It’s Valentine’s Day, another one of those holidays made popular by greeting-card companies. I’m driving to my lunchtime piano job at Schlosshotel Lerbach and thinking about Hallmark Cards. My sister, Randy, has a bad reaction to any Hallmark store. There’s something about the smell of the paper that causes her to have intestinal cramps. She’ll pick out a card, and before she even pays for it, she’ll have to race to the nearest ladies’ room, not always an easy jaunt in an American mega-mall. I have a similar reaction to the smell of auto-supply stores, but I think that’s fairly common among women.
For me, Valentine’s Day conjures elementary-school memories of shoe boxes decorated with tinfoil, pastel-colored ribbons, and paper doilies; lacy cards with dopey-looking angels and chubby cupids; and suspicious sentiments printed on dime-sized pieces of heart-shaped candy. Be mine. Love you. You’re sweet. Forever yours.
I’ve always worked on Valentine’s Day, just like I’ve always worked on Mother’s Day, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and just about every other major secular and religious holiday. I don’t complain. I show up and play the piano, happy to have the work, even happier that I don’t have to sit around at home waiting for presents and cards bought at stores that cause lower-tract distress.
Today I’ve dug my red gown out of the back of my closet and squeezed myself into it. I’m grateful it still fits. I don’t usually wear red, and I usually don’t wear full-length gowns at lunchtime, but if there’s a holiday that calls for excess, it’s this one. I’ve been told the brasserie at the castle is fully booked.
As usual I’ve left the house with just enough time to get to Lerbach. I can make it from my front door to the piano bench in exactly twenty-six minutes, as long as there are no traffic disruptions. I’m listening to Lang Lang play a Chopin nocturne on a Valentine’s Day radio program called Classics for Lovers. I’ve turned on my GPS system to see what Kate has to say about the route I’ve been driving for the past eight years. Maybe she knows a shortcut.
Traffic disruption ahead! Caution. Traffic disruption ahead! Kate sounds a little out of sorts. Her boyfriend probably gave her a Dust Buster as a Valentine’s Day gift. And what kind of traffic disruption could there be? I’m on a two-lane highway that winds through a nature reserve. I’ve run into parades and flea markets in some of the villages, but here?
Traffic disruption! says Kate. I’m about to turn her off when I round the bend and see two riderless horses coming toward me. Side by side, they amble right down the center of the road. A dozen cars creep along behind the horses, waiting for a chance to pass.
There’s something sad about the horses. They’re wearing saddles and they seem confused or lost. But I don’t know, maybe they’re happy. With horses it’s so hard to tell. Maybe they’re thinking, Let’s make a run for it—it’s our only chance! Why isn’t anyone doing anything? Surely someone will help. A man in the car behind the horses honks his horn, which seems like a bad idea. The horses look frightened.
Searching for an alternate route, says Kate. But it’s too late to turn around.
I pull to the side of the road. With Lang Lang still emoting from the radio, I get out of the car. My gown has one of those extra-long skirts with a small train attached to it. It looks good at the piano, but it’s a pain to walk in, especially on asphalt. The shoes aren’t helping. I make that kiss-kiss noise that works on most animals, and the horses allow me to approach them.
From the car they appeared manageable, but up close they’re huge. They’re chestnut brown with white faces, pointed ears, and twitching hooves. They check me out and do not look pleased. Unlike my daughter, I don’t have the best track record with large animals. Maybe they don’t like my gown. I wonder if horses react to red the way bulls do.
Kiss-kiss. Now what? Reins. Think reins. I let go of my skirt and grab the reins of each horse.
Shit. The horses turn sideways and block both lanes of traffic. The first horse is starting to back up into the other horse, whose nostrils are doing that thing that makes him look like the problem animal in The Horse Whisperer. The honking man hits the horn again. I try to channel Robert Redford.
“Okay, boys,” I say to the horses. “Help me out here.” Kiss-kiss.
It works. They calm down. I tug on the reins and lead the horses toward the side of the road. One of them steps on the tail of my skirt. I’m wearing red velvet backless shoes, and I lose one of them when I stumble. I can’t reach down to pick it up without letting go of the reins, so I keep going, one shoe off, one shoe on, kiss-kissing my way to the curb.
Good. We’ve reached the side of the road. But I need a plan. I look down at the hoof print on my red gown. I look up at horsey nostrils. I look over my shoulder as the traffic begins to creep by. Dozens of drivers gawk at me as if this entire incident is my fault. I’m shocked that no one offers to help me. Where’s that Valentine’s Day spirit?
One of the horses chooses this moment to tinkle. I kick my skirt to the side to make sure it’s out of harm’s way. I decide to let him finish his business before we make our next move.
Wow. That’s a lot of tinkle.
Honk-honk. Some people are shaking their heads in disgust, while others are waving and laughing as they drive by.
This is one way to get an audience.
My shoe is in the middle of the road, and two cars in a row drive over it.
