She cooked orzo every day. It struck him after a small incident in Lower Manhattan, one Friday evening as he was walking home after a typically uneventful day at the college. The incident involved him and a group of smartly dressed Jewish boys. Black fedora hats, white scrolls of paper. He was thinking about Annie and her clarinet the moment one of them, a stocky rose-cheeked youth in tidy rimless glasses, crashed into him full-on. He managed to stay on his feet, but barely (Christ, was he really so out of shape?). Nobody cursed, nobody apologized, the whole thing was acted out to precision. The boys gave him a blank look and went on arguing into the shabby New York horizon. Just a minor street incident, one of many. All the city was good for. Yet suddenly he was a changed man, with an idea. The pan, the smell, the taste. He began thinking about Megan and tonight’s dinner. There was hardly any connection between Jewish boys and the kind of Italian cuisine she favored, but that is what life does to you on a dismal day in late March.
For the record, he liked orzo. It was nourishing without being heavy, and it warmed and relaxed his palate that got numb during the long days of explaining why Philip Glass was a genius and John Cage no more than a clown. He liked the taste, even if he could not remember it now. What with all the beastly, muscular New Yorkers smelling and sweating and reeking their way through the streets. He looked up, searching for the nearest subway station. Thinking it still made no sense. No, not his wife’s cooking, but the epiphanic nature of his discovery, so late into the nineteenth year of married life, so late into the day. Was it common and for how long had this been going on?..
Five minutes later he took out his phone, Googled ‘orzo’ and slid into the staggering womb of a subway train with school teachers, office workers and University students who may have not tried it once. He glazed at the pictures, trembling to the sound of the moving train. Yes. Last four months at the very least.
How was your day.
He smiled ‘okay’, as was the habit, but in fact he was falling apart. The incident from half an hour ago kept echoing in his chest, though he chose not to bring it up. The very talk of jogging and quitting smoking and going to the gym depressed him. As for orzo, it took some effort not to ask her this time. Instead, they talked about her customers, his students, Tyler coming home for Easter, and an article in The New York Times on the proposed Israeli draft. “They’re expecting a big protest this Sunday”, she said. Somehow, Megan’s hair looked new, and he could not decide whether he admired the roughness or found it excessive. “I bet. Just bumped into them in the street”.
His plan was to wait and see what happens. Tomorrow or, better still, in a week. He had overreacted: there was lasagna on Monday and there was a steak at the weekend. He could wait. It required patience, but patience was something he was good at. The paperwork, the ignorance and, of course, the image of Annie blushing with anger and frustration, repeating the same mistake in such a selfless manner, again and again. In the end, that girl was only paying him back for his time.
Hungry or desperate for attention, Madge made herself heard under the table. She rubbed her soft fuzzy neck against his bare ankle while he let the wine purr through his heart, lungs, stomach. And there it was of course, spiced with parsley and cooked tomatoes, filling up his plate like a motionless army of yellow maggots.
“I suppose you have to go now”, back to him, meaning the phone call. He nodded and stood up. It was ten past 7.
Friday dinners were the shortest, because of the phone call. At 7:15 he was supposed to be sitting in his room waiting for the familiar voice to appear. “Jim?” the voice would say. “Jim, I’m so glad to hear you”. And it would happen again, and it would last exactly one hour. Then he would smack his lips, read the notes from the black slim Moleskine Tyler had sent him for last Christmas, and stretch on the sofa, napping with his eyes open for another twenty or thirty minutes. To Gustav Mahler or, depending on how the phone call went, the Cole Porter Songbook. Then he would leave the room and join Megan for TV silence or maybe a light chat.
The phone call. Nobody knew. Megan had bits and pieces that were not supposed to make too much sense, and it had to stay that way. Even if she tried to pry, stop by the door and listen, all she could hear was his silence broken off occasionally by the odd impersonal question. She never picked up another phone, in the kitchen or in the bedroom. As if this had nothing to do with her. And it didn’t. Besides, he would easily tell: whooshing sound, louder voices, sudden click.
Even when it came to sex, James Cummins could never do it when a dog or a cat or a parrot were in the same room. It simply didn’t work. In the past it led to a few awkward scenes (Jenny with her bra unclasped, stroking Lucifer, laughing in his face), so it was a relief that Megan didn’t mind. And this time too, he let Madge out of the room with a gentle but impatient shove. Madge gave a soft purr of indignation as she pricked up her tail and jumped lazily into the hall. Freezing still, waiting for the next move to come her sleepy way. Alone, James drew white formal Venetian blinds and switched on the dim blue anglepoise. This was somehow a ritual, down to the cozy picture of pussy willows they had brought from St. Petersburg four or five years ago. It was the picture he was always looking at when the phone rang (always on time) and he picked up. “Hello?”
“Jim, I’m so glad to hear you…”.
He opened the notepad on a new page, sat back and prepared to listen. This time he was expecting something a lot less hysterical than last Friday. But just as ever – there was nothing remotely encouraging in the voice on the other end.
