Fiction by Rebecca Makkai from our Summer 2012 issue.
There was garbage on the lawn, or maybe a construction sign, or (now that she was close enough to notice the flowers and ribbons) detritus from a prom. But it was late August, not spring. And no, it wasn’t prom garbage, but a small cross.
Celine had formed a cocoon of the summer’s clothes around her cello case in the back of the little red Saab, and driven no faster than 45 from Vermont to Albany and the rest of the way home. She was crawling so slowly on these cracked and narrow streets that she didn’t need to brake to see the display. A white wooden cross, already weathered and tilting into more of an X than anything perpendicular. A sash across it: “Our Angel.” Red artificial flowers; crumbling brown organic ones. Stuffed animals around the base. A red ribbon at the top, the kind intended for oversized Christmas gifts, already frayed and faded from weeks of rain and sun.
She coasted the ten feet to her driveway, then slowly pressed the gas as the car rumbled over the gravel: through the overhang of trees, past the raised beds that had once been vegetable gardens, out of sight of the memorial.
Her first reactions were horror and empathy – cut, of course, with that strange exhilaration she’d learned not to feel guilty about when passing car wrecks on the highway. That fall, when she became fairly sure she was a terrible person, she at least had this to hang onto: she did feel sorry. For those first few moments, she knew she was sorry.
After she turned on all the lights, after she stomped her hiking boots to scare away any mice, and let the taps run till the water turned clear, she turned on her computer and searched online for her road and “car accident,” but there was nothing. She found a can of tomato soup in the cupboard, and while it heated on the stove she called the sheriff. “I’m wondering about an accident on Grove Road this summer,” she said. “There was a fatality.”
“Oh, sure.” The man might or might not have been the sheriff himself. “Yeah, teenage girl on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle. Tried to avoid a truck, and they hit a tree pretty bad. The boyfriend’s okay, woke up from a coma back in July. You know what, it was out in front of that Oriental musician’s house. That famous lady musician. She your neighbor?”
Celine hadn’t even noticed the tree, but when she went back outside she saw the old white oak had some bark missing and a decent gouge three feet up. The tree was fine, though. It had, after all, won this particular battle.
She straightened the horizontal bar of the cross and nudged one of the small teddy bears with her boot. It was rain-soaked, polyester stuffing erupting from the back. Birds and chipmunks, she presumed, had been hauling it off to line their homes.
It started to rain again as she carried her bags into the house, and she dug the umbrella out from under the passenger seat to hold over the cello case. She sat in the living room and played the Kodály she’d been working on for Philadelphia, his Capriccio, then rested there, silent, and enjoyed the stillness of her house and the creak of the walls – such a change from the constant noise of Marlboro, where the young, excited stars and the seasoned virtuosos had made glorious rackets for seven long, hot weeks.
By the time the smoke alarm went off, the tomato soup had already burned to a solid mess.
Two weeks later, she still hadn’t unpacked. That first day she’d considered herself too tired, too thrown by imagining the calamitous summer of emergency vehicles and witness statements she had so serendipitously avoided. And then classes started at the college, and rehearsals started in the city, and she was hardly ever home when it was light. Over the next twelve days the clothes spread outward from the open suitcase, the hairdryer found its way back to the bathroom, and the sheet music migrated onto the coffee table. She could find everything she needed, and she might never have unpacked at all were it not for Gregory and the two Mikes coming to stay.
She pushed the couch back for more rehearsal space and brought in extra chairs, and finally filed the old music away. She scraped the hardened gray cucumber out of the crisper drawer, checked the guest rooms, which only needed a sweeping and a change of pillowcases, and then at last sat cross-legged on her own bedroom floor to excavate the shirts and sandals and performance dresses of what seemed at least a year ago.
The smell of stale sweat grew stronger with each layer she lifted, but also the smell of Vermont, of grass, of the cigarettes she hadn’t touched since she’d been home. There was the black dress, the one that wasn’t long enough to work with a cello between her legs, but which she’d worn, with various disguising accessories, to everyone else’s concerts. The back was dirty, she saw now, from leaning against buildings to smoke, and she wondered if it had been like that all summer. She hadn’t found much time to do laundry up there. No one had, really. It was almost unthinkable now, back in the real world, that she’d worn this dress at least six times since it last saw detergent. And yet she didn’t remember smelling funny, even in the last week when she’d worn it with a long pink scarf to the Mozart piano trios. That night, Gregory had found her during an intermission behind the auditorium and told her he felt old. “There’s too much youth here,” he said.
“They’re good kids,” Celine said. “They’re not that much younger.”
