A Quarter Rest

Coby Lubliner

My first thought after reading the letter was a recall of my first day with Sophie. Whenever I think about that day, I am amazed by the contrast between the clarity with which I remember every detail of those four hours – every snatch of dialogue, every nuance of the afternoon turning into evening – and the dreamlike haze that blurs my memory of the following days and weeks.

“You’ve reached the summer home of Sophie Carson. You don’t have to leave a message, but please do if you so desire.”


I so desired.

“Hello, Sophie, this is Aaron Walberg, I’m on the Festival volunteer committee and we met at the reception. I’m calling to see if there is any way I can help you during your stay here. My number is” – and here I made a subito change from andante to adagio – “six-eight-one-two-four-three-seven.” As always, I recited my number as a trochaic tetrameter, without the conventional caesura marking the hyphen between the third and fourth digits; it was how I taught myself to remember it when I first moved to this town. Almost as an afterthought, I added, “I hope to hear from you.”

Unlike the festivals dedicated to Bach or Mozart or Early Music that other places, especially college towns, organize in the summer, our Festival, of which this was only the second edition, was from the outset a general one, meant to appeal to the most diverse tastes, with the half-avowed intention of expanding those that were narrow. The diversity was personified in its founder and director, Nigel Burrows, who had come to us two years before as the new chairman of our music department. Nigel could teach and conduct, with equal facility, Luca Marenzio and Luciano Berio. While some of his critics, inside and outside his department, saw this catholicity as shallowness, if not mediocrity, for me his advent meant a great opening of opportunities to hear music beyond the Bach-to-Britten range that had prevailed before. It was reflected both in the programs of the college itself (orchestra, chorus, chamber ensemble) and in those of visiting performers.

The same famous pianist who, three years before, had played Beethoven, Liszt and Debussy, during the past year played Scarlatti, Schumann and Dallapiccola.

That evening I heard from her.

“Is this Aaron?”

“Yes.” Though I couldn’t really remember her voice from our first meeting – she hadn’t spoken much, as I recalled – I knew that it was she.

“This is Sophie Carson. I remember your name tag, though I’m not sure which face it went with – there were a lot of people that night. Anyway, thanks for your offer of help.”

“Do you need any?”

“Oh, yes. For starters, I need a bicycle – to borrow, steal, or even buy, preferably a cheap used one.”

I immediately thought of Max Krohn, who had left his house, with his and Linda’s bicycles in it, in my care for the summer. They were in France, on – what else? – a bicycle tour, but with rented bicycles of course.

“Would a man’s frame be okay?” I asked. Linda Krohn did not trust the ruggedness of mixte frames.

“I’m afraid not. I’ll have to use it in concert getup – you know about long black gowns, I’m sure.”

“Well, I could drive you to concerts, since I expect to attend most, if not all, of them. But I’m sure you’d rather be independent...”

“You’re right.”

“... so I’d be glad to help you find a woman’s bicycle. I will ask around as soon as possible. You’re of about medium height?”

“Five-foot-five, one sixty-five... I mean centimeters, not pounds.”

“I didn’t think so.” I remembered her as rather slim, though fairly full-breasted.

The following weekend Sophie found, on her own, a bike for herself at a garage sale in her neighborhood. Much of her time soon became taken up by rehearsals; her well-padded violin case had an adjustable strap with whose help it fitted perfectly on her back as she pedaled between her house and my house and the several rehearsal sites on campus – she played in the symphony orchestra, the chamber orchestra and a quartet, and was busy almost every evening. (“Beats playing at weddings while the guests stuff themselves,” she replied when I commented on this busyness.)

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” I continued.

“Well, nothing concrete at the moment, but I don’t know anyone here, not even any of the musicians, so just some company would be nice... uh... that is, if you’re not socially encumbered.”

I had never heard that particular combination of adverb and past participle, but it impressed me as unusually apt.

“Nothing concrete at the moment,” I said. And she laughed. I immediately remembered having heard her laugh – just once – at the reception, and being struck by the contralto fullness of her laughter.

