Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel Eileen is now available from Penguin Press here. “Window Treatments” was first published on Joyland in 2013.
The girl had an unusual talent. She could make noises with her mouth, like a door creaking open and slamming shut, or like an old man huffing up the stairs. When my back was turned she’d do it: the sound of breaking glass or something. Tall for her age, I thought. Why she wore such dirty white tennis shoes I couldn’t understand. You’d think a girl her age would opt for something prettier. Look down and you got pale freckled ankles cut off in dirty canvas, like she’d just crawled across a muddy lawn. Curly brown hair, silver braces with lime-green rubber bands, careful to tear the corner from her notebook and fold her gum inside before she started to tune.
She was a horrible violin student.
“Uh huh,” was her answer when I asked if she was happy with her progress.
“Amy, do you think Kabalevsky would be happy?”
I don’t think she opened the notebook at all between lessons to see what I wrote there: mostly what were meant to be inspirational comments on how much more she had to prove. “Watch your right wrist, don’t hold your breath, count,” was about all I could get through to her. She couldn’t take any real criticism; she’d just start yelling. And when she felt deeply offended she turned her back on me and kind of screeched and heaved like a panting tiger or something. What could I do? She just didn’t practice. Her fingering was sloppy, bowing careless, and she had no sense that a violin was any different from a tennis racquet, practically dropping it on the floor when she got tired, swinging the bow around, bouncing the horsehair off the mantle. Very disrespectful. The complete opposite of the boy.
I was pregnant then with Marylou and fixing up the house. I had so much energy. My husband said he’d prefer for me to wait to decorate, but I just couldn’t keep still. Every night at dinner we’d talk names—boys, girls. I knew it would be Marylou. We designated the room under the attic stairs as the nursery. It had high, small windows and this funny red carpet. I emptied the room of the boxes and bits of unsorted junk that had gotten piled up since the move. I pulled up the carpet myself, sweating and happy one afternoon while my husband was at work. It’s very empowering, you know, to take charge like that. To see the effect you’ve made so clearly. The floor underneath was of beautiful, honey-stained oak. It gave me a boost. And so I thought I could even preorder some blinds with blackout and insulated lining for the nursery. Get a leg up, in a sense. It was a very exciting time.
The woman from the store came the next day with her measuring tape and a little two-step ladder. “Are these windows ever going to open?” she asked me, shoving at the flakey-painted jam. Shifting planes of dust fell in the sunlight to my feet.
“I can’t imagine opening them,” I said. “It would mean stepping up on something. And we plan to get central air before the summer starts.”
“We offer a special on picture windows. We mount them from the inside so there’s very little labor involved, and we give you ten percent off your treatments on each new window.”
“What if there was a fire?” I asked.
“What about a fire.”
“I’m just thinking, if there was a fire, and the windows wouldn’t open, isn’t that dangerous?”
“If your house was on fire, you think you’d throw your baby out the window?”
It seemed ridiculous to go on talking.
She recorded the dimensions on her pad and brushed the dust off her sleeves. She was a rail-thin woman in a sharp-shouldered, dark cyan skirt suit. Flesh colored pantyhose. Hair a blond and fuzzy heap. Powder blue eye shadow. She looked down at my belly.
“Boy or girl,” she said.
I had these very sweet Korean students, two sisters and their cousin, who came with their grandmother every Tuesday evening. They always brought some special dish for me. Some little cookies or some small pot of soup or something. Very nice. The girls were always sitting quietly in the sunroom, watching one another in their lessons, very respectful, barely speaking, and they played everything perfectly, nodding, listening, very good girls.
Then came Amy. The father had prepaid for all the lessons for the whole term. I thought it was strange, of course, unusual. Amy and her brother had been students of Mrs. Van Buiren. But I didn’t question it. Students get passed on all the time. And I was new, and young. I was only twenty-six, imagine. The father drove them all the way from Braintree, Amy and the boy. And actually sometimes they just wouldn’t show up at all, and they wouldn’t call to let me know or apologize later. Just the next time the boy would explain. He was very dear, the boy. I remember once the baby kicked as he was turning pages on the stand and I gave a start, sort of, sitting in my chair. And he was very sweet and asked was I alright, and then I put his hand on my belly to feel Marylou kicking and he had a very dear little smile and said, “Thank you.”
