Palouse by vwl
Detroit – Late March 1989
A Few Weeks Later
Stan stood for a moment outside Gate 7 at Spokane Airport after seeing Micah and Betty onto the Northwest flight to Detroit for the National Young Violinists Contest. It had been months since Micah and she had been to a competition, so Betty was as excited as Micah for this cross-country venture.
Though Micah had traveled numerous times alone on planes between Spokane and Seattle, going across country to Detroit with a change of planes in Minneapolis was something more complicated. Micah had read the Northwest Airlines brochure in the seat pocket and knew what gate to head for to board the plane for the Minneapolis-Detroit leg, but Betty was anxious.
“Mom, I already figured it out. Don’t worry.” Of course, telling his mother not to worry was the wrong thing to say when he saw his mother drum her fingers on the armrest. He decided to say nothing more.
But Betty was worried about something else, assuming they made the connection in Minneapolis. They were supposed to be picked up at the Detroit Airport and escorted to the hotel where the competition would be held. But what if something happened and they were stuck at the Detroit airport? What if they got separated? Furthermore, Betty had promised to call home the minute they got to the hotel, so figuring out how to do that was yet another worry.
To Micah, Betty was overwrought and her concerns silly. They had instructions on what hotel to go to, and Micah figured they could find their way easily enough if no one met them; they could take a taxi, if necessary. He’d had to use a taxi once in Seattle to go to Jake and Robbie’s, so he knew what to do.
As it turned out, the flight part of the trip was uneventful. Micah had flown so much in the past few years that he was as bored as the seasoned travelers that populated many of the seats in the planes he’d been on, and he had learned how to entertain himself on airplane flights. His calmness served to steady Betty, as well.
So the trip to Detroit passed agreeably enough, and they were soon in the hands of a lean, tall, gray-haired man standing at the exit gate holding up a card with the name Kingman on it.
“That’s us,” Micah said, pointing to the sign. Of course, not much introduction was necessary; there was no mistaking a violin case and a 13-year old, half-native-American boy accompanied by his mother. Samuel Frere introduced himself as Micah and Betty came up to the sign.
“We’ll get your luggage and take you to the hotel,” Samuel Frere announced.
The hotel was in the Renaissance Center in the heart of Detroit. Mr. Frere checked them in and took them to a room on the 26th floor using the glass-sided elevator that rose through the spectacle of the atrium. The experience that the architects intended from the elevator ride was not lost on Micah or Betty. Samuel Frere saw Micah and Betty into their room, which contained two queen-sized beds. He asked Micah to join the other contestants for dinner after he got settled and informed Betty that the parents would be meeting for dinner at a reserved space in the hotel restaurant.
“Could you meet me in the lobby in half an hour, Micah?”
After Samuel Frere left, Micah put his suitcase on the stand, set his violin case in the closet and then explored the room, pushing down on the side of the bed, opening and closing the curtains, clicking the television on and off, checking out the shampoo in the basket in the bathroom and looking in the mini-bar. Betty wanted to do the same, but she didn’t want to appear to be a teenager. The half hour passed quickly, and Micah descended the elevator to the first floor. In the meantime, Betty sat at the desk trying to figure out how to use the telephone for a long-distance collect call to Stan.
Several other contestants had joined with the other contest officials, and the group headed to the hotel’s restaurant. Dinner gave the contestants a chance to learn something about each other. Each was asked to say a few words. The other contestants came from prestigious big-city music schools in places like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Cleveland .
“I live in a small town in Eastern Washington in what is called the Palouse country,” Micah said when it was his turn. “I started playing the violin when I was nine. Besides music, I like reading, writing, mathematics and basketball. I have five brothers and sisters. I’m adopted.”
“How big is your town?” someone asked.
“About 500 people, I would guess.”
“How many are in the, what did you call it, Endicott Symphony Orchestra – four?” another contestant remarked with a snicker; Micah did not miss the air of condescension.
What the other contestants didn’t realize was that Micah’s passion for music and sense of challenge translated into competitiveness, and Micah vowed to increase the intensity of his contest performance.
