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Issue #9 |

Charlie’s Leitmotif

california coast at sunrise

He was a child when I met him. On a steaming June day, he charged at my daughter in a strip mall parking lot, and his hug lifted her up and sent her feet into orbit around him. He’d been the source of much radio chatter from Bea since we’d enrolled her in ballet, but the other kids your kids talk about are made of cardboard until—and sometimes even after—you meet them.

Charlie was the oldest child in the class, and one of two boys. I had not realized he was a boy when he ran to Bea. There was a kind of merriment to his stride, a hint of a leap that shook the strands of his messy blonde topknot around. It was only when he put her down that I made out that his features, though delicate, were male.

Class began, and the teacher, who was both older and tougher than I’d expected—a sort of steel-haired battleship—began coaching the girls along the bar. I inferred that Charlie was still in a class for which he was too old because of his utility as an example. Everything was Charlie this, Charlie that. Charlie, show the girls third position. Girls, follow Charlie around the room. The incredible thing was how eagerly the boy fulfilled his role. He acted as if this were his reason for being in the world, as if he were some woodland sprite living to fuse the rigor of the teacher with the enthusiasm of the preschoolers. The girls mimed him as best their little bodies could. You could see it: they all wanted to be Charlie.

I had not known I wanted a tough teacher. I had thought I wanted some whimsical young woman with infinite patience, but her rigidity was perfect. Madame Graebel seemed unaccustomed to dealing with children, and thus able to dominate them. Even when presiding over some playful activity, like letting a child crawl through a tunnel made by her classmates’ backbends, she would say to a straining pupil: “Come on, Clio—struggle.” The preschoolers might not have known what the word struggle meant, but they heard it in her voice.

And they did struggle. Three-year-olds, struggling.

I sat in the class reading an elegant novella called A Companion to the California Coast. Not my usual fare, but the sort of thing that made me feel connected to life. It was a fictional travelogue of some places not far from where I grew up, which was why I’d chosen it. Piano music issued from Madame Graebel’s CD player. The song sounded like Liszt, but wasn’t. It was a measure slower, a gram gentler, a tinkling little string of playful but wistful notes. I didn’t recognize it. I didn’t want to know the song’s name. It was nice to believe there was undiscovered music, something that equaled the great composers but was unimpeded by the rote familiarity of those famous German names. I let it live in the background while I read, glancing up now and then to watch the girls twirl or leap or plié, their attempts at adult movements unable to conceal their childish verve. It was almost too much for me. I was as surprised as anyone: A moment of authentic beauty, out here in the suburbs, occurring against the same historical odds as life bubbling out of the primordial soup.

 

The next week, we were the second arrivals to class. Charlie was there before us, dancing languidly in the empty studio. Charlie was loose in everything. Loose limbed. His hair in a loose bun. His dancing was uncontrolled, arguably sloppy. Aaron, the other boy in the class, had the precision associated with dancing, but the teacher and the other students and the boy himself seemed to understand that this limited him in some way. It was not a good sign that what he had could be contained that early. There was some code I couldn’t read implying that things had to come at the right time, and in the right order, or they were worthless.

I saw it too, watching Charlie dance alone. Whatever the flaws in his technique were, I felt compelled to watch him. He drew the eye. The teacher wasn’t in yet, there was no one to put the CD in the stereo, but as I watched him I heard the music play, the few measures my brain had recorded: the music that was like Liszt but was not Liszt. It would have been so simple to ask Madame Graebel who the composer was, what the song was, but I had no idea what it would come to mean in my life.

I had never intended to end up where I was, living a life of doctors’ appointments and recitals, of dishwater and litter scooping. Who aims for that? I was comfortable. We were comfortable. We had enough for a nice enough house, a house the kids would remember. We had enough to save for retirement. Not enough left over to make use of our passports. Luckier than most Americans is a good way to look at our situation. But making that kind of life meaningful took a bit of work. The house on winter mornings before the sun came up, putting on some jazz while I scrubbed last night’s pans. The deep, meditative hum of domestic appliances. The dishwasher, the dryer. When I had them both going at once, it was almost tantric. I had recently discovered a new sound I loved. We were running our pillows in the laundry with a tennis ball, and it bounced off the dryer walls with a buoyant poing, poing.

