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Theme and Variations

  1. tempo giusto

You’re told what to do from the very beginning. You might enjoy the brief illusion that you’re free to do as you wish, that you have some sort of artistic license, but the command is there in black and white. You have to be steady, consistent. Exact.

The instructions guide you through everything. You arrive at the church on time, organize the readings, place the floral arrangements in just the right spots, instruct the pallbearers, cue the organist, speak your words at the lectern—steady, even-tempered. You obey the instructions even as you drop measured clumps of dirt onto a mahogany coffin later, aunts and uncles surrounding you. “Stay brave, anak,” they say. They call you their son, because now no one can call you that anymore.

The chill of a wet April morning whips through the loose-fitting black suit you had to borrow from your neighbor. It scratches you at the back of the neck. You resist the urge to squirm.

“Why didn’t you play for him at the church?” asks one of your many older cousins. He has thick, ruddy cheeks and the smell of San Miguel beer sits thick on his tongue.

“Elise is a much better organist than I am, kuya,” you respond respectfully.

“He would have wanted you to play.”

“No, he wouldn’t have.”

“He was so happy that you followed in his footsteps. He was so proud of you.” He leans into you and your itchy collar becomes intolerable. “You know that, right?”

Salamat po.” Thank you, you respond, not really answering his question.

After the priest has said his final blessing, after the people in black politely erase themselves from the scene, when the caretakers begin to shovel dirt haphazardly into the hole, smoking their cigarettes and complaining, it takes you over, this sense that even in death now, your father would have wanted things to be more correct. So you grab the shovel from one of the workers. His left eye twitches and he grunts like an ape. You ignore him and dig into the damp earth. One: dig. Two: scoop. Three: raise. Four: toss. One. Two. Three. Four.

Repeat. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.

One, two, three, four.

And on and on.

  1. adagio

Two weeks before your father’s death you are sitting by his bed at home. The caregiver has gone home for the weekend so you take over, as you have for the past six months. Though it’s midday outside, the room is dark. The blinds have been shut and the thick curtains you installed are closed tight, per your father’s request. “I don’t like to be reminded of the time,” he said when he first came home from the hospital. You just nodded and did as he asked, but it made you wonder if time followed some sort of arc, moving slowly when one is young and impatient, accelerating as months, entire years disappear, then slowing down again as the end gets closer, waiting patiently, stretching out into hazy, undefinable lengths. It must be this way for your father now. The darkness must make more sense to him—these long, sustained periods over which he now exists.

He stirs. “Arnel. You….” Your father has slowed down so much that his sentences come out in phrases where the ends don’t remember the beginnings. You move closer. He reaches up an emaciated arm and touches the side of your cheek. “Gray now,” he manages.

It takes you a moment to realize he’s talking about your hair, scattered with too many white strands that make you look older than your forty years. “Yes.” You stroke the top of his head. “Just like you.”

He closes his eyes and breathes audibly, deliberately. You count the breaths as they come. The empty measures of space between you are filled with nothing but that for a while.

“Just like me,” he finally says. His face is set in its usual tightness. But tucked in the sound of his voice, an overtone of something more than just a simple repetition of your words. You grip his hand.

Your husband enters the room quietly, takes a step towards the bed, hesitates, then shuffles backwards, hugging the wall. If you weren’t so tired you would laugh, the sight of a six-foot tall linebacker of a man trying to hide from a decrepit Filipino dying of stomach cancer.

“Dad.” You motion Jason to come closer. He runs his fingers through his curly red hair, then approaches. “I have someone I’d like you to meet.”

Your father’s eyes lift open only a crack. You sense it’s because that’s all he cares to do, not that that’s all that he’s capable of.

“Who.” He says. “Is he?” His tiny black pupils float over to Jason. “And why. . .  is he here?”

You pull your husband to you. His hand is freezing. “This is Jason. I’ve been telling you about him.”

Your father’s face contorts. “Don’t . . . ”

“I wanted you to—”

“ . . . want . . . this.”


