The Girl with Twenty Fingers
Mozart is merciless, and he leaves no room for coverups. Sarah breaks up with him after a botched performance in music school of his D Minor Piano Concerto. Now, five years later, the 25-year-old Californian is working at a food magazine in Munich, but feels like an imposter. She can’t cook, picks at the dry skin on her hands, and is not quite able to shake her love for the piano. A brief affair with tattooed artist Theo helps her start to see music outside the box she’d crammed it into, until he ends it with a B.B. King song. In search of the score to the D Minor Concerto and a second chance, she ventures into an antique music shop, where she meets Herr Steinmann, an elderly German with an even older grand piano that once belonged to his Nazi-sympathizing mother. When they start meeting regularly to play Mozart’s works for four hands, she is fascinated by his past. He joined the Hitler Youth as a teenager, but later became enamored with a Black American GI named Benjamin, who passed on his sense of rhythm and unconditional smile during the post-war US occupation. Over coffee, Kaiserschmarren and Mozart, both Herr Steinmann and Sarah realize they have some reconciling to do before it’s too late. While his Chadian neighbor has become something of a son to him, he hopes to reconnect with his two surviving children as his health rapidly deteriorates. As Sarah finds her way back to the piano, her co-worker Tim, who unexpectedly fills her aloneness, dares her to move to the US with him. He forces her to face up to why she’d rather be the foreigner than the outsider, and encourages her to quit her job. When Tim helps her look up long-lost Benjamin, a ragtime whizz with plenty of secrets, she uncovers his suicide and doubts the liberating power of music he’d preached. For better or worse, she is not able to tell Herr Steinmann the truth about Benjamin before he dies (on the anniversary of Mozart’s death, nonetheless) and bequeaths her his history-laden instrument. With no job and a complicated relationship to music, she finds herself freer than ever before.
Read an excerpt from my forthcoming debut novel below. Watch for the whole book coming soon!
The Girl with Twenty Fingers (an excerpt)
Five years earlier
Mozart made Sarah feel naked. Why did it have to be Mozart? She loved the gut-punching melody of his D Minor Concerto, but if her fingers weren’t flawless, she couldn’t hide behind her expressiveness, like she did with other composers. Technical prowess wasn’t her forte.
Sarah wiped her hands on her lap again. The sweat kept seeping into them. She didn’t feel nervous, but the heaviness in her middle and moistness on her palms told a different story. Imagining the audience in their underwear was a ridiculous, over-told antidote to stage fright, she believed. She didn’t want to think of the people in the seats as freaks disturbing her private rehearsal. They had put on viscose or tweed and sacrificed an evening of Netflix and chill to have her meddle with their feelings. She was ready with her fire iron.
This audience was particularly tough. Sarah was in her third year as a piano student, and one requirement for her degree was a solo performance with orchestra. The juniors usually tackled Classical repertoire; next year she would have to take on something more flashy, like a virtuosic concerto by Rachmaninoff or Liszt. The orchestra was made up of fellow third-year students, and the audience was a mix of seasoned music professors, graduate students with tight concert schedules of their own, and the freshmen who believed they’d been born as the next Midori, Yo-Yo Ma or Evgeny Kissin. A few local residents, knowing they would have to purchase pricey tickets to see the same performers in a few years, would also turn up for exam recitals.
Sarah was sitting backstage as the orchestra delivered a merry rendition of Mozart’s D Major Symphony. She adjusted her short, bright turquoise shift dress in the full-length mirror leaning against the wall. It had been a lucky find, an off-season markdown at the outlet; it was rare to find a size six in the stack. Many classical musicians donned black and white, as if they were serving champagne at a corporate function. The audience’s first impression, Sarah knew, is always visual, and she wasn’t about to be boxed as boring. Peering down at her simple black ballerinas, a bit more worn around the toes than they’d looked at home, she wished she’d put on something with a heel after all, even at the expense of fluid pedaling.
The final cadence sounded. The audience applauded calmly, politely. The clapping dwindled; coughs punctured the silence. The stage door was opened by a freshman oboe major who earned his beer money working at the conservatory concert hall. She would have found his scraggly goatee unappealing if it weren’t for its authenticity; he smelled of soap and tobacco as she stood next to him, vulnerably. Sarah wiped her hands one last time on her skirt and felt her feet carry her into the light. Her heels clicked loudly on the wooden stage floor, which was covered with scratches invisible to the audience. She smiled broadly, trying to catch a few eyeballs in the dark rows as her vision adjusted to the glare.
Reaching the Steinway, she grabbed the edge of the keyboard and bowed, letting her hands slip down to just above her knees. She had practiced her bow alone, in front of the skinny mirror in the practice cubicle, a hundred times, a thousand times, a hundred thousand times. Apart from one rushed rehearsal with the orchestra earlier that morning, Sarah’s preparation had been lonely. This evening, she was on a team.
The strings opened ominously, the cellos rolled their triplet sixteenth notes, and the violins fixed an agitating off-beat rhythm. Sarah felt the woody tones of the string instruments wrap around her and placed her hands on the keyboard as the orchestra handed off. Random images had a way of flashing in her head right before she touched the keys, like at the threshold to sleep: the red tulips near the practice building that meant the semester’s end; the decades-old piece of bubble gum under the highest C on her favorite practice piano; the penny-loafered finance major from two weekends ago, who said afterward, “I knew you’d be a good fuck” (she said nothing); the growl of her stomach that was both hunger and the nervous inability to digest for the moment. Performing was not only creation, but also suppression; what was the secret to clean concentration when there was no such thing as the absence of thought?
Then the yearning melody swelled out of her fingertips like a voice. Professor Rosenstein, her piano instructor, who would sing her pieces with an old man’s vibrato and much too voluminously for his small studio, always said, “I play on stage as if I were in my living room, and in my living room as if I were on stage.” If only I had an orchestra in my living room, Sarah would tell him.
She echoed the ensemble on her instrument, her eyes on the tuxedoed conductor, a graduate student who also assisted with her undergraduate ear training class. She found his effeminate manner nearly sexy, but there was something about the way he slurped the undisclosed contents of his thermos, the contrast between his black leg hair and pale skin, that locked him out of her fantasies. After nailing the opening, she navigated through the first movement like a sailboat fixed on its course, guided securely by a strong gust. Being on stage made her feel like she was sitting next to her own body on the piano bench, watching herself like a mother watches her child, crossing her fingers and hoping she would get through it, but also confident deep down that she could.
Just breathe, she told herself. Breathe in, breathe out. She tried to focus her wandering mind on every note — “Don’t rush!” — and every phrase — “Don’t stumble!” It was exhausting squashing the voices in her head, beating them into oblivion, charging onward bar by bar because there was nowhere else to go.
She filled her lungs with air as she entered the cadenza, a solo show of virtuosity at the end of the first movement. Alone under the spotlight, the piano sounded loud, intrusive but not out of place. She tripped up briefly, her unintended chromaticism suddenly seated with her on stage like a gargoyle. She plowed ahead, oblivious to the ugly moment. As the first movement drew to a close, Sarah wiped her hands on her skirt again, hoping those sitting in the first row couldn’t see her tremble. No performance is perfect; it’s about how you cover up your mistakes, her teacher in high school told her as she pulled on the edge of a torn fingernail, slipping it surreptitiously into her pocket when she got it off. Mozart didn’t leave a lot of room for makeup.
