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Light-brown fingers, short, soft on the bottoms and just a little cracked and dry on the glistening tops, danced back and forth in marionette concentration across the little yellow keys of the piano. The puppet-master was above, dark, concentrated eyes between the music and then the hands as they went like waves. She looked after her notes as if they were something to be caught, and catch them she did. Up and down, up and down gaze, like a cautious driver’s from the road to the speedometer and back again.
Because it was morning, the kind of chilly early morning of a half-regretful spring, the house was quiet and still save for this rogue action. Outside the dew was ice-cold on the short green grass. Inside Elliot was lounged sleepily on the gray couch, face in his hand, arm propped up on the side of the sofa. His palm pulled his cheek long and strange, like a sleeping dog, eyes with lids swollen from sleep watching the straight back, undulating arms, impeccable posture and concentration before him.
He was finding the song mildly annoying. It seemed to a glorified scale, or perhaps an etude; the product of some bored composer. Whatever it was, it went over and over again, the same rhythm, similar notes. On and on, spiraling and unending. To add to the insult, it had woken him up.
The house seemed to be catching its breath in the stillness it unexpectedly held. For the first time in the last two weeks, everything was still. There were no open boxes, littering the floor. There were no open doors, propped by a sawdust filled rag-mouse. The cars in the driveway were not ajar in any way, they were not being unloaded, they had nothing spilling out of them.
Elliot had never moved so efficiently in his life. He was catching his breath too.
The hands stilled, fingers held themselves down in a final exhale on the keys, the resolving chord. Elliot looked up in surprise. The glorified-scale-song had seduced him into assuming it would never end.
Anne rose, putting her hands behind her, pressing her lower-back as if supporting it. She winced, walking stiffly away from the piano, Elliot observed with sleepy half-interest, half-concern as she sat down on the other end of the couch. He turned his head to watch her, still lolled to the side on his palm. Eyes still barely cracked open.
Anne’s small hands traced their way down bare calves, pulled off the shoes she always wore, the old-fashioned spool heels, hard and stiff, olive-green leather. She unlaced the burgundy ribbons, crumpled lace. Glossy. She pulled the solid footwear off, letting the shoes land with a clunk on a carpet foreign to Elliot but now his own. Her toes looked squeezed together, the bone at the base of her largest one was rubbed shiny and looked sore. She was leaning down, gaze pained, rubbing and squeezing her feet hurriedly as if anticipating another impending item on her list.
“Why don’t you get a pair of sneakers, Anne? You look like you’re killing your feet.” Elliot offered, and she looked up, bent over the injured objects as she was. She shook her head.
“No, this is what I wear, Elliot. It’s fine.”
This, the man thought, was absurd. He straightened up in mild indignation.
“But you’re hurting yourself, don’t be ridiculous, Anne.”
Anne gazed at him with her lips quirked somewhat in her coldness. She seemed to be looking him over with some sort of mild interest, the mild interest of Elliot the lab assistant over an unwanted insect fallen into the killing jar, whom he did not understand and did not particularly wish to. Her palms sheaved back up her calves, she adjusted her skirt and rose, pushing her feet, wriggling like fish, into the hard objects that greeted them. She tied the ribbons.
“I have to go to work.”
“Where?” He asked in mild surprise, rising up in his slouch still further to meet her standing gaze.
“University. I’m teaching a class. Can’t be late.”
“I daresay they’ve have enough of the substitute.” She en-wove her shoulders to the sturdy, padded back-pack straps of her case, shaped and glossy. It was a high-tech hard-case, blue. She put a bag on her shoulder, the soft leather messenger bag. Elliot watched, limbs unmoving and sleepy, as she walked busily to the door. But it was not many steps before there seemed to be something unsure in her gait, resistant and undecided. It culminated in the turning of her toe back towards him, the half-turning of her body, full-turning of her head. She was not thinking to conceal the unsureness on her face—she looked sorely torn, like a little girl with the option of a puppy on one side and a pony on the other.
“I suppose you’ll have to watch Renata while I’m gone,” she spoke, avoiding his gaze. “Mrs. Locklear canceled, a friend of hers had a stroke last night.”
Mrs. Locklear was Emil’s mother. Emil’s mother with wavy hair dyed blonde, honey-blonde. Elliot received this in double-surprise—first, in confusion at the odd choice of name for Renata’s grandmother, and second, at the dawning realization that Anne was, in fact, trusting his stained hands with the jealously guarded child. Elliot raised his eyebrows in unconcealed surprise.
“I won’t be gone long. Make sure she has breakfast. I—I have to go to work.” She said this with a sort of finality, as if attempting to put an end to her unsure tone. From the way she said it, it was obvious that work was very important to Anne, almost as if she’d laid the intonation for the two of their benefits. Elliot, brows still raised, shrugged and nodded.
“Sure.” He spoke the word with the friendliness of being caught off-guard, Anne lingered for a moment, unsure, before turning hurriedly and marching out the front door. It closed behind her, Elliot heard the key turning heavily, loudly, clacking.
He sat in surprise, in the silent, sleepy living room, pillowed in the soft couch, for a good long moment. He blinked at the now-closed door, large and solid and painted brown, before rising heavily and stiffly at the realization of his duties. For all the petty resentment-flinging he could engage in with the Hungarian, the unexpected and rather-against-her-will handing over of the sacred burden was something to be treated with the utmost weight. Elliot hardly even thought about it; it was an unspoken.
He crept cautiously towards the forbidden bedroom door. Elliot had grouped it as such in his mind as much from feelings of spite and avoidance as from respect for the ladies of the house, but forbidden it was, or seemed to him. The door, like the walls, was painted cream, the kind of color that could look well on its own but not with anything you could put beside it.
The door creaked open, Elliot’s head and head only entered cautiously in the dark room, peering about in the first reconnaissance. It was very dark, not as dark as a room at night, but as a room shadowed in the morning by a closed door and cloistered windows. The bedroom was large enough to be comfortable, but had no room lying idle or to spare; the walls were that same cream, and to the right of the blinded window was Anne’s bed, the same large one she’d had in her old house. It made Elliot feel unexpectedly sorry to see it; he was not accustomed to feeling many pangs for Anne, not any more since her ungratefulness had overcame it, and yet he did, here he did. It is hard for a poetic soul to help feeling constricted at seeing a widow’s bed unchanged but so much changed, and looking at it made him feel lonely.
