Volume XXIII | 2023 Lacroute Prize Finalist
Sunlight streamed in through the kitchen window and onto the obituaries page beneath my folded arms. I listened to the clicking of the analog clock on the wall behind me and traced my eyes over the black-and-white portrait of my mother. I’d been examining it long enough to see the hundreds of dots the paper had been inked with, instead of the beautiful curves of my mom’s face. Newspaper photos had a way of deconstructing themselves when you looked at them for too long. My mother’s picture was ten years old and I had a hard time believing anyone who really knew her would describe her as ‘warm-hearted and put together’. From somewhere in my memory, her voice scolded me for thinking such things.
I’d learned about her passing three days ago in a long call with my sister, Jean, who’d hardly been able to speak through her tears. None of it felt real to me; it was although someone had poured gasoline into my contact lenses and I was forced to choose what was left and what was right in this new and bleary world. I had yet to decide if I was going to attend the funeral later this weekend. Mom and I had always butted heads and we hadn’t spoken since I’d had to check myself into the ER in the midst of a breakdown. Jean promised mom was still proud of me up until her final breaths, but I still wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she died from disappointment. The way the sun lit up her photo made the corners of her mouth turn down and I touched the speckles of her features with my pointer finger. I took the scissors on the counter and cut her 15 minutes of fame from the main page. The obituary was much flimsier without the rest of the paper holding it up, and truthfully I wasn’t entirely sure what I planned to do with it. I toyed with the notion of taping it to the wooden cabinets beside my sink or onto my fridge door, but it seemed wrong to reduce an entire life down to tape and a slip of paper in my kitchen. I ended up sitting at my counter once again.
“Should I go?” The unblinking eyes gave me all the answers I needed. I wouldn’t be able to go on without earning some form of forgiveness from her. Within the hour, I was buying bus tickets to my hometown two hours away while anxiety grew continuously in my chest.
I was out of place in the casualty of the bus wearing my black slacks and nice shoes. It was frightening how easily I became twelve years old again, riding the bus home from a rehearsal, mind numb to the streets passing by. The bus shook and I briefly wondered if this really was the exact same bus I rode as a kid. Perhaps the same bus driver too-- stuck looping the same streets until he runs out of gas. I couldn’t be quite sure how I felt about returning home; people knew me there and people always talked. They wouldn’t understand my side of the story. There’s no way anyone ever could without having sat with me in front of my piano, from when I took my first lesson to when I slammed the lid for the last time.
I had struggled to breathe then, as my lungs seemed to deflate under the stress of my heart. The joints in my hands were contorted in spider-like shapes and my skin was rapidly darkening as blood rose to the surface. At first, I hadn’t known what to do, endorphins made it impossible to continue a complex thought, but I was already thinking of what the papers were gonna say. How would I explain any of this? Everyone would want to know why. Why? Why did I put my career as a pianist at risk by slamming the lid onto my own fingers and onto the keys? I didn’t have the answers. And no one was more upset by this than my mother-- as if I had slammed her fingers in a piano instead.
My little breakdown was months ago now, but the shaking in my hands had yet to subside. My fingers had turned into leaves unable to hold onto the wind. I took prescription pills to cope with the stress that had caused my mental turmoil, but I found myself taking them more often than perhaps necessary. I had dug myself out of one hole and into another. Empty orange containers were scattered beside my kitchen sink, making it look more like a pharmacy than a living space. I felt more at home there, looking out at a world warped and tinted orange.
The church was taller than I remembered, though I was pretty sure the monuments in your hometown were built to be bigger when you came back. The winding spires made me nauseous to look at from where I stood gripping the bus stop for support. I was already regretting being sober as I could feel my body unraveling without the benzodiazepine it has grown accustomed to. People in black streamed into the giant doors like water down a drain, which seemed to only make the spinning in my head worse. I joined the parade of people walking into the church, admittedly eager to remember what it looked like inside.
