Sylvia hadn’t touched a piano in eight years. She was distraught to find out that one came with the house she had purchased, the keys exposed and teasing her with their silence. She considered selling it, but days turned into weeks, and there it remained neglected in the living room. Months went by before she touched it, placing her hand on the top board and closing her eyes. Her lips parted as if to ask a question, but she thought better of it and slid around to the front instead, pulling the bench closer. Sylvia rested her fingertips on the keys, caressing them as she would a lover’s skin. She was afraid to love the sound again.
A substitute teacher didn’t show up to cover Mr. Baldwin’s absence in music class one Friday, and a lot of the students skipped. Sylvia stayed because Richard asked her to sit with him at the piano. Her right hip pressed against his left as he showed her a simple progression of chords, assuming she didn’t know what she was doing. She feigned ignorance to stay close, to have him place his hands on her hands. Sylvia played the same three chords as Richard improvised higher up the keys. He sang lyrics to a song she didn’t know, and he was high, but she didn’t care.
“Get on top of the piano,” he said.
Sylvia shook her head, but Richard insisted. He helped her climb on top of it, and told her to lie with her chest against the top. She rested her cheek on her hand and watched him as he began to play again. She could feel the sound vibrate against the front of her body, radiating in her.
“The music doesn’t matter if you don’t feel it in your skin,” he said.
There was a piano on the first floor of her dormitory where she would play early when no one was around. She would open up the top board and stand as she played, tilting her head toward the strings and leaning in. She would think about Richard, and keep the ache of his absence to herself.
Richard died in a car accident just a few days before high school graduation. Sylvia never spent time with him outside of that one class, but there was a sickness in her that stuck throughout the summer and into her first year of college. He taught her something that she had never gleaned from all the piano lessons she had taken since she was four years old. She needed him now, but all she had was his ghost resonating from the strings.
Sylvia frequented a cafe on campus that hosted an open mic night every Wednesday. At first, she was an ardent observer, until a couple of her dorm mates pressed her to perform one of her songs. The crowd was attentive and the room was quiet. They were listening to her, to something she had made with her hands and her mind. She couldn’t shake the pleasure of having all eyes on her as she exposed a part of herself that no amount of clothing could cover.
After a while, no one else signed up for open mic. But soon the glamour faded when the same man showed up every week, staring at her from the back, following her from a distance when she would leave, and failing to take a hint when she wouldn’t give him her phone number. Each time she saw him, he grew braver, closing the distance until he could almost touch her. He wasn’t put off by her circle of friends and admirers - he could wait them out. No matter how tight she hugged herself, she didn’t feel safe.
One Sunday afternoon, Sylvia went to a music shop with her friend Malcolm and played around with a few keyboards. She played the same three chords that Richard showed her before, and smiled. She heard someone improvising with her at another keyboard. Her body swayed as she kept up with her unknown accompaniment, until she looked up and locked eyes with him.
“Are you scared of me, Sylvia?” he asked.
Sylvia swallowed, recognizing the source of her dread, knowing his stare. He walked over to her, pushing her hair away from her neck and leaning in to catch her scent.
“You should be.”
And he was gone.
Malcolm shrugged it off when she told him what happened, and insisted that the guy was probably just bent out of shape because she rejected him. She still begged Malcolm to wait another forty minutes before heading to the car. When her friends asked why she didn’t play at the cafe anymore, she said she was busy, and she was - busy being afraid of someone waiting in the shadows.
Did her body remember how to play, she wondered as she sat at the piano in her new house. Sylvia thought of Richard, thought of him pressing the keys and singing, thought of him dying. Could she put aside the terror of an unseen predator long enough to feel the music in her chest and resonate in her head? Her answer was the press of a black key, followed by a white, then another black. Her answer was a hum vibrating against her lips, and she lifted the top board so that the strings could ring out through the room and tickle the fine hairs on her face.
The pleasure was painful, the emotion contorting her face. Her brow furrowed and her lips pursed. She squeezed her eyes shut as tears spilled onto her cheeks. It was like a reunion, finally being in the arms of your lover after years of separation. It was like an apology expressed with limbs instead of words, with rhythm instead of excuses. No one came out of the darkness to take her life, but Sylvia knew that this ache was worth that risk. The rapture was far too great.
Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal