The AV Club
She wasn't being particularly polite, especially considering I had smiled at her when I put the bottle of aspirin down on the counter. She rang it through without saying a word, glancing at the glowing till to indicate what the total was.
"Six-fifty?" I ask, if only to extract some sort of pleasantry from her. No such luck.
Soon I find myself back out in the night air, the sound of traffic slowly grinding in every direction; every once in a while a blaring horn calls out, warning some pedestrian or berating some driver.
My car is only about twenty feet away, but because of the snow it seems like fifty. I trudge carefully through the slush, reassuring myself with the crunch of every footstep that I'll soon be home; Piper's decided to cook at my house again, which means good eating for me. I don't mind these weekly culinary excursions, especially considering my lack of expertise on the subject. She's constantly telling me "You can't fry everything" in that way she has of not quite scolding you, but I can't seem to avoid it. It's the crackling of the fat: it sort of gets into you after a while.
The front door creaks open and immediately I can tell Piper's been here for a while. For one thing, the snow on her shoes has already melted, soaking my meagre mat, squeezing that distinctive splat from my shoes. Her studio gear is leaning against the wall, a large canvas envelope-style thing with handles. She must have come straight here from work.
"That you, Piper?" I call into the house.
"No, it's your other girlfriend," comes the response from the kitchen. I grin and proceed to take off my shoes, carefully avoiding the mat with my socks. Piper loves the kitchen; she says it's the brightest room in the house, she says it always makes her perk up no matter how she's feeling, something to do with the lighting and the colour of the walls. Even though I never understand exactly what she's talking about when it comes to a room being "bright" or "moody" or "responsive," I always agree, assuming automatically that she's right, all things considered.
"Is that you, Marian––oh, it's you." She turns around, apron around her waist, fat crackling away on the stove. "I thought it was my other girlfriend."
"Who's Marian?" she asks jokingly, waving some tongs at me in mock-threat.
"Oh, you know, just some girl, we have a few kids, no big deal. We've got a house downtown."
"Is that so?"
We both chuckle warmly: neither of us can hold a façade for very long. I give her a hug, the hardwood groaning under my weight. She puts the tongs down and returns the favour, kissing me on the chin, a wet kiss that makes a thick smack when she lets go.
"Whatcha making?" The pan has some sort of meat in it, spitting beads of fat that stick to the stovetop as they land.
"Filet mignon," she answers, clearly proud of her work.
"Only the best."
Releasing her, I turn and sit down at the kitchen table, listening to her flip the steak over, the crack of new fat bubbles emerging. I take the bottle of aspirin out of my pocket and twist it open, the plastic seal snapping away in my hands. She turns around at the sound of this.
"Still?" Her voice is concerned but distracted; it's been going on for too long to get really upset.
Responding with a brief "Yeah," I pop two of the waxy pills into my mouth and swallow hard; I can almost hear them scrape the inside of my throat. Piper says I should see a doctor, see if there's anything seriously wrong. Of course, I tell her that it's not really that bad, that it's never really a distraction, but the truth is that you can only have a headache for so long before it becomes the ultimate distraction. It's not so bad during the day, when things are controlled, organized, set out exactly as I plan it, but every time I close my eyes, every time I take a break for even a second, everything gets amplified, everything grows into a growl, quickly escalating to a steady blast of sound; eventually all that's left is two sets of savage timpani, one pounding away at each eardrum until I open my eyes and it dulls to a mild buzz. You can't keep your eyes open forever though: falling asleep is agonizing.
Supper is fantastic, as usual. I wash the dishes alone, as usual. Piper insists on helping me, as usual, but I tell her that it's only fair that I do them considering the amount of work she put into preparing the meal. So she waits in the living room in front of the fire, painting – she's had an easel set up there for over six months now – until I finish.
I enjoy washing dishes, despite its bad reputation: it's the water rushing over my hands, sloshing into the sink, smattering the edges of the counter, running smoothly over a newly-clean plate, gurgling down the drain, its work complete. Putting the dishes away afterwards is no less rewarding, the steady clink of glasses leading into the more stoic chunk of wooden mixing bowls: no chore is as satisfying.
As soon as I close the last cupboard door, Piper is behind me, arms around my waist, kissing my neck. I turn around and return the favour. A familiar warming sensation runs through me and eventually all I know is the humming resonance of her and I, together. Three hours later we find ourselves lying naked next to each other, sweating, the covers cast aside at one point or another.
