Mark and Esmé Harkin lounged on their couch the same way they did every Sunday afternoon. Draped over the cushions and leaning against each other, the young couple stared blankly into the television screen that, like most Sunday afternoons, played reruns of Seinfeld and The Fresh Prince. Mark was a thin, scruffy man who always wore the same blue and white cardigan. His wife Esmé was the more fashion-forward of the two and loved to remind Mark that his prized sweater was, at this point, “More hole than fabric.” at every chance she had. At this moment, though, Mark’s wife wore only sweatpants and a t-shirt and was too hungover to lob the playful insult in his direction. The two not-quite-yet sober pair continued to watch television for a short while until Mark quietly got up and walked to the window.
From their 86th street apartment, the Harkins had a splendid view of the river, as well as of their neighbors on 85th street. At night, Esmé would sometimes peer over at the Big Allis smokestacks (of course, she referred to them only as “the Roosevelt Island chimneys”) and would carefully try to decipher the pattern of flashing red lights atop each of the four stacks. On this particular fall day, both the Harkins and one of their more interesting neighbors happened to have their windows open. Directly across from them lived a thirty-something-year-old woman who was very fond of the piano. Or, at the very least, she enjoyed playing it. The sound of her playing reached the Harkins quite softly, and Mark listened to the music and stared at the woman behind the humongous black Steinway grand. Her apartment was rather clean, as it was devoid of much else other than this piano, which was placed up against the window. The music tended to come from the middle of the keyboard. It was unobtrusive and melodic, only entering the farther octaves every once in a while, and it didn’t linger there either. It didn’t quite sound like Jazz, Mark thought to himself. After listening for a minute more, he concluded it was something like a marriage between soft orchestra and tranquil elevator music. This humored Mark, but also put him at ease. Finally, he remarked to himself that this is the type of music he could share a cup of coffee with.
Eventually, Esmé made her way off the couch and joined her husband, who either hadn’t heard her footsteps or couldn’t be bothered by them; he was very focused on the woman and her music.
“We’re going to have to get that woman to stop playing that thing.” Esmé didn’t even look across the street and bent down to pick up a magazine off the floor. Still without breaking his gaze, Mark spoke: “I think it sounds beautiful. She’s very talented.”
“I guess it's ok, but no one asked her to play for the entire block,” Esmé sneered, fixing the spandex waist on her sweatpants. Finally she looked toward the disturbance in question and brushed a few strands of thin blonde hair out of her eyes.
For a short while, the couple silently watched the pianist. Esmé interrupted with critical comments about the woman’s home, but Mark never broke his gawk. He thought I wonder why I never learned to play an instrument. He’d certainly had the time and opportunity. He thought about what it might be like to play like this woman. He thought about how, if he could play like her, he wouldn’t limit his audience to the few neighbors who happened to be home with windows open. Finally, he thought about playing alongside her.
“I think she missed a note,” Esmé said.
“I don’t think so. It sounded fine to me,” Mark retorted.
“How would you know? You’ve never even touched a piano, have you?”
Mark folded his arms. His eyes moved onto his wife, his face remained facing the music. “Neither have you, but I think I’d be able to tell when a sound like that went out of key.” He turned his eyes back to the woman. In a softer tone he said, “I’ve never heard anything better.”
Esmé walked to the couch and flung herself onto it. She immediately regretted it, however, as this was too much for her severely dehydrated head to handle. She massaged the front of her forehead with her fingers and sluggishly reached for the remote. She punched in a four digit number and turned around, making a whistling sound to signal Mark’s attention. He turned with a jerk and walked over to the TV. “This is better, and I can mute it whenever I want.” Mark read the screen, which was set to the Music Choice channel, and shook his head.
“If you want, you can go over and tell her to stop,” Mark said. He sat down next to his wife, exhausted. Mark enjoyed the music he could still faintly hear pouring through the window. The inside of their apartment sounded like a serene coffeehouse with the faint piano providing the perfect soundtrack. He shifted his head back and closed his eyes. A breeze brought in the city’s brisk smells of autumn: wet leaves, fireplace smoke coming from the Brownstones, and the tart air that made breathing more than just an autonomic process, but an actual pleasure. Mark breathed in and out heavily. He tried unconsciously to match the rhythm of the music with his breaths. The fresh air cleared the congestion in his sinuses, stuffed from a long night of drinking. Half asleep, he thought more about the music and imagined himself with the pianist, matching his finger placement with hers, playing the notes perfectly. Suddenly, he felt himself falling and jerked awake. He quickly looked around the room to see that Esmé had closed the window, cutting off the sound of music. She swiped her hands together in a clapping motion like she was brushing dust off herself, satisfied with her scheme. Esmé looked around her apartment for anything out of place. Even in her Sunday morning malaise she felt the strict urge to clean and make everything tidy. She looked at her husband who, at this moment, stared at her with a quiet indignation. She remembered that she delegated to Mark the task of calling the plumber to fix the kitchen sink.
“Did you ever call the plumber?” she asked.
“Huh?” he responded, rubbing his eyes.
“The kitchen sink is still filling up with water. You were supposed to call the plumber.”
“No. No, I didn’t call him. It’s Sunday, so I’ll call tomorrow. Why’d you close the window?”
“Because it was getting too cold, and I’m tired of that woman’s playing, quite frankly.” Esmé walked to the couch and sat next to Mark. They were seated in a more sober manner than they had been earlier that morning. “I’m gonna take a shower and then do some laundry. Do you want me to wash your sweater? Or is water just going to make it melt?” Esmé chuckled to herself, and then put her head on Mark’s lap. He moved back in his seat, and his wife looked up at him. “What?” she said, “Are you upset with me?”
