Tuesday, January 24, 2006

the piano

The piano was not mine. The piano was a gift to my mother, from my father, and it was a surprise.

I remember coming home with her to find it, the friends gathered in the living room-I recognized only my babysitter-how my mother cried. It was her birthday. She had always wanted to play. I was four so she must have been thirty.

The piano was an antique, an old upright player piano, dusty red mahogany with boxes and boxes of old scrolls, imprinted with brail notes for the piano to play itself. But it wouldn't play itself, as long as we wanted to manually play it, it couldn't be fixed. The keys were real ivory, and several of them were missing. We kept plastic replacements in a small wicker basket, but they never stayed on. I learned middle C because the ivory was missing, and the glue was dark brown.

I was the one who learned.

My mother took lessons-I remember. I remember because I was sitting on her lap. My sister was a baby, sleeping, and whenever my mother tried to practice, she would wake up and cry. I sat on her lap and banged on the keys all through the lessons.

Eventually they stopped.

I always played, but I played without knowing the notes. I played songs I heard on the radio, and then, starting about when I was sixteen, songs I heard in my head.

I have often wondered what my life would have been like if I had taken piano lessons at four. I started taking them at nineteen, in college. My teacher was a drunk, though I loved him, and he loved my fingers-long, long, long. Long as the music department chair's hands, and he was famous, and at my test, he asked me to hold up my hand against his.

There are many things I am good at, but not good enough at, and music is one. I am good. I was good, I know, but I am not good enough. I play the piano, and I sing, and I write songs, and I am good, but not good enough. Still I want it. I want it, I want it.

The piano is still in my parents' old house, in the music room, where no one goes. No one plays it but me. No one has played it since I left. It has moved stated five times. It left a giant, curved out scar in the wood floor of the present house. The bench cracked down the middle when Scott Clark sat on it during my sixteen birthday party. We lost all the scrolls, and the extra keys.

You cannot move it again the movers said.

I went to a college where every dorm had a piano in the lounge-a blessing. I played long into the night when I could not sleep, dozens of different pianos, some more in tune then others. The practice rooms in the music building were not locked.

I had my favorite: a Steinway baby grand. I visit it in the summer.

After we broke up, my college boyfriend told me he used to sneak into the lounge late at night, and sit behind me, and listen to me.

In grad school, I rented an expensive, cheap-sounding upright for two years. I played in the afternoon, when light slanted across the keys. Sound carried, so I played only when the neighbors were gone.

I loved a drummer who learned what I loved. He hooked up an old organ in his basement where his real band played, and a microphone and amp, and while he made dinner, upstairs in the kitchen, I had little concerts in my head. Sometimes we played together, but I don't know how to count. I'm hard to follow. I can't even follow myself.

For Christmas a few years ago, I was given a beautiful silver stage piano with weighted keys-as close to the real thing. But not the real thing. I played in Gettysburg in my hot attic room. I drove it all the way to California, precious space and weight in my over-packed car, through Ohio and Missouri, salt flats and plains.

It's packed in a box at the foot of my bed, though I have not taken it out.

Last night, at a reception after a poetry reading, I wandered through halls, looking for the bathroom, past the cloakroom, and there it was: an open, untouched grand. I heard it whisper.

I've written so much about this, so much more than I planned, and I can't seem to get at what it means to me. It's a gift, but it hurts. It's something I can't quite touch, can never touch. It's a life that could have been mine, but wasn't. And I love it, but it makes me so sad because I feel its distance. It's there but it's over there. I can never do what I want to. I'm too old. It's too late. I've forgotten the notes on the base clef. It occurred to me the other day, I'm forgetting the treble clef as well. The melodies I hear, I don't write them down.

Ephemeral. It ends with me. Until then, it is a comfort, a bubble, where no one can touch me, where the world falls away.