For Four Hands
Aug 10 ● BY Angie Kang
There is a picture of me when I was two, and in it I am playing the piano, fingers splayed, all ten fitting within half an octave. It isn’t framed, nor on display, as in it I am also buck naked, the curve of my back half a breath mark, stark white against the scratched Baldwin upright (which by the end was really more leaning than upright). A shame, really. Even in this photo with my features blown out in the flash, you can tell I am laughing. Here is proof that at some instance, I had been happy on that bench, or at least looked it.
In the Audience
In between the hallway and the living room is a door, and that door proves extremely useful for the boy when his mom is giving piano lessons. He finds that he can lay behind this door, belly-down on the carpet, and enjoy his own private concert with different performers every forty-five minutes every other Saturday. In his mind, he tallies which students play the best and which play the worst. It’s surprisingly easy to gauge, even as a five-year-old. He rolls his finger over the carpet to mark a check whenever he likes a song, an X whenever he doesn’t. One day he hears a trembly, lilting melody, and the boy is overcome with profound sadness. He hasn’t yet developed a symbol in his system of assessments that accounts for nuance, so instead of passing judgment, he rolls over on his back and stares at the light as the performer repeats two measures, trying to get the fingering right.
I Later Find The Piece
Long after my hands have grown clumsy from arthritis, I learn that melody I had heard over half a century ago was “Jeux d’eau”. I feel significantly less impressed by the playing; the song was sad already. Ravel had done the heavy lifting in choosing which notes would float next to each other.
A Bedtime Story
His mom, like most parents, has an arsenal of stories to put her son to sleep. But because his favorite ones include tragedy and her favorite ones include morals, there is only one they agree on, so this one is repeated nearly every night.
In this story, a fisherman saves a flounder from death. The fish offers him anything, but the man is satisfied with his life and politely refuses the offer. He goes home and tells his wife about his day, and, consequentially, the fish. But the wife is not as satisfied with her life and makes her husband go back and ask the flounder for a better house. And he does, and the fish gives them a better house. But the wife is not satisfied, and makes him go back and ask for an even better house. And he does, and the fish gives them an even better house. So it goes for far longer than the boy usually expects; his mom is an expert at thinking on her feet and adding different ways this wife can be discontent with her life, which always seems already perfect. The fish finally snaps one day when the poor husband asks for his wife to be made God. Go home, the flounder says simply, disappearing into the water. When he returns home, his wife is back where she started, equally dissatisfied, but hopefully wiser.
She shouldn’t have wished to be God, the boy says. Then she would still have almost everything.
That’s not the point, his mom says.
His mom tells him to count, but he doesn’t want to. He feels that counting would ruin the lyrical quality of his playing. She tells him the beat is everything, and besides, his playing isn’t even that lyrical yet. He just wants to play fast.
Because he doesn’t listen to her, she takes on an extra shift bagging groceries to buy a new metronome, one that’s louder and has so many buttons that it looks like a gadget from a low-budget science fiction TV show. He’s so fascinated by the dials that he keeps it on when he practices, and in this way, learns the importance of rhythm. The mom is pleased. Besides, she likes hearing the mechanical heartbeat from the other room.
My mom taps her fingers whenever she hears anything wrong: a note, a tie let go too soon, a pedal held too long, and muddying a phrase. Her fingers descend one at a time, like spider legs settling on the surface with a click. Unlike spider legs, I cannot make them stop by stepping on them.
I am mystified by the silence in between movements. The moment the music stops and the pianist’s hands leave the keys in a flourish, I press my own palms together in excitement. Instead of looking grateful, the pianist looks mildly annoyed. I can’t seem to figure out what I’m missing and what everyone else seems to understand.
My mom explains that there are rests between movements. Music needs to take a breath before starting anew. I watch closely the next time I go to a concert. I find that even at the end of a piece, there’s a discrepancy between the final note and the roaring ovation — no one claps until the pianist rises from the bench and moves to bow. Maybe everyone is waiting for someone else to clap first. Maybe if the pianist never moves to get up, the hall will stay silent and hold its breath forever. I tell my mom that when I become a concert pianist, I’ll stand up between every movement to see if people clap. My mom tells me not to be stupid, but I can’t tell which part she’s talking about.
