She didn't have girlfriends to tell, either. The girls at school were so different from her, creatures of mystery, of baffling confidence, with their smooth, shining hair, their lip gloss and mascara, their golf and tennis and boating parties. They giggled together and passed notes in class and wore earbuds with trailing plastic wires, bobbing their heads to music only they could hear. Frederica disdained their music, naturally. The rest of itâcosmetics, gossip, sports, fashionâbewildered her.
But today, as her mother so gaily declared, was a new start. A girls' day, to effect the metamorphosis of the misfit duckling into a fledgling swan. In Bloomingdale's Bronwyn gathered armloads of dresses, sorting through racks of them with a practiced hand. She held them up to Frederica to try colors, silhouettes, lengths, materials, chattering happily about fabrics and designers and trends. She didn't seem daunted by the lack of response from her daughter. Frederica tended to silence, and Bronwyn was accustomed to it. What surprised her, on this day, was that her daughter was listening. Nodding, touching a dress here, a sweater there. Daring a glance into one of the glass-fronted pillars, she who habitually avoided mirrors. All of this delighted Bronwyn, and startled her.
Frederica, trailing behind her mother toward the dressing rooms, thought her mother would be even more startled if she knew what had wrought this change in her daughter. The Frederica she knew cared only about books and music, and would rather attend a symphony concert than go to a movie. Frederica had scorned her mother's designer suits and three-inch heels, and flatly refused to learn to play bridge or try her hand at tennis. She had, until now, disdained shopping trips and fashion shows. Bronwyn had, Frederica suspected, been ready to give up on her.
But something had changed in Frederica's life. It was something as unexpected, to her, as it was profound. It was uncomfortable, and it was thrilling, and it was as compelling as music.
It wore jeans and high-top sneakers. It sported tee shirts emblazoned with band names. It swaggered through the school corridors, joking, laughing, leering. It leaned against lockers, talking to the pretty girls, ignoring the rest of them.
There was no particular one of these creatures who attracted Frederica. They all did. Each single one seemed to be part of an amorphous whole, the opposite sex, brazen, casual, strutting, boastful. And oh, so very male.
Frederica was utterly, crushingly invisible to every one of them. As she wriggled out of her skirt and blouse in the dressing room, her hands passed over the faint mounds beginning to swell on her chest. Not a moment too soon, she thought. It hardly seemed fair that the libido that had come on with such devastating suddenness should develop before her breasts did.
As she dropped her old clothes in one corner and reached for the first dress Bronwyn held out, she hardly breathed for excitement. This was the moment. This was the time when she would put on the perfect dress, become a sparkling Cinderella, magically transformed by the touch of a wand. Bronwyn's wand.
Her mother understood the magic. She wielded it every day. Bronwyn was tall, slender, and almost beautiful with her long arms and thin legs, her sharp features deftly softened by moisturizer and foundation, lipstick and eye shadow. She smiled now as Frederica accepted the first of the dresses to try on, and Frederica was touched, briefly, by the faith her mother placed in this ceremony, by the joy she was taking in it.
Frederica pulled the dress over her head and turned to the mirror.
“Oh, darling, that color just isn't right for you,” Bronwyn said hastily.
Frederica stared at her reflection, and her spirit quailed. Where was the magic?
Her mother hurriedly lifted the skirt of the dress, a coral cotton with white piping around the neckline. She pulled it back over Frederica's head, stuck the hanger back in it, and hung it to one side. “Try this one,” she said.
It was green, with a dropped waist and a wide circular collar. Frederica stepped into it, and her mother fastened the back.
It was no better. The dropped waist seemed to exaggerate Frederica's hips. The collar drooped over her narrow shoulders, so she looked like an inverted cone, pointed at the top, broadening at the bottom. Her ankles, she thought, must be twice the size of Bronwyn's, and they looked even worse because her legs were short. “I look hideous, Mother.”
“No, no, of course you don't, Freddie!” Bronwyn undid the green dress and banished it to the side with the coral. “Come now, this takes time! You spend all those hours at the piano; just give this a chance, won't you?” She smiled into the mirror, above Frederica's head.
Frederica was too stunned by disappointment even to object to being called Freddie. She gazed at her awkward figure in the mirror, her flat chest and stubby legs contrasting painfully with her mother's elegant ones. She wished she had never set foot in Bloomingdale's.
Dutifully, feeling she owed it to her mother, she went through with it. She tried on the rest of the clothes, but the shock of that first real look at herself didn't wear off. It only grew, as she realized that no color could change the awkward shape of her hips, that no neckline could stop her chin from receding, and that no fabric could disguise her graceless legs. They tried designer jeans, but those were even worse. The mirror mocked Frederica, exposing her flaws, dashing her hopes. There was no wand, no sparkle. There was no magic at all.
The day that had begun so well became an ordeal. The heat that had prompted this effort turned cold. Frederica's optimism collapsed into despair. She was too smart to deceive herself. She understood that she was that cruelest of all things: an ugly girl.
Bronwyn decreed, after what felt like hours to Frederica, that the sheath was coming back, and that an empire waistline was just the thing for a young girl. They settled on the two least offensive dresses and a pair of wool crepe slacks, all of which Bronwyn said, with faltering assurance, would be perfect for all the parties and dances Frederica would soon be attending.
Frederica put on her old skirt and blouse, trying to avoid her reflection as well as the hangers full of rejects that had seemed so full of promise on their racks. She couldn't bear to look at herself even one more time. She refused the trip to the cosmetics counter, and she begged her mother to cancel the hair appointment.
It seemed even Bronwyn was daunted. In full retreat, she gave in without an argument.
