New year, new me.
That’s what everyone says. Now me, I’m not quiet as ambitious, but I am pleased (more than pleased, actually) to share that I am making good progress with one resolution: to write every day. What I have to share with you for this blog post isn’t another self-pity party or a list of attributes I wish I possess or anything like that. It’s … a short story!
Without further ado, I present for your reading pleasure: “BARBARA AND HER VIOLIN.”
Barbara sighed deeply. She was seated on a low, plush stool on a similarly plush rug in the center of her small, sparse living room. Her violin case was resting quietly beside her. Its golden clasps shone magnificently against the hard, matte black covering. It was beautiful to behold, had been a birthday gift from the first and last man she had ever loved, but at the current moment, it was not beautiful enough to hold her attention. Instead, Barbara was focused on her hands.
Her worst fears had been confirmed earlier that morning during a routine visit to her doctor. Barbara hadn’t told him about the pain in the mornings and she kept quiet about the way her finger and wrist joints would scream after a few hours of playing. Her mother had taught her that ignoring a problem made it go away, so Barbara never spoke about what was going on with her hands. And she made no mental notes whatsoever about how often she rubbed them to soothe the throbbing aches in her fingers and wrists. No one had to know because nothing was happening. Nothing to see here, folks. Just move it along, Barbara thought with a rueful smile.
But then Dr. Gabbison handed her a clipboard with some routine paperwork to sign. “Oh, Barbara,” he moaned. “Why didn’t you tell me about your hands?”
Barbara looked up with wide eyes. She had been struggling to grip the pen, wincing as she struggled to curl her fingers. She couldn’t bear the pity in the doctor’s eyes, so she averted her gaze to the appendages in question, the very things she was trying so hard to ignore. There were bony knobs on all of her fingers, and the skin around each was red and inflamed. They were awful and hideous to behold. Their ugliness viciously betrayed their former grace and dignity. Those hands could make wonderful music and remind people that humans were capable of more than just eating and shitting and dying. Now, they were discolored and gnarled and she hated them. When she looked back to Dr. Gabbison, she thought she might cry.
She left his office an hour later. Barbara left with a prescription for some super strength pain reliever and an impending sense of doom. Dr. Gabbison scheduled Barbara for another appointment in a week and tried to be optimistic, but he mentioned steroid injections and splints and even surgery, all of which scared Barbara half to death. All of that meant getting better was not an option. Dr. Gabbison talked about life0changing measures, alterations to her beloved and comfortable daily routine. Dr. Gabbison talked about not playing the violin anymore. She could never – and would never – understand how anyone could demand that someone else stop creating, stop making beautiful things for this grotesque world and its morally disfigured inhabitants. Barbara did not know how she would cope with the daily disappointments without the violin. She didn’t know how to keep from crying herself to sleep when the other side of the bed had been so cold for so long without the violin. Barbara didn’t know what she was going to do.
Daunted by the enormity of the tragedy she was facing, Barbara simply sat on her low, plush stool situated in the center of the plush carpet in the middle of her nearly empty living room. The blinds were drawn. The air was stale. Dust mites apathetically floated in the narrow streams of light that slipped in. Barbara sat with her hands curled about themselves in her lap. They seemed like they were not part of her, like she holding a weak and dying thing that she would be happy to see go as it meant the suffering was over, but mostly because she was disgusted by its continued existence. The hands she had cared for and admired for so long were useless to her now, and so she despised them. And the worst of it was that they were still part of her, and she couldn’t just ignore them until they were better. She couldn’t act like it was all okay because the hands riddled with arthritis had betrayed her and sat now as useless stumps, daily reminders of what she once had been and could never be again. As if growing older wasn’t enough of a travesty. She’d have to continue on alone, without the only companion she had known for nearly two decades. The music was gone, red and inflamed and silent, and now Barbara had nothing to help her temporarily forget that all there was left to do now was die.
She wondered if she should make herself a drink.
