- Aida Zilelian
It was only after the Manoukians moved in that I felt like my old self again. When they first visited me, I had no idea whether or not they would stay. It’s always been that way; some settle for decades, span the passing of time. While others…..well. Time is a ghost, nonetheless. Airless. I have been here for generations and have watched (sometimes with only one eye open, so to speak), the lives of all sorts of people.
I will always remember the Manoukians. My first memory is of Mr. Manoukian walking through the spaces between my walls and the sweet smell of tobacco that lingered on his clothes – I would come to find out that he favored unfiltered Camels, which would be his death decades later, and the cautious steps he took – as if entering a monastery, as he peered at the radiators’ flaking paint, the craters in the ceiling, the splintered wood of floors that once gleamed smooth like honey. His air of deference spoke more to the person he was and less the acute disaster that the Feinsteins had made of me. Anyone else would have breezed through, halting at the utter garishness that each room presented and raced over to look at brownstones in Brooklyn.
Mrs. Manoukian was a different ilk of person altogether. Though she had no desire to race over to Brooklyn, one may have thought differently if they have felt, as I had, the weight of her heels bearing down with each heavy-footed step as if to say: This place is ridiculous. What are these people thinking? to which I would have replied if I could have: Wait until you see the master bedroom. They painted every inch of it maroon. It would be the only sentiment we would agree upon in the years to follow.
It felt glorious when the packing began; the Feinsteins had decided to move permanently to their summer home in the Poconos, where they would be closer to both their children Jacob and Hannah, who lived in Philadelphia. “At least,” I heard Mrs. Feinstein tell Mr. Feinstein when he complained that they would still be driving for two hours to visit them, “we will be living in the same state.” She was the more charming of the two, the one who hosted dinner parties despite his introversion, the one who bought too many house plants in a superficial attempt at livening the rooms with a bit of earthiness, while he ignored anything that needed tending to, nurturing. This included his children as well as the two shih tzus that Mrs. Feinstein had solely walked, fed and only recently had cremated. Pepper had outlived his sister Shaker by a year. The plants eventually fell limp, dried up and turned to stumps.
“It’s been marvelous, David,” she said after the movers had packed off all the boxes, my ugliness more pronounced now that I had been stripped and emptied. She wrapped her arms around his waist, pulled him close. Perhaps she was absorbed in the nostalgia of leaving the home they had bought as newlyweds and raised their children. Mr. Feinstein stood stiffly, squinting at the cracks in the corners of the parlor’s ceiling as if seeing it for the first time, and pushed his glasses up a notch, although it was more for affect. A habit he had when finding himself in emotionally uncomfortable moments.
The Manoukians moved in on a quiet Sunday afternoon in late August. The air was thick with a stale mustiness that smelled like the Feinsteins. Sour milk and dead flowers. It was a great relief when Mrs. Manoukian strode through the rooms, now with complete authority, and threw open the windows. Trailing behind her were two girls, several years apart in age, the older thirteen or fourteen years old. She was quiet and pensive, breaking away from her younger sister as she wandered down the hallway and noted the four bedrooms, three bathrooms and fireplace in the parlor, until she came across the defunct dumbwaiter in the kitchen that hadn’t been utilized since the 1950’s. She pulled the handle of the door, noticing that the latch was stiff and sealed closed by a thin coat of paint. She stood still a moment without turning around, locating where the voices of her sister and mother were coming from, sensing they were at the far end of the apartment. Curiously, the girl yanked the handle with force, and after the second pull the door of the dumbwaiter flew open.
Perhaps if this was another story, the compartment of the dumbwaiter would have been empty and she would have been able to fit herself inside the small space, allowing herself to be carried up and down the shaft of every floor of the building (there were six). But here, there was only one possibility. Where once was an empty space with only a platform used by past tenants to send one another items of their choosing or laundry to the basement, was now filled with long, thick cables, twisted and painted over with a chalky gray finish. It reminded her of her mother. What she imagined the insides of her mother to look like. I could hear her thoughts, soft and light, like worn felt.
In the coming weeks the bell buzzed persistently as the painters arrived, followed by the contractors who scraped and refinished the floors, and then the several superintendents of the building who were called upon by Mrs. Manoukian to resolve the potential leak in one of the bathroom ceilings. I had not felt such aliveness humming between the walls in years, long before the Feinsteins. The transformation was astonishing. The screaming pineapple yellow kitchen was painted a sensible eggshell with a mottled white granite countertop, reminding me of the decades before the war, the Prohibition years. The floors were now a gleaming, pale brown and the ceilings, now patched and painted to perfection, emanated an austerity I never thought possible.