He said, “No, I misspoke. I meant my own youth.” He had been there, like Celine had, as a young star just out of Juilliard. They’d missed each other by a couple of years, so whatever heartbreak and triumph and sublimity and romance had filled his summers she couldn’t know, but she assumed they must have run pretty much parallel to hers. Celine herself had fallen in love that first summer with Lev Moskowitz, the forty-year-old composer in residence, and they had spent the next twelve years miserably married. She’d been worried, when she was asked to return to Marlboro to guide and collaborate with the younger musicians, that she’d spend the summer awash in self-pity. But instead she’d felt just the opposite: young again, and silly, and almost beautiful.
That Gregory had then kissed her – that she’d kissed him back and let his dense, abandoned stubble scrape her chin – seemed almost inevitable, just a byproduct of all that youth and music and summer. They’d been rehearsing Bartók together that week, and it seemed to follow naturally that the interweaving of melodies should lead so directly to the interweaving of limbs. As it so often had, in the history of Marlboro. In the history of music, for that matter.
He had wedged his thigh between her legs, and she felt her feet leave the earth, felt the dampness of the building soak through the back of her dress. Gravity rearranged itself so that leaning back against the theater’s slippery verticality was enough to keep from floating off into the night.
The next morning, she could still trace the red patches on her skin where Gregory’s mouth and chin had scraped and bitten: down her neck, along her collarbones, down her sternum. And it was only then, the next morning, standing in her towel in front of the narrow closet door mirror in the Marlboro dorm room, that she could process what had been so unusual, what left her so shaken and oxygen-deprived. Every man who had kissed her goodnight in the past year of formal and tepid dating had done so with a tactical purpose: obtaining a second date, getting invited upstairs, letting her down easy. But Gregory and his fervid mouth had only demonstrated the simplest and most emphatic things: clavicle, they said, and shoulder, and teeth and thirst.
And then he had lowered her, slow and weightless, to the ground – where his hand against her cheek and his walking back to the theater, hands in pockets, staring back over his shoulder, had not seemed in the least like a breaking off. Nor did it particularly seem like a story that was to be continued.
At lunch the next day there was no awkward avoidance, only a sly grin, which made it all right to rehearse peacefully with Mike and Mike that afternoon, to glide through the rest of the summer’s rehearsals and meals and concerts with neither longing nor regret, just a shaky sense of wonder.
Outside, she heard a car drive up and stop. Gregory and the Mikes weren’t due until the next morning, and she had a moment of dread considering that Gregory might have decided to show up a day early. But the car wasn’t in the driveway. It was out on the road near the oak tree, and when the doors opened two women worked their way out. The few leaves that had already fallen from the trees afforded her a clearer view of the cross than she’d had before, and as the women began circling it, she could see most of their bodies and their pale, teased-out hair. One was extremely thin, almost ill-looking, so that the other, though not obese, was nearly twice her size. They wore jeans and unzipped fleeces, and the larger one seemed younger – mother and daughter, perhaps, and perhaps the mother and sister of the dead girl. Celine had pictured something very different before. She’d imagined the dead girl as petite, with dark skin and long, straight black hair. Exactly like her teenaged self, she realized now, and wondered why she’d formed such a narcissistic picture. But no one like that could feasibly be related to these two women who were now walking partway up the driveway to peer at Celine’s car, to stare suspiciously at the house. Celine ducked out of the window frame and only looked again a few minutes later when she heard music blasting from the little blue car. They had turned on the radio and opened all the doors, so that now they had a soundtrack of anemic rock for the redecorations they were attempting around the cross.
They didn’t seem to be taking anything away, just adding. Celine got her father’s old bird-watching binoculars out of her desk and watched the women jab individual plastic flowers into the ground around the cross’s base. She inferred from the cardboard box still full of blue and white and pink that they intended on planting an entire plastic garden.
Over the next hour, as Celine went back and forth between unpacking and cleaning and staring out the window, the women too alternated between their plastic horticulture and sitting on the hood of the blue car, smoking, and laughing loud enough for Celine to hear.
At several points she considered pulling on her coat and walking out there, bringing the women mugs of hot cider, asking if there was anything she could do to help. But she never knew what to say in these situations, and she worried that her distaste at her new lawn decorations would show on her face. The way they kept looking at her car, kept pointing at her house and talking, she felt strangely judged. They already guessed her to feel superior, and they were right.
