Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Requiem for Me

I lead a local weekly writing group, and for this week, I gave them a series of paintings and told them to choose one and "write themselves into the painting." So the story below was my attempt to do the assignment with them this week. I started with the painting above, knew that I would be writing about old love letters, and let the story run from there. Like all good fiction, it contains some elements of reality, but I'm not telling you which ones are true! I wrote this in under an hour.


A Requiem for Me

I sat in the semidarkness, the bed littered with the well-worn evidence of his love surrounding me. I picked up a handful of the pages and lifted them to my face, breathing in the scent of sandalwood that still lingered there, even after all this time. Tears streamed down my face as I marveled that ten years had passed since last I saw his slanted writing grace my mailbox. How could it be that long? Where had life gone? How had it passed me by without shaking me from my grief-riddled slumber?

With a gentle sniff, I choked back the tears, leaning back against the pillows tossed careless at the head of the bed. I sat, gazing sightlessly out of the sliding glass door that led to the sheltered deck outside, but it was images of him that danced before my eyes.

I remembered that day - god, was it 25 years ago? – that he found out that he had gotten approval to write his Requiem Mass for credit, instead of taking the Freshman interim class. He swooped into the room, feet barely touching the scuffed linoleum flooring, gathered me up in his arms, and swung me around in circles until I was dizzy. I had never seen him so ecstatic, before or after that moment. He was transformed.

It was a busy month for us, while he was writing and casting his requiem. He carefully selected his musicians and singers, turning to me and saying “And of course, you will sing, won’t you? I can’t do this if you won’t sing. I’m writing it for you.”

All I could do was nod my acquiescence, as the lump in my throat was as large as a grapefruit. How could I deny him this?

For weeks, we rehearsed, painstakingly repeating each measure, tweaking and changing, until it was exactly as he had envisioned it in his mind. As we stood the center of the cavernous chapel, before the mighty pipe organ, our voices echoed from the stone and glass that surrounded us. We were finally ready.

That month was the beginning of it all: the daily rehearsals, the late night sessions where he confessed his dreams by candlelight, listening to the music that was his inspiration. As his composition matured, so did our relationship.

The night of the performance, I was nervous. Our small band of performers huddled together in the vestry before the announcement of the program, saying a silent prayer to the muses of music that we would be at our best.

As we walked through the chapel door to the haunting prelude of the organ, I swept a glance through the crowded chapel pews, my gaze locked onto his, and I knew in that moment that everything was right.

The performance was flawless, and the audience rose to its feet with applause as the final notes died away behind us. Tom was on his feet, accepting the congratulations of everyone around as I sneaked a quick glance over my shoulder on the way back into the vestry.

This was Tom’s night to shine, and shine he did. The high he had lasted for months. We would sit in the dark, talking about the future, planning and dreaming, and knowing that it all just seemed right. I was madly in love.

Then one day, Tom came in with a rather serious look on his face, and told me he had some news. I didn’t like the sound of that. He sat me down on the bed and took my hands in his, without meeting my gaze.

I knew I was in trouble then.

“What is it, Tom?” I asked, with trepidation.

“I’ve made an important decision,” he replied. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, then went on. “I’m going into the Navy in two weeks.”

“The Navy?” I couldn’t believe my ears. How could this talented musician let it all go to waste by enlisting in the military? What about all his grandiose plans?

“Yes, the Navy. It’s the only way. My money is gone, and I have to do something to support myself.”

The reflection of headlights outside the bedroom window brought me back to the present once more, and I fingered the yellowing pages on the bed beside me once more.

Those were hard years, the ones during his enlistment. The stack of yellowed letters, sent from ports around the globe, had been her only sustenance during that time. Oh, he loved her – at least he said he did – and he told her all the right things in the letters, but he was
physically absent for far too long.

She supposed that they both glamorized their relationship while they were apart. It’s an easy thing to do, highlighting the exciting and wonderful traits of a person while forgetting their flaws, while they are distant. She created a fairytale life to which she assumed he would return one day. For six years, they carried on this way, each knowing that reality was far from ideal, but neither willing to shatter the illusion they had carefully crafted between them.

And then, suddenly, he was home. For good. He stood before her, a changed man. Gone was the wild-eyed, carefree youth of their college days, whose eyes glimmered with hope and promise. Instead, she faced a shell of a man, who had seen far more in his tours of duty than any human should ever have to see. Her Tom, her glorious musician, was gone.

They played house for a few years together, trying to make things work. Tom jostled from one job to the next, without ever finding his groove, and always seemed to be just a little off kilter from the world. He had no spark in his eye, no joy in his heart, and I was devastated. Meanwhile, I was settled into my comfortable career as a high school teacher, slugging back and forth to school each day, grading papers, dealing with stubborn students and even more stubborn parents. It was an existence, but it certainly wasn’t a life.
One day, I took a chance and sent a recording of Tom’s Requiem Mass to a recording studio, without his knowledge. Patiently, I waited for some response, some sign that would tell us what we should do.

Finally, the letter came. The studio was thrilled with the composition and wanted to do a recording session in New York. This was Tom’s big break. I sat him down that evening and told him what I had done, saying “Music has always been your first and only true love, Tom. It’s time for you to acknowledge your love. You are going to New York, you are going to work with the studio, and you are going to BE the musician that you were born to be.”

Tom fell silent in contemplation. “But, what about us?” He finally asked.

“I need to stay here. This is your dream, not mine. This is what you need to do.”

We sat; quietly holding hands for what seemed like hours in the darkness that night, and in the morning Tom made the arrangements to begin his new life.

Once he left, we stayed in contact, of course. At first, it was daily phone calls and frequent letters, but as his muse grew, he needed me less and less. I was like a mother bird, watching her fledgling chicks find their wings. It was time for Tom to leave the nest.

Finally, the letters slowed to a monthly missal reporting on his latest musical achievements before stopping altogether ten years previously.

I gazed out the door again, into the ink-black night. I squinted, trying to discern stars in the dark sky, but saw none. I ran my hands softly over the sandalwood-scented scraps on the coverlet once more, before rising to put Tom’s Requiem Mass on the CD player. It marked the beginning and the end of their ill-fated relationship. I sighed, knowing that my loss was truly the world’s gain.

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