Title: Precious Things
Author: Stephanie Parent
Genre: NA (Contemporary)
Synopsis. Isabelle Andrews isn’t supposed to be here. She isn’t supposed to be a freshman at Hartford Community College, she isn't supposed to be living at home and working at her dad’s failing bakery, and she definitely isn’t supposed to be taking Intro to Electronic Music Production, a class that will get her nowhere toward her goal of an English Ph.D. by age twenty-five. But when her dad’s latest business fiasco eats up her college fund, Hartford Community College is exactly where Isabelle finds herself—and thanks to her late enrollment, she doesn’t even get to choose her classes. Stuck with Electronic Music and way-too-easy English courses, Isabelle is determined to wallow in all the misery she feels entitled to.
But community college brings some unexpected benefits…like the fact that a certain overworked, over-scheduled Electronic Music professor hands over most of his duties to his teaching assistant. His tall, green-eyed, absolutely gorgeous teaching assistant. When TA Evan Strauss discovers Isabelle’s apathy toward electronic music—and, well, all music—he makes it his mission to convert her. The music Evan composes stirs something inside Isabelle, but she can’t get involved—after all, she’ll be transferring out as soon as possible.
Still, no matter how tightly Isabelle holds on to her misery, she finds it slipping away in the wake of all Hartford Community offers: new friendships, a surprisingly cool poetry professor, and most of all, Evan. But Evan’s dream of owning his own music studio is as impractical as Isabelle’s dad’s bakery, and when Evan makes a terrible decision, everything Isabelle has gained threatens to unravel. Soon Isabelle discovers that some of the most important lessons take place outside the classroom…and that in life, as in Evan’s favorite Depeche Mode song, the most precious things can be the hardest to hold on to.
I click “play” on the computer screen, and the song floods out of the headphones, into my ears and through my brain waves and down to my core, where I swear my heart syncs to the beat of the music. The melody pulses its way through me, into every hollow of every bone and every sinew of every muscle. I find it hard to believe the entire music lab, the entire building, isn’t filling with sound. People should be running into the room, lured by the song; but the truth is that outside my head, beyond the barrier of the headphones, there’s nothing but silence. Not that it matters. Because the one person I want—need—to share this song with, more than anything in the world?
To say I’m unhappy as I walk into my first Intro to Electronic Music Production class at Hartford Community College is the understatement of the year. Oh, I’m unhappy, don’t get me wrong—I’m unhappy that due to overcrowded classes and my late enrollment, I’ve ended up with an “elective” that might as well be ancient Greek for all I understand about it. The syllabus—e-mailed to us last night—is a jumble of Logic Pro and MIDI and Fruity Loops (Fruity Loops?) Music Maker and strange programming language that scares the heck out of me. I’m unhappy that I still smell like a cinnamon bun from this morning’s shift at Teatime, and if this overheated, overcrowded room and the sweat trickling down my back are any indication, I’ll soon smell like a broiled cinnamon bun. I’m unhappy that I’m stuck here till six because, for some unfathomable reason, Intro to Electronic Music Production requires five hours of class time twice a week.
But as I was saying—I’m not just unhappy. No, I’m miserable. Miserable that I’m here at Hartford Community College at all, when I should be at Johns Hopkins, or Georgetown—both of which accepted me—or even at University of Maryland with Jenny, where I would have been accepted if I hadn’t been too stubborn and stupid to apply to safety schools. Miserable that I spent the morning still working my high-school job at Teatime, the teashop that, just to rub the salt in the wound, is responsible for my community college fate. Miserable that after this five-hour class, I’ll be driving back down the highway to dinner at my childhood home, TV on my childhood couch, and sleep in my childhood bed.
Miserable. Yeah, that about covers it. I scan the quickly filling classroom for a seat. Clearly I can forget about finding a computer for myself: people are already doubling or tripling up before the not-too-ancient Macs. A tiny raven-haired girl with an empty chair beside her offers me a smile, and I try my best to smile back. Then she turns, seized with a sudden need to flip through her notebook, and I know my smile came out more like a grimace. I meet two more pairs of eyes, belonging to a woman who must be in her fifties and a young dreadlocked guy, and the same thing happens. Not that I blame them—I’ve got the enthusiasm of a cold fish, and I’m sure I’m about as appealing as one. Heck, I don’t even like myself right now; I can’t expect anyone else to.
