Friday, January 28, 2005

2:23 AM

I've been staring at the ceiling for the last half hour trying to get back to sleep. I'm giving up.

I heave myself out of bed. Blink a couple of times, put on my cruddy old bathrobe (damn it's cold), grab my cane, and head off to the kitchen. I rummage around and find a couple of pudding cups (chocolate) and a clean spoon. I pour a glass of juice, stick the spoon in my mouth and the puddings in my robe pocket, and make my way out to the living room. Okay, juice on the table, pudding on the table... I grab the Vicodin bottle off the piano and lower myself into the chair with a grunt. If I'm going to be awake, let's just do it all the way.

I take a Vicodin and break into the first pudding. My stomach sighs with gratitude as the first swallow arrives. I hadn't realized I was hungry. I take another spoonful and pause. The piano is open, and the lamplight's reflection glints on the keys and the dark finish. And if I squint, I can see my own distorted reflection there too.

I was playing a piano when I first met Eileen.

It was a dreary afternoon in February. I was in my second year of residency, and I'd just finished a really long stretch -- lots of admissions, very little sleep. I'd finished report, put everything to bed, and was looking forward to going home and bringing all kinds of new depth to the word "crash."

But I was too wired to go home just yet. All this freedom and what to do?

One of the nice things about my university hospital ID was that it granted me access to the university facilities (though in those days we weren't quite so paranoid about IDs; the guards at the door with their guard dinosaurs tended to scare off most of the unauthorized troublemakers.) It had been a long, long time since I'd touched a piano, and a couple of hours unwinding with some music sounded very appealing. So I headed off for the practice rooms at the music department.

I'd forgotten that it was the middle of the semester. Every last room was spoken for. The schedules taped to each door were filled with the handwritten names of the music majors claiming each half-hour block -- and they'd actually shown up!

I checked my watch. It was four thirty-two, so maybe someone wasn't going to show. I walked around the halls, peeking in the windows. Finally, success -- an empty room! I stepped in, pulled the door shut, stashed my coat and bag, and set to.

I had hardly begun when the door burst open and slammed shut again. "Well, it's about time!" She was already dragging a music stand over to the side of the piano. In a flutter, she doffed her long blue coat and started shoving music in front of me. "I've been looking all over for you. Let's get going."

I stared at her. She had long, sandy brown hair and a round pale face. She looked young -- really young -- which made the haughty, accusing look she was giving me that much funnier. It was like watching an infant trying to impersonate Queen Elizabeth the First (as played by Judi Dench.) I tried not to snicker. How long could I pull this off?

She gave me the "off-with-your-head" look again. "Can we warm up, please? You know -- doh-re-mi-fah-so-fah-mi-re-doh? I thought you'd said you'd done this before."

Little diva! I played a C chord. She took a breath -- I could see her starting to relax the muscles in her throat and shoulders -- when she stopped short, sniffed, and walked over to my coat. She wrinkled up her little nose, grabbed my coat, draped it over a music stand, and thrust the makeshift coat rack out in the hall. "If you must smoke, could you at least keep your stinking habit away from me? Okay, let's start with doh-mi-so-doh-so-mi-doh. A, please."

I started playing the arpeggios. To my surprise, she wasn't a soprano -- the little prima donna was an alto. She started on the A below middle C and we started climbing the scale. Doh-mi-so-doh-so-mi-doh. I was starting to limber up myself. We got up to the top of her range, warmed up her bottom notes, and did a few scales.

Finally she announced that we were done with the warmup. "Did you get the music I sent you?" I shook my head. "Stupid campus mail. Okay, here." She spread out some music across the music desk. "Let's just do what we can."

Well, at least we were starting with something easy and I wasn't supposed to know it. I was a pretty good sight-reader, so I fudged and faked my way through. She shot me some vicious looks across the music stand, and it was really hard not to burst out laughing, but we managed to make it to the end of the piece more or less at the same time.

We played a few more pieces and finally got into some lieder that she didn't know as well. She ran through the songs a couple of times and then spent some time working on passages that sounded perfectly fine to me but somehow needed endless practice: "From measure 31, please." "Again, please." "Again, please." She still had that queen-of-everything manner, but with a piercing, intelligent look in her green eyes as she considered each passage and tried it again. It almost made her look old enough to drive. Then, in her concentration, she pressed her lips together and twirled a lock of hair around her finger, and I nearly gave myself a hernia trying to suppress my laughter.

I got the look again and pulled myself together. We ran through the piece a couple more times. I began to notice how rich and sweet the German text sounded, like dark chocolate candy.

We played a few more pieces of easy church-type music. I decided to mess with her a little and, in the middle of some song in Latin, transitioned into a Beatles song. She followed me from Palestrina to Paul McCartney without batting an eyelash, and then followed me back into the Latin song. She didn't say anything when we finished. We went to the next piece, and I let her sing a verse before I started messing with her again. She followed me through Gershwin, Dire Straits, something from "Cats," the "hei-di-hei-di-ho" part from "Minnie the Moocher," and some Debbie Gibson crap I had to pick out with one hand. She never blinked or balked -- until I tried "The Star-Spangled Banner." I realized too late that I'd started too high, and broke off. "You're going to have to transpose that," she said.

