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It’s raining. I have rented a paddleboat and I’m out on Lake Vasona, a small reservoir in the middle of Los Gatos. At the center of the lake there’s a tiny island covered in brush and guano. As I round the tip, I find a black standard poodle, her snout aimed resolutely toward the dam.
“Hey, how’s it goin’?”
“Shouldn’t you have a French accent?”
“Are we gonna talk racial stereotypes or are we gonna get my ass off this island?”
“Sure. Can you get into the seat?”
“I’ll do anything to get away from this guano. Man!”
She leaps from the rock, scrabbles along the shell and pulls herself into the seat next to mine.
“Thanks. Been workin’ out.”
“Wow! You can pedal.”
“Dog paddle. Natural motion.”
“I’m diggin’ the pink collar.”
“Not too much?”
“Not at all.”
I join in, and soon we’re making for the picnic grounds. Halfway there, the poodle starts to cough and wheeze.
She clenches up, slumps sideways and falls into the water.
Wake-up call is a noisy affair. The redwoods gather the rain into mega-drops and release them; they fall to the roof like toy hammers: Bam! Bam-bam! I crawl from my bed and go into my workday routine: good long sit, quick shower, food’s all right ‘cause we’re meeting at McDonald’s, hair, Q-tips, toothbrush, ugly work clothes, plus a change for…
Damn. The opera. I was trying to forget that. I take a tired breath and peer into my closet, where my shiny white tuxedo vest hangs in a corner, looking forlorn. What the hell. Let’s go out in style.
Of course, going to the opera depends largely on getting up my dirt drive. We’ve had rain for a couple days now, and the surfaces are going to be tricky. The first bend is workable – two monster ruts cleared out by Trey’s truck – but a couple of curves later I have to go into a very involved routine.
My opponent is Mud Hill, a steep straightaway that the rangers have never managed to properly grade and/or gravel. The trick is to slip into first, build up some speed, take a rightward bend without fishtailing and then plow on through, no matter how the slalom-field tries to buck you through the windshield. Today’s run is pretty slippery, but just as I’m losing momentum I escape the final rut, find purchase on the graveled dirt and proceed on my merry way.
The Los Gatos McDonald’s is not your average fast-food joint. Three TVs above the tables, tuned to CNN; classical music on the PA, and a covered patio that would fit nicely on some of our clients’ mansions. The view is Los Gatos Boulevard, but I’m a California kid – I find my relaxation in watching traffic.
I set down my sausage biscuit breakfast and I receive a text from Colin: 10 min late. He’s always late – I count on it. A red Jaguar rips by, leading my vision to a pole on my right: yet another flyer for Raven, a runaway poodle who needs her medicine. The owners have offered a $500 reward and plastered notices all over the valley. In downtown Los Gatos, the flyers are framed by sheets of pink posterboard that read, simply, SICK!!
The thing is, I want to be the guy. I want to spot Raven in a thicket next to today’s deck, coax her over with a stick of beef jerky, then use my belt for an improvised leash. I call the owners, meet them in town, and receive a hug from each member of the family. The father offers me a check; I turn it down just to see the tears in his eyes.
Pretty sappy. But I grew up with a black standard: Jacques (talk about your racial stereotypes). My dad could make that dog spazz out just by looking at him and slapping his knees. He would run circles around the living room for a half hour.
“Micko! Sorry I’m late.”
Colin stands over me in his clean customer-service outfit. We exchange our ritual handshake.
“You seemed a little adrift there.”
“Yeah. Just thinkin’.”
“Are you fixed for brekkies?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Fantastic! Let me grab some, too, and then we need to pick up some stain.”
At Lexington Reservoir, we take a right on Bear Creek Road and follow it for a long, long time. We pass through an electronic gate onto a winding one-lane road, and a half-mile later we’re pulling into a driveway with two garages. The rest of the house is beneath us, built on a downslope. We have to descend a long staircase to get to the front door. The house is entirely yellow.
Colin’s knock is answered by a tall, slim woman with light brown hair, blue eyes and delicate, princess-like features. She wears a T-shirt and a pair of figure-hugging stretch pants.
“Carolyn! This is my assistant, Mickey. He’ll be doing most of the work today.”
