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The Meaning of Life
I opened the curtain to find the back of the stage eerily empty. The dusty, arthritic piano had been long removed and the expired posters, which once hung gaily on the walls, had been torn down. One pink sticky note was not an exception. All that remained were piles of cardboard boxes and several folding tables standing sentinel against the walls.
The dismal lighting cast nebulous shadows upon the floor, creating a mottled carpet of light and dark. I treaded across these shadows to the pile of boxes. Once there, I peered into their open lids. The lighting had failed to pierce the void within them, leaving only darkness behind, the darkness that is filled every year, and then emptied, its contents forever forgotten.
Yet I knew one of them would never be completely empty. I tossed box after box, until I reached the bottom of the stack. There it was: a photograph of the school band of a decade past.
Skimming through the rows of blouses and tuxedos, I found him. He sat three chairs to the right of me, holding his soprano saxophone in rest position. It irked me that the photographer had not taken the picture during his impromptu solo or any part of the music while he was playing. Anywhere that would have captured his mysterious depth would have left me satisfied.
But of course, I didn’t know then that I would’ve needed a photograph of it.
Landon was not your typical school musician. While other students read the notes and processed their directions like robots, he was determined to speak with his instrument. If that meant blasting a pianissimo passage and adding snazzy arpeggios in C minor to every half note, even if the piece were in G and written by Mozart, he would do it.
“I want people to know who I am,” he explained backstage before the first concert.
“Well, they won’t get it, they’ll think you’re trying to ruin the performance,” I countered.
He looked at me with a depressed expression, “music is art,” he sighed, “it can be interpreted any way you want. Some people will think it’s great, others will think it’s a monstrosity. But they always leave with an impression, and I want it to be unique.”
I tapped my foot, wondering if he was simply being arrogant. Why wouldn’t he? It seemed to me as if he had taken deliberate measures to look like a junior executive, what with custom tailored dress pants and his ridiculously posh and old-fashioned bowtie.
“We’re in school,” I enunciated, trying to maintain my patience, “Everyone’s grades depend on this concert, and we can’t have you ruining it for yourself or anyone else.”
“Kylie, you’ve got to understand that life isn’t all about grades. It’s about life.”
I resisted the urge to physically injure him with my clarinet. Why was he acting so calmly, about the concert? Students had spent nearly a full semester painstakingly preparing the music. Was he so deluded that he was willing to throw it away? Did he think his life would be more worthy if he sent the entire band spiraling into musical disorder?
I was starting to suspect that this kid was simply trying to drive me utterly insane.
“You get what I mean right?” He interrupted, “I don't want to be confusing you.”
“Look, your life isn’t going to be more worthy if you decide to cause chaos in the concert. Our conductor already warned you twice, once more, you’ll get excluded from performing ensembles for the rest of high school. Landon, that’s three and a half years,” I said.
It was at that moment when one of the supervisors scurried in from a back entrance, “two minutes to go. Quietly prepare yourselves, and don’t forget to smile at the audience!”
The supervisor left, his footsteps receding. Once there was silence, Landon muttered with almost brutal directness, “Why should I smile towards the audience?”
“Follow instructions and the teacher won’t kick you out. It’s that simple,” I mumbled.
It was a superficial convention, I wanted to add. It means absolutely nothing.
“But then I would be lying,” he countered. His voice had now assumed a dark aloofness, as if he were pondering the meaning of life,
“I think it’s better to keep myself honest.”
“Maybe you should try lying once, perhaps?”
The audience had finished clapping, and the orchestra members quietly scurried off the stage, forming a line of expressionless musicians between us. I sighed, and slowly faded into my position in line, between two taller clarinetists. Perhaps it was inappropriate to worry so much. He was, after all, an impressive musician, who had successfully auditioned for the band. Certainly the music director had some faith that he would conform.
We filed onto the stage, shuffling through uneven rows of chairs and squeezing past stands. I wordlessly settled beside my stand partner and waited as our conductor strolled in from the side of the stage. He allowed the clamor in the audience to die down, and the music began.
