When she gets home, she sits in the stillness of her apartment for a minute. She studies the piano from the corner of her eyes. Grandiose, silent, waiting.
All is well.
She opens her trolley and sets it in the corner of the living room, with no intention to put it away just yet. From it she extracts her laptop, and sends the mass email she outlined in her Notes app a few days ago.
Just got home, I’m fine. Need to concentrate + make up for lost time before Friday though. I won’t be able to talk until then, sorry. Again, I’m fine. Thank you for the well wishes. Will call soon.
She knows her mother will try to call anyway, and so she switches her phone to Night Mode. She is fine. She will be fine, as long as she focuses. These next three days feel oddly prophetic. If she can just keep it together for Friday and ace this piano jury. If she can do that, then all those years of playing till her fingers went numb, of reading sheet music until her vision went cloudy, they will finally make sense. This is a trial by fire if she ever saw one, and she has no intention of losing face again.
Careful with that line of thinking, she can hear her therapist say, his legs crossed and a nail tapping his golden tooth. You can’t court success with your eyes on failure.
Yes, thank you captain fucking obvious, she always stops herself from snapping.
Her father also has a golden tooth. The first time she saw her therapist, she was powerfully reminded of him. Maybe this is why she could never “open up” and “give more of herself” during their sessions. It has been close to three years now.
She knows, also, that she is keeping another tally, a silent one she’s pretending not to. She needs to know that she can make it one day, two days, three in the outside world without wanting to step into traffic. She needs to know that she was not wrong to check out early from the clinic.
All is well.
When her first alarm rings, she is ready for it. Eat something, do it NOW flickers on the screen. She hardly tastes her sandwich, but she makes herself finish it anyway. Her friend Lora has been here in her absence and done some grocery shopping. On the blackboard,
MAKE RECOVERY YOUR BITCH. DON’T WHITE-KNUCKLE IT, THOUGH. PROMISE TO GIVE YOU YOUR SPACE. CALL ME WHEN YOU CAN.
scribbled in her blocky writing. Her fridge is full of foods with the words “organic” and “natural” splashed across their packaging. She notices that all the nutritional labels have been scribbled over with black sharpie or covered in duct tape. As if she doesn’t know that there are 240 calories in a whole wheat bagel. As if she hasn’t memorized the amount of cholesterol in a serving of greek yogurt. As if she won’t count every olive she picks out of the jar, adding up the number in her head all the while. But she appreciates Lora’s thoughtfulness all the same.
The piano sits patiently in the corner of the room. She sidles to it, shyly. It’s been seven weeks of mulling over this moment, at times longing, at times apprehensive. She props the sheet music on the rack. “Comptine d’un Autre Été”, “Gymnopédie No. 3”, “We Float”, “Ballade No. 1 in G Minor Op. 23”. Slides her many rings off her fingers. Wavers. It’s a movement she’s come to associate, in the last few years, with another kind of preparation. Sometimes she kept a ring or two on when she was pushing fingers down her throat, to make things more effective.
She eases into the playing through scale warmups and inversions, and she feels the last couple of weeks evaporate. It’s as if all that time were a tiny gap, like an interval between two pitches of a chord.
You are open, you are strong, you are alive.
Every day is a step closer to actualization.
You can will your reality into being.
She cannot say these things with a straight face, so she and Gold-Tooth have settled on all is well, as a form of mantra therapy. Even that, she used to find absurd, but she may need it now.
Ever since she fainted on the way to the stage at her recital, all those weeks ago in October, she has felt a relentless kind of rage. Here were the dents in her armor, for all to see. She booked an intake with the treatment center that very night. Later, lying in the room she shared with another patient, she admitted she felt relieved. She’d been exhausted. She’d been getting more are you okays than usual. She’d stopped taking her medication, had been staying awake for days, eating nothing, playing the piano. Fainting in front of everyone in that packed concert hall, then, had actually been a hidden blessing.
But that is something she doesn’t like thinking about now.
Now, she tells herself it was a waste of time. Those seven weeks dragged by like molasses, seven weeks where she was not practicing. And so, against the recommendations of everyone, she did not take the semester off, and kept the reserved jury date. It gave her something to look forward to, an excuse to try, a reason to prove them all wrong.
Careful with that line of thinking.
Sometimes she feels like she doesn’t actually want things. Sometimes she feels like she is simply pigheaded, her choices the result of the contrarian streak in her. That is something her sister, the one she doesn’t talk to anymore, once said to her.
You are crazy for doing this. Crazy. What is wrong with you.
She presses the keys harder, music filling the apartment and the space between her thoughts. She plays until the alarm rings again. She eats another sandwich she can barely taste, and at last checks her phone.
Unsurprisingly, her mother has called, and called again. There is something underneath the genuine concern, she knows. The thought of her daughter displaying outward signs of weakness is embarrassing and intolerable. The clinic was the last straw. Her mother is convinced it was done out of spite.
You make me feel like a terrible Mom. What do you have to be sad about? Think of all the people you saw, traveling around the world. So many of them would be happy to have the food you just throw away.
