Monday, February 18, 2008


I never heard you play at the Civic Theatre; nor at the old Lyric Opera. I never heard you play at the university’s recital hall where ancient organ pipes lined the wall behind the piano, or at the coffee shops downtown where your friends sometimes did open-mics while we watched. I never heard you play Liszt, Chopin, or Scriabin, just as I never heard you play on the old upright tucked in the corner of your 5th street loft where stacks of your father’s old musty vinyls cluttered the shelves bearing the names of bygone virtuosos like Gould, Hofmann, Cortot.

Even in the cramped confines of your practice room at the university, where we covered the small window on the door with your sheet music for privacy, where we sat on the bench in front of the six-foot Yamaha and learned each others’ lips for the first time as the row of glittering black and white keys sat before us, you didn’t. The old bench creaked below our shifting weights and you never so much as played a scale, even as my ears braced themselves for some simple melody to puncture the intimacy.

God, how I was dying to hear you play. But you wouldn’t. You seemed to be waiting for something.

I never heard you even after you got prestigious, much later, when I used to see your name inspiring a bevy of adjectives in small performance reviews in the paper. Even though I never knew when you were coming to town—I only ever seemed to find out after the fact—apparently you were as good as I had always imagined you might have been, and so a couple years later everyone would be very devastated to see you go, especially so young. Fate, chance—what did it matter now? I loved you, but I’d never heard you play; I hadn’t, and never would.

These days I don’t think about you as much as I used to, though sometimes I still sit over my morning coffee and remember all the opportunities that were missed. The steam off a cup of Folgers will bring back moments like that becalmed early September afternoon when we’d spent the day together in your apartment, when you’d hovered around the keyboard as if you were going to sit down to play, but wouldn’t. By then it had become like some joke between us, though a nervous one at that; it was our final frontier, a new kind of virginity, and you’d said you wanted my first time to be special. That night I was supposed to hear you for the first time, at a concert—a big event for us—so instead of playing you put on some different recordings of the Chopin concerto you were going to perform and tried to show me the different players’ subtleties in interpretation that I couldn’t discern, even when you played them over and over again and showed me the yellowed score covered in marks penciled in by your hand. After a while you gave up and we made love instead. We then lay halfway under the sheets as some Debussy you’d put on continued to play, and the windows steamed either from the heat of our bodies or from the rain that was just starting to fall, the drops slapping the aluminum sill like the soft rapping of fingernails on a snare drum, your quiet breaths warming my shoulder one after another as if keeping time with the fragrant melodies murmuring out of the dusty speaker at the foot of the bed.

We’d share a bed but everything about you still seemed foreign. Over dinner, whenever we listened to music you would fall into silence for long stretches of time, sometimes swaying with the beat, as if you were imagining yourself playing, though there would still be a fork in your mouth. It was par for the course; in the beginning there was the night we drove to Kansas City to hear Yefim Bronfman play Rachmaninov’s 3rd, one of our earliest dates, and the first time I had ever been to a classical concert. I remember how we’d nervously held hands in the upper balcony while the people scattered around us trampled the silences with dry coughs and fluttering programs as that old potbellied Russian sat at the piano collecting himself between movements, pausing briefly to wipe his brow with a small handkerchief before continuing to destroy the hall’s gargantuan Steinway in the key of D minor, the open body of that great sleek machine thrumming with Rach’s massive four-note chords like a Cadillac hurtling through the night. Your palms were sweaty and you damn near cried when the concert was over, you said it was so inspiring. Crying for classical music? I’d never seen someone so moved by music, period, not having thought it possible. From that point on it would torture me not to hear you perform.

It should be special, you’d said.

Sitting atop the upright you never played for me used to be an oak-framed black-and-white of your diminutive father in a three-piece suit, wielding a cello that seemed almost as large as he was, and when I’d asked you who he was you told me the story about how your mother first picked him out of his section as he strutted his way through a performance of La Mer. She’d been smitten by the end of the first movement, even though sixteen years his younger, and the anecdote gave me the impression that I was in the process being roped into a weird musical lineage I couldn’t comprehend. You said your father had performed with Gendron and Rostropovich—more accumulating last names that suggested a caste of musical royalty with which I was doomed to be unfamiliar—and I guess this was somehow supposed to make me feel better about what you were doing to me in the 21st century. If you were a normal woman, maybe I would have just been contented to explore your body, but I by then I had classical music blueballs and at strange times in the day would find myself trying to remember how old Franz Schubert was when he died and if he was in the Classical or Romantic era. Near my bed at home, on the nightstand alongside my copies of Sports Illustrated I started keeping stacks of classical CDs that I’d checked out from the library, and could no longer fall asleep unless one of them was playing.

