Authors: Simon Van Booy
LORILEE VAN BOOY
If you are not here, then why are you everywhere?
WAIT IN THE SHADOWS.
My cello is already on stage. It was carved in 1723 on a Sicilian hillside where the sea is very quiet. The strings vibrate when the bow is near, as though anticipating their lover.
My name is Bruno Bonnet. The curtain I stand behind is the color of a plum. The velvet is heavy. My life is on the other side. Sometimes I wish it would continue on without me.
The stage lights here in Quebec City are too bright. Stars of dust circle the scroll and the pegs as I am introduced in French-Canadian. The cello belonged to my grandfather who was accidentally killed in World War II.
My grandfather's kitchen chair is also on stage. I can only put weight on three legs. The wicker at the center of the seat is ripped. One day it's going to collapse. When the chair arrives at the concert hall a day or so before a performance, a frantic music director will call with bad news: “Your chair has been utterly ruined in transit.”
An eruption of applause and I take the stage.
Who are all these people?
One day I will play without my instrument. I will sit up straight and not move. I will close my eyes and imagine life taking place in the houses outside the concert hall: steaming pots stirred by women in slippers; teenagers in their rooms wearing headphones; somebody's son looking for his keys; a divorcÃ©e brushing her teeth as her cat stares; a family watching televisionâthe youngest is asleep but will not remember his dream.
When I clasp my bow, the audience is suddenly very quiet.
I look out at their faces a moment before I begin.
So many people and yet not one single person who knows anything about me.
If only one of them recognized me, I could slip from the branches of my life, brush time from my clothes, and begin the long journey across the fields to the place where I first disappeared. A boy leaning crookedly on a gate, waiting for his best friend to get up. The back wheel of Anna's bicycle still spinning.
For ten years as a professional cellist I have been raising the dead in concert halls across the world. The moment my bow makes contact with the strings, Anna's form appears. She is wearing the clothes from that day. I am twenty years older. But she is still a child. She flickers because she is made of light. She watches a few feet from my cello. She looks at me but doesn't recognize who I am.
Tonight the concert hall is packed. By the end of the final movement I can sense her fading. Perhaps a single hand remains; a scoop of shoulder; a shimmering mane of hair.
But she is turning inward quickly nowâquickly drifting from the living world.
Some concert performers turn their backs to the figures that float upon the stage: figures that move with the confusion of sleep, with the grace of unfurling smoke, figures conjured by guilt, love, regret, luck, and happenstance. Some performers I've read about can't take their eyes off them. Some crack and fling themselves off bridges; others drink themselves into oblivion or stand in freezing rivers at midnight.
I think music is what language once aspired to be. Music allows us to face God on our own terms because it reaches beyond life.
I feel moments from the end.
The muscles in my bowing arm tighten. The final notes are sonorous; I steady my bow like an oar held in a river, steering us all toward the bank of now and tomorrow and the day after that. Days ahead like open fields.
And night pools outside the concert hall. The city is still wet. The concert hall is glassed in and overlooks a garden. Eyes of rain dot the windows and shiver with each breath of wind. Stars fill the sky, then drop to flood the streets and the squares. When it rains, even the most insignificant puddle is a map of the universe.
When the performance ends, I stand and raise my bow to the audience. I can hear things landing on the stageâflowers and small letters taped to the plastic.
The applause is deafening. I feel for Anna's mitten in my pocket.
I drip with sweat under the lights. Each drop holds its own tiny clapping audience. As always I want something sweet to drink. I hurry off the stage, still holding my bow. When I reach the steps, I feel again for Anna's mitten and suddenly see her face with terrifying clarity. Such straight hair and so many freckles. The only authentic memories find usâlike letters addressed to someone we used to be.
I hurry to my dressing room. I find a towel, drink orange juice from a bottle, and fall into a chair.
Then I sit very still and close my eyes.
Another concert over.
I wonder how many more I can do. How many Annas are left. She was twelve when she died. Her father was a bakerâand since that morning, every twelfth baguette he bakes bears the letter A. He lets children eat cakes in his shop for free. They talk loudly and make a mess.
