Thursday, August 23, 2007

the soprano

Today, in my old neighborhood just beyond old Highway 63, rivers of dark ice lay exposed on the sidewalks and the asphalt where cars and foot traffic have torn through the blanket of snow that covers everything in sight. Just beyond Mr. Cooper’s home sits the small, peach-colored two-story house where my voice teacher used to live. It used to be that you would see strands of Christmas lights peering through the aftermath of another winter storm, but I hear the widower who lives there now is a non-practicing Jew who doesn’t celebrate the holidays. Looking at it, petrified in the ice with the rest of the neighborhood, the house seems much more austere than I recalled.

I remember the first time I actually saw the interior. It’s been almost ten years. My girlfriend then, Penelope, had encouraged me to get voice lessons so both of us could audition for leads in Sacred Heart’s Easter mass, even though the only reason I was in the chorus was to be with her. She’d found Mrs. D’Amico’s number on an old wrinkled printout pinned to a bulletin board in her school’s choir room. The name sounded familiar when Penelope handed the number to me. I called it later; a woman with a mellow voice answered with a distant “Yes?” I told her my name and that I wanted voice lessons. She replied that she knew who I was; she’d lived up the street from me my entire life. Even over the phone, it made me feel strangely naked that Mrs. D’Amico knew what I’d looked like growing up. I’d never actually met her.

When I went to Mrs. D’Amico’s for my first lesson, it was October, one of those soggy autumn afternoons after school where the sky was gunmetal grey and brown leaves had already began to collect in the nooks around porches and sidewalks. I hated this time of year. Halloween was the Christmas-before-Christmas for most kids, but I was diabetic, and my friends—who’d all since moved away—would make me go be a proxy candy collector for them; they’d never given me anything in return except a small bottle of cheap vodka in that last year of trick’o’treating before we’d decide we were too old for that sort of thing. They were all starting to get girlfriends.

As I stood on her steps for the first time, the autumn breeze raced past, colder than usual. Even though it was the afternoon, I was shivering a little when the burgundy front door opened slightly and a face peered out. “Are we ready to sing?” the soprano asked.

No. I wasn’t.

Up until that moment when I was finally looking at her, Mrs. D’Amico had been nothing more than a silhouette in the draped windows of her home, where muffled arias sometimes wafted out to the street as I passed on my bike—and at that moment I was struck speechless. Streaks of grey exploded from the crest of her hair like Impressionist brush strokes, silver against fading dirty-blond, and when she said my name I saw that beneath a small, curving nose, she had the skin and the smile of a twenty-year-old girl. I couldn’t place her age. She was not young. But she was beautiful. She invited me in.

I took my wet shoes off in her small foyer as she disappeared down a flight of stairs. Ceramic Halloween pumpkins grinned at me from beneath a full coat rack, where dark, figureless wool jackets seemed to be huddling together for warmth. I could see a scarecrow wearing a colorful scarf and an evening gown through the doorway to her den. The frames hanging in the hallway all bore some Halloween theme, little comic Frankensteins, black cats, cartoon witches… Later, after I’d been to her house season through season, I’d know that every decoration was a transient, just placeholding until the next major holiday came along. Mrs. D’Amico appeared again from the stairwell, holding two steaming mugs.

“Would you like some tea? You know you would.”

I didn’t drink tea, but I felt compelled to say yes. Her fingers brushed against mine when I took one of the mugs from her and cupped it between my hands. I forgot to ask if it was sugarless. I watched Mrs. D’Amico instead. “You should never sing cold,” she said, swaying as she stood near me, and she hmmed a kind of warm half-sigh that actors gave when peddling coffee in TV commercials. She glanced at my socks as I tasted the tea in tiny sips. It burned my tongue.

I wondered if I would tell Father Gaddis I’d had impure thoughts here. I decided I would probably let it slide, just like about the things I’d wanted to do with Penelope, which she’d not allowed. Already, I hadn’t told the Father about necking with her in the sanctuary after everyone left, or about how sometimes we hadn’t even waited that long.

Mrs. D’Amico started telling me about singing in the classical style. She compared the proper technique to the way babies cried; their voices never got tired. “When you shout for help,” she said, “there is nothing forced about it, is there? It just comes out.” She looked at me quizzically, as if examining the exact impact of this statement. She told me that that was what I’d be getting out of proper training.

She led me up the stairs to her studio, past some portraits of her and a man with a thick beard and small eyes; a deceased husband, I’d find out. I tried to catch the lines of her body swaying beneath her cardigan and skirt while her slippered feet padded up the stairs, trying to spy the soft spots where muscle once might have been, wanting to place an age on her frame. I was unable. I briefly forgot I was there to be taught to sing, instead wondering what she would have looked like if she were my age, if she were someone in one of my classes.

