Archives for April 2016

Still Life with Grape and Hotdog

Hands

“Good news. We have a songwriting assignment. A chance to make some money,” Joe says. He stands next to my piano, a two-day-old turkey leg in his hand, waving it at me like a conductor’s baton. As usual, Joe raided my refrigerator the moment he arrived at my Astoria apartment, looking for spit-backs and doggie bags—the detritus of a skinny single girl’s sad culinary life.

We had planned to work today on a new song—”Eight Miles Home”—for the play Joe is writing about Thomas Jefferson. Joe rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet. He’s hyped up, even though exhaustion cloaks his pale blue eyes. Like me, he maintains a patchwork schedule of gigs, bouncing from the Actor’s Studio to the television studio to the Madison Avenue restaurant where he serves gourmet morsels to swanky East Side guests.

“One of the customers at the restaurant last night—a regular named Judith—knows we write songs together. She’s financing a tree project in Israel— one of those forest in the desert things— and she wants a theme song.”

“A theme song. About trees in the desert? Cool.”

“That’s the good news. The bad news is that we have to tie it into world peace and brotherhood.”

“Jesus.”

“Exactly. She wants ‘We are the World.’ But about trees.”

It is 1986. I am twenty-eight years old. The sloping lines traversing Joe’s sun-faded face tell me he has at least fifteen years on me. I repeatedly ask him how old he is. He refuses to answer.

We met each other three years ago, when we were hired as actors for an industrial training film for a television network, but we really got to know each other when we began writing songs for Joe’s Thomas Jefferson project. We’re both divorced and scuffling to finance our New York City lifestyles. In addition to his burgeoning career as an actor/writer/waiter, Joe is supporting a teenage son and trying to scrape together enough money to buy his downtown studio apartment. I play the piano in several midtown hotels (midday at the Marriott, cocktail hour at the Sheraton, late nights at the Hyatt), and grab as much acting work as I can. I date inappropriate men, buy shoes that are too expensive for my piano girl budget, and, like so many of my wannabe uptown friends, spend too much time in a hair salon, having my hair painted various shades of gold.

Deep down, I’m really a songwriter. Joe brings me back to the truest part of myself, the part that can start with silence and create, for better or worse, a piece of music. When Joe shows up at my apartment, I know where I’m supposed to be—somewhere in the middle of the second chorus, looking for a bridge. I glance up from the piano and listen to his James Taylor-inspired voice sing the lyric we have crafted and feel dizzy with love, maybe for him, maybe for me, maybe for art. We do not have a romance, but this must count for something.

It takes four or five songwriting sessions, a plate of cold gnocchi, three slices of stale pizza, a few bottles of wine (for me) and half a chicken, but eventually Joe and I come up with a song for the tree project. It’s called “If We Believe.” We record and submit the demo to Judith. We get the gig, along with a hefty (for us) paycheck. In return, we are expected to show up at a synagogue in Princeton, New Jersey, to present the song to the congregation at a special ceremony.

*****

Several months later, we rent a dark red Toyota and drive to Princeton. Joe will sing, I will play the piano and sing along on the chorus. We practice in the car, puffed up by the prospect of getting paid to do something we love. I’m teetering on the edge of thirty and Joe has clearly crossed the middle-age super highway, but we feel like two kids on a road trip, unbreakable, singing a song that will open doors and hearts and pay for a few months of turkey dinners and blond highlights.

We enter the synagogue. Judith, a large woman wearing small glasses, greets us. I ask about the piano.

“There’s no piano,” she says. “This is an Orthodox synagogue with restrictions on musical instruments. Sorry. I didn’t know. I’m not a member here. You’ll have to sing aca-aca-aca . . .?”

Acapella?” Joe and I say. Our voices, so strong and confident in the Toyota, now sound squeaky and thin.

“Yeah, that,” says Janet. “It will be wonderful. I think the governor is coming. Here, put this on. She hands Joe a yarmulke. “Now go sit down. Here’s a program. You’re on at the end of the service.”

We slide into a pew. “You got a bobby pin or anything?” Joe says. “This thing won’t stay put.” I dig in my purse, find a paper clip crusted with hair spray and face powder, and use it to clip the yarmulke to a strand of Joe’s thin blond hair. Thomas Jefferson would be proud.

“There.” I say.

“Uh-oh,” he says, as he reads the program.

