Dissonance, by Maude Larke
Ruth had never seen Dana cry so. Or not in a long time. Not since Ruth had her dazzling first performance with an established orchestra. When she dashed out afterward to find her parents, they told her that Dana had bolted out of the hall as soon as Ruth had gone off stage. They found her sitting in a chair in the lobby and sobbing. The stuttered syllables “too powerful” was the only explanation they received.
This crying was worse, completely choked, coming from a completely fetal Dana lying shuddering on the bed. Ruth was only able to get two words out of her: “Toby.” “Dead.” That explained the intensity of the grief.
Ruth saw her mother off, went back into the bedroom, and curled herself against Dana’s shaking back. After a while Dana fell asleep, tired and half asphyxiated from crying. Ruth did not dare move.
Her mind moved all it wanted. She could tell that she felt very sad for Dana. She could not tell how she felt about Toby. Her wandering thoughts made her start to fidget; several times she fought to make herself still again.
She remembered the times that the three of them had spent together. The first especially. Ruth and Dana had only just fallen in love. Ruth had gone to Boston to conduct Dana in a concert. Dana had sung, but went directly from the concert hall to the hospital with a fiery fever. Ruth had found her way back to the apartment and spent a restless night worrying. At 10:30 the next day, she heard what sounded like a doorbell. She looked through the peephole and saw a handsome, smiling blond man.
“Hello?” she asked tentatively.
The man showed a brief moment of surprise, then asked, “Is that Ruth?”
“Um . . . yeah, how did you know my name?”
His smile became dazzling.
“Dana’s told me so much about you. I’m Toby, her best friend. Isn’t she there?”
Ruth suddenly felt dopey. She was having a conversation with a seemingly agreeable man through a thick door. She reached over and fumbled with the unfamiliar lock, swearing inwardly, inwardly ordering Dana to teach her how to open that locked door smoothly. Finally the door opened. The blond man took one step forward and offered Ruth a calm hand to shake. When she took it, she found it warm and firm.
“Dana’s never told me anything about you,” Ruth said apologetically.
“I’m not surprised,” Toby said through his open smile. “I’m sure the two of you always have a lot to say to each other.”
Ruth began to explain Dana’s illness, but midway through it Toby began moving into the living room. Ruth was about to apologize for not having invited him to come in and sit down, but the words were tamped back by Toby casually sauntering into the kitchenette. This Toby seemed awfully free with Dana’s home.
He stopped by the kitchen counter and asked, “Where’s Mortimer?”
“I don’t know,” Ruth replied casually, then clapped a hand to her mouth. “I haven’t even fed him!”
Toby looked over the counter and said, “There’s still crunchies left in his bowl. He’s not starving.”
As he made coffee, Ruth finished her explanation of Dana’s hospitalization, immediately after which Toby asked how the concert had gone. Ruth was all praise for Dana and the ensemble, and dared suggest that she had done an adequate job conducting.
Toby looked steadily at her over his coffee mug.
“I am completely certain that you were far more than adequate.”
He then asked more detailed questions, showing some musical knowledge and some familiarity with the scores, including the one by a forgotten Russian composer that Dana had performed as, possibly, a world premiere. His intelligent and tasteful comments made Ruth forget his liberties in Dana’s home, and his compliments to her, positive but without exaggeration or effusion, mollified her. His explanation for showing up at Dana’s door – that she had invited him for brunch so that he could meet Ruth – led to his offer of brunch out.
While they ate Ruth confessed that she could not recall Dana mentioning the invitation. They both concluded that the onset of her flu must have made her lose track of things.
“At any rate,” Toby added, “I have already seen the effect you have on her. She only talks about you. She only thinks about you.”
Ruth felt herself tingle.
“You know you’re her first true love?”
Ruth started amidst her tingling.
“Yes. You see, I’ve known Dana for nine years now. She came here unattached, and just attached herself to her music. Apart from her singing, directing, playing, her closest relationship has been with me.”
As Toby bent his head to his filet, Ruth gazed at him. There was something so calm in his behavior. Smug? Another thought scurried in. Her best friend, and she hasn’t talked about him? The question went unanswered as Toby raised his head and smiled. “You are the one.”
Ruth could find no comment to make. Toby seemed to take her silence as a response. That seemed even smugger. Then the hair rose on the back of her neck; she imagined him watching the gentle gestures that Dana made to her the few times that they had been in bed together. Or second worst: hearing Dana’s descriptions of them, of Ruth’s reticence and unease. Did he know what she looked like naked? Had he heard how inept she was at intimacy? Ruth excused herself and slipped away to the toilet.
When she returned, Toby had settled the bill, so they stepped out into the gray November day and walked back to Dana’s apartment. Ruth mentioned some errands that she needed to do, and Toby offered to come by on the next morning and help her find what she needed. Not knowing the city, she felt obliged to accept.
The next day, after the errands, they came back into the apartment and heard water running.
“I didn’t leave the shower on, did I?” Ruth asked.
Toby smiled slightly and answered, “Maybe there’s someone else using it. Why don’t you go see?”
