Marek walks east, the wrong direction for any places he might really want to be. In front of the central square, he passes the people in gowns and suits, tuxedos and sparkling dresses. On benches that line the promenade people look up from their books, newspapers, and mobile phones to watch the important ones walk toward the opera house. It’s five minutes until seven, and some of the attendees race toward the door of the theatre. They jog in their high heels and their shined shoes, then slow to a brisk walk when they think of how they’ll look, entering that marble inlaid room with sweat staining their collars or gleaming through their hosiery. They speed back into jogging again when they think of what it would be like to be turned away at the door because the show has begun, stuck with expensive, useless tickets in their pockets. Those hurried, conflicted ones, Marek imagines, are the ones who have been gifted tickets. Everyone else walks calmly and coolly, as if it never occurred to them that the show could possibly begin before they are in their rightful and appointed places.
Had Marek held a ticket he’d have been in the building an hour ago, walking the lush carpets, adoring the facades, and the marble busts, watching the way the light bounces off the vibrant drapes that gather at the top of the box seat windows. He’s seen all these things in photographs. He’s dreamt of seeing them in person. He’d have bought a cappuccino at the café and sipped it, standing at a high table clothed in white cloth, unconcerned that those around him were drinking champagne and imported wines. Instead he walks through the park until the opera stragglers stop coming toward him. Left in their place are the families out for Saturday strolls. Little boys rolling on the grass while mothers roll camera film and father roll their eyes. Further from the center, street buskers line Ploschad Uritskoga, offering their renditions of decade-old American pop songs while someone holding a hat beseeches passers-by. Marek drops his coins, small as they might be. This is his price of admission tonight. He turns left at the Peruvian pan flute player, then walks across the traffic zebra when he gets a green light, and weaves through a couple of apartment blocks. Finally, he strides past the main building of the fine arts institute and walks around it’s flank. Behind the great rectangle of a building he takes a seat on the rim of a fountain that’s only just been uncovered for the season.
It’s finally warm enough that Marek doesn’t mind the small spray on his back when a gust of wind presses the fountain just right. He looks upward for open windows, and when he sees one, tilts his head and strains his ears in that direction.
There is nothing at first.
Marek closes his eyes and focuses harder. He cups a hand behind his ear, but still there is nothing, so he opens his eyes and waits. Most classes are finished for the day, and only few students straggle through the courtyard. When they do, he hears their uneven gaits and the ways in which they speed up and slow down. Perhaps this is the best music, he thinks—better than anything that could happen in the opera house, even, because it is so real and pure, so flawed and so human.
The buildings around him crumble in their beautiful way: a perfect square, the classroom blocks all identical height and shape. In spots, the grey plaster has fallen away to reveal bricks or concrete, stages of a building’s life span peeking through. Only the main building has columns in front, but from this vantage, they all look and feel the same.
In the old photographs, the marble pedestal below him held a five-meter statue of a bearded man with an outstretched arm. The buildings were not constructed around a fountain. The fountain replaced him, because an empty marble slab in the center of an academy won’t do, and because it’s easy to forget what everyone agrees should be forgotten.
In the building to Marek’s left, a few ballerinas warm up. No one inside appears to be a teacher and every dancer follows a different routine. He doesn’t watch that window closely though. He doesn’t want to be accused of doing anything untoward, and then they’ll ask for his student card, and when he can’t produce it—there’s far too much to lose. So he turns away as if that window never existed.
Across the complex, a few painters set their easels and prepare their instruments in a first-floor classroom. The easels are scattered in a circle around some person or object that he can’t see, something low-slung and hidden from public view. He imagines the things it could be: a human model—nude perhaps. A pile of apples or a display of flowers. Maybe a cart or some found object. A stolen street sign covered in graffiti or band stickers. A bird in a cage that flits around too often for anyone to get a good read on one pose before the model imposes some other idea on their process. That’s it—he hopes. A flitting bird.
He imagines the flightpath and the students’ consternation and the instructor’s joy in the chaos when finally he hears something. He redirects his attention to the open window.
It's a male voice, smooth and slow with no accompaniment. Not even a piano to pound out opening notes. It is Italian, an operatic aria. He knows this instantly. The rhythm flows asynchronistically and after a few notes the volume drops too low for Marek to hear, but then it swells again, high and powerful. Marek doesn’t understand a word of Italian, which is just fine. He relaxes his shoulders and closes his eyes, settles back and imagines a velvet chair against his back, a conductor’s flailing baton, an orchestra to follow or initiate these swells and the dips, theses lulls and the quickened phrases.
Marek begins to envision characters, a pauper perhaps, who is in love. Unattainable love, of course—or at least something like it, because otherwise there would be no need for an opera, just a simple song would suffice. In the lulls Marek envisions descriptions of the beloved, and in the swells he hears hope that is dashed when the final phrase of a line drops off and must rise again so slowly from nothing.
