I am writing a letter when a pair of someones upstairs takes a seat at the piano and begins playing “Heart and Soul.” It’s a little clompy, a little arrhythmic, but clear enough to time-travel me back to my 6th grade self, to the music room at the middle school, sitting side by side with Steve Kraus, his bruised-knuckled hands pounding out the four-beat chords on the lower keys, my right hand hovering over the higher keys as I counted out the eight repeats before I’d come in on the melody.
It’s my whole life since I was eleven, since I sat beside the first boy I loved, barely breathing, waiting to play the only piano piece I knew, waiting to see what would happen when the playing was done. I won’t lie and say it feels like yesterday, but I remember. The butterflies tickling my stomach as I sit here with my pen frozen in mid stroke make that plain.
Steve Kraus was thirteen, two long and experience-filled years older than I, about to leave middle school for the high school across town. We were alone in the music room, which was enough to be exciting, but more exciting still was that he’d sought me out, had come looking for me.
I’d been hunting for my lost sheet music, not paying attention to the sound of the door as I tried to reach behind the bookshelf.
“Let me move that for you.”
I stepped back, shy and silent, let him move the shelf so I could fish out the papers I’d spied behind it. After he reset the shelf, he turned and smiled.
“Figured I’d find you here,” he said. He started walking around the room, looking at music left on stands, checking out the instrument shelves.
“You were looking for me?” I tried not to sound completely incredulous.
“Wanted to be sure you were okay. You know, after everything.”
“Everything” was why I loved him. The day before, four eighth grade boys had ambushed me on my way home from school. They destroyed my book bag, took the little bit of money I had. They punched me around some, kind of lazily, like cats toying with prey.
Then one of them — Mark Ranson, hockey team goalie — spotted a pile of dog mess. He grabbed my arm, used his other hand to yank my head back by the hair so I was looking up at him. He smiled — a real smile, a companionable smile, not the smile of a bully, of a person who would then say, “Eat all of it, or I’ll break your arm.”
He twisted my arm hard for punctuation and gave me another smile. “You won’t be able to play that faggy clarinet when I’m done with you. So you have a choice. What’s it gonna be?”
“There’s no choice,” I heard another voice say. “I’ll break your face no matter what you do.”
Mark looked up and past me. His face did a quick run from cocky to questioning to amused. He let go of my head and I turned to see Steve Kraus and one of his friends.
“There’s four of us, Kraus. What d’you think you can do here?”
Steve shrugged. “Let him go, you get less of a beating.”
Ranson and his friends laughed, but I noticed one looked unsure, glancing around nervously.
“Why’re you defending this fag?” Ranson asked. “You his new boyfriend?”
I figured my defense ended there, that Steve would give me up rather than be accused of being gay. But he laughed, stood his ground.
“I know who I am,” he said. “Maybe you should ask yourself why four hockey stars need to beat up a kid to make themselves feel big.”
Which was when the fighting started. Ranson could have left the fighting to his friends and focused on me, but he shoved me aside and ran at Steve. I watched the crush of the fight for a minute, unsure of what to do. Then Steve shouted for me to take off, and I did, running like the sprinter I’d become in high school.
“Those guys are probably going to keep bothering you,” Steve said, walking to the percussion section and tapping out a rhythm on the face of a kettle drum.
He had a bruise on his left cheek, one on his chin, and his hands were raw. But I’d seen Mark Ranson, and he looked worse.
“You should hang around with me,” he said. “They’ll stay away from you.” He stopped drumming and smiled at me. “What d’you play?”
He nodded. “I used to take piano.” He walked to the old Wurlitzer at the front of the room, sat down, and started a Chopin etude. “My mom would be amazed to know I remember this,” he said, smiling. “You don’t play anything at all? Not even “Chopsticks” or “Heart and Soul” or anything like that?”
So I sat beside him, counting out the 32 beats until my melody needed to drop in. I didn’t know if he had seriously suggested I hang out with him. Invited it.
“Thank you,” I said quietly. “I never said thank you.”
He stopped playing and looked at me. “I hate guys like that, you know?” He started the song again. “I’ll nudge you when it’s time to come in.”
Forty years later, my heart still lurches at the memory of him. We never played piano together again, but we became friends after a fashion, and he kept me safe, shielding me, seeing me through till summer when I put on some weight and started to grow, when I stopped looking like such an easy target. I’d probably have made it through middle school without him, but not whole.