Breakfast with Bach

Photo and pencil marks: © John Michael Swartz. All rights reserved.

With effort I buckle my three kids into their car seats, shove the backpacks roughly into a huddle. My middle daughter blinks back at me, her puckered pink jean jacket in all the wrong buttonholes and her silky pigtails askew. My son’s legs cascade down from the booster to the upholstery like the untamed roots of an orchid and life just doesn’t stop, does it? So much to maintain. So many crumbs and inside-out socks, scratched DVDs, shoes outgrown in minutes. My stomach growls, churning coffee as I back out.

Caring for them is like swallowing a hard-boiled egg too fast. It hurts. My husband? Traveling. In the OR. I don’t know. NOT HERE. The rearview reveals my own freckled mug. It suddenly dawns on me that maybe I’m the one who should be restrained in a car seat. What am I doing? I don’t think I’m qualified for this job of mother I somehow applied for. A wave of nausea sweeps over me, a burning in my stomach brought on by toast nubs and wine and a million skipped meals, failed orgasms, my husband’s continued absence, a life that is not my own, a nausea of the self, a disappointment so deep it’s grown roots and is blooming twisted, angry weeds I want to yank. I’m really losing it.

My friend Liz’s husband works a lot too. He sells copper wire, she told me. I would have murdered my husband long ago if that’s what took him out of our home. My friend Jen’s husband travels to consult on behalf of chemical plants in Houston. Again, murder. My husband is a neurosurgeon and even though I want to murder him, I feel this continual guilt at hating him—oh the neurosurgeon, the holy neurosurgeon, let us all bow down to the neurosurgeon—and so I assure myself that in murdering him I would possibly be deemed an accessory to murdering all the people with strokes and aneurysms and arteriovenous malformations that he’s so skilled at treating. Plus, I really just miss him.

You know what I miss? I miss collecting stones with him. I miss his hand on my ass. I miss the ocean and its tongues of green and the wind pushing us closer together, not farther apart. A face that lights up at the sight of me. Before kids. Before brain surgery. The open ocean. Brown eyes. Water and wind. Stones without edges.

I exhale with relief as “Breakfast with Bach” comes on the radio. WRTI. 98.6. Just in time! The kids know I need “Breakfast with Bach” to live— and so they’ve grown accustomed to needing it too. First, the news. Then, “Breakfast with Bach.” I can do this.

The aria that kicks off the Goldberg Variations is today’s selection and I feel my heart rate slow. I can’t believe it, it’s my favorite! The first aria! I have to remember to keep my eyes open as I make a left and breeze over a bridge, a wild creek, deer scattering up a hillside. I’m weaving, giddy, lost in the lilting playfulness, the melancholic discord, the hope crushed in the notes, then recovered, you’re never sure where it will go, just let it go where it wants to go. Let it lull you, let the sarabande act as the wandering improvisation to your complicated problem. You are not a murderer. You aren’t even the tempestuous Beethoven. You are Bach. A lover, did you forget? Bach singing in rounds with his siblings. Tension. The release. Your husband’s scrubs. Strip them off tonight. Let him coil your vessels for a change. Let love revive you on the king-sized mattress in the dark like a patient close to stroking out. And look behind you. Your beautiful children and their impossibly blond mops of hair! Your love for them is the lightning inside Glenn Gould, isn’t it? That over time became a simmering contentedness. A trill here and a trill there. You can be Goldberg’s fingers in the middle of the night! Bach’s student, chosen to cheer up Count Kaiserling of Saxony in his insomnia for months on end. You can be Kaiserling, finally giving himself over to sleep, to himself. Anger extinguished, merging onto the highway. Consonance and dissonance. Unrest and expectation. The self responds to itself. Trees and ferns and rotted tree stumps whiz by outside, unfurling, regenerating, despite all odds. Our morning routine, my life. A complete crapshoot disaster I corset in with sheer willpower and crushing responsibility, burdened love, then actual love, the variation. It’s not your husband’s absence, I tell myself. It’s your own absence within yourself. You’ve forgotten to improvise, to let life be as open-ended as this song, a continuation, a sequence, a freeform piece of art that might one day lead to something, or it just might be an exercise, an aria. Thirty of them strung together and repeated over and over, worth more than the golden goblet filled with coins that Goldberg was given as a thank you for his music. Yes, fill yourself up with Louis d’or, sprinkle them over your head and keep playing, just keep playing, keep experimenting with the bassline. In the depth of the car cave and the piano pleading with me, I accept for today how flawed I am, this warm-blooded animal-woman in the rearview mirror. Maybe every day is just an exercise for the next day. Maybe life is a lifetime of arias, floating in the air and around the next corner.

Cassie Burkhardt is a poet and Master Class student with Phil Schultz at the Writers Studio, based in New York. Her publications can be found in Rattle, Sad Girls, Cleaver, and The Good Life Review. She lives outside Philadelphia.

Appears In

Issue 17

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