Bel canto, p.13
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       Bel Canto, p.13

           Ann Patchett
 

  It was Simon Thibault who turned the television on. He hadn’t meant anything by it. He had come into the room because he heard the singing. He thought that someone was playing some odd and beautiful old record and it made him curious. Then he saw the boy doing the show, a moderately funny boy, and thought he would get a kick out of the picture coming up suddenly where his face had been. Simon picked up the remote control from where it sat balanced on the arm of a comfortable-looking leather chair and pushed the power button.

  They screamed. They howled like dogs. They cried out the names of their compatriots, “Gilbert! Francisco! Jesus!” in a voice that would indicate fire, murder, the coming of police. That brought the great metal snap of safeties being removed from guns and the rushing in of the other soldiers and the three Generals who threw Simon Thibault against the wall and cut his lip.

  “Nothing foolish,” Edith had said, her lips lightly touching his ear. But what was included in foolishness? Turning on a television?

  One of the boys who rushed in, a big boy named Gilbert, put the round muzzle of his rifle into Thibault’s throat, pressing the blue silk scarf into the soft skin above his trachea. He pinned him there like a butterfly tacked down on a corkboard.

  “Television,” Thibault said with great difficulty.

  Sure enough, in the crowded study the attention had turned away from Simon Thibault. Just as quickly as he had been a threat, a star, they turned their guns away from him, let him slump down the wall in a shuddering crumple of fear. They were all looking at the television now. An attractive woman with dark hair was holding up articles of soiled clothing to the camera with both hands, shaking her head in mild disgust before shoving them into the washing machine. Her lipstick was bright red and the walls behind her a vivid yellow. “This is a real challenge,” she said in Spanish. Gilbert crouched down on his toes to watch.

  Simon Thibault coughed and rubbed his throat.

  Certainly, the Generals had seen television before, though not in the years since they had gone back to the jungle. They were in the room now. This was a very nice television, color with a twenty-eight-inch screen. The remote control had fallen on the floor and now General Alfredo picked it up and began pushing the buttons to take them through the channels: soccer game; a man in a coat and tie sitting at a desk reading; a girl in silver pants singing; a dozen puppies in a basket. There was a fresh burst of excitement, a collective ah, at every new picture.

  Simon Thibault left the room without being noticed. Cesar’s singing did not even cross his mind.

  Most days the hostages longed for this whole thing to be over. They longed for their countries, their wives, their privacy. Other days, honestly, they just wanted to be away from all these children, from their sullenness and sleepiness, from their chasing games and appetites. How old could they have been? When asked, they either lied and said twenty-five or they shrugged as if they hadn’t the slightest idea what the question meant. Mr. Hosokawa knew he was a poor judge of children. In Japan, he often saw young people who looked to be no more than ten behind the wheels of cars. His own daughters constantly presented him with a mathematical impossibility, one minute running around the house wearing pajamas covered in images of the blankly staring Hello, Kitty, the next minute announcing they had dates who would be picking them up at seven. He believed his daughters were not old enough to date and yet clearly by the standards of this country they were old enough to be members of a terrorist organization. He tried to picture them, their plastic daisy barrettes and short white socks, picking at the door frame with the sharp tip of a knife.

