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He stopped and looked down through the trees where the noise came from. Muted shrieks, hysterical yelling, and laughter like a kind of singing. Only kids make sounds like that, Ray thought, smiling. Under the full afternoon sun everything was shining. The wooden supports on the playground that were painted red, yellow, or blue were preternaturally bright, while the swings and slides they held up sparkled like silver. The colors were so intense and strangely beautiful that Ray continued to stare. The kids, mostly seven- or eight-year-olds, were running in every direction in their shorts and T-shirts while their parents or babysitters sat on benches against the nearby fence. At the far end of the playground, two five-year-olds were hugging inside a tire that slowly rotated in the shade of a tree. He walked a couple of blocks uptown toward his apartment, wondering if he could approximate the sounds from the kids' playground with violins, flutes, and piccolos. Then he heard a different sound, dim but unmistakable—a basketball bouncing on concrete—and through the spaces between the trees saw boys flashing by in the middle of a game. This was a different playground, inhabited mostly by teenagers. He watched the boys for a minute—who were furiously focused on their task (behind them in the distance were bright blue patches of the river)—then walked another block.
It basically all came down to a handshake, Ray thought, this annoying decision he was trying to make about Arnold's party. Every June, Arnold threw a party for the people in his circle, mostly composers in their thirties andforties, who inevitably spent the night kvetching and consoling one another about their careers. In the frame of mind he was in, he could certainly make up an excuse and skip the party this time (it was so much more enjoyable just to be outside), but he'd heard that Perry Green was going to attend. Assuming this was true, and not a pathetic trick of Arnold's to ensure a decent-sized crowd, what would it matter anyway? He'd gone to other parties that featured a famous guest—though none perhaps quite of the stature and influence of Perry Green—and, of course, nothing had come of it, for him or anyone else. He knew the routine well. The extra time the guests took with their appearance; the extra drink to screw up their courage; their standing, not exactly in a receiving line, but for the same purpose, to get their chance to shake hands and pay tribute to the famous musician, who no doubt thought as soon as it was over, The speck has shaken hands with me and now can go back to his speck world with a smile on his face. No, he wouldn't fall for it this time. He'd be much better off spending the time composing, or doing anything else, for that matter.
He crossed at 104th Street, heading toward West End Avenue. At the corner he saw his building, the red paint around the windows clashing with the once-red bricks. It was not merely shabby but sinister, he thought as he went inside. He looked at the doorman, at his dimly lit table by the elevator, bent over a newspaper (probably the racing forms). Was he reading? Sleeping? It was impossible to tell. The doorman was wearing his thick black sunglasses which could perfectly disguise whatever he was thinking or doing. As a result, Ray never talked to him—any more than he would talk to anyone else who was sleeping or reading. Besides, the doorman was often not there; at least half the time he was absent from the lobby, and Ray sometimes entertained the notion that he wasn't really his doorman at all but some impostor who intermittently used the lobby as his private lounge. There was something else bizarre about the doorman. In addition to a uniform, complete with hat, he always wore a scarf high on his neck, regardless of how hot it was, so that almost none of his flesh was visible.
"My Glenn Gould doorman" Ray had dubbed him when describing him once to Joy. "I still don't know if he's black, white, or Asian. Not that it matters, of course, but it's odd not to know."
Riding up in the elevator, he thought that if he were still with Joy, it wouldn't matter if they went to the party or not; they'd have a good time either way. It was peculiar how difficult it sometimes was to decide things like this without her.
He stepped out on the eleventh floor, and the smell of cabbage cooking rose to greet him. Quickly, he looked at his feet, but there was no imminent danger, and a relatively clear path appeared to lead toward his door. In the last few months, the hallway had increasingly become his neighbor's backyard, littered with the assorted paraphernalia of her two-year-old grandson, Eugene. Ray had tripped once and invariably had to navigate the stroller and the toys to reach his apartment. Apparently, Grandma Love, as he nicknamed her, had done some "gardening" today, as Eugene's stroller, felt balls, gum machine, numbered and lettered building blocks, coloring pad, and oversized crayons were all neatly arranged against the wall beside her door.