A porter knocks, then enters my dressing room with a cell phone. He gestures for me to take it. He has the sort of square shoulders women like. There are deep lines around his eyes, but he doesn't look over forty. I give him my bottle of juice. He holds it at a distance from his body. I cup the phone to my ear. It's Sandy. She wants to know how it has gone. She couldn't hear because of the static on the porter's phone. Someone had given her the number so she could listen from backstage. Sandy is my agent. She is originally from Iowa. A good businesswoman; understands how creative minds workâin other words, she's pushy with everyone but her talent. I tell her it went well. Then I ask if I can tell her something.
“Like what?” she says.
I seldom volunteer anything. For most of my thirties, I have seen little point in telling people anything. But as a teenager, I loved passionately, spent whole nights crying (for what, I can no longer remember). I followed women home and then wrote sonatas that I left on doorsteps in the middle of the night. I dived into ponds fully clothed. I almost drank myself to death. In my youth, all conflict was resolutionâjust a busier form of emptiness.
Sandy knows only that I'm French and that I never forget to send her daughter a postcard from wherever I go.
I tell Sandy about a dream I had on the flight to Quebec City. Sandy says that dreams are either unresolved conflicts or wish fulfillments. According to Freud, she says. Then she doesn't say anything. I can hear a television in the background. Then she says her daughter needs to go to bed. I ask what she's done wrong. Sandy laughs. They are knitting and there's a film on. Sandy is a single mother. She went to a facility and had herself impregnated. I've always thought that if Sandy died, I'd want her daughter to live with me. I could teach her the cello. Though she'd be alone a lot because I go away.
Still, I would leave her “notes” all over the house. We could name the two eighteenth-century portraits that hang in my apartment. They could watch over us. We could watch over each other.
I give the porter his telephone back and thank him. He asks if it is good news.
My plane is not leaving for New York until the next afternoon. I have an entire evening to wander around. I arrived in Quebec City just this morning. The taxi driver was from Bosnia. He wore a wool hat with the symbol of his favorite football team.
About half an hour after my performance at the MusÃ©e de la Civilisation ended, several couples flooded my dressing room and invited me to dinner. These couples are the same in every city. In the ancient Sicilian town of Noto (where my cello was made), their garments would have borne the most intricate patterns. I imagine faces, people sitting in courtyards: the luxury of shade; lips wet with wine; dusty feet resting atop sandals; the smell of horses from outside; children running through the house, curls bouncing off shoulders; laughter turns to cryingâthe scope of human feeling hasn't changed.
I'm always asked to dinner or to spend the weekend somewhere with the trusteesâperhaps I might even bring my cello? they ask.
When I was young, I was too shy to refuse. For the past several years, I've politely declined. Sandy says I'm getting a reputation for being difficult.
I explained like always that I must recover; that I have been hampered by a rather serious cold. I took a few deep breaths for effect. A woman laughed. Her husband put his arm around her. He was wearing a canary-yellow bow tie. There were dark patches under his eyes.
Before the performance I looked at myself in the mirror. I wondered if I should shave. It was my birthday last Wednesday, and I have thirty-five years attached to me like a belt of weights. Actually, years mean nothing. It's what's inside them. To some I am a famous cellist. Bruno Bonnet. I don't know what I am to myself, probably still a scared little boy enchanted by the world, or, at best, the boy whose face has remained glued to the misty back window of the family sedan, a brown Renault 16. As a child, my family would take long drives, often not even stopping for the night. I think my father drove the way he thought. My mother would break bread and give my brother and me handfuls each. When the bread was gone, we would finally stop. Bread was the civilizing force of my childhood.
My father was one of the few men I knew growing up who didn't smoke. His father was killed in the war. As Paris filled up with Nazi soldiers shouting and pointing things out, the roads south were clogged with peopleâtheir possessions loaded onto cars, horse-drawn wagons, baby carriages loaded with radios, family pictures, and cutlery. Hitler wanted the roads destroyed.
It wasn't difficult for the pilots of the Luftwaffe to spot the roads from above because they were literally moving. My grandfather was plowing a field. His head was clipped by a piece of shell. My father was ten.
When I was ten, my father gave me a photograph of his father holding his ancient Italian cello. He told me to save it, that one day it would mean something. I remember telling him that it already meant something. Then I asked casually if I could learn the cello. I wasn't aware of what I'd said.
