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Piano

A plain recollection

In May of last year, I came off an Amtrak train - the #183 - in Rochester, NY. I crawled into the back of a soft-seated, boxy cab, and gave Megan's address.

Megan introduced me to her husband of six months. They fed me, and we went into their living room and talked for a few hours. She went to a closet and gave me sheets and a blanket, embraced me, and left me to make up my bed.

The next morning, a Thursday, they went to work. I did their dishes and fed their cat, and set up my laptop on the kitchen table, to write a presentation.

In the evening I took a bus into downtown Rochester. I saw a woman in an expensive red dress. Her name was Elizabeth. We'd dated for a year and a half. I kissed her cheek.

“You look good,” I said.

“Do my arms look fat?”

“No.”

“What time is it?”

Her friend said, “10 minutes.”

“Jesus,” Elizabeth said. She walked across the street, into the auditorium. I followed five minutes later, took a program, and sat alone.

When we were together, she would take me to the tiny practice rooms. I would stretch on the carpeted floor with a notebook and a pen, and sometimes watch her feet, usually in long boots, as they pushed the pedals. Sometimes she brought her cats for company, on leashes. They prowled the room, sat on my notebook, and nudged my pen. Every few minutes she interrupted the rehearsal to scold herself: crying out “Shit, shit, shit! Fuck!”, then scribbling on the score with a pencil.

That night in May she came on stage left and was applauded. She sat on the padded bench before the shined black of the grand, gold light pouring out of the open lid. Raising the dead with her hands and feet, her body swayed on the bench, the dress shining. She resurrected a Russian and a German, and another German, yanking devils from brass wire. Commanded by thousands of hours of practice and hundreds of lessons, by her swaying body, by the sound, we (family, friends, teachers, ex-boyfriends, strangers) cohered into one audience. She sneaked simplicity and emotional resonance into difficult works, kept snobbishness at the door. When the encore ended the audience drifted apart. I felt lonely. She had done a fine job without me. I went backstage and embraced her.

I walked a mile from the auditorium, to a hotel where her parents were holding a reception. I avoided fellow ex-boyfriends, talked with her friends and family, drank, and ate. “We're going out,” she said, later.

“I'm supposed to be with someone else”, I said. She frowned at this. She left with her group, and a few minutes later, as arranged, Megan showed up and drove me to a late movie.

“It's complicated because I make it complicated,” I said in the car.

“She played well, so be glad for her. After the movie, you go to bed. It's no more complicated than that.”

I wish I had thought, “yes; her success, completing her graduate degree, the approval of her teachers, these things should be more important to her than I am. They are components of her basic self. I come and go.” Instead, I thought “can I have her back? I need her.”

I made a phone call the next morning. I packed a bag and disconnected my laptop, and moved into Elizabeth's apartment for the remaining days of the week.

“I saw that you belonged to everyone, when you performed. So I gave you up as I watched. I thought I would be home by now.”

“I do belong to everyone when I perform. I used to belong to you when I wasn't playing, but not all the time.”

We went downstairs and across the street for coffee and hot chocolate. We went back upstairs, and watched a movie. We lay down in her bed, casually. A little while later I went to the bathroom and found a box of condoms, left in the cabinet during my last visit. I made her promise there had been no one else.

“You can't snore,” she told me, after.

“I won't.” But she woke me later with a kick and sent me out. I stumbled into the other room, closed the door behind me, and threw some blankets on the floor. I was surrounded by shadows: on the kitchen counter, pots filled with congratulatory flowers; a television with a VCR tottering above; a side table stacked with candles and magazines; a spinning fan in the window. I closed my eyes and listened to the cats creep.

The next morning, she told me, “My teacher was enthusiastic. And says I must work harder, that I am capable, that I could start playing concerts if I stop going out at night and lock myself in the practice room.” This is what a graduate student at her level wants to hear, the qualified praise - “it is my professional opinion that you have the capability to be great.”

“I'm glad for you,” I said. She sat by me on the couch.

“I don't want a boyfriend right now,” she said, putting her hand over mine. “I need my options.”

The next afternoon I called a cab company and kissed her goodbye. Back in Brooklyn, I began to phone her every night, but sentences kept stopping before they could complete, the conversation of gaps. Inspired by her example I tried to write fiction every day, to feel my way around the language, to work as hard as she had, but I ended up sitting on the edge of my bed thinking: “why try to write if you cannot commit, if you can't do it every day, if you can't push as hard as you can against the encroaching world of cash and health care and sadness and taxes? You give up so easily to the world's trivial demands, Paul.”

In the next few weeks the phone calls trailed off further, the emails became sporadic. I tried to write, to follow her lead and take myself seriously, and see through myself past the layers of junk food and junk culture. It went nowhere. 6 weeks after my visit, I called her and said, clumsily, “I met someone, and rushed into it before it vanished, and I want you to be happy for me.”

“How could you find someone so quickly?”

I pushed out my lip in confusion. “You seemed so sick of me - stopped calling back - said you wanted your freedom - ”

She said, “Never speak to me again.” And after a pause, “I was going to ask you if you - I had - but listen, listen. I regret knowing you,” and hung up. That was the last note of the piece.

I had cheated without knowing it, and felt a few horrid hours, but it felt too good to have someone here, in Brooklyn, wanting to take my phone calls, to have something solid. My empathy had shifted to someone else.

A year before her recital, Elizabeth had come with me to Pennsylvania for my grandfather's funeral. We stayed at the Holiday Inn. She brought it up, once, in an argument. “I went to that funeral as a stranger to your family,” she said. “You don't know how tough that was.”

Later my new girlfriend would say, “I stopped trusting you, at my father's funeral, because you were not there for me, you were too needy.”

She said this a few weeks ago. The funeral was last August. Her father died of brain cancer. She asked an ex-lover to come, because he had known her father, but he couldn't, so she asked another, and then she asked me. I flew out on United and sweated in my dark suit. During the service I looked at her, in the pew ahead with her sisters and brothers. I memorized the back of her black dress, her carefully cut hair. I'd met her father only for a few moments, in his hospital bed. I could only bring out passive-voice platitudes: “it's okay to not feel anything; it's going to take a long time; it was good you could say goodbye.” I thought of ways to help, but there was little I could think of, aside from “wait and listen.” I stood in the church and sang hymns out of key, and thought, “a love affair just two months old cannot survive this moment.”

By coincidence, the service was in Rochester, at a church 5 blocks from Elizabeth's. On our way, we drove past the apartment building in the morning. She was 6 floors up, one hallway down. Dozens of times, I'd arrived on this block, pulled my packed bags out of the trunk of a taxi, pressed a white button. The speaker would crackle. I would say to the microphone in the wall, “it's me”. And then, in that past life, (the inner lens now fogged up by memories and frustrations, and new associations), she would buzz me in.


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