Marschallin

The Marschallin

In Short Story by Rachel Browning

Even dressed as a man, Elena was radiant. Kate dabbed her eyes with her one remaining tissue. As the music from the final act of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier swelled to its rousing pinnacle, Elena’s voice soared through the opera house, merging and blending with those of the other singers. Together they joined the interweaving melodies and chromatic harmonies of the orchestra, the entire ensemble climbing to such unsustainable heights that, to Kate, their ultimate convergence personified longing. The crowd rose and erupted into cheers seconds after the orchestra released its last chord, but Kate remained seated, thunderstruck. Finally, she stood when Elena strolled to the front of the stage to take her last bow amid the roar of applause, while flowers and programs stripped to confetti rained over the cast.

Most of the sold-out audience had come to see renowned soprano Meryl Bennington give her farewell performance as The Marschallin, the show’s aging, worldly heroine. Elena, a mezzo-soprano, was making her Metropolitan Opera debut as Octavian, The Marschallin’s young male lover, and she’d offered Kate and their friends Adam and Marcus comp tickets. The invitation via text message had surprised Kate. She hadn’t heard from Elena in years.

Elena’s meteoric rise was hardly unanticipated. Teachers and conductors at the Eastman School of Music, where they’d all met as undergraduates, had proclaimed her artistic potential their freshman year. And in the ten years since graduation, Elena had been awarded apprenticeships at festivals and opera companies across the country – San Francisco, Houston, Chautauqua – all leading inexorably to this stage.

Teachers had made similar predictions of Kate, praising her rich tone and natural facility for the bassoon. The piano had been her first instrument, her first love. But when her nimble, twelve-year-old fingers clasped the maple exterior and silver-plated keys of the bassoon for the first time, and she felt its sonorous timbre vibrate through her lips, something inside her unlocked. Within a few years, she was convinced that a life in music awaited her. And yet, her career would diverge from the trail laid before her and her friends.

Kate re-checked her phone – still no calls or texts from Derek, so things with Nathan must’ve gone okay. She pictured their three-year-old son curled up in his sleeping bag on the floor of their suite, a Thomas the Train book tucked under his arm, her husband in the king-sized bed clicking away at his laptop, piles of discovery materials scattered across the duvet. Their hotel was on the southern end of Central Park, and earlier that Friday, while Derek worked, Kate had taken Nathan to the Museum of Natural History where he’d darted through exhibits of dinosaur fossils, mummies, and humpback whales. On Saturday, if she could get Derek away from his deposition prep, the three of them would visit the zoo.

When Kate requested the weekend trip to New York to go to the Met and see her best friends from undergrad, Derek had agreed after only minimal coaxing. No, he wouldn’t have to sit through four hours of Strauss with her. Yes, he could work during the day while she entertained Nathan in the city. And yes, he could work that night after putting Nathan to bed. Derek usually presided over Nathan’s eight o’clock bedtime routine anyway, a duty he handled with genuine enthusiasm. Kate didn’t resent him, not really, for the twelve-hour work days, for the strain that the partner track put on their marriage, for the fact that these short outings were what passed for family vacations. She told herself this was temporary. She’d known all along how important being a successful litigator was to him. His drive had been one of the qualities she found most attractive about him, or maybe it was just the one she understood best.

***

Kate elbowed through the throng of patrons at the rooftop bar, craning her head above the crowd, scanning for Adam and Marcus. The long, narrow room was candle-lit, and a wall of windows offered a panoramic view of Lincoln Center, Broadway, and Columbus Avenue. At the far end of the bar, the room flowed into an open-air deck that hummed with black-tied and high-heeled guests, theater patrons reveling in the afterglow of the evening’s performances. Kate found Adam and Marcus at one of the tables near the deck, already nursing martinis. They appeared happy enough – their on-again-off-again relationship now back on. When Adam saw her, he leaped from his seat and threw his arms around her.

“Kathleen, My God. Get in here,” he exclaimed. “Still gorgeous. And look at this dress. Tell me – who, who, who?”

“Oh, it’s Carolina Herrera,” Kate replied. The red and black floral-patterned sheath that draped just above the knee showed off her long legs and slender frame. Slightly embarrassed by the extravagance of her purchase, she was gratified that at least Adam had taken notice.

