Fiction: Clara

Read More: A brief interview with Amanda Kabak

Clara and I met Paul several years into our marriage, and I knew right away, as quickly as I’d known about Clara, that perfection was not Clara and me, as I’d thought, but Clara and me and Paul. She, always a photographer above all, said he gave us the perfect composition, but the musician in me thought of him as the unifying counterpoint to our lustrous main theme.

Paul was a mid-list writer and adjunct professor at the same college where I taught, and when he presented Clara with a short story fresh off the printer for the first of her birthdays we celebrated together, it felt like a challenge to Clara and me for us to sharpen our shared commitment to art outside language.

“Top this,” his wink at me seemed to say, and I really couldn’t. Though I played the French horn with a soloist’s “sonorous tone and technical aplomb,” as one critic had put it, my skill as a composer was average at best. When Paul gave Clara these stories like clockwork each of the last dozen years, he looked puffed up with pride, and her face blurred with happy appreciation, and I couldn’t compete.

Those stories, whether beautiful or comic or just plain strange, roused me to jealousy even where Paul and Clara’s enthusiastic greetings didn’t—not their full-body hugs, not even their kisses on the lips. They were evidence of the depth of his feeling for Clara, one that rivaled my own, and I sometimes had to remind myself that I was the one married to her, that these stories came only once a year, and that I was six-four and could beat Paul to a pulp if I wanted to.

Clara had been gone for two weeks, snapping pictures in a country that’s name contained too many syllables and not nearly enough vowels, and when she finally came home, she stopped only for a big glass of water and a too-brief kiss before slipping naked between the sheets and passing out. She was here and not here, a pulsing point of presence offstage, a distraction I savored until I was tired enough to join her.

The next morning, her breathing had changed from uncomfortably slow and deep to her normal rhythm, and I wasn’t surprised when she came into her kitchen, sunshiny and beautiful before I’d finished my first cup of coffee. Her terry-cloth robe was cinched around her, her blond hair was mussed, and she looked sultry and familiar in my exact favorite proportion.

I said, “Hey, beautiful. I think that was a new record. Fifteen and a half hours.”

“Really?” It came out in a croak, and we both laughed. She cleared her throat. “I’m not surprised. I had twelve hours of crying baby right behind me on the way home.” A sip of my heavily sugared coffee made her grimace, and she pushed hair behind an ear, exposing a pillow crease that zig-zagged down her cheek.

“Was it good?”

“Marvelous. I’m so glad I went.”

She got her own mug of coffee, stole the arts section from the pile of Sunday newspaper at my elbow, then lifted her bare feet into my lap. I rubbed her arches and toes. Though I’d known Clara was the one for me with a stomach-lurching immediacy, the timing of that surety had not been reciprocal. She wasn’t like other girls I’d dated. The guys in my brass ensemble thought she was aloof and too difficult to be worth the effort. People were already saying she had an eagle eye in her art, and she had an eagle everything else, too: a majestic sharpness, a penchant for solitude, an appetite for rooting out small, sometimes insignificant things and consuming them whole.

Unlike other girls, she didn’t chatter or demand my attention. In fact, sometimes she didn’t even notice my existence, which was a feat considering how much space I took up. My lumbering pursuit persisted through our whole first year together and the tectonic adjustments we made while we learned about each other. By now I knew it might take days before she told me any details about her trip, let alone unveiled finished pictures, yet not asking was a sweet kind of agony. I pretended to read the paper while listening to the airy whistle she produced when lost in thought. This morning, I was serenaded by an ethnic tune from another continent.

When she stopped reading to refill her mug, I said, “Two more weeks.”

She brushed her nose with her hand. “The big four-two.”

I hadn’t expected it, but forty had hit Clara hard, sending her into a funk that even Paul’s story had barely lifted. It turned into a joke once she recovered, but there would always be ways she could surprise me, even after sixteen years. She dug her feet more deeply in my lap and sipped her coffee.

I said, “Any bets on this year’s story?”

“After last year’s epic, I vote small and precious. Family drama. You?”

“Young adult adventure. That or erotica.”

She rolled her eyes and laughed. “I’m going to request that for next year.”

“He does know his way around a sex scene.”

Clara hummed in acknowledgement.

We’d settled back into Sunday-morning ritual when a rapid knock on the front door was followed by the squeak of its opening and Paul’s voice. “Anyone home?” He lived just down the street in a genteelly dilapidated house, and we had mutual open-door policies.

