My piano teacher had unbelievable handwriting and she was the one who inspired how I draw the ‘A’ in my signature. Every week was another set of instructions penciled in on a seven day check-off list: the scale I would practice, the technique, usually Hanon, and the repertoire… all of it written with perfect penmanship.
I hated how she used those beautiful letters.
There was always an end-of-season classic our class attended. I think I saw ‘The Nutcracker’. I think there was a Swan Lake, a Sleeping Beauty and so many other things but they were always so similarly alien – memories of costumes, orchestras, long rides in a crowded van with other girls much older than I was… All of the best, all of the finest, tallest ceilings, velvet seats, all of the dresses and days having to pull on tights and go, go, go wherever we were all headed – they all blended in.
Culture, with its heart stripped away.
I remember looking down at the walkways a lot as I was being taken here and there. My mother’s hand was there for much of it – sometimes it couldn’t be, and that was when I’d lift my head up. That was when I had to be careful and excellent.
Going room to room, my stomach muscles always locked tight, one test after another, sometimes pencil and paper, sometimes a board of adults I walked past and sat down at an unknown, dark piano to play for. The best performance I ever gave had nothing to do with the music – it was behaving as though nothing ever seemed wrong. That everything happening felt normal.
Because that ill sort of fit never felt right, I decided that it was enough. I’d decided it early on – but was pushed into it longer with lectures about contracts and money. As if I’d be a burden to stop. I was never one of those girls who flubbed their music mid-way and ran off crying into the pews. But after the last part of my final piece was entirely made up, with the audience clapping and me taking a bow like the winner just the same, my instructor knew there was nothing more she could do.
I never went back to the Owosso School Of Music.
Some weeks after my departure a letter arrived with that one-of-a-kind writing. I remember my mother opening the card inside. There were a few lines of words. Something about how my teacher had once taken a break… and there was a good deal of cash money lying there.
Refund for Phantom Tickets!
Just another idea that had been someone else’s. I hadn’t cared that they had been on reserve. I didn’t care that I was no longer going. I was happy to see the money returned to my mother after all of that manipulative pressure about cost and who owed what. It would be a while before I ever walked over to the piano again and touched it with an intent that was solely my own.
Even as my fingers ran over the dusty jewel cases at our old district library and I went from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky to musicals and that double-thick CD case of Phantom, I never pulled it off the shelf. Sometimes I would hear snippets played by other people or a song thrown on a compilation. Maybe a title in a large book of sheet music where I spotted the name. A stranger who would come my way, obsessed with mystery, who I would see dressed the part. Who would show up at night and put the music in an online stream for me to hear. That I hit ‘play’ for about 2 minutes and pretended to have listened.
Having likened the story to me… was all the more reason why Phantom sounded like something I should stay away from.
“I saw an old program book for the play some years back at a garage sale. Cheap, too.”
“You should have bought it.”
Bought it, so I could have given a little something more to the beckoning void, I suppose.
My co-worker is telling me about this police officer he bought breakfast for, who returned the favor with a dish of pork and beans, to his uttermost disapproval.
“That is a fuckin’ side dish, Autumn! You know what I’m sayin? I bought this bitch a full-on meal and then walked across the street and bought her fine-ass sandals because she said her feet hurt. Smooth shit. PORK AND BEANS? That’s when I knew – this chick was going straight into the Phantom Zone.”
“Phantom Zone?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s what I call it when I decide that a girl is never gonna get it. So we’re just gonna be friends and fuck and whatever, but she’s never gonna get ME.”
Jesus. The crass disregard for you. The shadow in the sound. It sounded like a terrible place to be.
I’ve known 10 words in the whole thing for the majority of my life: 1. The 2. Phantom 3. Of 4.The 5. Opera 6. Is 7.There 8.Inside 9. My 10. Mind. My mind? Your mind? I don’t know. I don’t intend to learn any more.
The tiny thumbnail of a mask in my Netflix suggestions this morning. Just enough so that I don’t forget.
I remember the bad times. The strange times. I remember the envelope, where I got the A in my name. The green bills, unfolded, refunded.
Like an award.