Written by Sophia Zhang
The music had been missing from my life for a while. It faded sometime during college. Like many things, it happened without explanation, and I didn’t notice the difference until years later.
Summer days: an apartment filled with sunshine, purple globe grapes and the piercing silver of flute. From the balcony, we had a full view of the Gyeongsan River. Kyung Eun always left the door to her room open. “Hi! Have nice day!” she would greet me brightly, then reposition her flute and turn back to the sheet music in front of her. She’d just begun Francois Devienne’s Concerto No. 7 in E minor. The notes were fluttery, new.
Those days, the apartment was rarely silent. The backdrop of flute hung over our lives. As the season waned, the notes grew brighter, more confident. They captured the sweetness of summer. At school, I asked Kyung Eun and her classmates if they were excited to start high school next spring.
“High school very busy, always work.”
It’s strange — leaving for two months in the winter and coming back to find the Gyeongsan River missing, replaced with a view of gray concrete. I’m standing in a foreign apartment. Movers and sawdust everywhere. Kyung Eun is modeling her new art high school uniform: a black skirt that brushes her ankles, white blouse, and double-breasted maroon suit. She spins around, and I smile and clap.
“I don’t want to go to high school,” she says, when the movers leave and things quiet down. We are sitting side by side on the piano bench.
“Can you play ‘Summer’?” I ask. I forget where I first heard the melody, but it’s one of my favorites.
“Yes!” She takes out the sheet music and her hands glide over the black and white keys.
As I listen, happiness wells in me — the sort that only music can inspire.
“I love this song so much.”
“I teach you, very easy.”
She places my hands over the keys and rests her own an octave higher. She plays and I copy. When I stumble, she corrects me gently. “Very good!” She beams when I manage three bars without messing up. “You play very well.”
The next morning, Kyung Eun is not at breakfast. I find out from my host mom that she left for school over an hour ago. She does not return for dinner either. Even after I’ve washed up and climbed into bed, she still does not come home.
An entire week passes. I keep expecting to hear the sound of Kyung Eun’s flute, but there is only silence. In the living room, the piano lid remains shut. It rains on and off. I leave my umbrella in the teachers’ office and walk slowly down the wet, gray streets of Daegu.
Once, I catch Kyung Eun just as she is about to leave for school. For the first time, there are bags beneath her eyes. She has gained a bit of weight from eating out every day. “I miss you,” I manage to say right before she slips out the door.
Around late March, my host mom has to go to a parent-teacher conference and takes me with her. She drops me off in front of a tonkatsu restaurant a few blocks from the school. Kyung Eun appears next to me, holding an umbrella over my head. “Sophia! Come, we have dinner!” She links her arm through mine and ushers me inside. I blink, still not quite believing it’s her I’m seeing.
“There 10 flutists in my grade. All more experience than me. So I have to practice very hard,” Kyung Eun tells me over our fried pork cutlets and unlimited Coke refills. After we pay, she brings me to her practice room.
There is a small central area and a bathroom with a showerhead. Down a wooden hallway are two rows of soundproof rooms. Kyung Eun knocks on each one and introduces me to the classmate who plays oboe, the classmate who plays cello, the classmate who plays violin. Finally, we arrive at her room.
It is about the size of a medium closet. There is enough space for a small armchair and Kyung Eun’s music stand. A pillow and duvet are spread against the windowless wall. Beneath the duvet is an electric blanket that’s currently unplugged. So this is where she comes to every day after school and stays late into the night. This is where she spends her weekends, where she remains instead of coming home.
“Can I hear the new song you’re playing?”
Kyung Eun rearranges the sheet music on the stand. I glance at the title. J. Demesseman’s Sixième Solo de Concert. She does a few scales and then brings the silver instrument to her lips. The song is much more difficult than the last. It is incredibly fast and full of trills. It is impressive, but not pretty like the Francois Devienne piece.
When my host mom comes by around 7 p.m. to pick me up, I turn to Kyung Eun. “Please come home with us.”
She sighs. “I want to, but I have to stay practice.”
Eventually, it stops raining. A Wednesday. I am the first one home. I put my things away and step into the empty living room. Outside, green shoots push out of the damp ground. The soft pink of cherry blossoms has begun to spread across the bare branches.
I think I hear the sound of someone’s flute playing. I stand still, and listen. But it is just the silence playing tricks on me. Outside, the soft murmuring of traffic ripples the stillness. I sit down on the piano bench, and raise the slightly dusty lid. The first notes of “Summer” fill the apartment.
They are fluttery, new. The afternoon sun warms my back. Slowly, happiness wells in me – the sort that only music can inspire.
Sophia Zhang is a 2013-2014 ETA at Nobyeon Middle School in Daegu.