Jean-Paul Tremblay’s hands itched with the all-too-familiar burn that raged miles beneath the skin. It didn’t help that he was also being tortured by the most ham-fisted rendition of Grieg’s Piano Concerto he had ever heard.
“I’ve heard enough, Leslie.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not seeing the kind of improvement that shows me you’re serious.”
“Isn’t that a little unfair, Mr. Tremblay? This is only my second — ”
“When I was your age, Leslie, I was practicing every night for three hours to make it into the premiere National Junior Virtuoso academies.”
“And look where that got you.”
Jean-Paul flexed his stiff fingers and massaged his hands. “I’ll refund your mother the remaining tuition by week’s end.”
It wasn’t Lindsey’s fault. Not really. And Jean-Paul knew this. Yes she was twelve. And when Jean-Paul was twelve he was a prodigy competing against musicians twice his age. And as much as he wanted to be angry or disappointed at her for not taking the work more seriously, he also knew how rare it was to have both the talent and the tutelage he had as a child.
What Lindsey didn’t know — couldn’t know — was how much sacrifice it took to reach those heights. Or how devastating it was to lose it all.
The private music lesson industry had always been an inconsistent one, but Jean-Paul had never before alienated his entire stock of pupils. He told himself this was only a dry spell, business would pick up, his reputation as both a world-class pianist and passionate instructor would channel talented new pupils his way.
Two weeks crawled by and the only calls were from music camps or a couple chain-contractors he assumed wanted to cash in on his celebrity. He wasn’t Orson Welles trying to cling to a snuffed-out stardom. He was still in his prime. Even if he couldn’t play as masterfully as he had before, his sharpness hadn’t dulled — he was still a keen musical mind. Just a defeated, frustrated one.
So when Callie walked into his studio without an appointment, he received her with the undeserved enthusiasm one greats the mailman on a dreary afternoon. Callie was older than his typical student, usually twelve to sixteen, but exhibited the skittish demeanor of a pre-teen. She fidgeted when introducing herself and was reluctant to make eye contact.
“So Callie, what is it you’re looking for exactly? I usually deal in younger students looking to perform competitively or to gain an edge for admissions programs.”
“My mother adored your work when I was a child. She’d tape your performances when they were televised and re-watch them over and over. We always had a piano in the home. Mother played beautifully.” Callie picked at her fingers. “Anyhow, now she’s…gone, but the piano’s still there. I thought it might be fitting. To make things up to her.”
“If you’re just looking to play a few bars, that’s not really — ”
“I can pay, Mr. Tremblay. Mother left behind some rainy day money. It’s not much, but it should be enough. And besides, I think it’s mean so much to her, knowing how she adored your work.”
Normally Jean-Paul would not have heard this insult out. Normally his schedule would be packed full of appointments from promising young up-and-comers. But things seemed to be moving further and further from normal for him lately. And while this young woman certainly wasn’t going to rekindle his image, having her here meant food on the table.
It was an odd situation for Jean-Paul to have but a single pupil. Since becoming an instructor eight years ago, his appointment book was bolero of activity — crescendos and time changes — that he navigated with his customary rhythmic sense of beat. The beat was off now. The whir of action and sensation slowed to a predictable waltz.
Callie was a model student — obedient and thorough — but also routine and dull. She responded to his instructions and reproduced the movements with accuracy, but her body might as well have been made out of cardboard. She was not so much a pupil as a machine he was programming. And the mundanity of it all was agonizing.
After a month of bi-weekly sessions, he couldn’t take it anymore. “Callie, what are you doing here?”
“I told you why. I want to learn to play like my mother.”
“You said your mother played the piano beautifully. Tell me about her playing.”
“Well I don’t know what you want me to say. She was good. She could play anything that she — ”
“Don’t tell me about the music. Tell me about her playing. What was it like?”
“Well it sounded lovely. It was the most lovely — ”
“You’re not listening. I don’t want to know about the sound. What was it like? When she played? What was it like to be there with her when she played?”
“It was like…she was dancing.”
“Yes. Go on.”
“It was like she could see the music and was moving after it, trying to catch it in her hands like fireflies.”
“So then why do you come in here and play this piano like you’re allergic to it? You came to me because you wanted to honor your mother and yet you bring the enthusiasm of a eulogy.”
At that, Callie sprang to her feet. “I didn’t want to believe what people said about you, but you really are a bastard. Just because your mother ruined your bright, shiny future doesn’t give you the right to take it out on the rest of us.” In the first display of passion Jean-Paul had ever witnessed from her, Callie stormed out of the studio with her middle fingers raised high.
Jean-Paul’s hands burned with a smoldering fire like they hadn’t burned with for over eight years.
