L’adieu or Tristesse
by Abigail Provenzano
Runestone, volume 4
Frédéric Chopin started composing at six years old. I’ve known that for a long time. However, I knew for certain that you did not, and I was setting down my fork and clearing my throat to fill the uncomfortable yet usual silence with an aimless fact that you neither knew, nor would care about in the slightest (our typical routine), when you beat me to it. It was 6:24 p.m.
“We’re moving.” Your voice was rough and brusque, to match the movements of your hands around your plate and the finality of the phrase. I blinked.
“All right.” My sister’s voice was soft and flat. She nodded into her bowl, eyes down, head down, and morale down, mirroring you. I didn’t share this trait, as we shared next to nothing (a glance, a smile, a word) these days. I cleared my throat again, this time to choke down a vile mixture of shock, indignation, and the familiar saltiness of guilt.
“We can’t.” It was louder than I intended. And even though we did have a familiar, ideal house in Maine, this was the wrong thing to say; I knew it as soon as the words slipped down my tongue and through my teeth. I had meant to ask (calmly and rationally) why, or (more logically) where, but as I had let my usually so carefully guarded thoughts out so unceremoniously, you were already bristling.
“We can and we are. Soon, so you both should start getting ready to go.” You began to nibble your crust of bread again.
“But-” You didn’t look up.
“I mean-” I tried again. “Can we just-” Still nothing. I snapped my mouth shut. It was useless to say anything more; it had been useless since your first declaration. You were now a man of few words, and the ones you shared were purposeful and definite.
I suppose, with what had happened, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Chopin’s mother was a piano teacher. So was mine. I remember you used to stare, mesmerized, at her hands. “They’re magic. You’re magic.” You’d mumble, while she laughed. But they were; once she sat down on her faded wooden bench that had never quite matched the piano, she could fill a room with the climb and descent of notes dancing through melodies. Chopin was her favorite to play. When he was six, he was creating songs; when I was six, my tiny hands were under my mother’s while she guided me through those patient pages of music. My sister didn’t have the tolerance for piano then, and you never had, but I did; and how I loved the feeling of smooth keys and the ghost of a smile on my mother’s face while she hummed along to a mazurka or nocturne.
I didn’t feel like speaking anymore. You wouldn’t have appreciated the fact, and it wouldn’t have made a difference. There was more heavy silence while I pushed carrots around my plate, until you left to watch some game with the volume up loud, loud enough that I could play piano without being heard. These days, I had to wait until you were at work (which wasn’t hard, because going to work was the only thing you did) before I could sit down to play, and feel like I could breathe out loud.
“Stop that goddamn noise!” You had yelled a couple weeks ago, the words startling me as much as your voice had. “Can’t you do anything else besides playing that godforsaken piano!” I was still working out what to say, half of my mind lost in focus on Schubert’s Serenade, when you stormed upstairs. Yes, I suppose you didn’t much care for piano anymore. You’d only liked it when she played; never me.
My mother, however, always looked proud, as if she was Chopin’s mother watching her prodigy, rather than someone who faltered through staccato notes with their weaker hand more often than they should. But I did improve under her watchful eye, and if she was what drew me in, then the music, the sheer volume of peaceful, swift, poetic pieces with their unrelenting yearning for mastery of technique kept me there, practicing for hours. There was a power and control I felt in my hands, in my being, that was only there when I played the piano. I know that you preferred my energy to be directed towards something more useful, something more athletic, but my music was good enough for her. Besides, you had my sister, who was displayed in her softball uniform in the unofficial gallery on top of the piano. She was right between you, in your prime in a college football uniform, and the photo where eyes were drawn to my mother’s radiant smile on her wedding day. Years ago, I had valiantly tried, and miserably failed, to play football myself. Last summer, my picture frame with the half-hearted, apologetic smile and the too-big uniform had fallen off the piano and the glass cracked; it hadn’t been replaced. I had another of me in my best suit immersed in Debussy’s Clair de Lune, but it didn’t belong and you didn’t want it and you wouldn’t ask for it anyway– and–
Chopin’s first concert was poorly attended; he eventually was accepted and became a success. And his music is quite beautiful, but it can also be rather angry as well.
