The winning story of the 2012 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest
July 5, 2012
Jul 5, 2012
29 Min read time
This is an astonishingly moving story about a young Chinese American lawyer who inadvertently becomes entangled with a tragedy in the life of her suburban next-door neighbor. With an admirably understated style, the tale avoids sentimentality and focuses on the needs of both women. One has a history of piano lessons that have come to not much, while the other happens to own an $80,000 instrument. Skillfully the writer has left “silences” in the tale where we can read our own emotions into the spaces where they might occur. In its low-key way, it observes the cultural clash between the two families and ends with something very close to a musical suspension, rather than a resolution. It is a pleasure to select as the winner of the 2012 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest.
—Samuel R. Delany
I was dreaming about the piano. Back in the Forest Hills apartment, I practiced while Ma was in the kitchen washing dishes. With my index finger, I pushed down middle C like it was a typewriter key, dum, dum dum, in a rhythm that syncopated with the running water and the fast back-and-forth scratch of steel wool on aluminum—my mother was scrubbing burnt garlic and sesame oil from the bottoms of pans. I played each note, alone and pure, in defiance of the sheet music in front of me. I knew as soon as her hands were dry that she would come in and flick on the metronome and flash me a glare that meant: “Ni gan ma! Mei you shi jian.” But I woke up before she finished in the kitchen.
It was cold in the bedroom. Still groggy from dreaming, I lifted my face toward the alarm clock. It read 7:22. Moving slowly into consciousness, I wondered what had woken me so early on a Saturday. I stood up quickly, pushing the covers aside, and my head swooned. Daryl would sleep at least until ten. His mouth hung open as if it had broken at the hinges, and he snored softly and regularly. My dream had been in Chinese, which was rare. Standing still beside the bed, I felt the cold from the wood floor (which had yet to be carpeted because Daryl and I couldn’t agree on a color) rising from the soles of my feet up through my legs. I went toward the center window and pulled back the chiffon curtain. The sky was a sharp metallic blue and the top of our car was white. The black railings that snaked up the neighbors’ front stairs were white. It had snowed.
The move was recent enough that occasionally I still had to remind myself where I was, especially on the mornings when I went straight to the window while my dreams, untangling themselves from the reality of waking, were like smoke hitting sky. There was a part of me that still expected to be six stories up and to see the dirty apartment building across the street with a Mexican flag hanging from one window, flapping like a patriotic tongue in the wind. One day, I thought, this view would take no time to register: these neat rows of shingled houses and this straight road that measured the distance from city to country, each of the houses a tick on the ruler. There was something so pleasurable in this symmetry: so uncomplicated and easy.
As I looked outside, my eyes still too tired to focus on details, the little Jensen boy—he couldn’t have been more than eight or nine—came bounding down the front steps of the house across the way and stopped abruptly on the last stair. He yelled something to the inside of the house that I couldn’t make out. His mother came to the door. She held her bathrobe tight around her body with one hand and propped the screen door open with the other. Her mouth opened and closed in what could only have been some kind of reprimand, and the boy trudged, head hanging, back up the stairs and into the house. Before the screen door had swung fully shut, the boy re-emerged with a hat on and a snowsuit buttoned up all the way to his face and his arms protruding from his sides at 45-degree angles.
This image was something that many years ago I might have put in a story, but I hadn’t written one in ten years, since before I went to law school. Since then, I had learned to find beauty in tightly crafted analytical argument. The building where I worked—a soaring glass tower, the tallest on the block—was the perfect manifestation of that lawyerly language. Men and women in suits arriving at the same time and leaving at the same time. It was clean, seamless: Why would it be any other way? It felt right to be part of it and move in and out, not only of the building, but of meetings, manila envelopes, open and closed cases, and from week to weekend and back again. Even the commute, which put more distance and timetables between home and work, made sense in the same way that an introduction and conclusion bookend the body paragraphs, and I felt better off for it.
The boy was busy in the small patch of front yard, which was probably no more than fifteen feet long and five across, bordered in the front by a white picket fence. He was making small snowballs and lining them up in a row. The snow was giving him some trouble—it was the dusty kind, not good for packing—but he had made six already and was working on the seventh. He looked nothing like his father, a thick-necked, irritable man whose first name I didn’t know.
