The music fucked her.
It swam in her bloodstream, soaked up through the skin of her fingertips. She could feel it like a fever racing through her body, a raging inferno that turned her limbs a-trembling and her lips a-quivering.
She ran her hands over the warm wood, feeling it sliding beneath her hands like velvety skin, memorizing the different textures, temperatures, and temperaments. She knew the slightest touch of her finger would set a purring thrum reverberating through its imposing body, the gentlest caress of her hands would send shivers through its strings to vibrate beneath her palms.
She could hear their voices in her head. She heard their false words of empathy, their pitying lips, and whispering stares.
It was their stares she could feel, those piercing lances of keen pity. She felt them wherever she went, whatever she did. The people in the music shop watched in the corner, their sympathetic clucks inaudible to her ears, but resounding inside her head. The condemning heat flooded her face, but she swallowed her shame. They didn’t matter. Their opinions didn’t matter. She lived inside herself, in her own silent world, and she was content. Because for now, she was entranced by the instrument in front of her.
Softly, she pressed a gleaming white key. The vibrations ran along her fingertips, tickling up her arms, the sensation coming to gather at the base of her skull to explode in a burst of twinkling lights in her brain.
She smiled, an almost involuntary reaction.
She pressed a black key and shivered with delight. The sensation was tighter, more exquisite, higher in her chest. With her left hand she pounded another key, gasping with pleasure as a lower thrum shot down her spine, causing her toes to curl.
She pounded another, and another, and another, the cacophonous, tumultuous riot of tingles in her brain setting off laugh after laugh after laugh, a pleasant tickle in her chest that rippled through the air.
The hand that grabbed her snapped her out of her orgasmic high.
“Stop it. You shouldn’t be playing here,” her mother hissed. “Just wait patiently until your brother is finished. Do you understand me.”
Yes, I understand, she said with a roll of her eyes and a shrug of her shoulders.
Her mother smiled and patted her shoulder reassuringly. “Okay then. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
She shrugged again. Fine.
But her body was still singing with the sensations the piano gave her. As her mother rounded the corner, she turned back to the instrument, its imposing size and standoffish scale intimidating her and yet at the same time, it beckoned her to touch, to explore, to know its intimate nooks and crannies.
Before she even touched a key, the laugh burst from her, as she remembered the tickling tingling that ran up her legs from its sound. So instead, she ran her hands lightly over the wood, feeling the polished grain, its rich mahogany color soothing her, calming her.
But it was hot in the room. Much too hot. She fidgeted uncomfortably and turned around.
A young man stood there, leaning casually against the far wall, watching her without a word. His lips were thin, curled at the right corner into the slightest whisper of a sneer. Smoke trailed in light ribbons from the cigarette in his mouth, rippling around his face. The smell tickled her nose deliciously, but she swallowed her urge to sneeze, eyes stinging, head ringing.
He lowered the cigarette with a fluid gesture, smiling, the sneer lost among the laugh lines around his eyes. The change the smile wrought in his face uncurled something in her stomach.
“It’s a beautiful piano, isn’t it.”
The clarity of his words struck her, a hammer striking a chord somewhere deep within her. She watched those thin lips shape-shift smoothly and distinctly from one syllable to another, the sharpness of his speech etched clearly on her mind.
He spoke beautifully.
She nodded. Yes, beautiful.
He walked closer, laying a masculine hand on the keys. She held her breath as he exhaled, a stream of smoke sighing pleasurably from between those thin lips. He began to play and she felt the opening notes blossom and uncurl inside her and controlled the urge to giggle. But presently, as she watched him play, the urge to laugh subsided, replaced by the urge to cry.
His hands spoke poetry. She watched as his fingers glided smoothly over the keyboard, entwining with the black-and-white keys, a dance of hands, flesh and ivory and ebony, and all she could think of was poetry, the round shape of words, the lines of and breaks, the length and syllables, and of T.S. Eliot.
And the music fucked her. She lived in a silent world, devoid of laughter, devoid of speech, devoid of sound, but rich in sensation. She felt the music in her feet, vibrating pleasantly up her legs, up her spine, up her neck, curling to an exquisite point at the top of her head. She was drunk on the wash of tingles that flooded her body, lost amid the haze of prickles rocking her body.
She opened her eyes when he had finished and smiled. He smiled back while she clapped, sharp staccato beats in the air.
“Mozart. Rondo Alla Turca,” he said. Her smile widened at the clarity of his speech. “Hi, I’m Danny,” the young man said, extending a poetic hand. She took it firmly.
Danny, she mouthed, feeling and tasting the syllables of his name on her lips. He chuckled and the ripple traveled from his chest, through their joined hands, and into her ribcage.
“And you.” He inclined his head towards her slightly.
Her grin faltered. Danny waited without question, watching her reaction, waiting for her response.
His expression did not flicker. His tacit acceptance of her voice struck a deeper chord than a piano hammer.
His head turned and she followed his gaze across the room to where her mother stood with her brother in hand.
“I’m so sorry if she was disturbing you, sir,” Mrs. Brewster apologized to Danny. “My daughter is deaf, you see.”
Helen glared at her mother, but Mrs. Brewster, unlike her daughter, could not feel the intense heat of a stare.
The thin lips with their whisper of sneer returned to their state of repose on Danny’s face. “No, ma’am, she wasn’t bothering us. In fact, I was probably disturbing her.” He gave her a sidelong glance, but the sneer had gone from the right corner of his mouth.
“Oh good,” Mrs. Brewster said, “I’m glad she wasn’t too much trouble.”
“Oh no, no trouble at all,” Danny said. He then turned his back to Helen as he faced her younger brother and the beauty of his words were lost to her.
Mrs. Brewster took her daughter protectively by the hand, but Helen drew away.
Let’s go, she told her mother.
Mrs. Brewster turned to call her son and Helen walked out of Carnegie Music Shop, with Danny’s curious stare warming a place in the center of her back.
Carnegie Music Shop was only two stops east of Lincoln High School on the Gold Line, exactly seven minutes and twenty-two seconds away. Mrs. Brewster hated the bus system, too full of strange people and disease, she claimed. But Helen had yet to fall sick on the Gold Line. It was the Gold Line she loved best, the rumbling tumble of its seats, the glancing glares from other passengers, and the jiggle-bounce as it bumped down the road. The Gold Line is an experience, she told Mrs. Brewster.
It was an experience that Helen had started to take everyday after seventh period. Seven minutes and twenty-seconds of over-stimulation, so that when she stepped off the bus in front of Carnegie Music Shop, she was limber and pliant with sensation, ready for the play of hammer and string.
The Steinway had been on sale for the past three years, but no one in Grant Falls had the inclination or even the means to buy it. Carnegie Music Shop had two practice rooms and one lesson studio that the children of Grant Falls used and rented and thus nobody bothered to buy the mahogany grand.
So it was always there, waiting for her. Helen and the piano had never been formally introduced; nobody would bother to teach a deaf girl how to play an instrument she could not even hear. But it beckoned and pulled with its open, friendly face, the gleaming keys resembling fingers, fingers she could touch and speak with in the language she knew best, that of her hands. She liked to come to Carnegie Music Shop and sit upon the warm piano bench and try to pluck out a conversation, one finger at a time.
She knew that they all stared; who wouldn’t? Mr. Halford ignored her; Mrs. Thompson shook her head pityingly. But it was Danny’s curious glances that unnerved her the most, more so than the sympathetic remarks she knew Mrs. Thompson made behind her back, more so than Mr. Halford’s annoyed indifference, and even more so than her mother’s insistent over-protective tendencies.
She felt him speak before she saw him there.
The smell of his poetic hands was laced with smoke on her shoulder.
“I’ll leave,” she said.
He said something else.
“I’m sorry, what was that,” she turned to ask him.
“I was just wondering what you’re doing here, all by yourself, I mean.”
She narrowed her eyes. “What if I said I just wanted to talk to the piano.”
The sneer at the corner of his lips was only ever-so-slightly pronounced.
“I would believe you.”
But she didn’t believe him, despite the clarity of his words. She started to slide off the bench, but his smoke-scented hands stopped her.
“Look,” he gestured towards the piano. “Sit down. I’ll show you.”
She held back, but Danny continued without her.
“This is middle see.”
He pressed a white key near the center of the keyboard. She quivered as the vibrations rang somewhere behind her sternum.
“This is tea.” The white key immediately to the right was just a little tighter.
“This is —” He pressed the white key immediately to the left of the first one he had played. She couldn’t read his lips clearly. She felt cold.
“What did you say.”
He repeated the word.
“You know, —- as in the letter. The letter —.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Can’t you hear the difference.”
No. She was sullen.
He laughed, and she tried her hardest not to feel the tickle between her breasts. She closed her eyes, feeling his laugh resound in her chest, shaking her heart, and she grimaced with the pain of keeping it in.
“You know what I mean,” he smiled at her.
She stared at him as his smile dropped. Slowly, deliberately, he leaned across the distance between them and took her hand between his. The blood hammered in her skull, beating an obstinate obbligato through her head. He drew her hand to his chest, where his heart pumped a counter-beat to the erratic thrumming in her body.
“Can you hear it now.”
He slid her hand up his sternum to rest her fingers against the sweet hollow at the base of his throat, pulsing and throbbing beneath her sensitive hands.
She heard the timbre of his voice for the first time.