Still shocked after what he had just heard, James went downstairs to join Megan. However, the living room was empty and dark, and all he could see was two bright eyes flaring up at him from the sofa. “Megan?..” Madge, overtaking his unsure steps, was leading him to the kitchen…
Propped up against the pillow, totally immersed, Megan was in bed reading. “Under the weather”, she half-whispered and gave him the look that was old-fashioned and sulky. Shouldn’t you be upstairs, composing? Under the weather. The words rolled over in his mind for a few seconds, after which he stooped and, fearing she might sense whiskey on his breath, kissed her on the forehead. “A little warm, but just a little”.
This time it was English poetry. James could not understand this recent fixation, though back in high school he was temporarily infatuated with Philip Larkin. There was a dry-wit punch to him that made his poems smart and accessible at the same time. Bachelor and possibly a virgin all his life, Larkin had this extraordinary willpower to write with great elegance and style. Brilliant self-denial or perhaps it was something else. James grew off Larkin the moment he fell in love (could not be a coincidence, could it?), as he grew off most poetry.
Bedroom evenings were mostly quiet now, and the rain outside only made it worse. Alcohol was filling his head like some gluey drug, and James needed a conversation. As he slipped under the sheets, into another person’s exaggerated warmth, he looked at Megan’s book and thought about the earlier incident and the strange idea that struck him that day. Those Jewish boys, were they really driven to protest because of what was going on miles away, in a country most of them had probably never been to? “I don’t know, Jim, what do you think?” He looked at Megan, incredulously. She kept reading the book, her eyes and even her cheeks glowing in silent delight. Had he really just said it? Sleepily, drunken haze over his eyes, James’ thoughts dissolved into the phone call and how Mike had said something he shouldn’t have.
“Auden is brilliant. Jim, you should try him”. He found it odd that she never asked about the phone calls, not even with that quizzical look of hers he had first associated with the female students staying after class, asking for private tutoring. Last year, mostly. She never bothered. Or else she really did think it was some God-forsaken relative from Newark suffering from Alzheimer’s and fulfilling his doctor’s recommendations. “Talking”, he said that first time. “Talking with someone he can trust or at least recognize”. It seemed good enough for her.
Under the weather. James drifted off into the sound of rain slurping at the windows. That and a distant clarinet Annie, that white-skinned redhead with a big mouth, just couldn’t cope with.
“Ann”. Not Annie but Ann. It meant that he was angry and she had to do it properly this time. His mood swings were notorious.
“Mr. Cummins, I’m really trying. I know it’s hard to believe…”.
“It is, Ann. It really is sometimes”.
She stared into space, a look of despair and resignation. Secretly, he enjoyed her struggle. Annie was one of those girls whose looks were significantly improved by anger, tears, exasperation. She began playing again, and at some point the instrument gave the shrill, sniveling sound that exploded inside his head with a familiar voice from two months ago. Male voice begging him to listen. He was tipsy after dinner, constantly on the verge of hanging up – believing this to be a prank call from a college dropout. Telling him that Gershwin was a wanker or some such thing.
He didn’t hang up though, and it wasn’t a prank call. He rolled his eyes to Megan’s questioning glances, as if to say no worries, honey, I can deal with it. How quickly he got caught up in all that mess, how swiftly he went upstairs and locked the door of his room. And listened, listened, listened. It could not be real, could it, this was the kind of thing you laughed off with a few friends in a bar, threw away with a ten-dollar note, sneezed out into the cold. The man was a pervert or a maniac, definitely insane. And yet minutes later, second phone call arranged for next Friday, he felt forced to invent a different story for his wife. A troubled relative from Newark, he made him up on the spot. Tiny moustache, black eyes, funny way of talking. Megan looked concerned, but he didn’t have to explain much. She wasn’t bothered. She wasn’t supposed to know. And James of course remembered. That first time Mike was suicidal. Just like Annie’s clarinet.
“No, Annie. You have to start all over again. And try to cut down on that breathing, it’s distracting”.
For the first time ever, he thought, she gave him the knowing look that went beyond open blouses and wine-colored lipstick and high-heeled shoes and the fact that he was there to help her. Still, she sighed, she brushed away a few locks smudging her face, she sighed again and she started from the beginning.
He didn’t hang up. First he lacked moral strength, then he lacked the presence of mind and then it just got interesting. The whole thing was heavily on his mind over the next week. It lasted the length of his cigarettes and the trip home from work. Besides, was he quiet in his dreams and did he manage to correct all those blasphemies spoken by his students?.. Because he simply wasn’t there anymore. Classrooms, college canteens, supermarkets, family dinners: confused, deep in thoughts, pale as a ghost.
Often he returned to day one, day which may have started years ago, as his mother was at work and his father was in hospital. He was about to loot the fridge yet again when the phone rang and he picked up the receiver. Still panicking over the fridge door (did he shut it?), Jim heard an old voice of calmness and authority. The priest introduced himself, father something. “I might even know you, James. I see lots of young people during the Sunday mass”. Jim, who had a vague idea of what a Sunday mass was, didn’t know how to handle it. Politeness was killing him and, tethered, he kept pacing the room in limited three-meter jerks the telephone cord would allow (which was not far at that time), and initially he tried to interject with questions and remarks. Strangely, every time he did that, the priest seemed annoyed – if not offended. So Jim simply listened, fearing this could go on for hours and the food in the fridge would go stale, sour, molded. At some point the priest asked him whether he believed in God and Jim said yes.
A few tortured cries from the playground, and for a second or two James got swept back into the room. There was a distracted reluctance in his eyes as he studied the desks, a high grey ceiling and a red-haired girl playing the clarinet.
The priest asked him whether he believed in God and Jim said yes. Afterwards, he ran into the kitchen to find the fridge door firmly in place. And later still, when mother came home and they had dinner, he decided not to mention the phone call. Which, incidentally, was not the last one. Vacuum cleaners, throat sprayers, even mild drugs. It’s like there was a whole network behind this, some sort of telephone conspiracy, and they singled him out for special attention. He was easy bait, but he must have been useless to them. He didn’t have a sore throat, he wouldn’t buy anything. And still it went on, and he listened. They knew exactly what time to call, they knew how long the talk should continue. It all ended three or four months later when a sweet, gentle croon of a girl asked him if he was soft and if she turned him on. The voice produced all the wrong vibrations, he freaked out and broke it off. At school, Brad said this was a sex call and that he wouldn’t in a million years do something as stupid as hang up on that kind of thing. All the same – after that, he found it easier to switch off. Then the phone calls stopped.
“Was it better?” asked Annie. “Mr. Cummins?”
“Yes”, he said, slowly coming back to it. She must have finished the piece minutes, hours ago.
“The ending was rushed a bit, but overall I’d say that was a huge improvement”.
It was okay, Annie beamed with gratitude and delight. She picked up her things and slowly, almost triumphantly, walked out of the room. He saw the white hairpin left on his desk. Was he making a mistake there?..
Orzo. He scanned the Internet trying to find out more about it, but the article in Wikipedia was a stub and food forums had nothing to say on the subject. Apparently orzo did not enhance your sexual prowess or made you love English poetry or compose music or restore what bad habits had achieved over the years. Naturally, his first guess was their sex life. Starting with Christmas or thereabouts, Megan read herself to sleep most of the nights and nothing happened. Nothing happened, and when it did – it was frustrating for both of them. So despite Woody Allen’s humorous claims in one of his earlier comedies, there was nothing in that pasta.
But mostly it was of course about Mike. One promising week at the end of February may well have been delusional. Last Friday things got complicated again, Mike had a nervous fit and threatened to kill his wife. At moments like that James was determined to sign off on the whole thing, seeing how it was still an option, but by Tuesday he would experience terrible withdrawals that just meant more whiskey and panic attacks. He was too involved to leave the ship, which, all things considered, was in his charge. James was the captain, Mike was his responsibility. Oddly, that first time (he kept going back to that first time, for doubts and for regrets) James did not even bother to ask where the man got his phone number. It was just so overwhelming. Could he help that man? By simply listening to him tell his story?..
And yet: so banal, so New York. A married man got disillusioned with his marriage and fell in love with someone else. Who would be interested? And yet the way the story unfurled, all its heartbreak and personal details, was enthralling. Like a gripping novel, like a well-written TV show that let you see the sausage factory from the inside. There were kids, Mike’s insecurity, his wife’s health problems. And there was of course Helen, beautiful and happily married, a kind and generous husband she was attached to. Helen was the name of his lover. Helen was the one this was all about. Helen was the reason why Mike was willing to commit a first-degree murder.
James had no details. Second name, address, job – nothing. Somehow, there was never a proper moment to ask. It would have been wrong and not comply with the rules unspokenly set out for him at the beginning. Mike was just a character, a fairly bland notion in the city of New York.
Sometimes James was thrilled to realise that the piano was still in his room. Crouched in the corner, stacked with books, pictures and CDs. Somehow, it meant that with a few right moves any number of his past works could be salvaged. Yet to even start looking for those long white sheets, blotched with black coffee and fevered handwriting, seemed too much of an effort. Of course he still played the cheap college piano, mainly for his students, but that was different. “Have you finished your new piece?” Megan’s question over breakfast was the strong energy drink you were not supposed to have in the morning. It did not make you work more, it made you edgy and anxious and confused. It made your heart pound like a steel factory.
All the same. When he finally got bored from lying on the sofa, failing or perhaps not even trying to fall asleep, Madge between his knees and a white rubber ball in his left palm, he did not go to his room to write music. It was about Mike and the notes from last Friday. Freezing still at the stairs, catching his breath: there would be no phone call this week. Something that was lost in the heat of the moment (threats, kitchen knives, murder) and failed to resonate with him. Now it was coming back, with cigarette smoke through the open window and two horrible words: one was Florida and the other was Friday. Mike had to fly to Florida to see his parents who were on the verge of a divorce. It meant, inevitably, that there would be no phone call this week. For the first time since the whole thing began. Which was mid-January, more than two months ago.
Madge was quickly ushered out. Madge: a look of surprise, as if she understood full well it was not Friday and this unfortunate behavior was uncalled for. James buried the cigarette end in the ashtray (shaped like a toilet bowl, from the old days) and sank behind his desk. Then he unlocked the drawer, second from bottom, and took out the black Moleskine, tidy and bookmarked. Their last session was spread in front of his eyes in four brief sentences. “Couldn’t kiss her today”. “Kids feel something is going on”. “Insomnia again”. “Under the weather”. James read the last one several times, then whispered it. Then reread again.
He flipped back, to the very beginning, to the second phone call. There was no strategy to his note-taking, he just listened and wrote down whatever he felt necessary. James did not have much to go by, just a few movies and that one-time experience when he was reduced to feeling like the main character in David Foster Wallace’s fraudulent, heartbreaking “Good Old Neon”. And presently, with Mike, there was this natural urge to participate, to get involved, to make things happen, to quote musical history, to even give advice. Wrong. His job – if there was a job to this – was to listen. He tried and initially failed. He asked a few questions and got pointless trivia, like a description of Helen’s hair or Mike’s peculiar food preferences. And then he got it. All he had to do was just be there, on the other end. Sometimes his students would burn a CD with their music, and he could always survive that. Mostly scratchy hardcore punk and lo-fi hip-hop with inept samples and borrowed rhymes, but he tried to be generous. At 45 you were too old to discourage anyone. Mike was a human interest story, he was engaging. That is, if you dared to accept the possibility of this, in a modern city too big to tolerate a single voice crying into wilderness with dashed hopes and evil intent.
Of course Mike had to be fake. Painfully real, bristling with personal agenda, what was he doing here. But there was something to James Cummins that made him enter the college classroom in September and see which student had it and which was hopelessly tone-deaf (Annie was borderline). Mike: a middle-class citizen of 82nd street, a real estate agent, a fellow lover of Scotch whiskey and Lucky Strike. It was irrelevant whether his mental portrait was true or not or if he even existed, on 82nd street or elsewhere. Because only one thing mattered: Mike was not fake. Not a fraud. A happy resolution with one downside: if it got out of hand, if it really came to murder, James would be an accomplice. A scary thought, one that was happy to be interrupted by Megan unlocking the front door.
Downstairs, her coat giving off the chilly April wind, James had this wild, inexplicable impulse to say.
“Meg, about Friday. There won’t be a phone call.”
“Ah great”. Her robust voice, slightly husky from the cold, her deft white hands going about the paper-bag groceries. She was spreading them on the kitchen table, laying the scene of an old Dutch painting. “Is he all right now?”
“Who?.. Well, I don’t know. With Alzheimer’s there’s basically just one way. Doctors say…”.
“It’s okay. Do I have to know?”
She made it easy for him. And there’s no end to our love for people who don’t make us lie. And it doesn’t matter, does it, if they do it accidentally or on purpose.
“Well, in any case. He isn’t dead. So about Friday. Why don’t we..?”
She chose not to interrupt him this time. In fact, Megan stopped packing food into fridge and eyed him with surprise bordering on suspicion. That quizzical look of hers. Then a flicker of a smile, annoyance, something else. No, she couldn’t make it. Friday was tomorrow and seeing how he was usually busy anyway, she had made plans. A new modern art gallery opening on Park Avenue. Bookstore connection (Megan worked in a bookstore), through Susan. “I’ve promised, Jim. But that’s very sweet of you. Do you think you could ask someone else?”
“What? Like one of my female students?”
“Yes, why not”.
This was an old jibe that no longer worked in a serious context. James felt hurt. And helpless.
“Would you like some coffee while I’m making it?”
It. She snatched a familiar bulky packet out of the cupboard and threw it on the table. The menu was taken for granted, by both of them. He said yes, he would drink a cup. No milk. And she smiled and turned around and said why would she do that. Put milk in his coffee when he could not tolerate that in his drink. Straight gin and straight tonic, remember? He smiled at a fading memory, and realized that he wasn’t thirsty and did not want any coffee. He used to drink it a lot, but that was last December, when the strong ragged taste helped scare away the sleep and keep track of his work-in-progress. Last December was in general a different life and a different world. He could happily survive on just one pack a week, he had no chest pains of this intensity, he composed stuff. There were no silly phone calls and there was no orzo. He was not this vulnerable man falling apart under pressure. And presently he just wanted to sit there and watch his wife. Because he felt hurt, he loved what she did with her hair, and thought he was on to something. Recent quietness, identical dinners, modern art gallery on Park Avenue, it all added up.
Megan talked about Tyler. College was fine, but he wondered why daddy was never in Skype. The coffee was so bitter it made him wince. He had almost forgotten the taste. In the meantime, Madge in the corner was stooping over her bowl and lapping the milk with hunger, joy, greed.
Indian takeaway on his desk (‘very mild’ was becoming ‘too spicy’ all of a sudden), Moleskine rifled through to every last detail, James knew he was on the verge of an important discovery. Something that would hit him harder than a Jewish boy in Lower Manhattan one week ago. You don’t want to know, but it exists, so you have to know. Because despite the fact that he had learned nothing about Mike, there were all these little details that made it onto his notes or his memory. “Helen likes art because she works with it every day”. “Wild hair, it’s a knockout”. “Her sex life is in tatters”. And there was more, all shaping into a clear pattern that seemed as senseless as it was cruel. All coming from his random notes that had no logic to them.
He got into the second pack of cigarettes, and then he opened his last bottle of whiskey. Cragganmore, a duty free special that never failed to deliver. First shot sobers you up, second burns your throat, third goes directly to your heart. It took him four to finally call Megan, but there was no answer.
She came home long after midnight: downsized footsteps, understated breath, exaggerated silence. He pretended he was asleep. And then, when she was about to slip into bed.
“Why the hell orzo, Meg? Why do that to me?”
“Are you drunk, Jim? Christ, the smell. We’ll talk in the morning.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’ll take the sofa”.
He was too feeble to argue, tomorrow was Saturday, and he was asleep anyway.
When James heard Annie next Tuesday, it was between a shock and a revelation. The clarinet actually sounded like a musical instrument. There was vibrancy and shape to her playing, she could finally hold the tune. Not trample it, bog it down, leave lying in the snow face down. Granted, the entire piece was just three minutes fifteen seconds, but he was happy with the work she had done. And God she was attractive. Her beauty was ruthless, unadorned and rather vulgar. Jenny had been a redhead. Redheads, Jenny had told him, were the best.
“Annie”, he said when she finished the piece and searched him for judgement. “You are pretty. You have seventeen boys waiting to light your cigarette. Why clarinet?”
“I don’t know”, she said, square into his eyes. “I like the sound. I like how it looks. Well, Mr. Cummins, may I ask you the same question?”
“What? Clarinet? I don’t play it”.
“No”. She blushed. Wrong. Redheads never blushed. “It’s not that. Why do you help me?”
“I guess it’s because this concert is my responsibility”.
“And that’s it?”
“I don’t know, Annie, is it?”
He kept the white hairpin in the right pocket of his jacket, for no obvious reason. James let her go, earlier today, because of the bookstore. He would see her on Monday. There was no clear pattern to these sessions, they were knocked about randomly and quite a lot.
Megan’s bookstore. For James, one of the most mysterious and abstract places in New York city. That is, he knew all about it through Megan’s comments and stories and complaints, but he could barely remember the interior. In a way, Megan’s bookstore lived inside their apartment, through hardcovers and paperbacks she kept bringing into the household. On his piano, under the bed, around the fireplace. Straight away you could see Megan worked with art. She was the one you came to if you wanted to know whether you should bother with Amerika if you liked The Trial or whether In Search Of Lost Time had five or six books in it (correct answer: seven). That is, she knew not just the shelf and the section and the directions. She had all the answers, it was her world. James thought that his wife was the most well-read person he had ever known. She knew things, she had her ideas, so how could he ever doubt she could pull off a thing like that as well?..
James knew something he wasn’t supposed to know and now he wanted to see something he wasn’t supposed to see. And to do that he went to Megan’s bookstore. Which was an original, scary notion.
In different circumstances, James could pretend he was a customer. Bookstore was your ideal hideout. You could pick a book, an armchair and look in any direction for as long as you wanted. It is just that he was the wrong person to do that. Susan would greet him from the counter, Megan would look surprised and maybe even scared and his plan would fail before he could even give it a proper chance. What plan. Well: jealous, voyeuristic. In different circumstances, he would not even be there.
Hovering over the pavement, dashing glances, walking around the place with cigarettes he did not so much smoke as swallowed, James wasn’t watching Megan. He only saw her once, as she came up to Susan and some other guy whose name escaped him (Tim? Tom? Ted?) and exchanged a few words. As it turned out, he was reduced to watching the customers entering or exiting the bookstore. And of course there were all kinds. And of course once inside anything could happen. The problem was – how could he ever tell.
James looked at his watch and saw that the bookstore would only be closed in twenty-five minutes. He was chilled all the way through, down to his veins. Cigarettes depressed him, because there was nothing like the vengeance of an old habit you thought you had kicked for good. So he decided to go to a jewelry store on the other side of the street and wait for her there. He was useless standing on the pavement, looking at faceless men with moustaches, crooked noses, protruded chins, disheveled hair, salacious looks. Staying fifteen minutes, browsing for hours or maybe leaving straight away. The jewelry store was warm, bright and for some reason no one bothered him with birthday presents for his wife, daughter, mother-in-law. Quiet places were supposed to get him thinking about Mike, but not this time. Not since last Friday. This week his thoughts were clear, because now he knew he was in charge. Really in charge. Yes, he was looking forward to the next phone call, but now there was this huge moment of clarity. A cloud, a whole sky. One that perhaps let him realise today that Annie was good. Pretty, capable – and, quite possibly, talented.
Megan looked surprised. There was no fear, but her brow went up by two or three inches before swiftly settling back into its old position. But there was no confusion, not a glimpse. She waved goodbye to Susan and Tom (Ted? Tim?) and let him lead her away. Home.
Not that her smile changed anything. Because you can forgive an impulse, but you can’t forgive a plan. And this was most certainly a plan of such staggering deviousness that James found himself fatuously turning over the whole piece in his mind, trying to decide from which side to bite. The whole thing was rotten, from foundation up, but nothing equals the wild animation of a knowing man. And James Cummins was finally that – a knowing man. Technically, Megan’s bookstore supplied no proof of any kind, but as his fork sunk into that goddamned rice yet another time, he was filled with resolve. The bookstore had looked alien, like nothing that was remotely connected with it could ever belong to him again.
“Why orzo, Meg?” Because she did not answer last time, and in the morning there was no chance or memory to bring it up.
“What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean. Why the hell would anyone cook this thing every day?”
“Oh. You mean orzo”. That was the first time he heard her say it. Long, diphthongized vowels, spoken like a true New Yorker. “Because you like it?”
True, but heartbreakingly beside the point.
“Let’s see what Mike has to say on the subject. Helen”.
He left his meal unfinished, shut the door on Madge’s whining nose, and saw that it would be a long wait from there. And he could barely stand still, all that latent fury making itself palpable through the tense writhing of his temples. In the past he knew how to deal with it. Whenever he felt he had to get his life back on track (even if he lost it for just one day), he would simply open the piano lid and play a few notes to calm himself down. Could he touch it now though, without making a complete fool of himself? Secretly, he was waiting for Megan to come upstairs and try to do something. Maybe warn Mike (or whatever his real name was), maybe confess. And yet they would hold to the very end. Secret lovers, he knew, were both irresistible and resistant. Only lovers left alive.
But thank God it was Friday. After this whole endless week (which included one of his students describe Mozart as ‘fucking Mozart’ and him not saying one word to that), finally, it was his time. Alone in his room, with the door locked, with a notepad, he knew he was in charge. Even if Russian pussy willows were on fire and Megan’s muffled clattering came from the kitchen with the promise of violence and headaches. He opened the venetian blinds, then closed them again. The piano and the books made him sick, as did his notes which he already knew by heart. Down to the pages and the dates and the small curly absurdities he drew with his pen while listening to Mike. Rip it out? No, that way he would lose the evidence. Reluctantly, James realized that he was calling him by the fake name. Mike. Benefit of the doubt, such a horribly outdated notion when spoken outside a courtroom.
“Jim, I’m so glad to hear you”.
That robotic repetition, and spoken like in a haze. Suddenly, James had a quick meltdown that dragged on and on. The familiar intonation that in so many life situations, both in college and elsewhere, was becoming his own inner voice. James knew he was losing, knew that he was just a dumb observer. Or listener.
“Me too, Mike. How was your week?”
Annie said she wasn’t hungry, so just pineapple juice for her. The place was buzzing with forks and non-sequiturs coming at them from all sides, and it made their meeting somewhat casual. If not mundane.
“Bad for your teeth”, he suggested.
“Well, I smoke”, she said. Which was as good a reply as he could get.
“Still water”, he said to the waiter.
Past her clarinet, past the white hairpin he wouldn’t mention, past the upcoming concert (so soon now), they had little to talk about. So he asked her about her family and she asked him about his job. This, he knew, was in the script. Several times she smiled uncertainly while she sipped, as if remembering something or thinking of a question she dared not ask. James could now see there was beauty even when she smiled, which was yet another change coming his way. Beauty. One of the first piano pieces he wrote, as a student, that pathetic “Gymnopedie” rip-off, was called “Beauty #49”. He winced at the memory and shrugged it off with an abrupt gulp of tasteless water. He saw now that it was the kind of beauty that could go very wrong in a few years. Not so much vulnerable as way too vital and vibrant. It could not fade away, but it could burst open and disappear in the air of this huge, monumental city. She could maybe preserve it in Paris. In Florence. In Amsterdam.
“Do you play a lot?” she asked. “I mean, not for us but for yourself?”
“I do. I did. Not so much as I used to though”.
“I hate myself for that”.
“And why’s that?”
“Why what? Not playing or hating myself?”
“I actually stopped last Christmas”.
It was casual. And she was genuinely interested, he could see that. Her eyes quivered, her teeth bit the glass, she wasn’t afraid to ask the wrong question. He liked that. It was all like a natural continuation of their improvised walk from college, his shabby brown bag against her neat white clarinet case, and how they saw this place and decided they both had half an hour to spare.
The water was always at hand. He needed it, too. Every time he told one part of his story, there was always this thirsty urge to replenish, to have another go. James knew how these things happened. You could suppress it all you wanted, over three long months of hidden demons and private hell, and then you just spurted it out, in front of a girl whose talent he first mistook for inept wailing. Annie’s clarinet case was now lying on her knees, which constantly gave him the transient, train station feeling that this will soon be over.
“What I don’t understand is why they did that”.
“Your hands are shaking. Actually, we noticed. You looked awful. You look awful”.
He didn’t know what to say to that. His hands? His look? It was so blunt and cruel and mean that he was almost grateful.
“It’s like you stopped paying attention at some point”.
“Well, there you go”.
“We lost interest”.
“I know. I mean, I noticed. Probably. "Fucking Mozart". So why did you?..”
It was, he now remembered, early February.
“I don’t know. I needed the concert and I had to improve. Christ, I wish we could smoke in here”. Annie fumbled with the upholstery of the clarinet case. Then she got up swiftly and ran out. A phone call, a message, an e-mail?
Why do that. For two weeks now he’d been restless. On the edge, falling apart. Megan stopped making orzo quite so often and acted as if nothing had happened, Mike acted as if nothing could have happened (in a world outside his own). James, for his part, had shaking hands and baggy eyes and chest pains. And he looked around the café: one of them could well be Mike. If only he had the vaguest description of what he was looking for. Because James was paranoid, the result of something awful Mike said last Friday. And now he had to tell someone, someone he barely knew, someone he only saw occasionally and always in a formal way. And all the same – he regretted immediately.
“Okay. A few questions”, she said, sitting down. No, she waved off, she did not want any more pineapple juice. He saw she was restless, even if she did put her clarinet on the seat nearby. “Why do you think it’s them?”
“Well, it’s like they say. A husband knows. And there were all these details. Her hair. She began doing it the new way, at some point after the phone calls. The guy likes Italian food. And orzo. Italian for ‘barley’. Well, that sounds silly, but there you go. ‘Under the weather’, they both say it, and how rare is that, even in the city of New York? And then…”. No, he would skip the ‘sex life in tatters’ bit, though it hurt the most. “Other details. Listen, Annie, I’m sorry I told you all that. I didn’t have to”.
“No, it’s okay. It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard”. Possibly she heard incredible things like that every day of her life. “Mr. Cummins. You look frightened.”
Frightened, awful, what else there was to it anyway.
“It’s too complicated now, Annie. I did not want to tell you at first, I have no reason sitting here telling it all now, but last Friday there was something new. He threatened to kill Helen’s husband.”
“Which is me”.
“And what can I say to him? I’m supposed to be a shrinker, and what are the ethics of it. It’s hardly a confession box, but it’s close”.
That man, the bland office type, eating his late lunch like he really was hungry. Raising his eyes occasionally, looking for someone. Maybe waiting, checking his iPad and his iPhone every ten seconds like it’s all some kind of nervous obsession. What could possibly be lying in his briefcase alongside cigarettes and business papers? And, most importantly, would Megan go for someone like that? Someone whose entire connection to the world of art was reduced to the background of his mobile phone?
“I don’t know their reasons”, he continued, “but if that is some elaborate plan to drive me insane, they are doing quite well. As for the actual murder, I’ve heard the man a dozen times already. He might do that”.
“Under the weather”.
“My mom says that a lot”.
Annie waited for him to finish the drink, the water going from refreshing to lukewarm to tasteless in a matter of seconds. Then she let him pay without doing the lazy protest, picked up her clarinet case and said goodbye. The office man asked for his bill, and James heard the voice. He would have recognized that voice in a church choir, in a football stadium. This was not Mike’s voice.
“Good luck tomorrow”.
“Thank you. And thank you for everything. I would flop without…”
“Don’t say that, Ann. Annie”.
“Okay”, she gave a faint smile.
“And don’t be nervous”.
“I never am”.
They never were.
Tyler looked tall, taller than Megan. Taller than James. Taller than anyone else in the street. In fact, for one tiny second, as they emerged out of the subway station on the other side of the street, he went through a short meltdown which erupted in chest pains and bad April sweat. The heavy blow they had saved for the last. It’s when he saw the raw blue jeans torn above the knee that he realized it would not happen today. His relief was his surprise. Because Tyler was supposed to be at college and had only promised to come at weekend. They embraced, but formally – because they were older now (especially Tyler) and because they could damage the flowers.
“Who are these for?”
“For Annie”, this was Megan, looking good. Looking good. “Your student? Who’s bad at clarinet?”
“Ah”. Red roses for the redhead. “She’s quite good actually. Much improved”.
The concert wasn’t a big deal. There was never any serious reason for it to happen, and James’ enthusiasm, feeble from the start, just kept waning. This time, though, he chose to take it seriously. For three days straight, he was involved in spreading the word, recruiting students and friends (who were genuinely surprised, having not seen him since the beginning of the year), making phone calls and talking to the administration. Today, when the concert was finally on, he was being nervous and enjoyed the feeling. And speaking of nervous, there she was, running up and down the aisle with a slim but handsome guy in thick black-rimmed glasses. Annie’s hair, he noticed, was in a state of disrepair.
“Annie!” he called.
She smiled, she introduced her boyfriend (Nick, Nick the hipster, Annie was selling herself cheap), but in fact she was in a terrible hurry. James wished her good luck, while Annie looked at Megan. Her glance abrupt and seemingly meaningless. Well, he didn’t want to take her time, but there was one thing. Hold on, Annie. It was the same jacket. Heavy, green, checkered thing he no longer bothered to change. James put his hand in the pocket, confused murderer groping for his weapon or a hobbit fumbling for his precious ring, and took out the white hairpin.
“There you go”.
Annie didn’t think twice, perhaps she never did. Instead, she clipped the hairpin inside that beautiful red mayhem and made her hair look neat and composed in one flicker of a second. And suddenly he thought, as Annie turned around and ran away, that now it looked as tidy and neat as it did back in February. Will she breathe correctly, will she not fluff the ending?..
“That was her?” said Megan. Engaged, Tyler was typing something on his iPhone. “She is pretty”.
“Yes”, he said. In fact, he only saw it the day he went to the bookstore to spy on Megan. When he actually listened.
As he listened today, at the concert. Feeling Megan’s knee against his, not for a second fearing that Annie would make a mistake and flop. She wasn’t nervous, not like she was but a month ago. Her confidence was a silent fiddle tune that went with her clarinet solo. Was it something he did, distractedly, in that sad college room after class? James realized that for the first time ever, Annie’s playing was not just a soundtrack to whatever was going on inside his head. To all those memories and all those secret meetings in cheap hotels and parking lots and cafés and modern art galleries that he had imagined. Helen and Mike, Mike and Helen. He caught a glimpse of Megan in the dark, her lips pursed in moving with the sound. Annie’s confidence relaxed him, and suddenly he knew Megan was safe. She could not do that, and the realization was yet another tune that went along with Annie’s playing. A modern girl who could not breathe wrong or fluff the ending. Perhaps sometimes things were too simple to make a mistake.
Orzo was his decision. In fact, Megan was about to do something else when James kissed her on the back of her head and changed her mind. He insisted, because you don’t give ghosts half a chance if you want to go on. You deny them, you say they don’t exist. That is how it works and that is how you go on. Besides, James liked orzo.
They talked about Tyler, who had seemed happy but somewhat distracted. Megan thought there was a girlfriend, but her evidence was circumstantial and Tyler would not say a word. Perhaps next time, she suggested, having read too much English poetry. Perhaps, said James. Perhaps next time there will be someone else. A slow family conversation, with no start and without an end, filled with a heavy steam rising from the plate, it veered from The New York Times articles to why orzo was so hot today to James’ music writing. The short piano piece which he abandoned in December, he might do it in the end. Then there was a question of Madge. She had some nasty infection in her right paw, she limped, and someone at the bookstore knew a good vet.
“What herbs did you put into this today, Meg? It’s spicy”.
In fact, the orzo was so hot it made his heart beat faster, and brought back all those chest pains from some time ago.
“But it’s good though?” said Megan. And then. “Don’t you have a phone call tonight? It’s ten past seven”.
It was almost like a dream, and it was strange to be here again, in this quiet room upstairs, waiting for a phone call. Strange, because he believed it would never happen again. Last week’s concert was on Friday, so the session had to be called off. And there was simply too much going on now. Helen was not his wife. He wanted to compose again. He drank black coffee first thing in the morning. Annie’s brilliant performance had effectively stopped their private clarinet meetings after classes (she got what she wanted and she disappeared). So why would there be a phone call?
But he drew the blinds, took out the black Moleskine and felt his eyes sliding towards the picture on the wall and away from the piano still overwhelmed with books and CDs and old sheet music. The piano was a million miles away.
The phone rang. It was 7:15. The man was always on time.
“Jim, he’s dead. The man is dead”.
Inside, Madge was lying on the sofa, fitfully asleep. Outside, he could hear the noise of New York. He couldn’t see (because of the blinds), but he listened. Mike went on and on, hysterically. James thought New York had nothing to do with this. Or perhaps it was all about New York and this could never happen in any other city in the world.
James listened. His heart kept beating faster and faster, but he listened. This time, he knew, it would have to be Gustav Mahler.