There was a time when Boris Kirapova was not unlike other accomplished men in their mid-forties. Husband, father, and professor of musicology, he was also a violin virtuoso, an extraordinary distinction most people would say. Most people, but not Boris. Despite his prodigious gift and past success, he did not think of himself in such lofty terms, but rather was grounded in the gratifying delights of his role as a family man. Since the day his twins were born, a year after he and Ana had married, he lost interest in performing, much to the dismay of audiences and orchestras alike. Not only was he unable to cope with the uneasy sense of feeling adrift when away from his family, but his fear of flying had escalated to panic proportions. He never gave up the daily discipline of playing though; he just preferred the intimacy of his small audience at home.
When the twins were four he placed in their hands their first violins. A patient and playful teacher, Boris indulged the occasional balk against practice, but Katya and Kirill soon learned that daily diligence brought its reward. If they pasted a one-hour star on the calendar every day, Monday through Friday, Papa would take them to the zoo, where the panda house became their favorite attraction, and they would, if they could, spend hours watching the mother panda and her two baby cubs. Even this Boris indulged. When it was time to leave, they begged to stay, and a few minutes later, when Boris told them once more it was time to go home, they resisted again, and again, and again, until a half hour or more had passed, all because Boris enjoyed sitting in the concrete amphitheater watching his children enjoy themselves as much as Katya and Kirill enjoyed watching the pandas. After those first few visits, the cubs braved the distance between their mother and the glass partition that separated them from the crowd. For as long as their patience held out, the baby pandas stood near the window, facing Katya and Kirell—eye to eye, nose to nose, and sometimes hand to hand. Even the zookeepers were intrigued by the pandas’ fascination with the two children who came every Saturday. Six months later, on the first warm, bright day of spring, the pandas were so large they had to sit on the ground to meet the twins’ eyes. But late that summer, when Katya and Kirill pushed through the gathering of people in front of the floor-to-ceiling window, they found the mother panda sitting alone on the ledge at the back of the cage. Her offspring, the zookeeper told them, had been sent to other zoos.
A few weeks later, the twins had their tonsillectomies, and Boris surprised them with stuffed pandas he bought in the hospital gift shop, pandas they slept with every night until they were eight years old.
That was in December, 1988, when Ana took them to London where her parents lived. Her mother had had a heart attack, and although her father said it was a mild one and they saw no need for Ana to come, she insisted on going anyway. The twins went too, because Boris and Ana decided they were old enough to be a pleasant distraction without getting in the way. On that Wednesday afternoon while his family was away, Boris had returned home after making good on his promise to finish the holiday shopping. As he unlocked the front door to their three-story townhouse, he was weary from the jostle of crowds on the streets, the claustrophobic lines at the checkout counters, and the weight of the packages, which had become more cumbersome with every city block he put behind him. The festive bags he carried upstairs to his office contained an assortment of books and board games, the newest version of Atari for Kirill, new ice skates for Katya, complete with a skating ensemble of white leg warmers and matching red skirt and jacket trimmed in white fur. For Ana, there was a slender black velvet box with a diamond and ruby bracelet inside. She would have called it extravagant, but it was more than a Christmas gift; it was also a forever memento of the completion of her dissertation.
After stashing the bags in the cabinet under his bookshelves, Boris went into the bedroom, crawled onto the bed, and soon fell asleep, warm and secure in his oblivion, when on the other side of the Atlantic, the Boeing 747 exploded and fell from the sky.
His wife and children were among those never found.
Five and a half years later, Boris lived in an old apartment building not far from the university. It sat in the middle of a block-long row of identical structures, all red brick and four stories tall. His second-floor rooms were situated at the back overlooking a small yard with a barbeque pit, clothes line, lawn chairs, and a blue kiddie pool belonging to one of the other tenants, which ones he didn’t know. Occasionally, he passed his neighbors on the stairs, or saw them at the bank of mailboxes on the first floor, but his instinct was to flee in the other direction.
