This was, literally and symbolically, a big piece of baggage. Several years ago, my first love gave me this piano as a gift. He was a generous, gift-giving kind of guy. The piano originally belonged to his father, a semi-professional musician, but it had long been packed away in his Dad’s basement. One September day, he boarded a bus with it in upstate New York. When he arrived in Port Authority, he lugged it on the subway from midtown to my apartment in the Upper West Side. I still remember his grin when I opened the door to greet him. The piano, on its side, stood almost as tall as him. His smile was as white and wide as all 88 keys. He knew I would love it.
I did. When I was growing up, there was a piano in my house, and it was something I returned to, over and over. I played all the time. Sometimes I learned songs. Other times I didn’t. I just pressed the keys, pressed the pedals. Some notes sounded good to me. Other notes sounded terrible. Sometimes, listening to and acknowledging what sounded terrible felt very good.
In her book A Piano Memoir, Anna Goldsworthy wrote: “I'll tell you a secret about Chopin. The piano is his best friend. More. He tells the piano all his secrets.”
My guy and I were best friends in high school and then tried to date in college. It didn’t last very long, but it was a significant experiment in trust for me. Almost nine years after he broke up with me, he was at my door with the piano.
We were trying again.
We sat together on the floor of my apartment and played the piano, making up melodies. Sometimes we would just press one key each and hold the note for a long time, residing in whatever vibration that sound produced. Sometimes I sang or hummed. We were together again, and it felt good.
After a while, I realized what broke the first time wasn't capable of being repaired.
It broke again. We broke again.
We stopped talking. I stopped playing the piano. I didn't feel like singing. I would go back to it on occasion, but the keys started sticking. At first, it was just F sharp. I would press it and the key just wouldn’t come back up. Then middle C went. Then whole chords would stick, and eventually whole octaves. Whatever fluidity was once there—whatever ease—transformed into something in the instrument that felt like muck.
I put the piano in my hallway closet, behind my winter coat and the Swiffer. Even as it stood upright, on its side, some of the keys still stuck. Nothing helped release those keys. Not even gravity.
This was three years ago. Last week, in some kind of winter heart/apartment cleaning, I finally felt ready to donate this piano. It was taking up space I needed for other things.
There was no way I could carry it. It weighed at least 50 pounds. So, I put it in a suitcase and prepared to wheel it six blocks to Salvation Army. The woman on the phone sounded enthusiastic about receiving an electric piano.
“Someone will love it!” she said.
The next day, with the piano all packed, rain poured down everywhere. The day after, snow piled on the sidewalks. The weather kept this piano with me for a few more days.
That night, as the snow turned to ice, I took the piano out of the suitcase and plugged it in. I put my headphones on. I played for about 20 minutes, both old songs from when I was a kid and new melodies I chant in yoga class on the harmonium. It didn't sound as familiar as I thought it would. The keys bounced under the pads of my fingers; not one key stuck. After I finished playing, I sat with it in silence for a few minutes, sinking into the vibration of that last note. I then stood up and lifted it back into the suitcase.
The next morning, I wheeled it down the dry sidewalks of West End Avenue to Salvation Army. The enthusiastic woman I spoke to on the phone removed it from the suitcase and propped it up against a bookcase. She had the same ear-to-ear grin as he did, that same delight.
I stepped back a few feet. Out of the crowded confines of my closet, the piano looked so small. I brushed some last remaining dust off the top, thanked the lady for helping me, and headed back home empty-handed.