The silence was short, then Sarah billowed her arms and danced elegantly through the second movement, carefully phrasing the lyrical melody, opening her mouth to sing along silently. She kept her eye on the conductor, his elbows bent and pinkies raised, to make sure she stayed in time until the music faded like a starry lullaby. What happened next would make each person in the audience forget how (mostly) immaculate the first movement had been, how delicately she had performed the second.
Sarah visualized her opening D Minor arpeggio, setting a swift tempo in her mind as she launched the Rondo in an unaccompanied flurry. Before she knew it, she had butchered the beginning and was stumbling through a cacophony that shattered her concentration. The conductor’s sideways glance blended embarrassment, sympathy and horror. “Hold it together, Sarah,” she screamed inwardly to herself. “Just keep it together.”
As the quick Allegro assai progressed, the cleft in her fragile control widened. The arpeggios essential to the theme took on an atonal flair. This was Mozart, not Schoenberg, goddammit! Each wrong note rattled her even more as the keyboard grew foreign and she seriously considered whether this Steinway had been built with unusually wide keys. Flying forward like a brakeless bus, abandoning any attempt at dynamic variation, she recalled her first ski trip in Lake Tahoe, aged eight, when she lurched off the beginner slope, skidding on her hip a hundred yards down a steeper icy incline, her skis pulling along sticks and pine cones. Some stranger had pulled her to her feet, gripping her tightly under her arms like the child she was, and she wondered whether he might be one of the angels she knew were out there. Today, she could have used an army of angels.
Sarah approached the cadenza with trepidation, wobbling the trills and wishing she could wrap herself in the cover of the strings, letting them absorb her. With the end in sight, she instinctively rushed toward it, slaughtering the final scales and crashing through the closing cadence.
She felt herself rise from the bench, avoiding eye contact with the conductor, who grabbed her hand for the obligatory joint bow. The wiry hairs on the back of his hand poked her fingertips. With tears welling up in her eyes, she looked apologetically into the emotionless faces in front of her. Hands met hands in a forced applause more full of pity than admiration. The first impression left by her opening bow and turquoise shift had been overwritten by an indelible catastrophe that rendered all those hours alone in the cubicle futile. All she’d wanted was to share something — no, to be — remarkable.
Sarah was tapping a silent, arbitrary melody fraught with sixteenth notes and syncopation on the table with the fingers of her left hand. It was 9:52 on Monday morning, but the week was already going badly.
“What do you mean your author can’t deliver on time? And why do I get the feeling you’ve never heard of a fucking dal before? Fresh takes on Indian classics — that is supposed to be our cover feature for March. So you’d better get the goddam classics down before you commission a fresh take.”
Just yesterday, Bavarian third graders dressed as magi were serenading her at her door. It was Three Kings’ Day and they were collecting coins for an orphanage in India.
Today, her boss, Stefanie, was squawking a not entirely unfamiliar tune at the weekly editorial meeting — except that it usually wasn’t directed at her. Dammit, what was a dal anyway?
The food journalist she’d commissioned to write the March feature story had promised a colorful portrait of three successful Indian chefs living in Munich, complete with make-at-home recipes for their bestselling dishes. He was a reliable freelancer with the hard-to-find tendency to deliver pristine copy ahead of deadline.
“So sorry Sarah, but I have to travel unexpectedly to Vienna for a few weeks and won’t be able to deliver this time. Hope you find someone else.”
She was considering dropping him from her A list of stringers; that was the only explanation she’d found in her inbox this morning. Was is so hard to keep your word? Sarah hadn’t lied when she got the job a year ago as commissioning editor at Fork & Messer, a bilingual German-English food magazine that aspired to keep print alive, though it had more readers online. She couldn’t; even white lies give her a stomach ache. Her strong language skills proved more relevant than her non-existent food background when she was hired. She hadn’t been raised bilingually, but had become so proficient in German by practicing on her own that she could write and edit in both languages.
Actually, though, Sarah was a pianist.
“Eigentlich bin ich Pianistin,” was how Sarah would answer the inevitable, “So what do you do?” question. That was about as close as many Germans got to making small talk. She gave them what they wanted: an honest answer. “Well, kind of,” she’d always add in the interest of candor. “I mean, I used to be.”
But today she was a food editor with a deadline, no author, and her boss breathing down her neck. Her co-workers in the room uncrossed and recrossed their legs, staring at the frames on the wall displaying previous cover stories on Germany’s best beer gardens and the top Ethiopian restaurants in European capitals.
“Hey Sarah, are you okay?” Tim asked, his hand brushing her arm, as the team gathered up their scratch paper and pens and scuffled out of the conference room. Creatures of routine, most of them made a detour for the coffee machine and then the smoking balcony before parking at their desks until lunch.
Tim was the picture editor, a tall, lanky German with ears that stuck out over the arms of his conspicuously stylish glasses. Sarah had worn contacts for so long that the surface of her eyeballs was uncomfortably sensitive when she didn’t have them in, though she envied his steadfast accessory, an effortless emblem of exceptionalism.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Sarah brushed him off unconvincingly, hoping he wouldn’t suggest they meet for drinks later. He’d already asked three times and she was running out of excuses.
“You Americans always say that,” he grinned facetiously to color over his disappointment at her superficial reply.
Sarah could deal with criticism. She had a college degree in piano performance. That had meant going to her piano instructor’s studio every week for a full hour of critique, not to mention a double dose of it at every masterclass and chamber rehearsal. Before each lesson, she would down a hurried espresso macchiato at the sardine can-sized coffee shop between the practice room and her teacher’s studio, like other musicians had a habit of schnapps ahead of concerts, meticulously avoiding her face in the crooked mirror hung to make the joint look bigger, and seeing the first few bars of her assigned piece on the battered, scribbled-on countertop.
“Nein! Much too heavy! Yu need a morr delicate touch ven you play Mozart. Caress ze instrument. Don’t forget zat he did not haff a modern piahno.” Professor Rosenstein was from Munich but had fled Germany for New York in 1938. He never returned to his hometown, but would likely be pleased that Sarah had found her way there, and even more delighted that she spoke German so well that she was often mistaken for a native. Though she had started learning German when she was in high school, her four college years with him had given Munich — rather than grungy Berlin or eclectic Cologne — a special place in her heart and she had focused her job search there. Professor Rosenstein, however, might just turn in his grave if he knew she had swapped Middle C for asdfghjkl and hardly touched her instrument in three years.
For Sarah, criticism had always been an opportunity to get that much closer to perfection, but at work, she was constantly afraid someone would call her bluff. She was good with words. She had filled four leather-bound journals over the years, and had penned a collection of short stories set in former East Germany. When it came to writing, she didn’t need to bluff, which is why she’d taken the editing job in the first place. “You think and dream in both German and English, your friends make fun of you for being so well organized, and you thrive on hard deadlines,” the posting read, downplaying the topic at hand. In reality, her coworkers not only lived, breathed and ate food journalism, they could actually make white sauces from scratch, grill steaks on point, and slice onions into equally sized cubes — at least according to the bit of last night’s dinner chatter they dropped at meetings. Sarah identified with neither term — food or journalism — and felt a pang of guilt when she saw the signature at the end of her own work emails:
Sarah A. Johnson
International Food Editor
Fork & Messer
It was dark when Sarah trudged across the Ludwigsbrücke, the central viaduct spanning the Isar River. She pulled her hat down over her ears, dodging piles of dirty snow, the remnants of last week’s winter storm. She paused mid-bridge in the icy breeze to gaze down the river; the water mirrored a blurrier, larger version of the city lights.
