Last night, as an experiment, I went to hear Adam Bellman. Not to say hello (I don’t trust myself that far). Just to be at the concert. He’s classical music’s fetish-of-the-moment: the Swedish Phenom, the Nordic Liszt, etc. The Times called him “a virtuoso cartoonist, sketching masterful caricatures in sound”—an idiotic remark. Bellman is a profoundly wild genius.
I took my seat as the sold-out crowd dimmed into rows of shadow-profiles, perspiring discreetly in the dark. Close beside me, a lacquered nail scritched on the jellied plumpness of a matron’s neck. Two bodices away, a sequin glimmered. Across the aisle, an unobtrusive tug unstuck an underwear wrinkle from an ample male fanny—a satisfied half-wriggle ensued. The audience was ready, slightly drugged in a haze of Shalimar, Obsession, and residual exhalations of Absolut.
I won’t describe Bellman’s entrance. It didn’t move me. I inventoried my feelings and was relieved to find only passive interest, the kind you might expect of my fellow listeners. (Though, unlike them, I wasn’t wearing sequins or scent. Or underwear.) He played some vague mood pieces—by Liszt, according to the program. It could have been Bellman at the keyboard or someone else, I wouldn’t have known.
Somewhere in the second or third piece I noticed a wavery echo, barely loud enough to be distracting: someone seemed to be keening along with the piano. A puzzled sensation ran through the audience, but I couldn’t see people turning to shush anyone—just that mass of civilized animals with dots of reflected stage light for eyes.
And then, gradually, the sequences of notes flying through the hall began to strip away conscious thought. Snippets of unguarded moral and passionate states emerged around me like glistening wraiths, rising through the democratic atmosphere of cheap and costly scents. That’s how it felt, anyway: Bellman, taking hold. I pushed down in my seat a little, readjusted my skirt. My cheeks felt hot.
The keening echo had subsided; I wondered if I’d imagined it. I couldn’t see Bellman’s face, just a quarter-profile. Occasionally he indulged that little habit I now remembered—ducking his chin to one side as if cocking an ear at the keys—and when he did, I glimpsed his big round forehead and the distinctive nose, which, halfway down, swerves a little, as though an ox-kick had figured in his childhood. (Actually, it was a young aristocrat from Gotland who played soccer with calculated clumsiness.)
The elusive sound began again, parallel to the melody line, swelling to the sway of the big, square-cut pianist’s shoulders. Now I recognized it: Bellman, his voice. That tone. I felt the taut little drum-skins in my ears translating those vibrations into nerves and rushing blood. They dissolved and spread through me like a wall of water rolling shells and sea urchins and hats and huts and a starving dog into its crash.
I didn’t cry; that’s something. At least, I didn’t cry out. The experiment was on. The givens were as follows.
Ten years ago, on a morning streaked with sea-salt fog, Bellman walked into a grimly lit room at the San Francisco Conservatory. Seven students waited to be coached by him, in public, over the course of a weeklong master class. I waited, too, on assignment to write a newspaper profile of “Bellman and his world,” which my editor wanted to be full of Scandinavian color:
“What, beige and off-white?” I asked.
“C’mon, blondes, Bergman, I don’t care,” he said. “Just don’t give me the genius who practiced night and day and studied with some other genius the readers never heard of, with the quote about how the one genius they have heard of thinks this guy plays like he was touched by God.” His phone rang.
“Well, but he is a genius,” I remarked, glancing down at my notes.
He picked up the phone, but put his hand over it long enough to say: “Just get some emotion into it, personality-wise.”
“Bergman emotion? Angst-ridden sex?”
“Yeah, OK fine.” I think he said this to the phone.
“Ask Bellman about his sex life,” I told the doorframe as I went out. “That’ll be well received.”
Bellman’s local agent was a sassy operator I knew fairly well from previous celebrity profiles. I asked him for five appointments, one after each class. “He’s a tough interview,” the agent said with a rising inflection. “God forbid I should be negative, but I sat through dinner with him and that cretin from the Times, and my darling Bellman didn’t complete a sentence the entire meal. I was tearing my napkin with my teeth. He’s a genius; that doesn’t mean he can talk you through five interviews. Don’t you quote me!”
