Emily Eckart

Depthless

Lucy was not much dif­fer­ent than Todd remem­bered: tan­gled red curls, dark eyes, pale skin. As she sat down across from him at the table for two, he felt unre­al, like his mind had float­ed out of his body to observe this vis­i­ta­tion from his past.

One cor­ner of her mouth went up, the clos­est she ever got to smil­ing.

You haven’t been too ter­ri­ble, I hope.”

I sup­pose I haven’t suf­fered an undue por­tion of mis­ery,” Todd said. Not includ­ing, of course, his anguish when she van­ished com­plete­ly: utter silence for eight months while he griev­ed and won­dered what he had done. Now that he had delet­ed all her emails, she was back: her low, melan­cholic voice, her cyn­i­cal insin­u­a­tions, her eyes gaz­ing with qui­et res­ig­na­tion on some­thing oth­er peo­ple couldn’t see.

How’s Brahms?” Todd asked.

Sometimes I won­der why I picked those stu­pid sym­phonies. There’s noth­ing left to say. How’s your dis­ser­ta­tion?” she asked. “Pushed you to con­sid­er sui­cide yet?”

Todd gave a non­com­mit­tal shrug. He had for­got­ten what ter­ri­ble things she liked to say.  He watched a guy wear­ing plaid shuf­fle past their table, car­ry­ing two full mugs of cof­fee to a table where a slen­der brunette sat wait­ing, chin in hand.

When he looked back Lucy had low­ered her eyes. She was wring­ing her hands under the table, twist­ing her pale fin­gers as she always did when decid­ing whether to low­er her shield of pes­simism. Did she sense some­thing was wrong? It occurred to him that engage­ment rings were only for women; it wasn’t pos­si­ble to tell if a man was betrothed.

I’m sor­ry for dis­ap­pear­ing on you,” she said.

Todd did not reply, but looked over at the table where the hip­ster sat. The brunette was tex­ting. Pained frus­tra­tion marked the man’s face, but he couldn’t get her to look at him. Todd swal­lowed. He did it again, but it didn’t make the knot in his throat go away.

Thanks for wait­ing,” Lucy said. “I knew you would.”

 

Three years ear­li­er, at the American Musicological Society con­fer­ence, Todd, a third year grad­u­ate stu­dent, left a lec­ture on John Cage ear­ly. He hadn’t been con­vert­ed by his cohort’s zeal for “music” that con­sist­ed of sneezes, sirens, and barks. He hat­ed tim­bres cre­at­ed not by instru­ments, but by the inser­tion of fish and forks into pianos. Todd, who couldn’t even renounce tonal­i­ty, felt like a church had been defaced. Cage’s cold nihilism made his hands clench. He climbed over a few pairs of knees to escape, strode out of the audi­to­ri­um, and burst from the hall­way into the chill over­cast day.

Not a fan?” a low voice said. He was unsure of its gen­der until he saw a young woman, about his age, sit­ting on a bench near­by. She was lean­ing for­ward, her elbows on her knees. She wore a blouse with a fem­i­nine neck­tie, a blaz­er, slim jeans, and boots. Long red curls flowed down her back, the col­or of autumn leaves. In one hand she held a cig­a­rette.

She took a puff, expelling the smoke thought­ful­ly. “I detest Cage.” She saw the look on his face and dropped her cig­a­rette to the ground, extin­guish­ing it under her boot. “I only smoke in a while, for stress.” She pat­ted the bench next to her. Usually Todd dis­liked smok­ers, but he sensed that her friend­li­ness was only for him, like the sight of a deer in the woods after you sat qui­et and still for a long time.

I’m Lucy.”

Todd.”

Sometimes,” Lucy said, “I won­der what ever pos­sessed me to go to grad­u­ate school.”

Todd gave a short laugh of agree­ment. “Want to go eat some­thing?”

Together they ven­tured out. Near the cor­ner of the hotel, there was a dead spar­row on the side­walk. Its skull hugged the pave­ment just a lit­tle too flat. The head was twist­ed around, the wings splayed at a wide angle. One claw stuck up in a final grasp toward the sky, as if the bird had been shocked to find itself on the ground.

