No one ever expects to have an affair; at least, Lia doesn’t. She has always assumed that affairs happen to people who are unhappy or somewhat immoral or desperate. But then she meets Eloise Shaw through a mutual friend, a concert pianist. Eloise was once a second-chair flutist and wants her daughter, Sammy, a cellist, to follow in her footsteps. Is it possible, Eloise asks through their mutual friend, for Lia to tutor Sammy?
At the consultation, Eloise is the nervous one, so derailed in some way that Lia holds her arm out over the side of the Shaw’s kitchen table as if to steady her.
“I’m sorry.” Eloise stirs her coffee. “My mother passed away recently, and your lavaliere…reminds me of her.”
“Oh.” Lia fingers the chain on her neck. “Should I take it off?”
“No,” Eloise laughs. “Don’t be silly. It’s just…been months, I realize, and yet the silliest things will remind me. So, do you think one or two lessons a week will suffice?”
“Once a week should be fine, assuming Sammy keeps a routine practice schedule. Twice a week closer to recitals,” Lia answers, sipping her tea. “I’m sorry about your mother. I lost my father many years ago. You won’t get over it, but eventually you’ll begin to feel yourself again.”
“The terrible thing is,” Eloise answers, finally meeting Lia’s gaze. “That sometimes I don’t even know who that is anymore. But that is beside the point of why you’re here today—forgive me.”
Lia uncurls Eloise’s hand from her tea cup and holds it tightly, a maternal protectiveness, or perhaps something else, swelling in her chest. She is not sure. She strokes the soft well of skin between Eloise’s thumb and forefinger.
Eloise smiles at her. “You’re so kind to me.”
But she does not let go of Lia’s hand. Lia is sure the time has passed for comfort, and yet she does not know how to extricate it.
“You’re a very beautiful girl, Lia.” Eloise’s eyes, still red, rest on her own. “Has anyone ever told you that?”
“Yes; I mean no. Well, my mother…has told me.”
“Your mother,” Eloise repeats and laughs, as if they have shared some private joke. “I’m forty-five. Old enough, perhaps, to be your mother.”
“Well, you don’t look it.” Lia pulls her hand away, pushing her chair back slightly. She does not understand what is happening, if there is flirtation, if she imagines it. “So, Thursdays at two for Sammy’s lessons?”
“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” Eloise holds her teacup to her lips. “I can be so careless with my words.”
“No, it’s not that at all,” Lia answers. But what is it?
Eloise is standing now, holding Lia’s elbow lightly as they walk to the door. “I know you’ll be wonderful for Sammy. She’s fifteen and needs to decide whether or not she’s going to commit to a career in music.”
Lia can smell Eloise’s hair, light traces of honeysuckle. She wants to pull it out of its ponytail and run its silver-black strands on her cheek. She wants to isolate the time signature, the key of this woman and make them both familiar. Instead, she shakes Eloise’s hand firmly and leaves.
When Eloise tells Lia that she is beautiful, it could mean any number of things. Lia likes music because it tells no lies. There are no hidden notes, keys, or tempos in the pieces she performs. She can hear the essentials of any composition in its very notes, its structure. A D-sharp is always a D-sharp, except when it is an E-flat. She often wishes people were this easy to decipher.
Sammy is not like Eloise. Certainly a physical resemblance exists, the straight, dark hair and sharp, crisp features that never lack for attention, but there is a sullenness in Sammy, that certain suburban boredom that pervades affluent children with many resources but few goals. Lia crosses her legs lightly as she sits in the den, listening to Sammy amble through a concerto like a young deer through the woods.
“Do you enjoy music?” Lia asks after Sammy afterward.
“It’s all right. I mean, I like the cello. I’m just not sure…you’re not going to tell my mother, are you?”
“Oh, no,” Lia laughs. “It’s all right to feel the way you do. I was a late bloomer, too.”
“She just has high hopes for me.” Sammy scrunches her beautiful nose. “But she’s like, a hypocrite—If she cared so much for music, why didn’t she stick with it?”
