Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques

—Paul Verlaine, “Clair de Lune”

 

The piano is over one hundred years old. It’s an upright with dark red wood, small and warm. We get it for free. Vine-like carvings frame the ledge where my music rests. In the bottom, behind the paneling near the foot pedals, my mother finds a Mason jar dated to the turn of the century. It would have held water once, kept there to moisten the strings. 

The white keys are real ivory. The flats, black wood. Much of the ivory is yellowed, some of it green. The tops of the keys protrude a bit and many of them are chipped. I cut my fingers on these, dashing down to hit chords, darting a cross-hand up to ring a high note. I’ve been told that the yellow ivory is elephant, that the green is rhinoceros. Knowing this, I never mind when the playing makes me bleed. 

For years and hours, from elementary to high school, through puberty and all that comes with it, I sat there: on the rickety and scratched wooden bench in front of this piano. In the summers, the nylon blend of my athletic shorts and the damp undersides of my thighs stick to the bench. The varnish is degrading. I have to rip my legs free from the wood. It leaves behind white half-moons of sweat and sunscreen. It stings, this peeling. A sharp quick pain like the scrape of fabric over sunburn. 

*****

During my hardest days of high school, I often finish practicing piano after everyone else has gone to bed. I play with the damper pedal held down and press the keys only lightly, to mute the music. Then, when I’ve finished, the melancholy strains of it still humming along my hands, I head upstairs. Exhausted and always hungry, I lunge-crawl on all fours up the staircase, weight evenly distributed, breath taut. I place the balls of my feet on the outside edges of each tread, where they’re least likely to creak. Silent as a spider, I pass the closed door at the top—shhh, the baby’s sleeping. 

Hers is the room I’d chosen for myself when we first moved here, but it’s the nursery now. All the other doors are closed, too. My mother’s, at the opposite end of the hall, beyond the faint blue-green glow of the nightlight in the kid’s bathroom. My younger sister’s, which I shared with her before my parents finished the basement and moved our older brother down there. It stands empty now since he’s gone to college. And then there is my door, right next to the baby’s. I don’t sleep easy. I awaken when she cries. Sometimes I go in, sometimes I pad down the hallway and tell my parents. In the mornings, my alarm rouses me like a whip—shh, the baby’s sleeping. 

On these days, the hard ones, days with screaming, yelling, smashing, days where I wish I didn’t have to handle this alone; I pause in my doorway before entering and stand there, staring into the darkness of my bedroom. I imagine my love is waiting for me. I feel it, with a certainty that blurs the edges of everything else. From the threshold, the two moon-filled windows cast my bed, where it lies in the corner, pitch-black by contrast. This is where I fix my gaze, toes poised on beige carpet. I can sense him there: strong, patient, mine

He was only ever “my love” in my mind: faceless, male, born of my hormone-drenched yearning. And so here he was, waiting for me—ready to hold me against the steady drum of his heartbeat until the miserable hour of 5:45 a.m. Until I have to rise once more, in the heavy wrongness of the pre-dawn dark, and do it all over again.

The imagining of him was like a hook caught under my breastbone, a gut-clenching surge of emotion: relief, longing, sorrow. My eyes would fill. I scarcely dared to breathe, to blink the tears down my cheeks, to do anything that might disturb the fragile quiet of the sleeping house. Because if I held still enough, right there, the certainty of him and all that he offered me felt so real I could almost touch it. So I’d linger in the doorway, caught in a reverse bind of Orpheus and Eurydice, my heart a fistful of ache. I couldn’t look away, couldn’t step further into the room, couldn’t cross the handful of feet that separated us and be in his arms. Because then he would vanish, as sure as Orpheus glanced behind him, so near to exiting the underworld and all its cavern loneliness, so close to reclaiming his love, only to find himself shattered, empty-handed.  

*****

My hands, only average in length, are too muscle-bound to stretch well. Playing field hockey builds dense grip strength in my fists. They resist the swan-fingered reaching more advanced piano music requires. My teacher shows me how to increase my range, how to press the gaps between them against the bottom ledge of the piano. I make my fingers do splits like tiny chubby ballerinas. We train for Festival. It hurts. It hurts. I drop notes from chords stacked ten keys high.

