I've been waiting for half an hour before my wife finally calls.
"I'm not going to be able to make it," she says. She's got that straight-forward edge to her voice, too focused on something to make an apology, and I figure she's probably in the car right now. I lean forward and glance out the doors of the restaurant, not surprised to find it pouring.
"Are you okay?" I asked, and glance at my watch again. It's difficult to read in the dim light. One of the downsides of analog.
"Fine," she answers, then swears. "Sorry. It took me hours to get off the interstate, and if I come straight to dinner I'm not going to have time to call Lorenzo."
Lorenzo is the host for the showing I'm having in a month. Unless Charlene can convince him to push the date back a few months, all he's going to have to show is the fact that I haven't been able to paint anything for months.
"You know, honey, I have an idea." I signal the waiter and he brings me another glass of wine. "How about I take a couple different-colored Sharpies and scribble on a piece of canvas and we'll give that to Lorenzo. I'll call it 'Artistic Constipation.'" The couple at the table closest to me give me the stink-eye for a moment and then return to their steaks, muttering to each other. I try to laugh at my own joke but the sound just comes out depressing.
Charlene doesn't think it's funny either.
"Just stay there, have a good dinner, try to convince Jenny she needs to talk to my agent friend." She swears again, sighs heavily. "I need to get off the phone. Listen to her play, buy her dinner from both of us, convince her she's the next Brubeck or Desmond. Hell, she's got an edge on Meldhau."
"Got it. Love you."
"Love you, too."
The guy playing now is pretty good. I can't help but feel involved in the music; he's got an idea of where his notes should go to pull the feeling out of the dark corner of a person's brain. I'm pretty sure he's playing "Tenderly", but I can't be sure.
When he finishes, his set is done, and there's a few moments of no music before Jenny comes on. Every time I've seen her, she always seems older than she really is. Twenty-one, now, I think. She's been taking piano lessons twice a week for two years now. It's strange, Charlene spends so much time with this young woman, and I hardly know anything about her.
She's a cute girl, and she looks a little out of place, occupying the spot that is so often reserved for middle-aged men. She actually smiles as she starts to play, and she smoothly moves into an improv take of "The More I See You." It's a good choice, upbeat, after the melancholy of "Tenderly," and several people in the restaurant beginning smiling to themselves; a few of them start tapping their feet, completely unaware that they've been affected by the music.
"Still waiting on your wife, sir?" the waiter asks me. I wave him off again, tell him I'll let him know when I'm ready. He disappears and, besides taking a sip from my glass every few minutes, I am completely focused on Jenny. From "The More I See You", she moves into "Bewitched", and then segues into another improv. It takes me a minute to realize she's adapting "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face", from My Fair Lady, to jazz. I realize that for the past half-hour, my fingers have been twitching, and I'm playing with the extra straw on the table. There is something about her honey-blonde hair, her slightly-parted lips while she plays, these things beg to be rendered on canvas.
She finishes her set with a song I don't recognize. It's got more of a groove on it than the other songs – it's simply more modern – and I find myself tapping the tabletop with my fingertips, even though I don't play piano at all. When she's finished, she relinquishes her spot to the next pianist lined up for the evening. She finds me after a few minutes and, after forgetting myself for a second, I jump up to shake her hand.
"Charlene's sorry she couldn't be here," I tell her. "Weather and traffic and work caught up to her. She missed something great, though. What was that last song?"
She laughs, and I catch a hint of embarrassment. "'Paranoid Android'," she answers me, with all the tone of a confession. "It's a Radiohead song. I decided to have a little fun with it."
I smile, even though I have no clue who she's talking about, and invite her to eat with me.
She doesn't seem to mind that it's just the two of us having dinner together; she makes conversation smoothly and comfortably, her manner warm, her talk intelligent. She doesn't know much about art and I don't know much about music, but she listens attentively to my explanations and the way she talks about Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and Art Tatum is engaging. Jazz seems to be her forte.
"Charlene wants you to talk to her agent friend," I tell her, long after our plates have been cleared away. I'm on my third glass of wine, and Jenny is halfway through her second. There's a flush to her cheeks from the alcohol, healthy-looking and kind of cute. She shakes her head and laughs.
"I can't get up the nerve," she admits.
It's ten-thirty before I realize it, and while Jenny excuses herself to the restroom, I call my wife.
"We got caught up in conversation," I tell her. "I'm sorry it's so late."
"Don't worry about it." Her voice is distracted; I'm willing to bet she has Lorenzo on hold on the other line. I feel guilty, and for a few moments the contentment I've been feeling dissipates, and I feel sluggish and dull all over again, listless. "Let me deal with your work tonight and you deal with mine. Encourage her to play for you some more. She needs someone besides me to push her in the right direction."
We hang up shortly before Jenny returns and, at the risk of sounding creepy, I say, "Listen, I'd love to hear you play some more. Is there a way?" I'm aware that it's my wife who prompted me to ask such a thing, but I'm not surprised to find that I really mean it; listening to Jenny's fingers plink across the keys gives me a feeling in my chest, like when you've been struggling to breathe for long and then suddenly, there's air.
