When I was in grad school a guest speaker came in for a day—yes, a visiting professor of sorts. I don’t truly recall details but I’m sure he arrived on a Sunday, which was quite unusual, for a Monday event. I don’t know why the administration agreed.
No, my being on campus wasn’t bizarre at all. I was a working student, and I had specific tasks to accomplish previous to the conference. Here! The theme now comes back… “Art and Science” was the wide umbrella, with a couple of subtitles that will surface later, perhaps.
I was in the first floor kitchenette. It was mid afternoon and the building was empty, unlit. Most of the rooms were locked, and so were some of the double doors giving access to this or that wing. Still he made his way to the kitchen, maybe randomly, maybe guided by the light and noise amplified by the surrounding dimness and quiet. That small corner of life must have been a glowing lighthouse amidst the expanse of grey, mute architecture. I doubt smell had traveled through the corridors, though I was cooking.
I was taking a break, having stoically fiddled with the electrical for long hours, endlessly substituting this or that element of the obsolete equipment. Finally, I had crawled on all fours, tape in hand, fastening in place what felt like miles of wire. Well, at least none of the guests would trip headlong on the podium. That task complete, I decided to have lunch. But I was simply boiling eggs. No smell. Maybe a clinking against the sides of the pan, maybe a gurgle of boiling water.
Suddenly, I remembered the confirmation calls. Oh my, I should have done them much earlier, yesterday or even the day before. Though they were pure formalities, I wouldn’t be able to skip them. My negligence at some point would be noticed. I should leave messages, at least, on the machines of distant colleges—far away locked offices, some already asleep, cocooned by darkness… I picked up the phone and I started—my cheerful, mellifluous voice floating like a ghost against my tired, washed-out, expressionless features.
That is when he came in, as softly as threading on an invisible carpet. Slowly and perfectly quiet, he sat on the chair next to mine. Necessarily, as the table was squeezed in a corner. Two chairs faced the free sides and I occupied one of them, phone in front of me. Gingerly, I played tricks with a pen rolling through my fingers as I crossed number after number down a typed list. Almost done.
I had pushed an oval placemat, crimson red, to the center of the table. Salt and pepper, two slices of bread, a teaspoon and an eggcup looked lonely. Aimless. Hopeful. Disappointed. As my pen cartwheeled on my knuckles, I leered at the eggcup. I had wanted my eggs à la coque. They were fresh. A rare opportunity, a reward for my drab day. Now they had obviously over-boiled. I must have looked pathetic.
If he startled me? Not in the least. I was rarely scared and he looked harmless, with the halo of respectability you’d expect from a member of the academy. No doubt he was one such, and quite probably lost. Out of place. Out of time. Obviously he must be in need of directions I would gladly provide. In a moment. I had to finish my call.
“be delighted… rest assured… extremely grateful… our pleasure… warmest regards”
“… and go fuck yourself,” he added, matching my tone with a touch of mockery so thin I wasn’t sure I heard it. His voice clear, distinct, loud, but accurately timed, he spoke right after I cut the line, as I lowered my eyes to cross the next item on the list—perfect chance to recover a countenance I had momentarily lost. The split instant I needed for deciding if he had just insulted me.
He had not, I was sure and yet not entirely. Slowly, I looked up, while preparing for some kind of reply. For an instant his face was in-betweenish, like mine must have been. Was he unsure of his prank? Did he doubt it might have been inappropriate? His eyes were undecipherable. Well, no. They were serious and sad but so slightly, I wasn’t certain.
Meanwhile I had got my wits back. “Pardon me?” I raised an eyebrow and smiled at the same time. He also smiled, in a formal, almost histrionic way. “Isn’t it what you meant? I finished your sentence for you. Isn’t it how it goes when we need to pay those fake compliments—and dear this, and dear that, yes sir, how do you do, have a wonderful day—but what we really think is ‘go fuck yourself’?”
He was good, I noticed, imitating the lackeyish tone of my calls. But, “no,” I answered, “really. I don’t know those folks. I don’t care if I have to call them or not. I don’t hate them that much”. He looked unconvinced.
I should ask him what I could help him with, but I was hungry, and I went to shut the gas under the eggs. I could have gobbled them as they were—burning hot, shell and all. As exhaustion kicked in I slowed down my pace, summoning an extra dose of calmness and patience.
I took ice from the freezer, filled a bowl, threw the eggs in it for the thermic shock to ease the peeling. I sat them on the table, then went rummaging in the fridge for lettuce and pickles. As I turned around he was gently, meticulously peeling an egg. Would he like one, I asked while drawing a couple of dishes from a cabinet. Forks, a knife. Was there any butter? Napkins. Water. Two glasses. We ate side by side in perfect silence.
