My palms were damp and I could feel the sweat building on my brow. I was nervous standing backstage waiting for the curtain call. I had played in the orchestra and other ensembles for years, but had only performed without an accompaniment a couple dozen times. There was only about twenty minutes before the curtain call, and I desperately needed to calm my nerves before I had an attack. I sat in a quiet corner and closed my eyes to focus on my breathing. At first, I was having difficulty relaxing. Not only did I have a terrible case of stage fright, I kept replaying the argument I had with Anabelle in my head. I needed to work on letting things go.
After a couple minutes of my heart and mind racing, I noticed it start to slow. I was able to focus more clearly. My breathing became easy and deep. I continued to sit with my eyes closed, until I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a soft, feminine voice.
“Mr. Stone?” I slowly opened my eyes and looked up to meet her warm blue gaze. “You have three minutes.” I nodded my thanks.
I stood, readjusted my attire, checked my hair, and walked to my entrance location. I took a few more deep breaths and motioned to the stage manager I was ready. The murmur of the crowd went silent as the curtain rose. I walked past the piano to the front of the stage and bowed. The crowd applauded.
As I settled in my seat, I placed my hands on the smooth keys and depressed the first chord. By the start of the second song, the crowd had melted away from my consciousness as the music flowed freely from the keys and melded with my soul. I had always felt peace while at the piano. I had become one with the instrument and my music.
At the end of the show, I was rewarded with a standing ovation. Several music critics stated I would go far in a solo career if I could keep the momentum. Their words of encouragement were exactly what I needed to hear after the day I had experienced. The scratches on my arms were still sore, but at least they had stopped bleeding. I could tell my shin was going to bruise where she had kicked me with her high heels. We had yelled at each other and I said things I already regretted.
She had thrown another tantrum. They were becoming more frequent, and I was eagerly awaiting the baby arriving so she could start her medications again. As I left the backstage area, my elated feelings started to come down. I realize it was only a matter of time before I had to return home. She was going to be in a foul mood since I left without her.
My older siblings, David and Olivia, were waiting on me in the reception hall. Olivia greeted me with a hug. She placed her arm directly across a tender bruise. I winced slightly, but I hoped it went unnoticed. “Where is Anabelle?”
I smiled as I instantly spun a lie about where my wife was. It was starting to become second nature to me. “She wasn’t feeling well, so we decided it was best if she stayed home.” My family had no idea the extent to which our relationship had deteriorated. I did not want them to know my failure or struggles. I knew my brother would be extremely upset if he knew I did not have Ana sign a prenuptial agreement.
Olivia quickly changed the subject from Ana. “Your show was fantastic. It seems as though you get better every time I hear you play.”
David slapped me on the shoulder. I jumped as I shrugged to remove his hand from the injury. Unfortunately, he noticed the movement and gave me a puzzled look. “Did you hurt your shoulder again?” I had told him a few months back I had injured it playing tennis.
“Nah, I’m just tense. Must just be a muscle knot there.” I rubbed my shoulder lightly pretending to work on a knot. “I’ll have to get a massage later this week to attempt to relieve the tension.”
He was not buying the excuse. I had a feeling he was starting to add up the inconsistencies in my stories. I was having a hard time keeping the lies straight myself. He didn’t press the issue any further, but I had a feeling it would be a conversation that would take place in our father’s old study. It was funny; even as an adult I dreaded that room, though our father had been gone for a number of years.
After the crowd filtered out, I walked to my car. I turned the key in the ignition and the engine purred to life. I started driving in no particular direction, turning when I felt like it, and before long I was on unfamiliar streets in a middle class neighborhood. I saw a small Irish pub, so I decided to stop. I took off my bowtie, replaced my suit jacket with a wool overcoat, and waltzed up to the doors.
The pub had a welcoming feel to it. The majority of the clientele were late twenties to early forties. I still looked over dressed with my tuxedo pants, dress shirt, and coat, as most people were dressed in jeans and t-shirts or sweaters. They were mostly grouped together around the small tables, if you dared call them tables; they looked more like Frisbees with legs. There was a small group sitting at one end of the bar while the other end was unoccupied. I chose to sit as far away from everyone else as possible.
The bartender approached me as I sat down. She was a small-framed woman with a gorgeous set of grayish-blue eyes. The shade was so particular I could not help but wonder if she were wearing contacts. Her auburn hair hung in ringlets to her shoulders. Her smile was intoxicating, and I instantly understood why the owner had hired her.
“You aren’t from around here are you?” Her voice was a raspy tone that dripped with honey.
I smiled back as I shook my head no. “What gave me way?”