I lost my cool on a Saturday morning. Morning light from the window had been streaming over your shoulders and setting the tangles of your hair aglow at the moment when I remembered that Schubert died at the top of the musical universe at the age of thirty-one. It was like an epiphany; almost instantaneously I told you that enough was enough and, as I so gracefully asserted, “the fucking time has come.” You’d seemed maybe a little taken aback, grasping at the hems of your faded Led Zeppelin t-shirt, stretching it over the lines of your bra as you bit your bottom lip in apprehension. In the brief span of a minute it had become clear that my life was too short to do this any longer. We could have tried to play the waiting game forever if you wanted, but sooner or later airliners went streaking into buildings, the country goes off to war, the years add up on our bodies, debt catches up and we have to quit our dreams, or the neighborhood goes to shit, the schools go to shit, our pulses slow, our breathing slows, sights and sounds grow dim, the world passes us by and finally the waiting game gets called on account of the weather. Thirty-one? The truth is that most of us live pathetically abbreviated lives regardless of how old we get. Only a few get buried next to Beethoven.

When you’d said I should come to hear you with the student orchestra the next month it took a feat of strength not to rip that Zeppelin t-shirt in half with my bare hands and make love to you where you sat. Never mind that the sheet music to Liszt’s Un sospiro sat limply open on your piano, that by now I already knew of it on my own and could hum its melody, that it was nearly only an arm’s length away. I would wait.

I have a piano now, which you also never played, not that you ever got the chance. I’d already been taking lessons when I moved to Chicago and got my first house, which had a sedan-sized empty space in the living room that I knew exactly how to fill. I’d found the one in a used piano shop on the South Side where sad old Baldwins and Hamiltons sat in rows in a room behind a video game arcade; whistles and jingles of pinball machines were rattling in from the other room right when I saw it—a homely black 6-foot baby grand sitting in the corner of the room, a Kawai. Most of its varnish had long since been stripped away, including some of its paint, replaced by a sticky layer of what must have been barroom smoke judging from the smell. But its insides had been rebuilt recently; its action was easy and its sound mellow, with a sparkle in the upper registers and a little edge in the lower octaves. I fell in love right away. Right as I was signing the paperwork for the clerk I heard a burst of Mozart come motoring out from behind me, exploding out of nowhere, and I jumped, not knowing that someone else had snuck into the room. No one had. I turned to see that the clerk had activated an old pneumatic player piano that had been rolled in while I was poking around. Its keys danced to the unseen command of invisible hands, a performance without a virtuoso. The irony was so profound I had to turn away.

I bought a copy of that Chopin concerto you were supposed to play. It’s hidden underneath the seat of the bench that I got with my piano, though I’ve never looked at it. It’s too hard for me. I stick to the kid stuff. That one night that we were leaving your apartment for the Chopin concert—it was still raining—and I’d grabbed you almost in a panic to tell you that you’d forgotten that very same sheet music, you’d just laughed and said you didn’t need it: performance practice for pianists was to memorize their music. I didn’t understand at the time that almost everything classical musicians did seemed to be steeped in some kind of tradition, whether personal or formal. For instance, you were supposed to play with your side to the audience so they could see your hands rather than your face. Blame Franz Liszt for that, you’d said. 19th-century women swooned when they saw Liszt’s prodigiously long fingers slaloming up and down the keyboard, and you’d once told me that his some of his rivals tried to have the webbing between their own fingers surgically removed in attempt to match his reach. I would have been one of them; I had big stupid hands, clumsy fingers. You had these spindly, elegant numbers that I sometimes daydreamed about… they seemed to stretch out forever. We held hands on the drive to the theatre as the rain abated, and I barely squeezed, scared to death that I would hurt you on accident. I was nervous as hell. It felt like we were getting married.

