Jane had a secret: she knew the real reason Mom was leaving.
Her parents’ words floated up and up, hovering over the stairs like a ghost. They had no idea that their well-behaved, barefoot princess had turned into a spy, crouched on the steps.
“Is there someone else?” Dad asked.
“I wouldn’t do that to you.” Lies, lies, lies. That was Mom. “I know you’ve felt it, too. That we’re... That it’s not working.”
“Guess I have. If we’re talking like this all the time, that probably means something. But there goes twenty-one years, huh?” It sounded like invisible boa constrictors were twisting around her father’s throat, choking his words into tears.
“I know,” said Mom, oh-so gently.
Jane wanted them to hurl insults, to scream about neglected dishes and vanishing paychecks. Instead, they cried. All while holding each other. No one to comfort them about the heartbreak except the one who had caused it.
“What about Jane?” her father asked into her mother’s hair.
Yes, what about Jane? She was just a girl with songs in her head who had turned twelve and a half this very day. Half birthdays were important because they were turning points—who would her thirteen-year-old self become? For now, she was Plain Jane, reincarnation of Austen, Superman’s daughter. Me Tarzan, you Jane. That was the cute boy in her church choir, teasing her. The secretary at her dentist’s office was also Jane. All these other people lived in her name. Jane, a name too old for her gangly limbs and swelling pimples. The type of ordinary name that spoke of being an only child with divorced parents.
“We’ll figure it out,” was all Mom said.
When the kitchen floorboards creaked, Jane backpedaled up the stairs, rewinding in time. She settled into the swivel chair at her desk, popping in earbuds and opening her newest songbook. Her father would be up soon. Sweetie, let’s have a talk. Sweetie, I need to tell you something. Dad was always the messenger, flying upstairs on his winged shoes, carrying the burden of dead hamsters and fake tooth fairies. Mom stayed far away.
“Hey, pumpkin,” Dad said, voice soft as marshmallows. Sugary, too.
Jane realized with a start that her earbuds weren’t connected to anything. She yanked them out, tossed them aside.
“What’s going on?” she asked, blinking at him with wide-eyed innocence. “I heard some shouting downstairs.”
He scrunched up his eyebrows. “Shouting?”
“Not shouting. I mean, just…noise.”
Her father nodded sagely, like he knew exactly what she meant. Maybe he did.
He leaned against the edge of her desk and picked up her songbook, letting it flap open like a crudely drawn bird, a loose V-shape in the sky.
Dad pretended to thumb through the pages. “Your mother and I need some time apart, so she’s going to stay at her friend Becca’s for a while.”
Becca wasn’t really a friend—not just a friend, anyway. Jane’s window overlooked the front yard, and she had seen the two of them outside. It had been snowing, the ground already shrouded in white. Mom had shut the car door with a wave and trudged toward the porch. Her blonde friend ran from the curb, leaving deep footprints in the snow, and they collided into a hug, an embrace that lasted ten eternal seconds. Then their faces melded together, and it was all horribly romantic.
Dad didn’t know, and Jane wouldn’t tell. Or would she? Should she?
“How long will Mom be away?” she asked.
Dad sighed again. She didn’t look at him, didn’t want to see the tears there. Salt water, that’s all it was. “It’s just something that happens when you’ve been together for a long time,” he said. “You grow apart, want different things from life.”
But Jane had seen stories of old couples. Together for 64 years. Died while holding hands. Not till death did they part. Maybe love wasn’t real, and people stayed together out of routine and stubbornness. It was easier to keep it together than to make things messy by letting it all fall apart. But if that were true, then Mom and Dad would have kept it together, too.
Dad noticed her silence. “It has nothing to do with you, sweetie. Nothing at all. I want you to know that.”
Nothing at all. Yes, that was how she felt. Like she was nothing at all.
“I know,” Jane said.
“So, it’ll be just you and me here at the house, for a little while. We’ll have the whole run of the place. You can even sing at ungodly hours. I don’t mind.” Jane heard the smile in his voice, though her eyes continued to trace the swirls of wood grain along her desk. Every swirl outward said, Tell him, and every swirl in said, Don’t you dare. Like picking petals off a flower: yes, no, yes, no.
