THE CELLO PART Danielle LaVaque-Manty
The Cello Part Danielle LaVaque-Manty
Leslie Jill Patterson Nonfiction Editor
Elena Passarello Poetry Editor
Camille Dungy Fiction Editor
Literary Review Fiction Trifecta
Joe Dornich Nancy Dinan Jessica Smith Meghan Giles
Associate Editors: Chad Abushanab, Jasmine Bailey, Margaret Emma Brandl, William Brown, Jennifer Buentello, Dakota Chisum, Alexa Dodd, Mag Gabbert, Bethany McKinney, Scott Morris, Jennifer Popa, Matthew Porto, Jacquelline Price, Kate Simonian, Matthew Stigler, William Taylor, and Valerie Wayson.
Copyright © 2018 Iron Horse Literary Review. All rights reserved. Iron Horse Literary Review is a national journal of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. IHLR publishes four print issues and two electronic issues per year, at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, through the support of the TTU President’s Office, Provost’s Office, Graduate College, College of Arts & Sciences, and English Department.
THE CELLO PART
he concert was one of those Sunday afternoon affairs that would begin at four o’clock so the audience could go out to eat afterward and still get a good night’s sleep before the workweek began. Pru had reserved a general admission ticket, which entitled her to a seat in the back. She’d told her brother this was because the place was small and the acoustics better farther away from the stage, but the truth was that she didn’t want him to be able to see her twitch if he hit a sour note. If he couldn’t see her face while he played, she could pretend she’d loved every moment when she went out for drinks with him and the rest of his quartet after the show. She’d promised to give them feedback. It was almost inevitable that she would not love every moment. Her need to have music unfold in the real world in the same way it did in her mind made it hard for her to completely enjoy music played by anyone else. According to family lore, this perfectionism had surfaced when she was two years old. She’d been sitting on the white carpeting in her mother’s piano room one afternoon, buckling and unbuckling the shoes on her Dressy Bessy while one of her mother’s students repeatedly played a C instead of C sharp in the third measure of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” She set the doll down and wailed. He began again but played no better, and she let out another howl. The third time, it stopped being funny, and her father was summoned to take her away. She couldn’t remember this, but the story had been told so often she almost believed she could still hear the offending notes. The white carpet and the desire to correct were vivid enough, her early years a blur of longing to put her chubby fingers to the keys herself. When she arrived at the concert house, she scanned the odd space, trying to decide which branch of the “L” to sit in. The place was literally a concert house, an old renovated home with
a couple of walls knocked out on the lower level. Both wings of the audience could see the stage, which occupied the corner between two long rooms set at perpendicular angles, but neither wing could see the other. She was about to settle in the room to the left of the entry, which, for some reason, she thought of as the “front,” when Gordon Percy walked in. She heard his laugh—slow notes on a gong—before she looked up and saw his trademark beard, brown and full like her grandfather’s. She’d never met anyone else under fifty who wore a beard like that. She’d been assigned the office next to Gordon’s at the university where they were both adjuncts, but his flute students, an endless stream of lip-glossed undergraduates, filled the hall with fumbled Mozart at all hours, making it impossible to work. At the end of the second week, she’d packed up her scores and keyboard, and taken them home. She still used the office to meet students once in a while, but did most of her composing in her own tiny living room. Turning before he could make eye contact, she pretended to study a photograph on the wall. When she heard him start talking to the woman behind the ticket desk, she hurried to the front of the room, high heels staccato on the hardwood floor, and climbed up one side of the stage and down the other, taking a shortcut into the other wing. She chose a spot in the middle of a row toward the back and held the program open in front of her face, hoping the chairs around her would fill before Gordon discovered where she’d gone. Moments later, she heard the seat to her left squeak. “Keane String Quartet,” Gordon said. She should have set her purse on that side, her sweater on the other, to pretend she was holding the seats for friends. “Any relation?” “My brother. The first violin.” He sat up straighter. “Really?” And then the belly laugh. Not like a gong, she decided. More like something out of a Chinese opera. Gordon was a baritone, but his voice rose higher with each Danielle LaVaque-Manty
haaa, the third one ending in a squeal that made her throat close like a fist. “I was kidding,” he said. “I thought it was a common name.” Pru glanced at her watch—still fifteen minutes until show time. “What brings you here?” she asked. “Have you heard Victor’s quartet before?” He threw his arms wide. “This place.” His right arm hovered so close to her face that she could smell the lemony fabric softener on his sleeve. He wore a white button-down shirt, black pants, and a black felt vest, which, combined with the beard, made him look like a Hungarian fiddler. He’d worn that vest, or one like it, every time she’d seen him. “I haunt this place. See every show that plays here.” He dropped his hands to his knees. “I live around the corner.” “Kerrytown? Nice.” Like much of Ann Arbor, Kerrytown was full of rundown houses where students lived five to a flat, but it was also home to the farmer’s market, boutique shops, and a deli that sold fifty different kinds of olive oil, all just a few blocks from campus. “How about you?” he asked. The quartet had begun filing in. Victor looked sleek in his black clothes, his auburn hair cut into a brush that flattered his high cheekbones. She felt frumpy in her shapeless green skirt and untucked white blouse. “This is my third time here,” she said. Only half of the rows were full. If they couldn’t sell out a two-hundred-seat venue, Victor would freak out. She looked at her watch again. Ten minutes. Gordon said, “I meant, where do you live?” She waved a hand northward. “Out that way.” Victor spotted her and raised his violin in greeting. He put his other hand to his forehead, like a sailor shading his eyes, and rotated slowly, scanning the audience, before turning back and flipping his palm up to say, Where is everybody? Pru patted the air in front of her: It’ll be fine.
6 The Cello Part
“I’m not a stalker,” Gordon said. “I won’t follow you home if you tell me.” “That’s what all the stalkers say.” She smiled to diffuse the sting. She didn’t want Gordon to know anything about her because she didn’t want to have to know anything about him. But he was giving her this look like she was the weird one. “I live on the second floor of an old house,” she said. “About a mile up Packard from State.” The quartet was already tuning up. She’d chosen an unlucky seat, one from which she couldn’t see her brother when he took his chair. The players had arranged themselves in a semicircle with Victor at one end and the cellist at the other, and the cellist was blocking her view. She didn’t want Victor to be able to watch her while he played, but she wanted to be able to see him well enough to gauge his mood from his posture. She took off her glasses and wiped them with the sleeve of her blouse, wishing she could wipe the cellist out of the way, too. Only three quarters of the chairs had filled. The young woman behind the ticket table stood up to close the old oak door, and a darkhaired woman in a black and purple silk pantsuit took the stage. She introduced the quartet and informed the audience that, as the performance would last only one hour and fifteen minutes, there would be no intermission, making Pru suddenly aware of the Starbucks Grande she’d dumped into her bladder on her way to the show. The woman handed the microphone to Victor, who said the group would begin with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 5 in A Major, op. 18. One of Victor’s favorites, and one she’d heard the quartet play before and knew they could do well. She relaxed, noticing only as her shoulders dropped how tense she’d been on his behalf. The program listed four pieces, the final one “TBA.” She wished they hadn’t done that. That kind of thing made the performers look unprepared and made it impossible for the audience to remember what had actually been played when they took their programs out again at home.
