We presented him with an ashtray. “The hardest thing to do is sing,” he said and charmed, set himself gently on the piano bench, crossed his legs and rested an arm across the closed key cover.
“The piano,” he said, leaning against it, “is a lovely example of how we are different, you and I.” He ran his hand along the smooth, heavy wood. “It is central to the way you Westerners compose. Here in the West, you begin from this fixed collection of intervals and pitches attuned to half- and whole-step increments, labeled in alphabetic sequence, A-B-C-D-E-F-G. It’s very harmonic and ordered.” He looked at us. “But it is so rigid.” And several of us gathered in the sitting room politely shivered with laughter.
He was holding the cigaret unlit in the fingers of the hand that hung from his wrist, dangling off the edge of the piano, and with the other hand, he gestured with the ashtray until he finished speaking and paused. He set the ashtray down beside himself on the piano bench.
“We make music from an older time,” he continued. “This is difficult to express. That is why we say the hardest thing to do is sing.”
God, that bastard’s fat. I couldn’t help thinking it. I mean he weighed 250 if he weighed a pound. I couldn’t imagine his wife under him; she’d have to be on top. That thought made more sense. But looking at him it was easy to believe that, even with his wife so small in comparison to his heavy-assed shape, even in their most intimate spaces, it was easy to believe, he probably moved with a kind of grace. What a bizarrely perfect man this singer is. We have among us somehow these ones. They pop out of the womb, misshapen perhaps and lazy and somewhat sloppy and loose, and then from their lips or hands issues forth the sound of music. And we are under a spell. God, that bastard is fat.
Elephantine, his hand moved slowly to his lips. Someone stepped forward, reaching out, and a flame erupted from their palm. He made a series of tiny movements, registering first a kind of casual surprise at the appearance of fire, then a smile, then acceptance, leaning forward slowly until the cigaret just touched the flame, closing his eyes as he inhaled evenly.
He was still for a moment like that, his eyes closed, inhaling evenly, with the tip of the cigaret aflame. And finally, leaning back a little, exhaling, slowly, opening his eyes and looking up at the young man who had given him a light, he locked eyes with him and briefly held him in a stare, then smiled, nodded and leaned back in full. This whole series of actions endured perhaps a minute and a half under the eyes of everyone in the room. The fellow was captivating.
My wife brought me here. We are in the middle of the worst period of our six years of marriage. She is a member of this community, an expatriated collection of her people, now hyphenated Americans. When a touring performer of some notoriety comes to town we go to these kinds of community events. I don’t do particularly well at them. I have a terrible time remembering anyone’s name because the sounds of their language are foreign to me. Though we’ve been married six years and spend holidays once a year with my wife’s people, I find it difficult to relate, still.
I have recently been unashamed to masturbate beside her in our bed. We don’t even talk about it. She’s awake. Sometimes she watches me. She will roll over on her side and lay on her elbow with her body half-raised. Her breasts are perfect. She stares at me, looks into my eyes and slowly peers down the length of my body. We are connected then, but it is different. I am masturbating. We don’t even talk about it. I come.
“Music is unlimited,” said the singer. “The limitations we put upon the universe, this resonant space around us, these limitations are a result of our own limited minds. Listen,” he said, and everyone fell silent. There was the tinkle of glass somewhere in the anteroom; someone, a pretty young girl with magical silvery tones in her naked throat, giggled like rain on a bottle. It was really a beautiful moment. “Listen to these waves of sound all around us,” he whispered, “they are always happening. We can take any of them and commune. We can harmonize with any wave through an act of unlimited expression. But we must master the act of harmony.”
My wife and I are clumsy in English though it’s the language we’ve been maneuvering in. I have intended to spend more time learning her mother tongue, but it has never materialized. She talks to my in-laws in their tongue only when I don’t need to understand. I don’t need to understand much. Just to know that we are still somehow connected.
It can be a simple glance from across the room while she is curled into the red rocker we bought last year at an antique shop. She has this gesture while she is on the phone. It is half-aware of itself and half-aware of me. She sits and curls her hair absently with her fingers and talks and though her eyes may have fallen on me a dozen times during her conversation they’ve never registered my presence. Then when her conversation allows it, she looks right at me, almost smiles and sometimes stops her little hair curling and just looks — so our eyes meet.
We do have these few things left that are holding us together.
The singer continued: “What is the nature of sound? It is the vibration of the matter of our universe. This has always been so. Except once. The sound came first. You see, our universe was born from sound. Then only matter resonated forth from sound into material. Then it became an ever-expanding sequence of harmonic unfolding. The first sound was the ground. It gave form to the universe. When we sing, when we make music, we are seeking harmony with the root. We pursue resonance with the original ground.”
My wife’s people believe in marriage. But not necessarily in love. They do not have any kind of affection for the romantic notion that marriage has anything to do with love at all. They find the appearance of love in marriage to be co-accidental.
Take this performer for example. I can tell you a little about his relationship with his wife. This fat, magical singer has a wife who does not argue. She assists him in his work. She is the one of them who compromises her ego, does so for his work’s sake and in return she receives his affection singularly. It is an old way of thinking, a highly rational and intellectual way of doing things. And it is the way against which my wife rebelled when we came together.
The singer continued to call us Westerners: “You have a writer who says that the rest in the musical score is time. He writes that what we hear when the orchestra rests is pure time.” He paused to take a drag from the cigaret — the act was an affectation, but with the weight of consideration.
He smiled and said it: “We take this to be the shallow view.”
He continued, “Time is an invention of the limiting mind. Sound is in harmony with time. When you construct from a device like the piano, sound will necessarily be limited to its form. But music is wide. It is in possession of all sounds and intervals between sounds, all times.”
Seven years ago —we were just kids when we met — this is the first thing I thought: God, that girl is so hot! I still think my wife is beautiful. She doesn’t tell me whether or not she still finds me attractive. I have been wondering if her attraction to me then was to an image — an image of something other and separate from her people. I have been wondering if she wanted me then because I was, to her, something different. This idea is so simple it is stupid.
That we could have made this decision to be together these years because of a rebellious childish reaction makes me feel sick. The possibility that the basis for our relationship may be a tour through sexually untried territories is ugly and very real. I am tired of thinking about it.
The cigaret was to be ashed. It was half-smoked. He flicked it quickly into the ashtray on the piano bench. He sighed and put the cigaret out. He sat on the bench facing away from the piano with his legs crossed at the ankles. He lowered his head on the pudgy rings of his neck, down onto his chest. He coughed once and cleared his throat, then lifted his head. “The hardest thing to do is sing,” he repeated.
Nothing was perfectly silent. Every sound was perfect. Then, one very low sound revealed itself from the background hum of the room. It very evenly and steadily increased in volume and intensity. So imperceptibly slowly the profound sound of the ground came welling up from the cavernous body of this man. His round body resonated with an angelic hum. He sang. Across the room, my wife, who had been watching, standing with her arms crossed, her head tilted and with her fingers curling and twirling her thick black hair, suddenly, for a moment, she caught my eye.
A week later, at half three in the morning, having just come home, she said to me through her pitch-black eyes and in even, well-measured English, “I treat this place like a hotel because I hate you. Do you understand or must I be more clear?” And we went to bed.
[first published in the Asian-American Short Story Anthology, “Bolo! Bolo!” under the pseudonym, Raj Balas]