by Chelsea Hanna Cohen
The first time I saw Selena, I could not stop a piano playing “Moonlight Sonata” from bursting from my throat, the arpeggiated triplets of the right hand and the deep chords of the left all at once. She was standing in our friend Ellen’s kitchen mixing herself a drink, and when the music began, she dropped the cup she was holding as she turned to me; I would later learn she had never met someone whose voice was music and not words. She listened until I cut myself off, embarrassed, and then she took my hand. “Six twenty-eight four-ninety-six,” she said. I paused, not knowing if what she had just said was a compliment, and Selena laughed at my confusion.
“Those are perfect numbers,” Ellen said from behind me. “Numbers that are equal to the sum of their proper divisors.” I turned to face her, still lost. Ellen rolled her eyes. “Perfect numbers. She thinks that was perfect. Charlotte, meet Selena. Selena, meet Charlotte.” Selena blushed and looked down, still holding my hand. I blushed, too. No one had ever said anything like that to me before. I didn’t know how to respond in her language, so instead I repeated her in mine, singing a chord on cellos, C and G, a perfect fifth. Ellen told her what I’d said, and the smile that spread across Selena’s face made me forget that we could not understand each other without translation.
• • •
It is at another of Ellen’s parties three years later that we meet the professor. We have seen versions of him before; Ellen collects intellectuals like stamps, and he fits every inch of the stereotype: the salt-and-pepper hair, the worn-at-the-elbows coat, the wire-frame glasses. I cue a sad trombone under my breath, a brassy womp-womp-womppp, and Selena lets out a string of thirteens, the number she finds most ridiculous.
It has taken years to develop our shorthand. In the beginning, Selena would spell things out for me: “twenty-five, five, nineteen” or “yes” — the twenty-fifth, fifth, and nineteenth letters of the alphabet. “Fourteen, fifteen” for “no.” Over time, we learned to shorten these — now “twenty-five” suffices for “yes,” “fourteen” for “no.” Selena uses “thirteen” most often while pointing at herself, whenever she knows she’s not being practical: when she tried to convince me we should drop everything and fly to Europe, spelling P-A-R-I-S, “sixteen, one, eighteen, nine, nineteen,” saying “thirteen” with her hand over her heart as I shook my head. It is mostly endearing, but sometimes I wish she would think through the reality.
Ellen brings the professor over to introduce him to us; he is Mark, we are Charlotte-who-speaks-in-music and Selena-who-speaks-in-math. “You’ll like him,” Ellen says to us, her eyes twinkling. “He teaches math. And speaks it.” Selena straightens; she runs her fingers through her hair absentmindedly, pulls it back as Ellen walks away. Mark shakes my hand and nods.
“Five,” he says politely, a simple greeting, nothing more. He turns to Selena. “A squared plus b squared equals c squared,” he says, and her eyes light up. I know it is the Pythagorean theorem, but I do not know what he is actually telling her, and I do not like the feeling.
“E equals mc squared,” Selena says back, and he laughs. Two of the most famous equations, and yet they mean nothing to me and I stand here, lost, as they go back and forth, rapid-fire. “Twelve,” Mark says to her finally, shyly, and a blush spreads over her face.
Twelve? I think, before Ellen comes back and ushers him away. I play Selena a C and a G more than an octave higher, an interval of twelve, asking her to explain to me what it means. She hesitates for just a moment too long before she shrugs. “Zero,” she says. Nothing. But the beat of her hesitation reverberates through me, and I know it means more than that.
We do not speak to him for the rest of the night, but sometimes when I turn back to Selena, I catch her eyes sliding from his direction, and the numbers they spoke to each other sit like acid in my stomach. Later, after she has gone to bed, I read through articles about twelve until I find it: sublime. A number with a perfect number of factors, whose factors add up to a perfect number. More than perfect. Perfection squared. I barely understand what it means, but I understand what makes Selena blush: romantic gestures, dreamy overtures. This is a mathematical love note that I have never been able to give her. I told her she was perfect, and he told her she was more. It is this that keeps me awake in the dark.
