“The Before and the After” by Ellen Sollinger Walker

Backstage always smells the same…Laura thought as she paced back and forth, the floor creaking under her feet…dust, varnish, sweat, and a little bit of performance anxiety barf. The red velvet theater curtains were draped above her head on a thick rusty batten like an elderly woman’s house coat, weighed down, tired, and bitter. In warm cotton gloves, her fingers were what would make or destroy her. Each new concert they faced the tabula rasa, a clean slate, and a new chance for triumph or disappointment. Yesterday’s performance didn’t count, only today’s. What was to come was all that mattered.

Her floor-length black dress had been hand sewn by a local dressmaker. She returned several times to be sure the curves and tucks precisely fit. Inside the dress, her heart pumped fast.

A sharp thread poked her armpit, a thread the seamstress must have forgotten to cut to the quick. It was as annoying as a fly buzzing around her head.  Stop! She thought. Think of the music you’ll be playing in front of this full house tonight.

To distract herself, she peered out through a break in the curtain. A row of young children, her piano students in their red velvet seats, were laughing at something only 10-year-olds would find funny. Andrew, her most gifted student, flipped his seat up and down as he giggled. He was the fidgety one, the “H” in ADHD, but he felt the music intuitively. His scales were smooth and shimmering, and his arpeggios sparkled, already separating him from the others.

On stage, the orchestra concluded a bombastic piece of music with a blast of brass and timpani. About 1,000 souls leapt up applauding, whooping, and whistling.

The hall slowly became quieter, and the electricity in the air was so palpable Laura could taste metal. This is it. My Olympic start gate, she thought. The conductor motioned her onto the stage and followed behind as they entered from the wings.

The 9-foot Steinway, sat on the skirt of the stage in front of the orchestra, the keyboard giving her a toothy grin. She felt the air change from hot to icy cold. Acknowledging the polite clapping, she bowed. What message did the applause send? We are with you? We love you? We look up to you? We expect perfection? We will be damned disappointed if you mess up?

She sat down on the piano bench, turning the handle to raise it a millimeter, to draw things out, slow things down. A white handkerchief, like a flag of surrender, wiped the keys. No turning back; no sheet music to lean on.

A cough rang out in the hall, a recognizable hack from her husband Russ, first row balcony; she had forgotten he was there, observing her with his critical eyes.

Laura nodded to the conductor, and the orchestra sounded the first movement exposition, a flip, childish melody in the violins, written by Franz Joseph Haydn in the 1780s. In the galant style, the work was composed with a simplicity of melody, harmony, and structure. Laura watched the director’s face as he pulled the most out of the string section. She placed her sweaty hands on the keyboard, the ivories glistening from the lights above. When she began to play, her fingers slipped around on the keys as if they were made of ice. At least I’m hitting all the right notes, she thought.

Into the development section, the tension in the music grew, and the principal theme was expanded, in alternate and minor keys. More depth here, as if the childish melody of the exposition was suffering some hard knocks. But she held on, riding the scales up and down the keyboard, climbing the trellis of arpeggios, galloping along with a convincing left-hand bass, leaning on the right-hand melody to make it ring pure as a bell.

Then, something was wrong, a mental dissociation. Her hands were moving, her ears heard the music, but her mind had floated somewhere up into the heavy red curtains. Concentrate! she gasped to herself.

But the music went on. The orchestra and Laura arrived at the recapitulation section as she watched herself play from high above. Her hands still slipped correctly on the keys, her motor memory having solely taken the reins.

On she played, just the movement of her hands, continuing in ontological time. Like a movie that couldn’t be rewound, the music happened, fleeting and intangible, here and then gone.

The cadenza was coming; the most difficult part, her playing solo. In the wind up, the orchestra slowed and rested on a chord of suspense and expectancy. The string section lifted their bows to silence. Now, just Laura, alone. She tossed the principal melody around, changing keys, adding octaves, trills, elaborations. Her hands worked like robots, without her control.

Right then, she felt that damn thread poking into her armpit like a taunt. And, oh Christ, it derailed her. At the crucial moment, she missed the goal posts, hit the wall, tripped over the gate, and cascaded down the snowy hill. Her mind returned, and there was nothing to do but fudge it, fake it, trip over the keys, and search for a way out of the maze.

She hit so many wrong notes even the tone deaf would notice. My students are laughing at me, she thought, and Russ, oh God, how can I go home after this? Her fingers lost their grip on the keys. She dangled from a cliff, one finger holding on.

Somehow, she arrived at the last, long trill of the cadenza. The orchestra started to play again. They and Laura reached the double bar together. They crossed over the finish line and found the end.

The music stopped. The hall was quiet. Laura exhaled. Someone coughed. She stood up, wobbling in her pumps. Polite applause began. She shook the conductor’s hand without looking at him, then took a required bow towards the audience, the faces a blur of heads. She hurried off the stage, her pumps click-clicking to the wings. No encore bow.

In the faculty lounge, she grabbed her bag with its change of clothes and locked herself in a stall. She ripped her dress off like she was a burn victim. As she tore the dress apart, sometimes she used her teeth, severing the sleeves, rending the zipper from the fabric, snapping threads, the waist tearing away, and the skirt splitting into long strips like black bandages. The black shreds between her teeth were raw meat. She threw all the pieces onto the floor and stared at the pile in disgust, the shreds of black brocade, the fine work of the seamstress, all in a heap of putrid rubbish.

She yanked on her jeans and t-shirt and stormed from the stall, then from the building into the rainy night. She found her car in the employee parking lot, got in, turned the key, and started driving.

Ellen Sollinger Walker is a retired classical musician and psychologist living in Clearwater, Florida. She is the author of “Just Where They Wanted to Be: The Story of My Amazing Parents (2nd Edition)”, a memoir/travelogue chronicling her parents’ 10-year circumnavigation in their own 36-foot sailboat (available on Amazon). She also writes short fiction and creative non-fiction.

Ellen is working on a novella about unrequited love, “The Thin Line Between Love and Friendship”.

A short story by Ms. Walker appeared in The Dillydoun Review Daily in January 2021.