“What?” I look around. People stream into the synagogue and take their seats. It’s a somber crowd.

“Jesus,” he says.

What?”

“This is a Holocaust memorial service. We are singing to honor the dead and pay tribute to the survivors.”

“Joe, we can’t sing a song about trees and world peace at a Holocaust remembrance service. What is Judith thinking?”

“I guess she wants a good venue to launch her project? She believes in our song.”

“Yeah, but she doesn’t have to get up there and sing it on the saddest day of the year. What am I supposed to do? I’m not even a real singer.” I wonder if it’s too late to bow out. Or sneak out. This service is too meaningful to be marred by a piddling pop song about seeds and branches and strangers far from home. I feel wildly incompetent, out of place, and panicked. “Joe,” I say. “What are we going to do?”

Joe puts his weathered hands on either side of my hot face. “Rob,” he says. “Be strong. Trust yourself.”

The service proceeds. The elderly survivors of the Holocaust stand. We pray for them. The Rabbi asks the family members of those who perished to also stand. We pray again. Hundreds of people are now on their feet, wounded and sad, but still, somehow, hopeful. It is the most emotional thing I’ve ever experienced.

Joe leans over and whispers in my ear. “Time for a little music. We’re up next.”

Tears clog my throat, in that familiar place where songs are born.

“I can’t.” I say.

Joe grabs my hand. “This isn’t about you.”

It’s not about me. Why haven’t I ever thought of that? A composer serves the project; a performer serves the song. It’s not about me. And just like that, my fear fizzles. I can do this.

The Rabbi introduces us and asks the congregation to remain standing during our song.

Joe looks at me, nods, then white-knuckles the lectern and begins to sing in a voice so luminous that I forget to feel like an imposter. I sing with him on the chorus. The audience joins us and our combined voices seem stronger than all the evil in the world. A fleeting musical illusion, but still, I believe.

We finish the song and I look at Joe. His yarmulke has slipped over one eyebrow and there are beads of sweat on his cheeks. Or perhaps they’re tears. My heart fills with joy, with relief, with respect. I love this man, in a way I can’t explain. Or maybe I just love our song.

*****

After the service we meet Judith and her husband, Alex, in the parking lot. They offer to take us to dinner, but it’s a Monday night and their favorite fancy restaurants are closed. The only thing open in the area is an IHOP, which hardly seems fitting after what we’ve just experienced. Joe, as always, is starving—but Alex, Judith, and I veto the blueberry pancakes and opt to head back to Judith’s home, where she will prepare a light meal.

Alex and Judith, speed demons, drive matching Jaguar convertibles. Joe and I pile into our Toyota and drive as fast as we can to keep up with them. Judith directs us to park outside the gate, on the side of a large circular driveway. She summons us over an intercom and the gate swings open.

In addition to matching cars, Judith and Alex have matching villas.

‘We love each other,” she says as she meets us in the foyer. “But we really don’t like living together.” Every surface of her living room is stacked with huge piles of notebooks, magazines, periodicals, newspapers. I’ve never seen so much paper in one place. No wonder she wants to plant a forest.

“I don’t cook much,” Judith says. “But I have some wine and a package of frozen hotdogs.”

“Wine sounds great,” I shout.

“Hotdogs for me,” says Joe. Judith retreats to the kitchen. Alex, a tiny man, has disappeared. Perhaps he’s hiding behind one of the towers of New Yorker magazines. Joe moves a wobbly stack of folders and sits down next to me.

“I’ll just put these hotdogs in the microwave,” Judith yells from the kitchen.

“Don’t eat the hotdogs,” I whisper to Joe. “They may have been in that freezer since 1972.”

“Rob. We should be polite. If she’s taking the trouble to make hotdogs, we should eat the hotdogs.”

“No way,” I say. I sip a glass of sweet wine. Judith brings Joe a fancy white plate with a gold rim and one hotdog on it.”

“Thanks, Judith,”he says. “That looks delicious. You have any ketchup?”

I kick him under the table and a pile of paperbacks tumbles to the ground.

“I don’t think so,” says Judith, discovering a large plate of half-rotten grapes underneath a periodic journal. “But, here. Have some grapes.”

“No, thanks,” I say. Joe adds a few grapes to his hotdog plate and cocks his head to study his plate. Still Life with Grape and Hotdog: Princeton, New Jersey.

We talk for a few minutes. Judith thanks us for our song; we thank her for her hospitality.

