Heart and Soul

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Bestselling author Sally Mandel writes vibrant novels peopled with richly-drawn characters whose lives move readers to both laughter and tears. Now she has created a remarkable story about the profound risks that are taken in the pursuit of a dream.

For pianist Bess Stallone, a self-taught musical prodigy from the tough side of Long Island, getting into Julliard was a minor miracle. It just wasn’t the kind of school girls from her blue-collar ...
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Overview

Bestselling author Sally Mandel writes vibrant novels peopled with richly-drawn characters whose lives move readers to both laughter and tears. Now she has created a remarkable story about the profound risks that are taken in the pursuit of a dream.

For pianist Bess Stallone, a self-taught musical prodigy from the tough side of Long Island, getting into Julliard was a minor miracle. It just wasn’t the kind of school girls from her blue-collar neighborhood attended. In fact, the only thing Bess had in common with the other Julliard students was her singular passion for classical music, which she could play magnificently. Except in front of an audience. From her first disastrous recital, Bess knew that she would never be good enough for the stage, as her bitter father had been telling her for years. But one willful, determined teacher would change everything.

Renowned virtuoso David Montagnier has already captivated the world. Now he needs a new partner for his two-piano repertoire, someone to breathe fresh excitement into his work. Drawn to her wild talent, David challenges Bess, seducing her with music and offering her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get out of Rocky Beach. As David leads her from their first terrifying performance in a Harlem church to standing ovations at Carnegie Hall, Bess allows herself to surrender to the joys of life, and to believe in love.

Then the romance crumbles. For David’s brilliance masks the wounds of a tortured genius that may never heal. Forsaken, Bess must make a fateful journey of her own–to search once again for the music missing from her heart.

Resonating with wit, warmth, and profoundinsight, Heart and Soul is a triumph of emotion, a flawless symphony of realism and romance that celebrates life, love, perseverance, and an enduring passion for music.

Author Biography: Sally Mandel is the beloved author of five novels: Quinn, A Time To Sing, Portrait of a Married Woman, the New York Times bestseller Change of Heart, and Out of the Blue. She lives in New York City with her family.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As in her deservedly popular Out of the Blue, Mandel here displays her talent for establishing a strong female lead in an appealing milieu with an equally intriguing love interest. Frank-talking Long Island native Bess Stallone ("no relation") is a gifted pianist, fascinated and formed by music from an early age, but in every other way an unlikely virtuoso. With her difficult family life, wrong-side-of-island provenance and paralyzing stage fright, she's the perfect narrator to spin out Mandel's trademark self-deprecating humor. Bess has gotten into Juilliard and attracted the attention of the brilliant and renowned pianist David Montagnier, who wants her to be his partner at first on stage, and later in the bedroom. In a series of skillful scenes, Mandel takes Bess from down and out to what seems like the life of her dreams. But David, however potentially compelling as a character, remains a gorgeous cipher until the end, while good guy Jake, Bess's high school buddy, is telegraphed too clearly as being the one Bess is destined to be with. Mandel could have written a much deeper book, since both David's past with his tragic mother, Aimee, and Bess's history with Jake would have added weight and balance. The strong supporting characters and an ending that almost satisfies wrap up a package that leaves the reader wanting more. National radio ads; print ads in Romantic Times; New York media and bookstore appearances. (Apr.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Firefighter's daughter wows 'em at Carnegie Hall, in the third from Mandel (Out of the Blue, 2000, etc.). Bess Stallone's distinctly unmusical and resoundingly working-class family prefers Perry Como to much of anything else, and they have no idea she's a prodigy. Fortunately, a teacher recognizes Bess's raw talent, and 11-year-old Bess is soon happily banging away on an old upright she dubs "Amadoofus" and dreaming of Julliard. Flash forward several years: her abusive father has been crippled fighting fires and is making his long-suffering family's life hell. When, after one too many Chopin etudes, he rises from his wheelchair and takes an axe to poor old Amadoofus, Bess throws herself upon the shattered piano and sobs, but vows that her life at least will go on. Blessed with spectacular cleavage as well as musical talent, she bumps into French piano virtuoso David Montagnier, who's fascinated by the emotional power of her playing. He teaches her the art of performing, and it's not long before he and Bess are dazzling audiences all over the world, despite her stage fright. And they fall in love, too, despite David's mood swings and Beethovenish brooding (no, he's not deaf-just depressed). Alas, Bess miscarries the baby she longs for, and David plunges into the depths of despair, finally drowning himself in a convenient lake after leaving Bess a final performance of her favorite piece of music, sensitively recorded. Grieving Bess then visits David's former partner in Europe, who reveals some not exactly compelling secrets about him. Sadder but wiser, Bess looks for solace in the brawny arms of her childhood friend Jake. . . . Soap opera with a lot of grating Long Island tough talk, allthe way from its obnoxious heroine and utterly implausible hero.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345428936
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/4/2003
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 4.17 (w) x 6.86 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Sally Mandel is the beloved author of five novels: Quinn, A Time To Sing, Portrait of a Married Woman, the New York Times bestseller Change of Heart, and Out of the Blue. She lives in New York City with her family.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

