One didn’t come all this way in the careful study of the instrument to play it safe.
The World Journal
The World Journal
Turiya and Ramakrishna
ImpromptuSongs Without Words
Only early one morning, he found himself further downtown. Mott Street, a gentrifying Chinatown. Breakfast at a café. It was near the courthouses. He considered wandering over to the park for a game or two of chess.
It was when he paid the bill that he spotted the man. Pritchard Xu, actually alone at a table. Here was the man who had always felt too far ahead, his attention, unattainable even. Only now it felt as if Aiden had finally caught up to him. It was like everything he had once hoped for and avoided. The man’s face was remarkably the same too, though he must have been pushing sixty, and yet handsome still. Clean shaven, someone who likely smelled of aftershave as a rite of passage. He sat upright, as if held to a different standard all his life. Something akin to coming into privileges, who believed in the illusion, and also lived for it.
In fact, Aiden had seen Pritchard before, several times. New York City wasn’t so big after all, especially their world of musicians; one passed from one circle after the next until they passed each other and flitted away. He’d read more of Pritchard’s reviews, the symphony, concerts in Central Park. He had gone from reviewing concerts to writing articles on politics with a liberal slant. But Aiden never thought to approach the man, nor would he ever think of talking to him, let alone introducing himself to someone who had purported to know a version of him. He had never felt ready, sure of himself. Pritchard was a family man too; there were a host of reasons why he had always felt off-limits.
“The name’s Aiden.” He stood over Pritchard and didn’t mean to overextend his hand, but it was what it was—the kind of move one went with, hoping that another wouldn’t notice. “Aiden Chang.”
Pritchard leaned back; he looked as if he were perusing a long sign. It was not so unfriendly a manner. “To what do I owe the pleasure.” He didn’t mean it as a question.
“A fellow musician.”
The man’s energy seemed to shift a little. “I don’t usually get to meet a fan at this early hour.” Then, “But have we already met?”
“Not officially, I suppose. No.”
“You’ve heard me play then.”
“Actually, it’s the opposite.” There was no easier way to say it either. The World Journal. Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.
Pritchard then pointed at him. His hands, still beautiful. But it was as if he were aiming a gun. And then he fired: “Bingo.”
Moments later, they were engaged in talk about the genius of John Corigliano’s song cycle Mr. Tambourine Man, based on the seven poems of Bob Dylan. Forever Young. How the Brentano String Quartet was unmatched in their performances of Beethoven. And Lang Lang’s anticipated recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations; the 26th variation was astounding. Aiden had helped himself to a seat. He could see that Pritchard was the kind of man who, when caught unaware, would rather be polite than embarrass them both.
“I can see a little of myself in you,” Pritchard then said, sitting back.
Aiden felt himself smile. “That’s very kind.”
The man seemed to consider what he’d said, not a hint of a change in expression on his face. “I have to be honest. I don’t remember at all, actually.” And then, “What did you say your name was again?” He told him. Pritchard then shook his head. “No, it doesn’t ring a bell.”
It was then that Aiden pulled out his phone. He only had to retrieve the article now. In the search engine, he typed their names. The review was the only thing that linked them to each other, and it surprised him that he could actually find it so easily. And yet, it wasn’t exactly what he remembered. Where had he read “too much spice?” Where had he read “cake that was already too sweet?” He had been so sure once. For a time, he had even kept The World Journal cut-out taped to his wall, like a to-do list. Like an undo-list, an exercise in restraint. Now it was left in a shoebox on a shelf in his closet like forgotten mementos, if it was even there still.
“Well, if it isn’t like looking at yourself in a mirror and barely recognizing the reflection.” Pritchard had put on his glasses in order to give the article a closer read. The glow in his eyes diminished slightly as they ran back and forth. “Yes, I see now,” the man then said. “I do somewhat remember you. You were tentative, uneasy even. A newbie.” Then, “At least according to what I wrote here. Well, I can see that that’s not true anymore, is it?”
A waiter came by and set a glass of water upon the table. They became suddenly quiet.
Finally Pritchard said, “I’ve reviewed them all. It’s amazing how many people you end up knowing. I’ve had the chance to perform on the greatest stages. Carnegie Hall, you name it. The thing with PBS. And the non-stop accolades, one after the next. Performance after performance. It’s all too much. I’ll tell you a secret. I hate the limelight, I really do. I’ve been lucky, very lucky. And I’m extremely grateful for it all.”
“Yes, I see.
“But I do apologize. I mean it, about the review. It’s scathing, isn’t it? What was I thinking?”
“You don’t have to.”
“You’re right, I don’t. Not to say that it would’ve changed anything, but still.”
He was going to be honest, he then said. He had been younger, trying to impress. He admitted that it wasn’t a very balanced critique. He had done him a disservice. But he had been given an opportunity then, as it was earlier in his career. He had intended to make the most of it, because at the time, it felt necessary. He would’ve done it differently if it were today. For one, he knew how to say these things better. More importantly, he knew what was at stake—and how to reconcile one’s ideals for the finer things, along with the awareness of one at the start of a journey, and the delicacy of a moment like that. But he had been on his own way, so to speak. So how could he have known? What the future held? In many ways, he had been a first of firsts, and he was going to run with it to the bank.
So how could he have known? What the future held? In many ways, he had been a first of firsts, and he was going to run with it to the bank.