She was only able to enjoy a few bars before Gordon began to whisper. “Lovely choice.” He patted her on the knee. Pru couldn’t stand musicians who blabbed their way through other people’s shows like armchair quarterbacks. She ignored him and hoped he’d take the hint. In her peripheral vision, she saw him begin to sway to the cello and was sure that if she looked at him, she’d find his eyes half closed. He hadn’t asked why she’d stopped using her office. Maybe she should have told him she couldn’t work with the racket from all those flutes. She tutored her own students in a small practice room down the hall, a soundproof one that offered better acoustics and access to a piano when she wanted to show them how to modify their compositions. “You look nothing like one another,” Gordon said. She shot him a fierce look over the tops of her glasses. He raised his eyebrows and lifted a shushing finger to his own lips. Beethoven was followed by Brahms, and Brahms by Barber. Halfway through Barber’s quartet, Gordon said, “The viola’s not as good as the others.” She focused on the viola player, wondering what she was missing. Inexperienced musicians made strange claims about performances all the time, but Gordon should have known better. A few measures later, she heard it—the viola holding a note a millisecond too long. A tiny mistake, the kind anyone could make if he hadn’t had enough sleep or had practiced the same piece to a different tempo with another group. After Barber, Victor announced that they’d be playing something new. “Composed,” he said, waving an arm in her direction, “by my sister, Prudence Keane, who is in the audience today.” Pru stopped breathing. Adrenaline rushed from her toes to the tips of her ears, making her lightheaded. A panic attack. She used to get them all the time when she was a kid, whenever she made a mistake during a rehearsal. He asked her to stand, and she did, like a robot, scalp tingling. She bowed. She sat and tried to will her pulse to settle.
8 The Cello Part
Gordon patted her knee again. “I’ll get to hear some of your work.” She wanted to vomit. When she’d given that piece to Victor, she’d asked him to look it over, let her know if he discovered any difficulties playing it. She’d been experimenting with rhythm, using several hemiolas and changes in time signature, and had stretched a few moments of dissonance out longer than she was sure she should. She’d never heard him rehearse it. It wasn’t ready for public consumption. She brought her hands together in her lap. The quartet was playing too slowly. In her mind, it sounded like an all-night cocktail party, but to her ear, it sounded more like the waiting room at a dentist’s office. She glanced at the audience around her and saw dropped chins, hands fiddling with programs. An older woman in the row in front of hers put a hand to her temple as if the music was giving her a headache. Pru hadn’t looked at the piece herself in nearly a year. It was awful. Even if they’d played it at the proper pace, the cello part was too melodious to hold up its end. It would need to be completely rewritten. And she would pull her brother’s toenails out one by one for making her discover this in public. Victor had her stand again and take a bow. She’d never been more humiliated. She sat and applauded while he introduced the rest of his quartet, but all she wanted to do was run home and lock herself in her apartment. Gordon put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “Bravo.” She twitched out from under his paw. How many times had he touched her tonight? “It’s still rough,” she said. “It wasn’t meant to be played yet.” He fingered his beard like an old-fashioned scholar. “It was excellent, I thought. What are you wanting to change?” She stood and pushed past him and everyone else in their row, through the lobby and out to the street. Victor would be looking for her as soon as he’d put his violin away, but she didn’t want to see him. He’d know why she left. She couldn’t even believe he’d done what he’d done.
10 The Cello Part
It took her almost thirty minutes to walk home, feet blistering as she marched two long miles in her heels, undergraduates in Nikes and UGGs shooting her funny looks as she passed. How often had she badgered her brother, back in high school, to rehearse one last time before a concert? He’d never understood that she’d always practiced as much as she had, and revised her compositions as many times as she did, to guarantee that there would be no mistakes. So many nights she had crept down to the piano and played silently in the dark, one or two or eight more times if that’s what it took to let her sleep. But when she was done, she slept well, and she almost never had a reason to regret what happened on stage. She used all her anxieties up before a performance while Victor saved his for after. Tonight, he’d forced her to try things his way, bringing her work out before it was ready. Five minutes after she got back to her apartment, he called from his hotel room. “You didn’t like it.” “No kidding.” She kicked off her heels and sat down hard on the futon, wishing she had a nice, big waterbed she could sprawl on. “Try it out, you said. We tried it. We loved it. We wanted to surprise you.” She lifted an afghan from the back of the futon and wrapped herself in it. This much anger messed up her circulation and made her feel cold, despite her sweaty walk home. “The cello part is all fucked up, Victor. You were supposed to help me figure that out before anyone else heard it.” He started laughing. “What?” “The cello is why we decided to play it. My cellist loves that part.” A thousand derogatory thoughts about the cellist came to mind. And the viola player, whose timing had been off. And Victor, whose judgment was as lousy as ever.
His voice grew quieter. “The audience loved it.” “You shouldn’t have played it without asking me. And you know it.” She hung up. She went to the freezer, pulled out a depressingly empty bottle of gin, tilted its remaining contents into a juice glass, and added two cubes of ice. When the phone rang later that night, she didn’t answer. She wouldn’t be ready to talk to her brother again for weeks. Maybe months. The next morning, she found the call had been from Gordon. He’d been thinking about that piece of hers. Did she want to get together and talk about it? Maybe over coffee? She knew she should muster up the manners to call him back and gracefully decline, but she deleted the message. In the mood she was in, it would have been impossible to be even close to polite to him anyway.
