A New Short Story by Karen Bender
Molly Antopol recommends “The New Order,” short fiction about a tragedy and a lifelong rivalry between two women
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AN INTRODUCTION BY MOLLY ANTOPOL
I admire Karen Bender’s stories for a number of reasons: their lyrical compression, their humanity, their structural innovations, and the fairness and respect she shows all of her characters. I loved her 2015 story collection, Refund, for the way she wrote so directly about fear, money, and especially anxiety — global and domestic, economic and familial. Her new collection, The New Order, moved me just as deeply.
The book shines a penetrating light on our current political moment without a whiff of sanctimony. If I were to describe these stories (always impossible with the best ones), the topics would sound as if lifted from a CNN news ticker: sexual harassment, school shootings, political campaigns, the emotional toll of living under constant threat. And yet, there’s nothing preachy about the writing. Long after I finished the book, I found myself thinking less about the scenarios and more about the characters caught up in them. Bender renders her people with such precision and nuance, such warmth and compassion, that I cared about them as intensely as I do the people in my own life.
In the collection’s superb title story, the unnerving dynamics of teenage rivalry are juxtaposed with the terrifying landscape of gun violence. Take the story’s opening lines:
“We were friends, or we knew each other, and both of us had been in the other room when the attack occurred. This was in the 1970s, when these events didn’t happen at schools. A teacher and a ninth grader were shot in the cafeteria and another teacher was injured so that, from then on, her arm hung down like a broken wing.”
The ninth-grader who was killed had been a talented cellist. Her death changes the order of her school orchestra, hence the story’s title. The narrator, also a cellist, fiercely wants to claim first orchestra seat, and what follows is a sharply observed rivalry between her and another accomplished musician.
Nothing I’ve described here gives anything away because everything that comes after is a complete surprise. A story I initially thought would be about a school shooting becomes a powerful meditation on teen cruelty, and a story about teen cruelty becomes a staggering, incisive examination of female friendship, loneliness, guilt and ambition.
Bender’s elastic use of structure is reminiscent of Deborah Eisenberg and Joan Silber — all three wield a pace that’s unexpected and undulating. They consistently surprise by speeding right past moments that would seem crucial in a more conventional story, only to linger in the quieter, less-explored precincts of a character’s psyche. And like Eisenberg and Silber, Bender’s stories are long — “The New Order” clocks in at 27 pages. Bender luxuriates in the slow moments of her characters’ lives in interesting, experimental ways, conjuring an ending that’s at once shocking and emotionally resonant. There was a moment in “The New Order” when the story seemed to come full-circle. For another writer, this might have been the stopping place, but not Bender. One of the reasons the piece was such a visceral experience was that the story kept going and going, cracking open the narrative to reveal aspects of these characters’ lives that I never could have imagined.
Karen Bender is, hands down, one of our best story writers — and for anyone who hasn’t encountered her fiction, “The New Order” is the perfect place to start.
Author of The UnAmericans
All the Keys to All the Doors by Clare Beams
The New Order
by Karen Bender
We were friends, or we knew each other, and both of us had been in the other room when the attack occurred. This was in the 1970s, when these events didn’t happen at schools. A teacher and a ninth grader were shot in the cafeteria and another teacher was injured so that, from then on, her arm hung down like a broken wing. The girl who was killed was a member of the cello section, and she was named Sandra. We were all part of the Intermediate Orchestra of our junior high school, and she had been in the cafeteria, where we were also supposed to be ten minutes after she had left the multipurpose room. The cafeteria was serving fish and chips and Sandra left early because she wanted to be first in line. The man went to the table and shot two teachers and also her, one, two, three, everyone looking on, in disbelief; the man had been one of the fathers at the school.
As part of the process to get us past the incident, which was what they called the attack, after the assemblies, and the short and not fruitful discussions in homeroom telling us to report any suspicious behavior to the vice principal, our orchestra teacher, Mr. Handelman, decided to proceed as usual. In two weeks we were supposed to audition for our chairs in the orchestra. We would each play for one minute and the teacher would rank us on tone, musicality, and pitch, and arrange us in a new order.
Lori and I had become, strangely, better friends after the incident. We didn’t know Sandra very well — mostly we knew her as a good cellist. She had a deep tone that you could hear in your stomach, when she played, that made the air feel like velvet. She usually occupied Seat Three. Lori was Seat Two. She had always been Seat Two. Seat One went to John Schubert, who was adept at pieces that required rapid finger work, whose thumb slid buttery up the strings and who was always, in a way that seemed almost supernatural, on key, but whose tone was sometimes thin, as though revealing some deep unsolved craving within him. We all regarded each other with sharp, interested eyes.
