Books to read, currently in-progress on this blog:
The Marriage of Figaro, Chapters 2 & 3
Now on to Chapters 2 & 3 of the book. If this is your first time reading any of this, start here:
The Marriage of Figaro
by Douglas Clegg
Note: Most of this is rough draft. Enjoy at your own peril.
Despite anything we did – humiliations, stupidities, unrequited foolishness, insult and injury unaware – the tribe was the tribe.
In college – at the Conservatory – we knew we’d all become famous and make our marks in the world of music. We glued together with whim, affinity and those coincidental meetings that bond you when you’re young and credulous.
A self-styled fraternity of eccentric and sublime, some rich, some poor, all with tribal drums beating in our hearts.
There were eight of us in the tribe – Chetwin, me, Max, Diane, Figaro, Felice (or Fleas, the preferred nickname), Spiro and then Alexa.
We lived for us and us alone. We loved us, which is such a strange thing to say, but it was true.
My memory of those days became less about others and completely about the tribal We. There were others, of course. We called them by a variety of names: Invisibles, Interlopers, Satellites, Intruders. If any of them made it into our photographs, it was because they’d managed to infiltrate our ranks, briefly. Sometimes, Chetty snipped them off the photos later, the way one might cut out a divorced spouse or someone who steps into the background while you snap a picture of your family on vacation. You want to remove that outsider and only see those you want to see.
Chetwin, our unofficial photographer, never without a Nikon or Leica or Polaroid or whatever Kodak Instasomething he had in his hand at the time. Snap-snap-snap, there we were: several photo albums worth of our tribal craziness. These snapshots built a visual history for us, solidifying a sense of our group.
Figaro didn’t like getting his picture taken.
He didn’t want people to remember him. He seemed to always be vanishing, even when he was around – like that birthmark on his face – since birth, one assumed. The mark faded by the time he was twenty-one. We couldn’t figure out how it disappeared, but one day someone – maybe one of the nameless Outsiders or Interlopers – commented on it. They were always commenting on us, these spectators and observers of the tribe.
“You’re disappearing day by day,” she said to him, while we were all drinking around the little round table in Chetwin’s room.
(Yes, Interlopers were allowed in the inner sanctum now and then, if they’d slept with one of us – but not for long. Or, if we thought we could learn something from them, we’d bring them in for some inside scoop, but those instances were “rare and useless as a third tit,” in Chetwin’s words.)
All our stories of Figaro were the same: he was a bit of a freak.
Funny and bright and odd in the ways that we considered charming. He composed music and he wrote about us. He documented our joys and sorrows and recorded dreams when we remembered them.
He scratched these memoirs in diaries. Little red and blue notebooks, some black, some fake leather, some tawny brown spiral pads, nameless, bought at all-night drug stores.
Chetty called Figaro our recording secretary, The Keeper of Tribal History.
“One day, when we’re famous and too old to fuck,” Chetwin remarked, “He’ll publish them. They’ll be bestsellers. We’ll augment our fame with the in memoria of what we did in school. We’ll be reviled by puritans and beloved of libertines.”
I saw one of these notebooks in those olden days. I snatched it from Figaro, his guard down. He whined so much, I gave it back, but not until after I’d flipped through it.
He’d written the entire thing in a code of musical notation, nearly indecipherable except, perhaps, by the Tribe itself.
This, his written language — these notes, these chords, these arrangements of our history. What we did, what we dreamed, where we went, with whom we slept.
Figaro didn’t sleep with anyone in the tribe – at least, as far as I knew. He went outside of our circle. He had a penchant for Interlopers from the university exchange who tried to nudge or elbow their ways in through drink, drug or sheet.
Yes, we had groupies. We were kind of a legend at the Conservatory. Known at the other schools for our performances, our compositions, our magic with music. Our closeness made satellite tribes spread jealous rumors about orgies and excessive drug use and cultish goings-ons.
Our parties were legendary – dusk to dawn affairs, with angels and demons and every creature in between.
We were artists, after all.
By the ages of twenty-one we were the stars of our own movie, our own soap opera — our own opera, even — with our fiddles and pianos and cellos and bassoons and piccolos and theories about art and life and the death of music and how we would revolutionize it. We despised the voice students, looked down on the music education scholars and those brief transfer students from the local colleges who invaded our rehearsal rooms and lecture halls winter term.
We spoke in grand terms; we didn’t waste time with the minutiae of news or politics or crap art.
