Pas Encore

Robert Herbst

We went to a concert that evening, the chamber music series at St. John’s. The vaulted ceilings brought on a strange vertigo, and our chins tipped upward. Across transepts, a stained-glass virgin and blue rose trapped the last bit of day. Emma perched on the edge of her pew. In the darkened sanctuary, I sensed her next to me - a glowing ember, or some crepuscular intelligence. After intermission an audience member collapsed, and medics had to carry him out before the concert could resume. The violinist made a little speech. “All music,” he said, “concerns life and living.”

I knew what it reminded her of because it reminded me of the same things: that day when we were driving, Beethoven on the stereo, and a pickup truck slammed into the rear passenger side. Also, Emma’s mother, dead last year.

On our walk home, the dogwoods were bursting, the perfume of honeysuckle and magnolias making all sorts of suggestions.

“What are you smiling about?” Emma asked.

But I wouldn’t say.

I was thinking about a similar night, more than a decade earlier, when the redbuds were phosphorescent under streetlamps, when our walk took hours – the thrushes trilling by the time we collapsed inside. When we staked our claim to the universe: what was and what was not, the tune of all things. When Emma told me about quantum theory, about Mahler, about slime molds that could map the Tokyo subway system, and I asked her why it all seemed so sad? Why did all of it break my heart?

I was thinking about Emma’s mother, who must have had her first tremors around that time. In a few years, they’d become pronounced, always intensifying when she listened to her old repertoire: Waldstein Sonata, or Schubert’s Wanderer, or Gaspard de la Nuit. The frenetic electrical activity sparking along palm and fingertip. She’d observe those hands, those strangers, and mutter the same half joke: plus vit, plus vit.

For a block or two, I was silent, swaddled in those memories.   

Emma stopped abruptly, squeezing my arm.

“What,” I said.

She guided my hand to her belly, where I felt, somewhere both far away and nearby, little, staccato kicks.

We stayed there, not moving, the trees holding their breath, roots searching, branches knitting, until the moment passed.

The doctors had warned us that this one might not, probably would not, make it, either. We shouldn’t get our hopes up. Even in that moment, we ought to have titrated our hope until it reached some reasonable dilution.

And yet, 

And yet a kick is that thing which strikes a soccer ball, which produces that perfect thomp, a globe soaring, landing, bouncing. A kick is the body using itself, expressing the brilliance of its design. Quod erat demonstradum, a kick says.

And yet I was thinking, and yet I was sure Emma was thinking, that none of the others had made it this far. None of the others had – the word popped into my mind - quickened.

Emma closed her eyes, and I placed my other arm on the small of her back and drew her against me. We didn’t dare speak lest we break the charm we’d lucked upon - the dogwood and the honeysuckle and our bodies held in the humid night air as if by amber. Something almost like triumph.

We walked the rest of the way slowly, afraid of any noise like a pop, any action sudden enough to trample. I knew that she was thinking about statistics, about vitamins and breathing exercises and a warm bath. All I could think of was that, ten years from now, this night would be one of those memories. When all the blooming things hadn’t yet rotted, might not ever rot.

I remembered for a second time that day with the truck. After the concussion of steel on steel, near-silence had followed. We sat there, breathing hard, the Cavatina still pulsing gently through the stereo, and over the panic, the pain, the anger, there was relief. It was not just the destruction which had come so near yet left us whole. Relief filled me, nearly choked me, because I realized that there are some things that can’t be destroyed. Weeks later, when I found Emma prone on unlit bathroom tiles, hugging herself, tears marbling her eyes, I told her that we, too, possessed a part of that thing which doesn’t die. 

We continued down that sidewalk like a single being - many-limbed, slightly hunched, with a deliberate, slow gait. I left my hand on her stomach, but there were no more kicks. I felt, or thought I felt, a subtle churning, like a lapping bay against a boat in harbor. An irrepressible movement. “Pas encore,” Emma whispered to herself. “Pas encore.”