And Then I Cried
Author's note: The idea for this story actually came from a dream. I dreamed about a girl who couldn't talk and... Show full author's note »
Sarah JacksonThe car door slams. I trail behind my mother and father as we walk toward my school. I want to duck behind one of the columns and stay there forever, let my parents keep walking, so they can do this. Not me.
But my father turns back just as this thought occurs to me and tells me to hurry up. I quicken my pace and stare at the ground, wishing I would never stop walking, never get where we're going. My parents pause and turn to go inside. I dilly-dally for a moment, counting the rugged stones on the floor. But then my mother clears her throat, and I follow them in.
Too soon, we're sitting in plastic chairs in a small waiting room, in a section of the school I rarely visit. There is silence, and then my mother speaks.
"Everybody has strengths and weaknesses," she says. "For example, I've never been a fast reader." I keep my eyes on my lap, my fingers clutching the edge of the chair. "Paul, what's something you're not great at?"
My father is quiet for a second. "I have a hard time with number games like Sudoku," he says. Something inside me vibrates, laughing. This has absolutely nothing to do with Sudoku.
"You see?" my mother asks. I neither nod nor shake my head. I’m not going to go along with this, and she doesn’t need an answer. I just keep clenching the chair, staring at it.
The door in front of us opens, and a lady comes out. She is stiff in her manner and her dress, wears a stupid name tag on her chest that says “Sarah Jackson” and “school counselor”. She smiles at me, a fake smile, but I don't let her catch my eye. I clench the seat tighter. I hate this. “Paul and Amy Samson?” she asks. My parents nod. "I’m the one who spoke to you on the phone.” They smile in a way that tells her they wish she’d get on with things.
She glances at me, then looks back at them. “Would any of you like something to drink?”
“I’d love some coffee,” my father says. “Do you have decaf?”
She nods. “You can go on in," she says. "I'll be right there." She leaves through another door, to my left. My mother gets up and drags my father and me into the room the lady just came from.
As I sit down, my mother reaches out and puts her hand on the edge of my shoulder. I don't move, even though every molecule in my body is telling me to shrug her hand off.
"Anna?" I look up at her. "Don't make this so hard."
My eyes can't stay there, can't let her look into them. I move my gaze to the desk in front of us, an empty place to stare at. Nothing in the simple brown wood tries to mess with my thoughts, get into my head. Change me.
My mother opens the magazine she's brought and pretends to read an article about furnishing houses so they feel larger than they actually are, when I know she’s watching the door and waiting for the lady to come back. I wish I'd brought a book, just so I could have something to busy myself with, something for a reason not to stare into everyone's eyes. A few quiet moments pass.
My father keeps checking his phone, wanting someone to message him and get him out of this. My mother glares at him every time he does it, peering up from her magazine and pulling her glasses down so she can see him in the eyes. He looks ashamed and starts whistling a Bob Dylan song.
I look around. The desk reminds me of my mother's—organized, neat, empty. There is a picture frame displayed in the front. A younger version of the lady smiles, sitting next to a small boy at a piano. There is music on the stand, and the boy's smile is slightly faltered, perhaps in a yearning to return to the piece. This lady is teaching her son how to play the piano.
My parents made me take piano lessons for three years, starting when I turned seven. They bought a cheap keyboard on eBay and stuck it in our living room next to all the antiques. They seemed to think that my learning to play would make me smarter, more interesting. And I went along with it, too, banging out rhythms with Sue-Ellen, the teacher they hired. I'd sit on the piano bench every Tuesday and play along, mostly stupid old tunes like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." It was easy, tiresome. I never got around to learning to sight-read, but I’d always had a good ear for music and could replicate songs she played and pretend I was memorizing the mnemonics about good boys and cars, fat cats and baloney.
Finally, my old, stronger self told them I wasn't going to do it anymore, and Sue-Ellen packed up her piano books, climbed into her Prius, and never darkened our doorstep again.
My parents refused to do away with our keyboard, though. It stays in the living room, reminding me of the woes of never-ending songs. My little sister Nicole survived her seventh year without a word about music lessons. I never said anything, even though I knew it was unfair. And then when she turned nine, she decided she wanted to learn to play the trumpet. She's the musician of the house now, puffing out wedding marches day on end. She's really good, too, first chair in the band at school.
I can’t tell you if the keyboard is still there. It disappeared over the years, its keys covered by old magazines and school papers tossed carelessly onto it, and it could just as well have been put in the attic and replaced by a plastic table and no one would know. The music, scattered with notes that I could never read, was thrown away the day of Sue-Ellen’s departure. I’m sure my parents saw them in the garbage but chose not to pick a fight. Not then, not ever.
The door opens, and the lady comes in. I stare back at the desk and let her introduce herself (again). My parents stand up and shake her hand. She gives my father coffee in a mud-colored cup. I don't move.
"Anna," my father calls from a distance. I look up, focus my attention on him, let my eyes fly right by Sarah Jackson. "Introduce yourself."
I look back down at the desk. Mrs. Jackson is watching me. She says something to my father in a quiet tone. I close my ears, don’t let myself hear it. He turns away from her and looks back at me. I stay standing there, lips sealed shut, and I can’t stand it.
The pressure is making me want to scream. I try to open my mouth, to get my voice to come, but it won't. Why would it now, if it never does?
My father checks his phone again. My mother sits back down, pulls the edge of his coat so he will, too.
The lady sits at the desk and smiles at me. I look back at the picture.
I didn't touch a piano again until years later, the first day of ninth grade. I'd spent the entire day with my stomach tight, ears open, in constant alert mode.
At the end of the day, I decided to go outside through a back exit, and I passed a piano on my way to the other side of the school. It was an old one, but not unused. Music sat on its stand, and someone had forgotten to cover the keys. I pulled out the bench, a sturdy one. Knowing my father would be about twenty minutes late picking me up, I sat and began to play.
Something about playing on a real piano, or perhaps not having Sue-Ellen looking over my shoulder, made it come easier now. Notes poured out of me, cloudy, minor ones. I played for what felt like an hour and rambled on in different keys, lacking refrain.
I finally got up regretfully and proceeded out the way I'd been planning to. As I'd expected, my father had just arrived. He rattled off apologies, but I just nodded. I didn't care.
I can tell my mother does not like the seating arrangement. She keeps chancing looks at me as Mrs. Jackson speaks, something about confidentiality. She wants to be between my father and me, so she can take turns pinching us if we’re screwing up.
When Mrs. Jackson is done talking bullshit about why Mr. Forrester was supposed to tell, she turns to me, eyes soft. Then, with no pause, no second of thought, she gives me a meaningful look and asks me to pull my sleeve back and show them, ruins it all.
I want to say no, that this is stupid, that I shouldn’t even be here. But my mouth will not open and my father reaches over the table and rips my left sleeve to my elbow. And then there they are, white slivers and magenta scabs painted criss-cross on my forearm, crystal-clear in the bright florescent light. My mother covers her gasp with her right hand, still holding that stupid magazine. But Sarah Jackson doesn’t look away.