Irina stood in the cold at her mother’s doorstep with a suitcase and the outline of Victor’s hand across her cheek. She inspected the paint chips in the railing, the thin cracks in the cement. She had taken smiling pictures here on warmer days in flowers and handmade dresses. Tonight the steps made her feel old and broken.
She intended to leave Victor for good this time. He was a recently fired high school music teacher and he was a drunk. She was a tailor, a hard worker who ran her own business. He did not deserve her and Irina’s mother would agree. Her first marriage would be a dress rehearsal, an act of passion. She was a firm believer in her own evolution.
As Irina was getting ready for bed that night her mother poked her head into the bathroom. “There’s something I want to show you in the attic,” she said. “It’s just collecting dust.”
Mom pulled open the attic door, the springs making squealing sounds like the music in a horror movie before someone gets axed. Irina watched her red sneakers climb over each other up the stairs until they disappeared. Irina hugged herself against the January air that swept through a broken window. The vapor from her breath made tiny ghosts that evaporated soon after they had formed.
“What are those?” Irina asked pointing to a pile of boxes.
“Some of your father’s things,” Mom replied. “It’s time to get rid of it. He’s been gone three years now.” She braced her hands against her graying temples as if she was getting a headache.
“Is that my cello?” Irina asked pointing into another corner.
“I thought you would want this back someday,” Mom said tugging off a dusty tarp to reveal a black case. “I’m sure you haven’t forgotten how to play. Remember the concerts you and your father would perform for me after dinner?”
Irina carried the black case down the attic stairs, set it on the floor of her bedroom and slid into bed. She could see its outline when she turned off her bedside light. She thought it resembled a child’s casket. She turned on her side away from the case and lay awake a while before falling asleep.
# # #
Irina learned the cello from her father. He was her teacher. Every weeknight for an hour she was his. In the dark-paneled room upstairs Irina’s father waited for her to arrive precisely at seven. Pictures of serious-faced musicians with slicked back hair whose signatures and best wishes to her father were long outdated covered the walls. Men whom her father had considered equals in the profession of music. Irina entered the room with her already-tuned cello and without a word between them played the previous night’s lesson. She felt his stare and the stare from every picture. She was allowed one mistake. It was after the second mistake that she cried from the slap on her hand. Over time she learned how to freeze the tears inside her before they could squeeze through the pinpricked holes in the corners of her eyes.
“That was desultory,” he said.
She looked sheepishly back at him through oversized glasses, its thickness obscuring her soft round eyes.
“Do you know what that means?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Look it up,” he said handing her a dictionary.
“Desultory,” Irina read. “Aimless, disconnected, unmethodical.”
“Yes, now watch.”
He looked intently at Irina, holding his bow vertically across his eyes. He glided the bow gently across the first two strings and then slowly back against the third and fourth. His lullaby entranced her at first, but his pace gradually quickened as he moved his fingers methodically down the neck until Irina could feel the sound reverberate in her chest. Soon he was unleashing himself against the instrument, his black hair flying wildly from his head, his neck straining reaching for more than what Irina thought a cello could do. The fingers of his left hand moved like pistons against the fingerboard and his right hand furiously sawed the strings as if they were subject to the commands of the wooden box nestled between his legs. Her father, like the Dr. Frankenstein Irina had read about in school, pushing the boundaries of whatever he possessed until it took on a life of its own.
Even after his accident at the shoe factory left him with a deformed hand which prevented him from performing in public, Irina’s father insisted on continuing her lessons. She sensed his frustration as he failed to show Irina the proper technique that used to be his trademark. He would curse his hand and his cello. He even cursed Irina.
One night Irina found him face down on the floor, the broken body of his cello underneath him. Pieces of wood were strewn about the room like a jigsaw puzzle. Disassembled and shredded, she guessed, by his injured left hand. The doctor who came to the house that night claimed he died from a heart attack, but Mom insisted it was from a broken heart.
