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by Elizabeth Varadan
"It’ll be nice to see my grandbabies," Renee chattered nervously. Since they’d left the bus depot the taxi driver had only made noncommittal grunts to her comments.
"Six months old," said Renee. "Twins. A boy and a girl." Rose had sent her a picture with the birth announcement. They both had shocks of dark hair like her daughter’s above their wrinkled faces.
"I’ll be starting a vocal studio once I get situated," said Renee, trying to give her hopes credence. On the bus to San Francisco, everything had seemed possible: A voice studio, a concert—maybe a tour along the coast. Rose and her husband Walter thought Renee was still in Manhattan trying to arrange a concert tour in the east.
"You a singer?" In the rear-view mirror, the driver’s lifted brows showed his first sign of interest.
"Renee Howell." She tried to say her name as if he should recognize it. "I sang in concert here in the Bay Area, years ago."
"San Francisco is my favorite city," Renee added, looking out the half-open window at the slanting August light. The faint breeze in the air was pleasantly cool after New York. Memories jostled her: concerts up and down the west coast, voice students who revered her advice. She’d had a vocal studio in San Francisco until Rose eloped with Walter five years ago. Renee closed her eyes against the passage of time.
"Jazz?" asked the driver. "Ballads?"
"Mmmm." He returned to his silence, intent on traffic.
The bus ahead of them slowed and stopped for a red light. A cable car clanged. Renee could feel the thrum of the cab’s motor as it idled. Her thoughts meandered like cadenzas, coming to rest on her grandchildren. Everyone said grand-parenting was easier than parenting.
"Ever sing at the Opera House?"
The driver’s question took Renee’s breath away. Feelings rose in a wave of memory. For a moment she felt as if she were drowning. She had torn up a contract with the San Francisco Opera Company when her children were small. She placed a palm over her heart, then, realizing how melodramatic it must look, folded her hands in her lap.
"No," she said.
The light changed. A few moments later, the taxi pulled up to the Hotel Gryphon. Renee looked out. The hotel was shabbier than she remembered—paint peeled under faded awnings. It seemed an omen.
She gave the driver what she hoped was an engaging smile. "Can you help me with my boxes?"
He carried one in each hand into the small lobby, striding with an easy gait, his fingers hooked through the knotted ropes. Renee lugged her battered suitcase behind him. As he went back for the third box, she stood at the counter and cleared her throat.
She had to clear it a second time before the desk clerk looked up from his paperback. He made her think of an owl: beaky nose, round eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. He dog-eared the page and closed the book, Rabbit Run, a popular title at the bookstore where she’d worked her last six months in New York.
The clerk drummed his fingers on the counter while Renee scribbled out the check for a week’s rent, trying not to notice how her bank balance was shrinking. A tremor ran through her—stage fright, she told herself. She’d have an apartment before the end of the week, a new job in no time. She always landed on her feet.
The two men carried her boxes into the elevator, then down the dim hall and into her room. After they left, she raised the window and looked out, trying to absorb the excitement of being back in San Francisco. Across the street, a bearded man in bell-bottoms sauntered to the corner deli and went in. Renee supposed he was a hippie. Somehow they looked mellower than beatniks. Her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn’t eaten lunch.
Crossing the lobby, Renee saw the desk clerk huddled again over his paperback. He didn’t look up. A whisper of irritation stirred in her. People used to notice when she walked through a room. Voice teachers had commented on her "presence". A critic had once described her as "regal". She straightened her spine. At the door, her toe caught on the threshold, and she grabbed the doorjamb for support. Heat rushed to her face, as if all the failures of her life had coalesced in that stumble. Returning a few minutes later with a bag of groceries and a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle, she was grateful for the clerk’s inattention.
In her room, she made herself a sandwich of French bread and Gouda cheese and poured burgundy into the jelly glass she’d unpacked, then sat at the small table by the window. The wine’s warmth sifted through her as the sky turned dusky outside. Her glance wandered to the chair beside her and the unopened Chronicle. Buried inside were the classifieds, wrapped in the dire headlines of sit-ins and flag burnings.
She’d try the music stores first. Renee pressed her lips together. So many of her moves had been impulsive. She had to make this one work.
Quickly she shifted her thoughts to the marvel of being a grandmother: her Rose, the mother of twins! Married five years—longer than any of Renees marriages had lasted. It seemed a reprieve of sorts: a counterbalance to Sonny, who left long ago for the merchant marines and never returned; a change of heart for the daughter who once threatened never to get married at all. Renee let herself imagine future visits: She’d baby-sit when Rose and Walter went out to dinner; there’d be excursions to the zoo, the museum, the aquarium.
