THE TAXI PULLED up in front of the office building, and the driver turned around for his fare. Theo got out his wallet. He extracted the twenty-dollar bill sitting inside and gave it to the driver.
“Need a receipt, kid?”
Theo shook his head. “My parents trust me.”
After he got his change and carefully put the bills and coins away, Theo got out of the taxi and went inside the building. He knew which floor he was supposed to go to, but he checked the building directory anyway. Floors one through seven had the usual businesses that belonged to the adult world—accounting firms, law firms. The eighth floor was different.
“Wackos and weirdos,” Theo mumbled under his breath, as he studied the names of the psychologists and psychiatrists who inhabited the upper regions of the building.
The elevator doors opened. Theo went inside and punched the number eight. The doors closed.
The receptionist looked up when Theo entered the office of Gary Oates, LMHC. The initials stood for Licensed Mental Health Counselor.
“Theo?” she asked.
“Make yourself comfortable. Gary will be with you in a few minutes.”
“Do I need to fill out anything?”
“Your mom already took care of everything. Can I get you something to drink?”
The receptionist went back to her work. Theo sat down and looked around the waiting room. The furniture was good, he noticed, more like what you’d find in someone’s home than in an office. The photographs on the wall were also a step above the usual office mix of bland prints of landscapes or color-coordinated abstract art. But Theo was determined not to like Gary Oates, and so he took out his phone and checked his messages.
There weren’t many. There never were. The only one that was even remotely personal was the message from his geometry teacher reminding him, and the other kids in his class, about the test the next day. The rest were from companies that wanted him to buy things.
A door swung open and a man in his mid-thirties entered the waiting room. He was dressed in business casual: navy blue button-down shirt and khaki trousers. No tie, of course.
“Theo? I’m Gary. Nice to meet you.”
They shook hands. Then the psychologist led Theo into his office. Like the waiting room, this room was furnished nicely, with comfortable chairs and good pictures on the walls.
“Do you like photography?” asked Gary, having noticed Theo’s examination of the pictures.
Theo shrugged. “Not as much as music.”
“Right. Your mom said you liked music. Who’s your favorite?”
“The Moody Blues.”
The eyes of the psychologist went blank. “I don’t know all the new groups.”
“They’re not new. They were big in the 60s.”
“Oh, the 60s. Great music back then.” Gary gave a paper sitting on his desk a quick glance. Then he cleared his throat and sat back in his chair, signaling they were about to move on to a different topic. “So, Theo, what brings you here today?”
The psychologist was still relaxed and smiling, but his eyes had narrowed and he was studying Theo intently. “Do you always hide behind comedy when you’re asked a serious question?”
Theo made a show of considering the question. “Yeah, I suppose I do.”
“Do people like it when you respond that way?”
Theo shrugged. “I don’t care.”
“You’re happy that you don’t have any friends, or a girlfriend?”
Theo was prepared for this question. Even so, he could feel a tightening in his throat that made normal speech difficult. He stared at the picture hanging on the wall, a little to the left of the psychologist’s head. It was a photograph of a tower located on the edge of a sea. The waves were crashing against the shore, while a gray mist swirled around the tower’s top. He supposed it was a photograph of somewhere in England, somewhere very old, somewhere people didn’t visit much anymore, except photographers.
The thought of the stone tower standing up to the violent crashing of the waves was comforting. The tightness in his throat began to loosen a little bit.
“It’s not about being happy,” said Theo, still staring at the picture. “It’s just how my life is.”
The psychologist gave the piece of paper on his desk another glance. “Your mom thinks you might have a schizoid personality disorder. Do you know what that is?”
“I prefer to think of it as a way to open a discussion. People who have this disorder are usually described as loners, in the extreme. They avoid having close relationships with others and prefer solitary activities. They also find it hard to express their emotions. Sometimes they find it hard to feel anything, including pleasure. A byproduct is that it can lead to depression. Would you say any of this describes how you feel?”
Theo shrugged again. “What if it does?”
“If we can agree on a starting point, we can decide how to move forward.”
“I only agreed to one meeting.”
