When he woke up on Friday morning, John found himself on the couch next to his piano, still wearing yesterday’s clothes. His neck was stiff; ink stained his fingers. Crumpled sheets of staff paper were scattered across the floor. The disapproving face of Bach hung in a gilded frame on the wall.
Sylvia had not stayed with him last night. The week before, she'd come to pack the clothes she kept on her side of the closet. Her Gardiner CDs and high heels were gone, even her spare nail clippers. She hated having her nails too long. They interfered when she played the violin.
The engagement ring he had never presented to her was still in its box behind the piano’s music stand, a thin band with a small diamond, the best he could afford on his meager church organist’s salary.
John got up and pressed his forehead to the window. Outside was a meadow of milkweed and Queen Anne’s lace. Beyond the narrow road, a red barn floated over a cornfield like a ship far out at sea. Swallows dipped through the air, catching insects. Here, unlike in the city, the sky was unobstructed, endless.
Only two months ago, things had still been perfect. After Sylvia returned from her Paris audition, John had driven her to Lake Winnebago to distract her from the anxiety of waiting. Usually he listened to Die Kunst der Fuge in the car, but for her, he put on Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. By the second movement, Sylvia was singing; during the triumphant fourth, she pretended to conduct. John turned the volume up and rolled the windows down. He glanced at her in the passenger seat, her black hair whipping against her pale skin.
It had rained earlier that day, but by the time they got to the lighthouse, the storm had subsided, leaving damp earth and luminous puddles. Holding Sylvia’s hand, John looked into a reflection: the two of them, the lighthouse, plump clouds in hues of rose and amethyst. He saw that Sylvia was smiling. A breeze rippled the surface, and the image went away.
John gathered the scattered manuscript sheets and went to his car. Outside, he heard minor triads in the hum of insects’ wings, a soundtrack for regret. He drove down the slim ribbon of road to church. The church was white, with a tall steeple that housed a clock tower. He parked in the back lot next to the cemetery, where his grandparents and great-grandparents were buried under faded stones.
Inside, the stained-glass windows cast rose and lavender patches across the carpeted floor. John walked across the altar and switched on the organ. It emitted a moan as wind crept into the bellows. Standing behind the bench, he pressed one note, then another: C, D, E. He admired how each step and half-step led to the next, how the scale itself was a perfect musical creation.
He slid onto the bench and spread his fingers across the pale golden keys. Perched on the console was the old-fashioned metronome Sylvia had given him two years ago. It had to be wound with a key. No matter how many times John turned the key, it would inevitably slow and stop.
He smoothed the sheets of staff paper and tried to discern what he had written. He had started the piece yesterday: a fugue, a work of counterpoint with up to four simultaneous lines of music. The theme had come from Sylvia's voice, the melody in the way she said, “I'm moving.”
He tested new measures, adjusted them, transcribed. Composition only partially distracted him from the agitated thought of what he would do tomorrow, when he saw Sylvia at the wedding. There had to be something he could do to change her mind.
He was shocked when Sylvia won the Paris audition. She called him as soon as she found out, her voice high-pitched with joy. She had always wanted to play with a major symphony, but after years of failed auditions, John stopped paying attention to her attempts. He quietly bought the ring, and waited only for the right moment to ask.
It was not that he doubted her talent. Her Bach violin partitas were the best he had heard. He listened to her play them in the sanctuary, early on one of the Sundays they were to perform together. His arms chilled when he heard Bach's perfect counterpoint, as though the composer were alive and watching. Sylvia rocked back and forth as she played, biting the corner of her lip. Her fingers flitted like shafts of light across the neck of the violin.
She had failed professional auditions for years, sabotaged by crippling anxiety. When nerves seized her, she couldn’t remember the opening measures of the Mendelssohn concerto. Her fingers sweat and slid; she made Mozart sound like Schoenberg.
John met her at a gig performing Fauré's Requiem. During a rehearsal break, he saw Sylvia practicing, and was struck by the clarity of her playing. He introduced himself, and they kept talking long after the rehearsal. He was attracted to her boldness, her refusal to give up on music. She liked that he composed, that his ambition was to write pieces worthy of his idol, Bach. They saw each other on weekends, either at his home in the small town where he had always lived or at her apartment in Madison. Occasionally John would realize that an entire year had passed, and that time had fallen away in large chunks, like accumulated snow plunging suddenly from a rooftop.
While John settled into quiet routine, Sylvia auditioned for big symphonies. She flew to Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles. When those failed, she traveled to Sydney and Berlin. Secretly, John hoped that after a critical mass of failures she would stop trying to escape.
