After school, I waited only a couple minutes before I saw him coming toward me. He was walking with another boy, one I knew only by sight. He was considerably larger than Adam. When they reached me, Adam introduced us. "Greg, this is Steve Knox. Steve, Greg is going to perform with me at the Prom."
Steve looked at me, then asked, "What happened to your face, if it isn't rude of me to ask?"
I looked at Adam and he nodded at me, so I felt comfortable telling the truth. "Dale Groppler introduced me to the frame of my locker this morning. No biggie."
Steve didn't seem to be of that opinion. He frowned. "That son of a bitch has it coming to him, and a lot of us think that. He almost hurt Adam real bad last summer. He hurts other kids do. I don't know what's wrong with him and I don't especially care. Anyway, I've got to run. Nice meeting you, Greg." With that, and a smile and nod at Adam, he walked off.
"Steve's one of my best friends. I had to stop him from going after Dale when he found out about the swimming pool. He's almost big enough to hold his own against Dale, but I'm worried. Those guys Dale hangs with are almost as bad as he is. If they'd all came after Steve, it wouldn't be pretty. I didn’t want Steve to get hurt on my behalf, and all that really happened was a swallowed a little water.
I knew just how he felt. "I don't blame you for being worried. Tim is talking about getting even, too, and it scares me."
"Hey, maybe we should have those two talk to each other. You could introduce them. I only know who Tim is, I've never actually met him or talked to him."
By this time we'd both unlocked out bikes, climbed on and were riding away from the school. I asked Adam where he lived, and he mentioned the name of an exclusive area that had very nice homes not far from the school. It was a much better area than where I lived.
We rode in silence for a while and I watched the houses we were riding past. The farther we rode, the nicer they were getting, the more exclusive the neighborhoods appeared. We were passing large homes set far back off the street with large immaculate lawns in front of them. We finally turned into a street that had the largest houses we'd passed. It was a cul de sac, and while all the houses at the end were very impressive, the ones at the end were magnificent. Adam rode into the driveway of one of them. I felt a little funny following him, almost like I was trespassing where I didn’t belong. I'd never been in a house like this one. It looked like a mansion to me.
We parked our bikes behind the house. The driveway curved around in front of the house and then ran back to the street, but also part of it veered off and ran along the side and into the back and eventually to the garage, a building separate from the house but still substantial. The back yard was enormous, and in the back corner there appeared to be a pool. It was screened by some large bushes. There was a building in the same area which I decided could be a pool house. I imagined it containing dressing rooms, maybe even a shower and lavatory. This house, with its landscaped and well-tended yard that appeared to have been manicured and was set off with scattered gardens and bushes, represented a scale of opulence I was unfamiliar with.
"Let’s go inside," said Adam cheerfully as he dropped his bike along side the driveway behind the house. I followed suit and he led the way to a door not far from the rear corner of the house.
The door led us into a room with a rough tiled floor and miscellaneous coats, boots, umbrellas and the like hanging on the walls or stored on shelves or in containers. There were shelves along one wall with various incidental household items stored there. Some gardening tools were lying on one of several benches. I guessed this was a storage room for stuff they didn't know where else to keep. Adam walked right on through it and into a hallway which led directly to a room which turned out to be the kitchen.
Except it wasn't a kitchen like I'd ever seen in a house before. It was about four times bigger with lots of counter space along the walls with cabinets above and below and a large island standing free in the middle. There were at least three enormous refrigerators, a range top with 10 burners and a built-in grill and a large restaurant style stainless steel hood covering it all. Different types of kitchen appliances were scattered around on the countertops.
A woman was peeling apples at one of the counters. She looked up and, seeing Adam, smiled brightly and asked, "Hey, kiddo, how was school?"
"Hi, Maria. Same old, same old. Hey, I want to introduce Greg to you. Maria, this is Greg, Greg, Maria. Maria cooks for us and helps out around the house, too. She’s a great cook."
Maria put down an apple and paring knife, wiped her hands on her apron and walked over with one hand extended. I reached out and shook it. She smiled at me and said, "It's very nice meeting you, Greg." Then, turning to Adam, she asked, "You two want a snack?"