Ruth’s vague irritation with Toby flowed away in a tide of warmth. She tossed her coat on the couch and sprinted to the bathroom. Dana’s bathrobe was draped over the toilet. Ruth pushed aside the curtain and found empty space where the shower head sent its sprays. Then she heard “Oh!” and looked down.
Dana was sitting in the bottom of the tub, cross-legged, smiling widely. She turned off the water as Ruth knelt by the tub.
“I kept wondering if I had dreamed you,” Dana breathed as she reached to caress Ruth’s curls. “Have you been alright?”
Just at that moment they heard a shout that rose to a strangled, “Mor-ti-meeeeer!” Dana smiled.
“Of course. You couldn’t have been more alright. I’m so glad. Could you keep him company while I dry off?” Then in a louder voice, she called out, “Toby, I will not be held responsible for any lost eyes.”
Dana kissed Ruth and stood up carefully. Ruth went out to the living room and found man and animal in a chase. Toby ran around the couch clockwise, with Mortimer pattering after. Mortimer jumped onto the seat of the couch, then the back, and then launched himself at Toby’s head. Toby pressed the cat to his face and made nomming sounds against his belly. They separated, and Toby chased Mortimer around the couch counterclockwise.
In another moment Toby stopped, enveloped in the terry cloth of Dana’s bathrobe, enveloping her in a long, close hug. Then they gave each other a humming kiss. Ruth suddenly felt like a voyeur.
Dana did not stay standing long. She explained the basic facts – the fever breaking on Sunday, the release that morning to take care of her flu at home, her feeling “as floppy as my mother’s spaghetti”. Toby was attentive and sympathetic, and ready to run out for Chinese when Dana told him that she was too weak to go out. She sent Ruth with him to help carry the bags, and all the while they were doing that errand Toby talked about Dana’s paleness, her shakiness, and the oddity of seeing her sick.
Ruth could not remember at what point she had dared ask about the kiss that she had seen. She knew that it was some time after. After the next brunch, the one that Dana prepared. After seeing Toby bustling to help prepare concert halls. After having seen other hugs and kisses. Immediately before learning that Dana had slept with him.
“You could have told me this sooner,” Ruth said through a tight throat.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that it was a while back, and ‘sleep with’ is something of an exaggeration. I mean, haven’t you wondered just why a handsome, wonderful man like Toby isn’t married yet?”
Ruth wanted to ask “why should I care?” She also wanted to ask “what’s so wonderful about him?” Instead she shook her head. Dana sighed.
“And every time he starts a relationship, the woman finds out, of course. And she dumps him. So now he’s thirty-two and still single. The few times we were together were to soothe him after a particularly hard breakup. And it helped him. And it certainly didn’t hurt me. He doesn’t do anything different from what you do.”
Ruth took in a long breath and said, “You love him.”
Dana answered, “As my closest, sweetest longtime friend. True, if I hadn’t met you, I would probably be married to him by now. Just for his sake. But since I’ve been with you, that’s been out of the question.”
Ruth had never dared talk about Toby again after that. She barely spoke to him. The whole question of how he felt about Ruth’s appearance in Dana’s life thickened the air between them. His smiles and talk about her being “the one” seemed even more fake to her. But she could never find the nerve to ask.
Toby seemed to sense that barrier. He was always pleasant, smiling, and full of compliments, but never offered a hug. He continued to offer plenty of hugs and kisses to Dana, and she answered them enthusiastically.
A pang shot through Ruth when she remembered a more recent hug. She had been at the beginning of her full career as conductor, traveling incessantly and trying to absorb entire concert programs one after the other. She was terribly out of touch with Dana during that time, ostensibly because she was so busy. Only after, when things had gone so bad, did she admit that it was because she was afraid of breaking down under the strain, and somehow knew that talking to Dana would open the way to that breakdown.
When she received several messages from Dana in the space of two days, she ignored them, and even stopped checking for messages. When she had finally conducted her last concert for the season, she flew to New York in a state of intense bliss to join her parents for Dana’s concert with her early music group at Carnegie Hall. A delay made her arrive just in time to take her seat, so she had no time to go backstage and give Dana a good-luck kiss. As she settled in her third-row seat, she saw the neat blond head of Toby in the first row. Then, past him, she saw a strange harpsichord on the stage. As she exclaimed to her parents her surprise, Toby turned and glanced at her. The glance was strangely cold.
Ruth was overwhelmed by the concert. Dana, always inventive in her use of repertoire and staging, had created some magnificent moments – the brass parading down the aisles, the different sections mixing or changing places, the clever use of large or small groups, and a finale that was the exact mirror image of the thrilling opening, with one difference. Dana motioned to the other brass players to proceed up the aisle, set her sackbut to her lips, and blasted an eight-measure trill through the hall. The entire audience roared and applauded, and Ruth literally jumped up and down in her seat.
Ruth and her parents took some time to arrive backstage, as there were many of their friends and acquaintances in the hall that night. They arrived in the wings just as the group was dispersing, with thank-yous to Dana. They moved away from a Dana curled closely in Toby’s arms, her back turned to the Russbaums.
“You’re coming to the after-concert drinks with me, aren’t you, Toby?” Dana asked tenderly.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” Toby answered.
