This is not a love story. It's not a story about a first date, about walking her home the sky opening up and all hell breaking loose so that she has to wear my sweater and I'm soaked to the skin. It's not a story about falling in love, her moving in and planning our life together. It's not a story about breaking up because of her new boss, because he was ambitious, because he was going to make money and I wasn't and because she slept with him. This isn't a story about all that, even if it did happen.
This is a story about an old man, an old man who was related to me, and how he taught me to write songs. It's about the hours I spent in his living room, where he made me his apprentice. It's a story about the days he invested in me, about the nights he talked to me until I fell asleep, telling me of who I could be, if only I let myself. It's about believing that he believed in me, and letting myself be the songs he taught me to write. It's about how the old man taught me to write songs, to play instruments the way I wanted them to play, and to play my own world accordingly. This is a story about all that, even if it didn't happen.
He taught me to play guitar, one chord at a time, and he taught me to play piano, tracing his fingers over mine as they sprang up and down the keys of the grand piano he kept in his living room. "Your fingers, their movements, your actions, do not make music," he told me. "When you pluck the string, when you play the key, you're only releasing the sound that was within that key, within that string, waiting to be set free. A musician is not a creator," he said, "but a liberator."
He taught me how to write songs, how to lace words with music and play them as one accordingly. "When it comes to songwriting there are some unspoken rules you should know about," he said as he paced around me sitting on the piano stool. He leaned forward, close to me, holding his hand out in front of his face as if every word he was about to speak were a gift. "If you want to write a sad song," he said, "write it in a minor key, make it a slow tempo, let your fingers thread your sadness throughout every word."
He continued, "If you want to write a song about being young, about being youthful and free, beaches and girls, write it in the major key. G-major works well for this, there's something about it that's solid and reassuring, energizing and explosive. A song in E-major is usually about life, it can even be dark, strung out with minor chords evolving around your major chord— it's rather simple really." He smiled at me and shook his head knowingly. "And a love song," he said, "if you want to write a love song, write it in the key of C-major. There's just something about that C chord, something about that key, that coordinates with love so well—it's almost easy to express love," he raised his eyebrows and added, "which is impossible to do."
He told me all this while we sat in his living room, next to his grand piano, or on his couch with his guitar on one of our knees. He told me all this and then he looked me in the eye and said to me, "But Mathieu, if you want to write songs," he emphasized this word, clenching his fists and breathing through the syllables, "not just words and melodies, if you want to write songs Mathieu, songs with meaning, spirit and emotion, songs that can rescue darkened spirits and enlighten ignorant ones," he placed a hand on my shoulder, "if you want to write songs like that, then you break every rule I just gave you." I remember looking at him, and I must have looked confused, but I don't think he noticed. "You see," he said. "Just like notes, every song that's ever been written, it's always been. Songs aren't written, they're not made, songs are discovered, they're liberated and set free from the bondage of silence. As a musician, as a songwriter, you set songs free. And if you break the rules you'll discover the best songs."
The old man told me this while he taught me about music. He told me these things while he tried to teach me about life. He told me this but he died. He died when a drunk driver hit his car after he told me he could never talk to me again.
I was sleeping in bed with my arms around her when the phone rang that night. I turned on the light and glanced at the clock; it was four in the morning, and I had just fallen asleep.
I remember the drive to the hospital, because I had to drive alone, she wouldn't go with me. He was barely alive when I saw him for the last time, sitting in a hospital bed with wires and tubes pulling every second of life out of him. I took his hand and stood beside him, and he kept his promise and didn't say a word to me. It was criminal, not the accident, not the drunk driver, those things happen. People drink, people drive, people die. It was just criminal that he should die that way. A man so verbal in a room of silence, a man so musical in a bed where the only music that reached his ears was the beeping of his own heart monitor.
He kept his promise and didn't say a word to me right up until the beeping stopped and people came to take him away. I drove back home around lunchtime and she was up waiting for me, leaning against the counter in the sweater I had bought her for Christmas. She said she was sorry without lifting her eyes off the magazine. I told her I was quitting my job, I told her I couldn't live this life anymore.
