A million years ago, when my mother was still responsible for my daily activities, I turned to her and said, “I want to learn the piano.” She obliged, as my brother had already begun lessons a few months before it was only natural that his younger sister follow, and a week later I found myself sitting in the backseat as she shuttled us to piano class. As any (Asian) child who has attempted to master an instrument will tell you, the first teacher is never the last. She or he is, inevitably, only the first in a long line of instructors that will either make you love the instrument so that you dream of brightly lit concert halls and roaring audiences, or hate it with such fervor that your bowels churn at the thought of a recital.
I don’t remember much of my first three teachers. The first, a Chinese woman who spoke no Chinese, taught in the back room of a warehouse that sold…I’m not quite sure what. She had two daughters around my age who were ghastly overweight and a small black kitten. Their mother taught me the basics – scales and chords – and afterward – this was the highlight of the lesson – I had the better part of an hour to run around the warehouse with the younger daughter and play with the cat. It didn’t strike me as odd, or a sure sign of musical failure, that what I looked forward to most was the cat and not a new music lesson. Learning how to tap my fingers along a row of keys and make a few pleasant sounds seemed so simple, not worthy of more than an hour’s time. The cat, however, posed a much more time-consuming and enjoyable challenge. How, for instance, to make the kitten like me more than the piano teacher’s daughter? Each week I had only an hours’ time to win its affections before another week went by and it forgot all about me. The girl, on the other hand, had the luxury of being the kitten’s owner, though I saw her more as its captor. I spent as much time as possible with the kitten in my arms and wanted desperately to take it home with me, but as soon as it began to show signs of attachment the hour would end, unjustly, and my mother would be at the door waiting for us to come out.
A few months after my lessons began, I came out one afternoon, expecting to while away another hour with what was then my favorite being in the world. The kitten didn’t come, and the warehouse, if my embellished memory serves me right, had an odd, musty smell. Had I been older and keener, I would have said aloud to nobody in particular, “The warehouse – things come in, they don’t go out.” I would have noticed the layer of dust that covered the boxes, the faltering lights, the frayed, faded carpet and the dingy, has-been look that was cast over everything, my haggard piano teacher and her fat daughters included. The only lively thing about the warehouse was the cat, and my and my brother’s weekly arrival. How strange, to think that we played our first notes in the belly of a decrepit warehouse, learning from the fingers of a woman whose face and voice I have long forgotten.
What I have not forgotten however, was my last encounter with the piano teacher’s daughter.
I emerged from the piano room, my slender book bag in the crook of my finger, poised to let it drop at the first sight of my feline friend, but instead felt my hands tighten around the straps when the girl emerged from the shadows.
Startled though I was, I smiled stiffly, “Where’s the cat?”
“It’s gone,” she said lightly.
“You gave it away?” I cried. My heart clenched in my six year-old chest and my eyes darted around the darkened warehouse. Surely she was lying. How could they give it away? Why didn’t she offer it to me first? My father was allergic to animals, I knew, but surely something could have been worked out…
“No, we didn’t give it away,” she said as a matter-of-factly.
“Where is it now?” I asked, keeping my voice low so as not to disturb my brother’s lesson. The faint sounds of his musical struggle wafted through the dim warehouse. Aural tension.
“I have a secret,” she whispered to me, and beckoned for me to come closer. With a smile she pointed to a dark stain on the carpet a few feet away from the “classroom” door, next to which was stacked several cardboard boxes. The stain, had the cat been there, would not have alarmed me, for the carpet was hardly stain free. Thousands of horrible things might have happened upon the carpet, each stain representing a gruesome tragedy, but when the kitten was there, I played happily upon these spots. But now the kitten was gone – the warehouse was quiet and under the blinking florescent lights that shone above the boxes, the stain seemed to radiate a ghastly glow. It was many shades darker than the rest which indicated freshness.
“I climbed up on the boxes after you left,” she said, “I was pretending to fly.”
I nodded, for at the age of six I had attempted to do more or less the same thing from my parents’ bed and tree branches.
“You know how the kitty had dark fur.”
Yes, I thought, nodding along, and then suddenly my mind cleared and all I could think was “No, no, no, no!”. I knew exactly what she was to say next and I wish to this day that I had dropped my piano bag and covered my ears.
“I jumped on the cat,” she said, “It was flat. I landed right on its head.”
She proceeded to tell me that she had lied to her mother, claiming that she had unintentionally knocked a box over and that it had fallen on the cat. She shrugged, waving at the stain.
“My mom said we could get another cat.”
Shortly after, my mother decided to find a new piano teacher. Whether her decision had more to do with the kitten’s death than the fact that my brother and I seemed to show little improvement beyond the mastery of a few major scales is debatable, but what little regard I had left for that first teacher and her spawn ended abruptly that afternoon.