HEART LIKE A FIELD
by Aldo Sesia
I had not thought of Tatiana in years. That is, not until I saw the billboard above the expressway on that gray and sticky day. When she left, I had eventually pushed her out of my consciousness with the force of a thousand raging bulls. The alternative, remembering everything about her from the licorice smell of her hair or the honey taste of her mouth, and then recalling it for days into weeks into months into years, had, at the time, nearly devoured me. Stuck in crawling traffic on that day, I had ample time to take her in again. Her face, except for its huge billboard size, was just as I had remembered it: eyes a gospel blue, a carnival of alleluias. Yes, when Tatiana looked at you—really looked at you—you felt the pull of an undertow taking you leagues into her soul. Her hair, still cut short, was a lighter shade of brunette then I had remembered it to be. But that was a small point. And the scar that ran along her chin, the scar that I loved to trace with my fingers while lying next to her, was gone.
When she left me, over twenty-odd years ago, I stopped reading the newspaper for concerts coming to town. It was not that I lost my interest in music, precisely the opposite. I knocked on the door of music with my beleaguered heart in tow and threw myself across the dreary threshold. I played any gig, anywhere, anytime. I had as much success as could be expected in an era when an acoustic guitar held little currency with the young. I played the coffeehouse circuit where grateful old hippies-some who still said “groovy” comprised the audience. But the gigs were few and far between and the pay was weak as tea; so after three years I got, as they say, a real job as a market analyst at the large mutual fund company in the city. My parents were ecstatic and celebrated by having the windows in their house replaced. “Vinyl,” my dad said, “no maintenance!”
That Tatiana made it to the big stage, and I had not, seemed completely reasonable to me. I had little interest in forging new aesthetics; no, I had intended to single-handedly preserve and promote, keep alive as it were, the music of my heroes, the folk legends who were being vanquished by the scene. When the music world turned electric, Tatiana went with it. She also was immensely more talented than me, a first-rate guitarist with a killer voice. (That she had a pouty waif-like yet bosomy appearance had not hurt either.) When Tatiana sang the lyrics fell on you like dustbowl rain.
So there she was again after all these years looking down at me on that day with a twenty-foot wide smile. That my company was promoting her concert two weeks from then at the Harbor Pavilion—a marketing scheme coupling the company’s top fund managers with popular singers under a nascent advertising campaign called “Talent Knows Talent”—carried, as you can imagine, a wallop of irony. Next to her on the billboard was the face of Sherman Nixon, hair slicked back tight as if her were caught in a wind tunnel. The company’s next rising star, a guy whose picture already appeared on the covers of Business Week and Fortune. The type of guy Tatiana despised—or had used to.
For the next hour the traffic had inched ahead. A tandem trailer truck toting fruit had overturned a mile up the expressway. Tangerines and melons had rolled by the static automobiles. I had tried to avert my eyes away from the billboard, to anything else—the grand hotels poised on the pier, the yellow construction cranes below the expressway, the one-legged sea gull floating effortlessly over the water in air heavy with the scent of salt—something blue and shiny dangling from its beak. I had refused to look to the wharf where the white tents of the music pavilion surely were buckling and snapping from the increasingly strong ocean wind (thunderstorms were forecasted). I opened my door, stuck out my foot, and stopped one of the rolling tangerines. I grabbed it, closed the car door, and peeled back its skin—releasing a luscious spray of juice, which turned my fingers sticky. I counted the number of dimples on one of the peels. I studied my eyebrows in the rear-view mirror. Despite these efforts, my eyes found their thirsty way back to Tatiana.
Tatiana and I met when we were both twenty and attending nearby colleges. I was majoring in business administration, to appease my parents, while Tatiana studied Russian history. Our passion, though, was our music and we played for loose change on drafty subway platforms at every opportunity. One day, I came upon her playing her nicked-up Gibson, taken with her aching voice and slightly nauseated by the pungent smell of homeless urine. Tatiana was singing one of her own compositions about Lenin and the purges with such heartfelt agony, as if she herself had survived the Gulag, that I immediately fell in love, and henceforth could be seen scurrying the subway system, like a famished rodent, looking for her. And look I did. For five whole months. Until one night I was sure I had spotted her.
It was snowing and the wind swirled the snowflakes’ flight, and a hush had fallen over the square. The few cars that were out, moved slowly through the slippery streets. The clear holiday lights strung high across the streets swayed and danced. There were relatively few people about, partly because of the weather, but also because classes had ended several days before for the Christmas break and many students had returned home. I titled my head to deflect the biting snow. The snow had reached ankle height. The tips of my fingers turned a prickly numbness.
