It's pretty much impossible to learn the piano without feeling some companionship with the Phantom of the Opera. At least it was for me. I knew I pretty much sucked when I started, squinting at the page in front of me, trying to get my two hands to work in time, but hey- I was playing the piano! I was sitting at that giant wood monster making a beautiful racket and giving off waves of mysterious power. Or I would have been, if the room were dark and candlelit and I was actually good at playing the piano.
My piano teacher was a girl named Sofia. She was in grade eleven and had completed all the conservatory courses. She was a real prodigy, unlike little me. She always smelled like freshly baked cinnamon rolls. Her scent wafted off her hair when she leaned over me to fix the positions of my fingers on the keys or to point out a sharp or flat I'd misplayed. I always preferred keys with sharps in them to keys with flats in them. Perhaps it was that the piano was pretending to be happy, or was so happy that its jubilation was stretching into something insane, something disjointed and loud. Keys with flats in them always seemed heavier, like they were carrying a burden. They'd been beaten down.
My parents bought the piano and the lessons for my birthday. One day I came home and turned the corner into the little alcove room with the large window looking out on the front lawn, the window framed with soft billowing curtains, and saw, like a blight on corn, a giant black piano taking up half the room. It had scared me. It was imposing, out of place, like the Phantom is when he's in a regularly furnished room. I peaked under it's lid like a naughty child, stroked the ivory-white keys. I pressed one down and the note that rang from the piano was commanding and rich. The sound didn't belong in my simple suburban home.
"Sit on the stool. There you go."
Sofia had pulled out the black piano bench. I sat on it nervously. The fabric caught and pulled against the bare skin of my legs where the shorts didn't cover them. The peddles were cold under my feet. Sofia took my shaking hands and placed them on the keys. I rubbed my thumb along middle C. The piano was so sleek and shiny that your reflection could be seen in almost every part of it. Sofia taught me how to read sheet music. She left me with a sheaf of papers, coloured and laminated. Each had a note on them, one note on a staff, either bass or treble. My homework was to pull out a random one and play that note on the piano.
During one of my lessons, one of the first, I became overwhelmed by the thunderings of the piano. It was a creature I couldn't tame. I slid off the stool, out of its grasp and hid in the bathroom. The familiar bath, the toilet with its fuzzy cover, the green floor mat, soft and warm, the flowery towels and the sink, the mirror, all helped to calm me down. I was alone in here, alone with comforting objects that knew me. The mirror reflected my rouged cheeks back to me. I took some deep breaths. And then I heard it. I don't think people really understand what music is, what it truly is. Music dissolves the boundaries of the flesh, it creates a pathway from soul to soul. Music is a place of harmony, of true harmony; a place where you create music and respond to music in exactly the same instant. It is an infinite loop, response and responder all wrapped up in one. The beast was sighing. The beast was singing. Sofia had mastered it, and the strains went through my head and around my heart. In playing I had always kept a wall between myself and the piano, but Sofia was one with the piano. Her music was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. I crept out of the bathroom and down the hall. I peered into the room, a shadow: I wanted to observe her, to become closer to the music but whatever I did I could not do anything that would make the music stop. The light kept Sofia in silhouette - as insubstantial as sound itself.
And then she stopped playing.
"You ready to play again Rickie?"
I opened my eyes.
Sofia was smiling at me. The sun had gone behind a cloud and she looked more human, more real than a few moments before. I swallowed my disappointment and replaced her on the stool. I placed my hands nervously on the teeth of that great beast. My hands trembled, and it felt like the beast trembled too. I pressed down, trying to lose myself in the sound, to abandon myself to it. Discord sounded. I was not a musician.
Keys with sharps allowed the piano and I to explore ecstasy, crazy, maniacal ecstasy. We could drown ourselves in dopamine, lose our sorrows in the high. I assumed that this was what Christine felt like when she sang for the Phantom: crazily happy and higher than a kite.