I thread through rows of tables, computers and electronic piano keyboards—true to its name, the “music lab” is set up more like a laboratory than a traditional classroom—and avoid any further eye contact until I slip into the very last empty seat in the very last row. Just as my butt hits the chair, the harried-looking guy at the front of the room, whom I’m guessing is our professor, clears his throat and begins talking. His voice, as rumpled and droopy as his tweed jacket, is the kind that immediately invites minds to wander, and it doesn’t help that more students keep filing into the packed room. I’m trying to keep an open mind about this whole community college thing, but it’s not a good sign when I can’t focus even for the first three minutes of my first class.
Just how many people did they let into this class? It’s standing room only now, and shit, is that guy pushing a stroller with a toddler inside? At least the kid is cute. And asleep, it looks like. Open mind, open mind…
“Don’t worry,” a whisper from my right startles me. “Half these people will drop before the second week of classes. That’s why they let so many in.” I turn toward the voice and find a very normal, even sympathetic-looking girl with olive skin and those wispy bangs I can never pull off. “It’s your first day, isn’t it?”
“That obvious, huh?” I try the smile again, hoping I can keep the grimace from creeping in around the edges.
“It’s always crazy the first week of the semester. It will calm down. Baby Daddy will work out the schedule with his babysitter. Oh and by the way”—she leans closer—“that’s not normal, so don’t get too concerned.”
“Good. I…I didn’t think it was.”
She winks at me. “I’m Lucy, by the way.”
“Isabelle,” I answer quickly. I may be miserable, but I’m making friends, goddammit.
Lucy smiles and turns her attention back to the professor, and I know I should do the same…
But when I shift my gaze to the front of the room, I find myself staring not at Rumpled Tweed, but at what I swear must be the greenest pair of eyes I’ve ever seen. Really. They’re like two damn sparkly gemstones or something. And the owner of those eyes, who’s leaning against the wall, long arms and even longer legs crossed, the heel of one scuffed sneaker resting atop the toe of the other, is looking right at me.
He winks. And it’s nothing like Lucy’s wink.
By this point I’ve completely lost track of what Professor—I glance down at my syllabus—Barton is saying, so I’m thrown for a loop when he gestures for Green Eyes to step forward and stand beside him. I get a better look at Green Eyes as he comes closer: messy, longish dark brown hair, lean and chiseled and, okay, gorgeous face, and arms that appear to be packing some muscle beneath his hoodie. I tune back in just in time to hear Professor Barton introduce the class’s teaching assistant, Evan Strauss.
Oh. Great. I’ve only been in my first college class ten minutes, and the teaching assistant’s already caught me chatting through the professor’s lecture. The hot teaching assistant. I feel a sudden need to fix my scrappy ponytail. I refuse to be that cliché, though, so I force myself to resist it.
Professor Barton goes on to explain that he has a “prior commitment” at two p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, so after he lectures us for the first hour of class, Evan will lead the music lab for the remaining four hours.
Wait. What? Our professor has a “prior commitment” that’s more important than teaching his own class? That pisses me off enough to knock Green Eyes right out of my head. I hear Lucy click her tongue beside me, too. “Again,” she whispers, “not normal.” Professor Barton calls roll without once looking up from his roster. Then he launches into the most rushed, unenthusiastic overview of a syllabus I’ve ever had the displeasure of hearing—and I had Dreary Daniels for history in both tenth and eleventh grade. Forty-five minutes later, I still don’t understand exactly what Electronic Music Production is, but apparently there’s a ridiculous amount of software involved. We’ll be using mostly Logic Pro, which only works on Apple computers—hence all the Macs—but the class will also introduce us to Cubase, Ableton, Cakewalk, and FL Studio, also known as FruityLoops. What’s with all the food names, especially the sugar? I get enough of that from Dad at Teatime, thank you very much.
I learn that we’ll spend most of the five-hour class time completing a series of assignments, but as to what the assignments are, I’m not so sure. I took the obligatory few years of piano as a kid, enough to learn I have no musical sensibility whatsoever, so I recognize some of the terms Professor Barton throws around: staff, bars, measures, meter, time signature. But others, like loops and MIDI and quantization and arrange pages and media pages, send me into a total panic. I may have no interest in this class, but I need good grades to get a scholarship out of here. Besides, anytime I’m confronted with a subject I can’t wrap my head around, I get this antsy, itchy feeling under my skin. Come to think of it, that’s why I quit piano in the first place. It never made sense to me the way math and reading do.
By the number of hands popping into the air, I can tell I’m not the only one who’s confused—but Professor Barton waves us all away with a distracted flip of his wrist. “Evan will answer your questions later,” he mumbles. “I have to get through this before I need to leave.” He starts passing out the assignment instructions as he talks, and a cursory glance at mine tells me it will only add to my mental chaos.
