Obsession

“Lift your wrists!” Ms. Allegro.

My wrists were parallel to the key slip or high enough that my fingers danced across the keys without causing me trouble. But I raised my wrists a fraction of an inch to suit her whims. I lowered them to a more comfortable level mere seconds later, and she never appeared to notice.

“Count!”

“I’m counting in my head.” I insisted. “It’s easier for me.”

“Count out loud—don’t slouch. Shoulders back.”

“Like this?” I straightened my shoulders until I felt like I had a board strapped to my back forcing me into proper posture, “One e and a, two e and a…” I continued counting aloud though I didn’t see the point. I’d been playing sixteenth notes since sixth grade. The math hadn’t changed.

I continued working my way through the sonata. I worked my way from the second movement to the third movement when Ms. Allegro plunked her pudgy fingertips on a screeching high-pitched A. She would intrude on Beethoven’s masterpieces from time to time with her own accompaniments, turning harmony to cacophony. I persevered— playing without thinking— biting my tongue until a single drop of blood seeped over my lower lip. I no longer needed Ms. Allegro’s expertise. Actually, I outgrew her expertise by the end of my second year studying piano. My mother disagreed. Whenever I asked to go to a different teacher, she reminded me that Ms. Allegro is Grandma’s best friend. I never wanted to deal with my grandmother’s disappointment and tongue-lashings so I remained, in Ms. Allegro’s piano room, playing on her Baldwin upright instead of the Steinway grand piano sitting in my imagination’s music room.

I should have been the one giving the lessons. I have before—to elementary-aged children who touch my piano keys without first washing the dirt from underneath their fingernails. Their grimy fingers have left smudges and fingerprints on the plastic keys. Soon, I began every lesson with a handwashing session.

“Take care of your fingers,” I told them. “Your musical life depends on it.”

Mom said I’m melodramatic and that I’m going to scare my student’s parents away before I can get my business up and off the ground. I wasn’t aware that I was turning these lessons into a permanent business. I just wanted to make some money over the summer before heading off to the New England Conservatory of Music. I wanted to go to Julliard, but they didn’t have the good sense to accept me, so I settled for the New England Conservatory of Music. This was my last summer of tyranny under Ms. Allegro. After August, I would belong to my music—and my music, alone, not Ms. Allegro’s—because, if I didn’t, I would never play in the New York Philharmonic like Leonard Bernstein. Maybe, one day, I’ll be the conductor too. Ms. Allegro will die of jealousy.

“Good lesson, Piper,” Ms. Allegro sighed. She didn’t mean it, but she felt obliged to say it, “I’ll see you again on Friday.”

“See you Friday!”

I leapt up from the bench and half-walked, half-jogged to her front door. She gave only me and two of her other students private lessons in her own house. I should have felt honored, but I was mostly annoyed. Ms. Allegro thought that, because she welcomed me into her house, she had a right to control my actions outside of her home. As soon as Grandma moved into our basement, she began reporting my daily doings to Ms. Allegro. I had no privacy, no hope of escaping their grasp until August. Freedom came in degrees. Mom finally accepted that I was moving away that August. By that point in the summer, she suspected I was never coming back. Of course, I’ll come back to visit, but I’ll never be stuck in between Ms. Allegro’s piano room and Grandma’s judging gaze. Mom understood, I hoped. She had handled Grandma’s judgements more than twice as long as I had.

As soon as I got home, I went straight to my piano, pulling the dust cover away and sliding onto the bench in one swift movement. Ms. Allegro’s piano was fine… adequate. But it wasn’t my piano. There’s something special about tapping the keys that are mine—and mine alone. A sweet warmth spread from my fingertips into my palms and wrists. The piano’s lungs exhaled every time I stroked a key. As my right foot tapped the damper pedal, the piano continued to hum the sonata Ms. Allegro, and I had been working on for the previous hour and a half. She would ask me Friday if I had practiced—first thing—even before “hello” or “how are you?” This piece would be flawless by Friday afternoon. By the time I finished working with this sonata, Ms. Allegro would not be able to keep up with me. I would memorize each note, each dynamic sign, and the end of every phrase. Muscle memory would do the rest. Of greatest importance, I would humiliate Ms. Allegro.

At the previous year’s recital, Ms. Allegro timed my performance amongst the middle of the intermediate students. She did it to provoke a reaction, but I didn’t give her the satisfaction. Since I first started taking lessons from her at age six, I have never lived up to her standards. Perfect is never perfect enough for Ms. Allegro. She forgot that she’s never achieved perfection. But I’ll be better than Ms. Allegro. She won’t underestimate me anymore. I’ll prove myself. I don’t need Ms. Allegro’s approval, of course. All the validation I needed was for Ms. Allegro to admit that I play better than she does. This has always been all about the music.

I believed that the reason Ms. Allegro had always been so hard on me was because she was jealous of my natural talent. I was a prodigy, a genius in the making. I wouldn’t just be playing Beethoven and Rachmaninoff anymore. I’d eventually craft my own sonatas, concertos, and symphonies. Only in the world of classical music does anyone remember Francesca Caccini or Barbara Strozzi. My legacy won’t be that way. I’ll break the barrier between classical music and the modern world. People will remember my name; Julliard’s students will study my music. And everyone who ever had a single doubt about me will be ashamed that they didn’t believe in me sooner. And by everyone, I meant Ms. Allegro, in particular.

