6/8 – thanking my Father for piano lessons

The moment of lifting your hands above the keys,
floating in that space
when the butterflies in your stomach finally pause
in awe of a power you don't understand:

the moment
you walk in the front door
and very nearly slam it, stomping away
but then your sister tears through the house
to throw her arms around your neck

the moment
you walk out for the first time
and something tightens around your throat
but then a stranger smiles at you
like an old friend

the moment
you raise your voice
and they listen

that is the moment
of lifting your hands above the keys
and then, finally, to place them
one at a time, haltingly,
frozen through those first years
of scales and heart-pounding recitals—

when one day you wake up
and realize they are enthroned
in Rachmaninoff,
a Chopin nocturne
for the lonely nights
over the sound of shouts in the next room
and religious tomes that stared from the shelves
and four-bedroom houses with mumbling televisions
that left me
with no one else to talk to.

I want to thank my father
for driving forty miles at the crack of dawn
through inner-city traffic to an inner-city office
with stained carpets
and workdays that laughed in the face of the sunset
to stand in front of liars
and try to reason with them
until his voice stopped shaking
and he stood a little straighter
and won that promotion all to pay for
my piano lessons
before he paid the mortgage
or bought the groceries
or so much as glanced at the Ford crumbling in our driveway

I want to thank my father
for letting me wake him up from more beautiful dreams
after midnight and before sunrise to practice for lessons
and for making sure I had a piano
on which to stack my sheet music—my Bibles—

I never learned to talk like him,
afraid of opening my mouth,
afraid of walking across the street,
afraid of opening an oven door
to the flash of heat against my skin,
afraid of the dark,
the light,
most of all my brother's occasional visits,
shying from the finger he pointed
at my clumsy body, voicing
the thoughts I dreaded every day:
the knowledge that
no one would ever love

But I played my way
on the cracked upright piano as someone else
had before me when it was still in tune,
played my way through fear,
through my brother's condemnation,
through growing up in a world of liars
and a longing to love
a loveless world.

I played my way through an unforgiving stutter
and lonely afternoons, days, evenings, nights,
especially those nights, empty
as the hollow wood
while every other girl I knew
danced in someone else's arms

played my way through red welts on my back
and the cracks in my heart
and a rather enduring phobia of fire
and every variation of "homosexual" you can think of
when my father pressed pale trembling fingertips
against his forehead and begged me
and I saw him cry for the first time
and I was more afraid
than I have ever been

I played my way through honors in school,
the narrowed eyes of classmates and teachers
who stared like the tomes that lined the shelves
but never quite daring to voice their verdict,
one more in a long list of places where I could not
speak, or at least,
I would not be seen or heard—
only those recitals, the competitions,
the click of my heels and a dress that flowed to the floor,
striding across the stage with shoulders as straight as my father's—
or any living room with eighty-eight white and black keys

to bow my head
to slip my fingers into and over
so they could finish the sentence I never quite began

and though I didn't appreciate the listeners
in those first trembling years,
I learned to love them, because they loved me,
or at least, they listened,
and that is where love starts

they cannot know the painfully loud
music from the past that
their presence stops from pounding, banging,
battering through my brain,
which does its best to tear each sheet to pieces
when I am alone;
they do not see
Mrs. Delila's cat curling up at the bench next to me,
purring its praise,
echoing my teacher:
that I have a gift for the piano
few of her other students had.
When I touch the man or the woman
I love,
I want to thank my father for giving me
piano lessons
all those years,
keeping the lessons of Rachmaninoff,
a lonely alcoholic,
in mind—

of the beauty that can come
despite even the ugliest

a/n: wow, this is longer than I thought it would be, I almost stopped tonight/this morning because I had trouble concentrating but I didn't want to stop writing. Edits/suggestions are more than welcome as I just finished it and I'm sure there's a lot to fix!