Sometimes she wants to reply: and you make me feel like a terrible daughter, like nothing I do or feel is valid in your eyes.
She wishes she could tell her mother that it is not about her, or anyone else. That if she knew what was wrong with her and how to fix it, she would. That she is making more effort to get well than she has in years.
To prove the unspoken point, she makes herself some soup when the alarm rings, and drinks it all in one sitting. She goes to bed early, echoing alliswellalliswellalliswell, until she falls asleep.
She wakes from a half-remembered dream and stays looking at the ceiling, until shapes start to protrude from the nothingness. Today feels different. It’s only been a few seconds, and the day is already pressing in on her.
All is well? Come on, work with me.
She clenches her teeth through a Headspace meditation. She hates the host’s stupid, grating voice. She hates his asinine words of comfort, but she has promised Gold-Tooth she would try it for at least a month.
For breakfast, she makes herself add an extra egg; and even though it tastes like sandpaper and she would like nothing more than to throw it back up in the sink — careful with that line of thinking — she eats it diligently.
Outside, the sky is heavy with impending rain and the streets glossy with melting snow. String lights drape the bronze tree leaves. It looks like evening already. She walks down Wabash Avenue, trying to look past storefront signs advertising Thanksgiving deals. Everything is loud, people linking arms and carrying brown paper bags. Warmth all around, and she feels cold. She is tempted to stick out her leg and trip someone, anyone, but she’d feel like shit afterward.
She gets to the animal shelter and after small talk and paperwork with the receptionist, her cat Anakin S. is handed back to her. He stalks around in his cage, in his usual tantruming mood. When she sticks a finger between the bars in greeting, he bites her savagely; but for the first time in weeks, she feels a flutter of tenderness in her chest.
When she releases him from his cage back home, he immediately tears around, knocking things over. He settles on her guitar strings, on which he loves to gnaw.
She heads straight for the piano, chest tighter than it was this morning. The day before, her fingers flowed smoothly over the keys. Today, the Dustin O’Halloran piece, easiest of the four, feels foreign. She tries to concentrate, breathing through the flareups of impatience when she plays the wrong note, or her finger slips off a key.
Behind her, Anakin S. is fussy. His agitation is contagious, and now she is fumbling every other note. He nips at her ankles when she presses down on pedals, bats at her toes: and there it is again. That thrill of fear.
You are crazy for doing this. Absolutely, completely. Cannot cram seven weeks’s worth of practice in three days. What is wrong with you?
She tries to push through. When the alarm rings, she pretends not to hear it, and plays through the next two buzzes.
Legato, legato, her teacher always has to remind her. The notes get harsh and choppy when she is anxious, which is all the time. He tells her she is too aggressive, too hostile. Your audience will resent you. She has always found that funny because in real life, she gets the opposite critique. She doesn’t talk enough. She’s too quiet. She doesn’t let people in. She makes space around herself, like she is trying to make herself disappear. No wonder she tried to whittle herself down for years. An eating disorder as over-compensation for the brashness she shows in music, and vice-versa.
It wasn’t always like this. Music used to be a space for quiet and repose. It used to center her, when all her family did was move and move. She could hammer her panic away, press down on pedals in time with her breathing. Along the way, it turned into yet another thing her anxiety co-opted.
When the fourth alarm rings, she stops playing, guilt spooling in the pit of her stomach in lieu of the food she was supposed to eat. To make up for it, she cooks a big meal, even though she knows she will probably end up shifting it around with her fork. Anakin S. steals a chicken breast off her plate and she lets him.
She checks her phone and sees that her older brother has tried calling a few times (has no one read my email?). He’s also sent her links for meditation videos. Typical of her brother to assume she can be mended by simply willing it to be so.
She is tempted to reply for the love of all that is holy, would you shut up about meditation already, please and thank you? If she could fucking fix herself with fucking probiotics and fucking reiki, she would fucking have done so already, wouldn’t she? Instead she replies:
Thank you, will check out.
And before her brother can take it as encouragement to call, she adds
Thanks for the good luck, will call Friday when I’m done.
Her brother would get along with her therapist. Before she checked herself in the clinic, Gold-Tooth recommended a book on Positive Thinking. She feels like punching him in the throat every time he asks her if she’s bought it yet. Positive thinking will not get her through her jury. Positive thinking will certainly not stop her from wanting to retreat to the bathroom and lean over the sink, like a well practiced routine.
Careful with that line of thinking.
She folds herself on the couch with Anakin S., who has calmed down at last. She gets stoned and watches Cowboy Bebop, and listens to the rain.
When she did the intake in October, she was made to fill out questionnaire upon questionnaire. She had felt immediately exasperated, having answered similar ones ad nauseam.
- How much do you worry about your weight on a day-to-day basis?
- When was the last time you dieted?
- Have you had, in the last 6 months, a feeling of loss of control?
- Do you experience excessively racing thoughts?
- Do you feel sad, unhappy, hopeless?
- Have you thought about wanting to die or harm others?
