I watch my mother from balconies in Budapest, Vienna, Rome, Paris, studying her face through the lenses of tiny brass binoculars. The lenses bring me so close I can see the budding wrinkles at the corners of her mouth and the set of her lips. The air between us is heavy with sweat and vibrates with the anticipation of hundreds of pairs of eyes. When I lower the binoculars the crowd yawns before me and I imagine jumping down and running over the audience. I would spring lightly from head to head until I reached the stage but I’ve never been able to imagine what I would do when I got there.
She still hasn’t returned from the after party. I kick about the room for a while before sitting with my chin on my palm to look at the street below. I turn on the TV and crank up the volume so the sound of false laughter ricochets off the close walls. When she comes in, I hope she will be angry about the noise. I want to hear her yell. When she finally does come in, she turns the TV off without really noticing it and walks over to the record player on the little round table in the corner. She adjusts the needle and lets out a deep sigh as a Beethoven Romance drifts out of the spinning record. My mother lies down on the floor, her ankles on top of each other and arms spread out wide. The air between us quivers and trembles under the weight of those low notes. Picking up my jacket, I walk outside, plunging myself in the welcome chaos of a Parisian night. I sit on the stoop outside our building and my ears are filled sounds: cars honking, dogs barking, people laughing. A man stops me to ask what I am doing out here alone. You could take me home with you, I say. I look up at him defiantly, flirtatiously. Go home to your mother, he says, and walks away.
In our room, there are only three books. There is a pocket French dictionary, a copy of Lolita whose torn and browning pages I have read and re-read, and an encyclopedia of classical composers.
My mother is practicing her violin when I come in. I ask her for some money but she pretends not to hear. Maybe she really doesn’t. I keep asking, talking, tugging at her until she stops. She looks at me wild-eyed, frantic. How many times will I have to tell you not to interrupt me? My mother is angry, impatient. I look at the floor and chew my gum loudly. She tells me that I have shattered a moment that could have been precious. Interrupting her is very tragic and dangerous, she explains, irreparable. I raise my eyebrows, skeptical. She asks if I would consider interrupting the last words of a dying man to his wife. I shrug. Imagine the wife is already dead, she says, reaching out to grip my chin in her cold fingers, the tips of which are dusted pewter grey by the residue from her strings. He’s about to find her at last, there in the wild terrain of his dreams. He opens his mouth to speak; finally the barrier has shattered between them and he can touch her, speak to her, hold her, but just as the words begin to form and he winds his fingers through hers someone is shaking him awake and her face splinters before him into a million pieces and he is forced back into reality, where something on the stove is burning and someone has forgotten to turn on the furnace. This is what you do to me, she says. You shake me awake and everything fragments.
I know history in terms of Baroque, Classical, Romantic. When I tell my mother I want to go to school, that I want to learn geometry, biology, and geography, she says I’m learning everything that’s important from her. You learn about passion, she says, art. These are the things that last in the world, she says, that change it.
My mother plays all night. Sometimes the lights shut off when the hotel is cheap, or when we are at home and she has not touched the electric bill since I put it on the kitchen table. But she keeps playing, impervious to the dark or the cold, the sound of her violin flooding the blackness, shaping it, filling it with her ghosts. I imagine Shubert, Bach, and Tchaikovsky sitting around her in the darkness, nodding approvingly, their long mustaches twitching as they chew on fat Cuban cigars. If I make a sound one of them could disappear with a quick pop and a puff of smoke and his cigar would fall to the floor; the only proof that he had ever been there.
When I wake she is laying on the twin bed next to mine wearing nothing but a pair of black tights and a black strapless bra. Her violin lies next to her, its neck resting in the crook of her arm. Her eyes are closed and I am struck by the delicacy of her, by the softness of her face and the boniness of her clavicles. I climb out of bed and take the instrument in my hands, so fragile and light that I have the sudden urge to grab it by the neck and swing it against the wall. I can hear the clean snap of splintering wood and dull thud of the strings as the wooden bridge cracks beneath them. Instead, I lay the violin back in its case on the chair and pull a blanket up over my mother’s thin legs. I crawl onto the mattress beside her and lay my neck where the violin’s had been.
When Beethoven was twenty-six, his ears began to ring. One day, someone standing beside him heard a flute playing in the distance and said, “Listen, a flute,” but Beethoven heard nothing. Later, when his friends heard a woman’s voice coming from an open window, the sound was drowned out by the ringing in his ears. Unable to hear the tumultuous applause after the premier of his 9th Symphony, Beethoven wept. He withdrew. He filled the silence with his memory of music, playing arpeggios of thundering bass notes so he could feel the sound of it singing through the marrow of his bones, the only part of him still able to hear.
I stuff wads of toilet paper in my ears and leave them there all day so I can hear what sounds fill my silence. Hearing nothing, I throw the wads away before shoving a blanket under the bed and wriggling after it on my stomach. I sleep here when she is gone, liking to have something solid around and above me. Because unlike my mother, I am not wrapped in the arms of music.
