This was one of the first stories I ever wrote. It was in writing this story in my very first creative writing class that I discovered I had found my niche in writing.
A Song Out of Tune
She picked up her cello and tried to play. Nothing was coming out right and every note that hung in the air left a bitter after-sound that rang in her ears. Disgusted, she put down the bow and stood up.
When she had come downstairs earlier, she noticed it was light out. She only noticed because it was so strange for this time of year. October was usually gloomy, especially in the northwest. But today, the sky was that crystal grey that teased you with the blue that seemed to be just behind the haze. Anna stood on the porch now, arms crossed, brown hair drifting over her shoulder softly like an old scarf. She wondered when her boyfriend would be home. She wondered how his day had been.
A car sped down the road in front of her, clearly not obeying the speed limit but then…who really did here? This was a “good” neighborhood. Cops never camped out in front of the entrance. The only bad thing that ever happened here were when the high schoolers TPed some houses down the way. The nicer ones, of course. No one cared about the little house she lived in. It was, after all, rented. Her boyfriend had found it last year and it seemed perfect for them. They had both just graduated college and had no clue what they were doing so they moved in to the first affordable house they could find. It served its purpose well; Anna had no qualms with the place, but she still sometimes felt lonely, like the house sucked away all her worth so that what was left was a shell of who she was. Her music major hadn’t gotten her anywhere so far and Jason was still working at Les Schwab, the same place he worked throughout college.
Behind her, she heard a tinny version of Beethoven’s fifth and imagined it was probably her boyfriend calling. The urge to ignore it took hold and Anna’s only movement was to prop her foot on the step. Her neighbors walked outside, yelling something about a party. They were young. Sophomores in high school, maybe. Anna wondered what classes they were taking, what their plans were. If they had any. Behind her, the ringing stopped. Two minutes later it rang again. Then three minutes later. And five minutes after that. Anna made some tea.
“Where the fuck have you been?” Jason said, slamming the door behind him. The little window in the center trembled like a small animal shrinking from an unfriendly human.
“Busy?” he asked, incredulously. “What, eating? You sure look like it.”
Anna pretended she didn’t hear and cleared her dinner plate. There were still two pieces of lettuce left from the salad and she washed them away in the sink.
“I didn’t make anything big. We’re out of that canned chicken. I’ll get some more tomorrow.” Anna knew better than to ask how work was. Clearly, the answer was not good.
“Well, thanks for being on top of things. I’ll just make myself some cereal.”
Anna sighed and went to the bedroom. She found her work schedule taped on the wall and ran her finger across the days noting the early shift tomorrow.
She busied herself tidying up the laundry she had dumped on their bed that morning. As she folded shirts and matched socks, she hummed to herself and imagined the way the notes would sound on strings. Anna wished the music would come back to her. She felt a fraud, working at a record store now that she couldn’t even seem to make anything melodious come out of her cello.
Anna looked up. Jason’s face was framed in shaggy brown hair. His expression was caring, gentle even. Anna felt herself soften. “Yeah?”
“I love you. You know that, don’t you?” he asked almost shyly.
Anna paused a fraction of a second too long and Jason’s face crumpled. He shoved the heels of his palms into his eyes and swore. She knew this routine. Getting up from the bed, she rested her hands on her boyfriend’s wrists and shushed him until he looked up.
“Hey. I do know that. You just had a bad day is all.”
Jason let himself be held like a child and Anna wondered for the millionth time what she was doing. This would last until tomorrow. Maybe. A week if she was lucky.
A week passed and Anna enjoyed her boyfriend’s moods. He brought her flowers. They were pink roses and were sitting in the spot of honor on their rickety kitchen table. He tickled her when she had a bad day at work just to see her smile and didn’t hog the covers at night. He didn’t yell when she said hello to the mailman and accuse her of thinking him attractive, of wanting to invite him inside to talk, among other things. His arms felt warm around her middle when he came up behind her as she brushed her teeth in the bathroom, not confining and threatening. She smiled. She laughed. But it was always cut short by the foreboding of what was to come. Anna wasn’t stupid. She had seen this before and each time Jason walked in the door, she tensed until she saw his face.
This morning was different. Anna woke up early and went on a jog through town. She huffed and puffed, unused to the exercise. She knew it was the change of atmosphere in the house that made her want to be productive and that it would soon fade, so she wanted to get going before it was over. As she dragged herself over the hill and to the sagging porch of their little blue house, she stopped her watch and leaned on her knees. Mission accomplished. She looked up and smiled. The sun was peeking out from behind a dreary looking cloud.
“Hey,” she heard as the door flung open. She looked up to see her boyfriend, disheveled and angry standing on the porch.
