At my piano recital, I set up two chairs. One is for my older sister Nancy. The other is for Mother.

She’ll come this time. She must.

Miss Edgar tells me they need all unused chairs. She speaks this with softness, promises to dredge up an extra chair, if Mother comes.

If. If.

“No fact starts with ‘if,’” I say.

Miss Edgar concedes and lets me keep the chair. But I know what she’s thinking. Poor Nick. Nick Botkin, pianist extraordinaire, is the progeny of a drunk. Poor Nick’s a deluded fool. I’m not a fool. Mother hasn’t been to my last several recitals. She’s promised before.

This time will be different, though.

Mother will come. She must. She promised.

There was something in the way she said it. Something in the frenetic look, in the wideness of her hazel eyes. It was the wideness of one scared by life. She said she’d beaten the pop of corks, the seduction of fizz, the acrid euphoria. She thought she needed a respite from the bills, a piece of the world. Surely, I could understand, after losing Dad and then Mother losing teaching jobs. I could understand after the homes we’d lost, too. Not that she was making excuses. But I needed to understand.

She’s not there while I arrange my sheet music. Nancy smiles, does that dancing eyebrow routine she always does to relax me, make me laugh. How funny it seemed once.

Mother said she loved me. She said it with such force, I was drawn in by the grace and the force of her words. It was a kind of magnetic force that beckoned even if you didn’t want to come. It was the same force she exuded when she read bedtime stories to me as a child.

She’s not there when Miss Edgar introduces me and calls me a future van Cliburn in the making. The chair glares at me, illuminated by the light spilling over the auditorium. When I play the first notes of Clair de Lune, soft and tinkling, only Nancy smiles from her chair, a gruff, but sad, knowing smile.

Hands fall into position.

How I love her. But she looks like Mother, the same hazel eyes, the same flame-colored hair. Even the same little smile. Of course, she’s my sister, the sister who got me into piano in the first place, taught me the beauty of expressing sorrow and joy through music. The sister whom the world took so much from. The sister with a thousand opinions and the willingness to give voice to them, whether it was about Eisenhower’s presidency or imperialism.

She didn’t get into Mount Holyoke. Guidance counselors told her the future beckoned as a housewife and to discard senseless dreams. She took me to movies and even bought the popcorn on days when Mother was “sick,” absorbed in her litany of bottles. We even made up our own lines, yelling them over the characters. Once, we were kicked out when we saw Guys and Dolls. Nancy changed the lyrics of Luck Be a Lady to “fucked be smart ladies tonight.” As she put it, well-behaved women get kitchens and opinionated women get bupkis.

But how she looks like Mother. There’s still not a sign of Mother among the smiling parents. She must be late. She’d even promised to throw the bottles away, had them lined up ready to be discarded. Surely, she’ll be here, looking at me with that particular gaze, the knowing smile, a smile that doesn’t waver. She’ll arch her left eyebrow, the arched eyebrow that seems to convey the possibility of shared secrets, the arched eyebrow that once scared me and connoted displeasure when I got in trouble.

“We’ll beat this, Nicky,” she’d said, hugging me very long and hard. “Your father just left us in the lurch, that’s all. Of course, you can’t ask to lose people at a certain time. If only there were a timetable for life, though.”

She’d smelled of something different, sweat and cigarettes. There was something graceful and ordered in it, the possibility of a future, the promise of no more empty promises.

I strike notes, I play into the night. Mother must come. She’s on her way. Maybe she had to wait for a train. I draw out each note, as if they will beckon her.

Nancy smiles, a worn smile, but a smile that still abides, a smile not consumed by drink and promise. A smile so visible across a room.

In the music, images rise.

A boy wanders through the moonlight, father two years a ghost. He is casting a mother’s promises aside. He still has a baby face, albeit with the hints of a mustache growing in. He exists in a netherworld, neither adult nor child. He dons a look that he cannot see. Is it overtly anguished? Is it pensive? He fears. In these images, he casts each promise like pennies into the moonlit night with methodical slowness. Part of him still waits for the mother to emerge, like in some fairy tale. But she doesn’t. The mother’s promises echo as they strike the hollow streets. I’ll be better this time, I’m sorry, sweetheart, darling. She speaks of grief and loss over and over in these images. So many next times float through the music, next times that never are and never will be.

I play tinkling tears. I wax dissonance. I accentuate arpeggios of excuses. I play tumbling promises, pounding with a kind of intensity that feels like something out of one of my nightmares. Somewhere among those notes, I feel shame, selfishness, fingers striking the keys with anger. Mother holds onto her bottles and I hold onto something more venomous. I hold on like a Dickensian orphan lost in self-pity. And that’s just what I’m playing. Self-pity. Nancy sits there, smiling. She knows what I’m thinking. I’m sure she does.

I almost wish she’d leap up and call me a selfish bastard.

So, I play for Nancy, because she’s there, because she deserves some small piece of the action, of the world. I play because she’s stepped into empty spaces in my world instead of looking to her own life. I play tumbling notes with frenetic love. Love, love. I hope Nancy can hear it in each note. Nancy’s words, sarcastic, tender, soft, gruff, all rise with each note.

Hands flow rather than pound. Hands flow, rushing with grace, embracing ivory.

I can’t give her Mount Holyoke, I can’t give her things the world’s taken, but I can create. I can give her something. I can give her beauty. I’m capable of that much, anyway.

I play sorrow, I play hope, I play the spaces between the notes, drawing out spaces and the things that can’t be fully formed. After all, isn’t that what Debussy said music is? The spaces between the notes? Isn’t that where people cry? Isn’t that where people try to add up what it means to promise and to believe? Isn’t that where people tell others they love them?

I play, eyes on the seas of black and white, the chair a speck. I play because I can’t bear to think of popping champagne corks and laughter. I play to drown out Mother’s laugh, a cracked laugh, a dissonant laugh, Miss Edgar would say. I play to widen Nancy’s smile, imagine it growing, expanding. I conjure our adventures, the days of going to movies and throwing popcorn at unsuspecting people, turning the darkest of movies into comic relief. I conjure Nancy asking how I’m doing and me never asking the same in return.

I look straight at Nancy, let my hands take over, forget about the strictness of the notes.

When the last notes resonate, it’s hard to let go. Hard to release things, to walk into the world again. But I must. My sister waits. Nancy. I do not think of home. Or I try not to, I should say. I try not to think of the things that await, the bottles open, empty. Perhaps Mother discarded them, tried to cover up. Perhaps she’s asleep or figuring out how to convey regret and promises.

But there’s no point in thinking of it.

I release my hands from the piano, meeting my sister’s smile, her embrace, the evaporating crowds, the emptiness of air in front of me. The empty chair, accusing me, laughing at me for dreaming. But it takes on a dullness now, scrapes and bruises all too visible.

Nancy leads me out, murmuring compliments, the chair growing smaller and smaller.