Part Two of Two
Claire and Sylvie hunched in the back seat behind their parents while Aldo tore through the crosstown traffic.
"Do you have to pass everyone?" Leah griped, clutching her purse with both hands.
"Actually, yes, I do. Never forget: He who hesitates is lost."
"How could I possibly forget? You say it every goddamn time you get behind a wheel." She sniffed and glanced out the window.
"Where does that come from, anyway, Daddy? The way you intone it, like it was in the Bible or something."
"Like-it-was? Honestly, Sylvie." Leah twisted around in her seat, not quite managing to catch her daughter's eye. "Since when did your grammar get so sloppy?"
"Shit, Mama, we could all go brain-dead in a second and you're razzing Sylvie about her grammar. What matters to you, anyway?"
Leah said nothing. If she sniffed or huffed, Claire couldn't hear it. She felt her own words ricochet back to her, strafing her ears. She glanced at her sister, who was leaning her head on her forearms against the back of their father's seat.
Aldo gunned the car through another intersection, yellow tipping into red before he reached the far side.
Claire watched the city roll by in a watery swath of color and light, the people on the street hurrying along as if they had a purpose. The car caromed around another curve.
She hadn't invited them, had she? No, her father had. Well, not precisely: he'd pressured her into having them over. If he'd just invited them, she would have refused.
Or, so she would plead to the court of appeal in her brain, if it ever came down to that.
Sylvie's voice broke into her thoughts, amplifying a polyphony their parents could not hear, a fugue that had been gathering depth and power ever since the sisters were old enough to speak.
"Claire, you didn't have to let him push you. Why didn't you just say you had things to do?"
Unlike her parents' penthouse on Riverside Drive, Claire's place on York Avenue harbored roaches, smelled of gas, and featured radiator coils under two of the windows. In fact, three meager windows on the south wall looked pitch black all day—a stroke of serendipity, it turned out, which almost made up for the air-shaft view. Claire had been meaning to label the middle one of these FRESH WIDOW, in homage to a favorite artist—not that she needed to, as her eyes took in that echo of Marcel Duchamp every time she burst through the front door.
Never mind. Her ceilings had the ornate moldings of an opera house, lit a few hours in the afternoon through two much larger windows that faced west onto the avenue. A breeze lifted the curtains made of unbleached muslin and for a few moments they glowed like sails of gold. The sun was setting through the rippled glass, and its last rays bisected their faces as Claire's family filed into her third-floor two-room walkup.
A pair of French doors divided the rooms. Claire kept them permanently open, thereby lending—or so she hoped—a loft-like feel to the apartment.
Her parents took their seats on a couch she had rescued from the street and covered in a piece of kente cloth she’d wrapped around its two cushions and tucked behind its bolstered back. The space, still small notwithstanding the open French doors, was dwarfed by the baby grand piano she’d just bought.
Claire served her family espresso and cognac—the coffee in demi-tasse cups an ex-boyfriend had brought her from Sicily, the cognac in brandy snifters a neighbor on the fourth floor had left with her before moving back to Australia.
Claire and Sylvie sat facing their parents on two ratty chairs, thrift-shop relics in a dark green satin once elegant and no doubt expensive.
She would have to pay off the piano loan before she could have them recovered.
She placed a tray of drinks on the coffee table between the couch, where her parents sat, and the two chairs opposite, where she and her sister sat facing them.
The tray was an old cutting board she found outside, took home, cleaned and oiled; the table had once been two cable spools and an abandoned door. The spools she'd rolled back to her building, one at a time, from a construction site a block away; the door she managed to carry on her head, balancing it with both hands as she picked her way down the shit-strewn sidewalk.
The super and his brother hauled everything up the stairs.
Once inside the apartment, she stripped the paint off the door, sanded it and stained it mahogany, then laid it flat across the two spools. She draped it with a scrap of coarse cotton she found at a flea market: blue and white tie-dye, Japanese, in random waves reminiscent of a sea.
All in all a beautiful piece! Or so she dared to think.
"Great coffee, honey, and such adorable cups," said her mother.
Claire watched Leah's eyes roam around the small space, unsure from her expression whether she liked what she saw, merely tolerated it, or took any interest at all. And yet Claire felt sure, watching her, that she shouldn't care what her mother thought of her apartment, her furniture, or any of her life choices, even as she was annoyed at herself for finding it so difficult to break the habit; simultaneously saddened to think of any woman, even Leah, having a daughter who paid a shrink (albeit on a sliding scale) to help her do precisely that—to free herself of that compulsion—behind her mother's back, no less. All so that she might become autonomous enough, all of her disparate impulses rounded up and tamed—"integrated" was the favored term—to be able to consider. . . what, exactly? To take what kind of action? Be prepared for—what?
