There are pictures of me in every album, at every age: fluffy white-blonde hair sprayed into submission, floral dress over white tights or frilly socks and black mary janes, smiling at the camera with the black and white keys of a piano stretching to my left. In some, I bow with my knees locked straight. In others, my face is in profile while my hands lay static on the keys. Sometimes there’s a patient smile on my face as I look up from the bench, that my song has been interrupted by someone I’m fond of for pictures.
Piano was a religion for me. 3 hours a day, waking up in the mornings before school to sit and force my muscles to remember that tight, fast fingering on the right hand in in Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turka; or stretch my left palm a little farther to get a cleaner octave in Joplin’s Entertainer. I spent hours poring over theory books and listening to intervals.
It centered me.
And then I was doing it less. And then I wasn’t doing it at all anymore, my fingers putting up a revolt when I tried to pick up a piece after six, maybe eight months absence.
I missed it less than I thought I would, though I still missed it.
“Do you remember?” Brian asked me about a month ago. “You once showed me a few chords on the piano. It seemed like it made sense. It seemed easy.”
It is both easy and hard.
“Would you teach me?” he asked.
I remembered, fifteen years ago, when I was thinking of giving lessons for extra cash. “Just get a book,” Christine, who had been teaching me since I was 4, said. “Work through it in order. Someone who wanted to be a serious musician would eventually need more, yeah, but you could definitely start someone off. And a lot of experienced teachers don’t take anyone who can’t read music. You’d be a great in-between.”
So I said “Sure,” to Brian.
We walked to a practice room at the college where Brian works. The music building is one of their oldest. It’s at the end of a tree-lined lawn, frescoes in the eaves of violins and flowers in a vase. Inside a tiny room on the second floor was a beat-up Steinway upright that was still mostly black. A grimy window looked out onto the quad beyond, the fronds of an evergreen brushing the panes. There was no place for a teacher to sit.
Our lesson went so quickly, I couldn’t believe it had been more than an hour.
I have never seen myself in someone I wasn’t related to. But last night it struck me with a vengeance, the way Brian gravitates towards foreign pianos even in public places now, wanting to feel the slick white keys under his fingers, to fool around with the notes for just a moment. The way he taps his hands on the table, a look of concentration on his face, both hands crossing at different times like they should. “I had a bad day, but I practiced tonight and I feel fine again,” he said last week.
I don’t know what changed, but I watched him sit there, the negative of the image I used to be: long denim-clad legs tucked over the pedals, the cowlick in his dark brown hair standing tall, the black and white keyboard stretching before him, look of concentration on his face. Somehow the universe seemed to re-orient itself into new tiers of importance. This was at the top. Not Brian, exactly, or even the piano, but the knowledge, the sharing we give to each other as we move through existence.
“What are you smiling about?” Brian asked.
“Nothing,” I said.