Layla-Saad

The Reunion


Late this afternoon, I stopped by The Arbors, an assisted living facility here in town. Pearl’s piano teacher was sitting shiva for her mom, who passed away. Today would have been her 93rd birthday.

Walking into that building for the first time in nearly 15 years brought back a kind of visceral memory: The heavy scent of air freshener; the living room with the leftover holiday decorations; the long corridor lined with numbered apartments. My Grammy, Celia — my mom’s mom, and my Grandpa Max — my dad’s father, both lived out their final years there.

Sitting in the bright, nicely furnished apartment for half hour or so was poignant; Pearl’s teacher’s friends came in one or two at a time, with food and flowers. We looked at some photos and heard a story or two recounting her mom’s exuberant spirit — stories I’ve already passed along to Mani, stories that will now live with me even though I never met the woman.

**

After I said my goodbyes, I made my way back to the lobby. But the piano in the sitting room was whispering to me, so I asked the woman at the reception desk if it would be ok for me to sit and play a song or two. “I don’t see why not,” she replied.

I didn’t even take off my coat before pulling out the bench, lifting the lid, and exposing the 88 keys I’d known my whole life. It felt like a reunion. It was a reunion.

I stuttered through George Winston’s “Thanksgiving,” a piece I learned by ear in high school and used to play with great feeling. The piano was woefully out of tune, but this did not stop me.

Next came the angst-ridden crush song I wrote for Jamie Ferguson when I was 16 (hint: “I just can’t tell if you notice me”). And then I stopped trying to remember anything by heart and did what I used to do for hours on end: I improvised. And found myself in tears.

**

When I looked up, a woman with keys around her neck was standing at the end of the baby grand. “That was beautiful,” she said. Tears were spilling down my cheeks and I could hardly catch my breath.

“This is — this was — my piano,” I managed to tell her. We introduced ourselves; her name was Tiffany.

I played this piano from the time I began begging to take lessons like my big sisters. I played Suzuki and Bartok and later Bach and Beethoven on this piano. I practiced this piano every day from age five until I quit taking lessons, sometime in high school. I was stubborn when it came to working on the hard parts. But I never stopped playing.

This piano was where I went for comfort, for solace, for expression, for fun, for a good cry.

Then I moved out and moved on.

**

Eventually, I got a piano of my own, an upright my then-husband surprised me with for our third anniversary, not a week before Aviva was born. This was the piano both of my kids learned to play on. And though my technical abilities faded with time, my love of improvising never left me.

By 2003, both of my remaining grandparents had passed away. And my parents decided to donate the baby grand to The Arbors, where it would bring joy to many elderly residents for years to come — right up until this day.

One house and three apartments later, the sad day came when the movers broke the news: They couldn’t get the piano around the turn at the top of the stairs. I cried. We moved it to my parents’ living room,  to the same nook where the baby grand used to live. Now, we have an electric keyboard the kids play; I’ve tried to sit there, but it’s just not the same.

**

It’s like that, isn’t it? The locks to memory ride with us like quiet passengers, until something turns and clicks and suddenly we are awash in emotion we didn’t see behind the door we’d forgotten was there.

I have to admit, for a hot minute part of me — something childlike and irrational — wanted to say, “I want it back! It’s mine!”

Instead, I walked away, and asked Tiffany if I might come again to play some more. “I live right up the street,” I told her.

“Anytime,” she said with a kind smile. “Anytime at all.”

Layla-Saad

“In the Clutches of Destiny” (Playing with Fiction on a Rainy Afternoon)


I sit here in Starbucks. Mani sits across the table from me. We brought our laptops, just for a change of scenery. I remember coming here on my lunch break from work when I was still at Hampshire. I’d get a drink and smoke a clove (or two). I’d squeeze in reading new posts in my writing group, which was still a side gig.

Back in the days of moonlighting, I would’ve done anything to sit in a coffee shop at 3:30pm on a Wednesday with my wife, each of us writing. Now that I’m here, I don’t take for granted that this is my reality. Also now that I’m here, I’m looking out the window and wondering what to write about. When you’re not writing something — a specific essay, a memoir, something where you know basically what you’re plugging away at — it can be very difficult to write anything.  This is one of the reasons I like prompts when it comes to just getting started. A prompt is nothing more or less than a portal — a way in. From there, anything can happen.