The question smacked her in the head like one of those sticks Zen monks use to wake up meditators who've fallen asleep.
Aldo, who'd been peering into his cognac, began to scrutinize her sister.
“You look good, Sylvie.” He smirked and flustered up his face like a little boy holding flowers behind his back.
Sylvie gushed as if she were vamping in front of a whiz of cameras, then rolled her eyes.
“No, I mean really,” he said, coming back to himself. “I don’t know what it is about you—you have a real sense of—” His features twitched and darted as he groped for the right expression. “—yes! you have a certain je ne sais quoi.”
Sylvie sighed, looked up and smiled indulgently but briefly, as if she were posing for a different kind of photo. She peered at Claire, who’d leaned to her left to glance out the window at what sounded like a fight brewing just outside the bar across the street below.
“Ugh, where have I heard that before,” Sylvie muttered to her sister.
Claire turned to face her, eyebrows peaking as she gazed from Sylvie to their father and back.
“I love that skirt, Sylvie,” their mother said. “Where did you get it? Over there? In Paris? Oh God, I loved Paris so much. Al, why can’t we go back there one more time. I mean to live. They’re all dying to have you back at the Institute, you know that. How many times has Jean-Luc written you—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Aldo said. Things weren’t dangerous yet: he patted his wife’s knee, let his gesture expand across her thigh. Leah was wearing a beige linen dress and heels, half-moons of sweat spreading under her arms. She wasn’t tall, and recently she was looking round and cute, not heavy and mean the way she’d always seemed to Claire as a child.
Though they saw each other so rarely these days.
“Well, so, why don’t you guys come visit me?” said Sylvie. “You have a place to stay, anytime, and if you don’t want to sleep in my bed I can always get you a nice hotel.”
Claire’s eyes widened. Sylvie had told her countless times how much she dreaded being taken up on one of these “invitations”.
“Sleep in your bed? With you?” Leah cried.
“Of course not,” snapped Sylvie. “I’d take the couch in the living room, and you guys‘d—”
“But Sylvie, Sylvie.” Aldo clamored for her attention as if he were one of an adoring throng. “What if your paramour wants to spend the night? Of course you have your pick of them, they must be lining up outside your door. Lee, look how— how French she looks, inn she great?”
Paramour battering her ear, Claire watched her sister flash their father her widest smile and cock her head like the coquette she’d learned to be, her eyes cold as marbles. Inn she great? Their mother beamed lamely at the three of them, then looked away with a testy sigh.
“And Claire,” Aldo said. It was the first time he’d spoken to her since they entered her apartment.
“Nice piano, honey. Such a beautiful instrument you bought for yourself.”
Claire pondered a gash in the wall under one of the windows, a few inches above the floor. She’d been meaning to get the super to come up and plaster it, but the last time he was here he’d fondled her butt when she bent to pick up a screw he dropped, so she was going to have to find someone else.
Or do it herself. If she were Sylvie, she'd probably do it herself, and do it better than Julio.
The two guys outside the bar were shoving each other now. Craning her head toward the window, Claire thought she saw the flash of a blade as a crowd gathered, egging them on.
“Your father’s right, dear. It is lovely. But I can’t imagine how you could afford it.” Leah fussed with the latch on her handbag, got it open, and began exploring inside. “I thought you’d quit playing for good, old girl.”
The radiators cowered dormant and redundant in the late spring heat. Bits of dust lifting off their coils caught the light of the dying sun. The piano hunkered mute as a sleeping bear in the dusk of Claire’s other room, beyond the open French doors, alongside the fresh widows.
Aldo struggled to focus somewhere above his daughter’s head, behind her. For a moment he looked terminally weary, his eyes watery as they pondered a spot she couldn't see.
Sylvie pondered her own scuffed Mary Janes.
Leah stared at something in her lap, or at the level of it, alternately pursing her lips and moving her tongue over them.
Finally, Claire said "Are you thirsty, Mama? I can get you some water."
Leah jerked her head no without looking up, then offered her a sad smile.
The men's voices outside grew louder, more menacing. Claire thought she heard a woman begin to cry.
“Daddy, I got a new turtle.” Sylvie blurted in her little-girl voice.
“Oh darling, that’s wonderful! Where. Where’d you get it, did you find it in the Bois de Boulogne? the Jardin des—”
“No, silly! There are no turtles left in the Bois de Boulogne. Waddya think it is, Yellowstone National Pawk?!” She shouted in a lame approximation of the Noo-Yawkese their father used to break into when he regaled his wife and two tykes, his word, with stories from his Bronx childhood. Some of his kid friends had been sent to “vefawm school”, only to end up rotting, his word, in prison. Aldo had gone to City College, then to graduate school. He’d become a professor! He'd made it out.
“Oooh! Sylvie, you’re too much. Tu es trop, tu es hors de vue! Get it? ‘Outtasight’, hors de vue, no? Sylvie, how’s your French? I bet the men over there just love your American accent.”
The year he took his sabbatical in Paris, when Claire and Sylvie were still in college, Aldo gave all his lectures in French, though he hadn’t studied the language since high school. His students and colleagues were in awe of him for this, not only for his evident effort but for the authority of his diction, the panache of his delivery.
Or, so Leah had relished boasting to their friends back home.
Sylvie ignored her father's fawnings. “I found the turtle in Bretagne, when I was there visiting my friend Claudine. Her parents have a place on the coast. It reminds me a lot of Flounder Bay! But they had a terrible oil spill in March, I’m sure you read about it over here.”
“We did. You know, those jerks have no idea how— how cataclysmic one of those events is for— the biota. It throws off the entire ecosystem.” Aldo spread his arms and made a face, and Claire thought of a mask she'd seen once in a Chinese opera. “The place is going to take years to recover.”
“What’s the buh-yoda,” Sylvie said in a dead voice.
Claire remembered her sister telling her how she hated it when their father used words she didn’t know; she thought he did it on purpose, to make her feel stupid.
“It just means the wildlife in a place.” Claire spoke close to Sylvie’s ear, so he wouldn’t hear. “You know, biota as in biology.” She hoped she wasn’t too far off.
Sylvie gave a dismissive grunt.
“Daddy, Daddy, what’s the biota? Iota, biota, coyote? Is it like a coyote?” She giggled. Aldo giggled back, and for a moment their laughter flowed and rippled like the laughter of illicit lovers.
“No, no,” he said. “The biota is the soup of life—all the species populations in a given ecosystem, or area. It’s the wildlife in a place. Think of biology; it’s the same word root.” His voice boomed, as it tended to whenever he got a chance to explain something he felt passionate about.
“Uh-huh.” Sylvie sounded bored to death.
“Don’t you know that word, Sylvie?” put in Leah. “I can’t believe you never heard it before.”
“Of course I’ve heard it before, Mama.” Sylvie shook her head in disgust.
“Don’t argue with me, I was only expressing surprise that a reasonably well-educated woman like yourself wouldn’t know a simple word like that, that’s all.” Leah leaned back on the couch, sniffed, and turned away; then began to scrutinize, over the heads of her daughters, the contents of Claire’s packed, messy bookshelves.
"Well so what does it mean? Why don't you tell Sylvie," Claire blurted to her mother, hazarding a guess that Leah hadn't heard a word Aldo had said as he'd held forth in typical Buzzati style—it being every bit as typical of his wife, on such occasions, to focus anywhere but her husband's eyes, receding into herself as she whistled tunelessly under her breath.
Claire shot a glance at Sylvie, hoping she'd read her sister's mind.
"Really, Claire! You mean you don't know it either?" Leah shouted. "You girls are hopeless, both of you." She shook her head and huffed a contemptuous smile, the barbed wire of her sarcasm scratching Claire's heart. "Why don't you ask your father. He's the one who used the damn word in the first place."
The sisters turned to each other in a kind of invisible thumbs-up and began to giggle, their bodies shaking as they pressed their hands over their mouths and gazed into the lush familiarity of each other's face, sure as they struggled to suppress their laughter with every speck of self-discipline they could muster that their mother didn't know what 'biota' meant either.
"What're you two laughing about? I don't see what's so funny." pouted Leah.
She hissed for a moment, then her eye caught a title. “Hey Claire, how’s that book, the new one by Toni Morrison? I mean, the latest. Have you read it?”
They averted their eyes just in time. Claire craved to hug Sylvie, but couldn't bring herself to do so in front of their parents. Then again, nor could she be sure that Sylvie wouldn't flinch away if she so much as laid a hand on her arm.
“You mean Song of Solomon." Claire's voice shook as she answered her mother. For some reason she wouldn't have been able to explain, an image of Mel's rapturous face floated into her sights.
"Get a grip on yourselves," Leah mumbled, her mind already wandering.
Aldo whistled and drummed his fingers on his thighs, then beamed at each of his daughters in turn, ignoring his wife.
"No," continued Claire, "I hate to say. I bought it the other day on one of my forays into Barnes and Noble, but I’m so behind. Still so many books I have yet to crack.” The words echoed cartoonishly in her ears: one of my forays. . . so behind . . . have yet to crack.
Even as she realized that her father had been speaking over her voice, as if he were unaware of it, or found whatever she had to say in that moment unworthy of his attention.
As if he were bored enough by his wife's question to dismiss the entire dialogue, putting Claire in mind of an eight-year-old "genius" she'd once babysat for whose parents hadn't bothered to teach him manners, let alone intellectual noblesse oblige.
