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I would not have blamed Gabriella for a moment if she had left me there in my Space Needle collapse, had written me off as a full-gonzo head case, not to mention an unneeded distraction. It was I, after all, who had thrust myself into her life, juicing salvation from her singing, and her life was a suitcase already packed to the hilt with ambitions to fill, challenges to meet, flights to catch.
All I can figure is that knowledgeable opera fans must be hard to come by in the Great Northwest, because instead she bundled me up, got me in a cab to the ferry station, and saw me all the way across to Bainbridge, leaving me alone below deck only long enough to fetch me a bad cup of coffee from a vending machine. Then she trudged the five uphill blocks with me to the hotel, tucked me into bed, and called to the desk for a rollaway so she could stay in the room with me.
I suppose she thought I might be suicidal, but I was far too exhausted for suicide. I wouldn’t have had the energy to lift the pills to my mouth if I had them. I woke the next day to the sound of Gabriella singing Rosina, the second act, “Contro un cor.” But the sound was far away and tinny. I opened my eyes to find her in my bathrobe, hovering over my microcassette recorder and a stack of carefully labeled tapes. Gabriella saw my open eyes and flushed, as if she were the one who had been caught.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to wake you. I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to listen to myself.”
My response was the first few words of English I’d spoken since fleeing from the elevator the night before. It came out all breath at first, until my ignition kicked in and sparked it into tone. “No. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be... bootlegging your performances.”
“As long as I don’t find them selling for twenty-five-ninety-nine at Tower Records, I think we’ll be okay. Do you really listen to all these?”
“I know your every hiccup. I’m especially fond of that aria you were just playing. It gets a little lost amidst all the comedy, doesn’t it?”
“Precisely. ‘Una voce poco fa’ has a lot more emotional space around it. It’s a cavatina, a showpiece. You know, my favorite Rossini is actually ‘Selva opaca,’ Matilde’s aria from Act Two of ‘Guglielmo Tell.’ Same thing – presentation, lots of space around it. Oh, you should hear Tebaldi do it. Unless it’s in French – and of course that’s the language Rossini composed it in. It was commissioned by the Paris Opera: Swiss hero, German villains, written in French by an Italian composer. The Esperanto of operas. But he’s not fooling me – Rossini liked those French frog-mouthed syllables like a cat likes a hot tub. Italian is so much more natural and I know... I, um... don’t... rhythms... and.…”
I had been wondering what this ramble was all about, and towards the end Gabriella found herself gasping for breath as she came to my bedside. She knelt beside me and dropped her head against my shoulder, exhausted.
“Oh Billy, you wore me out. I’ve been so worried about you; all night I worried. I’ve never seen somebody go through that kind of... transformation before. You really snapped on me.” She stopped and looked around the room for something, then spotted it on the nightstand. “Here. I saved you a croissant and some orange juice from your so-called continental breakfast. They’re probably a little stale, but that’s what you get for sleeping in so late.”
I rubbed my eyes and waved my head back and forth, rattling marbles. “How late?” I asked.
“Yee-ipes!” I croaked. I swung my legs slowly to the edge of the bed, and was surprised to find them still sheathed in denim.
“Sorry,” she said, following my expression, handing me a napkin. “I don’t feel that our friendship has yet progressed to the point where I would be comfortable... undressing you.”
“You’ve done more than enough for me,” I replied, biting one end of my croissant. It was not the best of croissants, not the worst; a little chalky from overexposure, but it was good just to have some sustenance headed into my system. This small spark of carbohydrate worked quickly, and soon the engine in my head was spitting out chunks from the night before: my chaotic run from the Space Needle, the grass in my fingers and that haunting, life-sucking wind off Lake Union. I suddenly found it difficult to look Gabriella in the eyes.
She read my glance like a road sign, and returned to kneel at my feet, wrapping a hand over my knee. “Billy,” she said. “You know, you do so much for me, you really do.” She slid her eyes toward the door, and for that one flash of a moment looked more beautiful than I had ever seen her. “But Billy, I can’t do all this for you without some, without some fuel to run on. You’ve got to tell me something about that deep dark life of yours. Something small, even. What are you doing here, Billy? What is it that brought you to Bainbridge Island?”
I chewed and swallowed and drank from my orange juice, fibrous tang on my teeth, listening to the squeal of children outside in the swimming pool, short-short long, an upward glissando of screams, and heard a dog barking somewhere, small and yippy, a Scottish terrier, maybe. Yip yip. Yip yip-yap. Then I looked midway down my rumpled blue jeans and found a beautiful red-haired girl in a kelly green bathrobe looking up at me with brown eyes, a whole damn painter’s palette of affection. The girl had asked me something, I was sure of it, but it had vanished seven measures before, poco a poco ritardando. And so, I thought, this must be music. This is how we live, from one beat to the next.
“What was that song?” I asked. “That song you sang to me.”
The muscles in Gabriella’s face tensed up, fighting that too-easy squint, trying to be patient with me.
“That was ‘Deh vieni, non tardar,’ Susanna’s aria, final act, ‘Marriage of Figaro.’ It’s really silly – she’s basically trying to make her newlywed husband Figaro jealous by pretending she’s having a rendezvous with some other man – but it’s quite pretty, and she sings it outside in a garden, at night. I guess that’s why I thought of it. We’re doing that next, you know – auditions are next week. I did Susanna a couple years ago, but my voice is a lot bigger now, so I’m going to do the Countess instead – Rosina, basically, only now she and the Count Almaviva are on the outs and.… Oh hell, Billy! Would ya answer the fucking question?”
I wiped the orange juice from my lips. “I’m sorry,” I said. “What was it?”
She answered in a flustered sigh. “Your life. When are you going to tell me something about your life?”
I dropped my jaw and rubbed my hands down both jowls, trying to force myself to be coherent, then took a couple of cleansing breaths. “Three things,” I said. “There are three things I can tell you. But I can only tell you one thing at a time. I will tell you one today, but the problem is, this island is too fucking beautiful. I can’t possibly tell you something so awful in such beautiful surroundings. In fact,” I laughed nervously, “I may have to ask you to do something about yourself, too – maybe black out a few teeth, or use that opera makeup and scrawl a few wrinkles across your face.”
“I suppose... I will take that as a compliment,” said Gabriella.
I rose from the bed, feeling the crackle in my knees, and pulled Gabriella up from the floor. “Do you know of some cheap, sleazy, sordid place in the general vicinity?”
Gabriella smiled mischievously. “Oh boy, do I.”
“Fine,” I said. “Let me shower the grass out of my hair, and the weeds out of my brain, and then you may conduct me thither.”
“I’ll go fetch us a newspaper,” said Gabriella. She planted a kiss on my cheek and skipped out of the room, green bathrobe and all. I felt that spot on my face and grogged along toward the bathroom, thinking, I do not deserve this... any of it. But I’m glad she came my way.
* * *
It’s got to be some sort of ethno-cultural lacking (and if you think about it, not necessarily a bad one), but the average American Indian tribe is not very good at assembling a decent casino. As much as I enjoy the poetic justice of the Crow Tribe shaking down white tourists a mere mile from the Custer Memorial, I‘ve yet to find anything in these aboriginal houses of sin to compare with the divinely seedy elegance of Reno or Vegas. Perhaps they need to bring in the Mafia as consultants.
Gabriella and I were sequestered in the buffet slum of the Suquamish Casino, just over the Agate Passage from Bainbridge, at the east end of the Port Madison Indian Reservation. (With the care and concern so often exhibited by the white invaders, the Suquamish were lumped onto the Reservation with the Duwamish tribe, a group of natives with whom they were not on friendly terms.) Jabbing my fork through a Braquean collage of limp salad, plastic green beans and a tepid little shrunken head of a steak only days off the grill, I gave up and went instead for my vodka gimlet.
Gabriella eyed me with concern, especially since it had been her winnings at the blackjack table that had paid for our so-called supper. I ignored her and took a gander down the gray-blue cylinder ceiling, looming over the poker tables and wheels of fortune with all the subtle charm of an airplane hangar. A trio of plaid-shirt islanders, trying hard to look like they were not having a good time, returned my gaze with the passive curiosity of dairy cows.
“You sure know how to pick ‘em, Rosina.”
Gabriella took a long swallow of milk and eyed the Mariners game flashing by on the big-screen TV over my left shoulder. “Unless I’m mistaken, signore, Jay Buhner has just taken one deep to left and I...” – she folded her fingers together under her chin and eyed me expectantly – “...and I have provided just exactly the conditions you requested. Are you now depressed enough to spill the beans?”
“If I eat this steak, I will be,” I replied. “Let me see if I know where to start.” My eyes were drawn to a young Suquamish man, dark-complected, large bird-like nose, dumping a tray of ribs over the steak-pile. Instead, I pictured him in a canoe, plowing through the dark water off Port Angeles with a cargo of freshly netted salmon, and felt slightly better.
“My grandmother,” I began. “It’s about my grandmother. Take this from the view of an adoring descendant, but she had a great fiery laser beam of a soprano voice, sent to her by God’s personal secretary to slice holes through orchestras like an X-acto knife through a cheesecake.
“The way my mother has told me – and this only when my father was off on business – grandma, a Scottish Presbyterian, once caught the ear of a neighboring Catholic priest. He’d been invited to their talent show, and heard her sing there. The Father offered to hire her away from his Protestant colleague so she could sing solos in the big Latin masses.