The day before she flew to her Paris audition, he drove the hour to her apartment in Madison, a spare one-bedroom decorated with a single orchid plant in the window. Her rolling suitcase was already packed. He cooked dinner, sat with her on the couch, and stroked her hair, saying it would be all right. She didn't seem as nervous as usual.
Later, he went into the bathroom and saw her lavender toiletry bag was open on the bathroom counter. On top, conspicuous among tubes of makeup, was a stout orange bottle of pills: beta blockers.
For some reason, John was upset, though many musicians used them. He picked up the bottle. The pills didn’t rattle; the bottle was stuffed with cotton. He could slip it into his pocket. But he thought about Sylvia checking into her hotel. She would take out her violin. She’d rub the bow with fresh rosin and play a few notes. Her hands would be shaking. She’d look for the bottle and realize it wasn’t there.
John put the bottle back. How much could a pill really do? There was no way she would win.
John had been composing for hours when he was finally interrupted. On Friday afternoons, a church lady always came to vacuum the rugs. She chirped a greeting.
“You ready for the wedding?” she asked.
He nodded. The life of an organist was filled with providing background for other people's weddings. This time it was the pastor's daughter, marrying a deacon's son. The whole church was invited. The daughter had requested that Sylvia play a particular favorite, Lied Ohne Worte. While the woman vacuumed, John rested, let his eyes unfocus and wander across the blurred notes on the page. If he finished this piece, this piece that he had based on Sylvia’s voice, he could somehow convince her to stay and listen. If she stayed, he would have a chance to show her the ring. He would show it and she would realize, at least for a moment, what she meant to him.
After Sylvia won the audition, she came bursting through his door.
“I can't believe it! It's incredible!” Her green eyes were wide, catching the light.
“I'm so proud of you,” he said, trying to inject enthusiasm into his voice. He went to the kitchen to get her a glass of her favorite raspberry lemonade. It was too sweet for his liking, but he always kept it in the fridge for her. In their four years together, he had never seen her this excited. From the living room, he heard Sylvia at the piano. She picked out the opening of Bach's fugue in C-sharp major from The Well-Tempered Clavier. With seven sharps in the key signature, it had an especially bright timbre. The cheerful sound grated on John's nerves.
He went in and set her glass on the coffee table. Sylvia had pushed aside a stack of music paper to sit on the piano bench. To her, the arrangement may have looked random, but it was the sheets of a composition John had been working on.
“I've always wanted to live in Paris,” Sylvia said. “You could get a job in a real cathedral, with stained glass.”
John stiffened. “My church has stained glass.”
“But wouldn’t it be—”
“What makes you think I want to move?”
Sylvia turned to look at him. “It’s Paris.”
“I hate cities.”
But it was more than that. John had lived the entirety of his thirty-six years in Wisconsin. How could she think so little of his life, to assume he’d be happy to throw it away for France?
“John,” Sylvia said, anxious now. She came over to him. “I didn’t mean to assume. I thought you’d be excited too.” She wrapped her arms around him. “We’ll visit for a few days, see if you like it. If not, you’ll come right back here, okay?”
John nodded, unwillingly at first, but when Sylvia made a silly face and tickled him, he couldn’t help laughing. Maybe a visit wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe he would even like it. Half an hour later, he was sitting at the piano. Sylvia took out her violin, tuned it, and improvised a melody over the chords John played. When John nodded for a cadence, Sylvia ended with a flourish, like she had just finished playing a concerto.
She set her violin in the open case. John took her hands and led her to the tattered couch. She shrugged off her fitted blazer and laughed softly as John ran his hands through her hair, sweet with the scent of shampoo. Her lashes were long and black, her skin almost translucent, like white jade. John kissed her at the V of her blouse. He traced the base of her neck with his thumb. He kissed her on the nose, at the ear, on the small dark mole near the base of her collarbone.
When the light faded from the sanctuary, John drove home. He entered his dim house and saw what a mess it had become. By the piano were sheets of crumpled paper, cast-off shoes, food-stained dishes. Still, over the last few hours, he had become convinced that once Sylvia heard his music and saw the ring, things could be worked out.
He spread out the sheets of staff paper on the piano’s music stand. The dour portrait of Bach, clutching a rolled-up sheet of music, stared at him from the wall above. John’s fugue was nearing completion. From the original melody in Sylvia’s voice, it had evolved into a thirty-minute sprawl of fantasy and counterpoint. The notes sprawled across the page, hundreds of little black dots all over the paper, arranged on five-line staves in melodies, harmonies, and moments of exquisite polyphony. As John continued the fugue, he imagined himself inside its two-dimensional architectures, in the world contained by the notes as if it were a physical reality: a labyrinth, a palace, a castle.