Clara’s smile raised small bass clefs next to her mouth and deep lines around her eyes. “We’re in the kitchen, and we were just talking about you,” she sang back. She turned in her chair, and I started to get up, but we both froze when he appeared in the kitchen. Instead of swaggering across the room and leaning down to kiss Clara, he walked slowly, pulling along a tall woman whose pixie-cut hair was at odds with her serious expression.

She had curves and freckles and light blue eyes ringed in indigo that flicked in my direction then away. I finally remembered to sit down. Paul claimed that romantic drama was his addiction, which was a vast improvement over stereotypical writerly distractions, and in all these years, he’d never willingly presented to one of his girlfriends to us.

“Lauren, these are my best friends, Harry and Clara. Harry and Clara, this is, well, Lauren.” Paul rocked on his feet and glanced back and forth between us, face beaming like a Wagnerian horn solo.

I staggered to Lauren and engulfed her slender fingers with my hot paw. “Good to meet you.”

Then we all turned to Clara. She held her mug a forgotten inch above the table.

“Clara,” I said.

She hurried to her feet. “I’m sorry. It’s just such a surprise.” She rounded the table, bumping it with her hip, her hand outstretched. “Welcome.”

“You’ll have to excuse my wife,” I said to fill the sudden awkward silence. “She’s been traveling.”

“Paul told me about it. That must’ve been unbelievably exciting.”

Clara bobbed her head, then excused herself with a murmur about changing. Paul and I looked at each other, but I couldn’t tell what he was thinking—something about Clara, something about me. I invited both of them to sit for a cup or two.

Lauren said to Paul, “You were right. Absolute shock. We should’ve had an EMT on call with warm blankets and smelling salts.”

Paul tilted his head and raised one dark eyebrow to me as if saying, “See? Look what I found.”

I watched the way they leaned toward each other and wonder about Clara upstairs. I wanted to join her and whisper in hurried hisses while I got properly dressed, but it seemed impossible to leave Paul and Lauren down here alone. I cleared my throat with a roar, making them both jump. “If only I had the excuse of a long, exotic trip, but I’m just generally inexcusable. Please, tell me about yourself. What kind of music do you like?”

Paul nudged Lauren “What did I say? Careful how you answer.”

While Lauren talked, Clara snuck back into the kitchen with her Pentax around her neck and parked herself in the last open chair around the table. At a pause in the conversation, Clara indicated her camera. “Do you mind if I take a few shots? It’s, frankly, a momentous occasion, and these guys can attest that I’m still at least half behind my camera for days after a trip. Metaphorically, of course.”

Lauren said, “Sure, of course,” but froze under the Pentax’s scrutiny, even after Clara got up to rove the kitchen.

The territory became at least slightly familiar again, and I did what I did best—apologize for Clara without actually apologizing. “Just try to pretend she’s not there. It’s not worth the film, otherwise. Why don’t you tell us how you guys met?”

After I finally cajoled her into it, and she stopped taking side-long glances at Clara, I listened to the snik of Clara’s camera and wondered what she saw. Did the charge in the air between Paul and Lauren make it through the lens? The way Paul kept putting his hand on Lauren’s arm then shoulder then wrist, the way Lauren teetered between eager and aloof with us until they eventually got up to leave.

“We could make another pot if you’d like to stay,” Clara said, her voice bright and a shade too loud.

Paul said, “No, thanks. Catch you two later.” They left with no hug or kiss, just a little wave from Lauren as Paul led her away.

After the door closed behind them, Clara sprawled out in her chair and rested her camera against her belly. She closed her eyes and sighed. “Well.”

“Indeed.”

“Our little boy is growing up.”

“She’s very nice.”

“She’s not nice, but she’s perfect for Paul.”

“How many hours before he comes back to tell us all about it?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Harry. I’d bet on that even less than erotica.” Though there was still plenty of paper left to read, Clara got up and kissed my receding hairline. “I’m going to get to work.”

“Now? In the dungeon?”

“Now.” Clara slipped down the basement stairs to her workshop, a nominally finished area with desk and darkroom.

I went to my practice room to drown this small letdown in the unending pursuit of perfection. Scales first, as always, played while wandering slow circuits of the small space, the horn’s weight balanced between my right hand in the bell and my left at the keys. My stance was easy, my shoulders relaxed and breath strong while I blew out sets of major, minor, augmented, and diminished scales without thought, using only the coordinated muscle memory of lungs and lips and fingers. With each long, deep inhale, I felt my whole body loosen and expand.

