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Authors: Karis Walsh

Improvisation (2 page)

BOOK: Improvisation
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Boring old practice had a predictable but limited outcome—improvement. Tina preferred to improvise because she never knew what the result would be. Unpredictable, with limitless possibilities. But even though an impromptu fiddle jam session would have been more exciting, Tina knew she’d appreciate Andy’s insistence on perfection when they played the piece in front of an audience. The chamber music festival would be her last performance with Andy for at least three months because Tina had stupidly promised to work with her cousin in Spokane. Temporarily. She shifted restlessly in her seat, tired of sitting still for so long. She didn’t relish the prospect of spending so much time far from her friends and too close to her family.

“I’ll miss this,” Andy echoed Tina’s thoughts.

“Me too,” Tina said. She toyed with a tuning peg on her violin, tightening the A string. She plucked it. Sharp. She returned it to its original tension and laid the violin in its velvet-lined case. “But Spokane in the spring…they write songs about that, don’t they?”

“They should,” Andy said with a smile. “All the cows are blooming.”

“And the tumbleweeds aren’t yet dry enough to tumble.”

“It’s a beautiful city,” Brooke said from the doorway. “Rivers and lakes and parks. A brilliant cultural scene. Tons of great restaurants…”

“Thank you, Spokane Board of Tourism,” Tina said as she followed Brooke into the living room. The coffee table was set with food for Brooke and Andy, and a plate of pasta and glass of wine sat on a tray next to the chair Tina always used. Brooke had simply expected her to stay for dinner—a sure sign Tina was spending too much time in their apartment. Intruding on their privacy. And neglecting her own romantic life. “Do you have any brochures?”

“Even better,” Brooke said as she sat on the couch and folded her legs underneath her. “I happen to know a beautiful woman who, I’ll bet, would be willing to act as your personal tour guide.”

Tina groaned. She had walked right into Brooke’s trap. She took a bite of garlicky, spicy penne before she answered. “I appreciate it, but I’m sure I’ll be too busy to socialize.”

Andy laughed and choked on her pasta. “When have you
ever
been too busy to womanize? Sorry, I meant
socialize
.”

“Funny,” Tina said. “But I have to design Peter’s website and help him create a marketing plan and—”

Brooke waved her fork in the air. “You’ve managed to have other plans every time Jan’s come to Seattle. I’ll bet you can find an hour or two over the next three months to meet her for a drink.”

Tina balanced her plate on her lap and took a sip of wine. Brooke was partially right—Tina was going to need plenty to drink and plenty of female companionship to get her through the uncomfortable reunion with her family. And she certainly wouldn’t disagree with Brooke’s description of her friend as beautiful. Tina hadn’t had a chance to talk to Jan Carroll at Brooke’s wedding rehearsal, but she had been very aware of her, sitting alone in the back of the church. A fraction of her mind had concentrated on playing the familiar quartet music, but most of it had been pleasantly occupied with the imagined sight of Jan’s dark blond hair released from those barrettes, reflecting gold as it fell around her shoulders. The feel of Jan’s skin as Tina stripped off her silk pantsuit and slipped her hands around that slender waist…Tina would have had Jan’s phone number before the bride and groom made it down the aisle if it had been one of the group’s normal wedding gigs. But she had needed to stay with Andy, who was distraught because she thought she had lost Brooke. Then Brooke had fallen in love with Andy and turned into a matchmaker, and Jan was now off-limits for Tina. Tina wanted nothing more serious than an affair or three in Spokane, but she suspected Brooke was busily planning a double wedding.

“I’ll try to make time, but no promises. Besides, I’m not looking for anything serious right now. Or ever, right, Andy?”

“Jan’s great, Tina,” Andy said in a serious voice. “You’ll like her, and it’ll be good for you to have a friend over there. Someone to get you away from your family now and then.”

Traitor.
Andy was no help. She had joined the “serious relationship” cult and apparently was willing to help Brooke in her recruiting efforts. Even now, she stared at Brooke as if Stradivari himself had carved her curves out of a rare piece of wood. Tina was thrilled to see her so…content. Andy had always been wound a bit tight, and Brooke had managed to loosen her up, get her back in tune. But Tina wasn’t Andy. An occasional casual affair for stress release was all the retuning she needed. She finished the last of her wine and set the glass down a little harder than she meant to.

