Chapter 11: The Gramophone
Clara: -October 1906-
“Clara it’s so nice to spend time with you,” Emma said, much to my surprise. If I was being honest with myself, it was nice to spend time with her too. The October weather produced a gentle breeze that caused Emma’s curls to frame her delicate young face. But I felt my hair blowing around my face, sticking to the corners of my mouth and releasing itself from my loose braid. Emma reached to my cheeks and pulled the hair from it, tucking it securely behind my ears. She took a bite of her apple and chewed loudly, smacking her lips with each bite. We sat together silently, enjoying the fresh fruit and cool breeze. It had been a long time since we’d enjoyed each other’s company, and I blamed myself entirely for it. For some reason, Emma seemed to enjoy my company and I felt like a snob for avoiding hers. I felt as though I could close my eyes and fall asleep until Emma shouted. I looked in the direction she was pointing and saw our horses running wild in the field.
“Are those our horses?” she asked.
Before I could answer she was running off the porch into the field. I yelled for her to stop but the horse’s hooves struck loudly against the soil and she didn’t hear me. She ran to the field with incredible speed, losing the ribbons in her hair. I chased after her, but the field was wet and marshy and my shoes sunk into the ground with each step. I felt the water flood into my shoes and thick mud pooled to my ankles. I struggled to pull my feet out of the thick layer of mud and I noticed Emma struggling as well. The horses circled us and as she tried to pull her feet out of the moist soil she fell sideways. As she pulled herself up, one of the horses trampled on top of her, pushing her body back down. I screamed, pulling my body from the earth and sluggishly moving toward her. The horses also grappled to move through the wet field and their pace slowed, causing the small stampede to cease. Emma was unresponsive to my touch and I yelled for my father, desperate and unsure what to do. It took mere moments for him to appear alongside my brothers. They slogged through the mud and pulled Emma up, carrying her frail, limp body to the house without asking questions. I slowly walked to the house but my father ran back out screaming at me, inquiring as to what had happened. Before words fell from my mouth he hollered loudly at me and I froze in place at what he said.
“And you’re to blame, Clara! God knows if my little girl is alive, and you were responsible for her!” He turned on his heel and walked back to the house without looking back. I immediately forgot everything else he said. I collapsed onto the grass, alone in the field, suppressing tears until I saw the doctor rush to the house on a horse. I glanced around me, noticing that our horses were grazing peacefully in the field, their moment of fright passed. I followed far behind the doctor, peaking in the house, trailing mud onto the floor.
“She’s got a broken arm. The thing to worry about is her concussion. She will heal, but it will take time.” His voice was filled with confidence. As they discussed treatments I rushed upstairs to the safe confines of my room. I changed into dry clothes and lay down in bed, pulling the blankets over me to cover my entire body. I laid silently, fearful that someone would walk into my room. No one did.
It took everything in me to leave my bedroom and creep downstairs. But there she was, sitting at the table drinking tea. The bright sun crept in through the window behind her and irradiated her blonde hair. Her eyes smiled at me and I ran to her, surrounding her with my arms in a long hug.
“Oh, Clara this is dreadful,” she said, moving her brace. “And this is ugly,” she said, touching her plain dress with her free hand. I internally laughed at her dramatics, but I was genuinely happy to see her awake and healthy. Her mind was right, and that was the most important thing.
“I was petrified,” I confessed, taking one of her curls between my fingers. I sat beside her and listened.
“I am just happy that you were not hurt as well! How stupid was I, running into that field? I didn’t realize how dangerous it was, and I am sorry Clara. I just wanted to see what the horses were on about. I didn’t think I’d get stuck!”
My contentment was ruined when I heard my father’s voice from the other room. “I don’t know Renée! But if Clara had shown even a hint of responsibility then this wouldn’t have happened!” I felt Emma’s eyes land on me. My stomach tangled, and without looking at my sister I walked through the front door. Without control of my feet, they guided me to the tree near the coolie. It was unfair of me to leave Emma then, and I knew that she did not blame me for the accident. I blamed myself, and my father’s incessant hollering about it did not make me feel the slightest bit better. I curled up in a ball beside the tree, hoping more than anything that I’d fall asleep.
When my eyes finally opened the sun was crawling slowly behind the horizon, and the stars revealed themselves through the coming night sky. I watched the orange and yellow hues sink lower and lower until I saw nothing but black and blue, mixed with purple swirls and white specks. I was nearly ready to return to the house when I heard my brothers’ voices. I moved lower into the brush to avoid them, but their words caught my attention.
