The old woman next door played her depressing version of Happy Birthday to You on her piano again, and Lisa couldn’t study.
The music wasn’t loud, but it seeped through into her apartment with its slow pace and low notes and bothered her, even though it was ignorable and she was comfortable in good company.
“There she goes again with the sleepy music.” Mark placed his Calculus book on the coffee table, leant back into the couch, and yawned. “What’s this, the eighth time this year?”
“The first time,” Lisa said. “And how’s it sleepy music?”
“It’s making me drowsy.”
“I think it’s sad.” Lisa stretched against her boyfriend and closed her eyes. She thought of her own mother, grey and unhappy when she last saw her, and now gone. “I think she’s sad. Doesn’t she always play it like this around this time?”
“I think so,” he said. “And if she’s sad it’s because she’s old. Old people are always sad and can’t be happy. It’s part of growing up.”
She pulled away and glared at him. “But her music is happy most of the time, Mark.”
“Sorry.” Lisa frowned at her own irritation because he was jesting and she knew it. She leant onto him again. “But this time she’s playing the sad one. I wonder why she switches between them.”
“Maybe you should ask her.”
Lisa sat up and looked at him. “I’ve never even talked to her. Will you come with me?”
Mark just laughed at her, and while its boyishness was often charming this time it was annoying.
“Oh, come on, Mark. If she’s sad maybe we can cheer her up because whatever you say the elderly can be happy and none of them shouldn’t be.”
“Right, you want to cheer her up.” His laugh was subsiding into chuckles. “It’s not your being nosy or anything, of course.”
“Will you come with me or not?” Lisa heard the music fade, and a memory seized her attention, as lungs seize breath. I’ve heard her play on this exact day last year, haven’t I? And probably around the same time, too…
“Sorry, babe, but I’ve got to study,” Mark said. “You should too, but, you know, whatever. Let a strange, crazy lady take precedence.”
She felt her eyes refocus on him, and coughed. “Oh, come on. It’s not like it would be awkward if we did talk with her. Just knock and say, ‘Hey we heard you playing, neighbor. Mind if we come in?’”
He laughed at her again.
“You’re so mean.” Lisa stood up, wondering: Why do I want to do this? I should be studying. But her curiosity was like a dog in need of walking, and she didn’t want anything important to be ruined because she was distracted. She strode to their entrance.
“If you’re not back in an hour I’m dialing 911,” Mark called from the other room. “You can’t be too careful with strange, lonely ladies, you know.”
Then why aren’t you coming with me? Lisa made a wry smile he wouldn’t see, and exited the apartment. Several strides later she knocked on the old woman’s door (how didn’t she even know her name?).
She waited a moment in noiselessness and in cold before the doorknob clicked and the old woman’s face appeared with a wrinkled forehead, bagged eyes, and an inscrutable gaze. “Yes?”
“Um…” Lisa held out her hand. “Hi, I’m your neighbor Lisa, and I heard your music playing again and wanted to introduce myself.”
The elderly woman only stared into her eyes. “My name is Monica.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Monica—Ms. Monica.” Lisa hesitated. “Can I come in?”
Monica was blank and quiet a second then stepped aside to allow passage.
Lisa entered the apartment, which was as cold as outside if not colder, and looked around. Her eyes wandered to a great, dark grand piano in the corner, and they didn’t wander further, as if it’s what they searched for. She strode to it, installed herself on the stool’s edge, and grazed her fingers across the keys.
Wait, she thought. What am I doing?
“May I ask what you are doing?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Lisa said, standing and turning to Ms. Monica. Her hands fidgeted with each other and she tittered. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“All right.” Ms. Monica surveyed her without emotion. “Would you like any refreshments?”
“Oh, no thank you.” Lisa bit her tongue, hoping she didn’t come off as too rude and obtrusive. What am I thinking?
Quietude ensued, and Lisa felt more and more silly. But she came here for a reason, and she’d fulfill it—even if she herself wasn’t certain what it was. “Well, like I said before, I heard you playing your piano just a little while ago.”
“Was I disturbing you?” The elderly woman’s lips tugged downwards, the first sign of feeling. “Do you have a complaint?”
“Oh, no, ma’am.” Lisa was a bobble-head saying, no no no. This is not how I imagined it would go. “I just wondered why you played the birthday songs because I never hear or see kids come here, or anyone, and sometimes you play it normal, sometimes in a strange way like today, and you played it several times this year and, I think, the same times last year, and…” Her face was hot and at war with the room’s frigidity. She breathed deep. “I was just wondering.”
“Would you like to learn to play?” Ms. Monica asked.
“What?” That wasn’t at all what Lisa came here for, though of course she didn’t know herself.
Ms. Monica indicated the piano with an outstretched arm and open hand. “Would you like to learn to play?"
