The day I became a genius I locked the keys in the car with the motor running. This minor delay served its cosmic purpose, I suppose, delivering me right on time for my transformation at the spiritual launch site-women's shoes at Nordstrom.
Christmas in southern California satisfies about as well as chocolate mousse with Cool Whip. Holiday flourishes covered every Nordstrom surface that day, but the sun shone warmly, Santa's suit had sweat stains, and the perfect snow never melted.
Dad and I had a tradition of shopping for Mom together. Knowing her so well, we felt we could combine our instincts to pick a gift she might not loathe. Fat chance.
I found a rose-colored satin luxury that anyone would love. Dad looked at it skeptically, scratching his bushy gray hair.
"Hundred and eighty." I said it casually, like I always spend that much on bathrobes.
"Dollars? A hundred and eighty dollars? I could buy a house for that!" His face twisted with horror, which our poor saleslady took seriously. She flustered at us apologetically.
"Really, miss, it looks fine to me," he said. "Wrap it, please. Chanukah paper, if you have it."
The saleslady stared blankly back at him.
Ever since moving from New York to San Diego, my father's jokes zoomed over the heads of store clerks, waiters, and ticket takers. He ached for the verbal volleyball you could pick up on any street corner in the Bronx. I had moved away only as far as Brooklyn, and worked as a lawyer in Manhattan. In spare moments, I fantasized about more creative pursuits and a possible move to palm-tree country. But if ever I were tempted to live in California, that saleslady's blank stare would be a strong deterrent.
We headed toward the dresses, looking for I don't know what. Something for my sister, something for Aunt Frieda. One by one, commission-driven "sales associates" assaulted us with helpfulness. After a dozen May I help yous, I grabbed the first dress in reach and asked a saleslady for a dressing room. This made me safe. Nordstrom associates are connected by
hidden antennae and territorial threats that keep the shopper safe from other sales associates once an alliance is made. My boyfriend should be so monogamous.
Piano music had been drifting around in my head since we arrived. The volume rose and fell as we wandered around the store. When we drew close to the source, the melodies hardened and cracked like dried clay.
A highly polished baby grand sat on the highly polished marble floor and was played by a highly polished pianist. His honey-colored hair was swept away from his scarily perfect face. Turquoise-blue contacts looked down a surgically carved nose toward a beauty-queen smile with teeth as white as white.
He played the Christmas standards with showy finesse, dramatizing Rudolph and trivializing the Wise Men. His head swayed gracefully with the music, mimicking sincerity. Occasionally, he'd look up to bless us with a smirk and an eyebrow shrug, assuring us he was too good for this banal dreck the store made him play. If only he could show us his real stuff.
Normally, I'd accept it all as store atmosphere, but his music was getting on my nerves. Every time I got near him, my head throbbed and sweat slid down my neck. His know-it-all look enraged me and I fought not to scream when he Muzaked "Ave Maria."
I tried to walk away but his playing attracted me like a spectator to an Amtrak wreck. Occasional missed notes hit my body like flying glass. I outplayed him in my head, summoning the music's original beauty. When he left for his break, I calmly took his place on the piano bench and began to play.
Through all my grade-school piano lessons I'd only gotten good enough to recognize the skill in others. Suddenly I became an other.
I was not like a lifeless puppet, nor a remote-control robot. All the movement came from inside. Muscles flexed, fingers moved, and my mind was filled with a comprehension I had no right to possess. I vibrated like a tuning fork as the music flowed outward. Visions slid in and out of focus. My brain engaged in a psychic tug-of-war with an unseen opponent.
It was a lovely piece I played, one I'm sure I never heard before but which felt like an old friend. The melody started slowly and I marveled at the grace in my hands. My manicured fingertips roamed the keyboard at will, gathering up its secrets and pouring them out in exquisite form. The tempo picked up and my heart raced to meet it. I watched my fingers hurling, twisting, and dancing wildly, amazed they didn't pretzel up on me. Then came a light and lilting part pulling on strands of melody remembered from the beginning. The ending left me tear-drenched.
When I stopped, the world of Nordstrom fell in on me again. The response to my music was, like, totally Californian. Most of the shoppers shopped on, unscathed by a miracle.
