Authors: Matthew Gallaway
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Coming of Age, #Literary, #General
HEY MET FOR
coffee the next day. “You know,” Richie remarked, “this is what normal people do when they first meet—have coffee, maybe go to a movie.”
“Their loss,” said Maria, who—despite her doubts—felt incapable of abandoning the more brazen personality she had cultivated the night before. “I don’t know about you, but I barely have time to breathe with all the shit they have me doing around here.”
“Too true.” Richie looked at his watch. “But since by my calculations we have at least twelve minutes together, you could at least fill me in on some of the basics.”
“Okay, I’ll start. I’m from Hartford. My father pushes paper for an insurance company, and my mother takes care of my three younger
brothers—I’m the oldest. Musically, I’m all about jazz—Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Mingus, Monk—but I like some orchestral stuff, too. Alexander Arutiunian is a hero.” He leaned back and sipped his coffee. “Okay, your turn.”
Maria felt her stomach flip, and she spoke slowly. “I’m a soprano. I’m not a fan of Judy Caswell. What else do you need to know?”
“Okay, my favorite singer is Inge Borkh, and Anna likes to think that if I can torture myself for the next twenty years, I might one day have a place in the dramatic repertory—”
“That’s an undertaking,” Richie said, with a mix of admiration and familiarity that pleased Maria.
“Everyone says you have to be at least forty to attempt it.”
“And what do you think?”
Maria sighed. “I’ll let you know when I’m forty.”
“Okay—what else besides singing?”
Maria swallowed nervously. She hated feeling so naked and vulnerable, despite the fact that this was exactly what she wanted to show him. “I was adopted—I grew up in a small town called Castle Shannon outside of Pittsburgh—I was an only child, but now I’m an orphan because both of my parents died a few years ago in a fire.”
“Wow—I didn’t know all of that. I’m sorry.”
The second he said this, Maria felt the nervous, stricken version of herself deliquesce, to the point where she couldn’t even imagine what she had to fear. “It’s okay,” she said and allowed him to hold her hand. “It was really hard at first, but Anna pretty much saved me. If there’s another place where—you know—‘life goes on’ more than it does here, I’d like to see it.”
“You’re even tougher than I thought,” he mused. “You’ll make a good diva.”
“Who’s stereotyping now?” She smiled.
“I am.” He stood up and blew her a kiss from his palm as he ran out, since he was already late for class.
, as she spent more time with Richie, she found that unveiling parts of herself—and her past—made her not only happier but also hopeful, and not just about their future but about her ability to find a sense of equilibrium, so that she no longer felt so consumed by her singing. It helped that he was equally dedicated to his trumpet—and to her ear, equally talented—so that she never felt guilty spending so many hours on her work, knowing he was doing the same.
One day she declared to Linda that she was in love, and to feel the words roll off her tongue made it seem true. That summer, after Linda went to London with a young artist program, Maria and Richie for the most part lived together; they spent nights huddled in her room—which thanks to Anna had an air conditioner—where their whispers and sighs mixed with the quiet hum of the fan. When they were alone, everything was perfect, and even with her dumb filing and photocopying job at the Met, she had more time with Richie than she could ever have imagined, particularly on evenings and weekends; it was—as they both noted repeatedly—like they were a married couple. They went on walks, and the city—hot and deserted, especially at night—was theirs, so that the streets were a stage and the buildings an audience. When they got home, they confessed their love with no embarrassment or reticence over and over until they fell asleep, dissolved into each other’s arms, and when they woke up, Maria reluctantly untangled herself, for she did not want to breathe air that did not smell of him, or taste anything but the salt of his skin.
She showed up to a few of her singing lessons woozy and underprepared. “I’m living underwater,” she admitted to Anna.
Anna did not seem displeased. “All the clichés about love are true, but that’s no reason not to give in,” she commented and suggested having a cup of tea instead of launching into their usual routine. “Even if it doesn’t last—and I make no judgment or prediction in that regard.”
Maria was annoyed by a fatalism she detected and an unstated assumption that the real purpose of the experience—like everything else—was to expand the emotional range of her voice. “Why does everything in my life have to be about singing?”