Guess His eye wasn’t on that one,” Todd said. Lucy laughed.

Over soup and sand­wich­es they trad­ed dis­ser­ta­tion sto­ries.

I’m writ­ing about Brahms,” she said. “God knows why. Everyone has already said all there is to say on those sym­phonies.”

Schumann,” Todd said. “You think you have this per­son­al con­nec­tion with a com­pos­er. The songs feel like they’re yours, until you real­ize every­one else thinks so too.”

There was some­thing odd about Lucy, some­thing in the way she wouldn’t smile ful­ly. One cor­ner of her mouth would trip upwards like it want­ed to be free, but it couldn’t break away from the rest of her somber mouth.

Tell me some­thing about your­self,” Todd said. “Something weird.”

All right.” Lucy twist­ed a red curl around her index fin­ger. “When I was a kid, I had this albi­no rab­bit named Franz. He got away one day and ran into the woods. I cried all night. The next day, I was look­ing for him in the back­yard when I saw some­thing fur­ry in the bush­es. It wasn’t mov­ing. When I got clos­er, I saw it was his head. The coy­otes got him.”

She paused, look­ing down at the table, rub­bing the han­dle of her spoon with her index fin­ger.

The weird part was, I just couldn’t stop look­ing at it. It felt like some big secret. I kept think­ing, this is what’s real. This is what we real­ly are.”

Todd’s heart quick­ened. He nev­er thought he would meet some­one like him—someone else with a deep well of dark­ness, its still, black sur­face unruf­fled by every­one else’s prof­li­gate hap­pi­ness.

She dart­ed him a glance. “Your turn.”

When I was a kid, my mom’s friend brought me this cook­ie wrapped in alu­minum foil to look like a snow­man. It was strange, but as soon as I took a bite I felt ter­ri­ble. I hadn’t real­ized until then that I real­ly liked the snow­man. I had ruined it and there was no way to make it bet­ter again.” He looked away as he told her, afraid, but she nod­ded in under­stand­ing.

Todd and Lucy got lunch and din­ner togeth­er for the rest of the con­fer­ence. They joked about car acci­dents, can­cer patients, nuclear war­fare. They debat­ed over the best way for a musi­col­o­gist to kill him­self if a paper pre­sen­ta­tion went awry. Lucy advo­cat­ed for jump­ing off the roof of the hotel. Todd thought drown­ing was supe­ri­or.

You’re biased, because of your dis­ser­ta­tion,” she said. Schumann had been com­mit­ted to an insane asy­lum after he’d been pulled from the Rhine River by two fish­er­men.

No, he was sim­ply fol­low­ing neu­rot­ic tra­di­tion. Ophelia, Die Schöne Müllerin. Later on, Woolf.”

Well, I’m still for jump­ing,” Lucy said. “It would be fast. You’d feel like you were fly­ing in your last few sec­onds.”

Todd laughed. “I sup­pose you have some­thing there.”

On the last day of the con­fer­ence, before Lucy left, he hugged her tight­ly. She was stiff at first, but then she gave in, and for three entire sec­onds she was his. Then she stepped back, turned away, and walked out of the hotel, neglect­ing to look over her shoul­der as Todd hoped. He felt that half of him­self had been torn away. His insides churned over their own insuf­fi­cien­cy.

 

Both grad­u­ate stu­dents in their third year, there was no chang­ing their paths. Lucy was at University of Michigan; Todd at Boston University. They sent long emails once every few weeks, detail­ing in sar­don­ic tones inci­dents no one else would find fun­ny. He always hoped to see her name in his inbox. He read her words slow­ly, savor­ing them. At night, he fan­ta­sized about how to seduce her. He would buy her black tulips, choco­late as dark as her soul. He would tell her she was the most exquis­ite­ly ter­ri­ble per­son he’d ever known.