The new order was especially important because the first cello would perform a short, one-minute solo as part of a fall festival performance for the school. In the center of my heart, I wanted to be Seat One someday. I practiced a lot. I was going to audition with my favorite piece, “The Dying Swan,” which felt perhaps problematic, but it was what I was best at playing, and I loved how I felt when I played it — my chest pressing against the wood of the cello, the sense that I was inside the music, which felt like the heart of everything, and, at that age, I wanted to crouch inside the heart of the world.
I tried not to think about Sandra or the teachers when we sat in the cafeteria. We had not been allowed in it for a week as the school administration scrubbed any evidence of the incident from the room, but, unfortunately, there was nowhere else to feed us, so they let us back in. The room was now clean in a stringent, terrifying way, as though it represented all the thoughts we were not supposed to have about our futures. There were rumors about the incident. Everyone wanted to have a theory. Sandra had been wearing a tube top, and the murderous father instructed his daughter, a ninth grader named Jen, not to wear tube tops; he was rumored to find them immodest and harmful in some way no one could explain. Or he shot at Mrs. Simon, an algebra teacher, who had recently turned him down for a date, and Sandra, unfortunately, just got in the way. There was no clarity on anything (as though there could be), but the cloudiness of the incident made everyone eager to contribute to the memorial the school now set up in a corner, a peculiar display with a few bouquets of flowers, some posters with large hearts drawn on them. Everyone was eager to show a capacity for love.
We talked about the other members of the orchestra with an intense desire to categorize them, sort them in ways that were flattering and not. Lori assumed a new mantle of authority following the attack, a new hardness that made it seem she wanted to press herself like a bug into amber, into the air. I looked at Lori and I wanted to fold myself into her, which was an impulse that alarmed me; I didn’t know why I thought I would be safe in her; I wanted her, or someone in the world, to locate me. I wanted this so much I was dizzy. We glanced at the teachers, the other students, wondering who might kill us. It could be anyone, apparently, and it was unclear what could be the armor to stop it.
In this realm of anxiety, we briskly, authoritatively, ranked the others. We agreed that John was overrated in his playing but had a beautiful way of spinning the cello when he was bored, his long legs stretched out, and that Tracy L. in the flute section was a bad player because her high notes never quite hit the right way.
Lori called her mother a loser; her parents divorced, mother always out, or her mother’s girlfriends coming over and all of them drinking vodka shots in the car. My parents were always home, but moved as if the air were made of Jell-O, and they believed the world was always about to break. We sat in that gleaming, scrubbed cafeteria and ate our sugary hamburgers. The world was trembling around us, and it seemed it was going to eat us. We did not talk about the incident. We did not talk about everything we did each day to our classmates in our minds, for the boundary between the violence outside and inside our minds seemed thin and permeable; routinely I would be murdering an unbearable violinist who gave me cold, diminishing looks, or pressing myself naked against the first clarinetist who had delicate, beautiful arms I wanted to wrap around me; I wanted so much, always; the world was spangled and nothing felt quite real.
Lori talked on and on about the mundane, about the Corkys shoes she desired and the way she glared at the boy who once spit at her when she didn’t say hi back and the way the square of chocolate cake the cafeteria served today tasted like metal, which seemed unfortunate and wrong. I wanted her to help me so fiercely my skin burned. I wanted someone to help me.
Now we sat in that cafeteria, our lunches set out on the table, the hamburger and frozen fries and pudding separated into their little compartments, and we pretended we were merely eating, that we were safe. The theater of the two of us continuing convinced me, a little. I believe Lori felt this, too.
We both wanted to be first cello, to perform that solo, to play for a moment in a circle of brightness. We discussed the upcoming auditions for our new chairs carefully, not sharing what music we would audition with. Lori seemed particularly nervous, which was curious to me, for she was a good player, her tone better than anyone’s. She stretched and said, “I’m so bad. I’m going to fuck up,” a groan that was a lie, because she was better than I was, talented in an ineffable, natural way, and I understood that my role was to say to her, “No, you’re not going to,” which felt like opening my mouth too wide. And I was filled with a chilly, unruly fear. For this was the true thing: we both wanted to be first chair and perform that solo. We were both shouldering darkness, in that hot, dirty cafeteria, but what we wanted was a moment in the light, the auditorium filled with people listening to us play the music of composers who created these sounds two hundred years ago. We sat in the cafeteria, the other kids shouting to each other across the room, screaming. We wanted to taste those hamburgers forever; we wanted to live.
We had two weeks to practice. The entire orchestra was practicing. I walked by little practice rooms and heard the muffled sounds of violins, cellos, oboes, flutes, the intent sounds of students. Inside these rooms, everyone sounded angelic and furious. I imagined the students had lost their voices and could now only speak through their instruments, like this. I walked by a room and heard Lori practicing and stood, my heart lacy with panic, by her door.
