deaf to the music

Someone must have taught you well
to beguile and to entrance,
for that night you cast your spell
and you taught me how to dance

—Katie Melua

 

Artie’s frizzy hair and over sized eyes scared me from the day he began following me, wanting to be my friend.

Some years afterwards, I learned the skinny kid in leather shorts befriended me because I was good in English.

His father was a suave gangster from a film noir and his wraith of a mother seemed perpetually shuttling between buses on her way to market.

But I befriended Artie for one thing—to be close to Eva, his enchanting sister.She had blonde hair and a dark smile that froze and melted the dreams inside me.

I burned candles in the darkness of Saint James Church, begging Christ on the altar to pity me and let me have her.

I was conflicted, adults would say—passionate, dark and brooding, yet, between sleep and waking, my heart cried out in longing, wanting to possess her.

I was shy—intimidated by adults I presumed gods and terrified of girls I knew were angels.

Being sensitive made me awkward and I envied boys with skin so thick they never blushed.

That summer between grades seven and eight I spent daily at Artie’s house.

Sometimes, I’d pedal my bike to a nearby store to buy soft drinks for the three of us. Eva drank Orange Crush, and I confess, I’d uncap her bottle and steal a sip hoping her lips would shiver at the cold dark kiss.

She’d give a knowing smile as if she knew—and I hoped she did, but was terrified as well. She wore navy shorts and a white blouse, her long legs tanned and bronzed from being outdoors.

When I came into the cool house from the heat outside, she was a ray of moonlight and my heart ached, gazing at her beauty.

I can’t recall we ever said much—not that I could converse with her, if ever the occasion presented itself.

The other boys at school went out on dates. Even Ricky Rutledge, the dentist’s son. He pulled me aside one day in the hall and with gleaming smile asked, “How are the bras in your class?”

I was definitely arrested, unable to reply, and he smirked the knowing smile of a confirmed roué, already worldly—and only twelve.

That was a horrible year, and more terrible the longer it went on.

I had chosen Hilda Salah’s name for Secret Santa—Hilda, the well endowed, and all the boys were jealous.

“I’d buy her a negligee,” said Billie Preston, and the rest agreed, nodding in unison.

Not knowing what to buy, I asked my mother, who suggested Black Magic Chocolates.

When the gifts were opened, the boys howled, Hilda blushed, and my fate was sealed. I was confined to the ranks of the incompetent.

I went home in the winter twilight, desolate and in despair.

Artie witnessed my humiliation, and while not exactly dating himself, he attended a club at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church.

The club’s purpose was to inculcate culture, but Artie saw it as an opportunity to dance with girls.

“C’mon, John—you’ll love it. I meet girls all the time, and sometimes go over to their houses.”

My eyes widened. This side of Artie I hadn’t seen.

I was afraid to send girls Valentines, but Artie went and visited them at their houses. I was definitely delayed in my development.

As I look back now, I can’t believe I agreed to go, but I did.

That Saturday evening, Artie’s father, dressed in a dark blue suit, drove the three of us to downtown Toronto where we ended up in a church hall with fifty other young people of similar age and background—except for me.

The proceedings began with a prayer in Hungarian, followed by what seemed to be a sermon in the same. The priest was very nice and smiled a lot—everyone was nice and smiled encouragingly at me—and that only made me feel even more awkward and out of place.

Then, the lights in the hall dimmed, and music played. The boys lined up against one wall, the girls at the opposite side.

I had seen a Civil War film and the scene was reminiscent in many ways, except for rifles and bayonets.

Ironically, the priest broke the ice, taking one boy over to a dark-haired girl on the opposing side, making introductions, and insisting they dance.

One by one, the impasse was solved—I was paired with a brown-haired girl who was very plain, but somehow sexy as well. She moved like a statue and I followed her around the floor. I could barely breathe, never being this close to an angel before.

We danced several wooden dances this way, until the music suddenly stopped. Artie came over and hissed in my ear, “Oh good! Musical chairs.”

As soon as he uttered the words, a circle of wooden chairs appeared in the middle of the floor and we all moved about them until the music stopped, and we scrambled to sit down.

At last, something I could do!

The game went on and on, until finally, only my dance partner and I remained.

“Well, it looks like the boys have won,” I heard the priest whisper.