He played and felt his body withdraw from the outer world, retreating into his inner musical fantasy: major and minor shifting like sun and shadow through the windows of his mad king’s castle, as outside the wind rushed clouds above the earth—or perhaps it was the earth rushing ahead, spinning wildly through space, clouds streaming like cast-off flags behind.
The Paris trip had been a disaster. In retrospect, John didn’t know why he had been hopeful, when even Madison was too much for him, with the city noises like knives in his ears. On the plane flight, he gripped Sylvia’s hand so hard that she told him to let go; it was her playing hand. At the hotel, he felt paralyzed by hearing a language he could not understand. While Sylvia flitted from the Sacré-Coeur to Notre Dame, dragging him along, John imagined the meadow outside his house to stop himself from panicking in the noisy crowds of tourists. He felt the irrational fear that he would somehow die in France, an ocean away from his home.
“I can’t do this,” John said on the last evening in the hotel.
“So it’s you or Paris?” Sylvia said.
He didn’t like the harshness of that statement, but it was true. He nodded.
“I thought you supported me. I’ve been working for this my whole life.”
“I do support you. But I can’t live here.”
Then he said something he regretted.
“I didn’t think you would use beta blockers.” It had been bothering him ever since he’d seen the bottle. Three hundred years ago, in the honest age of Bach—even twenty-five years ago—there had been no performance enhancers. A musician could play under pressure or not.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” She slapped a palm on the dresser. “I’m not allowed to advance my career? You want me to stay prisoner in your backwater state? How do you even know I used them?”
“I saw them in your bag,” John said, realizing how improbable this sounded. “It was on the counter.”
Sylvia snorted. “Maybe this move is for the best.”
John put on wrinkled dress pants the morning of the wedding. He usually got to church two hours before services, but today he made it only half an hour early. He sat on the organ bench. With the push of a sullen finger, he set the arm of the metronome to motion. Click, click, click: the audible atrophy of time.
He looked in the mirror above his music stand, watching for Sylvia. He hoped she would look distraught, would show physical signs of distress. Fifteen minutes later, she glided through the doors at the back, defiantly beautiful in a sleek blazer and purple chiffon blouse, wearing her favorite high heels that revealed a few inches of her pale feet. She sat down in a chair near the piano at the front and took out her violin. She tuned the strings, moving her bow slightly as she adjusted each fifth. He played a few hymns to warm up, staring into the mirror to see if she ever glanced in his direction. She did not.
For the processional, John played mechanically while the bridesmaids marched down the aisle, one after another like grotesque parade floats. There was the bride, white and ethereal. At the edge of his vision, he saw Sylvia sweeping the bow over the strings, rocking back and forth as always. John felt like he was burning during all the talk about love. What did they mean that love was kind, and all other saintly things? His love was selfish—wanting to keep her geographical prisoner—but that did not diminish its reality.
After the recessional, when everyone had finally filed out, and Sylvia, free of company, was wiping the neck of her violin with a chamois cloth, John went down to talk to her. Strapping the violin into its case, she did not notice him standing behind her.
“Sylvia,” he said. She turned to look at him. Though he had imagined what he would say hundreds of times, he could not remember a single word.
“I wrote a piece,” he said. “Want to hear it?”
She checked her watch. “I have a few minutes.”
As he played his hands sweat and shook over the keys. He missed notes and hit clashing harmonies that he had not written. But he was confident she would hear the soul of it, the longing and regret. When he finished he would tell her it had all come from her voice.
He was on the second to last page when he felt her hand on his shoulder. He stopped playing. The major chord he had just played rang in the sanctuary and faded.
“John, I have to go. My flight is at three.”
“To Paris.” She looked at him pityingly, as though he were too stupid to remember what had happened. “Bye, I guess.”
“Wait.” She watched as he took the small box out of his pocket. She shook her head before he even opened it.
“It’s not going to work,” she said. “Good bye, John.” She turned and walked out of the sanctuary.
Good bye, John. Three words that ended, so swiftly, four years. In the parking lot, he sat in his car, watching others leave the lot until he was the only one left. There had been a melody in those words, as there always was in Sylvia's voice. He took a crumpled napkin and a pen from the side door of his car. He scribbled five lines for a musical staff and transcribed the melody.
At home, he opened the piano bench. He thrust aside his Bärenreiter edition of The Well-Tempered Clavier. He hardly ever used it anyway; all forty-eight preludes and fugues were stored in the memory of his fingers.
He smoothed the napkin and took out a fresh sheet of manuscript paper. Five-lined staves stretched horizontally across. The sheet was blank with possibilities, but the portrait of Bach stared down at him, still disapproving. He copied the melody onto the paper with a mechanical pencil, then sat and stared. He played the first measure a few times on the piano. He listened and listened, but could not hear the notes that came next.