In those days after the incident, we were different. We were all afraid. There was the way we all jolted up when the alarm system in the school went off, the false alarms that were a guttural, metronome sound. The way we all held our breath. The way the teachers walked down the corridors and could break into a run at any moment. The way it seemed the steel tables could lift off the linoleum floor.
Eating our lunch, we eyed each other like vultures. We were flying over the world, hovering, ready to dive in and grab what we needed. We were talking about our pieces and what we would play and Lori’s arm stretched out on the chair beside her and she was describing I don’t know what, the fact that her bow didn’t take resin well, or that again she thought she would fail during her solo, saying this again, when we both knew it wasn’t true. It felt false in an elaborate, manufactured way, made in a factory of lies, and this made me furious. I was furious at the way the school had not told us exactly why the father had gone on his rampage, or I was furious at the lame directions they gave us, to hit the ground if someone else did this, which I knew wouldn’t help a thing. I was furious at the way my parents or the school told us not to worry. I was furious when Lori claimed she would perform badly when she knew music so naturally and fully she would not. There was a flash of violence outside of me and within me, a massive truck driving over and through my skin.
“You won’t win,” I said. It just came out. There was no reason to say it. I just did.
I paused. Then I continued — “No one thinks you’ll win.” She stared at me. She lifted a trembling hand to brush hair off her face.
“Why not?” she asked, softly.
“People just say. Lots of people. No way.”
This was getting worse by the moment. I looked away. I felt a pressure in my throat, the capacity to say more and more.
“Many. I can’t say.”
This seemed the worst thing, the manufacture of others demeaning her. But I stood by this. I didn’t know how to stop.
“Well,” she said. She was unable to look at me. I felt powerful for the first time since the incident, as though I had become a steel spike, completely hard and sharp; but I also trembled, for I simultaneously felt a plunging sense of loss. It was confusing to experience both of these at once. I realized then how much I admired my friend, even loved her, and that I had damaged something I could not see. Lori didn’t stand up and walk away; she changed the subject to the staleness of the carrot cake on our plates, but it felt as though something finished between us, and that we were now unknowable to one another, separate, an ostrich and a bear.
We auditioned for our seats, all of us, in the room where the orchestra met, and we perched on metal chairs and listened to each other play. It took two hours to go through all of us, our teacher listening with a blank face, his eyelids quivering when he heard music that was startling or good. The violinists went, the flautists, the French horn section, the cellos. We were middle school students, the harshest audience in the world. My playing flew by; I imagined I was housed within the music, and, perhaps, briefly I was. But when I finished, my hand was trembling. I barely heard the music I played.
I sat in the back and listened as the other cellists performed; one by one, each carved their particular song into the air. Lori’s tone swelled dark and lovely into the room, and I was listening, knowing that she had beaten me with that tone, revealing some deep honeyed quality in herself — for the music, when played the right way, seemed to reveal a hidden internal beauty that, previously, no one could see. That was the most glorious feature of the orchestra, the surprising revelations of beauty from people who might be shallow or petty in everyday life. We were just sitting there in that grubby room and it would happen, a floating ribbon of sound. It was better than all of us. Some of the best players knew this and were coy about it. They rushed some golden thing off their violin or flute or trumpet and then gazed into the distance as though they had announced: See. Here.
I clutched my cello, feeling more sick by the moment due to a variety of things: the peculiar fact that, two weeks after the attack, we were continuing this process at all, which felt both cruel and a relief, the fact that I wanted to be first chair so much I could barely breathe, the fact that I wished, beyond anything, that I could play like Lori, and that I had ruined something between us by my spite.
And then there was a squawk of her bow. A bleat.
We all heard it — the inside of her skin had been turned out, and for a moment all of ours had as well. Her face twitched. She continued. It was shocking. Lori never made mistakes.
She did not look at anyone when she had finished, though I watched her, wanting to catch her eye, to be absolved of the awful fact: I made her mess up. It was a fact that was as clear to me as the sky. I had helped her doubt herself so she made this mistake, and suddenly I wanted to comfort her, in some sorry soft part of myself, but she put away her cello, picked up her backpack, and walked out.
They announced the new order the next day. Mr. Handelman tallied everyone’s score and read out where we were. The class was quiet for once. He announced violins, violas.
The order of these sections resembled what it had been before.
Then he announced the order of the cello section. We sat and waited to be called.
He said my name. First.
I looked up. How could this be? He glanced at me, nodded. “You played well,” he said, acknowledging all of our surprise. I could feel shock flicker across the faces of other cellists. I was now Seat One. It felt at the same time wrong and also completely predictable, clicking into a buried hope I held about myself. I felt like I contained a thousand golden coins. After he read the names, we shifted into our new seats. I carried my cello to the first seat and sat down. I looked at the others and they seemed very far away, even though they were all just a few feet beside me, and John Schubert right beside me. The sun had come up in the wrong part of the sky.