“You’re not interested in changing?”
Theo inwardly cringed at the word. He had been hearing too much psycho-babble during the past few months. Maybe it was natural, since his parents were both intellectuals; his mom was a poet who taught English composition and literature at the local university, and his dad was a Middle Ages freak who taught Old and Middle English at the same place. They had married late and had Theo, their only child, even later. Coming from such brilliant parents, they naturally expected Theo—named after the gods—to be even more brilliant. And be brilliant in every way: top of the class, most popular kid, music virtuoso—the works. The only slack he ever got was sports. As long as Theo had a decent tennis swing, which he did, his parents didn’t care about how well he did on the soccer field.
Life was mostly bearable when he was a kid. He got good grades in school and high praise from his piano teacher. Recess was lonely, but Theo had a good imagination and found ways to fill the time. But by the time Theo reached middle school, it had become painfully apparent to his parents that he was falling behind in the popularity contest. It wasn’t just that Theo didn’t have friends. His classmates disliked him. They made fun of his name, for a start. They also found fodder for ridicule in his music lessons and even his tennis lessons. His classmates rarely physically attacked him, but their verbal attacks made his life miserable.
High school wasn’t any better. He started to get intense headaches that made him skip school. Then his grades began to fall. The family doctor said it was all in his head, so his mom stocked up on all the latest psychology books. The authors promised that for $24.99, the price of their book, they could cure anyone—if the person really wanted to change.
In Theo’s opinion, it would be easier to step inside a fairy tale and slay the dragon than make the kids in his class like him. But once his mom got hold of an idea, she didn’t let go. Conversations were conducted in a stream of psycho-babble. Theo was going to be president of his class, Mr. Popularity himself. He had so much going for him. They just had to remove the blockages that were preventing kids from seeing all his good qualities. Once that happened, once he changed into the radiant being he was meant to be, they’d be dying to be his friend.
Theo supposed the psychologist had made a similar promise to his mom, but for a higher price. He had protested. Once you went to a shrink the label was official: Weirdo. Wacko. He and his mom came to a compromise. He would see this Oates person alone. One meeting. If they clicked, Theo would continue the sessions. If not, his mom would stop harping on the topic for six months.
He glanced down at his watch. In just a few more minutes, he could get up and leave.
“I asked a question, Theo. Do you want to answer it?”
“Actually, Gary, I don’t. I’m only here because of my mother. She’s like you. She also believes in this you-can-change-if-you-want-to hocus pocus. Maybe you two should get together and invent a new snake oil.”
Theo stood up and walked over to the closed door. Gary remained in his seat.
“I get it, Theo. You’re angry at the world. But this is the only world you have. You can choose to stay in your comfort zone and go through life angry and depressed. Or you can choose to change what’s possible to change and make your world a little more loving and accepting. But you’re right about one thing. It does have to be your decision, not your mother’s. Come back when you’re ready to do battle with your demons.”
THEO LEFT THE return taxi on the far side of the park that was two blocks away from his home. It was a small park, just a jogging track that circled a soccer field. At the other end, the one closest to his house, was a playground for little kids and a few picnic tables.
No one was playing ball, so he walked across the empty field. He was vaguely aware of splotches of sunlight illuminating patches of grass, reminiscent of celestial stepping stones. A streak of red raced past him, a cardinal in flight. As he got closer to the playground he could hear children’s laughter. Four of them had piled on to the see-saw, two on each side, and they all squealed with delight each time the see-saw hit the ground with a thud and bumped the pair suspended in the air. Three other kids were busy in the sandbox, totally engrossed in the world they were creating.
There was another child, a boy about five or six, who was sitting in the sandbox with his shovel and pail. Although the physical distance between the boy and the other three kids wasn’t great, he didn’t look at the others or otherwise acknowledge their presence. Instead, he concentrated on carefully piling sand into his shovel, until it was full and smooth and level. When he was satisfied, he dumped the sand into his pail and went to work on the next shovelful. He worked slowly, as though his life depended upon getting each grain of sand perfectly into place.
