I consider it very bad manners when writers base their characters closely on real acquaintances. Sometimes, however, something a little different happens: numerous people, reaching a certain age and situation in life, undergo very similar experiences, variations of the same story. When fragments of these various people are forged, according to the unfathomable dictates of the writer's subconscious, into composite fictional characters … then I think it is permissible to write, and to publish, a version of their collective story.
That is the case here.
Sarah's brother used to tease her when they were children: "It's not a man, it's a woman. And he's pregnant. I mean … she’s pregnant … with a little guitar-headed baby."
Sarah always assumed he said this just to annoy her, since she never thought the Mexican looked at all womanly. But recently, she saw several paintings by the artist Kirchner, each featuring a woman whose face resembled the little guitar player's. This did nothing to actually change her mind about the sculpture; but it did make her reconsider her brother's motives.
In any case, the sculpture still looks just as it did when she was little, when her brother used to tease her--only a bump or two added, and a slight crack, from the many falls it's taken from her dresser (her various dressers) over the years. And a layer of dust.
Was it thunder that woke her? She seems to remember the sound of thunder, though all she hears now is the rain's soft hiss. She opens her eyes.
She's lying on her side, facing away from the wall by her bed, toward the door. She can make out the door's bottom edge, and after a second, other shapes, which seem monstrous and vague. They have the same formlessness that was in her dreams a moment before. Also, the same unease. As if, just as she opened her eyes, the formlessness and unease had jumped out of her head, and onto the cluttered dresser-top, the clothes-draped chair, the overflowing bookcase.
Her cello is lying on the floor (she was practicing earlier, and as usual failed to put it away.) Like her, it's on its side. From where she is lying, she can make out its rounded bottom, rising and narrowing into two corners, and then, emerging from the shadow that hides the rest of the body, the long neck. What it looks like to her, right now, in the confusion of darkness and night, is an anchor. An anchor, lying on its side.
An anchor? She rolls over, closes her eyes again. Stupid.
She falls back to sleep, and for the rest of the night, forgets all about it.
Walking past her apartment door, she spots a scrap of paper. Someone must have slipped it under the crack. Apprehensive (is somebody finally complaining about her practicing?) she picks it up.
Hi, she reads, I’m one of your neighbors. You don’t know me, but I just wanted you to know that whenever I walk by your door, no matter what kind of day I’ve had, I always hear your beautiful playing, and after that, everything feels okay.
She's overwhelmed. She wonders, what was she practicing when Joe heard her? Lately, she's been going over all the old favorites. Was it Dvorak? Rococo? Or Elgar? Bach? Did it really sound good? Would she have thought it sounded good--or did it only sound good because it was being heard by a non-musician (presumably), and because it was filtered by the door, which everybody knows always makes everything sound good?
She puts the note carefully in a drawer, and gets ready for work.
Her second-most-hated comment, after: "It must be great, doing what you love for a living. Eh?"
Today, for some reason, maybe because of the note, her thoughts are all of the cello, past times playing it, childhood, college--and also of the sculpture.
I said before that the Mexican always looked to her like something other than what he was. What he looked like was a man playing the cello--because the guitar in the sculpture is held almost vertically, almost like a cello, and the man is almost sitting the way a cellist sits.
He’s not holding a bow. But cellists do sometimes pluck. Her first few lessons as a kid, she didn't hold a bow either. And the strings, which are really just notches in the guitar's fingerboard, number four (or at least, they do lower down, where the Mexican's right hand touches them. At the high end, there are only three--one disappears somewhere on the way up, in a most sculpturish way.)
All in all, a cello. Which makes him a cellist. And a cellist who, at a certain point, around the stomach, is indistinguishable from his cello.
There's a similarity that's never been lost on Sarah between the little man and herself. Because there was a time, or there were times, when she too felt indistinguishable, or at least semi-indistinguishable, at least momentarily, from her cello. It's definitely possible that somewhere back in the sweet and safe reaches of childhood, screeching on her little quarter-size cello, she looked up at her dresser, spotted the Mexican, and thought, I’m like him!
So now she's playing the show, and thinking of nights from years ago, and she thinks of college, music school: of walking through the quiet campus, she and her big white case moving through the dark, gliding along. Then the interior of the music building, bright lights for a moment, a free room, lights off … and now she remembers herself, draping herself lovingly over the cello's smooth, round shoulders.
Eyes closed, door shut tight against other sounds and other people, she feels the sound (which is dark like the night) begin to fill the small space, emanating--isn't it?--from her stomach, her breast, vibrating through and around her--thighs, wood, strings, floor, feet. She forgets momentarily--or momentarily lets the fact slip away--that it isn’t herself she's playing on, not some appendage extending out of her, not a second torso or second almost-person existing inside a bigger her, but only an instrument.
"I feel empty," she tells the therapist. "Hollow."
"Like your cello," the therapist observes. The therapist was immediately fascinated by Sarah’s connection with her instrument. Now she's making way too big a deal out of it.
"I don’t feel like my cello," Sarah protests. "My cello is shiny. It’s a fiery orange-brown." (This is how she's always expressed it to herself, although she's never said it out loud before.) "It's got a proud chest, sticking out. None of those things are like me."
"You feel weaker."
"I feel like I'm allowed to be … not weak … vulnerable, when I'm sitting behind it."
"It protects you."
"Everything I really want--a baby, a better standard of living, satisfaction with my job, it all seems at odds with being a musician. But I feel like--not playing the cello? That would be like losing a leg. Or an organ."
"Surely there are women who play the cello and have babies."
"I know, but …"
"Hopefully, sooner or later, the choice will become clear. Either the cello will feel more important, or everything else will. Then you'll know what to do."
Sarah quickly decides the therapy is useless.
One Thursday, Sarah is showing little Raphael the rudiments of vibrato--he's very advanced for his age. She's speaking enthusiastically in her talking-to-little-kids voice, Raphael is looking up at her, eyes wide and attentive, when--suddenly--a vicious, shocking noise, a woody, aggressively percussive noise, makes her spin around. Gabriel is standing next to her dresser, crying--Raphael has started to bawl, too--and on the floor next to him, fallen from the top of the dresser, is the beloved sculpture. Split in two.
She bends down, first picks up a little ball that has rolled toward her--it's shiny and brown, looks like some combination of an acorn and a hazelnut and a chestnut, it seems for lack of a better explanation to have come out of the sculpture--which is strange because she's never had any idea that there was any space in there, or that the sculpture was even made from more than one piece of wood--but quickly stops thinking about that because now she's picking up the two broken halves of the sculpture, all jagged edges and splinters. And amidst the bawling of the two boys, and the remaining echo of the vicious, wooden noise, she begins to cry, too.
She was thirty-five when we met, beautiful, with delicate features that seemed to achieve their ideal state when she looked particularly sad, and long hair (like every other female cellist I've ever heard of, though of course, I’m not a music type), which in her case was dark. Meeting her in person, I developed a pretty big crush (though I was probably already half in love just from hearing her play--even though I'm not a music type, music has always had a big effect on me.) But romantically, nothing ever really worked out.
Still, we got pretty close. She told me all about everything, those experiences, the sculpture, her cello, her doubts, her conflicted urge to give up music, her therapy sessions. I listened, made sympathetic noises, occasionally said something helpful--though she wasn't always too receptive--and reiterated how much the sound of her cello affected me.
One time I had the idea of telling her about, or more really summarizing, a short story I loved, and which seemed relevant. The story, by Guy de Maupassant, is about an older guy who teaches Latin, loves Latin, is devoted to it, and doesn't have much of a life besides teaching it. One day, one of his students, as a practical joke, decides to convince him that a young laundress who works across from their school is in love with him. At the same time, the student convinces the young laundress that the Latin teacher is in love with her, and wants to marry her. Next thing you know, never mind the practical joke, both the teacher and the laundress, convinced that the other one is in love, fall in love, too. They get married, open a grocery store, and the Latin teacher finds that, with his new life, he doesn't miss his beloved old vocation at all. "Latin," he says, "does not keep the pot boiling."
Her response? "Well, Latin isn't exactly like music, is it?"
Of course, in this day and age, she could have done something about it, too. A few times, I even thought she was about to.
But regardless, the truth is, something about her scared me. Or else--actually, this is closer to the real truth--what scared me was just how big a crush I had on her. I guess I couldn't really separate her from the music that she made, that had already been seeping into me for so long. And I also--or maybe this is the same thing--I couldn't separate her from that long-haired cellist image I had of her, before we ever met. (It never even occurred to me, walking by her apartment, that she might have been a guy. I probably would never have written to her if it had.)
The bottom line, I guess, is that I felt like if I opened the valve and let those feelings wash over me (to use one image) I might end up getting drowned. Maybe, if I'd been a musician too, it would have been different ... I don’t know.
She was preoccupied with her impending move. I was feeling particularly attracted to her, particularly sad that I wouldn't be seeing her for such a long time, and wondering if it had been a mistake, never having acted. Neither of us was very talkative.
It seemed to me that she'd been less talkative in general, since deciding to go away. Colder, even. That night, I even wondered if there was something she was angry about. And, unconnected with that, there was the question about whether it had been a mistake to never try anything with her, popping into my head from time to time.
The evening dragged along, punctuated by a lot of sighing. Then, around eleven, after we'd been silent for a pretty long time, she said, "Anyway ... I have something for you."
She leaned down, reached in her bag, and pulled out a crumpled-up paper towel, from which she extracted something very small, brown, shiny, and round, but with a sort of little horn sticking out of one side.
"Is that … ?" I asked. She nodded. It was the acorn-hazelnut-chestnut, the thing that had fallen out when the Mexican broke in two. "You didn’t say there was a horn," I said.
"You mean that … wing thing?" She seemed surprised herself. "You know, I really don't remember it being there."
"Anyway ... I decided I want you to have it, Joe. To remember me by."
I immediately thought, you mean you don’t want to have it yourself anymore.
But what I said was, "That's amazing. I'm really touched." Which was true, too.
Then, after three years, she came back to town for a week. I asked her if she wanted to get a drink, and she said, "Well … we'll see." Which was a little strange, because immediately afterward, she suggested a time and a place.
We met, I ordered a drink and she didn't, I told her a little bit about myself, and then asked her to tell me all about her. Which she did.
School had been a complete success, she said, which I pretty much knew already. She was finished, had a job lined up, which she wasn't starting quite yet, because--first of all, she'd met a guy at school, almost right off the bat, his name was David (which I also already knew), pronounced da-VEED because he was Catalan (which I didn't know--he wasn't on Facebook, as far as I could tell.) The rest of what she said was all new to me.
She told me that, even though school had been such a success, and even though David was great, fundamentally, she had spent a miserable few years. First of all, she hadn't had any time to touch her cello, with all her coursework, internships, etc. And she missed it, missed it terribly. Sometimes, she missed it so much she would cry. She even had pains inside, like some wild animal was scratching at her from in there, trying to get out.
She thought it might help to at least go to some concerts, stay in touch with music, somehow. But every time she went, she’d start to cry. She couldn't stand being in the audience, not on stage.
And that wasn't even the worst part. Within about six months of meeting, she and David had decided to get married, at least at some point. And right away, even though they were still in school, they decided to have a baby. She was scared to let any more time go by, to get too old. And he loved the idea.
But it hadn't worked. They tried and tried, which might sound fun, she said, but stopped being fun pretty fast, made her feel awful, about herself, about him, she felt mad at him all the time, and he felt the same way about himself and about her, from what she could tell. It almost didn't even feel like they were in love anymore.
Predictably enough, all her friends chose that exact moment, a space of maybe three months, to get pregnant, all at the same time, all across the country, state by state, like little stars lighting up on a map. Now, when she wasn't crying about the cello, she was crying about babies. And herself. And that awful something inside her, that was hurting her, scratching at her, tormenting her.
As it turned out--she learned on a visit to the doctor--there really was something bad inside her, in a way. But now--and this she reported with a huge smile, which meant that I could finally stop nodding sadly at this unremitting string of bad news, which was a relief, because I'd run out of sympathetic things to say--that was a thing of the past. She'd had a surgery. It had worked. She and David had tried again. Et cetera.
Which was why she wasn't having a drink with me, even though we were out at a bar together. After she told me that, she couldn't stop smiling.
Later, walking home by myself through the warm October night, yellow leaves crunching underfoot, a sweet, faded autumn perfume in the air--after all that talk about crying--it was me that was a mess. My springs were sticking out a little.
The point was, the part of my life that had really included Sarah was over. She belonged to one more layer of discarded experience, like a fossil in a layer of rock. The "sarazoic" layer, or something like that. I'm not a big fan of getting older. These things depress me.
It had gotten cold out. I walked fast, hurried inside and then, perhaps inevitably, went hunting for the acorn-hazelnut-chestnut thing she'd given me. It reminded me of her. I hadn't seen it in ages. I wanted to give it a look.
I found it in a drawer, took it out, held it on my open palm. It was still shiny, still brown. But it was different than before, bigger for one thing. And the sort-of horned thing stuck out further now than the last time I'd seen it. But the really strange thing was that there was another horn, on the other side.
I held it a while, felt its smoothness, wondered how in the world it could have changed its shape. Then, I set it down on top of the TV, and walked off into the bedroom.
A minute later, when I came back in the room, I did a double-take, seeing it there, atop the TV set.
What did it look like?
Was it a devil, a tiny little devil, that she had left to me?
Or was it a bird, a little bird ready to take off, wings outstretched ... flapping ... flying away … ?
But then I didn't.