A private duet
By Sue Ellen Melo
The lobby was quiet, the lights were low. The stillness suited Caroline’s mood perfectly. From behind the heavy, Oak doors of the ballroom came the muted sounds of people laughing, glasses clinking and music. Everyone inside appeared to be having a wonderful time. Caroline knew she was expected to join the dance, to flirt, laugh, and let everyone know she had put her fiancé’s senseless death behind her and, she was ready to love and live again. The problem was, she was not sure, she was ready to join the world of the living.
Caroline still felt a profound sadness when she thought of Jefry, his laughing, green eyes, his ready smile, The gentle way he prodded her out of her shy reserve in larger gatherings, and a million other things.
“There you are Caroline,” a voice gently scolding invaded the woman’s thoughts, “The twins sent me to find you. You cannot mope around out here. You will never meet anyone that way.”
Caroline looked up to see her younger sister Liza walking toward her from the direction of the restroom. Liza was a petite blonde with delicate features. She wore a pink, chiffon dress, and matching high heels. Her hair fell in a tumble of curls past her shoulders. Caroline admired her sister’s beauty and confidence. She secretly envied her a little. Caroline had the same long, light blonde hair though hers was perfectly straight and a shade darker. Liza’s eyes were the color of a summer sky while Caroline’s were a lighter, softer hue.
“I’m not much of a dancer.” Caroline tried.
“So don’t Dance. Have a nice, civilized chat.” Liza said.
“About what?” Caroline said, “I don’t care about reality shows or fantasy football. Besides, if you want to talk you practically must sit in a person’s lap the music’s so loud.”
“Nothing wrong with that.” Liza’s voice rang with laughter and a slight flush crept into her cheeks.
“That’s not me.” Caroline stood and turned toward the door to the street. “This was a mistake; I’m going to get an Uber and go home.”
“You’re not even trying to move on. Do you really think Jefry would want you to just sit in that apartment reading the Bronte sisters and plunking the keys of that piano you know you never really wanted?”
Caroline knew she had a point, at least about Jefry not wanting her to hide from the world.
“Trust yourself.” Jefry had always told her, “You have more to offer than you think. People love your kindness and your intellect and if they don’t, it’s their loss.” It had been easy to be brave with him at her side, holding her hand firmly in his. Alone, Caroline didn’t trust herself. She didn’t believe she would get the joke or laugh at the right time. She was sure people saw her as gullible when she interrupted her walks through Old Town putting money in a pan handler’s tin can, or weird when she would explain the origin of the name of the alcoholic drink they were enjoying or give an arcane fact about a painting in a museum. Now, with the advent of smart phones, streaming services, and an increasingly casual attitude toward intimacy, Caroline was convinced she could not navigate the world of singledom as it was. Liza was right though, she should at least try at happiness, even if it was just to stand quietly and watch Liza and their twin cousins have a wonderful time flitting about the room in their colorful attire.
“Alright,” Caroline said, walking toward her sister, “I’ll give it a half hour but then I’m going home.”
Liza clapped her hands together, offering a wide grin. The sisters linked arms and entered the ballroom once more. Caroline’s senses were assaulted by loud music, colored strobe lights, and the mingled aromas of sweat, perfume and alcohol. Caroline winced under the barrage of sensory over load. Liza guided her to a group of young people, two blonde women, one in a red cocktail dress and the other wearing a green mini-skirt and blue blouse, the top three buttons undone.
“” So obvious, they are screaming, choose me.” Caroline thought. Two young men stood with the women, hair slicked back, clothes neatly pressed. One sported a Rolex while his friend wore expensive cowboy boots. They oozed financial success.
“I can’t,” Caroline said, pulling away from her sister and rushing in the opposite direction. She knew that once they joined the group, Liza would push her forward and cajole one of these posers to “entertain” her while the others flattered his buddy. More of his friends would arrive and there would be no way Caroline could get away from the shallow affair. She lost track of her sense of direction and instead of the lobby, Caroline found herself entering a small, unused bar area. She remembered Jefry telling her how this bar was once used for more intimate gatherings where privacy was needed.
“Some of the biggest deals in town were consummated over gin and brandy back there.” Jefry had said, “Some of the most notorious love affairs as well.”
