Up, Up, and Away

I flew for the first time in 1973, the year I turned sixteen. I was headed to New York City to visit Aunt Pinky. The trip, a birthday present from my parents, came on the kitten heels of an unfortunate incident involving a bottle of vodka mixed with Hawaiian Punch, a football player named Mark, and a front closing bra that didn’t close on time. Hung-over, I had green skin and the kind of spiraling nausea that leaves one woozy for days. Grounded? Not me. My parents drove me to the airport and delivered me to the gate of the Allegheny Airlines terminal. I’m guessing Mom and Dad assumed the swoop-dee-doo motion of the flight would be punishment enough. Even when sober, I’ve always suffered from motion sickness.

A chain smoking middle-age businessman (quite possibly a perv, but no one thought of this in 1973) assured my parents he would look after me. He sat next to me and blew smoke in my ear while clutching my arm and whispering: “All those teeny tiny houses and teeny tiny people down there, drinking their little martinis and making love while we fly over them and contemplate life. Makes you wonder what the hell we’re doing up here. Makes you believe in God. Let’s pray.”

I wasn’t wondering about anything. And forget about praying. My main goal during my first flight was to avoid throwing up all over my new black turtleneck sweater.

Things have changed a lot in the last forty years. As I grow older I’m choosing to stay grounded whenever possible. Still, memories linger—bumpy journeys over oceans, majestic mountains, and amber waves of grain; OJ Simpson inspired dashes through crowded terminals (with diaper bag and stroller); joyous arrivals and tearful departures (or is it the other way around?); moments of anticipation while waiting for my Rimowa at the baggage claim black hole. My most memorable episodes feature my kids. Come fly with me as I take a trip down Memory Tarmac.

 

Head in the Clouds

“Wow, says John. “Nothing like the smell of two hundred passengers opening their peanuts at the same time.” Baby C shares my seat. He is ten months old and a lap-full. We are flying from LaGuardia to Pittsburgh to hand him over to my dear sister, who has graciously agreed to babysit while we fly to Germany to check out a job in Cologne.

I used to fly First Class or Business Class (free upgrades!) but that changed once I had a baby. One look at a gate-checked stroller or a diaper bag, and, well, back of the bus for Junior and me.

“Man,” says John. “Those peanuts really smell awful.”

My eyes cross as the odor hits me. I feel an icky, warm liquid spreading over my thighs.

“That’s not peanuts,” I say to John. “That’s your son.”

Here’s what they don’t tell you in mommy school: Babies are prone to Exploding Diaper Syndrome when flying. Something about the pressure change in the cabin causes a sonic poo detonation so drastic that, unless you are equipped with a complete change of clothing for your infant, a hazmat suit for yourself, and a hose, you are screwed.

I have none of these items with me. I don’t even have a diaper bag. I’m traveling with one extra diaper for C. My sister has a baby boy the same age as C and has instructed me to travel light, since she has a well-stocked baby station.

Passengers stare at me and wrinkle their noses, some of them disguising disdain with vaguely sympathetic nods and snarky smiles. Due to turbulence the seatbelt sign remains on. I strip off C’s clothes on the aisle floor—it’s like wrestling with an oiled baby seal—but the flustered flight attendant sees what’s happening and escorts us to the restroom.

I scrub and rinse and scrub some more. I end up depositing his Baby Gap overalls, onesie, and pullover in the trashcan. Even his socks are filthy, so I ditch them, too. What else can I do? If I don’t get rid of the offending garments before reentering the cabin I’ll cause an international incident.

We land and I carry him, wearing only a diaper, to my sister.

What?” she says. “Don’t they have baby clothes in New York?”

“Don’t ask.” She looks at my splattered wool pants, the soiled cashmere blazer I had purchased for my European adventure.

“Oh,” she says. “Exploding Diaper Syndrome?”

“Is that what they call it?”

“Even the socks?”

“Even the socks.”

“Welcome to motherhood.” She wraps baby C in her wool shawl, covers him with a fleece blanket, tucks him into her double stroller next to his cousin, and rolls away.

8.Airplane.Head in Clouds

Photo by Menina E. Nuvens

Fly Me to the Moon

Off we go to Germany. We’re moving!  Little C and I will fly from Pittsburgh and meet John at JFK. Once there, we’ll board a flight to Cologne, where we’ll make a permanent home for our family. Movers have already packed and shipped my piano and most of our furniture and art.

It’s 1994 so airline officials allow my father to board the plane with C and me, just to help out with all of our stuff and make sure we’re settled into our seats.

It’s an emotional goodbye, and my heart hurts when he bends down to kiss his grandson goodbye. “Remember,” he says to C. “Remember, if you need anything, anything at all, whatever you do, don’t call me!” It’s an old joke that always makes C laugh. He might not understand the words, but he gets that his grandfather is funny, and that’s enough for him.

We arrive at JFK. John is not there waiting for us. I have forgotten that each airline at JFK has its own building. I wait for John for an hour. Where the hell is he? I’m a woman traveling alone with a toddler and a truckload of stuff. The least he could do is meet me at the gate. We don’t have cell phones so I can’t call him. Should I travel to him or will he meet me here? We are playing airport chicken, hoping the other party shows up first. Finally I take my chances and board the aptly named Terminal Bus. When we arrive at Lufthansa I spot John in the distance, pacing and looking at his watch. He has two large suitcases of his own, a couple of carry-ons, and a bass in a traveling case the size of a refrigerator. I might have the baby, but he has the bass. He wins.

The rep at the Lufthansa counter, who looks at us like we’re the Slovenian Traveling Circus, talks John out of buying an extra seat for C. She says the flight is empty and we shouldn’t waste the money. Under the age of two, C still qualifies to be a lap baby. Huge mistake. The flight is packed. Packed! Who knew Germany was so popular? We spend nine hours on board with a feisty toddler (lap baby, my ass) who has decided to channel Robert Deniro’s performance in Cape Fear. He doesn’t sleep, not one wink, and when we arrive in Germany he gets away from me and tries to crawl through the fringe on the baggage conveyor belt. I am so tired I almost let him do it.

 

3.Airplane

 

My Beautiful Balloon

We live in Germany but, determined to celebrate an American Christmas, we have flown back to the USA for the annual family gift bonanza, several visits to a food trough, and an amniocentesis because I am pregnant with our second child.

The results come back a few hours after John has started his trip back to Germany. I am staying in Pennsylvania for another few weeks with C, who has just turned three.

The doctor calls to tell me we’re expecting a girl. Thinking John will want to hear the news before boarding a plane in Boston, I have him paged at the airport. The gate officer calls him to the phone.

“It’s a girl!” I say

“It’s a girl!” John repeats.

“It’s a girl!” yells a Greek chorus of smartly uniformed American Airlines well wishers, anxious to congratulate my dashing husband on the birth of his daughter, unaware that she won’t be born for another six months.

Being a smart guy, and sensing an upgrade in the stars, John smiles, says a modest “thank you,” and never mentions he had been responding to a test result, not the actual birth.

“We’re upgrading you to Business Class,” says one of the workers. “Congratulations, Mr. Goldsby!” He boards, orders a scotch on the rocks, and flies the friendly skies.

Two weeks later I also fly through Boston—with little C—on our way back to Germany. Swollen with pregnancy and sad to be leaving friends and family, I look in my purse and realize I’m traveling with twelve Matchbox cars and one MAC Viva Glam lipstick. C and I sit in the back of the plane. I read Cars and Trucks and Things That Go to him until I’m hoarse—this is before in-seat entertainment systems become standard gear on all overseas flights—and wonder why proud dad gets to sit up front with his beverage of choice, but pregnant mom and hyper-toddler have to hang out in the bleacher seats with juice boxes.

Obviously word is out about Exploding Diaper Syndrome.

7.Airplane.Clouds

My Girl

Unlike her brother, baby J is a dream passenger—the poster child for international infant travel. The sound of an airplane engine works like Valium on her. Virgin Atlantic provides a baby cot that folds down from the bulkhead. She is thirteen months old and quite long for her age, but doesn’t mind being stuffed into the cot. She falls asleep before we leave Frankfurt, wakes up once to eat, and stays asleep for the rest of the flight. Angel baby. A mile-high Moses jammed in a basket that’s too small.

Her brother sits behind us with John. He has a toy Batmobile with him that shoots inch-long plastic flames. He behaves himself until the screen drops down and the in-flight movie—a disaster film called Volcano—begins. Volcano is not suited for four-year olds, but what can we do—we are inches away from the screen. Our son has refused to close his eyes for even one minute of the marathon flight, and short of blindfolding him there’s no reasonable way to keep him from watching the doomed actors running from the rumbling mountain. When the volcano erupts—boom!—C can’t contain himself and, in a John Waters-inspired moment, shoots his plastic flames into the lap of a fragile young man seated across the aisle. The man shrieks. I can hardly blame him—the poor guy has been sitting there engrossed in an adventure film about molten lava and something that looks like a sizzling ember flies right onto his crotch. We don’t confiscate the Batmobile, but we do pocket the flame attachments. Years later, I will find one of them tucked in the lining of my jacket.

2.Airplane

In the Hudson

Our two kids, C and J, are flying alone to the USA. The airline requires a chaperone. Fine, but C, age 15, towers over most adults, and J, an athletic young lady, is not exactly a shrimp. The Air France attendant assigned to accompany my two sweet American children looks aghast when she sees our studio-wrestler sized youngsters. C, in his original gangsta phase, refuses to wear the “Unaccompanied Minor” blaze-orange ID tag around his neck (who can blame him?) and stomps off with the attendant. Julia scurries behind them. I feel bad for the chaperone—she’ll have to drag them a gazillion miles through Aéroport de Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle to put them on the flight to Pittsburgh. Really, these people don’t make enough money.

All goes well, until the return journey.

As most mothers will testify, it’s impossible to sleep when your kids are in the air. At three in the morning, I drag myself out of bed to check their progress on my computer flight tracker. A note tells me their flight from Pittsburgh to Paris has been “diverted.” To New York City. This is one week after Captain Sully Sullenberger has made an heroic emergency landing in the Hudson River. I wake up my husband.

What’s wrong?” he asks.

“They’re in the Hudson,” I say. “Flight diverted. Diverted! Diverted!”

“Who is in the Hudson?

“Our kids. Maybe. There was an emergency landing. Their flight has been diverted. That’s a bad word, diverted. They’re somewhere in New York. Alone.”

“Well,” says John. “Nothing we can do about it until the morning.”

Then he goes back to sleep.

C and J arrive safely the next day, eighteen hours late. I expect to see two shaken and exhausted kids dragging themselves into our welcoming arms. Instead, they bound through the sliding doors, chocolate-pumped, Sprite-fueled, and larger than life. Have they grown? Probably.

“Broken rudder,” says C. “It was so cool—we flew around in circles for a long time so the captain could get the right angle for the landing. Then, after we landed, they left us on the airplane all by ourselves for a long time until they figured out what to do with us. Home alone in New York!”

“Yeah,” says J. “It was really cool.”

“Wait,” I say. “Where’s your chaperone?” We have paid almost three hundred dollars for a service that supposedly protects them against kidnapping by hooded gunmen and other hideous fates. The fee also guarantees supervision from one end of the journey to the other, yet here they are, all by themselves, decked out in baseball caps and sunglasses, and chirping about their über cool emergency landing.

“We ditched the chaperone in Paris. There was some lady in a suit waiting for us but we walked right past her. You know, Mom, we don’t exactly look like little kids. We look like real passengers.”

They have survived a broken rudder, an emergency landing, made it halfway around the world, and collected their bags without me hovering and shouting instructions.

I spend the next week feeling jet-lagged, and I didn’t even fly anywhere.

1.Fly

Photo of New York City by Curtis Goldsby

Sunflowers: Remembering MH17

I can’t stop thinking about the sunflowers—beautiful stalks of yellow and brown, their heads tilted toward the pasty Ukrainian sky, looking for light, any light at all. Instead they have been showered with the worst kind of darkness. Innocent bodies—babies and old people and scientists and nuns, dark skinned and light skinned, alone and in groups, intact and in pieces—blasted out of the summer day, flung from the clouds, and dumped randomly into a field of gold.

On July 17th, 2014, my 18 year-old daughter boards a flight from Frankfurt to Shanghai, starting a year of travel as a FAWCO Youth Ambassador, visiting various countries to do volunteer work and promote social awareness to other teenagers. I hold it together at the airport when she leaves, indulging in just a moment of sadness, which I swallow along with a few selfish tears. It’s a mother’s right to cry when her children leave home. Just a little.

I watch carefully as J, clutching her American passport and her Chinese visa, rounds the bend after passing through immigration. I hope for one more wave, a thrown kiss, a wistful smile, but she never looks back. That’s my girl. Seasoned traveler, frequent flyer, world citizen.

She is 18, I tell myself. She is ready for this. She’ll be fine, fine, fine. My husband and I make the 90-minute trip back to Cologne, driving on an endless stretch of Autobahn lined with rolling green hills, cookie-cutter castles, high-speed train tracks, and the occasional IKEA. Puffy clouds, sapphire sky—the world seems hopeful, a friendly planet ready to welcome a teenage girl jetting away on her journey of self-discovery. My nest might be empty, but my heart is full.

We hear the news about MH17, courtesy of a New York Times email alert, shortly after arriving home. After a few calculations, we realize that J’s airplane would have been traveling through the same corridor as MH17 at about the same time. I perch on the sofa, my eyes glued to CNN, listening to media disaster music, while talking heads and “aviation experts” take turns guessing why the plane had crashed. It quickly becomes clear it has been shot down. J’s East China Air flight, it turns out—thank goodness for computer flight-tracking sites—made a fast left turn and headed north at the time of the incident, cruising over Finland to get to China, flying far away from that particular geographical pocket of bloated and power hungry men with rocket launchers.

I know my daughter is safe. Still, thinking of mothers who put their children on MH17 that afternoon, I find it difficult to breathe for the rest of the day. It is summer holiday in Europe. Children leave home, they go on vacations, they take gap years, they volunteer, they explore. We encourage them to go because we want to believe it’s safe out there. And they trust us. They trust us.

