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We're early. Not all of the pianists are here yet. I bite my lip, glancing at the empty spaces in the pews that surround me, trapping me, taunting me.
A spotlight glows upon the grand piano in center stage, somewhat intimidating. The red velvet steps make me feel out of place: me, the girl who goes barefoot in the winter, the girl who loves to wrestle with her brother, the girl who has been climbing trees since she was four.
I tug at my fancy shirt, grimacing. I don’t like dressing up. It makes me feel foreign in my own skin, as if an imposter slipped inside me and I can’t recall who I am.
A boy not much older than me inches into the pew next to me. I know the boy is much more advanced than I and his music is truly beautiful. He folds his hands in his lap, and I know that he is confident. Sure of himself. He is dressed in all black, as if he purposely tried to match the piano. We don’t say a word to each other; he knows that I am nervous. The boy is being kind to me by remaining silent. He knows this, too.
A young man walks up the velvet steps and professionally welcomes the small audience. The people clap respectfully when he is done, and he slips back into the pews reserved for the piano students.
A child, a young girl, climbs up the steps and struggles to sit on the black cushioned piano seat. Her song lasts only thirty seconds, and she makes no mistakes. The people clap, but it is patronizingly.
The children get older as the songs become lengthier. My legs are twitching, and I can’t keep my hands still. The boy beside me crosses his legs, but still says nothing to me. He notices my anxiousness, but again does me favor by not saying a word. My stomach seems to be trembling, but I realize that it is only my fingers.
I try to imagine the tunes of my song inside my head, but the other pianists’ music captures my ears and invades my mind. My song’s rhythm slips away from me.
The girl next to me inches past the other students’ knees to get out of the pew. Her song is perfect. I can tell, because I have played her song before.
It’s my turn. I slip out of the pew, avoiding the boy’s eyes as he watches me with curiosity. I climb the scarlet steps and, reaching the piano, turn to the audience. At this moment, I am acutely aware of the expectant silence, the piercing stares.
I bow, staring at my feet long enough to say hippopotamus as my teacher has taught me to do. The audience claps, and I realize that there are more people here than I initially assumed. I sit on the black bench as my legs stop shaking. Automatically, I place my foot on the right pedal as my fingers rest lightly on the keys. The smooth surface of the white and black keys make me feel at home, and I call the song into my mind, into my fingers.
I play the first measure, and I can feel the audience smile. It is a good song, a jazzy song. My finger hits a sour note. I grimace, but move on. It hits another. Another. I’m losing the song; I cannot remember the notes that my fingers should unveil.
I stop playing. My face is fire red, and in my humiliation, I can only imagine what the audience is thinking. I can see nothing beyond the protective glare from the spotlight that blinds my eyes.
The audience waits.
I try starting over. The song is lost from my muscle memory.
Holding up a finger to the audience, I say, “Hang on a second.” I mean to lighten the atmosphere, but no one laughs. I make it worse. My emotions whirl into desperation, and I fumble once more through the first measure. The second. The third.
Nothing. It’s gone. I can’t remember anything. My fingers disobey the music, and a terrible, ugly sound comes from the piano. I fumble through the song, remembering parts here and there. The audience’s eyes drill through me. They’ve seen me play beautifully. They’ve seen me play with fervor, with feeling, and never make a mistake. Embarrassment hits me in full reality, and I realize that everyone is staring. Watching. Not a single note slips by their ears. Every sound, good and bad, is imprinted in their minds.
I finish the song quickly. The audience erupts into applause, but only because they are eager to drown out the hideous noises of the song. Mortified, I flee into the shadows, my face burning.
I slide back into the pew, my hands shaking with shame. The boy dressed in black doesn’t say a word. Again, I know that he is doing me a favor, but I wanted to impress him. I wanted to play beautifully, so that he would not think me an inexperienced child.
I wonder what the other pianists are thinking. They must think that I don’t deserve to play, astonished at how terrible my performance became. I want to run from everyone.
The next pianists climb onto the stage and play beautifully. No one makes a mistake. The boy dressed in black plays last, because he is the most advanced. I applaud for him energetically, because I know that he deserves it.
The recital is over. Instead of feeling relieved, I want to escape. I don’t want anyone to see me, most of all my instructor. What will she say?
Embarrassment floods me, and I want to become invisible, to disappear, to be erased from everyone’s memory. I stay in the shadows as best as I can. The boy in black passes me, and he looks at me with sad eyes, as if to say 'I know', and somehow, I know that he does. A small crowd surrounds him, congratulating him on his performance. I shrink away, waiting for my mom to emerge from the pews.
The boy throws me one last look that says 'It’s okay. You’ll get over it.'
I grimace bleakly back at him, and he winks before disappearing to find his parents.
My mother melts from the crowd of people, and I drag her out of the church, ignoring my instructor’s invitation to enjoy refreshments in the lobby. I don’t want anyone to see me, to try to make me feel better, to say ‘I know how you feel.’ Even sympathy cannot lighten the load of embarrassment.
I kick off my glittering black flats and walk on the sidewalk barefoot. My being wilts with humiliation. Meekly, I slip into the backseat of the car, pulling a blanket over me, as if to cover the past half hour of my life.
Mama doesn’t say a word. She knows that I need to be left alone, but I can feel her disappointment.
Hot tears leak from my eyes and roll down my face, and I place my cheek on the cold window. The memory of my song haunts me, and it is all that I can think of. A fat tear falls from my eyelash and lands on the glass.
Then I remember the boy dressed in black, and I smile, just a little.