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here had been a period that lasted about six months, several years ago, when Gordon had been a good person. Or a nice person. Maybe compassionate was the word he wanted. It was a time when he was miserable because he’d fallen in love with his brother’s wife. The summer he turned twenty-six, he moved back into his mother’s house in Philadelphia, having just finished his Master’s degree but not yet found a job, and Mark and Sally moved in a few weeks later. They’d sold their house only to learn that the owner of the new one they thought they were buying had decided to hang onto it a while longer. Gordon and Sally, gourmands both, spent hours in the kitchen together, first competing for access to his mother’s convection oven, later collaborating on complicated dishes—pan-seared scallops in saffron fumet, venison medallions in plum sauce—fit for a four-star restaurant. Gordon’s mother relished the break while his brother spent most of his free time at the library, studying for the actuarial exam that would be his ticket to a promotion at the insurance company where he worked. It hadn’t taken Gordon long to fall for Sally’s brutal wit and her sympathy for his failed soufflés. She had gradually let him know, by way of such small gestures as a hand on his shoulder when she poured coffee into his cup or a hug that lasted a moment longer than it should the day she and Mark closed on a new house, that his feelings were reciprocated. But neither of them took things any further. Gordon felt sorry for himself when Mark and Sally moved out. Not self-pitying, exactly, but sad, like he might feel for anyone trapped in a bad situation, and sad for her, too. And for his brother, whose wife didn’t love him as much as she should. He couldn’t talk to Mark about it; the secret was Sally’s to share or to keep, and he wasn’t sure he wanted her to break all their worlds open by admitting it. What would he do if she did? Marry her? He Danielle LaVaque-Manty
couldn’t tell anyone else, either, so there was nothing to do but live with the sadness. Somehow, this made him pay more attention to what really hid behind his friends’ dumb jokes, complaints about their girlfriends, and worries about upcoming auditions. A couple of his buddies, sensing his newfound empathy, started coming to him for advice about their romantic troubles, and he found the role of guru strangely satisfying. He turned out to be a good listener, able to help his friends feel better about themselves without pretending they didn’t have difficult choices to make. “You’re so calm,” his buddy Reg said after one of these talks. “You’re, like, the Buddha or something.” At the time, he thought he’d finally grown up. But it didn’t last long. He thought less about Sally after a while, seeing her only at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and got caught up in job interviews and, then, in his work once he landed a part-time position at a community college in Michigan, where he would slave for five long years before moving into a slightly better gig at the university in Ann Arbor. Life began moving more quickly again, and he no longer had time to care so much about what went on in other people’s heads. He thought of this now, pulling into the parking lot at Wine Castle, because of Pru Keane, whose car he recognized there, and who’d been such a mess at her brother’s concert a week ago. The way she turned red when her brother announced that he’d be playing her piece, then pushed past Gordon in her rush to get out of the building. He imagined her barreling down the street and straight out of town without even stopping to pack a suitcase, carrying a high-heeled shoe in each hand. And this, after what seemed to him to be a first-rate performance. But on the rare occasions when he’d seen her at the office, she always seemed too tightly wound, almost as if she were looking for reasons to take offense, so maybe that kind of exit was par for the course with her. Why, he wondered, were so many music people nuts? One thing he liked most about his girlfriend, Patricia, for whom he’d purchased the
16 The Cello Part
salmon and butter and spinach in the grocery bags in his back seat, was that she wasn’t ambitious. Not that there was anything wrong with ambition, if a person could be ambitious and sane at the same time, but it seemed like everyone he knew was either one or the other, except for those who were neither, like his friend Carl, who wanted nothing more than to be left alone to read every exposé of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq ever published. It was astonishing, the number of books Carl had piled up around his sagging corduroy recliner, overwhelming to see how much of that stuff their local bookstore could provide. Patricia, on the other hand, was cheerful, well adjusted, and content to teach eighth-grade science, though she’d once aspired to a PhD in geology. They’d met at the inauguration of an after-school tutoring program held at a local junior high, where they’d wedged themselves into children’s desks in one of the classrooms (awkward for Gordon, at six feet and on the wrong side of two hundred pounds). That was only three months ago, but they’d settled into a comfortable relationship already. She hadn’t come with him to hear Pru’s brother’s quartet last week only because she’d been out with an old friend, who wanted time alone for “girl talk.” But she wouldn’t have enjoyed it much anyway. Patricia liked music well enough but almost never thought to turn on the radio. She was happy to go to performances with him and appreciated, in some distant way, the new music he introduced her to, but she didn’t have much of an ear. He was running late, and he’d forgotten his cell phone. Luckily, he wasn’t making anything that took very long. He’d rushed to the liquor shop after forgetting to buy wine at Kroger. Inside, he chose a bottle he and Patricia had liked when they had it a restaurant a couple of weeks earlier. He didn’t spot Pru until he reached the cash register, where he found her arguing with one of the clerks. “Unbelievable,” she was saying. “I did call ahead.”
Something seemed off. Maybe it was just that he’d never seen her looking quite this scruffy, her navy T-shirt hanging loose over baggy sweats, her blonde hair maybe needing a wash. One of the lenses in her glasses was smeared, which Gordon would have thought would be too annoying to ignore. The clerk, the same Arab American who was behind the counter almost every time Gordon came in and who probably owned the place, said, “You didn’t leave your name. How do we know who to put the bottle aside for in that case?” Pru turned to Gordon, apparently not surprised to see him there. He realized, as she put a hand on her hip and dropped her head to one side, that she’d been drinking. “Shouldn’t he have told me that on the phone, then?” she asked. “Shouldn’t he have said, Yes, Miss, we do have some of that, but there’s only one bottle left, so you should give me your name and hurry on over right away?” She turned back to the clerk. “Are you sure you really had any in the first place?” Gordon felt the seconds ticking by. He imagined Patricia on his doorstep, believing he’d stood her up. Most likely, she’d be patient and not hold the delay against him. That could only last so long, though. Eventually, she’d give up and go home. “What were you wanting to buy?” he asked. Pru flung a tipsy hand into the air, as if he should know. “Hendrick’s.” His favorite gin. He happened to have an open fifth at home. Still nearly full. “Do you know this woman?” the clerk said. “Because you can see she shouldn’t be driving.” True enough. But what was Gordon supposed to do about it? “How dare you?” Pru bristled. “You lured me down here to buy something that’s out of stock, and now you accuse me of driving drunk?” Danielle LaVaque-Manty
Gordon could see this evolving into a tragic opera—Pru working up to a scream and leaping over the counter to slap the clerk, who must have a gun back there somewhere. “I’ve got some Hendrick’s at home,” he said. “You can have it, if you move over and let me buy my wine.” He held up his pinot noir. “You’re making me late.” Pru’s eyebrows bunched. “I figured you for the Hungarian wine type. Sweet and bloody.” He had no idea what that was supposed to mean. “Move please, Pru.” She folded her arms across her chest, like a sullen undergraduate getting kicked out of a house party, and slid two inches to her left. He paid the clerk and told Pru, “Follow me.” The clerk shook his head. “She can’t be driving. Not leaving my store in the state she’s in. I gotta call the cops.” Pru inflated like a blowfish. “Prick. See if I ever shop here again.” The clerk put a hand over his heart in mock despair. She opened her mouth to say something worse, but Gordon grabbed her elbow and yanked her toward the door, maneuvering her clumsy weight with one hand, guarding his wine with the other. In the parking lot, she shook him off and huffed away toward her own car, but the clerk rapped on the shop’s glass door, shook his head, and raised his cell phone, ready to dial. Even Gordon thought this was too much: wasn’t the guy’s ass already covered? Whatever. He was out of time. He opened his passenger door. “Get in.” He waved his hand toward the seat like a chauffeur. “I’ll bring you back after we pick up the gin.” She stood in the middle of the parking lot and looked from him to the clerk and back again. Meanwhile, Patricia was probably taking one last glance at her watch before heading home. Finally, Pru stalked to his car, skewering the clerk with her eyes every step of the way, while Gordon moved around to the driver’s side. He slid in and reached around
20 The Cello Part
his seat to nestle the wine between two bags of groceries in the back before turning the key in the ignition. Pru slammed her door so hard it made the car shake. The dashboard clock said it was 7:08. How long would he wait on Patricia’s porch if the situation were reversed? Fifteen minutes. He could make it home by 7:15 if he sped. Maybe Patricia could drive Pru back to her car while he cooked. She was usually a good sport, but he’d never had to ask her for such a weird favor before. As he backed out of his parking spot, Pru said, “Just drive around the block.” “No way. I’m late to meet my girlfriend for dinner.” “Girlfriend?” The surprise in her voice was less than flattering. He had enjoyed Pru’s composition the previous weekend and had looked forward to talking with her about it once she calmed down, but now he thought he’d skip that. He pulled up at a red light and sighed. “My brother’s cellist is an idiot,” Pru said. As if he’d asked. “I looked over that piece they played last weekend, and the cello line needs so much work. It hums along in all the easy places and adds no depth at all.” Involuntarily—he didn’t want to be nice to Pru right now; he wanted to get rid of her—he heard the piece play over in his head. He had perfect pitch and perfect aural recall, two talents he’d once thought would make him a great musician. This had somehow turned out not to be the case. But they served him well as a teacher; he never had to look at a score or take notes to know where his students went wrong. He said, “Was it supposed to make the music darker? It’s true that it doesn’t, if that’s what you’re after.” “Why does depth always have to be dark? I just want it to have its own agenda.” They’d reached his building. 7:16. He spotted Patricia down the block, heading for home, and pressed the horn until she turned around. Danielle LaVaque-Manty
Pru covered her ears. “Shit, that’s obnoxious.” “Grab some of these groceries, would you?” Gordon asked as he parked. She peered into the back seat and fumbled for a bag. Patricia returned slowly, as if someone were pushing her every step of the way. She’d dressed up, in a black and white embroidered skirt, which made Gordon, in his oldest pair of jeans and a frayed corduroy vest, feel even worse. “What’s going on?” she said. “Long story.” Pru stuck out a hand for her to shake. “I’m Pru. Bagboy. Bellhop.” She dropped Patricia’s limp hand. “You don’t play the flute, do you? You don’t look like a flute player.” Patricia said, “I did for a while, in sixth grade.” Then she frowned. “What does a flute player look like?” “You never told me you played,” Gordon said. “Pep band.” She shrugged. “But I couldn’t stand playing the same thing over and over. Tootle-tootle-toot. Tootle-tootle-toot. And so on.” Gordon unlocked the front door and stood aside while the women walked in. Patricia led the way up the stairs to his door on the second floor. He threw the keys up to her so she could unlock it. “Do you play the flute?” she asked Pru and held the door open for her to walk through. Gordon admired her ability to forge ahead with polite small talk, as if strangers crashed her dinners all the time. “Piano, mostly.” Pru shoved past her into Gordon’s apartment. “Keyboards. But I can play a little flute if I have to.” “She’s a composer,” Gordon said. “She composed one of the pieces for the quartet I saw last Sunday.” Pru dropped her bags hard on the kitchen table. “I would really appreciate it if you wouldn’t talk about that. It was bad enough that you insisted on talking to me about it so much then.”