I remember every detail of that night well: the extraordinary near miss. You’d disappeared backstage through a back alley door once we got to the hall and I’d wandered towards the front of the building with almost two hours to kill. The rain runoff splashed beneath my feet on the sidewalk when I turned the corner onto the street and stepped beneath the theatre’s marquee overhang. I could feel air conditioning gliding across my face from the open front doors as if being generated by the amateur Impressionist paintings swirling on the whitewashed walls inside the red-carpet lobby, which was bathed in light. When I stepped inside, it smelled of dust, damp wool, and oranges, and I stood there stupidly, thinking: I’m finally here; this is finally it. Such was my paranoia that I turned off my cellphone when the mere thought of it ringing during the performance shamed me almost as though it had already actually happened.

The front doors had been propped open for the house crew to roll equipment into the lobby, an exotic menagerie of timpani drums, xylophones, cymbals and mallets of various sizes. Music students—classmates of yours—were setting up a concessions stand filled with fruit trays and soda, next to a donation basket for the school, and no one took as much as a second look at me. Admission was free for student performances, and so two hours before the show I was just another guy. I picked up a program with your name on it near the shuttered box office that included the history of this theatre on the back: built in pre-Depression 1928 in a design after the Paris Opera House, in the rococo and baroque styles of the Louis XIV-XV era in France. The lobby seemed to be more run-down 1920s than anything. I didn’t see what the pamphlet meant until I turned a corner and was greeted by a majestic red-carpeted staircase with gilded railing leading up towards the balcony seating. I walked up until I reached the lavish second-floor mezzanine, full of oil portraits of dead 20th century musicians I didn’t recognize, where I turned again and ascended a final short set of stairs that lead into the upper balcony of the hall. It was as if I had just stepped into a massive cavern; I immediately felt the vertigo of a towering open space, of twelve-hundred-and-nine tattered and fading red velvet seats like an amphitheatre of unglittering crimson sequins eyeing the pale wooden stage, the house lights seductively low, the massive red curtain like an old handkerchief being grasped coyly by the soaring beige walls of the interior. The lip of the balcony curved like the low décolletage of an alluring dress, and the nearly-elegant plaster reliefs and marble wainscoting on it were accompanied by chipping paint and water-damaged ornamental sidecurtains on the walls, the entirety of it all dilapidated and garish in a way that seemed not unlike an extravagant and once-beautiful socialite far past her prime, both half-loved and half-forgotten. I stood in the middle of the upper balcony of the hall, then imagining what it must have been like in the Roaring Twenties for a punk town like this to bask in the borrowed excellence of the Sun King.

From that vantage point I distantly saw you walk onstage towards the piano to warm up, and I scurried back down the stairs and onto the mezzanine actually afraid I might hear you before you’d intended. That was as a romantic a gesture as I could possibly conjure. I walked around the lobby for a few more minutes until I got bored, and in a quiet corner up on the mezzanine hidden away from the stairs I found a small oaken bench, which I sat on, then laid on once my back got tired. I thought about earlier, when as you were dressing you told me about the routines you kept for performances, routines that bordered on superstition, like how you always did yoga backstage before coming on to ease your nerves, how you did your hair a particular way to keep it from spilling into your eyes when playing, how you always made sure you wore a certain pair of old cotton undies because you needed to be “as comfortable as possible.” It was all eccentricity to me. I couldn’t imagine a world that could have created you, but it felt like I was about to be educated.

Though at this point in the chronology everything was already fucked, I didn’t know it yet, so I felt myself nodding off and I let myself fall asleep for a short nap until the show. I dreamt we were in your apartment again, lying still as we had when we were listening to Debussy on the stereo earlier that afternoon.

I opened my eyes and heard strains of the string orchestra and I jolted awake. I sprinted across the empty mezzanine and leaped up the stairs to the upper balcony three at a time until I stood in the threshold and to my horror saw the whole university Philharmonic in dresses and tuxes swooning in tandem with the acrobatic gesticulations of their exuberant conductor. But you weren’t at the piano, which was stowed away on a far corner of the stage; this was not the Chopin. Maybe this was a warmup? No one else was in the balcony with me. I checked my watch: 8:11pm. No, the concert had just started. I walked down towards the railing and carefully peered over the edge. A smattering of people sat scattered in a swath of empty seats and I could barely believe so few would come. I checked the program and saw that I had been right, you had supposed to go first, yet this was Beethoven’s 7th symphony instead, the next piece on the schedule.

