A solo performance

A solo performance

Nixon, Cornelia

Joshua, his name was today, though sometimes it was Jennifer. Leaving her narrow room, going down the dormitory stairs, she could feel him on her chest, warm and heavy, smelling of milk and pee. He’d have a squarish head, pink skin, fair hair, wisping up above the baby-sling-she could see him as she passed the dining hall, though no one in there could. It was a daydream, a postcard from a life she didn’t have. She had been pregnant for a while, a year ago (seventeen, a freshman dope), but that was over pretty fast. Fall had turned to winter as she lay on her bed, about to vomit, while the heat vent blasted hot air in her face. She did not tell anyone, not even Henry, who by that time had stopped being her boyfriend. She just lay there, vomiting and flunking out of school, until she realized what she had to do.

But now it was a warm fall day, and she was just a skinny girl in bell-bottoms, violin pack on her back, as she left her college, crossed the quad. Yellow maples glowed. Gargoyles grimaced under bright blue sky. A light breeze ruffled ivy on Yale Library. (The baby would enjoy it, and she stopped to show him, in the sun.)

Reaching Elm Street, she checked both ways for picket lines. Once she’d turned the corner, met a barricade of broken chairs, a line of cops in glinting riot shields. But this morning no one seemed to want to stop the war. Only the overachievers were out, heads down on their way to physics, music, math. Head down, she crossed the street (cautious, with the baby on her chest, one hand around his warm and diapered behind).

Across another quad, she could see violinists now, converging from all sides. Lifting her head, she began to walk quickly (steadying the baby with both hands). Now she was Margaret Rose, Violin, who had once played a few bars with the Boston Symphony. Margaret Rose, who had been picked to do the big Mozart concerto solo with Yale Orchestra. Across the grass, when they saw her, the other violinists trailed back, let her beat them to the music school. Striding in, she took the dim steps (careful not to jar the baby) to the floor where Andre’s master class would be.

The room was packed already with a crowd of violinists, fidgeting and chewing gum. Obsessive compulsion is an advantage on the violin, and when the room is full of string players, everyone will twitch, check wallets, zippers, the exact location of their instruments. Margy took her violin out, tuned, tightened her bow, then loosened it, reclipped her barrettes, adjusted her headband. Straight hair was the only kind in style, but hers curled like some low-grade packing substance, in a greenish shade of yellow that could make it look like swarms of locusts in her field of vision as she played. Clamping it down, she tuned again, rechecked her bow.

Arching the bow across the strings, she slid into a few bars of the solo, experimentally. Suddenly she felt her belly swell up like a gourd, baby inside, head like concrete, pressed down stretching out her tender parts-lifting the bow, she let her head tip back. Onetwo-three, she counted through a big contraction, breathing with the pain. It was just a daydream too, not quite as voluntary as the rest, something her mind would show to her. Eight-nine-ten, she exhaled with the agony.

“Miss Perfect,” a voice sneered in a whisper, behind her.

Margy sat up-her belly didn’t vanish, but it moved away, became less real. Engaging the bow, she launched into the hardest passage of her solo, sinuous quick changes, lightning triple-stops. She’d practiced it a million times-her fingers knew it, hands and arms. To show she could, she went on playing for a few beats after Andre strode into the room.

Andre was a big man with an anxious face, dark nervous curls just going gray. When he stood in front of them, all motion stopped. Famous for playing cautiously, he was also famous for harsh praise, and sometimes shattered students casually.

“You are a musical illiterate,” he’d said the week before, to a young man, in front of the whole class.

Now the room went silent as the inside of a rock. His voice was just above a whisper, but it rose to the ceiling, like a cathedral oration.

“The solo in a Mozart concerto is never good enough. The music is always far above your head. Mozart was a genius. You are not.”

He swept his hand toward Margy, palm up, offering the chance to be never good enough. She raised the bow-her stomach dropped. Everything she knew about Mozart abandoned her. She wavered through the first few bars.

Andre began to bite his thumbnail, shifted it around to bite the other way. He darted one big hand out in the air. She stopped.

“Hear that? Play that phrase again. You’re schmaltzing it. That’s junk.”

When she tried again, he leapt to his feet, made little jagged gestures, pinky cocked as if above a porcelain teacup.

