“Piano Forte” by Lisa Croce

“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence in between.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

If you’d asked me before I would’ve told you mornings were the most magical part of my day. I suppose it’s not the morning’s fault, but when you’re outraged you blame places, people, articles blindly, because, well—do I need to spell this out? You’re outraged. And I’m not talking fender-bender-on-your-way-to-work outraged. You see, I was outraged because I’d awoken in someone else’s body.

When I opened my eyes that morning, it was bright as hell in my room like there was a spotlight pointed at me—the too-bright type of light that should’ve alerted me something was very wrong. Instead in my ignorant, sleepy fog I wrenched an arm out of the cocoon of covers, reaching to the nightstand. I was in search of the post-it note I wrote on the night before, a habit my yoga teacher had recommended to help ease my anxiety since the Covid-19 lockdown.

My wrist began contorting this way and that, feeling around, but instead it thwacked into what felt like a plastic iceberg. Then a noisy crash to the floor. I flinched and heard pills scatter on the wood. It would take an hour to reorganize them again. “Shit,” I said. The echo of a deep voice reverberated off the bedroom walls back at me. I instantly screamed.

I angled my eyes around the room. Nothing out of the ordinary.

A large sleigh bed made of mahogany wood, the Oriental rug Vivian and I got on our twenty-fifth anniversary trip to Santorini, the roll top desk I’d inherited from Aunt Sylvia; velvet curtains framing the double windows; a view of the treetops from Prospect Park.

I screamed again. The same low rumble echoed off of the walls.

Who the hell was Vivian and where was I? A second ago this room felt worn in, like the vintage pair of Levi 501 jeans I’d found uptown, not an item out of place, but now it all felt very, very wrong, like trying to hike up a wet swimsuit.

“I am a woman,” I said. I felt a little foolish but needed to make the declaration. This announcement might’ve been funny in any other context, but, if you hadn’t already guessed, waking up in an old white man’s body will snatch the humor right from you.

I looked down at two wrinkled hands clutching the duvet and sharply sucked in air. I attempted to jump from the bed, but my body wouldn’t hasten and my back felt as if I’d been thrown from a horse. I wondered if I’d accidentally eaten an edible before bed.

“What the hell?” I whispered. His voice was weathered, tired. I’d heard about a reaction from an edible once via some dude that my bestie Tiana had been fucking. She wouldn’t bring him out to the bars with us because his voice sounded like a creepier Terrance Howard though, so I’d never actually met him. Just then I noticed a large mirror above the dresser. I built up the courage and placed a veined hand on it, lifting my body into view.

If I were in my own slender female body I’d be on the hardwood by now, bowled over by shock. But instead I heard laughing in my head.

“Get on with it,” I said. This time, the low timber of his voice didn’t scare me as much. I was beginning to feel his emotions, though their heft was still mostly underwater. I could feel he was losing patience with me, at my hesitance, urging me to rip the Band-Aid before I lost my nerve completely.

“I was handsome in my day,” he said to me. “Many girls wanted me to court them.” Now he was just bragging. But as I considered him in the mirror, I noticed there was truth to his boasting. I could see he was once probably a handsome white guy, behind the wrinkles, the receding hairline of silvery wavy hair, the slight yellowness to his teeth.

I felt the tug of the bathroom. I let him take over the horrid task of relieving himself, as I crawled as far inside my consciousness as I was able. I did not want to be scarred for life.

I ambled through the house in his procedural way now; filling the French press and setting in on the stove, retrieving those nightstand pills from the iceberg and choking them down with what tasted like rancid tomato juice, cracking two eggs into a pan, smearing jam on toast, and chewing slowly, so slowly.

As I over-chewed and caffeinated I thought about my own tasks for the day that I now wouldn’t get the chance to complete: I needed to record and upload videos of me performing my original songs on piano to my Youtube page, then to my TikTok, and finally I had Mackenzie’s and Lucas’s piano lessons over Zoom that afternoon.

I began to tidy the kitchen. My sturdy fingers thrusted open a card from a woman named Ellie, addressed to Dad. Inside the card there was a photo of Ellie’s daughter, Violet, posing with another young woman. The two were embracing, arms locked around each other, one girl, caucasian, holding out a hand with a modest gem on her finger. The other young woman had a skin tone like mine. A gorgeous Black girl like me. I dropped the photo to the counter, as his body realized the young women were an engaged couple.I could feel he wasn’t pleased by their relationship—but it was the color of her girlfriend’s skin that concerned him more.

