More or Less
by Kate Brittain
Anna came home with this look of ecstasy on her face.
“You,” she said, “just missed the most incredible sunset. I mean, wow. I can’t begin to describe it.”
I had been working in my studio since breakfast, laying down tracks for a song that was giving me some trouble, and I hadn’t seen the sky all day.
She was standing by the fridge doing nothing, but looking great. I took the groceries out of her arms, to get close and give her a good kiss. The moment I let her go she started talking again.
“John”—now she was shelving the nonperishables—“I’m telling you. It was wild! Such an accident that I saw it at all. The lecture ran late, and it was fascinating, you know. I understood every fifth word of the physics but, listen! ‘By grace of the uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics retains its perilous but accurate existence.’ That’s verbatim a thing he said. So I didn’t mind. Still, I was keeping an eye on the time because, well, the subway at rush hour. And I got the worst of it for sure. I must smell like half a dozen other people, we were so sardined. And then the line at The Garden went the length of the dairy aisle. I almost gave up but I couldn’t remember if we’d run entirely out of toothpaste—”
Something in her cadence caught my attention. What if…? I imagined the bass line with a new syncopation, a little shift in the rhythm that might liven the song. I ran the part in my head, but I wanted the instrument in my hands, to be certain. Somehow, Anna had wound up at the pier, although it would have been out of her way.
“Imagine it!” She turned toward me to make her appeal. “The sky, and the sky reflected in the river, reflecting off the sides of the midtown scrapers. Even the city, John. Even the city was taking part.” I felt like she was telling me about a dream in which I’d made no appearance. “Everyone was gaping and taking pictures. The fishermen,” she laughed, “forgot their fish. There was nothing in the world but that sky, and we all stood together, in awe, taken out of time… I should have thought to call you.”
“That would have been nice.” I tried to sound hurt, because it seemed as if she thought that she had done me some harm. But if she had called, chances are I wouldn’t have heard the ring. And if I had, and answered, by the time I’d made it from our apartment to the pier the sky would have changed. And, anyway, I never would have left my work. For what? The sun sets every day with more or less fanfare. “I’ll catch the next one,” I said.
“There will never be another sunset like that.” Anna looked around, as if she were hoping to discover some vestige of it on the ceiling, or lurking in the corners of our apartment. “But,” she turned away to rinse her hands, “yeah, there will be others. Different ones. Maybe better.”
“Ghost Future” is the name of the song, and I’ve got this idea that it will be the one, at long-fucking-last, that gains us traction, takes us out of the realm of Bushwick basements into those balconied venues along the Williamsburg waterfront. Anna has voiced her approval, and my band seems uncharacteristically eager. In their hands, though, the song comes across unfortunately pop-y, too up-tempo and a little bit generic: a wall of sound where I want modulation. No one is willing to hold back.
Which is why, and also because my friends are better friends than musicians, I’ve determined to record everything myself. I had ambitions, when I woke up, to nail down the guitar and bass lines by dinnertime. But—somehow—I managed to spend all morning tweaking the drum loop, which I’m going to play over anyway, eventually, but it’s got to be pretty close, to play to.
When I finally sat down with the guitar, I kept flubbing my fingering. Two hours more before I managed a passable take. Already Anna was home, and the bass line was still in pieces. This new rhythm, though… I thought it could help. If I could only hold the idea in mind until I was back in front of the mic…
“How’d it go, today,” Anna asked, “recording?”
I didn’t want to ruin her mood. “Alright,” I said. “A little slow.”
She nodded. “Well, you know, inch by inch. It’s really great. You’ll get there.”
“I should get back to it.”
She was looking out the window now, searching some echo of that sunset, I suppose, but it was pretty dark by that point. “I’ll order us some Thai?”
“Sure,” I told her. “Great.”
There had been something lackluster in her offer, though, and I remembered that I had been hoping to take her out for dinner, somewhere close, somewhere she liked.
I looped the notes in my mind, trying small variations with each repetition; I moved to stand in front of Anna, allowing my closeness to convey to her what I didn’t have time to say. I got her in my arms and pressed my forehead to hers, like goats do. “Hey,” I said, “I’m going to work like a banshee and then you want to get a drink at Calyer?”
I felt her take a breath, her ribs rising against my chest. “I’d love that,” she said.