She said nothing.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“I went on a jog.”
His expression went blank and he looked around. “Come inside.”
She knew better than to fight it, so she obeyed. As she leaned down to untie her shoes just inside the doorway, she felt a forceful shove on her shoulders as Jason slammed her against the wall. She gasped.
“Where did you go? Were you with anyone? You smell like sweat.”
“Because I was running,” Anna said, breathlessly. He had never been physically violent with her before. Never.
“Where.” It was not a question.
“Around town…I….don’t remember the exact route.”
He stared hard for a moment before stepping back and running his hand through his messy hair. It had been a while since Anna had last cut it.
“Go,” he said, quietly.
“Do you want me to—“
She jumped and ran into the bedroom. She shut the door and stood there, counting the ticks of their bedside clock. Anna waited until she heard Jason get in the shower before stealing her way to the kitchen. She heard him go to their room and dress then leave without so much as a goodbye.
For a moment she stood, phone in hand. Anna thought about all the people she could call. But what would she say? No one liked him. Her parents least of all. That’s what had made them grow so far apart in the last year. They said he was dragging her down, that she had opportunities and was wasting them with him. At the time, Anna told them they didn’t understand that love wasn’t something you just drop. But, somewhere along the line, that love changed, morphing into some unrecognizable specimen that contaminated everything it touched. Even her cello. Even herself.
The day was spent browsing the wanted ads in the paper. Anna even looked into rooms for rent and cut out some possibilities. The edges were messy from her unsteady cutting job and she hid the scraps in the book on her nightstand. Jason hated to read. He said books were filled with shit about life and life already had enough shit in it. Anna agreed with the last part but that was why she read in the first place; to escape the shit. Not that it helped much.
When Jason came home that day, she had dinner already on the table. It was a chicken dish Anna knew he liked and she spent the majority of her paycheck on all the ingredients. She waited hesitantly in front of her chair, unsure of what to expect. When he came in, he looked at the plates, then back up at his girlfriend, back at the plates. Anna waited.
Jason slowly sat down and began to eat. She followed suit, watching him from the corner of her eye. Sometime in the middle of the dinner, he sniffled. As he put a bite of broccoli into his mouth, he sobbed once. He chewed, swallowed and then he broke down. Anna was at his side in a minute but she stopped just short of touching him.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered over and over again. “I’m so sorry.”
“Jason,” she said. He waited but nothing more came from her mouth.
She thought of the first time she saw him. He had been playing basketball at the park with some guys and she was reading a book on the bench. He came over and asked her about it. Jane Eyre brought them together that day. Or chance. Either way, they became nearly inseparable. He opened doors for her, bought her flowers, always kept one hand on the small of her back.
“I don’t deserve you. I’m sorry,” he said, wracked with sobs.
They held each other close that night and he scratched her shoulder more than once with his unkempt nails as if he were trying to etch himself into her, make his mark, give her his pain. She kissed him and they finally fell asleep, separated only by the thin cotton of her pajamas, two people lost in a small house with no music and no hope. Nothing but each other and what they had become.
The next three days passed with no further episodes. He came home with a square, velvet box and Anna opened it timidly. It was a diamond bracelet. She immediately put it on and felt her wrist weighed down as she reached up to hug him, locking her arms together behind his neck.
The fourth day she woke up to his tossing and turning. Anna gently shook him awake and said, “You were having a bad dream.”
He pushed her hands away and buried his face under the covers so she got up and began her routine. She was working later and the dishes needed washing. When they were drying on the strainer, she emptied the vase on the table, throwing away the dead bouquet. The crunch of the petals as they hit the garbage mixed with the sizzle of pancakes on the stove.
Jason came in to the kitchen soon after smelling of soap and sleep.
“Breakfast’s ready,” she said, setting a plate down in front of him.
“Did you get the mail yesterday?” Jason asked.
“Oh,” she said, licking syrup from her fingers. “Be right back.”
She slipped on her shoes and hurried to the lopsided box at the end of the walkway. There was nothing there except an ad for the grocery store downtown. When she came back inside, she kicked her shoes off at the door and scanned the deals.
“You should move your shoes.”
“Yeah, I will,” Anna said, distracted. Detergent was on sale. She needed to get some of that.
“I don’t wanna trip over them. You should move them.”
“Okay,” she said, setting the ad down on the table.
Anna looked up, stunned. He had thrown his fork down and was looking at her with such intensity that she took a step back. “O…okay,” she stammered, making her way to the front door. Her shaking hands reached for her shoes and she piled them neatly in the closet.
“How the hell did you forget the mail yesterday anyway?” he asked. “You know I’m waiting for that package.”