A slight gasp escaped her before she realized it. She heard the difference; a question tightened at the end of the syllable, higher than a statement.
“Ah?” she repeated.
His smile was genuine.
She studied his lips, those thin, masculine lips.
“What’s the word?” The self-conscious tightening of her voice; a question.
“It’s not a word. It’s a sound. Pppah.”
He brought her other hand to his lips, to his thin, masculine lips.
The rush of air across her fingers made her shiver.
There was a quiver beneath her other hand, and she felt the difference.
She giggled softly and she felt the curve of a smile underneath her hands.
“That’s the letter. B.” His voice trembled, but whether or not it was her hands, she wasn’t sure. “The note has a name. The letter B.”
“Bee,” she said. She felt her vocal chords vibrate and heard for the first time, the nuances in life.
He watched her form the letter B with her hand, a flat palm with a slightly crooked thumb.
He formed the letter with his own hand, which was softly callused and rough. She pressed her palm against his before withdrawing it.
“Do the other notes have names too?” Again, she tightened her voice to ask a question.
“Yes.” Danny smiled, the sneer lost entirely.
“Yes, they do.”
“Where exactly do you go after school. Why don’t you come home right away.” Mrs. Brewster always made a point to speak out loud to her daughter when they were face to face, to hide her disability, as she liked to put it.
I go to C-A-R-N-E-G-I-E-M-U-S-I-C-S-H-O-P.
“Why. What could you possibly be doing there.”
I’m learning how to play the piano.
Although Helen could not hear, she often understood more than people would like to believe. The roll of her mother’s shoulders, the stiffness of her posture, and the slight tilt of her head told Helen that Mrs. Brewster did not approve of her oldest and only daughter loitering her after school hours away at the music store. Or perhaps she didn’t think her daughter capable of learning how to play at all.
“Why on earth would you want to do that.”
Because the music fucks me, she said. But her mother didn’t understand “fuck” as she signed it.
“What did you say,” her mother asked.
Helen shrugged and turned away. But the omnipotent hand of Mrs. Brewster stopped Helen from making her way out of the room.
“Helen, I want you to know that more than anything I want you to be able to do the things the other children do. But you have handicaps and —-”
She brushed off her mother’s hand.
“I’m fine. I do what I want.”
The force of her mother’s gaze as she walked out of the kitchen nearly scorched a hole in her sweater. But Helen was determined not to look back. The piano had infected her soul so that she dreamed in black and white, ivory and ebony, and in the letters CDEFGAB.
“The lips are the most sensitive part of the body,” Danny told her one day.
“Really?” With him, she was always careful to modulate her voice, learning the nuances of language, of words, of sound.
“Yes,” he said, the smile creasing away the sneer. “It’s a useless fact I picked up in Biology 101 as a freshman at Oberlin. Something I’ll never need as a graduate student of piano.”
She made a point to touch him always as he spoke, the soft, breathing, living, smoke-scented flesh a better conduit for the sound of his voice than the pregnant air between them. Sometimes she wondered if she loved him. Sometimes she wondered if she only loved what he could offer her: the chance to lead a normal life, to do something “they” could do.
“Did you apply to Oberlin?” he asked her. His voice rose slightly; she knew he was asking a question.
“No. I applied to Carleton, Grinnell, Yale, and Georgetown.”
“Tough schools.” The sneer was back, hovering on the corners of his mouth. Sometimes she wondered what it would be like to kiss that sneer away. “I’m sure you’ll get in. You’re smart. Look how quickly you learned how to play.”
She wondered if that last sentence was a question or a statement. In truth, she hadn’t learned anything but the scales, the names of the keys, and their appropriate markings on the staff. Her fingers were trembling too much to discern the tightening of the vibrations from his body.
She laughed. She knew it was hoarse and coarse and loud and uncouth, but the echoes of her laugh rang from the wood body of the piano, causing the strings to sing slightly. She smiled at the joke she and the piano shared and she ran her hands lovingly over its black-and-white face.
As Helen Brewster, she sat close to the front during the graduation ceremony, but it still took fourteen minutes and thirty-six seconds before the master of ceremony even reached the letter B. The professional signer up by the podium, Mrs. Brewster, was to indicate when the master of ceremony called out her name by a hand signal. She hated watching her mother when her attention should be focused on her classmates, the graduating class. The rhythmic drumming of shoes up and down the gangway lulled her to sleep as feet pattered back and forth on wooden planks. Her chest burred uncomfortably as “Pomp and Circumstance” blared loudly through enormous speakers, so loud that it blurred the notes together, the notes that she was beginning to hear the difference between.