When the Mikes showed up the next morning – Mike Langley, the gay blond one, and Mike Cho, the straight Asian one who, in a fit of bravery, had slapped his arm around Celine that summer and called her his “half-breed half-Asian half-sister” – she was in a frenzy of breakfast preparations. She had covered the kitchen table with pitchers of orange juice and milk and coffee and plates of fruit and toast, and over at the stove she was working on “eggs with stuff,” which she was sure had a fancier name somewhere in the world. It occurred to her, as she hugged them both and showed them their rooms and ran back down to stir the browning vegetables and sausage, that filling the air with the smell of onions and peppers and mushrooms and meat might have been, in some way, an attempt at compensation for the hollow welcome of an empty and underdecorated house.
The Mikes sat at the table fidgeting and ate huge plates of eggs. Mike Langley was in his early twenties, and this had been his third summer at Marlboro, but Mike Cho was only eighteen. She had suddenly wondered, in the midst of all the arrangements for this week, if she should perhaps be calling his parents. Langley had picked him up from Juilliard this morning and driven him west in his little Honda. Despite their enormous talent, both had been noticeably intimidated that summer by both Celine and Gregory, and she hoped this week would put them at ease.
She was displeased with how frequently she found herself checking the clock, how busy her hands wanted to be. “There’s a bookstore in town,” she said, “and a coffee shop, if you want to drive in. I thought we could all go out to dinner tonight, or we can order pizza. And tomorrow is the day Julie is coming, from Deutsche Grammophon.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Langley said. “Don’t tell me.”
“You can pretend she’s my sister, and she’s visiting from Minnesota. My blond sister, ha! But she’s going to love you.”
Julie was thrilled about the quartet, especially since it involved Gregory, who was already on the label. But Celine hoped, from a sort of motherly perspective, that Julie would fall so in love with Mike and Mike that she’d develop independent relationships with them.
Gregory had, apparently, just let himself right in the front door, because there he stood, duffel bag in one hand, violin case in the other, his thinning hair still bleached almost blond from the summer, his face unshaven. He put his things on the floor and hugged everyone. Celine held her wooden spoon out awkwardly behind her back so she wouldn’t get grease on his coat.
“Quite a display you have out front there.”
“We were wondering!” Mike Cho said. But then he straightened his face, clearly worried he’d made a mistake. “Was it a dog?”
“A girl on a motorcycle.” Celine went back to the stove and started cracking eggs into the new batch of vegetables and sausage. Too many eggs, probably, but she couldn’t stop herself from cracking one more, and then one more. She told them the story, as she knew it, and about the recent additions. “I haven’t been out yet this morning. How bad is it?”
Gregory considered while he poured a mug of coffee. “I’d say it’s sprawling.”
She turned from the stove, relieved to have found a topic of limitless conversation. “Okay, here’s the issue then. Pretend you’re advice columnists, and I’m depending on you for a moral answer: What do I do? I can’t take it down. I can’t live with it forever. I can’t move. I can’t ask them to make it more tasteful. It’s selfish, I know, but I’m not okay with a grave on my lawn. Not forever.”
“Could you plant a shrub in front of it?” Mike Langley asked.
“That’s good! But maybe – no, it’s too close to the street. There’s only a couple feet of room. And in the winter you’d be able to see right through anyway.”
“You should complain to village hall,” Gregory said. “They probably own the land by the road for putting in phone poles, right? They wouldn’t want that on town property. Separation of church and state.”
“No. This is a town that erects a life-sized Last Supper on the green for Easter.”
“I want to see it again,” Mike Cho said. “We’re creative people. We should be able to come up with something.”
When he stood, Mike Langley followed him, leaving Celine with a pan of eggs she was about to serve Gregory, and Gregory with an empty plate. She scraped the eggs onto the plate – a mountain, really – and handed him a fork. “You can carry this, right?”
“I thought I’d stay here and chat with you and enjoy my coffee.” He looked straight at her and didn’t blink, and she saw that it was a challenge, or at least an offer.
“It’s so nice out!” she said. “And we’ll be sitting all day. Let’s get some exercise.”
And so he followed them all out the door, eating his eggs.
It was worse than she’d imagined. The flowers were spread over at least twenty-five square feet, all the way out to the street and all the way back to the oak, but three times as long as that lengthwise – a carpet of white and blue and pink. They had jammed the plastic stems so far into the earth that it was all botanically unnatural – roses and tulips and carnations that blossomed only three inches off the ground. The stuffed menagerie had expanded, as well. A plush moose and what looked like an off-brand Cabbage Patch doll were now slumped near the base of the cross, like winos at a bus stop.
Mike Langley clasped his hands behind his neck. “I’m offended, aesthetically,” he said. “As a gay man, I consider myself responsible for the aesthetics of the western world. And this is possibly the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Celine shook her head. “So tell me, then: am I a bad person? I do feel sorry for them. But that doesn’t mean they can have my lawn.”
“You’re a good person,” Gregory said. He was circling the scene with his eggs. “They can’t make a shrine on your property.”
