Authors: Matthew Gallaway
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Coming of Age, #Literary, #General
This time her luck was better; from the start, the lead struggled with the role and after much gossip and speculation had finally canceled, which meant Anna was going on tonight and possibly for the entire run if she could deliver the type of performance the Met general manager, Rudolf Bing (having made a point of attending one of her cover rehearsals in the event of just this contingency), expected of her. Anna buried her scarf-wrapped chin deep into the neck of her fur coat and wrapped her arms around her bag, which held a carefully folded dress, shoes, and jewelry for the opening-night party scheduled for after the show. She walked forward into the wind, nimbly tracing a line through a group of men digging out with picks and shovels, and forced herself to review a mental list of exactly what she
needed to attend to—wig, costume, makeup, voice—and whom she needed to see at the theater—Mr. Bing, the maestro, the director, the Tristan—before her seven o’clock curtain.
Reaching the corner at Broadway, she stopped to catch her breath before she skipped off the curb toward a small island of pavement with a thought to hail a cab, but with her vision obscured by the heaps of snow, she managed to jump—and this she realized with a gasp as the ground rumbled beneath her—directly in front of a massive truck. If time did not entirely stop for Anna, it slowed, just as she had always expected it would in the final seconds before her death. With no chance to escape forward or back, and still clutching her change of clothes, she raised her face to the sky: her blue eyes turned opalescent in a last glimmer of winter light and she begged her parents to help from the afterlife, to arrange with whatever power was responsible for this senseless calamity to delay it a little longer; even half a day would suffice.
Whether as a result of this prayer or thanks to some deeper instinct, she felt something stir within her, something she had long trained herself to recognize but had never surrendered to with such abandon; possessed by her Isolde, she turned toward the truck and in the fraction of a second remaining unleashed her power: “
Wer wagt mich zu höhnen
[Who dares to mock me]?” she screamed, filling each note with the same vengeance that had marked her recent rehearsals. If no less aggrieved, she felt satisfied: the line had been delivered with a potent mix of force, indignation, and curiosity. Her mind grew quiet, even serene; any doubt about her ability to sing had been laid to rest. As she opened her eyes, the truck seemed to pass slowly through her, as if the sublime quality of her voice had momentarily turned her body to light.
She looked past the surrounding snowcapped peaks at the looming apartment buildings, which seemed to sway in the deepening
night, and as much as she longed to join this darkness and its promise of tranquillity, of belonging to nothing and everything all at once, she knew that it was not yet hers to take. She heard a thunderclap, and everything turned white. A moment later she found herself safely on the sidewalk, where she looked at the passing traffic and a few errant pedestrians, hunched over and seemingly concerned with nothing but managing their own treks through this temporary wilderness. Anna was not dead; time, she observed with gratitude and awe, had resumed its unsteady course. She placed a hand on a snowbank to confirm her return to a more familiar world, the same one—she remembered with a jolt—in which she was about to sing for thousands of other souls, each in its own way as desperate as her own.
NEW YORK CITY, 2001. Walking into Demoiselles, the French bistro on Fifty-fourth Street, Martin allowed his eyes to wander over the plush burgundy banquettes that curved into the distance and the folds of drapery that cascaded down from the caliginous heights. Though pleasantly full, the room was not overcrowded or frenetic, like so many newer restaurants, and he savored the quiet but insistent clink of silver and crystal above the hushed conversations. He spotted his friend Jay at the bar, clutching a glass of what he knew would be a Highlands single malt not less than twenty years old, undiluted by water or ice. They had known each other since boarding school, and though a year had passed since their last meeting, a
September birthday dinner was a tradition; Martin’s fell on the eleventh and Jay’s was the nineteenth: both were turning forty-one. They shook hands—a vestigial gesture of Martin’s past—before they embraced and returned to the bar. Martin ordered a drink and made a toast to their respective survival through four decades and a friendship that had endured more than half of this time, after which they spent a few minutes discussing Jay’s wife, a former opera singer who now sat on the board of Juilliard. Although Martin had grown up listening mostly to rock, in part thanks to Jay, he had become interested in opera, and he often wished that his job allowed him more time to attend performances.
“So bring me up to speed, Vallence,” Jay said as he pushed his wire-rimmed glasses to the bridge of his nose. “Seeing anyone I should know about?”
Martin shook his head. “Nothing serious—work is still too crazy.”
