First Violin : Chapter 2

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***

Grace boarded the pistachio-colored bike. She had chosen it expressly for the color; that was something she had a great appreciation for. Her stripes were maroon, not red; her blanket was not gray-blue, but rather livid; her bike was not green, as others mistakenly called it—rather, pistachio. 

Grace boarded the pistachio-colored bike. This was not because she was particularly conscious of the environment; she was sympathetic, but lacked the fiery impulse on the subject many seem to have. She much preferred biking, that was all. It was relaxing, and you were in the wind, which she enjoyed. Grace tended to take her life exactly at her pace, which did not require cars. 

She trundled unconcernedly over sidewalks, she crossed intersections, she took bike-lanes. She lived, by choice, very close to her work. It took only ten minutes to reach it. 

Her bike slowed to a stop, and she placed her foot on the curb of a sidewalk bordering a row of storefronts. 

“Morning, Grace.” 

“Good morning.” 

She walked her bike in through the door of Round Wheel Pottery Works, leaning it against the wall. A, older woman with a hefty upper half and long, coarse gray hair was holding the door open for her. 

“Everything good?”

“Yup.”

“Ready to get to work?”

“Yup.”

Grace was exactly twenty-three years old. She had not gone to college because she hadn’t much wanted to. After high-school she’d lived with her parents to work for a year, one half as her father’s field assistant and the other as a waitress. After that she had used the money to start an apprenticeship with Falatrack Handmade Pottery, not far from their house. 

Grace wrote her name and the time on the clock down on the log. The walls, floor and ceiling in that room were all painted blue, but it was a calm shade, one that didn’t distract you. A mix of steel blue and sapphire. 

She put on an apron from the coat-rack on the wall—raw and unfinished. The hardy fabric was gray, dappled with dusty-white clay-stains. She rolled up her sleeves.

The work-room was small but not cramped. Along the walls were shelves of the same unfinished wood as the coat-hooks, loaded with pottery of all variations. There were tables, shelves with red plastic baskets full of tools, all messy and stained. There were plastic bags of soft clay too heavy to lift under work tables, there was the plain clock on the wall. There was a door to another room, full of large buckets for glazes and hundreds of hooks sporting clay samples coated in all the colors. There was another room for the kiln.

Grace was only a worker. The older woman, Kimberly, sat in the front room and did things on the computer. She oversaw her employees, she paid the taxes, she managed the website, she worked with costumers in the shop and online. She drove the truck to different retailers, and did a whole other slew of things Grace did not know about and did not want to. Grace did not have ambitions to get any higher of a station in that shop than she already had, because it suited her perfectly.

She had discovered pottery in high-school, an elective. She had liked it. She had liked it as much as knitting. She had liked it as much as coloring. 

Grace had known for a long time that she could be perfectly happy sitting on the clay-stained stool, hands clasped around a lump of soft clay, pressing her foot on the pedal and feeling its uneven, bumpy smoothness spin against her skin, feeling the sediment scratch her, so softly. Grace had worked at it, serenely she had worked at it, she had skill. She went to work and she made plates and she made bowls, she made vases and she enjoyed it.

She enjoyed sitting on a stool in the work room all day, spinning and shaping. She enjoyed dipping, she enjoyed priming, she enjoyed scoring and slipping. Sometimes, if she was waiting on something in the kiln, she would flip through the dirty (everything in that room was dirty, it was part of the business) magazines of glossy books of inspiration. A book of great archaeological artifacts in museums, a magazine of trendy home decor. She surveyed it all, she took it all in, she created, she created without artistic angst because she was not an artist. No, Grace was not an artist. She was only a calm creator. She worked the clay and it grew in her grasp. 

Grace signed out when Kimberly rapped on the door. 

“Time’s up.”

“Oh, thank you.”

She washed her hands in the large, messy sink. Grace did not mind messes. She had carefully worked at not minding most things. 

She still had a little clay around her nails. This did not bother her.

“Nice work today,” Kimberly was surveying the row of bowls on the rack. “I should get in here and join you. Darn administrative work.” 

Grace smiled in acknowledgement, hanging up the apron.

“But aren’t you supposed to be wearing a mask?”

The girl barely paused, unconcerned, dipping the soles of her shoes in the black cleaning tray.  A coworker looked up, listening. 

“I didn’t today.” 

“As your employer,” Kimberly said, watching Grace as she put away her tools, “I need to ensure that your occupation doesn’t cause you any harm. Seriously.”

Grace shrugged, that same unconcerned little smile. “They’re all ok.” She motioned to her coworkers, a young man with a flannel shirt and bird, a large girl with bright lipstick and hair dyed black. Kimberly narrowed her eyes. She remained unconvinced.

“Just wear it tomorrow.”

Grace did not reply. Neither did she refuse. 

“Bye, guys.” She wheeled out her bike to the sidewalk. 