At the next con­fer­ence sev­en months lat­er, they arranged to meet at check-in. When she was ten min­utes late he wor­ried that her flight had been delayed, or that per­haps her taxi had crashed. But with a turn of the revolv­ing door, she was there, in front of him. “Lucy,” he said, his voice loud­er than he’d intend­ed it to be. She gave him a rare smile untar­nished by sad­ness.

They ate lunch and din­ner togeth­er every day—but oth­er grad­u­ate stu­dents tagged along, craven net­work­ers. On the first night, trem­bling, he called her, but she didn’t answer. She had been forced to social­ize with her cohort. And on the sec­ond night Todd had com­mit­ted to meet­ing with his advi­sor. On the third and final day of the con­fer­ence, Todd’s sem­blance of san­i­ty was wrecked. If he claimed her now, she would be his—if he failed, he would have to wait sev­er­al more months.

That after­noon, her skipped the last few talks and took her in a rental car to the arbore­tum just out­side the city. Lucy opened the pas­sen­ger win­dow as he drove. Daring to steal glances at her wind­blown hair, he imag­ined that the trees, wax­ing red and orange, had turned in imi­ta­tion of her, their jeal­ousy aroused by her crim­son hair.

They walked for hours into the late after­noon, admir­ing the foamy bark of cork trees, the thorned spiny ash—which, Lucy said, remind­ed her of her­self. At the top of a hill they sat against the trunk of a maple. The autumn light fil­tered through the backs of blush­ing leaves, dous­ing them in red. He stared at Lucy’s fine-boned face, prof­li­gate curls, pale frag­ile hands. She leaned her head against his shoul­der. He kissed her ear, her cheek­bone, her eye­lid, flut­ter­ing anx­ious­ly like his own heart.

That night they went to her room at the hotel. Todd pressed Lucy against the wall, one hand against the base of her neck, a thumb on the col­lar bone and the fin­gers behind—not too hard, afraid of mar­ring her per­fect ivory skin. “Lucy,” he said, her name the most sen­su­ous syl­la­bles he had ever uttered.

Later, when she had fall­en asleep, Todd watched her. Moonlight fil­tered between the beige plas­tic win­dow slats, strip­ing Lucy and the bed. One stripe illu­mi­nat­ed half her face, the curve of one closed eye, the cor­ner of part­ed lips. The oth­er half of her face was dark. Todd stored this image on the back of his eye­lid, so he could blink it into place when­ev­er he might need it.

In the morn­ing, when Lucy woke up, she sighed.

I haven’t packed.” She sat on the edge of the bed, wring­ing her pale hands.

I’ll help you.”

No.”

Breakfast?” Todd asked. She did not reply. He went to Au Bön Pain down­stairs and bought back two pop­py seed bagels with cream cheese. When he returned, Lucy hadn’t moved; she was still sit­ting on the bed, slumped, star­ing at the floor. She looked over at him.

I hate bagels. They make me fat,” she said. Her face was streaky and her voice muf­fled. He real­ized she had been weep­ing.

I’ll come see you,” he said.

Hope only makes you want what you’ll nev­er have.”

I promise.”

I have to go,” she said, tears still slip­ping down her face. Todd want­ed to tell her that he knew how she felt: rent through with despair on cloudy days, small and soli­tary under the black weight of the uni­verse. But he couldn’t bring him­self to say it. He watched silent­ly while she shuf­fled around the room, stuff­ing her things into the suit­case. “Bye,” she said, her back turned to him. He got up to touch her, but she turned away.

Wait.” But she had already stepped into the hall.

*

Two weeks lat­er, Lucy emailed, apol­o­giz­ing for leav­ing on such a moody note. Todd told her he didn’t mind. They kept in touch as usu­al. Each time an email arrived, Todd read it over and over until he had almost mem­o­rized the words. All that mat­tered was that there was some­one exact­ly like him in the world—that, despite the vagaries of geog­ra­phy, he had found her.

They arranged for Todd to fly to Michigan in March. Lucy would meet him at the air­port. On the plane, Todd’s right leg bounced for the entire flight; he turned his grin toward the win­dow, embar­rassed by his own effu­sion.

At the bag­gage claim, he searched the faces, but all of them were strangers. There were no texts or voice mes­sages on his cell phone. When he called, she didn’t answer.