“No,” he says, and coughs up something wet. A chemical smell fills your nostrils. “No. No. No. No. No.” Each word strikes against the other, sounding like dissonances that scrape your ear.

You wonder if you should try again tomorrow. He will probably forget again, lost in his measureless expanse of time. Jason smiles a sad smile at you. You shake your head and guide him out of the room as your father continues to blabber.

“No . . . no . . . no . . . ” your father says. He clamps his eyes shut. “Fix . . . it.”

III. vivace ma non troppo

“Could you ease off the gas?” You grip your seat.

“We’re late,” Jason says. He smells of stress, cigars, and spicy Korean barbecue.

“My fault. We should have left the party earlier.”

He doesn’t respond. Does he agree, or is he too focused on the road?

“Where are we going? You haven’t told me yet.”

Jason smiles at this. The car slows down.

You don’t like surprises, but you do like Jason. Very much. Usually, the men are gone after three months; Jason is different. He takes care of you in a way you didn’t know you ever needed. This night is like that. A dubious accidental that doesn’t look right on paper, but makes perfect sense when it happens.

You roll down the window. The air has been cleansed by a summer storm. It feels fresh. New.

“Do you trust me?” he asks.

The streetlights shimmer as you zoom past. “Of course.” You don’t ask him the same question.

“It’s a play,” he says. “Called Noises Off.”

“What’s it about?”

“Hard to explain. It’s a play within a play. There are lots of doors involved. And missed cues. And a plate of sardines.”


“It’ll make sense when you see it,” he says. “It fits. Trust me. You’ll like it.”

“How do you know?” you ask.

“It’s hysterical. The jokes whiz by.”

“No. I mean, how do you know I’ll like it?”

“I know because I know you,” he says. He thinks this now, but it’s only a matter of time.

The car slows, turns a corner. Jason sees a spot on the street and takes it without hesitation, as if it’d been waiting there for him all evening and he’d known it.

You step out of the car. Your navy Oxfords turn dark with rainwater. You start to fret about this, and Jason puts his arm around your shoulder. You hurry to the theater together. You let yourself forget about your shoes.

“I’ve been thinking: do you want to move in together?” he asks.

Three months.  Too soon for him to know you, too soon for him to know how flawed you are, to see the errant notes that mar your personality.  He doesn’t know yet that you don’t deserve him.

He pulls you in tight. “Yes? No? What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking about sardines.”

  1. passacaglia
    This is the last time, you say to yourself as you strip down naked in front of a long line of dented lockers. You secure the white towel around your waist. It’s stiff and reeks of bleach. You throw your belongings in and lock it shut. A key dangles from a black elastic band around your wrist. You cringe at the thought of how many bare wrists it has touched, and surely it’s never been cleaned. But you are a hypocrite because what you will be doing tonight is far filthier than some communal key.

You embark. The incessant thrum of something corkscrews its way through your body, a pulse that repeats as you lay on top of it a series of events that seem different, but are really all the same. The underlying ostinato sounds like this: need, want, need, want, need, want, need, want over and over and over. It pulses in a low-sitting place in your body, throbbing to the electronic music that tries, but fails, to cover up the sounds that seep through the paper-thin doors and walls.

You take a shower first. There are no dividers or curtains. There are two men there: a bald black man, and a young, slightly overweight Asian one; they are not interested in each other. When you walk in their gazes collapse onto you. You hang your towel on a hook and run the water. The few seconds before the water turns warm catch you by surprise and a chill runs up and down your body. It combines with the nervousness you always have in these places. You shiver. You hate this feeling. You hate feeling as if you are sick.

You let them watch as you scrub yourself. Want. It makes you happy, the way they touch themselves. Need. Soon you’re no longer trembling.

You dry yourself, wrap the towel around your waist, and move on. As your flip-flops slap against the plastic-tiled floor down the hallways, you look at other men, gauging how long they allow their glances to linger on you. One, a tall man with kind eyes, red hair, and a thick beard, seems to be interested as he walks by. You memorize his face. There’s a process here, you’ve learned. You catalogue, you prioritize. Only then do you act.