Sometimes I would run it empty except for the tennis ball, just to have that sound in my life.

Around this time, I began composing homilies to my children, much in the way one might conduct hypothetical arguments in one’s head. They were both building activities into their identities now. Andrew was pouring himself into basketball practice and begging to go to camp. I hadn’t supported enrolling Bea in ballet. She was three—an especially recalcitrant three—and I thought starting her in activities so early was a waste of money. But it wasn’t a fight worth waging. My wife had danced all through her youth and this meant something to her. And very quickly it came to mean something to Bea. She didn’t see herself as a kid who went to ballet class once a week. She had become a dancer.

What I wanted to do was to warn my kids, when the time came, that it was dangerous to seek a one-hundred percent meaningful life. Andrew might become consumed by the idea of playing in the NBA. He’d never be tall enough. And if Bea dreamed of life as a dancer, what would be left if her moonshot missed, if she made it to Julliard but not to a company after? The closer you get, the more force that comet has when it hits. I wanted to convince them of the wisdom of seeking a partially meaningful life.

With mindfulness, with the right music, with the right appreciation for small things—like my tennis balls in the dryer—I felt I could get my life to approach eighty-percent meaningful. I wasn’t greedy. I could accept that. That’s domestic life. You grind a slice of lemon in the garbage disposal and call it art. If you find that depressing, you’ll have to call all of Buddhism depressing. Which, fair enough.

 

At the end of that first class, Charlie grabbed a Starburst from the teacher’s bucket, brought it to Bea, and unwrapped it for her. The other kids in class were not so sure about her. She minded the teacher, but shrieked if anyone else sat on the cushion she’d decided was her own, and she’d sulk for ten minutes if another student absentmindedly stepped in front of her in line.

Three may not seem very old, but a child reveals herself by then. Bea was stubborn and finicky, though for public conversation we translated the terms to strong-willed and sensitive. She took herself to be the leader of every situation. At home, she’d come into the kitchen at all hours of the day, waving her finger as she told us, “We’re having dinner soon—okay, guys?” With food falling out of her mouth, she scolded us for talking with our mouths full. She spoke to every teacher and babysitter as if she’d been granted coequal authority. She wasn’t rude, was never mean, did not belittle other children or bully anyone. She simply assumed she was in charge. I assumed that one day she would be, if she made it through the process of growing up.

Her personality was so strong that I was already worried about what would happen when she started school. Her bossiness portended two possibilities, neither of which I liked. She would take charge of a group of girls, and become the ringleader of all the usual, terrible hazing to which children subject each other, or she would try to boss around all the girls and they would reject her leadership. They’d ignore her or, more likely, bully her. She would spend her childhood alone.

We all worry about our children. Charlie’s mother must have worried he’d get his ass kicked every day, but she kept him in ballet. That’s real bravery. He loved it, and Bea did too. Each week she plucked the Starburst from his hand as if it had come from the bowl of heaven.

 

The next year, Charlie had to move into one of the older classes, so we would come early to watch him through the observation windows. Charlie had continued to be an important person in Bea’s life. He was exactly as popular at the elementary school as you’d expect for an eight-year-old boy in ballet, so he and Bea would walk the perimeter of the schoolyard at recess, dragging their hands against the chain-link. To Bea, they weren’t isolated. She had lived in her own universe with someone she still saw as perfect. Past adolescence, you lose the ability to see anyone as perfect, but he was something more to me. People who are kind to your children are the most beautiful people in the world.

I remembered the song I’d heard playing the first time I brought Bea to the studio. I never learned what that song was, but I heard little stretches of it every time I saw Charlie. It was as if he had theme music—Charlie’s leitmotif.

