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Overtureby Yael Goldstein
I AM SITTING IN MY LIVING ROOM, AND THE REPORTER is eyeing me nervously, tapping his foot out of sync with the salsa beat drifting down the stairs. He looks as though hes raced here straight from the offices of a high–school newspaper, Adams apple jumping in his delicate neck, large blue eyes set wide with earnest curiosity in a smooth egg–white oval of a face, though I understand (hes brought me a collection of clippings as proof) that hes more established than he looks: recent arts editor of the Yale Daily News, minor freelancing assignments everywhere from The Village Voice to People since he graduated from college last June. His specialty is arts profiles, as he let me know the moment I opened the front door, pushing into my hands the two quarter–page jobs hes done for Entertainment Weekly; I didnt tell him that the names in these articles mean nothing to me. We share some tenuous connection, this boy and I, and I am eager to put him at ease: he is the son of the cousin of the brother of God knows who, a line that eventually traces back to my college mentor, Robert Masterson, which is the only reason the kid is sitting here, experiencing what he has now called several times “the most awesome day” of his career.
For half an hour now, hes been lobbing the usual questions at me, and Ive been trying to answer as generously as I can. But its exhausting to be both truthful and interesting, and I am ready for this interview to end. Unfortunately, I can tell hes got one last question hes been holding back, one that he thinks is going to make his interview, of all the dozens of interviews Ive done this year, of all the thousands Ive done in my life, stand out. I know this question is going to be dopey–the supposedly trenchant ones almost always are–and Im feeling antsy and embarrassed for him. But I feel even worse when, after a long pause, he says in an overly loud voice: “Would you say theres been any single aspect to your life”–hes biting his pencil between words–“an aspect, or an event, or a…well, the aspect thats the pivotal one? The one that, you know, made you what you are, the most famous violinist since Paganini?”
“Id hardly compare myself to Niccolò Paganini,” I say, both because its true and because the question annoys me. Its not the presumption that thered be an answer to such a question–this I tack up to callow journalism–but the tone of his voice as he poses it. I hear a burrowing, wheedling edge there, and it makes me think, just for a moment, that Ive been reading this boy all wrong.
“Oh, but havent people been making that comparison for decades? Since Vienna, in fact?” he stammers, pushing the blunt–cut bangs off his forehead. When he returns his hand to his lap, I can see beads of sweat have appeared on his wrists, of all places.
“No, not since Vienna. Certainly not that early,” I relent, feeling a new protective swell at the sight of the bony wrists.
“So what was, you know, what would you say it is, the pivotal thing, if there is one? Would you say there is one?”
I look at the beads of sweat, the leg tapping now on the downbeats, the floppy bangs fallen back into eyes glued onto mine, and grab the clearest thought flitting by in the midst of the assorted mental debris. “My love affairs,” I say.
“Your love affairs,” he repeats. His eyes have gravitated away from mine, and I cant catch his gaze. Id tried to throw him a line, and now hes floundering, and so am I.
But were saved by a voice booming down the staircase, mingling with the salsa music. “Thats a weird thing to say,” the voice–like a bell trying hard to sound grumpy–calls. “Its so weird that if I didnt know better Id say you were actually being honest. Thatd be wild.”
“Is that Alexandra?” the reporter asks, swinging his head around in a motion that makes me think of a child catching sight of the toy hes about to demand on display in a shop window.
“Yes, thats Alex, thats my daughter,” I say, and just then she slouches to the bottom of the stairs.
“I didnt know she was here,” the reporter exclaims, looking back and forth between us. “Could we possibly? Would it be possible to speak to her as well? Im such a big fan. Of both of you. Your early recordings together are some of my favorites. I even saw you perform the Van Rheede duet in Brussels when I was a kid.”
Some probing investigative mind you have, I think. It didnt occur to you to wonder about the source of the salsa music? But because Alex is looking at me with narrowed eyes, Im quick to say, “I dont think so. We dont have much time. I have a lunch date, as I mentioned earlier?”