Barbara slowly got to her feet, thinking now that every single joint in her body was seizing up on her. She grabbed her lower back with a grimace and shuffled slowly, hunched over, into her small but tidy kitchen. It was a good thing she didn’t pass a single mirror on the way. She was moving like a woman twenty years older. It would have depressed the hell out of Barbara to see herself so frail, so weak, so near the end.
Barbara opened up the cabinet with glass inserts to find just the right glass to toast her final defeat with. What it was filled with would be inconsequential; anything with alcohol would suffice. Her eyes scanned the shelves to the bottom of the cabinet, and there they widened and filled with tears. Her breath caught in her throat.
Barbara was looking at two glass tumblers with a date from long ago etched elegantly around their middles. Henry had surprised her with them on the last night of their second honeymoon, a trip booked once Henry’s cancer proved indestructible against radiation and surgery and prayers and pleas and oils and creams and everything else, dear Lord, they had tried everything and nothing had worked. Barbara had broken down immediately, burying her face in her hands and letting the sobs wrack her body, sending shudders from her shoulders to her guts. Henry took the news with the same quiet dignity he always had. He shook the doctor’s hand, thanked him for his efforts. He helped Barbara to her feet, kissed the top of her head, and practically carried her to the car. He drove them home (for Christ’s sake, Barbara thought, I wasn’t even able to drive him home) and locked himself in the guestroom for two days.
When Henry emerged, he acted like nothing had happened. He kissed Barbara hard enough to make her knees tremble, made them a huge breakfast, and talked excitedly about what he was calling “his farewell tour.” He wanted to taste the air of great cities he’d never been to. He wanted to make love to Barbara in distant lands and wake up beside her with different sunlight on their faces. He wanted to live the way people are meant to; fearlessly and joyfully. He wanted what little time he had left to be so fucking good (the only time Barbara had ever heard him use such language) that he’d miss being alive.
They sat side by side and planned the whole thing – reservations and itineraries and accommodations galore – on Barbara’s laptop.
They ended the trip in Paris, Barbara’s absolute favorite city. Henry’s condition was rapidly deteriorating. He was always tired and though he put on a brace face, Barbara could tell he was relieved when she cancelled the remaining sightseeing tours. They stayed in the hotel room, making love and gorging themselves on French cuisine via room service. Barbara would play the violin at night. Henry would smile, crying as he watched her play. He told her he loved her over and over again. He told her he would miss her over and over again. Barbara didn’t trust herself to speak, so she only held him and kissed him and loved him the best she could.
The last night, Barbara awoke alone in the extravagant bed. They had made love and afterwards, she had fallen asleep, wrapped in Henry’s arms. When she woken and discovered he had left, she began to panic. He was too weak to go anywhere without assistance and he couldn’t speak a word of French. Barbara threw the covers off and frantically began getting dressed, wondering where he could have gone and debating calling the authorities. She had one leg in her pants when the door opened.
“Henry!” Barbara cried. She ran to him, half-dressed, and threw her arms around him. “I was so worried! You didn’t leave a note or anything an your cell phone was on the nightstand, so I didn’t know what happened to you!”
Henry stopped Barbara’s mouth with his, holding her almost as tightly as she was holding him, with a strength he hadn’t had in months. He backed her up to the bed. “Don’t bother getting dressed,” he said, winking.
Barbara fell back onto the bed and got a good look at Henry. He looked good, looked like he had when the trip started. She also noticed he was holding a brown paper shopping bag. Henry noted Barbara’s quizzical expression and set the bag on the bed. From it, he pulled an expensive looking bottle and two equally expensive looking tumblers. He handed the glasses to Barbara. “Look at the inscription,” he said. Barbara did as she was told. It said: BARBARA AND HENRY, AN EVERLASTING LOVE THAT BEGAN 02/18/1973.
Barbara blinked back tears. “Henry,” she said. She let his name hang on her lips and hang in the air because it was so sweet and so precious, and she wanted to savor it.