Leah ignored her husband. "You bought it?" she said to Claire. "What's the matter with the library? I thought you had a piano loan to pay off, old girl."
Claire was about to react to this when Sylvie's voice broke in.
“Is he really? What does he look like? Is he married?”
“I don’t know, but so what? You don’t want to get married, do you?" shouted Aldo. "A firebrand like you? Chippy was a jerk, he never had it so good.”
“That’s disgusting. How would you know the first thing about us? It’s none of your business.”
“Never mind, I know you, honey. Geez, it’s a good thing you ditched that guy.”
“Firebrand? Honestly, Al," said Leah. "But there’s nothing wrong with Chip, he’s a perfectly nice fellow. Not very bright, that’s all.”
“Not very bright! He’d make Gyro Gearloose look like Einstein!”
“Gyro Gearloose! Who the hell is that? Dear, you’ve had way too much to d—”
“Shut up, Daddy. You really don’t know anything about him.”
Claire watched her father's head fall toward his chest, his eyes narrowed, his mouth in a twist of indeterminate distress just short of shame, or just beyond it. For a moment, he had the look of a delinquent dog whose mistress has called him on the carpet.
But only for a moment.
“Well, what do you think, Claire?”
His question startled her, as she’d been making frantic faces at her mother to try to prevent her from uttering the d-word. (Leah had responded by stretching her own face into contortions of fake incomprehension as she mouthed the words Claire?! What on earth is wrong with you?!)
What was he asking her so earnestly? What did she think about—what? Was it possible her father actually cared what she thought of her sister's third-from-last boyfriend, who had never spoken more than two words to Claire?
She was about to say something, or decide not to, when Aldo cut in.
“One of Flounder Bay’s lesser lights, I dare say,” he announced, answering his own question. He cleared his throat, though there was nothing to clear. He was in deep role now, spurred on by the presence of both his daughters in the prime of their nubility; the vision of their phenotypes, unique and wondrous, gracing each other, complementing each other, the disparate energies of Claire and Sylvie, Sylvie and Claire blurring together as they sat before him, merging like the two halves they were of the teeming orb of his and Leah's combined genome; the confounding presence of their mother, his wife of thirty-three years, hunkered down like a feral animal smoldering on the couch beside him, all of his senses heightened and piqued by drink.
If a big row didn’t happen here, it would almost certainly erupt back at their penthouse on Riverside Drive, after he’d zoomed at warp speed up the parkway, tailgating everyone he passed and passing everyone, Leah screaming at him to slow down, her knuckles gleaming like crescent moons as she gripped the armrest on one side and her handbag on the other; Sylvie in back, clutching the back of her father's seat, her eyes wide as she squealed at his every swerve around the bluffs of Inwood Park.
“I don’t know,” Claire said. “Why are we talking about Chip Schuster, anyway? What's the big deal?”
“Oh Claire, how can you say that,” Leah cried. “Your sister comes all the way from Paris and you haven’t seen her in almost a year, and we haven’t seen her in—in what, three? Three years—” She was beginning to slur her words. “And all you can do is argue.”
“Mama, cut it out, let’s just drop it, okay? You too, Daddy.” Sylvie picked up one of Claire’s throw pillows and began to play with it, pushing it onto her shoulder and nestling it in the crook of her neck, the way she’d tried to cuddle Beatrice in the Shiny Fortune.
“Really, Lee.” Aldo chided his wife.
Then, in a much softer tone, to his daughter, “What’s the matter, Sylvie? Do you still like this guy?”
“Oh God,” Sylvie growled.
She sighed, got up and peered out the window—idly at first, her interest piqued as she took in the scene outside the bar.
“Look, I hate to have to kick you guys out, but I've got to get up early in the morning,” said Claire.
“You? Get up early? I didn’t know you could do that.” Aldo winked at her sister. “How did you learn it. Sylvie teach you?”
Claire swore she could see her pout, or feel it, though Sylvie's back was turned as she stood at the window.
“You must have a damn good alarm clock,” Leah said. “Never been on time for anything, far as I know.”
Sylvie stepped away from the window and sat back down on the edge of her chair.
“Well, as far as you know ain’t too far, is it,” Claire muttered, shattering the pact she’d just made with herself to keep silent unless she was asked a direct question.
“Claire!” cried Sylvie in mock horror, her eyes shifting slowly from her mother to her father as she unearthed a wicked smile to no one in particular.
“Well! I can see we’re not welcome here any longer.” Leah stood up and brushed her skirt with her hands, though there was nothing to brush. “Sylvie, you staying or coming with us? Come on Al, let’s go.” She grabbed her purse and stalked the few steps to the door.
The floorboards squawked under her feet.