“Just a few more questions to you, then.” His voice is petulant, aggressive, but as far as Im concerned, he isnt here anymore. All my attention is turned to Alex, to her narrowed eyes and what they might mean.
“I wanted to ask about Jean Paul Boumedienne,” I hear the reporter say, as I mentally tick through the possibilities of what might be on Alexs mind. I stop ticking at the sound of the name, surprised but not yet stunned. The words “Jean Paul Boumedienne,” spoken in the reporters high–pitched voice, echo in the room with us, and at first I have the strange suspicion he didnt say them. I imagined it, I think. Its an aural conjuring trick caused by too many sleepless nights. Ive barely slept, its true, in the weeks since Alex showed up unexplained and furious at my doorstep. But out of habit, I turn to look at my daughter, expecting the same narrowed eyes that tell me nothing; its when I see her narrowed eyes gone hot and white and ghastly that I know.
“Your relationship with him,” the reporter is pressing, and his face, staring intently at Alex, not at me, no longer strikes me as young. “Do you think, perhaps, that that could be the singular thing that made you who you are?”
I want to say, “Where did you learn to link that name with mine?”
I want to say, “What makes you think you have the right to know?”
Most of all, I want to scream, “Alex, why do you look at me like that?” but the reporter is already answering the less urgent of these questions, saying, “It was Robert Masterson who suggested I ask. He told me that Boumedienne was how it all began.”
I watch him long enough to see his thin lips form the words, then whip my head back around just in time to catch sight of Alexs left foot as it follows the rest of her swiftly out the door.
ASK HIM IF HE WANTS COFFEE, I THINK. ASK HIM IF HE wants water. Hold him at bay and hold him in
The reporter is sitting ramrod–straight several feet from me, and I can tell, without looking at him, that hes dissecting the scene in his memory: did something just take place or didn't it? Id like to think Im not sure myself, but I am. Something has taken place. I just don't know what. This, in itself, is no surprise; its been a long string of I–dont–know–whats with Alex.
I try to form the words I should say next, that perfect something to deflate the last two minutes, to get him out of my home. I breathe deeply and close my eyes, but what I see is Jean Pauls face: heavy–lidded blue–black eyes, pale lips curled subtly in unexpected places. So darkly beautiful. So unwelcome. Open your eyes, I demand, but I dont want to. I dont want to see the reporters boyish face aged with anticipation, or the bland and beige room around us, a room so tasteful its clearly not the product of any real persons taste. I dont want to swing my feet off the plush white carpeting and tuck them beneath me in a feint of intimacy, to hide that the answer Im about to offer answers nothing. I have the strange thought that what I really want is to fling my eyes open onto my parents West Village brownstone circa nineteen sixty–something. I want to see the narrow staircase crammed with books, the dozens of paintings jostling for space on the walls; when I look toward the dining room, I want to see reds and blues and golds rain down onto my hands from the stained–glass windows above.
I should see all that, because thats where I am. The reporter is feet away from me, rigid and waiting on the Eames chair upholstered in blandest cream, but I am decades away, under a shower of color, tracing lines across paper. Its a shame the reporter can't be here with me, because this is probably the closest I can come to answering his question; this is how it all began: sitting at a dining–room table rescued from the original Queen Mary, my five–year–old fingers alive with vibrant shades, but not with talent. Whats really alive is the living room below, shaking beneath my seat, the wood groaning and the glass tinkling its displeasure at one of my fathers foot–stomping tirades. Light swells of jazz mingle beneath this, and supporting it all is my fathers ecstatically violent voice. My mother is hovering around me, her flower–scented arms close, her ghostly pale hand reaching down every now and then, but too lightly, almost afraid to touch the paper Im carefully filling with lines and curves, though there are canvases of hers littered throughout the house. I hear a door slam, and a small man scurries past the bottom of the stairs, in and out of my peripheral vision in an instant. My father is in the dining room seconds later. He stares for a moment as if trying to place us, and then he says, with marked relish, “I don't think we're representing Milton anymore,” before gliding away on his elegant rage. I am trying to capture all of this in my drawing, but I am finding it infuriating, because I have no idea how one captures anything in a drawing, I am not good at drawing, and what I really want is to make something that sounds like everything Ive just heard. I turn to my mother and ask how to work sound into a picture. The next week, they start me on violin lessons.
