She looked over at Glenn, whose pocket bulged with what she knew was a flask. Or-are-you-just-happy to see-me? Probably not. Before they left she’d accused him of pushing her away. Who wouldn’t, he’d said, you’re crazy. She tried to catch his eye as she began to play again, but he looked away.
Glenn listened to the melody emerging from Anita’s violin. Her sound and Brian’s wrapped around each other like DNA, spiraling up. Underneath, Ellen’s cello notes pulled thickly. His own sound was neither dark nor sweet; he hated it. Glenn had switched from violin to viola during college in hopes he’d have better job prospects upon graduation. He’d gotten a job with the Philharmonic, but soon found that it was hard for him to plow through the tepid viola parts without a drink or two. Bored now, he looked around the small room.
Ellen held her bow carefully, eyes glued to the page. The long, slow undertones coming from her cello supported the delicate arc of Anita’s melody. Ellen sweated, holding on tightly to turn to the next note so Anita wouldn’t fall. She loved the way the two sounds fit together, thrusting high and dipping low. It was funny, she thought: Anita had always been the one who’d held her.
Brian watched Anita too, but tried not to. It was frustrating to watch her play because it seemed so easy to her. His part wasn’t as hard as hers but he still had to think about each note. Her bow seemed to glide over the strings without resistance. She never slowed, or fell flat. In comparison, he felt like a gangly animal, beating sticks in time to her music.
The last chord of the first movement resolved, settling Brian’s nerves a little. Anita raised her bow sharply, then they began the second movement. This part was livelier, and Brian focused on making each note bounce. Effortlessly, he’d written in his part. The words seemed mocking. He tried to relax his shoulders. Effortlessly. It was getting harder to stay on top of the beat; the group was slowing down.
Brian looked at Ellen. Her knuckles were white where she gripped her cello. “C’mon,” he said, “Move it along.” He tried to push forward. “Ellen, you’re dragging. Ellen—keep up.” He set his bow down and everyone stopped. “Jesus,” he said, “is that the fastest you can play it?”
Ellen cleared her throat. “No, no,” she said. “I’m sure I can play it faster.”
“Okay, well let’s do that, then. It sounds like crap if we slow down.”
“There’s no need for that,” Anita said.
“I’m right though,” Brian said. “If she can’t play it up to tempo, maybe we should find someone else.”
Anita glared at him. “Don’t be mean.”
“I’m—if I were the one slowing down, you’d pitch a fit.” He turned to Glenn.
“Why do you let her do this?”
Glenn put his hand in his pocket, touching the flask. “I’m not letting her do anything.”
“Stop it, Brian,” Glenn said. “You’re acting like a child.”
Anita turned to him. “I don’t need your help,” she said. “But, yes, Brian. Shut up.”
In the silence, the room seemed a lot smaller.
“I’ll practice this later,” Ellen said, knowing she wouldn’t. “Let’s move onto the other piece for now.”
Brian set the Liebermann down on his stand with a smack. Anita didn’t deserve to be so good. She didn’t appreciate her own talent.
He’d auditioned for Cleveland too and had played so hard some of the hairs on his bow snapped off. He’d seen one of the judges outside on a smoke break afterward. You sounded too young, she’d said. He wondered for a while after Anita had said she’d turned down the job if they’d ask him to try out again, but they hadn’t.
Anita looked around the room before beginning, but no one would meet her gaze. She didn’t know what to do. She had never understood why people thought being good at something meant you were good at making other people follow your lead. In her case, it was the opposite. She wasn’t good at anything besides music. She had been drawn to Ellen and then Glenn because they were good at other things too—being kind, or knowing what to say when someone was angry. She always had to wait for Glenn to end their fights, and since he so deeply disagreed with her about Cleveland, she worried this argument would never stop.
Brian watched Anita out of the corner of his eye as she began the next piece. Liebermann was a modern, living composer, and while his pieces were complex, beautiful melodies often emerged in surprising places. The beginning was fast and syncopated and they should have started together, except Ellen was already a little late coming in. She began dragging almost immediately, but he ignored her this time, and pressed ahead.
