I learned how to play the organ two days before your funeral. It was the most last-minute of arrangements: Dad wanted me to play something at the service but apparently there was only an organ available. It made no sense. Nothing made sense anymore. What happened?
It was thirty minutes until my six-p.m. flight to Burlington. I vomited my lunch in the airport bathroom and then swallowed a whole Ativan to calm my nerves. There were two green boxes of laxatives in my carry-on. You never wanted me on medication; you said it would cloud my greatness. What greatness, I always wanted to ask, but never did. In hindsight I wished I had; it was always a desire of mine to get inside your head, to pick at your brains with my piano fingers, to figure out what it was exactly that kept you so meticulous and wired and always so impersonal. But I had robbed myself of the opportunity. I would never know.
You signed me up for piano lessons when I was five years old. Eighteen years later I stopped returning your calls. You left voicemail after voicemail—asking how was I doing? and where had I gone? and why didn’t I tell you I was going to Europe? You discovered I was in Paris from my cousin, who showed you a picture of me: standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, wrapped in two coats and a gingham scarf, holding a postcard from the Louvre. Mona Lisa smiling at the camera like she knew something you didn’t. You saw that I was dead-eyed, and clearly flirting with the possibility of never returning home. I remember the picture well because I had zoomed in on every detail, searching for signs of weakness—and I had done this for days, even, after Julie sent it to me. When I was very young, you taught me the art of self-surveillance.
I liked Paris, but also felt that the whole concept of the trip was lost on me somehow; first I wished you had been there with me, and then I grew unbelievably happy with the idea that you were unable to spoil it. The problem was that I was thinking of you either way.
The organ at the service was a five-octave chamber organ. I played the piece I’d learned two days prior, with the sheet music in front of me because I couldn’t remember what to do with the pedals.
No one clapped. That was strange for me, in spite of the fact that I knew it wouldn’t have been right if they had. I always guessed that I was, inherently, a performer—or rather, the thing that you raised me to be.
The reception was a groaning affair, but you would’ve loved the attention. Would’ve eaten it up like that. You know what I mean. There were sandwiches on the table and a cocktail maker, alongside everybody you ever knew. My cousins sat neatly in a row on the red sofa, dabbing gently at their eyes with tissues crushed into needlepoints, and in front of them were Dad’s parents, who couldn’t believe you were dead. “So sudden,” they said over and over again. “So sudden.” Eventually my old piano teacher came to me to ask when I had learned to play the organ.
“Just last month,” I said. “I wanted to explore.” It felt good to lie. She gripped my arm, tight as death, and waited for me to burst into tears—like I was some unstable widow, drowning my sorrows in red wine, and not your daughter.
I drank four plastic cupfuls of Diet Coke and thought about you, flipping through old memories like worn, delicate photographs: how you would sit me down at the piano bench when I was little and look over my shoulder as I played; how you threw a lampshade at my head; how you apologized afterward, and asked about my day; how there had been a school project when I was in the second grade where I had to pick a hero, a person in real life that I looked up to—and you screamed at me because I hadn’t thought to pick you, the immigrant, the self-sacrifice. I regarded the memories with an indifferent, albeit gentle touch, careful as not to provoke them. After all, you were already dead. In other words, you had managed to escape the last of my vitriol. What could I do now? What would change anything? You had a heart attack during your morning commute to work. Your car went, screeching, into the intersection. They say you died on impact, but that’s just what they say.
After several hours, the reception had shrunk considerably; the only ones left were the cousins and the in-laws, and in my pocket a shiny bottle of Ativan. I swallowed one in the guest bathroom—your candles were still there, lined-up by the sink, vanilla and sea salt, and I wondered, strangely, if Dad would ever replace them—and then I returned to the main room, hands in my pockets, eyes absentmindedly wandering across the picture frames hung on the wall. Family portrait: me, smiling like a girl; you, about to sneeze.
Meanwhile, Dad was entertaining the last of our guests with the tired story of how you two had met: on a ferry boat. Then he found me.
“Come and play something for us, Lou,” Dad said.
“Marylou.” His smile said please.
“OK.” I slowly made my way toward the piano. Cracking my knuckles, I sat down at the bench, placed my fingers on the keys, and tapped out an unenthusiastic Chopin etude. Then your voice in my head, as if your ghost were there to inform the audience: They call this one the “Wrong Note.” Isn’t it perfectly imperfect? I heard my father sigh behind me and wondered what I had done wrong. Not just to him, but in general.
It could have been that I hated you. Or, it could have been that I missed you like a little kid misses summer vacation—that naïve longing that felt brand new, and heavier, with each passing year. Either way, I took two Dulcolax and an Ativan and, straight after the reception, went to sleep in my old bedroom, still decorated with polaroids and Martha Argerich; and I dreamt of the train ride from New York to Vermont. It should have been winter, I thought, but everything was green and shining. Fresh and easy. I looked out the window and saw trees of many colors.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt the effects of the laxatives. I shuffled into the bathroom, sat down on the toilet, and stared at my toenails. For a moment I thought I might talk to you—out loud, like they do in movies when someone is feeling particularly sad, or lost, or alone—but decided against it. I didn’t feel any of those things. For a long time, sitting there, I didn’t feel a thing at all.
It was nearly January when I returned to Manhattan. Everything was just as I had left it. What you’d like about New York City is that you don’t need a car. I walked to my favorite bakery on Seventy-eighth Street and ordered my cakes: Black Forest gâteau, tiramisu, strawberries and cream. I bought a slice of each and carried them back to my apartment on the Upper West Side. You don’t know where, and I can’t show you. That’s it.
Ida Mobini is a junior in high school living in the flat suburbs of San Diego, California. They have been writing since they could pick up a crayon. Currently, they work on their school newspaper and literary magazine.