“What an honor to be part of this special evening.”

“Better go quickly,” she says. “In three minutes the guard dogs will be out. The gate will open automatically for you.”

“Guard dogs?” I look behind me and see four Dobermans racing down the driveway. They’re practically nipping at our boots as the gate closes behind us. We can hear them snarling on the other side of the fence.

“That was close.”

“I don’t feel so great,” says Joe.

“I told you. Poison hotdogs,” I say. “I’ll drive.”

“Wait, wait!” Judith shouts from the other side of the gate, her voice muffled by the barking Dobermans. “Take the grapes, so you have a snack for the ride home.”

“Thank you,” we say.

“I’ll just leave the bag here on my side of the fence. You can reach through and fetch it. Bye!”

“Let’s go, Joe,” I say. “The Dobermans are freaking me out.”

“What about the grapes?” he says.

“Leave them. No way I’m going to reach under that fence. Those dogs will rip my arm off. And I have to play at the Marriott tomorrow.”

“Yeah, but they’re free grapes. ”

“They’re yesterday’s grapes, Joe.” But he doesn’t hear me. He grabs a stick from the side of the road, and, with the Dobermans growling and snapping at it, manages to pull the bag under the fence.

We drive home, the rotten grapes on the seat between us. We don’t say much, and we’re certainly not singing.

*****

Years pass. We do not become the next Goffin and King, Lennon and McCartney, or the Bergmans.  As so often happens in show business, the slow-moving blob of real life overtakes art. Joe gets a lot of film work, falls in love with a beautiful young dancer named Elizabeth, and marries her. He changes his name, changes his image, moves to the West Coast, and becomes a movie star. I meet the love of my life—a jazz bassist named John—marry him, and have a baby. We decide to move to Europe.

In 1994 I see Joe one last time, right before my husband and I leave New York. He looks rested and happy. And tan. We discuss projects we’ll never work on and songs we’ll never write. He eats a salad. A salad!

“I can’t remember the key of the tree song,” he says.

“D major. You always sound good in D major. It’s a hopeful key. Bright.”

It’s time to go our separate ways. Joe has been more than a friend, less than a romance. We have forged an artistic partnership based on naivety, courage, old food, and the misguided-but-beautiful belief that a handful of well-crafted songs will connect us forever. Love songs, in a way.

He hugs me goodbye. I will play our music for decades to come. People might move on, but a song? Our songs are forever—aural snapshots of an innocent time; small globes of musical light that roll through my memory and trigger flashes of happiness.

“Be strong,” he says to me before we go our separate ways on Seventh Avenue. “Trust yourself.”

“It’s not about me!” I say, repeating the words that got me through the Princeton gig. “I promise to remember that. It’s not about me.”

“It never was,” Joe says. “It was always about the song.”

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

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Rouge Noir

“Rouge Noir” is a short story from Goldsby’s new collection: Manhattan Road Trip

Courtesy of Bass Lion Publishing

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Rouge Noir

Alarm rings. B-flat. Fingers tingle; they always tingle on concert days. Wish I could start my morning with meditation. Been awake for an hour, worrying, fretting, betting something horrible will happen in the next twelve hours. Twelve hours. Got to get through half a day before I walk onstage this evening. So much easier if I could hop out of bed, into the shower, and onto the piano bench. Performance isn’t hard—waiting kills me. Playing the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 in D minor this evening with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Performed the Rach 3 at least thirty times over the last decade. Still kicks my butt. Like running a marathon in thirty-five minutes.

Sheets tangle between my legs, my hair tangles between my fingers, my stomach tangles in knots. Slightly nauseated. Hope I’m not pregnant again. Hope I don’t have stomach cancer. Hope I didn’t eat bad shrimp last night at Fred’s Fish Factory. Why did I let that chirpy concert promoter talk me into eating crustaceans in a landlocked town? What’s her name? Right. Madison. I’m an idiot when I’m hungry. I’ll eat anything. Hope the zipper closes on my gown tonight. Should fast today—no, last time I tried that I fainted two hours before my New York Phil concert. Ended up drinking a vanilla milkshake to revive. Stomach bloated from the lactose. Rachmaninoff and bloat. Bad combo.

I hope the hair guy shows up. I hate big concert halls with balconies. People sitting above see my roots; high-rent folks in orchestra seats see my double chin. I’m screwed in two ticket-price tiers.