Ray had once intended to complain to her the next time he saw her, in the hallway or lobby, but she had such a smiling, round, innocent face beneath her dyed yellow hair, and she radiated such relentless love for that rambunctious, quasi-hysterical child, that he never could. Then one afternoon, when he was feeling particularly discouraged about his career, she approached him in the lobby, her angelic smile in place, and told him that she thought his piano playing that morning "was especially beautiful." He had been planning to speak to Eugene's ostensible mother, a dark, brooding, obese woman who visited intermittently (he'd never seen the father), but the grandmother's sly compliment touched Ray and made it impossible for him ever to say anything about the toys or Eugene.
The hallway was so dark he had to press his face next to his door to find the keyhole. It's dark enough here to be a restaurant, he thought as his key finally fit. Maybe if I imagined it was a restaurant, it wouldn't get on my nerves. He laughed to himself, opening the door and facing his studio.
A rare burst of direct sunlight accentuated how small and cramped it was, made it appear strange and startling—like a starfish suddenly encountered on the beach. Had he really lived here for two years, since he'd moved out from Joy's? Here with the refrigerator that came up to his knees, with the hot plate on top of it, looking like a monkey wearing a hat when he squinted? Here, with the rust in the tiny bathtub that would never come off, with the bathroom windows painted and nailed shut, and the white trails of boric acid in all the corners to kill the cockroaches—like a New York version of Hansel and Gretel's trail. He sat down at the upright piano that dominated the studio and played a few chords to steady himself.
Bryna would say he'd be a fool to stay in his place tonight, especially in the mood he was in. "Stop being so sensitive and falsely proud and just go. And when you're there, use your assets, network! You say a famous conductor is going to be there—why assume nothing will happen? Get to know him, make him like you, make something happen," et cetera, et cetera.
Ray smiled as he pictured how animated her eyes would get, how expansive her gestures, while she urged him on. Few people could be funnier than Bryna when she became enthusiastic about something, though she was probably right about making things happen. She was older; she knew about such things, and to judge by her suddenly flourishing career as a performance artist—a success out of all proportion to her talent—she was living her own philosophy very well.
He got up from the piano bench thinking that maybe he should call Bryna. Imagining her advice was not the same as actually hearing it, but then she would probably want to go with him, and that wouldn't work either. He got the feeling from his last conversation with her that she wanted to sleep with him, and he didn't want to hurt her by saying no. He wished they could be platonic friends again (just the reverse of his situation with Joy) and had avoided seeing her lately, until he could figure out how to accomplish this delicate transition.
He lay down on his bed, feeling too tired to unfold it, and let his feet dangle over the edge. He wondered how Joy was doing at Tanglewood. She'd moved into her cottage there a week ago to teach and take classes, and now that he knew she wouldn't be in New York or Philadelphia all summer, he was missing her even more than he thought he would.
He closed his eyes and soon was able to hear the opening of his violin and piano sonata that he'd dedicated to her and that was perhaps the most expressive piece he'd ever composed. It brought him pleasure to hear it in his head (it had only been performed once, at a tiny concert in Arnold's loft), and he was glad he could remember it so well. It was peculiar how compositions were like relationships, or so he sometimes thought of his own. There were beginnings, some more dramatic than others, there were developments based on the introductory material, and, of course, they both eventually ended, some more dramatically than others. Like his deepest relationships, his best pieces persisted most intensely in his memory. He was almost halfway through the first movement of this one when a new wave of fatigue overcame him, and a moment later, he fell asleep with the sonata for Joy still flooding his mind.
He woke up, saw his small TV resting like a plant on his windowsill, saw the unmarked staffs of composition paper on his piano, the same white as the boric acid on his floor. It had gotten darker. He stood up and tried to find the sun. There were only about thirty to forty minutes a day when it was visible over or between the three apartment buildings that took up almost all his view. He sometimes felt as if he were playing dodgeball with the sun. Right now it was dodging him; in fact, when judged by the light outside, it had succeeded in avoiding him for the rest of the day.