This memory is before me and gone in the time it takes to breathe, once, deeply, in and out. Open your eyes, I think again, but I allow myself one more beat of close–lidded silence, because the one memory has unleashed another, and now I am six years old, and up way past my bedtime, afloat in a murky world of cigarette smoke and clinking glasses that has materialized in our living room. Large, well–dressed bodies cram the space, and either push past me or, worse, stop to ask me questions and then laugh at my perfectly reasonable answers. I long to be away and also dread the moment when Ill be banished to bed, and so I stick close to my father, who I know has only the vaguest sense of my presence. I watch from behind his left leg as he gleefully holds forth about “simplicity on canvas,” “honest art,” and “finally, finally bringing the sublime into this shit hole of a world” to a group of people who worship him for making them rich. My father has an enormous talent for damning people and movements, and even I know that the fad hes calling “sublime” tonight, hell be calling “criminally naïve” by next month. He is, after all, that famous Abe Darsky who was declaring Abstract Expressionism dead just months after hed established a gallery to serve as its epicenter. He is that Abe Darsky who spent his childhood dreaming of becoming an artist, yet never felt the need to try his hand at drawing or painting until he entered an art class as a college freshman at Columbia. After two frustrated days of slow and clumsy sketching, he declared himself unworthy to proceed, and turned himself toward the task of revealing who was worthy. He opened his gallery on his twenty–first birthday–funded by the fortune his own father had made with a revolutionary new flushing mechanism and the sheer suction force of his charm–and was a resounding smash not so much because of the work he included in his first show, as because of the much–touted works he rejected by declaring theyd be much improved if hung with their faces to the wall.
These stories are legend to me; my father himself is still legend to me as I cling to his leg and listen to him rant to his guests. I am the only person who takes him seriously when he declares, as he so often does, “Funny to think, isnt it, that if my old man hadn't thought up a great new way to flush, American art would still be in the international toilet.” That my father (and my mother, whom my father calls his “business brain”) is responsible for all good art in the country is the easiest thing to believe–all one has to do is listen to the brutal thrum in his voice, so mesmerizing and so frightening. So frightening that, standing right beneath it, feeling the force of its tremor shoot through his body into the left leg Im clutching, I have a sharp need to know where my mother is standing. My eyes wander the room for the sight of her glittering in the background, filling glasses, flashing smiles, being an incandescent work of art herself, the perfect hostess, but also wondering behind that docile face whether her husband has to go on to quite this extent, because surely he couldnt really think that Michelangelo and da Vinci were pale harbingers of de Kooning. (This I know because she says it later, while tucking me in that night, in that light, delicious way she has of saying impossibly unknowable things as if I know them.)
My eyes are well trained to spot any inch of her from any distance, and so its just an instant before I know shes not here. I make my way through a mess of legs toward the hallway, and up the stairs, climbing toward the slant–roofed fifth–floor room that will soon be my bedroom but right now is still her studio. That I know to go there is strange, because I cannot remember the last time she used that space. But I know and I go, and I find her staring at an empty canvas with her hands limp at her sides, five long, bejeweled fingers clutching a paintbrush dipped deep crimson. “Its the lighting, I think,” she says without turning around. I see her in profile. “The lighting in this room is impossible.” The clamor from downstairs is rattling the tubes of paint on the ground, and after a moment she says, “Or maybe the noise.” She turns around then, and her face takes on the look that precedes a command, so I brace for her to shoo me to bed, but instead she says, “Go practice the violin, will you?” I think this is the funniest thing Ive heard in a long while, a brilliant joke, though I dont quite get it, and we share a strangely wild laugh together before we descend back into the party, to find my father frantically searching for her because someone is asking about last quarters profits.
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