A deluge of nostalgia flushed him out of the banquet room into the hotel’s bar, away from clattering dishes, squawking microphones, and soused classmates he hardly knew after fifty years. A bank of lights above a mirrored wall was the bar’s only illumination. What a nice refuge, he thought, reminiscent of something not quite tangible. It might have been a stream of silvery baubles, a chute of fresh spring water, a channel of shiny minnows, a reflecting pool of flowing mercury. It might even have been an optic tube, the kind in his physics lab that recorded photons propelled randomly toward a target of unknown disclosure. Whatever. He pulled out a stool, his eyes transfixed on images mirrored now on the wall like a pastiche of jumbled realities. It soothed him and muffled clanging decibels from the banquet room. Open-mouthed, he imagined them to be real optical images, not the invisible virtual ones behind the wall. Optical ray diagrams flashed across his retina. He paused, breathed heavily, and finally focused on the only object he could clearly make out: it was, the longer he bent the rays to a sharp focal point, the real image of a handsome, blonde bartender whose socks were propped on a rail, exposing tanned, hairy ankles. He glared at him, then another pastiche formed; it was himself, years ago, stealing glances of college boys sitting with hitched-up pant legs. Pervasive nostalgia—the whole evening had been that and there was no escaping. He decided to enjoy it, on his terms, with another scotch. When he pulled out the noisy stool, it awakened the bartender, but his “how goes it, buddy” greeting to him fetched him only his drink and a tab. He sipped glumly and, once again, began to scan the mirrored wall. There at the end, in a haze, he began to make out someone. The figure seemed a little slumped, but its chin was tilted heavenly to project clouds of smoke. He made nothing of it until, emerging as a sort of after-image, he visualized himself again. He was rushing across campus to the student lounge. He was skipping Professor Weissenburg’s saliva-splattered recitations of Schiller for a coffee date with the slumped figure at the end of the bar. The figure began poking a frozen daiquiri with a swizzle stick. He stumbled toward it, recognizing the translucent skin, beaky, thin-lipped face, and glacial blue eyes buried deep in the froth of golden hair. The illusion had transmogrified. “I thought you had died,” he said in the I’ll-be-damned tone he had been using all evening. “I did,” she replied in a deep, smoky voice. “Well, I thought so. I saw the obit in the alumni magazine, and Chris had written me about it in his Christmas letter many years ago. But how…?” She turned on the stool, crossed her legs, and looked straight at him, breaking out into a big keyboard smile. “Well, heavens sake! Now I recognize you. You’re the only good thing I’ve seen all evening. Come over here, Tex, and buy me a drink. I just can’t stomach all the speech-making going on in there.” The good calves were still there, and he gave her a peck on the cheek and a squeeze around the waist. He felt the same plumpness dusted over with gardenia powder, and when he took both her hands, he felt their smooth strength and short nail tips, just as when she was a student in the Conservatory. She cupped her hand on his cheek and tossed a laugh at the ceiling. “You old darling. Do you still work on those Two-Part Inventions?” He saw her image in the mirror, framed as it would have been in the glass door of the Conservatory practice room. “I always could read music, you know. If you’d only had helped me a little with the fingering.” They had argued about fingering, but that was how they met every afternoon, he sitting at a keyboard in a practice room, feeling lonely, finished with his physics lab, with nothing else to do before dinner, peering through the glass door, and waylaying her to pass in the hall. He’d entice her into the room, feigning ignorance about some fingering problem, and when she at last relented and sat beside him, the touch of her soft hips and the gardenia smells distracted him, and when ultimately their fingers entangled on the keyboard, he said, “To hell with Bach, Ziggy, let’s take a walk around the Arboretum before supper.” It was where students went on a warm afternoon to cool off by watered greenery. Now their fingers met but with another urgency, begging for sanctuary from life’s buffeting. He lifted her palms to his mouth and lightly touched them to his lips. Then, holding her hand like a sheath of opalescent damask, he examined her fingers, one by one. They were longer than his and were tipped with short, squared-off nails, glistening like raindrops. They talked breathlessly. She told him her Carnegie debut recital had been “hampered by uneven tempi,” according to the reviewer. Yes, she had played Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau,” no, she didn’t try again, yes, she married a New York broker, no, she had no regrets, yes, she had three kids, and no, she didn’t miss performing. “Was it cancer?” Yes, and her husband had taken to heavy drinking, and the children had developed drug habits. He caressed her hands, marveling again at how she could be so insouciant with a cocktail or cigarette, yet so disciplined with power at the concert grand. “You think of me, Ziggy?” “Lord, yes. Remember those student recitals, Tex, how you made toilet grunts every time we heard a wrong note? And I’d pinch you so hard you’d squeal and I’d get the giggles? We were simply awful!!” She laughed; golden sheens sparkled in the mirror. Yes, they were awful; some had called them rebels, too. His roommate, Rob, the pre-med major, called them “apostates,” which they were and why they formed a friendship in the dining hall of Littlefield Cottage, the girls’ dorm where