He turned away after a long gaze. It was not Anne’s loneliness that he was here for, unexpected though the sentiment was. It was for the mattress on floor, swathed generously in softs; sheets and a comforter, off the edge a little light-blue quilt with a large daffodil. Amidst it all in the silent room, in the soft room, in the dark room, lay Renata. Her lips were parted, and the cheek squashed into a pillow squeezed them like a fish’s. Her soft lids were closed, her long hair, straight and sleek and seldom tidy, was very wild indeed from her sleep. Elliot noticed with surprise that her arms were draped cozily around a soft mound of tousled black curls, and with a cautious step closer his suspicions were confirmed. The treacherous Rosco was indeed fraternizing with the acquaintances who were not friends, in the forbidden room, no less. Without Elliot’s knowledge, no less. This effected him rather strangely. He was not overly fond of Rosco—in fact, he often held him in good-natured contempt—he half-expected, every morning when he woke the afflicted dog up, to find him not alive at all.
But here he was. Renata’s. The pierce of loneliness Elliot had felt a second before came again, no longer sympathetic, but entirely for himself.
This was silly, he told himself. He was such an affected lout, he told himself. Although his family would never have believed it, Elliot was in fact aware of and occasionally disgusted by his affected, romantic enmirings.
Unsure of how to proceed further, Elliot Roberts hurriedly turned on the light. Renata woke up like a bolt of lightening at this, so suddenly it made him jump; she sat up in an instant, eyes snapped open and wide, and her movement jolted Rosco awake as well, scrabbling clumsily and frightfully into a sitting position beside her.
This was disarming and unexpected to a man who woke up slowly and only slowly, languidly and only languidly, dreamily and with enjoyment in being exactly in the early-morning reverie that he was. Well, not anymore. That was when he had lived alone. That was before the unknown early-morning piano practicing.
“Uh, good morning, Renata.” He began awkwardly, putting his hands into his pockets. She, thoroughly tousled but eyes sharp, stared at him as she seemed to be getting her bearings. At the non-appearance of an answer, Elliot reopened his lips. “Well, uh, your mum’s out, she told me to make you breakfast.” Renata gazed back but did not budge. She apparently would not be prevailed upon. Elliot scratched the back of his head.
“What do you like to eat? Cereal?” There was no answer. Elliot gazed around at the room, at a loss. The dark-wood bureau, the window-blinds, offered no aid. He suddenly felt a surge of frustration. Renata was only five, maybe six. This was easy.
“Come on, come on, get up.” He walked to the bed, taking her by her thin, childishly toned upper arms. They felt small and soft in his grasp. “Get up and wash yourself, and I’ll make you something to eat. Come on,” he heaved her up with the appropriate gentleness, but she slipped down from his hands; she had gone entirely limp and deadweight in his grasp, and now that she had slid free she began to scrabble away over the sheets. Elliot, however, would not be so easily beaten. “Come back here, come on—“ he reached after her quickly, falling onto all fours over the already-vacated bed. Rosco assaulted him friendlily, eyes bugged out, tongue wet, tail wagging.
“Rosco, stop it,” Elliot sighed, pushing the over-enthusiastic visitor away to look up again, scanning for the fleeing girl. He spotted a moving pile of Anne’s clothes and dived at it; the creature escaped and he was left with a formerly wrinkle-free, formerly perfectly folded magenta cardigan in his grasp. At this point, straightening up, he was struck by the absurdity of the situation, and the absurdity of his role within it. Elliot Roberts took a deep breath, not the calming kind, but the harried one. He placed the cardigan back on the floor. He walked, lips pressed tightly together, out of the room, keeping his glance firmly ahead of him. He would not humor her. He left the door open.
Elliot Roberts opened the kitchen cabinet—his kitchen now, his cabinet. He paused for a moment, thinking it a little strange. But then he smirked. It really was his, he thought. He’d know it well enough with all the money he’d lose over it. With every pound he paid out he would feel it, he thought. It was rather his own fault, but that couldn’t keep the resentment away from the woman who needed to live somewhere mildly suburban, who needed to live in a detached house, who needed a driveway—the longer he spent with Anne, the more acquainted he was becoming with all her odd rules and notions. Elliot had rules and notions too, but his were conceived from dreams and fancies, and thus had little logic. But Anne’s—Anne’s lacked the logic without the fancy, without the dream.
Elliot shook his head to get out one of the cereal bowls. It was perfectly white and glossy and without design, thin as if you could snap it in half, but solid enough. He laid it down onto the counter with a heavy klink, long fingertips bent and weighted in the middle of the dish. In the pantry he was confused by the selection—amidst a wide array of other foods that never found their way into his pantry, he laid his hand on a little white box of Kashi Golean Crunch. His face displaying his revulsion, Elliot popped open the top tabs and peered in suspiciously. He was instantly greeted with the sweet smell; he drew back in alarm, wondering who ever would buy such stuff for their children.
His own choice, the plain Cheerios, was not present. Elliot rifled a good few minutes in the pantry shelves to be sure, but between lots of pasta (the thought of it nauseated him) and canned soups, paprika and trail mix, there was none of his cereal to be found.
At this point Elliot was attacked by indecision. He glanced guiltily at the bedroom, then at the little cereal box, then nervously down at the bowl. What would be worse, he wondered? To give Renata this, or to not make her breakfast at all? Anxiety seemed unbearable to him when he was alone. He tapped his leg nervously.
Elliot sniffed the cereal again. Perhaps it didn’t taste quite as sickly sweet and complex as it seemed. He pulled out a sticky clump, placing it cautiously between his teeth. The saccharine taste hit his tongue, his taste-buds seemed to quiver as saliva rushed to the scene. It was rather an alarming experience, and Elliot spat it out hurriedly in the direction of the sink. No, this would certainly make Renata sick, there was no way he could, as a responsible adult, feed this to her.
Elliot took a short, cylindrical glass cup from the shelf, and filled it with milk from Anne’s carton in the fridge. Elliot never drank milk. It left a bad taste in his mouth. Hopefully this would be a compromise between making the girl too sick and not feeding her at all, which her mother certainly wouldn’t understand. He looked over at Anne’s little mantle clock—it had light-colored wood, a thin gold rim around the round glass—atop the piano. The arrows read 8:15.