"Good?" she asks me, panting slightly still.
"Always is," I answer, staring at the ceiling.
"I can tell, you know I can. We might as well skip the formalities."
"True," I say, letting out a low sigh, "It's just…do we really need to have the music playing?" Piper insists on playing records on nights like this; smooth jazz, it's always smooth jazz.
"You don't like it?"
"No, it's just that…I don't know, really."
"Okay, sure," she says, smiling. It's clear she doesn't fully understand, but I'm too relieved to say anything at the moment.
She doesn't go to remove the needle, though. I eye it for a few minutes, trying to decide what to do, trying to connect the movement of the arm to the scratches in the music. I can't do it – it all seems so asynchronous to me. Finally I get up and pull the churning needle off myself, embracing her as I lay back down.
"Sorry," she says softly, the air getting caught in her mouth.
"It's no big deal, really. I just––it distracts me is all."
We lay in silence for at least a half hour, the only sound coming from our now-relaxed breathing, although every once in a while I would listen carefully and pull her heartbeat out of the ether and focus on it, trying to match it with my own.
Suddenly she turns around and stares me straight in the eyes.
"What?" I laugh, probably too loudly. Quickly I realize my mistake and try to think of something witty. All that comes out is a timid "Are you serious?"
"Yeah, I mean, obviously she's not actually some other girlfriend of yours, but it seems as if you do know someone named Marian."
"Well, that's true, I did. When I was younger. Why?"
"Who was she?"
"Oh, just some girl."
"Tell me about her?" Piper has a habit of doing this, asking miscellaneous questions and expecting a tale in return. I've gotten used to it, although I never feel as if I can satisfy her.
"Well, she was this girl I knew in junior high. We, um, well, we dated for a while. My first girlfriend."
"So I guess she is your other girlfriend." She grins, letting me know it's alright to do the same.
"Not anymore. Besides, we only dated for a while, probably only five or six months."
"Tell me about her."
"Um, well, like I said, she was my first girlfriend so it was all pretty new to me. She'd already been out with three other guys though, so she had certain…expectations. I still remember her voice, it was raspy, like really fine grain sandpaper. She had this way of pronouncing her s's."
"You and your s's." She eyes me carefully. "What did she look like?"
"I don't really remember, I think she had brown hair, although it might have been blonde, I really don't know." She seems disappointed so I try to provide some distraction: "I remember this one time, it was the day that we broke up. We were making out in the back of a theatre, there was no one else in the whole place; one of those empty matinees. Anyways, she started to, ahem, rub my crotch." I look at Piper here, hoping for some sort of retort, but her face is blank. "I guess I should mention that the movie we were watching was some action movie, tons of tanks and guns and stuff, and right when she was about to unzip my fly, a huge bomb went off and the speakers were right beside us so all I could hear for a solid ten seconds was the explosion. It was such a fantastic sound, I remember hearing different waves of explosions in the midst of the larger one, then the final hissing moments when the smoke was pluming out. Anyways, when it was over, I looked down and saw that I had come before she could even finish unzipping my pants. She was just staring at me, tiny little staccato breaths from her nose; she grabbed her purse and stormed out. I had to walk home."
Piper's been silent this whole time, but when I mention the walking, she bursts out laughing. I can't help but join her. The experience with Marian had been horrible, yet in the mirth of Piper's glass bell laughter, it seems like a distant folktale, something you hear and never believe.
When the laughter finally dies down, she looks me in the eyes once more and says, "So I guess when you called me a bombshell that one time, you weren't just being cute?" I smile at this, glad her earlier funk has dissipated. "Any more napalm-induced ejaculations I should know about?" I can feel myself blush, although I can hear that she isn't mocking me. "No? So tell me about your other Marians then. You told me before that you've had other girlfriends."
"Well, if you want to go in chronological order, I guess the next one would have to be Noreen. We were in the same program in college."
"Another music kid?"
"Yeah, she was training to be a conductor though, at least that's what she said. I wasn't interested in such high aspirations, I only wanted to write and play; she wanted to tell people how to write and play. Anyways, we went out for probably about a year before we split up."
"How was the sex?" Her tone is completely serious, almost scientific.
