On command the firing squad aims at the man backed against a full-length mirror. The mirror once hung in a bedroom, but now it’s cracked and propped against a dumpster in an alley. The condemned man has refused the customary last cigarette but accepted as a hood the black slip that was carelessly tossed over a corner of the mirror’s frame. The slip still smells faintly of a familiar fragrance.
Through his rifle sight, each sweating, squinting soldier in the squad can see his own cracked reflection aiming back at him.
Also in the line of fire is a phantasmal reflection of the surprised woman whose slip now serves as a hood (a hood that hides less from the eyes looking out than from those looking in). She’s been caught dressing, or undressing, and presses her hands to her breasts in an attempt to conceal her nakedness.
The moment between commands seems suspended to the soldiers and to the hooded man. The soldiers could be compared to sprinters poised straining in the blocks, listening for the starter’s gun, though, of course, when the shot is finally fired, it’s their fingers on the triggers. The hooded man also listens for the shot even though he knows he’ll be dead before he hears it. I’ve never been conscripted to serve in a firing squad or condemned to stand facing death—at least, not any more than we all are—but in high school I once qualified for the state finals in the high hurdles, and I know that between the “Aim” command and the shot there’s time for a story.
Were this a film, there’d be time for searching close-ups of each soldier’s face as he waits for the irreversible order, time for the close-ups to morph into a montage of images flashing back through the lives of the soldiers, scenes with comrades in bars, brothels, et cetera, until one of the squad—a scholarly looking myopic corporal—finds himself a boy again, humming beside a pond, holding, instead of a rifle, a dip net and a Mason jar.
There’s a common myth that a drowning man sees his life pass before his eyes. Each soldier taking aim imagines that beneath the hood the condemned man is flashing through his memory. It’s a way in which the senses flee the body, a flight into the only dimension where escape is still possible: time. Rather than a lush dissolve into a Proustian madeleine moment, escape is desperate—the plunge through duration in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” or through a time warp as in “The Secret Miracle,” Borges’s ficción in which a playwright in Nazi-occupied Prague faces a firing squad.
In this fiction, set in an anonymous dead-end alley, the reflection of a woman, all the more beautiful for being ghostly, has surfaced from the depths of a bedroom mirror. The soldiers in the firing squad, who can see her, conclude that she is a projection of the hooded man’s memory, and that her flickering appearance is a measure of how intensely she is being recalled. Beneath the hood, the man must be recalling a room in summer where her bare body is reflected beside his, her blond-streaked hair cropped short, both of them tan, lean, still young. The mirror is unblemished as if it, too, is young.
“Look,” she whispers, “us.”
Was it then he told her that their reflection at that moment was what he’d choose to be his last glimpse of life?
Each soldier is asking himself: Given a choice, what would I ask for my last glimpse of life to be?
But actually, the hooded man never would have said something so mawkishly melodramatic. As for having the unspoken thought, Well, so shoot me, he thinks.
Back from netting tadpoles, the scholarly corporal, sweating behind his rifle again, imagines that rather than recalling random times in bars, brothels, et cetera, the hooded man is revisiting all the rooms in which he undressed the woman in the mirror.
One room faces the L tracks. The yellow windows of a night train stream across the bedroom mirror. After the train is gone, the empty station seems illuminated by the pink-shaded bed lamp left burning as he removes her clothes. Beneath the tracks there’s a dark street of jewelry shops, their display windows stripped and grated. Above each shop, behind carbonized panes, the torches of lapidaries working late ignite with the gemstone glows of hydrogen, butane, and acetylene. Her breasts lift as she unclasps a necklace, which spills from her cupped hand into an empty wineglass beside the bed. Pearls, pinkish in the light, brim over like froth. A train is coming from the other direction.
In the attic she calls his tree house, the bed faces the only window, a skylight. The mirror is less a reflection than a view out across whitewashed floorboards to a peeling white chair draped with her clothes and streaked by diffused green light shafting through the leafy canopy. The shade of light changes with the colors of thinning maples. At night, the stars through bare branches make it seem, she says, as if they lie beneath the lens of a great telescope. Naked under a feather tick, they close their eyes on a canopy of constellations light-years away, and open them on a film of first snow. Daylight glints through the tracks of starlings.
