mardi 15 juin 2010

My piano comes home

Johann Urbas, Dresden
No. 9281
, circa 1920

My heart still feels all tight in my chest, and I am in the next room from where it sits, waiting for me to learn to play again on it. I never expected, ever, to own my own piano, let alone so beautiful an instrument, and I feel pure gratitude.

It has been so many years since I played, and I remember my first lesson, down Haverhill Drive with someone I have forgotten before I went to study with Mrs. Markarian. I also remember the day I stopped, You'll regret it, everyone who had also stopped told me. You'll never play again, and you will regret it.

"I already do," I replied to myself.

Think of something else.

Why is it that every time you see a piano in the company of someone else, you cannot refrain from saying, "I used to play. I played well, but I stopped, and I cannot play anymore."

"Play something for us!"

"I can't. I have completely forgotten how to play. Even to read music."

"But, that's not possible! Please, do play something."

"I'm sorry, I can't."

They said you'd regret it, and you knew it.

"And they were right."

I have to begin again, from scales and finger exercises. I wish I had my old sheet music books, the fingering marked my Mrs. Markarian. I'll need a bench, and a metronome.

They were right. I have felt guilt and regret all these years, every time I saw a piano and could not play it, when once I could have considered going to competition, looked at sheet music and wondered how I ever could have read it and told my fingers what to do. It seemed unbelievable, and part of another life. The one in which I knew how to do those things, but I was too scared to perform and thought it was too absurd to continue if I were so reluctant. I went to college, had too much work to do in studio to ever go to the piano practice rooms, visited home for vacations and walked right past the piano.

Monsieur Baudry looked around the garden at the sunlight and the flowers after the piano was safely in its place. I watched him.

"Ca c'est pourquoi je reste ici. La maison," we both turned and looked up at the house, "est dix fois trop -- excusez-moi, j'exagère -- petite, mais je ne peux pas quitter ce jardin." He looked back out over the flower beds and the treetops to the fields beyond and nodded.

"C'est une piscine là en bas?" he asked, pointing to the bright blue spot showing between the branches of a shrub in the middle distance.

"Oui," I answered. He looked, it seemed to me, very intently at it all.

"Vous voulez voir le reste?" I asked him, thinking he might refuse politely, preferring to hurry off to something else. I didn't think he would.

"Oui. Pourquoi pas," he smiled, and I felt grateful to my garden for yet another reason: it was helping make up for his having to keep my piano months in his studio. A lovely June afternoon, by some act of God's favor, was a much nicer time to deliver it than in the dead of January.

I showed him the bench in the right intermediate terrace, settled into the sloped bank of St. John's Wort, facing the daylilies, about to bloom below the row of stone urns, planted with Surfinias and Geraniums.

"C'est boucolique!"

"Là," I pointed down towards the jungle below us and the burning pile, "nous allons construire une sort d'abri pour un atelier pour mon mari pour la rénovation de son ancien bateau en bois, et pour moi -- une place pour mes outils de jardinage --"

"Vous avez des projets!" he laughed.

"Ca, vous pouvez le dire, et voilà pourquoi --", but I let the sentence drop off. We knew. Think of the months the piano had sat in a corner of his studio, ready to come here.

"Quand est-ce que vous allez avoir le temps de jouer au piano?" he said, laughing again.

"Oh, je vais le faire. Ca sera ma détente," I replied with conviction. I was forgiven.

I led him and his son down the other stair, under the arc of the Wisteria, past the Forsythia and down to the gazebo terrace, past the Pierre de Ronsard in full bloom, the Ghislaine de Féligonde, bent over from the weight of its bunches of small, butter-yellow roses, the grass thick with its petals, if not thick with grass, which it is not here.

"Vous vous en occupez toute seule de tout ça?" asked Monsieur Baudry. Claude.

"Oui. Ca aussi, c'est pourquoi --" It's why the room was still not ready for the piano six months after I bought it.

We passed the Judas Tree, and I explained that I had that area to redo; a previous effort had been rather a failure. We went down the stone steps, past a twisted hazelnut tree in need of a pruning, and came out onto the bit of scrappy lawn, green more from weeds than blades of grass, behind the Birch and Tulip trees.

