‘Still alive’ is what I send Miho the next morning, not expecting much of a reply, but I get one only a few minutes later.
‘And here I was ready to avenge you if necessary.’
‘Thanks, I appreciate the sentiment. But I only barely made it. Got attacked with eggs.’
My phone buzzes in my hands, announces a call and I grin, increase the volume and take the call.
Not even a greeting but I jump right into the conversation anyway.
“Nope. Sharpened into a makeshift knife.”
I tell her about Jake’s blunder and how I sat through the whole dinner in Ben’s casual wear and by the end of it she’s howling with laughter. At least one of us enjoys my misery from last night.
“But you survived and that’s all that matters,” she says when she can breathe again.
“For now,” I point out. “I’m invited to that fancy dinner party next weekend.” And Mom has made clear that I can’t get out of this.
“Really? What are you going to wear?”
This typical girly question takes me by surprise, my choice of dress for that night the furthest on my mind in face of the looming threat of whatever Jake could do to me.
“Oh shit, I haven’t even thought about that.” My suitcase holds nothing for such an occasion. Jeans or a sundress or my good blouse from ten years ago won’t help me to blend in when all those big shots gather in one place.
“You know what that means,” she coos. “Shopping trip!”
My epic groan can be heard in China but being in a small town also has its perks.
“It’s Sunday. The good shopkeepers are in church right now, nothing is open.”
“Not here, but the mall two towns over is always open. Don’t even try to get out of this now. I’m picking you up in half an hour so get your ass into some clothes and give me your address.”
The drive is short and we talk about everything and anything, it feels strange but right. Seeing her outside of the café turns out to be fun, just as much as hanging out with her waiting for customers. We mull over the outfit choice for that dinner and decide on a shift dress or maybe a cocktail dress. Not too fancy – my wallet doesn’t allow for anything extravagant anyway.
After a few shops and some price tags that make my heart stop in panic we decide to grab a bite to eat. The food court is populated but not too crowded, we get a bagel and something to drink when Miho freezes, curses and pushes her lunch into my hands and storms off. Due to a lack of alternatives I follow her, whatever is going to happen is hopefully entertaining.
She makes a beeline to the coffee shop, a franchise found in almost every city, and I spot him even before she taps his shoulder.
“How could you? You’re cheating on me?”
Jared’s confused face is almost as attractive as this tiny smirk he usually has when Miho hands him his coffee. But this cup is not from the café and Miho doesn’t wear her stare-down face.
Not his brightest retort, I assume, but the best he can manage in this situation.
“You’re drinking coffee!”
I almost expect her to smack it out of his hand, but her accusing finger only trembles a few inches away from the cup.
“Miho?” He lags some seconds behind, is still befuddled when Miho chokes out: “I thought we had something special!” and runs off.
His helpless gaze finds me, I shrug, try not to drop the food I’m still holding.
“Don’t look at me, I thought that thing between you was very special, too.”
I leave him there to his confusion and run after Miho.
“You know that was really crazy, do you?” I find her slumped down on a bench, offer her the bagel.
“I have no idea why I did that,” she admits, takes a bite out of her bagel and furiously chews it.
“Low blood sugar?” I sit down next to her, take a sip of my orange juice.
“I will never be able to face him again, huh?”
I bump my shoulder against hers, start eating in my bagel. “You know, if he comes back to the café I guess that means he doesn’t mind you being nuts.”
“If he comes back to the café after this I guess he’s just as crazy.”
I can’t argue with that so I hum, take another bite of my bagel. Cream cheese but no salmon. That costs extra.
“I ruined the shopping trip, huh?” Miho sniffles but she’s not crying. There are hot peppers on her bagel – honestly, who does that? – and I can already see the blush creeping up her neck and into her cheeks.
“Nah, I couldn’t fork over 80 bucks for a dress anyway. It’s fine, I’m going to hit the thrift shops in town tomorrow.”
She stares at me, long and hard, furrows her brow so the crease over her nose is showing.
“You can’t afford 80 dollars for a dress but come to get coffee every day?”
“Hey, a coffee is what? Three bucks? I can spend three bucks on myself each day just fine. But 50 or more for a dress I’m only going to wear once, that’s not happening.” Before she can pity me I get up, cram the rest of my bagel into my mouth and slurp my orange juice.
“C’mon, I think we’re done here.”
The town is dead on Sundays, too small to offer anything besides the public pool and a park. Only a handful of fast food joints and a store of that coffee franchise are open. So when Miho drops me off at Mom’s place after a ride in mostly silence I have no idea how to kill some time.
The mayor’s unexpected phone call is a welcome distraction and his invitation to tea one I gladly accept – after he tells me that neither Ben nor Jake will be there. At least I don’t need a fancy new outfit for this.
It’s Mom’s day off, she’s visiting Grandma today, and I find Mr. Rosenfeldt preparing tea and coffee.
“Jazz, dear, come in. There’s still cake in the fridge.”