“She’s always been jealous of Emma.” I heard Harvey say.
“That’s not kind Harvey,” Benjamin intercepted. “Though I wouldn’t blame her. Emma is much more enjoyable to be around. Clara is so gloomy. She might as well be a ghost. And she’s so unkind to mama, ” Ben replied with a disappointed sigh.
“Maybe Clara pushed her into the mud,” Harvey said with a giggle.
“I am sure she didn’t mean any harm, but she should’ve been more responsible,” Benjamin said in agreement. “Didn’t they see the horses? Women are so daft sometimes.”
Harvey scoffed. “Where is she? She knows we have dinner at this time. She’s so inconsiderate.”
“Maybe she ran away!” Harvey continued laughing, and she wondered if they would care if she had run away. Their discussion dissolved into another topic as they gave up their search. I crouched in the brush, eager to remain hidden. I had never heard my brothers speak of me that way. I shrunk deeper into the lush bushes as I considered the fact that, as hard as their words were, they were right. I was gloomy, and I was envious of Emma. My sensitive feelings got the better of me, and I felt the familiar sting of fresh tears brimming behind my eyes. Holding them back, my sadness turned to anger as I remembered their comment about pushing Emma into the mud. Did they think I was capable of that? I would protect any of them with my life, despite how shy and gloomy I was.
Indignant, I trailed far behind them and watched as they entered the house, laughter still escaping them. I opened the doorway and immediately wished I hadn’t. My parents were still quarreling about me. As I listened, I was astonished to realize that the only person other than Emma that supported me was my mother. Before anyone could stand or say a word I rushed upstairs to my room without dinner. I slammed my door and covered myself with blankets, watching only the flame from my lantern flicker gently through the fabric. I heard a faint knocking and without asking who it was, asked them politely to go away. The knocking ceased, and I felt a glister of remorse at my behavior, as the person who knocked was likely Emma or my mother. I sank into my sheets and closed my eyes, re-imagining my brother’s words. I really did push everybody away.
I didn’t know how much time passed before I blew out the lantern’s flame in emotional defeat. My isolation and wounded pride prodded at me, and it took all of my strength to lift myself from my bed. Sleep was useless. The moon peeked through my large window, and the house was quiet. Taking the trunk from beneath my bed, I searched through my grandmother’s belongings and found another diary and I flipped to the first entry.
We have spent a very relaxing day inside of the hotel, and I can see the people walking down the streets in their long gowns and large umbrellas. If only they knew the horrors of Louisiana heat. I am beginning to miss home, but we have so many exciting plans ahead of us. New York is so beautiful! It is quite cold, but the snow is finally beginning to melt. I love New York just as much as I thought I would! This life could not be more perfect.
The entry stopped abruptly with a large pen scratch through the words. Unsigned and unfinished, I wondered what else my grandmother had planned to write that day. Why did she stop? It was then that I felt the room enclosing around my body, suffocating me. I set the diary back into the trunk and opened the window to let the cool air hit my face. My body no longer my own, I lifted my dress and stretched my legs over the side of the window. I landed safely on the balcony, making as little sound as possible. With no destination in mind, I climbed the gutter to the ground and ran. I ran as fast as I could, eager to remove myself from the colossal house where I felt betrayed and isolated from my family. Without concern for the consequences of getting caught sneaking out, I ran into the darkness with only the moonlight to guide my path. To the Live Oak.
I didn’t know how long I ran before I stopped, gasping for air, my heart pounding through my chest. Then, I saw Ezra’s house. I knew I shouldn’t have but I walked to it, slowly catching my breath as I approached. Without knowing the time, I nearly turned around to leave but I was overcome with a sense of comfort and belonging. I peeked through the large front window and saw the glimmering flame in the lantern near his chair. Just as he was the first night that I was in his house, he was seated in the large chair in the corner reading. I watched him and felt my pulse increase as I did. My hand reached to the glass and rested on it. He sensed the movement and his eyes rose from the pages of his book. He set it down and his eyebrows rose in unison at the sight of me. He quickly stood and walked to the window, placing his hand on mine with only the thick window pane separating our touch. The darkness changed his vibrant blue eyes into dark sapphires. I stared at them through the glass until he moved and opened the door. He stood in the doorway and stared in awe at my unsuspected presence. I walked up to him and finally lost control of my tears. I cried and he wrapped his arms around me, filling me with the comfort I craved. He held me for what felt like hours before closing the door, welcoming me into the dimly lit house. I took several long, deep breaths before he released me from his grasp. I looked at him, becoming increasingly embarrassed. I wiped my face on my sleeve like a dirty child.