In a stone cottage near Lucca, rented from a beekeeper, they hear their first nightingale. They hear it only once, though perhaps it sings while they sleep. At twilight, the rhapsodic push-pull of an accordion floats from the surrounding lemon grove. To follow it seems intrusive, so they never see who’s playing, but on a morning hike, they come upon a peeling white chair weathered beneath a lemon tree. When he sits down, she raises her skirt and straddles him. The accordion recital always ends on the same elusive melody. They agree it’s from an opera, as they agreed the birdcall had to be a nightingale’s, but they can’t identify the opera. It’s Puccini, he says, which reminds her they have yet to visit Puccini’s house in Lucca. Tomorrow, he promises.
Recognize it—the aria playing even now, the clarinet, a nightingale amid twittering sparrows.
Sparrows twitter in the alley from power lines, rain gutters, and the tar-paper garage roofs onto which old ladies in black toss bread crusts, and this entire time the aria has been playing in the background. Not pumped from an accordion, probably it’s a classical radio station floating from an open window, or maybe some opera buff—every neighborhood no matter how shabby has one—is playing the same aria over, each time by a different tenor—Pavarotti, Domingo, Caruso—on his antiquated stereo.
The clarinet introduces the aria’s melody and the tenor echoes it as if in a duet with the woodwinds. E lucevan le stelle, he sings: And the stars were shining. Ed olezzava la terra: And the scent of earth was fresh …
Stridea l’uscio dell’orto,
e un passo sfiorava la rena.
Entrava ella, fragrante,
mi cadea fra le braccia …
The garden gate creaked, and a step brushed the sand. She entered, fragrant, and fell into my arms …
Admittedly, “E lucevan le stelle” is a predictable choice for an execution—so predictable that one might imagine the aria itself is what drew this motley firing squad with their unnecessarily fixed bayonets and uniforms as dusty as the sparrows brawling over bread crusts.
Doesn’t the soldiers’ appearance, from their unpolished boots to the hair scruffing out from beneath their shakos, verge on the theatrical, as if a costume designer modeled them on Goya’s soldiers in The Disasters of War? A role in the firing squad doesn’t require acting; their costumes act for them. They are anonymous extras, grunts willing to do the dirty work if allowed to be part of the spectacle. Grunts don’t sing. In fact, the corporal will be disciplined for his ad-libbed humming by the pond. They march—trudge is more accurate—from opera to opera hoping to be rewarded with a chorus, a chance to emote, to leave onstage some lyrical record of their existence beyond the brutal percussion of a final volley. But their role has always been to stand complacently mute. This season alone they’ve made the rounds from Carmen to Il Trovatore, and when the classics are exhausted then it’s on to something new.
There are always roles for them, and the promise of more to come. In Moscow, a young composer whose grandfather disappeared during Stalin’s purges labors over The Sentence—an opera he imagines Shostakovich might have written, which opens with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, five days past his twenty-eighth birthday, facing the firing squad of the Tsar. Four thousand three hundred miles away, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, an assistant professor a few years out of Oberlin who has been awarded his first commission, for an opera based on Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, has just sung “Froggy Went A-Courtin’” to his three-year-old daughter. She’s fallen asleep repeating, Without my uncle Rat’s consent, I would not marry the president, and now the house is quiet, and he softly plinks on her toy piano the motif that will climax in Gary Gilmore’s final aria.
And here in the alley, the firing squad fresh from Granada in 1937, where they gunned down Federico García Lorca in Osvaldo Golijov’s opera Ainadamar, has followed the nightingale call of “E lucevan le stelle” and stands taking aim at a man hooded in a slip.
If you’re not an opera buff, you need to know that “E lucevan le stelle” is from the third act of Tosca. Mario Cavaradossi, a painter and revolutionary, has been tortured by Baron Scarpia, the lecherous, tyrannical chief of Rome’s secret police, and waits to be shot at dawn. Cavaradossi’s final thoughts are of his beloved Tosca. He bribes the jailer to bring him pen and paper so that he can write her a farewell, and then, overcome by memories, stops writing and sings his beautiful aria, a showstopper that brings audiences to applause and shouts of Bravo! before the performance can continue. Besides the sheer beauty of its music, the aria is a quintessential operatic moment, a moment both natural and credible—no small feat for opera—in which a written message cannot adequately convey the emotion and the drama soars to its only possible expression: song.
