Listening to Arvo Pärt by Fred Skolnik

Music lover Brand's marriage to Myra has lost its strength and seems mirrored by neighbours and old friends Larry and Marje; by Fred Skolnik.

He listened to Spiegel im Spiegel on the Alina disk about 20 times. It was recorded in three different versions, on the first, third and fifth tracks, while Für Alina was recorded in two different versions, on tracks two and four, so he copied the three Spiegel tracks into his computer so that he could listen to them consecutively. That gave him around 30 minutes of music. He also read the notes, which he usually did when a piece of music interested him. Though he didn't understand much about music from the technical point of view, he understood what the notes were saying in a general way, how the violin mirrored itself and the piano mirrored the violin and the stringent formal development.

He had first heard Spiegel im Spiegel in a film called Wit with Emma Thompson, an actress he always enjoyed watching. The film had brought him to tears, not because of its sadness but because of the perfect art of it, of her brilliant acting and the way the music brought everything home. He played the music while he sat at his drawing board but had to put everything down from time to time and just listen to it.

Brand was an architect and had designed structures himself so he knew what perfect art was, the powerful drive and fluency of it as it moved toward its resolution or the simple drift of it like life itself. He had tried painting once but ended up painting the structures that he put into his buildings; he was locked into certain habits of thought that found expression in everything he did. He was orderly and even somewhat finicky in his personal tastes. Myra, his wife, sometimes made fun of him but his colleagues wouldn't dare.

They lived outside the city. Brand liked open spaces. He told Myra he needed a big living room so he could pace in it. The pacing drove her crazy. With the boys away at school they had the big house to themselves so Myra more or less took over the upstairs rooms, where she had her little office, making them her domain and leaving the rest of the house to him. They met in bed, but only occasionally, because she generally went to bed before him and wouldn't let him wake her.

Their neighbors, the Stuarts, were their best friends. Brand lent Larry Stuart the Alina disk but he didn't like it. However, his wife, Marje, did. "It's really nice," she said.

"Did you read the notes?" he asked her.

"No, should I have?"

"It makes things clearer," Brand said.

She was the one who brought the disk back but Brand suspected it was just a pretext to see him. Myra was in the city. Marje would have noticed that her car was gone. He had been thinking about her in that way for a long time now. They were sitting on the big sofa in the living room. Brand put on another disk and brought her a drink. Larry Stuart was a lawyer. Brand wondered if he was interested in Myra in the same way that Brand was interested in Marje.

"What's that?" Marje said.

"Steve Reich. Different Trains. Read the notes. It's very moving."

"Not now."

She finished her drink, rattling the ice cubes a little, and moved a little closer to him. This was an invitation. She had very nice legs and her dress was halfway up her thigh. He wanted to put his hand there. They ended up making love in the guest room.

"What would Larry say if he found out?" Brand asked her.

"He'd hit the ceiling."

Brand laughed.

"What about Myra?" Marje said.

"Ditto, though we hardly sleep together anymore. It's the pride thing."

"Why don't you sleep together anymore?"

"I must have done something to upset her."

This time Marje laughed. "You can keep the disk for a while," he told her when she was leaving. "I have it on my computer."

"That's all right," she said. "Maybe I'll borrow it again later in the week."

They both laughed now.

Myra didn't like the disk either. She wasn't a music lover like Brand. But she liked art and would surprise him by acquiring an expensive painting occasionally. She was very sure of her taste and would buy things off the street if she liked them. You couldn't argue with her about art because she had very firm opinions and yet it was Brand who was the artist in the family. Brand theorized, but Myra read the catalogues and knew the histories so her opinions were always informed. Maybe that was the cause of the friction between them, their arguments about art, one kind of resentment masking another.

After making love to Marje, Brand had a light lunch and went back to work. He didn't feel guilty. There'd been a very short period at the beginning of the marriage where feelings might have played a part but they had cooled down quickly enough. Brand of course had been young then and often wrestled with his feelings, though seldom in company. Myra was cool too. It frustrated him that she never let herself go. He imagined that British women might be like that. How could you let yourself go talking like the Queen? He liked the litheness of her body. Marje was a little fuller and that was good too.

