Ensemble of One
A gaggle of kids squeal and scramble around the mini park across the street, and Mara, walking home from the grocers with a quart of almond milk and two avocados in her threadbare Obama in ‘08 cloth bag, stops to listen. One little girl, making a tight turn, loses her balance and falls. After three silent seconds, she emits a high, piercing wail. A trickle of blood runs down her knee and shin. Mara waits for an adult to come, then, feeling slightly faint, resumes her walk.
At rehearsal that evening, after a run-through of a new piece that the trio is calling “Songs that Bend Like Flowers” and that will be the centerpiece of their next record, Mara says, “I think we need something else. Something that will complete the song. I mean, something to en-strange it.”
“I like it as is,” Gunther, the celloist, says. “It doesn’t need anything else. We’ve been at this piece for two and half months. Besides, we have to record in a week.”
Abon, who plays standup bass, asks what Mara has in mind.
She presses her finger on the e string up high on the neck and quiver-drags the bow over it. “Not that exactly, but something like that.”
“Hmm,” Abon says. “A primal cry? An animal in distress?”
“No,” says Gunther. “Look, I understand your impulse, Mara, but that sound would ruin the piece.”
In the twelve years that the trio has been recording and performing together, Mara has slept with Abon three or four times and Gunther once. Abon is a fabulous lover in his way, inventive and a little kinky and always ready to laugh, but Gunther is, curiously, tenderer and very silent and intensely present.
Mara’s current boyfriend is Lewis. He’s a chiropractor and a Buddhist. She likes saying “Lewis the Buddhist.” But he’s in Calcutta now, for six months, volunteering his chiropractic services to the needy there, and, when not working, practicing quietude. He said he would facetime her often, but in the two months that he’s been gone, they’ve only done that twice. Otherwise, it’s an email every week or so. Although India is far away, Lewis seems even farther away than that.
Lying in bed on a rainy Tuesday morning, Mara recalls the radio documentary she listened to late the night before, when she couldn’t sleep. It was about the sounds the universe makes in gravitational waves. It reminded her of whale songs. A fascinating topic, and she’d listened with interest, but something about the program got her thinking of her father, a man mortally serious about his own music—he played French horn for years in the Cleveland Orchestra, composed original pieces, and taught private lessons to students bound for Julliard and places like it. Mara felt music was her father’s god, a god who demanded worship at the expense of all else, including wife and only child. A god who called his faithful servant home at age sixty-two.
Right before she finally falls asleep, Mara thinks, really, I should hate music.
Lewis Facetimes her. He looks both ethereally composed and downright haggard.
“I want to be honest about something,” he tells her.
This is a phrase that ought to come with a trigger warning. Mara’s body, around the shoulders especially, tenses.
“I was so involved in everything here at first that I didn’t really miss you all that much. But I do now. I realize I miss you terribly. I miss us.”
Mara wonders if Lewis’s eyes have somehow grown bigger in India. “You miss us,” she says softly.
“Sorry. What was that?”
“I only repeated what you said. It’s sweet.”
But something’s wrong with the connection. “Mara, you’re breaking up,” is the last thing she hears.
Walking up Broadway on a Sunday morning, people pass, eyes averted, headphones covering their ears.
Before rehearsal, Gunther asks if he and Abon can talk with her. They sit on folding chairs in a small circle.
Gunther says, “Abon and I have been discussing the direction we want to go in, going forward.”
“Mind you, dear,” Abon says. His long-limbed arms lying dormant in his lap but his big hands opening like dark flowers. “Nothing is set in stone.”
“Oh? Are you guys dismissing me from the group, then?”
“No,” Abon responds immediately. “No…”
“Don’t put it like that, Mara,” Gunther says. “Abon and I want to do a project as a duo. To be honest, we’ve been talking about it for three years, always putting it off, but we feel like the time has come. It will be a very spare, very scaled down project. Just two instruments.”
“But,” Abon says, “we’re not doing it yet. We’re going to finish ‘Flowers’ first.”
Mara cannot stop her lower lip from quivering, even with two fingers pressed against it.
As she walks along Broadway, traffic at a virtual standstill, a chorus of angry drivers lean on their horns. The racket and the exhaust make Mara feel dizzy. To save herself, she goes into a Starbucks, where, over a mellow din, a muzak version of an old Simon and Garfunkel tune plays.
Lewis appears stunned to hear Mara tell him that she thinks it’s not right, whatever their relationship has become, and that she hopes he understands but she wants to end it. He wants to know what’s caused this change of heart: is there somebody else?; is it something he should have done?; she knew he was going away for half a year and said it was important, that she’d wait. She’s sorry but she’s said all she can say for now. Except sorry, sorry.
She wishes him great peace.
Find a quiet place. Sit. Close your eyes and breathe deeply but softly, in and out. Do this until your body falls away and you are only consciousness. Consciousness breathing. Consciousness listening.
Steven Ostrowski is a fiction writer, poet and painter whose work appears widely in literary journals and anthologies. He’s recently published fiction in American Short Fiction, Midway Journal, river, river and Cloudbank. Steven is the author of six chapbooks—five of poems and one of stories. His chapbook of poems, Persons of Interest, won the 2021 Wolfson Chapbook Prize and will be published this year. He and his son Ben coauthored a full-length collaboration called Penultimate Human Constellation, published in 2018 by Tolsun Books. His novel, The Highway of Spirit and Bone, is forthcoming from Lefora Publishers. Steven teaches at Central Connecticut State University.