She was not going home. Well, not to the home she paid more than her half of the rent for—she was instead heading up the ways so familiar they were practically on autopilot, to the house she’d grown up in. Grace had this habit, this inner calendar of filial obedience; she popped in for dinner every 8th and every 22nd of each month. 

She was surprised from this pleasant autopilot by the phone ringing—she looked around—was it hers?—yes—she pedaled to the curb and pulled her bike up over it onto the sidewalk. Grace did not wear a helmet. Her brother had fast cured her of that by his very insistence upon it.

“Hello?” She picked it up, surveying the road of passing cars, houses and buildings with idle interest.

“Hi, Grace.” It was her brother. His voice sounded fast and tense. This was not out of the ordinary. Grace remained unconcerned.

“Hullo.” She sighed, following a runner with her gaze as he moved across the scene. She waited for a second. “Is something the matter?” This was apparently what the tense silence on the other end was wanting her to ask. Growing up with someone, you can become more versed in their cues than you ever wanted to be.

“Well, it’s just—you know Anne Locklear, don’t you?”

Grace did know Anne, by sight. Grace, like the dutiful sister she was, had attended some of her brother’s concerts. Anne, with her intense gaze and skillful playing, had seemed to Grace to hold the whole group together.

“Yes,”

“Well, I told you about how her husband got in a wreck—“

“Mum mentioned it.” Grace interrupted placidly, running her thumb over the white grip on her bike handle.

“Oh.” This seemed to give her brother pause. He managed to recover quickly, however. “You know she’s from Hungary? She came over here for college.” His voice sounded at once imminently focused and anxiously distracted. Grace responded.

“I think you told me that a while ago.”

“So it turns out she was only in the country fine because she was married to an English citizen, and that kept her good after she couldn’t have a student visa. But her parents had her go back to Hungary, and now she’s trying to come back, and I think she was on some visitor’s visa for a while, but it expired and now she’s been asked to leave, and she has a kid that she’s all worried about—she’s completely settled here, I mean, she’s lived in England her entire adult life—and, I mean, the quartet—”

Grace tilted the bike back and forth as she listened, wondering why her brother was telling her all this, wondering where it was going. 

“That really sucks.” She provided helpfully, as a silent pause threatened to swallow their conversation up. The anxious voice on the other end didn’t reply. Grace waited. It seemed to be on the edge of something it wasn’t entirely sure of.

“I—I think I’m going to marry her, Gracie.” breathless. Breathless from the thought and the journey, the numb decision, Grace could hear it all, betrayed in his voice. How he would rise, unexpectedly, to the occasion. 

Grace did not quip, she did not bicker, she did not fight. People who did annoyed her. But she did not acquiesce. There was a sort of quiet rebellion in her, to wearing the irritating masks, to disinfectants, to not lying on the beach in a teeshirt next to the bonfire next to Elliot’s friend. Her rebellions did not require audiences. Their validity lay in the actions themselves. Face expressionless and yet not drifted away, nearly sullen, eyes on the slithering flames. That is how she had looked in the photograph. Above all within her was a circle full of routines and things that she vaguely expected to happen, one time or another. Above that was something critics called passivity. 

She had gotten so good, on the couch with her coloring book, at pretending she didn’t mind Elliot and their mother sparring with each other, that she had nearly come to believe it herself. 

Grace, who had been on the receiving end of many a complaint about Anne, wanted to say, do you even like her? She wanted to say, are you drunk? She wanted to say, are you crazy?

She knew her brother. She knew him in all his drama, all his self-absorbed adventure. 

All she said was, “Hmm.”

***

It had come upon him suddenly.

Heart pounding, breathing strange like adrenaline, gazing straight, straight ahead. Staring. Occurring—how something reworks itself or presents itself, maybe; your ideas about things change but that is really life, isn’t it? That isn’t out of the ordinary, much. Elliot swallowed. 

Half of him had wanted to leave, half had needed to do something and’d realized it had to stay. He’d read her forms, he’d made some calls, Anne had not moved or breathed. So someone had to, or else it wouldn’t be right. Or else instead of life it would have been death. He’d found her laptop but that hadn’t helped either.

He had realized it—that moment, of understanding—one could call it a eureka but that would be an exaggeration—on the phone, actually. He’d been talking to some person in the government, God knew who—“And there’s no way—“ “I’m sorry sir, the individual is no longer married to a British citizen, and her visa situation was questionable from the beginning, never mind the salary issue—she has simply been out of the country too long—“

Elliot sighed. This time it was the kind that went through the phone-line. Running his hands through his hair, tight, filling the gaps between his fingers, thick and twisted and tangled.  

He turned from the bench and walked back up the steps, into his apartment. 

***

Elliot dialed the number of Bambridge School. He did not need to look at the caller-ID. He knew it by heart.

The phone rung idly, forgetfully, and dully. It did not seem to think about its ringing. That was perhaps, Elliot mused, what it did to keep itself sane. It could not worry or even think about what people were like or talking or worrying about on either end of the line, every minute of every day. Elliot understood. 

