I pull up to the curb in time to see Silvia striding through the terminal’s sliding doors as though greeting a band of photographers. She pauses to brush a stray blond hair from her forehead, turning slightly to smile at a policeman, the same officer who, fifteen minutes earlier, had pounded on the hood of my Honda, shouted, “Move it, you can’t park here,” and sent me on another lap around LAX. But with Silvia, he doffs his hat and calls to her, something that makes her laugh, kiss the tips of her fingers. At sixty-four, her face and figure still capture attention, not only from the young policeman, but from everyone around her. Even the people waiting with their luggage look up from their phones, watching as she glides toward my car in her gray tailored dress and black high-heeled pumps.
I grab a paper McDonald’s bag from the floor and toss it into the back before my mother slides into the passenger seat and kisses me firmly on both cheeks.
“Mathilde, cara mia,” she says. “Buongiorno. Why do you not drive my car?”
“Because I’m driving my car. Buongiorno, Maman.”
She has been gone since January, almost three months, staging a modern version of Don Giovanni at the Dicapo Opera in New York. Over the past two years, she has worked in half a dozen cities around the world, but New York is her favorite. In New York, my family is royalty. People there still reminisce about my father, the renowned pianist René Gaudin. They host parties for his widow, the beautiful composer Silvia Laziale, and they whisper about their mysterious daughter, Mathilde, a cellist of great promise, who sold out Carnegie Hall at Christmastime and then disappeared.
I get out of the car to retrieve the two suitcases my mother has left on the curb, and I stand for a moment, gripping the handles and marveling at her ability to jump right back into the conversation we were having while driving to LAX three months ago. “Why do you not drive my car?” she asked, as we left our house in Santa Monica. Why did I not take advantage of the comforts of her Mercedes, with its intelligent cruise control and satellite radio?
I open the hatchback to load her bags, and Silvia calls to me from her seat, “It has multi-touch controls and a warning system that tells you when you get too close to the car in front of you. The rearview mirror, it is better, too, I think. I have told you that you can drive it when I am not home.”
“I appreciate that, Maman.” I get back into my Honda, careful not to slam the door. “It’s nice of you to offer. But I like driving this car.”
She shrugs. “It makes no sense.”
“I know,” I say, as I pull away from the curb. “But that’s how it is.”
She shrugs again and busies herself with her lipstick, flipping down the sun visor and carefully outlining her mouth. After she snaps the tube closed, she tosses it into her purse. “What are you wearing?”
I glance down at my black fleece pants and sneakers, my white T-shirt with a coffee stain at the waist. “Clothes, Maman. These are my clothes. You see me in them every day.”
“And your hair?” She reaches toward to me to clasp my long, dark and, yes, unbrushed hair in her fist. “It is wet. And angry.”
I say nothing, and my mother continues, reminding me that I was supposed to talk to her stylist about clipping the thick waves from my face. Maybe some highlights to soften the brown, layers in the back, an inch or two from the bottom. We could go together, my mother says, then for shopping after. She hadn’t realized my wardrobe had become so thin. Affamato, she says. Starving.
“Maman.” I lightly squeeze her knee and give her a slight smile. “Welcome home. Stop picking at me and tell me how much you missed your daughter.”
She touches my cheek with the back of her hand. “I missed you, cara. Everyone missed you. I wish you had stayed, not run back to California. Mark, Peter, Louisa, they all ask me about you. I told Mark you would call him about the Mozart festival. You will call him, cara, will you, please?”
“If I decide to play at Tanglewood this year, I’ll call him.”
“That is a ‘no.’” Silvia gives me a “hm” and a different shrug, the one that says I’m foolish and stubborn and wasting my life. Affamato. That’s what she thinks, that I’m starving.
She misses my old life, misses it more than I do, and believes that, at thirty-six, I’m still young enough to reclaim the person I used to be. She leaves New York Times articles on Paris by my breakfast plate and reminds me of “that summer we went to Barcelona, when you played the D Major Suite at the Liceu.” When she watched me on stage, draped in a gown that sparkled from the lights, she recognized the child she’d raised, the one who’d stomped her foot and demanded silence from the room, who’d barked to her audience, “Listen,” and scratched out Bach with a tiny bow. My mother understands me flushed and rootless, touring the world with two suitcases and a cello, calling her from Budapest to report that I’d played three encores, met a pianist named Alexander, and would be leaving earlier than planned for Moscow. The person I am now confuses her.
“Did you meet anyone interesting on the plane?” I ask, trying to change the subject.
“I talked to a nice man who was sitting beside me. He makes Tootsie Rolls in Chicago. He comes here for a candy meeting in Orange County. I told him about you.”
I know I won’t like this story’s progression. She’s circling back. To Tanglewood or Ravinia or whatever other venue she has decided belongs on my calendar. I wait before responding, allowing myself time to get out of the airport and onto Sepulveda Blvd. After I’ve put the car into the center lane, I ask, “Which part about me?”