Then I noticed how wrinkled he was. Deep-set creases. His hair was long, dirt-white like his beards and whiskers. Milky, gloomy blue eyes. Elusive. Yet, as I said, he looked respectable in spite of his opening line.
Oh my, the kitchenette was so small—a bit like a train cabin—and the silence surrounding us ominous. I wished I had turned on some kind of device. We must have been the only folks inside the entire building. The intimacy of our shared meal overwhelmed me. I watched him sprinkle a pinch of salt on the egg he had properly sliced in quarters. He was careful, maybe too much, as if handling something extremely… precious? His attention was strange, peculiar. Eerie. Awesome. Again I felt overwhelmed—I know it doesn’t make sense. Then I fell in love.
I had a podium to set up before I could call it a day. Yes, it was a one-person job if you took it easy, and I had done it before. I had to drag a number of wooden platforms (alas, without any kind of rolling device), then lower them side by side. I was relatively fit, my reserve of stamina fair, and lunch had energized me. Still, because I had time until the next morning, I lingered.
After washing the dishes (he had proposed to help but I felt it was pure formality, and politely declined) I grabbed an apple and I sneaked inside a teacher’s lounge, where I could peruse a laptop. I wished to refresh my notions about the event I was working, and who the interveners were. So I located his picture, learned his name and what his specialty was. Not that it mattered.
The sound was faint as it reached me—a kind of broken murmur so subliminal it seemed to be my own. Had I been humming to myself without noticing? It happened sometimes. But I had not, and as I neared the hall where the raisers were, the tune became louder. Unmistakable. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
Though, the pianist was making it less obvious—so to speak—by abruptly interrupting then resuming it. Not because of blatant mistakes. Maybe lapses of memory, maybe just passing thoughts. Who knows? After a brief pause, the tune recommenced with no sign of frustration or struggle, as if someone had opened a faucet and music, impassibly generous, had restarted to flow.
Right where it had stopped? Hard to say, since the thing kind of turns in circles. And most probably not. Each time the mood had slightly shifted, as if a new source of light, a new color had been added. Maybe the passing thought had changed the interpretation, tinting it of its own shadow. That is, as I was saying, what made the piece more interesting, actually quite enchanting, as if it were hatched on the spot, composed from scratches.
The old black piano, pushed against a side wall… had I seen it open before? Certainly not in use, and I wouldn’t have known if it was tuned. It was. From the back, he looked both straight and relaxed. From the back he looked somehow vulnerable. Maybe we all do.
I don’t think he heard me come in. Or did he, because when I passed him on the side and methodically started pushing and pulling platforms, he did not budge at all. Quickly, he glimpsed my way yet his gaze passed through me—which was both unflattering and reassuring. Actually, reassuring.
As I focused on my breathing and motions, careful not to hurt myself, he kept pouring cascades of notes as if no one had entered. He wasn’t flustered. What struck me the most, I believe, was the opposite.
Meaning I didn’t hear him veer towards a more performing, more demonstrative attitude. Not the tiniest adjustment. No. His playing remained wholly natural, as if no one was there.
For some reason, his capacity of utterly ignoring the threat of a potential audience struck me as exceptional. I was awed. A little embarrassed (shouldn’t he have felt that way?) Once again, overwhelmed by sudden intimacy. Then he stopped. Then he closed the lid over the keys, inch by inch, with a sigh that—I felt—had nothing to do with me.
A few minutes later, though, he asked if he could give a hand—his voice more convincing than when, a bit earlier, he had proposed to clean up the dishes. That must be why I agreed. Perhaps he was bored. He knew what to do without need for me to give instructions. He mimicked my gestures—also my rhythm, my velocity—to perfection. I loved working with him, I realized, the strangeness of it notwithstanding. After all he was a teacher, correct? Visiting professor something. Then he shouldn’t… And still.
Each of us dragged his or her own raiser, but we lowered them as a pair, which lessened the effort and made it… pleasant. It all will go much faster. I was grateful for the impromptu gift, the blessing, the bonus. But after a while I saw him tense and slow down. “Well,” he said matter-of-fact, “it is enough for now.” “Sure.” I couldn’t suppress a felling of disappointment—an unjustified sense of betrayal—as I carried on with my task.
