It’s a week before Christmas. Amalia is determined to bake edible, giftable cookies. A terrible baker, why she would want to do so is another story. But through jam thumbprints and gingerbread snaps, she must give her full attention. One reward is the season’s classical music streaming from WQED, so much of which she’s sung — Bach oratorios, Handel’s Messiah, ancient French carols. She’s reading recipe directions — the first step for the fifth time — when something she hears sets off reverberations from a deep, almost sealed internal well.
A beautiful baritone instantly evokes her first voice teacher, singing in that seasoned, art-song way, easily rolling the “r” –“Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, May your days be bright.” An old heartache arises. Amalia’s inner voice is now narrating, as if for some invisible Other, who also seeks access to her rising apparitions: He gave so much. He trained me in the Italian bel canto (“beautiful singing”) style from the time I was seventeen. I took lessons at his parents’ home on Maple Street, where his mother fed me while we talked at the kitchen table. In the studio, Nico had me lie on the floor and feel the sensation of my abdomen fill and empty naturally, like a baby’s – no gasping shallow chest breaths. He taught me how to produce strange sounds like “yang” and then extract the resonance and leave the nasality … Yang … eeeeeee…
All this, a long-closed topic, but, unexpectedly, images and emotions are floating and she has no will to stop them. Amalia’s thought stream, complete with felt sensations, continues in earnest: In the next ten years I followed him to New York. My lessons were in amazing spaces like the Ansonia Hotel – home to historic arts salons — or in Carnegie Hall studios, where ballet dancers skittered, bird-like, and stretched limbs upon barres. Sometimes in lessons, a professional pianist accompanied me; then, summoning elegance. I’d rest my hand upon the grand piano and sing splendidly before some future audience.
Any stranger peering into Amalia’s kitchen tonight would catch her in a trance-like pose, her arm gracefully extended onto the counter’s edge.
“Yes! You can sing the melismatic lines of that Bach aria,” Nico would insist. “Cast your line out, as off a fishing reel – when you toss it out it goes on forever into space and time.” Arm outstretched, he never took his eyes off the horizon until it was all sung. “If you must take a breath make it a tiny ‘catch breath,’ what Germans call a Luftpause,” he instructed in pedantic mode. Amelia realizes: I didn’t mind, I hadn’t known about the Luftpause – honestly, I use it to this day. “When you stop, don’t drop the sound – suspend – suspend,” Nico’s word hung in air. “And then continue.” She did, and singing gave her joy and a vibrant high.
Amalia faces the transparent Other with watery eyes: But I failed him. When my white cells relentlessly attacked themselves and ambulances became routine, I didn’t suspend my sound. My voice shut down — my singing voice, my writer’s voice, sometimes, literally, my daily speaking voice.
As with other sunken pools fed by certain streams of memory, she has trouble speaking about all that happened next. Her outstretched palms drop in limp retreat: But, Nico? I couldn’t meet the last of my financial obligations at a time when he really needed it. Remuneration for his beautiful efforts got lumped in with thousands of dollars of unpaid hospital bills. Maybe worse, I stopped attending his recitals. When, at last, I arrived, a lifetime later, he literally stopped mid-step and boomed, “Ah, the prodigal daughter returns.” I wasn’t sure from that if he meant I had wasted his gift, my gift, that I was returning at all, or that he was all-forgiving? His stage call came and we never met again.
Over time some of Amalia’s voice has returned, though it hasn’t reached him in either song or verse. But, here and now, between images, words upon words are spilling, and now they are spilling out loud from her, “Nico, I wish you knew, every time I fly — and I’m so fearful of it I have to prepare myself for death each time — I twirl my silk scarf between Thumb and Tallman and my inner voice recites the handful of people I really love. You are always one; though not audible, you are suspended on some mysterious breath I still have.” The luminous sensations and images subside, leaving a quiet white space.
“Oh-no!” Amalia suddenly shrieks. She has been jolted into realizing she left the peanut butter out of the damned peanut butter cookies, already baking in the 350° oven! Now what? But, listen – Schütz’s Christmas Oratorio. Choir, Baroque strings, winds, harpsichord! A stone chapel … winter. Amalia is enveloped in chilly air that once rippled fine, fair hair on her arms, ensconced in wide, bell-bottom sleeves of their pale blue gowns. “My mother sewed mine,” she whispers. A lump swells in her throat. Another reverie, stirred and rising from a well, searches for breath to carry its form.