Read the novel on this site, a chapter a week, or buy the book and companion CD at Amazon.com.
“Continue straight for the next fourteen miles.”
There’s no way I could have written that review last night. And this morning, I didn’t really have the time.
“Continue straight for the next thirteen point eight miles.”
But between Maddie and Tchaikovsky and the Latino Brothers Karamazov, I have enough raw material for a novella, and the first paragraph is pounding on my mental front door like an angry landlord. Write me! Write me!
“Continue straight for the next thirteen point six miles.”
“Hey, Larry. Any chance you can get this bee-acch to shut up?”
“Oh, sorry.” He hits a button on his navigation screen. “After a while, you don’t really hear it anymore. It’s just like being married – and you so totally didn’t hear that from me.”
Between the wife, two daughters and what you might call an actively present mother-in-law, Larry is gynecologically surrounded. But he’s got a fantastic degree of patience and a wicked sense of humor to help him deal.
Despite the over-persistent vocals, the navigator is a fascinating little gizmo. I watch the little dot that is us as it crawls past the junction of I-280 and 92.
Me, I’m a terrorist. I’ve got this gorgeous little nugget of plastic explosive sitting in my pocket, next to my cell phone. It’ll only work if I find the right target, and the right time. Larry’s not it. As father of two rambunctious girls and builder of Silicon Valley startups, he’s got way too much on his plate to keep track of my musical obsessions. We are alike in so many ways, but we are outfitted with vastly different lives. I leave the explosive where it lies, and I keep the conversation light.
“Pretty good. Still in the development stages. But our investment capital is super-solid, and I got a nice deal on the new facilities.”
Larry’s sort of a CFO, although his companies are never quite large enough for him to cop to the title. Gotta love the names. The first was InSync, one letter away from a boy band. Next was Expedion, three letters away from an online travel site. The new one, Calypto, sounds like a foot fungus suffered by Harry Belafonte. But I shouldn’t make fun. I’m the one who gets the logo golf shirts when the companies get sold.
Carla and Linda are in the back seat, maintaining a heavy chatter. The subject, as usual, is education. It seems like every one of their kids is headed for college, so they’ve become experts on the new generation of SAT scores, the balancing of tuition costs with scholarship offers, the all-important question of How far away? and the more important question of Why didn’t we have our kids further apart?
“Oh! The campus. No kidding – it was actually named one of the top ten best-looking campuses in the country. Gorgeous. And I really do think she’ll prefer going to a smaller school.”
“Still playing ball?” asks Larry.
“Amazingly enough. All these young punks tryin’ to push me out, but they didn’t count on my craft and guile.”
Larry laughs. “Sounds a lot like Silicon Valley. Oh, geez. I better reactivate the bee-acch.”
He presses a button and gets immediate results.
“Turn right, Sneath Road exit, two point four miles.”
“Well, at least she’s got a new song.”
We’re into the North Peninsula – Colma, Daly City, South San Francisco – about two-thirds along my opera commute and deep into Cemetery Central, where the dead outnumber the living. We swing through the arched gates of the military cemetery and find infinite rows of white crosses – enough to fill a stadium. Our arrival, as usual, finds the place in rare form, fresh flowers everywhere, small American flags planted at five-foot intervals. It’s not really our choice – Mom’s birthday just happens to be May 31 – but it’s nice that the place always looks so festive.
We take a left and spiral up the hill to the cemetery’s central feature, an enormous flagpole surrounded by commanders, privates and sergeants. Her stone is modest and horizontal, etched with the words Grace M., wife of LCDR Harold J. Siskel. It’s funny that she’s lodged in such a boys’ club, but she certainly put in enough time as a Navy wife to qualify.
After sixteen years, we have all developed our rituals. I brush away the grass clippings that have fallen into the engraved letters, then pull out any roots invading the edges. Carla manages to find one of the military-issue flower holders – a metal cone attached to a stake – plants it into the lawn and works an arrangement of roses. They come from her house and Linda’s house, descendants of the bushes from my mother’s garden. I would leave the house late in the evening and use my car key to cut off a blossom for my date. My favorites were orange with swirls of yellow; they smelled like citrus and vanilla. A year after she died, my father discovered an enormous purple iris in the center of the garden. “Don’t know where that crazy thing came from,” he said, but of course we both knew where it came from. My mom had planted it the previous spring, even as the cancer moved from her colon to her liver.
