Any fragile truce I’d reached with my emotions was shattered around 2 am Friday morning. It seemed my email inbox was hell-bent on delivering electronic shit-missives whenever the opportunity presented.
So, I was grateful, late morning, when my hairdresser texted, offering to move up my appointment. I felt myself relaxing as I surrendered to her massaging hands and idle chatter.
A mere two hours later, cut and coiffed, I turned my car in the direction of home, determined to reclaim the sleep the past week had robbed me of.
When I was little more than a stoplight from my house, my fifteen year old mentee’s name flashed across my phone screen. I groaned at the thought of whatever awaited me on the line.
As it happened, my anxiety was warranted. It appeared Jesus Claus had granted the girl a boon, and in a rare Christmaswishmiracle, had compelled her teacher to hold over consideration of semester projects until next term. My mentee had failed hers, but her teacher graciously agreed to let her jazz it up provided she could submit it by Saturday afternoon.
The girl pleaded with me to help. Her mother had left her and several of her siblings in the care of her grandmother, and she’d
reached an impasse with the work.
I’d made such a grand production surrounding the importance of school and completing assignments, the week before, I knew I had no choice with respect to her request. I tried to remove the dejection from my voice before asking for her grandmother’s address.
I felt the full crush of my week hammer down on my shoulders when she informed me that I’d have to travel even further into the hood than normal for the privilege.
I walked into the small home, and was, at once, greeted by a tribe of children. I was starting to grow accustomed to such a welcome as a reality of my mentee’s existence. Trying to extricate myself from the hands and faces that seemed, all at once, everywhere, I put my head through the doorframe leading into the living room that opened out into a kitchen.
I smiled at several of the adults, none of whom I knew by name, save my mentee’s grandmother, Mrs. Harris. A few men were seated here and there, watching the old floor-model television in the living room. Mrs. Harris and two or three other ladies huddled, conspiratorially whispering, in the kitchen. I marveled at the home’s ability to support the weight so many bodies.
“Make yourself at home, baby,” Mrs. Harris called out.
I began to make my way to my mentee , who was seated on an old, stained sofa. My pace was labored as her youngest sister, Tenisha, clung to my legs.
Something caught my attention in the periphery.
I furrowed my brow. “Who plays the piano?” I asked of no one in particular.
“Nobody,” my mentee responded. “Teetee wants to learn, though. My grandma says she might pay for lessons, next year.”
I looked at the little girl who was now clutching at my dress hem, burying her braided head in the backs of my boot-clad knees.
“How old are you, Tenisha?” I asked.
“Four,” she responded, quietly, grinning.
“I see,” I said, unable to keep myself from returning her grin. “I was five when I started.”
The kids erupted, once more, hovering around me. “You play?” asked a boy, who appeared to be about ten.
“Yep,” I answered.
“OOOOH! PLAY SOMETHING! PLAY SOMETHING!” they all shouted out in unison.
I laughed. “Another time, maybe. We have work to do, and I don’t have that long.”
In truth, I made a point never to play for anyone. And years of playing for none but myself had left me painfully self conscious.
My mentee looked up from her textbooks. “Come on. We have a second. Look at Tee.”
I looked down to the little girl hugging my legs. She peered up at me with almond-shaped, imploring eyes.
Sighing, I took a seat at the bench. It creaked beneath me.
“I don’t have any music, y’all. I’ll do the best I can,” I said. “What do you want to hear?” I asked.
I absently played a few chords before drawing a complete blank. For weeks, I’d made what could only be described as “haphazard” attempts to work at the Liszt and Gershwin resting on my own piano at home. While I’d picked up a few old standards here and there, there was nothing in my memory that those assembled would know or recognize.
“Play Trinidad James!” called out one little boy, clad in a wifebeater and pajama bottoms.
The other boys joined in, excitedly. “OH!!!! Play Trinidad James! Play Trinidad James!”
I could feel my spirit leaving my body.
“You’re joking,” I responded, positive that they weren’t.
“She don’t know who Trinidad James is, yo,” said one angst-y girl, skulking in the corner.
I jolted to attention. Was this bitch implying I was old? Was she calling into question the authenticity of my thug?
I looked over at her defiantly.
Placing my hands on the shiny keys with a renewed sense of purpose, I fumbled around, momentarily before clanking out the melody of “All Gold Everything.” The kids immediately got hype.
