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"Symphony No. 8 in E-Flat Major" • Gustav Mahler (by Michael McSweeney)

You scored tickets through your violin teacher. Boston, deep-glaze autumn, the ink-blot ruby sun on the crystalline Charles, 2004. With my driving permit less than two months old, I acted like a pro, hands ten-and-two, teasing the brake pedal of the last good car my father owned before the market manic-crumbled three years later. We spoke little as we inched down Storrow Drive and the traffic-barreled stop-light carnage of the Big Dig. You put your feet on the dash and said the whole world wanted to enter the city but couldn't figure out how to move in unison. 

The date was more my idea than yours. I was arrogant enough to believe that James Levine and his debut as the Boston Symphony Orchestra's music director, conducting Mahler's Eighth Symphony, the Symphony of a Thousand, could save us from the flashbang blast-and-fade of adolescent love.

I missed our exit and fuck-and-shit-swore the path to the next. You told me it was fine. As we rushed past brownstones you read directions to the car garage from a crinkled MapQuest page. You gripped my leg and laughed when I banged a uey and wrong-wayed a sidestreet back to the true and printed plan. Instead of a garage, we found a chain-linked lot, a paint-chipped sign for dirt-cheap space, and a toothless friend who took the cash and keys and set us loose beneath October stars. 

Boston is a beautiful place to be in love. Century sidewalks for holding hands. Tight alleys for cold-press kisses. We claimed a bench and passed a flask back and forth. You talked about studying music in college. Maybe in Boston. Maybe in Prague. How alive you felt in your dusty, sun-knifed practice room. You saw your future as eternal spring. I asked how you could be so certain about the path. You said one of your teachers told you how a musician might play a million notes in their life. How the violinists before you might've played a million notes. Maybe more. There's beauty, you said, in that lineage. A descendent of bow-hands, the ancestry of technique. 

I had no comparable ambitions. I wrote joke poems and sang in high school musicals. College was a distant threat, a thing to take you away. Worse was the feeling inside, a looming mix of stones and locusts, which would take years to define as anxiety. I was afraid, listening to you, and I was quiet with fear, sipping the last of our booze until it was time for us to stand and walk again. 

Inside Symphony Hall we loitered within a forest of tuxedos and sequined glissandos. A waiter approached and offered thin-stemmed champagne. We were wise enough not to provide our ages. We smirked and sipped bubbles of peach and nectarine.

The organ lorded above when we slalomed the crowd for our seats. You spotted a friend from your youth orchestra and squeezed my shoulder as you got up to say hello. I fingered my program and watched a robed choir, two hundred strong, board a set of triple-decker risers. 

You returned as the lights withdrew. Levine, the planetoid conductor, found his seat before the orchestra, baton in hand. Three thousand souls drew breath. Then, the organ's holy exaltation, the forceful Latin gust, the allegro impetuoso, the strong first gusts of Mahler's E-flat triumph. The symphony struck like sudden love, an existential gale, a supernova choir ecstasy that, just as its holy mania began to peak, was doused by water, a swamp of murmurs, furtive altos and tenors searching for light. German speakers now. Goethe's Faust, his soul, freed from Mephistopheles, pawing its way to Heaven, every song, every trio, hands to bear along a sound bridge. Until the final leap, the God of organ's declamation, sustain, sustain, sustain, silence, holy silence, a silence into eternity, until thunder and shouts and thirty minutes of applause, until you cried and looked at me.

You were still crying while we joined the crimson smear of traffic. My hands felt raw from the applause. You told me you were afraid you'd never be good enough to play like that, and I said you could, and you said you wouldn't let anyone stop you from creating something that beautiful, and I asked if that also meant me, and you said yes, and you said I should aspire to something just as great, and I said nothing. 

Michael McSweeney is a writer from Massachusetts. He lives online at @mpmcsweeney.


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