I remember a dim, pea-green room with, at one end, a concert grand on a low wooden dais: an obsidian shrine, illuminated by track lights hung from the ceiling. A padded leather club chair sat in anticipatory judgment beside the dais. Facing this, twelve rows of folding metal chairs containing ninety-seven reverential spectators and, in front, seven pallid students, of whom three were twisting shredded Kleenex between their fingers. Among the dry-palmed ones there was a young man with translucent skin and slick black hair who seemed to have frozen in his chair, stiff as a stone plinth—except for a knee jittering so violently that a sheaf of music poised on his thigh splayed into a fan and spilled onto the colorless carpet.
I was in the second row, sipping latte from a Styrofoam cup. I expected a morning of dry-toast piano, some student suffering I could write about in gently amusing terms, and, with luck, two or three Bellman quotes that would give my readers a hint at a man who routinely moved thousands of dim, dinner-digesting concertgoers to jump up and shout out loud.
A side door clicked and opened.
Bellman could have been a bulky, blue-eyed bricklayer hemmed into a Savile Row blazer. He crossed the carpet with a lightness and deliberation that drew my eyes to his feet, which were rather small, in soft black moccasins. He stopped, consulted a manila folder. My eyes lit on his wrist, where furry, dark-ginger curls peeked, clandestine, from under a blue-and-black herringbone cuff. He fingered a page delicately, then turned from the waist—his body motion easy, economical—and called the first student.
I assume he pronounced a name, but all I heard was a muscular vocal tone that blew a thrill of embarrassment into me, a surprise virus chill. I took a breath, confused, as if I’d lost a minute to a freak thunderstorm and now I was inhaling ozone on a high plateau. Bellman was shaking hands with the translucent-skinned young man, whose eyes watered hysterically. As the Swede immobilized himself in his royally situated chair, the student lifted stick-slender arms and attacked a Chopin scherzo as though it had tried to bite him in the groin.
At first Bellman was so perfectly passive he reminded me of a fairy tale I’d read to please my editor, about a troll who ambushed unwary travelers by sitting so still he appeared to be an oddly shaped stone. Bellman’s features were sweet and rude: broad, round cheeks dimpled with creases; smooth, high forehead framed by a receding crescent of copper-brown hair that emphasized the roundness of his face; sparse, severe little eyebrows, like charcoal pencil marks pointing to the slightly crooked nose.
As I took notes on all this, I shivered and felt the metabolic relief of coming down from a too-fast ride. The student stormed through his piece; Bellman’s small mouth pursed into a forceful pout, like an angry kiss. His eyes narrowed slightly. He put one hand to his chin and rubbed the thumb and forefinger back and forth along his jawline, stroking an absent beard. He looked like a man who needed to shave twice a day. My skin began to tingle a little, as though slightly carbonated.
A good interview is an exercise in time-lapse intimacy. The correct first question, deftly posed, can put you right there. I approached the master after that first class as he stood beside his chair, closing his manila folder with theatrical care, glancing at the brunette in the fuzzy magenta sweater with the reporter’s notebook in her hand who was stepping into his presence. I identified myself; Bellman shook my hand with polite sobriety. He didn’t release his warm, undemanding hold but drew me forward, his other hand unobtrusive behind my left shoulder, my upper arm, my elbow, as though leading me to a dance floor. Thus we glided out, around a corner and down the hall to a windowless office equipped with a desk, a piano, and one armchair. He placed me in the chair, then pulled the piano bench out to the side and sat on it, his knees splayed loosely outward, arms relaxed, big round hands clasped. A mock-retro desk lamp provided the only light. I fixed my attention on its oblong green glass shade and brass stem, which are the only colors I can now remember from that room. Bellman drew a deep breath and exhaled like an interested physician.
“What do you think of the students?” I bleated.
“Unexceptional.” He raised his eyebrows into startled arches and pursed his lips in that judgmental kiss. “Not all bad. Some with potential.” I nodded. His eyes, roaming the bookshelf beside me, refocused and rested on my own. A trace of humor passed through the ether: “Anything more?” he said.