The boys bobbed their heads and mobbed around me, using rap hands to emphasize the “rhymes” they fancied themselves “spittin’.” I thought, briefly, of my longsuffering piano teacher, and how she would have surely slapped my hands from the instrument.
By the grace of God, my mentee, sweet, loving angel of mercy that she is, shook her head, and said, “Enough. Come on. Quit, y’all.”
She looked warmly at her little sister, who was glued to my side.
“You wanna hear a song, Teetee?” she asked.
The little girl nodded, enthusiastically.
“Can you play something for her? It doesn’t matter what.”
I’d only met Teetee two times, but I tried to avoid her fixed gaze whenever possible. The child had taken to me from our first meeting, sitting next to me on a cramped love seat, breaking a brownie in half and offering it to me in a showing of solidarity.
Everything about her diminutive frame, round cheeks, and warm skin pulled at my heart strings. Uterus strings, too.
While my rational mind knew there was no such thing as spontaneous pregnancy, Tenisha’s all-seeing obsidian eyes left me with lingering doubt.
“Okay,” I relented.
Sighing, I placed my hands on the keys, once more.
“So you know who Adele is, right?” I asked.
My mentee belted out, “And I set fiiiiiiiireeeeeeeeeeeeeee to the raaaaaaaaaiin!!!!”
I laughed. “Yep. Her.”
Her older sister chimed in. “Ooh. I LOVE Adele. You gonna play an Adele song?”
“Kinda,” I said, offhandedly, beginning the introduction faintly.
“Adele sings this song,” I said. “It isn’t hers, though.”
I continued to play. “This song was written by Bob Dylan.”
Echoes of “Who?” resonated throughout the room.
I stopped playing and faced their blank stares. “You’re kidding,” I said. No one answered.
I shook my head. “Nevermind. It doesn’t matter. Even though it kinda does.” I began to play again.
“Look. Bob Dylan wrote this song, but, in truth, his version kinda sucks. But, Billy Joel came a few years later and did a great cover.”
This time, I didn’t bother to stop playing. “I’m assuming no one knows who Billy Joel is, either.”
“Fine,” I replied, sadly.
“The lyrics are amazing. Don’t laugh when I sing. It’s meant to be heartfelt. Not rhythm and blues-y.”
So I sat there. In Anacostia. At an 80 year old upright. In a room full of kids and teenagers. With one particularly avid child-listener seated at my side. And I sang and played, “To Make You Feel My Love.”
I hadn’t realized my eyes were closed until I’d finished.
I opened them to an audience of brown faces staring at me, mouths agape. The adults who’d been in the kitchen and living room had converged and now stood looking at me as well.
Aware of my roughness, I spoke first. “I only picked it up by ear, a night or two ago. I haven’t practiced it or anything. I could do it justice if I practiced, probably.” My cheeks were flushed and I was suddenly embarrassed.
A man in coveralls with Anthony Hamilton-beard answered. “Lady, you DID that.”
A chorus of “Sure did” confirmed his assessment.
“I thought you were gonna cry for a second there,” he said.
“Shoot. I almost did,” answered Mrs. Harris. “Whoever wrote that song was feeling some THANGS, you hear me?”
“Bob Dylan wrote it,” chipped in one of the rapping little boys from earlier.
I could feel the hugeness of my smile as it spread across my face.
“Well, whoever wrote it was feeling some kind of way,” finished Mrs. Harris.
“Yes, ma’am,” I responded.
“And you just picked that up, the other night, you say?”
“Yes, ma’am. It’ll get better with practice,” I answered.
She turned her attention to the child at my side. “Hear that, Teetee? If you’re gonna play, you gotta practice. It ain’t gonna just come easy. You want it to work, you gotta work at it.”
I cringed, inward, at the memory of having said that very thing over and over the past week.
I started to rise and looked to my mentee. “Girl, we have work to do.”
Teetee pulled at my sleeve. Looking at me, again, with those biological clock-compelling eyes, she asked, in the tiniest voice possible, “Can you play it one more time? Pleeeeease?”
My mentee shrugged.
I looked at the child and exhaled.
“One more time, Tenisha. But then I really gotta get up.”
The little girl grinned and nodded excitedly.
Then, without warning, she slid into my lap, and placed her small hands atop mine. She let her head fall against my chest and I felt every stressor I’d carried throughout the last four days leave my body.
Resting my chin in her cornrowed scalp, I began again.
Tenisha’s was the first tenderness I’d known the entire week.
I inhaled deeply. She smelled of everything good left in the world.
Opening my mouth, I began to sing.