It was cool inside the auditorium, dim and tall-ceilinged, baroque wooden ornaments gracing the walls beside hieroglyphs of gold leaf. There was no sense here of the world outside, of the wind, the blue sky, the green-yellow trees, the baked smell of afternoon pavement. The fluorescent lights above the stage cast the emerald velvet chairs and their seated figures in shadow. The keys in front of her were white and cool as bone, the sheet music the aged yellow of a skeleton’s teeth.
The announcer spoke: “Continuing with the Upper Division Advanced roster, we will now have Sandra Lau, 11th grade, playing selections from Robert Schumann’s ‘Carnaval.’”
Sandra waited, taking a moment to re-scan the first bars, mentally rehearsing what they should sound like. The auditorium was stagnant. The softest rustle of adjusting clothes, a creak of chair springs.
And then in the second just before the silence would become too much, Sandra took a deep breath and began at the pick-up, her fingers nimble through the triumphant beginning of the Preambule as she kept the time precisely with her breaths, one-and-two-and-three-and-one-and-two-and-three-and. She leaned fearlessly in to the quick fingerwork, the crescendoes and dimuendoes, careful not to play too quickly, to not feel anxious. The page turner behind her flipped the sheets just as she reached the last bar and she was on to the next page, smoothly, without a hitch, she could play this piece blind, her fingers were faster than thought, her muscles knew exactly where, when, and how to press, not too soft, not too hard, don’t go too fast, keep breathing, count.
After the applause, she stood up, the folded folio under her arm, and bowed to the audience, making sure to meet the eyes of the judges who sat scribbling in the front row — this was a mind game, to make sure they saw how confident she was. Her head was hot with triumph, but she kept her expression unsmiling. She walked off the stage slowly. She had played perfectly. She knew.
Her scuffed heels clacked down the steps. She settled into her seat three rows behind the judges, ignoring the other contestants. The next competitor came on stage and Sandra barely listened, through this girl, the next boy, the next girl. Familiar faces, faces she had seen time and time again over the competition circuit through the years.
The Southern California Association of Music’s annual piano competition was a hotbed of seething envy, neuroses, backstabbing and tears. Only the best and most bloodthirsty advanced from the local competitions to the county level, and from there only the most vicious and technically precise would be awarded the crown at the final state competition in Los Angeles in June. Her mind drifted to the future: Today she’d win first in county, and then all that was left was the advanced upper division state-level competition. Last year she’d gotten second in the final round, losing to a high school senior from Arcadia, but with that senior off in college, she was sure to be first this time, and so end her years on the competition circuit triumphantly before college applications in the fall.
She had fallen into half a trance, listening to the babble of piano music, slow and fast, Grieg and Kabalevsky, but then — she didn’t know how many songs later — something pricked her awake. On stage was a boy she recognized, a competition regular, tall and spindly, with long arms, a straight nose and rectangular glasses. Derek Ma. He was playing a piece she recognized, something ponderous, even lugubrious, except for the quick trills and flutters of energy that accelerated the heartbeat of the harmony. She tried to keep time in her head: The rhythm was maddeningly difficult. His fingers were light as butterflies. She opened the program and read, “selection from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.”
Sandra sat up straight through the end of the piece. An hour later, she emerged from the Jacobs Music Center onto the warm green lawns outside, one of the last from the flood of escaping music teachers, parents and black-jacketed youths, many of the latter dazedly clutching folios and possessed of the lost, listless look of soldiers in a fugue state.
Nearby, a mother hugged her daughter, a 12- or 13-year old blond in a perfectly fitted green dress, her hair falling in pretty waves. “Congratulations, sweetie! Fourth place!” Sandra cast them a contemptuous glance. If the girl only got fourth place now, she’d be out of the circuit in two years. She would never make it past city.
Her mental calculus was automatic. She turned away from the blond girl and immediately forgot her.
Her piano teacher appeared to congratulate her: “Sandra, you played well.”