She shakes my hand and smiles. “Hi. I am so glad you’re here. Our poor banana deck is peeling.”
And so begins my mental checklist. 1) She has a sense of humor, and 2) She seems to consider me an equal. Good signs.
“Okay if I take Mickey out back for a tour?”
The deck is accessible only through the house, and the passage is a living room with a hardwood floor. Colin rolls a plastic drop cloth over my path.
The view is stunning: a long ridge of evergreens, a farther ridge that looks like a bad Xerox copy, and a sheet of blue ocean. The deck’s pretty stunning, too. Some rocket scientist put housepaint on it, and the stuff is curling off like the bark of a madrone.
“Job number one is to blast the hell out of this thing, and then we’ll have to go over it with a sander. It ought to be pretty messy work, so be sure and sluice down the house afterward.”
“No fuckups!” (We’ve really got to get a better company motto.)
Once I start blasting, the effect is like a cloud of yellow confetti that begins at ground level and explodes upward. I hear a tapping. I assume it’s a loose connection on the washer until I see Carolyn rapping at the glass door. I turn off the engine.
“Would you like some coffee?” she asks.
My mental list ticks upward. An offer of coffee – the ultimate! On this, the worst day of the year, a caffeinated angel.
She invites me in while it’s brewing. I stand on the dropcloth in my papier-maché boots as she conducts a search of the upper cabinets for sugar. She has ditched the stretch pants for a pair of tiny elastic shorts, and her movements reveal the T of her pink thong underwear. Ye Gods. I note a photo of her good-looking husband on a nearby shelf.
“Oh!” she says, noting my boots. “How much sugar?”
“Spoonful. And a dab of milk, if you’ve got it.”
She opens the fridge and bends over from the waist, then stands at the counter to stir it in, sending small tremors along each dainty ass-cheek. She hands me an aluminum travel cup with a sliding top.
“I wouldn’t want you to swallow a paint flake.”
“Oh, and I’ll probably leave in half an hour. Could you lock the front door on your way out?”
“Sure. Thanks again.”
“My pleasure! I’m so glad we’re finally taking care of that deck.”
As I return to my weaponry, it strikes me that Carolyn is that rarest of commodities, a hot babe who cares not a whit that she’s a hot babe. I take a moment to enjoy my first sip, conduct a full scan of the view, and then I start up the machine. Some time later, a fully clothed Carolyn taps on the window to wave goodbye. Some time after that, the washer gobbles up the last of the gas and chokes to a stop. The quiet is deafening. I take a moment to crawl inside.
A couple hours later, as I’m working the top steps, the sun comes out, and I take off my shirt. Combined with my impending devastation, a month of zero sex and my client’s perfect body, the feel of UVs on my skin makes me insufferably horny. As I’m stowing the washer in my wagon, I note that Carolyn has left the garage door open.
Inside is a cherry-red Corvette and many containers of carefully categorized auto supplies. I manage to locate a half-empty quart of motor oil. I hit the garage door opener, toss away my shorts and commence to stroking. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a ready-to-burst erection, and goddamn it feels good. I’m balanced between ecstasy and the off-chance of someone coming home early, but the ending is pretty easy to bring to fruition. I’m in the kitchen in my confetti’d boots and nothing else. Carolyn’s got both hands on the counter, and I’m banging that little butt to a fare-thee-well. I try to limit the scope of my release but I manage to pop a shot all the way over my right shoulder. I turn to find an unmistakable gob on the Corvette’s right rear fender. I scan the shelves for cleaning supplies, thinking, If this thing has a car alarm, I am so screwed.
After a very necessary hose-bath, I am clothed and tooling along Skyline. I consider dropping by the cabin, but I’m spooked by Mud Hill. This might be the most excruciating night of opera ever, but missing it would be worse.
When I arrive at the Civic Center, all the roadside spots are cordoned off for some sort of festival. So I park in the garage, assemble my vest, tie and jacket, and stroll across the plaza. A bevy of workers are placing folding chairs before an enormous movie screen. Of course! They’re doing another free simulcast, just like the one at AT&T Park. God bless San Franciscans, who will freeze off body parts in the name of culture.
