The Music Teacher – Elliot Menard
September 26, 2023
She had two children, Alice and Mark, but she wanted a baby all her own. The realities of human reproduction—that someone else would always have a claim to her very hardest work, that no matter what the law says about sperm donors and vanished fathers, there would always be a man out there, dead or alive, feeling smug—these realities were a constant source of pain and made her dislike her children.
Four days a week, most weeks, she taught music at a school outside Charleston. She was not popular with the students; because of this, and not the other way around, she was harsh and tense, and never smiled. She hoped, anyway, that she would find the next Puccini, because there hadn’t been a Puccini since Puccini. She told her students as much. She didn’t know it, but she was a menace to polite society. A menace because her wants were clear and impenitent, while others wanted things only vaguely and erected high, concentric walls of deniability around even these nebulous longings, so that no one could say they had failed.
Each year, when autumn came and spiked the air with something between a smell and a feeling, on some such Friday of heightened sensitivity, she would take a long bus to the shore. There she would stand, in the water’s lacy trim, inventing stories about the beachgoers from a distance, scenarios where she was everything to them, adored and needed. Only once did someone approach her. This was October 7, 1981. He had muscles and hair and small shorts. He asked her where she was from, because she looked, how could he put this, deposited here, maybe.
“Outside Charleston,” said the music teacher.
“Ma’am, that’s almost the whole entire world.” They both smiled. They talked for fifteen, twenty minutes—she could never remember what about. A little while later, alone, she watched the waves as everything got blue and dark. Her sincerest desire—she saw it clearly now—had the form of a crystal egg, slowly turning in a bar of sunlight. Perhaps it was the same for everyone.
After this, when she masturbated, it was always the man from the beach. They touched and merged, he naked and tactile and significant, she barely there at all, becoming an afterthought, light as a sigh.
Her children grew like stubborn plants. Her students too. And she never understood why the other teachers, neighbors, you name it, kept her at a conspicuous distance.
Many years later, she was dying in a bed in Georgia, and her children were staying in her Athens home to watch it happen and cry. Alice had brought Hammond, a blond jewel of a boy, the only grandson in the world. Mark had no one but Darlene, his wife, who was already wearing black. A pair of hospice nurses flitted about, rearranging things and swapping out liquids and sponges at the death bed, as if anything mattered.
Breaking a two-day silence, the old woman shifted around in bed and let out two small grunts. Everyone rushed in. Hammond held his mother’s shirt. You could hear Mark’s breathing. Into all their rapt and clustering faces the woman calmly said, “I want to live.”
Immediately the mood shifted; frowning looks were shared, lips drawn in. They were terribly embarrassed for her.