After her disastrous audition, Lori now occupied the seventh chair out of eight. We did not know how to look at each other. I had won but I hadn’t. There was now a piece of rotten fruit in the room. I wondered if there was any way to actually win, to ascend to some place of calm and triumph, but perhaps there was not. There was no way to win. This thought scared me so much I tried to think of one word, like “red” or “sneaker,” over and over, because I did not want to be thinking about this at all.
Sometimes Lori’s particular, deep tone rose through the others. I loved her tone. I wanted to inhabit it. I tried to send this message to her in my mind, my admiration of it. Our conversations were different now, and we mostly used the word “fine.” We were speaking another language entirely. Then she dropped out of orchestra and I didn’t see her at all.
I prepared for my solo. I practiced a lot, and our teacher nodded at me in a way that said he thought I could do it. But right before the concert, there was a slight earthquake and the auditorium where we were supposed to perform was damaged. The concert was canceled, forever.
A week later, we auditioned again for a holiday concert. This time, when I auditioned, I slipped down to seventh chair. I sat in the same chair Lori held before she left.
We threw our caps into the sky. We ran into each other on the wide, grassy field where we graduated junior high, filled with hundreds of ninth graders and their parents, the grass trampled by a thousand shoes. Lori’s parents were walking carefully, distant from each other, her mother shouting something to her father. Lori walked in front of them, clutching a bouquet of balloons, her face squinting as though the afternoon light had suddenly become too much. I raised my hand to wave at her, low enough so that if she wanted to ignore me, I could pretend I was scratching my face. She saw me and raised her hand the same way, and for one moment we were looking at each other, with no expression I could categorize — then we kept walking, past each other, and on.
We went to high school. Lori was districted for another school, so she vanished. Whenever I met someone from her school I asked if they knew her and found out various facts — that she was dating a football player, that she crashed her mother’s car, that she was working at Hardee’s. Then I heard nothing. Sometimes I passed Sandra’s older brother in our high school. He was on the basketball team, and walked with a loose, loping pace. Once I saw him pack up his belongings as he left his trigonometry class, and I was impressed by the way he organized his backpack, the tenderness with which he slid each notebook inside.
The teacher whose arm had been injured in the incident was transferred to the high school I attended. She taught and sometimes told stories about the moment she saw the father run into the cafeteria. She kept thinking he wanted to eat the food being served that day. Why else would someone come to the cafeteria? What other reason could there be? She often said that and sighed, and gently touched her wounded arm.
My life unfolded in ways that surprised me and did not. I stopped playing cello in high school, but that time in the orchestra left an echo — this fierce gleam of desire. The desire took various forms. It fell like a pale net over anything I could capture. It fell over people. It fell over a man who loved me for the way I kissed him and then thought I had the wrong taste; the man who admired me as long as I didn’t contribute more sentences to a conversation than he did; the man who loved the least pretty parts of me, loved my feet and legs, who I wanted to crawl inside because he seemed like a shelter, until he was not. We moved with the family to many cities over the years, and the net fell over each city as I tried to find a way to make it a home. It fell over my children, who appeared one way when I dreamed of them and another way when they arrived, who accepted my love but then were affronted by it, who believed I could offer nothing to them and rushed away. It fell over goals for work. I studied in my desired field, I took tests and failed them and took them again; but when I went from interview to interview there was something in my face, something lurking in the way I sat, that made them turn away. It fell over me as I walked down the street, as I walked by men I hoped would look at me and ones I hoped would not, it fell over my body, various days, as I tried to protect it — when that guy who came to fix the washer kept calling and telling me he would show up at any moment, when that boss somehow figured out where I lived and kept following me home, leaving oddly chosen gifts in my mailbox, the pink plush bunny, the Toblerone bar, until the day he whispered to me by the Xerox machine, bitch you didn’t thank me, and I quit the job and moved away.
There were many types of violence in the world, some quieter. I walked down the street and I imagined if the pounding I felt, in different forms each day, existed within me or outside of me. Had I done something? Or was this the way everything was supposed to be? How did you make your way through the world dodging the violence both outside and within? There was, in me, a continual restlessness, a movement, a wondering.
I was forty, then fifty. I never sold my cello, but I never played it either; it was in a closet, packed away. One day, I picked up the cello and played a few notes. It sounded terrible. I could hold my bow, but to pull the bow across the strings felt awkward. I could not move it with the right pressure. I could not believe that I was ever capable of making a sound that was like velvet or honey.