“No,” Mark said softly. He scratched his chin even though it didn’t itch. “Sorry, I’m just tired.” He put his hand on his wife’s head and began running it through her hair.
“Ouch,” Esmé said, recoiling. “My hair got caught in your stupid metal watch.”
Esmé propped herself up off the couch and walked into the bathroom. Mark heard the sound of a squeaky faucet and then the rush of water. He placed his hands in his lap and pulled the long blonde hairs out of his watch strap. He let them fall to the floor and then looked up at the television. He flipped through the channels and landed on a PBS special, a fundraiser about orchestras. He saw a woman playing the piano and thought, what an amateur. He turned off the TV and walked back to the window and opened it back up, peering over his shoulder to make sure Esmé wasn’t around.
Mark pulled up a chair and lit a cigarette. He took a drag and leaned forward in his seat, letting the cool breeze brush across his face and carry the smoke from his mouth to the sky. He listened to his neighbor and wondered what her face looked like when not looking down at piano keys. He took another drag of his cigarette and ashed it into an old Folgers can that he left on the sill. It had gotten dark without Mark realizing it. He exhaled and followed the path of his cigarette smoke as it traveled into the cold city air. It passed by the pianist’s window and was caught by a gust of wind. He watched as it headed east and noticed the smoke stacks on Roosevelt Island. He counted the red lights as they flashed atop the chimneys. He watched them for a bit, trying to determine the how long each light stayed off and then on. He figured there was no fixed pattern; they shimmered in time with the beats produced by the piano across the street.
Mark heard the shower shut off. He finished his cigarette and fanned out the smell before re-closing the window. Esmé emerged from the bathroom in a white bathrobe and a cloud of steam. She immediately began to shiver and looked over at the window, suspecting a draft.
“Do you want to go out for dinner? Or do you want to order in?” Esmé started toward her husband and pressed her wet hair into his arm. She was significantly shorter than Mark, who had to bend a bit to hug her and put an end to her shivering. He thought that she looked beautiful in his arms but then began to shiver himself, as his wet sleeve reacted with the cool air of the room.
“We can do either,” Mark replied. “Delivery seems easy.”
Esmé looked up at Mark innocently and smiled. She ducked under his arm and shimmied into the bedroom. She closed the door behind her and soon thereafter Mark heard the muffled sounds of pop music coming from within. He rolled his eyes and went to the kitchen to find a couple of menus.
The kitchen window faced the same direction as the one used to spy on the pianist across the street and ask Mark was figuring out which Chinese restaurant had the most appealing delivery fee he peered through the glass to find that she was gone. Her apartment was dark and still. Mark moved out of the kitchen and back over to the main window that he’d been using all afternoon. He opened it up and inched forward, desperate to hear the music. All he could hear were the honks of nearby traffic and the scattered shrieks of distant pedestrians. He sighed and closed the window back up. Just then, Esmé walked out of the bedroom in a new pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt that had the word “REAL.” printed on the front in big red lettering. She had a towel wrapped around her hair and she squeezed tight to wring out the water. She threw the towel on the couch and threw her arms around Mark.
“I was thinking Chinese.” Mark put his arms at his side.
Esmé put her chin on Mark’s chest and looked up at him like the giant he was. “Yeah,” she said softly, “that sounds good.”
“Can I have your eggroll?” Esmé asked with puppy-dog eyes.
“Sure thing,” Mark said, glancing over at the window. He took Esmé’s hands in his and swung them lazily. Esmé let go and moved to the window.
“Those lights are so pretty. They’re the only good view we have.”
“I dunno.” Mark moved next to his wife. “We have the river.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Esmé put her head on Mark’s shoulder. “But the trash barges kinda ruin it.”
Mark chuckled. “Well, what about the nice piano player across the street?”
Esmé rolled her eyes. “Yeah, thank god she isn’t home. She’s probably at the MET or Lincoln Center. Or the A train, most likely.”
Esmé’s hair was dry and there was no longer a draft in the room, but still Mark shivered.
“Sweetie, are you alright?” Mark’s wife moved closer to him and began rubbing his back to warm him up. Her hand caught one of the many holes in Mark’s cardigan and ripped it wide open. “Oh damnit, Esmé,” he said. He moved away from her and took off his sweater to see the damage she’d done. He peered through it and let it drop to the floor with a big sigh. Esmé apologized and then offered that it was probably for the best. He stared at her and shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. It was special to me.”
“You can get another one. You can even take it to the shooting gallery and make it just like the old one.”
Mark glared at his wife. This was no time for jokes. He said to forget about it and walked into the kitchen. He opened up a menu and took out his cell phone. While Mark was placing the order, Esmé walked to the couch and turned on the TV. She thought about trying to sew her husband’s sweater back together. She thought about perhaps taking a vacation somewhere. She thought about how this probably wasn’t a good time to remind Mark about calling the plumber, but was probably going to remind him before they went to bed anyway. Mark, on the other hand, thought about the pianist, and how her trained hands would never be clumsy enough to rip a hole in anything.
About the Author:
George Lubitz is a student at Skidmore College with a major in English. He has written in just about every form, save for maybe instruction manuals and restaurant menus, but he hopes to hear back from GE and the pizza place around the corner very soon. When he's not writing short fiction, he enjoys writing plays and has had one of his works, Ghost Town, performed at Skidmore College.