"Facing the Music" by Victoria Leigh Bennett

Esther was beginning to see what had happened. What had happened to the day; what had happened to the sun outside on the rooftop deck beyond her picture window, where the cats crept along from the neighboring roofs to forage for stray baby pigeons; what, in short, had happened to her life.

First, there was the day. She’d risen at dawn, to a bright but anemically pale sunshine coming in from the right side, where the northern kitchen windows caught a hint of reflections from the eastern side. She’d have been in the full eastern light if she’d been in her bedroom at the back, but she’d once again slept in dismal comfort on her large bed-sized divan in the living room just inside the picture window area, a habit which was becoming more and more frequent. It made her feel young again, younger anyway, as if in memory of the days spent with Rodney and the nights spent swilling and swiving to his odd musical choices. His divan had been half-collapsed in upon itself by the time they parted ways, but no one could say a rollicking good time had not been had on it by all, meaning the two of them. He hadn’t cared. He slept in a hammock hung up from two rafter beams in his loft apartment most of the time when alone, anyway. In passing, she wondered if he still did, or if he was now fucking someone vigorously in the hammock, with somewhat the same results. But the day had been “good enough for government work” (as a friend of hers had used to say, that meant a “C+” effort). Up until the pale sunshine bolloxed itself all up into a half-convincing windstorm that scuttled summer clouds in dark slate and puffy gray across the sky, and she’d had to close the kitchen window and the picture window because it got simply too cold for June, as cold as April when April didn’t know it wasn’t still March. And that’s what had happened to the day and the sun, interconnected as they were.

Now her life, that had been a haphazard occurrence, or series of occurrences, too, which had scooted across her inner vision like the clouds. She now saw as she huddled into her gray woolen raggy sweater that those clouds were dropping huge, fat, summer raindrops on the deck, insisting that she notice that they weren’t the spring ones of hit-and-miss she’d been used to, but a preparation for a thunderstorm, cold though it was: thunderstorms were only supposed to come along when the temperature rose. That was global warming for you, a masterly illogic where things had previously happened in set ways. And her life, too, was beleaguered with melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels and dying coral reefs and scarce species of feelings she’d always had comfortably before without thinking about them.

What had happened, for example, to her affection for long evening walks with her friend Beth Ann? Beth Ann had always been a hoot and a holler to talk to, a person who laughed easily and joked readily, and when Esther was in-between men, they’d spent a lot of time together. Beth Ann, too, had commitments in the shape of a younger husband who was starting a company and a recently adopted teenager who, though being amazingly free of the problems and complexes that Beth Ann had anticipated his having due to his early life, was going through the trials of an advanced placement program to graduate college in two years, before he was seventeen. But even that had not kept Beth Ann from her generous support and easily shared joy. Yet now, Esther was disinclined to continue the walks, with or without Beth Ann: she felt somehow that the friendship had run its course. It seemed unhealthy to be sprouting blooms that were brown in the bud, dying as soon as they were open. And she didn’t feel like pretending to enjoy nature alone, as she was for years now away from natural things, cooped up in city apartments and making do with potted plants and window boxes. It was too much of an effort to re-engage a natural human capacity for appreciation of her Mother Earth. She found herself even sneering silently at the name, as if it were a misnomer of gigantic proportion.

Secondly, she felt no urge to contact her anxious family, who called at least once a week but whose inquiries she gave short shrift to. Finally, two weeks back when she was in a surly mood and she answered the phone to her brother David, he asked with interest when she might be coming home again, home to the small town two counties away where he still lived, in a house on one side of their parents and across the street from her sister, Rose.

“Probably never,” she answered, curt.

“What’s wrong, Esther? What do you mean? We haven’t seen you for two years now. Not for a holiday or anything.” When she responded with silence, even the gentle David became irritable. “Mom and Dad aren’t getting any younger, you know.”

