The night I begin as an usher at Symphony Hall, I misdirect a patron who is looking for the restroom. “I’m so sorry. This is my first shift.”
The patron wears tall heels and casts her eyes upon me with a look of pity–only it is not for my incompetence.
“Oh, so you don’t know about the cellist?” her eyebrows lift in opposite directions like two bows, “I always get my seats right near him.” She makes a sweeping gesture as she points to the imaginary stage and his seat’s position therein.
“He’s sooo cute,” she says.
I have met the principal cellist, who is short and fresh-faced. Another plays flamboyantly and is highly-acclaimed. But I ascertain which cellist the patron means when I walk by his portrait on the gallery wall and my lungs heave and slowly settle.
Every face I meet seems to speak a word and sometimes it says “wrinkled” and sometimes it says “nose” but the cellist’s face yells at me: DIMPLES.
The ushers take turns standing in on the performances to ensure there is no illicit recording or other disturbance. I watch the cellist, the way his eyes shutter when he is commanding the bow across the strings.
When the cellist plays, I forget about myself for a few moments of the day. I am told that a “rest” in a musical composition is not simply the absence of sound but the presence of silence. In this way the depression that has refused to lift from my weary shoulders for the past several months takes a rest.
I used to teach college but we have moved across the country for my husband’s career. I cannot seem to secure a teaching job in our new city. So while I usher, I make myself a student of the symphony.
I read the symphony programs to try to build my classical acumen. German composer Robert Schumann, though his music bores me, is a compelling character. His mental illness, most likely bipolar disorder, eventually sentenced him to an asylum.
Even at the height of his career, his long melancholic spells hampered his ability to produce music, aggravated further by his belief that he was an inferior composer to his wife, Clara. Clara maintained a demanding schedule of concert tours in between bearing eight children.
Clara Schumann bore humans and great works of art. My childbearing years are over and I hope the same is not true for me of teaching. But how to begin again to compose anew when all I hear is the heavy base of depression?
Evening performances at Symphony Hall carry their own electricity. The patrons mingle loudly during intermission and dash back to their seats as the corridor lights flicker. I stand guard outside the tuning room to key in staff. One night the cellist abruptly bolts out of the tuning room.
“Sorry,” he says, for having bumped me with the door.
I would not mind if it happened again, if he burst through the door and rendered me the usher who was knocked out cold, with romantic finesse.
Ushers are downstairs people. We enter through the side stage door and we descend to the bowels of the building where a cinderblock maze leads to our locker room. We iron shirts and button vests and assemble in haste.
As I pass the musicians’ mailboxes in the basement, I always tap the cellist’s slot, as though I need to make sure he is still in the symphony’s employ. I am still an usher, he is still the cellist. I note, I tap, I pass. My daily refrain.
When I am not ushering, I work at a museum. Every day, I pass a screen toggling photos from past events there.
Today, for the first time my eyes settle on the cellist! The cellist, sitting there and wearing dimples and his signature pensive face, perhaps playing something somber…
“He followed me to my other job,” I laugh to my therapist who stares at me, bemused. I can sense she has a harsh word for me.
“What is the point of this?” she finally asks.
That’s just it. It’s pointless. He is not my husband, whom I adore and who seems so often disappointed by me. The cellist is the tropical fish in the tank in the waiting room of the dentist’s office. He is not my reason for being there, but he is nice to look upon while I await my treatment.
The Symphony will soon temporarily relocate to its summer home in western Massachusetts. I will not relocate but I sense my depression has begun to pack a small suitcase.
The spring symphony season is advertised on every billboard, every bench, and every trash barrel in town. The cellist is the face of the spring season, wearing a white tuxedo jacket and smiling for the applause.
Although he is rarely in the basement, I am about to pass the cellist and I summon the courage to make eye contact
before I tell him, “Hey! I just saw you on a trash can.”
He laughs and passes me by. I head toward the locker room for my last shift. I smile and I do not need to touch his mailbox.
Kendra Stanton Lee is a humanities professor in Boston. Her essays have appeared in Pangyrus, McSweeney’s, The Huffington Post, Slate.com and other publications.