It was the second week of July, and already so early in the morning the squeals of children and the splashing of water broke through the rumbling whir of the old air-conditioner hanging out his window. The birds were squawking too. As he dragged himself up off the floor he grabbed the recliner for balance, then stumbled into the kitchen where he removed the night cover from the birdcage. Slipping a finger through the wires, he stroked the rosy-hued breasts of his lovebirds. “Shush,” he whispered, and was about to open the cage to let them fly free when he spotted a piece of paper on the red Formica countertop.
He blinked against the blur of a hangover, trying to bring the writing into focus, and as the letters and words became crisp, he was jolted out of his stupor. The list. Charmaine. The hospital. The dogs. Irene, her cleaning lady, who came every Friday at nine o’clock. He checked the clock on the stove—it was 8:27. There would surely be messes to clean up, and if Irene got there first … no, he had to head off that disaster. He had no idea how long it took to get out to Bryn Mawr in rush hour traffic, because he never went to Charmaine’s so early in the morning. And he had no idea how long the dogs had been alone since she fell yesterday.
He grabbed his keys from the table and flew out the door and down the stairs, but each time he careened off balance he had to grab the railing and wait for the dizziness to pass. He hadn’t showered, shaved, or brushed his teeth. His mouth was as dry as a block of rosin. The khaki trousers and white shirt he’d put on the day before were wrinkled, and as he made an ungainly dash for the parking lot a block away, his shirt grew damp with sweat in the thick haze destined to boil to yesterday’s high nineties. Except for the wavering mirage rising from the pavement, the air was dead still.
He rolled down all four windows of his old black Renault, then slid onto the cracked leather seat that was already a hotplate.
When Boris pulled out of the lot and merged with the traffic crawling down Chestnut Street, it was already eight thirty. The piano solo of the “Rach Three” was playing on the radio, scratchy with static but still audible. He placed the music at halfway through the second movement and realized if he could make it before the end of the third, he just might preempt Irene’s discovery of his negligence. He opened the glove compartment and pulled out his cigarettes and lighter, his hand trembling from fatigue or adrenaline, maybe both. The first drag of the morning was always the best, but his mouth was so dry the smoke seemed trapped in the grit of his tongue. He had no idea how much vodka he’d had before passing out in the recliner.
As he waited in a long line of cars, he felt a warm tickle alongside his left eye. He looked in the rearview mirror expecting to see blood oozing from the edges of the Band-Aids that covered a vertical line of sutures on his temple, but there were only runlets of sweat descending into the silver-shot darkness of his day-old stubble. Whether he’d fallen last night or jumped, as he apparently had last Saturday in the middle of a dream, he couldn’t remember, but there didn’t seem to be any new injuries.
He attributed these bizarre middle-of-the-night accidents to stress and to the fitful sleep that came with it. He’d been called to the department head’s office at the end of the semester and told he was standing on shaky ground. He was beginning to think that an early retirement might be the best thing. No longer passionate about teaching and worn down by workplace politics, he felt no obligation to the university anymore. But he still cared what Charmaine thought of him. She didn’t believe in retirement. Retirement from work, she once told him, was retirement from life. To stop the momentum was to hasten one’s trajectory toward death.
She had looked so frail last night under the fluorescent lights of the recovery room, a ghost of a woman surrounded by beeping machines and IV bottles connected to a tube inserted into the crook of her arm. Pieces of her short white hair were plastered to the sides of her face, and her hospital gown was twisted to the side, exposing the freckled flesh of one shoulder. She had to be cold, she who wore a sweater even in summer, in a house with no air-conditioning, but as Boris reached for the sheet to cover her, he hesitated. Despite their decades-long friendship, they rarely touched. He had looked out to the nurses’ station for someone to do what he could not, but they were all occupied elsewhere. Finally, he had lifted the sheet, and careful to let it fall without disturbing her, it had come to rest across her neck.
After Boris turned left at the intersection of Chestnut and Thirty-Fourth Street, a brown station wagon cut in front of him from the inner lane. Black smoke puffed out of its tailpipe every time it inched forward. As strong as the exhaust fumes were, they did not disguise his own body odor. His right hand had a slippery grip on the steering wheel, and the sweat running down his back felt like tiny worms burrowing into his pores. Sometimes on days like this, he longed for the biting chill of the Moscow winters of his youth, but it was a fleeting thought. Sleigh rides and afternoons skating on the pond had turned to tedium by his sixteenth birthday, when he began to hope for an education abroad. By the time he left two years later, his native city had become an unending season of exile in a barren, frozen landscape. He had no desire or reason to go back, regardless of how suffocating Philadelphia summers could be.
