Self-portrait in C
My mom struggled to keep up with house payments but, for my 10th birthday, she bought me a grand piano. When I came home she shoveled me downstairs where my present sat on scraps of shag carpet, wrapped from head to foot pedal in newspaper. While her old Wurlitzer had huddled in a corner, the new piano barely fit inside the basement — a small cave already landlocked by junk she'd inherited from her dad: unstrung guitars, dust-painted flutes, a rack of cracked celli. We sat down and hammered out a rendition of "Chopsticks," our hands getting along better than the rest of us ever had. When we finished, she kissed my knuckles lipstick red. "Give us a month, Sarah. We'll have you playing Chopin like a video game."
Figuring she'd hidden my real present somewhere in a cupboard or cabinet I said, "Did you find me a Picasso?"
Her eyes fluttered, as if her lashes were clapping for an encore. "Find you a huh?"
"My painting," I said. "You promised me a famous painting."
OK. So other kids dreamed of scooters or dolls, but I planned to be an artist and didn't mess around when it came to birthdays. I'd kept a Picasso calendar on my wall, 270 days and nine Cubist masterpieces crossed through with a velvet green marker. I'd waited that many days. Almost 300.
"Look, at 10 nobody has a clue what they really need," she said. "I'm 38 and I still have a hard time deciding what I want for breakfast." She drew a smiley face across my cheeks. "Now be a cherry and bring me the telephone. Your present needs a tune-up."
We thumbed through file cabinets of sheet music for a song that wouldn't fry my hands alive. Finally we settled on "Rowdy River," a quick fling in the key of C. The search had lasted an hour, so when we found something I fell across a lopsided corduroy sofa that had once been my grandpa's, dizzy from the kaleidoscope of quarter notes.
My mom hugged the song like a long-lost sister. "This was the first thing I ever learned." When she flapped open the booklet a Polaroid slipped out and swooped to the floor.
At first glance I couldn't make sense of the image. The girl was clearly me but I'd never played a whole song. Then it occurred to me that this was a fun-size version of her— 9 years old in a calico dress, standing onstage in piles of roses.
As I studied the photo she played "Rowdy River" one time and then transcribed the notes into alphabets to help me along. After giving me a slapdash introduction to the keyboard, she listened as I dog-paddled through a few bars. Then, planting me in her lap, she taped our hands together at the knuckles and rehearsed the song over and over, so I could "feel" the melody in my bones. Before my hands could even say hello to the keys hers were moving on to the next notes, towing me along. Her soft black sweater swallowed me whole, like I would sink back into her and be born again.
We both would've forgotten to celebrate my birthday if my dad hadn't called. "Did you get the card?" he asked.
"Was there money in it? If there was, my mom probably took it and put it all in my college fund."
I missed my dad, how I used to wait at the top of the stairs as he dropped his hard hat on the first step and tugged off his heavy steel mill boots. Sometimes I would step into those big shoes and chase him around the house, his hard hat wobbling on my head. Every night he brought home a new color for me. Eggshell, maroon, garnet, silver, 10 shades of blue. I painted dozens of portraits of my dad. Sometimes my mom would even pose with him.
My cake was a porcupine of candles—her usual overkill, but not surprising when you considered how she always kept her violinists in class until teachers crowded around her door, brandishing their watches.
Most of the time I'd managed to stay out of her plans. But after divorce, I started to see my name in her daily planner more than a few times in entries that read something like, "Four p.m. — convince Sarah to play musical instrument." One time she'd caught me trying to erase myself from her to-do list and made me stand in the kitchen corner. Since the wallpaper was violins and tubas, we'd both considered it the perfect punishment.
Instead of checking my homework that night my mom laid a string of eighth notes at my fingers. "It's not your fault," I said after giving up. "I'm just too old to learn music." I told her how Mozart was writing sonatas before potty training and Glenn Gould's first word was either "Bach" or "Goldberg Variations." Even she probably learned to sight read before cruising through her first nursery rhymes.
She viced my head and looked into me as if she were searching for a ring that'd fallen down my pupils. I realized then that her eyes had more than one color, like wilted four-leaf clovers. "If Beethoven could play deaf and Ray
Charles could play blind," she said, "then you can start a few years late."
She yanked a pencil from behind her ear and started scribbling on the back of some sheet music. "Now let's think about your practice schedule. We should probably start easy with an hour a day, two on weekends." She paused, slicing slivers off the eraser with her teeth. "Tomorrow we can arrange a little musical boot camp. You can skip school this once." She sketched the day out in boxes, a morning devoted to scales and beginner's exercises, an afternoon sacrificed to the anatomy of sound.
"But my art project's due tomorrow." My teacher had told us to draw a self-portrait, and the assignment was driving me into the tight circles of insomnia. All week, every night, I'd drawn until bedtime and then by flashlight, filling up sketchbooks with failures.
"I'll call and tell them you're sick."
I hugged myself and moaned.
My mom banged on my door the next morning like a metronome. All the way downstairs she fussed with my hair while flapping a washcloth at the smudges on my palms. "Go wash up," she said. "You're not touching the piano until you clean those filthy hands."
My hands under the faucet, I stared at my reflection — so much like the concert photo of my mom that I wanted to erase the mirror. Most of the night I'd stayed up drawing and every time I finished a sketch all I'd been able to see was my mom and the roses and that dumb calico dress.
My mom was calling me, so I flipped off the water, squeezed a towel, and admired the rainbow of fingerprints I'd left. Before leaving I glanced at myself in the mirror again. It was like looking at a blank canvas.
We warmed up with scales. My fingers stumbled across the keys, tripping over every step. When I reached the top she took me by the index finger and dropped it on Middle-C, telling me to try again.
