"Cello"

Listening to music from an old radio chase away the sound of rain against window glass, Peter sat with his wife at their kitchen table. She read from a garden magazine; Spring was just around the corner, and her flowers would soon be in full bloom. Peter opened and wrote checks for bills that'd arrived in the day's mail – the music store taxes, the department store credit, even their children's school. His wife turned a glossy page. Peter tore open another envelope and sighed at the debt. On the radio, a man with a low voice announced the start of a cello sonata. Listening, Peter tensed and glanced towards his wife. She didn't notice the change in her husband, just continued to read. If Peter had asked her the instrument, she'd have answered with a definitive "violin," and then she would have taken his hand and rubbed her thumbs across his knuckles, smiled and continued to skim over the pages in her catalog.

From the first few measures, the ebb and flow of the notes, Peter recognized the piece, a Bach cello sonata. It was a familiar piece – the first song that Chris, from it must have been twenty years ago by now, had ever played for him. Then, too, her notes had fought with the rain and wind for a space inside the fountain of sound.

First she'd tightened her bow. He'd imagined rubbing his fingers between the horsehair and wood, sticky with rosin. As she pulled out the cello's endpin, he thought of how his palms could warm the cold metal. When she tuned, he almost moved to place his hands around hers, forcing the wooden pegs to turn. He noticed that she didn't need sheet music. She pressed her callused fingers against the strings. She gripped the bow.

Her music drifted around the tiny room. The notes painted the walls in soft tones and spread along the wooden floor in a gloss of sound. Rain splashed against the windows, but the music reinforced the glass, keeping the wet from seeping into the room.

As she played, Peter watched her curls bob and shift around her face. He thought of running a finger down her long neck and wished for her strong arms to wrap around his waist. She kept her eyes closed, and her fingers danced, unhindered by long nails, along the instrument.

Fingernails, his wife's nails were long and strong, collecting dirt next to the skin. Chris' had been small crescents. For their first and only year together, every Sunday night before sleeping, as Peter, resting on his side of the bed, read a book about World War II airplanes or ships, Chris would trim her fingernails. "They need to be short, so that I can play," she'd explained, examining her nails and sitting on her side of the bed, her legs dangling just above the ground, creating shadows across the wood floor.

Their first couple of months together, Peter would wake early in the morning, just when the sun had begun to lighten the bedroom. He'd sneak to the trashcan, carrying it into the bathroom, close the door. Too scared to turn on a light, Peter had held the trash bin up to the window and from there fished her nail clippings from the mess of crumpled paper, those ordering cards that come in the middle of magazines and fall out at the most inconvenient times, and dirtied tissues. From a coworker's desk at the bank shop, he'd stolen a small porcelain jar – white with purple flowers – and that's where he piled the clippings. Holding the jar to his face, he'd smell them, then close the lid and, in the dresser beside the bed, hide the jar beneath his underwear and socks. Through the dark, he'd lie down, silently straighten the blanket across his legs and chest and reach for Chris, resting his hand beside her upper arm before falling back asleep.

In late winter, in the old music store on the corner of Jefferson and Park, Peter and Chris had finally talked. It was a dusty shop, dark and piled with instrument cases and sheet music. It smelled like wood, paper and the air tasted stale. Peter worked in a bank down the street, but gave guitar lessons from out of his living room. Chris was a professional cellist, played in the city orchestra. He came in that afternoon to buy stacks of sheet music, CDs, and picks. Chris usually visited during her lunch break around noon. Sometimes they brushed against each other as Chris left and Peter entered the shop. Sometimes he'd hold the door for her, silencing the tiny bell that chimed whenever someone pushed it open. Sometimes he'd stand at the door and watch her walk away – her bag of purchases banging against her knee and her purse slung over an arm, her hair bouncing around her shoulders, and her too-long jeans sweeping across the pavement.

Chris was a tiny and serious woman, Peter a thin and quiet man.