She had said, finally, “I’m well; you’re obviously well, or you would’ve said. If anyone else there is ill, there’s no point in calling me, I can’t do anything about it. See you in the funny papers; tell Dad I said that: he always used to say that; it’ll give him a crazy thrill and keep him off your back with complaints about me. Got to go now.” And she’d hung up.

There was the point, she thought a bit melodramatically to herself, she was dying not from a leaf or branch, but from the root. That self-serving piteous idea had crossed her mind the last time she’d headed her marigolds, two weeks ago, when she saw they weren’t looking well. But heading them was all she knew how to do by way of repair, and she didn’t have the energy, these days, to call the garden center or go by on a sprightly outing, as if she were someone who cared a damn, to see what to do with them. She was dying from the root herself, like the marigolds, like the pigeons (whose eggs had been too thin-shelled to store their young lately, as she saw when she looked up into one of the nests the cats hadn’t managed to get into, up on one of the chimney blocks by her southern wall). Even the cats themselves, though they still prowled with energy and groomed themselves with handsome abandon in the sun outside on her deck, looked mangy and skinny and frail and old when you tried to lure any of them close to pat or feed; they were wary, it seemed, from being already shat upon by nature, who’d produced them in such overwrought and copious numbers in a desperate bid to keep at least one species alive. They fought both for and against their own survival, only agreeing to eat what she left out for them where they roamed in all weathers and wilds. She still did leave bowls of wet food and dried food out, even took the trouble to buy it specially, because they were the one living kind she felt any responsibility towards; she’d started feeding them, and they cried when they were hungry, thin, wheedling cries like their persons, so she fed them, she told herself, to get some peace, some quiet, from her own inner howlings.

The one thing she couldn’t do was assign a beginning or a cause to this disease of her life, knowing neither correlative nor causative data for sure. Prodding herself made her sore, so she just maintained a certain equilibrium, as she thought of it, though she wondered if her friend the scientist, who’d made the remark about things being government work and mediocre, would instead accuse her of fostering entropy.

But one day there came a time, an hour, when instead of feeling the same nothing she’d felt for months now, she felt passion, a passionate intensity of grief and sorrow and ill-doing such that she could only decide to look deeper inside herself for the answer, an answer, any answer. It was of a sudden too painful not to. First, she gingerly probed the notion of whether she needed some sort of help; dutifully for her, since she hadn’t done anything productive other than go to her office job and make necessary trips to grocery stores and supply shops when forced to by necessity, she roamed the Internet. First, she read up on clinical depression, then deciding that the symptoms that the self-help sites and online clinicians’ offerings mentioned didn’t fit the case, as she’d never had this problem before, she deserted that option. Next, she resorted to some of the philosophers whom she’d studied in school when she was an undergraduate, but whereas the psychological help had been too specific and precise and didn’t fit, the philosophers were too vague and huge and didn’t fit.

She was about to call a halt to her search, when a certain disharmony attracted her attention, annoying her and saying something important to her, somehow, at the same time. A bird outside somewhere, one in distress, was shrieking out of all rhythm and time to a piece of music playing on her old-style alarm radio, which she’d simply left on hours before while she worked, as it was a Saturday and there was no place to be. The bird and the music were just oddly enough close in pitch and yet off in tempo, in rhythm, to be disturbing. She swore and got up to turn off the rhythmic contortions of the music, but as her hand switched the dial off, an abrupt memory of a genesis flooded into her brain: she’d started feeling this way one day when she and Rodney had been near the end of their relationship, and he had suggested they screw to Pachelbel’s “Canon.” Yes, that was it! That was when what had started out as a discomfort and ended with this moment of pain-filled revelation had begun.