If the first question doesn’t click, you have to engage a line of talk that gets gradually more personal and to the point. I tried three. First, assessments of each student’s good and bad points. This elicited a decent quip about the most crippling flaw of all: fear of Bellman, which he said gripped four of the seven students, and which he hoped would disappear before the week was out. One of them, in particular, was potentially “convincing”: a sleek young Asian woman in a white angora dress (one of the Kleenex-twisters) who had played with subtlety until Bellman, to highlight a rhythmic structure, placed his hand on her rabbit-soft shoulder and with two fingers tapped a delicate embellishment. A sensation had suffused her face, like a manifestation of my own feelings when he called the first student’s name. She easily picked up the embellishment he had demonstrated, but her subsequent notes came out watery and uncertain.
“It’s not good to be too impressed, even by me,” he said. “Art is ego. Has to be.” And he launched into an analysis of pedaling that would have been beyond a newspaper audience. It was beyond me. I tried a question about the notion of teaching artistry.
“Does not happen,” he said simply. “Technique, analysis, interpretation. That’s all.” He shrugged and glanced aside. The lines of his face had curved into a strangely sophisticated, scornful expression. I sat back, set my pen down and placed both hands over it.
“Is it such an idiotic question?” I said.
“You have a frightening sneer.”
“Good. You have a beautiful sweater.”
“I understand you have three daughters. Are they terrified of you?”
Thence to the personal, a conversation of twenty minutes about kinship and courtship, which ended in a parting handshake and the revelatory gravitation to a kiss, which folded into an embrace. He won his point, assured himself that more was available in that domain, disengaged first his lips and then his tongue, and leaned back to look down, frowning, at my face. I stared up at him, aroused, blank. A mischievous smile lifted his cheeks, apple-rosy and simple. “I am just appreciating you,” he said.
He accomplished my seduction in absentia: overnight, in the fantasy of shadows on my ceiling, cast by a streetlight and filtered through the ficus by my bedroom window. Or had it been during the kiss; or even before? Did it all originate with me? My inner elaborations, the confused vibrations generated in me by his blunt maleness, his confident subtlety, his fame, his hands? He touched me as though I were a familiar instrument; I felt myself fan into chords, clicking rhythms. I saw him—parts of him, his left shoulder or a hirsute, capable wrist, the challenging tease in his eyes—as I spilled a few coffee grounds the next morning, ate yogurt. An hour later, in my office, on the phone with an activist mom concerned about water quality, I staged a concurrent, imaginary, nonverbal exchange with Bellman.
The young Asian student wore a green silk jersey that day. She had put serpent-shaped silver barrettes in her hair, and she played with fearful but clear conviction. Bellman didn’t touch her, although he stood close over her, breathing, unspeaking, as if searching the sounds for something. She leaned toward him, playing. He straightened, shoulders back but swiveling his upper body toward her, and said abruptly, “Your tone is too small, and brittle. Needs to be—” He gestured with his big hands as though kneading soft dough in the air. Face upturned, hands halted on the keys, she nodded, following his movements with her body. Magnetized.
In the corridor, on the way to the windowless office: what did we say? Didn’t matter. Doesn’t. Why did we make love there, in a cramped room without even a couch? He had a hotel, we might have behaved normally, gone out for lunch, or to my apartment. No. He sat on the end of the piano bench, held me around the waist, pressed his thigh between my legs. I made some childish verbal protest—“But how can we?” His eyes were brilliant and determined. He said, “It will change nothing,” as though this were a phrase of absolution, before he kissed my arms, neck, mouth; my carefully denuded, lotioned legs, the hollow inside my hip bone. His lips protean, amoeba-soft, insistent, tender, violent.
I think we were finally on the rug, among our clothes. I’d never made love with such a large man. So old! I was surprised, intimidated, I had nothing to say. He moaned—tensile convulsion—that vocal tone, from the base of the throat. I retreated, scared by the wild frost-stenciled designs running through me. And suddenly the wave had moved beyond me, was rushing the shore while I treaded water a little way out.