On the Bench
The first piece I ever perform in front of people who are not my mom is from a brightly colored book by a composer who couldn’t succeed writing serious pieces and so had arranged melodies for beginners. I come in stage right because my mom tells me that in important performances, concert pianists come in stage right so there is less distance to cross before they reach the bench. Less time to flop around and feel stage fright before they’re grounded in the instrument.
(I don’t feel grounded at the piano, staring down at my fingers. They are mottled and shaking and barely reach an octave.)
My mom tells me that there is only one rule to performing: keep going. As long as I don’t stop, even wrong notes can be played with enough confidence that the audience doubts rings of dissonance.
I play for my third grade class, from memory. There is only one sharp in G Major, which is easy enough to remember. The song is not inherently sad, so I cannot hide behind feelings and must stay lively, even if I am not. I close my eyes so I can picture the notes and thus know what to press next. I have to be careful not to go too fast, because the black keys are slippery.
The Water Bottle Incident
They never talk about it afterwards, but for years the boy privately refers to the event as “The Water Bottle Incident.” He knows his mother didn’t aim for his eye, although if she had been trying, it was an awfully small target and would be rather impressive. But then again she had always subconsciously known where it would hurt most; the places to prod, which parts of the soft fleshy arm would leave the reddest marks, which would leave the least; which words to say that would penetrate the stony shell of teenage indifference, which would break that entirely, which would continue to burn even after the indifference and teenage had been shed, which would glance off and be forgotten tomorrow; and yet in spite of all her knowledge, she often chose that which she didn’t mean to, or hadn’t, in the moment.
There are other incidents as well; “The Chair Incident,” which leaves a hole in their wall, “The Glass Cabinet Incident,” which covers the living room in tiny crystalline shards, and “The Harry Potter Incident,” which leaves his favorite copy of the fourth book torn in half and missing a few pages of the second (underwater) event. His mother tapes up the hole, vacuums away all the glass she can, and buys him a new copy of Harry Potter. He doesn’t mind the ugly duct-taped hole near his bed, nor even having to wear shoes when walking on the living room carpet for a few weeks, but he does mind the new book. He knows he shouldn’t have been reading the book on his lap, head bent over while his hands mindlessly repeated scales. He knows, for all his crying and name-calling, that his mom was right to punish him, in some way or another. But his old copy of Harry Potter was precious, and the new one doesn’t quite smell the same.
I Turn My Own Page
She always moves to turn pages for me when I’m sight-reading, but when I enter middle school, I stop letting her. Even with my hands full of unfamiliar notes, I swat her fingers away. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea, I say one day, and she understands I’m not talking about the page turning.
Even though his mom isn’t religious, she brings him to church every week. While she goes into the auditorium to listen to the sermons, he’s sent off to Sunday school. This class takes place in a clean garage filled with children who stare at him coldly because he is new and doesn’t smile unless something genuinely delights him, and it is very hard to say things that genuinely delight him when they are discussing the Old Testament.
His mom sits in the pews and talks to the other adults in a familiar tongue. She finds sanctuary in this white man Jesus, because he brings together people with whom she can talk about things she wants to discuss. Things such as which market stocks the right kind of spices (the ones that are so hot that they numb your mouth instead of drying it out), and where she can send her son after school if she can’t pick him up right away, and which piano competitions have prize money.
Six years and a few months after joining the church, she is baptized. The boy watches his mother sink into the water and in seeing her eyes closed and looking more peaceful than he has ever seen her before, wants her to stay there. But only for a second, and then she is reborn and he claps politely and after the ceremony hands her a bouquet of flowers that she bought for him to give her for this very purpose.
She Stops Taking on New Students
I’m not young anymore, my mom says. I have no time for that.
I know what she is telling me, really: You are a full-time chore. Even if I am no longer your piano teacher, you are a full-time chore. My ears roar and my fingers tingle.
You’re right, I say, preparing to duck. You are not young anymore.
He grows up being told by his mom that he has perfect pitch. If she plays a note and he is not close enough to see her play it but close enough to hear the sound, he can decipher what the note is with 99% accuracy. You were born to play the piano, his mom says. There is no wonder in her voice, just resolution. And this is proof. The boy plays this game sometimes with his friends whenever they come over. A party trick. His friends do not understand what it means to have perfect pitch, but they recognize the significance in the way he presents his skill and treat him with the appropriate reverence.
