The first time you hear him play it's like someone has opened every bottle of champagne in Paris.
He's at the piano when you enter, and the others are standing politely around it waiting for their turn to applaud: Rossini looking smug and patronly, Mademoiselle Sand trying to look vaguely interested and failing, a whole host of others doing their duty by nodding and flicking their eyebrows upward at random moments, but mostly staring past the piano to the rain outside. It's winter, a very cold and wet one, even for Paris. You almost swore off the soirée at the last moment, but the rain seemed easier to bear than your mother's mounting impatience with you, and so you came.
The gentleman at the piano is perhaps a year or two younger than you. He has a face like porcelain and a long high brow furrowed in reverie. A glance around the room tells you that by process of elimination this must be the brilliant Polish pianist, but it doesn't fit. Schumann told you that he was a quiet and morose sort of character who mumbled a lot and fell into spectacular moods--but any man who could write a waltz like this one has obviously never been morose for any day of his life. It's almost comically chipper, and you don't know what to make of it at first. Yet his proficiency with the instrument is masterful; perhaps the best fingering you've ever seen, in fact. So you think it is he after all.
You are still undecided when the waltz ends and shifts into a new one with only a slight pause. A flat to C sharp, and the transition is flawless. You open your eyes, and the music shifts into a wonder of chromatic slides and twist, grace notes curling around each other like the dances of the roma, and this is the man you've been warned about, the one who insists that serious music has room for popular traditions and folk melodies. The one who can still remember them.
It's been five years since your father died and five years since you've written anything that wasn't absolute shit. When you try to remember the way it felt listening to the roma as a child, all you remember are flashes of red and gold and your father yelling at you for hours about your duty to the Prince. When you try to talk about Hungary, you are laughed at. You are told you can't even speak Hungarian, which is perfectly true, and the subject inevitably reverts back to Esterházy.
You decide before the waltz is over that you hate Frederick Chopin.
You write to Schumann that Chopin is brilliant; perhaps the finest performer you have ever heard at the piano. It's an admission you can afford, one that doesn't make you blush with resentment. As for the rest, his compositions, well; they are fine. They are in a category with Schumann's himself. It's slight praise—the kind you know you can afford to spare without costing yourself any injury. You know well the value of diminishing accomplishment; after all, you are your father's son.
Chopin writes that you are a complete zero, but you don't find this out until after he is dead, when you tell yourself you are too rich to care.
He's polite to everyone else but foul-mouthed and callous with you, and you think that this is his way of giving you exactly what you want. It angers you that he thinks he knows you that well, even though you have spent months in each other's constant company. He encourages you to write; you think he does it so he can mock you. "As a creator," he says pleasantly, "You are an ass. You will never truly be phenomenal until you let go of the pretensions others have formed for you."
"Whereas you have relied all this time upon sheer talent," you say, as languidly as you can to disguise the anger, "and not upon the fact that ladies swoon when you sit before a piano."
He smiles at that, and plays a trill that could be the beginning of a mazurka, or the end of a waltz, or sheer whimsy. He follows it by an inspired flight up and down the keyboard, and there's the pang you feel whenever he plays; the pang of something desperately sought after and just as desperately unrealized beneath his fingers. You have thoughts about him in such moments, about the way he would move his fingers over a woman's body—or, come to that, over your body. You wonder if he has ever given himself up in bed the way he does over a piano.
"You're one to talk," he says, "about ladies swooning." He does not look up when you join him at the piano.
"I would never be so bold as to presume I know how my playing affects others," you say. His hair curls around the edge of his starched collar. He still doesn't look up when you tangle your fingers in it.
"Simply unmitigated," he murmurs. You place your lips against his neck because you hate Frederic Chopin.
"Paganini changed my life," you tell him. You know he is rolling his eyes even though you aren't looking, but you are intimately concerned with the curve of his hipbone at the moment, and you are determined for once in your goddamned life to be sincere. "I'm serious. It's as if we're on a precipice overlooking the vast canyon of the possible, the possibility of what musical performance could be, and we're all too dumb or afraid to go further, until Paganini hurtles himself over the edge and soars."
"This," he says, "is exactly why your playing never reaches the audience who could do it the most good. These heavy-handed metaphors, this idea you have that you're a bastion of truth, blustering about desperate to prove himself when you—"
"Then why waste all your time with me? You could do better than a bombastic—"
"Oh, shut up."
