“A toast for us, the dreamers.”
William stood to his feet, and Annalise watched his every movement. He rose the same way as he always did, slowly, as if he knew he could take his time, that he could take a century to move, and eyes would still be peeled on him. He smiled his vulpine smile, and everybody at the dinner began to raise their glasses, the sparkling liquid sloshing from side to side in each glass.
“For the dreamers.”
Annalise did not raise her glass, but nobody had noticed. She had been fiddling with a napkin since she had sat down, making small tears in the soft, weak fabric with her slender fingers, making a snowy mess of napkin bits fall onto her lap. She hadn’t even touched her food, nor her wine. And just like everybody else, she had not been able to stop staring at William.
His hair had fallen into his eyes for the sixth time. His eyes. which were catlike in pupil and movement, had once enraptured Annalise. But now, whenever her gaze met them, an invisible, insect-like creature would begin to crawl up her spine, as if it were scuttling away from something terrifying. William had shaved his beard, trimmed his mustache. His slender nose wrinkled whenever he tossed his head back in laughter, and his arms would reach out to grasp the lissome shoulders of the women sitting beside him. Annalise could not recognize the women from the orchestra. Perhaps they were invited friends.
There were paintings behind everyone’s heads. Brass frames that glinted from the light of the chandelier were on each one. The color of the brass reminded Annalise of blood. The painting behind William’s head was that of two people waltzing in a dark, abandoned room. The painting didn’t have a record player, a radio, or a shadowy figure with an instrument in the background. Annalise assumed the two were dancing to a sound that could not be heard by an ear. She could tell by the pose of the man and the woman that they were dizzy from dancing to the sound of their own chaos.
Annalise’s sister had warned her not to come to the dinner party. Annalise knew that Martha thought she was a downright fool for attending, but this was Annalise’s party too. She had been a part of the Fieldman Orchestra for over thirty years. It was her baby, something she had cradled, nursed and loved for three decades. And now that it was shutting down for good, she had to kiss it farewell.
She did not know if William was expecting her to come. Just as it had always been, his face was incredibly difficult to read. William was the sort of man who had absolute control of his facial muscles. He could hold back a frown if he was disappointed, if need be, he could keep his feline eyes steady and unwrinkled when he was angry, and keep his vulpine smile hidden away even if he was incredibly satisfied. Annalise had been studying him best she could, but he had not given anything away.
“You’re just going to open up old wounds, Ann,” Martha had sighed as she had helped Annalise cover her scars, blending the concealer across Annalise’s cheeks with a sponge. The makeup felt cold and dense over her skin, and Annalise could not stop shivering. She wanted to claw the makeup off with her fingernails and beg her sister to stop, but she had gone insane once and she could not go insane again. “I can’t imagine how difficult seeing him again is going to be for you.”
“It’s not just going to be about him,” Annalise had tried to explain, as she watched the long, thin pink scars on her face disappear in the mirror from each dab of Martha’s sponge, “it’s about the orchestra. I have to say goodbye.”
Annalise had been a violin player since she was four years old. A day doesn’t go by when its wood, hard and placable, as warm as skin, is pressed against her body, a limb that she danced with more than her own feet. She joined the orchestra at just nineteen years old, thrilled to be a part of something important. People were known to travel across the country just to hear the infamous Fieldman Orchestra.
She had sat with the other string players, her ebony hair braided back from her face, and she’d wear the same black dress that would swish across her ankles at the slightest movement each performance, and a slash of red lipstick on her mouth. She would close her eyes every time the orchestra would begin, and slowly peel them open, like a child waking from a dream, whenever the symphony died and the applause began. She would taste the music on her tongue, a sweet honey that grew more flavorful as the orchestra went on. By the end of every performance, she felt as though she had tasted the nectar of the gods.
William played the oboe. She’d heard many claim that he’s one of the best oboe players in the whole country. William could bring anyone to their knees in supplication whenever he held the instruments to his lips. It was as if he was locking the instrument in a kiss whenever he played. He would roll his shoulders back and forth with the sound, forwards if it was particularly solemn, and backwards if he had to draw in more air. It was a dance.
William had been the one to pursue Annalise, not the other way around, as he so claimed. She had first noticed him staring at her at her first rehearsal, and he would sheepishly look away whenever he noticed that she saw him staring. Annalise would blush madly every time. She had never had a man look at her like that before.
William had many admirers. There was gossip that he would sleep with a new woman every week, that he was a man full of lust. Some would even call him a satyr. As the years went on, Annalise would question if he truly was a man, and not a creature with horns and goat legs.
“You haven’t touched your dinner yet,” the man sitting next to Annalise suddenly laughed, nodding at her plate. It was Thomas, one of the cello players, a young man who had recently joined the orchestra, but wept all the same when the news of its end reached the performers. “What? Not hungry?”
“Oh…you know how old ladies like me are,” Annalise smiled. “We just get full too quickly.”
Thomas smiled back. “You know, Annalise, I never got the chance to say that it was an absolute pleasure working with you. Your dedication to the craft is so inspiring. I hope to have your skill one day.”
