Spite is the Best Motivator

Submitted into Contest #38 in response to: Write a story about someone learning how to play an instrument. ... view prompt

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General

I’ll never remember the day she walked through the door. I’d like to say it was because the car accident damaged my head in addition to my right arm, but the actual reason was because back then, I didn’t care.

However, I’m told it went a little something like this…


Her knuckles softly rapped on the cold metal door of my music room, but I didn’t even bother to look before I asked. “Who is it?”

“Umm…? I’m Amelia. Your two o’clock.” She said as she peaked her head through the doorway.

I obsessively wiped down the keys of my mahogany grand piano while she took a timid step forward. My eyes stayed glued on the spot I saw a dirt speck about five wipe downs ago. Still not good enough. “So, you’re the new student?”

“Yes.”

“Paid for a year of lessons in advance, huh? Quite eager, aren’t you?”

Amelia blushed to herself. “Yup. I’ve been dreaming of becoming a pianist ever since I saw you perform in Carnegie Hall four years ago.”

“That was one of my best performances.” I laughed. “Who am I kidding? All of my performances are brilliant. I have the hands of a god.” I raked my hands through my black, gel-soaked locks. “And now, I shall pass on that gift to my students.”

She beamed, I grinned, and then I turned around. My smile fell as my eyes fixated on the limp sleeve of her left arm. “I think there’s been a mistake.”

Amelia doesn’t falter. “No mistake. I’m here for piano lessons.”

I stood. “No, you’re not.” I look her directly in the eyes and tell her. “I’m here to train professional pianists, not entertain your fantasies.”

“It’s not a fantasy. I’m going to be a pianist.”

“You can’t become a pianist with one arm.”

“I was born without it. I’ve never needed it.”

“This is a waste of my time,” I growled.

“I paid you--”

“And, I’ll refund your money, now please leave and stop wasting my time.”

The corners of her mouth twisted in anger as she stomped out and mumbled. “Ableist asshole.”

And maybe she was right about that. But I’ll never admit it.


The next time I saw Amelia was nearly six years later, and I do remember it--because it was the worst moment of my life.

One second, I was driving down the highway, minding my own business, and the next I found myself maddeningly twisting the wheel to avoid a head-on collision. It ended with my car flipped over on the side of the road, me fading out of consciousness, a shattered windshield, and a few pieces of glasses lodged into my right arm.

I woke up the next door in a milk white room that reeked of iodoform. My brother sat on my right side with his head in his hands. My lips were too cracked to speak, so I tried to reach over to him--but my right arm refused to move. My eyes locked onto my arm. I furrowed my eyebrows as I glared at my right arm, my brain screamed at it to move, but it didn’t. Not even a simple flop. A dead fish could do more.

When my brother finally looked up, he threw his arms around me and hugged me in relief. But, I didn’t feel relieved for being alive. In fact, the thought never crossed my mind. I only stared at his right arm, wondering why he should get to keep his.

I had had enough.

“Get off me!” I screamed, letting my lips split open.

Startled, he scrambled off. He stared blankly at me as he asked. “What’s wrong?”

I held up my right arm with my left one. “What’s wrong is that I can’t move my fucking right arm!”

“Just calm down, Jack,” he coaxed as he pressed the button for the nurse behind his back.

I swiped at him to get the remote back, just barely cutting his exposed skin with my nails. I revolted against sitting still, but my body groaned with every move I made. When I tried to lift myself off the bed, my body trembled like a building about to collapse.

“Jack, you’re still healing. You need to stay still and calm down.”

“Calm down? Calm down?!” I spat. “I’m a pianist and piano teacher. I need both of my arms to do those things, you know!”

Just as my face became so red with anger my brother thought the blood would burst out, a duo of nurses bursted into my hospital room. One of them held down my left arm as the other injected milky-white substance into my vein.

“What is that?” My brother asked.

“Lorazepam,” a nurse said while they forced me back against my bed. “He’ll be passed out in about fifteen minutes. It’s dangerous to have him moving so much after surgery. Is there anything you can do to distract him?”

“Ahhhhh,” my brother said as he glanced around the room. “Ooh,” he said as he spotted the TV remote. “I heard they’re interviewing a new pianist on Channel 4 today. You’ll like that, won’t you? Piano stuff?”

I grunted.

“Okay then.” He clicked it on.

The TV fuzzed before a clear image appeared. It took my brother about a minute of surfing to find the correct channel. And once he did, I couldn’t take my eyes off it, because right, sitting next to the Channel 4 news anchor was a one-armed pianist with a name tag that read Amelia.


Six months after that, my brother barged into my bedroom and ripped the sheets from my bed, consequently knocking me onto the floor. I landed on my right arm and winced. “What the hell, Derek?”

He yanked my curtains back and the  unfiltered sunlight stung my eyes like needles. “Jesus, man, close the curtains.”

I groaned.