Bill waves me through the passway. I enter the press room to the dangerously sympathetic eyes of Delores, who doubtless knows every little detail of my disaster-in-progress. She flips through her envelopes.
“I know.” She hands it to me and places a palm on my lapel. “I… gave you something extra close.”
So now I must add Delores to the standing-room-only tier of Women I Love.
I sit on a couch with a cup of coffee and a program and read all about an opera I know backwards and forwards. When the bells ring, I report for duty. I find myself in row D, barely 30 feet from the stage. This gives me an extraordinary view of the singers and their expressions.
In an opera absolutely stuffed to the gills with melody, it seems odd to focus on the librettist, but I have become quite fond of the way that Salvadore Cammarano pared down Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor. The end effect is a title character who is subjected to a pressure-cooker of politics, family and romance until she flips her lid in a uniquely horrific fashion.
Allow me to cut it into shreds for you. Lucia’s in love with Edgardo Ravenswood, enemy to her family. Her brother Enrico has other ideas: a politically expedient marriage for little sis so he can keep his head from ending up on a pike. Edgardo and Lucia exchange secret vows of betrothal, then Edgardo heads off to fight for the Stuarts in France. Enrico intercepts Edgardo’s letters and shows little sister a forgery revealing Edgardo’s intention to marry someone else.
Emotionally destroyed, Lucia marries Enrico’s chosen groom, Arturo Bucklaw. Edgardo arrives too late, and curses Lucia for her betrayal. Lucia reports to her wedding bed, stabs Arturo to death, and enters the reception in blood-stained gown to conduct a public and highly musical descent into lunacy. (At this point I offer my alternate synopsis: Worst. Wedding. Ever.)
After the opening setup of the Ravenswood-Lammermoor rivalry, scene 2 opens on a picturesque fountain. Maddalena enters, and already I’m destroyed. Dispensing with the obvious red wig, they have tinted her blonde tresses with streaks of strawberry and given her a gown of regal oranges and golds. She’s a one-woman sunset.
In her opening aria, the Larghetto “Regnava nel silenzio,” Lucia recounts the tale of a Ravenswood ancestor who killed a Lammermoor lass in a jealous rage, and dumped her body in this very fountain. Donizetti uses sudden flights of cadenza to give hints of Lucia’s mental instability. It’s a marvel just to hear Maddalena’s coloratura set free, but she adds to the effect by adopting an expression of wide-eyed wonder, taking a kind of sick pleasure in the story. She follows this with “Quando rapito in estasi,” an energetic cabaletta defending her lover’s constancy.
These two familiar melodies would be enough for most evenings, but Donizetti has just begun, decorating the betrothal scene with the lilting three-time duet “Verrano a te sull’aure.” The Edgardo, a Russian tenor, sings with a forceful spinto tone, but blends well with Maddie nonetheless. Timbral matches are as hard to predict (alas) as romantic ones.
The staging takes another twist in Act II, as Enrico (played by a beefy Spanish baritone) puts the screws to his sister. Maddie plays the part aggressively, and the two engage in their sibling face-offs at disturbingly close quarters. The tension is thick and creepy, giving yet another layer to Lucia’s eventual unraveling.
The next musical treat is Donizetti’s great sextet, “Chi mi frena in tal momento,” which takes a simple melody over a bed of pizzicato and expands the vocal forces – tenor/baritone, soprano/bass, then all six soloists – until the shock of Edgardo’s arrival has overtaken the wedding scene. It’s a vastly intriguing number to watch, giving a marvelous visual map of the composer’s thought process.
And then, the Mad Scene. I’ve seen it a few times, but never have I noticed the tremendous sense of space, the suspension of the usual rules of opera, a feeling that Maddalena furthers by extending the pauses and cadenzas. The spaces are filled by the poor girl’s insanity as Donizetti delivers mirror fragments of Lucia’s previous melodies: a distorted flute variation on “Regnava nel silenzio,” a reprise of “Verrano a te” as she imagines herself at the fountain with Edgardo, finally sanctifying their wedding vows. This leads to the principal theme, the Larghetto “Ardon gl’incensi,” followed by its numerous variations, including the famed call-and-response with the flute, which I always envision as a conversation between Lucia and her “crazy little bird.” (This famous addition was not written by Donizetti, but was inspired by the improvisations of the role’s originator, Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani.)