Now he would never dream of doing such a thing to a musician who was starting out. He would never imagine pulling the rug out from under one’s feet, setting someone up for a kind of failure. It was more than honesty. It was a crime of art. It should have been the greater goal of a universal generosity, the foresight of bestowing upon another the benefit of the doubt, and not merely looking at the surface of things. It should have been passing the torch, as opposed to hauling the ladder up behind them. The sanctity of potential. But he imagined that he did not know that then, at least not yet. And so he imagined that he had done the worst. “When we are young, we can be so protective of what we think we have, or what we think we might go on to having—what we confuse with what we think we deserve. In truth, none of it is deserved. It’s all an accident of sorts, I suppose. And then all you’re left with is gratitude.” And then, “I don’t mean to ramble . . .”
Only there was more. The man reiterated the fact that he had not recognized their commonalities—refused to recognize them even. Instead, he had followed the messy instinct for self-sabotage, self-abnegation, and ultimately, the other art of self-preservation. The willful ignoring. The guilt of advocating instead for those where one could make the most gains for oneself. Appearance was everything, and nothing. The stakes were much higher then, too. People wouldn’t understand. There were dissonances in likeness, of being seen as too much alike, the human conspiracy when there wasn’t supposed to be one, but at the same time, was also there. It was the systems that were already in place, internalized. Few knew what representation even meant. And one was looking to prove themselves. A performance for the rest—the ultimate rest of them, judge, executioner. It was a reality of the world they knew, even though such things were largely overlooked, and prone to misinterpretation. “In the attempt to appear unbiased, one inevitably will be biased.” Then, “But I don’t mean to ramble again. And yet, here you are.”
“And better on the other side for it.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“I only came to introduce myself, and to thank you.”
The late nights. Being lost in the dream-like state, and then on some perpendicular axis, felt like a heat that pulsed, and not at all tangible—this was the effect of what Aiden was saying.
“You’re not making any sense.” There was a change in Pritchard’s expression; the man looked as if he was sorry, suddenly aware of the different choices that they had had to make in the landscape that was to be the rest of their lives. It was also the look of how in another time and place, they might have been colleagues, mentor and mentee, even friends. It was like a missed opportunity of sorts, like seeing someone who one didn’t realize that they had gone to school with, all those years ago, for all that time.
“In fact, I graduated from Juilliard too,” Pritchard said, making light of things.
“I know.” All of a sudden the café seemed empty, desolate.
“What do you do now? Did you say you teach?” Then, “It’s not true what they say.”
“About those who teach . . . never mind. I bet you’re a great teacher.” Pritchard then glanced down. It was his phone, though there was no message. “Well, I should be going. Busy day ahead. Another performance to plan. We’re doing the Ravel at the ML—That’s the Morgan Library. ”
“Of course,” Aiden said. How could he explain? Retrospectively, it all seemed to add up, even if it wasn’t the intention in the first place, even if it was chance upon chance.
“I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for you. Do let me know if you have any concerts in the near future. Perhaps I’ll write a review.” Then, “Say, I know someone whose son is always in need of a new piano teacher. Here, I’ll give you my card.” He reached into his breast pocket, but couldn’t find one. “I don’t know where I’ve misplaced them. They’re usually here. Take my email instead.”
“It’s all right.”
“I’ll find it when the time comes.”
“Well then, good luck to you, the best of luck.”
At one time, he had lived in Paris. He had lived on the Île Saint-Louis, an apartment on the island with a view of the murky waters of the Seine. He was told that he had lived on the same street as Baudelaire. He had been nineteen and had been offered to study under Greta Dupont. For those in the know, she only took on students who she saw had something remarkable to contribute to the ongoing conversation that was concert music. The woman was in her late eighties by then. She sat hunched over in her chair, and would nod to the beat of the music when she agreed, and conducted with her right hand when one lagged. She took Aiden on at a time when she had already proclaimed her retirement. But she had made an exception, and it meant something. It made him feel as if he were the exception to the rule, and it felt something like purpose.
He had run through a Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt. Then Fauré. Nocturne. The woman nodded. After some time, she even fell asleep. But he continued to play. It brought back some of that happenstance of creation again, a life at the service of the fantasy, one that would always be there, never gone. He had already grown protective of such instincts—one had to protect their way of seeing it. It was like returning to a primordial state. To cultivate a kind of garden, and then to not be afraid to let it go, to give in to the wilderness again. Of disabling proportion in favor of meaningfulness, and then vice versa. After all, the power of economy would always be there. It would be on his side, the story being told, the linear narrative, and all that was not told otherwise left to oblivion—which was what one had to work with. Or else, what would have been the point? One couldn’t think too much about it either. It was the fight that started to go away the instant one became aware. And then the ultimate fight that started to go away the moment one became aware of one’s own being. One could only continue to play on, for the alternative was a descent into darkness, the ultimate sleep. When next he looked up, he had not even realized it, so much that had already passed, unbroken.
William Pei Shih's stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Best American Short Stories 2020, VQR, McSweeney's, The Asian American Literary Review, The Des Moines Register, The Masters Review, Reed Magazine, Carve Magazine, Hyphen, among others. He's been awarded scholarships to the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sun Valley Writers' Conference, Kundiman, and the Napa Valley Writers' Conference. He has an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was a recipient of the Dean’s Graduate Fellowship. He lives in New York City and teaches at NYU