So it didn’t quite work. For me. He lay still for just a moment, then eased his body from mine, his big chest damp with sweat, white skin freckled as by reddish sand. He sat up, examined my face, winked, and dressed quickly to duck out of the room for a wash, down the hall. When he returned (I had pulled on my clothes, slowly, and sat in the armchair) he crossed lightly before me, took the bench, rubbed his hands together briskly. He said with impersonal geniality, “And what are today’s questions?”
Did he make love to the Asian student, with her shimmery black hair in its razor-straight cut? It swayed when she played, shone like cellophane. When he showed her how to achieve a more powerful tone he incorporated her shoulders in the dialogue, created a Balinese dance of arms as he lifted hers with his. “Like the wave,” he said, moving his body and hers together, almost lunging toward the keys, onto which all four of their hands fell in a mush of notes that rang like spilled music. “Yes?” he asked, turning his face down to hers, holding the position until she nodded (I saw only the back of her glistening head). Then he stepped aside, still holding her hands, smiled, let go, withdrew to his chair, and nodded profoundly for her to play again. Boldly. Big.
When I entered his office that afternoon he made no reference to what had happened the day before. He didn’t kiss me, didn’t touch me, simply followed me into the room. Sat comfortably and answered questions. When I asked about the Asian student, he made a little shrug that raised acid jealousy in my mouth, and said: “I explained to her how she would produce the tone.” (Of course he’d “explained” nothing. He’d transmitted to her the ability to do what he wanted, but he hadn’t explained it. He never explained anything.)
He made no acknowledgment of any connection between us. My metabolism was still skewed, overexcited, asking. He was relentlessly cheerful, polite, flirtatious; looked discreetly at his watch a couple of times, let the interview run out of steam. I couldn’t so much as step close to him when I got up to leave. I went home horrified; cried, threw my notebook at the bed.
His agent was right: Bellman was about as articulate as a pinecone. Expressive, yes. Articulate, no. In the verbal domain, “No, no, the entire phrase, one gesture,” was, for Bellman, a longish utterance. Now and then—not often, his self-mastery was thorough—he’d half-lift his hand as though reaching for a recalcitrant word, which only sometimes revealed itself.
This made his English seem oddly crude for a well-educated Scandinavian. On the fourth day, I sat down in the desk lamp’s cheap chiaroscuro and watched him step across to the piano bench, then turn on one foot and in a single movement bend, reach down, and lift me into an embrace. When I said, “I don’t know if I can—here. If I can let go,” his eyes clouded with momentary helplessness as he answered, his arms authoritative around me, hands holding my shoulder blades, fingertips together on my spine:
“You want, I want. What does it matter where?”
But it did matter: here, now, in the grayish room where I slid down to kneel in front of him, between his legs, my arms on his thighs as he bent down, too, his kiss explorative, demanding. The disrobing, quick and efficient for him, quick and ceremonial for me. No space between us: a word here, a tongue, something in Swedish that I lost, him in my mouth, that most intimate kiss, the soft pulse at the back of my throat—the surprise of his urgent tenderness—and later, I was dazzled by the rush in my ears but through it I heard his voice and mine, too, shouting. A note like wilderness, boreal.
He called his family daily. His children were aged nine, twelve, and sixteen. All girls. His wife was a flutist. He lent me family photos—he had his wife send the negatives, overnight mail, from Stockholm—for my article. They were all sweet-featured and blond; his wife perhaps no longer naturally so. I felt a twinge of guilt. He showed no similar sign.
He never kissed me goodbye at the end of a meeting, never expressed sentiment—never seemed to feel any after, or much before. Only during. Even the last day (last! it was just the fifth!) after terrifying and noisy lovemaking, we talked as usual, quiet wrap-up interview questions he half answered: final remarks on the students, on the results one can expect from a single week’s work. “It will not change them in an exaggerated way; can be significant; it is what it is,” were his helpful insights.
Then I was standing at the door, notebook in hand. “I might need to call you, for the article,” I said.
“My agent can give you the number. I will be in New York for one week.” I lifted my hand, meaning to place it on his chest. He flinched, leaned back as if repelled by a magnetic field, but checked himself politely. I checked my hand, paralyzed. His eyes narrowed a little: retreat, then a flicker of obligation. He dipped his head for a stunningly perfunctory kiss.