Before the concert, I smear lipstick over my lips. At the front desk, I ask for a pair of scissors which I take back to our room. I cut my dark hair into a short bob, longer in the front than in the back. I give myself bangs and run my mother’s mascara through my lashes. I blow kisses at myself in the mirror, smile over my right shoulder. I walk back into the bedroom and see pack of Gauloise cigarettes lying on the table. I grab it and try stuffing it into my bra, but I am disappointed when the square packaging is still visible beneath my shirt, protruding farther than my pre-pubescent breasts. I bring them out onto the balcony and strike a match, holding the flame to the cigarette between my lips while blocking the wind with my cupped palm like I had seen men do on the corner. Having nothing else, I model myself after the people I have seen. Like Shubert’s 8th symphony, I am unfinished.
Six years before dying of syphilis, Franz Shubert wrote the first two movements of his 8th Symphony. No one knows why he never finished it. Maybe, I think, the music just wasn’t there anymore.
Tonight she is playing Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor. She likes Bach’s concertos and partitas best because there is no one to get in her way, no orchestra or piano accompaniment. Will you and come watch? She asks me while tugging on the zipper of her dress. I shrug. You like this one, remember? She asks. I nod, kicking my legs back and forth as I sit on the minibar watching her get ready. In fact, I never really liked it, because she did too much.
Before the concert, the silence is as thick as butter. I lean my arms on the cold brass balcony and watch my mother stride out onto the empty stage, her dress sparkling in the overheads, the sequins casting little circles of light onto the upturned faces in the audience. She is calm. She smiles. My mother stands for a moment with her head bowed, bow and violin held loosely in front of her body. With eyes closed she raises her head and brings the violin to rest on her shoulder, the line of her jaw molding seamlessly with the black chinrest. If she were to open her eyes she would gaze down the length of the ebony finger board. She raises her right arm and places the bow on the string. She waits here for a moment, letting the silence settle, allowing the first measures to play out behind her closed lids before drawing them out with the light pressure of her bow on the strings. The walls swell with the sound of her. I used to love watching her perform, loving this glimpse into her world, which was the closest I could get to her. I rest my chin on my hands and I imagine being deaf, to sour on clouds of silence. I know that someone has come to lean on the balcony beside me when I feel a little tremor in my forearms.
She has reached the final movement. The man standing beside me says, I love this part, the Ciaconne. He has wide-shoulders, dark eyes, greying hair. Do you like music? He asks. I study him but say nothing. The Ciaconne movement was used mostly in the Baroque era, he explains, leaning down to whisper through my hair. I can feel the warmth of his breath on the inside of my ear and I feel thrill at having another person’s body so close to me. I know about Baroque. I don’t know the names of America’s presidents, but I know Bach and Handel.
I like music, he continues, and the Ciaconne is my favorite. The harmony never changes, he whispers, the notes; the progressions remain almost the same throughout. Do you hear it? In a Ciaconne, the same melody pushes forward, expanding, contracting, growing, but always the same melody running beneath the decorations, figurations. He smells spicy, refined. He tells me that he has never seen someone look so in love as my mother does. He says it breaks his heart to see the instrument cradled beneath her chin, the way her arms come up and around it in a near embrace, engulfing it, like she’s holding a child too delicate to touch. I tell him it’s not a child, not delicate at all, and he just smiles and looks towards her again. He asks my name and I tell him while my mother punctures the air with the final chord. The applause is astounding.
The man says I’m lucky to have such talent in my blood. He hands me a card with his name on it. Pierre Rougement, it says. I stuff it in my pocket and skip down the stairs, pushing my way through fur coats and clouds of Chanel.
Tears begin to soak the carpet and I notice my mother has quit sleeping. One day she stops in the middle of a cadenza and throws her violin onto the carpet. I breathe in sharply, expecting the worst. When it doesn’t break I see a cloud of anger beneath her skin and she grips the sides of her head with both hands, pulling at fistfuls of unwashed blond hair. Strands of hair fall away from her fingers. With a sob she drops to the floor and takes the instrument in her arms, pressing her face into its smooth wood and curling up on her side with it clutched against her body.
In the night, my mother is seated at the foot of my bed. She sways gently from side to side, raises her hands to her forehead and smooths back her hair. I get on all fours, cross the space between us. Mom, I say, putting my hand on her shoulder. Mom. She stops swaying for a moment to look at my hand on her skin before pushing it away as though something dirty had been there. I sit back on my heels and look at her. We are strangers, helpless to each other.
Schumann composed the entire Symphony in B-flat in fourteen days, after which entire symphonies of heavenly music played in his head. Ghosts spoke to him, they gave him music, they channeled it through him. One day, he said, Franz Schubert sent him a wonderful melody. Soon Schumann became tormented by the songs of the dead. He was both sung to by angels and plagued by devils, and could escape the melodies of neither. Desperate either to be free of them or to join them, he threw himself into the Rhine and drowned.
I take the business card out of my pocket and read the man’s name there. I dial the number on the back and am surprised when I recognize the voice that answers. He sounds like brandy and smooth French cologne.
He comes to the hotel and we bring my mother to the taxi waiting at the curb. In the taxi, he tells me that my mother is so full of passion it doesn’t leave room for anything else. Passion is eating her up from the inside, killing her. People yearn to feel as much as she does, he says. My mother is humming softly, head turned to the window, her finger making patterns on the glass. Suddenly she turns towards me and smiles. She reaches over Pierre’s body to grip my other hand in hers. Do you hear it Matilda? She asks. Do you hear? I nod, thinking of Schuman. It’s so beautiful, she says.