Palo Alto Weekly 29th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Teen

Ivan and Natasha

By Deiana Hristov

About Deiana Hristov

My piano teacher always looks at compositions as more than just a pretty progression of notes: She sees them as stories of love, of loss, of heartbreak. In the scattered notes of Khachaturian's "Ivan and Natasha" she saw the story of two young lovers' turbulent relationship. So when, after an hour of piano practice, I sat down to write a story for the Weekly, my mind immediately went to the story of Ivan and Natasha.

I just finished my freshman year at Gunn High School. My favorite classes include history, journalism and biology (although not the part of biology when we have to dissect a fetal pig).

I am part of my school's newspaper The Oracle, which gives me the opportunity to write multiple stories each month. Outside of school I enjoy playing piano, reading and listening to music. I would like to give a special thank you to my piano teacher, Olga de Maine, for all of the love and support she has given me, and all of the things she has taught me about piano.

 

Judge's comments

Beautifully woven piece -- story and music; ambitious and well done; writer states "but playing the piano is like storytelling: the reading of the words isn't what's hard, it's bringing the words alive." The writer depicts a tricky relationship with accuracy and care. And it is a great idea -- superimposing modern details on an old, old story.

"Don't stress," my piano teacher says to me as I cover my face with my hands. Only two days before the performance and I keep botching my piece. "You know the music. I've heard you play beautifully. Just forget the audience. Just play. Start again."

I place my hands on the keys. Khachaturian's "Ivan and Natasha" is not difficult technically, but playing piano is like storytelling: the reading of the words isn't what's hard, it's bringing the words alive.

I start gently.

Two young lovers, trying on this new feeling, walking around the park as the sun kisses the horizon, painting the clouds in pink and orange. They amble, sometimes talking, sometimes just admiring the flowers and the dying light filtering through the trees.

Occasionally, their knuckles brush, oh so innocently.

He's so sweet, she thinks.

She's so pretty, he thinks.

A bud, blossoming.

I put more pressure on the keys. Soft Discord.

She starts to notice the dirt under his nails, how he interrupts her if she's been talking for too long, that his front teeth overlap.

He thinks she spends too much time trying to look pretty. When she goes without makeup, he thinks she looks plain.

Both cover their thoughts with plastered smiles.

The melody intensifies, spiraling upward, louder and louder. The sharp notes sting my ears, whip my face like little stones.

It starts small. Maybe he forgets their six-month anniversary. Maybe she doesn't call when she says she would. The bubbling tension has itched under their skins for too long now, and it erupts, a black ooze, slowly submerging them.

She starts to cry, which he hates, voice hysterical as she screams.

He clenches his jaw into that smirk that always makes her feel so, so small. The louder she screams, the broader his smirk, until her shrieks are reverberating through their flat and his smirk contorts into a hateful sneer. Any good feeling they ever had for each other is drowned in hateful accusations as they lash out.

He grabs a duffel bag from a closet and storms through the flat, grabbing as many of his things as possible. She follows him, crying, yelling, begging, pulling at the bag, but he pushes her away. The space of the flat seems to shrink until she feels like she is suffocating in his anger, finding herself gasping for breath.

She falls to her knees, everything blurred from her tears.

The last thing she sees before he slams the door is the black flame in his eyes.

Subito piano: the notes are meek now, and trickle down the keys in a twinkling chromatic scale.

Everything is so quiet, Natasha thinks, so peaceful when he's not here.

She turns on the radio.

On the way back to his flat, Ivan buys some wine. He doesn't mean to drink the bottle, but with her gone, there's no one to share it with.

He falls asleep with stained lips, curling towards her absent form.

A month passes.

Natasha keeps finding things he left behind around the flat. She collects them in a shoe box under her bed: so far, she's found 5 socks, a bow tie, and a framed photograph of him with his sister.

Sometimes, when he's drunk and drained, Ivan takes out his phone and hovers his finger over the call button for her contact. But he's never quite desperate enough to press it.

The next section imitates the beginning theme, but this time, I play it cleaner, smoothing over the mistakes I made at the start.

Like the first time, they meet at the park at dusk.

They sit across from each other on the cool grass, knees separated by a sliver of space, each looking at the ground, the sky, the trees, anywhere but at the other.

He clears his throat. "How have you been?"

"Fine," she says, not looking up.

A tense pause.

"Well," she says again with measured words "Not, like, great, but…"

"Yeah," he interjects, because he knows what she is feeling, has been living with it for the past two months.

"Yeah."

"I've missed you," he whispers softly.

She meets his eyes.

"I've missed you too."

A soft, calculated embrace.

The piece grows louder again, but faster and more controlled this time, before breaking like a wave.

They try again.

The shine from the first time is gone, but in a way, it's easier: they both agree it was exhausting keeping up a constant facade of passion.

They no longer feel the need to prove how much they care about each other. Now, both are satisfied to simply exist in overlapping circles, to feel the other's presence.

Their kisses are chaste but tender.

They no longer say "I love you."

Two heavy bass notes, like a heartbeat, then silence.

From the outside, their relationship is in perfect balance. Friends tell them how jealous they are of Ivan and Natasha's chemistry. Ivan is pretty sure his mother has already started planning the wedding.

So they smile, they hold hands, they pretend. When at home, they retreat to separate rooms. But pretending takes energy, and over time, both are too tired to hold on to the last wisps of their relationship.

When one day Ivan, from his end of the couch, shakes his head, gets up and gathers his belongings, Natasha doesn't protest.

He meets her eyes one last time before he closes the door.

- - -

For the past six months I've played, listened, and thought about this piece. I have Ivan and Natasha's story engraved on the tips of my fingers. But now, standing behind the curtain, I cannot recall the first notes. I try to drum it out against my thigh, but I can't remember if I play the second note with my third or fourth finger. Only then I realize my hands are trembling, my palms wet. I wipe them against my skirt.

"Next, Ivan and Natasha by Aram Khachaturian, performed by Claire Wallen," someone says, but it is as if I am watching this scene unfold through a window. The man on the stage is not calling my name. The "Claire Wallen" about to perform in front of hundreds of people is not me.

I can't feel my legs, I can't move. Then somebody coughs in the audience and I lurch forward, on legs that are not mine. The stage is illuminated, but the audience is draped in darkness, leaving only me and the piano. I seat myself at the instrument and position my hands above the keys. Inhale. Exhale.

With the coolness of the keys under my fingers, I start to play, and send Ivan and Natasha dancing across the stage.

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