Your fingers glide across black and white piano keys, and the music leaves a pounding in your head—a storm in your chest. You can’t explain it, but it’s the same feeling you get whenever you ace a test or reach the topmost part of a Ferris wheel ride. You’ve never liked heights, but seeing the world from so high up has always left you awestruck and a little breathless.
You think playing the piano is like riding a Ferris wheel, like having wings and having another world at your fingertips. And when you play, you aren’t your brother’s shadow or the perfect kid that your parents expect you to be—you’re just sixteen-year-old Anton Go.
You like losing yourself in the music and drowning in the crescendos because if the music is good enough, you don’t even have to be Anton, just a pianist losing himself in his art. To be honest, you don’t mind getting a little lost every now and then because sometimes you like the worlds inside your sheet music more than the real world.
“And that’s it, great work today, Anton.”
The music comes to a stop and you swivel around in your chair to face Ms. Rivera. “Thank you, ma’am. I’ve been practicing really hard.”
“You should be, the contest is on Friday after all, and I don’t want you freezing up onstage. Have you told your parents about it yet?” She flashes you a warm smile and you feel her long and bony fingers resting on your shoulder.
Mrs. Rivera was the first piano teacher you ever had, and when you were seven, you thought she was the best piano teacher in all of Cagayan de Oro city—maybe even the best in all the world. You used to idolize the tall and bony woman who played with all the confidence you wished you could have, and you remember how you used to give her flowers from the garden on Valentines and little presents during Christmas or her birthday.
She used to be the coolest grown up ever, and you think she still is.
“They’re always so busy,” you say as you shrug your shoulders and fake a frown. That isn’t exactly a lie, but the truth is, they know nothing about the competition. In fact, they know nothing about the piano lessons either. And that isn’t the only complication, you aren’t sure you’ll show up. You want to really, really badly, but Friday is also the day of your big entrance exam, and your dad and you had already agreed to take a plane to Cebu so you could take the test.
Your parents already have your life planned for you. You’ll be a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman, but whatever it is, it won’t be a pianist.
Your parents think you spend your afterschool hours playing for the San Pedro’s boys’ team like your old brother Gab used to. And to make sure they believe you, you borrow an extra pair of your best friend Paulo’s soccer jersey and make sure to run around the subdivision for a few minutes before you rush through the door in time for dinner.
They ask you about school and soccer, and you come up with stories about how you play center-forward and scored the winning goal. They think you and your older brother are similar in more ways than one, but if anything, you think you’re as similar as an alarm clock and a remote control, and if anyone says otherwise, you’re prepared to give them a list of examples.
Gab plays used to be team captain of the San Pedro’s boys’ team while you only pretend to play. The truth is, you run away as soon as you see a soccer ball sailing through the air because you got hit in the face once during the second grade and it left an angry red mark on your left cheek. You learned to fear soccer balls after that and stayed as far from the soccer fields as possible. Gab is a math whiz while you struggle with long division and multiplication. You think math is complicated and that it should really learn to solve its own problems. Girls think Gab is the coolest while none of them think you are cool at all.
You and Gab have the same dark curls and brown eyes, but you couldn’t be more different. And the thing you envy the most isn’t his soccer prowess or his laidback attitude. The thing you envy the most is his sureness. Gab always knows what he wants and when he was a senior in high school like you, he already knew he wanted to be a doctor.
As of now, you don’t know what you want to do with your life or who you want to be. There are only two things you are certain of. One, you cannot imagine having the weight of a human life on your hands, or holding a scalpel and opening people up and sewing them shut again. If you were a doctor you’d pass out as soon as you saw the blood and the patient would die for sure. Two, playing the piano makes you feel like you have something, that you aren’t just drifting aimlessly through life. It grounds you, but it also makes you feel like you’re soaring.
“You should tell them to come, Anton,” Ms. River says. “You’re really good.”
The compliment makes you smile and you get to your feet and nod. “I’ll try.”
“Great, I’ll see you tomorrow after school then?”
You eye the grin on her face. It’s nice to have someone believe in you, so you tell her you’ll see her tomorrow and you say your goodbyes.
