My father grew up in a two-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor of a six-story building on Jane Street in Greenwich Village. The apartment had been purchased by his father in 1944, and nobody was ever able to explain how a Steinway Vertegrand ended up in the living room. It had come with the apartment, and the sole attempt to remove it, sometime in the early 1950s, led to the discovery that while it could fit just fine through the front door, there wasn’t enough room in the hallway to turn it around so it could go down the stairs. Some giant could probably lift it over the railing and onto the stairs, but between our landing and the exit to Jane Street there were seven hairpin turns, and the piano would have to go up and over the railings each time.
The potential buyer had his money returned and the piano was shoved back into its space, where it was covered with muslin and used to display pictures and houseplants in front of the window that didn’t lead to the fire escape.
My parents when they were both students at Columbia. He brought her home for Thanksgiving, and upon seeing the piano she asked if she could try it. It hadn’t been serviced in almost thirty years, and was only touched when it needed to be moved for spring cleaning or general rearranging of furniture.
She pulled off the cloth and played a chord.
I wasn’t there, obviously. I heard this story a thousand times growing up. My parents had it down like a routine, adding commentary to each other’s commentaries until they reached the well-rehearsed punchline at the end. Thanks to a photograph taken that same afternoon, I know how they looked that day, my father at twenty-one and my mother nineteen, both still astoundingly slender, with matching feathered hair. Dad sported an absurd mustache but was otherwise himself; Mom was still quite girlish; neither of them could have known that they were from this day bound to each other for life, with two children hovering just off-screen in the near-future.
According to my mother, the poor piano had died ages ago, and it was a wonder that it made any sound at all. Of course, “sound” was all it made. Everything was out of tune, some of the keys had been stuck in place by decades of dust, spilled drinks, and unidentifiable goo. There was no music, just sound, a dead piano begging to be left in peace.
According to my father, the chord, the notes that followed, and the soft wordless aria that accompanied (Mom was trying to find anything resembling a key) parted the skies in the living room and rays of angelic sunlight shone forth on the instrument, which was instantly transformed from an unusually cumbersome bookshelf into a work of exquisite beauty. She had pulled Excalibur from the living room stone, and filled the kingdom with radiant joy.
The Brittens of Jane Street had absolutely no music in their blood, and my dad was no exception. “The only way I can tell if something is in tune is to have my girls sing it. If it sounds like Alison, it’s in tune. If it sounds like Shelly, it isn’t.” He made this joke for years.
In any event, future-Mom told future-Dad that the piano was unplayable, and he spent an enormous part of his savings hiring professionals to invade the apartment and bring the old box back to life. By the time they got married, the piano was alive and playable and hers.
A Thanksgiving that I can actually remember: I’m five years old. A different set of Brittens live on Jane Street now: Dad still, now in his old parents’ room with his wife, and his two daughters sharing his old bedroom. (His parents had given them the apartment as a wedding present-slash-excuse to move to New Jersey.)
Thanksgiving was my father’s holiday. He had a precise vision for what should be prepared and how it should be presented, and the rest of us knew that we could not help, only hinder and perhaps destroy. We stayed in the living room all day, amusing each other and making sure we kept out of the way.
Once it became her house my mom moved the piano away from the wall to a spot that was both acoustically acceptable and appropriate to a small apartment with two children. She played whenever she could, which wasn’t often because of those aforesaid children. But since Thanksgiving meant that we were all to stay OUT OF THE WAY, she had the whole morning to play, and she did.
What I remember about this Thanksgiving mini-concert was standing behind the piano with my shoulders, back, bum, and legs pressed flush against the wood cabinet so I could feel the music pass through my body on its way out into the world. The vibrations tickled my ears so I kept my head forward, away from the piano, but everywhere else it was a magical swoon of vibration. For the first time in my life–I had turned five only a few weeks earlier–I connected with music in a place indescribable but far beyond my ears.
The piece was “La fille aux cheveux de lin,” which I didn’t learn to spell until years later. (Later still I learned that there is a perfectly serviceable English translation of the title, but that wasn’t what Mom called it so I didn’t, either.)