  Mr. Hosokawa could not imagine his daughters anyplace but curled in their mother’s bed, crying for his return while they watched the news. And yet to everyone’s genuine surprise, two of the junior soldiers turned out to be girls. One was revealed quite simply: somewhere around the twelfth day she pulled off her cap to scratch her head and down came a braid. She did not bother to twist it back into place when the scratching was done. She did not seem to think that her being a girl was any secret at all. Her name was Beatriz. She was perfectly happy to tell anyone who asked. She was not blessed with a pretty face or a delicate manner and had passed very well as a boy. She held her gun as ready to shoot as any of the boys and her eyes stayed dull even after it was no longer a necessity. And yet, for all her extraordinary averageness, the hostages watched her as if she were something impossible and rare, a luna moth lighting in a snowfield. How could there be a girl among them? How had they all failed to notice? The other girl was not so hard to figure out. Logic held that if there was one girl then there could just as easily be more than one, and everyone looked immediately towards the silent boy who never answered questions and had seemed in every way unnatural from the start, much too beautiful, too nervous. His hairline dipped onto his forehead and made his face a perfect heart. His mouth was round and soft. His eyes stayed half closed as if the heavy lashes seemed too great a burden to lift. He smelled different from the other boys, a sweet, warm smell, and his neck was long and smooth. He was the one who seemed so particularly in love with Roxane Coss and slept on the hallway floor outside her room at night, using his body to prevent any drafts from coming under the door. Gen looked at him, the one who had made him feel so uneasy, and the anxiousness he had held inside his chest rolled off of him in a long, low wave.

  “Beatriz,” Simon Thibault said, “that boy over there. Is he your sister?”

  Beatriz snorted and shook her head. “Carmen? My sister? You must be crazy.”

  At the sound of her name, Carmen looked up from across the room. Beatriz speaking her name. There was no such thing as a secret in this world. Carmen threw down the magazine she had been looking at. (It was Italian, with an abundance of glossy pictures of movie stars and royalty. The text undoubtedly contained important information about their most personal lives that she was unable to read. It had been found in the drawer of the nightstand beside the bed where the Vice President’s wife slept.) Carmen took her revolver into the kitchen and shut the door and no one followed her, a visibly angry teenaged girl with a gun. There was nowhere to go and everyone assumed that eventually she would come out on her own. They wanted to look at her again, to see her without her cap on, to have the time to contemplate her as a girl, but they were willing to wait. If this was the drama of the afternoon, one of the terrorists taking herself hostage for a few hours, then the suspense was better than single-mindedly watching the drizzle.

  “I should have known she was a girl,” Ruben said to Oscar Mendoza, the contractor who lived only a few miles away.

  Oscar shrugged. “I have five daughters at home. I never saw a girl in this room.” He stopped to reconsider his point and then leaned in toward the Vice President. “I just saw one girl in this room, you know? One woman. There can only be one woman in this room.” He tilted his head meaningfully towards the far side of the room where Roxane Coss sat.

  Ruben nodded. “Of course,” he said. “Of course.”

  “I am thinking there will never be a better opportunity than this to tell her I love her.” Oscar rubbed his hand over his chin. “I don’t necessarily mean right now. It doesn’t have to be today, although it could be today. These days are so long that by supper the time could be exactly right. You never know until it comes to you, you know? Until you are exactly in that place.” He was a big man, well over six feet and broad through the shoulders. He had stayed strong because even though he was a contractor he was not above pitching in and carrying boards or putting up Sheetrock. In this way he remained a fine example to the men who worked for him. Oscar Mendoza had to bend forward so as to speak softly into the Vice President’s ear. “But I will do it while we are here. You mark my words.”

  Ruben nodded. Roxane Coss had given up her evening gown days ago and was now wearing a pair of tan slacks that belonged to his wife as well as his wife’s favorite cardigan, a navy sweater of extremely fine baby alpaca he had bought for her on their second anniversary. He had request
ed a guard accompany him upstairs. He went to the closet himself and brought the sweater down to the soprano. “Are you cold?” he had asked, and then draped the cardigan gently around her shoulders. Was it a betrayal, so quickly giving up the sweater his wife loved? The clothing conflated the two women for him in a way that was extraordinarily pleasing, his beautiful guest wearing the clothes of his wife whom he so dearly missed, the traces of his wife’s perfume still lingering inside the ribbing of the sweater so that he could smell both women there when he passed the one. If this wasn’t enough to ask, Roxane was wearing a pair of familiar slippers that belonged to the governess, Esmeralda, because his wife’s shoes had been too small. How delightful it had been to put his head inside Esmeralda’s tiny, meticulous closet!

  “Are you going to tell her you love her?” the contractor asked. “It is your home. I would certainly defer to your right to go first.”