The music began again, amid much laughter and shouting. I timed my movements to hers, and when the music stopped, I let her sit down.

A groan went up from the boys. Artie came over and glared, “Why did you do that?”

“I wanted her to win,” I said, as if that explained it all.

The chairs were cleared from the dance floor and a waltz began. I looked for my partner, but felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned and looked into Eva’s lovely face.

She was smiling that inscrutable smile. “Do you want to dance?”

I nodded, unable to speak. She took my hand in hers and led me out to the floor.

I turned to stone—my heart beating so loudly I was certain all could hear.

A look of compassion crossed her face—lovely as a cloud softly veiling the Moon.

Forget about your feet—gaze into my eyes and go where the music takes you.

I had never heard a voice, so soft and so caring. My heart melted and I wanted to weep, but something inside me stirred. I wanted to dance… with her.

We began and soon we were dancing on clouds, stars beneath us, and Moon above.

Her hand, a willow moving upon my own rough hand, her eyes silent midnight rain falling in the woods.

We went places I’ve never been—my right hand grasped hers, my left held her waist. She leaned in and I inhaled perfumed hair. Her soft cheek brushed my mine.

I was deaf to the music, entranced by her eyes.

As we drove home that night, she sat in the back seat between Artie and me. In the darkness, her hand found mine.

This time a sob began inside me—my throat tightened and my eyes burned.

I can still see the blurry halo of streetlights—hear the muffled noises of passing cars out in the cold.

As we pulled into her driveway, she leaned over and whispered, “I had a good time.”

And for only a second, her lips brushed mine.

 

She went away to private school for next semester, being a year ahead, in grade nine.

After that, it was Europe and Parisian culture—and then, staying with relatives on the Rhine.

By the time we finished high school, she was a debutante and married the Baron Drogas from the Romanian line.

We never met again, but Artie and I stayed friends, until one night, in a drunken tirade, he accused me of lusting after his sister. We scuffled, and some friends broke up the fight.

He tried to throw me out a third floor window, and I wish he had, because then, Artie was gone, and with him, another page of my life.

But sometimes at night, when I drift off to sleep, I picture her face, and feel her close.

We are dancing again with stars beneath us. She leans in and whispers. Her lips softly brush mine.

And I’m deaf, deaf to the music, but dancing with her and stars that shine.

 

© 2016, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.

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the good life

 

We were privileged, the three of us—entitled, inseparable, and determined to remain that way. We made a pact, to stay free and unattached, “forever”.

Joanna promised, and Paul and I agreed. It was easy to be self-absorbed in those days since our families’ wealth guaranteed we could pursue our dreams.

That summer Paul and I sailed the Florida Keys and sent Joanna pirate photos teasing her. Paul had a careless disheveled look—never combed his hair, and let it run wild, wind-blown as the sea.

I envied his chiseled profile, reminiscent of a young Clint Eastwood—but as for me, I was just average looking and couldn’t compete. In default, I wore a beige Anna Maria Island baseball cap and played Yogi Berra to his Joe DiMaggio.

Naturally, I expected Paul to end up with Joanna, our very own Marilyn, but there was our youthful pact to consider, and besides, she became a Vogue model, went to New York, and never came back. In the years following, I read about her in the newspapers, collected her photo spreads from magazines, and pathetically shared a life with her in my dreams. But her star continued to rise and our paths never crossed.

I attained some success as Alex Calderon, syndicated writer and Giller Prize winner—right up there with Richler, Munro and Atwood—celebrated man-about-town, but in truth, most of the time desolate and wretched.

Paul kept to his part of the bargain, romancing various starlets and being famous for being famous. O how he played the role—most sought-after eligible bachelor in America who successfully avoided entanglements and emotional intimacies, while still maintaining the mystery.

And so it went, the three of us living in separate solitudes in fidelity to a youthful pledge, managing to remain aloof, uninvolved and better than the rest, until the day my agent, Mark Palmer phoned and broke the news. Paul Conrad was dead.

“You gotta be mistaken, Mark—he’s forty-two, for god’s sake.”

“Forty-one, actually, but still quite dead, I’m afraid.”

“How?” I croaked, as if it mattered—as if knowing might somehow make it comprehensible.

“A massive stroke his publicist said. So weird—why does a guy with umpteen millions need a publicist?”