Jane looked up at him and met his puppy-dog eyes. What had those eyes done or not done to deserve losing her mother’s love? She couldn’t imagine going for years and years with the secret crawling beneath her skin.
“There’s something you should know,” Jane said.
Her dad tilted his head and waited patiently for elaboration. An obedient dog, sitting on his haunches, waiting for a treat.
“I don’t want to do choir anymore.” She winced at how easily she’d chickened out.
“Oh.” He cleared his throat and looked down at the songbook in his hands. “Well, you don’t have to go to church, if you don’t want to. I’m not opposed to that. But the singing… You have such a beautiful voice.” At that last word, his own voice broke.
“It’s boring. All the songs sound the same,” Jane said. At her father’s crestfallen look, she quickly added, “But I dunno. Maybe I’ll stick it out for a bit longer.”
Dad nodded. “Sometimes you need to wait and see how things turn out.” His voice was steadier now. Thank God.
Jane shrugged. “There’s one song I’ve been trying to learn, but it’s kinda hard, and Pastor Mike wouldn’t let me perform it, anyway.”
“Let me guess—this one?” Her dad flipped to the page she’d flagged with a pink post-it note: “Think of Me.”
The corner of her lips twitched into a shy smile.
“Seems like a tough song. Phantom of the Opera isn’t exactly beginner stuff,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s what I like about it.” An idea came to her. “Do you want to hear it?”
“I’d love that.” And from the way his eyes softened, she knew he meant it. “I could give the accompaniment a whirl, too,” he said, nodding toward the keyboard tucked away in the corner of her bedroom. Her heart felt full.
How could anyone hurt him? How could she even consider hurting him more with the truth? It might’ve been the harder choice, but in the end—
“She loves someone else, Dad. I saw them together. Mom and Becca.” The secret spilled from her lips like a song, and Jane marveled at how a string of sounds could contain so much pain.
“Oh.” He rubbed a hand down his face, the gold band still glinting on his ring finger. “For how long, do you think?”
“It doesn’t really matter. Does it?”
“That’s a long time for something not to matter…” he muttered to himself. His brow furrowed and he blinked quickly, as if flicking through memories in his head. He made no move to run back downstairs, to confront her mom. For the first time, Jane saw her dad cracked open—a man uncertain of the future.
In the weeks that followed, the spilled secret would spawn long downstairs arguments and a messy divorce. Messy because her father would cry how betrayal was betrayal, even if it was with a woman and not another man, and her mother would insist that she had never meant to fall in love. Messy because her parents would have tense conversations over possessions they’d collected across their lives, though they’d ultimately decide to throw things away rather than hurt with the memory of togetherness. The mantra became “Get rid of it, get rid of it, get rid of it.” Some things they agreed belonged to Jane, like the Baldwin piano downstairs, or her favorite leather reading chair, which sagged in the middle. Others—couches and books and paintings, pots and pans—were discarded along with the life they had once represented.
But for now, Jane put her hand on her father’s and sang.
Jay let a sea of high schoolers carry her down the hall, her unnaturally colored hair—the shade of red velvet cake—bobbing along the waves. Streamers of pink hearts littered the floor and limped across the walls. Valentine’s Day was nearly spent, the trash cans filled with wilted roses and cartoon-themed kiddie Valentines that came with heart-shaped cherry suckers—an ironic symbol of maturity, like the seniors wearing onesie pajamas on fourth Fridays. Hilarious.
She dodged a couple of guys who were blocking the lockers, teasing poor, shy Sharon Wood: “How do you brush your teeth? Can you show us?” God, high schoolers were so immature. The dudes in question, Ryan and Travis, nodded at Jay as she passed, in that cocky Sup, homie way. In response, she raised her Eyebrow of Disapproval, and they removed their asses from Sharon’s locker, laughing down the hall with their hands in their pockets.
“Jaaay!” shouted Ryan, the shorter of the two, as he chased after her. “I heard you got a lot of roses sent your way today.”
“Three isn’t that many. They’re probably all from you dorks, anyway,” Jay said dryly. She had learned how to cultivate her badass image after years of telling people exactly what was on her mind. Girls brought her along on shopping trips for honest opinions on their outfits, and boys, well, they wanted no-bullshit reports on what all the girls said about them on those shopping trips.
