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Authors: Rachel Ingalls

Black Diamond

BOOK: Black Diamond
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RACHEL INGALLS

Black Diamond

Four other boys in William’s class shared his name. At home he was Will. At school someone else was called Will; two were Bill and one went under a middle name. Only William was given the full, formal version.

His family had money. They owned a large house in town and a summer place at the beach. He was closer to his cousins – until they moved away – than to any of the boys and girls in his class. Everyone liked him, but he had no special companions. He had pets: as a child he’d kept mice, frogs, goldfish, and a dog his parents had bought for him when he was two. The dog lived to be almost thirteen and died of kidney disease. After that, William didn’t want another pet. His energy went into the car he was learning to drive.

When he wasn’t out on the road he’d spend his time playing phonograph records. He had hundreds, most of them highlights from Italian opera, though there were a few albums of Dixieland in his collection, and some blues and early jazz. He got interested in opera by listening to the radio. He liked the tunes. For years he knew nothing about the stories that were meant to accompany the music – in fact, he had no idea that the songs were intended to be played in any definite order. One day he decided to write down the name of a composer as it was announced at the end of a broadcast. He went to the library to find out more. He started to buy the records and to read about music in general.

Every once in a while his parents would take him along to a concert in the capital. They were glad to see that he wasn’t completely brainwashed by the rock and roll everybody his age was dancing to, but they considered opera to be going a little too
far. They drew the line at foreign languages, even the kind of French used in restaurants. The waiter could always tell you what things meant.

He began to pick up a few phrases in Italian. At school he was offered French, and Latin if he wanted it; he didn’t want Latin because he thought he’d never need it. He did well in French. He even bought a couple of records of French opera, and some in German, but they failed to hold his attention. Already he was a specialist: it was the Italians or nothing.

He studied the stories from booklets that came with his boxed sets. The text included pictures of the singers in costume. And, on the back covers, photographs showed him how each scene would look to an audience. He read reviews in the papers. He subscribed to an opera magazine. As in many other matters, his acquaintance with opera was theoretical: imagined. He’d heard a lot, but seen nothing first-hand.

He knew the characters’ names; he was familiar with their lives. The young men who sang the hero’s part were soldiers or scholars, dukes and princes. Sometimes they were in disguise: that was the way life was then, apparently. And they loved. That hadn’t changed. They were like real people to him. They were like himself. Of course they were also melodramatic and silly, but however inane the people and the plot, the music always won out. The music persuaded him so far that he even began to like the faults as well as the virtues of opera. He was captivated by the ludicrous misunderstandings, the eccentric motives and
contrived
emotions, the coincidences that could never happen.

The stories were usually, as anyone could see, ridiculous. That wasn’t important. You had to realize that certain conventions and situations were constant because they set the scene for a particular kind of music. There were arias of anger, forgiveness, longing, supplication; if you wanted to cram them all into one work, the story had to make room for them. Occasionally things got to the point where – because of the need to fit in all the songs – the plot no longer made sense. William didn’t mind too much about that. He preferred an overcrowding of drama to a lack of excitement.

He also understood that sometimes the kind of voice a composer was writing for would determine the style of the music. In quite a few of these operas, for instance, there was a mad scene. When a coloratura soprano was in the cast, you could be fairly sure that before the last act she’d be crazy, although still able to hit a high E. Almost always the reason for her mental collapse was desertion or betrayal by her lover, whose black cloak (dark, anyway, according to the photographs) she would press to her heart as she trilled away at the high bits. The traditions of stage madness demanded that the more crazed a girl became, the higher she sang. Purity of tone would indicate the intensity of her love and pain. Another custom governed the color of her dress: it had to be white, and of a simple, shiftlike design. You were supposed to think it was her nightgown, and that she’d be too distracted to want to change her clothes, or perhaps to remember how to. Occasionally the nightdress resembled some sort of tattered bridal garment she’d put on under the impression that the hero would call for her in just a minute, to take her to church and make her his wife. Her complaint might not have been insanity as the twentieth century knew it, but more a kind of madness peculiar to the dictates of Romanticism.

As his knowledge and appreciation grew, William no longer felt that his greatest wish was to see an opera staged. What he longed for was the world the operas described: the emotions of other people, given to him by the music; the place where grand events took place, usually in the distant past or at the time when the music had been composed. That time too was gone. But all times in opera were equal; fictional and historical past occupied the same world. It was the world where William wanted to live. The time of Romance seemed more real to him than Korea, the Second World War, the Depression, the First World War, the Founding Fathers, and all the rest of it. A century or so made no difference to him, nor did the setting. People still felt the same, no matter where they were; love, hate, jealousy, the urge to kill, to die, to sacrifice, to capture beauty: emotions didn’t change. But a small American town in 1958 wasn’t an ideal stage on
which to express emotion. You could get into trouble just trying to park at the side of the road with a girl.

He’d been out in his new car one night with a girl from the class above his, when a policeman had sneaked up and shone a flashlight at them through the window. William came home raving, asking his parents what kind of man would take a job like that – what kind of pervert? His father laughed. William said, ‘Somebody old and ugly and envious; some slob that hates anyone young. He wanted to see my license and know all about the car, and – I bet he wasn’t even on duty. He was probably one of those Peeping Toms. I’m going to report him.’

‘Don’t do that‚’ his father told him. ‘He can say he was checking the car. To see if it was stolen, or if you’d had the brakes tested. Anything like that.’

‘He wasn’t checking the car. He was checking on us, to see if we were making out.’

‘You wouldn’t be able to prove that.’

William’s mother said, ‘It’s part of their job, dear.’ She was a generation younger than her husband. She’d been brought up primly and had always been cautious with younger men.