It's in the middle of one hopeful swell that the student quits mid-line. He leaves the melody hanging in the air so that Marek’s mind can’t help but resolve the phrase, but before he can finish, the singer restarts, repeating from a few measures prior. Marek focuses even harder now, trying to identify which error made the singer stop, but he can’t find a difference. Perhaps someone interrupted. A call on his phone, maybe, though Anton likes to think that such a powerful singer would have the self-respect to shut out the world during rehearsal. Maybe he simply jumped a word. Nonetheless, the melody continues and as the tiny specks of water make their way onto Marek’s back. The music washes over him and he imagines what this young man will look like in a year or so, on that stage in front of all those beautiful people. And when Marek walks past them going the other direction, he’ll know what they’re about to hear already. He’ll know the quality of it and the tone and the texture. He’ll know the process that went into it, the starts and the stops and the re-starts. He’ll know the missed notes that would eventually give way to such an expensive spectacle that would make immaculately dressed women jog and leave others so arrogant they move toward the music at whatever pace they wish.
The music stops again and Marek hears the faint click of a window closing. He looks around him. There are no more footsteps. The ballet students are gone, and the painters are just starting to get the form of something that is most certainly no bird.
Marek rises and tucks his white shirt into the black slacks his father never misses from the drawer full of clothes he only wears when he must: weddings and funerals, mainly. He takes out a black necktie from his pocket, already tied, and pulls the knot tight against the top button of his shirt. He checks himself in the reflection of a window and fixes his hair before he takes the long way around the back of the park. He walks slowly, looking at street art and interestingly shaped cracks in the sidewalk. He watches the sky change color as the sun drops, and then the buildings change colors as the street lights flicker on. The ones that work, at least.
He ducks into a café and buys a small cup of juice to sip on while he waits. A few minutes before ten, the server tells him they’re about to close. He nods and leaves some coins on the small tin tray containing his bill. He comes around the familiar corner and, this time, he’s walking in the same direction as the opera goers. He listens to them chatter about the soprano and the way she sustained notes, and the nuance of the acting. He listens and blends and is thankful for the dark that hides his worn-out old shoes just enough that he looks as though he just might belong with this crowd. When something falls from the pocket of a laughing, tuxedoed man, Marek scoops it up, and there it is: Balcony Two, Box Three for La Traviata.
He pulls open the door of the wine bar, and echoes of laughter follow him down the stairs. The door opens again and another party follows. As he reaches the bottom of the steps and turns into the cellar room, the hostess forces a smile when she sees him, and without asking the size of his party, takes him to the familiar spot at the back corner of the bar.
The bartender forces her own smile and brings him a glass of house red wine, which will be discounted, half based on his possession of an opera ticket. He will nurse the drink all night. Half of the time when he lifts the glass, he will never even part his lips, just allow the fluid to touch them and then set it back on the table to rest and wait.
Tables fill up, then the bar seats fill, and as they do Marek listens with the same intensity he did outside the windows. He learns the story of tonight’s show and the flaws of the performers. Two women complain about the way in which the second tenor treated the orchestra like a rabbit toying with a hound, moving just fast enough so as never to be caught.
He repeats this when a pair of young women sit next to him.
“We went to the play instead. Opera is boring.”
“Some nights,” Marek says, and he shrugs.
“What are you drinking?”
He could lie, but when the bartender brings whatever vintage he names, the women will notice a difference in hue.
“Just the house wine,” he says. “It’s good here.”
One of the women nods. The other simply turns back to the menu. When they order, it’s not house wine.
He nurses his glass until they leave and are replaced by his next company, one young woman in a date dress, and a young man in a sweater and track pants. He looks terrified to be in this place, and she looks sad at how terrified he is.
When the man excuses himself to the bathroom, Marek is about to say something until he sees the small diamond ring on her hand, the one she twirls as she looks at the wine glasses hanging upside down.
They, too, have ordered the house wine.
A dozen comments lay on Marek’s tongue, but every time he prepares to speak, he sees the flash of the ring and he can’t do it. The man comes back and downs his wine.
“Another?” he asks, and she shakes her head and waits silent while he pays the bill and thanks the bartender—suddenly amiable now that he’s so close to escape.
Marek leaves the best tip he can afford, something akin to what the street buskers and juice server got, but nothing that will ever earn him a better seat or warmer welcome. As he walks home, it’s not just the forgotten statues but the beauty, too, drained from the city. Neon lights and angular foreboding shadows hide everything that by daylight might be pleasing. But the beautiful things cannot last forever, and so Marek slides off the necktie and places it back in his pocket, taps in the code at the entrance to his family’s flat building, and takes the lift to the tenth floor. As he strips from his clothes and settles into his sofa-bed, he thinks not of the ballet dancers or the painters, or the storyline of the opera or the roomful of beautiful people sipping wine and reenacting their evening. Over and over again, he hears the abrupt stop of that truncated line, the incompleteness of it ringing again and again through his mind until, finally, he slides into sleep.