Morning classes passed excruciatingly slow, I did not really pay attention to classes, but since I kept quiet and did not bother any other students, the teachers just let me be. It had become some kind of unspoken arrangement between us. I did not bother them, and they did not bother me.
That is why I was surprised when at noon when I wanted to get ready for some extra practice in the music room, I was stopped by our class teacher* Mrs. Peeters.
“Fleure, I would like a word with you, there are some things we need to discuss.” I did not have much of a choice but to comply and I was led to a counseling room, where to my surprise Aunt Christina was already present. What were they planning? I grew weary. I did not like to be cornered like this. I wanted to turn around and leave, but Mrs. Peeters had locked the door behind us.
“Since you always try to run, you gave me no choice. We just want to talk about your future. You can’t keep on running from this,” she said. I looked at Aunt Christina. She looked back at me a bit worried, but I could see she was resolved to have this “talk”.
I was told to sit down at the desk next to Aunt Christina. I guess I could just as well get it over with.
“The way your grades are going, you are most likely to fail this year again, unless we change something now.” Mrs. Peeters started her standard boring speech. “At this rate, you will become a drop-out, and that is something I would like to avoid at all costs. I never had someone from my class drop out in my entire career and I would like to keep it that way.” I could see she was really proud of that fact. I guess my grades must be a real nightmare for her then. I had no idea what my grades were, to be honest. But since I didn’t pay attention and hadn’t handed in a single piece of homework this trimester, I knew they could not be good. I just handed my report carts to Aunt Christina without even looking at them.
“Since your situation is so unique, and I know these talks don’t do anything for you, I put in some work, and I wanted to offer you something different than what we usually do in this school.”
Mrs. Peeters looked quite excited, and Aunt Christina looked approvingly at what she was saying, so I deduced they had discussed what was about to be said beforehand.
I did not like it when things were being discussed behind my back.
Mrs. Peeters continued her explanation. “I found a European school project called “Virtuoso Academia”, for which you would just need to take an entrance exam. Your current grades do not matter.”
“As if I can pass an entrance exam.”
“I think you can pass this one.”
Mrs. Peeters opened a laptop to let me watch a video. It showed a beautiful tall dark-haired girl with a serious look on her face playing Cesar Franc’s* violin sonata rather well. I had heard worse professional recordings. Even though her music was a bit rigid, I could feel something darker, uncontrolled, in the depths of it. She was interesting. The name Nastya Fjodorov was projected at the bottom of the screen. I needed to remember that name. Then interrupting the beautiful music, the video changed into a commercial for a high school project to create better musicians and a voice was talking over the music. It was an ambitious project to concentrate promising young musicians from all over Europe to have them start their musical education sooner. It said that conservatories are too late in the career of a good musician to start taking music seriously and this project was to see if they could achieve better results by starting a higher level of music education at the high school level.
Then we saw an interview with the girl from earlier who was calling for people who took music seriously and was tired of the people with half-baked motivation and mediocre talent around her. Lise always got in fights with people like that. “Those people forget to enjoy the music and just burn out,” she used to say. I used to agree with what Lise said, but now that my music had a different goal, I could understand Nastya. I would not even consider practicing with other people. Not only would it blemish my memory of Lise, but in the end, they would also just hold me back since I doubt, they would understand or agree with what I was trying to do. I knew I had to keep that a secret. People could be so cruel when you tell them something they don’t understand. It made me wonder what made Nastya be like that.
After the video, Mrs. Peeters explained to me that the entrance exam would be held in Brussels at the start of summer break. Only the very best would be allowed into the academy and people from all over Europe were allowed to participate. If the competition in this kind of setup wasn’t enough already, there was a special soloist program for the top 10 applicants, turning this exam into a competition. I am pretty sure Lise would have been going crazy about a thing like this. The only real requirement outside of music was a basic knowledge of French and English.
“W-What do you think?” Aunt Christina said with hopeful eyes. “Even though I’d miss you, you’d be able to focus 100% on your music. Isn’t that what you want?”
“Mis me? What do you mean?”
“Even though it’s near Brussels, it’s a dorm school. The dorm is mandatory. You would only be coming home once in a while.” Mrs. Peeters answered.