Anna placed a hand on Maria’s elbow. “My robin, of course I understand, and I suppose, at my age, one cannot help but feel a trace of jealousy, or at least nostalgia, to see the fresh bloom of love—”
“But what does age have to do with it? You could fall in love, too! What about the men you date? Aren’t any of them—”
“Yes, they sometimes serve a need.” Anna laughed but then grew contemplative. “Sometimes I think it would be nice to give in to a new love, but—and please don’t take this as an insult or an expectation that you should ever feel the same—love is transformative; it takes you to new places. But if you’re settled like I am, it’s not anywhere you want to go.”
“What if you don’t have a choice?”
“You train yourself, Maria, and with experience, you know what to expect. Life is not always a brand-new adventure. You meet a man and you recognize something familiar, even desirable, but you don’t give in to it. Love is exhausting—it gives you puffy eyes, which is less charming at my age than at yours. Of course there’s nothing of interest in life that is not also painful to some degree, and I would rather have less interest and less pain, if that makes sense.”
“It doesn’t feel painful to me,” Maria insisted.
“I know it doesn’t.” Anna moved toward the piano and played a few chords to indicate that the discussion was over.
NE AFTERNOON A
week before classes started, Maria and Richie were walking hand in hand down Central Park West when Maria noticed a man—nondescript, middle-aged, white, in a cheap polyester suit—looking askance at them.
“Is there a problem?” she demanded.
He turned around, hackles raised. “You tell me. Is there?”
“Not that I can see.”
“Stupid bitch,” the man muttered before walking away.
“You want to go fuck yourself?” Maria yelled as he stalked off in the opposite direction.
Richie pulled her along. “Maria, why do you let a stupid asshole like that bother you?”
“Because! Why does anyone have to make such a big fucking deal out of the fact that we’re holding hands? I thought this was New York City.”
“He was crazy! Making a scene doesn’t help anything.”
“So what if I was making a scene? Am I supposed to just take this shit lying down?”
“I appreciate where you’re coming from, but you’re not exactly the one with the problem complexion here,” Richie remarked.
Maria stopped walking. “What—do I embarrass you or something?”
being crazy,” Richie answered, exasperated. “Why are we fighting about this?”
“Maybe I should just ‘chill out’?” Maria added sarcastically.
“Maybe you should. I’m just saying that you might have a lot of things to be angry about, but being black isn’t one of them.”
Maria heard this and felt something crack inside her. She staggered
to a nearby bench and collapsed. She could not believe that she had been yelling at him, as if anything were his fault. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed, but even while she hugged him and begged his forgiveness, and he hugged her back and forgave what was barely a transgression, she felt something cold inside her and at that moment realized that the reason she could be icy and intimidating in the halls of Juilliard was that, more than fearing anyone or anything else, she was still afraid of herself.
MUNICH, 1865. Three days before the
premiere, Lucien went to meet Eduard at the train station, where he was scheduled to arrive from Vienna. They had not seen each other in several months, a period during which Lucien’s rehearsals had reached their highest peaks of despair and intensity, when his hours away from the theater had left him rarely inclined to do much but sleep. It had taken all of his energy just to write the most perfunctory letters, and though he knew Eduard had problems of his own—something about a new oversight committee for the opera house—he had felt too overwhelmed and incapacitated to bring himself to digest the details fully.
It was only when Eduard got off the train and scanned the platform that Lucien recognized in his haggard expression—the sleepless eyes and wan cheeks—a degree of suffering that mirrored or possibly exceeded his own and that he had not been able to appreciate before now; even more alarming, it occurred to him that the rift he had attributed to his own ennui was actually the result of two sides
pulling apart. For a moment he struggled to breathe, but when Eduard began to walk toward him with his efficient gait, Lucien felt a renewed tenderness and dedication; his affection, he realized, had only been hidden behind a thin veneer. Giddy with love and resolve, he shouted and waved—not caring if he made a scene—as he pushed through the crowd and caught Eduard’s attention.
