Between the Lines by Jennifer Hudak

When Talisa plays her keyboard, a space opens up between the treble and bass clef. The lines of the staff part to reveal something in between. A portal. A doorway. The world on the other side is dark and cold, the kind of dark that reveals constellations you’ll never reach in a million years. The kind of cold that numbs you until you’re diamond hard.

Jeff has left, possibly for good this time, and even though Talisa’s body is playing the keyboard, headphones squeezing her ears comfortably—even though Talisa herself is beyond the doorway, so very far away—she hears the emptiness he left behind. Before he’d gone, he had gestured at her to remove her headphones; when she did, her head felt naked and vulnerable. He’d asked her, once again, if she was okay. If he’d done something wrong. If she would please, please just talk to him. Talisa found that she had forgotten how to appropriately arrange her face. She’d tried a smile, and it felt like hooks pulling her mouth apart.

When Talisa first got this keyboard, Jeff used to complain about her playing—not because he disliked the music, but because he wanted to listen to it. With Talisa’s headphones on, all Jeff could hear was the thump thump thump of the keys rebounding, the squeak of the piano bench as she shifted from side to side. In the beginning, when the door first opened, when she caught her first glimpse of the emptiness beyond, she tried unplugging her headphones so that Jeff could hear. So that maybe, he’d see what she saw.

He appreciated the song, the skill with which she played. He told her how beautiful it sounded. It was all so beside the point that Talisa didn’t know what to say, so she plugged her headphones back in and disappeared into the sheet music.

That’s what it feels like. Disappearing.

None of this is his fault. He spent months trying to draw her out. He loves her. Talisa knows this. But she has no idea how she could even begin to describe the world on the other side of the music. The relief of numbness. The velvet touch of the dark. It’s glaringly obvious that this empty place she’s been drawn into, this void she can’t escape, is for her and her alone.

Talisa loves him, too. She’s just so, so tired.

Now that he’s gone, Talisa drags a finger through the dust on the windowsill. Her phone buzzes on the counter, pregnant with unread messages. She’s so deeply bone tired that she considers going straight to bed, but she can’t even think about mustering up the energy to brush her teeth and wash her face. She wishes she could cry, but the act of weeping, which had once come so naturally, now seems bewilderingly complicated. And the doorway beckons like an open mouth. Like a black hole pulling her inexorably inward. It wants her to stay. Talisa knows how simple it would be to give in. To let the music close behind her, let the treble and bass clefs snap back into place. To seal herself away from her body, away from Jeff, away from her life. Everything else takes so much effort it makes her want to cry, but this—this would be so easy. She could just let go. She wonders if she already has.

It’s a shock, then, when she feels a tap on her shoulder. She’s not fully gone, not just yet.

She blinks, winces. It feels like she’s been sitting here playing for days—weeks, centuries—but it is, inexplicably, still the same day. The sun is only a tiny bit lower in the sky. Her back is only just beginning to ache from hunching over the keyboard. And Jeff is still wearing the shirt he had on when he left.

Jeff. He’s come back. He’s here.

 He’s holding a shopping bag in his hands. Talisa watches as he pulls out a jack splitter, and a second set of headphones. Then he just stands there, holding them. Watching her. Waiting for permission.

She’s freezing cold, and the darkness shades her vision. Most of her is still so deep inside the void, so far away from herself. It takes everything in her just to nod once.

He attaches both of their headphones to the splitter and plugs it into the keyboard. Then he sits beside her. When she plays, the music fills both their ears, and it’s everything she hasn’t been allowing herself to tell him. The space between the clefs yawns open, and this time, he sees it: the door and the world beyond; the emptiness of interstellar space; the void that cruelly swallows thought, sensation, breath itself.

He sees her floating there in the blackness, freezing and vast.

But he’s not pulled inside with her. His weight, indenting the cushion, is another center of gravity. His headphones, anchored with hers in the jack splitter, are a tether. It’s not enough to draw her out of the doorway, but it’s a reminder that other suns continue to exist.  Talisa sees him looking at her from across the impossible distance between them, and thinks that someday, she might remember what it is to feel warm.

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