The free-flying pyrotechnics, the nuanced phrasing, the extended lines – all these I had expected. What I didn’t expect was the sub-dermal acting. Maddalena has taken the fountain scene’s grotesque mania and escalated it into a full-blown multiple personality disorder. With each musical turn, she becomes a different person: the innocent girl, the impassioned lover, the tender betrothed, the betrayed woman, the moonstruck killer. There are moments when it feels like we are an audience held captive, moments when it’s hard to breathe or move. At the final, exhausting top note, Maddalena collapses to the stage, and the audience (appropriately) goes ab-so-freakin-lutely berserk. People are stomping the floor as if they’re at a soccer match.
The Russian tenor appears in the tomb scene, finds that his Lucia has died, and stabs himself. The tragedy is complete. When Maddalena makes her curtain call, the crowd stands as one. California audiences are notoriously laid-back, and I have never seen this before. When I spot Delores in the lobby, I give her a hug and I thank her. This is highly unprofessional, but I’m guessing that I will be forgiven.
I stand on the steps outside the opera house and I realize, This is it. The end of Mickey and Maddie, the end of my crazy romantic adventure. My self-arranged appointment with desolation. As I walk along Van Ness, my focus narrows to a dark hallway of air. A guy in a long gray coat hailing a cab. The blue and gold gates of the plaza, a bronze sculpture that resembles an enormous crazy-straw. The stout classical columns of the Herbst Theater.
I arrive at the crosswalk of McAllister with a herd of opera-goers, and I cannot help but wallow in imagery. Micaela’s monologue, the fireworks at Lake Union, our first meeting at Jardiniere – all the way back to that first Song to the Moon in my station wagon. The herd moves; I move. I am going numb, the blood drains from my limbs. I climb the curb, the north end of City Hall floats by, and then a statue of some civic leader named McAllister, which just happens to be the name of the street I’m on. Far above flies the tip of the cupola, like the mast of a blue-and-gold sailing ship. A golf cart passes by, filled with Scots in tartan kilts. Sure. The Scots invented golf, right?
The cart proceeds to Polk, begins to make a right turn, and stops. A woman stands from her seat. She is dressed in a gown of white, like some sort of Liberty, or Winged Victory, or Athena leading her troops. Her gown is stained with blood. She jumps to the curb, holding her hem as she runs, and meets me with an embrace.
In the Grove Book of Operas, there’s an illustration from The Flying Dutchman. Senta has thrown herself into the water and drowned, setting the Dutchman free from his curse. The two of them rise into heaven, “transfigured, locked in embrace.”
She was on her way to the simulcast, to take her bows. She waved the golf cart on, then walked with me along the columns of City Hall. When she kissed me and climbed the steps to the platform, half of the city exploded. Now she’s on my couch in jeans and an Irish sweater, as I try to start a fire.
“I’ve never been on that side of an ovation before. It’s like heroin.”
“I love you, Mickey.”
I toss a match onto the Duraflames and I head for Maddie’s lips.
“I’ve always loved you.”
She smiles. “Onstage, offstage.”
I pour myself half a glass of Johannisberg Riesling and drink it at a shot.
“I don’t know if I should ask this, but… what are you doing here?”
She gives a thoughtful blink and clears her throat.
“The woman tried to destroy you, and there you were, taking her to the opera, helping her through that episode. Darling, you may be an idiot sometimes, but your heart is enormous. It made me think that perhaps I was making my own heart too small. And I missed you horribly.”
She looks at the logs, which have by some miracle risen into flame.
“When I was a young singer, I was in love with another young singer, a baritone. We talked of marriage. He cheated on me. I forgave him. He cheated on me again. And I woke up last week to discover that I was allowing a betrayal from twenty years ago to govern my personal affairs. I love you desperately, Mickey. You’ve got me at the top of a cliff. Don’t ever…”
I take her hand and bring it to my lips. “Never.”
I sit with her on the couch, and she leans into the frame of my body, and her hair tickles my cheek. A good five minutes later, Maddie continues.