“Thanks,” Sandra said mechanically. In her right hand she held the silver trophy for second place.
“We’ll start preparing for June.”
They exchanged no more words. Mrs. Lisowski had been a master of Chopin in her native country of Poland; she had met many students through her career, but Sandra, moody, intense, self-driven Sandra, whose habitual tight ponytail pulled her sharp-featured face and taut cheekbones into a shark’s grimace, and who sat at the piano as though it were an enemy to be wrestled down, sometimes chilled her.
Derek Ma. How had he beaten her? At this same competition last year, Sandra had gotten first easily, and Bradley Philips — surprising everyone — second. Bradley was a brunet and languid-limbed boy a year older than her who, against her will, attracted her gaze to his long lashes, the sprinkling of freckles on his cheeks, the shoulders stretching his suit jacket. He played show tune accompaniments at her high school theater productions, which Sandra collected the brochures for but never attended. But when he came up to her after the awards ceremony with his second-place trophy and smiled, offering a hand to say “Congratulations,” Sandra, stalky and twiggy in the same boxy black dress she’d worn this year, hadn’t known how to say anything but the shortest of “Thanks.”
She had even thought of Bradley with a mix of pity and a preemptive regret, for though he was handsome and gentle, she would have to leave him behind. Bradley was good enough at piano, but he never took the certification tests, was only in one or two AP classes, and was certainly not serious enough in his life to be going somewhere like Stanford, or Berkeley or UCLA, the places for which Sandra knew she was destined.
And Derek Ma had gotten third.
Third, and this year he was first.
She’d met his parents at some piano examination or other, and they’d said he wanted to study engineering. He was on the robotics team at his high school, one district over, renowned for their award-winning, nationally ranked team.
He didn’t even practice that much!, she thought, though she didn’t know if this was true. But how could he do everything? School, tech competitions and piano? It was unfair. The only thing Sandra did — the only thing — was piano. Two and a half hours a day, every day, weekends included. And theory classes on Friday evenings.
Piano was her golden ticket. Like every other Asian kid at her high school, she had good grades, took advanced classes, had good test scores, volunteered at a senior home some Sundays. Other kids played the piano too, or the violin or were in band or orchestra, but none of them — Sandra thought — were as serious as she was. If she proved herself at the state recitals this June, if she got first place, she’d show she had talent. Discipline. She’d stand out.
And without the distinction of first place, what did she have? Nothing.
How had she lost? What had she done wrong?
She turned into her cul-de-sac. Her SUV was a dirty, dented, unloved old thing, which she usually drove in abject silence, bought secondhand eight years ago and passed, thirdhand, to Sandra when she got her license.
She pulled up the parking brake and was about to turn the engine off, but her hand stopped. No one would be expecting her just yet. In the car, she had a few minutes of privacy before she had to go through the front door, eat dinner with her family, help her sisters with their homework and start her own. A few minutes before she would have to tell them how she’d done.
She decided to drive to the neighborhood exit and back again.
The only CD in the front compartment was plain and unmarked. She snapped it out of its case and slid it into the CD player and pulled away from the curb. A delicate instrumental accompaniment, piano and the murmur of violins, spun out of the speakers. It was some breathtakingly sentimental song, with a soprano’s breathy warble. Sidewalks and oak trees slid past the window. She listened on, trying to place it.
We never said our love was evergreen, or as unchanging as the sea
But if you can still remember
Stop and think of me
Andrew Lloyd fucking Webber. It was The Phantom of the Opera. This must be Maya’s CD. She’d been obsessed a few months ago; Sandra had gone to Blockbuster to get the DVD for her. The cover with the pretty curly-haired girl. Pretty and talented. When you were both, you didn’t have to give anything up. She was 17 and had never been kissed.
This song was so cheesy. So easy. So romantic. This was why she didn’t listen to this stuff. It was undemanding, unrigorous, cheap commercial —
And yet —
She turned around only as the second song, even worse than the first, was starting. As she straightened out in front of her house the wheels scraped the curb loudly. She turned the engine off and "Angel of Music" cut out mid-warble.
