The horn smelled of valve oil and silver polish and spit. He tested the valves, felt a tiny familiar thrill at the quick response, lifted the horn to his mouth, blew air through it, and began his warm up exercises: long tones that bounced off the close walls of the practice room.
It had always progressed like this: he would fall in love with someone, completely and fully, his whole heart tuned to an undying affection, forever and always. Most times, forever and always would be about eight months. Then the palms would stop sweating, the pulse returned to normal, the eyes and affection would start wandering, and wondering.
Jake turned his heart away from such questions and drew the sleeping Lydia closer to him.
It was during these rehearsals that Jake fell in love with Lydia, with her long and beautiful pianist's hands, with the delicate set of her mouth and the graceful curve of her back, with her penchant for colorful, swirling dresses.
Lydia's love for Jake was less sprawling, less likely to overtake her whole being. She enjoyed watching him play his horn, especially in the small jazz combo he had helped start when he first came to the Conservatory. She liked sitting in on the group's rehearsals, in the darkened auditorium, watching Jake practice a solo over and over again until he was satisfied with its sound. His whole body would tense with the effort and concentration, and that was when Lydia loved Jake most. The harsh stage lights, red yellow blue red yellow blue red, would be reflected in Jake's horn, like strands of Christmas lights.
Jake shifted, pressing his leg between Lydia's thighs. Lydia drowsily moved her hands across his back. Jake mirrored her gesture, then moved his hands to hem of her t-shirt, kissing each breast once as it was exposed. He continued to undress them both, letting their underwear fall off the bed.
Lydia rolled onto her back, pulling Jake on top of her. He moved with her for a short while, rocking hips together in a rhythm that continued as he entered her. They continued, the same steady tempo unchanged as she wrapped her legs around his, as she frantically bit and kissed his face, as he began to shudder, until he came.
He moved away from her, began drawing his lips across her body, over her breasts, along her torso, over and between her thighs. His movements followed a syncopation of the rhythm that had led him during sex.
Soon, however, the kisses ended: he moved to wrap his arms around her, and fell asleep. Lydia listened to his breathing until she was soothed, then left the bed and headed for the dormitory bathroom.
His steadfastness both comforted and bothered Lydia. She wondered at the rhythm they would move to; once, in a dream, she realized that he might be moving to music that she couldn't hear. Sometimes she yearned to break through that rhythm, to move convulsively, wildly, without form or pattern, leaving the dull matter of body and mind behind.
She would take her finds to the Conservatory's piano practice rooms and play piece after piece, until her hands ached and could take no more. Once an instructor had told her that half of good piano performance comes from the pianist listening during practice, of being able to hear the soul of a piece in your head, and then making sure that that soul came through during the final performance. Her hunger for sheet music came after she had felt for herself what that instructor had meant: she now wanted to connect to the soul of as much music as possible.
She liked the practice rooms of the Conservatory because the walls weren't well soundproofed. Between every piece she would rest, and listen for the faint music of the other musicians all around her, and as she listened she would try to find the soul of that spread of sound.
It was always chilly in the backstage of the Conservatory's Johnson Auditorium, but Jake felt it more than the other musicians. He would pace, and blow air through his horn, and wait for the groups that were on before his to finish. These Conservatory Extravaganza nights were the worst, with a dozen groups vying for a place in the audience's memory. As each group took the stage, Jake grew more restless, waiting for his chance to set himself against the musicians of the other groups.
When it was the combo's turn, Jake walked quickly to center stage followed by the other players. Immediately he could feel the warmth of the stagelights enter his body, melting the chill at his core. The group launched immediately into a funk cover of Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon." Jake grabbed the foundation laid out by the drums and bass as he stepped forward with the tenor sax player. Together they tackled the song's strong central melody. Then the sax man stepped back, and it was Jake alone.
The spotlight pressed into Jake's skin, pouring heat and energy straight into his guts. His solo wrapped an inversion of the piece's melody through and around the repetition of the bass and the tight funk beat of the drums, never wavering from the line he had mapped out the weeks before in rehearsal. The crowd ate it up- he was good, and he was comprehensible.
She covered over his protests with kisses. His mouth carried the faint metallic taste of his horn, as did his hands. She pushed against him, causing him to lose balance and sit on one of the practice room's wooden chairs. She straddled him then, her fingers undoing the top buttons of his shirt as she continued the barrage of kisses.
Suddenly he stood, causing Lydia to stumble back, barely able to catch herself. He motioned to the door- "Did you hear something?"
She shook her head no.
"I thought... uh listen, I have to meet with the rest of the group- you know, post-mortem and all that..." He collected his horn, kissed her quickly, and left.
Lydia stared at the open door for a long time.
No one had ever tried so hard to win Lydia's affections before. The serenades lasted a month. At the end of that month Jake invited Lydia to dinner. She accepted. The restaurant was a dark and moody Italian bistro with statuary and thousands of glass and plastic grapes. They talked of rehearsal schedules and music professors, eventually reaching the subject of modern composers (he liked Monk, she liked Joplin). At the end of the evening he walked her to the door of her dorm room, and they kissed. It was a good kiss, that lingered after they pulled away.
Sometimes during this section, Lydia would let her mind drift, and then she could imagine that she was accompanying not one but two trumpeters, one (the reliable one, the salt of the earth workingman) laying down the foundation, with the other (the flashy one, the performer accustomed to the limelight) bouncing the notes of the melody over the top. Less frequently she imagined the two players vying for her affections, a musical duel that would leave one man rejoicing, the other crushed. When the piece drew her reluctantly back to the part at hand, she felt a pinprick of regret, never having quite enough time to reach a decision.
She fell on her bed. It still carried the scent of the last time she and Jake had made love. She ground her face into the sheet, let the smell of her and Jake wrap around her.
Finally, when her breathing had returned to almost normal, she stood and walked to her stereo. She found a tape she had recorded a long time ago, Jake and the jazz combo playing in an outdoors gazebo. She placed the cassette into the stereo and pressed play. The tone of Jake's trumpet, supported by the bass and piano, came sliding into the room. After a short time she raised the volume, and then raised the volume again. She kept raising the volume until she could feel the bass in her chest, until her neighbors pounded on her wall, until the sound had enough power to knock at her heart.
folded carefully three times. Written on it were exactly five lines in a
hurried, looping handwriting:
The covenant of
The hope of the half
You were the laugher
And I, the laugh
Jake looked at the letter for a long moment. He then carefully refolded it and placed it into the case of his trumpet, next to the valve oil and polishing rag.