No one had entered the two-room studio of French composer Erik Satie for twenty-seven years when, upon his death, his friends were summoned to the small apartment in Arcueil, France. One of the two rooms was rumored to have been kept locked, and in it, they discovered hundreds of identical black umbrellas. And in the unlocked room, presumably the main room, there were two grand pianos—one stacked on top of the other. The top piano housed unopened letters, parcels, and bits of paper.
I often wonder about the expressions on the faces of Satie’s friends as they stood beside the tower of pianos. Their eyes following the black legs of these colossal instruments, from bottom to top, stopping at the upper piano’s open lid, which must have nearly touched the ceiling—with the lower instrument threatening to fold beneath the weight of the other standing on its shoulders. Had the piano delivery men challenged this bizarre arrangement? Or did they dismiss Satie’s request as being a peculiarity of an eccentric artist—one who was also known for owning a dozen identical velvet suits? And in the locked room, the umbrella room, had the umbrellas been closed, they must have looked like a colony of a hundred sleeping bats; I imagine his friends gasping the moment the locked door cracked open, letting in a beam of musty light, revealing the room’s contents. Perhaps it took a few seconds for their eyes to adjust and to send the signal to their brains before they could finally identify the repeating black shapes—thus discovering what their late friend had hoped would remain hidden.
I imagine them standing there and pondering how they would retell the story, recalling their moment of shock. “Ooh, la,” they’d say, embellishing the details for neighbors, weaving one hundred umbrella metaphors into analyses of Satie’s compositions for curious historians and musicologists, or as fodder for the next Parisian soiree—the story of their eccentric friend who died, curiously leaving behind a locked room full of umbrellas.
Satie had, no doubt, locked a room within an apartment that no one entered because he expected such a reaction. And he must have understood that more than a few umbrellas might be considered excessive or that stacking grand pianos in this way, or any way really, would be a shock—to outsiders at least. So removing outsiders from the equation, Satie was left to indulge in this need, or compulsion, or fetish, or obsession—whichever. But absent the expectations and gaze of others for nearly three decades, he was free to indulge his true self.
“I don’t want somebody in my house.” When considering Satie’s twenty-seven years of voluntary isolation, I was reminded of this viral Whoopi Goldberg quote from an interview with the New York Times: “I’m the round peg, and marriage is the square hole. You can’t have a square hole, can you?” Some lauded her response as a quasi-feminist stance against the expectation to be romantically tethered, but central to Goldberg’s response was that she valued her space; it was not necessarily a rejection of romantic partnership. Decoupling the relationship from the house was something I understood by age ten or eleven when I concluded that I, too, might be a round peg—a fact I told anyone who would listen, especially my mother. “I’m never getting married,” I’d say. “I’ll just have lovers,” I’d flick the words out like little shards of adolescent rebellion, intended to jab any adult within earshot with a shock. “Don’t say that,” my mother would reply, half-feigning disapproval. “You just need to find the right one.” But muddying her rebuttal was the fact that she, herself, had a longtime lover—an engineer at a local food corporation. I would see him some nights when he would stop by after work, about a half hour before the Johnny Carson Show. They would sit side by side on the sofa in the sunken den, his arm around her shoulder. They drank cognac and listened to jazz. It was past my bedtime, but sometimes the door to the pitch-black hallway was left slightly ajar, and I would crouch to peer through the sliver vein of light, where I could see my mother morph into a woman I didn’t know. She seemed slighter, girlish, a coy grin wafting on the current of his gaze. At times, he seemed to be defeated by adoration. And if what I saw some nights in the den through a crack in the hallway door is what not having “somebody in your house” was like, I wanted it.
My mother had long since been divorced by this point, from a man who was not my father, and very deliberately opted not to remarry. “Men take up too much space, and they’re too messy,” she’d explain to anyone who’d ask if she planned to marry the man she shared cognac with in our den, “and I’m not spending one more day picking up some man’s dirty drawers.”
On the mornings following the engineer’s visits, I would wake to find that his car was no longer in the driveway. The cognac glasses had been washed and put away. The morning news had replaced Johnny Carson. My mother resumed the posture of the parent and daytime RN—her perfect black shoulders covered by her starched nurse’s uniform, her slight wrists deep in dishwater.
It was likely Satie resorted to composing in cafés because the pianos in his apartment took up so much space. Not only does the piano require one to commit to it a sizeable amount of physical space, but it also imposes a considerable degree of solitude. And having played the piano my whole life, I was primed to tolerate stretches of isolation.