The first Festival had been a modest affair, organized entirely within the Music Department and with musicians recruited mostly from the campus, the town and the immediate surroundings, and with only a few professionals – graduates of our college, or personal acquaintances of Nigel’s – from Los Angeles and San Francisco. But it turned out to be surprisingly successful, with attendance, by both locals and visitors, far exceeding expectations. Nigel’s talks about the music, displaying his Oxford erudition along with ample wit and charm, were especially popular with the public, and stimulated attendance at even the more esoteric concerts. I, unfortunately, had to miss all but the first few days, having previously committed myself to some conferences in the East and in Canada. When I came back and the end of the summer, the air on campus and in town was abuzz with talk about the success of the Festival and the prospects for its future. The Festival Alliance was just being formed as a civic organization, with the college president and the mayor as honorary co-chairmen, and with a call for volunteers sounded across town and gown.

The coordinator of volunteers was the wife of Herbert Stern, the owner (fourth generation) of Stern’s Department Store. Her name was Viola, but, though she was still in her forties, I never heard her called anything but Mrs. Stern, even by people whom I took to be her friends. “Professor Walberg? This is Mrs. Herbert Stern speaking,” she announced herself on the telephone in response to my having signed up, unwittingly giving me an idea for a sociolinguistic research project: The use of titles in self-address (that term, self-address, was one I that had to invent).

As one of the first to volunteer, I had my pick of committee assignments, and I chose several.

On the program committee, our work consisted of periodically meeting with Nigel in order to hear – and almost unquestioningly approve – his wittily and charmingly presented programming proposals in all their Oxonian refinement, a quality that seemed to have served, among other functions, as a shield for his gayness, rather obvious to me but perhaps not to the townspeople, on whom it might otherwise have had a negative effect. Our town, after all, is not a Berkeley; our political representation oscillates between moderate Republican and conservative Democrat, and even on campus there are few avowed liberals. People like to present themselves as at least in some way conservative, if not fiscally or socially then culturally or technologically (“I’m too old-fashioned for all this newfangled techno stuff”). But nothing, neither his half-hidden lifestyle nor his championship of unconventional music, kept Nigel from attaining civic celebrity status.

On the publicity committee, I helped edit the wording of the advertisements and brochures (A festival dedicated to one composer? Two? How about twenty-two?), and later took charge of contacts with public radio stations around the state on which announcements of the Festival would be broadcast. I also proposed that our toll-free telephone number be 1-800-ESTIVAL, but we were informed that it had been taken.

Finally, on the hospitality committee – whose membership was quite numerous – I joined the subcommittee that was to act as hosts to visiting musicians. This activity began with the reception, held at the Stern mansion. It was the second time I had been to that century-old turreted Victorian, lying among valley oaks and grapevines (from which both a red and a white wine called Château Stern were produced) outside of town. The first time was a fund-raising dinner, formally served in the cavernous dining room, where Festival volunteers were invited (with “guest”) to mingle with the region’s landed and moneyed folks, eating salmon with peas and listening to Nigel play the viola da gamba. My “guest” at this event was Mary Olsen, an administrative assistant in another department. Mary was addicted to computer lingo; the first time we went to bed together she undressed unceremoniously and, facing me frontally, said, “Wysiwyg!”, to which I replied “Ilwis.” It was when she looked at me quizzically, and I had to explain – “I like what I see” – that I realized that the affair was not going to last. And, indeed, by the end of the school year our companionship had so dwindled that my answer to Sophie’s implied question about encumberment was quite true.

We ended our phone conversation by making a date for the following day at four o’clock, when she would be finishing her day’s practice. She was lodged in a duplex on the east side of town, a good couple of miles away from the campus, the town center, and my neighborhood. Since she as yet had no transportation of her own, I would pick her up in my car.

I got there about five minutes before the appointed time. As I neared the front door, I heard solo violin music. It only took half a bar of the fluttering sixteenth-notes, furiously dancing like the drops on the edge a waterfall, for me to recognize the Giga of Bach’s d-minor partita. Apparently Sophie had finished practicing and was now relaxing by listening to a virtuoso recording. It seemed to be an extraordinarily good one, both in the flawless execution and the lifelike sound; and Sophie had the luck to be housed in a place with a superb sound system. Of course I did not ring the bell. I stood there, holding my breath while waiting for the end of the piece and that sublime pause that comes before the greatest masterwork of all, the Ciaccona.