It took almost ten minutes and another cigarette to get through the next three lights, and as hard as he tried, Boris couldn’t resist the constant back-and-forth glance between his watch and the long lines of traffic going both ways. He had visions of Charmaine’s house and whatever kind of mess two dogs could make in…what had it been, twenty hours or more? He’d never had a dog so he didn’t know what to expect. A puddle here and there he could manage, as long as they hadn’t peed on the rugs, but anything else…the thought of it made him shudder. If he arrived before Irene he’d have to get rid of the evidence fast, because she wouldn’t think twice about telling Charmaine what she’d walked into. In fact, she’d enjoy it.
When he queued up at the fourth traffic signal, he tossed his cigarette out the window and lit another. Up ahead, the first car in line pulled out into the oncoming traffic despite the “No Turn on Red” sign, precipitating a rapid-fire blast of horns that made his left arm jerk. The cigarette fell onto the street. He rolled up the window and reached for the handle on the passenger’s side and rolled that one up, too. With the rhythmic percussion of a jack-hammer coming from behind one of the nearby buildings, the screech of trains as they pulled into Thirtieth-Street Station, and Rachmaninoff’s concerto breaking through the static of the radio, the overall effect wasn’t too far removed from the postmodernist music he taught last semester. Even the barrier of two closed windows was an insufficient buffer. He needed another set of hands to press against his ears to muffle the explosion of sounds.
By the time he’d turned onto Spring Garden Street, the radio was all static. He fiddled with the tuner until he found a clear station but turned it off when he heard the mention—again—of O. J. Simpson. For all the ways Boris had Americanized himself over the past three decades, he was never able to understand the country’s fascination with celebrity, especially when connected to scandal or tragedy. The news of the past three weeks had been so consumed by the murder case, it was as if the rest of the world had disappeared in its wake.
After accelerating through the yellow light, Boris hit the last one on green, then turned left onto the ramp to the expressway. Across the river the museum stood on a rise like a Greek ruin restored, and below, on the river itself, were several racing shells powered by teams of rowers gliding in tandem across the shimmering surface. He never traveled the expressway, but this morning he didn’t have time to meander through the suburbs. He avoided certain places in the city the way Charmaine avoided looking at dead animals along the road, and as he approached the exit sign for the zoo, he hugged the right berm of the highway and focused on the dull black hood of his car until well past the curve in the road, then shot out around the cars in front of him and sped up in the passing lane.
When he turned off at the Gladwyne exit he had less than ten minutes to get to the house. His only hope was that Irene was late. Or sick. But then he thought, probably not. She was an unpleasant, strong-willed sort who most likely never took ill herself, but rather made those around her sick. At 8:56, he turned into the alleyway on the north side of the property lined with evergreens almost as tall as the house itself, an imposing Tudor of dark brown planks and Philadelphia stone. He slowed at the end of driveway, and as he pulled around to the garage, there it was: Irene’s blue pickup.
As the old Renault idled with a rhythmic clunk, he took a deep breath and let it out in a long, slow exhalation as he considered his options. He could come back after Irene finished, but cleaning the house was an all-day project and he’d promised Charmaine he’d get her things and return to the hospital by noon. Or…or nothing. There were no other options. He got out and reached into his pocket for the list, but the pocket was empty. He checked the other. “Shit.” He’d given it a cursory glance only long enough to open the floodgates to adrenaline, then left it on the counter. Besides the pages of her symphony and her tape recorder, he couldn’t think what else she’d said she wanted. It was a list of seven or eight items.
He crossed the lawn through the stand of birch trees Charmaine called her muse garden, and entered through the mudroom. The house was quiet except for the soft squeak of his rubber-soled shoes on the linoleum. From the kitchen, he passed through the dining room, which he’d stripped of wallpaper last weekend. Had it not been for Charmaine’s accident, he would have started to paint this morning. Still no sign of Irene. Or the dogs, for that matter.