As the hours passed he became dis­traught. Had he mis­tak­en the day he was sup­posed to come? What if she had been killed in an acci­dent, or kid­napped? At a motel near the air­port, he searched for her online. The only rel­e­vant result was her aca­d­e­m­ic page, with a heartrend­ing pro­file pic­ture that he quick­ly clicked away from. He called her again; still no answer. It occurred to him that he knew none of her friends and fam­i­ly. They had not a sin­gle mutu­al acquain­tance. He emailed her aca­d­e­m­ic advi­sor to ask whether she was miss­ing. The pro­fes­sor nev­er replied.

Back in Boston, the final draft of his dis­ser­ta­tion lan­guished unedit­ed on his lap­top. He couldn’t bear to think about Brahms, the com­pos­er whose love for Clara Schumann had nev­er been returned. He slept six­teen hours a day and stopped doing laun­dry. He noticed his advi­sor frown­ing at him, but he could not make him­self care.

*

Some months lat­er, Todd sat at a table in the stu­dent cen­ter, try­ing to read an arti­cle on Chopin’s piano études. His advi­sor had made clear that he need­ed to take teach­ing more seri­ous­ly, or his fund­ing would be at risk. There wasn’t much to lose, but Todd couldn’t afford even a small finan­cial blow. As usu­al he’d wast­ed most of his worth­less day. He’d wok­en at ten, dragged him­self out of bed an hour lat­er, and eat­en a few crack­ers for lunch. Now he was try­ing to work in this obnox­ious place, as if the noise and bright­ness might jump-start him. So far it had only giv­en him a headache.

I’m sor­ry, but can you help me?” some­one asked.

Todd lift­ed his head and saw a smil­ing girl. Her bright out­fit struck his eyes like a tri­tone: emer­ald sweater, pur­ple jeans, gold shoes. Her hair hung around her shoul­ders in long blonde waves. Todd couldn’t remem­ber the last time he’d seen any­thing so col­or­ful.

Do you know where Carr Hall is?”

That build­ing.” He ges­tured min­i­mal­ly with his head. “Second floor.”

Thanks,” the girl said, but she did not leave. “Are you read­ing about Brahms? I love him!” Uninvited, she sat down. “Are you a musi­cian?”

Graduate stu­dent. Musicology, not per­for­mance.”

Cool. I used to play vio­lin. I’m Brittany, by the way.”

He didn’t want to reply, but her expec­tant look made him feel guilty. “Todd,” he said.

Kind of ran­dom, but I have tick­ets to the sym­pho­ny this week­end. Friend of mine was sup­posed to go, but she flaked out. Want to come? They’re play­ing Beethoven Violin Concerto and Shosty Ten.”

Shosty”—that nick­name musi­cians used for Shostakovich, mark­ing Brittany as one of those with expe­ri­ence, who might actu­al­ly have ears in this deaf world. Shostakovich’s Tenth was one of Todd’s favorite sym­phonies. Beneath lay­ers and lay­ers of res­ig­na­tion, he felt the stir­ring of vague inter­est.

Sure,” he said. “Why not.”

 

It was a long time since Todd had been to an actu­al con­cert. Graduate school, intend­ed to be his apoth­e­o­sis into a life­time of art, had revealed itself to be most­ly drudgery: shuf­fling through mildewed library stacks, grad­ing papers, telling apa­thet­ic under­grads the dif­fer­ence between Mozart and Tchaikovsky. He relaxed into his seat, let­ting the sound buoy him, remem­ber­ing what it was like to lis­ten to music and feel moved by it. At inter­mis­sion, he found him­self talk­ing about how Brahms had been in love with Schumann’s wife. No one knew exact­ly what hap­pened after Schumann’s stint at the asy­lum and death, but Todd believed that Brahms had been reject­ed.

That’s so trag­ic!” Brittany said. “Life shouldn’t be that way.”

Brittany told Todd that she was a med­ical stu­dent. “I do some research in addi­tion to my class­es. Right now I’m work­ing on pan­cre­at­ic repro­gram­ming. Basically, try­ing to con­vert one spe­cial­ized cell type into anoth­er. It might lead to a cure for dia­betes.”