To my surprise, the violinist (who could it be?) hardly paused at all, but with barely a quarter rest rushed into the sequel, as though the two movements were one, unlike anything I had ever heard in concert or on record, and not enough to let me take a breath. It was only as the music passed through an incomparably lyrical, almost erotic cascade of eighth-notes that I slowly exhaled, and inhaled just in time for the first of the sixteenth-note variations. And then it stopped.

I felt my heart pounding. My mind was playing the notes that were not coming from inside the house. Then the door opened.

“I though you might be standing out there,” she said. “I wouldn’t have heard the doorbell anyway. I was still practicing.”

That last gerund left me dumbfounded. Had she really said “practicing,” not “listening”? And then I noticed her right arm hanging beside her, with the hand holding a bow.

I looked at her. Dressed in jeans and plain white T-shirt, she who had seemed a somewhat-pretty-but-nothing-special young woman was now the most beautiful creature on earth. Her pale face, devoid of makeup and bathed by the afternoon sun obliquely falling on the doorway, made me think of a marble goddess. Her green eyes glowed with the glow of stained-glass windows. And in the undulation of her unkempt, curly reddish-brown hair, agitated by the passing breeze, I saw the ripple of Bach’s notes.

Of our first time truly together, I remember that she rode to my house after a shorter-than-expected evening rehearsal, perhaps a week (but I can’t definitely count the days) after the first day. But nothing about our first intimate encounter stands out above those that followed, until that night.

Our lovemaking had a consistent pattern. Gentle kissing and touching would suddenly, under her impulse, turn frantic and combine with disrobing, usually incomplete but sufficient for the purpose. I found that I had to hide condoms strategically around the house, because I never knew where copulation might begin. And once it began it continued at the same frantic pace, despite my futile attempts to slow it down, until I would be spent. It never took her long to approach the verge of orgasm, but however long we might linger on the verge, she never made it. Inevitably, her final release took the form of tears.

Once I asked her why she cried. “For joy,” she said. I very much wanted to believe her.

And then she would quickly dress and ride home.

“That was you playing?” I half-stammered. “It was fantastic.” I noticed a twinge of discomfort on her face, but went on regardless. “You... you’re a... a virtuoso... I mean virtuosa...” She laughed.

Mi dispiace,” she said, “non sono una ragazza troppo virtuosa.” Her Italian was fluent, native-like. Had she lived in Italy? There would be time to ask her later. And why did she assume that I would understand? Could she remember that I taught Romance languages? Not bloody likely. And what did she mean by not being an overly virtuous girl?

Ma sei una gran violinista,” I said, and quickly went on. “I was just trying to be politically correct with gender.”

“I know. Why don’t you come in?” she said, motioning me inside with the bow.

I took a few steps into the living room, without closing the door behind me, and quickly surveyed it. Indeed, the only piece of household electronics among the weatherbeaten furnishings was a portable radio-cassette player. A violin, the color of its wood resembling nothing so much as Sophie’s hair – was that intentional? I wondered – rested on the moss-green velvet of the sofa, with the bow case next to it; the violin case was on the floor, leaning on the sofa’s edge. A music stand bearing a disarray of paper stood nearby.

“Could I hear you play the whole Ciaccona some time?” I asked timidly.

She was putting the violin into its case. Without turning her head toward me she said drily, as though she were speaking to the furniture, “I don’t play solo, just orchestra and chamber.”

I felt that it would be futile to try to tell her that she certainly had the skill to be a first-rate soloist. She must have already been told that by anyone who heard her, and it would be hard to imagine a teacher who would not encourage her to pursue a solo career. Mentally reviewing the Festival program, in whose preparation I had taken part, I remembered that she was not even the concertmaster of the orchestra, and that she played second fiddle in the quartet. Could David Halsey, who was to be this summer’s star violinist, be better than her?

“I assume that’s by choice,” I finally said.

With instrument and bow encased and shelved, she turned to me with an enigmatic smile. “In a way,” she said.

I tried again. “What I meant was... not necessarily in concert, but if I could hear you practice...”