Propped against the dining room wall was the oversized painting, a family heirloom he’d taken off the wall along with the others, and the glare from the chandelier seemed to throw a spotlight on the scratched and chipped paint. If not for the flush fit of the black frame, the damage might have been much less. It had been one of those moments that played out in slow motion as he’d stood on the chair with an utter sense of helplessness, the heavy frame slipping in his hands, the hard scrape against the wainscoting on its way down, the impact against the ladder folded up on the floor, and that final tumble against the four paint cans. The scratch revealed a multi-hued swathe of red beneath, and the chipped paint below it was a mosaic of blue splotches the color of a robin’s egg. Charmaine hadn’t seemed upset at all, but then again nothing fazed her when she was working. She simply inspected the damage and said, “Interesting. I’m sure it can be repaired.”
Not until he circled the round table in the middle of the foyer did the smell hit him, and when he stopped, he caught a glimpse of the small hunched form in what used to be Henry’s study.
As Irene jerked upright and sat back on her haunches, she looked at Boris with surprise. “Where’s Miss Abazy?”
It sounded more like an accusation than a question. “In the hospital.” He tried to make eye contact, which was never easy under the best of circumstances, without looking at the yellow rubber gloves and wad of paper towels dripping a disgusting brown liquid into the bucket. He focused on the open window behind her as he backed away, then made a half-turn to avoid breathing the air between them.
“Oh my god, is she all right?”
“A broken hip.”
“When? Where? Poor Miss Abazy.”
He realized that his best chance of avoiding potential repercussions was to sympathize with the unpleasantness of the mess she was cleaning up, while appealing to her sympathy for Charmaine’s misfortune. “Yesterday,” he said. “Thinks she tripped at the back door.”
At first Irene made no comment, and when she finally spoke a few seconds later he didn’t have to make eye contact to feel the heat of her glare. “And Lenny and Marin? Were they alone all this time?”
“Where are they?” It took a great deal of concentration to hold his sightline above her so he didn’t have to confront the mess—or her face.
“Upstairs,” she said. “I put them in her room and closed the door.”
“Oh.” He studied the top row of books on the floor-to-ceiling shelves on both sides of the window behind her, but couldn’t make out the titles from such a distance. They were probably interior design books, books on architecture, art books, poetry—Henry used to love to read poetry in the evening. Boris had been surprised that Charmaine had not made the room her own after Henry died; its arrangement of furnishings was exactly as it had been when he was alive. Even the desktop had not been touched. The silver cup held an assortment of mechanical pencils. Henry’s reading glasses were folded next to the stained-glass lamp. The datebook was open, probably to some date in early 1990, and the ink blotter was still covered with a Rorschach blur of jottings and sketches.
He dropped his focus to Irene’s level. “Sorry?” he said, and looked away again.
“I said, how long have they been alone?”
“Not long…had things to do.”
“Really!” She threw the disgusting rag into the bucket, wiped her yellow-gloved hands on a towel nearby, and stood up. “Why don’t you try pulling my other leg?”
Stunned, Boris stared down at the floor and shuffled from one foot to the other.
“Don’t just stand there,” she said. “There’s another mess in the living room. I know this is all your fault, so the least you can do is to help clean it up. There’s a red bucket in the pantry. And gloves under the sink.”
The thought of it almost made him gag. “Sorry. I…going back to the hospital.”
“Sorry? Are you sorry you didn’t fix those pavers a month ago when she asked you to? I bet that’s how she fell.”
They had maintained a mutual dislike of one another since she started working for Charmaine. On a raw and rainy afternoon that winter, Irene had just finished cleaning upstairs when she walked into the living room where Boris and Charmaine sat at the piano discussing the problematic transition between the second and third movements of her symphony-in-progress.
“Someone’s been smoking in the guest room,” Irene said to Charmaine, as if that “someone” were a mystery to be solved. Boris had been smoking, but he’d blown the smoke out the window and flushed the butt down the toilet, so he hadn’t a clue as to how she could have known, unless she’d been spying on him through the keyhole. Charmaine had waited until she heard Irene leave, then turned to him and said, “Boris, really. How many times have I asked you not to smoke in the house?”