When I turned eleven, my major goal was to grow bigger breasts than Pauline Sabatino. At that point, I could still ignore my need for music, and what was definitely not on my list was the notion of performing in Carnegie Hall with the great David Montagnier in front of 2,802 people, not counting standing room. If you had told me it was going to happen, I would have said you had your head stuck someplace where the sun didn’t shine and we all would have had a good laugh, except for Pauline who didn’t know what Carnegie Hall was. Anyhow, the media is always wanting to know how I got from a crummy neighborhood in Nassau County, Long Island, to a world-famous two-piano partnership. Being Bess “the Mouth” Stallone (no relation), I used to hand out the old flip response: “Practice.” But given the way my life has turned out, I decided it’s time to try to make some sense out of it all.

First of all, I never thought of myself as some kind of girl wonder, unless you count a genius for dreaming up creative excuses for why my report card didn’t show up in my parents’ mail, or how come the family laundry—my responsibility along with the rest of the housework—had blue stains all over it. But there was always this thing inside me that made me different. When I was little, I thought everybody had it, but once I figured out it had to do with the piano, I knew I was really on my own. I mean, there was nobody else in Rocky Beach who flipped out over Mozart, or if they did, they sure as hell kept it a deep dark secret. I know it’s supposed to be impossible to run at something just as fast as you’re running away from it, but that’s the way it was for me with music.

My earliest memories are of sound: my mother’s voice singing “Bela Bambina” in the darkness as I fell asleep; the opera of dogs yapping to each other on the street outside my window; sirens, car alarms, and always, always music. I can give you the theme songs of every TV show all the way back to 1968 when I was two years old. My visual impressions of childhood are pretty hazy, but the sounds stuck with me.

Then in sixth grade there was a recital at school. Mostly, it was selections by the band which sounded pretty much like a bunch of elephants with intestinal distress. Ray Zilenski kept pulling my hair from the seat behind me and Pauline was crying because she got gum stuck on her new blouse. I was cranky from the pain in my ears. But then the band clattered off and Amanda Jones sat down at the piano and began to play “The Happy Farmer,” by Robert Schumann. Talk about being bonked over the head. Nobody was paying attention except for Amanda’s parents and me but I’ll never forget that first clumsy little classical ditty. I hung around after everybody left the auditorium and went to the piano. It was a beat-up old baby grand with dirty yellow keys but to me it seemed like a holy relic. I started fooling around until I’d figured out more or less how the keyboard was organized and then I worked out the tune I’d heard Amanda play. Bess Stallone Meets the Piano—it was like being born.

My parents didn’t quite see it that way. When I pleaded for lessons, my father said, “Sure, Liberace. I’ll just hand you the mortgage money and you can serenade us when we’re living out on the street.” Nobody in my family knows from a simple yes or no answer. There always has to be drama.

I kept my mouth shut, but all the time I was scheming. I’d saved over fifty dollars from doing chores in the neighborhood, which I figured was good for a couple of lessons, and a few times a week I snuck into the music room at school and tried to reproduce stuff I heard on the classical radio station. I was eleven years old when Mrs. Fasio caught me trying to work out Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, which I liked even more than Wild Cherry’s number one tune, “Play That Funky Music.” Mrs. Fasio was the chorus teacher who also gave piano lessons. The kids called her Olive Oyl behind her back on account of her having popped-out eyes and being so skinny.

“Who are you?” she asked me as I was trying to make a run for the door. She was quick, and grabbed hold of my elbow before I could squirm away. I remember noticing that her panty hose hung off her ankles, she was that thin.

I slumped back down on the bench, knowing I was in deep shit—(a) because I had given the gym teacher a phony excuse about being sick so I could practice the piano, and (b) I’d figured out how to pick the lock Mrs. Fasio attached to a clamp on the piano lid.

“Your name,” she said.