“I don’t usually play the Chaconne when I practice. I don’t know what possessed me today – I was playing the Gigue, and it wasn’t quite four yet when I finished, so I just barged ahead to fill the time. In fact I hadn’t played it in years.” It seemed curious that she used the French names of the movements, pronounced à l’américaine, rather than the ones that Bach himself had written in Italian. But I did not comment on the matter.

What I really wanted to ask was, would she play the Ciaccona or the Chaconne, whatever one might call it, for me? This, however, was not the occasion.

She joined me where I was standing, stopping for a moment before proceeding to the door. “Shall we go out?” she said. “Why don’t you show me around the town?”

If there is such a thing as a typical provincial college town – and I have my doubts – then ours is it. The campus of the college – once private but long since taken over by the state – is the usual mix of old, new and middle-aged buildings, and is separated from the “historic” downtown section, with its grey stone court house, yellow brick city hall, and white art-deco sculptured concrete storefronts, by three blocks of mostly large, tree-shaded Victorian houses, nearly all of them subdivided into two or three units for student housing. Scattered among them are a few cottages of the craftsman variety, one of which is my house. I am on the younger side of the professorial demographic spectrum, and I don’t as yet feel uncomfortable living in a colony of twenty-plus-or-minus-two-year-olds. I luxuriate in the convenience of being able to walk or bicycle to fill virtually all my local needs: work, bank, shopping, doctor, barber,... I use my car, which I bought (already used) when I first arrived, only for out-of-town trips and for driving visitors around.

What I did with Sophie, in fact, was park the car in my driveway and take her for a walk, heading downtown. Along the way, encouraged by her questions, I told her about myself.

I told her that I was a linguist, that we had no linguistics department but that the English Department, the Department of Foreign Languages (yes, there was only one, and I was in it) and the Anthropology Department had provisions for a few linguists, who together formed a group that administered the linguistics major. I went on to say that I was a generalist in linguistics, that I worked in Romance historical linguistics, in language teaching methodology, and in sociolinguistics, especially in bilingual situations. As always when I introduce my work, I was prepared to explain the meaning of the terms I used, but Sophie did not seem to need any explanations; not only did she not ask for them, but I sensed intuitively that what I was talking about was not foreign to her.

I also told her that, after a postdoc in Barcelona (“Barcelona? How interesting,” she interjected without specifying why she found it so), I had been hired to replace another linguist who had not worked out, a generative grammar guy (“You mean, like Chomsky?” she asked, and I nodded) who was let go before getting tenure, and that I had just received mine. “Congratulations,” she said.

When we came to the first traffic light and stopped for the red, she pointed to a colorful hand-painted sign. “Caffè Napoli,” she read, and added, with a smile, “Io ho vissuto a Napoli.”

Andiamoci, allora,” I said. I had thought of taking her there, anyway. It had, until the recent opening of Starbucks, been the town’s only espresso bar. But Mario, the owner, was an authentic Neapolitan who made authentic Neapolitan pizza, with fresh tomatoes and fresh basil that he grew himself, and fresh mozzarella that he had flown to him by a cousin in the cheese business. I had thought of introducing Sophie to him, since I had already suspected that she had lived in Italy, but her revelation that it had in fact been Naples made my intention all the more relevant.

All the outdoor tables were occupied, but inside all but one were empty. Mario himself was operating the Faema. I waited until the hiss of the machine subsided before saying, “Ciao, Mario. Ti presento un’amica.’ And as Mario raised his thick arm over the counter, Sophie met it with a firm handshake. “Sofia,” she said.

A large framed color photograph of a youthful Sophia Loren was one of many hanging on the wall opposite the counter. Mario looked at Sophie, then up at the picture, and then again, this time with a smile, at Sophie. His smile broadened, and all three of us burst out laughing. Then Sophie addressed Mario in fluent Neapolitan, which I hardly understood, but to which Mario responded with a series of facial expressions of a staggering range, from astonishment through fascination to amusement, with only a few verbal interjections. He took the espresso cup from the machine and delivered it to the one occupied table, all the while never taking his eyes away from Sophie’s face. He laughed heartily when she finished. She then turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, I haven’t spoken napoletano in years – I just got carried away.”