Today I watch CNN again as Dutch soldiers, many of them teenagers themselves, carry caskets from airplane to hearse, one by one, in a carefully choreographed ballet of grief. Their military precision suggests a semblance of order in a chaotic world, their meticulousness seems almost exaggerated after the bedlam of the last few days. The King and Queen of Holland, sitting in stiff chairs on the tarmac, pay tribute to the dead, along with dignitaries from the home countries of other victims. The commentator is quick to point out that no one knows which body is in which casket—the remains have yet to be identified—and which passengers, days after the tragedy, might still be lying in a field of Ukrainian sunflowers.

We send our children out into the world. We fret and sweat and worry that they won’t come back. It’s not safe anywhere, we think. They could be shot in an American movie theater or gun-downed in a school massacre. They might be swept away by an Indonesian Tsunami or crushed by a weakened roof in a Baltic snowstorm. They might be maimed by attack dogs or fall in with a bad crowd. I tell myself to calm down—assorted bad guys lurk on every corner, from downtown Pittsburgh to downtown Torez. It’s just as dangerous to keep our kids at home, isn’t it?

“Be careful,” I say. “Be careful out there.” Every mother I know says the same thing to her children when they leave home—for an hour, for a year, forever.

The Dutch soldiers are still loading caskets into big black cars. I imagine the mothers of the children lost on MH17, out of camera range, numb with grief, wondering which of the hundreds of caskets belongs to them. Right now there is no way of knowing, no way to claim their precious and decomposed bodies, no way to turn back time, no way to say goodbye.

The children, I think. The children. They shot our children out of the sky.

6.Airplane.Sunflowers

Fly Away Home

I can’t remember the last time all four of us flew together. I blame busy school schedules, limited budgets, rising ticket prices. I fly for business six or seven times a year, my husband flies often for work—he was in the USA last week, Ireland right now, Poland in August. The kids fly without worry, just like I did at their age. Between the two of them they have circled the world a couple of times in the last year. Hop on, hop off. Avoid the nachos in Atlanta, order the vegan meal in advance, arrange for the airport pick-up service in Dubai, do anything you can to get the emergency exit row seat.

Wear layers. You never know when you’ll be cold or hot.

I worry. Who doesn’t? Seems like there’s an airplane tragedy every month. I try to look the other way, but I can’t. I recall the words of my first flight companion, the man with the sour cigarette breath and the pesky hands: “Makes you wonder what the hell we’re doing up here.”

Maybe we’re tempting fate. Maybe we’re addicted to new adventure. Ancient cities, sun-soaked beaches, spacious skies, or lands with other charms call out to us. We respond by stalking Expedia, finding the cheapest fare, and jumping on a plane.

Maybe we hate to fly, but we need to make a living, so off we go, collecting worthless frequent flyer miles and foreign coins.

Maybe we’re just trying to get back to the people we love.

Do I miss epic transcontinental flights with manic toddlers on my lap? Do I miss exploding diapers and Matchbox cars and bad in-flight movies about volcanoes? Maybe a little. Maybe not so much. But here’s what I do miss about flying with my kids: I miss the thrill of the plane lifting its heavy feet from the tarmac, the sensation that any destination is within our reach, the absolute certainty that we’ll get there together, a flock of Goldsbys defying gravity and heading home.

***

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 soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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Across the Water

Here’s a song I wrote many years ago with Peter Fessler. I’ve spent a couple of decades flying back and forth from the USA to Europe. It’s never easy, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

5.Airplane.Bird

Across the Water

Lyric: Robin Meloy Goldsby

Music: Peter Fessler

Across the water you stare,

You’ve saved enough for the fare,

Waiting your turn, you dare yourself to leave,

Across the water you’ll sail,

You can always come home again.

Across the water you gaze,

Into a tunnel of haze,

Standing on shore, and trying not to cry,

Across the water you’ll sail,

You can always come home again.

Sailing away,

Sailing away . . .

Across the water you row,

Into the sunrise you go,

Picking up speed, the wake grows ever strong,

Across the water you sail,

But you’ll never come home again.

Sailing away,

Sailing away . . .

Beach Song

9.Morocco

Morocco: Photo by Julia Goldsby

I love the ocean. The most musical of earth’s components, its pulse—rhythmic yet unpredictable—floods my soul with hope, quenches my desire for a wider perspective, and washes away the grit and grime of a landlocked life. In my fifty-seven years, I’ve spent time on beaches all over the world, not because I’m a Birkin-toting, stiletto-heeled jet setter with beach side chateaux in Malibu and St. Tropez, but because I’m the daughter of a musician, I’m married to a musician, and I’m a musician myself. Music, for most of my life, has provided me with prepaid tickets to the destinations of my dreams. Coastal concerts, harbor happenings, beach bashes, seaside shindigs—we’ve played for them all. Short of being the world’s oldest Baywatch lifeguard, I can’t think of any better way to finance my addiction to salt water and sand. Here are a few of my waterlogged memories.

 1966: Miami Beach

My father plays drums in a Dixieland band for a Teamster convention in Florida. He takes us along for a two week vacation. I eat frogs’ legs at an outdoor luau at the Americana Hotel, with a picture of Jimmy Hoffa projected (eight stories high!) on a wall of the hotel. My dad’s band wears red and white striped shirts and straw hats. I like the tuba player.

“Who is this Jimmy Hoffa?” I ask my dad.

“He’s the boss,” says my dad. “He’s the reason we’re here.”

I become a big Jimmy Hoffa fan. After all, he got me to Miami. Frogs’ legs, it turns out, really do taste like chicken.

During the day I hang out on the beach with my brother and sister. Because we spend so much time underwater, my mother dresses us in matching neon tank suits so she can see our pert behinds on the surface of the bright blue sea. After two days of this, even my eyeballs are sunburned, and I have to go to dinner in the fancy hotel wearing eye patches. Fearful of looking like a pirate, I place my mother’s big black sunglasses over the patches—a Jackie Kennedy meets Bluebeard look that I’m sure will pass for Miami Beach-chic. I am temporarily blind and cannot enjoy the 4th of July fireworks that night. It doesn’t matter. All I care about is getting back into the water the next day. My sister and I play a game at water’s edge. We hold hands as the waves break over us, determined to cling to each other no matter what. We roll back and forth, as sand scrapes our private parts and salt stings our eyes. We laugh and hold on tight. A lifeguard yells at us for pretending we are drowning. We’re perfecting our synchronized swimming skills. Some might call it synchronized drowning. We’re having fun.

My father catches a fish while we’re flipping over each other in the water and throws it at us. It tangles in my hair. I develop Fear of Fish and will spend the next few decades terrified of underwater critters.

1.Beach

1969: Conneaut Lake

My father books a summer job in a resort area a few hours away from home. We spend three months in a lakeside cottage next to Conneaut Lake, a dark blue body of water in Western Pennsylvania. Not an ocean, but it might as well be. I live on a sand-covered pier, swimming back and forth to a raft anchored twenty meters away. Too many speedboats churn the water and rock the raft. My sister and I smear ourselves with baby-oil and iodine so we can tan faster. By August, I resemble a rotisserie chicken with strong triceps. My hair turns silver. I hope that Davy Gallagher, the bronze lifeguard who looks like Ivy League Tarzan, will notice me. He does not. But a boy named Timmy Catcher catches me. We dance around each other and play splash games in the lake. Despite rumors of snapping turtles I learn to water ski and get pretty good at it, except for one instance when my hair gets caught in a tow rope and I almost drown.

I worry about those snapping turtles.

In the evenings, I brush pier sand out of my hair and string tiny love beads into necklaces that no one will ever wear. Timmy Catcher kisses me. Just once.

 1976-1983: Nantucket Island

I arrive on Nantucket Island with a dozen suitcases, packed mostly with books and bikinis. I plan to be a waitress, but, two weeks before Memorial Day I land a job playing the piano in a bar. What a thing! I can spend the summer on a New England beach and get paid to play the piano. During the day, I bask in the sun on beaches called Madaket or Dionis or Nobadeer. As far as I’m concerned, any beach named by Indians is the real deal. At night I put on a glittery tube top and a long skirt and play Carole King songs. I’m wave-tossed, sun-kissed, and boy crazy. A swain named Joe steals my heart and teaches me how to surf fish. I am the only female member of the Kamikaze Water Ski Club, a Nantucket Yacht Club sub-group founded by the stoned teenage children of various Titans of Industry. I worry about sharks and other fish with large teeth. This motivates me to avoid falling when I’m water skiing. I perfect a one-ski beach landing after I spot a sand shark swimming too close to shore.

My favorite bikini is white.

I will return to Nantucket every summer for many years. The romance with Joe fades, but my love affair with the island hangs tight. The rhythm of the waves seems like an external heartbeat, nature’s metronome, an urgent throb that counterpoints human instinct.

By the end of my first summer, the subtle pulse of the waves syncs with my own rhythm. I am hooked. The sand shark never gets me.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Sligo, Ireland: Photo by Julia Goldsby

1983: Haiti

I travel now and then to Haiti where I play the piano for upscale visitors to a fancy-pants hotel—I’m the featured entertainment in a Third World cocktail lounge. Baby Doc is still in office and the atmosphere feels tense, the resort air smug and sticky. When I’m lucky, I get a lift to Ibo Beach. The  road to Ibo is lined with potholes, rocks, scrambling chickens, and artists attempting to sell colorful paintings for a dollar or two. It makes me sad.

After an hour-long dusty ride in an old Cadillac, I take an African Queen boat to Ibo Island—a slice of sun-drenched wonder in a ravaged country, a place where I can stare at the sea and imagine I live in a fair world.

A jellyfish stings me and a Haitian woman treats the sting with vinegar and shaving cream. It burns, but not for long.

I eat too many mangoes.

Muscat, Oman Photo by Julia Goldsby

Muscat, Oman
Photo by Julia Goldsby

1984: Cat Cay, The Bahamas

I fly from my Third World gig to a private island populated by rich Republicans and wild turkeys. Between piano sessions at Bloody Mary brunches and Happy Happy Happy Hour whiskey tastings, I walk pristine beaches, stare at sparkling water and try to figure out who I am. I belong on a beach, but maybe not this one.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Photo by Julia Goldsby

1991: Princeville, Kauai

After being fired from my seven-year piano engagement at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan (and replaced by a tuxedo-clad mannequin at a player piano), I fly to Hawaii with my husband, John. Kauai seems a little distant, but my sister has offered us a place to stay. I cash in my American Airlines frequent flyer miles (all those trips to Haiti) so we can fly for free.

The Kauai beaches, manicured but still rough around the edges, remind me of everything I’ve been missing. My husband and I slide down a steep hillside to visit Secret Beach, where huge boulders interrupt long stretches of white sand. We do secret things on Secret Beach. Then we almost kill ourselves climbing back up the hill.

I attempt to overcome my fear of snorkeling when I watch small children and old people frolic in shallow water, chattering about the colorful varmints swimming among us. I hate knowing there are living things in the water with me, but it’s time to overcome Fear of Fish and get with the program. I don a mask and flippers and force myself to enjoy the lovely residents of the sea as they glide past me.

I hate this. I do. Oh look. Electric blue, bright yellow, there’s one with stripes. Isn’t this fun? What if I see a stingray? Or a shark? Or, God forbid, an eel?

Something that looks like Karl Lagerfeld with gills drifts under my right hand.

Very nice. God, I hate this. Look there—a group of tiny orange fish with spikes. Are they following me? Do they bite? Are there Piranha in Hawaii?

While my rigid body tries to enjoy the underwater fin fashion show, a huge dog—I will find out later it’s a Great Dane named Junior—jumps into the surf and begins swimming towards me. When Junior swims into my line of vision, I panic, lose all sense of reason, and imagine I am being attacked by a Kauai Monster Dog Fish. I take one look at his large choppers and churning paws, and I’m sure I’m about to die one of those long, slow, Jaws kind of deaths, where my body flies into the air, the ocean’s froth turns bright red from carnage, and everybody screams and vomits. I forget how to swim and try to run out of the water on my flippers. Junior continues to have fun.

My husband and sister laugh for hours. I swear I will never snorkel again.

My sister makes a bra out of coconut shells and does a dance we call the “Big Butt Hula.”

679887_4827350399879_205751058_o

Tel Aviv: Photo by Ruben Bauer

1993: Montauk

John plays for an upscale summer party in Montauk, Long Island. We use his salary to finance a few days in a seedy hotel on the beach and hang out with our nine-month old baby, Curtis. Perched on a blanket, we encourage him to play in the sand. He hates sand. He throws it and cries and stays on the blanket. The only thing that soothes him is his father’s baritone version of “Blue Skies,” accompanied by me doing a stupid dance. We have buckets and shovels, but he’s not interested in toys. None of this sandcastle stuff for him. In an effort to get away from the beach, he learns to walk. One step, then two. Not running towards the water, but away from it. Clearly he does not take after my side of the family. Or maybe he already has Fear of Fish.

Montauk, Long Island

Montauk, Long Island

*****

We move to Europe in 1994. Our kids each learn to swim at an early age and, in spite of our son’s dislike of sand, we take occasional seaside holidays whenever we can afford it, or whenever someone pays us to go. We scald our feet traversing the dunes of Grand Canaria, and teach the kids how to body surf in the freezing North Sea on the Belgian coast. We encourage them not to stare at topless sunbathers on the Cote D’Azur, and to wear sturdy swim shoes when navigating the rocky shores of Cornwall. Carrying on with the Goldsby-Rawsthorne-Meloy tradition of “singing for our supper,” the kids have visited some of the world’s most impressive beaches while taking part in educational trips, volunteer opportunities, or music exchange groups. They’ve walked on beaches I’ve never seen, beaches that belong in their memories, not mine.

Slathered in sunscreen and decades past my best bikini years, I remember sitting on the sand and watching my kids when they were little, holding hands and leaping through the surf into deeper and deeper water. I remember the game I once played with my sister. Never let go, no matter what.

Respect the water, dive under the waves, and when you’re older, wiser, and more tired than you want to be, remember there’s magic at the beach. Fall in love a few times. Get a suntan. Feel the salt in your eyes. Encounter a Dog Fish. You might avoid the frogs’ legs buffet, but by all means, do secret things on a stretch of sand where the roar of the water is louder than your own voice.

“Get to the beach,” I tell them. “As often as you can.”

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Mykonos: Photo by Stacey Papaioannou and Julia Goldsby

*****

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 soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!