“Nice! Please, sit. Tell all, omit nothing. How’s the kiddo? Got any pics of that hot husband of yours? I told Marcus he could be Ryan Gosling’s older, smarter brother.”

Kate shook her finger at Adam. “No way. I’m not giving you my phone so you two can ogle my husband. How about instead one of you wink at our waiter to bring me a drink.”

“You got it, honey. Marcus, get what’s-his-name. Mommy’s thirsty.”

“Actually, probably quicker if I just go to the bar,” Marcus offered. “What would you like?” He stood and removed his suit jacket and hung it over the back of his chair. It was early May, and already the humid gauze of summer had begun to settle over the city.

“Oh, I don’t know. Something cool. Glass of Prosecco?”

“Read my mind. I’ll get a bottle. Don’t talk about anything important while I’m gone.”

Marcus turned to the bar, and Adam leaned into Kate, his blue eyes gleaming devilishly. At thirty-three, he still exuded the same youthful alacrity that he had at eighteen. “Okay, before Elena gets here, I have questions – Marcus hates when I gossip,” Adam said. “First, that performance was a-mahzing, but are we really supposed to believe the great Meryl Bennington is retiring? No, we are not. Second, how much do you wanna bet she and Elena rekindled their little fling during all this? I mean. Come. On. The run was four weeks, the entire opening scene is The Marschallin and Octavian in bed together, and lusty Meryl gets to share the stage with Elena in the pants role. Please. Of course, when I asked Elena about their rehearsals, she just gave me that coy look she always gets – you know the one.”

Picturing Elena with Meryl, Kate felt her stomach twist. She needed that Prosecco. “Wow, Adam. No clue. I’m not exactly in the loop, haven’t been in a while.”

“Wait. Seriously? You didn’t know about them? Senior year, first semester. Meryl was a temporary instructor, a vocal ambassador, or whatever, and Elena sang for her in that master class. Well, apparently, after the class, she…”

“Okay, whatever. If you say so. I just think I would’ve known if one of my best friends was having an affair with an instructor.” He must’ve forgotten that Elena had stopped talking to her by then. The four of them had been inseparable their first three years of college. When they weren’t off on their own practicing, they were together studying, downing cheap Canadian beer, or listening to Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and other LPs cut years before they’d been born.

Kate and Elena had written each other’s papers, loaned each other money, nursed one another through breakups and hangovers. Kate thought about the late nights they’d spent in practice rooms hunched over the piano, puzzling through some music theory assignment they’d waited until the last minute to complete. Elena would insist they’d done it all wrong, and, giddy with fatigue, Kate would segue from the assigned progressions into a Broadway show tune or an eighties pop ballad they’d belt out before curling over the keys in a fit of laughter.

Maybe Kate should have anticipated what would follow. A night like all the others, except for the subtle brush of Elena’s fingers over hers as she reached for the next chord. A certain look. Elena’s hands remaining a bit too long on Kate’s shoulders after drawing her into her coat before they left for the dorm. A few intimate seconds that became minutes, hours, and more than a few glasses of wine. A relationship reoriented in a way neither was prepared to face.

They remained cordial but barely spoke after that, and the emails Kate sent to Elena after graduation went unreturned.

“Look,” Adam continued. “All I know is, I was the accompanist for that class, and no one else was invited back to Meryl’s hotel room for further instruction.” He raised his left eyebrow to emphasize the point. “Shush, Marcus is coming. Tell me about your work. You’re saving those little girls from – what do you do?”

“What’d I miss?” Marcus asked. The waiter accompanying him set a bottle of Prosecco and four flutes on the table.

“Kate’s saving the world while we sing for our supper,” Adam replied, filling one of the glasses for Kate.

“So, what exactly are you doing now?” Marcus asked. He looked at Kate with what seemed to her like honest curiosity.

“I’m an attorney for a non-profit, a human rights organization,” she explained. “We help women who’ve been trafficked to the United States. Get them visas, social services. Also, we try to raise public awareness. But, we don’t need to get into all that. Let’s talk about you – how’s Penn?” She knew from his Facebook posts that Marcus had become the University of Pennsylvania’s composer-in-residence.

“Oh. Right. Okay. It’s great, actually,” Marcus said. “I have five composition students; I teach a theory class. And I have the rest of the time to focus on composing. Plus, I only have to be away from the city a few days a week.”

“The phone sex has never been better,” Adam offered.

“Well, that’s a relief,” Kate said.

“Are you able to play at all now?” Marcus asked Kate.

“Marcus!” Adam hissed out of the side of his mouth as if Kate wouldn’t notice. He looked back at Kate. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine,” he said. The quick tilt of his head made her feel like an adolescent.

“That’s okay,” she replied. “I play now and then. Long tones, scales, etudes.” She looked back at their downcast stares, waiting for the obligatory reassurance that her life’s dream was still attainable, though she’d accepted that it wasn’t. She could reassure them, expound on her current life, but it was a foreign language to them, a mysterious world of priorities involving someone other than herself, a concept once just as unfathomable to her as she focused solely on her musical ambitions.

“So, did you go through, like, PTSD or anything when you first tried to play after…you know, everything?” Marcus asked, prompting a sharp jab in the arm from Adam. “What? We’re having a conversation,” Marcus said, then turned back to Kate. “Was it weird hearing Strauss tonight, of all things?”

“God, no. I’ll always love Strauss,” Kate said. “And I’m happy for Elena – she sounded incredible.” Kate took a long gulp of Prosecco. “Trying to play again was tough at first. And frustrating. Now, it’s just hard to find the time, between my job and taking care of Nathan and Derek’s work schedule. It’s fine, though. I have a good life. Really.” Kate nodded, slugged the rest of her drink, then nodded again. Marcus topped off their glasses, and Adam launched into a lengthy diatribe about one of his flailing piano students.

She’d gotten far enough, hadn’t she? After graduation, she’d received a two-year fellowship with the Chicago Civic Orchestra. It paid a small stipend, and she could still teach and freelance. Amid the constant juggling of commitments, she kept pushing herself, practicing harder, taking every opportunity offered. Of course, she also maxed out credit cards flying to auditions for full-time orchestras, competing against hundreds of others just as desperate to rise as she was. A few times, she made it past the first round, then the second, where the queue of competitors would diminish. It was only a matter of time, her teachers told her. Occasionally, she’d believed it herself.

But time had other ideas, and without warning, the passages from Mozart, Beethoven, and Stravinsky she’d spent years mastering became encrypted codes she couldn’t decipher, her instrument a dense piece of wood in the manacled grip of hands she could no longer command. She first assumed it was nerves. Let go, don’t try so hard, she’d told herself. Then she thought maybe it was her posture. She took yoga; she took vitamins. She tried meditation and the Alexander Technique. She went to an orthopedist who suggested a neurologist. She listened to the neurologist enthusiastically diagnose the problem – focal dystonia, a nerve condition common in musicians and athletes – as if his very occupation depended on it. All she needed was a series of Botox injections and light physical therapy.

Six months later, in the middle of a public performance of Strauss’s Duet-Concertino for Clarinet, Bassoon, and Strings, the modest tremor in her right hand grew emboldened. It scaled the length of her arm to her shoulder and neck, sending her body into convulsions of unhinged ferocity. Kate could remember only fragments of what came next: her bassoon striking the stage like a snapped tree branch, dragging her metal stand with it, the pages of her music fanning in every direction, her body churning and contorting until she too landed on the rock-hard floor before a gasping audience. Someone called for help; someone else steadied her head. Feet scampered from the stage, while Kate struggled to breathe, to speak, to comprehend. But all she could do was let go and sink into the blackness drowning her.

Hours later, a frizzy-haired, spectacled ER physician blithely explained how lucky she was. The tumor that had caused the seizure, though larger than a golf ball, was benign, and all she’d need was a craniotomy and six to eight weeks of recovery. The doctor couldn’t guarantee that there wouldn’t be some loss of mobility in her right hand, but in an unspecified amount of time and with the right therapy, much of the nerve damage could be mitigated.

What Kate knew and the doctor didn’t, however, was that, for a musician, time could be more of an aggravating factor than a mitigating one.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” Adam yelled at his phone.