The first and second pieces were executed without anomalies. I was relieved, and at that moment I had a glimmer of hope that nothing strange would happen. But as we entered a deliberate waltz in our third piece, a reverberant gypsy melody sprung from our midst.
I nearly dropped my clarinet as I glanced at Landon. He was not supposed to have a solo here! What was he thinking?
Several students around me stopped, unsure of where to go. I was mesmerized as he swung into an elegant phrase, meticulously expressing every note. The sound waxed and waned, dancing lightly atop the deep mellow notes which resonated from the rest of the band.
My stand partner poked me during a hiatus in our part while Landon executed a syncopated scale. More people stopped playing, completely lost, as he finally diminished into some heavy, leaden notes that flowed right back into the piece. I jumped right back in.
The concert ended, and the students stood, receiving the applause with a uniform indifference. Once they were finished, we marched quietly offstage.
The first thing I did was reconsider my previous decision to not whack him. Yet something about that music stopped the thought from becoming reality. It might have been the quality and beauty of the music, or possibly the awe of his extreme confidence onstage. Without warning, without any fallacies, he managed to create a tune that was so coordinated and balanced with the music that it seemed natural. At the same time, the melody was so pure, so anarchic that it allowed for a complete immersion into his thoughts—his raw thoughts, his true personality.
He probably just played a passage from a solo piece just to make the audience redirect their attention on him, I assured myself. So why then do I feel sympathy for him?
“I’m sorry about breaking into a solo without telling you. It was very foolhardy.”
I whirled around, successfully hitting Landon with my clarinet. Despite the pain, he maintained the distant, indifferent look of a depressed teenager.
“What were you thinking?” I said, instantly enraged.
“I-I really don’t know,” he said, “I was thinking exactly what I was playing.”
“What were you trying to do?”
He hesitated, and I realized that he was actually afraid of me. No, he wasn’t afraid of me, he wanted my forgiveness and my forgiveness alone. But why? The director determines whether he is to be excluded from band, not me. I was not important.
Finally, he found an appropriate response, “I wanted them to see who I was. I wanted them to see what is unique and human about me. I wanted them to hear what belonged to my soul.”
I tasted the words for a while. He was so terribly honest, I almost wanted to forgive him.
But it was still impulsive, and it almost destroyed the performance. I turned and began walking away, determined not to think about this day for the rest of my life. I had not taken two steps when he caught me by the hand. I stopped, petrified by his suddenness and sureness.
“Think about it,” he said quietly, “I think you’re smart enough to understand.”
He dropped my hand, and whispered, “I’m sorry for shocking you like that.”
I was completely unable to think. I instantly began plowing through the crowd, getting as far away as I possibly could. I was now truly determined to completely erase this day from my memory. I also hoped that he would choose to integrate himself into society, so future concerts never go awry, but actually, truly, to force me to forget the melody.
Yet the song only seemed to ingrain itself. As I thought, I realized that every section revealed another part of him. The introduction represented his love of music, the frenzied falling notes his aggravation towards others’ superstitions and stubbornness. The syncopated scales were the rhythm of daily life, and the flowing passages were sometimes joy, sometimes brooding, but always pure emotion. The music seemed to summarize his entire life.
And it did summarize his entire life.
He was rushed to the hospital at the beginning of his sophomore year after fainting unexpectedly, and there he stayed as paralysis seized his body, and ultimately his life.
The medical community was distraught to see him be destroyed so mercilessly. Other patients complained of pain, asked about medication, and told stories to a handful of people who promised to keep secrets. He complained about his least favorite foods, asked about calculus homework, and told stories about everyone to everyone. He was Landon. He was not a patient.
Three days before his death, he had instructed a friend to post a pink sticky note backstage, where its significance was most profound. It read, “Do you understand?”
I never found the sticky note. By the time his friend inquired about it, the sticky note was already gone, and so was its author.
I turned over the photograph, and found the back of it eerily empty. It was white, marred only by the nearly invisible watermarks which once bore the logo of some anonymous company.
Yet I knew, unlike the watermarks, this photo will never completely lose its identity.
I took out a pink pen and responded, “I understand.”