She went in. “I’m home,” she called and immediately headed up the stairs.
“Is that Sandra?” her mother’s voice floated out from the kitchen. “How was the competition?” Diana, her youngest sister, poked her head out.
“I’m going to change,” Sandra said loudly.
Diana followed. “Nice dress.”
This black dress is not nice, she thought contemptuously.
“So did you win?” her sister persisted.
“I got second,” Sandra said, entering the bathroom and closing the door behind her.
She’d started the piano when she was 6. Her mother had played Beethoven and Mozart, the only composers she knew, to her in the womb. She’d wanted Sandra to be a prodigy.
She half-remembered, in the way that memories might be constructed rather than formed, walking through the music store the day they bought the piano, with the soft lighting glinting off the polished surfaces of the wooden cellos and violas and violins, the mysterious, feminine swells of the black instrument cases, the soft carpeting, the glass windows and high ceilings — and in the center of the showroom, taking center stage, the grand pianos. Their covers were lifted to show the endless rows of ebony and ivory, regular, uniform, begging to be pressed. Sandra put her finger down on one key as she passed and heard the note chime out into the room, lovely and sonorous and bright.
And they got a a cabinet piano. Not a grand piano, but still, a cabinet piano all her own, walnut-colored, KAWAI printed in gold lettering on the wood. When it had been installed in their living room, Sandra was allowed to insert the little brass key, unlock the lid and lift it to reveal the velvety red dust cover. Everything about the piano was, to her, sumptuous and sensual, replete with mystery and richness.
“We’ll get a big one later,” her mother promised her. “When you get better, we’ll definitely get a big one.”
Her first teacher was gentle and motherly and praised Sandra for learning to read sheet music so quickly. By now she had forgotten that teacher’s name. She remembered only the amiable aura, the gentle way she had leaned over Sandra to correct her posture. She’d hummed occasionally when correcting her. At the end of their lessons the teacher always gave her a warm hug goodbye, though Sandra never lifted her arms back.
Just as she had finished learning to read her bass and treble clefs and how to play the C major scale, Maya was born. During this pregnancy her mother had spent a lot of time looking at Old Master paintings. When Maya was delivered and brought back home, Sandra peeked in the crib at this new pink sleeping baby-sister-thing, and Maya coughed and let out a cry. “Well, Sandra, you’ll have to be a good big sister,” her mother whispered to her, clasping a heavy hand on Sandra’s shoulder, near her neck. Diana followed a year a half later. Since then her mother had not said much about Sandra’s piano at all.
Tuesdays were Sandra’s lessons with Mrs. Lisowski. In her brocaded living room, her teacher showed her the video she’d filmed of Sandra’s weekend performance. They followed along with the sheet music as they went over the Schumann. The copy they used was scribbled and dog-eared, Mrs. Lisowski’s handwriting scribbled all over the margins: underlines where she needed to add emphasis, softer here written over the bass clef.
When Mrs. Lisowski put the SD card into the computer and turned it on, Sandra watched herself ascend the stage, her expression stony and still. She viscerally relived the sensation of sitting at the grand piano, the lights beaming bright from the ceiling, the cold hard floor she could feel through her heels.
But she also remembered that sensation of triumph. She remembered how she had been sure, so sure, she had played everything right.
Now she knew she had been wrong. Second place. Just barely eligible for the state finals.
She let herself dwell on her appearance in the video. In the poorly fitting dress, square around the waist and short along the thighs, she looked sullen and plain. But what did it matter? She was not here to be beautiful. She had always known she’d prove her value another way.
She returned her attention to the pages in front of her. Now, she could hear none of that triumph she’d been so sure of. But why? The piece — it still sounded good. It sounded just as it was written. She hit the notes, she kept the pace, she was faithful to each command on the sheet.
There must be errors somewhere. Yes, she thought. There, she had sped up just a bit too much, and there, the volume of her crescendo was too loud, and there, a little skip where she transitioned between difficult chords. She knew that spot well, where her fingers were too short to make the jump easily.
