Authors: Matthew Gallaway
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Coming of Age, #Literary, #General
She passed it back to Lawrence, who without being told seemed to understand her desire to hear this opera as if it were a hundred years earlier and they were releasing it into the Parisian night like a flock of white doves. He placed it back on the stand, opened to the middle of the second act, and began to play. As she shifted her gaze
between the written music and his hands, she suspected that he, too, was—or had been—a performer, a musician and possibly a singer, which made her want to hear his voice; it didn’t matter how unpolished or crude. She wondered if she might prompt him and hesitated, recognizing the incongruity of uttering a note in such a venue, never mind that her voice was in strict recovery. A day earlier, she never would have done it, but after her Isolde—or perhaps
of her Isolde—she no longer felt constrained. She saw herself after the show in her dressing room and knew that under the piles of roses and the fading roar of the audience, there had been the tiniest doubt, not about the quality of her performance but about the rest of her life, and how it could ever measure up. Now, to feel so exquisitely alive—so full of suspense, this far removed from the theater—made her grateful.
She made her entrance, barely marking the notes, after which—as if she had decreed it—Lawrence responded in turn. Enshrouded in the music, they marched forward as a virtual orchestra seemed to attach to his fingers. No longer concerned about the wear of her previous performance, or the impact on the one scheduled three days later, she sang—“
Lass mich sterben!
”—and he responded with equal force. She lost all sense of time beyond a dim awareness of the twilight slowly giving way to the dark. Their voices so clearly belonged to each other—“
Hehr erhabne Liebesnacht!
”—that it felt equally inevitable, however long after they stopped singing, but before they had exchanged a single word, to find herself in his arms, their actions scripted but uninhibited, like they had rehearsed this scene a thousand times, crossing into the vaunted territory of instinct that every singer craves as they tumbled and groped toward an equally foregone but necessary conclusion. She still heard music, slowly receding as they kissed, violently at first and then with more tenderness, as she gasped under his weight and gave in
to the desire to possess him—
—in the same way he possessed her.
, the room was black except for a rutilant glow around the windows, the last remnants of the dying sun. Lawrence gently pushed himself away from her, and they sat for a few seconds on opposite ends of a couch across from the piano. As she caught her breath and listened to him do the same, she tried to imagine how she would have reacted the previous day if someone had described this scene to her, which made her smile. “That was unexpected but wonderful,” she said as Lawrence lumbered across the room and switched on a torch lamp next to the piano; the light filled the space with shadows.
He turned toward her as he picked up his pants from the floor. “Magical music can sometimes lead to magical acts,
” she concurred and stood up to retrieve her own clothes. She went into a small bathroom, where she took a quick shower. As she dressed, she savored a sense of exhaustion that had escaped her earlier in the day and knew that the performance had finally ended; her Isolde was gone, or for now at least sated.
When she returned to the front, he offered her a package. “I thought you might like to spend some time with this,” he said, and she didn’t have to look inside to know it was the
manuscript. If it was an extravagant, improbable gesture, she appreciated that it resonated with the same spirit with which they had just sung to each other and made love in the back of his antiques store.
“Thank you.” She nodded, then winked at him. “And when should I return it?”
“Whenever you’d like,” he said, before alluding to a trip he was about to take to Europe—something he did every year for his business—that he expected to last almost three months.
“Three months!” she cried.
“Three months,” he repeated as he kissed her good-bye. “If I know anything about the opera, it will go by much quicker than you can imagine.”
As Anna rode back uptown, any disappointment she felt was allayed not only by the afternoon she had just spent but also by the prospect of looking forward to something beyond—and outside of—the impending performance run, which as Mr. Bing had confirmed was now hers. She felt happy; it had been a perfect day after a perfect night, and she did not want to be greedy. She considered the manuscript on her lap and absently contemplated the spinning galaxy of light—from the buildings and storefronts, the surrounding cars—splayed out across her in the backseat of the slowly moving cab.
