The dinner table was eerily silent. Nothing but the smacking of tongues against the roofs of mouths broke the spell. I sat in a furious haze, determine to keep my lips locked, as this was my vow. This continued for at least another minute — me staring down crossly at my lamb sausages, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. Finally, my mother penetrated the silence with a hesitant, “So, Tilly, are you planning on practicing the piano this evening?” I didn’t like her tone. It was too high, too cheerful, implying that I wouldn’t fulfill the responsibility tonight, the responsibility that I had promised to take on ever since I had begged for private lessons.
It’s not that I particularly enjoy playing the piano. I just despise being behind in school. I play for my school’s orchestra, and until my parents hired a private tutor, I couldn’t keep up with the rest of the ensemble. My eyes would have brushed past measure 20, left and right hands struggling to match each other, when I would hear the first violins play a B flat, something I knew would not come up until at least measure 35. Slowly, the piano accompaniment would fade as my fingers ceased tapping the keys and my eyes read the music as quickly as they could to synchronize myself with everyone else. Maybe I would find the spot again; maybe I would not, and sit in a helpless daze for the rest of the piece. After struggling for months, I finally decided I needed professional help. As my skill level grew, I surpassed the rest of the orchestra in skill. It felt wonderful – such a relief, such an improvement from being behind. I discovered that I liked being the best, even craved it like a kind of drug. Soon, my talent exceeded middle school level and even some high school levels.
“Tilly? Can you answer me, please?”
I should have stayed silent, should have kept my shoulder icy, pretended they weren’t there. But that tone of voice Mom used! The inflection implying I was not doing enough! That I wasn’t dedicated to these piano lessons, that I was wasting their money with them. And then the the nag to reply even though they both knew that I was still burning — like a stubborn ember from a dying coal — from earlier that day. I was doing the right thing by staying silent; I was keeping the peace, preventing anyone from becoming distressed further by my bad mood. Her tone struck me like a mallet in every nerve in my body, so that they exploded like fireworks, setting sirens off in my brain; sirens that I couldn’t ignore.
“Yes!” I yelled with as much venom I could muster. “Of course I am! I practice every day! I don’t need you to nag me at every second you get!”
“Hey!” my dad snapped, eyes narrow. “Don’t talk to your mother like that!”
“Well, she can’t talk to me like that!” My voice got higher and more whiney with each word I said. “I hate that tone of voice! I hate being nagged! I can manage my own life!”
“I wasn’t nagging you! I was just asking a ques-”
“Tilly, you are excused. Go to your room!” My dad stood up as he said this, as though I deserved a standing ovation for my temper. I pushed my chair back on the wooden floor, relishing the angry screech it made. I gave both parents one more malicious scowl and swiftly turned my back on them, showing that next time, I would certainly not be replying. I heard my mom sigh deeply as I stomped around the corner onto the staircase. I stopped when I heard voices, lurking in the shadows out of sight, but not out of hearing.
“What did I do this time?” she whined.
“Listen, Sabrina, it’s not your fault,” my dad said. “She was already on edge from when you were nagging her about cleaning her room. She had a similar reaction to that, remember?”
“Hey! Don’t get me wrong! I’m on your side. You didn’t do anything wrong. She probably just has hormones or something.”
“Yeah, but why does she have to take it out on me?”
“Don’t worry, honey, she’s just grumpy.”
I hissed in anger to myself. What right did they have to talk about me behind my back? After they exiled me to my room? And yet, as I stomped the rest of the way to my door, I felt torn by a feeling of melancholy, an inexplicable forlornness.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
I was crying. I was sobbing but nobody knew.
When I was practicing the piano, the anger that I had been feeling over the past few days and especially tonight at everything in the world was turned into pure sadness that poured out of my eyes as I hit the high D in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, the challenging and complex piece I was mastering for my private recital. When I’m playing the piano, my hands glide in auto-pilot and I am left alone with my thoughts, even more so than in bed before I doze off. My mind wanders to wherever it decides. It wanders across the school day, around the homework, and right to the dinner table. The anger had turned against me and whipped me with its wrath. I took the beating in my mind as my fingers danced over white and black, black and white. Why are you always so angry at everything and always in a bad mood? Why do you lash out at anyone and everyone who tries to help me? You’re such a snob. Such an ugly person. Such a waste of space. I chastised myself over and over and let the words sink in. The notes in the air crescendoed from piano to fortissimo as did my weeping. The piano blocked out the crying and I was thankful for that.