She looked up from the magazine. "What life Mat? You can't live this life where you're making money?" She threw her hands up above her head. "You're successful, you're on the verge of a promotion, and you're going to walk away from it?" she said.
I just nodded.
"You have a gift Mathieu," he told me. "Everybody has a certain gift, but yours is unique."
I looked up at him from his piano.
"You have the ability to put emotions into words, and to put those words to music Mathieu. And I'm proud of you." He paused, the way old men do, like processing their wisdom. "Develop it, don't let it die. You can help people you may never meet, you can affect people, you can shine, but you have to work for it."
It all sounded great when I was young. It was easy to do. I wrote songs. For hours I slaved over my songs, the words didn't fit, the melody was off. I re-wrote and wrote, endlessly.
I learned to believe in the old man, believe that he believed in me. I grew to believe that I had a gift and that I had a responsibility to that gift. I learned to love music, love songwriting, learned to need it as much as the old man said it needed me. I learned to let the songs set me free as I wrote them. I learned to be a liberator while being liberated and I fell in love with it.
I practiced my music, and saved my money. I bought my own guitars, my own piano, my own voice lessons. I did everything, everything he wanted me to because I believed he believed in me and we all need to be believed in.
"You're not supposed to be like everyone else, and they aren't meant to be like everyone else either. The difference is not in who we are but who we let ourselves be." I was confused. "You have a gift Mathieu, so does everyone else. But they let themselves be like everyone else, they follow the rules. They don't understand what I want you to understand. Life's about breaking rules, not all the rules, but breaking the right rules. Breaking through our life's expectations to be more of what was expected from us. Don't follow the wrong rules Mathieu, don't settle for your expectations, don't settle for anyone else's."
It was easy through college, and on the rare occasion he could visit me I could see it in his eyes, he was proud. He was proud when he stood in that tiny crowded apartment of mine, in which there was little more than a backpack, guitar and mattress where I slept. I could see it in his eyes; he was proud.
I played around in bars and nightclubs, just me and my guitar, singing the songs he had taught me to discover. When I wasn't singing, I was studying, and when I wasn't studying I was working—waiting tables to pay for everything. Did I manage? he would ask. Oh I managed fine. I was a smart kid, he had always told me that. But he had always told me that I was more than just a smart kid, he always told me how I was more than just a talented kid and I had always believed him.
He came to visit me as often as he could. He would sit in my apartment and listen to me play my new songs, critiquing them and giving me advice. Occasionally he would talk about things other than music, but for the most part he just wanted to hear me play. And I could see it every time he looked me in the eye as he shook my hand before leaving; he was proud of me and happy for me. I made money, paid for college and got A's. But he didn't care about any of that, I could see it when I talked to him. He just cared that I still played in bars, singing to tired people with happy faces, he cared that I still wrote my own songs and didn't let go of the dream he had planted in me.
Then I met her. She was at a college bar one night while I was playing. I noticed her in the middle of my second song, walking across the back of the bar in high heels and a red dress. She came up to me afterwards, in her always-professional manner, and asked me my name. She said she loved my songs, said I had a perfect voice. We got something to eat and talked, then as we were walking back to my apartment it began to rain, not just rain, I mean really pour down like hell. She was wearing a white sweatshirt, and she was so embarrassed that I gave her my sweatshirt. We ran to my apartment laughing, soaking wet, and when we got inside she kissed with her hand gripping my collar.
She loved my guitar, and she loved my apartment. Said there was something romantic about the way I lived, just a student with a guitar barely scraping by. She liked to hear my songs and always smiled when I told her I was writing a new song. Days passed and I continued in my manner, but now she was part of it. I would play in the bars and afterwards take her back to my apartment and sing to her in our own separate way, on the mattress on my floor because I couldn't afford a bed.
We were in love and cliché.
