This Valentine’s Day, I am engaging in a writing mini marathon. I am exploring the joys and trials of love.
But sometimes love isn’t always what it is portrayed to be in popular culture. My brilliant friend Terin Miller offered his insights when I was bemoaning my own challenges in this department. I said on a public post, somewhat facetiously, that writing is really my only one true love. And here was his response: “If you love anything, truly, it is romantic. Not mellow-dramatic, false, or artificial. Do not confuse pathos or even desire with romance. Real romance involves your heart. Not just your brain. Or even just your hormones. There is nothing wrong with loving writing. Or words. Or love. Or language. It is a means of expressing romance with life.”
What is your romance with life? Is it the love of your children? Your partner? Your pet(s)? Your garden? Your love for making dishes or going out with friends? Your travels? Pastimes?
My story of the man with the Steinway was written about twelve years ago. It is in some ways a junior effort though in some ways I think it is just as strong if not stronger than other work to date. And it never published. But I like it anyway. Like a love, it is graced with flaws. But I only have rose colored glasses for my man with the Steinway piano. The piece is a longer work to be savored at leisure. Happy Valentine’s Day.
I found the Steinway in a consignment shop. It was dull, black, the paint rubbed off on the corners, a few scratches here and there. The logo was written out in gold letters below the symbol of the pedal lyre. I bought it because of its resemblance to the piano of my childhood.
As boys, my brother Greg and I had both taken piano lessons. My early attempts were halting and clumsy and eventually ceased altogether when the reward and punishment system my mother had set in place for me became ineffectual: five pennies for each fifteen minutes of practice, three pennies subtracted for every day of missed practice.
For a while, I managed to play half-heartedly and make a modest amount of money without giving up baseball. However, I eventually shut down, and I think what did it was not just my realization I was bored (the incentive-based program reversing itself), but the repeated scene of my brother, leaning forward, his left foot back, in proper position, his fingers delivering notes into the air, liberating them from the strings – legato, staccato, tenuto – while my mother, as if in loving adoration and response, rolled out apple pies, Chicken ala King, rump roast, Beef Wellington, biscuits with sweet cream butter.
He could play up to six hours a day. This bath of notes had a way of silencing us, trapping and gentling us as if we were caught and fattened in a web. We had a wrap around porch and when it was warm, we sat outside in the swing and the rockers or else my sister and I played checkers at the card table while my father read the paper and waited for dinner. Sometimes my father and I took our gloves and threw a baseball, but no matter where we went on our property, we could still hear my brother playing.
My father never said anything and neither did I, and he never complimented my brother and this gave me a sense of peace, as if Greg was not better than my sister and me. But I stopped playing the piano anyway. My brother didn’t have a jar of pennies as incentive to practice. Early on, he told our mother to take his jar away, he didn’t need it, he played for himself only and earning pennies for something he already liked to do was pointless. This pronouncement of both supreme freedom from monetary incentive and from the ordering of the household promoted him, in my mind, to the status of a god and I knew that, in this area at least, I was merely human.
The Steinway arrived on a hot October Florida day. It entered my house shrouded in a faded purple quilt and bound with rope. The plastic wheels of the cart, large as plates, shushed and squeaked over the carpet. It was lowered by four men and exhaled a breath of discordant notes. The men unbound the rope and removed the quilt. It sat before me, a black, hulking presence absorbing light, a contrast to the French antique sideboard which my wife Lena had placed there as a complement to our dining table.
I sat down before it and opened the cover to reveal the keys, the ivory now yellow and dull, but classic, rare. I struck a key and a string responded in a tired way and then I struck the C major chord, the only one I remembered, and a cacophony of complaints issued forth, the notes warping and wavering.
I began to doubt my earlier certainty that it was fate that I should have this dusty instrument in my house, that I should tune it and learn how to play it. My current mid-life desire to try again that which had eluded me before, but which was attractive nonetheless, was perhaps another incarnation of all that was wayward and impractical and ridiculous in me.
“Why can’t you choose something a normal man would do?” said my father, of my decision in a major and I knew what he meant: business, engineering, law. My brother, had he been able to make money as a pianist, would have been exempt. By the time of my decision, he had already failed.
“Your poems were sweet when you were young, Richard,” said my mother. “But how are you going to raise a family?”
They needn’t have worried. I became a normal man. Though I majored in creative writing to spite them (and to their credit, they paid my tuition), I failed to write anything beautiful or insightful, failed to earn anything from my writing at all.
Instead, I sold real estate and got married and had a family. Now I live in Orlando, Florida where my wife is an attorney. For years, while my parents were still alive, they could say at church “Richard sells real estate.” I would stay up deep into the early hours of the morning, wrestling in weakness with grievances and fears, whole dark selves frozen.
I closed the piano lid. The tuner could be called tomorrow. I had found a good one through a woman who teaches at the college, a woman who was going to offer me beginning lessons. I was tired. Now with the Steinway sitting mute and solid in my living room, I felt my weight slipping downward as if succumbing. I climbed the stairs to the bedroom.
The palm-shaped blades of the fan in our bedroom spun lazily. I closed the blinds, but didn’t take the decorative pillows off the bed. My wife was always after me to put them back on after I had removed them and so they would stay. I lay among the beaded fabrics and the decorative feathers and felt myself drift into sleep.
When I awoke, the house was dark. No one was home. I had arranged for the kids to go to their friends’ houses after school in case the piano was delivered late. I had an hour to listen to the blade of my knife slice through the flesh of vegetables, to get the water up to a boil, to open wine.
My wife Lena had been extremely successful right out of law school, had had the type of intelligence and prowess that had landed her a job with a prestigious firm. On my worst days, I felt outstripped, but consoled myself with the flimsy theory that successes happened at different times and that right now, the children needed me.
My role was to shop and make meals, to pick the children up after school and secure their clothing and school supplies. Emily, our eleven year old, was a budding ballerina, and Giles, nine, liked sports, almost any sport, but he liked it in an easygoing, rather than competitive way.
Emily was her own self-disciplined being, and reminded me of her uncle and mother both. I often told her her uncle would be proud to see her dancing to many of the musical pieces he had learned to play. This seemed to please her and she smiled with her mother’s beautiful mouth and her mother’s green eyes sparkled back at me.
She often gave me a hug because she believed I was sad when I mentioned her uncle. By now, she knew he had felt the pressure and recurring physical pain of performance and had died from an intentional overdose. Though my brother had died in this way, I knew him to be the greater man, and I’ll admit a part of me was glad he was not alive to prove it.
When Lena got home and saw the changes I had made to accommodate the piano, she registered her protest. “You have moved the sideboard under the window. That’s not a good place. It’s about a million miles from the dining room table.” We had a large front room that accommodated both a dining room and living room area. We had never been able to agree upon the division and arrangement of tables and chairs.
“I made chicken. I think you’ll like it.” I handed her a glass of chilled white wine. “Try this Pouilly Fuisse.”
“The lamp you put on it doesn’t go. It’s not a lamp for a sideboard.”
“You can get us another.” I took the wine from her and slid my hands over the silk of her blouse. I felt the metal clasp of her bra.
“That piano is hideous.”
“Where is Lena?” I said, and kissed her on the cheek. It is a game we used to play when we were first married and I believed myself capable of loosening her to laughter, to good humor.
“Lena is here, but don’t think it’s going to happen, not now.”
I pulled her to me and kissed her full. I felt with my fingers along her neck and shoulders, searching for the places I knew were sensitive.
“The kids will be coming soon,” she said, turning, bowing her head. She pushed against my shoulders and eased herself down to the floor. She seemed weaker, more diminutive, without her heels, her stockinged feet flat against the tiles.
When my lessons began, I came home from work during my lunch hour to practice. I began to like the freedom and solitude to work as slowly as I needed to. One afternoon, as I was playing a scaled down version of a Chopin piece, composed for beginning students, I detected movement on the porch.
“Come in,” I said, from my bench, certain it was someone we knew who was politely waiting until I finished playing to ring the doorbell. It was Carrie Stewart from down the street. Her family and mine had been a part of each other’s lives for many years, and in fact Lena and Carrie’s husband, Gray, had gone to high school together.
“Can I listen?” she said.
“Sure. But there’s not much going on, I’m afraid. A whole lot of bad playing.”
She sat. She chose my grandmother’s channel back chair. This had always been a favorite of mine, but I was intent on not commenting or engaging in conversation. If this was how she saw fit to waste an hour, I would not make myself responsible for her entertainment.
I played my scales and simple pieces calmly and slowly. I remembered my brother, his back erect, and as he grew, his shoulders broad, his body a square within the larger square of the piano, his fingers working through the lines, stumbling, repeating, slowing, then smoothing the line down like a brook works over a pebble.
The waltzes and scherzos and sonatas adapted for beginning piano players were simple straightforward pieces, but over the months with Carrie as my audience, I learned to coordinate both hands, to refine the sustenance of the notes by use of the pedals, and to control the volume by the amount of pressure I applied to the keys.
There were nuances I had not taken into account when I had first learned the piano, nuances that I had not thought were important to learn. Certainly I had offended the ears of my teacher, but I was trying to take greater care.
Carrie maintained her place behind me at the same time every day, slipping out at some point near the end of the hour. Maybe she waited on the porch until I was finished, until she heard me shut the music back into the piano bench. The vain part of me wanted to believe this. But then just as likely, she could have been listening as she walked home, the music drifting out over the street, following her.
One day, after several months of attending my practices, she rose and stood near the piano. I stopped playing. She let her fingertips drift over the keys. “It takes so much faith, to do what you’re doing” she said. “We know what our lives are by now, and still you’re doing this thing.”
“I’m just playing scales.” I took care not to look at her, to not make contact. She should not read too deeply into anything, must not read anything at all.
“You don’t have to do all this. I think it’s wonderful.” And she left, closing the door behind her softly as she did every day.
I didn’t want to ask her what she getting out of listening to scales and something dull and repeated or a song practiced over and over, until mastered. I didn’t want to feel responsible for her feelings and the significance she was placing on what I was doing.
For once in my life, something as intriguing as a woman was concentrating my energies, moving me through my day. And yet, her presence there, day in and day out, was liberating me from previous anxieties about my inadequacies. When I made so many mistakes, especially when I was first learning a piece, her lack of response, her lack, even, of a sound, was confirmation that mistakes were not as terrible as I had believed them to be when I was a boy.
Eventually, she began to tell me things on my practice days, and I became a sort of confessor for her. She was careful not to talk too much so that I still had the majority of the hour to play. And in the years I had known her, she had never been the kind of woman to burden people with too much of herself, but these things she said made me feel more intensely for her, though I loved my wife.
Perhaps I was a kind of priest because my relative silence and remove did not discourage her, did not tend to influence her to look upon me coldly, but spurred her on, somehow, to be open and honest. She may have sensed that I did not want to hurt her, but that I did not mind her being there either, that I was concerned for her in a way that would not lapse into romance.
One day I thought it might be a good idea to clarify things with her. I turned to her on my bench. She was working on her needlepoint, a pastime that seemed ancient. I sometimes caught glimpses of her handy work as she left the living room – lush nosegays of roses, filigreed crosses, an autumn harvest.
“I don’t think it would be a good idea to read into anything here,” I said.
“What do you mean?” She looked at me with an even gaze and yet her lids had fluttered when I spoke, either at my tone or her surprise at what I said, or maybe just the surprise of the break in our usual routine.
“I mean that this could become something.”
She bent her head to her work. I watched her find the place for her needle. Her composure held. I returned to my music.