“I was pregnant with Sammy,” Eloise laughs lightly in explanation when they share tea afterward. She is more composed today. “Surely she told you that? That after so many years away from the business it’s hard to get your foot back in? And maybe she’ll give it all up for her daughter as well—but I want her to have the chance either way.”
“Sammy’s still young.” Lia shrugs. “She can’t think of the long term.”
“And you?” Eloise asks, meeting her eyes.
“The cello was always important to me. I wouldn’t give it up for anyone.”
“Jack swept me off my feet when we first met,” Eloise warns. “I know everyone says that, but he did. You have to be careful.”
Some music feels like contact, like it has reached out and touched you. Or punched you in the gut. You know it the moment it happens. Words, on the other hand, are sustained by innuendo; they are tentative, grasping and receding, wanting to touch but with uncertainty, the speakers of words never knowing whether other’s words carry the same weight, the same meaning. There is the illusion of universal language, Lia knows, that everyone plays, in different keys, tempos, volumes. The trick, she supposes, is finding, in the cacophony, harmony with another note.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” Lia apologizes to Eloise, who greets her at the door for Sammy’s lesson. “There was an accident…”
“Oh dear,” Eloise answers. Lia notes the quiver of Eloise’s fingers on the doorframe. “I meant to tell you—Sammy meant to tell you—she has field hockey camp this week.”
“Oh, okay. Well, I should go, then.”
“Please…stay.” Eloise opens the door wider. “I’ll pay you for the missed session. I was just listening to some music. I’d like it very much if you’d join me.”
Lia follows Eloise into the den, where the strains of Debussy’s “Romance: Silence Ineffable” fill the room, and sits on the chaise lounge. Eloise offers her a glass of shiraz.
“I’ve never seen Sammy so interested in the cello before.” Eloise sits opposite Lia. “She says you’re a great tutor, that you talk about all sorts of things.”
“Well, girls like to talk.” Lia shrugs, sipping at the shiraz. Lia knows quite a bit about Sammy’s boyfriend, her upcoming sophomore activities, the Volkswagen she hopes her parents will get her for her birthday. She also knows that Sammy adores Jack and speaks of Eloise coolly, rarely. She supposes it is the dynamic mother-daughter bond, assaulted by Oedipal beginnings, Jungian personality constructs, post-feminist sexual manifestos but culminating in friendship and tearful rejoice by the time Sammy leaves for college. Lia supposes, anyway. “You know. Girl talk.”
“Sammy doesn’t like me much,” Eloise responds. “It’s okay. You can say it.”
“Well, I think this is the age when any girl’s relationship with her mother becomes complicated.”
“Jack has always doted on her, spoiled her. I’ve always had to be the one to discipline her.” She sips her shiraz. “I’m afraid I haven’t been here for her lately because of my mother’s illness.”
“How did she die?”
“Cancer.” Elise picks at the edge of her shirt cuff. “Isn’t that how everyone dies now?”
“My father died at work,” Lia says, taking in the room around her. Books about composers. Decorating magazines. Fresh flowers. “He worked at a gas station. It was held up, and he was shot. I was about nine.”
“You poor thing. Again, I am careless with words.”
“It’s okay. I’ve had much longer to grieve him than you have your mother. Anyway, I wouldn’t worry too much about Sammy. She’ll come around.”
“They can pick up on marital tension, no matter how well you hide it,” Eloise explains. “And they wind up choosing sides. I don’t blame her. It makes everything…less confusing.”
“Well, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. I didn’t ask you to stay here to feel sorry for me.”
“You’ve been good for Sammy. I thought maybe you’d be good for me, too.”
Eloise refills their glasses; they listen to the piano. Lia watches Eloise, her movements, hesitant, as she changes the music, refills their shiraz. They talk about composers, the symphony, Lia’s last boyfriend, Eloise’s mother, Jack’s affairs.
They do not touch that afternoon, although something hangs heavy, a rain drop on a gutter. Lia does not like complications, deceptions, hurting others. Yet Eloise intrigues her; her reticence to proceed, despite clumsily luring her here today, Lia finds charming. Lia is not averse to being single. However, because she is not desperate, perhaps she is able to contemplate the wonders of human affection without strings. Perhaps, if swallowed note by note, as opposed to the overwhelming swoon of most romances, she can begin to understand its chords, its progressions, its movements.