“Just play the notes, the way they’re written! Not like that!”

His black wool legs stood right in front of her. His voice lashed, angry, no matter how she played. She could smell her sweat. The last allegro seemed a continent away. Why bother, when he wouldn’t like it anyway? She tipped her head back, let her body stretch around the baby’s head, pain a high note with vibrato, well sustained. She could no longer hear Andre. Breathing with the big contractions, she closed her eyes and played.

At last he strode out of the room. Limp, shirt wet to the waist, she slumped to her knees, slid the violin into its case. All around, the class filed out.

A small Asian woman stopped beside her, standing like a truckdriver, one hip jutted to the side, cracking her gum. She was a year ahead of Margy, but she looked about fourteen, straight black hair in ponytails that swung as she moved. She chewed vigorously.

“So, are you nervous when you play, or what? I mean, you know, on stage?” Margy stood up.

“Nervous? No,” she said automatically and stopped. Of course she was, not as bad as when she was a kid-then she used to throw up, wet the bed. But it seemed bad luck to talk about it, with a solo in three weeks. Better to deny it, like a magic charm.

“When I was a kid, my mother told me just to say, `These people are in for a real treat,’ and sweep out there onto the stage.” It had never worked, but it seemed like the right thing to say. Her mother had been dead for years. The other violinist did not smile. “These people are in for a real treat? Hunh.” She left the room.

Next afternoon, when Margy showed up at the practice rooms, a trumpeter she knew leaned on a windowsill beside the one she liked to use, eating a sandwich. J.J. had long hair of several kinds, straight blond on top but curly brown below, like pubic hair, with mutton-chop sideburns that made him look like a St. Bernard. She liked J.J., but it was another warm day, peaceful, and she had crossed campus with the baby on her chest. The moment she stepped into the music school, her belly swelled up and the pain bore down on her, too hard to breathe. She breezed by J.J., almost afraid that he might see.

He lifted his sandwich in salute. “Hey. I hear you don’t get stage fright.” “Ask me in two weeks.”

“Why? You’re not going to be scared then either, are you? That’s not what I heard.” She paused a beat-so they were out there quoting her. Surely no one really thought she felt that way? She’d have to let them, if they did-she had a private lesson in an hour, with Andre.

“Don’t believe everything you hear, J.J.,” she called and closed the door.

A week later, the weather changed. Icy clouds swept over New Haven, and one morning the heat came on in her room. In bed, she felt a hot blast from the duct above, and a wave of nausea rolled up her throat. She leapt to her feet, amazed-daydreams were one thing. Throwing cold water on her face, she rushed out into the frigid air, walked to the music school. But as she stepped into the hot building, her stomach rolled.

She had to practice by an open window in her coat, fingers stiff with cold. Back in her room, she taped the heat duct closed, slept in mittens and a hat. But the next day was the same: in the heated dining room, she looked at foods she had thrown up the year before, and had to leave. She couldn’t sit in class. Blue veins started rising underneath her skin, delicate green circles at the eyes. Henry was her only lover, and she hadn’t seen him for a year. Meeting her own eyes in the mirror, she tried to communicate with buried portions of her brain.

“So, do you really think you’re still pregnant? Or is it just nostalgia for that happy time?”

She thought of going back to see the doctor who had told her she was pregnant, when she was, the year before. She’d picked a man in Bridgeport, avoiding anyone near Yale. But what could she tell him this time? That she had daydreamed just a little bit too much, and now her mind was going to make her live through pregnancy with no baby? Surely it would stop. She went back to the Mozart, windows open to the cold.

Rehearsals started, in a heated room. She got herself well-chilled, lying on a frozen marble slab, and dove into the stifling interior. Her chair stood in the inner circle of the orchestra, rows of bodies radiating heat-her stomach heaved, seasick on its rolling inner tide. The conductor was a famous white-haired visitor up from New York, and his cheeks produced two furious red patches at even a small mistake by any member of the orchestra. Fifty string players watched Margy, waiting for the moment when the error would be hers.