PITTSBURGH, 1960. On September 13, two days after her birth in a hospital near Warren, Pennsylvania, an infant girl was brought home to Castle Shannon, a small town built on a former strip mine southwest of the city. The Sheehans lived in a split-level ranch on Hamish Road, which—like so many streets in Pittsburgh—began and ended at no particular point but could be found on the curve of a steep climb before quickly disappearing over the hill or winding into a ravine. John parked the car in the driveway to let Gina out so she could go in the front door instead of through the garage. Like her husband, Gina was on the short side, and despite years of trying to lose weight would never be described as thin. As much as she
regretted that, she was thankful for her long lashes and large, expressive eyes, which she had liked to think of as “doleful” ever since her seventh-grade boyfriend had learned the word in a poem. She was also proud of her mane of black hair—inherited from her Italian father—which was tied up in a white silk ribbon she had worn for the occasion because it matched the buttons of her powder blue dress.
She had met John at the same industrial-supply company where they still worked. John, after starting out in the warehouse, had recently been promoted “upstairs” into purchasing, while Gina was in accounts receivable. They had been married for almost three years with no luck getting pregnant—and not, as John was quick to point out, for lack of trying—before consulting doctors and, with all the tests inconclusive, deciding that adoption was the best option. Their priest had put them in touch with an order of Dominicans located about halfway to Erie, and just a week earlier they had finally received the call. Everything inside was already done, from the crib to the border of little yellow ducks John had stenciled over the pale green walls. “John, did you ever cut these back?” Gina called down to her husband as she walked up the sidewalk with the baby cradled in her arms. Though it was a small thing, she had dreamed about this day for a long time, and not once did her fantasy include a straggly yew blocking her entrance to the house.
Her mother, Bérénice—or Bea, since nobody could say anything but Bernice, which she hated—pushed open the screen door with one of her toothpick arms and beckoned with the other. “Quit harping, Gina—
—get in here!” Bea was originally from Bruges—where she had grown up speaking French before immigrating to the United States—and in the course of things had ended up in Pittsburgh with her husband, an Italian steelworker who had died a few years earlier. She had moved in with John and Gina to help with the baby (though Gina was also scaling back to three days at the office)
and because her old house in Baldwin—where Gina and her brothers were raised—had too many ghosts and memories for one woman to withstand.
Gina and Bea sat down on the couch to admire the new baby. John came in with diapers, extra blankets, and formula, which he put on the coffee table in order to marvel at the baby’s tiny fingers, which he held gently with his own. “So … Maria?” he asked as he moved his palm over her fuzzy head—she already had more hair than he did, he joked—and looked at his wife with eager eyes. Gina had become infatuated with the name Maria at the dentist’s a few months earlier—not long after they started the adoption process—when she’d seen an old
magazine with “Soprano Callas” on the cover, and she had proposed the name the second they received confirmation from the nuns. Even now she could remember reading about the “fat, lonely girl” who returned to Manhattan as “queen of the world’s opera.” Gina had stared at the cover for the better part of an hour, hypnotized by the glamorous dress, the Spanish-medallion earrings, and the unforgettable eyes, tawny and Mediterranean like her own and with quite a bit more shadow than she was used to wearing, but which she had subsequently started to mimic on her Saturday nights out with John.
She glanced up at her husband. “You still like it, right?”
“Yeah, sure.” John nodded at his wife and—since his mother-in-law had left for the kitchen—allowed his hand to travel up her neck to a sensitive spot behind her ear, which made her laugh. Although he had initially preferred Mary—after his Irish grandmother—he knew it had been smart to give in, because Gina’s smile made all the grief and hassle of the past two years seem worth it. He felt a familiar desire—there just the way it was supposed to be, nothing forced or scheduled about it—which also made him happy.
O CHRISTENED—AND OFFICIALLY
baptized the following weekend by Father Gregory—Maria Sheehan began life unremarkably except for the strength of her cries. “This one has four lungs, not two,” Bea noted one day with a mix of admiration and fatigue when Gina got home from work.