Wish they would just close their eyes and listen.

I really need to play the damn piano; always makes me feel better to play, at least in real life. Crawled into bed last night out of sorts and full of doom. Finally conked out, had a nightmare someone splattered the Steinway keyboard with olive oil. I’ve had this nightmare on the eve of every concert performance for fifteen years. Always the same—fingers slip and slide, and my performance, no matter what I do, veers from controlled elegance to sadistic slapstick. The audience laughs. I stand to leave the stage, humiliated and broken. I notice oil stains on my red evening gown. Guy in the front row of my dream looks exactly like Mr. Dominick, my childhood piano teacher. He wears a houndstooth jacket with mustard-colored suede elbow patches. “See?” he snarls. “I told you. You’re no good. And not only that, you’re fat.” Then I wake up.

Enough.

I am Samantha Lockney. Used to be the toast of the classical piano world, girl with the platinum fingers, sweetheart of music critics everywhere, except in parts of Ohio, where, for some odd reason, they’ve always hated my emotional interpretations of Baroque music. They also hated me in Duluth and Phoenix. Fine with that. I am. Don’t know anyone in Ohio, or Duluth, or Phoenix, except for my agent’s mother. Met her once, when I played the A minor Brahms with the Cleveland Orchestra. My hands aren’t really big enough for Brahms, so I had to stretch like crazy. That was back when I had big banging balls and I still tried to play pieces that didn’t suit me. Before the agency and Classical International Records started promoting me as a glamour girl. Back when I didn’t have to worry about sucking in my stomach and wearing false eyelashes. Now, when I should be exhaling and leaning into the best years of my career, I face dwindling audiences, dismal record sales, and a substantial slab of flab around my middle. Not so noticeable when I’m upright, but I can’t perform the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor if I’m not sitting down.

I hate sounding like a whining, weight-obsessed, middle-aged woman, but . . . If I’m not at the piano, I’m standing in front of a mirror freaking about how I look at the piano. Twenty years ago, on my agent’s advice, I poured myself into a silver slip dress and jiggled onstage at Carnegie Hall. I actually believed, silver dress and all, the audience understood and admired my music. Wasn’t the music they dug, it was the package. That’s what the record company called me—a package. Yeah, I was talented. Yeah, I mastered Rach 3 when very few women even considered playing it. Yeah, I was the new kid on the scene. But I really got noticed for being classical piano’s “It Girl.” Or was it “Tit Girl”? Now the “It” part is gone; tits are sagging; career is tanking. I’m scared. I need to keep working. I need guidance. My own stupid fault. Other concert pianists have survived middle age without losing momentum—but they built careers on solid music, not on how they looked in a silver dress.

Classical International didn’t pick up the option for my next recording, so now I’m a free agent.Therapist says anger gets me nowhere. Agent says anger gets me nowhere. Accountant says anger gets me nowhere. I pay a staff of professionals thousands of dollars a month to piss me off and tell me I’m getting nowhere. This morning, nowhere features a junior suite with two red velveteen chairs, king-sized bed, pink marble bathroom, and too many mirrors. The suite is a little smaller than my usual offerings—okay, a lot smaller—but the birdish Madison, a zipper-thin twenty-something, told me the pop singer Baby checked in yesterday and her handlers insisted on the Governor’s Suite, the one originally reserved for me. I’m at the William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. Didn’t make a scene about the suite. I was tempted. It feels, I don’t know, a little insulting to be jostled out of position by a chlorine-blond named Baby. We’re both from Pittsburgh. Read somewhere she went to my elementary school, twenty years after I was there.

Saw pictures of Baby in Vanity Fair last month. She was wearing a latex mermaid costume. Even with flippers and fishtail, she’s a looker. I remember how that used to feel. Seas parted, doors opened, men with coffee breath and thinning hair stared at my breasts and told me I was extremely talented. Got the best tables and widest smiles, and potbellied photographers told me I wasn’t just extremely talented, I was lovely. Funny thing, I believed every word. Every single word. Fans surrounded me like fruit flies on a ripe peach.

Why bother with nail polish on my toes? It chips. Chanel Rouge Noir. Love this color. Scrape a few blackish-red flakes onto the flocked carpet. They disappear into the weave. Wonder what else is buried in there.