"Sure, that'd be great Maria. Thanks. And can you bring it down to the music room? We're going to be there for a while. First, I'm going to show Greg the house."
"OK, give me a few minutes. I need to get this pie in the oven first." She turned back to the counter, and Adam put his hand lightly on my upper arm and directed me out a door across from where we'd come in, one of several doors leading out of the kitchen.
We walked into a wide hallway. There were closed doors on both sides. We walked forward toward the front of the house till the hallway ended by opening up into a large area tiled with what looked like marble with the front door further ahead. A large staircase was beside us. Large rooms opened off to either side.
Adam stopped. "Most people want a tour. I'm just used to showing around anyone who hasn't been here before. If you want me to, I'll be happy to do that. Or we could just go up to my room and I could show you that. I've got to drop off my book bag. Then we can hit the music room. What do you want to do?"
I was flabbergasted. I'd never been in a house like this, never imagined it. My curiosity was tickled even as I was feeling very much out of place, but I asked for the tour. Adam showed me the two rooms on either side of the entry hall. One was what I guessed you'd call the living room. Ordinary names for rooms somehow seemed inadequate here. It was like they deserved something grander. The room was gigantic compared to our living room at home and had beautiful furniture upholstered in muted colors, appearing both sedate and stylish. Large oil paintings were mounted on the richly papered walls. Burnished brass floor lamps were scattered around. Chairs were set in configurations where people could sit and speak together. The couches had coffee tables in front of them and lamps close-by. All the wood in the room glowed from frequent polishing. The overall effect was of an immaculate showroom set up to be livable. Everything shone of elegance and good taste
"Wow," was all I could manage to say.
“ It’s the living room,” said Adam in an nonchalant voice that somehow managed to combine a slight embarrassment and sarcasm. “We don’t use it much. Dad likes to keep it looking good in case someone comes by, so I try to avoid it. Notice the carpet.”
I looked down at the dark blue carpeting. It looked perfect. Perfectly vacuumed, perfectly smooth, not a trace of a footprint or anything.
“If we walked in there, our feet would sink into the carpet and you could follow our footstep. Then the maid would have to smooth it all out again.”
“This is fantastic,” I said, quite a bit in awe.
“I suppose it is. You get used to it. Then it’s just your house, the place you live. But I know it’s very nice. Let’s go over here.”
We crossed the hall to look into another large room. This one, while still fancy and very well decorated, had just a very little bit more of a lived in appearance. There was a large TV set, more upholstered chairs, and a large stereo set-up. There was a built-in bar at one side.
“This is the salon. We use it as the family room. Guests and my parents usually have drinks in here before dinner.”
Adam proceeded to show me several more large and grandly decorated rooms on the ground floor. There was an office, a library with wall to wall bookcases filled with what had to be a thousand hardcover books, an entertainment room where another TV set occupied one entire wall at one end and where tables with decks of cards on them were standing. A full-sized pool table stood at the end opposite the TV set.
I thought I'd be funny. "I'm surprised the pool balls aren't already racked and ready to be broken."
"Actually, if you do that, over time the balls sitting in the same place for long periods tend to very slightly indent the felt, which then can slightly affect balls rolling over it," said Adam seriously. I felt a little stupid. Then he grinned at me, and I grinned back and stopped feeling stupid.
“There are several more rooms, but you get the general idea,” Adam explained as we headed for the large staircase we’d passed when we first came in. “Let’s go up to my room, unless you’re really curious.”
“No, that’s fine. This is just so, so, well, I don’t know how to describe it. I’ve never been in a house like this.”
“I get a little embarrassed. When someone sees it, their first thought is, wow, they must be rich. And when you think someone’s rich, you treat them differently. I don’t know if we’re rich, we probably are to have a house like this, but I’m not rich. I get a small allowance like everyone else, I wear the same clothes everyone else does, but lots of people treat me differently once they see my house. Greg, please don’t do that. You won’t, will you?” He looked me squarely in the eye when he said that.