Elliot, cup in hand, entered the forbidden bedroom with catlike steps, cautious. It was still dim and could have been empty, it could have fooled you, cradled unknowing in its oxygen crammed with quiet anticipation, in the little breaths coming from somewhere, unseen and bated. The hero laid the cup on the bureau and wished desperately for deliverance.
Anne arrived home at 10:30 in the morning. She hung her bag on a hook by the door, she turned immediately towards the rooms with anxiety.
The house was quiet. Elliot, sitting on the couch, craned his head back towards Anne at the sounds of the door. One foot was propped against a leg of the rectangular coffee-table, upon which was a small cup of milk. There was a trail coming down from the lip of the glass, as if someone had taken a sip. The sour, thick taste was still coating the inside of his mouth.
“Hullo, how were the kids at University.” Elliot asked this very calmly and very amicably, he seemed strangely subdued and looked almost a little listlessly sick. Anne entered in immediate suspicion.
“Where’s Renata, Elliot?” She asked, eyes scanning the empty remainder of the couch, the empty dining table, the empty rug. Elliot smiled in that same weak way that he apparently thought would be comforting, extending a thin beige-panted leg over towards the left of the piano across from him. Anne followed his direction as his big toe, swathed in the gray sock with the thin black and red stripes, indicated the old scarlet armchair.
This also was empty, but the fact did not seem to cause her any confusion. She hurried over towards it, under the man’s odd gaze, squatting down in the careful manner women in skirts seem to understand by instinct, contorting her head strangely to be able to see under the wildly frayed bottom of the chair.
“Renata—“ she’d begun, and Elliot knew that beneath she would be meeting the large brown eyes, the little girl curled and pressed beneath the chair, arm bent oddly to be able to hold the yellow pencil.
The woman turned up to Elliot in something of relief tempered immediately by coldness. She rose. “You didn’t even try, did you?” She asked, quirking her lips as if she wasn’t surprised. Elliot pressed his together in an attempt to restrain himself. He tapped his foot, knee bouncing, on the coffee table, leaping up at her words.
“Anne—hey, now that’s not fair—“
“It’s the truth. Please, Elliot. Don’t trouble yourself with little things like children, they’re beneath you.” She spat, turning away. Elliot picked up the glass of milk and left.
“So you and Anne went to Rosemary House?” Dax asked quietly, looking up from the instrument case he was bent over. Elliot did not catch the brown eyes trained up at him. He shrugged as if it wasn’t important.
“Yeah, we went a little bit.”
“And you got a new house?”
“Yeah.” Elliot shrugged again, fixing the warm-looking tuning peg of his instrument between the long light-colored tips of his fingers, focusing down on it.
Dax nodded at this, holding Elliot for a moment with a pointed, perceptive look that made the man uncomfortable before turning down to his own instrument, taking it up from the case.
The silence made Elliot antsy, and he choked out a wry laugh to fill it. Dax looked up. “That house’ll cost me longer than any of this,” he joked lamely, and Dax listened, he cracked a little, lips-only sympathetic smile in return. “Remember that time,” Elliot began suddenly, still with that joking smile, zipping up his case. “that we were all at the beach and you set off those fireworks?”
Dax seemed just a little surprised at this. It was the kind of surprised where his face didn’t move and he didn’t look up, but his gaze paused for a moment. Just a moment. He seemed to recollect himself as he looked up, calm.
That was all he said. Elliot shrugged, taking up his violin case by the handle and handing it over to Dax, who had his own already dangling from his other hand.
“So you really don’t mind at all, about this?” Elliot asked quickly, Dax straightened up, a case from each hand. The man shook his head.
“I don’t. I’m going to the Luthier’s for mine anyway, I need to pick up a re-haired bow. It’s really nothing.”
“Thanks, then. I’ll get it when they’re done with it and pay.”
And so Elliot was left. He was left with his hands empty. This was strange. He put them in his pockets. He was left, left to go back home to the house with the little anemones blooming outside, so out of character. Every time he looked at them he wondered how long it would be until they died from neglect.
And so Elliot was left. He went home to the house whose new owners spelled flower death, without his violin.
He thought to practice and then he remembered and rolled over miserably, restlessly, listlessly, on the daybed-now-without-a-window. It was a fact Anne had cruelly and craftily concealed until they had been bound by law to that house, he reflected, that there was no large window suitable for his settee. The large windows were on the backside of the house, in the little dining room right behind the living room, and of course Anne wouldn’t allow any room-shuffling.
And so now Elliot lay on the black-framed, green-velvet daybed, and when his eyes grasped up they were cut off, unexpected every time, by a too-close, too-dim, too-plain, too-solid wall. And so now Elliot hid in misery as the exercises were run through on the lower-toned viola from the living room, longing for his dear, for his soul. He never thought about it like that unless he couldn’t have it, that violin. Then it was everything, then he was shot with regret, with longing. It only I had it, if only I could play who-knew-what with my fingers pressed against the strings and my hand commanding the bow, then everything would be inexplicably and suddenly perfect.
That is what he told himself.
Elliot could only roll in misery for so long before the energy of it all bred enough restlessness to demand escape. This would not do. Elliot, having writhed onto a position on his back, rocked his legs up and backward over his front, using the momentum to fling himself childishly out of bed. He did not much mind being childish (he didn’t really think the things he did deserved that name, anyway) if no one was there to watch. And besides, those things, those immaturities Anne would scoff at, they were the most interesting. Anyone worth their salt would see that.
He grabbed the book on the floor and opened his bedroom door with equal momentum, entering the world that was not his own, entering the world of the woman sitting upright in a way inappropriate for a slouchy couch, phone at her ear and computer on her lap, notebook and pen beside her on the cushion. The world of the little girl he saw out the window, mucking in the little yard, bleak and grassy, out back. Alone in her own little universe of pointlessness, it could seem, as the frisbee she handled did not go anywhere, just tossed up and down, back and forth. Rosco ran after it, but the thrower did not seem to notice. Elliot had respect for the private wanderer and dreamer, for that is how he saw himself.