  Ruben considered his guest’s thoughtful invitation. “It’s a possibility.” He was trying not to stare at Roxane. He was failing. He imagined taking her hand, suggesting he could show her the stars from the wide stone veranda that wrapped around the back of the house, that is, he would have if they had been allowed to go outside. He was the Vice President, after all, that might impress her. At least she was not a tall woman. She was a pixie, a pocket Venus. He was grateful for that. “It might not be appropriate, given my position here.”

  “What’s appropriate?” Oscar said. His voice was light and unconcerned. “They’re bound to kill us in the end. Either the ones inside or the ones outside. The shooting will start. There will be some terrible mistake, you can bank on it. The ones outside can’t let it look like we were not mistreated. It will be important to them we wind up dead. Think of the people, the masses. You can’t have them getting the wrong idea. You’re the government man. You know more about these things than I do.”

  “It does happen.”

  “Then what’s the point of not telling her? I, for one, want to know that in my last days I made some effort. I’m going to speak to the young Japanese man, the translator. When the time is right, when I know what I want to say. You can’t approach a woman like that too quickly.”

  Ruben liked the contractor. Although they had never met before, the very fact that they both lived in the same city made them feel like neighbors and then old friends and then brothers. “What do you know about women like that?”

  Oscar chuckled and put his hand down on his brother’s shoulder. “Little Vice President,” he said. “There are so many things that I know.” It was big talk but in this place big talk seemed appropriate. While he had lost every freedom he was most accustomed to, a new, smaller set of freedoms began to raise a dim light within him: the liberty to think obsessively, the right to remember in detail. Away from his wife and five daughters he was not contradicted or corrected, and without those burdens he found himself able to dream without constant revision. He had lived his life as a good father but now Oscar Mendoza saw again his life as a boy. A daughter was a battle between fathers and boys in which the fathers fought valiantly and always lost. He knew that one by one each of his daughters would be lost, either honorably in the ceremony of marriage or, realistically, in a car pointed out towards the ocean well after dark. In his day, Oscar himself had made too many girls forget their better instincts and fine training by biting them with tender persistence at the base of their skull, just where the hairline grew in downy wisps. Girls were like kittens in this way, if you got them right at the nape of their neck they went easily limp. Then he would whisper his suggestions, all the things they might do together, the wonderful dark explorations for which he was to be their guide. His voice traveled like a drug dripped down the spiraling canals of their ears until they had forgotten everything, until they had forgotten their own names, until they turned and offered themselves up to him, their bodies sweet and soft as marzipan.

  Oscar shuddered at the thought. As he was ready to play the part of the boy again he could see the lines of boys forming around his house, boys ready to assuage the awful grief of his daughters now that their father was held hostage. Pilar, how awful this must be for you. Isabelle, you mustn’t stay shut away. Teresa, your father wouldn’t want such suffering. Look at this, I brought you some flowers (or a bird, a skein of yarn, a colored pencil. IT MADE NO DIFFERENCE). Would his wife have the sense to lock the door? She would never have sense enough to believe that the boys meant them any harm. She believed their lies now just as she had believed him then, when she was a girl and he had come to call while her father lay dying from cancer.

  What was he thinking of, chasing after an opera singer? Who were those two girls anyway, Beatriz and Carmen? What were they doing here? Where were their fathers? Probably gunned down in some countryside revolution. What could such girls do to keep the boys away without fathers to protect them? Everywhere in this house there were boys, those awful, surly boys with their greasy hair and bitten fingernails, hoping to touch a breast.

  “You look bad,” the Vice President said. “All this talk of love isn’t agreeing with you.”

  “When will we get out of here?” Oscar said. He sat down on the sofa and dropped his head onto his knees as if dizzy.

  “Get out of here? You’re the one who said we would be shot.”

  “I’ve changed my mind. No one is going to kill me. I may kill someone, but no one is going to kill me.”

