Justin Lo, May 15-16, 2012
I stepped out into the idyllic pastures of the campus quad, blotchy patches of warm sunshine dripping onto my face from between the cracks in the voluptuous canopy of plane-trees and poplars.
I yawned, and my eyes shut for a brief reverie before I snapped them back open again and started trudging towards class. The dusty silica gravel crunched between the grooves in the soles of my worn sneakers, providing the only rhythm to accompany the distant springtime chirping of the birds.
It was quiet.
Quiet enough that I could make out a light, resonant plinking, scattered tones separate from the ambient murmur. I scanned around; the sound was most likely coming from the old education hall. But no one had classes there anymore, so it was kind of odd to hear any sign of life, at least before nighttime when people would use the old classrooms to study or make out or do whatever they wanted to do to honor the splintering desks and over-waxed amber floors.
I diverted from my route and headed up the stairs of the hall, curiosity taking advantage of my psychological headwind to shove me into the atrium, shrouded in cool, serene shadows. I followed my ears, down the winding corridors with austere mosaics, lit haphazardly by tipped-over bucketfuls of natural sunlight that never quite flowed into the corners of the stone walls.
There, at the base of a spiral stairwell, I beheld the source of the sound, a girl seated at an upright piano that you’d either remember clearly or overlook, for the same reason – that it shouldn’t have been there. The girl may have noticed me, or maybe she hadn’t. Her eyelids were shut, her head bobbing periodically, and she may as well have been nodding off to sleep from appearances. Her playing, though, was anything but somnolent; she hit each note with precise timing and volume, like a piano roll.
But when she finished the piece, she pivoted on the wooden piano bench and faced me, her wispy, long caramel-colored hair still draped over her shoulders, entangled in her sweater. I shivered slightly, realizing suddenly how cold it actually was in the dank corridor, despite the late spring warmth outside – she had clearly dressed with the full knowledge that she would be spending time here. Had she always come here, and I just not noticed before?
“Did you need me?” she asked. “You’re welcome to listen.”
“Oh, sorry,” I said. “What was that piece you played just now? It sounded familiar.” Classical music wasn’t my strong suit, but I would often put on the classical station when I was studying, just as background.
“La Campanella. Liszt etude,” she said simply. She wasn’t curt but she didn’t use any more words than she needed to.
“You must have been playing for a long time, to play it so effortlessly,” I remarked.
“Sort of,” she replied. Her eyes were on the floor or the wall or anything that wasn’t me; it seemed that she was tiring of this small talk. “Do you have class?”
I looked at my watch. It was already 9:05. “Oh, you’re right!” I rushed out the nearest back door I could find, waving behind me without looking.
“Bye,” she said. Not resentful or amused, just stated. The music began again, though I could only catch a few notes before I was already out of earshot.
By the time I reached the classroom, my arms that had been covered in goosebumps were now daintily moist from sweat. I slipped into the back row and sat down, the desk of course making an embarrassing creak as I lifted it into place. Without much other thought in my mind, I braced myself to jot down notes as quickly as I could, to make up for the first chalkboard which was already filled. The words filed into line, and my life, which had briefly budged, now fell back to routine.
Three weeks had passed. Most notably, it was now incredibly hot, especially in the dorm houses where air conditioning was non-existent. I lay sprawled on my armchair, clad in only my undergarments, slouched just enough to have the fan blasting straight into my face. I could barely hear the music coming out of my speakers, arriving in notes chopped up by the blades of the fan.
“Ugh,” I groaned, wiggling my toes to make sure they hadn’t melted into the wooden beam in the back of the desk that I had let them rest upon. I had resolved to study for final exams two hours ago, but the only mark I had made in my books was a handful of wrinkles from my dripping beads of sweat.
Then I heard a few piano notes emerge from the speaker. I lazily swatted at my mouse to check what song had come up: Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. I sat up – that was it! I could seek refuge in the old education building, which was practically next door compared to the far-off (but air conditioned) libraries, which would be packed full by now.
I quickly tossed on a light bluebonnet-print dress, slung my bag over my shoulder, and made my way out the door, doubling back briefly when I realized I had forgotten to shut off the fan, and then backtracking again to grab my pencil, my cell phone, and my lucky hair-tie. With resolve, I tripped and stumbled into my white sandals, dropping my bag as I attempted to tighten the sandal-straps while simultaneously tying my hair up.
“Ugh,” I groaned for a second time, dusting off my bag and the bottom of my foot.
