The Observer

Hayden Froehlich

I followed a pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming in the Atlantic. They filled the blue void with clicks and squeaks. The powerful strokes of their tails stirred the water and made the sunlight wobble as they attacked a silver hurricane of sardines. I lost all sense of direction as they dove in, out, and around the swarm. There was a little pulse of pleasure each time they caught one.

I watched my great grandmother gaze at the shimmering, promising horizon from the deck of a Danish steam vessel. Her left hand held the rail while her right kept streamers of ebony hair out of her face. Those calloused hands would become veined and soft yet strong enough to strike piano chords and teach me to do the same. She watched dolphins dance in the wake.

I traced the notes of her favorite etude back hundreds of years to a private salon in mid-eighteen-hundreds Paris. The chortling conversations, critical debates, clinking glasses of finest wines, and rustling of delicate fabric fell silent as Chopin sat at the piano. When he played, it wasn’t that he attacked the keys, they seemed to cling to him, relishing every blinding arpeggio or stunning chord. He could yell, whisper, dance, question, or melt with the notes. It seemed everyone had forgotten how to exhale. It had been a while since I hadn’t felt alone in that.

I glided behind my children on the walk home from school. Leo plaintively sent his soccer ball tumbling across the concrete every few steps. Libra was trying to engage him in an earnest conversation about world hunger. I could feel the strength of her conviction. She’d done so much research for today’s presentation. My nine-year-old son could only think of his own empty stomach.

I watched the woman who’d once married me through the final steps of cooking dinner. She sprinkled basil and black pepper onto the still bubbling mozzarella that coated her lasagna, arranged apple slices (with skin removed) on the edges of plastic Disney plates, and filled cups with cranberry juice, chocolate milk, and water. They gave thanks for the food, prayed for those poor children in Somalia, prayed for Josh’s arm to feel better, prayed for Mommy’s job interview to go well, prayed for Daddy to stay safe, and then they ate.

I followed a memory back to the hilltop coated with pine needles. My shaggy brown hair mingled with Cassie’s sweeping black hair like coffee spilled on ink strokes. Through trial, error, and references to the Big Dipper, she unveiled the constellations behind the smoky autumn clouds. She told me how to connect the faint dots to outline a bull, or a fish, or a pair of twins. I told her the birthdays of my favorite musicians, and she told me their signs.

I flew toward the light from the brightest star in her constellation, leaving the atmosphere behind. Didn’t need it. I passed the powdered surface of the moon and increased my speed. I could move in any direction, across any dimension, as fast as I wanted. Light-years passed by. As I grew closer to the brilliant explosive blue point, I noticed it wasn’t alone. There were two little stars waltzing with each other as the years elapsed. I watched them burn and boil. A triad of little gigantic infernos. The light would’ve been blinding. I didn’t have eyes to close. It was too quiet.

I watched the man with the peppery beard rummage through my apartment for the drugs I hadn’t paid for, smoking revolver still in his hand. He found the pills in the medicine cabinet, the Ziploc bag of crystals beneath the sink, and the rainbow-colored tabs in the book of Gershwin sheet music and my yellow composition book. He and his partner left. Climbed into their cars and just left. I followed the one with the peppery beard through the steamy, amber streets of my old city. He lived in a ramshackle house by the flyway of route 85. I followed him through the door, past the hook where he hung his jacket, to the tattered sofa where a young girl sat eating pretzels and watching Tom and Jerry. He sat with her in silence until the DVD ended. She kissed him goodnight and left. He rubbed his eyelids with both hands.

I watched a volcano explode in the Pacific with atomic force. The lava cooled into jagged black stone. Birds landed there, bringing seeds. The rocks were coated with green. I watched a fox wander through a city of oaks and a forest of concrete. I dove beneath the earth to watch a stalagmite grow steadily for centuries. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. One, two, three, four. . .

I tracked the melody that had hummed in my head since fourth grade until I finally learned how to write it on the first page of my composition book. It was always a sad but energetic flowing tune, like a snow melt mountain creek that knows it won’t last through the summer. I watched the little yellow book accrue tentative pieces. An experimental sonata, a passionate serenade, a furious dirge, a broken lament. It was placed with a tremble on church and school grand pianos, ruffled in backpacks, thrown across the room, yet always kept tenderly with the other compositions. I watched as the notebooks were taken from the crime scene that my apartment became and given to Cassie. She piled them all quickly into a plastic bin and stowed it in the attic where they couldn’t hurt her. I watched the bin collect a centimeter of dust.

