The summer that Uncle Jamie took me to the beach was a week of Classic Rock— The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and everything in between. My first year on the boys’ high school soccer team was an endless season of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” on loop. The day that I got my wisdom teeth out was a confusing blur of Indie Alternative, interrupted every now and then by a bit of Heavy Metal. My life is not marked by moments, but rather by music—each memory a melody.
I don’t remember when the music in my head started, just that it has always been there... like the creases in my palms or the minuscule birthmark on my right ankle. When I was eleven, the doctors told my dad that it was a cry for attention. “I’m sorry sir,” they said, “but there simply isn’t a problem to diagnose. We can’t prescribe pills for an overactive imagination”. When I was still complaining six months later, my mom sought out a second opinion. And a third. And then a fourth. Finally, she found a therapist who suggested that the “music” was nothing more than my way of coping with the divorce and that with time, God willing, I’d get over it.
Sixteen years later I don’t dare to tell them, to tell anyone, that they were wrong.
The music in my head has always been too alive, too potent to be anything but real. If it were a figment of my imagination, I think I’d be able to control it. Every now and then, I’d turn it off and enjoy emptiness, a minute or two free from the constant stream of chords and crescendos. At the very least, I’d be able to turn down the volume or skip ahead to the next song. But I can’t control it and I can’t turn it off. Trust me, I’ve tried.
When I plug my ears, the notes muffle and squish together, trying to work their way back into my skull. If I put on headphones and blast something else, the music around me increases and plays at an ungodly decibel until I take them out. Even my dreams are scattered with symphonies. The music begs not only to be heard, but to be listened to.
So, I listen.
I was listening to the music in fifth grade when Mrs. Haux taught us how to do long division. Though I tried to pay attention, I couldn’t seem to hear her over the Mario Kart theme song that was echoing through the classroom.
“Are you stupid?” Jimmy asked when we got our test scores back. I looked down at the 2/15 on the front page of my exam, its bright red ink the same color as my face. He learned long division last year and we just reviewed on Thursday so how could I miss so many? His sister Kaitlyn was eight and she could do long division. “It’s not that hard”.
I was listening to the music at my fourteenth birthday party when a few of my buddies decided to TP Mary Anne’s house. The soundtrack for that night was incredible— each song more exciting than the last. Later, my mom chewed me out for being so careless.
“Your head is in the clouds,” she said. Why don't I listen when she tells me not to do something? Mary Anne is the sweetest girl in the neighborhood. Stop laughing, it’s not funny. Even if there were a bunch of kids doing it, her son would be the one to apologize. "No ‘buts’ about it."
I was listening to the music my third day on the job at Johnny Rocket’s when I messed up the entire drive-thru order for a twelve-passenger van. A marching band tune had nearly burst my eardrums as I shoveled French fries into little paper bags. My coworker mentioned something about no pickles… or was it no onions? And that the small shake was actually a large and don’t forget to put the salad dressing on the side. Between the trombones and the tubas, I botched the whole thing.
“We can’t train you if you refuse to be trained,” Trevor had said, absentmindedly tapping the word MANAGER on his name tag. “It’s called fast food for a reason and if you can’t focus enough to keep up with the changes, we can’t afford to keep you on board.”
I was sixteen when I realized that the music was tied, at least in some part, to my emotions. It stoked my anger to rage and twisted my embarrassment to mortification, and it was at its worst whenever I got anxious. The harder that I tried to focus, to block out the sounds around me, the louder it became until I almost couldn’t function at all. On the other hand, when I was comfortable and content, the music was nothing more than subtle background noise that accompanied me throughout the day. So, as long as I kept my emotions in check, it was rare that things got out of hand.
It wasn’t until high school that I learned not only how to live with my music, but to embrace it. My mom signed me up for piano lessons, first term my Sophomore year.
“You’ve always loved music!” she exclaimed, adjusting the rearview mirror of her yellow Chevy Cavalier. “Learning to play something will be good for you! Maybe you’ll make some friends.”
I was hesitant at first, wondering how I’d play anything at all with another song buzzing in the back of my mind. But then, with the wrinkled Mrs. Davidson hunched beside me, I plucked that first ivory key. The music in my head slowed and shifted, matching itself to the middle C tone that radiated from the open piano lid. It followed my fingers to an E note and then to a D sharp, humming along in blissful unison. I remember touching each key softly, mesmerized by the single, solitary sound.
From that moment on, the piano bench became my sanctuary, my solace. It was the only place where I could collect my thoughts, where I got to decide the melody. I spent so much time there that I quickly learned how to play anything I wanted to, anything at all. I practiced popular tracks that I had heard snippets of on the radio but never really got to listen to in their entirety. I learned to compose the songs from my subconscious that no one had ever heard but me. They called me a prodigy, but I knew better. I had a gift, sure, but it was so much heavier than simple piano-playing. When they asked me how I did it, I’d always lie and say it was hard work. I realized early on not to tell people about the music. The few times that I let it slip out, they all thought I was crazy.
Well… almost all of them.
