Better Than You
Frieda Chrysler hesitated outside the doors of the juvenile detention center. It was pouring, and she kept the violin protected under the gutters while rain fell onto her head and down her back. She took a breath before pushing open the doors.
She’d been to the detention center before for the job interview. Her interviewer had been a woman with graying hair who’d read through Frieda’s resume with tired eyes. “This says your teaching certificate is ‘in progress,’” she said at one point. “We don’t require certification, but it’s a plus. How’s that going for you?”
Frieda had given her a smile. “I’ll have it in a few months. I was hoping that working here would be a valuable experience.” Frieda had practiced that last sentence during the bus ride to the interview.
Now that she was back at the detention center, she was, all at once, overwhelmed by her inexperience. When she went through the metal detector, she removed her necklace and placed it into a little gray dish. “You might want to keep your necklace with us, ma’am,” a scruffy guard told her as he opened her violin case with gloved hands. He looked at Frieda carefully. “Those kids all take anything they can get.”
Frieda walked with her shoulders hunched, hugging her violin close to her chest. Another guard, this one a woman with hair in a tight bun, led her through blank hallways bright with fluorescent light. The kids—Frieda wondered if she would have to call them inmates—still went to school while they were detained, and behind one of the doors that they walked past would be Frieda’s classroom.
“Room 433,” the guard said, unlocking a door that opened up into a small room with the same empty light as in the hallways. There was an upright piano shoved against a wall and some chairs scattered around. The guard walked in and unlocked a large closet full of cases. “Here’re your violins. Class starts in about half an hour.”
She gave Frieda a rehearsed introduction to the goings-on of the school: every day, Frieda would go through security. She was only to go to Room 433, and she would have keys made for her to unlock the room and the closet. Everything had to be locked up when she left the classroom for any reason—at the end of the day, for a lunch break, for a bathroom break. Students always had to be accompanied whenever they wanted a bathroom break, but if she felt uncomfortable doing so, she could ask a guard as they always roamed the school halls. She was advised to dress conservatively and leave all valuables at home. The guard left Frieda with her own keys alone in the classroom fifteen minutes before the hour, and Frieda took out her violin and absent-mindedly plucked through some concert she’d learned years ago. She tried to ignore the fact that her fingers were shaking.
A bell rang, signaling the five-minute passing period, and Frieda’s students filtered into the room. As they chatted amongst themselves, the last girl came in alone and sat in the corner. She hunched over, hiding under a mass of black hair and bangs, trying to make herself small. Frieda wished she could do the same.
The final bell rang and Frieda took roll call, trying not to stumble over the names. When she called “Peggy Nani,” the girl in the corner half-heartedly raised a hand.
Frieda marked everyone as present on her sheet, all seven students. “Hi everyone,” she said, straining a smile. “I’m Frieda Chrysler, but you don’t need to call me Miss Chrysler—you can just call me Frieda.”
Peggy rolled her eyes, and Frieda tried willing her palms to stop sweating. “Today we’ll be learning the basics,” she went on. “Let’s get our violins out.”
The ten violins were donated to the detention center from public schools that had also received them as donations. A few were missing strings, one didn’t have a bridge, and almost all of them had dents and scratches. All of them needed to be tuned, and Frieda spent the first fifteen minutes of class hunched over a tuner turning the violins’ knobs while the students watched. Everyone needed to borrow her rosin for their bows (one of the bows was bare of horsehair, simply a wooden stick), and Frieda didn’t even have time to explain what rosin was.
Finally, they had their violins, and she taught them the strings: G D A E. “You can remember it as Good Dogs Always Eat!” she told them. They snickered in response, and Peggy rolled her eyes again. Frieda focused completely on not making it obvious that she was shaking.
There was only five shoulder rests found in the violin cases, so Frieda lent her own to one of the girls, realizing with dread that this left Peggy the only one without. “Will you be all right without one for today’s class?” Frieda asked as kindly as possible, feeling like prey under the girl’s gaze.
She slouched in her chair, the violin and bow sitting in her lap. “Wasn’t planning on playing today anyway,” she said coolly.
“Peggy,” Frieda told her, forcing herself to look into her eyes, “I would really appreciate it if you played with us today.”
The snickering was starting again, like the sprinkle before a rainstorm. Peggy shrugged. “Your problem.”
