The protagonist of the story, Tamsen Boucher, is a composite of many young aspiring singers I have known. It was a convenient fact that Chopin composed a set of variations on La ci darem la mano – I didn’t make that up. This was my first attempt to write from the female point of view. The story appeared in the Bethlehem Writer’s Roundtable Journal.
Tamsen Boucher put the spinach soufflé in the oven, very carefully, at exactly twelve forty-five. It was an audacious decision, perhaps a foolhardy one. She was well aware that a successful soufflé is a matter of perfect timing, a tricky business, and that this one would be done and ready to serve in just thirty-five minutes. As she shut the oven door Tamsen closed her eyes and sent out an appeal to the universe, wishing fervently that the luncheon would be a success.
Her husband had driven to the airport to pick up their weekend guest. As Craig was all but useless in the kitchen anyway, the job of chauffeur fell to him. The car would be pulling into the driveway in about ten minutes, if all went according to plan. If they were late, the soufflé would be a disaster. It’s not that Tamsen had such resolute confidence in the reliability of airline schedules – she didn’t – it was the anticipation of Paul Balanoff’s arrival that caused her to act so heedlessly.
Tamsen had another look at the dining table and was pleased with how elegant the blue onion pattern, their best china, looked on the white tablecloth. A bowl of yellow ranunculus added a cheerful touch to the setting. The Bouchers entertained so rarely that even a modest luncheon like this was a special occasion.
With everything taken care of, she sat down at the table. She felt she had earned a respite of a few moments. Her thoughts wandered back to the time when she first had met Paul and Craig, more than twenty years before. They had all attended the same university. All those years ago — it was half a lifetime really –Tamsen and Paul had done their graduate work at a prestigious school of music, she in voice and he in piano. The hint of a smile appeared on her lips as she considered how young they were then, so oblivious to the fact that the passage of time would change them all. Tamsen and Craig hadn’t seen Paul since those years at school, but they had kept in sporadic touch through the social media. Tamsen kept tabs on Paul’s flourishing career as a concert pianist.
Tamsen was considered exceptionally talented when she was a student. Her mentors had encouraged her, insisting that she had a real shot at a professional career. Following graduation she won a few competitions, landed an agent, then received offers to sing roles at regional opera companies. But by then her relationship with Craig had gotten serious. Her budding career began to fade just as it was getting started; after they were married it all but ceased. Singing roles with out-of-town companies required prolonged absences, the musical and staging rehearsals demanding weeks of commitment for each production. Craig never asked her outright to abandon her singing career, but he did let it be known after every absence that he missed her terribly when she was gone. She felt guilty about leaving her husband alone for weeks at a time (Craig’s ability to fend for himself in the kitchen didn’t go beyond boiling an egg), and she stopped accepting offers. She had harbored some regrets about it at the time, but she now considered herself to be a happily married woman and didn’t give much thought to those days.
They had met at a party, introduced to each other by a mutual friend who was sure they would hit it off together. Craig Boucher was in business school and had reasonable prospects for future success. He was the quiet type, dependable and solid, at the same time athletic and good-looking. Tamsen was taken with his calm and grounded demeanor. She was drawn to him, perhaps because her own life at the time was so chaotic and her chosen profession so unpredictable. He made her feel protected. When she experienced bouts of self-doubt or frustration, he would put his arms around her and say: ‘Tomorrow is another day; I’ll be here for you.’ Craig was her rock.
During their courtship Craig claimed to be interested in music, ‘all kinds of music’, as he had put it then. Tamsen came to realize later that this vague generality didn’t really cover very much territory at all. He had had little exposure to classical music, and virtually none to opera. She contrived to gradually win him over and entice him to share in her passion. At first, after their marriage, Craig was a willing, if reluctant, escort. Tamsen took her husband to a performance of La Bohème, but after five minutes into the first act he shut down completely and sank into his seat, obviously bored with the whole thing. She never attempted to interest him in opera again.
She had always told herself that her marriage to Craig would be a compromise of sorts. Life, she decided, was a series of compromises. He would offer a life of comfort and stability while she would limit the pursuit of her career. She took her commitment to her husband and their marriage seriously, even after the initial glamor wore off and they fell into the inevitable routine of married life.
Paul Balanoff had been one of the star pianists in the graduate program. He was also a gifted accompanist who especially loved working with singers. He played for both of Tamsen’s degree recitals and she had felt fortunate in having him as a collaborator and as a friend. Paul managed to carve out a respectable performing career and, after just a few years, was offered a teaching position at a university on the East Coast. His own marriage had ended in an amicable separation. There were children.