Only a small crowd took notice. They gathered around with enthusiastic words and even requested autographs. An elegant woman in her forties, patrician to her toes, wept into a linen hanky. A gray-haired couple held tightly to each other and offered comments in a language I didn't recognize.
"Hey, lady, how'd you do that?" I turned to see an adolescent boy in trendy, cool-kid clothes. He stared at me, stunned, as if he'd just discovered fire.
"I don't know," I answered. Then the world grew dark, the ocean rushed through my ears, and I gratefully passed out.
Do people normally dream when they faint? It was the first faint of my life, so I'm no expert. But when Dad's voice roused me a minute later, I had already had a life-changing experience.
My body housed two lives. To protect my sanity I denied it many times but, as I look back, it was obvious from the start. Someone else, some person who possessed more passion than I ever felt, had crawled into my soul with me. Like lovers sharing a bed, yanking at the covers, brushing up and pulling away, we were separate but together and utterly unready for each other.
"Liza, honey, are you okay?" My father helped me sit up as Nordstrom elves scurried to find help. The small throng around me asked one another the usual questions.
"I'm fine, Dad. I just want to go home."
My own sense of shock was augmented by strange responses to the ordinary details of the surroundings. Everything smelled wrong and glaring lights made me throw an arm across my eyes. I gasped at the sight of a woman in shorts.
"Someone's gone for a doctor, Liza. Let's just wait a minute." Then Dad's voice changed from concern to astonishment. "Honey, where on earth did you learn to play like that?"
A stylish store official in a dark business dress broke through the crowd with a medic in tow. Despite my protests, the brusque young man looked in my eyes, felt my pulse, and checked for signs of imminent demise. His quick, assured hands felt cool against my clammy skin. Much as he tried, he couldn't find anything horribly wrong and suggested I go home and take it easy for the rest of the day. If only he knew.
The curious bystanders were pretty much losing interest by then, except for an elderly, tweed-covered gent who chased after me and my father as we hurried toward the exit. He could barely catch his breath when he finally spoke: "Excuse me, miss, but that was remarkable. Really remarkable. Wherever have you been keeping yourself? Where may I hear you perform again?"
Perform a-gayne, was how he said it. He was American, but with that Continental accent you hear only in old movies.
"I don't perform anywhere." I was more frightened than flattered.
"Then where do you study? Can't I hear you again?" He looked hopeful, and actually removed his fedora as a show of respect.
"I'm sorry, sir, I really have to go." My response deflated him. "I'm glad you liked that number, though."
Dad held onto my elbow as we turned to go.
"That number?" The stranger was following us out the door. I wanted to disappear, but my Number One Fan would not be left behind. "Miss, don't you know what you've achieved? At least take my card and promise you'll call."
"I can't promise that"-I looked at the card-"Dr. Sturtz. I'm not from here, anyway. But I'll keep your card."
He seemed bereft, not ready to give up.
"Where do you live, my dear?"
"May I at least know your name?"
"Liza. Liza Durbin."
Dad was kind while we drove home, allowing me to sit beside him without a word. He didn't ask his many questions, but I was asking myself the same ones anyway, plus some extras. Like why the sight of the parking lot startled me or how come I felt carsick for the first time since childhood. Just the feel of the synthetic seat covers made me squirm.
As we turned into the driveway of my parents' perfectly average suburban home, I realized how un-average I felt. (Hey, lady, how'd you do that? Sorry, kid, you must mean someone else. You must.) Only the familiarity of my parents' home kept me semi-sane and earthbound. I sank into an easy chair that was soft and overstuffed, like all their furniture. I scanned the family photos, the smiling faces on every wall and table. I recognized all of them. Would they still know me?
My mother greeted us in a black leotard and knee-length tights. She'd obviously just taught her yoga class. I marveled at her taut, sixty-year-old body, as if I hadn't seen it countless times before.
"What are you staring at?" she asked me.
"Nothing, Mom. You look good, that's all."
She eyed me suspiciously. "Twenty years of yoga will do that for you," she said. "I keep telling you that."
In response to my stubborn silence, Mom once again provided details on the many benefits of yoga and how I could easily take classes in Brooklyn. But I was preoccupied, and her conversational train must have taken a turn that I didn't notice. Suddenly she was asking me a question that started with "When?"