“Nice horsies,” I say. There’s a narrow grassy ridge by the curb and a bike path on the other side of it. If I can get the horses onto the bike path, they’ll at least be away from the automobile traffic.
Kiss-kiss. I slide out of my other shoe—if there’s anything worse than walking in high heels, it’s walking in one high heel—and we climb over the little hill that’s between us and the bike path.
“Come on, boys, you can do it,” I say. They get ahead of me and pull me over the ridge with them. At last we’re on the bike path. I look back at the highway, where my Mazda sits with the door open. The radio is blasting away—Lang Lang is now playing a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Note to self: Rachmaninoff is way too frantic for Valentine’s Day. The other vehicles scoot around my car. My poor shoe. In Germany we have insurance for just about everything. I wonder if I’ll be able to file a claim for one shoe.
Should I just release the horses on the bike path and hope for the best? I wonder what time it is. I will surely be late for work. Now what? I’m standing barefoot on a bike path in a red evening gown at high noon with two very large horses looking at me as if I have all the answers. I’ll bet even Hallmark doesn’t have a card for this.
The lyrics to “Beast of Burden” run through my mind. I spot a pole about 100 meters down the bike path. It might be good enough for a hitching post.
“Okay, fellows, let’s go.” They trust me. Off we plod toward the pole. Once we get there I throw the reins over the wooden post, which is chest height and painted black and white.
“Stay,” I say. I’m aware that neither of these animals understands English, but I’m certain if I switch to German the confidence will seep out of my voice and the horses, sensing my panic, will take off at a gallop and drag me back into the middle of the road. I pat them on their very soft noses and wish them luck. Then I head back up the bike path toward my car. I’m shocked to notice how cold it is. Freezing, in fact.
I pick up the shoe I had kicked off by the side of the road and watch as the cars, one by one, continue to run over the other shoe, which lies squashed—Piano Girl roadkill—in the middle of the highway. Finally there’s a lull in the traffic, so I look both ways, grab my flattened shoe, and jump back into my car. My feet are numb and I can hardly feel the gas and brake pedals.
Drive straight ahead, says Kate. The traffic obstruction has been eliminated.
I’ll say. I turn off Lang Lang, turn off Kate, crank the heater, and drive up the road to the spot where I’ve tied up the horses. I roll down the window and go kiss-kiss. The horses are together; they’ll be fine. They look, I don’t know, settled. The car behind me honks. As I pull away, I spot two puzzled-looking young women in riding clothes emerging from the forest, holding hands and racing toward the animals.
Luckily I have my spare gold dress-up sandals in the back of the car, so I won’t have to play for a three-course champagne lunch barefoot, not that anyone would care. My coworkers are so busy they don’t even notice I’m late, nor do they see the hoof print on my evening gown. I start, of course, with “My Funny Valentine,” even though most of my audience won’t recognize the song. But what can I do? It’s a seasonal piece and it’s now or never.
“You okay, Robin?” asks Herr Schröder, the manager. “You look a little stressed.”
“Horse,” I say.
“Herr Schröder!” says a waiter. “The Northcott-Sampson party has just arrived.”
“Did you say horse?” he asks me.
“Horses, actually. Two of them.”
“Hold on a second,” he says, and rushes off to greet the Northcott-Sampsons.
I swivel around on my piano bench to face the restaurant crowd and see lots of middle-aged couples—women with cotton-candy hair drinking rosé champagne, accompanied by men with thinning hair who are also drinking rosé champagne but would rather be drinking beer. Several senior couples top off the crowd, including Frau and Herr Severins, who are in their eighties and manage to show up at the castle once a month. For them, each day really is Valentine’s Day. They’ve coordinated their outfits to suit the occasion. She is wearing a red silky dress. He has on a red tie.
I’ve almost forgotten about the horses. We’re coasting along at a relaxed champagne-lunch tempo when the manager tells me that Buttercup Blondeau, a well-known porn queen, will be joining us at any moment.
“For lunch?” I say.
“What else?” says Herr Schröder.
Buttercup (possibly not her real name) is one of those porn stars on the radar of most mainstream German citizens. A crossover artist in the truest sense, she has broken away from pure porn and appears regularly as a hostess on a popular television program about love, love, love. She shows up in tabloids, society magazines, at fancy parties, and political events. She’s a porn-industry success story—a cultural icon.
“On Valentine’s Day? She’s coming here on Valentine’s Day?” I ask. I know there’s something’s wrong with this, but I can’t figure out what.
I’m playing “All the Things You Are.”
“She’s coming with a date,” says Herr Schröder. “She’s in love. What, just because she’s a porn star she’s not allowed to be in love? Au contraire. Look! He arranged to have a rose waiting for her on the table. Let me tell you, he’s one lucky guy!” I glance at the one empty table in the restaurant.
“Here she is now,” says Herr Schröder.
