The Music of Us
“You,” said Mrs. Horowitz, turning upon me, “yes, I’m talking to you! What’s your idea of the future? What are you planning to make of yourself, young man?”
This question, I’m afraid, touched on a sensitive nerve. My father had pressed hard on me to achieve his dream: becoming a lawyer. Naturally there was no saying no to him. So before graduating from high school I had told him that I had registered at the university and would be majoring in Law, according to his wishes—but somehow I had neglected to mention that the closest I had ever come to registering was flipping through an outdated course catalog, while sitting on the toilet and dreaming about something else.
Being drafted the next year was a lucky thing. It had saved me from having to admit to him that I had lied. I had looked forward to military service. Not only had it promised travel, fun, and adventure but also relieved me of the old man’s constant nagging.
So, what was I planning to make of myself? That was the question I thought I had escaped answering—until now.
I glanced at Natasha, hoping she can, somehow, get me out of this uneasy spot in the interrogation, but all I could spot in her eyes was a flash of curiosity. She, too, wanted to hear what I might say. I recalled her first letter, in which she had written, “I enjoyed your stories and would love to read more of them. Your words touched something in me... You, Lenny, you should become a writer.”
Well, I thought, how hard can that be? And expecting to make an impression on both of them I said, “I’m going to be a writer.”
“No, really,” said Mrs. Horowitz.
“Have you even been published?”
“Of course not. Have you written anything worth reading?
“Well, not yet, but—”
“You interested in drama? Comedy? Some other genre?”
On a whim I said, “Drama.”
“Because,” I said, “drama is like comedy but without the jokes.”
Mrs. Horowitz was far from amused. She gave me a severe look. “I suppose,” she said, “that your jokes are nothing to write home about.”
“Telling them is a dangerous proposition,” I said, with a shrug. “If no one laughs at the punch line, that’s the end of the story.”
She said nothing. Instead she took a deep breath, perhaps to control a sense of contempt, so that—except for the vein pulsing at the side of her forehead, under the elaborately teased hair—it would not overtake her.
“So,” I went on to say, “drama is safer.”
“Listen here, Dostoyevsky,” she said. “Let me tell you: the last thing my daughter needs is to be involved with a would-be writer.”
I gasped as Natasha cried, “Mama!”
Which did nothing to slow Mrs. Horowitz down. “In every family,” she said, “one genius is enough, no, on second thought, it’s more than enough. Two are a recipe for disaster, because they’ll end up starving to death and blaming each other for it.”
I thought of saying that having died of starvation would not leave these geniuses enough juice for exchanging accusations, as there could be no pointing fingers from beyond the grave, but to be on the safe side I decided not to offer my opinion on the subject.
Mrs. Horowitz went on. “As long as I’m here, Natasha can rest assured that I’ll sacrifice myself not only to advance her career and her fame but also to put food on the table and provide for shelter overhead. But I won’t live forever—”
“So now,” said Mrs. Horowitz, “what are your intentions, may I ask, regarding my daughter?”
Surprised that she leveled this question at me, which she did before I even had a real opportunity to have a conversation with Natasha, I said, “Mrs. Horowitz, let me assure you about my intentions. They’re utterly serious—”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she said, waving her hand at me. “I’m not going to allow Natasha to marry anyone coming off the street, even if he arrived in a luxury car, especially not someone who has some vague dreams of writing drama for no better reason than he’s no good at jokes.”
Before I could answer that no one had been discussing marriage yet, and it was much too early to bring up the subject now, “Mama,” said the girl, in her most stubborn tone, “I can make up my own mind, thank you very much.”
With that, Natasha sat down at her piano, raised her hands over the keys, and with great gusto, pounded them till the upside-down skyline of Manhattan trembled in the polished surface.
Mrs. Horowitz marched off to the kitchen, leaving us alone at long last.
“Play for me, Natasha,” I said.
She turned her eyes to me, and the green light in them flickered into a smile.
“What kind of music d’you like?” she asked.
To which I said, “I’d like to know what you like.”
“My favorite is The Symphony No. 5 in C minor by Ludwig van Beethoven,” she said, “but this is not the right moment for it. I know! I’ll play a special song for you. Papa used to sing it to me, when I was little.”
The first notes came softly, tugging at my heart. They brought back long-forgotten Yiddish words, in the voice of my mother. “Bei mir bist du shein,” she sang to me. “Bei mir host du chein. Bei mir bist du alles oif di velt.”
Natasha closed her eyes, surrendering herself to the music. She started swaying slightly as she played and from time to time, tipped her head backwards, letting it wash over her face, her lips. Fascinated I found myself drawing nearer. By the rosy blush that spread up her cheeks I knew that she could sense my closeness.
In her soft, velvety voice, she started singing, “To me you are beautiful, to me you have grace, to me you are everything in the world.”
From the direction of the kitchen, her Ma chimed in, singing, “I've tried to explain, bei mir bist du schoen.”
And in a sudden elation I hummed under my breath, “So kiss me, and say that you will understand.”
With the last notes still hovering in midair, she swung her knees around the piano bench and lifted her face to me. I raised her to her feet and gathered her to my heart. Then, as she wrapped her arms around my shoulders, I felt the heat awakening from within, rising recklessly in both of us.
Drawing me to her, Natasha leaned backwards over the piano. To the last vibrations dying in its belly I bent over her, over the reflection of the skyline of New York, which rippled in reverse across the polished, black surface around us, and I kissed her.