to begin with, was full. Full of the smell of cookies that had been baking all day. Full of their family and friends who had come to celebrate with them. And full of the sound of music, of course, as they worked their way through every Christmas carol they knew.
Sang-Ook on the French horn in the chair by the crackling fireplace. Dustin by the decorated tree, leading everybody in song. And Angelica on the grand piano which easily took up about a quarter of the living room. Somehow, all Christmas carols seemed made to be sung to piano and French horn duets.
As another song finished, everyone applauded. Angelica played a beautiful, measured trill. “How about God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen next?”
Dustin held up his arms. “How about you give your old dads a little break?”
Reluctantly she agreed, though maybe with more of a pout than was needed. She got up to stretch and then mingled with their guests.
Dustin, on the other hand, grabbed a couple of cups of punch and headed over to Sang, who was coughing lightly into his bent arm. “You hanging in there, or is that cold kicking your butt?” he asked, dropping a kiss into his husband’s hair, black like the piano, if you didn’t notice a strand or two of gray mixed in.
“I’ll survive. Hahh… hahhGIHSchhhh!”
“Bless you.” Dustin stroked his cheek and then came out of nowhere with a tissue in his hand to wipe Sang’s nose for him. “If you want to go upstairs to rest a little, no one would blame you.”
It was Angelica’s turn to come out of nowhere, this time with a fleece blanket that depicted reindeer and pine trees. She draped it around her father’s shoulders and took his French horn from him. Reverently, she set twist-pulled the mouthpiece off and set the pieces it in its case. “Enough music for now. Let’s light the tree up.”
Sang gave her a grateful smile. “There can never be enough music, my Angel. But that sounds like a good idea.”
Dustin went to retrieve the stepladder and the tree topper. It was tradition that Angelica place the angel on the top of the tree. Even though she was far too big now to be lifted up there to do it, there were some traditions you just didn’t mess with. Dustin held the ladder as she climbed. And as soon as the angel was in place, he tapped the button on the floor to turn the lights on. It glowed with a warmth that made all their hearts sing.
Twenty-nine Years After
“Hurry up!” She called toward the bedroom. Then she checked her makeup in the hall mirror, touching her finger to the corner of her mouth where her lipstick wasn’t perfect. Then she tilted her head, long black hair falling in curls to the side as she put in amethyst earrings. They were a hand-me-down from her great grandmother; amethysts were big in South Korea. “Kiernan!”
“All right, all right! I’m coming!” He hopped out of the bedroom on one foot, in the process of putting on a dress shoe. As soon as it was on, she grabbed for his hand and pulled him to the door. “Wait! I’ve got to tie them!”
“You can do that on the way.”
“But I’ll trip!” he insisted, laughing.
“You’d better not,” she countered, only half amused.
He pulled his hand from hers as they got to the door, squatted down, and quickly tied his shoes. He was at the right height to see her tap her shiny, black, high-heeled shoe on the floor impatiently, once a second. She was impatient in 4/4 time. He popped back up, grabbed his wallet and keys, and let her drag him out of their apartment.
They half-flew, half stumbled on their race down the stairs. “Angelica, slow down. You’re going to get hurt!”
She squeezed his had as they got to the front door of their building. In the lobby light, under the ostentatious chandelier, wearing the most expensive dress she owned, bursting with excitement and pride, she had never looked more beautiful. “My dad’s finally playing Carnegie Hall. I am not going to be late!”
“You won’t be,” he promised. “I won’t let that happen.” He pulled her to him and kissed her. Her fingers played a scale up his side, narrowly missing the pocket where there was a small box with a ring in it was burning a hole. Maybe tonight, after all the excitement, would be the right time. He let her take hold of his hand again, and together they ran down the street to the corner to catch a ride into Midtown Manhattan.
Thirty-five Years After
In the middle of the night, Kiernan automatically stumbled down the hallway and paused in the doorway to his son’s bedroom. There was a soft glow from the corner of the room, illuminating his fathers-in-law. One held the tiny, swaddled infant against his chest and shoulder and was bouncing up and down smoothly. The other stood close, humming softly. After a few moments, he asked, head cocked, “Mozart?” His voice was deep from exhaustion.
Both Dustin and Sang looked up, but Dustin didn’t stop humming. Sang whispered back, “It was one of Angelica’s favorites when she was a baby. Looks like your son here has good taste.”
“He’s got good grandpas,” Kiernan replied. “Is he all right?”
“He was just wet and in need of a change and some love, not a feeding yet. This is exactly what we’re here for. Go back to bed,” Sang insisted.
Kiernan gave them both a grateful smile then shuffled back down the hallway, yawning. His head hit the pillow like a dead weight and he fell asleep to the singing of one of Mozart’s string quartets coming through clearly through the baby monitor.
Endnotes: It’s been more than twenty-five years since I
last held/played a French horn. I fear that I got things wrong, because my
memory of playing it for a year as a kid probably can’t be completely trusted.
Thank goodness for the many YouTube tutorials and the fingering charts
I found online. But my sincerest apologies if I got anything wrong. Also, I
apologize to Dustin for making him learn to play on a double horn as opposed to
a single horn (which has the added complication of a fourth valve operated by
the thumb), but I wanted his and Sang’s to be the same type so that lessons
would make more sense.
Thank you to members of my Writers’ Roundtable group which, when asked if it would be too cheesy to have music-lovers name their child something music-related, answered that it wouldn’t. Then they started throwing out names of women who die tragically in operas. Not exactly what I was going for (though Rufus’ Damned Ladies makes a good argument for it). I imagine Dustin might perhaps have ended up on Broadway, so I went with musical theater instead of opera. Though Angelica is of course a figure in history, she’s named after the feisty and genuine Angelica Schuyler in the musical, Hamilton, because it’s my current obsession and because angel metaphors are fun to utilize.
Thank you also to my coworker, an actual opera singer, for helping me decide that Dustin was a tenor and not a countertenor (though my coworker was highly impressed I knew what such a thing was). She suggested I listen to both on YouTube and figure out which fit the character better. She also told me about an amazing countertenor in a workshop she was just at. As someone who can only sing in the shower (badly, and off-key) I have the utmost admiration for anyone who can sing professionally.
And, yes, I’m thanking people here who will never
read this story, but they were helpful, so they get thanked. That’s how it
And sorry for the epilogues. I just couldn’t stop epiloging. I think one of the reasons I posted this was to keep from epiloguing more. But as there are 5 lessons, I think stopping after five epilogues was a good idea.