“I don’t have a heart,” I told the handsome stranger that had most generously offered to buy me a drink.
He didn’t comment on my statement. Instead, he took a sip from his own drink; whiskey, neat. I would have called him pretentious if I had not often been told to refrain from being so judgmental.
After he had swallowed it without showing any discomfort whatsoever at the burning alcohol making its way down his throat, he asked calmly, “What, you mean like you literally don’t have that organ or...?”
I chuckled and answered, “No; I mean like I don’t have any feelings.”
Everybody who knew me knew this about me. But in retrospect, I realized I shouldn’t have told him that because he took it as a challenge.
“No feelings, huh? I bet I could change that,” he responded with an air of overconfidence and one of those annoying smiles guys seem to be so fond of giving.
Maybe if I hadn’t said that on that first night, he would have bought me another drink, we would have gone back to his place, spent the night there and then that would have been it. But as it was, we conversed over our one drink until it was getting late; he asked for my number which I reluctantly gave him and then we went our separate ways.
The next day, he asked me to dinner.
My only and therefore best friend Dasha said about his invitation: “You should really go. I know I have never seen him or anything, but at this point, whether he’s handsome or not doesn’t even matter. You need a romantic relationship in your life.”
We were walking towards the conservatory, the cool winter air blowing against us. The frost crept under my clothes, spreading across my skin like a lacy tide on a frigid winter beach. I could no longer feel my nose or lips or the fingers clutching my violin case. Awkwardly, I wrapped my dark coat around me tighter.
“I’ve only met him once. And besides, you know I don’t-”
“Have a heart, yeah, I still call bullshit on that. I’ve seen you feel things, you know. You don’t fool me.”
“Oh yeah? Feel things like what?”
We stopped at the base of the steps of the conservatory. Corneliusgasse street was a sea of white. Where there once had been vibrant green grass and colourful flowers, snow had taken over with its blinding whiteness. From a distance, it sparkled like spilt sprinkled sugar; so cold I could see my breath every time I exhaled.
I turned to look at Dasha expectantly while she reminisced.
Finally, she declared triumphantly: “That one time, at Lexie’s. She tried to explain physics to you; you were confused.”
I snorted. “Well can you blame me?” I asked.
She gave me a snarky look so I explained, “That isn’t what I mean when I say I don’t have any feelings. Of course I’ve felt confused and sad and lonely at some points in my life. And I laugh, don’t I? So that means I can feel amused. What I don’t ever feel is affection or endearment or love for that matter. I’m incapable of it,” I said offhandedly as I started waking up the stone steps, Dasha following close behind me.
“That’s what you think because you haven’t found the right person yet,” she reasoned as if she knew more about my own feelings than I did.
The biting cold was replaced with a homey warmth as soon as we entered the heated atmosphere of the building. I was more than glad for it; my fingers felt like they had permanently frozen on the handle of my violin case. I could breathe more easily now that my lungs didn’t sting every time I inhaled.
As I sighed in relief, my eyes caught on the handsome man coming towards me. I recognized his hair first; dark and curly and impossibly perfect given its effortless look. But I was only certain it was him because of his ridiculously tall frame. And because he called my name and walked right up to us.
“Dominik,” I said, in a mixture of astonishment and uncomfortableness.
“How…?” I turned to look at Dasha who was staring at me, openmouthed in amazement.
“Why are you here?” I blurted out.
He was unfazed by my bluntness and replied with an unwavering smile: “You told me you rehearsed here on weekdays, remember? So I thought I’d bring you coffee.” He stretched out his arm and handed me the plastic cup he was holding.
I took it instinctively and it warmed my stiff frozen fingers.
“Well… Thank you,” I told him politely yet not affectionately.
He smiled a nervous smile and bounced on the balls of his feet with his hands inside his black winter coat. He was the picture of adorable awkwardness. His sweet gesture and evident interest along with his good nature and even better looks would have been enough for any girl to become enamoured by him. But even though I could notice these things about him, they meant nothing to me emotionally. I knew I should have found these attributes endearing but I could not actually feel it.
It would have been sad if I hadn’t been disinterested.
When Dominik realized I didn’t have anything else to say, he asked coyly, “Don’t you… feel anything? Surprise? Confusion? Gratitude?”
“Sure,” I said.
From the look he gave me, it was clear he was the one feeling confused now.
“I thought you didn’t…” He started to say.
“Okay. Nice of you to come by but we really must be going,” I told him as I dragged Dasha away with me to the inside of the concert hall.