At the first lesson with his new piano teacher, she looks at him with pity after he tells her that he has perfect pitch. His new piano teacher tells him that perfect pitch is not just correctly identifying notes on a piano you are familiar with. That’s relative pitch. Besides, 99% is not perfect, she says. Even for relative pitch.
In the car, when his mom asks how the lesson went, the boy doesn’t reply. He is silent the rest of the way home.
One of the church members hosts a potluck, although everyone knows this is not because he wishes to see everyone on a day other than the usual Sunday, but rather because he wants to show off his new backyard renovations. This man has recently installed a fountain, reformed his pool from a rectangle to a more organic shape, and dug out space for a koi pond. Although, of course, saying he installed these changes would be generous; it would be far more accurate to say he paid for all the renovations.
The party is outdoors, naturally, to better showcase everything, and the boy is left with his Sunday school classmates. Only the boys; the girls like clustering together near the grownups and whispering, which is boring. The boys mill around the fountain, laugh at the cherub baby, run around the oblong pool threatening to push each other in, and end up by the koi pond.
The koi are large and lazy and slow, so it isn’t difficult for a particularly sharp boy with quick reflexes to yank one out of the water. The boy watches as one of his classmates, one with a tuft of blonde hair, reaches into the water and pulls a koi out by the tail. The others reach forward to touch it. The koi jerks around, slippery and frantic, and the boy feels a thrill of intense delight as his fingers pass over its scales.
Watch, says the boy with the tuft of blonde hair, and he squeezes the koi so tight that the eyes bulge out. Everyone wants a turn after that, and the fish is passed around quickly, each boy giving a tentative squeeze and yelling rapture. When it comes to him, the boy grabs with eagerness, happy to finally be a part of the team, so ecstatic that he squeezes a little too hard and the eyes pop out entirely, some stringy arpeggios of fish guts slipping out of the mouth. There is a beat of silence.
He tosses the fish back into the pond and then runs across the garden, past the fountain, past the now-organically-shaped swimming pool, to hide behind his mom’s legs. She is in mid-conversation and absentmindedly pats his head. The boy peeks past her floral-printed dress, across the lawn, at the other boys who remain by the pond staring into the water, which, besides the sputtering koi dying underneath its waves, looks beautiful in the light.
I have bad posture, but no worse than any of the boys at church, really, except the boy who sits so pin-straight in class that even the group leader tells him he can relax in the space of God. My mom does not see it this way. Whenever she sees me with hunched shoulders and a sloped neck, she pushes back her own shoulders and frowns until I mirror her and draw my own back tight. If I don’t immediately straighten, she exaggerates the motion by hunching forward and pushing back to catch my eye. It even works when I’m onstage. While I stare down at the keys and my own pale mottled hands dancing on the surface, I can see my mom in the front row pushing her chest forward with urgency, and my body automatically follows suit. But one day during a particularly passionate play-through of a Haydn sonata, I ignore the motion in the audience. Instead, I lean into the music, hunching my shoulders further, with purpose, and continue the second movement until my mom gives up and the flapping stops.
Variation on a Bedtime Story
One night after his mom tells him the story about the fisherman and the flounder, the boy says, as he does every time they reach the end, She shouldn’t have asked to be God and everything would be okay. Usually, the mom protests but tonight, she decides to play along.
Okay, says the mom, so say she doesn’t. Say the fisherman’s wife bites her tongue and decides not to ask to become God, choosing instead to have a baby and become a creator that way instead. In her mansion lined with gold carpets, filled with twenty servants waiting on her, and cooks that can make any delicacy she craves, the fisherman’s wife becomes pregnant. She lies on a plush mattress and is fed a bowl of pomegranate seeds on rice every morning, and as her stomach swells, she thinks of nothing but the flounder with so much salt in her thoughts that she begins retaining water. Enough that, by the time her water breaks, her room floods with amnion and she sinks into a bath of her own fluid. When her baby slips out into the wading, the fisherman’s wife wonders how much of her was taken from her insides to form this thing, this splintered mess of friction and fish scales and hot resentment. She closes her eyes and wonders how she let herself get here, but the memory of the flounder does not come into frame.
