Read the three finalists for the first annual LadyLike Fiction Competition, and vote for your favorite!
by Tristan Flagstaff
Me? Oh, I’m a garbageman. My father was a garbageman too, here in the Bronx. I still live in the little house he left me. I keep his basil and fennel growing in back. The same Milanese barber who cut his hair still cuts mine every Friday. He always wanted a daughter, he told me, and I gotta say he never once seemed disappointed with the one he got. He taught me to sling cans and get in good with the union, he taught me to hold my liquor, and he taught me everything I know about opera. Every weekday, out on the trucks at 4:00 am. Every Saturday, the garden and the radio. Every other month, orchestra seats. And every cabinet, every shelf overflowing with 45s, 78s, reel-to-reel, cassettes. All the greats, and most of ’em purloined personally by my Papa. He was born in Naples and came to the City as a teenager, just a little too late to lose his accent all the way. Though his English was fucking perfect, I can tell ya.
It was just me and him. My Mama left early; I never knew her. He didn’t give two figs what the neighborhood said about me. He was proud when I grew out instead of up, slick instead of graceful, hard instead of soft. I was 24 when he made his exit, and I’d set myself up good in the business, so he figured I didn’t need him anymore. He was tired and glad to go, but I missed him like a toothache. One night, a few months after I buried him, I spent six hours smashing all the recordings we owned of Verdi’s Requiem (12 LPs, 6 CDs, and a Laserdisc) on the wood of the back deck, one after the other, slamming rye and sobbing. The next morning, I looked out the window, saw the shards of vinyl scattered everywhere, and knew what I needed. I combed my hair, put on my charcoal pinstripes with midnight silk necktie and gunmetal pocket square, hopped the 1 train at 238th Street, and rode it straight down to 66th.
It was Idomeneo. First one my dad ever took me to, when I was just a squirt. I’d gone because of that and because it was all about a dad and his kid and because I just needed to lose my head in the sound for a while. I didn’t expect the cast to be anything special; they hadn’t put much press on it. I walked up and got a ticket in the second row easy as anything, 20 minutes before curtain. The place was half full of regulars, out-of-towners, the odd critic or misinformed socialite dotting the boxes. The overture struck up. I just closed my eyes and tried to stop aching.
But then she walked in. Idamante, the ill-fated son. They’d done it modern dress, and her suit was pinstriped, just like mine, though hers was cut tall, sharp, and wiry. By her bio in the program, she had to be at least 36, but she looked every bit the 17-year-old she was playing, all anguished eyes and nervous gangling limbs. I couldn’t handle it, any of it. She transfixed me, tormented me, unstrung me. I went back the next performance, and the next and the next. We sanitation engineers make more money than you’d think (and we have more workplace fatalities than firemen, so we goddamn deserve every penny), so I had a little packet set aside. I always figured I’d use it to travel someday, but now I was blowing it all, $130 a pop, on seeing this woman sing three times a week. I could have done standing room or Family Circle or something, but then I couldn’t see the sheen of her sweat in the lights. I couldn’t hear her draw that mighty, shuddering breath before “Non ho colpa”. I couldn’t see the twitch of her thighs just before she grabbed the soprano and drew her into a scorching, knee-juddering kiss.
The run was two weeks long, and I saw every single performance right from the front row. I’ve always had a thing for mezzos. You’d think a fireplug like me would go for the delicate flower type, but you’d be wrong. I respected feminine women, but they didn’t work my circuits the way the tough ones did. The handsome ones, the brash ones, with their strutting shoulders and cocky grins. Those were the ones that got me every time. And if they could sing… Oh, I was lost. Just lost. I had photos of mezzos stuck all over the walls of my little bedroom, though I’d never met any face to face. I didn’t sing myself, but if I did, I’d definitely come under the heading of (in the words of the immortal Anna Russell) “the big fat contralto with a voice like a foghorn”. And everyone knows mezzos go with sopranos. All the composers say so. All the duets are written that way. All the gossip turns that way. Just one of them incontrovertible combinations, like papaya drink and hot dogs.
But on the second to last night of the run, when I was sitting there in my seat after everyone else had filed out, all the juice wrung out of me, I heard a “Pssst!” I looked up. It was an usher, standing on the stage.
“Sorry, sorry,” I muttered, and got up to go.
“No!” He jumped down.
“Please don’t leave yet. Your presence has been, um… Requested.”