It sure is my problem, Frieda thought, isn’t it?
When Frieda got home, she fell face-first onto her bed and checked her phone; her mother had called and left a message. Her tiny voice sounded worried:
Frieda, I hope you’re doing okay. Don’t let the whole thing about the quartet get you down. They’ll fall apart without you, you know that. And pardon my language, but they’re a bunch of assholes. She paused. Call me back when you can, sweetie. Love you.
Frieda sighed against her pillow. She reached down and lifted her case onto the bed. She sat up and scooted to the very edge of the bed and made her back as tall as possible, tucking the violin under her chin and raising its neck. The bow floated down to a string and, suddenly, bit at it, the sound shocking the bedroom.
She played. And played and played and played until the ringing of the strings tuned out the events of the day. She let her eyes close and played what she remembered from concertos and symphonies, tricky pieces that led her fingers all the way up the fingerboard and made her bow bounce around the strings. She didn’t have to teach right now. She could just play for herself. Eventually, she drifted off to sleep, her violin haphazardly lying on her desk, and just before she did, she realized she forgot to call her mother back.
As the six students screeched their way through Ode to Joy, Peggy—or Nani, as Frieda soon discovered that they were usually referred to by their surnames—continued to slouch defiantly in her chair, this time not even taking her violin out of the case. Frieda supposed that she should be grateful any of the students were playing, but Nani’s defiance grated on her mind worse than the butchering of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.
Throughout the week, Frieda got a feel for the teaching environment and the snickering petered out, but Nani didn’t budge. By the end of the week, she was certain the students had the song memorized, and she asked each to play the piece without looking at the music. Everyone stuttered but got through the song, and Frieda’s pride gave her the courage to stare Nani in the eyes as she said, “Now you, Nani. Without looking at your music.”
Frieda could see Nani grit her teeth as she straightened her back, shoved the violin into her neck, and cut the bow across the string. She didn’t play Ode to Joy—she played Praeludium and Allegro in the Style of Pugnani and sounded like goddamn Itzhak Perlman. She sliced through the double stops and turned around the trials and mastered the arpeggios, and all the while she bored her gaze into Frieda. By the end of the piece, the six other students were gaping, and Frieda felt like the size of an ant.
The Fellowship of the String had uploaded another video. Frieda watched the video as soon as she got home that night from teaching classes, eating Cup Noodles right out of the cup with plastic chopsticks. Tom, Carrie, and Angie—the quartet’s first violinist, violist, and cellist, respectively—were playing with a new girl as their second violinist, someone Frieda didn’t recognize. They were performing her favorite Felix Mendelssohn quartet, the one she’d suggested they perform not long before she left the quartet. The new girl was good, and Frieda felt like she was stuck back in her class at the juvenile detention center, so she closed her laptop and sat in the dark with her empty Styrofoam cup, the strings still ringing in her ears.
She couldn’t keep the students after class due to strict scheduling, so when the weekend came, she saw Nani during visitation. She settled into the cold steel chair and looked quietly at the girl. Nani was also silent but avoided Frieda’s gaze, which was new.
“Where the hell did Kreisler come from?” Frieda asked her, leaning across the table.
Nani shrugged, her signature move. “I used to play. Before I got into trouble.”
“How long did you play for?”
“Twelve years. Since I was four.” Nani hesitated. “Usually people ask me what I did to get here.”
Frieda hadn’t started playing until she was ten, and for her, the violin had been just another after-school activity that caught her attention when gymnastics stopped being interesting. The most Frieda mastered when she was four was playing dress-up. She noticed Nani staring at her, waiting for a response, and Frieda shook herself out of her thoughts and focused on the girl in front of her.
“So, you’re a violinist, and you’re talented,” Frieda said. “That doesn’t explain why you hate the class so much.”
Nani looked at the table. “They gave us some kind of personality quiz a while ago,” she said, “one of those things that made you put a 5 if it ‘strongly applied to you’ and a 1 if it didn’t at all. Shit—” she faltered, clearing her throat, “stuff like, ‘I’m a very athletic person,’ or, ‘I enjoy cooking.’ One of them was, ‘I’m a musical person,’ and I didn’t even think about it. I put a 5. I guess part of me can never stand people thinking otherwise.”
“You’re full of yourself,” Frieda said before she could think not to, and then felt her face flush. Nani raised an eyebrow and then snorted. It shocked Frieda somewhat to see her smile.
