By Camille Clarke
The sound of the metronome echoed off the high walls of the practice room. Out of time with the scratch of Victoria’s pencil on her sheet music. Tock, scritch, tock, scritch scritch scritch, tock-scritch. Penny tightened her fingers around her viola’s bow, grit her teeth against a grimace. The other two people in the room were quiet, waiting for the final word.
At last, the scratching ceased, leaving the room once again in the orderly shadow of 75 beats-per-minute.
Victoria flicked her gaze over the stand in front of her and caught Penny's eyes. For a moment, Penny did not breathe.
"Okay," Victoria said. Penny exhaled as the cellist's attention turned to the rest of the quartet. "We're going to cut the last fifteen measures of the piece, and instead insert a coda and go back to measure 60, play until the end of that section, and then skip to the last phrase and repeat it twice."
The others groaned, Connor loudest of all. "Vic, the traditionalists will have our heads if we change it so much."
Victoria leaned back, shifting the cello between her thighs. Penny looked away. "That's why I am the leader of our group," Victoria said. "If anyone has concerns, they can discuss them with me."
“For the regional collegiate showcase, though? It’s practically preliminaries for the next competition.”
Victoria lifted a single sculpted eyebrow. “Then I guess it’s good we already sent in our entry video last week, like I wanted us to.”
A foot nudged Penny's. She glanced down at Connor's well-loved Vans. Of the four of them, he was the most casual when it came to rehearsal and it drove Victoria up the wall almost more than his vocal insolence did. But he’d also lasted the longest in the quartet aside from her and Victoria. For that, he’d earned at least Penny’s respect.
"I know," she said to his unspoken comment, and patted his leg.
She glanced at Victoria, who did not appear to notice the interaction, which meant that she had indeed noticed it, and with interest. Clearing her throat, Victoria picked up her bow and tilted her chin at the three of them. "Let's start at 60," she said. "Count two measures and then we start."
But the metronome's steady beat faded to nonsense in Penny's ears. Victoria set her hand high up on the cello's neck, and a gentle thread tugged Penny's attention to those fingers. Slim and loose, chipped nail polish, fingers that had combed so lovingly through Penny's hair the night before, Tell me one of your secrets, Penny.
The rest of the quartet began playing at once. Penny joined two beats late.
Victoria called a halt immediately.
"Penelope." Her voice snapped through the air, staccato. "What's going on?"
"Nothing." She avoided Victoria's gaze, settled her chin once again on top of her viola. The metronome ticked on.
"Two measures again," Victoria muttered.
This time, Penny joined on time. They glided through the piece smoothly. Legato, crescendo, decrescendo. Telling a story with the piece, as they’d always learned. No mistakes to Penny's ear, but she knew Victoria would find something in the end, make them run a three-measure phrase over and over until their fingers were pink and raw and Penny had to fight tears each time she switched chords. In the end, she was correct. They ended the piece per Victoria's previous instructions, and she simply said, "Measure 97 is sloppy," and they played again.
More than once, Penny glanced over at Victoria. Dainty feet tucked into ballet flats. Gray stockings over shapely legs. Victoria had the figure of a woman, and Penny was hopeless to catch up. The thirteenth time through measures 97 to 100, she allowed herself to watch where the neck of Victoria's instrument touched her collarbone. Below the collarbone, the V-neck of her black slip, and Penny could still see her from this morning, sliding it on over her head, shrugging into the oversized cardigan. Beneath the slip, she wore Penny's strapless bra.
She switched chords a split second too late and she held her breath, waiting for Victoria to reprimand her. But she did not.
"Good," Victoria said after the thirty-fourth time through the phrase. "Why don't we play the whole piece through again, with the changes."
She said "why" but did not mean it as a question or suggestion. And nobody responded as if it were. They picked up their instruments obediently, wincing as they put their fingers on the strings. Victoria ignored it. They began.
Last night, Victoria had been soft and human. Appearing at Penny’s door with her arms wrapped around herself, eyes holding a vulnerability Penny hadn’t seen since they were both auditioning for schools. Small and quiet, voice little more than a whisper, lips pressed against her own arm until Penny had made her laugh. It had been so long since Penny saw her laugh, she was almost unrecognizable. As she threw her head back, that expanse of neck, the skin below her jaw—Penny had never seen such a creamy and warm place on someone's body. Victoria had round cheeks. She had forgotten that.
"It hurts to even zip the freaking thing," Ella, Connor’s fellow violinist, muttered as she closed her case at the end of rehearsal. Victoria was at the other end of the room, packing up the metronome, but she could surely hear the comment.
"Ice bath at my place?" Connor suggested. "My roommate’s home so he can feed us grapes while we soak our hands."
Ella sighed. "Can't. I have class in an hour."
Victoria stood in the center of their circle before they could even hear her walking their way. "Have fun in Classics." Hands on her hips. Hips that tapered out from a narrow waist, and the term "hourglass figure" must have been invented for her.
"Thanks," Ella stammered. "See you tomorrow."