Sarah enjoyed living in a city with water and often directed her solitary jogs toward the river, though the air there was chillier. She had grown up in northern California. As a teenager, she would go to San Francisco for piano lessons, master classes and recitals, and her dad liked to take a detour over the Golden Gate Bridge on the way home.
“The Hawaiian Islands are way over there,” he would say wistfully, staring into the Pacific when they pulled over at a lookout point.
On the weekends, her family would occasionally drive down to Monterey. The water was too cold to swim in and a sweatshirt is every coastal Californian’s best friend, regardless of the season. Still, the power of the ocean fascinated her and made her feel small and insignificant in a liberating, but also frightening way. Life, especially in her 20s, was otherwise so much about striving for significance, she was finding. Despite, or perhaps because of its ambiguous tug on her, she had chosen to move far away from the ocean.
The Isar wasn’t the Pacific, but it was also cold water that moved. Some brave souls even surf in it. The cement braces lining the riverbed create a small standing wave at a particular spot in the English Garden.
Sarah stopped at a bakery on the other side of the river before getting on the tram. It was almost closing time and the only remaining wares were three round loaves of hard-crust bread, a few overlooked rolls, two pieces of Bienenstich cake and a couple soft pretzels.
“Eine Breze bitte,” she ordered, placing a one-euro coin in the dish on the counter.
When she moved to Munich a year ago to take the job at Fork & Messer, she’d been surprised to find that it wasn’t just tourists and children who ate all the pretzels on the bakery shelves. The ubiquitous doughy twists were a staple that lived up to their stereotype. You could get them sliced lengthwise and slathered with butter or cream cheese or even Bergkäse, with cucumber and tomato in the middle. That was funny, she thought, because a pretzel has two tear-shaped holes that don’t cover the cheese. It was a sandwich with craters.
The house was quiet when she climbed up to her third-floor, one-bedroom apartment. The first thing she saw when she switched on the light was her upright piano adjacent the front door, looking lonely as it cast a shadow on the only wall it fit against. “You should be practicing. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS BE PRACTICING.” The voice that had sometimes encouraged, sometimes tormented her for so many years didn’t go into hibernation when she stopped playing. It would rear up every time she came home. She bought the piano, a decent Blüthner, with the inheritance money she had received from her grandmother while she was still in college. In one of her alcoholic dazes, she had told Sarah before she died that it was intended for her first piano when she lived on her own. “I won’t live to see you play in Carnegie Hall,” she’d slurred, “But maybe I can help you get there.”
Sarah knew she couldn’t find her way back to music without an instrument, but instead of coaxing, the box of strings and keys stood aloofly against the otherwise undressed wall, reminding her of her failure. Often, she’d tell herself it was too late to bother the neighbors by tinkling through a Beethoven Sonata or Schubert Impromptu, though no one had ever complained. They usually kept to themselves, especially during the dark winter months when everyone was glad to throw on a fleece and make hot tea with their electric kettles when they got home from work.
It was Monday, but Sarah needed more than tea. She opened a bottle of Bordeaux and filled up a water glass with the dark liquid. It had cost €3.29 at the Aldi discount supermarket, but the label looked fancy. At the very least, it looked French.
Sarah opened the freezer, grabbed a bag of frozen mixed vegetables and poured them into a pot. She turned the stove up as high as it would go so the water would boil as quickly as possible. Frozen broccoli always took so long to thaw and she was hungry. When the vegetables were bouncing, she drained the vitamin-rich water from the pot and threw in two eggs. When they had coagulated, with some heat-induced brown spots, she scraped the mixture onto her plate, squirted a generous dollop of ketchup on top, and dipped her pretzel into it. She savored the snowflake-sized salt morsels, letting the red wine flow over them in her mouth. It was not exactly German cuisine. Most meat, and especially sausage, disgusted her; she couldn’t help but imagine the way pig parts were stuffed through intestines in questionable factories, though it was more the slipperiness of the whole affair rather than the poor pig that she couldn’t stomach. However, she adored the cakes and breads in this country of carb lovers, perhaps because glucose spikes have a temporary mood-boosting (not to mention addictive) quality akin to alcohol.
As an adolescent in California, she had been the slightly out-of-place Europhile who wore blouses instead of hoodies and, when she wasn’t practicing, spent her Friday nights writing to her pen pal in Paris and reading German novels by contemporary pop authors like Wladimir Kaminer and Sven Regener. She learned French in school, but taught herself German on the side by checking grammar books out from the library, reading current bestsellers and watching episodes of Tatort, the classic weekly crime series that’s been running since 1970. To refine her German accent, she would record herself with a tape recorder, then listen and evaluate, mortified at first to detect the swallowed Ls and upfront Rs that outed her not just as a foreigner, but as an American. She also used the tape recorder — not a phone app but a clunky box from the 00s she’d searched for on eBay — to perfect her piano pieces in the same self-critical way.
“Kommst du aus Norddeutschland?” Sarah was often asked by Bavarians who thought she might hail from northern Germany. As a foreigner, she was proud of being mistaken for a native, even though she knew she could never quite pass for a local. Nor would she necessarily want to. But as least her immigration status gave her a valid excuse for not always fitting in. It made her special, not just different, which is what she would have been in her home country.
“How in the world could you leave California?” She was tired of the question she heard so often. California had long boardwalks along rolling shores, the stuff of others’ dreams, but she could go there anytime. The world was small and she wanted to be in it. Sarah had always thought her concert schedule would add pins to her map of visited cities. Her big break, however, had never come.
Sarah took off her dress, tossed it onto her bed, and pulled on pants and a tightly fitting long-sleeved top that came up to her collar bone, staring into the mirror as if to ask for a second opinion. She never knew what to wear for a date, especially a first date. She wanted to look like she’d made an effort, but didn’t want to suggest she was trying too hard to impress. There was a fine line between the two.
It was Friday night and she was going to meet Theo for drinks. Not dinner, just a couple of casual cocktails, or maybe beers. He was probably more the beer type. Bavarians live up to at least that cliché: Beer is BIG in every sense of the word. Sarah found it too bitter and too bubbly, but she still made an effort to memorize the names of some of the sundry local brews, like Spaten, Löwenbräu or Hacker-Pschorr. Theo was a complete stranger. They had met in the subway at the Stachus station; he’d stepped off with her as the train halted.
“I would regret it later if I didn’t stop now to find out who you are,” he’d said, brushing her elbow briefly with his hand. Sarah had pulled away instinctively, looking up at him. It was a kitschy first line, but he’d made it sound sincere. It wasn’t that she hadn’t noticed him, standing at the door on the subway train with ear buds peeking out like sideburns, his blond curls straying from beneath his woven winter hat. It wasn’t that she hadn’t noticed the curiosity in her inner organs when she felt his eyes on her.
Theo didn’t match what Germans would call her Beuteschema. She generally granted second glances to men who looked like her: slender, neither short nor tall, straight brown hair. It was Theo’s self-confidence that piqued her interest. They exchanged numbers and sent a few messages over the past week before arranging to meet up tonight — this time above ground at Stachus, a central square in the heart of the city.
She looked around when she arrived at the Karlstor, a huge historic gate opening into the city’s main shopping boulevard, trying to glimpse faces nuzzled in winter gear. It was 8:03 p.m. She checked her phone to make sure she had the right time and place. Weren’t Germans supposed to be on time? Maybe he wasn’t going to show after all. The stores were closed, but pedestrians streamed by: shoppers, students, tourists, commuters. At 8:16 Sarah felt a hand on her elbow and spun around. Theo was wearing the same hat he’d had on in the train. Even in the dark the blond curls underneath were unmissable. His other hand was in the front pocket of his hoodie. Sarah was glad she’d opted for pants instead of a skirt; no man was worth freezing for. Theo’s feet must have been cold in his low-top Chucks.
