Bel canto, p.22
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       Bel Canto, p.22
 

           Ann Patchett

  “Mr. Hosokawa and Miss Coss,” Carmen said. “Out of all the people in the world, they found each other. What are the chances of that?”

  “What about Mrs. Hosokawa?” Gen said. He did not know his employer’s wife well, but he saw her often. She was a dignified woman with cool hands and a calming voice. She called him Mr. Watanabe.

  “Mrs. Hosokawa lives in Japan,” Carmen said, looking off towards the kitchen, “which is about a million kilometers away from here. Besides, he isn’t going home, and while I’m sorry for Mrs. Hosokawa, I don’t think that means that Mr. Hosokawa should be alone.”

  “What do you mean, he isn’t going home?”

  Carmen gave Gen a very slight smile. She tilted back her head so that he could see her face beneath the bill of her cap. “This is where we live now.”

  “Not forever,” Gen said.

  “I think,” Carmen said, mouthing the words without making any sound. She was wondering if she had said too much. She knew that her loyalties absolutely must be to the Generals, but telling things to Gen wasn’t like telling things to anyone else. Gen could keep a secret because everything about them was a secret, the china closet, the reading. She trusted him absolutely. She plucked at the side of his hand with two fingers and then walked away from him. He waited a minute before following her. She walked silently, her movements small and relaxed. No one noticed her as she passed by. She went into the small lavatory off the hall. All of the pretty rose-scented soaps were gone now and the towels were dingy, but the gold swan was still nesting over the sink and when you turned the wing-shaped handles, water still slid from her long throat. Carmen took off her cap and washed her face. She tried to comb out her hair with her fingers. Her face in the mirror was too coarse, too dark. At home some people had called her beautiful but now she had seen beauty and knew it was something she could never possess. Some mornings, only a few, when Carmen came into the room to bring Roxane her breakfast, the singer had still been asleep and Carmen would put down the tray and touch her shoulder. When Roxane’s great, pale eyes blinked open she would smile at Carmen, she would pull the covers back and motion for Carmen to lie down next to her in the warm embroidered sheets. She was careful to dangle her boots over the edge. They would both close their eyes and take an extra five minutes of sleep, Roxane pulling the covers up to Carmen’s neck. How quickly Carmen dreamed of her sisters, her mother! In only a few minutes of sleep they all came to visit her. They all wanted to see her there, nestled in the pillows of such a comfortable bed, beside such an unimaginable woman. Yellow hair, blue eyes, skin like white roses brushed in pink. Who would not be in love with Roxane Coss?

  “Gen!” Victor Fyodorov said just as he was approaching the bathroom door. “How can you be so difficult to find when there is no place for you to go?”

  “I didn’t realize—”

  “Her voice this morning, didn’t you think? Perfection!”

  Gen agreed.

  “So, this is the time to talk to her.”

  “Now?”

  “Now I know is the perfect time.”

  “I’ve asked you every day this week.”

  “And I have not been completely prepared, that is true, but this morning when she went over and over again on the Rossini, I knew that she would understand my inadequacies. She is a compassionate woman. Today I was assured of that.” Fyodorov was twisting his big hands one around the other as if he were washing them beneath some unseen stream of water. Though his voice was calm, there was a distinct look of panic in his eyes, the sharp smell of panic on his skin.

  “The time for me is not exactly—”

  “The time for me,” Fyodorov said. Then he added in a low voice, “I will lose my nerve to speak.” Fyodorov had shaved off his heavy growth of beard, a process that had been both painful and time-consuming, given the poor quality of the razor blades, and left behind a vast expanse of his own raw, pink face. He had had the Vice President wash and iron his clothes while he stood beside the washing machine, shivering with a towel around his waist. He had bathed and trimmed the hairs from his nose and ears with a pair of cuticle scissors that he had bribed off of Gilbert with a pack of cigarettes. While he had the chance, he cut his nails and tried to do something about his hair, but that proved to be too great a task for cuticle scissors. He had made every effort he knew to make. This was most certainly the day.

  Gen nodded towards the bathroom door. “I was on my way.”

  Fyodorov looked over his shoulder and then held out his hand as if to lead Gen in. “Of course. Of course that is nothing. That long I can wait. However long. You take your time. I will be outside the door. I will make sure that I am first in line for our translator when he is finished.” Sweat was creeping down the sides of Fyodorov’s shirt, leaving a new dark stain inside a history of much paler stains. Gen wondered if that was what he meant by being unable to wait much longer.

  “One minute,” he said quietly, and then let himself inside without knocking.

  “I wish I knew what you were saying.” Carmen laughed. She tried to mimic the words, spoke a Russian nonsense which sounded something close to, “I never cracker table.”

  Gen put a finger to his lips. The room was small and very dark, black marble walls, black marble floors. One of the lights had burned out next to the mirror. Gen would have to remember to ask Ruben about a new bulb.

  She sat up on the sink. “It sounded very important. It was Ledbed, the Russian?” She was whispering.

