“The Piano”: Inspired by Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”

By BLESST BOWDEN

My best friend Melissa and I have been close since first grade. We went to school in Washington Heights in New York. Most of our classmates were Dominican, so we didn’t have much in common with them. We discovered that this was what we had in common. We were the only non-Dominican students in the class. 

After first grade, Melissa and I got to know each other. We learned that we were both apart of the very small Cuban population in New York. Most east coast Cubans live in New Jersey, but our families settled in NYC. I have a Spanish last name so I never got too many questions about my ethnicity. Melissa has a random last name that she thinks her family got back when Europeans were busy colonizing the Caribbean. She never got any questions about her heritage though because everyone just assumed they knew what she was. Though New York City is one of the most diverse cities in the world, racism is still very much alive. See, Melissa and I are both Cuban but we aren’t the same race. This is a concept that is difficult for Americans to understand. Our families didn’t really like the idea of us being friends either. My dad used to always say how dangerous it was for me to be friends with Melissa. He would always tell me “Listen to me, Andrea. Be careful going over to her house at night because her “people” are unpredictable.” My father means well, I know it. He’s just internalized this racism as much as he hates to admit it. “Es importante que adelantemos la raza,” which means it is important that we advance the race. He would tell me and my big sister this after she tried to take a black guy to prom. He’s conditioned to think this way. He’s right where the world wants him. Melissa was actually surprised by some people’s distaste for our friendship. One day she said “I can’t believe people care about us being interracial best friends. It’s almost the new millennium. Segregation has been dead for years.” “Segregation isn’t dead,” I said, “it’s dormant.”  

Though race played a huge part in our early lives, we decided that we wouldn’t let it define our friendship. “Andrea, underneath our skin, I swear we are the same person.” I always laughed when Melissa said that. But it was true. We liked all of the same things: movies, food, and even guys. In high school, we both liked an Italian guy named Christopher Corleone. He always felt special because he shared a last name with Don Corleone of the film The Godfather. His friends used to say he liked both me and Melissa, but I could tell he liked Melissa more. This was the first white guy either one of us liked. My dad was ecstatic about this. Melissa’s dad left her family when she was born, but she said her mom was happy and begged Melissa to date him and marry him so he could make their family rich. She was conditioned too, like my father. Anyway, Chris liked Melissa and not me. That was the first time our relationship felt any strain. I didn’t like the way it felt. Melissa could tell too, but we didn’t talk about it. The only problem was Chris had some deep insecurities about his own privilege that he deflected on to women. See, Melissa has huge fluffy matted curls. Her hair is beautiful. My hair is big and curly too, but Melissa’s is gorgeous. I think it’s one of her best features, not that the outside matters any. She always straightens it though. She’s very self-conscious about it because in society, straight hair is preferred for everyone. The point is, Chris took Melissa out on a few dates, but when he found out how her hair really looked he dumped her. She came and cried to me. I felt for her, but I was glad it wasn’t me. That was the first time I felt that Melissa and I were truly different, but she didn’t know it.

The most important thing that Melissa and I shared was a love for the performing arts. We discovered this in high school after we decided to take a drama class post-Chris. We didn’t talk about it, but we took the class as a way to reconnect. We both fell in love. We would go to my house after school and watch reruns of the TV show Fame and wish we went to a high school like that. Our mothers showed us the film version of West Side Story with Rita Moreno as Anita. Of course we wanted to be her. Anita was us: a young Latina in New York trying to make it in America. She was technically a supporting character, but she was arguably the most memorable. Anita became our dream role. Everything we did in our life became an effort to one day play that role in one form or another, whether on stage or on the big screen. We studied Rita Moreno, Chita Rivera, and Debbie Allen. Those were our three favorite portrayals. People used to tell me all the time that I was a better dancer than Melissa. “Andrea, you’re an incredible dancer. You could be on Broadway one day with your potential. I guess it’s just in you” my dance teacher used to say. She wasn’t the only one to suggest that dancing was in my DNA. I’ll admit that Melissa was a way better singer than me because she always sang in church, but I think I was the better actress. We fought really hard to ignore people telling each one of us our respective strengths though. We fought to prove that our differences didn’t matter, but in that fight we internalized our shortcomings and saved them for later. I mean society painted us as yin and yang, but we wanted to be the same. 

Melissa and I both decided to pursue the arts as our career. I decided to study in Los Angeles. Melissa decided to stay in New York and go to NYU. This would be the first time we were away from each other for longer than a summer. This meant we would have to find our own identities. At the time we didn’t realize that. “Please Andrea, don’t find another best friend” Melissa pleaded. “I won’t I promise. You can’t either” I said. “I won’t. Promise you’ll tell me everything that happens with you? No matter what it takes.” “I promise,” I said. The truth is, we didn’t speak all four years.  

The next time we saw each other, we’d just graduated college. We ran into each other in Los Angeles at an audition. There was a casting to play Anita in West Side Story in the upcoming Broadway revival. They wanted this to be the best revival yet so they searched high and low in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. I stayed in LA after college and Melissa stayed in New York. She went abroad for a summer and missed the New York audition so she came for the one in LA. “Hey stranger,” she said to me. “Melissa! Hi!” I jumped up from stretching to hug her. “How are you?” I asked. “I’m doing well. You look great.” “Thanks,” I said. I noticed that her hair was big and curly today. We were friends on Facebook so I had seen that she always kept her hair straight in college. But not today. That gave me a strange feeling. I remembered that we both dreamed of being Anita, but I had secretly hoped she was here to audition for Maria. “So who are you here for?” I asked. “Anita,” she said. “Me too.” We both smiled and laughed but the laugh was so fake. There were hundreds of girls there but I think Melissa and I both felt we were each other’s only competition. Which is weird because we should have been each other’s only supporters, but we faked it. “Good luck,” she whispered to me. I looked at her and winked.  