He never understood why Charmaine had hired Irene in the first place. She was a shocking contrast to the previous cleaning woman who had a gentle, grandmotherly nature about her despite her youth. She might have been thirty or thirty-five and had resigned to attend some cooking school in New York. He always suspected that Charmaine had partly, or fully, funded her education.
Desperate for an escape, Boris stood on the other side of the round table trying to decide if he should simply turn and leave or say something first. But what would he say? What could he say? Confrontations had always been a problem. Such situations, like the meeting with his department head in May, made him feel trapped in a time warp, and the longer it went on the more uneasy his breathing became.
“It is, isn’t it?” said Irene. “She tripped on that paving stone.”
“Don’t know.” Boris went into the vestibule and opened the front door. It was unfathomable to him how such little dogs could make such a vile stink. “I let them out,” he said as he came back into the foyer, “earlier.” Irene was on the floor, scrubbing again, and gave no indication she’d heard him. “Best she doesn’t find out about this,” he added to prompt a response.
Still, she ignored him as she rocked back and forth on her knees attacking the rug, now with a brush.
“It would upset her,” he added, louder this time.
She finally sat up, gave him a slight nod, then resumed her efforts. Whether that brief gesture was one of agreement or dismissal, Boris couldn’t say. It was challenging enough to decipher the nuances of words spoken aloud, let alone decoding gestures and body language. As he turned and headed toward the piano in the living room to get Charmaine’s pages and tape recorder, his thoughts turned to reconstructing whatever else he’d scribbled onto that scrap of paper last night as he stood over her bed in the recovery room. Distracted, he almost stepped in the foul pile near the piano bench. He gulped, covered his nose and mouth, and redirected his gaze to the garden outside the bank of windows as he circled around the grand on the other side. He grabbed the tape recorder, a handful of pencils from the tray, and the pages of the symphony lined up across the music rack, then looked around for anything else she might need. There were notes scattered on top of the console table nearby. He gathered up those, and without looking back, he fled with the echo of “thanks a lot” trailing behind.
When Boris got back to his apartment, he made a pot of coffee and downed the first cup, cooled by ice, as he scanned the list. At the top was “check messages,” and under it, “call maestro.” He had done neither. Next to “tape recorder” was a note in parentheses, “tapes from box on console,” and further down were the other items: pencils, pen, work journal, gray sweater. He set the list aside, poured another cup of coffee and sipped it as he tidied the kitchen, then went to the bathroom to shower and shave. After dressing in a clean pair of trousers and a white, short-sleeved shirt, he checked his laundry basket to see if enough had accumulated for drop-off at the cleaners. Returning to the kitchen, he let the birds out, cleaned their cage, and refilled their water and seed bowls, then looked in the refrigerator for an excuse to go to the market. But all this busy-ness was nothing more than a delay tactic, and by eleven o’clock, as he sat at the kitchen table with a jumble of notes and his syllabus, he fought the urge for a drink.
He went into the living room, sparsely furnished with a second-hand sofa, a metal desk, and the red vinyl recliner, and turned on the television for background noise. News, no. Talk show, no. Cartoons, definitely not. Finally, he found a station with an old movie and turned up the volume to silence the storm brewing in his head. He returned to the kitchen, lit a cigarette, and opened a new textbook on counterpoint melody, but he couldn’t concentrate. The thought of having to spend the next few days in a hospital made him uneasy. It wasn’t so much the demands Charmaine would impose upon him as her confinement made her more irritable with each passing day; it was more about what a hospital—that hospital—represented. The pink and blue blankets of the maternity ward, and Ana with a bundle in each arm, the twin tonsillectomies and bowls of vanilla ice cream and lime Jell-O, yellow happy-face balloons, and matching stuffed pandas purchased in the gift shop. Boris pushed back from the table and went for the bottle in the freezer. When he sat down again with the cold glass, he took a large swig of the vodka and stared out the window at nothing in particular. He told himself he’d wait until eleven thirty to face the inevitable, but he’d stay no more than a half hour. Charmaine would be upset he hadn’t brought everything she wanted, but he’d go back to the house later. It was the perfect excuse to get in and out of the hospital as fast as possible, that and the dogs, which were, after all, entrusted to his care.