She entered, fragrant, and fell into my arms, oh! sweet kisses, oh! lingering caresses. Trembling, I unveiled her beauty, the hero sings—in Italian, of course. But in American opera houses subtitles have become accepted. My dream of love has vanished forever, my time is running out, and even as I die hopelessly, I have never loved life more.
* * *
That final phrase about loving life, Non ho amato mai tanto la vita, always reminds me of Ren. He was the first of three friends of mine who have said, over the years, that he was living his life like an opera.
We were both nineteen when we met that day Ren stopped to listen to me playing for pocket change before the Wilson L station, and proposed a trade—his Kawasaki 250 with its rebuilt engine for my Leblanc clarinet. Usually I played at L stops with Archie, a blind accordion player, but it was thundering and Archie hadn’t showed. I thought Ren was putting me on. When I asked why he’d trade a motorcycle for a clarinet, he answered: Who loves life more, the guy on the Outer Drive riding without a helmet, squinting into the wind, doing seventy in and out of traffic, or the guy with his eyes closed playing “Moonglow”?
Depends how you measure loving life, I said.
Against oblivion, Ren said, then laughed as if amused by his own pretension, a reflex of his that would become familiar. A licorice stick travels light, he explained, and he was planning to leave for Italy, where, if Fellini films could be believed, they definitely loved life more. He’d had a flash of inspiration watching me, a vision of himself tooting “Three Coins in the Fountain” by the Trevi Fountain and hordes of tourists in coin-tossing mode filling his clarinet case with cash. He’d rebuilt the 250cc engine—he could fix anything, he bragged—and even offered a warranty: he’d keep the bike perfectly tuned if I gave him clarinet lessons.
A week later, we were roommates, trading off who got the couch and who got the Murphy bed and sharing the rent on my Rogers Park kitchenette. From the start, his quip about loving life set the tone. The commonplace trivia from our lives became the measure in an existential competition. If I ordered beer and Ren had wine, it was evidence he loved life more. If he played the Stones and I followed with Billie Holiday, it argued my greater love of life.
The university we attended had a center in Rome, and Ren and I planned to room together there in our junior semester abroad. Neither of us had been to Europe. A few weeks before our departure, at a drunken party, Ren introduced me to Iris O’Brien. He introduced her as the Goddess O’Iris, which didn’t seem an exaggeration at the time. He assured me there was no “chemistry” between them. Lack of chemistry wasn’t my experience with Iris O’Brien. In a state that even in retrospect still feels more like delirium than like a college crush, I decided to cancel my trip so that once Ren left, Iris could move in. I’d never lived with a girlfriend before.
When I told Ren I wasn’t going, he said, I suppose you think that giving up Europe for a woman means you win?
Iris isn’t part of the game, I said, and when I failed to laugh at my own phony, offended honor, Ren did so for me—uproariously.
Living with Iris O’Brien lasted almost as long as the Kawasaki continued to run, about a month. Although Ren and I hadn’t kept in touch, I figured that if he wouldn’t return my clarinet, he’d at least fix the bike once he got back. But when the semester ended, he stayed in Europe.
From a mutual friend who had also gone to Rome, I heard Ren had dropped out. He spent his time playing my clarinet at fountains across the city, and fell in love, not with a woman, but with opera. That surprised me, as the love of jazz that Ren and I shared seemed, for some reason, to require us to despise opera. With the money he’d made playing arias on the street, he bought a junked Moto Guzzi, rebuilt it, and took off on an odyssey of visiting opera houses across Italy.
That spring I got an airmail letter without a return address. The note scrawled on the back of a postcard of the Trevi Fountain read: Leaving for Vienna. Ah! Vienna! Non ho amato mai tanto la vita—Never have I loved life more. Living it like an opera—well, an opera buffa—so, tell the Goddess O’Iris, come bless me.
It was the last I ever heard from him.