I ran upstairs to check my phone only to find that the gods were laughing at us, wonting nothing in severity: the very first voicemail actually was not from you, but your mother, telling me that your father had collapsed in the driveway and that she was alone in the ER. It was the next three that were from you.

That’s what happened.

After the services for your father you became withdrawn, hiding out in your apartment and not answering your phone for days at a time. On the few times you’d let me over I’d see the same piece of sheet music turned to the same page laying on exactly the same way on your upright; the keys were collecting dust because you wouldn’t even put down the cover. I would notice that before I noticed you were wearing the same hoodie that you had been wearing for days. You put Olivier Messiaen’s sparse and splintered Quartet for the End of Time on repeat and sat on your couch and watched Wheel of Fortune on mute as Messiaen’s Book of Revelations program music rattled off your walls. I got a sick feeling in my stomach every time every time I heard that opening clarinet riff start the piece again. You refused to talk about your father, but whenever you did, in tiny fragments, it was never in the past tense. You kept everything on your mind under wraps from me. You seemed to be absorbing pain the way you had before furiously internalized new pieces of music, neither of which seemed healthy. I wanted you to get counseling, or meds, whatever it took, but it didn’t hit me until later that classical musicians had shitty insurance just like the rest of the poor and you wouldn’t have the money for either the pshrink or the drugs. If you did, maybe you’d be living in an apartment that had decent heating. Winter was coming in through the decayed sidings around your windows and it seemed like all I could do for you was to come over and climb under two quilts with you and listen to that apocalyptic Messiaen as much as I needed to in order to keep you warm.

On those days when you wouldn’t answer my calls I headed off to the library to read biographies of composers, checking my phone in between chapters to make sure I hadn’t missed you. The stack of CDs on my nightstand had grown larger and larger and it was getting to the point where I could pick out composers of the pieces playing on the radio just from the texture of the orchestration or the quality of the harmonies. I couldn’t go to the gas station without noticing some band on the radio playing a tune with the chord progression of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, or be at the movies without hearing Wagnerian overtures swooping up in the score when the hero got the girl. The more I listened, the more it seemed like your music was everywhere.

Other times I knew you were home but didn’t want me over I’d sneak into your empty practice room at the school and timidly plunk around on your piano, as if afraid I’d make too much noise or damage the keys—though in reality, who knew what kind of violence you used to perpetrate on this keyboard on those late nights when you’d spend hours going over etudes long after everyone else had gone home. And though I sat here and touched the same keys I still didn’t understand yet what your fascination with playing this thing was. To my inexpert hands it was like a black-lacquer mechanical bull, and I missed the magic that sounded like it came so easily on the recordings you’d showed me. The question I’d had about you from the very beginning remained unanswered: why had you devoted yourself to a life of music in a country where classical was dying?

All during this time I’d invite you out, but you wouldn’t leave; I’d come over and you’d let me hold you, but you wouldn’t let me see you cry. I’d wait for you to talk, but you’d barely say a word. I still saw you whenever I could, but as the weeks passed you let me come over less and less.

Yet I wasn’t surprised when one day early in December I heard from someone that you’d finally gotten on a piano again, accompanying a few freshmen instrumentalists at the university to make a few bucks. In the beginning they said you just sight-read the piano parts and got by on the mediocrity of your unrehearsed virtuosity, but at some point I guess you’d turned the corner and started practicing a little again. I saw you near the campus; your cheeks regained some of their color, your gait quickened. Then one day after I came over unannounced you told me that you were going to study abroad next semester in Austria as originally planned, and you needed money in a hurry. I hadn’t seen you for a week and a half, and you had cut your hair very short. The piano had been dusted and the piece of sheet music that had been there was now gone. Your stereo was silent and the kitchen smelled of garlic. You were busy tidying up and then said you had to be somewhere, even though I had just arrived.

But then I came over a couple days later, you were sitting on your couch, listening to the Messiaen again, your eyes glazed over. When you were implausibly chipper the next time I saw you, I was concerned. We got in a heated argument when I said I wasn’t sure if going to Austria so soon was a good idea. You stormed out, leaving me alone in your apartment. That night we argued again on the phone, for nearly an hour, but when you hung up on me it became apparent from our random final topic that this fighting wasn’t about Austria at all. I didn’t see you or hear from you for another week. Sometimes I’d be walking by your place on my way home and would swear I’d hear music, and I would stop and lean up against the streetlamp outside your loft to see if I could hear you. But all was silent; you were never there.