Bullet point after bullet point that trivialized something so complex for her. The last question, posed by the nurse on her first night — how do you feel? — sent her over the edge. Are you joking? she replied, laughing although she wanted to punch her, too, in the throat.
Now, however, she lies in bed, well after her second alarm has trilled by. She thinks, really thinks about it. How does she feel? Like she is suffocating on something too big to swallow. The irony of that comparison is not lost on her.
All is well crazy for doing this all is well crazy for doing this, crazy.
She tries another session of Headspace, grits her teeth through the host’s nasally voice. She even tries the link on reiki, but closes the video after barely thirty seconds. She scrolls through text messages from family and friends. She scans over awkward invitations to Friendsgiving from people who feel like they have to invite her. To some she answers “Jury, remember?”. To others “Tired. But thanks.” Some ask: “still going through with that?”, and she can’t tell if they are mocking or incredulous. And then a text from her Dad.
Call when you can. Good luck for Friday. You don’t have to do this, you know.
She sits up in bed and stares at the screen, trying to decide how she feels. The rain lashes the window like a whip. She settles on offended.
This is nothing, she has been through worse. Did she not crack and blister her toes in ballet for over a decade, until an injury finally took her out? Did she not move from city to city on her own? Did she not weather an addiction to pail pills as a teenager, all by herself? Did she not go through years self harm in utter silence? Did she not survive on 400 calories for an entire year when she was thirteen, right under their noses? Does she not deal with her manic depression, unassisted? They have no idea what she can do. This is nothing, nothing.
But when she sits at the piano an hour later, it is without a sense of purpose. She runs through chords and scales and all the pieces again, dispassionately. Gone is the nervousness of the day before. Even Anakin S. seems to have sobered up, perched lazily on the piano.
Gold-Tooth once said to her: I don’t think you like playing music. I think you hold onto it so stubbornly because it gives you an excuse for the performance.
At the time, she pretended not to know what he meant. But of course she did. The ceremony, the flourish, her fingers displaying excellence. She can hide behind the music, music speaks for itself. At least this toiling makes sense, whereas the other one, the one brought about by disordered eating, never did.
They gave her an out, all of them, and she has chosen not to take it because she can’t stand the idea of being pitied and taken care of. Especially not after the Fainting Incident of October. After the jury will come the graduation, after the graduation will come the auditions, and then maybe a contract, if things go well.
All is well, keep it together.
But Erik Satie sounding through her fingers, she allows herself to think, like she did that first night in the clinic: what if she just stops now? what if she just doesn’t show up? what if she quits and transfers to the creative writing department instead? what if she takes the rest of the semester, no, the year off? what if she goes back to the clinic? what if she writes a mass email to everyone who’s been egg-shelling around her for years, telling them what she has never said aloud — don’t believe the hype, this life is shit and I want out? what if she gets on a boat and fucks off to sea?
Careful with that line of thinking, Gold-Tooth always admonishes, when she starts thinking about easy outs.
These seven weeks have shown her that it doesn’t need to be this way. She doesn’t need to be so tired and intense and dialed up to one hundred all. the. time.
Anakin S. trains one green eye on her, his tail sweeping her hands. She stops playing and stares back at him. Then, slowly, she gets off the bench and sits against the wall. The cat follows, plunking on the keys on his way down. It makes a beautiful, discordant sound.
From here, she can read the writing on the blackboard.
MAKE RECOVERY YOUR BITCH. DON’T WHITE-KNUCKLE IT, THOUGH. PROMISE TO GIVE YOU YOUR SPACE. CALL ME WHEN YOU CAN.
Don’t you want to get better? Lora asked her a few months ago. It was a little after she mentioned she was thinking of stopping therapy.
But I am getting better, she answered, whizzing through the beginning of “The Heart Asks Pleasure First” to demonstrate.
Lora looked at her strangely.
Your eating disorder. Why do you always think I’m talking about the piano?
She supposes it’s because they require the same level of all-consuming devotion. She supposes, then, that she will have to disengage from them in similar ways. What that implies for her carefully laid-out career plan, she doesn’t like to think. She looks at her suitcase, still half-opened from Wednesday. She ignores the pangs of hunger in her stomach.
You’ll be fine tomorrow, she tells herself. She sounds it out, tries the sentence again. Tomorrow, you will be fine. All is well.
She lets alarm after alarm ring, remains seated on the floor near her instrument.
A. Martine is a trilingual writer, musician and artist of colour, an Assistant Editor at Reckoning Press and co-Editor-in-Chief and Producer of The Nasiona. Her collection AT SEA was shortlisted for the 2019 Kingdoms in the Wild Poetry Prize.
Notable fiction and nonfiction publications include:
– Smoke Screen [The Rumpus]: https://therumpus.net/2019/01/
– Summer Hush [Ghost City Review]: https://ghostcitypress.com/
– Edges, Edges [Cosmonauts Avenue]: https://cosmonautsavenue.com/
– Just A Fire [Metaphorosis]: https://magazine.metaphorosis.
– I have a more complete list of 40+ poetry and fiction/nonfiction publications, however, that can be found at my portfolio (www.amartine.com).
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