On Friday, I trudged through the snow with my head held high. Snow blanketed the sidewalks four inches deep, and even the afternoon sun failed to remove it from the sidewalks. My waterproof gloves wrapped around the cylinders of my fingers, and the body heat seeped into the webbing between my fingers. Keeping my fingers warm and nimble was my number one priority on the half-a-mile walk to Ms. Allegro’s house. Usually, I would drive to Ms. Allegro’s, but Mom’s car is in the shop. Her work took precedence over my piano lessons, especially since I was never particularly fond of Ms. Allegro. I kicked the snow at my feet trying to clear a path for the next straggler to stumble through. Before long, I had given up and resorted to lifting my knees high into the air so that the soles of my insulated, hiking boots grazed the surface of the snow. The boots were smaller than they were the previous winter. The toe of the boot pinched my toes, cramping my entire foot. But at least my fingers were warm.

I left fifteen minutes before I needed to because I anticipated that the snow would slow me down. The snow did not disappoint me. I shuffled across the highway, hoping that someone wouldn’t speed over the hill and plough into me. I arrived safely at Ms. Allegro’s front door. I opened the door and called to Ms. Allegro so that she would know that I was, in fact, not late for my lesson. I leaned against the door frame and kicked my feet against the doorstep to shake off all the snow. If I tracked snow into Ms. Allegro’s piano room, we would spend most of the lesson discussing proper winter etiquette, and I wouldn’t have a chance to humiliate her with the sonata. The snow simply would not shake off of my boots. I hooked the heel of my left boot on the lip of the doorstep. It wouldn’t budge. I stripped the gloves off of my precious, delicate fingers so that I could unlace the knots.

Fate, it seemed, was determined to destroy me that day. A bitter wind had been biting at the tip of my nose the entire trek to Ms. Allegro’s house. But only after I unlaced my boots and wrapped my fingers around the doorframe to produce the needed leverage to free my feet from the boots did the winter’s heaviest gust decide to blow across the prairie and through Ms. Allegro’s front door. I heard the cracking before I felt the pain. I caught my right pinky and ring fingers between the door and the door hinge. The door hadn’t closed all the way, but it had slammed, crushing my fingers. I jerked my hand away from the door, staring at disbelief at the blue mottling spider webbing its way across my fingers. Ms. Allegro opened the door.

“There you are…” her voice droned away when she was my limp hand shivering. “What happened?”

“Wind.” I grimaced. “Door.”

“Let me look at it.” She grabbed my wrist and yanked me through the door and into the front corridor of her house. “I think they’re broken.”

“No, duh.”

“Piper…”

“Sorry, do you have any athletic tape?”

“Athletic tape?” She acted as if I asked her for a new hand with a perfect set of unbroken fingers. “No, I don’t think so. Come on, let’s get you to the emergency room so you can get some X-rays taken.”

“I don’t need an X-ray to tell me that my fingers are broken—just my pinky, though; I think my ring finger survived.”

“Well, they’ll want to do an X-Ray, anyway.”

“They can’t do anything about a broken pinky. Let me tape it, and we can get on with our lesson.”

I lost the argument, then the war. Ms. Allegro persuaded me into the passenger seat of her musty minivan. Even in the car, she scolded me for lowering my wrists. I used my left hand to prop my right wrist up on the windowsill. Surprise, surprise—my pinky finger was broken, flat as a pancake the nurse commented. The nurse taped my pinky finger to my ring finger for support. As I tried to tell Ms. Allegro, the doctors can’t magically wish my fingers back to normal. The stress fracture occurred right at the joint between knuckle and fingertip. The tragedy could permanently limit my range of motion, but it could also fully heal with enough time and rest.

A dose of pain medicine later, Ms. Allegro dropped me off at my front door. She cautioned me against doing anything to strain my hand, as if I didn’t already know that my fingers were my most valuable possessions. I thanked her—out of obligation—and darted inside to report the day’s devastation to my mom and grandma. They were sympathetic, of course. My fingers are worth their weight in gold. But I promised them I wouldn’t allow this setback to impair my piano playing. Eight fingers may not play as well as ten, but my eight fingers could play better than anyone else’s ten fingers.

I kept playing the piano. It surprised Ms. Allegro to see me on Tuesday afternoon, but we completed our lesson. Of course, I used my splinted fingers as one finger. I was playing better than ever. Ms. Allegro was impressed even if she wouldn’t admit it aloud. The music consumed me, and I gave all of myself to it. Forget my fingers. I could break all of them and still play this sonata without a single mistake. My prodigy days were behind me; I was the genius now. The music flowed from my brain, shooting down my neck and into the rapid tapping of my fingers. I wasn’t writing the music. The music was writing itself; I was merely recording its voice. My improvisations were the sweetest and most complicated Ms. Allegro had ever heard. I had done it. I had outgrown my teacher and taught her a lesson. And I had done it with only nine fingers.

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