Until I was seventeen, I played the piano. My final competition began as an act of self-defense, fighting for a title earned the previous year, and ended as a lesson in loss. Some could pull a melody from a cat running across the keys. I could not. That competition, the end of my career, left me with nothing but silence and sweaty hands.
Soon it was summer, and had been months since my exit from music. The California weather was hot in all the right ways—the air not humid but warm enough to tingle pleasurably. I burned my thumb on my seatbelt. The evening news showed hours and hours of wildfire footage while my mother folded laundry and made comments about the displaced.
The entire time, I didn’t move from my seat. The usual habits of suburbia: observing danger from a distance. Over time it becomes an addiction, so you want to feel it, too.
In college, I chose to study computer science for three reasons. One, the salary potential was limitless; two, it was incredibly time-consuming; and three, it required no real passion, only the willingness to put in the hours. I did not think about music at all.
The heat and constant wildfire warnings kept everyone inside most of the time. During this time, the computer science department presented class projects as an easy opportunity to make friends, or at least acquaintances. My project partner and I worked on the same assignment for two weeks, running on coffee and Adderall, then on the last day, ended up fucking while his roommate visited home. After he fell asleep, I touched myself to completion.
That there was a prodigious violinist in my year was somehow not common knowledge. I didn’t know until he withdrew his enrollment and joined a professional orchestra in Florence, Italy. I searched him up, spending hours watching videos of him until my ears rang; apparently, young people are at an increased risk for tinnitus. I turned the music up louder.
A wispy girl from my class had matched with him on Tinder a month before his departure. She’d forgotten to message him and now spent hours stalking his Facebook feed.
“I could’ve been in Florence right now,” she insisted. “I’m ten percent Italian, too.”
I said, “Can you speak it?”
She told me not to ask her things like that. That night, I rewatched his competition piece, paying close attention to his piano accompanist, a woman in her forties. She botched a few notes in the first movement. The audience didn’t notice. I did. Her wrists tended to sag.
The year I turned twenty, I began hanging around fraternity parties, mostly out of boredom. I knew someone with extra bids, and she let me in under the condition that I buy her milk tea the next day. By nighttime, I usually found my way into someone else’s apartment, my back pressed up flat against the wall, his breaths mixing in with mine. Once, he asked me: What do you feel? I told him to fuck me until I couldn’t walk. He did—without restraint.
We shared a cup of coffee in the morning, and it felt domestic. I downed the liquid, burning down my esophagus like a small bushfire, and choked. He wrapped his arms around me in a Heimlich maneuver, skin-to-skin, soft like a hug. I coughed up the drink, and he let me go. Cold air rushed under my armpits and below my shirt. My mouth was bitter for days.
Over the months, there emerged a clear pattern: I studied late into the night on weekdays, napped in between classes, and joined a social club to keep busy on the weekends. At some point, I changed my phone’s ringtone to the prodigy violinist’s competition piece. My mother called, and I sat and listened to the pianist blunder over the same beginning notes again and again. The next time my mother called, I picked up immediately.
Around this time, a wildfire exploded in the mountains, and the city fogged up with smoke, leaving our eyes watering and mouths dry. Like drugs, this smoke. I imagined breathing in its ashes, and letting it consume me from the inside out.
But the fire died down eventually, and so I went into the city to meet a stranger off of Tinder. He was thirty-five and pale and blond, dressed in wrinkled corporate attire. The café was nearly empty. We did not recognize each other at first; I wore a mask to protect myself from the residue smoke, and so did he. Our eyes peeked out over the rough, clinical fabric. When I mentioned going back to his apartment, he fidgeted uncomfortably and bought me a sandwich.
He wanted conversation, nothing more. Balking at my apprehension, he offered to buy me new shoes and clothes afterwards. A trade. Would it help—if this were a transaction instead? I said: Why did you swipe right? Did he not think I was beautiful?
I thought he might shout at me. In fact, I wanted him to shout at me, so I could react and douse his familiar, verbal flames. But we ate in silence instead, and the silence burned.
I got out of the cafe around nine. It was chilly. There was an older woman at the bus stop, and she carried in her left hand a dented engagement ring, her face covered by a thick scarf. Once on the bus, from behind me, she made a startled sound, a half-cough and half-sigh, as if she wanted to tell me something. Or maybe she was searching for someone. Was I imagining it?
A sharp, dissonant noise, like two keys pressed out of tune, squeaked out from the front. The doors closed, bus lights wobbling like candles. I turned to the window, where my reflection danced in the dark. The lights turned off. The bus surged on.
Clary Ahn is from Chelmsford, Massachusetts and San Diego, California. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Epiphany, Another Chicago Magazine, and Air/Light, among others. You can find her at @claryahn.