There are many words the boy doesn’t understand, but his mom is speaking too quickly and he doesn’t want to interrupt to ask. He misses out on every other word anyway. This is much longer than his body is used to staying awake, and as he struggles to hear this new ending, he yawns. What happens to the baby? he asks as his eyelids finally drop and curtain his eyes in darkness.
The baby? The mom pauses. She leans in and makes sure her son is fully asleep before whispering: She drowns in the afterbirth.
(Second) Variation on a Bedtime Story
The next night, before bed, the boy says that the fisherman’s wife would have been fine if she had just stopped before asking to be made God. The mom has a rash from the plastic bags they now use at work and thinks of the dollar store hand cream waiting for her by her bedside, and she nods.
How long do you practice? His new piano teacher asks him.
The boy thinks. Per what amount of time? Per day? Per week? Per year? There are so many more factors to consider, if the boy is to be accurate, such as how many times he’s sat at the bench with his head in a novel; how many vacations he and his mom have gone to, and how many on those he’s had access to a piano. And what constitutes practicing, anyway? Does playing Chopin on a wooden desk at school count? Because then he could add all of fourth and fifth period every Monday and Friday to the mix too. As much as he tires of music, he’d rather listen to Chopin ballades in his head than lectures about the same three European wars in World History. And even when he can hear the music, even when he’s at the piano, does he actually have to be thinking about music for it to count as practicing? Or can he fantasize about everything he’ll do after the time is up while his fingers are dutifully hitting the right notes and still count the time as practicing?
It Had Been a Rhetorical Question
Forget about it, my new piano teacher says when I open my mouth to answer. It doesn’t matter how much you already practice – it clearly isn’t enough.
He prays they get into a car accident every Saturday morning on the twelve-minute drive to his piano lesson. His mom schedules his life around these classes, and he doesn’t miss a single one, until the day they actually get into a car accident. His mother, delirious with lack of sleep from wrangling him to practice the night before, accidentally hits the car in front of them, a silver Honda civic with two backlights that make the car look like it’s smiling, even when it’s being rear-ended. His mom cries in the car and tells him to call and cancel his piano lesson. She tells him she’s sorry. He tells her it’s okay and pats her shoulder three times as his own apology for praying for the accident. He is guilty because he feels he should be guilty, and is not—not really.
Fish For Dinner
My mom cooks fish whole, with its eyes in and everything. If I think about it too hard, it becomes gross. But as long as the head is turned away from my plate, I can forget what has passed through the gills of the fish during its short lifetime and just focus on cleaning its bones of itself.
It’s been two days since his mom last cooked fish and the boy can still taste cod in the back of his throat. His gums are swelling near the molars on the right side, tender to the touch, aching and still vibrating long after his tongue has brushed past.
He digs around the bathroom cabinet for floss, finding it strange to be performing night rituals while the sun is still atop the house. He breaks off a piece of floss anyway and eases it through his gums. It’s almost instantaneous relief, and he emerges with a small rosebud of meat. The smell of sea and garlic follow, putrid and rotting now wrenched from its spot of nestling.
He balls up the bit of fish and aims it at the trash. Turning back to the mirror, he brings the floss back into his gums, pulling in and out, webbing, netting for more. Nothing else comes out and blood begins seeping out of his gums. Still he keeps moving the floss up and down, rocking the stringy red filament between his teeth until it finally snaps.
I beg my mom for new shoes, because my old pair is rubbing thin around the soles and I can feel the ground under each step, which is uncomfortable, but more embarrassing. The boys at church all have two-inch rubber soles so white they seem to glow under incandescent light. And anyway, every inch counts during the time of growth spurts and acne. The change happens between every Sunday, a stretch of days when the others are busy furiously growing while I am left on my piano bench winnowing against scales.
Though my mom buys me new shoes to relieve my bunions, blisters begin festering by the first step. She tells me that shoes have to be broken in, but my feet are resentful, marking their resistance by pockets of watery spite. The skin will ease back, my mom says, but until then, she tells me to force the friction. Comfort, after all, must be earned.
I sullenly accept this. I have places to be. I can only let the moisture out and keep walking.
Although unaware of it at the time, the boy throws his last big tantrum when he is fourteen. This one is a typhoon, and there are tears and bruises and screaming–on both sides–and threats made, on his side, of running away from home. But those are empty threats, based on what he thinks will hurt most, because leaving a mother, who has already left everything, seems like it would do it. His mom pulls him away from his room where he is pretending to pack, throwing striped tees into an orange duffel bag with no regard for practicality. He claws for the banister as she drags him down the stairs and scrapes his teeth against the white handrails.