“Bess Stallone.”

“How old are you?”

It’s funny how I remember every detail of that first meeting. It’s like when I first met David. Even at the time, I must have sensed how important it was. Anyway, I told her I was eleven.

“Good.” Mrs. Fasio sat down beside me. “Then maybe it’s not too late.”

I had my first lesson right there in the music room that had the sharp metallic smell of spit from the brass instruments. We didn’t hear the bell that signaled the end of gym class and the next thing I knew the assistant principal was banging on the door. The way he looked at Mrs. Fasio, I was scared she’d get fired.

“I’m not going to gym anymore,” I told him. “I’m doing this instead.” Not the most sensible remark I could have made to a guy who thought sports was what God did on his day off, and it didn’t sit well, especially when Mrs. Fasio backed me up. The guy was on my butt for months after that, sending demerit slips home to my parents and docking my privileges. Funny thing, he showed up backstage at Lincoln Center years later and asked me and David to sign his program. I was thinking, okay, Bess, here’s your chance: Dear Asshole, If I’d listened to you, I’d still be bagging groceries in Rocky Beach. But I took the high road and even though I spelled his name wrong on purpose, I scribbled Best regards.

I finally got my parents to pay for lessons by agreeing to baby-sit my sister every Saturday night. Mrs. Fasio found me an old junker upright piano. It lost a few of its keys right away when my cousins fell through the top screwing around but I was crazy about it and called it Amadoofus. Nobody wanted to listen to scales and when I played Chopin, my father would start yelling, “What the fuck is this, a fucking funeral? Can’t you play something with a fucking beat?” I loved the guys at the firehouse where he worked, but the vocabulary was kind of limited. Anyhow, Dad finally took an axe to Amadoofus, but I don’t want to talk about that.

So Mrs. Fasio taught me some pieces that I was supposed to play at her semiannual recital. That’s when I learned about fear. One time when I was little, my cousin dangled me by the ankles over the side of a bridge. I thought that was pretty scary at the time, but it couldn’t compare to the way I felt about Mrs. Fasio’s recital. I phoned her the night before, pretending I was my mother with some bullshit story about how Bess couldn’t attend the recital because she’d come down with pernicious anemia, a disease Pauline found in the encyclopedia. Naturally Mrs. Fasio double-checked, so not only did I have to show up for the recital but I caught hell from my mother for lying. Since I was slated for last, I had to sit there sweating through my party dress and tasting Fruit Loops from breakfast in the back of my throat while everybody else waltzed up and did their thing without so much as a twitch. Anyhow, time marched on and it was my turn. When I sat down on the bench, my right knee started bouncing and my fingers were slimy and cold. All I can remember thinking was Oh, God, somebody kill me kill me kill me. I must have stumbled through my Mozart Sonata because I somehow arrived at the last chord, but when I stood up, everything went black. Well, no, not black, everything but black. Every color exploding at once in front of my eyes. I passed out and broke my nose on the keyboard.

After that experience, it didn’t matter if there were ten or ten thousand in the audience, I was scared shitless, and that is a reasonably accurate term, I can tell you. I didn’t realize it then, of course, but right there in Mrs. Fasio’s living room I had taken the first step on my journey to David Montagnier.

So after that I became a teenager with this totally weird need to be listening to the local classical music station twenty-four hours a day. There was only one person in the world who didn’t seem to think I was nuts and that was Mrs. Fasio, which was pretty scary in itself. If I followed her lead, I figured I’d wind up a lonely old maid who was half-fermented from the buckets of bourbon she started guzzling about four o’clock every afternoon.

I suppose most adolescents feel alone, like nobody understands their own special problems. On the one hand, I was ashamed of my obsession and felt like there was something seriously wrong with me and I should just study computer technology like my father said. On the other, there was a tiny kernel of conviction way down deep that God had slipped a special gift into my packaging and I’d damn well better honor it. Talk about confused. I tried distracting myself with things like sex and drinking, but the bottom line was I still couldn’t stay away from the keyboard. It’s like the piano was a person to me. The way Pauline was hung up on Billy Joel, our Long Island piano man, I was mooning over a photo of Vladimir Horowitz that I kept hidden under the junk beside my bed. I’d get it out just before I turned out my light and stare at it despite the fact that even in the picture he was probably at least a hundred years old, listening in my head to the passionate pyrotechnics of his recordings. For me, Horowitz’s rendition of a Scriabin Étude inspired the same intense “if only” mix of longing and joy that “Just the Way You Are” produced in Pauline. I don’t know if anybody’s ever done the research, but it seems to me that music and love occupy the same hunk of real estate in the brain. It’s all hooked up, at least for women. So imagine what happened to my head when music and love collided: David Montagnier, Mr. Cosmic Fusion.