She laughed, which had the instant effect of making me comfortable. “Most of my customers are regulars, but that aside, your attire is a little off. Like that watch on your wrist,” I looked down at the jewel-worked Cartier adorning my wrist, “is probably worth more than I make in a year.” She giggled when I pulled my sleeve down to cover it. “And I saw the Aston Martin you pulled up in. Either you’ve decided to go slumming and are doing a poor job at it, or you’re having woman problems.” I furrowed my brow, trying figure out how she knew. She reached over and tapped the mokume-gane wedding band on my left hand. “That is a beautiful ring by the way. I haven’t seen anything quite like it.”
I smiled. She was good. “Thank you. It was custom made in Japan.” I nervously twisted the ring around my finger with my right hand.
“So what will it be?” she asked. I paused to think. “I have some pretty good bourbon, if that would strike your fancy.”
“Sure, why not.” She poured me a strong drink, but it was not as smooth as I was hoping. Her idea of pretty good and mine were a bit different. She smirked as I made a face. “Let’s not do that again.” I cleared my throat in an attempt to sooth the burning feeling before I asked, “Do you have any rye whiskey?” She nodded. “On the rocks. Three fingers, please.”
“A man that knows exactly what he wants.” She sauntered away to check her other customers and pour my drink. She spoke with them briefly, and there were a few looks my way, but mostly I was left alone and unnoticed. When she returned, she placed the glass in front of me. “So what’s your story?”
“Honestly, it’s not much of a story,” I admitted. “I just wasn’t ready to go home.”
She gave me an all too knowing look. I did not have her fooled. She knew there was something deeper troubling me. “So, where do you call home?”
I shrugged. “Harvard Square.”
She batted her eyes in disbelief. “How is it exactly that you ended up in my modest little neighborhood on the other side of town?”
“Like I said, I wasn’t in a hurry to make it back home. I know what’s there and I am not particularly ready to face her wrath.”
She looked around at the other patrons, which were starting to thin out by this time. “Hey, don’t go anywhere sugar daddy, I need to take care of my other customers, but I’ll be back. I have a feeling you have an interesting story.” I held my glass up and gave it a little shake signifying that I would be there for a while.
She left me to my drink and my thoughts. I started wondering why Anabelle had not checked in on me yet. I should have been home hours ago. I feared the argument waiting on me at home would dwarf the one I was running from. I would probably have more bruises to match the ones she had already given me. The longer I was away from the house the longer I wanted to stay away. I would leave her, but I knew I could not afford to. She would take everything I had, along with most of the inheritance that I depended on to support my lifestyle. I was certain I would not be able to live off my actual salary, not to mention the social consequences. She had advanced my musical career in such little time due to her connections in the art community.
I had sunk about as low as I could when my drink was taken from my hand and a fresh one put in its place. I looked up into the wondering eyes of the bartender. She smiled. “On the house. You looked like you could use it.” She pulled a stool up beside me. “The name is Emma. What should I call you, Mr. Harvard Square?”
I smiled a halfhearted grin and extended my hand to shake hers. “Malcolm.”
“Well, Malcolm, let’s move over to that booth and you can tell me your story.” She motioned towards the back corner of the bar.
“What about your other customers?” She looked around and shrugged her shoulders. I followed her gaze. “When did everyone leave?”
“Oh, sometime between you wallowing in your own misery and nursing your drink,” she replied. I huffed in response. “So, what’s so bad at home?” She grabbed the half-empty bottle of rye and my arm and dragged me to the booth on the far side of the room. She poured herself a drink as we sat down. “It can’t be that bad. You’re dressed to the nines, driving a sweet car, and you are extremely handsome.” I blushed. “And apparently, easy to embarrass.” She laughed her wonderful sultry laugh. It could have been the liquor coursing through my veins, but I liked the sound of it.
“It’s really not that bad. My wife and I had an argument, not all that unusual lately, and I just don’t want to face her right now. We didn’t resolve anything before I left her at home so I could make it to my show on time.” She gave me a puzzled look. “I had a piano concert this evening.”
“You’re a pianist?” She picked up my hands and turned them over. “You do have long, delicate fingers.” She continued inspecting them. “But you have some old calluses and some scaring on your knuckles too?”
I took my hands back and rubbed my knuckles. “I was a bit of a brawler back in my high school days and spent a brief stint of time boxing.”
She took another drink. “So how good are you?” She mimed playing the piano in the air.
“Decent enough, I suppose. I teach composition at Harvard and I am a member of their faculty orchestra.”
