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Vol. 7, No. 1

Sphinxes
by Timothy Crouse

Sphinxes

Schumann, op. 9

I can still hear the satisfaction in Roberto's voice: he'd talked Miguel into shepherding Rosario on her trip to the seashore. And the roguishness: "Everybody knows about Miguel."

~

Not long after he began taking lessons from me, Roberto one day looked up from the keyboard and asked: "Do you like Rosario?"
          "Rosario? What Rosario?"
          He said her full name.
          "She's a student of mine."
          "I'm going to marry her."

~

At the period I remember best, Roberto and Rosario had a little girl, Lilí, and lived in an apartment looking out on the mountains. French windows opened onto a dramatic wrought-iron balcony, which Roberto had designed himself. The apartment smelled of geraniums. I always associated this with Rosario's sense of order. Everything in its place, immaculate.
          Though I generally required my students to come to me, I made an exception as often as possible for Rosario, since being away from Lilí impaired her concentration. She was preoccupied with every aspect of her daughter's well-being. This concern extended to Roberto, even to myself. She always had waiting for me a draft of her "magic immunizer"—an orchard squeezed into one tall glass—and entreated me to drink every drop. Something majestically selfless lent a becoming gravity to her solicitude.
          Late one sultry afternoon I arrived to find Roberto—lank, tan, with the nose of a Caesar—lounging in an armchair. At the piano, Rosario was helping Lilí, in her lap, pick out a tune. They all looked fresh and trim—congenitally undisheveled. Rosario put the child down: "If you're quiet-quiet, you can stay." With a smile to Roberto: "You, too." Lilí pondered for a moment, chin in fist, then parked herself in a miniature chair. She sat through the entire hour without a peep. Rosario leapt up afterward and cuddled her. "You were so good! Let's play our game." She pinched her ears, nuzzled her neck, pulled faces at her. To each sally Lilí responded in kind, with squeals.
          Roberto leaned back and pronounced: "I feel envious of myself."

~

Many of my students wanted to confide in me. I used this as an incentive to conscientious preparation: do your lesson well and afterward you can unburden yourself. One-way confessional; no penance, no absolution. The more they revealed, the better I could tailor their assignments. If they pressed me for a reply, I would point to the sounding board of the piano.
          One of the stories that Roberto told me dealt with a younger friend of his named Miguel, also a pupil of mine. How they knew each other, I'm not sure; it may have been a professional connection, since Roberto was an engineer and Miguel, at the time I met him, had recently wound up his training as an architect.
          "We went sailing together, and the wind quit on us. We'd brought a picnic hamper—it was so chock-full the top wouldn't close. With nothing else to do, we cleaned it out. Then I dove into the water and began showing off my butterfly stroke. Miguel hollered at me to come back, or I'd get a cramp. I called him a sissy and kept on going, to tease him. A spasm jackknifed me, crunched the air right out of me. I couldn't stay afloat. Just as I was giving up—I remember thinking rather calmly of Rosario for the last time—an arm grappled my chest. Somehow Miguel tugged my dead weight to the boat. Hauling me over the gunwale was too much for him: he injured his spine. He still has to wear a brace."
          Other stories that he passed on to me, always in an affectionate tone, centered on Miguel's penchant for strapping youths, which Roberto took to be a commonly known fact since with him Miguel was impishly open about it. He was fascinated by his friend's descriptions of a spangled, promiscuous netherworld, and amused by his ardors. "In the street, Miguel will spot some foxy muchacho, and ayayay!—he trembles, he staggers, he has to cling to my arm, or Rosario's."
          Both men had slender silhouettes. It would have been difficult to tell them apart at a distance, if not for Miguel's gait. Lumbar twinges caused him to stiffen his naturally balletic glide, like a dancer working on a treacherous floor. He had curly hair (Roberto's was bristly), and his face was longer than Roberto's, with sharper features, nostrils that flared. Each man had a peculiar way of actuating his attention. When I put a problem to Roberto, he would flick the tip of his nose, as though rapping his intellect awake. Miguel would bite down on one side of his underlip, and slowly release it. Roberto used to scold Miguel for this habit, warning him that he'd get canker sores.

