Guitar Lessons

by Dallas Woodburn

Sula tries to bring a bit of the magic back with her. She carefully tucks some into her suitcase between the Union Jack knee-high socks for her sister and souvenir Big Ben T-shirt for her mother. She braids some into her hair. She steeps some in the mug with her tea and swallows it, feeling its warmth cascade inside her.

But maybe this magic is fairy dust, and she uses it all up to fly home. Because when she finds herself back at 118 Hawthorne Street, Ventura, California, 93003, U.S.A. — the address she wrote across countless letters and postcards during her six months at the University of East Anglia, Suffolk Terrace, Room A3, Norwich, England, NR4 7TJ — when she finds herself back in her girlhood bedroom, with its gingham curtains and menagerie of stuffed animals and snowglobes, and she unpacks her suitcase and unbraids her oily hair, the magic is nowhere to be found. A few bits still shiver inside her belly, glowing ember-like when she awakes after dreams of England and believes for a half-moment she is still there. But the dreams dissipate, and the magic, too, softly fades away.

Deep down, Sula knew it would be like this. You can't bottle up magic and take it with you. Sula is back home, with her mother and sister and half-blind beagle, and England is more than 5,000 miles away: frozen pictures in albums, an unraveling pair of wool mittens, a book that has been closed and put back on the shelf.
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Sula stands in line at the Post Office, mailing a six-page handwritten letter to Sam (633 Brunswick Place, Regent's Park, London, England, NW1) when the opening notes of Queen's “Don't Stop Me Now” swell over the static-plagued speakers.

"What do you mean you don't know this song?” Sam grinned at her. The strobe light pulsed and the colored lights swirled and dancing bodies pressed around them like noodles in a giant bowl of macaroni. “I know you're a Yank, but it's Queen, Sula, really now — ”

“I DO know Queen,” she insisted. “I just didn't recognize the song at first.” She shifted her weight, leaning even closer to him. “Don't patronize me — ”



“Pat, rhymes with cat. Patronise. That's how we say it here.” He feigned seriousness but couldn't quite iron smooth the smile-wrinkles from the corners of his mouth.

“Well, King James, in America we say PATEronize.”

“All well and good, except for one thing.”  She could count the pinpricks of freckles under his eyes. “You're not in America anymore, are you?” 

She tilted her chin up at him. “You are just SO —”

“What?” He draped an arm around her waist and hooked his index finger through her belt loop. “What am I?”

“Right.” She laughed. “You're right. I'm not in America anymore.”

He kissed her as Queen sang, “Don't stop me now, I don't wanna stop at all” and the ending notes faded to a poppy techno song she'd never heard before, either.
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On her way home from mailing Sam's letter, Sula stops by Garry's Guitarland, with the sun-faded music posters in the front window and a rainbow of guitar picks tied with fishing line hanging from the ceiling. She buys an acoustic '84 Yamaha — the guitar that looks the most like Sam's. The wood is worn smooth, the strings shiny and taut. Garry himself takes it down from the wall and gingerly hands it to her. “Have you played before?” he asks.   

“Not really,” she says. “A friend of mine does.”

“Here,” Sam said, handing Sula his guitar and sitting down beside her on the narrow dorm-room bed. He showed her how to hold it: resting lightly on her thighs, the neck stretched out against her left wrist so her fingers could reach the strings. She had expected it to feel natural, like holding a baby, but the guitar was bulky and awkward in her arms.

Sam reached over and placed his hand on hers. He guided her fingers across the strings, plucking them one by one. He showed her how to hold the pick between her thumb and index finger. “The trick is to be gentle, but a bit firm, yeah?” he said. “Smooth. Like this. Press down on the strings in one smooth motion.”

Sula tried, but the third of the six strings tripped her up. She tried again. “Better,” Sam said, but she still thought it sounded like a car accident happening in slow motion. Sam smiled. “You'll get the hang of it,” he said. “You're a natural.” He helped her pick the notes of “God Save the Queen,” which has the same tune as “My Country 'Tis of Thee.” Then Sula handed him the guitar and asked him to play. She wanted to bottle up his music and take it with her.     

