She loved the Chopin
Bradley finds his box of sheet music behind his grandfather’s pianola. He hasn’t used it in years, of course; everything is memorised (he taps his head while he thinks this), but today is too important to leave to memory. Memory. Was it the Chopin she liked? He has most of them (embarrassing) (from when he first started gigging, that’s what the people wanted when they were tucked into a dirty bar with a new date — that and The Entertainer, though they always waited for someone else to request it) but none rings a bell. Not with her.
He imagines her cross-legged on the brown couch — the one with the cushions he bought from that Iraqi refugee family, weren’t they grateful for his fifteen dollars? — and reading Dostoyevsky in that pearlescent voice (the same voice she’d used to say: ‘you’re so talented’ and maybe ‘I love you’, although that memory is less clear) while he played. That was the Yamaha — it was the only one that fit in the nook she called an apartment. She was the one who wanted him to move it in there, so he would play and she could open the windows and everyone on the campus green would hear it. ‘You’re so talented!’ she would say again, and he wasn’t big-headed about it but the music quarter-scholarship made it fairly clear, surely. And then she would read from The Idiot without irony, and he would play with the windows open, even though it was winter.
It can’t have been Chopin, then; Bradley would never have let a Russian writer and a Polish composer exist in the same enclosed space (open windows notwithstanding). It must have been Tchaikovsky. He puts his hands to the pianola and hopes his muscle memory will recall the piece, but all he finds is that terrible coffee she drank, the way it penetrated the mohair blanket he had woven for her. It must have been Piano Concerto 1; she would have loved the romance of it, probably laid her hands over his while he played and the cold winter air came through the attic window. Her stiff hands, the arthritic unacrobaticness of them. He pulls the music from the box.
The piano is already out on the green. He paid the Pakistani kid from his History class to drag it out there. Not in money, obviously (Bradley’s spent all he has on a rose gold ring from the Ukrainian pawn shop, a ring the old woman found in the snow before she fled the invading armies — he stops; should he play a Russian composer while he delivers a Ukrainian engagement ring? Fuck, he’ll have to start again).
What was that other piece she liked? He played it at his place, on the Steinway next to the fireplace. It was nothing like the Albrecht his mother had bought him for high school graduation (he should have been Dux and he would have been, if Hayley Lowenstein hadn’t unzipped the fly of his corduroy pants to distract him from the upcoming French exam) but it sufficed, for now. He liked to run his fingers across the softening wood and feel the etchings of poems he’d pressed against it, words he had used in search of the best words, those he hadn’t found yet. She would sit in the bay window (her figure was acceptably lithe for the fragility of the antique casing underneath) and read his favourite Sartre — ‘Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you,’ she would say, in her cream-coated voice — and he would play. Was it Liebestraum? He tries the opening bars on the pianola. No, not Liszt at all. Fauré? With the Sartre? Surely he was not so predictable (he laughs softly), but then he might have been, in the face of love. He takes Barcarolle №6 from the box.
Will the crowd of students who gather become bored by his playing the same piece? They are laypeople, after all. He takes a whole ream of sheets. He will play for as long as it takes her to realise what she’s lost. If it takes six hours, that’s how long he will play, even if it means missing the last episode of that dragon show he watches ironically.
The green is empty when he arrives. He can practically hear the orchestra warming up — there is no orchestra, obviously, but he has played enough concert halls (three) to know what it would sound like if there were — as he stretches. This is a kind of marathon. A test of his endurance. She would have been in the front row, on any other day, all big-eyed and flushed with the excitement of seeing him play. Today, he is her front row. He is too experienced to be flushed, but parts of him might fighting back lactic acid nerves.
He sits, and he plays. As anticipated, a crowd gathers. Students. They don’t come too close, which is fine because it would be hard to read the sheet music from inside the cloud of their vaping (he chuckles). In his peripheral vision he sees the way they consume the sound — passively, in circles with their legs crossed, talking among themselves about what it means to create. He smiles; he can’t help it. The Fauré pours out of him and he’s sure she can hear it from her English class.
A professor arrives at his performance. Not a performance, but an expression of deep, unbridled love. The professor will understand the magnitude of it — love like this requires, for most, many years of living — and slap Bradley on the shoulder for having the guts to do it, to expose himself in this way. Maybe he will call on the school newspaper to cover it — ‘Man Plays The Notes Of His Broken Heart For Love’ — front page, read more on page three. The professor is joined by another professor and they stand a little way to the right of the piano, not quite on the green at all really, but Bradley can see the way their ears point in his direction.
He imagines one of the students (eight of them now, if he counts correctly, which is not easy to do while also counting the 9/8 of the Fauré) asking him what happened, how this love was broken. He will tell them about the night in the coffee shop. Their favourite coffee shop, the one with the door that never quite closed so the outside was always rushing inside, connected to the earth. He will tell them how she ordered a chai latte and her hair was down across her eyes and she twisted it around her fingers. He will tell them how she looked through the window and tried to understand the whole world at once through the porthole of their favourite coffee shop. He will tell them how the bells of her voice rang when she said, ‘You fucking asshole!’ And he will tell them what he told her, that it didn’t mean anything, that she was an exchange student, that he needed to broaden his experiences for his art, and that she was his true love.
They haven’t asked him yet, but they will. There are ten of them now. No, wait, nine. They walk across the green and pause to listen to the way his deep longing spills out through his music before they return to the banality of class. Because it is his music, sort of, isn’t it? He has reinterpreted it in the context of his love for her. It is Fauré, of course, but it is even more Bradley, now.
When his fingers will no longer play the Fauré he plays the Liszt, and when the saccharine drops of Liebestraum no longer please him he plays the Tchaikovsky — because this is romance — and he is still playing the Tchaikovsky when the crowd parts and she is standing there. Lovelorn, washed out. He is Moses and he has freed her from the slavery of loneliness. He feels the Ukrainian ring in his pocket and its history consumes him, the great romance that preceded his and the bloodshed and devastation that saw it lost there, in the snow. It cries out to him — ‘Bradley, it’s time!’ — and he wants to pull it from the 100% linen of his slacks but she stands there and he knows she wants him to play. So he plays. He plays, and he plays. He plays the Tchaikovsky once more, and the Liszt again and then the Chopin. The Chopin that was her favourite all along — he remembers the poor recording she put on in the car on the way home from the diner that night she refused to major in Latin.
Having remembered, he can play nothing else. He cannot stop. His fingers cradle and caress and assault and repair the keys — though they are not ivory given the instrument the Pakistani kid was able to retrieve for him, they are a reasonable imitation — and the sun sets over the green, the pink and gold sunset. He recalls a night just like this one when she laughed while he took control of the piano at a downtown shopping mall and played Baby Elephant Walk, and a man had tried to give him ten dollars but Bradley told him to buy himself something that would enrich him: a silver trinket or a lock of hair from a woman he adored. He smiles at the memory, and he plays. He plays until his arms ache from perseverance, and he can feel his own (broken) heart racing through his veins. He plays until the students can no longer bear the aching strains of his unending passion. He plays though the Ukrainian ring is burning into his rowing-team-muscular thigh and he plays even though the sun no longer hangs in the sky and he is blind to the sheet music he thought he would need, but didn’t, because this is his music, now; he has reinvented it while he plays, all the perfect mistakes he has made in painting his heart into the faux ivory canvas.
And he plays until his skin is coming away from his muscles, and he is just an open wound playing Chopin to an empty green in the darkness.