Tristesse

Tristesse

White. Everything is white. The ceiling, the floor, the sheets on the bed against the back wall. She would love it here. White is her favorite color. I remember a phase she was going through when she was seven in which she wouldn’t wear any color except white. She told me once that she loved how clean it looked. Well, this place certainly is clean. The air smells of formaldehyde.

I fell in love with her the first time I saw her. I was with her mother at the birth; she was our first child. I sat with her mother for the five hours she was in labor, giving her ice cubes, wiping away her sweat, telling her she was going to be okay, we were in a big hospital, nothing would go wrong, everything would be fine. My mother told me afterwards that it was a relatively easy birth compared to horror stories she’d heard about women being in labor for ten hours or giving birth alone, but it certainly wasn’t easy for me: I nearly broke my hand with the amount of squeezing Anna did as she summoned the strength to push.

But it was worth it. She entered the world with a robust, throaty cry the exact instant her mother fell back with exhaustion and happiness. While Anna lay sprawled out on the bed, coated in sweat, I cut the umbilical cord with shaking hands. The nurse wrapped the baby in a soft pink blanket and handed her to me. She was perfect, a little ball of wrinkled flesh. She had tiny, flexible fingers and feet. Her head was covered by a mop of wet chestnut hair. I looked down and saw something on her stomach; it was a red birthmark, about two inches wide, shaped like a teardrop, sharp on one end and elegantly rounded on the other. Her eyes were squeezed shut, with a dollop of yellowish gunk on each corner. Her face was red with screaming. I handed her over to her mother and sat in a chair next to the hospital bed as I watched her suck on her mother’s breast.

She was adorable when she was an infant, and even more so when she learned to walk. She used to lie on the bed in her yellow one-piece and stare at me while I worked at my desk nearby. Her eyes were peculiar, one eye green and the other gray like her mother, but she inherited my straight nose and curly hair. She still had the birthmark, too. As a toddler, she would waddle all over the house in search of her treasures: a piece of red yarn, a button left neglected under the sofa, a bobby pin her mother dropped on the bathroom floor.

I take one step towards the bed. My dress shoes, the ones she bought for me last Father’s Day at Bloomingdale’s, screech against the linoleum floor.

When she was three or four years old, we started a ritual. On Sunday mornings, I would wake up at seven in the morning, leaving her mother in the warmth of our bed. I would tiptoe down to her room and tickle her under the armpits until she erupted in hysterical giggles. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs, leftovers from the previous night, we would go to the old Steinway in the living room. I kept a few shelves of scores from my childhood next to the piano, and we would leaf through them until she found one that had interesting orange juice stains or something or the other that attracted her. The music always delighted her; she pranced around the living room as I played “The Blue Danube,” pretending to waltz in her pajamas. She laughed when I ran my fingers down the black and white keys and improvised silly tunes.

When she was five, she found Chopin’s Etude No.3, Op. 10 in a yellowed book of Romantic music. She excitedly handed the score to me and stood next to the piano, looking at my fingers with the usual gleam of curiosity in her eyes. As I began playing, she plopped down onto the polished hardwood floor next to the piano, looking up in a hypnotized manner, like a cobra charmed by a flute. I was bewildered. She had never been like this before. When I finished, she suddenly sprang up, out of her trance, and wrapped her skinny arms around my waist, begging me to play “the pretty water piece” again. And again after the second time. We spent the entire morning on one piece of music. I played the same piece for three consecutive Sunday mornings in a row afterwards. I tried other Chopin pieces on her, and also some Rachmaninoff and Mozart, even Bach. She wouldn’t budge; the piece was her favorite.

One step more. One step closer.

Not long after, she began piano lessons, learning from one of my wife’s patients, a Russian lady, Mrs. Nazarov, a widow who lived alone with her twenty-pound cat Tobi and her thirty-year-old, unemployed son Dmitri. She made such progress that Mrs. Nazarov put her as the star of an upcoming recital three months later, playing “Fur Elise.” I remember kneeling in the aisle of the church the performance was in, my knee balancing precariously on the worn red carpet as I struggled to steady the video camera in my trembling hands. She waved to me as she took her bows on stage, her eyes shining. She looked lovely in that blue dress, a dress the color of tears. I remember that getting her to wear that dress was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, because she was in the phase where she would wear only white and nothing else.

I’m at the bedside now. There is something- no, someone- covered with a white sheet on the bed.

Her concert is this Wednesday at 6:00 p.m. She will be playing Chopin’s Trio in G Minor for piano, violin and cello. She had learned to love Chopin’s music as a whole once she began playing piano. I will be in the audience, front row, third seat from the left in her school auditorium, not just because I promised her I would be there, but because I haven’t missed any of her recitals and concerts since she began performing. She will step on the pedal twice before beginning to play, another one of her odd good-luck charms. She always did it at home when she was practicing because the pedals of our old piano frequently jammed.

I yank back the white sheet. It’s her. Laura Goodman, fourteen years old, was hit by a car while going home after chamber practice. Was hit at 4:33 p.m. by a drunken man in his forties in a silver Nissan Versa. The driver fled the scene. A passerby called 911 at 4:36, three minutes after she was hit. Ambulances arrived at 4:46, ten minutes after the call. She was sprawled out on the gravel, her backpack and lunchbox in heaps twenty yards away from her, but clutching her folder of sheet music. Arrived at Blue Mountain Hospital at 5:06. Pronounced dead on arrival. Father contacted at 5:16 through the phone number on the forms for registration of NYSSMA Piano Exam, Level Six found in her backpack. Father arrives at hospital at 5:46. Is led to her by an apologetic but idealistically indifferent nurse.

Her eyes are closed and the corners of her mouth droop downwards slightly to make her seem like she’s peacefully asleep. Hand shaking, I tentatively reach up and stroke her cheek and discover that there is a tiny carmine-colored disc of dried blood near the left corner of her mouth. I rub it off; nothing should disturb her in her sleep. I tug the sheet down some more. I pull up the edge of her blood-stained sweater enough to see her stomach. Caressing her right hipbone is a faded red birthmark in the shape of a teardrop. Yes, it’s her. It’s Laurie.

A tear forces itself out of the corner of my left eye and slides down the side of my face, then becomes trapped in the grayish-brownish stubble along my jawbone. I rub the back of my neck with my hand as more tears come down and I don’t want them to, because I never want her to see me like this but I can’t control it because I realize now that I missed my chance to tell her I figured out why she likes Tristesse and Chopin.

Chopin’s music is white.

Alison Zhao, Age 14, Grade 9, HUnter College High School, Silver Key

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