"Um, well, it was alright, I suppose. She liked to listen to music while we were in bed, like you, except she insisted on playing these grandiose classical pieces. She was obsessed with Beethoven's Fifth; she would play it at least once every time we slept together." I pause, trying to decide whether or not to delve further. Piper lets out an encouraging mhm? so I keep going: "I remember trying to match the rhythm of it."
"Match the rhythm?"
"Yeah, like…you know, match the…motions…with the tempo?" She grins and nods. "It's funny, I can almost remember her telling me to do it, although I can't be sure. That's the kind of thing she would say though, so I guess it's not a huge stretch. Anyways, we'd be going along and in the middle of it she would start correcting me. I remember we used to almost fight for control of how things would go, like it was some kind of competition to get the tempo absolutely right. Have you ever heard Beethoven's Fifth? It's got to be one of the most impressive, dramatic pieces of music of the time; I could tell I was not nearly impressive or dramatic enough for her, so eventually she left. I can't say I regret it though, she definitely was not for me."
"What, because of the sex?"
Her curiosity was beginning to intrigue me: "Why are you so interested in my pre-Piper sex life?"
"I'm just trying to get the real story from you: you keep dancing around it." She says this matter-of-factly, as if I were being interviewed for a job and she was trying to warn me to smarten up.
"And what is the 'real story'?"
"Well, I mean, what did they look like? What kind of clothes did they wear? Did they have a good figure? Aren't these the kinds of things guys usually notice when selecting a potential victim for their sexual advances?" I can't help but feel she's trying to gain some sort of leverage on me.
"That's very academic of you. But no, the problem is that I don't really remember these kinds of things. I mean, I usually have to hear someone talk before I can remember if I've met them before."
"What, like a blind person?"
"Hey, I'm not blind," I respond affectionately, running my hand down the curve of her figure, making a show of eyeing particular points of interests.
She grins: "Please, like I need you to tell me I look good." We both laugh, comforted by this break from the serious. "But really, can't you remember anything about them?"
"Well, I know Noreen had a crack between her two front teeth: it made her s's whistly." I pause, trying to make it look as if I'm thinking hard. "To be honest, that's about it. She's just another face."
Piper turns to lie on her back and stares at the ceiling, her breaths slowly beginning to lengthen and quieten; she's getting tired. I can't let her sleep when she's so clearly unsatisfied, though:
"I do remember one incident, close to the end. One night, right after we had just finished watching some movie at my apartment, she went to the bathroom for like forty-five minutes. I remember going in to check on her to make sure she wasn't having a seizure or something. When I opened the door, she was standing in front of the mirror, fuming, her breath was coming out like a steam-whistle, high and steady. I can't remember exactly what she was looking at, but she turned around and shouted in her conductor's voice: 'Do you see this?' I couldn't see anything, even after staring for like five minutes. She yelled at me some more, refusing to tell me outright what I was supposed to be seeing until she finally just stormed out and left me there wondering what the hell was going on. Turns out she had a sore between her legs and she thought that I had given her HIV. The next day she yelled at me on the phone for a half hour. I can still remember that tinny, artificial phone-voice shrieking at me, shrieking through me almost, just endlessly, and that one final massive click when she finally slammed the phone...It was like…standing in the middle of an avalanche, fighting to find your way to top, above the roar, then finally getting to the top and being shot square in the face. "
I can feel an odd vibration behind my eye; there are a few tears sliding down my left cheek. I glance over at Piper; she is still staring at the ceiling. I wipe the tears away before she can.
"That's not very funny," she says quietly.
"Yeah, well, that's what happened." I try desperately to not sound accusatory, but I can't help but feel that the tears are somehow due to Piper and not Noreen.
She turns to me. "Did you hate her?"
"No, I don't suppose I did, but I know that she's the one that made me hate those old-fashioned telephones, the ones that sit on a receiver. Thank god for technology."
She laughs obligatorily. "So you guys didn't last much longer after that I guess, hey?"
"No, we broke up soon after. Well, she broke up with me, as I'm sure you can guess."
"It was probably for the best. Besides, she's not as funny as Marian was; why even bother remembering her?" We both laugh, a little louder now, trying to forget. "I guess the only serious one after Noreen would have to be Robin, right?" she asks tenderly.
"Yeah, but you know Robin's story already."