*****

In France with my AP French class, we crowd into the tiny parlor of our hostel to wait for our tour bus. There’s a piano in the corner. I head over, move my hands through one of the pieces I’ve memorized for Festival, “Le Salon de Musique” by Eugénie Rocherolle. The other is called “Topaz Nocturne,” by Dennis Alexander, from his collection With These Hands, which he wrote after his son died suddenly in his sleep. 

Sam, one of the boys on the trip, who I have a crush on, tells me that his mother, a chaperone, wants to know the name of the song I played—this touches me deeply. Most people in the room were only half-listening, but I remember how she leaned in, earnest and kind. That was beautiful Claire

“Do you remember Sam?” my mother asks one winter, years later. 

“Yes,” I say around a mouthful of salad that has too much ranch. 

“He died.” Silence falls at the table. I can’t swallow. Vegetables congeal to slime in my mouth. I don’t remember how she said the rest of it, the facts. How he and his girlfriend were out hiking. Bees. A swarm. He protected her. She survived. Sam is dead. 

“They were engaged, weren’t they?” My mother continues. “I believe he was in veterinarian school.” 

*****

Although it’s been years, I occasionally still dream that I’m playing piano. Often in these dreams, I approach a stage and open my book, only to find the music is blank. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll play anyways. And even though I’m nervous, song will flow unhindered from my hands. Here, the dream tells me, your body knows what the mind forgets. 

Writing about piano now makes my molars ache. Queasy tightness clenches in my throat.  I try my best to breathe through it, to ignore it. But the truth is, I would really love a chance to play again. The wanting of it is tender-edged, like a wound I’ve been ignoring. But I am no stranger to longing. 

*****

On the back page of an old notebook, scattered amid ideas for the novel I tinkered with all through high school, are the lyrics to a love song I wrote. I still sing it to myself from time to time, without really noticing that I am. The song itself terrible, rife with cliché and musically as simplistic as a responsorial psalm. But still, there’s a special-ness to the imagining: a fated, undeniable, meant-to-be romanticism. 

Sometimes I’m better at ignoring it than others, the feeling that writhes inside me like a scream: I want to be loved. I want to be loved. IwanttobelovedIwanttobelovedIwanttobeloved. 

*****

My fingers still know those piano keys. In the minutiae of muscles and webbed tendon, memory intimates a precision of reach and touch. They recall the blunt edges of the flats, their soft worn wood. They can still feel the slick, oil-heavy smoothness of ivory. Some of the piano’s hammers are prone to sticking, but my fingers know which notes must be coaxed into resounding, resistant to speed and staccato. I wouldn’t be able to tell you, couldn’t list the most recalcitrant ones, but let me play from a book of old sheet music and my hands will show you. 

Have a seat. Fold back the fallboard with its scallop-pleated edge. Lean in, smell it: old, yet not musty, like books, like the lemon Pledge my mother uses to polish it, like my own hands, like myself. There are some kinds of knowledge that don’t require words. 

Neither my fingers nor I ever mind the resistant keys; we prefer things long and languid anyways. My musical education is rounded. During lessons my teacher has me cover jazz, ragtime, baroque, classical, modern, and more. Some of these must always be included in my repertoire for competing. But my favorites are always the lyric ones: chromatic harmonies in unfamiliar keys, extended chords that tense and release. “Reverie” by Claude Debussy. “Prelude in D Minor” by Chopin. Pieces with names like “Alpine Spring” and “Return to the Heart.” Music that lets you be a wave as you play it, the whole of you cresting and falling. 

“This one sounds like Pocahontas taking a bath,” I tell my teacher, describing the opening scene of the Disney movie, where her character plunges, unafraid, over the edge of a waterfall. The actual name of the song is “Shower on Glacial Gorge.” It’s from Martha Sherrill Kelsey’s late-intermediate book, Rocky Mountain Suite. My teacher gave it to me “just for fun” my last summer of lessons, knowing well what I like. Kelsey composed it during an artist’s residency at Rocky Mountain National Park. She has another collection, similarly inspired, called the Smoky Mountain Suite. I wish I had known this then, but have only discovered it here, in the writing of it. I like to think of Martha and I as much closer than I realized, moved by nature to try and make something in complement, some concerto to all this magic.