“By who?” I scratched my head, flattered but puzzled. One of my dad’s old backstage bootlegging buddies? Then he dropped the name of my mezzo, and it hit me in the belly like hot gravel.
“She… She wants to see me? I’ve never met her. Is it a mistake?”
“Ask her,” he said, and took off. I was standing outside her dressing room.
I checked my hair in my shoe leather, crossed myself, and knocked. A second later and she was at the door, half out of costume. I still don’t know how I kept myself from fainting, but I was glad I didn’t. I had the sense it might compromise my masculine allure.
“Come in,” she said, looking me up and down. Her speaking voice was soft and deep, with a slight Nordic accent. I’d barely squeezed myself through the crack in the door before she’d locked it behind me. I gave her my name and stuck out my hand.
“Uh… Big fan, Ma’am. Big, big… Big fan.”
She took it delicately, but held my gaze without blinking.
“You’ve seen every show of the run. I should hope it wasn’t because you were torturing yourself.”
I managed a chuckle and tried to think of something witty to say, but the words weren’t coming. She’d discarded the jacket, but still wore the waistcoat and white shirt. The cufflinks were on the table, and she’d rolled up the sleeves so she could take off her makeup. She turned to the mirror and started swiping at her painted-on sideburns with a cloth, not saying anything. It was terrifically humid in the little room. I shuffled my feet.
“Um…” I finally ventured.
“Sit down over there. On the divan. I have something to ask you. Later.”
I did as I was told and watched in glorious guilty silence as she finished changing. The white dress shirt, off. The binder. The undershirt. There she was, perfect and bare from the waist up, in the reflection of the mirror. I loosened my tie and tried to keep breathing. She smirked, still not saying anything, and put on another shirt, an elegant button-down in dark maroon. She took off the costume trousers and folded them carefully over the clothes hanger. Underneath, she wore black boxer-briefs. Nothing to stuff ’em, unlike some mezzos I could name. She had enough brass in the sway of her shoulders to carry off the role without any of that cheap stuff. I was desperately hoping she’d take off the briefs, but instead she pulled on some roomy gray linen trousers and turned to face me.
She wasn’t a man anymore, but still cut a desperately powerful figure. She took a step toward me, still sitting there like a goldfish, and suddenly bent down to kiss me with something like hot fury. I crumbled onto the divan and she climbed on top of me. She broke the kiss and looked down at me with a smirk, two flushed streaks of color blooming out over her cheekbones.
“So…” she began, unfastening my necktie.
“You’re an admirer of my work, and I like the looks of you. I require certain things at the end of each performance to relax my nerves and keep my voice in working order. I think you might be able to help me. What would you say to that?”
The words still weren’t coming. I pushed myself up to kiss her again, and that seemed to do the trick. She slid off my jacket and ran her hands along my biceps. I flexed automatically, and she squirmed. Huh. The magnificent mezzo turns out to be a muscle queen. Who’d have figured? She fumbled at her fly and I wondered if she was gonna take off those loose linen trousers, but instead she just eased them down a few inches and directed me to kneel on the floor. She didn’t have to tell me twice. Her hands gripping my shoulders, her ankles squeezing my ribs, I gave us what we both wanted with vim, verve, and gusto. It didn’t take long, and I was hoping for a second course (maybe even some reciprocation), but a few seconds after she let out a single glorious throaty holler, she’d zipped up, rearranged herself, and was pushing me out the door.
“Come back tomorrow,” she said quickly, “And don’t let anyone see you when you leave.”
The door slammed in my face. Well, damn. Not even comp tickets? I guess I needed to dip into my travel fund one last time. I felt like I’d been swimming in whiskey still trembling with unmet want. On the subway home, I replayed every second of the evening in my head, from the first notes of the overture, straight through to that final yell. When I got home, I cranked DiDonato’s “Where Shall I Fly”, fell onto the bed, and finished myself off in seconds flat.
The next day I got home from work, took a long, hot bath with a handful of Garbageman’s Secret (mostly baking soda and pumice, but it’s got a few other mystery ingredients guaranteed to scour the stink offa ya), and showed up at Lincoln Center hours early, hoping to get a glimpse of her before the show. No dice. The music, as ever, was wonderful, but for the first time in my life I found myself getting impatient during an opera. I wanted to skip to the end, so I could get into that muggy little dressing room again.