Wow,” Todd said. “That makes me feel use­ful.”

Oh, come on. What would be the point of cur­ing dia­betes if we didn’t have things like music?” Todd blinked a few times, squint­ing his eyes. It was the best thing he had heard in a while.

Brittany insti­tut­ed a pro­gram of expe­ri­enc­ing all the musi­cal groups in Boston. They went go to the Boston Baroque, Handel and Hadyn, the ear­ly music fes­ti­val, and var­i­ous cham­ber groups. “I don’t get near­ly enough arts with my med­ical stud­ies,” she said, rest­ing her hand light­ly on his arm. “I’m starved.”

Todd was afraid to be hap­py. But some­times he found him­self smil­ing along with Brittany, and antic­i­pat­ing when he would see her next. His sad­ness was con­fined into a small­er and small­er space, until it evap­o­rat­ed alto­geth­er. He focused on fin­ish­ing his dis­ser­ta­tion and prepar­ing for his the­sis defense. The theme of Brahms’ Third Symphony comes from mea­sure 201 of Schumann’s Third Symphony, Todd typed. The inter­val of a sixth, promi­nent­ly fea­tured in both sym­phonies, marks Brahms as a man indebt­ed to and defined by Schumann.

It was restau­rant week, and Brittany had picked out an Italian place they couldn’t oth­er­wise afford. He was look­ing for­ward to order­ing shrimp scampi, or lob­ster ravi­o­li, maybe some cap­rese sal­ad on the side.

Now that hap­pi­ness had crept back into his life, Todd won­dered why he once been so bent on suf­fer­ing. He closed his lap­top and his scores. It was time to pack his things for spend­ing the night at Brittany’s.

 

After ten months, while they were sit­ting on the futon at her apart­ment, she ambushed him.

You’re grad­u­at­ing soon,” Brittany said. “And so am I.” She nes­tled her head on his shoul­der. Her hair smelled good: some­thing fresh and maybe some­thing flow­ery. “I don’t want this to end. I want to stay with you.”

We’ll fig­ure some­thing out,” Todd said.

I don’t just want to fig­ure it out,” she said. She sat up and looked at him. “I mean, I’m, com­mit­ted. Long term.”

Todd nod­ded.

I guess what I’m try­ing to say is,” Brittany said. “Will you mar­ry me?”

Todd was fond of Brittany. She was the pret­ti­est girl who had ever been inter­est­ed in him. Her room was an arche­type of fem­i­nin­i­ty, with pas­tel col­ors, sparkling jew­el­ry heaped on the dress­er, and a clos­et burst­ing with clothes. She was viva­cious, she made him laugh. His mind flashed to the image of a red-haired girl sit­ting by her­self. Life was long. He didn’t want to spend it alone.

He kissed Brittany on the cheek and took her hand in his. “Of course I will.”

 

Lucy took a sip of her cof­fee and smiled. When she had emailed after all this time, Todd couldn’t refuse to meet her. He reflect­ed that her smile was a bit­ter­sweet thing, twist­ed to sig­ni­fy the oppo­site of what it should.

Todd,” she said. “It’s hard, see­ing you so rarely. No one else gets me like you do.”

He want­ed to slap her, shake her, do some­thing to get her to real­ize how inad­e­quate this was.

Where did you go last year?”

My mom died. And after—I just didn’t know what to do. I was in the hos­pi­tal for weeks.”

Todd stared at the table.

It took a while to get things back togeth­er. I couldn’t work for a month, and then I had to spend a lot of time catch­ing up on my dis­ser­ta­tion and teach­ing.”

I’m real­ly sor­ry,” Todd said. He should have known all along.

My advi­sor told me you emailed. But I was too ashamed to face any­one. After a while, though, I real­ized I felt like half a per­son. I knew you’d wait.”

