by Alison McBain
“You’re obsessed,” Judy said.
“I’m not.” But Paul’s voice sounded hollow. The small talk of the past hour had finally ended, and he was thankful more than upset. He’d sensed Judy was irritated about something, and it was a relief to have her finally spit it out.
Birds were singing discordant notes in the trees around the café where the two of them were sitting, the dregs of drinks sitting in cups on their table. The birdsong distracted him for a moment. He looked up and shaded his eyes from the bright sun before he focused his attention back on Judy and forced a laugh. “Well, maybe a little obsessed. But it’s my job.”
She didn’t laugh with him. Her eyes were large and dark and solemn. “It’s not healthy when it affects you like this. Like before, when you almost—”
“Look, I’m sorry I didn’t get out to see you last week,” he interrupted. His tone probably should have been softer, but he heard the thin thread of impatience creep into it. He took a deep breath and started again. “It’s just with the season starting and practices every day, I really can’t... You know how it is.”
“Don’t I understand? Always?” Judy’s mouth had frozen into a hard shape.
Paul leaned forward on his uncomfortable metal chair to take her hand. At his touch, her mouth began to thaw. She gave him a tight smile as he massaged her fingers.
“Sorry I’m such an ass. I don’t know why you put up with me,” he said, playing with her thumbnails.
She finally laughed. “Yeah, well. I must be a saint.”
His eyes focused on the intertwining of their hands. The birds sang, and the sharp notes struck against his eardrums. His head hurt terribly, making it hard to concentrate on what Judy was saying. But he tried.
“We can’t all be perfect,” he admitted.
* * *
Perfect: the music was perfect, like a performance conducted by Barbirolli. The strings dominated the melancholy thrum of the clarinets before the flutes undercut them and the violins reasserted themselves. It was an effortless dialogue between brass and strings, the unsullied tones of a hundred instruments singing together flawlessly.
* * *
He sat up. Light filtered in through the edges of the blinds, and his skin was clammy with sweat even though he’d kicked off the sheets ages ago. He scrubbed his hands over his face, then ran his fingers through his greasy hair. It didn’t matter how long he lived in this godforsaken city, he’d never get used to the heat.
Resting his feet on the floor, he paused before heaving himself up and taking a trip to the toilet. Afterwards, he ran a glass under the faucet. The cool water sliding down his throat only made him more aware of the still burn of the air, like being in the bathroom after a shower was turned off.
The sounds of the instruments were still vivid in his ears. Other people might dream about things from the day, such as familiar faces or events, sometimes irrational fears or phobias. He dreamed music. No sights, no colors, just the perfect collision of sound from an orchestra of unparalleled musicians. When he woke, the music stayed within his head, ringing through his ears. And then he tried, over and over again during the day, to reproduce it on his instrument. Tried and failed.
The failure to capture perfection.
He shuffled the few quick steps back to bed. He lay down on his stomach and pillowed his head on his arms. The rain-like rush of heavy traffic drifted up from the street below, and he closed his eyes, longing — dreading — to hear the music again.
* * *
“Too heavy,” said the guest conductor, a German. His words were short and barked, but he didn’t seem to care he was playing to a stereotype. “Again.”
They played until the conductor stopped them a page down. “You — second chair — you are hair behind. Aufs Neue. Again.”
They played several measures. The German tapped his baton, said something critical, and then the music returned.
Over and over and over.
Flawed, all of it flawed. The sounds rushed back and forth, searching for proper outlet. Each mistake echoed in Paul’s ears like earsplitting feedback from a microphone. He remembered what he heard at night, the perfection of the notes, the way it was supposed to sound. The knot of tension in his neck threw fingers of pain up his skull until he thought he would vomit under the stress of failure.
“Genug für heute. Today, enough,” said the German in disgust before stalking off the stage.
* * *
“Five days,” he told Judy on the phone. “Think you’ll survive without me?”
Her laughter was like razorblades in his ear. “I’m sure I can, but I don’t know if you will. Hey, maybe when I get back, we should—”
Judy’s voice faded, and he lost the conversation before an onslaught of notes. In the back of his head, he listened to the joining of brass and strings, an interspecies mating of disparate sounds. The lovers danced, broke apart and joined together again. Cymbals clashed as the instruments twined together, with the strong heartbeat of the drum showing life, vitality.