She gave an impressed look. “Prove it.” She pointed to a piano in the opposite corner that I had neglected to notice earlier. I walked a little unsteady to the piano, sat down, and started playing. After I finished, she clapped. “Not bad. I wish you luck on making it big one day, though you’ve got the money to make people listen. I tried to break into the music business right out of college, singing. Didn’t work out so great. So here I am tending bar and drinking rye with some rich guy.” She sat down at the closest table looking a bit depressed.
“What kind of music do you sing?”
“Blues mainly, but a little jazz too.” I was not surprised. Her voice hinted she would have an interesting singing voice. One I imagined would sound provocative and sexy.
I grinned my wicked little smile. “Prove it.” I started to play some blues piano and she started singing. She had a beautiful seductress’s voice, sultry and coarse. It was perfect. She sang with heart and it sounded wonderful. “Wow, that was fantastic. You’ll make it if you don’t give up on it.”
We walked back over to the booth. “I normally sing here on Friday nights. You should stop by, if you can find your way back.” I cocked my head with a slight grin on my lips as I took another drink. I was slightly weary of the direction of the conversation, but I was hoping the conversation had officially shifted away from my life. “So what were the two of you arguing about?”
I rubbed my hands over my face as I started constructing my lies. “I honestly don’t know. But if I had to guess, it was money.”
She snorted. “So, the rich argue about money just like the rest of us!”
I frowned as I didn’t seem all that funny to me. “She has been withdrawing a lot of cash recently and I questioned her about it. The woman went hysterical.” I was not going to tell her about the hitting, biting, and screaming that accompanied her tantrum. “It went downhill from there. I walked out of the house, slammed the door, and left her at home. I actually expected her to be at the show, she never misses them, but she must have still been mad.”
“So, it wasn’t a physical fight?” she asked. I lied as I shook my head. “Then why are you worried about going home?”
“That woman has a temper. I am already,” I looked at my watch, “four hours late and she hasn’t called. So, I figure there will be hell to pay when I get home. We fight so often now I can’t even remember the last day that we didn’t.”
“Sounds like some couple’s counseling or-” I interrupted her by laughing, as I remembered the last time Ana and I had attempted counseling sessions. She raised her eyebrows at me. “Or perhaps a divorce might be in order.”
I only wished it could be as easy as it sounded. I shook my head. “Never going to happen.” She gave me a puzzled look. “There are several reasons. One, we have a baby on the way, and two, there is no prenuptial agreement. She would take me for everything I have, and I have a lot to lose.” She nodded. “So I’ll just suffer, be miserable, and drink my life away.” I lifted my glass. “Cheers to a sucky life.” I upended my glass and downed the whiskey.
“Well, let’s change the subject.” She sat in silence while we finished off the bottle. “You know, I have the urge to dance. How about it?” I stared at her. “Come on, you need to let loose.”
“What the hell.” I was feeling the alcohol, and was starting to remember what it was like to have fun. She started the jukebox and we danced until closing time. I barely remembered the last time I had that much fun.
She was tending her closing duties as I settled my tab. I started to walk out the door, but my head was a little fuzzy and I had consumed more than I had intended. “Emma, could you call me a cab?” I asked. I could tell I was getting more inebriated by the moment. “There is no way I can drive in this condition. I’ll come by first thing in the morning and pick up the car.”
She paused in her task. “You’ll probably be waiting for over an hour this time of night. Also, I wouldn’t really feel comfortable leaving your car out in the parking lot. Someone might break into it or steal it. We’ve had a lot of auto thefts in the neighborhood recently.”
“Well what are you proposing I do, drive home?” I nearly fell as I was gesticulating my point.
“Definitely not! I didn’t realize how much I let you drink.” She thought for a few moments. “If you can trust me, we could drive your car over to my place and call a cab from there?”
I thought about it, but quickly discovered that my decision-making processes were not working as well as I would have liked. I was a little untrusting of myself, but hesitantly agreed. “If you think that is best.”
We left the bar together, Emma driving my car. She pulled up to her garage and opened the door from the keypad. She parked my Aston Martin next to her Camry, then showed me into her small two-bedroom condo. It was decorated sparingly. There were a total of three paintings on the walls and no photos. Her furniture was mismatched, but comfortable. I sat on the couch and closed my eyes in an attempt to keep the room from spinning.
I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I remembered was a hand touching my shoulder where Anabelle had bitten me a few days earlier. I jumped as I grabbed the hand and twisted it slightly to keep it from causing me further pain. I heard a gasp as I jerked my eyes open. I looked around the room in confusion, and it took me a moment to remember where I was. I looked over and saw a look of surprise on Emma’s face.
