When I turned seventeen, Uncle Albert offered to teach me the industrial upholstery trade. What kid grows up wanting to recover seats and headliners in cars, boats, and planes?
But it meant getting out of school two hours early.
That’s how I met Fumiko. Standing on East 14th Street, waiting for bus #82. I saw her cello case before I saw her. Curiosity made me walk around the instrument to prove to myself it wasn’t standing on its own. She was sitting on the bench, head rested on the leather-like grain, hair hanging forward. The strands blacker than the oil my dad used to change and grumble about when my mother had driven way too many miles without a check.
I imagined skimming my fingers through it.
For weeks I sat directly behind her so I could watch her hair swing like a silk curtain to the lateral movement of the bus. Sometimes it spoke: you are sleepy—oh, so sleepy.
Fumiko hardly smiled in those days. She also wore a lot of navy blue and white for someone who wasn't wearing a uniform. The patch on her canvas messenger bag told me she attended the Governor’s school. I could’ve gone there if I'd applied myself. That’s what the guidance counselor had said.
One afternoon I got bold and applied myself to Fumiko. She boarded the bus ahead of me and sat three rows back. I stopped directly in front of her. “Is that seat taken?” I asked, pointing to the window seat where her cello stood.
Any other girl would've made some smart remark about my blindness or stupidity, but Fumiko seemed to give it real thought as she looked around the half-empty bus. Finally she pointed to the aisle seat across from her. “You could sit there,” she said. And so I did—that day and every day.
It took coaxing to get her to talk about herself. Her name meant gifted, but when she insisted she wasn’t talented, vehemence took hold of every feature of her delicate face. Her parents, though, pushed and pushed and pushed. They wanted her to make it into the San Francisco Conservatory.
I have to say, part of me was envious. My parents operated on the other end of the ambition spectrum.
Towards the end of the school year, Fumiko's father arranged for a private audition with a member of the conservatory’s governing board. She became a wreck. Her chinos got baggy. The purple under her eyes deepened. My jokes went unrewarded. Finally I told her, “Meet me at the bus stop Friday morning at eight.”
“I can’t,” she said. “The audition’s that afternoon.”
“I’ll get you back.”
My cousin was supposed to “borrow” a cool classic car from his dad’s shop for me to use. Instead he showed up at the school parking lot with a tank—a 1963 Chevy Corvair Greenbriar van, complete with a red racing stripe. Great.
I hoisted myself up into the driver’s seat and taped a poster board to the passenger side of the windshield. I had magic-marked #82 on it.
When Fumiko looked up from the bench, she cupped her hands over her mouth, eyes as round as they could possibly get. I felt like a knight. I braked at the bus stop, leaned waaaay over, pulled the door handle, pushed hard. “Need a lift?” I asked. In came the cello, commuters behind us laying on their horns. She jumped up into the elevated seat, laughing, smiling.
We spent the day in a hidden cove near Carmel. We ate bologna and cheese sandwiches cross-legged on my opened, plaid sleeping bag. I kissed her hair, sifting it between my fingers. She said, “Let’s stay here forever.”
It was so tempting. “I have to take you back,” I sighed. “But what you do when you get there is up to you.”
I dropped her off a block from her house, barely on time.
The following Monday, she waited for me at our usual spot—cello in hand. That killed me. I was hoping she would tell all of them to go take a hike. I had planned on telling her how she’d changed me by giving me something to care about when I hadn’t wanted to care about anything. How I’d decided—while on our beach—to heck with re-upholstery, I was going to design the cars, boats, and planes.
But when I saw her with that cello, I knew it had been a Don Quixote kind-of-day.
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