It’s 2022 in Kalispell, Montana. In the dining room, which is used loosely as a homeschool room and catch-all-for-papers -and-projects room, my mom was taking a piano lesson. Outside the air is cool and dry, the sun bright and pure. My other children are silently playing or reading. “I’m going to teach you to play Chopsticks first,” our friend had said to my mom. Mom laughed as though she and I knew a private joke, but we weren’t even in the same room, and the memory the song brought didn’t feel funny but rather heavily sweet and nostalgic.My heart beat kept a steady rhythm as the halting notes lifted warmly.
I wiped the lunch crumbs off the kitchen table and kept moving. It wasn’t Chopsticks, not yet.
This was only her first lesson.After a few minutes, my daughter sat on the bench as Diane stood over her shoulder directing with her gentle voice. Sophia pressed down on the keys in an irregular manner recalling lessons from last year. But my mind had travelled to 1982. I had wandered into the sala* where a highschool boy, David, sat at the piano and played jaunty songs. I knew David because he came into the Little Girls’ Dorm sala more often than anyone else to play on the piano. The swinging screen door I’d eased through made the narrowest of isosceles triangles on the floor and closed again. I sat on the couch and watched David’s back. His arms and elbows jigged and stretched and his shoulders lilted like a pair of leaves on an imperceptible breeze. Outside the air was cool and dry; the sun was warm and brilliant. Loneliness pressed my esophagus like a radiology technician’s throat guard and draped my heart with its weight. David worked the keys like someone entertaining a darling puppy, swiftly moving his hands to keep the puppy jumping and dodging where he wished. Sometimes the notes rang false and, like correcting a nipping puppy, David repeated them without breaking his rhythm. Here was a known person, present and creating a joyful sound, but so much a stranger it did nothing to ease the ache I couldn’t name. How could such happiness and beauty be in this vast cacophony of loneliness where alarm bells directed every section of the day, all was done in community by age and gender, time by clock was a concept I hadn’t learned yet, and my brother was in some obscure location across the patio?I didn’t know, and I didn’t know to ask any such questions. David stopped playing and looked around. He saw only me, a child.He turned back to the keys, but before he could place his long fingers on the ivories, we heard–“David! No Chopsticks!” “Only once Aunt Mabel!” “No Chopsticks in my sala!” “I’ll only play it through once!” he laughed.“It’ll be a half hour for you as you’re too old for a guasca!*”David touched the keys lightly. I already recognized this tune. Two weeks in, and I knew the notes rising in the room, and the melody would stick long after David left. I could hum it easily. “I listened to Chopsticks all year last year! No Chopsticks in my sala!” said Aunt Mabel again as she came out of her room, silver white braids scrupulously pinned into place across her crown. David moved on to a song I didn’t recognize, and I moved back out the swinging door to the sidewalk. Piano notes hummed ever so gently on my soul while my eyes looked longing down the length of the patio outside my dorm. Down the long, grey sidewalk with the rows of stamped lines, past the green trash can hanging on the far post, past the Bienvenido* sign painted red on white this year. My parents were not there. They were not around the corner where the soccer field lay, a rock strewn testing ground for many a man and boy and considerably fewer women and girls. They were not sitting in someone else’s sala talking endless, boring adult talk. They were not about to drive up from the pista*, over the mata burro, and into the compound called Tambo*. They had just driven that course in reverse and flown away to Cochabamba where they would stay overnight and then take another flight two hours into the Amazon jungle where they were studying the language and culture of the Araona people. I stood on the sidewalk and looked with empty eyes, and breathed slow and shallow breaths, and waited for what was next. I was six, about to be seven.
“Mama, look. Mama!”
I break my gaze out the far window and look down at my six-year-old son who is holding up a marker drawing of monsters and bad guys several of whom have large, jagged looking splotches beside their bodies.
“See this monster was going after this guy up the mountain, and then he farted and the monster said ‘Ahhh!’ and he fell down,” Joshua is indicating the picture with his green marker, and then he throws his arms up to simulate falling backward.
“The good guy farted on the monster, and it fell down the mountain?” I bend down to better see the picture and look into my son’s eyes. The sick slang for flatulence is not a word I used to endorse, but for my sons’ sakes I’ve inwardly relented; there are enough taboo and forbidden concepts and words in the world to make “fart” a curse in this home.
“Yea and he said ‘Ahhhhhhh!’ “ my son repeats as he simulates falling again, his face askew with the disappointment of a monster losing its prey.
“What a brilliant tactic!” I say watching his eyes register approval.
“Tactic?!” he repeats, “No, he farted!”
I laugh, and the Little Girls’ Dorm is 40 years away again.
But fleetingly, I look back and see David, the sala, the lonely sidewalk.
Leaving the ache behind is as necessary as living in the present.
*sala=living room, guasca=spanking, pista=airstrip, mata burro=an obstacle on the road at the entrance to a compound or field that causes animals and vehicles to enter slowly; we have them in the US but I don’t know the English word, Bienvenido=welcome, Tambo=Ethnos360 (formerly New Tribes Mission) boarding school in operation between the early1950s and 2004 in central Bolivia, South America; the word means Resting Place.