Curves

7.Shape_Moon

Crescent shapes please me: a sliver of moon, a warm croissant, a freshly manicured fingertip. I enjoy a raised eyebrow, a half smile, a bunch of bananas, the soft spot on the top of my foot where the shoe stops and my skin begins—toe cleavage, I think the fashionistas call it.

A good circle brings me joy: a perfect white plate that holds my not-so-perfect dinner; the silver-blue irises of my daughter’s eyes; a symmetrical pancake I’ve cooked myself; a bagel, unadorned. I love my wedding ring—three circles of gold braided together—one for you, one for me, one for us; I cheer for the circle of life, the family circle, the vicious circle (as long as the tail being chased isn’t mine). I marvel at the musician’s circle of fifths, run circles around myself, come full circle, and circle my wagons when I feel threatened. I circle back to start over and circle forward to find my way back. Loops define my life.

2.Shape_Trees

I should mention here that I like to eat pie, my favorite toy as a child was a Spirograph, and that I’ve been known to bribe travelers to bring Pittsburgh’s Eat n’ Park smiley face cookies to me on trips to Europe.

Spheres also deserve attention: beach balls and crystal balls, globes—the old fashioned kind that spin, blueberries, clear glass marbles, iridescent bubbles, an Italian peach, a home-grown tomato in August, emerald-green beads, a hand-painted Christmas bauble splattered with glitter. Snowmen. Pearls. A falling star.

Crescent, round, spherical. Curves dictate my triumphs and failures. Nothing against the straight line—the zipper is truly an efficient invention—but give me a meandering stream, a velvet bow, a cliché rainbow, and I’m hooked. A smudged or muted plot line that takes a subtle twist is one I’ll follow with joy. I want a slope (not the slippery kind), a long and winding road (less-travelled or not), a twisting path leading to an arched tunnel, a feathery cloud muting the harsh noon light. Give me the curl of a breaking wave, the soft curve of my son’s broad shoulders when he returns home, the drape of a girl’s hair when it sweeps across her forehead, a baby’s clenched fist, the bowed tail of an orange tabby cat, the bent bough of the cherry tree hanging over my skylight.

Shapes show up in sound, too. A guitar, an acoustic bass, a grand piano, a cello—curved instruments that make round sounds when played with grace. I listen to Ravel or Debussy and I hear life coiling around itself. I fall into the spiral harmonic underpinnings of Maria Schneider’s music and travel through an aural serpentine, an oval labyrinth of enchantment. The music I love most makes me feel like I’m inside a Slinky on a steep and narrow staircase, somersaulting over myself, getting where I need to go, but taking a scenic route that includes flips, back-bends, and an occasional coin-shaped bruise.

A career can take on a rounded shape. As a young artist I tried to travel efficiently from Point A to Point B. I craved logic in my life, but life kept throwing me, yes, curveballs. Confused, I curled into myself and rolled away from the pitch. I ran a good race, but usually, when approaching the finish line, I tripped over my Jimmy Choos and ended up with scraped knees and a brush-burned heart. I ignored my beautiful toe cleavage and, in my haste,  snubbed more than a few perfectly round, splash-worthy puddles. It took a decade or so, but I realized the logical way to live—the straight-line way—would forever elude me. I discovered I could have a fulfilling career as long as I took my time, bypassed  clogged intersections, and took a roundabout, more scenic route—one including suspension bridges, tree swings, and Ferris wheels.

Sometimes the Ferris wheel gets stuck, but at least while I’m waiting for the repair gal to show up, I can lean back and take in the view.

5.Shape. Ferris_Wheel

I’m a slow traveler, but moving in ever-widening circles gives me time to heed the curvy things I missed the first time around: braided wreaths made of naked vines, for instance, or slightly scary shadows on windy days. I cherish a landscaped line of tulips snaking towards a lake, the nape of a girl’s neck, the swell of a woman’s breast where it meets her rib cage, an eight-year old’s handmade Valentine, the scalloped lace on my grandmother’s piano shawl.

My body plays along with the shape of things. Less angular than I used to be, curvy and yielding, I listen to music that bends in the middle, observe the soft colors of an early summer twilight, taste grains of salt in the silvery-blue ocean air. The world is round and so am I. In the plush shelter of a domed canopy I’ve built for myself, I rest. Visions of my rangy youth run circles around me.

***

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 soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!

The View from Here

View_Bride

It’s a Saturday night in June. I pull into the Schlosshotel Lerbach parking lot, ready to play my regular weekend piano job. Because of the World Cup football frenzy, I expect to find a half-empty castle. But since it’s the height of wedding season and there’s no stopping a determined summer bride, the hotel is buzzing with well-heeled guests all trying to have a good time, even if many of them would rather be home watching tonight’s match.

I’m not much of a sports fan, but—never one to miss an opportunity to look at grown men in Brazilian Boy Scout uniforms—I’ve been digging the various team outfits. The players look adorable in their multicolored tricots and matching knee socks, and the German coaches, in their lavender silk knit sweaters and perfectly tailored navy blazers, look as if they might be getting ready to play a jazz duo gig at a chichi supper club owned by Calvin Klein. Who’s their stylist? Sign me up.

I’ll be playing in the main hall tonight. With five minutes to go until my start time, I throw my purse into the back room, change my shoes, adjust the height of the piano bench, grab a glass of water, and head out to the rose garden to see what’s going on.

The bride has hired a solo saxophonist to play for her two-hour predinner cocktail party on the terrace. As much as I like the saxophone, I’m not sure that 120 minutes of solo sax is such a great idea. But I admire the bride’s resolve to present something a little different. I know the saxophonist, a spunky jazz musician named Thorsten, who’s blowing like crazy even though it’s boiling hot outside. Thorsten spots me in the doorway and salutes while continuing to play the sax with one hand. Cool guy. It’s a wedding gig, so no one is listening to him. Well, really, only about fifty percent of the guests are not listening to him. The other fifty percent have sneaked into the bar to watch the soccer game. Ghana is playing Uruguay tonight. This is a match that makes me wish all countries would adopt the American custom of marching bands at halftime. Imagine a Ghanaian marching band or a drill team from Uruguay. Swinging.

In the banquet room a DJ is setting up to play after-dinner dance music—probably a mix of Gloria Gaynor, Village People, and Donna Summer. I’ll be long gone by then, but my coworkers, the hardest-working bunch of young adults in Nordrhein-Westfalen, will be pouring and serving champagne until daybreak.

Time to start playing. I sit down at the grand piano in the lobby and begin my set with Mancini’s “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet.” I try to block out the saxophone sound leaking from the garden. Not bad. I’ll be fine if I play loudly and don’t take too many dramatic pauses.

Boom!

Oh no. The DJ in the dining room is conducting a last-minute sound check, and Celine Dion’s voice blasts through the lobby and bounces off the walls. The DJ cranks it up. My God. Does he think this is a football stadium in Cape Town?

I believe your speakers are working, I want to shout. I wait for Celine to stop braying, but she keeps singing about how her heart is going on and on and on. I ask our intrepid banquet manager, Herr Ries, to put an end to the sound check before Ms. Dion can modulate to an even higher key and my brain explodes. I don’t know what Herr Ries does to the DJ—maybe he conks him on the head with an ice bucket—but the music stops abruptly. I continue with “Romeo and Juliet.”

The wedding guests float in and out of the lobby. I check out the blushing bride, the little boys in their starched white shirts, and the fresh-as-spring young ladies in their sorbet-colored evening gowns. One dress, a golden-vanilla strapless creation, makes me wonder if I should revamp my Piano Girl wardrobe, but to wear this dress I would need to lose fifteen pounds, have breast reduction surgery and a tummy tuck, and give up playing the piano. Better to stick with the German football coach wardrobe. It’s more my style these days.

I play Bach’s Air on a G-String. Bad title, but, really, it’s a lovely piece of music.

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The service staff, smiling and carrying enormous trays of crystal glasses, glides through the lobby, bypassing clumps of guests and dodging the children who dash back and forth in a chocolate-induced race to the front door, where they will be given more chocolate before they streak back to the other side.

I play some music from The Wonderful World of Amelie. A sturdy woman in a lace mother-of-the-bride dress smiles at me. I wonder if she actually is the mother of the bride, or just a look-alike.

On top of the piano is a silver urn holding a cluster of eleven dark pink orchids. I know it’s eleven, because I count them. God, I love this place—beautiful colors, beautiful clothes, beautiful people. The large window over the staircase diffuses the light and directs it to the lobby, where it hangs in a soft golden stupor. The guests around me dash through the beams, unaware that, for a few moments this evening, they’ve been airbrushed by the setting sun.

Two men, on their way into the bar to check on Ghana’s progress, stop a waitress and ask if they can exchange their champagne for beer.

Four preteen boys discover the antique kicker table in the corner of the lobby. It’s a low-tech toy with little hand-operated soccer men. Four players can play at once, two on each side. It’s hardly an attraction for a five-star hotel, but this table, made of burled wood and featuring hand-painted players, is more of a hip World Cup art statement than a recreational device.

Klak, klak, klak, klak, klak.

The boys have gathered around the table, and the sound of the little wooden men kicking the ball echoes through the lobby, along with the shouts and cheers of the kids. They’re cute for about three and a half minutes, at which point the noise reaches an almost unbearable level. Where are their parents?

Klak, klak, klak, klak, klak.

I’m playing “Moon River.”

“TOR!!!!” one of the boys shouts.

I can hear Thorsten playing a blues in a key that clashes with my song.

Klak, klak, klak, klak, klak.

The DJ cranks up Celine again. Her heart is still going on.

“TOR!!!!” the boys yell again.

Monsieur Thomann, the maître d’ of the gourmet restaurant on one side of the lobby, peeks through the French doors. He smiles at the boys. Monsieur, the poster child for graciousness, always keeps his temper in check when he’s around the guests. He’s particularly kind to children.

Bonsoir!” he says to the boys.

“TOR!!!” they scream.

Mon Dieu,” says Monsieur.

Klak, klak, klak, klak, klak.

I give up. I do not blame the boys. They are eleven. In two years they’ll be sullen and subdued and doing everything they can to look like gangsters. Let them have their fun. I go to the bar, sip a glass of very nice champagne, watch Ghana score a goal, and thank my lucky stars that I have a job. It’s usually so peaceful in this place. One night of extreme noise never hurt anyone, least of all a musician.

***

Fifteen minutes later I slip behind the grand piano to begin my second set. The lobby is blissfully quiet. I can see from the piano bench that most of our guests have been seated in their respective dining rooms. Thorsten has finished playing his two-hour saxophone extravaganza, Ghana has won the match and the television has been turned off, the DJ is eating an expensive dinner until it’s time for the Titans of Industry disco contest to begin, and the kicker boys have gone to the lake to feed the swans. Monsieur assures me that the kicker ball has mysteriously disappeared for the remainder of the evening.

I play through a selection of original music, songs I like to break out when there’s no one listening except me. They are pretty songs from my younger years, with girly-girl names like “Twilight” and “Peaceful Harbor.” I close my eyes and play and play and play. I pretend like I’m somewhere else. It’s what I know how to do.

Zoom, zoom.

I look up and see a vehicle the size of the Popemobile rumbling through the lobby. Maybe it is the Popemobile; this castle is known for celebrity sightings. Oh no. It’s an extremely large electric wheelchair driven by a very assertive-looking middle-aged man. Like most good hotels in Germany, Lerbach accommodates disabled guests, but this is no regular wheelchair—it’s huge. The man, who is quite tall, is standing in the vehicle, making it less of a chair and more of a slanted bed with wheels, straps, and a motor. His feet are about at my eye level; the rest of him towers over everything else in the lobby.

I’m playing a piece of mine called “Lerbach Nocturne.” I try not to stare at Wheelchair Guy, but I guess if he’s riding around in a Popemobile he’s used to people gawking at him. A couple of stares from a curious pianist surely won’t send him off the deep end. I’m usually good at being discreet, so I avert my eyes and continue playing. But I can’t stop looking. I’m stunned by the size of this contraption. Several concerned adults chase after him, but they have trouble keeping up.

Yikes! He almost took out one of the banquet waiters on that last turn.

Zoom, zoom.

I decide that when he passes the piano I will greet him cheerfully, the same way I greet all of our other guests, even though most of our other guests are not riding through the lobby in wheelchairs the size of Hummers. Some of them own Hummers, but they usually keep them in the parking lot next to the smaller cars.

Did he just run over that woman’s foot?

Zoom.

Monsieur, who will be seating Wheelchair Guy and his family in the restaurant, stops in his tracks when he sees the size of the vehicle. He smiles, welcomes the guests, then spins on his heels to begin rearranging the restaurant furniture. It’s a challenge: a party of four that needs space for sixteen, arriving right in the middle of a sold-out Saturday night.

“Did they call in advance?” I ask one of my coworkers as she passes by the piano.

“Yes,” she says. “But they said they were bringing a wheelchair, not a tractor with a hydraulic lift system. The poor guy has to eat standing up. He can’t bend. At all.”

“Oh no,” I say. Words fail me. Now the size of the vehicle makes sense.

I’m still playing “Lerbach Nocturne.”

“We would like to have drinks on the terrace,” says a member of Wheelchair Guy’s party. “So we can enjoy the view.”

“I would suggest you have cocktails here in the lobby,” says one of the managers. “There’s indeed a beautiful view of the park from the bar terrace, but there are steps onto the terrace, so you won’t be able to get outside from this direction.”

Unless you have a crane, I think. It makes me sad. What a thing—a view that remains invisible because of a few steps. Just as Monsieur turns to talk to the other members of the party, Wheelchair Guy, with what I perceive as a look of defiance—he’s so high up I can’t see him all that well—steps on the gas and speeds into the bar.

“Good evening,” I say as he flies past the piano.

Behind me, I hear a tray of glasses crash to the floor. Then I hear another voice—maybe the bartender’s—patiently explain that this part of terrace is not wheelchair accessible. There’s no room for a three-point turn in the bar, so Wheelchair Guy, pissed off, backs up at about eighty miles an hour.

Zoom.

It’s as if he’s being shot out of a cannon backwards. The Popemobile whips into the lobby and crashes into the grand piano so hard that it lurches sideways and pins me to the wall.

Mon Dieu!” says Monsieur.

“Help,” I say. The piano is jammed against my upper thigh (thank goodness for fat). My upper arms and elbows are flush against the wall, and my wrists and hands are flapping like little birds in the air over the keys.

