Javi's Cafe, 24.
“It’s today!” Ema cried when I stepped into the café.
“But you’re not excited or anything,” I said.
“Are you nervous?”
Ema shook her head. “Not yet. And mama says if I get nervous, to pretend it’s only you, her, and Clara in the café.”
“That’s good advice.”
She leaned over and whispered in my ear. “And mama’s going to get flowers for Clara for afterwards.” She stopped whispering. “Are you going to?”
“Not right now,” I said. “But someday, maybe.”
“And did you know I get to stay up as late as I want tonight?”
“No, I didn’t. What time do you think you’ll go to sleep?”
“I don’t know. Late. Mama said tomorrow is another year, did you know that?”
“Good morning, Walter,” Emily said from behind the counter.
“Good morning, Emily. All set for tonight?”
“I will be. I wish it was already evening!”
The day passed, but it seemed like a week. Ema asked for the time every few minutes and didn’t stop singing Silent Night under her breath. Clara came after lunch and she and Emily made sure all of the food was ready. I played around on the piano, trying not to play anything from the concert to keep the surprise for anyone in the café.
At five, Emily began pulling down the blinds to close up the café. Customers took the hint and left, but not before they got a reminder from Ema about the concert. Then all of the waiting turned into a flurry of activity. Ema and Emily started decorating while Clara and I ran through sections of music. Ema joined us for Silent Night, and then we all worked together to put the finishing touches setting up food and chairs.
At seven, we opened the blinds and the door.
“How many people do you think will come?” Clara asked.
I shook my head. “It could just be our families, or it could be the whole of New York City. Nervous?”
“I have never heard you make a mistake,” I said.
“Then you haven’t been listening very well.”
“It’ll be fine. This isn’t a jury or a recital. Relax and have fun.”
Clara smiled. “I’ll try.”
At seven-fifteen the first guest walked in. By seven-thirty, the café was about half full, but there was still no sign of Jerome or either sets of parents.
“Are you sure they’re coming?” Ema asked.
In between serving food, Emily nodded.
Clara’s father and sister arrived, but the rest of the front row remained empty apart from those two seats.
Jerome ambled in at seven-fifty.
“Ten minutes,” I said to Clara.
She nodded and took a deep breath.
“Are you sure about O Little Town of Bethlehem?”
“Yes.” She breathed softly into her flute to keep it warm. “Yes, I am.”
“Should we start without them?” I asked Emily at five-till-eight.
She looked at the clock. “Let’s wait a few more minutes.” Then she dashed off to give someone change and put more muffins in the display.
“I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up,” I said.
“There’s still time,” Clara reminded.
I watched the door. 8:01 and still nothing. “Is everything ready otherwise?” I asked Emily.
She nodded. “And we can’t wait much longer.”
I looked out at the main area of the café. Even with furniture arranged for maximum seating, it was completely packed. “They’re having a good time, Emily. This is fantastic.”
“Don’t start any later than eight ten.”
“Okay.” I went out and talked to Jerome, who agreed to get everyone’s attention when the time came. “You ready, Ema?” I asked. She was sitting next to Jerome.
At 8:09, two people I didn’t recognize walked in. They whispered to each other and pointed, then made their way to the front and sat down. I looked at Emily. She was watching them and biting her lip.
“Well, I guess I’m the odd one out,” I said to Clara.
Jerome stood and spread his arms out. “Happy New Year!” he said. “Welcome to the café. We hope you’re enjoying your refreshments. In just a moment, we’ll begin the evening’s program. Our performers tonight are students at Julliard, and all of the music they are playing tonight they themselves arranged. Now, may I ask that you put all of your phones on silent, put aside all your cares and concerns, and sit back and enjoy the music.”
I nodded to Clara and we walked out, bowed, and took our places. She nodded to me, and then we were off.
I usually remember performances pretty well and am aware of how it went and to some degree, what was going on around me. But this time I was oblivious to everything but the moment. Part of it was joy. Part of it was love for music. But part of it was also disappointment because my parents hadn’t come after all. We started with Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer to get the crowd warmed up, but then moved on to more refined music with O Tannenbaum, I Heard the Bells, and Away in a Manger. After a few more tunes and carols, Clara’s flute soared through the notes of O Little Town of Bethlehem, and then the audience joined us in a rousing rendition of Joy to the World.
As cries of “Encore” filled the café, I turned to call Ema, and saw that now all of the reserved seats were full. I figured Emily had told latecomers to sit there and thought nothing of it, but when Ema came up, she tugged my hand to whisper in my ear.
“Your parents are here.”
I had no time to really process her comment then, but as we played the first quiet notes of Silent Night, I was suddenly aware of everything. Time seemed to slow down and ask for every moment to be kept forever. I looked at Clara as I played, her graceful figure filling the room with beautiful music. Then there was Ema, listening wordlessly as she waited for her cue to sing. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Emily at the counter, Kate standing next to her, and Jerome nodding off in his seat.
Ema began to sing, and then her voice faded away again as we finished. The pause between the music and applause lingered magically and then I turned to face the crowd, grinning as I saw that Ema had been right and it really was my parents. I motioned to Ema and Clara, and we bowed.
“Thank you all for coming tonight,” I said. “We hope you’ve enjoyed yourselves. This evening wouldn’t have been possible without many of you – Emily and Ema, most of all, also Clara, Jerome, and Kate, but also many who were in the audience today whose part in this has been in their support and provision – our parents and teachers. We would not be who we are today if not for you. Thank you for joining us tonight; we are honored that you came.”
I nodded to Jerome, who stood again. “And the Café will be open until just before midnight, so you are welcome to stay and mingle, or leave to go to your other New Year festivities.”
Everyone clapped again, and the noise of conversation grew as I walked to my parents.
“I’m glad you made it!” I said.
“Traffic,” my dad replied.
“It was beautiful,” my mom said.
“Thank you. I want you to meet my friends,” I said.
I introduced them to Jerome first, and then Clara and her parents. Emily was busy behind the counter, but I asked Kate to relieve her so she could talk with her parents. I don’t really know where the time went, but before long it was eleven-thirty. Only our three families, Kate, and Jerome were left. Emily looked at the clock from where she was sitting with her parents, and jumped up.
“Let’s go to Central Park and watch fireworks!” she said. Ema stirred in her grandmother’s lap and rubbed her eyes sleepily.
“Is it next year?” she yawned. “Did I sleep through it?”
“Not yet,” Emily said.
We bundled up and tramped out into the cold night. There were patches of clear sky, but heavy snow clouds were starting to cover the stars.
“It’s great you can walk,” Emily’s father said. “The roads are a zoo tonight.”
As settled into a place to watch the fireworks, Clara and I somehow ended up next to each other.
“Thank you for tonight,” she said. “I really, really enjoyed it.”
“Me, too,” I said.
“And I’ve been meaning to tell you – the way everything with your parents and Emily’s parents played out… you really changed a lot through that and rose to the occasion. The soiree was more than a show of your musical ability. All of the people there proved your character, too.”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything, not to that. But I looked around me. Emily, Ema, and her parents were talking – laughing, even. My parents sat beside me doing something unprofessional and fun for the first time since I was a little boy. Jerome had been officially released from the hospital again, and almost all of Kate’s paintings had sold that evening. And then, to my left, was Clara.
“Would you be up for doing something together – the two of us – before we go back to school?” I asked at last.
“Yes,” Clara said in a whisper.
I grinned, and looked at the people around me once more.
It wasn’t perfect, but it looked like it was on its way.