I woke up sharp at six, to make sure that I got to the airport in time to receive a familiar fellow in Crimson. Sibelius came with his guitar and a copy of Monte Cristo. He hasn’t yet grown out of his school-pride phase and is decked out in crimson that actually looks good on him. Freckled and blue-eyed, he is all laughter when he sees me. I even let him get away with twirling me about. It has been a long time.
“Your shoulders are still the same,” he says. “The same as they were in February 2014. You look so tired. We should fix that.”
I grab his book and point towards the exit. It is time to deposit him safely in his flat at Palo Alto, and then call his mother to tell her that everything is all right.
Frayed out by the red-eye flight, long nights in grad-school, and amounts of coffee that worry even me, he is jittery and happy. He cooes over my car, having not seen it before.
“It looks better than in the pictures.”
“It is rather like me then,” I tell him.
“Can we drive across to Hayward, and then down through Fremont and then cross the Dumbarton?”
It has been so long and I am glad enough to see him again that I agree. He has only been here for a few minutes and he has already started the frenetic pace which I expect my life to have over the next few weeks. Sure enough, he takes out his phone and recites the itinerary he has planned for every weekend. He takes down little notes and makes changes as I remember engagements I can’t wriggle out of.
Then the CD player in the car starts up, and it is playing the new Marilyn Manson CD. He listens to Killing Strangers for a while before saying cautiously, “I don’t want to offend you, but it seems as if he’s dumbed down his lyrics a lot to appeal to the masses. He used to have more lyrics – Target Audience is a favourite.”
I had noticed that myself. I had been singing with the music a few days ago on my work commute and the repetition had made me scowl. It seems a sensible thing to do, if you want to sell music in today’s market. It is more sensible to sell something closer to what others are selling, than something drastically different. It doesn’t make me happy though. At least the music itself is very good. It is not just music, though. I have often teetered at the crossroads myself: should I write what I want to write? should I write what sells? Since it is not my profession, I can afford to write what I want. Still, if one day I made it my profession, I would have to think harder about the choice.
Sibelius cuts into my thoughts as if we were still discussing a Mahler performance on a cold Saturday night in Atlanta. He says something about liking the tone and layers of my current writing as opposed to the paid dregs I had been writing up two years ago around the same time. Then he says something that strikes a chord, “You’ll never write anything mass-market popular. You’ll write stuff that stays around in corners for curious readers to find and love. To those people it will make a difference.”
I suspect there is a streak of individuality and idealism that grad-school hasn’t stamped out of me yet. Maybe it will go away, one day. Maybe I will be move to a high-paying job where I am doing nothing I like, and still find nothing displeasing about my life. The idea of it repulses me now. I had bought into the Silicon Valley rhetoric long before I had heard of it: make an impact, change lives for the better et al.
Sibelius asks me to sing along to the music. I refuse saying that I can’t sing. He comments that I can’t be worse than Bob Dylan. Well, comparing to Bob Dylan always makes you feel better about your voice. So we sing along. Sibelius is as sharp as he always has been, and memorizes the lyrics easily. The repetition helps.
I had stocked the flat with his requests: boxed wine and doritos. This seems like sacrilege, having seen his parents’ wine collection. Where had he picked up such deplorable tastes?
“You told me to go to Grad-school,” he offers. I shut up. Right, the mistakes of my guidance.
He comments that I used to be a slower driver. I tell him that working for a car company has its consequences. I am not sure if I should blame the company, or the Italian team-mate.
There are three acoustic tracks on the CD. We stop singing and Sibelius comments that he is surprised that Manson’s voice is still intact after all the screaming of the 90s.
“I have great tickets for October,” I tell him. “Will you come?”
He says he will think about it. He loves his music in high-ceilinged concert halls, where the audience is silent and rapt while the conductor takes them through symphonies. I think I still have our opera-glasses from the last opera we attended in Atlanta. Cheap tickets mean that you need aids to see the show.
I am rambling. I should stop. I had thought, after the mess of the past many months, of the past five years even, that it would all be bleak for a very long time. I don’t make friends easily. I am difficult on others and more difficult on myself. I need to be cajoled to socialize and I am terrible at it anyway. I find it hard to talk about myself. I end up listening to others and hearing the tragedies of their lives because I listen very well – all that negativity gets me down each time I meet people. I am told that I am easy to confide in. I don’t want to be confided in, these days. I just want to get on with my life, to change very many things that I want changed, to forget a great many things that have happened to me, to undo misjudgments and errors that led my mind and heart to places that didn’t suit them very well. It is good to have a chord of constancy to be rooted by, in this time of chrysalis. I don’t know what I’ll be at the end of this, but I know what I want to be. In a time of such uncertainty and shedding, it is good to have a familiar refrain that grew out of soil where had once grown peach trees, soil where was planted for me a Southern magnolia.
How glad I am that you stopped me on the steps leading to the symphony hall in 2012, after the most remarkable performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto that I have heard.
“Dinner at Don Giovanni’s?”
Right. I’ll even eat gnocchi today.
“I came in at the wrong side of summer,” Sibelius says. “It is nearly September.” He shuffles through my CDs and selects one. The first notes of the soulful Tapiola start.
No, the summer is just beginning.