Madame Graebel had been tough with the preschoolers. With the older kids she was a maniac. She poked at the faults in their technique like an alcoholic parent. You’re not even trying! she’d scream. Don’t come to my class like it’s some kind of free trial. I was sure these scenes would be revisited in many future therapy sessions. But Charlie scowled at the abuse half the time, smiled the other half, and redoubled his efforts either way. He was the only boy in that class. Aaron had moved into jazz dance now. Bea said those words as one might say, “Aaron decided to dance in a Porta Potty.” Maybe he had found his niche there. We didn’t know. We didn’t follow him; we followed Charlie. That year he was nine, and we saw him blossom, a new height erasing the childishness of his body, lean muscle maturing him. His technique matured as well. It was sometimes still erratic, his back leg drifting laterally out of arabesque, his changements too rapid and too wide. But you could see his body working at stillness. When a position asked him to raise his arms over his head, you could see his ribcage expand, like a fist unclenching beautifully.

 

By the time she was ten, Bea had come to understand that there was something special about her, something special that made her life difficult. She had emerged into verbal life at age two with the forthrightness of a battle-tested lawyer. She would concede no fact that disagreed with her intuition. She would not bow to any norm set by her classmates. Even during the toddler years, when managing this CEO energy, as we called it, was a constant struggle, I knew it would suit her well in adult life. In a fifth-grade classroom, surrounded by boys with all of her confidence but none of her intelligence, it pulled the rug out from under her. She was lonely. During the school year, she’d have a panic attack once every month or so over some small thing like a misplaced sweater.

I advised her that she was surrounded by morons. Everyone was a dickhead—I used the term “jerk”—in elementary school. And middle school. And high school. She shouldn’t take them seriously, I said. But if she took her teachers seriously she would astound them. If she acted like an adult with them, they would treat her like one. To my surprise, she listened. She’d always been smart, but now she was that kid. She did extra projects. When she had a mock-newspaper assignment, she printed it on newsprint. When the time came to build a sugar cube model of a California Mission, she read about Mission treatment of Native Americans and instead built a historic rancho using model train supplies. It was very expensive.

She had never been that kid in dance. She was middle-of-the-pack. She had cycled through soccer, gymnastics, and swimming. Her coaches praised her fierceness and her hustle, but she was never the star. Each of those other sports dropped off, but she kept ballet even into high school. She was not a standout in dance, either. She obeyed. She focused. She did not transcend. I think she still went, and I still took her, so we could keep following Charlie, who was starring in youth productions now, and in adult productions with child roles. If you shouted “Prince Siegfried” at him, he’d turn his head as if you’d called his own name. As I watched him leap in some of these shows, I understood why his lack of control as a younger dancer had been portentous. Now that he had some power, he could resist the control of gravity, and the limits of his ligaments.

 

Failing to excel in dance did not seem to bother Bea. She got enough confidence elsewhere. But at home, during a break between homework assignments, I’d see her cross her feet into third position and dip into a few shallow pliés. The movement was not the push of the devotee, the tortured aspirant. She wasn’t spending hours elevating her leg up on the mantle. The ballet steps were a relaxant, a punctuation of her real work, languid as the stretch of a cat. She was finding partial meaning blooming from the presence of ballet in her life, as I believed one should. When I watched her make those small, secret movements, her partial meaning rolled into my partial meaning, increasing it, for a time, to eighty-five percent.

I couldn’t help believing, when she did her little flourishes, that she was hearing the same music I did. I had mapped out what I could remember of it. I had three and a half measures, ten counts in 4/4 time. We still had an upright piano from the years Andrew had taken lessons. Over time I puzzled out how to play what I had into one of those phone apps that identify songs from the radio, but I didn’t have enough to make it work.

Near the end of Charlie’s senior year, sensing my chance would expire soon, I asked Madame Graebel about the music. Did she remember the CD she’d played for Charlie and Bea’s dance class when they were young?

What?” she asked, not as if she hadn’t heard me, but as if I were insane. I could see her age in the bewilderedness of her response. All the beveled wit she pointed at her students was in the well-worn grooves of the classes she’d taught for more than a generation. Pulled out of that track for a moment, she didn’t know what to do.

“You know—” I hummed her a couple measures of the song. Her assessment of my mental state did not improve. The CD, the name of the composer, would be lost to time, I figured. I received an email from Madame late that night with no subject line. The body said only:

Claude Girard Meditations on a Winter Storm.

