Fiction

Not All Swans Sing

He sat at a small, milky-white marble cafe table on the mezzanine, folding the paper napkin from his drink into a bird. Flimsy and damp, it sat there limp on the table as he prodded at it, trying to make it stand. Eve sat before him, saying something over the hubbub of the station below – what he didn’t know, but he didn’t bother to look up – instead, he glanced at his watch. They would have to go in a few minutes. He gave the flaccid bird one more poke.

She had mousy brown hair: the kind that was wispy and thin, like a ball of cobwebs. Her eyes were pale and watery and her face round and childish. Perhaps she was pretty, but it didn’t matter. She leaned over to pick up her trunk, or rather his trunk – he had lent it to her – as if finally surrendering to his impassivity.

He took a last sip of his coffee and pulled apart the paper bird. As he stood, his knees pushed his chair back, and he stepped out. He walked ahead of her down the stairs and towards the concourse to find her train. The pale light slanted through the dust that filled the atrium, turning it to specks of silver, drifting on the air in little constellations. He hurried toward the train, and as he strode through the crowds, she trailed behind him, heaving her bag beside her. They stood before the train and shook hands. “Goodbye Peter,” she said, and she turned away and stepped on the train. 

He briefly considered calling to her, but he walked away before the train began to move.     

He wandered out of the station onto the street and breathed in deeply the pervasive scent of cheap cigarettes. It left a musty sickly-sweet taste in his mouth, and he ducked into a drug store a few blocks down to buy a pack of gum. He was not going to feel sorry for himself. He tugged at his collar, pulling it away from his neck. He bought a newspaper too – two actually – and started back toward his apartment. No, the sky was not grey with clouds heavy with mourning in compassion with him, his sorrow for lost love choked, eyes full of unshed tears like the clouds filled with rain that would not pour. It was pale, and blank, and polluted. It’s a city, what do you expect? History does not make affection. 

He shut his door behind him and slumped back against it for a moment, jerking his scarf from his neck. Just as he began to shed his coat, the phone rang.

“Peter!”

“Max.” 

“Where are you right now?” 

“I just got home.”  

“Well, you should come out. I found this fantastic bar, they have live jazz and tonight there’s this, just, phenomenal girl going up. Really, you should come.” 

“I don’t know Max.”

“The cocktails are rather good too, though maybe over-priced. Come on, I need to have a good time.” 

“I have good booze here too, and you can have a good time without me.” 

“You saw her, didn’t you?” 

“Yeah, I went with her to her train, she needed a suitcase. Her’s broke last night.” 

“Sure it did. Well since you have nothing better to do, I’ll see you tonight!” 

Click. 

Peter slammed his head softly on the kitchen counter. “Fuck,” he exhaled. Shaking his head, he put a pot of coffee on. He’d go, of course he’d go; he always went. 

He slumped into the mushy umber couch with his newspaper. He tried to find room on the end table for his coffee, but it was piled with papers and new books. He didn’t like to shelve books until after he had read them and they had accumulated rather shockingly to the point where they, along with piles of sparsely-notated sheet music, occupied most of the surfaces in his living room. On principal, they were not stacked on the cover of the piano, in the case he might like to open it. Though in reality, he worried about bothering the neighbours and had not opened it more than once or twice since he had moved into the flat. Not finding room for the cup, he placed it rather precariously on a stack of sheet music, disregarding the sloppy ring it left. The watery coffee stain warped the staff lines so they were all wonky and wavy, though the notes were still somewhat legible. 

His attention was firmly on the paper, not that it said much of anything. They had found out some politician had a mistress, and they said that new film that had come out wasn’t very good, and they were apparently tearing down a part of the old library. He flipped through the remaining pages to the crossword and began to amuse himself with it instead. 

The pale light of the day gently died into night. He had dozed and was startled awake at the banging on his door. Compelled out of his seat, he opened the door to a grinning Max. “Hello!” 

Peter just looked at him for a moment, shoving his shirt back into his pants where it had come untucked. “Oh.” He turned, leaving the door hanging open. “Let me get my coat.” 