Glenn listened as Brian and Anita’s parts climbed higher, leaving him behind. In the small room, the thin voice of his viola seemed more like an echo of someone else’s sound than his own. He wondered if Anita even heard him. He wondered that a lot.
She’d turned down the job a month ago, when it wasn’t cold yet and they’d spend most nights with the windows open, listening to the traffic below and talking about the future. One night they made love in his bed listening to Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a piece that reminded him of a suspension bridge, each clear wire note stretched tightly across the sky. Afterwards, she said she’d been offered the job, and that she wasn’t going to take it.
“I love you,” she said, as if that explained everything. “I’d rather stay here.”
“If you stay here, you’ll regret it.”
“Don’t tell me what I’ll regret.”
“See?” he said. “We’re already fighting.” But she didn’t seem to hear him.
Ellen felt her fingers slipping with each note. She couldn’t play the Liebermann. She’d never be able to. She ghosted her bow over the string so quietly that no one could hear her mess up. Being bad wasn’t a surprise; she’d known that she’d eventually get there. By leaving Juilliard and Anita, she knew what she was giving up. And she was happy with her life: her husband never made her as angry as Anita had.
But as she listened to Anita’s notes running along steadily and watched as her slender finger quivered fast on a taut string, she felt as if doors were closing quickly in front of her and she could not run fast enough to catch them.
Brian tapped his toe inside his shoe. He hoped no one was looking at his feet. Twenty-five and still tapping his foot like he was in youth orchestra. He tried to move the way Anita was moving, head up straight, swaying. But his fingers kept fumbling, leaving little gashes in the sound. He bit his tongue, disgusted.
Glenn’s fingers ran on autopilot but he wasn’t listening. He wanted a drink. Was he an alcoholic if he only wanted to drink at rehearsals? That’d be an easy 12-step plan: quit playing. He looked around at everyone’s bows: they moved out of sync with each other like a broken machine. He didn’t care that they sounded like crap but Anita probably cared. That satisfied him. He wondered what she’d do if he stopped playing. He hoped she would scream at him, but she probably wouldn’t. His part didn’t matter that much.
The fragmented sounds rang harshly in Anita’s ears. She wanted to make things right again but she didn’t know how, so she just kept playing.
Notes swam in front of Ellen’s eyes. Her arm was tired. She used to have a hard bicep that Anita would pinch and laugh. She missed that.
Brian kept playing because Anita did.
Anita’s melody sang out above the clamor.
Brian hated her.
Glenn hated her more.
Ellen couldn’t tell how she felt.
Then, Glenn dropped his bow.
The music ground to a stop until the only sound left was the whisk of bow hair skidding down Anita’s strings. It was the only time Brian could remember her playing something wrong. He set down his violin.
“What’s going on?” Anita asked. “Glenn?”
“This is terrible,” he said. “We’re not together.”
Anita swallowed. “Let’s start again. We can do it slower.”
“No,” Glenn said, “Forget it.”
Anita met his eyes. “It’ll be okay,” she said. “We can try again.”
“I’m sick of trying,” Glenn said.
“I don’t care.”
Watching her, Glenn pulled his flask out of his pocket and uncapped it.
“Glenn,” Anita said. “Please listen to me.”
“Why should I?” Glenn asked. He swallowed a mouthful of Scotch. “You never listen to me.”
Ellen’s fingers slipped down the neck of her cello and her string twanged softly when she touched it. Fighting with Anita had always been frustrating. I don’t understand, Anita had said to her once, why are you going to stop doing the only thing that really matters? What’s that? Ellen had asked. Music, or you?
“Let’s talk about this later,” Anita said to Glenn. “We have a lot of things to talk about.”
“No, we don’t,” Glenn said. He took another drink, relaxing a little, confident. “You should have taken the job.”
“Don’t talk to me like that!” Anita said, biting her lip. “Everyone, start over. Please, just start over.”
“Don’t tell us what to do.” Glenn set his viola down on the floor next to his bow. “It’s not your quartet.”