Sixteen years later, we are beyond much need for reminiscing, much more apt to sit around Mom’s name and talk about the kids, the jobs, the A’s, the Giants, our much more entertaining cousins – sort of the same stuff we would be telling her about, anyway. In California, it’s second nature to steal ideas from other cultures, and in this my Scots-Irish clan is very Latino, very Dia de los Muertos.
A few minutes later, we have entered our quiet phase – each of us, perhaps, trying to bring up an image of her face, wondering what she would have looked like if she had attained the old age she so richly deserved, and trying to recall what life was like before we learned how to pronounce the word “metastasize.” Linda retells a piece of the family liturgy, how she took a walk on Mom’s beloved beach, the day of her death, and found that someone had written the name Grace in the sand. I follow with one of my own, Mom’s habit of pointing out her favorite women to Dad and saying, “If I die before you, you can marry her.” One of those women was Sharon, who eventually became our stepmother. How we decided that the siblings should meet every year on Mom’s birthday, and visit her gravesite. And then it gets quiet again. I shuffle a hand into my pocket and pull out my grenade.
“Last night, I had a date with Maddalena Hart.”
My principal target is Linda, she who retains an innocence that can break your heart. She lets out a gasp (God bless her) and looks at me with wide eyes.
“Oh my God! Isn’t she that opera singer? What do you mean ‘a date’? You mean you got to meet her?”
“She asked me to meet her at a bar after the performance. We talked for three hours.”
My next respondent is big sister Carla, who is most up-to-date on my opera life. “Wow! That’s like… Wow! Were you nervous?”
“I was pathetic!”
“Was she nice?” asks Linda.
“Nicer than I could have dreamed.”
I realize that this level of celebrity gossip is too good not to make use of, but my bragging has left me feeling a little tawdry. I already miss the sense of anticipation, the lump of explosive that I have now squandered.
“Hey!” says Larry. “I think I saw her on PBS once. She’s kind of a babe!”
“Oh Larry!” I protest. “Maddalena is such an amazing artist that I would never even notice such a thing!”
And now we all laugh. Because siblings know better. And now I feel less tawdry.
We head across the freeway for lunch and pie at Baker’s Square, and by the time I get home I’m beat. That lead paragraph is still parked on my brainstep, ringing the bell like a Jehovah’s Witness with a quota. I, however, am too tired to lift a finger, so I take a swan dive onto the bed and I don’t get up.
Is there anything worse than the overlong evening nap? When you get up it’s dark outside. At first you assume that you’ve landed somewhere deep in the night. You feel this awful regret over the loss of time, and then you realize that it’s eight o’clock and you have an entire Saturday night in front of you. Then you hear the sound of a car pulling down the dirt road and stopping at the end of the drive. And then, for a long time, nothing.
I stumble from the bed, fully clothed, and peer out the window. Katie’s out there, but why hasn’t she knocked? In the faint light from her dashboard, I can see that she has buried her face in her hands. I make my way outside and cross the front yard, redwood twigs snapping under my bare toes.
When she sees me coming she waves me off, as if she wants me to go back to the house and pretend I’ve seen nothing. Yeah, right. I open her door and kneel on the ground so I can pull her to my shoulder. She doesn’t look like she’s been crying for long, but the moment she pulls the key from the ignition, it all comes out.
“No it’s not,” she sobs.
“I mean it’s okay to cry.”
So she does. This may sound odd, but there’s are few things more beautiful than a crying woman. Because this is real, this is what matters. I suppose this is one reason that I love opera. All that raw emotion.
Five minutes later, I grab her weekend bags and head for the living room, where she gives me the full account. Katie has landed herself in a nice little torture chamber. Given no choice but to move out of her house (she mentions police visitations, implies abuse), she moved in with her sister’s family. This means Katie and her two daughters stuffed into a single room, this means imposing on a sister with her own children to raise – but this is the only way she’ll be able to get the teaching degree, and be able to support the family on her own. This afternoon, as I was dining with my sibs, Katie’s sister was giving her the dreaded speech: “You need to make plans for moving out.”
Katie sits on my couch, nursing her nose with a Kleenex. “I can’t stand being in that house! I can’t breathe, I feel so bad – but what else can I do? I have to think of my girls.”