I sometimes thought about Lori, and the way we talked about that audition, the way we had all waited, frozen, for our chance to play, and how we fell, so quickly, into that new order. How the process of making that order once seemed the most significant event in the world, and how I now understood its brevity. How I wanted to be important, and how I wanted to be alive. I thought of the feeling that rose up, sharply, when I told her she wouldn’t win. How I felt like a spike. I was both appalled by and enjoyed that feeling.
During my life, I said things I wished I hadn’t. I stormed out of rooms, I ruined things with others, I acted foolishly and without thinking, I did things I don’t want to admit, actions that filled me with shame, but that moment was somehow the one I remembered.
Then, one day, she called me.
I was in the neighborhood, she said. I looked you up.
It was her voice. It sounded like her regular voice, from forty years ago, but also like it had been put through a strange, bleary horn.
“You may not remember me. I’m Lori Longstreet. From Garfield Junior High?”
Her voice trembled, but I knew it.
“From Advanced Orchestra?”
It still was somehow important, to me, that it was Advanced. “It’s me!”
She sounded delighted to be found. She was passing through the city where I lived, and she wanted to stop by. She was trying to see some old friends.
Old friends — she said it as if we had rollicked through school together. I thought of our sitting in the cafeteria, and wondered if she remembered exactly who I was.
I said I would be delighted to see her. I was. I wondered if she needed a place to stay.
She hesitated. That would be helpful, she said.
I lived alone in a rental then, a small house with blue vinyl siding that somewhat resembled wood. In the back, a deck overlooked a small yard, and during the spring, the azaleas rose, a pink and foamy tide. There was a spare room; my children didn’t visit often. So just like that, Lori was going to come by.
I needed to get the place ready. I wasn’t someone who loved cleaning, but it seemed important to clean the house. I vacuumed, I scrubbed the counters, I wiped smudges off walls. I noticed the crack in the window I never seemed to get fixed, and the peeling paint where the kitchen ceiling leaked. I noticed everything that was wrong. I rarely looked that closely at this place where I slept and ate, but when I did, I found extensive stains, odd smears. I understood that I mostly moved through my life trying not to look at them.
In the bathroom, I peered at myself in the mirror and haplessly rubbed moisturizer into my face. What would she see when she saw me? Would she remember what I had said? I remembered my words, how powerful I felt after they left my mouth, and how sour it became after I said them. The way we sat at the steel tables in the cafeteria, the way we negotiated our confusion and shame at being alive, the way we tried to believe in our claim to this air, these tables, these hamburgers before us, sitting on those hard steel benches, so cold they seemed to be balanced on ice.
She arrived in the afternoon. I saw her get out of a cab slowly. At first, I didn’t think I was looking at Lori at all, but at her mother. Her hair was now cut short and silver, in a bob. She had slipped into the body of her mother like it was a coat. It was always a surprise to experience this in people you hadn’t seen in a long time. But I pretended not to see any shift in her, as I knew she would pretend not to see any in me. I stepped out into the sunlight and waved.
“Hello!” she called. I hurried to the sidewalk to meet her. She hugged me, a firm hug, which was a change — she was not the type who hugged before. Her hair held the smell of a meadow, and I remembered how wildflower shampoo was her favorite many years ago. I felt the solidity of her arms.
We walked up to the house; she dragged a small suitcase behind her. She walked with care. I could see her fourteen-year-old face housed in her middle-aged face, which was the gift that friends from your youth gave you — they could locate the particular beauty in you from decades before, and you could locate it in them.
I wanted her approval. This nervousness surprised me, and I tried not to show it to her.
I opened the door and she stepped inside. I eyed my possessions critically, apprising what was there. A bamboo lamp stand, a porcelain lamp from my grandmother, a turquoise pillow with drawings my children had silk-screened on them, for an elementary school fundraiser. Lori walked in, placing her feet guardedly on the floor, and her expression held the same authority as her younger self, but was now overlaid with something else, a gauze-like film of calm.
“I like your house,” she said. “Look at this.”
She walked around, brushing her fingers against items in the living room — the lamp, the coffee table, a blue glass vase. She talked. She talked a lot about nothing. It seemed to me that she was nervous, but the quality of her talking was not anxious, but simply had the purpose of filling the air. She liked admiring things, in that nervous way people have when they want to establish intimacy quickly. She sat on the couch and stretched out her legs. She admired the potted geraniums, the strawberries I put in a dish as a snack. There was a self-absorbed quality to the admiration, as if she wanted me to approve of her. She had been in contact with many people from our junior high school: a month ago, she ran into John Schubert, the best cellist, by the avocados at Ralph’s supermarket. John told her about his experience as a music major at UCLA, which ended abruptly when he broke his wrist during a softball game; he now managed an instrument store in West Covina.
