“This is not our usual assorted program,” the e-mail read. “Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ is a long and not particularly cheerful piece. There will be continuous music for just over an hour – no applause, no jokes.” William paused, then replied: “Perfect match for my Valentine’s Day mood.”
The holiday happened to synchronize with Ash Wednesday this year. Perhaps the better choice would have been to attend a service at his evangelical church, but Will wanted to be somewhere with real wine. He wanted to attend an Event. He wanted to have an imaginary date.
Not like an imaginary friend – a real friend – two real friends – but an imaginary date. If that explanation is incomprehensible, recall Duckie awaiting Andie at the prom near the end of Pretty in Pink. If you cannot recall that, perhaps this story is not for you. Nevertheless: in this story, Will asked a friend, Frank, to the Schubert concert. They had met at a gay celibate support group Will frequented in the recent past, before it registered that he didn’t need to be supported so much as ripped apart and rebuilt. So he switched to recovery, which, if you’re doing it right, will make you question most of what you’re doing. In this process, the subconscious often loses its sub, because you take it away, and that makes the conscious very mad, because it loves a good sub, with so many toppings you can’t see the bread.
Will texted the concert information to Frank just a day and a half beforehand, asking, “care to join?” intending to seem casual, incidental, casually incidental, even to himself, as if he didn’t care, as if he hadn’t been considering it for days. Their responses to each other were consistently two hours apart; courteous, not obsessive, but Will had already begun drawing lines, lines over lines that were already there, new lines, with chalk, so they could be erased and redrawn.
Home from work the night of the concert, Will considered changing his outfit to dress slacks and a sweater with a V neck that plunged below sea level. But that was a too obvious cross. He needed to toe the line, to keep balance: he kept on the plaid button down, but removed the undershirt; paired with low rise jeans, in certain positions, the line of his underwear would be visible. Only once or twice in the course of an evening. A modest exposure.
Will was house sitting for friends in the country, friends with money, who had filled the refrigerator and given him a credit card for the added expense of the longer commute. Also they insisted he use the new car, a brand of which Will was unaware because the company wasn’t marketing to him, obviously. He had avoided the car for a week, afraid of even walking too closely by it in the garage. But for tonight, only it would do.
“Wow, is this your ride?” Frank smiled as he lowered into the passenger’s seat. “Oh, no, it’s my friend’s,” Will said. “They keep telling me to take it for a test drive.” He gestured above the dash. “Look at all the lights and buttons…it’s like we’re in the Enterprise.”
“And you’re picking me up?”
“Well, yes…I mean, I don’t do that anymore. But yes.”
They both laughed, but instead of the laugh coming out of them, it seemed to come at them.
The concert was to be performed at a “premier retirement location where an exciting lifestyle, a proud tradition and a confident vision of the future offer a better view on life,” according to the website. Within a matter of minutes, Will was seeing the vision and ready to move in. High ceilings, constant windows, a variety of fine art and something else: a tangible sense that courtesy was valued, even expected, here. Will was mistaken about the start time so they were a half hour early, walking around the building, feeling the need to be quiet. “I wish there was a bar,” Will stage whispered, and do you know, by the end of the hall, there was.
“We’re early for the Schubert concert,” Will explained to the bartender, “are we allowed to be here?”
“Of course,” she exclaimed in reply, with a big smile, gesturing to some high backed stools. They sat. The walls were decorated with those vintage Italian posters for food and drink, which some 20 years ago were rediscovered by America and then heavily trafficked so as to now be pedestrian.
There was an older woman at one end of the bar, appearing almost horizontal, though whether that was due to her back or the wine was unclear. Frank asked for a beer. Will asked for an amaretto sour. “Oh,” said the bartender, whom, at this moment, Will realized was not a bartender: “what’s in that?” Soon another employee was called over, who confided in them, “I’m not even 21 until a week from now.” Then another employee was called over, who Googled the cocktail on their phone and methodically mixed. After it was finished, they placed it in front of Will, like cupbearers, waiting for him to take a drink. He did. “Does it taste right?” They appealed. “Yes,” Will said, because really, anything with amaretto flavoring tastes right.
From there the conversation traveled to Nicaragua, where Frank went on a mission trip as a teenager. The chaperones were college students and older adults, but the latter had to return to the states immediately upon arrival, due to some health crisis? Consequently, it was a group of high school students supervised by a couple of college students in a foreign county, which sounded to Will like a poorly made and possibly racist teen comedy. The older woman interrupted then, having eavesdropped around for the perfect entry point, and recounted her years teaching in the central city. Whenever she asked a question and none of the students answered, she would command them to “just stand up and say you don’t know.”
The woman had a limited number of subjects and expressions, like evidence tacked to a wall, that she arranged and rearranged, expecting everyone to find the links. At any moment she would stop talking and/or listening to greet a resident passing by. Will found himself wondering what the Her of Now had in common with the Her of Then? Maybe a lot. Maybe not much.
It was nearly time for Schubert, so Will paid for the amateuretto sour and the beer. Friends buy each other drinks, yes? Wasn’t Will a friend to Frank. They strode down the hall, hissing and giggling about the woman with an affection that seemed to increase with distance.
“Winterreise” was presented by a singer and pianist who had been Will’s friends since they were all in college, more than 15 years ago. It was a friendship whose history had gradually become a substitute for intimacy. But of course, history has its own intimacy. The concert was held in the Chapel, which had a purposely mixed design, incorporating elements of Catholic, Evangelical, Colonial and Modern. It was partially hospitable and partially displacing. As promised, they performed the whole piece without a break, and Will started to study Frank from the periphery. Was he bored? Quite a bit of movement there. Frank had ADD, though. Other audience members were reading the English translation of poetry as the German was sung. But Will wouldn’t. The music was sad enough, why get specific about it? At the end of each one, the same old person would release a tremendous amount of air, as if they were sighing and scoffing simultaneously.
Frozen Tears, Backward Glance, Isolation, Last Hope, Deception…Will was just reading the titles now. Just to know how long it would last. In the silence between pieces, someone whispered, much louder than they realized, “I’m going to try to sneak out,” and Will and Frank made eye contact, which, in such moments, is the murder of composure. They shook with a seizure of suppressed laughter, feeling like kids in church. They were in church, actually, though it was within another building. Why couldn’t more churches be inside of places?
Eventually, Will would have to share all of this with his recovery group. He would say, “I wanted the Boyfriend Experience,” or, if his fructose was particularly high, “I wanted to be Queen for day.” No one would judge him. No one would need to. The act contained its own judgment: a lack of imagination, a lack of faith, a lack of the ability to follow, to put one foot in front of the other, like a model walking down the runway, fixating on one point, oblivious to everyone though they’re all watching. But they aren’t. Not always. Someone else is.
At the very end was the song Will recognized. The singer had played it late one night after they drank, coincidentally, a significant amount of amaretto. The piano melody both predicts and fulfills, its mystery tinged with certainty. Will decided to read the lyrics.
Over there beyond the village stands a hurdy-gurdy man,
and with numb fingers he plays as best he can.
Barefoot on the ice, he sways back and forth,
and his little plate remains ever empty.
No one wants to hear him, no one looks at him,
and the dogs growl at the old man.
And he just lets it happen, everything as it will,
plays, and his hurdy-gurdy never stands still.
Wondrous-strange old man, should I go with you?
Will you accompany my songs with your instrument?