Like myself, the grand piano is a self-sufficient instrument—it needs neither accompaniment nor conductor. It’s both intimate and removed: You don’t cradle it on the curve of your neck and shoulders like a violin, nor do you straddle it between your knees like a cello, or press it to your lips like a flute. A piano requires some distance, roughly twenty or thirty centimeters, but rewards its player by surrounding her with sound. And the series of events to produce that sound are elegant but also nothing short of violent. A hammer strikes steel and copper wires stretched over the soundboard, latticed like a corset. The collection of wires together holds over twenty tons of tension, and once struck, the entire body of the piano vibrates. On older pianos, the keys are made of tusk and teeth, which over time become dingy and brittle as if they were aging in place, still attached to the rhinos and elephants from which they were stripped. At its lowest ranges, a grand piano can bellow like a contrabass and stomp like timpani; over the expanse of its seven octaves, it can be a viola, or a piccolo, or the trill of a small bird. It’s an instrument that requires big rooms for its plumes of sound to unfold and quiet rooms when it’s dolcissimo. A grand piano needs a grand apartment. Better yet, a house. Or any living space with at least 900 square feet of extra space, not including the bedroom, bathroom, or kitchen.
For most of my life, I could not afford a house. So, some years after college, I moved to Seattle and settled on the bottom half of a duplex that sat on a corner lot, three blocks from a small human-made lake and across from a large church that I would never visit. It was the largest place I’d ever lived in since moving away from my childhood home.
When I moved into the duplex, it was as empty as a cave, and I did cartwheels across the living room before filling it with IKEA furniture. On the east wall was a cavernous brick fireplace with a dramatically large arched opening and a raised hearth. “No shared walls!” the rental ad boasted, which was an important feature for a pianist. There would be no broomsticks banging on the ceiling from the neighbor above if I practiced my études too loudly. And like Satie, I lived alone and had two grand pianos: One sat in the big picture window in the living room, and the other sat in a room on the lower floor that had concrete floors, no windows, and led to the garage through a thin plywood door. The piano on the lower floor was about as functional as the room itself: The G two octaves above middle C twanged, and there was a hairline fracture in the soundboard. It was nearly unplayable, but it had a beautiful walnut case with a tawny sheen like the color of my mother’s cognac. I loved to look at it and polish it, but playing it was always a letdown.
The piano in the upper, main room was more traditional: polished black, always in tune. Some pianos are so masterfully built that they practically play themselves—like a good Steinway or a Bösendorfer. Any old somebody could carelessly bang out a sonata, and it would sound vaguely virtuosic. This piano was no Bösendorfer. It required all my effort.
I staged my new home so that it was suitable for entertaining, arranging seating so that guests could sit in warm circles. And I imagined them making lyrical gestures with their wrists while swaying their wine glasses as they debated the latest books, start-ups, and politics. I bought too many wine glasses, a too-long dining table, and too many dining chairs. But what I’d overlooked was that I was at a stage in life where friendships and social engagements were made more tenuous by new marriages, and parenthood, or job opportunities on opposite coasts.
A month after I moved in, a couple moved into the upstairs unit. Ordinary. Average in shape, height, and appearance. No children, no pets. Friendly. Quiet. I met them formally only once—a courtesy introduction by the landlord, which took less than ten minutes. We had separate entrances on opposite sides of the duplex and separate garages, so after the initial introduction, I never saw them again. Not properly anyway. I would, however, occasionally catch glimpses of them: the top of a head getting into a car, the blur of a profile, or if I peeked out my kitchen window at just the right time, a sleeved arm as they brought in their groceries, quickly disappearing behind their door. If I returned home from work at nighttime, I was greeted by their warm, lit windows.
After a year or two, I’d forgotten their faces. If I were to have passed them in a grocery aisle, I wouldn’t have known them from strangers. And though they lived directly above me, less than ten feet and a few layers of floor and ceiling between us, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about them, except for maybe the color of their car. Light metallic blue. A hatchback. Even so, their presence—the occasional thump on my ceiling when they dropped something heavy, the slap of their screen door shutting behind them, being awakened by the sound of their garage door that was just beneath my bedroom—rumbling open, then closing—was welcomed company. I was alone, but not.
I had a job in tech, which was the only job I was competent at—aside from being a pianist—that also paid well enough to buy two used grand pianos and enough space to house them. The job description had read “fast-paced,” and the pace was such that I had little time to devote to improving my social plight or to devise a plan to break up the sameness of days that turned into years. At the very least, I had my pianos, my space, a fireplace, and a cat.
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JENNIFER TAYLOR-SKINNER is a writer and podcaster who lives in Seattle with her family. She studied classical piano at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory and creative writing at the University of Cincinnati. Her writing has appeared in Litro Magazine and Today.com.