I know that’s what everybody is really interested in, me and David. We’re getting there, but it won’t make any sense if I start with that summer day in 1994 when we finally met. I must explain that Mrs. Fasio got me to the Juilliard School through her connections. (Her father was the famous violinist Max Pan- tani, and how Mrs. Fasio wound up in a dumpy little town like Rocky Beach is another story and has to do with a man. Don’t they all?)

So at Juilliard, I was completely out of my league socially and intellectually. I wore tight clothes and my hair was so big that other students would compete to sit behind me so they could sleep through class. Except for the secret vice of classical music, my idea of culture was Rambo: First Blood. What did I have in common with these smart-ass Manhattan kids and foreign students who were mostly Korean? The only other Italian student came from Milan, for Christ’s sake. Anyhow, the fact that I made it there was a major miracle, which is why I’m still always chasing off to the boonies to listen to some third-grader with talent.

I commuted into the city for classes and music lessons with the legendary Harold Stein. He scared the crap out of me, with a voice that thundered when he didn’t think I was trying hard enough and beady eyes that glared out from under a thicket of eyebrows. I knew I was way behind the others who’d been studying nonstop since they were seven years old. But Professor Stein kept telling me that if I worked my butt off, I could catch up. He also gave me pep talks about living up to my heritage. Up to that point, I was still under the impression that Italians didn’t have much of a musical culture unless you counted my uncle’s old Perry Como recordings. Professor Stein understood that introducing me to compositions by Scarlatti would be inspiring for me. It would never have happened except for the professor, but two years after graduating from the conservatory, I was on a par with some of the top students. The only problem was, if I was going to be such a hotshot pianist, I was expected to perform. And I wanted to, desperately.

I don’t know what it is, exactly, that need to share your music. I mean, what the hell, if you love it so much, why shouldn’t it be enough to just sit alone in your apartment and make pretty sounds for the dust balls under the sofa? But it isn’t. Keeping your music private is like having your mouth taped shut, which I must say is a frustrating prospect for somebody like me. On the other hand, all those years later I could still resurrect the sour taste of fear just by thinking about Mrs. Fasio’s ivory keyboard, the one that broke my nose.

Jake Minello, who for most of my life shared billing with Pauline as my best friend, could never understand why I’d get so scared. “You’re not going to die out there, Bess,” he used to tell me. “The worst that can happen is you make an ass out of yourself in front of a couple thousand people. It’s not fun but it’s also not a plane crash.” I know it’s hard to believe, but facing a performance made me long for death. I would hope for any kind of disaster that would prevent my going out onstage. I’m ashamed to say that one time my mother was hospitalized just before I was supposed to perform a concert at the Church of the Heavenly Rest and they had to find a replacement for me. I was ecstatic. Now how sick is that? But ask anybody who’s got a bad case of stage fright and they’ll tell you the same thing.

Suffice it to say, I built up quite a rep at Julliard. If I was listed in the program, they had to keep a bucket in the wings because I was definitely going to need it. Twice, I just sat there with my hands stuck over the keyboard like they had rigor mortis. I never played a note. Professor Stein tried everything. First, he sent me to a shrink who told me I’d been so freaked out by my father that it was a bloody miracle I could play at all. I went on beta blockers but first of all my betas refused to be blocked, and second, I had some unusual reaction that made me itch so much I couldn’t stop scratching long enough to perform. Drinking relaxed me a little but then I couldn’t remember the notes. Professor Stein kept telling me not to give up, that every pianist suffered from this problem and it was the ones who conquered their fear who succeeded. He said he was sure I would be one of those, but once I graduated, I could see that even he was beginning to feel defeated. It was looking like it was time to give up my dump of an apartment and my three jobs, and get myself a gig at the supermarket back in Rocky Beach.

I knew about David Montagnier, of course. Everybody did. He was part of that small group of respected artists who somehow managed to cross over into popular culture, like Pavarotti or Isaac Stern or Baryshnikov. It didn’t hurt that he was beautiful, with his shiny black hair, brown eyes, and a smile that was half sexual promise, half little boy. People magazine loved him. By the time I graduated from Julliard, everybody knew that David and his longtime two-piano partner, Terese Dumont, had split up due to some unspecified illness of hers. The last I’d heard, he was pursuing a solo career.