I immediately let go of her hand. “Sorry, I have an injury there.” I rubbed my shoulder gently to attempt to make the pain go away.
She nodded, her eyes wide with fear as she rubbed her hand. “I just wanted to let you know the coffee is done if you would like a drink.” I rubbed my eyes. As stood up, I bumped into the coffee table and stumbled, nearly falling flat on my face. I was trying to remember how much I drank. She grabbed my arm to keep me from falling. As she helped me back to the couch, she was holding on to the cut on my arm making me wince. She gave me a look of concern. “How many injuries do you have?”
My plan was to keep quiet, but my loose lips did not agree. “Several.” I managed to shut my mouth, though I nearly blurted out all of my marital problems to her.
She walked to the kitchen. “How do you like your coffee?”
“Black.” I felt like I was going to be ill. The pain shooting through my body from my shoulder and arm with the combination of the cheap liquor was making my stomach turn tricks. “Where is your restroom?”
“Down the hall, first door on the left.” I nodded and managed to make my way to her restroom with the aid of the wall. When I returned to the living room, she handed me a cup of coffee. “Are you alright?”
“Sure. My head is pounding and the room spins every time I close my eyes, and apparently when I open them too.” I laughed.
“Oh my gosh, you’re bleeding!” She pointed to my sleeve where Anabelle had cut me. “Malcolm! It’s seeping through your dress shirt!” I shrugged. “Take the shirt off so I can soak it. I know it must be an expensive shirt just by the feel of the cloth. I have some club soda that should take out the blood.” Without thinking, I took the dress shirt off, exposing a series of bruises and scratches on my arms. She took one look at them, covered her mouth, and walked towards the back of the condo without saying a word. She disappeared for a while and when she returned, she had a first aid kit in her hand. “Let me see your arm.” I started to object, but she jerked it back as I started to move. “Let me dress your wound.” She started to roll up my undershirt. “Holy shit.”
I averted my eyes from her. I did not want to see her judging me.
Apparently, when she grabbed my arm to keep me from falling she had reopened the wounds. “It will be okay.” I wasn’t sure if I was trying to convince her that I’d be fine, or if the words were meant for myself.
“Can you take this shirt off?”
I started to look towards her, but she was staring at my face. I avoided her eyes. Instead I looked at my hands, focusing on my wedding band. I started spinning it around with my right hand while thinking about where it all went wrong. I was not even sure. For some odd reason, I felt compelled to tell Emma my story.
“It was somewhere around three years ago when everything started going south. Two years ago, Anabelle became verbally abusive and started making threats of divorce and taking everything I had. Last year when she wasn’t getting her way, she started throwing things at me. Right before she got pregnant, she calmed down. I figured the worst was past us, but probably four months ago it started back up again. This time worse than ever. Instead of throwing things she would hit me with her shoes, bite, scratch, punch, and on occasion she has burnt me with her cigarettes. One time she threatened me with a butcher’s knife. I don’t even know her anymore.”
Emma stared at me and didn’t say a thing. She touched my arm gently. “Please.” I sighed as I removed my undershirt. “Oh my god… what did she do to you?” I ignored the question and just closed my eyes wishing it were still my secret. She started cleaning up the open wound on my arm. She traced some of the bruises on my back and a few of the older scars. She cleaned the bite mark on my shoulder that was slightly infected. I winced as she touched the tender area. “I’m sorry.” I just continued looking down at my hands, staring at my wedding band.
She handed me the cup of coffee as I pulled my shirt back on. “I’ve thought about it, and Malcolm, I’m not calling you a cab.” I squinted at her in confusion. “I can’t let you go home to her tonight. You smell of my perfume, liquor, and you are really late. If you guys were already arguing today and she did these fresh ones, I don’t want to send you home drunk. You are in no condition to defend yourself.” She looked at me and added, “Even though you probably never have defended yourself against her, but at least on a normal day you could avoid her. You can stay here tonight and head home in the morning.” I was trying to figure out what she was implying. I was not a small man, though I was not muscle bound either. I had a runners build, thin and lankly.
We drank our coffee in silence. I didn’t know what to say, and thankfully she did not attempt small talk. I had to fight back watery eyes a couple times as we sat there. I placed my hand on her knee. “Thank you. I am starting to think maybe I shouldn’t go back home and just deal with the financial loss.” She smiled a sad smile. “Do you mind if I shower before I go to sleep?”
“Sure thing, but it will wash away the antibiotic cream I put on your sores. So, after you get out let me redress them and put new bandages on.” I nodded. “The towels are in the bathroom closet.”
