Becoming Carmen -- creative nonfiction by Erin Huang
I stand on the stage of Symphony Hall, my shoulders tense, like they always are. A panel of five judges, faces covered in plain blue and white masks, sit distanced from both each other and from me along a lengthy table, which is pieced together by numerous standard-sized ones. I can’t tell which one is speaking, so I look at the man directly in front of me.
“We have some Carmen?”
A tiny noise escapes from my throat to affirm the piece, which I quickly realize might have been too quiet to travel all the way over. Oops. I lift my flute to my lips, feeling around for the embouchure hole before peeling the lip plate outwards. My right hand shivers with the chill of the image of all those empty rows of seats, reaching back into darkness. I shake the thought off and close my eyes.
Allegro Moderato (performed)
I was told that my sound would become alive in there. It does not. It just falls like flappy bird into all those empty rows of seats, reaching back into darkness. From the first note, I sound horrible, and there is nothing I can do but pretend that nothing is wrong.
“You are not Carmen.”
I stood on the stage in the high school auditorium, working on the piece that had somehow taken me to Symphony Hall. The warm yellow lights hit me from the front, making me shiver, and behind them were empty rows of seats, which reached to the back of the room. My friends, one of them my boyfriend, sat in the front, transparently covered by the darkness. A school music teacher had agreed to let me play for her prior to my audition.
“Carmen was a jerk, but you need to get into her character for this. The allegro section is kind of like an overture for the whole piece, and it can use a little more tension.”
Andante Moderato (cut out)
Curled up, I sit on a fluffy rug, its long knots hiding hair, crumbs and whatever else ends up in rugs after months of neglect. My eyes are closed. I breathe heavily. Just as I start calming down, I panic again. Tears pool out of my eyes. My breath quickens. Little squeaks come out from the back of my throat amid desperate gasps for air.
I crawl over to the dresser, and open up the second drawer on the right. My arm reaches to the back, feeling around for the little green case I had bought years ago at the dollar store with my family, which I quickly find. It makes a soft click as I pry it open with my nails, which are longer than I normally keep them. Inside are shards of a ceramic mug. My favorite is shaped like a kite, with one side covered in a blue plastic coating that has started to peel away, and its longest corner tapering down into a sharp point, now stained brown. I hurt my palm as I curl my fingers around it, but I don’t notice.
My face, now twisted into a scream, snuggles in beneath my hands. The left is stretched out, and the right is clenched around the ceramic piece. My high B♭ resonates, strong and agonizing, but really, I don’t make a sound. It’s just my throat pushing out air in intense bursts, trying desperately to let all of what’s inside come out.
I look down to the messily organized scars on my shoulder, each so thin that they just look like wrinkles in my skin. They’re nowhere near as big as what you’d see in the movies. I don’t even have to hide them, even if they’re still young, red and bleeding, because nobody asks. My fist darts up to my left arm, and I add another, watching with a sudden surge of calmness as my weapon glides atop the web of healed cuts like a knife in butter. Blood seeps out, gathering in droplets along the line I had traced, now marked by overturned, white skin cells. It feels good – refreshing, almost. The liquid evaporates from my cheeks to form trails of salt residue, and my breathing slows as I draw a few more.
For the most part, I let my running sixteenths carry me forward, jumbled in thought. However, at the peaks of each phrase in the first few lines, marked as accented notes, I pause. To me, they are not traditional accents. They are quieter, and held out. They are little moments of peace in a chaotic world. They are the little moments of peace I only learned to enjoy once we started talking again in the fall.
The sixteenths soon become excited, falling over in repeated clumps. Suddenly, I’m back on FaceTime with my friends, telling them about how he’s cute, and how he’s smart, and how he’s funny, and how he’s caring, and how he’s cute, and how he’s smart, and how he’s funny, and how…
Tranquillement (cut out)
Oh, how I wish I could relive that.
Still, I haven’t cut myself since we started talking again in the fall. I did not cut myself after that embarrassing memory slip in my first concerto competition, or after I didn’t even qualify for All-State despite getting into it freshman year, or after my band director bumped me all the way back to last chair as a result. I cried, but for the first time in months, I managed to ignore the throbbing emptiness of my left shoulder, which screamed for something else to feel.
Habanera (cut out)
Allegretto quasi Andantino
At times, I wouldn’t mind being Carmen. I wouldn’t mind being flirty, mischievous and selfish. I wouldn’t even mind dying early for of it, because if I could live life however I wanted, without the pressure to win my first concerto competition, or the pressure to make All States every year in high school, or the pressure to sit at the front of the flute section, it would be worth it. Every second would be worth it.
“You’re playing around with two different characters here. I’d stick with one. The happy, bouncy one. Keep your notes short and light.”
My teacher sat elegantly, cross-legged, on one of the stone blocks located in a clearing outside the high school science wing, where she had decided to have our lesson. She seemed happier than she usually was, and I was grateful for it as I had barely practiced that week.
I diverted my eyes back up a few lines in the music. I didn’t want to let go of the ominous undertone from the previous section, but it just didn’t work with the melody here. I played the music through again, clipping each note instead of letting them taper out like bells. Suddenly, it became that innocently happy love, the kind that doesn’t last long. It was bright and shallow, solidly in character. My teacher and I made eye contact, nodding at each other.