“What’s the matter?” Marcus asked.

“A text from Elena. She’s not coming after all. Says she got held up at the cast party and doesn’t want us to wait. So. Lame.”

“Well, you’re seeing her next week, right?” Marcus reminded him.

“That’s true,” Adam conceded. “I’m accompanying her on a recital at the Brooklyn Academy, and we’re rehearsing this Wednesday,” he explained to Kate, his thumbs furiously drumming out his response to Elena. “We get together a lot, actually; I’m just sad you won’t get to see her. Ugh. Singers!”

“That’s alright,” Kate responded, both disappointed and relieved. Her phone vibrated in her clutch, and she quickly retrieved it, expecting to see Derek asking when she’d be back. But it was a text from Elena. Still wanna c u. Can we meet somewhere? Bar at ur hotel? “It’s Derek,” Kate said aloud, typing on. Sure. The Hudson on w 58th, library bar, 30 min. She hesitated a moment before sending it, her heart simmering to life.

It was after midnight. Kate texted Derek to tell him not to wait up, knowing he was probably already asleep. She’d figure out a graceful exit – having a young child provided a convincing excuse. Adam and Marcus would understand.

***

The hotel bar was thinly populated for a Friday night. Elena was sitting on a leather sofa by the fireplace, wearing a loose-fitting boat-neck T-shirt and black stretch pants.

“Your hair actually is short now,” Kate said, holding out her arms. “I couldn’t tell from the mezzanine if you were wearing a wig. You look beautiful.”

Elena’s green eyes beamed, and her skin glistened, washed clean of the layers of stage makeup. She gave Kate a light kiss on each cheek. “Thanks. I cut it a few months ago; much easier this way. You look fantastic. Thanks for meeting me.”

“Of course. Thanks for the ticket. The performance was unbelievable, and you were stunning. My God, The Met – I’m so proud of you,” Kate said as they took their seats on the sofa. Elena took a swig from her water bottle and shrugged modestly.

“Glad you enjoyed it. I’m pretty much in a haze of exhaustion right now.”

“I bet. Would you like a drink?” Kate asked.

“I’ll just stick with this,” Elena replied. “But get something for yourself.”

“No, I’m fine.” Kate adjusted her position on the slippery sofa and tried to relax. The mahogany-paneled room was quiet, occupied by only a few other couples huddled together in various alcoves beneath towering shelves of books and the soft glow of fire and lamplight. From another area of the bar, Kate could hear a jazz pianist improvising on a tune she recognized but couldn’t identify.

“So…been a long time, hasn’t it?” Elena said. “How are things? Do you have any pictures of your family?”

Asking to see pictures of her family must be the only way her friends knew how to enter her world, to avoid hinting at the maelstrom that had thrown her life off course. “Things are good,” Kate said, scrolling through the photos on her phone until she’d found one of the three of them on a recent Saturday morning at the farmer’s market. Elena studied it carefully. Kate studied Elena.

Elena swiped through the other photos. “Wow. Married with a kid. How did that happen?”

“No idea. I woke up one morning, and there they were. Now they won’t leave.” Kate laughed. “What about you? Are you seeing anyone?” The question came like a reflex, then she remembered Adam’s gossip about Meryl and wished she could take it back.

“Yes and no – it’s complicated.” Elena rolled her eyes.

“Well, with all you have going on, it must be hard to find time for a personal life.”

“Oh, there’s time. I just can’t imagine settling – settling down, I mean. I don’t want to be tied to one place, not right now, anyway.”

“Sure. I get it. I never saw myself being tied to one place either. But then, you know, life happens. And suddenly, you’re like, Oh my God, this is my home, my family. I’ve done it, I’ve settled, and yet, I haven’t dissolved into thin air, or into someone else.” Who are you trying to convince? Kate asked herself, as the words idled between them. She reflected on the piano playing in the other room. The Nearness of You. That was the song. It’s not the pale moon that excites me….

“I wasn’t implying that you’ve settled,” Elena said.

“I know.”

“I realize it’s not that simple. You went through a lot. I probably would’ve given up, too. I wanted to get in touch, but I was all over Europe at the time. An audition in Prague, recitals in Budapest, Ljubljana….”