“Hello, Rolegade Vance, Bambridge School office.”

This was an interesting aspect of the old school. They did not have a regular receptionist. Last time Elliot had gotten Emilia Carnet, the time before that Frea Sala; he had gotten Ronny Rice two times, non-consecutively, to date. 

This gave the entertaining variety that, in an institution where many are overly familiar with you, one still receives a seemingly random stranger on the phone. This made life interesting.

“Elliot Roberts,”

“Aha, hello Mr. Roberts…that would be…class of 2007?”

Elliot could hear thick sheets of paper being ruffled through and turned over on the other end. He sat down and put his hand in his pocket.

“That would be me.”

“Would you like to be forwarded to anyone?”

“I don’t know—I received a phone-call the other day that I missed.”

“Alright, just give me a second here—what day?”

“I believe it was Tuesday.”

“Aha…hmm…well I didn’t make that call…not in my log…I think I’ll forward you to Mr. Blankenship.”

“Alright,”

In many facilities, the phone would have, at this point, gone silent, as Elliot was forwarded to another line. However, he was very familiar with what proceeded. 

First, the phone did not go quiet, although the haphazard receptionist stopped talking. Instead, Elliot’s ears were filled with the muffled sounds of walking—shoe-soles on a thin carpet, ill-regarded work-slacks rubbing loudly together between a pair of legs. Also quite a bit of sound from the phone’s movement through the air, swinging from the receptionists hand, back and forth.

Elliot could hear, albeit somewhat fuzzily, a knock on the wall (the Blankenship office had no door). 

He could hear, again somewhat confusedly, the unknown voice of Rolegade Vance speaking to the unforgettable tones of Mr. Blankenship. Elliot shifted somewhat uncomfortably. Distance and years could never quench the flame of fright in an errant schoolboy of his principal.

The muffled noises became louder and more aggressive, and Elliot fancied perhaps that Mr. Blankenship was situating the phone on his own shoulder.

“Elliot Roberts?” The voice was old, the voice of an advanced thinking man with a salt-and-pepper beard that became round at the ends. It was not sharp, nor accusing. Ever. This is one of the things Elliot found the most imposing.

“Yes, sir.”

“Good to hear from you; I daresay we don’t too often.”

“Yes, sir.” Elliot replied meekly, rising to pet a highly distractible, bug-eyed Rosco. 

“How is your music going?” The calm interrogation, measured interest. 

“Well, sir.”

“I see. Have you gotten a position at a University?”

“I haven’t tried, sir.” 

There was a moment without words on the other, measured end, but not of silence. The principal was making a low, thoughtful, considering sound. It was rather growly, in the most thinking-man sort of way. It was something like a “Hmm,”.

“Hmm,” he mused, in the sort of fashion that meant Elliot was in some sort of trouble. “you know of course that here at Bambridge we represent an intense commitment to giving back education to our community.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Of course we respect whatever direction you want to take your life; however, considering your talent and the time that has been put in, I would advise at least looking at a University position.”

“Sir,” Elliot began, trying not to sound meek. He managed to infuse his voice with what he thought was a respectful firmness. “I do not think they would take me, I’m only 25, sir. I’ve also thought I was giving back by making music. With all due respect, I do not stay in my room practicing all day, sir.”

“Hmm,” it sounded as if he was leaning back in his chair. This was a peculiar habit of Mr. Blankenship’s. “Where do you play?”

“I’m in a chamber group, with Dax Herrman.”

“Interesting. He’s doing well?”

“Yes,”

“Do in an orchestra?”

“Yes.”

“Anything else?”

Elliot was silent. He did not. Blankenship seemed to understand this.

“Private lessons? Do you do that?”

Elliot was again silent.

“I play gigs, and I busk.” He offered, after a moment that was slightly dreadful. 

“Hmm.”

Elliot, feeling defensive, picked up Rosco hurriedly under one arm. The dog’s curly, skinny legs dangled deadweight, and his wild face looked curiously up, attacking the man with a floppy tongue. “But, sir, I was calling to follow up on a missed phone-call. The receptionist said he wasn’t the one who called me.”

Blankenship seemed not to hear him—his grumbly musing had remained uninterrupted, and now he broke back in, as if taking a sip of a delicately foamed cappuccino. 

“While I of course respect however a former student chooses to make a living, I must inquire, how do you have enough with only gigs, street-performing, and a chamber group?”

“And orchestra.”

“And orchestra. Hmm?” 

Elliot was silent for a moment. Blankenship had always made him uncomfortable. He seemed to see right through his skin, like a sheaf of onion under a microscope. The boy had never been able to understand some students’ admiration and even love for the imposing man.

Elliot adjusted Rosco under his arm as the dog began to slip. 

“I—I don’t only do that. Besides, I don’t need a lot of money. I’m a concertmaster—they pay me alright.”

“What else do you do?”

