M. Malcomb Moore
Mark Gibson stood motionless, pressing his receding blond hair against the window of Feinberg’s Jewelry, praying. “So, God, where are you? It’s not like I’m asking for a burning bush or stone tablets here. Would it upset some great cosmic scheme to get a word from you? How do you expect me to make a decision like this? Are you there? Hey, are you listening to me?”
Beyond his desperate reflection lay the well-manicured display of engagement and wedding rings nestled on circles of burgundy velvet. They had talked of marriage before twenty years ago, but everyone is crazy in college. How could two people from different ilks blend their lives together without self-destructing? “Mature people season their passions with reason and self-control,” Mark lied to himself. Questions without answers filled his mind. His heart was torn between his two loves; the church and Sara. It exhausted his mind from weighing the risks of commitment to either. His will mired itself in his frustrating lack of confidence which had plagued him since high school. So, there Mark stood at the window, replaying the past in his mind, searching for an elusive clue to guide him.
It had been just over three years since his wife was killed. He was preparing his choir for an evening service at the Evanston Bible Church when the police came with the news: a drunk driver-hit and run-struck down while walking to meet him for the service. They caught the guy four days later, gave him nine months in jail and a three-year probation. Mark was left with a lonely bed, bleeding ulcers, and raising two teenage daughters by himself.
But in time his life was mending. His girls had both won scholarships to Northwestern. In six months he would receive his doctorate in musicology and his position as music director at the church allowed him to keep his performance skills well-tuned. His greatest joy was directing the North Shore Community Choir, one hundred people singing for no other reason than the euphoric passion of four-part harmony. Then came Sara.
During the auditions for the community choir the still zany, hot headed and beautiful Sara had stumbled back into his life like some cosmic slip up, throwing two souls together without weighing the consequences. After her divorce, Sara moved to Evanston to begin her teaching assignment as associate professor of business law at Northwestern. The ad in the Evanston Chronicle regarding the auditions rekindled her interest in singing.
Mark was packing up his music thinking he had finished with his last audition when a voice greeted him from behind. “Could you use another alto?” Sara asked.
Mark responded as he turned. “Yes, of course. I was just finishing auditions but there is always time to hear another voice.” By that time he had turned to see her standing and laughing.
“Mark Gibson, I cannot believe this. God, it’s been so long. How are you?”
“Sara? What, what are you doing here? I heard you were running some big law firm in New York.” They hugged and continued.
“I did, and I was but I didn’t really have my own life there, could never have time to be me. I accepted a faculty position at Northwestern and saw the ad for the choir. I miss singing and here I am.”
“Well, yes, here you are. Okay, great. It is wonderful to see you again. So, uhm, I guess, stand by the piano and let me hear that alto voice of yours.”
“I have been practicing a little so I hope I can live up to your standards.”
“This is a rather accomplished choir, but I know you can make it happen.”
Mark ran her through some scales to check her tone and range and had her read some music. “Well, Sara, I can see it’s there. With some work I’m sure you can regain that amazing voice from our college days.”
She grinned. “So I’m in, I can sing with you?”
“Yes, Sara, welcome to the choir. We rehearse on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings here at the church. Will that be a problem?”
“With you directing, I’ll find a way to make it work.”
“Great, I’ll see you Tuesday then. It really is good to see you again, Sara.”
“See you then. Oh, does your wife sing in the choir as well? I’d love to meet her.”
“My oldest daughter does, but I lost my wife three years ago.”
“Oh Mark, I am so sorry. That must have been terrible for you.”
“It was a dark place for sure, but my daughters, my church and the music has brought back some light. We’re doing okay now.”
Sara gave him a consoling embrace. “I’ll see you Tuesday. Do you have some music you would like me to learn?”
“Of course, here is a folder with our repertoire for the coming season. I do hope you remember your French and Italian.”
“Uhm, I’ll practice. You won’t be disappointed.”
And with that she turned and left. Now they were together again after decades with still unfinished business between them.
. . . . .
It all began when he was twenty in the fall of his senior year at Northwestern. Mark made his way across campus to Lutkin Hall. The recital stage was barely lit by a single spot. There alone and almost sacred sat a twelve foot Steinway waiting its moment to redeem aesthetic souls from their technical and mundane prisons, lifting them to a paradise reserved only for those who had offered at least a decade of sacrificial penance before the altar of the god of music. Mark was one who had paid his dues at this altar and now was trying to push beyond his safe boundaries and try for the impossible. His blond hair, blue eyes and better-than-average looks gave him an air of confidence, but inside he felt apologetic for taking up space on earth and needed constant prodding to keep his self-esteem from eroding farther than it already had.
