I’m currently in that lull between projects. Still letting ideas percolate through for the next WIP, waiting on agent feedback on the last novel, and mostly staring at the walls in kind of a dizzied stupor. Though that’s mostly the fault of juggling the day job, the five children, and writing novels, I think.
I wrote a short-short story a while back and entered it into a few contests. It got some decent feedback, but never won anything. (How’s THAT for a sales pitch? Are you interested now?) I’m harvesting some of it for the next WIP–a decidedly contemporary piece about two mixed-race kids who have a hard time fitting in anywhere, but manage to find each other. There are also going to be cherry blossoms and tsunamis. But no dragons or ghosts this time.
Since the short-short story has seen the end of the editorial road, I figure there’s no harm in sharing it.
So here you go, all 2100 words of “To Catch a Train”:
Eyes closed. Steady now. Deep breath. Hold it. Exhale, and eyes open.
The judges stare at me with cold faces. Behind them, I see the guest seating area. The two seats I had reserved for tonight remain empty. She couldn’t come. He didn’t come. I knew he wouldn’t. I’d held out hope, though. I’m not even sure what I’d tell him. Goodbye?
The rest of the concert hall is lost in darkness, overpowered by the bright stage lights overhead. In this moment everything is pure silence. I take my place at the keyboard of the polished black Steinway. Right index finger on upper B flat. Left little finger on lower B flat. My nails are pink, well-manicured. The color clashes with my mood and the setting, but it felt appropriate. It makes me smile, briefly. My soul slides into place with my hands.
I close my eyes again. Everything’s clear in that inner darkness. The last year comes rushing back and I exhale, forcing the tidal wave of emotions away from my eyes. This is too good to waste on tears. This is how you play Chopin. Right hand begins the slow, silent opening run, quickly joined by the left. My fingers caress the keys, right foot working the sustain pedal. My body moves in time with the music as everything I’ve ever felt courses through me, struggling to find a way out, at last fleeing to the only outlet I’m making available. My fingertips.
I melt into the melody and it embraces me. This is where I belong. Not in Japan, not on this stage, but in the bittersweet notes of Chopin’s Nocturne in B-flat Minor. I crack my eyelids open and that’s when I know I’ve won the competition. One judge has closed her eyes, the other has raised his eyebrows, leaned in on suited elbows. This is my one performance to die for. Achingly perfect legatos drift through the concert hall like cherry blossoms on the breeze. Beautiful in their death.
I close my eyes.
Father died a year ago today.
Mother and I moved from backwoods Mississippi to backwoods Japan, into a small house with my widowed aunt. Foreigners were rare and mixed kids like me were unheard of. Friends came quickly at school as my classmates asked about life in America. I represented it all to them. But soon that melody grew old, they went back to their familiar social tunes, and I was left alone again. Alone with my music.
I felt him there, that rainy afternoon in the music room. Watching me. I played harder, tears streaming down my cheeks as all my loneliness, grief, and disappointment poured from my fingers. And when I had finished, he stood there, slack-jawed, his face telling me all I needed to know.
His name was Ryoji. Maybe if I had opened up to him that day, everything would have ended differently. Maybe if I had told him how mother drove me to cut myself with the constant pushing for perfection at the keys, refusing to let me play by heart. By soul. She demanded flawless technique and execution, as only that would win the highest accolades. Day in, day out I practiced until my fingers throbbed. Numb, broken. She would stop me at the first wrong note and force me to start again from the beginning, even if it was the last measure of the piece.
I did not cry out for help. I remained silent. Ryoji would reject me if he thought I was weak.
Another bitter swell of music, longer than the first, carries me onward. The stage lights continue to warm my arms. My black dress tickles the back of my thigh as my right leg pedals through the next several runs. I wish I’d practiced in this dress to get used to the feeling, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters anymore.
When I told mother about Ryoji, she slapped me so hard one of her fingernails clipped my cheek and drew blood. It was not the first time. I yelled at her that I was in love, and he loved me, and my music had brought us together.
She slapped me again.
My aunt stopped in the kitchen doorway the next morning at the sight of my face, her smile turned sour. I wanted to tell her about the bruises, about how mother had beat me since I was five whenever I would talk back or make the same mistake a second time at the piano. But she and mother shared a sisterly love I had never known as an only child. She couldn’t ask. I couldn’t bring it up.
Three months ago Ryoji kissed me. It was raining and he’d come home with me to hear me play. Mother was out with my aunt burning money at the pachinko parlor. I kept peeking through the curtains as I played, fearing she would come home early and catch us together, catch me playing from the heart.
We kissed on the front porch, soaking wet, giggling as we kept trying to say our goodbyes but finding our tongues getting in the way. I felt a spark there I was sure would flare up into an inferno if only mother hadn’t interrupted us with her scream of disapproval. She had returned at the exact wrong moment.