I ordered the disc online. It took two weeks to arrive. It was pretty enough music, but it was not the one. I took out a Spotify subscription, loaded a playlist with as many piano albums as I could find, and made it the background of my life, waiting for the moment the familiar phrase would grab me by the shoulders. It didn’t come, though there is so much piano music in the world that the runtime of my playlist is likely to outlast me.

The end of the year came and Charlie went off to Julliard, his hair styled in the same messy bun he had when I met him at the age of six. And Bea—once Charlie was gone, Bea switched to jazz dance.

 

Life empties out so fast. Your kids leave. Your marriage doesn’t unpause. You travel, but it doesn’t change you the way you expect. You’re just yourself, elsewhere. I didn’t have a real retirement. I’d done part-time work since the kids were born. Tutoring, some freelance bookkeeping. You don’t retire from that. You just drift out of it. Retirement from the hospital was treating Lisa wonderfully. Without the administrative load of managing a hospital department, she was leading a committee for them on a consultancy basis. It was the first time in forty years, she’d said, she had sufficient time and resources to solve a problem properly. She volunteered with the Kiwanis Club. She enrolled in a Thai cooking class. Life was more meaningful for her than ever. Its interruptions of meaning were what had gone out of her life. For me, empty nesting and retirement were a real one-two punch.

Doing dishes in the dark didn’t hold any of its old magic. Tennis balls in the dryer had diminishing returns. I was happy for Lisa. I don’t mean to sound resentful. Seeing her self-actualize was about the only thing that kept meaning in my life. But there was no struggle to it. Living required nothing of me. That was one of Madame Graebel’s mantras: everybody has to suffer. When the kids complained about their backbends or the condition of their toes, they were reminded that they had to suffer. Otherwise, ballet was merely playtime. I’d done those dishes in the dark because that was the only time I had for it. I’d added the jazz to give my struggle a soundtrack. With only Lisa’s cheerful retired life to buoy me, my life felt thirty percent meaningful. Of course, there were also those days it seemed to have no meaning at all.

Bea went to college in New York, and I thought visiting her might help. She’d have less time for me than I had for her, of course. I would be okay with that, wandering the park and the Met, rolling the dice with some unknown uptown bistro, like a wistful older gentleman in a boring independent film. I could buy some kind of old-fashioned hat—a derby, perhaps?—to complete the picture.

But she cleared out her Saturday for me. I met her walking down 8th Avenue in midtown, as we headed to a cafe in Chelsea—I loved these place-names: not just like a place from a Leonard Cohen song but actually a place from a Leonard Cohen song. beautiful names of these places John Coltrane’s “Central Park West” was a few miles north. As we marched south, I asked her why we were headed so far into lower Manhattan when there were a million cafes up near Columbia.

“This place is halfway between me and Charlie,” she said. “He’s joining us for lunch.”

“That’s right, he’s at Julliard. But we’ve already passed it?”

“Didn’t his mom tell you? He transferred to NYU.”

“I don’t really see those folks anymore, now that you’re gone.”

“I’m not gone, Dad.”

You’re ninety percent gone, I thought. More, if I calculated the days.

Then we saw Charlie striding up our way in a light gray suit that was nicely tailored—or perhaps merely appeared to be because of his athletic frame. A slim blue tie cut down the middle of his shirt. I was used to seeing Charlie in leggings or sweats and stretched out V-neck tee shirts the color of sweat. But I’d also seen him in the regalia of the dozen prince characters that populate classic ballets: velvet coats, epaulettes, enormous buttons. That his suit fit him so well made it seem even more like a costume. It had the hardly worn look you only saw in well-funded productions or on rich people. He’d cut his hair as well. The sloppy bun he’d kept for fifteen years was gone. What was left was long enough to toss or tuck behind his ear, and even if it suffered from a little too much styling product, it was slicked gracefully to the side. Out of the bun it seemed a bit blonder, too, like hair designed to go with very white teeth.

At the cafe, I couldn’t help asking an impolite question:

“Does NYU’s dance program really measure up to Julliard?”

