Piano (Piece One of Five)

piano keyboard

gravicembalo col piano e forte

I am piano. I am a harp supine, encased in echo, felt, hammered.

I am piano but I sound loud. Say me soft: piano. piano. pianissimo. Still it sounds louder than forte.

I am the golf game of musical instruments: easy to play and impossible to master. I am the empress of orchestra.

I am stringed, percussive, wooden. I am the range of human sound, in cabinet.

At first it was no instrument to me. I never saw anyone play the grand piano in my aunt’s cold living room, in White Plains, New York. The room wasn’t really any colder than the rest of her Tudor house; it just wasn’t used, so it seemed cold to my five year-old self. It was the dark mysterious left turn from her front door. Everyone usually went right, through the dining room and den and breakfast room and kitchen, sometimes all the way to the back yard, where the playhouse was. Or maybe straight upstairs to the bedrooms, either the big one where my aunt and uncle watched The Tonight Show in bed, or one of my cousins’ rooms, with the two-doored bath that connected them. No one ever turned left into the fancy living room. Except me.

I hid in there. I crawled under the big black piano and crouched quietly when they looked for me. My uncle was a dentist, and he wanted to pull my front teeth, which were getting loose, and he said I could swallow them in my sleep, which frightened my mother so she said he could take them. But I never said he could take them. I hid under the piano, and loved it for sheltering me even before I learned what it could do.

Uncle Iz took my teeth anyway.

Years passed. Long years. Formative years. The next time I noticed a piano I was thirteen. Sure there had been others around, for Mr. Stone to pounce at or Madam Ortane to push on during my intermittent ballet classes, or planted like a tree in the corner of the stage in every school auditorium, but those were like armoires at the edges of my life: seldom noted, picturesque.

My family had ballooned from three to six and we had relocated to the West Coast. I no longer stayed with Aunt Esther and Uncle Iz and the cousins from my mother’s side; now we visited extended kin my mother called “The LA Contingent.” That was her term for my father’s four sisters and offspring.

There was an embarrassment of boys in that family. Not only had I and my parents been bombarded by my triplet brothers, but my father’s fecund sisters had only produced two girls. To counter the presence of my eleven boy cousins, I had no one except Camille and Judy.

It was almost corny, how precisely we three divided the feminine family honors of our generation. Camille, the oldest and dimmest, grew blonde hair and big tits; she took on the role of dumb tramp. Judy was a little younger than I and the baby in her family after five boys; she too was blonde, but it curled! She fell right into the role of cherub, and developed very smoothly into a dutiful (bitter) daughter.

My hair was brown, and straight until it frizzed with adolescence. I was neither voluptuous nor sweet. I tended to challenge rules and if I had to spend time with cousins I usually preferred the boys. And they preferred me.

Mark especially. Seven of the eleven were three years older than I. Mark was my favorite of that cohort.

Unlike the others, unlike even his older (born-to-be-a-cop) brother, Mark was smart. He was thoughtful, and interested in philosophy, ecology, and genetics. He was the only one of my cousins who didn’t own a gun. He supported my opposition to sport hunting. Together we admired our creative outputs.

For we were sensitive. I wrote protest poetry and he played the piano. With his encouragement, I even submitted, to real magazines that sent polite rejections, lyrics like “We’re all people, all human beings,/Black, yellow, white, red: all of one mold…”

Mark walked with me and talked with me, and it didn’t hurt that he looked like a lifeguard. He was tall and fit. He swam every day and his fair skin was tanned to a fine-pored gold. He was the only boy cousin with blonde hair, and it curled light against his forearms and thighs. He kept it short, so it was thick and springy around his face. He had a small nose and a wide mouth, and his smile revealed perfect white teeth.

When we visited him in LA, he played piano for all at night and for me in the afternoon. We swam in the morning, and then I watched his clean square fingers on the black and white keys. He aspired to compose then, but he played drills of Chopin. He made me notice how the piano works.

When he visited us in San Diego, he talked to my father at night and my brothers in the morning, but I usually had him for long walks every afternoon and longer talks after my parents went to bed. We spent so much time together that my parents and my aunt began to worry. We were at that age, after all. There were nervous jokes about first-cousin marriages, which I found silly and which seemed to offend Mark.

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