At long last, I crossed the half-dying lawn and made my way into the old education hall. I instinctively navigated over to the piano, somehow expecting that girl to be sitting there, playing away with her eyes closed.
But she wasn’t there. Instead, I was the one who sat down at the piano bench. I’d taken lessons for a half-dozen years back when I was in primary school, but like most people, I never continued. Tentatively, I tapped out a couple notes. When there was no recoil or other tragic repercussion, I continued and played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
The keys were so cool to the touch; I felt the summer fervor relaxing into them. I sighed, brushing my bangs out of my eyes and standing up to find a place to get some work done.
On the way up the stairs, I suddenly felt a breeze and turned to see the girl from the other day sliding down the banister, crash-landing at the base. I cringed and carefully stepped down.
“Are you okay?” I asked, extending my hand. She nodded vigorously without turning around and leap-frogged onto the piano bench. Was this really the same girl? The one who was so taciturn, calmly playing out La Campanella?
I turned around to continue up the stairs, but I stopped short as she began playing. The first few notes spun out. And notes unfurled, slowly. Softly, almost menacingly. I realized I was subconsciously gripping my messenger bag, noting the nail marks in the worn leather.
The single melodic figure gave rise to new sprouts that grew and emerged, and there were twists and turns as the contours interleaved and then wrought themselves free.
I felt a bout of vertigo overcome me, the stairs kaleidoscoping, the mosaics on the floor tilting and then spinning, and I realized I was losing my footing and tumbling and … .
* * *
I awoke with a splitting headache, a wash of distorted luminosity setting my shut eyelids aglow. I shifted my arms and propped myself up, feeling someone propping up my shoulder.
“You’re okay,” came the voice. The piano girl.
I opened my eyes and looked around. I was atop a mahogany table, in a seminar room of sorts. A wadded up hoodie was on the table behind me – I must have been sleeping on it; I could even still make out the indentation of my head. I glanced back at the girl, now dressed in a polka-dotted tank and daffodil-yellow shorts: I concluded that it was her sweatshirt, given that she’d otherwise be too cold in the abnormal climate of the first floor corridors.
Speaking of the corridors – what had happened between when I blacked out and now? I looked over myself for any signs of injury, even going so far as to pat my abdomen.
The girl laughed, reassuring me, “You still have two.”
I glared. “You’d have to have opened me up to know that I had two kidneys in the first place.” She gave a look of touché, and I smiled in turn. “Well, thanks for watching over me. Where are we now, anyway?”
“The second floor. It’s an old classroom.”
I could faintly hear voices chattering outside. “It’s still Saturday, right? How long have I been out?”
“Two hours. The two guys and the girl they both love are discussing lunch plans outside.”
I paused to contemplate the meaning of the longest sentence that she had spoken to me, while she idly twirled the ends of her hair around her index finger.
“I guess I ought to get studying,” I said. “Did you carry me up here myself?” I asked as I slid off the side of the table, quickly tugging down the back of my dress as I landed.
“You’re light,” she replied. It was true that I was probably a good forty pounds lighter than her, but this still ascribed a curious strength to her that I wouldn’t have expected.
I looked at feet, still in those white sandals – did I perhaps slip because they were too worn out at the bottom? Or was there a damp spot on the staircase? I left the thoughts alone. “Anyway, would you mind if I just worked here?”
She shook her head, replying, “Go ahead, I have lunch plans. But if you don’t eat, too, you’ll get even lighter.”
I laughed. “I could join you for lunch, if you’re so concerned about my weight. But I wouldn’t want to third-wheel a date, if that’s what it is.”
She shook her head again. “My boyfriend won’t mind.”
So I grabbed my bag, she tied her hoodie around her hips, and we exited the room. I hesitated for a split second when we came to the crest of the stairwell I had fallen down just hours prior, and she sensed this, grabbing my hand wordlessly. But the way down was uneventful; the steps were straight and everything as concrete and plain as they should have been.
We crossed campus without exchanging words. Ever intrigued by her enigmatic personality, I watched as she walked, and though her feet always marched forward with strict rhythm, her eyes and head darted about, flitting from side to side, as if following a butterfly that wasn’t there. All the while, her fingers fiddled furiously until she finally pacified her hands in her front pockets.
At the student union building, her boyfriend waved at the two of us. He was fairly tall, probably a good four inches over my companion, who in turn was four inches taller than me. He was also on the whole fairly large-built, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his thighs had greater girth than the small of my waist. He greeted his lover with an enthusiastic hug, which I was surprised to see her return with equal ferocity, topped off by an audible peck on the lips for dessert.