Like last time, the usher came and got me after everyone else had cleared out. He snuck me around the stage lackeys and supers, pushing me into the shadows whenever anyone came by. Finally I was there again. The same ritual with the makeup and the street clothes. The same hot kiss and sore knees. I gloried in every goddamn second. At one point in the middle, I thought about maybe giving myself some joy while I was at it, and reached down into my slacks, but she smacked my hand away, giving me an icepick of a look. Maybe part of the thrill was leaving me wanting. Or maybe she just didn’t like me being distracted from the task at hand. I sure wasn’t gonna argue with her, even if it meant agony all the way home.
But this time, while pushing me out the door, she handed me a packet of airplane tickets.
“I’m doing Orfeo in Glyndebourne, starting next Saturday. I’d like you to stay for the duration of the run. Two weeks. Can you do it?”
Good thing I hadn’t used up all my bereavement leave. God bless my union. I had to admit, that ache for my Papa had subsided to a whisper ever since that first performance, weeks ago. Somehow I could picture him smiling down at this latest adventure. I gulped.
“Sure. Sure I can. You bet.”
I was still tongue-tied in her presence, but she obviously didn’t want me for my conversation.
“Good,” she said. “I’m looking forward to it. Don’t let anyone see you on your way out.”
And there I was again, stunned and red-faced, outside the dressing room door. Two weeks, expenses paid, in Glyndebourne. Fuckin’ A!
It was a hell of a run. Every night, I went to the performance. At least she was comping me now, so I wouldn’t go totally broke. Hot damn, but she looked good in a tunic and sandals. Every night, her dressing room. And finally, the capstone: Me in my hotel room, alone with my own right hand. Meantime, she was making quite a splash in the press. That Idomeneo seemed to have finally gotten some her some real attention. The gossip sites were buzzing with photos. Costume shots, backstage shots, selfies, promos — always flanked by legions of adoring sopranos. No one ever doubted that she was queer. It was as open a secret as you could get, short of a two-page spread in Opera News, and it did nothing but add to her cachet. Still, sopranos are photogenic. Stocky lady garbagemen are not. I’d gotten the picture pretty quickly, and you’d think my pride would kick at it. But I was out of my mind with pleasure. The music, the sneaking around backstage, those dizzy, delicious minutes in her dressing room, and that final cold slam of the door to wake me up. The run ended, and we both went back to the City. Me to my trusty compactor, her to play Sesto in Clemenza. This time her tune changed a little. She started talking to me more. Her pet theories about Sesto’s motivation. Her musicological musings on what the tympani in the overture represented, and why it came back in the march. She started letting me linger a minute after we’d finished, tousling my hair with a sly little grin, like she wanted to ask me to stay. But in her public life, it was the same as ever. Posing in her elegant not-quite-menswear with spintos and soubrettes. She didn’t know about my day job or my record collection or my little garden in the Bronx. She didn’t want me to talk; just to listen to her monologues. Every now and then, though, I’d put a word in. She’d lift her head and look at me, surprised to hear an accent like mine say something sensible about music. Then she’d shake herself like a scolded beagle and shoo me out of the room.
But as time went on, she started getting more daring. On the pretext that Sesto needed to be consumed by a toxic dose of lust and longing pretty much straight through the show, she told me to wait in the wings, hidden in the folds of the scrim, to wind her up every time she came offstage. She told me to get her as close as I dared without finishing her off, but that if I ever went too far, I was fired. We never got caught by the other singers, despite a couple close calls, and I never did tip her over the edge, despite quite a few even closer ones. There must have been something to that theory of hers, though, ’cause the press went nuts for her Sesto. The Times called her “Parto, Parto” “A cry of cataclysmic frustration.” As that little chump from Parterre had it, “I was about ready to stab a couple emperors myself!”
I knew how they goddamn felt. Every time I felt her soften toward me, like she was maybe ready to give me the time of day for once, something stopped her, almost despite herself. Finally, one night, near the end of the run, I got up the courage to speak to her.
“Listen, um… You know I love this. What we do. But it’s a little hard on me to hold everything in all the time. Maybe sometimes you could let me –“
She saw where I was going, and her formerly lazy smile tightened.
“This isn’t enough for you? You want me to expend my energy, of which I have precious little, on your own satisfaction?”
“Well, I mean, you don’t even have to do that much. If you’d just let me –“
“There isn’t time for that! I have a lot to do. Coaching, rehearsal, promotional events,” she snapped. “Your concerns are very low on my list of priorities. If this arrangement isn’t to your liking, you’re very free to leave at any time.”