Caroline smiled at the memory.
Her eye fell on a piano tucked in the far corner of the room. The Mahogany surface polished to a shine. It made her think of the blue baby grand that dominated the living room of the apartment she and Jefry shared. It had belonged to her grandmother. No one could understand why the old woman had left it to her. She barely played. But Jefry had loved it and always encouraged her to pick it up again. She had just begun to when he had walked into that convenience store, and everything changed. She hadn’t touched it since. Now she found herself sitting on the padded leather bench before the instrument and lifting the fall board. She rested her fingers lightly on the shiny keys.
“May I join you?” a male voice, whisper soft broke into her reverie. Startled, Caroline glanced up into kind, blue eyes framed by thick, dark lashes. The man’s shaggy, brown hair was nearly shoulder length and tied casually in a ponytail. An errant curl fell across his forehead and Caroline felt an unfamiliar and irresistible urge to reach out and smooth it back into place. The man smiled, revealing a dimpled chin. Something about that smile stirred feelings Caroline had thought were long dead.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the man spoke again, “I was just looking for a quiet space.”
“You just missed it becoming an ear sore.” Caroline said,” gesturing at the piano.
” I almost forgot how badly I played and was going to start…”
The man smiled again, “You’re more of a singer than a player?” he asked, sitting down beside her without invitation.
“Something like that.” Caroline admitted, surprising herself. She had sung with Liza and her cousins for years in a quartet at family events and church functions.
“How did you know?” Caroline said.
“I’ll play then.” The man said, raising his hands.
“I don’t even know who you are.” Caroline blushed as she spoke.
“Nore do I,” the man’s voice held a soft twang, Caroline guessed he was not originally from the Cloud Cross area. “My name is Jackson.” He smiled as he spoke.
” Caroline said, her own voice dropping to match his.
There was a long silence, then Jackson began playing and singing, in that same quiet way. In voluntarily. Caroline found her own fingers sliding onto the keys, playing a perfect harmony with his. Then her own, clear, contralto voice merged with his. Caroline didn’t remember listening to, let alone learning the words to this song. She barely recalled hearing it when her sister had insisted, she watch a television show about the country music world with her and the cousins on a girls night. As she sang, Caroline couldn’t control the tears that sprang to her eyes as she sang of the end of a love affair that had been everything and that now had to be over. It was a song about realizing when it was time to let go of the past but also to embrace the grief. As she sang, Caroline’s voice broke as emotions she had stuffed away in the name of being socially acceptable, not troubling others with the weight of her grief, suddenly, poured forth in a torrent. She stopped when it got to the line about asking for a new heart to love once more. Jackson stopped playing at the same time.
“I can’t, I know I should, but I just can’t.” Caroline said before bursting into full blown sobs.
Jackson took her wordlessly into his arms and she buried her face in his red fleece sweater. Freeing an agony too deep for words.
Jackson patted her back speaking soft words of comfort until the last of her tears were shed.
“Thank you,” Jackson said,
“For what,” Caroline tried to keep the tremor from her voice.
“For letting me be the one to break down your walls and let you begin to grieve. Sharing heartbreak is as much a gift as sharing joy.”
“I know they’re right,” Caroline said after a while, “My sister, the rest of the family, the people I work with, the pastor, they all think five years is past enough time to mourn. I’m 30 years old, there’s still time for me to marry, have kids, make my parents grandparents, be successful, and just live! But living without Jefry, or living as if he no longer exists it’s, not what I want.”
“You loved each other very much.” Jackson said, brushing at that wild curl. Caroline could only nod, afraid she would start crying again.
“People don’t want anyone to show grief because it’s painful and reminds them of their vulnerability and mortality. That’s uncomfortable, especially since I don’t think any of us are ever really ready to deal with the grim reaper until he comes knocking.”
“Jefry was all I wanted, the only person who saw me as I was. I don’t know how to make a life without him. Sometimes I even wonder if I really want to.”
“But if you say that to most people, you’ll find yourself in a psych ward on a 72 hour hold.” Again, Caroline nodded.
