Gigi Mariano hated practicing the piano. She hated piano lessons even more. She still remembered that Saturday the topic of piano lessons first came up. It was during lunch.
Her father and grandfather sat on opposite ends of the table. Gigi sat on the side closer to her father. Her grandmother sat to her right. Directly across from Gigi was her mother's seat, and the baby perched on a high chair next to Mrs. Mariano. This became the seating arrangement after her grandparents arrived from the Philippines the month before. Gigi once held her grandfather's place at the table.
Gigi hated her seat. Between the table's edge and the sliding glass door leading to the back yard, she had barely two feet in which to maneuver into, out of, and on her chair. Though small for a nine-year-old, Gigi required plenty of room because she could not sit still. She was a fidgeter.
Her parents often scolded her for sitting in her chair with her legs crossed Indian style. And if that wasn't enough to annoy them, Gigi had variations on this theme. Occasionally she would bend one knee so her kneecap was flush with the tabletop. Sometimes she sat with both legs folded beneath her and her bottom resting on her soles. She would eventually return to sitting Indian style. All during the course of one meal.
Gigi sat this way on the piano bench while practicing, unless the piece required use of the sustain pedal. If it did, she would sit with her left leg bent, chin resting on that knee, and her right leg stretching to reach the pedal. Of course she sat properly during her lessons.
On that particular Saturday, Mr. Mariano asked, "Why do you sit like that? Can't you sit still? Para kang kiti kiti."
"I'm like a what?" she replied in her voice so timid, it was barely above a whisper. Though fluent in Tagalog, there were words Gigi simply didn't know. She turned to her grandmother, "Lola? What's a kiti kiti?"
Lola chuckled, "It's like a worm."
"Can't you sit normally?" Mr. Mariano continued his interrogation between mouthfuls of food, "What's the matter with you?"
"My feet get cold," Gigi explained. The air conditioning register was directly beneath her chair.
"What do you mean, your feet get cold?" he demanded.
"They get cold," she repeated helplessly, "from the a.c."
"You know . . . "
"No! I don't know!" her father exploded.
"The airkon," she answered, using Tagalog terminology.
Fed up with this exchange and with a toddler who refused his Gerber strained peas, Mrs. Mariano spun her head in Gigi's direction. She hissed, "Wear slippers! Why don't you wear your slippers?"
Gigi was reminded of the scene in The Exorcist when Linda Blair's head rotated 360 degrees. The Marianos hadn't quite understood the "R" rating at the time and brought Gigi to the movies with them--they couldn't get a baby-sitter that night. The girl became easily spooked ever since.
Gigi shrugged and looked at her plate. She clenched her teeth to fight back tears.
"Why do you always say 'you know' when I don't know?" Mr. Mariano persisted.
Her grandfather changed the subject, "So what do you think of the new piano? Gigi?"
The child didn't take her eyes off her food. Half her meal was still on the plate, but she had finished eating long ago.
She knew that Lolo wasn't really interested in what she thought. Rather, he loved to engage her in conversations so he could practice the language of his beloved new country. The adults always spoke in Tagalog. Gigi dutifully indulged her grandfather out of respect for her elders.
Before she could respond, Lolo cheerfully chattered on, "Don't you want to play the piano? Then you can make music! Lovely music! Wonderful music!" The more he talked, the shorter her response time.
Gigi looked in his direction. His eyes never met hers because his head was tilted upwards, a smile engraved across his face. Gigi worried that his cheeks would crack. He seemed to be addressing God, grateful to His Holiness for having delivered him from the evil of martial law, one year before it was lifted.
"No. Not really."
Mrs. Mariano screeched, "What do you mean, no? You start piano lessons today!"
Recently, the Marianos attended a party where the hosts' young son played his accordion for the guests. Their daughter played the violin. After the performance, Mrs. Mariano grinned devilishly at Gigi. "Wouldn't you like to play a musical instrument too?" It was a statement posed as a question. A month or so later, a piano was delivered to their house.