“So you have your heart set on someone else?” Ryan leaned in, unsubtly inhaling the faint spice of her perfume. But she wasn’t wearing it for him.
“None of your business.” She sauntered off and clutched her black bomber jacket around herself, smiling at the thought of the lacy scarlet lingerie beneath. Only lingerie.
Her “someone else” would’ve gotten the card she’d sent by now, anonymously. In fact, she knew he had, because he’d been grinning the entire day. More importantly, he’d grinned at her. She’d contemplated sending a mixtape or whatever, with songs by The Police, but had nixed the idea as being too on the nose. The art of flirting involved subterfuge and subtext.
When she arrived in the choir room after the two-fifteen bell, Mr. Evans sat alone at his desk, his ebony skin looking extra soft in the sunlight from the far windows that faced the back of the school. Would that thought be considered racial fetishism? She’d learned about that in English class, when they were reading Othello and the conversation went wildly off topic, and one of the girls said that liking someone for their skin color was just as bad as hating them for it. But Mr. Evans’ charm transcended the physical world, beyond race and gender and age.
Jay made sure to close the choir room door behind her.
Mr. Evans was 31, and 31 minus 18 was only—carry the one—13 years apart. Well, she was almost 18. On the cusp of legal adulthood, which meant nothing, except that she’d probably have to stop smoking pot with her friends, in case she got caught. She didn’t really like how loopy it made her feel, anyway.
He looked up from his desk and smiled with a dazzle that would make an orthodontist faint. “Ah, Jane!”
Jay fiddled with the collar of her jacket, her heart pounding so hard she worried Mr. Evans could see it through the fabric. Maybe she wanted him to see. She tugged the zipper down an inch, exposing more of her collarbone.
“Are you staying late, Mr. Evans?” she murmured, imagining making out with him, screwing him on top of the piano. No, fearless Jay would say “fucking.” FUUUUUCK.
“I can stay for a while, sure.” He set down his pen. “Feel free to call me Corbin, Jane.”
“And you can call me Jay, Mr. Evans.”
“Right, right. I just remember from your middle school days.”
Jay frowned. He had been her substitute music teacher in seventh grade when Ms. Brambles had appendicitis. She didn’t like to think of her younger self sulking at the back of class every time another girl sang the solo that should’ve belonged to her.
Mr. Evans raised an eyebrow. “Is there something in particular you want…to discuss?”
They’d been flirting on the down-low like this for months now. Every class, he made a sly comment about her tradition of standing barefoot on the risers, saying, “Well, we can get started now that our naturist has settled in.” Their special inside joke.
“You don’t mind if I bother you?” Jay asked coyly, chewing her lip in a way she hoped looked sexy and not like an attempt to eat her own face.
He gazed into her eyes, giving Jay his full attention. “I have a little time.”
“I thought we could, um…” She fumbled to find her confidence again and frantically looked away from him. Her heart leapt as she spotted what was on his desk—the Valentine’s card she had made him, with scarlet paper the same shade as her hair and a geometric heart in a dozen colors. “You got a card,” she said, analyzing his expression for acknowledgement.
Mr. Evans rubbed the back of his neck. “Seems like I have a secret admirer.”
“But you’ve probably got an idea who it could be from…”
“I have someone in mind.” His eyes flickered toward the door, then up to her, and they seemed to say, I can’t make the first move.
Jay couldn’t stop herself from beaming. She pulled down the zipper of the jacket, sucking in her stomach as she pushed out her chest.
Mr. Evans bolted up from his chair and put a hand in front of him, censoring the view. “Jay?! You’re not…?”
“I’m not what?” Her stomach dropped to the floor, the windows of the choir room making her feel suddenly exposed. For one petrifying second, she imagined Dad standing outside, crying.
“Are you trying to get me fired?” Mr. Evans nearly yelled.
“No!” Jay folded her jacket tightly around herself, arms across her chest. “I…I really like you, Mr. Evans.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Oh God, I didn’t—”
The door to the choir room opened, and a woman popped her head in. It was the little blonde history teacher, the one Jay could never remember the name of. She had a babyish face and wore a floral skirt that looked like it had been stolen from her grandmother’s closet.
“Corbin? You ready to go?” the woman asked, then spotted Jay. “My apologies. I didn’t think you’d have any student conferences today.”