As time went on, I began to play longer and longer into the day. I found ways to arrange my schedule to accommodate the longer practice hours. It went on for two years like this, with Carrie as my audience, and at some point, her confessions seemed to revolve around her suspicions that my wife Lena and her husband Gray might be having an affair.
Gray and Lena had gone to high school together and had partied with the same crowd, and now they worked in the same firm. We had been friends with them for a long time, although in the last year or so, I noticed Gray had become more proprietary with my wife as we sat together at the kitchen table.
They told inside jokes and he flirted with her. When this first began happening, I would slip into the role of an observer, frozen in my anger and alarm, plotting what I might do if he should take it further. Carrie would slip out to our living room, which was quiet and formal in a way that she might have found comforting. I avoided following her, although I knew I would rather avoid this exchange at my own table.
I stayed instead, feeling my presence there was essential. If I kept the topic on high school reminisces, Gray would be gone soon, purring out of the driveway in his Porsche, his wife tucked away in her bucket seat, buckled down.
I was sorry I could not reassure Carrie that her suspicions about Gray and Lena were ill-founded. What I was witnessing in my own house had become cause for alarm. I was perplexed about how to handle it. I felt that Gray may be just trying to bait me into acting defensively and I didn’t want to play into his hand.
If it turned out this was more than a game, played out for my irritation, and that Lena and Gray were having an affair, I wanted every opportunity to retaliate bodily and his presence and provocation provided the perfect occasion and excuse.
When Lena and I first entertained them socially when they moved into the neighborhood we seemed to be well matched and enjoyed each other. Our children enjoyed being together and we often traded off weekend cookouts at each other’s houses.
Gray and I had something in common with our interest in baseball and other sports. Our sons both played on the same Little League team. Carrie was bolder in those days too. At dinner, she would join in our conversation and Lena would ask her questions, drawing her out and making her feel comfortable.
And then, things started happening between us until the patterns were beyond anyone’s willingness to assert control or make changes. Perhaps things started when Gray was hired at Lena’s firm and Gray and Lena spent more of our couples’ dates discussing their cases, switching the pairing off and leaving Carrie and I alone together.
Gray also had become almost surly, though he had always been loud and jocular. It was the drink, most likely, and we all, except Carrie, started drinking as if the world was going to curl up and swallow us whole the following morning.
I began to play the piano while Lena and Gray drank and talked about work. Carrie would follow me to the living room, bringing her needlepoint. She would bring it in her purse as if she anticipated a need for it. At some point, I gave up my role as observer, protector.
I considered the possibility that my wife may be baiting me too, that she wanted a reaction to this animal pawing at her and licking his chops. If so, I disappointed her many times. I wondered how I could find out if they were having an affair, whether I could ask her directly, whether she would be honest with me.
Our relationship had become brittle, though I desired deeply that it would not be so. I did not know how to approach it without breaking things altogether. I suppose I hoped, futilely, that whatever dalliance was taking place under my own roof was nothing but a game, or, if it went further than this, was something Lena would get over like a bad virus.
The situation seemed to bear down upon me as swiftly and as certainly as a train on its appointed track. It kept me up late at night, wondering what to do, checking through Lena’s purses and briefcase and clothing for evidence. When I had tired of my search, I sat before the Steinway and laid my hands on the keys, their enamel off-white like teeth. I imagined myself playing as I moved my fingers across their surfaces.
“What are you doing?” said Lena, finding me one night in the dark, sitting before the piano. She snapped on the overhead light.
“I think it’s obvious. I’m laboring in obscurity.”
“It’s three in the morning.”
“I know. I couldn’t sleep.”
“You never sleep.”
“That’s not true.”
She retied the sash of her robe. What I had loved about her was her use of extremes, to see only “never” and “always.’ I had considered this a sign of passion, that along with other things. What I had come to realize was that she had an unwillingness to admit that adversity was usually not a permanent condition. Her pronouncements on the state of things were informed by whatever her needs were at the present moment and she had little patience in waiting for tides to turn.