She stopped a moment. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I caught sight of her panty-line.

“Listen, buster,” she said, shortly. “I know your mother.”

My heart caught in my throat. She turned her head a little, nose up, as if sniffing the air. I was scared, and stiff with surprise—did she know what I was thinking? How?—but she continued into her studio without me, as if already over it. After that point I was sure Mrs. D’Amico had psychic powers, making me wonder every now and then if she knew all my other unrepented transgressions—like the way Penelope would sometimes ask me about the things I thought about when I wasn’t with her: “Space shuttles,” I’d lie. “Sports cars.” I’d list off everything except what I was really thinking about: losing my virginity. “What about God?” Penelope once asked. “Yeah,” I lied again, “Him too.”

And it was as if Mrs. D’Amico, like Penelope, always secretly knew when I wasn’t telling the truth.

Strips of snow glaze the limbs of the naked, angular oaks along this street where I used to live, and dark ice clings to the undersides of their boughs like stains of sweat. I came back to this town for a friend’s wedding, and I find myself wondering if snow, like rain, is supposed to be good luck. Isn’t prayer is a form of asking for luck? The priest at the ceremony asked the guests to pray for the marriage, and out of old habits, I faked it.

Later, after I found out Penelope was there, it seemed fitting.

I’m standing at the top of a hill I used to sled down. Somewhere in the distance and out of sight, a branch crackles under the weight of the ice—and then again, and again, like deep, sharp breaths being drawn one after another.

Mrs. D’Amico’s office was far different from any other room in her home, and I remember being glad for that. It was like an oversized broom closet with walls blanketed by hundreds of pictures, newspaper clippings, and portraits hanging in congested alignment; it looked like an improvised quilt of memories. Over half of the photos were of Mrs. D’Amico when she was young, starring at operahouses in cities I’d heard of—Budapest, Vienna, Prague—but couldn’t place on a map. After a few lessons, I learned to stare at the portraits on the wall as I sang. Mrs. D’Amico called it engaging the right half of the brain to stop it from interfering with the left brain’s singing. She accused me of thinking too much all the time. Don’t get in the way of yourself. I used to keep a collection of those sayings of hers, but I lost the notebook in a move.

On afternoons when Mrs. D’Amico was trying to teach me diction—I couldn’t sing my O’s or my diphthongs properly in slow, sad songs—I’d distract her enough until she would tell me about when she was younger. She’d describe how her dress once caught on fire during a production of Turandot—how that wasn’t even the first time something like that had happened—and I’d wonder how Penelope could ever become this woman’s age. While Mrs. D’Amico seemed to emanate history, Penelope’s faith had made it seem like she would be a naive seventeen forever, crusading through life armed with her ponytail and pink lip gloss, suspended in time by prayer. Meanwhile, I’d been feeling years older than I was, and had finally become lonely in the company of her impregnable juvenescence.

Months after Penelope and I had broken up, and I’d quit going to mass at Sacred Heart, my mother would ask me what she was still spending money on voice lessons for. I’d tell her Mrs. D’Amico said I had a nice voice and could always use something like that down the road. I didn’t tell my mother I’d stopped practicing and would go just to drink (sugarless) tea and listen to Mrs. D’Amico tell stories.

She would allude to things like the affair she had once in Prague with an older tenor she’d long admired, and its quick demise, lamenting that sometimes singing was “the only thing” some of her colleagues were good at. It should have been the sort of mildly ribald anecdote that made a student uncomfortable, but it wasn’t; in those moments, her eyebrows would furrow and she would plant her chin on her hand while she took on a wry expression of vacant, comic disturb. Her theatrical sense of humor again made me wish I had a friend my age like her. Sometimes we would stand in her office staring at each other and I would wonder if we were in a singing lesson at all.

“Back to your song,” she’d say, snapping out of it. “That ‘solitude’ in the first verse needs some work.”

I walk from Mrs. D’Amico’s old house towards mine, breaking the virgin snow along the still-blanketed sidewalks there. The city’s snowplows have yet to make it out, just like when I lived here, but I’d risked the drive today anyway. We were always the last block on their routes, it seemed.

The houses are crusted over in sheets of ice and snow, but I can tell mine still looks the same, though the new owners have planted a tree in the yard where my swingset once went. When I look up the street, I see a dull light on in the front window of Mrs. D’Amico’s old house now, and as if on cue, chilled wind sweeps up the road.

I slept with Penelope last night.

I hadn’t seen her in four years.