* * *
I didn’t catch the allusion to Tosca in Ren’s note until years later when I was enrolled in graduate school at NYU. I was seeing a woman named Clair who had ducked out of a downpour into the cab I drove part-time. Nothing serious, we’d agreed, an agreement I kept reminding myself to honor. Clair modeled to pay the bills—underwear her specialty. She’d come to New York from North Dakota in order to break into musical theater and was an ensemble member of Cahoots, a fledgling theater on Bank Street, which billed itself as a fusion between cabaret and performance art. Cahoots was funded in part by an angel, an anonymous financier whom Clair was also sleeping with. Through Clair, I met Emil, the founder and artistic director of Cahoots, and the two of them, flush with complimentary tickets, became my tutors in opera.
Their friendship went back to their student days at Juilliard, where Emil had been regarded as a can’t-miss talent until he’d become involved in what Clair called “Fire Island Coke Chic.” She’d been Emil’s guest at a few of the parties he frequented, including a legendary night when he sang “Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us)” with Leonard Bernstein at the piano. Clair worried that Emil’s addiction to male dancers was more self-destructive than the drugs.
Emil worked as a singing waiter at Le Figaro Café, a coffeehouse in the Village with marble-top tables and a Medusa-hosed Italian espresso machine that resembled a rocket crossed with a basilica. Each steamed demitasse sounded like a moon launch and the waiters, singing a cappella, were all chronically hoarse. Emil felt even more contempt toward his job than Clair had for modeling. The one night he allowed us to stop in for coffee, Emil sang “Una furtiva lagrima,” the famous aria from The Elixir of Love. His voice issued with an unforgettable purity that seemed at odds with the man mopping sweat, his Italian punctuated by gestures larger than life. The room, even the espresso machine, fell silent.
In the opera, that aria is sung by Nemorino, a peasant who has spent his last cent on an elixir he hopes will make the wealthy woman he loves love him in return. Nemorino sees a tear on her cheek and takes it as a sign that the magic is working. Watching Emil sing his proverbial heart out at a coffeehouse, Clair, too, looked about to cry. He’s singing for us, she said. Until that moment, I hadn’t recognized the obvious: she’d been in love with Emil since Juilliard—years of loving the impossible.
Emil’s voice rose to the climax and Clair mouthed the aria’s last line to me in English, I could die! Yes, I could die of love, while Emil held the final amor on an inexhaustible breath.
The espresso machine all but levitated on a cushion of steam, and patrons sprang to a standing ovation that ended abruptly when Emil, oblivious to the blood drooling onto his white apron from the left nostril of his coke-crusted nose, flipped them off as if conducting music only he could hear.
After Figaro’s became the third job Emil lost that year, Clair decided to risk desperate measures. Emil was broke. His doomed flings with danseurs had left him without an apartment of his own. The actors in Cahoots had grown openly critical of his leadership. Refusing to crash with increasingly disillusioned friends, Emil slept at the theater, whose heat was turned off between performances.
He’s out of control, we’re watching slo-mo suicide, Clair said, enlisting me in a small group of theater people for an intervention. It was an era in New York when the craze for interventions seemed in direct proportion to the sale of coke. Emil regarded interventions as a form of theater below contempt. To avoid his suspicion, Clair planned for it to take place at the private cast party following the opening of the show Emil had worked obsessively over—a takeoff on The Elixir of Love.
In the Donizetti opera, Dr. Dulcamara, a salesman of quack remedies, arrives in a small Basque town and encounters Nemorino, who requests a potion of the kind that Tristan used to win Isolde. Dulcamara sells him an elixir that’s nothing more than wine.
In Emil’s script, the town is Winesburg, Ohio, an all-American community of secret lusts and repressed passion. The townsfolk sing of their need for a potion to release them from lives of quiet desperation. Emil played the traveling salesman—not Dr. Dulcamara, but Willy Loman. As Willy sings his aria “Placebo,” sexually explicit ads for merchandise flash across a screen, attracting the townsfolk. They mob Nemorino, and the bottle of bogus elixir is torn from hand to hand. Its mere touch has them writhing lewdly, unbuttoning their clothes, and when the bottle breaks they try to lap elixir from the stage, pleading for more, threatening to hang Willy Loman by his tie if he doesn’t deliver.