“I’m going to warm some milk,” she said, retreating through the door to the kitchen. “Want some?” I followed.
She poured milk into a saucepan and turned up the fire on the eye. She stirred it until it steamed and then poured it into two mugs and added some sugar. She sprinkled some cinnamon on top. She had created this drink for my insomnia, using the ingredients her mother used to add to her Cream of Wheat, but when she made it for me this time, she was rough with the stirring and then slung the spoon into the sink.
“Do you remember when we went to Tarpon Springs?” I said. “You know, when your Mom was alive and took the kids?” This was a trick I had used to bring her back to me, to soothe her anger, or get her to keep talking so I could get to what was bothering her. I brought up old memories, or even recent ones, neutral things to discuss.
I had learned that small things such as her careless handling of a utensil, the closing of a door just a bit more firmly than usual, the whip of a hot sheet fresh out of the dryer – that these all meant something, and that it was my job to figure out what the meaning was.
“Do you remember that bar shaped like a boat and that huge fish tank?”
“All I remember was that sorry museum about the history of sponge diving.”
“Yeah, like JC Penney manikins wearing Greek costumes and sponge diving gear.” I did my best stiff manikin pose.
She snorted, and took a careful sip. “You were like an idiot with those sponges for the kids, buying them all shapes and sizes, and then they hardly looked at them.”
“I’m a good idiot.”
I was the clown. I had to not mind. There was something to uncover, but by the time I had thought of the next thing to say, she had put her half-empty mug in the sink. I reached out and felt the silk of her nightgown peaking out under the robe.
“I remember all that stuff,” she said, as she leaned with her hip against the edge of the counter. “But I think we have other things to talk about, like how much money we need, like how crazy it is you’re spending so much time on that thing in the living room.”
“What do you want me to say? We’re just in a bit of a dry spell, and what does it hurt, learning to play the piano?”
“We’re always in a dry spell. Emily needs braces and we need the porch fixed. I’m embarrassed to have friends over now because a part of it is sagging. Summer camps need to be paid for, next year’s school tuition.”
“Calm down. It will work out, it always does.”
“I feel overwhelmed and you just seem so calm all the time. I don’t know what to say anymore.”
She whipped past and I made an attempt to grab her arm, to draw her to me and assure her, but her body eluded me.
I climbed the stairs to our bedroom. “Lena,” I said, when I had closed the door. It was dark and she was already under the covers. “I need to know something, and I want you to be straight with me. Are you having an affair?” I sat on the edge of the bed, bracing myself.
In the shadows I saw her rise up from her pillows. “What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. You and Gray. Maybe there is something going on that you should tell me.”
“Oh my God. Don’t project your guilty conscious onto me!”
“Now who’s playing stupid? You and Carrie. I know that she comes over here every single day.”
“Nothing is going on,” I said, standing. “Nothing.”
“Don’t get your knickers in a wad. I don’t have time for this. I have a huge case tomorrow. Please.” She arranged her pillows and settled back into them.
I slept on the couch that night. The next day, I had a call to make at Claudia’s, my piano teacher. When I pulled up to her antebellum mansion on Princeton Avenue, I noticed that it looked as old and tired as I felt. And yet it was a rare commodity in this city bent on making everything new.
We usually met at the college for piano lessons, but when she learned that I was a realtor, she invited me to her house, which she wanted to put on the market. Though the house and yard needed restoration, it was the kind of house that would sell well with just the right buyer.
However, I learned right off that she already had already sold the house for me for a cool 1.8 million and I would get 50,000 for doing nothing but filling out the paperwork and showing up at the closing. She didn’t want to talk about it.
She wanted to talk about our piano lessons. I crossed a knee over the other as I sat in the armchair by the fireplace. My heart was flipping. I would not let her know that I could not think about the piano.
“I want you to play this nocturne by Chopin,” she said, getting up, and picking up a piece of sheet music, Chopin’s opus 9 no. 1. “After you learn the piece, learn the notes, when you begin to put yourself into it, there are special instructions you must regard. You must listen to me, or you’ll mess it all up.” She slapped the music, as if I’d already done something to shame the piece.