“Just like the ciaccona,” I said innocently (or so I thought). Her face suddenly darkened. I seemed to be unwittingly hitting a sore nerve. I resolved to be careful. “What would you like?” I asked.

Un cappuccino,” she said to Mario, in careful Italian. It was a code-switching situation of the type I had studied, and even written a paper about, but this one had a component that obviously eluded me. Or perhaps they all did, but I hadn’t been aware of it?

Due,” I said.

An unspoken dialogue of discomfort had taken shape between us: my references to her solo playing made her uncomfortable; her discomfort in turn made me uncomfortable; and we both strove, by evasion. to ease each other’s discomfort. It occurred to me that there are worse ways to begin a friendship, and that perhaps some day I would get to know what was behind her reticence.

“So what did you do in Naples?” I asked.

“My father was in the Navy...” she began.

“Sixth Fleet?” I interrupted.

“Yes,” she said. “He’s retired now – from the Navy, that is. He was a Navy doctor, and now he’s in private practice back in Virginia. He was stationed in Naples, and I used to visit him summers at first, but one year, when I was in high school, I found out about a violin teacher there, and I began to study with him, so I stayed, finished high school at the base, and went on to the Conservatory. I then came back here to finish college, as an Italian major, because it was easy and left me time to practice.”

“Where is `here’?” I asked as Mario delivered the foaming cups on a tray.

“Virginia,” she said. “No, not California,” she added with a smile. “I didn’t see any point in going to a private college.”

“And you still live in Virginia?” I asked.

“Yes, but close to Washington, so I can get jobs both there and in Virginia. I play in three symphony orchestras, chamber groups, musicals, private events, what have you.”

“Do you teach?”

“No,” she said matter-of-factly and without elaborating. Had I hit another sore spot? Her face became somber only for a moment before she submerged her upper lip in the foam. “Mario makes a great cappuccino,” she said after emerging. “I didn’t expect anything like this here. In Washington I go to a place where the Italian embassy staff people hang out, but otherwise there’s nothing.” And she took another obviously satisfying sip.

“Wait till you try his pizza,” I said between sips.

“How long?” she asked.

It took me a second or two to understand her question. “As long as it takes him to make it,” I finally said. “Are you hungry?” I asked. It was a little after five o’clock.

“Not really, but with the prospect of a good Neapolitan pizza... No, let’s walk around town some more, and then we’ll come back. Is that okay with you?”

“Sure,” I said. As I was paying, glad that Sophie had not offered to pay her share, I told Mario of our planned return.

Per la signorina Sofia,” he announced theatrically, “facciamo una pizza Sophia. Guardi, signorina,” he said to her as he handed her the pizza menu and pointed his thick index finger to the item bearing the name of her movie-star namesake. “Vabbene?” he asked. Artichoke hearts, mushrooms, anchovies... “Perfetto,” she assured him.

The sociolinguist in me was observing the familiar ritual where two speakers of a dialect speak in the standard to each other out of politeness to a third party. Once she has her bike, I thought, she will be able to visit Mario on her own and converse in Neapolitan to her heart’s content.

“Thank you,” she said when we were outside the Caffè Napoli.

“It’s nothing,” I said.

“I don’t mean just the coffee. Thank you for taking me out, for bringing me here, for talking to me... for being there, I guess. I don’t usually enjoy summer festivals, I just do them as work, but I think I will enjoy this one.”

I briefly wondered whether to take her hand, but she left me little time to wonder as she took mine and squeezed it. She then loosened her grip but didn’t let go. I reciprocated by squeezing hers. We remained hand in hand as we continued walking.

I thought of the possibility of meeting someone of my acquaintance who might be associated with the Festival. What would they think? That I volunteered only in order to meet attractive women visitors? Well, not “only,” but yes, why not? And someone must have thought along that line when assigning Sophie to my guidance.

We met no one of the sort. So, all the while holding her hand, I pointed out with my free one the town’s chief monuments, told her some of the its history and recounted some anecdotes from its current politics. She seemed genuinely interested.