“I’m starving,” said Theo, looking around, past Sarah’s head, as if their encounter were happenstance. “Can we grab something to eat? I know a good place.”
She was nearly skipping to keep up with Theo’s long legs as he swerved off the main drag, taking smaller side streets south toward Sendlinger Tor, a historic gate that frames the downtown area from the other side. Then he leapt up one step into a kebab shop with a faded, simple sign Sarah wouldn’t have seen had she come alone. It was supposed to be just drinks, not dinner. She wasn’t very hungry — she’d had an early quasi-dinner of fruit, cereal and yogurt — but ordered a spinach-stuffed börek anyway. Theo chose a platter with everything on it: several different meats on skewers, salad, rice, and fries.
“I haven’t eaten all day,” he said, shifting his feet on the wood floor and picking up two fries at once. They chewed quietly, and Sarah heard a mix of Turkish, German, Russian, English and a Scandinavian language at the tables around them, something she appreciated about Munich. It was healthy for her to go along with Theo’s spontaneity, she decided, even though she preferred to stick to plans once they’d been made. Growing up, her brother Brian used to chide her for scoffing at their family’s frequent spur-of-the-moment plan changes; maybe he and their parents just needed to work on their time management, she’d argued half-heartedly.
“So you’re an artist?” Sarah had been on enough first dates to know that men (most people, really) loved being asked about themselves. Interviewing was easier than talking about herself — a win-win strategy, especially when the prize was a second date.
“Yeah, that’s right. I wrote you that, didn’t I?” He was silent for a moment, shyly looking at his plate. “I design posters that have cool sayings on them, like the kind everyone wants to hang in their hallway or office. There’s a huge market for inexpensive art that’s still really unique.” He had dropped his initial reticence and was looking Sarah in the eye now, gesturing expansively with his hands. “When I sell enough posters, I want to start making merchandise like t-shirts and phone covers and stuff, too.”
“What kind of sayings?” Sarah put down her börek and took a sip of her Apfelschorle, apple juice mixed with sparkling water. It tingled on her tongue and she hoped it wouldn’t rob her control and make her burp.
“Oh, I don’t know, like, ‘If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun’.” He moved his hand in the air from left to right as if he were reading the words on the wall. “Or, here’s another one: ‘If God is watching us, the least we can do is be entertaining’. Stuff like that.”
Cheesy, thought Sarah, but kitsch sells, and so do good looks paired with his brand of boyish self-confidence. Looking at the way his sideburns creeped down his jaw at just the right length, curling ever so slightly like those of the finance major she’d regrettably had a two-night stand with in college, she reckoned he could be one to pull it off.
“Interesting,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “How many posters have you sold already?”
“I always wanted to be an artist.” Theo took a detour. He had stopped chewing and was looking intensely at Sarah, as if about to reveal his deepest secret. “No, really, since the second grade, when I had to give a speech on Picasso and paint a cubist cat. I was so inspired by combining shapes and colors. So all my posters and the lettering are kind of inspired by cubism. The letters are really big and they’re like a window to an image inside of them, so there are a couple different levels going on. Here, let me show you.”
Theo pulled his phone out of the front pocket on his hoodie. The screen was split in three places, and there was no cover on it. He swiped through a few of his works, stopping at one that read, “All the world’s a stage”.
“Shakespeare,” smiled Sarah. She’d had a high school English teacher who dressed up as the Bard and staged shorter versions of his most famous works in class to make them more tangible to the teens. Sarah had been so inspired that she downloaded his lesser known plays on her own and read them late at night in bed when her parents thought she was sleeping.
As she studied the abstract images inside the brightly colored lettering, she could see that Theo had depicted each of the seven ages of a man’s life that Shakespeare mentions in As You Like It, from the puking infant and the whining school boy to the toothless septuagenarian.
“Wow, you were right about having different levels in your paintings.” Abandoning her first impression, she was genuinely awed by the way he embedded words and literature in images and colors.
“I love creating things.” They locked eyes for a moment and Sarah felt her hands grow moist. She rubbed them on her pants. The stubble on Theo’s chin was rustier than his blond curls. She noticed the skin on each earlobe sagging slightly around a ringless oval hole and fingered the silver stud in her own ear.
“So how many posters have you sold already?” Sarah wasn’t going to let him off the hook that easily.
“I’m just getting started, but they’re going to be big. Really big. I just hit a thousand followers on social media!”
Theo took a bite and changed the subject, “And you write about food?” He tilted sideways to slip the phone back into his pocket and took a swig of beer. “Who doesn’t like food! You must have a huge fan club,” he winked.
“Ha!” Sarah scanned the rack of promotional postcards by the single WC in the back. One had a palm tree and a travel agency’s logo on it and said, “The grass may not be greener, but the palms are definitely taller”. “Small talk doesn’t have to be a big deal,” read an ad for an English language school.
“Even if I did, my boss wouldn’t be in it,” she replied, shifting in her chair. All four legs seemed to have a different length. “Actually, I’m a pianist. I mean, I was.”
“The Mozart kind or the Elton John kind?” Theo was smiling, one eyebrow raised, but he wasn’t cracking a joke. He hung one arm over the back of his chair, slouching comfortably.
“Maybe I should have been the Elton John kind. Who knows, in another life? No, the Mozart kind,” admitted Sarah. Sometimes she really did wonder whether things would have turned out differently if she had chosen pop so many years ago. But glam leggings and rhinestone bodysuits, not to mention needles, late nights and casual sex, would have been dishonest.
She wished she had ordered a beer, too. Her cheeks were flushed. “It’s cool looking at your art because it’s kind of like how I saw performing classical music — as a mix of creating and recreating. You have to stay true to the score and the historic context of the piece, like you do with Picasso and Shakespeare. But you also want to put something personal…” She began again. “You want to make it new.”
“‘The object of art is to give life a shape.’” Theo put on his best British accent.
“You know Shakespeare pretty well for a German.” She put on a voice that was playful, but didn’t overdo it. “And you’re full of quotes.”
“It’s my job,” said Theo with theatrical stoicism and an exaggerated German accent this time. “But it’s true about music, too. Don’t you play anymore?”
“No,” answered Sarah too brusquely, furtively looking around to see if anyone else had heard her. Then she tried to backpedal. “I think about it a lot. Sometimes I would like to. The thing is, I’d always planned on being a professional pianist that gave solo recitals and guest performances and chamber concerts all over the world, or at least all over Europe.” She paused to blink several times. “But I just wasn’t good enough.” The words spilled onto the table like a knocked-over beverage; she hadn’t explained it like that to anyone before.
“I’m sure that’s not true! But I know what you mean. I feel like that too sometimes. Okay, maybe most of the time.” Theo ran his fingers through his curls, each one landing in a different spot.
Sarah realized that she had been staring at his hands, wondering whether they would feel rough on her skin. There was a smudge on the outside of his left palm; he must be left-handed, too. That the piano, assuming high-range melodies, was a right-handed instrument, made Sarah feel like a lefty rebel attacked by the occasional doubt that opposites really did attract. With Theo, however, she seemed to have more in common than she’d expected when he touched her elbow by the train.
“Dreams don’t just die all by themselves. What happened to make you abandon the piano?”