“Write a good article,” he said. It could just as easily have been “Remember me to your cousin” or “Have a good weekend.” Then he leaned forward to open the door and urge me through it, winked with sheepish flirtatiousness, and watched me as I slid out. I glanced back as I walked away, saw only the closing door and the retreating toe of a black shoe.
Writing the article was painful work. I told no one. How could I have spoken about it? I didn’t have language to describe it. I had revealed myself to I didn’t know whom, I had shown him I didn’t know what. I told myself that the experience had been an aberration, that it was meaningless, that it was transcendent truth beyond words, that it was just a data point about men in general and Europeans in particular. I sat for hours in front of my computer screen, unseeing, not typing, immersed in sensations—on the floor, naked, my edges blurred into his like the colors bleeding together in an off-register photograph. A wash of electric soda circulated in me, hot and fizzy like the first time—I’d laugh, look up and around, out my office window, dazed and happy for a second. It was awful.
It didn’t go away. It grew less frequent; I managed it. I let it out to beat wildly now and then, and put it away again. Four silent months later I got a call from Bellman’s San Francisco agent, offering me a ticket to his concert in Los Angeles that week.
“What for?” I said.
“You’re asking me? He must’ve liked the story. Mind you, nobody’s offering you the plane fare!”
I agonized only briefly, overnight, interrogating the ceiling leaf-shadows. I went. The agent didn’t know where Bellman was staying, suggested I call his New York agent. I didn’t. I just went, and took a cab from the airport to the concert hall. It must’ve been about five in the afternoon, but sun-flash hot, July, with a dash of fine grit and ozone in the air. I was wearing a sundress and sunglasses, sandals, nothing else. Carrying a white jacket and overnight bag, like a girlfriend. The box office didn’t know where Bellman could be found. I mentioned my newspaper’s name; they called public relations, who said Bellman was in his dressing room. The box-office manager walked me through the appropriate doors, pointed down a corridor, retreated. A geometry of white walls, pale carpet, vague shadows; the discreet sigh of air-conditioning.
I knocked, and each rap of my knuckles on the door was like a lesson taught with a ruler slap, warning me that during the separation I had let my feelings run on, dithering, wild. I was more vulnerable now than before, more excited, fearful. Our intimacy had progressed—in me.
And in him? No idea. I heard him moving within, approaching. I put my hand on the doorknob just as he did, too: we opened it in a tumble of double the expected force. I fell into a collision with enfolding arms, pleased laughter. He nudged the door closed after me with his foot; the rest of him was seeking my reply.
I seem to remember our voices, mixed together, in that room. But in words, “I want you” was the only thing he said, quickly, in a rasp-whisper, as he drew me down onto a spectacularly large, dark-blue leather couch provided, I surmise, by the artistic management.
It was the beginning of a series: at intervals of weeks or months Bellman would have a ticket offered to me through some intermediary, I would go, we made love, I heard the concert, came home. Sometimes he’d send a plane ticket (separately, by mail) if he wanted me to come an expensive distance. I always made it, canceled whatever I was doing.
His playing was unimaginably consistent: scary-so-brilliant, spontaneous, disciplined. He never disappointed. I couldn’t identify how he moved people—every time!—but I could feel it happen, out there, lost in the audience.
Only in the exhausted minutes after making love, when biochemical intimacy had united us and for a moment longer held us, saturated—this was the only time we were at ease with each other. In the beginning it lasted maybe a minute, no more, before he gave me a narrow-eyed glance and pulled away; before his flirtatiousness returned, condescending. But gradually the moment grew elastic, stretched, lingered.
“How did you discover you were a musician?” I asked as he lay beside me on a scratchy carpet in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He laughed, a big, short “ha!” and his hand came to life on my hip, his thumb stroking automatically as he said:
“The question you might have asked for your article. You know I was fixed on becoming a footballer—soccer player. I had the talent. My mother was against. I was playing the piano, but was not serious. Then in a game near our summer house I was injured by one of the local boys, who ran into me, a supposed accident but of course not an accident at all. I was hurt, my left ankle broken. Worse, my nose fractured, which I was afraid would discourage the girls.”
“That didn’t happen.”
