Julia arose at the early hour of four o'clock AM, fighting already bubbling nerves, and being careful not to wake her parents in the next room or her two younger siblings. She didn't want anyone to know about her endeavors, should they fail. And she didn't want to hurt her parents by going behind their backs. Due to their financial state, her parents planned for Julia to attend the community college while living at home. That being exactly what she didn't want to do, she had applied to more prominent schools and had finally won an audition space—hopefully she could earn acceptance and a scholarship.
Near silent, she dressed in comfortable jeans and a sweatshirt, French-braided her hair out of her face and began packing her car up, that being a general term. Julia referred to her car as the junkmobile, but it would get her where she needed to go—four hours away. She loaded her business suit, which she would wear for her audition, her bag of application materials and references, and made one last trip to the house. Gingerly, she lifted up her most prized possession, her grandmother's cello. The case, earned by baby-sitting three mischievous monsters all summer, was new, but the instrument inside was not. Handled carefully for two generations, the relentless playing had rounded its tone, making it full, gorgeous. It was the one and only advantage she had on the harrowed road to her dreams.
Like a crook, she stole out of the house, noiselessly locking the door behind her. As if handling fine china, she placed her inheritance in the back seat of the car and hopped into the driver's seat, praying for a quiet start-up—the car was as unpredictable as a green filly. Thankfully, her prayer was answered; she would be miles away when her family read the note of explanation.
The car puttered down the street, rolling over discarded belongings and refuse. The street cleaners never came to this part of the town. Yards on her right and left were furnished with the odd patch of crabgrass, and more prominently beige, dusty dirt oases. On her right, a rusted Red Flyer wagon lay overturned, with a mud-encrusted bucket lying beside it. On the left, the shutters of the house had fallen off and had been converted into makeshift skateboard ramps. Several dogs were chained outside, tongues lolling out of their mouths, panting. Coated in burrs and other muck they had found to roll in, they were badly in need of a grooming.
Car pulling into traffic at the end of the street, Julia thought back to her own small home. Although her parents didn't have an abundance of money, their house stood out like a diamond among coal. The yard was intact, with a coating of plush green grass, and the house shone with a fresh coat of paint. There were several neat flower beds, and when something needed to be repaired, it was, when the money could be found.
Reflecting on her past resentment of her family's financial state, she realized that she could have had it much worse. Yes, she had worked extremely hard, but cello lessons cost money and to get the scholarships you had to be educated. Although they had lived close to poverty ever since the family business went bankrupt, she still had a roof, food, and loving family and friends.
For the first time in her life she was thankful, truly thankful for all that she had. It was as if the years of resentment, hidden hatred, and cynicism had worn off. Her body felt ten pounds lighter. She breezed down the road with this newfound appreciation for her life, and before she could recap the journey, she found herself looking at the map for the university's local town. She navigated through the manicured campus, dorm rooms, classrooms, and libraries until finally she approached the performing arts hall and offices. Checking her car, and paying the nominal parking fee with a few tattered bills, she maneuvered skillfully into a spot. Carefully opening the door and stretching taut legs, she slowly stood and removed her suit. She would change before checking in; first impressions counted here and she wanted hers to be one of maturity and preparedness.
Self-assured, she entered a side door, located a rest room and changed into her suit, a present from her aunt, her only confidant. The navy blue did wonders for her, brought out a gleam of sunshine in her mane, and a sparkle in her sapphire eyes. Displaying a true smile, not one of the manufactured ones she was accustomed to wearing, she boldly exited the rest room and went back to retrieve her cello, stashing the travel clothes in the back Seat.
Lifting her instrument, the music bag, and the paperwork, she began to think over the music notes she would soon have to execute with utmost precision and conviction of her true love for music. Then, more timidly, she entered the main doors and approached the desk. Facing a pickle-faced secretary dressed crisply in a linen suit, she heard her manicured nails tapping on the keyboard. Frames perched on her delicate nose; she glanced up through them and queried in a nasal voice, "Yes? What can I do for you?" as if her purpose at the building was not clear. After all, she was carrying a cello case. Curling short ragged nails into a fist, she fought the nervous waiver out of her voice.
"I'm here for the eleven o'clock audition spot," she proclaimed boldly, a little louder than necessary.
"Oh, you must be Julia Montgomery. They will be expecting you shortly. I'll have Robert take you to your warm-up room and from there an attendant will come for you when it is your turn." She then beckoned to Robert, a lively-looking boy with tightly wound obsidian curls and dancing emerald eyes. "Robert will take you to your audition room, without any of his tricks," she added menacingly. She punctuated her threat by pointing a magenta-painted nail at him. She then resumed the clack of the keys, and the mischievously grinning boy came to stand by Julia's side.
"I will be your most formal tour guide to room 777, which is a fine, noble, grand room where I myself auditioned and was accepted. I do believe there is a good-luck spell on it."
"There would have to be, if you were accepted!" she bantered back, nervousness eating away at her usually polite demeanor.
"Ouch," he remarked, eyes laughing, "I hope you get in; we need a little life around here!"
"Thanks, I think," she replied. Finally they reached the door labeled 777. It was time to part. She looked up to thank him and found an encouraging smile.
"Good luck," he told her, meaning it.
"Thanks," she replied quietly before going in to prepare. Clenching shaking hands together, she nosed into the room and sat down at the practice chair, arranging her music. Before unpacking her cello, she pulled out the paperwork and applications that had been labored on for hours at the library. All the necessary materials were there, along with a financial aid form, the information weaseled out of her unknowing mother, and a letter explaining need for a scholarship. Then, she rummaged for her performance sheet and references.