“You'll get the hang of it,” Guitarland Garry says now, in this cramped dusty shop on a summer afternoon in Ventura. “You look like a natural.”

Sula plucks at a guitar string with her index finger, but the string is stiff and her touch is so soft it barely makes a sound. 

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She doesn't expect him to be logged onto Skype — an eight-hour time difference means it is closing in on 2 a.m. in England — but he is. She fumbles for her microphone headset and clicks the “Call” icon. He answers on the third computerized ring. Usually when they talk, she is amazed at how close he sounds — as if she could reach through the computer screen and touch his face. It makes things easier, yet in a way it makes things harder, too.

“Guess what?” she says now. She doesn't pause for him to guess. “I got a guitar!”

“No bloody way!”

“Yes way. And I'm terrible, Sam, truly awful. But I'm giving it a go. I'm gonna try to learn the song you taught me, do you remember — ”

“That's great.” It's been seven weeks since she has seen his face. Seven weeks, and his voice sounds muffled and far away. She can hear other voices in the background — or is it just static, white noise? “Listen, Sula, I have to go. I'll talk to you later, alright?”

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“But what if you don't go?” he said. He tipped his pint glass towards her, almost spilling his Guinness. Yet his eyes were so earnest. “What if you, just ... stay?”

“I can't, Sam. The term's ending. Where would I stay?”

“Stay with me!”

“You're pissed drunk. You don't know what you're saying.”

“Yes I do! We'll make a band. You'll play guitar — I'll teach you.”

Her hand found his under the table. “That does sound nice.”

“Yeah. I'll teach you guitar. Just stay, Sula. Please.”

“We'll talk about it in the morning.”

Only they didn't talk about it. And then May rolled into June, and it was now-or-never, and he didn't ask her to stay again. So she boarded the train to London and wrestled her two suitcases onto the Tube to Heathrow airport and finally, dazedly, staggered aboard the plane to LAX, still looking for him in every brown-haired boy she glimpsed. The magic fell from the pockets of her jeans and seeped from the soles of her Converse sneakers and, most of all, spilled out in the tears that stormed from her eyes.

Sam hadn't cried. “Take care of yourself,” he'd said, hoisting her suitcase onto the rack. She could not bear to watch him grow steadily smaller and smaller out the window as the train pulled away. Instead, her lasting image was his smile as he wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Chin up, Sula,” he said — a little patronizingly, she thought, but she did not have the strength or humor for that argument — so she just nodded and choked out, “Goodbye.”

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Sula long dreaded saying goodbye to England. Even months before she left, she was sometimes struck with an anxiety so acute she had to close her eyes and focus on breathing. Now Sam is gone, she is home, and the anxiety has evolved into a raw ache blistering in her chest. The days feel discordant.

She shuts off her computer and picks up her guitar. Tracing the strings with her fingertips, she thinks of the view from her dormroom window and the ducks on the lake. She takes the guitar pick and thrums the strings, seeing the wide-windowed dorm kitchen — there are her cornflakes in the cupboard, her spoon and fork in the drying rack, her flatmates sitting at the metal-topped table arguing about whether a man could truly get nine carrots stuck up his arse, and if so, would they really be cooked? She presses down harder on the guitar strings, picturing the dirt path lined with arching birch trees, the path she took from Suffolk Terrace to Grenwich Block — the strings tremble, hum, buzz — and she knocks on the window third from the right, and there is Sam, sliding it open, grinning, kissing her, helping her climb inside. Sula drags the guitar pick up and down, up and down, faster and faster, her hand strumming jerkily, without care for rhythm or melody. As if each frenzied stroke can bring back the lost magic. As if guitar lessons are all she needs to reclaim what she left behind in a dorm room across the Atlantic. As if —

The harsh sound of something breaking. Sula, breathing heavily, feels the frayed end of a guitar string irreparably snapped in two.