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Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life
Requiem (on a Wet Piano)
by Jamie Wasserman
Leigh was the first to find the body though that was only an accident. In fact, the last thing Jay said to Leigh was that he didn't want her in his life. Though didn't Jay always say that? During expensive dinners that Jay treated. Before Leigh's recitals. After sex. Especially after sex. "That was great, but I don't think we should see each other again." At first, Leigh would cry when Jay said this, but gradually she realized that Jay wasn't pushing her away, he was sending her a cryptic message asking for help. Like smoke signals in a thunderstorm, it was somewhat difficult to read, but the message was clearly there.
     Jay would have been the one to use metaphors not Leigh, but Leigh remembers, Jay is dead and it was a storm that killed him and not a metaphoric one but Hurricane Agnes which shredded its way as if invited, straight through Jay's front door. Leigh says Agnes out loud, then frowns. Jay would have enjoyed being killed by a storm, it would have carried enough symbolism for him, but surely he would have changed the name. Leigh tries to think of a name suitable for both Jay's poetic sense of irony and for the total annihilation that has occurred both of Jay and Leigh's piano.

Jay borrowed Leigh's piano when they were still on terms, which was Jay's euphemism for not dating but still having sex. He said he wanted to write a sonnet sequence on each of the piano keys and Jay was always careful not to write about what he didn't know (though he often wrote about Leigh, changing the name of course, to Beth--her middle name, or Gail which was the closest Jay could get to an anagram of her name). Initially, Leigh refused outright but after a week of Jay's pouting and bringing up anything he ever bought or did for her, she relented. Plus, it gave her an excuse to drop by without warning.

To move the piano from Leigh's house which was just up the street but on top of a hill required removing the piano's legs and rolling it down the hill on a sled. Though there were probably easier and more conventional methods, this was, Jay insisted the "fastest and cheapest."
     The sight of her disembodied piano rolling helplessly down the hill where Jay promised to "catch it" was too much for Leigh. Normally, when she felt this stressed, she would sit down and bang out a concerto. Lizst could always calm her nerves. But with her piano moving at speeds Leigh did not care to think about, all she could do was turn her head and watch her piano slide down the hill out of the corner of her eye as if not making direct eye contact could somehow guide it down safely.
     When the piano reached the bottom of the hill its momentum surprised even Jay. He moved quickly to the left and let the piano careen into a parked car where it came to rest with a resounding thud. Leigh will never forget that sound. Every key on the piano seemed to have been struck at once. To Leigh it sounded like someone's heart breaking, someone with an artificial heart, and a pacemaker. It was the sound of something giving up and the discordant notes drifted and mingled with the ringing in Leigh's head. Only Jay could bring an attack of migraines in Leigh. The doctor called it stress but she had a more specific name for it.
     Leigh watched Jay roll back the piano from the car; the piano's outline imprinted itself on the side like a fingerprint, like a chalk outline. Leigh rubbed her temples hard with her knuckles and was wondering what she would do without a piano to play, her own piano, when she heard Jay tapping out a broken rendition of Mary Had A Little Lamb.
     "It's OK Leigh, just needs a good tuning. Hurry up and help me move this damn thing before the owner comes back," he said pointing to the dented car.

Leigh was silent the rest of the afternoon. She couldn't even look at the piano once Jay set it up in his house. She felt she betrayed it, given it away like a mail-order bride. She knew allowing Jay to borrow her piano was a test and she failed, or passed, depending on how you looked at it.
     Leigh suspects that Jay's wanting the piano had nothing to do with poetry but because Jay wanted to play like Leigh, or rather better than Leigh. To show her that anyone could do what she did. He had been bitter ever since Leigh published a poem in the campus newspaper The Red Herring because Jay was supposed to be the writer. Jay was the one who struggled and thought only of words (or sex, or pianos, maybe Leigh sometimes).