I reach down with the tips of my fingers and play the final chords, because, well, I have to end the song. The piano is wobbling and Wheelchair Guy doesn’t realize that his Popemobile fender is hooked onto the underside of the piano lid. He jams his shift stick to forward, then reverse, then forward, then reverse. The piano rocks back and forth, and I am certain it is going to crash to the ground, taking me, Wheelchair Guy, Monsieur, and six waiters with it.

“Straight ahead, drive straight ahead, s’il vous plait,” says Monsieur to Wheelchair Guy in a firm but pleasant voice. “Straight ahead! Straight ahead!”

“Robin, don’t move,” says one of the managers. Like I have a choice.

Zoom. Reverse. Zoom. Reverse.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Straight ahead!” says Monsieur. “S’il vous plait!

Wheelchair Guy looks down at me. I look up at him. Neither one of us much likes what we see.

Finally, like a desperate mother lifting a Volkswagen off the legs of a trapped child, Monsieur lifts the piano enough to unhinge the Popemobile. It races forward and nearly collides with the tea cart. For a moment I think I’ve escaped having my legs crushed by a grand piano only to be hit with the world’s largest samovar, which is, of course, full of boiling water. But Wheelchair Guy misses the tea cart. Instead, he zigzags to the entrance of the restaurant, followed by the newly appointed Popemobile Task Force, a group of employees designated to prevent more castle damage. A lot can go wrong in a gourmet restaurant, especially when a disgruntled disabled man with a Hells Angels mentality starts zooming around during the soup course.

I am still pinned to the wall. A member of Wheelchair Guy’s entourage, a lovely young woman in a perfect black dress, returns to the piano.

“Has the piano been harmed?” she asks, avoiding my eyes.

“I don’t know,” I squeak. “I’ll have to unpin myself before I can check out the damage.” I wonder why she doesn’t ask me if I’m injured. But she hangs out with Wheelchair Guy. Maybe a pianist with a bruised thigh isn’t such a big deal.

I heave the piano forward enough to slide out from behind, and limp around to the other side. Amazingly, only a small chunk of wood is missing. The legs are stable. I’ve always claimed this Yamaha Conservatory Grand is a warhorse; now I know it’s true. I wonder if the Popemobile has a dent, a ding, or at least a couple of good battle scars.

A bridesmaid approaches the piano. “Can you tell me where the ladies’ room is?” she asks.

“Downstairs,” I say.

“Oh! Are you the piano lady? Can you play the theme from Titanic for me?”

“Actually, I’ve finished playing for this evening,” I say. I rub my leg. It hurts.

“But you can’t stop! I just got here.”

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll be glad to play Titanic for you.” I sit back down at the piano, start the piece, and she leaves to go to the ladies’ room.

That’s enough music for me tonight. I leave the castle through the bar exit, step onto the terrace, and take in the lush June evening. The trees droop in the weighty heat, but the roses seem plump and content. I walk down a stone staircase to the little lake, where a determined black swan paddles to the other side. Determined. We’re all so determined—to have fun, to win the game, to make music, to look good, to get where we want to go.

In the distance I can hear the thump, thump, thump of the DJ’s stadium-sized bass speakers. I wonder if the wedding guests are already gearing up for the Electric Slide or the YMCA dance. I wonder if they’re celebrating in Ghana. I wonder if Wheelchair Guy is enjoying his gourmet meal, and if the other guests in the dining room are succeeding in their efforts to not stare at him. I wonder if those little boys are now at the front desk, begging the manager to give them another ball. I wonder if Wheelchair Guy ever kicked a soccer ball or played a piano or ate a dinner while sitting in a normal chair. I wonder if he ever danced, or paddled across a pond, or held a glass of champagne.

I skip a stone over the dark green pond and watch each ripple dissolve into the next. When the surface becomes calm again, I look down and see my watery reflection.

Then, because I can, I walk away.

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“Sally the Duck,” by Julia Goldsby

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 soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!

I Am Not Tom Wolfe: Celebrating Ten Years of Piano Girl

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New York City, 2005, Piano Girl launch!

Rewind: 2005, Book Expo America, New York City

I am not Tom Wolfe, although I do own a white suit. But today I am wearing a pink dress, purchased this morning during a panicked twenty minute shopping spree at Anthropolgie. What does an author wear, anyway? I’ve got the Piano Girl wardrobe covered, but I can’t very well sport a black evening gown at eleven in the morning. Tom Wolfe stands next to me, and he’s wearing the suit. He looks just as he appears on his book jackets—eccentric, a little arrogant, foppish. I’m bonding with him, even though he has cast nary an eye in my direction. His agent, his publisher, and two or three other well-dressed minions hover nearby. Perhaps one of them keeps the suit clean.

I don’t have an entourage or a minion with me, but I do have lovely Nina by my side. Nina is the PR director for Backbeat Books, my publisher.

We’re guests at Book Expo America, held at the Javits Center in New York City, a convention hall with bad florescent lighting, rock-hard floors, and acres of space for publishers to hawk the newest additions to their catalogs. Because Piano Girl has been awarded a Publishers Weekly Starred Review, I’ve been invited to take part in the traditional Autograph Circle, a name that brings to mind large gatherings of businessmen playing African hand drums. I’m not far off—there’s a lot of chest thumping going on here today. The Autograph Circle, as far as I can tell, offers an efficient way for publishers to create buzz. It also gives conference attendees a chance to score free books from their favorite authors. I’m flattered to be in the small group of authors selected for this event, but a little concerned about the set-up. As a debut author, I’m hardly anyone’s favorite anything.

Writers sit behind podiums next to stacks of their books. A long empty aisle stretches out in front of each author. When the bell rings—ping!— a gate opens and loyal fans swoop down each aisle. One at a time, they meet the favored author, and collect the coveted book, along with the author’s signature. A fine system, assuming one has loyal fans.

“Nina, no one knows me. This is my first book. It’s about playing the piano in hotel bars. The people who like me are currently circling the Marriott Marquis bar, slurping down pina coladas, knocking back martinis, and eating pretzel nubs. Who will be in my line? No one!”

“Don’t be silly,” Nina says. “There’s a lot of buzz about your book. I know about buzz. And besides, that pink dress is, like, perfect. You might want to check your lipstick, though. It’s getting cakey. But really, I love the dress.”

“No match for the white suit,” I say.

“I know,” she says. “Isn’t Tom just dreamy?”

We’ve got Piano Girl books piled high on a table. I can’t imagine who will want them. Maybe the people I wrote about? Tempest Storm, the Gay Baron, Hans the International Tenor, Grandpa Bookie Brown, Roy Boy? They’re busy, dead, or too drunk to care. Tom Wolfe has sold millions of books. I’ve yet to sell my first copy. And what’s all this nonsense about buzz, buzz, buzz? As far as I can tell, the only buzz we’ve created occurred yesterday afternoon, when Backbeat hired a bartender to stand in front of the Piano Girl display and serve happy hour Blue Hawaiian cocktails to anyone willing to talk to me. People lined up for the blue drinks, not for the book, but, hey, buzz is buzz.

Today, for the Autograph Circle, we’re missing the cocktails. No bartender, no buzz, no crowd. At least not in my line.

The bell rings—ping!—and the gates open. Fans flood into Tom Wolfe’s aisle—a mad dash down the lane to the man in the ice cream suit. For a second I think a riot might break out as fans jostle and shove to get to the front of Tom’s line.

“Nina,” I say. “There is no one in my line. No one. I told you this was a bad idea. We need the bartender.”

“We could only afford the bartender for one day. And we’re giving away free books. Isn’t that enough?”

“Evidently not.”

“Look, don’t panic. Sit there and smile,” Nina says. “I‘ll think of something.”

Nina “Buzz” Lesowitz always thinks of something; she’s beyond resourceful. But today, I’m doubtful. Hundreds of people propel themselves—human scud missiles—towards various authors. But my lane looks like Death Valley at the Javits Center, a parched canyon of solitude.

Wait! A solitary figure ambles down the aisle toward my desk. Waddles, actually. Is she limping?

“Look!” says Nina. “A fan! See? You have a fan!”

The aisle stretches a good fifty yards. I have to squint to see my fan. The woman draws closer. I’d recognize that walk anywhere.

“Nina, that’s no fan.”

“Of course it is,” says Nina.

“No it’s not,” I say. “That’s Sue.”

“Sue who?”

Sue, that’s who. She’s in Piano Girl. The college student with rigatoni stains on her sweatshirt? The philosophy major? I didn’t write very nice things about her.”

“Who cares,” says Nina. “Sue is in your line. We love Sue! Sue is our best friend. Sue is your fan.”

“Nina, she might be here to kill me. Look, she’s got that Kathy Bates Misery gleam in her eyes. She might have a baseball bat in her NPR tote bag.”

Misery was a great film.”

“Nina! What should I do?” Sue is gaining ground and she might be packing heat. I look like a stuffed author—a fan-less target, a literary bullseye. Maybe if I remain very still, Sue will think I’m either a memoir-writing taxidermy specimen or made of wax. Maybe she’ll walk away.

“Stay here and talk to our friend Sue while I recruit some more fans.”

“Nina! Wait!” I’m scared to stay here by myself. And I don’t think it’s possible to recruit fans. Either they’re fans or they’re not, right? But Nina has fled into the crowd, poaching fans from other authors and bribing them to step over to my aisle. Take a walk on the wild side. What’s she promising them? Drinks? Cash? Sexual favors? I almost don’t care. A few of my new fans begin to trickle towards me. But first I must deal with Sue.

“Welcome, Sue! Wow, what a delight to see you.”

“Hello, Robin.”

“So! Sue! It has been, how long?”

“Twenty-six and a half years. Loved Piano Girl. I got an advance copy,” she says. Her eyes shift back and forth. I wonder what she has in that tote bag. I envision a chain saw or an ice pick. Maybe a bloodied sledgehammer.

“Oh. Really? Thank you. Love your sweater.”

“Will you sign this for me?”

“Sure. So what brings you to Book Expo America?”

“I’m a publisher,” she says. “Science books.”

“Wow. Science books.” Yesterday’s rigatoni-stained college student is today’s purveyor of chemistry textbooks. There’s a lesson to be learned here, but I don’t know what it is. I wonder what kind of drinks they’re distributing upstairs at the science booth.

“Next!” yells Nina, who has returned from her fan foraging. She practically pushes Sue out of the way. Having coerced a dozen Tom Wolfe fans into my line, she sets about trying to make me look busy and successful.

“Nice to see you, Sue!” I say. Sue turns around and clumps down the exit aisle. I feel like I’m in Walmart. Clean-up, aisle four!

“Step right up,” says Nina, somehow managing to combine California élan with circus-barker barking. “Meet Robin Goldsby.”

“Hello!” I say—perhaps a tad too enthusiastically—to the next man in line. Would you like the book personalized, or with just a signature?” Nina told me most of the fans prefer a simple signature, so they can give the book away later or sell it online.

“Don’t care,” says the man. “I’m your friend Robin Spielberg’s second cousin by marriage. She told me if I didn’t show up in your line she would never talk to me again. I really wanted Tom Wolfe’s book, but I’ll settle for yours.”

“Well. Glad to be of service. I’ll be sure to tell Ms. Spielberg you stopped by. Thank you!”

“Next!” yells Nina.

It’s Harlan Ellis, my New York City music agent.

“Nina said you needed fans, ” he says. “I was trying to get the Wolfe book and she yanked me over here. Just pretend I’m a fan and sign the damn book. I’ll hang out until the line fills up.” I have lots of reasons to adore Harlan. This is just another one.

“Next!”

After Harlan leaves, I meet and greet a good fifty people, most of them disappointed spit-backs from Tom Wolfe’s line. Tom’s new book is called I Am Charlotte Simmons. My book should be called I Am Not.

“Next!”

I sign; I smile at strangers and hand each one of them a copy of Piano Girl. I don’t know whether to be happy or sad as I watch tiny pieces of my musical story escaping, one note at a time, into a crowded and noisy world. Happy seems like a good choice.

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Ten years and three books later . . . .

2015, Cologne, Germany

Ten years have passed since that crazy day. My friend Carole says if I keep writing Piano Girl stories I can call myself Piano Geezer. My literary adventure—combined with my career as a pianist—rewards me every day with new challenges, new obstacles, new ideas. Anyone in the business will tell you—working musicians have a million stories, little gems that, with a bit of polish, make for great cocktail party chatter—vaguely amusing anecdotes that cause people to giggle or guffaw or shout out, “You really should write a book.”

So I did. For better or worse I selected a handful of my finest and most idiotic moments and whipped them into a readable froth.

The publication of Piano Girl changed my life in delightful and unexpected ways. Concerts, interviews, a small but loyal group of actual fans (!)—all the things you might associate with a book that has received some critical acclaim. But that’s not why I wrote it. I wrote it because I love musicians. We lead noble lives, worthy of stories. We keep going because we have something to say. In a fragile world, musicians remain, in so many ways, unbreakable. Good for us.

If you’re thinking about writing your own book, I say go for it. Put on your bathrobe and some black socks and hole up in your office for a year. Avoid vodka if possible (it’s not). Take the risk. You never know what might happen once you release your book into the wild. You might feel intimidated. You might feel free. You might get to sit next to a United States President or play for a German Chancellor. You might get invited to the United Nations or to Paris or Rome or Oslo. You might receive letters from wonderful people and more than a few from prisoners and favor-seekers. Maybe you’ll pick up a stalker or two. You might meet a few of your idols or be reconnected with people you never wanted to see again. You might reinvent yourself, midlife, by realizing through writing, that you’ve grown up. Your mother might be proud of you; your children might be a little embarrassed (or is it the other way around?). You might do readings for full houses or empty ones, agonize over royalty payments, teach a few writing workshops, question your own judgment, work with your very own Nina, worry about what to wear to the launch party.

But forget all that. Here’s what counts: You might find you own a voice that people want to hear. A voice that you want to hear. Look! People are listening. At last. You have a few fans. Music lives in your words. Go on, buy the white suit.