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Patricia looked startled. Fearing she was misinterpreting things, Gordon said, “I ran into her at the liquor store just now, smashed, as you can see. She was giving the clerk a hard time because he didn’t have what she wanted, and I brought her home so he wouldn’t call the cops on her for driving away drunk.” Pru said, “What do you care if he calls the cops? It’s not like we’re friends.” Thank you, he thought. “Lucky for you, though, I happen to be a nice person.” He opened the cupboard next to the refrigerator and took down the Hendrick’s, still three-quarters full. “Here’s your booze. Now go home.” Pru cradled the bottle in outstretched arms, like a baby. “Ah, Hendrick’s.” But she handed it back. “I can’t.” “It’s fine,” Gordon said. “I can spare it.” She shook her head. “I’m not trying to be polite.” Gordon and Patricia locked eyes over Pru’s shoulder: who would accuse this woman of being polite? “It’s just that I’ve wasted too much of the day already.” Patricia was gazing at Pru with an expression that said Gordon shouldn’t have brought home a stray when he had no idea what diseases it might be carrying. “Patricia,” he said, “I know it’s a lot to ask, but if we’re ever going to eat tonight—” he opened his arms as if to embrace the grocery bags strewn around the kitchen “—I wonder if you’d be willing to drive Pru back to her car?” She sighed, not audibly, but he could see it in the movement of her shoulders. “Sure. Why not?” But Pru said she’d rather grab a taxi. “No offense,” she told Patricia. “But there’s a cello calling me, and I need to be alone to hear it.” She pulled out her cell phone, dialed the taxi company, whose number she apparently knew by heart, and went outside to wait. As soon as he and Patricia were alone, Gordon said, “I’m so sorry.” Danielle LaVaque-Manty
She gave him a look he couldn’t interpret. “I’m so hungry.” He unwrapped the fish, tossed the greasy brown paper that had swaddled it into the trash, and took a frying pan down from the cupboard. He put the grocery bags directly into the fridge; he would unpack as he cooked. “I know that was weird,” he said. He cut the fish free from its skin and salted the flesh. “I just didn’t know what to do with her, and I wanted to get back here as soon as possible. I was afraid you would leave.” “I was leaving.” She pulled a chair away from the table and sat down. Usually she helped him cook. Tonight, it seemed, she planned to watch. “I saw.” “How do you know her, exactly?” He didn’t want to tell her about their conversation at the concert. It seemed too intimate now, his witnessing Pru’s distress, though it hadn’t at the time. “She has the office next to mine at the music school. Not that she’s there very often.” Patricia studied him. “She’s pretty.” “Pru?” The main thing he’d ever noticed about Pru’s appearance was that she was always slightly unkempt, though usually in better shape than she had been today. Her hair always looked mussed, somehow, and her clothes were on the baggy side, as if she’d rather be wearing pajamas. “Not as pretty as you.” Patricia was no glamour queen, but she always wore colors like sage, or navy blue, that made him notice red highlights in the chestnut hair that fell to her chin. She said, “But she’s a musician. I mean, you have that in common.” “Who wants to be with a musician?” He waved an arm toward the door. “You saw.” “Hmmm.” She picked up a knife. “I’ll do the vegetables. What are we having, anyway?” Danielle LaVaque-Manty
They worked quietly, chopping vegetables and making a macadamia crust for the fish, until Gordon found himself humming Pru’s cello part. “That’s nice,” Patricia said. “What’s it from?” He flushed and turned to slip the salmon into the oven. “I’m not sure. Something I heard on the radio in the car today, I think.” Patricia hadn’t learned yet that it was literally impossible for Gordon to hum a piece of music without knowing exactly what it was and where he’d heard it last. He’d never mentioned this particular talent, and she didn’t pay enough attention to music to notice it herself. He went into the other room and put a disc in the CD player. “Satie,” he said, as the gentle notes began to fill the air, certain she wouldn’t know, afraid she wouldn’t care enough to ask.
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fter three days of shuttling back and forth between her keyboard and computer, taking breaks only to eat cold Chinese noodles from soggy takeout cartons, Pru declared her revised cello part finished. For fifteen minutes, she was high with success. She should have been working on something new, but the idea that Victor was continuing to play this piece in its imperfect form had given her the need to fix it, now, as if that could erase the defective version from the minds of the audiences who had already heard it. She checked her voice mail—nothing—before running downstairs to the mailbox. Fresh air wafted over her when she opened the front door, and the contrast between the scent of the leaves her neighbor was raking and the oily smell of her own unwashed body made her draw back inside quickly, before anyone could spot her. At the bottom of a pile of junk mail and bills, she found a postcard from Michael, with a gleaming red and green photo of China’s Forbidden City on the front. Wish you were here, it said. And you could be, if you wanted. But maybe I’ll have to come visit you in exotic old Ann Arbor instead. So now he was in Beijing. She tried to imagine herself in China, composing on her portable keyboard in some ritzy hotel by day, eating room service dinners with Michael by night, walking along the Great Wall on weekends. She had to admit the idea had some appeal. Technically, they’d never broken up; she just hadn’t gone with him when he moved. “Maybe later,” she’d said. “When you’ve settled somewhere.” They both knew she meant, When you’ve settled in a place I can stand. But the truth was that their relationship was over for good. She’d suffered too much disappointment, not only in him, but in herself.
