III: Nocturne | Silver-Tipped Swallow: "Qi"
The year I first fell in love with a girl was the year I stopped playing the piano.
After months of build-up, from a barely-noticeable staccato-soft throb to my ears wrenching with unfathomable pain the moment my fingers touched the keys, I was diagnosed with a disorder I could barely pronounce, an illness characterised by extremely sensitive hearing. Hyperacusis: incredibly rare & even more difficult to treat, the third in a series of four diagnoses I would acquire over the course of two years. An illness that made it impossible for me to venture outside of my house without headphones because the ambient noise on the streets was too painful, let alone think of playing piano the way I used to. All in my head, the psychiatrist assured me—physically, my ears were perfect—but debilitating like nothing I had ever experienced.
If nothing else, let’s get this part of the story right: I never loved the piano. But for eight years, from the time my first lessons began, I bowed & bent & broke for that instrument, I pushed through my screaming ears to create beautiful things in service of it, I let it hold me in the dark when nothing else could touch my shaking form. I resented it until I did not have it, & then I ached & ached & ached for it. I think that is how an ending happens.
The girl had four mental disorders that turned her head to shambles. This is not the hard part. On her bad days she lashed out, treated me like a fumbled note at a wall-to-wall concert, worth only the ringing silence of a sold-out mistake. This is not the hard part, either.
The hard part is that she sang like a nightingale, high & clear & exquisite, enough that it reminded me of the music I did not have anymore. The hard part is that, as the nights passed long & quiet & my fingers fumbled on unfamiliar ivory, she sang at concerts & symphony choirs, musicals & festivals, dreamed brightness into being. The hard part is that, as my brand of darkness pulled me away from the music, hers pushed her towards it. The hard part is her voice, & my piano, & how both of these things were methods of violence but only one was spun of truth.
Six months after we began dating, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
We matched now, I joked to the girl. Four illnesses apiece. What a pair we were. Laughing about it felt a little like music, like keeping the darkness at bay.
Here is what I quickly realised about OCD: you can make it stop. You wash your hands exactly fifteen times. You do not allow the tip of your shoe to touch the crack in the sidewalk. You erase & rewrite a poem until its edges on the page are perfectly aligned. If you play the right notes to the right rhythm in the right order, the static in your mind dips down for a little while, some kind of refuge from looming dusk.
But hyperacusis isn’t as simple as that. Nothing makes the noise quiet. There are no edges to blur, no melodies to will the sun back in the sky. I avoided the piano because it made my ears hurt, & my ears hurt because I avoided the piano. I flirted with the girl instead of the darkness, until I realised the girl was the darkness. Do you see the night that exists in this space where no way of trying is ever loud enough?
When the girl hurt, she made it her mission to make me hurt, too. This is not the hard part. When she hurled shrapnel into me, I let it happen. When she hissed words of crescendo-sharp rubble, I opened myself up to it. This is not the hard part, either.
The hard part happened when I was the one hurting. On days when my body was more wound than human, when my ears rang until I went into sensory overload, when all I knew was darkness, the girl held me like a fermata, whispered song into my ears. Some deep, terrible sliver of me hated her for all that luminescence. The way she could switch between horror & brightness so quickly, so easily, her sadness here one day & gone the next, but the music always remained. That was something she could control, & my obsessive-compulsive brain was unendingly jealous. I wanted to rip her voice from her the way my piano had been ripped from me. It’s difficult to fathom all of the methods of falling for a person who exists half in this life & half in another, dangling off a ledger line miles below a staff, no one to catch you when the music trails off.
But even through the horror in my head she kept singing, refused to let me go. When I could not fathom any ways of tenderness, she spoke to me of the energy that flows between every one of us, keeping us tethered to each other even in the dark. The way it fills up all silences. The notes still minor, but at least they ring in harmony. Something in me clung to that song like oxygen. Like gravity.
The energy is called qi, she whispered, drawing the Chinese character in the air between us, & I swear in that moment the movement & the music were the only things that kept me from breaking open.
Later that afternoon I went home & ran my fingers over the piano keys. My ears soared in hurting no matter whether I pressed down the damper pedal. I thought about calling the girl—to hear her voice, if nothing else, to taste that quiet storm song—but she was at a rehearsal for an opera. The dark is only dark if light exists somewhere else. Key word: else.
If qi is real, I wanted to ask her, then why do you get to keep the music & I don’t?
Or else, something steadier, set to a more familiar beat: if it’s real, then what night can I follow to finally understand?
It is hard for me to conjure a memory of that love which isn’t linked to darkness. Even on our good days, every note was somehow still a noose. I suppose mental illness does that you: coats the mind in dusk. No stars left to burn into being. Survival means there are always things that stand in for other things, always another mess that no amount of hand washing can fix. Maybe there’s music in that, but I am too tired to light my aching into something that could pass for beautiful.
There are all these ways we learn how to face the darkness. When her anxiety made her stop working for fear of failure, mine made me work frenetically, feverishly, furiously. When her depression drove her to stay awake all night, mine put me to sleep for 12, 13, 14 hours on end. When she lashed out at me during her bad days, I leaned on her during mine. When she brought the music closer to her chest, I let it slip from my grasp, thrumming without hope of light. The same songs on repeat over & over, the same mindless ache in our chests, the same raw night stretched over too many shades of wanting, & still no right answers to give.
The months passed. The piano collected dust. The girl & I fought, & laughed, & cried, & dreamed, & kissed, & grew into women from the lips inward. Everyone already knows the ending to this story. Now all that’s left to do is learn it.
And perhaps, when every bone is laid bare & the humming in our heads finally quiets, this is all that love amounts to. A misplaced note. A piano bench pushed in. A night in a body broken by illness. All these nameless noises—so many times she lashed out at me & so many times I fought back, & it was never about the music the way it was always about the music. I wanted those notes that were never mine in the first place. Trying to create something that would tie us together, that would remind us of that fierce bright energy, but you can’t fix distance without a staff to climb. There’s only so many times you can wash your hands & cover your ears & try to keep the qi alive before night crosses horizon & breaks you apart, utterly unfathomable, entirely expected.
They say the silence is part of the music. What happens when the silence is all that’s left to hold?
The girl sang & the piano did not. I missed them both rationally & irrationally. She spoke of light through the darkness, & I nodded & smiled & tried not to listen & listened anyway. My ears are hurting: a chorus on repeat. Every song she spun made her a little more human & me a little less so. Even now there’s this dizziness, things I can’t control, things my illness wants to kill me for, but instead I step over cracks & I wear earphones out in public & I love around & through the black-&-white ivory holes in my chest. A song can be a prayer or a sin. This is not the hard part, it’s just the truth. Such small suicides trapped in her vocal cords. We all settle for something, don’t we? We all come to a stop. The music fades away, eventually. Sure as heartbeat. Sure as ache.
(Silver-Tipped Swallow is a column by Topaz Winters about the ways in which music intertwines with our experiences in loving, losing, and lingering on what remains. This column, along with two others by the HM team and many more pieces by contributors, is published in Half Mystic's Issue III: NOCTURNE. It is available for preorder now.)