It’s an unexpected dénouement, for me. Some of the guys I hang out with these days would say that it’s a good way to tie up loose ends, wink-and-a-nod, but as I shuffle along on the ice, I can’t help but feel some old-fashioned Catholic guilt. The Penelope last night, who’d had her nose pierced and left a bra dangling on the chair, changed her politics, drank too much, cursed more—the very same old Penelope who had lived a few blocks over, who used to read C.S. Lewis and speak softly and murmur It’s time to go whenever I got to the point she decided was too far. She’s a different woman now, but I feel like I’ve gone back and taken advantage of the same girl.

I’m not good at dénouement.

I arrive back at the sidewalk in front of Mrs. D’Amico’s old home, my toes a little numb from the cold. Looking at the house, even with just the one lit window, I can still recreate the photos on her wall in my mind. There was a time when I’d daydreamed what would happen if I were only twenty years older… that number eventually drifting down to fifteen, ten, seven, as my lessons with her survived my parents’ divorce, a couple hospitalizations, and my time with Penelope.

Mrs. D’Amico had moved away right after retiring from the university. The last time I saw her was the only time I ever saw her really sing, a few months after she’d quit teaching lessons; it was at the university concert hall, a farewell concert—a gala is what they called it—where she was to perform a Porgy and Bess medley with a baritone, the accompaniment arranged for wind ensemble. That night I remember being excited to finally see her on stage, and being overwhelmed by how beautiful the opening music was. For the first time, I felt the sound in all the ways that Mrs. D’Amico was only previously capable of describing in metaphor: a strange collage of colors, textures, and sensations, a jumble of exotic vocabularies Mrs. D’Amico had lodged into each other like aesthetic shrapnel. I’d always thought she was just speaking in hyperbole, and I felt ashamed for doubting her.

The jazz licks pounded off the walls of the auditorium and into my ears and I buried myself in the massive chords of Gershwin’s opening themes—the way I still would years later—immersing myself right up until Summertime started, one of my all-time favorite songs, and Mrs. D’Amico began to sing.

It was terrible.

Mrs. D’Amico sang like most other operatic sopranos, which is to say, shrilly, incoherently, with machine-gun vibrato, scoops, and alien-sounding vowels. I’m not sure what else I was expecting—Ella Fitzgerald, I think—and yet, there it was; the endgame of training. This was the wailing baby, the shout for help. And as the concert dragged on, in celebration of her retirement, I couldn’t help thinking it was also like a retirement of her classical technique, put to bed by Jazz, Pop, and Rock.

There was a long line of people waiting to greet her after the show, and I was near the end of it. Many of them were former students. Seeing her talk to them so enthusiastically made me wonder why she never told me I wasn’t any good, a lingering suspicion that would be confirmed when I wouldn’t win a college music scholarship anywhere. Mrs. D’Amico hugged me when my turn came, and it should have been a good, long hug, but I pulled away a little earlier than she did. Mrs. D’Amico paused for a moment to attempt a knowing smile at me, but I had just seen the same smile given to a dozen of her former protégés. Then, while we talked, a tall distinguished-looking man with grey hairs eating at his temples came and took her arm. “Keep in touch,” she then said to me, nodding gently, looking a little older than usual, a little more tired.

The auditorium had cleared out except for the last of the musicians. As I walked out to the parking lot, I saw them put their instruments into their cars and drive away.

My breath fogs in the air. Funny; it almost makes me laugh just now, remembering that: “Keep in touch.” Penelope said the same thing to me when we exchanged numbers. Neither of us will ever use them.

A snow plow rolls down the road, finally. The snow sloughs off the scoop of the plow in a way that would make a surfer jealous, had it been water. The driver waves at me. He has bright red cheeks and a big smile. He looks younger than I am.

I wave back, but am stuck in a memory yet again: that winter after I’d had a few lessons with Mrs. D’Amico under my belt, when Penelope had gone walking with me after mass during December’s first heavy snow. I was making fun of her, her cheeks either ruddy from the cold or from blushing, and she tackled me, sending me falling to the soft down of the snow somewhere along this street. I feigned a diabetic attack until she took concern, and then I grabbed her arm and dragged her down. We rolled around. We made snow angels. At some point I then leaned over and whispered some corny thing, but sweet; it came out of nowhere, something that kid on the plow might have said had he been in my position, something a normal guy would say.

Penelope had laughed, and leaned in close, until I’d felt her breath on my cheek. She paused and looked me in the eye. In the falling snow, everything was silent and calm. Nothing moved. “Sing me something,” she then said, quietly. “…Funnyman.” I would oblige, only after taking a second to let the moment stretch out as long as possible.

Today, the kid in the plow disappears somewhere around the next street, and I feel a strange urge to wish him luck, though I don’t know why or what for. It just feels like I should—like it’s necessary. Then, taking a deep breath, and checking the banks of snow running along the houses I’d once known to make sure no one was listening, I stop a moment for a song, as if to see if this is still the only place where loneliness sounds strange.