I have no answers, but that’s not my job. I’m the safe harbor, the weekend retreat. I toss a Duraflame into the fireplace and light it up.
“Have you eaten? Can I make you something?”
She waves a hand. “I had some McDonald’s. But I brought some brownie mix. Can you make me some brownies?”
“Sure.” I pour some red wine and hand her the remote.
“Make sure you undercook them by a couple minutes. I like them nice and gooey. And bring me the mixing spoon. I want to lick the leftover.”
She gets into this bossy mode sometimes. But that’s okay. She spends every day on a carpet of eggshells, so I don’t mind her roughing me up. Besides, I’m still pretty fuzzy from my nap, so clear instructions are helpful. Amazingly, I have everything the brownie mix demands – one egg, cup of milk, baking powder. I pop the tray into the oven, then I run a finger through the mixing bowl and lick it off. Yowza!
We spend the next hour consuming the entire tray, along with a full bottle of Cab. Katie’s feeling good, and kissing my ear. I warned her about that. It drives me insane, and should only be undertaken with serious intentions.
“Mickey? I want you to make it all go away. I want you to destroy me.”
She pulls my hand inside her shirt. She’s a nipple girl, and can sometimes reach orgasm with nothing else. Between red wine, luscious brownies and Katie’s tits, all thoughts of Maddalena Hart and that first paragraph have escaped my mind. Now it’s my turn to be bossy.
“Go to my bedroom, take off all of your clothes, but don’t get on the bed just yet. I’ll be right in.”
“Oh-kay!” She hops up and strips, leaving a trail of laundry as she crosses the room.
I race outside to the car and dig around until I find a brand-new dropcloth. When I return to the bedroom, Katie is seated on a chair, wearing not a stitch, legs daintily crossed. I open the plastic packaging, unfold the dropcloth and spread it over the bed.
“Lie down, honey – face to the mattress.”
She squeals and takes her position, the plastic crinkling beneath her.
“Now close your eyes and don’t open them until… Well, you’ll know when.”
I dash away to the kitchen, where I pour an entire quart of olive oil into a pot and warm it to the temperature of a hot tub. Then I take the pot to the bedroom and slowly empty its contents over Katie.
“Oh my God!” she moans. “That is so… That is so…”
I strip off and saddle her butt so that I may embark on a full-body massage, working every muscle from head to toe. I manage to keep this going for a half hour, as Katie maintains a rumbling moan beneath me. My muscles are getting a little sore, but I don’t care. My cock becomes so rigid that I can no longer ignore its pleas, so I insert myself into Katie’s pussy as I continue to massage her back. I didn’t actually think I could do this. The inside/outside rubdown has an immediate effect on Katie, whose moans are growing in pitch and frequency.
After a few minutes, I get another idea and run outside, erection bobbing like a diving board, to dig up a box of rubber gloves. Katie is mightily curious about my disappearance, but it helps that she’s halfway to a coma. I pull her hips until that gorgeous white bubble-butt is pointed skyward, and insert one, two, then three fingers into her pussy, her breathing working into an excited pant. Then I pull on a glove and insert a finger into her anus. She tightens up, putting some impressive pressure on my second knuckle, but then I put my ungloved hand back to work on her pussy, and soon she’s accepting my multiple intrusions with glee. I’m a freakin’ gynecologist, and a minute later Katie is bucking.
She collapses, my hands still inside of her – but I’m not done. The word was, after all, “destroyed.” I pull a butt plug from my nightstand – a beginner’s model, three inches long – and work it into her asshole. Then I collect some oil from her calf, slather up my dick and re-enter her pussy. After all the attention, she’s hot as a sauna, and I have to stop for a second before I go spurting out all the fun. From behind, I can fuck her in standard doggy fashion as my pubic bone pushes against the butt plug, sending both pistons in and out of her at once. She starts ramming her ass back against me, slamming the headboard with both hands and screaming all manner of high-pitched, unintelligible filth. That’s what I like about the woods. Nobody hears. Except for Trey the Fish, who’s probably shocked that a 47-year-old gets this much action.
Katie comes violently, then yells at me to keep going, and thirty seconds later is coming again, letting out a series of glissandos that would make Maddalena proud.