“It’s been six months, Jack. You haven’t left that bed in six months. I’m concerned. You need to move on with your life. You can’t live off money from the lawsuit forever.”

“And just what do you suspect I should do with my life, huh? It’s over. Piano was my life.” I threw myself back into bed.

“Jack, listen to me. I’ve been through this before. Do you know how depressed after I failed the bar test the third time? I got so drunk I woke up in Canada.”

I huffed at him and burrowed deeper in my blankets.

Derek sighed. “Alright, that’s it. Get in my car.”

“What? No.”

“Jack, you can get in my car willingly or I can drag your sorry, weak, hasn’t-been-to-the- gym-in-six-months ass there instead. Your choice.”


“Where are you taking me?” I asked as I ducked my head into the passenger’s seat.

He locked the doors and revved the engine before answering. “Either to a piano concert at Carnegie Hall to cheer you up or a therapist. Again, I offer you a choice.”

I scoffed. “You can’t force me to go to a therapist.”

“No, but I can force you to sit there awkwardly for the hour I’m paying for. At least they’ll be nice music at Carnegie Hall.”

Nice? You can’t simply call the music at Carnegie Hall nice. It is so much more than that. Have you forgotten I once played there? It’s divine. Music like no other.”

He switched lanes to the nearest exit. “Guess we’re going there then. I brought two blazers in the back.”

“Whatever.”


To say people looked at us funny for wearing blazers on top of casual t-shirts would be a severe understatement. One couple even ushered away their teenage child when they saw us, not daring to make eye contact.

Derek grabbed my left arm and led me towards the third auditorium. “Come on, let’s go. I got us front row tickets.”


I tapped my foot as I glanced at my watch, then the empty piano bench. “She’s late. This is so unprofessional.”

“Just chill your jets,” Derek said.

A minute later, a petite girl in a purple dress that floated like a flower in the wind as she walked strided onto stage. Silently, she took her seat and adjusted the sheet music. She paused, then began.

And the entire time she played, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Her notes floated through the air like an angel’s whispers, coaxing a dumb smile onto my brother’s face as she stroked the keys with precision. My eyes narrowed as I fixated on her left sleeve--and lack of a left arm.

When she approached her final lines, the pianist outstretched her right arm towards the right side, dancing across the deepest of notes while the rest of her body slouched right. And when the final note came, she dipped her face in low and gently tapped her nose on the right for a lasting low note.

The audience roared with applause.

Within seconds half of them were on their feet. They tossed an entire garden worth of flowers on stage as the pianist bowed. She beamed towards the audience, but her smile faltered when she noticed me. We locked eyes for a brief second before she turned and walked away.

“Wow, that was really something, huh?” Derek said.

I scoffed. “I’ve heard better.”


After the show, I made a beeline for the left-side exit as some mother desperately tried to corral  her two misbehaving sons that were tossing around a flower vase.

“Hey!” Someone called out from behind me as I walked towards the exit. “Hey, stop!” My eyes went wide as she tried to grab my right arm to stop me.

Don’t touch my arm,” I growled.

“Sorry.” She took a step back.

“Wow, hey, you’re the girl who performed!” Derek gasped. “You were amazing!”

She smiled and did a little curtsy. “Thanks.”

“Amelia, right?” I asked.

“Oh, so you remember me?”

“Remember you? From what? I just saw you on TV once. Plus, your name is on the tickets. Why did you call after me?” I asked.

“I wanted to thank you,” she said.

“Thank me?”

“Yes. Because of you, I became a great pianist. Every time I thought of giving up, or quitting, I just remembered you.”

“You’re welcome? But I don’t know what you’re talking about?”

Then, she flashed me a smile as sweet as a sugar, but said in the bitchiest tone possible. “Because you’re the asshole who told me I could never be a pianist and spite is the best motivator around.”

“Don’t remember.”

“Bet you’re pretty mad that I’m the one who’s playing Carnegie Hall now, huh?”

“Still don’t remember what you’re talking about,” I mumbled.

“So, do you still teach or play?”

“Nope. Bye.”

Confusion flashed across her face. “Hey, wait…”

Just as I took a step forward towards the door, I heard the mother call out to me, “Look out!”

Before I knew it, the vase her sons were throwing crashed into my right arm, sending shards of it all across the floor. My newly soaked clothes clung to my body, making me shiver as a draft crept in through the doors.

“Oh my god, are you okay?” Derek asked.

I grimaced and clutched my right arm. “Just fine.”

“Why didn’t you try to catch it??” Amelia asked. “You just let it hit your arm??”

“Because… I… I can’t move my right arm. At all.”

Amelia stayed quiet for a minute before saying, “You’re probably freezing in those clothes. I think I can find a spare outfit for you backstage. Come with me.” And with that, she grabbed my hand and yanked me past security into the maze of backstage hallways.

“Guess, I’ll just wait here then,” Derek called after us.