He let his eyes glimmer. “Seems not to have been so important. But my recovery I spent practicing. My mother engaged a higher-level teacher, I was encouraged. Life took a different direction. Thanks to that youth.”
“Was he a friend of yours?”
“No, just a local brute, from a wealthy family. I was stronger and quicker, he wanted to win; so he cheats. I remember his eyes very well—pale and empty, as pebbles in a stream. Just—nothing. The enemy!” He laughed again. “Probably part of my audience now. I thank him sometimes in my mind, when I acknowledge applause.”
In Seattle, three evenings running, before each of his concerts, we made love in a large pink- silk-embroidered armchair. In Denver, on a chrome-and-denim divan. There, after, I lay on his chest, looking at his face, the large eyes closed, blissful, replete.
I was smitten, I wanted to laugh. Instead I said:
“What are we doing?”
He didn’t open his eyes, didn’t move. From one eyebrow, a single longish hair curled down toward his eyelid.
“We are on a raft,” he said.
And he’d revert to Bellman the character. As if nothing had happened. As if he didn’t even much like having me there. A kind of well-rested readiness would animate his movements. He’d wash, slip on his shirt, his shorts; wait for me to leave. And I would be mute, chatty, crushed, cheerful. It wasn’t happening, it was, it would again.
I didn’t see him after his performances. He never asked me to. Once, he phoned me, late, at a hotel.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Thinking about you.”
The line hummed with silence.
“You never call,” I said.
“Do you want to see me?”
“No,” he said, vehemently and without conviction.
“OK. Good night?”
“Yes. Good night. Sleep tight.” In that damn tone of general affection for all.
It lasted just under two years. I didn’t plan anything, didn’t expect anything. Except: this happened, was ongoing. Real.
And then it stopped, or seemed to. Just nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. I waited, I don’t remember how long. It was like someone being missing in action, or at sea: you don’t know when it’s over. I fabricated mundane scenarios—he’d told his wife, they were fighting; he’d found another lover; one of his daughters was diagnosed with leukemia—stupid fantasies. I gummed up my mind trying to weave them into sense. I was in love, despite his militant nonparticipation in my life outside the dressing room; his dressing room.
It was at least a year before my attention was free enough to turn elsewhere. But then eventually there was a day when I glimpsed a nice-looking guy through the window of a restaurant, talking to someone I knew. I went in, was introduced. Et cetera. The three-dimensional lover, mine, whose lovemaking was neither anguished in its climax nor hostile in its retreat. Who spoke standard American English. A friendly native, like me. Who had, I was subtly surprised to find (since I’d never found them in anyone before Bellman), his own layers of violent tenderness, arctic and blue-hot.
Twenty-two months after I’d last seen him, Bellman came to San Francisco for a series of performances with the symphony. The final rehearsal, on the morning before the first concert, was open to the public as a kind of lecture-preview with coffee and doughnuts. I went. I watched his semaphoric interchange with the conductor, his head-tip, cocking an ear toward his own hands, his right foot in rhythm with his senses on the pedal. He was wearing the same herringbone blazer I’d first seen him in, a black-and-navy tweed that had been surprisingly supple when my fingers clasped a bit of it as he kissed me the first time.
I went backstage after, spied him in a nodding trio with a couple of oboes, caught his eye. He approached with a hearty hello, a frank and fraudulent smile, an arm lifted to circle my shoulder with airy politeness.
“I want you,” he said quietly, away from the wind instrumentalists. And then, “I want you.” And, “I want you.”
“How are you?” I said politely.
“Will you come?”
I missed a beat, screwed up the rhythm, then asked: “Where are you staying?” He mentioned the hotel, the room number. I didn’t answer his question. His hand slid down my back, gently verified my undergarments.
“I bought a ticket,” I said.
“Tonight?” he said. I nodded. But I went neither to his hotel nor his concert. I stayed home. Something in me was stuck, like an eyelash caught under the lid. He called the next morning. The sound of his voice provoked pulses, tickled glands. Hot, faint, angry, I made a date. “But I just want to talk to you,” I said. I arrived half an hour late, dawdled in the lobby rest room, finally knocked at his door and on entering intended to sit down and get everything straight, starting with an understanding of why he had disappeared, and what he felt for me.