After the movers had settled the furniture and boxes, the last piece that was brought in - much to my surprise, was a baby grand piano, a Baldwin. It was a rich brown wood and placed at the threshold between the parlor and the dining room, in front of the two windows that overlooked the sidewalk. On bright days it radiated, sun-soaked, the luster and sheen seemingly hand-polished, although Mrs. Manoukian had moved it out of her ex-husband’s home after sixteen years of marriage. After all this time I’ll never know to whom the piano had been gifted – Mrs. Manoukian or her eldest daughter.
In the beginning, I thought it was Mrs. Manoukian who played. Thick, worn piano books were invariably strewn across the music board. Her daughter would sit at the far right of the piano bench, as if a girl daintily picking petals from a daisy, and play intricate melodies that sounded like tinkering mice. The high register, bright and crisp as it resonated from the soundboard.
Eventually she would push back the bench and settle herself in front of the middle C. Her hands would waver over the keys at first and then press down, resonating a somber chord.
Though the piano needed tuning, dark, shadowy tones vibrated through its strings. She would continue this way and then begin humming; before long she would have written a small portion of music and lyrics that would eventually form into a complete song.
Queerly though, she never played the piano when her mother was home. As soon as she heard the front door open the girl would lower the fall board and leave the parlor. Then one afternoon she was asked, for the first time, to play.
The Hadjians were the first guests in the apartment. They were a couple in their late thirties, as were the Manoukians. Siran and her husband Kevork Hadjian had moved from Anjar, a small Armenian populated town in Beirut, where Mrs. Manoukian had also emigrated from. As they walked in Mrs. Hadjian remarked at the portrait of Siamanto with a lute on his lap, that she had the same portrait, which they had brought with them from Anjar. Both Mr. and Mrs. Hadjian gazed at the Persian rug, not the traditional dark burgundy and indigo, but muted autumn tones. Once they sat down Mrs. Hadjian noticed the bust of Gomidas on the piano.
“This is a beautiful piano,” said Mrs. Hadjian as she settled herself onto the sofa.
The girl had walked into the room with a tray of ornate demi-tasse cups and a sugar bowl.
“Do you play?” Mrs. Hadjian asked, turning to the girl.
“I do sometimes – ”
“She plays around on it. She doesn’t take lessons,” interjected Mrs. Manoukian. “I used to play, years ago. I plan on taking lessons again,” she said.
She was wearing a spaghetti-strapped summer dress the color of poppies, her long brown hair recently highlighted with subtle blonde streaks. Her eyes, heavy with mascara and the matching shade of lipstick to her dress lent her the dramatic air of a woman who had, perhaps, just walked off a photo shoot. Any man who managed to overlook her voluptuous figure and startlingly large eyes was either devoutly in love or unconscious.
“Will you play something for us?” Mrs. Hadjian asked brightly, taken with the girl, nonetheless.
She started a bit, sensing her mother’s frosty gaze.
“I don’t know anything,” the girl said. “Just some things I wrote.”
“Play one,” Mrs. Hadjian said.
As she walked past her mother the girl winced, expecting what? Something.
Once she settled herself behind the keys she seemed as singular as she did on the days she played when her mother wasn’t home. She must have known the song to choose so as to not risk faltering. Failing. It was the second one she had written since moving in.
Her left hand lowered to the bass octaves, hostile and bold, a song rang through the air unexpectedly. They all sat up, as if preparing themselves. Ominously, she repeated a sinister melody on the bass register of the piano and then reached the opposite end of the keys, a light and airy whisper echoing the same progression. Back and forth, the girl jumped expertly, the force of emotion seizing her arms, hands, fingers. Then just as unexpectedly, the melody softened, drifted to a quiet space, and faded.
The girl pushed away from the bench and stood up.
“That was so surprising,” said Mrs. Hadjian. “Ansovor.” Unusual. “This piano is from Barouyr’s house?” she asked, referring to Mrs. Manoukian’s ex-husband, “Or did you buy it for the apartment? It’s beautiful,” she commented again, and leaned towards it, as if trying to find her reflection in the glossy wood.
“It was my father’s gift to me,” the girl said. Just faintly, she smiled, unable to contain it. She seemed pleased, relaying this bit of information.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” replied Mrs. Manoukian, drawing her shoulders back, gathering her full posture. She turned directly to her daughter. And then faced the others. “It was his gift to me. When we first got married.” She cast a sidelong glance at the girl to make sure she was corrected.
Mr. Manoukian, who had joined them before the girl had begun playing, was sitting next to Mrs. Manoukian on the sofa. Gently, he reached over and set his hand on her wrist with timid reproach. Instinctively, the wrist recoiled with disgust.
