I’m the youngest in the group, the youngest male, that is. Of five. We are outnumbered by women by a factor of four. It flatters me that a posse of women is hot on my trail but otherwise it is a one hundred percent sticky mess. I have to worry what I say to Carmen, how I say it to Renate, whether to look in Cecile’s eyes. There are worse things. It tells me I’m still on the right side of my sell-by date. My mirror tells me the same story. It helps that I shaved my head, that the vault housing my fine mind is a creamy brown, that my goatee, white as it is, is impeccably rhomboid. I have been accused of being vain, but show me somebody who isn’t and I’ll show you somebody who’s dead, alive or otherwise.
Other than plumping my vanity, this female attention does me no good. I have a wife, a wife I’ve had for longer than I’ve not had a wife by a factor of four minus two years. We married at seventeen. My Syl. She bastes in bitterness every Tuesday morning before I go to rehearsal, like I’m betraying her. I encourage her to join the choir, knowing that there is not a chance in ten million she will. I heard her sing only once in all these years and I mistook it for the beginning of a seizure. Joining the choir would inhibit her venting, unhealthy for someone who has knitted a personality out of repression. I used to think I could make her happy. I wonder where I got this idea.
We’ve been doing a lot of Latin American numbers, cumbias, sambas, sambucas, jaunty tunes in three-quarter time. My voice has one indisputable virtue: it’s a baritone, and even if I’m not quite sure I’ve landed squarely on a note, it’s a welcome under-story for the vaporous sopranos We do a surprising number of gigs, mostly in institutions geared toward our age demographic, enough to give us false confidence. Sometimes I get carried away on a melodic arc and I find myself singing full force, mindless of the deficiencies of my Spanish and my pitch. Until that moment of truth it’s a blissful ride.
Performance. It’s such an interesting word, a composite of mechanics and grace. I used to teach math in high school. A few of the classroom prodigies were comfortable getting up in front of class and performing but most were withdrawn and often resented the invitation. Is there any conclusion we can take from this?
During rehearsal Jenn, our conductor, asked me directly if I’d like to do a solo in the Venezuelan piece we were working on. Jenn is savvy; this piece is so basic, so major-chord-ish, something I could attack comfortably. I pretended to be overtaken by surprise and didn’t answer immediately. I wanted to think about it. This was a big step.
We hadn’t gone through every verse before Andrew chimed in, “I’ll do the solo,” and Jenn said, “That’s wonderful.”
It wasn’t wonderful. The next Tuesday I wasn’t eager to get to rehearsal, and when I loitered around the breakfast table Syl duck-marched me out the door, a personality mutation that made me reflect momentarily on what was she might be up to when I was sambuca-ing but I saw the uselessness of that inquiry. It was what it was.
The fruit of my resentment of Andrew, catalyzed by periodic self-beatings (Carpe diem, you old fool), ripened the following Sunday morning on a stage at the annual street fair. We were slotted in as the first set, a sure bet not to wake late sleepers. There were very few people on the street and fewer still listening, an ideal setting for my solo debut, except Andrew was handling it. Man-handling it. I might have been bad; I surely would have been bad. But I would not have been that bad. It didn’t matter. He got applause. Scattered applause always sounds condescending.
We got to the part of the program near the end where Flora dances as we sing. The street was filling up. Flora is a under five feet tall and weighs her number of years plus ten pounds. Everything about her is bird-like, especially her face. She, or someone, gathers every strand of her ivory-white hair into a large, tidy bun wherein she plants a big yellow sunflower. She is camera bait, every time, all the time, and she handles stardom like a pro. She pretends not to notice the shutterbugs as she twirls around.
The sunlight had burned away the last of the fog. Flora waltzed in a starched tunic her great-grandmother embroidered a million years ago, opening and closing the drapery like moth wings in the palpable warmth. Her eyes looked beyond the last range of mountains. It was hard to tell if her smile was one of joy or of grim endurance.
When she turned away from the audience toward us, her red-slippered feet more and more lagging behind the one two three of the beat, her eyes caught mine, or vice-versa, and all I saw was heartbreak, pure and everlasting. I barely thought; I stepped out of the chorus and took her papery hands and we waltzed, and when it was over there was applause, more than for Andrew by a factor of ten.