Ashamed to admit this, but I expected a warm reception since I’m a hometown girl. Thought the concert would sell out, that today would be filled with press appointments. But Madison, whose diplomacy skills lack finesse, told me critics and journalists had no interest. “It’s, like, so hard these days to find anyone willing to write about classical music, unless it’s, like, some hot new artist. You know, like, the younger ones. I thought, like, since you’re older, I might call Walter Wipton.”

“Walter Wipton? Is he still on staff at the Pittsburgh paper? My God, that guy has been writing the same shitty review of every young female concert pianist for the last forty years. Is he coming tonight?”

“No,” said Madison, checking her phone. “Let’s see. He says he already reviewed your performance of the Rachmaninoff.”

“That was ten years, ago,” I said. “That guy is a sexist idiot. I quote: ‘Samantha Lockney might play like a man but she definitely looks like a woman. Sensual and sexy, her body moved with the music and brought to mind moments of passion and release.’ Basically, Madison, he compared me to an orgasm. Doesn’t get more sexist than that, does it?”

“Wow, you still remember that?” she said. “You’re, like, a feminist?” I didn’t know how to answer without shaking her. So I said nothing.

“Well, you know, Baby’s in town,” said Madison, her voice excited and growing squeakier by the second. “It’s supposed to be a secret, but every reporter in Pittsburgh knows she’s here. They’re all, like, camped out in the lobby. Evidently she’s here to attend a funeral.”

Fucking Baby. She shows up for a funeral and it’s a major press event. I arrive to play the most difficult piano concerto ever written and no one cares.

I pull the covers over my head and try to push away the morning.

Phone rings just as the waiter arrives with my breakfast. Phone tone is an A-natural. Doorbell to the suite is a G-sharp. I’m caught in the crossfire of a half-tone war. God, that’s awful. Grab the phone and my robe at the same time.

“Mommy?” It’s my daughter, Caroline. Her voice sounds raspy. Make a note to ask Gary if her asthma has been bothering her again. Latrobe isn’t far away—should try and get out there to see her. Maybe Gary will bring her to the concert tonight—I already sent tickets. Have to remember to pick up a present—hate to meet her empty-handed. Caroline chatters on about getting ready for school. I look in the mirror and try to iron the lines out of my face with the palm of my hand. Doorbell rings again, followed by loud knocking.

“Yes, sweetie. Yes, sweetie. I miss you, too. Just a minute, okay? Breakfast is here.” Fluff my hair and open the door.

Snarky kid with a pierced nose smirks and says, “Room service.” These hotel workers get younger every week. His nametag says “Jefferson.” Of course. Jefferson. Is every person under the age of twenty-five named after a damn president? Jefferson—wearing a white military jacket with golden buttons and scarlet epaulets and a pair of gravity-defying black pants— slouches into the room without even trying to sneak a peek under my robe. Pull up your pants, I want to shout. Little Lord Fauntleroy from the waist up, original gangster from the waist down. Way too skinny for me, anyway. Not tempted.

I don’t look bad for my age. I don’t. I remind myself of this at least three times an hour. Been playing really well the last few years—playing better than ever, actually—but all the newspapers and magazines want to write about—if they write about me at all—is my puffy face or how much weight I’ve gained. They say I’ve “matured in stature.” They write about whether I should have a face-lift. Or speculate whether I’m losing my hair. If I’m a good mother or a bad mother. If my third marriage will work out. If I’m a lesbian. Downward spiral. Falling face.

To the Jeffersons of the world I am invisible. Rach 3 is too long, too demanding, just too much of everything for a YouTuber like Jefferson. He’ll watch a cell phone video of Baby hailing a cab, but an aging formerly-hot classical pianist? Forget it. To music critics—the know-it-alls who fell in love with me when I was waif-like and perky-boobed—I’m one sonata away from menopause. I glance in the mirror as Jefferson rolls the tray table into my suite. Ragged. Chunky. I look my age. And you know what? Just don’t care. Really. I don’t care.

Enough.

“Where do you want it?” Jefferson says.

“Funny you should ask.” I use my flirty voice. Jefferson ignores me.

Shit. I remember my ten-year-old daughter is still on the phone, hanging on every word. “Well now, Jefferson, over there. Next to the window.” I grab the phone from the nightstand. “Caroline, honey, I’ll call you right back, okay?” Already hung up. Guess she has gone to school.

