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.
“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.”
“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 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.”
“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.