Mike Cho was suddenly excited. “Could you mow the lawn and just chop them all down? And then it would just look like your lawn people did it.”
“I don’t think these are the kind of folks who would assume anyone had lawn people. Which I don’t, except when I’m out of town. And it would ruin my lawnmower.”
They all found themselves straightening things, just as Celine had the day she’d first found it. “Are you even religious?” Mike Cho asked. “Are you, like, Christian, or…?”
“Not since I was about fifteen. I love sacred music, though. I love masses, and I love requiems. I think the Verdi Requiem might be my favorite thing in the whole world, even though I don’t believe a word of the text. Is that weird?”
Mike Langley poked a fake tulip with the toe of his shoe and said, “I think ‘weird’ has just been redefined.”
Back in the house, Celine toasted more bread and refilled everyone’s coffee and started another batch of eggs. “Look at you,” Gregory said. “You’re Snow White, feeding all the little men.”
The Bartók went beautifully, as if a day hadn’t passed since Marlboro. Of all the groupings that summer – cello with piano, cello with flute and harp, cello with clarinet and alto – this string quartet had been the one that instantly justified itself, that proved at once surprising and inevitable. Rehearsals had left her sweaty and exhausted and jubilant. It had been a long time since she’d felt that way about any collaboration, and it had been at least a year since she felt she was making any progress, musically. Or any progress at all. She knew the Mikes must still be wondering what on earth these two experienced, successful musicians could want with two young kids. They didn’t understand yet what they were bringing to the equation themselves: fire, energy. And marketability, to be quite honest. It was an interesting concept, one that Julie from Deutsche Grammophon thought would sell quite nicely. “The music press will love it,” she’d said. “Because it’s about teaching, and it’s about a meeting of the generations, and it’s about Marlboro.”
Gregory was a subtle leader, so subtle that Celine found herself not just listening to his first violin but watching him closely, for any twitch of the mouth. When he looked back at her, just as when either of the Mikes caught her eye, it was with the unapologetic stare of collaborating musicians. There were, of course, musicians who never looked up from their hands or their instruments, but she’d seen quartets of straight men gaze at each other like they were making love.
They finished the Allegro and Prestissimo movements and stopped to talk about the balance. “You have amazing acoustics,” Gregory said. “We could record right here.”
She looked around the room, at the high ceiling and bare walls, the bare floor, the couch and coffee table pushed into a corner, the empty and cavernous fireplace. “It comes from having no furniture,” she said.
Mike Langley raised his viola bow tentatively in the air, asking permission to speak. The Mikes would both have to get bolder, be willing to argue with Celine and Gregory. “Should we come up with a name?” he asked. “Before your Deutsche Grammophon person gets here? Would that help?” No, it wouldn’t, particularly, but Celine didn’t want to shoot him down.
“I’m sure Marlboro Quartet is already taken,” Mike Cho said.
Gregory laughed. “No one has dared for a very long time.”
“The May-December String Quartet,” Celine offered. “Because two of us are so damn old.”
The Mikes both looked horrified, and confused about whether they should protest. “She doesn’t mean that,” Gregory said. “She’s only forty. What she means is the two of you are so damn young.” How Gregory knew her exact age, she had no idea. She wondered if he’d been Googling her. “The Happenstance Quartet,” he offered. “The House In The Middle Of Nowhere Quartet. The Get Your Cross Off My Lawn Quartet.”
Langley raised his bow again, but this time it was in triumph. “I’ve got it,” he said, and Celine was pleased with his confidence. “We shall be, from henceforth, The Cross-Purposes Quartet.” He didn’t need to spell out the various meanings. It was perfect, just like the quartet itself.
And when they played the Allegro again, lo and behold, it had a more solid shape, a stronger arc. They knew who they were.
That night, The Cross-Purposes Quartet sat drinking mulled wine in the chairs they’d pulled in front of Celine’s fireplace. Gregory had gone knocking at half the front doors on the long, winding block until he’d happened on an old man with a woodpile and a generous heart. The other three had watched, laughing, from the front porch as Gregory pushed an actual wheelbarrow back up the driveway.
Celine had left the room when Gregory opened the flue, afraid bats or mice would tumble out. She’d never had a fire in this house, but now that it was roaring along pleasantly, she imagined she might do it again sometime this winter. She might even invest in a real poker, rather than the barbecue fork Mike Cho was using to prod the logs.
“What if you moved it?” Mike Langley said, out of nowhere. “You could just transplant the whole thing one house down, in front of some other tree, and when they see it they’ll assume their minds are playing tricks.” He was joking, but she actually considered it for a second.
