Private Lessons - Cynthia Salaysay
I’ve done everything I could to make Paul Avon like me. I listened to every sonata and concerto and prelude and fugue and fantasy I could for a whole week before my audition. I packed a change of clothes and my toothbrush so I could freshen up right after school before I left for the train. Resprayed down my primary cowlick with hair spray. Checked my shoes for gunk. There isn’t anything left to do but be myself, which honestly doesn’t seem like enough.
“Paul’s very good. One of the best in the area,” my piano teacher said at our last and, I hope, final lesson. “But he’s definitely not the teacher for everyone. He’s picky. Hard to please.”
I’m on the BART train to San Francisco, where he lives, Liszt and friends leaning against my thigh in my backpack. I didn’t know what to bring, so I’m bringing what seems like the whole canon. The houses slide past the window, fading in color as the light fails. Then down, down underground, where the train starts a high-pitched scream as it descends under the bay. We’re underwater. I know this is supposed to be normal — everyone in here looks calm — but I white-knuckle it. All I can think about is the tunnel collapsing and filling with water.
If it weren’t for college applications, I would never have gotten up the nerve to come. My guidance counselor was the one who suggested I try piano competitions. It was at my first one — I went alone, in case I had a breakdown — that I heard Paul’s name.
Everyone — guidance counselors and science teachers and basically every auntie who comes to the house — expects me to have a bright future.
“You need to shine,” Tita Alta said at dinner after one of mom’s prayer groups. “Grades aren’t enough for the Ivies or good scholarships.”
My mother said something in Tagalog, and Tita Alta nodded. Another family friend touched Tita Alta’s shoulder to get her attention. “Didn’t your daughter was home-
coming queen?” she asks. Her English is very Filipino.
Tita Alta nodded. “Nag-aaral siya sa Princeton. Third year.”
Awed looks, all around the table.
Princeton. The only thing I knew about Princeton is that F. Scott Fitzgerald went there. But I looked into it and it doesn’t seem to be an artsy place. Not for me.
By the time I get off at Civic Center, it’s four thirty. Rush hour. It smells different here, of mildew and ice. Preppies on bicycles act suicidal, weaving themselves into the car lanes. Women in heeled booties and skinny jeans stare hard in front of them, talking into the air, phones in hand. I check my own phone, read a map, and find my way uphill, toward Alamo Square. Homeless people on park benches. People wearing camping gear like it’s high fashion. Even though San Francisco is considered diverse, there are still many more white people here than at home. But there are so many kinds of people here — glamorous and poor, tailored and casual — that I feel anonymous. No one seems to pay any attention to me.
Past the museums, past city hall. The store signs are smaller compared to at home, and not so garishly lit. Cakes, anointed with whipped-cream pompadours, fill a shop window. Another store sells seashells, coral. The houses become flouncy. The air is so wet, it feels like a cloud is seeping through my clothes, like it’s going to rain, even though it’s May already. San Francisco has its own weird seasons. I haven’t been here much, but it’s always colder than at home.
I turn a