The contradiction between her verbal paucity and her occasional impassioned explosions only grew stronger in my mind.
The boy held out his hand, “I’m Cyneweard. My girlfriend here, who probably neglected to introduce herself, is ‘Tessa.”
I shook his hand and smiled at Tessa. “I’m Gaia, very nice to meet you.”
After getting some sandwiches, we settled down in the shade, where it was still hot enough that I had to wipe my forehead with my handkerchief.
“So you’ve been hanging around that old crypt with Tessa?” Cyneweard asked, spearing a wedge of rosemary roasted potato with his fork.
“Just twice. I live in the residence hall right across the way.”
“It’s kind of macabre, isn’t it?” he asked. “Funny that you two are the ones haunting that place. I would’ve always pegged it more on the goth or emo types. Together, you girls could make a fucking rainbow.” I laughed – he was right: between her fuschia hoodie, orange polka dots, and yellow shorts, and my violet hair-tie and green-and-blue dress, we did encompass the spectrum.
“Well,” said Tessa out of nowhere. I had forgotten that she was even at the table. “Rainbows are most amazing in the wake of gray overcast skies.”
“I guess so,” I said, musing, “It’s as if the rainbow feeds on the gray.”
Tessa’s eyes lit up, as though we had made some kind of mental connection. “Somewhere between them is a prism.” You could positively see little twinkles radiating from her round, amber-brown eyes.
“I’ll never get girls,” muttered Cyneweard. “If you told me something colorful came out of something plain and ugly, I’d think of some mushrooms growing in a pile of compost shit.”
We kicked him simultaneously.
“I’m done, I’m done, I’m done!” I exclaimed as soon as I stepped outside. The world was so big and welcoming, I almost tried to give it a bear hug. With my last final of junior year out of the way, I could finally enjoy life. Which, of course, meant a week of nothing but shopping, hiking, and swimming. Fortunately, I had just enough mental reserve left to figure out what order to accomplish those in.
I skipped home with a goofy grin on my face, letting my hair down and not caring that it swept over my face. Once in my room, I shoved all my books and binders into the corner, checked the bus schedule on my phone, and packed my purse for the first time in three weeks.
It was a decent train ride to downtown, and I wasn’t meeting my friends until I got there. I leaned up against the window, resting my forehead on the glass as I stared out at the trees and houses whizzing by.
I hadn’t talked to Tessa or her boyfriend since that lunch a week ago, but I had looked up her online profiles. While I felt like I was only touching the surface, I’d already gleaned a few hints about her inner identity.
It was very unusual for me to take interest in any person like this. Back when I was boy crazy, I never felt the need to know everything about the guys I was dating, even as we entered into intimate territory. Yet here, when I felt no affection or dependence on this acquaintance you couldn’t even really call a friend, I was so drawn to her inner clockwork. It perplexed me, and I began to think that it was me who was behaving strangely, not her.
I slipped off my flats and tucked in my knees, scratching at a mosquito bite on my upper calf before I realized what I was doing and quickly covered it up with the lowest tier of my teal-and-white ruffled skirt.
Her full name was Quintessa. It was such an unusual name, more unusual than mine (my parents were paleontologists and named my brother and me the two halves of the word ‘Pangaea’). I thought about what her family might have intended. Were they from some cult that idolized Empedocles? Perhaps sci-fi geeks into that Bruce Willis movie? Or perhaps she had renamed herself in a fit of adolescent hubris?
I stretched my legs back out again. They dangled over the edge of the seat without touching down. I imagined Tessa bringing me up those stairs in a princess carry, my limp legs dangling down in the same way, and I giggled to myself at the absurdity of the scene.
I pulled my phone out of my purse, plugging in the headphones and picking out a playlist. Just a month ago, I would have scoffed at the idea of listen to classical music for leisure – it was strictly study music. But now, the usual suspects – the indie bands, Glee covers, electronica remixes, and a couple tracks of gangster rap – were displaced by the works of Brahms, Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt. I could even start to pick out what made each composer’s music sound different from the others.
Although barely audible over the noise of the train, I could make out enough to imagine the rest.
To be honest, the music probably suited me better than it suited Tessa, who could actually play it. It was structured and straightforwardly communicative. If I were to pick a soundtrack for her, I’d actually err more on the side of bebop jazz, or Stravinsky, or fall all the way back to Renaissance composer Ockeghem and his prolation canons. Again, terms and names that would have meant nothing to me a month ago.