Across the atrium, Betty was experiencing a similar putdown. Her finest clothes were small-town clothes from Penney’s. The other parents wore garments from the fine clothing shops in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and the like. Betty’s descriptions to them of the Endicott farm met with faux-interest, and they assumed that her son had been picked because of his Navajo heritage that they had read about in the contest’s brochure. At the end of the dinner, Betty hoped her reaction would translate to her son’s effort to win the competition.
She didn’t need to worry. Micah, for his own competitive reasons, increased the intensity of his performance, and he won the contest in a walkaway, performing Paganini’s Caprice No. 1 in E. The victory in the most prestigious youth contest in the country instantly put him at the top of the nation’s young violinists – and not incidentally garnered him a $5000 honorarium. Micah didn’t know it at this time, but his first-place finish would earn him invitations to perform as a soloist with symphonies – youth and otherwise – throughout the country. He would enjoy the challenge of learning many of the fine works for violin and orchestra, though he most wanted to play the Mendelssohn concerto in honor of Poppa M. Because of his victory, he now was afforded several opportunities to do so.
Micah, a soon-to-be 14-year old, also would gain invitations to meet with the superstars of violin performance – Isaac Stern, Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, Midori.
* * * * *
Every square of the kitchen calendar that Betty kept for Micah became full with the usual lessons, practice, rehearsals and performances but also with new, solo-engagements that grew out of his win in Detroit. She assumed the role of Micah’s agent, posting a calendar on the kitchen wall and maintaining it. Micah’s life became a daze of movement – travel in cars, airplanes, travel to school and lessons – and always practice. His life was governed from the time he woke up each day until the time he was allowed to go to bed, as he reflected years later while reminiscing with David Stirling about their pasts.
“I wouldn’t want your life,” Greg said one night in the few minutes they were able to talk across the darkened bedroom before going to sleep. “You’re my brother, but I realize I really don’t know anything about you – about what you’re thinking, who you like at school, what you do for, uh, sex, what you want to do besides play that damned violin. We used to talk; we used to shoot some hoops down at the barn – at least, sometimes – but now…nothing. You’re like a stranger that shows up in this bedroom most nights and falls immediately to sleep. You don’t have a life, you realize. Are you sure this is what you want, Micah?”
“I…guess so. I guess I don’t know anything else.”
“Come over here,” Greg said, patting the side of his bed. “I’ll give you a backrub. I’ll give you some human contact. That’s one thing you’re missing.”
Micah crossed the room and slid into Greg’s single bed. He felt Greg’s hand reach under his pajama tops and gently rub his back. He sighed with pleasure. It was as if he needed only physical contact to comfort him – a need that never showed up in the squares of the calendar. He fell asleep and woke with Greg’s arm thrown across his back.
“Thanks, Greg,” he said quietly, not knowing if his brother was even awake enough to hear him. I’ve been missing something important, he thought to himself. What he felt was a primal need for touch, for human warmth, for what he missed as an infant, toddler and child in foster homes – until he arrived at the McDougalls.
A Change of Place – April 1989
A Month Later
The Spokane Youth Symphony’s performance in Seattle had been arranged several months before, with Marcia Vilas’s help. As it turned out, this performance would be Micah’s last time with the Spokane orchestra. He had outgrown the Spokane Youth Symphony; his schedule didn’t permit him to continue. After his medal in Detroit, orchestras all over the country were clamoring for the “Guarneri Navajo” to perform. Officially, though, he had been promoted to concertmaster chair for this last Spokane orchestra concert in recognition of his achievements. He would play then as first chair violin until his solo performance, the final piece of the evening.
* * * * *
It was the night before the concert. Micah and David Stirling were rooming together at the Meany Hotel in the University District. The two 14-year olds had gone to dinner with the rest of the orchestra in the dining room before going to the hotel game room and playing for several hours.