Sarah shifted in her chair. Her earlobes felt hot and and her hands were still sweating. She had never talked about the piano in the first hour of a first date before; the personal question made him sexy. Other guys in Germany were more interested in how she could ever leave glamorous California or what Americans truly thought of President Donald Trump. That made them — the law student she met online and several bar encounters — generic.
“I do still have a piano at home.” It was a lame statement of self-defense to buy her time. After a moment, she told the truth. “I totally bombed an important performance with an orchestra during my third year of music school.” She turned her bottle of sparkling juice in circles, letting the base rest on the table as if it were glued to a tiny record player. “It was Mozart. Mozart is merciless.”
“That sounds like the title of some murder mystery, ‘Mozart is merciless.’” They both chuckled.
“That one would be too scary for me. But it’s true, he just makes you feel” — Sarah blushed — “naked. He’s all about crystal clear technique, so there’s nothing to hide behind. Anyway, the first and second movements were going great. Then I just blacked out on the third movement and, well, pretty much crashed and burned.” The weak applause replayed in her head; she remembered the water welling in her eyes as she’d bowed, hoping the tears wouldn’t drip onto the stage where the music students with more promising careers also tread. “I finished my degree and played lots of concerts after that, but it was a turning point. A real professional would have dealt with the pressure differently. No matter how badly I wanted it, I guess I wasn’t made of the right stuff.” Sarah felt her fingers grip the sides of the chair beneath her thighs. “It’s all or nothing in that world. You can’t just be pretty good and still make it, you have to be perfect. I’d thought I could make up for not being perfect by being unique, but that’s not enough.” It was, she was slowly coming to realize, not a simple disappointment, but the breakdown of an entire American upbringing that promised, even guaranteed, individually tailored success for each one-of-a-kind child; “You can become whatever you set your mind to”, the bread and butter of her childhood, was cracking like the ceiling in The Truman Show. No, child, she would tell hers, we are not the sole masters of our fates.
Theo put his elbows on the table and leaned forward. His gaze was intense and Sarah lost her train of thought, letting her eyes wander over their empty plates. He seemed to milk the silence before breaking it. “I tried art school for three semesters, but they said I had no talent and would never create anything that anyone would pay to see, let alone have.” He dramatically turned up his nose.
“That’s ridiculous!” Sarah exclaimed indignantly, relieved to be talking about him, wondering whether she would later regret sharing such a painful memory.
“Yeah, I was pretty down about it for a year or two before I came up with my posters. But my dad believed in me. I mean, he always wanted me to go into business and get some secure job like he did, but then I was able to convince him that my posters can be really successful, and he gave me a loan to jumpstart things.”
Theo pushed his plate to the side and reached across the table to rest his hand on Sarah’s forearm. “Don’t give up, Sarah,” he was speaking slowly, almost whispering.
“You just need to make music in a totally new way. Like I did with my art.” He leaned back in his chair, but left his hand outstretched on the table so the tips of his fingers were still touching her sleeve. “I mean, if you need an audience, I’ll gladly oblige.” He tipped an imaginary top hat with his other hand.
It was already 10:23 p.m. The hole-in-the-wall bistro had filled up with students lining their stomachs with saturated fats ahead of their Friday night binge, individuals coming or going from blue-collar shifts, regulars who turned up every week and drank liters of Turkish tea on the house.
“Want to go have a drink someplace else?” Sarah needed some air. She knew of a couple of bars in the area, but thought they might be too pretentious for a hoodie.
“A buddy of mine manages this place not too far from here. You should meet him. He’s into music, too, just not the Mozart kind.” Theo pulled his hat down over his ears and Sarah wrapped herself in her scarf and coat. They stepped outside and she felt the cold air envelop her, cooling her cheeks. The temperature seemed to have dropped several degrees since they’d met at Karlstor.
Things were just starting to pick up when they snagged the last two stools at a bar called Nirgendwo, Nowhere. The poorly marked entrance had led them down a flight of stairs to a small dim room with half a dozen round tables on one side, the other side open for either dancing or mingling when it got fuller. Drum and bass rumbled in the background, but not too loudly. Rows of bottles glistened on the wall behind the bar, sufficing as decor. The bartender finished pouring a couple of drinks and grinned as he came over to Theo and Sarah.
“Where did you find such a pretty girl!?” He pointed to Sarah. She knew she should be offended, even outraged, by guys who talked like that, but she was also flattered against her will. Then he addressed her. “You watch out for this Schlawiner. He’s full of wild ideas!”
“Rule number one, don’t believe anything Andreas says,” Theo joked. “Andreas, the electric guitarist; Sarah, the classical pianist,” he gestured.
“A fellow musician! Then on the house,” Andreas thumped two Paulaner onto the counter and turned to the next customers. Theo and Sarah clinked bottles, looking each other purposefully in the eye, and took a sip. It tasted bitter and Sarah suppressed a grimace.
“You know what they say here in Germany, don’t you?”
“Seven years of bad sex if you don’t make eye contact when you toast! I’ve heard that one before,” Sarah giggled.
“You’re so well integrated, you’re practically German already!”
“I’m not so sure that’s a compliment.”
The stools were so close together that their knees were touching. “Actually, Andreas was at least half right.”
“I should watch out for you?” Sarah feigned concern, picking up the bottle.
“Don’t know about that, but I do have an idea.” Theo chose his words slowly so Sarah would listen more closely. “We could collaborate with our art and music. You play a concert and I’ll show my posters — like a vernissage.”
“If you want to stick with Picasso, I know he was close with some French composers of the time, like Poulenc and Varèse.” Sarah remembered a lecture from her third semester music history class. Theo had a way of being convincing and she quickly realized she was getting ahead of herself. “But performing a whole recital? I would have to start from scratch and I’m really rusty.”
She had touched her piano only a handful of times since moving to Munich. Preparing an hour’s worth of new music would take months, and if she blundered, she would make Theo look bad, too. Suddenly the idea seemed daunting.
“We’d have to rent some kind of event room with a piano. Could we even sell that many tickets?” A slew of cons flooded Sarah’s mind.
Theo leaned in, putting his hand on her thigh. “Details, details, details. I’ll ask around. I’m sure we can find a place. The point is, music is bigger than what you’ve already experienced. You just have to take a whole different approach. Maybe we can make it a win-win situation.”
He moved forward quickly until their lips met and he pressed confidently against her. Theo swept his tongue against Sarah’s and slid his hand up to her rib cage, his thumb resting against the underwire of her bra. She felt a knot in her middle contract or unravel; she wasn’t sure which.
He tasted like beer, but his lips were soft. They sat quietly, knees interlocked.
“Think about it, Sarah.”
She had never received an artistic proposal on a date — certainly not a first date. Classical music wasn’t something most men could relate to. Theo had been discouraged in his art but dusted himself off and gotten up again. Maybe he was someone to help her do that, too.
Suddenly Andreas was standing across the bar. “What else can I get you two lovebirds?”
Theo ordered a Moscow mule and Sarah stuck with her standard colorless gin tonic. She was glad to be done with the beer. Andreas made the drinks without looking at his hands, instead explaining to Theo that he and his band were scheduled to perform in the bar the next night, but that his sound system was on the brink.
“We do a live gig every Saturday and I get my crew in here every few weeks,” Andreas explained to Sarah, who wondered whether the musicians had to stand on the ceiling, because they wouldn’t fit anywhere else.