Daryl and I had never met Mr. Jensen, but we had seen him more than we had seen anyone else on the block, as he traipsed from house to house to make complaints or throw mail that wasn’t his on neighbors’ doorsteps. The first time was on the evening we moved into our house. After the last truck was emptied, just as the light outside was beginning to fade, Daryl and I were looking out of the downstairs window. An early frost was beginning to settle, and apprehensive housewives were taking in their potted plants. The smell of wood smoke was in the air. I was starting to feel some sense of relief because we were away from the noise and grime of the city—I remember the specific moment when that feeling dawned—and just then Mr. Jensen came bounding out of his house and pounded on the door of an older couple. A frumpy, bearded man opened up.
Mr. Jensen’s voice was loud and clear; we probably could have heard it even with the window shut, but Daryl cracked it open just in case (also a lawyer, Daryl has always loved litigation). “If you don’t keep your god-damned dog off my god-damned lawn, I swear to God I’ll report that new room you just built—you know what I’m talking about, don’t act like you don’t.” The man’s expression had hardly changed. In fact, he looked almost bored. “I know the head of the Buildings Committee and I’ll report you faster than you can say—” Mr. Jensen hesitated, obviously thinking of something that was fast to say, “—faster than you can say ‘fast!’” The man shut the door and Mr. Jensen left. Night was falling and geese, high in the clean air, were heading home again. “Welcome to the suburbs,” Daryl said, yawning. He shut the window. Together, we went upstairs.
Mr. Jensen’s voice was loud and clear, but Daryl had cracked the window open just in case.
Three months later, I wiped the windowpane clean of condensation from my breath and watched the Jensen boy at work. He had fine features and a high forehead, and his hat kept falling down over his eyes. He pushed it up with his gloved hands, wiping snow that had melted down his eyebrows and nose. I wanted to wake Daryl, to show him this first snow in our new home, but I knew not to; we avoided scenes with children because we disagreed on the matter, at least for the moment. I had never played in the snow as a child. Now and then I suppose I must have, but, living in Queens, my footsteps were never the first to mark a perfect sheet of white, and, as Ma had constantly reminded me, you could never be sure what was under the snow you picked up. There had been a snow day once when I was in middle school. They announced on the radio that all public schools were closed, but my mother made me take the bus across town and walk the ten blocks in the morning just to be sure.
The boy had eight snowballs now, which he had lined up like an arsenal of cannonballs in a row along the fence. After finishing the last, he stopped, stood up, and took a step back to consider his work. For an instant, there was something funny in his expression, a certain tightening, and then it relaxed and his body relaxed with it, toppling to the side into the snow. On the ground, his body started to shake in quick, sharp, seizing jerks. His hood fell back and the hat slid off into the snow. My chest tightened and any residual sleepiness quickly vanished. By the time I was outside, the boy’s body, which I could only make out as a series of green stripes through the white slats of the fence, was still.
Tripping across the road in the big boots, I thought of what his mother would think of me when she opened the door. The sky was shockingly bright and blue, and I blinked as my eyes struggled to adjust. How surreal life can be in the moments when it is most important to be alert. I rang the bell, my heart racing, and Mrs. Jensen opened up. Her face worked to fix itself as soon as she saw it was me.
“Good morning,” she said, more like a question, drawing her robe tighter around her waist.
“Your son—” the first words I had spoken all day left my lips no louder than a whisper, as I extended my arm to point at the boy. Mrs. Jensen slid past me and rushed to him before I could even turn back to face her. She crouched over her son, touching his face and then shaking him. One of his mittens fell off and his small hand rested palm-up in the snow. It struck me as so unnatural, like a hand placed casually atop a burning stove. She began speaking to him, muttering something in between “wake up, wake up” and his name, Daniel, over and over. Her bare feet were as white as the snow.
“Is there anything I can—”
“Go inside and call the ambulance,” the woman whispered as if speaking to her son. For only a second, I didn’t move. “Go!” she looked up and shouted.
I went inside. Automatically, I began to remove my shoes at the door, but then I realized I had no socks, so I kept them on. My mother would have been appalled.
The layout of the house was very similar to my own, and I went to the kitchen, found the phone, and called 9-1-1. As I was hanging up, something in the living room caught my eye: a smooth, slick turn of dark wood. I craned my neck to see more, and it was, as I had thought, a grand piano. I never would have expected to find one here in this house. It was a heresy, really; I didn’t believe for a second that any member of this family had the ability to use this beautiful instrument to a fraction of its potential.