She scampered out of the room. Connor lingered, pointing one swollen-tipped finger at Penny.
"Ice bath?" he asked.
Connor shrugged, did not ask any questions, and walked out with a salute to both Penny and Victoria. The sound of his footsteps echoed for several seconds after he left the room.
Victoria nodded at her. "You should've gone with him. I know your fingers hurt."
"Not any more than when you usually make us do that," Penny said. Victoria froze. It was so quick, just a flash before she bent down to collect her cello case. But Penny had seen it and still she did not regret her words.
"When I first started playing cello," Victoria said slowly, "my tutor made me play 'Hot Cross Buns' over and over until my fingers bled. I tried to get the stains out of the strings with soap and hot water, but it ruined them, and my parents had to pay to get them replaced."
Penny had heard the story before, years earlier and also last night, but this time she touched Victoria's shoulder. Just touched, didn't squeeze or rub, and though Victoria stiffened, she did not step away. A layer of crocheted wool lay between their skin, but Penny remembered her bare shoulder from last night. This morning, she had touched her there, on the curve, and Victoria had tugged up the drooping cardigan until it displaced Penny's hand.
"Come back to my place, then," Victoria said. "I'll give you back your bra."
I don't need it, Penny wanted to say. She wanted her to keep it, to be able to picture it amongst the laundry on Victoria's floor, tangled up with that slip, or maybe with the stockings, or maybe twisted in her bedsheets because she'd taken it off before going to sleep and forgot to toss it to the ground.
"Okay," she said instead.
The university's campus was warmer and more crowded than it had been that morning when the two of them had made the trek in the opposite direction, toward the music building. A foot of chilly air between them. Penny gripping the handle of her viola case with both hands so she didn't do something ill-advised, like reach for Victoria. What had happened the night before would stay in private, something Victoria hadn’t needed to tell her this time. Penny already knew. Now, they weaved through throngs of other students on their way to the bus stop. They sat together on the bus, and Victoria smelled like Penny's soap. Gardenias.
"I appreciate you, Penny," Victoria said once they were in her apartment. "You never tell me to cool it."
She reached under the slip and unhooked the bra. Penny watched as she slung it onto the couch and jerked her chin at it.
"You know why," Penny told her, eyes on the undergarment that had touched Victoria's skin and now sat on Victoria's couch, next to Victoria's blue afghan.
With a sigh, Victoria wandered into her bedroom, calling back through the open door.
"No need to get all sentimental on me now, Penny." Drawers opening and shutting. A closet door slamming. "I said I appreciate you, that's all."
Penny perched on the edge of the sofa, hands in her lap. She didn't speak until Victoria emerged from the other room. She folded her arms and leaned against the doorframe. The stockings had come off, and Penny was now faced with what felt like acres of smooth, pale pink skin. Strong ankles, painted purple toes.
Ten years ago, an adolescent Penny had met a girl who made music look effortless. She'd admired this girl with the single-minded ferocity she'd only ever felt for her viola. She had not known it was possible to adore a human as much as she adored a thing. Things could not hurt you and they could not choose whether or not to want you. People were more difficult. But her love for music became so entwined with her love for Victoria that the two were inseparable, one and the same, and if music could not hurt her, Victoria could not either.
"You didn't talk like this last night," Penny said.
Victoria's eyes hardened. "I wasn't myself last night."
"I was. I’m always myself with you."
Victoria curled her fingers in at her side, stopping just before they formed a fist.
"You shouldn't stay in this for me," she said. "Last night, you said you would have quit music before, if it weren't for me. And it's not worth it."
"No one else cares, Victoria." Penny's words were firm as she stood. She held up her hands, raw fingertips facing out. Victoria looked away. "You do this enough to everyone else and they'll leave you. It's happened before. But me, I never will. I know you need this."
"Need what?" Victoria’s tone wavered, just a bit.
"That story, about your tutor? You've told it to me hundreds of times. You never stop anything until it's more than too much. How many people do you think will let you take it out on them?"
Victoria's eyes glimmered in the sunlight. Penny had never seen her cry before, and she didn't think she ever would. This was fine. Perhaps her tears had been all used up long ago. Penny stepped close, touched the corners of Victoria's eyes where wetness would have gathered on some other person. She was close enough to kiss, a breath away from doing so. Victoria’s unsteady exhale flickered across Penny’s lips, and a string inside Penny pulled tight. The knot unraveled. She leaned in, her chin tilted up just a hair. It was hardly a kiss. More of a brush. Open, soft mouths, Victoria holding so very, very still underneath her hands. Penny pulled back just enough to catch her gaze again.
"Control, Victoria," Penny said. "Absolute devotion. You thrive on it. And as long as you do, so do I."
Victoria shook her head, lips pressed together. But she would not say no. She would not say, Stop this, Penny, treat yourself better. Because she needed Penny as much as Penny needed her, and this was why the cycle could not end.
They stood there locked together. Two girls, back at the beginning. Like a coda.