“No problem, man, I’ll take a look.” Suddenly Sarah found herself alone at the bar with her gin tonic as Theo disappeared with Andreas to repair the sound system. The place was filling up and she was tousled from behind as people lurched toward the bar to collect drinks, rocking like they were on a boat, some cushioning their collisions with winter coats still on.
Sarah finished her drink and checked her phone. It was 12:37 a.m. Theo’s untouched Moscow mule was still on the bar. She couldn’t see him anywhere in the dim underground cube, but she was tired. Her alarm had gone off at 6:13 that morning so she could get to work and turn on her computer before 8:00. Always being the first one there was something she took pride in. She pulled on her coat, which she had been sitting on for safe keeping. Should she leave? Theo had her number.
Just as she stood up, he reappeared in front of her. The sleeves of his hoodie were pushed up to his elbows, revealing a tattoo Sarah hadn’t seen yet: a monkey with a lion-like mane and fierce, but playful little eyes, crouched on a tree branch.
“Hey, sorry about that. I thought it was just going to take a minute, but the mixer is busted and he’s missing a part we have to go borrow.”
“Okay, no worries, I’m going to go.”
Theo kissed her briefly on the lips as if they were a couple just heading out for work in the morning. “Don’t forget our plan! I’ll call you.” He touched his thumb and pinkie to his face in a mute phone gesture.
They drifted apart as Sarah jostled her way to the door, wishing she had a tug boat.
When Sarah opened her eyes, she could see at the edges of the shutters that the sun had risen a while ago. She stretched out her left arm onto the empty half of the bed and rubbed her eyes with her right hand. She remembered Theo’s lips pressing against hers and felt her body shiver, wishing she could have run her fingers through his curls. Then the anger came. Or had she dreamt up the sour end? It felt like a sunburn; the warmth was healing in the moment, but her shoulders ached hours later. She couldn’t change that he knew about her biggest failure. The least he could have done was walk her back to the tram station. Was that too much to expect from a man in the middle of the night? Maybe she was just dull and old-fashioned for even thinking of it.
Sarah sighed as she stood up and went to the toilet, sitting longer than she needed in order to rub her eyes, rest her elbows on her knees for a few seconds, and breathe. She washed her face and put in her contact lenses. Without them, she was useless. Closing her eyes, she stuck her hand in her dish of colorful coffee capsules, opening it to discover a yellow one in her palm. She made a cappuccino and drank it standing, looking out the kitchen window. Sleet was falling from a grey sky. The Germans call it Schneeregen, snow rain, because it is both at the same time.
Sarah was annoyed with herself. She hadn’t felt so understood in a very long time. Maybe ever. So why did the date end so disappointingly? It didn’t even come to an end, she concluded, it just fizzled. Yesterday she’d woken up thinking about split lentils, today she felt chafed. Not because Theo had abandoned her at the bar, but because he had asked questions she wished she hadn’t answered.
She made another cappuccino, this time plucking a yellow capsule from the bowl with her eyes open. She didn’t like to change paths mid-course. Just because he was an asshole didn’t mean he wasn’t right, she conceded. Music was bigger than her. She looked at her phone. Nothing. No messages, no breaking news, not even a weather update. Theo hadn’t texted her last night, and she certainly wouldn’t be writing him today.
The last yogurt in her refrigerator was passion fruit flavored. That sounded so much more romantic and exotic in English than in German — Maracuja — and brought back memories of the complimentary fruit juice at the hotel during a childhood trip to Maui. At nine years old, she’d never tasted anything so heavenly. The picture on the lid of a halved fruit full of grey seeds didn’t look as appetizing as the tropical delicacy in her memory. She checked the date on the yogurt: January 18. There was a two day grace period, right? She poured corn flakes directly into the plastic container and ate hungrily.
Then she scrolled through her streaming app until she found it: Argentine pianist Martha Argerich and Italian conductor Claudio Abbado performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor. Many women played, studied and aspired, but the most respected pianists, it seemed, were usually men. Argerich was a bold exception. Sarah pressed play. She had admired her for years, though this recording was a fairly recent one — from 2013, shortly before Abbado passed away.
Saturday morning was cleaning time. She liked to get chores out of the way at the beginning of the weekend. It normally didn’t take long to tidy up her 55-square-meter one-bedroom, but today Sarah had other priorities. She left the music on as she took a quick shower, pulled up her jeans, tucked in her warmest sweater, and brushed on less makeup than usual. As the final cadence of the third movement sounded, Sarah grabbed her umbrella, slipped her feet into her winter boots, and locked her apartment. She knew where she was going, she just hoped she could find it again. During her first week in Munich, over a year ago, Sarah had walked by a small music shop about the size of her own flat. It didn’t sell instruments, only scores — a rarity in the digital age.
It was still sleeting as she wandered through the Altstadt, the Old Town, letting the inside of the open umbrella rest on the top of her grey wool beanie. A few brave tourists were looking lost, some wearing plastic garbage bags over their coats, bulging like walking sausages. She passed a Starbucks and St. Peter’s, Munich’s oldest church, meandered right, left, right again through a few side streets, and almost missed it. She double-backed and took a deep breath as she read the aged sign: Notenfachgeschäft Bauer.
A bell sounded when she opened the door. The walls were lined to the ceiling with disorderly shelves stuffed seemingly randomly with spines reading “Strauss”, “Brahms”, “Debussy”, “Schoenberg”, or “Chopin”. The scores weren’t used, but the shop reeked of time nevertheless. Yellowed photos of tuxedoed men were signed “für Franz” by Vladimir Horowitz, Alfred Brendel and Glenn Gould. Sarah tried not to touch anything. The names of the composers and the pianists were like old neighbors to her, but she nevertheless felt like she was in a museum and half expected a guard to admonish her at any time.
“Wie kann ich Ihnen helfen?” An elderly man with spectacles stood behind a glass counter, skeptically peering down his nose at Sarah while asking what he could do for her. He was spindly with a wrinkled face and a muted paisley silk scarf tied meticulously around his neck. Sarah looked around hastily, spotting a book of Czerny exercises on a stack of scores on a small, marble-top table. No one seemed to really care about poor Czerny’s other compositions, but many young pianists religiously repeated his boring but exacting exercises.
“I’m looking for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20,” she heard her voice say. She noticed that she was clenching her fists and made a conscious effort to relax her hands.
“Hm, D Minor. I believe I sold my last copy earlier this week. With piano accompaniment or the full orchestra version?”
“With piano accompaniment is fine. I would prefer the G. Henle edition, if possible.” G. Henle was a German publisher known for remaining faithful to composers’ original scores. Even if she could dig one up and fit it in her apartment, an orchestra would stress her out. The conductor’s glare during the third movement had been unbearable; she wasn’t able to look him in the eye for the rest of the semester.
“Freilich. One moment, please.” The man disappeared behind a tired tapestry dividing the small shop from an even tinier office.
Sarah hadn’t even noticed the other, even older man in the shop. He’d buried his nose in a shelf with a faded, hand-written sign reading, “Romantic works for piano solo”. He addressed her in English, but with a heavy German accent.
Sarah didn’t feel like engaging in small talk and stuck to German. “Ja. But I live here in Munich.”
“The Americans are good people. They have elected some unfortunate presidents over the years, sadly, and have an odd obsession with their own flag. But I will never forget what they did for us. I have never been to America, but I know its people are good at heart.” He pursed his lip reminiscently.
