Read Sight Reading Online

Authors: Daphne Kalotay

Sight Reading


This one is for Judy Layzer.


For harmony is a symphony, and a symphony is an agreement . . . ;

and thus music, too, is concerned with the principles of love.



t was one of those easy May afternoons when everything, including the weather, seems to finally fall into place. Gone were the brisk winds and persistent grayish pall, the chilly discouragement of New England spring. Today's heat was balmy and real, and all along Newbury Street people were sipping iced coffees, strolling slowly and having long chats on cell phones. Shop owners and hairdressers stepped out of doors to turn their faces toward the hazy sun. At Salon Supreme—across from Hazel's boutique—women kept requesting a pedicure along with their mani and, rather than wait inside for their nails to dry, emerged gingerly onto the sidewalk to slap the air back and forth. This was midway along Newbury, past the cheap trendy stores and ice cream shops, but not yet at the haute couture end. Stepping out for her break, Hazel caught sight of the women across the street and thought, Why not? It was one of those days when everyone deserved a little treat—and frivolous treats were often the most satisfying of all.

At the salon she was ushered to a plump mechanical armchair, its footbath swirling, by a young woman named Mi who suggested a bright coral color. And though Hazel had long made a point of being well groomed (a professional necessity, really), she found it mildly thrilling, if perhaps slightly shameful, to lean back into the thronelike armchair while someone else sloughed away at her feet. Mi worked fast, applying the polish with quick little brushstrokes. Having run out of disposable flip-flops, she constructed makeshift sandals from paper plates and masking tape, so that without risking damage to nails or feet, Hazel—after tucking a 50 percent tip into Mi's slim hand—could shuffle next door to buy her afternoon coffee. Standing in line, her cheery spring bag looped over her shoulder, her leather ballet flats poking out from the bag like bunny ears, Hazel was conscious of herself as someone who by virtue of her perfectly tinted hair (more blond than gray), tapered linen dress, and thick gold earrings could transform paper shoes into a sign of propriety and good fortune.

Taking a few careful steps forward, she ordered an iced mocha from a girl with a pierced tongue. She felt sorry for the girl's mother, whoever she was, and found herself averting her eyes when the girl told her, with slight difficulty, “That's three dollars and eleven cents.” Her own daughter had never felt the need to do such a thing. Hazel couldn't help being proud of that, and relieved as much as delighted now that Jessica was engaged to be married.

Hazel smiled at the thought, and at her glossy coral toenails. Life seemed for once to be progressing as it should. With the wedding season starting, things at the store were picking up, and she could count on moving some of the more extravagant items: the rocking chair carved from a single tree trunk, the oblong mica bowls. Already she could barely keep enough lilac paper and silver ribbons on hand. And that morning she had managed to talk someone into buying the last of those enormous lemon-colored vases. The woman had looked so pleased, saying, “My niece is going to love this!”—which confirmed Hazel's theory that what was one person's bane was another's savior and that, in the grand scheme of things, everything worked out in the end.

Yes, she believed that now. Only in the past few years had she come to understand: if you just let things be, they eventually sort themselves out. This was what Hazel was thinking as she took her iced mocha and stepped carefully out the door. And there, as a reminder of the many ways life might surprise you, of all the ways the world might turn itself upside down, there with her big brown eyes was Remy.

Chapter 1

he arrived at rehearsal that winter evening to find behind the podium a young man in baggy slacks and a boxy tweed jacket. This was Remy's final semester at the conservatory; she was twenty-two years old and still one seat away from first chair. The man said nothing as the other students trickled in, just nodded “hello” and waited for them to assemble themselves and their instruments. The air was so dry, the clasps of Remy's violin case shocked her fingertips. She glanced at the man, whose face seemed to be trying to say that nothing unusual was happening, no, not at all.

It was 1987, a Sunday. A room full of students not quite recovered from the weekend's parties and performances and one-night stands. Their regular conductor, Mr. Bergman, was a short, lisping man with rolled-up pant cuffs; everyone looked at this new one in a tired, questioning way. His skin was fair, and his dark hair flopped at a slant across his forehead. There was something angular about his face, with its defined cheekbones and elegantly bony nose. Remy tucked her violin up under her chin and tested the strings, enjoying the sensation of each one, with the slight turn of a peg, slipping into tune.

Not until her stand partner, Lynn, hurried in to take the seat next to her did the man explain—not at all thoroughly—that Mr. Bergman wouldn't be back. “And so,” he announced in a British sort of accent that managed to sound both witty and bewildered, “I've been hired as his replacement.”

He was too tall for the tweed jacket, or perhaps just too trim, too laddish: Remy decided he couldn't be more than thirty. “What did he say his name was?” whispered Lynn, who as concertmistress would surely end up on a first-name basis with him. But no name had been mentioned. The man had come from out of nowhere. Remy pictured a small pile of luggage waiting just outside the practice hall.