freshman and sophomore boys were required to take their meals. Tex despised the thought of putting on a coat and tie for dinner; she refused to participate in dorm committees and socials. Thus he became a waiter and she a “head” of a table. He admired how she never bowed her head for the blessing and passed the serving dishes counterclockwise; she admired him for bringing in extra helpings which Mrs. Cooley, the bespectacled cook, and her jolly black assistant, Elizabeth, allowed because he openly ridiculed the menus of the dietician, the uppity young State University grad who thought she knew everything about cooking. “She thinks slop is the only way to cut the budget. Betty Crocker shit. And pan scrapings were for the cats. Oh, Lord, she could learn so much about barbecue,” Tex said, feeling emaciated and stunted in his growth the whole time he worked that damnable dorm dining room. Once, for three days running, the dietician prescribed a lunch of Welsh rarebit and Jell‑O cube dessert. The dining room erupted in protest (the housemother, Mrs. Dabney, was absent with a cold). “Y’all can just send the Jell‑O back to the kitchen,” Tex told Ziggy. Then he bent over her shoulder to show her how the Jell‑O cubes could be catapulted toward the kitchen by placing them on a fork’s handle and striking the tines. Jell‑O cubes went flying, and Mrs. Cooley and Elizabeth jumped with glee behind the round windows of the kitchen’s swinging doors. Mrs. Dabney emerged from her apartment in a silk kimono and disheveled silver-blue hair. She shook her fingers and commanded the students to walk around the block in a driving snowstorm “to find their wits.” Her denunciations sealed a bond of camaraderie between Tex and Ziggy. Ah, such memories, he thought. How diffracted they seemed in the mirror. Now they heard applause coming from the banquet room, and Ziggy draped her hand around Tex’s neck and dug deep into his nape, the way she used to when he tried to ripple an arpeggio on the piano. “I wanted to know so many things about you,” she said. And he unraveled the story of his life: how he had earned a doctorate in physics, suffered the pettiness of university academic life, lived a bachelorhood, never had another woman in his life (concealing, nevertheless, the repressed sexual assignations buried in the crypts of his subconscious), and his fantasies when listening to the Goldberg Variations of Turek and Gould—how he dreamt even of her standing behind him in a recording studio, touching his shoulder and tapping fingers ecstatically to his brilliant Baroque mordents and trills. She looked deep into his yes. “Maybe you would have been happier in the Conservatory.” “Become a musician? I’d have died too soon like the rest of you,” he chuckled. “Olga, I heard, died after a song recital in Moscow, that South American gal who played Villa-Lobos in the dorm parlor, and your flutist roommate, Jean.” “But your gang wasn’t so lucky either. I heard your friend Blanco committed suicide and your roommate, the MD, died of AIDS.” Empty-faced, they stared at each other in the mirror and ordered another round of drinks. He broke their silence and said, “Maybe if you had helped me more with the fingerings, we might have ended up in a recording studio.” “Tex, the virtuoso interpreter of Bach. Hell, why not?” she said. Their foreheads touched. “Or maybe,” he said, “the Arboretum was to blame.” She smiled big. “Ah, the puppy-loving things that went on there.” “Is that what you called it? You might have egged me on a little. Taught me some serious things. Why, Ziggy?” He saw the flicker of her cigarette lighter in the mirror, saw her toss her head back to swirl the smoke upwards. “Oh, Tex. You were just too young.” He groaned for a second. “But I remember how you made me boodle your breasts a little. Then you stopped. Why?” She sighed. “Oh, well, there just wasn’t enough rubato, that’s all.” She took his hand, patted it on her lap, and then squeezed hard. He felt powerless in her grip, like felt on a hammer’s key being bashed fortissimo. “Well, anyhow,” he said, “you could have changed my life. Maybe. I guess that steelworker got in the way.” Saying that surprised him. At last it surfaced, festering after so many years. She quickly responded with a whoop. “Oh, my, I had forgotten Angelo. What a character. He started showing up at the dorm. Mrs. Dabney had a fit, and those straight-laced little bitches wagged their tongues off.” Was that Ziggy talking? He didn’t remember her using such language. Was it her carnal nature? Had she purposefully humiliated him, or was she innately deceitful? Or was it something else, something to do with his own naïveté? “Oh. Tex, years ago we had all the same libidos young people do today. We didn’t talk about them then.” But she had told him how she would get “wet” playing Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau,” he not knowing exactly what that meant, thinking it was from perspiration. He’d heard the story of how a famous pianist had stopped concertizing because of peeing in his pants. Finally a psychiatrist cured him by telling him to wear a diaper. High emotion can do that, but there could be other causes, according to Rob, the pre-med, who explained to him the autonomic nervous system, punctuating it with the taunt he had heard too much from everyone: “Ziggy is too hot for you to handle, Tex.” Stan, his house counselor, a returning vet, had told him: “I know you are supposed to be going steady with Ziggy, but you ought to know that some of us ex-GIs see her often with a rough-looking guy at the beer parlor.” His housemates told him about seeing her sneaking off to an ice rink in a nearby town with a steelworker. One of them chided, “Can’t you cool her off, Tex?” Blanco warned him that Ziggy was twirling him around, using him to escort her to dances