She tried to banish daydreams of all kinds. But as she crossed campus, an eighteenwheeler truck roared through the light on Elm, and instantly she saw herself beneath it, bones crushed, breasts sheared off-she had to stop, gasp, face in hands. In the practice room, windows open to the cold, she turned her head and saw a rifle poked in through one, taking aim at her. But when she whirled to look, the air outside was empty, innocent, two floors off the ground.

Two days before the concert, she passed a woman on the curb outside the music school, who smiled and handed her a flyer with a brightly colored photograph.


The photo underneath was expensively produced, red and white and blue, of tiny hands and feet, small curved spines and bulging eyes, tender see-through skin. A bucketfill, in fact, ripped in half, sauced with blood. Margy made it just inside the first-floor women’s room, and threw up in a sink. Quickly she washed her face-this wasn’t happening. She had a concert, she was fine. Shredding the photograph, she flushed it down three toilets, a few flakes at a time. J.J. was outside his practice room, closing cardboard in the doorjamb, stuffing a towel underneath, so no one could hear him practicing. He hadn’t hung around her room lately, but she rushed up to him, glad to see a friendly face. “J.J.,” she cried. “I just threw up.” He toed the towel into place.

“You, Itzhak? That can’t be true. And here we are, all waiting for our treat.” She giggled nervously, then noticed his face-he watched her, not smiling. She stepped back a pace.

“Jesus, J.J.”

He finished with the towel, smiled to himself. He stood up straight.

“Remember what they say, baby. It’s lonely at the top.”

Pinching her cheeks between his thumb and forefinger, he gave her face a little shake. “Lo-oo-onely,” he said and stepped inside the door. The stage was hot. Dry air whirled up from the floorboards like a wind from hell. Beyond the bright lights shining in her eyes, the audience roared quietly, finding seats, rustling programs. Her father had driven down from Boston, but she could not see him. She could see bored men in black suits, strange women in furs, sneering music students slouched in cheap seats, high up underneath the balconies. Since the nausea’s return, her nose had been acute, and a smell rolled toward her now, perfume, mothballs, sour after-dinner breath. Blue cheese, garlic sausage, gin.

She tuned the violin, though she had done it twice already in the warm-up room. Lifting the bow, she felt a rill of nausea begin. Stopping, she concentrated on the cool black velvet skirt that slid across her legs. She had worn nothing underneath, and she saw a flash of a cool beach, open sea, like Wading River, where she went with Henry all last fall, his parents gone. Henry was still in law school probably, and might have seen her name for this concert. She peered out past the lights-her stomach lurched. She felt a sudden need to stand up, take her violin and walk offstage.

Too late. To a scatter of applause like rain, the concert master was parading in, Andre’s favorite student, a tall precise young man with two curls drooped on his forehead. The chair beside hers groaned, and the caustic florals of his aerosol deodorant swept over her-her throat closed. The conductor swept in like a man who had no time to give this puny orchestra, and she sat up, caught the stagelights in her eyes, played through the opening Beethoven with the other violins.

The Beethoven was over much too soon, and the conductor dashed out, not pausing to bow. The concert master turned to her, violin held lightly on his knee. “Don’t drag the allegro this time,” he said, looking down at her, his thin lips firm. “And try not to smile so much. Do you realize you always smile when you play? It’s a little disconcerting for the rest of us.”

Margy’s lips parted-she couldn’t organize her tongue. Smile? She smiled? “You must realize, it looks a little smug.”

He turned back toward the audience, which had started to applaud again, as the conductor almost goose-stepped from the wings. He popped up on the stand, nailed Margy with the black dots of his eyes, flourished both hands.

With a crash of sound, the other instruments came in, on the introduction to her first solo. The music galloped past her, huge and fast. She tried to count-had she lost track? She heard the phrase before the entrance to her solo, lifted her bow, and realized in time, it was the false entrance-thank heavens she had not started to play. But now adrenaline sloshed through her veins and sent her stomach in a long slow curl. Dizzily she gripped the violin, waited for the nausea to stop, and heard a silence on the stage.

The conductor’s finger quivered in the air above her head. The orchestra pulled in its breath, a hundred mouths in one sharp suck. The moment for her entrance had arrived, and passed.

She raised the bow, too slow. It was a dream, the orchestra was a tyrannosaurus rex with jaws spread wide, waiting for her to step inside. She couldn’t move. The concert master turned, stared down at her, eyes wide as if she were the Gorgon and he’d turned to stone.