"No, really," you say, because this might be the only chance you ever have to ask. "You're a genius, you don't have to waste time pretending you like my compositions, pretending you care about my work, when—"
"I don't pretend," he says. "I have better ways to waste my time than pretend. Genius is a myth, but if it exists, I'm not the one of us who has it. Come here."
He has this way of speaking gently, so gently you know that he only can get by with it around you or Sand. Anyone else, if they heard it, would think him weak; but he wields his voice over you the way he wields his compositions over the rest of the world: unassuming, but with complete mastery over the listener. You let him tug you up and kiss your mouth, and you don't understand any more than you did a moment ago.
"But this is important," you say, but he shushes you and flips you over, curls around you with his lips pressing warm against your shoulder blade, just as if you hadn't spoken at all.
Later he sits at the piano, playing scherzos and allargandos. The two of you don't play duets. You hate playing in front of him. He thinks you are inferior. He attempts to encourage you, but he can't hide his ennui where your composition is concerned; it shows on his face when you play as clearly as all sorts of other emotions do when you're fucking him.
He says, without looking at you, "I wrote this when I thought that I was in love." It's a scherzo, written not long after you met, in b flat. He plays it with his eyes closed, and you stand behind him, still naked, with your hands on his shoulders, feeling the throb of his temple echoing in the muscles of his throat. It's premature for him, you think, as much as you can judge prematurity in a man who has been hailed as a master since he was a child. You have heard it before, but you have never tried so hard to listen. When he is finished you kiss him, the only offering you have since your compositions disgust him.
"Play something for me," he murmurs, lips pressing into your skin. Marie is off spending god knows how much money on a coterie for the baby, and it's been too long since you've sat at a piano like this and felt the urge to play without anything else on your mind.
You look at him, and after a moment you play one of his own, an Étude you learned while he was away at Karlovy. It's gone over exceptionally well as an encore, and you are only too happy to play it. Anything for your dear friend Chopin. It's not as if you've had a chance to produce anything worth remembering of your own anyway.
He presses against you, never as warm as he ought to be, his skin paler than the last time you were together. Still, you respond to him, and that is its own kind of duet.
He kisses you, a deep, lingering kind of kiss. For a moment you wonder who taught him that. It wasn't you.
"You transport me out of all proper thought when you play," he says.
"That is because I am playing what you have written," you say. You note the way his lip curls when you say it. He's given up trying to tell when you are being coquettish and when you are sincere.
When he tells you about Sand, you aren't really surprised.
He doesn't care that it's finally over between you and Marie, that you feel the best part of your life is finally ahead of you, no distractions, no ridiculous obsessions, no children constantly underfoot. He has Sand, and that is that, and so you go on tour.
You are angry and eager and determined to have a good time, and at Weimar and Prague they make such a fuss over you that you can't leave your hotel without an escort. In Vienna one woman throws her garter at you during the encore of your concert, and you find yourself lampooned on the front pages of all the papers.
"You always did know how to enjoy yourself out of all reason," he writes to you.
"My dear friend," you write back, the point of the pen threatening to dig savagely into the paper, "you have always been my first example for how to enjoy yourself and still abandon all reason."
There are more tours after that, and for three weeks only you find yourself back in Paris, dazed from travel and exhausted, with no time to spare for Marie's insistent letters, or anything but composition and the feel of the piano beneath your fingertips. You think you have worn out the bitterness against the keys night after night, but you are wrong. He comes your second night. You are playing when he enters. He stands watching you, and for the first time since you have been apart you don't care that he's listening and judging. When you finish, he stands still, unmoving. You shove the piano bench back and go to him. You take his arms as roughly as if you haven't had three years to be free of him, just like all the other burdens. Instead he's kept you waiting and hungry and tired out from the way you can never live up to him or his expectations of you.
When he kisses you, it's hard and lingering. You cup his head. You run your fingers into the thick threads of his hair. You note how cold he is, and how he is almost shaking as he moves against you.
"You left," he says afterward, as if he's perfectly baffled about why.
"Just because you won't go on tour doesn't mean—" you start to say, and then you stop. It's perfectly clear why he won't tour, and it's not because of Sand, no matter how much you wish you could blame her for him. She makes him happy, that much is obvious, and she knows how to distract him from the increased pallor in his cheeks and the way he coughs every few minutes. You hate her for that, but you are grateful for it, too. You have heard some say that Sand is destroying him. You have heard others say she is keeping him alive.
