Set of Problems

I don’t know where I was when the piano wouldn’t stop playing. I may have been in the kitchen, putting the tops back on our glass bottles of liquor, or I may have been in the foyer, saying goodbye to the last of our guests, or, for all I know, I may have been out on the apartment’s balcony, smoking one last cigarette as I looked to the moon. I remember hearing the piano as I did all of these things and many more, but I don’t know when Evan left.

Days later, when I asked Evan, the hired pianist, he didn’t know exactly when he left the apartment, either. He went on to say: “I walked away from the piano and still heard the music. This is a common thing, especially after a night spent playing chamber pieces. If what you say is true,” (it was), “then your wife must have heard the music when she paid me at the door. But she didn’t mention it.”

In fact, it wasn’t until we turned in for the night that we both realized Evan had already left. Amethyst, my wife, thought she had overpaid him at the end of the party, and he simply returned to the piano afterward out of obligation. I thought Evan never left at all, even as I moved from room to room, cleaning up discarded napkins while my wife washed the mound of dishes. With my mind on the party—the snide and secret remarks, the ghostly flirtations, the gossip and banal chatter, the compliments, the dimming light of past friendships—I didn’t notice Evan was gone. Maybe, like him, I also heard the music but registered it only as a memory, an echo.

So, it was hours later, standing over the piano, me in striped pajamas and Amethyst still in her street clothes (party clothes, in this case), that we discovered the instrument played itself. The keys pressed themselves flat, the tiny hammers struck the chords, and sound filled our home. I passed my hand above the keyboard, as if I could interrupt any ghost or sever any invisible fishing line, but the piano kept playing, even as my palm buzzed the tops of those black and white teeth. Amethyst pinched a hammer head between her fingers and felt the pressure tug.

My first instinct was to unplug the machine. I wanted the satisfaction of an instant kill, the visceral feeling of emptying plug from socket, stopping the noise and stopping the fear. Amethyst must have felt the same, for she grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and stretched them open around a cord. But she didn’t snip. She looked at me, now sitting on the hardwood bench, my fingers mimicking the simple melody the piano played. “Should I cut it?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, after waiting for what felt like minutes, sitting on the hardwood bench in our dark, moonlit den, the smell of liquor still on my breath, the smell of stale smoke on my fingers, my hair unkempt, my eyelids heavy, all the while the piano played. “I suppose you should.”

Amethyst couldn’t bring herself to do so. It would have been simple, a quick shear of the blades through our cheap piano’s low-quality strings. She came close a few times—I saw the bones of her hand pop out her skin as she clenched her muscles—but never made the final motion. She was conflicted, caught between fear and curiosity, and so was I. Truth told, I didn’t

want her to cut the strings. I didn’t want the piano to keep playing, either. All I wanted was for this to never have happened.

She set the scissors behind her and looked at me, still on the bench, but now looking out to the balcony, out to the moon. “Well,” she said, “what are we going to do?”

“I don’t mind the music.” Neither did she.

We slept with the bedroom doors open that night. For the first time in months, we made love like wild animals. Who knows why. The strangeness of the piano was alluring, yes, and had me in a state that felt like tomorrow would never come, that the morning held no consequences, that tonight could be completely carnal, but there were also the sentimental feelings coursing through me as I watched my wife undress beforehand. Her sweater was black wool. The neckline plunged into two loose folds, so she could slip out of it if she pulled the two ends apart, exposing her flat tummy, her breasts. Her pants, too, were black. They hugged her waist and opened wide at the leg. She dressed so differently than every other woman at our party. So much more like herself, so much more like a woman I’d see in a lifestyle magazine showcasing a fancy home. It was hard to believe she was my wife.

Naturally, I thought of our early days: our first meal at Uribe’s as Amethyst unbuttoned her pants, the time we slept in my car after drinking too much as she pulled off her socks, the week the power went off in our first apartment and she stood before the mirror and examined her arms, the quiet confidences we whispered to each other and the tears we’ve spared as she put on her own striped pajamas, hers pink instead of blue, pajamas that wouldn’t stay on for long. These recollections coupled with the auto-piano’s soothing and melancholic nocturne brought a tear to

my eye, perhaps one like those spared in years past. Amethyst lay down beside me with concern (I rarely cry), and I pounced on her. My body ravished her body, but my mind was entirely on hers—that is, her self, her personality, her love, her confidences, her spirit. We went round after round until morning came, for a moment even forgetting about the piano.