  Ruben sat down beside him and leaned his good cheek against his friend’s broad shoulder. “I won’t complain about your inconsistencies. I like this talk better anyhow. Let’s assume we’ll live.” He sat up again. “Here, wait here. I’m going to the kitchen to get you some ice. You won’t believe how much better ice can make you feel.”

  “Do you play the piano?” Roxane Coss said to Gen.

  He hadn’t seen her coming. His back was to the room while he watched the garúa from the bay window. He was learning to relax as he watched it, to not strain his eyes. He was beginning to think he could see things. Mr. Hosokawa looked at Gen expectantly, clearly anxious to know what she was saying, and for a minute Gen was confused as to whether he should answer her or translate first as the question was directed to him. He translated and then told her no, he was sorry to say he did not.

  “I thought you might,” she said. “You seem to know how to do so many things.” She looked towards his companion. “What about Mr. Hosokawa?”

  Mr. Hosokawa shook his head sadly. Until their capture, he had thought of his life in terms of achievement and success. Now it struck him as a long list of failures: he didn’t speak English or Italian or Spanish. He didn’t play the piano. He had never even tried to play the piano. He and Gen didn’t have a single lesson between them.

  Roxane Coss looked across the room as if she were looking for her accompanist, but he was already half a world away, his grave now covered by an early Swedish frost. “I keep telling myself that this is going to be over soon, that I’m just taking a vacation from work.” She looked up at Gen. “Not that I think this is a vacation.”

  “Of course.”

  “We’ve been in this miserable place nearly two weeks. I’ve never gone a week without singing unless I was sick. I’m going to have to start practicing soon.” She leaned in towards the two of them and they bent towards her reflexively. “I really don’t want to sing here. I don’t want to give them the satisfaction. Do you think it would be worth it to wait another couple of days? Do you think they’ll let us go by then?” She glanced over the room again to see if there was a particularly elegant pair of hands folded across a lap.

  “Surely someone here must play,” Gen said, not wanting to address the other issue.

  “The piano is very good. I can play a little but not to accompany myself. I somehow doubt they’d go out and kidnap a new accompanist for me.” Then she spoke directly to Mr. Hosokawa. “I don’t know what to do with myself when I’m not singing. I don’t have any talent for vacations.”

  “I feel very much the s
ame way,” he said, his voice growing fainter with each word, “when I am not able to listen to opera.”

  For this Roxane smiled. Such a dignified man. In the others she could see a look of fear, the occasional brush of panic. Not that there was anything wrong with panic given their circumstances, she had cried herself to sleep most nights. But it never seemed to touch Mr. Hosokawa, or he managed not to show it. And when she stood near him she somehow did not feel the panic herself, though she couldn’t explain it. Near him, it felt like she was stepping out of a harsh light and into someplace quiet and dark, like she was wrapping herself up in the heavy velvet of the stage curtains where no one could see her. “You should help me find an accompanist,” she told him, “and both of our problems will be solved.”

  All of her makeup was gone now. For the first few days she bothered to go to the lavatory and put on lipstick from the tube she carried in her evening bag. Then her hair went back in a tight elastic and she was wearing someone else’s clothes that did not exactly fit. Mr. Hosokawa thought that every day she was lovelier. He had wanted so many times to ask her to sing but he never would have since singing for him was the thing that had brought her all the trouble in the first place. He wasn’t able to ask her for a hand of cards or for her thoughts on the garúa. He did not seek her out at all and so Gen did not either. In fact both of them had noticed that (with the exception of the priest, whom she could not understand) all the men in their desire to speak to her had decided to leave her alone as if it was some sort of respect, so alone she sat, hour after hour. Sometimes she cried and other times she thumbed through books or took naps on the sofa. It was a pleasure to watch her sleep. Roxane was the only hostage to have the privilege of a bedroom and her own guard, who slept outside her door, though whether that was to keep her in or to keep other people out no one was entirely sure. Now that they knew the guard was Carmen, they wondered if she was only trying to keep herself safe by staying near such an important person.

 
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