The tall stained glass bathed the room in a kaleidoscope of beautiful colors, painting stories of the ten plagues and overseas adventures across the room. I could hardly contain my nostalgia as I recalled what it was like to look upon this same view with the wonder of a child. I had always loved church. When I was younger, it had been a game to see who could make God the proudest, but my sister never wanted to play. Even still, inside my head, she somehow always won. She left my efforts in the dust and I supposed that explained the here and now. He certainly didn’t owe me any favors.
In the bible, the second-born child always receives God’s favor. As kids in Sunday school, you learn to love Abel, Isaac, and Jacob over Cain, Ishmael, or Esau. Looking back, maybe hearing those stories was when I first started to doubt what I was being told about God.
My sister and I sat together on a colorful mat while Sister Luanne read to the class from Genesis. Cain was born first, followed by Abel. They both made offerings to the Lord, but God chose to only accept Abel’s sacrifice, giving no explanation for why Cain was forced to leave empty-handed. I pulled my knees to my chest nervously and looked to my sister for reassurance. Jean’s braids hung evenly at her shoulders, gently brushing against the pristine white collar of her dress. Her eyes were transfixed on the front of the classroom and her mouth was relaxed into a small smile. I stared at the crease in her lips, waiting to see her expression change. She turned to meet my gaze for a moment before shaking her head with a furrowed brow and settling, once again, with her eyes forwards. I kept watching.
After class, we sat in the hallway outside the chapel to wait for our mom. She was trying to convince our priest to hold our church’s annual picnic indoors this year so she didn’t have to worry about bringing extra clean clothes for Jean and me.
“Jean, why do you think God didn’t want both offerings?” It didn’t feel right to me that only Abel got a blessing from the Lord when he and Cain both deserved it the same. Jean looked up from the book she was reading and scrunched her nose. “In the bible, God said he didn’t want Cain’s offering; he only wanted Abel’s. Why?”
“‘Cause God knew that Cain was evil and that he didn’t deserve to be blessed,” Jean spoke with confidence as if God had told her himself. She opened her book again and readjusted her back.
“But Cain only killed Abel because God didn’t accept his offering. If God knew that it would make Cain evil, why didn’t he just accept the offering so that Cain wouldn’t be evil and Abel would live?” As I spoke, I pulled my body up straighter to match my shoulders to Jean’s.
“Cain was born a sinner and God doesn’t love sinners.”
I sat with her response for a moment before letting my back slide back onto the floor. Maybe I was supposed to be born first.
This wasn’t the first time I had found myself standing at the door to my apartment, desperately searching my brain for how I had gotten there. When had the funeral ended? I bent down to lift my welcome mat for my extra key but was suddenly overwhelmed with nausea. My throat heaved and a mix between saliva and stomach acid dripped onto the floor. I spit what was left onto the mat and pushed my key into the door. When I finally stumbled into my apartment, I shuffled directly to my piano. Why did it have to be the piano? Why not the guitar or the violin or the accordion? Why did I spend all of those hours day after day sitting at the mouth of an instrument with ivory teeth? It was more than the iron grip of my mother, more than the chalkboard reminders of “just three hours a day!” above our kitchen sink.
I stood at my own sink now. Three white Xanax sat innocently in my hand, spreading powder into the creases of my skin. Swallowing them was easy now; the bitter taste was a welcome price to pay for the relief it brought. Silence would finally be bearable again.
I had always needed the noise. The hard bench was the welcome mat to the only world I had. I had to make my own music, compose the day. My friends at school could march to the beat of their own drums, walk through those linoleum hallways without counting their steps. The only music of life I could find was what the wooden piano could give me. I thought if I practiced those few hours every day, I’d have the concert hall wrapped around my little finger and I’d be happy. A few bumps in the road and I’d spilled all over the dash. I still wasn’t sure if the pills dissolving in my stomach were what got me here or what kept me going.
My arms and legs felt too long, like I was an ant on stilts. I walked from the countertop to the front door and back again, just to prove that I could. And once more just for fun. My middle finger and thumb touched together and I watched my whole hand shake. Sobriety moved to the back burner and I moved to the piano I hadn’t touched in months. My fingers traced over the canyons in between each key.
