C. A. Cole: “Birds of Opera”

My friend Deirdre is smoking, her arm half out the driver’s window, as we hurtle in her blue Pontiac into the heart of my past. In the duct-taped back seat her twelve-year-old has planted a book in front of her face, while the eight-year-old rhythmically kicks at the broken ashtray. Deedee is rambling, her words tripping each other up as she gesticulates with the burning tip of her cigarette. I strain out my window, wanting to shout for her to stop, to point out the road to Rory’s house.

“Michael thinks I’m perfect,” Deirdre laughs over the engine’s clank.

“Nothing is perfect,” I mutter, “except possibly Itzhak Perlman’s rendition of Sarasate’s Variations on Carmen.”

“Michael thinks I am,” she says. “And you need not compare everything to classical music I never heard of.”

Deirdre and I sat across from each other in junior high and conversed in sign language, spelling with our fingers what we weren’t supposed to say out loud. Separated by time zones and lifestyles, we email regularly. We’ve remained close—as if we each were the sister we’d never had—but I wonder if the reality of our differences, alive and in person over an extended period for the first time since we exited our teens, will cause our friendship to implode.

Deedee runs her driving hand through her sweaty hair, making me suspect she is concerned about the same thing. “You want to hear about Michael or not?”

I shrug. If that’s what it takes to get us back on the same wavelength, I’ll listen.

He’s a painter, not the artistic kind but the blank wall sort, she tells me. He’s been divorced for ten years and has two kids. Although he has had relationships with three other women, none lasted. “They give him an ultimatum and he says, ‘uh, uh.’ That’s fine with me. You won’t see me rushing back into any marriages.”

She’s on her third divorce. I don’t blame her for not wanting to make another mistake, yet I’m not sure how productive it is to hang on to someone who is unwilling to make a commitment.

“So anyway,” she says, “you going to see Rory? I figured you’d want to.”

“Deedee, I came visit you, not flirt with old boyfriends.”

As she signals a turn off the highway, she widens her eyes at me in mock surprise. I tap my fingers on my bare knee. I am not about to admit that lately my marriage has been suffering from skin hunger, or that at thirty-six I’m worried about my flabby thighs.

“Here we are in the great metropolis of Notsego,” Deirdre says. “Everything look familiar? Nothing’s changed.”

Other than a Wendy’s at the entrance to the highway, she appears to be right.


“You can’t live up to it,” I tell Deirdre in the morning while she counts scoops of coffee into the brewing basket. I’m guarding English muffins stuffed into her wheezing toaster, poised to rescue them. Michael stopped over the night before. He has an eyebrow ring and a tattoo of a pumpkin, a Buck knife embedded in its orange flesh, where his hair brushes his shoulders. “Someday he’s going to see some little thing—a hair out of place, or you’re not going to have the right brand of beer—and he’s going to decide you aren’t so perfect.”

She shakes her bleached-tipped hair. “He’s not a dope.”

“I’m talking psychological issues, not intellectual,” I say as I wrestle with the burning bread. “It seems to me, if someone has unrealistic expectations, sooner or later they’re bound to find out.”

She sets my blue mug down with a clatter.

“It’s imperfections we have to learn to live with.” I mentally kick myself for sounding like the high school teacher I am. “Life with perfection doesn’t require effort.”

“For once I want something easy, something I don’t have to work at.”

After we eat, Deirdre hands me her car keys and I drop her off at the optometrist’s office where she works. She salutes as if I were the captain of a ship, a general in the army.

I’ve been tasked with cleaning out my grandmother’s apartment. Deirdre invited me to stay with her.

Grandmother’s last home was a renovated brick apartment building with ivy growing up its pitted sides. She named me, her only grandchild, Olympia Antonia Hoffman. She adored Tales of Hoffman, but I’m not sure I appreciate being named after a mechanical doll.

There are photos on one of her shelves, one of her first husband, my father’s sire. That black and white photo, her long black hair contrasted with his golden mop of curls, made them look like movie idols, perfect in their physical attributes, although she admitted they had nothing in common and that their brief marriage had been a mistake. The grandfather I remember is another man, not handsome; he knew all the words to Tosca, and this time my grandmother was happy.


Deirdre is cooking, pots stacked on her wooden counter, a pan of water on a rickety stool. Onionskins litter the floor. The kitchen heat turns our faces red and soon the conversation slips around to Rory.

“He acts like he’s seventeen. I don’t see what you saw in him.” She bangs her utensil drawer shut with her hip and turns to stir the stew. “Do you know what he does these days? Drives around and buys cigarettes and picks up girls.”