I started running into him around Juilliard, where I was continuing my lessons with faithful frustrated Harold Stein. Once, I was waiting for the bus on Broadway and he got into a cab right in front of me. I recognized him instantly, of course—who wouldn’t? Twice, I came out of a practice room and he was walking past. Finally, I was hurrying to my waitress job and I literally slid around a corner and into his arms. Now, I’d spent years listening to recordings by Montagnier and Dumont (music students called them the Twin Peaks) and I had a lot of respect for them. Furthermore, I will never, ever forget the wattage of that first smile David flashed at me. So that’s my defense.

“Shit! Oh my God, I almost killed you!” Pathetic, I realize, but at least I didn’t say Fuck me! which tended to slip out when I was flustered. (I was no stranger to my father’s firehouse.) “Bess Stallone, no relation,” I said, and held out my hand.

“Yes, I know,” he said, wrapping long, muscular fingers around mine.

“Shut up!” I said. David Montagnier knew my name! Jesus! He had a fabulous accent, sort of nonspecific European. He could make the menu from Schmuel’s Kosher Deli sound romantic. I know, because one time I made him read it to me just to test it out. Salami, pastrami, gefilte fish, and flanken. It was like a Puccini libretto.

“Are you hurt?” David asked.

“I’m okay,” I said. “Just abashed.” I felt quite pleased with myself over that one. “Abashed” happened to be my vocabulary word of the day—my effort at self-improvement—and it wasn’t often I got to use the selection du jour to such terrific effect.

Meanwhile, David still had me by the elbow, and even though I was blushing to my roots, I was self-possessed enough to be pleased that a student from my old Music Theory class had spotted us and almost went into cardiac arrest from envy.

“The Ruggiero’s coming along well,” he said. David smiled again—whoa, fetch me my shades. “I heard you practicing,” he explained. “Would you possibly have time for a cup of tea and some pointers?”

What if I’d said no? Not that it ever would have happened. But here it was, the major crossroads of my life.

“Sure,” I said. Sure I can not show up for my shift waiting tables at O’Neals. A lifetime of food stamps was a small price to pay for half an hour with those eyeballs.

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

When I turned eleven, my major goal was to grow bigger breasts than Pauline Sabatino. At that point, I could still ignore my need for music, and what was definitely not on my list was the notion of performing in Carnegie Hall with the great David Montagnier in front of 2,802 people, not counting standing room. If you had told me it was going to happen, I would have said you had your head stuck someplace where the sun didn't shine and we all would have had a good laugh, except for Pauline who didn't know what Carnegie Hall was. Anyhow, the media is always wanting to know how I got from a crummy neighborhood in Nassau County, Long Island, to a world-famous two-piano partnership. Being Bess "the Mouth" Stallone (no relation), I used to hand out the old flip response: "Practice." But given the way my life has turned out, I decided it's time to try to make some sense out of it all.

First of all, I never thought of myself as some kind of girl wonder, unless you count a genius for dreaming up creative excuses for why my report card didn't show up in my parents' mail, or how come the family laundry--my responsibility along with the rest of the housework--had blue stains all over it. But there was always this thing inside me that made me different. When I was little, I thought everybody had it, but once I figured out it had to do with the piano, I knew I was really on my own. I mean, there was nobody else in Rocky Beach who flipped out over Mozart, or if they did, they sure as hell kept it a deep dark secret. I know it's supposed to be impossible to run at something just as fast as you're running away from it, but that's the way it was for me with music.

My earliest memories areof sound: my mother's voice singing "Bela Bambina" in the darkness as I fell asleep; the opera of dogs yapping to each other on the street outside my window; sirens, car alarms, and always, always music. I can give you the theme songs of every TV show all the way back to 1968 when I was two years old. My visual impressions of childhood are pretty hazy, but the sounds stuck with me.

Then in sixth grade there was a recital at school. Mostly, it was selections by the band which sounded pretty much like a bunch of elephants with intestinal distress. Ray Zilenski kept pulling my hair from the seat behind me and Pauline was crying because she got gum stuck on her new blouse. I was cranky from the pain in my ears. But then the band clattered off and Amanda Jones sat down at the piano and began to play "The Happy Farmer," by Robert Schumann. Talk about being bonked over the head. Nobody was paying attention except for Amanda's parents and me but I'll never forget that first clumsy little classical ditty. I hung around after everybody left the auditorium and went to the piano. It was a beat-up old baby grand with dirty yellow keys but to me it seemed like a holy relic. I started fooling around until I'd figured out more or less how the keyboard was organized and then I worked out the tune I'd heard Amanda play. Bess Stallone Meets the Piano--it was like being born.