When we finally talked again, there was no reference to our arguments, or to much else for that matter; you said you were busy, and were feeling pretty tired from making arrangements. We didn’t talk about what would happen to us while you were gone. We didn’t talk about much at all, and by the time you hung up I realized that I didn’t tell you that I’d gotten a good job offer in Chicago. It just hadn’t occurred to me to.

It was snowing the last time I saw you. It was late at night, a week before you left. I was walking home from a drink with my buddies and I saw you standing with a man in a uniform underneath the darkened marquee of the theatre I was originally supposed to hear you in. At first I felt a pang of jealousy before recognizing him as one of your friends from school who moonlighted as a security guard for the hall, a lanky violin player. He was unlocking the door for you. You surprised me by hugging me when you saw me; no kiss. You were holding a piece of sheet music. I couldn’t see what it was.

“Gonna play?” I asked, amiably.

“Gonna play,” you nodded, smiling at me almost as if I were a stranger. You held the music against your chest and large flakes of snow collected in the crevice between the paper and your arms. The kid slid off the tie for his uniform and told you that once he got back from dinner, he had to kick you out; midnight or so. After he left, your smile eased into neutrality. “I have to perform pretty soon after I fly over there,” you explained. “Need to get a feel for a big hall.”

We then stared at each other, not saying anything. You pulled your music closer to your chest as the snowy wind hustled by. We were like two anxious teenagers standing at the front door at the uneasy end of a first date. You knew I wanted to come inside, and I already knew that for whatever reason, you’d prefer if I didn’t. When I realized that I didn’t care why that was anymore, with a little sadness I knew that you’d almost tapped out the last reservoir of my devotion. It felt now like I had never truly known you at all, that you had never really let me in, and that the last chance to do so had long since gone drifting by.

Without saying anything you opened the door and stepped inside, not giving an indication to follow. You paused briefly, and peered back outside, eyes darting across the flakes scooting through the dark. You looked at me and your face brightened. “Sibelius weather,” you smiled, perhaps trying to be cryptic, or just unintentionally arcane, unaware that I of all people actually knew who that was.

Then you went inside. And when I couldn’t find the will to come storming in after you, I knew it was over.

I never heard you play, not in that theatre or in any other, not in the squalid practice room in which you spent the bulk of your days, nor in the unnatural quiet of your 5th street apartment which smelled of the fresh bread you’d bring home from the corner bakery twice a week. I never heard you play the piano you father first forced you to get lessons on, just as I never heard you in Vienna where they say you’d started practicing with an abandon that was unbelievable; never in the months when you’d come back, when you’d started coming into your own; never on the tours you took afterwards. Though there in the beginning, though mad for you and mad to hear you play, I hadn’t, I didn’t, I never did.

I’ve made my peace with this, though there are times I think of you when it seems like on every street corner, in every bar, in every apartment I go there’s a musician scratching out some song; a little something they’ve written, or maybe just a Bob Dylan tune, anything that catches the ear. This week I saw a twenty-year-old white kid belt the blues as if he would drop dead in ten seconds, a girl whaling on the drums like she had just been beat and was out for blood, a middle-aged accountant sitting in with a rock band who played his guitar as if there was a comet strapped to his ass and he was not long for this planet. And then I’d go home and listen to Puccini over and over again and hear all these opera singers who’d fashioned their giant voices into weapons that could sail over ninety-piece orchestras playing the most sweetly narcotic romantic overtures on earth, and it sure as shit sounded like everyone from Tchaikovsky to Tupac was scared to death of not being heard. That fact made you seem so strange—and the miscalculation that befell us so astounding—though a glimpse at the truth behind the noise finally came to me at my beat-up Kawai at two in the morning, fooling around with some jazz tune when for the first time I seemed to actually hear myself in the piano, the notes going where my thoughts instructed, as if an extension of my body, as if I’d found a grasp beyond my reach. In a dizzying flash I felt transported to the last time I saw you at the theatre, walking in alone:

You’re there, getting out of the snow and tracking through the dim dark of the foyer, already knowing every creaking step of the lobby by heart. With only the window of an hour until midnight to play in the hall, you don’t mince steps. Once inside the crumbling amphitheatre you walk past along dark aisles of worn-down seats towards the brightly-lit stage, alone in a building meant to accommodate hundreds, greeted by a roaring silence instead of steady applause. You walk across the groaning floorboards of a stage older than your grandparents, a stage that has seen tens of thousands of other performers before you, and you take a place on the bench at the foot of the 8-foot Steinway. You start to play.