About 10 minutes into the lesson I looked down and saw a maroon smudge on one of the keys. My eyes rolled up at my mom, waiting to see her face go out of tune. But she was so involved, trance-like, she hadn't noticed. By the end of the first two-hour block I'd made a few more smudges on the keys, and hoped that if she hadn't noticed by now she wouldn't. I planned to scrub those keys hard the second I could.
Throughout lunch I tried to invent excuses to go downstairs, but it was all I could do to simply distract her from a lecture on Chopin.
"Do you remember your first piano lesson?" I finally asked.
"I was 7," she said, indulging me. "My dad was working on some song of his own to play at one of the clubs downtown. I was hiding behind this mountain of instruments, watching him. He told me to come over and sit on his lap. He put my hands on top of his and played. He thought I was just curious, but I was fascinated. So he started to teach me and after a few months he pulled out 'Rowdy River.' He was everything back then." She started sponging up snowflakes of salt from the table with her thumb. "I never met my mom, to tell you the truth. After I was born, as soon as she could move again, my dad found a letter on the refrigerator. But his family was big. He had three older sisters, you know, so I had three moms."
As her past uncurled, I walked in centimeters from the kitchen to the living room and then to the basement door.
She finished her tea and pranced after me. "Ready for more, huh? I knew you'd warm up." She passed me and then took a sharp left down the stairs.
I clung to the rails, the steps multiplying and the distance stretching itself into miles. Then she disappeared and I knew in seconds there would be no need to do anything but prepare myself for hours of staring into violins and tubas. I took a deep breath and met her at the piano's mouth. When I saw her staring at my mess we both seemed to stop breathing. We meditated on the ivory keys, now red and blue with my fingerprints.
She said a few things under her breath. "I thought I'd told you to wash your hands after messing around with those markers, Sarah."
I tried to apologize but she said, "Go upstairs."
My room was the last place I wanted to be. I followed her through the house, asking if I could help and getting in the way every time she opened a cabinet or drawer. Could I find her a sponge, a bottle of cleaner? After turning the kitchen into a landfill she filled her favorite mug with hot water and some horrid chemical and started to scrub the keys.
That's when I noticed the photograph of her first recital half buried in sheet music on the corduroy sofa. The photographer had caught her mid-curtsy so she seemed to sink into the roses. I took it to my room and stared at it until I knew what was wrong with my self-portraits.
I excavated her bedroom closet and finally found something similar to her old calico dress. Moth holes dotted the waist. The sunflowers had faded. The left sleeve was torn. But I pulled its frail fabric over my head anyway, feeling like a prodigy as I scooped up my sketchpad. I outlined a 9-year-old girl with half notes for shoulders, elbows, and knees. I drew her overture of black hair, roses at her feet. When I finished I stood on the bed and admired the two images in her dresser mirror. The lightless room blackened my hair and shaded my face. We were twins.
When I showed her my work she smiled and slipped it under a refrigerator magnet, then stood still so long that I thought I'd turned her into a portrait. "I'll make a copy of this for you to hand in to your teacher." Wrist pressed against her temple, she added, "You know, this piano cost a lot."
"Dad said we were rolling in it."
"That was a long time ago."
"But didn't he just get a raise, and a bonus?"
"I'm not sure."
"He told me so."
"Last week, when he called. He said it was big."
"Well, he probably won't let us have any." She curled up into her chair, tightening her grip on her mug.
I wanted to touch her, but touching my mom would've been like touching oil on canvas. Leaning into her, barely touching, I caught my reflection in the black water of her mug. Ripples swam up and down our faces.
"Did you clean the keys?"
"Yeah, I did."
For an hour I lay in bed, waiting for her to tuck me in, but the lights stayed on.
Near midnight, I heard her on the piano. It began softly but grew in size and speed, until nowhere was safe from her sound waves. Even in the closet, the piano's vibrations rattled my hands and warped every line I tried to make with my charcoal. Even after my ears had untangled the noise, her song still sounded bent and twisted.
I snuck to the basement. Moths beat their wings against a naked light bulb, scattering each other's shadows. Her music swarmed around me and pushed me back. Cold drained the feeling from my feet. Halfway down, one step groaned. The music stopped. I heard my mom's heavy breath.
"Who is it?" she said. "Sarah?"
I could have kept quiet and she never would have known.
My words came out dry, rusty. "Yes," I said. "I wanted some water." I rubbed my feet. "And I thought I heard you. Are you OK?"
She made a sound, somewhere between a scoff and a laugh. "Of course I'm all right." Then her voice switched to a higher key. "I'm not keeping you up, am I? I can play something quieter."
When I crawled back into my covers the music leaking in to my room had slowed and brightened. The edges between every note had smoothed so they fit together, like stones in a monument.
Despite the perforated sleep I woke up early the following morning and thought I would make us breakfast. Nothing fancy, just toast and jam. That's when I found her passed out on the piano. Her arms were folded on the keys, her hair waterfalling everywhere. I nudged her awake and then massaged a row of red rectangles engraved into her cheek. I asked what was wrong.
"God, look how late it is." She tapped her watch. "You'd better get dressed."
My art teacher was a harsh critic, but when she saw my self-portrait she declared recess and spent the rest of class on the periphery of the swing sets, where a few other teachers stood, and showed off my masterpiece. When I got home I wanted to tell my mom about my success. I expected to find her by the door, ready to shovel me downstairs, but greeted air. Downstairs I found a blank space in place of the piano and tried to convince myself I wasn't a failed sketch being erased by Picasso. Then there were footsteps accompanied by a soft voice, familiar, but unlike anything I'd ever heard.