As I approached the center of the square, out of the corner of my eye I saw Tatiana—I was sure of it. I opened my mouth to call out to her when an orange truck with an angled snowplow rumbled and scrapped its way by, throwing snow at my feet. After the truck had passed, I looked up but Tatiana had vanished. I rushed across the snowy street in the direction that she had headed. My heart pounded in my chest and the coldness seemed to dissipate. I was a beacon of heat and fever. I was iron forged. I reached a four-way intersection and looked in all directions, but Tatiana was not to be seen. “No!” I cried out, and fell to my knees. Hurriedly, I lifted my wet knees off the snow covered sidewalk and entered shop after shop in search of her, but to no avail. Tatiana was gone.
Dejected, I questioned myself. Perhaps it was an illusion? Maybe the snow and the holiday lights conspired to trick me in the name of magic or romance. After all I was vulnerable; it had been a grueling week of exams. I sat in a smoky café staring out the spotted window, my fingertips, which had turned cold again, warming around the cup of java. The Stones, I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, played over the loud speakers. Several couples seated at tables behind me talked and laughed. The snowfall intensified and the world was white and growing smaller and smaller and I felt captured in a hideous dream.
Do you know how many people were killed under Lenin? I guessed. Sometimes that is all it takes—a good guess. She asked me this question when I finally found her again. By then the winter had broken and birds had returned to the square. I had by this time all but given up on ever seeing her again. But I walked into the Wursthause, the famous German restaurant in the square, and there she was dressed in a billowy and low cut white blouse and pleated skirt—a true Fräulein—serving up snitzel and sauerkraut to the customers. I asked for a table where I could watch her every move and from 8 o’clock to closing I drank pints of high-octane German beer in ceramic stouts and ordered plates of this and that, barely touching any of it, steeling myself to say something-anything-to her when her shift ended.
At about midnight, she came out of the backroom, carrying her bag, and spraying goodbyes to her co-workers. I took one last (and large) gulp of beer and followed her out of the building.
“Fräulein,” I said.
She turned. Her eyes were on fire.
I backed off.
“Do you know how many people were killed under Lenin?” She tossed at me.
“Ah, twenty eight million,” I threw out.
“Do you know how many ignorant Americans don’t know this? She asked.
“Twenty eight million?”
“You were in the restaurant all night,” she said.
“Do you want to get a coffee at 1369?”
“Sure,” I said.
She made love when it rained hard as if she herself were awaiting a morning execution and had to wrap the rest of her life in the small hours before dawn. She gave her naked self abundantly, perhaps recklessly, seeking some holy alliance between life and death. I could have been anyone I realized after a time, but still she chose me (for that small fraction of her life) and gave me unlimited access. Sometimes I was overwhelmed, sometimes even frightened by Tatiana’s sexual intensity. Yet, I often found myself in the university’s chapel kneeling for a low-front to move in.
We were a couple for less than six months. In the last few months she became more distant, day by day. I knew she was leaving me (but denied it, as we all do). Like a departing ship, she quietly drifted from port. And at first I hardly noticed. If you watch a ship sailing away it does not appear to move. But if you close your eyes and open them five minutes later you can tell the ship has, indeed, moved. I pleaded with her, tearfully, not to leave. I swam failingly to that departing ship of love until my arms tired and I slowly sank to the ocean’s floor—all the while seeing the red steel hull moving further and further away until everything turned bitter and white.
Tatiana had tilled my heart like a field and then left it to fallow.
Finally the traffic broke and tires flattened the fruit. I headed home to the North Shore.
“How was your day?” my wife asked.
“Okay,” I said.
We kissed quickly like we had done a thousand times in our 18-year marriage.
“Are you okay? You look funny,” she said.
“Yea, different. Like you’ve seen a ghost,” she said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “What time is dinner?”
“The same time it is every night,” she replied. “Lamb chops, okay?”
“Sure. I think I’ll do a little bit of the hedge trimming before we eat,” I said.
I changed into my khaki shorts and put on a tee shirt. In the garage, next to the kid’s bikes, I found the hedge clippers.
I loved my wife and though my eyes had strayed over the years I had never betrayed her. We had our ups and downs like all married couples, but were bound to one another. We had two boys and a girl between the ages of five and thirteen. Though the passion had long been on auto-pilot, on occasion (when we put our two minds to it, which admittedly had grown increasingly rare over the years) we could recreate fragments of the early desire we had for each other’s body. I never played guitar now (clip) and I could not recall (clip) if the old six-string was stored in the attic or cellar of our two story suburban (clip) colonial or at my parent’s house on the Cape. Clip.
