You are wearing mauve lipstick in the afterdinner evening. Someone in a red coat pulls open the door, and you smile at him, and the lover smiles at him, and you push into the lobby with the lover’s hand pressed at the small of your back. Prettily-hemmed dresses swish at the dainty knees of women. They hold silk clutches at their hips, unafraid that anyone might steal them. Shiny heels and men’s dress shoes stream ahead, ahead, ahead. You are like a drop in a tributary, meandering toward two great doors, colored gold and reliefed with mythological figures—Norse, maybe, or Roman. Your guess is as good as any; Art History was never your subject.
A bump: your elbow stings where it hit last week. You are so clumsy. Can hardly go a shift at daycare without tripping, or falling asleep in the back room where the children nap. All children who sleep there leave themselves behind, all their viruses, their drooly fingers. The sheer quantity of spit a child can produce never ceases to amaze you. It seeps into your clothes, makes them feel second or thirdhand. But most belongings, most everything in life is second or thirdhand. And here, in the lobby of the theatre, tonight will be no different: you inherit this space secondhand, from people who belong in places like these. You’ll flow in behind rivers of people, with their cologne like water up your nose.
A folded square of paper from another red-coated man. It’s the program, glossy, on nice paper. You don’t touch these kinds of materials often—you’re more used to construction paper and crayons. Bolded, serifed letters: this is a world-famous symphony orchestra, and aren’t you just so lucky to see it.
Is the lover reading, too? He is.
In the section of biographies, one musician’s hair tumbles from the frame of the little picture; she comes from New York, played for traveling musicals through her twenties, takes her clarinet everywhere she goes. Another’s name sounds foreign, but his picture looks familiar, until you realize he looks just like the lover, their straight noses and slender eyebrows and full, twisting lips. But the musician is in black and white; the lover’s eyes are so green they take him over. Here they are, those eyes and lips and the nose. He smiles a sort of smile and your ear twitches. You notice a draft.
The lover bought these tickets, is the reason you’re here in a thrifted dress and mauve lipstick, is the reason you’re flipping through the program and shuffling toward your seats. He flourished the tickets last Saturday, all eyebrows and white teeth and those flashy eyes. You were stepping out of your slip-ons. The daycare was a mess; the babies had passed around a cold and their whines stuck in your head, like the shadows bodies leave on walls after explosions. The symphony, the lover said, drawing out the first syllable and landing on the mm like the sound had a taste.
He laid the tickets on the kitchen island. A bomb went off in your chest, because culture was a thing you tasted and lived, the culinary dining and the ballets, and this was what you’d been waiting for since you were a girl in Little Rock reading Austen, believing even then you would one day enjoy fine things. You ached to see Nutcracker each Christmas at the Robinson, and no one ever took you. You think you love the music, your record player—the thrifted one—winding Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff through your apartment as you cook or read or apply bandages or clip your toenails; it isn’t just the idea of being cultured, passive voice, that’s so appealing. Is that even the right use of passive voice? Probably. Yes.
You want to live culture. Here in the lobby of the theatre, here in the explosive light of your chest and the green-eyed fog of the lover, you hand over the tickets and follow a man’s gesture into the grandest theatre you’ve ever entered.
Everywhere is filigree and gold and red pleated velvet. The atmosphere shimmers. The plush, folded seats wait like fingers steepled in prayer.
The lobby’s roar of voices has funneled inside to a hush. You’re so clumsy as to almost tip backward over the row of seats. How dare you tumble in front of all the gorgeous, graceful people, in front of the lover? The lover seats himself and you lower down beside him. His arm comes around your back and rests against your ribs.
A woman seated across the aisle has dropped her program onto the carpet.
A program falls from the mezzanine. A man with a child picks it up, folds it into a crane. The man touches the child on the shoulder and the boy holds the crane by the wing.
More programs fall and shuffle. The orchestra warms its instruments on strangled notes. You had failed to notice, because of the theatre bustle and the lover’s hand on your ribs, that anyone had taken the stage.