It was scary almost, as though something she had done had bewitched me, haunted me with mystical forces outside the grasp of my reality.
The train finally pulled into the station, and somehow, I managed to collapse my thoughts, and I was back to my normal self again when I arrived at the coffee shop with my friends.
* * *
Two iced coffees, one scoop of ice cream, three matching bracelets, one pair of heeled sandals, and one pair of white ankle jeans later, I was back on the train home.
Strolling back from the local station, I passed by the old education hall and decided to drop by on a whim. Bunching my shopping bags and purse into one hand, I hoisted open the charcoal-black handle of the back door, which led directly to the west stairwell with the piano.
Sure enough, Tessa was there. But the whole scene was wrong, amiss.
Hunched over, gray hood over her head, she was just hitting middle C over and over again, like an alarm.
“Tessa?” I said tentatively. When she didn’t reply, I called out to her again. Still no response.
I dropped my bags in the side of the corridor and rushed up to her, grabbing her shoulder and turning her so that I could see her face. I shuddered when I beheld her face, ashen-looking, deep bags under her eyes, lips cracking. She didn’t even muster a look of surprise or recognition. She just kept plunking away at that key.
I grabbed her hand to make her stop, but she resisted, letting out an unintelligible scream.
“Tessa, you need to get away from here. I don’t know what’s wrong, but this is just too weird.”
She just swatted me away and resumed plunking the C.
“Listen to me!” I said, raising my voice. “This piano, this stairwell, this whole building, something’s wrong with it. That’s why I got so dizzy and fell down the last time!”
She wrenched herself completely free of my grasp, and with both hands, smashed hard on the keys, producing a feral dissonance that reverberated with diabolic rancor down the hollow corridors.
“NO!” she growled. “No, no, no.” Now it was her grabbing me by the shoulders, and shaking me.
“No, it’s not the building, it’s not the stairs, and it’s most certainly not the fucking piano. The world is a literal place. Gaia, you know that deep down – you see the world every day, the same world I’m in, and it’s perfectly normal. You played Twinkle here the other week and it was just peachy, nothing weird, nothing scary.
“It’s not the piano,” she said again. And more softly, she continued, “It’s me.”
“What are y-,” I began, but she cut me off, which in itself was already shocking.
The torrent of words continued: “Do you know why I came here in the first place? Because it’s dark, cold. Devoid of people, devoid of life, devoid of color, devoid of sound, devoid of smells and tastes, devoid of the textures to touch. Devoid of everything that might pass through my sensory organs and into me.
“Because I am an amplifying prism. You, you, Gaia. You’re normal. Things pass into you, and they pass out. You listen to classical music while you study, because it’s inconsequential for you. It’s just sound.” I frowned in disagreement but knew I couldn’t get her to stop talking. Each and every word that was missing from her truncated sentences before had now amassed into this careening rapid. “The things that enter into me, they echo, they grow, and they become more and more, until they reach a ceaseless, deafening din. I can’t stop thinking about them, and when my mind reaches the critical pressure, they just burst out.”
She had unwittingly pinned me against the cold stone wall. I was scared that my petite body would be crushed by the sheer pressure that even now seemed to continue to build inside Tessa.
“And what comes out,” she said, removing her arms from my shoulder and plunging them into her unkempt caramel-colored hair, a few strands being uprooted and flitting down in golden spirals, “is so mangled and twisted and passionate and consuming. It used to be that I could just play a nice little Chopin mazurka, and it’d be enough to block out those vile echoes, and I could just shut my eyes to stop soaking in the sights and colors.
“But soon even those pieces were too stimulating. And so now I have my answer. One single note, over and over, is the only way to truly block out the demons and give me peace.” She sang out the note repeatedly, pausing only to breathe hysterically. Her voice was beautiful, but it sounded wretched.
I did the only thing I could and enwrapped her in my arms, bringing her close enough that I could feel her heart beating. I could have sworn you could hear some sort of sizzle as she collided with my ice-blue t-shirt. She quieted down, letting her arms drop and her hair settle back down.
Gingerly, I turned her and held her wrist firmly as I led her out the back door, back into quad.
“You want to look at everything, notice everything, right?”
She blinked blankly. “It’s not like I want to. I can’t ignore it. It’s all there and it just comes at me. And then,” she said, accelerating her speech, “I think about it, and it grows. A bird becomes a nest becomes speckled eggs becomes a pattern becomes a rug becomes a flying carpet becomes a fairy tale.”