When she moved with him from Bloomington to Ann Arbor after finishing her MFA at Indiana, she’d expected to spend four more years in the Midwest while he completed a joint MBA and law degree designed to turn him into a hot-shot specialist in intellectual property. Four years had sounded like a long time, but Michael was one of the only men she’d ever dated—maybe the only man she’d ever dated— who didn’t take offense when she worked during the evening instead of hanging around with him. He had other good points, too, but that was the one that had made her think she might be able to spend the rest of her life with him. It occurred to her now that when Michael was around, she’d never gone three days without showering or eating a real meal. Whether feeling free to do so now was a benefit or drawback wasn’t clear. Once, when they were still in Bloomington, she woke from a nap with the final bars to an assigned atonal piece she’d been struggling with playing through her head—a gift from her beleaguered subconscious—and skipped a performance by Evgeny Kissin that had been on their calendar for months. Michael didn’t complain, even when he couldn’t find anyone else to use the $75 ticket he’d given her as a Christmas gift. He spent the entire concert next to a conspicuously empty seat, front-row center, yet when he arrived home, he cheerfully poured her a gin and tonic before describing Kissin’s flying fingers, the strange pink lighting that had been used onstage, and the puff-haired woman in the second row who’d crinkled lozenge wrappers every five minutes and who’d loudly concluded, as Kissin took his final bow, that she didn’t like Scriabin’s preludes and wished the artist had chosen something more pleasant to play. “You’d have punched her,” he said. “Or had a stroke. So it’s good you didn’t come.” For her part, she never objected to his long hours at the start-up where he served as marketing director, until his company tanked and he decided to go back to school. When it came to work, they understood each other. And, as Michael pointed out when he told Danielle LaVaque-Manty
her which school he’d chosen, her work could be done anywhere, as long she had a keyboard, computer, and access to music. In the age of Internet downloads, you could get almost everything you wanted in small-town America—you just couldn’t see the Philharmonic live or keep season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, which she couldn’t have afforded anyway. It was only later that she realized another thing she wouldn’t be able to do: make personal connections with other musicians and composers, not to mention producers and promoters, who could have helped her find her niche in the rarified world of classical music. She wouldn’t even be thirty by the time he was finished, he’d said. And then they could go wherever she wanted. So, despite her longing for New York, she’d come to Ann Arbor with him. But once he’d earned his degrees, Bristol-Myers offered him a job back in southern Indiana, of all places. When he realized the huge salary they were offering didn’t impress her, he explained that they wouldn’t have to stay there long, that as soon as his dues were paid (he’d put it that way, as if the job in Indiana were a union card he had to purchase before he’d be permitted to work anywhere else), they could go wherever she wanted. But she dug in her heels. If he wanted her to come with him, he needed to go to New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. Maybe Seattle. Chicago, if all else failed. In truth, her resistance was a test, not only of him (how much did he truly respect her work, her desire, her?), but also of herself: could she put her music first, whatever the cost? Fourteen months after he took the job in Indiana, Michael was transferred to his company’s headquarters in New York and began traveling the world while the bits of career she’d managed to piece together, her part-time teaching job and a miniscule grant, weighed her down like Marley’s chains. These were the things she’d settled for in order to stay with Michael, who hadn’t been willing to settle for anything less than
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the biggest plum he was offered in order to stay with her. Every few weeks, he called or wrote to invite her to New York, and every time, she was tempted. But her pride would kick in, and she’d say no. It was at moments like this, though—when she needed an audience—that she missed him the most. He couldn’t read music and had never touched an instrument in his life, but he had a good ear. She’d come to trust his response when he found something dull or overwrought. And he would listen to as many revisions as she asked him to. For one crazy second, she considered calling him in China and playing her new cello part over the phone. But they hadn’t spoken in months. Better it should stay that way. She could call Victor, but he’d take that as a sign of forgiveness. And she couldn’t trust his judgment about this particular piece, anyway. For a moment, she even considered playing the thing for her mother, who hadn’t offered any decent criticism in years and called all of her work “lovely” or “marvelous,” the equivalent of patting Pru on the head. There was Gordon. He would know what to listen for. But if she asked him this favor, she’d owe him. She already owed him an apology after she’d behaved so badly that day at the liquor store. It wasn’t until the following morning that she realized how drunk she’d been. She should have emailed him right away, but she hadn’t been able to figure out what to say. Sorry I ruined your date? Sorry you had to save me from getting myself arrested? She’d never show her face at Wine Castle again, that was for sure. In the end, she took a shower and a nap before heading to campus to meet with a student. The nap cleared her head. Asking Gordon to listen to her piece would obligate her to nothing beyond listening to something of his in return, if he ever asked her to. Besides, there wasn’t anyone else. Putting her music first meant sometimes having to ask for favors from people she didn’t particularly like—another brutal truth she was trying to learn to live with.
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*** Gordon was in his office with a student working her way hesitatingly through Mozart’s first flute concerto when Pru arrived. His droning commentary, layered loudly over the music the student was playing, paused when she stopped outside his open door; she couldn’t decide if his expression in that moment registered irritation or merely surprise. He nodded, his crazy beard brushing his chest as he dipped his chin, and the flute player, an Asian girl with streaks of neon pink in her hair, halted abruptly. Pru waved a silent hand, and the girl picked up where she’d left off. One thing she’d learned about Gordon during the short period when she’d used her office more regularly was that his meetings with students tended to run long. Which meant there was no point in sticking around, hoping to get a word in. It would be better to leave a note, if only she had any paper or a pen. There was a white board inside Gordon’s office, next to the door, but she couldn’t write anything on that without erasing the music Gordon had scrawled up there in electric blue marker. She went into her own office, fished a felt-tip out of a dusty mug that still sat on her desk, and wrote on the back of a grocery receipt she dug out of her wallet: Cd you give revised cello part a listen? At yr convenience. Wd be grateful. —P. She poked her head through Gordon’s door again, but she wasn’t sure where to put the note now that she’d written it. She didn’t want the flute girl to read it, but slipping it into Gordon’s hand or his pocket might make the student think it was a love letter, which would be intolerable. The only thing to do was drop it in his departmental mailbox. As she turned to go, she glanced at the white board again and froze: the music up there was hers. He’d transcribed her cello part—the very bars she’d spent the last few days revising—for all the world to see.
She looked back at him, and their eyes met. He’d seen her make the discovery. Was it pity she read on his face? Did he feel sorry for her because she’d written such garbage? The student arrived at the end of the concerto and stopped playing. Gordon turned to recommend an adjustment to the girl’s embouchure while she nodded and mm-hmm-ed and wrote everything he said in a suede-covered sketchbook. Pru pushed back into the room, not caring any longer what the student thought, and tossed her note in the trash. She pried the white board eraser loose from its Velcro holder, the tearing noise as she pulled it free making her want to rip something large and heavy into bits. She cleared her music from the wall in four angry strokes, realizing as she did so that Gordon, the prick, already had the notes engraved on his brain and could scrawl them back up there again any time he wanted. She put the eraser back where she’d found it and congratulated herself on her way out for not throwing it at his head.