I don’t even know exactly how old he is, but he looks in his late 50s, early 60s maybe. When Ben and Jake look like that in 40 years, their partners can be happy. They share the same facial features, but the mayor’s hair is grey already while his sons fit the dark, tall and handsome trope.
I grab the cake and some plates, follow him into the normal living room and sit down. We chat about everything that comes to mind, he asks about my studies and tells me about the latest developments in town.
“Oh dear, we need another plate,” he notices after I set the coffee table. “Madeleine will join us.”
Poker face, don’t fail me now!
“Sure, I’m going to fetch one.”
Maybe I can pretend I got an emergency call or just sneak out. Maddie bothers me more than Jake, I just can’t figure out what her issue is with me. We used to be in music classes together before I stopped my piano lessons. The tinnitus made it impossible for me to sustain a tone after my accident so I dropped out of classes. Ever since I also stopped hanging around with Maddie. As if the only thing connecting us has been the music.
And now she’s engaged to the guy I dreamed of for the longest time and although I don’t mind it’s frustrating how she always goes directly for my weaknesses. And knowing me as well as she probably does she has a lot she can attack.
With a third plate and another dessert fork I trudge back, give into my fate that obviously I can’t have one peaceful day in this town anymore. Maddie isn’t there yet so I just sit down on the couch next to the mayor and accept the cup of tea Mr. Rosenfeldt offers me.
“Now that you have graduated, what are your plans?” He stirs some sugar into his tea, puts the spoon down.
“I’m working at a project with some friends. We want to provide more SL options for museums and galleries. You know audio guides? Like that, only without the audio of course. The idea was to put QR-codes next to exhibits and a hearing impaired person can scan them with a smartphone and watch a video with additional information in sign language.”
“And why don’t they just read the exhibition texts?”
I turn to face Maddie who looks as thrilled to see me as I do. She forces a smile into Mr. Rosenfeldt’s direction, chooses an armchair across of us.
“Usually those texts are stripped-down to whatever fits on a small note. Plus, it’s one thing reading a text and another to actually talk to someone about something.” I explain it to her like to a child, slowly and with as much patience as I can muster. Which isn’t a lot, not even on good days.
“But you are not talking, not really at least,” she points out. Mayor Rosenfeldt’s eyes widen slightly and my blood is close to boiling.
“I am. Sign language is also a language, even if it’s not spoken with lips, tongue and vocal chords. And it’s a lot more personal to see someone sign than reading a text.” If I talk any slower I have to spell every word out for her.
“I think that is a wonderful idea,” Mr. Rosenfelt chimes in and smiles at me. “Accessibility should be standard and it’s more than just ramps and elevators for those who need a wheelchair or walking aids.”
“Exactly, thank you, sir.” I beam at him, it’s exhausting to have this kind of discussion over and over again without any acknowledgment.
“But if they are deaf they can still read,” Maddie insists, brows furrowed and lips curled into a pout.
“They could, but most museums and exhibitions don’t have the space to add all the relevant or interesting information on huge posters after all. And it doesn’t only have to be sign language. Adding an interactive source of information could benefit everyone. Imagine going into an art gallery, scanning a code and getting the history of origin of a painting or a sculpture in a short video. There’s sound for the hearing and sign language for the hearing impaired.” The concept isn’t that difficult to grasp, at least I think so.
Her expression morphs into a triumphant smile. “And the blind?”
I quickly glance to the mayor who closes his eyes and shakes his head briefly.
“They can still hear, you know? At least in most cases. So… sound would work just fine for them.” I want to scream but instead take a deep breath. There are situations I’m tempted to turn off my hearing aids just so I don’t have to listen to the stupidity of others. Now is such an occasion.
“But isn’t that too much of an effort for just the few deaf people who might or might not visit a museum or a gallery?”
I seek for help with the mayor, silently implore him to cut this conversation short or just kill me now.
“Maybe more hearing impaired people would visit those places if there were more accommodations for them,” he says and within the same breath he adds: “How about some cake now?”
“Sounds good.” My enthusiasm gets the words out louder than planned, Mr. Rosenfeldt flinches lightly but gets up and cuts the cake.
“Elias, you don’t have to do that. Jazz can serve the cake for us.”
“Jazz is my guest, just like you are, Madeline,” he curtly replies, wipes the smug grin off her face with just those few words. He hands me a plate with an apologetic look that I return with a smile.
“Thanks. You know, Maddie, even during my internship I wasn’t the one making coffee and going on donut runs. It’s hard to sign when you have your hands full after all.” That’s what makes conversations in sign language even more meaningful in my opinion. You can’t just have them on the side, you have to fully focus on them.
“So you worked for a company that employs several hearing impaired people?” Mr. Rosenfeldt lets out a small, appreciative hum.