“I was going to take you onstage with me. I suppose they would have assumed you were the costume designer, or the combat director, or…”
“I almost lost you. If we hadn’t driven past…”
“You could’ve had me anytime.”
“But you said tonight was it. You said you were going to work me out of your system, like I was some kind of… virus.”
“Wait a minute! How do you know I said that?”
Her crying turns into a smile, then a laugh.
“Is your computer on?”
She goes to my desk and types a few things, then beckons me over. I find myself looking at some kind of email site. The name at the top of the inbox is DevilDiva. I am sorely stuck for a response. Maddie puts her hands on my shoulders.
“Honey? Is that…? You’re not angry, are you?”
“I get the feeling I should be, but… Holy shit.”
She kisses me on the cheek. “That’ll do.”
I’m sitting in Carrie Nation’s, a woodsy bar in Los Gatos. A black poodle sits down next to me and orders a Hefeweizen.
“Raven? My god – Raven! I thought you drowned!”
Raven cocks her head. “Oh! The guy in the boat. Yeah – got a little heart thing.”
“But… when you dropped into the water…”
The bartender sets down a dog-dish filled with beer. Raven takes a thoughtful lick. “Some kinda weird filtration system. Sucked me right through to the spillway. Next thing I know, I’m in a fly-casting pond in Campbell. And you wouldn’t believe who was there to meet me.”
“Golf cart filled with medieval Scots?”
“Yeah! And a nice lady in a nightgown.”
“Covered in blood?”
“Sense of smell.”
“So they drove me to the vet, got my medicine, and here I am. Oh. Hold on.”
She opens her cell phone and barks.
“Sorry. My owners. They’re pretty jumpy about me going out on my own again. You know, after…”
“Yeah. How did that happen, anyway?”
“Well, let’s just say, don’t trust a Girl Scout with a box of dog biscuits. Or a Fu Manchu mustache.”
Someone’s licking my neck, and she doesn’t have black fur. She also has opposable thumbs, one of which is tightly wrapped around my dick.
“I suppose you think, just because you forgave me, you can have your way with me.”
“Hop on, honey.”
We spend long minutes staring at each other as she works up and down, side to side, La Sonnambula as a sex partner. I’m afraid to take my eyes off of her; she might disappear. Afterwards, we take a long soak in the bath. Maddie discovers a chip of yellow paint floating in the water.
“Those phrases in Suor Angelica – I still can’t believe how long you held those out. Are you a witch?”
“I’m a water nymph. Are we done bathing?”
“Hope so. I’m pruning up.”
She conjures a husky morning-after-opera laugh that tickles all my nerve endings.
“Okay. Let’s towel off, and I’ll show you the basics.”
So I’m standing naked in the bathroom with the world’s greatest soprano, holding my hands around my bottom ribs as my thumbs press into my back.
“The idea is to breathe in without raising your breastbone. You have to breathe low. I want you to inhale so you feel pressure against your hands, as if you are filling up your lower back, and then around the sides, as if you have a tube around your waist."
I follow her instructions, and yes, I can feel what she’s talking about.
“The trick to completing those long phrases is to keep your ribs expanded for as long as possible. Now, I want you to take a deep breath, and let it out on an ess, and try to maintain the support in your ribs for as long as you can.”
I try my best, but it really is difficult. My ess dies off long before I want it to.
“Fantastic! Now – do that for thirty years and you’ll be able to hold out phrases just like me.”
“Eighty-year-old Mickey Siskel debuts at The Met!”
We spend the day in full lollygag, taking a long mutual nap on the couch, a stroll through the madrones (a view of the charred hills across the canyon) and a chicken salad dinner. Afterwards, Maddie goes to her car and returns with a pair of wardrobe bags.
“Do you realize that the sight of a wardrobe bag now gives me an erection? I am deathly afraid to go to the dry cleaner’s.”
“At least you’d have something to hang your jacket on.”
“So. Whom do you propose I sleep with this evening?”
Devil Diva gives a sly smile. “I propose nothing of the kind. What you see before you are costumes for Don Jose and Don Giovanni."
“Aha! So would the lady prefer a tenor, or a baritone?”
She muses for a moment, her eyes shifting back and forth. “Much as I’d like to finish what Micaela started, I think the wise woman always goes with a deeper voice.”