One of the birds flew back into the kitchen and alit on his shoulder. Soon the other followed and perched on the empty shoulder, but they seemed to sense his mood was not conducive to the attention they wanted, so they quickly flew off.
Eleven thirty passed, and as the craving for another drink intensified, each subsequent minute became an instrument of torture. When he couldn’t bear it any longer, he grabbed the list, his empty tote bag, and slammed the door to his apartment. Walking back to the car, he remembered the birds were still free, but he couldn’t go back.
As he drove along the narrow city streets, the pale gray of the haze seemed to turn to lead. A good, hard rain was just what was needed to drench the oppressive heat. Twenty minutes later he passed through the automatic doors at the hospital entrance, then lumbered through the corridor with his head down until he found the information desk to get Charmaine’s room number.
When he got off the elevator, he recoiled at the smell sucked into his lungs and into his pores. It was sharp and piney with a hint of menthol, but layered with something else he couldn’t name, something that seemed to pull everything under like an undertow. He studied the sign on the opposite wall as if it were written in Sanskrit, eventually determining that Room 333 was to the left. The straps of the tote bag with Charmaine’s tape recorder and the stack of pages cut into his shoulder, and as he shifted it from one to the other he wondered if it was possible to set it out of her reach, and keep her distracted long enough so she wouldn’t find out until he was ready to leave that there were things he’d forgotten. He passed the nurses’ station, an intersection of four long hallways, and two large metal carts with vertical rows of lunch trays inside. Uniforms rushed by in both directions, whites, blues, and greens, but all he saw in detail were the shoes—white shoes, leather clogs, rubber clogs, and different brands and colors of running shoes. Outside the door to Room 333, he hesitated before he grabbed the lever handle and gave it a downward pull.
He was surprised to find Charmaine sitting upright in a wheelchair in front of the window. The color had come back to her face and her hair was neatly combed, but she looked like a stranger sitting there with her lap and legs hidden by a white blanket.
“Finally,” she said. “Where have you been?”
Boris didn’t like the sharp notes in her voice, nor was he comforted by the way her blue-gray eyes—she wasn’t wearing her glasses—bore through him as he set the bag on the floor beside the bedside table.
She pointed to the bag. “Are my glasses in there?”
“Boris, really. Are you telling me you didn’t bring them?”
“I thought you had them.”
“No. The nurse went through the bag with my clothes and they’re not there. They’re probably lying in the grass where I fell. You’re going to have to go back out to the house and get them and bring them right back. Everything’s a blur.” She let out a sigh of disgust and pointed to the lounger sitting in the far corner. “Now, please wheel this thing over there, or slide that chair over here.”
After he wheeled her to the other side of the room, she glared up at him and told him to sit down, but his feet were bricks mortared to the floor. Only after she repeated herself with more assertion was he able to pry them free and lower himself onto the lounge chair.
“I have little recall of yesterday,” she began, “but I distinctly remember lying in that bed…whenever that was…and telling you that you had to get out to the house as soon as possible to take care of Lenny and Marin. And I distinctly remember asking you to check my machine and call the maestro. He knows I would never cancel a meeting without an explanation well in advance, and he knows how punctual I am. So imagine his concern when I didn’t show up for our luncheon yesterday. I’ve already spoken to him. He said he called the house every hour until late last night.”
The lounge chair was low-slung. The wheelchair was not. As Boris sat with his shoulders slumped, his head down, and his hands tense on the arms of the chair, he felt like a schoolboy incurring the wrath of a headmaster. He wanted to explain, but what good would that do? He had disappointed her. He had broken a promise. With his own hand, he’d carved another notch in the yardstick by which she measured him. Best to keep his mouth shut and let her fire away.
“Did you even listen to my messages? Or was that something else you forgot, or didn’t bother to do? And yes, I’ve already spoken to Irene. She called a while ago. Boris, how could you? How could you neglect my babies?”
She never referred to Lenny and Marin as dogs. They were always her babies. He thought it a ridiculous choice of words coming from a woman of such intelligence and practicality. Even now as he sat in front of her doing his best to deflect the arrows of her well-founded anger, he cringed at the sound of it.
