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Every Fallen Star
I was born on a brisk September afternoon in the back of Pa’s Bugatti. They named me Natalia, after Pa’s favorite actress. And my middle name became Valerie, after Ma’s favorite song.
I have often wondered why they named me after two Hollywood stars.
A perfect name for a future star, they said.
I have hated the name ever since.
It was on the third day of the fifth month when we boarded Pa’s private jet and flew over the ocean into sunny California. Ma was dressed like a Barbie Doll and Pa like
Elvis Presley. I took the only thing dear to me, my little violin, and dressed as if I were a performer at Carnegie Hall. We took a taxi to the middle of the city where the air smelled of gasoline and there was a man on the corner of the street with his hat pulled low over his eyes. The buildings stood like regal statues, each one casting a shadow over the city until, at just the right time of day, there was no place you could walk without being swallowed up in artificial darkness.
I have often wondered why California is called the Golden State.
It shimmers with the light of living stars, they said.
I have hated the place ever since.
That same night, we drove a long way out of town until the buildings were so tall, they touched the sky. Ma stepped out of the car and clutched Pa’s arm like a defenseless child. She leaned down and looked me in the eye. She smelled like expensive perfume and cinnamon.
“You see that man, the one playing his violin at the crosswalk? Don’t talk to him. Don’t make eye contact, don’t smile. Just look straight ahead. We don’t associate ourselves with their kind.”
I listened well enough. I didn’t talk. I didn’t make eye contact. I didn’t smile. But when the stoplight turned red and we could cross, I tipped a handful of American dollars. With shaking hands, the old man stopped his playing and picked up the dollar bills. He then stared deep into my eyes, in such a way that I expected he could read my soul. “Look into the change cup.” Too afraid to disobey, I stared into the cup. “It’s empty,” I answered. “Why…” I trailed off. As I spoke, the bottom of the can rippled–once, twice-and suddenly there was no bottom. Instead, I saw the old man and I, sitting on that same street corner we were both on right now. We were talking, just as if we had known each other our entire lives. And we were happy–I could feel it, as I stared at that beautiful image, I could feel the happiness that came off it like rays of sunshine and kissed my face. But then the image rippled again, and suddenly it was me and Ma and Pa, with smiles as wide as the moon. Yet, the image was dripping with sorrow and hurt and false happiness. My eyes welled up with tears and I curled my fists up into a ball. “You see? This is the world you live in. A world filled with unhappiness and hurt. And yet look at me. I have nothing. I sit on a California street corner and play my violin just to get by. I own nothing more than the clothes on my back and a small little apartment a few blocks away. But look at me! I’m happy! I’m happy,” The man was crying now too. He smiled and wiped his eyes. “I know I’m an old man now. But I was young once too. And I was your exact age when I left the high society life I was destined for and came here to pursue the dream I had always dreamed of.” The man gestured around him. “This is home to me. I get an occasional coin dropped in my can, and the locals know me fondly as The Old Tin Man With His Violin. Sure, life will happen, but I tend to stay outside of that big bubble of high society life.” Tin Man winked. “You can stay where you are, but I see it in your eye that you are not content. You have a gift with that violin of yours. Use it, my dear. I will forever be here, on my corner, if you wish to join me. Think about my offer and come back to me when you have decided.”
I didn’t wait to hear more. It was already tempting enough to know I could enhance the gift that my parents had shunned since I had proved my talent. But, even more than that, I wanted a piece of that image, a piece of that happiness to hold and keep for myself. I wanted to have that–forever and ever up until I say my very last words. The thought was splendid, but nothing can last forever. Soon I was at Ma’s side again, and Pa escorted us into a wide glass elevator overlooking the city. Pa pressed the PH button and suddenly we were moving up, up, up. I felt as if the whole world was dropping away. The taxi, the old man, the empty tin can. Soon all of it was gone and I could see nothing but the tops of the buildings.
Ma pulled from her Louis Vuitton a fiery-red canister of lipstick and expertly applied it until her lips shone. Pa straightened his leather jacket and reminded me to keep smiling.
