Wednesday, just before lunch (San Francisco) / Thursday, early morning (Sydney)
Elizabeth sighed with relief when her Wednesday morning class ended. She had been uncharacteristically distracted, stumbling over words and needing to correct herself several times. She had entirely lost her train of thought once, standing in flustered silence until she gathered her thoughts.
The letter was the culprit. In the day and a half since she’d received it she had thought of little else. She could recite long passages from memory and had analyzed it from what seemed like a dozen perspectives. She had arrived home last night with a pizza, a box of microwave popcorn, and a collection of rented DVDs, planning to mount a Rodgers and Hammerstein film festival for herself and Jane as a distraction. But by the time the camera swooped down from the sky to find Julie Andrews on an Austrian hilltop, William and his letter had usurped her attention. The Sound of Music DVD, after all, had been one of his birthday gifts to her.
She gave herself a mental shake and pulled out a pile of sheet music. The hour set aside for her Wednesday morning practice session was dwindling, and she had an unusual amount of new music requiring her attention.
After a brief interval of warm-up exercises she was ready to work. Her first few songs, for that evening’s Golden Gate Jazz rehearsal, needed only one or two run-throughs each to cement the work she’d already done. The group had several bookings in December, and they were introducing holiday music into their repertoire.
Her next task was to work on a song for what would probably be her final performance at the conservatory. The musical theater faculty had decided to produce a cabaret show to benefit the school’s scholarship fund. The theme, “The Best Broadway Songs You’ve Never Heard,” had sent her scouring the repertoire for unfamiliar selections for herself and her students. One of her choices was a poignant ballad cut from the musical, The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Yesterday afternoon, the orchestra’s student conductor had delivered a preliminary recording of the accompaniment to her song. She popped it into the CD player and took her place on the small stage. Her eyes drifted up to the doorway, which would be forever haunted by William’s ghost. She began to sing.
It tumbles and pitches through space.
I can remember when rain was soft
And you’d kiss the rain from my face.
Now when the wind blows I run from its touch,
With you wind was silk on my skin.
People in love walk inside the wind
Where nothing can hurt you, it holds you too close.
But now I’m outside looking in.
One day, all my world circled about you,
Now when I move on without you,
Nothing on earth is the same.
Do you remember the sweep of the rain?
The sound of it strumming the sky?
People in love walk inside that song.
But now when I listen, the melody’s changed.
The rain only whispers ‘goodbye.’
I don’t want to cry when I think of you.
But now when the rain falls, I do.1
Only her years of performing experience allowed her to finish the song, its lyrics far more meaningful now than when she had chosen it a month ago. By the end, tears had begun to fall from her eyes: tears for herself, for William, and for the chasm torn in the fabric of her life, an empty space she had come to believe that only he could fill.
Her nemesis, the judgmental voice in her head, chided her. Then why did you send him away?
I had to. If he’d stayed close, sooner or later I would have looked into his eyes and melted, and then nothing would ever change.
Then stop whining. You told him to go, and he went. Deal with it.
The matter-of-fact voice of Diane, her therapist, pushed its way into the fray. And what might this have to do with Michael?
Elizabeth didn’t realize at first that she had shouted these last two words aloud, but as they echoed through the empty classroom she blushed. She wasn’t sure of the clinical definition of insanity—perhaps she’d ask Diane at their next session—but she suspected that it encompassed standing in an empty classroom, your face wet with tears, while refereeing a debate among your various inner voices. Obviously something needed to change, and soon, before they found her on the roof chattering with the sparrows.
She gathered her strength, collected her belongings, and trotted up the steps to the classroom door with renewed energy. But outside in the hallway she pulled the letter from her purse, its pages creased and dog-eared. “Dearest Elizabeth,” she read as she wandered down the hall to her office.
Wednesday evening (San Francisco) / Thursday afternoon (Sydney)
Being honorable can be a real pain in the ass.
Roger Stonefield’s eyes drifted over Elizabeth as she sat on his sofa, her hands folded tightly in her lap. She looked small and fragile, her usual sparkle barely a flicker. It hurt to see her this way, but it was even worse to do nothing but listen, nodding sagely at regular intervals.
She had asked to speak to him after rehearsal in order to seek “the male perspective.” Although he hadn’t admitted it, Roger had known the nature of her problem before she explained. Charlotte had filled him in a few nights before over drinks.
“It’s such a waste,” Charlotte had said, concluding her story. “She’s miserable, and William must be even worse.”
“And by the way,” Charlotte continued in a warning tone, “I’m telling you this strictly so you can keep an eye on her at rehearsals and make sure the guys treat her gently, not for any other reason.”