Henry held Barbara’s face in his hands. “I love you, Barbara. I love you more than I have ever loved anyone. You are the only thing about this life I’ll miss.” He paused to take a deep, shuddering breath. “So when I’m gone, you need to keep going. Do you understand me?”
Barbara shook her head, tears steadily pouring down her cheeks. “I can’t have this conversation with you, Henry.” Barbara thought that ignoring a problem really did make it go away, that acknowledging the problem was that start of all the trouble, so she shut her eyes and tried to be somewhere else.
Henry released her face and grabbed Barbara by her shoulders, shaking her. “Don’t do that. Don’t refuse anything life gives you. This is hard and this seems terribly unfair, but this is it, Babs. This is the hand we’ve been dealt so we’ve gotta play it.” He kissed her lips. “I know you don’t think you’re strong. I know you believe yourself incapable of facing any kind of adversity. And I know a lot of that is my fault because I’ve never let you. I’ve always fixed whatever was broken and I’ve always handled whatever needed to be handled, and I’ve always spared you the gory details. Barbara, honey, that was a mistake. I’m worried I might have set you up for failure.”
Barbara emphatically shook her head “no.” “Henry, you never ever did anything wrong. I -”
Henry interrupted her. “Barbara, stop. Listen to me, okay? Don’t argue or anything, just listen to me. Life is going to happen to you after I’m gone and you’re going to have to keep living no matter what. If that means finding love with someone else, or if that means moving somewhere else, whatever that means, I need you to do it.”
Barbara threw her arms around Henry again. She was sobbing, smearing snot and mascara all over his shoulder. “I love you, Henry. I don’t want to do this without you.”
“You have to,” Henry said. His voice was thick and he swallowed all that emotion down before speaking again. “You have to and you will. You’ll be an old, beautiful woman with long, gray hair, captivating men and women of all ages and types with that violin of yours. The sky will be the limit without me holding you back,” he said. He laughed softly and kissed her again. “Promise me you’ll never stop.”
Barbara looked Henry in the eye. The only man she had ever loved, the man who would be dead and buried in less than a month. Henry had saved her from countless dangers, both real and imagined, both big and small. He’d always kissed it and made it better. He was her lover and cheerleader, her biggest fan. There was absolutely no conceivable way Barbara could go on without him. It wasn’t a promise she could make as it certainly wasn’t a promise she could keep. But Barbara also couldn’t deny a dying man his last wish. So she kissed him like she’d never be able to kiss him again, like this really was the very last goodbye, and then she said, “I promise.”
Henry kissed her open mouth. “I’ll drink to that,” he said, smiling though there were tears gathering in his dark eyes. He filled both glasses with the bourbon he liked, and they toasted to Barbara’s promise.
Now, over ten years later, Barbara stood in her small but neat kitchen, holding one of the glasses from that tragically perfect evening in a Paris hotel room with a gnarled, grotesque hand. Next to Henry, the violin was her only source of companionship. To lost it would be like losing Henry all over again, would be a fate worse than death. That violin had brought her to Henry. After she had played with a small orchestra at the local community college, Henry had been waiting for her outside. He told her that he just had to tell her she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen or heard. He said it would be his life’s biggest regret if he didn’t ask her out. And so their courtship had begun.
Henry was at every single performance, even when his failing health didn’t really allow it.
At their wedding, Barbara played an original composition she had written for Henry.
When they had their first bad fight, Barbara played her violin until Henry finally started talking to her again. This same tactic was successfully employed time and time again over the years, as the music was a cue for Henry to come and have a conversation or, at the very least, to tell her to knock it off because he wasn’t angry anymore and just wanted some quiet. Barbara didn’t think she could abandon those memories or do such a disservice to the instrument that had helped her keep the promise she made to her dying husband.
Slowly, painfully, Barbara filled the glass with the bourbon Henry had loved. She drank it down quickly and then returned to the living room. Slowly, painfully, she removed the beautiful instrument from its elegant case, and she began to play.
In a couple of hours, she didn’t even feel the pain.