  Gen told her it was Fyodorov.

  “Oh, the big one. How do you know Russian, too? How do you know so many languages?”

  “It’s my job.”

  “No, no. It’s because you understand something and I want to know it, too.”

  “I only have a minute,” he whispered. He was so close to her hair, which was darker, deeper even than the marble. “I have to translate for him. He’s waiting right outside the door.”

  “We can talk tonight.”

  Gen shook his head. “I want to talk about what you said. What do you mean, this is where we live now?”

  Carmen sighed. “You know I can’t say. But ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?” This room was a third of the size of the china closet. Her knees touched his legs. If he took even a half step back he would be on the commode. She wished she could take his hand. Why would he want to leave her, leave this place?

  “This has to end sooner or later,” he said. “These sorts of things never just go on indefinitely, somebody stops them.”

  “Only if people do terrible things. We haven’t hurt anyone. No one is unhappy here.”

  “Everyone is unhappy here.” But even as he was saying it Gen was not entirely sure it was true. Carmen’s face turned down and she studied her hands in her lap.

  “Go on and translate,” she said.

  “If there’s something you should tell me.”

  Carmen’s eyes were watery and she blinked them hard. How ridiculous it would be for her to cry. Would it be such a terrible thing to stay? Be together long enough to speak perfect Spanish, to read it and write, to learn English and then maybe some Japanese? But that was her own selfishness. She knew that. Gen was right to want to get away from her. She offered nothing. She only took his time. “I don’t know a thing.”

  Fyodorov knocked on the door. His mounting nervousness would not allow him to do otherwise. “Trans-laaa-tor?” He sang the word.

  “A minute,” Gen called through the door.

  Time was up and now Carmen had lost a couple of tears. There needed to be whole days together. There needed to be weeks and months of uninterrupted time to say all the things that needed to be said. “Maybe you’re right,” he told her finally. The way she was sitting on the black marble sink in front of the mirror, he could see both her face and her narrow back at the same time. He could see in the large oval mirror with the frame of gilded gold leaves, his own face over her shoulder, looking at her. He could see in his
face a love that was so obviously displayed that she must already know everything there was to know about it. He was so close to her then that they owned every molecule of air in the tiny room and the air grew heavy with their desire and worked to move them together. It was with the smallest step forward that his face was in her hair and then her arms were around his back and they were holding each other. It seemed so simple to get to this place, such a magnificent relief, that he couldn’t imagine why he had not been holding her every minute since they first met.

  “Translator?” Fyodorov said, his voice a little worried this time.

  Carmen leaned forward and kissed him. There was no time for kissing but she wanted him to know that in the future there would be. A kiss in so much loneliness was like a hand pulling you up out of the water, scooping you up from a place of drowning and into the reckless abundance of air. A kiss, another kiss. “Go,” she whispered.

  And Gen, who wanted no more in the world than this girl and the walls of this bathroom, kissed her again. He was breathless and dizzy and had to lean a moment against her shoulder before he could step away. Carmen got off the sink and stood behind the door, opened the door, and sent him back out into the world.

  “Are you unwell?” Fyodorov asked, more in irritation than concern. Now the back of his shirt was clinging damply to his shoulders. Didn’t the translator know this would not be easy for him? All of the time he had spent, first considering whether or not he should speak and then deciding to speak, then after that decision was made there was the decision as to what should be said. In his heart the feelings were clear, but to translate such feelings into words was another matter entirely. Ledbed and Berezovsky were sympathetic, but then they were Russians. They understood the pain of Fyodorov’s love. Frankly, they experienced similar pains themselves. It was not impossible that they would eventually find their own nerve and approach the translator to approach the soprano. The more Fyodorov spoke of his heart’s desire, the more they were sure it was a malady with which they had all been infected.

  “I apologize for the delay,” Gen said. The room before him melted and waved like a horizon line in the desert. He leaned back against the closed bathroom door. She was in there, not two and a half centimeters of wood away from him.

  “You look unwell,” the Russian said, and now he was concerned. He had a fondness for the translator. “Your voice sounds weak.”

  “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

  “You are pale, I think. Your eyes are very damp. Perhaps if you are truly ill the Generals will let you go. Since the accompanist, they claim to be very sympathetic in matters of health.”

  Gen blinked in an attempt to still the swaying furniture, but the bright stripes of an ottoman continued to pulse in the rhythm of his blood. He stood up straight and shook his head. “Look at me,” he said uncertainly, “fine now. I have no intention of leaving.” He looked at the sun pouring in through the tall windows, the shadows of the leaves falling across the carpet. Finally, standing here with the Russian, Gen could understand what Carmen was saying. Look at this room! The draperies and chandeliers, the soft, deep cushions of the sofas, the colors, gold and green and blue, every shade a jewel. Who would not want to be in this room?

  Fyodorov smiled and slapped the translator on the back. “What a man you are! You are all for the people. Ah, how greatly I admire you.”

  “All for the people,” Gen repeated. The Slavic language was pear brandy on his tongue.