They hurried downstairs and into the waiting cab, Max talking all the while about how brilliant his boss really was, but very cynical, he’d never met someone so cynical. Peter drummed his fingers quietly on his seat, the pattern in time with the flashes of the street lights that rhythmically threw their light across Max’s face. Their light would make the shadows shift across it, his face dynamic, evolving with the periodicity of the flashes as their cab drove through the street. 

Back out on the street, Max continued his conversational gesticulations all the way into the bar. “Oh do you hear that? What do you think about transcribing that? I think those harmonies are very interesting.” 

Peter creased his brow contemplatively one eyebrow raised.

“Weren’t you working on a piece that was going to have some Jazz influence?” Max asked.

“I was.” 

“Is it finished yet? Maybe you’ll get some ideas.” 

“No, it’s not.”

“Well don’t you think this song is good?”

“Yes, it’s interesting.” 

Max stared at him. “You haven’t started it yet have you?” 

Peter looked away. “I have sketches” 

“Well what have you been working on then?” 

“I have a commission.” 

“From an orchestra?”

“Yes.” 

“And?”

“And I’m teaching. And I have my church job.”

“That’s not what I meant. I was asking about this piece you’re commissioned to write.” Peter took a rather petulant sip of his drink, his posture stiff and his expression impassive. Max huffed. “Dammit. Peter, you’re like a … like a fucking ascetic.” 

“I didn’t come out to be criticized.“ Peter replied.

“Yes you did. Because I’m the only one who calls you on your bullshit.”

“What do you mean my bullshit? Isn’t that the job of the wannabe politician.” 

“Wow. That was low, even for you. At least I don’t lie to myself.” 

“Can we not have this conversation right now?” Peter replied, running his hand through his hair. 

“Fine. At least you went with Eve to the train station.”

“Hm.” Peter grimaced.

“Here I’ll buy you another drink.” He called over the bartender and asked him for another for each of them. 

“You think I’m a coward.” 

“Yeah, probably, cheers mate.” Max downed a good portion of his drink and stood up. “I’m going to go talk to that girl over there. Might need to catch your own cab.” He winked. 

Peter rolled his eyes. “You’re such a cad.” 

“Yeah, probably.” Max laughed. 

Peter watched him stride over to a pretty brunette girl. Max gestured towards the live musicians and shrugged questioningly. The girl laughed prettily and coyly turned to the girl beside her. She turned back and leaned forward, her face drawn with a schooled seriousness, and replied confessionally. Max nodded vigorously and leaned closer, whispering in her ear. The girl laughed again and Peter turned away from the sketch. 

Peter squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his forehead. Max was right. He was a failure. He needed to start on that piece. He really needed to start that piece. He’d been asked for some sketches the previous week and had done his best to put them off, but he really needed something to show soon. He was just so… He thought about Eve. She had a book. A full finished book. She had come back to deal with her publisher. Apparently there was a load of negotiating to be done over the rights. They’d gone to lunch several times while she was there, at small cafes. They’d just sat and chatted quietly for several hours, ordering coffee whenever the waitress came back to ask if they wanted anything else. She hadn’t asked about his work. She probably knew he hadn’t written anything. 

He got up. Max and the girl seemed to be doing well, so he paid their tab and left. The moon was only a crescent, but he could see the ghostly shadow of her full body. Her body, which dances round and round, is watched by earth who turns and turns again to watch the sunshine flit gently across his dear moon’s face. 

The silvery light of the moon and electric lamps reflected all around him: off the metal of the benches, off the darkened windows, and the chrome fenders of cars parked down the street. It was weak and the flashes filtered through to him as if he was deep underwater, under the pressure of the darkness. He could only look up towards the flickering light that made it to him through the gallons of water that closed above his head. Suspended, he’d have nothing to grasp but the water that filled his mouth, his lungs, his brain. 

— Paige Busse

Paige Busse is a freshman and prospective English major at Williams College. Originally from Westfield, NJ, she has long been an avid reader and is a particular fan of Dickinson, the Brontes, and Joyce. Paige is also an organist and enjoys singing madrigals, perusing antique stores, and taking long walks. 

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