Theo recognized the signs.
The boy glanced up at Theo and stared. Theo wanted to say something like, “Hey, don’t worry. Life gets better. Someday you’ll have friends, be invited to join in their games.” But he didn’t like to lie, and so he just nodded and walked on.
From the corner of his eye—Theo was an expert at taking in the world from the corner of his eye—he saw four of his classmates sitting at one of the picnic tables, two guys and two girls. There was Sharon, the blond-haired class queen who had already done a modeling gig for a national magazine, and her boyfriend Josh, who was going to be president of the United States—and nobody laughed when he said it. Megan’s claim to fame was that her family was old-money rich; the family name made even the senior teachers regard the otherwise ordinary student with due respect and deference. Amir, the school’s token Muslim student, was Megan’s boyfriend and prize; her proof that she was interested in the big issues, like the refugee crisis and immigration, and wasn’t just another rich girl out for a good time.
Theo had had plenty of time to study his classmates from his seat in the back of the classroom. Not that he cared about who was dating who, or who had climbed up a notch on the social register and who had fallen.
“I’m invisible,” he whispered, as he passed by the picnic table and continued walking toward his home, pretending to ignore the other whispers, the whispers of his classmates.
“Theo! E-i-e-i-o!” Josh called out after him, singing the refrain from the children’s song Old MacDonald Had a Farm. He made some animal noises and the others laughed.
That burst of laughter hit Theo like a bullet in the gut. Not that he had ever been shot, but that was how he supposed it must feel: a shock of pain, followed by a gush of blood and emotion rushing through the body and threatening to spill out in an ugly mess.
When he reached the front door of his house, he shut it behind him with relief and waited in the entrance hall until his breathing quietened. While he waited, he listened. The house was noisy-quiet in the way houses are when no one is there. An old-fashioned grandfather clock, whose casing bore the inscription “It’s later than you think,” greeted him with the mournful news that a handful of seconds was escaping from its clockwork prison again. A short and optimistic clicking sound announced the air-conditioning was revving up for an encore performance. Before the rumbling began in earnest, Theo thought he heard a footstep in the hall upstairs. He knew it couldn’t be. He was the only one who used the upstairs bedroom. Since he was downstairs, he supposed it had been his imagination. Sometimes, though, he wondered if footsteps left an echo, which a house stored up and played back when it was lonely.
The kitchen had music of its own, but Theo was no longer listening. He was hungry and his thoughts were on food. A message was stuck on the refrigerator door:
Chicken curry is in the blue container. There’s leftover rice, or make yourself a sandwich. Dad and I have a university dinner tonight. We’ll be home around 10. Don’t forget you have a geometry test tomorrow. There’s a letter for you on the desk. Love, Mom
Theo tossed the message in the trash and went to the desk. He flipped through the mail, the usual bundle of bills and circulars. But nestled between advertisements for dental implants and lawn care was a white envelope with a return address that said Julliard School of Music, and Theo’s hands began to tremble. He had already been rejected from the two other top music schools he had applied to. Each day the letter from Julliard failed to arrive had been a day of renewed hope; maybe they were still reviewing his application, still considering him for one of the coveted spots. Maybe he would finally find a place—a community of like-minded people—where he fit in, where he could find happiness. But this envelope felt too light. It was too similar to the one-page harbingers of doom he had received from the other schools.
Theo tossed the envelope on the kitchen table. He would open it after he had fortified himself with coffee. He put on the kettle and removed from his backpack a bag of doughnuts he had bought after his visit to psycho-land. Figuring out the circumference of his chocolate doughnut could count as doing his geometry homework, he decided, while waiting for the water to boil. It would also help him delay the opening of the envelope for a few more minutes.
When he was finished eating, Theo rinsed the coffee mug and put it in the dishwasher, and then wiped the crumbs from the kitchen table. His mom didn’t like to come home to a mess.
He grabbed the still unopened envelope and went back into the hall, where he could hear the grandfather clock self-importantly announcing the hour.
“You only think it’s late,” he said to the clock, as he passed it on the way to the basement door. “I know.”
