Enabling Cordelia

It was May. The opera season was over, and Cordelia was back home in Texas with her husband, unable to get a summer gig. Tanglewood in Massachusetts had nothing for her. Ditto Glimmerglass Opera in rural New York. Her agent had tried. All he could come up with were low-paying, obscure festivals, and she wasn’t doing that. And for next season, starting in September, she only had three opera contracts, instead of the customary seven or eight. Cordelia should have been happy that she’d be spending more time at home, but she was fifty-six, and didn’t have that many more years of singing left.

On Saturday morning when she woke up, her husband George was already in the kitchen cleaning up from breakfast. He was dressed for golf in a yellow polo shirt and shorts, his belly flat above the belt. At sixty, he still had his Irish good looks, with thick grey hair and a square jaw that didn’t allow jowls. She hadn’t brushed her teeth yet, and fresh out of bed, her dyed blonde hair was a tumbleweed with dark roots. Still, he went to her and kissed her lips, and she held her breath so he wouldn’t smell it.

“I’ll have lunch ready when you get back. What would you like?” she said as she poured them coffee.

“Oh, no, honey. I always have lunch with the guys at the club. I’ll be home around two.”

“Oh, George. I was looking forward to lunch with you.”

“Not on golf days, Cordy. You know that.”

She did know it, but she had spent this first week mostly alone and hoped she could change his mind.

After her shower she saw that her hair really needed attention. In the mirror, the black and grey roots were undisguisable with any styling now. She may not have a job for the summer, but you never knew. A reporter might call for an interview, photographer in tow, or a fan might recognize her in a shopping mall. But she didn’t really believe any of that would happen. Her dimming professional future filled her with pessimism, and she didn’t call the salon for an appointment. She read, played the piano, watched daytime TV.

Cordelia Alvarez knew her voice had lost some of its sheen, its power to move an audience. But it was still a good instrument, and her beautiful tones had been heard at the Met, la Scala, and Colón. Her mother Ofelia had worked two jobs cleaning hotels to pay for singing lessons, which the old woman brought up whenever Cordelia complained about her itinerant life.

She had met George at the stage door after one of her performances, thirty years ago. He had gushed over her singing. It was a good marriage, although he had forged his own existence during her long absences touring. Between work at the bank and golf, he had a life that didn’t include her. He had wanted children, but she couldn’t see how she would manage a full career and a family. “Maybe next year,” she had always said when he brought it up, and she had meant it, because children had been part of her life’s plan once. George had sulked with each rebuffal, and eventually he stopped asking. And then suddenly, it seemed, she was too old for childbearing.

She drove forty-five minutes to her mother’s nursing home in Dallas, a large county facility. She could have afforded a private one, but her mother had worked as a cleaning woman in that very institution, and it was there she wanted to spend her last days.

Ofelia Alvarez was eighty-seven, paralyzed on her left side from a stroke. From the bed, she smiled and waved her good arm when she saw her daughter. Cordelia hadn’t seen her in two months, and the old woman had lost an alarming amount of weight. Her usual plump cheeks were concave beneath the cheekbones, and the brown skin of her arms hung like curtains.

Cantame, mi niña,” she garbled through her drooping mouth.

There were three other residents in the room, all of them oblivious to her presence. She pulled a chair closer to her mother and sang “La Paloma,” an old Mexican folk song the old woman had taught her. She kept her voice soft, but it filled the room. Ofelia joined in with a surprisingly powerful warble whenever Cordelia came to a familiar refrain. The roommates, like most of the clients in the home, were as brown as her mother, and they looked at her with blank eyes.

A nursing assistant came into the room and stood still near the door. When Cordelia finished the song, the blonde chubby woman clapped twice, ironic and disrespectful. Without looking at Cordelia, and while helping a resident out of bed, the woman said, “The nurse wants to speak to you. Make sure you stop by the desk before you leave.”

Cordelia was annoyed that this attendant spoke so brusquely to her. Was it racism, or was she rude to everyone? The woman had no idea who Cordelia was, or the privilege it was to have heard her sing. But she held her tongue. She did not want to risk her mother being neglected as retribution.

“She’s not been eating much the past few weeks,” the nurse, Annie, said to Cordelia later. She was pale and wiry in her scrubs, but her cheeks were full and pink. “The doctor saw her yesterday and wants to send her for a CT scan. I was going to call you later today to get consent.”

“She’s lost a lot of weight. Why didn’t anybody call me sooner?”

“The doctor just saw her yesterday on rounds.”

Cordelia ignored the non-sequitur. “What does he think is wrong?”

“She. Dr. Kerner is a she. I don’t think she knows, but she says it could be anything. A tumor possibly.”

“But even if they find something, isn’t she too old and frail for surgery?”