Not that she wasn’t talented. Amy was very talented. And very smart. But whatever she was, the boy was twice more. And she was always saying, in front of me or whoever was around, “I’m gonna kill my brother,” and saying how much she hated him and what a brat he was. Like she was grinding her last tooth, just about to explode, on her last nerve. The sweetest boy I ever had as a student, that boy. The most intelligent little face. So loving and patient, even with her screaming at him from my front steps as he took his violin from the trunk of the car, “Hurry up you idiot I’m gonna kill you goddamnit,” and ringing the doorbell over and over like a fire alarm though the door was open and I was standing right there in front of her.
The father had a kind of wolfish look always. Sometimes he dropped them off and came back for them later. But usually he stayed and sat waiting in the living room and read the paper. Amy always had to have her lesson first. Afterwards I took the boy and Amy would empty her bag across the couch, use the piano bench like a desk for homework while she waited. Once she played chopsticks so loud I had to come out and start to shut the key lid so she’d pull her fingers away. Sometimes, when the father wasn’t in the room, she made the sound of a baby crying.
I tried to ignore her.
There was no telling what Amy was going to do. One time she said she’d prefer to wait outside while the boy had his lesson. It must have been below zero. The boy begged and begged at the door for half an hour until she came back in. That boy. He was always very polite to me, saying, “Hello how are you,” and wiping his feet on the mat, hanging his coat on the rack.
They were sixteen and fourteen then. Or thirteen and fifteen. It was 1980.
A Mexican boy, probably eighteen or so, came around looking for work one day. My husband hired him to clean out our gutters and things like that. He was very useful. We let him sleep in the garage. You could do that then, trust people. He was very polite. He helped me to paint the nursery, which we did one morning while my husband was at work. I felt like a real captain of industry or something. The paint was just a clean, bright white color, and we were sort of careless about the first coat, going very quickly to cover the old dingy ecru, and that was fun.
But after we finished the second coat on the main wall, it got too stuffy and foul in there to breathe.
“I’m going to faint,” I told the Mexican, putting down my roller.
He spoke something in Spanish and pointed up at the windows.
“No, they don’t open,” I shook my head. “We’re planning on central air,” I said and lost my vision and just lay down in the hallway on the floor and fell asleep.
I’m sure the father had everything to do with Amy being the way she was. That’s my idea. He was a handsome man, you know. A Greek. I think he was teaching the history of cinematography at Northeastern, or B.U. or someplace like that. Amy seemed to really love the father. They seemed always in the middle of something, the two of them. When Amy was with me having her lesson, the boy and the father sat quietly in the living room. And after the boy’s lesson, I’d look for Amy and her father in the living room and they’d be gone. Out in the car, talking, or off somewhere in the house. Once I found the father sitting on my bed and Amy very angry, yelling in the doorway to the bathroom, faucet running, eyes like monsters. Or the father would be leaning on the kitchen counter reading the paper and Amy would be off somewhere else, in the attic doing what I can’t imagine, or watching TV in the basement or something. The worst expressions on that girl’s face, you almost couldn’t take her seriously. She was made up of different stuff from her brother, completely. And she had something in her arm, like a live wire or something. I was always saying, “You rub your feet on the carpet, Amy, whenever I turn around.” Little crackles and sparks of white light every time I touched her elbow.
That father. I’m sure he was behind it all, of course. Amy was in love with him, I think.
One Saturday after the two children played a recital at the Conservatory, I remember, the father gave me a ride to Copley Square so I could take the train. He was very flirtatious with me, even with my big belly and all. I remember he asked about my husband and what he was like, and whether my big ambition was to be a wife and mother—nevermind that I was a musician myself, not considering that I’d had a career as a musician all by myself, you know, and that I was a teacher—and he said, “You’re a very beautiful woman,” just like that, in front of the children and everything, as though this was going to really cheer me, you know, as though he were my hero. And Amy was very mad. I remember the look she gave me when I got out of the car. Pure hatred, absolutely. After that, Amy and I were not so friendly. She was not so friendly. She would slouch through her lessons, huffing and puffing whenever I stopped her, rolling her eyes at me, making a disgusted face whenever I made a move to correct her posture or whatnot. The sound she made then was of a mooing cow. Then a cat in heat.