The same way Clara’s camera was an extension of her, I’d spent a huge part of the last three decades pushing air through a short succession of French horns. The weight of them, the feeling of my embouchure changing to bring about the right notes, the action of the keys, and the way marks on the page became music without cognition—these were the only things in my life more familiar and dear than Clara.

Clara claimed she wasn’t hungry for lunch, which I believed until she trotted out the same excuse when dinner rolled around. I ignored it and descended the basement stairs with a steaming bowl of pasta in each hand. The plain hollow door to her darkroom was closed, so I set the bowls down on her desk and thrummed a couple knuckles against the unfinished wood. The knock reverberated, but it was a sound without substance.

Clara’s, “Come in,” floated out to me, and I stepped into the gloom and stood still until my eyes adjusted. A couple red lights glowed by the door, but in the back half of the room, only the illuminated tick marks and sweeping second hand of a large analog clock cut through the darkness. Clara did absolutely everything there by feel except focusing the ancient enlarger she’d named Bertha. I squeezed between short alleys of clotheslines studded with dripping prints that shuddered in the breeze from a fan parked in the corner.

“Are you working on the trip?” I asked.

“And some other things I’ve been putting off.”

She rustled around in a box of photo paper before I heard the sharp clicks of Bertha’s timer. After so much music, this bit of sensory deprivation was downright pleasant. In the darkness, every sound was crisply individual and amplified—the exact antithesis of the wall of music that erupted from my horn. The room went bright, and I counted seconds along with the timer until the light shut off. Though Clara’s devotion was split between analog and digital, I always pictured her in here when thinking of her at work.

She was halfway to the baths before I could blink away my temporary blindness. I followed her slowly into the red dim with my hands out ahead of me like Frankenstein. “I made dinner. Pulled out all the stops and heated up those garlic bread sticks you like so much.”

“You’re very good to me.” She slipped the print into a shallow tub.

“I thought it might lure you out of here, since I’m clearly not enough of a draw myself.”

“What does that mean?” The snap in her voice was tempered by distraction.

I didn’t answer.

“The Mozart sounded great.”

“Flattery notwithstanding, I think you should join me for dinner. I could open a bottle of vino.”

She slid the photo into a bath of fixer and turned to me, hands on her hips. I could barely make out her grin the gloom. “Are you making overtures?”

“Are you feeling receptive?” She often wasn’t right after her trips.

“Maybe.” Her grin shifted, but I couldn’t see into what. “I have one more print to make.”

“How about a little preview?”

“Oh, okay.” She flowed up against me in her long-sleeved T-shirt and drawstring cotton pants. Some indeterminate time later, she broke from the kiss and said, “Let me just do that last print.” She settled the current picture under trickling water in the sink and walked away. “Come on, just touch me while I work.” Her voice led me back into darkness.

My hands settled above the flare of her hips after she sat down, my little fingers dipped below the equator of her waistband. She sighed. A foreign landscape swam in and out of negative focus on the enlarger’s baseboard, and the slow flow of water and the whir of the fan made seconds pass in thick dollops like the plucked strings of a double bass.

I tried to tie the image in front of me to the words in a travel essay Paul had written about this corner of the world a few years before. The challenge of finding pictures that would be worth his thousands of words was all the nudge Clara had needed to make this trip. I savored the opportunity to steep in their different versions of the same thing, the way his words and her images evoked all the senses in such a concrete, permanent way so different from my art. Sometimes I envied them for that, but the ephemeral nature of music, the warmth and living humanity of it, never failed to win me over completely.

Clara swiveled to her left and crinkled the liner of the paper box then leaned back into my chest for a beat.

I said, “Did it measure up to Paul’s essay?”

“You’ll have to wait and see.”

“What do you think?”

“That I’ll have to wait and see, too.” I could picture her smile. “There’s no comparison, not really.”

“Art is absolute.”

“Absolutely.” She laughed, low and throaty.

“But even the best composers did variations on a theme.”

“Don’t even breathe the word ‘variation’ around Paul.”

“Scout’s honor.” I tightened my grip on her hips. “So. Lauren.”

“Mm.”

“We should probably have them over for dinner. You know, everyone properly dressed and prepared.” Instead of responding, she snapped Bertha to life, dazzling me. “No robes. No cameras. Lots of wine.” The light went out. I nuzzled her neck, but she stiffened.

