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My assumptions about Gabriella’s rosy family life were quickly blown away at the cast party, when she turned to me over a tray of roast beef and said, “You know I’m an orphan?”
The odd phrasing set me back – why would I know she was an orphan? – but she soon went on, filling in my blanks.
“Well, actually, I don’t know if I can really say that. My folks died four and five years ago, respectively – Mom lung cancer, Dad heart attack – but they were my adoptive parents, you see. So I might not technically be an orphan, but I definitely felt like one.”
I scooped up some brown mustard and used the back of my spoon to spread it across a Kaiser roll. “Have you tried to find your birth parents?” I asked.
“Tried and failed – at least, so far. I signed up on a registry, but unless your birth parents sign up, too, they can’t match you up. It’s not exactly something I’m waiting around for.”
She sipped from her plastic champagne flute and took on a wistful expression, peering past a squad of half-costumed choristers at the far end of Maestro’s living room.
“My father, as I imagine him, is a practical Irishman with a tough, hard-nosed job – heating and ventilation, plumbing, maybe a general contractor with his own business. He’s tall and gangly – that’s where I get it – and he’s got a shrewd, quiet manner, a calm exterior that inspires coworkers to seek him out complex situations that need to be resolved.
“Late at night, when he’s finished his projects and everyone else is asleep, he goes to an old filing cabinet next to his workbench and pulls out a balalaika in an old leather case. The balalaika is onyx with intricate decorative patterns of malachite and maroon; after he’s tuned it, he fans a pick over the strings and sings old folk songs in a rumbling Russian baritone. He picked up the language when he and a buddy went to St. Petersburg… no, Leningrad, for a year… after they finished their tour in the army. They wanted to “see how the enemy lived,” and ended up falling in love with the culture. Under the balalaika he keeps an old black lacquered plate painted with a scene from an old Russian folk tale.
“My mother, she has a more generic background, sort of UK mongrel – Scots, English, Irish, and, I don’t know, maybe a touch of Cherokee, which is where I got my ‘almond shaped eyes.’ She grew up in Little Rock, but wasn’t very happy there, which is why she left at eighteen. She got a job in St. Louis as a waitress in a blues club, and that’s where she met my father.
“When she found out she was pregnant, she knew that she wasn’t ready to be a mother, and she didn’t want my father to ‘do the honorable thing’ and mess up her brand new life, so she made up some story about a dying uncle in Chicago, went instead to Memphis to live with a friend until she gave birth, immediately put me up for adoption, and then, eventually, moved back to St. Louis. My father, meanwhile, had given up on her and joined the army, but three years later, when he came back from Russia, he made a beeline for that blues club.
“Now they live in Duluth, have a son and daughter who are both away at college, and my mother spends her newfound time crocheting, gardening and helping out at a center for troubled teens. Oh, and she secretly smokes a pipe, with... raspberry-flavored tobacco.”
I finished chewing the first bite of my sandwich and swiped my mouth with a napkin. “You’ve really put some thought into this, haven’t you?”
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about it.”
“And your adoptive parents. You seem so... I don’t know, comfortable... talking about them.”
“They were already in their late 40s when they adopted me,” she said. “They saw no reason to keep the idea of death from me. In fact, they talked about it fairly frequently, because they wanted to make sure I’d be ready for their eventual passing. It still didn’t make it easy, of course, but they taught me that death was a natural part of life, and that they’d always be with me, regardless.” She tapped a finger against her forehead. “Up here.”
“You are damned remarkable, Gabriella.”
Gabi smiled. “And damned lucky.”
We were interrupted by Joe, who ambled up in big black sneakers, black warmup pants, a navy blue T-shirt and the black-and-silver Mozartean waistcoat from his final scene – a strange ensemble, by any standard. He gave a mischievous sweep in front of his mouth and said, “You know what time it is, Gabriella.”
Gabriella flushed and shook her head. “No, no. I’d have to be a lot drunker than this.”
Joe took on his Count persona, striking a stern pose and bulging his eyes out in furor. “Dammit woman, I have had about enough of you ladies giving me shit! I am the Count, and for once you will obey my wishes!” Then he returned to his mellower off-stage self and chuckled, saying, “We won’t take no for an answer, Gabi, so you may as well get it over with.”