In a moment’s glance this house offered no respite for him, no solution. The old book under his arm, thin paperback cover cracked, white beneath the colors and title peeled in patches off, he walked briskly through. Unseeing, to the front door. Anne had perked up in suspicious half-curiosity at the sight of him; it wasn’t really any interest for him, he could tell. This was Anne’s way. It was more the sort of nondiscriminatory action of a meerkat acting as sentry. He did not acknowledge her.
Instead he acknowledged the large gold-colored handle of the door, round, instead he acknowledged his feet on the little porch of those same stout wood beams, brown-painted. Instead he sat down with a heavy creak on the moldy wicker chair, white gone gray, left by the previous homeowner. And inherited, he decided, by Elliot. He cast a look over the street, over the other houses. A sleepy street, calm houses. There was a women, older than he and Anne but still young, of a thin and tall demeanor, inspecting her gutters. There was an old man, soft wisps of white hair, standing and breathing the air as if there was no time at all, nothing more important to do than grow roots and look, crinkled eyes small and narrowed, at nothing. He did this while his tiny dog of white curls urinated profusely on the street-corner.
His bedroom, the room supposedly his retreat in that house, was really, Elliot decided, a pasty illusion. For really there was no escape. It was a cheap trick and deceit. It was Anne’s house, it was living all the time with a stranger, it was never having a moment unscrutinized, uninfluenced, or private.
Elliot opened the book, which was overdue at the library, he remembered, in his lap. He crossed his leg, which looked funny, he knew, because it stuck out so long. But he didn’t give it too much thought. The book was called Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe. It could be thrilling, at points, Elliot thought. The words. They were thickly done, they imbued the ordinary and the small with an epic rivaled by Homer. But he was often too distracted to read.
“Are you out here?”
Elliot turned in mild surprise as the door opened halfway beside him, as Anne’s top-part appeared from behind it, holding on from the edges like she was leaning from it. Elliot picked up the book in an attitude of showing her what he was doing.
Anne eyed the thing for a moment. “Oh, that looks pretty long.”
Elliot shrugged, holding it from its spine so that the two of them could get a better view of the thickness of the pages.
“Hmm, are you really going to read all that?” She asked, barely laughing in a way that seemed uneasy.
Elliot shrugged again, quirking his lips in a sort of considering attitude, as if he certainly could have, but wasn’t sure if the volume was worth his time. He could see Anne’s eyes following his movements in the closeness of anxiety.
“I—I’ve never been that much of a reader myself. I like audiobooks.” Another nervous laugh. The realization was to him rather shocking, from the good-grade-prestigious-institution-highly-skilled-never-slouching Anne, but he retained his composure with the same attitude of in-control indecision. “I didn’t know you read.”
“Yeah, I do.” His answer was unconcerned. Of course it was affected. It was an unconcern nearly haughty, as he gazed appraisingly down at the book, before Anne’s voice, come rapid and with a change of tone, made him look up.
“Oh, is that your sister?” A jolt wracked Elliot, surprise ending his listlessness, his pointless minute-eating—Anne’s dark eyes were trained with interest on the young woman with the pistachio-colored bike, busy walking it past the little dog and towards their house. Elliot’s followed.
“Gracie!” He called excitedly, catching his breath in the call, waving enthusiastically at the little Elliot-in-miniature. Well, not quite. Where her brother was taller she was shorter, where Elliot was flat she was just the slightest bit curved and womanly, but barely. More girlish than womanly.
Where Elliot’s hair was glossy, down about his shoulders in little curls that started halfway, hers was flat and pulled back. They were both light-colored but his skin was warm and of life, vibrant. Hers was pale and white.
At the sight of Elliot, eyes wide, mouth wide in a toothy smile, waving his arms over-theatrically at her, Grace smiled somewhat wanly. She never ignored her brother. She was that kind. But the smile got wider, like she couldn’t keep it in.
She was, in good form, wearing stripes. Loose shirt around her thin form, three-quarter sleeves, ecru with honey-colored lines.
Anne watched as the woman laid her vibrant bike, an attractive low-seater with reaching handlebars, against the side of the house. She watched as “Gracie” mounted the front steps calmly, eyes trained on the man awaiting, spread and exuding, at the top. She had her thin lips still lightly turned in a sort of considering, half-amused smile. It was at once a little humoring and a little fond. Her eyes were narrowed, barely, at him.
The Roberts siblings had an aesthetic appreciation for stripes. They understood their value, they always owned at least one effected item, and wore it with the appropriate respect.
This, the stripes, filled the brother up with warm anticipation. He smiled larger. No one understood him like Grace, he thought.
Elliot, after gazing at his sister for a grinning moment with open arms, squeezed her in a calorie-burning hug. Anne, standing, unsure whether to stay or leave, watched in uncomfortable bemusement.
This was perfect, Elliot thought, as he squashed Grace in an embrace he saved only for her. This was the best thing that could possibly have happened, he thought. Forget Anne. Grace, she was his most successful beneficiary. If it weren’t for Elliot, he fancied, Grace would undoubtedly not be standing here today. Elliot, he thought, well—Elliot was her guardian angel.
This, Grace, with her typical unnapreciativeness, did not seem to exude as she was finally released. Elliot held her proudly at arm’s length for a moment, before his surveying eyes darkened.
“Gracie!” He exclaimed, face turning drastically, tone accusatory—hurt. “Put your mask on, Gracie! There’s a little kid in this house, we’ve probably got germs galore—she has a runny nose—I can’t believe you biked all the way here without it—“
Grace turned to Anne, her face still with that lightly-affected imperturbability to it, eyes still narrowed, lips still narrowly turned up.
“It’s fine, Elliot. I started a new medicine. And you’re being very rude to Anne—she doesn’t even know who I am.”
“Don’t be silly, Gracie, of course she knows who you are—Anne,” Elliot added, turning to the Hungarian awkwardly present in the scene, “this is my little sister.”
Grace extended her hand, and Anne took it. She noticed the girl’s fingers, nails cut short and stinted like Elliot’s, but caked and impressed with dusty-dry clay in grooves that didn’t wash out easily.
“I just thought I’d stop by,” Grace began, withdrawing her hand and touching her loose satchel with something of a glow, scarce-concealed, “to bring Elliot a present.”
“A present!?” Her brother exclaimed, wide eyes growing wider still. Grace adopted the littlest sort of smile, nearly mischievous, as her veiled eyes turned to the house around them.
“It’s a house-warming visit; and I thought I might as well get your birthday out of the way at the same time.”
