We had fallen into a routine of morning coffee and newspaper. I no longer questioned her presence in my apartment and my life. She was a part of my existence now. She was filling a piece of a large hole in my life. What piece, I did not know.
I heard her shuffling to the bathroom as I sipped my coffee and opened the paper to the Arts and Entertainment section. Something I saw gave me an idea.
“Amy?” I called out. There was no answer. I walked toward the hallway and called again, “Amy?”
“Please don’t,” she said softly and sullenly from behind the door.
“Talk to me while I’m taking a shit.”
“Oh. Sorry. There’s just something–”
“And yet you’re still talking.”
I supposed that my idea could wait a few minutes. I sat down again and studied the paper. I pulled out my phone to see what my evening was like. Nothing planned–as if I ever had anything planned.
The toilet flushed. She shuffled into the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee. She was wearing an old pajama shirt she had likely stolen from me days ago. I didn’t mind. I was glad to have someone around.
She pulled up a chair and sat down. I watched her as she sipped, hoping to assess her mood. She set her mug down and looked back at me. Her brown eyes boring into me as if she knew my ugliest secrets.
“What are you staring at?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Are you mad at me?”
“Please don’t do that.”
“Do what?” I said, taking a sip, which was no longer hot enough for my taste.
“Be a little bitch. ”
“I’m sorry, you just seem a little grumpy this morning.”
“I don’t want to play the feelings game with you. I don’t need you in my business.”
“Amy. You just took a rather stinky shit in my bathroom. I think I’m already in your business. What did you eat anyway? Smells like you tore into a case of Vienna Sausages.”
“See! This is what I fucking mean! I don’t want to fucking be like this with you!”
“Look, Amy….forget about it. Let’s start over.” I remembered my idea. “I want you to do something after work today–and don’t take too long about it. We’re on a schedule.”
“What, am I doing your laundry now?” she said, leaning back into her chair.
“No, you’re buying a dress.” I pulled out my wallet to find my credit card. “Puh! Great. No credit card.”
“Don’t sweat it, old man. I swiped it to get milk last night.”
“Oh. Ok, whatever. Use the card. Something nice. Let’s say, $300 max.”
“Fuck! $300? What is this for?” she said, choking on her coffee a little bit.
“Oh, and some shoes. How much do women’s shoes cost? Never mind, doesn’t matter. It’s a surprise. You’ll be having a new experience tonight, and it would be a good opportunity for us to clean up.”
“And you think I’m going to like this?” she said, crossing her arms on the table and raising her eyebrows at me.
When I had a moment to myself at work, I pulled up the San Francisco Opera website. They would perform La Boheme that evening, and I meant to buy tickets for Amy and myself, the good seats, not the nosebleeds I usually sat in. I wanted this to be a special evening for her. I wanted her to experience pure beauty in the world. I’d seen every opera at SFO since arriving in the city. This was the only Puccini opera showing, and I believed that everybody’s first opera should be a Puccini opera, especially La Boheme. I purchased two seats in the front row of the Grand Tier, which I believed to be the best seats in the house, just far enough away from the stage to get the full acoustical effect.
Opera was Laura to me now. There was something of her living in every opera I saw in San Francisco. I didn’t know where else to find her. In an opera hall, she was closer to me than in any other place. Also, only in an opera house did I give myself free rein to feel what I needed to feel, living through the affairs and tragedies of the characters, their voices filling me up with regrets, love, violence, humor, and loss.
“James. What’s the ETA on those new web services. No more empty promises,” said Gloria, the frog lady project manager.
I quickly covered the opera website on my screen with my developer software. I’d already received a warning against using company resources for personal use.
“Working on them right now. Heath just gave me his components. This is the first time I’ve had a chance to work on them,” I said, lying.
“By the end of the day,” she said not unkindly, but firmly.
“Not a problem. I don’t expect there to be any hitches. I’ve built services like these a thousand times.” But she was already speaking with Heath in the next cubicle.
A moment of panic struck me. What if she found out that Heath had delivered his code to me days ago?
A minute or two later, Gloria had left, and Heath stood in the entry to my cube. “Mr. James,” he said, smiling.
I whispered urgently, “Look. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble; I just didn’t feel like admitting that –”
“That what? That you lied?” he giggled a squeaky, girlish giggle.
“Um…yeah, I guess.”
“I’ve got you, man,” he said.
Relieved, I leaned back in my chair. “Did she mention it?”
“No worries, my friend. It’s all good,” he said.
“Thanks, man. I owe you one.”