“Not really. I was working in a typical marketing department of a big company, but somehow I ended up interpreting for one of their clients who needed a sign language interpreter. It was fun, but also a lot of work and I figured it would be easier to just have some pre-recorded videos, like text modules in written business conversation. That’s actually how the whole project started. One of my supervisors thought it was interesting and we brainstormed until we came up with the ‘guided tour for hearing impaired’ idea.” I stare into my tea cup, desperate not to think of Sam’s enthusiasm during the whole process.
“What are you doing for a living, Maddie?” Steering the conversation to a different topic seems like a good idea and the way her face lights up I know that talking about herself will give me a reprieve.
“I’m working at the medical center downtown. A very demanding and responsible position.” She takes a bite of the cake, gives me a second to do the math in my head.
“You’re not a doctor, are you?” For that she would still have to be in med school. A nurse maybe?
“No, I’m not a doctor.” The corners of her mouth twitch, her smile drops. Looks as if I hit a nerve. “But there are more people working there than just doctors. And it needs other, well trained staff to keep a medical center running, you know?”
“Yes, of course. Specialists and lab workers, nurses, management.” I nod along my list. “And what exactly are you doing there?”
Suddenly tight-lipped she takes a sip from her tea. “I take care of very sensitive medical data.”
Major Rosenfeldt clears his throat, a tiny smirk on his lips, but doesn’t say anything.
“Well, that sounds like an important task,” I cheerfully say, happy that she hasn’t brought up any of my flaws and weaknesses for two minutes. “And are you still playing the piano?”
Since it works I stick to the strategy of making Maddie the topic, rummage in my brain about the things she used to like. Well, at least those who are safe to discuss in front of her future father-in-law. Especially since I remember vividly how she gushed about one of his sons – unfortunately not Ben, but Jake. She had a thing for bad boys back then, not the sweethearts.
“I stopped playing after graduating school.”
The lull in the conversation makes me nervous.
“The piano is still where it always was. Just in case one of you wants to play,” the mayor suggests, turns to me again. “You used to play this one song over and over. I still remember it.”
I squirm, his fond smile doesn’t fit to my unease.
“I haven’t played in ages.” After the accident I lost a whole range of tones I can hear, but my fingers still remember the motions.
“Why don’t you try it? I bet you don’t have many chances to play on a real piano nowadays.” Maddie raises her eyebrow, the unspoken challenge not what I need right now. But I accept it anyway.
The piano is as familiar as the rest of the house, I spent hours and hours playing here whenever I could. Not a speck of dust mars its polished surface and my heart swells with nostalgia. I assume it’s tuned even if no one plays it, the mayor takes good care of his treasures after all.
Timidly I rest my fingers on the keys, wrecking my brain for the melody that I used to know by heart.
The first notes of ‘Bitter sweet symphony’ take me back to how I almost obsessively practiced the song.
“It’s meant as a duet,” I say apologetically over the music. “Hard to make it work on my own.”
“Allow me.” Mr. Rosenfeldt gets up, joins me at the piano. “It’s one of my favorites actually.”
I can’t help the surprised chuckle but tilt my head. “You want the lead?”
“No, I’m fine being the support act. If you are fine with doing most of the work, that is.”
Together we start from the top, it’s a bit awkward at first, trying to get into the same pace but we manage when the parts separate.
“I played the song so often, even the boys grew to like it,” Mr. Rosenfeldt mentions with a smile. “Imagine my surprise when you started playing it, too.”
I hum, but have to focus on the melody. Somewhere in the middle I stop, can’t remember the notes anymore.
“Sorry.” I exhale, rest my hands in my lap.
“No need to apologize, dear. It was fun, thank you.” He wraps an arm around me, pulls me in for a quick hug. “No one plays with me nowadays. Not sure if one of the boys even remembers the basics from their piano lessons.”
“I could play with you, Elias.” Maddie stands up, walks over to us. “We could pick a song we both like.”
“I would like that.”
She flashes me a grin and I huff a wry chuckle.
“Jazz, feel free to use the piano if you want to. I’m sure your mother would love to hear you play, too.” Mr. Rosenfeldt gets up, offers me his hand to pull me up, too. “I’m afraid I still have some work to do. Thank you for keeping me company. And don’t be a stranger. We all missed you here.”
How can a single person be so sweet? Again I wonder why Mrs. Rosenfeldt ever left him.
“Thank you, sir. I will make sure to drop by again as long as I’m in town.”
“And drop the ‘sir’. You are an adult now, it’s fine to call me Elias.”
I hear a sharp inhale from Maddie, ignore it and smile at Mr. Ro- no, Elias.
“Thank you. Elias.”
He nods, happy that he got his way again, and starts clearing away the dishes.
“Let me help you with that,” Maddie is quick to offer, but as soon as he vanishes into his study after saying goodbye she shoves the plates at me.
“Here, take that to the kitchen.”
“Yes, Miss Madeline,” I wryly reply in a mocked early 19th century maid way, brush past her without paying attention to her angry snort. My mind and heart is still full, reeling with that song I had never played again after the accident.