The first time I saw her - really, really saw her, not just glanced at her as we tried our best to catch the back seats in the small university classrooms - she was at a piano. Maybe I'd never have really been able to notice her had it not been for that one, strange evening when destiny gently pushed me out of my awkward life and into hers.
If only children can be prodigies, then I wasn't one any longer. I'd lived through my glory years at school, where I'd gone off and won prizes for art and English, maths and physics, running circles around classmates and less talented professors. Eventually, when push came to shove and I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I hid behind some more studying, delaying that dreadful moment when I'd have to prove that not only was I smart, but that I was also able to do something. I chose English and physics as majors, convinced I could do both easily enough. I wasn't right. I wasn't very wrong, either. There wasn't much of a personal life left between the two, but I took my exams with flying colors and dreamed of the day I'd win a Nobel prize. I don't think it will ever actually happen, but even fools can dream.
I was going to write a BA dissertation on the impact that 19th century scientific discoveries had on literature. It was an interesting topic and one of the few I could choose to reunite both my loves and get away with studying the history of physics, with its wild theories and random inferences. Word got out and before I knew it, one of my professors was suggesting that I should hold a conference on the matter in this event they'd have at our university. She said I should discuss the birth of science fiction and how its history differed from fantasy. Well, fine by me.
Then, my Renaissance Literature professor and I discussed it over coffee one morning in the underground bar where we waited for classes and in a spur of the moment decision she told me that I should join her and some other members of the faculty for a semi-official planning discussion that afternoon at Stanislaw's place. I'd never had classes with Stanislaw, nor do I know why he bore that name. He wasn't Polish, nor did he have any Polish relatives that anybody knew of. I wouldn't really have cared enough to ask other students, but he was in his early 40s and he was handsome, so he was a common choice of gossip among female students.
I met up with the professors after we all finished out classes. Stanislaw came to meet us so he could lead us to his place and I was wondering how I'd managed to get myself in between all these people who were much above me in training and experience and how I'd fare spending hours with them. Maybe I'd embarrass myself with something stupid, pour coffee all over myself, or say that I'd never read Plato or something of the sort (although I supposed I could keep quiet about my failures).
There a few houses in the same courtyard where Stanislaw had made his home. There was a nasty little dog which tried to bite one of the professors, but he kept away with an extended leg, jumping around to lead us to his place.
"My apartment mate," he warned us before we could go up - he lived on the second floor -, "is busy playing the piano. She's a bit strange, but she's nice otherwise."
So we followed him up the stairs. There was some piano playing indeed, getting louder with each step. It sounded random, wild, furious, then it stopped, then it started again in rapid succession. Very short pieces of songs, like a storm that smashes itself against the window for a howling moment, then lets up, then starts again. It didn't take that long to go up, but between the quick, sudden, furious bits of music it somehow it sounded much longer.
My Renaissance Literature professor walked in first - Stanislaw was at the very rear, having kept the dog away from us - and she made the piano playing stop abruptly and not return. Then one of the older professors walked in, and then I did.
I'd looked down on her in class. I'd thought she was one of those je m'en fous rockers, with her big, black T-shirts with strange designs, wolves, witches, Indians, Gothic ladies. She never had any with band pictures, though. Black pants or jeans. Black hair, silver jewelry. Other than her fashion statement, she was quiet and polite. Her grades, whenever I bothered to check, were high, but not at the very top. She wasn't competing with me in anything, which settled the matter. I didn't care about meeting her. I thought she was a party goer, a fun lover, all the things I'd never been, all the things I only cared about when I felt shunned and alone.
She was wearing a man's shirt when we walked in that night. I thought I recognized it as something Stanislaw sometimes wore. It was probably his, now that I think about it. Of course, we all thought they were sleeping together. After all, it was blatantly obvious that they were living together and that they shared clothes. We knew she wasn't his kid. So we came to the quick and embarrassing conclusion that they were sleeping together. Neither of them said anything on the subject. There was no apology, no explanation. It wasn't my place to say anything and I think the others were too polite to mention it.