“Did you ever listen to him talk?” I ask as she slurps a taste of stew, eyeing me over the oversized spoon. “He stresses unexpected syllables. I thought he was funny. And cute.”

“Yeah, right,” she says as if she remembers that photo of my grandparents and their disastrous relationship.

“And he knew how to touch me.” Deirdre leers, but caught up in the memory, I continue. “Believe it or not, I’ve never met anyone who kisses the way he did.”

“You’re going to pass up seeing someone who’s so perfect?” She grins so wide I can see her wisdom teeth.

I slap napkins on the table. I’ll never admit that my husband’s idea of a passionate kiss is any brushing of the lips that lasts longer than three seconds.


At night, in the usurped bed of the older girl, I whisper snatches of Tales of Hoffman, my namesake opera, to myself. Antonia’s lament, with its departed turtledove begging for the return of her lover’s heart, helps me fall asleep.

Friday Deirdre drops the kids at her mother’s so she and I can go clubbing. “This isn’t something I do,” I warn her.

The neckline of her red blouse plunges to the very tip of her breasts and exposes her midsection. You can see the diamond in her navel and seven of the yellow petals from the sunflower tattoo on her shoulder.

I don black Capris with a green raw silk blouse. Deirdre pulls my blouse off my shoulder so my dingy bra strap shows. I hitch it back up.

“You-know-who doesn’t show until late,” Deirdre says as we head out to her Pontiac.

Although tonight is my last opportunity to run into Rory, I won’t give Deirdre the pleasure of knowing I’m tempted. “Are there quiet bars?”

“Quiet?” She pops her eyes wide as if I’ve lost my mind. “Why would we want quiet?”

“To talk. Why else do you go to bars?”

“To look at men. To dance. See who’s around.”

“What about Michael?”

“What about him? We aren’t married. We aren’t engaged. We aren’t living together.”

“What about perfection?”

“Part of that is his freedom.”

“What about commitment?”

“All I’m going to do is look.” She lights a cigarette. “And flirt. In case my perfection wears off.”

She chooses a bar four towns over that features a band. When we find an empty booth, not far from the one working exit light, we order iced teas—non-alcoholic for me.

Before Deirdre has taken two sips, a guy asks her to dance. I fiddle with my straw and think how like high school this is. I don’t like the music—’90s schlock. I wonder if Deirdre looks younger and I look my age. Maybe I don’t have enough exposed skin. I mouth the words to Olympia’s doll song with its birds’ love. With the near scream in the middle of the silly song, it fits my mood perfectly.

Another male—Michael, I realize when I squint—comes up and puts his hands in Deirdre’s back pockets. Deirdre wedges herself between Michael and the other man, an arm around each. I shred my napkin and weave the strips into intricate designs. I’m trying to decide if Deirdre makes a better Carmen or Violetta when someone slides into the seat across from me. I frown at the Genesee beer emblem in the middle of his t-shirt.

“Olympia?” His voice is so familiar but I’m afraid to look up. It’s too easy to revert to seventeen. “Olympia?” Rory asks again.

His brown eyes are like curare to me. His hair is shorter, not as red, and he’s balding.

I can’t look at him, not into his eyes.

He gestures for me to follow him outside. He shakes a cigarette out of a pack, faces away from the mild breeze, lights it. He rests his foot against the building’s side. “You looked lost.”

My eyes water, transforming the man next to me into a boy in a black Wallace Beery shirt, his hands shaking. “Sounds like our first conversation.”

He smokes, cupping his cigarette so the fumes don’t blow in my direction.

“Deirdre says you usually show up late,” I blurt.

“Usually do.” He takes his cigarette out of his mouth. “Work second shift at the water plant. Called in sick. Michael told me you were here.” He cuts his eyes in my direction. “Want to go someplace quiet? ” His voice is as warm and familiar as the night air.

“I have to tell Deirdre.”

“Text her.” He never liked her, one of the few men who hadn’t fallen prey to her brown-eyed gaze. She doesn’t have a cell phone.

Back in the club, Michael’s hands are rooted in Deirdre’s pockets. I shout, “I’m leaving. Rory’s here.” She wiggles her eyebrows at me and says, “Perfect, I’ll leave the door open.”

Rory’s smoking the nub of his cigarette. We head to his car, talking in half sentences. I fill him in, that I’m married, no kids, teach biology. He nods as if he knows the rudiments of me.

In the middle of the parking lot he slows, touches my arm. “There,” he says, squinting toward the periphery of light. “That’s mine. Shelby Mustang. Refinished it myself.”

“Nice.” It shines as if he’s given it a rubdown. I don’t care about cars, but I can appreciate classically perfect lines as well as the next person.

