She imagines herself with the men she sits next to at dinner parties, their wives across the table pulling down their mouths as she engages their husbands intensely in conversation, as she lays her hand on their arms and smiles over her wine glass. Then she looks away, smiles at her own husband seated two or three or four people away from her, nods and smiles, raises an eyebrow.
There was a man at one of these dinners a few weeks ago, they had been seated across from each other after the cocktail hour blurred into the dinner hour, the real food and the real wine. His eyes, blue, unembarrassed, caught hers frequently, caught and stayed, caused hers to stay on his as the rest of the company grew indistinct and disappeared for seconds at a time. His wife and her husband were at the farther end of the table, across from each other as well. At the end of the evening there was, like a little gift, a warm embrace, pressing her body smoothly into his, a kiss full on the lips.
She sighs as she turns in bed and, on the knife edge of sleep, her body rebels against unconsciousness, grows restless with desire. A sudden crackling and rustling startles her as her husband abruptly turns the pages of his newspaper. It is 11:30 on a Wednesday night. Her eyes are now wide open.
She throws off the covers and stands up, her back to her husband.
“Sorry,” he says, and he glances up, guilty and resentful.
“It’s okay,” she says. She pulls her pillow off the bed. “I’ll just go into my, the other room.” She tries not to call it her room, but the truth is, she sleeps there alone most nights. With an effort, she might remember the last time they made love, but she doesn’t try.
He is a man growing afraid of his life, pulling away a little bit each day, retreating behind dark sad eyes and stacks of newspapers and weekly journals, the TV always tuned to the news channel. He covers their bed at night with papers, stays up late reading them until, tossing and weary of the glare and the intermittent rustle of papers – a sound like a hamster uneasy in its cage – she gets up and goes to sleep in the guest bedroom across the hall. She has come to need complete darkness, complete silence in order to sleep.
“You got a lot of stuff to do tomorrow?” he calls after her.
She pauses a moment at the door, and thinks.
“Just my piano lesson,” she says. She pauses again.
“He’s coming here,” she says. “To see my new piano.”
“Ah,” says her husband. “Good. Professional opinion. Hope he likes it.” He smiles as if cheerfully. “What kind of piano does he have?”
She doesn’t really want a conversation. She wants to have sex.
“Yamaha,” she says, turning to go. As she closes the door behind her, she hears him continue, raising his voice a little so she can hear.
“Yamaha. Oh yeah. Something about them in the paper, yes, here, they’ve over-diversified, running into trouble with too many subsidiaries.”
She doesn’t bother to reply. She lowers the blinds and crawls into the cold bed. A tiny crack of light bursts around the edges of the leftmost blind, but she can’t stand the thought of getting up to fix it, so she pulls a pillow next to her head to block it out. Her restlessness is quieted in the cool sheets, the darkness settles on her forehead, and she is soon asleep and dreaming.
The need for darkness while sleeping didn’t, at least, start with him, her present husband, but with the man she met in college. They lived together, unmarried, for nearly twenty years – an eccentric life, though calm enough to all eyes who cared to glance at them. Eyes that never saw the early days of heroin and methadone, the late-night suicide-pact discussions, the fights and the hysteria and the hopeless round of empty days. A slight but very cold tremor passes through her heart when she thinks about that time, even now, years later.
Despite all the madness they had stuck it out and gotten through the worst of it, and they became recovering addicts, recovering human beings, saved, they were saved. And then he died, his liver and kidney sucked dry by those toxic years, his heart yearning for rest. She had tended him to the very end, not bitter, but sweet, a final sighing away of breath and life in a smile. He had just said, “This is beautiful, this is glorious,” his eyes closed, his limp hand in hers not knowing, perhaps, whose hand he held as he watched some final vision unfold. And all during that last year, he had insisted on a bright light at night in their room, since he feared waking up in darkness. He woke up often in the night, wanting to talk or be read to. She had gotten very little sleep that year.
The night after he died, when she was alone in the house, she turned off all the lights, shut the curtains so no light from moon or star or street lamp could leak through, and slept in total darkness for twelve hours.
* * *
In the same town, about fifteen blocks away, the man who is her piano teacher has not yet gone to bed. He sits at his instrument as a clock ticks its way into the small numbers on its face. His wife is out of town for a while, and he finds it easier to stay up and make music all night when he knows there’s no one else around. The music is loud, then soft, fast then slow. Someone passing outside the house would hear him, but this is a quiet neighborhood, and no one is out that late. Someone walking by would see him through the living room window, seated at the piano, warm golden light thrown out onto the dark sidewalk, jazz and rock and folk music flung out into the night, accompanied by a voice scratchy with old smokes and wine and singing like shouting from corner stages in small dance clubs. No one is walking by.
He looks up suddenly, as if he hears something, a voice, a ringing phone, a call. He turns, smiles, laughs, starts to play again, wild gorgeous juicy music that’s never been heard before. It goes on long into the night.
