Finzi’s Bagatelles, I and II
She plays piano like no one I’ve heard before. Only when the mood strikes her. Just as sometimes I can’t help but stand on the very edge of a balcony, she’ll be drawn to the bench, arch her fingers over the keys, and play. Flowing melodies that ripple across the living room and down my spine. She’ll play on and on, picking at random from a pool of famous and original pieces that she loves. And then, she’ll stop–like a comb catching in an unexpected mat. A sudden, dissonant halt. After this, she will stage a silent retreat. Or perhaps pinch a few notes, halfheartedly trying at the tangle. If I happen to be in the room, she usually laughs, that forced, self-conscious laugh she’s mastered, and says something like, “Well… I guess that’s it.”
Her name is Elle and she’s damn lazy. If she wanted to, she could be majoring in music, holding recitals and garnering praise and pride, but instead, she’s going for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. The hell? You never read anything but short internet articles and social networking status updates. You regularly ask, when you see me reading from your class novels that I unwrap from their thin plastic wrap (I can’t help it, I love breaking in new things), what they’re about, what were the main themes, etcetera, etcetera, and then recycle my words into your C+ papers.
From what I can tell, you hate literature.
Elle shrugs. “My parents just want me to get something.”
Why not piano?
You’re good at it.
“Most of the time, I don’t feel like being good at it.”
I wonder if she’s ever felt like being good at anything.
Elle’s parents pay for everything, but she gets by on the bare minimum. As someone who is working their way through college, gritting their teeth behind the Customer Service booth at Sears and living off a diet of popcorn, coffee, and peanut butter, she should incite envy, but I know better. I’ve seen how empty her eyes are when she comes home with her shopping bags full of multicolored scarves and patterned leggings. Most of the them stay permanently resigned to her closet. Her favorite things to wear are those ‘last day of school’ shirts from elementary and high school–the plain white tees with scrawled signatures and pleasant smiley faces. She is extremely small, so even the oldest ones look bulky.
Were you popular?
“Not really. You know, everyone always goes crazy with these shirts.” She plucks at a short sleeve with the word summer written on it. “You’re running around with a sharpie, getting to write your name on all these people. Like living graffiti walls. It’s fun to fill up the blank spaces.”
I guess. I was always annoyed by that ritual, didn’t want people who treated me like a ghost to put down their insincere pleasantries. But when I tell Elle this, she giggles. “You’re so… what’s the word… emo.”
She doesn’t take anything seriously, and I think that, more than the free ride, is what makes me envious.
Elle says she used to have a different boyfriend every year in high school, but nowadays she avoids them like the plague. She can’t help but be pleasant in person (and she also can’t help but feel sorry for them), but she won’t share a conversation longer than two minutes with anyone bearing a Y chromosome. She jogs home from class everyday to avoid small talk. In class, she always has her nose behind a random page of Anna Karenina (she has not read the book, per say, but can instead tell you about the various paragraphs she has gotten to know. The Tolstoy lover in me wants to murder her). She abstains from using makeup, barely brushes her hair. Unfortunately, she’s a natural, renaissance painting, Lady of the Lake. Beautiful. Elusive. A mystery. All the guys want to catch her.
I could really care less when it comes to her love life. The men pursuing her range in character from adorably awkward art majors to smooth-talking, callous-hearted poli-scis. She can find nothing substantial in any of them. Most of the time she can’t even remember their hair color.
When I ask her about it, she confides in me, twirling her long hair between her fingers. “One of my old favorite things to do was take all the last names of all the guys in my class, and see how it’d look. Elle White, Elle Sams, Elle Lambert, Elle Harris…”
Your name sounds weird when it’s not attached to Feathering. Like it’s weighed down with a rock or something.
She agrees. “I always wanted to keep my last name. I never wanted to give it up. Oh, but anyway… yeah, I don’t know. For some reason, it just stopped. Me liking guys. It stopped after freshmen year here.”
Why? We’ve only been roommates since she was a junior, myself a sophomore. What happened?
“Ha-ha, no one broke my heart or anything, if that’s what you mean.” Her blue eyes are brightening; they look a little vacant. It makes me want to stop talking to her. “Nothing like that. Just stopped, is all. Like cigarettes.”
She doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke. Doesn’t get high. Doesn’t even watch trashy reality television. Christ, sometimes I really wish she would!
I can’t help it, but I keep making up reasons for her being this way. She was abused and now she’s stuck in a paralyzed state of friendly apathy–better yet, this is a persona, a defensive personality, and the real one is stuck inside, unable to reconnect with reality! Her parents never gave her enough love, just credit cards, and her meaningless romances with football jocks have left her heart barren. She doesn’t want to work or be anything because she’s convinced there’s nothing worth being. She lives in the dreams that take place during her three hour naps.
But I can’t confirm any of these theories, because she never gives me any cause to try validating them. She’s never sad; even what I suppose is melancholy is just a surmise. Her laugh is brief and thankfully heartfelt, but it’s not something I hear often. If I prod about her past, she answers truthfully and indifferently, no angst here. How aggravating.
“Why does there have to be a skeleton in her closet?” my boyfriend asks. He’s right, but then I imagine a flat and rubbery Elle, waking up every morning and sticking her toothbrush in her mouth, filling out like a blow-up doll. It’s creepy.
“She’s just your roommate. You two aren’t even that close.” Yeah. “In a year or two, you’ll probably never see her again; just a name popping up on the internet sometimes.” Yeah, that’s what happens. “What is she wanting to do after college anyway?”
“Ha-ha, you look like you’re expecting me to say nothing.” I am. “No, I’ve got plans. I want to become a missionary.”
A missionary? You’re religious? I’m shocked. On Sundays, she sleeps in until three. When she eats, she shovels it down without so much as an amen. But Elle nods, laces her pale fingers in her lap and shrugs.
“Yes. There’s a church, set up in Rwanda. You play with the children… teach them how to read and write. Make soup.” Oh Lord. “Sometimes in the city, sometimes out in the boondocks. I’ll just work wherever they put me.”
Sorry if it sounds kinda offensive, but you believe in God?
“Yes,” she murmurs. Why not? is what I hear.
I do research on Rwanda. I’m not convinced. What is she going to do there? Is she really going because she wants to? I picture her surrounded by the rest of the volunteers and the foreign, smiling children, wearing yet another big white tee–I imagine their hands smeared with finger-paint, covering up her spaces in reds and blues and yellows.
Well. I scratch my head. Are you at least going to have a piano?
She’s still smiling. “Nope.”
Elle’s gone now. I’m nearly done with college myself. I know that she went to Rwanda, but it’s not like I saw her off or received a postcard or anything. The semester before she graduated, I moved out to live with my boyfriend. I didn’t hug her, didn’t promise to keep in touch or anything like that. Neither of us had done much opening up.
I know because I saw her tagged in a picture online–she’s in the corner, nailing a plank up, while in the forefront there’s a bunch of smiling youths hugging beaming grandmas. What can I infer from that sliver of her? Not much. She needs to learn how to hold a hammer right.
The last time she played piano, it was for nearly seven minutes. One song. I had never heard anything so beautiful in my life. I took a seat on the floor, across from her, watched the expression of her face. It was the only time I’d ever bothered to. I won’t ever forget that face. She looked so pained.
When she finished, I meant to ask, what are you thinking? But it came out, what do you need? I blushed; my voice box sounded dumb, clumsy in the aftermath of the piano.
“A clarinet,” she said. Stood up and accompanied by her pet laugh, disappeared.
Well… I guess that’s it.
I realize now how rarely we can ask the right questions.