I saw music in the way I would see it from that point on, as little dots of light that danced on a eternally smooth background, simultaneously ephemeral and tactile, figuratively literal, literally figurative. The lights took shape and became what the sound evoked. They could be raindrops or toys or streaks of color, marching feet or dancing elephants or flags raised above the clouds of battle. Whatever they were I heard it in my ears, saw it with my eyes, and felt it flow through me as invisible and visible energy.
In this case the notes were a girl. She didn’t have flaxen hair–I didn’t speak French so that idea didn’t implant itself. I saw myself, or someone modeled on myself: a wisp of a girl with dark shoulder-length hair. The girl I saw was older than my five-year-old self but not by much. The first few notes saw her taking a few half-hearted steps, dancing lazily, reluctantly perhaps, more than a little unsteady. Her feet left ripples in the ground that lasted for the duration of each note.
Then the music deepened, lower notes passed through me, the tempo increased, her steps became more fluid. There was a swoop of notes, and then crescendo. My music-girl bent her body, and as she twirled around her half-dance became an un-self-conscious pirouette, a moment of grace and abandon that reached a gentle climax and then stopped in embarrassment. She glanced about nervously to make sure nobody had seen, and then the theme returned, quiet and in a different key, and she shuffled her feet a bit more in a faint but happy echo of her earlier dance.
Mom had been teaching Shelly how to play for months, and because we didn’t have a TV I often ended up watching. I’d never asked to play, and whenever I was invited to I simply banged on the keys until someone told me to stop. Until that moment, that is. At that moment music gripped me, and although I didn’t know what it meant I knew that on this day I didn’t want her to stop playing. I wanted to press myself more against the piano, to somehow enter into the music and become the dancing music girl in my head. I spent years in that grip. I wanted to spend my whole life in it.
I insisted on getting lessons, too, but my mother was already on the verge of abandoning Shelly to her musical fate and had no interest in failing with me, too. I was persistent, though, and exercised my God-gjven right as the youngest child to be an absolute pest about it. To save his marriage and probably my young life, my father tracked down a music school with programs for kids my age and arranged to have Shelly and I picked up from school every day. It was all very expensive but I can’t imagine that Mom took much persuading. It kept us out of her hair for a little bit longer, after all.
The kids in the school were divided into Piccolos, Flutes, Clarinets, and Bassoons, if I remember correctly. I was a Piccolo. Mostly the Piccolos banged on blocks and sang kids’ songs. There might have been a toy piano in the back but I don’t remember ever playing it.
I do remember getting bored and going to the Clarinets, where Shelly was taking proper lessons on a Casio keyboard. I’d sit in the back and watch until one of the grown-ups realized I was missing and came to get me. This happened every day until I threw a tantrum and they decided that I wasn’t bothering anybody sitting on the floor, and my parents were going to keep paying no matter what I did. No harm, no foul.
Pianos and keyboards I understood. We had the big Steinway at home, and a battery-powered mini keyboard that was programmed to play a half-dozen simple melodies. Shelly and I also had an assortment of toy flutes and various kinds of percussion. I don’t remember when exactly we got the kid-sized guitar, but it must have been around this time. I liked them all, but no more than I liked playing with any of my other toys.
There was a group of kids in Shelly’s class who were learning to play violin. They sounded awful, even to my little ears, but when their teacher played something, it stirred something in me. I stopped paying attention to Shelly and started watching the violins. Before long I was miming along with whatever sticks I could find: pencils, drumsticks, whatever. And at some point the teacher took pity on me and handed me a tiny violin.
I never went back to the Piccolos.
It was a long time before I even came back to this world.
My father later called me his Icarus. He said this with a world-weary smirk, a humor that conveyed more than a little guilt and a hint of shame. That was later, of course, after the crash. Before the crash, I soared.
The music school declared me a prodigy, and Dad coughed up money for private lessons. Mom protested but he overruled her. Shelly grew prematurely bitter as her little sister stole whatever precious limelight she had left, but to no avail.