# # #
The next morning Irina packed her cello in the car to take to her shop. She lied to Mom when she told her she was planning to show it to a customer who used to perform.
“Just don’t go and sell it even if he makes a good offer,” Mom said following Irina outside in her powder blue bathrobe and pink house slippers. She took quick baby steps between the large patches of ice that had spread across the driveway. “What would your father think if you did that?”
The winter had reached a deep freeze as if the sun stopped producing heat and simply became a spotlight cresting narrowly across the sky. The most recent snowfall had solidified to a hoary crust. Irina closed the car door and looked up at the house. The light illuminated a tiny mound of snow atop a fence post and the shape of a half-moon on the beam below so that it resembled an old man with a white hat and a beard. All of the things she missed, she thought. The things she never imagined seeing again from the perspective of dawn. She was home again.
“I’m not going to sell it,” Irina said. “Besides, if Daddy really cared about his cello don’t you think it would still be in one piece?” It was her only defense against Mom’s fussing.
Irina started the rusty Volvo and revved the engine. She turned on the heat full-blast and felt an initial gust of cold air blow against her face.
“That cello was his life,” Mom yelled above the noise.
Irina rolled down the window. “Exactly,” she said backing down the driveway and shifting into drive. She looked into the rearview mirror, the figure of her mother waving in her robe and slippers became smaller and smaller as Irina drove away.
When Irina opened the shop she took a white piece of fabric and with a different color thread for each letter, sewed in the words For Sale. She attached the sign to the cello case and positioned it in the front window.
# # #
Irina wasn’t quite sure why David came into the shop so often. No one could possibly lose that many buttons or require so many alterations to his pants. She politely suggested once that he would save money if he just bought a few new pairs. But David kept visiting and Irina kept taking him in the back to measure his waist, her long fingers gently bunching the excess fabric against his lower back.
“Are you on a diet?” Irina asked him matter-of-factly during one such visit.
“No, um, nope.” David stammered. He was awkward when he spoke to her and Irina thought that maybe her touching him made him uncomfortable. “Why?”
“You’ve been losing weight. These pants are a thirty-six, and you’re a thirty-four now.”
“Have you been working out?”
“I guess it’s paid off, huh?” David inhaled through his nose and playfully puffed up his chest.
“I wish I was that motivated to get in shape.” Irina marked the new hem with white chalk.
“You don’t need to get into shape,” David said over his shoulder. “You look great the way you are.”
Irina hadn’t been divorced so long that she couldn’t differentiate between a casual compliment and a blatant pick-up line, but it didn’t sound forced coming from David.
“Who’s that?” David asked pointing at a picture on Irina’s desk.
“That’s my mom,” Irina replied.
“She’s beautiful,” David said, looking down into Irina’s eyes. “I can see the resemblance.”
Irina felt her face flush and she turned away.
How about your dad?” David asked. “Do you have any pictures of him?”
“My father.” Irina paused as if to think of a proper response. “I wasn’t very close to him.”
Shannon was reading at the front counter as David passed her on his way to the door.
“See you in class tomorrow Shannon,” David said. “Make sure you read those Dickinson poems I assigned. They’ll be on the mid-term.” The door closed behind David as he pranced down the sidewalk.
“He’s such a tree-hugger,” Shannon said. Shannon worked for Irina after school and on Saturdays. She twirled her hair with her index finger and chewed gum too loudly and said ´y’know´ and ´whatever´ just about every other sentence.
“Tree-hugger?” Irina repeated.
“Yeah, y’know the crunchy granola type? He walks everywhere because he thinks cars pollute the air. He wears sandals and tweed blazers with elbow patches. He’s involved in student government and attends all the school board and town meetings.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
Shannon sighed and flicked her wrist towards Irina. “Whatever.”
Irina tossed David’s pants on the counter. “Would you take care of these for me?”