The smile on the young pianist's face is infectious; I feel the corners of my own mouth tugging upwards again.
"I've got a piano back at my apartment," she says. "Charlene won't be upset with you? It's getting pretty late."
I assure her that it's fine and, after paying the bill and leaving a reasonable tip, Jenny and I venture out into the night. It's stopped raining, but the sidewalks are still slick and the air has the chill bite of winter in it that makes a person want to stop breathing, just to keep those cold fingers out of his insides. I offer my arm to Jenny – she's in heels – and we begin walking towards where I've parked my car.
Her studio apartment is within walking distance, so we're there in a relatively short time. Jenny disappears into the kitchen while I self-consciously try to find an unobtrusive place to sit. A grand piano occupies the majority of the living room. The other furniture is arranged so that it obviously the main focus: the TV is small and off to the side, the small table and a few chairs are against the wall, the book case is next to the couch, which faces the piano. Jenny appears and hands me a glass of wine, and sets hers down on the piano, beginning to leaf through some sheet music. Finally, I decide to plant myself on the couch.
"What'll you have?" she asks, smiling. I shrug, unsure of where our musical knowledge overlaps, but Jenny possesses the art of making anyone at ease, and she starts off with "Ruby, My Dear."
"Thelonious Monk," she tells me. "One of his hits."
She plays through that, and then, at my request, starts "Paranoid Android" again. Charlene didn't teach her how to do this, I think to myself, settling into the couch and watching the sway of her body as she moves with the music. You can't teach someone how to feel like that. It just can't be done.
She's straight out of some old black-and-white film. The credits roll, she's playing "Paranoid Android", it's snowing hard and you see the Nazi trucks rolling past a bar that is just finishing up closing for the night. Is this Casablanca? I wonder, but by then Humphrey Bogart is coming in from keeping an eye out for the Nazis, stamping the snow off his boots, his expression telling you that he considers the snow a personal insult. Instead of Sam or Ingrid Bergman lingering in his bar, there's Jenny, moving into the slow, melancholy, contemplative two minutes in the middle of her son. She won't give up on him, even if he does everything he can to push her away. He stands behind her and watches her play, and when she's done, she pulls out a cigarette and he lights it for her.
"Why can't you just face the truth, Jenny?" he asks her. He feels like he's all used up, he's got no vitality left in him. She's wasting her time on him – he's twice her age, for God's sake – and he can't help but want her, but at the same time he just can't shake the feeling that one day she's going to realize that he hasn't got any cards up his sleeves anymore.
Jenny puts out her cigarette, because she's not much of a smoker anyway, and she turns her head, just slightly, looking off-camera at nothing, because she knows that if she looks him in the face she's just going to cry. He keeps pushing her away, and she needs to prove herself, because Humphrey likes strong-willed women.
"You've given up on yourself," she says. The camera is at such an angle that we can see every conflicting emotion on her face, even though the music is done. In the background, Humphrey seems on the verge of some sort of resolution. The lighting is sparse, but we can see every movement, every expression from the two of them. "Somebody's got to keep you breathing," she says.
They are both very still for several moments; then Humphrey walks slowly, deliberately up to her, taking her perfect face in his hands. He leans over and kisses her, the camera pans around --
It's not Humphrey Bogart anymore. It's me. In this movie, I am kissing Jenny.
I start, breaking out of my reverie. Have I been asleep? Or just daydreaming? But only a few moments have passed. Jenny is finishing up a short rendition of "The Shadow of Your Smile", and when she's done she peers around the edge of the grand piano. Her hair falls over her shoulder like sateen, almost begging me to go up to her, place my hand on her neck – not controlling, but gentle – begging me to press my cheek to hers.
"Am I boring you?" she asks, completely oblivious to the thoughts I'm entertaining.
Far from it, I think. I say, "Not at all. Play another one."
She yawns, suddenly, and I realize how late it is. "I'm so sorry," I say, starting to get up. "I lost track of the time. You certainly don't have to stay up all night entertaining me."
"Quit it," she answers, smiling. "I enjoy playing for other people, and tomorrow is Sunday. Plenty of time to catch up on sleep. It's not even midnight yet, give me some credit." She points at the table by my elbow. "Pick something out for me. Give me too much rein and I'll end up playing more Radiohead." She picks up her own wineglass, empty now, and goes back to the kitchen to refill it. I welcome the opportunity to distract myself from her and turn to the stack of sheet music on the little table.
I flip through several tunes that I don't know, and come to one sandwiched somewhere in the middle. It's titled "Autumn Leaves", and I vaguely remember hearing it on one of Charlene's collections of jazz standards.
There's a twitch in Jenny's facial features, just ever so slight, as I offer her the pages, and I think for a moment that I've slipped up, given away the sudden taboo attraction that Humphrey Bogart has tricked me into. But no, she's just looking at the music.