“We’ll be done here in a minute,” Mr. Evans said, not even glancing at Jay.
The history teacher gave a wave before shutting the door behind her.
“Jay, you’re a talented singer and very, uh, bright—”
“You don’t have to say anything,” she said hurriedly. “Let’s just…forget this ever happened. Don’t be weird about it.”
Mr. Evans swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing, and nodded. Turning on her heel, Jay zipped up her jacket, not looking back. Her mouth tasted like she’d just thrown up, but she willed the tears in her eyes to evaporate. In her pocket, her phone buzzed with some notification. She whipped it out and unlocked it, scrolling through her contact list. Her thumb hovered over one name: Mom. It would be late morning where her mother lived, time for Valentine’s Day brunch—with Becca. She imagined them giggling over muffins and mimosas, making happiness look easy.
Confessing her love to Mr. Evans was supposed to have been easy. In her head, he ripped off her jacket and ravished her neck with kisses. In her head, they shared clandestine picnics on the choir room floor and sang “Time to Say Goodbye” when they tried to break up but then couldn’t stay away from each other, all until Jay threw her stupid graduation cap in the air and they could finally hold hands in public, and he’d give her that you’re-better-than-the-rest-Jay smile that had melted her insides from day one.
Instead, he’d labeled her as jailbait, turned her into a complete cliché. All the times he’d teased her about walking around barefoot or met her gaze and announced, “Perfect!” when her section hit the right note—those happy memories were tainted now. She wanted to melt into the floor out of shame. If only she could sing her heart to him, make him understand the passion and potential that fizzed between them. Maybe he would’ve taken her seriously if he’d known music wasn’t a hobby for her but a calling and sharing that ultimate connection with someone else felt like a metaphysical experience. Love, with an intensity few people ever felt.
As she made her way down the barren hallway, she kicked at the foiled hearts that mocked her from the ground. She was eye-of-the-storm Jay. She didn’t need belittlement from adults who thought she was young, when she was so goddamn old.
Evelyn strode toward the art museum exit, the applause dwindling behind her as she chased her boyfriend into the parking lot. She swung open the glass front door, which had a flyer plastered on front: “An Evening with Musical Duo Evelyn and Sage.” The picture showed the two of them performing at their senior recital, with her mouth open in song and Sage accompanying her on piano with his long, frenetic fingers—the same fingers that caressed her shoulders and tickled her bare feet when she rested them on their apartment coffee table. Switching to her middle name had been Sage’s idea, and he’d even gone from calling her “Jay” to “Evelyn” on a daily basis. Evelyn and Sage. It sounded like a clothing boutique or a wedding catering company—classy, sophisticated, privileged.
She had welcomed the new identity, shedding her old one like snake skin . Evelyn was a fresh-out-of-college professional who had chosen to pursue what her daddy deemed her best at. The name reminded her of a certain choir teacher, although it had soon become her own. All the high school overconfidence of “Jay” left her cringing; however, Evelyn possessed enough self-awareness to know she’d look back on these early days of her career and feel an equal tidal wave of embarrassment. Especially after what she’d just endured.
“What the hell happened back there?” she asked, once she’d caught up to Sage.
“It was one wrong note.” His gaze targeted his red hatchback in the distance.
“I thought you said you’d practiced that part more on your own, since you knew—”
“I’m not perfect, all right?” he snapped, unlocking the car. “You should know to keep going, even when I mess up. That’s Performance 101. And I told you that aria was too ambitious.”
She chewed the inside of her cheek to prevent herself from blaming him again. Their practice sessions for “Il dolce suono” had involved Sage insisting she’d sped up halfway through the song and her insisting that he had slowed down. More than once, their rehearsals ended with Evelyn barricading herself in the bathroom to choke down angry tears. Sage would talk softly to her through the door until she opened it, and he’d kiss her into the bedroom to explore a different type of rhythm, one where they felt aligned in perfect synchronicity. Whenever they fell into that pattern, Evelyn reminded herself that Sage had the talent needed for sought-after graduate scholarships, that he understood the intricate frustrations and ecstasies of music better than any of the non-musicians she’d dated. Surely, three years of shared passion were worth something.