“Where is your mother?” I asked.
“She’s next door watching the children,” he whispered. His voice was raspy as if I’d woken him up from near sleep. He took my hand and led me to the sofa. The last time my body touched the couch I spent as little amount of time on it as possible, but this time I let myself sink into the furniture, happy that it was not in my own house. He eyed me curiously.
“I’m sorry for this intrusion,” I said.
Their house was small and cozy and it felt homely. He shook his head at my apology. We sat in silence, as the awkward tension grew between us.
Why did I come here uninvited? I scolded.
I distracted myself from his eyes and noticed a small gramophone in the far corner of the room near the entrance to the guest room. I stood and walked toward it, acknowledging his gaze on me the entire time.
“Is this new?” I asked, running my fingers along the golden horn. I was desperate to divert him from my violently emotional outburst. He walked over and touched the nameplate.
“Yes. It was my mother’s birthday a few weeks ago. I wanted to give her something nice with my new income.” His eyes smiled with pride as he said it. “Care to listen?” he asked. I nodded in response. I was astonished that he had welcomed me into his home without questioning me at all. He shuffled through the records.
“There we go,” he said, setting the needle onto the record’s grooves.
He turned it on and soft music filled the room. It was a quick, fast-paced waltz and my body involuntarily swayed as I listened. I couldn’t remember the last time I danced to music, and the gramophone in our parlor had not been used in years. I wasn’t allowed to touch it, even at twenty years old. He set his hand in mine and pulled me closer to him. I could have pulled away or told him to let go but I wanted to. Carefully, we moved throughout the small room, keeping close to avoid the furniture and other obstacles. His cheerful, smiling eyes stayed on mine, and all of the thoughts that took me to his house in the first place drifted away as we got lost in the dance. When the song ended we froze in place with our faces inches apart, and I hardly knew what to do, or how to move. I’d never been so close to a man in my entire life. I felt the heat of his body and my heart pounded through my chest, though I knew it was not from the dancing.
His voice was shaky and his breath was heavy but he managed to smile. It was entirely too late for tea but I nodded and followed him to the kitchen anyway. He prepared the tea, aware of my eyes on him. He smiled again, and I felt my cheeks turning pink. His constant smiling and those eyes were so distracting that I almost wished that he would turn around and stop looking at me. He handed me the cups and walked me to the sofa.
“What’s wrong Clara?” he bluntly asked. I wished he hadn’t, though I’d anticipated it. I spoke to him of Emma’s accident and the foul things that my brothers spoke of me, and he listened intently, refilling my cup several times. Small, insignificant tears fell and I was unsure if my eyes were too exhausted to cry harder or if I was suddenly happier in his presence. Perhaps both. He stared at me with sympathy on his face. He set his cup down and moved closer to me. His hand reached to my face and touched the smooth skin on my cheeks, wiping away the unwanted tears when they finally fell.
“I would choose your company over anyone else’s, Clara.”
Why? I didn’t ask.
I stared at him in disbelief as his hand caressed my cheek some more. I shouldn’t have, but I loved the feeling of his hands on my skin. I’d never let a boy, or a man for that matter, touch me in my entire life. I’d never had admirers, though we’d not attended enough social events for a boy to send a single glance at me. I set my cup down and tried to meet his hand with mine but it froze on the cup, my body suddenly frightened. He was confident, and it made me feel like a child. A child who was doing something wrong.
“I’m sorry,” he said, removing his hand from my face.
“No,” I argued, reaching my hand to take his, desperate for him not to leave. The gramophone’s music still played, and a quiet, melodic concerto somehow gave me the confidence to act on my feelings. It was then, for the first time that I touched his face. I had been wanting to for weeks but I was too nervous to make any advance on him, not to mention it would be inappropriate. But it didn’t matter, the whole situation was inappropriate. I didn’t care anymore. He closed his eyes at my touch as if it was the sweetest thing he’d ever felt. Never in my life had I affected someone in this way, and it pulled forward any confidence I possessed, and though it wasn’t much it was enough. I brought my mouth to his and felt his lips return my kiss. We kissed slowly at first, but they intensified and I felt my hands in his hair, and his arms wrapped around me like he never wanted to let me go. For a moment it felt like it wouldn’t end, as his tongue found mine and I lost every rational thought I ever had. I’d never been so intimate with anyone, but my body reacted, as any woman’s would. I was lost in a state of perpetual bliss and prayed it would not end.