“You’re probably right, but give me a few days to get myself in order.”

I slid my hands around to her belly, but she twisted away.

“I need to finish this print. You should eat without me. And don’t wait up.”

The flatness of her voice made arguments pile up in my mouth, as trapped by my teeth as I was by the darkroom’s velvety quiet and the red-lit gauntlet between me and the way out.

Clara was asleep with utter abandon the next morning when I pried myself out of bed for an early morning lesson at the university. Her arms were flung over her head, and her mouth hung open behind an errant wash of hair. I knew she was dreaming from the deep forcefulness of her breath. I knew her clothes would be piled on the top of the toilet tank but that her desk in the basement would be clear of any evidence of work. I knew the way she would look when she finally showed me prints from this trip—proud with a thin layer of trepidation—and I knew that despite the strangeness of the day before, Clara was mine, alone, and that she’d come all the way back to me soon enough.

That evening, she took me by the hand after stacking dishes in the sink and led me upstairs without a word. The morning’s glimpse of well being came home with its full weight and volume when I felt the smoothness of her back against the insides of my arms. Her skin was ethereal in its softness, but she pulled me to her roughly, asserted her tongue in my mouth. She breathed as if this were all a morning dream, but her eyes were open and direct, and any doubts about her feelings for me or my place in her life choked off in a wild tone cluster of pleasure.

During dinner with Lauren and Paul, Clara repeatedly dropped out of the admittedly awkward conversation and into a persistent way of studying Lauren, as if there existed a framing that would put her in the proper context. She’d swapped camera for wine, which only made her gaze more brazen and calculating.

Lauren held up remarkably well, though she focused her attention on me. “I played the clarinet in high school. You have to be a very special person to make the clarinet cool, and I failed miserably.”

“Coolness is the province of rock and jazz. Besides, only the bassoon tops the French horn in ultimate geekiness, so I completely understand.”

Paul said, “And yet Harry’s coolness persists.”

“Whatever coolness I have is remnants from my time on the football field.”

“They called him Hard-Ass Harry.”

Lauren said, “There must’ve been some confused girls in your school, wanting to date the football stud but not wanting to be seen with the music geek. Still, rumor around our band room was that brass players were the best kissers.”

Paul smiled at Clara. “Care to comment?”

“What was that?” Clara asked after taking a long moment to turn to Paul.

He frowned and shook his head. “Nothing. Who wants coffee?” He pulled Clara out of her seat and toward the kitchen, saying they’d be back with a fresh pot.

Though I was nearly a foot taller than Lauren and had to outweigh her by close to a hundred pounds, I was afraid of being alone with her. She finished her wine and dabbed her lips with a napkin before studying me like Clara had just been studying her. “Paul warned me Clara could be intimidating.”

“She doesn’t mean to be, but she has a particularly aggressive form of shyness.”

“That’s one way to put it. He also said you two were the most perfect couple he’s ever known and that he’s jealous of you. Your complementary natures.”

I said, “You love him,” and whatever reservations I may have had about Lauren were gone in the instant she dropped her eyes to her hands and smiled.

“I couldn’t possibly admit that to you before I admit it to him.” Then she excused herself to find the bathroom.

Our meal had been fragrant with cumin, and the scent was overbearing. I was halfway through the butler’s pantry with a stack of dishes when I heard Paul and stopped to listen.

“Yeah, it’s fast, but fast doesn’t always mean crazy. How long did it take you to be sure about Harry?”

Clara said, “Longer than this, and that’s not my point.”

“Fine. What’s your point? Did you expect me to spend the rest of my life satisfied being a permanent third wheel?”

“No, of course not. I just … I thought that maybe we …. Ah, Paul.”

I sped back to the table, still holding the dirty dishes. The tone of Clara’s voice had said it all, the soft sluggish vowels that always accompanied a hand on the arm, an open, intimate face. I was such an idiot.

The creak of the bathroom door opening brought me to my feet in panic. The only avenue for escape was the stairway upstairs, and I took the steps two at a time and hustled down the hall. The corner of our bed sagged where I sat, and I rubbed my face with the heels of my hands.

How long had I been playing the dumb cad? My grip on the edge of the bed was so tight my ham-fisted knuckles shone white. I shucked off my slacks and sweater and yanked on clothes for the gym. Fuck them. I was through suffering through the extravagance of Paul’s birthday stories, of their supposedly platonic hugs and kisses. I was done making excuses for Clara, sticking up for her, offering explanations to those who hadn’t the time or inclination to understand her quirks and her intensity. Besides, who was I to translate her inscrutability when I clearly had no clue?