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ordon plucked Pru’s note from the trash and read it moments after his student packed up her flute and left. He could see that it would be disconcerting for Pru to spot her own music on his white board, where he’d written a passage he particularly liked so he could think about what made it work, but the vicious look she’d given him seemed over the top. He wanted to apologize; he wanted to hear her new cello part; he never wanted to see her again. The last option seemed cowardly, so the next afternoon, he got Pru’s address from the department secretary, who didn’t seem to know she wasn’t supposed to give out personal information. He had no idea what he would say when he reached Pru’s apartment. It didn’t occur to him that she might not be there—in his mind, she was always at home, huddled over her keyboard, drinking too much coffee or gin—but when he arrived at the house her flat was in, he found a dark-haired man in a three-piece charcoal suit and black trench coat leaning next to the front door, and something told him the fellow was waiting for Pru. He went through the motions anyway, locating the right doorbell and pressing it before the man said, “She’s not home,” and held out a hand for Gordon to shake. “Michael.” He was almost as tall as Gordon, but much thinner. His tie, black silk adorned with fuchsia roses, signaled a desire to stand out in a crowd. Gordon, wondering if this might be another of Pru’s brothers, introduced himself in return. “I was just dropping by with some music.” Michael seemed to scan him from head to toe before focusing on his vest. The scrutiny made Gordon feel fat and shabby. “Music?” Michael said. “On that little piece of pink paper?” Gordon crumpled the Post-it with Pru’s address and shoved it into his vest pocket before tapping an index finger against his temple. “Up here.” Danielle LaVaque-Manty
He noticed a suitcase made of soft black leather sitting next to the door. Luggage like that would have cost his life savings. Even Michael’s haircut looked expensive. The sense of entitlement he radiated implied that Pru was expecting him and reminded Gordon that he himself wasn’t likely to be welcome. “I can see I’m intruding,” he said. “I’ll email the music.” Michael frowned. “How can you email it if it’s ‘up there’?” “I’ll download, so to speak.” Gordon could see the other man wondering why he hadn’t done that in the first place, if it were so simple. And, of course, he wasn’t really planning to send Pru an email, which she’d only delete. “Don’t let it worry you.” He moved toward the steps. Michael looked up and smiled. “But here she is now.” She was half a block away, lugging a hamper full of laundry. Shifting the basket to one arm and propping it against her hip, she wriggled a shiny knot of keys out of her jeans pocket. When she finally looked up, she stopped dead and pivoted slightly, as if she might turn around and go back the way she came, before squaring her shoulders and trudging toward them. “Didn’t know I was hosting a party,” she said, as she walked up the steps. “I’m out of snacks.” “I was just going,” Gordon said. He placed a foot on the top stair, but Pru grabbed his arm. It was October, and not that warm, but she was wearing a tweedy wool jacket over the same sweatshirt he recognized from the liquor store, and strands of her pale hair had pasted themselves to her cheeks. Her glasses had slipped halfway down the sweaty sheen of her nose. “You should come in,” she said. “Please.” He had a sense by now of how unlikely it was to hear that word come out of her mouth. It made him guess that the other man was even more unwelcome than he was. He said, “Lead on.” Michael brought up the rear, his suitcase banging against the steps as they made their way to the second floor. Danielle LaVaque-Manty
“Luggage.” Pru braced the laundry basket against the wall as she unlocked her door. “Hope you don’t mind.” Michael shot Gordon a wink, as if they were co-conspirators. “Who, me?” Pru dropped the hamper and pushed it into the apartment with two angry kicks. The gingery, garlicky smell of stale Chinese food wafted out. Michael propped his suitcase against the wall. “Desperate to pee, if I could use your bathroom.” She waved an arm toward the back of the apartment. “You won’t have trouble finding it.” The whole place couldn’t have encompassed more than 400 square feet. One side, covered in shag carpet the color of pea soup, held a futon couch, homemade shelves, and a plywood desk, on which an electronic keyboard fought for space with a laptop. The other side was a kitchen, with grotty beige linoleum topped by a plastic table and two matching plastic chairs. These sat within arm’s length of both the oven and the refrigerator. One could, he thought, cook an entire meal in there sitting down. Rents were tight in Ann Arbor, but even an adjunct should have been able to afford better. There was decent art on the walls—blackand-white photos taken in some urban setting—but the windows were small, the light dim, and the overall atmosphere claustrophobic. Pru leaned against the door, hands in her pockets. “I was hoping to talk to you about your cello piece,” Gordon said, “but it seems like a bad time.” Her chin snapped up. “There’s never going to be a good time to talk about that.” The bathroom door opened, and Michael emerged. “Shit,” she muttered. Michael paused at the threshold between the linoleum and the carpeting, seeming to take inventory. “Prudence Keane, if I look in your refrigerator, what will I find?”
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“Mildew,” Pru said. “Severed heads.” Gordon edged toward the door. “Look—” He was about to make his excuses when her cell phone rang. Michael snatched it off the plastic table. “Mrs. Keane,” he said, “how lovely to hear your voice.” While he talked on, Pru said quietly, “What would it take to get you to stay until he leaves?” It was a strange thing to bargain over, but Gordon decided to press his advantage. “A little chat about your cello part.” “Jesus.” She scowled as if he’d suggested a blowjob. “Fine. The fucking cello part.” She turned toward the kitchen as Michael said, “Of course. She’s right here,” and held out the cell phone. “Tell her I’ll call back.” Pru’s voice was steely. Michael allowed the phone to hang in the air between them a moment before putting it to his ear. “Mrs. Keane? She’ll have to call you later.” He looked Gordon in the eye as he said, “I’m afraid we have a guest.” Gordon would have found this signaling funny—as if Michael thought Gordon was challenging him for Pru’s hand—if it weren’t for the ambivalence he was sensing on Pru’s part. He didn’t want to witness another man’s rejection, and it was dawning on him that this might be what he’d just agreed to. While Michael hung up, Gordon stepped over to the futon and took a seat at the far end. The cushion was old and thin, and he could feel the slats of the wooden frame against his backside. She’d probably had it since college. Pru sat down next to him, a little too close, smelling, in her sweaty state, like a saltine cracker. Michael positioned himself across from them, leaning against one of Pru’s makeshift bookshelves. Gordon, avoiding Michael’s gaze, slid as far away from Pru as he could without falling off the couch.
“Pru,” Michael said, “your friend here said he came by to bring you some music. Should we let him do that, so he can go on about his business?” Pru shook her head. Her voice took on a solemn tone. “I’ve been meaning to write. There’s something you need to know.” Gordon could see where this was going. No way was he going to pretend to be Pru’s new lover to help her ditch the old one. “There’s this cello part,” he interrupted. “She’s been dying for you to hear it.” Pru looked like she’d swallowed a mouthful of sewage. “Right,” she said slowly. “A deal’s a deal.” Michael looked from Pru to Gordon. “What deal?” Gordon shrugged. Pru went to the bookshelves and scooped up a pair of computer speakers. She connected these to her laptop, plugging the power cord into an outlet beneath the desk after shifting the keyboard onto the floor to make room. “First, the old version. Then, the new. Sorry about the crappy sound. I use headphones when I’m by myself.” The software began playing the piece he remembered from the concert house, but with a tinny, mechanical edge, as if it were being performed by two-inch musicians at the bottom of a coffee can. He looked at Michael, who was staring at the floor. Pru stood by the window, looking out at the street. It was bizarre to sit here with these two, imposing a musical interlude, but soon he was able to focus on the sound, the rise and fall of the cello moving sometimes with and sometimes against the violins. “Brilliant,” Michael said, when it concluded. Pru looked from Michael to Gordon. He said, “You already know I think it’s great.” Flashing a grimace, Pru leaned over the computer and set the new version playing. The violin and viola parts remained exactly the same, but now the cello, no longer their dancing partner, became an intruder in the room. Danielle LaVaque-Manty
It crept in after the others had already established their themes, beginning on a low and ominous note that slowly melted into an invisible harmony with the others, eventually slinking up into the highest range and hovering there, dissonant, like a predator preparing to swoop. The cycle repeated, with variations, creating the feeling that the cello was stalking the other instruments. The music was clever, and it demanded a listener’s complete attention, but Gordon wouldn’t have said this version was better than the previous one—only different. He studied Michael, who wore a halfsmile he couldn’t interpret. “So,” Michael said when it was over, “the cello is you, I suppose.” Pru pressed some keys on her computer and stared down at it. “It’s not a character, Michael. It’s not anyone.” “It’s wonderful,” Gordon said. “But so is the first version. Isn’t there a way they can coexist?” Michael gave him a pitying look. “The first version was a mistake. It was too happy. Pru doesn’t do happy.” It was clear that he was no longer talking about music. Time for Gordon to go. He looked at Pru, who had wrapped her arms tightly around herself. “Happy can be a hard thing to learn,” he said quietly, as he stood up from the couch. Pru fixed her eyes on him then, as if she’d just noticed that he was a real person. She seemed like someone who always said what she really thought, yet he wondered what she would say to him if she ever decided he rated a place in her personal universe. He skirted the laundry basket on his way to the door. “Come talk to me some time,” he told her before he let himself out, trying not to hear the fraught conversation that began as the latch closed behind him.