I settled down on the bench and began to stretch my fingers, one by one, as I always did. The Chopin music book was open and waiting; it was the only one I played from now. I needed his level of difficulty to concentrate, to conquer. I took a deep breath before beginning to stumble my way through Étude Op. 10, No. 3 (L’adieu or Tristesse). The keys were crisp ivory, but my left hand was going faster than my right. I started again. My pinkie stopped short of the note it was supposed to reach and hit a sour one. I wonder if Chopin ever felt discouraged. Another attempt, and I hit the right chord, but forgot the crescendo dynamics and the beauty in long notes. Did Chopin need to try over and over again before he reached perfection? As the minutes passed, everything became too loud while hot frustration bubbled up in my chest. I finally had to stop. Again. I had perfected, to the best of my ability, the first two, but my fingers always stopped obeying me for this one. Especially today. Especially when-
Chopin’s mother had sat in audience after audience, watching all his progress and triumphs as his years went by. Or maybe, instead, she had just died and missed it all, like mine.
My sister began packing the day after the announcement, carefully and methodically with supermarket boxes. I halfheartedly and haphazardly joined her; just because the situation was nonnegotiable didn’t mean I accepted it. You didn’t know that, because I hadn’t told you; or maybe you did, and you just didn’t care. We were going because you wanted to, after all. It was the middle of a damp yet scalding summer that only Maine could concoct, and you had told us we were set to move to a smaller house in the adjoining neighborhood soon. The phone rang; our bedroom doors were shut, but I knew it made her jump, then tense, then sigh. That day, I hadn’t even heard the phone ring, but I heard her scream. The only reason I had even looked at the clock when I ran into the kitchen was to look away from those horribly morphing features. I didn’t want to see the arching of her eyebrows up towards her hairline, like this was a particularly confusing math equation; or the drop of her eyelids while tears beaded in her long lashes; or the tremble of her lips and her hands while they clutched the phone amid uneven breaths. The red numbers blinked at me: 6:24 p.m.
Our parents. An accident. Hospital. One was in critical condition.
My vision blurred as I thought impulsively, Please don’t be Mom.
I don’t remember how we got to the hospital, but all the while these words were like poison darts on my skin, and I couldn’t focus on anything, and I knew, knew, knew that I wasn’t supposed to choose favorites, but here I was, praying to a God I’m usually too bored at church to think about that you were the one who was dying, not her, not her, not her.
And then you were sitting in the waiting room with wild eyes, while my sister collapsed to the floor and my heart dropped with her. You were mumbling, but it wasn’t about magic, it was a symphony of why was she driving why did I let her drive the passenger seat was untouched and oh god what do I do now what what do I do without her how could she leave me how can I how can this be-
We were told later that she had died instantly, on impact, but maybe for a split second she’d swelled up in one last breath of air, a rousing crescendo like the fortissimo chord in the middle of Haydn’s Symphony No. 94, before fading to a dull roar of machinery and a glissando of blood, too red against the smudged windshield and the sinking sun, lost in screaming violins amongst the screech of brakes –
Chopin composed virtually nothing in the last year of his life. Perhaps this would have been different if he had known he would be leaving so soon.
“Are you really okay with this?” I stood in her doorway now, drawn by the face I couldn’t see when the phone rang. She looked at me, startled, and then down.
“Yes.” She continued folding sweaters, oh so slowly, into a suitcase balanced precariously on the mattress edge. She was so like you now that sometimes it made me cringe.
“Well, I don’t want to move.” It was the first time I’d said it out loud, and I said it quietly, so you wouldn’t hear. It stood in the doorway between us.
“And I don’t think it’s our choice. We’re going.” A small sigh. “You should probably go pack.” I recognized the dismissal, but I didn’t want to go pack alone in silence, or face you in the living room, and I was too tired to go play the piano.
“We can’t! This is our house. Amy and Freddy, and Dad and Mom.” I hesitated, then dropped my voice as the words rushed out. “The next one will just be our house. Amy and Freddy, and Dad.”
She shrugged and turned away. “I think that’s the point.” She probably wanted me to go, like you always seemed to. I wanted to stay.
We hadn’t had a conversation this long since the day of the funeral.
“What are we going to do?” She had been hovering in the hall then, still in her black nylons, clutching her shoes in one hand.
I had shrugged. “Nothing, I suppose.” I couldn’t look at her eyes or the tears sparkling there, so I studied the little snag at her ankle instead, pale white skin standing out from the black.
“Nothing? Freddy.” Her voice had trembled, and I didn’t want to watch her cry again. It was all she did there, it was all you did there, and it was utterly pointless. “We, we have to change, we have to do something, we have to-”
“We don’t.” I gnawed at my lip until my mouth filled with iron. “It’s fine. It is.” My harsh voice filled the space between us even as she stepped back. She opened her mouth, closed it, then turned into her room. I should have said more.
I should have talked to you too, but I went to practice the piano instead. The days came and went, and we never did have the conversation. How could I approach you now, so much later? It seemed you both thought it best to shroud ourselves in silence.