“I guess I am,” Nani said, smirking. “But what, you’re not? You’re some uppity professional violinist lady who thinks you can come in here and change someone’s life by making them play Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Frieda ground her teeth, surprised that instead of frightened, she felt furious. “You don’t know what brought me here,” she said in a low voice. “I could be doing so much more. You have no idea. I don’t need to be here.”
“Ha,” Nani laughed, a single sharp note. “You think you could be doing so much more? I’m in juvie. You heard me play. We both know how good I am. I’ve heard ‘prodigy’ thrown around more times than I can count. I’m better than you, probably, and better than whatever fancy tutors you’ve had. But I can’t leave. You,” she jutted out a finger at Frieda that drew the gazes of other visitors, “you can leave whenever you want. Why don’t you, actually, so I don’t have to sit in your stupid class with a violin in my hands and make me think about how much I’ve fucked up my life by getting landed in here?” Abruptly, she stopped, drawing her finger back and putting her hands in her lap. Her eyes were wide, maybe with fear.
Frieda wanted to breathe fire at the girl, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t do anything. She pushed her chair back, purposefully scraping it hard against the floor, and stood up, slinging her purse over her shoulder. “You have no idea,” she said again, but as she turned to leave, those words wouldn’t stop echoing in her head: I’m better than you.
Frieda’s fury propelled her from the bus stop to her apartment complex, and she was so busy replaying Nani’s biting words in her head that she walked right up to the building, fumbling for her keys in her purse before she noticed Tom.
“Um, Frieda,” he said. Frieda nearly jumped. He stood in the wet grass, his hands tucked into his coat. He pulled one out to adjust his glasses, forcing a smile. “Hey.”
Frieda’s shock faded away with renewed anger. She narrowed her eyes at him and took her keys out of her purse, clutching them in a fist by her side. “What are you doing outside my apartment?”
“I was just about to buzz for you,” he said. His smile was gone. “You don’t need to invite me in, but can we talk?”
Frieda looked up at the sky and sighed in defeat. The gray clouds were heavy with rain. She knew it wouldn’t be long before they were drenched. She opened the door and gestured for him to go in. “After you.”
Frieda only had one couch, so they sat on opposite ends, leaving as much space between them as possible. She made herself Cup Noodles but watched Tom instead of eating, chewing on the end of a chopstick. “So how’s it going with my replacement?” she asked.
Tom almost looked sad. “You don’t need to be mean about it, Frieda.”
“Forgive me, I’ve been in prison,” she deadpanned.
Tom’s eyes went wide. “You actually took that job? I thought you were joking when you told me.”
“I’m not certified, remember?” Frieda said, stabbing her chopsticks into the mass of noodles. “You kicked me out before I could finish that.” She knew she was being mean, but something about Nani had gotten under her skin and wasn’t letting go.
Tom sighed. “I told you I was sorry,” he said quietly. “We couldn’t have a musician who didn’t show up to practice. You know that. Even if it was because you were taking those teaching classes.” He looked down at his folded hands in his lap. “I tried to be nice about it.”
“Yeah,” Frieda said, sinking back into the couch. “That’s the worst part.”
Tom looked at her. “I didn’t come here just to make you feel bad about yourself, you know.”
You’re doing a great job, anyway, Frieda thought, slurping a noodle.
“Miranda—the new second violinist—she’s great,” Tom began, “but she’s fresh out of school and she doesn’t have as much experience as you.”
Frieda set the cup on her knee, her heartbeat quickening. “What are you saying?”
The hint of a smile tugged on his lips, and he shrugged. “I got a solo deal. I’m making my own album and going on tour. And I need to leave The Fellowship of the String.”
Frieda blinked. “You’re kidding. You need me to be Samwise Gamgee again?”
“No,” Tom said. “You need to be Frodo Baggins.”
“You want me to play the first violin?” Frieda almost laughed. “But I—I can’t play those parts. You know that.”
“Then you’ll need to practice more,” Tom said, getting up from the couch and smoothing out his coat; he hadn’t taken it off when he came in. “I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think you could do it, and to be honest, we’re low on options. You’re the most reliable replacement.” He gave her a friendly smile. “Unless you can think of someone better.”
Frieda swallowed. “Send me the music and I’ll think it over.”