“I know.” He wouldn’t ever take advantage of Elizabeth in a vulnerable moment. Damn it.
As if she had heard his expletive, Charlotte had smiled and patted his arm. “You’re an honorable man, Roger Stonefield, whether you like it or not.”
Could he have relived the night of the rehearsal dinner, Roger would have switched place cards with Bill Collins, earning himself a dinner with Elizabeth and perhaps changing the course of several lives. But instead he had spent most of the evening with Charlotte and had fallen into a relaxed relationship with her. By the time Elizabeth had returned to San Francisco, joined Golden Gate Jazz, and stolen his heart, it had been too late to act. It was inappropriate and dangerous to pursue the best friend of one’s current … girlfriend? Friend with benefits? It had always been hard to classify his relationship with Charlotte.
Instead he had developed a warm friendship with Elizabeth, struggling to redefine his feelings for her as brotherly. For her sake, Roger had even befriended William, whom he had come to like despite the envy that gnawed at him each time William draped a proprietary arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders or captured her hand in his.
Charlotte had eventually guessed the truth. She claimed not to care, emphasizing the no-strings nature of their relationship, but they had drifted apart for a time afterwards. He felt fortunate to still count her among his friends.
He had to forget Elizabeth and move on with his life. But that was difficult when at every rehearsal or performance of Golden Gate Jazz she captivated him yet again. Her flashing eyes, her warm smile, and her sweet voice held him in thrall, and he couldn’t seem to break free. And now she and William were estranged and she was lonely, vulnerable, and in need of comfort.
But an honorable man would never exploit that vulnerability.
"I know I've been harsh with him, probably too harsh," she was saying, summing up her story. "I mean, he really screwed up in a lot of ways, and there's stuff that needs to change. But I had a bad experience a long time ago, and I let it spill over into the present, and I think it made me too quick to send him away."
Roger leaned forward in his chair. “Then it sounds like you have everything figured out."
"Not even close. I may have overreacted, but he made a huge mistake where the job was concerned, not to mention the other stuff."
"If you give him a chance, I bet he'll apologize for everything."
"He already did--for a lot of it, anyway--in his letter. But he's so used to calling the shots without consulting other people that I'm not convinced he can change. And they say you shouldn't get involved with a man with the idea of changing him."
"That's good advice."
"So am I just supposed to live with him swooping in and taking over my life on a regular basis?"
"I'd never have pegged you as a girl who'd just roll over and do what you were told."
Elizabeth shot an exasperated glance at him. "Exactly. That's my point."
”Okay, let’s break this down. Like you said, you shouldn't assume you can change a man; that's a big mistake. We’re too stubborn for that. But that doesn’t mean a man can’t change himself, if he's motivated. So if you think he deserves a second chance, tell him to stop swooping in, but be sure to explain why it’s a problem.”
"And you think that'll work?"
He shrugged. "You might have to remind him a few times before it sinks in, but I think he'll be willing to give it a shot. And if he can't change, at least then you'll know."
"Why does he have to do it to begin with? Does he think I'm incompetent?"
Roger shook his head, wearing an expression midway between an affectionate smile and a smirk. "There's a basic fact about men that you're missing. Sometimes we don't think. There's lots of instinct left over from primitive times, stuff we're hard-wired to do. And when instinct takes control, the brain shuts down."
"So what are you telling me? William acts this way because there's an obstinate cave man at the root of his family tree?"
"Basically, yeah. He's trying to show you he's a take-charge guy."
"But I didn't ask him to take charge."
"Doesn't matter. He's decided you're the one. He's got to show you he can provide for you so you'll let him father your children. The primal urge to procreate is pretty powerful stuff. Try saying that five times in a row fast."
Elizabeth flashed a quick smile. "So you're saying this is all about sex?"
"Isn't everything?" Roger shrugged, grinning. "No, it isn't all about sex, but like I said, this is primal stuff. If he were that cave man you mentioned, he'd go out in the forest, kill a wild boar with a club and his bare hands, and drag it home to impress you. But there's a wild boar shortage in San Francisco; Manhattan too, from what I've heard—;so he's got to find some other way to convince you that he's good breeding stock."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "That's ridiculous. And I don't just mean the wild boar analogy. If he got me the job to impress me, why did he keep it a secret for months? Wouldn't he have wanted me to know what he'd done?"