Shannon picked up the pants between her thumb and forefinger as if Irina had just given her a soiled diaper. “Are you sure? Mr. Hardy’s pants? I don’t know Irina. I don’t think I could work on my English teacher’s pants.” She scowled up her face until it looked like it would crack. “Oh, and in case you aren’t picking up his signals,” she said leaning in to Irina to whisper, “I think he likes you.”
Irina began sorting aimlessly through a rack of hanging shirts.
“You should ask him out for dinner sometime,” Shannon continued. She tossed David’s pants so that they landed around Irina’s shoulders. “Really, you should.”
Irina hadn’t talked about love interests with another woman in a while and she wasn’t about to start with someone who had been on exactly two and a half dates in her short lifetime. Two ended appropriately in an open-mouth kiss while the half ended when her date had his nose broken in a fight over another girl. The irony was that when Irina compared Shannon’s and her love lives they seemed quite similar. Unanswered phone calls were like repeated requests to take out the trash. Awkward gaps in conversation were like silence during sex. Irina concluded that unfulfilled expectations would be the same unfulfilled expectations in any relationship regardless of the date on your birth certificate.
The next morning Irina noticed a book on the sidewalk resting against the door, "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman. She wrinkled up her face at the picture on the cover of a white-bearded man who she guessed was the author. She read the note that was inserted between the pages, ´This is one of my favorites – thought you might like it too – David.´ She removed the note and found lines highlighted in yellow: "It is not to diffuse you that you were born of your mother and father, it is to identify you, It is not that you should be undecided, but that you should be decided, Something long preparing and formless is arrived and form’d in you, You are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes."
Irina read the last line aloud, smiling to herself as she unlocked the door. She flicked on the lights and noticed a light coating of dust covering the cello case in the window. A couple of customers had inquired how long she had played it and why did she stop and could she play something for them sometime, that is, if she wasn’t opposed. Irina took the case out of the front window, laid it on the floor and knelt before it. The lid made a yawning sound as she loosened the clasps to open it. A swirl of dust flew away from the case and settled on the floor like fresh snow.
The cello top was still liquid brown and smooth. Irina’s thirty-year-old face, dark and round in the cello, peered back at her. The whole of it, the entire cello as it lay there in her shop was like a relic from the past as if carried to this spot through a time machine. She thought about how the materials of our memory hold their shape while we change around them. How the cello seemed to wait for her until she was ready to frame its image again. She noticed how it looked more like her now. When she held it as a child, the cello was awkward and hard. The fullness and curves of its body were a stark contrast to her rigid adolescent frame. Seeing it now she realized she had been holding her future self. The gentle curve of its scroll, the blocky design of the peg box, the long black fingerboard, and the hourglass body that Irina thought was shaped like Mom whenever Irina saw her getting dressed. And maybe that is why it made such beautiful sounds. And why it made her father so full of rage.
Irina grazed her fingers slowly along the thick strings. There was a full feeling in them, an anticipation as deep as the sound they made. They hold the music, her father had said. Your fingers must release them. Make them do what they were made to do.
Irina took the oil she used to clean the needle on her sewing machine, poured it onto a cloth and smoothed it delicately over the top of the cello. She noticed thin creases in the wood. They resembled the child’s veins that provided her fingers with life. The life to hold her cello and produce the most beautiful sounds she had ever heard.
# # #
David walked into the shop looking more uncomfortable than usual. Irina glanced up from her sewing machine a little surprised. “Hi David, I mean, Mr. Hardy.”
“School’s out for the day so it’s okay to call me David,” he said looking over at Shannon. Irina noticed he wasn’t wearing his signature tweed jacket and sandals. Instead he was sporting a navy blazer with a teal button-down shirt, khakis and black thick-soled dress shoes.
Shannon stood up as if she had sat on a tack. “I need to check on something in the back,” she said dashing behind the curtain that crudely marked the front and rear of the shop.