Hmm. Maybe Professor Barton is purposefully encouraging half the class to drop so the rest of us will actually have a place to sit. I glance surreptitiously (I hope) at Evan, wondering how he’s taking all this. He’s back to leaning against the wall, arms crossed, a few wayward strands of hair threatening to obscure those too-green eyes. His lips—his not-too-full, not-too-thin, dear-lord-I’d-better-not-be-staring lips—are set together in a neutral line. He’s a closed book. A slammed-shut door. A beautifully sculpted, well-polished door…
No. Not going there.
Eventually Professor Barton concludes his mumble-lecture, packs up his briefcase, and runs out of the classroom like there’s a pack of wolves at his heels. Evan blinks as if he’s just waking up and pushes himself languidly away from the wall, finally dropping those crossed arms. I can sense a change in the atmosphere, a tightening, tautening—girls sitting up straighter, smoothing a stray hair or straightening a shirt hem—and I know I’m not the only one who’s noticed the TA’s, um, physical attributes. “So,” Evan says, and his voice is just right, smooth and deep with the perfect hint of boyishness to lighten it up, “who’s confused as all hell right now?”
Evan ends up sending half the class out on an hour-long “break” so there’ll only be two to a computer, not four, and then those of us who’ve stayed will get to leave early. He also says something about the inevitable mass exodus after the first week of class, which will guarantee seats for those who remain. Then, after a flood of questions about staffs and beats and meter, he divides the class into those who’ve had some musical instruction and those who haven’t; those of us who know that a staff is the thing musical notes are written on and meter is the number of beats per measure are left to fend for ourselves. I’m actually kind of disappointed to be in the latter category.
I am glad Lucy has some musical experience too—violin, she tells me—so we can struggle through the first assignment together. She seems better with the computer than I am, too, so I let her open the Logic Pro music-making program and then select an “Empty Project.” The “Arrange” page we’ve just heard so much about opens up, with a white pop-up window prompting us to set up our first “track.” Lucy clicks the “Create” button as our assignment sheet instructs, and the pop-up disappears, which I guess means we’ve created a track, though I sure don’t see it.
Well, this page doesn’t look too intimidating when it’s empty…just a bunch of vertical lines on a dark gray background. Kind of looks like a prison cell, actually. Plus a bunch of menus and icons on the sides that I’m going to pretend aren’t there for now. “Okay…” Lucy squints down at the assignment sheet, lips pursed, letting out a puff of air that ruffles those perfect bangs. “So I guess first we have to choose our ‘sound,’ and then use the keyboard to record a melody. Or, wait, do we start with the beat? Or the bass?”
Thirty minutes later, our prison-cell vertical lines have multiplied into skinny mesh-window-screen lines, there’s this weird green bar that keeps moving across the top of the screen, this sideways piano keyboard thing has usurped the bottom half of the page and I’m pretty sure it isn’t supposed to be there, and our cursor keeps morphing into a tiny pair of scissors or an eraser. “I hate computers,” I’m grumbling for the umpteenth time…
…when I hear a throat clearing behind me. “You ladies need some help?”
Oh, do we ever.
Before I can blink Evan is wedged between my chair and Lucy’s, kneeling down so his head is level with ours, close enough that I can see the hint of stubble lining his jaw. He even smells good—like laundry fresh out of the dryer, a hint of lemon, and something underneath that’s just guy.
“It looks like you’re in four-four time here, which is good…”
“…and since you’ve already got the piano roll open, I’ll just put in a basic bass line…is G and C okay?”
It’s all-righty with me. Evan grabs the mouse and clicks a few times on the sideways piano keyboard thing at the bottom of the screen (the “piano roll,” I guess), and more of those green bars pop
up on top. Then he starts moving things around the screen and clicking and the piano roll disappears, the green bars get longer and wider, he brings up some dropdown menus and clicks and frowns and clicks and nods and narrows those gorgeous green eyes at the screen…
“…so now you know how to set up a basic bass line.” I do? Oh shit, was he talking and was I totally not listening?
“Hey”—he looks right at me this time—“no need to panic. This week’s assignment is just to create a piece of music. It doesn’t have to be a good piece of music, and we’ll go over this so many times you’ll be able to teach me by the end of the class.”