*****

On cool summer nights in high school, I sneak open the window next to the piano. A few inches, no more, just enough for the songs to slip out. I dim the recess light until the sheet music looks yellow, candlelit. In its absence, I can make out the lightning bugs rising from our lawn, from the field behind our house, where the corn planted there rustles, tall and dense. I imagine that my playing is a siren’s call, that it can bring my love to me. I croon my fingertips across the swells of music. I arc each phrase so it beckons. The drop and flex of my wrists is undulate, smooth. Nothing abrupt, nothing to disturb the enchantment I’m weaving. 

I sway my torso. Hold emotion loose in the body, but tight in the throat. Romantic, impressionistic, French composed—it’s longing in minor key. Dissonance lands gently. It’s heart-hungry, at once tender and stung. I send the music drifting across the insect hum of the August air. It whispers its way through labyrinthian stalks, sighs under leaves, drags fingertips lightly over rain-parched earth. It coaxes the wind to quiet, to let the song reach the center of the field, where my love waits, listening. 

The melody passes from hand to hand, cross cleft. Triplets adorn it with want. A fluid glissando unfurls. All is in service of the whole. Press the A so gently you might miss it—hold. It’s the beginning of the end. Let the eighth notes cascade from your hands. Neither is the lead; both are the lead. Quarter notes linger together, a peu retenue. Surrender softly, here’s the end.  

Now there is only the quiet house, quickly filled by the drone of katydids, the thrum of spring peepers. We are all calling, it seems. Perhaps they will have better luck. Because I know no one waits for me. Still, I stare into the dark mirror of the windowpane. In it I can see myself, slouched on the piano bench. Through it I can see outside, where the familiar landscape has fallen into shadow. Can you picture how it would be? Slipping out across the lawn, levering easily over the split-rail border fence, running through the blue-black leaves, pushing them aside as I reach the clearing. 

At last, our eyes meet. All about us is moonlight. Then we are in each other’s arms, embracing. 

*****

In reality, it would have been nearly impossible to run through that cornfield. Disney’s Pocahontas makes it look easy, but perhaps the rows in those fields were just particularly wide, so she never had any contact with the plants themselves. The edges of corn leaves are razor-sharp like reeds and serrated to boot. If you try to gather any kind of momentum, they’ll whip across your face, forearms, thighs. They’ll catch and drag on your clothes. You may raise your arms, trying to protect your face, but then you can’t see where you’re going. So you’ll end up stopped dead, papercut with smeared blood, stinging. 

While this might blow a hole in romantic imaginings, it certainly lends new credence to several horror movie scenes. It turns out you really must be desperate to sprint willingly through corn.

*****

The piano was free. The lessons of course, years and years of them, were not. These were a gift from my parents who grew up without the kind of money music lessons require. It’s the kind of gift that encapsulates the double-edged sword of parenthood. Tears, stress, fights about quitting, long car rides to festivals and competitions. 

By senior year of high school, I stay hours after lessons talking to my piano teacher. She’s in her forties. Remarried with adult children. She has a second and third job. Her husband is a sweet, compact man with white hair. He pops in from time to time, to ask her what she wants for dinner, to press a kiss to her brow as she ushers him back out the door. In her cozy basement studio, we debate philosophy and religion. I tell her how hard it is to feel like I can’t relate to my friend group, how I can’t bring myself to care about who likes who. I tell her how I know this attitude is why no one would ever like me, how I still want to be liked by someone anyways, how it seems impossible. 

She gives me her only copy of the book Wokini by Billy Mills. I pore over its fragile pages, underlining key sentences in faint pencil strokes held steady by a ruler. “I must learn to love myself” he writes, “If I don’t, I will be lost in an unknown land with despair and loneliness all around me.” He grew up on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota and was orphaned by age twelve. Mills is famous for his upset win of the 10,000-meter run at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. To this day, he’s still the only American to ever earn gold for this event. 