No. We didn’t exchange words. His eyes were brilliant, aquamarine, frightening. Almost frightened, I recognized. (Had they been that way before?) He took me the way a man might take possession of land, of his home after almost losing it to a fire, or a creditor. I let it happen, wondering vaguely what I wanted. A backtrack to courtship, a charade of dinner-dates, divorce proceedings, tawdry depositions, the humiliating stares of his pretty children, middle-aged widowhood? Yes; yes! Of course: what love wants: more love, the nerve-and-muscle argument, the freckled slope from his heavy shoulder to the little flat-bulbed nipple tasting of salt: yes. I wanted to shout, that’s what I wanted, to open my throat all the way, so I could speak, sing, fight, eat, bear children—live. Aloud.
He didn’t revert to character afterward. We lay still, resolved together like a chord.
At some point he said, “I can’t.”
And I said, “I know”—a perfect lie. I knew nothing.
So last night, as a personal experiment, I went to hear Adam Bellman. The great Swedish pianist. But what was the experiment? The hypothesis? What happened? I heard a voice I hadn’t heard in six years.
It didn’t make me consciously flash back, I didn’t retrace our relationship during his concert. I just felt it, in the music coming from his hands. He reached right in under my bareback dress, touched the tips of my breasts, curved around every tender spot, as if my skin were new, naked like a child in the bathtub, soft and open all over. I looked at the rounded silhouette of his cheek, at his big upper arms free and agile in the requisite tux, in the lacquered orange-gold glow of the paneled stage. “It will change nothing,” he’d said at the beginning. Of course I didn’t believe him. It made me angry, though, at the time. I took it as an assertion of my insignificance. Now, it struck me as an overmodest judgment of himself, as when he had downplayed the effect of his teaching.
My thought dissolved into the music. I let it go. My mind’s eye opened on a low-angled, auroral light that shone across snow fields too far north for habitation, an image traversed by celluloid trolls moving in shadow crowds along the edge of a forest, dozens of them, with funny peaked cloth hats and rubbery curved noses. They spilled upward, in overlapping transparencies, from the cleft of a little haunted stream. A voice called across the snow, penetrating my consciousness only gradually, along with the image of a bony-shouldered scarecrow in shirtsleeves, hunched over a keyboard: it was Glenn Gould, the Canadian Bach specialist whose recordings are full of furious hums and moans that crescendo like a nervous breakdown against his chiming, mathematical pianism. (I remember liner notes describing a record producer’s frazzled efforts to get Gould to shut up. He couldn’t, even with a rag stuffed in his mouth.)
It was Bellman, singing again—shouting, calling. I know it’s not uncommon among pianists—vocalizing, consciously or not, an emotion or a counterpoint. But Bellman had never had this habit before, not when I’d been there. I flattered myself with the notion that I hadn’t been replaced. No new muse; thus his voice, aching. As in bed. Did he wonder whether I was out there now? I stayed away last time he was in town, four years ago. I’ve already taken that class, I told myself, I don’t need to repeat it. But now—unattainable music, that solitary male animal at the keyboard, reaching—I don’t know.
A pause. Silence.
And then blam!—like Hollywood artillery, the audience flared into yells of its own. It satisfied itself with violent applause, greedy whistles, encores. Like hormonally hyped-up sports fans.
Walking away, after: it seemed to have rained. Or maybe they’d just hosed down the sidewalks. The city felt washed, the blacks extra black, the puddles glowing neon red and blue, a splash of mercury thrown up by passing tires. As I stepped out across the intersection in front of Davies Hall, I felt an unexpected fizz in my veins. I fixed my eyes on the aqua interior of a too-cute gelato shop where concertgoers were starting to line up, and the briefest fantasy flickered through me: my fingertips on the soft indentation at the base of his throat, my mouth fitting around that bitter-juiced little fruit, mine, immediately everything open, right there, the—
A car horn honked. I’d stopped in the middle of Van Ness Avenue, the light had changed. I stepped quickly, lifted my foot to the grimy curb, but it felt oddly weightless—all of me, lightweight—not airy and free so much as panicked and insubstantial, unable to get an anchor from gravity—like milkweed fluff about to be blown from the urban scene.