The Spare Room
by Arthur Vibert
Like most of the houses in our neighborhood, our garage hasn’t had a car in it for at least fifteen years. Houses are too expensive here to use valuable interior space for containing anything as prosaic as a mere conveyance.
It was apparently okay to use it for storing great piles of clothes and books as well as tins and bottles of food items, however. If the apocalypse ever comes, we’re set — as long as we don’t mind wearing seriously out of date clothing and dining exclusively on capers and smoked oysters.
Still, something had to be done, since it was becoming increasingly difficult negotiating the tiny corridors that wove between storage boxes and bags, so we decided to have a garage sale and unload as much of our old stuff as we could.
Which was why, on that sunny summer morning, my wife Marion and I were emptying the garage. Boxes and bags were building up on the concrete driveway. I was trying to display everything in as attractive a way as possible but I really didn’t think anyone was going to go for ancient disco tube tops or grease-stained bell bottoms. Of course, once out of the garage, if an item didn’t sell its next stop was the dump. I just hoped we’d sell enough to pay the dump fee.
As I worked in the already blazing heat I noticed that there seemed to be a lack of activity inside so I called out to my wife, since she had a habit of getting sidetracked, looking at old photos or reading ancient letters.
“How’s it going in there?” I shouted cheerfully. The tone would change if she continued to dilly-dally, of course, but I always found it best to start on an upbeat note. This time, though, there wasn’t even a grunt of acknowledgement.
“Hey,” I said, “did you fall down a rabbit hole?” But there was still nothing.
I went into the garage to see what she was up to. She came out from behind a pile of boxes looking vaguely guilty.
“There you are,” I said. “Been going down memory lane reading letters from old lovers?” I knew she did it, but it didn’t really bother me. When you’ve been with someone for twenty years, you get used to their little foibles and usually find ways to accommodate them.
She gave me a look that involved the rolling of eyes and then she said, “I found a room.”
I looked at her blankly for a moment. “What do you mean you’ve ‘found a room’,” I finally said. “Rooms don’t just show up out of the blue.”
Our house was small — only about 1500 square feet. And we’ve lived in it forever. I was confident that I had seen all the rooms in the house. I couldn’t imagine where an extra room could fit — there just wasn’t space for it.
“I was pulling out some boxes by the back wall and I saw a door I’d never noticed before,” she said.
I gaped at her. I still couldn’t imagine how there could be another room. “Show me,” I said.
She led me back through the canyon of boxes. Then she turned and looked at me triumphantly. Behind her was a door, partly open. Through the doorway I could see a room. A big room.
I started to walk past her to get a better look. It was only in retrospect that I realized how reluctant she was to let me pass. I was so amazed that there could be a room I didn’t know about in a house I’d lived in for so long that I was oblivious to everything else.
The room was empty, and a bit dusty. A large window on the far wall let in a stream of sunlight that shone through dancing motes of dust, but it had apparently been years since it was last washed and an accumulation of spider webs and dirt made it difficult to see out. I had a vague sense of trees and shrubs but couldn’t distinguish anything else. One thing I could see was that what was outside the window was not part of our house — or any of our neighbor’s houses, for that matter.
“Okay, this is weird,” I said, standing in the middle of the room. Marion stood by the window, gazing thoughtfully out.
“I’m going to make this my music room,” she said finally. That was reasonable since she was a pianist and right now her Bechstein concert grand took up far too much space in the living room. But I was resentful. Didn’t I get a say in how the room was used? Before I could speak I heard voices outside. People had started to arrive for the garage sale and that effectively ended the discussion.
The day turned out to be a moderate success. We could actually see across our garage again. Apparently there was still a market for bell-bottoms. After a visit to the dump — which only cost me ten bucks — we netted about $300, which I thought was pretty good.
When I came home from work the next day, the piano was out of the living room and things had been rearranged. It was amazing how much bigger the room looked with the piano gone. It was like having a new house. Marion was nowhere to be found so I made myself a drink and went out to the garage to see if she was there.
I could hear the piano as she practiced what sounded like the keyboard part from the Brahms horn trio in E-flat. I knew it well because it was the piece she played when I met her at a college recital. I made my way back to the new room and opened the door.
The change was dramatic. She’d cleaned the walls and the floor, hung some pictures, put down a nice rug and of course the piano was there. Two candles on the piano to either side of the music stand illuminated her face with a warm, flickering romantic light.
She continued to play as I walked in, turning a page of music with her left hand while her right continued on the keyboard. I listened until she finished, set my glass down and applauded. “Bravo,” I said, “you played that with more passion than I’ve heard from you in years.”
Normally she would have been at my throat for a comment like that, thinking I was making some backhanded reference to our sex life. But she just sat there, staring silently ahead, not acknowledging my presence.
“Marion?” I said. “Are you alright?”
A moment later her eyes refocused and she looked at me and smiled. “Yes, of course I am. Let’s get dinner.” She stood up and blew out the candles carefully, cupping her hand behind the flame to avoid spattering the piano with wax.
I stepped out of the room as she followed, the air redolent with the smell of smoke from the freshly extinguished candles. She closed the door firmly and we walked back to the kitchen together.