“What package,” she asked in a dead voice.
He paused, looked at her. “Do you even listen anymore?”
Anna didn’t answer.
“I guess not. How’s the mailman? Was he out there too? Did you plan this together? He brings the mail early in the morning so you can catch up?”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he yelled.
She froze as he stood up and picked up his work bag. He walked toward the door which brought him in close proximity of her. Stopping, he viscously grabbed her arm.
“Where is it?”
“What?” she managed to ask.
“The bracelet. It’s not good enough for you? Where the fuck is it?”
“On the dresser. I’ll put it on later.”
“You don’t like it. Why don’t you just fucking say it, you worthless bitch? I bought you this expensive jewelry to show my love and this is what I get.”
“Jason, you have to calm down. I don’t know where this is coming from but—“
The thing was, she did know. There were signs. He broke a vase on their six month anniversary because he was convinced she was sleeping with his roommate. But he bought her a new one the next day. Then there was that time that he called her a slut in front of her classmates when they were playfully talking about the new guy in their music theory class. It had been awkward and her companions left her with a remorseful boyfriend who swore he didn’t mean it; he was having a bad day, that was all. He had never been particularly kind. He was at first, of course but then he showed his true colors. And Anna, being of the female sex, thought she could fix him. Thought she could heal his wounds and that they would live happily ever after. She was naïve.
And now, here she was, cornered by her angry, jealous, insecure boyfriend turned violent and she couldn’t think of a damn thing to do. She was shocked into inaction by her own stupidity. And that’s when she saw the look on his face. It was a split second of something so intense it nearly hurt. Looking back, she could name the emotions she saw there: hurt, distrust, shame, guilt, jealousy, anger, revenge…but at the time all she knew was that something was going to happen. Something that would change everything. And then it did.
Anna’s head snapped back and hit the closet door with a sharp thwack when he hit her. The room rattled and when it had stopped, his eyes were hard as the stones in her bracelet. Without a word, he turned and walked out the door.
She spent two hours crying. She put on her shoes then took them off again. She packed a bag and unpacked it. Her mom called twice but she didn’t pick up. The third time she called she left a message. Anna cried harder when she heard her mother’s voice.
“Honey?” it said. “I was just calling to check in. You father and I want to know how you’re doing and….well…give us a call. I hope you’re okay. Just checking in. Love you. Call me please. Bye.”
If Anna didn’t believe in a mother’s intuition before, she sure did now. Sighing, she looked at the clock. Her shift started in ten minutes. She called work and told them she was sick. It was easy to do, she sounded like shit anyway.
After Anna cleaned herself up, she ran out to the bank and withdrew from her account. She went back home and pulled her suitcase out of the closet along with any other bag she could find. The closet was emptied out, the drawers rifled through and nearly all the decoration was taken down. By the time Anna was done, her suitcase was bursting and she could barely zip it shut.
When the cab pulled up, she had to make multiple trips to get it all in the car. She put cash on the table, enough for her part of the next two month’s rent. She dropped the bracelet on top as a paper weight and considered writing a note then decided that would be redundant.
Grabbing her cello, Anna got into the cab before she could change her mind. It was time.
Two Months Later
Anna’s sleeve swiped the brochure off her dresser as she put on her shirt. She picked up the call for music teachers and pinned it carefully to her cork board.
Standing back, she remembered her arrival two months ago. There had been eleven messages on her silenced cell ranging from apologetic remorse to vengeful anger from Jason the night she left. His flood of tears threatened to wash her away back to that house and, after a week, she called her phone company to change the number.
Anna thought that was a big step, but her mother still saw fit to send her to a therapist which she fought against at first. She didn’t know until the second week back how strong fond memories were. She finally agreed to go to a counselor, in order to save herself from letting those good things have their way with her. The flowers, the kisses…even his apologies tugged at her. The problem was there were too many times he had to apologize. Too many angry outbursts. And whenever Anna started to waver, she forced herself to think of his face the second before her head hit the door that last day.
As she was straightening her sheets, Anna stubbed her toe on something hard. Frowning, she peered beneath her childhood bed and realized her cello was lying silently on the floor. Anna crouched down to pull it out and remembered the last time she had opened the case had been in the house with Jason.
She set it up at the window of her old bedroom and positioned it between her legs. Anna was prepared for it to feel foreign and surprised when it rested perfectly against her, like a hug from an old friend.
She tenderly ran the bow across the strings and closed her eyes, bracing herself for the cacophony but what she heard rising from the instrument was anything but. The music soared through her open window and Anna could almost see, behind closed eyelids, the notes swirling, swooping and dancing with hope as they rose from her cello, her bow, her hands.