“Well what is it, Gracie?” Elliot prompted excitedly, as no present appeared. She shrugged, moving towards the door.
“I can’t house-warm unless I’ve seen it,” she informed him quietly, and Anne thought she was both keenly aware and eager to use her present power, in the most unassuming, sly manner possible.
The young woman pushed open the heavy brown door, peering into the bungalow with quiet interest. Elliot appeared aflutter at her shoulder, grasping at the knob.
“Gracie! Don’t touch that! It’s not clean!”
She seemed not to have heard him, entering the house. Elliot followed anxiously behind, and Anne, with an unsure look at the forgotten Thomas Wolfe volume on the porch, came after him.
Grace was an acute surveyor of the house. She seemed to be thinking about how the rug felt on the soles of her shoes, taking in the disappointing color of the walls, casting a dubious second look at Anne’s Hungarian espresso maker. The second look was for the odd, rather phallic spout. This was a look the object was accustomed to by now, living in a foreign country as it was. It seemed un-offended.
While Grace inspected the piano with her keen, quiet, unrevealing glance (this made Anne feel rather uncomfortable. It was always an often unfounded suspicion of hers that people scrutinized her home), Elliot was going about loudly in the kitchen. He was alit with anxiety at Grace’s hygiene brazenness, flustered even though he would have been sorely disappointed had it been gone.
He was squatting, spider-like, at the cabinet whose double doors he’d thrown open below the sink. His poky knees extended long to either side of him, pants crinkled around them. Anne, one anxious eye still on the unperturbed Grace, watched as the violinist hauled out a pair of large rectangular bottles of rubbing alcohol. They were attached by a plastic halter that went around each beneath short white bottle-caps.
As he feverishly yanked off the halter and unscrewed a bottle, he kept on casting looks at his sister’s rebellious exploits, adding “Renata wiped her nose on that yesterday!” Or “Rosco peed there!” Or “Just wait a moment!”. It made him feel so important, so purposeful. It was wonderful. Now he was getting out the spray bottle of bleach cleaner.
The inspection, however, was not gratuitous. Grace seemed satisfied, heading back towards the door as Elliot was dumping the rubbing alcohol on a hairy microfiber towel.
“Hey! Where are you going?” He called, twisted around so that he missed his aim and spilled all over the counter—the strong odor instantly hit Anne’s nostrils, offensive. It singed her nose-hairs.
“Well I don’t want to bother Anne; it’s her house too. Come on, Elliot. Your present’s outside.” So matter-of-fact, was Grace. Anne wondered vaguely if she and Elliot had been raised in the same household.
“Can I please see what it is? Please?” The brother begged as he followed her, wiping his hands together to sheaf off the dripping cleaner. It left big dark splatters on the floor, and Grace couldn’t help but smile at the power she was wielding. She turned out of the way as he dived at her satchel, yanking it out of his trajectory as she turned into one of the wicker chairs.
“You’ll be disappointed, it’s not much—“
“Oh come on—“
She, still smiling half-mischievously, removed from her bag a book. It was of a pleasing hardcover, substantial. Elliot twisted his head to get a square look at the little volume nestled in her lap; the whole cover was a drawing of a shipwreck, waves spurting, stormy sky. A young man in a rowboat was lurching towards it, seamen rowing. The title, in a white box, read Mr. Midshipman Hornblower.
He looked up at Grace. She shrugged as she handed it to him.
“I thought it’d be something you’d like,” she began, with him adding hastily and supplementarily, Oh I’m sure I’ll like it. “Rose—you know Rose?”
Of course Elliot knew Rose. She was one of Grace’s friends—one of Grace’s odd friends, he would add, as it seemed all her friends were odd. One of Grace’s issue friends, as it seemed all her friends had issues. She also had a lot of hair, brown and messy curls, thick and very long. She’d been a witness for his and Anne’s wedding, if a wedding it could be called.
“Of course I know who Rose is—oh, thank you—“ he added in appreciative surprise as she drew out a second item from her satchel; a bag of Milano cookies, already opened.
“Her parents love it,” Grace went on, and Elliot added a hmm in between munches of the crunchy soft goodness, tongue tingling as it hit the fudge sandwiched between two thin wafers. This was the signature treat that was bland enough to banish his doubts and sweet enough to make him slightly lose his mind. It touched him that Grace remembered it.
“whenever they go on a road-trip—her dad’s from America, and they do that when they visit his family.”
“Ah,” he announced hazily between crumbs,
“They’ll be driving for hours and hours—even days—“
“God!” He exclaimed, drawing out another cookie. His leg was crossed, and he was quite comfortable on that porch beside the familiar face, the way she always sat with her back unstintedly upright without effort, because she was made that way, but her shoulders somehow slouched, legs together and hands resting one on each thigh.
“And they take turns driving, you know, and they read Horatio Hornblower to each other all the way.”
“That’s awesome—this same book, over and over again?”
“No—I think there’s eleven in the series, or something. Anyway, she was talking about it, and it seemed like something you’d like. Lots of battles and adventures.”
“Thanks,” he said it high as if he were surprised, long in appreciation, clapping her on the shoulder.
“Happy Birthday,” she smiled, lips curling as in very pleased with herself indeed, in that quiet way Grace could be. “happy twenty-sixth.”
Elliot felt himself to be brimming over on the inside with liquid gold, warm. This had turned out to be a wonderful day.
Grace paused in the cookie-munching silence, surveying the neighborhood keenly.
“This is nice,” she remarked, turning to her brother. “do you like it?”
“Yeah, it’s ok.” He shrugged. The gold evaporated as he considered her words, as he considered the street. He didn’t like it all that much. But it was alright.
This must have been apparent in his voice, as Grace’s gaze became more scrutinizing.
“How are things with Anne?” She asked it in a way so calmly, so without confrontation or demand. It was quieter and quicker, almost confidential. Elliot lowered his tone in response.
“They’re…alright.” Elliot had nearly hovered on the edge of a flood, but no, not today. With the idea of the deluge, with the beginning, it had been too much. Too much to say, and none of it would have sounded right. And he didn’t have the energy for it. He shrugged again.
“Did you expect you’d have to live with her?”
“Not really, I—I don’t know. I think I kind of did, a little bit.”