The Hamptons are known for their symphonic blend of idyllic beauty and their obscenely wealthy residents. What they are less well-known for is their winding roads. Mix with some of those same wealthy residents, an over-priced European sports car, and an unseasonably turbulent downpour with the steady bassline of a loveless marriage and that symphony twists into a screeching cacophony of shattered glass, shattered lives, and a pair of shattered hands that foretold a shattered future.
Jean-Paul Tremblay awoke from the same cacophony of shattering screeches that he did almost every night since he awoke from the accident that took from him his parents and his ambitions. Only the accident was different this time.
Instead of his mother at the wheel, drunk and slurring her vitriol at his father, Jean-Paul was in control of the car. And he wasn’t a boy of 16 — about to have his beautiful hands ripped apart — but the same broken man of 27 with his broken and scarred hands that burned at an impossible depth. Instead of his unapologetic father in the passenger seat, it was Callie. Unlike his father, she wasn’t being dismissive or insulting. She just sat there, looking down, tears in her eyes. On the radio, Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Just like he had played at his final performance.
Jean-Paul had once been a very successful young man with a very successful resume of accomplishments, but despite those many accomplishments he had yet to successfully deliver a genuine apology. It was easy enough to dig up Callie’s address from her private lesson paperwork and to drive to her house. Ringing her doorbell was another matter.
Jean-Paul stood outside the front door for several minutes, playing and replaying what he might say like rehearsing for a performance. He felt the same burning sensation he was accustomed to feeling in his hands. Only now it was in his gut. It felt like a deep rumbling fire — volcanic, elemental. He reached for the doorbell just as the door swung open.
“You’ve been standing on my porch for over seven minutes like a pervert. Two of my neighbors have already called. What do you want?” Callie’s voice was fierce.
“I, uh…I’m sorry?”
“Are you asking me? If so I disagree. If not I disagree, too.”
“Can I come in? Please?”
Callie narrowed her eyes, but Jean-Paul could tell they were red. The fire in his gut burned even louder.
“Fine. Take your shoes off.”
Callie led him through the entrance and into a cozy living room with a pair of worn recliners, a couch, and a small baby grand piano. She gestured to the couch, white and yellow afghan across the back. She sat down and creaked a recliner.
“Look, Callie. I really am sorry.” Jean-Paul massaged his hands. “I didn’t mean to be so — I was trying to root out your passion, to help you feel the music. Without that passion, the music is just sound.”
“You really don’t get it, do you?” Callie stood up and paced the living room. “I get that I may not be a musical genius, but even children know how to apologize and mean it.”
“I get it. You want to honor your mother. She was special to you and you want to — ”
“You don’t get it at all you self-important ass! Do you even listen to people? I told I wanted to make things up to her. I need to make up for — for killing my mother.” Callie collapsed in sobs on the piano bench.
Jean-Paul moved next to her, his hand scarred hand resting on her shoulder. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. But even that didn’t give me the right to talk to you the way I did. Will you tell me what happened?”
Callie again explained how her mother loved to watch his old performances on tape and play along on the piano. Even when she started to get sick, she continued to play the piano. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was happening and the tests were taking their toll on her mother. Some days she was too weak or too nauseous to get out of bed. Callie tried to help as best she could — simple things like doing chores around the house and making dinner. She even looked up some recipes that offered health benefits on the off-chance that it might do some good. The coroners were the ones to finally figure out that her mother’s illness was caused from the onset of severe food allergies.
Jean-Paul leaned in closer on the piano bench. “And you blame yourself.”
Callie nodded through subsiding sniffles.
“There was no way you could have known.”
“But — but it was the food that I made for her — ”
“If you continue to blame yourself for the love you had for your mother, you’ll never honor her with music.” He put his hand on her hand. “That’s not how music works. And, though I don’t know as much on this subject, I don’t think that’s how people work, either. I think maybe I’m starting realize that.”
“What do you know about blaming yourself for tragedy? Everyone knows your story — newspapers, Entertainment Tonight — your mom got drunk and wrapped the Lambo around a tree. How hard is it to forgive yourself for that?”
“Well I guess Entertainment Tonight got it a little wrong. They probably didn’t get the scoop since I was too busy having 23 different operations done on my hands and going through two years of rehab to fill them in on why mom was trashed and furious at my dad. I was the one who told her I saw dad ‘taking a spin’ with the saleswoman who sold him his new Lamborghini. If I hadn’t said anything, they’d still be alive and I’d have more of a future than trying to teach kids to give a damn enough to play the piano half as well as I ever could.”
“And you have no one to share this gift of yours with…I had no idea. I’m — wow, we’re just a couple of bastards, aren’t we?” She smiled, wiping her eyes.
“Even lonely, orphaned notes can combine to form a harmony.” Jean-Paul lifted Callie’s hands onto the piano, overlaying them with his own.
Are you familiar with Grieg’s Piano Concerto?
As their hands moved together, the burning in his hands became the twinkling glow of fireflies.