Li Hua falls in love for the first time to the sound of a church piano.
She was a quiet child. Her parents brought her to church with them on Sundays and, while she hated the tulle-filled dresses that pricked under her arms, she loved the huge open ceiling, the dust sprinkling through the sunlight, the smell of the cold air, the quiet that pressed into her ears. Her parents were in charge of a committee, or of setting up food for after the service, or of unlocking the classroom doors. Always something. Hua would sit on the wooden steps next to the Sunday school classroom, in a trance brought on by the smell of dusty wood and the 7:00 sunlight. Eventually, the trickle would start. The bang of the front door, the voices rolling over one another, gradually growing louder. The shrill laugh of women who hadn’t seen each other since last Sunday, the sound of some man yelling, inevitably, to find the key to the deadbolt on the piano. The feeling of the church full of people was a warning that, soon, her mother would come to find her, take her by the hand, and direct her into the warm bustle of people dressed in clunky heels and stiff floral prints. Hua would smile (with teeth, her mother would instruct her) and allow herself to be hugged by aunties and uncles who smelled like good clothes and coffee. Her parents were never on the committee to clear up after- some of those people were raised as animals, her father would say in the minivan heading home- so her only moments of quiet were in the morning.
When she turned 5, her parents enrolled her in piano lessons. A lady in the church, Carol Auntie, would collect Hua and 3 other kids from the church pre-school at 3:00 and direct them to the chapel. For 2 hours, the children would meander around the church, never out of reach of the piano’s drifting sound- the clank of keys, more often wrong than right, always uncertain- occasionally punctuated by Carol Auntie’s voice calling for the next child. Quiet as she was, Hua quickly became bored of sitting on the steps and turned to exploring the church with the other kids. Afternoons were full of meandering, which turned to hide and seek when Joshua got restless, which turned to Carol Auntie screaming. Hua and Anne, as the only two girls, would band up when it was one of the boys’ turns to be it. Hua would follow Anne around corners while Joshua or Ethan counted, ducking behind a bench or into a cabinet when they started cheating and skipping numbers on the way to 50. Giggling silently, out of breath, the warmth of their hiding space, the sound of their breathing. Listening intently for the sound of footsteps over the clinking of the piano. On a Tuesday, when Ethan was playing piano and Joshua was it and Anne and Hua were in a broom closet that smelled of Pine-Sol, Anne pressed a kiss to Hua’s cheek. Warm, then gone. Joshua had started crying in frustration, so Carol Auntie was coming upstairs. Hua took Anne’s hand as they fled. Anne dropped it as they charged through the door into the room they were meant to be waiting in, studying the chart of Chinese symbols that someone had hung on the wall 20 years before they had been thought of.