At this, Elliot was again silent. A string of elaborate and exciting lies jumped immediately before him. 

“I—a non-music, part-time job. I’m hoping to get out of it soon.” There. He hadn’t lied. 

Again, silence. Elliot felt his heat fuming around his ears. He narrowed his eyes and placed Rosco back on the floor.

“Our new under-principal Mrs. Venetta was just calling you in for work.”

“Oh. I see.”

“Whenever you want, in whatever form, you know the drill, I trust.” He sighed through his words in an attitude of dismissal, and Elliot nodded as if the man could see him. “We shall depend upon your Bambridge honor and good form. We’d love to see you around the school more, and we wouldn’t object to an inspiring-alum concert.”

“Thank you sir, goodbye.”

Elliot laid the phone down. He put his head in his hands. Rosco hurried over obligingly, inspecting his owner’s lips with his tongue. 

“Rosco—stop it, come on—“ Elliot yanked his face away, pushing the dog down with a hand. He grabbed the phone again with a listless grasp, stared at it and thought who he could contact.

Who would go out for a drink at three in the afternoon? Elliot felt a wave wash over him, a wave of dark thought. And tiredness. And nausea—fatigue. Maybe it was the adrenaline of calling Blankenship. Adrenaline usually felt good. 

The daybed provided itself more than willingly for these moments.

Elliot did not have many friends (he had many acquaintances). He had no close friends. This had been done carefully and on purpose, it had also been thoughtless, in all his actions. However, there were people who knew him well enough to be surprised and concerned when they heard. 

Dax had come over and Elliot had told him off. Hop had called in supportive astonishment. The suddenly-engaged did not doubt that many others he knew were worried, surprised, anything—behind his back. 

Elliot did not dress up for his wedding. At least, he did not at first. Then he reconsidered, and put on his black performance attire, in deference to Anne, who seemed to take life in a fancier, more well-put-together fashion than he. 

He rose at six-thirty a.m. He blinked the cloudiness out of his eyes. It was cloudy outside. He did not think much, when it came down to it. He didn’t think about going through with it, he didn’t think about pulling out. Afterwards he knew that he’d taken a shower, he knew he’d looked at himself in the sink mirror. Pale chest, the branching bones in a wingspan, small shoulders. He had been so proud of how broad they’d gotten (by his standards) at the end of high-school, but now, looking at them, he was only mildly disgusted, mildly disappointed. 

On the white, bony breast of Elliot was a work of art. He often did not think of it, but sometimes he stopped to look, in moments like that, in quiet awe, inspection, or remembrance. 

Drawn in careful, indomitably flat and smooth and sharp ink on his practically smooth ribs, skin of a child, was a moth. It was a beautiful moth, it had beautifully round and perfectly-shaped wings, it had beautiful shadows and texture, it had the most delicate black legs. On the shades of its wings were beautiful spots, beautiful lines. It wore beautifully short antennae. 

Elliot could remember gazing at it, hazily, for a long time. He’d had time to kill, after all. He could recall the beautiful smell of henna, when he looked at that tattoo long enough. He hadn’t smelled it in years, henna, but of course he could remember. Of course he could remember that delicious perfection of the scent of it when you mix it with fragrant oil and sugar, when you place it with messy love into cones. He could remember how it stained your hand. 

He could remember how it looked like brownie batter, but it smelled better than any brownie because it hadn’t smelt like food at all, which sickened him, because instead it smelt like something infinitely delicious yet not edible at all. Instead of melting in your mouth it caressed it, invisible. 

But that was for a life of beauty. 

His life had not been beautiful then, when he had smelled it, although it had sometimes felt like it was. Beautiful memories, yes, but he was glad to be gone. 

This was entirely different; it was kind and yet mercenary; it was real and yet not; he thought you could write poetry about it to seem beautiful, but really that would be a lie to the reality. And that always made him bitter. But he was too distracted, by nothing, really, staring at the mere, fuzzily, to be bitter. 

As has been said, he first, that entirely ordinary and dull morning, put on a plain t-shirt. He put on plain light-brown pants, the kind that clung around his skinny legs, he buttoned them below his stomach, lean but bloated. He then, as has also been said, changed, in deference to Anne.

He combed his hair, his hair that was so, so very light-colored; he took care of it and so it was soft but he wished it wasn’t. It curled delicately at his shoulders. There seemed to be nothing to it, and yet everything with that light gold color that reflected any beam of radiance in glossy white. His skin was pale and smooth, his eyes were light blue like a little girl’s. He wondered how anyone could bear him.

Yes, Elliot could remember his morning, as he walked into the Register Office. Anne had thought they should do it first thing because she was that kind of person. His morning, however, felt as if it could have been years ago and at the same time have gone on forever.

He signed the papers numbly and had the glimpsing thought that away he was signing himself, and any hope. He mostly felt, foggily, that it was a tremendously heroic moment. He was sacrificing his freedom, he was sacrificing his hope, his possibility. Yes, that was very romantic. For Anne, for his friend. It felt, numbly, like that. 