Sarah smiled and nodded, letting her eyes drift around the shop for the third or fourth time, up and down the chaotic shelves and across the overlapping oriental rugs on the floor. Most Germans she met wanted to know, as they would put it, how her compatriots could possibly have lost their minds and elected Donald Trump. She tried to avoid superficial conversations about American politics when she could. How could she explain decades of cultural development in a few sentences to someone who’d already settled on an opinion?
She did know a lot of good Americans, Sarah thought, but also a few jerks and egotists. The same was true of Germans. At that moment, her phone beeped. It was alien in this preserved analogue haven. She reached for it, but only glanced at the lock screen before burying it in her pocket again, embarrassed to be the disturbance.
“Theo Vogl: Hey I’ve got a venue for our project. Hope you didn’t…” She would read the rest later.
“You are a pianist? You have the hands of a pianist.” The man gripped the curved handle of his cane with bent fingers. Sarah had never been particularly proud of her hands and had a habit of tearing the edges of her nails, leaving them jagged and sore, although she admired, even envied, the untarnished surgeon’s skin on Professor Rosenstein’s hands, which were like beach pebbles struck by a million waves. The man was hunched with age, but would not have been tall in his youth. His ankle-length camel wool winter coat was still buttoned to his neck, even though it was warm in the cramped shop. His military-like dark green beret was set at a cheeky tilt.
“I used to be.” Sarah looked briefly at her own hands, which were not particularly large.
“No such thing,” he said, frowning slightly and audibly tapping his cane on the Turkish rug beneath their feet.
Just then, the shop owner reappeared, shaking his head. “I don’t have it in stock and the publisher says it can take several weeks. Would you like to place an order?”
“The Henle edition of Mozart’s D Minor Concerto? I have a copy.” The elderly customer butted in with a straight face. “It’s from the mid-80s, probably well before you were born, but Mozart hasn’t made any changes in the score since then. I will sell it to you for a small, but appropriate fee.” He turned to the shop owner, “That is, if you don’t mind, lieber Franz.”
“As the lady likes,” Franz conceded cordially.
Before Sarah could utter a word, the deal, it seemed, had been sealed.
“It will cost you one American dollar. I don’t think that will be too much, will it?” He produced a calling card that also appeared to be from the mid-80s and read “Otto Steinmann”. “You can call me tomorrow afternoon to arrange an appointment to pick it up. Please call after 2 p.m., if you don’t mind, after my mid-day nap.”
Sarah slipped the card into her pocket as she stepped out of the shop, pulling her scarf over her lips and breathing into it. She felt her phone in her coat pocket and remembered Theo’s message.
“Hey I’ve got a venue for our project. Hope you didn’t forget 😉 The mixer works now but was a bitch to fix. Didn’t get home until 4. Going back tonight to watch Andreas’s band if you wanna come. Need to kiss you again ASAP 😘”
She remembered his clean but masculine hands, his long fingers, round fingernails, and the ink spot on his left palm. He was one of those people with gravity, but she was unsure where his orbit would take her and couldn’t see over the horizon. She slipped her phone back into her pocket and put her gloves on. She would try to wait until tomorrow to write him back. It was almost 11:00 a.m. Sarah decided to cross Marienplatz, Munich’s main square, on her way home and crane her neck like a tourist to watch the famous Glockenspiel. High up on the neo-gothic New Town Hall, wooden figures fixed stoically to a track pass the square again and again to portray a never-ending royal wedding and tournament of chivalrous knights.
Sarah stood in front of the mirror as she tucked her white button-down blouse into her jeans and brushed her straight shoulder-length hair. It never seemed to fall right in the winter when the air was dry. The back of her head seemed a tad too narrow, making her hair lie flatter than she’d like it to. She was occasionally asked whether she died her hair, because it was so dark against her fair skin. “Not until I go grey and have no choice,” she would tell the hairdressers when they tried to sell her coloring, adding, “I’m only 25,” as if dye were the exclusive terrain of the middle-aged. Highlights, she believed, would just make her look ordinary.
It was 1:58 p.m. and she had agreed to meet Otto Steinmann at 3:00, but didn’t know how long it would take to get there. It was better to be punctual with an elderly German, she thought. Sarah had brought a 20-dollar bill, a five and three ones back from her last visit to California. She slipped all of them into her wallet. They looked rather monotone next to the more colorful euro notes, which still seemed like Monopoly money to her.
After taking the S-Bahn tram and then transferring to a bus, she found herself in a Wagner opera. The streets in the Nymphenburg neighborhood, close to the historic palace, bore names from Nordic mythology like Wotan, Fricka and Fasolt, which were also characters in Richard Wagner’s epic Ring cycle. With a few minutes to kill, she walked past Otto Steinmann’s address until she reached the end of the block. The houses were stately and older, some newly renovated, others weary. The street was lined with large, bare oaks, dirty snow stacked at their bases.
Doubling-back to the house, she pushed the button next to the sign marked “O. & H. Steinmann” at 2:57 p.m. and the door was buzzed open. There was no elevator and she wondered how well he managed to get up and down the stairs at his age. When she reached the third-floor landing, Herr Steinmann was standing at the open door wearing a traditional collarless Bavarian jacket in hunter green with embroidered copper accents. The slippers on his feet made them look too big for his slight frame.
“Grüß Gott, Herr Steinmann.”
“Please come in.” He gestured to a wide cabinet with drawers at the bottom and a dim mirror and ornate hooks on the upper half. “You may hang your coat here and use the guest slippers if you like,” he offered. Several pairs of felt house shoes in various sizes were lined up in a tidy row under the cabinet.
The entry led into a narrow hallway with four closed doors. The fifth opened into a sitting room that was lined with dark oak chests and bookshelves, the floors covered from corner to corner with oriental rugs. Sarah inhaled and was transported back to the music shop from last week. Paper preserves our histories, but does not age pleasantly itself.
A small grand piano in the same dark wood took up a good quarter of the room. It was camouflaged among the drab rugs and cabinets, except that the lid to the keyboard was open. The black and cream ivories, starkly out of place, gave it away. The pea, rust and golden tones of antiques always seemed as bland as a black-and-white movie, thought Sarah, though they must have been vivid in the 1960s. How much muter would our modern whites and grays appear in 60 years? Sarah recognized with a flash of longing in her gut that the piano keys were made of real ivory, slightly rounded and not uniform in color. “C. Bechstein” was written in gold lettering above the keyboard.
“Ein Bechstein Flügel!” Sarah blurted out. In German, Klavier referred to an upright piano; Flügel — literally, “wing” — was a grand. German-made Bechstein pianos were highly respected by those in the know, but rarer than other elite brands like Steinway or Yamaha in the US, and Sarah had only ever played one before. Professor Rosenstein’s side-by-side ivory-clad grands had been a Bechstein and a Bösendorfer, an Austrian-made instrument, albeit both black and much longer than Herr Steinmann’s. Even though Sarah always felt a bit apprehensive ahead of her weekly lessons with Professor Rosenstein, one hour with such top-notch instruments seemed so short after 30 or 40 hours at the clunky practice room pianos. Despite the difference in color and size, the small Bechstein flooded Sarah’s head with a collage of memories from Professor Rosenstein’s studio. “Bravo!” she remembered him shouting, uncharacteristically loudly, jumping to his feet as she sounded the final chord of Chopin’s C-sharp Minor Étude, Opus 10. That was the last time she’d played it. After the first time as a freshman — was it Beethoven or Brahms? — he’d cleared his throat diplomatically following an eternal silence: “That is a start”.