A half-moon of seated figures in black dresses and tuxedos rub their bows across violins and suck on their reeds. Here comes that unsettling early sound that only an orchestra makes. On an especially low note, the breath leaves the chest of the woman from the program, the one with the tumbling hair. She closes her eyes as that note leaves her body, and her hair—two sections pinned back from her face, a cascading woods down the back of her dress—seems to shudder with the effort.
Because you have read about her in the program, you are not surprised that she wears plain, flat shoes, that her wrists are slender and bare, or that her hair is down. That she holds the clarinet, trimmed in gold instead of silver, like it might melt between her fingers—like one might place their hand on a woman’s ribs. You would hold a clarinet like that, if you held one. Exhale, relax; she’s fulfilled this little part of you. She’s met your expectations. The last people file in and the lights dim and a little, squat man walks onto the stage with a baton. So the lover returns his hand to his lap and you wonder if, just maybe, the lure of being cultured led you here tonight.
A woman, whose hair and dress fall straight down as if to soak into the floor, sits straight in a chair on a stage. She likely does not always sit this tall; as a model for her posture she holds in her hands the long, willowy clarinet, her child of a sort. She is far from a child herself, lines fanning from her eyes and her mouth, but when she breathes into the instrument—the first and second notes low, the third a mid-range trill below the flutes, which have the melody now—she feels ageless.
The spotlights on stage throw light down her nose. The space between her lips and chin, already hidden by the clarinet, is doubly dark. In that light her chin could look like anything; it could sport a wine stain or a mole or the tuft of a baby beard. The truth of the matter is she has a mark on her chin that indeed looks exactly like spilled cabernet. She tells herself it has never bothered her. She tells herself many things, including but not limited to: her music has inspired a collection of poems written by an ex-boyfriend with a proclivity for chewing his nails; her peers find her charming for driving everywhere instead of flying, especially when she toured with a traveling Fiddler production; her hatred of spiders has less to do with a fear of them and more to do with the barbaric way they trap their food. In her dreams they press close to her toes while she’s eating on her patio. They offer her a moth, then a praying mantis. They have forgotten she is a vegetarian. The moth screams and shivers and the spiders extend their mandibles to swallow its noise.
But no such things exist as bad dreams—only an inability to recover from them. Her fingers race on like machines, her left thumb pressing open and closed the key at the back of the instrument like a constant reminder that this, the music on the stage under the lights, is all that matters: open, close, open close open closeopencloseopenclose.
But here’s the other story. Sometimes the clarinetist isn’t so sure that she plays for five hundred people a night, that she becomes a part of something coordinated enough to produce anything she couldn’t have made alone. Once she wrote a poem by herself; another time, she made a child, and both of those felt lonely. These are not so different from a clarinet. The reed, for instance, needs to soak—an ugly task that serves a larger function, just like correcting grammar, just like changing a diaper, just like playing a single note for a measure and a half so the orchestra can twirl around it, the whole thing melting til the individuals recede for the whole. Or maybe she’s never known the whole; she’s only known the wine stain on her chin and lengths of time spent in bed without rising.
The clarinetist fears the sense of prickling on her skin in the dark. Waking to a heart thrown backwards up the throat. Rolling over in bed in the deep and dizzy morning; sheets tangled like carnage at her limbs; her hair wound around her neck; too much space for her legs to stretch awake; the click of the lamplight blinking hard on the absence of a second body.
One day twelve or so years beyond the night’s performance: the clarinetist’s son will know, he’s not sure how, that the girl in front of him only ordered caesar salad because she’s performing a first date. He’ll ask if she wants more—a potato, a hamburger—and she’ll smile and say No, thank you, the salad is fine. He thinks maybe she’ll have cake later, that her mouth will be beautiful while she eats, and the frosting will dot her nose and he can wipe it off. But then he knows she won’t need him for any of that.
Enjoying the restaurant? he’ll ask. He’ll have chosen a café downtown where he’s seen her eating before. He’ll assume she’d be relieved he’s picked a place she recognizes.
Mh-hm, she’ll respond, but is that even a word? Is it speech if she doesn’t say words?