We felt successful without having actually done anything. In our classes, we were told we were the best and the brightest. Our mentor-professors praised us to the skies. One such mentor wept when we gathered to give a performance of an original work. He begged us to never lose our vision. Local papers wrote up our concerts and recitals. We were the soloists. We were the winners of regional competitions. We were the elite.
The Conservatory was our crucible – this place was world-renowned at the time and had produced great and near-great and those-never-heard-of-again. The auditions to get in were brutal – talent and magic were all that mattered. And we had it, the eight of us.
We were on fire.
It was incredibly exciting and debilitating, all at once.
Figaro didn’t live at the center of the tribe, but in its periphery. Still, he was part of us, he existed in the essential we.
Tall and lanky, Figaro had the body of a toned greyhound — this, I saw in the showers. His muscled sinews surprised and shamed me. The rest of us had no genuine athleticism.
His nose, a steep cliff thrust out over a flat line of lip. Black eyes. Uneven teeth – which, according to Chetwin — meant his family had no money. This mattered only to Chetwin, who took to moneyed people like anyone else might take to coffee or chocolates.
Figaro’s hair, in his late teens and early twenties, defined our sense of Figarosity. We all had good hair then, but Figaro had a rain forest canopy of locks. Thick and black was this Amazonian jungle, copious and undisciplined, obscuring sixty percent of his face. He seemed in perpetual hiding from the world behind it.
He was handsome in a hidden way, a shaded grotto – a secret beauty, that’s what Chetwin called him — ironically — when we were twenty, and then not so ironically later.
A secret beauty.
And of all the tribe, Figaro was the person we knew least – at least on the inside. We guessed things about him from clues in his face, his expression, the slump of his shoulders.
And his music! Theory and practice and soul! That kid was so into music that he was music. He excelled at composition, counterpoint and harmony in ways I never understood. He didn’t just play Berlioz and Copland and Stravinsky – he possessed them. He angered his teachers; he argued with conductors; he once took a trumpet from some poor guy and flung it across the orchestra hall. He had days of madness, said things that made no sense to any of us, all-nighters with coffee and cigarettes and a piano. I once found him asleep in the catacombs of practice rooms, his body curled around his violin as if it were his lover. Always rehearsing, always banging it out on whatever instrument he chose to pick up; or scribbling in his composition books, arranging music, events, life. He could murder a violin – anything, classical, rock, jazz. We all thought that given his intensity and weirdness he’d go on to be one of the great violinists – or else end up in the subway, playing for nickels.
Either extreme, he’d fit right in.
He also had a bent towards petty crime, and by that I mean: he stole your secrets and hoarded them.
Those tribal councils took place in the days when we all thought we’d have big careers as artist-musicians.
I dropped the cello by twenty-nine to become a sound engineer-for-hire on audiophile recordings and made a decent living at this. My cello lay in its case in the back of a variety of closets, depending on how often I moved apartments.
Diane ended up in the music department of a major online booksellers’ and was its vice president by the age of thirty-two. Fleas became a Junior High teacher right after the Conservatory. Chetwin worked for the Devil – as he called his father, who ran an entertainment empire – but also had gallery shows for his photographs of rich people doing trivial things in expensive places. (That was actually the name of the show that took London by storm: “Rich People Doing Trivial Things in Expensive Places.”) Spiro and Alexa became famous in ways that none of us imagined possible for two people who could clear a room with their non-entities. They wrote and sang hit songs and practically lived on television– you probably remember them; if not, all the better for you.
None of us quite knew where Figaro landed – so to speak – in the sweepstakes of success or failure. He stayed away from us after graduation. Sometimes, in the subway, I expected to hear him playing Sibelius or Stravinsky – or even Turkey in the Straw.
His college roommate Max Porter became a piano salesman – and killed himself.
That was the third occasion to which we flocked as a tribe, after a couple of half-sad little reunions in which most of us began to acknowledge that music was no longer our primary language.
We gathered around at Max’s sister’s place in Greenwich Village for a “friends only” memorial meet-and-greet – and an informal post-mortem.
We reminisced about our recently washed-away youths when we were all stupid and bright-eyed and believed in what came next. Max rarely came up in that first hour of his own funeral party. To speak of him too much was to kill him all over again.