“I don’t know. You want to talk to Dr. Kerner?”

Cordelia stood at the nursing station while she spoke to the physician. Statistically, it was most likely a cancerous tumor in the colon, the doctor said. They agreed to cancel the CT scan and leave Ofelia alone, so long as she was comfortable.

On the drive home, she thought about her mother’s decline, the inevitability of the death that would arrive in what, three months? Six? She had long resented Ofelia’s tenacious drive, pushing her to become a polished artist, minimize her risk of being treated as a second-rate citizen because of her dark skin. “I don’t want you to be maltratada, like I was,” she had said. If her career hadn’t interfered with a full domestic life, including children, she could have felt more gratitude.

When she got home, she got a call from Ross, her agent. “The music festival at Fisher College in New York needs a replacement to sing Four Last Songs,” he said. “I know you’ve done them. Can you fly out this afternoon?”

“Why the rush? When’s the concert?”

“Tomorrow night.”

She frowned at the suddenness. “Who was supposed to sing?”

Ross said the name of a well-known, younger singer with a solid voice. “Her husband had a massive heart attack, and she had to cancel.”

Cordelia knew those Strauss songs, but it had been years since she had sung them. She wasn’t sure her voice could still reach the long, high notes that could lift an audience off their seats and entrance them. With these songs, Strauss had written perhaps the most beautiful music ever for the female voice, but they were not for the middling singer. They were a challenge at any age, more so for a fifty-six-year-old. But at this respected festival in the Hudson Valley, the pay was excellent, and the soprano she’d be replacing was press candy. Critics from the New York papers would be there. She had to give it a try.

“Can I get back to you in an hour? I want to try the songs out at the piano. I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself.”

It was near noon, and she had planned to do some laundry. She went looking for the sheet music instead.

She sat at the grand piano and did some scales, then her breathing and vocal exercises, bleating through closed, vibrating lips. When she had loosened up her larynx and neck muscles she ran through the songs once, then repeated the difficult, high pianissimos to make sure her voice didn’t crack or go off pitch. When she was sure she could manage the whole score, she called Ross back.

“Good. I’ll book you a flight and a room near the college,” he said. “Not much time for rehearsal with the accompanist. Just tomorrow afternoon before the performance.”

She packed a turquoise gown and a few other essentials and called George at work. “I’ll be back in two days,” she said.

She was taken aback by the edge in his voice. “Well, I was enjoying your being around, but I guess you want to do this, right?”

“Yes. And I’ll be gone only two days.” She was annoyed at his response and that she had to placate him. Wasn’t he used to this by now?

George remained silent, and she said, without a trace of apology in her voice, “I’m sorry. This is important to me.”

“Okay,” he said in a softer voice. “Have a good trip.” He paused. “Kill those people.”

She laughed, relieved that now he was cheering her on. He wore his good nature easily.

On her way to the airport she stopped at a drugstore to buy a hair touch-up kit. She had finally made an appointment for the hairdresser, but it wasn’t for another three weeks.

Rehearsals at the college the next day went smoothly, although she held back, not wanting to tire out her vocal cords just before a performance. The piano accompanist, a fortyish, plump man with whom she had never worked, was deferential to her. He wore large, red-framed glasses she hoped he would change for the concert.

That evening, just before the performance, she walked the campus among the college’s brick buildings doing her warm-up exercises. The bleating noises she made drew amused looks from the students walking the tree-lined paths. One of them, a tall, blonde girl, stopped and looked at her in awe, and raised her hand in a shy wave. Cordelia smiled and waved back but did not stop to chat. She needed to focus on the performance. In the dressing room, she combed and touched-up her hair before changing into her gown.

She stood in the wings as the music professor hosting the concert went on stage. When he announced that the scheduled soprano was indisposed, Cordelia heard a rumble of disappointment from the audience. She was standing next to the accompanist, and she held her breath and looked at him. He gave her a reassuring smile, took her hand and squeezed it. The red glasses didn’t look so bad now. When her name was announced as the replacement there were exclamations of approval from the audience. She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath before walking onto the stage.

The audience held their applause after each of the first three pieces, observing proper etiquette for a suite of songs. As she began the last one, she was confident she had managed the difficult music with the right mix of melancholy and rapture the lyrics demanded. But had she created magic for the eight hundred people who had expected another singer? When the last note faded in the auditorium, there were awed seconds of complete silence before the audience erupted. For an encore, she sang “La Paloma,” which she had rehearsed with the accompanist, and which brought the audience to their feet. She had killed them, as George had said, and joy was draped on her face as she bowed.

Ross called her from New York a few days later. The praise from the press had been lavish, and he had secured three contracts for the fall. She would have to go shopping for more gowns, she thought as she hung up. She had gained weight these last two weeks, sitting around like a beached whale.