So the clarinetist’s boyfriend had been chewing his nails again, and she rolled toward him in bed and seized his wrist. He lifted his head in surprise. It’s an ugly habit, she said, kissing a knuckle and releasing his hand again. He put it behind his pillow, his elbow angled out to the window, just the edge of it fixed in the penumbra of the bedside lamp.
I don’t think chewing nails is wrong, he said.
But it’s ugly.
Sometimes ugly is the right answer, he said, and leaned forward to kiss the space below her bottom lip. He rolled back to click the lamp off so the bedroom was no image, just sounds.
People say music swells, that the emotion builds up in a song, that it escalates in volume, in how listeners respond. This is a fallacy. Swelling insinuates containment, like a water balloon swells before it pops, like a mother swells before the baby comes. Music has no retaining wall, and so rather than swelling it detonates—just like that song of warning that the orchestra plays as it thaws its instruments. So, too, does the emotional peak of a song explode, so magnificent it has been known to rend rib cages open and sew them closed again.
This show has not yet erupted—not yet, here, in the prelude. The clarinetist feels the stage lights warming her back under her dress and her hair, which are both long because she likes them that way, both long because the conductor disdains long things on women, either hair or dresses. Because they hide too much, he says. But she wears her hair like that anyway, and it feels on display tonight, like it looks disheveled tonight, like she has met with the conductor in the closet of the greenroom and made up quickly, very quickly, for a number of wrongs they’d done each other.
But of course, she reminds herself, they have stopped dating and the relationship is purely professional. Her hair is not disheveled and, even if it is, these lights on stage make everything look frizzy. Somehow in all this time they’re halfway into the number, flying through the music. Some species of spiders jump, but none are yet known to fly.
The conductor’s lurching hands each end in nails so badly chewed they cheapen his authority as a conductor. The baton in his right hand is less baton and more a wand for magic: where it goes, so does the orchestra, and where the orchestra goes, so does the crowd. The wand pulses upward; the music builds; the crowd leans forward. It jets outward; the orchestra spikes; the crowd tilts its head. It lowers, and they quiet, and in the crowd is a stillness so whole that it must be holy. Only a God could make music pour from the tip of a wand and so many instruments at once; only a God could make silence afterward, and in such silence have a crowd not notice that a clarinet player has disheveled hair and must have fooled around with the conductor in a closet backstage. While her hand was in his hair she felt the bandage on his scalp, and for perhaps the first time she regretted hitting him.
This is probably what has happened to the conductor, to the clarinet player, to the crowd that doesn’t notice.
But about the crowd:
The children here are likely bored. The adults here are likely boring, or else so vastly interesting that looking directly at one of them garners that consequence your mother warned you about, when you were six and wanted to stare down the sun. One such interesting person, an ex-husband, sits with his young son below the mezzanine, where the boy holds a crane folded from a program and the ex-husband tries hard to find something he remembers in the frizzy, long hair of the woman he sees on stage.
In school, the clarinetist learned that Orchestra comes from a Greek phrase that meant a place of dancing. The current word has lost that meaning; instead of dancing, listeners pay money to hear music cultivated to elicit a corporeal response while they sit stony in their seats. Years later, her son in school will learn the same thing and wonder similarly about it.
Years later still her son will drive his date home, of course he will. They’ll sit in the car, aware of the extremities of both their bodies and exactly how far they are from each other. The finale from Fiddler will burble from his CD changer. He will be painfully aware of how this musical is a poor match in tone for the end of a first date between teenagers. A small spider will crawl along the dashboard, and he will press his thumb into its exoskeleton. Afterward he will place his hand around her and rest it gently on her side. He will try very, very hard not to stare at her breasts.
My parents won’t be home for another hour or so, she’ll say.
Okay, he’ll say, and let her lead him by the hand inside.
In her early twenties, the clarinetist married a man, had a child, and played in the orchestra of a traveling Fiddler show. The husband hated her distance. He yelled, but she was violent. She played, when she was home, the most screeching noises she could to gouge spines into his ears. Once, in her bedroom, when he stood next to the floor lamp and said Stop, the baby’s sleeping, she boxed him with the corner of the case. He fell to the carpet and covered his bleeding jaw with his fingers.