The slow, rhythmic opening comes from the belly of the piano like waves rolling up against a low-tide shore—a subdued, velvet melancholy seeming to come straight from your own hands, which move almost without command. A few moments later, when you briefly pause at a fermata, you look up and see the hall is an ocean of dark from under the hotlights aimed on the stage. You can’t see what’s out there, if anything at all. It seems like the piano is the only thing that exists.

Once you resume the prelude everything melts away: thoughts of travel, mourning, the dwindling audiences to this art you know is dying; you forget the first time your father played Bach for you, the first recital you gave, the first time you met me. You forget all of yourself and all of everything and it seems almost like time itself starts to slow. With a little gentle dissonance you enter with the famous main theme on your right hand, which sounds like a blossom unfolding, the lines of that melody wrapping like vines around the accompaniment of the left hand, growing, expanding, exploring and advancing and collapsing—it’s all so beyond yourself it seems unreal—and the music is an explosion of so much color and warmth and largesse that it doesn’t matter whether you’re alone or there are a million people listening, you’re lost in the sound and it won’t be until the quiet of midnight that you’ll again remember why so many of you become addicts, why so many of you die young and divorce madly, why you keep going when, as with so many before you, you already knew how the best nights of your life were going to be spent alone on such stages.


[in honor of the Contreras Saxophone Quartet]

That night our jeans lay crumpled on the floor around us. We’d taken to calling ourselves and each other Todd because a huge audition was coming up and we weren’t feeling the requisite team spirit, and we were sitting around in our boxers because Todd, the alto player, said we were playing uptight and needed to loosen up. Our bari player, Todd, had then produced a full bottle of rum out of his case, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. We’d been drinking for about half of the rehearsal.

We were sprinting through our hardest piece at about twice the suggested tempo when soprano Todd stopped playing.

“Todds,” he said, waving his hand. We stopped to hear what he had to say. He was wearing grey boxers, Hanes. He then began singing the alto player’s melody to him in a big, lilting baritone voice: “Your mom / is a crack / whore.”

“Hey Todd,” alto Todd replied, “Not as / big a crack / whooooore / as yours.”

We continued to play after taking another pass at the incredible appearing rum bottle.

Alto Todd’s phone rang from his discarded jeans. He was wearing blue striped boxers. “Hey Todd,” he asked me, “throw me my pants.”

I did. He shushed us quickly and answered the phone. “…Hi Todd,” he said to the caller. We giggled like schoolgirls. There was a very long silence and then we could hear a tiny flustered voice coming from the speaker. Todd’s expression was very calm as the voice said something. He seemed to be listening intently. Then he replied.

Your mom / is a crack / whore.”

And then he hung up.

It was almost one o’clock on a Sunday night. We’d been rehearsing for four hours, the end of a very grueling week. On Tuesday we’d be on a flight to D.C., trying to win a prestigious $5,000 prize. We’d spent all semester preparing, even though bari Todd had pointed out that even if we won we could have made more money using the rehearsal time to work part-time jobs.

Alto Todd’s phone rang again but he didn’t answer.

When we got tired of playing the tough piece we quickly disintegrated into blasting the Mortal Kombat theme song as loud as we could play it, the culmination of a combined four decades of classical training. We could hear our echo bouncing around the room as if there were another quartet there. We were playing in a big space with tile floors and a low ceiling that used to be a dorm cafeteria before being converted into a band room. There were still big sinks lining the east wall. Rows of empty egg cartons curtained the opposite side to dampen sound, and at the front of the room, placed between two huge shuttered windows, was a single, lonely poster with the portraits of old band composers superimposed on it: Percy Grainger, Vincent Persichetti, Paul Hindemith, and John Philip Sousa.

It was as good a home to us then as any.