Sometimes, as a treat if I'd done well in my lessons, Sofia would play for me. I always asked timidly, like this was some divine gift unfit for my childish ears. But she never refused it to me. She'd sit down at the piano and unlock the box of my soul with sound. She didn't even need sheet music. I didn't know whether she'd memorized the pieces or was composing them. I never asked. Knowing that this enticing, living thing was written out in cold, black ink was a disappointment I didn't want. So what if it meant that more people could play it? I didn't want more people to play it; this music was mine and Sofia's alone.
While my parents listened to pop or rock or metal and my friends listened to basically the same things, I preferred, when I was alone, to turn the radio to the classical station. I'd turn the sound up and lay on my bed eyes closed letting the music and the sunshine wash over me in turns.
I never liked playing songs with flats. The music could be beautiful - oh, it could be so beautiful - but I could never get the flats out of my head. Flats were baggage dragging it down, down and down into despair. Flats were the human baggage, to me they represented all that tied me in, my ropes of flesh, that kept me from joining the music entirely. To be a soul in a sea of music - an unrealistic dream, but to me that was heaven. An angel of music? The angels were music. And I was just human, forever reaching for what I could not have; Sofia's hands gave me the only glance of what was beyond those pearly gates: rapture.
In time, I got better. I was nowhere near as good as Sofia was, but by human standards I was decent. One lesson, when I'd been playing for two years, Sofia pulled the wicker woven stool she sat on next to the bench and lay her hands next to mine on the finger-tarnished keys.
"How would you feel about learning a duet?"
I looked at her, surprised. Up till now, piano had always been a duet with myself, finding a balance between the highs and lows.
"Alright," I replied.
It was a simple enough piece, but together it was something more. It had more depth than anything I'd played before, more joy, more fun. If before I had been in solitary exploration, now I was in a game of tag. My heart wove itself into that piece like it hadn't for any other. That's not to say I hadn't put emotion into the other pieces I played - I had. But this was different. I wasn't just playing my heart into open air, I was playing my heart to Sofia. I was reaching out to her with strands of music and she was reaching back, playfully to be sure, but connecting with me none the less.
At the end of the lesson she hugged me. We'd hugged before, we were close, I admired her. She held me longer than normal before pulling away.
"You've really improved in two years, Rickie."
She turned her head and bit her lip. The wind blew through the screen door and tousled her feathery hair.
"This is probably the last lesson I'll be able to give you for a bit."
It was like a pebble had hit me between the eyes.
"You knew I'd have to go away in September."
"Well, the school wants me to come early. It's for the music course I'm following."
"We can still talk sometimes. Your parents have my phone number. I'd love to see how you progress."
"I've always dreamed of composing, Rickie."
I nodded. I wanted to tell her that she'd do great. She was already the best living musician I knew. But I couldn't. I couldn't, because it felt like she was betraying me, selling out this thing that had been ours. I knew it wasn't ours; all her music was hers and hers alone to do with as she pleased. I swallowed against the lump in my throat. Would she even remember, when she released her music to the world, those sunlit afternoons of just the two of us when the music was ours, secret and safe and comforting? Music like whispered words and warm blanket forts and notes passed in class.
"Have fun in school," I said.
"You'll do great," I said.
"I'll miss you," I said.
"I can't wait to hear the stuff you compose," I said.
It felt like scraping my tongue with sandpaper.
I hugged her again. "I'll call," I promised as she pushed open the screen door. She waved as she stepped into the bright light outside. She was squinting as she smiled. I watched her go, then slunk back into the shadows indoors, back to the alcove room with the lumbering piano.
The fabric gripped my legs with familiarity as I sat down. I rubbed my hands along its shining surface. In my head it wailed, slow and sad, echoing my own loss. We were alone now. I reached my hand to the lowest black key and let its solemn monotone play out. I pressed the keys one after another. All flats. All sad. All human grief. Faster and faster I played until I couldn't play anymore. I rested my head on the piano and stared at the gently billowing curtains, lit from without. A tear slid down my nose and hid the keys, but the only sound it made was a splash.