I slipped down the stairs with uncharacteristic stealth, my gym bag tight in one hand, my ears open wide. Hearing only muffled conversation from the kitchen, I crossed the living room and was out the door in a pick-and-roll with the couch and recliner.

My twenty-four-hour gym was a shining oasis with its deserted rows of treadmills and elliptical machines. I skipped the cardio and went right to the free weights and the routine I’d run through two or three times a week since my football days. When I finished the circuit, I was still crackling with angry energy and coiled power, so I went back and did it again, harder this time, heaving weights to utter exhaustion, drinking in that trembling fatigue until I collapsed into the hot-steam sauna to sweat out whatever was left in me.

Yet the questions and humiliations kept coming. When had Clara fallen for Paul? Did she imagine him when I touched her? Had they slept together? Had Paul seen Clara cracked open and softened with desire?

The thought of them together (in our bed?), the idea of them talking about me in a drowsy afterward incensed me, and that anger felt so clean compared to the muddle of loss and embarrassment it burned through. I held on to it during a cold shower and the reckless drive back to our house through late-night empty streets.

Once parked in the driveway, I didn’t know who to confront first. Paul would be easier and would make a satisfying scene if Lauren were with him. Clara would be alone and angry that I’d disappeared, and she always got quiet when she was mad. Strong emotions never failed to get the best of her communication skills, and in our early days, I used to try to goad her into knock-down drag-out fights or bully her to tears—anything to prove my effect on her.

I marched up our front walk and prowled around the deserted downstairs, taking in the spotless kitchen and dining room before ascending to the bedrooms and finding only emptiness up there, too. I took the basement steps slowly, skipping over the one that always creaked. Clara’s multi-spectrum desk lamp cast a circle of warm light on the shut-down computer. The darkroom door was closed, and only when I put my ear to its hollow wood did I hear Clara’s soft, hiccupping cries. I reeled away and back up the stairs to my studio to drown the sound in the first music I could find to pipe through my headphones.

I spent the night listening intently, taking no breaks between recordings, skipping back and forth along the history of Western music, jumping from symphony to mass to overture, quartet or quintet or chamber or big band, vocal then instrumental. Anything loud enough to keep me from detecting Clara in the house.

When the tardy winter sun made an appearance, I got up stiffly and opened the door just enough to cast my weary ears around. Hearing nothing, I escaped from the house and walked through the cold morning, still in my dirty sweat clothes, and climbed the three sagging steps of Paul’s front porch.

I rang the bell, then turned and leaned against the dirty siding, crossing my arms against the wind’s chill. Paul’s lawn was brown and shaggy. I rang again and waited, my hand courting the doorknob. But then it was yanked away from me, and Paul stood across the threshold, looking just the way I’d felt the night before. What right did the lying son of a bitch have to be pissed?

His hair was disheveled, and his dark eyes were big behind his glasses. “What the fuck is wrong with you two?” His vehemence was a shove against my chest. “Is my happiness so inconvenient for you that you can’t even fake civility for a couple hours? Not even after so many years?”

He pushed me, then, an actual pop on my shoulder that sent me back a step and obliterated whatever trepidation I’d felt outside Clara’s darkroom door. I tackled him back into his front hall. We were on the ground, straining against each other, my session at the gym a sweet soreness in my triceps and quads. I had Paul pinned in the junction of floor and wall in no time and was in his face, which was beet red with effort.

“Civility? Are you shitting me?” I yelled. Paul struggled beneath me. I eased off so I could shake him a little. “You don’t have a fucking leg to stand on, you little prick.”

In his flailing, Paul managed to land an elbow to my neck, and I rolled off him, choking. We lay on his threadbare runner, gasping for breath, so far from the young men we were when we’d met, and I felt a foolishness steal over me.

Paul was still breathing hard when he said, “What the hell happened to you last night?”

“I heard you in the kitchen. You and Clara.” […]


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Amanda Kabak is the author of the novel The Mathematics of Change and has had stories published in Arcturus, Midwestern Gothic, The Harpoon Review, Perceptions Magazine, and other print and online periodicals. She was the recipient of the Lascaux Review fiction award as well as the Al-Simāk award for fiction from Arcturus. She was awarded the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference’s Betty Gabehart prize and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. 

Read More: A brief interview with Amanda Kabak