(He tells her that he will never forget this, but when he returns to pack her stuff for the facility thirty years later and sees the banister, he wonders about the teeth marks.)
At the time of the tantrum, he has not yet quit the piano. His mom is still tapping her fingers, still sharp-tongued but all flats when she yells or pushes her shoulders back and forth trying to get his attention and correct his spine. The boy still choked for his mom’s approval, has not yet attained enough that he is disappointed with all that it ends up being: some empty words and a soft hug. He is still practicing against the metronome, ticking time. He is still cowed by his mom’s threats to open the window and let all the neighbors hear his screaming, so that then, maybe, they will complain and he will be taken away and given a new mom. He is still praying for car accidents. At the time of the tantrum, he is still wailing and only stops when his mom drops to her knees and prays to a God he knows her not to believe in.
For their part, our neighbors never complain about the screaming. They comment instead on how dedicated I am to my art. Practices all the time, huh! Even so late at night —
The last time he plays in a state competition, he stops mid-way through. He gets lost in the rocking of the chords and forgets how to proceed. There is an awful three-minute lull when he tries again and again to restart the piece, but his mind is blank and his hands are clumsy and he is sweating and he feels the pity of the judges echoing through the hall. His mom, in her flat shoes with soles almost rubbed through, runs up to the stage with the music and shows him the measure; only then can he continue and return to Chopin’s waves, trying to tread through the rest of the piece with his head above sea level.
I never play my mom’s favorite piece if I can help it because she listens to it so often that she always hears something wrong in my playing, even when all the notes are correct. But as I get older, there is less time to be precious. When she asks me to, I clank through all three movements and ignore her fingers tapping wrong wrong wrong, because at least that means there still exists in her head a right she is using for comparison.
How did it go again?
How did what go again?
The story you told me before bedtime. Years ago. The one about the fisherman.
Well, if he’s a fisherman, he probably catches fish, the mom says. She frowns.
Yes, the boy says. He catches a fish. He grips her hand and strokes her fingers. And then?
The mom’s face is blank. I don’t know, she says. And then he takes it home and eats it, I suppose. What else would he do?
The winter before I quit piano for good, my mom and I go to a concert for which we can only afford balcony seats, way up in the back row next to two open windows. I begin to get chills midway through the performance, but am not sure if they are from outside air blowing in or the music expanding out. Either way, I go home that night with a fever, and to this day, still have yet to fully recover.
The boy escapes his own children sometimes on Sunday afternoons, driving the forty minutes to see his mother. One drive over, he wonders how she ended up on the piano bench herself. After they settle down onto the couch and begin peeling pomegranates, he asks her about it. She tells him that the first time she saw a piano was when she was sixteen, which makes him lean back in surprise. I didn’t even like piano, his mom says. I played the zither. He asks why she didn’t pursue that instead.
In between removing pomegranate seeds, the woman looks at him and is struck by how stupid he is, this son of hers, greying and thinning out in the corners and in hair, and still asking why with a question that has the answer embedded into it. I couldn’t, she says lightly, partially to make her son feel like she is not being patronizing, something he has always accused her of, but partially also so that she won’t cry.
The boy lifts his fingers out of the watery pomegranate blood and decides not to pry further. Both piano and zither seem equally dangerous to pursue. Why not, he thinks, go for the one you actually want? He stands up to mourn under the semblance of a smoke break. He has always thought his mom loved piano, and in learning the truth, feels betrayed.
His mom barely registers her son leaving. She is so preoccupied by the thought of her own mother’s coarse, swollen fingers, and the watery rice soup, and the ways in which escaping to a conservatory also meant abandoning everything else. Her son still doesn’t understand nuances. The zither is where her heart is strung, but the piano is a white man’s instrument, and there are some octaves her fingers couldn’t reach in Hunan. Holding on to the zither would have been asking the fish for too much, and she could have lost everything, including her stupid son. Her stupid, stupid boy who takes everything for granted even when he doesn’t. He never could put aside enough pride to practice his goddamn scales. Her fingers push for rubbery skin to peel and then find that they have already finished emptying the fruit, though she can’t remember when the last seed fell.