My feet ache from all the walking. I should look further into the massage place that Jess brought me to. Thinking of the smell of rose-scented candles just makes me want to book another appointment tomorrow. Too bad their operating hours were over, instead, I’d have to settle with removing my heels and face mask. I would’ve loved it today.
I lay my coat on the rack in the foyer, hoping the cold won’t return tomorrow. Before I walked towards the living room, the sight of the gleaming Steinway piano sitting in the parlour caught my eye. Staring at it created a tangled ball of emotions to rise up. I froze, remembering what other days were like. I’d left the house to escape these constraining feelings, but the way I completely forgot… how quickly love can disappear into grief; and how even that can slip away when you aren’t forced to ruminate in it day and night.
Gazing at that instrument with mixed emotions, I decided to walk towards it instead of cowering away. I slowly pulled out the seat and sat down, my fingers lightly tracing shapes over the dust that had settled there.
I didn’t expect Zachary to leave me alone in this vast home so soon, slowly chipping away at brown branches like a crazy plant lady. Music is an expression of one’s emotions and brings life to that which cannot be expressed through words. But without my heart, all I could do was express my turbulent thoughts that came crashing along with the overwhelming emptiness, to replace my soul whenever I thought of him. I couldn’t let myself touch it. How could I? This piano was how we met, but without him, it was just a block of wood.
It was seven years ago when we first met.
“It’s a beauty, isn’t it?”
I could tell that I’d startled the man who stood outside Heimer’s music store, looking longingly at the Steinway piano. An instrument that hadn’t been sold for the past few years for some hidden reason. His eyes reflected his longing, a focused but peaceful aura washing over his body as his hands —veiny and calloused, but seemingly filled with warmth— gently laid against the cover.
“It is,” he agreed. He glanced down at the broken viola with a snapped string I’d brought with me to get fixed and smiled. “Did you know that a piano is classified as a string and a percussion instrument?”
“Of course,” I chuckled at the way he tried to impress me, “I play for an orchestra.”
“Okay, new fact then. Did you know that I’ve met you before? Two weeks ago, you, first chair in the London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican Center.”
“Oh! Do you often watch performances?” I asked the man who seemed to see everything.
“Many. But none have captured my attention like the solo by that first chair.”
Oh. Very captivating. We walked into the store together, sharing our love of music. That conversation developed into a friendship after leaving the store and eventually became everything.
Love is a fickle emotion, a double-edged sword; it can suddenly take root in anyone’s life and gift them with an inexplicable joy that one cannot describe, but can also turn into a devastating weapon at any moment.
Playing for an orchestra meant endless whirlwinds of practice. Being the first chair that could play both the flute and viola meant that I was going to die from stress one of these days. But Zachary provided peace amidst the storm.
He claims — claimed — that was his real job, to be my anchor, but his actual profession was that of an architect, and his passion for it rivalled his way with music. He talked endlessly about the techniques used to balance functionality and style in a home. It was creative work but personally, all those measurements and calculations sound draining.
The time we spent with each other lengthened, and time flowed unobstructed. It was only later that I learnt that time wasn’t on our side. It was my first time going over to his house, after what he described as “the worst day of his career.” He rested on the couch, too burdened by work to realise I’d invited myself in.
I snuck behind him and whispered into his ear, “Tired?” His body shot up to turn around and stare at me.
“You’re too good at sneaking up on me.” He feigned grumpiness but grinned. His crinkled nose and gorgeous dimples made me want to cradle his face. Somehow, I could always tell how he felt from his eyes. People did always say ‘eyes were the windows into the soul.’ That, and I recognised the puppy-dog look he used when he was upset and tired.
“Let’s do something else first, Zach, like…” I scanned his apartment and spotted an exquisite instrument that was never mentioned to me. Zachary smiled at the shock painted on my face, cheering him up a little.
“Yeah. I got the piano. I’ve yet to play it though.”
“Wha— It’s a Steinway, Zachary! Go, go!”
I tried to push him up towards it, both of us laughing at how terrible I was at trying to bridal-carry him there and settled instead for dragging him across the floor. Eventually, we both took a seat on the piano stool.
“It feels so daunting to touch it.” Zachary worried.
“What’s there to be scared of?” I asked, laughing as I placed his hands on the piano, “Play from the heart.” I suggested.
“I play better when I have a plan about what to play rather than following my heart. If I were to play from my heart, the song that’ll come out will probably sound like…” he said, and suddenly slams his fingers down on the expensive Bavarian spruce. The ugly noise causes me to yelp and him to howl with laughter.
I laughed along with him, “Well, at least you started playing something.” I smiled at him. Zachary decided to start playing a tune, a melody from a Studio Ghibli film. E-G-B, I silently mutter the notes under my breath, enjoying the melody that whispers, ‘Life is always changing’.
I laid my head on his shoulder, pressing my head against the nape of his neck. I softly whispered into his ear, “See? Nothing to worry about. Just like any other instrument. Once you start playing, you’ll feel your feet float and the music will come out anyway” I stare at his collarbone, moving my eyes up towards his cheek. I can still smell his cologne, of cedarwood and lavender.
“Your feelings will reach whomever you’re playing for.” And we sat, watching his hands move across the keyboard, hearing the sound of life’s merry-go-round. G-F-G-D-F, the sweet tune falls into its highest pitch, and the melody ends with a few chords.