But first she had to get an apartment. Otherwise, one look at the hotel room’s stained floral wallpaper, the dingy chenille bedspread, and her daughter would get that pinched look on her face that was worse than anything Rose could ever say.
Laughter floated up from the sidewalk below. Renee smiled down at a man and woman strolling toward Geary Street, their arms linked.
San Francisco was her favorite city. A city of new beginnings. Sonny had been born here. Renee had met Rose’s father here. Her music had flowered here before it foundered: It was where she had auditioned for Gaetano Merola and he made arrangements for her to be coached by Madame Tellier.
Renee stared at her glass. The cab driver’s question had caught her by surprise, but privately she played this memory back to herself often, like a sad, beautiful recording, recalling how it had felt once to be so young, so full of promise. If things had worked out, she would have made her debut as Marguerite in Faust. The scenes still had a fresh tang, like the first few sips of wine. She saw again Madame Tellier’s face, explaining the terms of the contract: Sonny would be put in a boy’s school; a young couple wanted to adopt Rose.
After all, she had asked Renee, what if one of them got sick on opening night? A singer’s first priority is the performance.
In 1941, Renee had thought she could manage anything life brought her. That was before she had any notion of how many losses she would endure. Her son hadn’t run away yet; Rose hadn’t turned against her. Renee had torn up the contract, shrieking, "You can all go to hell!" A grand, dramatic gesture—burning her bridges.
Her life was littered with burned bridges. Renee held a hand to her suddenly throbbing temple, thinking of the yelling match with the neighbor upstairs just before she left New York. He didn’t like her vocalizing at six o’clock in the morning before she went to work.
But, that’s what sopranos do, they vocalize.
A question sliced through her thoughts as cold and chill as any wind off the ocean: If she had known how it would all turn out, would she have torn up the contract? Renee took a quick sip of wine to calm a sudden tightness of breath. Of course she would.
"Of course I would", she said aloud, and sent her thoughts to a happier place. It was a knack she had, like playing scales in another key, changing from minor to major: Rose could probably use a hand with those twins. She would take Rose shopping for them: little bibs, ruffled dresses, tiny coveralls…. Her mind skipped over the seventeen boxes at the Greyhound depot—in three days Greyhound would start to charge storage. Renee poured a second glass of wine and focused on her priorities: Find a place, make a deposit, move in, unpack, get unemployment started, land a new job.
What if she didn’t find a job? She shook out a cigarette from her pack Pall-Malls lit it, inhaling deeply. A filthy habit for a singer, she knew. Her daughter’s face came to mind, along with the usual admonitions about cancer. Dutifully Renee stubbed out the cigarette, then lit another right away. The after dinner cigarette was the only one that tasted good. Anyway, she was going to quit smoking before she called them.
When Renee left for New York five years ago, she had told Rose and Walter it was to establish a new vocal studio and a series of concerts. Actually she was trying to make the point that she wouldn’t be an interfering mother-in-law, one of her few wise decisions. So far, she’d established a pleasant, witty rapport through letters with her son-in-law. He seemed to like her. Rose seemed to have mellowed. Her letters were even chatty, except for that note scribbled on the back of the birth announcement—the line about no child of hers ever going into music.
The grunt of a truck motor floated through the window, along with the sputter of a motorcycle. Footsteps clumping overhead reminded Renee of the New York tenant who didn’t want her to vocalize. She took a small puff from her cigarette.
She had actually given a couple of small concerts in New York, but she’d never managed the voice studio. That hardly mattered now. What happened instead was the dream of a lifetime, though she was sorry for its reason. Three years ago her sister in L. A. died and left her enough money for a trip to Europe. At the time, Renee was trying to get backing for a concert at Carnegie Hall. She was fifty-two, but her voice still had power and color in her middle register. She had planned a program of German Lieder. But…Europe!
She made the trip last a year. She went to Salzburg, Athens, the Greek islands, to Rome, Venice, Milan. She had stayed two months in Milan, a city so steeped in opera…. Renee closed her eyes, treasuring again the memories from that year. They comforted her whenever she felt, as now, that time was closing in on her; that the road ahead was shorter than the road behind.
But she had the future to think about. Sidestepping the job-hunting ahead of her, she willed herself to picture settling into her new place and phoning her daughter:
"Hello, Rose? When? Oh, over a month. I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner, I’ve just been too busy with this new job...." Maybe directing choir at some church. Like she did at Howard Baptist ten years ago, before she quarreled with the minister about having the youth group perform H. M. S. Pinafore for a fundraiser. The minister had thought they should perform something religious. Maybe some church needed an organist.
