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Graduation

By Anna Cabreros

The woman collapsed while we were playing “Pomp and Circumstance.”  I only saw because I was staring at Richard as everyone stood for the graduates filing in rapidly and gracelessly, eager to get the show over with.

She was the only thing shifting out of her place. There first existed around her the respectable distance between strangers standing in a hot crowd, but the space between her and the man to her right slowly collapsed. I had been staring so intently at Richard that the space around him was defined as clearly as the creases in his blue Oxford shirt.

 

No longer reading the score, my eyes moved to the man she fell into. His face registered only amusement and I could tell he didn’t know her. Her husband seemed to be the oblivious man reading the program to her left. The angle of her chin suggested that she was already unconscious and I wondered how long she had been standing without control over her body.

I fainted once, two years ago. I was reading a notice on the motel room refrigerator when I got light-headed and thought I might throw up again. I lost consciousness on my way to the bathroom. I didn’t feel anything, but I clearly heard the clomp of my shoes as I lost balance, the thud of my shoulders against wood paneling, the crash of my head against tile. I heard Richard say “What the hell?” and then his light tread on the carpet and I even heard his hand slap my cheek before I felt it. I woke, my hand instinctively on my belly, and knew I had to tell him.

The woman began bending at odd angles, all knees and elbows as her pleated dress lost its starched composure and she fell into the man who was not her husband. His amused expression gave way to surprise, coloring his face with a youthful helplessness. Her decidedly unyouthful husband still scanned the program dutifully.

I pulled my sax away from my lips and remoistened them with my tongue. Out of habit I looked at Richard whose movements as band director were still implicit in my performance. His eyes met mine and I detected the trace of a smile. I knew that look. Richard never could overlook the sexual subtleties of young women blowing on their instruments. 

My first year at junior college, he took over for Mrs. Frasher mid-semester and we started conducting our playing tests alone with him in the stale testing space adjacent to the band room. Mrs. Frasher used to make us play our tests in front of everyone but Richard liked to pull us aside where he could read the score from behind us and breathe hotly on our necks as he pointed out what we missed. We used to joke about it in that naïve way of high school virgins who watch too much television and spend many weekends alone. I grew uncomfortable with those jokes well before I had any reason to. 

But I never felt uncomfortable when we met outside of class to discuss jazz over coffee, a horrible cliché, I now recognize. 

Never felt uncomfortable when he suggested I contact him “any time” in case I needed guidance for my scholarship application to the state university’s jazz band program. 

Never noticed how deeply I breathed his own hot breath until it was already like oxygen.

Now that gravity had acted irreversibly on the woman, the youthful man struggled to contain the woman’s fall but sunk into his seat, pulling her doll-like figure down with him. Her husband finally looked up from the program and noticed another man awkwardly cradling his wife’s dead weight. I waited for the ripple of disturbance to spread beyond those two confused faces, waited for someone else to help, but no one came. Only the youthful man and the woman’s husband attended to her, both inept and frustrated that their mishandling of her might reveal their hidden weaknesses. Richard stood perfectly upright while this scene of minor disturbance took place behind him.

 

I remembered the light in the motel where we would meet, its dusty haze blurring the edges of our affair like a newborn’s sight wherein we saw each other in clear close-up and anything beyond was a meaningless blur. The time in between when I knew and when I told him was the best part. It didn’t make me feel the way you would imagine. I didn’t feel trapped. Just the opposite. Free.

And then I wasn’t. It was gone, that possibility, and I had no choice but to fall back into my role.

The instant my lips found my mouthpiece again, I began to riff wildly on my sax. First staying within the parameters of the key and time signature, dicing up the quarter notes into eighth and sixteenth notes, repeating patterns that you could mistake for the written chords. But I eventually started stretching the sound outside the bounds of the orchestration. I noticed Richard's panicked face as I furiously fingered the keys, expertly lifted the sax with bent knees and sturdy arms harnessing the riotous sound. His eyes burned into mine as I tore down every scored restriction with each caterwauling phrase. I recognized and relished his look of panic, a look that stripped him bare. This was the Richard I loved, the version of himself that he hated when he was with me. It was the version he gratefully thought had been expunged with the future rejected by my unmarried body.

I pulled the room’s hot air through my lungs and pushed it through the openings of the keys and let it assault the ears of these strangers and classmates. I watched with satisfaction as the audience’s face fell out of the mask it reserved for such occasions. I leaned into the careening notes, riding the unpredictable sound, and I hoped that the woman on the floor could hear me.

Anna Cabreros is a high school English teacher and writer in her hometown of Virginia Beach, VA where she lives just blocks from her childhood. It is her mission to prove that those who can do also teach. Her inspiration comes mostly from people - both known to her and unknown - and the endless depths of their memory, experience, and dreams.