“I wasn’t expecting you today,” Irina said. “Your pants aren’t ready yet, but I can have them ready first thing tomorrow if you want to pick them up on your way to school.”
“That’s okay. Actually, I don’t need them. I mean, you don’t have to have them ready for tomorrow, that is, if you don’t want to. I don’t want to put any pressure on you or anything.”
“No, it’s no pressure, just stop by tomorrow.”
“Okay, that’ll be great.” David paused like he had just gotten in line at the supermarket and realized he forgot the milk. “See you tomorrow then.”
“David,” Irina began. David froze as his hand reached for the door handle. “If you weren’t expecting your pants to be ready today why did you stop by?”
David turned slowly around on his heels. “Well, um, actually Shannon told me that you wanted to ask me something. Something about going out to dinner?”
# # #
David brought take-out from the Chinese restaurant down the street and Irina found an I Love Lucy marathon on TV. It had begun snowing at dusk just as the forecasters had predicted. David walked in with his hair covered in snow.
“Irina,” he said pointing towards the door brushing the snow from his shoulders.
“What?” Irina replied.
“No. Irina. This storm, they named it after you.”
“Hopefully it will keep the customers away so we can have some peace and quiet.” Irina lit a scented candle and placed it carefully on top of her desk in the back room. She grabbed a towel and draped it over David’s head. Then she gently matted it down with both hands to soak up the moisture from his hair. David looked like a drowned rat when she removed the towel, but he didn’t seem like the type that was overly concerned about his appearance.
“Mmm, raspberry?” David said lifting his nose into the air.
“Close, strawberry,” Irina said taking a seat next to David on some pillows she had thrown on the floor. “Too bad Shannon has to study for your mid-term tomorrow. I would have asked her to work the store so we could go out for our big date.”
“I’ll have to make sure I go easy on her since she set us up. Open up.” David was holding strands of pork lo mein between his chopsticks.
“Don’t you think it’s a little too soon for us to be feeding each other?”
“It’s not like we’re getting married or anything.”
Irina paused a moment before opening her mouth. An awkward gap of silence was broken by a few shrieks from the television followed by laughter; not a cynical laughter, but a black-and-white-sitcom-innocent laughter. Lucy and Ricky had challenged each other to switch roles for a day and Ricky was furiously cleaning up rice that was boiling over onto the kitchen floor.
“So, how did you know?” Irina asked.
“That I’m getting divorced.”
David didn’t respond.
“Shannon?” Irina asked. David nodded. “I thought so.”
The laughter from the television grew louder. Ricky was slipping all over the kitchen as he and Fred shoveled the rice into large bowls and pans.
“So I suppose you know about my father too? Why I’m selling the cello?”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to explain.”
“Don’t you want to know like all the other customers why I don’t play or why I won’t play for you?”
David rubbed his chin and thought for a moment. “Actually, no.”
After they finished eating David collected the leftover cardboard and aluminum to take home to recycle while Irina counted her receipts for the day. “Wow, look at it out there,” David said stepping halfway out the door, his breath forming a cloud around the falling flakes like a picture from a space telescope of stars floating inside the giant gas cloud of a far-off galaxy. “It’s really coming down. This will probably cancel school tomorrow.”
“How can you tell?” Irina asked.
“It’s the way it covers everything like a blanket, indiscriminately.” David spread his arms apart as if he were giving the snow a blessing. Irina thought he looked like Linus in the Charlie Brown Christmas special when he walked onstage to explain the true meaning of Christmas. “It’s all about the temperatures of the air and ground being perfectly in synch,” David interlaced his fingers, “or else the snow just dissolves, powerless, nothing more than a harmless wet glaze. But when it’s good and cold and the temperature’s just right.” David paused. “It’s beautiful really.”
Irina looked at David a little puzzled. “I guess teachers pay attention to stuff like weather especially when it means a day off,” she said.