She and Mrs. Lisowski went exhaustively over the bars they marked, practicing each section again and again. Finally, she asked Mrs. Lisowski to put the camera on the edge of the piano, angled so only her hands and wrists were visible. Sandra imagined herself ascending the stage again, ready to dominate, succeed, bend the piano to the force of her will.
When she reviewed the second video afterwards on the Sony display, the two performances did not sound so very different from each other. She knew she should listen carefully, focus on all the small details that made such a difference. Instead, she could not stop looking at her hands on the tiny camera screen. They were like scurrying little rats, frantic and ungraceful. Against the beautiful row of white keys, the contrast was shameful. How had she never noticed it before?
She crossed her hands in her lap. Her nails were plain, uncolored, clipped short and hastily. A cooking scar was under one knuckle. She wriggled her fingers. They moved so lissomely, dexterous from her years of unforgiving practice. She controlled every joint, every tendon. But she could not do anything about the fact that her hands were small. They were dark, squat and ugly. Chords stacked in notes of four or five were always a challenge. When she jumped octaves, she always had to use the pedal.
She recalled Derek Ma as he’d stood on stage — his uncomfortably tall frame, slightly stooped; his pale, computer-nerd skin, the wrists poking out of his too-short suit jacket. And his hands. They were milky-white, with prominent knuckles, but his fingers were long and loose was all that mattered. Chopin was famous for his enormous, octave-eating hands. Derek Ma had the hands of a true virtuoso. That was what she had to compete with.
Friday lunchtime, which Sandra spent in the media center reviewing physics, sneaking bites of cold cafeteria pizza while the librarian pretended not to notice. “Hey,” someone said behind her.
Sandra spun around, eyebrows knitted together in alarm. It was Bradley Philips. She put her hand over her mouth and swallowed. “What?”
He was wearing a bomber jacket over a a white T-shirt and frayed jeans. He had a stack of pink papers in his hand. “Just passing around flyers for this,” he said, and handed her one of the papers. Chicago! the flyer announced. Murder, Jail, and Jazz! Presented by the RB Players! Followed by a string of student names Sandra knew but did not associate with — Emily Stepman, Dylan Harris, Melinda Ghosh.
“Opening night’s tonight at 7.” Bradley grinned. “I’m on piano. You should come, it’s going to be fun.”
The pizza seemed stuck in Sandra’s throat. “Sorry,” she said, casting her eyes down at Bradley’s knees. “I have to be home.” She handed the flyer back to him and forced herself to look up and make eye contact.
“Well,” he said, with a half smile that made her stomach burn, “Sorry to miss you.” She watched him leave and head to the kids at the next table over, openly passing a bag of onion-flavored corn rings back and forth and clearly not paying attention to the textbooks stacked carelessly next to them. She heard his easygoing voice again: “Hey, you guys busy tonight? You should come to Chicago…”
They were all empty words. He wasn’t going to miss her.
In the afternoon, seeing Maya and Diana settled with snacks and homework in the kitchen, she flipped open the piano lid and started running through her scales. Her fingers stumbled a little; her rhythm wasn’t steady. She opened the Schumann. Played the first bars. She thought of Derek Ma playing the Liszt so confidently. Her fingers faltered. She started over and after a page and a half of determined, ruthless playing, banged her left hand down in a sharp, atonal jumble of keys and broke off abruptly.
Her mother came home at dinner. Bradley’s musical had started an hour before. Sandra had already prepared the rice and reheated the previous night’s soup. Her mother tied on an apron and got out the meat.
“How did everything go today?”
“Everyone got their homework done?”
Her mother frowned, as though trying to place something. She had been, still was, a beautiful woman, with fine cheekbones, expressive eyes, an elegant tapered jaw. She watched Sandra beat a bowl of eggs, then said, “Why aren’t you at theory class?”
Sandra stopped. “Crap.”
