When Suzanne does rise she has only shaky legs for support. As on most mornings, Adele is up but Petra is not. Through the blunt headache and the whiskey aftertaste that survives toothpaste and mouthwash, she fixes Adele’s favorite breakfast of oatmeal with walnuts and too much brown sugar. She sits with her as she eats, a few quiet moments before Adele withdraws to dress for school.

Petra shuffles into the kitchen wearing flannel pajama pants and a tank top. She stands at the coffee maker, back to Suzanne, jumping up and down with her hands in the air, blond braid shimmying on her back like a fat, happy snake. Even in the morning Petra jangles. She pours herself coffee and spins around, revealing the kind of good looks that Suzanne grew up wanting: tall blondness, skin like a white peach, cheekbones giving structural elegance to small features. When Petra plays her violin, she bows long stretches with her eyes closed, and her lashes are so long and thick that they make fringed fans visible across the room despite their pale color. When the eyes fly open, always without warning, Suzanne is startled, every time, by their sea blue, by Petra’s old-fashioned Swedish beauty. Yet when Petra stands to her full height, bends at the waist and not the knees to return her violin to its case, her look is thoroughly modern.

Sometimes when Suzanne looks at Petra, she wonders why she doesn’t hate her on sight, as many women do. It helps that Petra thinks she looks common. Though perfectly posed when holding her violin, without her instrument she is no more coordinated than a cloth doll, and Suzanne loves her for her awkwardness. Many men look at Petra as if at cased jewelry, with appreciation for a beautiful thing they have no use for. When a man approaches the two of them at an after-concert reception, he speaks first to Suzanne, turns to Petra, and then, in a shift once surprising that now feels inevitable, refocuses his attention on Suzanne until she excuses herself to go home to her husband. There’s something about Petra’s blatant good looks that reveals Suzanne’s more obscured beauty. But the real reason Suzanne doesn’t hate or envy Petra is simple: Petra is her best friend.

“Hey,” Petra says, “I thought today was supposed to mark your return to composition. Why aren’t you composing?”

“Why aren’t you?”

“I have a kid.”

“Whose breakfast I just made.” Suzanne hears something in her voice under the humor, feels the hangover pressing into her forehead.

Petra blows on her coffee, then looks up. “What’s going on with you?”

“I’m sorry,” Suzanne says carefully. “I’m just annoyed with you for being right. Not composing is just one more thing to feel guilty about.”

Petra hugs her loosely, mug still in hand, and kisses her temple. “It’s the only thing you have to feel guilty about. Thanks for getting Adele in gear.”

Biographical histories of music include few nods to female composers, and it’s something Petra and Suzanne have talked about since they met at the Curtis Institute. There are often chapters on Nadia Boulanger and her tragic sister Lili. And music historians like to praise the Italian nun Isabella Leonarda or weigh in on whether or not Cécile Chaminade’s salon compositions—hugely popular in their day but mostly derided since—constitute a real contribution to music. Yet for the most part histories of the great composers are the stories of men’s lives, the women cast as helpmates, muses, hindrances, nursemaids, business managers, performers, or lovers.

Petra always argues that this treatment stems from the same prejudice that led the music world to claim that women could never be great trumpet players due to the size of their lungs—a belief overcome only by hard evidence: anonymous auditions played behind opaque screens. But Suzanne knows, and Petra has admitted, that women have written far less music than men and, when they have composed, it has often been with less dedication.

Petra flops a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t pull a Minna Keel on me.”

It was Petra who told Suzanne the story of Minna Keel, who gave up composition—at the age of twenty and for forty-six years—to work in her mother’s business, marry, raise a prominent son, become politically active over the Spanish Civil War, and work for years as a secretary in the dullest of offices. There was family pressure guiding her choice—her series of choices—and perhaps a lack of encouragement, though she had male teachers who supported her. Ultimately it was a man who convinced her to compose again: a musical examiner who’d come to test one of the third graders she gave piano lessons, after her retirement from office work. Her sixties is when she really began to write.

It was a story that sometimes depressed Suzanne and sometimes gave her hope. It’s not too late for her to write music, not even close—that’s the moral she wants to take away. The loss of Lili Boulanger’s music is the responsibility of her time and place, of her own traitorous body, of bad luck or fate. But what about the loss of forty-six years of Minna Keel? Whose fault is that?

“Ben did a number on you, you know.”

“I know your theory about that, but Ben always tells me to compose if I want to compose.”

“Yeah, but he says other things, too. Just because what you were composing was different than his stuff doesn’t mean his stuff is better.”

“It was,” Suzanne says, “And who’s to say that anything Minna Keel would have written earlier would have been any good? Maybe she started at exactly the right time for her. Maybe she just waited until she knew what she wanted to make.”