Finally, the elevator dinged.
The doors opened.
Suddenly nothing was quite right anymore.
Millions of small camera lights pointed straight at us. Millions of voices talking all at once.
It was four hours past my bedtime when Ma and Pa hailed a taxi to take us back to the hotel. When the doors were shut against the humidity and we were all buckled in, Ma asked me how I liked it.
It is easy to lie to someone when you know the truth could hurt them.
So I lied.
I said I loved all the attention. I said I loved getting my picture taken a million times over again.
But it is dark in a California taxi in the middle of the night.
So when the topic of the conversation had switched and I was no longer wanted, I let the tears fall long and hard down my face.
By and by, the seasons changed. Ma now added a Henig fur coat to her wardrobe, and our Germany kitchen always smelled of hot cocoa. I almost forgot about Tin Man and his promise.
On the morning of my 13th birthday, Ma herself took the time to assemble my breakfast tray. There was an array of different pastries, three different kinds of eggs, potatoes, multiple plates of breakfast meats, and a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. “Good morning, Natalia. I brought you your birthday breakfast.” Ma’s melodic voice bounced off the high ceilings of my room so that it echoed twice before being cut out. She kissed me on the head once beforesettingthe tray down in my lap. “I hate to do this to you on your birthday, but you must make yourself presentable. Your Pa and I must make an appearance in Hollywood today.” I nodded my head politely, but my insides were all twisted up in anger.
On the way to Hollywood, I confessed to our pilot that I hated California. He just smirked and gave me a sly smile. “You know, it is quite ironic that you are spending the best day of your life in your least favorite place.”
I told him to be quiet and get back to his job.
I think he only listened because he had to.
When my feet touched the familiar ground of California two hours later, we were in the same private airport I had long grown accustomed to. The pilot was sent to hail down a taxi. I said my goodbyes to the flight attendants while Ma and Pa stepped into the waiting cab. I watched our jet fly off into the blue, back to Germany.
Our little yellow vehicle trotted along the highways and down the crowded main streets as my mind wandered away from the bland view and onto Tin Man’s fairytale change cup. It seemed like a dream. Yet it was far from a dream. Tin Man’s words echoed in my head. “Think about my offer and come back to me when you have decided.”
But had I?
Had I decided?
Earlier, I had stealthily hidden my violin and bow underneath my long coat. Just in case, I remind myself. But, was I ready? Was I really ready? I shook the thought from my mind and watched the taxi creep around the twists and turns until we were again a few blocks away from the crosswalk.
The crosswalk with Tin Man and his empty change cup.
Five paces away from the crosswalk, Ma gave me the same lecture as always. “Don’t talk. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t smile. Just look straight ahead no matter the circumstances.”
The light turned red. Ma and Pa began the short walk across the road.
They were almost to the other side when I walked up to Tin Man and tossed a penny into his can.
Just a penny.
But it was enough.
“Little miss, you’re back sooner than I expected. Have you thought about my offer? Have you decided?”
I smiled and sat down next to him. Gently and quietly so as not to attract the attention of Tin Man, I pulled my violin out from underneath my coat and laid it in my lap. I fingered the bow that had grown dusty with neglect and plucked at the strings that had grown well out of tune. At this, Tin Man noticed my caresses. He smiled knowingly. “Thought you’d bring that little beauty. A bit dusty, a bit rusty. Nothing a little fine tuning can’t fix.” Tin Man smiled faintly. His kind old face was shadowed under his wide-brimmed straw hat. I dropped the remainder of my money into his can. The coins pattered on the bottom like droplets of rain falling on innocent children.
I am Natalia Valerie. I was born in the back of Pa’s Bugatti.
My parents are the two greatest actors in all of Hollywood.
I was raised among stars. I was destined to be a star.
But times have changed.
I live with Tin Man now. We have our very own street corner, where we play our violins simultaneously in Uptown California.
My parents are still the two greatest actors in all of Hollywood.
But I am no longer destined to be a star.
I have Tin Man.
He is star enough for me.