Evelyn clutched her bag of sheet music as Sage opened the driver-side door. “We still need to go talk to my dad,” she said. “He’ll be wondering where we went, if he’s in there.”
“You can go talk to him. I’ll hang out here.” He sat down, his legs facing out the door, and grabbed a pack of menthol cigarettes from the center console. Evelyn stared at him. He was her ride home, and if she went inside on her own, everyone would be asking where her boyfriend was, and she didn’t think she could explain without calling him a dick, or bursting into tears, because it had been the worst performance of her life—
“Jane? There you are!”
She turned to see her dad jogging toward them. It seemed impossible that he hadn’t seen the angry looks on their faces from afar.
“Sorry, Evelyn,” her dad said, catching his breath. “I should call you by your proper name.”
Evelyn sighed. “It’s not my ‘proper’ name. You don’t have to call me that.”
His gaze flitted between the two of them. “You two leaving already?”
“Yeah. We are.” Sage stood from the driver’s seat, and his expression contained a challenge.
Evelyn gaped at him. Who the fuck did he think he was, telling her where to go, who to be? The calmer part of her knew she should be embarrassed about airing their dirty laundry in front of her dad, but she couldn’t quell the lava-hot rush of indignation. “I’m staying, Sage. There are people in there—” she jabbed a finger back at the museum “—waiting to talk to us. Mr. Hitchcock came to see us perform. Our classmates. People we know, who are expecting us.”
“I don’t mind giving you a ride—” her father began.
“You really want to embarrass yourself like that?” Sage asked, completely focused on Evelyn. “Be my guest.”
“It’s not that big of a deal,” she muttered through the lump in her throat. Her dad was shaking his head, and she wished he hadn’t come at all, wished he hadn’t twirled her around the kitchen when she’d first told him about getting the gig.
Sage clenched his jaw. “Fine. Whatever. I’m not hashing this out in front of—whatever. I’ll meet you back at the apartment, and you can bitch about it there.”
In one step, her dad stood between them, head cocked. “What did you just call my daughter?”
Seeing her dad, in his baby blue polo and capris, stand like a bouncer against her boyfriend’s muscled chest would’ve been comical—if Sage hadn’t been wearing a threatening scowl on his face.
“Seriously? Stop twisting my words around,” Sage said, in a low voice. “You’re always out to get me, man.”
Her dad crossed his arms. “I’m out to make sure my daughter isn’t being pushed around by some loser.”
“Loser? Finally telling me what you really think, huh?” Sage scoffed. The two men were close enough to shove each other. Or land a punch square in the jaw.
“Quit it, both of you.” Evelyn surprised herself with her own calm. She put a hand on Sage’s arm. “I’m not coming back to the apartment tonight. We’ll talk later, okay?”
Sage shrugged off her touch, hurt written across his face. He had expected her to defend him against her dad’s “loser” comment, she realized.
“No, not okay,” Sage said. “I’m done with this passive-aggressive bullshit.”
“I’m just trying to stop you two from punching each other in the parking lot!” Now Evelyn was the one squaring up to Sage, while her dad frowned behind her.
“You think I’m the type of guy to pick fights like that?” Sage rubbed a hand over his mouth.
“No, I know you’re not, but—” Evelyn took a deep breath. For a moment, she saw everything with reawakened clarity. So much about Sage thrilled her—his touch, his potential, his moments of utter sweetness—but it wasn’t worth this. It wasn’t worth the memory of standing in a parking lot, her dad with his hands in his pockets looking deeply uncomfortable, and Sage’s accusatory glare, and the twisting sense of failure in her gut.
“You know what, this isn’t working,” she said at last, and it was like the words had sprung from her subconscious, a truth she hadn’t thought to voice. “The whole music duo, living together—I’m done.”
Sage blinked hard, confusion written across his face. “Evelyn, babe—”
“I’ll get my things tomorrow.” She didn’t want to look at her father, but she could sense his worry like a stench.
Her now-ex-boyfriend straightened up, a dozen emotions flashing in his eyes. Then his expression smoothed out with a familiar coldness. A chill ran down Evelyn’s neck.
“Okay,” Sage said slowly. “I’ll need copies of all your sheet music, though. I’ve been wanting to find someone who knows how to perform well, anyway.”