When Lia arrives for Sammy’s lessons, Eloise greets her at the door and has tea waiting afterward. They laugh, their hands brush. They hold each other’s glances and let silences linger. Both are giddy in expectation of something; how will it happen? When? Sammy hangs out with them sometimes, drinking a coke, showing Lia in the latest fashion magazines what clothes she hopes to have before school starts, letting Eloise run a hand through her long, shiny hair while she lounges at the table.
At Sammy’s next lesson, Eloise is not there. It is pouring. Lia glances over the arch of Sammy’s back, hunched over her cello, to the window to see whether she can spot Eloise’s Saab pulling up. Is she avoiding Lia? Has Lia misspoken, misinterpreted? Sammy looks to her for guidance, for evaluation. Lia has not been listening.
“She had a spa appointment,” Sammy explains, as if reading Lia’s thoughts. “She left the check with me. It’s okay.”
“I’m sorry.” Lia smiles, grasping Sammy’s shoulder in feigned confidence. “It’s just the rain. I was wondering when it was going to stop.”
“Do you have somewhere to be?”
“No. I just don’t like driving in it.” Lia smiles at her. “Gosh, now I’ve forgotten…where we were. Once more, from the top?”
When Lia leaves, she spots it, one street over on the route she takes back to the city: Eloise’s burgundy Saab, in the parking lot of the recently closed Pakistani place, lights on, running. Lia pulls in, her hands slippery on the steering wheel, into the empty lot. Inside the fogged, warmed butter leather interior, Eloise waits, smelling of spa salts, invitation. They kiss, as lightning divides the summer sky.
Eloise is grateful for Lia’s attention; in fact, she often thanks her for it, a quality that Lia finds sweet but unnecessary.
“You don’t understand,” Eloise explains at the Asian restaurant in Waverly, where she scans the menu. “I can’t talk to my friends. They think I’m crazy. You don’t leave your husband because he’s cheating on you, they tell me. You just spend his money and have your own affairs.”
“Sounds as if you took their advice,” Lia smiles thinly. She does not like Eloise’s use of the plural affairs, even if she does not plan to become too attached to Eloise. Or so she thinks.
“That’s just it.” Eloise reaches across the table and takes Lia’s hand in public, a habit she’s been growing into. “You’re not an affair. I don’t have affairs.”
“Then what do you call this?” Lia brings her cup of steaming oolong to her lips. Absently, she drinks without hesitation, searing her tongue.
“I don’t know.” Eloise looks out the window at the busy intersection. “I care about you. That’s all I want to think about.”
She who controls language controls everything. Like the conductor, she guides the tempo, permits a certain level of engagement, feeling. She gets credit if the piece is executed flawlessly and gets to blame the musicians if mistakes are made. Lia does not want to have an affair, either, but she knows a duck when she sees one. And yet, for the sake of continuity, she will allow Eloise to make the rules of their engagement. After all, she has more to lose, doesn’t she?
Eloise calls and leaves messages on Lia’s machine: light, comfortable messages. The kind couples leave. They need no spoken language to discover each other’s nuances, the way Lia squints her right eye when she’s reading, Eloise’s ticklish spot behind her knees, their unabashed love of Simon and Garfunkel, the way chilies make Eloise sneeze, the trace of Eloise’s fingertips in circles over Lia’s back while she’s napping. Lia can tell by the flick of Eloise’s eyebrow when she’s upset, the quiver of her fingers when she’s nervous. Once a week they live, pleasantly, in a continual present, no past, no future. An itch scratched.
“Do you like my mother?” Sammy asks. She is lying on the couch with a magazine. Lia looks up from where she is writing down lessons for next week.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think she’s nice?”
“When I was younger, I was always at odds with my mother,” Lia explains, sitting at the edge of the couch. “But I knew, ultimately, she always had my best interests at heart.”
“She seems to really like you,” Sammy answers. “She hasn’t been happy in a long time. Daddy says she’s going through a mid-life crisis since Grandma died. Is that what you think?”
