By Angela Yin
For the first and only time, I went an entire summer without hearing from her once. For three blurry months I languished, too busy sleeping until noon every day, too busy driving around in the smothering heat, windows down to flush out the smell of cannabis, too busy being not busy to even care.
But when Ms. Stollar returned from Hungary and called me right before school began, I was not surprised. As she rattled off the number of lessons I needed to make up with her before the impending competition, I propped my Schubert book onto the thin piano stand with one hand, and folded back the stiff binding. Thema, it read on top, above the first measure. Then underneath it, in a bolder, more commanding print, Andante. Crescendo. Diminuendo. Mezzo forte.
She asked me if I’d made the improvements I’d promised her a summer ago. Of course, of course, I replied before hanging up and beginning to play for the first time in three months.
It was easier than I’d expected, at first. I revived the inky notes of the waltz and allowed them to revive me. Yet hard as I tried, I couldn’t hear it all—my five senses were woefully inept. The notes were always within my fingers’ reach even when I thought they would tumble and flounder. There were breaks and wrong notes, but as long as I didn’t think too much, the music came.
Disjointedly, I finished the final stanza, holding the chord for its full four beats. As unfamiliar as it was playing the piece with the sheet music, the real challenge would be to take it away.
I started over. This time, midway through the first page, my rhythm scattered. I could never stay in sync with the metronome. Schubert’s Austrian men and women attempted to keep beat with the music but tripped over their own feet, stumbling, their wigs falling lopsided off of their heads. I barreled on, and by the fourth variation, they crashed completely. My hands started running a three legged race, and I began slipping, becoming buried under notes that were turning reckless and chaotic. I kept going, allowing myself to be drowned in the flood of music, and tried to suppress my knee-jerk reaction to arise for air.
And so it went.
For the next three weeks, I practically lived in front of my piano, watched the light reflect off of the golden script that spelled out “Yamaha”. Sometimes I played the entire fourteen minute piece through over and over again, ten, fifteen, twenty times, and it would feel like I was closing a door to a room saturated with warm light. In it, I could stare out of a window, rocking peacefully in a roomy chair. Other times, the music possessed me to listen to every note, so that the soprano could burn burn burn like a dancing star with no sign of ever going out. This was the sort of attention I would give each individual measure, until my muscles snapped and I had no choice but to stand up and walk a few laps around the living room.
In those weeks, I was filled with self-loathing. In those weeks, it was never more apparent that I was talentless. I just wanted to say fuck it and roll into bed and forget about piano, but I knew I couldn’t because even in sleep dead composers visited me and argued with each other over the best way to play their pieces. So I’d tell myself to suck it up and to plant my ass back before the cold, unyielding keys. Often, I would sit there for a long time as my parents and brother passed me without a word or a glance, until my pale arms molded to the keys, and my dark hair weaved into the seat, and my legs wrapped around and intertwined with the legs of the piano.
The day of the competition, I didn’t bother going to school. I ran through my piece for hours, each press of my fingers releasing a warped sound, the delicate melody I knew in my bones buckling and tumbling before finally wrecking with a distorted screech and howl. The mistakes did not stop, and the mistakes were ones that I couldn’t recover from. Every time, I was forced to flip open my sheet music in order to pick up from where I left off.
My hands shook the entire time, and the piano trembled along with it.
Before leaving, I brought with me a hand warmer and a small cloth. Neither were dispensable, seeing as rigid joints and slippery fingers were lethal at piano competitions, not to mention unavoidable. A bag for vomit was crucial as well.
My father drove me. Him, and not my mother because my mother would become as nervous as me, her sharp tongue grinding and scraping against her filed teeth. My father, however, wouldn’t speak. He was a quiet man, and seemed to grow quieter every day.
I turned on the Bose radio, flipped to a classical music station. Mozart filtered through the static, his transcendent masterpiece arching high and dipping low.
Bleak desolation rolled over me. I urged myself to uproot my feet from the car floor, which seemed to be tugging me further and further into it. And quite suddenly, like it always came, it was upon me. The claustrophobic loneliness and indifference that weighed down my heart and my mind, muting everything, from my thoughts to my emotions to my hearing to my perceiving.
I rolled down the windows, felt the cool but gentle air sweep across my skin. Quite suddenly, an old Honda Civic painted a taxi cab yellow cut in front of us, filling our car with exhaust gas. My father let out a grunt as the driver accelerated, and I, a cough.
The odor was so strong I could taste it. I breathed deeply. It seemed to materialize on my tongue every time I swallowed. I tried to suck in as much of the gas as I could. Feeling a cough coming, I held it back until I choked, my eyes watering. Mockingly, my lungs were reminded just how painfully weak they were without oxygen, how it might not be as easy to breathe as I’d imagined.
That year, U.S. Piano Open was held in a church. In front of the main entrance sprawled a garden with neat, organized flowerbeds popping with pink and red and white; a thin stream cut straight through the tidy, green grass, with marble fountains spewing water in an elegant fashion. Lining the sidewalks were tall palm trees that led to the church. With golden, triangular cones capping off its five towers and blue lights frosting the granite exterior, the temple looked ethereal.