“You most certainly did.”
He stammered through his excuse, how he’d fallen asleep when he went back to the apartment to pack his bag.
“And how many drinks did you have before you passed out?” Her face was now flushed, and her voice faltered with an intermittent tremble.
He was saved by an army of white coats that walked into the room and fell into formation in a semicircle around Charmaine. Boris was relieved for the chance to extricate himself from the chair. The older man introduced himself as Charmaine’s doctor and shook Boris’s hand. He then pointed to the Band-Aids covering Boris’s left temple and asked what had happened.
“He’s accident prone,” Charmaine said.
Was Boris family, the doctor wanted to know.
“No,” said Charmaine, “but he’s as close to family as I have, and like most family members…” She looked up the doctor with a harsh squint and a deep furrow across her brow. “Never mind.”
He was about Boris’s age, but much taller, much sturdier, and with a halting rhythm of speech that seemed calculated in its slow precision as he launched into the particulars of Charmaine’s case for the benefit of his underlings. Some of them were alert and hanging on every word, while others were bleary-eyed with vacant expressions. He glanced at Boris, turned back to the others, and, seconds later, glanced again, then stopped mid-sentence.
“Yes,” Charmaine broke in, “he is. But he’s retired from performing. It’s not the glamorous life it might appear to be from the outside.”
The doctor extended his hand again. “I’m honored. I saw you perform the Brahms…what has it been? Fifteen years ago? My wife and I. Sitting three rows back from where you stood. Your interpretation was exquisite. My favorite, the Brahms.”
Boris nodded without a word. He was grateful the man took the hint.
As the doctor turned back to his audience and proceeded to spew forth a litany of medical terms in a monotone, Boris circled behind the cluster of young men and women to stand at the window. The sky was darkening, and the leaves now fluttered on a lone gingko tree across the street. The doctor droned on about the procedure to stabilize Charmaine’s hip with a pin, and there was the mention of physical therapy and admission to a rehabilitation facility—Boris swung around toward the group, where Charmaine was hidden among them.
“I told you,” she said, “I have no intention of going to any rehab facility.”
The doctor cleared his throat. “I don’t see how—”
“I told you how.”
The heads above all the white coats swiveled back and forth between Charmaine and their superior in what was an apparent rehashing of a previous argument, until the doctor cut it off with a promise to take it up later. Boris thought maybe that was partly to blame for the tirade she’d unleashed against him. She had a ferocious need for independence and solitude. There was a time when he divided people into two categories as a means of determining the necessary strategies for navigating the world of academia, and although he had no interest in playing those games anymore, he still recognized the difference between those who held a tight rein on their need to control, and those who seemed indifferent and malleable, all too willing to bend to the will of others. Charmaine was definitely not the latter. He couldn’t imagine how she’d manage a few days, let along weeks, away from her own home, without the discipline of her work and its necessary solitude.
The doctor finally closed the chart and turned to the others. “I might add that Ms. Abazy is an Emerita of our fine institution. The music school. And, a well-known composer.”
“Too much information,” Charmaine said with a flap of a hand.
It was the first time Boris had smiled in…he couldn’t remember the last time.
“I’ll look in on you later,” said the doctor. “The nurse will be in soon to remove the IV. I’ll write an order for oral pain medication. Don’t hesitate to ask for it.”
After the medical contingency left the room, Charmaine’s shoulders drooped as she softened into a downward slump in the chair. “Boris, I’m getting tired,” she said. “Please go out to the nurses’ station and tell them I need to get into bed. But before you leave,” she began with hesitation and in a hoarse whisper, “I want you to know that Irene has agreed to move in to take care of my babies until—”
“No,” he shot back. “Not necessary.”
“Oh, but it is necessary.” She looked up at him with a pained expression. “Please. Go get the nurse.”
Boris was halfway out the door when she cleared her throat and called after him.
“I’m expecting a visitor at five. Someone I need to see in private. I need my glasses and my sweater, so do that now. Please.”
He turned back to face her. “Who’s coming?”
“Who do you think?”
“No. The maestro himself.”