We left the city for a house in the suburbs. It was cheaper and put us closer to the university-based teachers I studied with. School took a back seat to music–I was naturally a good student and could hold down decent grades with minimal effort.
There were competitions and recitals and invitations to perform for increasingly important people in increasingly beautiful venues. Classical violinists do not typically become household names, but within the world of child prodigies the word was that I had a chance.
My father became my biggest champion. (My mother and sister formed a shaky bond with each other based on their unmentionable resentments.) He knew nothing about music, to the point where although he was willing to learn he was fundamentally incapable of doing so, but he was guided, I believe, by two points of light. The first was his obvious love for me. The other, more speculative on my part, was his memory of my mother playing Debussy on his ancient piano. It was as if the chords my mother played had knocked him clear from his previous orbit onto an altogether different trajectory, one that thrilled him as much as it baffled him.
Music had brought him love and family, and my music was in some way a fulfillment of his destiny.
At some point my ambition and his encouragement turned into something else. At some point things began to fall apart. Neither he nor I wished to notice. We both believed me incapable of failure, that my skill at music translated to skill at everything else. We both mistook my ability for maturity, and we were both wholly unprepared for the unravelling that was, in retrospect, nearly inevitable. I was a fifteen years old but a ten-year-veteran of the stage, and he gave me all the independence I could ask for. It took a series of scandals and catastrophes to set us both straight.
“My little Icarus,” he laughed at the disappointment and shame.
I sometimes have to consciously tell myself to understand that this moment is real, or else I find that life scoots by and I’m just a spectator. Sometimes, of course, I’m content to let it slip by, to pretend that all of this is happening to someone else, that at any moment the credits will roll and the lights will come on and I’ll step out into my own life which is obviously so much better.
But sometimes life intrudes and makes itself felt in a very real and physical way. It isn’t a pleasant feeling. It feels like a violation. The air clings to my skin and fills my lungs, the blood and other such viscera course through my body, time pulls me forward and previous moments disappear into oblivion. It’s all very upsetting and leaves me breathless.
Three years passed. For the first I licked my wounds and tried with mixed success to adjust to a new life. Next I tacked defiantly normal. “Weren’t you…?” “I still am.” I just didn’t play anymore.
School, chores, routine. And Dad, after having been in awe of me for so long, became the protector and provider he felt he always should have been. This arrangement worked well for a while.
Icarus died when he fell, but I didn’t. I couldn’t soar again, probably, but in some way I could still fly. I laid out my plans in secret, and then got them moving. I was far behind in school–my decent grades apparently had owed more to my semi-celebrity than I let myself believe. And then there was Samantha, my greatest scandal and catastrophe.
I was far along my path when I let my parents in on it. The purposeful humbling had restored both of my parents to positions of authority, but I still approached my dad first. With him on my side we could overrule my mother. I was unprepared for his resistance, or that he and Mom would unite against me.
“You can’t take her with you, and you can’t leave her here, either,” my parents insisted, not unfairly. I understood and shared their concern, but time was running out. After years of being the youngest person in any room, suddenly I was the oldest student in my grade. Sam demanded constant attention, but derailing my studies would put a normal life further out of reach.
I worked hard to prove it was possible. My grades went up. I participated in more extracurricular activities. I applied to schools on my own. At home, I became more forceful and independent and at the same time more polite and respectful. I turned the room I shared with Sam into a separate apartment in all but name. I did it all without letting them see the strain. If I could master Paganini when I was nine, I could master being an adult before I was nineteen.
For my dad, my way forward was something like a rejection. He had rolled with my punches and supported me even after I had become a cautionary tale, and now I worked so hard to cut him out.
In the end they relented, and drove us up to our new life.
I closed the door shortly after noon and was overwhelmed. I had walked Mom and Dad down the stairs and into their car, and then come up. And now I closed the door and it was done. This was my house now. I was on my own.
Not entirely, of course. The apartment was still theirs–they’d been renting it out all those years, hoping to return someday. Suburban comfort worked its magic, though, and so they let me take it. I paid a modest rent, far below market value but more than they felt comfortable charging. Sam moved into what had been mine and Shelly’s bedroom. With all new furniture entirely rearranged it didn’t look like my room at all.