We woke in high spirit, afternoon sun coming through the window, mouths nestled into each other’s necks and hair. The piano was still playing. In the sun’s light, however, the music was no longer spooky in the least. It was good, and we wanted it to stay.

We spent the following week happy in the piano’s company. Breakfast became a pleasant affair—we ate sliced melons and full-fat yogurts at the table, lingering as long as we could before leaving for work—and after dinner (we cooked dishes like chicken marsala, fish flambé, and roasted beet salads), we’d sink into our living room easy chairs and chat softly over the music instead of turning on the television, our old usual routine.

Every night, we continued making love (though never coming close to that first marathon session) and sent each other salacious text messages throughout the day like horny teenagers. After we finished, we’d lay awake for hours still talking, continuing our conversations from the living room easy chairs, telling each other little secrets and private musings, again speaking softly beneath the cover of music, exposing dimensions of ourselves long neglected, engaging with each other as if we were real beings and not faded shadows of cohabitation. The piano was so gentle and understated that we never grew tired of it, never grew annoyed; the music, so anonymous and inoffensive, was impossible to hum; we never found a repeated melody.

One Sunday night, I slipped out with an old winter jacket covering my thin blue-stripped pajamas. My sockless, balmy feet were in sneakers. We had run out of wine, and I offered to get another bottle while Amethyst waited comfortably in our apartment. It was relatively early, so I was surprised to see the shuttered gates of the liquor store, the neon red and blue of Imported Kegs my only light, for clouds covered the moon. Luckily, a bar nearby sold unopened bottles at only a slight markup. I walked there as the wind filtered through my thin pajama bottoms, stinging my penis with chill, my hands chapping as I clutched the old winter jacket with a broken zipper around myself, the tips of my ears in pain by the time I arrived.

Lunar Landing fancied itself a jazz club, though the interior suggested nothing of the sort. It was dirty with no discernable sense of décor—the chairs were mismatched, poor reproductions hung on the walls in glorified poster frames, the lighting fixtures were clearly bought at some bankruptcy auction. In all the times I’d been there for the odd drink or bottle, I’d never seen it more than half-full. That said, it was comfortable, but wasn’t exactly what I looked for when I wanted to get away. Amethyst felt stronger. After going in once, she vowed to never do so again. I probably wouldn’t even tell her I got the wine from here tonight, I thought going in, glancing at the one couple on an awkward date sitting near the pianist, the old man sitting like a fugitive underneath an overhead light, the bartender too thick in the gut for his tightfitting shirt.

I paid for the dusty bottle of red and turned to leave, feeling a fool in my pajamas before this group of miscreants, when I noticed the pianist’s mustache and ponytail. It was Evan, the man we had hired for our party, the man who had apparently blessed or cursed our piano. There was a small sense of duty to say hello—after all, though she thought she overpaid him, I really

didn’t know how much Amethyst had tipped him after paying: if it was too little, I’d need to make amends; if it was too much, I’d need to let him thank me. Saying something so mundane was strange in light of what was happening at home with our piano, the thing I really wanted to talk about, but it wasn’t as if I could open with such a story. I needed to establish myself as sane first.

After the next two or three songs, Evan came over to the side of the small stage, where he must have seen me standing awkwardly, making the friendliest eye contact I could muster. Though he left the piano, pushing the bench away with his hands, fingernails smooth and manicured, the music kept playing. “It has a cheap player setting,” he said in response to my confused and worried face.

He thanked me for the generous tip Amethyst left him, and we exchanged meaningless words about our party and the bar, his manner as eccentric as he dressed. His oxblood jacket actually had coattails, ones split long and thin that extended to his heels. Instead of pants, he wore regal trousers patterned in harlequin and tucked into tall leather boots. A vest, replete with gold chain, buttoned over a ruffled shirt that ended in a tightly knotted neckerchief. In all, he looked more like a child’s idea of a royal knight than a man, and I wondered if these were the sorts of things Evan must do in order to set himself apart in the presumedly competitive pianist scene. My pajamas went unmentioned.

The cheap player setting noticeably looped. After so many run arounds of the same melody, Evan turned back toward the stage. I grabbed his elbow. “Wait,” I said. “I need to ask you something.”