“Ok, then come see my guru. He is visiting next week. Why don’t you come to my apartment next Wednesday? Padma will fix us dinner, and you can have a chat with Sri Ravi. He is very eager to meet you.”
In his intense appreciation for all things Indian, he had married an Indian woman who often sent him to work with spicy Indian food, which stunk up the break room daily. I really did not want to come to his house, but I really did owe him one.
“Ok,” I said, “but tell Padma easy on the spice. I like it hot, but not Indian hot.”
“Listen, man; you will not regret meeting Guruji. He has something vital to share with you.”
I spent the rest of the day trying to catch up on my coding, but I got distracted by the opera website. I read about the cast, recognizing the bass in the role of Colline, who had performed the role with Laura in Dallas. I put my headphones on and listened to recordings of the lead singers. I surmised that it could be an excellent performance, and it made me feel excited for the evening. I knew I was taking a risk taking Amy to a three-hour event that she might hate, but I was optimistic.
As I walked home in a cool drizzle, I pondered Heath’s invitation. I conjured images of a man wrapped in saffron robes with ashes on his forehead with deluded devotees gathered at his bare feet, he, blessing them in turn. Next to bullshit, I thought. Would he attempt to perform some sort of miracle on me? A healing perhaps? I bristled incredulously at the idea.
There was no sign of Amy when I arrived home. My first thought was that she had run off again, but I was relieved when I found her backpack on the couch. I turned down the hall to shower up and change into my evening clothes.
The suit I chose was an inheritance from a man from my father’s church, the Dean of the School of Law at the University of Oklahoma. It was a costly, custom-tailored, olive green suit that had only needed a little tailoring to fit me. He and I were both 6 feet 1 inch and lean, but I was just a little leaner. His ashes now resided in the columbarium of the church I had grown up in.
I checked my watch—six 0’clock. We would need to hurry if we were going to catch dinner before the 8 o’clock show. I’d planned to take Amy to Sears Fine Foods just down the street for filet mignon. My mouth watered, thinking about the blue cheese butter, which would be melting on my sizzling hot, medium-rare filet. I checked my phone for messages–nothing. I decided to call the restaurant to make a reservation just in case it was crowded, then I rechecked my watch–6:15. I began to get anxious and decided to call even though she didn’t like me to check in with her, but as I began to dial, the front door swung open. She was carrying two boxes, a big one and a little one, both from Macy’s.
Impatiently, I tapped my watch. “We have to leave very soon.”
“Relax. It will be fine. I had no idea what size dress to wear, so I had to get measured, and shoes are a nightmare. Can’t I just wear sneakers and jeans?”
“You will not regret dressing up for this. I promise,” I said, relaxing a bit. “I just made reservations for dinner, so suit up as quick as you can.”
She gave me an annoyed look, but I could tell she was getting excited by the little skip she made as she turned down the hall to the guest bedroom.
When she emerged, it took a second or two for me to take her in. She had braided her hair back away from her face. Her dress was a simple black that fit her narrow hips snuggly. I was used to seeing her in the baggy army jacket. She was thinner than I realized. She wobbled a little on her heels. I’d never seen her with makeup.
“Wow. You look –”
“Stop it. Yes, I look beautiful, so just relax.”
“Well, you do. Good job buying clothes!”
She rolled her eyes and grabbed her army jacket.
“Umm, maybe not the army jacket tonight? Maybe the button up sweater you bought with my card without permission last week?”
“Fine,” she huffed, but as she turned to get it out of her room, the corner of her mouth curled up with a suppressed smile.
We decided to take a cab down to Sears so that we didn’t get too sweaty descending the hill. Even though I’d made reservations, Sears was very crowded, and I knew a twenty to the maitre d’ would get us to our table quickly.
“Wow, that was pretty slick, James. The way you just laid it in his palm without it showing. Is there a suave-guy school to teach you that shit?”
“Yup, but I failed out in my second year.”
As the maitre d’ led us to our table, an older man with a very young lady gave me a wink as we walked by. I blushed. I was not that guy. I was not the guy he thought I was. A pang of anxiety hit me about the evening, and I felt compelled to make up a story to explain why I was out with such a young girl; then, I remembered the uncle story I’d told Farid. That will work, I thought, satisfied.
“So what is the big surprise, James?” she asked, grinning.
“I’m your uncle, ok?”
She scoffed and said, “Ok, what is the big surprise, Uncle James?”
“Tonight, we go to the opera.”
“The…opera?” she said grimacing.
“Yes. La Boheme. Puccini should be everyone’s first opera.”
“Aaaand, why does a person have to have a first opera?”