“I bet they’ve got an album full of photos with your house in the background,” said Gregory. “That’s something else – if the city does own that property, and you tear the shrine down, could these people sue? They’d have proof.”
“Oh, God. Take that back.” Celine found that she was looking at Gregory’s shoulder, his Adam’s apple, anywhere but his face. How strange, when it had been so comfortable to lock eyes during rehearsal. He wasn’t terribly handsome, but he didn’t need to be. He was a perfect example of what her grandmother had always said: after thirty-five, you look how you deserve to. Here was Gregory, whose green eyes were creased with laugh lines, whose arms were taut from music, whose habit of leaning forward into every conversation was a sort of invitation.
But Celine was absolutely not interested, and three years after the divorce from Lev she was fully and finally settled into her decision to be on her own. She had bought the house, and she had told her well-meaning friends that no, in fact she did not want to be set up. It was a lot like naming the quartet. She’d decided who she was, and this was what allowed her to move forward.
The conversation had turned back to religion. “I’d call it half-assed Buddhism,” Mike Cho was saying. “Like, pretending to be Buddhist in front of our grandparents. There was a lot of shoe removal. That’s all I really registered: a lot of OCD shoe stuff.”
Celine said, “Don’t you think there’s a connection? I went through obsessive-compulsive phases as a child, and they always went together with my religious phases. Touch everything three times, you know. Kneel and cross your chest. That’s all those women are doing out there. It’s compulsive ritual.”
“I imagine it has more to do with grief, Celine.” Gregory was leaning forward and smiling, but she still took it as a judgment.
“You see, I am a bad person.”
Despite her sinking mood, the night grew sillier and happier as the mulled wine turned to regular wine and then to coffee. Celine was persuaded to do her “cello blues” trick, with Gregory and Mike Langley trading verses (“Got a big white cross sitting out on my lawn / Got a big white cross sitting on my lawn / Got the white trash blues / Lord I wish that cross was gone”) and Mike Cho giggling like a sugared-up little girl. It occurred to her only then that she’d been serving alcohol to an eighteen-year-old. She poured him more coffee.
She was angry with herself, all night, for having let on how superior she felt to those two women. And perhaps, after all, she was only so disgusted with the women because she saw her younger self in them, in their belief in signs and their compulsive adding and adjusting. She remembered a period – she must have been ten – when every time she was alone in a room and sneezed or belched, she had to say “excuse me” to God one hundred times. If she lost count, she had to start over. One day when she was supposed to be practicing Bach, she sneezed but felt that she didn’t have time to stop playing, so she kept going, whispering “excuse me” on the first and third beats of every measure. And if she hated the child she had been, the one who had tried to control a frightening world through the details, then wasn’t it also natural that she should want to shake these adults by the shoulders, these grown women acting the same way?
She showed everyone where the towels were, and the linen closet, and the extra soaps, and she demonstrated the bathroom tap that had been hooked up backwards, so that the hot water was to the right and cold to the left. She spent five minutes trying to get the window closed all the way in Mike Langley’s room, even though he said he didn’t care, and then she found herself opening and closing all the drawers in that room’s tall old dresser, to make sure there was nothing inside. Gregory patted her on the shoulder and said, “How’s that OCD coming?”
Mike Cho was hung over in the morning, slumped at the table with his forehead on a bag of frozen peas. Celine made him a grilled cheese sandwich and forced him to drink glass after glass of water. Julie was due at the house at noon.
She agreed to go for a run with Langley – and really, it was also an excuse to check what damage had been done to the cross by the early-morning thunderstorm – and Gregory promised he’d do his best to detoxify Cho in their absence. As Celine and Langley stretched together on the porch, she realized she hadn’t been running since Marlboro, when the combination of damp, cold air and lingering cigarette smoke had made each deep intake of breath at once vital and strangled, as if she were running with the flu.
The shrine looked approximately the same, only the stuffed figures were slumped further over and the rain had left the flowers and the cross itself bright and glistening. It looked a little less like a grave and a little more like an Easter display. It had occurred to her, earlier that morning, that it might have been struck by lightning – that the problem could have been over that fast. As if God, offended by the tackiness of the display, might vaporize the whole thing and let the poor girl rest tastefully in peace, let Celine have her lawn back, let the women move on with their grief. It was strange, the way her brain clung to the notion of God, twenty-five years after she’d last prayed or made sure to touch the communion cup equally with both hands. Much like the way she still found herself budgeting money for hypothetical vacations when there was no one to vacation with, and when she’d never liked traveling with Lev in the first place.
She managed to keep pace with Langley, despite his alarmingly long legs. “So tell me about Vitrello,” he said, meaning Gregory. “What’s his deal?”