"Là," I pointed to the four shrubs along the wall under the gazebo terrace, "ce sont des Althéas." Roses of Sharon, in white, dark pink and purple. They will bloom much later in the summer. His eyes followed my hand, and he looked back up toward the house.

"C'est très beau, mais beaucoup de travail. Vous pouvez même enlever des plantes, tellement il y en a." I laughed, explaining that, indeed, I had already removed many plants, and it was true. I could remove more, but I like it. As much work as they are, I like them, although it needs more thought, changes. I have been adding plants again, actually. Roses and clematis to run through other plants and keep the flowering season going in the summer months, make it a jumble and almost overpowering, like heady perfume on a beautiful woman.

I want people to fall under its sway, overpowered, enchanted.

We walked over to the pool, where I pointed to a presently pathetic border behind the end of the pool where I had intended Hydrangeas to thrive, only to discover that the August sun and our annual absence during that time are overpowering to them.

"Vous vous en servez beaucoup?" he asked, wondering if we used the pool much.

"Pas de tout assez."

"C'est dommage qu'on n'a pas nos maillots de bain!" he laughed, sorry they didn't have their trunks. I nearly proposed I leave them to take a dip in their briefs, since the pool is in such a private location, but it occurred to me that perhaps we aren't on quite such intimate terms yet, although I certainly had felt quite free to abuse of his hospitality for my piano. Instead, I proposed that they feel quite free to return any time they please, bring his wife, and we could picnic and enjoy the garden, the pool and my work, finished.

"Je serai vieille par ce moment-là bien sur," I laughed, quite old by the time my projects and all my work here will be finished.

"Soyez certaine de le jouer," he said to me, climbing into the passenger seat of their truck. "Ca serait dommage de ne pas le faire."

"Croyez-moi, j'en ai l'intention de le jouer. Il est beau, non seulement à regarder, mais à entendre. Voilà pourquoi je l'ai acheté."

His son shifted into reverse, and the van started to beep as I waved and headed across the street to the old gate, held in place with wire. I secured it, avoiding the greeting of a new acquaintance, determined to become the companion of my days, a woman with one front tooth, two fewer than my old acquaintance down by the Seine, the one with the goats and dogs and cats in the camping trailer surrounded by the accumulated junk that makes her feel secure and prosperous, and headed in to play the one thing I remember.

It is the opening measures to my friend Martha's song "My Piano." She wrote it just before we both graduated high school, I to head off to Barnard and she to Yale, instead of conservatory. I was jealous, but she deserved it more than I did, and she didn't want to go, but it was her parents' dream for her come true, and an accomplishment after years of months in the hospital in Manhattan, recovering from kidney transplants, ice baths for her burning body, never allowed to turn into a woman's like our own from the heavy doses of steroids, and the dialysis. When we weren't even teenagers yet, we used to lie in bed together at night and listen to the sound of her blood, rushing through the shunt in her left wrist, thinking of marmalade skies and diamonds, strawberry fields forever, somewhat high from the colored markers we used to make our own psychedelic artwork for hours on end.

I hardly saw her after graduation, and then one afternoon a year or two after we had graduated from college, the friend that replaced her as my best friend called me in Washington to ask if she could come by where I would be taking care of the kids of friends of my family. She said she'd bring a bottle of wine; my mother had said that would be alright. Why, I had wondered all afternoon and into the evening, did my mother and she think I needed to get a little drunk? And why did my mother even know about this at all? An idea did come to me, and sitting on the walk in front of their Chevy Chase house, Ruth handed me the piece of newsprint I expected. I had known it. I only read the words that mattered. "Martha Blumberg died", followed by a date, more information I did not even see. I saw only the landscaping in the streetlight, and diamonds in the Chevy Chase sky.

I don't know the date. I don't know all the details. I talked to her mother again only many years later, when it had been 25 years since she and I graduated from high school, and I heard all that mattered.

"I miss her so much. Not a day goes by that I don't miss her," said her mother. She is alone. It was so unfair.

I placed my fingers on the keys and the notes came out sounding just like the song she wrote.

My piano
It's a symphony
When it sings
It bursts in harmony
My piano
When it sings for me

My piano, for me.

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