At 9 p.m., they were back in their hotel room, side by side on the queen bed. David stared at Micah as Micah rattled on about the arcade games and the youth orchestra and how much he would miss it and how he much he had grown beyond it. Finally, David could hold back no further. “You know, you’re so beautiful,” he said. “After this performance, I probably won’t see you again.” Then he leaned across the short distance between them and kissed Micah full on the mouth, letting his lips linger a few seconds.
Micah slid back, startled. He wiped his mouth with his pajama sleeve, but he didn’t move away any further. “Why did you do that?” Micah asked. “Why?” David could see tears rise in Micah’s eyes that started to flit wildly across the room past David to the framed pictures above the beds, to the open curtains, to the easy chair and lamp where David had been reading earlier. Then Micah rose abruptly, pulled on pants over his pajama bottoms and a jacket over the tops, walked to the door, groped for the door handle as if he were blind, opened it and ran down the hall to the elevator.
David stood where he was, stunned. He had crossed a divide that he now knew Micah wasn’t ready for – a divide that maybe he wasn’t fully ready to breach, as well. Why had he been so forward? Why was he willing to risk the friendship they had? If he hadn’t risked it, though, would any time more fitting ever have come? David had done what he realized he had wanted to do for a long time despite the regrets he was now feeling.
Micah rushed from the elevator, through the lobby and out onto the sidewalk. He looked around, not knowing which way to go nor what to do. He was disturbed. David, his friend, had kissed him – on the lips; David, his friend, had done something gay. Was it wrong? He remembered how his mother had reacted to Robert and Sam. Surely, it was wrong, wasn’t it? But why? He was confused. He turned toward the lights of University Avenue and started walking.
Maybe what bothered Micah the most was that he didn’t hate the kiss, even though he knew it had to be wrong. He liked David. What David had done couldn’t be all wrong. His brother was gay, and that might have been wrong in some eyes, but Micah had accepted Robert and Sam. He knew that Robert and Sam kissed on the lips – he’d seen them – and he knew they went further. But they were different. They were older, and they hadn’t suddenly been caught completely unawares by the forward move of someone he related to as just a friend.
Micah walked the streets for several hours, through the University campus, watching students strolling the U District streets, laughing and having fun with each other, their voices echoing among the buildings. They were having fun, but they were living in a different world from what he knew. David’s kiss came from a different world from what he knew as well. It was a world that Micah knew he was supposed to avoid – his church said so – but his response to the kiss bothered him; something deeper was stirring within him. He walked as he thought through what was really troubling him.
David’s kiss was a spark in a sere forest; it was sexual, sure, but Micah realized that David was the first person outside his family that he had become close to. So maybe he could forgive this kiss as a spontaneous act, a step a bit too far. But not that far despite Micah’s surprise. With the kiss, he felt a physical, human connection that he innately craved. More than that, he was starkly reminded how isolated he was from other young people – from those whom he encountered every day at school in Endicott. The kiss was a reminder that he was missing something – the physical and sexual side of growing up – which was something deep down that he wanted, something that no box on his mother’s calendar permitted.
He remembered his brother Greg’s sad words and finally saw the truth in them. He had become too much a slave to his music career, epitomized by that calendar of the constant activities that his mother maintained for him. That schedule effectively imprisoned him, isolating him from other young people, even though it forced him to interact with them – but never on a deeply personal level. Micah realized that his reaction to David’s kiss was to a large extent due to his complete inexperience at real life. He felt envy for those young people he had seen on University Way, the joy in their voices echoing down the street and the self-assurance they exhibited.
Micah knew he was different – not in the same way as maybe David and his brother Robert were. And he sensed that he was becoming tired of having people look at him with admiration or awe just because of a God-given talent. Others treated him as an object – of art – and not as a 14-year-old boy, with a growing mind and teenage curiosities and urges. If only I could be the same as everybody else.
But he was torn. After walking another block, he decided maybe he really wasn’t entirely tired of this celebrity life. He knew that heads turned when he walked onto the stage of a concert hall. He knew there were teenage girls – and maybe boys – who loved him for his fame and who he heard would do anything for him – sex, alcohol, even drugs. Maybe his route to happiness could be to stay with the concert-hall circuit but figure out how to have an outside life.