**

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 soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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Life from the Other Side of the Steinway

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Piano Girl in action: Photo by Christian Reckord

It’s not always a Steinway. Sometimes it’s an ugly-looking, beautiful-sounding white Bösendorfer concert grand or a Yamaha conservatory grand with a high-gloss mirrored surface, so polished that I can see the mood of the evening staring back at me. Sometimes the instrument I play barely qualifies as a piano. Sometimes it’s an Army-surplus spinet made by a firm that is a subsidiary of a toy company. Sometimes it’s a beat-up upright piano with four broken strings—and when I press a key I can hear several distinct tones fluttering together and laughing at me with their out-of-tuneness. Sometimes it really is the perfect Steinway Model B, a seven-foot grand with a sound warm enough to make me stay at the piano forever, just listening. I play. I make music. I am the tall blond woman in the strapless cocktail dress, and I sit in the corner and play the piano.

I didn’t set out to be a cocktail pianist. But here I am, wearing something black, a little eyeliner, a little lipstick, high heels. I’m not Shirley Horn, or Diana Krall, or Marian McPartland, or Bobby Short in a blond wig. Not even close. But I work all the time and I’m pretty good at what I do.

There are many terms for my profession. I am called a cocktail pianist, a bar pianist, a hotel pianist, and a lounge pianist. I perform background music that enhances a dinner, a lunch, a chilled prosecco; or atmosphere music meant to embellish a business meeting, a wedding, an illicit affair—without getting in the way. I play music that is comforting, gentle enough to pacify, melodic enough to nudge my audience into the folds of their own memories.

I’ve spent many years underestimating the validity of my job. I’m not really a bar pianist, I tell myself, because I want to be more than that. I’m a student. I’m an actor. I’m a writer. I’m a composer. I’m a single woman living in New York City standing on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I’m a citizen of the world. I’m happy. I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m all of these things, true, true, true. But I’m able to be all of these things because playing the piano in a hotel continues to pay the bills. Now, with the wisdom of a maturity that was bound to catch up with me, I realize that being a cocktail pianist is a lovely way to make a living. It started out as a way to earn money for college. It ended up being my profession for thirty years and counting.

I play medleys of great songs and obnoxious songs and make them all sound, well, nice. Plus I’ve been questionably blessed with the ability to be polite, to smile, and to remember the first names of the customers who stray into the joints where I’m playing. These days, some of the joints are castles in Europe. I’ve traveled a long way from the Nantucket Club Car and the Redwood Motor Inn on Banksville Road in Pittsburgh where I had my first steady gigs as a teenager, but basically the scene is the same. Fancier clothes, slightly better piano, same ratio of lunatics to normal people. I play.

Sometimes I’m treated like visiting royalty from a mysterious land, flown to the job in a private jet, showered with roses, fine wine, and compliments from people whose pashmina socks cost more than my entire wardrobe. Sometimes I feel like a frazzled waitress with eighty-eight keys strapped around my neck, taking orders from drunken shoe salesmen who would prefer to see me go-go dance in a green fringed bikini on top of the piano rather than make any sense out of the instrument in front of me.

Every job presents the chance to be a musical fly on the wall—providing a piano score for life as it’s served, straight-up with a side of olives, to the droves of people who pass through the world’s bars and restaurants. Over the years I’ve been appalled, attacked, blown away by kindness, cajoled into fits of giggles, and moved to tears by the tiny dramas that unfold before my eyes and ears. I cry. I laugh. Laughter is a kind of music—the best kind. I’ve always wanted to write the score for a film. But maybe this is better. I’m writing and playing music for life, as it happens. It’s like recording live on tape, without the tape.

One day I’m eighteen years old, sitting down to play my first job. Startled, I wake up on a bright spring morning and realize that I’m forty-six, and that my entire adult life can be documented by a series of forty-minute sets and twenty-minute breaks. I fret about missed opportunities—how I’ve spent the peak years of my life behind an instrument that fights back more often than it complies with my wishes—and the way real time slips away from me like runaway triplets at a children’s piano recital.

I have moments of artistic satisfaction. Many of them. On a typical night—in between requests and idle chit-chat with guests from, say, Helsinki, or Bogata, or Hackensack—I play the music that I want to play, the way I want to play it. I feel peaceful, exhilarated, and sure that I’ve chosen the right profession. It’s almost a magical feeling, and I allow it to sweep me away. Then some drunk-on-his-ass sales rep from a surgical supply company sends me a cocktail napkin with a request for “Memory” from Cats, a twenty-dollar bill, and—as an afterthought—his room number. I check out the man who has sent the note. He is sprawled on the burgundy velvet banquette, smoking a cigar and drinking a brandy. He looks like a cross between a sloth and a walrus. I play the song, keep the money, and make sure a taxi is waiting for me at quitting time.

I go home, slightly amused, a little disgusted. But I come back the next day to play again. In fact, I look forward to it. The smells of cigarette smoke, grilled steak, and too much Chanel No. 5 waft in my direction like a big cloud of fairy dust blown in from a distant yet familiar planet. I sit at the piano. The customers briefly acknowledge my presence, then resume talking. It’s time for my first set. I place my hands on the instrument, not quite sure what to play. I never know what the first song will be until exactly this moment. In front of me is a maze of ebony and ivory, but I don’t see the keys anymore. I see the faces of 30 years of guests, friends, bartenders, and waiters morphing into an impressionistic canvas of something remarkable.

So I play a song to remember.

Steinway Gallerie, Oslo, Norway

Steinway Gallerie, Oslo, Norway, photo by Julia Goldsby.

Piano Girl excerpt courtesy of Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard. 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 soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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An American in Paris

Place_des_VosgesWhenever I visit Paris, I want to be a tourist. I want to fall in love. I want to be enchanted. I want magic and romance and art and a big crusty baguette. I crave the silvery slanted light that seeps over the horizon in late morning and clings to the edges of the city until sunset. If I’m not actually in the Eiffel Tower I want to be staring at it from a distance, watching, in the early evening, as it sparkles like the world’s largest bottle of champagne.

I know Parisian food can be overpriced, French fashion can be overrated, and snootiness often underscores daily life. I know the political situation in France leaves much to be desired; racism and the nationalistic tendencies of some citizens pull on the frayed sleeves of others. I know these things, but still I cannot look away from the golden patina of the city itself. The city glows. I walk through Paris in my somber black clothes, like I’m trying to absorb a bit of the city’s smoldering blush. If only.

I’ve been to Paris seven times. Here are some jumbled notes from those visits :

1977: Pittsburgh to Paris

My college roommate, Debra, and I attend Chatham College for women, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We have been in London on a study trip for the last six weeks and feel a strong desire to visit Paris. Who knows when we’ll be this close again? Between the two of us we have twenty four dollars. Off we go. Allez!

In Paris, we stay in a hotel with a bidet in the room and a toilet down the hall. We think the bidet is a place to wash our undies (that’s one way of looking at it). So we dutifully rinse our panties and socks in the bidet every night, impressed by French plumbing. Madame, a stout woman with a severe face and a demi-beard, serves chocolate croissants for breakfast. I drink hot milk from a bowl and pretend I’m sophisticated. I feel far away from Pittsburgh.

We go sightseeing. We can’t afford admission to any of the museums, so we stay outside, shivering in the Jardin des Tuileries, and eating chocolate crêpes made with Nestlé Quik. We stare at the Eiffel Tower. We walk a thousand kilometers because the Metro scares us. Hiking through Paris can be a pleasure, but Deb insists on wearing red cowboy boots with five-inch stiletto heels. She bought them in London and hobbles through Paris looking like a Monroeville Mall hooker out for une aventure française. We say “ooh-la-la” and sing Jacques Brel songs until a smarmy man wearing tight pants and several earrings tries to grab Deb’s ass. In a rare act of physical revenge—I’ve always been a wimp—I punch the little guy in the nose and we run away, no easy thing in those cowboy boots. For many decades, Debra will claim I saved her life. Merci beaucoup.

Debra almost gets arrested when we pay tribute at the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomph and she inadvertently tramples on the tomb. Teetering on those red boots while attempting to take a snapshot of moi, she has backed up and stepped right onto the poor soldier’s grave, the spikes of her heels firmly planted over the commemorative plaque. A Gendarme in a spiffy blue suit—don’t we just love their hats?— screams, “Attention!” at her, along with other French invectives we don’t understand. I suspect he’s saying, “Get the fuck off the grave you idiot,” but who knows? When Deb attempts to flee, her stilettos catch between two cobblestones. Stuck! Eventually she frees herself and we exit the Arc stage left, our heads bowed in shame. A flame burns next to the tomb. We’re lucky she doesn’t catch on fire.

That night we pool our remaining funds and visit the Folies Bergère. We are seated in the last row—quite a climb with those red boots—right next to two American soldiers from the South Side of Pittsburgh, our hometown. “Wait till yinz guys see the babes,” they say, in perfect Pittsburghese. “Foxy!” I’m discovering that people from Pittsburgh lurk everywhere, even in block Y of a topless Parisian cabaret. Slack-jawed, we gawk at the naked dancers as they hang, upside down, from the bejeweled ceiling. We don’t have this kind of thing in Pittsburgh; certainly not on the South Side. Deb decides we need to add feathers to our college girl wardrobe when we get back home, something I’m sure will be a big hit at our feminist school. We eat several more Nestlé Quik chocolate crêpes and head back to London the next day.

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2003: Circus, Circus

We live outside of Cologne, Germany, skipping distance from Paris on the Thalys, a high speed train that whisks us through Belgium and into Paris in four and a half hours. Our daughter, Julia, is six; our son, Curtis, is nine. Short on cash, but desperate to get away for a weekend, we’ve booked a seedy hotel room above a Chinese restaurant next to the Gare Saint-Lazare. As transplanted New Yorkers, we should know better than to stay next to a train station, but we’ve booked late, we’re strapped for cash, and it’s Easter vacation, so we’re lucky to find anything at all.

We eat baguette sandwiches at the Tuileries, engage in a spirited conversation with a French pharmacist when one of the kids gets sick, walk up Montmartre to Sacre Coeur, listen to a cellist playing Mozart next to the cathedral steps, check out the gargoyles at Notre Dame, and spend many hours looking for an affordable restaurant for a family of four. We dodge pickpockets and dance between the raindrops. It drizzles almost constantly. I love Paris in the springtime, when it—oh, never mind.

Julia and I attend a free fashion show at Galeries Lafayette, presented under a stained glass dome on the top floor of the store. She laughs through the entire program, amused by the flashy ready-to-wear costumes, and charmed by haughty models who every now and then break character and smile at her. During the finale, when the models glide over the catwalk sporting bridal gowns that resemble spun sugar, Julia says, “Mommy, this is just like the circus.”

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The Galeries Lafayette stained glass ceiling.

 

We visit a small park for children that features an amusement park, a dusty playground, and a petting zoo. While waiting in line for croissants, we meet a Chinese American family from Los Angeles. The kids ride together on a dangerous looking roller coaster that threatens to derail at every turn. John and I drink coffee and chat with the parents. They are staying in the Hilton, close to the Eiffel Tower. I think about the firetrap where we’re lodging and vow never to return to Paris until we can afford a decent place to stay. They leave the park in a taxi; we walk to the Metro. We promise to stay in touch, but we won’t.

We take the kids for a boat ride on the Seine. Look at those bridges! Julia pretends to pilot the boat. Curtis pretends he is traveling without parents.

We eat chocolate crêpes made with Nestlé Quik.

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Julia with Notre Mom

 

2005: Room with a View

Girls’ Weekend! Julia and I stay in a charming little hotel on Montmartre; a step up from our 2003 train station rat-hole. We have to walk up a steep hill to get to our digs, but it’s worth the climb. From our room, if we lean out the window and swivel our heads just the right way, we can see the Eiffel Tower. We drop our bags and head right over there, stopping for mousse au chocolat on the way. We climb to the second level of the tower and stay for two hours, watching the sun poke through storm clouds, spotlighting various landmarks. From our steely perch we plan the next two days; where we’ll go, what we’ll see. I’m determined my daughter will love Paris, that she’ll speak a little French some day, that she’ll soak up Parisian art and beauty and claim it as her own.

We visit the Louvre and Musée D’Orsay. We go to the Rodin garden and tour Notre Dame. Julia is nine years old and takes in the architecture and culture like a seasoned pro. She plans all of our trips on the Metro, circling stops on a paper map with a pink magic marker. After a day of non-stop tourist activity, she sleeps soundly in our little hotel room.

I discover we can go to Disneyland Paris on the train—for the bargain price of ninety euros, including train ticket and admission for both of us to the park. I’m not keen on confusing Paris with Disneyland, but our girl is nine years old and if not now, when? I don’t tell her where we’re going. We get off the train, she sees the pink castle, and doesn’t stop laughing the entire day. Mickey Mouse, it turns out, exudes even more charm when he speaks French. Goofy is another story, but you can’t have everything. We avoid the souvenir stands, eat lunch in the Pirates of the Caribbean restaurant—Jul is a little scared of the pirate waiter, who wears an eye patch—and watch French Tinkerbell descend from the Magic Kingdom castle. Is it my imagination, or is Tinkerbell wearing red lipstick? We take the train back to Paris, all the while singing “It’s a Small World” in French (Le monde est petit, après tout).

In a quaint restaurant in Montmartre Julia orders the children’s hot dog special, served with a kid-friendly combination of Roquefort cheese and sauteed onions. My American daughter scrapes off the goop, shrugs her shoulders, and says, “C’est la vie.”

2007: Marais, Meurice, Monet

Julia and I arrive in the Marais to meet up with our dear American friends, Carole and Emilio, who have rented a lovely little apartment in Paris’s most charming district. We stay in a hotel across the street.

All of us are on a tight budget, we go for long walks and boast about our ability to visit Paris without spending a fortune. The weather, for once, plays along, and we walk for hours. We ride on a Ferris wheel, people watch, and drink chilled white wine in the Tuileries. Julia needs a restroom, so we stroll into the Meurice Hotel. Carole, Julia, and I go to the ladies’ room, or the Queen’s Potty, as Jul calls it. We spend a bit of time in there, lounging and lolling about in velvet chairs, splashing cool water on our faces, repairing our lipstick and powdering our shiny faces. When we emerge from the Queen’s Potty, Emilio, who occasionally thinks of himself as Thurston Howell III, has snagged us a table in the bar.

“Emilio,” says Carole. “We can’t do this. It’s really expensive here.”

“Ah, come on, you only live once,” he says. Emilio is wearing an ivory linen blazer. He looks like he was born in this hotel.