“Hmm.” Grace tapped her foot lightly on the boards beneath them. Elliot watched it.
“So,” he began, ending the pause. Grace looked up. “how are things with you?” It was really only a curtesy catching-up-with-you question, because Elliot was already confident he knew the answer. Things must be going well; first of all, the unexpected visit. Then the presents. And she had entertained his hugs without the least bit of coldness or distracted haste. Grace shrugged. “Well?” He prompted, and she shrugged again.
There was another pause and now it was Elliot who drummed his foot, lightly. Grace looked away with an interest Elliot thought had to be fake, scanning blithely the trees barely starting to flower along the street.
Then her phone buzzed.
At the same moment, both brother and sister dived at it; the sister was faster, and this was perhaps only because it was in her bag.
“Elliot! Stop!” She nearly squealed (as close as Grace could come to a squeal), before trying to reclaim herself with the smile of a person clearly hiding something as she held the phone close to her. She was clicking a button quickly before moving to put it away.
“Gracie, what is it—“
“Let me see—“
Elliot succeeded to wrestle the thing from her grasp, two sets of thin arms taut, he stood up quickly to hold the phone above her reach.
“Elliot!” She gasped, amazed laughter breaking in with her indignation, clawing up, but he, amid the arm-waving evasion, was able to get a glimpse. Yes, he saw it, and practically squawked when he did.
“Who is Robbie?” He exclaimed, voice hitting a high-note—phone still waving out of the way above him as he turned to look at her with wide eyes, demanding. Grace stopped snatching at the phone. She tried to look suave, uncaring, to thwart him—but there was a smile breaking around the edges, moving violently towards her eyes. The smile won, and as it did, the realization of horror dawned on the protector, on the knight. The realization of failure. Grace, at her brother’s gaze (Elliot was always very easy to read), giggled.
“He’s just someone I’m dating, Elliot, it’s not the end of the world—“
“Dating? You’re dating someone?”
“I’m twenty-three, Elliot, you’re not my dad—“ she sighed, miffed around her amusement.
“Why didn’t I know about this?”
“Don’t carry on like that, Elliot, it’s not like I’ve lived in a box my whole life, you know—“ her tone was becoming harried, nearly a little annoyed. Elliot grasped at something invisible that wasn’t there, at the air. This seemed to be his version of wringing his hands.
“But—but—“ he spluttered, and she sighed, recovering her smile, slightly.
“He’s really nice, if you want to know. I met him in the produce section of the grocery store.” That smile again, curling up the edges of her face, something cat-like. Elliot stopped spluttering. He stared at her.
“He’s really nice. I met him in the grocery store produce section.” She repeated, and the grin curled up even farther.
“Oh.” Elliot said the first word as if all the wind had gone out of his sails. A pause. Grace watched. “How long have you been dating him?”
“A couple months.”
“Does mum know?”
“Yeah, she knows.”
“And you didn’t tell me?” Elliot’s voice pitching high, affronted.
“I’m telling you now,” Grace offered, helpfully and unsympathetically, shrugging. Elliot sat down heavily, remaining breathing in silence for a few moments, processing the new information. He was part horrified at his skills as an older brother, half shocked at Grace for keeping something this important from him, not to mention not even consulting him first—
“You—I mean, are you guys serious?” He asked, at once grave and lame, looking up. She had crossed her arms low over her stomach, fingertips resting on opposite elbows. She tilted her head.
“I guess, yeah.”
“And you’re—I mean, you’re being safe?”
This was something choked. Grace narrowed her eyes still further. It was the closest she came, in her daily round of expressions, to Elliot’s face-contorting scowl.
“I’m not a kid, Elliot.” She said it curtly, he could hear the irritation. He blinked in the chair. He was having that feeling of something slipping away, right before his eyes. Himself, out of control. Himself, unable to stop it. He felt very weak—and strange. As in, perhaps, unsure what to say. He breathed and looked up again.
“I—well—I mean, congratulations.” He didn’t want Grace to be angry at him. That would be worse. When Grace got angry it was like a building that never forgot, its foundation compromised, full of cracks, spreading and growing by the day. Elliot never knew it until it blew up all around him. She suddenly smiled, warm, looking down. It was like the smile she would give to customers if she had to run the shop, except there was some extra sort of warmness. It was real, that was the difference. She drew out a cookie from the bag and took a bite of it.
“And you’re still taking your medicine every day?” He asked quickly, and she smiled pursingly at him.
The house was dim in afternoon as Elliot was cleaning the counters. The orange microfiber towel, ends curled up from trips through the washing machine and beloved of Rosco’s hair, moved back and forth across the smooth surface under his palm. It would get stuck when he ran out of bleach cleaner between it and the counter, would twist away from his skin, he’d spray more nose-burning liquid down.
He thought of Grace’s excitement and her curling tomcat smile and felt cheated. He felt cheated in a way that weighed pounds, that weighed down his insides and filled his head with gray air. Cheated and lonely. Why should he? Why shouldn’t he, Elliot, be happy? Why should he lay another day in misery, why should he ever feel sad or sorry again? He thought of Rose, Rose with her crazy hair. He’d never thought about her before, but now—would she want to go out? Maybe she was fun. People with issues could still be fun; Grace liked her, at any rate. Maybe she was as good at distracting herself as Elliot could be. Maybe she’d enjoy the charade.
“What are you doing?” Anne asked, shouldering her viola case on one side and taking Renata’s hand on the other.
Elliot looked up. His mind was foggy. He blinked—to refocus on the current world, the real world, the present. On the woman and the girl, on her clean, shiny, round brown calves taut in her posture, on the little dirty pink sneakers beside her. He found his voice.
“I was just disinfecting,” he told them, “in case Grace comes back.”
“So do you know anything about this guy Robbie?” Elliot had the phone, his little silver phone, pressed against his ear. It looked small beneath his palm, beneath fingers lightly folded. He was tromping to the Minndish. It was more exciting to have a phone-conversation walking; people might overhear parts of it.
There was a sigh on the other end. This was unsurprising to Elliot and yet it infuriated him. He pursed his lips tightly, looking both ways with eyes flicking and head unmoving before proceeding stiltedly across the street.