Willy finds a wine bottle beside a drunk, comatose and sprawled against a dumpster. As scripted, the bottle is half filled with wine, and Emil is only to simulate urinating into it. But that night, onstage, he drained the bottle, unzipped his trousers, and, in view of the audience, pissed.
“Here’s your elixir of love!” he shouted, raising the bottle triumphantly as he stepped back into the town square.
The script has the townsfolk passing the elixir, slugging it down, and falling madly, indiscriminately in love. Willy demands to be paid, and they rough him up instead. The play was to end with the battered salesman suffering a heart attack as an orgy swirls around him. In an aria sung with his dying breath, he wonders if he’s spent his moneygrubbing life unwittingly pissing away magic.
Script notwithstanding, opening night was pure improv, pure pandemonium. When the actors realized Emil had actually given them piss to drink, the beating they gave him in return wasn’t simulated, either. Emil fought back until, struck with the bottle, he spit out pieces of tooth, then leaped from the stage, ran down the center aisle, and out of the theater. The audience thought it was the best part of the show.
The cast party went on backstage without Emil. Stunned and dejected, the actors knew it was the end of Cahoots and on that final evening clung to each other’s company. Around midnight, Clair pressed me into a corner to say, You don’t belong at this wake. We stood kissing, and then she gently pushed me away and whispered, Go. One word, perfectly timed to say what we had avoided saying aloud, but both knew: whatever was between us had run its course. Instead of goodbye, I said what I’d told her after our first night together and had repeated like an incantation each time since: Thank you.
Emil showed up as I was leaving. He still wore his bloodied salesman’s tie. His swollen lip could have used stitches, but he managed to swig from a bottle of vodka.
Drunk on your own piss? asked Glen, who’d played Nemorino and had thrown the first punch onstage.
Shhh, no need for more, Clair said. She took Emil’s arm as if to guide him. Sit down with us, she told him. Emil shook off her hand. Judas, he said, and Clair recoiled as if stung.
Keeping a choke hold on the bottle, Emil climbed up on a chair.
I’ve come to say I’m sorry, he announced, and to resign as your artistic director. I guessed you all might still be hanging around, given that without Cahoots none of you has anywhere else to perform.
Clair, blotting her smeared makeup, began to sob quietly, hopelessly, as a child cries. Emil continued as if, like so much else between them, it were a duet. Sweat streaked his forehead as it did when he sang.
Did you think I didn’t know about the pathetic little drama you’d planned for me tonight by way of celebration? he asked. So, yes, I’m sorry, sorry to deprive you of the cheesy thrill of your judgmental psycho-dabbling. But then what better than your dabbling as actors to prepare you to dabble in others’ lives? Was it so threatening to encounter someone willing to risk it all, working without a net, living an opera as if it’s life, which sometimes—tonight, for instance—apparently means being condemned to live life as if it’s a fucking opera?
* * *
The last friend of mine to say he was living life like an opera was Cole.
He said it during a call to wish me a happy birthday, one of those confiding phone conversations we’d have after being out of touch—not unusual for a friendship that went back decades to when we were in high school. Twenty years earlier, Cole had beat me in the state finals, setting a high school record for the high hurdles. We were workout buddies the summer between high school and college, which was also the summer I worked downtown at a vintage jazz record shop. Cole would stop by to spin records while I closed up. He’d been named for Coleman Hawkins and could play Hawkins’s famous tenor solo from “Body and Soul” note for note on the piano. Cole played the organ each Sunday at the Light of Deliverance, one of the oldest African-American churches on the South Side. His grandfather was the minister. I’d close the record shop and we’d jog through downtown to a park with a track beside the lake, and after running, we’d swim while the lights of the Gold Coast replaced a lingering dusk. His grandfather owned a cabin on Deep Lake in northern Michigan, and Cole invited me up to fish before he left for Temple on a track scholarship. It was the first of our many fishing trips over the years to come.
Cole lived in Detroit now, near the neighborhood of the ’67 riots, where he’d helped establish the charter school that he’d written a book about. He’d spent the last four years as a community organizer and was preparing to run for public office. When he’d married Amina, a Liberian professor who had sought political asylum, “Body and Soul” was woven into the recitation of their vows. The wedding party wore dashikis, including me, the only white groomsman.