Why am I so anxious about going to Arnold's party, he thought as he began to change his clothes. It wasn't as if he'd be the only composer there who had no records or major publications. And at thirty-two, he was still younger than most of them. Ironically, as far as the regulars at the party went, it was probably Arnold himself who'd had the most success as a composer, though Arnold no longer composed. Arnold Weisman was an old-guard serialist whose career, Ray had often thought, could serve as a textbook case of early promise terminally frustrated. He was the first semisuccessful composer Ray had met after moving to New York and had been something of a mentor figure to Ray in those first years, always acting enthusiastic about his scores and always eager to inform him about grants and fellowships. Later, when Ray went to Juilliard, Arnold gave him valuable advice about his juries as well as strategies to deal with the politics in the small but intense composition department.
But as quickly as Arnold's success arrived, it began to evaporate. He stopped getting commissions and winning competitions and eventually stopped writing. Ray remembered urging him to compose again during a number of late-night talks on the phone or in various bars, but Arnold always deflected his advice with self-deprecating jokes and, when he wasn't joking, seemed to mean it when he said he was much happier since he'd stopped composing.
The one ongoing piece of good fortune in Arnold's life was the loft he had acquired in TriBeCa in the late seventies, when such things were still affordable. Since most of his colleagues lived in grim little studios or one-bedroom apartments, he'd become indispensable as a host of occasional parties and musical events. What continued to surprise Ray was that, while Arnold had stopped composing and had also inherited some substantial money from his father, he still clung to his old musician friends, still couldn't bear to leave the scene. Talking to a musical demigod like Perry Green would make Arnold's year, was exactly the kind of moment he now lived for.
Still, he could always enjoy Arnold's company at the party (and a couple of the other regulars now that he thought about it), and he supposed he owed it to their friendship to go. Besides, meeting Perry Green would be exciting—assuming he really would be there—but he wouldn't dress up. He'd wear the pink cotton shirt and black pants that he'd just put on, which looked pretty good with his black leather jacket anyway. And he wouldn't arrive as early as he normally did. He looked at himself quickly in his tiny bathroom mirror, when he didn't use a conditioner, as he hadn't for weeks, his thick dark hair began to curl more than his simple comb could effectively manage. He noticed also that there were dark circles under his hazel eyes. Instinctively, he put some water on his face as if that would wash away the circles, then laughed at himself. He went back to the piano, improvised quite joyfully for a half hour, and then left for the party.
On the train, holding the bottle of Chardonnay he'd just bought for Arnold, he sat leaning forward waiting for something interesting to look at. It was as if, for a while, he thought the random images in his car were a movie he could legitimately expect to make sense of, or in some way find entertaining. But everyone's face was turned away from him; they were either thinking or reading, or reading/sleeping like his doorman. He wished he'd brought a book. At Fifty-ninth Street a lot of people got on, and the seats next to him were suddenly filled. He began to obliquely look at his neighbors when a woman passed through his car, almost ghostlike, with long yellow hair, the approximate color of Joy's. It was really only the hair he saw, as if it were passing disembodied through the train. He got up from his seat for a moment thinking he'd follow it, then sat down again. A moment later, a favorite memory of Joy came back to him. She was on a beach in Martha's Vineyard with him. (He had splurged and taken her there on her birthday.) The sun was shining on her long blond hair and on her face, which was close to his. Her hand was on his arm, too, and she was smiling just before she kissed him.
His life with her had been so rich! They had shared everything: music, families, travel, careers. Even if he never got her back, he felt he had been blessed just to know her.
His stop came and a number of the averted faces and twisted necks snapped back into place and left the train with him, soldierlike into the night. In a couple of blocks he was at Arnold's building on North Moore Street. An elevator led directly to the living room portion of the loft. On the third floor Ray literally stepped out of the elevator into the living room and looked at the scene that resembled every other party of Arnold's he'd ever attended. There were lots of men in the room—twice as many as women—wearing T-shirts, jeans, and glasses, with protruding stomachs and receding hairlines, holding their drinks tightly and gesturing with them expressively, as if they were instruments. The women (several of whom were also composers) favored jeans or black skirts. As usual, no music was being played at the party—an unstated act of deference by Arnold to his guests' fragile egos. Even elevator music could wound them or start an argument. These were the people who formed the closest thing he had to a social circle. Some he had met while at Juilliard, others at concerts of contemporary music he'd attended over the years, since at least half of the thirty or so people at those concerts were composers themselves.
