A strange beeping sound signaled class was over, though Che couldn’t remember a single thing that happened after his confrontation with Professor Avis. He watched as students got up from their desks and began packing their things, talking amongst themselves. Che watched as Lorenzo stood up from his seat, turning to look at him with a sorrowful expression before sauntering away. Great. Now, the too-cool-for-this-place teenager felt sorry for him.
He scanned the classroom and noticed Nikki had already left, probably too embarrassed by what happened earlier to stick around. He then peered up at the glass walls, noting how everything on this floor was a strange blend of the companies he’d interviewed at and the memories of college he’d desperately wanted to leave behind. This was all supposed to be a dream, nothing more than some feverish hallucination brought upon by sleep deprivation. Even when Yokan had told him the truth, he’d still hoped to wake up in his bed and shake it off as some bizarre nightmare inspired by some stressor in his life. He had more than enough to reference.
He slowly stood up from his desk, taking a moment to stretch out his lower back. He’d forgotten what it was like to sit in a classroom all day, stuck in a rigid position and forced to focus all of his attention on the lecture. Having to sit through a boring class was one of his least favorite things to do. He preferred to simply read the assigned book or course materials on his own. Sure, he’d ask the professor if he had a question about anything, but he didn’t understand the need to listen to an instructor ramble on and on. He never felt like he actually needed to be there.
Perhaps that was why he didn’t want to be where he was now.
“Hey, man, you ready?” he looked over to see Tyson, a big goofy smile plastered across his face as he gripped the straps of his backpack with both hands. Though he was much taller and muscular than Che, he couldn’t have looked any more like a small child if he tried. Che nodded as the two made their way out of the classroom and into the hall. Professor Avis was standing outside the door, her expression just as serious as ever.
“On time tomorrow, Mr. Rowan,” she said as they passed, her eyes boring into the back of his head. He could feel her piercing gaze following him until he turned the corner and was out of her line of sight.
“Hey, that was so cool how you got her with that last answer!” Tyson clapped Che’s shoulder. “Glad she didn’t call on me. I would have had no idea!”
Che didn’t respond, his mind barely registering that he was even moving forward. He felt like he was walking underwater, each step seeming slower than the last. He thought about every class he’d attended in college after the first day, how he tried so hard to find a place for himself at that small university. He’d ended up passing Dr. Hara’s class and eventually settled on being a music major, music being one of the few things remaining that brought him any joy. His mother had been skeptical, but he’d assured her that everything would be fine. He was certain once he had a degree everything else would work itself out. It had to.
“I’m starving,” Tyson rubbed his belly, and as if on cue a great rumbling sound filled the hall. “Should have had breakfast this morning, and lunch break isn’t for a few more classes. I’m gonna be miserable all day!”
Che nodded, remembering how he usually skipped breakfast altogether to make sure he got to class on time, never wanting to stand out again. Yet, when he was called to perform an aria by Franz Schubert in front of his peers, he’d known Dr. Stevenson would interrupt him mid-performance like she always did.
He’d skipped breakfast that day too, so nervous he couldn’t stand it. He’d been practicing for several weeks, carefully getting the German pronunciation down perfectly. He’d rehearsed the day before with Roger, the accompanist, and spent all morning warming up his voice. He knew the storyline of the piece he was going to perform, of a man who cursed his tears for not being hot enough to melt the winter ice. Instead, they’d simply frozen against his cheeks and become a reminder of the futility of it all. He had studied the larger work carefully, ready to provide his interpretations of how and why it was written.
Yet, he knew something wouldn’t impress her. He wouldn’t be loud enough, expressive enough, and he’d be the only one she stopped from performing to make extensive critiques on. That was simply the way it was for him. He never felt he had the best voice, and he sometimes wondered if he was meant to be in music at all. Then, he quickly shook the idea out of his head. No, he had to see it through. He would get his degree and go from there.
Yet, when Dr. Stevenson stopped him this time, she simply asked a question. “Chetachi, what is it that you want to do once you graduate?”
Che remembered blinking in confusion as his brow furrowed. Why was she asking him this now? He suddenly realized the hall he was standing in had gone completely silent, as if every word that escaped his mouth would be amplified across campus.
“Well…I was thinking I’d start a business,” Che whispered, his eyes darting around the room as he noticed the sudden interest in his peers. “I’ve always wanted to be my own boss.”
“And how would you do that?” Dr. Stevenson began rubbing her chin.
“I’d come up with a plan, a budget, and get a loan.”
“And what about music?”
Che stopped to consider her words for a moment. “Well…I was thinking about something outside of music if possible.”
“Chetachi…why are you here then?”
The hall rang with stifled laughter as everyone waited for his answer. Che could feel the heat rising to his cheeks as he fumbled for an answer. He didn’t know what to say; he just wanted to disappear. The only thing he could think of was that his mother had told him to go to college and get a degree, and so he had. Yet now…
“I-I don’t know,” he mumbled, barely audible even to himself.
Dr. Hara let out a resigned sigh before turning to face the crowd. “Well, why don’t we have you start again, and this time try to feel it a little more? We need more energy from you.”
Che remembered hearing the piano’s notes wash over him, carrying a weight to them that wasn’t there before. Now, he didn’t want to utter a single note, instead closing his eyes as he attempted to block everything else out. He missed his cue and quietly walked off stage, barely noticing the bewildered expressions on his classmates’ faces. What was confusing about any of what had just happened? Did they really think he’d just stand there and sing after that? He vowed, in fact, to never sing again, changing his major to business administration that same afternoon. Though, he was no longer certain it would make any difference.
What was the point? Why did he even try?
“Hey…you all right, man?”
Che looked down at his feet, realizing he’d stopped walking completely. Tyson still had his hand on his shoulder, and Che could feel his grip tighten as the hallway went sideways. He barely made out Tyson’s voice calling out to him as everything went black.