Piano Player Fingers

In “Piano Player Fingers”, Yong-Yu Huang evocatively captures the dynamics of sibling and family relationships.

My mother said that Janet had piano player fingers: each segment arcing into the next, flexing in unison because that is how the human body is supposed to work. But the first thing I remember about Janet’s fingers is how she stuck them too close to my face and I, a teething toddler, promptly chomped down on them. A baby’s gums does nothing but coat everything in the slime of innocence, but she hollered for Mom anyway.

 

Janet gave up piano when she hit seventh grade because basketball was all the rage. Mom dragged me to all her games where my feet dangled as I saw on the bleachers. And when the people stepping over us to find seats stepped on my white sneakers, she would console me with those lemon drops she always kept in her purse when I knew that Janet liked basketball—she’d come home at seven from after-school practices, sweaty and beaming and starving—but I wondered if she started dribbling because she was sick of etudes and sonatinas, or if it was because she liked the way the ball arced into the hoop, a motion as natural as the way her fingers used to dance over the ivories.

 

The summer before Janet’s freshman year, we moved and sold the piano. My mom cried when she sold the piano; Janet cried when she said goodbye to her friends. And I sat, squashed in the backseat between Janet and her basketball shoes, glad that we were moving. I was sick of spending Saturday afternoons at the court with her.  In reality, I had nothing better to do. Janet had been going to sleepovers since she was five, while I had made a grand total of five friends in the twelve years that I had been alive. Some tangled organ inside of me sang that if we were moving, it meant that Janet wouldn’t have any friends either and so maybe, just maybe, she’d be my friend.

 

Seventh grade premonitions don’t come true. I learned that the day Janet strutted into high school and made it onto the varsity cheerleading squad freshman year. She dyed the ends of her hair platinum blonde and swiped mascara over her eyelashes as soon as Mom left the house in the mornings, sliding me the piece of toast with the most peanut butter as a peace offering. Or a bribe.

 

The high school didn’t play basketball or soccer or volleyball—they played lacrosse and waved pom poms at football games. Janet shot right up there on the social ladder, skipping rungs and accepting hands that boosted her up. Mom made me go with her to Janet’s first cheerleading performance. A couple of my new friends had sisters on the squad as well, so I sat with them, starry-eyed over the football players and watching as the cheerleaders flipped and danced and contorted themselves in perfect coordination: a red and white being of undulating limbs and high ponytails, high off of the attention fixated upon them.

 

That was the first and last time Mom saw Janet execute a perfect backflip: arcing through the stuffy gym air and landing, shoes squeaking against the varnished wood, without a wobble. Over sweet and sour chicken that night, she told Janet that she had found out that a retired concert pianist lived two blocks away and that he was willing to give lessons and let her practice on his piano.

 

“Such a waste of your lovely fingers—they’re so talented! And all those flips and tricks—what if you injure your fingers?”

 

I smirked. All of Janet’s friends were on the cheerleading squad, and if Mom made her quit, she wouldn’t even have time to kiss that football player she liked goodbye. The ladder would be wrenched out from right under her, and she’d hurtle down back into the masses and would no longer be perfect Janet.

 

I saw Janet’s nails dig into her palms under the table. She went to bed early that night, but our new house had thin walls, and I could hear the whisper of the pom poms as they cut through the air, over and over again.

 

But the next week, she came home from school, having traded her pom poms for a deck of cards.

 

“They’re vintage,” she told Mom when she huffed in disapproval at her eldest shuffling yellowing cards over the table,“like all those plates you like so much.”

 

I found out from my friend Bethany, whose brother was dating one of Janet’s cheerleader friends, that Janet was now playing poker at lunch and making a killing. When I came home from school, I’d find cards dancing as she made them vanish with a flick of her fingers and reappear in her other hand.

 

Perfect arcs, still, and I envied her ability to make things flow just right. The diamonds soared through the air and landed in her other hand in a rapid burst of plastic-coated paper slapping each other, as if pulled by some invisible string. I wished that I could do that.

 

She offered to teach me how to shuffle one Friday afternoon before her weekly piano lesson, but I was going to the movies with Andrew. He had shyly asked me out on Wednesday, during those last few precious moments of lunch. I left her offer untouched and instead asked can you lend me lip gloss.

 

She put down her cards, the queen of hearts on top, looking at me solemnly, and led me upstairs where she rummaged through the back of her closet and gave me four different tubes of lip gloss to choose from. She covered their labels and named them for me: “tastes like raspberries, will get you into trouble at school, makes you look kissable and the one mom doesn’t mind.” I grabbed “makes you look kissable” but nothing happened in the dark cinema except for a lot of crying scenes. That was my last date with Andrew.

 

Mom still thought that Janet was set on the trajectory towards Carnegie Hall.

 

When she asked me for a favor, I couldn’t say no. I wanted to be the magnanimous sibling who helped their crying sister. The one who would climb into my window at three in the morning, mascara running and a deck of cards, creased and stained, sticking out of the pocket of her ripped jeans. I wanted that moral superiority to dangle over her stupid French-braided head. She asked me for money, and I handed it to her wordlessly. All one hundred and twenty dollars of my babysitting money for the family next door who always wanted me to come over and be such a good influence on little Izzy. Janet’s hand stayed outstretched, as if she expected more, but the moment that I opened my mouth to tell her that the wad of tens and twenties was it, she yanked me into a hug.

 

She smelled like cigarette smoke and the girls’ locker room and cheap deodorant, so I held my breath until she let go of me and whispered in my ear. 

 

“You’re the best sister. Thank you so much, I swear I’ll pay you back. Please don’t tell Mom, thank you so much, good luck with your algebra test tomorrow.” 

 

She said that like a prayer. The mantra followed her to the window.

 

Downstairs the next morning, I was greeted by my mother and a police officer who tipped his hat at me politely but I did not see him—I only saw my mother’s red-rimmed eyes and raspberry nose and the papers in front of her. I did not see Janet anywhere near.

 

“Did you know anything about this?” Mom’s voice was switchblade soft, and I wasn’t fooled by her splotchy face anymore.

  

She jabbed a blood-red finger onto the top document, and I leaned in and saw a mugshot with my sister’s eyes wide and not entirely focused and looking so young—nothing like the piano player, three-point shooter, card trickster that dwelled in the pictures on the mantelpiece. 

 

“She asked us to contact you, miss, but as part of our policy we don’t contact minors. We called your mother when we picked her and some other teens up for illegal gambling. Turns out she was running quite a prolific business and was getting involved with some local gangs.” 

 

Something heavy and sticky began bubbling up in my stomach, and for a second, I thought it might be the “makes you look kissable” lip gloss, but I knew it wasn’t that when I turned to my mother and said “piano player fingers, huh.”

 

Yong-Yu is a Taiwanese teenager who has lived in Malaysia for all her life. Her current favorite self-descriptive adjective is “culturally-confused.” She had been previously published in The Heritage Review and the bitter fruit review. In her spare time, she can be found binging Doctor Who, playing the flute, or lazing around the house.

Art by: Tao Tiva