Paul had been invited to play in the Boucher’s hometown as part of the local cultural series. When Tamsen saw the name Paul Balanoff on the list of future concerts, she contacted him immediately and invited him to stay with them during his residency. It would be a lot more comfortable for him than staying in a hotel. The Bouchers had plenty of room in their suburban home and a grand piano in the living room if he needed to practice. He gladly accepted.
Tamsen was jolted out of her musings by the slamming of car doors at five past one. She went to the foyer to greet her husband and guest, remembering to remove her apron en route. She checked her hair in the mirror one last time and smoothed her floral print dress.
“Tamsen, mia cara, how wonderful it is to see you again after all these years. It’s been far too long.” Paul took her hands in his, looking at her intently, and kissed her gently on both cheeks. “You are even more beautiful than I remembered!”
Tamsen blushed, but was very pleased with Paul’s compliment. If anyone else had said that to her she would have dismissed it as empty hyperbole, but she knew that Paul really meant what he said. “Let me have a good look at you, Professor Balanoff,” she said in turn. “Same old PB — haven’t changed a bit.”
In fact, he had changed, but in the best way. In graduate school he was inordinately thin. Now his meager frame had filled out. He looked vigorous and healthy. As a younger man Paul had been crowned with a generous mop of thick, copper-colored hair; it was his most distinctive feature. His hair was as full as ever now, but the shimmering luster had faded, and there were a few telltale signs of grey. Tamsen was sure that he would only look more distinguished as time passed. One would have described Paul as a nice-looking man but not as a handsome one, despite his exceptional mane. What was immediately engaging about him was his winning personality; his affable, easy-going manner came across as genuine. Paul Balanoff liked everybody and everybody liked him. That’s the way it always was. Tamsen had fallen under the spell of Paul’s considerable charm when she knew him in school. There had been some lighthearted flirtation then, but Tamsen was wary of becoming involved with someone who was both her musical partner and her friend. Nearly every female in school had an eye on Paul and she didn’t want to become another of his romantic interests. Later, in idle moments of musing, when she considered the ‘what if’ factor, she sometimes wondered why she hadn’t married him.
They took their places at the table. Not long after they had begun eating their salads the oven timer rang, announcing that the soufflé was ready. “Now that’s perfect timing!” Tamsen declared from the kitchen, immensely pleased with herself and admiring the lightly browned dome of the soufflé.
The conversation flowed easily, Craig managing to engage Paul in a discussion about international trade agreements. Paul had always been a good listener and possessed the ability to put others at ease. Tamsen recalled how he had charmed many of the girls at school – even her first-year roommate had succumbed to his allure and had had a short fling with him.
As if he were psychic, Paul abruptly turned to Tamsen and asked about that very roommate: “Whatever happened to that cute blond you lived with in Hosmer Hall…wasn’t it Elizabeth? Alissa?”
Momentarily startled, Tamsen blushed. How could he have known what she was thinking? When she had recovered her poise she retorted: “I think you mean Julie. And she wasn’t blond; she was a brunette. Julie was cute though — you always had a sharp eye for the ladies.” She lowered her chin and gave him a knowing look.
“But she was a flutist, right? That much I remember. And I can’t help it if I’m irresistible!” With that he laughed, his mellifluous, sonorous chortle filling the room. Tamsen had forgotten that laugh, the unfettered delight that Paul’s presence could bring. She couldn’t stop smiling.
She hadn’t had much practice preparing vegetarian cuisine and was gratified by Paul’s appreciation of her efforts to accommodate his dietary needs. The dessert, a pineapple upside down cake, was the perfect end to a perfect luncheon.
The recital took place the following evening. Paul had procured excellent seats for his hosts in the fifth row, on the aisle. There was a respectable crowd in attendance. Craig went along without protest although, if the truth be known, he dearly wanted to stay home and watch the live broadcast of his favorite basketball team.
Paul Balanoff strode onto the stage, headed for the Steinway concert grand. He looked so elegant in his black silk tunic, so self-assured, that he won the audience over before he even played a note. Tamsen’s heart swelled with pride at seeing her dear friend on stage.
He had chosen a lovely program. The first half began with a Bach Partita — a joyous, uplifting sort of piece — followed by an early Schubert sonata. She was not familiar with this particular composition and was quite taken with it. After intermission there was to be a piece by Chopin and then some Rachmaninoff. Chopin’s Variations on the duet Là ci darem la mano from Mozart’s Don Giovanni was, according to the program notes, an early composition of the composer, written as a show piece to impress the Parisian public. Paul played it with exquisite refinement and flair. His capable fingers elicited cascades of gorgeous sound from the instrument.