Given up? Is that what they all thought she’d done?

Maybe she could’ve stayed with the therapy longer. Maybe she could’ve tried harder, wanted it more. She’d been alone and adrift, but meeting Derek had felt serendipitous. After a frustrating physical therapy session, she’d ducked into a coffee shop in downtown Chicago before going home. Derek was seated at a small table near the door, his head bowed to his laptop, his arm resting on a tome entitled “Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” The shop was crowded, so he’d offered her a seat at his table. She’d accepted because he seemed too engaged in his studies to want to speak to her. But after ten, fifteen minutes, they began chatting.

An hour later, Derek’s laptop was closed, and he was leaning toward her as their conversation meandered and progressed. They exchanged numbers. The next week, his law school finals behind him, he asked her to dinner.

Kate had sworn she could never be with someone who wasn’t a musician, yet it was that part of him that captivated her the most. She escaped into his world, leaving the disintegrating path of hers behind. He was smart, funny, and comfortable with himself, unconcerned about measuring his own worth by someone else’s subjective metric, the way musicians so often were.

A year later, they were living together, and Kate had decided to go to law school herself. She began her first semester at DePaul during Derek’s final year at the University of Chicago. By the time she graduated, Derek was a second-year associate at one of the city’s largest firms, and she was four months pregnant with Nathan. They got married before a justice of the peace in Chicago, then celebrated with a small coterie of family and friends at a park along Lake Shore Drive days before packing up Derek’s Jeep and moving to D.C., where his firm had relocated him. A flurry of transformation, enough for a lifetime.

“Hey, are you still with me?” Elena waved her hand in front of Kate’s face. “I hope what I said didn’t offend you. I just – it’s been so long, so much has happened.”

“You know what was surprising?” Kate asked. “How easy it was to just…stop. Playing, I mean. Like, once I decided to discontinue the therapy, and I realized I wasn’t going to be that thing I’d devoted my life to, I just stopped, and that was that. It happened so fast. I moved onto something else. Is that weird?”

“Well…Yeah. Kind of. I don’t know – I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

“Right. Well, before everything happened, I couldn’t either. I admit that seeing you on stage tonight made me envious as hell. It’s not that I don’t miss performing. But, back then, I spent so much time focused on not failing – it was like an obsession. Of course, I never envisioned being hauled off the stage on a stretcher.” Kate laughed, mostly to herself. She didn’t know what her point was, exactly. Elena lowered her head to her hands for a moment, and when she peered up again, Kate could see tears in her eyes.

“I am so, so sorry,” Elena said. “I should’ve reached out to you after Adam told me what happened. Maybe I could’ve helped, offered moral support. For so long I’ve wanted to apologize for being such a jerk. For everything.”

“Oh.” Kate was unprepared for her admission. “You weren’t a jerk. And you don’t owe me anything. I did try contacting you after graduation. When you didn’t respond, I figured you were either too busy or wanted nothing more to do with me.”

“I was busy. But I was also confused. You were the first woman – you know. I hadn’t even come out yet.” Elena took Kate’s hand and ran her thumb across her fingers. Kate moved over so that the two of them were slouched shoulder-to-shoulder. She felt her body collapse into its own memory.

“I did love you,” Kate said, the words falling from her lips as if they’d been dangling there, awaiting this encounter.

Elena sighed and shook her head. “Not really. Mostly, you were drunk.”

“We were both drunk.”

“Fair enough. And the next day, we both acted like we didn’t remember anything.” Elena paused. “I was afraid, and I couldn’t figure out how to talk to you. So, I just didn’t.”

Kate thought about confessing the full extent of her desire back then, about the nights she’d gone to Elena’s room to find she wasn’t there, the dull ache that settled in her stomach as each letter and email went unacknowledged. She considered asking about Meryl. Kate knew that Elena wasn’t out to the public and that she’d probably never be. The ambiguity of her sexuality made her that much more alluring as an artist. But none of it mattered now, she decided. They’d moved on. Hadn’t they?

“I was confused, too,” Kate said at last. “God, it was ages ago.”