• • •
I love Selena, but this is my secret: Sometimes I lie in bed next to her and sing the quietest nocturnes under my breath, wondering what it would be like to have someone next to me who could harmonize with me, who speaks my language, who requires no transposition or calculations to understand. Next to me, is she dreaming about the same? About Mark, and how easy it is to understand him?
The season changes to summer and Ellen hosts a barbecue to celebrate. I hope Mark will not be there and yet he is, same salt-and-pepper hair, same worn-at-the-elbows coat, same wire-frame glasses. He greets both of us warmly, although I am sure his hand lingers on Selena’s for a grace note longer than it lingers on mine. I try not to let her out of my sight but of course this does not work. I come back from the bathroom to find Mark and Selena on the couch, speaking back and forth, her hands moving wildly to illustrate equations pouring from her mouth that I have never heard before. And unlike me, who cannot comprehend no matter how hard I try, he understands all of it. I see the light in her eyes that comes from not having to slow down, to explain. Selena looks up and sees me, and her hands drop into her lap; guilt steals over her face. I watch her shut back down. I watch her lock part of herself away from me, the part I wonder if she even realized she was hiding. And I feel it as surely as I can feel the bass from the stereo — I will lose her. I am losing her.
• • •
That night, when we crawl into bed, I run my hands over Selena’s body and analyze her responses. I hum into the side of her neck and she inhales. I emit a tango, sharp and seductive, and she stirs beneath my fingers. Are her reactions different than they usually are? Does she gasp when last week she moaned? Is her body reaching with the same urgency?
Later, after she has fallen asleep, I go to my computer in the living room. I type how to speak math into the search bar and get the same fifty results I have gotten every time I have tried to do this. I read through them again and again and I still cannot understand them. I close the windows and type how to hold on into the search bar. I type how to keep her from leaving. I type please don’t go. I type stay with me. I type I love you. I do not clear my search history.
• • •
Selena becomes more distracted; I have to repeat myself when I sing her simple songs, asking simple questions. Her phone buzzes more often; she picks it up, smiles, types, puts it back down. When I play her a curious chord, she says, “Six twelve eighty-six,” the birthday of Michelle, her best friend. Michelle does not like me. When she told us of her engagement, Selena’s response was a scream and an excited rush of “Forty-eight seventy-five one forty one ninety-five,” which I later learned was a set called betrothed numbers. My reaction was less enthusiastic; Michelle and her boyfriend had only been dating six months. To Selena, that didn’t matter: love was love. To me, it seemed impractical, but I learned not to mention that. Michelle is polite enough around me, but her tight-lipped smiles and bored expressions tell me all I need to know, and so I have mostly stopped going when she makes plans with us, telling Selena to go on without me and have fun.
I know Selena wishes Michelle and I were closer. In her mind, her girlfriend and her best friend should be friends themselves. Selena is sometimes disappointed with the way reality does not match up with what is in her head. Has she figured this out about me, that the reality of me cannot live up to her fantasy of the perfect partner? Her numbers for Michelle sound wrong, wavering from the timbre of how she usually says them. I want to press her on it, but I do not, too afraid of knowing for certain she is lying to me.
• • •
Ellen throws another party and I lay on the couch, bemoaning an upset stomach in clashing diminished chords. Selena wants to go without me, glancing at her phone, at the door, but I add another clashing layer because I know the dissonance will make her feel guilty. Reluctantly she sits next to me and holds my hand, but not before she disappears into the other room, to tell him, I’m sure, that she is not coming, in whatever string of numbers makes sense to him but not to me.
One night, Selena tells me she has plans, gives me Michelle’s birthday, and then leaves. But Michelle posts a Facebook status at 7:23: “Love having a night in with my BFF!” and a picture of her dog. When Selena comes home, I show her the picture. She points to the corner of the photo. “Twenty, eight, five, eighteen, five.” There. Selena was right over there, out of the range of the photo. It’s plausible. I do not believe her.