What was different this time was that nearly everyone was clustered at one side of Arnold's loft. On the other side, in magnificent isolation by the punch bowl, with his silver hair and cream-colored suit, though looking slightly shorter and frailer, Ray thought, than he did onstage, was Perry Green, indisputably one of the world's most famous classical musicians, the embodiment of the wildest career fantasies of everyone else in the loft. It was no accident that Perry was alone. In a strange collective gesture of shyness and pride, the other guests pretended not to notice Perry, although as Ray watched more closely, he saw that they couldn't resist looking over at Perry every few seconds.
Ray decided that he wouldn't play their game. If necessary, he'd be the first to have his handshake and thirty seconds of conversation with the great man. Waving to a couple of people who saw him, Ray circled around Perry on "his" side of the loft until he reached the bar table, where he deposited his bottle of Chardonnay and quickly fixed himself a gin and tonic. When he looked up from his drink, he noticed that Arnold was now talking to Perry. Fine, he would be second then, he thought, as he took a large swallow of his drink and watched the other guests still playing their cat-and-mouse game with Perry, while no doubt resenting Arnold's sudden act of successful aggression. There was fat, bespectacled Marty Goldstein dressed all in black—a forty-something composer who wrote simpleminded trance music in the Arvo Pärt mode—talking to Barry Margolis, an avant-garde violinist who'd managed to get a number of composers at the party to write pieces for him in exchange for performing them at the "thirty-people concerts." Ray had also received an offer to write for Margolis and was seriously considering it, if only for the guaranteed performance and the bit of exposure that came with it.
Behind them was Larry Rosen, a Phil Glass wanna-be, who had formed his own ensemble à la Glass, to play Rosen's own compositions. He'd gotten some good press lately in the Village Voice that Ray felt was mostly undeserved. Now armed with his good review and membership in the downtown music scene, Rosen could carry off his act of indifference toward Perry's presence more convincingly than most.
The woman Rosen was talking to was an attractive flutist named Janis. Ray had once flirted with her at a different party, but never followed through—typical of his post-Joy dealings with women.
"Waiting for your chance?" a woman suddenly said to him, indicating Perry with a sideways nod. The sarcastic smirk on her thin lips made Ray smile.
"I have traveled long and far for my audience," he said. "And you?"
"My pilgrimage has also been difficult, but I've decided to pass on it. I just came over to have another drink," she said. "That's why I usually come to Arnold's. It's a great place to get drunk."
Ray laughed as she fixed herself a vodka tonic. She had brown hair and eyes and was wearing a short skirt. He thought she was vaguely attractive, but didn't think he'd seen her before.
"I'm Sarah Rogers." She shook his hand.
"Hi, I'm Ray Stoneson."
"I've seen you before."
"Oh? Refresh my memory. Was it Rome? Paris? Madrid? Another pope, a different palace?"
"Actually that night a number of people had pilgrimaged to see you, or hear you, and a number of other composers. It was a concert right here at Arnold's loft about six months ago. I heard your piano trio."
"No kidding? You were one of the twenty-two people in attendance, then. My audiences, like the pope's, are also very exclusive—though for very different reasons."
She laughed. "You were very dashing. It's not every night I get to see the proverbial tall, dark, and handsome man playing such impressive piano."
"Thank you, but your hallucinations are embarrassing me. I'm no pianist, and I don't deserve your other compliments either."
"Yes you do. I liked your playing that night, a lot. I liked your piece too. It was scary and very moving at the end. Quite impressive. Obviously, it made a big impression on me." She looked at him a bit more seriously this time.
"Well thank you, and bless your heart. I don't know what to say," he said, more serious himself now. "I wonder why I didn't speak to you that night or ..."
"Remember me?" She laughed a little, then took a swallow of her drink. "You seemed to be very involved with a tall blond woman, who I must admit was quite gorgeous. I figured she was your wife or your girlfriend, so ..."
"We never spoke?"
"Not until now."
"I'm glad we finally did."
"So, was I right about the blond woman?"
"We were friends then. Though you're right; we were once a lot more than that." Ray looked away as she continued talking to him. He noticed that Arnold had just shaken hands with Perry, had, in fact, moved away from him, leaving Perry temporarily alone, which was both atypically rude of Arnold and an indication of how preoccupied he'd been with his conversation. Meanwhile Sarah, who'd looked stricken for a moment after he'd told her about Joy, was beginning to prove more disconcerting than amusing. At her first pause, Ray said, "But I see the moment for my audience has arrived. Maybe we can talk some more later?"
