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The True Judge
I grasped the two brass knobs of my Baldwin piano in my living room and pushed the cover back revealing black and ivory keys. I blew off some dust, took a rag, and cleaned the trophies from previous competitions. The music, “Theme from Paganini,” for the State Fine Arts competition sat neatly in front. I stretched my arms up, sat down on the wooden bench, placed my hands on my lap and breathed in and out several times. I closed my eyes and waited for that strange chill—energy—that would travel through my spine, down my arms, and into the tips of my fingers. Slowly, I opened my eyes back up and gazed at the piece, begging it to be kind to me. Then I pushed my body forward and leaned into the first note.
Dad came home early. He announced his usual, “I’m home,” before searching for snacks in the kitchen.
“Hey Dad,” I yelled, “Come over here!” I gestured and he came and stood behind me. “Listen, I think I’ve got the first page down,” I said confidently and stepped down on the pedal and began playing with as much feeling as possible. “What do you think?”
“Excellent, keep up the good work.” Dad said, patted my back, and went back to the kitchen.
Two weeks of practice passed. I sat down at the dinner table eagerly awaiting food. Dad drew the curtains and mom stayed in the kitchen cooking up Chinese dishes.
“How’s your Fine Arts piece going?” Dad asked as he opened the glass porch door. I gulped down some water. “Fine.”
“Good, I think you’re ready. I know the song is challenging but I know with hard work, you can accomplish anything.” He smiled and sat down across from me.
“Do you want to hear it after dinner?” I asked him eagerly and stuffed green beans into my mouth. He nodded. I set my chopsticks down, pulled my chair out, and went to the piano.
“Never mind, I’ll play it right now since I’m in the music mood,” I declared, flashed a smile, and began to play. I had three pages down and was working on the fourth. My feet pressed on the pedal with a steady up and down rhythm that followed my left hand chords and right hand melody. Music filled the house for a few minutes and my family was quiet. After I was done playing, father stood up and clapped.
“Beautiful, keep it up.”
Ahhhhh! I screamed, pounded on random keys, and laid my forehead on the sweaty keyboard. Two months had passed. Ugh, I groaned. I sat back up, took a few deep breaths: “I can do this, I can do this,” I muttered to myself. Is that like the 5th time I’ve spoken and reassured myself in one day? Stupid left hand notes, why do you have to jump around so much? I rolled my eyes at the music and tried again.
The front door swung open a little after five and Dad stepped in. He saw me practicing and walked over.
“How’s it going?”
“Fine,” I said quietly. He sat down on a nearby green chair and leaned back.
“Let’s hear it.”
I bit my lip. Sweat began to ooze unto my palms and my fingers felt like they were covered in lotion. I stood up, adjusted the bench, sat back down, neatly placed my right foot on the pedal, took in a big gulp of air, positioned my fingers on the right keys, and began the song. My fingers slipped a few times. My head pounded against my skull yelling, don’t mess up, don’t mess up.
After I was done, I dropped my shaky hands back into my lap and peeked at Dad. He was thinking. He had his blank face and hand-under-chin position.
“Good, getting better,” he said loudly and sat up.
“Now add more feeling to the end of the second page; practice the last page five times till your fingers stop slipping; start over again. He continued his list of “try this, try that.” I listened, nodded every now and then, and repeated the sections he spoke about in the song. I played every section five times in a row and if I made a mistake on any of those, even the last one, I’d start the five again. My hands were still sweaty and my fingers kept on slipping. For every mistake, my heart missed a beat and I checked his facial expression.
“Much better, take a break,” Dad said after an hour and got up and left to watch TV. My heart felt warm and I smiled.
“I’m ready, Dad. I am so pumped.” I buckled my seat belt and waved goodbye to Mom as Dad drove away from the driveway.
“I know,” Dad replied confidently.
State Fine Arts was held in Casper, WY, about three hours away. The entire road consisted of desert, desert, and more desert, and maybe some little towns along the way. We laughed, giggled, and talked about the fun things we were going to do after the competition was over. He asked where I wanted to eat as a reward. “Red Lobster,” I answered, chuckling.
We pulled our van into an old-looking parking lot in front of a plain, gray, building. I opened the door and carefully stepped out with my silver heels and black skirt. I saw other people dressed up in slacks and dresses entering the big glass doors and my stomach began to feel tight. I signed in at the front desk and entered into a large white room with a high ceiling, a stage, and a few silver fold-up chairs in the front. I studied my competitors, shrugged, and sat down on one of the chairs.