The next day I came home a little early from work and when I went into the bedroom to change I noticed that the bed was unmade. For me this wouldn’t be a big deal but Marion was obsessed with bedmaking and usually the covers were tucked in so tight you could bounce a quarter off the bedspread. I went to fix a drink and went out to the garage.
This time I heard the unmistakable chords of Romance Oubliée by Franz Liszt as I worked my way back to what was now referred to as the music room. And I could swear I heard the violin part as well. I stood by the doorway, not wanting to interrupt, and listened to the shamelessly romantic music. As the final chord rang out I opened the door quietly. Inside I saw Marion, head buried in her arms, draped over the keyboard. She was alone.
The room had taken on a mysterious quality, as if it had physically changed since I’d last seen it. The ceiling appeared higher. And there was a new — or, rather, new antique — chair complete with antimacassar. There were heavy dark drapes over the window. The room was taking on a decidedly Victorian air.
Marion looked up from the piano, her hair wild and her face flushed from what must have been an intense experience.
“Another magnificent performance,” I said. “But where’s your violinist?”
She looked at me oddly. “My what?”
“I thought I heard a violin,” I said, shrugging my shoulders.
“Why would there be a violin? I was just doing finger exercises.”
That stopped me. “No, you were playing Liszt — I heard it as I walked in.”
“You need to get your hearing checked. I don’t do Liszt — too Romantic. You know that.” She stood up quickly and blew out the candles, closing up the piano and pushing the stool in.
I noticed that she wore a long, deep burgundy empire cut velvet gown. It was the sort of thing she wore for concert appearances but wouldn’t be caught dead in any other time. She hated wearing anything but jeans and t-shirts and was generally quite vocal in her disdain for other clothing choices.
“Aren’t you a little dressed-up for finger exercises?” I asked nonchalantly. I cringed inwardly, expecting the claws to come out, but she just smiled and prodded me towards the door.
The next day I had lunch with my friend Bernie. I was talking about Marion, though I neglected to mention the new room — it was just too darn weird.
“It’s like she’s changed,” I said. “Before she would have taken my head off for some of the things I’ve said, but now she either smiles or ignores me completely. I’m not sure what to do.”
Bernie looked at me for a moment as though checking for outward indications that I had been abandoned by my sanity.
“Aren’t you the same guy who was considering an affair because your wife was so snappy and argumentative?”
“That and a total lack of even the most rudimentary form of sex life for the past five years,” I replied.
“Well, that’s got to be a consideration, I suppose,” he mused. “Still, it sounds like whatever is going on is an improvement.”
I knew what he said made sense, but something about the whole thing felt wrong, like I was missing something obvious — something that would be clear to me if only my mind wasn’t addled by conflicting emotions.
Bernie got to it first. “Maybe she’s having an affair.”
When I got back to the office I called her. She answered the phone on the second ring.
“I’m just calling to check in,” I said.
“What are you doing?”
“Having a glass of ice tea and going through the bills. What are you doing?”
When I hung up I analyzed the tone of her voice but try as I might I could find no evidence of duplicity, no suggestion that there was neither a glass of ice tea nor pile of bills and she was actually lying naked in bed in a post-coital embrace with her pool boy lover. Also, we didn’t have a pool. As I reflected more on the situation I realized that Marion was more the type to just leave than to sneak around having sordid little affairs. No, something else was going on.
On the drive home I decided it was time for us to have a talk. We’d been coasting through our relationship — more like two unconnected individuals coincidentally sharing the same space than anything else. It was time to either reconnect or move on with our lives, because as it stood I felt like I was living a shadow life. Just going through the motions.
It was later than usual when I walked in the front door, and the last orange rays of the sun gave the house a mournful quality. It was empty and quiet. The raucous cawing of the crows outside was muffled and distant, as though I was hearing them through layers of wet cotton.
I went to the kitchen, and started to make a drink. Some time later I found myself staring out the window in a mindless reverie, an empty glass in my hand, ice cubes melting in the tray.
I walked out to the garage and stood by the door of the music room, listening. I could hear what sounded like the gushing tones of Rachmaninoff, though I had never heard her play anything by him before, even as an experiment.
As the piece came to an end, I tried the door, but it was locked. I knocked politely in the silence, but all I could hear was the sound of pages turning and then the music again — more Rachmaninoff. I knocked harder and when there was still no response I pounded on the door with both fists. The music continued, played masterfully. She either couldn’t hear me or she was lost in a reverie of her own.
I waited, listening while I sat alone in the dark, the music never stopping except for brief pauses between pieces. I finally gave up and went to bed. We’d discuss this in the morning.
When I woke I was alone in the bed. Her side was neat — unslept in. I got up, put the coffee on and took a shower while I waited for it to brew. As I dressed I wondered if she had fallen asleep at the keyboard, exhausted from the emotional and physical strain of playing intensely for so long. I poured my coffee and walked out to the garage.
The door was gone. All that remained was the dinged-up piece of wallboard that had always been there. For a moment I thought I could hear a snatch of piano music — then nothing.
Copyright © 2007 by Arthur Vibert