I remembered the low roar of that multipurpose room, all of us talking as we perched on our fold-out chairs. Mr. Handelman clapped and we picked up our instruments, and looked to him, waiting for him to begin conducting. That building no longer existed; it had been knocked down years ago to make room for a new basketball court.
“What do you think Mr. Handelman is doing now?” I asked. “Is he still teaching?”
Her face stilled.
“Oh,” she said, looking at me. “Don’t you know? Mr. Handelman had a heart attack last year. He was teaching until the last minute, and then, boom, he died.”
My heart jumped in the way it did when I heard bad news.
“Oh,” I said.
She wore the same expression she had when she was fourteen and knew information that I didn’t, as though her knowledge put her on a shelf above me. She had not lost this capacity.
“I thought you knew,” she said.
“I didn’t,” I said.
“Well,” she said. “I’m sorry. Let me tell you some good news, then — remember the trumpet section? Gail and Harold? They got married. And they play for a band in a circus. In Austria! They have an exciting life — ”
I wished there was something I could tell her that she didn’t know. But she sat in my living room, glowing almost, with her expansive knowledge of what everyone else was doing.
She kept talking. She was celebrating her twenty-sixth year of marriage with her husband, Fred, who was her best friend, and she was now an aficionado of French cooking and made excellent soufflés, and on her fiftieth birthday, her children threw a party for her at a restaurant on the Marina, just on their own, without her asking, and on and on. She did not sound like she was bragging, though of course she was, but I heard something else in her tone, what I knew of her from junior high school — the sense that she was asking permission, from me.
I listened. I could see that she was glad I was listening. We had tea, and then I made pasta with broccoli and garlic and Parmesan for dinner. We sat, facing each other at the table, the way we used to in the cafeteria. I wondered if she thought I looked old, my hand placed carefully on my cheek to conceal any weary parts of my face. She thought that everything I prepared was delicious.
“I could eat this forever,” she said. “I want the recipe.”
She even got a little card out of her purse and wrote it down, right then. When she brushed her hair from her face, it was an adult gesture echoing the way she did this as a child.
Her appreciation was nice, but I felt a kind of force behind her comments, a radiation, lifting off an explosion within. It made me want to duck under something. I kept peering at her, waiting for her to do something that would instantly reveal her adolescent self; I longed to see the authority she once had.
My response was to keep feeding her. After the pasta, more strawberries. Then some mint chip ice cream, which had been sitting in the freezer for so long there was a sheen of ice on the top.
Our conversation circled, floated around the room. But the discussion wasn’t answering some important questions. Did she ever play cello anymore? Did she remember playing in the orchestra? What else did she remember?
I wasn’t sure what I wanted her to say, but I wanted the past to be simpler than I remembered.
Her face flickered. “Oh, orchestra,” she said. “I stopped playing right after I dropped out. I just didn’t want to. I didn’t want to touch a cello after, everything.”
She clasped her hands in front of her, firmly, as though she were being interviewed in some legal way.
I felt a sadness settle in me, entwined with guilt.
“But you were so good,” I said, wanting her to know this, “I remember your tone. It was better than anyone’s — ”
“I was okay,” she said, noticing my expression. “I didn’t want to play anymore. Maybe I should have. But I just didn’t.
Something was there in me, I wanted to do something else. I had so much energy. You know? I tried running. I joined the track team. I ran with other girls for six miles until I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to run farther, until I hurt my knee. Then I went through a time when I was sleeping with a lot of different guys. Some I liked, some I didn’t, but I just wanted to feel how they made me feel, in every way possible. I learned a lot during that time. I still wanted things. After that, I started baking cakes. I wanted to make the best cakes, the sweetest. Then I gained forty pounds because I kept eating them. Each cake was more delicious than the other, and I had to finish them all. Then I started going to spin classes, and I dropped twenty pounds.”
She sat back, exhausted.
“In the last year or so,” she said, “I haven’t been well. I won’t go into the boring details, because I’m sick of talking about them, but, well. This stupid body. Now while I can still get around, I wanted to see everyone I knew.”
I looked at Lori, a slight chill inside me. There was nothing that appeared different about her, except for the careful way she walked. I peered at her, trying to figure it out.
“Oh,” I said, saying the things one said when confronted with vague medical information, “I didn’t know. I’m sorry — ”
She waved these words away. She closed her eyes.
“What — ” I said. “Do you need anything? Are you — ” “Let me show you pictures of the cakes,” she said.
She held out her phone, showing me photos of cakes she had made when she inhabited that particular expression of longing. The cakes were round, decorated with various types of perfectly formed, bright flowers, and, even if the cakes were iced in yellows and pinks, had the odd feeling of fortresses.