Anita put her violin on her chair and walked quickly out of the room. Her throat felt tight and hot and wanting to cry made her feel like a child, a stupid child. She was not good at anything useful or important and never would be. She stumbled down the hall and leaned against the wall next to the big steel-rimmed windows that looked out onto West 66th street.
After a minute, Ellen followed her out into the hall. Gray light came in, reflected off the snow outside. Anita’s face looked pale against the doorframe. Ellen realized that she had nothing to say. She watched Anita’s mouth twitch and narrow.
“Jesus,” Anita said finally. “I didn’t think this would happen.”
Ellen looked down. Anita had said something similar to her once. Ellen thought that must be why Anita was such a good performer: she was never afraid things would fall apart.
“It’s not fair,” Anita said. “If I’d gone to Cleveland, I would have lost him anyway.” Hearing her own voice echo off the walls made her grimace. “That sounds stupid,” she said. “God, I am stupid.”
Ellen paused a moment, then took her hand. It was warm and soft. Ellen could feel the fast pulse in Anita’s fingertips. Anita smiled at her, and it seemed for a minute like they were on their way to theory class and no time had passed.
Ellen stepped closer, pulled into Anita’s breathing as she was pulled into the downbeat at the beginning of a piece. It was very quiet in the dark hall.
Anita pulled Ellen towards her and Ellen put her head on her shoulder, remembering. It was like the moment when a piece had just ended, before the applause rang out. But Ellen hadn’t been applauded in years; the thought seemed false. She stepped away.
“I’m sorry about Glenn,” she said, and, without looking at Anita, went back into the room. She heard the other woman’s footsteps clicking fast and erratically down the hall.
“Did she go?” Glenn asked when Ellen sat back down.
She nodded. “She left her coat.”
“And her violin,” Brian said.
“I’ll get them,” Glenn said. “I have to go talk to her.”
“Is she coming back?” Brian asked.
“I don’t think so,” Ellen said.
“What about next week?” Brian asked.
“Look,” Glenn said, “None of us know.”
“You were the one who stopped playing,” Brian said.
Glenn slapped his hand down on his leg. “Shut up,” he said to Brian, “Just shut up.”
Brian snapped open his violin case. He’d had it for eight years and embarrassingly it still looked new. The crushed velvet inside was dark green.
“I always got why Anita hated me,” he said. “But I never get why you do.”
Glenn put his hands in his pockets and grabbed onto the cold, empty flask. “Why do you think she hates you?”
Brian looked at him for a second like he was wondering if it was a serious question or not.
“Because she’s awful to me all the time. She doesn’t trust me enough to come up with my own bowings.”
Glenn squeezed the flask. “She thinks you’re good.”
Brian rolled his eyes.
“No,” Glenn said. “Why do you think she’s so hard on you? She wouldn’t get on your case so much if she didn’t think you had, you know, potential.”
Brian put his violin carefully into his case. He didn’t know if he believed Glenn or not.
“Why do you think she’s so nice to me?” Glenn asked.
“But you are good.”
Glenn stood up so fast his chair skittered backwards. “No, I’m not,” he said. He put away his instrument and Anita’s without loosening the bow hair and put both cases under his arm.
“See you later,” he said, and went out into the darkened hallway. He wondered if he’d see Anita at the train station. He had her metro card. He couldn’t decide if he wanted to catch her or not, but walked quickly anyway into the snowy darkness.
Inside the room, Ellen put on her coat. She wasn’t good at cello anymore. She had always known that this would be the consequence of dropping out, but hadn’t had to acknowledge it until now. She wanted to feel brave about her long-ago decision but all she felt was sad.
“I don’t know how to lock the room,” she said to Brian, “Anita always did that.”
Brian shrugged. “Not my school,” he said.
“It used to be.”
Ellen tied her scarf. “Yeah,” she said.
“Do you think she’ll ever come back?” Brian asked.
“I don’t know,” Ellen said. “I don’t think I will.”
“Oh.” Brian pulled the strap of his case over his shoulder and moved towards the door. He felt lighter, somehow. He thought he might be happy, but he wasn’t sure. He wanted to practice all night; his limbs felt taut and ready.