Copyright is held by the author.
DOESN’T EVERY house have its own unique smell? How is that, when everyone’s mom cooked the same pot roast, used the same cleaning powder? And why is it that you never notice your own house’s smell, but you’ll recognize it. Like a false memory. Deja vu. This in spite of all the world’s other smells, despite sinus infections, broken noses, cocaine, despite confusing your wife’s and daughter’s birthdays. You could forget your own name, forget your address, but stumble through the doors and catch the first note of that smell, and you’re home.
David’s childhood had been blessed with three homes, one each for mom, dad, and spinster Aunt Margaret. His parents’ places were long since disposed of, but he still owned Margaret’s, an honest-to-goodness mansion, Federalist, Republican, upright atop a high point overlooking the centre of Jamaica Plain in south Boston. Thank God for Margaret, and for the market that cratered just as she passed. Every cloud.
He reached down and plucked the realtor’s sign from the husking grass beside the driveway. In his other hand, he carried his violin case and a plastic bag with essentials like a small bottle of rescued Scotch. He laid the sign by the front door and got out his keys and opened the door. There it was, baked behind closed glass all summer long, that smell.
He’d lived perhaps the better part of his life out of suitcases. This would be no different. A temporary stay while Helene caught her breath in their South End apartment. A caesura, nothing more. He laid the violin on the plastic-sheeted couch in the living room and continued on into the kitchen. Set his bag on the counter. There would be no ice; the appliances were all unplugged. But there were glasses. As he brought the first sip to his lips he realized he’d been holding his breath. He breathed in, choked, settled himself, and drained the glass.
He went back out to the car and brought in a weekender bag with his toiletry case, phone charger, underwear. Nothing yet from Helene on his phone. He poured another drink and began to feel more himself. Moved the violin to a table, peeled the plastic from the couch, and sat down.
A week went by with no sign of a thaw from the South End. Trips made to raid the apartment for clothes were met with no resistance. It was as if Helene had disappeared herself from their marriage. David spun himself in circles launching volleys of texts that swung out into the responseless ether. He breathed in the mold-marbled air of Margaret’s house, and came to recognize the shift changes behind the counter at the deli down the street. Late summer deepened and then dripped away. With gravity, he switched from takeout to groceries, contracted for cable and internet. His texts went unsent, and he settled down to wait her out.
David’s wasn’t the only life in flux. In August, his standmate Brendan had failed his tenure review. The orchestra’s version of a pink slip. They’d given him a final season to send out auditions while they searched for his replacement. He was still young, unattached; he’d find something somewhere. But his days with the Big Five, the symphonies in Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland, were over.
The problem wasn’t skill. Alone, Brendan remained a virtuoso. But submersed within the concert of violins, David sometimes caught him faking, playing simpler phrases that were close enough not to be noticed by the audience, but which were still, unmistakably, wrong.
“A painter with eye strain,” David told him over the phone. “A sommelier with a cold. That’s all.”
“Yips,” said Brendan.
It didn’t feel like the right time to talk about the separation.
Labor Day came and with it a return to a regular schedule. Rehearsals, performances, lessons for students at Berklee College of Music. The orchestra gathered in the performance space at Symphony Hall and talked through the weeks they’d spent apart. Pictures were shared, trips discussed. From behind a curtain at the side of the stage the conductor appeared, a spindly man in perpetually wrinkled black clothing, and the musicians sifted towards their sections and seats.
The fall season played forward like a trip down a slide that got progressively narrower. They cycled through Brahms, Beethoven, Strauss, and Shostakovich. Soloists from Central Europe came and went. In the chair next to David’s, Brendan reliably faked his way through another difficult motif while, offstage, the massive apparatus of the orchestra administration creaked towards the search for his replacement. Numbers whispered around the edges of the strings: three hundred applications, eighty passed to the audition round. You might hear now and then about a timpanist retiring early, a bored bassoonist leaving to write jazz, but Big Five openings were rare. The vast majority of them would expire, or nearly so, still nominally occupying their named and endowed chairs.
“A friend of mine from college was just in for her audition,” said Dawn, who sat in the row behind them. “I think you’d like her.” And then fell silent as Brendan made his way towards his seat.
They were those rarest birds: salaried artists. They could spot each other at a distance by the black nylon cases they carried from their cars or the train to the staff entrance at Symphony Hall. They chatted in the locker room and assembled onstage, 94-strong. When each of them played well, they produced a harmonious whole. When they did not play well, they lurched, four bars and stop, four bars and stop, forward and backward until the passages in question lost their meaning. Usually, there was little disagreement on what was meant to be played. The challenge was letting someone else coax it out of you.