“Hey, what are you doing up there?” my wife shouted later in the evening,
“Just looking for something,” I yelled from the attic.
“LOOKING FOR SOMETHING.”
“I said I AM LOOKING FOR SOMETHING.”
“I heard you. WHAT are you looking for?” she asked.
Nothing, I said to myself.
“Well, you don’t have to be a prick about it,” I heard my wife say.
Still later that night.
“Hi Son,” my father said. “How is Lisa? The kids?”
“Everyone’s doing well. How’s mom.”
“Well, her gout is acting up again.”
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“You know good days, bad days. What are you going to do?” My father said.
“You remembering your medicine everyday,” I asked. “Listen…”
“What else can I do? I’m on the phone.”
“Right. I am looking for my old guitar. Do you have it there?”
“Why would I have your gee-tar?”
“I don’t know Pop. I can’t find it here, so I thought it might be at your place.”
“You going to start playing again? Give up the job, hit the road?” My father chuckled. “Maybe you can take your mother with you. Give me some peace of mind. As far as the gee-tar it’s not here as far as I know, but I’ll look around tomorrow. When are you going to bring the kids down to see us? We’re not going to be here forever, you know.”
After the call, I crawled into bed. My wife slept. Her bifocals teetered on the bridge of her nose, white moisturizer gave her face a ghoulish shine, a Patricia Cornwell hardcover rested on the blanket which covered her breasts, rising and falling as she breathed. I stared at my wife for awhile. I removed her eyeglasses, successfully not waking her, though I wished in part that she had opened her eyes because there was something I think I needed to say to her, though I didn’t know what it was, but I was confident that her eyes would have told me what it was I needed to tell her. I lifted the hardcover and placed it on the nightstand on my wife’s side of the bed and I turned off the light.
But I could not sleep. The billboard and Tatiana’s face were all I could see when I closed my eyes. I looked in on the children. I wondered if Tatiana had any kids. She had been married once to a chiseled television actor I had remembered reading in People magazine a decade ago in an airport terminal awaiting a business flight to the West Coast. I carried the magazine with me on the five-day trip in and around Sacramento until the last night when I took it to the hotel bar and after drinking a few beers I took one last look at the article and photo of Tatiana and her husband smooching on a Caribbean beach. I paid my tab and returned to my room leaving the magazine on the bar. My children slept soundly, each tucked in their own lovely room. I had never played guitar for them that I could recall; and for all I knew they may not have known that I once played the instrument and sang for money. I realized looking in on the youngest, Lila, the moon pouring in through the opened window, a wind tingling the gossamer curtains, that if they did know they would not have slept any sounder.
The next day at work, people were talking about the billboard and the upcoming concert. I had never mentioned to anyone that I knew Tatiana once, let alone that I had been her lover. They never would have believed me.
“Are you going to the concert?” Clara, my assistant, asked. “The company has a few hundred tickets but its first-come first- serve.”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” I said.
“I just love her,” she said.
“She’s so cool and really hip for her age,” Clara said.
“For her age…” I poked.
Clara blushed. She was twenty four and at times I would catch myself starring at her.
“I mean she’s still relevant in her forties,” Clara explained.
In truth, I was torn. Part of me wanted to go to the concert and another part did not. And as the days passed and the concert neared my convictions changed. One hour I was definitely going to go and the next hour I was definitely not going. I needed a sign, some divine signal to tell me what to do. I thought about taking the Red Line back to the square where Tatiana and I had met, hung around in, and played music for pedestrians in front of the COOP that spring and early summer when we were together, and where I had not been since getting married. Surely there it would come to me what to do. I decided that if my guitar turned up (still no word from the Cape, and maybe I should check the basement one more time) then I just had to go to the concert and if it did not well… If it rained more days than it did not leading up to the concert date then of course I would go.
The day before the concert was a Saturday. I woke my normal time, 6am, fed the dog and let her out. I had breakfast before any one stirred and left for the supermarket to do the grocery shopping as was my habit. I had not gone back to the square or called my parents on the Cape or searched the basement again for the guitar and though I had been aware of the weather each day I had not kept score of rainy days versus non-rainy days. The night before, Lisa had emerged from the master bathroom.
“I want you,” she said.
“Right,” I chuckled, without looking up from the Globe’s sports section.
When she did not reply, I looked up. She stood there in black panties sans a top, her breasts exposed—those breasts which had suckled my children—not as firm and attentive as they once had been but firm and attentive nonetheless.