The church, however, was closed, and we competitors would not get the chance to fill it with Tchaikovsky or Wagner or Debussy. Instead, the competition was held in the series of low buildings that, while part of the church, lacked its splendor and prestige.
We entered the adobe-brick buildings through a side door, which opened up to a wide auditorium filled with rows of tables. “Qù huàn yīfú,” my dad said gently, leaning in so that I could hear him. The place was crowded, humid with everyone’s overwhelming tension, bustling with people in mid-rants about unfair judging. Sounded like home. “Wǒ qù guìtái.”
I nodded, located a bathroom, and shimmied into my tight black dress. Before it was even fully on me, I knew that something had changed. I’d gained weight. The result of nights of binge eating, going to bed with oil slicked lips and a cold, full stomach, stuffed with last night’s leftovers.
I stepped out of the stall and out of the bathroom, passing the shimmering mirror but not looking, even as I threw my hair up.
There were twenty-four competitors, including me. Most of them Asian, like me.
They were absurdly talented, unlike me.
I’d lost count after the ninth girl, but I thought maybe the boy playing might be the nineteenth, or twentieth. It was a Liszt piece. Fast-paced, agile, a little mouse scurrying, nails clacking against linoleum. It agitated me. His skin was pale, the bags underneath his eyes at least four different shades of blue and brown.
I looked down at my knotted hands. Mrs. Stollar once said that I had true pianist fingers—long, slender, and something about my bones not jutting out.
I thought maybe the boy playing right now might have even prettier fingers.
Futilely, I told myself that I was calm, that it would be okay if I failed, that I wouldn’t even remember this moment twenty years from now.
But the nervousness was still there, potent and unshakable, and I knew that it would be my ultimate undoing when it was my turn to perform, because it didn’t matter how much I’d practiced and slaved if the notes could be yanked from my hands unexpectedly, if I couldn’t help but overthink, even when I knew that the surest way to run through the piece without messing up was to keep my mind a blank slate so that my muscle memory wouldn’t falter.
It was all so nerve wracking, especially when I paused to ponder the mechanics of it all the way you can’t help but do. Hundreds upon thousands of notes. All played so that each fit together perfectly. One delayed strike of the keys, and everything unravels.
My entire body was switching from icy numb to swelteringly hot in a matter of seconds, back and forth, like I was having fucking hot flashes or something, already middle aged and used up and done. I was up next.
Oh Christ—how terrible this was, this other side of seemingly effortless music, this side that causes nervous breakdowns in concert pianists, this side that I had a desperate need to thrive in.
I could not fail. I was cripplingly terrified of it. This was who I was. I had hinged my entire identity on playing the piano, and if I could not succeed in this, then I could not succeed in anything. Of this, I was convinced.
I stood up, walked to the front. I am still in control. Now curtsy, I commanded myself. I am still in control. Then, I sat down, told myself to wait for a few seconds before playing. I am still in control. Is the chair too high? I asked myself. Are you at the appropriate distance away from the keys? I slid back a little. Are you sitting at the edge of the bench? I am still in control. Now, I directed myself, play. I am still in control. Still in control. Still in—
And then I wasn’t.
I don’t remember much from my Before years, but what I do remember all have to do with me being an unusually, perplexingly, distressingly stupid child.
My parents couldn’t afford me when they had me, two years after moving to the U.S. from China. They were both jobless, both lonely, both desperate—but not passive nor apathetic: My mother was trying to eradicate the seed of self-loathing that had been planted in her by her mother, so that she wouldn’t accidentally plant it within me. My father was enrolled in adult school, at the time still determined to learn English, not yet humiliated into silence. I was sent to live with my paternal grandmother in Shanghai. There, I was looked over by a nanny for three and a half years.
When my mother came to take me back to the States, she screamed at my grandmother, threw ceramic dishes and plastic tubs.
The nanny, it turned out, was mute. Inside my room in my grandmother’s apartment, my mother blinked at the drawings plastered all over the walls—squares, rectangles, lines, circles, circles, circles.
I didn’t speak until I was four. I had issues with my memory. Could never remember where I sat at the kitchen table that seated only three. I underperformed at school, had to be held back a grade even though I began kindergarten late. Was stuck with a teacher’s aid until the seventh grade.
My mother took me to the doctor’s. Autism? No. Asperger’s? No. Mentally handicapped? No. Just really kinda fucked up. Nothing the doctors could do about that.
Then came After—after Ms. Stollar, after piano: I was gifted. Talented. A pianist. My musical finesse gave me potential. Potential that I later had a surplus of, as I began speaking, as my focus sharpened, as my grades allowed me to rejoin my original class.
A fulfilling amount of potential, yes, but never quite of worth.
My wooden legs bent themselves into a clumsy curtsy, and I stumbled back to my seat. The judges left the room, went into another. I didn’t want to, but I stayed and waited. We all did, in silence.
Half an hour later, the judges returned to tell us how talented we all were, how hard it had been to make a decision before finally getting around to delivering the verdict.
They started with fourth place, then third, second. First.