I was still processing the news. “Will there be a memorial service of some kind?”

Mark yawned, already beyond the ennui of small details. “Yeah a funeral, but more like a wake, probably. You know its chic to be cremated these days but his family wouldn’t hear of it. He’s going to be interred on the family estate. I’ll email you the details.”

I put down the phone and sat back in my chair while snow spiralled in gusts outside the huge bay window. A long way from the Florida Keys, I mused.

Pictures flashed across my inward eye—Paul sunburnt, trimming the sail—body supple and lithe as a Greek god. In another image —walking the beach, white cargo pants rolled to the knees and hair unruly and wild.

He looked like Neptune—profile carved from granite and high impressive forehead—those wide temples befitting a brow divine.

Yes, I idealized him, but now he was gone, and the best I could offer was to give him his due. He deserved Joanna, but now that dream was over too. How tawdry my life seemed compared to his, and for that matter, Joanna’s. I was the poor cousin, the pity invite to their soirees, but I applauded their successes, consoling myself with being close to greatness.

As for me, I could hardly breathe, suffocating in loneliness, far more desolate than any could conceive. The isolation of the writer’s life, I’d aver, hiding behind the persona and aggrandizing the emptiness of my own choosing.

This past year when the misery became too unbearable I adopted a dog—Sasha, a huge Bernese mountain dog who was a rescue—but truth was, she rescued me.

I never knew affection until I cared for her. All the nights coming home to an empty house were behind me.

I stopped travelling, preferring to stay home with Sasha rather then leave her in a pet retreat, or with Mark who was more than willing to romp with her in the ravine park below his condo, She belonged with me.

Sasha fulfilled a need. She kept me company, and I needed that more than anything.

But now I was going to a wake for my best friend whom ironically I hadn’t visited in twenty years, and undoubtedly, I’d meet Joanna Selby whom I hadn’t seen in as long—except nightly in my dreams.

The veneer of my world was intact—outwardly, everything smelled good and looked good, but inwardly? Well, let’s just say my seams were showing.

 

It turned out Mark’s prognostications about Paul’s funerary rites were only partially true. There was a formal funeral in a small local chapel, restricted to family and only a chosen few.

I was there in my dark blue suit and Joanna was there too. She arrived late and we had no opportunity to talk at the service or afterwards at the grave, but were invited to a subdued reception at The Wiltshire Club.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but was—I was taken aback at the press clamouring outside, the flashbulbs popping, and Joanna’s entourage. In truth, I was intimidated and hung back, suddenly self-conscious around her and afraid of embarrassing myself.

Paul’s parents were gracious, perhaps sensing I was uncomfortable, which I was. Paul’s uncle took me under his wing regaling me with sailing yarns supposing I still plied the seas when frankly I hadn’t stepped foot on a dock, let alone a sailing skiff for years.

Just when the strain became oppressive I felt a soft touch on my shoulder and a whisper in my ear.

“Hello, Alex.”

I turned to stare into the eyes I saw every night in my dreams.

“Joanna—you look lovely.”

I instinctively leaned in and let my lips gently brush her cheek. Just then, a gleam of light illumined her face causing her brows to knit into a frown.

“Andre,” she pleaded in an exasperated tone, looking to a huge man standing nearby. He nodded and melted away to dispatch the marauding photographer.

She looked flustered and upset.

“They have no respect—I’m sorry, Alex—it’s my life, I’m afraid.”

“I understand,” I smiled reassuringly. “You’re famous—Of course the paparazzi will pursue you.”

She grasped my hand. “Come,” she said, leading me away, “I want some alone time with you.”

My heart raced—it was only an expression—a mere polite statement, but my foolish blood stirred.

She led me back through the hall to a small reception room with a view of a snowy ravine.

“We can talk here in peace,” she smiled.

I sat opposite her on a sofa chair. Frankly, I was  still awed by her beauty. She had always been lovely at university, but the youthful prettiness of a coed had been replaced with a mature elegance that was breathtaking.

“You’re staring,” she whispered.

I flushed, “I’m sorry—it’s been a while.”

What that banality was supposed to mean, I had no idea. I really wanted to say that over the years she had grown even more beautiful and was lovelier now than I remembered—but true as the sentiment was, it would sound unbelievably lame. Besides, I was sure she heard far more eloquent compliments daily from the various men in her life.