Brooke poured more wine in Tina’s glass. “What’s the situation with you and your family? Or shouldn’t I ask?”

Tina had been hoping for a change in subject, but talking about her family was as bad as being pushed into Jan’s arms. She swirled the wine and watched the light play off the ruby liquid.

“We’re just distant, I guess. When Dad was alive, we’d go visit a couple times a year. Grandmother would criticize my mom for everything—how she was raising me without enough discipline, what a little hellion I was. Dad would try to defend me and Mom, to make everyone get along, but the visits were always a mess.” Tina paused and took a drink of the rich and fruity wine. Her dad had kept up his efforts to bring the family together until he died, when Tina was eight. Then the trips to Spokane had stopped. Tina’s grandmother hadn’t had a chance to know her during junior high and high school, when her mom had been sick and she had grown up faster than most teenagers. Now she’d get to know the adult Tina, the grown-up hellion. Tina smiled at the thought.

“To families,” Andy said as she raised her glass in a mock salute. “Where would alcohol sales be without them?”

Tina returned the gesture and watched Brooke curl closer to Andy on the couch. Her friend had been forced to be an adult at an early age as well. But maturity sat easily on her, and she seemed to crave the security and stability of her relationship. Tina had shrugged off the weight of responsibility after her mother had died, and she had no intention of finding someone else to depend on her. She had experienced love and loss. She didn’t plan to go through it again.

“So what about this cousin?” Brooke asked. “You’ve agreed to help him, so he can’t be all bad.”

“He’s okay,” Tina said with a shrug. “We played together when we were kids and he’s kept in touch. Letters or e-mails on holidays, that sort of thing.” She laughed shortly at the memory of their latest awkward exchange. “Somewhere along the way, our conversations became little more than weather reports, and the most personal answer either of us gives to the question
How are you?
is the local temperature. It’s easier for him, since there are actual seasons in Spokane. But how many ways can I say
It’s rainy with occasional sunbreaks
?”

“Maybe he’s desperate to keep any sort of relationship going,” Brooke said, her voice soft. “
It’s unseasonably warm this spring
might mean
I want to talk to you, but I don’t know how to get past this rift
.”

Tina shook her head. Peter probably only wrote to her because he felt guilty after his side of the family abandoned her. And she only answered, year after year, because she didn’t want to be rude. She had more feelings for the weather girl on the local news. “Nice idea, Brooke, but the truth is, we feel some stupid family obligation to keep writing, but we don’t care enough to get beyond the most stereotypically superficial of topics. I’m going to help him because Dad would’ve wanted me to, but after this trip, we can stop the meaningless chit-chat. It’ll be a relief for both of us, I’m sure.”

“Cloudy, with a noticeable chill in the air,” Andy said, without looking up from her dinner.

Tina ignored her comment. She would accept the uncomfortable obligations to family and to Brooke, but after this trip, she would be free of them. No more Peter. And definitely no more Jan.

Chapter Two
 

Jan ended the call and dropped the phone into the pocket of her blazer. Her third-period class was already filing into the room, so she controlled her desire to drop her head onto the desk and cry. Instead, she silently recited the students’ names as they sat down, in an effort to reorient herself. Sophomore Geometry. Twenty-one students. Lesson number twelve. She watched them chat and laugh as they pulled out notebooks and rulers while she wondered if she’d be able to get through the hour without needing to ask one of them what she was supposed to be teaching.

The doctor’s words took up all the space in her mind, pushing away the theorems and proofs from today’s lesson plan. She had been expecting a call about her dad’s injured shoulder, not about the warning signs the doctor had noticed while examining him.
Possibility of early onset Alzheimer’s. We’ll run more tests. Has your father shown any of these symptoms?
No, but she seemed to be experiencing all of them right now. Her dad’s fall and subsequent stay in the hospital had left her scared and worried. Planning to move him into her partially renovated house and arranging for a nurse while she was at school had left her frantic and harried. But the doctor’s news had left her numb. Empty. Lost.