In the several steps it took her to catch enough breath to speak, Celine considered how she was meant to answer. “He likes you guys,” she said. “I think he’s committed to this.”
Langley was grinning beside her. “That was my subtle way of asking if he’s queer. I was trying to figure it out all summer. Sometimes I swear he’s flirting. But wasn’t he married once? Clue me in.”
“He wasn’t married,” she said. “But he’s straight. Sorry.”
Langley, she realized, was barely jogging beside her, just sort of loping along, the way you might pretend to run with a small child. “You know for sure?” he asked, and when he turned to hear her answer, she knew she’d already given it: her cheeks were burning, and her hand had fluttered to her forehead. “Really,” he said, and kept jogging with his head turned, as if she might tell him the whole story.
She didn’t, of course, and she was horrified with herself for blushing, but at least the adrenaline carried her all the way to the end of the road.
By the time Julie showed up, Mike Cho had emptied his stomach several times and was weak but functional. Celine worried, as they started tuning, that he would fall asleep on his viola’s chin rest. Langley, in contrast, never stopped moving his feet or rocking his body back and forth, and seemed in danger of chewing his own lips off. And then there was Gregory, staring her down.
Julie had shown up in a black pantsuit and heels, and had nearly tripped walking up the gravel drive in the rain. She was reclining barefoot now on the couch in the corner, drinking tea and waiting for the music.
Gregory started them far too slowly, Mike Langley seemed to be playing a different piece than everyone else entirely, and Mike Cho was nearly catatonic. Celine herself was still bothered, really, by her own reaction to Langley’s questions. She’d acted like an idiotic child, one who didn’t understand that what happened at Marlboro did not translate into the real world. Well, maybe the music did – though what was this mess they were presenting to Julie, then? – but not the sex. It was like Vegas, in that regard.
They were making a disaster of it, although really the first movement of Bartók’s fourth quartet was dissonant enough to hide the rough edges to less trained ears, and Julie was more a businesswoman than a musician. They muddled their way through three awkward movements and arrived at the Allegreto Pizzicato: three minutes of entirely plucked strings, which when done well sounded playful and crisp and strangely elfin, and when done badly, sounded like arguing birds. Langley’s manic energy and Cho’s nauseated languor didn’t bode well, and when they all leaned over to put their bows on the floor, Cho stayed down a full five seconds.
Gregory and Celine started too loudly, but it gave Langley something to follow and it seemed to snap Cho awake. It was like leading students, slow ones, rather than colleagues, but it worked. And then the accented notes that require those insane Bartók pizzicati – where the player plucks the string so hard it slaps back against the fingerboard – somehow electrified the room, so that by the end of the movement they were back together, back in some caffeinated and blessed rehearsal space in Vermont, and Julie was sitting up on the couch.
When she was much younger, Celine would have taken all those fours to mean something: four instruments playing the fourth movement of the fourth quartet. One more four would have been better: four to the fourth power. The four points of the cross, then. Maybe that would count. But then, she wondered what she meant by count. Because who was doing the counting?
Julie loved it – had loved it from the beginning, in fact – and was anxious to talk about recording schedules and the Marlboro tour that fall and publicity and a website. Gregory, for some reason, was more anxious to talk about the cross, and he told Julie the story. “There’s really no good answer,” he said. “I was sitting up half the night thinking about it.”
Celine was strangely flattered by the validation of her own obsession.
“You should get a lawyer,” Langley said. He had turned his chair around to sit in it backwards, like a twelve-year-old punk. He couldn’t stop grinning at Julie.
“No! No, I can’t have you involved in a lawsuit!” Julie had found the whole thing funny, up till now. “And not about this!”
Mike Cho excused himself then to lie down upstairs, and Celine followed with a glass of water. She put a garbage can next to his bed and closed the curtains against the sunlight. When she came back, Julie was offering her own solution. “You leave a note,” she said, “where you offer to build something more permanent. You say you’ve noticed the rain damage, and you’d like to buy them a marble slab. Or a fountain, or something. One of those saints made of poured cement.”
“Or a real garden!” Langley said. “Which would conveniently hide the marble slab.”
It was a good solution, befitting Julie’s polish and young, blond professionalism. Those were qualities Celine knew she herself lacked. Or rather, she’d always lacked polish, but now, blushing at the sight of the first violinist, measuring the distance between their bodies, she had lost her last ounce of professionalism.