“My choices are to fake joy and interest in a world that I find far too meaningless and be considered acceptable, or cut them all off and just stay in our apartment railing at the thug who just had to rob that Speedway, the cops for taking their sweet time getting there, even Jefry for not minding his business and stepping inside to try and protect the kid who was working in there alone. Doesn’t that sound horrible, blaming the man I love for being the man I love.”
“Not any crazier than your use of the present tense when you speak of him or the home you shared. You’re still stuck in the lonely place, trying to hold on to the man. But there is a third choice that is not suicide.”
“I can’t see it.” Caroline Said.
“You will.” Jackson said. He leaned forward, gently taking Caroline’s face in his hands, he placed the softest of kisses on her cheek. “I’m going to leave now Caroline. I’ll see you around.” With that, he was gone.
Caroline sat still for a long while, pondering Jackson’s words. He had spoken as though he knew her soul. Yet what could he mean by a third choice that wasn’t suicide? There was existing or pretending. She struggled to once again play the song they had shared, to hear his voice in her head. It was no use, the chords came out wrong and she could only hear her own tear choked voice stumbling through the words.
Caroline went dutifully to the dances for the next three months, being polite to the eligible, young men Liza paraded past her, gently fending off their advances, mechanically moving around the dance floor with them, but then slipping away at the first opportunity to the abandon bar and the beautiful piano. She focused on the song from that unforgettable April night. She never saw Jackson again though she looked for him every time she entered the bar. She began to wonder if their moment had been a dream. But she began to understand his words. As she did so, she recognized the futility of her current existence. He had said she was stuck, and he was right. She needed to make a choice. She didn’t want to pretend to be alive, but she couldn’t take being alone any more. It hurt too much.
“Can I love again?” Caroline asked herself as she stood at her closet door eying her wardrobe. She didn’t know the answer. She began pulling out garments, the lavender sweater she had been wearing when she first met Jefry at a college debate team meet, the little black dress Liza had talked her into buying for their first date even though Caroline thought it too revealing, the wedding dress she never got to wear because 3 days before the big event, Officer Jefry Munroe had seen a drugged out gangster pointing a gun at a fifteen year old girl and demanding she open a cash register or he’d blow her brains out and he wanted to make it stop, even though he wasn’t on duty at the time. She placed everything on the bed
in a heap, then transferred it to a cardboard box. She took a black sharpy from her desk drawer and marked it for donation. Next, she went to Jefry’s side of the closet and gave all his clothing the same treatment, marking that box for donation as well. As Caroline set about closing the door to one chapter of her life,she felt something shift in her soul. She was still alone and might always be so, but for the first time, solitude didn’t seem so frightening. She next went to her computer and composed a letter of resignation from her book store manager position, another giving notice to her land lord and a final one to Liza, asking her to see to the disposition of the clothing and the furnishings explaining only that it was time for her to move on and she needed to leave Cloud Cross and it’s reminders of Jefry to accomplish this. She sat down at the piano once more and began playing and singing that beautiful, heartbreaking song that burst the dam of her grief. This time she clearly sang out the line about heart deep pain and the need for a new heart that she could fill with love once more. She returned to the first verse and as she did, she was dimly aware of the door silently opening measured steps crossing the room, and a firm but gentle hand resting on her shoulder.
“Hello Caroline,” Jackson said, smiling down at her, “I knew you’d figure it out.”
Finishing the song, Caroline smiled, Holding out her hand to him, “I’m ready.”
Sue Ellen Melo: Writer and performer.
I have always been something of a wanderer. I was born in Massachusetts and spent most of my life there before getting the itch to see more of the country. I currently reside in Louisville Kentucky.
The two constants in my life have been performing and writing. Sometimes, these two passions have intertwined. I co-founded an audio writing group called STAR Trek Audio Role-players with one of my dearest friends. I have also co-written two songs used during my time in the acting troop Imagine Blind Players, a company consisting entirely of blind individuals. I acted and sang in their production of California Suite. In addition, I appeared in two of the companies’ productions for Shakespeare in the Park and served as their social media coordinator, writing a blog Seeing My dream facebook.com/imagineblindplayers.
I have also been a part of American Printing house For the Blind’s Braille Readers theater. Currently I am working as a greeter at Actor’s Theater in Louisville KY and performing regularly in American Council of the Blind’s Community Karaoke.
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