Chapter 1: voyant
Language, as Sylvia’s mother was fond of saying, mimics the human condition. What is harmless one moment can become fatal the next. Drop a prefix, and, before you know it, what was innocuous has grown noxious, dispensing fumes that are certain to kill you.
Take voyeur, which derives from the French voir–to see. A powerless or passive spectator. You might define it that way, if you were willing to strip away its unsavory meanings and free it from the clutches of Peeping Toms.
Consider this: as a girl in Sacramento, Sylvia liked to climb trees. She started out in the fruit and nut trees of her neighborhood and then branched out, if you will, to the spreading oaks on the capitol grounds. Innocuous enough, you might say. Yet the physical pleasure she took in scrambling from limb to limb and hoisting herself into a hidden hollow was more than matched by her exhilaration with what she saw: a long-legged woman mowing her lawn in a pair of powder-blue shorts, a pair of terrier mutts humping in the early morning, the opened mouth of an ingenue as a sailor squeezed one of her smallish breasts.
Now, as a woman in San Francisco, Sylvia takes a heightened pleasure in what she sees, but she no longer worries about concealing herself. When Sylvia moved to San Francisco last year, she found a one-bedroom apartment, three flights up, situated along the Hyde Street cable-car line. Home in the evenings, she watches the corner of Washington and Hyde through her curtainless front window. Sipping a glass of cheap burgundy and listening to a Bobby Darin record, Sylvia watches her neighbors, briefcases and sacks of groceries in tow, climb on and off the cable car.
She’s particularly fond of the balletic passengers, who spring onto or off of the car’s running board, even when it’s in motion. So far she hasn’t witnessed a single mishap among the leapers. Catlike, on their way to their various rendezvous, they bound from curb to running board with the grace of the man leaping a puddle in the famous photograph by Cartier-Bresson. Sylvia used to imagine that she was the Parisian in the photograph, her long, open-scissored leap, reflected in the pooling water, an emblem of decisiveness.
Despite Sylvia’s good high-school French—her mother used to tell her that she was born to be a linguist or an impostor, maybe both—the closest Sylvia has gotten to Paris is through a monograph of Cartier-Bresson photos, a sampling of Debussy and Ravel recordings, and the lovely baguettes at Simon Brothers, flown in every other day from Paris, that she occasionally slips under her raincoat. Sometimes she pretends that it is Paris she’s watching out her window.
Watcher might be another word she could apply to herself. Socially, it would make her more acceptable, but who wants to settle for a word so bereft of nuance? Anyway, watchers have become as common as birds in 1962, now that every man, woman, and child in America has a television of their own. Those few citizens not spending their leisure time watching TV are scanning the skies for orbiting chimpanzees or astronauts. Sylvia prefers more intimate curiosities.
One evening, shortly after moving to San Francisco, Sylvia took a random stroll down Van Ness Avenue and saw a symphony crowd billowing out of cabs and town cars and up the grand stairway to the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House. Although she was no more dressed for a concert than a woman walking her dog, she let herself get swept along with the crowd and, with neither dog nor ticket, climbed the stairs with the concertgoers and milled about the lobby, underdressed but unrepentant.
She remembered how not long after the Second World War, as a seventh grader from Sacramento, she visited the Opera House, where delegates of fifty nations had drafted and signed the United Nations charter. She’d imagined herself as a delegate from Ceylon, one of the exotic nations from which she had postage stamps. Seventeen years later, as she milled about in the lobby without a ticket, dressed in pedal pushers and a navy blue car coat, a voice in her head announced: The delegate from Ceylon, Sylvia Bran.
In September, as the anniversary of her first year in San Francisco nears, Sylvia gets an opportunity to attend a symphony concert at the Opera House. Her boss at Myerson’s—“The grand piano store of the West”—offers her a complimentary ticket. Although the ticket has a hole punched through it, Sylvia is ushered through a velvet curtain to a freestanding upholstered chair in a box of her own. She might as well be the queen of Ceylon.
At first, it is hard to reconcile the formality of the setting and occasion with the casual, backstage banter that follows the musicians to their seats. Some of them tune their instruments on the fly amid a cacophony of scales and eighth-note passages. Then Inez Roseman appears onstage with her violin. Of course, Sylvia doesn’t yet know who the exquisite violinist is, but talk about regal. She wears her hair—a shade of blond that can’t have come out of a bottle—brushed back, with a silver comb at each temple. Surely this tall and graceful figure is cut from another cloth. The knots of standing musicians seem to part for her as she makes her way, without a word, toward the front of the first violin section. Is the stunning violinist contemptuous of her joking colleagues? Do they despise her for acting as if she’s too good for this world?