William shouted, ‘How could that be anybody’s job? It isn’t anybody else’s business what I want to do.’

‘They just have to make sure you’re not doing anything wrong,’ she said.

William thought he was going to choke. He threw out his arms and stamped on the floor. ‘Wrong?’ he said. ‘Jesus Christ!’

‘Will, I don’t want to have to keep asking you to watch your language.’

He marched up to the sideboard, back to the table and out of the room. His father called after him, ‘That’ll teach you to park a little farther out of town.’

He went down to the basement room his parents had let him make into a music studio. He put a record on the turntable. His anger and frustration flooded away on a tide of music. He couldn’t understand how other people could hear the notes and not realize that opera was more beautiful, and better, than the kind of stuff they normally listened to. The music said
everything
.
It told you, without words, everything that was going on, and what it meant: what the people in the story felt. Even the plots, even the silly ones filled with coincidences, were
marvelous
: the violence, intimacy and commitment of the emotions they dealt with, the exaltation they allowed you; it was all wonderful. Small towns in America didn’t leave any margin for that kind of uplifting experience. They didn’t even let you try it out in your own car.

He was in his third year of highschool when he started going out with Jean. She was two years younger than he was. His mother didn’t approve of that. She didn’t trust Jean’s parents, either, who were ordinary people no one had ever heard of. William’s mother didn’t associate with such families. She had sound instincts about that sort of thing; his father thought so, at any rate. Once William knew what his parents’ attitude was going to be, he spent a lot of time in crowds: playing tennis, going to the movies, going out with seven or nine other people in his class. And he met Jean in secret.

Secrecy speeded up the affair, as did the knowledge that there were hindrances against them. They met and embraced in an isolation as charged with expectancy as any midnight
assignation
between soprano and tenor. All they needed to heighten their passion was an appreciation of danger. But the dangers were so obvious that they overlooked them.

Their conversation was all of abstract things. First of all they agreed on how wrong most people – especially the older generation – were about everything. Then they talked about love and about art. And poetry. They both wrote poems; they had written poetry long before they had anyone to write it to.

He’d have liked to listen to his records with her, but she was shy about coming to the house. She knew his parents still thought she wasn’t the kind of girl he should be seeing: they didn’t go out of their way to discourage the friendship – that might persuade their son to commit himself to the girl. They said instead that they felt sorry for her.

As for taking his records to her place: that wouldn’t work, either. Her parents were definitely not the kind of people who
listened to opera. If he’d brought it into their house, they’d have thought he was showing off, or worse – that he considered them in need of extra education.

He played the records after seeing Jean, and before. He had Callas, he had Gobbi; he had everybody. He also had a car and good clothes and enough money to take a girl out dancing, to the movies, to restaurants. That should have been in his favor. What it actually meant was that Jean’s parents suspected him of being unreliable: financial freedom leads to other freedoms. And although it might be possible in their town to conceal an aberrant or extravagant mind, any generosity or transgression of the body was found out immediately. Even when it wasn’t true, illicit intercourse could be presumed: by the way people behaved, what they said, how they looked at each other. Hints,
supposition
, inference, couldn’t harm a man; they hurt women and girls. There were many reasons for the parents of a daughter to feel mistrust. They would want her to refuse all physical advances in any case; but if she didn’t, she’d have no control over what happened to her. Any power she had over her future would pass to the man she was with. A man, married or not, could buy contraceptives at the drugstore, whereas no
unmarried
woman of any age could legally ask a doctor to fit her with a diaphragm; a young girl who tried such a thing would be reported to her parents, or possibly to the police. That would be considered a question of morality. Jean was fifteen, William seventeen, which would have made it immorality. They thought it was love.

They made love outdoors at night and then in the daytime too. As his father had advised, William parked the car far enough away from the center of town not to attract attention. The fact that neither of them had sisters or brothers made it easy to keep their secret, although later it would mean that they’d have no allies against their parents’ generation. And at school they hadn’t found anyone to take the place of brothers and sisters. It seemed that all their lives they had been waiting for each other. William had his gang of pals, none of them very important to him. Jean was temporarily without anyone she wanted to confide in. She’d
had two good friends, but both of them had left school. Her best friend had moved to another town the year before. She’d written letters for the first few months of their separation. After that, the correspondence became sporadic. She never mentioned William to the girl. She felt it would be a betrayal to talk about him behind his back, to share with anyone else the secret understanding they had; and as soon as they were lovers, there was no need for emotional corroboration from a third person: William had taken the place of best friend.

They wrote poems to each other and also letters. Sometimes they’d mail their poems, sometimes one of them would just slip a piece of paper to the other between classes. To exchange a look among a group of people, to brush by each other so that their hands touched, set them alight: to know, when nobody else knew.

They lost interest in schoolwork. When they weren’t falling asleep over their books during the day, they’d want to laugh and joke. They liked sneaking into the back row of movie theaters to watch B-features while they fed each other popcorn and tried to see how much they could do with each other before anyone noticed.

At night he’d stand outside her house while she shinnied down the tree that grew in front of her bedroom window. Later on, he’d take up his post again as she climbed back. They blew kisses to each other. He’d take long walks or drive around for a while before returning to his parents’ house. When he got back, he’d turn the volume down on the phonograph and play his records. He’d sink into the harmony – his breathing, his skin, his whole body aligned to the sound of passion in the voices: the delicious pain of love, the beauty, the intensity. To be able to sing like that, he thought, would be like being able to fly. And now that he was a lover himself, he understood: that was what it was all about – desire and suffering, betrayal and madness,
reconciliation
, the joy of being united in love.

BOOK: Black Diamond
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