On the day they'd met, she stood behind him and tried to search the sheet music on the shelf in front of him. She tapped him on the shoulder and waited for Peter to take off his headphones and notice her. "Yeah?" he asked, taking a step out of the way. Displaying strong hands twisted in veins, he motioned the question with his fingers. He backed a little further and knocked a jar of guitar picks with his elbow. They streamed in a colorful waterfall onto the ground. Peter watched the picks, watched the shape of her spine through the t-shirt as she bent to pick them up. After glancing quickly at the woman, he smoothed his hair and licked his lips. Resolute, he reached to help her gather the picks. Then she asked him out to lunch.

After two months, after spending their first night together, as the light through the blinds slashed across the bedroom, Chris examined herself in the bathroom mirror, scrunching her curls and pulling sleep sand from the corners of her eyes. From Chris' bed, rubbing his cheeks and bristling the hairs of his would-be beard, Peter watched her. He followed her hair, her shoulders, her back, her pink polka dotted underwear, her white tank top. He imagined loving her again – maybe for the rest of their lives if he were lucky. He knew how it would start. He'd sneak, naked behind her. He'd fold his fingers along her jaw, his fingertips just reaching up to her ears. He'd pull her backwards into the bedroom and onto the bed. Through the whole task, he'd leave his nose against her hair, try to breathe her in. He'd cradle her there, hold her, and when he felt her hands wrap around his back, Peter would know, just know, that he would stay here, with her, forever.

"I'm thinking of cutting it off," Chris said from the bathroom. "I think that I've got to, you know?"

"Hmm?" Peter rose from the bed and wrapped a floral-printed sheet around his waist.

"It gets really heavy and hot, all this hair.' She glanced at him in the mirror. He didn't know, but he stood all dazed and awkward, clutching the blanket around his stomach, her hair flipped from sleep, his rough cheeks. "I had a dream," she said, finally turning from the mirror.

"About what?" he asked, pale, gawky, confused, but dedicated, loving even.

"My hair. I dreamed that you shaved it all off." She walked from the bathroom to stand in front of Peter. He reached out to stroke her curls. She stepped even closer, and he lifted her shirt to mold a hand around her breast. He whispered that he'd never.

They spent an hour eating breakfast: watermelon, honeydew, orange juice, blueberry muffins. Between bites, Chris talked about horoscopes. She was a scorpio; "impulsive," beneath the table she rubbed his leg with her foot, "intense." She claimed that as a libra, that Peter always looked too far into the future, that he didn't care enough about now. "Sometimes I like to, you know, just breathe. Take a walk and think and breathe."

Peter nodded and pealed a blueberry from his muffin. "Do you want to take a walk now?" he asked, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin.

In the wooded acre behind Chris' house, leaves had just started to pull open in the trees and blossoms had begun to fall in waves of white into the grass. Chris linked her hand through Peter's arm. They swayed around the trees, climbed over logs, jumped around stones. Chris linked her pinky with Peter's pinky. As they walked, she lifted their hands and moved their joined fingers through the air, as if she were conducting music. The wind sang like an oboe through the trees, spinning through the branches, setting the cymbals of leaves into song. Not quite closing his eyes, Peter listened to this personal orchestra, playing just for the two of them. Chris led them further into the woodland, up a hill, past a rusting picnic bench, to a wall of crumbling stone. Ivy chased around the wall, coating the mortar and extending into the yard. It took Peter some time to decide that it really was a graveyard. Overgrown crabgrass and onion grass sprawled among the ivy and up the gravestones – bleached a graying-white from years and years of weather and tunes of time. "It's from before the Revolutionary War," Chris said, kneeling down to peel the plants from the front of a stone. Standing behind her, Peter rested his hand on her hair. "Do you believe in ghosts?"

Peter shook his head. Chris looked up at him, and he shook again. "Do you?"

Chris wiped her hands across her jeans. "Yeah." She stood and again linked arms with Peter. "Once I was at the cemetery with my sister and dad, and we went to see mom's grave. Dad went back to the car for something, so we were just sitting in the grass waiting for him. When he hadn't been back for a while, my sister went to find him. I closed my eyes and traced my fingers across Mom's name. 'Frances, mother, wife and daughter,' that's what it said. With my eyes closed, I could hear the grass crinkle like from wind, but it wasn't a windy day at all. Then I heard my mom's voice. She started to talk to me. She told me to go find Dad. 'That son of a bitch,' is what she said. She told me to go find him and to run. I caught up to my sister. I ran ahead and finally found Dad all collapsed between some graves. If we hadn't run, then we wouldn't have found him in time. Next time we visited the cemetery, we'd have been visiting Mom and him." Chris smiled at Peter. "So that's why I believe in ghosts."

