My piano teacher taught out of a beautiful house I always loved visiting, though getting there was a bit of an ordeal—she lived in a remote California suburb 10 miles away from our own remote suburb. The house was a classic “California ranch,” if I learned anything from home remodeling shows I binge watched after giving birth. It had a conversation pit, and a library with built-in bookshelves filled mostly with popular fiction and Readers Digest special collections. The carpet was ornate shag, and their armchairs looked like diagonally bisected toilet paper rolls. They had a big golden retriever. I would always lie down with it before my lessons; whisper to it at length while waiting for my hour. I made it listen to listening comprehension tapes thinking he would react but of course he didn’t. Mom always brought me here absurdly early and would make me wait after the lesson for another thirty or so minutes to pick up—she doubled many of our activities into passive childcare. My sister took lessons too, until she cried one day and refused to go back. That was maybe a couple years in. I persisted and never understood what made her cry. My teacher is a nice white lady with a big butt. She does not mind that I spend hours in her house. I am always quiet. Like I said, I would usually just lie down with the dog and talk to him or listen to comprehension tapes until our lesson.
The teacher has two grand pianos. Bösendorfers. Beautiful instruments. Treacherously long. I only see her play four hands once, but she sees me for many many years; every Thursday after school until I’m on my way to college. At one point in my junior year, she remarks that I sound more confident and suggests we start playing Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues. I feel like superman. She recommends me to play accompaniment for “a gifted clarinet player” who is auditioning at Cal State Fullerton. “Then you can play with someone else, which you’ll need to learn to do if you want to keep doing ensemble.” I agree to the set up. I am surprised when I meet the clarinet player—he is a young boy.
He comes over to my mom’s shitty apartment where we’ve moved to since the divorce. I have no shame about the apartment being small, but we are both annoyed my mom is right there. We rehearse his Gershwin Prelude 1 and I keep thinking “god this kid must be 14. I’m a full two years older than him.” A lifetime in high school. I feel so cool. His mom picks him up. She is skeptical about me, but he assures her I’m doing my job. The kid happens to be extremely awkward and Black, so I call him Urkel behind his back. He told me a funny story during one of our meets, about ordering chow mein in a mall somewhere outside of SoCal and getting a plate of spaghetti with soy sauce. I like how he says chow mein. I say it the same way for a while. After this encounter, my mom accompanies me (hehe) into the piano teacher’s house at an ensuing lesson, to ask if the teacher can’t get me into a competition. She pulls out a clipping from one of her Asian magazines with a picture of some kid who won some piano competition. My teacher tries to explain that that’s not how she does things. I’m embarrassed but I get it: why am I helping some kid get into college with this shit and not myself.
Another month, another check. When I hand it to my piano teacher, I can tell she wants to ask a weird question. Her face is solemn, and then finally she says it. She’s noticed that the check number (numerating the check order, not the amount) is very low, and that the account lists only one name—my mother’s. She asks if my parents have gotten divorced, and I actually don’t know the answer to that question but I say yes. For now, I can confirm my mom’s separated her finances from my dad’s and actually hmph, where is she getting the money to pay for my lessons anyway, I wonder. The teacher offers me comfort; says something about how lives change, people change.
I’ve seen my piano teacher breast feed her daughter, so I feel I know her quite intimately. She has one other child who is almost 18 years older, and her husband travels a lot for work. They have an annual tradition of doing something challenging together as a family, like camping in the middle of nowhere. They have a framed photo of the whole family on a white river rafting excursion. Their lives feel like a TV fantasy.
She and I work really hard together, and I feel like I’m growing now. I get a small music scholarship. My mom is grateful.
A semester into college, now immersed in the music department there, I pay my teacher a visit while on a trip home. I call to set up a time to see her and schedule it like a lesson. I drive myself there in a timely manner and try not to waste her time. When I come over, everything looks the same, minus the dog, who has passed away. Conversation pit ready for conversation. Library full of old books and the two grand pianos 69ing. I play. I ask her how she is doing. She looks solemn again, and after a long pause she tells me:
I’ve just discovered that my husband has had a secret second family for the past ten years. He met a woman at a strip club. She has a child who now looks up to him like a father. The only reason I found out is because I discovered our savings account was depleted.
I do not know how to effectively practice sympathy at this juncture in my life. I listen to her story and sit on her piano bench, stunned. I actually do not remember if I said anything, but I kind of hope I didn’t. It wouldn’t have been helpful. I left that day and never called her for a lesson again. Months later I received a generic family update newsletter from her announcing that the entire family—husband included—had decided to move to rural Utah. Their latest challenging activity.