Julie left that evening, and the boys stayed three more days. Celine made sure to delay the Mikes until Gregory was ready to go, then said goodbye to all of them at once, standing on the porch without a coat and hugging herself against the cold. She kissed them all on the cheek, and maybe she did feel a little like Snow White, sending her dwarves off into the mines. Only they were carrying curvy black cases, instead of pickaxes. They’d see each other in November for the Marlboro tour, and then they’d start recording. “Take a flower on your way out!” she called. “As a souvenir!” The Mikes started towards Langley’s car, but Gregory lingered behind, was even turning back to the porch, and so Celine went inside and slammed the door behind her.
She took Julie’s advice, and the next day she wrote a note on her nice stationery and sealed it in a Ziploc and stuck it to the cross with duct tape. She phrased it nicely, offering several different options for “a more permanent memorial.”
Weeks passed, and she thought they might not come back at all, but then there they were one morning, exactly one month after their last visit. It must have been the anniversary; the accident must have happened on July tenth. So she could expect them again on November tenth, and every tenth thereafter. She ran for her binoculars and watched from the guestroom where Gregory had slept. She realized, kneeling on the bed for a better view, that she hadn’t changed the sheets, hadn’t even straightened the covers. It had been a long month, one of those months that last two years. It had been wet and cold and horrible, and Lev, she read in the Times, had gotten remarried. The bed felt strangely warm, as if Gregory had only just rolled out to grab some breakfast.
The women took a box from their trunk, then spent a long time walking around the cross before they finally peeled the Ziploc off and opened it. Celine couldn’t see their faces as they read, but when they finished they stepped closer for a better view of her house. They stood staring up at the windows, hands above their eyes to block the sun. She didn’t move, but she put the binoculars down. She actually did want them to know she was home, in case they felt like ringing her doorbell to discuss the offer.
There was something about their body language that she didn’t like, something about the way they both stood with their weight to one side, one hip jutting out, that felt angry and unpleasant – as if she’d done exactly the wrong thing. The older woman pointed at the house and said something, and they both laughed. Celine could tell even from way up here that it was a bitter laugh, a sixth-graders-on-the-playground, sarcastic sort of laugh. The older one took the note and ripped it into pieces, and walked to Celine’s car. She lifted the windshield wiper and stuck the shreds underneath it, like some perverse flier.
The women took little plastic pumpkins out of their box and spent the next half hour sticking them all around the cross.
She decided she’d email the rest of quartet in the morning. “What do I do now?” she would ask. “Does this give me the right to be mean?”
Over the past month, both Mikes had become more and more comfortable, at least over email, with expressing their opinions. Mike Cho had been brave enough to shoot down Gregory’s Haydn idea before Celine could veto it herself. Julie, meanwhile, was nagging them all to come into the city and have photos taken. Celine knew it was important, that Julie couldn’t start any publicity without it, but she kept putting it off. She was busy, truly, and she was getting ready for Vienna, and there were student recitals. But mostly she didn’t want to pose in a little row, staring seriously at her cello, turning red from her proximity to Gregory. She was like one of those apocryphal native people, worried the camera would steal her soul. Or at least, in this case, expose it.
That night Celine was playing Saint-Saëns in the living room, sitting on one of the same four chairs that had stayed in a vacated semicircle for the past month, when the doorbell rang. She had wanted so badly to talk to the women before, but now it was dark, and she knew they were angry, and they’d had enough time to go home and come back with lord knows what. Weapons, or pictures of the dead girl. She held her bow out in front of her like a saber and sat perfectly still in her chair. They rang the bell again, and then again, and then they started knocking, loud and fast. Of course they’d heard the cello through the door, and if the sheriff was willing to tell a perfect stranger on the phone about the “Oriental lady musician,” he’d surely told these women the same thing, at some point in the paperwork process. He’d probably added “famous” and “rich,” neither of which was really true in the grand scheme of things, but that was her reputation in town.
The knocking was odd and irregular, and she wondered if they had come back with the girl’s drunken father. Or sent him alone. And she deserved their spite, she realized. How condescending must it seem, for the lady in the big house to offer to buy something nicer? Excuse me, could I please make your grief a little more tasteful?
It took her a good minute to realize the knocking wasn’t irregular at all. It was the William Tell Overture, in perfect rhythm. She stood and walked slowly to the door, bow still perpendicular to her stomach. She called, “Lev?”
“No.” The voice was familiar and vaguely hurt, and the knocking stopped. She opened the door and there was Gregory, his violin case and his duffel bag at his feet, as if he hadn’t gone anywhere at all since the day she slammed the door.
He said, “I come to plead sanctuary. I saw your cross out front. This is a church, correct?”
And what could she do but laugh and let him in? She made a pot of coffee, and he lit a fire with the wood that was left from September, and the whole time she didn’t ask him what he was doing there, and he didn’t offer an explanation. She wanted to ask if he thought he was in a movie, that he could just show up at someone’s door expecting love or sex or friendship, or whatever it was he was after. But there were worse kinds of movie.