The signal came between the half-note and the triplets and Helen rose from her seat with as much grace as the long blue and gold robes would allow. The trilling buzz from all around her told her of the audience’s renewed applause for the deaf girl walking up the gangway to receive her diploma. Her face burned with shame and indignation, the clicks of her heels on the wooden platform driving hammers of sound into her skull. Sound, noise, sensation, they were all around her, flooding the gateways of her brain that the piano had opened. She raised a hand to her forehead, caught in the eddies of noise that swirled about her, threatening to drown her with their force.
Insistent vibrations buzzed behind her eyes and she closed her eyes to beat them away. Buzz-blare. Buzz-blare. Buzz-blare. BUZZ-BLARE. Her eyes trembled with the sound and she wanted to run away.
The explosions started in her right temple and burst in brightly colored flares all over her brain. The pain was blinding; the sound rocking her body like a rag doll, the lights in her head slamming against the walls of her mind until her entire body quivered like a piano string hammered upon.
The shivers and quivers increased in intensity until she was raped by sound and the barriers of her silent world were shattered.
Then there was darkness.
She wanted to feel the strings of the piano play her ribcage for the last time.
Since her seizure at graduation, Helen had scarcely left her bed, on Mrs. Brewster’s orders. Driven everywhere, catered to, babied and coddled, the walls of her silent cage had fallen in about her ears once more. Alone in a silent world.
But on the morning of August 12, Helen experienced the Gold Line from the Riverview stop all the way to Main Street as it dropped her off two stores west of Carnegie Music Shop. She had thirty-six hours before she would leave Grant Falls for Georgetown and it was the piano’s touch she craved most of all.
One and a half steps below middle C.
Three steps above middle C.
Nine steps above middle C and the most beautiful note in the entire universe. It hummed in the hollow just below her stomach so that it sang in the cavities of her knees, turning them to liquid. D was the same frequency Danny’s voice resounded with when he said, “Helen.” D was the piano’s love note to her.
She sat once more on the piano’s lap, the warm wood of the bench nestling her slight body comfortably. Her thumb on C and her middle finger on E produced sounds that ran parallel to each other, light blue.
C and F, a fourth, slightly pink. C and G, a fifth, chartreuse.
C, E, G, C. An C major arpeggio.
CEG. C major chord.
GCE. C major chord inversion.
GBD. G major chord.
G, A, B, C, D, E, F sharp, G. G major scale.
D, F sharp, A, D. A D major arpeggio.
The D major chord. The key of love. The most dulcet of the keys, the key of “Helen.” She had unlocked the secret of the piano’s language. A friendship was blossoming beneath her fingertips and conversation continued, held in tune and words.
She smelled his cigarette before she saw him.
She could not discern his words without facing him, but heard “Helen” spoken in D.
Without another word, Danny sat beside her, unmoving, unstable, unsettled. She ignored him as she finished a phrase with the piano. He waited patiently for the two of them to end their conversation before turning her to face him.
“So I hear you’re leaving for Virginia tomorrow.”
She felt the weight of the silence between them press against the chest until her lungs constricted from the effort to keep her tears in check.
“I’ll miss you, Helen.”
She pressed D. She closed her eyes.
“I’ll miss you too.”
When she opened them, the sneer at the corner of Danny’s mouth was more prominent than ever, the curl of thin lips forming an ever-present slight smirk. But as the silence smothered them both, she realized that the sneer was never a sneer, but a frown. A sad, trembling frown that quivered in unison with her heart. As he smiled, the frown at the corner of his lips only grew bigger, obscuring the sincerity of Danny’s grin.
He reached for her face, and the drumming in her head exploded sforzando. He brought those thin, masculine lips to her forehead and she marveled how they could be so soft, as soft as the pianissimo notes underneath her palms.
She did not hear his farewell although she felt it, but she heard her name as D raced down the bridge of her nose to tingle upon her lips. She licked them.
“Danny,” she said. She had never quite learned to manipulate her voice to vibrate on the same pitch as his, but she sang his name on F, the note of color. Warmth, orange, pink.
This was one of the assignments I submitted for critique at university and probably one of the first short stories I had ever written in my life. The idea of a deaf girl learning to play the piano had been around in my head for a very long time, since high school when I used to play the 1894 Steinway grand piano in the living room, so I decided to execute that idea in short story form. (In hindsight, it is INCREDIBLY CRINGEWORTHY and probably extremely insensitive to boot. Apologies to the Deaf community for 18-year-old JJ’s hubris.)
I reread this story and laugh had how it’s clearly the work someone who doesn’t know her craft yet, but it was well-received by my class. My teacher even picked out a line she pointed to as an example of a great sentence: She made a point to touch him always as he spoke, the soft, breathing, living, smoke-scented flesh a better conduit for the sound of his voice than the pregnant air between them. It’s the first time I think I ever felt validated as a writer, so I do have a fondness for this story, flaws and all.