I sat down on the grass and beckoned for her to do the same.
“It’s true that I live in a more literal world,” I conceded. “But it’s not as though I’m completely without imagination either. I listen to music for more than just background – it’s inspiration and beauty to me as well. But there are times when I listen to music critically, and there are times when I listen to music just for the sake of appreciating its beauty. I don’t have to think very hard about it to recognize that.
“I notice the bird, and I know it has a nest full of speckled eggs, but I simply let that image make an impression and have its own meaning.”
She took off her sweatshirt and lay down on the grass. “Of course I know that. But you could never understand what it’s like to be possessed by the trains of thought with no conductor, barreling forward without asking for your say in it. And to have this be every single day of your life.”
The sun was setting now, and the temperature, thankfully, began to drop.
“I probably barely passed my finals, you know?” she said. “I bet you did just fine. You fell down the stairs, blacked out for two hours, woke up in a strange room under the watch of a girl who never told you her name, and then studied after a quick lunch. I wish I could be like you. You work hard, and when you’re done with your work, you go have a little fun, get a little dolled up and go into the city, or whatever it is you do. And that’s enough. You’re happy.”
“Life’s not that simple for anyone,” I said, laughing. “We all have our problems. I’ve never had a steady boyfriend for more than six months, I’m starting to regret the major I chose, and my brother has been refusing to talk to me ever since I railed at him for dropping out of college. Doing well on tests or shopping with friends afterwards doesn’t make that go away for me, as petty as you might think I am.”
“But I can’t even focus on studying, or on having fun for that matter. Your problems may be serious, but they don’t command your life. It’s just one passionate idea to the next, until I’m so exhausted and confused I barely even know who I am anymore. You won’t believe how many times Cyne’s been in the mood, and I wanted to be in the mood too, and instead he’d just end up cradling me while I cried myself to sleep. It was okay when it only affected me, but now it’s affecting everyone. My ideas are demons.”
I interjected, “They’re not separate entities. They’re part of you, too. Psychosis, I’ll admit that’s made up of demons, but calling what sounds like creativity ‘demons’ is pushing it a bit.”
I looked over at her and realized she was crying, small tears welling up in the still sunset air. “I’ll never … get to be a normal … adult,” she said, her sentences spliced by small sniffles.
“No, you won’t,” I said. “I’m not going to pretend that we all got the same fair shake at becoming ordinary citizens. Or that we even have the same chance to be happy. But that can’t be an excuse to deny parts of ourselves, just because they aren’t rational enough or aimed about achieving normalcy and happiness.”
Tessa laughed, snorting in some tears that had run down the tear ducts into her nostrils. “And you’d say the same thing to a pedophile, Gaia?”
I rolled my eyes.
“If you were a pedophile, Tessa, I’d tell you to restrain your urges from hurting people. But I wouldn’t tell you to deny that you were one – you’ve seen what’s happened to the people who do.”
She seemed mildly satisfied. “I suppose that’s reasonable.”
“While we’ve been talking, there’s been a beautiful sunset of a thousand shades; twenty-six people who have walked by, four of which were holding hands; and bad disco music has been coming out of my dorm for the past ten minutes. Be honest with me, how much of that have you noticed?”
“I noticed it all,” she said, “but I haven’t thought about it.”
“I figured as much,” I said, standing up and brushing the bits of grass and couple stray ants off my legs and skirt. “That old education hall, we could hold a concert there. You playing, of course.
“With a few dozen people crowding around, the corridors won’t echo at all. Only an empty chamber and a solitary mind will echo infinitely. Your worries right now, they would be dangerous if they were to echo, but now they’ve struck me, and I’ve heard them and absorbed them, and they won’t echo back. Instead, I’ll reply, and the material will have changed. That is the only difference between obsession and conversation.
“When a burgeoning idea begins to emerge, you can become its slave and let it play out like you did that day when I fell down the stairs. And if it’s small, that’s fine. But when it’s big, you can instead let it out piecewise, and Cyne or I or anyone else could be guardians of those pieces so that you can do other things in the meantime. Like study, or take a trip. Or, I hate to say this, get your hair done.”
Tessa smiled, twirling around like a rolling pin on the ground before whipping herself upright, picking up my bags. I reached out to take them, but she said, “I’ll carry them for you.”
I thanked her, taking the opportunity to stretch out my arms and yawn. In the quiet of the early evening, as the heat drifted up into the boundless moonlit ultramarine sky, we began walking back across the campus quad.