I moved into my parents’ old room, although again with the furniture rearranged it looked new, with only very faint traces of the families that had lived there before.
The title was still in their name, too. Someday he might sell it to me, he said, but at today’s fair market rates a two-bedroom apartment in the West Village wasn’t something that I could afford, and anything else would be basically stealing. But I could live here as long as I wanted to.
The kitchen remained the kitchen, though the best appliances and dishes had moved with us and been replaced by cheap things from discount stores.
And the piano stayed in the living room. I wanted to move it to a different corner, mostly just to make my mark on the house, but moving it involved getting it tuned again, and I didn’t want to spend any money on that just yet.
The house on Jane Street was mine. And when I closed the door I felt the real world push through my foggy thoughts and press against me and squeeze me. I had to lean my head against the door and take a breath, and I think I stood there for a long time. I couldn’t move. Tears welled up and my legs shook. I had my hand on the chain lock and it was trembling enough that I couldn’t put it in the hole so I stopped trying, at least until I regained my breath.
It was fear, certainly, but more than that. I’d felt this exact thing before, standing offstage, the applause still distant, waiting for the moment when they signaled for me. I had worked so hard for this, wanted it so badly, and now it was here. I was literally entering a dream, a moment that I had rehearsed in my mind a thousand time was now happening for real, and the dissonance pushed through all my thoughts and made it all fantastically oppressively electrically real.
I realized I had felt this before, and remembered what how I had gotten through it. Back then I simply strode across the stage, as I had practiced before, acknowledged the enormous crowd gathered where before there had only been empty chairs, and then I took a breath and played, and all the air and the blood and the feelings went back to where they belonged and everything was wonderful.
So I did that. I took a breath, put the lock in its hole, turned around and strode into the living room. This was what I wanted, and now I had it. And everything was going to be okay. My parents had been here to help me settle in, to make sure I got all the basic groceries I needed and did all the necessary things to become the captain of my own ship, so to speak, and then they left. From there, my well-rehearsed routines took over, and everything would be wonderful.
That night I couldn’t really sleep. Eventually I convinced myself that I was desperately thirsty so I got up and went into the kitchen. I poured myself a glass and sat on the couch to look out the window–still no TV, though I would have to fix that soon enough, at least for Sam’s sake.
A giant cockroach ran out from behind the piano and bolted behind the couch. I leaped up so fast I spilled water on my shirt but at least I managed to suppress a scream. It was the middle of the night, after all.
Shaking, I went into my room. It’s just a roach, I told myself. There are more roaches than people in New York City, and they are basically harmless.
Still, sleeping wasn’t going to be easy. Sam’s door was closed so it was doubtful the roach would get in there. I closed my own bedroom door and turned on all the lights. I felt like cockroaches didn’t like bright rooms. My lights weren’t terribly bright but they would have to do.
For good measure I pulled my bed away from the wall, and took all the sheets off. I didn’t need the cockroach climbing up onto my bed.
“Okay, Mr. Roach,” I said to the room. “I’m going back to sleep now. There’s plenty of food crumbs in the kitchen. There’s probably some on the couch. Stay out of my room and we can work out a more permanent solution tomorrow. Deal?”
I curled up into the smallest little ball that I could and shoved myself onto a corner of my bed. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep but nothing happened, so I opened them, and the giant cockroach was sitting on my pillow, staring deep into my eyes. I leaped straight out of the bed.
Still couldn’t scream. People sleeping and all.
Thoroughly creeped out I walked into the living room and did the only sensible thing I could do at one in the morning.
I called my dad.
Independence be damned.
I called the home office line. If he was awake he’d hear it. He’d probably be in there to make up for the week he’d lost in New York.
You aren’t supposed to know these things about your parents but I was always my dad’s favorite. Mom loved me and Shelly more or less equally–we rose and fell in favor depending on how shitty we were acting at any given moment, but on balance we were about equal. Dad, although he insisted otherwise (itself a dead giveaway) clearly favored me.