Make your way to the sofa, pick up your bag and head towards the door.
You look over your shoulder, at the shelves filled with all sorts of books and knickknacks, and at the tiny cactus on the table beside her sofa. Ms. Rivera’s home can feel a little cramped sometimes, but sometimes it feels more like a home than your own.
It’s nine in the evening when you walk through the door of your subdivision home, soccer jersey and all. It’s quiet inside your home and your mom is already washing the dishes in the kitchen while your dad sits on the sofa and listens to the news.
“How was your day, Anton?” Your dad calls from the sofa, but he doesn’t bother to turn around. He’s much too focused on the ABS-CBN news.
Throw your bag onto the nearest chair. “It was okay, Paul sprained his ankle at practice. We stayed a bit later than usual to help him out.”
You see your dad nod. “We’re leaving for your exam on Friday.”
You know where your dad is going with this and you think about taking the stairs and heading to your room.
Your dad finally turns around then points to Gab, who’s seated by the dining room table and studying for a test. “You know son, you should study more. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, you’ll need good—no great grades.” Your father looks you up and down then smiles. “If you’re anything like your brother, I know you’ll pass.”
The thing is, you aren’t like him and you don’t want to be. You want to carve your own path, but you also know your dad only wants what is best for you. Both your parents are practical people, you mom is a teacher and your father an accountant. They value work and want you get a job that will eventually pay the bills. You understand them, but it is it wrong to want something else?
Back in elementary you used to play the piano, and your mom thought it was a nice hobby too. She used to play the piano in church when she was your age, but whatever love she had for the instrument died when she started working. They took you to lessons, but as you grew older, your dad thought it was time to stop playing around and get into other things.
You stopped taking lessons after that, but started playing anywhere you could—in the school music room, at church, at Ms. Rivera’s place. It was your only vice, and Ms. Rivera and Gab were the only people that thought you were any good.
You’ve been practicing for almost three months now, but you fell in love with the piano a year ago when you attended one of your cousin’s recitals. You couldn’t explain it, but the music just pulled you in, and it was like floating on a cloud. And the notes—it was a whole new world literally at your fingertips.
After the recital, you remember begging your parents to take you to lessons. They shrugged you off and told you it was something you’d get bored of in less than a week, but you didn’t stop pestering them, and eventually, they found you a teacher.
This is how seven-year-old you met Ms. Rivera.
She taught you how to play and told you that you were good. Gab, your fourteen year old brother did the same. Your parents never really listened to you play, but really, you wish you could impress your parents too, so you wait for them to come home from the office because maybe if you play that part from “The Moonlight Sonata” really well, they’ll see that playing the piano is just as cool as winning a quiz bee.
“Ms. Rivera taught me a new song today,” you announce excitedly.
“Oh, what song did she teach you?” Your mom stops to ruffle your hair and look at the sheet music in front of you. She’s been really busy during the past few months, and while she sometimes watches movies with you on Sunday nights, she always falls asleep before the credits roll. Unlike your dad, your mom thinks playing the piano is a great hobby, but never really has the time to listen to you play.
“Want to hear me play? Ms. Rivera says I’m really, really good at it.”
“I’m sure you are. Your dad and I will listen to you play later, alright? We’ve got to prepare for a meeting at seven, but we’ll be back earlier tonight.”
“Yes, really, and we’ll be back with ice cream.” Your dad walks up behind you and gives you a pat on the head. He’s a tall man with glasses and a lilting gait, a science teacher, who wishes you’d focus on other things, and is never really interested in hearing you play. You think it’s unfair because whenever Gab has soccer games, they always make it a point to show up with energy drinks and supportive faces.
“Oh, and are you finished with your homework, Anton? You should focus on the things that matter before playing around, okay?” Because the things that matter are always the things they have planned.
They disappear from the living room as your fingers glide across the black and white keys. You play dejectedly, shoulders hunched and eyebrows creased together in annoyance. Hit the keys in anger and flinch when the piano lets out a loud complaint.
“Why’d you stop?”
“Mom and dad have a meeting,” you reply.