I made my way up to the front of the room, the last player to do so, pride and adrenaline filling the concaves behind my knees, the divots of my collarbones, the indentations between my ribs. But even as one judge handed me my ballots, I could already feel the excitement seeping out of all the hollow parts of my body, leaving apathy to curdle there. As the four of us stood on the stage, cameras went off accompanied with requests for us to stand together closer, closer. None of them came from my father; all he offered was a tentative, removed smile.
After most of the people—and any lingering excitement I tried to preserve—dispersed, one of the judges came up to me. His salt and pepper hair was parted neatly to one side, and the thin dress shirt he wore was stretched tautly across his large belly, the buttons laboring to keep everything in. Beaming, he told me that I was talented, that I was extremely musical, that I had an extra something special.
I glowed a little. These were the moments—this judge’s words, Mrs. Stollar booming brava after I’d closed her annual recital the week before—that I used to stitch together the fabric of my most intimate Truth.
I was still greedy, greedy for more words, more praise, more validation.
In the car, I called Ms. Stollar, told her I won, yes, first place, swept the whole damn competition away.
She congratulated me, her accent thicker than ever. “Your division was extremely hard, Audrey. Brava. Well deserved. Now go home and rest.”
Then I called my mother, who shrieked upon hearing the news. Her standard overreaction, as always, grated on my nerves.
We stopped by an Italian place—my father’s idea, though he couldn’t swallow two bites of it; burgers were the only things he could stomach that wasn’t Chinese food.
I knew this was his way of congratulating me. But I wasn’t fooled. He didn’t care enough to be much impressed. For some reason, the most probable being inept planning, U.S. Open competitions were always on school days.
I arrived on campus just in time for fifth period and still in my dress. I weaseled out of it, stuffed it unceremoniously in a lump into my backpack. Leaning my back against the stall wall, I unfolded my ballots.
Scratched on the first two were the typical comments of praise, half of which I could hardly decipher. The last ballot, however, I tucked neatly into my back pocket after memorizing every word without meaning to.
It was three in the morning, or maybe four. Outside it was dark, but not quite Dark.
Clumps of tangled, matted hair came out in my hands. I dropped them onto the small, triangular shower bench in front of me, only to return with more, and more, until a dark mass of it was plastered against the corner, like black mold.
It had been a little more than a week since the competition, a little more than a week since I’d last washed my hair. It seemed I’d lost my will to even get out of bed, or to step into the shower, much less raise my arms and scrub my scalp while doing so.
In bed, I would plan out the entire process with my eyes closed—how I’d pump the shampoo bottle twice, how I’d step out of shower stall with first my right foot, then my left, how I’d step out with first my left then right.
In bed, I would kick myself for not practicing more beforehand, for all the could’ves, would’ves, should’ves.
In bed, I would allow the third judge’s loopy letters to form spools of tape inside a cassette that played on re-run in my mind, telling me that I was musical and talented and a good pianist, but not good enough: should work on some scales to control your flying fingers
the only talent you have and it’s not even a talent
First variation can be more nuanced
nothing without piano can’t be anything
There’s a shift in tone that you missed
delusional in how you perceive yourself
Somehow, during the late night and early morning, I’d been able to unchain myself from my bed and move to my bathroom in the darkness. My parents knew that something was wrong, but I think they were afraid to find out what, exactly, so they’d left me alone for the most part, which I was thankful for.
I twisted off the streaming water, dried myself off with painstaking movements, making sure to catch every droplet of water from the tips of my crusty toenails to the ends of my sparse eyelashes.
Afterward, I did not return to my bedroom, in which everything looked limp and lifeless. I did not really know what to do with myself. Go into the kitchen and watch some T.V, drink a glass of warm milk, or swallow a handful of pills before hunting around the house for a suitable length of rope?
I shuffled over to the piano.
As I played jerkily, like a marionette whose strings had just been cut, I did not hear each individual note I played. I did not hear anything.
I heard only my own, neglected heartbeat, demanding to tell me something, pulsating with my secret. It was a half-admitted truth, even to myself. Both real and solid and whimsical and a hoax, in equal proportions. And the secret was, that to some degree, I knew I needed to stop. To stop playing.
Stop stop stop.
And just like that, I did. But not by choice. Horrified, I felt the music splinter without my permission. Break and disintegrate. The notes jabbed my skin as I tried to catch them, to hold them together, but they fell through my fingers, pieces of them getting stuck in my skin.
Stop stop stop.
“Audrey.” My father stepped out of the master bedroom. Behind him, my mother was a wisp against the shadows. “Gànshénme xiànzài dàn gāngqín?”
Why was I playing the piano now? How could I explain it to my father when I barely knew myself? I shook my head. “I don’t know how to tell you in Chinese. It’s just that, like, like–”
My father grunted, annoyed. “Know I can’t understand. Chinese. Speak.”
I shook my head. “I can’t,” I pleaded. “I don’t know how.”
Another grunt before returning to his bedroom. And then I was alone again.
It was three in the morning, or maybe four. Outside, it was dark, but not quite Dark.
Angela Yin is a rising senior in the San Francisco Bay Area. Besides reading and writing, she’s passionate about nail polish, feminism, and helping refugees in Oakland better their English.