“I’m not panicking,” I blurt out without thinking, “why would you think I’m—”
He looks pointedly down at my hands, and I follow his gaze to find my fingers ticking and stuttering like a collection of broken watch hands. Oh. I clamp my hands between my knees. “I’m fine, really.”
He shrugs. “So now you just need a simple melody above those Cs and Gs, so we’ll open another track and…”
Evan goes on talking and demonstrating and I can tell he’s a good teacher, he really is, but the confusion-clouds in my brain keep growing and since there are so many things I don’t understand, my mind eventually stops trying to understand any of them at all. Plus he just smells so damn good. Pretty soon he has to leave to help some of the twenty-five other bewildered students. I hope he’s getting paid well. Or at all.
Lucy and I fiddle around with the piano keyboard—not the one on the computer screen, but the plastic one below the computer—and do our best to record a “melody” (read: random collection of notes) for the next fifteen minutes. According to the assignment sheet, this would be a much more complicated process if all the computers in this room weren’t set up to communicate directly with, and only with, their own piano keyboards. But we’re in the beginners’ class, so they are. Then the missing half of the class comes back, and we’re done for the day, thank God. I have to slip right by Evan on the way out, and that fresh-dried-laundry-and-lemon scent sends a little shiver down my spine. I try to shake it off, but I can’t help looking back as I step into the hall—and he winks at me. Again.
“He’s cute, huh?”
I nearly jump out of my flip-flops as I turn to see Lucy by my side. “Uh…yeah, I guess.” Cute enough to keep my adrenaline spiking the last hour, and now that the class is over, I’m suddenly exhausted.
“So,” Lucy goes on as we head down the music department hallway, “you want to grab a coffee, since we got out early? We can celebrate you surviving your first ever class at HCC.”
I smile, but my grip on my messenger bag tightens. Say yes make friends say yes make friends…
“Thanks, but I’m kinda tired. And I’ve got a long drive home, so…” Shit. I’m truly way more than kinda tired, especially since I started work at the crack of dawn, but I should have accepted her offer. I guess I really am determined to sabotage myself. Make the worst of things, as Dad would say.
“Okay, but you’re missing out.” Lucy’s shrug doesn’t look too affronted, and her voice stays light. Maybe I didn’t screw this up completely, at least not yet. “My boyfriend’s working today, and he makes a mean caramel mocha.”
Huh? I was picturing one of those gross coffee vending machines that spits out suspicious brown sludge. My forehead wrinkles in confusion, and Lucy laughs. “You really haven’t walked around campus at all, have you?”
“HCC isn’t Harvard, but we’re still a college. We have a coffee shop. And it’s every bit as overpriced as Starbucks. Doug lets me use his employee discount, though.”
“Good to know.” We’ve reached the top of the cement stairwell, and I hesitate before asking, “Will your boyfriend be working after Wednesday’s class too?”
“Luckily for you, yes.” Lucy trails a hand along the staircase railing as we descend, and I admire her nail polish: baby blue on all except her fourth finger, which is buttercup yellow. I haven’t painted my own nails since July, and I catch myself curling my hands into fists. Dumb, since she’s been staring at the chipped remains of my graduation-gown blue polish for the past hour.
I know I could—should—still change my mind and just go with her today, but instead I say, “Maybe Wednesday, then?”
This time, Lucy’s voice isn’t quite as enthusiastic as she answers, “Yeah, okay.” It’s a good thing no one signed me up for How to Make Friends and Be Likable 101, because I’d fail that class for sure. We reach the first floor and I spot the triangle-skirted stick-figure girl on a nearby door, so I decide to make my escape.
“I’ve got to, um—” I point and mumble, “See you later,” then push through the bathroom door before I can make things any worse.
When I step out of the bathroom stall a minute later, I’m relieved to find the room empty and, judging by the lack of noise from the halls, likely to stay that way for a few minutes. I turn the faucet to ice cold, full force, and let my hands linger under the water till my body begins to cool. I’m all hot and bothered, that’s for sure…and it’s not because I might have flubbed a potential friendship with Lucy. No, it’s one hundred percent due to Evan Strauss. I just didn’t expect to encounter such a cute—okay, hot—guy on my first day at community college. And I especially didn’t think said guy would be my teaching assistant in a class that’s bound to make me look like a moron.
As I shut off the water and shake off my hands, I risk a quick glance at the mirror—mistake. I didn’t bother to change or fix my makeup after my shift at Teatime, and it shows. Just the barest traces of my eyeliner and shadow have stuck around, so my brown eyes look even more blah and tired than usual. Only my blush has decided to stay put, and considering how red my face is, that’s not a good thing. My T-shirt is accented with a flour streak on the left side, and my ponytail (blah brown, to match my eyes) must have passed the fashionably messy point a few hours ago. And of course the huge scowl on my face doesn’t help matters.