Frieda sat in her classroom seven hours later than she was usually there. Classes were over for the day, and after going through level after level of clearance, she’d managed to get permission to see Nani regularly for thirty minutes during a chunk of her ordinarily scheduled free time. She claimed that Nani was an exceptional violinist, and she deserved to have private tutoring outside of class. It wasn’t completely a lie.
The door pushed open slowly, and Nani stepped inside. She stopped in her tracks when she spotted Frieda. “Shit,” she muttered.
“Don’t worry,” Frieda said, “I’m not here to thank you, or whatever the kids are saying these days.”
Nani snorted. “Wouldn’t work anyway,” she said. “There’s a guard right outside the door. And you really shouldn’t joke about that kind of stuff in a detention center.”
“Obviously, there’s still a lot I have to learn,” Frieda said. “And I was actually hoping you could teach me something.” She motioned to a chair across from her with a violin case next to it, far from Nani’s usual corner, and Nani sat down cautiously, lifting the violin onto her lap. She looked at Frieda with raised eyebrows.
Frieda took a breath. “I need your help. I need you to tutor me.”
Nani stared, and then threw her head back, erupting into laughter. She covered her mouth and looked over to the door where the guard was, forgetting herself and where she was, but her body still shook with laughter. “Tutor?” she said, catching her breath and looking at Frieda with crinkled eyes. “Wow. I’m honored, Miss Chrysler.”
“I was hoping you’d react a little more maturely,” Frieda said, which wasn’t true; that was exactly the reaction she was expecting.
Nani sat back in her chair and sized up Frieda, still smiling. “Honestly,” she said, shaking her head, “how low do you plan to go before you’re buried in the ground?”
“I’m… auditioning for something,” Frieda said. “But I’m not good enough yet. You could help me.”
“And then you’d stop teaching here,” Nani said, crossing her arms. “Right? Because you obviously don’t want to keep coming to this shithole and teaching shit kids like me.”
“Believe it or not,” Frieda said, “I’ve actually gone to a lot of work to be a teacher.”
Nani cocked her head. “And now?”
“And now…” Frieda reached into her bag and pulled out the music Tom had sent to her. She pulled her chair next to Nani’s and put the music on the stand. “Now you’re going to help me make this sound halfway decent.” Nani flipped through the music, her eyebrows narrowed as if she didn’t trust it.
Frieda sighed. “I know you’re in a detention center,” she said, “but you don’t have to help me if you don’t want to. I can tell everyone that your private lessons are canceled.”
Nani clicked open the violin case and shrugged. “I’ve got nothing better to do.”
Every day, after classes, they played. The classroom stopped becoming a place of fear for Frieda and turned into a place of solitude, a kind of solitude that she usually only found when playing in her bedroom. Part of this was because Nani was a fantastic violinist. Tom’s playing had always frightened her somewhat, because Frieda could see exactly how many steps he was ahead of her, and if only she could just play that run correctly or shift more smoothly into the fifth position or remember to use vibrato when she played pizzicato… but listening to Nani play was like admiring the Mona Lisa or reading Shakespeare. Frieda knew she could never be that good, so she just listened to Nani play and savored it.
Despite her inferior talent, Frieda could tell she was improving. They went through measures again and again, and each time they were a little easier. The sheet music was covered in Nani’s messy pencil handwriting that Frieda sometimes struggled to decipher when she practiced at home. And Nani was patient, something that jarred Frieda. She still couldn’t quite figure out what Nani was getting out of the lessons.
One day, Frieda told Nani about the quartet and about trying to get her teaching certificate. “As it turns out,” Frieda said, “I can’t do both things at once.”
“Then don’t do either,” Nani said, erasing a marking she’d written on the music. “Get a job at McDonald’s like everyone else. Music doesn’t make any money anyway.”
Frieda rubbed her thumb up and down the violin’s strings. “I don’t think,” she said quietly, “I could ever do anything else other than play the violin.”
Nani looked over at her, setting the pencil on the stand. “Sure, you could.”
“I mean,” Frieda said, “I don’t think I could do anything else and be happy.”
Nani shrugged. “Then do whichever one makes you happier. Teaching or performing.”