“Elli, don’t you have other things to worry about?” This was one of his mother’s airs. There were two. This was the more likely one; the one where she was busy, or preoccupied, or tired, or stressed. It was the one where they just wanted each other to go away, but would never let the other one go. “Don’t you have a wife or something—“
“Mum, she’s not my wife—“ Elliot responded, intoning the words forcibly in his vexation.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t think of her like that, Ellie, the point is that she is your legal partner and you now also have a legal daughter, don’t you?”
“And you’ve moved into a new house, so you are with them every day.” Mrs. Antoinette Roberts was just as good as her son at pressing her words deep to display her irritation. This ratcheted the young man up even more, picking up his pace to one even more purposeful and violent.
“This isn’t about me, mum, it’s about Grace—“
“That’s another thing, Elliot. Grace has a mother and a father who can watch out for her. You don’t need to be her Saint Brenard dog—“
“I always said it would serve you better to worry about yourself, Elli, and what’s going on with you. You bust a vein over whatever Grace is doing and here your own parents haven’t even met these two people living with you, we haven’t even seen your new house, we have no idea what you’re doing—“
“Hello.” Elliot said this word quickly, he said it curtly, he laid his violin case down on the ground with a cruelty it certainly didn’t deserve. A Chinese man, in young middle-age, looked up in surprise. His head was mostly shiny, peppered with short dark stubble in a balding pattern. His limbs were bent in his customary posture, the one of a small man with ceaseless energy. He was holding his cello by the neck, standing up on its endpin. The capable fingers of his other hand had been curved over the strings, as if he’d been pulling at them to test if they were in tune.
“Everything ok, first violin?” Hop asked good-naturedly, recovering from his surprise with a smile that half-entailed, amidst the friendliness, the customary tense question. This was a theoretical question and did not entail anything terribly specific. It included, in fact, a myriad of possibilities. Is your shoulder injured again? Did the Luthier step through your violin by accident? Did you not practice? Did you not get that shift you keep messing up? This array of possibilities could be summed up in those anxious two words, and they were really, the violinist thought, not about himself or his wellbeing or anything of the sort at all.
“Everything’s fine.” Elliot responded grumpily, sitting down heavily onto the plastic chair, its wide seat receiving him with a squeak. “How’s Mai, how’s the kids,” he was not looking at Hop as he breezed these matter-of-fact, curtesy questions; instead, he had turned over in his seat, bent down at the waist, to open the clasps of his violin case.
“Good, good!” The cellist replied enthusiastically, sitting down and wiggling himself into a satisfactory position before looking up with a smile. “Mai-Mai’s got that grant she wanted.”
“Oh, great!” Elliot replied, looking up from his violin in surprise. “I thought she wasn’t going to hear about that for a couple weeks?”
“Nope! She heard back early—want an A?” Hop asked, drawing his bow across the highest-pitched cello string.
“Nah, we should probably wait for the others to tune.”
“Good idea. Hey, for once you’re early.” Hop chuckled, and Elliot shrugged, giggling a bit himself.
“Don’t laugh yet, our practice might get derailed because of Anne going into shock.” There was more appreciative chuckling over this wry comment, before a waiting silence fell over the room. Hop’s dark eyes had become intent and concentrated on the music stand before him, as if he had entered his own world. His brows were furrowed slightly as his fingers flew back and forth along his strings, hitting the neck of the cello hard enough each time to produce an audible ring of the note he was on. From the sound of it, he seemed to be going through a particularly hairy section of string-crossings and shifting fast notes. He was getting them all right, however; it seemed more a nervous tick, something to do, than anything required. Elliot gazed down at the violin held in his lap. The golden wood, and that chin-rest—it was from timber of swirling chestnut brown. He hadn’t had time to properly welcome it after its return from the Luthier’s. There’d been enough else to occupy him; worrying about Grace, flusters about Grace, it was like a disease but Elliot never tried to fight it. And then scheming about Rose. Scheming about how he could ask Grace for Rose’s information without her (Grace) knowing that he (Elliot) was lonely, or that he was unhappy, or his intentions about anything. It seemed a bit impossible. But it was important not to sacrifice his pride.
And then all that, of course, with Anne on top of him. At least the air she breathed was; coming in, coming out, being flustered about this, or that. Practicing when he wanted the practice, giving Renata a bath right when he was going to shower and she was being ridiculous because they would be home for the next hour but if he didn’t shower right then he wouldn’t be able to and—
The door opened and they looked up.
“Hullo,” Dax said the word without looking at them, eyes down at the door he was holding open for Anne. The violist bustled in busily, frazzled, stopping short to look at the first violinist in surprise.
“What are you doing here?” She asked before she could stop herself, and Elliot shrugged with his lips, not sparing much facial energy for her. He didn’t move his eyes or the skin around them at all. It was a very dead acknowledgement.
“How much longer till the concert, Anne?” Hop asked, shifting in his seat and straightening his back in eagerness to begin. He was holding his bow straight over his strings from poised fingers, the tendon along the inside of his forearm taut and ready.
“Two months. And we haven’t even finished the second movement.”
“We’ll do fine,” Dax reassured quietly, unzipping his case. Anne’s face was hard and un-comforted as she pushed the shoulder-rest onto her viola. She was holding the large instrument against her thigh for leverage.
“If we could meet more we’d be fine, maybe.” Her response was harsh, she didn’t look up at them, and the shoulder-rest she was cramming on too violently slipped and hit the back of her viola was an alarming bang. “Shit!”
“Alright! Ready! One-two-ready-go!” Elliot began with a breath of irritation, speaking fast to draw the group to attention. Dax, surprised, hurried to sit down. Anne had been taken off-guard too, and, recovering, cast Elliot a dark look before stepping over to her chair, swinging her viola onto her shoulder.
“Where are we starting?” Hop asked hurriedly, still poised for action. Elliot scanned the music.
“How about at M.” That was where the ensemble starting getting a little shaky. The three others nodded, immediately focused, eyes trained on their music. Then they looked up at him.
“One-two-ready-go,“ Elliot counted off, voice softer, eyes skirting over them. This was a holding-breath moment, it was a moment when you had to rise, just little bit, over yourself. You had to all look at each other and think of nothing except what you were about to do. They started. The music went together. Elliot tapped his foot. This was slightly amateur, and he knew it, but the tenseness demanded it, they needed to stay together. They did; Dax botched up a few quick notes but he stayed on the beat.