I didn’t give him time to say anything else. He remained rooted in place looking lost and a little bit sad. I recognized that I should have felt bad for him but I simply didn’t have the emotional capacity to. Apparently guilt was another thing I was incapable of feeling. And really, I was just tired of explaining to everyone how my emotions worked. That’s why I had stopped telling people. Better for them to think I was just a jerk than to assume I was crazy. As they so often did.
Once we were within the high walls of the golden concert hall, Dasha looked at me indignantly. I could tell she was disappointed I wasn’t giving him a chance. Well, not really disappointed. More like annoyed.
“What the hell was that about? Rehearsal doesn’t start for another ten minutes,” she complained.
I was unmoved by Dasha’s discontent and pity for Dominik. So I smiled. “But we have to warm up.”
Once rehearsal was over at six, I went back to my apartment. I engaged in my ritualistic attempt to list everything I had been able to feel that day. I was not astonished to find that every single thing I had felt was incredibly superficial.
However, among them were feelings I didn’t normally have; like surprise. Because of Dominik. I think that, out of all the things about him, was what grabbed my attention. He made me feel things that were pretty ordinary to a normal person, but that I didn’t usually experience.
All I ever was, was tired. Tired of feeling numb; as though I was floating in a vast emptiness that echoed in solitude and coldness and indifference. I wanted to feel something else. And in my mind, he promised that. I think that was the allure.
That’s what made me go that night.
Dinner was at his house. His reasoning probably was that it would feel more intimate and that there would be a greater chance for us to connect and for me to feel that connection, or something along those lines.
I went there expecting him to harass me with different topics in the attempt to get an emotion out of me. Or to bombard me with questions about how come I could feel surprise and confusion and gratitude when I had told him I couldn’t feel anything. I also half-expected him to straight-out call me a lying hypocrite. But none of that happened.
We got to know each other over a candlelit ravioli dinner. That’s the first thing I learnt about him; he cooked. Excellently, too. He told me to expect no less from a former culinary student who now worked at an Italian restaurant. We talked a lot about that and found we were quite similar; Italian food happened to be my favourite. However, we differed in that I could barely even cook spaghetti right.
We also talked about music. Either he surprisingly enjoyed classical music or he had done his research given that he knew I played the violin. Either way, it was refreshing to talk so easily and freely with someone without waiting for them to realize I was insensitive or rude. He said he would come to my upcoming concert. I said I’d like that.
To him, the fact I said that wasn’t a big deal. But to me, it changed everything.
I had never before been able to feel something other than indifference at what other people did or didn’t do. But right then and there I genuinely wanted him to go see me. In fact, I felt something I was pretty sure was excitement. And that’s when I knew I never wanted to let this go.
The following week, he went to my concert and brought me roses. My face did something it had never done before; it blushed. The next month, he started introducing me to everyone as his girlfriend. I felt flustered. In six months, he told me he loved me. He said he didn’t expect me to say it back, which I didn’t, but it made me realize I really cared about him. In a year, we were living together.
At first, I felt true happiness, when the most I had ever felt was content. But my mistake was thinking that it would last forever. The magic electricity of the first year eventually wore off. And each day, I was closer and closer to sinking into the endless void again.
“What’s wrong?” he asked on a particularly bad day.
“Same as always,” I answered from the couch.
Recently, due to my emotionless relapse, Dominik had created a method.
“You’re going to be first chair at the spring concert. It’s just two weeks away. It was exciting news remember?” he asked encouragingly.
His method to treat my momentary lack of emotions was to remind me of things I had felt recently. Sometimes it worked. It reassured me that I was capable of having positive feelings. It was a way of him telling me: you’ve felt before; you will feel again.
But on that day, it wasn’t working. When I didn’t say anything, he went on, “And because you got first chair, the very best orchestras are going to want you to join them. That’s an incredible opportunity. Becoming a famous violinist, that’s what you’ve always wanted.”
I gave him a small smile; more for his sake rather than because I felt like it, but it made him smile back, looking pleased. He was patient with me and I felt a deep affection to him because of that and all our time together. But I lost the excitement I had felt at the start of our relationship. Nothing surprised me anymore; everything was always the same. Same jobs, same jokes, same anecdotes, same routine, same roses after every concert, same ravioli for dinner every night. I was starting to grow tired of it all. All the new feelings I had acquired had vanished. And I was left feeling empty inside again.