Spiro and Alexa showed up–a pair of genderless twins with geometro haircuts and a drizzly way of speaking, like half-wits or tabloid celebrities. They no longer looked real. Their faces, smooth and shiny as bone china. They made sure to show up for any and all reunions since they’d hit it big.
Alexa gave a bravura performance by opening up her phone every few minutes and turning to us to say, “Excuse me, just a second, it’s Sony,” or “Oh god, it’s that awful woman from Disney.”
Chetwin — who referred to them as “the Royal ‘It’ — clutched a little silver camera and took pictures of pouty Alexa, Max’s sister with her tray of sandwiches and the various Interlopers from the past. He snapped photos of everyone there, sometimes in secret and sometimes as a formal proposal.
“For my rogue’s gallery,” he said to me. “You don’t mind, I assume.”
“Snap-snap,” Spiro said. “There he goes.”
“Chetty and his camera,” Alexa said, as if she were witty.
Fleas – spindly and overdressed — stood nearest the door as if she’d planned a quick exit. She still had that luxuriantly scrunchy hair, combed back by her toothpick fingers.
“She’s twitchy,” Chetwin whispered to me. “I’m guessing an amphetamine drip.”
Within twenty minutes I wanted to leave, but felt the weight of Max’s life, stones on my chest. Imagined him in his final river, face down. I puzzled out his likeness within his sister’s face. I saw his ears, nose and chin in some distant cousin who hovered near the sour cream and onion dip.
I remembered Max at twenty-one – rounded and perpetually grinning, that flop of thick genius hair always hanging down to cover one of his eyes, nearly buzzed in back at his neck, the way he kind of bounced on his heels when he walked.
This retrieved the memory of a particular night. He made us all feel ennobled and perfect as he hammered out a composition on the piano in a gray practice room, hair flying, chin jutting, fingers stretched to the limit as he reached for remarkable chords.
It was a kind of grand mad waltz mingled with experimental rhythms. The music had been dedicated to the tribe. It was about us and where we would go and how we would become.
Figaro had hated it; they’d argued all night, at the bar, at the bistro, back in our rooms, to the point that Max grabbed some original composition of Figaro’s and proceeded to lampoon it while we all sat around, drunk, wondering if this would send Figaro off the deep end.
Instead, Figaro laughed, agreed with Max, called himself a “poor excuse for a musician.”
Now, poor Max, dead. Figaro was nowhere to be found.
Diane swept in late, whispering to a scruffy teacup-sized Maltese, its fluffy white head just poking up from a wide-mouthed purse. Diane had gotten chubby, but the upside — according to Chetwin, who leaned into me to whisper– the girth gave her “massive Gibraltars,” and “she’s still got eat-me eyes — agree or no?”
A few minutes later — again leaning so close I could smell his disruptive nature – Chetty whispered, “What if I fucked Max’s sister, later? On that crappy green sofa. She’s not half-bad. Knobby knees and all. It would be almost like fucking Max.”
He noticed my expression. “You look like a hypertensive virgin.”
“You’re being inappropriate,” I whispered.
“Of course I am,” he whispered back.
I scanned the room, face to face. Everyone crammed in, strangers, Interlopers, Outsiders — and us.
I suspect someone else heard Chetty’s caustic whispers, because the room went silent for a brief flickered second.
We watched Max’s sister as she served little tuna and American Cheese sandwiches on the kind of bread that crunched when you bit down. She skimped on the mayo but made up for it with liquor in tall frosty glasses.
She apologized for the lack of chairs, and finally – after midnight when we’d all gotten shit-faced on cheap vodka – John Chetwin said, loud and clear, “I think Max made the leap because of the prophecy.”
Chetwin hadn’t really changed much in the intervening years since I’d last seen him. Snotty and endearing as ever. My mother met him once when we were in school; called him arrogant but had nearly fallen in love with him. He inspired that sort of thing – women hating him and loving him, men wanting to have what he had and never be more than a whisper away from him.
It was hard work hating Chetty for very long. Handsome, rich, magnetic and unfiltered buys you a lot of friends. I had instant empathy with him when we met freshman year, even while he dismantled my ego and the way I spoke (“Midwestern twang by way of North Carolina,” he told me, too accurately).
Some people just have it – a charm that bridges even the worst insult.
He liked taking pictures, money, and himself – as he had ever been, so he continued.
When asked – during a murmuring moment – Chetwin elaborated on Max’s demise among our tribal circle. All any of the rest of us knew was that it involved a river.
Max had jumped off a one-lane bridge in Port Van Eyck in upstate. He’d been driving the piano truck from his shop. The truck was empty. A foggy night. He just stopped midway on the bridge and jumped, Chetwin informed us.
“Bit of a double tragedy. The truck — parked on the one-lane bridge. A motorcycle smashed into it.”
A dead silence overcame the room. Chetwin took a sip of his drink. Everyone watched him.
“The motorcyclist was a college boy,” he said, as if this detail might fascinate us. “Driving too fast in the fog. He didn’t die. Just nearly lost an arm and got scraped up. A junior at Bard. A film studies major.”
While I wanted to ask what ‘nearly lost an arm,’ meant, the topic of film studies interrupted Spiro and Alexa’s silence.
“Remember film class?” Spiro asked.
“God, I hated it,” Diane said. “All the electives sucked.”
“And poor Mansfield,” Fleas said. “I mean, later.”
“Oh, god,” Diane whispered, nodding, closing her eyes for a second. “I forgot all about that.”
“But wasn’t Mansfield brilliant?” Spiro ignored Diane. “Watching The Go-Between four times. Julie Christie.”
“Alan Bates,” Alexa said.
“Julie Christie,” Spiro said, softly.
“Cries and Whispers,” Alexa said. “Garden of the Finzi-Continis.”
“The Damned,” Spiro said with a child-like adoration. “Charlotte Rampling.”
“Charlotte Rampling.” Alexa nodded, as if recalling a vision of the Virgin Mary.
The two of them noticed the glares around the room. Alexa leaned her head against Spiro’s shoulder, closing her eyes, shutting us all out.
“People never change,” Diane whispered, so quietly I barely heard her.
But Spiro and Alexa’s brief conversation dredged up an old and arbitrary memory for me: sitting in film class junior year. We had to take a certain number of classes outside the Conservatory’s usual music theory and practice. Watching movies in an auditorium was an easy A, and sometimes I managed a nap during a particularly long Norwegian or German film.
My recall was crystal clear; I felt transported. Some brief fling of a girl sat beside me. We held hands like kids while a film flickered by.
In front of us, the back of Max’s head, all clean-cut and perfect. He turned around once during the movie and looked at us. Combed his magnificent flop of genius hair away from his forehead.
“If this movie goes any slower,” he said. “It’ll run backwards.”
The girl laughed – rather sweetly – but I remember her hand dropping out of mine at that moment. I felt Max had jinxed us in some way. I remember quite sharply wishing him dead at that moment, back at the age of 20 or 21, back when a word like “death” didn’t mean the same thing it would when Max was truly dead.
Beyond us, the dusty light from the projector, the sense of a dozen students seated not far from us, the luminous screen at the front of the auditorium.
On screen, a beautiful young French actress in close up, then a distance shot, a rustic cottage behind her at the edge of the woods, a reedy pond.
She carries a little empty bird cage in her hand.
Its door, open.
Is she weeping, or are those merely droplets of rain? The top branches of trees wave slowly with an approaching summer storm. Rain disturbs the pond’s surface. Her reflection in the water shimmers and blurs. A small dead bird floats among the reeds, its wings spread wide. The actress glances up. A strapping young actor rides a horse in a distant field. Thunder breaks; her eyes widen; music crescendos.
Professor Mansfield shouted above the film score, how its composer used the story’s subtext, directly opposed to what the character was doing on-screen.
“The unwritten truth in the music!” Mansfield crowed over the swelling soundtrack. “She’s at war with her own heart! What’s she thinking about? Him? The bird? What does it tell us? Clues! Look for clues in the music itself!”
The hardness of the auditorium seats. The loss of my girl’s warm hand. My anger. Max looking at the two of us, somehow making me feel as if I didn’t count.
It was a strange remembrance that made me feel ugly and worthless in light of Max’s death.
A slight chill came over me as I broke the surface — back to the present, to the little apartment, the tribal gathering within the more anonymous crowd of Max’s friends.
I realized I had never really liked Max all that much. He had been dismissive of me, my music and cello. He’d once accused me of being a fake.
And it made me feel awful that such memories bubbled up in his sister’s crowded living room.
Chetwin – who paused to eat a half-sandwich and refill his glass — resumed the tale of Max’s last hour or so, finishing up with the details he knew: Max, despair, bridge, the jump, the finding of the body, the college boy at the hospital, and the note.
“Everything about this is a mystery,” Chetwin said. “Every detail, important.”
Max’s suicide note definitely existed, Chetty told his audience. But no one knew what it said except his sister – and she hadn’t mentioned it.
At least not when she’d been sober.
Max’s sister slipped away to the micro-kitchen to get another tray of sandwiches. We all noticed she wobbled a little, wearing that overly-smiled face of the properly-liquored. We hoped she’d open up about the note.
“What did you mean – a prophecy?” I asked Chetwin.
Diane, leaned forward, dog under arm. “You mean, someone predicted he’d kill himself?”
“Think about it,” Chetwin said. He turned to me. “You know.”
“Maybe,” I said, but I didn’t.
“Max was chronically depressed in school,” Alexa said.
“We were all chronically depressed,” Fleas said. Her voice seemed husky and mature and not the little soprano squeak of the early Fleas. She shot a glance at Alexa. “You were practically the Hunger Artist.”
“He was in love with someone,” Max’s sister said, returning with her arms laden with a sandwich-heavy tray — and another large bottle. “That’s what his note said. He wrote it on the back of a fortune cookie slip. There was an unopened box of Pork Lo Mein next to where he’d left his shoes. The bits of fortune cookie were there, too. He hadn’t eaten it. And the pen that he wrote the note with. It was from a bank.”
Pausing, she then added, “The note was tucked into his loafers.”
“That girl has a mind for useless details,” Chetwin – to the left of me – whispered to no one in particular as we again descended on the tiny sandwiches. “And why did Max take off those shoes? And why loafers? One wonders.”
“Stop it,” someone said.
The sister continued. “He was in love and he said it didn’t matter. He’d never be happy and it left him empty and who needed it? That’s what he wrote.” She didn’t seem quite so drunk at that moment.
“All of that?” Diane whispered, her breath full of booze, hand at my shoulder. “On the back of a little slip of paper from a stale cookie?”
“Makes you wonder what the actual fortune said,” Chetty whispered. “Must’ve been epic.”
“Nobody eats fortunes cookies, do they?” Spiro said, pouring drinks for himself and his conjoined wife. “I always throw them away. I feel as if they’re made of the dust of old bones or something.”
“And take-out on the night he jumps? Now, that sounds fishy,” Chetwin said, a little too loud.
It hit me just then how horrible we all were; and yet I still loved my old friends, bitter and jaded and deeply unfulfilled.
After a suitable moment of silence – when I realized that the sister and her pals had overheard the latest round of insensitive tribal comments and stared at all of us as if we were the unsolvable negative equation of Max’s short life, I said, “Poor Max. I’m sorry. I didn’t know he was in love. I guess I hadn’t kept up enough.”
“Or at all,” Diane whispered, mostly to her Maltese.
“But that’s not really why he did it,” Chetwin said.
The entire room – us and them — looked at him. A hum of disapproval arose against Chetwin, and by extension, all of the tribe.
“He was fulfilling that prophecy,” Chetty said.
“Again with the prophecy,” Spiro said, groaning.
Max Porter’s sister squinted at John Chetwin and muttered something under her breath.
Chetwin looked around at each of us – the tribal we. None of us moved. I imagined we all felt embarrassed, responsible for anything uttered by any one of our group.
“Suicide, birth, murder, an accident, failure, love, revenge, atonement,” Chetwin said, and then finished off the last of a bottle that had lingered near his hand. “It begins the whole prophecy. None of you remember?”
“I remember,” Spiro said. “But not quite like that.”
“How do you remember it going?”
“Figaro read it to us. It was in one of his Little Books of Everything We Ever Did. I thought there was ‘success’ somewhere in there, too.”
“I doubt that,” Chetty said.
“Figaro said this?” Diane asked.
I shrugged. “No idea.”
“Not Figaro,” Fleas said. “It was a Satellite.”
“Oh, right,” Alexa nodded. “We pissed someone off. They blew up. God, who was it? Figaro kept reminding us about it. It bothered him. Sometimes it’s good to forget that stuff.”
“It was a girl,” Spiro said. “That one with the tattoo on her thigh. But I don’t remember her saying it. Just Figaro repeating it.”
“You actually know someone named Figaro?” some shadow among the gathering asked.
“It was a nickname,” Diane said.
“Yeah, like Fleas,” Fleas said, with a certain sour quality to her voice.
“I wonder what he’s been up to,” Spiro said.
“Busking the subway, probably.”
“Somewhere in Maine,” Chetwin said.
“Figaro made that prophecy?” Diane asked. “About us?”
“Not Figaro,” Chetty said. “One of the Interlopers. Spiro’s right – it was a girl.” He glanced over at me as if expecting me to jump in.
“You guys had a lot of girls,” Diane said. “I couldn’t keep track.”
“I could never tell them apart,” Alexa said. “There was this type all of you were into. And they worshipped you guys.”
We’d gotten too loud. Max Porter’s sister shifted uncomfortably, scowled a bit, complained of a migraine. We decided – almost to a person – to thank her, wish her well, leave her to her friends and Max’s untribal group who circled like protecting angels. We offered one last hug and then scrambled into the street, down to a late-night café on the corner of Perry and Holmes.
There – under the soft green lanterns of a summer evening – we exchanged remembrances of things past related to Max and Figaro and the season of our corruptive innocence.
We wagged our jaws into the deep hours. The café shut down, but allowed us to remain at the tables outside.
Exhausting the mundane topics of where we’d been and what we’d done, we returned to the solemnity of Max and the strange prediction.
First, some of us argued with Chetwin that he made it up; he swore it happened and couldn’t believe none of us remembered it.
“But you were all probably drunk,” he said. “Something happened – not sure what set it off — and then someone said it and all of us laughed at it, and I wouldn’t have even remembered it except that Max fulfilled one bit of it.”
“It was this girl,” Spiro insisted. “I just can’t remember anything about her. She was some pretty, misguided thing. Had a tattoo, right here.” He stood, pointing to the outside of his leg. “It was yin-yang looking. You only saw it if she was naked. And I think we all saw her naked.”
“You have a great memory for the dozens of girls you bedded,” Alexa said.
“Most of them are blurs,” he chuckled. “But I never forget a tattoo.”
No one seemed to remember the name of this mythical tattooed Interloper with her bizarre prediction of our futures.
“Someone must’ve really pissed her off,” Fleas said.
“We pissed a lot of Interlopers off, I suspect,” I added.
We dissected the infamous prophecy, after asking Chetty to repeat it a few times.
As I looked around the table, the others repeated each word silently, trying to understand it.
Spiro and Alexa identified with the “love” part of the prophecy, which made all of us exchange glances. Fleas and I identified with the “failure” part, at least in terms of playing music.
“But we’re still involved with music,” she said. “So maybe that doesn’t count.”
No one had yet given birth. We wondered if any of us might be murdered someday. This was qualified with: “If we believe in this stuff, of course.”
“Well, Max fits the suicide bill,” Alexa said. “I mean, unless he was murdered.”
“I doubt that,” Chetty said. “Don’t forget the fortune cookie.”
“If we believe the fortune cookie theory,” Diane said, meaning to be funny.
“Revenge and atonement. Sounds Old Testament,” Fleas said. “Who really gets revenge? Who really atones? Nobody. Life is this endless cycle of wash, rinse, drain and repeat. And then you drop dead.”
“You’re a murky little creature,” Chetty said.
“Maybe there’s a reason for revenge. And maybe Max atoned,” Alexa said.
“You atone because of sin,” Chetwin said. “Did we sin? Did any of us really sin – I mean in the grand scheme of sin where people murder and steal and – I don’t know – do terrible things. I mean, there’s Hitler sin and murder sin. There’s even beat-your-wife sin. Were we terrible? Somehow I doubt it.”
“We fucked around a lot,” Fleas said.
“If sex is a sin,” Chetwin said. “Send me to Hell right this instant.”
“You were a beast,” Diane said, and she might’ve meant any of us.
“Maybe we did something awful back then and didn’t know it,” I said.
“I don’t think I developed a conscience til I was 25,” Chetwin said.
“If ever,” Fleas laughed.
“We’re just obsessing over this stupid prophecy,” Spiro said. “Revenge? Atonement? Murder? Who says that kind of thing?”
“Someone who meant it, I guess,” Diane said.
“We stepped on a lot of toes when we were young,” Spiro said.
“Doesn’t everybody?” Chetwin said. “Young people do shit all the time. Drugs, sex, drunkenness, dumbassedness – practically degree requirements. It’s all about me-me-me. You get a pass at that age.”
“Maybe for minor things,” Fleas said.
“Exactly,” Chetwin nodded. “And anything awful we did was minor league. We weren’t bullies. Forgot to call an Outsider for a second date. Lied to someone to get out of running into them. Sucked up to a despised professor to get a good grade. Slept with somebody to get back at somebody else. Ran a little wild. Told our parents what they wanted to hear. Never told them what we were really up to. That kind of stuff. Did we deserve a curse? No more than anyone else in college did – or does.”
“You make us sound like sociopaths,” I said. “We didn’t do all that.”
Chetty raised his cup of coffee as if in a silent toast.
“Makes you wonder how we found time to actually rehearse,” Diane said.
“Max didn’t deserve to die.” When Alexa said this, a hush fell over the rest of us. “He didn’t. He was always nice to me.”
After a momentary silence, idle chatter picked up again. We’d moved on from the prophecy and back to happier memories. Chetty took pictures, his flash blinding us. Fleas talked about the kids she taught and of some trip her students took to Thailand to build a school for the poor. Spiro and Alexa held court about Hollywood, Paris, the West End and some charity concert in Italy. We all played up to them a bit, hoping for crumbs of jobs. Diane with her snoring Maltese leaned back in her chair, more interested in another cup of decaf than the conversation.
As the cicada chatter continued, I remembered something about the curse.
I recalled the essence of some fabled beauty of an Interloper – not her face, but her sooty eyes and her cigarette smoke and May wine perfume and how we’d all been fighting – this must have been junior year.
We’d gotten disruptive at a party honoring us. The Interloper hurled those words, a grenade, in our midst.
In memory, I mashed it all up with memories of the dozen or more Satellites we’d all known, so I couldn’t quite put a face to the voice, but I heard the words.
Not one of you is special, the Interloper said. Garbled in my memory, those words – suicide, birth, murder, accident, failure, love, revenge, atonement – as if she were an escapee from the garden of Furies, damning us with an overly-dramatic set of possibilities.
I looked across the table to Chetty. He glanced back, sensing the shift in my demeanor.
I felt he could read my mind at that moment. I remembered precisely our intense closeness, all of us, practically inside each other’s heads at the Conservatory. And in that moment, I remembered Chetty sitting beside me, laughing, as that Interloper spewed her prophecy across our group.
Who was the unhappy messenger? I couldn’t quite remember the voice, let alone the face of this dreaded Cassandra.
Eight words for eight members of the tribe.
I ended up spending the night with Diane. She lived a winding drunken walk from the café. We did more sleeping than anything else, after a half hour of fumbling in the dark with each other’s bits and pieces. When the slap of morning met my forehead, I glanced over at her. She talks to her Maltese, what the fuck are you doing with your life?
We’d slept together at the Conservatory. The tribe had been incestuous. Sex and friendship got confused and convoluted in the undertow of being young.
In the kiosk bathroom of Diane’s place, I checked my phone.
A text had come in from Chetwin.
“At the ‘Royal It’ place,” he wrote. “Palatial. Their own private swimming pool. An elevator for their Mercedes. It’s all shiny. I want to fuck both Alexa and Spiro to see if fame works like an STD.”
He told me to meet him at the cafe again for coffee at noon.
Chetwin looked fully recovered from the previous evening. He wore a freshly-starched white shirt, rolled-up cuffs, and lean khakis with flip-flops on his feet, a thick silver bracelet around his wrist. A gift, he told me, from his ex. I didn’t know he’d ever been married; I wanted to pry but he wanted to keep going on about Max.
“The real reason Max killed himself,” John Chetwin told me as he fingered the rim of his cup. “He was in love with Figaro. His sister doesn’t know this fact.”
The impact of what he said was immeasurable to me. Figaro, Max Porter, love, suicide.
I didn’t want to think it, but I imagined Max and Figaro at the age of 20, spooning in white briefs in the dormitory’s procrustean bed. Genius hair met rain forest jungle hair as they lay entwined. I had no memory to match this – I created it from whole cloth.
“But his sister said…”
“Didn’t say. Implied.”
“I’m pretty sure she said it was a woman.”
“That’s not really what happened,” Chetwin said. “There was a woman – but not in a romantic way. We’ve spoken about it – she and I. Which is why I know all these details of Max’s last leap. But she’s not the one Max was in love with. She was a friend. A buddy. It was Figaro. Unrequited. And that’s why he did it.”
He gave me an odd look, a narrowing but sharp gaze as if he were examining my face for something it lacked.
“Just a friend.” Chetty quickly added, “But not his lover or anything. Max was into men only.”
“Suicide for love. At the age of thirty-four. For Figaro.”
“Yeah, I know. If anyone was least-likely to inspire homoerotic lust, it would be Figaro. Still, he had that secret beauty – under all the hair. And the phallic nose. I guess Max found him irresistible. But musicians, what can you do?”
We both chuckled. Having abandoned our dreams of being musicians, we’d learned to dismiss them as if they were children who knew nothing of the real world. This spared us feelings of failure.
“Max in love,” I said. “Figaro. All these years. How didn’t we see any of it?”
“Did we even understand love in college?” he said. “I mean, we thought we did. But we were idiots about that kind of stuff. I regret half of what I did.”
“We were in love with the Muse.”
“Oh yeah, the Muse.” He wiped his face as if trying to erase a memory.
He nodded, a weak smile as he looked down in his cup. “Bad coffee.” Then, “Ah, poor Max.”
Nearly a minute went by before he spoke again.
“Only mystery is why jump?” he asked. “I’d do pills. Something to knock you out. Then something else to stop the heart right after. ‘He died in his sleep,’ the papers will say. Doesn’t everybody want to die while sleeping? Not this drowning bullshit.”
I felt a sudden weight on my chest. I imagined Max floating in water, as if I could see his face from beneath. A memory came with this: swimming in college, diving under water, looking up, seeing a naked girl above me.
After the Conservatory, naked girls never swam above me again.
“You didn’t like Max,” he said, suddenly, intuitively.
I shrugged. “We never really hit it off.”
“You weren’t alone. The girls liked him, but I’m not even sure Figaro cared much for him. But we liked his talent and he was our little messenger of the gods. He’d do anything Figaro asked of him. But he was annoying. Still, he should’ve had a big career. And he didn’t.”
“He probably should’ve been famous.”
“In Port Van Eyck he was. I read the obit online. He was beloved, apparently, in that corner of dank infestation known as the upper Hudson Valley.”
“You’re the same snob you were at twenty.”
“Moreso,” Chetty agreed. Then he invited me to his home in Connecticut, a large acreage “shaped like afterbirth,” on a wide river.
He described his boredom with life, how his ex-wife – a savage harpist – still occupied space there, “though she’s not around much. Always on tour. Always recording. You know the drill. It’s why we divorced at all. Well that, and lack of children, I guess.” They had been married four years and divorced for two. They’d wed quietly, and he’d never mentioned it at previous tribal gatherings because (he said) “it wasn’t that kind of marriage.”
His family hated her. “Hate, like people hate terrorists. They just think she’s awful. But she’s not. They’re monstrous people, my family. Our home is a bubble of safety for the two of us.”
“Why not just stay married?”
“That’s what I said,” he chuckled. “She’s not built that way, she told me. If it’s over, it’s over. We were always just friends, I suppose. Still are. And she’s hardly around. Maybe for dinners, sometimes. But you’d like her, anyway. She’s your type.”
“But not yours.”
“She was, once. But I’m not hers. Oh, I chased her mercilessly,” he said, losing his smile. “I’m not proud of it. But I was a hunter. She was a gazelle – with sharp horns. I pretty much spent a year or more just convincing her to go out on a date. It was humiliating.”
The more he mentioned his ex, the sadder he seemed.
The house, he said, was big enough for at least three exes.
He extolled the pleasures of the guest cottage. “A modest caretaker’s place. You expect to see seven little dwarfs running around. Sparrows and chipmunks all skittering beneath the windows – that kind of thing. Come up in June. Hell, you don’t even have to see me more than once a week if you want. The guest place looks gargantuan next to Max’s sister’s little mousetrap. I’d love to spend more time with you. Summers get boring for me. All those Connecticut rich people and their Country Day School brats.”
“The idea of taking a summer off would be nice.”
“You’re a freelancer. You can do it.”
“Unless someone calls and then I run to the studio.”
“You’ll have no expenses. I’m rich.”
“Not as rich as the Royal It. But we’re good. We have a maid named Hester and a cook named Terry. When we throw parties, we even have a butler named Mortie. Plus a local girl who hangs the wash so it always smells like a summer garden full of…well, all those little fucked-up flowers you see in summer gardens.”
Between leases, I decided to stay with John Chetwin and his somewhat-absent ex-wife at the idyllic cottage he’d described.
I arrived in June.
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