I looked back at Aunt Christina, and she said “Even though it hurts me to admit it, continuing like things have been going at my place and at this school isn’t working out, is it? At this rate, you will just drop out of high school, and then what? I want you to be prepared for adult life in a decent way. I thought some more independence might be good for you. I’ll still be there for you, just a little further away. Brussels is only an hour away by train. I know your mom and dad would want me to do everything possible to make you happy and this seems like an opportunity to give you a chance to do what you want to do?”
I felt myself grow emotional and couldn’t stop myself from lashing out.
“Don’t mention him!” I yelled. “it’s all his fault!” I could see Aunt Christina was trying to talk to me. She was clearly trying to calm me down, but I held my hands in front of my ears. I did not want to hear it. I felt tears run over my cheeks. It’s all his fault that Lise and I got separated. My scar started hurting and I screamed as I saw the horror images of the accident flash again before my eyes.
When I came too, I was in my bed at home. Aunt Christina sat in the armchair next to me reading a novel. When she noticed I was staring at her, she smiled relieved.
“I am sorry about earlier. But to me, they were both precious. I can’t just pretend one of them does not exist.”
My heart started to beat faster. She wasn’t going to try to talk about my parents with me, was she?
“I will respect your space, and if you don’t want to mention him and pretend like he did not exist, that is fine, but do not expect the same from me. I also lost my precious sister and my brother-in-law in that accident.”
I could see a tear form in her eye. It was the first time I saw Aunt Christina cry since the funeral. She had always kept up that cheery mood in front of me.
It hurt me to see her cry. Why did it hurt me so much? Had I grown unconsciously more attached to her than I thought?
“I- I’m sorry,” I said. I did not want to go into the subject though so I hoped my apology would be enough. Aunt Christina looked at me with a gaze that told me she had come to a decision.
“I told Mrs. Peeters you would do it. You are taking that entrance exam. I think it might be better to have a change of environment for you.”
“You are sending me away?”
“Don’t act childish. During the last two years, you have never really been here with me, have you? I really did my best to bring you back, but the only thing that changed is that now you constantly play your cello. I was happy about that at first, but now I can see that you weren’t engrossed in it, you are obsessed with it. I am not sure you are even enjoying it. Are you even enjoying anything in life?”
Those words were like bullets hitting me right on target. I hadn’t enjoyed anything in a long time. I remained silent. I could not utter a word.
“I am at the end of my ropes too you know. I know I should be a strong indomitable adult for you, but somewhere I hoped we could have shared the grief for the loss of a person we both loved and overcome it together. I know I can’t replace your mom, but we used to be so much closer, and it hurts me to see you like this.”
A lot of emotions were swirling inside of me. Memories of Aunt Christina before the accident started coming to me. She spent a lot of time with us and even joined us on vacations. She had always been there, and I remember looking up to her in those days. Feelings of guilt were eating at me. Guilt to have hurt my aunt like this. All I ever did was hurt people around me.
“I think it is time for you to turn a new leaf, and I think this dorm school might be a good chance for you to put everything behind you. I am not just dumping you there. I will always be here for you. I just hope one day, you’ll be able to open your heart toward others again. I’m just sorry that I was not able to do it.”
I could no longer stand seeing my aunt like this, so I said, “I’ll take the exam because you want me to.” At least I could do that for her.
Aunt Christina nodded. “I’ll do anything you need to support you.”
Then she moved close and hugged me. It felt really weird and uncomfortable at first. Nobody had touched me affectionately like that since the accident. I had not allowed it. Her embrace reminded me of my mother’s, and I felt the dam burst. I cried. I felt sadness and guilt flow out of me while I was being comforted by the only person that still acted toward me as if I existed, and I had hurt that person so much that now she was sending me away.
“I am not sending you away. I am only doing this because I think it will be better for you. Know that you will always be welcome in my home at any time, and if you want, you can see me on the weekends and on holidays.”
Even though I had done my best to distance myself from Aunt Christina, those words touched me a lot more than I thought they could. Despite everything I had done to her, she was still open to me. I started to cry even harder.
That night at dinner time, I decided to join Aunt Christina to eat with her at the dinner table for the first time. I could see how surprised she was when I arrived and walked up to the table. Even though we did not talk, she was smiling the entire time.