I explained our situation. Leaving for the bar that night, and indeed the entire previous week, I was grateful for our piano. Its constant playing had improved our lives so much! The lovely music, the mystic aura, the secretive nature—I loved those things, and so did Amethyst. However, as I told Evan about it, my voice sounded less confident as I went on, and, by the end, I was essentially pleading with him to give me some sort of answer, as if walking into Lunar Landing that night had pierced some naive membrane I desperately wanted to reenter. I felt the lowest I had in a week, back to how I felt on the night of our party, once again wishing none of this had ever happened.

Evan’s eyes grew wide, and I noticed for the first time he wore mascara. This is when he told me he heard the piano that night, too, but chalked it up to a musician’s ear. He offered to sit with me at one of the many unoccupied tables. The couple, the only two in the bar who had a chance at realizing the pianist had left his station, were gone. The bartender was nowhere to be seen, and the old man had fallen asleep with beer in hand. Before joining me, Evan opened the bench of the piano and pulled out his own bottle of something along with two crystal glasses.

“Never drink what they serve here,” he told me, pouring two drinks. “Swill.”

I reached into my pocket, fishing for my phone, but I had left it at home. I hadn’t planned on being gone this long. Amethyst would be waiting for me and the promised bottle of wine, perhaps worrying, perhaps calling my phone only to hear it buzz on the tabletop, perhaps getting her own coat and boots on to see for herself if I had been mugged or suffered an aneurysm. Then again, she might still be at home, lounging in the easy chair, under the intoxicating mist of the piano.

“So, what should we do?” I asked Evan, trying to focus on the situation at hand.

“Cut the strings, of course!”

It wasn’t that simple, I said. This piano had a strange power, and I didn’t think I could convince Amethyst to do it. I wasn’t even sure I could be convinced. As the bar’s cheap player setting played on and on, I found myself missing the more soothing waves of our piano at home.

“Well…,” said Evan, “you could always hire me again, ha-ha! I can outplay any ghost, you know. My stylings will break the spell. I can even do it side by side. Right now.” He pointed to a portable electric keyboard leaning against a wall behind the stage.

“No,” I said. “That’s not necessary.”

“Right, of course,” he interrupted. “Then you’d be stuck paying me to play for you forever forever.”

“Right. We’d be stuck paying you forever.”

Evan nodded in grim agreement before practicing soft finger movements on the table top. I took another sip of his mysterious liquor and realized he wouldn’t be able to help me, just as I realized he didn’t dress that way from necessity, but because he was a bit dim.

“What if,” came Evan, “you brought your wife to the bar. If she saw me play here, she’d never want to leave!” He paused. “But then, that produces its own set of problems…”

I left Lunar Landing uneasy and scared. Not scared of the piano, per se, but scared of Amethyst and what I might tell her. It’s strange having a change of heart, especially when that change is about an interest shared between you and someone else—in reality, you’re the one who

betrayed the pact, but it feels like the other person is the defector for staying the same. Once it’s clear they’re not changing with you, revealing your turncoat heart is so hard to do. There’s always so much pre-defense, so much needless explaining, so much resentment and accusation. No wonder most of us never disclose our change at all and forever wear a mask unless absolutely pressured otherwise, and even then, we might only offer the most tempered of excuses. Perhaps because of our cowardice, or perhaps because it’s impossible to see someone as different than how you’d like to see them, we still end up chained back to back with our former selves in the minds of others, hooks buried deep into our flesh, two husks linked by mnemonic steel.

I’m one of those cowards. Not knowing how to tell Amethyst I no longer saw the piano as something pleasantly benign, but more a bad portend, I decided I’d tell her nothing at all, and instead go through the motions the best I could. I regretted the bottle of wine in my hand, regretted speaking to Evan, regretted leaving the apartment at all, yet returning home was the last thing I wanted to do. It’d be much better to stay out all night, even all week or all month, or however long it took for this to blow over.