My parents didn't quite see it that way. When I pleaded for lessons, my father said, "Sure, Liberace. I'll just hand you the mortgage money and you can serenade us when we're living out on the street." Nobody in my family knows from a simple yes or no answer. There always has to be drama.

I kept my mouth shut, but all the time I was scheming. I'd saved over fifty dollars from doing chores in the neighborhood, which I figured was good for a couple of lessons, and a few times a week I snuck into the music room at school and tried to reproduce stuff I heard on the classical radio station. I was eleven years old when Mrs. Fasio caught me trying to work out Chopin's Raindrop Prelude, which I liked even more than Wild Cherry's number one tune, "Play That Funky Music." Mrs. Fasio was the chorus teacher who also gave piano lessons. The kids called her Olive Oyl behind her back on account of her having popped-out eyes and being so skinny.

"Who are you?" she asked me as I was trying to make a run for the door. She was quick, and grabbed hold of my elbow before I could squirm away. I remember noticing that her panty hose hung off her ankles, she was that thin.

I slumped back down on the bench, knowing I was in deep shit--(a) because I had given the gym teacher a phony excuse about being sick so I could practice the piano, and (b) I'd figured out how to pick the lock Mrs. Fasio attached to a clamp on the piano lid.

"Your name," she said.

"Bess Stallone."

"How old are you?"

It's funny how I remember every detail of that first meeting. It's like when I first met David. Even at the time, I must have sensed how important it was. Anyway, I told her I was eleven.

"Good." Mrs. Fasio sat down beside me. "Then maybe it's not too late."

I had my first lesson right there in the music room that had the sharp metallic smell of spit from the brass instruments. We didn't hear the bell that signaled the end of gym class and the next thing I knew the assistant principal was banging on the door. The way he looked at Mrs. Fasio, I was scared she'd get fired.

"I'm not going to gym anymore," I told him. "I'm doing this instead." Not the most sensible remark I could have made to a guy who thought sports was what God did on his day off, and it didn't sit well, especially when Mrs. Fasio backed me up. The guy was on my butt for months after that, sending demerit slips home to my parents and docking my privileges. Funny thing, he showed up backstage at Lincoln Center years later and asked me and David to sign his program. I was thinking, okay, Bess, here's your chance: Dear Asshole, If I'd listened to you, I'd still be bagging groceries in Rocky Beach. But I took the high road and even though I spelled his name wrong on purpose, I scribbled Best regards.

I finally got my parents to pay for lessons by agreeing to baby-sit my sister every Saturday night. Mrs. Fasio found me an old junker upright piano. It lost a few of its keys right away when my cousins fell through the top screwing around but I was crazy about it and called it Amadoofus. Nobody wanted to listen to scales and when I played Chopin, my father would start yelling, "What the fuck is this, a fucking funeral? Can't you play something with a fucking beat?" I loved the guys at the firehouse where he worked, but the vocabulary was kind of limited. Anyhow, Dad finally took an axe to Amadoofus, but I don't want to talk about that.

So Mrs. Fasio taught me some pieces that I was supposed to play at her semiannual recital. That's when I learned about fear. One time when I was little, my cousin dangled me by the ankles over the side of a bridge. I thought that was pretty scary at the time, but it couldn't compare to the way I felt about Mrs. Fasio's recital. I phoned her the night before, pretending I was my mother with some bullshit story about how Bess couldn't attend the recital because she'd come down with pernicious anemia, a disease Pauline found in the encyclopedia. Naturally Mrs. Fasio double-checked, so not only did I have to show up for the recital but I caught hell from my mother for lying. Since I was slated for last, I had to sit there sweating through my party dress and tasting Fruit Loops from breakfast in the back of my throat while everybody else waltzed up and did their thing without so much as a twitch. Anyhow, time marched on and it was my turn. When I sat down on the bench, my right knee started bouncing and my fingers were slimy and cold. All I can remember thinking was Oh, God, somebody kill me kill me kill me. I must have stumbled through my Mozart Sonata because I somehow arrived at the last chord, but when I stood up, everything went black. Well, no, not black, everything but black. Every color exploding at once in front of my eyes. I passed out and broke my nose on the keyboard.

After that experience, it didn't matter if there were ten or ten thousand in the audience, I was scared shitless, and that is a reasonably accurate term, I can tell you. I didn't realize it then, of course, but right there in Mrs. Fasio's living room I had taken the first step on my journey to David Montagnier.

