Al Niente

November 11, 2007
It’s a Saturday, one of those lazy August afternoons that sit precariously on the cusp of fall. The air’s dead and damp and enveloped in a cloak of suffocating heat. The trees brown and crinkle in anticipation of the next rain, and scraggly pigeons pick at stray donut crumbs scattered on the steps shadowed by the bronze glare of George Washington’s statue. Throughout all of Union Square there isn’t a sound, save the obligatory tire screeches and honking horns of trucks and taxis from the surrounding streets. I’m lying on the grass under the trees surrounding the center of the square, squinting up at glimmers of sunlight as they pass through the canopy of leaves above my head. I have come to this spot every weekend for the past three months, and each day has reflected the other in an unending circle of identical Saturdays.

But today definitely has a different feel to it than all the other days I’ve spent here this summer. Fall is closing in on New York. The park is empty and people are preparing themselves for the chilling months to come. The old men’s arthritis is acting up, the mothers are shopping for jeans at the back-to-school sales, and the businessmen are at luncheons discussing ways to ensnare the public in their marketing traps. The children are in the parks enjoying these last days of freedom, soaking up the sun into their minds; a warm, perfect memory to cherish until next summer restores their recollections into a blazing new reality.

I, on the other hand, am not preparing for fall in any way. In fact, you could say I’m protesting autumn and all the progress that comes with it. Sure, I may have my first classes at the Juilliard School next Monday, but I’m not going. I’m done. You see, my life until this summer has just been one long, tedious piano recital. I started playing when I was five, and my mother, after recognizing her little boy’s immense talent, pushed me even further to succeed on the instrument. I practiced the piano from five thirty to seven every morning, then five to eight thirty when I finished my homework. By the time I was seven I would go to the Juilliard on Saturdays for their pre-college courses in music theory and solfège (ear-training), then work with my instructors there and afterwards take the recital class at Paul Recital Hall. Every day was thinking music, reading music, studying music, listening to music, playing music. I’m certain I would’ve eaten music, too, had it been edible.

And after all those years of juggling that one true love of mine with everything else, I achieved the first of my ultimate goals in life: I was accepted into Juilliard, college level, full scholarship. I’ll never be able to explain how elated I felt when I read the acceptance letter.

However, two days after I got the letter my life fell from its lovely, lofty level into something I’d define as the deepest recesses of hell. It was the last week in May of my senior year in High School, and I was at my last set of Saturday classes at the Juilliard. It was during recital class, and David and Andrew P. were attempting to play the piano four-hands version of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. Everyone was entranced at their playing; it’s an extremely complicated piece to get timed correctly, and they were playing it spot-on. Right in the middle of the fugue, however, the young blond-haired woman that directed Chamber Music pulled me out of the Hall. She looked extremely uncomfortable, and as she sat me down on the steps of the center’s staircase, a strong, foreboding sense of misfortune came upon me and I knew something awful must have happened.

“Steven, I’m so, so sorry that I have to tell you this, I really am. It’s…”

She made a small, distressed noise her throat and swallowed nervously.

“Your sister… died of an allergic reaction earlier this morning. Your parents just contacted us, and they’re going to pick you up very soon. I’m so sorry, Steven. I really am…” She could barely keep eye contact with me as she said it. She bit her lip and gave me an awkward hug as I stared at her blankly. Neither of us knew what to do. The Chamber lady kept holding me, telling me everything would be okay, and as she said these words it slowly began to dawn on me that things would never be okay again. They couldn’t be…

I started to cry just as the other pianists were dismissed from the Hall. As each of them saw the pathetic sight on the stairway, all conversation stopped. They passed us silently, looking at us from the corners of their eyes, then glancing at each other with concerned, questioning looks. I sobbed even louder.

That Wednesday we held Elise’s funeral.

That Friday I graduated from high school.

I hadn’t touched the piano since the last Juilliard class. When I sat down on the piano bench Sunday to begin my warm up arpeggios and scales, all I could think to do was stare at the keys, kneading my bony fingers into the flesh of my palms. My mind was a blank slate; the notes seemed blurred and unreadable. I tried concentrating, but my mind was unable to focus on anything except one vague question which I asked myself over and over again: “Why?”

Why have I sacrificed my whole life to music?

I thought about it, and I realized that somewhere along the way, my passion for music had become an obsessive competition against the rest of the musical world, and my dedication had turned into a surrendering of self. Even as a young boy I had practiced every Christmas morning before opening presents, and on my birthday I had wanted nothing but books of Chopin mazurkas and Beethoven sonatas and manuscript paper for Theory lessons. But while I could accept such trivialities and move on from them, something I would never be able to forgive myself for was all the time that I’d spent away from Elise.

Of course we talked to one another regularly and spent a good deal of time together most Sundays, and I truly did love her as much as any other brother would love his little sister, but at the same time I was so caught up in my world of notation and sound that I never took the time to completely appreciate her presence, the light and inspiration she gave to me. Every person you meet will have an influence on your life. I just never saw how great of an influence she was to me… to my life…to my music, to everything single thing I did. She was only twelve, playing in a field by Central Park when a bee stung her. No one ever expected she’d die from, of all things, a bumblebee sting. Why did it have to end like it did? Why did she have to leave…?

After that revelation at the piano I’d closed its cover, and I hadn’t played anything since. In fact, I spent the majority of the summer sitting here in Union square under a little tree, watching people as they live out their lives. It’s been a sort of personal therapy, in a way. I could live someone else’s life as I watched them, make up a story about what they did every day, and take my mind off anything concerning myself or my sister.

Today, however, it seemed someone was watching me. She was a flautist; probably one of those odd musicians that go around on their days off playing music for pocket money. Her fair blond head was capped by what looked to be the feathery hat of a troubadour. The sound of her flute was obnoxiously sharp, and the song she played had a peculiar, primitive sound. Unfortunately, I caught her eye and she stopped playing. She skipped up to my tree and stuck her free hand into the pocket of her jeans, tossing the bag on her shoulder to the side and digging around until she finally pulled out a piece of paper. She began to read it aloud in a loud but airy voice.

“A Shakespearean sonnet, prepared especially for you…” -she jabbed her finger at me- “by the bard Nicole.”

I rolled my eyes and groaned.
“‘The time of year thou mayst in me behold…
When yellow leaves- or none- or few- do hang…
Upon those boughs which shake against the co-’”

I had to interject. She kept pausing dramatically and raising her eyebrows at me at the end of every line, which was something I would have eagerly traded to hear the badly tuned flute again.

“Please, stop, I’ll pay you, just… knock it off, alright?”

“How much?”

I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out a crumpled five dollar bill.

“A five?” I asked this hopefully, thinking it might get her away from me, but from the look of disdain she gave the money it appeared that she was here to stay.

“Sorry, not enough,” she said, sitting down cross-legged next to me, the flute in her lap. It looked like she was around fifteen or sixteen, maybe even younger considering her rather juvenile approach to our conversation.

“It seems like you’re here an awful lot. I come here a lot, too, and you’re always by this tree. And you always look sort of sad, now that I think about it. Why are you sad?”

I bristled, growling, “None of your business.” I thought about getting up and just leaving my unwanted conversationalist to go find someone else to annoy, but now that I thought about it, it was actually nice to have someone to talk to.

“Okay, then,” she said, sighing. Suddenly she brightened, asking, “Would you like to hear another song? It would make you feel better…”

“Not if you don’t pull out the head joint of your flute a little.”

“Why? Oh, is-”

“Yes,” I confirmed, “it’s definitely sharp.”

“What’s your name?”


“Do you take flute?” she asked this eagerly, as if finding another flautist would be the best thing to ever happen to her.

“No, but I did play piano,” I said.

“Did play?” She raised her over reactive eyebrows again.

“Yeah, twelve years. I stopped, though.” That was all the explanation I was going to give her, although she looked like she expected more.

She sighed in exaggerated exasperation. “What a waste of time, Steven. I can’t even recognize a sharp from a flat, and here you are, quitting after so many years of work.” I rolled my eyes at her. She continued. “Were you any good?”

“They accepted me at the Juilliard.” This time her eyebrows disappeared into her bangs in surprise.

“Seriously? And you’re just quitting after JUILLIARD?”

“It took over my life. You wouldn’t get it.”

She studied me quietly for a moment, and then said in a much more solemn and subdued voice, “Well, I’m not sure why you quit, but I do know that you’re giving up a very precious gift. I hope you realize your mistake before it’s too late.”

Nicole must have felt embarrassed at what she’d said, because she blushed and looked down at her flute, pressing her fingers against the keys. I watched them for awhile, seeing the keys spring back up each time the pressure was released. She looked up at the darkening sky for a moment and spoke again. “Listen… I have to go, I don’t really live near here and I’m afraid to take the subway home when it’s dark. But… I’ll see you sometime, right?”

Nicole looked up at me as she started to get up to disassemble her flute, taking her case out of her bag and tenderly placing the pieces onto the faux velvet inside. I smiled. She really wasn’t that bad, and I could tell that she loved music.

“Yeah, I’ll see you,” I said. “I’ve got to go soon, too.”

She grinned at me.

“Nice meeting you.” She turned and walked down the path towards 14th street, and I sat down for a moment under my tree and mulled things over.

I fumbled with the keys, trying to find the right ones for the house doors in the light of the street lamps. When I finally got in, I hesitated. My parents weren’t home yet, and it was just sitting there, the cover still on the keys from when I placed it there three months ago. A film of dust was beginning to settle over it.

I sat down at the bench, but I still didn’t touch the piano itself. I picked up a pile of sheet music, a song by Schubert. I scanned it over, building up the courage to play it. A note on change in dynamics caught my eye. Al niente. “To nothing.” It struck me then that I wasn’t accomplishing anything in this state. I was fading to nothing, just like the song did. Nicole was right, everyone that had sorrowfully watched me recoil from my music was right.

This couldn’t be what Elise wanted, either. And I’m not talking about some fake Elise I made up in my mind to that would voice agreement with any selfish thoughts I had. I’m talking about the Elise I’d seen grow up over all those years, the girl that had loved watching me play those etudes and nocturnes, the girl that would continue to inspire me throughout my whole life. I slowly put the music onto the stand, placing my hands tentatively into position on the keys. Then I finally let go and played with all of my heart, telling a story of both grief and hope, knowing that tonight my recital would be solely for the angels.

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