I watch Selena’s every move, analyze her every action. I weave her clues together like a blanket. If she puts her arms around me and kisses my forehead, it’s a clue that she loves me. If I reach for her and she pulls away, it’s a clue that she loves him. It all means something and yet none of it means anything. I grasp at her, trying to prove that she should stay. I cook her favorite dinners: lasagna with garlic bread, the meal I made for her before we slept together for the first time, a fact I remind her of over the salad and that we re-create after dinner. I send her flowers at work because I know she will love parading them around in front of her coworkers, even though the thought of it makes me shrink. Her romanticism contrasted with my pragmatism. I buy her two earrings, a 1 and a 3, so she can wear ridiculous jewelry for her ridiculous number. Desperation builds inside me, and each happy reaction is a reward that pushes it back down. And then a reminder will come, I will sense her distraction, and the desperation will flare.
• • •
Formulas come out of Selena’s mouth and they are wrong: negative b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus 4ac divided by 2b, she mumbles to herself while doing the crossword at breakfast one morning. Muttering equations absentmindedly is not unusual for her, but what is unusual is that it should be “2a” and not “2b,” and yet she does not even realize she has made a mistake. I correct her gently, two A’s above middle C, and she squeezes my hand across the table. “Ninety,” she says, the number of degrees in a right angle. Her hair falls into her eyes, but she doesn’t let go to fix it. In that moment I nearly have the courage to ask her if something is going on, lining up the right chords and instruments in my brain. I open my mouth to let the first one out. Her phone buzzes, she lets go of my hand, and the moment is gone.
• • •
Selena goes out with “Six twelve eighty-six” again, but I can sense that she is lying in the pitch of her voice, and I obsessively check Michelle’s social media for proof I can use to confront Selena later, something concrete she will not be able to explain away when I put it in front of her. I lie on the couch and watch the clock, minutes ticking by so slowly I could burst into a cacophony of cymbals, until I cannot stand it anymore. If Selena can do this, so can I.
I head upstairs and sort through the clothes in my closet, going for the ones in the back not in frequent rotation. I pull out a dress I have not worn in so long I had forgotten about it. Slit up the side, low-cut. I wore this dress on our third date and Selena could not keep her hands off me. She loved me in this dress, and yet I cannot remember the last time I wore it for her.
I curl my hair and do my makeup, piling on eyeliner so heavily I barely recognize myself in the mirror. If Selena came home now, she’d bark out one of her strings of thirteens at how little I look like I usually do. But I look good, I think, or at least some people will think I do, and a small fire kindles in my chest at the feeling that I have not entirely lost myself in the years we have been together.
I go out to a club I haven’t been to since my college days. It is too loud, too dark, too crowded. The independence is invigorating. No one knows where I am; if I disappeared at this very instant no one would know where I have been. I have not taken myself out once in our long years together, and there is something wonderful in the detachment, in not having to answer to Selena or to anyone else. I lose myself in the music and I start to dance.
When the woman sidles up next to me, I flinch at first, rebelling against the touch of a body that is not Selena’s. But then I think of Mark and his salt-and-pepper hair and Selena’s fingers threading through it, and I close my eyes and let myself brush up against her. At first I try pretending she is Selena, but that just makes me sad so I open my eyes and allow her to be herself instead. She pulls me close and trills a flute in my ear and I hear words — You are so beautiful. I melt against her, relieved at being able to understand someone without thinking. I sing cello back at her and she grins, responds with a viola. We go back and forth, rapid-fire. This is how it should be, I think. No translating. No thinking. No numbers and equations that hurt my brain. Just music shot directly into my bloodstream.
I murmur a song of seduction in her ear. She understands me precisely: she grabs my hand and leads me to the bathroom in the back, where we lock the door and fuck. Her hands are not Selena’s hands; her tongue is not Selena’s tongue. When I come, it is an orchestral wail, the instruments shrieking to fortissimo. And yet the undercurrent of a minor harmony cuts through the pleasure, the hurt Selena has caused me, the hurt I want to repay.