I stay out of the fray—I’m too impressed by the hand painted ceiling and the jazz duo serenading us as we take our seats.

“You’ll be sorry,” says Carole.

The appropriately grumpy waiter takes our order. After consulting a menu (one without prices), Carole and I go all-in and request champagne with crushed rose petals. Not to be outdone, Emilio orders a mint julep, which seems a little odd for Paris, but he’s paying, so mint julep it is. Julia orders a 7-Up.

“We do not have the 7-Up,” says the sneering waiter. “What we have is like the 7-Up, but it is not the 7-Up.”

He brings a tray of olives.

“Do you like olives?” Carole asks Julia.

“Not really,” says Julia, who is still recovering from the 2005 Roquefort cheese incident.

“Well you better learn, because we have to eat everything they give us. At these prices we’ll have to skip dinner.”

Mademoiselle eats about thirty olives. The bill comes—130 euros for four drinks. And that’s with fake 7-Up.

The next day we take a bus to Giverny and visit the Monet gardens. We see Claude’s water lilies—the ones he planted and painted, the Japanese bridge he built and recreated on canvas, the cathedral at Rouen. I feel like I’m standing right in the middle of a Monet painting. It moves me to tears.

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Julia, standing on Monet’s Japanese Bridge in Giverny.

 

2009: Fusion Gypsy-Jazz Guitar, Toile du Jouy, and Bronchitis

I am finally in a five-star Parisian hotel with my husband, John. He will perform tomorrow night with Biréli Lagrène and the WDR Big Band. Sadly, John has a bad case of bronchitis and can do nothing but stay in the hotel room and try to get better before this evening’s sound-check and performance. So much for our romantic weekend.

What to do. I hate to leave John suffering and hacking away alone in our suite, but I don’t get to Paris very often, I’m here for the first time since 1977 without kids, and I don’t particularly want to waste a day in a dark room watching CNN weather reports or French game shows. Nor does John want me to hang around. He wants to sleep. So I head to the fabric markets and stare longingly at bolts of toile de jouy, decorating, in my mind, the Parisian flat I’ll never own. I buy nothing, but I entertain myself for hours by running my fingers over the cloth. I consider heading over to the Meurice for the crushed rose-petal champagne cocktail, but show restraint and drink Sauvignon Blanc with my lunch. I walk. The wind chills me, but I go for a boat ride—the ultimate tourist activity. Strangely, I enjoy being alone in the City of Love. I should do this more often.

I arrive back at the hotel just in time for the concert. Birelli, the genius guitarist, sounds great; so does John. A little bronchitis can’t stop a good jazz musician. The next day John and I arrange a trip a deux to the pharmacy, where we snag a grab bag of specialty medications with instructions we don’t understand. We eat extremely spicy Indian food, which John can’t taste, but I assure him it’s delicious even though my head is on fire. We travel back home on the train. We’ve booked our tickets separately, so he sits in first class with the band. I ride in coach, fall asleep, and dream about bridges and fabric.

Paris_Bridge

2010: Les Garçons

I travel with two sixteen year old boys to Paris—my son, Curtis, and his South African friend, Chris. We sit in different parts of the train and stay in separate hotel rooms, but, since I’m the gal with the money, we meet for meals. I spy on them at various tourist attractions, and, with the help of a cell phone and Chris’s bright red scarf, I spot them in the Eiffel Tower, high up on the second level, as I sit in an outdoor bar on the bank of the Seine. I wave to the boys and one of them waves the scarf. There’s something beautiful about this, but I’m not sure what it is. The Eiffel Tower reminds me of a teenage boy—tall and strong, but delicate somehow. Fragile, robust, stretching up, up, and away.

Eifel

2015: Free the Girls

As often as I’ve been in Paris, I’ve never performed here. Until now. I’ve been invited to present my Piano Girl concert program for the AAWE, an American women’s organization, at Reid Hall, part of the Columbia University Global Center in the Montparnasse district. My concert will benefit “Free the Girls,” a program that rehabilitates  victims of human trafficking and prostitution.

Julia has come along with me. She has recently spent some time here alone, but this is our first Paris trip together since the 7-Up episode at the Meurice. The Thalys trip now takes only three hours from Cologne—the railroad officials have upgraded that pesky Belgian stretch—and we arrive at our hosts’ apartment in no time at all.

Deborah and John, Americans who have lived in Paris for over fifteen years, reside in a huge old Parisian apartment in the 17th Arrondissement. It’s one of those big places with a tiny elevator, high ceilings, velvet sofas, and a gazillion books. French shabby chic. I could move in and not change a thing.

Our friend Sallie lives in the Marais. She takes Julia and me to lunch at her favorite bistro. Julia’s hot-dog days are long behind her—she has been a vegetarian for eight years, so we eat braised vegetables, salad, and a pear and almond cake for dessert. Sallie takes us on a tour of the Marais, starting at the Place des Vosges. The sun shines and we see pale green buds on the trees. The Marais has become a tourist attraction in recent years, but Sallie knows her way around. She shows us secret pathways leading into hidden gardens, down winding streets, and past historic half-timber homes.

On this trip I try, as I always do, to speak a little French. I give up. There’s always next time.

Rounding the corner in the Marais, eight military policemen, in full riot gear and carrying machine guns, march past us, patrolling the neighborhood. Their presence is a result of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent siege at a Jewish supermarket. Later that evening, Deborah shows me photos of soldiers at her synagogue, in the days following the attacks.

“The soldiers are still patrolling,” she says, as she rolls her homemade chocolate truffles, one by one, in powdered sugar.

I have grown up here, without meaning to. Every time I return, I’m a little further along on my trek through adulthood. I’ve gotten lost in back streets, struggled with the language, and learned to negotiate Paris both with and without money. I’ve traveled here with a red-booted friend, with curious children, nonchalant teenagers, and a handsome (but coughing) husband; as a teenager, as a mom, as a wife, as an artist. I’ve watched parades and concerts and street performers and now, soldiers. I’ve been cold and wet and exhausted and hungry in Paris; anxious and sad; startled and astounded, amused and elated. Never once have I been bored.

Paris remains a place of beauty. Man-made beauty, with extremely good lighting. Really, the city is a wonder.

I play my concert. We raise money for “Free the Girls.” Julia sings. I play some more and tell a few stories. Applause. We take a bow. The audience’s warm embrace scrapes the chill off the early spring day. After so many decades of getting to know the City of Light, maybe now it knows me, just a little. Time for a chocolate crêpe.

New_Essay_Photo_Robin_Louvre_April copy

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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Photos provided by Carole Delgado and Julia Goldsby

The Apricot Tree

An Excerpt from Goldsby’s book Waltz of the Asparagus People [Bass Lion Publishing]

©2011 Robin Meloy Goldsby

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Go right at the rotary and take the third exit, says Kate, the uppity British voice of our navigation system.

“What rotary? Where?”

“Like you can even call this a rotary,” says John. We’re in Villefranche sur Saône, France, a bit north of Lyon, searching for the home of Jean Auray, the award-winning luthier who has agreed to build John’s new double bass. Any good musician will tell you that a quality instrument is the extension of an artist’s soul, and John is looking to expand his soulfulness. Throughout his career he has dreamed of finding a bass that’s comfortable to play, with a warm, clear, punchy sound and consistent tone across its entire range.

Monsieur Auray’s home and workshop must be around here somewhere; Kate just needs to find it. We’re packed into our midsized car with two very tall teenage kids and the bass John currently plays, a factory-made German instrument built after World War II. Building the new bass will take the better part of a year and several meetings requiring trips from Cologne to Lyon, a drive that typically takes six hours. Today, with the French autoroute traffic, a break for lunch at a French Ikea, and numerous rest stops, it has taken us a bit longer. We’re a little cranky.

“Just about there!” I shout toward the back seats. Silence. With John’s German bass packed between the two kids, I cannot see them. For all I know Curtis and Julia jumped out of the car somewhere around Nancy.

“Mom, I’m thirsty,” says a muffled voice.

“Me too.”

“Just a few more minutes,” I say.

“They’ve got some nerve calling this a traffic circle,” says John. “It’s more like a triangle. Wait, that’s the third exit!”

“No it’s not, it’s the fourth. There wasn’t a third.”

“How can there be a fourth if there wasn’t a third?”

Take the third exit, says Kate. She is agitated by the French traffic regulations, or lack of them.

We drive around in a triangle-circle for a few minutes while we huff and mutter and blame each other for being lost.

Take the third exit, says Kate.

“Perhaps this is the French idea of a circle.”

“Maybe it was the best they could do at the time. You know, ancient city and all that.”

“Non,” says my husband, who is now speaking in a French accent, quite a party trick for a boy from Kentucky. “They were sick of the circle. They had a better idea. It is like a circle, only not a circle. It is a circle with corners.”

“Isn’t that called an intersection?” says Curtis from the back seat.

Please take the third exit, says Kate, using the tone of voice she assumes right before she resorts to the silent treatment.

“There, that’s it!” I yell.

“That’s a brick wall,” says John.

“Okay! Then take this one! Here!”

“This is not an exit, this is a driveway. It’s very French. The highway looks like the driveway, and the driveway looks like—”

“Look out!” I yell as we swerve to avoid hitting a lorry that’s entering the triangle.

“Don’t overreact! Everything is fine. Stay calm.” Bass players are known for statements like this.

The French word for car crash is carambolage; it’s one of my favorite words, but I’d prefer not to use it today. Out of options, we exit the rotary on the same road we used to enter it, drive two blocks, perform the demi-tour—the French version of the U-turn—and miraculously find ourselves at 888 route de Riottier, the exact address of Monsieur Auray’s workshop.

You have reached your destination, says Kate. Bonne journée.

“Mon Dieu!” says John.

“Are you sure this is it?” I ask. I climb out of the car and brush baguette crumbs from my jacket. I had envisioned something quainter, perhaps a small chateau with hand-carved dwarves lining a cobblestone walkway leading to an antique oak door. But this place looks like the stark entrance to a French fort. No dwarves here. Later I will discover that many homes in Lyon are bleak on the outside but glorious once you get inside—it’s a style that goes back hundreds of years.

The back doors to the car open, and the kids tumble out and unfold themselves into upright positions. They remind me of pop-up tents. I do believe they’ve grown since the last rest stop.

“Isn’t this exciting?” I say.

“It looks like a jail,” says Curtis. “Do you think they have drinks at this place?”

“Look,” says Julia. “Pigeons!”

We park in front of a tiny plaque with Monsieur’s name and logo on it, and ring the bell.

We wait. John rings again. We can’t hear the bell ringing, so we’re not sure if it’s working. We wait some more.

“It is like a doorbell, only not a doorbell,” says John. He’s wound up, and I can understand why. He’s about to meet the man who will devote the next six months of his life to creating the bass of his dreams. I’m not so excited, mainly because we have just driven 800 kilometers and we’re standing in an alleyway in front of a cement shack. Maybe this is an elaborate French ruse.

John first met Jean Auray in 2008, at a bass convention in Paris. He played several of Jean’s instruments, one after another, and realized he had found a great luthier—an artisan who matched and even surpassed the work of many legendary bass makers. John’s search for an older instrument that would fit his needs was replaced with the thrill of having a new bass built to his specifications.

Monsieur Auray finally opens the door to his workshop and shouts out—in broken English—a few hearty words of welcome. We respond in broken French. We make introductions. He invites us inside. The chill of winter slips away as we walk into a carpenter’s golden oasis of wood and warmth. What a difference from the outside of the building. We climb a long curvy staircase, and it occurs to me that every bass-related business we’ve visited is up a flight or two of stairs. The place smells a little like a forest and a lot like varnish. A fine coating of sawdust covers every surface, and I’m reminded this isn’t a showroom, but a workshop. A heap of curlicue wood shavings is piled under the table, as if someone scalped Pinocchio and left the trimmings on the floor.

Bass_Jean_Auray copy

Madame Auray, a beautiful Englishwoman who was raised in Paris, greets us and serves coffee and biscuits. Her first name is Juliet. She is rail-thin and moves through the workshop like a nimble-footed cat. She picks up odd scraps of paper and used coffee cups while she talks to me and chats with the kids in both English and French. Curtis and Julia are learning French at school, but they’re shy about using it. I spent years speaking French in Haiti, but I sound like a cavewoman. Juliet glides back and forth between the two languages, making tiny corrections, introducing new words to us, and making sure John and Jean understand each other. In just sixty minutes of observing her, I know she’s the quintessential multitasking artist’s wife—interpreter, soother of the bruised ego, mother, mind reader, and bottle washer. I suspect she’s also the family accountant.

A wooden lion’s head with a menacing face—the topmost ornament of a bass that Auray is building for another musician—stands guard over the room. While John talks to Jean, I wander around the workshop with Juliet and peek into its attached rooms. Auray builds his own instruments, but he also repairs and sells other basses. The workshop has several smaller rooms attached to the main space, each one holding basses waiting to be repaired, basses that have been rescued from abusive homes, and a few basses that will never be played again but hold sentimental value. Even the basses with cracked bodies, rutted fingerboards, split seams, and broken tailpieces seem dignified. I hear the passion in Jean’s voice as he describes his craft. Even though I don’t understand much of his French, I know he agrees with me. The bass—strong and feminine and such an intimate part of my husband’s life—might be the most physically beautiful of all musical instruments.

John has chosen the Auray bass for its lush sound—clear and round and bottom-rich, perfect for a jazz musician. In addition, the Auray is compact and transportable, with a nontraditional removable neck. The flight case for the Auray bass, called the Nanoo, is still oversized according to airline regulations, but most carriers will take it. They won’t be happy about it, but they’ll take it.

“Never say you are traveling with the bass,” says Jean. “Say it is the cello-bass.”

“Cello-bass?” It is like a cello, but not a cello. I wonder what the baggage handlers will have to say about this.

“I will modify your bass with the removable neck, but first I must obtain the concept of your sound.” Jean’s favorite English words are modify and obtain; they are fancy words for his limited vocabulary, and he uses them with gusto. Fine-boned and handsome, Jean has thick dark hair, fluttering hands, and intense blue eyes, the kind of eyes that take in too much at once and make snap judgments—usually correct—about people and art and music. I get the feeling we’re being scoped out, interviewed and evaluated as potential adoptive parents for one of his bass children, and that one false move, one ugly American moment, and we’ll be back on the autoroute, squashed in the car with the collapsible kids, arguing with Kate, modifying our plans, and trying to obtain another luthier.

