Nonfiction by Angela Palm


You are the music while the music lasts.
–T.S. Eliot

My friend R. asked me once what drives my creative work. “Sorrow. Desire,” I said.

“Those are very different things.”

I disagreed. Everything I wanted made me sad.

I believed, without reason, that every family should have a piano player. No one else in my family played. I found this disturbing—a mortifying lack of cultural education—and was determined to change it. When I was ten, my father bought an antique upright piano for a hundred dollars, refinished it in our garage, and presented it to me on Christmas morning with a red velvet bow wrapped around it. I had wanted a horse more than a piano, but that was unfeasible. We didn’t have money or land.

The piano had a trapdoor that, when raised, revealed its long, stretched strings and soft, ratty hammers. I would reach inside, greedy for its guts, and inch my fingers along the piano’s interior in search of secret panels or forgotten letters between lovers from another century. But I never found any. Instead, I wrote my own letters and tucked them into those cracks for some future little girl to find. Sound impregnated with possibility.

Though they’re technically stringed instruments, pianos are placed with the percussion instruments in the symphony orchestra. When you see one played with the pianist’s whole body working to produce the music, this classification begins to make sense.

I learned to read music from the Bastien Piano Basics book series, eking out the barest harmonies on chipped ivory keys, and writing the correct note names over the notes my piano teacher drew onto composition paper. My pinkies never did grow strong enough for a five-note chord. I hated sharps, and I would avoid playing anything with more than three of them because it was too much to hold in my head at once. Music is a math, and that’s when it began to feel like homework. Isolated in a flood plain, miles and miles away from any friends, I would practice my two-flat or three-sharp sheet music for hours, time disappearing into the pages as I played a single page over and over until I could execute it without error. Then, without looking at the notes. This is the same way I like to grow close to a person I love—page by page until I’ve learned them completely. Studying them as one might study the nuances of a piano piece, troubling myself with the tricky areas and not giving up until I’ve mastered it. The fingers are better guides than the eyes, I discovered, and the heart is the best guide of all.

The Bush family is the only presidential family to date that didn’t own a piano. No one in either George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush’s family played. I have never met someone with an ivy league education who can’t play the piano.

When I left for college, there was no way to bring my big, old piano with me. I missed sliding into the bench after a run, playing before dinner, before bed while everyone else slept and I stayed up nursing my solitude. When I moved to the city for an internship, I rented a studio apartment on the tenth floor of one of two residential high rises in the city’s downtown. One wall of the studio was composed solely of windows, as if you might need to walk straight through to the sky, or to see all of it at once. It had an opening effect on me but it was frightening, too. My first weekend there, I bought an electric piano and an extension cord with my first credit card, which I’d signed up for when someone shoved a clipboard and a free t-shirt at me on my college campus. This was the beginning of a decade’s worth of debt.

On pianos, I never use the soft pedal. It sounds like nothing. I don’t use the muffler pedal either. It sounds like less than nothing. But I pressed the damper pedal even when I wasn’t supposed to so that the music would linger longer than it should, filling the room and me with perfect harmonic chords. That swelling vibration was so much like love to me. Or sorrow. Or desire. In my case, they were all the same movement.

In the apartment, I centered the instrument against the glass window wall and played Beethoven and Handel at night to combat the fresh isolation of living alone for the first time, which, of course, only made things worse. I played only sad, seeking music. When I wasn’t playing, I was working at the State Senate or I was out with the other interns and legislative people, and the picture windows without blinds or any kind of covering I could close, even at ten stories high, seemed to lay bare the mundane maneuvers of my daily life: the humiliation of burning lentils on the stove as I tried to teach myself to cook, crying at night to a never-ending curtain call, the motocross champion stranger I brought home from a bar on Valentine’s Day, whom I stripped for and massaged but never slept with. I played perfect keys for him in the nude, finally someone to perform for. He lay on my bed, watching me, in awe of his double luck, having won his race that day. An awareness clicked open in me. I knew I’d never be this free again. My body would never be more perfect. My infatuation with the world and all its possibility never again so naïve. I played it all to a precipice.

Other than the piano, my greatest pleasure was the family one floor up, whose conversations permeated my space through the radiator. I would eat my meals when they did, feel happy when they did, quiet myself when they were quiet. How I envied their closeness. They laughed, cooked, ran about, played rap music, and sometimes sang gospel songs. The ease with which their collective joy sprang forth as sound comforted me when I missed my friends, who were all back on campus throwing darts and slinging shots on Thursday nights while I was attending cocktail hours with ambitious lobbyists and middle aged Representatives.

The second week of the internship, I brought my new friend, R., from work back to the studio. There was only the bed and the piano bench for furniture to sit on, which forced a kind of intimacy that wasn’t yet real. Playing the piano for a barely-known person who is sitting on your bed feels intimate enough, but it isn’t supposed to be. Parlor playing is meant to be social, and communal, not romantic. I have a hard time telling the difference. Listen to the poetry of the piano’s architecture: bottom sill, soft pedal, key bed, key slip, fallboard. The piano itself is an intimate instrument, in part because it cannot be carted around. Listeners must visit your living room, your bedroom, your basement—wherever it’s stored. Gaston Bachelard said in his Poetics of Space that the home “retains memory of the previous dreams.” Visitors to the home, then, interact however subtly with one’s consciousness and unconsciousness. All those notes that linger in the air. Likewise in the structure of piano, all the vibrations it knows by heart a mathematized perfection.