Jefferson, disgusted, places breakfast—a pot of Earl Grey, a bowl of bran flakes, a glass of vivid green juice that will taste like liquid tree—on a window-side table overlooking a broad Pittsburgh avenue. Grant Street? So long since I’ve been in town. Hardly remember the names of the streets. Jefferson unfurls a single linen napkin, places it next to the tree juice and says, “Will there be anything else?”

“Here.” I hand him ten dollars.

“Wow. Thanks,” he says.

“You’re welcome. Would you perhaps like tickets to my concert this evening? It’s not sold out and I have some—”

“What? You a singer or something?”

“No. I’m a concert pianist. I’m performing with the Pittsburgh Symphony this evening.”

“Oh. Yeah. I heard of them. But I got plans. I’m not supposed to tell anyone—this is top secret—but I guess you’re cool. Baby is in town. I hear she might stop by the Rooster Shack tonight and sit in for a set. At least, that’s what my bartender buddy at the Rooster Shack told me.”

“Right. Well, then. The Rooster Shack. Imagine that.”

“Enjoy your breakfast.” Jefferson walks backwards, dragging the empty food cart. He doesn’t even glance at me as he backs out of the room.

***

I eat all of my breakfast. Stroll downstairs, pick up a newspaper. Baby buzz circulates around the reception desk, though she’s nowhere to be seen. A grand piano sits right in the middle of the lobby—maybe later I’ll challenge Baby to a duel.

Head back to my room. Think about tonight’s performance. This damn concerto. Rach 3. I play it really well, but it’s never easy. Only a handful of pianists can do it justice. I’m one of them. Pretty much the only thing anyone wants to hear me play these days. It’s exhausting keeping up with it. Kicks my ass every time, even after all these years.

Took me eleven months to master Rach 3. A “normal” concerto—I can cover that in a month. I remember first looking at the score; it was written for an octopus. No break for the pianist, not even in the second movement. Fell in love with it at eighteen and decided if I never accomplished anything else in my life, I would tame this beast. I did. Now when I play it I become my own orchestra. Two orchestras onstage; the one with eighty-three musicians, and the one behind the Steinway—me. I’m an army, an unbeatable force, a solo musician with the weight of the world balanced on ten fingers. I’ve sacrificed a lot for Rachmaninoff over the years—childhood, a normal education, several marriages, my daughter, friends—but it’s worth it. When I’m playing this concerto, the muscle of the music strong-arms real life. I win. I’m free. I’m home. I’m an unconquerable goddess. I am alive.

Wish I had ordered pancakes or a cheese omelet or something substantial for breakfast. Need real food—potatoes and bread and bacon. If I had a piano in my fucking junior suite I could distract myself with practicing, but the days of the promoter providing a Steinway in my hotel room are over. I look in one of the dozens of mirrors lining the walls. There is a hair growing out of my forehead. My forehead! Jesus Christ, how long has that been there? Oh my God, it’s white and it’s an inch long. I take a moment and Google cosmetic surgeons in Manhattan. Hair removal, liposuction, Botox, face-lift, fillers—maybe I need a complete rehaul. Might even need an ass lift. No I don’t. Yes I do. Not like an ass lift will make me more of an artist. How long would I have to take off from sitting on a piano bench to recover from butt-lift surgery? Forget it. I’m not kowtowing to contemporary beauty standards. Harness my physical well-being to an industry norm? I am what I am, and all that. I pluck the hair.

But maybe if I looked better, if I recaptured my youthful fizz, I would book more gigs. I need to work. I paid off my Manhattan apartment years ago, but I’m so far in debt I’ll need to play 150 concerts a year until I’m ninety just to make a dent in what I owe. This is my first gig in a month. I’m not destitute, but I need to pay my staff of anger experts, two ex-husbands, and child support. Maybe there’s a direct correlation between weight gain and concert loss. Maybe I’m just too old for this. Not old. Not young. Maybe I’m too fat.

Stop it right now. Just stop it.

I know. Go for a walk. Outside. Fresh air. Breathe. Still have three hours before hair guy shows up. I’ll go practice for an hour at the hall. Buy a new dress. Shop for Caroline. What size is she these days? Put on sunglasses and head for Macy’s.