She was going into business and every once in a while I would meet her after an interview and she would be dressed up in her business suit, high heels, blouse, hair done up and lipstick on. I would tell her she looked good, and it seemed interesting. She would tell me that I should do this, be in business. Not in high heels I would say.
She would laugh and then take a serious tone and tell me she loved my music but I could make money in business. You're smart, she would tell me, you could do really well. I would consider it for a little while, then change the topic, and she would smile at me again. Then we would go back to my apartment where she would take off her business clothes and I would sing to her in my own separate way.
He visited shortly after she convinced me to change majors. He frowned when I showed him my new suit.
"What's wrong with the music major?" he asked. He didn't understand. Music was fine, it was great, I told him. I loved it, but I wasn't a kid anymore and I needed to make money. I couldn't wait tables my entire life.
The old man frowned "I never expected you too Mathieu, haven't you learned a thing from me? You can write songs, you can sing, you have a gift!"
I tried to comfort him, I assured him I was still going to, I would still sing in bars, I would still write my songs. I knew enough I told him, studying is pointless now. I'll just study business on the side, I told him.
He seemed reassured. "As long as you don't forget about your gift, don't lose it in the rules of adulthood."
She was happy that I had changed majors, said she was so proud of me and that I was going to be amazing. She also came to every show I played, sitting on the barstool smiling at me. She jumped up and down and hugged me when I told her an agent from Nashville had talked to me, but she didn't ask any questions later on when I didn't hear from him.
I graduated and he showed more pain when I told him after graduation I had taken a job with a business firm outside of Chicago.
"What about music?" he said, concern shining through the wrinkles I had noticed developing on his face.
Music is still going, I told him smiling. Chicago had so many places where I can play and get noticed. More than here.
He nodded and talked happily about it, convinced that Chicago was a good place for my music.
He met her for the first time when she moved in with me. He shook her hand, smiling and told her how much he had heard about her and how nice she looked. Later when he was leaving he shook my hand and told me he wanted to hear the new songs when I wrote them. Then he left and I didn't see him for another two years, when I saw him for the last time.
My days progressed happily. My job at the firm was making me money and I was paying off college loans consistently. She got a job in a business downtown, where her competitive edge and determination earned almost as much as I did.
We were in love. I woke up every morning and wrapped a towel around my waist then picked her clothes up off the floor. I showered and sometimes she joined me, then we went to our separate jobs and when I came home in the evening she was cooking dinner for me.
My guitar sat in the corner, on a stand behind an old couch, and every once in a while I played it. At the start I would go down to bars at least once a month and play the songs I had played in college, people would clap and smile, and she would be sitting on a barstool watching me.
Eventually I got promoted and began to make more money. But I had to work later and came home exhausted every night. She didn't mind, she said she understood and appreciated I was paying the bills. She still cooked me meals and later she would climb on top of me in bed to sing our song.
But I didn't like it, and one day when I got a letter from the old man I looked over in the corner and saw the guitar behind the new couch we had just bought. I reached behind the couch and pulled the guitar upwards, setting it in my lap. The dust left a white strip on my suit and when I plucked the strings I noticed it was severely out of tune. When she walked into to the room and asked what I was doing I told her I just realized how long it had been since I had played, and how much I missed it.
"Yea," she said, "I know, but you have a job now."
I paused, a job? A job wasn't what I wanted.
She laughed a nervous laugh and when she didn't see me smiling said, "C'mon sweetie, it was great when we were in college." She sat down on the couch next to me. "And you were quite the romantic playing in bars, but we all have to grow up eventually, and we both know playing the guitar and singing doesn't pay the bills, no matter how sexy it makes you." She stroked my cheek with her last sentence and gave me a teasing smile.
I looked at her and nodded then told her I was going to try and play this week in the pub down the street, on Thursday for "Open Mic" night.
She frowned. "Honey don't you have a meeting?"
I told her it was just another meeting, this was more important.
She placed her hand on the neck of the guitar and took it out of my lap. "It's not more important." She said. "Now I know you love to play, and baby I love to hear you play guitar, but there are bills to be paid, and if we ever want to get married, you can't just skip out on work to go play at a bar. You're an adult now."
