“I don’t like classical music,” she said. I don’t like classical music—such a trivial confession, such an innocuous remark. It would not be, she’d assumed, particularly controversial. And yet, of course, it was, according to the haughty academic who now sits beside her, who took the opinion as veritable heresy, and who duly arranged this uncomfortable outing to a—a—what? She checks the front of the program—a concerto. The sullen black letters glare at her accusatorially. A lump of panic is lodged in her throat, as if she is about to be examined on a subject she has never studied. She is unsure as to why she agreed to the proposal at all—the academic is nauseating and his company dull—and yet here they are, in this sarcophagal auditorium, waiting for the show to begin. She inhales. The air is moist and warm and bacterial, as if they are sitting inside a bloated stomach. Behind her, crowds of people filter through the entrances; she watches them bustle and fumble, diverge and disperse. The people are all the same, tweedsuited and puckermouthed, winestained and peanutgreased, clutching vinyl handbags and leather iPad cases. Their exposed elbows and bald heads glisten tenderly in the pink light, like crabmeat. She shudders. She hates it, all of it, the silent tyranny of the upper-middle classes, the tedium of this charade.
Beside her, the academic coughs slightly and settles into his chair, self-consciously shifting from one buttock to the other. He swallows, and she can hear the mucus in his throat. You’ll want to turn your phone off, he remarks, and embarks upon a rambling anecdote about a concerto he once attended in which one oblivious audience member did not turn their phone off and was forced to face the apparently disastrous consequences. She sighs and reaches into her pocket. Will they not have some sort of announcement about it at the start? she asks. The academic looks at her. I don’t think so, he says plainly. Then he turns away, smiling, all teeth and complacency. You’re going to love this, he says.
She suddenly realizes what this occasion is. It is not a date, as she first feared it might be misconstrued as. It is a debate. I don’t like classical music, she said, and now she is here to be proved wrong. The academic will demonstrate to her not just that classical music is enjoyable, but that it cannot be anything other than enjoyable, that she cannot not like it, that her position is simply incorrect. He will argue and he will win. She knows it already. He has the whole weight of history on his side, the incontestable authority of capital-A Art, the velvet-coated, gold-plated, alabaster-encrusted decadence of this entire institution. What does she have, comparatively? A subjective opinion—flimsy, slippery, inconsequential, like a sliver of soap. I don’t like classical music, she thinks desperately, but this crowd, this pulse, this matted fabric of bodies, seems to murmur: yes, you do. Yes you do.
The stomach heaves; the lights are dimmed. In this softened state, the audience becomes a single creature—faceless and nameless, blurred and shifting, inhaling and exhaling collectively. How comforting it would be to feel at home in this vast body, to know one’s role and to perform it, to intuit every unspoken rhythm and convention. But she can’t. She is not inside the crowd, but pressed up against it, unable to be enveloped. She pushes herself against this experience as if it is a door that will not open, certain that, were she able to reach the other side, there would be some great surprise waiting for her, some tremendous surge of emotion or belonging. And yet—and yet. She smiles at the academic. The smile tastes like the swing of a blunt axe. I don’t like classical music, she thinks. But the crowd, as the violins begin, whispers back to her: you’re wrong.
Well, says the academic, when it is over.
Well? she asks.
He stares at her. Wasn’t that incredible?
Yes, she replies. She studies the crowd, which has loosened in the sudden brightness and begun to disperse. Yes, it was.
She watches a woman of about her own age rise slowly and make her way towards an exit. The woman is wearing a leopard-print coat and smiling in a self-satisfied manner. Her hair is so black that it seems iridescent, like a beetle or an oil spill. She navigates the crowd with ease.
I went to a wonderful concerto on Friday, she imagines the woman telling her friends, her partner, her colleagues. How satisfying it would be, to become this woman, to speak with authority on such a subject, to reveal a casual appreciation for something so esteemed. To be able to sigh: Oh, it was incredible. To feel as though it was incredible. She flinches. The academic is still talking. The crowd ingests the beetle-haired woman.
The bodies around her stretch and jostle. She looks behind her, towards the exits, where smug faces peer and preen. They all look so pleased with themselves. Narcissists, she thinks. And, really, she herself is no better, because she wishes she had loved the concerto. Because then she could be someone who loves concertos, someone who could challenge the academic—be someone like the beetle-haired woman. Maybe it is impossible, she considers, struggling to free her jacket from the gap between seats, to separate the enjoyment of art from the enjoyment of the fact that one is enjoying art. She tugs down her skirt and absent-mindedly turns on her phone. Perhaps she has never been moved—really moved—by a work of art. Perhaps she has only been moved by the possibility of being moved.
The academic is still talking as they rise from their seats. I mean, that final crescendo—God, wasn’t that brilliant? It takes years—decades—to be able to play like that. Decades. My god. Were you watching his face? He looked as if he were about to transcend. Well, I would, too, if I could play like that. And those violins at the start—they were practically weeping.
Like a wound, she suggests.
The academic looks at her strangely. Shall we go to the bar? he asks.
She can feel his breath on her neck as they make their way down the long, arterial stairway. She knows that, later, he will try to kiss her. She knows that she will probably let him, and his tongue will taste like vinegar, and she will be able to feel the smirk in his mouth. Her own mouth will still hold the heavy metal of her blunt axe smile. He will awkwardly brush a few strands of hair from her face, then step backwards to regard her with satisfaction, as if she is a project he has just completed. I knew I’d be able to convince you, he’ll say.
Why weren’t you around yesterday evening? A friend will ask, two days later.
I was at a concerto, she’ll reply.
A concerto? The friend will wrinkle her nose. Was it any good?
Oh, she’ll sigh. She’ll dig her fingernails into her palm, so hard that the skin threatens to rupture. The back of her throat will taste metallic. Oh, she’ll sigh. It was just incredible.