I must have been around nine when my Ma paid a homeless man to help us lug a broken piano she had seen on a nearby street corner (in New York, people are always leaving their trash on the street) into the service elevator of our building. A young guy that she knew from China fixed it up for us for free, or maybe because my mother had done him a favor at some point, and Ma reminded me everyday how lucky I was to have it. I got lessons once a week from an old Chinese lady with no teeth whom my mother paid in food. One of the first things I did when I got my first big paycheck at the law firm was buy her a new piano for her apartment. She smiled and thanked me politely but refused to throw out the old one. After a while and several arguments, I took it back.
Daryl and I had sold our upright when we moved from the city with the intention of buying a new one, a better one, but money had been tight with the new mortgage and taxes, so it had been bumped to the bottom of the list. This was one of the first times in my life that I didn’t have my own piano. I took a step toward the Jensens’ grand but then remembered the boy. I went outside, still wondering why on earth, and how, they had an $80,000 instrument. The woman was sitting butt-down in the snow next to her son with her hands clasped between her knees. I was probably ten years younger than her.
“He’ll be okay,” she mouthed almost silently, as if she didn’t want to wake the boy. Her eyes looked somehow sightless.
“I called the ambulance.”
“I’m going to go get dressed, but I’ll be right back.”
I turned and trudged back into my house. Just as I was leaving again, I heard sirens and saw the flashing lights of the ambulance as it turned onto our street. Men in white suits rushed out of the truck and over to Mrs. Jensen and her son. The driver, the man in charge, stood back.
There was something funny in his expression, a certain tightening, and then it relaxed.
“What happened here, ma’am?”
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Jensen said. “I don’t know, I don’t,” she repeated, and all of a sudden she was crying, and then she was sobbing and clutching the boy, digging her fingers into his snowsuit.
“I saw it,” I said from behind the men. One turned to me and two others busily unclasped the woman’s hands from her son and placed him on a stretcher.
“I saw him fall. I saw from my window. I think he had a seizure.”
“What exactly did you see,” the paramedic asked slowly, enunciating each word, as if I didn’t understand English.
“He fell and started shaking.”
“For how long?”
“I saw him start and by the time I was outside he had stopped. Between ten seconds and a minute, I guess.”
“Sounds like a seizure,” the man yelled to the other two men who were now lifting the stretcher into the ambulance.
“Your son should be alright,” he said to the pale woman, who was now standing up and watching them take her son. I hadn’t noticed when she had stopped crying. Her eyes reflected no light.
“Let me get some shoes on and I’ll come with you,” she told the paramedic.
“Why don’t you follow us in your car? That way you can take your son home when he wakes up.” That seemed to make sense to Mrs. Jensen and she nodded.
“St. Andrew’s Hospital. You know how to get there?” he added.
“That’s where Jerry went for his stitches,” she said, looking at me differently all of a sudden, like the three of us were having a conversation at a party.
“It’s very simple, ma’am, a right on Route 9 and then—”
“I said I know how to get there.”
The paramedic got in the ambulance and drove away. The boy’s mother stood watching and I stood beside her.
“I’ll get shoes on,” the woman said finally and disappeared into her house. I stood, unmoving, until she returned. She had pulled her hair back into a low ponytail.
“Let’s go,” she said, getting in her car, and I followed, knowing that it would be impossible to refuse. At first we were quiet. I followed the yellow dotted line on the road and watched it disappear under the car. I was sure the boy would be all right. People had seizures all the time. Someone at my office had epilepsy; he took drugs and kept it under control.
“So you and your husband just moved into the neighborhood?” she asked, eyes on the road. Her voice, steady now, sounded like it was made for barking orders and chewing gum. A Boston accent, maybe? Or perhaps she was just hoarse from crying.
“Yes, just a couple of months ago.”
“I don’t see you two around so much. You leave for work early or something?”
“Yes. I’m a lawyer. My husband, too. We’re both lawyers.”
The doctor smiled, clutching the clipboard to his chest like it was a winning hand of cards.
“Lawyers, the both of you? That’s nice. Did you meet in law school?”
“No, in fact it’s a funny story, he was interviewing me for a job.”
“Is that so,” the woman said. I waited for her to ask if I had gotten the job—that’s what everyone always asked—but she didn’t.
“Do you and your husband work?” I asked her.
“I don’t work. I used to, but I stopped when Danny was born. Jerry has a trucking business.” I didn’t know if this meant that he drove trucks himself or whether he just ran a business and other people drove the trucks, but either way I would tell Daryl later that Mr. Jensen was a truck driver because I knew it would make him laugh.