• • •
After, I carry my secret like a torch; it burns when I imagine what plans Selena is making for later, when I catch her smiling when she doesn’t think I’m looking. I let it fuel me, my anger on a simmer while I wait for the concrete evidence that she won’t be able to explain away. I now want the relief that comes with certainty, the pain of dealing with a fact rather than agonizing over what I do not know. I would rather know she is cheating on me than remain in this limbo where I must guess.
One night, Selena is out with “Michelle” even later than she usually is, and she comes home stumbling, laughing as she pulls off her heels on the front porch, bracing herself against the railing. She is counting, “One, seven, thirteen, nineteen,” and I know these numbers — happy numbers. She is happy. When I grab her elbow to steady her, she looks up at me and smiles that smile of hers, and my despair crescendoes into fury. I imagine Selena smiling that smile at Mark earlier that night, sliding into bed with empty bottles of wine on the counter. I help her into our bed. She reaches for me, pulls me close, kisses me deeply, pulls down my shirt. I kiss her back, furiously, then gently push her away, unable to meet her eyes.
Selena looks at me and whispers “less than three”: her way of saying “I love you.” The first time she said it to me, we’d been on the roof of our friend’s apartment building, huddled in the corner with a bottle of wine. Her hair had come loose from her ponytail, and with the night sky as a backdrop, I could have stayed there forever. She said it, “less than three,” and drew it in the dust on the ground, and I saw what it created. I sang a major second in response — my own version of what was less than three — and we had sex right there on the roof, not caring if anyone saw. Now, I both want to kiss her again and to never kiss her again, and this is what breaks me. I open my mouth and a tsunami of minor chords bursts forth: How can you say that after what you’ve been doing? they say. But I am not taking the time to slow myself for her, to say it in ways that she might be able to understand. This is my natural language, and the expression on Selena’s face shows she is completely lost. She reaches out to grab my hand. “Less than three,” she says again, more softly, and then she is asleep and I know she has not grasped my meaning. I think of the woman in the bathroom and how she would have understood me entirely. I cry myself to sleep when I am sure Selena is too unconscious to hear.
• • •
Ellen sends yet another invite to yet another party — this one promising something special. I put on my secret like armor over my dress, knowing Mark will be there, too. Selena has dressed up more than usual tonight, taken extra care with her makeup, and I cannot handle the thought of her preening for him. She locks her fingers with mine and I want to vomit. Her thoughts are only with him; she does not notice how miserable I am.
Selena rings the doorbell and Mark answers. A look passes between them and it says, There is a secret between us. He gives her a nod as she walks past him, then turns to shake my hand. I go inside without taking it. Selena does not turn back to notice.
In the kitchen, he pulls her aside, a concerned look on his face, a glance over at me. She shakes her head and smiles, putting a hand on his arm. Brief, but I see it, and Mark sees me watching and shakes Selena off. She turns her head and waves at me. No shame.
Later, after we are all drunk, after I have had a bottle of wine to myself, Ellen claps her hands and gathers everyone in the living room. Selena stands there, Mark behind her. She looks so happy, although maybe it’s the wine that makes me think that. Her cheeks glow, and her hair falls in loose curls around her shoulders. She clasps her hands in front of her and looks at Mark. “A special presentation!” Ellen announced, clearly in on the joke. The despair spills out of my fingertips, comes out my toes. How do they plan on hurting me now?
Selena says something to Mark, a low string of numbers under her breath, and I brace myself. He starts to speak, and —
I break in before he can utter the words that will break me. Mozart, Cosi fan tutte, the full orchestra comes from my throat. “Women are like that.” In the opera, two men are certain their fianceès will always be faithful. They are, of course, wrong. We saw the opera together on our first anniversary, and Selena listened to a recording on repeat for days. She will understand that, like the women in the opera, I have not been faithful. And she will know that I know that neither has she.