Anger swelled in me, and I raced to the living room looking for something, anything to exact it upon. A delicate porcelain lamp sat stoically on a wrought iron, glass-topped table. I flung myself at it, swiped an arm across the lamp until it crashed to the ground. I hunched over to catch my breath, triumphantly scanning the room for more sacrificial relics.

And then I saw it. Atop the piano in the far corner of the room, I noticed a framed photo. I crossed the room and gripped it tightly, smoothed a finger over his face so close to Vivian’s. I wondered why was he allowed to have a marriage if Violet and her fiancé couldn’t.

Yet the longer I was with him, the more I began to understand his thoughts. Not relate—I’d never relate. It’s not right, he thought. How will they have children? And they’ll have an easier life if they’re with someone that looks like them.

I could feel how openminded he believed himself to be, amongst his elderly peers. You’re misunderstanding me, he said, making me out to be the bad guy.

But the truth is he’d probably never see it; and there was only one way to force empathy from him, to shove him into pain in order to level the playing field. I lifted his wedding photo, at first simply inspecting it. I felt his body stiffen against me, felt grief wash through him. Then suddenly, I slammed the frame to the ground, the glass splintering, shards flying at me. His hands began to rip at my face. And then, without warning, my hands were thrown at the keys of the piano. I still don’t know if it was me or him who was responsible for it. But I’m sure it doesn’t matter.

Because what I didn’t understand that day, blinded by anger and my own pain, was that those who hurt hurt. And if we hurt, for the spite of hurt’s sake, much like an eye for an eye, we are all blinded and pained. But that day I wasn’t ready to learn a lesson, not yet.

Instead I sat on the piano bench and mourned my freckled cheeks, my textured hair, my gorgeous brown skin. I wanted it back. I’m not racist, he said, stop thinking that. I stared at his hands until I was ready to place them back on the keys. I began to play. Debussy’s “Clair de lune” was the first melody to come to mind.

My hands took over. If I closed my eyes, I could drown out his words and lessen the pain. 

“Music has charms to soothe the savage beast, to soften the rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”

Hans Christian Andersen

In that fleeting moment between slumber and awake, I used to think about Vivian. I cringed and braced myself for pain that washed over me like a deluge. Vivian is gone. But the pain stopped there—that should’ve been my first clue. The pain that usually came for my joints and body, never came. But like a starving boy when bread falls off a truck, you don’t ask how, you simply eat.

The realization that I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom hit me next. Men sail through most of life, body-wise—I realized this years ago, knew how lucky us bastards had it, plus Vivian would tell me at any chance she could get—but when your prostate gets ornery, let me tell you, you’re done for. No one spoke about this, but you probably don’t care, whoever you are.

But that morning in bed my eyes bulged and I immediately lifted the top sheet. I prayed I didn’t find a soaked mess. To my surprise, the sheet, along with my pajama bottoms were dry as a bone.

This was another moment I should’ve realized I too was not in my own body. Did she tell you her story already? 

Anyway, that morning my body felt stronger than it had in years. I launched myself out of the bed. It only took two steps toward the mirror before I fell on my ass from getting cocky. Youth was wasted on the young, but getting old just made you bitter. And when I lost Vivian, the race to bitter quickened.

I stepped to the mirror. She was a slip of a thing, the body I was in, a pipsqueak as we used to say, all limbs and hair. Immediately I felt her pull. But not the pull of her will moving me around—her pull toward the future, getting older, experiencing life at a faster pace than it was doled out; the recklessness that youth affords sparking against any object like kindling.

I walked too slow for her, too carefully. Before I could stop it, she was touching several pieces of technology, and music began blasting out of some portable speaker. She wanted to dance, to spin and twerk, apparently, but then, just as quick as she demanded we move, she picked up her phone and got lost swiping upward with her thumb.

During these moments she seemed to lose chunks of time, but I was fully aware that there was a perfectly good Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle not getting done. I looked around for any printed books in the apartment. Not many, and if there was one, it had some celebrity’s name attached to it. You know they don’t even write their own books, right? They’re called ghostwriters.