Later, when I stepped into the corridor, I almost tripped on him. He lay on the floor just outside, as if he hadn’t been able to go further. He was still, quiet of course, straight, aligned like a corpse. Yet alert. As I passed by, his eyes popped open and he grinned. While, again, I felt some embarrassment and a bit of guilt. Why had I allowed a guy his age to do physical labor? Clearly he had worn himself. Clearly, the effort required had been excessive and I had not understood it. Well, he had offered. Maybe he wanted to brag. He himself had misjudged his capacities, or the task, or both. Still, I should have known better. I felt uncomfortable, and a little ashamed.
Later I was agitated and restless, not knowing what to do with my long, lone evening. He was in my mind and he wouldn’t leave it. The weird figure. Enigmatic. Both repulsive (because of opacity, coldness, or rather aloofness, bordering disdain and snobbishness) and attractive (because of lack of formalism, urgency, essentiality, as if he had known me forever, no secrets, no barriers separating us). I was young. I wouldn’t have known how to detail such feelings. “Darn,” I thought, “I must have fallen in love”.
That was it. One day. Two.
On Monday I was able to attend the conference and I listened to his presentation. I don’t truly remember the topic, maybe slightly exoteric. Vague, perhaps. I took notes, I recall, as a form of participation, as I would have taken a picture. I still have them. They don’t make much sense any more. I doubt they did at the time. Here is one: “All illnesses ultimately heal”. What did it mean? I underlined it in red, did it struck a chord?
Afterwards I was on duty once more, gathering badges in a basket as I sat at a small table outside, and people filed out. It was boring. Surreptitiously I doodled on a notebook I held upon my knee. He peeked as he stopped by, hovering across the table. “Nice,” he said, looking at a complex hieroglyph I was inking down. “I see…”
An indefinable thrill teased my spine, while I waited to hear what he would say next. As if whatever my drawing meant to him would provide the most crucial information, the most valuable insight—to be treasured besides my random notes. He paused, as he assumed the pensive expression I had noticed before—that undertone of sadness I was sure I perceived, but maybe did not. His lips briskly twisted.
Instinctively I knew he was about to leave, and I felt faintly panicked. I blurted: “What?” His face became elusive. A bit cruel, I thought, but was it? “I can’t say,” he murmured almost inaudibly. “I would if it wasn’t so personal”. Bogus. Was he flirting? I was speechless, confused, and I closed my notebook. He rushed, as if repented: “Oh, no! I didn’t mean… Please, keep drawing! It’s beautiful!”
There you go. Now I was embarrassed. “I… can’t do it if someone is watching me.” He shrugged. I remembered his hands on the keyboard, steady, uncaring and free. He looked annoyed. When he spoke, his tone was icy, a bit arrogant. “Baby,” he said, “you don’t have the time. Focus on the task, for Christ’s sake.” Then he walked away. After all he was a professor, was he?
That night I looked him up again on the Internet. He wouldn’t get out of my mind—or perhaps I wanted him to remain. I saw he was quite famous. I perused his whole teaching curriculum, honors and achievements. Publication history, interviews. I stepped back to his biography. Wait. I must have gotten it wrong. Check again. Then check elsewhere. Then again. Oh, no. His date of birth didn’t possibly make sense.
I read everything I could scavenge about him, seeking whatever would associate a date with his age. I found a few clues, such as graduation and doctorates. They all matched among them, none did with the reality I saw. Based on the official data he was in his forties. Based on what I had witnessed he was an old man, worn and weary, though still fit and certainly charming. With an aura of wisdom, due to age I had believed. Perhaps not. Then he must have some illness. Some quite terrible plight. Would it heal? So he had said. I had documented it.
I kept track of him now and then through the scholarly press, or online. As I said he was known. I kept track after I fell out of love, which happened promptly, since he wasn’t at hand or pursuable and I fell for someone else. Still I couldn’t get him off my mind, not entirely. He had a way of sneaking in abruptly and silently, as he had done when he popped up for lunch or woke up the piano. Ghostly. Out of the blue. On a Sunday afternoon—that gloomiest of times, and so magic.
So I learned he died few years later. He hadn’t turned fifty yet. The last picture divulged seemed of a centenary. Did anyone notice? He must have been very infirm. In the last shot his hair was still longish, and quite candid. His eyes seemed of a sharper blue, but they might have been touched. And that halo of seriousness, of sadness, was now unmistakable.
Well, he had died and that must have tinted my perception. Or he had posed for that particular shot, academic and orthodox, though in his heart he was sighing, “fuck yourself,” and giggling. I am sure he was. And it must be what the quote implied—that wink of awareness both accepting and sour. “Every illness heals in the end.” Yes, it does.
About the Author
Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Iolit, Zina y Nari, Off The Coast, and Scryptic.