“Well, I don’t really know. What do you think would make her happy?”
“I wish she would just act like my mother, you know?” Sammy’s eyes tear up for a moment before she forces them back to the magazine.
“What is that like?”
“I don’t know. I feel like I don’t even know who she is anymore.”
“Well, I’m sure she’d love to talk to you.”
“Is that what she tells you?”
“We don’t talk about those sorts of things, really.”
“Because I’m not family.”
“I think you’re family.” Sammy smiles, and Lia has grown to feel genuine affection for her, almost as if she is her own beautiful, spoiled daughter. She imagines, raising Sammy somewhere with Eloise, where she could convince both of them to let Sammy give up the cello for the sake of everyone involved.
“You want to go see a movie or something?” Lia asks, standing. “We could get some sushi afterward.”
Lia does not understand her part in the human triangle in which she is now engaged; mother to a girl who already has a mother, lover to a woman who already has a partner. She feels like an unnecessary middleman. Yet, in other ways, she feels complete. She has a family; she is responsible for their happiness. Today, the three of them will go to the Towncenter to buy Sammy’s back-to-school wardrobe. Sammy is excited because Lia will convince Eloise to cave on some flashier, expensive purchases; shirts that show a little too much cleavage or backside but that Lia can vouch for as hip. Eloise is excited to spend time with Lia without hiding from Sammy, excited that Sammy does not hate her anymore. Lia is excited that everyone is excited. She does not think of herself.
Sammy tries on some heeled clogs that give her, already thin and tall, supermodel proportions. Lia looks at Eloise’s concerned expression and smiles, nodding her head. Eloise smiles back and acquiesces, opening her purse. They go to the coffee bar and get creamy, whipped lattes and celebrate their secret sisterhood.
“Lia, you have to come over tomorrow and see everything together.” Sammy nods at her bags of clothes. Lia would like very much to come over; in fact, she wishes she never had to leave, to feel discarded as she drives, after each occasion, back to her empty apartment, where she wonders why she is so unhappy.
“Honey, Lia has things to do, I’m sure,” Eloise answers.
“I’m sure your mother would be happy to attend your fashion show in my place,” Lia answers. It is too easy to say what is expected, she realizes. Is this the fuel on which relationships run smoothly? Eloise beams approval as Sammy considers. It is what Eloise wants more than anything, for Sammy to love her again, even if it is Lia who must bring them together.
“I want to live together,” Lia says at their next lunch. “Things are going so well.”
“Lia, I’m not even separated from Jack,” Elosie smiles, her eyes darting around the restaurant. “I mean, I think you’re jumping the gun a little bit.”
“Or maybe you and Sammy have what you want and to hell with everyone else, right?”
“You couldn’t be further from the truth.” Eloise puts her hand atop Lia’s. Lia pulls hers away. “And please don’t bring Sammy into this. She adores you. To suggest she’s manipulating you is…unconscionable.”
“So she’s not, but you are?”
“If this is how you feel, then maybe we should get the check.”
“I love you both. I thought you both loved me.”
“Oh, Lia, we love you very much. Things are just…complicated. You know that.”
It is two weeks the end-of-summer concert. Sammy has practiced with Lia several days this week and can perform serviceable renditions of Bach and Haydn. Although she looks forward to her visits with Sammy, she is decidedly cooler with Eloise, declining tea after lessons, not answering her calls. If Eloise truly cares about her, Lia believes, she will take the next step, whatever that is. Lia wonders whether she is being selfish. She will not hurt Sammy, she promises herself. She decides then, watching Sammy tune up her cello in anticipation of their practice, that she will just walk away.
“Stay for tea?” Eloise is waiting in the hall as Sammy walks Lia out.
“I can’t, but thank you.”
“God, stay already.” Sammy rolls her eyes as she bounds up the stairs. “Don’t make her beg you—it’s not pretty.”
Lia looks at Eloise, whose eyes and half smile search her eagerly for her decision. Lia enters the kitchen. On the table lies an envelope with Lia’s name, written in Eloise’s controlled, neat script.
“Open it. Please.” Eloise stands by the stove, heating up water for tea. Lia picks it up and slides open the unsealed flap. Inside is a plane ticket to Vienna for after New Year’s.