"Sure. I'd like that," she said, with an ambiguous smile, taking her half-empty glass and returning slowly to the other side of the loft. Arnold smiled unabashedly as he moved toward Ray, extending his hand.
"Thanks for coming, man. I haven't seen you for a while."
"It's good to see you. Thanks for inviting me."
They stood facing each other, without speaking, for a few seconds.
"So ...," Ray said, more softly now, "as we used to say about each other's girlfriends, how was he?"
"Very, very nice. My head is in a whirl," Arnold answered in a soft voice as well, for Perry was conceivably within listening distance.
"Good, I'm glad for you. It's a real coup to have him here," Ray said, suddenly wishing he had dressed a bit more formally.
"You'll like him, too," Arnold said. "Why don't you introduce yourself before everyone else finally gets unglued and starts to mob him?"
"Good idea. I'll follow your advice, and catch up with you later. You'll have to explain how you got him here in the first place." He patted Arnold on the back just before walking in a straight line toward Perry, who was half turned away from him now.
"Excuse me, Maestro," he said, extending his hand, "I'm Ray Stoneson and I'm honored to meet you."
Perry turned, adjusted his glasses, and shook hands with him, an oddly serene smile on his face, which was a little older looking than Ray had thought.
"Thank you, Ray. Are you also a musician?"
"I'm a composer."
"Well," Perry said with a laugh, "I'm a composer, too. I hope that makes me a musician."
"You're definitely a musician," Ray said, smiling, immediately wishing he had taken the opportunity to tell him how much he admired him. "May I ask what you're writing now?" he said, hoping that Perry, whose greatest fame was as a conductor, might enjoy talking about his compositions.
"I'm writing words these days instead of music. They've asked me to do a book on Stravinsky, so I've got to turn something in by October. It's kind of silly to write another book about Stravinsky, in a way—you'd think Robert Craft had pretty much covered the terrain—but I'm under contract, so when I'm not conducting I work on the book as much as I can. I'm afraid that doesn't leave me much time for composing."
"You know, Maestro, I have to tell you—"
"Oh, please, call me Perry. `Maestro' is such a feudalistic word, don't you think?" Perry said with another laugh.
"OK, Perry. I wanted to say that I've learned a lot from everything I've read by you, especially your book on orchestration, which, of course, is just superb."
"Thank you again, Ray. You're being too kind."
"Believe me, it's a pleasure to finally get a chance to tell you a little of what you've meant to me. The truth is I'm thrilled to meet you. For as long as I can remember, I've thought of you as one of our few real national treasures."
"My goodness," Perry said, "I'm beginning to think I should be insured." Then he laughed, and Ray's laugh followed as in a fugue. They talked a few more minutes about a variety of topics: Stravinsky's books with Craft, more briefly about Arnold and his party, and then the weather and what New York was like in the summer. When Ray had imagined talking with Perry, he thought he'd feel vaguely stimulated or faintly nervous. Instead he felt exhilarated in a way that made everything else around him temporarily disappear. This famous man, whom he'd admired his whole musical life, seemed extraordinarily nice and, moreover, was paying a lot of attention to him. When there was a brief silence, Ray worried that their conversation would end and hurriedly asked Perry how he'd happened to come to the party.
"That's a pretty involved story," Perry said, chuckling. "Arnold asked an old friend of mine, a composer named Kenneth Phillips."
"Yes, I know his work."
"And Kenneth asked Arnold if I could come with him. Apparently Arnold didn't object, and wrote me a very kind letter inviting me. Then Kenneth got sick and couldn't come after all, and Arnold asked me if I'd still attend, and I said yes. I'm glad I decided to come, too. I've had a good time, and, of course, I've gotten to meet you."
"Tell me, do you ever get a chance to go to Tanglewood?"
"Every summer until a few years ago ... though usually just for a short time."
"Marvelous. Why don't you call me the next time you do. I'm going to Tanglewood on Monday for the rest of the summer. I have a house in Interlaken, and it's turned out to be quite a convenient place to work. I canceled the master classes I usually teach so I can finish my silly book, though I did agree to conduct the BSO for one concert and then one concert with the student orchestra."
