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On Jeans and Chamber Music

October 15, 2015

A night at the museum. A nocturne of string quartets.


Paintings against a white backdrop. White napkins, white wine. Gold bangles and bracelets glisten playfully under the white light.


My white sneakers need cleaning. I observe them through the bottom of my glass.  Jeans and chamber music, really? I stand out like… jeans and chamber music. Everyone else, it seems, is in black. I reach for my little red purse, a poor student’s moment of weakness at Harrod’s, a lifetime ago. I dab on some lip balm, now my lips smell of roses. The anxiety in my chest subsides somewhat.


René Magritte, Man in a Bowler Hat (1964)

The little Lebanese girl, reluctant housewife of the Midwest, I left at the door. In here, the would be writer, would be Parisienne swirls her Chardonnay thoughtfully, breathing in the aromas of oak, honey, and vanilla as she pauses in front of a surrealist picture in felt ink. Bowler hats and faceless men in suits, but ceci n’est pas Magritte.


A treachery of images. I feel like one too.


Where is she now, the little Lebanese girl? Who hid in a basement during air raids, and had her first baths in a bucket; mixed water with powdered milk and ate her cereal by candlelight; held her brother’s hand in the dark, waiting for the power to return; sorted through canned food and distributed bags of rice, and adopted an orphaned kitten while a war raged on? My reflection in the picture’s glass frame is adamant: Ceci n’est pas elle. She exists, only in my head now.


In this reality, silence falls. We please take our seats. Two violins, a viola, a cello. A nocturne in two parts. Eyes downcast, bows lifted. Four slender wrists, beautifully bare.


String Quartet No. 14 in G Major, K. 387, also known as the ‘Spring’ quartet. Another alternate reality in this early Missouri fall. Mozart starts off with an allegro vivace assai. The bows come to life: crescendo, an invitation to dance. My stained white sneakers are forgotten; I am in a ball gown now. This is what spring in Vienna must feel like.


‘The map is not the territory.’ Still… the little Lebanese girl dances, to the memory of a waltz she never heard.


A menuet and trio follow like an afterthought. The tempo slows down. Andante cantabile. Now I am yet elsewhere. At the piano in a sunbathed suburban living room. My sister sings, a friend strokes a violin. Behind me, the cello, and on the table, homemade carrot cake and once-steaming mint tea. The image unfolds and tugs at my heart, like a Sunday evening.


Molto allegro, the last movement brings me back. The strings’ whispered conversation turns to a heated debate. The bows fly desperately, barely touching the instruments, barely coming up for air. I don’t either, until…




The hand to my left takes mine. Mon chéri is wearing jeans too. His sneakers are blue, though, and through my glass they seem green. He smiles at me.  Tonight, he too left an alternate self at the door. In here, the tired clinician is a would be prince, free to roam the world, or spend a nocturne sipping wine and listening to chamber music, with me.


Silence, again.


String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Opus 96. Antonín Dvorák’s first movement, allegro ma non troppo, rolls off the strings creamily, like my luscious Chardonnay.


The first quartet was grandiose; Mozart is ball gowns and chandeliers, caviar on silver plates. But Dvorák… Dvorák is dessert. His quartet is his journey, from Prague to Spillville Iowa. First movement: the heady fever of the New World. I dare to hope with him.


But the second movement cascades into a heartbreaking lento. My heart rate, too, slows. The notes weigh heavy. The treachery of reality; an acquaintance with homesickness. He understood homesickness. Ceci n’est pas mon pays. The music plays, I begin to cry. I am sipping coffee on a sidewalk in Prague. I am doing laundry in an empty apartment in Saint Louis. I am nowhere all at once.


Molto vivace. The strings pick up speed. Faster and faster the carrousel spins, my senses are overwhelmed. To see, now, would be too much; I close my eyes. Angular Russian notes dip into earthy African-American beats. The melody unfolds, rich and full-bodied, sparkling and light, every texture in between, and somehow…


Comes full circle.


Like jeans and chamber music. The Midwestern housewife and the Parisian writer. Vivace ma non troppo.


The wine and music have gone to our heads. We float, giddy, between two realities. Jeans and chamber music. White sneakers and white wine. Mon chéri leans over and whispers: ‘I want to take you to a ball some day.’


Wednesday night at the museum. A nocturne of string quartets. Ceci may not be reality, but please, violinist, do not stop.

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