Gabriella looked skyward, appealing to the great bass-baritone in the sky, then smiled in defeat. “Alright. Let’s get it over with.”
I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but five minutes later twenty cast members herded themselves into Maestro’s bathroom, and I found myself plastered against the south wall, towel rack jabbing at my ribs. Gabriella picked her way through the crowd, holding aloft a long cylindrical object the size of a small tree, wrapped in a custom-fit sack of purple cloth. When she reached the bathtub, she planted one end of the object into the tub, as though she were going to use it for a pole vault, then loosened the drawstring at the top and slipped the sack down the length of the object like a New Orleans prostitute taking off her stockings. I thought this unveiling would answer all of my questions, but I was wrong. The object appeared to be a sort of giant reed, hollow, and curved at the end where it rested in the bottom of the tub.
Joe, who had spotted my puzzlement, leaned over and said, “Didgeridoo. Australian aboriginal instrument. You ever heard one?”
“No, never,” I said.
“Aye, lad. You’re in for a treat then.”
Gabriella took a sip from someone’s wineglass, then eyed the end of the instrument like a pole vaulter studying the bar from the end of the runway (funny how you get stuck on a metaphor sometimes). She stretched her mouth in various directions, rubbed her jaw with both hands, and tried out several degrees of flatulence with her lips. She then took a trio of deep breaths and, applying her mouth firmly to one side of the opening, proceeded to generate the most astounding series of sounds I’ve ever heard.
It was a bagpipe on steroids. It was a foghorn with a bad tailpipe. It was a double bassoon played by Jimi Hendrix. I mean, excuse my language but it was pretty fucking wonderful.
In musical terms, the instrument was producing a deep bass drone, jacketed in ribs of percussive vibrato, overlain with a dozen strata of dissonant overtones, hurling themselves off the tiled walls like drunken houseflies.
Gabriella then made some adjustment with her lips and the drone wavered, lifting and settling like a wetland sludge of semitones. After that, she shifted her breathing, taking in air through her nose as she threw rhythmic puffs and gurgles into the hot-spring stew. After what seemed to be about three minutes, Gabriella stopped, pulling her mouth away from the pipe and rubbing her lips back to their original shape as the sardine throng shouted and clapped. The shouts escalated to encores, and she held up a hand, motioning for a minute’s reprieve as she gathered her breath (perhaps like a pole vaulter readying for a third attempt). Then she went through the whole routine again – limber up, inhale, apply lips, blow – and the didgeridoo’s steam-engine obbligato re-arose from its porcelain launching pad.
I began to hear additional sounds this time, because the singers, being singers, were plucking notes from the top of the drone and humming along, then building up thirds, fifths, octaves. The more adventurous – like Joe, right next to my ear – were rising to these standard harmonies then slipping into the dissonance, feeling the juicy tug of friction then wadding it back up to sweet resolution. By the time Gabriella began her rhythmic backfires, Joe had constructed a counterchant on open reggae syllables, firing up the fields of syncopation and dissonance until it all began to sound something like psychedelic free-jazz monks scatting the Russian liturgy in a bank vault. With kazoos.
Feeling comfortably incognito in this sonic banana smoothie, I joined Joe an octave up, in falsetto, then nailed his chant a quarter-tone flat, the gravitational bungees pulling at my head, ear, mouth, and sinuses, giving each ant a name as he rambled six-legged down the interstate of my spine.
* * *
“I know they already asked you this,” I said two hours later, in front of Maestro’s fire. “But how did you do that, exactly?”
“I can’t really explain it,” she answered. “You just have to fool around with it until you get it right.”
That kind of amiable cop-out would not do – the musical Tazmanian Devil in my head would never be happy with eatins that slim – so I forced the issue. “No no no,” I said. “I don’t want to play it myself. I just want to understand the sonic elements at play. For instance, what do you do with your mouth?”
For an answer, Gabriella let out a long, controlled raspberry. “Like that,” she said.