He had wandered the streets for several hours, trying to sort out his feelings and his next actions. He wanted to make sure David was asleep before he went back to the hotel because he couldn’t face David, not in his current confused state. He thought that if he waited until midnight, David would surely be asleep. He felt the temperature drop sharply after 10 p.m., so he moved the time up to 11 p.m.
He put his key into the lock and turned the knob as quietly as he could, but the clicks of the mechanism seemed like percussion to him, loud enough to waken anyone in the dark room. He stopped to empty his bladder then quietly went to his bed and slipped out of his clothes. Naked, he felt his way back to the bathroom, closed the door and turned on the light, the pinpoint brightness striking him like a spotlight on the stage. He climbed over the rim of the tub, turned on the shower, adjusted it, and let the warmth wash over him. The warm water and his nakedness didn’t calm him: it did the opposite. His thoughts turned to sexual feelings, and the long shower wasn’t finished until he had relieved himself.
He got out of the shower, dried himself, put on his pajamas, turned out the light and slipped in between the sheets of his side of the bed. He could hear David sleeping next to him, and the quiet of the room and David’s light snore were enough to send him to sleep.
* * * * *
An embarrassed David had read for a while that evening – or tried to; then, after turning out the light, he lay in his bed waiting to see if Micah would return. He heard the clicks of the door handle, heard Micah in the bathroom and then stripping for bed. Micah’s return gave David a modicum of peace of mind, which was enough to let him sleep.
The morning was awkward. David got up early and used the bathroom and shower before he left for the lobby for the continental breakfast. He didn’t want to face Micah. He was still embarrassed at what he’d done.
David got his breakfast quickly. He was sitting in one corner of the breakfast area with some of the musicians when Micah entered the dining room. Micah got his muffins and juice and started to go where David was sitting. David excused himself and left, leaving Micah somewhat bewildered.
Micah finished his breakfast, sat for a few minutes and decided finally to return to his room. David was there, lying on the bed reading a magazine. Micah didn’t say a word; he just sat down on the edge of his bed farthest from David’s bed. They had four hours before they had to be at the concert hall. Normally, they would have played cards or gone for a walk, but this time things were not normal.
“Can we talk?” David asked.
Micah didn’t answer but didn’t go away.
“I might be gay. I’m not sure,” David continued.
Micah shrugged. “My brother’s gay. Are you sure this isn’t a phase?”
David thought about that for a minute. He didn’t exactly know what Micah was saying. “I don’t know, but I’m sorry I kissed you.”
David put on his jacket, grabbed his key and left the room, tears in his eyes. He returned just before they were to leave for the concert hall.
* * * * *
The concert was scheduled at Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus. Micah played a short piece by Vivaldi to open the concert. Then, he was scheduled to play the Bach violin concerto in E Major.
In the moments that they were getting ready for the next piece, Micah strode over to an Asian-looking girl and hissed at her: “Either tune your viola, or stop playing. You are distracting me.” The girl, who was twelve, nearly broke into tears. David watched and heard this interplay. Maybe Micah had exhibited this attitude before and David had suppressed it, or maybe Micah was reacting to what happened the night before. Maybe he bore some responsibility because of what he had done with Micah the night before.
David knew that Yuki, the violist, was a sensitive girl who worked hard at her musicianship. She didn’t deserve the insulting treatment. “You were way too hard on Yuki,” David said to Micah as they were changing clothes after the concert.
“She deserved it. She screwed me up.”
“She’s 12 years old, and she didn’t mean it. She never did anything like that before.”
“Screw her. She needs to grow up and be a professional.”
David felt sad for Yuki. He didn’t like the ugly tone Micah was using. He didn’t like his part, if any, in setting Micah’s mood. Despite his crush on Micah, David thought it might be for the better that this was the last concert Micah would be playing with the Spokane Youth Symphony. Or maybe not.