Today, though, I have no prompt. I have only this moment. I notice the voice in my head poo-poohing me, telling me there’s nothing the world needs to hear about the ubiquitous comings and goings of Starbucks customers. Behind me, a middle-aged woman sits with an elderly man in a wheelchair. I hear him talking, his voice low and growling. I’ve seen them here before. I imagine that she is his full-time caregiver. I wonder how long they have known each other. Is he of sound mind? Does she have a family of her own?

Last night at Kirtan, which we go to most Tuesday evenings, a young woman caught my eye. She looked about Aviva’s age, and I had never seen her there before. She arrived with an older man who’s a regular. As we chanted, she sat against a wall, legs outstretched, ankles crossed. She didn’t sing.

Her father — the man I imagined as her father — got up to stretch occasionally, and participated wholeheartedly in the singing. In my head, they’d had a rough go of things. He’d lost custody and struggled with addiction. She’d refused to see him. After he got out of rehab, they began again — tentatively, as if one of them or the precarious relationship could easily break.

He had rediscovered Kirtan in rehab from a fellow addict who chanted every day in the common area. Back in the 70s, he’d criss-crossed the country following Ram Dass, going to as many talks as he could. Our protagonist  knew he was in the presence of something, someone, truly groovy. He could feel the reverberations of the Maharajji’s teachings in his soul. He could also feel the hands of the many groovy women he met on the road all over his body and the drugs in his veins.

He swore he’d never have kids, to protect the planet from its groaning population. He swore he’d never settle down with one woman, either. Why choose when there were whole fields of wildflowers? That was what he told himself. But the traveling grew tiresome and by the early 80s, he was ready for something he’d never dreamed of wanting: Stability.

He was only 20, but the urge to stay in one place for a while suddenly felt like the most enlightening thing in the world. He would shave his beard, get a suit jacket and tie, and go back to school. He’d rent an apartment and hold down a job at the local typewriter repair shop. He’d meditate every morning for two hours and every night for two more. He’d quit drinking and everything else except pot, which he rationalized didn’t really count as a drug.

For twenty-five years, our friend did quite well. He established himself as a landscape architect with his own small practice. He bought an 1850s Victorian and spent his spare time fixing it up, one room at a time. He became a runner and chose a different city marathon every year. The sacred books of his wild youth sat on a bookshelf next to contemporary fiction and mystical poetry, and he remained an avid reader. By all accounts, he was a man with a successful life.

In 2001, he met L. He saw her at the spot where he always went at 11:45 for an early lunch (he was such an early riser that he was always ready for another meal before noon). He was such a regular that folks referred to him as the Mayor. He knew everyone by name, and was the first to notice any changes — be they to the menu, among customers, or in the landscaping out front. In the summer, window boxes spilled out pansies; morning glories climbed up alongside the door, and two or three outdoor tables graced the sidewalk. By noon, these seats were always taken.

L. sat in one of the deep wooden booths, clearly not realizing that these were unofficially reserved for the stay-at-home moms who came with passels of toddlers and babies in backpacks.  Strollers blocked the stairs to the bathroom downstairs. The place became mayhem for about 50 minutes each day, and clearly L. was from somewhere else and had no idea what chaos was imminent.

He stole glances of her as she sipped her rosemary lemonade. Her long hair was tied up in a heap on top of her head. She had a look that was so familiar to him, he couldn’t stop looking over. Had they met? It seemed unlikely, given what he guessed was a significant age difference. She didn’t look more than 25. He’d been celibate for so long and was so accustomed to his lifestyle that the surge of sexual energy that shot through him caught him completely off-guard.

In the clutches of something he’d later come to see as destiny…

* * *

Well, I didn’t see THAT coming! And I legit made myself laugh out loud with that last bit.

Fiction is fun. I’m not a fiction writer, but every now and then I’ll get on a roll. Part of why I enjoy it is because I have absolutely zero stake in being any good at it. Is this a story you want to keep reading? If yes, I’ll tackle the next installment soon.

Here’s to writing in coffee shops, playing outside of our comfort zones, and seeing what happens.