Her eyes widen; her hands cover her mouth. “Fourteen,” she says. “Fourteen, fourteen, fourteen.” No, no, no. Mark recognizes the music, too, I can see in his face that he understands exactly what I am saying. Behind me, the other guests buzz in confusion. I ignore them. More Mozart: the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute. Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart; the aria is famous for its rage, and as the orchestra that is my voice swells, I gesture back and forth between the two of them.
Selena looks from me to Mark then back to me, her mouth open. “Six twelve twenty-four twenty-eight,” she says. Friendly numbers. She is indicating the two of them are just friends, but we are too far past me believing that. I shake my head at her, the aria still pouring forth.
Mark turns to me, and “How could you do that?” spills from him in a clash of angry violins. I start to retort when it hits me: he spoke in music.
Selena’s mascara is running, and she wipes it away. Her eyes hit mine, and I can see my own fury reflected back at me. She is the dreamy one, the one who never raises her voice, and yet I know in that instant she will burn me down like I want to burn her.
Selena opens her mouth and I hear it: the opening to “Moonlight Sonata,” the haunting piano, and I am stunned into silence at hearing music come from her. She turns and glares at Mark; he falters, shakes his head, but she raises her chin and holds his gaze. The music I didn’t know he had tumbles out of his mouth, joining hers, the two of them working together. My anger has burned out; ice replaces the fire.
When Selena’s voice changes, cracking, I realize she is singing alone, a part I do not recognize. When I listen harder, I can hear her numbers on top of the sonata, and the combination is so beautiful there are tears in my eyes. Then I make out the numbers: Forty-eight. Seventy-five. One forty. One ninety-five. My brain scrambles; where have I heard these numbers before? Then it hits me. Michelle. Her engagement.
Selena reaches into her pocket, pulls out a ring box, and sets it on the table next to her.
I open my mouth, but nothing comes out as everything clicks. She wasn’t cheating with Mark; he was helping her plan this, her proposal. He was teaching her my language, my song, my voice. It is so, so like her to plan a gesture like this before we have even seriously discussed marriage at all, and it makes me love her both more and less at the same time.
Everyone else has gone silent but they do not turn away. I do not blame them. I would do the same.
Selena walks by me and out the door. Mark locks angry eyes with me. He cares for her, clearly, but as friends? As a lover? I was so sure and now I can no longer tell.
Why did neither of you ever mention you spoke music? I ask him, high, reedy, an oboe.
She didn’t want you to guess what she was planning, he replies. It never would have occurred to her not to trust you, he says in a mournful cello that begins alone and rises into a full orchestral lament, and all I want in that moment is to never hear music again. He follows her out the door. I stay.
• • •
I sleep in Ellen’s spare room that night, and the night after, and the night after. When I come home, finally, I do it during the day while Selena should be at work because I am a coward. But I find her there, putting her things into boxes, suitcases packed by the door. She looks up when she hears me come in. I freeze when our eyes meet.
We sit down across from each other at the table, silent for the first couple minutes. “You assumed the worst of me,” she spells out, slowly, and I nod. I did. “You should have spoken to me,” she continues. But shouldn’t she have done the same? Shouldn’t we have talked about marriage, asked if we were even ready? I ask her that very question in music, but I do not know how to translate it for her and she shakes her head. “Four eleven,” she says. She does not know what I have said. “I can’t be with someone who I can’t trust and who doesn’t trust me,” she spells, and in the time it takes her to get through all those numbers and for me to figure out what letters they correspond to, I already know we are done.
I leave, and when I come back a few hours later, the house is silent and dead. I run my fingers over the empty spaces where her things used to be, the white counter under the kitchen appliances, dusty spaces around the old imprints of books. Selena is in every nook and cranny and I will never get her out. I sit on the floor in our living room and sing to the walls, my voice echoing off what is no longer there. The song comes back to me like I know she won’t. I close my eyes and let it wash over me. It is just me and the music.
Copyright © 2020 by Chelsea Hanna Cohen