I can take no more. I pull out, stand up on the bed and jerk off as Katie waves her much-abused ass at me. I shout as loudly as I please and send sprays of semen over her back. Then I collapse next to her and rub the whole messy vinaigrette into her skin.
She turns, eyes wide with energy. “Y-yes.”
“I’m going to pour you a bath, honey.”
When I look at her again, she’s crying, but I think I know what she’s trying to say.
“You’re gonna be okay, honey. Just hang in there.”
I kiss her, fill the tub with hot water and bubble bath, then I carry her from the bed and settle her into the water, like a baby at baptism.
The straw-colored sun at my bedside. Fifteen minutes later, she’s back, fully dressed, damp hair, ready for church. I walk her out. She looks tired. Destroyed. I give her a kiss and say, “The next step. That’s where you keep your focus. Just get to the next step.”
“What is the next step?”
“Pick up your kids, take them to church. And don’t let them blackmail you.”
“Right. Thanks for last night. It was a nice trip.”
I kiss her again and watch as she drives away, raising a parade of dust. I would tell her that I love her – because I’ve been where she is, because I understand. But I won’t.
My third wake-up comes early: ten o’clock. The lead paragraph is back, knocking at my cerebellum like a Girl Scout with a cart full of cookies. Still, I’m going to insist on the ritual. I have some new soap that I’m dying to open. French-milled with Shea butter and mango butter. It lathers up in a yellow cream, with a ripe tropical smell. I raise my hands to my nose and take it in.
Twenty minutes later, I’m at my writing table. Across the way, Trey the Fish is setting up for a party. He’s an international spear fisherman. No kidding. I went to one of his barbecues and found myself chewing on a zebra-stripe manta ray from New Zealand. But even exotic grilling and topless women will not stay me from my appointed rounds.
I first learned the immortal Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin through recordings. I had little idea of the text, or the context, but I loved the passion of its vocal lines, the uplifting breeze-like woodwinds, the life-transforming back-and-forth of the character’s monodrama.
Which is why my first encounter with an onstage incarnation was so unsettling. The regal music was there, as were the dramatic vocal lines, but the supertitles stripped away all the mystery. Basically, you had a teenage country girl attempting to write a crush letter to her hunky new neighbor, and tormenting herself with a night-long oscillation. “OhmiGOD! What do I do? I mean, like, if I tell him and then he doesn’t like me, that would be like a totally wicked bummer! Does he love me? Does he not love me? Argh!”
The biggest news about SFO’s production is Maddalena Hart’s innovative approach to this scene. Hart manages to take Tatyana’s irritating indecisions and paint them with a tennis-match conviction – as if every flip-flop is, in fact, a solid, committed step in the advancement of her argument. She does this by delivering each new flight with a distinct attitude, expression or movement, helping us to step inside the actual crazymaking mindset of a teenage girl, for whom each new thought marks an entirely new direction in the course of her life, on par with the discovery of Relativity. The ride is vastly entertaining, and brings a palette of new and vivid colors to Tchaikovsky’s legendary scene.
I had a chance to talk with Ms. Hart post-performance, and she confirmed my impression. Every few years, she refashions her roles, going back to square one and seeking new revelations about her characters. With the Letter Scene, she began with the translation, imagining how each sentence would feel, mapping out her reactions, and using certain keywords as guideposts. She wanted to be sure not to have the same exact feeling or reaction more than once. Hart also credits stage manager David Cox, who designed a choreography of movements to go with these reactions.
And now for the history. In 1877, as Tchaikovsky embarked upon the project, his sympathies stood firmly with Tatyana, whose first confession of love meets with a heartbreaking failure. Although Onegin handles the situation with sufficient tact – saying that he can offer nothing more than a brother’s love – he later proves himself a crass, shallow schmuck.
During the composition of the Letter Scene, Tchaikovsky found himself in the exact position of his title character. He received a crush letter from a former pupil, Antonina Milyukova, a young woman he barely remembered. His dismissal was much more brusque than Onegin’s, including an instruction for Antonina to “quell her feelings.” After completing the Letter Scene, however, he reconsidered his rude behavior and decided to make up for it by marrying the girl.
This was a huge mistake. Tchaikovsky quickly discovered that he was repelled by physical contact with a woman, and celebrated his honeymoon by hurling himself into the Moscow River. The anticipated pneumonia failed to arrive, so instead the couple separated. Tchaikovsky paid her off at the rate of 6,000 rubles a year. Despite all of this trauma, he finished Yevgeny Onegin in the span of eight months.