"Oh," I say, suddenly feeling awkward all the same. "Do you not like this one? I can pick out another…"
She grabs it before I can turn to put it back in the pile, and she places it in front of her. Her hands elegant, and against my will I imagine her arms wrapped around my neck, those slender pianist fingers getting themselves tangled up in my hair, caressing the back of my neck. I start to get aroused and before I can stop myself I wonder what it would feel like to have those fingers wrapped around my cock, playing the ebb and tide of an oncoming orgasm as if it were notated with pianos and fortes.
I go stand by the window while she plays, hoping some of the cold from outside will radiate inside, off the glass, and prevent me from getting a hard-on. I can see her reflection in the window, and looking at her in the glass seems to distance me a little from her. Her posture is impeccable, her shoulders relaxed. Her legs are fantastic.
She pauses halfway through the rest of the song to knock back the rest of what's left in her wine glass, and I turn in alarm. This is not the casual swallow or two just to finish off the last few drops; she drain the entire glass, nearly full, in one go. She sets it down and turn back to the music, and for a moment I think I see her artistic frame shudder; then she returns to the keys and we are back to "since you went away…".
I manage to tear my gaze away and stare back into the darkness through the chilled window. Her red blouse is in stark contrast to everything else both through the glass and reflected in it, and my eyes keep drifting back to her. At long last, the song is over, and I sigh. It takes me a few moments to realize that Jenny has gotten up and gone into the kitchen; she is draining another glass of wine.
"I'm sorry," she rasps, filling the glass one more time. I'm fairly sure it is her fifth one that evening. I feel as if I am watching some sort of film again, except I feel more like James Stewart that Bogart right now. Who is she supposed to be? My first thought is Audrey Hepburn – that elegance, regalness – but she's not the detached one, I am. Perhaps I am Bogart after all, and she is Katherine Hepburn. I feel so oddly separate from his, oddly blank. "I thought… I thought I could get through that without doing this." She laughs, or ties to at any rate; there is more grief in the sound than anything else. "Would you be… distraught, I suppose? I mean, if Charlene went away for a year, and you knew she was probably in danger every single moment, and you never got to see her, and rarely got to speak to her…"
A violent sob wracks her delicate frame, and she leans on the countertop, bending over her wineglass as if she about to embrace it, or use it to catch her tears. I am fixated by the arc of her spine and the curve of her legs, accented by her black pencil skirt. I feel a tremor go through my own body, and I have no understanding of it as something to be resisted.
She begins to droop, and Humphrey Bogart takes three steps and catches her up in his arms, holding her tight, firmly, because suddenly he never wants to let her go. Katherine Hepburn stares up into his face with tears running down her cheeks, making trails in her makeup, so lost in her own emotion that she doesn't even know how to react to Humphrey's arms around her. Then there's that kiss, the kind that they don't do anymore in films, the full-on heart-is-about-to-break kiss, where you can tell they're giving it everything they've got, their entire bodies are going into this kiss. Jenny is surprised at first, perhaps she struggles, and then she seems to realize that Humphrey Bogart is opening up, that he needs this, and her hands are on the back of my neck, gentle, and in between her sobs I am kissing her again, and again, and again.
It only lasts a few seconds, and then she goes limp in my arms, and she is unconscious, a mix of too much alcohol and a sudden spike in adrenaline.
I stand there with her, my hand on that spot on her neck, my thumb caressing her jaw-line. The rush of emotion is gone from me, and feeling numb, I scoop her up in my arms and carry her back to the couch, setting her down and turning off the lights, drawing the blinds. I turn off the lights and sit beside her on the couch. I wipe at a smudge of mascara at the corner of her eye, and at the thought of her crying, her brief pause in the middle of "Autumn Leaves", I feel that rush again, that ache, and I shut my eyes hard and turn my face away from her.
I hum the song to myself, quietly, and after a few moment I have recovered my senses, for the most part. I turn my head and press my lips to her brow. She makes a small sound, her fingers twitch and I catch them, gently and without thinking, in my own, and kiss her hand.
"Thank you," I whisper.
My own are shaking. I drape a blanket over her and I collect my things. I pick up the sheet music sitting on the piano as I go.
Charlene has just gone to bed when I get home. She leaves a note for me on the kitchen counter, telling me that she was able to get the showing pushed back another month. When I look at the little post-it, I don't feel the panic that has pervaded my system for the last six months. There is something new flowing in my veins.
I'm in my studio until four in the morning, three solid hours of work. I paste the pages of sheet music to the canvas and I paint over them. I paint the arc of her spine, the curve of her legs below the hem of her pencil skirt, her slender shoulders, all in shades of gray – except the color begs to seep through, and I accent her blouse with red, her hair, falling over her ear like sateen, with the ghost of honey gold. Her fingers linger over the keys, caressing them as if there is a masterpiece of sexual ecstasy controlled by her pianos and fortes. Her expression is the art. Her ability to pour that emotion out, that is the beautiful thing. Her music is the essence that rages onto the sheets in red and gold. My Katherine Hepburn, my Ingrid Bergman. I create, finally, after so long. I am sobbing before I'm finished.