“Well, so, in that case, then,” the man was saying. “I'm very excited about the selections we have this term.
is one of my favorites.”

Mine, too, thought Remy, with slight bitterness. Not a day went by that she didn't wish she, and not Lynn, might be the one to portray Scheherazade's seductive voice, with that first melodious proclamation and the passionate spirals that followed. In private she practiced the solo bits as if they were hers. Lynn, meanwhile, was briskly swiping rosin onto her bow, stirring up a low cloud of sticky dust, as if this man's sudden appearance weren't at all out of the ordinary and she might be called upon at any moment to play her cadenza.

The man's eyes were bright (though there were slight shadows beneath them) and his button-down shirt, open at the collar, was visibly rumpled underneath the tweed jacket. His expression was one of bemusement. Remy felt suddenly hopeful, though she couldn't have quite said why.

“Well, so,” the man announced in a cheery, English way. “Off we go.”

the Sibelius. Remy loved the sureness of her fingers defining each note, and the vibration of the strings beneath her bow. The rehearsal hall had excellent acoustics; the music rose up over her, sound waves reverberating between her body and her violin, from the touch of her left-hand fingers upon the strings through her right arm down into her wrist.

The new conductor was listening, getting a sense of the orchestra and what the previous conductor had accomplished. “All right, so,” he said lightly, waving at them to stop. Remy felt a surge of frustration. She was just one of the many faces looking up at him. This late in the semester, what were the chances a new conductor might discover all she could do?

“Starting at bar seventy-four, let the phrase play itself out.” He hummed the phrase, as if from pleasure rather than in illustration. “Let it come to rest, don't rush into the next sequence. It's your job to make sure the audience hears the significance of the phrase—so you need to give them time to absorb it.” He raised his baton. “Let's start from there.”

As they played, Remy could feel the conductor trying to hold them back, then allowing the music forward again. Mr. Bergman hadn't done it this way.

“The thing to keep in mind,” the man said, tapping his baton at the podium for them to stop, “is that what the music asks of us isn't always spelled out on the page. We might need to slow down even where there's no
written, or rush forward where there's just a crescendo mark. Tempo is about more than just speed.” He said this casually, as if the thought had just occurred to him.

“It's about the passage of time, really. In our lives—not just on the page. You know how sometimes everything seems to keep rushing forward, but then at other times things are peaceful and still? How sometimes we feel stuck in time, or just plodding along day by day—and then suddenly it's as if time's passed us by, or we're being hurried along, too quickly? That's what tempo is really about. That's what we're expressing. Not just how fast or how slowly the
moves. It's about how fast and slow

His eyes widened at the thought. They were a greenish blue. For a moment it seemed he might be about to make some personal confession. But he just raised his baton and asked them to try the passage one more time.

can do it, Rascal!”

Rascal peered over the edge of the scalloped tiles, as if considering. Hazel glimpsed the little round head of soft fur and called out again, despite wishing she could just leave him up on the Duvaliers' roof—just for a bit, while she finished her packing.

If only Nicholas were here . . . But of course he was already in Boston at his new post; he always managed to escape just this sort of ordeal. Instead, here was Madame Duvalier, standing with arms akimbo, lips pursed in concern.

come on down
!” Hazel called, in her best game show host impersonation, though there was no one here to find it funny or even just stupid. Gently she shook the old wooden ladder tilted against the balcony, a reminder to Rascal as to how one might proceed. The sturdy wooden shutters of the Duvaliers' windows had been pushed open, their thick blue paint a shade away from cheerful. Rascal whimpered, and Hazel stretched her arms up to indicate that she was prepared to catch him. “It's all right, Rascal, I'm here.”

Jessie was running around the damp courtyard squealing “Rascal!” and every once in a while stopping to scrutinize a plump slug. For hours Hazel had been packing, folding winter clothes into battered suitcases, wrapping their few valuables in little wads of newspaper that still held the crumpled contours of previous moves. Then Jessie, scribbling with thick crayons next to the drafty window of their flat next door, had heard Rascal's frightened cries carried through the cool, humid air.

RasCAAALLuh . . . ,
” called Madame Duvalier in that jaded tone that all French women seemed to have. The way she said it rhymed with
. When Hazel knocked on her neighbor's door, Madame Duvalier had answered in stretchy stirrup pants and a long baggy sweater, but to step outside and try to seduce Rascal, she had changed into her usual tight black slacks, leather pumps, and maroon jacket with the enormous shoulder pads. Her lipstick matched the color of the jacket exactly. No woman in this Provençal town dared present herself in public without first dressing impeccably, applying a sheath of makeup, and dousing herself with perfume. It was one of the peculiarities Hazel had become accustomed to these past eight months. And now she would be leaving.