The waitress brought us two glasses of ice water and two menus. I recognized her. She was a veteran server with curly, dyed brown hair wearing a black, short-sleeved shirt with the Sears Fine Foods crest and a maroon apron–professional, clean, and with the demeanor of having worked at a place several years after she cared to.
“Welcome, to Sears Fine Foods, my name is Carol. Have you eaten with us before?”
“Yes, I have, but it’s her first time. Why? Is there some sort of training?” I asked, meaning humor, but she did not laugh.
“I hope you find everything to your liking, miss. Can I get you started with an appetizer? Some crispy fried calamari?”
“We’re in a little bit of a hurry, so is it ok if we go ahead and order?”
“Yes, of course. Miss, what would you like?”
I interrupted, “We will both be having the filet mignon, medium-rare.”
Amy shot me a look of disapproval. I whispered, “Trust me.”
She sighed, perhaps a little exasperated with me.
“Excellent order, sir. We’ll bring out some fresh-baked bread while you wait.
After the waitress had left, Amy said, “Why did you order for me, creep?”
“The steak is why we came here. Trust, me it’s one of the best foods you will ever eat.”
“Well maybe I don’t like steak. Did you think of that?”
“Well, do you?”
She sighed again. “Yes. I love it, but I don’t like decisions being made for me. That’s part of the reason I ran away.”
I began to inquire, but she made a shut your mouth gesture, and I let it go.
“So, how was your day?” I asked.
She was staring across the room at the older man and the young woman.
“Amy?” I prompted.
“Do you think he’s her uncle?” she said slyly.
She nodded her head at the man who had winked at me.
I exhaled slowly. The gold ring on his finger glinted in the low light. “I suspect not, but maybe that’s what he says.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Just like you would say?”
I sputtered a bit and blushed. “No,” I shushed. “It’s not like that, and you know it. You just like to watch me squirm. I’m your uncle because you are too young to be hanging out with me, and I’m too young to be your father. We need some bullshit story to make it work, ok?”
“Relax, old man. Relax. I’m just yanking your chain. I don’t mind being seen with you, so why should you?”
“It’s not that I mind, but people talk. Just like we’re talking about that guy over there.”
She laughed and unfolded her napkin, setting the silverware aside and placing the napkin on her lap.
Then Carol returned with a basket of an assortment of fresh bread–rolls, cornbread, and slices of rustic-looking sourdough.
“Thanks, Carol. Looks great.”
She gave me a cursory smile and left.
When the steaks came, Amy looked at me deadpan and shook her head.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing. Looks perfect.”
“Sir,” asked the waitress. “Would you like to check the doneness?”
I knew that I would check it, but at the same time, I knew I would not send it back even if they hadn’t cooked it correctly. I cut into it, which allowed some of the butter to roll down into the steak, and it was a perfect medium-rare as it always was at Sears.
“Perfecto!” I declared.
The waitress smiled genuinely for the first time and chuckled, “Perfecto! I hope you enjoy it.”
Before I had a chance to say something to Amy, she already had a mouthful of steak and was chewing.
“Oh my God,” she mumbled through her chewing. “This is amazing.”
After we finished eating, I tipped Carol well for the professional service and for the rare smile she had given me. We stepped outside. The air was crisp and punctuated with the smell of exhaust from the cab I had hailed. I held the door open for Amy, and she gave me a sarcastic smile as she stepped into the car.
“You know, “I said, after I’d gotten in and given the driver our destination, “My father taught me always to open the door for a lady.”
“Well, I’m no lady,” she said, fiddling with the lock on the door.
“Tonight you are, so get used to some gentlemanly treatment.”
She scoffed and shot me a sharp look.
“Just roll with it,” I said.
When we arrived, she began watching the people climbing the steps to War Memorial Opera House, an American Renaissance architectural wonder, while I paid the cabby.
“Wow. I’ve never seen this at night,” she said, a little dazed as we stepped out of the cab.
“You like it?” I asked
“It’s alright,” she shrugged.
She was getting more used to the heels and was walking with a little more grace toward the steps. I offered my arm, and she laughed, backing away.
“Well go on. Take my arm. Let’s do this right.”
Suspiciously, she took my arm as we climbed the steps.
“This was built in 1932 to honor the fallen soldiers of World War I, the Great War.”
“What was so great about it?”
“The building or the war?” I said, sincerely.
She scoffed. “Just making a joke. Do continue the tour, Mr. Tour Guide.”
This was not opening night, so not everyone was dressed up, but there were some extravagant dresses among the gathering crowd in the expansive lobby. No white gloves or tuxedos, but some were dressed to impress. There was nothing all that impressive about us, but at least we weren’t wearing jeans and hoodies like some of the younger crowd.