When Leigh left for Jay's house, it was under the pretense of checking on how her piano weathered the storm. But really, it was to check up on Jay. They hadn't had sex in over a week, which for Jay would be akin to most people going without water. Jay was, Leigh noted sourly, no camel. Leigh feared that Jay finally tired of her, her body being the last hold she had over of him. And though the sex was nothing to scream about, she did, because Jay was a writer and writer's liked positive feedback.
     Jay had a pattern of love-making--neck to mouth to breast to sex. Always. Leigh paid careful attention. She wondered if he realized this or if this was something he developed when he was in grad school along with alliteration, onomatopoeia; big words writers used to describe things that Leigh thought were common sense. She wondered sometimes if she should have told him; she thought secretly of yelling out during foreplay, skip the neck and get to the good stuff but Leigh knew better. She knew Jay wouldn't have touched her, let alone spoken to her after that. Writers are grapefruits, he once said, they bruise easily.

The damage to Jay's street by the storm was minimal but, to an outsider, would have appeared devastating. Tree limbs dangled from telephone wires. Gutters lay next to houses ripped from roofs. Several cars appeared to have been lifted and dropped on the sidewalk. The fact was, this was the normal state of affairs in Jay's neighborhood, a street of run-down Victorian homes near the university filled with college students, workers from the nearby factory, or graduates with nothing else to do. Jay fell into the latter class. The only way to distinguish the fact that any kind of storm rolled through this street at all was not the wet pavement, which was usually wet (with what Leigh didn't want to think about), but slow steam rising from the ground and the sweet smell of milk weeds drying on uneven porches.
     When Leigh heard on the radio that hurricane Agnes, which was expected to blow straight out to sea, suddenly switched directions and had turned on her town, she laughed. She could hear Jay saying just like a woman and almost believed it then suddenly changed her mind. She wished she had that kind of conviction, to not just turn back, but to do so with enough force to scare people from their homes. She would like to have that effect on Jay.
     The door to Jay's house was open which was par for the course. He never locked his door and insisted on keeping the windows open in the most extreme climates. Jay didn't like being closed in even if it meant frostbite or a wet rug. Which was certainly the case when Leigh walked into the house. Leigh's foot sunk deep into Jay's brown carpet, water rose around her feet. Each step she took was met with the sucking sound of water rising from the rug, seeping into her sandals. Upstairs, Leigh could hear the sound of water dripping like a slow but constant rain as if parts of the hurricane still lingered in Jay's bedroom.
     Out of habit, Leigh began closing windows though there hardly seemed any point. Prevention floated away down the proverbial river. Leigh made her way into the kitchen where Jay lay on his back; a Chinese take-out container of beef with broccoli spilt next to him. His neck was turned in a way that appeared very painful as if Jay had taken the expression "take a good look at yourself" too far. Leigh stooped next to Jay and sampled a piece of broccoli. Jay never ate the vegetables from his take-out, he always left them for Leigh. She wondered what he had done with all of the vegetables from the take-out meals he had eaten during the last week.
     Leigh went to the refrigerator expecting to find a pile of carrots and broccoli stacked on a plate waiting for her but the fridge, save for an empty bottle of soda, was empty. She wondered if someone else had been finishing Jay's meals but put that thought aside. Jay was not the most desirable man in the world--He was 25 but looked much older; his hair had already started to disappear around the temples giving him a vicious widows peak. He was moody and knew it which only made him moodier. He was always right and even when he was wrong had such a way with words that he ended up being right anyway. There was no winning. Who would want that? A masochist. The type of person who picked at their lip until it bled. Someone in love. Who else would be able to understand Jay, or put up with him? Leigh now considers these two things, love and unyielding tolerance, as one and the same.
     Leigh stopped near Jay again and tried to turn her neck the way he had managed but, finding it too painful, gave up. She leaned in close to his face so she could smell the beef that he had been eating on his breath. Leigh was a vegetarian. The smell of meat sickened her but now, so close to Jay, she felt lightheaded and she didn't think it had anything to do with the meat. She touched Jay's chest and it felt wooden and hollow, like a barrel; then Leigh started to cry.
     "You sonuvabitch," she said, standing and heading for the bedroom, "I'll bet my piano's ruined."