“You forgot?” Her mother looked at her with bewilderment.
Sandra looked at the clock. 8 pm. The class would finish in half an hour. Maya popped out of the den. “What’s going on?”
“She missed her theory class,” her mother said. “Sandra, that’s not like you.”
“Mom!” Her pulse accelerated and shame flushed her neck. “I —” I was busy, she wanted to say. I was thinking about the competition. … I have been so tired. … I … She couldn’t swallow. There was a brick in her throat. The walls were pressing in around her, the faces of her mother, her sister, their heads cocked in the same way, their identical curious eyes.
Late. She’d missed it. Then she was grabbing her keychain wallet and jamming her feet into her battered sneakers. Maya ran to the door. “Where are you going?!”
“It’s too late!” her mother called.
But she was out the door, she was in her car. The rumble of the engine startled her. She sped past still trees and silent buildings, the dark road and the moonlit night pooled around her. Perhaps she could still. ... She moved onto the 5-South. An exit later, she met a huddle of traffic and slowed.
She was slightly calmer now, her body cooled, her brain clearer. She felt foolish. She had left her phone behind. Her car idled. Again she did not want the car to be silent. She turned on the radio and sound flickered in. Worship music. The singing that filled the car was dreamy, rapturous, wholly unfamiliar. She imagined church choirs with their high angelic voices. A part of her wished she could believe in this, a force greater than herself, so she would not feel so alone.
She should turn back, but she did not want to face home yet, face the explanations and questions.
Off the side of the freeway there was a big white billboard with a smiling woman’s face. Her skin was smooth and unblemished, her eyes almost alien in their blueness, her blond hair pulled back into the perfect ponytail. She held up a hand encased in a clinging white doctor’s glove. Don’t let nature do the work! Radical cosmetic surgery to change your life. Free consultation. Followed by a phone number. Sandra’s eyes lingered on the billboard until a honk behind her startled her into pressing the gas.
She ended up at the high school. At the far end of the lot, underneath a shivering pine tree with a spindly bench, she found an empty space. She parked and contemplated getting out. She was here, after all. She was right across from the theater. The lights were all on; she could see them from here. She killed the engine and the headlights flickered off. The radio, which she had forgotten about, played on. It was some classical channel now.
She imagined the state competition in two months time. In those two months, her days would be filled with exhaustive practice, two and a half hours, or three, including weekends, the arpeggios, the technical exercises, the recordings she’d listen to, the Schumann she’d play over, and over and over again. She felt tired all the way down her arms.
And in a fearful whisper she hadn’t dared voice to herself, she wondered, what if she didn’t get better? If after all that, she still wasn’t good enough for first?
What if someone else still beat her?
After all, what could you do when you hit your limit? When you’d done everything you could to improve and there was nothing else you could change?
She remembered the billboard: Don’t let nature do the work! The perfect woman with the gloved hand.
It wasn’t fair that she had practiced so hard to be defeated. She had put everything in, and it still wasn’t enough. If, Sandra thought half-dreamily, she were to change something about herself … if she could replace her hands with someone else’s …
Because then she would be perfect, she would play perfectly. She imagined the procedure. The surgeon’s blade. The swapping, the stitching. There’d be therapy, obviously. She wouldn’t be able to use the hands as her own right away. But over time, she’d be able to start from the beginning again, relearn it all better, the scales, the notes, C-D-E-F-G. She even felt happy at the thought of taking the doctor’s directions day after day, with nothing to think about except move this finger, stretch that muscle, don’t move that IV drip, as the daylight passed through the hospital ward and dropped into night.
Whose hands would she take? Derek’s. Her thin arms, the burnished skin of her wrists, suddenly bifurcated, his huge, heavy ghost-colored hands hanging off her bony wrists. She pictured what she could do with those hands, stretching the thumb on the keyboard from middle C to the next C, C to D, C to E.