She registered that the students were watching her silently, waiting for her to start class. The bell must have rung, somewhere in the distance outside of her new reality. She stood and began to teach as if programmed. The rhythm of the class was familiar, and she could follow her carefully organized and structured lesson plans in her sleep. Which was lucky, because she felt as responsive and alive as a zombie. Step one, review last week’s assignments to make sure the base for this week’s skills was solid. If the foundation was weak, it wouldn’t support the weight of new information. In class, as in life. She had finally started to build a life here in Spokane after years of living like a nomad. But that plan had always included both her and her dad, with their relationship and memories intact. Without her only family, her foundation was nothing but empty space.

Jan shook off the panic threatening to overwhelm her and walked to the whiteboard, where she sketched several quadrilaterals. She felt a slight easing of tension as she drew each one. The comforting shapes and angles and lines made sense. The lengths and widths and heights were constant and always offered the correct answer if manipulated properly. Simple. Logical.

Jan reviewed the old material and answered a few questions before she collected homework and turned to new business. She usually loved teaching this section—another one of her preemptive strikes against the age-old
When will I ever use this?
math question—and she struggled against her mental fog. Her students needed her to be engaged and present. Tonight, when she was away from her obligations and the structured script of her lesson, she would fall apart. But not now.

She passed out sheets of heavy drawing paper and soft pencils. “This week, we’ll be examining the link between geometry and art. Later on, we’ll study some actual paintings, but today, I want you to be the artists.” She paused for the expected groans from the teenagers. “Don’t worry, you aren’t being graded on skill, just participation. I want you to draw a sketch of me, full-length, standing next to my desk. Just try to make an accurate drawing, and don’t use this as a way to get revenge on me for last week’s pop quiz.”

She stood in the front of the classroom, with one hand resting on her desk. The lesson had the benefit and challenge of frequent breaks while the students worked, and she needed to use those moments to recharge and refocus, not to dwell on the uncertain future. So she tried to stay still while her class squinted first at her and then at their drawings, erasing and redrawing almost every line.

“Eyes on your own paper, Christine,” she said.

“But his is funny,” Christine said, gesturing at her boyfriend’s drawing. “Your head looks
huge
.”

“I’m sure Tom is just symbolically representing the size of my brain,” Jan teased, taking the brief moment while the class’s attention was on the couple to surreptitiously glance at her vibrating cell. Another message from her old college friend Brooke, not the doctor. The lesser of two evils. “Don’t worry, we’ll get a chance to see everyone’s pictures once you’ve finished.”

“You owe the jar a dollar,” Alex said from his seat in the front row as she started to collect the sketches. “You checked your phone.”

Jan sighed, fished out her wallet, and crammed a dollar bill into the jar on her desk while the class erupted into giggles. Apparently, she hadn’t been as subtle as she had thought. She had a strict no-phones, no-texting policy in class, and the year-end pizza parties paid for with the fines were sometimes extravagant. This was the first time she had contributed, and she planned to have Brooke reimburse her for the dollar. It was, by far, the least Brooke could do, given the favor she was asking.

“We’ve learned how to describe shapes by giving values to their dimensions. Now, we’re going to express the relationship between two shapes as a number.” Jan launched into the lesson on ratio and proportion, hoping it would do double duty of getting her mind off both her dad’s health and Brooke’s messages about Tina’s impending visit. Numbers and logic. Easily definable and orderly. They had always helped her in the past, giving her a sense of calm and structure and distance. Why not now, when she needed them most?

“What are some ways we can compare two people mathematically?” Jan listed the students’ suggestions on the whiteboard. Height, weight, strength, GPA. “Excellent. And what are some comparisons that can’t be expressed as a ratio?”

Beauty, popularity, kindness. Jan wrote the list of nonquantifiable traits. Vague and indefinite. Her mind half on the class discussion, Jan let the recollection of Tina Nelson occupy a small part of her thoughts. Tina had a classic beauty that could be measured by a scientist. Proportions, height, angles. All symmetrical and pleasing, but the addition of indefinable qualities of confidence and sensuality made her truly charismatic. Tina had been scoping out the bridesmaids while she played the violin at Brooke’s wedding rehearsal, and then her attention had turned to Jan. She had been sitting in the back row of the church, wanting to support Brooke while keeping out of the way of her judgmental family. Unobtrusive. But Tina had found her. Jan recognized a player when she saw one, when she felt the almost physical force of one’s interest. And, two years ago, when Jan thought she’d finally had her life on the right track, she had been prepared to have a weekend fling. To let Tina seduce her.

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