I see now that it was a mistake. I saw it the moment she stepped through, that I was somehow both over and underprepared, and badly. Tala's off duty look was unchanged from her service call uniform. Jeans, boots, vest, a blue and grey checked flannel, hair a dark halo around her shoulders. I chose a maroon skort for the occasion, thinking it would be ironic, but as she stood in the doorway, the corduroy chafed at my thighs. When I moved to take her vest, she shrugged it off and hung it on the coat rack herself.
She was the kind of girl I used to follow around at school, silently willing her to let me carry anything, literally anything, like a backup stick of gum – the girl who gave a half smile like she knew I was there but didn't actually mind, nor would she strike up a conversation.
"Hey," she said. She put her hands in her pockets, and grinned, and I saw that I had been staring.
“Please,” I mumbled, and gestured behind me. “Sit anywhere.”
She paused long enough for me to see what she saw, that the coffee table was a tiny island of sanity in this house, and the fact that I hadn't been able to see that clearly for myself was only the beginning of what I missed. The books stacked high along the edges of the living room wall, the unopened mail, the layer of dust – these were all things that might have passed as eccentric, and that was fine, but the wine and candles seemed ridiculous, no worse. It was presumptuous, which was just –
“How’s the piano?” She stood at the piano, one hand on the lid, peering up at the gash in the ceiling. “Seems like you dodged a bullet.”
I flinched. “It’s fine.” Crossed my arms, fixed my eyes on the wall, wondering how she saw me.
“You’ve got some water damage,” she went on, “you should probably have it checked. Just don’t wait too long because as the outside temperature starts to heat up…”
I startled, this time at a stirring sensation at my ankles. I glanced down, shook my foot at nothing, and the undulating movement only increased, doing figure eights around my ankles. As Tala went on about mold and drywall, I ran through a list of questions that I might ask about her, or the things she might ask about me that I couldn't or wouldn't answer, the things anyone should be able to unfurl and present as evidence of their right to be present, and chose silence.
“So do you play?” She was watching me.
I glanced at the piano, the sheet music stacked where I left it after the leak, curling at the edges. “Not really,” I murmured. “Just a little here and there.”
Tala fingered the papers. “When you texted about the piano, you seemed upset." She turned and looked. "Really upset."
I shrugged. "It's important to me."
"I could tell. I was intrigued."
I blushed. She noticed.
"Do you mind?” She pointed at the piano bench, and when I shook my head, she pulled it out and sat down. Her legs were long and narrow at the hips. She adjusted her position and I noticed a tear at the knee, where a sliver of honeyed skin rested beneath. She opened the lid and blew the dust off the keys. Her thick eyebrows grew close in concentration, her hair fell forward, hands poised above the piano, and she began to play.
I knew it within three notes. I shivered, and the shadows rattled and settled at my feet. Purr.
The music stopped as abruptly as it began.
“Why did you stop?”
“It’s all I know.” She chuckled, a low, soft sound in her throat. “My father taught it to me, and that’s all he knew. It’s how he won my mother.”
She nodded. “My parents grew up in the same village, five houses apart. When she was old enough to marry, to win her over, my father learned to play Moonlight Sonata.”
I smiled. “I guess it worked.”
“It worked.” She closed her eyes and wrinkled her nose, smiling like she could see it. “But he only learned the first three measures, so whenever he got to the end of the part he knew, he left. My mother said she loved the fact that he was so polite – all the other boys were too pushy, but it was really just because he didn’t know how to play anything else. Pour me a glass of wine?”
The transition startled me. “Red OK?”
“Sure.” She stood and followed me to the coffee table.
I fumbled with the cork, hands shaking as I poured the glass and handed it to her. “So your father plays?” I poured a glass for myself and turned, and Tala raised hers.
“Cheers,” she said, with a soft roll of the r. She took a long sip of her wine. “Played.”
“Oh, I’m sorry – how long?”
“Oh no, he’s alive,” Tala laughed. The sound thrummed in my chest. “He’s like a world champion at Words with Friends.” She reached for a slice of apple and sat back against the frayed love seat. “But he lost the piano.”
She reached for a piece of cheese and nibbled. “They had to leave it behind.” She took another sip of wine.
When she didn’t continue, I stood holding my glass and one elbow. This is the strangeness of being alone, and then not. Everything feels unfamiliar. I sat on Aunt Linda’s flowered armchair, ran through five conversations in my head and shut them all down. Smoothed the braids behind my ears, patted the fabric of my skort. The cat wound around my ankles and settled, kneading my feet in a slow, comfortable rhythm.
Tala leaned back on the red velvet, ran her long fingers along the top, and turned her eyes on me. Eyes so dark I couldn’t know what she was thinking. Until they flickered to my mouth. Then lower. And back up.
This exactly how I had imagined it.
“So where are you from?”
She narrowed her eyes. “New Jersey,” she said. “Or isn’t that what you were asking?”