She went to the piano and laid her hands upon the keys, pulling her fingers down over them. And then, she began to play somewhere in the middle range a soft piece that had the effect of a dream spun by gossamer threads, complex, interwoven.
“It is important in the nocturne,” she said, continuing to play, “To think about pulling from the keys as much beauty that there is. Think about yourself as the artist. You are to bring speech, a song from the strings. You must give of yourself,” she said, leaning into the piano and closing her eyes. “You must give all of your body, all of your attention like an artist bringing to being a beautiful painting stroke by tiny stroke. These notes of Chopin’s each have been placed with much care. We see, when we hear it played well, with love, the ideal beauty that is Chopin’s.”
When she had finished her instructions, I thanked her and left. I stood at the iron fence which separated the yard from the busy street just beyond. I had done research on the property and had learned that the original boundaries had encompassed acres upon acres of pasture and orange groves.
I remembered our trips to Mt. Dora when I was a child, our sacks filled with oranges, our scratched and sticky fingers peeling back the skin, my tongue breaking through the juicy filaments of the flesh.
A line of anise flanking the fence swayed with the breeze from the passing cars. I imagined the destination of the drivers and their occupants: the grocery store, pharmacy, movie theatres, malls.
There was no one at home. Lena had left a note on the kitchen counter: “Kids spending the night out. Fridge bare. Carrie and Gray coming at 7. Picking up steaks.” It was still an hour or so before my wife would be home and we’d need to get ready for company.
I sat down to the piano with nocturne. A note fluttered down from the pages. It was written in Claudia’s scrawl: “We are born knowing everything and spend the rest of our lives remembering what it is we already know.”
I put the note on top of the piano. Claudia often wrote cryptic notes in my music for me to puzzle over later or discuss. I moved my hands over the keys, but I knew, from the notation, that it would take me months to learn just the basics of the piece and that it would take much longer to play it in the way Claudia described.
And yet, I didn’t worry. Something about the note that was sitting on my piano assured me. The piece would come in time. I had to trust my body and my fingers to follow through and eventually learn the correct movement as I played it again and again.
I had heard and seen my brother learn challenging pieces over and over again, and though he was a quicker study, what had mattered, it seemed, was a trust that any piece could be mastered eventually. Claudia’s encouragement was to trust a native instinct, something we are born with, but have forgotten because of doubt and fear.
I put the nocturne away for a moment and pulled out an adaptation of another Chopin piece I had recently mastered. I imagined Lena picking up the steaks at the grocery and I imagined the piece guiding her home to me. I wanted it to be for love for her that I was learning to play the piano. I wished it impressed her that I played because I had run out of things to do.
I imagined, in my mind’s eye, her pulling those shapely legs into her car and placing the steaks onto the seat. My father had warned me about her: “It’s in the eyes,” he said. “Restless.” This was two months before he died, when I took her to see him. He was in the hospital, recovering from a heart attack. This was all he could bring himself to say about her.
I called the kids where I guessed they might be staying for the night, and they treated me like some sad sack they had to reassure before they could get back to the popcorn and movies and video games or whatever it was they were doing. Our presence together on the nights when Lena worked late was essential to me, somehow, and without them, I felt vulnerable, like a wild animal without its pack. It assured me to hear their voices on the phone, even to hear their exasperation with me.
After playing the piece through several times, I broke down and opened a bottle of wine, lit candles and turned on the local jazz station. Lena would be home any minute and I knew what it took to get my wife in bed and I was fooling myself with Chopin and quiet songs. I drank a couple of glasses of wine. I had been too soft, too forgiving. I had earned half a year’s salary in one day, goddammit.
“Welcome home,” I said when she walked through the back door. I took the grocery bag and put it in the refrigerator. I handed her a glass of Cabernet.