“Who are all these people? Is something else going on here tonight? “Mark asked anxiously as Brenda, his musical soul mate, accompanist and sometimes date found a seat toward the front. “I hope to god they aren’t here for the auditions.”
It always bothered him when they let non-music majors audition for the university chorale. This group of twelve vocalists had risen to regional fame and to be accepted was the highest honor in the music department. The rare and cherished openings in the Chorale were reserved for upper-classmen and only given by invitation. Mark had labored for nine weeks to perfect his breathing, pitch, and articulation just to earn a faculty recommendation. The growing assortment of musical infidels pissed him off. This was his dream they were trying to steal.
Mark’s introduction to vocal performance started in high school. His parents always made him attend a small Community Church down their street in his hometown of Quincy, Illinois. Directing this tenor starved choir was a hyperactive layman the kids called Pastor Bob. He had just enough enthusiasm and experience with music to move this little band of sixteen to a level of respectability. It was Pastor Bob who, having heard him sing a few hymns, asked Mark to consider singing tenor for a Christmas Cantata. Standing next to the tenors were the altos and standing next to the tenors was a seventeen-year-old beauty named Karen. For less than musical reasons, Mark agreed to sing.
By January of his sixteenth year, he had become helplessly seduced by the sensuous interplay of four-part harmony. The music evolved from black dots on the lines to a passionate, tightly woven interplay of beauty. With the soaring sopranos, the resonant basses and the middle voices, alto and tenor, his ears had been born again to hear the language of the heart.
“Stay cool, Mark. You’ve got this,” Brenda encouraged. “When they hear this Hindemith, they’ll probably leave without even auditioning.”
“Do you think the Hindemith is too tough, does it really sound okay?” Mark probed with his all too often tone of self-doubt. “Maybe I’m the one who should leave.”
“Damnit, Mark, we’ve been through this. Quit this I’m-no-good crap. Go up there and let your voice do its thing. The Hindemith is tough, we picked it for that reason and you are going to make it happen, okay?”
He sat quietly, overpowered by Brenda’s forcefulness, intimidated, yet thankful. After a moment he searched once more, “but do you really think…”
“All right, all right, I’m great, I’m wonderful,” he complied with a hint of introspective cynicism.
At 6:59 the house lights came up and Professor Langley, Mark’s voice teacher for the last two years and director of the Chorale, took the center stage and spoke into the mic. “I will read a list of those who have confirmed recommendations to auditions. Please indicate your presence.”
As Langley read through the list of twenty men and women who would try out for the open tenor and alto positions, Mark’s faith strengthened. He knew Langley. Langley knew him. No student would ever be so foolish as to call him a friend, but Mark felt something from him. Through the cracks in his uncompromising expectations, Mark could see one who believed in him, probably more than he believed in himself.
On that Tuesday night in October, Mark not only won a place in the Chorale but received a standing ovation from all the other students. It was also the night his life collided head on with Sara Rosen.
Sara’s audition was like no one else. Even at five-three she took control of the stage and belted out a Puccini aria as if he had written it for her. Her voice made love with every phrase. Her perfectly groomed black hair, short skirt and blazing red lips stole the attention of every guy in the room. Her eye contact with Langley and the audience announced unapologetically, “I’m here, pay attention.” And they did, and Mark did. Langley chose Sara to sing alto and by Thursday that same week Sara and Mark were blending their middle voices together.
It took only a week for Mark to discover that everything was wrong with Sara. She was a pre-law student, a contemptible breed for Mark. Her pushy, upper class, New England, Jewish attitude assaulted his Bible belt middle class shyness like a Janice Joplin concert. Mark could hardly finish a sentence without Sara running over him. Even his eight-inch height advantage was of no avail. Sara owned every conversation and every room she entered. Mark’s vocal abilities were being pushed well beyond his self-imposed boundaries, but this aggressive outsider amplified his shyness.
One night in January, it became complicated.
“Mark, Mark.” The voice came from behind as he walked back to his apartment after rehearsal. He was hoping to God it wasn’t the voice he recognized. Quickened footsteps were accompanied by the timbre of that one female on campus he found most aggravating. It was Sara.