"I needed to go," you tell him instead. It's true. You have had Europe at your feet. In Bavaria, they hardly even know the name Chopin.
"I want to play for you," he says.
You let him, and he does. It's a scherzo, in b minor this time. He plays, and when he enters the recapitulation, you wrap your arms around him and hold on.
He never stops playing.
It's never the same after that. There is always Sand, and there is your doting public across Europe. The Parisian haut ton decides that you are too gauche for them, too much in the public eye to be worth noticing. You are too busy for this to matter.
Then there is the Salle Pleyel performance, the scandal over your taking the stage during a number, and then writing what he considers to be an unflattering review. No matter what you have to say about it Sand is there ahead of you, and your protestations are useless. For a while you aren't speaking to each other.
Berlioz tells you it had been breathtaking. "But then, Chopin always hurls himself into a performance—always gives everything he has."
"Everything," you snap, "but himself."
When Weimar offers you the Kapellmeister position, there is no reason for you to say no. Your career is at its peak. You are renowned. You even have a Princess.
"You will do well," Chopin writes, fully reconciled to you now that you are no longer in the country, "to make an honest woman out of Carolyne as soon as you are able. There are few women who could remain faithful when their beloved is routinely accosted by women ripping their clothes off at the sight of him."
"It's no more, my dear friend, than I have seen done before," you write. Lest he think you are bitter, you sign the letter yours ever, in true and lively friendship.
You are too busy to attend the funeral.
So is Sand.
"You should write his biography," says Carolyne one day, strumming her fingers through your hair. "Only think how much you loved him, how important the friendship was for your art. It would be a beautiful gesture, don't you think?"
She writes the book for you. You sign your name to it, and try to put words to paper for the final few pages. It is impossible.
"Your best compositions," he once told you, "are the voice of someone desperately seeking release. When your fingers fly over the keys as if they want to be free of everyone and everything."
"And what if I don't want to be free of everyone?" you asked him, your lips pressed against his temple.
"I think you must," he said. "Or else you would not tour so much. You would not work so hard to escape."
You did work hard. You ran to Europe long before you realized that Europe without Chopin was no escape at all. Long before you realized how much more like prison the world is without Chopin in it.
But you cannot write that in your book, so in the end you say a few generic things about friendship and duty and lost love, and that is that.
Carolyne kisses you on both cheeks, as if you have just done something charming. She thinks you have displayed the generosity for which you are becoming so famed.
For all she knows, between you and Chopin, you were always the generous one.
The one and only time a student attempts to perform Chopin's Scherzo in b minor in your master class you interrupt him halfway through the first bar, and you are screaming.
You let it be known that no one is worthy of it, that there is no one proficient enough even to attempt it save Chopin itself.
You never hear it performed again.
It is 1841 and it will be the last time you hold him. It is during a performance, what will be his last great public concert. He is playing the Military Polonaise, and he is trembling like a leaf about to spiral away into a whirlwind of his own making. You are overwhelmed by him. The entire audience is overwhelmed by him. The Salle Pleyel is packed, standing-room only, and you are slated to write a review for the Parisian afterwards, but all you can do is watch him. He is the most amazing creation you have ever seen.
Near the end of the piece, the violence of his playing increases, and his skin grows so pale that the ladies in the front row begin to whisper behind their fans. He is shaking openly, but his fingers never stop moving. The piano sways beneath the sheer force of each staccato bass note, and the melody rings out like anvils over the hall.
You walk up onto the stage, and you wrap your arms around him. Later Sand will imply that your need to upstage him at all costs was greater than anything else. She will imply that this has always been the way of your relationship—that you could not even let him have this simple moment of triumph. You will respond that she knows a thing or two about upstaging, and Chopin will have to break it up using the voice of quiet, gentle reserve you have not heard him use in nearly a decade.
But now—all you know is that he is at the eye of the storm, and he must not be left to endure it alone. When you touch him, when your arms slide around his chest, he never looks up, never pauses. He still trembles inside of your embrace, but you are with him, and he knows that. You can give him this, if nothing else.
When he is finished there is a towering, powerful silence. You can feel his heart pounding. You can see the sweat at his temple. You kiss his forehead. He leans back, slumping against you. You are still enfolding him, your arms resting on his arms, your hands covering his hands.
He turns his palm up and laces your fingers between his own. He closes his eyes.
You hold each other, lost in the moment of silence, before the deluge of applause.