  “Then we will go to speak to Roxane Coss! There is no time for me to wash again. If I was to stop I would lose my nerve forever.”

  Gen led the way to the kitchen but he might as well have been walking alone. He had not one thought for Fyodorov, for how he felt or what he might wish to say. Gen’s head was filled with Carmen. Carmen up on the sink. He would always remember her there. Years from now when he would think of her it would always be as she was on that day, sitting up on the black marble, her heavy work boots patched with electrical tape, her hands flat out on the cool sink top. Her hair hung loose and straight, parted in the middle, tucked behind such delicate ears. He thought of the kiss, her arms around his back, but the greatest pleasure was seeing her face, the sweet exact shape of a heart, her dark brown eyes and such unruly eyebrows, the round mouth he wanted to touch. Mr. Hosokawa was easily distracted from his studies. Tell him a word one day and he may well have forgotten it the next. He laughed off his mistakes, put tiny check marks by the words he had misspelled. Not Carmen. To tell something to Carmen was to have it sewn forever into the silky folds of her brain. She closed her eyes and said the word, spelled it aloud and on paper, and then she owned it. He did not need to ask her again. They went forward, pressing on through the night as if they were being hunted down by wolves. She wanted more of everything. More vocabulary, more verbs. She wanted him to explain the rules of grammar and punctuation. She wanted gerunds and infinitives and participles. At the end of the lesson, when they were both too tired for another word, she would lean back against the cupboards in the china closet and yawn. “Tell me about commas,” she would say, the plates towering over her head, a service in gold for twenty-four, a service with a wide cobalt-blue band around the edge for sixty, each cup hanging still on its own cup hook.

  “It’s so late. You don’t need to know about commas tonight.”

  She folded her arms across her narrow chest, slid her back towards the floor. “Commas end the sentence,” she said, forcing him to correct her, to explain.

  Gen closed his eyes, leaned forward, and put his head on his knees. Sleep was a country for which he could not obtain a visa. “Commas,” he said through a yawn, “pause the sentence and separate ideas.”

  “Ah,” said Fyodorov, “she is with your employer.”

  Gen looked up and Carmen was gone and he was in the kitchen with Fyodorov. The china closet was only five feet away. As far as he knew, he and Carmen were the only ones who went in there at all. Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane were standing at the sink. It was odd the way they never spoke and yet always seemed to be engaged in a conversation. Ignacio, Guadalupe, and Humberto were at the breakfast table cleaning guns, a puzzle of disconnected metal spreading out on newspapers before them as they rubbed oil into each part. Thibault sat at the table with them, reading cookbooks.

  “I suppose I should try again later,” Fyodorov said sadly. “When she isn’t so busy.”

  Roxane Coss did not seem to be in the least bit busy. She was simply standing there, running her finger around the edge of a glass, her face tilted up towards the light. “We should at least ask,” Gen said. He wanted to meet his obligation, to not have Fyodorov following him places, saying he was now able to speak and then two minutes later saying he was unable.

  Fyodorov took a large handkerchief from his pocket and rubbed at his face as if he were trying to remove a smear of dirt. “There is no reason to do this now. We aren’t going anywhere. We will never be released. Is it not enough that I should get to see her every day? That is the greatest luxury. The rest of this is all selfishness on my part. What do I think I have to say to her?”

  But Gen wasn’t listening. Russian was by no means his best language, and if his concentration lapsed even for a moment it all became a blur of consonants, hard Cyrillic letters bouncing like hail off a tin roof. He smiled at Fyodorov and nodded, a kind of laziness he would never have allowed himself in the real world.

  “Isn’t the sunlight remarkable?” Mr. Hosokawa said to Gen when he noticed him standing there. “Suddenly I am hungry and the only thing that will feed me is sunlight. All I want to do is stand next to windows. I wonder if it isn’t a vitamin deficiency.”

  “I would think we are all lacking something by now,” Gen said. “You know Mr. Fyodorov.”

  Mr. Hosokawa bowed to him and Fyodorov, confused, bowed in return and then bowed to Roxane, who bowed, though less deeply, to him. In a circle they resembled nothing so much as geese dipping their long necks down to the water. “He wishes to speak to Roxane
about the music.” Gen said it first in Japanese and then again in English. Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane both smiled at Fyodorov, who then pressed his handkerchief to his mouth as if he might begin to bite it.

  “Then I will go for chess.” Mr. Hosokawa looked at his watch. “We are to play at eleven. I will not be terribly early.”

  “I’m sure there’s no need for you to go,” Gen said.

  “But no need to stay.” Mr. Hosokawa looked at Roxane and with a certain tenderness of expression seemed to cover all his points in silence: he would be going, he would play chess, she could come and sit with them later if she liked. There was a brief exchange of smiles between the two of them and then Mr. Hosokawa left through the swinging door. There was a lightness in his step Gen did not remember seeing before. He walked with his head up. He wore his shabby tuxedo pants and graying shirt with dignity.

 
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