Finally, after talking for several hours, I told her I had to go to sleep; I showed her the room with her bed and her towels. Then I shut the door to my room and thought of her in the other room, and I had a sudden thought that she would open my door, march into the room, and stab me. I imagined the compliments about my pasta were all a front, that she had been waiting all these years, secretly, to do this. I could picture her standing over me, taking clear aim for my heart. I didn’t know why this idea came to me, but the more I thought it the more possible it seemed. I lay in the darkness for some time, listening for movement, but there was none. I locked the door.
In the morning, I woke up and, for a moment, did not get out of bed. I listened to Lori, moving around the house. In the pale, morning light, I did not feel she would stab me, but was comforted by her presence. I wanted her to stay another night, and I also wondered why she was here at all.
When I came out of my room, she was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee.
“Hi!” she said. She had to leave at around two — and was heading home.
I brought out some rubbery croissants from Safeway and we sat together, the same way we sat at that cafeteria table forty years ago.
I thought of us then, the way we leaned toward each other needing the fact of our own presence, then the feeling that we were made of fog. I thought of the sound of my voice when I told her she wouldn’t win, and the absolute steeliness of my whole self at that moment, the piercing of love between us, of our friendship. I took a bite of the horrible croissant.
“Lori,” I said. “Have you heard anything about Sandra’s family? What happened to them?”
It was not an honest question because I followed what had happened to them. The mother fell into depression, and they moved to Arizona. The older brother became a reporter on the local news in Phoenix. The father had a stroke a few years after the murder.
She put down her croissant. Her hand was a little shaky.
“I haven’t,” she said.
Then she told me this.
She had been annoyed at Sandra that morning. Sandra came into the orchestra room wearing a yellow tube top, and Lori felt a wilting inside because Sandra looked radiant in it, as though she had, through great will or knowledge, changed a deep force within herself. Sandra walked differently, more lightly when she wore it as well, as if she were balancing on a piece of sky. It was how some girls moved through the world now, with that precise assurance. But we were not those girls. Some were, but we were not. Lori told me that one reason she liked orchestra was not just because she enjoyed playing music but because she felt safe with that cello in front of her. It was like a large and kindly guard.
And here was Sandra in the tube top, her shoulders gleaming, Sandra walking and invisibly throwing glitter into the air. And then Lori felt certain that Sandra was going to crush her in some way she could not explain.
Lori wanted to get rid of her.
“Go,” she told Sandra. “It’s fish and chips day. Don’t you want to be the first in line?”
Fish and chips were Sandra’s favorite lunch. Everyone knew. Lori said that she remembered how Sandra looked at her, trying to figure out if leaving early was a good idea.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Lori had said. “It’ll be a long line.” She was doing her a favor, Lori told herself, telling her to
go first in line. In fact, she was being generous to Sandra, helpful even, ignoring the fact that she was happy when Sandra ran off. Lori was glad, just then, that she didn’t have to look at her. That clear feeling of relief. She didn’t have to watch Sandra walk through the orchestra room and feel that she, herself, was somehow flawed. Lori thought she would follow her to the cafeteria, in ten minutes, but then Sandra would have disappeared into the crowd and Lori then believed that she would not feel diminished.
She remembered, later, how clear her mind was the ten minutes after Sandra left. The worry that had rushed through her was gone.
And then there was the slow unfurling of catastrophe, the shouting and the sound of alarms, and the fact that no one could go to lunch at all. Mr. Handelman shutting the doors and locking them, the news that something was happening in the cafeteria, not just lunch, and that some people had been injured. No, not just injured: killed.
We didn’t hear that Sandra was dead until the next day, and this at first seemed a lie, a rumor, a joke, nothing that could be real.
Lori said that when she found out, she laughed — not because she thought it was funny, but because she had no idea what reaction to have. There was no sense to the statement that Sandra had been killed; nothing felt real at all. In fact, it seemed that her brain had shut down: she could not think. She could not believe this.
Lori spoke quickly and did not look at me as she told me all of this, the words surging with an intensity that made me wonder if this was the first time she was telling this story. And then she put her hand on mine and said,
“I want to thank you.”
Her hand felt too cool, like a ghoul’s.
“You understood,” she said. “You said I wouldn’t win.” She looked at me with an assumption of my innocence
that was so utterly incorrect it felt as though the world was constructed of nothing. I had not understood anything; she was wrong. The absolute wrongness of this made me concerned and suddenly I wanted to eat everything in the world. I took a bite of croissant and chewed it, slowly. I wondered if I should just allow her this misunderstanding of me, for I came out in such a good light.
“I did say that,” I said.
“I felt like my terrible nature was finally seen,” she said. “And you were right. I shouldn’t have been First Chair.”
I picked up our plates and put them in the sink so I wouldn’t have to look at her. Lori’s face shone with certainty about the misguided fact of my goodness.