 He’d contemplated suicide first, weary of racism, of being excluded from the post-race photographs again, even though he was the winner. Yet as he prepared to jump, Mills says he heard his late father’s voice. The voice told him his soul needed a dream to chase, in order to heal. So Mills stepped away from the window and wrote down a promise of victory.

Later in life, while being interviewed by the Washington Post after receiving a Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in the Marines, Mills asks the journalist if he knows the record for most Congressional Medals of Honor ever awarded after one “battle.” This answer is the massacre at Wounded Knee. “They gave 21 or 23,” he says, “for a slaughter of 350 people.” 

Wokini doesn’t mention any of this directly, but I can see now how the tiny book is brimming with it: “Winds can topple trees, earthquakes can stop a river from flowing, and fire can destroy a valley. The strength and power of men can destroy cities, but the power of love shall help me overcome anything that faces me.” 

When I’m away at college, I begin to think that my piano teacher may have been my best friend. I then realize that she likely recognized this, that it was part of why she was so kind, why she mentored and listened to me. My mother encourages me to visit her when I’m home on winter break, to drive my sister to her lessons and say hello. I go a handful of times, sometimes staying in the car, sometimes sitting in the waiting room, but when I see her, embarrassment paralyzes me into shyness. I take this as proof of another lesson I’ve been learning: you can’t go back. You can’t ever go back. 

*****

In Northanger Abbey, the protagonist Catherine can imagine herself in a diaphanous white nightgown, loping in slow motion across the placid hills of pastoral Britain. She can run soundlessly somehow, through long gothic corridors, never concerned with sleeping babies or creaking stairs. The airy fabric of her nightgown can lift around her, float with ghostlike grace as she turns her head to glance behind, loose curls dancing across her cheekbones, her wide dark eyes, the relaxed parting of her lips. 

I had a nightgown, too, in high school. One I’d asked my mother to buy me, which she did, but not before asking if I was sure. My nightgown was not white, nor was it diaphanous in any sense of the word. It was an ankle-length, long-sleeved flannel from L.L. Bean. Periwinkle plaid, bibbed with satin piping and a handful of white buttons, it was clearly a nightgown designed for the elderly. 

I can’t quite pinpoint my motivations at the time. I’m not sure if I wanted the nightgown because I imagined it romantic or because I was trying out a new solution to the fact that I hated sleeping in long sleeves and pants. Either way, I happily used it for years. I even brought it with me to college and wore it on Halloween my freshman year, paired with my L.L. Bean slippers. I wandered campus alongside my new friends, the other freshmen on the field hockey team. They were dressed as biker chicks and cute bumblebees. I had no experience drinking yet and Gabby, curly-haired and dimpled, offered me a Mike’s Hard Lemonade to sip while I swung my slippered feet over the edge of the lofted bed. I wasn’t ready for makeup, but I watched as they put makeup on one another, soaking up the female comradery. It was easy to see that here, too, was love. 

In this moment, Rachel bends close to Olivia’s upturned face, liquid eyeliner poised in her grip. Their breath mingles. Olivia keeps her eyes closed—blind in trust, in hope of something magical. Rachel braces a pinky lightly against Olivia’s cheekbone as she etches color onto the lids. She holds the brush with such care her hand trembles. 

“Open your eyes.” This is the refrain for when you’re checking how it looks. Olivia blinks up at Rachel. Rachel looks at her, and doesn’t. Sees her, and doesn’t. 

“Close them.” Rachel touches a forefinger to the tip of her tongue, smudges the edge of a wing until it sharpens, flaring out like a lure. 

“Open again.” Olivia obeys, searching Rachel’s face for a reaction. Rachel surveys the makeup. Pauses. Steps back. 

“Beautiful.” This is the pronouncement. Rachel looks at Olivia as she says it. They break into smiles. We all laugh and echo the truth. 

“Beautiful.” Gabby pronounces. 

“Beautiful,” I say. I feel giddy, head swirling with lemony sugar. Tonight, we make magic real. 