“Mark, wait up. I need to talk to you.” With that she had matched his pace joining him at his side, clouding the night air with her winter panting.
He mumbled so not to show interest, “Hi, Sara.”
“Hi, Mark. Hey, you sound great on that Brahms.”
“Thanks,” he muttered in sterile politeness.
“I want to ask you something,” she asked, grabbing his arm so he would stop and look at her. “Look, I know this is kinda pushy,” Mark couldn’t imagine how she could ever come to that conclusion, “but when are you going to ask me out?”
Mark finally let his eyes meet hers, looking for some sign of mockery in her expression.
“Well, we sing together all the time and I know your shy and everything and I’ve always got my mouth open and interrupting but I think we ought to get to know each other, you know, because we could learn from each other and besides that I really don’t know many people here and, are you hungry?”
He didn’t know to which part of this verbal barrage to respond. Even though he lacked confidence, he wasn’t into self-abuse and spending time with Sara would be masochistic.
Mark grabbed for the only excuse he could find, “I’m Protestant,” he stated with a tone of finality.
“That’s okay, we don’t have to talk religion or anything, it doesn’t even have to be a date date, maybe we could just hang out together, besides I don’t do temple that much anyway. Could we get a burger or something?”
As they walked on, Sara kept his pace. Mark never really thought of Sara as a person, only that loud mouth non-music major nuisance of an alto he had to sing with four times a week. Her hint of well-concealed loneliness was disarming. He remembered as a child picking up lost kittens and wounded birds and caring for them. Now here was Sara clouding the evening air with an avalanche of feelings, exposing her need for a little companionship. A little companionship, Mark thought, seemed safe enough for now.
“Hey, Mark, is anybody home in there? Are you listening to me?”
“Mark stammered, “Yes, uhm, Sara,” regaining his focus on the moment, “a burger, uhm, of course, yes, that’s sounds good.”
They continued to walk to the Huddle, a little pub next to campus noted for great fries and cheap beer. Frustrated with his stupid, compliant attitude, he was sure he had been trapped into befriending this cute but verbose alto.
Sara filled the next two hours with a long uninvited autobiography. Her grandparents were emigrants, she an only child, her parents owned a chain of bakeries in Brooklyn and Manhattan, they wanted her to be a star on Broadway and forced her to take voice lessons from age five; she wanted to become a judge so, she rebelled and was now majoring in pre-law, and on it went.
Mark relinquished his portion of her soliloquy only to add an occasional, “really?” and, “interesting,” accompanied by raised eyebrows and a semi-manufactured smile of agreement.
As her verbal tsunami continued, Mark began to see glimpses of innocence, shades of sincerity and even a little pain. For Sara, his ears were like a feast to someone so starved for one who would listen. Though the thought frightened him he began to see someone tolerable, maybe even likeable. Somewhere hidden behind this fountain of words lived a real person and Mark resigned himself to find her.
Over the next several weeks, the scenario repeated itself nightly. Their laughter became louder and spontaneous as Sara’s free unbridled spirit rendered her interpretations of life into a hilarious dance of humanity. Rehearsals became seasoned with intermittent snickers over some hidden nuance of speech or movement which only the two of them understood. Then, one night quite by accident and certainly against every bit of sound judgment, their friendship became a romance.
They had made their way to Mark’s apartment to rehearse the music for an upcoming tour.
“Okay, what’s next?” Mark queried as he shuffled through their repertoire.
“I think we need to work on the French madrigal,” Sara offered, “I am still struggling with some of those French vowels.”
Mon Coeur Se Recommande a Vous by Orlando De Lassus was an incendiary choice for their vulnerable friendship. Mark had taken four years of French in high school and knew what the words meant; I Give to You All of My Heart.
It started safe enough, working through the notes, breathing and pronunciation, watching each other’s lips, perfecting entrances and cut-offs. They moved closer until they were standing toe to toe, breath meeting breath, eyes lost in eyes, losing themselves in the harmony and finding each other. The final cadence came and went as their passion ignited. Their hearts moved into vivace as their bodies blended together into a night long cadenza for two.
Mark had never seen Sara in the morning, yet there she stood in his pajamas sobbing and looking as if some wonderful tragedy had befallen her. He had never seen her look so vulnerable, yet there she stood, speechless and in desperate need of acceptance. Rising from his bed, Mark put his arms around her and gently rested her disheveled black hair onto his consoling shoulder. Neither of them spoke for a long time. Finally, they sat together on his unmade bed.