Later it would turn out that there was nothing between them. She was living there because she'd been kicked out by her parents, and by her aunt, and by everybody else who she had turned to. She had an extensible armchair in his library, where she also kept the few clothes and belongings she had. She wore the crazy T-shirts to advertise them - she made them for a living, sold them out to rockers and weirdos. She didn't draw them, mind you. She came up with the idea, then collaborated with an arts student - later with me - and then she printed them at a specialized shop. Whenever she wasn't busy wearing her own creations, she preferred manly button-up shirts, like Stanislaw's.
I don't know how they ended up living together. There was a history there. I never asked. She'll tell me one day. Maybe.
That night, she looked a sight. Dark circles under her eyes, paler than usual, hunched over an electronic piano that was thrown against the dining room/kitchen wall. She looked drunk, or drugged. Maybe that was why we didn't comment on her relationship with Stanislaw. We were too shocked. I don't know.
"Come in, come in," Chris said, carelessly. She laughed, but it was hollow. "I know how I look. I know damned fucking well how I look. But I'm not ashamed, so come on already. Sit down. Welcome to the dragon's den."
I thought she was maybe half-crazy. But she was just herself on a very bad day. Sarcastic, bitter, with a hint of deliberate insanity.
"Christine!" one of the professors said. He recognized her, or maybe remembered her name now. Or maybe he'd just found his voice again.
"Ah, I'm flattered to be recognized," she answered. I couldn't tell if it was meant ironically or seriously. Probably the latter. Maybe both. "And look, it's Judith!" She'd finally noticed me. "You're that double-major girl, the genius. How's that working out for you?" She tittered on her chair as she said it and her haunted eyes followed me as I took a chair.
Nobody honestly called me a genius, even if I suppose I kind of am one. Except my family, they sometimes do. Some of the boys from my school would shout it to my face, tauntingly, 'ge-nius, ge-nius, geek, geek, geek!' They looked down on me, I could tell. So did the butcher whom my mum sent me to get our meat from, and one of my teachers. Sometimes girls would say, 'oh, she can't come to the party, she's too busy being a genius.' Others were just intimidated, or thrilled. I didn't know how to handle it and in time I became one of those cleverer-than-thou people, but I'm not sure I meant it. Or maybe I did. Anyway, I never felt normal until I went off to college and even then, sometimes...
"Fine, I suppose," I said. "How are you?"
"Crappy," she said. She looked up and saw that our professors were still uncertain. As I said, I didn't know Stanislaw except from seeing him in corridors and from gossip, but they probably knew him better and hadn't expected to find a female student wearing one of his shirts in his kitchen. "Hey, please sit. Don't let me bother you. I don't bite nice people and you look nice enough to me." She turned back towards me. "Actually, kind of worse than crappy. I got my ass kicked in a fight today and I hurt like no tomorrow." I'd find out later that it was because of all her fights and irregular hours that she got kicked out of her own house and that her grades weren't quite up there with mine. She'd been deemed a lost child by her father and by her five younger brothers and sisters. None of her family looked up to her, but they didn't look up to anybody. Her mum had run off at some point before, after it had been found out that Chris wasn't really her husband's. 'Dysfunctional family much?' I'd ask her later when she'd rubbed off on me and told me her story. 'Love, you've no clue.' She called all people she liked love. It's why it took me awhile to realize she wasn't sleeping with the professor. 'Auntie Lisa slept in the attic, thought she was closer to God that way. One of my cousins stole cars and when they caught him he said he was promoting jogging in an innovative manner - and he believed what he was saying.' The list went on.
Stanislaw was the best host I'd ever encountered. We gave us some excellent tea and cookies and had Chris write down our ideas. She listened intently, wrote it all down, but didn't say much. She sat at her piano seat all throughout our meeting, laughed at our jokes and when we were done for the day, she asked if she could play for us.