So with her paperwork ready, it was time to rehearse one last time. The composition had consumed her, and she had labored over it for hours, learning each note's character, flaws, unique makeup. She was prepared, but could her humming nerves be tamed? Slowly she breathed in, soothing tense muscles. Unzipping the case, she removed the bow, tightening its hair to perfection, and then removed the key to her dreams, the cello. The rich mahogany shade of the wood reflected her stormy emotions of nervousness and fear. With care, she tuned the strings and began warming up with scales, moving on to the more complex parts of the piece to be performed.
Finally the dreaded knock was heard. A short woman opened the door and came in with a swish of violet skirt. She looked at her and beckoned, motioning Julia to follow her. Gathering her belongings, they set off down the hall. The attendant then stopped, gave an encouraging smile and announced her arrival to the judges as she entered the room.
For a moment time seemed to freeze. In reality, it lasted only a second but it seemed as though it was a decade. Her mind whirled and thoughts stampeded through her ringing head as if on parade. The enormity of what she was about to do hit her; the pressure, the need to win a scholarship. Feeling woozy, she thought she would faint dead away.
Then she recalled the encouraging smile the attendant had given her and the friendliness of the green-eyed boy. These complete strangers had given her hope! Then she remembered her family and her newfound appreciation for them, knowing that they would love her no matter what. Slowly the excess weight of apprehension began to melt off and the guilt- and anger-free self arose. She would be able to give it her all. She cleared her throat, and the fog encasing her brain began to clear. Gritting her molars, she strode over and handed the judges her application, then moved to the center of the room, where she set up her music and instrument. Finally, after what was perceived as an eon of waiting, it was time for her to do the job she had come to do.
The judges looked up, and the head murmured to the attendant, who moved to shut the door. When she returned to her chair the judge voiced, "You may begin when ready. Play your two prepared pieces first and then you will be given something to sight-read."
Swallowing hard, she picked up the exquisite bow, placed the music in proper order and checked the tuning of the strings on the cello. Warming up with several scales, she sensed the judges' attention on her more fully. Once her hands were warm she took a deep breath as if reassuring herself and began concentrating on making the instrument sing through both the lively and the mournful piece.
She breezed through the pieces, eyes shut, feeling the music wash over her and the room. The performance was near flawless; she could feel it in her soul. It was her greatest performance of the solo since the time she began learning it, and the last dying note still seemed to sing in the air. Next, she was handed the sight-reading piece. Any new apprehension at having to play on the spot was diluted and washed away when she saw the familiar title. Little did the judges know, she knew this selection. She played the passage with ease, completing the tricks of the hand, and hitting every note just right, and it was soon over. Finishing, she was surprised to hear a spattering of applause; she had been so entranced the world had melted away.
Risking a glance at the judges, she saw blank faces without smiles, but when she made eye contact, she discerned the tiniest of nods. Perhaps it was a slight sign of approval. She shook their callused hands one by one and hoisted the instrument. Outside, Robert waited, acknowledging her performance with a small bow, and led her back to the practice room to collect her belongings. Exchanging polite goodbyes, Julia left, hearing Robert call after her, "You'll hear from them by mail in two to three weeks!"
"Thanks!" she replied, already thinking of ways to pass the time.
Arriving home, she prepared herself for angry, creased foreheads and a firing squad of questions. Instead, Julia found a welcome, along with congratulations for auditioning. She felt silly, having imagined that they would be disapproving for not accepting their plans to go to the community college. She remembered the lesson she had learned earlier; they would love her and support her no matter what. To the best of her ability, she answered all the questions and then went to sleep; the time had flown by without her even realizing it.
* * *
Every day she trudged doggedly to the mailbox after school, hoping for a big envelope embossed with the college emblem. Days became weeks, and then one warm Saturday, the mail truck pulled onto the street as it always did, but something felt different, even though she knew in her rational mind that the mail truck came every day. The mailman made his way slowly down the street. Finally he approached the house. Running down the drive to greet him, she noticed a large manila envelope in his hand emblazoned with the college's seal. Gulping, she nervously squeaked "hello" to him, and he grinned and handed her the mail, saying, "I take it this is what you're expecting?"
Receiving a nod resembling that of a marionette puppet, he then shook his head and continued on, leaving her clutching the envelope and the business mail in her profusely sweating hand. Mechanically, she walked back to the house and deposited the other mail on the kitchen table. Then Julia stared numbly at the envelope clutched in her fist.
Suddenly, an idea struck her. She would open it by her cello, her springboard into this adventure. Careful not to damage the envelope, she tiptoed up the stairs, not wanting to arouse the interest of her parents and siblings. She knew that she needed privacy for this moment. Opening the door silently, she entered and grabbed the letter opener from the desk and went to sit by her resting cello. With shaking hands, she ripped the top of the envelope with the implement and drew out a crisp white piece of paper, also monogrammed with the seal. Forcing her eyes to look at it, she began reading. With disbelief in her heart she read the letter, a grin spreading over her face. After one sentence she made herself finish. She had been accepted on a full, four-year scholarship! And her parents only had to pay for supplies and book costs! Julia's smile was so wide, she thought her face would break! Then, rummaging through the rest of the envelope, she found a map, additional information, and then her fingers landed on a smaller piece of paper. Quizzically, she drew out a handwritten note.
I asked them to let me put this in here. Congratulations on your acceptance! I'll be glad to show you around once you get here!
Julia had achieved her initial goals, and had a friend waiting when it was time to tackle the rest of the hurdles on the way to success. She wished she could hug the world at that moment, but then remembered she could hug her parents!