By Nick Kocz
The estranged wife dragged a soapy sponge over a dinner knife bearing a smudge of barbecue sauce when a report came over NPR’s All Things Considered informing her that “America’s greatest living composer is dead.” She thought it funny, the juxtaposition of living and dead. Stark contrasts invigorated her. All the world was sustained by the tension of opposites—light and dark, success and failure, yin and yang. Yet then she realized the radio was talking about the man she hadn’t seen in twenty years, and she looked at her ring finger, which was empty, for her ingrained habit when doing dishes was to remove her rings, set them aside in a dish or a bowl or, tonight, a shot glass which still had the residue of bourbon from the night before.
She knew him as a considerate man who mailed monthly checks to her, the checks usually in excess of what she required, each check accompanied with a note of regret—regret for what he had done, and what he failed to do. The notes struck her as antique relics, written on creamy stationary with fountain pens that dripped blue ink each time he signed his name, “with love.” He was a man who didn’t realize people no longer hand-wrote letters. Didn’t he realize email existed? Didn’t he realize the world had moved on from where they were twenty years ago? He missed her, he said, and often asked when she might return.
The radio mentioned the great promise exhibited early in his career, playing snippets from the piano sonatas he drafted in fevered week-long bursts during which he wouldn’t eat, talk, or sleep. She remembered being awoken one evening by a wraith-like figure with bloodshot eyes and slowly recognizing that man as her husband, who begged her to listen to the opening movement he just penned. She didn’t have time to put on her slippers and his study’s hardwood floor seemed incredibly cold. Outside, it was dark, yet she saw her reflection in the window and in the polished rosewood of the raised piano lid. Was that what she signed up for when she married him? Weeks in which he stared at his keyboard with a disciplined silence?
“You woke me up for this?” she said, cinching the sash of her silk robe.
Unable to play an instrument, she nonetheless thought herself something of a musical authority for her ability to identify the melodic strengths in the Lennon-McCartney songs he couldn’t be bothered to sit through. Looking at herself in the window, she had the hair of a Medusa—swirls of it poked every which way—and she wished for the caress of a fine-bristled brush to right her wild brown hair. She needed pampering, and he was not one to pamper. He stared up at her from his piano bench. He hadn’t showered or shaved for more than a week. His hands were poised over the keyboard, the default position to which they seemed pre-programmed to return to whenever he wasn’t actually playing. As the weight of her displeasure dawned on him, he said he was sorry for waking her. He had been up for so long, he said, that his senses had suffered for it.
And then he asked, “You don’t like it, do you?” To which she responded by stomping to the bedroom and tossing a few clothes into an overnight bag.
But now, listening to the minor key notes of that piano sonata over the clock radio speakers, she saw he was right to feel elated that night. The sonata was beautiful. There was no other way to describe it. Yet how could she not have realized it on that tired night many years ago?
All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.