He called on my birthday—our birthdays were days apart—to invite me up to Deep Lake to fish one last time. His grandfather had died years earlier and the family had decided to sell the cabin. When I asked how things were going, Cole paused, then said, I’m living my life like an opera. I knew he was speaking in code, something so uncharacteristic of him that it caught me by surprise. I waited for him to elaborate. Before the silence got embarrassing, he changed the subject.
We’d always fished after Labor Day when the summer people were gone. By then evenings were cool enough for a jacket. The woods ringing the lake were already rusting, the other cottages shuttered, the silence audible. Outboard engines were prohibited on Deep Lake, although the small trolling motor on the minister’s old wooden rowboat was legal. Cole fished walleye as his grandfather had taught: at night—some nights under a spangle of Milky Way, on others in the path of the moon, but also on nights so dark that out on the middle of the lake you could lose your sense of direction.
The night was dark like that. There was no dock light to guide us back, but the tubed stereo that had belonged to his grandfather glowed on the screened porch. Cole’s grandfather had had theories about fishing and music: one was that walleyes rose to saxophones. His jazz collection was still there, some of the same albums I’d sold in the record shop when I was eighteen. We chose Ballads by Ben Webster. The notes slurred across the water as I rowed out to the deep spot in the middle. Cole lowered the anchor, though it couldn’t touch bottom. I cracked the seal on a fifth of Jameson and passed it to Cole; tradition demanded that I arrive with a bottle. We’d had a lot of conversations over the years, waiting for the fish to bite.
I been staying at the cabin since we last talked, Cole said.
What’s going on? I asked.
Remember I told you I was living life like an opera? You didn’t say boo, but I figured you got my meaning, seeing you’d used the phrase yourself. Never know who’s listening in. Cole laughed as if kidding, but, given the surveillance on Martin Luther King, Jr., he worried about wiretaps.
Cole, I said, I never used that phrase.
Where do you think I got it? he asked.
Not from me.
Maybe you forgot saying it, he said, maybe you finally forgot who you said it about. Anyway, whoever said it, I’m at a fund-raiser in Ann Arbor, everyone dressed so they can wear running shoes except for a woman I can’t help noticing. You know me, it’s not like I’m looking—just the opposite—there’s always someone on the make if you’re looking. She’s out of Vogue. I hate misogynist rap, man, but plead guilty to thinking: rich bitch—which I regret when she comes up with my book and a serious camera that can’t hide something vulnerable about her. Photojournalist, her card reads, and could she take one of me signing my book, and I say, sure, if she promises not to steal my soul, and she smiles and asks if she can make a donation to the school, and how could she get involved beyond just giving money, and where’s my next talk, and do I have time for a drink? Two weeks later at a conference in D.C. she’s there with Wizards tickets. And this time I go—we go to the game. In Boston it’s the symphony, in Philly I show her places I lived in college and take her to the Clef, where ’Trane played, and in New York we go to the Met. I’d never been to an opera; we go three nights in a row. Was I happy—happiness isn’t even the question. Remember running a race—thirteen-point-seven-nine seconds you’ve lived for, and when the gun finally fires and you’re running, you disappear—like playing music those few times when you’re more the music than you? She could make that happen again. One night, I’m home working late, Mina’s already asleep, and the phone in my office rings. I’d never given her that unlisted home number. You need to help me, she says, and the line goes dead. Phone rings again. Where are you? I ask. Trapped in a car at the edge, she says. Her calls keep getting dropped, her voice is slurred: Come get me before I’m washed away. I keep asking her, Where are you? Finally she says: Jupiter Beach—I drove to see the hurricane. I say, You’re a thousand miles away. The phone goes dead, rings, and Mina asks, Who keeps calling this time of night? She’s in her nightgown, leaning in the doorway for I don’t know how long. Too long for lies. I answer the phone, but no one’s there.
She have a husband? Mina asks. You got to call him now.
The business card from Ann Arbor has private numbers she listed on the back, one with a Florida area code. A man answers, gives his name. I say, You don’t know me, but I’m calling about an emergency, your wife’s in the storm in a car somewhere on Jupiter Beach.