We head out to mingle on “the green”—a stretch of lawn between the parallel rows of townhouses where the upperclassmen live. It’s kind of like a block party. Doors are open, bathrooms available, music and laughter spilling out of each one. Of course, instead of potato salad and pulled pork, the offerings are jello shots and sticky cups of jungle juice dredged from coolers. My new friends don’t care that I’m in a nightgown. No one cares. I’m comfy and warm, shapeless in a way that I need at the time.

That winter, back at my parents’ house, I stand in front of the hanging mirror on the back of my bedroom door and look at my reflection. I grab the wide, square sides of my nightgown and pull them back, tightening the fabric until the shape of my body is thrown in relief. Breasts, stomach, hips, thighs. I twist, considering. When winter break ends, I leave the nightgown tucked in my drawer and head back to college without it. 

*****

It’s winter, the following year, when a boy comes to me at nightfall and takes my hand. 

“Follow me,” he says, and we tightrope through the attic of the science building. The darkness is absolute. He tells me we’ve reached a ladder and I feel cold metal beneath my palms. Together, we climb until we emerge on the roof. Buffeted by crisp wind, free under the sky. Can you hear the opening chords? D flat major only hinted at—a tonality that floats, ambiguous. It’s a suggestion of melody. The pauses between notes are just as important as the notes themselves. It’s “Clair de Lune” from Suite Bergamasque by Claude Debussy. The boy kisses me. This is my first kiss. He tries to kiss me again, but his lips hit my teeth, for I cannot stop laughing.  

Look at this, I want to say, gesturing below us at the moon-silvered grass, at the dark waters of the bay glinting with starlight. “Clair de Lune” plays on, ever tender and romantic. Can you hear the arpeggios waterfall? How they tumble in minor fragments, melancholy and aching?

All around us is moonlight. He wants to take me in his arms. He wants us to be embracing. Mostly, he wants me to stop laughing. He tries holding my face in his hands, as if he can contain it, but all this does is leave black smears of soot along my jaw that I have to wash off later. My cheeks hurt from the force of my stupid grin. 

“Bergamasque” refers to an exaggerated kind of dance, clumsy, almost clownish in its absurdity. A week later, the boy changes his mind about me. Two months after that, he changes it again. And then again. I love him. I’m overflowing with it. Years of pent-up love unleashed, drowning him. He loves me back. But I’m not sure he ever really chooses me. It takes me two years, but eventually I decide not to try and keep him anymore. I’m lying. It takes me much, much longer than that. 

*****

My sit bones know their hard perch on that wooden bench in front of the piano. They find the exact angle of my forward cant. My hamstrings anticipate the wooden edge, the precise press as right foot elongates forward to hover over pedal. Much like driving a car, I’m taught to sit as far away as I can while still reaching. This gives my wrists and elbows room, holds my arms open like wings.    

When I come home from college in the summers, I sometimes have to sit, then stand, bend and adjust, a dozen times, moving the bench incrementally back and forth—waiting for the approval my body gives.

Of course, since then my parents have moved the piano to another room, where its role is more decorative than anything else. 

“It’s an antique,” my mother protests when I try to play on it now. As if I hadn’t pounded on those keys: hammered and bled on them for years, vented frustration with slammed-down fists. 

For my youngest sister, indulgent in the financial security they can now at last enjoy, they purchased a baby grand. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t even tell you the color, if it is red or black. The new bench is padded and shorter in length, nearly impossible to fit two of us side by side for a duet. This piano is on a rug and when I try to reposition the bench, its plasticky hinges squeak in protest. It always ends up half on, half off the rug, tilting me backward. It feels like falling, like I could tumble off, lost, at any time.

*****

The summer after I begin my master’s, I come home to find the bedroom I’d used during high school is now my baby sister’s room. My things have been moved back into the former nursery, condensed into a stack of Bankers Boxes. I spend that summer sweating in the too-small twin bed, feet jammed against the wrought-iron footboard. The quilt is edged in pastel pink and yellow. The main spread of it depicts brown horses grazing placidly in a rolling pasture. If I stand up too quickly or turn over too heavily, the mattress and box spring jolt loose from the thin metal bedframe and thunder down. I lay myself to bed as if boarding an unmoored raft, careful not to capsize. Within two years this bed is also gone. The room becomes my mother’s office. When I begin my PhD, she makes it clear: my things need to be out of her closet, out of her house. She wanted us to chase our dreams, but it’s taking longer than she anticipated. She wants us settled. None of us are settled. 