The words wounded her in a way no others could. Even if he’d said, “I never loved you” or “You were terrible in bed,” she could’ve picked out the thorns. But this… Someone who knows how to perform. It gutted her. Right down to her deepest self, the words twisted. How many times had she asked herself that question: Am I good enough? She never liked the answer.
Before Evelyn could muster up a response beyond a sputtered protest, Sage sat back in his car. Slammed the door shut. Started the engine.
Her father took her by the hand and gently pulled her out of the car’s way as the red back-up lights glowed. Evelyn risked a look at her father and glimpsed unexpected redness around his eyes. She hated to think he felt sorry for her. She had no tears to shed. No feeling of dread. Only numbness. Maybe even a lightness.
“You know, uh,” her father whispered, “sometimes people stay because they’re afraid to try for more. It’s brave of you not to be afraid.”
“I guess so.” She wondered what the point of the past three years had been. It felt like she’d only learned to hurt, and she had become the type of girl who could be as easily erased as a bad recording.
One thing she knew for certain: she no longer wanted to be an Evelyn. What was more, music had stopped calling her name, and she had no desire to chase after it.
“Red, you okay?” Her fiancé smiled down at her, his suit jacket folded over one arm, face flushed from dancing.
“Just a little tired.” She had plopped down on a bench outside the ballroom next to some bushes, breathing in the cool September air. For the entire lesson, she’d felt like a music-box figurine going through wind-up motions. Unease had settled in her gut—how could she even begin to voice the thoughts in her head?
“We’ve got to get that waltz down so we can impress everyone at the wedding with our sexiness,” Lee joked.
Every mention of the wedding sent a pang through her. She tried to think of what her normal self would’ve said. “Yeah, everyone should be oohing and aahing, not gasping in horror when I trip over myself and break my ankle.”
“Trust me, they’ll be too distracted by my horrible rhythm to even notice.”
She gave him a lopsided grin. “You do move like a giraffe. A poor, newborn giraffe trying to stand on its legs for the very first time.”
He pulled an expression of mock indignation, pressing a hand over his heart. “Hey! I’ve gotten better this past week. Right?”
“You only caused my toes unending agony twice this lesson, so yes, that’s much better.” It was easy enough to tease him, even if she couldn’t bring herself to be lovey-dovey. She kicked off her stilettos, crossed her foot over her knee, and rubbed her heel. Pink marks lined the perimeter of her ankle where the shoes had bitten into her skin.
He sat down beside her, taking one of her icy feet in his warm hands. “Well, we’ve got a few months to master the moves. Feels like it snuck up on us, after a decade of planning…”
Even though it had only been four years, it had felt like a decade, with how long their engagement had stretched on, graduate school and moving and funerals all making it impossible to nail down a date. Now, here they were, finally learning to dance for the occasion. That slow burn defined their romance: they had fallen in love gradually, starting as co-workers at the same marketing agency, then becoming friends who gossiped at lunch together every day in the cafeteria, before deciding after one particularly long happy hour that they should kiss and see what happened next.
But the letter nestled in her pocket had made her wonder if she had simply been following a script. Lee, with his forehead kisses and silly jokes, was safety and comfort all rolled up into The One. So why did her heart yearn for someone else?
Daniel’s sloppy handwriting and his earnest words remained etched in her mind: You make me so damn passionate about life. As long as you exist somewhere out there in the world, I’ll be happy. I love you and love you and love you.
“Where do we go from here?” Lee asked, and the question seemed to have sprung from her own whirlwind thoughts.
“Where’s ‘here’?” She met his eyes, which were soft and slate blue and storm-cloud dark. Could she spend a lifetime without them?
“I mean, after we get married, how do you think the rest of our lives will go?” His tone bordered on philosophical.
“Well…” She struggled to grasp a future that was so hypothetical to her now, but she couldn’t bring herself to hurt him with the truth. Not when he held her foot in his hands like he was caring for an injured bird. “We’ll get married. Obviously. Maybe we’ll have a daughter named Lana.”
He squeezed her toes. “Penelope, you mean.”
“Okay, so after Penelope has grown up to be the most accomplished singer-songwriter of her time, we’ll take vacations to exotic places like Orlando. Then we’ll both retire from the agency…”
“You really think our daughter will be a singer?” he asked.