“But we won’t stay long. I’m too exhausted by all this. Did you get us a hotel room?” Dana asked quietly.
“Right nearby, an easy walk.”
Just then Toby saw the Russbaums.
“But you might want to invite . . . uh . . . someone else to the bar.”
Ruth felt the air that surged between the pair as Dana’s back snapped straight. Toby’s eyes were still on Ruth. Dana turned brusquely. Ruth had never seen such a hard glare in Dana’s eyes.
“No. I don’t see anyone else to invite. Come with me.”
Dana grasped Toby’s hand and led him swiftly into the corridor to the dressing rooms.
Ruth had gone home without saying a word to her parents and spent a night five times more agitated than any of the ones that she had spent during the season worrying about scores and programs. At dawn she began leaving messages on Dana’s answering machine, even though she knew that Dana could not have made it back to Boston yet. By mid-day Dana’s machine had topped out, and Ruth threw some clothing in a bag and dashed to the train station.
Arriving in Boston, Ruth went straight to Dana’s, leaned on the doorbell, and blurted out rushed pleading when Dana came on the intercom. There was a long pause, then the door buzzer sounded.
Ruth found the apartment door closed when she arrived on Dana’s floor. She stood still for a moment to breathe, then rang. The door opened smoothly, like a door in a silent horror film. Dana stood inside, gazing at Ruth with the same hard stare.
A short talk took place, just there behind the door. Ruth could understand nothing of it or of Dana’s rigidity. After a moment Dana seemed to thaw, just slightly. She brought Ruth into her music room. In it was her harpsichord, the vintage eighteenth-century instrument that Ruth had been expecting to see at Carnegie Hall. Dana sat down at it, gulped, and played a few chords. Instead of the distinctive ring of harpsichord notes, Ruth heard an unresonant thumping. It was like bad lute playing. Dana quickly rose from the instrument, wiped her eyes, and led Ruth out to the living room.
There the talk became more free and open, and Dana explained the problem – the inept theater manager who had ignored the contract’s stipulations about the care of the harpsichord and left the air-conditioning on all night, the rush to remove the other period instruments which had also suffered, the anxiety over securing a replacement harpsichord for that same evening and redoing the concert program. Only for the Carnegie Hall concert, the last on the tour, had all the musicians been resettled in the sound and the repertoire.
Once Dana had explained this, she talked about the frantic phone calls that she had made to Ruth. Reaching out to her for reassurance in her crisis, getting no answers, even sending telegrams. The feeling of being abandoned, of being of no account in Ruth’s dazzling career. Ruth felt numb with horror at her selfishness and negligence. She began to explain, but was made half-incoherent by the memory of her own anxieties during the season. Suddenly, Dana began to understand. It was she who named the problem for Ruth, and once she had, she apologized in tears for not having realized the pressure that Ruth had been under.
The next few days alternated; visits from another harpsichord expert, a few of the benefactors of Dana’s group, and her lawyer made way for intimate moments of extreme tenderness and serious talk as Dana and Ruth mended fences, filled in the empty spaces of the past months, and simply loved each other. Only on the third day did Ruth mention Toby. Dana gave Ruth her first smile since her arrival in Boston.
“Oh, that boy! He was a real knight in shining armor, as always. Drove all the way down in his van, picked up my sick baby, drove all the way back, then down again to be with us for the next concert. He arrived just in time for it, in fact. Strong, encouraging, soothing . . . just the best friend and the best man to all of us.”
“He’s not the best of friends to me, just now.”
Dana lowered her head.
“No. He doesn’t think much at all of you. He knows how anxious I was to talk to you, he saw how painful it was for me not to hear your sweet voice. He couldn’t say a single good word about you for all the rest of the time we were on tour and all the way home.”
She looked back up.
“But I haven’t had a chance to explain your problems to him yet. He called on Monday while you were getting groceries and I was waiting for George. When I told him you were here he cut the conversation short. I just need to talk to him, to let him know how things were for you. He’ll come around then.”
But Toby never did “come around”. The exchanges between him and Ruth were at best cordial from that time on. It did not help matters that Ruth was unavailable on the days during which the lawsuit was heard in court because she had concerts to conduct. It did not help Ruth either; Toby was by Dana’s side through the whole ordeal. Ruth was sure that he was there each day, or worse, each night as well. She never dared ask. Just as she had never dared ask about their night at the hotel after the Carnegie Hall concert.
And now this best friend, knight in shining armor, almost husband had died. Ruth had yet to know how; Dana had been unable to say more than those two words. She did know, without being told, that Dana, who had just arrived in New York that very day to be with her, would return to Boston first thing in the morning to be with him. Ruth shuddered at her own thought; “it can’t be into his arms that she rushes this time.” She drew her own arms more closely around the hot sleeping form.
Maude Larke lives in France with the ghost of her last cat. Her credo is ‘never wear two things of the same color when hiking’. She has this bad habit of collecting things and getting antsy when people begin to touch the items in the collections. Especially the pebble collection. She thoroughly admits that she teaches as a day job out of sadism.
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Tags: bisexual, break ups, lesbian, Maude Larke, relationships