Peter nodded, confused but amused. He let her hold his arm, tried not to walk too fast, scared that she wouldn't keep up. She rested her hip against his side and her cheek against his shoulder. They walked back through the trees, pausing to discover a tree carved with names, slowing to examine the rusting bench. Laying sheets of light around the couple, the sun patterned through the tree branches. Peter wished that the morning could last forever in the rows of golden sounds, green smells and peaceful air. But before long the house peeked through the thinning trees and the voices of the yelling teenagers across the street invaded Chris and Peter's choir.

One rainy afternoon, in the late summer after they'd met, Chris and Peter ate an early dinner at the small Italian restaurant about a five-minute walk into town. As they waited for their food, Chris curled up a straw wrapper into the shape of a person and watched it shrivel when dripped with water. Before dessert, Peter showed her how to hold a hand over the candle in the center of the table without getting burned.

"Just imagine us twenty years from now," Peter said, leaning over the table, smelling the hot candle wax. "You'll be a world-renown cellist. I'll be handling your tours and contracts and record deals."

Chris took a sip of water and looked out the window. "Sure."

Peter followed her gaze, a dog and his owner crossed beside them. The walker held a university umbrella and wore pink and green rain boots. The dog hopped from puddle to puddle. Peter thought of asking Chris about dogs. He wanted a dog. The comfort and security reminded him of childhood.

When he was young, Peter would wake in the night. Listening to the creaking of the house and trying not to wake his parents, Peter would crawl into their bedroom. He'd find their mutt asleep on the carpet and, feeling through the dark, Peter would wrap his arms around the dog's ribcage and curl his legs around the dog's legs. He imagined that he was a part of the dog – another spine, another sheet of skin, another layer of fur. Peter would breathe whenever the dog did. Whenever he felt the dog's chest begin to rise, Peter pulled in air. Whenever he felt the dog's chest fall, he'd let his breath go. Eventually he'd fall asleep, not remembering the exact moment, if ever, that his breath and the dog's breath joined.

Watching the rain and the hurrying travelers outside, Peter imagined the puppy that he and Chris could have. It would be small at first, small enough so that Chris could hold it on her lap for the drive from the breeders back home. Then it would grow. Its ears, tongue and paws wouldn't seem so disproportional anymore. He would teach it to wait at the door when the family was gone. It would protect their house and care for their future kids and sleep at the foot of their bed and be a part of their family.

"Do you ever want kids?" Peter asked Chris, folding and unfolding the napkin in his lap. Chris sent him a surprised look. Peter looked down at his hands.

"Why?"

"I don't know. I was just interested."

Chris ran a finger around the rim of her wine glass. "No."

"Oh." Peter twisted the napkin into a spiral. They sat in silence for a few minutes, until the waiter carried over their chocolate bunt-cake dessert. It was layered in chocolate sauce and raspberry ice cream, surrounded by an arc of fruit. As Peter waited for her to talk, Chris tasted the cake and swallowed. Finally she put down her fork and reached a hand across the table, beside the candle, to take Peter's fingers. As the candlelight wavered across their skin, she squeezed and sighed.

"Peter, she said, "This isn't a long-term thing. I mean, there's no way we'll be together years from now."

"You don't know that."

"We won't be. I'm not that kind of person. I don't like that feeling, the one of having to depend on people, you know."

"Depend on people? Why else have a relationship with someone?" Peter refused to look at her. "You're wrong."

"Peter, we're just different. You're the kind who needs other people."

"Everyone needs other people."

"You're being stubborn."

"I'm not the one who doesn't need anybody."

"If you really cared for me, you wouldn't try to change me."

"God!"

"This is just the way I am."