"I'll definitely come up for those concerts."
"Thank you, but they aren't till August. There's no need to wait to visit. Besides, that's not such a good time to see me, anyway. When I conduct, there always seem to be so many people around."
"I can imagine," Ray said, but he was thinking that he couldn't imagine Perry's life at all.
"Let me ask you another question," Perry said, moving a step closer toward Ray. "Do you like to swim?"
The serious look on Perry's face confused him, and he hesitated before saying, "Sure. I love to."
"Wonderful," Perry said, releasing his reassuring smile. "I think I've finally got my pool in good enough shape for you. You look like you're very athletic. Are you a good swimmer?"
"I'm OK. Nothing special."
"I think when someone is able to leave New York, one of the best things they can do is go swimming. Don't you agree?"
"Absolutely," Ray said, with a little laugh.
"Now, tell me, do you also play piano?"
"Yes, but not very well."
"Because I have a grand at the house. Nothing spectacular, but quite serviceable. So if I start to bore you or you don't feel like swimming, you can turn to my piano for solace, or maybe we could play some duets."
"That would be a pleasure."
"Well, this all sounds like loads of fun. I have an idea: Why don't you come up next week before the weekend concerts start? That way we'll avoid the start of Tanglewood and all the crowds."
Ray almost said that he had to teach his piano students during the week—his main source of income these days. But the rapport between them was too good to jeopardize. He'd tell his students he was sick and would reschedule.
"Sounds terrific. I'll try to do it."
"Well, let's exchange addresses. I don't have a card. I hope you don't think less of me, but one of my secret ambitions is to sneak through life without ever having a card. I do have a pen though."
"And I have a piece of paper," Ray said. He was surprised that his hand shook a little as he took it out of his back pants pocket and handed it to Perry.
"You see, we're a good team, or at least efficient," Perry said as he wrote his address, then ripped the paper, and asked Ray to write his address on the other half.
Perry looked at his watch and complained that he had to leave Arnold's party soon, where he'd had so much fun, to attend "a boring sit-down dinner at a restaurant to receive some award I don't even know the name of. Isn't that ridiculous?"
They laughed, and Ray thought that he, too, wanted to leave the party as soon as possible. He merely had to thank Arnold and talk briefly to Marty and Margolis, whom he now noticed milling about at the head of a loose line of people that had suddenly materialized, waiting to meet Perry.
They shook hands, and Perry told him again he hoped he'd visit soon. Smiling broadly, in spite of his resolve to look cool, Ray walked away, nodding at Margolis and patting Marty briefly but warmly on the shoulder. He didn't want to be near them, or Perry either, lest anything mar the smooth ending of their conversation, so he walked back to the bar table at the end of the loft. His mind was racing. It would be more convenient to rent a car, but probably cheaper to take a bus to Tanglewood, and every penny counted, especially if he stayed at a hotel for two nights as he would have to do. In either case, he'd need to ask Bryna for a loan—his savings account having dipped below two hundred. What a time to be tapped out again! But he couldn't brood about that now. By staying two days and nights, he'd also have a much better chance to see Joy. In fact, if he hurried home, he could call her tonight and tell her the news.
He turned, didn't recognize Sarah for a moment, and hesitated before saying hello.
"I see your audience lasted a long time with His Eminence."
Ray nodded, barely able to pay attention to her, and excused himself for a moment to get a drink. He was thinking that he had gotten along especially well with Joy in their last two phone conversations. Who knew what could happen in the Berkshires, where they'd spent a number of nights when they were lovers? At the very least, she'd be the ideal person to advise him on his visit to Perry. There was also the matter of which scores to show Perry, should he ask to see some. In the final analysis, he trusted Joy's opinion on his music even more than Arnold's.
Yes, remarkable opportunities were suddenly materializing, but he knew that he had to be careful not to act impulsively with either Joy or Perry. With Perry he also needed to consider the undeniably flirtatious element to their meeting, which was slightly disconcerting. Perry was widely assumed to be gay, but that wouldn't have to be an issue, certainly not during his first visit, not if he kept a proper distance but was at the same time sensitive and respectful.
"So was it everything you'd hoped for?" Sarah asked him.
Ray turned toward her, smiling as fully as he could. "More so," he said.