“Sara, look at me.” Sara’s tear-filled eyes found their way to his as she listened. “You and I are so different. You’re like a, I don’t know, a fanfare, a Sousa march. Everyone watches and cheers when you’re around. Me, I’m an oboe playing a requiem. I don’t know how we will orchestrate this relationship, but there must be some way, someplace in the middle for us to love each other. I need you, Sara, I want you. I’ve never felt so good about myself, so alive as when I’m with you. God, Sara Rosen, I’ve fallen in love with you.”
And with those words began the sweetest most tempestuous relationship the music department had ever seen. Living together amplified their extremes. Sara would seldom let him hide behind his nauseating shyness, and Mark learned to out talk Sara until she shut up long enough to listen. Both were changing. Langley was impressed with the increased strength and passion in Mark’s voice. Often he praised Sara for her new depth and sensitivity.
The blending of their middle voices was near angelic, but the discord in their relationship deafened them to the growing sophistication in their music. A month before graduation, Sara moved out. They would see each other occasionally after rehearsal, talking about concerts and their divergent plans after graduation. Never would they talk about the unfinished business between them, the pursuit for the allusive middle ground they both needed so desperately to find. After commencement, Mark found her in the crowd, gave her a kiss goodbye, and silently prayed that God would erase her from his thoughts.
. . . . .
God never answered that prayer. With typical indecision, Mark turned away from the jewelry store window, fumbling for his keys.
“Well, sweetheart, are you going to stand there and look at those rings all day or do I get to take one home?” Fate had struck again. Sara had driven by, seen Mark at the window and barged into his private debate without an invitation.
“Sara, uhm, uhm, what are you doing here? I thought you were…”
“I finished early and went to the drugstore across the street. The real question is, what are you doing HERE?”
Looking into her searching eyes, Mark fumbled for words. “I don’t know Sara. I guess I’m afraid to know. What are we going to do? We’re still as different as we ever were, only nicer about it. How can I explain to my church that I am marrying a Jewish woman?”
“No problem,” Sara teased, “we could just live together first.”
“Sara, get serious. They would have another crucifixion if we did that.”
“Relax, I’m kidding,” she consoled, taking his hands in hers. “Mark, do you remember what happened to our music when we were together in college?”
Mark looked beyond Sara into his memories. “We were so good for each other then. I never felt so alive, so together. I loved how we would stand face to face. I’d lose myself in your eyes and we’d sing until two in the morning.” Mark dropped his hands and retreated to his familiar collection of doubts. “But we would end up screaming at each other after a month. I’m afraid of that, Sara, what if that happens again?”
“If, IF?” Sara crescendoed, “it will happen again, but this time we won’t quit. There is a place for us to love each other but we have to look for it, fight for it. Maybe it’s with your God, maybe mine. I don’t know, maybe neither.”
“I can’t leave my faith behind, you know that, Sara.” Mark retreated, entrenching himself in the last place he felt safe.
“Neither can I.”
They stood facing each other like two alley dogs ready to fight. Mark’s arms folded tightly across his chest. Sara’s hands planted themselves uncompromisingly on her hips.
Grabbing his shirt, she broke the silence with the same angered edge on her voice. “So, are you going to buy me that ring or not?”
“But what about…”
Sara moved close enough for Mark to feel the spit from her persistent words. “What about us, Mark? For God’s sake, for once in your life will you listen to your heart? You love me, damnit. I love you. We’ve got each other. We’ve got our music. That is our middle ground, can’t you see it? We can make the other stuff fit.”
Again Mark felt overpowered. His glance fell to the sidewalk searching desperately for a response from his still silent God. Panic broke out in his mind. He felt deserted, afraid and vulnerable, left alone with nothing but his own feelings to move the moment. A moment passed.
“Well Mark, it’s your decision to make. What will it be?” Her now gentle voice revealed her own sense of vulnerability.
A rare and euphoric wave of decision swept through his being. He grabbed Sara almost knocking her to the ground. “Yes, yes, I can see it, I can do this, I can make my own decision.”
Mark turned again toward the window, his reflection revealing his silly, smiling, and very confident self. With a voice sounding as if he had finally convinced Sara to marry him he asked, “So, Mrs. Gibson, which one of these rings would you like to wear for the rest of your life?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” she said pulling the door open to the store. “I put it on layaway a week ago.”