She got off the couch with my guitar and began to walk away. I stood up. I told her to come back and bring me back my guitar.
"No Mat," she said to me sternly as she turned around, like a mother would after taking a toy away from a misbehaving child. "You have got to let go of this dream...this idea that you have. You're an adult now."
I stood up, frustrated, confused. The old man, I objected, he told me I could do this, he believed in me, and I believe him. This is something I have to do, I can still make money, I did it all through...
She interrupted me. "Old man? Old man? What old man? The one who gave you music lessons when you were a kid. The one who lives all alone in an apartment in a dirty old town? The one who barely makes enough to support himself? That old man?" She was in my face now. "He told you he believed in you? He told you to play music? What does he know that I don't?"
I didn't say anything.
"What about me Mat?" she said, softer than before. "What about us? I love you, but I can't sit around while you play songs and dwell on the past and dreams and what could have been while passing up a perfectly good position in an up and coming company!"
Still I didn't say anything, I just looked down, the old man in my head.
She continued. "I want to marry you, and I want to have a family with you. But you have got to earn money, and I'm sorry but playing songs in bars and living on a dream isn't going to do that."
She turned around and I watched her walk away with my guitar before grabbing my briefcase and walking out the front door. I went to my office where I stayed till late at night though I didn't get any work done. Nonetheless when I came home and saw that the guitar wasn't behind the couch, and wasn't anywhere in sight, I didn't say anything. She was right, I thought, it had been a nice dream when I was young, but it was always just a dream.
Sometime later the old man wrote a letter that said he would be in the Chicago area the next week and he would love to see me. I told him sure, I wanted to see him too, and I really did.
He walked into the house and seemed surprised when he saw the new furniture and fresh paint.
"It looks like you're doing really well for yourself," he said smiling though not really.
I nodded and told him business was good, told him about my promotion, later hours but more pay.
"How's she doing?" he asked as I led him through the foyer into the kitchen for some coffee. I told him she was fine, how we planned on getting married after I had made enough to be financially secure. He nodded at this as if he understood the situation more than I would until years later.
He sat down and I made him coffee while asking him about how life had been treating him. He said things were fine, I didn't get much else nor did I expect it. There was a certain way about him, he didn't enjoy talking about himself. Eventually he brought up the topic I knew he would which I had been dreading the entire time.
"Mathieu where's your new music? I kept expecting to hear it from you and never did."
I shrugged and tried to play it off. I've been really busy at the office, I told him, I still play a lot, but I just haven't had the time I used to.
"You were busy in college," he said, "but you made time."
I nodded, but this is different now, I have responsibilities.
"You're right Mathieu, because you have a gift, your responsible to use that gift. Not make money..."
He looked around. "Well where's your guitar? Could you play for me? For old time's sake." He got up and started towards the room where the guitar had been kept behind the couch.
I didn't have to tell him it wasn't there for he saw soon enough.
"Where is it?" he asked.
I told him I wasn't sure, maybe she had put it in storage. We needed more space.
When I said that I saw, for the first time in the many years I had known the old man, a look of fury on his face. "Space!?" he said. "Space for what?" He looked around the house. "Space for what? More stuff?"
I tried to calm him down, told him it wasn't a big deal.
"Not a big deal!?" he said, the look turned now to one of fright. "When did this happen? When did you change?"
I told him I hadn't.
He nodded his head sarcastically. "Okay then. How long has it been since you even played?"
I told him I wasn't sure, a few months, maybe a year.
When these words left my mouth, something in the old man changed. His face no longer showed anger, or frustration, but disappointment, complete disappointment,
"You haven't played in almost a year?" he said. "It's because of her, isn't it?"
Of course not, I told him, and it wasn't that big of a deal, it was just a dream; I had to grow up, make money. I tried to explain it to him like she had explained it to me.
He just looked and shook his head. "No you don't. You don't have to grow up. You don't have to make money." I looked in his eyes, and saw nothing but disappointment and sadness. "You're just following the rules now, just following the rules," he repeated.