She was wearing her cream blouse printed with gold rings and horses, a classic blouse she wore with pearls and a navy wool skirt. She knew how to dress for the judge and the jury, was an expert in personas and angles and argumentations.
I kissed her mouth. Her lipstick tasted like cake.
“What’s all this?” she said. The candles and the jazz playing on the sound system were unusual occurrences.
“Fifty thousand dollars,” I said. The power of this truth made my mouth water. I wanted to rip the silk shirt off of her. I wanted to scatter the pearls to the far corners of the kitchen.
“Wow!” she said, giving me an enthusiastic hug around the neck. “That’s what you made?” I nodded and she took a sip of wine, watching me.
“It was a 1.8 million dollar sale.” I took the glass from her and drew her into an embrace. I kissed her.
She pushed off from my chest and touched her lips to mine with an emphatic peck.
“I want to take a bath,” she said.
I nuzzled her hair.
“Could you run a vacuum?” she said.
She twisted in my arms. I let her go.
I turned my back to her and opened the cabinet for a glass. I poured a scotch. She grabbed the bottle of wine and climbed the stairs, her feet padding on the carpet. I heard the pipes click with the rush of water into the tub.
I should have gone upstairs. I should have taken what was mine. I should have wreaked havoc at the first suggestion of a “vacuum.” The urge to empty the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag onto Gray’s usual chair shot through me, but then Gray and Carrie were at the door as I was suctioning up debris in the hall.
“Isn’t this a sweet picture,” said Gray. “An enlightened male. You’re making me look bad, man.”
“I think you’re doing just fine on your own.”
“All right, you prick, where’s the liquor?”
“It’s a full moon tonight,” I said. “The jackal’s here.”
“Cut it out, Richard!” said Lena, shouting down from the top of the stairs. She had bathed quickly. “Help yourself to the drinks everybody, I’ll be down in a minute.” Gray went to the basket on the countertop where we kept a jumble of liquor choices. I watched Carrie’s eyes following him.
Lena came down and kissed everyone.
“Well,” I said. “Now that I’ve done my duty for a bit, I’m going to sit down to the piano.” I raised my Scotch to everyone as I backed out through the door.
“A toast, everybody,” said Lena. “My husband just made a $1.8 million sale.”
As I left the room, I heard her explaining my windfall. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to embrace her. But as I walked away, I knew she was being my public Lena. She was loving me with the only resources she had left, with a cushion of people between us and no expectation of sex, just my appreciation and adoration.
I opened an intermediate piano book and began playing one of the pieces I knew well. I would play until I was calm. I would play until I couldn’t hear Gray yammering.
We often cooked out when they came over, so I knew it was only a matter of time before Lena and Gray went outside with their drinks to preheat the grill. In the meantime, I would build a wall of notes between myself and the things I didn’t want to confront.
I heard Carrie slip through the doorway off the hall and sit in her seat. Lena shouted out that she and Gray would be sitting on the back porch. It was quiet now in the house, except for the piano. The sun had gone down and the light over the music reflected brightly off the paper. I imagined Carrie in the gray light behind me. I played almost every piece I had mastered.
When I had played myself out, I laid my fingers upon the keys. “The thing about music, as about anything beautiful or grand,” said Claudia to me once, “is that it must end.”
As I sat there, hunched over on the seat, I smelled air from outside. Gray and Lena must have left the door open. It was difficult for me to move. The furniture sat about me like stones. Something, I felt, had shifted. Something had changed in the atmosphere. I sensed it was the kind of change that occurs after an act of violence or a cataclysmic natural event. There was no escaping it, this discovery of whatever it was.
“Does it seem really quiet in here?” I said to the darkness, to Carrie, unable to think of anything else to say.
I heard her rise from her seat and come up beside me. I felt her hand, light as a girl’s, on my shoulder.
I stood and turned to face her.
She kept her place beside the piano, her face illuminated by the piano light. “I have been coming to see you for a very long time.”
I was silent.
“Do you feel something for me?”