Lisa turned around and once again found herself sitting upon the stool. She looked back at the elderly woman and smiled. “Yeah, I think I would.”
“Then I will teach you,” Ms. Monica said.
She was given her first lesson that night, and she made it home before Mark called the police. She had one lesson every week for several months, and though she insisted to pay Ms. Monica, she was told as long as she practiced and enjoyed she’d be given free instruction.
At the end of a lesson one day, Lisa decided to ask Ms. Monica the question she had the first day she met her. Because, she told herself, it’s the reason I came to her. And her curiosity still had a full bladder.
Lisa didn’t rise from the stool. “Ms. Monica?”
“Yes,” the elderly woman said.
“Why do you play Happy Birthday every now and then? You never answered me.”
Ms. Monica too remained seated with the addition of muteness.
Why won’t you tell me? But Lisa didn’t say anything. She rose, thanked her for the lesson, and headed for the door.
She whirled around. “Yes?”
“Sit.” Ms. Monica patted the free stool beside her.
Ms. Monica turned to regard her with reddening, moistened eyes, and they were the only features that betrayed her melancholy and regret. ‘I play for my family, for my children and husband.”
The meaning crashed into Lisa, and she gasped. It was so obvious now, but… “Why?”
In response Ms. Monica played the piano, the low and deep version, the one that emanated sorrow. The notes were few and uncomplicated, but each one lingered for seconds and seconds as singing, dying vibrations.
“It was tradition when we were whole, as it is with many families.” Ms. Monica gloomed down at the piano, and silenced. At length, she stirred and sighed. “They were the finest moments of our unity and happiness, and after… after they passed away I continued to play on their special days. It helped me to remember them. I play on the date they passed away, too, because I’m the only one who misses them, and they should be missed because they were precious and beautiful.”
“I’m sorry.” Lisa’s voice was raspy, low, and her heart burned. She was crying and it wasn’t surprising. I’m sorry I asked, she thought. I shouldn’t have asked, it was horrible of me to ask.
“Your lesson is over.” Ms. Monica’s voice was as firm and strong as always. How wasn’t she weeping?
Lisa got to her feet, wanted to leave, but she didn’t. Instead she embraced the elderly woman from the side, and whispered into her ear. “I’ll miss them now. You’re not the only one, and you can move on with your life.”
“What else is there to life?” she asked.
“There’s life.” The words came to Lisa’s mouth without thought, and she didn’t quite understand them, but they felt right. “There’s whatever makes you happy.”
“I do want to move on,” Ms. Monica said.
“Well, you can.” Lisa withdrew and departed, thinking, Maybe it was good I talked with her after all. Both happiness and sadness surged through her, and she found she couldn’t feel the cold on the way to her apartment.
Next week she waited a little longer than usual before kissing Mark a quick goodbye and proceeding to her music lesson. She didn’t know what to expect this week. Would it be different? Would Ms. Monica be different? Would she maybe be happier? I hope, Lisa thought.
But outside was an ambulance, people were gathered around everywhere, and paramedics carried an empty stretcher into Ms. Monica’s chamber.
What was going on? Lisa dashed toward the open doorway, but someone caught her, shouted things, and pushed her back. She struggled but whoever held her was stronger. “What’s happening?” she said
“Lisa, come with me,” Mark said from behind her, gripping her arm and tugging her back toward their apartment.
“Oh, let go of me.” Lisa wasn’t fighting him anymore, panting and sobbing. She just needed to know what was happening.
“I think we should get back inside.” He did stop in front of their entrance, but he didn’t release her. “You know we shouldn’t be out here.”
Lisa said nothing.
Moments limped by and at last the paramedics marched into view, the stretcher bulkier and covered in a pure white blanket.
She went home and studied until she slept.
Lisa awoke to Mark’s hand on her shoulder and his face near hers. “Lisa, wake up. I think I’ve got something for you.”
She groaned and got upright. “What is it?”
“I’m not sure.” Mark held a paper out to her. “I didn’t read it or anything, and I think it’s for you.”
She took it, unfolded it, and all it read was:
I moved on with my life in the only way that would make me happy,
the way I now know I wanted to move in for so very long.
She’s dead because of me. Lisa’s heart didn’t jolt, so maybe it wasn’t a surprise, but she could hear it beat louder. I shouldn’t have said anything to her. I shouldn’t have visited her at all, but I did and she thanks me for it. I’m sorry, so sorry, but I can’t do anything about it, can I?
Lisa folded the paper, laid it upon her nightstand, and walked from the bedroom into the living room.
“What are you doing?” Mark asked. “What did it say?”
She lowered herself onto the piano’s stool, positioned her hands over the keys, and put her remorse into playing Happy Birthday to You as a tribute to the memory of Ms. Monica and her family, and as an apology. It wouldn't change anything, but she prayed the song would reach them.