I stick my tongue out at the face in the mirror and, for good measure, flick some water at it. Then I walk out without bothering to dry my hands.
Outside, I force myself to look around on my way back to the parking lot—maybe I’ll spot that coffee shop. Lucy wasn’t far off, actually, when she said this was my first time on campus: I’ve only been here once before, two weeks ago, when I tried to beg my way into already over-full classes. Actual registration was in July, right around the time I found out we didn’t have the money for Georgetown, and I should have come down here immediately to sign up for the fall semester. But I kept thinking something was bound to happen—Dad would come up with the money somehow, or Georgetown would offer me a last-minute scholarship. God, I even hoped my mother would turn up after twelve years, and that she would have miraculously transformed from responsibility-fleeing wanderer to successful CEO, back just in time to deliver her daughter’s missing college fund.
Sometimes I’m just as delusional as the rest of my family.
Back in August, the HCC campus was dead, and I walked to and from the registration building with blinders on, my gaze firmly stuck to the map I’d printed from the school website. Now, though, I have to admit it’s not completely prison-like: wrought-iron benches beneath broad-branched trees invite reading, relaxing, and conversation; clumps of students actually seem to be taking advantage of the shade to chat and catch up. I even spot a miniature bridge over what looks to be a manmade stream, which I may have to investigate at some point. The wide walkways remind me of the Yellow Brick Road, except that these bricks aren’t quite yellow, more the shade Crayola calls “burnt sienna.” But these little touches can’t disguise the fact that HCC is no Oz, no Cornell or Georgetown, not even a University of Maryland. The buildings scream institution, squatting low and long and featuring a lot of cement. No ancient ivy-covered stone here. In fact, the view at HCC is depressingly similar to the scenery that accompanies my drive home along the highway: strip mall, strip mall, strip mall, hulking buildings that all look the same and sell pretty much the same stuff inside. I might have exaggerated a bit when I told Lucy I had a long drive home—it’s only twenty minutes—but it’s certainly a dull one. Hartford Community College is smack in the middle of, shockingly enough, Hartford County, Maryland, where it’s reasonably accessible to students in the surrounding suburbs and small towns, but pretty far from anything remotely interesting. It’s all Target, Wal-Mart, Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse, the occasional cookie-cutter housing development, until I’m back in Colbin. Home sweet home. I have to drive right by Teatime, and I see Dad has turned on all the strands of white fairy lights bordering the windows, even though the sun is still blazing overhead. I grit my teeth. Yeah, an extra ten bucks on the electric bill probably isn’t that big a deal, but when you’re as broke as we are, every little bit helps. At least he’s not home, waiting for me—I don’t think I could handle the how-was-your-first-day spiel right now.
Nope, when I park in front of the two-story, eggshell-blue house with brown shutters where I’ve lived my entire life, head inside, and collapse on the ratty couch, only Corey is there to greet me. And my fifteen-year-old brother knows better than to say anything besides, “You wanna make dinner?”
Corey and I eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese on the couch while the TV plays an old episode of Friends, and then I watch Corey battle cyborgs or zombies or something for a half hour before I finally find the energy to get up. Five AM alarms are so not conducive to the college lifestyle.
I lug myself to my bedroom and check my e-mail. There’s one from Jenny: she’s stuck in a two-person dorm room with two roommates because stupid U of M accepted too many students. They didn’t think so many would actually enroll, but when private college tuition is more than the price of a house, state schools quickly go from fallback option to only option. Jenny’s actual classes don’t start until next week, so she has an entire week of orientation activities—trust exercises where you have to fall backwards into another person and hope they catch you, and other crap like that. I feel bad for her, I really do. Apparently the dorm room is so cramped you have to climb the furniture to navigate it, and college freshman boys are just as immature as high-school boys, only now you have to spend twenty-four hours a day with them instead of eight.
So I feel for her, a little…but to tell the truth, most of my energy is taken up with feeling sorry for myself. No, I don’t have to deal with roommates, but I’m still stuck here with the same home and family and job and if I don’t get out, how am I going to become something more? Something better?
Though it’s still early, I turn off the computer without replying to Jenny and curl up in a tight little ball under my old quilt. I’m not a crier, but right now, I wish I were, because there’s nothing I want to do more than cry myself to dreamless sleep.
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