Elena nodded. “I have thought about you, though, wondered how you are, whether what you went through changed you.”

Kate’s chest tightened. She hated questions that seemed to require a summation of what it all meant, what she’d learned about herself. She’d spent enough time in therapy to know there’d never be a clear answer. “I don’t know if it changed me. Possibly. I think having a child changed me more.”

“I would imagine. Have you played for him? I bet he’d love it.”

“No, I haven’t. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve played at all. I’ve thought about getting a piano for the living room, but…”

“What?” Elena sat up and turned to face her. “Listen, Kate, I won’t tell you how to live your life. But, Nathan should know this part of you, too.”

Kate drew her hands back to her lap. Leave Nathan out of it; she wanted to say. “This part of me?” she responded. “The part that failed, that gave up?” If she’d known how to blend these two worlds, she would’ve done it already. But she feared they’d just collide, one rupturing the other, leaving her holding only scattered remnants of her life.

“I don’t think you gave up,” Elena said. “And you certainly didn’t fail. I only meant – never mind. I just want you to be happy.”

Was she happy? Happiness arrived in fleeting gusts, some lasting longer than others; more a process than a state of being. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m The Marschallin,” Kate said.

“A thirty-something Austrian Field Marshal’s wife having an affair with a younger man? Sorry – not following.” Elena grinned.

“What does she say in the first act? Something like, when you’re young, you live for each moment and think nothing of time; and then suddenly, you can think of nothing else? Maybe I’m learning to accept that I’m not the person I was, that what I once wanted is gone, that I can’t change that. Time doesn’t care – it just ticks along.”

Elena sank back into the sofa, clasped Kate’s by the shoulder, and pulled her closer. “What would you change if you could?” She whispered into her ear.

Kate felt Elena’s breath on her neck. She closed her eyes as her body began to warm.

Could she forget that Derek and Nathan were ten floors up and leave with Elena to reclaim what they’d abandoned? Could she go back in time, bypass the coffee shop in Chicago, return to her apartment, and cajole her mangled hands into doing what she’d grown up believing God had created them to do? That wasn’t what Elena was asking. But Kate’s mind could only entertain the unviable: altering the past, which necessarily required erasing the present. No Derek, no Nathan, no job helping those way more vulnerable than she’d ever been. This was her life, for better, for worse. And, mostly, it was better. Yes, happiness was a process, even if, within the space of the last few hours, it felt like everything could come undone, the silk threads of the parachute keeping her aloft slowly unraveling because she’d tugged at the wrong strand.

“Follow me,” Kate said, hoisting herself up from the sofa.

It was after two a.m., and the bar was officially closed. A few other guests remained, but no one had been asked to leave, so Kate led Elena through the darkened lounge until she found the right alcove. The pianist was gone, and the lid to the piano was closed but not locked. Kate lifted it, sat down on the bench, and ran her hands over the keys. Elena sat down next to her. Kate hadn’t touched a piano in more than a decade, but the smooth ivory under her fingers felt comfortably familiar, even though the action was much quicker than that of the stiff, atrophied uprights they’d played at school.

Kate pressed her fingers into the keys, searching for the right chords. She remembered her grandmother teaching her to play as a child – she could still picture her delicate hands scaling the ladders of white and black. The best melodies weren’t written, they were discovered, she’d once told Kate. With time, you could draw them out of hiding, each progression requiring a balance of consonance and dissonance, tension and release. Kate had long believed that some music was preordained – a spiritual offering waiting to be revealed by voices that could give it life on earth. Maybe she could still be one of its messengers.

Kate felt Elena’s hand resting on her shoulder, stroking her back, then her thigh, then coming to rest at the hemline of her dress. She knew they were sitting too close. She also knew that in four hours, Nathan and Derek would be awake, and the rest of her life would resume. Until then, she would claim this time and space for herself, allow her hands to travel, to see what they might discover. She would feel every gust of memory, of lost love, of her past life. All of it fleeting, yet sustaining.

About the Author

Rachel Browning

Rachel Browning is an attorney, writer, and musician originally from Houston, Texas. Her flash fiction has appeared in the online magazine, Every Day Fiction. She currently lives in Maryland with her wife and twin daughters.