Emma T.

My parents’ one-sided screaming matches no longer felt like they were slowly eating away at my heart, but they bothered me nonetheless. I used to ask Mom why she married him if she couldn’t stand his callousness and apathy. She told me that he seemed perfect, then – that it was too difficult to let go, now. 

Allegedly, I would understand when I grew up. 

When the mood was tense one morning, I got out of the house. I would need to steel myself to face my father’s lighthearted demeanor while he scrolled mindlessly on his phone, the one that melted into a scowl when he looked at my sobbing mother, drained from first rationalizing then screaming at the human equivalent of a wall. 

I found myself walking towards the park near the library – the one you told me you frequented. Back then, you were just someone who happened to catch my eye with that lopsided smile of yours – the one that was bigger on your right side, where your dimple was. You didn’t truly smile often, perhaps for that very reason, but the rarity was precisely what made it so special. 

Back then, I knew better than to get attached to someone I didn’t really know. 

I hadn’t actually expected to see you, but you were there that day. I felt my heart speed up, thumping loudly against my ribcage in uneven intervals. I managed a wave. 

You were sitting on the park bench – leaning against the armrest, legs extended, a tablet on your lap. Above you was a giant oak with the late-afternoon sunlight filtering through its leaves, casting down its scattered shadows. The golden light illuminated patches of you, turning fragments of your dark hair a vibrant caramel, giving your figure a glowing outline. It shocked me how someone could look so 

effortlessly perfect – so much, that the moment seared itself into my memory. 

Upon noticing me, you drew your legs in. I sat down. “What are you looking at?” 

You turned the screen towards me. On it was Chopin’s Nocturnein C-Sharp Minor. “Downloading a new score.” 

“That’s one of my favorites,” I said, unable to stop a smile from pulling at the corners of my lips. “I didn’t know you played.”

You looked right at me with your trademark grin. The shadows made your dimple seem even deeper. “I’ll play it for you sometime.” 

Two weeks later, you led me to a practice room. Under the dim lighting, you looked just as picturesque as that day in the park, but in a melancholic sort of way – a figure shrouded in shadow, playing Nocturnein C-Sharp Minor with a heart-wrenching poignancy. 

You looked over at me after you finished, your shy expression so starkly contrasting to the poised one before the piano. “How was it? It’s not that polished yet, so I was a bit worried–” 

“I loved it,” I replied, smiling softly. “You play beautifully.” 

You smiled back – small, even, carefully controlled – as if you only partially believed my words, but some of the tension left your shoulders. 

It was then that I started building a jigsaw of you using the little things I had learned from your off-hand comments and casual conversations – they were my puzzle pieces, and I filled the wide gaps with my imagination so that the picture of you in my head was entirely flawless. 

One time, I stayed to watch you teach a little girl piano under the guise that Mom was late to pick me up from my lesson. She was an exact image of my younger self – choppy playing, uneven sixteenth notes, and an absolute lack of emotion. Not a hint of frustration shone through your calm facade, though I imagined anyone else like you – someone who found things to criticize in their perfection, whose fingers the keys yielded to – would be utterly unable to comprehend how that girl could play so horribly. 

After your lesson, our teacher came to talk with you. I left the studio but stood right outside the window, turning just enough to see you out of the corner of my eye. Under the harsh lighting of the lobby, your dark circles seemed so much more prominent than before. 

I caught the end of your conversation when a parent held the door open for his kid. Our teacher was talking at you. “Just make sure there are no clearly identifiable mistakes by the recital. That’ll reflect poorly on both our studio, as a whole, and on yourself.” 

You gave her a nod of understanding and a perfect smile. 

The little girl never really learned to capture the intention of that piece – not in the first class, or the next, or the one after that. But she did improve her sense of rhythm a little bit, so I think you’ve done

all you could. After all, you can’t interpret a piece for someone, can you? And some kids are just difficult, aren’t they? 

It’s still fair to conclude that you’re patient and kind, isn’t it? You must be responsible, too, and compassionate, because you were so patient – nevermind that it was your job. Lots of people don’t do their jobs properly. 

The last thing you would be is uncaring. Had you not cared, she wouldn’t have learned anything. 

Outside of music, we hadn’t spoken much. It was usually you who approached me, you who waved, you who texted first, you who asked me questions. Part of my reservation was due to my fear of rejection – that perhaps you wouldn’t reciprocate my enthusiasm if I showed too much – but a larger part of me was scared that if I got to know you too well, you would reveal some fatal flaw I can’t ignore. What would I do, then? Would I have the strength to let go, knowing I had a chance of meeting the same end as Mom, when the sides of you that captivated me were still on display? 