So after that I became a teenager with this totally weird need to be listening to the local classical music station twenty-four hours a day. There was only one person in the world who didn't seem to think I was nuts and that was Mrs. Fasio, which was pretty scary in itself. If I followed her lead, I figured I'd wind up a lonely old maid who was half-fermented from the buckets of bourbon she started guzzling about four o'clock every afternoon.

I suppose most adolescents feel alone, like nobody understands their own special problems. On the one hand, I was ashamed of my obsession and felt like there was something seriously wrong with me and I should just study computer technology like my father said. On the other, there was a tiny kernel of conviction way down deep that God had slipped a special gift into my packaging and I'd damn well better honor it. Talk about confused. I tried distracting myself with things like sex and drinking, but the bottom line was I still couldn't stay away from the keyboard. It's like the piano was a person to me. The way Pauline was hung up on Billy Joel, our Long Island piano man, I was mooning over a photo of Vladimir Horowitz that I kept hidden under the junk beside my bed. I'd get it out just before I turned out my light and stare at it despite the fact that even in the picture he was probably at least a hundred years old, listening in my head to the passionate pyrotechnics of his recordings. For me, Horowitz's rendition of a Scriabin Étude inspired the same intense "if only" mix of longing and joy that "Just the Way You Are" produced in Pauline. I don't know if anybody's ever done the research, but it seems to me that music and love occupy the same hunk of real estate in the brain. It's all hooked up, at least for women. So imagine what happened to my head when music and love collided: David Montagnier, Mr. Cosmic Fusion.

I know that's what everybody is really interested in, me and David. We're getting there, but it won't make any sense if I start with that summer day in 1994 when we finally met. I must explain that Mrs. Fasio got me to the Juilliard School through her connections. (Her father was the famous violinist Max Pantani, and how Mrs. Fasio wound up in a dumpy little town like Rocky Beach is another story and has to do with a man. Don't they all?)

So at Juilliard, I was completely out of my league socially and intellectually. I wore tight clothes and my hair was so big that other students would compete to sit behind me so they could sleep through class. Except for the secret vice of classical music, my idea of culture was Rambo: First Blood. What did I have in common with these smart-ass Manhattan kids and foreign students who were mostly Korean? The only other Italian student came from Milan, for Christ's sake. Anyhow, the fact that I made it there was a major miracle, which is why I'm still always chasing off to the boonies to listen to some third-grader with talent.

I commuted into the city for classes and music lessons with the legendary Harold Stein. He scared the crap out of me, with a voice that thundered when he didn't think I was trying hard enough and beady eyes that glared out from under a thicket of eyebrows. I knew I was way behind the others who'd been studying nonstop since they were seven years old. But Professor Stein kept telling me that if I worked my butt off, I could catch up. He also gave me pep talks about living up to my heritage. Up to that point, I was still under the impression that Italians didn't have much of a musical culture unless you counted my uncle's old Perry Como recordings. Professor Stein understood that introducing me to compositions by Scarlatti would be inspiring for me. It would never have happened except for the professor, but two years after graduating from the conservatory, I was on a par with some of the top students. The only problem was, if I was going to be such a hotshot pianist, I was expected to perform. And I wanted to, desperately.

I don't know what it is, exactly, that need to share your music. I mean, what the hell, if you love it so much, why shouldn't it be enough to just sit alone in your apartment and make pretty sounds for the dust balls under the sofa? But it isn't. Keeping your music private is like having your mouth taped shut, which I must say is a frustrating prospect for somebody like me. On the other hand, all those years later I could still resurrect the sour taste of fear just by thinking about Mrs. Fasio's ivory keyboard, the one that broke my nose.

Jake Minello, who for most of my life shared billing with Pauline as my best friend, could never understand why I'd get so scared. "You're not going to die out there, Bess," he used to tell me. "The worst that can happen is you make an ass out of yourself in front of a couple thousand people. It's not fun but it's also not a plane crash." I know it's hard to believe, but facing a performance made me long for death. I would hope for any kind of disaster that would prevent my going out onstage. I'm ashamed to say that one time my mother was hospitalized just before I was supposed to perform a concert at the Church of the Heavenly Rest and they had to find a replacement for me. I was ecstatic. Now how sick is that? But ask anybody who's got a bad case of stage fright and they'll tell you the same thing.