In the morning, he wakes lying on the couch in the living room, all the lights still on, sheets of hand-written music covering the piano, scattered on the floor. His head aches a little, and he puts his hand to his forehead, tentatively, as if searching for a mark or a wound that might explain the sensation there. It is coming on seven o’clock, and he remembers he’s going to her house at eleven, her lesson will be there today, because she has a new piano and has asked him to come try it out. The memory of a feeling shivers through him, so fast he cannot name it.
He steps outside and decides to take a walk in the morning fog to clear his head.
He thinks of his music as he walks. One of his occasional cigarettes glows red through the mist. He thinks of her too, the way she has easily learned, though older, to play the piano with a light touch, with a feeling for how it should sound, with a laugh that rises quickly when she makes a mistake. I’m not a musician, she says. I just want to play the piano. Older? They’re the same age, born and raised with rock and roll, raised Catholic, each of them holding close inside the mysteries of incense and mystic chanting they know someday will redeem them. They have these confessional talks during her lessons. I wept the first time I saw Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, she tells him. Me too, he says. I couldn’t walk away from it. They both saw the painting for the first time in London in the same week in the same month of the same year, some seven years before they knew each other.
He stands at the edge of the town park, a green sweep of tended lawn, live oaks and fragrant eucalyptus scattered it seems at random until they form a solid wall at the far edge of the park which drops off, he knows, steeply into a wild ravine, an old riverbed gone to weed. He played there as a child, and the trees were taller then, the ravine wilder and more menacing, especially at night. She, he knows, moved here only a few years ago. She has been taking lessons from him for about a year now.
He crushes the cigarette into the sidewalk and stands watching the pale disk of sun appear through swirls of fog. It is November, and he feels it.
* * *
She answers the door almost before he can knock, because she has heard him come up the stairs and she hates the sound of their doorbell.
“Hey there,” he says, scruffing his shoes on the mat, though they are not dirty.
“Hey,” she says, opening the door wide, and stepping back to let him in. He is a tall man, over six feet, on the thin side, and his hair is thick but gray. The sun is behind him as he steps through the door, and it illuminates his hair from behind, throwing his face into shadow. But when the door is closed, and he is standing right next to her, she can see how blue his eyes are. She is tall for a woman, and doesn’t have to look up much to meet his eyes. How fierce he suddenly looks, and yet she always thinks of him as gentle and easy-going. There is something about him today that makes her feel ill at ease. Perhaps he minds coming here, she thinks. Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked him.
She can see he is taking in the style of the house, the walls brightly painted, the black and white photographs hung gallery style down the white hallway, the dark wood furniture nestling into Persian rugs. One print in particular, hanging in the front hall, catches his eye, and he walks over to look at it, a photograph printed in such high contrast that it looks abstract.
“That’s a photograph of the Anasazi ruins,” she tells him. “My husband took it a few years ago when we were on vacation there.”
He nods, and turns toward the living room. The piano sits decoratively near, but not too near, the bay window, small but impressive, a shining black baby grand, its lid half-open and slanting into the high ceiling of the large, comfortable room.
As soon as he sits down to play, nothing else matters but the sound he creates, and the emotion he pours into it. She comes and sits on the sofa, curled up with her arms languid on the curve of the back, facing him, watching him. She’s not had such an opportunity to look at him; it’s usually the other way around. And it’s different, she thinks, knowing there’s no next student going to show up. The low-angle sun is filtering in from the east, a thin gold light as it passes through the trees onto the warm white walls. The only sound is the piano.
After a while, he begins to talk.
“Last night, I was playing late, alone,” he says. He lays his hands down on the keys, rippling a light sound on the higher register, his left hand like water flowing to the bass notes. He shifts to a minor chord just exactly as the sun goes behind a cloud. The light softens, and the room gets cooler.
“I was up all night,” he says, “My wife is out of town, she’s gone to San Diego for some conference.”
He stops playing and looks at her.
“Sometimes, I wish I had never gotten married.” He goes back to playing.
“And it’s nothing personal,” he says. “Really. It’s not her at all, I love her.” He shrugs. “It’s just having that responsibility, being that married so there’s always the other person to answer to or be with or do things with.” He grimaces. “And all I want to do is playmy music.” He underscores the words with pounding major chords.
“So why did you get married?” she says when the notes have quieted down.
“Why did you?” he says.
“Well, for one thing,” she says, “I had never been married. It seemed like the right thing to do.” At the time, she wants to add.
“Is he very different from you?”
“Night and day.” Then she laughs. “Truer even than it sounds.”
There is a long pause filled with sudden sound, bluesy, smoky, dark.
“And you?” she says. “Are you two very different?”
“We have a lot of history,” he says. “She was there when I needed her, and I’ve always been grateful for that.”
She knows him now, after a year, and she knows there’s something more on his mind.