~

Of the three, Rosario had the most pianistic talent. With her octave-spanning fingers, autonomous left hand, knack for sight-reading, and affluent musicality, she could have surmounted the drawback of a delayed start and made a career for herself. (She had a lovely voice, too, and might have become a singer.) Scales, arpeggios, the "Gradus ad Parnassum" never wearied her. Exercises that Miguel and Roberto would have done with clenched teeth, such as practicing pieces a half tone higher or lower than written, she regarded as a lark. While the two men were still plunking away at "The Little Orphan," she bounded through Anna Magdalena Bach and Tchaikovsky's Children's Album. Her great ambition was to graduate to Schubert's Impromptus and Chopin's Nocturnes. She achieved it with exhilarating dispatch. I had to dissuade her from tackling the Études: fragile wrists.
          She had one odd weakness—rushing the final measure of a piece.
          "Look, Rosario: there's a fermata at the end. The composer wants that note prolonged."
          She would blush.
          "A work isn't finished until the last resonance has faded."
          She assented. But as soon as she approached a double bar, she seemed to go blank.
          "What happens to you?"
          "The piano gets snatched away from me."

~

I'd been teaching Miguel for almost a year when he told me: "A lot of people think I'm homosexual. It's an act I put on, to lull husbands."
          He was no doubt capable of bringing it off, what with his fine-drawn lineaments, his wounded dancer's grace, his streak of flamboyance (which I had to curb repeatedly in his music-making).
          "I only sleep with married women," he went on. "Fewer complications that way. Except sometimes . . . There was an underage pantheress who used to prowl the nightclubs. Her husband—a bulldog, with a pencil mustache—came up to here on her" (he sketched her bust) "and liked to exhibit her, doing tangos. She always managed to brush me on the dance floor.
          "I redecorated their apartment for them, as a favor. Nouveaux riches, unsure of their taste. We did a heap of shopping for furniture and fabrics. I flirted, ostentatiously, with the brawnier clerks.
          "They had a country place. He said I must spend a weekend, go deer hunting. I recoiled—the poor helpless Bambis and so forth. He chuckled: 'You can keep my wife company while I'm off in the woods. I don't suppose you'll object to a nice haunch of venison.'
          "So I rode the train to a whistle stop in the hills. He met me. 'My bride is under the weather, unfortunately, and couldn't make it out. Maybe tomorrow. There's someone here I think you'll like, though.' He drove me to their chalet, and did the honors. The walls were studded with antlers; each rack involved a saga. At last, he excused himself. After a few minutes, he reappeared—in a geisha wig and a kimono, mustache powdered over, rouge everywhere . . ."
          The memory of it turned Miguel ashen.

~

Gazing into Rosario's naked eyes was like dropping your vision down a well. The first time I met her, all I saw was a pair of sapphires with a woman appended; they reduced the rest of her face to a mere perfect setting, a blur of high cheekbones framed by lustrous red hair. It helped that, during lessons, she put on glasses for her myopia.
          In all but the coldest months, she went about in sleeveless blouses and short skirts. Her arms and legs were slim, sinuous. Matter-of-factly, she would say: "I enjoy looking at them." It did not occur to her to begrudge others the same pleasure.
          Her bearing—back perpendicular, hands folded, thighs together—turned any seat she occupied into a throne. She told me that once, due to some domestic emergency, she had arrived less than prepared for an oral exam at the university, where she was taking courses in pedagogy. "As luck would have it, the professor started ogling my legs. The first tough question he asked me, I put on a meek, respectful expression and opened my knees. He gaped. He stammered. Without realizing that I hadn't answered, he moved on. The longer I sat like that, the more flustered he became. He had no idea what I was or wasn't saying. Finally he spluttered, 'Get out,' and dismissed me—with the top grade!"

~

Periodically I invited my students to a class in harmony or analysis. It wasn't unusual for a dozen or more of them to cram into my studio, pitching on every available chair and scrap of carpet. Prodigies gearing up for international careers, a radiologist mad for Debussy, an octogenarian widow who practiced four hours a day . . . I wished for them all to cohere, cross-pollinate—and to some extent they did. Their attitudes toward Rosario, however, exposed their frailties like a dye: the women acknowledged her with a sullenness that betrayed their envy, while the men fought shy of her, although they hobnobbed easily enough with Roberto and Miguel.
          After concerts, there would be ad hoc suppers at cafés. Roberto, Rosario, and Miguel, who never missed a musical event of any importance, usually took part. It was on these occasions that I observed the mixture of humility and histrionics which Miguel displayed in public toward Rosario. He held her coat, repaired her mussed hair with a deft pat. Once, he sashayed into a ladies room with her to help mend a broken spaghetti strap. He used to lift her hands like chalices and venerate them with caresses. Installing himself across from her, he would stare moonily into her eyes: "Think of me as your adoring mirror. I swear I'll die if you don't let me have my fill." One evening our party included another student of mine, an official at the foreign ministry, who witnessed Miguel's behavior with mounting indignation.
          "You permit this?" he hissed at Roberto.
          "I encourage it! It redounds to my glory."

