A fragment after Sebald
The autumn before I had moved just off the park, and I recall the late rosiness of a midwinter Sunday when the branches that interleave down every street in that section of the city were bare and visible to such a distance in the slantwise light that they lent the grey cracklature of Flemish masters to intersections a half-mile off through which the few cars slid with the appearance of silence, their acceleration impossible to distinguish from the ambient roar, even in those years when the city was not so prosperous and many shopfronts remained broken-glassed or boarded, parked cars secured with locks across their steering wheels, a buttoned-up hurry perceptible in the strides of passersby, less from quickness of their steps than from their hands in pockets or held close to their sides, gazes averted or cast far ahead, tensed and ready muscles palpable in staccato steps, spines rigid, heads locked into safe angles as if tight against the cold.
But that afternoon was not cold, as I recall, for I remember walking in a knee-length tweed skirt up a long block toward the grey cracklature that receded further the further I progressed into it; and fresh from London and before that Madrid as I was, I would have worn long pants on any day forecast to be truly cold to the continental degree that New York was still able to chill then, with the wind racing up from the river and a blue above similar to expanses over Manitoba and Saskatchewan or other wide-blowing provinces that were before me then. I only knew weather from the radio, for even when the dials on my rusted steam radiators reluctantly ground to different positions, from which they budged again as grudgingly as they had settled, they gave little control over the climate of the room I was renting, in an apartment with two other women, the taller and English of the two a graduate student studying to be a painter, the other a designer for Internet sites, and, I was told, the practical one, the holder of the lease; at least it was she to whom I wrote out my monthly seven hundred dollars, though I had signed no papers, only received keys from an acquaintance who cordially explained them to me over coffee and I then never heard from nor wrote to again. It was so much easier then to find with sometimes regret but little blame that one had fallen into such lapses, and to allow them to persist until their not unpleasant consequences became simply the way of things. One might do work that took one from London to New York and quite reasonably have no mobile phone, and email only through employers, in my case a university whose obscure endowments allowed for translators to be selected with regard only for the purest equivalence between source and resulting English. Scant sales were only expected, my new supervisor told me, patting my leg, a gesture I was still too precocious or not yet American enough to suspect.
So I felt sure enough, both of money and that my days would continue for some time in much in the way they were, to resume the piano lessons I had feared I had left in London. I found Alastair in the back of a newspaper now defunct. Within minutes, in my first lesson, he said he could tell from my fingers that I would be able lightly to accomplish Mozart concertos, Liszt, Schubert, the work of all my great countrymen whom I had been brought up to admire, but, Alastair said, whom I would soon tire of if I devoted myself to nourishing from their written measures, where only math was preserved, the life or sense of life of inevitable variations and irregularities; and, Alastair said, if I could become fluent in alternate scales, Lydian and Dorian modes, seamless jumps in time, I could accomplish things few, he said, had done or written down. How accomplished do you want to be, he asked, and I admitted this was not a question I had thought to apply to things I did for pleasure, and said that I thought yes—yes, definitely, yes, if he thought so, and he said he did, definitely.
I rarely think of him without also seeing Jonathan at a writing desk under the windows of the room they called the music room, though it was but a standard living room whose walls, floor, and ceiling they had lined with cork when they remodeled their six rooms, standard in those 1920s buildings, built on speculation, with details of English manors. I see Jonathan standing with a double bass that was always in the corner, and he begins playing along with me, and though he is improvising and I have practiced, his playing is assured and light-footed, fleet and sweet in the right measures, dipping into codas, allowing my fingers to range freely, then complementing them. He is no musician by trade, but an executive in one of the very Wall Street firms whose stumbles seventy years before had precipitated the plummet of his and Alastair’s neighborhood from prosperity, from which even by the time I met them, I gathered, it had not entirely recovered.
On this particular day, I was the last of Alastair’s students for the afternoon…
Photo: Sarah Malone