Gradient

Toccata and Fugue

          At the coffee shop where he took me afterwards, he played the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor on my arm, tapping a few notes, raising my blond hairs, tickling my skin. He leaned forward across the table, whispered the Kimball Organ measurements in my ear, 4 manuals, 96 speaking stops, 96 ranks, 5,949 pipes. I felt the beat all the way to my toes, everything pulsing. Right away he took liberties, called me Hella, his shining light, though I preferred Helena. He was Noland, Nollie for short, he said. Because he had a class after the coffee, I walked back to the dorm alone, singing Nollie, Nollie, Nollie, rolling the word on my tongue like the toccata, developing full chords and rapid runs in my head. Already I was in love.

 

          I met him for the first time an hour before in the empty cathedral; he sat on the bench of the Kimball Organ, lightly fingering the keys. It was a quiet Wednesday afternoon with no one else present. The cathedral held its silence, a silence thick with past choirs, hymns, recitals, a whispered Lord’s Prayer. Cushioned benches, folded back kneelers, the weekly bulletin, Bibles and hymnals peeking out of pockets on the back of pews, were speckled in the light from stained glass windows. The shadows from the colored glass cut patterns on the center aisle’s red carpet, like leaves shadowed on a forest floor. The air, closed and cool, smelled of history, of perfumed robes, of freshly washed children, of lilies carefully arranged by the altar women, a hundred years of devoted service.

 

          I was not religious, did not attend the Anglican services. An introvert, the quiet cathedral was my favorite place for relief from sharing a dorm room, for respite from the huge lecture rooms packed with long-haired boys and girls in tie-dyed shirts and frayed jeans, for escape from the noise of city traffic and crowded college paths, a rare place to be alone. The magic of the cathedral, the thrill of secretly feeling the organ’s keys, as Nollie encouraged me to pretend-play, the air, the light, the echoes of past music became part of him, of my memory of him, our meeting, our first love.

          My young self was tall, thin, with boyish legs and slim chest, hazel-green eyes, light brown, shoulder-length hair. I was good in my studies, a journalism major, dreamed of revealing truth in investigative articles for The New York Times, the Washington Post. But socially, I was obsessed with my failure to match up to the curves of the popular girls, or to find my type in the photos of women in magazines, or to fit the current fashion in clothes. I remained, at nineteen, completely unaware of my beauty. A virgin. Possibly the only virgin left on campus. Humiliated by this fact. Embarrassed to discuss it.

          Noland was dark skinned, lefthanded, had the slender, long fingers of a pianist. His dark brown hooded eyes made me think of intrigue, mystery, bedrooms. A music major, he laughingly confessed to an addiction, not to weed, but to Bach. We spent hours listening to Bach’s famous organ works—the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the Passacaglia in C minor, or the Fugue in G minor, which was easy enough for him to play. Holding hands together in silence, both loving patterns, loving the triumphant moment when a piece of music returned to the tonic, or the fugue surprised by presenting harmony with a slowed down version of itself.

          Raised on fairy tales of Prince Charming and myths of living-happily-ever-after marriage, with lack of physical intimacy replaced by the intensity of music, I imagined that he was the one. He was so handsome he drew stares when we walked together, and some day he was going to be a famous composer, and we shared the love of music—the perfect man I thought. In those days I was convinced I needed a husband, to be verified as a woman, to confirm my worth, to fend off terrible labels: spinster, old maid, unmarried. Now when I look back on this time, I understand how unaware I was, unaware of Nollie as a person, unaware of his motives.

          I recognize that the young Hella had difficulty with transitions, change and decisions, even where to go to dinner, or what movie, or whether—with Nollie—when his kissing went on so long—to push having sex. We dated for a year full of what I came to think of as his unbearable kissing, with each passionate touch ending up in the air, like a misplaced gap in the musical notation, a place where the notes were meant to rise instead of rest, but the composer had a break in thought, or a headache, or was interrupted by his children wanting to play.

 

          When his high school friend David came to visit, something happened to Nollie. Suddenly Nollie urged marriage, as if that decision, that formal commitment, was needed to allow him, to go, as he said, all the way. I felt his desperation, the pushing, the hurried asking, as if tomorrow would be too late, but I did not like to listen to my heart, I did not like to ask what was wrong. When he asked me to marry him, I said yes immediately, before really thinking, before understanding my motives.