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ru waited more than a week before taking Gordon up on his invitation. On the first of November—a cold, desolate day if ever there was one—she surprised herself with the notion that she actually did want to talk to him, though she couldn’t figure out where to start. Not with the cello part, that was certain. She’d been hurt by Michael’s dismissal of the new version and disappointed that even Gordon couldn’t see that it was obviously better than the old. Worse, both versions were now wrapped up in her mind with memories of her breakup with Michael. He’d offered to take her out to dinner after Gordon left that night, but she insisted on ordering a pizza instead; it seemed crucial to avoid public places. They’d settled on either side of her plastic table, greasy pepperoni glistening between them, before he began trying to persuade her to move to New York. He opened with all the right words, telling her how much he’d missed her during the time they’d been apart. There was no reason, he said, why they shouldn’t “stay” together now. New York was obviously a better place for a young composer to live, he said; think of all the connections she could make there. His attempts at persuasion were so obviously manipulative that a realization that had been niggling at her finally came to the surface: he didn’t believe her work was going anywhere. He never had. He saw it, perhaps, as a time-consuming hobby—a vocation, but not a career. When she said this out loud, he jerked back as if she’d slapped him. “I’ve always loved your music,” he said. “I’ve always supported you, whatever you wanted. What are you talking about?” “Whatever?” she said. “What about wherever?” “I know you didn’t want me to go back to Indiana. But look how it’s paid off. I can support us both now in New York.” “I don’t want to be supported. I’m not a child.” Michael closed the pizza box, half the pie still inside, and set it on the floor. He reached across the table and took both her hands. “Just tell me what you want. We’ll figure out how to make it happen.” Danielle LaVaque-Manty
She wavered. She could say she wanted to stay in Ann Arbor and force Michael to admit that he wasn’t willing to come back here for her, making their breakup his fault. Or, she could close the door herself. “I’m sorry.” She floundered for more words. “I can’t.” He released her hands and stared down at the table, the clenching of his jaw the only sign of how hard he was working not to react. He looked over at her laptop. “Because of that guy?” It took her a moment to understand what he meant, even though she’d gone out of her way to make him think something was going on between her and Gordon. She was tempted to say yes, because that might make things seem more final, but she shook her head. “What if I said I’d move back here? Telecommute?” “You need to see your clients face to face.” She couldn’t even picture him working that way, sitting in front of his computer or tied to his cell phone all day. He liked being out in the world, glad-handing. The fact that he would offer to try it almost made her want to take him back. “I make enough now that I can fly as often as I need to.” The mention of money put her back on track. He was happiest earning money and showing it off. She was happiest pulling all-nighters behind her keyboard and eating Chinese takeout. “Michael,” she said finally. “Just, no.” After a few frozen moments, he stood. “I guess I’d better find a hotel.” She’d sobbed herself to sleep on the couch, then spent the next week holed up, writing the opening sequence to what she hoped would become a symphony. She hadn’t planned to take Gordon up on his invitation to visit. There was something about the way he’d put it—Come talk to me some time—that was irritating, as if he thought she needed help. But on this particular afternoon, as she walked to campus to keep an appointment with an undergrad on a day so unseasonably cold that she wore a down jacket over her turtleneck and could see her breath in
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the air as she walked, she found herself bizarrely nervous. She revisited the week’s events and determined that she’d spoken face-to-face with a total of six people over the last seven days: four students, a cashier at Kroger, and the clerk at the takeout counter at China Now. Apparently she didn’t have any friends who kept close enough track of her to notice when she disappeared. This, she told herself, was mainly a good thing. It helped protect her time. But she didn’t want to end up a basket case, a wild-haired freak who flitted around, avoiding social contact and stammering when anyone asked how she was. So, after she met with her student, she headed down the hall in the hope of talking with Gordon. But his office door was closed and locked. She leaned against the wall and considered her options. Would it be too weird to go to his apartment? He’d dropped by hers uninvited. And he’d asked her to come talk to him. But it would seem too casual—as if they were actually friends—if she visited him without a reason. Maybe her bad behavior provided an excuse: in addition to the apology she owed him for the scene at Wine Castle, she now owed him an apology for trying to use him to ward off Michael. She made it all the way to his house and through the front door, which was braced open with a brick, before second thoughts set in. Climbing the stairs to his floor made her remember his girlfriend. If Gordon wasn’t home, fine. If he was there by himself, she could manage some kind of apology. But if he and Patricia were both there, what would she say then? She stood indecisively in front of his door until she heard footsteps on the other side. Something brushed against the wood: Gordon putting his face to the peephole. “Pru?” Despite the wall between them muffling the sound, she could hear the surprise in his voice. He opened the door wide. His dark hair spilled thickly over his collar and seemed overdue for a cut. In contrast, it appeared he’d recently
trimmed his beard, which hugged his chin to reveal a strong, square jawline. He wore his standard button-down shirt—pale green today— but untucked, and without a vest. She said, “You’re out of costume.” He ran a hand through the long mess of his hair, cradling the back of his head in a pose that suggested he was pondering a decision. “I was napping, actually.” “I could come back some other—” He stepped back from the door and swept an arm toward his narrow hallway. “Come in,” he said. “We’ll have tea. Or hot cider. What do you like to drink when it’s cold out?” She felt ridiculous. But she would feel even more ridiculous if she left now. Moving past him into the warm, brightly lit apartment, she spotted a baking bowl overflowing with miniature candy bars on the kitchen table. Last night had been Halloween. “You get trick-or-treaters on the second floor?” He shook his head. “Leftovers from Patricia’s. We dressed up—she was a witch, and I was a werewolf—and sat on her porch handing these out to the kids who passed by. She sent the leftovers home with me so she wouldn’t be tempted.” Patricia, Pru remembered, was a thin little thing. Perhaps half Pru’s size. Certainly less than half Gordon’s. “She thought she’d tempt you instead?” “I’m supposed to take them to my office. Give them to the undergrads.” Pru pawed through the bowl, took out a Butterfinger, and held it up. “Be my guest,” Gordon said. “But look out for the giant gumballs. That’s what happened to my beard. Patricia cut all the sticky parts off. Then she had to even it out, and this is all that’s left.” Pru found herself envying Patricia her frivolous evening, despite the fact that she couldn’t really picture herself doing any of those things:
wearing a costume, humoring children, certainly not trimming Gordon’s beard. She’d spent Halloween at her keyboard. “It looks better this way,” she said. “The other way, you remind me of my grandfather.” He made a face, half-smile, half-wince. “Don’t hold back, Pru. Do you want to comment on my vests, too?” His eyes, meeting hers, managed to suggest that he was mocking both of them at once—himself, for being such an easy target, and her, for taking advantage. She tore the wrapper off the candy bar and took a bite, the crunchy peanut stuff inside so sweet it made her gums sting. “So.” He pulled out a chair and sat down, waving a hand at the table to invite her to sit, too. “May I ask? What have you decided to do with your quartet? Did you lay the pretty cello in its grave?” He drew the bowl closer and began picking through it as if hoping to find something special, though as far as Pru could see there were only three or four kinds of candy in there. Thinking of the cello part, especially with Gordon in the room, made her think of Michael, and she was mortified to find her eyes tearing up. Gordon looked up, mini-Twix in hand. “What did I say?” She stuffed the other half of her Butterfinger in her pocket and began moving toward the hall. “Thanks for the candy.” But he stood and intercepted her and maneuvered her into a chair. “Sit.” His tone was that of a parent or teacher—one she would have argued with if she weren’t afraid her voice would crack. She snorted out a little laugh. “I really didn’t come here to cry. This is the second time I’m acting crazy in your kitchen. It’s like you’re my chosen victim.” Gordon set an elbow on the table and studied her, as if she were hanging at an angle and a nudge at the lower left corner might straighten her back out again. “Maybe I should be flattered,” he said. “Why me?”
