In the Balcony

 Originally published in City Works 2013 –
San Diego City College Literary Anthology

        You’re dressed all in black. Light-wool slacks and scoop-necked silk top, suede blazer and low-heeled pumps. Silver earrings, a swish of blush and a hint of lipstick. That’s your look, understated, chic and put together without dressing up. He beams his approval—your appearance still passes muster.

He’s one of your professors, and you’ve been going out for a couple of months. You have lots in common, and you enjoy his wry wit, his incisive intellect. You hold your own, but the status thing keeps you on a tightrope. You’re the same age—we’re not talking gray-bearded eminence and tender young innocent—but you’re close to graduating with honors, and he’s on tenure track; neither of you can afford to curry disfavor within the department. So you’re discreet, you stay under the radar. That part’s okay, but there are other problems that are becoming more insistent, clanging cymbals that you can’t ignore.

“The sound is much better and fuller up here than on the floor,” he says, no doubt to justify not having orchestra-level seats, as he leads you up the curving, carpeted stairway to the balcony. He’s a discriminating listener with a keen and critical ear, a music major before he switched to political science. Now he plays steel guitar in a band and tells you he’s the only real musician in the group. He wants to impress you with his expertise, but he dominates the conversation. You’re old enough to remember when women were expected to let men shine—let them talk about themselves, mothers told daughters, be a good listener; Virginia Woolf called it being a mirror to reflect their egos—but you thought those days were over. You’re 40 years old and tired of these games.

You know music too. You played piano for years as a child. You were accomplished, performed in solo recitals—the Moonlight Sonata, Claire de Lune, Kinderszenen (all thirteen parts), your slender young fingers flew through Chopin’s Minute Waltz in sixty seconds flat—but music has moved into the background, like off-white drapes that you seldom notice: the classical radio station in the car and at the office that might as well be Muzak, the CDs that you rarely play. Music used to be so important; now it’s relegated to wallpaper.

You’re delighted to be at the symphony and find tonight’s program attractive and accessible, a reverse chronology from contemporary to romantic to classical. He’s dismissive: “It’s no great shakes, but I have tickets so we might as well go.” The dissonance of the opening number loses you, and your attention wanders. You gaze around. You’re not surprised that the people around you seem preoccupied, discomfited; San Diego audiences are known to be uneasy with edgy, atonal music. The piece is brief, and the applause is lukewarm, courteous. The musicians and the audience rearrange themselves as the piano is wheeled onto the stage. The Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto is next. It surges and gushes in delicious excess like one of the cakes at Extraordinary Desserts, embellished with chocolate shavings and fruity drizzles, fresh flowers and peaks of whipped cream. Rachmaninoff flaunted his romanticism as the modernists nipped at his heels with their sparse minimalism, their experimentation and discord. You’re swept up in the ecstasy; how can anyone resist? Your companion can and does. While you’re clapping heartily, he sits quietly.

After the applause dies down following the third bow by the pianist and the conductor, after the lights come up, he emits a single “hmmph.” He pauses … and then: “Rachmaninoff is everything I don’t like about romantic music.” Too showy, he says. All those piano pyrotechnics drown out the strings, dazzle with glitz but no substance. He doesn’t ask for your response. Would you tell him that you find his reaction the equivalent of not liking sunsets or strawberries? He orates through the intermission, and your mind drifts. You’ve been in his classroom, so you know his bombastic lecture style, his self-absorbed monologues. You try to recall the early excitement when—persuaded by passion, lured by lust—you found his lectures brilliant and insightful. The mutual attraction and shared enthusiasms that brought you together. The electricity is still there, provoking, titillating, but the scale has tipped. His early attentiveness seems to have dissipated; now he wants you to admire his intellectual chest-beating, his superior knowledge about the things that brought you together—food, literature, music. And here, tonight, something snaps. Don’t prolong it, you tell yourself. No hearts are going to be broken.

The main event is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the perennial crowd pleaser. Is anything more memorable than those first four notes? You immerse yourself in its opulence, the stunning lament of the slow movement, the breathtaking buildup to the booming finale. You join in the crowd’s appreciative response. This time he claps politely. Uh oh, you think. Here it comes.

No one can do justice to Beethoven’s Fifth except Von Karajan,” he says. “Every conductor has to have his go at it, but they all screw it up. I’ll play it for you; you’ll hear how it’s meant to sound.” He goes on at length, and you listen attentively. You really do want to learn, but your ear just isn’t tuned to that level of nuance; you know you won’t be able to detect the difference. And frankly, my dear, you just don’t give a damn.

You’ve had your fun together, shared pleasures, affectionate silliness. Now he seems hyper-critical, finding fault everywhere. Finding fault with you. You don’t need that, who does? It’s time to wrap things up, move on. So where do you go from here? For now, to Extraordinary Desserts. At least you’re in perfect harmony about the blood orange ricotta cake. End the evening on a sweet note—tomorrow’s another day.

2 Responses to “In the Balcony”


  1. […] piece, a personal essay called “In the Balcony,” (linked here), is proof that everything in our lives is potential material, but past relationships can be a […]

    1. Lisa Coleman Says:

      I love this, Alice. I can so easily hear your voice in this piece. Congratulations on your award and thank you for sharing!! I have been meaning to tell you how much I loved the picture of us a the Vancouver Woolf conference that Paula took.

      I hope you are well!!

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