“So what about last night?” she says. He looks over at her, a flash of amusement in his eyes.
“What makes you think there was anything ‘about’ last night?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she says, smiling. “Something in the way you move?”
“Attracts me like no other lover,” he sings, playing the familiar tune. “… I don’t want to leave you now….” He trails off and finishes the song very quietly and looks at her sideways.
“Well, you’re right, so there I am playing, this piece I’m working on,” and notes dark as rubies and flashing sapphire rise from the piano. “It was really late I guess, I lost track, and I hear this noise, and just like that, Louis Armstrong is standing next to me while I’m playing.” He stops abruptly and sighs.
“I probably was asleep,” he says. He plays again, the motion so natural he doesn’t even know he’s touching the keys.
“I’ve never listened to Louis Armstrong much,” he says after a bit. “Ah, there’s so much music. There was that TV program on him a couple of weeks ago, did you see it?”
He glances at her, she nods, he goes on.
“I cried all the way through,” he says. “I don’t know why, I just cried.” His hands are still for a moment, resting on the keys. “There was so much of his soul in his music, he did things that people didn’t even try for another twenty or thirty years. Like this.”
Suddenly a burst of jazz leaps from the piano. He sings along, rasping his voice like Louis, singing scat and throwing in the occasional word to anchor the sounds in the language of everyday. He ends with a fine flourish.
“I was playing just like that,” he says, twisting on the piano bench to face her, “when suddenly I hear this cornet riffing behind me, and I turn and there he is.”
“He laughs at me then,” he says. “Big, hearty throaty laugh, I just have to laugh with him. ‘Try this!’ he says to me, then he plays this incredible, this unearthly music, I don’t even know what to call it. So I play along with him and man, it works, it works! We just play and play and play.”
He turns back to the piano and starts playing. His eyes are closed, his face is lifted to catch the music like rain. The room barely contains the sound he’s making, it climbs the walls and bounces back down to the hardwood floor, crashing through a crescendo that suddenly ends on a single note held down til all sound ceases.
“It felt like we played all night,” he finally says. “And we talked about the music, about how it feels, about how you have to have it, like food or air or love, more than all that, you must have it or you’ll die.”
His passion breaks over her like waves, and she’s having trouble breathing after the music that almost cracked the walls just moments ago. It feels like we’ve been making love, she thinks. She’s careful with her face as she looks at him. He has stopped playing, and is looking at her.
“And then,” he says, leaning toward her, “you know how his upper lip had that callous on it, from playing so much?”
“He’s playing along with me, and his lip starts to bleed, and he puts his finger to his lip, and sees the blood, and then he reaches over to me.”
She trembles slightly as he stretches out his hand and touches his finger to her forehead.
“And he makes the sign of the cross on my forehead.”
She feels a chill run through her whole body. She knows her face is a mirror of his. He leans back again, settles on the piano bench.
“He baptized you,” she says, almost a whisper. She cannot tear her eyes away from his. She wants more than anything to make love with him, wants him to stand up and walk over to her on the sofa and lay his full weight on her, she wants to feel the weight and close her eyes and block out the brilliant light that is blinding her as they look at each other.
They are silent together. The room grows darker now as winter clouds cross over the sun, and she looks away.
* * *
“So how was your lesson today?” her husband asks over dinner that night. She has decided to set the table in the dining room, for a change, and sit with him face to face over lamb chops and risotto, tiny green beans and mushrooms, and a good red wine in fine crystal glasses. I just felt like it, she said when he asked her what the occasion was.
“Good,” she says. Her voice is neutral.
“He did most of the playing, though,” she adds after a minute.
“So he liked the piano?” he says, carefully trimming a thin sliver of fat from a lamb chop.
“Oh, yes, he thought it had a fine sound,” she says. She looks at her husband as he bends his head toward his plate, intent on carving his dinner. His eyelashes are thick, medium-length, and there is about him a certain boyish vulnerability, to her mind, when his eyes are downcast. Her gaze draws his own to her.
“You’re not happy,” he says, putting down his knife and fork.
The suddenness of his remark, and its truth, unnerve her, and her throat tightens.
“I …,” she says. “I guess.” She puts her hand on the table as if reaching for his, and he covers it with his own.
They talk long into the night. And she remembers why she married him.
* * *
As the door of her house closed behind him, and he headed down the stairs, he fetched a deep breath. As if he’d been holding it, barely breathing, for the last hour.
It almost happened drummed in his head. It almost happened.
The cool air swirled around him as he walked through the park back to his own house. It was only noon, but it felt as if hours had passed since he had walked that distance, the familiar path between the trees and hedges, children playing, dogs running.
With a feeling of regret, and a feeling of escape, he chose a note in his head – B-flat over middle C – a sound like young red wine that promises well – and his fingers moved as he heard the song write itself, as a dream is remembered in the first light of morning.
He would stay up all night again tonight, and the music would come.