I picked up her hand. It was small and delicate in mine, like a small bird. I caressed it and held it to my mouth. I held it against my cheek. I said nothing.
She yanked her hand away. Tears streamed down her cheeks and she swiped at them. She turned and left for the kitchen and I followed, wanting to hold her to reassure her, but knowing I should not, that this would only prolong what was inevitable.
I opened the door and we went out onto the back porch. There was a large moon in the sky. The steaks lay cold and hardened in their fat on the China plate near the grill. On the silvered lawn, there was no sign of Gray or Lena. Shadows from the oak cast illusive shapes. The oleander at the boundaries of the yard danced, their flowers nodding. An overripe globe fell from the orange tree. A gasp cut through the wind, and then a tiny cry, private and raw. Gray’s body was pressed against my wife. They were standing against the oak, on the far side of the trunk. I could see them now, their bodies separating from what was a dark space though they remained entangled.
I stepped out into my yard. I sprinted to the tree and yanked Gray from my wife. He stumbled and fell while Lena collapsed as if she had a cramp. Carrie ran up behind me and grabbed my arm and I threw her off. She fell to the ground. I stood, watching Gray struggle to rise, but I couldn’t leave Carrie there on the grass.
“Shit,” said Gray. “Give it a rest.” He pulled up his pants which had been at his ankles. He rubbed his fist against his lip. He told Carrie to go to the car.
Lena wrapped her mussed up clothes around her. She scurried inside.
Gray walked through my house. I followed. He sat on the steps of my front porch and tied his shoes. I wanted to rip his hair out at the root. I wanted to smash his forehead against the porch railing.
“Now let’s just check facts,” he said. “Carrie comes to your house – your house – for no apparent reason other than to listen to you play scales and tinker with a few little pieces on your piano. OK, now, if I had any other wife, I might have deep, deep suspicions. But Carrie, oh please,” he snorted.
“So I have no reason to worry, you know? But the thing about it is, Bach, that two weeks ago, I had to leave work and pick up one of our kids from school and take him to the ER. You see, that’s because he broke his arm on the playground and no one could find my wife. That’s because she was with you. So you see what my problem is? Do you see why I can’t have this? You blow my mind, you fucking weirdo. What the hell is wrong with you?” He stood and walked down the steps.”
“So this is your excuse?”
“You need a touch of reality, dude.” He turned to face me and as he did so, he was smiling. “Your wife is well known. Do you know what I mean?” he said and turned back to his car, back to his wife who was witnessing this from the passenger seat.
I punched him in the back. He tripped down the sidewalk, raising his hands as if in surrender.
After the Porsche had roared away, I turned off the lights and climbed the stairs. In the bedroom, Lena lay facing the window. She was too still to be asleep.
“I heard you,” she said. “You and Gray.” She rolled over and sat up. Strands of hair were matted to her face.
I opened the chest of drawers and pulled out a t-shirt.
“You know, now would be a good time to say something,” she said.
I couldn’t breathe.
“Just so you know,” she said, “Since you apparently aren’t going to ask, we did it because we had been drinking and I felt like it and I had forgotten all about you. We didn’t even think you’d be coming out. You and Carrie.”
As I dressed, I felt a stiffness in my body, but I would not look at her, would not acknowledge her.
“Gray told me she’s been coming over to listen to you play piano. He says she’s not capable of an affair. I’m sure you wish I were more like her, more, let’s see, what’s the right word, simpler, self-effacing. But you know what, it doesn’t matter. Hell, I don’t even give a shit anymore. I don’t even want you. I haven’t wanted you for a long time.”
She flung herself back on the bed and pulled up the covers. I slammed the door shut and the window rattled down the hall. I slept in my son’s room. I thanked God he and his sister were with other people for the night.
I had a thought that perhaps every parent has at least once, but that I’ve had many times recently: That our children would have been better served by others. I continued to have this thought as Lena moved out and we began divorce proceedings and custody battles.
A few weeks before my divorce was final, I mastered that nocturne, the one by Chopin.