With the Mexican at our disposal, my husband and I decided to have him repaint the front foyer and the staircase and the second floor halls. I stopped to pick out the color for the walls on my way home from the hospital one morning. I went to a place recommended by one of my students’ mothers. The saleslady told me to sit down and handed me a heavy binder full of laminated cutouts from magazines—pictures of other people’s homes.
“Pick the one that you like, and we’ll see what we can do,” she told me. She had the implausible determination of a car salesman. She wore a short-sleeved, rumpled fuchsia tunic, flat black shoes. Her hair was dark and big and unintelligible.
In the front of the binder was a sort of cipher for decoding your personality by color. It seemed ridiculous. Black meant I was dramatic and sophisticated. Blue, thoughtful and serene. I looked around: rainbows of metallic chintz and gold-hardware-patterned tapestry. I didn’t understand. I saw a little display with paint color samples. I heaved the binder onto the coffee table and started to get up, with some difficulty. The saleslady rushed over and took me by the shoulders, settling me back down in the armchair.
“You’ve chosen, so quickly?” she asked, smiling, magenta. Her perfume caked into my lungs like exhaust. She held up the cipher and circled her sharp, pink, enameled fingernail at the colors and the words. “Which one?”
“I know I am passionate and spiritual, but I’m also energetic and optimistic.”
“Purple and yellow?”
“According to the chart.”
“Does that sound attractive to you? That combination?”
“I don’t think my husband would like it,” I confessed.
“Wouldn’t it be rather hard,” she said, amused, “to be both passionate and optimistic? Wouldn’t that make life hard? Both at the same time?”
It made me think. The perfume in the air took on a taste of bile and mushroom omelet. I had vomited in my lap. The woman stood, stooped to my eye-level with the cipher, unfazed.
Easter came and went. I remember there was a very unusual tropical storm that weekend. Mr. Sifakis had invited me to play at the Orthodox Church on Common Street in Braintree. I took the bus to Braintree because my husband was working. Imagine it, I was always taking the bus then, even when I was so pregnant. I had so much life in me, I felt I could do anything. Unbelievable. And it was at this concert that I met Amy’s mother, by complete surprise. It was the only time I ever saw her.
This mother, apparently, was going in and out of hospitals. I played Bach Double Concerto in D minor for two violins. Me and Gisela Shwartz. The mother came up to me with the children holding her hands, leading her, after the recital. She had blondish hair, and she looked a bit fat—the kind of fat you get from drinking, swollen-looking. She had very nice clothes, very nice shoes, I remember. Very beautiful cream-colored leather shoes.
The next fall I went to Amherst to meet Mr. Suzuki where he was giving a conference and so I stayed a few nights away from Marylou, who was about five months old then. A very sweet Portuguese lady stayed and took care of her. She didn’t speak English but she did speak French, she said, because her father had been in the army or something and so we spoke French together. I called her from Amherst and asked her to hold the phone so I could hear Marylou breathing and moving around. It was very nerve-wracking for me to be away. I must have called every hour.
I remember this all so well because of what happened soon after. I was staying at the home of my friend who is a painter and teaches at the university. It was my first vacation in five months, you can imagine. I had some wine for the first time in over a year, and my friend played a jazz record.
When I got back the Portuguese lady had a message for me from the boy. All she said was that a boy called late the night I left and said something she didn’t understand.
Around this time Amy was preparing to audition for the district orchestra. I had given her the easiest Beethoven sonata. The father all of a sudden had her showing up twice, three times a week for extra lessons. She was absolutely not up to districts. I wanted to tell them, “Don’t waste your time,” but what could I do? The boy showed up from time to time looking very disturbed. When he walked in, I asked what was wrong.
“Oh nothing, I just got thrown rocks at for carrying around my violin today at school. And on the bus.”
When it was time for his lesson, and Amy and the father were waiting, we supposed, in the living room, he told me what was going on. He didn’t say what exactly, but he said he was very worried about Amy, and that there was always fighting in the house, and that he couldn’t sleep. He said he was made to wait for hours on the porch until someone came to open the door. His own house, imagine that, and that he’d ran away a few times and the father had called the police to find him, saying that the boy had stolen money from him and stolen the violin from him, saying the violin didn’t belong to the boy, in fact, it belonged to the father.
