Daniel sits down beside his crying student and sets his hands carefully on his knees. He’d come upon her in the hallway outside his classroom. She’d wanted to stay up all night to finish her Ligeti paper but woke up with the score on her lap and her notes all around her and the Horn Trio playing on repeat through tinny computer speakers, its choppy strings and high whine.
The pew creaks beneath them, its walnut shine matching the molding around every door down the hall. The whole building speaks of a belle époque long past, gilded oil barons trying their hand at philanthropy and culture, men who wanted marble to outlast them, to suggest they had been good, smart, principled.
I have nothing to give you, she says through her tears.
He rolls his shoulders, unsure of what to say.
More students drift towards them down the hallway, including a small guitar player with a full mouth the girl would fuck once a few months later. She would actually have to say the words I want you to fuck me, and afterwards the boy would say I’m kind of a lone wolf, and she’d laugh and say well what the hell sort of situation do you think this is anyway? and stretch luxuriously in a slant of sun when she woke up the next morning to an empty bed and a lone man’s sock arched like a caterpillar on the floor.
The following year she would also fuck for a while one of Daniel’s friends, a Ph.D. composition fellow who sang full-throated phrases of Mahler in grimy underground bars. She stopped answering his phone calls, the other man would tell Daniel, from one night to the next she just wouldn’t talk to him. Neither of them knew it was because he’d gotten stuck taking a shit at a party, in a bathroom with no toilet paper, and she’d needed to walk to her apartment to get some and bring it back for him so he could wipe his ass and later when she was sucking his dick she saw a ragged piece left behind.
A few weeks after that, she and Daniel would end up together at a different party, trapped in an over-heated kitchen; they were both avoiding the loud voices in the main room. She complimented him on the cake he brought, which he had made himself, curls of white chocolate spilling off the top. Her face flushed hot red, and he could not read what was lurking in her mind, behind the bone wall of her skull.
She is chatting brightly now with a girlfriend in his class, the incomplete paper forgotten, and when Daniel grades it a week later he is impressed by her analysis of the tetrachords running through the trio, how Ligeti paid tribute to Brahms but morphed his work to suit a world that had known two world wars and the eruption of nihilism.
Too much of music is pretending the world hasn’t changed since Mozart frothed his melodies, Daniel writes on the back of her paper, that audiences still need to be soothed and cossetted when in fact what they need is to hear the grind of their thoughts echoed back to them in all their perverted, gnashing glory.
Daniel gives her a B regardless; it had been late.
Rebecca Orchard is a recovering classical musician and professional baker. She has an MFA from Bowling Green State University and is in the PhD program at Florida State University. Her fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from Passages North, Tammy, Exposition Review, the Baltimore Review, The Pinch, and elsewhere. Her work on the Voyager Golden Record has been profiled in the Guardian, BBC World Service Newshour, and Atlas Obscura.