"Well, not all of it. I only know the big story; tell me the little ones." Her eyes were incredibly close to my face now; I tell myself I can hear her blink, although whether this is in my head or not, I don't know.
"They're not very funny, I'm afraid." I smile, trying to avoid the topic. Piper won't give up though, I know this already. I can feel something in my stomach twist in just the wrong way; she doesn't seem as tired now, unfortunately.
"Let's see, I met her at work, at some company party. I remember her telling me that she mostly writes jingles for radio, those inane dealership commercials where they insist on singing the phone number instead of just saying it? God, I hate those; I hated them then too, but somehow I managed to set it aside. Anyways, I told her what I do, how I write music too, but for movies. She seemed so disappointed at this, as if it were some regret I had to live with for the rest of my life. I remember her saying that the music in movies was too generic and repetitive for her. In all fairness, we had both had a bit to drink at that point, so I suppose I wasn't too angry at that, yet when I think back on it, it seems to be a good testament to her character. Anyways, we ended up going out, in secret, seeing as how we both worked in the same building, and things were great. You know about that already though, you've seen the pictures and what not. We dated for three years, eventually moved in together. She had been talking about having kids for a while before it happened. I'll be honest, I thought about it too. There's something to be said for human drive, I guess. I told myself I enjoyed what was happening, and I believed myself." I pause, testing out the next sentence in my head: "I thought I loved her."
Piper puts her hand on my chest but her face is a blank, her body language neutral. I decide to continue, despite the growing vibration behind my eyes. "I loved her, Piper. I know I did, but still, things started to build up inside me, little things that amounted to big things. I remember how she stopped coming to movies with me, the ones that I had written music for. She stuck by her analysis of film scores for as long as I knew her. I guess it bothered me more than I realized…she insisted that it wasn't hard to find the perfect score for any given emotion: major sevenths for sad moments; long, minor chords for moody moments; bursts of violin static for scary moments; bright, brass anthems for the happy ending. No matter what I did, what I explained, it never worked."
"I go to movies with you," Piper says softly, whether to herself or to me, it doesn't matter.
"Anyways, when it came to the moment, I just couldn't do it. The worse part was that when she was asking me, when she showed me the ring, I could hear it."
"Hear what?" she asks after a few seconds of silence. I can tell she is fighting to stay awake again but I continue anyways; I've gone too far to stop now.
"The brass anthems. I could hear them in my fucking head and there was nothing I could do about it. It wouldn't end either, it just kept going on the whole time she was talking, throughout all the explanations, the reasons why we should do it, why it was a good idea. Goddamn trumpets and trombones and baritones and everything else, it started to drown her out and eventually I was watching her lips move but I couldn't hear a word that she was saying. It went on forever; you'd think she was explaining the meaning of life. The only thing I remember hearing was her crying afterwards, those raspy coughs and sniffles. What's worse, the sobs were in time to the music, egging it on, forcing it to stay in my head…I threw up when I got home." I shift in place at this, the memory still just a little too familiar. "You know she's never spoken to me since?"
I look over to see Piper's eyes closed, a light snoring slipping from her nostrils. Somehow the sound is comforting; it climbs on top of the brass anthems and settles into me, encouraging me to close my eyes. As soon as I do, the steady beat of timpani softly starts in my ears, bouncing brashly off my eardrums. I try to let it go, let it float out my ears, but it can't; it's trapped inside me forever.
I wake up to see Piper sitting next to me, a sketchbook in front of her. I start to ask her what she's doing but she interrupts me, pointing to the window. There's a bird on the windowsill, pecking away at what appears to be a seed. I peer over Piper's arm and see an outline of the bird on the page; I can't tell the difference between the two. I kiss her arm and sit up, my eyes trained on her drawing. I watch her for an hour, long after the animal has left its perch. Somehow she knows what it looks like, even after its gone. The wings form on the page, the breast, the legs, the head. Already I've forgotten the living thing, having not heard it through the window. Through force of habit, I attempt to find a song that would match the mood of the moment. I go through the checklist, find nothing, try to write a melody in my head and find that I can't find a single note that would fit in with Piper's drawing of a simple bird. As I stare at the emerging figure, I realize that it's a robin, not just a bird. Somehow this is comforting.
"It's beautiful," I say. For the first time in my life, I feel like I really mean it.