Viens, RasCAAALLLuh . . . .”
Madame Duvalier gave a sigh but then said with real enthusiasm,
“Ah, les voilà, les pompiers

It had been her idea to call the fire department. Hazel found surprising comfort in the fact that even here, on a whole other continent, this particular service was the peculiar duty of firemen. A universal truth, she thought, and almost laughed, though she couldn't, really, while Rascal was still stuck up there. Anyway, it was Madame Duvalier's roof; if she desired a fleet of firemen to come to her aid, that was her prerogative. She was Hazel's age, thirty or so, yet in Hazel's eight months here the two of them had never graduated to a first-name basis. Their conversations had been comically stilted, with Madame Duvalier's serious, frowning, “Bonjour, Madame,” whenever they happened to meet. It was such a distant second to “Hi” or even “Hello.” “Bonjour, Madame” had become to Hazel an embodiment of everything difficult and uncomfortable about her life—trailing around after Nicholas year after year, from this orchestra or conservatory to that one, the endless cycle of pocket dictionaries and air mail packages and foreign landladies shrilling rules she couldn't quite understand. Each new city offered its own awkwardly furnished flat, where there was always a trick to the shower or something finicky about the stove, and of course some laundry-based complication. Their residence in Helsinki had been met by an infestation of wasps; in Brussels the man who lived downstairs always hung about waiting for Hazel to help him “practice the English”; in Florence they'd had to relocate when, after heavy rains, their original quarters began to smell of sewage.

Here their apartment was outfitted with space heaters in every room, yet the winter had been awfully cold, the tile floors like ice, even after Hazel put down her favorite Persian carpet. No wonder Jessie was so happy today, free to run around the dewy courtyard, where weeds were beginning to emerge and a few thick worms announced incipient spring.

The firemen—there were three of them—didn't look at all put out. In fact they seemed pleasantly surprised, stealing glances at Hazel, who couldn't help smiling inwardly at knowing they found her attractive, while Madame Duvalier walked them through the cat/roof situation with what seemed to Hazel a much more complicated explanation than necessary. Could we ever have been friends? she found herself wondering. Couldn't both of us have been friendlier?

It was a small failure, probably, not to have managed to befriend this woman. Instead Hazel had spent long afternoons at the nearby park sitting alone on a bench she came to think of as “hers,” sketching trees and foliage and strangers' profiles into a little spiral-bound drawing pad, while Jessie ran around exultantly chasing pigeons. The other mothers plopped their babies inside little grassy penned-in areas that Hazel had at first assumed were for flower beds or perhaps dogs. But no, that was where mothers deposited their small children, closed the gate, and then went to sit on far-off benches, where they smoked and gossiped and read, ignoring any possible disaster that might be taking place inside the kiddy pen. Hazel sat on her bench, anxiously sketching with a dark pencil, monitoring Jessie and keeping an eye on all the other children as they ate grass and dirt, and hit each other, and poked themselves in the nose and eyes and ears, and licked the bars of the iron gate—while the slender, smoking mothers paid no attention at all.

Now she nodded along to Madame Duvalier's epic narrative: yes, it was her cat, Hazel answered to the one jolly
who seemed especially ready to perform. Perhaps she enjoyed too much the little charge that came from witnessing her effect on men; perhaps she relied on her looks too much. But looks were sometimes all she had to work with—and could make the difference between being helped and being ignored.

regarded Rascal gravely, conferring in hushed conversation too rapid for Hazel to follow. This particular French trait—the somber tone of expertise that everyone, no matter their age or employ, brought to their chosen professions—was one of Hazel's favorites. Earnest consultations of grocers and hairdressers, debates between merchants and patrons regarding potential purchases, long conferences that even other customers joined in when Hazel asked for advice at the wine shop. She could make Nicholas laugh just by mimicking that pouting frown of concentration, the careful weighing of options before delivering, unsmiling, a verdict: “
Ah, oui, monsieur, celle-là vous va bien”
when, dressing to attend a performance or premiere, Nicholas asked which tie he ought to wear.

Jessie was now squatting on her heels, arranging and rearranging twigs under a craggy lavender bush, while the two serious
brought over an extremely tall ladder and propped it against the house. Rascal gave a distressed meow, as if conscious that all this fuss was about him and he had better make it worth their while. Why did these predicaments always present themselves when Nicholas was away? When Hazel had to fend for herself, in some foreign tongue not quite at her disposal? A fuse blew, or a suspicious person was wandering the vicinity. One time a pipe had burst. These things only happened when Hazel was alone. . . . But in just two days, she reminded herself, they would be on their way back to the States. She was ready, so very ready, to set up a real home, to find comfort and ease where until now there had been only hassle. Already she had begun in her mind sewing velour pillows for the niche of a sunny bay window. There were sure to be bay windows in Boston.

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