          It came that night, that welcome ending of my virginity. Nollie was in his junior year, had his own one-room apartment. David was out visiting his cousins, to say good- bye one last time before he left for Vietnam. Nollie had given David his front door key to use on return. His long pianist-fingers lingered too long in David’s palm as he laid the key in his hand. I felt the spark between them like a punch in my gut, but I did not examine it. After David left, Nollie took me in his arms for his unbearable kissing and I pushed the image away.

          Bach’s Toccata and Fugue pounded, for the hundredth time, on the expensive stereo system which Nollie had bought with his parents’ money instead of furniture. In the dark scary corner where the thin mattress he found abandoned in the hallway lay on the floor, the intense touch of his long fingers on my neck, the scrape of the hard floor on my back as he pushed against me, the smoky scent of dinner on his hot skin, were quickly forgotten. What I remembered, during the sudden silence when the music ended, was anxiously listening for the sound of David’s key turning in the lock.

          Noland was my first husband. We were married for two years. Before it ended, he left me over and over for others whose names I never knew. To afford to marry, I had dropped out of school, got a job in a typing pool, pressing meaningless words of others onto the page. In those years I got used to waiting, to listening for his feet climbing the entry stairs, to seeking solace in libraries, in crowds on the street, in books. Alone for nights at a time, ashamed that I was unworthy of love, I walked by the river and looked down into its green depths or stood above the tracks of the commuter train, head bowed. During sleepless nights, I imagined pill containers emptied, bloodied wrists, my neck broken in a leap from the window ledge. One night, and the next night, and the next, I waited, life frozen in place. One day I came home, and his stereo system was gone. He had moved out. He left me a one-line note saying he was sorry he was gay.

          I told myself I should have known he was a deceiver from his hooded eyes, those brown eyes shaded with lashes drawn down like half-mast flags, hiding, never looking directly at me. When he left me, and I threw away his photographs, I realized in every picture he looked away from me, at the sky, or some far away spot at the top of a tree, or upwards as if at a passing bird.

          I was furious, blamed him, claimed he should be ashamed, deceiving me, using me. Later, after time passed and the anger diminished, I told myself our marriage failed because I was so young. And there was always music playing. I confused love of the music with love of the man. Feeling his fugues were complicit, I could no longer listen to Bach.

 

          Through years in my twenties, I dated unsuccessfully, floundered at jobs, moved cities, as if a new location could cure my problem. At thirty, one night in a dream my subconscious brought back the night on the mattress in Nollie’s apartment. Instead of passion, I recognized a feeling of pride, pride in finding the dark ripe blood of the ruptured hymen on my fingers, in leaving it for proof of our loving on Nollie’s mattress. In the dream I announced my loss of virginity to my dorm friends the next day, as if it were a badge of honor, instead of a moment of joy. I woke, smelling blood, drenched in shame. I understood I had used Nollie, had used marriage, as he had used marriage—to meet the world’s expectations, not for love.

 

          In the morning, I turned to Bach again.  Sleepers Awake. Air on a G String. The Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Now it was mine, this music; I did not need a man to confirm my worth. My worth belonged to me. It was my responsibility.

 

          At this moment, when the present overlays my view of the past, and I bring to that night, to Hella and Nollie, a mature woman’s wisdom, I can finally understand the struggle going on in young Nollie. It should have been obvious in the stares of other men, in the way he asked me to touch him, in his hesitations. He loved someone else. He loved David, but he thought David was forbidden to him. He made love to Hella, but it was David in his mind that night. It was David he touched with his long fingers, David he entered on the mattress on the floor.

          On a visit to my old college, I return to the Anglican cathedral to view the Kimball Organ, recently restored. I settle back on the cushioned pew, facing the chancel and the Kimball’s shiny silver pipe façade, thirty-two feet in height. Silence washes over me like a warm bath, light fills my body, cloistered air wraps around me like an embrace. I see Nollie’s long fingers, hear his laugh when he says he is addicted to Bach, wonder, as I have many times, if the beautiful boy died of AIDS. Unexpected music speaks from the organ, a student I surmise, here to practice. I do not recognize these modern notes, but I let myself be taken by the music, taken back, taken forward, seduced.

Published by The Plentitudes.  April 2021.