“So where are you from?” the woman asked me.
“We just moved up here from the city.”
“No, I mean originally.” I knew what this question meant.
“I was born in China but I’ve lived in New York all my life. I came here before I even turned one.”
“Oh, China. My sister took a trip to China last year. She said it was very beautiful.”
“I’ve never been,” I said. “Since I was born, of course.”
“But your husband, he’s not Chinese.” Her brow was furrowed as if she was trying to recall a complicated chronology of events. I was tempted to tell her that Daryl was Chinese, just to see if she would believe me.
“No, he’s not Chinese.”
There was silence again. The snow was already collected in dirty heaps at the side of the highway. As cars whizzed by, they kicked up the sludge and left watermarks on the sides of all the other cars.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t think I ever caught your first name.”
“Ann,” she said. “And what was yours?”
“Doreen,” she repeated in a whisper, as if she was trying to remember what the word meant. Ann had high cheekbones and a long chin, like a butternut squash, and lines like deep incisions cut from the sides of her nose to the corners of her mouth. I couldn’t imagine the scenario in which she might have met her husband, nor her feeling faint at the sight of his apple-like head. Despite efforts to distance the thought, I found myself imagining them in bed together, his wet mouth closing on hers, her thin, pale body wrapping itself around him, shivering with pleasure. The thought brought on a pang of nausea. I tried to focus on other things, and I remembered the piano.
“I couldn’t help but notice,” I began tentatively, “the piano in your house. It’s beautiful.”
“The Steinway? Yes, I love it.”
I had wanted her to say more, and I didn’t know if it was appropriate to pry. I gave in to myself and asked, “Have you had it a while?”
“Actually,” she looked like she was trying to count in her head, “it’s been over a year now. It was Jerry’s mother’s piano. She passed away and left it to her sons. Jerry’s brother got the house and we got the piano.” She chuckled and added, “I know, doesn’t seem fair, but we already had a house and,” she leaned over to me, shot me a quick glance, and said out of the corner of her mouth, “you couldn’t say the same for Ned.”
“I see,” I said.
The hospital passed us on our right and Ann took the appropriate exit. We saw the sign for the ER and followed the arrow up and to the right. Ann pulled into a spot, and we unbuckled our seatbelts, opened the car doors, and walked toward the hospital in a strange synchrony. We were directed to Daniel’s room by a nurse through a window with a sliding pane, like in a gas station. We rode the elevator up and counted numbers on the doors until we arrived at his. Daniel looked so small in the bed. His breathing was quiet and regular. I had never seen him close up before, and he looked like his mother in the shape of his face. He would be a handsome boy when he got older. The nurse who led us in said that Daniel’s doctor would be in any minute and that we should wait in the room for him to arrive.
Ann went over to her son and began to whisper. “Hi sweetie, hey Danny, it’s me.” Her mouth moved making words, her voice cracking only sometimes above the threshold of audible sound. A different nurse came back in, took the boy’s pulse with her fingers, and wrote something on the clipboard at the end of the bed. “The doctor should be right in,” she said.
Several minutes later, the doctor walked into the room and quietly shut the door behind him. He was a short, balding, Jewish-looking man.
‘You know what? I don’t think I’ve ever held hands with a Chinese person before.’
“Mrs . . .” he began, looking at the clipboard in his hands.
“Jensen. Ann Jensen.”
He extended his hand to her and she shook it.
“And you are—”
“Doreen,” she said. “This is my friend Doreen.”
“Good to meet you both. I’m Doctor Levy. I’m your son’s doctor, Mrs. Jensen. Daniel had a seizure, and now it seems like he’s in something like a deep sleep. The body sometimes does this when it goes into shock. Nothing to be alarmed about. We’re not sure what caused the seizure, but we’ll run a battery of tests when he wakes up. No need to rush things.”
“Why isn’t he awake now?”
“His body is still recovering from the seizure.”
“But it was only a minute or two, what is there to recover from? There was no accident, my son’s not an epileptic—”
“Sometimes kids have seizures, and to be totally honest with you, Mrs. Jensen, we don’t know why.” The doctor crossed his arms and I noticed that his fingernails were clean and short. I wondered what it must be like to touch the dying and the sick all day and then go home and touch your wife and kids. Ann was silent. She looked over at her son.
“My husband’s out of town on business, but he should be here as soon as he can. Maybe tonight.”