My heart jumped. “No, I just meant – ” I stopped. “It’s just that you said – I only meant about the piano.” My face felt hot.
“It’s fine,” Tala laughed. “I know what you meant.”
I shifted my weight and waited.
“I was born in New Jersey, but my parents are from one of those countries that hasn’t been properly vetted yet.”
There was a loud “pop!” from behind. My head whipped around and the glass flew from my hand. Red wine spilled across my lap, splashing the coffee table. It was only a car backfiring in the street, but before I could stop it, I was across the room, skin stretched across my face, screaming: “I’m sorry!”
I latched the kitchen door behind me.
I should have told her to leave.
I was at the sink, dabbing at my shirt, when she knocked at the door. “Hey,” she said softly, through the crack. “You OK?”
“I left your wrench on the bookshelf,” I shouted. “Just take it and go.”
I looked around at the dishes. Rotten fruit, spilling from sooty crystal dessert glasses on the windowsill where I left them to ripen. Coffee-stained sheet music, books with resting on their broken spines, the letters, the boxes and boxes of unopened delivery food. It was everywhere. Evidence of my exile.
"What happened to you." She said it like a statement, like there was no room for another possibility. That my wrongness was just fact.
I turned off the water. Stared at the door. "Who says anything had to happen?”
“Maybe I'm the only one who's smart enough to stay in."
Soft movement at the door. “Maybe.”
There was an easing in my chest at this, a kind of opening. I leaned against the counter and listened to the second hand click on the plastic clock on the wall. A minute went by, then two, and I wondered how I must seem to her. The floorboards creaked, and when I realized that she was leaving, I understood how much I needed her to stay. I moved across the room, and as I reached for the latch, the music began.
The first three notes told me everything. I pressed my cheek against the wood and heard the patience in her approach, the deliberate tempo, each note an imperceptible crescendo.
When she reached the third measure, I unlatched the door. Tala waited at the piano without looking at me. I moved on stockinged feet, pulled the book of sonatas from between the sheets. When it was placed on the rack, she slid left on the bench to make room for me, and I began to play.
When I reached the top of the second page, she made a slight sound in her throat, a clearing. At the last stanza on the second page, she quietly stood and turned the page, and the hairs rose on my arm. She leaned closer, and I adjusted my position so that she could join me. Measure by measure, rise and fall, she breathed with me.
As the final notes wound down, she placed her hand on top of mine. She raised my hand to her mouth, pressed her lips against the skin. I turned her hand over and found the soft place on her wrist, found her eyes, pulled her to my lips and screamed.
A searing flash across my ankle.
A moment later, Tala gasped. I watched as three narrow lines of blood rose on her cheek. She held her hand to her face in horror.
I grabbed her by both hands, pulled her to the door.
“What’s going on?” She looked over her shoulder, toward the piano. “What is this?”
"Go!" I demanded. Opened the door.
“No,” she said quietly, and brushed the hair from her face, where it stuck to the sticky rivulet of blood. “I want to know what’s going on.”
I pointed. “Get out.” The air a lashing tail between us.
Do you see this now, that if I ask you to go and you insist that you must stay, that I will never trust you? Or that if I ask you to go and you agree, how can I know that you could ever love me?
She left so quietly that I am beginning to think I made her up.
I drank the rest of the wine from a coffee mug, to avoid spills, and played the sonata until the timer clicked off the living room light. I stopped to find a sweater and began again. I played on through the dark, to banish the thoughts. When the sky washed the room with grey, I closed the piano lid. I rinsed out the mug at the kitchen sink and sat at the table, watching the clock, while the coffee brewed.
I’ve just had my second cup when the doorbell rings. It rings again. The screen door bangs, a hard knock on wood.
I rinse my face and brush my teeth with the end of a celery stick, walk in bare feet across the worn floorboards, taking my time. Knowing it’s her.
Tala stands on the porch holding the ugliest dog I’ve ever seen. Everything about this dog is in between. Not quite big, not quite yellow or brown, not quite furry, not quite fed, and when he opens his mouth and pants, not especially toothed. Tala watches, her face too patient and too smooth, as I kneel and hold out my hand. The dog reaches out its nose and sniffs, then it gives two short wags of its stumpy tail and cocks its head up at me like a question.
“What,” I say, and he wags again.
“I found it at a jobsite,” Tala says. “He was just wandering around, no tags.”
She hands me the leash. "For the cat."
Leigh Hopkins is the Curator of Corporeal Clamor. The latest installment of her column, "Secret Circus," is a 6-month hybrid series of serial fiction and music. In 2010, Leigh left a career in public education reform to move to Brazil, where she founded Viva Institute by rigging a satellite dish to a boulder in a banana field. Her writing can be found in Elephant Journal, ENTROPY Magazine, The Manifest-Station, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Viva Institute, and on her website.
Leigh lives in Philadelphia with her wife, a painter, and their jittery terrier. She has written a memoir and is completing a novel.