“Where’s your husband?” he asks as he unlocks my side of the car.

“I’m not sure I care.”

He touches my arm, leaving a cool burn. He tells me he’s divorced, has a daughter. He smiles. Darcy. He slides his wallet out of his back pocket and flips it open to a picture of a little red-haired, blue-eyed girl. He holds it out to me and turns on the dome light.

“She’s older now,” he says after I exclaim how cute she is. Other than her hair, she doesn’t look like him.

“She’s twelve. Moved to California.”

We’re on the highway, the lights of the city receding behind hills and trees. I think he’s heading toward Notsego. I’m edgy, nervous, as if this were a first date, but I trust him in a way I wouldn’t a stranger. He fiddles with the radio, picking a station playing “Hey, Nineteen.”

“They aren’t kidding,” he says, nodding. “That bar is full of kids. Play some decent music and they say, ‘You got any Noize?’ Guess I’m getting old.”

I know what he means because I want to request Saint-Saens, Falla, Rossini, but Steely Dan isn’t too bad.

He takes the Notsego exit and an immediate right. The riverside park, edged by a narrow strip of deep wood, is closed, but he stops along the road and helps me over the barrier gate. His hand is callused, but his fingers are strong, and their pressure feels as if he is remolding my bones. We stroll across the chilly grass, down to the bank where he sits on top of a rickety picnic table. I perch on the bench below him. Across an expanse of unmowed grass, the moon, partially full, makes silver ripples on the river.

“Never expected to see you again,” he says, his elbows resting on his knees. “Didn’t think you’d speak to me.”

He lights another cigarette and his fingers move to his mouth, rest on his jeaned leg as he stares toward the moon riding ripples. I listen to the flow of the water, the passing of the night.

I break the silence and say, “Tell me who you are now.”

“Who I am?”

Back then, it seemed as if we had known everything there was to know about each other, but with the years I’d come to doubt that. “We really didn’t know each other, but I want to know who you are, who you were. I’ll do the same.”

He holds up his hand, gesturing for silence as a whippoorwill breaks the thin quiet. “Must be hunting by the moon.” He flicks his butt toward the riverbank and says into the breeze. “Maybe I like my memories.”

The bird doesn’t sound again. I hug myself. His desertion had left a hole in my life.

“What do I say?” He sounds as if he’s floundering, as if no one has ever asked him anything this personal. Or as if he doesn’t himself know.

“I’ll go first.” I’ve given him the superficial account. Now I have to tell him something to define my quiddity, my essence. “I listen to classical, especially violin and opera.”

“Just a bunch of fat people singing and dying,” he says, but sounds as if he might be able to whistle an aria or two. He hops off the table, rests one foot on the splintery bench, and leans on his knee, inches from my face. “That’s not a secret.”

“Maybe I wasn’t passionate about opera in high school, but it was who I was becoming.” I’m about to be provocative and say I have to rely on vocal passion since I haven’t been fulfilled otherwise, when he shoves his hands in his pockets.

“I wasn’t becoming anybody,” he says, his voice lost in a renewed string of whippoorwills. “I blew it.” He jingles change in his pocket. “Didn’t become anyone.”

And then his hands are on each side of my face, his thumbs stroking my temples, and he’s kissing me with the same desperation he did when we were young. Unlike those two-decades-old kisses, though, I’m responding with desire in full bloom. He tugs me off the bench. We lie on the cool grass and soon his hand is over my breast, his fingertips stroking the skin exposed at the vee of my blouse. He nibbles my neck, slips his hand under my shirt.

He looks like the tenor of my dreams, but I’m convinced if he starts to sing, his voice will crack and not reach the high notes. I imagine us making love, me hearing “The Lark Ascending,” while he moves to “When Doves Cry.” The notes of the two pieces drift together, the ethereal beauty of one lost in the discord of the other.


He pulls his hand away and fumbles for his smokes.

I get to my feet, brush off my knees. “Rory?”

A match flares. He inhales.

“When I get home,” I tell him, hearing the chirp of strings and the silent whiz of wings, Bizet’s rebellious bird of love fluttering into the night air, “my husband and I are going to Santa Fe and the opera.”

“Me,” Rory says, blowing three smoke rings. “I’ll be here.”

I want to sit next to him, place his palms against my face again, wish I could perfectly hum the Sarasate.

Rory, his arms on his knees, stares toward the dark outline of a bird silhouetted against the pale sky. It swoops, disappearing over the lip of the riverbank.

“There’s still time,” I say and offer him my hand.

For the space of a note, he stares at my fingers, then clasps my hand, pulling himself up.

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