Debussy Saves the Night

(an excerpt from “Count None But Sunny Hours”)

School dances were torture for someone like me who had a vivid imagination and the desire to punch above his weight. From all the books I had read, I aspired to be a dashing – or at least tortured – person. However, the reality of suburban 20th Century life seemed to have little in common with what I had read. In my mind, I saw myself like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (whom my French teacher claimed had been her mother’s lover) descending from a flying machine and sweeping a woman into my arms on the quad at school to plant a long and masterful kiss on her waiting lips. But in reality I was a jiggly mass of adolescent jello.

Dances were held at the new Piedmont Middle School Gym, a large industrial space with glaring lamps of a greenish hue designed to illuminate basketball games not debonair teenagers. Thankfully, they dimmed the lights at dances, creating zones of darkness so that our awkwardness would not have witnesses.

I would agonize over the impending dance the way I agonized over asking a girl who was rumored to be loose to go with me. (Not that I knew what “go” meant or for that matter “loose” — I just knew I wanted it.) For weeks I prepared to ask Missy S. to go out. Then I walked up to her while she waited for her parents to pick her up after school.

“Missy, will you go with me?”

“No,” she said matter-of-factly.

And that was that. I think I was relieved. If she had said yes I would have had a real problem.

Dances were the same. Weeks of anticipation and agony for what I knew would inevitably end in disaster. In the dark pit of the court surrounded by teachers and parents who smiled benignly, we danced to “Brick House” and “September Song” and worst of all, The Slow Dances. I still cringe when I think back at those: I moved with my arms on my partner’s shoulders, my pelvis held back at an exaggerated angle, to avoid contamination or insinuation. No one had bothered to prepare us for these excruciating moments. They thrust us into the dark pit on the basketball court and expected us to just figure it all out.

I didn’t. On dance nights, I would stay until the last unsatisfactory moment. I may have been in pain but I give myself credit for stoicism. Then I would make my way home through the tree-lined streets and manicured gardens of Piedmont, our little enclave. Walking home late at night when no one was on the streets was a special pleasure for me. During the day, I enjoyed it too because I always prized my time alone without adult intervention but when no one was afoot and the circular spotlights of the street lamps created a halogen chiaroscuro on the sidewalk, I was in my element. To this day, I have a love of the eerie glow of streetlights.

I entered the house as quietly as possible. Any loud noise could ruin the delicious time ahead. To avoid parents waking and wondering where I was, I made an appearance in their room to let them know I was home and softly said good night to their sleepy pillow greetings. Then I shut the door to their bedroom.

From there I walked silently back down the stairs to the record closet. I would pull out one of three albums: Sibelius, Mahler or my very favorite, Debussy’s string quartet in G minor. (How I ended up with those albums is another story.) I would turn the volume up just enough to hear it but not enough to alert my parents whose room was just above the living room speakers. It was guesswork and might take several jaunts back and forth as the speakers were 30 yards from the closet where the stereo lived.

Then I would sit in the darkness on the carpet, my head near the speakers. As the music of Debussy penetrated me I re-discovered the calm I had lost in the lead up to the dance. Listening, I knew that Missy and the dance did not matter; there was a life just over the horizon; that the unnamed turmoil in my life could be dealt with and even become art; that there would be women and words and a certain justice would prevail eventually.

This music told me that I wasn’t the only one who had faced the unnamed things and was about to explode: certainly Debussy had been there. It was not just the uncharted world of girls but the uncharted silence that filled the empty space around me. But I sensed my nocturnal friends could show me the way, if I listened carefully.

In the stridency of the opening lines, where the strings are warring against each other, I discovered the beauty of the discordant note. A note that does not fit in can be more beautiful than all the notes that do.

In the pizzicato of the second movement I heard the earnest bow work of those who do not surrender in their quest to overcome discord and move beyond into a new place of balance.

In the pathos of the third movement I was warned that I would lose many things I cherished along the way, that a great sadness would be my companion and that nostalgia would be the tune it hummed in my ear. This was the price to be exacted. But others had paid this same price.

By the fourth with the strings released from their bonds and triumphant I knew that I had already made my choice: I would sacrifice anything I needed to sacrifice in order to break through and prevail over the things that held me down. Indeed, the letting go was already beginning.

That is what Debussy whispered to me in the night.

— by Kevin Carrel Footer

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