~

Roberto began to mention affairs he was having. He sought out different companions, he claimed, so as to slake his urges without overtaxing his wife. Under the guise of divulgence, he would fish for advice. Describing some demand his mistress was making of him, he might slip in, expectantly: "Have you ever had to cope with that sort of thing?"
          I'd laugh: "You need more Schumann!"
          Rosario was wise to what was going on and saw no reason to protest. For her, the essence of the marriage was maternity. "I'm a scatterbrain," she would say, "but this I take seriously"—indicating the zone of her womb.
          Roberto and Rosario were accustomed to spending a week or two at the beach every summer. This year, one of Roberto's partners had fallen ill, saddling him with an extra load at the office. Also, Roberto had just embarked on a liaison with a young ballerina. If he could persuade Rosario to go on vacation without him, he would provide himself an open field while affording her a rest. Sending her off unprotected would, for him, have been out of the question. He had thought of the ideal escort: Miguel, who combined the most expedient features of a bodyguard and a dame de compagnie. At first, Miguel balked. It required a lot of wheedling on Roberto's part to bring him around. He didn't have an easy job with Rosario, either.
          I listened to her deliberate: "Naturally, Lilí would come with me. But can I trust Roberto to eat properly? And Miguel has been overworked. Wouldn't he be happier unwinding with his handsome friends than chaperoning me?"

~

They went. While they were away, I attended a recital by Claudio Arrau. During the intermission I noticed Roberto, at the rail of one of the boxes, deep in conversation with a wiry, chignoned gamine. After the last encore, filing out of the auditorium, we ran into each other. He hesitated for a moment, then introduced his chum, the dancer.
          "What a terrific evening!" he said a bit too loudly.
          I concurred.
          "That Carnaval was a real treat," he rattled on. "Such a charming piece, isn't it?"
          At his next lesson he asked: "Why did you look at me that way when I said I liked his Carnaval?"
          "You called it charming."
          "Well, sure. Papillons and all that. You can't deny it's pretty stuff."
          "A cadaver comes up to you and wants to dance—you consider that charming?"
          "What are you talking about?"
          "Listen to Carnaval."

~

When Miguel returned from the vacation, his playing grew soberer, solider, focused. Some chronic misgiving seemed to have been resolved, some inner reorganization effected: the same chord, voiced more cogently. Yet he was also feverish, brooding; one day a confession, long pent up, gushed out of him:
          "We took the train down to the coast. The motion of the carriage kept jogging our arms against each other—hers cool, mine hot. I was in a sweat. The craving in me! What I'd felt for the others was—froth. All that time longing for Rosario, courting her from behind my mask—and now to have this chance. It gave me qualms. And there was Lilí, curled up across our thighs, sucking her thumb.
          "The train arrived late. The hotel clerk informed us that we'd forfeited our reservations: the only thing he had available was a room with a double bed and a cot for the little girl. Rosario winked at me: 'I don't think it would kill either of us to sleep together.' Was it that I couldn't bring myself to abuse her naïveté? Or pure cowardice? I slipped the clerk a thin wad. Adjacent rooms materialized. Rosario and Lilí, at least, got a good night's sleep.
          "The next morning, early, I heard them stirring. I washed up and joined them for breakfast on Rosario's terrace. As soon as we'd finished, we grabbed our bathing gear and made for the beach. I hired a cabaña. While Rosario and Lilí changed, I scanned the panorama. The sand, the air, the sea—all sparkling. I felt sparkling myself. The cabaña's door opened, and Lilí flittered out. Then Rosario stepped onto the deck. She tossed her mane, loosening it to the breeze. I couldn't swallow. I could hardly breathe. It hadn't occurred to me to prepare for this sight—not that I could have. The swimsuit was a sleek one-piece, modest compared to the bikinis that many other women were sporting—but what it concealed, it revealed more than nudity itself, including the precise, sand-dollar forms of the nipples. It was her utter lack of self-consciousness, as much as anything, that undid me. I scuttled into the dressing room.
          "When I emerged, Rosario was sitting on the sand, watching Lilí romp with some children in a tidal pool. I sank down beside her. She stretched her limbs and let out a groan of relaxation, as if only at that moment had she shed her burdens. 'Would you rub some lotion on my back?' she asked, not taking her attention off her daughter. The swimsuit was cut low in the rear, almost to the sacrum. The flesh was smooth as meerschaum, except for a tiny heart-shaped mole near the fifteenth vertebra (I counted them in an effort to calm myself). My hand was on fire. A crushing ache had me in torment. I tried to relieve this through speech, telling Rosario how voluptuous I found her. The liberties I allowed myself only inflamed me more. Of course, I was also testing the waters. 'Oh, Miguel,' she said, 'you and your flattery!'
          Don't do anything rash, I cautioned myself. Bide your time. Didn't the sheer freedom to luxuriate in Rosario's presence amount to progress?
          "We had lunch on the patio. Lilí was transfixed by the fan-pleated napkins, the staff's uniforms, the Noah's ark of new faces. A waiter brought her a cushion to perch on and helped her choose from the menu. He was lame. After he left, she said to us, quite stricken: 'That poor man, he's like Esmeralda'—her doll, who had lost a foot. She laid out the seashells she'd collected, and aligned them by order of preciousness. When the waiter presented the check, she shyly pushed her three prize specimens in his direction.
          "While Lilí had her nap, Rosario and I sat on the terrace. The canvas awning cast a shadow that stopped on her thighs just at the line where her skirts usually fall. The sun floodlit those legs of hers. I kept glancing at them, insatiable. She appeared to be drowsing. It sounds absurd, but I would swear her knees caught me spying. More than once I've been unnerved by the way that her gaze—which I live for—suddenly retracts. Well, now she locked her legs—rigid, canted off to one side—and her entire body seemed to retract. I actually shivered. Then they did something negligible, and momentous—to this day, I have the impression it was the legs alone, independent, that did it. They opened far enough for a fist to slide in between them, and the farther one slowly rose about an inch, as if to gauge my reaction. The movement was so—brazen.
          "Somebody began to whisper with furious intensity, telling Rosario all my secrets. Only as the torrent subsided did I realize who was talking. Rosario jumped to her feet. Had I outraged her? Was she storming off to phone Roberto? A hoarse cry—'Mommy!'—came from the room. Rosario must have picked up an earlier cry that I, in my agitation, had missed. For a second, she stared at me."
          The doorbell rang. Miguel, stranded on the sunstruck terrace, blinked.
          "My next student."
          "Ah."
          "Roberto."
          I went and let him in. Seeing Miguel, he smiled.
          "Did you mention my idea?" Roberto asked him.
          "No . . . I wanted you to."
          "Miguel and I both need to work on mechanics, right? Why not coach each other, to accelerate the process? One week, say, Miguel practices leaps: I zero in on the problems. The next week he does the same for me. That way, we'll get to the four-hand repertoire before we grow long beards! Maybe once a month, we could have a joint session with you, to make sure we're not leading each other astray."
          "Bravo! How soon do you start?"
          They set up an appointment on the spot.