I’ve come to love my image of you so much that I would blind myself to keep it from shattering. 

Two months later, I played Tchaikovsky’s October for you. You told me once that you loved to listen to it in late autumn after the trees – once alight with color – lost their leaves, but before a fluffy blanket of snow enveloped the world. 

It has a certain desolation to it, one that none of Tchaikovsky’s other seasons have, which is why I led you into a practice room in the rainy late October. That day, when the outside world was grey and bare, October seeped out of the piano, filling the silent halls with its lonely melody. I thought it was one of my better renditions out of the countless times I had practiced the piece, but you had no reaction after I finished. 

“Did you like it?” I asked tentatively. 

“Mhm,” you said – expression blank, eyes downcast on that tablet of yours. Perhaps I hadn’t captured October’s character in the way you had hoped, or perhaps my music choice hadn’t added to the gloomy ambiance in the right way. 

“What are you looking at?”

“Our duet,” you replied. You walked over, sat down next to me, and lifted your hands. They brushed against mine, a movement that would usually send an electric spark from my fingertips straight to my heart. That day, I felt nothing but a hint of disappointment at your nonchalant behavior. “You ready?” 

I remember nodding, though I barely registered whatever we played next. Our duet was usually when I enjoyed myself most; I loved how harmonious we were together, how it convinced me that our relationship was the same. 

Normally, it was your proximity that brought out the emotion I needed to perform, but whatever I was feeling that day was something I wanted to suppress. 

My mind was still stuck in the pieces we played for each other. When you played your Nocturne, I absorbed every note, committed everything about your performance to memory. When I told you that I loved it, I meant it wholeheartedly – I had listened carefully to every single moment and sincerely concluded that it was beautiful in its entirety. Why didn’t you do the same? I was looking forward to surprising you because what you played for me delighted me beyond words, but it felt as if you hadn’t listened to a single moment of my October

I was reminded of that little girl’s last lesson and the tired look in your eyes, the false smile. Of the way you didn’t really care about what I thought of your performance. Of the fact that you didn’t learn the Nocturnefor me; it just so happened that you were planning to learn it right before I told you it was my favorite. 

These moments were the foundations upon which I built you up in my mind. Had I interpreted every single one incorrectly? 

I must’ve played my part of the duet entirely flat because you were visibly frustrated after our run-through. “There’s something bothering you, isn’t there?” 

What would you say if I voiced a concern so immature? Would you comfort me, the way the version of you in my head would, or would you brush me off, deem me hysterical, and set the tone for our entire relationship from here? Did you, too, have an image of me in your head? If I shattered it with my insecurities, who else would play duets with me? Who else would learn my favorite piece for me? Who else would care? Who else would listen?

“Don’t worry about it,” I replied after some hesitation. After all, one white lie wouldn’t hurt if it prevented us from becoming my parents. 

A small part of me had hoped that you would assure me I could tell you anything, but you didn’t. Then again, it wasn’t your fault, was it? I had already said to not worry about it. 

Now, I’m looking at you through the small window of the practice room door, mustering up the courage to open it. You’re playing October – no, it’s in the room with you, and I can hear its quiet desolation trickling through the cracks in the soundproofing. Standing there, my hand on the ice-cold doorknob, feels oddly intrusive – so much that I almost walk away. But you must sense that you’re being watched because you turn my way after your last chord fades out. It’s the thought of having you confront me, after catching me listening, that forces me to enter and sit next to you on the piano bench. 

An emotion akin to annoyance is fighting to overtake your expression. 

I ignore it. “The recital is tomorrow. Can you listen to me play?” 

It melts away, and your features soften. “Sure.” 

You move so that we’re sitting back-to-back, both on the edge of our seats. I scoot to the center, bring my hands up, and place my right foot on the pedal. 

Nocturnein C-Sharp Minorfloats out of the piano – not as perfectly as you played it but still beautifully melancholic in the way that minor keys inevitably are. 

You lean back, placing your head on my shoulder. Its weight feels odd against my left arm, very nearly restricting my playing. But I don’t want you to move – I can feel your radiating warmth against my back and your soft hair tickling my neck; I can see your smiling side when we turn our heads slightly towards each other, just for a split second. 

In this moment, we’re harmonious once more.