I tugged down the ends of a tight, extra choirboy uniform from a private Catholic high school. “I look ridiculous.”

“You look dry.” She patted the empty side of the piano bench. “Take a seat.”

“What is this? The piano lesson I never gave you? I already told you, I don’t teach or play anymore.”

“Because of your arm?”

I didn’t answer.

“I thought as much.” She stretched out. “That’s pretty pitiful.”

My mouth gaped. “Excuse me?”

Her fingers hovered over the keys. “You’re not excused, choirboy.”

A flare of red colored my ear tips. Before I could make a retort, her hand pounced on the piano. Instantly, I realized the piece as Beethoven’s 7th sympathy based on the rhythm, but the notes were slightly off--yet it didn’t sound worse, in fact it almost sounded better than the original. I took a cautious step forward.

“Amazing, am I not?”

“Not,” I lied. “You’re not even playing the correct notes.”

“Yeah, but there’s a strange beauty to it, no?”

I didn’t reply.

“Why don’t you take a swing at it?”

“I--I can’t play.”

“Nah, you still got one good hand. Hell, even if you didn’t, a seasoned pianist could probably play it with their toes or face.”

“Ew.”

She shrugged. “To each our own.” She petted the empty space next to her on the piano bench. “Take a seat.”

“No.”

“It wasn’t a question, choirboy.”

Begrudgingly, I sat beside her. “Now what?”

Her hands froze mid-song. “It’s your turn to play.”

“What? No.”

“What? Yes!” She taunted.

“I can’t play.”

“Yes, you can. Come on, a little Beethoven never hurt anyone.”

I gulped and positioned my left arm over the keys while my right one hung limp.

“Any time now, choirboy,” she teased.

With a frown,  I started, but I could only play my left hand’s part of the symphony. It sounded hollow and half alive when I played it as I missed countless notes my right hand used to play. Nothing like Amelia’s version.

In frustration, I slammed down on the keys. The harsh sound stung our ears and made Amelia wince. “This is stupid,” I said.

“How now, choirboy. What’s wrong?”

“I feel like a child playing on a plastic keyboard. Why did my symphony sound so much different from yours? It’s the same one!”

She chuckled. “Alright, choirboy, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Lean in close now. You wanna know why they sounded different? It’s because we were playing different ones.”

“What?”

“I was playing one I customized for one hand. You’re trying to play a two-handed symphony with only your left hand. That’s kind of impossible.” Amelia stared at me dead in the eyes as she spoke. “Listen, we’ll never be able to do everything a two-handed person can, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make damn good music and live our lives however the fuck we want to.”

Before I could reply, she started playing again. Talking over the wondrous music, she said. “I’m kind of more glad you refused to teach me now. You would have sucked as a teacher since you refuse to learn.” Her nose dipped across the piano to hit an extreme low note. “See that’s the thing, your fault came when you mistakenly thought you had learned everything. In truth, we never stop learning or improving. That key-nose bit I did at the end of my performance I only figured out how to do last week. Humanity’s greatest strength is our ability to learn and adapt.”

“Okay? So what does that mean?”

“It means you can keep playing piano, you just need to learn and adapt to using one hand. If you want to keep playing, that is. Or, you can go back to whatever sad cave you crawled out of.”

I watched her fingers dance and tensed my right hand. “I want to play again.”

She cackled. “Good. Guess, I’m the teacher now and you’re the student. Ironic, huh? Now, play a C-scale. We're starting with the basics."


Something was off. My pits felt damp. Wait a minute, was I sweating??? Was I nervous? This has never happened before?? My breathing quickened and Amelia turned to me. “You okay there, bud?”

“Maybe??”

“Nervous?”

“I think?”

She laughed. “That’s good. Being nervous is good. It means you care.” Amelia tossed her head to her side as she considered a second explanation. “Unless, of course, if you have generalized anxiety. Then you should consult a therapist if need be.”

I gave her a dry laugh.

“You’re gonna be great.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You have the hand of a god.” She smiled at me from behind the other grand piano on stage. “And I have the other. So, let’s use them.”

Then they raised the curtains in Carnegie Hall with me on stage for the second time in my life and the first time I played a duet.

I’ll never remember the day I met Amelia, but I know I’ll never forget her for the rest of my life.

April 25, 2020 01:56

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3 comments

Amany Sayed
21:54 Aug 05, 2020

Oh, wow, this was beautiful and so creative! You are an amazing writer Cara! I don't know how you do it. Seriously, I'm ina we. Wonderful job!

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Hayley Igarashi
19:01 Apr 26, 2020

“You have the hand of a god.” She smiled at me from behind the other grand piano on stage. “And I have the other. So, let’s use them.” This was so moving, Cara. Some writers might have been tempted to tell this story from Amelia's point of view, but I think it's so much more raw and powerful to have this tale unfold through Jack's eyes. Nice job!

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Lily Kingston
19:53 Apr 26, 2020

Thank you so much!!

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