Mother threatened to call the police, threatened him with charges of rape. Ryoji fled. And then she chased me inside. She grabbed the large carving knife from the wood block on the kitchen counter and pointed it at me. I backed against the piano, nowhere to run, tears streaming down my face. I screamed I was sorry, that I would never see Ryoji again. She called me a slut, cut the air between us with a slash of the knife. I screamed I’d never given myself to anybody but my music, screamed she needn’t worry about me, that I would win the competition. That I wouldn’t make the same mistake she made. That I wouldn’t get pregnant.
That’s when she cut me.
My aunt called the paramedics while mother locked herself in her room. They asked me what happened as they bandaged up my arm. I told them I slipped while making dinner. Nobody asked why the only blood was in the living room. Nobody asked why there were no vegetables on the cutting board, no pans on the stove.
After they left, we went to check on mother, forcing the door open after she refused to answer. She swung by the neck from a coat hook near her bed, calloused feet scraping a footstool lying on its side.
The song now segues into an uplifting tone. Someone in the concert hall sighs.
For weeks after the funeral I cried myself to sleep. My aunt wandered through the house like a ghost, never speaking. She only let me stay because I had nowhere else to go. Alone. Terrified. But for the first time, I was free.
Three weeks after mother died, I mustered up the courage to invite Ryoji over. The Chopin competition was coming up. I wanted him to hear me play, to tell me I was still perfect. To give him one of my two guest tickets for the competition. The other was for mother.
Before he arrived I painted my nails pink, braided my hair, perfumed all the right places with one of mother’s favorites. I waited by the door until I heard his footsteps on the gravel path outside. I opened the door but his eyes would not meet mine. He tapped his legs, looked over his shoulder. I told him my aunt was out shopping for groceries, that we were alone. That he needn’t worry. Reluctantly, he came inside.
I took him upstairs to my room where I told him I had something special for him. I pulled the ticket from under my worn pillow. He took it, looked it over, and held it back out to me. I asked him to see my dress before making up his mind, and quickly slipped into my closet, closing the door behind me. My breaking heart beat quickly in my chest and I knew that this was the crucial moment. I pushed aside the other clothes until I got to that black dress with its wide open back and thin velvet shoulder straps.
I pulled my t-shirt over my head, stepped out of my pants, and stared at that dress long and hard. Winter was approaching, and goose bumps popped up all over my arms and legs. I listened for Ryoji’s breathing. He hadn’t left. I slipped the dress on, took a deep breath, and opened the closet door.
His back was to me. I took a step toward him and nearly changed my mind but he turned around at the sound of my footstep and saw me standing there, arms by my side. Goosebumps and all. His eyes grew wide as I walked toward him. He didn’t back away.
We stood eye to eye. Our noses touched. His breath came fast and warm against my upper lip. I leaned in to kiss him but he pulled away. He told me to stop but his eyes told me to go. I grabbed his hand and held it against one of my breasts.
Ryoji fell against the wall like he’d been shot. He scrambled to his feet, telling me he was sorry, he’d thought he could love me once, but now his heart was with another girl. She was nice. She understood him. She was Japanese.
I let him go. I wanted to cry, but a small part of me still clung to feeble hope. He’d taken the ticket.
The song ends much as it began, with haunting runs and unmatched timing that only raw emotion can deliver. I hold the last note longer than necessary, until the strings inside the piano go still and the sound dies against the velvet walls of the concert hall. I stand and take my bow to roaring applause. I would smile but there’s nothing left inside. No more smiles. No more tears.
The final two contestants play their pieces and while technically perfect they are wooden and lifeless. The judges confirm my feelings. I am declared the winner. I’ve done it. I’ve beaten mother.
I wave to the audience as they applaud once more and one of the judges presents me with my trophy and a large bouquet of white flowers. After several more bows and photographs with the judges and runners-up I head out into the cold Osaka night and make my way to the station.
I stand off to one side of the platform away from the crowds. It’s a Saturday night and people are out with their friends, catching movies, grabbing bites to eat, heading to clubs. Everyone is having a typical life except for me. I’m here to catch a train. I have no idea where it’s going to take me, and I don’t even care because anywhere is better than here.
I study the flowers and the trophy for a moment and decide that both are too troublesome to carry. I set them down on the platform at my feet. In the distance I can see the next express train approaching the station. Its whistle calls out in the busy night.
I scan the platform and one girl catches my eye. She looks vaguely Japanese, but with rounder eyes, red hair that does not come from a bottle. Another mixed girl like myself. She half-smiles, and I wonder if it’s an invitation. For a split second I think I should go talk to her, maybe not catch this train after all. Share our stories as outsiders, become sisters in our displacement.
Then a Japanese guy comes up and puts his arms around her. She smiles, kisses him over her shoulder. Behind him comes an older couple that look like his parents, and beside them another couple—a balding American man and his petite Japanese wife. They smile and chat amongst themselves as I hear for the roar of the train’s approach.
She is no outsider. She cannot help me. I turn to face the rails.
The train’s almost here now. Everyone’s picked up their bags and belongings, preparing to hop on as soon as the doors open. I watch it approach, its headlights blinding, just like the stage lights from the concert hall.
Eyes closed. Steady now. Deep breath. Hold it. Exhale, and eyes open.