Original Short Fiction
In a time of sheltering in place and separateness, Devon, the cellist in the quarantine quartet, must find a way to make his music, while Laurel searches for the words that continue to evade her. – P.C.
Devon refused to play. Instead of taking his position—the cello balanced between his knees and resting lightly against his chest—he gripped the neck as if to strangle it. His head dropped in defeat, rounding his spine in a way that morphed his 63 years of life into a far older version of himself.
At the kitchen sink, her poet’s hands deep in dishwater, Laurel felt every single one of the 16 years of their age difference. Why couldn’t he just adapt to reality? Being stubborn wouldn’t change a thing. Her mother’s warning from long ago—one day, when you still think of yourself as young, you’ll be married to an old man—now felt like prophesy.
Laurel looked out the kitchen window at the garden: the lilac with pointy new leaves, the forsythia bravely pushing out yellow blossoms, both about two weeks later than usual. Everything these days seemed out of the flow of time. If it weren’t for her classes, now taught by remote, she would not know Tuesday (two sessions of “Poetry for Non-Poets”) from Thursday (one session of “The Romantics” and another of “Ginsberg and the Beat Generation”).
When classes ended in a few weeks, Laurel would have nothing but time and, she feared, no words to fill it with. She dated the entries in her notebook, a habit Laurel now cursed because it taunted her with the fact that she had not written anything in nearly three weeks. The only words she produced were the grocery list or instructions for the guy who cut their grass and aerated the yard near the house.
Writer’s block is not a thing, she argued silently. Words did not stop flowing like the sink when Devon dumped the leftover vegetable soup down the drain, forgetting there was no garbage disposal here at the cottage—only in their condo back in the city. She had picked onions and tomato chunks out of the drain while he looked on.
Once, she had found that endearing: his eyes widened owlishly as she performed some feat of everyday magic, like extracting charred bread stuck in the toaster or planting herbs in pots on the tiny patio of their condo. But now Devon’s intractable helplessness grated on her to the point that she watched for the next evidence of it, as if to convict him not only of the offense but premeditation as well.
Devon set the bow on the kitchen table. “I can’t do this.”
His wavy hair was longer than it had been in twenty years—back when they first met: him a 43-year-old music professor and she a 27-year-old student about to graduate with an M.F.A. in poetry. There had been no direct faculty-student connection between them, only a bar they both liked to frequent in those days.
Now, as she watched, Devon got up, walked toward her, and leaned against the kitchen counter. “Why can’t we just sit six feet apart and practice in person?”
Laurel started counting to ten but only got as far as four. “You know why.” Campus was closed. Going to someone’s house, even masked, was still a risk since Devon was in the demographic likely to face complications. The argument continued inside her head: that’s why they had left the city and the condo building where contagion could be above or below or on either side. That’s why they had come here, to the cottage, for space and protection.
Devon cupped his hand against her cheek, and Laurel closed her eyes at the feel of his fingers, cool and smooth. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“I know. It’s hard.” At her own words, Laurel felt her resolve crack. This place, meant to be a refuge, had become an exile.
Devon dropped his hand. “I need to be more like you and your good, strong Welsh stock.” He clenched his hands into fists and rearranged his expression into a parody of frowning determination.
“Don’t go that far. We can’t both be stoic,” she smiled.
Growing up Laurel had heard her father say, “Buck up, buttercup” so much, she used to sing it to herself when she jumped rope. She hadn’t needed a therapist to explain the roots of her ability to withstand and endure without much complaint. It had made her a stellar student and a disciplined writer.
But it was Devon, far more emotionally open and vulnerable than she, who had allowed her to explore her own capacity to feel things deeply. Sometimes, though, she didn’t want to feel so much. These days of uncertainty, when the headlines gave her a headache, made her recoil from the fear—her own and everyone else’s.
Not everyone’s, Laurel admitted. Devon’s.
The quartet’s concert in the auditorium on campus had been cancelled, breaking a twenty-two-year tradition. Connie, the quartet leader, had moved it to a virtual venue, and Devon had agreed with the others that it was better than nothing. But Laurel knew the technology intimidated him. He foresaw the possibility that playing remotely could lead them to be even a few seconds out of synch. So, the quartet practiced, not just the pieces themselves, but also the technological connection that would enable them to see and hear each other.
Laurel looked down at Devon’s red plaid slippers. “Get your boots. We’re going for a walk.”
“I need to practice. We Zoom at one-thirty.”
“The only thing you’re practicing is your whining. Boots, now!”
Devon wrapped his long arms around her waist and held her close to him. “You are very bossy, you know?”
At five-ten, with light brown hair that had become increasingly threaded with silver over the past two months, Laurel could rest her head easily against Devon’s shoulder. “That’s what you like about me, remember?”
They fit and always had, overcoming any number of obstacles and reasons to the contrary in their early days: him leaving his wife and young children to start a life with her; her parents’ horror that she had been party to breaking up a marriage. Time had a way of quieting things: the first wife remarried, happily it seemed to Laurel; the two children had grown up well-adjusted, both now out of college. Her parents had come to tolerate, then accept Devon. Through it all, they had made a life, just the two of them.
But now they were here, at a point when his vulnerability scared her, and she didn’t know how much longer she could be the strong one.
No cars in sight, they walked down the middle of the gravel road toward the lake. Laurel looked at her husband—the wrinkles softening his face, the gray, shaggy eyebrows—and remembered the dark-haired man with quietly intense energy who twenty years ago had bought her an Irish coffee at the bar near the campus. As they talked that first evening, she had leaned in, smelling the woody fragrance of soap or aftershave or cologne and had tried to ignore the thin gold band that striped his left hand.