Myra came back at four and went directly upstairs to sort out her purchases. Brand came upstairs a little later to look them over and calculate the cost. She showed him a couple of dresses and a new light fixture for their bedroom; also some gifts she'd gotten for a rainy day. Afterwards she took off her blouse and sat at her computer in just her brassiere, writing letters. Brand went back downstairs. At seven they ate.

They had some leftover turkey and sweet potatoes.

"Are you going in tomorrow?" Myra said. Brand went in to the office just a few times a week. He preferred to work at home.

"Maybe." He hadn't planned to. He wondered what Larry's plans were. He also worked at home occasionally. Brand didn't know if this would qualify as irony or symmetry.

Myra didn't have anything else to say on the subject. When she finished eating she went back upstairs. Brand went back to his office and played the Spiegel disk. While it was on he called the Stuarts. It didn't matter to him who answered the phone. If it was Larry he'd have one kind of conversation and if it was Marje he'd have another kind of conversation but one way or the other he'd find out where Larry was going to be tomorrow.

It was Marje who answered the phone. Brand said, "Hey." When she started whispering he said, "You can talk in your normal voice."

"Right," she said. "I'm getting carried away, aren't I."

"Do you hear the music?"


"I'll make it louder."

They listened together for a few seconds. "Okay," Marje said.

"It says in the notes that the violin part always returns to the A after adding a note of the scale in each phrase it plays. Listen, I'm reading: 'The piano mirrors the violin part with pure F-major triads... and parallel thirds and octaves.'"

"I don't know what that means," Marje said

"Well, neither do I exactly, but you get the idea."

"Not really," Marje said.

"Is Larry going in tomorrow?"

"I don't think so."

"If he doesn't let's meet in the city. We'll have some fun."

"What difference does it make where he is? We can have fun anyway."

"It's safer like this."

"What time?"

"One o'clock. We'll have lunch first. I'll be in the office in the morning."

"Where should I meet you?"

"Call me first to confirm. You can call me on the way in."

In the morning Brand left Myra still asleep. He drove to the station and took the train. Marje called him on his cell phone at 10 o'clock. "I'm leaving now," she said. "He'll be home all day."

He made a hotel reservation for lunch and a room. Marje was a little put out. "I thought we were going to have some fun," she said when they finished eating.

"This is what I meant," Brand said. But he saw that it wasn't going to work out that way so they went roller skating. Marje laughed a lot. Afterwards it was a choice between going to the zoo or back to the hotel. They opted for the hotel. "That really was fun," Marje said. Brand enjoyed being with her. "Are we going to be doing this a lot?" she said.

"I don't know," Brand said. "Do you want to?"

"At least for a while."

Brand laughed. "I wonder how Larry and Myra are getting on."

"Do you think so?"

"Your guess is as good as mine."

When Brand got home Myra wasn't there. He didn't know if that was a good sign or a bad sign. He called the Stuarts. Larry answered the phone on the third ring. "Is Myra over there?" Brand said.

"Just a minute," Larry said. He put Myra on the phone. Brand had left Marje in the city, taking the earlier train just to be on the safe side, though of course it made no difference at all if they rode in the same train. Brand enjoyed playing these games.

"I just got back," Brand said. "You coming home?"

Myra sounded as if she was pretending to be flustered. She wanted him to know. She wanted him to be jealous. "I had to ask - I thought Marje was here. I just dropped in for a second."

"Take your time. I'll start supper. What should I do?"

"I'm coming right over."

Myra heated up some more turkey. She was overdoing it. She kept glancing at him as though wrestling with demons. Brand could lie but he couldn't act and wouldn't even try but Myra must have thought that she could get away with pure farce. When he asked her to pass the salt she jumped as if she'd been deep in thought and after that whenever he caught her eye she put on a dreamy look.