I seemed to have learned my lesson. For the rest of the evening, pizza and a further walk, nothing I said provoked that closing, that darkening of her face. When we came back to my house it was after eight, not quite dark yet but getting there. I asked her if she would like to come in, and, as I had expected, she declined, saying that she had to get back. On the way to her house, I asked her if she would like to get together again tomorrow – perhaps we could go to campus and look at the bulletin board where bicycles might be advertised for sale. She readily agreed. When we arrived at her place, she said, “Thank you again” and gave me a quick kiss, mostly on the cheek but with a little piece landing on my mouth, and bolted out of the car and into the house.

And then that night...

The inaugural concert came at last. The first half was the chamber orchestra, playing Corelli and an early Haydn. The second half, with the full symphony orchestra and chorus, was the Mahler Second.

Sophie didn’t want to see me all that day, so that my first vision of her was as she came out on stage to sit at the first desk in order to wait until David Halsey, the concertmaster, appeared. It took my breath away. Her gown, all black comme il faut, seemed to consist of a long but slinky skirt with indentations that let her well-turned black-stockinged legs peer through discreetly, connected to a bustier that was just barely covered with a gauzy top, unabashedly displaying the lovely shape of her neck and shoulders, gently brushed by her loosely falling hair. Under the lights the pallor of her skin was less marked. Sitting in the middle orchestra section of the College Auditorium, my attention was so focused on her that I could barely listen to the opening remarks of Mrs. Stern, until her stentorian announcement of Nigel Burrows, at which point I joined the general applause that greeted Nigel’s appearance, resplendent in white tie and tails. (He had already assured the program committee that subsequent concerts would not be quite so formal.) He, too, said a few words, well chosen to set a mood that was both festive and relaxed, and turned to the continuo harpsichordist for the opening A of the tuning, which, since only the strings were playing, took only a moment. And soon the adagio notes of the A major concerto grosso floated over the hall.

Sophie played second violin in the concertino, so that I could hear some of her solo passages; but, much as I wanted to, I heard nothing distinctive about her playing – it sounded exactly like David Halsey’s. Gradually my concentration on her dissipated, and I allowed myself to be filled with the music.

Of course there was a party after the concert, and of course Sophie came home with me. She would spend the night – that was tacitly understood between us – for the first time.

Our mating ritual changed in that she undressed carefully, draped her gown over a chair, and came to bed naked. But then it was quite the usual.

I woke to the sensation of her stirring. She was asleep, on her back, but not at rest. Her arms and legs were performing small, irregular movements. Her breathing was rapid and anxious, and was soon complemented by something like sobbing. I thought that I would calm her by touching her. As gently as I could, I placed my hand on her upper abdomen, just below her breasts. I felt her shudder, and she vehemently turned away from me. Her sobbing intensified, and I thought I could discern a vowelless utterance that sounded like “No!” come from her throat. My hand was still touching her, on her waist, but she began to squirm, so I removed it. Her squirming did not stop, and the cries of “No!” turned more distinct. Suddenly she turned again, this time towards me, and with such speed that her body forcefully bumped into mine. She instantly awoke, but took a few seconds to come to full awareness. She put her arms around my neck.

“Oh, Aaron, Aaron,” she panted, “hold me, hold me.”

The expected effect of her warm, sweaty-moist skin pressing into mine was not long in coming. But when I began to kiss her shoulder she shrugged it backwards so as to disengage from my mouth, whispering, as she nuzzled my ear, “No, Aaron, please, just hold me.”

“It’s hard,” I whispered back, hoping that the play on words would lighten the mood. But she began to cry, and it was exactly the same crying that I had previously heard only at the conclusion of lovemaking.

She cried in my arms for a long time. After she fell asleep, I felt like Houdini as I disengaged.

In the morning – our first together – she seemed to have no memory of the bad dream, and I chose not to bring it up.

It must have been another three weeks before we spent another night together. It was another post-concert occasion – I don’t recall the program, but I well remember the black gown and its removal.

Almost everything was a repetition of the previous time, including the post-coital nightmare, except that between the repeated cries of “No!” I distinctly heard something that sounded very much like “Paul.”