Variation 1 (cut out)
I don’t know what dating is, but it’s not this.
Neither of us have the time to actually meet up outside of school, and we make up for it by finding each other whenever possible. It doesn’t matter that we’ve gone out twice in the past six months, because we’re together in the morning, and we’re together in all the classes we have in common, and we’re together in our shared afternoon activities. We’re always together, and it’s too much. I’m around him too much. But neither of us have the time to actually meet up outside of school, and he makes up for it by finding me whenever possible.
Unfortunately, I’m not Carmen. I can’t tell him that I need some more space. I just can’t. There is nothing I can do but carry the weight of romance in a weary heart, letting it pull on a relationship that was once so sweet.
He asks me out after a holiday concert. By then, I am already considering asking him out myself. He is just taking too long, and I don’t really care for gender roles anyways. That day, he wears a Santa hat, and I wear reindeer antlers with bells that jingle at every step. As I pack up, he tells me that he wants to talk to me somewhere quiet, and before we do anything else, I already know what is going to happen. The corners of my mouth tug at my lips. When I am ready, we find a quiet room down the hallway.
He hesitates. “I just wanted to tell you that I really like you.”
I have to look up at him despite the heels I have on. There is a stain on his shirt, which I later learned was from all the stress eating he had done before. My face burns.
“I like you too.” It’s lame, I know, but it’s what comes out.
We hug, then walk back around the corner to a cheering crowd of friends. My cheeks never stop hurting from all the smiling.
Lento (cut out)
We trudge back to the bus from a long sporting event, during most of which neither of us had much to do other than spend time with each other. It is late. I am tired.
We board the bus together. I want to enjoy a moment of peace on the way home, so I find my own seat, different from the one I had sat in on the way over.
“Wait. Do you want to sit alone?”
I can’t tell him that I do, so I just reply in an irritated voice that I am fine with anything.
“Okay, let’s sit together then.”
I purse my lips under the cover of my mask, and move next to him. His bag takes up half the seat, squeezing us close together. After a few minutes, I use it as an excuse to move back to where I was originally. There, alone, I relax with my head on the refreshingly cold window, which feels much better than his shoulder despite its constant jerking at tiny bumps in the road.
He soon follows me. I can’t tell him to leave. So, instead of enjoying a moment of peace in the silence of rattling bus parts, I listen to him talk, trying to make conversation over how Plymouth is spelled, or how badly he wants to eat chicken nuggets. No amount of exhaustion in the tone of my single-worded responses can drive him away.
We rehearse in a practice room after our AP exam. It is my first time playing chamber music in years. I am terrified for the actual performance, but in that practice room with him, I feel no urgency at all. We just laugh at the recurring mistakes we cannot make on stage.
After all, practice rooms aren’t just used for practicing.
Chanson de Bohême et Final (cut out)
I really wouldn’t mind being Carmen. I wouldn’t mind being selfish. So, as she does whatever she wants with Jose, I imagine that I am like her. I imagine that I can fearlessly work out the relationship that is tearing me apart. I imagine a liberation, in a way.
For a moment in the music, I am Carmen.
Allegro Moderato (cut out)
Before we got together, I’d text him whenever I could. I’d use any small thing to start a conversation, and then we’d talk for hours. It didn’t matter that I got headaches from it, or that it drained my time, because it was worth it. Every second was worth it.
Ever since we got together, he’s texted me every night. Even if there is nothing to text about, even if it is after my bedtime (although before his), he has not missed a day. Even though I’ve hinted to him already that I’m tired; I’m tired of having to bubble fake happiness and enthusiasm through those stupid blue ovals, and tired of worrying if I’m going to hurt him, and tired of worrying if being nicer now will hurt him more later, and tired of hiding from him.
Even though there are times I don’t respond.
Presto (cut out)
I always rush the Presto. I push through it, desperately. I wish I was Carmen, but in the end, she can only stay trapped in the music, cast away by the grandeur of morality, although, perhaps those last notes grow more from fear.
“Is that it?”
I nod. “Beautiful.”
I look around frantically for the exit, which has disappeared as another panel in the wall. Thankfully, I manage to spot the doorknob, and I scurry off in its direction, the clopping of my shoes echoing loudly above the empty rows of seats, reaching back into darkness. I quickly thank the judges before slipping away.
The lady who had guided me around the backstage area meets me again as I descend the stairs to show me where to get my picture taken. Her makeup that day is just like mine, with eyeliner flicking out only at the corner of her eye, and sparkly eyeshadow highlighting the aegyo sal underneath. She tells me that I sounded great, but I can tell she doesn’t really mean it. It doesn’t matter, though. I told my story, and that’s enough for me.
“You look scared. I need you to smile like you’re actually happy.”
*This story draws from “Carmen Fantasy” (Bizet/Borne)
Erin Huang is a sophomore in the Boston area. She is technically a junior, but she doesn't want to think about that. Outside of school, she enjoys playing flute, running (long distance, of course), and bullet journaling. As Erin read through a bunch of other writers' biographies before writing this, she saw that one person talked about his two chickens, and consequently thought she should mention that she has three chickens. She loves one-upping people.