“Wait, wait Lee! Not so fast. Sit down. I haven’t even talked to Claire tonight. I want to know what she’s— thinking about— things in general, these days.” He gave his firstborn a tender look.
Claire grimaced. Sure: only now, just as she’d told them she had to go to sleep—to be fully conscious in time for a meeting with her soon-to-be-new boss before showing up at her office, where her soon-to-be-ex would be waiting with bagels and a hard-on, not that she'd mentioned any of that—only now did her father want to hear from her.
“I guess I’ll come with you guys.” Sylvie stood up. “That’s okay with you, right, Claire?” Her stuff was all there—under Claire’s new piano, where she’d dumped it earlier that day before their parents drove down here to take her to the restaurant.
"Oh! Well. . .sure, why not.”
Claire felt her stomach go hollow, as if she hadn't just pigged out in the Shiny Fortune along with the rest of her family. "I assume you want your small bag? The little red duffel. I love it, by the way. It looks like patent leather, but I guess it can't be. Or maybe it is! So chic! You get it in Paris—?"
Sylvie stared at her.
The echo of her own words hammered Claire as it splashed inanely around the room, lapping at the ears of everyone present, or so she imagined. Flooding the holding-pen her brain had become.
“Mais bien sûr!" Sylvie took the occasion to flutter her eyes at their father, who flashed her a furtive smirk.
Claire pulled her sister's duffel from the pile on the floor, banging her head on the piano's flank as she stumbled to a standing position. She handed the bag to Sylvie.
"Thanks. . .I’ll call you at work. Maybe we can have lunch or something.”
They hugged goodbye and kissed each other twice on both cheeks--à la française! she could hear Sylvie say, though neither of them had uttered a word. The long stem of her sister's spine pressed against Claire's fingers, spikes of vertebrae sharp enough to penetrate the skin. Or, so they felt to her—fragile, brittle; deceptively strong?—through the loose fabric of Sylvie's top as Claire held her close.
Her head throbbed. She hoped and trusted that Sylvie had not seen anything, far less heard the bump.
For a moment, the two of them clung to each other as if they sensed, each in the rhythms of her own organism, that something terrible might happen if they let go too soon.
Something irreversible, unredeemable.
A few hours from now? Tomorrow? Next week?
“Yeah, okay,” Claire said as they pulled away. "Call me." You won’t want to go where I want to go, because you won’t want to spend the money on lunch, and I won’t be able to afford both of us. You’ll want to get cottage cheese somewhere, eat it standing on the sidewalk, and then do something boring like look for a place to buy a cord for your sunglasses.
“By the way Syl, I know a place you can get that thing you said you wanted, remember? For your shades or whatever. If you still need it. Right near my office.”
“Really? Great, okay, see you tomorrow.” Sylvie turned and stepped into the hallway.
“Take it easy, Claire.” her father hugged her, then kissed her on the forehead. He pulled away slowly, mugging at her like a mutt just freed from the pound, or about to be hauled off to it.
“G’bye old girl.” Leah’s voice was flat. She didn’t look at her daughter.
She clomped out the door. Claire heard her say something to Sylvie in a warmer tone, too low to catch the meaning.
Her father hung back, hovering in the small space of the foyer as if he’d forgotten something and couldn’t recall what it was.
“Come on, Aldo,” Leah yelled from the hallway, “let’s go.” She stamped her foot on the linoleum and the sound echoed down the dimly-lit stairwell.
Aldo lowered his head as if he knew that the slightest jolt would shatter whatever he was trying not to feel into a thousand tiny pieces. Standing there in his old raincoat with his head slumped over, he looked like no one Claire wanted to know. And she heard her mother’s voice, thick with booze, as clearly as if Leah had actually said: Oh Al, you look like a Bowery bum. She heard this with a sickening sense of resolve as if she, not her mother, had said it, as if her mother’s voice had invaded and subsumed her own.
Her father turned back toward her without looking at her. “Oh. Buzzy. I just wanted to tell you.” He shuffled his feet, kept his eyes on the folds of his coat. His hands were in the pockets, rattling keys and coins.
Buzzy. . .
“Yes?” Claire folded her arms tight across her chest. She could feel her nails dig into her palms as her hands curled into fists.
She stared at the painting on the wall to the left of the door—a large oil she’d found in a thrift shop, its images almost invisible behind layers of grime. She’d brought it home and cleaned it with linseed oil to reveal a figure of a woman, all curves and rosy flesh, reclining naked on a bed of pine needles, a look of muted pleasure, or triumph, on her face. A man also naked—brown, sinewy, dwarfed by the woman's lush body—knelt off to the side in profile among the dark trees, facing her, his head in his hands. The artist had scribbled some lines in the lower left corner of the canvas in a language Claire thought might be German, though most of the letters were too worn away to read. One word appeared a few times, in fragments: traeume. . .