When she went to see her mother a week later, she thought she had gone into the wrong room, the figure in the bed shrunken beyond recognition. Ofelia lay with her mouth open, seemingly asleep. When Cordelia touched her arm and said “Mom,” the shriveled face didn’t respond. She went to the nurses’ station.

“She’s taken a real turn the past twelve hours. I have a call in to the doctor to see if she wants to start an IV for hydration,” Annie said casually, distracted by the computer screen.

“Why didn’t you call me?”

Cordelia hadn’t consciously cultivated an imperious tone, but it had developed through the years. She was convinced that without it, directors and conductors would have walked all over her.

“I was waiting to hear from the doctor,” Annie said in a new high voice, giving Cordelia her full attention. “This happened so suddenly. She was her usual self yesterday.”

Cordelia went back and sat by the bedside, stroking Ofelia’s arm and hair. She watched the TV in the room without paying attention to the audio, just looking at the screen. In her mind she heard Gracias, Mamá, but the words wouldn’t come, silenced by the persistent hum of regret.

Annie came in to start an IV, and Cordelia went into the hallway. When she heard her mother cry out in pain she walked away out of earshot and wished she had packed tissues in her purse.

Ofelia died a week later. At the funeral, it was only she and George. Cordelia had no siblings, no other family nearby. She knew of impoverished cousins in Mexico, but she didn’t even have contact information for them.

After the burial, Cordelia cried in unexpected spurts. In her mourning, surrounded by the fine furniture and expensive paintings in the living room, it came to her that with her color and humble background, she would not have come to this life of privilege without the music her mother had insisted on. And she certainly would not have met George at the stage door.

She tried to be functional when George came home, but the grief had its own schedule, and he held her when it surfaced. He encouraged her to take up golf, an invitation she had always declined before, but this time, she agreed. She went to the club with him and took lessons.

She cancelled her appointment at the hair salon for the coloring and made one instead to have her mane cropped so that just the brown and grey roots remained. When she got home from the salon, she saw alarm on George’s face.

“It was time,” she said, although he had said nothing. “The hair was part of a package I don’t need any more.”

“I never loved that particular part of the packaging either,” he said. “But why won’t you need it anymore?”

“I’m not sure how much more singing I’m going to be doing.”

He nodded. “Your mother’s death have anything to do with that?”

“I don’t know. It’s just where I’m going.”

She met other women at George’s country club and played golf with them. She was the only one of color and was surprised when they asked her to join their book club and take Pilates with them. Although they knew she was a singer, they had no idea of her reputation, and she felt naked, vulnerable, as if they would turn their backs on her at any moment.

Weeks went by without her sitting at the piano or doing her vocal exercises, and all the new activity made her lose weight. Instead of shopping for fancy gowns for the oncoming season, she bought silk pantsuits in pewter and grey that matched her hair.

She stopped wearing makeup, and Ross didn’t recognize her when they met for lunch in New York that winter. She was there to fulfill her last contract for the opera season.

“Are you okay? You’ve lost so much weight, and your hair…”

“I’m fine. Although I’m keeping the wig and costume department at the Met pretty busy.”

“But what about recitals in the spring?” he asked. “Do you think that look is okay?”

“I’m done after this season. No more performing. Maybe I’ll do some teaching next year.”

“Oh, Cordelia.” He put his elbows on the table and held his head in his hands.

She saw that he was about to plead with her, keep this source of income flowing, but she shook her head and sipped some wine. “I’ve had a good run,” she said, and opened the menu.

When she got back home, she met with the director of her mother’s nursing home to schedule free concerts for the residents. The woman, an obese redhead, had no idea of Cordelia’s stature in the opera world, but she was courteous enough. “Oh, it would be so nice for our residents to hear their own music,” she said. Cordelia swallowed the racism. She wanted the elderly residents, her mother’s cohorts, to enjoy her artistry.

Ross called her a few weeks later. He had found her a well-paying job in a graduate vocal program right in Texas, but she said no, she had changed her mind. She didn’t want anything that would build on her previous, exalted persona. But she wanted to teach children to appreciate music. “Try the Dallas County Board of Education,” she told him.

“There’s not much money in that,” he said.

“We’ll make do.” She hung up.

She saw the silk pantsuits hanging in her closet and remembered how expensive they had seemed when she first bought them. Everything has its price. She folded them carefully and put them in a shopping bag she would take to the nursing home, pajamas for the residents.

JOSÉ SOTOLONGO was born in Cuba. His prose and poetry have appeared in several publications, including Atticus Review, The Cortland Review, The Southampton Review, Third Coast, and others. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fiction of 2019. The Scented Chrysalis, a novel, was released in 2019, and his second novel will be out in 2020. More information can be found at