I gave him a dollar. The train then was forty cents. I told him, “Next time come here. You can sleep here.”
My husband was having his boss over for dinner. I put an order in with the butcher, and had everything set. But the curtains in the dining room were stained from an old leak in the ceiling. I went to a fabric store with Marylou in her carriage and looked through what I could get made into drapes. I thought I’d gather up some fabric in a round pile of folds at the top of each window and then let the sides hang straight down. When I described it to the woman at the store she called it “swag and jabots.” Maybe I’d tie back the sides with colored rope. I looked around the trimmings section. There was some pretty jonquil-colored ribbon there I liked. Marylou pointed at all the colors and I named them as we browsed. In the end I chose a burgundy and black floral print damask and ruby-studded cording for the trim. I dropped the fabric at the tailors and went home.
Amy and her father were waiting on the front steps asking for a lesson. It was the middle of the morning. The child should have been in school.
When Amy auditioned for districts, I gave her this three-quarter size Italian violin to play on. Hers was just a cheap factory instrument. I thought, at the very least she can play on a real violin. Suddenly, I guess, I wanted her to do well. I didn’t want her to get upset. I was afraid of what she’d do. The boy was there. We talked quietly while the father listened at the door to Amy’s audition. I gave the boy the spare key to my house.
After the audition Amy came out, all smiling and very proud.
“Amy,” I said. “I need the violin back now.”
I remember she looked at her father and tried to speak, and then she squeezed her eyes shut very tight.
“We’re so proud of you, Amy,” I said next. I touched her on the shoulder and got a shock. There was power going through that girl. Electricity. I’m sure she didn’t know what to do with it.
So I took the violin and the father nodded and told me to leave, and so I did. And when I got home Mr. Churchill was calling, saying that the father had come to complain about me, saying that I’d caused Amy such great aggravation.
“I see the child very rarely,” I told Mr. Churchill. “I even notified the chairman of her absences,” which was true. “She’s troubled,” I told him. I didn’t know how much more to say.
And the next day, Amy was missing. She’d told her father that she was going to the movies after school. He’d called the police, saying that the girl had been kidnapped, and of course I had a policeman at my door, a young guy, and as soon as I saw him I knew, it was Amy.
They found her hiding in a practice room in the Conservatory basement the next morning.
“Well,” she said at her next lesson, “I didn’t make districts.”
She took her chin from the rest and twisted her head around like a cobra.
“I guess I’m not going to be a famous violinist.”
That was her last lesson with me. My most famous student.
News of the shooting came as no surprise.
Nobody would say, “Amy wouldn’t hurt a fly.” The girl was so full of rage. She was always saying, “I’m gonna kill my brother,” and saying to the boy, “I’m gonna kill you.” Very clearly it was no accident, but of course no one wanted to believe it. They say she was just fooling around with a shotgun.
A mother is supposed to protect her children, I thought. It made me mad. Such a sweet, intelligent boy. I loved him. And Amy, too. Honestly I thought she was in an asylum all this time. I thought she would be in an asylum for life after shooting her brother. When I saw her in the news again last week I nearly laughed. Shoots six people in a faculty meeting then calmly calls her husband to come pick her up. She could have killed me, I realize. Me and Marylou. She’d do anything.
We saw her once, maybe three years ago, at the grocery store, in Pittsfield, of all places. We were shopping for a Fourth of July barbeque. Peter, my son-in-law, was playing in the Boston Pops that summer and I spent most of July up there, going to concerts at Tanglewood and helping Marylou fix up their house. On the way back from the store we decided to stop for a swim in the Housatonic. It was a beautiful summer day. We ate strawberries and lay out on the banks. The sky was so clear, and the sun glittered across the water and everything felt fine. And that’s when I got the idea for the shoji screens for Marylou’s bedroom and mounting them on tracks so they could glide away with just barely a touch of the hand so she’d have the view whenever she wanted. The sun, the moon, stars, the forest, the lake, day, night, whatever made her happy. Whatever she wanted to see.