Anne was very businesslike. She signed everything. They did not exchange rings. Grace, in the yellow dress she’d had since high-school, was the first witness. One of her strange friends (was she rooming with her now? Elliot couldn’t keep track.), with an elfish nose and slews of byronic, brown curls, was the other. 

There were some sort of vows said, Elliot answered however it seemed from context he was supposed to. It all felt a little odd to him. Something so monumental should have fireworks, he thought, explosions. Something. Life could feel odd, like that. To Elliot. 

It ended, Anne left without ceremony in her own car. Elliot, at a loss, had gone to work.

He sorted and pricked and arrayed insects. He copied field notes. He felt funny and strange and utterly nothing. When Dr. Fishback came in, Elliot had looked at him, at his busy lab-coated back, he had opened his soft lips. He had wanted, very much, he thought afterward, to say something. What does one say? Dr. Fishback, I have just been married? Dr. Fishback, something large has happened and I do not believe it? Do you?

Elliot remained silent. He sliced off a sliver of a grasshopper’s leg, and placed it strangely on a slide. He remained silent. 

***

It was cold and the air full of invisible water as Elliot pulled up to Anne’s house. There was perfect visibility right before his eyes, but a strangely unreachable, unchasable fog on the edges and horizon-lines of everything. 

Elliot got out of the car, the driver’s door clicked supply shut behind him. He walked up the moist concrete to the door, rubber in his shoes squeaking. 

One can be suddenly unsure of themselves in such situations. The eureka was not a wordy one and hard to fathom. It was more a feeling. More a realization—more processing. The man fumbled. 

Luckily for Elliot, the front door opened, and a rather small woman turned out of it, locking it behind her. 

Her heels—spool and olive-colored—clacked on the steps as she came down, skirt stretching over wide hips and back to come down around her knees. She clacked, in a rather quiet, business-like fashion, down past him. 

She turned back to look at him. Her curls were frizzy around her eyes from the weather.

“Hello, Elliot.”

Elliot nodded awkwardly. 

He followed after her down to his car—it was rather an ugly car. Elliot always found it offensive to his aesthetic sensibilities from this angle—the small roundness of the headlights, the flat shark-like-ness of the smoothly curved hood, the general flatness of the whole vehicle, and, for that matter, the horrible beige color—

He stopped in surprise as Anne opened the driver’s door from a handle once again offensive for its cramped roundness. He blinked. 

“Uh, Anne—“

She turned to him rather dully. Dull, but unyielding.

“I’m not riding in a car that you drive.”

“Oh—well—“

Elliot slid into the passenger side, onto the flat, gray cushions. Anne was busy, eyes cold, pumping up the seat to her height. 

Elliot turned his gaze to the wet, deserted road before them. He was becoming more and more disillusioned with what had at first seemed such a heroic turn for his life to take. It really had, for a moment, been a eureka. 

“Put on you seat-belt.” The order was quiet and firm. Anne barely even looked at him.

Elliot obeyed. This was not because he was passive like Grace. It was because the nonnegotiable tone in Anne’s voice made a person’s fingers jump to the buckle before their mind could even process the command. When his did, Elliot flushed up to his ears with annoyance, but Anne was too engaged in her defensive driving to notice.

The man wanted to be irritated, but he felt mostly disappointed. And he was irritated, at least a little bit. Anne was so selfish—yes, of course he felt bad for her—but could she not even say thank-you? Could she not even appreciate the sacrifice he was making her? Elliot not only might have been the most rapidly disillusioned person in the course of human history, but possibly also the most spurned and unappreciated of its heroes. This was, at least, what he thought, as she took a turn like she was handling an army vehicle.

“Where’s Renata?” He asked strainedly, focusing his energy on trying to keep himself together. His insides had other thoughts. 

“I have friends, you know.” Anne replied sharply and dismissively, apparently offended by his ignorance, eyes trained at the road before her.. “It’s not good they’re making us move in together.”

“It might be,” Elliot offered, following her in.

“No, it’s not. It means they know it’s a fake.” Anne, voice quiet and business-like, was brimming with pessimistic surety. It was amazing, Elliot thought, how he had been with her a full twenty minutes, and she hadn’t looked him in the eyes once. She narrowed her gaze upon the parking spot she was trying to squeeze into. “I told you, no idiot would think I actually want to marry you.” 

This left a surprised Elliot behind a moment, an Elliot whose ears soon flushed again, this time with hurt resentment. He wondered what Beowulf would do if so spurned. Who said he wanted to marry her?, an angry voice inside him exclaimed. He wasn’t doing it for himself, it wasn’t some pleasure-ride—no, in fact, he was the one who’d been frying his brain on calls and research over her problems, he was the one— 

She had already disappeared behind the glass coffeeshop door before the heat in his ears could come to fruition from his mouth. He followed her in a rejected huff.

