She can’t think where to go, in this sad cluster of rooms, to escape the urgent rapping on the door. She forces herself to the window. It might be about Isaac. He may have stumbled in front of a moving car, had a heart-attack, been mugged at gunpoint. In a flash, she imagines herself pushing him or pulling the trigger, and the split second of joy she feels grips her with terror. Then she rapidly sinks back into frozen inertia—she is nothing but a cliché, a story told many times over. Elderly genius poet-professor seduces needy student. And today is the day that Isaac Biddle has left this flat—into what is surely swelling music and blinding light—after decades of living as a recluse. This is what it means to be a muse: to be left behind like a burnt match to be trod on by those who watch the brilliant conflagration that is Isaac Biddle.
The rapping stops. Through tattered lace curtains, she sees Charlie Miller waiting outside the door, at the foot of the concrete staircase that leads up to street level. Chubby, moon-faced Charlie Miller, in his tedious plaid flannel shirt, standing in the shadow of the old brownstone. What is he doing here? Now. When she wants to die. No, not to just die but to vanish, to never have been. She watches him scan the barren claustrophobic little patch of yard. A yard that once may have been filled with pleasant pots of herbs and flowers. A yard that is imprisoned by the row of black iron spikes along the sidewalk above. When he glances at the window, she ducks into the plush shabbiness of what Isaac calls the divan. She curls herself like a fetus around a pillow, squeezing it tightly against her eyelids until the insides of her head spark and fizz, and wills Charlie to go away. She concentrates on listening to the hiss of steam through the radiator, the carpenter-ants cricking through the ancient woodwork.
The door opens. Shocking, like something out of a horror movie. She waits for him to call out Hello in that tentative horror movie kind-of-way. He does not. She sits up and presses the pillow into her belly. Electric purple spots skip across her vision.
When he notices her, he simply says, “Hey”—as if he, an intruder, did not just enter uninvited.
She attempts to stare through him, to make her mind detach, her brain empty. If she doesn’t speak then she will not have to start the process of her life blowing up.
“Is Isaac here?” he asks. As if everything is normal.
Charlie takes a couple of steps toward the bedroom, then hesitates. Maybe he thinks Isaac, with his frothy white hair floating around his face like a halo, will materialize—from behind the heavy, fringed Dickensian draperies.
“No he’s not,” she finally manages to say, in a strangely metallic voice that seems to be coming from elsewhere. She thinks she sees a trace of surprise flicker around his eyes. But she could be wrong. She doesn’t want to care what Charlie Miller thinks.
In the beginning, when she was first with Isaac, she still attended her cello lessons. She went to open mic nights at a campus pub and wondered what it would be like to have the courage to sing in front of all those people. Charlie was usually there too, mostly quiet but rapt, like she was. She didn’t know that much about him: his name, that he was a few years older than she. She didn’t even know if he attended the university. But, once, she had heard him play his guitar, and if she was a different kind of person she would have bought him a beer and persuaded him to go to the mic. One night, after being awed by a blues band that was playing, she impulsively gave Charlie, who was hunched over the same tiny table, some of the song lyrics she had written. Shortly after that, Isaac asked her to stop going out at night. And now it seems that she has allowed her music—the just-born miracle of it, the melodies blooming in her head like rampant wildflowers—to gradually leech away, for Isaac Biddle.
“He is out. Writing. At a café.”
Charlie does not say Wow or That’s great news or any of the other banal things that the rest of the world will say when they find out. He doesn’t even look particularly interested.
Her mind refuses to stay detached. Her brain fills, a burst dam, a violent flood. She grabs Isaac’s journal from the floor and shoves it, opened, into Charlie’s chest. Here she is again, forcing something of herself on Charlie Miller. She can’t think why.
“What is this?”
“Just read it.” She knows the page by heart.
I feel so oppressed… I want her to pack her bags and leave now, immediately, yesterday; and I want to lie down next to her and never rise, to inhale her until she is absorbed within me, and my dreams flow like blood.
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Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay