I caught my first glimpse of Orson Mahler when he was not wearing his dark glasses. I had expected him to have
them on, because Beverly had warned me that he never went outside with his eyes uncovered. She said he wore
dark glasses to protect his private person from his public face, and that he felt his public image was a
barrier between him and other people, that his fame prevented him from being free.
He stood there, very still, looking out over the midday traffic, the traffic that prevented me from joining him from across the street. It was odd to think that this famous man was waiting for me. I stood on the sidewalk, hesitating, holding on to my purse and the belt of my coat. Across the street, Orson Mahler's eyes touched me from head to toe. I sensed their lure, their invitation. They seemed to whisper. Look at me. I'm here. I'm not going anyway. I'm waiting. I'm ready for you. Whenever you are, I am. Come.
It occurred to me that that there was still time to turn around and leave. Yes, I could still walk away and undo everything that was about to happen. But suddenly all the cabs and cars had disappeared and the street was free to cross. On the other side, this ordinary-looking man stood - controlled and cool - like a stranger in an ominous dream from which I could no longer escape. I had to cross the street before the weakness in my knees got worse. I would walk up to him and be factual and friendly. I'd say, "I'm Isabella Barton. I'm supposed to meet you and Beverly. I'm honored to meet you, Maestro Mahler."
At seven-thirty sharp in the evening Orson opened his score on the music stand in front of
him. The last singers were taking their seats and the buzz of voices diminished to a few scattered
whispers. Orson crossed his arms and let his gaze come to rest on the group.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, I hope you're all up and awake…"
Laughter greeted his words.
"I also hope you realize that this is our last rehearsal before our concert on Sunday. We've got a lot of material to cover and I'd like to suggest that we don't take an intermission today."
In the first row of the soprano-section Beverly crossed her legs elaborately, showing off several inches above her knees, while exchanging smiles with a bass. Was there any man she could leave dispassionate? Daisy was seated in the first row of the alto-section. Her legs were hardly long enough to reach the floor and her plump body seemed to flow over the edges of the chair. Her jovial smile rendered her face the pleasant roundness of a Boticelli angel. With bangs that long, how could she see anything at all? Yet through her blond, wavy mane, her eyes were glued to Orson's every move.
Orson lifted his baton and looked at the young man behind the grand piano. The pianist nodded.
Orson said, "Let's start right at the beginning… Andante in four." He gave the upbeat and after a few opening bars from the piano the tenors and basses entered, followed two bars later by the sopranos and altos. The singers seemed sure of their parts and produced a sound that was magnificent. Their voices floated through the hall and up to its rounded ceiling as if to blast open the gates of heaven. For a long moment the glory of Verdi's music made me forget that Orson had not noticed me.
Orson stopped the chorus suddenly. "No, no! Ladies and gentlemen, don't shout! How often do I have to tell you? Get the sound by excitement and not volume. Let it float! It should be nothing more than an aura of tone…"
His authority filled the room. It was a force that propelled the chorus by exuding fellowship, not fear. Having experienced him only as a listener, I now experienced him as a leader and a creator, and everything he said proceeded from a sense of fullness within him.
Watching him, I was mesmerized by the expression of his hands, whose touch had only yesterday caused me such confusion. The same hands now turned into symbols of power, shaping, even caressing the music according to his vision…
Across the white table cloth James reached out to take my hand and smiled at me. He repeated what he had said
before. "I love you, Isabella, happy anniversary." But suddenly the twin creases running from the corners of
his mouth hardened. "Isabella, I think I could forgive you anything but infidelity," and in a softer voice,
"but I know I'll never have a reason to…"
The waiter materialized to take our dessert order. I felt a string tighten around my stomach and knew that I would have to force down my chocolate mousse.
Under the tablecloth I twisted my new diamond anniversary ring on my finger, terrorized by the thought that James could not accept imperfection in our love. But his eyes showed no sign of trouble. He had ordered vanilla ice cream for himself.
James had fixed preferences in ice cream and in women. He could go into an ice-cream parlor that carried thirty different flavors and still come out with three scoops of vanilla. Of all the widely varied female flavors in the world, I was the one for him who tasted like vanilla…
Orson had spoken in full voice and everyone in the art gallery turned towards him. Then he gestured for
Louise and me to move closer and whispered, "Ladies, I'm a worshiper of the female body. I love its beauty
above all other beauties. And frankly, nothing else, not even music, is able to fulfill me as completely,
or render me completely mad." He paused meaningfully and looked at me. "But these paintings are beyond my
comprehension. Why would anyone degrade nature's most beautiful gift in such an awful way?"
Was he sending me a message? I remembered his words during our ride through Central Park …to hold and behold a woman in the natural flow of love-making…
Back in our hotel room, James rocked me briefly in his arms before falling asleep. I could hear his heart
singing for a dozen reasons, none on which included me. In the silvery shadows of the room I could
see his tennis racket leaning against the chest of drawers. It seemed like an ambitious mistress,
laughing at the drop of bitterness poisoning my heart.
Through the open balcony door the moon flickered behind moving clouds, making the walls seem to recede and draw closer at uneven intervals. They threw back echoes of masked voices.
Dance with-a-me, Giacomo, and I tell you a secret.
Isabella, you're getting very witty in your old age.
Orson, why do you spend your time with me?
You're like a lost song... and even more beautiful than I remembered.
My body stirred, wide awake under the cool silk of my new nightgown that had gone unnoticed. Despite the warm summer air I shivered and pulled the covers tighter, trying to adjust to James' even breathing. From the open bathroom door a faucet was dripping. Its rhythm irritated me, but an abstract weight seemed to hold my body down, preventing me from getting up. There were other sounds too. From the room above, footsteps were pacing up and down, causing the wooden floor to creak. Somebody else was unable to sleep, a ghost without a face, like the steps of time caught in a cage.
For a short, peaceful moment Julia and I lifted our faces to the sun, our eyes closed, dreaming of summer.
The birds seemed to hold their breath in anticipation of a revelation. I re-opened my eyes to the brightness
around me and saw the top of the Chrysler Building glistening in the distance.
Julia's eyes squinted. "Oh, something funny I wanted to show you," she said, pausing to sip soda through a straw. "There was a picture of you and Orson Mahler in the New York Post this morning."
My blood froze.
"What?" I whispered as unperturbed as I could manage.
"Wait a minute... Where is it?" Unhurried, she combed her ponytail with her fingers. "I saved the page for you… but where did I put it?"
After what seemed an eternity, she produced a crumpled piece of newspaper from her pocket and unfolded it with maddening slowness.
"Look here." She dropped the wrinkled page in my lap and finished her Camembert, more interested in the food than the photo.
My throat tightened up. O mein Gott! Here I was in my beige suit, seen from behind. The picture was postcard-size. Orson knelt in front of me, holding his ice-cream cone in one hand and clutching his heart with the other. The subtext read, Spring Fever can affect anyone, including Maestro Orson Mahler in Battery Park.
I blurted out, "That's not me…"
Julia wiped her mouth. "But it looks exactly like you…"
I wiped off my last tears and managed a smile. "I feel much better, and I'm starved." "I guess that means we're
on for dinner." Orson checked his watch and took my arm. Wordlessly, we started walking north on Broadway.
Our emotions had reached a healthy resolution, but there was a nakedness between our minds. Had we already become
so close, or was our silence a failure to connect?
We passed the glass display cases for the coming concert season at Avery Fisher Hall. Orson gestured with his head. "I don't like that poster of me."
I protested, "Why not? It's a good picture of you."
"Yes, unfortunately, I'm afraid it is," he frowned. "I never liked my looks."
The first raindrops made me cling more tightly to his arm.
"Orson Mahler," I said solemnly, "your looks are not the most important thing about you."
He said, somewhat surprised, "What is it about me then… What do you want from me, Isabella?"
I savored a little moment of suspense.
"I want your body and your mind."
Orson drew me closer. "Fine," he said, "that settles matters."
Despite the rain, our steps were free and easy. A moment later we pushed through the glass door of Federico's restaurant. It was Friday and the place was packed, but there was always room for Maestro Mahler.
At the table Orson's eyes were filled with stars. "I'm elated."
"About what?" My fingers played with the vase of red carnations…
As I awoke at dawn, I sensed uneasiness. Destiny seemed to be moving in on me, like the sound of crunching
gravel under the footsteps of disaster. How could I keep it from moving closer? The reality of James lying
next to me diminished the demons in my mind. James stirred and stretched lazily, like a big jungle cat. In a warm,
lulling daze I looked at his features, as handsome in sleep as in wakefulness. His facial muscles relaxed,
he looked like a younger brother of himself, and I felt a deep tenderness for him…