My apartment is my slice of heaven, can you stop judging, grandpa? 

By now as you could see, I was very aware that I was a hostage in a millennial’s body. Or is this what it would feel like to live in senior care?

That was my worst fear—I wanted to go out in a glorious stroke, or drop dead and have that be the end of it, kaput. The thought of being bound to the will of others, in a body that has a mind of its own without a relatable agenda—reminiscent of right now—tore me up inside. Would Vivian have needed to be cared for, had she been diagnosed early enough for them to do anything about her glioblastoma? Or perhaps I was in some decrepit home at that very moment, wasting away staring out a window in a wheelchair whose wheels stayed locked by the aides.

You’re overreacting, she said tucking some of her curls into a coral-colored hair wrap. Those homes are nice enough. My Nana is in one and it only sometimes smells like pee. She turned in the mirror inspecting herself.

I tried to ask her how often she visits her Nana, but that question was averted as we went into the bathroom to begin what she described as her face routine. My mama told me to start young, she said massaging foamy soap into her cheekbones. She seemed somewhat comfortable with me along for the ride of her day, as if her schedule couldn’t be halted in order to figure out how we’d gotten swapped.

“So, your nana,” I tried. “Do you miss her?” Back in front of the mirror, she was stretching in preparation for yoga. She bent down to touch her toes, exhaled loudly. I don’t want to talk about Nana, old man. She bent to the other side.

“I lost my wife not so long ago and I’ve been thinking a lot about where I’ll end up,” I say. “Wondering if my grandkids would come visit me.”

By now she was sitting on a mat on the floor, incense burning in the background, a steel drum track on the speakers. What do you want me to say? She lifted a leg onto the other into some flowery-named position. I don’t know names here, folks. Nana was good to me. I miss her, she said. She opened her eyes; I caught a glimpse of her in the mirror that was angled down at the floor. Her eyes glistened. The last time I visited her she didn’t know who I was anymore. It wasn’t the home that smelled like pee, it was her.

“It can’t be easy to watch someone you love disappear right before your eyes, but don’t you think you should visit her again, once Covid is over? On some level, she’ll know you’re there.”

Clearly I’ve overstepped, said too much as I always do. Vivian would scold me our whole marriage about that. And maybe she was right. Perhaps her nana doesn’t know who she is, each visit a technical waste of her time, a subway fair deducted from her Metro card, and what for? If no one was there to mark your presence, were you ever really there? That’s how life without Vivian felt now. 

When I looked up toward the mirror again, she was rising from the ground, and we were walking to her second-hand piano keyboard. As she sat at the bench, I could see it was a Roland F-30; a very good digital piano in any decade, mine or hers. There’s an apparatus clipped to a standing lamp—somehow I instantly know this is where she records her music and videos. The more time I’ve spent with her, I was able to then feel that music, out of all the other things—celebrity autobiographies, yoga, even her facial routine—music was hers and no one else’s. A calmness came over her, and I sat, waiting to see what she would do.

But her hands stayed on her lap; a soft whimper began to come from her. You really think I should visit Nana, when this stupid ass pandemic is over? She sniffled.

Instead of answering her, I lifted her hands to the keys. This, right here on these eighty-eight keys, both black and white like the two of us, is where we connected, I realized. We could argue about her Nana, the volume of her music, but hands outstretched on this keyboard, these pedals underfoot, there wasn’t a thing in the world we had to disagree on.

And then it hit me, a song that would make Vivian smile, no matter how big our fight, how loud our shouting matches got, she’d enter the living room suppressing a smile, standing behind me, hand on my shoulder—Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

I played on, slowly as Gershwin himself demanded, until I felt the edges of my host’s lips curl into a defiant smile. I love this song, she said. How did you know it would make me feel better?

“Because, honey,” I said. “That’s what it was created to do.” 

“Where words fail, music speaks.”

William Congreve

Lisa Croce has lived in Los Angeles since 2015. She received her B.A. and M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Antioch University. Her work can be seen in Obelus Journal and Lunch Ticket. She was the Associate Managing Web Editor at Lunch Ticket Literary Journal, is Fiction Editor at Variant Literature, and a host and writer for the new podcast LitCit.

You can find her on Twitter @missguided_ink and at lisamcroce.com.