“Are you really okay with this?” I heard you ask my sister now while I was supposed to be packing.
“Yes.” I couldn’t see you, but I heard your intake of breath at her response. There was a pause, in which you were probably nodding or picking at your fingernails.
“I just, I just think that we have to. It’s for the best.” It was the last thing you said, but somehow, I felt it was more than you’d ever say to me. I began stacking books in a cardboard box. For the rest of the night, part of me waited for you to come to my room and ask the same question, and the other part wasn’t surprised when you didn’t. I wanted you to, even though I didn’t want the conversation. But what I really wanted was, I just really wanted to-
Chopin’s family also moved when his younger sister Emilia died; but a sister and a mother are not the same thing.
I wonder if he had been against moving.
For days we packed, and I practiced obsessively in between while you scowled, so my hands were always busy. I didn’t have a tangible reason to until Mrs. Fisher from our church came with her weekly Sunday casserole. You could cook, but sometimes you forgot; maybe you just didn’t want to. I was staring at the lines of notes I still couldn’t play, taking advantage of your being at work, when she sat down next to me. Amy must’ve let her in, but she always seemed to want to check up on both of us. All of us, but most Sundays you were conveniently away. “Are you preparing for the recital?”
“Recital?” Something in my brain startled awake.
“Oh!” A flush crept up her neck. “Of course, you don’t have to play, I just thought…I’m sorry, dear, I’ll just-” One pudgy hand settled on my knee, her hair, the bench.
“No!” My elbow slipped and hit the middle C, a loud plunk reverberating through the house. “No, I’m sorry, I just forgot. I, yes. Yes! Yes, I’d like to play.” You wouldn’t want me to, I knew. I found I didn’t care.
“Oh, well, wonderful. That’s wonderful, dear.” She patted my cheek as I resumed my vain perusal of the page.
It would be my first performance in a long time. There had been piano music at the funeral, of course, but you hadn’t asked me to play. Nobody had. There were whispers in our living room during preparations that it’d be too much to ask; I wish you had told them to, because I didn’t think it was. They asked about everything else: about food, about guests, about lilies or gladiolas, though they both looked the same. So, I hadn’t played at the funeral, and I hadn’t cried. Amy had and you had; when it got to my turn I went over Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in my head instead. It had much more vigor and vibrancy than tears, I told myself as I scrutinized the stained glass. Besides, Mom would appreciate it more. I hadn’t ever seen you cry before, and I didn’t feel like I deserved to. Your tears were sacred, somehow, sitting in that church with that big wooden box that I couldn’t believe held my mother, all cold. She wasn’t cold; her hands were always like embers, igniting the piano keys in a fire of sound. You knew; you’d always ask her to put them on the back of your neck after you shoveled thick snow in the wintertime. What will you do this year? I suppose you’ll just be cold.
The minister had expressed his condolences: “I’m so sorry about her passing.” You didn’t respond, so I had to. “Yes, I’m sure you’ll all miss her very much.” His stare matched the others: I could feel them all, as if they expected something from me. I felt the swell of rising hysterics; the piano player was so off key and the minister was boring and you, you looked so absurd when your face was red from crying and this whole thing was meaningless and I-
Chopin loved Bach, Bach and his steady, stabilizing, mathematical music. He made his students play Bach’s pieces again and again, and was probably never satisfied.
“How are you doing?” It was Thursday, and my therapist was overenunciating everything. It was as if my response would then be as clear and concise as she wanted, to match hers. It was funny; you hardly remembered to eat, or shower, or do anything but work, but you somehow found me a therapist. Out of everything you could have done, this was it. I didn’t need one, I didn’t want one, but here I was.
“All right.” My fingers itched for the keys, and I tapped them on my thigh.
“Right.” She scribbled on her pad. Why was it that you made me go to therapy, yet never went yourself? “How are you coping with everything?”
“Just fine.” It wasn’t a lie. I was too busy to sit and cope. Especially now, with the recital.
“Oh.” I had heard her tell you that she was perplexed by me, and you’d shrugged as if you agreed. You probably did, but did you ever think that maybe it’s the other way around? She rambled on until our hour was up, and I stood to return to your waiting car.
“Wait. One more thing.” She grabbed my arm, leaning close. She smelled like smoke and peppermints. “It’s okay to be sad, you know.”
“I know.” And I did. It was just preferable not to be. This was just like when people reminded me that it wasn’t my fault. Of course it wasn’t my fault. Sometimes I can’t help but think some of it was yours. I’m almost positive you think that, too.