With a forceful brandish of his fork, Peter took a bite of cake and looked again out the window. The rain had started to fall harder, pooling in the sidewalk cracks and painting the asphalt dark.

Peter didn't know much about Chris or her childhood, only that her mother had died when she was fifteen or so, one or two stories about her father. When Chris turned nineteen she, as her older sister explained, found religion. Her father was dying in a green hospital room with a tiny window and only three channels on the TV. His heart was fading, beating softer and quicker, more erratic.

As a child, Chris always wondered why her father was alive instead of her mother. Her mother loved souls. She'd collected a menagerie – six cats, two dogs, one squirrel who would sit in her apron pocket and hide on top of the refrigerator. Her mother would gather the family's uneaten bread and molding apples, every morning, throwing them out to the deer family living in the back yard. All of the neighbors called her Saint Frances.

When Chris was fifteen, her mother died, leaving the girls with their father. There are always people in the world who have the charm but not the spirit; Chris' father was this kind of man. When Chris was seven, he took his daughters to New York for Christmas Eve. They peered into department stores, at the holiday displays, the ribbons, trains, trees, bells and elves. Smoking his sweet-smelling pipe, he bought them pretzels and hot chocolate. Chuckling, he pulled the girls into the Ritz and pretended to belong there. He stuck his nose into the air, lifted his feet into a march, nodded towards the concierge. Chris and her sister followed, pumping their arms and laughing. They sat in two armchairs beside the elevator, Chris in her sister's lap. They pretended to drink tea and pursed their lips. Chris asked to use the bathroom and, smiling, her father hurried her to the adventure of tile, marble and silver faucets. She only spent a few minutes in the restroom, but it was a few minutes too long, or so she figured. As she pushed through the door, her father stopped his conversation with the concierge and grabbed Chris' elbow. He shoved past the doorman. He kept walking once they reached the street. Chris and her sister had to run to catch up.

That night, with the snow piling around their house, masking the sounds, her father yelled at her mother. He threw bottles and pushed over the kitchen chairs. He smashed their mother's special dinner onto the floor. Chris and her sister hid with the dogs in the closet beneath the stairs. They sang Christmas songs and talked about what Santa would bring them. But in the morning, their mother was again all smiles, pointing to the girls' stockings dangling in front of the radiator. Their father groaned from his bed, telling them to make less noise, to shut the door, to turn off the lights. Chris' mother tightened her lips and told the girls not to worry about their father, that he was just feeling a little sick that morning. She fed them chocolate and made cinnamon bread. Smell from the spices spiraled around the house. The girls gave their mother kisses and cards. They slipped the leftover cards beneath their father's bedroom door, worried to disturb him but wanting to remind him of the holiday. That was Christmas. He was that kind of man. Their mother was that kind of mother.

But after their mother's death, he was all Chris and her sister had left. He couldn't die, not four years after their mother. Chris stood by his pillow and rested her hand across his chest, seeing, hearing and feeling him breathe. Her sister sat beside his feet, her arms spread beside his legs and her head resting on her palms. Soon she'd fallen asleep. Moaning in his dream, Chris' father reached out a hand to grab her fingers. His skin was cold and rough. Chris imaged pulling her hand away, but she was too frightened. What if she accidentally killed him, what if by merely moving a hand, his heart would really stop for good?

Chris concentrated on the breathing that painted over the room. Her sister's lungs expanded and contracted, slow, even and deep. Her father's breath came short and shallow. Listening to the contradiction, the discord even between the two, she imagined harmonizing the sounds, adding her breath to the rhythm. Not too long, but not too shallow. As her breath evened between the two, Chris knew that her father could live, that by manipulating the air, she could fix her father's heart. She imagined her breath spreading out from her body, pulling her sister's breath, giving the air back to their father. As she worked to control her lungs, Chris' feet grew numb and soon her head began to droop. The hospital room's walls expanded and contracted, pulsing along with the family. If she'd rested her cheek against the wall, it would have felt like skin against her skin, felt like warmth against her warmth. As Chris breathed, her head already sagging, she felt the rest of her body begin to curl. It started with her head, her chin hitting her chest. Slowly, her shoulders spiraled forward and her back arched.