I had one more cigarette outside the door of our building, delaying as long as I could, the moon finally coming out from behind the black night clouds. From the street, I heard the sounds of the piano, still tonally light but now sinister, pouring out from our window. It was hard to believe Amethyst was still waiting for me inside—my best guess put my time away at over an hour—but the lights were still on and, more importantly, I didn’t get the sense that she left at all. I pictured her far back in the easy chair, empty glass of wine in hand, hardly having moved a muscle, hardly noticing how long I’ve been gone aside from the slightest register of time

passing. That normally wasn’t like her. Usually, she was worried about everything, petrified of that gaunt stalker Death, convinced I was predestined to leave her at an early age, always texting or calling me to check in whenever I stepped out alone, always making me promise I’d be safe, promise I wouldn’t die. I had to give it to the piano—it made her more relaxed in that arena.

When my cigarette was done and I could delay no longer, I headed back upstairs. Opening the door, I didn’t hear the piano at all. Only silence.

“Did it stop playing?” I asked Amethyst, who, just as I predicted, was still slouched in the easy chair.

“Yes,” she said quietly. “It stopped.”

I put the bottle of wine on the counter. “When? I was just smoking a cigarette downstairs and swore I heard it.”

“I’m not sure. Some time ago, I think.”

A part of me felt relief—all my hesitation about masks and true selves had been for naught, in the end—but the other part of me felt anger. There was no explanation for any of this—no reason why the piano started playing, no reason why it stopped. A secret was being kept from me, and I didn’t like it. What’s more, Amethyst was acting like some drug addict on the couch, lethargic and apathetic.

“You didn’t come looking for me,” I said, digging through our drawer for a corker (why on earth did such a cheap bottle of wine come corked?). Amethyst didn’t respond. I pushed. “Why not?”

From the kitchen, I saw her hand flail above the back of the easy chair. A shrugging off.

Taking the easy chair opposite from her, I sat without saying anything. Every now and then I glanced toward her, but she never returned eye contact, instead looking toward the moon, her cheek balancing on her shoulder.

I should have asked Amethyst why she thought the piano stopped playing, but I wanted her to make the first move. I was acting petulant, a bit burned she didn’t come looking for me, a bit perturbed by her dreamy state.

“Do you think it even played at all?” she suddenly asked.

Of course I did. I had heard the piano, had felt the keys move with my fingers, saw the hammers hit the strings. It was such an obvious question I couldn’t even answer, all I could do was drink my wine while she left hers untouched and felt my pajama pocket for the packet of cigarettes I had forgotten to take out, suddenly wishing to step out on the balcony and have one more.

“Because I have my doubts,” Amethyst continued. “After the music stopped, I still heard it inside my mind. In fact, it wasn’t until I walked to the kitchen that I glanced at the piano and noticed the keys weren’t moving. Then, I abruptly stopped hearing the music. I don’t know how or when it ended, just as I don’t know how or when it began. It made me wonder whether it had actually played at all.”

“But it had to have,” I said, surprised to find myself on the side of the piano, “we saw the keys pressing and the hammers moving.”

“That first night we did. By moonlight in the cover of darkness. After our party. Drinks in our system.”

What she suggested was insulting. “Don’t be ridiculous.” I got up to leave. “I need a cigarette.”

“Don’t. Wait.”

I sat back down but leant forward in impatience. For the first time, the silence in our apartment felt oppressive. Eventually, she said she’d like to join me for a smoke.

Out on the balcony, the moon was back in full force. We kept the sliding door open in case the piano decided to start again. I could see Lunar Landing from where we were. It must have just been closing time, for the white, circular neon sign switched off as I stared at it. Shortly afterward, a shadowy figure with comically long coattails came out the door with what I could only assume was the keyboard under his arm. “That must be Evan,” I said to Amethyst.

“It’s all his fault.”


“No,” I said, feeling the small urge to stick up for Evan, just as I had for the piano; he was a man painfully unaware of his own condition, a man whose birthdays are only harbingers of doom and failure. But I left it at that simple word—no. I had a similar urge to ask Amethyst something profound—this is what the atmosphere of late-night smokes on the balcony does to you—but I couldn’t find the words, or, rather, I perfectly knew the words, but I couldn’t find the space to say them. There was a dejected spirit in the air, an unspeakable disagreement over what

was to be done. It occurred to me that the piano might have facilitated better conversation because it removed all pockets of silence; all moments woven into one smooth tapestry.

“What did the piano mean to you?” Amethyst asked with my words, finding the space for me.

After hesitating, I said: “I’m not sure.” When the question you prepared to ask is turned toward you, only then do you see how unanswerable it truly is, an unparryable sword strike . Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought I heard the piano start up again.