Shortly after lunch, Mrs. Mariano drove Gigi to Music Music--Lessons in Piano, Organ And Other Band Instruments/Now Offering Lessons in Drums and Guitar/The Best Prices on Musical Instruments in the Chicagoland Area/Music Music For All Your Musical Needs. Gigi followed her mother to the counter. Mrs. Mariano proudly announced to the salesman that her daughter was there for her first piano lesson with Jane Bradshaw.
Gigi balanced on the tips of her toes and peered at the salesman, who was really just a teenager. She gazed at the design on his T-shirt. Against a black background stood a skeleton in a cemetery. The skeleton was playing an electric guitar. Gigi read the words above the picture out loud, "'I sold my soul to rock 'n' roll'."
"What did you say?" her mother frowned at her.
"You're a little early," said the salesman, "I'll show you where the waiting room is. By the way, I'm Mike."
"I'm Mrs. Mariano, and this is my daughter Gigi. Do you teach lessons here?"
"Hi, Gigi," Mike smiled at the girl. He had heard her read the message on his shirt. He addressed her mother, "No, I just work here. But I take lessons too."
"Oh," Mrs. Mariano, who had eyed his long hair with distaste, feigned interest, "what instrument do you study?"
Mike led them down a carpeted hallway, the walls of which were paneled in plywood. There were doors on both sides. "These are the rooms where they give lessons. . . . They're totally soundproof. . . . Miss Bradshaw's studio is the last one on the right."
Some of the doors were decorated with posters, photographs, and stickers that advertised various brands of musical equipment. Miss Bradshaw's was bare.
The corridor veered to the right, where there were more studios. The doors were shut except for one. Although unoccupied, the light was on. Out of the corner of her eye, Gigi noticed the shiny red drum set that filled the tiny room. It reminded her of the time her family had dinner at Mabuhay Restaurant. There was a live band that night, and they weren't playing Filipino folk music. They weren't even Filipino. The singer was a dead ringer for Lou Rawls, and Gigi was thrilled when he sang the words, "'You'll never find . . . '"
"Daddy! It's the guy on the radio!"
Mr. Mariano laughed, "No, he just looks like the guy on the radio."
"How do you know what he looks like? You can't see anything on the radio."
"I've seen him on TV."
"Maybe it's the same guy! His voice sounds the same!"
"Maybe it is. Why don't you ask him for his autograph?" her father teased. Mr. Mariano was fun back then. That was before the baby was born and Gigi's grandparents, who were also her father's in-laws, came to live with them.
What Gigi remembered most about that night was the sound of the kick drum. It was so loud she could feel it in her chest, like her own heartbeat.
"Here's the waiting room." Mike left Gigi and her mother.
"Sit down," Mrs. Mariano commanded.
Gigi sat on the green vinyl seat next to the soda vending machine. Mrs. Mariano sat beside her. They were alone.
Miss Bradshaw, the piano teacher, was in her 30s. She may have been younger, but her weight made it difficult to tell. Her hair was tinted bronze, short, and set by curlers. A can of Rave hair spray sat atop the piano next to a miniature, black velvet bust of Beethoven. Her short-sleeved, polyester jersey blazed with an intricate floral pattern in jarring tones of pink, green, yellow, orange, and bits of brown and black sprinkled in between. She completed her outfit with pants cut from the same fabric. These were solid-colored and impeccably matched one of the garish hues on her blouse, both in shade and intensity.
When she approached the waiting area, she nearly burst through the doorframe like the KoolAid man. What Gigi saw was a female version of the Pillsbury Doughboy decorated like a Christmas tree. She had never seen anyone whose skin was so white. Miss Bradshaw's milk-white complexion reminded Gigi of just that--milk. And Gigi hated milk. She could only drink it with heaping teaspoonfuls of Nestlé Quik vigorously stirred in. The thought of white milk made Gigi gag. So did Miss Bradshaw.
In the Marianos' living room, Gigi sat glaring at middle C on the piano. It was four in the afternoon. While other kids were outside playing, she was about to practice her scales.
Gigi served her sentence. She didn't like it, but her likes and dislikes were of no importance. What mattered most was that her parents would have something to show off to their friends. Gigi would have preferred to sit on death row because that, at least, had a foreseeable and guaranteed end.