Later, she remembered thinking that she was a cello's scroll, a fiddle fern, and at that point, as she curled, that's when he came. With her eyes closed, she could sense him, felt him tiptoe around her, around her sister, around her father's bed. He radiated light; she could feel it through her eyelids. When she opened her eyes, it was much softer than those fluorescent lights, didn't make that buzzing electrical sound. With the pulsing of the saint's light – because that's what he was, a saint – spreading in butter-tones around the room, he leaned over her father. Chris felt his arm touch hers, but she kept her breath steady. He lowered his face to her father's, kissed his forehead. When the saint had finally gone, the light and its pulse stayed with Chris. It wove through her fingers and spread up her legs and whispered into her ears. Coated in this new light, her father would be okay. Chris had conducted him new life.

It rained the night that Peter finally understood that he'd have to leave. Watching the thunderstorm, Chris and Peter sat in rocking chairs on the covered porch. A candle flamed on the whicker table between them. Chris held onto Peter's hand. The rain fell through the trees, slipping from the inverted leaves, dripping from the bird feeders. Lightening brightened the sky and Peter silently counted the pause before the percussion of thunder. Chris tapped her toes across the floor. Peter examined her face, blurring and sharpening with the candle flame.

"I love you," he told her, rubbing his fingers along hers.

Chris rubbed back, but said, "Peter, you don't even know me." The rain fell pouring around the porch, its music denser than moments before.

"Sure I do," Peter answered.

"Then who do you think I am?"

"What do you mean? Who do I think you are? You're Chris."

Chris shook her head as lightening briefly sparked the sky. A few moments later, a quiet thunder drummed across the yard. "You're going to leave me soon," she told him, the candle illuminating her lips. "For good."

"I'll never leave you."

"It's not that simple." Chris raised his hand and lowered her head to kiss his fingers. "You'll leave and forget me. You've got to. It's fate, you know." Peter watched her, how she left her lips hanging along his knuckles. How she closed her eyes. How the candlelight and lightening light molded into a halo above her head.

Years later, Peter's wife would be scared of thunder and lightening. She'd unplug anything electric and squeeze a flashlight. She'd never sit on a porch and watch the storm, listen to its music.

Peter listened as she finished the cello sonata. The notes trembled off her bow, strings and rounded body, smooth neck. She sounded – and looked – so, just, sad, draped over the cello, her fingers pulsing along the wood, her body rocking with each pull and push of the bow. He imagined sitting on the floor behind her stool and wrapping his arms around her middle, just beneath her breasts, and resting his head between her shoulder blades, and swaying with her.

Peter had only leaned his shoulder against the doorframe for a minute when the stove timer beeped from in the kitchen. Chris kept playing as Peter hurried to check his tomato sauce. Peter had always thought of the tomato sauce smell as sweet, but maybe it was just his imagination, influenced by the color and bubbling texture. As the cello notes seeped into the kitchen, Peter stirred the sauce with a wooden spoon. He lowered the flame beneath the pan and listened to the wooden groan of the cello being lowered onto the floor. "You sounded great," he told her as she slid up beside him to lean over the saucepan. She shrugged and then, as if thinking about the action, nodded. He took her hand and squeezed, but, when she turned to face him, quickly let go.

They sat at the dinner table in silence, all except for the slurping of spaghetti and on occasion the rattle of windows from the wind. Peter twirled the pasta around his fork and watched as Chris chewed on a piece of bread. Only after watching her eat bread once, he'd known that he'd wanted to have sex with her. She'd had this way of tearing off a piece and opening her lips and teeth only a bit and skimming the bread onto her tongue. For a week after he'd met her, Peter had tried to chew the same, only deciding much later that dropping it on his tongue was too feminine. Just from that bread, he'd imagined her touch to be soft and sure and steady. And it was, just never as much as her touch on the cello.