So he sued for custody. So she moved to Little Rock, found herself often trudging streets between her apartment and the theatre, blocks away from the Riverwalk, in the arts district. So you could say she saw low people in low places—these are artists we’re talking about, people selling their emotions for a living—what else could we expect? So one night she saw a man shivering in the doorway of a closed bookstore, one of the men to whom she sometimes gave change, and she went to offer him a coffee from the all-night diner. Except he wasn’t shivering.
The man was still, and the backs of hundreds of exoskeletons shimmered in his hair and on his shoulders and his blue jeans. She’s not positive, but in the dark they looked like spiders. In the days following, when she thought about the man and what covered him, all she could see was her child, her boy, or maybe herself, scurrying around, glistening in the dark, maybe she was scared for both of them.
I think you said I was ugly, the clarinetist said to her conductor boyfriend in the bed they shared.
I could have meant I was, he said.
I’m not sure.
I’m satisfied with that answer, she said. Actually, what she said involved some crying and a clarinet. Her clarinet case, if it could feel, relished its moment back in the spotlight—thunk—and if the clarinetist and her conductor boyfriend could have seen in the dark, the familiar red would have bloomed in the carpet and on the side of his head. He staggered up from the floor and glared at her, panting, clutching his hair like he wanted to rip it out or keep it sewn on.
It matches my birthmark, she said, pointing to her chin.
You are still in the early numbers of the performance, if you’ll believe it. Your head hurts. The clarinetist has a solo; four notes played low to high, one-two-three-four in a break in the rest of the instruments. The silence feels frail, romantic, regent: a terrible, uncomfortable silence, the kind that feels desperate to end.
And it does; a wail quickens, from a boy who has dropped his paper crane between some seats where he can’t reach. Everyone tries to ignore him but the orchestra can’t drown him out, and then the woman with tumbling hair is crying into her clarinet instead of breathing. The conductor is crying too, and the other instruments die down. The conductor doesn’t direct so much as dance.
The two of them have the feel of those who have watched the other brush their hair or chew their nails in private, and their song looks intimate, holy, like dew on a spider web. The boy has stopped wailing. His father has taken him outside where they may or may not speak with the clarinetist, as they came here hoping to do. They will have realized that she is no further changed than her ability to play that long, sad note, and maybe that is enough for the father. Maybe it is not. The boy will grow and date and perhaps he will fall—although the more appropriate word here must be scurry—into love with a girl with long hair who eats a salad on their first date and leads him inside her parents’ home to play for him a music so ethereal a story couldn’t hold it.
Of course you can’t know all this, though you do, resolutely, all the same. This would be the moment, of all moments, for the lover to notice you. But no, he doesn’t look—he keeps his manicured hands poised in his lap. His head is tilted, his eyes closed as if he’s listening thoughtfully, and you realize with a heavy stomach that he’s only pretending to listen. He cannot hear what the clarinetist is really playing. The clarinetist uses her clarinet to introduce the world to hurt, you think. Your ribs hurt.
And then you think it stronger this time, so you can actually listen—the lover is not a lover. The lover is violent and he hurts you. Or, rather, he is a lover and he is violent and he hurts you. Percussion in your ears bleeds over the sound from the stage.
He hasn’t noticed anything wrong in the symphony, on the stage, not with the boy or the conductor or the clarinetist. In fact no one but you seems to have noticed. They’re preoccupied with the performance of listening. Your ribs hurt. You must have been listening harder—looking for something, anything, that could sate your thirst for grace and for art and could warrant the use of your formal coat. You were watching the clarinetist to see what she would do if she were you. And then the illusion broke.
Or: this wasn’t an illusion, but a rehearsal. You feel obsessive, repetitive, like a poem you tried to write but couldn’t finish. Maybe you’re more tuned to the boy because of the work in the nursery. Maybe tonight you will quit loving the lover. Or you never loved him, or you did, and tonight maybe starts to reverse that. Run to the cold outside and breathe there, and maybe the snow will look like a thousand programs falling from a mezzanine of clouds. Maybe, out there, you won’t hear any kind of noise at all.
Molly Gutman is an MFA candidate at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, Booth, Salt Hill, and elsewhere.