She's going to confess and blame it on me, Brand thought. That was what was coming next. But first she'd play him along for a day or two. The confession would include a plea for a new beginning. Brand wasn't sure he wanted to begin again. It would be fine for a while and then things would go back to the way they'd been. Besides, he wanted to see how things would develop with Marje.

Myra pretended to be asleep when he got into bed and made a few odd sounds as if she was having troubled dreams. He rubbed her thigh and she sat bolt upright. "Don't touch me!" she hissed at him. Could she possibly have known about Marje? Brand said, "Hey, take it easy, you sounded like you were having a nightmare."

"Well, I wasn't," Myra said. "Just the opposite."

At breakfast she didn't talk to him. Brand wasn't sure where she was heading with this. He understood, however, that he wasn't going to get a confession that day. She had clearly devised a scenario which would have to develop in a certain way before reaching a climax. She spent the morning in her office. Brand was a little restless so he paced the floor and drank a lot of coffee. He thought about Myra and Marje. About Marje he thought purely sexual thoughts. He had very little emotional capital to invest in either of them. He was pretty near bankrupt in that department.

Larry came over late in the afternoon to play some tennis before it got dark. He played harder than usual so Brand wondered if he too might know about him and Marje. Maybe Marje had been dropping hints, just like Myra. Maybe that was why the two of them had gotten together, to discuss the situation. They might not have been attracted to one another at all. That would have killed the confession theory. Myra wasn't going to confess to something she hadn't done, not even to produce an effect.

Larry had taken tennis lessons but didn't play tennis any better than he played the drums he had recently bought, banging on them almost every day to let off steam the same way he banged at the tennis balls. With the tennis he had all the moves but he couldn't hit anything. The way he tossed that ball into the air was a treat to watch. Brand himself had played some college basketball at Temple, being the last man on the varsity squad in his senior year after being a fairly productive guard in high school. He hadn't gotten a scholarship but kept trying out until they took him. That's where he had met Myra as well as Larry. They had been together quite a few years now.

Larry took himself very seriously, or rather he thought his titanic struggles with himself were as interesting to others as they were to him. "I'm trying to cut down on bread," he told Brand when they were driving back from the courts. "But then I get hungry and have a snack. That defeats the whole purpose."

"Exercise restraint," Brand said.

"But I'm hungry."

They found Marje and Myra outside on the Stuarts' lawn having drinks and they all talked for a while before splitting up to have supper.

"Are you going to be around tomorrow?" Brand asked Larry.

"No," Larry said, "I'm going into the city.

"So am I," Myra said.

"Can I give you a lift to the station?" Larry said.

"How will I get back?"

"I can pick you up," Brand said.

They left it at that, but Marje let slip a little smile. Brand returned the smile. After supper Myra went upstairs to her office. They weren't talking much these days. Brand paced a little. He supposed he had loved her once. He was sure of it, but who could say? It might have been just animal need. It might have been that he was incapable of love, had deceived himself, had used the wrong word. He had a drink and sat in his office for a while. Myra was asleep when he went to bed. He felt like having her but was afraid she'd make a scene if he touched her so he went to sleep too.

The next morning Marje phoned him the minute she saw Myra leave the house and get into Larry's car. "Come over," she said. They spent a very pleasant few hours together. The house was a little bigger than theirs. Brand had made a few suggestions, like putting up a brick wall in the music room. The music room was three steps down from the living room, separated from it by a chain curtain, and in addition to Larry's drums, a full set with snares and cymbals, had an unused upright piano that no one knew how to play either. They tried to play a duet together, making it up as they went along, but it was just a lot of noise and Marje couldn't stop laughing.

"You want something to eat?" she said.

"Sure, why not," Brand said.

She brought in a tray with salted crackers and all kinds of fancy cheeses and poured some wine into her good crystal glasses.

"When do your kids get back?" Brand said. She had two daughters in middle school. One of his boys had dated the older one for a while.

"Three o'clock."

He ran his finger along her thigh. He liked the feel of it. She was really perfect in that respect. She had started going out with Larry at about the same time that Brand had started going out with Myra and after a while they had all gone out together but he didn't remember ever being alone with Marje or having a serious conversation with her. Maybe they'd been afraid to and now here they were after all these years.