when she had a boyfriend back in New York. Rob told him bluntly, “Girls aren’t for you, Tex.” But he paid no attention. He saw himself smirk in the mirror. They all were just jealous that the sexy, desirable, popular, and talented Ziggy kept company with him. Or was it just pubertal bravado, a defiance of his housemates, a proclamation of a masculinity surpassing their own frustrated libidos? And wasn’t it healthier, anyhow, to make at least an attempt at “normal” sexual gratification rather than the perverted ones they practiced—like lighting farts in the dark, thrashing masturbatory fists under bed sheets, or carrying around condoms in their pockets? And the stupid game of “dropping the soap” in the showers. He cringed. Then he remembered how his defiance was strengthened by Stan, the burly ex-Marine who took a liking to him and told him that if any of the guys gave him any trouble, to let him know. He liked, too, the way Stan would let him ride with him on his bicycle on a cold winter’s morning when they pulled breakfast duty at the dorm. Stan had a way of wrapping his arms around Tex’s chest while he pumped the bike and breathed warm breaths down his neck. How pleasant that was. Eventually, however, the teasing got too harsh, and he went back to wearing a coat and tie for dinner at another dining hall. Their relationship cooled and, for many years, Tex regretted it. And now, fifty years later, the evening’s pervasive nostalgia wanted him to recapture those times and steer them to what might have been an alternate future. The mirror lights flared. “What did you really think of me then, Ziggy?” “Cute. Fun.” Clichés bounced against the mirror. “Well, just imagine this: What if there had been no steelworker. Suppose I had switched to the Conservatory?” “It would have been too late, Tex, for you to begin a career in music, you know that. You were pretty hyped with your physics. You’d have clawed your way through graduate school, and if I followed you, what would I do, stay home and practice scales?” “You could have had babies. You had them anyhow.” “Oh, no.” She gnashed her teeth. “First I had to give my ambition a whirl in music.” Their images locked in the mirror. Time froze; youthful looks began to fade. Then Tex brightly said, “Okay. Let’s try this. Pretend that I was the one to follow you.” She frowned. “It would have been useless.” “Oh no, honey,” he said. “Oil money could make a difference. My family’s money could have sucked up to those Fort Worth supporters of the Cliburn competition, entered you in some big European concerts, paid for tutelage with Madame what’s-her-name in Paris, bought off that Carnegie reviewer. I could arrange for the bouquets, tuning and crating of your favorite piano, schedule flights, hotels, hairdressers, everything.” Her eyes widened. “What an idea! It isn’t just luck to make the big time. It does take money, you’re right. Oh, I’d have worked that much harder. All that support and adoration. I couldn’t fail, could I?” She clutched his shoulder, stared dreamily at the mirror. “I’d dazzle them with Ravel and Debussy, wow them with Grandos encores. Oh, Tex. Let’s go back!” Starting with the Arboretum, he thought. Willow trees drooping into ponds, the bright Ohio spring light, the sporadic giggles of coeds hidden with their boyfriends in the meadow’s edge. The envy of his housemates. He wanted to hear the chromatic runs, the clarion chords, the cascading glissandos, Ziggy bowing graciously in her blue chiffon gown to thunderous applause, he waiting in the wings to congratulate her. Resonances of glorious music and drowning adulation, her triumph his, her love his. “Tex, where are you?” she whispered. Words would desecrate the moment; he couldn’t speak. He could only swirl images of mountains, sunken cathedrals, splashing waters, Spanish castles. They flashed like laser strobes across the mirror, blinding him, until he closed his eyes and rested them on the bar’s edge, drenched in ecstasy. Sounds became muted. Slowly he lifted his head to see the mirror’s images smear. Panic seized him. “Ziggy, you were going to die, remember? Too soon. What would I have done with the rest of my life, where would I be? I couldn’t be just a camp follower. You understand, don’t you? I mean it was all a dream, really, life is more than just learning the fingering. I needed something solid in my life, something to anchor me, not just vague impressionistic music.” He felt her grip on his shoulder loosen. He heard her say, in a fading voice, “It was your idea, remember?” Then followed a burst of applause from the banquet room and a shuffling of chairs. Departure time. He slid his stool back, saw a door behind the bar open with operating room-like lights blazing and spotlighting the blonde bartender with a trash can. Yes, he looked exactly like Rob, tanned, hairy ankle and all. Slowly, a smile too young and big crept across his wrinkled face. And his ears began to ring tranquil harp-like sounds, sounds like a gentle wind rustling willow branches. He smelled whiffs of duckweed. He caressed pliant young bodies on the cool grass of the Arboretum. Then he pushed back the stool, stood up, waved a curtain across the mirrored wall, and stumbled off to say good-bye.
-- James Pratley earned his bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College and his doctorate in cell biology at the University of Texas. Pratley attended the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts in Paros, the Aegean Arts Circle in Andros, and several workshops in Europe and America. His two novels, Leto’s Journey (Vantage Press, 2002) and The Green Helix (CreateSpace, 2011), both have settings in the Greek islands. Music and science are his two loves in life: He has played piano and organ in recitals and worked in research labs around the country and in Europe.