I looked at him, and the main thing I wanted to do was kiss him. Hey, where did that come from? But that was the thought that jumped into my mind. “Adam, I like your house, in fact I’m amazed at your house, but you’re still you. I’m impressed with where you live, but I don’t feel any differently about you now that I’ve seen it.” I grinned at him, hoping that if he was feeling funny, as I’d been a moment ago, my grin might help him as much as his had helped me.
Adam smiled back, full of enthusiasm. “That’s good. Let’s go up to my room.”
He led us up the stairs. At the top there was a long hallway leading in both directions away from us. Adam turned left and walked past two open doors that led into bedrooms before turning into the third door, the one closest to the end of the hall on the back side of the house.
His room was as impressive as the other rooms I’d seen. It was quite large, had a large console TV, a computer and printer were on a desk, a bed I thought was probably a queen sized one was against one wall, a stereo was in a cabinet and there was evidence of other equipment on shelves, too. His walls weren’t covered with posters but more paintings, although of a more upbeat and youthful nature that the ones in the living room. He walked to a door across the room and opened it, revealing a bathroom. “I’ll be right back. Look around if you want.”
He shut the door. I walked around looking at things. The thought that passed unbidden through my mind was, it must be nice to be Adam. He had several bookcases full of books, mostly science fiction by the looks of it. He also had CD and DVD players and many discs for both. And a lot of video games. I looked at his CDs and found, to my surprise, many classical recordings, many featuring piano pieces played by artists I’d never heard of.
Adam came back out. “You want to use the bathroom? I’m sorry, I should have asked you before I used it.”
“No, that’s fine.” I was holding one of his classical CDs in my hand. I read from it. “Who’s Vladimir Ashkenazy?” I asked, stumbling a little with the last name.
Adam looked at me with questioning eyes. “You haven’t heard of him?” he asked.
“Um, no. Why, is he famous?”
“I suppose only if you know about classical music and pianists. He’s a piano player and a very good one. He also conducts, but he became famous as a pianist and I think he has more recordings than any other pianist. His specialty is Rachmaniov.”
Adam laughed. “Sergei Rachmaniov. He was also a pianist, one of the best that ever lived, very possibly the very best of this century. Some of the piano music he wrote only he could play. But as well as he played, his real fame comes from the music he composed. He was one of the truly great Russian composers. He wrote three symphonies and four piano concertos and a bunch of other stuff too. His music sounds a little like Tchaikovsky’s, only I think it’s better. It’s really romantic and emotional.
“Wow, Adam, you really know this stuff. What I know about music is the songs I hear on the radio. I know what I like, but not much about any of the pieces other that what they sound like. You said you played piano. I sort of thought maybe you’d had a lesson or two, that you might be able to play chopsticks. But I’m getting the feeling maybe I wasn’t giving you enough credit. How well do you play?”
“I’ve been taking lessons for ten years. I can play pretty well. Do you want to go to the music room? I can play, you can sing, maybe we can talk about what we want to do at the Prom.”
That sounded fine to me. I nodded to him and we went back down stairs, then through the house to one of the rooms we hadn’t investigated. It was large, as they all seemed to be, and held a grand piano. It also had music stands, recording equipment and several instruments and cases lying on shelves.
Adam walked to the piano. “I happen to be working on a Rachmaniov piece right now. It isn’t too long. If you want, I can play it for you.” He looked at me with raised eyebrows. I told him I’d like to hear it.
“OK, this is called Prelude in C# Minor. It’s kind of famous, one of his better known piano works.” Adam sat down on the piano bench and wiggled just a little to get in a comfortable position. He looked at the keyboard for a second, then closed his eyes. The expression on his face changed, becoming serious. He seemed to go from a cute 15-year-old boy to a focused 25-year-old young man in about two seconds. The muscles in his face seemed to harden, and the soft, youthful face I loved to look at suddenly had a more mature look to it. When he was composed, he put his hands over the keys, held them a second, then lift them and crashed them down on the keys. He played the first three chords of the piece, descending chords, holding the final, very low one. Without opening his eyes, with no music on the piano to read from, he continued playing.