You turn around to see Gab standing by the screen door in muddy socks and his soccer jersey, he’s holding his beat up soccer shoes in one hand, a soccer ball tucked beneath his arm and a band aid plastered onto his left cheek.
Shoot him one of your sulky glares. “You got mud on the floor”
“Well, you didn’t answer my question.”
“Mom’s going to be mad about that.”
The corners of his eyes crinkle and soon your older brother is laughing at your silly expression. You puff up your cheeks in indignation, but Gab doesn’t seem to mind. He plops himself onto the sofa by the TV and pulls off his socks, the grin on his face turning mischievous. He tosses his muddy soccer ball at you, and it hits you lightly on the head before bouncing back and falling onto the tiled floor.
Rub your forehead and glare. “I’m telling Mom,” you threaten.
Gab rolls his eyes in response. “Stupid, you’re actually pretty good at playing the piano. You know, you should stop sulking or Ms. R is going to think you’re a big baby.”
“I’m not stupid and I’m not a baby. You are.”
“Prove it.” Gab stares at you coldly, as if challenging you. “Go on, play.”
You play “The Moonlight Sonata” flawlessly while Gab listens from the sofa. When it is over, he shoots you an encouraging look, smacks you cheerily on the shoulder then disappears up the stairs, annoying grin and all.
“So, how was piano practice?”
Your brother’s familiar voice makes you come to a stop. It is eight in the evening and you’re running up and down the subdivision streets in Paul’s soccer jersey. It’s dark out, save for the dimly lit streetlamps that stand like soldiers by the lonely sidewalks.
“It was alright,” you told Gab about the practice sessions and the competition a month ago when he caught you sneaking in through the back door. He asked if you were out on a date and teased you until you started sputtering about the competition.
“Are you going to play?”
You eye him warily and wonder if he’s going to tell your parents.
“I want to,” you say.
“You should, events like these don’t happen too often.”
You think about Gab’s words. The day of the competition is also the day of your medical exam for Cebu Doctors, and mom and dad will kill you if they realize you blew off the test to go and play the piano at some competition. Even you think the idea sounds kind of stupid. Sure, you don’t want to be a doctor, and sure, blood makes you feel queasy, but it’s your future.
If you succeed, you’ll have a better tomorrow and make your parents proud. You really, really want to make them proud—but you want to find out who you are too.
“I’ve got an exam on Friday,” you say even though Gab knows this already.
“Well, you can’t pick both. If you really want something you should go for it.”
Gab can be surprisingly nice when he wants to be. It’s not that he’s a bad brother or anything like that, but things between the both of you have always been kind of complicated. Sure, you play video games and watch TV together, but Gab has a tendency to take your food from the fridge or steal the remote control whenever you leave even for a second.
“Just do whatever you feel is best, Anton.” Gab gets to his feet and tells you he’s going to go ahead. He walks back to your house a few streets away and you stand there, wondering if you should run for a few more minutes or just drop the act and go home.
Three days before the competition you stop by the Mang Inasal by the Divisoria to talk to Ms. Rivera. It’s facing the highway, and through the glass, you can see the car-filled streets and blinking traffic lights. The place is jam-packed with people, but you and Ms. Rivera manage to find a table for two in a corner.
“You wanted to talk about the competition, Anton?” Mrs. Rivera gives you a kind smile before picking up the menu. “Don’t be nervous, I know you’ll do great.”
“It’s not that,” you look down at your own menu and stare at the pictures of lechon manok and different kinds of barbeque. Usually, you’re always in the mood for some unli-rice and chicken, but now you aren’t hungry at all. “I might drop out.”
“Oh?” Ms. Rivera looks a little shocked because as soon as you heard about the competition, you asked her if she could help you out and if you could practice at her place because you didn’t have a piano. She told you that you had talent and that she’d be more than happy to help. “Is anything wrong, Anton?”
“I don’t want whatever mom and dad have planned for me. I want to play the piano.”
Mrs. Rivera looks confused, so you tell her about how your parents pretty much have your own life planned for you, about how they want you to be a businessman or a lawyer or a doctor—anything but a pianist. At best, you’ll become a music teacher like Ms. Rivera and at worst, you’ll be jobless. It doesn’t exactly pay the bills.