“Yes, it was made in 1931 and used to belong to my mother. The pre-war Bechsteins were particularly exquisite,” explained Herr Steinmann, gesturing toward the piano. “Fortunately, the woman who lives below me is quite elderly and hard of hearing, so I can make use of the full range of the instrument,” he added with no trace of irony.
Without his beret, Herr Steinmann appeared even frailer. Chunky hearing aids bulked up both ears. He had taken great care to comb his few remaining hairs, white and wiry, over to one side. A few unruly ones stuck out in all directions, likely due to his mid-day siesta. Sarah hoped he wouldn’t ask her to play something, even though she was curious to hear how the pre-war Bechstein sounded. She almost feared that Professor Rosenstein would be listening, too, and could feel his disappointment at the skill that had withered over the past several years.
“I don’t drink tea,” volunteered Herr Steinmann. “My late wife used to drink the stuff, but I have always been an avid coffee lover. Would you like a cup? Please sit down,” he gestured to two armchairs adjacent the piano, with a small marble-topped table between them. “There were times, you know, when coffee was hard to come by.”
He disappeared into the hallway and, a moment later, a flap in the wall swung down with a squeak that startled Sarah. Herr Steinmann pushed a tray with a pot, two cups, a flowered dish of sugar cubes, and a matching creamer onto the counter that had appeared out of nowhere. Through the square hole in the wall, Sarah glimpsed a simple kitchen with dated tiles.
He shuffled back to the sitting room, hardly lifting his slippered feet with each step, and placed the tray on the table.
“We constructed the hatch when we bought this apartment in 1961. Ha! The East Germans were building a wall at the time and we were poking a hole in one.” He was delighted with his own comparison, but his face grew sombre as he said, “What a ridiculous construction. It simply led to one catastrophe after the next. The world does not need more walls, for heaven’s sake. If Germany had never been divided, we wouldn’t have had to pay so dearly for reunification.”
Sarah nodded. She knew that then Chancellor Helmut Kohl had steamrolled some West Germans with his rapid reunification plan and hasty economic merger, but her knowledge of German history was only theoretical. This man, with glassy eyes and more hairs in his ears than on his head, had been there.
Herr Steinmann’s hand trembled as he poured the coffee precariously. Sarah looked away. This was taking forever and she was trying to think of an excuse to inquire politely about the score and leave. He dropped two lumps of sugar into his cup and pushed the bowl in Sarah’s direction. She poured exactly half the contents of the creamer into her coffee, watching as white teardrops dissipated into the now caramel-colored liquid, and left the sugar untouched. They sipped in silence as Sarah looked around. There was a black-and-white wedding photo on the wall, yellowed with time, the woman in a pale skirt and jacket, both smiling naively. On the table in front of her was a simple silver frame with three children, a boy and two girls, looking as if they’d been bribed to squeeze into dresses and vests and comb their hair. Was the photo from the 1950s or 60s? Sarah couldn’t tell.
“Oh, of course, Frau Johnson. Or may I call you Sarah?” He pronounced her first name in German, Zah-rah, but continued to address her using the polite Sie form. She’d always considered her name ordinary, but the way he said it made it sound unique.
“Before I forget, here is the score I promised.” Without standing up, Herr Steinmann lifted the book from a stack of piano music on the chest next to his chair. “What a coincidence. I’m sure you know that today would have been Mozart’s birthday: January 27, 1756. Not that he would have been celebrating today.” He continued wryly, “When he died, he was younger than my grandson is now — although Moritz most certainly hasn’t achieved a fraction of what the composer did in his brief 35 years.”
Would that make him old enough to be my great-grandfather? Sarah calculated to herself. She fumbled in her wallet to find George Washington’s face, handing it to Herr Steinmann. “Are you sure that just one dollar is enough? I’d be happy to pay you more.” She reached for the 20-dollar note.
His grin was mischievous. “I haven’t seen one of these in over 70 years. Look at it. It looks quite the same, doesn’t it?” He slipped the bill into his coat pocket and peered intently at her. “We agreed to one dollar. That is more than enough. It brings back good memories, and those are priceless at my age. But please do appease my curiosity. What is your plan for the score? You are a pianist without an orchestra, I presume?”
For once, Sarah didn’t have a plan. “I did have an orchestra.” She studied the ornate mustard and rust pattern in the rug. “I used to know this piece very well. It might just be Mozart’s greatest piano concerto. But we had something of a falling out,” she shrugged, sitting at the edge of the armchair as if ready to flee. “And I think I need to make amends.” That was it exactly, it occurred to her as the words came out of her mouth.
“Pieces of music are like siblings. You go through a lot together. Sometimes you love each other. Sometimes you hate each other. But you never abandon each other.” Herr Steinmann pressed his fingertips and his lips together, peering intently at Sarah.
She stood up to leave, forcing a smile even as she felt a tear welling up in her left eye, a tear of melancholy or regret — she couldn’t quite place it. “Thank you for the coffee and the score, Herr Steinmann.”
He seemed not to notice her intention. “I would not say that Mozart is my favorite composer. Certainly the works of Beethoven or Brahms have an even greater depth. And Liszt and Rachmaninoff are much more impressive — when performed by a real virtuoso, of course. But Mozart’s virtue is his simplicity.”
A narrow, light brown grandfather clock, in a wood similar to the piano’s, chimed the quarter hour: 3:15 p.m. Getting out the door was going to be a bigger challenge than Sarah had thought.
“You know, Mozart was really an opera composer. The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute — those were his masterpieces.” Herr Steinmann was gesturing with his coffee cup, which Sarah worried could fly out of his quivering hand at any moment.
He didn’t stop. “But some of his most enjoyable works, in my opinion, are his sonatas for one piano, four hands. Not many composers bothered to write for two pianists, but Mozart, you know, played with his older sister.” Gripping the armrest of his chair with both hands, Herr Steinmann rose laboriously to his feet. “You are a pianist without an orchestra and are seeking reconciliation with Wolfgang Amadeus. I am not exactly an orchestra, but I could quite possibly assist you with the latter. I propose that we meet again next week to explore Mozart’s repertoire for piano four hands.”
Sarah opened her mouth to answer, but she didn’t know what to say.
“Would next Monday at 5:00 p.m. suit you? I am generally too worn out on Sunday afternoons for such an exhausting activity, you know.”
“Um, yes, okay. Wait, I have a dentist appointment next week.” It sounded like a cop out, but it was true. Sarah felt a short rush of relief, then a strange dash of disappointment.
“Very well then, you can come the following week, if you like. I can use the time to get my chops up to speed,” chuckled Herr Steinmann. “And don’t worry, I have all the scores here. I’m sure you are an excellent sight-reader and won’t need much preparation.” He waved his hand and shuffled in a turtle’s tempo toward the front door. “Don’t let me keep you, Sarah.”
Sarah nearly tripped over her borrowed slippers on the way, and was relieved to exchange them in the entry for her own boots and coat. “Thank you again for the score and the coffee,” she turned over her shoulder as she navigated down the sagging staircase, trying not to let the steps creak. One floor down, an elderly woman smiled silently at her while she swept her landing, the welcome map tilted up against the wall.
Outside, Sarah cringed. Clearly, this lonely old man wanted company. She didn’t even really want to play the piano again, let alone in this musty shrine to the 1960s with a man practically old enough to be Mozart’s brother. She just wanted peace with the piece she’d struggled with — maybe read through it a few times and close that chapter so that when people like Theo asked about her music, she didn’t have a gaping wound to re-bandage. Theo. That was another date she’d accidentally made.