“You’re finally here,” he said with genuine relief, as a porter loaded Eduard’s luggage onto a wagon, taking care to avoid the puddles that had not quite dried up after an earlier rainstorm. “I missed you.”
“Me, too,” Eduard replied as he discreetly brought Lucien’s finger to his lips and then noted his appreciation of the blue skies, slices of which could be seen through the arched canopy of the station. “It’s been raining for a week in Vienna.”
“Is everything all right—with the theater?” Lucien asked somewhat guiltily as they made their way through toward the carriage he had hired to take them back to the hotel.
“We’re making progress—or at least that’s what August keeps telling me,” Eduard responded, and if his tone was wry, he did not in any way seem to have detected—much less resented—Lucien’s failure to grasp the details.
“Well, I hope you’re not yelling at him,” Lucien chided. “Or at least not too much.”
“No—no, nothing like that.” Eduard laughed. “Anyway, I don’t want to talk about Vienna. We’ll have plenty of time for that later.” They were now in the carriage, which pulled ahead with a jerk. Eduard reached out to brace himself but then let his hand fall on Lucien’s thigh, where it rested with an enticing weight and familiarity. “So tell me”—he smiled—“are you ready to make history?”
HE NEXT DAY
Lucien was back at the train station, this time to meet his father, arriving from Paris. As he waited on the platform, he
thought about Eduard. Their night together had been perfect, a succession of desultory, dreamlike touches before a fathomless sleep. He had awoken sore and depleted but infinitely calmer as he focused on his impending performance, as if by giving every part of himself to an audience of one, he had expunged any lingering doubt about his ability to perform for thousands. Then at breakfast in the restaurant downstairs, while drinking his coffee, Eduard had most uncharacteristically dropped his cup, so that it shattered on the table. While the shards were quickly swept up by the staff and a new service put in place, Eduard had not eaten anything the rest of the meal, which he attributed to a lack of hunger but which Lucien suspected was a result of continued trembling in his hands.
“Do you want to bring something upstairs?” Lucien asked.
“You’re really not hungry? You didn’t eat very much last night at dinner, and then, well …” He paused, not wanting to draw undue attention to the coffee spill, which he was sure had embarrassed Eduard. “I don’t want you to starve in Munich,” he said more tenderly.
“Don’t worry—I’m just exhausted,” Eduard said as he caught his breath on the landing. “If I sleep for a few more hours—while you pick up your father—I’ll feel much better.”
“Is anything else bothering you?” Lucien asked.
Eduard’s face flushed red. “No—I told you,” he emphasized, causing Lucien to step back, unsure how to react. Before Lucien could respond, Eduard caught the sleeve of his coat. “I’m sorry,” he said, as he pulled him closer. “My mind is still in Vienna,” he continued softly, “but it’s nothing to worry about. I promise, if I can just rest for a bit, I’ll be much better this afternoon.”
Lucien did not press, and as soon as they arrived in their room, Eduard went directly to bed. “This is just what the doctor ordered,”
he declared and smiled weakly at Lucien, who felt reassured when he placed his hand on his lover’s forehead and felt no trace of fever.
UILLAUME’S TRAIN WAS
on time, and Lucien found him with no difficulty. After returning to the hotel—they were staying at the Kempinski, just behind the opera house—they were joined for lunch by Eduard, who to Lucien’s relief seemed perfectly at ease through the entire meal, showing no trace of the stricken character from the morning. As in the past, Eduard and Guillaume seemed to enjoy each other’s company, trading insights and opinions about their respective fields, with Guillaume displaying particular interest in the technological advances in architectural materials—new amalgamations of steel and glass and so forth—that allowed for the building of structures that would have been unthinkable a generation earlier, while Eduard was equally fascinated by Guillaume’s theories about vaccines and diseases.
After lunch, Eduard returned upstairs to work, while Lucien and his father decided to stroll the Maximilianstrasse. As per orders from King Ludwig, the grand boulevard was adorned for the
premiere with high banners in black and gold checkerboard that rippled in the bright June sun.
“It looks like a royal wedding,” Guillaume noted appreciatively. “Does it make you nervous?”