As I was drying off there was a knock at the bathroom door. “Malcolm?” I put the towel around my waist and opened the door. “I found some of my old roommate’s clothes that should fit you. He moved in with his boyfriend last week and hasn’t moved all of his stuff yet. You two are about the same size.” She handed me the t-shirt and pajama pants.
“Let me redress those wounds.” I sat on the edge of the tub as she poured rubbing alcohol and antibiotic ointment on my scraps and cuts. The open sores she put bandages on. She rested her hand on my shoulder once she had finished. “You need to do this more often. A few of these are starting to get infected.”
I placed my hand on hers and turned to face her. “Thank you so much. You have been so kind to me, and you don’t even know me.” This stranger had managed to warm my heart. She was sitting on the toilet lid and her face was even with mine. I stared into her blue eyes. We both moved towards one another, and when her lips met mine sparks of passion flew. I pulled away, keeping my eyes averted. I could not bear to look back into her eyes. “I’m sorry. I got swept up with the emotions.”
She smiled. “I’m not. You need a tender touch in your life.” She took my hand and led me back to her bedroom. We kissed more, and I felt a sudden pang of guilt. I was married, what was I doing? Just because Anabelle treated me the way she had, it did not make my vows any less valid. Emma must have sensed my reluctance. “We don’t have to do this. If it’s because of your wife, I understand. You are married.” She paused and looked me in the eyes. “But she doesn’t deserve you.”
I sighed. “You might be right, but I just haven’t done this before. I’ve never had an affair.”
She smiled. “Just lay here with me then. If you change your mind, I’m willing, but I’m not going to pressure you into any decision.”
I lay beside her. She snuggled against me, being careful of my bruises and any sore spots. I gave in when she started rubbing my hair. I felt rather ashamed of my lack of willpower, but no one had shown me that sort of affection for some time.
The passion was strong between the two of us. We were both out of breath, and she was lying on my chest. She was still kissing my neck and shoulders, as if she was trying to kiss the pain out of every bruise and memory. I could only take so much before I had to have her again. I collapsed on her as I kissed her. I rolled to my side and pulled her close. For once, I forgot about my troubles. We fell asleep in each other’s arms.
The next morning, I woke in an unfamiliar place. I noticed weight on my arm and red hair across my chest. When I remembered what I’d done the night before, surprisingly, I didn’t feel guilty. I was even considering seeing her again, if she would allow me to. I ran my fingers through her hair. She murmured something and opened her beautiful eyes. “Good morning.”
She blinked. “I can’t believe you are still here. I figured the guilt would get to you and you would have left before I woke.” I shook my head and she smiled. She looked over at the clock. “Oh, this is much earlier than I would normally get up on my day off. But hell, since I’m up would you like some breakfast?”
“I don’t want to trouble you. I thought I’d get a shower and head home before Anabelle gets mad enough to kill me.” She had a disappointed look on her face. “I had a wonderful time last night and it made me realize I have a lot to reconsider about my marriage.” I leaned over and kissed her lips.
“Really?” she asked. I couldn’t read her expression. It was somewhere between confused and surprised.
“Yes, really. You reminded me what it was like to be appreciated and admired.” I sighed. “I gave up on love and you’ve shown me that perhaps I gave up too early.” I kissed her again, slid out of bed, and headed towards the shower.
As I was getting out of the shower, I could smell the fresh sent of coffee and hear her voice. I continued to listen from behind the bathroom door, but I never heard another voice and decided she must have been on the telephone. I walked out of the bathroom with the towel around my waist. “Emma?” She placed her hand over the receiver of her phone. She smiled as she saw me standing behind her in nothing but a towel. “Where did you put my shirt?”
She pointed down the hallway. “It’s on the dryer.” I started walking towards what I assumed was the laundry room. When I grabbed the shirt, I noticed she had managed to get the blood out of the sleeve. It made me smile. Ana either would have taken it to cleaners, or she would have just thrown it in the trash.
I walked back to her bedroom to get dressed. As I was buttoning my shirt, I noticed she was leaning against the doorway. “So, where do we go from here?” I was surprised by the bluntness of her question. I could tell this wasn’t the first time she had been in this type of situation. “Is this a one night-type thing, or can I expect to see you again?”
I sat down on the edge of the bed considering her question. I knew it wasn’t wise to be with her again, but in those few hours with her I had felt more alive than I had in months, possibly years. “You know, I think I’d like to see you again.” She smiled.
I milled around for a while. I was having a hard time convincing myself it was time to go, though the longer I was there, the more I felt like there was something pressing at home. As I left, I gave her my cell and my office number for her to reach me. I gave her a kiss goodbye, and promised to hear her sing on the upcoming weekend.