Sylvia pays close attention to the violinist’s gestures—the lovely way she brushes a hand under her skirt before sitting; her manner of dropping a square of silk onto her left shoulder and shrugging it into place before lifting the violin and clamping it with her chin. The other violinists all seem to have more elaborate devices or padding to protect their chins and shoulders. This one, with her square of silk, is, in effect, riding bareback. The violinist closes her eyes as she begins to tune her instrument. Sylvia imagines the inner ear against which the violinist measures her A and pictures a flower within a flower. Clearly, the violinist has perfect pitch, a kind of magnetic north that draws her to its incontrovertible center. In college, Sylvia had known a French horn player with perfect pitch, and she’d always wondered what it was like for him to live among the common folk with wavering intonation.
The dashing Brazilian conductor, João Bonfa, gives his downbeat, and the opening measure of an orchestral suite by Berlioz rises to Sylvia’s box. She is sitting close enough to study the supple grace of the violinist’s bow arm, and, gradually, locks into the breathing pattern of the silk-shouldered beauty.
At intermission, Sylvia asks an usher the name of the first violinist sitting second stand outside.
“That’s Inez Roseman; beautiful Inez.” The elderly matron, whose white hair is slipping out of its chignon, turns her head dismissively. Is the gesture meant as a comment on the violinist or on the philistine posing the question? Sylvia decides the latter. Maybe the usher remembers her complimentary ticket, the one with the hole punched through it, and holds that against her.
“Has she been with the symphony for long?” Sylvia persists.
“Yes,” the usher says, turning toward Sylvia. “She’s been in the symphony for nearly twenty years.”
“How could that be? She doesn’t look like she’s much past thirty.”
“Well, I’m not lying to you. Some of us age better than others.” The usher takes a linen hanky from her clutch and, unfolding it, reveals a small stash of lemon drops. She offers one to Sylvia.
“No, thank you.”
The matron plucks a lemon drop from her linen wrap and drops it on her tongue. “Of course, Inez got into the symphony when she was very young.”
“She’d have had to.”
“And you know who she’s married to,” the usher says, in a stage whisper.
“No, I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Jake Roseman.” The usher puckers her lips around her lemon drop. “You know, the attorney who’s creating all the fuss with the colored.”
Sylvia has read about him in the Chronicle. He seems to be something of a sensationalist. A white lawyer working on behalf of the Negroes, a favorite of the liberal columnists.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” the usher says, “the man has no feeling for music, even though his father played in the symphony for years.”
“His father played?” Sylvia asks.
“His father was the first concertmaster under Monteux. He was Inez’s teacher. But you never see the husband here. Maybe he’ll come next month when Inez plays her solo. If we’re so lucky.”
“What will she be playing?”
The usher puts her hands on her hips. “My, you ask a lot of questions. You ought to be a reporter.”
“I am a reporter,” Sylvia says, tasting the words as she speaks them.
“What do you know?” The matron’s eyes brighten—everything seems to make sense to her now.
“But you haven’t answered my last question,” Sylvia says.
“Your last question?”
“What will Mrs. Roseman be playing?”
“Oh, yes, the Goldmark Concerto.”
“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Goldmark.”
“And when did he live?”
The usher looks flustered. “When did he . . .? He was . . .” Her hands go up to her hair and flutter in their crooked, arthritic way around the loose knot of her chignon. “He was a Romantic.”
Now the old woman, a flirt at heart, narrows her eyes and offers a gamine smile. She holds out her hand to Sylvia. “Elizabeth Mier. That’s Mier, M I E R.”
Does Elizabeth Mier expect her to jot down the correct spelling of her name? Sylvia takes her hand. “Pleased to meet you,” she says without offering her own name. The power of the press.
By the time the voyeur-turned-reporter is back in her box, the curious constellation of the Roseman family has woven itself around her. The French have another word, a first cousin of voyeur that hasn’t really crossed over into English. Voyant. We do have clairvoyant, but how much more elegant to be a voyant, a simple seer.
Back in her seat, Sylvia Bran’s career as a voyant is about to begin. As the lovely violinist walks back onstage and drops her square of silk onto her shoulder, Sylvia holds her breath.