54 The Cello Part
She didn’t have an answer for that. “Why did you come all the way to my apartment to talk about my cello part?” She was surprised to see him redden. “I didn’t think you’d answer if I emailed. What happened after I left?” She shrugged. “We finally finished breaking up.” She met his eye and tried to make it sound like the end was a mere formality. “After a year and a half of living in different states anyway.” “In my experience, a guy doesn’t bring luggage to a breakup.” As if there were a checklist somewhere and luggage wasn’t on it. “What does he bring?” “Fear,” he said. “Sorrow.” She willed herself not to think of Michael, turning away to study Gordon’s kitchen. “What’s with the melodrama?” she asked. The walls were a yolky shade of yellow, the cupboards a gleaming white. A rack of shiny pans she wouldn’t even know how to use hung from the ceiling. “Maybe you should write an opera.” “Would if I could.” She embraced this new topic with relief. “Do you compose?” He gave her a one-sided smile. “I’ve tried. But not only can I not write, I can’t even play that well.” She was about to insist that only an excellent musician could get a job teaching in a department like theirs, but he said, “What I can do is hear, and remember. I’m a sophisticated walking, talking storage device.” He smiled for real, then. “Of course, this, too, is a gift. Just not the one I wanted.” He stood up. “Which reminds me. Would you mind if I played something I’ve heard for you?” When she shrugged, he added, “I’ll need your help, actually.” She followed him into his living room, which clearly doubled as a practice space. Sheet music was layered across three music stands arranged in an arc around a rotating stool; scores filled the bookshelves that lined one wall, and more towered out of three cardboard boxes on
the floor, the only hint of disorder in a room that was otherwise tidy and nearly empty except for a stereo near the window and six racks of CDs lining the wall alongside it. A plump russet couch rested against the third wall. Pru wanted to lie down on it and fall asleep. Gordon said, “Just a second,” and went out into the hall, where she could hear him rummage in a closet. He came back with a flute case and handed it to her. “This one’s for you. You can take the stool.” He stood two steps away, facing her. Mystified, she screwed her flute together. “I’m a little rusty.” She looked at the music on the stands. He had three different pieces open. “Which one are we playing?” He flashed her a smile. “You play your new cello part. I’ll play the old one.” Again with the cello. She was so tired of the cello. “Who goes first?” “You can start.” But after two measures, he raised his flute as well, jumping in with the old cello part. She faltered—transposing for flute in her head was difficult enough without having her concentration disrupted—and almost stopped. But she forged ahead, and a minute later, she almost lost her embouchure as she fought a laugh. The two versions worked against each other in a way that produced an eerie effect, like one woman singing a joyful, dreamy song next to another who railed against fate and promised revenge, the two of them standing side by side yet completely oblivious to one another’s presence. It was exactly what she wanted—what she hadn’t even known she’d wanted. She looked at Gordon and saw how he was watching her as they played. He wasn’t just showing off, feeling smug about his discovery; he was giving her something, and studying her face to see if she liked it. By the time they finished, she felt overwhelmed with anxiety. He had opened a connection between them that demanded a more serious response than she knew how to offer.
56 The Cello Part
“Thank you,” she said softly, knowing she had to come up with something beyond that. But he said, “You’re welcome,” just as quietly, and she could see from his face that he understood that she meant it, and could read, too, how awkward she felt. A key rattled in the door then, followed by a voice in the hall: “Did I hear flutes?” Patricia. Pru felt a moment’s relief at the interruption, followed by a rush of disappointment. Patricia came in, holding a grocery bag, a bundle of leafy greens poking out of the top. She looked seriously annoyed to see Pru. “Six o’clock already?” Gordon squatted to open his flute case, which was sitting on the floor next to Pru’s stool, and took his instrument apart. “Almost,” Patricia said. “I’m guessing you haven’t marinated the fish.” This was Pru’s cue, and she followed it, despite an odd feeling that the situation was all wrong. Instead of embarrassment over putting Gordon in the position, yet again, of having to explain her presence in his apartment, she felt as if she was the one who should be staying and Patricia was the intruder. She handed Gordon her flute as she slid off her stool. “Let me get my coat.” She ducked into the kitchen and peeled her jacket off the back of the chair where she’d hung it. Patricia followed her in and set the groceries on the table. “Nice to see you again,” Pru said, trying to pretend everything was normal. Patricia didn’t reply. Gordon met her at the door. “Thanks again,” she said, fiddling with her zipper, whose teeth refused to align.
58 The Cello Part
When he didn’t answer, she stopped and looked up. Their eyes met, and he held her gaze long enough that Patricia, who had stepped back into the hall, couldn’t possibly have failed to notice. Pru held her breath. “We’ll talk,” Gordon said. About everything, his expression seemed to imply. She looked at him one heartbeat longer before forcing herself out the door. She walked home, coat still unzipped, two cellos singing in her head: one of hope and one of fear that her life was about to change.
Danielle LaVaque-Manty is a freelance editor living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Pinch, Sou’wester, Baltimore Review, New Delta Review, Monkeybicycle, and the web edition of Ninth Letter. “The Cello Part,” LaVaque-Manty writes, began as part of a novel about Pru, her brother Victor (who makes an appearance here), and their parents. The story is inspired in part by LaVaqueManty’s research on women scientists and engineers, and by a friend who was striving to become an opera conductor. LaVaque-Manty decided Pru would be trying to break into a field where women are scarce: composing. She futher explains: “I was interested in exploring my characters’ differing relationships to music, and to vocation more broadly. As a writer, I can’t help but be aware of how many more opportunities exist for artists in New York than in my part of the country, so I wanted to explore how Pru’s pursuit of music might be shaped by living in the Midwest as well. When it came to Gordon, I wanted to know—what kind of person might make a good partner for Pru?”
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