I could measure her sorrow by counting the units of relief in her laughter (wild, devious laughter), but as an eighteen-year-old girl who had yet to know such a complicated loneliness, I could only find a vague understanding through my limited approximations. (She had nine years, ten months, and twenty-nine days on me. Also, a husband. A son (diagnosed with autism). And a daughter.)
I occupied hypotheticals, but she was well-studied in practical application.
We met in the alto section for a summertime community-college musical. Some crumbling old man plucked out our parts on the piano, and, sure, I could manage when we were the only ones singing, but once the whole chorus sang together, I lost the harmony. (All I could hear were the damn sopranos.)
“It’s like I’ve always said: If you want to be a musician, sing with the altos. They really have to learn their harmonies,” my uncle said once (though not to me directly).
First I asked her to sing our part again on breaks. And when the old man pointed one crooked finger at the altos and another at the sopranos, I leaned in close to her mouth. Finally she just sang the harmonies directly in my ear. I later learned I could hold up any sheet of music, ask her how does this go?, and she could sing the right notes as reliably as a piano. (The phenomena astonished me every time.)
She double majored at Brigham Young University (in concert piano and chemical engineering).
“I used to have to ask my roommates to turn off the music when I went to bed,” she told me, “because I couldn’t stop myself from transcribing it: ‘F, E-flat, G, C, C-major-7, C7.’ I couldn’t fall asleep if they had anything playing.”
Whenever our laughter collided, nothing could counteract the combustion. (The rest of the cast just had to wait till it moved through us (and we let them wait)).
I noticed garment lines underneath her pants. (Latter-day Saints require members to wear garments of the holy priesthood underneath all their clothing). I didn’t grow up Mormon, but my uncle converted and married a devoted member of the church. I often thought of their six children more like additional siblings than cousins (an affinity I had conflated with the religion). If only the missionaries acknowledged that my dog had a soul, I might have converted in high school (and married a few years later (and birthed my first child nine months after that)), but now I realize that they were not authorized to make those sorts of negotiations.
Why didn’t she just leave the dark little house that made her so sad?
She had tight curls, but the individual hairs were so soft and fine that my fingers never met resistance. Over and over, I ran my hands through. Her eyes fluttered shut and her lips twisted into an asymmetric smile (such a delicate expression). I could balance the weight of her troubles in my two hands and hold it a short distance from her scalp. ((Relief.) At least for a while.)
“I was told to marry a good Mormon man. (Nobody told me to want anything more),” she confessed. Her family warned if she were to divorce her husband, he would be welcome to family gatherings (and she would not).
Sometimes I remember what happened, but other times the continuum of years and decades and disappointments obscure my perspective—like an electron particle collapsing itself between two wavelengths of visible light. So I have to build a theory on vague traces and speculation. I touched her face, but did I hold her hand? What is the probability that I held her in my arms? We cuddled in a hammock one ephemeral afternoon, the sun scattering its shimmering spectrum through the distant branches and leaves, and we were touching (so comfortably). That must have meant something, but this was well before I started my studies in intimacy. (So what would I have known of meaning?)
What I wanted held little consequence (I hardly even knew). Only her relief (laughter (joy (relief again))) concerned me. If she wanted to be held, I held her. And if she didn’t, so what.
I never understood why my phone calls started going to voicemail. Why she was busy (but (I knew better) not busy). I had believed there were rights and wrongs, and it just took strength to navigate around the wrongs. But some wrong must have led me to this end of an unanswered phone. I would have veered away from it if I could see it, (but I couldn’t fix something in some hypothetical future I never got to see).
Jodi Scott Elliott is an MFA candidate in Louisiana State University’s creative writing program, and her nonfiction essays will appear in Exposition Review and Glassworks this spring. She also recently received the university’s David Madden MFA Award for Fiction for the academic year of 2021–22. In her final year of the program, she will be working on a collection of essays about the unique community of canine search and rescue.