All original work © 2009 - 2019 Alexey Provolotsky

19 September 2012


Lust? No, not at all. Having said that, I wasn’t intending to talk to her about Paul Gauguin either (a conversation she could easily sustain). In fact, the more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that it was with a complete blankness of mind that I called her a couple of hours before the lesson and suggested a brief walk. Some vague desire, maybe, but you’d have to consider three things: first, Rachel was only five years younger than me; second, on closer inspection she wasn’t as ugly as she wanted to seem; and finally, the situation with Margaret was still very much in the air. Add to it the fact that Rachel’s playing was getting obscenely bad, and I could hardly bear hearing and watching her pale, slender fingers butcher every single Pachelbel we tried. 

“Weather’s too good, Rachel. Besides, there’s this stalemate we’ve reached in the second half…”

“So no piano today?” she asked, no doubt pressing the black, thick-rimmed glasses closer to her eyes.

“No, Rachel, let’s do something else for a change. Maybe that’s what that damn piece really needs in the end…”

Rachel was the sort of neighbour you might never get the chance to know. Like an apparition that is both necessary and inevitable, she would occasionally slip into your view without leaving any impact at all. We lived within a fifteen second distance from each other, we shopped at the same grocery store, we walked our dogs down the same alleys and parks, and, what was more, back in the day we used to go to the same school. But those were random, unrelated facts that had no bearing upon anything, and my tentative, obscure nod in the street was the only form of greeting or recognition there ever was. That is, up until the evening she stopped me in my driveway and inquired about piano lessons. Said she’d seen kids carrying huge folders. Young men with long hair. Girls her age, too. Said she’d heard I was a child prodigy. More genuinely amused than excited (she most probably considered me a hapless layman), I agreed to tutor her over the brief summer spell before her final year at the University. At least she mentioned she could read sheet music, which was a start.

There were perhaps a few reasons for all those years of polite, social indifference, one of them being that Rachel was an intellectual. A smug misfit. She got off on people like Wim Wenders and Gustav Klimt, and, from what I managed to gather from our trying, frustrating two-hour sessions, she was planning to become something of an art expert. I didn’t even know that was a job. Like Joyce and pretty much any sentient man, I despised intellectual women. They were tedious, they had to talk themselves into getting laid, and what was more, they were responsible for some of the worst sins women could commit. Like having short hair (she did) and being feminists (I assumed she was).  

Still, in all those years of living next door to her I never really made a point of shunning Rachel. No one did that, the world was glad to leave that to her. And while she did sprinkle her languid existence with a couple of equally languid, pathetic girlfriends, it was not something that could prepare me for a talk about piano lessons and, specifically, Pachelbel’s Canon. For that was the most astonishing thing of all: Rachel wanted to play what quite possibly was the least elitist work in all of classical music. The sort of easy, likable beauty that was raped and whored into hundreds of modern pop songs. The moment she said it, I believe I felt like the famed doctor smashed by Holmes’ glowing, stupefying ignorance in literature and geography. Rachel could give you the lowdown on any Kafka or Lynch, but Canon In D Major was more or less all she knew about classical music. In her world of abstract, ambient art and edgy pop culture, world where Nick Cave meant so much more than Mozart or Beethoven, classical music just didn’t fit in. So unlike Margaret…

Maybe it was that major flaw, that stunning deficiency that helped me disregard her gratuitously huge braces, her self-conscious gestures and that intense red of her dyed hair. In the end, Rachel turned out to be okay.

She couldn’t play though. The moment she sat on the piano stool and timidly put her palms on her knees, she said she felt dwarfed. She looked dwarfed, too. Downtrodden and almost excessively girlish in that light blue summer dress of hers (surprisingly lovely – her outfit of choice during our piano lessons), that first time she told me she badly needed to learn to play that piece by Pachelbel (funnily enough, she could never stress the right syllable in that name). But the moment her tiny, artsy (nor artistic), cuticled fingers touched the keys, it was evident that all the traces of those long-gone piano lessons had vanished.

Her fingers looked paralyzed, and feeling her own helplessness against the huge wooden casket (her words), she uttered a deep but suppressed sob of anger and despair. Still, she was determined to carry on. And starting with that very first lesson, it was agony, as much for her as it was for me. One mistake toppled by another, her intellectual restraint would be gone. She would quickly become impatient and tell me that she didn’t care a thing about ‘your fucking scales’ and ask me whether ‘that dickhead wrote anything else’. I tried to keep my cool (after all, I had several cases almost as unmanageable as hers). What was more, I think I liked that. It was fascinating – like suddenly seeing a perfectly grey and sober pharmacist go mad before your own eyes. Facial features got milder; braces disappeared; glasses turned invisible. That profane fury made her look human and, when the angle was right, rather attractive. It didn’t feel like much, but it certainly did feel like some odd and well-hidden slew was quickly coming undone.

“Where?” – she asked.

“Oh I don’t know, – I said. And suggested the first thing that sprang to my mind: – That field near the wood, maybe?”

“The field? What’s it going to be about?”

“Nothing much, you know. Just a walk. Maybe a small picnic”.