Sometimes after practice, David crossed Huntington Avenue and walked through the South End on a looping path to the Orange Line. It was still his neighbourhood after all, still the same trees shading the sidewalk, the blinds in his apartment’s bay window waving as he passed.
“Why is mom saying you won’t be at Thanksgiving?” asked their daughter Tonja, calling from Brooklyn. A shiver like he’d been caught in a lie.
“When were you going to tell me?”
He wasn’t sure he’d known.
It had been too early to confide in Brendan and now it was too late. He spent Thanksgiving eating off Styrofoam in Jamaica Plain. And then it was December, and Christmas with its round-the-clock commitments to Handel and Tchaikovsky, and it was too awkward to explain why he hadn’t told him to start with.
Tonja came to see the Christmas Eve performance and he took her to dinner afterwards, both of them avoiding the obvious topic.
The guilty truth was that there was nothing wrong with being alone. Aloneness meant the ability to choose: to sleep in, to eat out, to stay late at post-performance drinks. He asked Tonja for help finding healthy recipes for beginners. He bought a vacuum cleaner and actually used it. He began to plan more than a few weeks ahead at a time.
By early spring they had a name: Julia Malkin. Dawn’s college friend. David found her picture and bio on the faculty page of a prep school in the suburbs. A few second-tier professional affiliations. She was young for the orchestra but not exceptionally so, with reddish brown hair and a thin face. Dawn gave him her email, and he sent an invitation to coffee.
As a kid, he rode out to Aunt Margaret’s on the old elevated Orange Line along Washington Street. It made for a grand tour exiting the tunnel at Back Bay, holding your backpack to your chest as you passed over Dudley Square’s profusion of ethnic storefronts, and then finally letting out a train-brake sigh of relief at the Forest Hills terminus. They’d sunk the elevated underground in the ‘80s, when he’d been in New York. Now, riding the other way, all he could see was tunnel wall lit gray where the cut of track was exposed to the sky.
Julia was waiting for him in a window of the Starbucks a block from Symphony Hall. David guided her to a table towards the back and they sorted through their hellos.
“I can’t believe it,” she said, indicating the direction of the Hall. “It’s so close.”
He nodded, and realized he had no idea what he was hoping they’d talk about. Maybe Dawn could have given him topics. Instead, he found himself describing his relationship with Brendan, as if that’s what she wanted to discuss. “You develop a certain allegiance to each other, almost a fraternal —”
“Or sororal,” she said, which made him stop and smile.
“You never want to see it happen to someone you care about,” he said sotto voce. “But he wouldn’t have been happy if he stayed. It’s — things can get difficult when you’re no longer contributing.”
She had broad shoulders that folded in over the table as she blew on her coffee. Her glasses kept sliding down her nose. He wondered if she wore contacts when she played.
“It does feel a bit like the first day of school,” he said. “Still. Meeting your new deskmate. Hoping you don’t end up with the kid who eats paste.”
“You think I don’t eat paste?”
He checked both ways as he left Starbucks and continued on to rehearsal. Brendan was already on stage, studying the page of Brahms as if he intended to actually play it.
“Diversity hire,” Brendan whispered. David glanced towards Dawn’s empty seat, and then tried to meet Brendan’s eyes.
“You know the difference between a bull and an orchestra?”
“I’ve heard this one.”
“A bull has its horns at the front and its ass in the rear.”
In bed that night, he Googled her name again. Her headshot showed her seated, shoulders back and head erect, instrument held upright by the neck, face and turtleneck front-lit against a black background.
When he’d met Helene at Berklee, the Starbucks was a hardware store. The hippie era was swinging down to its muddled end. After graduation, they moved to New York, where David worked his way up the orchestral hierarchy while Helene played with a series of self-cannibalizing bands that flitted between the darkened bars around the Lower East Side. Coming back to Boston had been like emerging from the pool of youth into the becalmed air of middle age. They acquired in quick succession a car and a dog, and then a child. The dog and car were long gone; the child was on the phone again.
“Dad, she wants you to fight for her,” said Tonja. “What are you waiting for?”
He and Helene weren’t not talking. He called her after an evening giving notes as one of Berklee’s rising stars flawlessly executed Bartok’s Violin Concerto #2.
“I should feel proud, but I just feel old,” he said. “I feel left behind.”
“You are old.”
“We’re both old.”
“That’s not charitable.”
He pressed his phone against his ear as if looking through the bay window. He could see her on their bed, head resting on a stack of pillows, a younger version of his own hand running his fingers through her hair until it lay spread down the back side of the pillows like the root system of a great tree.
