Friday, April 9, 2010

The Pianist

The Pianist

Her hands were not small, but they were graceful as they carefully picked out a difficult piece in A minor on the grand piano.

“How can you play here? Out in public, and in this heat?” I asked incredulously.

She looked up at me, unsurprised at my sudden appearance at her side although she had every right to be. “The sound is very clear- piano wood is very strong, and doesn’t get easily warped by heat if you treat it well. Though humidity can cause issues, over time.”

I waved my hands in a skeptical gesture through the soupy air of the busy marketplace. “And all the people, and animals, and noise?”

She paused her playing for a moment. “I practice where I can. I can’t play at home, and here at least I make a few pennies.”

The tattered grey newsboy’s cap was full of more than a few coins. She was an extremely good musician, after all. Even here, where most of the people could hardly afford to support their families, she was making some decent amounts of change.

“So how long are you going to stand out here and watch me?” she said, stopping again.

“Do you want me to go away?” I said.

“No, I don’t care,” she said, and her supreme unconcern bothered me more than if she had tried to kick me out. But I suspected she was aware of that.

“Then I’ll stay. But I don’t have much time, so it won’t be for long,” I said, attempting to sound like a busy man on whose schedule she was a mere blip.

“That’s nice,” she said absently, resuming the movements of her fingers I had interrupted with my conversation. I closed my mouth against a retort.

She really was very good, even in a busy marketplace. I was starting to unwind enough to enjoy her music when suddenly she stopped again.

“How is your wife?”

“She’s fine. Better, they tell me,” I informed her.

“That’s good. I’m happy to hear it.”

“Her attendants said her improvement these past few weeks has been dramatic.”

“That’s great news.” She pressed a few more keys of the piano, almost at random.

“She’s not out of danger yet, though.”

“Best wishes to her.”

“You wish her well in general or you meant that it’s an actual message, like, to pass on to her?”

She glared at me. “In general. You fool, you think she wants to hear greetings from me?”

“No,” I said, abashed. “Sorry.”

“You made your decision,” she said scornfully, “and I respected it and still do. There’s no need to talk as if you’ve forgotten what it meant to you and to everyone else you affected by it. Being that oblivious to our feelings doesn’t say anything good about your respect for us.”

“You’re wonderful on that- your music,” I said, gesturing to her piano. I’d often thought so but had never said the compliment directly. For a split second, she was surprised and even pleased, but then it turned to a scowl.

“That would mean a lot more if you’d picked a better time. Especially after you let all those hundreds of better times pass by without even a word of acknowledgement. You idiot. Think you can change the subject on me so easily?”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. But I wanted you to know I believe it’s true. I do believe in- in your dream. Your castles in the air.”

“Thanks, but no thanks. You should’ve said that five years ago. When it would have made a difference.” She slid the cover over the keys of her piano with a bang. “I can’t do this anymore. And I have enough money for now.”

“That’s never enough,” I said, eyeing the grey cap suspiciously.

“I only need it to buy a quick dinner, and that’s quite enough for me.”

“You do this for food?”

She blushed. “No, of course not. It’s just a bonus.”

I wasn’t sure if I believed her but didn’t challenge her words. Instead, I tossed a few coins into the pile myself.

“There. And no complaints; if I hadn’t spoken to you just now you wouldn’t have even known those were from me. So you will accept them.”

She must have seen my expression and evidently decided that my rationalization was a good enough reason not to argue further. Satisfied that she had agreed, though not particularly happy about our unexpected exchange had gone, I started walking away.

“That’s all you wanted to say?” I heard from behind me. I turned.

“I thought you wanted me to leave.”

“I never said that. But I guess I do.”

“You mean, you want me to insist on staying so you can safely say you want me to leave. So you can pretend you still don’t like me at all.”

“Maybe. But I don’t think so.”

“You don’t have to admit it to yourself, love, I don’t mind if you stay in denial as long as one of us is willing to say the truth.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“I meant it as an expression- don’t take it the wrong way. Like a Southerner calling all girls honey.”

“Well, don’t. I don’t like it,” she said, standing up and taking a step toward me.

“All right, I won’t again. But I do think you’re just in denial.”

“I wish you hadn’t come,” she said bitterly. “Every time I play music I think of— I wish I could see you one more time and tell you what I think of you. And then you come and in the end I never say to you the things I imagine saying as I play my hardest pieces, all the composers you used to talk about. Every time I see you for real, after about five seconds I wish I hadn’t.”

“You can’t blame me for showing up in your dreams,” I said softly.

“I don’t. I blame you for—oh, never mind. I don’t blame you for anything.” But I had never heard her sound so angry as when she said those words, that on any other lips would sound forgiving.

“Do you want to blame me? Would that make it easier for you?” I took a step nearer and leaned an elbow on her rugged outdoor piano. She turned her back to me and her words came out muffled- I thought she might have buried her face in hands.

“I think if I wanted to, everything would be a lot easier, and that’s the whole problem.”

I rested a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry. I truly am. If that means anything.”

“You don’t understand anything at all!” she suddenly cried in a rough voice, choked and almost wild. She tore free of my hand and was suddenly running off, losing herself in the marketplace. I decided to let her go in a sudden burst of clarity. She was right, I didn’t understand her at all. Maybe I had no right to even try to, as it would be invading the privacy of her feelings in a way I had given up any right to expect.

I was seized by a sudden impulse, and sat down at the seat she’d so recently vacated. Sliding open the lid, I picked out a few notes- I hadn’t played in years, but it wasn’t something I would forget how to do. Although when I’d stopped, I never thought I would be able to touch it ever again. I realized the notes my fingers had hit were the first few bars of the first song I’d ever heard her play- and the last song she’d played for me alone, before things had changed.

I didn’t remember the notes, not really, but I let my fingers’ own patterns and my musical ear guide me, and soon I lost myself in the song, oblivious to where I was and to all the memories I had been afraid playing the piano would stir up, the memories that had kept me from playing the music I loved for so long. But it wasn’t until I had hit the last note and the echoes of it had faded completely that the full weight of those memories hit me, and I crumpled over the keys, shaking with silent repressed sobs.

“Excuse me, are you all right?” A voice from behind me made me straighten my expression to a friendlier one- I hoped- and I turned to see the vegetable stall keeper from across the way.

“That was excellent playing, you know. You sound like you could be a professional!” The stall keeper smiled nervously at me, as if trying to determine whether I was quite normal.

“Thank you,” I said, but my voice caught and I was forced to hide my face from him, covering it with my hands as she had, so he wouldn’t see it contort with pain. If I had said those words myself five years ago, my world would be a different place now. But this shopkeeper’s life would have been no different, and my pain was none of his business.

“I have to go home- see to the wife. Take care of this piano. Someone rather special likes to play it.”

“Oh, I know, that lady-pianist is excellent! All my customers stop to listen to her. Is she famous, really? No one around here seems to know her name.”

But I couldn’t listen to his words anymore, letting them tear new holes in my already bleeding scars. As I rushed away, I saw I was following the path she had taken- ironically leading in the direction of my wife- and I let my hands fall from my face as I went, no longer caring who saw the tracks streaking salty down my cheeks.

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