You peer into the private rooms that are open. Want. Most of the men who wait inside are not the kinds of men you want to join. You see a muscular Latino with a shaved head and intricate arm tattoos who quickens your pulse. Need. He sits on his bed, head against the wall, his legs spread. Want. He stares out at you in the dim red light of his room. Need. As you get closer, however, his gaze shifts away. He stares back up to the TV in his room, so you move on.

You’ve made a complete circuit of all the rooms and found nothing. You proceed towards the maze. Things are riskier here. Want. You grip the towel tighter around you.

You wind through the walls and passageways. Men roam the many hidden spaces. It’s often too dark for you to make them out. Walls with holes at crotch level create alcoves and semi-private areas. Large plastic mattresses sit in plain view of everyone. Need. There are things going on here that would have shocked you before. Now, you look on in hardened boredom. The men here do not interest you. You canvas the maze one more time. Want. And again. Need. Repeat. You are hoping for someone new to catch your eye, some new variation.

You decide to look for the redhead. As you walk back to the showers you see him lounging in the hot tub. His lightly-freckled arms are splayed out, his eyes are closed. Want. He is alone.

You take off your towel and hang it up on the silver guardrail. The coldness briefly chills you again. Need. You ease into the hot water beside him, feeling both warmer and colder at the same time.

He opens his eyes, turns to you, smiles. You notice he’s older than you’d originally thought. This excites you, fills you in some way you can’t describe. Want. His face crinkles with desire. Need. The hot water feels like a second skin; the coldness evaporates. He pushes his leg against you. You smile. You’ve gotten what you came here for.

  1. toccata

A single eighth note, repeated over and over. You add one on top, then another. The repetition in relation to the eventual variation is unbalanced, but the monotony comforts you. Something about the way the notes barely change, the undulating beauty of it engulfs you so that you’re hardly aware of the auditorium full of people, their faces full of expectancy, inquiry, even boredom. None of that matters. Just your fingers tapping in rapid succession, one long, twenty-five minute string of notes.

At the end everyone stands, except for your father, of course. He will attribute it to a bad knee, but you know this isn’t true. He doesn’t stand because he finds no reason to; he’s never found one in the seventeen years you’ve been playing piano.

Backstage, in the wings of Weill Hall, they surround you, thrusting flowers into your arms. Birds-of-paradise—their bright orange plumes smelling of a faraway place—get crushed in hugs from colleagues, teachers, ex-lovers. Your father stands apart. He stares at the walls of the green room.

After everyone has been able to talk to you, and only your roommate, Antoine, remains, your father approaches. His trousers sag on his thin body; his gray hair barely covers his head. He has on glasses you’ve never seen before, the lenses so thick they make his eyes bulge. He pretends not to see your roommate—his plucked eyebrows and perfect hair. Antoine squeezes your elbow. He excuses himself and begins tidying up the room.

“I’m so glad you were able to make it,” you say.

“It was a long flight,” your father says.

“Did you enjoy the recital?”

His gaze drifts upwards, the walls more important than you again. He shakes his head. “Why do you like to play such things, anak? Phrygian Gates? What kind of name is that for a composition? It sounds like a song by Satan.” He frowns. “So boring, these pieces you choose. The same thing over and over again.”

“Adams is my favorite composer. I love what he’s able to say with so little,” you respond.

“He’s not saying anything.”

You refuse to give in to him. Not tonight. Who is the virtuoso here? “Maybe you’re just not able to hear what he has to say.”

You notice Antoine freeze in place. His fingers dig into the white paper wrapping a dozen long-stemmed roses. It makes a deafening crinkle.

Your father stares at you. He laughs. “Maybe,” your father says, sighing. “Maybe.”