I’d heard rumors from neighbors that just before I moved in, a young woman had jumped from the twelfth floor of the building’s twin tower, positioned across the street from mine. I could see the alleged balcony clearly from my window wall. Some nights I stared at it, both trying and trying not to see her body falling through the air, both feeling and not feeling the memory of that nightmare all around me. I imagined her pain, which was oceans deeper than my own loneliness. Some nights I dreamed of pavement. The smack of bones breaking and bursting flesh. I would wake up with it, with her, the ghost of this person I had never known.

R. visited my studio on Wednesday nights. I liked occupying a standing spot on someone’s calendar. It was very Sex and the City, I thought. We would walk to the market and then cook meals together in my little kitchen, while we listened to jam band CDs on my boom box, and I would try new recipes I’d learned and edited. When we ate, I sat on my bed with my plate on my lap and he sat on my piano bench, his back to the windows.

On Thursday nights, we would go dancing at Ike and Jonesy’s, affectionately known as a cougar bar, whose signage featured a larger-than-life portrait of Marilyn Monroe’s subway gate photo. He would grip my hand, lead me onto the dance floor, spinning me and dipping me, bringing his forehead nearly to the skin of my chest when I was leaned all the way back. I loved the release, the let go, the rush of life into the moment after the song ended. All the hearts beating rapidly around me, and mine playing its own note among that harmony. It felt like the piano’s damper pedal, the swelling of possibility, the sexiness of it. Then his girlfriend would join us, and he’d stop dancing and sit in a booth, still and quiet, not any fun at all, and I would be the first to leave. This was the real loneliness: being the girl everyone wants to dance with and no one wants to love.

One night, he invited me to his parents’ home, as he had grown up in the area. His mother made us hot dogs. We drank beer and debated using their hot tub even though we didn’t have swimsuits. His parents were so kind and welcoming. Your family is so perfect, I remember saying. I don’t recall whether they had a piano.

Pianos have the largest tonal range of any instrument, able to play both high piccolo notes and low double bassoon ones. These days I rarely play—work and children and constant change demand my time, but all the notes are still in my fingers and behind my eyelids. Scales still running. The way I still dream in French, though I no longer speak much of the language or have any reason to practice it. Learning is like a palimpsest of the mind’s consciousness. Lurking codes and shadows that flicker into focus from time to time. It’s memory resurfacing.

Just before the end of our internship, R. told me his sister had jumped from the twelfth floor of the building across from mine and killed herself just weeks before we’d met. A few months before it happened, he had visited her in the hospital and she had said to him that she didn’t want to be alive anymore, couldn’t he understand that and just leave her alone? He hadn’t understood that he was powerless to urge a desire that would put life back into her or replace her depression with his love. Learning this shocked me. How could he have come over all those weeks and not disclose that to me? How could he have sat there, week after week, looking out the window as the notes fell? He had remained rock solid. He had laughed and eaten and listened to my playing, without a word of his own heartbreak. Only after the shock was I filled with gratitude. He had told me and now I knew him.

I tried to win the girlfriend over to no avail. When they moved in together, after the internship was over and I returned to school for my senior year, he stopped returning my calls. After graduating, I moved back to the city. We had mutual friends, but I never saw him. “We ran into each other just once at a restaurant years later—both married by then. I made small talk with him, but fumed inside, suddenly remembering how he’d abandoned our friendship. When he walked out, he said sorry with his eyes, his pressed lips, a nod. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them,” wrote T.S. Eliot. He was a stranger now. Two years later, I saw him again at a Gymboree with his baby. I was at a music class with my new baby. The babies slapped the little drums and tinkered with the notes of keyboards and screamed and got away from us, and all the while R. and I didn’t speak at all. What a crush that there are entire histories inside the length of a single glance across the room that our children will never know. All those notes that linger in the air.

Every time I drive by those apartment buildings now, I recall the six-month friendship that was everything and nothing. I hear the piano music, the soundtrack to his grief and my loneliness. I recall the false intimacy created by the sparse apartment, by the piano, by our meals together, by our dancing. Or maybe not false, but temporary, the way T.S. Eliot describes it. When I sold the piano and moved out of the city again, it was this building I bid farewell to in my mind. It had held so many short-term relationships and lovers and nude young women and sex hungry men and plants that needed watering and burned lentils and laughing families over its years of leases and comings and goings. The way the piano held all my past playings, all my swellings into after-moments that burst and dissipated when I took my foot off the pedal at last. I thought of R.’s dear, deceased sister for a very long time as I drove away that day, pianoless now, but full of the lingering notes, and the way I had, it turned out, played to her most every night.



Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here (Graywolf Press). Riverine was an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, a Kirkus Best Book of 2016, and a Powerful Memoir by Powerful Women selected by Oprah. Palm was a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference fellow in Narrative Nonfiction and a finalist for both the Vermont Book Award and the Indiana Emerging Author Award in 2017. Her work has been published in Tin House, Longreads, Ecotone, Creative Nonfiction, At Length Magazine, Passages North, Brevity, Paper Darts, Epiphany, and elsewhere. She is on the Board of Directors for the Vermont Young Writers Project, volunteers with Amnesty International, and has worked as assistant manager of the New American and refugee education program, Parent University. Palm is the Editor in Chief at Creative Side Marketing and works as a manuscript consultant at Grub Street. She has taught creative writing workshops and appeared as a featured guest throughout the U.S. www.angipalm.com @AngPalm