He heard his name through the last kiss of dying notes. “What?” he said, realizing he was still on the phone and Judy had been speaking.
After a moment, she said, “All right, then. It’s okay, Paul. I need to get going anyway.”
“Sorry,” he said, as he was expected to. They hung up and he would have felt guilty, but the music remained, trapped within him. He moved away from the phone, picked up his bow and violin and closed his eyes as he set the instrument under his chin.
* * *
“No,” said the conductor the next day to the woman who played second chair. The conductor had never spoken directly to Paul, but Paul could feel each word, each halt, each mistake down the vertebrae of his spine as if he were being struck by whips. It didn’t matter that the music wasn’t his, the fault wasn’t his. He was a part of the failure.
The German glared at the offender, who just nodded her head at being singled out, unfazed by the criticism. “You are coming in too hard, with too much emphasis. Again.”
* * *
Paul walked through the dirty streets of the city, and sound followed him. He timed his feet to the drum, the voices of people around him an angry and impatient chorus.
When he returned to his apartment, he didn’t bother to turn on the lights. He stripped in the dark and lay down on the bed. The sweat ran off his body. His head pounded.
The numbers on the clock twisted around, fell down to small digits and then rose again. The night sky brightened as he stared at the clock, unblinking.
The sound was in his ears. He wasn’t dreaming, but he could hear it, swelling and ebbing. He didn’t need to close his eyes anymore; it was a constant companion, a lover. His love.
* * *
“You sound strange,” said Judy, tinny with distance. It was hard to hear her over the full-blown orchestra. The notes were in his ears, rattling around the agony in his head, bringing the pain to the front of his skull in sharp staccato throbs. He wasn’t sure of his voice anymore, or if he was even speaking.
“Fine,” he said. Or thought he said. Perhaps he was shouting into the phone, but it was just so hard to hear. “It’s a bad connection. See you at the performance tonight.”
* * *
His collar was choking him. Paul sat down in his chair early, while everyone else was laughing and chatting, and flipped through the music. He wasn’t really looking at the sheets; it was more an excuse to avoid speaking to anyone. The music was already inside him.
The lights flickered once, twice. The orchestra assembled and instruments were caressed into shape, a mixture of discordant notes seeping into the edges of his hearing. He didn’t need to tune. He already knew the voice of his violin, and she was eager to sing the notes he had taught her. The dark and exotic curves of the instrument enticed, and he stroked her absently with his fingers, the tips of his nails, the hot palm of his hand. He rested his cheek on her and closed his eyes, listening.
Before the stage lights flared, the curtains dropped and the hard sound of hands folded together and rose into a swell of applause. He blinked at the crowd, the orbs of faces with blobby black holes for eyes. Judy was supposed to be there, but he wasn’t able to see her beyond the lights. The German stalked onto the stage, and there was no more time to look.
It should have been quiet as the baton rose through the spotlight, but it wasn’t. The notes were screaming in his head. He swallowed against the nausea from the pain. His hand trembled as he set his bow to the strings at the conductor’s signal.
The music advanced. It thrummed through his bones, filled his head and his eyes. The trembling in his hand spread to his arms, his torso, his legs, his throat. He couldn’t breathe under the oppressive perfection of sound, and he gasped in the hot air, choking. The instrument flared as if burning, and the stage lights shuddered under an earthquake of sound. The notes dropped like hail, and he was confused at the rush of heat and light and noise.
Suddenly, everything fell into darkness. He slept.
* * *
“I don’t understand. What caused it?” Judy’s voice was familiar but unmelodious.
“A virus. Stress. Any number of factors may have contributed.”
“What do we do now?”
A pause. “We’ll run more tests, see how he progresses.”
“But he’ll come out of the coma, won’t he?”
A longer pause. “We’ll see. I’m sorry.”
He tried to blink, to clear his vision, but the room remained dark. Were his eyes open or shut?
Judy, he wanted to say, don’t worry. I did it. It’s over now.
But when his mouth opened, there were no words. Only the squeal of bows creaking against resin-coated strings, the croak of broken reeds and the clash of an irregularly pounded drum. Overriding the thrum of his heartbeat, the background tap of a metronome counted out time.
Everything was black, but he could hear Judy crying. Her sobs were mangled notes.
The broken orchestra played behind the soft sounds of her grief.
Copyright © 2018 by Alison McBain