I know you, he says. I know you only too well. Don’t worry, she doesn’t tell me names, I don’t ask, but I know you.
Mina presses speakerphone.
You teach tango or Mandarin or yoga or murderers to write poetry, film the accounts of torture victims, rescue greyhounds. I know the things you do, the righteous things you say, and I know you couldn’t take your eyes off her the first time you saw her, and how that made you realize you’d been living a life in which you’d learned to look away. And like a miracle she’s looking back, and you wonder what’s the scent of a woman like that, and not long after—everything’s happening so fast—you ask, What do you want? and she says, To leave the world behind together, and you think beauty like hers must come with the magic to allow what you couldn’t ordinarily do, places you couldn’t go, a life you’d dreamed when you were young. But now, just as suddenly, she can destroy you by falling from the ledge she’s calling from, or falling asleep forever in the hotel room where she’s lost count of the pills. She’s talking crazy since she’s stopped taking the meds you never noticed, and when she said she loved you, that was craziness, too—you’re a symptom of her illness. So you called me, not to save her, but yourself, and it’s me who knows where she goes when she gets like this, and I’ll go, as I do every time, to save her, calm and comfort her, bring her home, because I love her, I was born to, I’ll always love her, and you’re only a shadow. I’ve learned to ignore shadows. She made you feel alive; now you’re a ghost. Go. Don’t call again.
I told you on the phone, Cole said, that I was living my life like an opera, but he’s the one who sang the aria.
* * *
A borrowed flat above a plumbing store whose back windows look out on a yard of stockpiled toilets filled with unflushed rain. Four a.m., still a little drunk from a wake at an Irish bar, they smell bread baking. Someone’s in the room, she whispers. It’s only the mirror, he tells her. She strips off her slip, tosses it over the shadowy reflection, and then follows the scent to the open front windows. A ghost, she says as if sighing. Below a vaporous streetlamp, in the doorway of a darkened bakery, a baker in white, hair and skin dusted with flour, leans smoking.
A bedroom lit by fireflies, one phosphorescent above the bed, another blinking in the mirror as if captured in a jar. The window open on the scent of rain-bearded lilacs. When the shards of a wind chime suspended in a corner tingle, it means a bat swoops through the dark. Flick on the bed lamp and the bat will vanish.
FIRE! DAMN YOU! FIRE!
Whom to identify with at this moment—who is more real—Caruso, whose unmistakable, ghostly, 78-rpm voice carries over the ramparts where sparrows twitter, or Mario Cavaradossi?
Or perhaps with an extra in the firing squad, who—once Tosca flings herself from the parapet—will be free to march off for a beer at the bar around the corner, and why not, he was only following the orders barked out by the captain of the guard, who was just doing what the director demanded, who was in turn under the command of Giacomo Puccini.
Or with the hooded man, his mind lit by a firefly as he tries to recall a room he once attempted to memorize when it became increasingly clear to him that he would soon be banished.
FIRE! I AM GIVING YOU A DIRECT ORDER.
How heavy their extended rifles have become. The barrels teeter and dip, and seem to be growing like Pinocchio’s nose, although it’s common knowledge that rifles don’t lie. Still, just to hold one steady and true requires all the strength and concentration a man can summon.
Turn on the bed lamp the better to illuminate the target. On some nights the silk shade suggests the color of lilacs and on others of areolas. See, the bat has vanished, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.
FIRE! OR YOU’LL ALL BE SHOT!
The lamp rests on a nightstand with a single drawer in which she keeps lotions and elixirs and stashes the dreams she records on blue airmail stationery when they wake her in the night—an unbound nocturnal diary. She blushed when she told him the dream in which she made love with the devil. He liked to do what you like to do to me—what we like, she said.
In the cracked mirror each member of the squad sees himself aiming at himself. Only a moment has passed since the “Aim” command, but to the members of the squad it seems they’ve stood with finger ready on their triggers, peering down their sights, for so long that they’ve become confused as to who are the originals and who are the reflections. After the ragged discharge, when the smoke has cleared, who will be left standing and who will be shattered into shards?
I can’t wait like this any longer.
Non ho amato mai tanto la vita.
Copyright © 2014 by Stuart Dybek