Now, why? She asked herself. True, she had never liked the piece, found it simply goopier and soppier than cotton candy or strawberry soda, disgustingly sweet and sentimental. She’d tried to laugh it off at the time, but Rodney had kept insisting, so against her inclinations, she’d agreed. She was more biddable then, she told herself, when things still hadn’t gone on the skids. And the result had been much as the screeching bird and the recorded music she’d just heard, not Pachelbel’s melody this time, but it made no difference: the disharmony of rhythm and timing was related, was the same. They’d neither been pleased with the results, but whereas Rodney kept trying to be soothing and wanted to say something else, as he insisted, she had been full of scorn for the experience and had cut him off and left soon after. He was miffed, and their relationship didn’t last much longer; as a matter of fact, they’d never made love after that day.

Now she wondered again, why did that bother her so that months later, she was worrying about whether she had a serious depression? She considered again her experience of the piece. The interior pain became a little sharper, warning, threatening what would happen if she kept probing. She ignored it. What was so strongly associated with the music for her that it produced this reaction? Well, all she really knew about it was that it appeared in a great many movies and real-life situations alike in wedding and engagement scenes. But why should that matter to her? She and Rodney hadn’t been the types to marry each other. Had they? She thought again. Rodney had been urgent about the music, certainly. And he was a bit immature and conventional at the oddest moments, in spite of his offbeat lifestyle. He had tried to tell her something very important to him, clearly, after the sex had failed, had even restarted the piece of music and put it on repeated play, and taken her hand, and started to talk again. That had been when she’d reached her limit, because Rodney was not a gifted talker. She’d been afraid of being so bored with him that she couldn’t tolerate him anymore; the sex had been pretty good so far; and so, she’d bailed on him before he could produce the expected ennui. Evidently, as she had seen, the desertion had seemed plenty big enough of a reason to Rodney to end the relationship.

Clear now on something she’d never bothered to process before, as clear as the sky was once again outside the picture window, in these now blistering days of June heat that had finally come and seemed ready to scorch the earth with the sun’s unrelenting beams, Esther felt a hint of remorse. She knew that tears weren’t far off, but it wasn’t because she wanted, too late, to marry Rodney, or even that she was missing him, or felt sorry for his mediocrity, which she did now as never before. She only regretted the waste, the human experience of having wasted emotion and passion and sexual freedom, for the two of them. They had lacked their own wise counsel, and neither would have considered the opinions of others to be important, going their own ways, doing what they thought they pleased, accountable to no one. Rodney by now, of course, might have found someone who for all she knew could move in correct timely motion to that stupid piece of music, as she once again blamed the messenger for the message, but she was alone. And who knew, after all, but that in another time and place, one not cursed with a world dying bit by bit around it, they might have been together happily, herself the wiser partner, Rodney bowing over course of time to her ideas, as couples had often worked things out in other days? There was so little time left for saving things, so little time left for the earth, for living, no matter how old a person you were, so slim a chance to find happiness or even contentment. She heard a triumphant wail outside; a cat had caught the bird, had put it out of its sad shrieking melody.

And she thought of herself, and her own life. It was time, she thought, to head to the garden store with a cutting from the marigolds. To call her brother back? To make a trip home? No, she thought, I’ll start with the marigolds. Beginners at humanity and gardening need firm support. And who would feed my cats? Maybe, she thought, my family could come and see me. It’s worth asking; after all, I’m not asking them to listen to Pachelbel’s “Canon.”

Victoria Leigh Bennett, (she/her). Living Greater Boston, MA, born WV. Ph.D. Website: creative-shadows.com. "Come for the shadows, stay for the read." Print publications: "Poems from the Northeast," 2021; "Scenes de la Vie Americaine (en Paris)," 2022. Between August 2021-June 2022, Victoria will have been published at least 19 times, with another to come in September 2022. Publishers include: Olympia Publishers, Roi Faineant Literary Press, The Alien Buddha Press, The Madrigal Press, Discretionary Love, Winning Writers, Cult of Clio. Current WIP: 9th Novel/Poetry/CNF/Fiction. Twitter: @vicklbennett. Victoria is a member of the disabled community.