“Now we must obtain the measurements,” he says.

Curtis, Julia, and I sit in the corner with Juliet, eating our cookies and looking at pictures of other Auray basses.

John unpacks his older bass. Though it’s a nonpedigreed instrument, it has a nice voice that records well. It’s important for him to have a second bass that feels like this one, but with a more consistent tone.

“This is the sound I like,” John says, as he plays several passages. Jean cocks his head to one side, leans into the music, and smiles.

“Oui,” he says. “It sounds very beautiful. Only the new bass, the modified bass, perhaps she will be just as good. Perhaps she will be better.”

“Oui, oui,” says John. “I hope so.”

“This I think is not a problem,” says Jean. Both men are smiling. The challenge has been accepted, and if all goes well, both of them will win.

I walk over to Jean’s worktable and look through a large window. The soft browns and grays of the Lyon winter make a perfect backdrop for the aged tree in the center of the garden, whose twisted trunk and gnarled limbs stretch toward the corners of the stone terrace. There’s a song about this tree, and if I stand here long enough, I’m sure I’ll hear it.

“Oh,” says Monsieur. “You see the apricot tree!”

“It’s amazing,” I say. “Beautiful and ugly all at once.”

“Oui,” he says. “This is why we chose this place. For the tree.”

We are in the home of an artist. Who needs the dwarves?

DSC03280

**

John has been traveling the world with bass in tow for the last three decades. At the airport, some people point and stare and him. Others jump out of his way, hoping to avoid being run over by what looks like a coffin on wheels. Many feel obligated to make some sort of comment, which they obviously find clever at the moment. “You should have played the flute” tends to top the list.

There have never been any hard rules for bassists flying with their instruments. Sometimes there’s an extra charge of, say, 250 dollars. Sometimes it costs half of that. Sometimes it’s free. Sometimes they won’t take the bass at all.

One summer day in 1998 I’m put in charge of prechecking John’s bass from Cologne to London—no small task for a woman with fragile wrists and, as a professional pianist, a genuine fear of finger injuries.

“Don’t actually let them see the bass,” John says, doing that chop-chop thing with his hands that guys do when they’re giving instructions. “Park it really far away from the ticket counter, in a corner somewhere, and gesture toward it with large sweeping arm movements. Distract them—like a magician or hypnotist. And once you’re checked in, tip the porter really well so he wheels the bass out of sight before they change their minds.”

On the appointed day I park illegally outside of the airport terminal, unload the bass with the help of a janitor who has stepped outside for a smoke, and heave and push my way toward the British Airways check-in counter.

A woman wearing a giant backpack and pushing twins in a stroller the size of a Lexus SUV stops to open the door for me. “Wow,” she says. “And I thought I had it bad.”

“I should have played the flute,” I say.

I park the bass about twenty yards away from the counter—halfway behind a large pillar—and get in line.

Determined to use my Girl Power to get the job done, I’m wearing a black miniskirt and too much eyeliner. Turns out the check-in person is also using her Girl Power to keep refrigerator-sized objects out of the baggage hold.

“Checking any luggage today?” she says.

“Yes,” I say, using large sweeping arm movements, as previously instructed, and gesturing in the general direction of the bass.

“My God. What is that?”

“It’s a double bass.”

“Does that mean you’re checking two of them?”

“No. Just one. It’s a musical instrument.”

“Oh. A musical instrument.”

“Right. A musical instrument.”

Silence. She looks at her computer monitor. “Let’s see. On our list of accepted musical instruments, I have ‘small bassoon’—it’s obviously not that—”

“No, it’s not.”

“Banjo?”

“No.”

“Bass trombone, cello, or contrabassoon?”

“Uh, no.”

“Clarinet, French horn, flute?”

“No, no, no.”

“Guitar, oboe, saxophone, or trumpet?”

“Uh—”

“Viola in a rectangular case? Violin in a shaped case? Now, which one of the instruments on the list is yours? It looks like a bass tuba to me. Or is it one of those things they play in orchestras?”

Silence. Blank stare. It’s a standoff.

“It’s a double bass,” I say again. “It’s also called a contrabass or a bass violin.”

“Contrabassoon? That’s on the list.”

“No. Contrabass. Bassoon is a reed instrument.”

Silence.

“You blow through a reed instrument. Like this.”

Silence.

“The contrabass is a string instrument. With, you know, strings.”

More silence. She checks her computer monitor again. “Not on the list,” she says.

“Okay, some people call it an acoustic upright bass. Come on. It has to be somewhere on the list.”

A sneer, a sly smile, more silence.

“So sorry. It’s not on the list.”

“Bass tuba wasn’t on the list either, but you were willing to take it.

“No I wasn’t.”

“Yes you were.”

“No I wasn’t.”

I’m starting to sweat. “Okay then, can we just say it’s a contrabassoon?”

“So sorry, you’ve already told me it’s a double bass, and double bass is not on our list of accepted instruments.”

“Please. Can’t you make an exception?”

“No way, no how,” she says. “That—whatever it is—is huge. One could sleep in there.”

“Trust me, you wouldn’t want to,” I say. “You know, it’s really much smaller than it looks.”

“No. So sorry.”

“Look, I know it’s big, but this is really important. It’s not even my instrument. I’m checking it for my husband. He has a concert in London tomorrow.”

“Well, then, he should know better.”

“Please,”

“NO. So sorry.”

I cry, I plead, I demand to speak to the manager. It turns out she is the manager. I even attempt a casual bribe, flashing a few bank notes with that I’d-give-anything look. But nothing works. Loading the bass back into the car and driving it home is bad enough. Having to admit to my husband, who is returning from a gig in Switzerland later that night, that I’ve failed is worse.

We don’t blame the check-in people. No one teaches them about the double bass at airline school, where they are busy learning about exit-row safety procedures and gluten-free meals.

Another time a confused counter woman with a sympathetic smile decides the double bass is worth two overweight charges plus two oversize charges, a total of 300 dollars. She doesn’t tag it properly, and just as John and I are boarding the plane, airport security pages him and sends him to the tarmac. In front of several scowling orange-suited baggage goons wearing padded headphones, he unpacks the bass from the fiberglass trunk and strips off the soft cover. While they poke around and search through the flight case, he does what any respectable bassist would do. He plays.

“What did you play?” I ask when he finally boards the plane.

“‘Giant Steps,’” he says. “But they didn’t smile or anything. Maybe they’re not John Coltrane fans. They never even took off their ear protectors.” But we watch them load the bass onto the plane, so he must have done something right.

There have been missed flights and missing basses. How an airline could temporarily misplace a trunk the size of a Manhattan studio apartment is beyond me, but it has happened. We have logged many hours in the baggage area designated for weird luggage—the airport black hole where the orange-suit guys deliver tranquilized puppies in kennels, racing bikes in cardboard boxes, and musical instruments too big for the conveyor belt. The bass always comes off the plane last.

**

DSC03518

Several months into the bass-building project, Jean Auray sends us a photo of the curved part of the bass body resting on his worktable. The instrument, raw and relaxed, looks like a sensual and satisfied woman lying on her side, contemplating the casual miracle of the French spring. The apricot tree, flaunting green shoots that will soon burst open and protect the garden from the summer heat, peers back at the bass through the workshop window. If the bass is a woman, then this particular tree is most certainly a man.

“Wood,” Jean writes, “has an intelligence of its own and amazing qualities. One just needs to listen and treat it with respect, while understanding its strengths and weaknesses. Wood is elastic, but it’s solid and reactive, and capable of many sounds.”

Just like a good musician.

By the time an Auray bass is finished, Jean has shaved, carved, and sanded away eighty percent of the wood. This process—bringing the instrument to life—typically takes about 400 hours. The wood must rest and dry for at least a week after each adjustment so the bass can recover.

In France, even the musical instruments get vacations.

I glance at the photo again. Under the protective gaze of the apricot tree, the half-finished bass seems to anticipate the capable hands of the French artisan and the American musician. If all goes well, they’ll transform her from a silent piece of wood into an instrument that sings.

We wait. We receive more photos.

Two months later, Jean writes: “She played her first notes this afternoon. I think you will like her.”

Six months after our initial meeting with M. Auray, the bass is ready. Our son is on an exchange trip to South Africa and our daughter is visiting a friend in Sicily, so John and I travel as a duo to Lyon. It’s a leisurely trip, romantic even. We have just celebrated our eighteenth anniversary. That’s a lot of bass. But I guess I can’t get enough.
We arrive at Jean’s studio, climb the now familiar steps to his workshop, and watch as he removes the finished bass from its soft cover. I’m not quite sure what to look at—the bass, the bass maker, or the bass player. All three seem locked together and suspended in the noonish August light, an impressionist painting of human accomplishment and expectation. John takes the instrument and begins to play. To a musician, this is surely one of life’s most beautiful moments.

“Ah, yes,” John says.

“Oui,” says Jean.

I listen. This bass will age like a good relationship. It will open up, respond to its partner’s touch, and give back everything it gets. I choke back a few tears and accompany Juliet to her kitchen to help prepare the afternoon meal. Jean and John stay in the workshop to talk and make minor adjustments.

This is the first time I’ve been inside the Auray living quarters. On our previous visit we were confined to the workshop. The house, on the other side of a large garage area used to store aging wood, looks like the place I dreamed of finding when I was eighteen and reading about the French countryside. It’s an artisan’s paradise, with handcrafted kitchen counters and cabinets, an old dining table, and scarred wooden floors. In spite of the heat, the living room is comfortable and airy, with stacks of books in the corners and a cat curled on a threadbare antique chair.

Juliet tosses a salad while I slice a baguette. She tells me about her grown children, and I talk about Curtis and Julia. When the men join us, we sit together, drink wine, and dine on melon with prosciutto, quenelles, cheese, and a sausage from a local boucherie. Slow food, slow talk, slow music. This is the way I want to live.

“I must go feed the pigeon,” Jean says after the two-hour meal. “He fell from the sky and landed in front of our door.”

“When did this happen?” I ask. I wonder if it’s one of the pigeons Julia spotted six months ago.

“Yesterday,” he says. “On the thirteenth. We have named him Treize.” Jean grabs an eyedropper from a drawer. “I think Treize will be with us for a while. Right now he lives in a modified box, but soon I will be conducting the exercise class for him. I will throw him in the air, and he will fly. But maybe he will stay awhile and live in the apricot tree.”

Pigeon

“If I were Treize I would never leave this place,” I say.

We tour the garden, see the pond where Jean likes to swim in the afternoons after he has finished his day’s work, and retreat to the workshop where John learns how to dismantle the bass and pack it into the Nanoo flight case.

“Remember,” says Jean. “At the airport you should call her the cello-bass.”

We’re not flying today, we’re driving, and we must leave if we want to miss the autoroute traffic. John begins packing the instrument into the Nanoo for the trip home. Before he closes the case, Jean Auray rests his hand on the bass for a moment.

“It must be hard to say goodbye,” I say.

“I like to start anew again and again,” says Jean. “It’s my way of moving forward, not to get in a rut, a kind of challenge in the face of time—”

“I will take care of her,” says John.

“Please,” says Jean.

As we drive away, Jean stands by the front door, waving. It’s a sight I will never forget, the luthier releasing his work of art into the wild.

The transfer from one artist to the other is complete.

Turn right at the next intersection, says Kate.

“Turn that thing off,” says John. “I know where I’m going.”

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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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The Krankenhaus Blues

Hospital_Bed

The right side of my abdomen throbs. It’s not a stabbing pain, but more of a low-grade annoyance I’ve been living with for the past three days. I’m functioning just fine—I even played twelve hours of piano gigs over the weekend, but I can’t stand up straight without feeling like a family of five is throwing a grill party in my intestinal tract. Right now they’re tossing more coals on the fire.

Our doctor’s office is a five-minute walk from home. Hobbling over to see her is no big deal, assuming I can still hobble. I call at 8:00 a.m. and she sees me at 8:30. After a minimal amount of belly tapping and prodding—this woman could have a career as a conga player—she tells me she suspects appendicitis and insists I go immediately to the hospital, or the Krankenhaus, as it’s called here in Germany.

I love the word Krankenhaus. It’s right up there with Kaiserschnitt (C-section) and Dudelsack (bagpipes) on my list of German words that sound exactly right.

“Should I call the Krankenwagon?” the good doctor asks.

“No!” I say. “My husband is home. He’ll take me. He drives faster than a Krankenwagen anyway.”

“Okay. But don’t waste any time. You need to go immediately.”

I leave her office and, glancing over my shoulder to make sure the doctor isn’t looking, head into the local grocery store. My son will leave for a semester abroad in California in a few days, and his friends will throw a farewell party for him tomorrow. It’s a German tradition for the honoree to take a cake or some sort of treat with him to the shindig. Curtis has requested my brownies.

“What did the doctor say?” asks John when I arrive home with a sack of eggs and dark chocolate.

“Not good. She thinks it’s my appendix. I’ve got to go to the Krankenhaus right away. But first I have to bake these brownies for Curtis.”

“Really? You have appendicitis and you’re going to waste an hour baking brownies?”

“I’ve had this pain for three days. I played four piano gigs feeling like this, one of which included the world’s longest Lionel Richie medley. Another hour won’t make a difference.”

I have been baking brownies for both Curtis and Julia for over twenty years. I’m not much of a baker, but my brownies are the shiznit, as the kids like to say. Julia, the younger of the two, has already left home for nine months; right now she is in Seoul, Korea. Now it’s time for Curtis to jump on the Empty Nest Express. Knowing my son will be gone in just a few days, this final culinary favor takes on new meaning. I’m a fool—risking peritonitis for a Betty Crocker moment, but I’m hardly the first mother to bake a cake for her son when she’s not feeling up to par. My sister once baked a coconut cream pie for her son’s birthday while recovering from a hernia operation. I have another friend who made three-dozen artisanal cupcakes (with rainbow-sparkle icing) while attached to a heart monitor. Of course, her son was three, not twenty-one, but still. You never get over this mother thing. Or at least I hope you don’t.

Here’s what I figure: Your nest can’t be empty if your heart is full. Bake the damn brownies. Show the love. Melt the chocolate.

“I could bake the brownies,” says John.

“Yeah, you could,” I say. “But this is my job.”