I watched him sadly as he went behind the kitchen counter and tied the strings of his white apron behind his back and said,
“You want ravioli tonight?”
He sat front row, as always. Although I couldn’t fathom how he managed to get a seat in the front row with all the important music representatives that attended.
Turns out Dominik was right. After the concert, one of those representatives approached me.
“Miss Katherine Müller?” he asked.
He told me how impressed he had been with my performance, how I had real talent unlike anything he had ever seen, etc. etc. I blocked out most of it because it was just empty praise that every first chair received. But then he offered me his number and asked me to audition for the actual London Symphony Orchestra. I stood there dumbfounded and didn’t say a word as he left. I was stunned. I didn’t really like that feeling.
“Hey, you ready?” Dominik asked, appearing beside me. With roses.
“Yeah,” I said.
I was silent the whole ride home. I don’t think Dominik even noticed. He was too busy singing my praises and telling me repeatedly how beautifully I had played.
The second we had walked through the door of our apartment, I blurted out, “I talked to someone after the concert. He asked me to audition for the London Symphony Orchestra.”
Dominik’s eyes dimmed with worry. He tried to smile but couldn’t quite manage it.
“The London… Wow, Kat, that’s amazing,” he said sincerely, but his voice sounded unnaturally high.
He waited for me to say something, but I had nothing to contribute, so he went on, “But… weren’t there any other offers for you know… local orchestras?” he asked cautiously.
“No,” I said. “But even if there were… no Austrian orchestra is as good or well-known as the London Symphony.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I don’t mean anything; I’m just stating the facts.”
Dominik started to look frightened at the thought that I may be interested in one of the greatest orchestras in the world.
“Well, Kat, it would be an incredible opportunity. But… our life is here. You know that right? London… it would just be impossible. I’m sorry, truly. You definitely have the talent to play with them but… it’s just impossible for us. But I’m sure there are plenty of magnificent orchestras here in which you’ll thrive just as much-”
“No,” I cut him off.
“I don’t want to play in any other orchestra here. I have a contact that could help me get in the London Symphony. Maybe you don’t get it, Nik, but it’s every musician’s dream. I don’t want to just give that up without even considering it because of mere distance complications.” I reasoned calmly.
“Kat… it’s impossible” he insisted.
“Oh, would you stop saying that?” I said, exasperated.
“We can’t just move to London! My job is here, my family and friends are here. We don’t know anyone in England! Besides…”
“You don’t have to go,” I said quietly.
He paused for a moment and looked at me in utter confusion.
“What?” he asked.
“You don’t have to go with me. To London,” I clarified.
“For the audition?”
“At all,” we said, almost simultaneously.
He looked at me in astonished silence.
I tried to explain my reasoning. “It doesn’t make sense. You said it yourself, your whole life is here. And London only has an opportunity for me. The logical solution is that I go and you stay.”
“So we break up,” he said, deadpan.
“Yes,” I said emotionlessly.
“And you don’t even care?!” he exclaimed.
“Nik…” I sighed.
"So what? All our time together, it just means nothing to you?!”
His face was wild with anger and heartbreak and desperation. It never ceased to amaze me how normal people’s emotions were so strong they were reflected physically. They were literally written all over their faces. My face was stark and hard in contrast because it reflected what I was feeling: Nothing.
For the first time in his life, Dominik looked at me with utmost disgust and shock.
“You truly don’t have a heart.” He spat, taking one last look at my calm expression. Then he turned around, slammed the front door and left.
All his things were in our apartment. And yet he never came back for them. Or me.
At first, I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel his absence; I wasn’t sad or lonely. All I could think about was the symphony. But as the weeks went by, I started to miss him. And I felt things I only knew the names of; nostalgia, regret, heartbreak. It had been so long since I was alone I had forgotten how draining it was. How silent. I had grown used to his presence and his warmth and his reassurances. His support. I couldn’t tell at the time, but he had helped me gain new emotions. And with him gone, I had never felt the emptiness as strongly.
I waited for him to come back. For his clothes, his laptop, anything. But most of all me. I had broken his heart and yet I was still waiting for him to come back for me.
The day of the London Symphony Orchestra audition came. And went. I stayed in our apartment. I reasoned that maybe he would come back for his stuff when he thought I would be in London.
So I waited for him all weekend. All week. All month. Until the next year. I withered away as time went by, like a flower that had been deprived of warmth and water and care. I was in the void again, and the only thing I felt in there was regret.
He never came.
And I never got to tell him I loved him.