“What do you think of this one?” Elliot asked, looking over Anne’s shoulder. She was wearing a magenta cardigan. The laptop was on the table in front of them, and her fingers were scrolling thoughtfully through the display.

“No.”

“Why?” Elliot asked tiredly, taking a bite of an apple. She hadn’t even really seemed to consider it.

“Too small.”

“It’s a two-bedroom, Anne. Perfect.”

Anne turned her head back coldly toward him. 

“Has it occurred to you that Renata and I might want a bit of space from you? We’re not college roommates.” She delivered these words curtly and with finality, whipping her head back around before Elliot could respond. She continued to scroll, too slow for anyone’s liking, but too fast to really look at any specific listing.

Elliot blinked at this, feeling rather miffed. Anne had a way of unexpectedly coming on top like this that left him sheepish and rather irritated. He opened his mouth to reply, but she, back still towards him, cut him off.

“What do you think about this? 112, Lakeshore Drive. Pretty.”

“Let me look—“ Elliot leant forward beside her, resting a hand on a table, putting his other one of the mouse pad as he clicked on the listing. The house was a virulent red, the door of a soft white. It was two stories, three bedroom, three bath. Elliot raised his eyebrows. “Anne, you don’t really think we’d live here—“

The Hungarian expatriate turned upon him sharply. 

“Why not? It’s in town like you wanted, isn’t it? And we could probably lay out things so as you could have your house, and I could have mine—look at the floor-plan—“ Anne conquested the mousepad instantly, and Elliot drew his hand back in surprise as she clicked on the picture of the layout. “See? Me and Renata could have the front-door, you the back, and the corresponding sides of the house—“

Elliot’s nostrils flared at this; an affronted heat surged in reaction.

“What, is that the servant’s door or something?” He exclaimed, eyes accusing. 

“No,” Anne replied sharply, and Elliot was nearly taken aback, surprised by her tone. By the thick wetness in the sharpness. She seemed almost a little hurt. He opened his lips and closed them. “I was just meaning that we could divide it into two sides, and leave each other alone.” The words were not quiet but had not an inch of militancy, not an inch of anything that demanded anything in return. She wasn’t looking at him. 

“Oh. Oh, ok.” Elliot tried to back down, awkwardly, in his tone. Anne’s sudden switch from sparring to—well, whatever this was—had taken him off guard. They were silent for a moment, staring at the screen. Anne was sitting, for a moment forgetting posture, on a chair of swirling iron design. Elliot was leaning beside her, tendons stretched and prone on the wrist he had propped against the table. Neither of them were quite thinking anything intelligent about the listings they were numbly staring at. A thought suddenly occurred to him. “Anne,” he straightened up, and she turned to look at him in surprise, as if he’d woken her from a daydream. “how do you expect me to be able to afford this?” 

His tone was matter-of-fact. This was one of Elliot’s ways, the Elliot between performance drama and private brooding. This was, incidentally, the most natural part, the reaction he thought least about. 

Anne scrolled up to the price-tag. She took a moment, seeming to be doing the math quickly in her head, behind the focused eyes. She looked back up at him in an instant, dark eyebrows challenging. It made Elliot more comfortable, instantly, as if he no longer needed to tread lightly; she seemed to have completely recovered herself. 

“You would have to put down 113,378 pounds total.” 

“Exactly.” Elliot hit the table for emphasis. The violist narrowed her eyes. 

“You wouldn’t have to all at once.” Anne could be so obstinate. Elliot sighed, long and testily. He did not spend much time with his personal finances, but he knew them to leave little room for margin.

Anne, I’m a musician, you can’t expect me to be rolling in dough.” Elliot leaned back on the table again (a bad idea, the small glass circle was rickety in its frame). Light eyes piercing. He knew it. 

Anne turned her head up to meet him. Obstinate. 

“I’m a musician too. I could afford it. Some of us spread our nets wide, Elliot. You could be considerably more pragmatic about it. It’s running a business.”

Elliot couldn’t help being testy. Anne made him testy. 

“There are those of us,” he delivered back, face unlined but very intent, “who believe in art for the sake of art.”

“Oh give me a break.” Anne rose in a huff, not meeting his eyes but everything else. She snapped the laptop shut beside his hand, she turned to look at him. “I need to go.” 

Elliot watched, silent, as she put the laptop back into her bag. He watched, face unmoving, as she slung it over her shoulder, as she turned and marched away. She did not look back. He did not look away. It was not because he missed her. It was more that his eyes trained on his leaving opponent. 

Elliot had watched a lot of those movies. He’d been a cowboy one year for Halloween, the year after he’d been Superman, the year before he’d been Robin Hood. His mother had sewn him felt fox-ears for that, he remembered. He could remember standing at the cheap fold-out craft table, glue everywhere as he was struggling to attach the ears to a skinny black headband. He’d been enraged with frustration. Nobody had paid him any attention. He couldn’t remember how he finally got them to stick, in the end.

