“Come and see my cat,” the babysitter told me at age five. My mother ushered me out of the house with a wink and a wave.
Naturally it was a trick. There was no furry friend to warm my hands, instead on the table lay a worn copy of 100 Best-Loved Poems. I picked up a pen and scrawled on the desk: I was duped! My babysitter patted my head (I’d covered the words with a vase) and with a mighty cough, began to narrate the book.
The trick worked. Before nightfall I could recite the first stanza of Stopping By The Woods on A Snowy Evening, and not too long after that Jabberwocky, then The Tyger, then… Soon I was spending my evenings at Ms. Becker’s under her expert tutelage. That year, I grew indifferent to cats. Cats needed to be fed; cat urine needed to be cleaned. But poems! These strange creatures could live in the mind. Better yet, they fed me. They freed me.
Together Ms. Becker and I reread Best-Loved Poems over ad nauseum. When we were both sick of it we moved on to individual collections and waded through centuries of sentences, from Poe to Plath and all the way back. My love never died, though Ms. Becker did. She passed away when I was eleven. Her relatives doused her casket with tulips, white and limp and making me cry. That spring I cried a lot, just not in front of my psychologist. The first thing he said was “Don’t blame yourself,” then he folded his hands expectantly. I didn’t want to talk, but the silence felt smothering so I blurted out April is the cruelest month. The adults stared at me and my psychologist’s simper froze on his face. When our session was over we shook hands, mine hot and his cold, and on my way out I discreetly trashed the poem I’d prepared last night.
My love never died, but my mother never knew. A week after the psychologist declared me fine, I found a piano teacher waiting for me after school. “What the hell is going on?” I shouted in Chinese. My mother looked at me with sad eyes and I schooled my face into a benign expression. Apologies were made but inwardly I seethed. The woman thought that she could find me a “replacement” for Ms. Becker, and my anger told me to crush this naïve hope into dust. For the next two years my hands limped over the ivory expanse like sick soldiers. My notes, if they were right, played a full beat off, and I would bang on the piano as if trying to bruise it with my fingers.
My mother didn’t understand. She thought I was pretending, which was both right and wrong. Classical music was beautiful but I didn’t want a row of silky keys, I wanted the bumpy barrel of a pen. I didn’t need a metronome to structure my emotions, all I needed was the accented rigidity of a sonnet. The dynamics of forte and pianissimo were useless to me – I’d amassed some cherished adjectives and adverbs that worked far better.
So in my free time I ran to my room, ready to write. Except I couldn’t. I had been duped by the universe, the greatest fraud of all. Fate had made me love writing, and I was no longer able to enjoy it. The beat of the word thumped in my heart, but every time I tried to locate it, the sharp tug of memory pulled me back with tears in my eyes. On paper my fingers wouldn’t stop trembling, so I boxed up the journals I’d meant to fill, muttering to myself that I was too old to indulge in angsty reminiscing anyway. Meanwhile, my mother finally got the message and sold the piano to a neighbor. Oddly enough I found myself bereft without its presence in the house. My piano had been a rare friend who could listen to my sorrow and reproduce it without comment for me to reflect upon. Such an instrument had opened a path for transcending my pain, but back then I was too blind to see it.
If the piano had been the first chance to heal, then school writing assignments offered me a second chance. I hinted at death, crafted some trite statements about the power of words, but I didn’t have enough courage to put the two ideas adjacent to one another. I never told my teachers that at five, I’d sold my soul to English. That at eleven, a deep void had opened. That my greatest dream ever was to become a writer, and not just any writer, a writer who would be posthumously published in 100 Best-Loved Poems (Revised Edition). Yet most of my poems arranged themselves carefully around trivial matters. Because before I could write spontaneously again, I had to wait for that mythical day when I could finally peer at my past and draw reserves of neither wrath (that garners in my heart) nor despair (in every clime and under every sun) but a quiet, steady strength (till the sun breaks down). That day, I would marshal these old emotions together and patiently free them for the first time, giving them a home in an essay that would start with “Come and see my cat…”
Christina Zhou, Age 16, Grade 11, Hunter College High School, Silver Key