Unrequited – Brooke Barnett (Short Fiction)

When my mother played cello in the Great Falls Symphony, she practiced so furiously that her exquisite fingers seemed to fly, and her gray curls sprung from their clip to curtain her eyes. Role-reversal: the daughter longing to reach up and tame her mother’s tangles. But my mother didn’t like to be touched. Nor did she like anyone touching her instrument, which may be why I never picked up a string—though I dabbled, as musicians’ children do, in woodwinds and brass.

My mother was in love with the principal flautist, Catherine Jean-Baptiste, which I didn’t realize until my second year of college when I experienced my own fall into love and dropped out to take an administrative job at a law firm with my lover, whose name was on the firm’s unobtrusive sign in an otherwise residential Missoula neighborhood. Of Banks, Banks & Lee, he was the rebel: Jimmy Lee, an Arkansas channel cat in a cutthroat trout town. My love for him was as my mother’s for the flautist: irrevocable and unrequited.

Unfortunately for my mother, Catherine Jean-Baptiste was having an affair with the sweaty, red-faced conductor indiscrete enough that I had been surprised when he introduced his wife one night at a party, which I was at, since I went everywhere with my mother.

Unfortunately for me, Jimmy Lee—sexy southern drawl, clean-shaven dimpled chin and slick hairdo unlike any Montana boy ever—was almost as unavailable as the flautist. His wife’s actual name was Barbie. She drove a convertible year-round and spent two months of each winter snowbirding with her mama in South Carolina. After church on Sundays he would talk to her on his Bluetooth while he tugged on my cotton underwear with his perfectly-manicured thumbs. He didn’t make any promises; he didn’t have to. I quit school to work full time after my first winter at the firm, even though he ignored me when Barbie was home.

The Lees lived up Pattee Canyon behind giant uncurtained windows, richly oblivious, almost never together in the same room. It took her two hours to do her hair, turning this way and that in front of the mirror in lacy pink underthings. I’d never had matching undergarments in my life.

Jimmy Lee let me go the next winter, just before Barbie returned. I needed to get on with my life, he said. A month later he had another part-time undergrad with a pixie haircut and rosy cheeks; she, too, rarely drew the shades at Banks, Banks & Lee.

I didn’t want to go back to school. Twice I applied for a job at Montana Public Radio, but it seemed a lifetime of napping and reading in the presence of the Great Falls Symphony didn’t qualify me as much as I thought it should. I finally got a job at the Wilma Theater as a box officer because I lied about my experience.

I lied to my mother, too, about quitting school. I went home on UM holidays, lugging a backpack heavy with expensive used textbooks. If she’d bothered to check, she might have asked why I was taking Intro to Soc and Advanced Comp for the third semester in a row. But we only nodded at each other when I arrived home on the first day of spring break, interrupting a cello lesson in her kitchen. She tutored a few unpromising kids a week; this one smiled uncertainly at me as I passed. When he left, I made tea—mine in a tumbler, because she’d always only had one teacup—and we sat down across from each other at the tidy table.

“We had a foot of snow here last week,” she said. “How was the pass?”

“Okay.” The yard through her spotless window was brown and dry. “Where’s all your snow?”

“Chinook.”

“Ahhh…” My body warmed. “Sorry I missed it.”

She smiled, unmasking new wrinkles around her eyes. Her hands, folded primly in front of her, were still beautiful. I wondered what they felt like. Jimmy Lee’s was about the only skin I’d ever caressed, or been caressed by.

“And your studies?”

I sipped my tea, and decided my future.

“I’m going to study the flute.”

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