Todd want­ed to hit him­self with some­thing, or throw his mug at the wall. He shouldn’t have giv­en up so eas­i­ly. He should have done some­thing, any­thing, oth­er than fly back home and for­get. He knew she was afflict­ed with melan­choly, so why hadn’t he sur­mised that hers might be even worse than his?

If he had the courage to reach out and brush the back of her hand with ten­ta­tive fin­gers, she would look at him with eyes wide and unse­cre­tive, giv­ing him the strength to cov­er her entire hand with his. He could still do it—he could still, so eas­i­ly, throw every­thing away.

Todd grabbed the edge of the table to stop every­thing from shat­ter­ing.   “Lucy,” he said. “I— I think I—” She looked up, lips slight­ly part­ed, dar­ing to hope.

Todd!” said a cheer­ful voice at the door. Brittany flounced over, eyes shin­ing. Her smile was as white as piano keys. Lucy stud­ied her, baf­fled that Todd would asso­ciate with such a per­son.

The words rushed out before Todd had decid­ed to say them. “This is Brittany—my fiancée.”

Great to meet you!” Brittany stuck out an eager hand. Lucy stared at it as though it were an insult. She glared at Todd with nar­rowed eyes. Brittany shrugged and pulled an emp­ty chair close to Todd’s, kiss­ing him on the cheek.

Todd said you’re at Michigan,” Brittany said. “How do you like Ann Arbor?”

I have to go,” Lucy said. “I have to meet a friend.” She grabbed her purse from under her chair and got to her feet. Todd want­ed to say good­bye, but he was inca­pable of mak­ing sound.

 

When Todd was thir­teen, his father bought him a mod­el sail­boat. The box arrived as a sur­prise in the mail. Inside were the instruc­tions, the parts shield­ed in bub­ble wrap. Todd spent two hours assem­bling it with his father. The cobalt hull shone. The main sheet and jib sheet were crisp and white, with tiny ropes woven of coarse thread. Todd set the boat on a stand in the cor­ner of his room. On nights when the moon was bright, he left his cur­tains open and pre­tend­ed his room was the depth­less ocean, his boat the only thing for miles around, drift­ing through untar­nished moon­light on a still, white sea.

It was too good for him, just like his father. Todd’s love for him was some­how excru­ci­at­ing. He made grilled cheese every Sunday after­noon, brown­ing the bread to a pre­cise degree and trans­port­ing the sand­wich to Todd’s plate with a mas­ter flick of the spat­u­la.   In the morn­ings he came down­stairs with his shoes untied and his shirt untucked, grin­ning as Todd’s moth­er tucked the shirt in and kissed him.

Every day his father said they would take the boat out, but for­tu­nate­ly things had got­ten in the way. Todd knew, once the boat was sailed, it would nev­er be as per­fect as it was now.

One Saturday, when his father and moth­er had gone to lunch with friends, Todd car­ried the boat to the lake. Using the remote con­trol, he drove it as far away as pos­si­ble and then turned the switch off. The wind blew toward the oppo­site shore; the boat shrank to a half its size, then an eighth. Once it was a tiny white spot Todd turned his back to it.

He told him­self he had only met the inevitable soon­er. But he wished he could rewind time and have the boat back in his hands. He should have kept it until it fell apart.

 

Todd watched Lucy through the win­dow. She walked head down, hands in her pock­ets, drift­ing around the peo­ple in her way, who went straight at her like she didn’t exist. It was up to her to change, like a leaf in a stream rush­ing around the rocks in its path. How could they not see her? She was the most beau­ti­ful and unno­ticed per­son in the world.

When Lucy escaped the view offered by the win­dow, Todd knew bet­ter than to press his face against the glass for one last half-sec­ond glance.

She seemed odd,” Brittany said.

She’s a bit of a lon­er.” In this new lan­guage he had learned, lon­er meant all bad things a per­son could be—antisocial, weird, pecu­liar, sad.

Huh,” Brittany said, brow fur­rowed over this mys­tery. “I guess you can’t force peo­ple to be hap­py.”

No,” Todd said. “I guess you real­ly can’t.”

~

Emily Eckart’s writ­ing has appeared in The Washington Post, Nature, Potomac Review, and else­where.