The guests seemed to take in a faint, short sigh. The room stood quiet for longer than a moment.
The girl faced away from the sofa, the color rising in her cheeks, turned her back to them and left, beelining to the end of the hallway to her bedroom. Seconds later, her walls were pulsing mutinously with her favorite Metallica album.
It continued this way for years; the girl played the piano during her mother’s absence and inevitably only when her family wasn’t home. She found it distracted Mr. Manoukian when he was writing in his study and her younger sister was too much of a nuisance, sauntering over and striking keys randomly, intent on irritating the girl. She took refuge in her playing, eventually making clumsy attempts in transcribing her music to theory. And during those times, those long years, not once did her mother comment on her compositions. It was as if they were playing a game: Mrs. Manoukian pretended her daughter didn’t play the piano, didn’t love it dearly, compose music, was enraptured by it.
And the girl abided by the rules.
In the summers the girl was sent away to an Armenian camp for the duration of the season and on Saturdays she was enrolled in an Armenian enrichment program in the city, Sunday school during church service. More and more, though, Mrs. Manoukian would have to remind her that they lived in an Armenian-speaking home. Hayeren khoseer! – Speak Armenian! – would ring through the house, especially during dinner when the family gathered most every evening. It was, I suppose, the girl’s quiet rebellion, her only means of outraging her mother until she grew older.
Strangely, Mrs. Manoukian never took up lessons the way she had said she would. Nor did the girl ask for lessons, which I could guess she sorely wanted. And they argued bitterly.
During these moments Mr. Manoukian would hide in his study and the younger sister would leave to the courtyard or steal away in her room, both avoiding the detonations that drew out for the length of days.
Mornings after the girl left for school Mrs. Manoukian would take it upon herself to examine the contents of her daughter’s room. She would perch herself on the edge of the bed, read through the girl’s diaries (naively, she had saved the old ones) and letters from pen pals or boys. The girl hadn’t taken too much trouble hiding any of these treasures given that her mother found them tucked under a stack of sweaters or stuck between the pages of a book. Mrs. Manoukian would use what she read as a manipulation, underestimating that very quickly the girl would catch on.
In this way the distance between them grew, their regard for one another cold and unforgiving. The girl became sly with her hiding places, and the items tokens of a defiant adolescent: cigarettes, a marijuana pipe, old cosmetics bottles washed out and filled with vodka. During her winter breaks throughout high school, she would sit in her room, read books and listen to music, waiting until evening when her family was asleep and sneak out, returning before dawn. Sometimes she would return with a young man. They would smoke cigarettes and steal drinks from the liquor cabinet, careful to leave open her bedroom window to clear the smoke and allow his narrow escape. Her ultimate victory in that her mother not once caught her in the act of leaving or slipping back through the front door only an hour or two before the family woke in the mornings.
So it was with great alarm when Mrs. Manoukian, the suzerain of the household, was awakened in the middle of the night by the thunderous playing of the piano. Like an opera singer shouting. Mr. Manoukian was still sleeping beside her, his erupting snores contending with the banging symphony of the keys. The younger sister had stayed over a friend’s house and was not there to witness her mother half-running through the hallway to the parlor and the sight that awaited her. The piano bench pushed aside, the girl was leaning over the piano and playing maniacally with no pause. The rims of her eyes charcoaled with thick eyeliner and her long brown hair hanging over her face, wet and dripping from rain – Mrs. Manoukian stood frozen in the middle of the room.
“Bravo!” a voice called out from a corner. And then the hollow clapping of hands.
Mrs. Manoukian jumped now, audibly gasped. A young man in combat boots and a leather jacket was sitting on the parlor rug. A cigarette hanging out of his mouth would have completed the picture, but instead there was a coffee cup with a pinch of water and a fingernail sized joint swimming at the bottom.
“What are you doing?” Mrs. Manoukian screamed over the girl’s playing.
Her daughter glanced up briefly, expecting her mother one can assume, and continued playing dutifully, as if obligated to maintain her performance undeterred.
“Stop it now,” Mrs. Manoukian commanded. “And you get the hell out of my house!” she yelled at the teenage boy who hadn’t stopped clapping. “Both of you,” she shouted, pressing her hands to her ears, “Stop!”
I can tell you that it was several minutes before the girl stopped playing, at which point Mrs. Manoukian had given up her protests and defeated, stood impatiently for the whole mess to run its course. The boy stood up, gave the girl a wink and left with a two-finger salute.