In the course of our talks she occasionally mentioned her childhood violin teachers in a veiled sort of way. I inferred that there had been at least two: one was “my first teacher” and the other was “my teacher.” It was not only the presence or absence of the ordinal numeral that marked the difference. For one thing, the first teacher had been a she, and the “teacher” a he. But in other ways as well her manner of speaking about the two was different. She talked about her first teacher rather casually, the way one talks about one’s first-grade teacher, and typically in reference to the basic stuff of fiddling that she had learned from her: posture, intonation, fingering. About the other the allusions were more serious, and usually in the form of quotes (“My teacher told me to keep my mind empty between movements”).

Only once, I believe, was there a mention of “Maestro..., I mean my teacher in Naples.”

One afternoon, as I was walking her to a rehearsal, we were comparing incidents that had happened to us at age twelve, and she qualified hers (which I have forgotten) with “just about the time I changed from Flora to Paul... I mean from my first teacher to...” She did not complete the sentence.

“To your teacher?” I asked, and I realized by observing her puzzled expression that she had not been aware of the distinction she herself had been making.

“Well, they were both my teachers, but yes... I mean, Flora taught me to play the violin, but Paul taught me... well, to play music.”

“And he was your teacher until you moved to Naples?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said soberly. “For three years.” And she fell silent. We had another hundred yards or so to walk to the music building, but the conversation was finished.

Twelve to fifteen, I calculated – what a pivotal period in a girl’s lifetime! I became curious about the part that this Paul had played in Sophie’s life. But I already knew that I would have to be careful with any inquiries. For one thing, if a question or remark of mine made her uncomfortable it would also disincline her from sex.

Some day soon thereafter – perhaps the next day, perhaps not – she came over for lunch. We would have over two hours together, and normally this would have meant making love, but this time she was menstruating.

As I was pouring her wine I said, “Your teacher Paul must have been pretty special, since he’s the one that you call simply ‘my teacher.’”

“Do I?” she asked disingenuously. But I was determined not to let her get away with evasion.

“Yes, you do,” I said so emphatically that when I split a meatball in two with my fork, one of the two halves almost rolled off my plate. This made her laugh.

“I don’t think about him like that,” she said somewhat stiffly. “I think about him as Paul. At first I called him Mister Ginzburg, but then he became Paul, though his real name was.. is Pavel.”

“Russian?” I asked rhetorically.

“From Odessa,” she said. Ah yes, I thought, Odessa, home of virtuosos, of Milstein, of Oistrakh... But then I realized that by her answer she avoided the question of nationality. Someone “from Odessa” could be Russian, or Ukrainian, or Jewish, which would seem to be the case of Pavel/Paul, to judge by his surname.

I decided to wait for another occasion to tell her about time she cried out her teacher’s name in my arms. And I kept postponing the occasion until it was almost time for her to go back east. We were having dinner at my place, and ingested enough wine to remove my lingering inhibitions. So I blurted it out.

To my surprise, this time she did not turn evasive, but looked away and was silent until saying softly, sighingly, “Paul...” She looked away for a long time. I did or said nothing. Suddenly she turned to me and smiled. “I guess I ought to tell you about Paul,” she said.

I smiled but remained silent.

“We were working on the D minor Partita.” I smiled again. “Yes,” she went on. “He was giving me all kinds of technical tips on the dance movements, but he wouldn’t let me play the Chaconne. ‘You must wait,’ he kept saying. ‘You are too young, you have not passion. To play this you must have passion of woman. You are not yet woman.’ And I resented it, because I was fourteen, like Juliet, and I had already filled out and I’d been having my period for a year. And then one time he said, ‘I will make you woman.’”

“You mean...” I began.

“At first I wasn’t sure what he meant. I was already having sex fantasies by then, but I couldn’t imagine it with him. And then when I came for the next lesson, there was a cot in his music room, and he was wearing a dressing gown – it was red, a kind of deep crimson, and I it made me think of the color of blood. And then I understood.”

“What did you feel?” I asked.

“What did I feel? Everything. Scared, excited, disgusted, curious, resigned. He said, ‘first you play, then I make you woman, then you play again, and we will hear difference.’ And there was a little voice inside me that was saying ‘just say no,’ but the rest of me knew that I couldn’t. I just remember thinking that, oh well, my first time would not be a romantic encounter with a handsome young stranger.”