My subconscious, though, was urging me to cry just a little louder, just enough to attract attention, hugs, and comfort. I didn’t, but still wished that someone would come in and discover the wetness of my cheeks, the swollen blotchiness of my eyes. Maybe Dad would like to hear me play, hear me improve. Maybe Mom had a sixth sense and it was tingling, alerting her to her daughter’s distress. But Dad didn’t want to listen to me. And Mom’s sensors didn’t work.
The notes rolled off of the piano as my tears rolled off of my cheeks. I didn’t know that the Sonata could sound so forlorn, like such an empty, isolated trill. As soon as I tapped the final chord in the piece I yanked the bench away from the instrument and ran up the spiraling staircase to my bedroom, last note still ringing in the air.
I shut the door behind me as loudly as I could without making it obvious that something was wrong. I was still hoping that someone would come to comfort me and hold me, whisper in my ear that I’m okay, I’m fine, It’ll all be alright. I wanted someone to come to me, pat me on the back, but I could not bear to go to them. No one came to me. I was alone, sobbing, burying my face into my pillow.
It’s my fault. I’m disgusting. I’m awful. I’m awful to myself, awful to my friends. I’m terrible to those who love me, ungrateful. I deserve my wrath. I am afraid. I am terrified of tomorrow, of the future. If I waste my time sobbing here like a lunatic, where will that leave me? I need to do better, I must be the best. I’m frightened at the thought of not being perfect – that my faults and troubles will throw me homeless on the streets when I’m older.
It was a while ago. I was maybe six or seven, but I was in bed, cuddling with Mom.
“I’m going to miss this, when you’re older, Tilly,” she said, face buried in my hair.
“Why?” I asked, confused.
“Well,” she said. “A lot of times, teenagers grow out of cuddles and they don’t want to hang out with their mothers anymore.” I was staring at the wall, back pressed against her stomach, nestled in like a caterpillar’s chrysalis. I smiled and snuggled in deeper. A strand of golden hair fell on my nose, and I blew it off so it flapped just above my forehead before falling over my eyes again.
“Don’t worry, Mommy, I’ll always be your cuddle bear!”
I could feel her mouth curve into a small smile on my smooth hair. She kissed the top of my head. “Promise?” she asked.
And yet here I am, seven years later. The promise had been broken long ago. So many times, she knocked playfully on my door only to find my nose in a book, completely disinterested in her. Her predictions had come true. I was just another teenage snob, moody and disagreeable. I’m always finding one reason or another to turn crimson with fury. She nagged me here; I didn’t like his tone there; I really hate having Mexican food for dinner; the list was never ending. And there’s nothing that I can do to stop it. I am possessed by a furious demon that plows through everything in its path.
I lifted my head from the pillow and saw that it was soaked with tears and snot. Sniffling, I ambled to the mirror over my bathroom sink and silently observed my battle scars. Puffy eyes. Footsteps of tears that had run down the path on my cheek. Hairline sticky from being shoved in the pillow. I wished someone would come. I wished it with all of my heart and being. Someone, please, open the door and come find me. But I was alone. And no one came.
Slowly, I stumbled back to my bed and threw myself prostrate onto the mattress. I opened my mouth and moaned out a final cry for help. And then I waited, staring at the dull white plaster on the ceiling, tracing familiar cracks and ridges with bloated eyes. The thin spiderweb of imperfections danced in my sight as more water prepared to descend from my eyelids. Shutting them, I felt them fall, leaving a thin trail behind them, a memory.
I must have fallen asleep like that — with the lights still blazing over me — because I woke up to the creak of my doorknob turning. Drowsily, I rolled my head on its side to check the clock. Ten o’clock. I had slept for three hours and nobody thought to check on me. Darkness from the hallway poured onto my pale yellow rug like a coffee stain. The light from my room illuminated my mother’s face.
“Tilly, it’s getting late. You should go to bed.” I moaned softly.
“Tilly? Can you answer me, please?” I moaned again, louder. The door opened all of the way and she stepped inside, seeing me completely for the first time.
“Tilly! Are you okay?” Why is she so nice to me when I’m so rotten to her? Tears began to stir in my eyes again. I held out my arms to her. She came to take my hands and then lay them down on the comforter. I felt the bed duck under the newly added weight as she slipped under the covers behind me, wrapping her arms around my waist.
“Tilly, what’s the matter?” I was crying again. Big, sloppy, wet tears falling down my cheeks. I buried my face into the pillow and savored the feeling of her embrace.
“I’m sorry that I’m not your cuddle-bear anymore, Mom.”
I could feel her mouth curve into a small smile on my smooth hair. She kissed the top of my head.
“You’re still my cuddle bear, Tilly. You’ll always be my cuddle bear.”