You drove me home, and you wouldn’t say anything, like you were the one who had just had forced conversation for the better part of an hour. I was used to it; but sometimes I just wanted you to say something, anything, sometimes I just wanted something from you –
Chopin preferred his students to pay him for lessons by leaving their money on his mantelpiece, while he turned away. The root of this was probably something like low self-esteem, or guilt, or anxiety, or another fancy term explored in therapy, but he never had to go.
I went to the cemetery once, as I was told I was supposed to do, even though you never did. I had stood in the slippery grass and gazed at the headstone, an unforgiving grey in the bright sun. I felt like I did when I was around you; nothing but silence. Nothing to say, nothing to do. I ran my finger down the etched line that represented my mother’s entire life and marveled at its smallness. I understood why you never came; it was pointless. She wasn’t there. Just like she wasn’t at the funeral, or at home, or anywhere. I was glad I hadn’t brought flowers; there wasn’t anyone to give them to. How could you say goodbye to someone who wasn’t there, who was only stone, who would never-
Chopin’s heart was buried separately from his body in a church near the place he was born. Sometimes, I’m afraid yours was buried with my mother.
Another night, you stopped us in the hallway to say the day was next Saturday. You had been home from work for two hours, so silent that I hadn’t realized you were there. You didn’t have much to pack; you had already given all of Mom’s things away. You had started the day after the funeral. I was studying the carpet, but I raised my head up at a word. Saturday.
“That’s my piano recital.” Most likely my last one in this church, I realized, as I blurted the words. Your eyes met mine and flicked away; your mouth was so pinched that heated words were already sparking from the fire of my throat when you spoke.
“Another recital?” Your voice was quiet
“Another? I haven’t had one in ages! Not since before-” My stop was abrupt while I watched your back stiffen.
“Fine.” You began the retreat to your bedroom. “Fine. We’ll leave after.” I almost asked if you were going to come, if maybe this time you could come, but you had already reached the end of the hall. The recital started at 6. By the time I went on, it would be around 6:24 p.m.
I had been nine when I was first considered good enough to perform with the advanced students. They studied under various teachers from the church, but I knew my mother was better than any of them. It was she who straightened out my dress shirt and smoothed down my hair, whispering “I’m proud of you. You’re so talented and special. Good luck!” Being young, I didn’t comprehend any reason to feel nervous. I scampered on the stage and played Für Elise better than I ever had at home. My mother hugged me after, while I looked around for you, but you weren’t there. I thought maybe you had just been busy that night, but you didn’t come to the next one either, or the one after that, or the one after. You didn’t miss a softball game, though. “Don’t worry,” My mother murmured, “Concerts just aren’t his thing.” Right. I stopped expecting you to come after about the sixth performance.
And why should this one be any different?
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I could hear Amy shifting and occasionally crying out, as she had started doing about once a week since that day. Since I could never do anything but awkwardly stand at the end of her bed and stare at her prone form, I came downstairs. I had the vague thought that maybe I could practice without pressing down on the keys, and sit there long enough to exhaust myself. But there you were, sitting cross-legged next to the box of photo albums I had packed earlier, with one open in front of you. Your shoulders were shaking and you were crying, the kind of tears that seemed impossible to stop and maybe always would be. I stood quietly, masked in the shadows from under the stairs, the same position I took by Amy’s bed. The ache of needing to do something, to reach for you, jolted through my nerves. The salty darkness pressed against me. I could help you, maybe, but here we both were, only hiding. And all I could do was stand and watch you, because I didn’t belong in your grief. I didn’t belong with you at all.
When I finally fell asleep, twisted in my sheets, I dreamed of my mother. It was of a real memory, but she was blurred at the edges and glowing gold. She was sitting next to me at the piano, breathless in her triumph at having just finished Chopin’s Spring Waltz. My eyes were wide as my tiny legs swung, far above the floor. I remember feeling, with as much certainty as a ten-year-old could muster, that I had witnessed some sort of miracle.
“It’s lovely, isn’t it? The piece. We don’t need much in life besides piano music, do we?” Her fingers absently traced over the rise and fall of the notes, and even then, I found myself wondering what it was she saw in you.
“It comes from the heart, from the soul.” She hummed a few bars, and I was so content to listen to her muse about what she loved best. “It captures the soul, don’t you forget that. There will always be music, and if you can play it, there will always be you.”
You would have scoffed, but you weren’t there, so it didn’t matter. Her thigh pressed against mine, warm and full, as she began to play.
I woke up, alone.
A lot of people say that Chopin came closest to capturing the piano’s soul. If you’d just listen to his compositions, you’d be able to hear it, too.