Somehow her fingertips pressed on the strings, her arms moved the bow. Dimly she heard the sounds out of the violin, tone as tinny as a fourth-grader on a cigar box tied with string. It was the worst concerto solo ever turned in with Yale Orchestra, and she knew it every second that she played. Eyes down, on the violin, she made herself keep going, going, to the awful end.

Finally it was over. The audience began to make its roaring sound, like a building falling down. The conductor turned, held out his hand to her and even smiled. But she did not rise, and as he strode stage-right for the last time, she stood and plunged straight off into the wings, violinists parting on all sides, as if suddenly remembering things they had to do offstage.

“How do you make a violin concerto a little longer than it used to be?” it said in green ink, on the wall of her favorite practice room.

“How do you get a job with the Boston Symphony?” said purple ink right next to it.

“On your back,” said several different hands.

“On your knees.”

Next to the words, someone had drawn a life-size portrait of a man in a tuxedo, possibly the new conductor of the BSO, or maybe Arthur Fiedler, with a curly blond head where his lap should be. Pointing to it with an arrow was a sign. “Boy, he’s in for a real treat!”

She went back to her room and drew the blinds. She imagined herself climbing to the roof of the gym, nine stories up with a rose window near the top, and jumping off. She pictured needles sliding in her veins, injecting her with something that would put her mind to sleep. Taking the only drug she had, a tranquilizer saved up since her mother’s death, she slept, and dreamed she was on trial, dancing in the courtroom with Henry, while judge and jury watched.

“She did it,” Henry said, swung back his arm and whacked her in the face. She woke up, stiff with cold and nauseous, all the windows open, three A. M. She called the doctor she had seen in Bridgeport the year before, rode the train down on a gray December day. His waiting room was peaceful, three big-bellied women talking quietly beside a broadleaf plant. Their eyes slid to her stomach as she came in, and she smiled shyly, sank into a chair. With a rush of guilty pleasure, she let the daydream start again. Joshua was home, a teenage sitter taking care of him, and she was Mrs. Henry Bergstrom, only lately made a mother and already in again, perhaps a wee bit pregnant, ready to be teased….

“Don’t you two do anything else for fun?” the doctor might say, wagging one thick finger as he smiled. She would giggle, cheeks flushed, not really ashamed….

A nurse shoved back the cloudy window in the wall, fixed her eyes on Margy. “How are you? Any bleeding, nausea?”

Margy stared at her, lips parted, the flush of pleasure still warm on her cheeks. The nurse’s eyes flicked over her. “What are you now, about nine weeks?” Margy swallowed, throat so dry it seemed to disappear. The three big-bellied women watched her, smiled. She stood up instinctively.

“That was last year,” she barely breathed.

The nurse’s head came forward, as if she couldn’t hear. She was a tall woman with dyed black hair up in a bun, a big bosom and glasses on a string. Jamming the glasses on her nose, she studied Margy’s chart and threw the glasses off impatiently.

“Where have you been till now?”

The room grew clear and sharp, the beveled glass, the dark-green rubber plant, the woman’s small but penetrating eyes.

“What happened to your pregnancy?”

The car was a Chevrolet Impala, turquoise, with rust, and the man inside had his face hidden in a big black beard, sunglasses, a hat pulled down over the eyes. She had waited for him on a quiet corner of the Back Bay, near her father’s house, in a good wool suit, dress flats, a winter coat and brown felt hat, the savings bond her grandmother had given her now rendered down to small bills stuffed into an envelope she held in one gloved hand.

The man slid the money into his coat, gave her a blindfold for her face, soft black cotton like the curtains used for showing films in school. He told her to put it on and lie down in back, using a phony drawl filled with rounded vowels and crispy consonants, an Englishman’s attempt to sound American. She lay on the squeaking plastic seat, and he must have driven for an hour, listening to Brahms. The Brahms was followed by an ad for a brokerage firm, read in the deep tasteful voice of the classical announcer. Then Baroque flute music, and the first movement of a Mahler symphony. Finally they stopped, tires crunching gravel. The back door opened with a groan, and a big hand gripped her arm, Margy staggering passive as a sheep from an hour being blind. Even through the cloth she could sense the brightening of the air, as if they were near water, hints of diesel oil and rotten crab beneath the snow.