I just could not imagine that he couldn’t hack it at his school of choice.

He smiled. “It’s a close second, but I’m not in it. I transferred to finance. Not quite Julliard’s specialty.”

“That’s quite a leap.”

“A grand jeté,” Bea piped in brightly, apparently less disturbed by the news than I was.

“There’s one question that determines whether you can make any money in ballet,” he said. He waited for us to ask what the question was. I could tell he’d used the line before and was used to a faster response.

“Which is?” Bea finally said.

“And my name’s not Baryshnikov.”

“But you still dance,” I said. “On the weekends? Some kind of studio class or tutoring?”

“Majoring in finance you don’t really have weekends. You do weekend stuff but it’s work stuff too. Parties for deals. Deals for parties. You always have to be on.”

I felt nauseous.

“Yeah,” I said. “I saw Wolf of Wall Street.”

“But can you still do the splits?” Bea asked.

“Oh, yeah. It’s a great party trick. I can’t tell you how many bets I won off it. Though I did rip a few pairs of pants.”

It would have been easier for me if Charlie had died. I don’t mean that I wished him harm, only that it was as if he had taken up a thread that ran through the most important years of my life and pulled it out with a few swift tugs. If Charlie had died I could have mourned him—his garland briefer than a girl’s, and all that poetry—but when a thing of beauty transforms into a thing without it, that thing takes its history with it.

Lisa said I should find a hobby. I told her I might pick up the piano and she said that seemed right for me: I had always had a romantic streak, and a sort of lonely one. Well, I thought, you don’t have to say it aloud. But she found a tutor for me, the daughter of one of her Kiwanis friends. By my age you have all this music built into your head, and you ask, when can I play this Chopin, that Debussy? My teacher, a high school junior named Griselda, told me we’d start with Twinkle Twinkle. Could we at least begin with Pachelbel? I whined. It was basic enough.

“We’ll begin with Twinkle Twinkle,” she repeated.

Whether she was establishing rigor or this was the only pedagogical approach she had, I stopped vying for control after that. Twinkle Twinkle it was. Taking music lessons as a retiree is a strange thing. A young person comes to your house and instructs you as they would a child. You know they’re thinking: this sad old man is sixty years late. Even though you can bring so much more patience and knowledge than the five-year-olds they usually teach, the fingers of the five-year-old are more responsive. Meanwhile yours hands, and perhaps your brain, have turned to rubber.

But you bring certain advantages that the five-year-old cannot match. You’re not distracted by school. You know how to type, how to search the internet. The competing force of cartoons no longer holds the same sway. Most importantly, the goal is no longer to be the best, or to get into Harvard. It’s simply to be able to speak the language of the piano, however haltingly, in the hope that I might reclaim the song I heard those years ago.

So I learned Twinkle Twinkle and Chopsticks and the Birthday Song. I learned Für Elise and the Swan Lake theme. Debussy. The little Chopin Griselda would trust me with. A Scott Joplin rag to prove to Lisa I knew how to have a little fun. Then back to the French stuff.

Eventually I developed my skills enough to not be embarrassed when Lisa goaded me into playing for the friends she invited over. I got some enjoyment from their benign compliments and loved the scrap of laughter I could get from a quick transition from a classical tune to an upbeat pop hit.

I keep secret the reason I began playing the piano in the first place, that song of Charlie’s that I felt would cast a spell again if I could play it right. I never ask Griselda for help. I never play it when Lisa is home. But I spend some time each day tinkering a little farther forward or farther back from the measures I know, adding a little more territory to the map. It’s a beautiful tune I can play for myself in the empty house. It’s all wrong, of course. Some misremembered note from the original has spread through it like a spiderweb crack through a window. Yet what is there to do but keep spreading it toward some imagined beginning or end? Perhaps, given enough years, it might turn into my own song.

 

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Headquarters; view more of their work on Flickr.

Ethan Chataginer is the author of the story collection Warnings from the Future (Acre Books, 2018). His stories have appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, Georgia Review, New England Review, and other journals, and have been awarded a Pushcart Prize and listed as notable in the Best American Short Stories. He lives in California with …

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