"Soon, Mom." It seemed like a good guess. "I'll start again soon."
Mom sized me up through slitted eyes. Uh-oh.
"All right." It was the I'm-your-mother, there's-no-escape voice. "What's going on? You look awful and you haven't said a word."
Just what kind of spectacle was Mom capable of making out of my amazing feat? When I was small, she'd call the neighbors any time I blew a saliva bubble or counted to one.
"Liza had a little fainting spell in Nordstrom's, Louise," Dad volunteered.
"A little fainting spell? What's little about fainting?" My mother sprang into panic mode, instinctively hitting on food. "Did you eat, darling? Maybe you were hypoglycemic."
"I'm not hungry, Mom."
"Did you go to urgent care? Have you seen a doctor?"
"There was a doctor in the store, Louise. Everything's fine. She just needs to rest."
"I want to hear everything," she said. "I'll make you some chamomile tea, and we'll have something to eat."
No point in arguing. Once my mother has opened the fridge, no mouth goes unfilled. We sat down for a three-course snack. I sensed a spice was missing from Mom's chicken salad, but couldn't say what it was. The fruit salad, though, tasted like ambrosia. As my mother served scoops of cookie-dough ice cream, my father took a deep breath and said, "Louise, something else happened in the store today."
I listened without comment to Dad's tale about the wackoid woman in Nordstrom who commandeered the piano and played like a genius. How could this story be about me?
"It was the damnedest thing, Louise. She played so beautifully, like a Rubinstein or a Perlman." Dear Dad's knowledge of classical music didn't extend beyond "Streets of Laredo," but his praise was heartfelt. "I tell you, this thing came from nowhere, a total shock."
Mom had listened intently, staring at me, leaning toward me, while Dad talked. When he finished, she was silent only a moment before she turned on my father.
"Shocked? Our daughter does something brilliant and you're shocked? What's wrong with you?"
Her attention flashed back to me. Her deep brown eyes doubled in size, and her pumpkin-bright hair bristled.
"You were always the best in your piano recitals, Liza. Isn't that right, Max?" No reply. "Everyone said you were the best, darling, and you were. They weren't just saying that."
I lowered my eyes and watched my ice cream melting, little blobs of cookie dough bobbing in the goo. This seemed fascinating to me, and far safer than the conversation in the room.
"Louise," Dad said, settling a hand on Mom's slim forearm, "I don't think you understand."
"I understand that she's good at many things. Didn't she do great in college, and in law school? And she could always draw, too. Why couldn't she be a pianist if she works at it?"
I saw no hope. She would only understand through demonstration. I eyed the black lacquer upright piano waiting for me in their living room, the one they bought on credit twenty-odd years ago. I had insulted it with "Chopsticks," tortured it with scales, and embarrassed it with the Young
Pianists' Beethoven, the edited version. This time I thought I might make it proud.
Mom and Dad followed me into the living room and I sat at the creaky piano bench. Suddenly, the keys scared me silly. Can a miracle strike twice? Most of me wanted to run away, but my hands dove for the keyboard. They landed in starting position and immediately took flight. The first notes were familiar, instantly linked with the words my mother used to sing to me: This IS the sym-pho-NEE, that Schu-bert-wrote-but-ne-ver FIN-nished.
Brilliantly played, with lofty emotion. How'd I do that?
Filled with belief in the music, I moved on through thrilling passages. Torrents of music were followed by sweet pauses. Delicate notes were embroidered into complex patterns. I could hear other instruments that should have been playing: the strings, horns, percussion. I felt the notes as if I'd played them before. Then it changed. Suddenly I was playing something original. I roamed the keyboard, leaving footprints in fresh snow. Improvising, playing with the possibilities. It ended grandly.
Mom got it.
When I was young, I was terrified of the dark. Gradually, the night ghosts turned into explainable shadows and ignorable sounds. No more fears, until that night. A ferocious child-again dread shocked my adult senses. Wild dreams chased me around the bedroom. Loud music yanked me from my sleep. I tossed violently in my sheets, desperately trying to shake off reality. It was reality, after all, that set this apart from childhood fears.