"Well, yeah, you'd think so," Roger said, sitting back in his chair. "But after he was done proving his manhood, he paused for a second to think about what he'd done, and only then did he see the huge mess trailing behind him. So he decided to bury the evidence and hope you wouldn't notice. In cave man terms, he dragged that wild boar right into the living room. And then Cave Woman—that's you, sweetie—saw this big hairy thing bleeding all over her nice clean floor, and she said, "Where the hell did that come from?" Cave Man, who still wants to procreate but knows he probably just earned several nights on the sofa, doesn't have many options at that point. So he says, 'I've never seen it before in my life.'"
"That's just stupid."
"We're not too smart when it comes to stuff like this. I think 'testosterone poisoning' is the technical term."
She giggled. "You're just saying all this to make me laugh."
"You're mostly right," he said with a good-natured grin. "I don't like seeing you unhappy."
"Well, I'm not sure why, but your crazy rationalization has made me feel better."
"Then my work here is done," he quipped, rising to his feet. "I'm going to have a beer; can I get you something?"
"Thanks, but I should be going."
He helped her on with her coat and walked her to the door. "What are you going to do?" he asked.
"Call his secretary in the morning and ask for his number in Australia. We have a lot to talk about, and at first I was thinking of waiting till he got back to the States, when I could just call his cell phone. But I want him at least to know that I'm ready to talk."
”Yeah. He's probably in hell, wondering if the letter worked."
"I know. If our situations were reversed, I'd be a wreck. Of course, come to think of it, I am."
She paused at the door and kissed his cheek. “You’re a wonderful friend, Roger,” she said softly, her eyes shining. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
He nodded, indulging himself slightly by brushing a stray curl away from her cheek. “If he doesn’t make you the happiest woman on the planet, he’ll have me to answer to.”
“You’ll be the first to know.”
And then she was gone. Yes, being honorable was a pain in the ass sometimes.
Roger fetched a beer from the kitchen and collapsed on the sofa, oppressed by the silence in his apartment. He took a long, slow pull from the green bottle, and then raised it in a toast to himself. “Time to move on. And I mean it this time.”
It felt good—almost—to say it, and he decided to act on his decision at once. Carpe diem, and all that crap. He retrieved his cell phone from the kitchen counter and returned to the sofa.
“Hello, Anne? It’s Roger Stonefield …. Yes, I know, I’m sorry about that. I’ve been busy at work … You too? Then let’s have dinner tomorrow night. We can compare notes on our workaholic lives and share some math gossip … What about Indian food? I heard about a new place near the Civic Center that they say is excellent … Okay, great. Seven o’clock?”
Friday, very early morning (Sydney) / Thursday morning (San Francisco)
William kicked off the sheets and sat up in bed. He didn’t bother to check the clock. It was late, and beyond that the specifics didn’t matter. He stood up and padded into the living room, his feet well versed in the routine by now.
She’d had the letter since Monday and she hadn’t called, which meant that his desperate gambit had failed. He hadn’t expected the letter to resolve every issue between them; that would take time and plenty of discussion. But he had hoped at least to reopen the lines of communication. There was nothing else he could do till his return; to contact her again would break his promise.
Dragging a hand through his hair, he stepped away from the balcony and moved to the piano. His fingers slid silently over the keys as he considered what to play.
Bach. The answer was unexpected but it felt right. Although Bach had never earned William’s devotion as had Chopin and Rachmaninoff, he had an affinity for the old master’s music that often surprised those who knew him as an interpreter of the Romantics. William had excelled in mathematics in school, and the clean symmetry of Bach’s music, each composition a puzzle waiting to be solved, had intrigued him as a boy and still did today. Some thought of Bach’s music as the triumph of soulless technical perfection, but in William’s opinion those people didn’t understand Bach.
He licked his lips, a frown of concentration lowering his brow, and began to play.2
Near the end of the piece, William noted that his heartbeat had slowed to a relaxed thump. His mind was similarly becalmed, filled with a stream of abstract images and colors. The relentless progression of the piece, with its interwoven voices and repeated motifs that popped into the foreground at regular intervals, was oddly soothing despite the breakneck tempo he had adopted. Of course it was soothing. It did what he expected it to do, when he expected it to happen. If only a certain woman were that predictable.
But she wasn’t, and honestly he wouldn’t like it if she were. He just wished she would call. Maybe today would be the day.
1 “Now When the Rain Falls” by Frank Wildhorn and Nan Knighton. Sung by Christiane Noll on A Broadway Love Story, © 1998, Fynsworth Alley. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear on Spotify. Hear on Youtube.
2 Capriccio from Partita No. 2 In C Minor by J.S. Bach. Performed by Martha Argerich on Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata BW911, Partita BWV826, English Suite No. 2, © 2000, Deutsche Grammophon, originally released 1980. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear on Spotify. Hear on Youtube (Capriccio starts at 15:55)