In the supermarket I took one tangerine from an impeccable pyramid of tangerines, and when I did, the pyramid collapsed, sending the balls of fruit rolling to the floor and running off in all directions until not a single tangerine remained on display. Over the loud speaker a teenager’s serious voice said: “Clean up in produce.” And in that moment, I had what I can only describe as a near-death out of body experience: for I was floating above the scene looking down on myself. I saw a man in the early stages of middle age with a receding hairline and second mortgage worried about impending college tuitions and underperforming 401K plans who just hours ago had gotten an unexpected (and he was supremelygrateful) fellatio from his wife standing surrounded by an army of tangerines at his feet wearing a somewhat bewildered look. And what was it with tangerines? Jesus.
When I returned home, Lisa was up and sitting at the kitchen table.
“Back safely I see,” she said.
“Barely,” I replied and explained the tangerine incident.
“Coffee?” she asked holding the pot.
“Why not,” I said.
“Did you enjoy last night?” she asked.
“Are you going tomorrow?” she asked.
“To Tatiana’s concert.”
We had not spoken about the concert and I had thought that she knew nothing about it—there were, after all, no billboards with Tatiana’s picture in our town or in neighboring towns as far as I knew. And my wife was not one to read the arts and entertainment sections of the paper. I started to ask her how she found out about the concert but quickly realized it did not matter.
“I haven’t decided,” I said. “Would it bother you if I did go?”
“No, of course not. Go if you want to.”
“Would you want to go? I can always get another ticket. I just need to call the office.”
“So you already have one ticket?” she asked.
“Sometimes you’re so pathetic,” she said. “Excuse me. I’ve got children to raise.”
It was hot and humid the night of the concert and the breeze from the ocean provided welcome relief as the sun began to set. I sat in my Saab in the Pavilion’s parking lot while the warm-up act performed its set. I was parked too far from the stage to make out the singer’s lyrics but the bass pulsed through the heavy salt-laden air with ease. My toe tapped the brake petal to the beat of the music. I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes. Between my legs, a cold bottle of Coors sweated. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to see Tatiana after all of these years; I didn’t know what doing so would unearth. With my eyes closed, I drank from the bottle until it was dry.
It was Clara. She was wearing shorts and a halter top. Her hair was tied up and pinned back revealing delicate tiny ears. Chained beads rested above her breastbone. Her legs were toned and tanned.
“You made it!”
“I guess I did,” I said.
“This is Aaron,” she said. And out of nowhere appeared a lean yet muscular man approximating Clara’s age.
“Hi,” I said. I reached out my hand. “Nice to meet you.”
His hand engulfed mine and his grip was stronger.
“Aren’t you going in?” Clara asked.
“Yes, I just was…”
“Come on. No more delays,” she said and then opened the car door. Clara grabbed my arm.
“Okay. Okay,” I said.
And the three of us walked to the pavilion, Clara in the middle between myself and Aaron. Once through the gates, the crowd pushed us apart and we separated and I headed to the beer tent. The opening act had just finished its set and the crowd was applauding. Clara and Aaron walked down the right center isle looking for their seats, which, like mine, I knew were close to the stage. As I sipped the beer, the roadies prepared the stage for Tatiana and her band, tuned the instruments, did sound checks on the mikes. TEST 1-2-3. TEST 1-2-3. The city’s lights emerged in the darkening sky and thirty miles north my family was living out this Sunday night. My cell phone rang.
“Pop, I am kind of busy,” I said.
“What’s all the noise? What are you having a party?” my father asked.
“Just a few people over for a barbecue,” I replied.
“Well, I just wanted to give you the news on your guitar.”
That my father didn’t pronounce it gee-tar should have warned me that the news would not be good.
“What is it?”
“It seems your mother sold it at the church yard sale a few years ago,” he said.
“Jesus, Dad don’t kid,” I said.
“I’m not, Son.”
And I did something I had never done in my life: I hung up on my old man. The phone rang again. I looked at the display identifying the incoming call: Mom & Pop. With all the might I had I tossed the phone as far as I could into the ocean. After the release, a pain shot through my shoulder.
The lights overhead under the pavilion’s tent flickered indicating the show was about to begin. Clutching and then rubbing my shoulder I went to find my seat, the stage growing larger and larger with each step, until I found myself in the tenth row, not more than fifty feet from the microphone in the center of the stage from where I knew Tatiana would sing. To my right to rows ahead sat Clara and Aaron, Aaron’s hand rubbing the small of Clara’s uncovered back.
“Ladies and Gentleman…Tatiana!” a voice rang out. The crowd rose to their feet, applauding, and some screaming, some whistling. I stayed seated so when Tatiana came out on stage I could not see her. My shoulder throbbed. My stomach churned. I closed my eyes.