“Sammy and I are going during the winter holiday,” Eloise explains. “I want her to have a greater music appreciation. Anyway, I hoped that you’d go with us.”
Lia does not know whether to be happy or sad. She drags the edge of the ticket against her skin, knowing, at some angle, at some speed, it will cut her. The tea kettle steams, and she turns to Eloise, whose face is clouded, close to tears.
“I thought it was a start,” Eloise stammers. “Jack will be away on business, and I don’t think he’ll have a problem with your going. He knows how much Sammy loves you.”
“This means,” Lia tries to articulate her disappointment. “That four months from now, we’ll still be here. In this place. Having this affair.”
Lia supposes people have affairs for years, scheduled affection. She knows now she is not one of them. Already she thinks of Eloise and Sammy too much, as if they are her own. Even if she does not walk away, she is only borrowing them for awhile, she knows. As if she even has that right, has ever had that right.
“I thought it was a start,” Eloise repeats. “I plan to still care for you in four months. I don’t have any plans of not being with you. Do you see? You’re looking at things…the wrong way.”
When is a D-sharp an E-flat? Lia looks at Eloise, knows she needs her, to feel her breath on her neck as they lie on the bed in her apartment and listen to the sounds of cars down St. Paul Street. To be happy, she needs this terrible mess in which she was complicit in creating, created not by truths but by the deception of expectations, that if they followed their hearts, their impulses—their desires—everything would turn out okay.
And it never will. But she is here and knows no better. She takes Eloise by the arms and kisses her, even though it is forbidden here. Eloise tenses and Lia releases her, just in time to see Sammy at the entrance to the kitchen. Unfortunately, there is only one way to interpret Sammy’s reaction.
At the reception Lia buys a Manhattan at the makeshift bar. Eloise cancelled Sammy’s last two sessions with Lia, without spoken explanation, sending a check in the mail. She puts her glass to her lips and lets the strong bite of whiskey strike her throat.
“Thanks again for all your work with Sammy.” Jack is beside her now, a fresh scotch in his hand. “It’s too bad she’s giving it up.”
“What?” Lia questions with a little too much surprise. Because of the finality, she supposes. And the messenger.
“We decided that this would be Sammy’s last concert. She really doesn’t have the passion that Eloise does. We told her to make it through this recital and she could give it up.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Lia recovers. “She improved so much in the time that we spent together.”
“Well, you can lead the proverbial horse to water, they say.” Jack turns to leave. “Anyway, we’ll certainly be an impeccable reference for you.”
“Thank you,” Lia answers, glancing over his shoulder at Eloise and Sammy. Each stand in opposite directions, Sammy the bored, sullen teenager she remembers meeting many months ago, Eloise looking at Lia, a benign expression on her face, as if she were a stranger. “So the trip to Vienna over winter break is off?”
“Trip to Vienna?” Jack puzzles, staring at his cup. “Did Eloise tell you that? She made reservations for Vail last week. Sammy and I are skiing fanatics.”
Lia watches the Shaws leave, their galaxy spinning out of her orbit. She remembers the first time she wanted to be a musician. It was during her father’s funeral. The organist played Chopin’s “Funeral March,” and everyone cried. Everyone, she sees in retrospect, regardless of agenda, of personal feelings for her father, knew, at that moment, at the behest of the organist, that it was all right to cry, to grieve. They were all on the same page. It was this universal understanding Lia seeks through music, although she didn’t know it at the time.
Although their affair, like the finale of most symphonies, ends quickly, forcefully, it does not quite end here, the Shaws home in their suburban fortress, she at this bar, a spurned lover. She does not know whether tomorrow she will awake refreshed or want to die. She does hear something in her heart, her body, but it is loud and terrifying, like screams and static, a void.
When she gets home, she takes her plane ticket to Vienna and stuffs it in an envelope, hastily writing Jack Shaw’s name and address on the front. She is angry enough to walk down the street to the mailbox that night, although when she gets there she does not mail it. She puts it back in her purse instead and, when she lies down to sleep that night, wonders what Vienna is like in winter.