. . .dream?
“I— just wanted to— oh, Claire.”
“Come on Al, she has to go to bed! Look, I’m going downstairs, Sylvie's waiting, if you’re not down in three minutes we're leaving without you. . .” Leah’s voice trailed off as she plodded toward the stairwell.
Claire’s father slowly raised his hands and gripped her shoulders. His face hung there, pleading, over hers.
“Look. Claire. You did good. You did good, getting that interpreting job. Now you get to rap wop all day. ‘S great!” He looked away.
Claire cursed herself for ever mentioning the job—to her sister, not to him—even as she mouthed a silent whew for having had the presense of mind to withhold the details.
“Rap wop, I like that.” He shook his head and chuckled softly.
“Dad, I have Italian neighbors in the building.”
“So what? I’m Italian, you’re Italian. Rap wop, rap wop, rap wop! There, let ’em have an earful.” He tightened his grip on Claire's shoulders.
“And Claire. The piano! Such a nice piano. You did good. But why? You don’t have time to play anymore.”
How do you know what kind of time I have or not, Claire wanted to scream.
She stumbled as he released her shoulders, held his arms out empty for a moment, then dropped them, hands slapping at his sides. “Okay. . . Well, take it easy, Buzzy-Beezy.”
He turned to go, paused on the threshhold. Head down, Claire said goodnight and started to close the door.
“Wait. Baby.” He grabbed her arm, pushed himself back inside. “Look, you didn’t blame your mother and me for— you didn’t think it was our fault that— I mean, about all those competitions. We—”
“Dad, I don’t want to get into—”
“Look, we— we realize you did your best. Just know this: there was nobody better, I don’t care what those stoopid judges—”
“That’s enough, Pops."
“—hell, they don’t know Horowitz from a whore-wit’-tits. You were great, you should have stuck it out. Shit. What’s the matter with you, cara? How come you’re not more beady-eyed? I don’t get it. All your life I tried to—”
“Yeah, sure you did. Look, goodnight, okay?”
His eyes searched her, reopening wounds everywhere. Claire put her hands on his ams, shifted his body around and tried to nudge him out the door.
He wasn’t going anywhere. “Your sister looks terrific, eh?” He cackled, facing her again. “So French.”
Claire swallowed hard. “Dad, Mama’s waiting for you downstairs.”
“Fugger! How often do I get to schmooze with the only person on earth who really understands me?” He stopped shuffling from one foot to the other and moved toward her to take her in his arms.
Claire raised her hands, blocking his embrace. “Please, Dad,” she said, “Go. Go home and sleep it off.”
She felt a tug on her hair from behind.
“How can you talk to your old papa like that?”
Aldo jerked her head back, holding it there just beneath his big face.
“Shut up, you arrogant piece of shit.” He was in her face now, blinding her like a too-bright light. She was breathing his exhaust, second-hand cognac and vodka and wine and ja-chai. “You don’t tell me to sleep anything off.”
She held her breath, waited for him to let go.
Finally, he did.
She watched her father bumble his way down the hall, his back stooped. He raised his head and shouted at the wall. “Hey Buzzy! I wanna hear you rap wop!" As soon as she heard his feet hit the stairs she closed the door and flipped all three locks, one after the other. Alone at last, she turned and stared into the cramped, wretched space of her apartment, her head radio-jammed, her face on fire.
Piles of papers and books lay on the floor where Claire had stacked them so that her family would be comfortable. Surfaces newly polished, pristine just hours ago, now festered with spill stains, lipstick-smeared brandy snifters and espresso cups. She turned off the light at the far end of the space beyond the open French doors.
A bolt of moonlight poured in from the west-facing windows and splashed across the wing of her new piano. It soared upward in the darkness, smooth and inaccessible, a slope of black ice.
Claire kicked the books, the piles of paper and her sister’s luggage away from the pedals and sat down on the bench. A fine drift of dust settled up from its cream-colored leather upholstery. Her fingers looked improbably slender on the keys, as if they belonged to no living being: dark shards of bone in a minefield of dazzling white.
It had been six years since she’d touched a piano, six years since she’d skulked off the stage in tears near the end of her last competition. Claire had made it to the finals, where she and four other hopefuls from around the world were vying for the grand prize. A cramp began to hammer at her left hand during the last part of the final movement of the last piece she’d chosen to play—the great fugue of Beethoven's Hammarklavier. O the irony! After fewer than a dozen bars, her fingers had simply shut down, mute with pain.
Tendinitis? No, the doctor said, just nerves. A bad case, yes, but—nerves.