I start the brownie batter. My appendix doesn’t burst while melting the butter or beating the eggs. The scent of dark chocolate wafts through the house while I pack an overnight bag. I take the brownies out of the oven.

I’ve baked a good batch.

We head for the Krankenhaus.

Brownies

***

I answer a bunch of questions and go through a battery of tests, the results of which prove inconclusive. No elevated white blood cell count, no fever, no sign of anything dangerous during the ultrasound procedure, which goes on forever and hurts like hell. But the pain persists, and my lower abdomen is rigid and bloated, even though I did not eat any of the brownies, I swear. I see three or four different doctors, starting with the emergency room resident and moving my way up to the chief of surgery. Together they decide to check me into the Krankenhaus for a few days of starvation, bothersome tests, and, possibly, an appendectomy. Our insurance entitles me to a private room, but the Krankenhaus is full today, so I have to take what I can get. What I get is a double room with a triple-sized woman named Patrizia Parrott. Pat is enormous, the size of one of those poor people you see on American reality TV shows.

Because of Patrizia’s double-wide hospital bed, my humble single-wide has been shoved to one side of the suite, right up against the washroom door. I notice a crane next to Pat’s night table, and I panic a little when I spot the potty chair, parked conveniently next to the dining table. The Feng Shui masters would not be pleased. Pat sighs and groans and crams Brötchen into her mouth, all the while issuing instructions to the overworked aide and flipping through the channels on the TV suspended over the two beds.

“Well,” whispers John. “Every patient’s worst roommate nightmare.”

I try to stay chipper, but I’ve been here for five minutes and the racket coming from Pat’s side of the room rattles me—coughing and belching and other unmentionable sounds. Good thing I brought my noise-canceling headphones.

“I kind of feel sorry for you,” says John.

It occurs to me that the last place anyone should have a roommate is in a hospital. Humans do not exhibit their best qualities when faced with failing health. Who decided that having two sick people three feet away from each other would be a wise idea? Mister Rogers or Charlie Rose could be in the next bed and I would still be cranky about sharing my space.

“Try not to talk to Patrizia,” John whispers, in English. We are out in the corridor, while Pat has a sponge bath. “Trust me on this. She seems kind of bossy. If she gets a chance she’ll start giving you orders. Look how she treats these poor nurses. Put on your headphones. You can always smile at her.”

He has a point. I have no desire to spend the next few days as Pat’s nimble go-fer. Or changing her channels. And I am terrified of Pat’s potty-chair. And the crane.

On the other hand, maybe I should help out a bit. I’m not really sick. I feel a bit like a Krankenhaus fraud. Aside from the dull throb in my right side, there’s not much wrong with me at all. Maybe I shouldn’t be here.

“So, do you need anything?” John asks, just as Pat, finished with her bath, demands more bologna from the woman working the dinner wagon.

“I’m really hungry,” I say. A rolling buffet on a cart rolls right past me.

“Sorry, honey,” says the food Frau, checking her chart. “Nothing for you but tea and water.”

Pat requests another Brötchen, this time with Nutella. I’m not sure what’s wrong with her, but it’s certainly not her appetite.

“Young man,” Patrizia Parrott says to John in German. “Can you open the window for me?”

John, polite as always, opens the window and then scoots out of the room before he receives further instructions. I say goodnight to Patrizia Parrott, put on my headphones, open my book, and prepare for a long night.

 ***

Sometime around two in the morning Pat begins chomping on cookies and chips she has stashed in a locker next to her bed. I can’t see her very well, but I can hear her; the crinkling of  bags, the rattle of  packages, the tentative chewing and sputtering one associates with illicit junk food consumption. I can’t recline with my bulky noise-canceling headphones, and I don’t have any earplugs, so I accept my fate and lie there in a semi-hallucinogenic state. It wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t so hungry. I smell Twix bars and salt and vinegar chips and consider breaking my silence and asking for a tiny bite of something, anything. I’m a healthy eater, but I’m bored, I’m famished, and I’m sleeping two feet away from a woman with a serious eating disorder and a very large clandestine stash of junk food. Come on, Pat, toss a bag of Cheetos in my direction.

The last time I was in a hospital was to give birth, two decades ago. I drift in and out of sleep and wonder if I’ve become one of those half-crazy, washed-up moms who gets sick to distract herself from an “empty nest,” a term I’ve come to loathe. Maybe I’m not really sick. Maybe I’m making myself sick because I’m worried sick. It has never occurred to me that I might actually miss my kids when they leave; I’ve always thought I might become more of who I used to be once they were gone. Perhaps that’s the problem. Better to check into the hospital than tune into my own dread.

Maybe that pain in my side stems from the pain in my heart. Maybe the act of saying goodbye to my adult children has jumbled my well being.

The waving hand, the failing heart, the empty nest, the bursting appendix.

Edna St. Vincent Millay could have dined on this for decades.

If only I could dine right now. I try to ignore Pat’s crunching sounds, close my eyes and drift into a hunger-fueled sleep.

Nest

***

The next morning: no water, no tea, no justice. Pat eats the German version of a Denny’s Lumberjack Special while I gaze longingly at my empty water pitcher. I’m scheduled for an ultrasound and CT at ten.

The German word for appendix is Blinddarm. Blind is blind. Darm translates to “intestine.” The blind intestine.

Was blind, but now I see.

Herr Dr. Stanayotolopolous, who has an extension on his name tag to accommodate the extra letters in his name, performs the procedure. He pokes around for twenty minutes while I wonder if ultrasound gel can be used for erotic purposes. He asks me to hold my breath about a dozen times. This makes me dizzy.

“He is very hard to find,” he says.

“Who is?”

“The appendix. Der Blinddarm.”

It seems appropriate that something shaped like a Blinddarm should carry a masculine article.

In an effort to impress Dr. Stanayotolopolous with my knowledge of all things Greek, I tell him I once lived in Astoria, Queens. He grunts in response. I shall keep my opinions about spanakopita and baklava to myself. Why can’t I stop thinking about food?

“Ah! There he is!” Dr. Stanayotolopolous swivels the screen around so I can see the swirled mess. Somewhere in all that fuzzy stuff is my appendix.

“He is sub-acute,” he says.

I like this term, sub-acute. It describes my mood.

“So this means surgery?” I ask.

“No. There are new studies. The British Medical Journal says fifty percent of sub-acute appendicitis patients will heal on their own.”

“And the other fifty percent?”

“They need the operation.”

“So what do I do?”

“Talk to the surgeon.”

He walks away, leaving the nurse to de-gel me.

“Can I eat something now?” I ask.

“Probably,” she says. “But only broth and other clear liquids. They might operate tomorrow.”

 ***

I return to my room just as two nurses prepare Pat for the crane. I still don’t know what ails her, and I’m not about to ask. Time for Pat to use that potty chair. To get there she needs the crane. Do I need to see this? No. But it’s like watching a slow motion accident unfold—I can’t turn away. The crane, an electrical human hoisting system attached to a heavy anchor, has a harness that goes around Pat’s mid-section. The machine whirs as Pat begins to levitate, an activity that does not please her.

As the crane heaves Pat to an upright position I wonder how many Oreos a woman has to eat before she notices she needs a winch to help her stand up.

“Lunch!”

Pat, sniping and groaning as the crane transports her to her final destination—the potty chair—scolds the nurse for not finishing the procedure before lunchtime. My pity for Pat evaporates when I hear her insult one of the workers.

“We’re having goulash today,” Pat yells, suspended midair. Both Peter Pan and Divine come to mind. “I need to use the toilet before it gets cold.”

“We’ll warm the toilet seat for you,” says the nurse.

“No. The goulash—warm the goulash” says Pat. The nurse prepares to lower her onto the potty chair.

“Lunch, Frau Goldsby!” says the food Frau.

Rather than eat while Pat uses the potty chair—I have to draw a line somewhere—I decide to take my chances with the Marlboro gang in the lounge. The food Frau follows me with her cart.

“Here you go, dear,” she says. “I know you’re on a vegan diet, so we prepared special broth just for you.”

My mouth waters at the thought of food. I’m tired of my bad attitude. Maybe the food will help. Broth. Ahhhh, liquid gold. I haven’t eaten for thirty-six hours and I shake with anticipation as I remove the lid from the bowl. It’s chicken broth.

“But this is chicken!” I say.

“Yes,” she says, beaming with pride. “Vegan chicken! We took all the chicken meat and skin out of it. It’s just the broth. It’s vegan.”

She’s a pleasant woman with happy eyes and I’m too exhausted to argue with her, plus the smoke drifting in from the terrace nauseates me. Some lunch this is. Vegan chicken broth with a hint of nicotine.

I used to be a smoker, but that doesn’t stop me from casting a scornful glance at the patients puffing away on the balcony attached to the lounge. Every time the door opens a blast of freezing air and a cloud of smoke hits me. If you are in your pajamas, in a wheelchair, and attached to an IV pole, you probably shouldn’t be lighting up.

What’s the matter with me? I don’t like myself  today. I’m angry, out of sorts, and taking it out on stout stealth-eaters and gray-faced smokers. I need a drink. I wander the hallway for thirty minutes yearning for vodka—that’s a clear liquid, right? I settle for a cup of chamomile tea.

***

“There’s a hair in my Veal Parmesan!” yells Pat.

Two days go by.

The food Frau, the aides, the nurses, the crane expert and the potty chair woman treat Pat with respect, although I catch them muttering to themselves when they turn away from her. Whatever they pay these workers, it’s not nearly enough. I’m growing less tolerant of Pat by the hour. If I were in charge of that crane and had the likes of Pat screaming at me about keeping her lunch warm, I’d be tempted to leave her hanging there, with a plate of Schnitzel just out of reach.

I maintain my silence, put on my headphones, and try to come to terms with my lack of compassion for a woman who is clearly in a wretched situation. How can she live like this? Maybe she’s lonely and fills herself with food to chase away the emptiness. Does she have grown children? Is her empty nest lined with candy wrappers? Did she ever have a nest at all? How did she end up here, and how will she ever go home? Maybe Pat was once middle-aged, semi-vibrant, reasonably thin, with kids who needed her. Maybe Pat used to be like me. Maybe I’m turning into Pat. Maybe you start with appendicitis and, before you know it, you need a crane. Maybe I am losing my mind. If I could just eat something, I’d feel better. Everything in this room revolves around food, and I’m still not allowed to eat.

Patrizia Parrott yells: “I need a cookie!” I am tempted to shout Polly wanna cracker? but I resist. That would be cruel.

“More pudding!” she shouts.

My daughter Skypes from Korea to see how I’m doing. My son calls from home to thank me for the brownies. My husband drops off some instant miso powder for my next broth meal. I’m grateful for any contact at all with my misplaced real life. I’m dizzy from hunger. I still have a pain in my side. I want to go home.

The head surgeon, after reviewing test results, schedules  surgery for the morning. I’m too weak to argue, and at this point, I’m actually looking forward to anesthesia. Five hours—an entire morning—without Pat. And after surgery, I’ll be able to eat. Who needs this stupid appendix anyway?

Pat rips open a Beefi, the local version of jerky. I will not call her Fat Pat. I will not.

When the nurse asks if I want a sleeping pill, I shout out a resounding yes. Tonight I dream of food and departing children and cranes.

Hands

***

I awaken the next morning feeling light-headed and a little strange. It takes me a few minutes to realize the pain in my side is gone. I press on my stomach, and there’s nothing—not a stab or a stitch or a spasm. Hallelujah.

John arrives at the crack of dawn, just in time to watch Pat inhale her daily loaf of bread. The surgical team squeezes into the room and surrounds my bed. It’s a teaching hospital, so a half dozen doctors and trainees gather around my belly. I feel like a Thanksgiving turkey or an Easter ham.

“How are you today?” asks the surgeon.

“The pain is gone!” I say.

“Your stomach is no longer rigid. This feels like the stomach of a completely different patient.”

It does not escape me that, for the first time in many years, I have an audience of six young-ish men staring at my naked torso with admiration. Maybe the starvation diet served its purpose.

The surgeon presses harder and invites another doctor to have a poke. I sense Pat’s judgmental eye on me as the doctors confer. I hear Pat chewing. There’s a privacy curtain in the center of the room, but Pat’s double-wide puts her way past the center mark. Even if we pulled the curtain she would still be on my side. I feel like her head is in my lap.

“No surgery,” he says. “The inflammation is gone. You need more tests, Frau Goldsby, just to rule out anything else, but you can schedule those next week, as an outpatient.

Dr. Stanayotolopolous was right. I healed, on my own, motivated by desperation, hunger, and the ever-present smell of Doritos coming from Pat’s side of the room.

“Can I go home?” I squeak. “Can I eat? Please?”

“Yes. Have some breakfast, wait an hour, and see how you’re feeling. Then you can leave.”

I pull down my nightgown while John rushes out to find the food Frau. The doctors file out, consulting their clipboards. So much for my audience.

Now that I’m leaving it seems safe to talk to Pat. I feel guilty for not being kinder to her. I had a chance to be compassionate, but, caught up in my Hunger Games drama, I blew it.

“So, I’ll pack my things,” I say to Pat. “It was nice meeting you. I hope you feel better soon.”

“You’re not the only one going home,” Pat says, between bites of apple. “I’ll be leaving the day after tomorrow. My son is coming to fetch me.”

“How many children do you have?” I ask.

“Three. They don’t live around here. They are good boys. They visit when they can. Two of them are doctors. The third is a lawyer. He’s the baby. He’s thirty-six. They kept me very busy when they were little.”

“Do you miss them?” I ask.

“I never stop missing them,” she says. “I carry them with me, everywhere I go. Maybe that’s why I weigh so much.” She laughs, just a little. “Here. Take an apple with you. You might get hungry on the ride home.”

“Thanks,” I say.

“You were a good roommate,” she says. “You were quiet. I like that. I need my rest. The last woman who was here never shut up.”

The suite fills with the sound of Pat’s labored breathing. I feel unbearably sad. For her. For me. For every mother in the world who bakes farewell brownies for a departing child; for every super-mom has-been who eats too much, smokes too much, drinks too much, hoping to fill empty space; for every woman who re-feathers her nest, restructures her days, re-imagines her life—not because she wants to, but because her options have dwindled.

Little birds fly away. That’s the way it works.

Maybe if I eat something I’ll feel better.

 ***

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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