“Was it any of the above?”

“Well, he was certainly no stranger, nor young, and it would be a stretch to call him handsome.”

“Was it romantic?” I asked, realizing immediately – but too late – that my question was inappropriate.

She took a deep breath, and curtly said “Let’s change the subject.” I said nothing. She looked at me again, and with a rueful smile said, “For now, I mean,” before putting her head on my shoulder. I put my arms around her and lightly kissed her camomile-scented hair. My brain was bursting with questions that I wanted to ask her, but I knew that they would have to be doled out carefully.

According to the temper of our times, what Sophie had experienced would be branded as child abuse; according to the law, she was a victim of rape. But she projected no sense of victimhood, only of disappointment at not having her romantic fantasies fulfilled. And young girls’ experiences with handsome young strangers are often anything but romantic.

I also wondered: did Pavel/Paul propose pedagogy as a pretext for a pedophilic perversion?

But after dinner, and after talking about other matters, when she was helping me with her dishes, I kissed her. Suddenly she broke away gently, and said, “Your kiss...”

“What about it?”

“You make me feel kissed. And so did Paul. I’d tried kissing with boys before, but I felt nothing. But when he kissed me that time, I really did know for the first time what it was to feel like a woman, though I wasn’t sure I was ready for it.”

I wondered if anyone else, between Paul and me – some fifteen years – had made her feel kissed. But I didn’t ask, and no further words on the subject crossed between us during her remaining few days in town.

We agreed that during the upcoming quarter our relationship was to be given a rest. I was to go to Virginia for a conference in mid-December, and then we would see if it would continue.

I called her about every other week, and we would chat pleasantly and briefly about our lives, both of which had become quite busy, what with my course load and her rehearsal schedule.

I was due at the Krohns’ for Thanksgiving dinner, and I was almost out the door – I was running late – when the phone rang. After a moment’s hesitation I decided to pick it up.

“Aaron? This is Sophie.”

“Hi...” But she cut me short before I could proceed past the greeting.

“I’d better be brief, Aaron. I know you’re coming to Washington next month...”


“But I can’t see you. I can’t tell you why over the phone, but I’ll write you. I hope you understand. Bye...” Click.

I sat there holding the receiver, looking at it as if it were the being that had just told me what I had heard.

She sounded agitated, but not anxious. And my initial feeling of hurt and disappointment was soon turning to curiosity. Why this sudden cancellation? It could not have been an emergency, since our projected meeting was still a good three weeks away. But it could not have been anything as simple as a trip, for then she could have explained it to me in a few words. I had to resign myself to waiting for the arrival of the letter.

It came three days later.

Dear Aaron,

I’m sorry that I was so abrupt and cryptic on the phone with you. I hope you don’t feel hurt, but I would understand if you did. But the simple fact is that I cannot see you when you come to Washington. My life has taken an astounding turn: I am getting married.

To whom, you may ask. The answer may astonish you even more, so let me lead you up to it.

At the first rehearsal of the National Symphony season, I got talking to my new deskmate, and it turned out that she knew my name. How? I asked. From my teacher, she said. Who? I asked. Paul Ginzburg, she said. I was stunned: why would he talk about me? It turned out he had told her that I had been the most promising student he had ever had, but that I had wasted my promise because I had “given up the passion,” as he put it to her, exhorting her not to follow in my footsteps. You can imagine how mixed my feelings were. I felt both flattered and stung, but especially bothered by the fact that he had used my name. Couldn’t he have referred to me without naming me? I asked her. Don’t you think that was indiscreet? Sure, she said, but he was in a bad state at the time, his wife had just left him. I didn’t really accept that as an excuse, but some part of me felt sorry for him, and the next day I called him. I almost hung up after the second ring, but he picked up the phone, and when I heard that Russian “hello,” something in me snapped. The next day I went to see him, and... I’d better cut this short. Yes, I’m going to marry Paul.

I have a recital planned for February, and I’m thinking of doing some touring. How far along is the planning for next summer’s Festival? I have written to Nigel, and I’m waiting for his reply. I would like to do a solo recital there. Of course I will play the D minor Partita.



© 2003 by Jacob Lubliner

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