I take the appropriate bag and I’m off to the bedroom, my mind already conjuring a monologue. (“It was you all along, Elvira. All those others? Recreation! Can’t you see that it’s you who truly sets me afire?” Okay, so I’m a lousy actor.)
When I awake on a Sunday morning to a blonde at my bedside, you’ll have to forgive me if I think first of Katie. Despite everything, I will always have a soft spot for that girl.
“Honey?” says the blonde. “Matinee today. I have to get going.”
I rub my eyes and smile. “After last night, I don’t see how you can do a thing.”
She runs a hand through my hair. “My dearest Giovanni. I have performed sick, hung over, one time with my leg in a cast. Besides, you have injected me with massive quantities of hormones and adrenaline.”
“I likely will not hit the wall till this evening. I love you, Mickey.”
“Si. I’m so glad I could get over all that… stuff. This really could be something amazing. Let’s go to a Ren Faire as soon as possible.”
“Really? I would think you’d want to avoid them like the Black Plague.”
She puts a hand to my cheek. “No. Let’s drown out that bad memory with dozens of good ones.”
“You are fucking awesome. Now get out of here. And break a leg. Sybil.”
“Ah, so you caught my psychological machinations.”
“Can’t slip a thing past Mickey Siskel. Except a full year of Devil Diva.”
“That sneaky-ass bitch.”
She kisses me, grabs her purse from the dresser and slips out. Five minutes later, my phone buzzes.
“Mickey? I’m stuck.”
“Oh shit. Shit! I should have driven you past that part. Idiot!”
“Yo! Giovanni! Beat yourself up later. I am wheel-deep in mud and I really need to get going.”
“Okay. Stay there.”
“Like I have a choice?”
I put on my jeans, make a call and pull up to the last turnout before Mud Hill. I sling a bag over my shoulder, trudge my way up to Maddie’s Lexus and find her rear tires buried in ruts filled with chocolate ice cream. The passenger door is just clear of the muck, so I sidle in, leaving my muddy shoes outside.
“Deck-stainers know all the tricks.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“I’m calling in the cavalry. Friend of mine – opera fan, lives nearby. For now, though, why don’t you turn toward the window?”
I start in on a neck rub. “That’s it. Forget about the crisis at hand. We will get you to the church on time.”
“I’m thinking of Don Giovanni.”
“Scoundrel. By the way, I don’t believe that choice was random.”
“What woman wouldn’t want to tame the rake?”
“‘Taming the Rake.’ Sounds like a gardening show. Feel free to nap, honey.”
She falls back against my shoulder and closes her eyes. I study the contours of that famous, elegant face and consider the possibility that I have been paid in full for all past injustices. A few minutes later, I spy a pair of headlights and I scoot outside, stepping into my shoes. Then I open my pack, pull out my Wellies and hand them to Maddie. She holds her sandals aloft as I guide her around the ruts toward the graveled dirt, where awaits my BMW.
“Maddie, this is my ex-wife, Allison. Allison, Maddalena Hart.”
Allison takes Maddie’s hand, looking downright starstruck.
“It’s a pleasure to… I… I…”
“Enough of this chit-chat! Get the hell out of here.”
I give each of them a kiss on the cheek and send them off to school. Allison spins gravel, and the two loves of my life disappear around the bend. I swap out my deck shoes for the Wellies and head for my bag, in which I have placed two pieces of plywood. I jam them underneath the rear tires, then I take a moment to make a call.
“Delores! Mickey Siskel. Hey, this is a little hard to explain, but my ex-wife will be arriving in about an hour with your prima donna. Any chance you could find her a seat for the matinee? Oh yes. A happier ending than you could ever imagine. I’ll drop in at intermission and tell you the whole story. Thanks.”
I slip behind the wheel and stash the muddy Wellies in my bag. Then I have to tick off the logistics in my head: roll back a foot onto the boards, charge forward to the gravel, take my car back to the cabin, clean myself up, drive back up here, take Maddie’s Lexus to the Opera House. Damn! Life is complicated.
Just before ignition, I take a moment to revel in my own genius. I have given my ex-wife a story she will tell for the rest of her life.
Photo by MJV