* * *

Upstairs, pools of cold water gathered on the already warped floorboards. Now, Leigh wonders, how many other storms has this house weathered? Or idiots, she adds. It wasn't enough that Jay wanted her piano, cut it into pieces, then shoved it down a hill; he insisted on moving it up the narrow flight of stairs in his house to his bedroom because "the light was best in there." Bullshit Leigh thinks tying up the hem of her white dress which was heavy with water. He wanted it in his bedroom because he wanted me in his bedroom. He wanted a guarantee. Leigh clenches one fist and pulls the knot on her dress a little tighter. He didn't need it.
     Leigh pauses outside Jay's closed bedroom door and touches the peeling wood, testing it as if the house were on fire and the feel of the door might reveal something about the state of the room. The wood feels cold but, Leigh notes hopefully, dry and she pushes it back stepping into Jay's bedroom holding her breath. Secretly, she thinks her piano isn't just water-logged but submerged under water. The door opens, as always, too hard, crashing against a charcoal drawing Leigh sketched of Jay while he slept, nude.
     The storm and the thick dampness in the room curled the drawing so that Jay's dark form became small and wrinkled. Leigh stares at the drawing and is struck by déjà vu or a nagging sense that she has once again forgotten to do something. Leigh does not think of herself as spiritual, just absent-minded.
     Her piano rests against the window, a thin layer of water beads off the side when Leigh touches her hands along the keys. Already she knows it's ruined. She doesn't have to play it to tell. Her piano looks smaller, shrunk by the water, sturdier maybe for having weathered the storm but certainly not complete. The water has washed something away.
     She taps a careful G minor on the wet keys but hears only a dull, wet thud like a heartbeat, only louder. If the piano was working, Leigh would play a sonata like Nero fiddling while Rome went to pieces then maybe this would be easier; the mess, the annihilation. She says annihilation out loud, then plops on the edge of the bed.
     The few nights Jay let Leigh spend the entire night, he would inevitably steal the covers and push her to the edge of the bed with his curled body. While Leigh spent the night keeping her balance by holding one hand on the floor, Jay smiled and sighed, lost to the wild electric colors of some dream; a dream Leigh felt certain was a million miles from her.
     Leigh lies back and touches Jay's wet pillow with one finger. Listening to Jay's breath was how Leigh passed the night. In his slow sighs Leigh imagined warm tropical winds, rising ocean waters, a boat sometimes, passing between waves. Jay would have told her it was Freudian and made a childish attempt at her breasts or crotch, so she kept it to herself. Though Jay owned his sleep and dreams, his breath belonged to Leigh. It was her metronome. Lying next to him she composed wonderful concertos in her head. First movement. Second. Third. Then Jay would wake and the notes would sink into the carpet like something fantastically hot into the snow.

Leigh sits upright. She has never had an orgasm and Jay is dead. She puts her hands on her hips and looks around the room. Water is seeping through the floor and into the ceiling below. She feels flush and excited. If she waits, maybe this bed, heavy with water will crash right through the living room, maybe her piano with it. The room fills with a rushing sound like wind or blood rising to her ear. The house creaks on watery joints.
     Leigh goes to her piano and slams the case shut. The keys ring softly. The water has not yet rusted it. She remembers Jay, asleep. He is dreaming. Pulled by starving dogs, he moves swiftly across a long sheet of Antarctic ice. Somewhere, in the midst of all this nothing is Leigh. One by one, the dogs drop from the reigns, frozen to the ground, gnawing on their tongues. Jay moves now on foot. The ground gives way to thick snow banks that cover Jay to his neck but he feels no cold. He moves faster towards Leigh thinking now he is being chased or that soon something will happen, something that might leave him here, packed like a fish in ice. Breathless, sweating despite the cold, Jay finally finds Leigh, in a clearing, in a trance. He kisses her, the warmth of his lips re-generates something in her. Leigh moves; first her fingers, then her eyes. She stands and rushes to him then runs Jay through with a harpoon. He dies surprised, hurt, and beaten. All of this is visible in his eyes.
     Leigh changes the ending. This time, she is on a steep mountain and Jay is climbing the sheer face of the precipice towards her. His hands are raw and the bones on his fingers are broken in hundreds of places. When he makes it to the top where she lies waiting, holding his ruined hands towards her, she holds her arms out as if to swaddle him from the cold, then shoves him down the mountain. "Now try and play the piano!" she yells as his body spirals into a dark abyss.
     Tonight she will stay in the house, she will sleep in the wet bed and she will dream that she is suspended in a cage above hungry sharks waiting for Jay to come to the rescue.

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