***

Nobody recognizes me in the store, even with sunglasses. Relieved and pissed all at once. I try three separate times to give comp tickets to sales people, but no one seems interested—they act like I’m trying to give them discount coupons for fabric softener. Try on an Oscar de la Renta bright-pink beaded evening gown that costs $2,000. I look like a spangled hippo in a mother-of-the-bride dress, plus the beads chafe my upper arms. Thirty-five minutes of Rach 3 in that thing and my triceps would look like raw meat. Try on a subtle Calvin Klein black sheath dress and I resemble a stout nun settling in for an evening of biblical Scrabble. Try on strappy high-heeled sandals with bits of feathers at the toe. Am I getting cankles? No. Ankles still slim. No ankle lift for me.

How cute! Who ever thought to add feathers to shoes? Could be my new signature style. If Katia Labèque can make a concert pianist fashion statement with red-soled Louboutins, then why not me? Feathers at my feet. Wings on my heels. Fly like an eagle. Buy the shoes. Hope these aren’t eagle feathers. Four hundred dollars. Shouldn’t, but I do.

I look at a crystal bracelet. Forget that. Pick up a topaz ring for Caroline. Adorable. Topaz is her birthstone, I think. Got to do something about my nails. Looks like I’ve been digging up potatoes bare-handed.

Scoot down to the cosmetic department and pick up three new lipsticks, a $20 bottle of a nail polish called Cream Cake for my fingers, another bottle of Rouge Noir for my toes, and firming cream guaranteed to restructure a sagging jaw line. Has horse cartilage in it. Or shark fin. Or some awful thing, but Vogue says it works.

Hungry. What I eat now is critical. Too much and my stomach will blow up and I’ll look five months pregnant onstage and even the feather sandals won’t distract from that. If I don’t eat enough I’ll be shaky, top-heavy, and likely to tip over. Do men think about this shit? No. I’ll bet Martha Argerich doesn’t either. Should have built my career the way she did.

I find a little Japanese place and order a tempura California roll. Hold the cream cheese. Avocado is good, right? Right. Would kill for some wine, but that’s a no-go. I order another California roll. No soy sauce—last thing I need is water retention. There. Full, but not. Perfect.

Over to the hall to see if I can play in these feather sandals. I have my doubts. Piano pedals swallow shoes and long skirts. Test run required. A policeman waves at me. Nice—hey there, big guy. I wave back, but he’s not waving at me—he’s directing traffic. Pittsburgh pigeon poops on my pink pashmina. I do the best I can to remove the goop with an old Starbucks napkin stuffed in my pocket.

Hands feel cold.

Should have had the wine.

***

What was I thinking? I’m onstage, running through warm-ups before the technician arrives to tweak the Steinway. Feather sandals are a disaster, heels skid on the wooden floor, I lose control of the pedal. Fuck the feathers. I’m a pianist, not a stripper. I kick them off and keep playing. Stupid idea to buy these stupid shoes. Focus. I should return them, but I’m out of time. Shit. Focus. Was I supposed to call Caroline at lunchtime? I’ll try later. Help. Stop and clear my head. Play through the cadenza in the first movement again.

And again. Again. There. My hands move so fast I can’t see or feel them anymore—a blur of sinew and flesh. Part of me, but not. I float above myself, in a trance, listening. Got it now. Stand, stretch, collect my Macy’s loot and grab a cab back to the hotel. Time to have hair teased and tussled, face spackled. Salon promised to send someone at four. Could use a piece of cake. Pace back and forth in the suite and wait for hair guy. Think about the Rach. Pace. Stop thinking. Therapist tells me to think of nothing before a performance. Thinking about not thinking. Nothing helps. Keep hearing repetitive patterns in the third movement. Doorbell rings. Scares me. I’m always jittery a few hours before. It’s the stylist, a short guy named Doug. He smells like grapefruit.

“Come in, Doug. May I offer you a soothing cup of tea?” ***

Five minutes before eight. Orchestra waits onstage. I wait in the wings. Stretch. Good. Shoulders nice and loose. Hands warm. Neck slightly stiff. Normal. I can see the audience from a gap in the backstage wall. I try not to look. Lots of empty seats. Caroline sits in the third row, with her grandparents and Gary. I’ll play the Rach for her tonight. Play it so she’ll remember me. The music. Me. The music. Me. The music. Don’t think. Don’t even think about thinking. The music. Me. Breathe. Believe.

The stage manager taps my shoulder. Walk onstage. Walk. Sit. Maestro raises his baton. The music. Me. Believe. Breathe.

Begin.

**

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming on April 6th, 2016: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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