Antoine moves again, continuing his busywork. The knots in the muscles of your neck untie themselves one at a time. You manage a smile. “Do you want to come out to have to some dinner with me and Antoine?” You say this, in spite of the fact that, on the other side of the room, Antoine is shaking his head. There is a moment when it looks as if your father will say yes. He leans forward; his body is on the precipice. You think he might succeed in tipping himself over into acquiescence, but instead, he looks down at his watch. It takes him an incredibly long time to determine the time.

“I’m tired,” he says. “I’m going back to the hotel.”

“You can’t come join us? Just for a little while?”

He turns around, begins to walk away. “No, anak. I got what I came here for.”

His words ring in your ears. The sound takes forever to fade.

  1. agitato assai

You are holding on to your bedroom doorknob and pressing into the button that keeps the door locked. The mechanism jiggles in your hand as a piece of metal attempts to unlock the door from the other side. “Putang ina! Open the door, goddammit it!” your father screams. Your head is a blur of chromaticisms, making it hard to think, but you know the minute you let go of the lock he will be able to get to you and it will all be over.

You exist in this stalemate forever, until, finally, your father quits trying to get inside. He mutters obscenities as he walks away.

You put your ear against the door. The coldness of it bites into your face. He’s gone. You let go of the doorknob and slide down onto the floor. You should have been more careful. You should’ve hidden the magazines in a better spot. You know how thorough a cleaner your mother is. You should have found a better place than under the mattress. You knew that as soon as you came home from school and found all of your bed sheets taken and the mattress flipped over.

You cradle your head in your hands and your insides begin to shake in a guttural tremolo. You can’t stop.

Without warning you hear the clink of a belt buckle, the chime of it so familiar to you. Your bedroom door bursts open, pushing you over. The thwack of leather against your face pops in your ear like the staccato crack of a slapstick whip. You roll to the ground.

“What kind of son are you?” your father yells.

You hold your face and look down at the floor.

“You have to fix this problem,” he says. “You have to fix it.”

An agitated vibration buzzes around you; you feel your father’s presence looming. He says nothing. You dare to tilt your red eyes up. The crease in his forehead has smoothed out into a less angry line. His grip on the belt loosens. You nod your head. He nods with you. Up. Down. In synch. In time.

VII. coda

Your first memory of your father: you escape your mother’s arms and run out of the bedroom wanting to find the source of music coming from somewhere in the house. The magical door in the kitchen that is always closed happens to be cracked open. Dim yellow light emanates along with the music, which is louder now. As you pull the door open, your mother appears behind you. You look up at her, expecting to see disapproval, but instead she smiles and holds your hand.

She guides you through the door and down a series of wooden steps. At the bottom is a room you didn’t ever know existed. It smells both dusty and wet, like the bottom of an old cardboard box. The carpet is a shaggy expanse of faded yellow grass, the walls a forest of long brown panels. A picture of Jesus hangs above your father, who is sitting at a big box with black and white teeth. He is pressing down on them. He is the source of the sound. Jesus radiates a glow of approval.

You let go of your mother’s hand and run to him. The music stops. He turns around and laughs. “You’ve discovered me,” he says. He puts his hands underneath your arms and lifts you up high before setting you beside him on the bench. “This is a piano,” he says. “And these are its keys. See?” He presses one of the white levers and looks at you. You scrunch your face. He smiles and begins to play again.

Fascinated, you put your face closer to the keys, trying to ascertain where the sound is coming from. He puts his arms around you and places you on his lap. You feel the sturdy constancy of him.

You put a finger out, cautiously, and press one of the keys. It sounds and you giggle. You do it again, louder this time. Soon all of your fingers are on the piano, pressing willy-nilly, crashing out all manner of clusters chords.

You feel your father’s hands cover yours firmly, stopping the cacophony. You look back up at him. His eyes are closed, his face inscrutable.

Gently, his fingers guide you, pressing one key at a time. The specific order of them becomes something more than what you had been doing, becomes the thing that had brought you here in the first place. Your eyes widen and your heart soars as you try to determine who is making the music: your father, or you?

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