One afternoon the girl announced that she was moving out of the house. If that wasn’t enough to incite her mother, the travesty was twofold: she would be living with her boyfriend.
“What boyfriend? How could you? Where did you even meet this person?” Mrs. Manoukian asked, incredulous that she had been unaware of the girl’s comings and goings.
“I met him through friends from college,” the girl said. “We were friends for a long time and then we started dating.”
“And now you’re moving in together? It must be easy for you to make these decisions without asking me first,” Mrs. Manoukian replied.
“Ask? Ask you what? I’m twenty-four years old. It’s bad enough you insist I live here until I get married,” she said.
“You’ve been lying to me,” Mrs. Manoukian began yelling, “about dating an odar – an American, and then tell me you’re moving in together. What am I going to tell the family? Here I am packing to fly to Fresno for a family wedding and you’re telling me you’re moving in with an odar. Don’t think you can come back here if you break up – which you will,” she added for good measure. “If he can’t wait until you’re married, then we know what he’s after.”
“It’s not like that,” the girl said. “If you met him you’d –”
Mrs. Manoukian retracted, wild-eyed. “Meet? I don’t ever want to meet him. If you get married and have children I don’t want meet him - or your children.” She stared hatefully at the girl, waiting for the effect of her words to penetrate. “And you lied,” she continued, after several moments. “I’ve always told you to be honest with me. I don’t respect you,” she said.
Mr. Manoukian was in the kitchen listening, pressing his eyes shut as if he could silence them, as if what he knew was to come.
They were standing with their backs to the piano and now the girl turned, fully facing her mother. “You want the truth,” the girl retorted, “to control the people around you. Not for closeness. Not for trust. But to use it against us. Me. I’ve never told you a truth I didn’t regret,” she said. “And I’m glad I never told you about Jonathan. Because you would have made me miserable for knowing. And what did you expect me to do? Be like you? Marry just to get out of the house?”
Mrs. Manoukian took two steps forward and leaned in for good measure. “I wish,” she said, narrowing her eyes, “that I’d never had you.” She wheeled around and snatched one of the piano books on the music board and thrust it in the girl’s face. With one sinister motion she tore out one of the sheets. “I wish –”
Before she could continue the girl had already grabbed her mother by the collar of her dress and pushed her against the bookshelf. Bewildered, Mrs. Manoukian began clawing the girl’s face. The girl hung on, unwilling to let go as the books on the higher shelf began toppling on their heads.
“You can’t speak to me that way anymore,” the girl screamed, holding her mother in place. “I’m done! I am done.”
Red-faced, Mrs. Manoukian tried to push back, a flicker of shock registering in her eyes because she had been overpowered.
“Please,” Mr. Manoukian pleaded, rushing to them, no longer able to bear it, “the both of you. Please don’t.”
But it was over by then. Something had broken.
When the girl woke the following the day she found the piano book on her nightstand. The torn page had been carefully taped back in place; the sheet music perfectly aligned with the ragged demarcating tear. It was the same tape from the drawer in Mr. Manoukian’s study.
The afternoon the girl moved out was the last time she played the piano. At the behest of Mrs. Manoukian, the family had left for the day, leaving the girl to take the rest of her belongings. She sat on the bench and placed her hands on the keys but did not play at first. The piano, now amber in the growing afternoon light, seemed to wait in repose. Darkly, she began. It was the same melody as nearly a decade ago when the Hadjians had visited, setting forth the dreadful provocation between the girl and her mother, that one could argue was not unprecedented.
The keys now were a discolored yellow, like the tobacco-stained fingers of a dedicated smoker. The melody was dissonant, the strings twanging from years of the piano being left untuned.
“You’re not the same anymore,” she said, speaking to the piano keys. “I’m sorry.” As if it was her fault.
As she lowered the fallboard she began to cry. She swept her hand over the length of the floorboard as if collecting imaginary dust. Then over again and again, lightly. A caress.
As the years passed, the piano gradually became a mantelpiece for photographs. During the holidays Mrs. Manoukian would lower the lid and cover it with a forest green felt, where she would arrange her Dickinson Christmas village, arrayed with fairy lights. The fallboard had not been lifted for so long that it squeaked upon being opened. I imagined the keys rotting in its shallow chamber, like teeth blackened by death.
I don’t remember when, but the girl began visiting again. With a man – her husband, and she was pregnant. Despite the passing of time and her current condition, she carried herself with the same air of defiance, now speaking to Mrs. Manoukian coolly with more reservation. Her face was unlined, undefined by age or angst whereas the passing of time had left her mother less beautiful, the harshness of her features hardened from years of displeasure and restlessness.
