In the novel Operaville, opera blogger Mickey Siskel finds himself in the otherworldly position of nursing his favorite diva, Maddalena Hart, through an anxiety attack. Two days later, having successfully restored her confidence, he tells the story of how he became such a passionate aficionado of the form.
There’s a third cabin on the property, but it’s hardly ever occupied. Apparently, it’s being rented by people who never vacation. The previous renter assembled a fire pit, using stones salvaged from the nearby woods. Maddie and I sit on a log, caretakers of a vigorous blaze, doing our best to roast marshmallows on the tips of bouncy coat-hanger rods. I consume my latest victim - blessed with a suntan worthy of a bikini model – and I decide that it’s time to ‘fess up.
“May I tell you my story?”
“I expected you might,” she says, and takes my hand. “I give you the downbeat.”
I steer a ship’s-captain gaze over the flames to find my subject, a third up from the horizon, three percent on the wane, a wisp of cloud crossing its beacon.
I didn’t have much of a calling, but I went to college during the Reagan era, so I ended up in business school. Finance. I was a very social creature – president of my frat, an athlete, not unattractive. My guidance counselor said, You’re good with people – go into stocks. You’ll be good with the clients.
So I did. Didn’t even need a master’s. He was right, I was good, and it was certainly the right time to get in. Weathered the early-‘90s recession, got into tech stocks, surfed my way into the Clinton boom. I married a co-worker, Allison – marvelous girl, beautiful, sexy, smart as a whip. We bought a house in south San Jose, we were in excellent shape. It was time to start a family.
We couldn’t. Seven miscarriages. We got pregnant, but poor Allison couldn’t hold them. She quit her job, thought that might help. It didn’t.
Our reactions were a little cross-gender. Each of our miscarriages hit me like a steamroller. Deep depressions that lasted for weeks, couldn’t even get out of bed unless I had to go to work. I saw each one as a real, living baby – a creature that poops its diapers and giggles when you make a face – so each one was, to me, a genuine, visceral death. Allison seemed wholly unaffected, as if these were not deaths but failures, part of a process. She wanted to try again, as soon as she was able, for as long as it took.
After seven, I couldn’t do it any more. And neither one of us wanted to adopt. That might seem selfish, but I think it takes a certain kind of couple, with a certain mindset, to take that on. We were wise enough to know that we were not those people.
For a few years we went on as a childless couple. People do this, we said. People live fulfilling lives without children. I was always the wiz kid at the brokerage, always on the edge of things, so it was natural for me to get into derivatives. It was very creative. I was helping to invent entirely new ways to produce revenue; sometimes it felt like I was pulling cash out of the air. But a few years down the line, when the inventing part was over, I came to realize that what I was doing had no real value. I wasn’t producing anything that was any good to society. I was only using this mathematical sleight-of-hand to make a stacked deck even more unfair, to make filthy rich people even richer.
I decided that I wanted out. With no children to provide for, and Allison back at her old job, I thought I deserved a little time to lift my nose from the grindstone. I met Colin at a barbecue. He told me that he was starting a deck-staining business and needed an assistant. I had always done all the work on our house myself – including painting the exterior and staining the deck – and, in fact, had found it to be excellent therapy. So I took Colin’s card.
Allison didn’t like it. She wanted us to be a power couple; she wanted us to keep piling up money and play the games of the elite: Junior League, charity boards – maybe the opera. We fought for a month, non-stop, viciously, noisily. I’m surprised the cops never showed up. She called me a lazy, self-absorbed piece of shit. I called her a money-grubbing bitch.
I summarily quit my job and began working for Colin. I adored the work. I loved the ache in my muscles, the long, quiet hours, the spectacular views. There was even an element of voyeurism, getting to invade all these private spaces, to see how other people lived. And mostly, I loved the concrete-ness of the product. We took these graying, sun-baked, moss-covered wretches, cleaned them up, stained them over and made them into beautiful objects. I pictured our clients coming out for their morning coffee, seeing their shiny deck through the kitchen window and thinking, Maybe I’ll eat breakfast outside.
As I got more into the business, I realized I needed a more appropriate vehicle. I bought my sister’s station wagon. It had already suffered ten years of child abuse (so to speak), so I certainly didn’t have to worry about being nice to it. For years, I kept discovering bits of its previous life: a Spiderman action figure under the passenger seat, a pack of bubble gum tucked under a seat cushion, an empty juice box next to the spare tire. The only thing I didn’t like was that the stereo didn’t work. But after hot days I was certainly grateful for the air conditioning.