"It’s so nostalgic, looking up the old places," she’d tell Rose. "I just felt like being alone. San Francisco is so lovely this time of year!"
That was the tone.
The sky deepened, reflecting haze from neon signs and street lamps and the yellow glow of apartment windows. Renee closed her window but didn’t turn on the lamp. In the shadowed light, she could see the cigarette stubs accumulating in the ashtray. She poured another glass of wine and gazed. Below, figures hurried down the street.
Milan had been the highlight of her trip. She saw the celebrated production at La Scala of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, with Simionato, Corelli, Sutherland. The evening had been permeated with layers of musical history, as if ghosts of other composers, conductors, singers, hovered in the air: Verdi, whose first opera was performed there. Serafin, who shaped Callas. Toscanini, who was God to the sopranos he had launched—Tellini, dalla Rizza, Tibaldi. The elect.
What if she hadn’t thrown away the contract? This time Renee let the question linger. She realized her face was wet and brushed away the tears. It wasn’t that she regretted the choice. It was that one way or another she had lost her children anyway. Sonny had never returned—not even a letter after that second trip. Renee could never trace him: he was of age; authorities assumed his life was his own business. And look at Rose: already determined, from that note, that Renee wasn’t going to influence the twins.
She stood up, switched on the table lamp, and pulled the window shade. Tiredly, she changed to her robe and went to the dresser to get her toilet case and room key. Catching a glimpse of her face in the mirror, Renee paused: her mascara was smudged, her lipstick eaten off; her hair had pulled loose from its chignon; her mouth and eyes wore the ravaged expression she’d seen in war documentaries. Averting her eyes, she took the case and pocketed the key, wishing the bathroom weren’t so far down the hall.
She didn’t know how long she’d been awake. She had roused from some fading dream about Rose’s father, the way he looked years ago, his hair thick and black, his dark eyes earnest. Renee tried to call the dream back—some promise, but what?
She reached for her cigarettes. When she lost sleep, if she didn’t have a book to read, a smoke gave her something to do. An image came to mind of the hotel catching on fire and Rose and Walter reading about it in the Chronicle. Renee folded her hands over her abdomen, thinking instead of the box in the corner that held her scores.
She needed her scores when she traveled. Sometimes she could read herself to sleep, hearing the music in her mind while she sight-read, as calming as a bedtime story. She rose, slipped on her robe and turned on the light, then went over to the smaller carton, riffling through sheet music until she came to the thick volume she wanted: La Traviata. Taking the score to the table, she poured a glass of wine and sat, opening the pages to the last part of Act One.
Where Violetta stands alone, she used to explain to students, when she did have a studio. She always translated, sketching the scene, wanting them to comprehend fully the words they sang. She stands there in her room, after all the guests have left, musing about Alfredo.
She used to explain the librettos to Rose, too, and Sonny, when they were small, so they’d understand what they were seeing when she took them to the opera. Why did that make Rose so angry when she mentioned it in letters? Tears sprang to Renee’s eyes. Rose was the only one left. Renee didn’t want to lose her for good, the way she’d lost Sonny. Or lose the grandchildren. It was important not to mess everything up this time.
She ran her finger along the crease of the page, forcing herself to concentrate. Violetta stands musing how love has finally caught up to her, when she’s already trapped in a life that doesn’t allow for love.
The wrong corners were turned long ago. That’s what Renee would tell students now, once she had her new studio. It’s so clear that it’s a doomed love, right there, in the first act. You can hear it in the music; that’s the genius of Verdi. And, as Renee pondered this—how the music foreshadowed the drama, allowing the deep truths of life to pour from the lyrics—the magic of opera began to work its soothing effect on her. She sipped her wine, smoothed the page back and leaned forward, intent, imagining those three soft violin arpeggios and the two quarter notes that signaled the aria.
"Ah, forse’ e lui che l’anima.…" He is the force who stirred my soul.... Renee closed her eyes, hearing the way she sang it in Santa Barbara. "Solinga ne’ tumulti...." Lonely from the tumult. She knew just how that should be sung, knew even then, after her first marriage had gone on the rocks—the weariness; the wistfulness:
As Violetta turns, now , her hands clasped, the strings crescendoing in the background. Her voice has to thrill to the moment of her realization: the surprised joy at finding herself deeply loved. The song rises in her, the music trembles in her throat.
The music trembled in her own throat. She stretched out a hand, caressing the air:
"A quell’amor, ch’e palpito dell’universo," as though to touch that very love that palpitates through the universe. The fear of it. "Croce e delizia...."