“Oh I beg you, don’t say that word”.

“Which one?”

She hung up without answering, and I immediately imagined her face disfigured by amazement and repulsion. What made me do it? What made me do it today? And what was the point of the whole thing? If it had to do with the piano lesson, then it was my own intention to make my entire living on tutoring – however tiresome and vexing that may turn out to be (I should note here that I did take money from her – the sort of miserable, symbolic sum that could serve as my lame and only excuse for not doing it for free); and if it was her, then, well, I happened to be quite satisfied with Margaret and was already on the verge of writing that letter to her parents. Having said that, I made a point of checking my mobile phone several times during that day in case there were any new or emergency messages from Margaret: what if she decided to get back earlier? What if she did, and then saw the two of us together, going to or returning from the field? I knew she wouldn’t approve; after all, she didn’t like my new pupil in the first place.

However, Rachel spared me the embarrassment of apologies and idiotic regret when five minutes later she called back and told me she agreed.

“Great, – I said. – Let’s do it”.

“Fine. Am I supposed to bring anything? You have to understand that I’ve never been to that sort of outing before.”

“Yes, I realize. Well, you could maybe bring a bottle of water?”

“Water?” – she sounded surprised. Which made me silently reconsider the options: Juice? Wine? Beer?

It would have made so much more sense to tell her to prepare a couple of sandwiches. However, I just couldn’t bring myself to saying that: the very word could revolt her to the extent where she would actually change her mind and refuse to go. Even considering all those girls before Margaret – I don’t think I had ever dealt with anyone quite like that. Rachel’s self-conscious manners and inexplicable mood-swings – being her piano teacher wasn’t enough. You also had to be her psychoanalyst. I made those sandwiches myself. I made three...

...“Looks massive”, – she said, looking at my backpack.

I kept trying to fight it, but there really was no getting away from it: I was disappointed. What utter vulgarity, what miserable mockery! I could only assume it was the elegiac beauty of Pachelbel’s masterwork that had made her put on that blue dress and comb her hair in a way that you would consider decent. Presently, though, she was back to her frayed jeans of dark blue (so dark blue, in fact, that I would have preferred them to be black) and that awful disarray of random spikes running riot on her head. It was a devastating sight, and I made an effort to hold my breath.

“It is rather heavy, – I said. – Got the water?”

“Yes. I took my dad’s cider from the fridge. If that's all right with you”.

“Sure. How is he?” – I kept the casual talk alive to drown out my anger and my frustration.

“Who? My dad? Fine, – she said. – My dad is fine. So where exactly are we going?”

I knew just the place, and told her not to worry about small matters like that. While we were walking down the streets that were leading us outside of the town, our bumpy, erratic conversation kept veering toward classical music. Which I didn’t mind. I couldn't stand being beaten down with all that pretentious Bukowski crap.

“So, – she said. – Am I really... lousy at it? Hopeless?”

“No, – I said. – No, Rachel, not at all…”.

I knew she didn’t care about my strained, half-assed diplomacy, but I just couldn’t figure out how else to tell her that her playing really was lousy beyond all decency and comprehension. Back when my parents died and I decided to do it my way, which was private lessons, I knew what sort of tutor I had to be: supportive, encouraging. Particularly today.

Today, while talking, I preferred not to look in her direction: there was always a possibility of the evil glistening of her braces in the sun. The hair. And, of course, the jeans. I just had to get back to constructive thinking: well, what do you do with jeans?..

I immediately recognized the place. The grass, the view of the woods, even the smell. Rachel gave it a lingering look that could mean anything, from contentment to contempt. Still, she quietly dropped down on the grass, and suddenly my heart started pounding uncontrollably. I knew it was coming – but in the meantime I took out the sandwiches and began talking about my pupils, her final year at the University, the dogs we used to have…

Rachel looked half-amused about all that. In a way, it was as if she’d suddenly wandered into the middle of a cinema show and everything that was happening on the silver screen seemed odd, bewildering, somewhat over-complicated. I knew that look: I saw it two weeks ago, when she first sat at my piano. She would have felt so much more comfortable with her records and with her books – however, I couldn’t give her that. Not at that point, not ever. And yet something told me that she was secretly enjoying it. It was like that slew I mentioned before: that slew just kept coming undone. 

And so she hardly even resisted. Rachel may have been intellectual and postmodernist – but she was innocent, too. She didn’t even notice how the rock slipped out my backpack and landed next to my right hand. I closed my eyes not to see the braces. I plucked her glasses. My movements were so exemplary, so precise.

Seconds later her weak body was quivering gently under mine, and all she could utter was: “Like rabbits, like von Trier’s rabbits…”. Withholding thrusts and my upcoming, inevitable pleasure, I gave it a thought: it was an interesting idea.

One hour later everything would be finished, and I would cast a worried glance in the direction of the little wood. It was time to go and visit Margaret…

There was one thing I hated about it all, though: from now on, I could never listen to Canon In D Major again. Unless, of course, sometime, somewhere, in a different world, in different life, Rachel could comb her hair, put on her blue dress, glance at the score and play it to me her helpless, hopelessly appalling way. 

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