Claire had let two weeks go by before she’d tried to play again: this time it was Schumann’s Kinderscenen, a work she’d always performed with gusto, her sense of its essence so acute she might have composed it herself. A piece she'd loved and played since her own childhood, ever mindful not to expose its soul to the rigors of any competition.
But again, even in the privacy of that experiment, her left hand had seized up as if a weight were pressing down on it, squeezing the life out of it, even as she approached the joyous reprise of the melody line in the bass—in the section the translator had titled “Perfectly Contented”. It had always rippled off her fingers like a stream rushing through a forest and now, suddenly, it had gone dry. It didn't belong to her anymore.
Claire had dared seat herself at a piano just a few more times that year, only in the most secluded and anonymous of spaces: blond-paneled, closet-sized practice rooms lining the corridors of music schools, spaces for rent by the hour, empty of all furniture save an upright school-piano, its bench tufted with tiny gashes, its finish scratched and chipped by the random ministrations of hundreds of hands bearing cups and cans and bottles leaking stains across its surface down through the years; and one folding chair—gray, metal—for the teacher, she supposed. But always the pain crept back, grabbed her left hand, crushed it, rendered it now rigid, now limp; silent, devoid of strength.
Now as she gazed at her own keyboard, alone in the dark of her tiny apartment, it occurred to Claire how deeply intimate the act of playing had always felt to her. Never performative, but only ever private: all but erotic, every fiber of her organism merging with the music summoned by the touch of her hands to the keys, the play of her fingers upon them. To pretend otherwise, if she could even pull that off, were to render the experience at once trivial and brutal. If only she could have perceived this early on, acutely enough to isolate it from the hornet-storm of other forces razzing her presence onstage—the pressure bricking into her shoulders, her eyes blurring with the fear of blowing even one note, her fingers slick with the sweat of stage-fright—she might have realized how risky it was to endure this process in public at all, let alone expose it to a standing-room-only crowd. When she played, Claire had only ever sought solace, not adulation—or so it came to her now. From the music, not the public—far less from the critics. Solace, if not a kind of vindication. How could the strangers who paid good money to hear her be expected to understand this? If they could even know what they truly witnessed, would they not feel slighted? On what grounds might she plead for mercy, demand their compassion? The duty to protect her listeners from the dirty secret of her fraudulence—and from a psyche so raw as to invite ridicule should she ever fail to pass—loomed as an insurmountable burden.
How did her fellow competitors deal with this conundrum?
But what if it didn't afflict them at all?
She'd never dared to ask even one.
And yet still she craved license, from somewhere within, to lose herself in the music onstage—to share with others the thrill of that exploration, even at her peril. On a good night she could swear she felt a crescendo of energy flow out and back from her soul through the music to every seeker in the hall, the hushed air alive with the joy of it. The spark of a connection beyond erotic: unmediated, primal. Immediate.
And then one day, after six years of darkness, Claire found herself in a showroom steps away from Carnegie Hall. She sat on the bench of a baby grand, the smallest piano offered for sale—a jewel, the most beautiful instrument she would ever play. The most beautiful, because it would be hers.
She spidered a few arpeggios, scrambled up and down the keys a few times with her right hand, careful not to reveal to the sales staff so much as a measure of actual music, let alone a problem with her other hand.
While waiting for the bank's approval on the loan, Claire had asked her ex-teacher’s son and daughter-in-law, concert pianists and teachers themselves, to test-drive the instrument for her. Savvy and discreet, they'd come through, while she’d made excuses not to show up at the tryout. “You have some very talented friends,” the sales staff commented at her last visit when, bank loan in place, she kept the appointment that would make the baby hers.
Claire had never bought anything so expensive before, let alone borrowed money from a bank. And yet throughout the transactions she’d asked few questions, sounded not a note of concern. Such near-silence was unusual for her if not almost perverse. The sales staff had all but protested it themselves, as if they thought she were trying to finesse something—though perhaps she was merely imagining this. War without blood, perfection without practice? Was she even entitled to buy a piano she might never be able to play? What sane person purchased anything so huge, so costly, so consequential, on impulse?
The instrument had claimed her like a rescue dog. She had to have it: this one, and no other. Now, today; here, from this store. Carpe diem! No caveat emptor for her.
But while her eyes took in this most improbable prize as she sat before it in the high June night, she could not escape the grip of a recurrent dream, a kind of basso ostinato rumbling beneath her waking life. Now dragged at the wrist, now shoved from behind, she felt her body tumble headlong toward a black hole of silence so profound she heard only the knock of her heart against the hot breath of that being who hovered just off her left shoulder, or just ahead: a hulk in a trenchcoat, always there, dogging her steps, rushing her, holding her back, lurking around the corner. Waiting.