Suffice it to say, I built up quite a rep at Julliard. If I was listed in the program, they had to keep a bucket in the wings because I was definitely going to need it. Twice, I just sat there with my hands stuck over the keyboard like they had rigor mortis. I never played a note. Professor Stein tried everything. First, he sent me to a shrink who told me I'd been so freaked out by my father that it was a bloody miracle I could play at all. I went on beta blockers but first of all my betas refused to be blocked, and second, I had some unusual reaction that made me itch so much I couldn't stop scratching long enough to perform. Drinking relaxed me a little but then I couldn't remember the notes. Professor Stein kept telling me not to give up, that every pianist suffered from this problem and it was the ones who conquered their fear who succeeded. He said he was sure I would be one of those, but once I graduated, I could see that even he was beginning to feel defeated. It was looking like it was time to give up my dump of an apartment and my three jobs, and get myself a gig at the supermarket back in Rocky Beach.

I knew about David Montagnier, of course. Everybody did. He was part of that small group of respected artists who somehow managed to cross over into popular culture, like Pavarotti or Isaac Stern or Baryshnikov. It didn't hurt that he was beautiful, with his shiny black hair, brown eyes, and a smile that was half sexual promise, half little boy. People magazine loved him. By the time I graduated from Julliard, everybody knew that David and his longtime two-piano partner, Terese Dumont, had split up due to some unspecified illness of hers. The last I'd heard, he was pursuing a solo career.

I started running into him around Juilliard, where I was continuing my lessons with faithful frustrated Harold Stein. Once, I was waiting for the bus on Broadway and he got into a cab right in front of me. I recognized him instantly, of course--who wouldn't? Twice, I came out of a practice room and he was walking past. Finally, I was hurrying to my waitress job and I literally slid around a corner and into his arms. Now, I'd spent years listening to recordings by Montagnier and Dumont (music students called them the Twin Peaks) and I had a lot of respect for them. Furthermore, I will never, ever forget the wattage of that first smile David flashed at me. So that's my defense.

"Shit! Oh my God, I almost killed you!" Pathetic, I realize, but at least I didn't say Fuck me! which tended to slip out when I was flustered. (I was no stranger to my father's firehouse.) "Bess Stallone, no relation," I said, and held out my hand.

"Yes, I know," he said, wrapping long, muscular fingers around mine.

"Shut up!" I said. David Montagnier knew my name! Jesus! He had a fabulous accent, sort of nonspecific European. He could make the menu from Schmuel's Kosher Deli sound romantic. I know, because one time I made him read it to me just to test it out. Salami, pastrami, gefilte fish, and flanken. It was like a Puccini libretto.

"Are you hurt?" David asked.

"I'm okay," I said. "Just abashed." I felt quite pleased with myself over that one. "Abashed" happened to be my vocabulary word of the day--my effort at self-improvement--and it wasn't often I got to use the selection du jour to such terrific effect.

Meanwhile, David still had me by the elbow, and even though I was blushing to my roots, I was self-possessed enough to be pleased that a student from my old Music Theory class had spotted us and almost went into cardiac arrest from envy.

"The Ruggiero's coming along well," he said. David smiled again--whoa, fetch me my shades. "I heard you practicing," he explained. "Would you possibly have time for a cup of tea and some pointers?"

What if I'd said no? Not that it ever would have happened. But here it was, the major crossroads of my life.

"Sure," I said. Sure I can not show up for my shift waiting tables at O'Neals. A lifetime of food stamps was a small price to pay for half an hour with those eyeballs.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2002

    realistic yet beautiful love story

    Rocky Beach, a working class town in Nassau County, Long Island is home to Bess Stallone (no relation to the movie star) who defies her parents to take piano lessons from the music teacher at her school. She enters the competition to go to the prestigious Julliard School and works many part time jobs to pay for her lessons. She is a musical prodigy who is so afraid of performing in front of an audience that she faints whenever she tries. <P>When David Montagnier, a former child prodigy, comes into her life, he wants Bess as his partner in his two-piano repertoire. He isn¿t afraid she will faint and embarrass them both and as time goes by, she becomes one with David and the music while overcoming her stage freight. The pair is together both professionally and personally until tragedy strikes and Bess must find the courage to go on alone. <P> New York Times best-selling author Sally Mandel has written a realistic yet beautiful love story that will warm the heart of readers. Bess¿ meteoric rise to fame feels like it could happen to anyone who has talent. HEART AND SOUL is a heartwarming work that will be placed on the romance reader¿s keeper shelf. <P>Harriet Klausner

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