It was just an average Friday night when I met her. I pulled up to the bonfire in my clunky red car with a rather depressing screamo song banging on the walls of my brain. George, my college roommate, had invited me to the party. He wanted me to “meet people” but I only went because I heard that there was going to be free food. That, and I had to distract myself from the fact that the end of the semester was right around the corner and I was failing Economics. Again. Dad didn’t think that music would ever land me a “realistic” career, so we had settled for a double major in Business and Music Production. Needless to say, I was miserable.
It wasn’t hard to find George. He was sitting in a camp chair, surrounded by sorority girls, so I gave a casual nod in his direction and made a beeline for the pizza. I loaded up my plate with three slices of Hawaiian and was reaching for the last breadstick when I tripped over myself and crashed into someone, serving myself a face-full of pink hoodie.
It wasn’t one of those cheesy rom-com scenes where our eyes met and the sun shone down and Michael Bublé sang softly in the background. No, it wasn’t like that at all. I got pineapple in her hair and stained my jeans with a triangle shaped marinara spot that would never come out. She laughed through my whole apology and I struggled to introduce myself. The first time she said her name I missed it because a rather obnoxious baseline was pounding to the beat of my thundering heart.
“So?” she asked, shrugging her shoulders and gesturing to the nearest tailgate. It took me nearly eight counts to realize that she wanted me to sit with her. She was from Arizona.
I didn’t tell her about the music then. No, I waited through the first few months of 80’s hits and then well into a large selection of Elvis vinyl records before I broke the news. At first, she thought I was joking. When she realized that I was serious, it took about a song and a half for her to say something, anything at all.
“But… how do you do it then?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean life. With the music. How do you ever focus?”
“I’m always focused," I said. "But I guess I’m just always focused on the wrong thing.”
After that, I was surprised she stayed… But she did. And, not only did she stay, but the music never seemed to bother her at all.
For two years it was just me and her and all Frank Sinatra. Then eventually we settled down and it was nursery rhymes and lullabies. For a long time our film score was bliss, an album with more high notes than low ones.
I had been working in accounting for two years when it happened. My boss had given me the finance reports for a large company and I was nearly finished compiling their records. I was more than a little nervous to turn them in the next day, so I stayed late at the office to make sure that I had everything right.
At eleven o’clock that night I was still at my desk, staring at the Excel sheet in front of me. A rather impatient violin solo screeched through the cubicles, bouncing off the brown carpet and tapping on the fluorescent lights. I remember it was a violin because it’s the only instrument that makes my temples throb.
The longer I stayed at the office, the more the numbers on my computer screen seemed to mock me, twirling and dancing with one another as the seconds on the clock ticked away. When midnight waltzed around, I couldn’t take it anymore. I saved the file, slammed my laptop closed, and locked the office door. Thankfully, the violin stopped playing as soon as I left the building.
I’m not sure where I went wrong, but my boss pulled me into his office first thing the next morning.
“I’ve never seen so many thoughtless errors,” he told me. I was lucky that he had taken it upon himself to go over my work. This was an important client we were working with. We couldn't afford to make mistakes. “Are you doing okay?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“You seem distracted.”
Aren’t I always?
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“You’ve worked here for a long time and I’ve been very patient.”
“Yes. I understand.”
He held my gaze for six long notes.
“You know, medication is always an option.” His brother has some of the same tendencies that I do. Difficulty paying attention, constant restlessness, forgetfulness, etc. He knows a good doctor that could prescribe something to help me focus. He doesn’t mean to intrude, it’s just a thought.
“Yes. Thank you. I’ll look into it.”
She was sitting on top of the piano, sipping on an iced tea when I broke the news.
“You’ll ‘look into it’?!” she sputtered, covering the sheet music in front of me with light brown droplets. What did that even mean? That I’d “look into it”? Did my boss have any idea how far I’d come? How important the music was? The gall.
“No one knows about the music,” I sighed.
“Well, I know about the music and… I dunno. I just feel like popping pills isn’t the solution,” she shrugged.
“What is the solution?”
We sat there through all of Mozart’s fifth symphony, staring each other in the face.
“Okay,” she breathed.
A week later, with a half-full glass of water clutched in one hand, I shook two pink pills from the orange bottle the doctor had given me. The song that played sounded lonely, though then I didn’t understand why. This was supposed to be a good thing. A happy thing. Something to help. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and downed the little pink pills.
At first, nothing happened. But then, day by day, with each dose, the music became quieter and quieter until one morning I woke up and I couldn’t hear it at all.
The day that my mom left my dad was the saddest song that I ever heard, a jazzy blues tune that grated on my heart and left my stomach in knots. Though I vividly remember the pain, it was nothing compared to the deafening silence that filled my ears when, for the first time in my life, the music was absent.
I thought I’d be grateful.
Now I can do long division. I pay attention when people speak to me. I "keep up with the changes" and I'm hardly ever distracted. And yet, when I play the piano, it's never quite the same.
For three years I’ve been focusing on the ‘right’ things. I'm a superstar at work and the most attentive husband. I have everything that I've ever wanted and still I have nothing at all. Though I try to embrace the silence, the quiet inside my head still kills me every day.
Every. Single. Noteless. Second.