“Of course. She’ll take after her mom.” She tried to smile but couldn’t force one to stay on her face. “Although my singing days seem like a lifetime ago.”
“Yeah, it’s weird to think that you used to do operas and stuff.”
She shrugged. “I like that operas aren’t afraid to be dramatic. The way the songs express emotion is so genuine and…” She trailed off with a sigh. Part of her felt unfairly frustrated with him, as if his inability to truly understand her past obsessions was another sign of why she couldn’t stop thinking about Daniel—the friend she had made at a classical concert Lee hadn’t wanted to attend. After the show, she and Daniel had spent hours at the bar with his likeminded friends, talking about music and life. She could still remember how he pinched his fingers together when he wanted to emphasize some crucial observation about why Gerald Finzi was the most underrated composer of all time.
They lived in different states, but after the concert, he had suggested they write to each other. He wanted to exchange real, handwritten letters sent by post because, as he’d stated with great confidence, “That’s how it should be done. Let’s not lose the old ways,” and she had laughed at him while secretly feeling a flutter in her chest. And what to call that nebulous wanting within her? That deep, unfulfilled longing to be understood and to understand herself?
“So, we’ll retire to the Balkans. Then what?” Lee asked with a smile. “You’ve been staring off into space.”
The ache in her chest grew almost unbearable. “And then…we live happily ever after, I guess.” Her voice didn’t sound like her voice anymore, and she couldn’t get it to say what she wanted.
You’re so important to me, but…we can’t be together.
I don’t want to marry you.
I’ve fallen in love with someone else.
“I’m so lucky to have you, Red,” Lee whispered. He tucked a strand of scarlet hair behind her ear and kissed her forehead. “I love you so much.”
“I love you, too, but—” The words strangled her. In her mind’s eye, she was twelve and a half, looking down from a window, watching two women run toward each other in the snow.
“Hey, hey, what’s wrong?” Lee’s brow furrowed as he gripped her shoulder. She pulled herself away from him and set her feet on the dirt. With steady hands, she took the square of paper from her pocket. Somehow, touching the letter calmed her.
“I need you to read this.”
Lee’s expression shifted to one of nervousness, as if he sensed the letter contained something terrible beyond comprehension. She couldn’t watch him read it. Instead, she closed her eyes and listened to the silence around her. No, it wasn’t silence. Dying leaves rustled in the wind, not yet ready to fall, and cars whooshed across nearby roads, heading to destinations she’d never know. Beside her, Lee breathed a heavy sigh, one that carried a new burden.
She chanced a look at her fiancé. His slate eyes were on her, full of sudden awareness and hurt, and she could do nothing for it.
“Do you love him back?” Lee asked in a flat voice.
“I…” She nodded. “I do.”
Across days of conversation, the pain of their goodbye surpassed losing the parents she had known before the divorce, forgetting the first love she’d daydreamed about before she grew jaded, and abandoning the music she had known in her soul before she’d come to fear it. All her life, she had given into truth, coaxed it from her mouth and let it burn the familiar to ashes.
When she moved into a one-bedroom apartment a week later, she left the furniture wrapped in plastic and the color-coded cardboard boxes scattered about every room. From a box labeled “STUDY,” she unearthed a notebook and pen, sat cross-legged on the floor, and wrote a letter to a man who loved music.
“Mom, this is impossible.” Her twelve-year-old daughter slumped at the piano bench beside her, wearing a grimace that screamed, Please kill me now.
“Just start at the measure you’re struggling with. And remember to sit up straight, honey, or you’ll get back problems like your dad.” She tapped the girl’s spine. Lana, in turn, made a show of straightening up and curving her fingers in a robotic fashion, then proceeded to play the measure of Bach perfectly, taking her hands off the keys with a flourish.
“Ta-da! Can I go now?” Lana asked, slouching again. In addition to her father’s horrible posture, she had also inherited his olive skin tone and his precise sense of rhythm, although she seemed intent on wasting her musical talent.
“We’ve only been practicing for fifteen minutes,” she chided. “The clock doesn’t lie.”
Lana shrugged. “I’m never going to be some musical prodigy, if that’s what you’re going for.”
“I don’t expect you to be. I just think that piano is a valuable life skill. Like swimming or…or cooking.”