There would be other, sporadic attempts to beautify Frederica, but there were no more girls' days. Frederica wore the clothes a few times, mostly to concerts. The promised parties and dances never materialized. She threw herself, to her father's satisfaction, into her music and her studies. Instead of dreaming of the boys she met, whose glances assessed and dismissed her in a single moment, Frederica focused her passion on a man who was everything she dreamed of.
She concentrated, with all the unspent fervor of a lonely girl, on Johannes Brahms. He had been solitary, like she was. He was misunderstood. He had never married. He lived only for his music. He was the ultimate romantic figure, lonely and magnificent.
He had also been dead for a very long time. He could not, at this remove, reject her.
In Casa Agosto in 1861, watching Johannes Brahms sharing the bench of the fortepiano with Clara Schumann, Frederica burned at the unfairness of it all. Clara had beauty and talent and fame. She had already had a great love in her life in the person of another famous musician, her husband, Robert. Why should she also have Brahms?
Frederica hovered just outside the French doors, with the long curtains fluttering past her. From here she could see every detail of the room. It was small, but crowded with ornaments. The floor was plain wood, overlaid with rough wool carpet. The wing chair rested before a fireplace, with wood and kindling laid ready. A marble bust of some goddess or other rested on a wooden pedestal. An assortment of porcelain shepherdesses ranged across the mantelpiece, and a tall clock with a brass pendulum ticked away the time in one corner.
The pendulum swung, catching the sunlight on its polished brass disc, measuring seconds and minutes, divisions as exact as the divisions of whole notes into halves, quarters, and eighths. Frederica had no interest in science, but she understood that the transfer process measured time in relative terms, coordinates of time and space and gravity. Her consciousness, mapped and measured, synchronized with the coordinates of 1861 Castagno, slipped her into the continuum as neatly as a hand fitting into a glove. She could see and hear everything, but she could affect nothing. She was a spectator. The protesters who shrilled alarms about changing the past, destroying the world, were as ignorant of the transfer process as were the man and woman before her now.
She moved in through the open windows as Brahms brought out a new score and opened it. Clara murmured something, pointed. Brahms answered, and nodded his head.
Frederica couldn't quite grasp all their words. They spoke, of course, the German of another century. She needed time to hear the differences in pronunciation. She had been allotted eight hours, but she wished she could stay forever.
There was a pen and inkstand on the table. Brahms rose to retrieve it, to scratch something out in the score and write something else in. Frederica saw, with a little shiver of appreciation, that his fingers were stained with ink, that he had been composing, creating. Clara smiled at his change, and struck the chord with her slim fingers, tilting her head as if to measure the effect.
Frederica could not deny that Clara was beautiful. Her skin was as smooth and white as the porcelain of one of the shepherdesses. Her profile was faultless, her mouth small and full, her neck long and slender. Her dress was only moderately wide, without the layers of crinolines the pictures so often showed. Her skirts pooled about her ankles as she stretched out one small foot to the damper pedal of the fortepiano.
Frederica could see the score now. It was the first piano trio, in B major, a composition that had always troubled Brahms, and which he often returned to. Clara began to play the
. Frederica listened, and her resentment grew. She herself would never play it so well, so affectingly. Despite her years of practice, of dedication to Brahms's musicâeven in this, Clara Schumann triumphed. Even on this old-fashioned instrument, with its oddly mismatched registers, the slightly reedy treble, the darker sound of the low stringsâeven on this, the piece was art itself in Clara's hands.
Clara broke off playing at the sound of a woman's voice coming from a room beyond the little foyer.
“Buon giorno, signora, signore,”
Brahms said, “Ah.
And Clara, with a playful push at his arm, “
Brahms had never mastered Italian, though he had tried. He laughed, and dropped a kiss on Clara's smooth brow that made Frederica's breath catch. Together they rose. He put his hand on Clara's back, escorting her out of the music room. Frederica followed them into a long, low-ceilinged kitchen.
Light from three small windows flooded the kitchen, sunshine that glistened on glass and pottery jars filled with rice and pasta and red beans. It glowed on the tile floor, and on the smiling, slightly whiskery face of the plump gray-haired cook rolling out ravioli at one end of the big wooden table. She had already started a fire in the woodstove. Clara spoke to her in Italian, and went to a sideboard to reach down bowls and glasses and spoons. Brahms disappeared through a small door at the back of the room, bending to keep from bumping his head. He came back a moment later with a bottle of wine in his hand, and set about pulling the cork and decanting it.
Frederica circled the table, taking it all in. The cook simmered the ravioli, spooned them out into a wide pottery bowl, and sprinkled some sort of chopped herb over them. Clara brought a heavy green bottle of olive oil to the table, and swirled it over the pasta. Brahms poured wine, and he and Clara sat down opposite each other. The cook went back to her chopping board to begin a salad of greens and deep red tomatoes.
Frederica could have wept with longing to taste the ravioli, to smell the fragrance of the olive oil, to feel the roughness of the unpainted wood table. Brahms ate with the gusto of a young man, and Clara with refinement. They spoke German with each other, and Clara spoke Italian with the cook. They laughed often, and when wine spilled down Brahms's chin Clara leaned forward to wipe it off with her own napkin, an intimate gesture that made Frederica's belly quiver with jealousy.
When the meal was over, the two of them repaired to the fortepiano once again. Brahms laid aside the score of the piano trio, and brought out a sheaf of manuscript paper. He arranged the pages on the stand, and Clara riffled through them, her expression intent and serious. Their German was already easier for Frederica to understand, and she thought, with just a little more time, she could be perfectly conversant with their accents. She needed more time!
Clara began the opening bars of the simplest of songs, the
. Frederica placed herself right behind the Master, eager to see this early version of the score in his own hand, with its hasty markings and scribbled chords. It would not be published, or even shared with anyone, until 1868. Everyone thought he wrote it in that year, but here was a foretaste, a hint of what would become his famous Lullaby.