They went through metal-sounding doors into a space that echoed like a warehouse, and on into a smaller room, where sound closed down to nothing when the door was shut. The man backed her to a chair, told her to sit and not to move until she heard him leave the room. Then she was to take the blindfold off, undress, put on the gown that she would find in front of her.

The room was fitted like a doctor’s office, skylight above, and very cold. She put on the hospital gown, then her coat-shivering, she stood barefooted on the cement slab. The sweat was cold beneath her arms, and it smelled sharp as acid, capable of etching steel. The man came back. His beard was gone, but a surgical mask and cap and gown had him all covered but the eyes, which were blue and watery, with sandy brows. “On the table,” he said, plainly British now. “No coat.”

The table was of dark-green artificial leather, padded underneath, but it felt hard enough to bruise-gingerly she slid onto it, trying to keep the thin gown closed. The man took hold of her around the hips and hauled them to the table-edge. Plugging her bare heels into the stirrups, he propped her knees up toward the sky and spread them wide.

He swabbed her hip, gave her a shot. “That’s Demerol. It won’t help much, but it’s all we’ve got.”

She stared up through the skylight, watched a gull cruise by against gray clouds. His hands moved too fast, and at their first touch she leapt, gasping, lips stiff with cold.

“None of that,” he said, working something up inside of her. “Relax, or you’ll be hurt.”

The pain inflated out around her, to the ceiling, to the walls, like an explosion in slow motion. She clutched the table, face twisted to one side, drooling on the hard leather. He had not sheeted her, and she could see his bloody fingers and the longstemmed knives, which he worked inside her, briskly, as if cleaning out a pipe. “Stop,” she gasped out once or twice. No other sounds were in the room, except the rasping of her breath and the mushy clicking of the knives. Finally he stood up, blood sprayed on his sleeves and freckled on his front. As he moved away from her, the pain diminished, scattering.

He washed his hands. He told her to get dressed and put the blindfold on. She heaved herself upright, delirious.

“Where is it?” She didn’t even know what sex it was, or what it looked like, and he did. “Let me see it.”

He paused, one hand on the door. His pale eyebrows drifted up, and she could see his lips tug underneath the mask. “See it? No. You can’t see it.”

He opened the door.

“It’s in little pieces,” he added as an afterthought.

She was crying on the table as the Bridgeport doctor put his hands in her. He made it quick, and patted her bare foot. She’d picked him from the yellow pages, and before she saw him the first time, she didn’t know he had a deformed face, injured by the forceps used at his own birth. He could not control the muscles in it, which hung limp. But his eyes beneath the hanging brows were kind.

“You look fine,” he said and pulled the sheet down to her feet. “Whoever he was, he did good work.”

He stood beside the table, one big hand on her sheeted knee. The wattle of his forehead jiggled slightly.

“Lots of people have disappearing pregnancies.”

He glanced at the nurse, who quickly turned and aimed her bun at them. Gathering her clipboard, she left the room.

The doctor rubbed his forehead, sighed. He wrote a prescription for tranquilizers. “Try to relax, you’ll get through this. It’s just that it goes against your instincts.” He squared his shoulders, looked restored to confidence and calm. “The purpose of a woman is to have a child.”

Margy sat up-the purpose of a woman? Like, the purpose of a spoon? With a flourish, the doctor signed his name, held the prescription out to her.

“Get married, have a nice baby. You’ll forget all this.”

“Thank you,” she said, before he left the room. And she did feel grateful, suddenly. It wasn’t every day that someone told you what your purpose was, while forgiving you for having failed. He wanted her to know that though she had done something dangerous, illegal, even murderous-it was all right with him. She could still have a nice baby, become one of the nice big-bellied ladies in his waiting room. She tried to picture it, but nothing came in view.

What she could see was this: in a minute, she would walk out to the waiting room, where they’d watch her, knowing what she did. And she’d look back, how? A girl with no regrets, relaxed, forgiven, maybe even innocent? It was not a hard performance. She thought she had seen much worse. Sliding off the table, she began to dress for it.

Copyright New England Review Fall 1998

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.