The Elgar by Sil Spencer

The subway door closes, and it starts. Since it is not too busy, I take a seat and extend my gaze to the pole—it is shiny and dirty—it distends my face in a silvery concave bowl. All I get is the theme, as if breathing into a paper bag. It is always just the theme, like I’m not musically literate enough to remember any more. The cloud descends, the sounds come rattling down like rocks from the heights, and there I am in it. Trauma. Elgar’s Cello Concerto, or its first several bars.

The bars of the music sprout up, adding to the one silent subway pole, my companion, which reflects my face, my image of myself. I am alone, it is depression, or it is just the College Station stop, with six more to go before Osgoode, ’round the wheel from east to west, and then a ride on the streetcar, busy and sunlit. Loss of wife. The Elgar. The companionship of the glowing steel bars surrounding me, distorting.

God. How embarrassing. 

Entering into the world, my pain is so perfectly captured by Jacqueline du Pré performing the Elgar that it isn’t even my pain. It is our pain, hers and mine, and then I find Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You,” like a drug synthesized for my excitation, and accomplishing all that in under five minutes—four minutes and fifty-six seconds, to be exact. I can play it any time I want. In a world of such economy, such simplicity and such nervy performance, how can I do better? My pain is not my private pain, it is reflected in the bloody steel poles of the subway, and it is captured like a tuning fork, finally giving up its autonomy.

I want my pain back. 

My pain is a species of the genus pain, with a distinct species-form, just like all dogs are dogs and yet a Doberman is not a Spaniel. It makes me feel better to think so, but then the dogs run away and in their hindquarters as seen from behind, they become all dogs, and thus just Dog. And I can’t feel that I’m really feeling it, hugging it, petting it, as my own pet, because I’m just touching and deeply moved by Dog. And that’s it, over and over. I cannot feel or think, it is a silence and pain within pain, and the steel bars reflecting my face are the quiet inward part of the pain, and I am cabined away from my own pain by my reflection that is not my pain about—what was it, again? Loss of wife, but not even Loss or Death of Wife, but like a throwing away, like a wife-discarding, and then trauma, depression, breathing into a paper bag, and the Elgar.

The Pain: It is a synth pain, synthesized and clarified and foreshortened professionally, like the perspective of a Renaissance painting, capturing the model’s experience of the world, loss of wife, trauma, depression, breathing into a paper bag and the Elgar Concerto. It is an 80s pain, it is Switched-on-Beethoven pain. It is not my pain.

On the subway, happy for the heavy humidity today, which makes it even harder to breathe, I wish it were even harder to breathe, I wish that I could have my difficulty breathing, my own very own that is distinct from yours and hers and ours. I specifically want it to be just the difficulty from our vacation in Caesarea, just that one-day holiday, where we argued and I almost accidentally strangled you in the shallow water, fooling around, when you could have choked on your chewing gum, and then we separated. We were wading, and I was always so comfortable in the water, I couldn’t understand that others aren’t strong swimmers. If that had happened as I imagine it now, if you had drowned, it would have been entirely my fault—a terrible feeling. But it would have been my pain, my guilt, my responsibility, clasping me forever. But just to quarrel, married six months, no one dies, we were just wrong, marked the wrong names, so that people look at us slant-wise on the subways, where we sit, as if nothing has happened, and what did happen? I am dazed, I can’t understand that nothing happened.  

I can’t look at you. I want to, but I am surrounded by the bars—you must hear them, tuning something—and my grinning face, reflected in the steel subway car’s pole ahead of me, is what I know, and that is all I’ve been. And I can’t help lying to myself that I imagined the trip to Caesarea, which really did happen, and I can’t quiet the desire to lie about the accidental near-death, which really occurred.

And now that I’m back here, probably seated beside you—I can’t look over because I can’t move my head, the bars surround me, for shame, so that I have to trust that you’re there. My hand is on the vinyl seat as if taxidermied, a grinning death-house face is tattooed on the bar before me, I am an individual one, a failed marriage, trauma, depression, and breathing into the paper bag. 

Listening to the Elgar, I disembark from the subway to catch the streetcar. I can’t turn my head, I am actually physically unable to. Are you still walking beside me? I cannot hear, cannot see you. I—I wanted to ask, What about your pain? What happened to it? Did it, too, become ours? I imagine that you’re walking beside me, capable of answering, although you said to me yourself in Caesarea, in one of our genuine moments together, that you are hemmed in by these bars, it’s the noisily clattering beginning of the Grieg Piano Concerto, you are holding yourself tightly within them, again and again. 

Damn the Grieg, and damn the Elgar! I imagine you there, unable to turn your head, glittering bars around you, depression, loss of a husband, and the Grieg.

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