“A priest, a minister and a rabbi are discussing when life begins. The priests says, ‘It begins at conception’. The minister says, ‘Life begins at 24 weeks gestation’. The rabbi says, ‘You are both wrong, Life begins when the kids move out of the house and the dog dies.'”
Family friend Wally forks his last piece of tenderloin steak and washes it down with Chivas Regal from my father’s store. He guffaws at his own joke, like Red Skelton.
Instead of meeting up with my girlfriend Candace for a tryst in the forest, I am required to attend a get-together at my house. Wally and Francine have appeared for dinner. This is not unusual – my parents have hosted friends before – but this time daughter Maxine also appears.
My parents laugh at Wally’s joke until it sputters to a full stop, like a car running on fumes. “Good one!” says my father. “Have to tell it to my Jew accountant. He’ll love it.”
We adjourn to the living room and Wally grabs my father’s easy chair. My father pretends to go for it first, but Wally always wins. This is their favorite running joke.
Francine and my parents gather around Wally.
My father gestures to Maxine and me. “Why don’t you two go off and listen to records or something?”
Or something. What would that be?
An odd subcategory of youth interaction exists in our suburbs: having to pal around with the child of your parents’ friends. You are expected to hang with them at all get-togethers, jabber enthusiastically about school or sports and stretch the fibers of jollity as long as the barbecue lasts. You have zero in common, too bad for you. If they happen to be your age, as Maxine is mine, you must interact with them more significantly. Like the time I didn’t have a date for the high school Harvest Moon dance. It was suggested I ask Maxine. “She’d love to go,” said my mother or father. She accepted, then canceled the last minute. I was annoyed, but nowhere near crestfallen.
I haven’t seen Maxine since high school. She’s a little different now. Her face is still cute and she’s filled out in some places, overflowed in others.
There is absolutely no spark between us and we both know it.
As directed, we adjourn to my bedroom and I offer her a corner of braided rug. No cushions. Sorry, Maxine.
“So. Good to see you. What’s it been, four years?”
“Closer to five,” she said. “I remember, last thing I remember, water basketball in your backyard pool.”
I remember losing, all because of her stretchy black Lycra suit.
“That long hair looks ridiculous on you,” she said, flicking it with her finger. “Flips up behind your ears. Tried using a curling iron? Or Scotch Tape?”
I briefly consider these, but conclude they’re either too expensive or too bothersome. “Maxine, why are you here?”
“Not sure exactly. I’m supposed to meet up with my girlfriends, but your father calls my father and says he wants a favor. Or a favor returned, who knows? So here we all are. Just like the old days.”
“Not quite. I just figured out why you’re here.”
“Why, pray tell?”
“The girl I’m going with, they hate her. My mother calls her a ‘hussy.’ They want her out of the picture.”
She tilts his head and zeros in on me, eyebrow level, and tosses me a pouty face. “Oh. Too bad for you.”
“Yes, but I’m handling it. As we speak.”
“Yeah? Omigod. You saying that they . . . that we’re supposed . . . ”
“Maxine, I am. I really hate to say this, but I think you’re being pimped out.”
She sucks in air. “They’d do that, wouldn’t they?”
“Shameful. Disgraceful even.”
I say, “And yet, there is something we can do.”
“Oh yeah. Absolutely. Can’t possibly fail. You game?”
I close the door and start flipping through my record collection. I quickly find the right box, open it and take out the second platter in the set. I hand Maxine the booklet and show her the right page. Then I queue up the record, always a tricky proposition, but I get it second try.
A key moment in Puccini’s opera Tosca occurs at the end of Act II. The music is tense and foreboding as Tosca watches the villainous chief-of-police Baron Scarpia write at his desk. To get a pardon for her lover, a political prisoner, she must submit to his lust. The music steadily rises in crescendo as she spies a nearby knife. Scarpia approaches to claim his reward, she stabs him in the chest and there’s a crashing chord. “This is the kiss of Tosca!” The orchestra tempo increases, spitting out staccato notes ten, fifteen, twenty times. The music explodes into tumultuous chords as he cries for help, then drops in volume as Callas’ bold mezzo takes over. “Die! Die! Die, damned one!”
Most of this music is loud. Very loud. Louder than Wagner’s stirring “Ride of the Valkyries.” Almost as loud as Verdi’s “Storm Sequence” in Otello. Played on my rumbly Zenith record player on high, it’s so loud it’s unpleasant. The very walls shake.
It is this music that sends Maxine bursting out of my room like a child released from Sunday school.
“Opera! Oh no way. No, no, no!”
The four parents stare as she flees the auditorium of my room. The music’s winding down a mite, but it no longer matters.
“Isn’t it thrilling?” I say.
“We’re supposed to be listening to Leslie Gore!”
“‘It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.'” My falsetto’s shaky, but do I care?
“‘Cry if I want to, cry if I want to.'”
“Not that that one. How ’bout ‘You don’t own me?’ You do that one?”
“Something wrong dear?” says Francine.
“He’s playing opera. Get it away from me. It’s going right through me, like, like winter.”
“It’s only Maria Callas,” I say, “the foremost singer of our times.”
“It’s not so bad,” says Francine. “It’s just classical music.” By now the music’s behaving itself, as Tosca contemplates the enormity of her deed. “Ask him if he’s got Madame Butterfly. That’s a sweet opera. I’ve always like that.”
“I don’t want to hear butterfly music! Take me home!”
She takes her daughter aside and tells her, “Can’t you just pretend you like it?”
“No! It’s about this woman who stabs a guy and, and she’s screaming at him to die on the floor. It’s gross like a horror movie. I. Want. To. Go. Home.”
My parents are staying quiet throughout this whole scene, perhaps hoping the situation will right itself through some hidden law of family physics.
“Sorry, she gets like this sometimes,” says Wally. “You sure, pumpkin?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. It’s worse than that Lawrence Welk crap you play.”
“Hey, that’s happy music!”
“Wally, please,” says Francine. “Maxine, we must be polite to our hosts. Please, try to listen to reason.”
But Maxine is done with listening.