Caitlin Horrocks is author of the story collection

This Is Not Your City.

Her stories and essays appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The Paris Review, Tin House, the Atlantic, and other journals and anthologies. Her awards include the Plimpton Prize and fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the MacDowell Colony.

She is fiction editor of The Kenyon Review and teaches at Grand Valley State University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.


posted Nov 24, 2015

"Did you see the story on the news?" my old conservatory roommate asked. She was still piecing things together, weddings and lessons and part-time orchestra gigs. For years after I left New York, she asked if I still played at all, if I missed it yet. Eventually she stopped asking. Once my ex-husband conducted a concert she was playing in. "He had giant sweat stains under his arms by the end of the first movement," she said, trying to tell me what she thought I'd want to hear. I knew I could trust her, with what to say to him and what not to. She wouldn't mention all the weight I'd put on; she'd tell him I was happy in Ypsilanti. Mostly I am.

The violinist Joshua Bell, she explained, had played in a subway station for nearly an hour. Of the thousand people who walked by, only seven stopped to listen. "One of the best musicians in the world," she said with genuine outrage, "and people gave him 32 bucks in change."

I thought of a trip I'd taken years earlier, to Vienna, just after my divorce. I'd thought I was on a pilgrimage. I thought I'd hear music I'd remember for the rest of my life. Mostly, I remember being hungry. I couldn't bring myself to sit and eat alone in the restaurants. I subsisted on coffee and slices of cake in cafés, picked up takeaway falafel to eat in my hotel after concerts. I went to a recital by an Austrian cellist I admired, another by a Van Cliburn medal winner on a worldwide tour. I could have heard the Cliburn winner back in the States, but I suppose I thought it might sound different in Vienna. I went to free concerts at churches and the university. I paid to hear the philharmonic. I saw Strauss' Salome at the state opera. The production was traditional, textbook. A ribbon fell from one of the costumes, and I couldn't stop staring at that single, precious mistake curled on the floor. A stagehand snatched it up during a scene change.

I ordered a grilled sandwich in a paper bag for my last supper in Austria, walked through a park on the way to my hotel. Under an arcade of white pillars there was music, an aria I didn't recognize. The sound was clean and pure, disembodied and seemingly effortless. I thought it must be a recording before I saw him, a handsome young man with an upturned hat sprinkled with money. He sang from memory, without accompaniment. His pitch never slipped. I drew back behind a pillar where he couldn't see me and cried. I stood there listening until the grease from the sandwich blossomed through the bag. I stood there until my feet hurt. He never repeated a song. There was no limit to what he knew. Finally I left, throwing the cold sandwich into the trash. In bed, my stomach snarled its stupid, ordinary hunger, and I had just enough Austrian change to buy a packet of crackers from a vending machine so I could sleep. I hadn't left the young man any money. He had everything I'd ever wanted. He didn't need my coins.

"Maybe they knew," I said to my old roommate, about those people in the subway, walking brusquely past genius with their hands wadded in their pockets. "Maybe they knew exactly what they were hearing, and that's why they kept going."

Neither of us believed that. But it's what I would have done, would do still, even now when we both pretend I am beyond caring, that I successfully said goodbye to something in Vienna even bigger than my marriage. Older. Wiser. I'm not. I am starving, still. I don't know what more to eat.