I pressed just one. The note rang out in the quiet apartment, a sound like the voice of a former teacher or friend. I could almost put myself in my twelve-year-old shoes. The next notes I played were C-A-B, F-A-C-E, A-G-E. My hands moved without my moving them, pushing keys faster and faster. A melody in reverse – it was as if my life was being played backward. I could feel it all. I could put myself back on that stage, remember how it felt to meet Beethoven and Bach. My lungs took the first swallow of air they’d had in months, and my hands were guided by God again. I breathed the life of it in and out and… It was gone. Gone, pushed out by the beating of my heart and the exhale of my lungs. I stopped playing and searched frantically for where the feeling had gone, for what I had done wrong. Gone. And wasn’t it so familiar? I pushed the pedals under the lip of the keys, hoping they worked like a gas pedal, hoping they would finally just let me go.
Sirens sounded faintly in the distance. I hoped they were for me. The red alarm clock I had moved from my bedroom to the piano top read 1:34 am; I had been playing for hours, just like I had used to. City lights glared at me from my window and my eyes blinked back. It was a staring contest I would never win.
I wondered what I would feel like now if I had played at mom’s funeral like my sister had wanted me to. Closure, maybe? Definitely not the heart-wrenching guilt of seeing my sister’s face of disgust when she’d forced me out of the church’s tall, arched doors.
“Sorry,” I told my ceiling. Even the white plaster looked down on me. I took the Xanax from the counter and crossed to the window. Once it was opened, I set the prescription bottle on the sill and told it to jump. It rained onto the alley below and I could just barely make out the sound of the pills smashing into the brick. I shut the window before I was tempted to join them.
My heart was pushing blood through my body faster than it ever had before. My brain couldn’t figure out if I was angry or ecstatic or depressed, but pumped adrenaline and Xanax through my nervous system all the same. I started tearing through my apartment – under my bed, in my closet, under the sink – and gathered all the pills I had hidden in case someone had cared enough to visit me at my home. No one had yet. Seeing the pile slowly grow, a small mountain of medication, made something in me snap. I couldn’t hold back the laughter that erupted from my throat, nor the tears that warmed my cheeks. Something about it all: the rise, the fall, the addiction, the loss seemed so planned. Like God had written my tragedy and was watching me live it. He played his role like a silent film. I had to break out of the screen, He couldn’t keep me here anymore. I stuffed prescription bottles into my sweater’s pockets and made my way to the window. The fire escape was old, but it held my weight as I hurried up the iron ladder.
“Come on, come on, come on,” I said aloud. Nothing was happening fast enough. Time wasn’t flying as fast as my heartbeat and I resented both for keeping me so stuck in this moment. The roof was nothing pretty. A satellite stood erect and wires cut the night sky in the mosaics. I breathed like I had gills; my lungs felt like they were filling with water. My heart hurt. It was worse than any pain ever felt before – as if I had squeezed the Earth between the valves of my chest. I was Atlas, but I held the globe in between my ribs instead. I hurried to the ledge, though no one was timing me and I had no discernible deadline. Maybe I just wanted to do what I had to before the high, the deafening buzz in my head, let me think clearly again. I lined the bottles up though my hands had earthquakes rattling through them. Now time was still.
“Jump.” And they did. Orange and white arced above the skyline for just a moment before rocketing into the hard surface below. Oh my God, it was an orchestra. It was the crescendo, the finale, the ending we were all waiting for. Every single capsule deserved what it got. “Take it, take it, take it.” That was it. All the pills had made their descent and been swallowed by the shadows below. I was sure I was crying, but it was the rain that slicked my hair against my forehead.
“Mom, I am so sorry...” my cry fell against the roof with the water that fell against my chest. “I am so, so sorry!” Puddles formed underneath my bare feet and I dipped beneath the water. The clouds poured now, but the light that they reflected was bright. Like a hermit crawling out from his shell and cave, I had to close my eyes.
“I am, I am, I am, I am... God, I am.” Finally, I could speak without labored breaths. Finally, my eyes could bear to open. “Forgive me, and let me be whole.”