An excerpt from Night Swim


In the car, she reached for her cigarette again, her middle finger and thumb wincingly misshapen. She took extra pills before this trip because her finger joints throbbed like suffocating hearts, especially in damp, cold weather. Did all mothers take pills?

Downtown, we circled around the block, past several filled-up parking lots.

“I’ll let you two off,” she said. “What will you do?”

Peter asked. “I’ll find a spot. Go.”

“We’ll stay with you,” I said, leaning forward. I hung my arms over the front seat.

“Hurry. Go on. I don’t want you to miss the beginning. It sets the tone.”

She dropped us off at the front entrance and we watched her turn in the direction of nearby Symphony Hall, where Mother played once in college. Her red brake lights flickered as she merged with other cars.

Now her violin lay in a cool corner of her bedroom closet like a dated history book. Once a year, she picked it up and tapped the strings, stroking the bridge with one finger. She’d place the chin rest under my chin and for a moment I’d see her face change, soften, open up to a world beyond the one she found herself in, and that included me. She held the bow for me, then sawed my arm back and forth across the bridge and together we listened to the breathy, sleepy strings.

“All dried out. They sound terrible.”

She stopped sawing and her mood changed. “You could buy new ones.”

“What’s the point?”

When people asked why she no longer played violin, she said, “arthritis and children,” and gave a quick smile, as if having children was some kind of ailment. I know she didn’t mean to hurt me when she said that, but she did.

~~~~~

Inside the conservatory I saw ornate plaster ceilings, moldings wide enough to curl up in, chandeliers intricate as beehives. The building captured some essence of beauty and hope, seemed to offer a permanent escape from ugliness and despair. Maybe Mother was right to bring us here, after all.

I started to feel excited about the recital as Peter and I followed a curved hallway to a small room at the building’s rear. He limped and sounded one-footed in the hall — the padded sole of his special boot silent while my heels clapped in double rhythm against the shiny floor. A poster on the wall showed a picture of Justine Janson, her hair pulled back. She looked much older than twenty-one.

As soon as we entered the recital room, Mrs. Janson came over to us and introduced herself. I shook her small hand. She was a short woman with frizzy hair and wide, hula-hoop hips.

“You’re dears to come in this weather. Where’s your mother?”

“Parking,” Peter said.

Mrs. Janson made a face, one that sympathized with the plight of finding a parking spot in Boston. She smiled and thanked us for coming. We took our seats in a row near the back. Peter draped his army jacket over Mother’s empty chair to reserve it for her.

Soon, the lights dimmed. A man in a tuxedo crossed the stage and took his place at the piano. The door to the recital room closed. I looked back instinctively for Mother, still circling the building, I imagined, looking for an elusive parking space. A spotlight brightened and Mrs. Janson’s daughter Justine glided to center stage swathed in purple chiffon. The pianist began a roulade of scales. Justine parted her lips and began to sing in Italian.

The program notes translated each aria into English so I read the words while she sang about loneliness and longing, the beauty of the woods and the path she walked on. She shaped her lips around high notes. She trilled about her aching breast and lost love.

“What good is the exquisite flower lighting her path with no one to share it with?” the notes translated. “What good is the sweet air if only I can breathe it?”

While Justine’s voice hovered in uncertainty, trilled and twirled and rose again, I counted fourteen rows of wooden seats.

“Where is she?” I whispered to Peter.

He left his seat and slipped out the door. I went with him.

The long, marble hallway was empty except for two women taking tickets at the front entrance of the main Jordan Hall. The Vienna Choir Boys were singing in there.

“Did you see a woman in a mohair coat?” Peter asked a girl with thin hair and freckles.

“She’s our mother,” I said.

The girl shrugged. “A lot of people pass through here. Where is she supposed to meet you?”

“She’s parking the car,” I said.

Peter pointed in the direction of the small recital hall to the left. “If you see her, please tell her to go to there.”

The woman nodded.

“She’s very pretty. She has blond hair,” I added. We walked down the foyer steps and looked outside. Snowfall covered the roads in a crusty membrane, the falling sky lowering itself upon us.

“Is she lost?” My breath fogged up the glass door. “Possibly.”

We waited together, staring at the snowy street lined with parked cars turning into white ovules.

Peter looked at his watch. “It’s icy out there,” he said, his voice quiet as the snow.

We went back up the stairs and stood near the ticket takers unsure about what to do next.

“Isaac Stern is playing at Symphony Hall. There’s a lot going on today,” the girl offered as a way to explain the parking situation.

“Let’s go back,” I said. Maybe Mother had come through a side door.

Back inside the recital room, the audience clapped. Justine left the stage. Lights brightened for intermission. I wanted to tell Mrs. Janson. Perhaps she would know something. As soon as Mrs. Janson turned around I started toward her.

“Not here yet?” she asked, looking a bit worried herself.

“They did say parking was impossible today.”

“It’s snowing,” I said. I looked for Peter at the door. He motioned to me.

“Let’s go back to the front,” he said.

We walked down the marble hallway again, past doors I now recognized. Some had gold leaf numbers and others did not. This time when we reached the front lobby we ran into the intermission crowd for the Vienna Choir Boys. People smoked furiously. The doors to the main concert hall opened revealing cathedral-sized organ pipes above the stage and gold-rimmed railings. It was a beautiful room steeped in carved wood and plush green chairs. It looked happy inside there, the opposite of how I was feeling, a squall brewing in my stomach.

“I’m calling Dad,” Peter said testily.

Peter spotted a telephone booth off the lobby. I stood against the folding glass doors while he dialed home.

“No answer,” he said, thumping the receiver into its metal holder. “Let’s go outside.”

We went out without coats down one block toward Boylston Street. City lights twinkled red, white and green, indifferent to my cold-stiffened fingertips. Peter surprised me by lighting a cigarette.

“I’m thinking of calling the police.” He took short puffs, impatient intakes.

“Where do you think Dad is?”

“I don’t know,” he said, stamping out the cigarette.

“Where could she possibly be?” I was freezing, scared, my head covered in a doily of ice. I looked over at Symphony Hall lit up with a border of lights the size of onions. The building looked secure, unperturbed by the disorderly streets cutting around it.

Back inside the lobby, overhead lights flickered. The crowd drained into Jordan Hall for more Vienna Choir Boys, leaving the marble stairway empty again.

“This is insane,” Peter said.

An hour had passed since Mother left us at the curb. Behind the thick doors of Jordan Hall sounds of the choir crescendoed and receded like underwater currents. Peter went back to the phone booth and called Father again. No answer.

“Something’s wrong,” he said, unfolding the glass doors, still clenching the phone. His face was wet, his hair stuck in moist bands across his forehead.

“I’m calling the police.”

on October 16 • by

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