The delivery guy buzzed at the door. I bolted my food and slipped back into the studio. I left Anna taking plodding bites of her Phad See Ew as she paged through her textbook. She was still reading—although she’d washed the dishes and moved to the couch—when I emerged hours later. My ears were exhausted, but I’d managed the take I needed. The change had done the trick. A breeze, if not a cool one, was coming at me through the windows and I felt refreshed.
“Hey,” I flopped down next to her and threw my arm over her shoulder. “You want to get out of here?”
“Huh?” she said. “Oh, yeah. Are you finished?” She looked up from the page and sort of smiled.
“For now, anyway.” I thought of the vocals, three or four tracks. I thought of the mixing. I thought of the songs I had yet to record and the gigs I had yet to book and the labels I had yet to pitch and the career I had yet to get off the ground.
“That’s great,” she said.
“Yeah,” I forced myself back into the room. “I think it went well. Really well. You still up for that drink?”
She looked at her book. “Sure.”
“We don’t have to.” I’d been cooped up in that airless room all day listening to the same sounds over and over. I wanted to stretch my legs, hear nothing but the occasional late-night Greenpoint traffic, maybe walk down to the pier myself.
“No, hey,” Anna said, setting her book aside. “Let’s go out. You’ve been working forever.” She kissed my cheek and disappeared to find her shoes.
The night air felt as good as I’d hoped it would, and Anna and I walked with our shoulders close. I reached for her hand, and I felt like we were partners in something—this life, I suppose.
Calyer was almost empty and we took our customary seats at the corner of the bar. When her drink arrived, a golden-looking mix of whiskey and lemon, the same drink she always orders, Anna laughed.
“This is just exactly the color of those clouds!” She seemed surprised, either by the coincidence or by my failure to understand. “They were in a long bank, near to the horizon but not quite touching it, so the—I don’t know. Azure? Cerulean?—sky underneath spread out and blended with the buildings. All that gold in the river, too. Everything suffused with light.” She laughed again. “More or less like this drink.”
“I wish I’d seen it,” I said. My own cocktail was more or less colorless, opaque from the shaking and a touch of egg white. A sprig of rosemary floated on the surface, like—what? Like a sprig of rosemary.
“I wish you had, too,” she said. I could see that she was remembering it in a visceral sort of way, that she was more there, standing by the water with the light all around her, than she was here, on her barstool beside me. I watched the couple at the other end of the bar forgetting their drinks as they leaned close to one another, the way Anna and I once would have.
Almost the moment we were home, Anna slipped into her sweats, into bed.
But I’m too restless for sleep. I steal a beer from the fridge and retreat into the music room. There’s something I’m trying to understand, and the notes of the Wurlitzer line seem like the right sort of place to do that figuring.
Some days, the thirteen years that separate Anna and me seem so significant. That’s almost a generation, I guess, and there are times when I feel like I’m almost her father and there are times when I just feel tired out in a way it seems she never will. I know, or I think I know, better than she does, the difference between what’s possible in this life and what’s just a dream. For her sake, I pretend. I pretend when she drags us out to the Occupy rallies or when she asks me to act in her youtube videos, when she thinks that there’s time for a thousand distractions…
I pretend to remember what the kind of bliss she’s feeling feels like, but my pleasures these days are different, more diffuse. I’d like to think that my age has made me more grateful for those moments of wonder, the exotic sunsets for example, but remembering the look on her face, I know I’m wrong. I’m awfully goddamn wrong.
This beer tastes bitter and it’s warm, but I’m going to drink it anyway. I lay down another track and it’s not good. I try again, and if anything it’s worse. The part’s not hard but I’m fucking it up. I play it a third time, a fourth. I play the line over and over until I’ve forgotten how many times it’s been and sometimes I’m close and sometimes I can’t even make it through the tune.
It’s 3 am and Anna lies on her side with her back to the place where I’d be if I were able to sleep. She’s beautiful. She’s more beautiful than any sunset could be. I don’t think she still loves me, and I don’t know what to do with that. I try to ask myself if I love her, but in a way I suppose it doesn’t matter. I don’t go to her and kiss her on the forehead, even though I consider it.
Instead, I head back into the music room. I’m going to get this part right. It might take the rest of the night. I might be playing these same lines when the sun comes up, but this studio doesn’t have a window.
Kate Brittain lives in Brooklyn. Her nonfiction can be found on Tin House’s blog, The Open Bar, and is forthcoming in The Paris Review Daily.