Lana shook her head with a pitying look. “There’s no use reasoning with you. Not when you’re in teacher mode.”
“I know it’s frustrating now, but the better you get, the more you’ll enjoy it,” she insisted, leaning her hand against the bench. “And that comes with practice. It’s the same for any instrument, or hobby, really.”
“Uh-huh.” Lana’s attention had been pulled away by something outside the living room window, which overlooked the front yard. One of the shaggy-haired neighbor boys had stopped by a fire hydrant with his golden retriever.
She simultaneously wanted to hug her daughter and push her off the piano bench. Instead of doing either, she said, “Well, let’s call it quits for today. You seem too distracted anyway. What’s his name?”
Lana swiveled around, her ears reddening. “It’s not like that!”
“You’ve been ogling him for a minute straight. Unless you’re trying to tell me you really want a puppy? Oh, did I miss my chance to make a joke about puppy love?” She chuckled and expected to receive a glare in return, but her daughter’s expression closed off from all emotion.
“Aren’t grandpa and grandma supposed to be here soon?” Lana muttered.
“Yes, they should be here at five, and they’d love to hear you play.” She wanted to erase her daughter’s guarded look, to say, You can tell me anything, in the silent way her dad had when she was young, coming up the stairs on his winged shoes to deliver messages. Part of her almost burst with the desire to tell her daughter what she didn’t yet know—that the whole reason Lana’s grandparents had put the past behind them was because their granddaughter had entered their lives, and in the decades since the divorce, they had become less halves of a former whole and more their own selves. Even though they weren’t together in the romantic sense, they could at least play the part of cookie-baking, gift-wielding grandparents.
Shaking all those thoughts away, she told Lana something else: “You can ask me anything you want, you know.”
Lana shot her a skeptical glance. “What would I even ask?”
“Come on. Just ask me about something that’s on your mind. I don’t care how personal or stupid of a question it is.”
“Okay, fine, you weirdo.” Lana looked out the window again, as if imagining the boy and his dog that had passed there not long ago. “So you and Dad met at a concert and then you used to give each other love letters, right?”
“Yeah, we did.” She didn’t mention that, even after they got married, Daniel would ask her to check the mail from time to time. She’d find letters he’d snuck into the mailbox, handwritten in that familiar script and waxing on about his latest thoughts on their lives, from Lana’s baby hair to the chapter he’d been writing on underappreciated choral composers.
“So… It’s been, like, decades since then,” Lana continued. “How… I mean, what comes after the first part? You like someone. You tell them how you feel. Then what?”
At her daughter’s words, she saw a sudden flash of memory—her slate-eyed love asking, Where do we go from here? Though she could interpret the pain more objectively now, like an out-of-body experience, she still didn’t like to dwell on that moment.
“You keep finding reasons to love them,” she said at last. “Maybe you reinvent the feelings you first had for them, even if it feels different than before.”
“Maybe? Shouldn’t you know by now?”
She laughed. “You don’t really grow surer of things as you get older. You just pretend. For your kids.”
“Gee, thanks, Mom. And here I thought you were dispensing wisdom, given your age and all.”
“Save that smart mouth for your grandma.” At that, she shoved her daughter off the bench. Lana flailed her arms and grabbed the edge of the piano, giggling.
The doorbell rang, and Lana shot up. “I’ll get it!”
She smirked as her daughter ran for the door, almost standing from the bench herself. But something pulled her down again. Reaching for the wicker basket on the floor, she pulled out her husband’s piano arrangement of Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro.”
When her fingers graced the keys and her bare feet alighted on the cold golden pedals, a song tickled in her throat and expanded into something more than just mere notes strung together; instead, the sound unfolded promise and possibility, until she understood that music had made her. No name could capture who she was when she sang, and the feeling required no reinvention—it forever contained a simple truth. Of wholeness. Of love. Like floating in the ocean, when she’d close her eyes and ride the tide’s gentle rhythm, the sun’s warmth becoming all that was.
“Mom said they’d be here at five,” she heard her daughter say, the sound distant and muffled.
“That’s good.” A man’s voice floated over to her from the doorway. Daniel’s voice. “How’d your lesson go?”
Some murmurings. Then—
“Jane?” he called out. And her heart called back.