“Thank you Boston!” I heard Tatiana say. “Thank you Patriot Investment Company!”
Her talking voice, though an octave lower, was as I had remembered it, frail but with palpable strains of invincibility. I opened my eyes as the crowd sat and there she was bigger than life—Tatiana.
She had gained a few pounds relieving her of the famished look she had personified so pleasingly (to my eye) in our youth. Yet the new weight seemed to suit her now as if a testament to survival, to perseverance, to mind over matter, as if to say “I survived the Gulag!” Even before Tatiana played a note or lifted a lyric to the sky, I realized that Clara was right—Tatiana was still hip and relevant in her forties in a way I could never have been.
The show moved quickly. Song blurred into song.
Tatiana drank in the applause. Her eyes scanned the crowd and how I wanted her to look at me, but she did not. The crowd quieted. “Tatiana we love you!” someone shouted, and the crowd roared again.
“I love you too,” she said.
As the show approached the two hour mark, a roadie came on stage with a guitar and she strapped it on. It was the beat up Gibson she had toted around and played when we were together. It still had the 60’s peace sticker below the strings on the body of the instrument that I had put on one morning after making love.
“Here’s an old song,” she said. She strummed the strings to test its tuning.
Though the lyrics were completely different, it was same chords and progression of the song she sang about Lenin and the purges I heard her play the first time I saw her on that subway platform.
I thought I saw tears in her eyes as she sang, but I could have been mistaken. Had I been punched in the stomach? I could hardly breath and something inside ached. Clara looked back and gave me a wink. She mouthed, “She’s so cool.” I smiled weakly. Clara kissed Aaron on the cheek. He turned and probed her ear with his tongue.
“There is someone here in the audience, who I would like to introduce. A very special person to me,” Tatiana announced after she finished the song and the applause had quieted.
I sat up. My God Tatiana knew I was in the crowd all along and surely that last song was for me! I would have a lot to explain to my colleagues tomorrow!
“He is someone of profound grace and talent. Knowing him has bettered my life, made it sweeter. I love this man.”
I prepared to rise and wave to the crowd, blow Tatiana a kiss.
“Ladies and gentleman, my dear friend from Patriot Investment Company…”
“Sit down, asshole,” someone yelled from behind.
“There you are,” Tatiana said, pointing to the side of the stage.
Sherman Nixon stood waving to the crowd. Tatiana blew him a kiss. The crowd applauded politely.
As she tore into another electric tune, I left my seat and walked out of the pavilion, past the enraptured fans and then the closing beer and food concessions. Her voice followed me through parking lot and to my car. Before I turned on the ignition, the singing ended and a guitar riff started. I drove off before the song ended and the crowd roared once again.
Above the expressway, two men stood on a plank tethered by rope, hanging in the air, papering the billboard over Tatiana’s face. I got off the expressway and took Storrow Drive west to the square. Many of the bohemian stores and cafes and eateries had been replaced by chains—Dunkin Donuts, Staples, Citibank. The Wursthause was now a CVS..
I parked the car and walked around. The square bustled with nightlife, mostly college-age kids. As I passed an unkempt man wearing army boots and stained sweatpants he asked, “Spare some change?” I had the sensation that I no longer knew who I was or what I had been. I did not belong here; the square was no longer mine, or for that matter Tatiana’s.
The stairs down to the Red Line were as dirty as they had been twenty-odd years ago. Tokens were a thing of the past, I learned, and I stood before a ticket machine confused how to pay for and get a CharlieCard to gain access to the subway platform.
“Dude you need help?” A long-hair teen in a tied-dyed tee-shirt asked. “You look lost, man.”
As I stood helpless as a child, the kid took my $2 (what happened to 25¢ fares!), pressed the screen several times, and out peeled a ticket.
I went to the place on the subway platform where I first saw Tatiana. A few people were waiting for the next train. I sat on a hard bench and closed my eyes. For a moment I could hear her voice as it was then.
“Attention riders. The next train to Alewife is now approaching,” a voice came over the loudspeaker.
The train arrived. People exited. Others boarded. The platform emptied, except for me. A large rat scurried along the tracks below running into the dark tunnel. I wanted to cry for lost love, for things that could have been, for the deceit of youth, but I could not. So I sat on the bench and waited for the next train to arrive, not because I would take it, but because I wouldn’t.
About the Author:
Aldo Sesia Jr. lives in Cambridge MA, near Fresh Pond, with his wife Anastasia, children, Medhanit and Shiferaw, and their dog Blue. He is a case study writer at a leading graduate business school.