A figure so mawkishly Freudian that Claire wondered why she couldn't just laugh it off, even as she craved to zap it from her consciousness forever via some kind of killer ray switchblading off her fingers. To watch her hands transform into claws as perfectly formed as an iguana's, to feel a hiss of lightning surge to the tips of her tapered bones and beyond.
Could she honestly say that her father had forced her to become a pianist? Did she want to cede to Aldo a fraction of the power it would have taken for any force outside herself to wreak that result, were it even possible?
She sometimes wished she could just drown her bullshit in booze like him, like the rest of her family. But no, she didn't dare, despite that her brain sizzled with a chaos rivaling the Ford-To-City-Drop-Dead scene outside—if not precisely because it did. Craving oblivion, if not the illusion of some kind of order. . .
But wasn't that what music was for?
In her life, if not yet in her consciousness.
Yes, it really was her piano, and yes, here she was, seated on a bench she alone had claimed, her eyes flickering over the gold letters in front of them. Gingerly Claire set her hands on the keyboard as if on the nape of a trembling creature. She gazed at her fingers bisecting the keys and they seemed not to emanate from any form of life, no synchrony of flesh and blood: dark shards of bone in a minefield of dazzling white. She lifted her hands to play the first phrase that came to mind—not from any piece she'd ever studied or performed, far less from any recording she'd heard, but from that windowless cell in the back of her brain—or was it a light-filled loft?—where polyphonies and harmonies swirled endlessly through and around each other, now bouncing off the cylindrical wall, now crashing into it like waves exploding against a cliff.
The voices outside grew louder, assaulting her ears: a staccato of male hostility backed by florid, intermittent female cries.
She got up and crossed to the window. Raising it as far as she could, she leaned out as far as the rusted stumps that passed for window-guards would allow, relishing the wind in her hair, the gritty texture of it, the way it tore at her blouse and caused the silk to swell and billow around her breasts. The color looked especially creamy at night.
Like a parachute, she thought.
She gazed at the smattering of lights below, the shapes of the nearest buildings—walkups like her own, no more than five or six storeys high. The sign across the street said BAR in capitals of red neon flanked by the yellow outline of a martini glass jauntily tipped as if by an unseen hand to invisible lips, a blue-rimmed olive in the trough. Clouds scuffed across a sky heavy with the scent of rain—or was it the river, just beyond Carl Schurz Park? Men spilled out the door, pushing and shoving into the crowd. Claire heard the gasp of a trio of buses lumbering up First Avenue, a crosstown block away. . .and over and under it all, the hum that never seemed to stop, of all the machines, whatever they were, that plagued and powered the city. Why so much louder at night?
For a moment she imagined she was flying one of those planes built for just one person, an early prototype that exposed your whole body to the glory of the sky in the moments before it crashed, delivering you the hardest fall you'd ever feel, if you survived.
If, that is, you hadn't thrown yourself off a building first.
She heard the squeal of an ambulance slalom down the street, blasting every other sound as it pulled up to the bar. She grabbed a lungful of air rife with car exhaust, stir-fry and smoke.
She closed her eyes, cupped her hands to her ears and let loose, the knot in her chest ripped open at last. How her voice soared, at one with the siren—now rising, now falling, portamento, glissando.
By the time she paused to breathe, the siren had gone mute.
How long had her voice been spinning out alone, propelled upon the night, lifted into the ears of all not yet dimmed unto deafness by the din of the alarm?
Claire thought she heard an echo from someone down below. A taunt, a plea, a provocation? A shout of protest against everything the bearer of that voice could not control—including the spontaneous eruption of Claire's own?
She pictured a young woman about her age—Black or Latina, perhaps the sister or girlfriend of someone in the fight. A woman, like herself, of big breasts, big hair and voracious appetites. One whose struggles Claire could only imagine, if she assumed they were different from hers.
Not to know whether that voice conveyed grief or anger, derision or affirmation, felt like an irremediable loss. Even as Claire thought she heard in it a scream against the same primordial sense of disaster she herself railed against daily, if only—for the most part—in silence.
Did she have any reason to believe the woman's voice was any louder, any more assertive in her own life?
Perhaps Claire had set her free. If only for a second.
Not to say that this occurred to either one of them, if even for a second.
Amid the murmur of the crowd Claire heard the doors slap shut, and as she watched the ambulance veer away its cry rose again like the howl of a mother who's just learned that her son is inside, stabbed and shuddering for life.
The ambulance tore up the street, bearing the bodies of two men, intubated, covered in blood. The siren's wail scattered anew whatever lay in its path before it faded to a distant whine, before the crowd drifted apart and disappeared into the night . . .
. . . before Claire turned to face her piano, and everything started again.
End Part Two of Two.
Part One appeared in Issue 15. If you would like a PDF of the entire novella,
please email us and we’ll send it along.