“So it’s sort of like what a brass player does when he buzzes his lips – sets the walls of the instrument into vibration, after which he can control the pitch by shortening or lengthening the column of air contained within.”
Gabriella blinked her eyes a couple of times, conducting a careful scientific analysis of my description. “I’ll have to trust you on that. But I can also interrupt the sound with rhythmic breathing, and grunts, and I can throw in extra tones with my voice.”
“I thought so,” I said. “I think. So where did you pick that thing up?”
“Mom got it for my high school graduation. She purchased it in Sydney, on an anniversary trip with my dad. At first, of course, being a teenager, I thought, ‘Oh great. Mom bought me a log.’ When I found out what it could do, however, it became one of my closest friends. I even gave it a name.”
“And Melba is quite a crowd-pleaser, as you may have noticed. She’s become something of a tradition at our cast parties.”
“You should use it in an opera sometime. Like the music lesson scene in Barber.”
“I... think maybe I’ll stick to amateur performances. Where are you going?”
I had risen, and was pulling on my jacket. “Outside. I have a surprise for you, too. Not quite as loud, of course. Want to see?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“You always have a choice,” I said.
“No, not really,” said Gabriella, and threw on her sweater. Halfway to Maestro’s back door she broke out in a phlegmy fit of coughing.
“I thought you were through with that stuff.”
“Hem! No, not really. The drugs only last for so long.”
“You better watch those antibiotics, Gabi. They’ll weaken your system in the end.”
“Oh, open the door and stop nagging,” she said. I followed her orders and waited till she was done discreetly spitting into a nearby bush before flicking on the backyard lights. My surprise was a convoluted network of wood-plank pathways, looping all over the yard like an orgy of steamrollered snakes.
“Wow!” said Gabriella, half-recitative. She ventured twenty feet out on the center path and stood on her tip-toes to survey either side. “Wow! Billy! Um... what is it?”
“It’s a labyrinth,” I said. “An English labyrinth. We’ll be planting the hedges in March.”
Gabriella walked off toward the sound, taking turns where she thought to, holding her arms out to either side like a kid on a balance beam. She wound her way around to the top of the embankment and stopped on a circular deck I had built for the base of a belvedere. She heard my steps behind her, but kept her gaze on the lights of North Seattle as she spoke.
“Does that mean... you’ll be here in March?”
“I... I guess I’ll have to be, won’t I?”
“I’d like that,” said Gabriella, and turned to me with her smile in the moonlight, a translucent arc of seashell. It was hard to keep from kissing her; the firing of a single neuron would have been enough to send my fingers to the sweet space above her ear, just beneath the short red drape of hair. Talking was my only defense.
“What do you want for Christmas, Rosina?”
She lifted her hand to that exact spot and combed it absent-mindedly through that same hair, arching her neck into the motion. “I want you to give the opera company a thousand more dollars.”
I took her hands and squeezed them. “Two thousand. Last week.”
“Well!” she said. “In that case, get me a nice CD. I’ve been eyeing this Tebaldi/del Monaco ‘Trovatore’ from 1956. Or maybe Patricia Racette. I’ve been meaning to check her out. Give me that.”
I shook my head. “No. Not nearly enough. Why don’t I take you to the opera?”
“Oh, but Billy, Seattle’s not going to have another produc...”
“In San Francisco.”
That, to Gabriella, was apparently more sudden and impressive even than the call of a didgeridoo, because she had a hard time coming up with a reaction – her face, normally such a great projector of expressions, was as blank and neutral as a government building. Soon enough, however, the moonlight began to generate extra wattage in her eyes, and that was plenty for me.
“Right after Thanksgiving,” I said. “There’s a production of ‘Pelleas et Melisande’ with Frederica von Stade. Eh?”
Gabriella fumbled around for words and finally just blurted out “Yes!” reached up to grab my shoulders and kissed me on the lips. “Billy! That would be so cool!” She hugged me, but could feel my discomfort, and soon let me go.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go inside and I’ll make you some coffee.”
I trailed her back along my redwood spiderweb, fire in my head, the friendly puppy-dog lick of waves at my back. And in my heart? I have no idea.
Photo by MJV