HALF OF THE basement was devoted to what Theo called the “Museum of Lamentables.” Sitting on metal shelves, discarded dressers and end tables, and a discolored ping-pong table, minus the net, was a collection of old TVs, computer screens, cassette and video players, and assorted speakers, along with shoe boxes filled with music cassettes and movie videos. There was even a record player and six large cardboard boxes filled with old LPs.
Like his father, Theo had a talent for fixing things. But the collection gathering dust and succumbing to damp was beyond repair: electronics waiting hopefully for a missing part that would never arrive, vinyl records that hiccuped over every scratch, tapes so stretched out of shape they could only crinkle and moan, instead of twist and shout.
Inside his studio it was different. There he had recreated a simplified version of a 1960s recording studio. Upholstered moveable screens decorated with vintage posters of once-popular rock groups camouflaged the gray cement walls. The musical instruments each had their place: piano, organ, drums, electric and acoustic guitars, and the most prized item in the collection, a real 1960s-era Mellotron, a forerunner of a modern-day sampler, which he had loaded with eerie, other-worldly sounds. Attendant microphones stood nearby. The mixing console and reel-to-reel tape machine for recording sat at one end of the room, ready to recapture a sound—less than perfect but more human because of those imperfections—which had been lost when music went digital. At the other end of the studio was an ancient but powerful stereo system equipped with floor-to-ceiling speakers. A dozen other speakers of various sizes were scattered about, ready to submerge the room in oceans of sound, if he wished. There was also lighting equipment—bright spotlights and colored lights on dimmers—to create different atmospheres, depending on his mood.
Theo had accumulated it all second- or seventh-hand when he was still young enough to dream. While a kid in middle school, he really thought he was going to be an amazing composer and performer, the one who would shake the dust off old-time progressive rock—oxymoron very much intended—and take it to new and stratospheric heights. Success would be his prize for all the loneliness he had endured, his revenge on all those who had hurt him. But by the time he was in high school he realized his music was missing “something.” There was a wall between what he wanted to compose—what he composed when he daydreamed—and what he was able to put down on paper. His composition teacher, a respected member of the local university faculty and a friend of his parents, had worked patiently with him, but hadn’t succeeded in getting Theo past the wall and into a place the teacher called “the magic.”
“It’s all a matter of finding the right person to guide you,” his teacher had assured Theo. “You know the theory of composition. You just need someone to take you to the next level. That’s what college is for. Get into Julliard or Curtis or Jacobs and you’ll soar.”
The Curtis Institute of Music and Jacobs School of Music had already rejected him. The subtext of the official language was easy enough to decipher: “Your music is second-rate, lacking the spark of magic that separates the run of the mill from genius.”
Theo sat down at the piano and placed the envelope from Julliard where the sheet music usually rested. He listlessly played a few scales. He knew, in his gut, Curtis and Jacobs were right. His music was second-rate. He could assume an air of aloof, cynical superiority while at school as much as he liked, but at the end of the day he didn’t have any talents that made him better than any of the other kids, who were at least normal. And since that was the case, there was no reason to prolong the agony. He grabbed the envelope and tore it open.
It was all over in a few seconds. He crumpled the rejection letter in his fist.
“I don’t care. I don’t care.”
But he knew he did care. It wasn’t as though he had a box full of dreams. Music had been his only dream. If he couldn’t do that—if he wasn’t good enough to do that—what in the world was he going to do with the rest of his life?
And how was he going to face his parents? He could already see the disappointment in their eyes. It was true that his “safe school” had accepted him, but so what? In his world, second-best was just another name for loser.
Theo flung the letter against the wall. He rammed his fist into the wall too. He wanted to smash things. He turned and surveyed the little world he had so carefully constructed, looking for something to grab. A failed composer-performer wouldn’t need all this equipment. He lifted an amplifier and prepared to throw it against the wall.
He couldn’t do it. It wasn’t the studio he wanted to destroy, he knew, but the wall inside him, the barrier that prevented him from connecting with people and feeling truly alive, the impenetrable partition that kept him trapped in his dead inner world.