“Excuses, excuses!” Petra adds, “You look like shit today.”

“Exactly how I feel.”

“Maybe that’ll be your creative fuel. You can compose because you feel like shit.”
You can compose because you are riddled by grief and about to break.

“Yes, a lot of people will want to listen to that.”

“That doesn’t stop anyone else. It doesn’t stop the complexity composers or the fucking sound poets.” She pauses for a better example. “It doesn’t stop Ben.”

Yet it did stop someone. It stopped Alex. He told Suzanne that he didn’t write music because there was nothing left to write and no one left to write it for. It was a pose, of course, but he at least half meant it. It was one of the reasons he didn’t compose.

“Actually,” said Suzanne, “I might sit down at the piano with a pen sooner than you think.”

“But not now because I need to change my strings before practice. Please, please, please, I need you to drive Adele to school for me. Sugar on top. Cherry. Hot fudge. Whipped cream. The works. Know I should have done it last night, but big surprise, I didn’t.”

Adele’s school is across town, but Suzanne knows they are lucky to have it anywhere. Suzanne has heard Petra field the stupid questions. “A musician with a deaf child? How ironic!” But at Adele’s school they say mostly wise things. They say, “How beautiful Adele is. She’s the best math student we’ve ever had.”

Once when Suzanne picked Adele up from school, a teacher waved her over and asked her how Adele responds to Petra’s playing, whether she ever touches the instruments at home or asks about reading a written score. Hard questions but good ones, and after that Suzanne watched Adele carefully, though she never mentioned the conversation to Petra because she did not want to cause her pain.

When they pull to the curb in front of the school, Adele climbs over the seat and nuzzles Suzanne’s neck with her small face. Suzanne kisses both of her cheeks—surprised yet again by their softness, their cool smoothness—and nods, grateful for the affection. She watches Adele’s thin form move down the sidewalk, up the stairs, and into the school’s foyer. She watches until the heavy front door falls shut behind the little girl she sometimes imagines carries the spark of her own, though of course she knows that her child would be two years older now. Almost exactly, she thinks, making the calculations again, though she’s already locked them in memory.

She drives back to her posh town’s shabbiest neighborhood, to the house she and Ben could afford because they pooled their money with Petra, to the house they could afford because so many of their neighbors are black or speak Spanish, to the house they could afford because it needed—still needs—so much work. The one-way street, which runs only the few blocks from the hospital to the small freeway, is at its prettiest in spring. The wildly prolific callery pear blossoms lace a canopy over the road and infuse the air with a pungent sweetness. Their petals drop confetti-like over the cans and candy wrappers littering the curbs.

Suzanne idles while the next-door neighbor—a man who has avoided speaking to them since he returned their lawn mower broken—backs out of the shared driveway. She returns the car to its parking space against the wire fence that separates their neighborhood from married-student duplexes. Left foot, right foot, breathe. She cranks up the window, arrives at the back door with the keys in her hand, suspecting that every little thing will be hard from now on, that every move will hurt in the marrow of her arms and legs, that she will be undone by a simple doorknob and shatter.

Petra does not answer her shout. In the kitchen Suzanne finds a note: “Will restring in the practice room. See you there later.” Predictable unpredictability. Suzanne knows that Petra takes advantage of her, that she could have driven Adele to school herself, but she doesn’t mind.

At the desk in the bedroom she shares with Ben, the computer screen fills with headlines. “Two hundred seventy-one people killed in plane crash,” she reads. “Human error among possible causes.”

She opens her email, knowing there will be no new message from Alex and cursing herself for those few times—the last two months ago—when out of anger or panic of discovery she deleted every note from him or to him. She will have only the most recent of their correspondence. Most of their four years is gone. She doesn’t know what happens to deleted emails, whether they exist anywhere or leave some trace, the electronic equivalent of ashes from a love letter set on fire. She wonders why she does not know this crucial fact of modern life.

The phone. She sees her cell phone on the floor, where she left it charging yesterday, knowing Alex would not call because he was flying home, because his wife was picking him up at the airport as she always did. “It’s nice of her, don’t you think?” he said casually, more than once, and Suzanne had murmured yes. Because Princeton was nearly an hour’s drive from the Philadelphia or Newark airports, Suzanne usually flew into Newark and rode the train home, calling for a ride from the station only if the small connector wasn’t running or she had more than the single carry-on bag she usually traveled with.

She grabs the phone, yanks it free of the charger, presses its power button with a too-strong thumb, her breathing rapid, uneven. There are no messages at all, and she shudders a long exhalation, wondering whether Alex was unable to place a last call or whether he did place a final call but not to her. She feels bloodless, her head drained, her fingers tingling.