The music was astounding. I hadn’t heard the piece, but was moved by it. Even more, I was moved by the mastery Adam had over the piano. He played flawlessly, as far as I could tell, and the piece was anything but easy. It seemed to consist just of chords at first, but emotional and involving chords, and then it eventually turned into intricate, complicated runs that got faster as he went. Throughout the piece, whether he was playing fast or slowly, loudly of softly, as Adam played the music, it came alive. He wasn’t just playing notes. He was expressing the composer’s thoughts and feelings with his playing. My singing teacher was always urging me, ‘don’t just sing a song, make music.’ By that, she meant put nuance and emotion into the song, sing it with feeling and style, don’t just sing the words but create something artistic and meaningful, something that meant something to me. If I ever wondered exactly what she meant by that, I only had to listen to Adam playing. As fine as he was technically, it was the expression and sentiment he played with, holding some notes a fraction longer than called for, playing others very softly and then increasing the volume as the pitches rose on a run, slowing down at the end of a phrase to milk more feeling than what the notes would bring just by themselves, that was moving. This was piano being played by a kid of 15 that sounded like it should be being played in a concert hall by a professional.
The piece only took a few minutes to play. When Adam finished, holding the last note till it died by itself, I just sat stunned. He opened his eyes and gave me his bashful grin.
“Yeah, I’d say you can play the piano a little,” I finally said. “That was the most fantastic thing I’ve ever heard. You’re amazing!”
“Thanks, Greg. But I wanted to introduce you to Mr. Rachmaniov. He’s one of my favorite composers. You should hear his Second Symphony, and his Second Piano Concerto. They are some of the most romantic music ever written, in my opinion I love them.”
I saw still feeling somewhat stunned. “What you just played was tremendous, but it wasn’t what I’d call romantic. I could call it powerful, exciting, stirring, but not romantic.
“You’re right about that. Anyway, did you bring any music so I can hear you sing. Do you have something you’re working on, or have already learned?”
I’d brought my book bag downstairs with me. I opened it up and took out some sheet music. “I’m not working on anything classical. My teacher is a good vocal coach, but she’s more into pop and musical comedy and stuff like that, and that’s what I like to sing. Anyway, I love this song from West Side Story so I brought it along.” I put the music to “Somewhere” by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim on the piano for him. He looked through it briefly, then said, “This is no problem. It’s a pretty easy piano part.”
“Yeah, that’s one of the reasons I brought it. I had no idea you were this good. I’m even embarrassed to sing now.”
“Greg, don’t say that! Don’t talk that way. Let’s try this.” He was emphatic, almost angry. He looked at the music, and began playing with no more talk. There was a short intro, which he played. I felt nervous; after hearing him play really complicated and I supposed difficult classical music like it was nothing, I now had hold up my end and sing. I felt like a kindergartener playing his kazoo and being accompanied by the New York Philharmonic.
I was helped by the song. The Bernstein music and Sondheim lyrics always inspired me, and it happened again this time. The emotions of the song got into my voice. I have a normal 15-year-old voice that has gone through puberty. It’s natural pitch is sort of between a tenor and a baritone, and the singing lessons I’d taken and practice I’d done had extended my range so I could easily handle both the highest and lowest notes in the piece. As Adam played, my feeling for the music came back and I sang easily and emotionally.
When we finished, Adam stopped and looked at me. “Do you know how good you sound?” he asked.
It was my turn to look a little embarrassed. “My teacher is always praising me, but I don’t sing for anyone else. It’s just something I wanted to try to do, singing, and I found I liked it. Did you really think it was OK?”
“OK? Hell, it was great! You know, I think we can make something really special of this performance.”
“I do too, but you have to play a solo. I was sort of thinking selfishly, not realizing how you could play. I can sing something with you accompanying me, but you have to play something by yourself. You should have an entire act. You’re absolutely amazing!” I looked at him with admiration, with the beginning of an understanding of just how special he was.
He looked at me and smiled, then looked at the piano instead of me for a few seconds. As he thought, his smile faded and his body seemed to pull in on itself slightly. He seemed to be getting sadder, but I had no idea why. Then, when I was getting uneasy with the silence and was about to speak, he spoke first.