As Irina resumed counting, David tuned the radio to a classic rock station. The Rolling Stones’ ´Start Me Up´ filled the small front room.
“Hey Irina, check this out,” he called jumping up on the counter in a fit of air guitar. It looked to Irina like he had done this a few times before, but probably not in as sober a state. As the song ended David jumped off the counter landing a few inches from Irina’s nose. He picked her up and twirled her around through a row of hanging clothes. A couple of pressed shirts fell onto the floor.
If Victor had done this, Irina would have moved to avoid him. She would have complained that this wasn’t the place. Not among the dresses and shirts and pants that she had mended and sewn and pressed with her own hands. Not in the shop that she had worked so hard for. But Victor would never have been so spontaneous. David was and she trusted him.
The snow continued to fall even harder and covered everything in a beautiful pure whiteness just as David had described. Irina gazed at the tiny sparkles of falling snow like diamonds reflecting from the streetlights. David turned off the overhead lights and brought the candle to the storefront. They sat quietly on metal folding chairs and watched the flakes swirl by the door.
“Any takers yet?” David asked after a long silence, motioning towards the cello.
“None. Only people asking me if I’ll play for them. I’m not being rude by not playing for them, am I?”
“No,” David said staring outside.
“I mean, what do they expect?”
“It’s okay.” David placed his hand on hers and she took it in both her hands.
They decided not to risk driving home that night. While David worked on convincing himself that school would be closed the next day, Irina gathered as many blankets as she could find to make separate beds. She laid them out comfortably in the back room with some old stained pillows that she covered with towels. They agreed to a six-inch rule of separation that David would use as a chaperone during high school camping trips.
“Not a word to Shannon about this,” David said, “even though we’re just sleeping. I don’t want to be the subject of hallway gossip.”
“You can trust me,” she said.
With the other’s back turned, they each stripped down to their underwear and got into the makeshift beds. David went to sleep within minutes of Irina’s blowing out the candle. His breathing was a slow relaxed breath that she thought resembled a heartbeat. She lay awake, her eyes half-open watching the square red numbers change on the alarm clock she had placed on the floor in case David’s prediction of the school closing was wrong.
After a few minutes Irina got up, wrapped a blanket around her and tiptoed to the storefront. The For Sale sign on the cello case had fallen face-down on the floor. She propped open the front door with one of the chairs and positioned the other chair so that it faced outside. She opened the case and removed the cello. She nestled it between her legs, the top softly reflecting the whiteness of the street. She picked up the bow and just as her father had taught, held it delicately between her thumb and first two fingers.
Irina played the first thing that came to her mind. She didn’t remember the composer, Brahms, maybe Beethoven. But she had remembered it by heart. Her father must have beaten it into her, she thought, until it was perfect. Until it became like a virus living inside her body feeding off of the very thing that sustains its life.
As she played, Irina threw her long black hair towards the open door, the sound pouring from her middle, filling the space between every spool of thread and sewing machine and hanging shirt until it casually weaved its way out the door and between each webbed flake. She kept rhythm with her feet like her father would do. Her knees shook with an impulse each time she lifted her heels off the floor and dropped them down again.
The cello had often made Irina feel sadness that was as much a part of her as her hair and eyes and fingers. But she was drawn to this sadness and the only way she knew how to overcome it was to play.
So she played for her shop and for the darkness holding it. For the space in her father’s room and for the faces in the pictures. For her parent’s home and its construction of brick and wood and glass. For the nighttime sky and its stones of light. For herself and David and for the six inches between them. For her childhood. For sorrow and for contentment. For the cello. For her father, her teacher.
When Irina was done she put the cello back into its case, propped it up in the window and reattached the sign. David was still asleep when she crawled into her bed. She laid her head on the pillow and stared at the clock. Eleven fifty-nine. Not midnight yet, she thought, not tomorrow. Still today. Irina reached over and shut off the alarm before closing her eyes to sleep.