I think because I had to earn it. He’d wanted a son. At least one, if not more. My father isn’t a typical “man’s man”–he’s a scientist and a nerd at heart–but there is enough man in him that I think he really wanted to teach some young boy how to shave someday. It’s a weird thing to fixate on but I understand. If I ever had a son I’d want to dress him in suspenders until he was old enough to make me stop. I find this fantasy very appealing. Dad probably felt the same whenever he shaved himself, how much he would enjoy teaching someone to shave.
When Shelly was born, he was just happy she was alive and had all the requisite little toes. But when Mom was pregnant with me–and made it clear that there would be no third child–there was a genuine and profound hope that I’d have a penis.
But I didn’t.
He probably put on a brave face, talked about how much he loved Shelly and how much he’d love me, too. But somewhere along the way, I think I actually won him over.
Not that I worked at it; this all happened when I was a baby. Perhaps because my eyes are the same color as his. My nose is more like his, too. But these are details. When she was little Shelly was a hoot, but I was something else. A little sister, a constant source of amusement and irritation for anyone nearby. I was clever and didn’t care about whatever limitations my size tried to impose on me. I wore Mom out, and Shelly too, but by the time I was old enough to properly remember things it was clear to everyone that I had Dad wrapped around my finger.
So if he was in any shape to hear the phone ring at one in the morning, he would get it. I dialed from the kitchen, cringing away from the door as if that would keep the roach away and keep my voice from waking Sam.
He picked up after the first ring.
“Jellybean, what are you doing up?”
I told him the story. We established that I didn’t have any Raid and couldn’t run out to the store now to get any. He thought about it for a moment and then suggested I fill a kettle and boil it, then pour it around wherever the roach might be.
“Will that kill it?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But it probably won’t like it. Don’t pour so much that you ruin the floors and you should be fine. Just enough to scare him away.”
I looked in the drawers for the kettle. None of us drank tea or did anything that required us to have a kettle but for some reason we had a big one, both in New York and in DC.
I described everything that I was doing to Dad over the phone, and he let me. I didn’t need him anymore, and he knew it, but it was nice that he was there and he appreciated that I had called him. Once the kettle was on I asked him what he was doing, and he gave me a brief rundown of the paperwork he was trying his best not to do.
Then he described the drive back from the City. Where he and Mom ate, what music was on the radio. New hobbies he hoped to take up. Movies coming out soon that he could watch in theaters now that he was an empty-nester. And so on.
I splashed boiling water around my bed and behind the couch and waited for an angry cockroach to run out but none did. And then I sat on the couch with my knees up to my chest and the phone held between my ear and my shoulder and listened to him talk, calmly and quietly. He read to me at night until I was almost ten years old, when I started reading books that didn’t really interest him and slowly, naturally, the bedtime ritual died a natural death. This, talking to me on the phone in the middle of the night, was almost the same thing. His voice was the same, the same tone he’d used to read “A Wrinkle in Time” and “The Indian in the Cupboard.”
I knew it wouldn’t happen ever again. I couldn’t call home every night. They’d make me come back. He wouldn’t be up all night every night, either. Without any children in the house he could probably get all of his work done during regular hours now. I made myself pay attention, to feel this as real and to record this moment, the last of its kind.
After an hour or so I said goodnight and hung up, and slept on the couch, still in a ball. That was how Sam found me in the morning. We still had no TV, and I was too exhausted to take her outside just yet. Her eyes fixated on that cumbersome bookshelf in the corner and pulled me over until I played. I hammered out a few notes. It was in pretty decent shape. The renters hadn’t destroyed it.
The light coming in off Jane Street was something I recognized, it’s particular angle and intensity and the warm spot it made on the floor. For a moment I was transported. I took her and stood her against the back of the Steinway Vertegrand, the one that had stood in this room for the better part of the century, and told her to close her eyes. I sat and played the first few unsteady notes from memory, and then let the music-note girl in my mind take her unashamed pirouettes.