She turns back to her email, scans the dozen new messages, most of them spam in some form. In the list she sees a name that registers though she cannot place it. Steven Levertov has confirmed her as a Facebook friend. The name clicks. She and the other members of the quartet signed up for Facebook and LinkedIn because Anthony insisted, sending them links to articles on how to self-promote without seeming to self-promote, telling them it was part of their job to be “out there.”

“If you want to hide in your house and play, that’s fine, but you’ve chosen to perform for a living, and this is now part of that.”

Yet she’d made the friend request to Levertov not for herself but for Ben, who made an ugly face the one time she suggested that he might try using social media himself. Levertov is one of the few composers in the United States who has had work performed by multiple full symphonies here and abroad. Though Ben doesn’t think much of Levertov’s self-conscious cleverness, others do, and his work has been buried in time capsules and fired into space. “I guess one way to stand the test of time,” Ben said when he heard that a Levertov composition was being shuttled to the space station, “is simply to have your scores physically survive. To be outlasted by paper.”

She closes her email and searches for Alex’s name, finding several notices of his death and two lengthy obituaries praising his accomplishments. The writer in Chicago mourns the promise, now broken, of even more. “This tragic loss to the music world,” Suzanne reads aloud, but her voice narrows into something porous. Like the other obituary, it quotes Alex as saying, “Music is a universal gift that unites people, repairs ruptures, and heals our pain.” Reading it again, she registers the strangeness of the words: they sound like something Alex would sneer at, not like something he ever said. Perhaps it was a comment he made when very young, or—more likely—some journalist recorded a moment of sarcasm as literal.

She scrolls down to the bottom of the story, which mentions a future public memorial and private funeral arrangements. With a shock that feels like abandonment, she recognizes that she cannot attend the funeral. His wife and son belong there; she does not. Only the most private and hidden forms of grief are open to her, and this is her own fault. Human error.

She reaches for the object she always reaches for—out of habit and love and discipline and commitment and self-loathing and simply because it is, more than anything else in the world, more than anything else her mind holds, what she does and who she is. She begins the only piece that seems possible: her part in Harold in Italy.

It was what she played in her last St. Louis performance, in one of those end-of-season concerts that allow a local principal to show off. Suzanne had already resigned her position after holding it for only three years, admitting that her perfect job was a burden if her husband was miserable and she would never have enough time for a child. But at the end of that night she wanted to stay, to play before large audiences forever, to live within a five-hour drive of the man she already loved. Vibrating with Harold, she grinned before the entire hall, miserable.

She remembers every day of the week of rehearsals, Alex’s stern instructions to the orchestra. Clarity, clarity, clarity. The timbres are separate. Stop that damn blending. But for her there was no scolding, only the one time when he added direction to her copy of Berlioz’s score. Doloroso, he wrote over the beginning of the andante, saying, “Play it like your heart is being squeezed of its blood, so great is your pain. Play it like you are mourning for the beautiful life you might have led but were denied.”

His accent fluctuated between a thud that fell with his words and a faint whisper underneath them, depending on whom he’d been talking to, how much he had been drinking, and—she learned—what effect he wanted to have. When he spoke to her that day his inflections were at their oddest, as though he and not his parents had fled small-town Bavarian poverty.

After those words, there were no instructions for her, only the watching like burning and then nodding, recognition. He saw her. Early on she wondered whether he thought she played perfectly because he already loved her or whether he loved her because she played perfectly. “There may be better violists in the world,” he said later, “but no one plays Harold as beautifully as you do.”

The applause approached wildness and the stage shook with it when Alex, again staring at her, both of them already consumed, turned his open hand for her to stand as St. Louis bid her farewell. Because she wanted to halt time but could not, she experienced the coiled happiness and remorse as though the moment had already passed, as though she was looking back on an earlier self.

Now she plays the thirty bars of the theme without error, but she is quaking and bails out before striking the 6/8 of the allegro.

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ELISE BLACKWELL is the author of four novels: Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, Grub, and An Unfinished Score. Her short stories and cultural criticism have appeared in Witness, Topic, Seed, Quick Fiction Her work has been translated into several languages, and her books have been chosen for numerous “best of the year” lists, including the Los Angeles Times. Originally from southern Louisiana, she holds an MFA from the University of California-Irvine and currently directs the University of South Carolina MFA program.

One response to “An Excerpt from An Unfinished Score

  1. Simon Smithson says:

    There are some wonderfully complex pieces in this week of TNB; pieces that blend (sorry) knowledge with emotion, expertise in one field with the heartbreak and messiness of another.

    This is certainly no exception.

    Elise, welcome to TNB!

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