“You’re right,” Ms. Rivera responds. “It doesn’t exactly pay the bills, but if it’s something you’re passionate about then it’s at least worth a try, don’t you think so? It’s like painting or writing, you don’t do it for the money, but because you like losing yourself in it.”
You don’t say anything and Ms. Rivera reaches out to pat you on the shoulder. “Think it through, Anton, and ask yourself why you play. If it helps, I think you’re a talented kid.”
The words float around the inside of your skull. “I’ll think about it, thank you, ma’am.”
You spend the next day thinking about Ms. Rivera’s advice and you decide to confront your father after dinner. You sit beside him on the couch and tell him you want to talk.
“So, Dad, about Friday.”
He turns away from the TV to look at you. “Are you feeling nervous? If you studied, there’ll be nothing to worry about.”
“It’s not that.”
He stares at you and the atmosphere feels tense.
“I don’t want to be a doctor. I’m not like Gab, and I don’t think I’ll be taking that test.”
Your dad frowns when he notices your irritated expression. “We only want what’s best for you.”
They already have your life planned out, and yes, you’re angry but you understand they mean well so you bite back a sarcastic retort, nod your head and do what people expect from obedient kids. “Yeah, of course, I know that, but it’s not what I want.”
“So? What do you want, Anton?”
“I’ve got a piano competition on Friday and Ms. Rivera thinks I might have a chance. I really, really want to participate dad.”
Your father looks disappointed. “You’re throwing away your future for a piano contest? Anton, you’re young, you don’t know what you want yet.”
“Maybe, but I know I want to play the piano. I’m inviting you and Mom to watch the competition.” At this point, you look away and mumble when and where the event will be held.
“Don’t be silly, we’ve got a flight at two in the afternoon.”
You shake your head and get up to leave. Maybe it’s dumb, but you have to try.
You fiddle nervously with the cuffs of your sleeves. In less than half an hour, you will be playing on that stage in front of the blinding lights and the crowd. Ms. Rivera is seated beside Gab somewhere in the audience, but you didn’t catch a glimpse of your mom or your dad and it leaves an empty feeling in your chest.
You knew your dad was upset with your decision, but you had hoped he and your mom would come to hear you play.
Take a deep breath and steel your nerves.
The girl on stage finishes her rendition of “Fur Elise” and loud claps and cheers echo throughout the auditorium.
The emcee calls your name and you take a deep breath and step out into the stage.
There’s a storm in your chest. You’ve never been so elated and so afraid at the same time. Your fingers glide across the keys as the jumbled up notes reverberate inside your skull. You can hear the audience clapping and can imagine the grins on Gab’s and Mrs. Rivera’s faces, but the only thing your eyes are focused on are the black and white piano keys beneath your fingers.
You play “The Moonlight Sonata” first and follow it up with “Ode to Joy” and other pieces. It’s a medley you and Ms. Rivera have been working on for two months now and while you felt ready the day before, your knees feel wobbly as your mind works on overdrive.
The music and rising crescendos are all you can hear and you imagine playing a puppet, flying a kite—putting together a puzzle piece. Each note is a piece that slowly falls into place and the longer you play, the clearer the picture becomes. You close your eyes and lose yourself in the art.
The audience do not exist. There is just you and the music. The puzzle and the puzzle pieces. You must put them back together again and play.
Minutes feel like hours, but eventually you come to a stop, breathless, nervous, but very, very happy. You feel awestruck as you stand up and take a bow and for a moment you are deaf to the cheers of the audience, there is only the music in your head.
You walk down the steps as if in a daze and when you reach one of the side aisles, Ms. River and Gab congratulate you and pull you into a tight hug.
You return the gesture but pause when your eyes fall on the two people at the end of the aisle. “Mom, Dad, you came.”
There’s a moment of relief followed by worry. Did dad come to give you a lecture here and now? You focus your eyes on them and the corner of your dad’s lips quirk up into a smile.
Michelle Andrea T. Asagra hails from Cagayan de Oro and is currently taking a BA in English (Creative Writing) at UP Mindanao.