People settled down and the director walked to the front of the room and gave his usual welcome speech. My stomach began acting up; it moaned and ached and felt like a ball of stone inside me. My hands felt like ice, yet I could feel sweat beginning to trickle. I opened my bag and took out the baby powder and sprinkled the white powder on my hands.
One more person to go before me. I sat up straight, meditated, and played the music in my mind. It will be beautiful, I said. All my practice will bring justice to such a moving, beautiful piece and the whole room will be lit up in bliss. The pianist on stage neared the end of his song and quickly, I powdered my hands again. The pianist stood up and bowed. Pretty good, I thought to myself, but I can do better.
“Next up…So---Sonie---Sani Zhang?” The director stuttered through my name.
“Soni,” I said loudly as I stood up. I looked up at Dad’s face and gave him a smile. He turned on his video camera and gave the thumbs up. I held up my skirt as I slowly ascended the wooden stairs, stepped over wires, past microphones, and to the ancient-looking baby grand. I pulled out the bench, sat down, pulled it back in until just right. I casually positioned my foot on the pedal, laid my cold hands on my lap, took a few deep breaths, and leaned in for the first note. Feel the music and nothing will happen, my mind said. I felt the melody raging through my fingers; I could feel the growing power as I approached the climax of the song. The song felt rich and alive inside me. Every note was rippling through my mind and I wanted the audience to feel the music as well. My fingers knew the exact locations of every key.
Clank. Wrong note. I woke up from my trance and everything became a blur. Blank. I could not remember the last page, the final climax of the piece. My heart rate doubled in speed. My head felt like it was exploding, and my hands frantically searched for the right keys and couldn’t. My mind was completely empty, blank, void of any notes. I had to stop playing. Felt like minutes of dreaded pause. I scanned my mind frantically for an image of the last page. I had to play something, anything to end the song. My fingers began moving uncontrollably through random notes. I slammed onto a final chord. Done. Silence. There may have been clapping, but my ears felt clogged and I heard silence. My head was spinning. Shakily, I stood up, forced a smile, bowed slightly, and hurried down the stairs. I looked up to my dad. His video camera was off, his head was bowed, and he was shaking his head. The next girl went up--smiling.
“What happened? You practiced so much,” Dad said in a low, serious voice. I looked at the floor, bit my lip, felt tears beginning to form. No. No tears. I took a few deep breaths. My blood was still rushing and my heart was thumping so fast it hurt to move. I grasped the edges of my seat to keep myself from running out of the room.
The rest was torture and hazy. Before awards, people shuffled into the cafeteria for their pizza and drink. I stood out in the hallway looking outside. It was raining.
“You should eat,” Dad said.
“No,” I replied.
“Just go and grab some food. We paid for it, so might as well get it,” he said impatiently. I bit my lip again.
I moved around on my seat while waiting for them to announce the results. There were two more trophies left; two more chances to advance to Nationals. I sighed and looked down at my feet.
“And…Soni Zhang!” The speaker announced. What? Robotically, I stood up and managed to give a half-smile to the announcer and hesitantly took the trophy. The trophy felt cold and lifeless in my hands. No joy, no pride. I loathed it. My dad looked on frowning. He was the one person—judge--who mattered the most to me and he wasn’t even clapping.
We left first. I practically ran to the van, threw off my heels, and laid down on the backseat. I heard my dad slam the car door. My body was paralyzed by the weight of shame and I pressed deeper and deeper into the seat. I reached out with my right hand and grabbed my iPod. We dropped by Burger King and headed home. Mother asked later on that night about the performance, Dad shrugged and his mouth twitched. I just looked into my half-filled bowl of white rice, kept my back to Dad, and said nothing.
A month passed. I blew some dust off the piano and looked down. I left the music in the same place as I had left it that night after coming home from Casper. Mom kept quiet in the kitchen and Dad...well, I hadn’t talked to him since. There was nothing to talk about. We would see each other and look away.
Saturday night, Mom was in the kitchen again and Dad was up in his room taking a nap. My legs were cramped from sitting and my back needed to be popped. I left my homework scattered on my bed and went downstairs to the family room and sat on the couch. The room was dark except for the few rays of light that sneaked through the downstairs’ windows. I liked it. The darkness freed me from the weight on my shoulders and I could breathe. I grabbed the blue blanket, wrapped it around my shoulders, and listened to the sound of pots and pans smashing against one another. Out of the blue, my face felt wet. I was crying.
*Name has been changed