Chris sat at the kitchen table, sipping white wine. With closed eyes, she asked Peter to grab her a few ice cubes. Peter knew not to tell her that ice cubes ruined wine, just dropped them into her glass. Picking it up, she spun, slowly now, the glass, twisting the liquid and the ice. Peter bent down to kiss her neck. She let him, but when his lips drifted longer than necessary, she flicked him away. "Peter," she told him, "don't tempt me. I'm not in the mood." She sipped from her wine as Peter turned to take another glass down from the cupboard. She groaned and dug her glass into the table. Finishing her wine, she scraped out her chair and left the kitchen. Peter replaced his glass and listened as the stairs moaned with her steps. He walked towards the table and, leaning against a chair, picked up her glass. Tracing a finger over the wet ring left on the table, Peter sucked on an ice cube sweet from the wine. The night was folding in through the windowpanes and from beneath the door. But the light in the kitchen was bright enough to dissolve the shadows and even to cast its own light shadows across the side yard.

Just the night before, he'd held her and whispered, pushing her hair, resting his lips behind her ear, that he loved her. He liked talking like this with his mouth behind her ear, liked to think of his words vibrating along the tiny bone structures. But hearing him that night, she'd just pulled away.

Peter pushed in the chair, stacked the glass into the dishwasher and then turned off the lights. He placed his keys and cell phone and wallet on the counter, beside the mail basket. He checked the locks before following Chris upstairs.

The dressing table lamp was already dark and Chris shifted beneath their quilt. Sunday, but she was already in bed. Peter sat on the edge of the bed. He unlaced his shoes, pulled them off, rested them beside the dresser. He peeled off his socks and laid them inside of his shoes. He untied his tie and rested it across the toes. "Good night," he whispered and laid his head back against the pillow. Closing his eyes, he listened to the house. It creaked and shifted and cracked. The wind was still shaking the windows. He heard the boiler click on and the hum from the refrigerator. He heard a car stall in front of a driveway a few houses down and kids call goodnight as they slammed doors. He heard the car drive away. Finally, he heard Chris' breathing settle into a slow sleep rhythm. Peter reached out a finger and stroked her cheek. He carefully rose from the bed. He pulled his socks back on then stuffed his tie into his pant pockets. After grabbing a sweatshirt from off the dresser, he opened his sock drawer and removed the china jar, making sure to not let the knob rattle. He took his shoes from the floor.

In the doorway, he turned to watch her. Her side rose and fell. She mumbled something in her sleep and Peter turned away. Using the wooden banister for guidance, he stepped over the groaning stair and on the wall side of the other steps, trying to stay quiet. In the kitchen, he took his keys and wallet and cell phone. He stood by the kitchen window and looked outside. The bushes that he'd helped her to plant just a year ago rustled from the wind, reflecting the streetlamp's glow.

"You'll leave me," she'd said to him the night before. As always, Peter said he wouldn't. But really, he'd stopped believing himself. Peter turned from the window and found his jacket draped over a counter stool. Pulling it on, he listened again, making sure that Chris was still asleep. He walked in stocking feet from the kitchen to the sitting room and last to Chris' music room.

With just enough glow dripping from the nightlight at the bottom of the stairs, Peter could decipher the shape and glisten of her cello. It rested, still red despite the dark, on its side in front of the music stand, the bow balanced along the wood. Peter lingered for a while in the doorway, pretending to hear her play. Finally, unable not to, he rested his shoes beside the door and padded to the instrument. Bending down, he slid a finger across the bow. The hair felt sticky from rosin. He rubbed his palm down the cello's neck and over its curves. He traced the scroll. Softly, softly now, he plucked each of the strings. When he leaned down to smell the wood, he found that spicy smell, the one that Chris always smelled like. He still didn't know if she smelled like the cello or if the cello smelled like her. Asked years later to pinpoint the exact spice, Peter wasn't able. He could remember the smell, just couldn't name it.

Peter thought about the wind outside. He imagined curling up again beside Chris. But instead he rose from the cello. He tiptoed out of the room, bent down to take his shoes. As he stood by the front door for the last time, he bit a fingernail, tasted the blood – red like the wood from the cello, he knew – in his mouth. Wrapping his finger in the sleeve of his jacket, he unlocked the door. Carefully, he slid on his shoes. Gently, he pushed open the screen. Crying, he fled.

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