I decided to play L’adieu for the recital. A prettier word for “Farewell.” With it, I could recapture my mother’s soul, inhale what she loved, and she would be there. How could she not? Yes, I would master it, and then we could leave. Triumphant, I would fill the room and our silence with music and awe like my mother could do, with the swell of life itself. I would not live guiltily, nor mechanically while ceasing to exist, as you did. I would not abandon everything to get away and move on. No, I would embrace the music, embrace her, and find a peace you would not understand. Maybe she’ll hear me; maybe things will change. Maybe this étude is her favorite of Chopin’s. Maybe he thought of Emilia when he wrote it.
The day of the recital dawned hot, and I had awoken with a dull ache in my stomach. I lingered outside your bedroom door, my courage finally accumulating enough to rap my knuckles against the frame. Softly, too softly; but if anyone could hear it, it would be you. It was a waste of time. The room was empty. You were at work, and my sister’s door was shut, so I walked down to the church alone with a crooked tie and music in hand.
Last night I played the étude for hours, until my cramping fingers could remember exactly where to be and what to do. I’m sure you hadn’t enjoyed it, but I had to give you some taste of my performance, didn’t I? Now, I would play enthusiastically with clammy palms and captivate a sea of unfamiliar faces, right up to the final, fading, farewell chord. As the performance began, I traced my name in the program with my finger, wondering what it would look like etched in stone. The same, I suppose, because nothing seemed to change, did it? You’d advocate for that, wouldn’t you? But you wanted change, or the illusion of it; and in this moment, so did I. But it was a different kind, where things can be held on to and not let go, and a different way of getting it. I doubt you’d understand or try to understand if I discussed it with you, if we ever discussed anything, –
Chopin only performed about thirty times. He was probably too nervous, or maybe he lacked occasions important enough.
It was my turn. The pain in my stomach doubled, but I’m eager to play again. I need to play this piece for her, this piece that I can overcome. Walk, Freddy. Come on. Get up there. Recapture her, and her vitality.
I was a pianist; it didn’t matter that the red tie in the audience that looked like yours belonged to the postman, or that my sister was too quiet except in sleep, or that you were making sure we wouldn’t stay, and neither had she. I could play like my mother, for my mother, and the notes would bathe us all in tranquility. Everything could be the same, be fixed, go on. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? To go on. But you wanted to leave her, and I needed her to stay. I began.
Except. I hit a wrong note. Then another. My hands shook desperately. Chopin would’ve been disappointed, you would’ve been disappointed; I’m not strong, or fine, or magnificent. I am small. I am alone. She isn’t here. My fingers forgot; my eyes couldn’t focus on the page or the tears. They couldn’t. I couldn’t. I needed-
Chopin’s other title, Tristesse, means Sadness. You should know that, you should know that, it’s all that we are.
I stopped. The church seemed empty. Silent. A chasm that opened before me, white walls insurmountable. And I usually focused on the music, instead of the pain, but there was nowhere to hide in the silence. Is this what it felt like to be you? How did you bear it? I was suffocating from within. She had been wrong; the music couldn’t recapture anything, Chopin couldn’t do anything here, and a piano could be silenced as quickly and easily as the beating of a heart. Music could curdle in an instant as fleeting as when you lost it all, a 6:24 p.m.
I stood to run. The red tie faced me. Please be you, Dad.
You stood tall in the middle of the audience of your first recital. Your head was up, your eyes were up and fixed on me, and there wasn’t anywhere for either of us to hide.
It could have been 6:24 p.m. when you led me to the car, a broad palm on my back nearly unrecognizable. I don’t know; 6:24 p.m. is just a time. I am only Freddy. A house is just a house, an étude is just an étude, and you are you, my father; and you came.
“You’ll get it right someday.” It was soft, tentative in the silence (our typical routine). And it was possibly true, but I found that mastery didn’t matter quite so much anymore. There would always be beautiful long notes, and rousing crescendos, but I didn’t have to play them all. There were other things besides work and piano. You didn’t entail a response, so I just nodded and held your gaze. A clear, strong blue. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed it before. We didn’t say anything else during the ride home, but this silence was different.
And maybe Chopin once messed up a piece when he thought everything counted, and maybe he didn’t. I suppose it doesn’t actually matter; he’s dead. He’s been dead this whole time.
University of Michigan
Abigail Provenzano is a junior majoring in Biomolecular Science and minoring in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. Her current plan is to pursue medical school, but she hopes that creative expression through writing will always be a constant in her life. In addition to Runestone, another of her short stories was recently published in Café Shapiro Anthology.