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Imagine the best feeling you’ve ever had—multiply it by infinity and add to it the sensation the world was yours.

My heart pounded with that feeling, pumping it like blood to my body as my fingers flew across the piano keys. I threw my whole being into the music and let it drive what I was doing. The sound of Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu Op. 66 filled my head like it was the only song I had ever heard.

As the piece neared the end, I let my fingers brush against the keys one last time as I sat back, breathing heavily, and stood up to take my final bow. For a split second, the room was quiet and lacking in the customary after-piece applause. Yet, even in that one second, I had enough time to doubt everything I thought I had done perfectly. Then, suddenly, the applause came—it crashed over me like a tidal wave and I basked in it, coming to the wonderful realization that music could create something amazing.

In that moment, I felt infinite; I felt like I was right where I was supposed to be.

“Grace?” Back in the present time, I snapped out of my reverie and looked up at my mom, who had pointedly called out my name. She was shooting me The Look like her life depended on it—the look every kid knows about; the look you get from your parents when you don’t say thank you at the right moment. Only, it was different this time. In my case, thank you just wasn’t enough.

“Thank you… so much,” I said anyways, turning to the person standing on my other side. Olga, my piano teacher for six years, smiled sadly back at me.

For another second, I let myself space out again as I took in my surroundings. My eyes wandered around the room I had become so familiar with over the years—the window seat in the back with the painting of a chicken hanging above it. The shelf of sheet music by the couch where my mom had willingly spent endless hours listening to my lessons. The open window on the side that always let in a lovely breeze, no matter the weather, with the white curtains billowing around it in a charming, Gatsby-esque fashion. And most importantly, the mahogany grand piano that sat in the center of the brightly lit room; the place I had sat so many hours crying, laughing, and growing up.

Who would have ever thought one day I’d be saying goodbye to it all?

It was only then that I looked back at Olga.

Her pointed chin, reddish brunette hair pinned back in a bun, and her rainbow of sweaters had become a part of my weekly ritual and I’d gotten used to associating them with her. She was in some ways my least favorite part of the week: her ability to shatter anyone’s self-esteem in half a second with her cutting criticism wasn’t exactly a happiness booster. But other times, her anecdotes about growing up in Russia and attending a prestigious music school made me laugh out loud, or learn something new. It was only now that I felt all of her criticism had been the best compliment I could’ve ever received.

As I looked at her, she smiled the rare little smile she had when you had done an outstanding job. There had only been a handful of times I had ever seen it and the fact it was appearing now, the day I was leaving, left a jagged slash through my heart.

“You’ve been an amazing student all these years,” she said now, “and I hope that whatever you do, you never stop practicing. You’re talented, and I know if you choose to, you could go far with piano.” Then, unexpectedly she added, “You’ve been such a familiar face for so long… not seeing you every week will be difficult.” I was taken aback, not anticipating the un-piano related comment.

I leaned forward, promising I would always keep playing because I loved piano, and hugged her. At the last second, I whispered, “Not seeing you will be hard for me too,” surprised by the verity of the statement. As I drew away, I felt a wisp of my childhood escape me and settle into the deep corners of the room. I said one last thank you and goodbye, and with that I turned to leave for the last time.

Promises—turned out, they weren’t as meaningful as I’d hoped for them to be.

Hadn’t I promised to always love piano? And didn’t I promise to keep practicing?

Right after quitting, I kept up my strict practicing schedule of one and a half hours of piano a day. Soon, it began slipping away from me. After all, the reason I had stopped taking lessons was because of my busy schedule with homework and swim practice. Not long after, I stopped practicing altogether, and for a spell it was okay. It was pleasing not to have to stress about piano anymore.

Of course, my mother did not feel the same way.

“Grace, aren’t you going to practice a bit today?” She started out tentative, asking me as nicely as possible two or three times a week. To these inquiries, I’d shake my head no and render the fact that I had homework, which I usually did. However as time wore on, so did her patience with my stubborn refusals.