"Gotta warn ya, though," she said. "I play with an accent. I play like a demon."
So she played. Gods, she really was a demon with that piano. Her fingers ran so fast it sounded as if she had four hands, not two. She never faltered, never hesitated, never made a single mistake. Her music didn't just have an accent, it was furious, mad, depressive in the way a full orchestra with canons can play 'depressive', biting, snarling and at the same time I wanted it to never end. And when she started singing, her voice was a musical screech, beautiful because it had taken everything in it that it hadn't liked and beaten it into a pulp. It was strong and strange and wild and pained.
I can't remember what she sang. Something about fairies ripping the world apart by moonlight, I think. We were rooted to our seats. My Renaissance Literature professor started crying. I think I started crying, too, and I knew for certain that each and every one of us was remembering something that we didn't really want to remember right then, but we couldn't help it. Chris was a genius way beyond me, way beyond anything I could imagine. I thought I saw her standing in hell and screaming defiance against all the devils - but then I was carried away and it was all about me. I remembered all the times I failed and every mistake I'd made and every embarrassment. I remembered that my boyfriend had left me because I was too caught up with physics. That I was afraid I'd never make it. That deep inside I was always scared that one day my brains would go away and everybody would find out I wasn't much aside from that. It hurt so bad I couldn't breathe, I felt all the air knocked out of my lungs, but it was beautiful. She made it beautiful and sad and wonderful.
"I'm depressive," she told us before we left. "But I don't let it bother me."
"How did you learn to play?" my Renaissance Literature professor asked her on the next meeting at Stanislaw's place.
"A deal with a demon," she said. She looked much better than the first time, rested and healthy.
"What?!" I asked. I tried to figure out what she was getting at with that metaphor. "Did you sell your soul or something?" Maybe she'd worked hard, I thought, for years and years and years...
"Gods no. I didn't make the deal with it, it made the deal with me. It got into huge trouble, said it'd give me anything if I saved its clumsy behind. I guess I could've asked for immortality, but I wanted to play the piano. It was so pissed to hear that. Had to go through hell and ask everybody about it. In the end he made a really bad deal to get me piano skills. I'm not sure he ever forgave me."
We didn't press her for an actual answer. We didn't know we'd already gotten it, see. I assumed that it was something about her parents making sacrifices, maybe her mother taking on some really dirty job to get her prodigy daughter lessons - back then I didn't know her mother hated her for being a mistake that she'd never been able to take back. In those early days, I took much of what Chris said as a metaphor. It was later that I realized she said the truth out loud carelessly because nobody ever believed any of it.
She played again for us, something slow and beautiful. Nothing weird happened. Nobody cried.
"She could've been a musician," my Renaissance Literature professor said. "I wonder why she never went for that."
Because she'd only been able to play the piano for three years, she'd never been seen practicing and she didn't like the idea of being in the public sphere. Even so, the word was spread around by my Lit professor. After a month she was offered a job to write a soundtrack for a short film, and then the demands kept coming, a slow trickle of income.
Stanislaw was great. He never minded us using his house after we got closer. My own roommates back at the dorm didn't like Chris much and they could do without me, too, so I started spending more and more of my free time there. We'd study together, then I'd move on to physics, then I'd draw her T-shirt patterns. Sometimes she'd go out and come back covered in bruises, or with torn clothes. I worried for her.
"I can hold my own," she told me.
"But who's doing this to you? Why do you keep going? What if one day you can't make it?" I asked.
I don't know exactly when we became friends, but I knew exactly why. I'd felt so awkward my entire life, never fitting in because I was the wrong sort of geek, but she made me feel as if it didn't matter, because the entire world was outside somewhere, irrelevant. She didn't make me feel like one of the crowd, which had been my secret wish until then - but she made me feel like a solitary one of a kind and a damned awesome one at that. She didn't let me walk in her shadow - she cast no shadow. Neither did I. Chris plucked me out of the world and took me with her into another reality. It felt great and wrong at the same time, as if she was doing things with me that were forbidden and wonderful.