At last! I gave her an insolent grin. "What do I look like, some kind of accompanist?"

"Oh, no, not at all, but if you're going to steal my practice room you might as well make yourself useful, Dr. Gregory House."

What?! She raised her little round chin as she smiled in triumph. "I can see your stethoscope in your bag," she explained. "The ID in your stinky coat was a bit of a giveaway too. But I would have known who you were anyway."

"Oh really?" I swung my right leg over the piano bench as I turned to face her. Had I seen her around the hospital?

She nodded. "David Kopp. We're dating."

I stared and burst out laughing. "You're dating Dave?" He was one of the med students I was supervising at the time. How did that scut monkey get time for a personal life? I must not have been working him hard enough.

She got that absurd we-are-not-amused look on her childish little face. "I am. He pointed you out to me a couple of weeks ago at Denny's. Then he hid behind the menu. You probably didn't see us. We were in the non-smoking section."

I looked down and snickered, then remembered that it probably wasn't her fault that her boyfriend was a helpless disoriented larva in a short coat. I straightened up. "Well, it's nice to meet you. And yes, I am Dave's overlord for another six weeks. But you can call me Greg. Not Dave. Just you."

She smiled and extended her right hand. I shook it. "Eileen Abney. Very nice to meet you. And for someone who isn't an accompanist, you play pretty well. Dave never mentioned that."

"He wouldn't know." I helped her on with her coat. "And let's just keep that our little secret, shall we? Dr House, softie, serenading a med student's girl in a secluded practice room. Might not do good things for my reputation."

"Your reputation? What about mine?" We gathered our things, and she put on her backpack, a strap over each shoulder.

"Oh, your reputation is safe. Everyone knows bad stories about good people are envious lies. But a story about a mean guy with a soft heart? People want to believe stories like that. Gregory House, M.D., R-2, tyrant! -- with a heart of marshmallow... I could never show my face in the hospital again. I'd lose my residency!" She gave me a look -- not quite as good as an eye roll, but good enough.

"So what's the deal with your accompanist? Stand you up?" I opened the door for her.

"I wasn't expecting anyone, it was just going to be me. But like I said, I saw you in here, and I figured you didn't slog all the way over here just so you could play "Chopsticks" as loud as possible. And you were stealing my practice room. So I thought I'd put you to work." She waited while I put my coat on, and we walked down the hall towards the stairs. "You did a pretty good job. If you lose your residency, with a little practice you might have something to fall back on."

"So," I asked, "where are you headed next?"

"Over to the caf, silly, it's dinner time."

"The caf?" I stopped again. "You're an undergraduate?!"

"Duh!" She glared. "Oh, yes. Dave. I'm a junior, and yes, he's four years older than me."

Oh, Dave.... dating a college junior who looks like she's in junior high! My mind was whirring with mischief as we climbed the stairs. I held the door and followed her outside. It was almost dark. She turned right, and I walked alongside her, our hands stuffed in our coat pockets. "The caf, huh? Aren't you're sick of macaroni and cheese? Let me take you to dinner."

She thought about it for a moment. "Thanks, but sorry, I can't. I'm meeting someone after dinner and I don't want to be late."

We were outside now. "Really?" I asked. "You're not just thinking it would be too weird to go to dinner with Dave's evil overlord?"

"Well, there's that."

I raised my eyebrows. "So you told me a fib."

"No, I didn't! I really am meeting someone."

"No, you told me a lie," I teased.

She stopped and looked me straight in the eye. "I never lie," she said, slowly and carefully.

"Now, Eileen. Everybody lies."

"No, not everyone. I don't."

"Well, you didn't tell me that you thought it would be weird if I treated you to dinner."

"But that wasn't a lie. Lies are what you say, they're not what you don't say." She stopped and thought. "Well, most of the time."

"Look, I'm not trying to... I just thought you might like to get away from the caf. I always did when I was in undergrad." She looked me straight in the eye again, and I looked straight back. "That's all."

"Then thank you, I really appreciate it. But I really can't."

We had almost reached the cafeteria. If I couldn't treat the girl-child to an institutional dinner at T.G.I.Friday's, at least I had escorted her to her intended institutional dinner. "Well, Eileen, it was very nice meeting you. I hope we'll see each other again sometime."

"Thanks, Dr House."

"I told you! Call me Greg."

She got an brief ew that's so weird look on her face, but she said, "Okay, Greg. Thanks again for a good practice." She stuck out her hand -- she was wearing mittens! -- I shook it, and she disappeared into the jumble of students. Suddenly I felt a little... old. I had already been out of college almost six years.

I turned back towards the parking lot. What a satifying afternoon I'd had. I'd gotten a chance to play the piano and unwind a little, plus I had been handed -- on a silver platter -- all kinds of new ways to torment my med student. And if he didn't give that darling girl-child a big heart-shaped box of chocolates for Valentine's Day... well, there was going to be hell to pay.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

...So did you end up as a craddle-robber?

January 28, 2005 2:14 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I've been doing some catch-up here and just read this post. AWESOME!! It was fascinating, and I can't wait to hear more on this. Very interesting stuff :)


January 30, 2005 1:17 AM  

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