Despite her best efforts to maintain her concentration on the music, Tamsen’s mind wandered during the performance of the Chopin. The role she had enjoyed singing the most in her abbreviated career was that of Zerlina, the naïve country girl whom Don Giovanni attempts to seduce in act one, during this very duet. The Don asks Zerlina to give him her hand, to go off with him. “Vorrei, e non vorrei” – I want to, and don’t want to – is her reply. Hearing Mozart’s beguiling theme again, she couldn’t help thinking of her last performance of the role with a midwestern opera company. The sets and costumes had been so lovely, her colleagues friendly, and then there was Mozart’s sublime music and, yes, the thrill of the applause from a live audience. She hadn’t thought of those experiences in a long time and they all came back to her in a flood. The memories of a past she had given up, Chopin’s delightful music, her pride in seeing and hearing her friend perform — all these thoughts swirled around in her mind during the performance.
The room became a blur. The program slid off her lap. Feeling tears well up in her eyes, she did her best to squelch the flood before it started; it just wouldn’t do to make a spectacle of herself. She abruptly grabbed Craig’s hand and squeezed it tightly. It was a gesture so unexpected that her husband turned and glared at her. He had been jolted out of his reverie, wondering which team was ahead in the basketball game. During the performance he had to restrain himself several times from pulling out his smart phone to take a peek at the score. The Variations came to a dazzling end and there was warm applause. The Rachmaninoff Preludes that followed washed over Tamsen; they couldn’t compete with the turmoil in her head.
After a few encores, more Chopin, the concert was over. Before they even got up Craig turned to her. “Tam, are you okay?” he asked. “I thought you were hanging on to me for dear life.”
Tamsen made a feeble attempt at a smile. “I’m sorry, dear, I was just a bit overcome by it all, hearing Paul play so magnificently and the wonderful music and…” Her voice trailed off. She stared into her lap. Craig left it at that as neither the playing nor the music had done much for him at all. He was glad that the concert was finally over. He retrieved the program from under her seat and handed it to her silently.
They found their way backstage and joined a few dozen others who were waiting to congratulate the artist. When her turn came, Tamsen was unable to utter a single word. She threw her arms around Paul, embracing him warmly. The lingering embrace took Paul by surprise. He was pleased that his performance had had such an effect on her. He relished the touch, though it had lasted but a few seconds, of her cheek on his, and the scent of her perfume. Blue Iris–– that’s what she had always worn.
There was a reception for the artist at the home of one of the concert series patrons. Paul was in an ebullient mood, downing quite a few glasses of champagne and mingling with his admirers. The Bouchers stayed on the sidelines, observing the party from the vantage point of a settee. Tamsen watched Paul flirt with everyone, male and female, young and old. He chatted and laughed with abandon. Of course, he was the star of the evening, but it was his agreeable and natural manner that made him so attractive. Tamsen marveled at such a gift, and was even a bit envious of Paul’s insouciance. Craig remained resolutely by his wife’s side, keeping an arm around her shoulders, and leaving only briefly to fetch a refill for their glasses.
The following day was a Monday. Craig departed early for work and it was left to Tamsen to convey their guest to the airport. There was time for a leisurely breakfast. They chatted about this and that, mostly about the difficulties of juggling a career and family concerns. Paul doted on his two children and proudly displayed their photos. He asked about Tamsen’s musical activities, but there wasn’t much to report. She was satisfied with singing about town occasionally, mostly oratorio performances, and teaching a few students. That was about the extent of it. Paul put forward the suggestion that she come to his school to do a recital with him there. She was flattered and pretended to be interested, but knew she would never do it.
Breakfast was nearly finished. Tamsen got up to get the coffee pot. She stood next to Paul and poured, resting her free hand on his shoulder. She watching the dark liquid climb to the rim of his cup. He took her free hand in both of his, kissing it tenderly, looking up at her with an expression that was seductive, imploring. Nothing needed to be said. Tamsen regarded him earnestly for a moment, but with no trace of censure. She disengaged her hand and then, before turning away, tousled his thick hair in a gesture of affection. They continued to drink their coffee in silence. When Paul began to speak Tamsen cut him off with a curt reminder that it was getting late and that they needed to leave. Nothing of consequence was said on the way to the airport. Their parting at the terminal was cordial, with mutual promises to keep in touch. Their final embrace was tenuous and brief.
Tamsen returned to an empty house and its welcoming silence. She laid her bag and keys on the coffee table and dropped herself onto the sofa. She hadn’t been alone in several days. Closing her eyes, she felt quite relieved that the weekend was over. The familiar sounds of the house were comforting: the purring of the refrigerator, the steady whoosh of the furnace, the far distant rumble of a passing freight train. There would be no music today and no thoughts of a past that was irretrievably gone.
There was the matter of tonight’s dinner to consider. Her husband had not complained once about eating vegetarian cuisine for a few days, but she knew he missed a good piece of meat. She decided on some nice lamb chops, perhaps with mashed potatoes and asparagus vinaigrette. Craig would like that.