A few weeks later on Christmas Eve, there was a priceless eighteenth-century cello sitting under the tree. It was my grandfather's; the case bore his initials. My mother had tied a ribbon around the case. As I approached it, my father got up and left the room.
My father listened to me practice with tears in his eyes. That's the secret to my success as a cellist.
As my dressing room gradually emptied, the man with the canary-yellow bow tie asked if he and his wife could take my cello in their car to my hotel, the Chateau Frontenac, where they planned to dine at Jean Souchard's restaurant. His wife said they would be more careful than I could imagine. I thanked them and explained how the music director had already arranged for the cello to be escorted to the hotel “vault” by several members of the museum staff. The couple looked disappointed, and so I walked them to their car. They seemed to want something from me. I wanted to explain that trusting is harder than being trusted.
I love walking. Especially when I have nothing to carry (which is not often). On my way back to the hotel it starts to rain, lightly at first, and then hard, half-frozen drops. On the street that leads to the Chateau Frontenac, I stop walking. The road surface is slick. It reflects the world with a beautiful inaccuracy.
My old geography professor once told his class how the music, paintings, sculptures, and books of the world are mirrors in which people see versions of themselves.
There is something about the rain slipping down the hill that prevents me from moving. People hurry past, going somewhere but nowhere. Cars slow down. The people inside want to see what I am looking at. The sweeping whites of the headlights like strange animals.
When I get back to New York, I'm going to memorize the opening lines of Dante's most famous work. I think it begins, “Midway on our life's journey, I found myself in dark woods.Â .Â .”
I think of Horowitz's TrÃ¤umerei. Twenty-five seconds longer than anyone else's. Or did I imagine that? If you haven't heard this piece.Â .Â .
It's about childhood.
My parents back in France spend their evenings watching television in the socks I sent them from London. I love my parents and forgive them. Above the couch is a framed watercolor of a mountain lion. If it fell, it would kill them. It's a limited-edition print. There are 199 others in the world.
They will only ever be my parents once. They are the only parents I will ever have in the history of the universe. I wonder if they feel me thinking about them here in Quebec City in the rainâI wonder if they feel me like a small animal gnawing them affectionately.
I continue up the hill. The Chateau Frontenac towers over the city like a benevolent dictator. From the eighteenth floor, you can see the Laurentian Mountains. Montreal is five hours southwest. The castle was built for well-to-do railroad passengers a few decades after the American Civil War. I suppose for some Quebecois, it's the biggest building they'll ever see. Lovers come here too and walk the city at dusk. You can see them on the promenade, sharing an umbrella, huddled together, stopping only to kiss and stare down at a cold black river dabbed with patches of streetlight.
When I play, I feel as though I am flying. I circle the auditorium. I am anywhere but inside my body. Without music, I would be a prisoner trapped in a sealed wall.
When I play, I sometimes picture my parents. And then the moment I finish playing, there is an eruption of applause. People cannot wait to give applause because they clap for themselves; they clap because they have been recognized by someone who died long ago in a room that flickered with candlelight.
I want to call my father, but my parents will both be in bed. They'll be annoyed if I callâbut grateful tomorrow. My father thinks me eccentric anyway. He tells his friends at the cafÃ© about me, about how eccentric I am. It's his way of talking about me.
In Noyant, the small French village where I grew up, it is too late to call anyone. I can feel the stillness of the town. The empty streets. My parents are asleep. The glowing numbers of the red alarm clock magnified by a glass set down in front of it. In the glass there are tiny bubbles that rise to the surface in the night. The remnants of supper will be in the refrigerator. There will be a cool skin of moisture on the car outsideâa new Renault. My brother bought it for them as a Christmas present. I remember that my mother wanted to go for a drive in her nightgown; my brother was overjoyed with this. My father washed his hands and looked at it through the kitchen window before going outside. He stood next to it and put his hand on the roof. Then he went off to the vegetable patch beyond the far wall of the house and dug for a few forgotten potatoes. My mother took my brother inside and reassured him that we'd all go for a ride after breakfast. My brother has never understood our father. My brother is emotionally literal. Women have always loved him. I miss him. We grew up in a cottage that was part of a small bourgeois estate my father cared for.