Well. Buttercup Blondeau, ready for her close-up, poses in the restaurant’s entrance like she’s waiting for the waiters to carry her to her table. If she stands there a second longer, I’m sure they’ll comply. Ms. Blondeau, who has the most extreme body imaginable—water-balloon breasts and a waist the circumference of a coffee cup—has been decanted into a black cashmere minidress. It’s a good dress, an expensive dress, but there’s no hiding the real Buttercup. Her makeup looks classy, but she has porn-queen bed-head platinum hair and big puffy lips. I try, really I do, not to think about those lips.
“Have you ever seen one of her films?” I ask Herr Schröder.
“Who, me?” he says. He rushes to greet Ms. Blondeau.
I hold my breath as she enters the room and realize that I’m playing the Lion King song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” A tune from a Disney movie probably isn’t the best entrance music for a film star whose recent releases include classics like Pass the Butter, Dodgeballs, and Bride of Spankenstein, but I continue playing. Everything around me shifts into silent mode. At Schlosshotel Lerbach I’ve played for European queens and Arabian princesses, Brazilian football players, and American film stars. But Buttercup is the first celebrity to bring the castle to a complete standstill. Wow.
I don’t even hear a fork clink on a plate. The men stare at Buttercup. The women glare at the men. Buttercup’s date, a handsome manboy with broad shoulders and biceps bulging through his suit coat, follows behind her. Right before she slides into her seat, he kisses her—I mean seriously kisses her—while grabbing her ample derriere. I’m playing in the key of D, and I hit an A-flat instead of an A-natural, the ultimate wrong note.
Herr Schröder looks at me and raises one eyebrow.
Gradually, after Buttercup sits down and crosses her very long legs—a spectacle that causes gasping at a nearby table—things return to normal. The guests eat and drink and chat, but I know they’re sneaking glances at Buttercup. Heck, I’m doing it myself. You can’t not look at this woman. I don’t know how she can breathe in that dress, or walk in those shoes, or negotiate her way through life with breasts that large. I feel a little sorry for her, but I admire her too. I wonder if she likes music or if she enjoys reading. I wonder about her hobbies. Gardening? Scrabble? Twister?
I begin playing “A Time for Us,” the theme from that sixties Romeo and Juliet movie.
An apprentice waiter, probably the same age as Buttercup’s date, walks past her table, steals a look at her, trips over his own feet, and almost drops a tray of empty wine glasses. The glasses clink together and wobble, but nothing breaks.
Love songs, love songs, nothing but love songs. My thoughts drift back to the horses. I hope they’re okay. I wonder if Buttercup is kind to animals. I’d like to see her leading a horse down a highway in those shoes.
I play “Wave.”
Later, Buttercup and her date get up to visit the dessert buffet, just as Herr and Frau Severins are leaving. “Auf Wiedersehen, Frau Goldsby!” says Frau Severins as she passes the piano. She bends down and whispers in my ear, “Interesting crowd you have here today.”
I start to answer but Frau Severins is now focused on her husband. He’s staring—open-mouthed—as Buttercup and the date make out like teenagers right in front of the dessert table. The date grabs Buttercup’s bottom again—who can blame him?—as she leans over, dangerously close to spilling body parts into the crème brulée. Not that I’ve ever watched a porn film—who, me?—but I can imagine this looks a lot like the beginning of a scene straight out of Buttercup Boffs Bielefeld.
Frau Severins grabs her husband’s arm and hauls him out of the brasserie. Buttercup and her date, still hot and bothered, dish out their desserts and sashay back to their table for two, all the while groping and gushing and making goo-goo sounds at each other.
Lunch is over. Usually on an occasion like this, guests linger over coffee and sweets. But today there’s a Buttercup-induced mass exodus. The other women in the restaurant, tired of competing for attention with an authentic pornography princess, wrangle their men and lead them to the safety zone—away from the crème brulée, away from the booze, the breasts, the eye candy, and the fun. As they’re perp-walked out of the brasserie, the men remind me of the horses. They’re a little happy that someone has taken the reins and a little sad to be reminded of where they belong.
Buttercup makes a solo pass by the dessert buffet for a plate of berries and cream. When she gets to the piano she stops and smiles at me. She’s older than I thought, maybe even my age.
“Thank you for your lovely music,” she says. “I can only imagine how hard it is to play for people who aren’t always listening. But you really made this day special for my friend and me. I love that Disney song you played when I came in—I’m a huge Disney fan.”
“Thank you,” I respond. “Sorry about that wrong note.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” she says. “It’s not always easy being an artist.”
“That’s the truth,” I say. I guess she would know. “It’s so nice that you could come today—I mean that you could show up and eat—I mean . . . it’s so nice to meet you. Thank you for being here, and I wish you a wonderful Valentine’s Day.”
She smiles, fluffs her hair, and says, “Same to you.”
I play “Beauty and the Beast” and call it a day.
“Stopping Traffic” is an excerpt from Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl
©2011 Robin Meloy Goldsby, All Rights Reserved
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