Mr. Manoukian, who so very often slipped away from the drama of turmoil, seemed at ease for once, sitting in the chair he favored in the corner of the parlor. He was pale now, the sickness slowly spreading through him. Upon seeing the girl, he smiled, his face tired and distant. Briefly, their eyes met. I love you. I’m sorry. The girl looked upon him, her eyes misting.
And then the awful morning happened. Mr. Manoukian did not wake up from his sleep.
“Gabriel!” Mrs. Manoukian screamed, leaning over him as he lay in bed, his vacant eyes still open. “Hajees, Gabriel! Please!”
She flew to the phone on her nightstand and dialed.
“You have to come,” she screamed, her voice carrying through all the empty rooms, her grief vibrating between the walls.
Once again, everything began disappearing into cardboard boxes. The elimination of a home until there was nothing left. The movers came and carried it all away into an oversized moving truck that arrived one morning and drove off in the early evening to a miscellaneous place. Mrs. Manoukian overlooked the procession with little interest, the vigor of her youth plucked from her heart, leaving a silhouette of her former self. The entire space was bare.
Except for the piano and the bench.
The girl visited that afternoon, the baby settled in a carrier that fit snugly against her body.
Gingerly, she sat on the bench, resting herself on the far end as if it were a fragile thing that could snap at the slightest shift.
“Would you take it?” Mrs. Manoukian asked, nodding at the piano.
The girl’s face was still now, as if waiting for herself to either reply or stay silent.
“I don’t know what I’d do with it,” she said finally. “I asked for the bench for Ruby. She may want to play one day. We’ll buy her a piano then.”
“Just take this one then,” Mrs. Manoukian said.
“I don’t have room for it,” the girl said. “There’s no way. Besides, you said that the piano was his gift to –”
“I know what I said,” Mrs. Manoukian breezed over her. “It would be a shame to give it away since you played it so much.”
“Well,” the girl retorted. “I have no space for it. You’ll have to give it away,” she replied indifferently.
“To who? Who’s going to take this huge thing?” Mrs. Manoukian asked, as if it was the girl’s fault.
“I don’t know,” the girl responded hotly.
“What’s the matter with you?” Mrs. Manoukian asked.
“Me? Nothing. You don’t hear yourself,” the girl said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means,” the girl paused, collecting herself with a breath, “that you didn’t give a God damn all the years I played. Not once. And now, because you have to get rid of it – you never wanted it – it’s a problem that you’re trying to put on me.”
“I didn’t mean to bother you with my problem,” Mrs. Manoukian said. “I thought since you liked playing it that you would want it.”
“Please just give it away,” the girl replied, a sudden hopelessness in her voice. “It was a gift. For me. He said it was.”
Mrs. Manoukian turned away, looking out the window at the empty sidewalk. She drew in a breath. And then another.
Undeterred the girl spoke again. “Why? Why would you say it was his gift to you?”
“I’ll keep it,” Mrs. Manoukian said, her voice softening, not answering her question.
Now the girl shifted on the bench uneasily. “Listen, I only asked for the bench in the first place because I thought you were giving away the piano.”
“I’ll keep it, for you and Ruby,” said her mother.
Again, I could hear her, just as I had the afternoon she peered into the dumb waiter. I knew what the girl was thinking as sure as I was. The piano would be too much trouble to sell; the girl understood well enough her mother’s knack at manipulating herself in a favorable light.
She also knew this was her mother’s apology.
Whether or not she could decide to forgive her would not come to her suddenly. Because forgetting was surrendering the past and because after all, doesn’t forgiving mean that we have to forget? And that what is forgotten isn’t important anymore. But it was. It was important. And the girl was not willing. What was the point of having been her mother’s daughter if she didn’t have the memories at least, hardened like stone, as something tangible enough that maybe, one day, she could love them.
Aida Zilelian is a first generation American-Armenian writer, educator and literary organizer from Queens, NY. Her fiction explores the depths of love and family relationships, culture and the connections between characters that transcend time and circumstance. Her first novel (unpublished) THE HOLLOWING MOON, was one of the top three finalists of the Anderbo Novel Contest. The sequel THE LEGACY OF LOST THINGS was published in 2015 (Bleeding Heart Publications) and was the recipient of the 2014 Tololyan Literary Award. Aida has been featured on NPR, The Huffington Post, Kirkus Reviews, Poets & Writers, the New York Times, and various reading series throughout Queens and Manhattan. Her short story collection THESE HILLS WERE MEANT FOR YOU was shortlisted for the 2018 Katherine Anne Porter Award. She recently completed her novel ALL THE WAYS WE LIED and is seeking representation.