In response to my excuse about the passage of time, she nodded as if she agreed, but I knew she didn’t believe a word.

Her huge eyes were probing mine, seeming to look into my soul.

“It’s hard to accept we’re meeting again like this—it’s certainly not how I envisioned it.”

I shrugged, attempting to feign nonchalance, but I was trembling inside. “I doubt either of us thought Paul would go out like this—he was more a god than a man.”

She smiled. “Really? Is that how you saw him?”

“Didn’t you?” I asked incredulously.

“Not particularly,” she whispered, as a dark cloud passed over her features.

She seemed preoccupied with something else, almost as if she resented the mention of our friend at all.

An awkward silence fell between us that lasted a few moments, but then, she recovered as if a transient pain had passed, and picked up the thread of our conversation again.

“I saw Paul more as a bohemian—a free spirit, I suppose. I’m sure women were drawn to him, but he wasn’t my type. Mind you, the one thing we had in common was a passion for life—but then, you had that too. We all did.”

I was dimly aware of her inflection, but preoccupied with nostalgia for Paul, I only shook my head sadly, staring off into the snowy dusk.

“It was youthful exuberance I suppose, but I honestly believed it—believed we could live that way forever—free as birds.”

Her eyes brightened.

“So, you didn’t settle down, Alex—you never married?”

I shook my head.

“You did better than me,” she sighed.

It was now my turn for my eyes to grow bright in amazement.

“You married? There was no report of that in the press,” I protested.

“No, there wasn’t,” she said sadly. “It was better for my career to keep it quiet—and oh, we kept it quiet—yes, we certainly managed that.” There was a bitter smile.

“May I ask who?”

“James Reardon, fashion editor at Vogue. It turns out our marriage was good for both our careers—but not much else, I’m afraid.”

Again, there was an awkward silence. “I’m sorry, Joanna,” I murmured.

She held up a hand to halt further discussion.

“It’s over now—it can’t be helped. I find I’m managing better on my own anyway.”

Again, the bitter edge crept into her voice.

“Are you managing? I said, surprised. “I’m not.”

The words hung in the air between us. I couldn’t believe I said them. I don’t know what possessed me—maybe all those nights of talking to her in my dreams and confessing I was miserable and lonely.

She stared at me the way someone stares at a stranger trying to decide whether they merely look familiar or are indeed a friend. She seemed to conclude she could confide in me.

“I think I feel the same way too,” she said finally, “all this bravado about being independent and responsible—but at the end of the day, I just want to come home and be held.”

She began to weep and without thinking about it I took her in my arms and held her. It felt natural—as if that’s where she belonged.

After a few minutes when her tears subsided, she looked into my eyes, searching again inside me. “Didn’t you see it was you all those years? I only agreed to that silly pact because we were young and I thought you needed your freedom. But when you and Paul sailed off to the Florida Keys, I felt abandoned.”

“But it wasn’t me who was meant for you—it was Paul.”

Anger flashed across her features.

“Did I say that? When did I ever say or do anything that would make you think that? Paul Conrad only cared about himself. All those letters and photos you sent—Paul could have cared less.”

I stared at her, hearing, but unfortunately, not believing a word.

So much time had passed between us, a lifetime separated us from who we were. Paul was gone. I had vicariously loved her through him, but now that had ended.

I was at a loss as to how to continue. Where do we go from here? The wheel of my mind spun the words like a tire stuck in a rut.

She sensed my angst, and perhaps our futility.

“We’ll keep in touch,” she said reassuringly. I buried my face in her hair.

Here was the woman I danced with in dreams but all my words were painted air.

At last I found my voice.

“Let’s meet in St. Petersburg in the spring,” I suggested.

She smiled, her eyes glistened and she squeezed my hand. We left it at that.

But for me, I was divided. I knew I’d go home to Sasha, think about this, speak to Joanna in dreams and possibly someday ‘manage’ to lay Paul to rest.

We promised to keep in touch—it wasn’t much, but probably the best we could muster under the circumstances.

I still see her face through the darkened limousine window–a white petal in the twisted tangle of years…

Joanna, my dream, my memory, my youth, receding from me down a dark snowy lane.

 

 Time is the longest distance between two places.—Tennessee Williams

 

© 2016, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.

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