He had not asked her the question that’d sprung to his lips. You still on for practice? No. That would have been too conciliatory. Of course Anne was on for practice. And if she didn’t show up, they would practice without her. Who needed a viola, anyway, he thought bitterly. Besides, she would come back in. 

He opened the dark door tucked back near the counter, went up the poorly-lit stairs, and into the room above. The Minndish—the rather cryptic name that café had taken to itself— prided itself on being a pillar of the artistic community. It was a revolving door of art exhibits, but also a live music venue (there was outside seating). What mattered to Elliot, however, was their free multi-purpose room upstairs. 

He gazed at the empty space rather tiredly. He did not like empty spaces. They smacked too much of loneliness, when he was the only one standing in them. It might have looked romantic in a photograph, with the right lighting, but at the moment it felt like nothing he wanted at all. He set up the chairs, he set up the stands. The others arrived soon, they were surprised that he’d beat them there. Elliot smiled wryly in acknowledgement, but it was really only for their benefit.

There was something nearly awkward about the group of them today. What could Elliot have expected, anyway, from the moment Anne barreled in, darkly, behind Hop. The second violinist, Dax, glanced strangely between the violist and the first violin on either side of him, both silently adjusting their position in the seats.

“Well,” he ventured, unfolding his music on the stand. “it’s nice to be back, all together again.”

“Yes, it seems like it’s been even longer than it has.” Hop added sanguinely, his skin folding severely around his eyes as he smiled. Elliot nodded. He coughed. Anne was silent. 

They went farther in the Schubert piece. They passed the quagmire of an introduction, they shocked any listening ghosts with surprising group chords, they continued on and on. Elliot played his part rather mindlessly. The tidal wave occurred to him as they reached it, but not to his fingers. He remembered to look at the cello, at the second violin, to meet their eyes. Out of habit. He avoided the viola. He did not think about the viola. He did not look at the viola. It was hardly on purpose.

They went on and on, then they would stop and talk, then play again. Elliot still felt tired, but he tried, he tried every time. The unfulfillment felt maddening. The climax not reached, the depth and the height and the span. Elliot could feel it. Like it was vaguely in his power but out of reach. He played. He ate minutes. 

They would be silent, and then they would breathe together and make more noise. It was nearly surreal to him how it happened.

And so they made sound again, and the viola’s blended with the rest, and it wasn’t too hard to not look at her, it wasn’t too hard to be studiedly apart. She made him crazy. It made him crazy that he had to play with her. He ate minutes. 

“Good practice,” Hop said, zipping up his cello lustily. Like moving his fingers for the notes was all he needed to make art. Elliot stared at him, tired. 

Dax took a moment to respond. His face, large and the lightest sort of brown—the shape of it sometimes reminded Elliot of a monkey—seemed troubled.

“I don’t know—I think we haven’t gotten back into our groove yet. I mean—“ he added hastily, standing back up from where he was bent over his case, “completely understandable!”

Anne silently packed up as if she hadn’t heard. Elliot nodded. He knew it. You have to always rise to the occasion, and Elliot was good at that. He could always rise if it was for someone else. He nodded. You can know something and not anything more.

His numb mind was at once on something else, even while he heard the words. He packed up and left. He felt like he was walking in a fog. 

***

Downstairs the Minndish was dim. Bustling with the quiet noises of talk and the clanking machines behind the counter. The floor was like a cobblestone road except it was glazed flat. Also dim.

Elliot passed the intimate human surroundings of the coffeehouse in something of despair. He came up to the counter and stood waiting behind an old man of a disinterestedly fashionable appearance. He gazed blankly at the intentionally ratty briefcase slung over his shoulder. 

In a moment it was Elliot’s turn at the counter. He took a glance at the wall-clock. Minutes were still there. Elliot turned back to the barista as she greeted him.

“Hullo! Nice day, isn’t it?” Her skin was very white and her lips very pink. Elliot was having a hard time looking her straight in the face, caught between the distracting qualities of her impressive array of piercings and the incredible lowness of her shirt-neck. How could she not understand, know, it was suffocating. She had probably never played music in her life. She probably didn’t have an artistic bone in her body. It made him mental. 

He hurriedly snapped his eyes to the menu.

“Uh—one café au lait, please.” The prospect of asking advice reviled him and so he was not entirely sure what he was ordering. It was much better to pretend one knew things, and suffer the consequences proudly. Elliot was excellent at appearing as if he knew exactly what was going on. He was a good actor. 

Elliot paid, he sat down at a table. He looked as melancholy as he felt—gazing about himself tiredly, at the mint-colored shelves hammered into the wall, at the specialty bags of coffee beans and grinds they sported. He gazed morosely at the interpretive, colorful nudes hanging without frames, he turned his eyes disinterestedly to the vases packed messily with local flowers. At the large glass windows above a long tank system full of giant fish topped with vibrant plant growth. At the seats outside, which nobody wanted today. Elliot followed the fish with his gaze, their pale puckering lips, their eyes at once lazy and intent. 