Eventually I moved into an apartment. I let Allison have the house. But that wasn’t enough. I learned from mutual friends that she intended to ruin me. She hired an expensive attorney and took everything: assets, bank accounts, my BMW. I have no idea why she deserved any of this, but it’s amazing what a good lawyer can do. His most astounding move was to use the miscarriages as an example of the pain and suffering she had to undergo during the marriage. My lawyer (the big overpaid jagoff) had no answer for this. The settlement included alimony – alimony! – and I was soon on my way to bankruptcy. An actual bankruptcy, however, might have put an end to the bloodletting, so they left me barely enough money to live on. And to twist slowly in the wind.
The apartment was now too expensive, but Colin was moving out of his cabin and told me what a deal it was. I really wasn’t sure about the location, but I was getting used to driving mountain roads, so I thought, What the hell. It seemed like a good time to get away from civilization. On a Sunday in July, I made a trip to the cabin and unloaded my first wagonful. When I got back in, the car wouldn’t start. I checked the battery terminals, the wires, made sure the alternator belts were tight. I tried the ignition. Nothing. So there I am, beset by all these doubts about living in the woods, and already I’m stranded. As the full weight of this thought struck me – accompanied by the baseline depression I was already living with – I could feel the life force seeping from my limbs. It wasn’t sadness, or anxiety – those carry a certain emotional vigor. This was me, an empty shell, nothing left. This was the bottom.
I sat there in the driver’s seat for a long time, in something like a psychosomatic coma. Couldn’t move, couldn’t lift a hand, didn’t have enough energy to swear. Allison had finally got me. I pictured her somewhere, holding a voodoo doll, gleefully raising a pin.
Some time later I noticed the fuse box, just behind the parking brake. I was just ignorant enough about cars to see this as a possibility. I slid off the cap, and behold! two fuses that appeared to be loose. I pressed them back into place and, holding on to the thinnest thread of hope, I cranked the ignition.
The engine did nothing. But the stereo came to life! And out of the speakers came this song of indescribable, ghostly mournfulness. I had no idea about the words – they sounded Slavic, maybe Hebrew – but I could hear the pleading, the unbearably beautiful sadness. And the voice. I had the usual pedestrian ideas about opera – that snooty thing that had nothing to do with real life. But this voice, this woman, was so much the opposite. The voice was big but intimate, confiding. I’ve been there too, she said. I know how you feel. I imagined her as the mother of my miscarried children.
Then the orchestra began to well up, and the woman’s voice rose to these long, sustained notes. I felt the sound strike me at a point just beneath my eyes, and I sat there in my car, sobbing. A minute later, the woman sounded like she was pleading for her life, and then, suddenly, that was the end. Another song began, and I cranked the ignition, and it started!
I find Maddie trying to suppress a smile.
“‘Song to the Moon?’”
“Sitting in that tape player, all those years, waiting for someone to reconnect that fuse.”
She folds her hands beneath her chin.
“You know, sometimes I get this idea that what I do has no relevance to real life. Sort of like your derivatives. But then, someone tells me a story like that. But I never dreamed that I faith-healed a car!”
“Well,” I say. “It turns out it was the starter. Apparently, before they completely die out, they can still work every fifth time or so.”
“But only if you’re playing the right aria.”
“By the right singer. No. I don’t give you complete credit for restarting the car. But you did restart me. In any case, I headed right up the hill, having no idea that I was driving to a tune called “Somber Forest,” and I took it straight to my mechanic in Los Gatos. Colin was nice enough to give me an advance so I could get it fixed. All things considered, I remained at the low point of my life for perhaps ten minutes. So I guess I can’t complain. You want another marshmallow?”
She gives me a close-lipped smile. “I want another kiss.”
I’m 47, and I’m not dumb. I begin at the upper right-hand corner of those luscious petals and I work my way across, taking my time to dip my tongue in between. This will be no surprise to aficionados of opera, but Maddie is very talented with her tongue. Keep that in mind the next time you see Rigoletto and you hear Gilda whip out a really wicked rolled R. Ten minutes later, I finish with a kiss on the tip of her nose. She speaks without opening her eyes.
“So that’s when you became obsessed with the opera.”
“Yes. That’s also when I dreamed up my devious, terribly involved plan to find the woman who sang that gorgeous aria and make out with her.”
She opens her eyes just barely and gives me a grin. “You are so lucky it wasn’t Joan Sutherland.”
Photo by MJV