Or maybe he’d only remembered them speaking from some other time. He couldn’t, he realized, put an exact date on their last conversation.
“Have you considered the role of resentment?” he asked Tonja.
“Two musicians, equally talented.”
The orchestra waited while each section tuned. They waited for the conductor to make his way to the podium. They waited while he instructed and bantered. There was nothing wrong with waiting. It was the commitment you made to get permission to play.
He and Brendan closed out the season with a trip to a dive bar overlooking I-90 on its way past Symphony Hall.
“What do all great musicians have in common?” asked Brendan, watching through a chain-link fence as the traffic stalled beneath them.
“You’ll figure it out,” said David. “There’s pressure in the tank but the faucet’s blocked.”
“Symphony reject falls flat.”
And then he was gone, off to a trial period at the Buffalo Philharmonic and a lifetime, no doubt, of tutoring neurotic teens until they began to complain of finger soreness and then quit. Most people didn’t have the balls to sacrifice for their art.
Each spring, HR circulated a list of rentals available near Tanglewood, their summer venue in western Massachusetts. David usually went for the cheapest apartment he could find, but this year settled on a grand old vacation home befitting the owner of a mansion in Jamaica Plain. He arrived to a musty, rambling place with rows of dead bugs lining the window sills. Mismatched furniture suggested the successive waves of redesign happening at some other home.
Tanglewood meant classical music removed from the rarified air of Symphony Hall. The selections were more accessible, the orchestra itself more democratic. And yet, released from formality, old relations seemed only to grow stronger. At a kickoff barbeque hosted by the concertmaster and his wife, David watched the hosts circulate between groves of pale, hairless legs sorted by habit into strings, woodwinds. The conductor arrived late, dressed in an outfit made of something like crepe paper. He began to make his own way amongst the tables and the concertmaster and wife stood again and joined him on a second round, a supergiant trapping smaller bodies in orbit.
They performed twice a week at the open-air main stage. Other nights might feature collaborations with pop stars or a black and white movie with the orchestra as live accompaniment. David’s mornings began with a late breakfast and a walk. Then rehearsal or solo practice, and on non-performance days, a routine of studied leisure. He raced through a shelf of beach reads sitting on the back porch, drink in hand, the back yard sloping down into a wooded ravine. Sometimes he played for the trees, imagining confused hikers trying to follow the music.
Tonja called, and he let her go to voicemail. He could imagine the conversation. He was being stupid, stubborn. How could he break to her the tragedy of coupled life, that you adapted until neither of you liked the people you’d become?
There were workshops, lectures. A youngish trumpeter organized a hike up Lenox Mountain and at the top, in the shadow of a cell phone tower, they passed around a joint.
“Why did Shostakovich take his 14th Symphony to the doctor?” David asked the trumpeter. “Its movements were irregular.”
Walking down, he felt the summer sun sweating his back and grounded heat through his shoes and even the mountain rolling its shoulders, thrusting him up as he descended.
Another party followed their performance led by a visiting luminary. Dressed in his tux, David funnelled to his table through a maze of function rooms hemmed into coherence, left his name card at an empty seat, and headed to the bar. He got two vodka sodas and downed one as he turned towards a row of windows giving out onto the main lawn. The sun was setting and the heat released the smell of dry cleaner’s chemicals buried in his jacket.
He felt someone standing next to him and turned to find Dawn.
“You missing your better half?” she asked.
She looked at him quizzically.
“I mean since Brendan’s gone. Who’s Helene?”
He’d never worn a ring. It would have impeded his left hand.
“You’re kidding,” she said.
She had no idea he was married.
He lay in bed the following morning watching the room take shape as the sun rose through the trees. At their concert that night, he ran his bow soundlessly over his strings, gritted his teeth and shifted his fingers in imitation of a classical violinist. No one said a word.
They didn’t need his contribution.
Driving back to Boston after the summer season’s close, he called Tonja.
“I’ve been doing some reflecting,” he heard himself say. “Priorities isn’t the best word. I want to make different choices.”
She sounded impressed. “But you’re sure you’ve thought this through?” she asked.
He left a voicemail for Helene. The traffic on I-90 slowed and then released as he approached the city.
Back in Aunt Margaret’s house, he slept fitfully. He sent an email to the realtor who’d handled the house when it had been on the market a year before. He spent a long time getting a stain out of the couch.
Later that week, he rode the Orange Line to Symphony Hall beneath a sunless white sky. He breathed in the smell of the staff rooms, which must have grown on him while he was away. An exit interview while a phone rang unanswered in the office next door. And a final walk through the concert hall with its polish and lingering rosin, hushed as the moment before a performance began.