Overhead a banging jarred Renee from her reverie. The music came to an abrupt halt in her head as a man’s voice yelled, "SHUT UP!" She blinked, frightened to find herself standing near the bed, her hands crossed over her heart, the word "delizia" dying on her lips.
"Trying to get some sleep here!" A woman’s whiny voice picked up the complaint and grumbled, ".... who the hell she thinks she is, anyway...."
"…. some crazy broad...."
Renee came fully awake roused to battle.
"Shut up yourself!" she yelled, then froze. She grabbed the glass from the table and took a quick sip.
"Come up here and make me! Bitch!" The couple’s laughter flowed through the floorboards like a waterfall of contempt. Renee burst into tears. All her life she had tried to serve art, like Tosca. She drained her glass, then poured another, sticking the cork in the empty bottle. The wine’s warmth flushed her face and spread through her chest.
"Who are you calling bitch?" she cried. She raised her glass toward the ceiling. "Goddamn hyenas! Both of you!" A giddy sense of liberation swept through her, as tangible and decisive as the sound of a ripped contract. In a flash, she realized exactly how Violetta should sing "Sempre libera". Glass high, she visualized the opulent stage-set for the drawing room, heard the rustle of the audience on the other side of the footlights waiting for her to get it right this time, no mistakes.
The recitative builds: "Sola... abandonata...." Overhead, the voices died away. Violetta could have been her definitive role, Renee could see that now; it took a lifetime to fully grasp such a complex character. When she was younger, the vocal fireworks had appealed to her. Now she appreciated Violetta’s unprotected heart.
She tries to throw love away, even before it happens. This is what drives the aria. Violetta drinks her wine, toasting the wild, free life, trying to convince herself she was born for a life of pleasure. "Sempre libera...." Always free.
A steady banging, an angry thudding mingled in Renee’s ears along with the orchestra’s swell. Singers carry on. A diva’s first priority is the performance, no matter what. You have to strive for those brilliant cadenzas—though a slightly off-key background voice seemed to limp alongside the purer notes of the aria’s gathering climax. Renee raised her glass again for that final triumphant high note. The note shattered. Not at all the voice she remembered. The thumping overhead grew louder. Someone was banging on the door.
"Mrs. Howell?" Renee recognized the desk clerk’s voice. Her stomach tightened. She set the glass carefully on the table, next to the littered ashtray and empty wine bottle.
"Mrs. Howell?" This time a pleading note crept into his voice.
"I’m coming." She crossed the room and slid the chain out of the lock, and opened the door, striving for composure. The desk clerk stood haloed by hall light, his cautious owl face fully attentive.
"Yes?" Renee narrowed her eyes, which seemed to rattle him. "Yes?" she repeated, making it impatient.
"Mrs. Howell, we can’t have you singing in the middle of the night."
Renee was silent. In the back of her mind, Violetta began reading the letter from Alfredo’s father, the one that promised Alfredo was returning to her. After all the misjudgments. After all the waiting. "E tardi!"
"This is a hotel, Mrs. Howell." The clerk’s face was solemn. "It’s not a… a private residence. We can’t have other tenants disturbed."
Renee cleared her throat. "No."
He didn’t look reassured. "We don’t want any trouble, Mrs. Howell."
"Of course not." She pinched at the lapel of her robe.
"Otherwise, we’ll have to ask you to go someplace else." Renee stiffened, envisioning Rose and Walter learning through some mysterious source that she had been evicted.
"There won’t be any more problems," she said.
"You won’t sing anymore...?"
Why couldn’t he just goddamn leave? "I said there won’t be anymore problems!"
"Well... good." He gave a quick relieved smile. "Try... try and get some sleep." He twiddled with his wire glass frames, as if wondering how to back out of the conversation.
"Goodnight." Renee made her voice haughty, dignified. He turned and started quickly down the hall, not looking back. She watched him press the elevator button and thrust his hands in his pockets to wait.
Closing the door, she pulled the chain across the groove, then walked to the bed and sat crouched on the edge, massaging her forehead, trying to smooth away her sense of shame.
"Attendo, attendo…." Violetta has waited and waited. She looks back, seeing that, after sacrificing everything for love, she is still alone. The oboe’s soft, introductory notes….
A sob shuddered out of Renee, then another. The tissue she held to her eyes grew spongy and damp.
"Addio del passato, bei sogni ridenti...."
She clasped her arms, hugging herself tightly, as if her strange embrace could contain the music.
The weight of it in her chest struggling like something alive, wings beating, trying to rise up and take flight….
Renee’s hands flew to her mouth and pressed against her lips as the song threatened to burst out of her.
Contact Elizabeth at email@example.com