Annalise waved the compliment off. “I’m really not all that good. It’s just the years and years of practice. It has nothing to do with talent.”
“Those are some very humble words,” Thomas laughed, bringing his wine glass to his lips. “And, it was very brave of you to come tonight. I’m not one to engage in gossip, but I’ve heard what happened between you and William. And nobody even expected him to come tonight, you know, even Arthur was shocked. He lives halfway across the country and performs with an entirely different orchestra now. Oh well. Maybe it was the nostalgia that dragged him back.” he finished his words off with a shrug, and began to pick at his fingernails.
Bile had begun to rise slowly up Annalise’s throat. She didn’t say anything for a moment, and Thomas frowned.
“Are you okay?” Thomas asked.
“I’m fine,” Annalise said quickly, rising from her seat. A flurry of napkin bits softly hit the floor. “I just need the ladies’ room.”
She felt eyes on her as she walked away from the table. Eyes like candlesticks that burned the skin on her back. She quickly entered the washroom, a single room just outside of the dining hall, and clicked the lock into place with trembling fingers.
William. William had given her roses after each performance, kissing her hands over and over again as if at any moment they might slip from his grasp, as if her skin was so precious that he couldn’t bear a moment away. The way William had lain next to her each night, the heat from his body was as warm and comforting as the heat from the sun itself. William had danced with her on their small balcony whenever it was warm out, whispering his frantic poems of love, his lips brushing against her earlobe, holding her as close to his chest as he could.
Annalise turned the tap on, and watched the water gush out. She ran the cold water across her fingers, splashed her neck with the frigid water.
William. William smiling at other women, William spending extra time away rehearsing, coming back smelling like sweet perfume. William shouting at her, the volcanic sound that would erupt from his lungs that made her cry every time. William had punched holes in the walls that Annalise would desperately cover with paintings her sister had made, until their studio apartment was covered with the amateur acrylic landscapes, a lopsided mountain, a tree that looked as if it were painted upside down. William’s hands on her, rough and tarnishing, shoving her into walls, into the dining table, and as she slid down onto the floor, William’s feet in her face, kicking and kicking until she begged him to stop.
Annalise turned the tap off. She stared at herself in the mirror. She could hear something at the back of her head, an instrument playing.
“Please,” she begged her reflection, “Please, no.”
It was the slow, mournful song of an oboe, the same song that she had heard in her head for thirty years. No instrument could better harmonize with the sound of a woman weeping.
Annalise cupped her ears with the palms of her hands as tightly as she could. Hot tears poured down her face, smearing the concealer that Martha had so perfectly placed.
William’s pocket knife had danced across her face so delicately one night thirty years ago, the night she mustered up the courage to pack a suitcase with clothes, a crumpled up pile of tear-stained sheet music and her violin. He was holding the knife’s wooden handle tightly in his right hand, his face scrunched in concentration, his lips pulled together in a small, vulpine smile, his feline eyes were wide and alert, the pupils black and shiny.
“You’re too beautiful to leave me, Annalise,” he had said, his voice even and calm, “If you must leave me, you mustn't be beautiful.”
He was able to convince the doctors that Annalise had drawn the scars on herself. They believed him because William had always been a man of good reputation, of good standing, infamous in their city for his talent. And how could they not? Annalise had been in a mental hospital just a year ago, sent there by her own mother. It was reasonable for the doctors to think that the weeping, shaking girl who couldn’t stop screaming for her violin was unstable.
Annalise began to stare into her round brown eyes in the mirror, at the scars as thin as violin strings on her face. She stroked them with her fingertips the same way her bow did to the strings. It was her way of playing along to the oboe inside of her head.
She brushed her hair behind her ears and nodded at herself. The dinner party was almost over. She must go back and say her goodbyes to the people she’s worked with for three decades. She could find a way to push past the suffering of seeing William’s eyes again.
She was suddenly startled by a soft knock at the bathroom door. Annalise’s thoughts began to race, and the melancholy aria playing in her head began to grow louder. How long had she been in the bathroom?
Slowly, she walked towards the door, clicked the lock open and pushed forwards. She was met with a pair of feline shaped eyes that made her step back, bumping into the bathroom door.
The pair stood there for a moment, like two dancers who had just finished a waltz and were catching their breath. William chuckled for a moment.
“Hiding in the bathroom, Annalise?”
Annalise looked up at him, at the sleek dark hair that sat upon his head. She squinted for a moment, in her shock, wondered if she could spot any horns peeking out from the black strands of hair. She couldn’t find any. Perhaps he wasn’t a satyr. Perhaps there wasn’t a fox hiding in his smile, or a tiger hiding in his eyes. Perhaps he was just a man.
“It was nice to see you, William.” she said, and smiled, suddenly finding him amusing. He blinked at her in confusion, and stepped back. Annalise pushed past him and headed towards the party, not looking back.
The oboe song had faded from her head. As she walked into the room, Annalise could hear something different. A violin, clear and triumphant, ringing like a church bell in the walls of her skull.