“Wow,” she said as she left my arm. “I’m glad I dressed up. There is some fancy shit going on in here.”
“Fancy shit, indeed,” I said, hoping to sound funny but dignified.
I took a moment to inhale. This was sacred ground. And even though I’d seen La Boheme at least a dozen times, I received a thrill when the lobby chime went off to usher us to our seats. Although Laura had never performed here, I knew that she was waiting for me in the soprano’s first aria.
As we entered the hall, which was grand and gold and marble with red plush seating, Amy began to giggle.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked.
“I’ve just never seen anything quite like this. It’s like we’re stepping back in time–lords and ladies and shit.”
We took our seats at the front of the first balcony. When the lights lowered, and the announcer stepped out, she whispered, “Is this in a foreign language?”
“Yes. Italian. But look at the top of the stage. The words will be shown up there on the screen. You’ll be fine.
The announcer thanked us for coming and mentioned upcoming shows and sponsors and, finally, with no small amount of flare, said, “Ladies and Gentlemen! San Francisco Opera’s 2007 production of La Boheme!”
After a brief pause, the spotlight found the conductor walking to the podium, a spry man in his 60s with neatly trimmed white hair and mustache. He held up his hands as the audience clapped and made a quick bow.
“I thought they all had to have crazy hair,” she whispered as the crowd gave him a warm welcome.
“They generally do,” I smiled. “Now shush.”
“You shush, fucker.”
The elderly woman beside me turned her head just enough to let us know that she would not tolerate much more.
Then the orchestra leaped to life, and the curtains raised to reveal a charming apartment scene. The opera had begun. When the first voice reached us, I expected Amy to laugh or something, but when I turned to her, she was focusing on the man unblinkingly.
At the first humorous line, she laughed, and whispered: “I didn’t know this would be funny.”
And when Rodolfo stepped on Mimi’s dropped key with his foot to keep her from leaving his apartment, she whispered, “Dude’s a player.”
By the time the tenor began his first aria, I’d forgotten about everything: Amy, deadlines, and apartments. I was in another world, Laura’s world. And I was in 19th century Paris with starving artists and lovemaking. I reveled.
At the first cues for Mimi’s first act aria, my heart began to sink into a world of sadness and beauty as she sang of her simple life. Laura had once said that she sang all of her love songs for me, but that when she sang this aria, it was for her alone.
It was an excellent first half. The tenor was just a little pinched on top, but the soprano had a full and buoyant voice that carried every scene.
When the house lights came up, I stood up to stretch, but Amy remained seated.
“Is that it?” she asked softly.
“Is that what?”
“Is that the end of the opera?”
“No, this is the intermission, there are two more acts.”
She sighed, visibly relieved. “Good, that’s not enough. There needs to be more.”
“Come on. I’ll buy you a ginger ale. They I.D. here.”
As she sipped her ginger ale and I sipped my double Bulleit highball, we talked over the performance. Every word of hers was a small joy to me. She couldn’t say enough, and I couldn’t get enough of her enthusiasm. I felt so reassured that bringing her here was a good idea. She spoke of the set, the costumes, the voices, the orchestra–every little detail of the show up to then.
“Hey,” she said with a serious tone as she put her empty glass on a table. “Thanks.”
I nodded and smiled deeply in my heart.
“You know,” I intimated, “This is the first time I ever took someone to the opera with me.” I’d seen Laura perform many times, but never with a friend.
She suppressed a smile and looked down. The chimes ding-donged, and it was time to return to our seats.
The final two acts were not humorous, like the first two. They introduced the tragedy of Mimi’s illness and her breakup with Rudolfo. Once again, as I’d seen many times, Mimi couldn’t bear for Rodolfo to see her die. And as Mimi sang her last dying note in the squalid apartment and Rodolfo cried out, I could feel warmth and trembling next to me. I turned to find Amy in tears, her face and ears red. I pulled out my linen handkerchief and gave it to her. She gave me a cross look, perhaps meaning to say, “Really, you carry one of these?” and she dabbed her eyes and nose.
She was quiet the entire journey back to the apartment.
“Didn’t you enjoy the show? “I asked as I closed the door.
She stood in the middle of the living room and confronted me. “You didn’t tell me she was going to die.”
“No. I didn’t want to spoil it for you. But didn’t you kind of see it coming?”
“No. I just thought she needed a cough drop or something. Anyway. I hated it.”
“What?! You seemed to really like it at the intermission.”
“I. Hated. It. Ok?” And she stormed back to her room and slammed the door, fresh tears in her eyes.