One box is heavy with my old piano trophies. I try to picture finding a place for them in my small one-bedroom apartment in Cincinnati. I try to imagine a future, wealthier self, one who owns a house, lining them all up somewhere: a dozen shiny gold cups in increasing sizes, another dozen marble-bottomed trophies topped with brassy-hued music notes and pianos. I can’t see it. 

After all, I haven’t been able to touch a piano for years, even though I’ve gone to the music building during the first week at every school I’ve been to and asked if students are allowed to use the pianos. They’re reserved for piano majors, kept locked. I understand.

Still, I carry my music with me to each new place, regardless. I bring my field hockey sticks, too. I search the internet for local teams to play on, clubs to join or coach. I find absence instead: thick-grassed rec fields that field hockey balls can’t roll on, gymnasiums lined with cubby-style benches and “no wallball” signs, apartment buildings with “no instruments” written into the lease.  

So it makes sense, I suppose, that when I look down into that box, at the proof of years passed, I can no longer see them in my future. They’re scratched, anyway, the square wooden bases scored with marks. I carry them downstairs, tiptoeing, as if what I’m doing is shameful, as if anyone would care enough to stop me. When my biceps begin to quiver, I lurch the box higher on my hip. The weighty trophies grind skin against bone. I will bruise. 

The sound of them, jumbling into the dumpster, clangs harsh and loud. I freeze, scared somehow, and in the stillness I can feel the artery in my neck throb once, twice. I grit my teeth and keep tipping. The sudden silence when they all reach the bottom is like a death. This wants to hurt me. Emotion—hot, tight, clamoring—fights in my body. I tell myself this is a normal part of adulthood, a normal part of growing, that it wasn’t truly a loss, perhaps. The empty cardboard box dangles from my right hand. I rotate my shoulders back and down. Puff my cheeks and blow out an exhale. I stand there until I notice the November cold of the concrete seeping up through the soles of my slippers, then I head back inside. 

*****

Alone in my Cincinnati apartment, during the dream-drowsy sleep right before dawn, I know, suddenly, that my partner is there. Two years of long distance has been so hard, and we have no end in sight. My edges feel frayed. It unravels me, this separation, in a way that being single never does. I lie in bed on my stomach, a position I normally hate, but sunlight jeers in under the blinds. I’ve burrowed my face into the dimness under my pillow, the shadows beneath bent arms. And now he’s here, he is. If I can just cling to these tenuous scraps of nighttime. If I don’t move or try to see him. His presence hovers, pacing—join me, please join me. I love you I want you I want to be loved. But we both know how this goes. 

At least he’s here in the bedroom, and for a moment, this makes everything better: my jaw unclenches, warmth spreads through my chest. He placed his hand there on our second date, his skin so hot it was nearly scalding. 

“May I kiss you?” he’d asked, seated beside me on my couch. 

“I’m freaking out,” was my reply. It had been three long years since my last relationship. The one where I did everything wrong. Three years, yet panic and dread still flooded my brain. The prospect of nearness, of intimacy, with another man had my heart racing, lungs spasming—not safe. The body knows what the mind forgets.

It was then he tilted his gaze down to meet mine and laid the gentle weight of his palm, burning, burning, across my upper chest. Breathe, he said, eyes dark and steady. Breathe, he said, as he melted that fragile, icy part of me at last. 

The sun is insistent. My spine aches from lying in this position. I can’t hold onto slumber. I am waking and I feel the certainty of him dying all around me. Ah, Eurydice. This is torturous. Come Orpheus. Bring your lyre. Let us duet our drowning music. We both know the sounds our strings play best: songs of longing, songs of love, songs of loss. 

 

Cover art: “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy,” by Autumn Hunnicutt

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Claire Kortyna

Claire Kortyna’s work has been published in the Maine Review, Baltimore Review, Jellyfish Review, and others. She is a nonfiction PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati and has an MFA from Iowa State University. She reads for the Cincinnati Review and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.
Twitter: @ckortyna

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