“Well, tell your husband to drive safe, Mrs. Jensen,” the doctor said smiling, clutching the clipboard to his chest like it was a winning hand of cards. “Your son should be just fine. I’ll come back in a couple of hours to check on him.”
The doctor left and I looked at the time on my cell phone: only a couple minutes after 9:30. I was about to tell Ann that I needed to call my husband—he didn’t know where I was—when she pulled her chair close to mine and, her eyes elsewhere, took my hand in her own. Ann looked down, head bowed, at our two hands clasped together like it was the most miraculous thing she had ever seen, like a shell in her son’s hand that he had found in the sand at the beach and was holding out proudly to show her. Her face was almost comic in comparison to what her expression had been minutes earlier, in front of the doctor. It felt inappropriate for that expression to be in the same room as her son; as she held on, I traced the line of the tube that ran from a glucose packet above his bed to a needle in his arm and hoped he wouldn’t wake up just then. Just wait five minutes, Daniel, I thought. Ann lifted her face to mine, “Honestly Doreen, I don’t think I’ve ever held hands with a Chinese person before. Isn’t that something?”
She shook her head like she couldn’t believe what she was telling me. Just as I was about to spit out some messy response she said, “You know what? I don’t think I’ve ever touched a Chinese person before.”
Ann was looking down again. I had a strong, deep gut urge to wrench my hand away from hers, but I looked at Daniel, asleep in the bed, and tried to ignore my hand. I remembered waking up in my bed that morning, under the covers, unaware of what would happen so soon after. I longed for that feeling, that ignorant warmth, of lying with my eyes closed next to my husband, knowing he was there and that it was a Saturday and there was no case file waiting on my desk. I remembered the Jensens’ house as it was with my morning vision, a simple white shape against the sky. And I thought of the piano, that beautiful, perfectly crafted thing, as out of place in its environment as my hand was in Ann’s.
“Listen,” I said after what seemed like a minute, “I really need to call my husband.”
I got up and my hand slid out of hers. Outside the room, at the end of the hall, I took out my phone.
“No calls here,” a nurse said as if I should have known better. I went to the elevator and rode it down.
In the waiting room, I called Daryl.
“Hello?” he had been asleep. I explained what had happened and where I was. When he asked if I needed to be picked up, I said yes. Please come. He said okay, fifteen minutes, and we hung up. A couple sitting across from me looked as if they had been awake for days. The husband was staring out into nothing, and the wife, who was right next to him, had a magazine in her lap and was flipping through the pages too quickly to read them.
A nurse walked by and called, “Dr. Caplan, a page for you!”
The father sprung up, his eyes suddenly wide, and the wife grabbed him at the legs like he was jumping off a building. “It’s not—” the wife began but stopped. When the man realized it was nothing, he slumped back into the seat and started crying. I can’t remember the last time I saw a grown man cry like that, with his face in his hands. His wife put her arm around his back and turned her face into his side, which shook with quiet sobs. The doctors and nurses and everyone else just kept rushing through the hall, and the man’s crying was overwhelmed by the sound of clicking heels, muffled conversations, the bell of the elevator. I got up and waited for the elevator, and when it came I got in and pressed floor five. I watched the doors close on the couple, still exactly as they were, and I felt an ache deep in my stomach move up into my neck. I swallowed it down and felt it pass.
I dared myself not to look down and see the snowballs, lined up perfectly, exactly as the boy had left them.
Back in the room, Ann’s eyes were red and wet. I told her that my husband was coming and that I needed to wait downstairs. “Call me, please, and let me know how Daniel is,” I said. I gave her a card that read Doreen Wang, J.D., home: 914-588-6089. Ann said she would call. When I got downstairs, the couple was gone.
I waited outside for my husband despite the bracing cold, and was thankful for the brisk air. It was a beautiful, clear day. I saw the gleam of our grey Nissan advancing. Daryl, still dressed in pajamas, leaned over to unlock the broken passenger door. I got in the car and kissed him on the cheek. He looked concerned, and I smiled.
“It’ll be ok,” I told him. “The doctor said he was just sleeping.”
“I can’t believe I didn’t wake up when you left,” Daryl said.
“It’s fine,” I said and smiled to show him it was. He started the car and we drove home together.
At home, I made breakfast—eggs and bacon and toast—and we ate together and read the paper. He kissed me on the top of the head and said he was going running.
• • •
Later that night, Daryl and I watched TV in bed and turned off the lights a little after eleven. I was asleep when the phone rang at 44 minutes past three, but I reached over and answered automatically.
