The Middle Eight (short story)

Math and Music
Photos by Marius Masalar & Antoine Dautry on Unsplash

The laptop pinged at the coming of new mail. She smiled at the sender’s name with an almost Pavlovian response and opened it instantly, despite the stacks of student work taking up space on her desk.

Hey, what’s up? -R

They had first met in their twenties, the last year of college for them both. He was cute, funny, and intelligent, which was a dangerous combination for her. But while the attraction was instant, so too was the realization that ultimately, they were looking for different things in life once they graduated. He, traditional in almost every sense of the word, and she…well, not so much.

He ended up analyzing data, she ended up teaching music theory to hungover freshmen and football players. Math and music. She saw poetry in the two seemingly opposite subjects entwined with meaning and structure. But only if you looked deeply enough.

Oh, usual stuff. Contemplating a mid-life crisis and quitting my day job. -J

They were checking in with one another as they always had for the last twenty-five years. Though the frequency of their conversations sometimes waned, the need to keep in touch never did. She needed him as a reminder of the person she once was. The one who had opinions that she wasn’t afraid to voice, the one who had a dream she wasn’t afraid to sacrifice for and chase. There was a musical term for how she used to be—brillante, a sparkly or spirited manner. He gave substance to the faint echoes that were the memories of her early life.

Must be nice. With three tuition bills, I can’t afford the luxury. -R

Just another reason why dogs are better than children. We all must live with our choices. -J

She was certainly weighing hers lately.  She had had no intention of ever marrying. She had witnessed first-hand what happened when you married a bully and she was too much like her mother to think she would choose any better. Her dating track record had clearly proven that assumption.

But she changed her mind when she met her husband. Not because she couldn’t live without him, she was too independent for that. It was that she simply didn’t want to. The timing just seemed right.  He checked a lot of the boxes–smart, funny, empathetic, attractive—and uncharacteristically, she threw caution to the wind and said yes though she still had misgivings about the rules around marriage. So, she kept the same name she’d had all her life, passed on the wearing of a ring, and crossed her fingers that her new husband would remember that this was a duet with equal parts between the players.

And ten years later, she didn’t necessarily regret marrying or the life she built with her husband, but it had changed her in ways she was not always comfortable with. When did commitment begin feeling like settling? When did compromise start feeling like failure? How had she gotten so far off course? When had she given up pursuing a dream and instead accepted a job? She inhaled and exhaled deeply while counting down from ten, stopping herself from going down that rabbit hole any further.

Still there? -R

In her anxious mind’s reverie of ruin and misfortune, she realized she had missed an earlier email.

The last time we talked, you asked me about our arrangement and why we endure. Though I thoroughly loved your musings on timing and orchestration, my mathematical mind went in another direction–quantum entanglement. Ever heard of it? -R

Sorry, I’m both here and intrigued. Do go on. -J

In physics, there is this idea that once particles interact with one another, they remain connected, even at great distances. In fact, they are so connected that actions on one particle can affect the other. Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance.” Maybe people are the same way. We’re made up of particles after all. -R

She smiled. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard, hesitating.

This delicate dance around intimacy between them was sometimes difficult to maintain and always impossible to explain. It was just this.

They kept this from their spouses but not because either thought it was cheating, but it was easier than trying to explain. This was emailing to keep a certain distance; removing a level of intimacy that was necessary for them both. This allowed them to remain connected despite the time and distance.

For her, it was enough to know he was out there and could pop back into her life unexpectedly. Enough to know that he sometimes thought about her and sometimes missed her. Enough to know that he made her laugh and made her play brillante. It wasn’t thinking about what might have been because that part of their song had already played itself out. It was somewhere between like and love, but not in the teenage angsty way. This was a love aged into a bittersweet…something. She wished there was a word for it.

Nice. -J

Nice?!  I present my theory and that’s all you have to say? -R

She was never a believer in soul mates or true loves. She was a firm believer in timing. Like a complex orchestration, people come in and out of your life, playing their parts. If one instrument comes in too soon, you’re not ready and it throws the whole composition off. Come in too late and things have moved on without you. The same instruments coming in at the right time could create beautiful, complex harmonies. How long those harmonies last? You never knew, but there was nothing wrong with them being over when it was time.

Every semester, she would teach her students about basic song structure, focusing on the verse, chorus, and bridge, since those pieces together are the heart of the song and where most students got confused. It is also where she was first struck by the emotional similarities to song structure and life.

She would explain that the verse contains the emotions the songwriter wants to express and supports the chorus both musically and lyrically. The chorus is almost always more emotionally intense than the verse. The bridge, on the other hand, is altogether different and musically complex. It is a break, a contrast from the regular melody and verse. But it’s not enough to just take a break. It must lead and prepare the listener for the return of the regular verse and chorus structure.

For now anyway. -J

As short as these conversations sometimes were, they were enough for her. These interludes of playing a familiar old tune almost always energized her. She felt ready to take on what was in front of her, ready to integrate just a little bit more of her former self with who she was now.

She glanced up at the clock. With her office hours over and no students in sight, she straightened up her desk and prepared for the next day. She would return to the regular rhythms of her life; the verse and chorus of her marriage; and the familiar structure of music composition with just a little more brillante.

As she turned off her desk lamp. Her laptop pinged again.

Until then. -R

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