After a full day of auditions, I was exhausted. I don’t think I’ve ever worked that hard in my life. “Did you ever imagine we would audition for something this big?” Melissa asked me. “Well, yeah, we said we would.” I responded. “But do you really think we’ll get it? I mean there’s hundreds of people here. Not just here, but in New York and Chicago.” Another difference. Melissa grew to be a pessimist and I’m an optimist. It could just be how society designed us. At the beginning of the audition, casting gave us the dates for callbacks, but now it seemed something had changed. They made an announcement saying that they had found their Anita right in Los Angeles. I immediately got nervous and I guess it showed. “Why are you nervous?” Melissa questioned, “It’s not like it’s one of us.” “What? How could you say that?” I asked. “Look at us, Andrea. We don’t look like Rita Moreno, we don’t look like Chita Rivera. We don’t look like the world likes their Latinas to look.” “It’s not about how Anita looks. It’s about the character, who she is on the inside”, I told her. “Newsflash, Andrea. We look white and black and that’s all that matters to them.” “Then why are you here?” I snapped. I was really upset. We were fighting like we never spent time apart. It became clear to me that external things were what mattered to Melissa. I didn’t want to say it, but I felt like she had been conditioned like our parents. “You’re such a fake. Wearing your hair curly just to look like you think they want us to” I barked. “I’m a fake for wearing my natural, curly hair to an audition?” she rebutted. “No,” I said getting angry, “you’re a fake because I’ve watched you straighten your hair every day for four years to impress your white friends at NYU.” “Andrea, I’m playing a character. We are actors. We change our exterior to look like whatever character we want to.” Melissa and I promised that we would never let race play a part in our friendship but there we were, doing the exact opposite. “Maybe if you would have straightened your hair as persistently as you do now then Chris would have never dumped you” I said with an attitude. I was angry. I think part of me was assuming that she was straightening her hair every day to weaken her connection to me. After I said it, I instantly regretted it because it really doesn’t matter. “Chris broke up with me because he liked you, not because of my hair.” I clearly remembered it being her hair. At least that’s what everyone else thought. “I distinctly remember it being your hair.” “Well he told me it was because he liked you,” Melissa said. “I’m pretty sure Chris was a racist though”, I added. “No he wasn’t or I wouldn’t have dated him,” Melissa told me. She always seemed to turn a blind eye to race at the oddest times. “Whatever,” I said. I gave up. I’m pretty sure Chris lied to her and even if he did like either one of us for real, his inner white supremacist couldn’t come to terms with our hair. “You’ve changed”, she said to me with a look that mixed disgust and disappointment. “No I haven’t.” “Yes you have. We used to be the same but now we’re so-” “-Different? We’ve always been different,” I said. There was silence for a moment again.  “Well, good luck,” she said to me with a tone very different from when she said it earlier. There’s not much left to say except she got the part. 

My most recent encounter with Melissa was not too long after the audition, but so much had happened. It had been about three years. We were at an awards after party and we saw each other. We locked eyes from across the room and Melissa waved. We hadn’t spoken since she got the part but she was semi-famous now, so I saw her life unfold. She walked over to me. “Hey there,” she said to me. “Hey,” I replied and we hugged. It felt much more genuine than the last time I saw her but it still felt different then the hugs we used to give each other as kids. “Congratulations on the Tony. And the baby” I told her. Melissa won a Tony for her role as Anita. She married a financer six months after booking the job and they were married for a year and a half. They divorced and she began dating Hollywood’s “it” actor and now they were expecting. “Thank you,” she replied with a smile. “Congratulations to you too. I heard that you guys got funding for your independent film. Your husband is directing it right?” “Thanks. Yes he is.” After the audition that day, I stayed mostly in the theatre because I couldn’t get as many film and TV roles. There really weren’t many roles for people like me. I married an up-and-coming director and he decided to write a film for me. We recently got the money to finance it and we were very happy. “I’m proud of you, Melissa.” I said genuinely. “Thank you Andrea. I’m proud of you too,” she told me genuinely, not just because she felt she had to. “Proud of me? Why?” I asked. “You were right. Chris left me because of my hair. Oh, and you haven’t changed.” Melissa’s eyes were welling up as she said this. That made my eyes well up. “If only Chris could see us now”, I said. We laughed. Melissa and I weren’t the same and that was okay. We were like a piano: ebony and ivory. If we play the same note, it’s impossible to hear either one of us. If we play different notes, then you can hear us both and sometimes we find the harmony. Our relationship has had rough patches, but I don’t think any masterpiece was composed without any dissonance in the process. I guess we were the yin and yang society wanted us to be, but in the best way possible. “We’re so far from home. Can you believe it?” I asked. By this time we both lived in LA. “Does Chris have a Facebook or an Instagram?” Melissa asked me. “I don’t know. I don’t think so,” I said. Melissa tearfully asked, “Oh, God. What happened to him?”