They pulled the couch up to the fireplace, and she told him about the note that was still out there under her windshield wipers.
Gregory said, “And I showed up the same day? It’s a sign.”
Instead of asking what it was a sign of, Celine said, “I don’t believe in signs.” She was holding her cup in both hands, grateful to have a fire to look at.
“Sure you do. Of course you do.” She didn’t answer, and so he said, “I know you do, you must, because you believe in music.”
“But you came today on purpose. Did you figure it out, about the anniversaries?”
He put his coffee on the floor and finally unbuttoned his thin coat. “I came because I have another solution. I think you should move.”
“I don’t think you’re happy here, and I think you should stay with me in the city.”
The warmth was getting too much for her, between the hot cup in her hands and the fire, and the blood roaring through her face.
“You should sell the house. You’ve exiled yourself out here, and I don’t know why. Come live with me and be my love, as they say.”
“Who says that?”
“I do. I just did.” He laughed, and she refused to look at him, she absolutely refused, but she could hear his fingers touching his beard. She could see his brown shoes, stretched toward the fire.
“Who would buy a house with a shrine on the lawn?”
“Let the realtor worry about that.”
“What, I’m Cinderella, and you’re going to sweep me away in a pumpkin?”
He leaned so far into her field of vision that she couldn’t help but see him grinning at her. “We’ve been over this. You’re Snow White.”
Celine was floating a foot above the floor as she brought Gregory a bowl of butternut squash soup and a glass of wine. She told him that he was crazy, but that she wasn’t insulted. She said she’d forget he’d ever presumed to tell her what to do with her life, for the sake of the quartet. “The old folks shouldn’t quarrel in front of the children,” she said. They tried some of Bach’s two-part inventions, but they had no sheet music and they couldn’t remember any through to the end. Celine kept trying to sing Gregory’s part, to remind him, and they’d both end up laughing.
She said, “The bad news is, your sheets are dirty. The good news is, it’s your own dirt.”
He said, “See? It’s another sign.” And he went up to bed without even trying to kiss her.
Celine stayed down to make sure the fire was fully dead. She straightened Gregory’s shoes by the door so they lined up perfectly with her own, and she made sure all the doors were locked. She sat back on the couch, and at that very moment the last log tumbled forward against the grate, shooting up a shower of sparks.
If she still believed in signs, they would be clear today: the dying fire, the scene of death on the lawn, the ripped-up note under her wipers. Time to move on. And then here was Prince Charming on her doorstep with his fiddle. What other sign could she be waiting for? Except, perhaps, the one that would make her believe in signs again at all.
She walked up the stairs and brushed her teeth and looked out the bathroom window. There were no street lights this far out in the country, and so no cross, no flowers. You’d never know anything was out there at all, beyond your own reflection on a glassy sheet of blackness. And what a reflection! She stared in bafflement at this bright-eyed, grinning stranger. There she was in the mirror, too, her pulse so fast and exuberant she could see it in her neck and temples. She scratched her cheek to see if it was sunburnt or just flushed.
Well, there were signs like crosses and runes and totems, and then there were the signs of the body. Those ones didn’t play fair, didn’t sit on your lawn and wait for interpretation. They hijacked you. Before her body could betray her any further, before it could carry her to Gregory’s door, she grabbed the shampoo from the side of the tub and squeezed a good quarter cup of green slime right on top of her head. She said out loud, “You’re not going anywhere like that.”
But the shower didn’t help, the ratty towel didn’t help. She put her clothes back on.
The lamplight under Gregory’s door. This stubborn and idiotic lust. Sometimes, after all, a thing wasn’t an omen but the event itself, as solid and irrefutable as an oak tree right in the path of your little motorcycle.
She walked into the guest room and sat on the edge of Gregory’s bed. He closed his novel and tugged the sheet up to his armpits. “I bet your apartment doesn’t even have room for a cello,” she said. “You want to hear a cello every morning when you step out of the shower?”
“Yes. I want that very much.”
“You’re not even going to take me out on a date first? And we might hate each other. Do you think it could ruin the quartet? It could.”
He held his hand out to her, palm up. It took her a moment to realize he wasn’t offering any answers but that.
And she took the hand, and he pulled her into the bed and under the covers, and even in the lamp-lit darkness, even as the whole house dissolved around them into the gray, ecstatic haze of two a.m., she was wide awake.
His mouth on her shoulder was warm. The universe folded in on itself. She found the deep and hollow place where his neck became his chest.
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This essay is featured content from the Summer 2012 issue.
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