“She’s going to be an opera singer,” Gina replied.
” Bea shrugged as she lighted a cigarette. “
Gina had not been interested in opera growing up—it was too “old-world,” like her parents—but lately she could not get enough of it. Not long after seeing the Callas article, she bought an LP of arias and was shocked by how what had once struck her as so old-fashioned now seemed so vibrant and sensual, as if the music were caressing her. She and her mother had listened with tears running down their faces as they remembered Gina’s father, who liked to play Caruso while he canned vegetables in the basement of their old house. Hearing her mother sing along—somehow she knew all the words—reminded Gina of being young, when her skin used to tingle and itch because she craved something before actually getting it—on a birthday or Christmas—so that, for a few hours, she experienced a numb bliss that made her feel like the luckiest girl in the world.
Six months later, it was Bea who made another important discovery, on one of Gina’s workdays. Maria would not stop wailing, and all of the usual remedies—feeding, burping, changing her diaper, walking her, or setting her in front of the television—were fruitless until Bea plunked the screaming baby into her crib and went back to the living room to drown her out with a Callas record. As soon as the music came on, Maria stopped crying, only to resume with full force twenty minutes later, when the first side of the LP finished. If the baby could hear the record, she remained content, staring up with bright, limpid eyes.
“So is she
or is she
?” asked Bea, referring to the
traditional rivalry between the operatic powers, when Gina got home from work.
“I think she likes horrible music,” suggested John, who remained immune to the charms of La Callas, especially when the Pirates were on the radio.
“John, be quiet,” said Gina—whose authoritative demeanor was well-honed thanks to her accounts-receivable experience—before sending him into the kitchen to check on a chicken cacciatore her mother had put on the stove a few minutes earlier. She picked Maria up from her crib. “You see, she is going to be a singer.”
Oui, ma fille.
” Bérénice smiled. “
likes the opera very much.”
Spurred on by this discovery, Gina soon added to her record collection, and not just arias but thick boxes of LPs with complete versions of
La Bohème, Tosca
. These were a splurge, but she couldn’t resist, not only for Maria’s sake but also because they gave her such a voluptuous sense of fulfillment. She loved the way her pulse quickened when she walked into the record store downtown to ask the clerk his advice on what to buy; she felt as young and excited as a teenager but without the crippling insecurity. She and Bea played the records constantly: “
Qui s’en fout?
That we must hear again,” Bea liked to say as she dangled a toy in front of Maria with one hand while holding a cigarette and a magazine—and often a gin and Coke—in the other.
Though John was often perplexed to find himself on such a strange island, where his wife—on those days she stayed home—and mother-in-law were as likely to be laughing over some new facial expression of Maria’s as crying over the fact that she would never meet either of her grandfathers, he appreciated that his wife liked classical music. While he couldn’t resist an occasional quip, he understood that opera was one of those women’s things it was
better to keep his nose out of, plus he felt it gave him—or them, as a couple—a level of “class” that had been absent in his own family. Then, too—not that he was about to discuss this with anyone, even the guys at work—there was no question that Gina, whether because of the music, because of motherhood, or both, was becoming more adventurous, not just in how she made up her eyes and the fit of her dresses—which were somehow a little tighter in all the right places—but in the bedroom, where she now did things she had never done before, rendering him senseless for the duration, unable to do anything but mutter “Oh, jeez” over and over again.
“How did you learn how to do that?” he asked when it was over.
“Did you like it?”
“Couldn’t you tell?”
She pushed a strand of hair back from her round face. “Kiss me,” she demanded, and he did.
NE NIGHT, WHEN
Bea and the baby were already in bed, Gina was watching TV with John when she—or actually John, who was turning the dial—stumbled across a broadcast of
starring Callas, with Tito Gobbi as the evil Scarpia. It had been a tough day for Gina; Maria couldn’t keep anything down, and Bea had likewise been
trop malade et trop fatiguée
to help. Gina recognized the angry, luminous eyes on the screen and yelled at her husband to stop.