“Greg, this is sort of like what happens when I show people my house. I end up not bringing very many people here because of it. You’re doing the same thing now. I have a nice house, I can play the piano fairly well, and when people see the house, hear me play, they don’t treat me the same any more. It’s as if I’m not the same person I used to be, I’m not a kid that goes to school with you, knows the same people you do, thinks about the same things probably in the same way. No, I’m not just that guy anymore, I’m now the rich kid, I live in a big house, I have a musical talent, I’m different. I’m looked at differently, I’m treated differently.
“Think about it. Before, you had a great idea for an act at the Prom. You were going to sing a couple songs, do a quick-change between numbers, impersonate a couple of ‘50’s singers, wear costumes—it was going to be great. Now, instead of something everyone in the audience would love, you want to just sign a song, cut out all the good stuff, and have me play something to show off for everyone, show I can play the piano better than some other kids my age. See how different that is? Instead of doing something really fun, now we’re going to be more serious. The mood will be different and we won’t be performing to entertain the kids as much as to show off what we are capable of.
“Greg, I don’t want to be treated like I’m someone else. When we talk in the library, I shouldn’t say this but I will, when we talk, it’s come to be the best time of the day for me. I look forward to it. You know why? It’s because we’re absolute equals. You’re talking to me like a friend, and I’m talking back to you that same way. You’re smart and funny and you just look at me the same way. That’s the way I want us to be. I want us to be friends. I don’t want you admiring me, thinking of me like that. If you do that, we can’t be the way I want us to be. If you start thinking I’m something different from a normal kid, I’ll end up acting differently, and I hate that.”
He paused, and before thinking of the implications, I asked, “Why should talking to me in the library be that special? You’ve got a lot of friends, lots of guys you hang with.”
He started to get red, and I knew I’d embarrassed him. He was trying to think of something to say, and I felt badly for putting him on the spot. I shouldn’t have asked that question. I usually was more careful of people’s feelings, more thoughtful before speaking. To make it easier for him, I answered my question myself. “I know, you end up there all alone and look forward to having someone to talk to instead of having to read the dumb magazines.”
He knew what I said was a little stupid, but a quick look of relief came to his eyes nevertheless before he looked away. “Well, not really. It’s really because Dale usually comes in when I’m there and I don’t want him sitting down with me because I’m alone. I look like a target. When you get there, I’m safe from him.”
The rational part of my brain immediately started to pick holes in that argument, but thankfully I’d turned the switch off that connected my brain to my mouth and so didn’t impulsively say something that would embarrass him again. I just allowed his statement to stand.
At that point, Maria came in with a tray. She’d made us a couple sandwiches each, and had brought glasses of milk and some cookies with them. She set them down on one of the tables, and we thanked her as she left. Adam asked if I wanted to eat, and I assured him I did.
After the snack, while I was still nibbling the last cookie, he stood up and walked to the side of the room where there were several cabinets and chests holding many small drawers. He stopped at one of the chests and opened one of the drawers, looked in briefly, then closed it and opened another. He looked through the contents, then pulled a thick music book out from under a couple others in the drawer. He brought it back over to the piano.
“Greg, let’s do your song again. This time, instead of playing the sheet music you brought, I’m going to play from a copy of the original piano score for that show. You’ll have to stand here beside me because the music and when the words come won’t be exactly the same as on your copy. When they produce those sheet music copies of popular songs they usually simplify the piano part and frequently the vocal part as well. I’d like to see what you sound like with the music the way Bernstein intended it to sound. Can you read music well enough to follow my part? If not, I can nod at you when you should come in. Your part will be pretty much like what you’ve already learned, so just listening to the music should make it pretty simple for you.”
“I can read the music. It’s one of the things my teacher has emphasized. If you’re going to sing with anyone, you have to be able to read the music, not just do it from memory. I can’t do it as well as you can, but I can stay with you and sing the words in the right spots.”
“Great! OK, let’s try it.”
I walked over and stood next to him. He looked up at me; I looked down at him. He nodded, then looked at the music and began playing.