“Being something of a singer himself, and blessed with a generous heart, the Presbyterian minister realized that my grandmother’s talent was too substantial to be wasted on dry, plodding English hymns. So he decided not to protest the move. As for my great grandmother – well, she knew she could use the extra money. Her husband had died in World War I, and she worked day and night as a laundress and housemaid to support my grandmother and her little brother.
“The power and dexterity of my grandmother’s voice was such that she was quickly promoted to the diocesan cathedral, twenty miles away in the city. She would take the train up on Saturday mornings, spend the night with the family of the choir director, then head back on Sunday afternoon. For a seventeen-year-old, it was quite a life.
“One Easter she sang, oddly enough, a transposed tenor solo from Puccini’s ‘Messa di Gloria’ (one can only guess that the bishop was eager to show off his new prize, and that the choir director had already ordered the scores for a mass with no female solos). There in the cathedral that Sunday was a visiting voice teacher from the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. The teacher fell in love with my grandmother’s voice, went to her immediately after the service and offered her a full scholarship to the Accademia and passage to Rome. She would continue her liturgical studies, but he also wanted her to sing opera.
“This, for my grandmother, was a dream come true. Unbeknownst to her mother, she had spent most of her Saturday nights around the choir director’s piano, learning art songs and arias from his wife, who herself used to perform in the opera chorus in Florence. For my grandmother, this passionate Italian music was an exotic, intoxicating discovery, and she took to it like a dog to a tree.”
At the moment of this last comment, Gabriella was sipping a soda, and fought hard not to perform a spit-take.
“Sorry,” I said. “Just checking to see if you were paying attention. Let’s see. Where was I?”
“Going to Rome,” she said.
“Right. Now, as much as my great grandmother enjoyed taking money from the Catholics, she was still a born-and-bred Protestant, and trained to believe that the papacy was the center of evil in the world. It didn’t help matters that her husband had perished in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, fighting the Austrians along the Italian border in World War I (and so eager to fight that he had joined the British army a year before the United States declared war).
“It was bad enough that her daughter was spending her weekends with a houseful of Dago musicians – now they wanted to ship her off to the front porch of the Pope himself. They would probably make her the Pope’s personal Protestant soprano, punishing her for her wayward upbringing by making her sing to him in the Vatican as he bathed and dressed in the morning before mass, sort of like a human radio. All my great grandmother’s inbred bigotry was set aflame, and when she discovered musical scores amongst her daughter’s things bearing names like “Catalani” and “Bellini” and illustrations of Italian singers in passionate embraces – well, that cut it!
“Not only did she forbid my grandmother from going to Rome, she also made her leave her job at the cathedral and spend her Sundays practicing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’”
“Ooh!” said Gabriella, as if this last punishment were the unkindest cut of all. “How awful!”
“Yes. About the best they could do was let her sing Handel once in a while, but for a girl who had been exposed to the gorgeous intricacies of opera, it was a slow, musical death. And when she was twenty, and ready to move out on her own – that was when my great grandmother had her first stroke. The illness was horribly debilitating and horribly long; she died seven years later, and by that time the operatic impulse in my grandmother’s heart had completely died out.
“She met a nice druggist from the next town over, got married, and had three children. It was not until the age of fifty, once her youngest, my mother, had waltzed off to college, that her love of singing returned. She began voice lessons and made her debut at fifty-three, singing Violetta in a pasted-together production of Traviata in the cafeteria of the local high school. She continued singing improbably young roles – Cio-cio-san was her favorite – until the day she died, thirty years ago this month.”
I stopped. Gabriella blinked her eyes, unsettled. “But... is that so bad? I mean, she made it, didn’t she? She eventually... performed.”
“No,” I said, perhaps a bit too vehemently. “Put yourself in her shoes. Hell, you are in her shoes. Would you be happy with that?”
“My grandmother was one of the special ones, Gabriella, one of the magic voices, like yours. She belonged in Covent Garden, La Scala, The Met, the Seattle Opera press room, not in church talent shows and Fourth of July picnics. Those are nice – and thank God she had those at least – but we’ll never know how good she could have been. And all because of my great grandmother’s bigotry, and prudishness, and narrow-mindedness. That’s what kills me: such stupid, stupid reasons.”
Gabriella started to say something hopeful, but it dried up in her mouth. She looked down at her hands and said, “God. That is depressing.”
“I sometimes wish she had told the old biddy off and shipped out to Rome anyway,” I said. “But then, I guess I might not be here.”
“No,” said Gabriella. “You would’ve been a nice little Italian boy named Stefano, hanging out with your mother backstage and checking out all the young sopranos.”
I laughed. “Well, maybe so. But anyway, that’s part one of the family epic – that’s where it starts. Give me a while, and maybe I will tell you more.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t talk about it now. Give me time. Okay?”
I left my seat rather abruptly and ventured to the dessert table, where I carved out some coconut cake and a slice of apple pie, hoping against hope that one of them was edible.
Photo by MJV