When the flirtation became a fling that had a future, they uprooted their lives for each other. He had rented an apartment and she moved in. The year they married they bought a condo—one big enough for Devon’s children to each have their own rooms on visits every other weekend. Laurel carved out space in the master bedroom or the kitchen to write. Then when she transitioned from adjunct to faculty, she went every day to her office on campus furnished with her most comfortable chair. Laurel missed that place with her name on the door and the shelves filled with books, including a collection of her own poetry, a volume of literary criticism, and evidence of the prizes and accolades she had won. Laurel imagined that office, dark and tomblike, the air filled with dust motes. Could she return this summer? In the fall?
It was silly to miss her office when she had this place, Laurel scolded herself. How lucky they’d been ten years ago to find this cottage on a weekend drive. A month later, they owned it.
When they came for long weekends in spring and autumn, or for weeks at a time in summer, Laurel always retreated to a quiet place to write poems long hand, while Devon sat in the kitchen on sunny days or by the fireplace on cool ones and played the cello. At night, they sipped pinot grigio on the back porch as the sky deepened from blue to indigo to black, or else they extinguished every light in the cottage and lay on an old blanket to face the constellations that were as clear and traceable as any science book illustration.
Then there was this: the one-mile-long walk to the lake through dense forests of maples and beeches. At the end of the gravel road they intersected a paved one. On the other side was a parking area and a small public beach tucked into a rounded cove the locals called Trillium Bay after the common wildflower abundant in spring, with its trio of leaves and petals.
The wind was stronger at the lake and as cold as November, despite this being early May. They sat side by side on the smooth, bleached remains of a tree washed up on the beach.
“Do you have any regrets?” Devon asked suddenly. His question seemed to come out of nowhere, though Laurel knew it was just his way of deciphering the silence. They had said no more than a dozen words to each other since leaving the cottage.
“Where is this coming from?” Laurel asked. “Because I am annoyed that you complain about practicing by Zoom?”
Devon shook his head. “I’m feeling an old man’s insecurities.”
Laurel nudged her shoulder into his arm. “You are not old—you’re just acting that way.”
The wind gusted. Rain had been forecasted, and Laurel hoped they didn’t get soaked by the time they returned to the cottage, but neither of them made a move.
Devon turned to face her. “Do you remember our first conversation?”
In the early days of their romance, she had replayed that conversation dozens of times. Laurel knew every word of it still. “You told me that lyrics were the same as poetry. And I said, no—there was a difference. Lyrics were meant to be part of a larger composition, with voice and instruments. Poetry stood alone.”
Devon interrupted. “Then I said that reciting poetry aloud was like singing lyrics.”
“And I still disagreed, even though I had given a poetry reading two nights before.” Laurel chuckled, pleased that he remembered that conversation as detailed and accurately as she did.
Devon took her hand between both of his. “I love that about you. You don’t want or need another person to perform.”
Laurel put her chin out. “You make me sound a little egotistical.”
“No, not in the least. It’s courageous. Self-contained.” Devon looked down, and Laurel followed his gaze to a round beach stone he rolled with the toe of his shoe. “I’ve always needed others. I could never be a soloist.”
Laurel recalled the quartet: Connie and Edward, violinists who were also a couple, and Marguerite, who played viola. They were not four, but a single unit.
Devon picked up the stone from under his foot and ran his thumb over it. “All you need is time alone with your words.”
Laurel didn’t want to say anything because, once Devon knew, he would feel bad and then start making suggestions—the way he did with students who practiced beautifully but botched their performances. But she also knew that her frustration with him was partly because she was blocked. “I haven’t written anything worth keeping in almost three weeks.”
Devon spun around on the log with such speed she nearly lost her balance. Laurel put her hand down to steady herself.
“We need to go back,” he said firmly. “We can’t stay here. You’ve been out of your routine for too long. That’s why you can’t write.”
Laurel reached for his arm. “No, we need to be here—for you. And for me. It’s just these times.”
Worry kept souring her poetry verses the way vinegar curdles milk. Then it occurred to her: she had to let that upset in. “I’ve been trying to work on the pieces I started in January. But I have to write from this place.” Laurel pointed to her heart, so Devon understood she didn’t mean Trillium Bay or the city or any other physical location.
“The words will come back,” Devon said. “I’m sure that—”
Laurel stopped him. “I just need to let it be.”
The Zoom connection was clear: audio and visual. Devon adjusted the angle of his iPad perched on the spindly bedside table brought downstairs for just this purpose.
As Laurel stood back and watched, the words of that very first conversation with Devon came back to her again: poetry as a solo performance, while music was made with others. Suddenly, she understood what Devon hadn’t adequately explained before. The physical absence of the others—the quartet in quarantine—had broken the sense of unity he needed to play. No technological connection could produce the suitable facsimile he needed. But perhaps she could.
Laurel moved a chair over and sat beside him. As the others tuned up, she mimed the action of a violin and bow in her hands, though she’d never played in her life.
Devon smiled and turned the webcam in her direction. “Laurel is sitting in for all of you.”
She shielded her eyes, laughing. “A poor substitute.”
“Welcome, Laurel,” Marguerite said, her face enlarging on screen as she spoke. “We’ll be a quintet today.”
Connie, the leader, chose the piece and counted the rhythm. Her bow sang the first notes, then the others joined in the deceptively soothing melody that quickly angled into edgier territory that had to be attacked like a runner up a mountain trail. Adagio. Allegretto.
Laurel swayed with the rhythm, synchronized with Devon. She let loose her hands, allowing them to move with the music. The physicality dislodged something, and as she rocked the first words came to her:
They play together but apart
attuned aligned yet divided
where they were most tightly bound.
In time, she knew, it would become a poem—her ode to these times of separateness and all the strength it took to keep the pieces from drifting apart.
IMAGE CREDIT: The Cellist by Max Weber, Open Collection, The Brooklyn Museum.