Bittersweet songs in the stairwell

    Photo by Emily Chow / North by Northwestern

    I open the door to my dorm room and set my stuff down. He asks me how my day was. I don’t know where to begin. I consider debriefing him, but decide it’ll take too much effort, so I lie, and I tell him it was good. He asks me if anything major happened, but I’m already committed to my lie so I have to tell him no. I ask him how his day went, and he replies with the same old, same old, you know. I don’t know, but I don’t let him know this. I nod, and I say cool, confident that this lie session has sufficiently caught us both up on each other’s history.

    It’s overcast and I haven’t seen the sun in a week. The temperature’s been a steady 25 degrees and I’m always cold. It’s days like this that make me want to drop out of college. My classes drag on and on and I receive one bad paper after another. I begin to think that maybe I’m not cut out to compete at this level. Maybe I made a mistake in coming here, and I should just go back home. The trouble is I don’t even know where home is anymore.

    Later that night, I’ll come back to the dorm after dinner with literally hundreds of pages of reading and other homework to do in the next few hours. Climbing the stairs, I hear a few stray noises in the air. My subconscious picks them up, but I block them out and keep walking to my room. The noises grow louder and more recognizable. Music notes, and chords. When I finally reach my room, at the far end of the unwelcoming hallway tucked into the corner, I identify the source of the music. A ukulele in the side stairwell.

    Sometimes I open the door and talk to my roommate. Sometimes I leave him be. I know he’s in his “happy place,” and I don’t want to take away one of the few joys he has in his daily routine. He plays in the stairwell because of the great “acoustics,” and so he can be alone with his music. Who am I to take away this luxury?

    This year has been rough on us all. His alarm used to go off at 6 a.m. every morning for crew practice, but lately he hasn’t had the strength to do it anymore. I don’t blame him. There are days when even I want to stay in bed all day long and forget about college.

    Which is why I’m glad he has the ukulele. It’s one of his few release valves in this world. Without it, he wouldn’t be able to deal. Hell, we all wouldn’t be able to deal.

    The ukulele only seems to play when I’m at my lowest point. I’ll be having a pretty good week and I won’t hear a single note. But then things will start to go south, and I will fall deeper and deeper into this pseudo-depression, until I feel like I’m at my breaking point, and sure enough, without fail, I’ll hear it once more in the stairwell.

    The ukulele is bittersweet. It sounds like all of the saddest parts of a guitar, isolated and raised up an octave. And the strings are out of order, too. You want to hear a sequential string of notes, each string rising in pitch, like a familiar instrument, but it robs you of this luxury, presenting a disjointed and confusing pell-mell of notes you need to sort out before you can appreciate them.

    It’s often how I gauge my week – a good week is sans ukulele. When I hear it, though, it brings me back down to earth and makes me realize that life can really suck sometimes. I’ll hear it and think, well hell, there’s the ukulele, I might as well just give up now.

    It’s akin to crashing your car into a hospital. The ukulele makes you realize that you’re bottoming out. This realization is soul-crushing, and often it makes me want to cry, but then I realize that there’s nowhere to go now but up. The ukulele reminds me that life goes on, and undoubtedly gets better. Often, this hope that things will get better is enough to drag me out of the depths of depression and start my life anew.

    Even the songs he plays on his ukulele illustrate this fact. He has a wide library of music, but he has two masterpieces he’s poured his heart and soul into learning. He often plays them back-to-back, and when I hear them, it encourages me to fight on and overcome this week, knowing that if I can possibly make it through this one final day, tomorrow will be the dawn of a new age.

    He plays “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” followed immediately by “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

    The first song is a metaphysical meltdown, unbearably sad and making me think that maybe I should just go back home. It’s a horrifyingly sad song to begin with, and hearing it played up an octave, on a ukulele, is something to behold.

    It’s the second song, though, that makes it all worthwhile. He’ll play in the middle of a blizzard, when there have been no rainbows or bluebirds flying for weeks. It’s this song that convinces us all to carry on, that life gets better, and that happiness is waiting for us all just over the rainbow. He plays for himself, but his music touches all of us. Without it, I honestly don’t know whether I’d be in this dorm room or back home right now.

    The song will end, and there will be a few seconds of silence. Sometimes I’ll ask him how his day was again, to see if anything’s changed in the past few minutes. His music has already told me the answer. He’ll nod and say same old, same old, you know, again. This time I do know. He asks me again, for the second time in minutes, how my day was. I try to tell him the truth, but usually I end up lying to him again, saying it was good. I keep up the façade that on the outside, nothing has changed and everything’s good.

    I think he knows what’s real and going on inside my brain. Just as he has his ways of coping, I have mine. As long as he keeps playing his blues, I’ll keep listening. And with the help of the ukulele, we’ll all get through this hell one day at a time.


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