“That was amazing. I’d believe you if you said you were professional instead of a hobbyist,” I say, and I gently grab to hold his hand. I was getting bold. I wanted to be bolder.
“Who do you think you play for, Candace?” Zach whispered back.
“I play for my inner child, who loved the movies she grew up with. And for you.”
“Why me?” He questioned, and I answered with a shaky breath.
“Because I’ve never felt as alive as I do when I’m with you.”
My brain tells me not to push, yet I do anyway. Turning the question back onto him, I ask him in the silence of an amber-lit room, “Who do you think you play for, Zachary?”
His look went mournful like the person he plays for is long gone and the dream he wished to chase disappeared with every breath he takes. He stares into my heart.
“When I play, I pour in my hopes for life, wishing that I would get the chance to meet someone like you. But now that I’m here, I’m so scared that I’m just going to destroy you.”
“You can’t destroy me. You breathe life into my world.”
He covers my hand with his, both of them feeling weak for once. He was ducking his face from me but when Zachary finally looked up, I saw fragility in the glistening globes.
“Candace, I’m dying.”
Zachary was a composer at heart but even though he exuded love, the memories he created were hidden with a loathing for something he couldn’t control. It came out in his music, and he composed the most magical of pieces. He so desperately believed that he could never reciprocate enough towards any love he was given, knowing that his time was running out. As a result, he ended relationships with many before the chance of something more bloomed.
Perhaps it was simply because I was stubborn. I talked to him and told him I wasn’t going anywhere just because he had Huntington’s Disease. I didn’t care if he was going to lose his ability to work, compose, and eventually die. I fell for the man with the silly smile and a good heart that surrounded those close to him in love. One day, his walls went down, and we lived.
I found that I loved our simple afternoons together better than the grand concertos I was in. The music we played came from our simple joy in each other. And that was more organic and much sweeter. But sadly, I knew that sweetness wasn’t meant to last.
I always thought it would be the disease that killed Zach.
I never expected that his life would be taken by someone else.
I couldn’t come to terms that he had died to save another. He’d always been selfless, but how much of it was his love for others and how much of it was because he couldn’t bear to waste away and burden those he loved? It was a thought that haunted me for many nights in our bed, and it shattered my heart to know that there was the slightest chance that he could think otherwise.
Just like the bittersweet feeling one gets from waking from a dream into harsh reality, shaking myself out from reminiscing was equally hard. I gently opened the piano’s cover and laid my fingers lovingly over the keys. The coolness seeped through my skin, chilling my bones, reminding me of the cold emptiness of our bed, its enormity despairingly obvious now that it only had one inhabitant. It’s just my bed now.
Now that I was back in the familiarity of a now lifeless house, away from the crazed joy that my friends brought out in me, the spring in my step was replaced with a heavy but warm cloak of gloom. I’ve lived with the feeling of being split in half for so long that it didn’t feel right to feel like I was whole again. There was a comfort in the familiar, and now it felt like a betrayal that I was laughing in the bright daylight while my husband was buried permanently, six feet under in a dark damp dungeon that had no reprieve. No chances to enjoy life’s little moments. No more joint performances.
Lost in the swirls of another past memory, I remembered the last time I touched the piano…
Playing the piano wasn’t my forte, it was Zach’s. Even so, I couldn’t get that melody out of my head. Something so beautifully distraught and true to those who aspire to the arts—
“Hey there, love.” Zachary places his hands suddenly on my shoulders, making me yelp and slam my fingers onto the keys. A mismatched clanging reverberated through the parlour.
“Zachary! What was that for?” I furrow my eyebrows and laugh, making space for him to sit down next to me.
“It’s payback for all the times you scared me!” he said smiling, “The song sounds familiar, was it from the movie we watched yesterday?”
“Yes. La La Land. The tune is stuck in my brain but I can’t quite play it from memory.” I say and feel Zachary move himself to sit behind me, placing his arms above mine.
“Let me teach you.”
My heart feeling enormously heavy, I channelled all my emotions— my joy, my sorrow, my love, my grief —into moving my fingers across the expanse. I played the song from a woman in a movie who dreamed. It was by no means a perfect piece, my muscles have been out of practice for so long, but it contained my soul. I bared my heart to whoever could hear my pain.
…And tumbled into the Seine…
It was broken, yes, but it was beautiful. It was something that a person couldn’t be played without the pain of the past to guide them.
Here’s to the hearts that ache…
Each note held an emotion, every phrase a memory.
…And died with a flicker
I’ll always remember the flame…
I continued this seemingly endless stream until I reached the point where I was spent. All the sorrow I’d suffered through had culminated up to this point, where everything was released in one go.
…And here’s to the fools who dream
Crazy as they may seem
Just as I worked through the song, so I worked through my emotions. By the time I stopped, I no longer felt like I was fighting a losing battle. Instead, I felt lighter, freer, more at peace.
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make…
I loved Zach, but I know now that not thinking about him all the time didn’t mean that I was forgetting him. It simply meant that our love was strong enough to mend the gap wound that had sliced my heart open and that he continued to live in my heart.
…Smiling right through it
She said she’d do it again.
[Lyrics credited to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul]
Written By: Isaac Kay and Marinella Lotte