I stepped back and looked her in the eye.
“Something ain’t quite right here,” I said contemplatively. “You’re putting on an act.”
She grimaced in frustration and sat down a few feet away from me, glaring.
“I know everyone’s falling over themselves about how great your acting is, but what kills it on the opera stage tends to ring false down here in reality.”
I sat on the divan next to her.
“You’re trying to do the Imperious Ice Queen and Hapless Acolyte routine. Nah, hell, you’re trying to do Clemenza, with me as Sesto! That’s been steamy enough for the last few months, but I gotta say, it wears thin after a while unless you got Mozart propping it up. So yeah, if that were the situation, I think I might be getting a little bored of it right around now. Not that it hasn’t been a blast, let me tell ya.”
“Leave, then. Just leave. I have greatly enjoyed our time together. Now you’re out of it. Goodbye.”
“Yeah, except I think that’s just it.” I turned to face her, trying to read her expression. Her gorgeous jaw was set in a frown, but her eyes looked almost wet, and her hands were writhing over each other with some suppressed emotion.
“This ain’t you. The ladykilling Lothario from the glossies. The bossing me around and keeping me from getting mine. I don’t know your angle, but I know it’s a put-on. What gives?”
She didn’t speak. Just sat there and held my eye.
“You like me. Not just my muscles, not just my devotion, not just what I do to you in this room. I can tell by the way you look at me when you don’t think I’m looking. You like how I talk about music. You like the way I strut my way in here. You like how much I like you. Not just how much I want you, how much I fucking love giving it to you, but how much I like your hand in my hair when it’s over, how much I like your speaking voice and that smudge on your cheek where the sideburns used to be. So why all this? What’s it get ya?”
“My career,” she stammered, “relies upon my presenting a certain mystique. You interfere with that mystique. You don’t fit the image I choose to project. And I know all too well… If I let you take your pleasure with me, I wouldn’t be able to keep myself apart from you. I’m hardly managing to hold the necessary distance as it is. I do like you. You’re right. I like you very much. If I were a stockbroker or a waiter or a lifeguard, I’d be yours in an instant. But I chose my calling many years ago. And I can’t give it up. Not even for you.”
I leaned back on the palms of my hands. “Who’s asking you to? I love hearing you sing, more than anything. You know that.”
She drew a long breath and rubbed the nape of her neck. “This… All this is a purely practical arrangement. I need regular release to sing my best, and you provide that. The rest of my time is spent maintaining myself as a competitive performer. If this were to go any further, it would be disastrous. My first teacher told me over and over: ‘Time not spent singing is time wasted. Dangerously wasted.’ I’ve had to waste entirely too much time getting to where I am. It’s not the voice that gets you here, you know. Politics, press, publicity. Everything must be constructed in intricate detail. I’ve just arrived, after sacrificing everything — every pleasure, every free moment — to my craft and the reputation that bolsters it. I have been training singlemindedly for 22 years, and you want me to squander this? For you?”
“That’s what it is? ‘Cause you got time for nothing but coaching and schmoozing? ‘Cause I don’t fit your public image? ‘Cause I’m a lunk? A bulldyke? ‘Cause I’m a garbageman?”
I started to giggle.
“Of all the stupid reasons to kick true love in the teeth. You know why they go to see you?” I asked.
I smacked her magnificent thigh.
“Your singing, dummy! Not how many pretty beards you got flocking around you. Not ’cause you keep yourself pure of all earthly emotion. Not ’cause you spend every damn minute in front of a score. You did it. You’re there. You’re tapdancing on Parnassus. Look at the roles you signed for, even before you met me — Idamante, Orfeo, Sesto, Romeo at La Scala next month. The finest houses in the world. You don’t need to court the papers anymore, and you don’t need to hone your instrument 12 hours a day. Polish it, oil it, put it away dry, and it ain’t going anywhere. After all this work, all these years, you’re a success. So maybe you’d like someone to enjoy it with?”
She sat there still as a stone with her head down, waiting to see what else I had to say. I just reached out and stroked her cheek with the back of my hand. All at once she grabbed me like a starving fiend, tears welling up in her eyes, and kissed me so hard my ears started melting.
“You’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right. Forgive me!”
“Hey, no need!” I said, grinning and wiping her eyes with my pocket square. “I’ll take it out in trade.”