Guo: The Accordion Player

by Clara Guo | 10/5/16 12:28am

The year is 2069. I hover over the unsent email in my inbox, the beginnings of a response visible in the notification. “Dear Ms. Guo, Thank you for your manuscript submission. Unfortunately…” I summon the will to open it. “Unfortunately, we do not believe that our agency is best equipped to represent your work at this time.”

I close my laptop and walk downstairs to the kitchen. My husband of 47 years is standing in front of the stove, one hand lazily mixing the xianr for our dumplings, the other flipping through a self-printed cookbook my parents gifted us for our five year anniversary, complete with a card sporting the all-too-familiar question, “How can you love dumplings so much and not know how to make them??”

I walk over to my husband.

“Too soggy,” I chastise. I bring the stuffing over to the sink and squeeze the suan cai until the sauerkraut bleeds dry.

“Any news?” he asks.

“Another rejection.”

He nods; we had expected rejection. “The flour should be done soon.”

We spend the rest of the evening making dumplings: slapping the flour into cylinders, slicing the cylinders transversely, and rolling the slices into imperfect circles. We fill each circle with a chopstick-full of stuffing and pinch the flour edges together until each dumpling resembles a misshapen flower, a closed Venus flytrap fat with prey.

We eat in silence that night, neither of us wanting to tread the delicacy of rejection. “Write a novel” had been the only consistent item on my bucket list since college. “Publish a novel” remains an inconsistent second.

After dinner, I open my email. I remember writing the same words 55 years earlier — “Thank you for submitting…Unfortunately…” I never understood why others at the literary management agency trusted an intern to determine the quality of a manuscript, why authors who were much older and much wiser than I occasionally replied with a, “Thank you for your feedback; I’ll take it into consideration in future edits.”

I had applied to the agency on a whim, while sitting in the back of the lecture hall during our weekly summer organic chemistry review sessions. We had been examining syntheses, I think, or some retroactive pathway. I googled “publishing internships” that day, eager to escape my growing feelings of exhaustion at being pre-med.

I spent the winter in New York, living with two of my best friends in the Upper East Side on 61st, between 2nd and 3rd. We shared a studio maybe the size of my senior year two-room double in Hitchcock, alternating sleeping arrangements every three weeks so we each spent a few weeks alone in bed, rather than sleeping side by side on the futon.

Every morning, I took the F to work. Every morning, I walked past an accordion player who infused the hectic morning bustle with famous French melodies. On the last day of my internship, I told myself, I would drop him a $20 bill to thank him for his consistency, to let him know that I removed my headphones every morning after stepping off the F because his music calmed me more so than anything I could play for myself.

But on my last Friday morning in New York, he was gone. I walked through the tunnels, headphones back in my purse, one hand already reaching for my wallet when I saw the empty spot where he always stood.

Where was he?

I looked for him on my travels home, convincing myself that, perhaps, he had changed his routine. Before leaving work, I placed a $20 bill in my cellphone case, where I could easily remove it to drop it inside his case, likely already full of one and five dollar bills.

But, on my last Friday evening in New York, the subway boasted only of the swish of suits and dresses. I was disappointed, angry that he chose my last day of the internship to disappear. He had become a steadiness in my daily routine, his music humming in my mind when I walked into the office building on 43rd. He had been there on my first day, when I naively wore my new heels underneath my black tights and grey dress. His music ran on repeat in my mind, the only dependable witness to my rapidly increasing hesitation toward my dedication to medicine. His music became my escape — the few moments every day when he allowed me to listen to his fingers dance up and down on the accordion rather than the crowd and the few moments of my day when I allowed myself to forget about my detour from the pre-med path.

My husband and I finish our second serving of dumplings, “La Vie en Rose” gently playing in the background.

“Did I ever tell you about the accordion player in NYC?”