Besides, there were other ways to destroy a dream, the practical side of him whispered. He could sell the stuff on eBay.
One corner he wouldn’t touch—at least not yet—was where lately he had been spending most of his time. It was equipped with a comfortable armchair, where he sat for hours every day after school, with headphones on, and listened to music from the 1960s and early 1970s—King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and, of course, the Moody Blues.
He collapsed into the armchair and kicked off his shoes. But he couldn’t sit still. There was an ocean pounding inside him, wave upon wave battering away at his hurting soul.
It wasn’t enough to fill his head with music; he needed to wrap his entire being in it. He wanted the sounds to wash over him and penetrate to the very core of his being, leaving him cleansed of the dirt of life—the disappointments, the anger, the despair.
While walking over to the cabinet by the record player, he spotted hanging on a peg an old gray woolen cape. It was a hand-me-down relic from the time his father had appeared in some medieval play, and Theo used to wear it for fun, while pretending he was a member of a famous progressive rock band. Theo put it on, not to pretend but to hide cocoon-like within its enveloping folds.
Theo took an album from the cabinet, Seventh Sojourn by the Moody Blues, and put the LP on the record player. While the opening notes faded in and grew louder, he switched on lights and control boards and turned up the volume of the speakers.
He also turned on the Mellotron and began to play. As his music became one with the song floating from speakers, he closed his eyes and breathed in the ethereal sound. A few chords later, he heard a snap, followed by a crunching noise.
“Great,” he muttered, opening his eyes. He took off the keyboard and removed the tape frame—the apparatus that stored the Mellotron’s pre-recorded tapes. He could see that a spring holding a loop of tape had jumped out of place. He tried to force the spring back in, but only succeeded in knocking out another one. “Thanks, pal,” he said to the tape frame, stuffing it back inside the Mellotron’s casing. “You’ve just put the finishing touch on a truly horrible day.”
He would fix it some other time, if he didn’t put the Mellotron up for sale before he got around to making the repair. While he looked around the studio for a suitable replacement instrument, Theo spied his glass harp sitting against a wall. He had loved playing it when he was a kid, thinking it was totally awesome that different notes on the musical scale could be produced by filling water glasses with different amounts of water. Later, he had regulated it to “kids’ stuff.” How much talent did it take to fill a glass of water and run your finger around the rim? But today he greeted the glasses like long-lost friends.
After moving the glass harp into a spotlight, he went to get a bucket of water. He tested the pitch of the glasses as he filled them, adding water to lower the pitch, spilling some out to make the pitch higher. When he had filled enough glasses to make a reasonable sound, he affixed a microphone to the gray cloak and began to sing along with the Moody Blues, who were still lost in their lost world, accompanied by the glass harp. Why not? No one could see him. No one could hear him. No one could laugh at him. No one could look at him with a disappointed smile and ask, “Where’s the magic?” He was alone, safe, a tiny speck in the universe floating in the Kingdom of Music, free from all worry and shame. He tuned up the volume of the speakers as loud as they could go.
As his touch upon the glass harp became surer, his movements became more flamboyant. He lunged and twirled and made the cape swirl. The spotlight blazed down upon him, blinding him to anything outside the circle of light. He was once again the Glass Harp King, performing for the universe, totally loved, totally accepted, totally admired.
The song swelled to its final crescendo. Theo swept his arm across the length of the glass harp and let the movement take him into a full spin of his body. As he did so, he knocked over the still nearly-full bucket sitting on the floor. The water swirled about his stockinged feet, before drifting down to an amplifier, but he didn’t feel it. All he could feel was the music.
Somewhere a switch popped. The record player’s arm screeched across the vinyl, shuddering to a halt. At the same moment, the lights went out. For a few seconds sizzling and popping sounds beat a rhythm in sync with sparks of light that flashed and retreated into the darkness. Then a booming whoosh thwacked the air and released a bitter billow of smoke.
Theo sank to the floor, the explosion inside his head vying with the one consuming the room around him. But somewhere beyond the gasping din, he could still hear the music.