“You didn’t shoot her,” I said, carefully. “You just told her to get lunch. You didn’t know — ”
“So?” she said. Her eyes were bright and troubled. “I somehow helped. If she had not gone to the cafeteria, she would be here.”
“Shut up,” I said, trying to sound a little light, but she jumped. “What are you talking about?” I continued. “It was him. He did it. Not you.”
“But I gave her the idea to go.”
I stared at her. I had to tell her — that she was wrong about me, that the actual reason I told her she would not win was because I wanted to win, I wanted to play in the circle of light.
“But then I heard you play in the auditions,” she said, “and I thought, she will be First Chair, I knew it before he said it, and then you were, and I felt somehow freed. I can’t explain why. But I was glad that you had won, not me.”
Just as I had felt forty years ago, sitting across from one another in that cafeteria, it seemed we were sitting on different continents. I waited for myself to correct her. I waited.
I did not.
On the continent across the table, she put her hands over her face and sighed. “So,” she said. There was a silence between us that felt a thousand years old. She got up and stood, a little lost, in the kitchen. She went into the room where she had slept and wheeled out her suitcase. I followed her, and I felt needy; I wanted to talk to her more. I didn’t want her to leave.
“Do you have a cello?” she asked.
I kept my old cello stored in the back of my closet with other items I didn’t use. I brought it out and unzipped its vinyl bag. I had not played in many years; it made no sense to keep it, but I carried it everywhere I had lived. The strings were limp with disuse. They were soundless when you plucked them. She rubbed her palms on the curved top of the cello, the rounded edges of it.
“Do you ever play?” Lori asked.
“No,” I said. “Never.”
“But you still have it,” she said.
I did. I refused to give it away.
“When was the last time you played?” I asked. She thought. “I don’t know. Thirty years ago?”
“I remember how you played,” I said. I wanted to convince her of something, of the beauty of her sound. “I remember it.” She looked at the cello and rubbed her palm across the
“May I try?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
She tuned the old instrument so that it had some approximation of a cello, and then sat down in the living room and leaned its neck against her shoulder. She settled herself behind the instrument, turned the tuning pegs, plucked the strings and listened to them. I had forgotten what it was to play an instrument, to feel myself creating the clear notes, to feel the fluttering and hum of music against my chest, that gorgeousness rising from my arms, my breath.
I waited to tell her why I had said what I said to her. I waited.
She tightened the bow and drew it across the strings of the cello.
“How do I sound?” she asked.
I felt we had been talking since the beginning of the world. Outside, it was just after noon; soon the sun would start dying. A sparrow called. Somehow I knew that this was the last time I would see her. We sat across from each other, our chairs balanced on the flat, grubby carpet, sitting up, politely, our backs straight, trying to hold down this room with only our own weight. A million years ago, we sat in the cello section of Garfield Junior High’s Advanced Orchestra; a million years ago, we sat on the cafeteria’s cold steel benches, as, around us, our classmates roared. Lori’s thin fingers touched the neck of the cello. She plucked the strings, A, D, G, C. They echoed in the small room. She set the bow on the strings and slowly drew it across them, and the two of us listened, waiting to hear the sound she made.
About the Author
KAREN E. BENDER is the author of Refund, a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and long-listed for the Story Prize. She’s also the author of the novels Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. She has won grants from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the NEA. She lives in Virginia with her husband, author Robert Anthony Siegel, and their two children.
About the Recommender
Molly Antopol’s debut story collection, The UnAmericans (W.W. Norton), won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award, the French-American Prize, the Ribalow Prize and a California Book Award Silver Medal. The book was longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award and was a finalist the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the National Jewish Book Award and the Sami Rohr Prize, among others. The book appeared on over a dozen “Best of 2014” lists and was published in seven countries. Her writing has appeared widely, including in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Granta, One Story, The New Republic and San Francisco Chronicle, and won a 2015 O.Henry Prize. She’s the recent recipient of fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the American Academy in Berlin, the American Library in Paris, and Stanford University, where she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow and has taught in their Creative Writing Program since 2008. She’s at work on a novel, which will also be published by Norton.
About Recommended Reading
Recommended Reading is the weekly fiction magazine of Electric Literature, publishing here every Wednesday morning. In addition to featuring our own recommendations of original, previously unpublished fiction, we invite established authors, indie presses, and literary magazines to recommend great work from their pages, past and present. The Recommended Reading Commuter, which publishes every Monday, is our home for flash and graphic narrative, and poetry. For access to year-round submissions, join our membership program on Drip, and follow Recommended Reading on Medium to get every issue straight to your feed. Recommended Reading is supported by the Amazon Literary Partnership, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. For other links from Electric Literature, follow us, or sign up for our eNewsletter.