Neither, Frieda thought. Either way, on stage or in the classroom, Frieda had to prove herself. Even if she was getting more confident at teaching, every day those seven pairs of eyes made her feel as small as an audience of people did—or as Tom’s words had when he’d told her she was no longer fit for the Fellowship of the String. “If I could pick anything,” Frieda found herself saying, “I’d pick this. You are tutoring me after school.”
Nani looked at Frieda like she had three heads. And then she laughed. “Too bad you don’t get paid for this.”
“I’m serious,” Frieda said, looking at Nani.
Nani nodded slowly, looking at the music. “I haven’t gotten to play like this in a long time,” she said. “So, I guess I’d pick this too.” She paused and then tapped the sheet with the tip of her pencil. “Let’s start at measure twenty-four.”
Frieda lifted her violin into position and let herself smile.
It was Friday, and Frieda had told Tom that she would audition for the quartet tomorrow. She practically had the songs memorized, she’d played them so much. She could play through each one with only one or two falters, but Nani insisted, “One mistake is one too many.”
“Sounds like something a fancy tutor would say,” Frieda said, giving her a smile. Nani just rolled her eyes, but the gesture didn’t make Frieda’s palms sweat with anxiety anymore. She just laughed at her.
They packed up their violins and Frieda stood to leave. “See you Monday?”
Nani looked up at her as she loosened her bow, looking as solemn as Frieda had ever seen her. “Actually, no. Sunday’s my last day.” She paused. “I’m leaving.”
“Oh.” Frieda felt her stomach drop. “I mean, that’s great. Great!” She remembered herself and put on a smile. “You’re leaving
juvie. You get to be a normal kid again and play the violin whenever you want. That’s worth celebrating!”
“Yeah, I get to go back to high school, and then graduate if I’m lucky, and then spend life broke because no one wants to hire a kid who was in juvie,” she said, putting her bow away and closing the case. Her voice was flat, the sarcasm lacking its usual bite.
“What about college?” Frieda asked.
Nani shrugged. “Don’t have the money. And the last thing I want to do is keep going to school.”
“Well,” Frieda said, having no frame of reference for Nani’s situation—she’d gone to Harvard— “you’ll figure things out. You’re incredibly talented.”
“I sure as hell am,” she said, putting the violin back into its locker and shutting it with finality. “But nobody wants to listen to me.”
Tom had a room built in his house with “perfect acoustics,” and Frieda remembered practicing in there with the quartet, how every time they ended a piece, the final notes rang off of their still-vibrating strings and made the room buzz. Now she was back in the room, this time just her and Tom. She played through every piece, including the Mendelssohn piece she’d watched them play in the YouTube video, and only made a single mistake. One too many, she heard Nani say in her head, but Tom was beaming.
“I feel ten times better leaving the Fellowship after hearing you play,” he said, clapping Frieda on the shoulder. “That was great. Are you in?”
She would have to lead an entire quartet, Frieda realized. Three people—two who had originally wanted her gone, the other her replacement—would have to rely on her to continue the success of the quartet. It sounded like hell, but teaching without Nani’s smirk in the back of the classroom, the first friendship she’d had in a while, sounded like hell too. “You know something, Tom?” she said, looking up at his hopeful face. “I’m not special. I’m just like everybody else.”
Tom frowned. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Frieda exhaled, and her body filled with relief. I’m just like everybody else. “Good luck with your solo career,” she said, shaking his hand.
“What, are you walking out on this?” Tom asked, his eyes wide. “You’re walking out on being Frodo Baggins?”
She wanted to ask him, If I don’t even want to be in the goddamn trilogy, how can I be the protagonist? But instead, she picked up a pencil off the stand and wrote the name of the juvenile detention center on the music sheet, along with a phone number and Peggy Nani’s name. She looked at Tom, whose face was a mess of confusion. “Find her,” Frieda told him, and then laughed to herself. “She’ll replace me just fine. She’ll probably replace all of us someday.” She left Tom in the room with perfect acoustics and walked out of his house into the rain, feeling it soak her hair and her clothing, dripping off her hand and onto the violin case. She couldn’t stop smiling.
Leah O'Sullivan is a recent college graduate with a B.A. in English and a minor in gender studies. She has had prose and poetry works published in CrossCurrents Literary & Arts Magazine and in Wetlands Magazine, and has received the Esther Wagner Fiction Award for her short story, "The Dying." She will be attending Mills College to work toward an MFA in Creative Writing Prose in the fall.