Brand wondered what would have happened if things had gone the other way and he had hooked up with Marje and Larry with Myra. There would of course have been the matter of compatibility and that determined a lot of things but in the end it wouldn't have made much of a difference, except that Marje had been more of a fun-loving girl and maybe that was what Brand had needed. She was good-looking, you couldn't deny it, maybe better-looking than Myra, and what more could you want. The irony, he realized, was that he would probably be with Myra now eating the cheese she had bought for Larry.

They made love on the rug. At one o'clock the mailman rang the doorbell with a registered letter and Marje signed for it. She read it and laid it aside. "Winnie got accepted at Farmington."

"That's great," Brand said.

"I should call Larry."


Marje laughed. "You're right. I'll wait till he gets home."

Brand went home at two o'clock. Myra phoned at five.

"Where are you calling from?" he said.

"I'm at the station. Come get me."

He picked her up and they drove home. "Did you have a nice day?" he asked her. Again she went into her slapstick routine and started stammering and making tortured faces. He pulled into the driveway and turned on the sprinklers before going into the house. Myra took a shower and ate in a short terrycloth robe which she let fall open once or twice so he understood she was trying to arouse him in order to cut him to the quick when he got interested. He would have thought that she would feel she had gotten even with him already and this therefore would be the appropriate time for the confession, but Brand also realized that he may have read her wrong. Maybe she was in love with Larry and taking this more seriously than Brand.

The next day he ran into Marje at the station in the afternoon. He had decided to go into the city at the last minute and hadn't even thought of calling her, and she, for her part, had done the same, so they had a little laugh over it and drove home in their separate cars. Marje got there first and when Brand pulled in she was standing on the sidewalk as though waiting for him.

"What's up?" he said.

"Larry's not in the house. I think he's at your place."

Brand smiled. "You're kidding." Then he put his finger to his lips and tiptoed to his front door. Marje thought this was hilarious and again she couldn't stop laughing. "Maybe you should call first," she said.

"And say what?"

"That you're on your way home."

"Then what?"

"Then Larry will sneak back to our place."

"He'll see us."

"We'll hide."

Brand liked the way Marje's mind was working but he thought it would be more fun to barge in on them, not that he expected to catch them in flagrante, or even wanted to. Sure enough, they were sitting on the sofa drinking wine. They didn't bat an eye. "Hi," Myra said.

"I thought you'd be here," Marje said to Larry.

"I was looking for - "

"And here I am," Brand said.

"I'm starved," Marje said. "Let's order a pizza."

"I'll call," Brand said.

"Pepperoni for me," Larry said.

Brand and Marje had some of the wine. Brand was tempted to run his hand up her leg but thought better of it. The pizza came and they dug in. Marje got some of the topping on her chin and laughed. Brand handed her a napkin. He noticed that Myra wasn't wearing a bra. Her eyes were shining a little, which was something you couldn't fake.

"Where you planning to be tomorrow?" he asked Larry.

After they'd gone and Myra went upstairs Brand went into his office and listened to the Spiegel disk for a while, his eyes filling with tears.


  1. Not a bad, almost erotic but with some redeeming qualities. I liked Myra, she is mischievous, but not vindictive in a violent sense.Might even be good for a episode two.

  2. Interesting dynamics, and the mirroring is an effective playful device, the symmetry works well. I did feel the need to know the characters better - maybe to see them in other settings to make me care about them a little more - although the 2D sense illustrated Brand's bleached out and barren view of relationships/women? I agree that it would be interesting to have an episode 2.....

  3. I enjoyed reading this. It held my attention until the end (I'm supposed to be working). Thanks, Fred. :-)

  4. Interesting story. I always like works that reference or work with multiple art forms like music, architecture, etc. Strangely though, it ends up being a very "clean" story and a little distant about something very messy and fraught with emotional confusion, but maybe we'll get some more depth to the characters in later chapters.