I followed Cassie, who’d once married me, as she sped into the peaceful predawn, away from our latest fight. It was about either the job interview I missed or the hallucinogens that made me miss it. The cedars streaked past in her tunnel of headlights. God, why did I make her go so fast? She nearly crashed once when she furiously wiped away tears and drifted into the next lane. I was relieved when she stopped on the shoulder to weep onto the dash. The relief didn’t last long. Her sensation of betrayal added to my guilt. I wanted to comfort her. Tried to tell her that I knew how wrong I was. I tried to force that sentiment to blossom in me and flow to her. Did I make her tears slow? Did I help her exhale? No. No, she was recovering on her own. Cassie is stronger than I am. I am nothing. I can see anything, go anywhere, but do nothing. I left.

I observed the missions to Mars and watched new human colonies bubble up on the red surface. I flew with a monarch butterfly on its trek across the Midwest, flower by flower, to a forest draped with orange and black wings. I watched Bangalter and Homem-Christo don their silver and gold helmets and set a crowd of thousands dancing to their electric elegies. I heard the thunderous applause that Beethoven could only see. I followed a maple seed catch a breeze and tuck in a knoll until it created a thousand trees. Yet these moments were all empty.

I followed the progress of a single perfect snowflake from its tumbling escape from the cloud to its helixing flight before landing delicately on my old windowsill. Behind the glass lay a warmer waking world filled with cheers and chuckles. A deluge of glossy presents was spread beneath our tree. I watched myself and my brothers unwrap familiar gifts. There was the copy of Super Mario Bros. that Stewart would play with his sons, there was the Tonka car Isaac would lose on our camping trip, there was the keyboard, hidden in that corner, that I would cling to for the rest of my life.

I decided to visit my children’s Christmases. Libra celebrated with friends in a hotel in South Africa before leaving to serve pancakes and quiche to over a thousand. I then followed her merry evening phone call to her brother’s snowy home in Montana. He had five kids now. A reader with her new sci-fi novel, an actor with his new vampire costume, a napper with his new lion Pillow Pet, a gamer with his new puzzler, and a musician with something much older. A composition book with yellowing pages. She opened it, placed it on the piano, and the melody that had been stuck in my head since fourth grade poured from the strings. That couldn’t be possible. I almost remembered how to inhale.

I followed the notes back again. The trills and chords were ringing from pianos, radios, and headphones across the world. Spreading, growing, gaining hundreds upon thousands of listeners. They made people smile while crying, gazing out train windows into thunderstorms, or made their eyes close as they coaxed the melodies from keyboards. They found them. The world found them. I had written the melodies that seemed to know what I was feeling in those moments. The moments she warmed my hands in the winter. The moments when I sat alone in the midnight fields behind my childhood home. The moments when I felt full and had to let the surplus emotion dance in a song. Had they really been worth something? It was incredible to see so many understanding my voice for the first time, but I wanted something more. They said the notes carried emotions across the years, and I needed to send a message.

I found my former self in a huddled, chemically crazed heap over the keyboard at one of many terrible 2:30 a.m.’s. I drifted to his side and poured it all into him. The remorse, the longing, and the emptiness I’d felt for lengths of time neither of us could understand. Now I drove him to seize this possibility. I can fill this void. He stirred. We can become more than a husk again. He blinked away the dried tears. But you have to sing louder than ever before. He pulled himself upright, and started playing, writing, and recording. I made him see it or, at least, feel it all. The shoulder of the road, the burning of the stars, the snow, the children, the mistakes. He worked all night, weaving melodies, cadences, ebbs and flows. He titled it “Apology to the Autumn Sky” and collapsed. I followed the tune, protecting it, until it finally reached the hands of the little musician on Christmas who had a song to show her grandma.


Hayden R. Froehlich is an undergraduate cinema and creative writing student at the University of Iowa. Hayden explores his love of art and storytelling through writing, cinema, animation, and photography. What Hayden will create next is unclear to everyone including Hayden. Sometimes he writes or films stories about a time-traveling ghost musician, a pansexual superhero who can’t touch the ground, or a sentient stop-motion dry-erase sphere. His works explore themes of motion, emotion and work towards better inclusion for the queer community.