He noticed the grey condensation of the windows. It was raining. Strange. The woman had asked him what a nice day it was. 

He and Anne would never find a house, he could feel it surely within him. And even if they did, he would never be able to pay for it. And Anne still probably wouldn’t like something about it. And—this was a new thought—the prospect of living with her, it would probably be for the rest of his life. This had not occurred to Elliot. To be in the same house as Anne, forever. He could feel it already, she would critique is every move.

Elliot turned in quiet misery, looking around him. He had somehow landed himself next to the group of teenage girls and the woman presiding just as engagedly in their midst. They all had notebooks and pens. Perhaps they were artists. 

That made him feel a little better, but still in a melancholy way. Elliot had been comforted by the artistic quality of this place, which is why it was a haunt of his, in mind if not often in body. He watched the barista, watched her as she cleaned the machines, as she dripped the coffee or foam or syrup with an intent gaze. It held little allure for him. His mother had wanted him to be a barista, when he’d been looking for work. 

It’s a good, safe, honest job, Elliot! Why not? 

It’s just—mom, you don’t understand

What don’t I understand?

You’re just working and working and working, and people can treat you like dirt, and they just expect you to do things for them, you have no dignity—

Well welcome to the service sector, Elliot!

Exactly! Ugh—

Elliot laid his head back against the brick wall. His thin hair was no protection, the rugged blocks scratched and pained his skin, but he did not move. Elliot could take pain.

Time could have gone on forever. One of the girls started reading something from her notebook, beside him. He turned his head, barely. It seemed like a poem.

Elliot closed his eyes. He thought of the prospect of his life and was filled with wretchedness. He turned his head lazily again where it was propped back against the wall, he watched the barista erasing parts of the blackboard over the coffee machines, standing on a stool, she was drawing in new pasty words in swirls with colored chalk. The word “Waffles” formed with light magic beneath her dusty fingers. Another girl was reading now, and the poetry came into his ears but he didn’t comprehend it.

It was at moments like this, the farther he descended, that he suddenly could not bear to be alone. It would seize him, attack him. 

No. He had to get up. He had to go be among people, he had to be laughing and ruling and performing. Pretending was better than this, he felt with a desperate anxiety, if this is what was real. 

He opened his phone hurriedly—it clicked open to the missed calls. Bambridge. They were old—he deleted the notifications, vexed. Like creepy-crawlies were scuttling up his arm. 

Elliot was annoyed—by the state of the world around him. Restless. The poet group provided no help. Neither did the waffles; nothing, not the koi, not any of it. Bambridge was an annoying institution—it was like selling yourself into slavery—Elliot sneered in frustration, tearing the music sheets from his case, running over them with fiery eyes as if that was something to do.

Down the lines. Of Schubert. Of nothing. Elliot lay back in his seat, gaze floating. 

Bambridge. 

But then it made him think of something else, as he stared above the eager heads of the girls to the rain reflected cloudily outside. Bambridge? It made him think of closets full of linen clothes, it made him think of bonfires, it made him think of laughing all together, sitting on the bed. Johnny and Roxanne—they’d been dating then, he remembered. She was in a swimsuit, sandy ankles. And Clara and Yesun, and he could see them all in his mind laughing, he could remember himself gesticulating, eyes wide as he retold the story, he could feel the solid back of Delfino pressed against him, he could see all their bare feet beneath pulled-up knees. They’d been in the West bedroom, windows open and darkness outside with the biggest moon, he’d been sitting on the edge of the striped bedsheets. That’s what it made him think of. 

He had not felt lonely at all. He had, in fact, been in his element. That’s what the Bambridge house was like. He longed for it, suddenly. Longed and longed, beyond the rain dripping down the Minndish window. Beyond the cold coffee. 

The girls left. They put their notebooks and pens or laptops in different bags, slung them over their shoulders and pushed their chairs in and were gone. The empty table next to him made his corner feel too large, too vacant.

He got up. 

Elliot did not want to be suffocated where he stood. 

He didn’t know how, but that would be his solution. Elliot could feel it irresistibly, and he grasped at it, desperately. 

Elliot took his violin case home but that was where he left it. 

***

Tune in next Friday to read more!

[questions from the author:

Should the Anne/Elliot fighting in the car scene should be cut/condensed? I know we have that sort of thing in the whole house-hunting part right after, but I don’t want the transition/storyline to be too abrupt, and I fear it may be if I take out the whole car scene. Thoughts from fresh eyes? 

Also, please take the Grace intro in the context that in the next draft this will be the first time we meet her—she’ll probably only be mentioned in the scene at his parent’s house.

One final question. What the moth is trying to say about Elliot? As in his tattoo? Should the moth be dropped, or changed? This I think is just a question to think about through the whole story, as you get to know him and his arc better, any themes and motifs, etc. Just throwing that out there.] 

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