One Sunday evening, I was in my room, all my homework finished early with absolutely nothing to do. On any other day, I would have gone downstairs for some extra rehearsal time, but after not playing for such a lengthy period it almost felt wrong to want to practice again. There was a wall slowly being built between the piano and me, and I knew if I let it construct itself too long, it would be impossible to tear it down later. Yet there I was… straying farther and farther away.

That day, I was completely listless with nothing to do. My mom decided to walk into my room at that moment, and when she saw me, sitting on the floor literally examining the air in front of my face, the truth that I’d let my musical life slip right through my fingers became apparent to her.

And she didn’t like it one bit.

She marched up to me and, glaring at me with a pernicious rage, said, “Grace, it’s been almost two months! Now get downstairs and practice, or all the money your dad and I spent on lessons, not to mention all the time you spent practicing, will be for nothing!”

At the word “money”, my stomach twisted uncomfortably and I felt obligated to go downstairs and brush off my music skills, if not out of guilt more than anything else.

I stopped again after that one day, and whenever my mom asked about my rehearsal schedule (or lack thereof), I told her I worked on piano after school, which was conveniently when she was at work. But something was shifting inside of me. It felt as if there was nothing to feel anymore. Things that used to stimulate some emotion inside me didn’t anymore. I was empty inside.

The height of my descent into probable craziness happened the day I spoke with Michelle.

She had also taken piano lessons from Olga for quite a while, and during long recitals we both attended, we often struck up friendly conversations.

The day I bumped into her, I was out running errands with my mother. I was about to enter the grocery store when I heard someone call out my name. Turning around, I saw it was her and waved, honestly quite surprised she had even bothered to acknowledge me at all. I walked over to her and after exchanging the obligatory niceties, she asked the question I’d been hoping she would avoid.

“So, are you still taking lessons from Olga?” She asked absentmindedly, examining a strand of hair blowing in front of her face.

“Um, no, actually I just quit a while ago,” I replied hastily. Michelle seemed to sense the tension in my voice and she glanced up, her forehead crinkling slightly.

“Oh, that’s a shame,” she responded, “You used to be so good—I remember your Fantasie Impromptu from that recital a year ago; it was breathtaking.”

I wanted her to stop there so her words could hang in the air for just a little longer, but she abruptly added, “I guess it makes sense that you quit. I mean, nobody has time to play piano at this age.” She laughed a little like she had said something especially witty then proclaimed she had to leave. I waved to her as she bounded away with no inkling of idea how much her words impacted me.

Throughout the rest of the day—while rejoining my mom inside the grocery store, while eating dinner, while lying in bed that night—I couldn’t impede from thinking about what Michelle had said to me. Her words resonated over and over again in my mind: “You USED to be so good… I mean, nobody has time to play piano at this age… NOBODY has time to play piano at this age…”

Finally, around midnight, right before I dropped off to Dreamland, it hit me.

I had been, and still wanted to be, that nobody.

Two days after talking to Michelle, I was once again at a loss what to do. I would have liked to think I started drifting to the living room (and what was waiting there for me) subconsciously, but in reality I think I knew exactly what I was doing.

I sat down on the cushioned black bench, set perfectly to my height, and looked at my reflection staring back at me in the glossy black paint.
Bit by bit, little snippets of a childhood growing up here came back to me. How many times had I sat there, staring at the reflection of my face, which could have either been glowing at my success in learning a difficult song, or streaked with tears when the frustration got to be too much? I had been trying to push something amazing out of my life and sitting here now, I realized how much of a mistake that had been.
I lifted my hand and set it on the keyboard with my fingers curled slightly. I straightened my back, took a deep breath, and started playing. I wasn’t even trying to make the notes sound musically correct… I was simply doing what I should have been this entire time: playing just to be playing.

These past three months, I had seemed to forget one important fact: music had always been there for me, often when people could not. How could I turn my back on a love like that?

As the music swelled, a familiar feeling stirred inside me. I categorized it as the feeling I had felt a year ago, performing at that one spectacular recital. Here it was again, even though I was playing alone in a somewhat stumbling manner.

That’s how I knew I really was right where I belonged.



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