Jay responded with a bark that Martin recognized as a laugh. “Didn’t you say last year that you wanted to—and I quote—get a life?”
Martin smiled and patted his not insubstantial paunch. “I also wanted to lose some of this.” At over six feet tall, with an often goateed, bearded, or at least five-o’clock-shadowed face and barely an inch of skin not covered in fur—and as much as he liked to avoid labels and the illusory “communities” so often associated with them—there was no getting around the fact that he was a “bear,” and possibly even a “daddy bear” now that he was safely into his forties. “I’ll get there,” he promised, “but there’s a ton of work at the firm right now—Internet stuff—‘start-ups,’ ” he said, making the quotation marks sign with his fingers.
“Even after the vaunted ‘crash’?” said Jay—returning the quotations sign. He could afford to be glib, given that his grandfather had
left him enough to make finances a negligible concern. Martin nodded as Jay continued. “So job aside—what else? How’s the rest of your year been?”
“I can’t complain.” Martin shrugged.
Jay laughed. “You can to me!”
Martin reconsidered the question. “Okay, how about a few nagging problems on the health front I could live without?”
Jay grimaced. “Hello, life after forty.”
“Indeed,” Martin acknowledged before outlining a list of symptoms with which he had been bothered in the past year, including episodes of numbness in his hands and feet, maddeningly itchy armpits, an arthritic knee, and problems sleeping as a result of an unrelenting need to piss on some nights, particularly—and here he paused to signal the bartender for a second round—after drinking. “Sorry if that’s too much information before dinner.”
Jay brushed off the apology. “Christ, Vallence, we’re forty-one, not fourteen! Physical decline should be expected and embraced at our age, except by those of your jockish ilk, who try to perpetuate youth with tricks and mirrors.”
This was not exactly fair. Though Martin had started all four years in goal as a hockey player at Cornell—and had long enjoyed his athleticism and accompanying good health, a few extra pounds and his HIV-positive status notwithstanding—it was also true that, in keeping with a tradition of goalies, he had largely avoided the weight room and most forms of cardiovascular exercise, with the possible exception of having sex, which—as much as he tried not to think of it in such clinical terms—was probably the best thing he did for his heart with any regularity. Because Jay was more or less acquainted with all of this—except the more salacious details of his romantic escapades—Martin felt no need to defend himself on such terms.
Jay waited for the bartender to replace his tumbler. “So what does your doctor say?”
Martin shrugged. “No idea about the hands and feet—and as for the other stuff, about the best he could come up with was prostatitis.”
“Oh, that’s a good one,” Jay said, shaking his head. “Completely vague and incurable.”
“You have it, too?”
“Try not to sound so cheerful,” Jay remarked. “I was born with it—weak bladder, stabbing pains in your balls, insomnia—these things come and go.”
They were led to their table, where they considered the menu for a few minutes before Jay picked up the thread of the conversation. “Well, if health is the issue—and even if it’s not,” he said after they ordered, “my recommendation is to retire, as soon as possible.”
“Yeah, why not—you’ve been raking it in, right? How much do you really need?”
Martin pondered this idea. “Okay—as a man of letters, describe for me a typical day in the life of Jay Wellings.”
“Let’s see,” Jay mused. “Get up between nine thirty and ten, read the
, and—since I trust you—the
. Drink coffee, do the crossword puzzle—in the newspaper, incidentally, and
on the Internet—read some more, maybe even thumb through
so I can pretend to be interested in politics or foreign policy, meet someone for lunch—this could be you in the future—go to an exhibit or the theater. Watch Oprah or some other junk food once in a while. At night go to a show or the opera. Or more television. Or maybe one of those dinner parties Linda drags me to where I’m expected to make brash, unpredictable comments to the squeamish delight of the other guests.”
Martin smiled slyly. “You don’t sound too happy about it.”
“What’s happiness got to do with it?” Jay again barked. “You have to assume that existential malaise—which is not quite the same as boredom, incidentally—is a constant of modern life, and live accordingly.”
HEN A FEW
minutes later Jay left for the men’s room, Martin observed his friend’s slouching gait and was reminded of the day they met in boarding school, where they had been roommates beginning in tenth grade. He remembered the first time he had seen Jay, slumped on his bed against the wall, effectively two-dimensional as he sat reading a small yellow book, his hair short and parted on the side but still messy, like he hadn’t combed it in weeks. After an introduction limited to an exchange of first names and a handshake flimsy enough to make Martin feel relieved that his father—who would definitely have broken Jay’s fingers and made a joke about it—had already left, Martin stood stiffly, trying to think of the best way to proceed. He spotted a postcard-size photograph of what appeared to be a rock band taped to the wall. “Who’s that?”