It surprised me, how much fuller the sound was. It was more orchestral than what I’d been singing to. It was the same song, many of the same notes, the overall feel was similar, but it was also much, much better, sort of like comparing putting a necktie on when you’re wearing scroungy jeans and a dirty shirt, or putting a necktie on while wearing an expensive suit and starched white shirt. In both cases it’s just a tie, but the effect is different and amazing.
He finished the introduction and came to my opening notes. I began singing, singing the same first notes I had before, but somehow the sound of the accompaniment inspired me. All my teacher’s comments about breathing and singing from the diaphragm and keeping an open throat and centering the sound and how posture makes that easier, all the practice I’d done, seemed to have a purpose. I suddenly wanted to sing better than I ever had. The music itself was asking for this, demanding it. And it was like I was really hearing this music, the totality of it, for the first time.
The message of the song, always an emotional one for me, also inspired me. The words were written for an American boy and Puerto Rican girl who loved each other, but had to hide it because it was forbidden in both their communities. In a similar way, I had always assumed this same prejudice would affect me if and when I found a guy to love. So I felt the words. They were meaningful and sad, and I always sang them with emotion and empathy. I began:
There’s a place for us, Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air, wait for us somewhere.
The piano was providing a much richer background that I was used to, and even though this background wasn’t louder than normal—Adam was somehow able to play a fuller sound and a lot more notes without making it louder and was keeping the piano’s voice under mine intentionally—I just naturally opened up my sound to do it justice. The emotion of the song moved me as usual. When we came to the closing words I really opened up, deepening my voice, projecting it and pouring emphasis and resolve and passion into it, feeling the words and music:
There’s a place for us, and time and place for us,
Hold my hand and we’re halfway there,
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there,
Somehow, some day, somewhere.
Adam held the final chord awhile and as it died away, I felt the emotion of the song die away gradually, too. Then Adam looked up at me, and I’d swear I saw moisture in his eyes. He turned away and blinked.
“That was, that was awesome, Greg. Amazing.”
“I thought so too. Having that accompaniment makes it almost a different song. It seems so real and meaningful instead of somehow more trivial. It adds depth.”
“Your singing is just great. It’s natural and emotional and just right. You put so much expression into it, I’d swear you’re feeling the pain the characters in the play did. And you sing in tune and in time, which a lot of singers don’t do. I usually have to allow a lot in the music, slow down or speed up or even leave out notes to stay with them when I’m accompanying. I don’t have to do that with you. You really sing well.”
“I can’t believe how well you play. But, I know you’re uncomfortable if I say that. Believe me, I’m not going to treat you differently. You’re praising me, and I’m praising you. We can like each other for what we do, it just adds something to the friendship, it doesn’t change anything else. OK?”
“Absolutely.” He grinned. “I just didn’t know you could sing like that. Most kids can’t, even if they think they’re good. But you didn’t know I could play, either. I think this is neat.”
We continued to talk, both surprised and pleased with the other’s talent. Eventually, I led the conversation back to the Prom and what we were going to do. He really liked my original idea of the act and didn’t want to play something just to showcase his playing ability. I could sing fairly well for my age; his playing was phenomenal. I thought people should know that, but it seemed completely inconsequential, even somehow inappropriate to him. Maybe, from his reaction to my excitement when he played for me, he didn’t want the recognition. He didn’t want people excited over his abilities, or at least he didn’t want them effusing over them. So, we decided we’d do two songs the way I’d first suggested, and the only playing he’d do by himself was vamping between quick costume changes.
We talked about what to perform. I was surprised, because as much knowledge as he seemed to have about classical music, he also seemed to know a lot about popular music. He said his parents liked music from the ‘50’s and had a lot of sheet music and music books from that period, and he'd fooled around playing a lot of it because it was fun. He pulled out scores and sheet music from some of the cabinets and we tried various pieces. I was sight singing, he was mostly sight-reading. He did much, much better with his part than I did with mine, but we could at least hear the music and get a feel for what each song was like. We laughed a lot as we stumbled through it, but learned a lot, too. Eventually, we decided what we wanted to do.
“Somewhere” Music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
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