“He died.” Her voice was thick and heavy, like she had said the words enough times that they no longer meant anything at all. “I guess it was an hour ago. They said it was an aneurism. Something that didn’t show up in the scans.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have anything to say. My voice was caught in my throat, and my heart was beating so fast I thought the blood might burst. Ann kept going.
“Life changes in an instant, Doreen,” she said with a cold finality. She breathed heavily through the phone and swallowed once so onerously that I thought she might be choking. “Thank you for coming today.”
“No, I mean, of course. You’re welcome,” I stammered.
She kept breathing.
“If there’s anything else I can do, please—”
Then Ann started crying. I couldn’t tell at first—at first, the breathing went quiet—but then I was sure. This was real anguish. Finally, she stopped, and got her breath back in order, and sniffed and coughed and cleared her throat. “Thank you, Doreen,” she said. “Goodnight.”
Ann hung up at the last sound; her tongue tapped the roof of her mouth almost in tandem with the cla-chunk of the call ending. I held the phone to my ear not knowing what to do with it. I didn’t know him, I said to myself. It could have been any boy, dying in Palestine, or Darfur, or Queens, even. It could have been anyone. Then I felt Daryl’s hand on my hand as he took the phone from me and put it back in the receiver with the same care you would use to place a sleeping baby back in its crib. He touched my cheek and I wanted it off, but I wanted him there, too. I had been the last one to see Daniel’s eyes.
“I’m so sorry, Dor,” he whispered. I wanted to tell him that he wouldn’t even have been able to pick Daniel out of a class picture, but who was I to think that? I had never even spoken to the boy myself.
“I need to go for a walk,” I felt my mouth saying.
“Are you sure?”
I got out of bed and started putting on sweatpants. “Can I come?” he asked.
“No, I just need to go. I’ll be back soon.” I touched his hand and left.
• • •
The snow had developed a thick skin of ice and my boots made a loud crunching noise with every step. The moon was a thin sliver, but the sky was clear and surprisingly bright. The air was cold and crisp and it felt all mine. I stepped into the road and looked up at the stars, there were so many, and then I remembered something, or maybe it was that my mind caught up to my body. I crossed the street and walked up to the Jensens’ door. I dared myself not to look down and see the snowballs, lined up perfectly, exactly as the boy had left them. That would have undone me. There was no car in the drive. I tried the handle and it opened. I have always hated scenes in movies when characters knock and no one answers, so they go inside anyway; usually the killer is waiting for them in the kitchen. But this scene was my own and it felt safe.
Inside, the house was dark. As I was slipping off my boots, I noticed a small pair of tennis shoes next to the door. One was propped on top of the other, like he had taken them off quickly without using his hands, pulling off the heel of one shoe with the toe of another. I bent down and fixed them so that they sat flat, one next to the other, just as they must have looked in the store where they were bought.
I walked carefully into the kitchen. Everything was clean and in order; from the moonlight coming in through the window, I could make out swerving lines on the countertop left by a wet sponge. Their fridge was new chrome and seemed out of place next to the white cabinets and drawers. Finally, I let myself look to the next room, and there it was. Its top was propped up, and, in the dark, it looked almost like a sleeping animal, wings folded on its back. I stepped from the linoleum floor of the kitchen onto the plush surface of the carpet. I pulled out the seat, sat down, and opened the cover to expose the keys, as crisp and white as sharp, clean teeth.
My memory opened itself and I was flooded with metronomes and forced practices; my mother rapping the wall with a wooden spoon to keep the pace. Kuài dien, kuài dien, kuài dien, she chanted with each beat. I put my fingers down, spreading them to make a chord, and pushed down only slightly with one finger on one key, so slightly that no sound came out. Then, I played the note out loud. As it rung through the house, it sounded like a church bell, full of purpose and reason. I put my ear down onto the instrument as if I were listening for its heartbeat.
My eyes were closed and I began to play. I played what I knew, what I remembered, and maybe some things that I didn’t. I played note after note packed tightly one after another like snowballs, gleaming blue in the moonlight, frozen into one another and into the hard ground. I thought of what my mother had given up to bring me to this country. I thought of her hand on my forehead when I was sick and her clammy palm smacking me awake before school. I thought of Daryl, of what he wanted and what I refused to give him. And I thought of Ann, her hand touching mine, and I played through a sharp anger that burned my tongue and lived always in my stomach.
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July 05, 2012
29 Min read time