~

The following time, Miguel did an impressive job with some exercises by Clementi. He was anxious to finish telling me his story:
          "That afternoon, after my outburst, the world seemed to be holding its breath. Rosario behaved as though nothing had happened. On the beach, I sought refuge in Lilí—her uncomplicated light. Together we built a sand castle—a chateau, in fact, with all the fairy-tale trappings—and I spun tales in which she starred as its resident princess. We had supper around five, for her sake. Both Rosario and I spontaneously dressed up for the hotel's rather pretentious restaurant, and Lilí got to wear her 'royal gown' (a velvet frock). Rosario had somehow managed to manicure her nails. I refused to let myself believe she had done this for me. I half convinced myself that if I indulged such a presumptuous fantasy, those crimson rake-teeth would lash out and flay me. A tasty terror.
          "Afterward I lay on my bed, clothed, letting myself be mesmerized by the revolutions of the ceiling fan. The dimness around me thickened. I was conscious only of a thudding right beneath my Adam's apple. Someone knocked. Rosario—in a silk nightgown that tied behind the neck. Without a word, she floated past me and tiptoed to the door that communicated with her room, opened it a crack, listened. I began to say something. Her palm muzzled me, warmly. I kissed it. She stepped back. My hopes froze. She reached behind her neck and undid the bow.
          "I've usually found in even the most alluring woman some falsity, some tinge of coarseness that diminishes my respect for her. It was just the opposite with Rosario. One detail made our intimacy especially poignant: she was both with me and with her sleeping child. An instinctive vigilance radiated from her—a wave of tenderness combined with a coiled readiness to spring, if necessary, to her daughter's defense. I sensed this as palpably as one feels the sun on one's skin.
          "Then the idyll was over. Dismal! In the last eighty-one days, I've seen Rosario alone exactly four times. I mustn't push for more. She's devoted to Lilí and Roberto.
          "Every day I'm not with her weighs like jail. All I want to do is hibernate—but I can't fall asleep, thinking about her. It's turning me into a zombie. I play a lot, to distract myself." He paused. "Can I study that new piece you gave her?"
          "Which one?"
          "By Mompou." He hummed the theme. "It won't leave me alone."
          I produced a score for him. "Start by working out the fingerings."
          "What's the title?"
          "Secreto."
          His teeth clamped down on his lip.

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