I tried to convince him it was fine, but he just kept shaking his head as he walked away from me. He took his coat off the back of the chair that was sitting in front of the cup of coffee he had never touched. He walked down my foyer and out the front door, turning around as I came behind me.
I thought I saw tears in his eyes, I tried to reassure him it was fine, he was making a big deal out of nothing and he didn't have to go, why was he going? I want to catch up with you, I told him.
He just looked at me and shook his head. "I believed in you," he said. "You had a gift and I failed you." He just kept shaking his head. "I'm sorry Mathieu, but I can never talk to you again." He turned and walked to his car. I called his name asking him to come back, but he just drove away.
I walked back inside and closed the door. It was getting late, and I wondered where he would stay, he had planned on staying here. Did he have a hotel? Was he going to drive all the way home tonight?
I walked upstairs and found her sleeping face down on the bed wearing only one of my work shirts. I undressed and climbed in next to her. She woke up and asked me where he was. I told him he had left, he was mad that I quit music. She didn't seem to care much, she just told me he would get over it, and she was glad. She had never seemed to like him.
She fell back asleep but I just stared at the ceiling thinking about the old man, thinking about music, thinking about how he believed in me, believed in my gift, and what exactly that meant. I thought about my life, and the moments when I saw my dreams colliding with reality in a battle over my existence and purpose. I kept thinking until I fell asleep fifteen minutes before I got the phone call that told me he had been in an accident, and he really never would talk to me again.
She still didn't seem to believe me when I told her I was quitting. Nonetheless when I walked in the door the next day, and told her it was done, my two week's notice was in, she just nodded and walked up stairs. That night she was out late, and when she came back home she slept curled up on her side of the bed, as if I wasn't even in the room.
Two weeks passed and I began to write music again. I got her to tell me where the guitar was, and I took it to a music shop to be refurbished. I sold some of the new couches we had bought and replaced them with a Grand Piano, just like the one the old man had kept in his house.
At first she didn't seem to mind, she worked during the day and when she came home she just looked at me, sitting at my piano, and sighed.
I began to play in bars again, as often as I could, sometimes every night of the week. She was supportive at first; at least on the surface, she would come and sit with a soft smile on her face, and afterwards tell me I sounded great. One night though she said she couldn't make it because she had a meeting, and she never came to another of my shows.
I kept getting asked to play in more places, people wanted to hear my music, and I even got paid a couple times. Money was running low, but all the money I had saved up was enough to get me by. Nonetheless I found my way to a family restaurant downtown and began waiting tables again, just like I had when I was in college.
She kept staying out later and later, I would come home from shows and she wouldn't be home. I wasn't even surprised when she finally told me.
"I think we should start seeing other people," she said.
I knew it was coming, so I nodded, and told her I agreed.
"I've cheated on you," she said.
I nodded again, and she started crying. She told me about her new boss, and about their affair, and I just nodded, it had been inevitable for a while now. This seemed to upset her all the more. Finally she yelled, "It all started when you quit your job. Look at what you've become, you wait tables and write music."
I just shook my head and smiled at her, told her I was sorry but I didn't love her any more, we were two different people.
"What are you going to do with yourself?" she asked, screaming at me through her tears.
I told her I was going to do what I should have done all along, and turned away from her.
I heard her packing her things, and I heard her walk out of the house, get in the car, and drive away and I never heard from her again.
I smiled to myself when I heard the car pull of out the driveway. That old man had been right all along, I thought. I went to my sofa in the family room, and sat down.
I pushed aside some envelopes that could contain bills I had to pay or letters from agents who wanted to work with me. Whatever they were, I didn't really care.
Life happens as it happens, I thought to myself, and the old man was right all along. It seemed I had broken a lot of rules in the past, but never the right ones, and finally I was breaking all the right rules. I sat down on my old sofa, picked up my guitar and placed it on my lap. I started writing, started discovering, a song about the old man, and I started in the key of C.