She imagined ascending to the stage of the Jacobs Music Center and bowing to the audience with those alien, better hands. The horror of the audience, their sudden alertness, their helpless morbid fascination. She’d look like Frankenstein’s monster. The judges’ faces!
They could not help but pay attention to her then.
But. Sandra touched her face. If she were honest. If she were really honest with herself. If she could change herself, she’d soften her features. Round out her chin, raise up her nose. She imagined walking through sliding glass hospital doors, her hair down, not in a black dress, but in something nice, maybe green. Or low-slung Levi’s, new from the mall, with little suede flats like she saw other girls wearing.
But she couldn’t see it. She couldn’t imagine what she, in this fantasy, looked like. There was no use, she thought against herself, repeating her old mantra, in wanting something you could not have. No use, for instance, in imagining Bradley Philips picking her up in his car, a nice silver sedan. No use in imagining spending her time differently, sunny afternoons where she did not have to pick up her sisters, go home, open her test prep guides, then her practice books, think of ways to do more, be better. …
“Johny Wright playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D, arranged for piano,” the smooth radio announcer’s voice said.
Sandra was jolted. She almost turned the radio off, with half a mind to go outside after all, get some air, listen to the tail end of the musical. But the music stopped her.
A child’s song. The tempo slow and easy, the main melody and chord progressions and simple variations easy to remember, simple to play.
And of course, the tune. She could hum along, if she wanted. Every child knew this tune whether or not they knew the name. Simple, joyous, subtly nostalgic. One of the classic songs, easy, popular, beautiful. Too popular. Too familiar. There was nothing interesting about the song, and yet, now Sandra was lost.
The left hand played the same harmony over and over. Her ear training kicking in, she isolated the same eight notes: D, A, B, F# … F# for D Major, of course, this was why it was the Canon in D, she thought inanely, automatically, like she was answering a question on a test.
In fact, she recalled, she had only ever played one version of the song. It was when she was 8. Or 9. Just before she had left that first teacher, the soft one whose name she couldn’t remember. She had had one of those beginner piano primers, Classic Masterworks Arrangements Vol. 1. It had a yellow cover. And she remembered the teacher now, putting on the CD of a more complex, fuller version of the Canon and saying, “One day you’ll play this one!”
She dug her nails into her palms. Back then, when she had had no expectations of herself, it had been an easy, simple joy to open the piano and touch the keys. It had been magic. Press a key, make a song. Press two keys, three keys, four keys, all at once, and they could sound jangled and ugly, which was pleasing in itself, or they could resolve, sound perfect, like a key clicking in a lock.
She had loved the little arrangement she’d played. She had played it over and over. She could remember the joy with which she swung her elbows as she ran her fingers up the arpeggios and the self-importance with which she turned the page.
Her father had joked, “Don’t you know how to play anything else?”
And her mother had defended her, “This is a famous song!”
But the Canon on the radio was winding down now. The notes were coming farther and farther apart, softer and softer, and it was going to fade soon, resolve. Sandra could feel the end of the performance coming. She felt sad now; there was a whole emotion coursing through her body which she would have to examine later, after this experience was over. Inside her chest there was a loosening, as though a stitch had been undone, something had given way.
The feeling she had was something like mourning, also like forgiveness. And the sadness had an ecstatic side to it too: It was because of the way the melody lifted at the end of each repetition of the theme, one could not help but be uplifted. Was this not the reason people continued to listen, to make these sounds, to stitch them together into feeling like this? She never felt the way she felt when listening to this song now, when she played the piano.
All those years she had spent practicing (11! 11 years!). What had they all been for?
She groped for some understanding of what it was she wanted to change. There was a thought out there she could almost catch, drifting on the currents of the night like a fallen leaf, slipping around the pine tree, over the bench, over the side mirror just next to her. I wish …
Then she heard a different noise and looked through the window. A shadow moved across the sidewalk in front of her. Sandra ducked and flattened herself against the seat. After a few moments, she heard a car starting and cautiously raised her head. Across from her, the lights in the theater were dark. Bodies were trailing out. The show was over.