"I'll always make it," she answered. "I have a secret."
"I can keep it myself, thanks."
She told me about other things, however. How she could sing better than she could study, play better than she could sing and fight better than anything else. Her mother had probably been a witch, she supposed. Her paternal grandmother definitely was, and she hadn't gotten to die before she was whisked off to hell. Chris hadn't been in hell, but she could feel the devils' presence when the old lady disappeared.
"Or maybe my mum was a demon," she told me. "You never know. Or maybe dad isn't really my father and the real one was a warlock who sold my soul before I was born. Or I really am a bastard, but to a guy who's just a man and I have shit luck."
"My family's all sane and human," I said, apropos of nothing.
"I pity you. That's why you're so out of place. Me? I'm nowhere, but then I don't need to be. Hey, you can be with me."
I felt a warmth in my chest and a smile on my face. "I wish I were happy like you." But I was happy right then.
She let out a very cheery laugh. "Happy like me? Rich, mate. Really rich."
There was a gig in a bar once. She played like a demon again. Her hands were blurs, her eyes burned with rage and fire. She brought the audience to roars of approval when she cried-sang her chorus lines and then she looked at them and held them under her gaze, reducing them to utter silence as her hands slowed to a strange, discordant trickle of notes.
I thought then: maybe she got the talent from some crazy deal, but she got the music from herself. My physics could match her fingers, my knowledge of humanities could rival her voice. But she had this thing and she played with whatever it was. I was too scared, too trapped in failure even when I won. I had so much to lose, from my position to my parents' approval, to my feeble few contacts. She had nothing. I envied her. And I loved her. I wanted to be her. I wanted to be with her, to drink her, to become her. If I were her, I'd win more than a Nobel - I'd win the whole goddamn world. I wouldn't be Willis Eugene Lamb, who nobody knew about. I'd be Marie Curie. I'd be Albert Einstein. I'd be one of the people who didn't need a damned prize so you'd know who they are. The people about whom you sometimes talk in present tense even when they're long dead (Napoleon commands the French armies... Charles Dickens is born... Albert Einstein wins the Nobel prize...).
I'd be somebody alive.
One day, Chris didn't come back. We waited, Stanislaw and I, until it was night. I went back to the dorm at about 11 PM. She wasn't in class the next day, nor the day after that. I went back to Stanislaw's and slept in her armchair for a week or more, waiting for her to return. My calls landed on silence, then her phone went dead. I was afraid she'd lost that fight - the one she was never expecting to lose. She'd never told me her secret.
Maybe she was dead, her body stashed somewhere, or thrown in the river. Maybe some demons had dragged her to hell, like they'd done her grandmother. Maybe her mum had come back for her.
Eventually I didn't visit Stanislaw anymore. His kids had come home - a daughter my age, a boy a bit younger, living with their mum in Italy. I never knew what to tell them about my being there, about Chris being there, about Stanislaw letting us stay with him even though it was inappropriate. I just felt embarrassed. So I stopped seeing him, too, except on corridors. We talked less and less. There had been only Chris between us and now she wasn't there.
I think I'd know if Chris were dead. I'd be able to feel it. My life would feel emptier. No, she's alive somewhere. Maybe she doesn't want to contact anybody, or maybe she can't. Maybe she's amnesiac. Sometimes I think I hear an echo of her piano in songs - she might have gone underground. She could have a small empire of her own, in a hell, or in a paradise, or in a place in between.
If she were dead, I'd know, wouldn't I?
She never told me her secret, but she has one. She's using it now. She's playing dead. And I can forgive her for being away for so long. I can forgive her even if she's run to LA and become really rich and looks down on me (though she wouldn't). Because she's alive. I know it. I know it. People like her don't die. They're just away.