Despite bearing three children by another man, Antonina refused a divorce. Sixteen years after the wedding, Tchaikovsky was caught flirting with a duke’s nephew. A court of colleagues issued a secret missive ordering the composer to kill himself. His death, soon after, was blamed on the ingestion of tainted water. More recent biographers conclude that he was, in fact, carrying out the court’s instructions. Antonina outlived him by 24 years, drifting from one asylum to the next.
The creation of the Pathetique Symphony, one of the most melancholy pieces of music ever written, is often credited to Tchaikovsky’s lifelong struggle with his homosexuality. The piece debuted in 1893, nine days before his death.
I upload a photo of Maddalena in her Letter Scene nightclothes, wearing one of her well-designed expressions: utter radiance, her eyes raised to the light as she considers the possibility that Onegin’s feelings might be equal to hers. Her hair looks like spun gold. I press Publish, and I take a beer out to the porch. I’m surprised to find that it’s only midafternoon. Trey’s party is going strong, a dozen rascally young guys, a trio of girls, drinking and laughing and eating God-knows-what from God-knows-where. The road is packed with vehicles; I’m not sure if I could get out of here if I wanted to. Then I remember that I forgot to set my computer’s response-alarm. When I go back in to check, DD’s already there. That girl really needs to get a life.
DevilDiva: Um… Hello? Am I reading this right? You met Maddalena Hart?
Mickey: Yeah, I did.
DD: All right, you’ve earned your coolness points for playing it low-key. But please! A few details for the groundlings?
M: She liked my Cosi review, so she asked me out for a drink. I’m still a little in shock. Three hours! We talked for three hours.
DD: Did you sleep with her?
M: OMG! You little drama queen. Are you trying to create a viral rumor?
DD: Couldn’t hurt your numbers, honey. So what was she like?
M: I told you I didn’t sleep with her!
DD: I sorta meant, ya know, personality-wise.
M: Doh! Charming as all hell. So much as I imagined her that it sort of surprised me.
DD: You were surprised by the lack of surprise.
M: Well, no one’s as perfect in person as they are on stage. But I rather like the little flaws. Less goddess-like, more human. Those eyes, though. Wow.
Cordell: I find that her eyes are even better in person.
DD: Jesus! Am I the only one who hasn’t met her?
C: I’m a voice coach, honey. I meet ‘em all. But I wanted to thank you, Mickey, for that story about Tchaikovsky. I’ve heard little bits of it, but I’ve never seen it spelled out in such a beautifully tragic arc. And the secret suicide command! Is that new?
M: Yes, it is. It was discovered in somebody’s archive, and reported in a biography a couple years ago. Of course, it might also have to do with the increasing openness about homosexuality.
C: Amen for that. Meanwhile, so glad you got to meet Maddie! She is a delight. A bit mad-making sometimes, how neurotic she gets about the details – but that’s what makes her the best.
DD: Yes, and now I have an additional reason for disliking her. She’s met the legendary Mickey Siskel.
C: Maddalena is not our only green-eyed soprano. Mee-ow!
M: I’ll meet with either of you, anytime. I shan’t forget my roots, now that I’m hangin’ with the stars.
DD: You got a deal.
C: Come up to Seattle and see me sometime.
M: Thank you, Mae West.
I have successfully given birth to the lead paragraph, and everything that follows, and once the gang leaves the comments page I realize what a weekend I have had, and how exhausted I am. I dial up a baseball game – one that I have no intention of watching – and I collapse on the couch.
Hours later, I awake, and I realize that I’ve done it again: the accursed evening nap. It’s dark outside, a whisper of sunset still in the heavens, and Trey’s party is down to a handful of smokers, a string quartet of glowing orange tips. I notice that the baseball game has become a soccer match, and that my computer is running its screen-saver, a labyrinth of colored pipes building and unbuilding itself on a gray background. I roam across the room, hit the space bar to clear the plumbing, then click the refresh button on my comments page.
Mad Huntress: You are a poet. I have never heard the story of Antonina and Pyotr told so well. It is excruciatingly sad. I’m certain that Ms. Hart had a splendid time speaking with you.
Photo by MJV