They kept together. He played off of Dax, he turned his gaze to Hop and he turned his violin too, Hop’s eyes, dark touched liberally with the brightness of focus, seemed glued to Elliot’s bow, matching. Ah but then it was Elliot’s part, Elliot got to rise—he did. He did with vibrato, he wiggled and waggled his notes to move something inside you too, because that’s what, he noticed, vibrato did. Practicing alone he’d felt the pulse, how it curved his brows in something like pleasurable anguish when he vibrated enough. He moved his bow softly, picking up the notes with just a little traction to not sound wispy, he caught delicious light.
“Um, could we stop a minute?” Dax asked cautiously, and Elliot, frozen in his delicately suspended position, stilled his bow and turned.
It did hurt, just a little bit, to be cut off at such a moment. Dax seemed, by his embarrassment, to pick up on that, but he kept on.
“Right there—Anne, could you play your part there?”
Anne nodded, eyes still focused on the music. She assumed an upright position, pulling her bow across the string, moving her fingers. Elliot hadn’t properly heard her line there when he’d been playing.
Watching her he was indelibly struck by her fine technique. Her body was aligned perfectly, her bow-hold was something statuary, the way her fingers looked, grasping and effortless. Her fingers on the neck of the viola, too: they held perfect arches and moved from the perfect place at her knuckles. For the fourth finger, a reach for her small hand on that large instrument, he saw her fold in her first knuckle into the neck of the viola expertly, being able to reach that far note in a way so natural—
This always miffed him a little about Anne. There was a reason he never wore his King’s College shirt, the one his family had forced upon him, to any music event whatsoever. It miffed him too that he’d met Anne at the Royal Academy of Music. That was something. That was a tee-shirt you could wear. Of course she didn’t have one.
“Elliot, could you play your part again?”
Elliot obeyed the order in a moment. It was a very nice little part—he played it, swaying his violin at the appropriate moments. Elliot considered music something of a full-contact sport, you had to feel it with everything of your body. Posture sacrifices, he thought snootily, were essential for the most expressive and loose playing. This made him feel better.
“Yeah, ok, thanks—I think” Dax paused, a little uncertainly. Elliot gazed expectantly back, which seemed to make the man nervous enough to hurry on. “well I think you and Anne are supposed to be playing together there—I mean, I don’t know, but I think those two parts might be playing off each other, or at least talking to each other.”
“Oh,” Elliot responded quizzically, raising his eyebrows. “ok.”
“I mean, do you want to try that again—I don’t know,” Dax didn’t seem to be much enjoying his role as group-leader, shrugging apologetically, “from there again?”
“Sure,” Elliot steadied his violin again at his shoulder, looking purposefully over at Anne. There were enough shy people in music, like Dax, that Elliot was used to it by now, but it always made him want to laugh: when the warring factions of timidity and awkwardness were struggling with a musical idea or comment too essential to be kept away. Elliot never suffered this malady.
He gave the cue. Elliot had worked endlessly on his cues; they had first, in high-school, surprised and frightened him—that revelation, when everybody’s looking at you, that moment of lightning fear and understanding. It demanded immediate action, no matter how unprepared—he’d practiced them endlessly, the attitude, the solid counting, the nodding, the eye-contact, the breathing.
He looked at Anne, over his vibrato and bow, over the beautiful curved scroll at the end of his violin. She, over her bow pulling back and forth, gazed back. He played to her, then off her. Off the lilting, sinisterly beautiful lower with his own. It wasn’t too hard if you were trying to. It did sound nice; it required purpose, but it wasn’t too hard to look at her and her bow, to make it a conversation. Although this interplay was more of a lament, he thought. There.
“Well?” He turned to Dax, and the man, who seemed to have had a hesitation on his lips, was stopped by this.
“I—I don’t know.”
“Ok, let’s move on.”
“Elliot,” Anne cut in sharply, putting her hand on the top of her stand as she glared at him. “Dax clearly has something else he is trying to say.”
“What? I’m sorry—Dax, what did you want to say?” Elliot apologized hurriedly and profusely, turning to the second violinist, who quickly avoided his wide eyes.
“I—I don’t know. Maybe—maybe you guys could practice that part at home or something? I don’t want to take up practice over it, but, I don’t know. Maybe try breathing together or something—have you ever done the thing where you sing both of your parts together?”
“Oh yeah, I think I’ve done that.”
“Ok, great—I mean, obviously everybody has stuff to work on—“
“It’s fine, we’ll work on it, Dax.” Anne cut him off, turning the page of her music, but she might have been staring, threatening, into Elliot’s soul. Inwardly, he shrugged. How could he help it if their ensemble wasn’t up to Dax’s standards? It sounded alright to him.
After practice the sun was shining. Shining into the petals of the daffodils, and Elliot fancied, walking with his violin case on his back, that their colors were a celebration for that light. Maybe they were sun-worshippers, or at least appreciators. Maybe they were its children.
He breathed the air. It was fresh, it was fresh as spring. His shoulder hurt a little, but he hardly felt it. Practice was good, it made him feel nice, it made him feel happy to be playing.
What use have I for pride, he thought? What use of I, he thought, for anything less than what I could be doing?
His earlier doubts seemed silly to him, inconsequential.
It was a lovely day, the kind of lovely that was not something merely you saw, half-empty. It was the kind that went in through your nostrils and straight into your veins and that touched your soul on the way. It was the kind where after cloudy days you see the sun but you feel it too. It illumined the daffodils.
When he got to a street-corner he stopped. He took out his cell-phone, he sent Grace a message. It was very light-hearted, as if it didn’t matter at all. And, really, it mightn’t have mattered. It really mightn’t. Who cared what she thought; who cared what anyone thought.
He got that book, that Hornblower book, and he felt very dutiful and important to read it. It felt like the gentlemanly, thoughtful thing to do. He read it outside, because it would have been insufferable not to, and the longer he read the more he slouched and curled into the seat, knees extended with a lower leg and foot over the edges of the chair. And he did like it. He wasn’t a big reader, but he did like it, it made him want to be on a ship in the Napoleonic war. How much more exciting? But then again, not too much; it was tempered with the fine air, the jubilant air, and with the idea, the anticipation of a date and of talking and of fun. He felt completely, and utterly, content. Right where he was. That was something that for Elliot was always fleeting.
Tune in next week for what happens next!