“The Velvet Underground,” Jay muttered as he stood up and took a step toward his desk, on which sat an impressive stack of stereo components. When Martin didn’t immediately respond, he added: “You know—Lou Reed, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’?”
Martin nodded. He liked the song but wasn’t familiar with the Velvet Underground. “So who else do you like?”
“The Ramones,” Jay answered in what to Martin seemed like a needlessly abrasive tone. He knew that Jay was from New York, which made him wonder if everyone there spoke like this, or if he had done something beyond revealing his ignorance of the Velvet Underground to offend his new roommate. Jay picked up a record from a pile scattered on the floor, shook the LP out of the sleeve, and placed
it on the turntable, where after dusting it off he set down the needle with a finesse and a sure-handed authority that Martin could not help but admire. Jay turned to Martin. “You’re probably into disco.”
“Uh, no,” Martin said as he brushed a mass of black curls away from his eyes.
“Well, good for you.” Jay again seemed to sneer but then, to Martin’s pleasant surprise, in the next few seconds managed—after pulling out a small wooden box from his desk drawer—to produce and light a joint, which he offered to Martin with a friendly and almost apologetic shrug. As happy as Martin was to accept this apparent peace offering, as the Ramones kicked in, he was repulsed by the obnoxious simplicity of the music; the drummer could barely hold a beat, the bass and guitar players played the same two or three chords over and over, and worst of all, the singer didn’t so much as sing as half-croon and half-yelp his clipped lyrics. After returning the joint to Jay, Martin picked up the cover and stared at the four “freaks”—the term for “burnouts” in Pittsburgh, or at least in Cedar Village, the town where he had grown up—in ripped jeans, black-leather jackets, and bowl haircuts, wearing expressions ranging from completely vacant to somewhat defiant as they stood in front of a graffiti-covered concrete and brick wall. While Jay sat on his bed reading and smoking, Martin listened more carefully to the music as he reexamined the cover, and now—whether because he was a bit high or because he had gotten used to the sound—he noticed that one of the Ramones had his middle finger pushed out of his pants pocket as if giving him—i.e., the viewer—the finger, which made him laugh, and if the songs—e.g, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement,” “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”—were idiotic, they were pretty fucking funny in a way that his parents, for starters, never would have understood.
“So?” Jay asked after side two ended, less than thirty minutes after side one began. “Crap or not crap?”
Martin observed Jay’s wiry arms, which like those of any geek looked as if they would have been taxed holding anything heavier than a pair of dice, except there was something ungeekish about Jay that fascinated Martin. It was not only the music he liked and his obvious facility at getting high but also his thick, expensive-looking chinos—even though they were beyond wrinkled and had one ripped knee—and button-down oxford-cloth shirt, which unlike Martin’s was frayed around the collar and tucked into his pants in a few random spots. “I can’t decide if it’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” Martin managed with an almost bashful smile, “but right now let’s say it’s the best.”
OME TWENTY-FIVE YEARS
later at Demoiselles, as Martin watched the elongated flecks of chandelier in the curving silver handle of his butter knife, he tried to decide why the memory—as much as he would always love Jay and the Ramones—left him uneasy. He considered his vague if incessant dissatisfaction with work and thought about whether—questions of finances aside—he could ever really “retire,” as Jay had recommended. Cutting back on his hours would be one thing, but—as much as he understood the impulse—it seemed like an option better left in the realm of the hypothetical, at least without a more concrete reason. Health problems aside, he could see himself shrugging off the same idea a year from now and, to be fair, wasn’t horrified. As he saw Jay walking back to the table, he remembered something else from high school, which left him with none of the melancholy of the earlier memory. Again he heard music, although it was nothing he could place beyond an ethereal dissonance—a wash of distortion—and a slow, hypnotic beat that perfectly matched that of his pulse. He knew he was drunk but didn’t care; he felt limber and relaxed as he peered through the smudges on his wineglass and welcomed the forgotten scene. This time, it was a few days later and they
were at the window of their third-floor dorm room, flinging Martin’s Led Zeppelin LPs against the Dumpster outside, where each of the broken shards reflected a different fragment of the bright September sun.