“That you are single and lovely and a cellist who is very well known for Bach.”
“None of those things are true.”
“They are all true, cara.” She says this gently, reminding me that she’s my mother and that the things she claims are delivered to me out of love. But she needs to stop this. She needs to understand.
“No,” I tell her. “I’m not single. I’m a widow who lives with her mother and sleeps in the room she had as a child. Basta. That’s it. No one has heard me play Bach in years.”
“Five years, figlia mia. Not so long. And this could change. I talked to Joseph from BAM. We ate lunch together on Tuesday. There are so many nice restaurants in Brooklyn. He asked about you, said he wanted to put together a weekend of Baroque chamber music. I told him about the Vivaldi.”
“These sonatas you can play in your sleep.”
The traffic moving north slows, and I study the Range Rover in front of us, its dark back window, tinted for privacy. Beside me, my mother removes her wristwatch and adjusts the hands to Pacific Time. She cleans the face with a tissue, giving me a few moments to devise a strategy for ending this conversation, this argument that has crept through our lives for the past two years.
“No, Maman. I keep telling you: no pimping. I have a job. I’m fine. Please. You have to stop.”
“What is this ‘pimping’? And stop what? I have lunch with a friend. I talk about you. He wants to know what you are working on.”
“Tell him I’m working on the Mahler Fourth. Not Baroque. Not chamber music. I’m playing the cello part in a symphony.”
“Oh, Mathilde. You are not going to play ‘dah dah dah dah’ in the background for the rest of your life.” I start to confirm, yes, absolutely, that’s my plan, but she stops me with, “Bah,” and a flip of her hand.
I tighten my grip on the steering wheel and focus on entering the freeway. “You’re in your New York frame of mind.”
“What? That is silly.”
“No, Maman, really. Every time you come back from New York, you start pushing.”
“Yes, I am pushing. But. I want you to understand that people love you, they miss you.”
“I understand. Thank you.”
“And speaking of people who love you.”
I know what’s coming, because I recognize the particular tone Silvia uses when she talks about him. Gentle and slightly hesitant. Like pressing on a bruise.
I take a long breath. “He was there?”
“Of course, he was there. He came for the closing and sent dahlias back stage.”
“He” is Ivan Borge, my father’s best friend and the third person to hold me after I was born. He ate dinner in our kitchen every Saturday night for nearly twenty years then disappeared after my father’s funeral like a fugitive gone underground. He has kept in touch with Silvia, through email, I think, but with me, he sends letters, short ones with strange, Borge-like messages. Don’t forget to eat. Take your mother to dinner. Play Bach with your father’s heart.
I want to ask my mother if she saw him, but I’m afraid to find out that she did. That he flew all the way to New York to see her when he knew I wasn’t there. I don’t understand his notes, his absence from our house. I know I said horrible things to him before my wedding, after he’d foretold the dangers of my marriage. But I’ve done my penance, he knows that. So why does he stay away?
Silvia pats my leg and smiles. “The traffic looks horrible, but it is lovely to be welcomed home by my daughter.”
“It’s good to have you back,” I say. And it is. Good to see her face, which appears as familiar to me as my own, because it is my own, the same generous nose, same thin lips, but with a broader smile and eyes that invite you nearer, while mine leads people to wonder what I’ve lost and whether I’ll ever find it again.
Silvia is right: I could go back at any time. The invitations still come, though not as many, asking for the once-nearly-great Mathilde Gaudin to sit on their stages and play Bach. I’m surprised that, after five years of refusing and then ignoring, any come at all, but that’s probably because of my mother. She prophesizes my return, saying that I’m preparing new works, that I’ll play the Saint-Saëns again, that I’m better than ever, sublime. “What do you expect?” Silvia tells them. “She is her father’s daughter.”
But really, all I’m preparing is the cello part from Mahler’s Second Symphony. Some complicated rhythms but nothing wrenching, none of those weeping solos that pulled every pulse of anguish from my body, that made my fingers cramp and my shoulders ache. Sitting alone under a spotlight is the weight of Atlas, and I’m done with it. I do Mahler now, the symphonies, as a cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It’s a place of privilege, a great opportunity to play, but in the cello section, where I sit with nine others dressed in black, inseparable.
* * *
Silvia and I arrive home in Santa Monica, and I park the car in the driveway that leads to the back. It’s a two-story Spanish Colonial Revival house, built in the 1920s, with a red tile roof, tiled patios and a covered balcony draped in white bougainvillea. My father bought it before I was born out of a need to be close again to the sea. The men of my father’s family, for generations, have worked as fishermen, contented fishermen from Marseilles who love Puccini. “So, of course,” my father told me, “the heavens rewarded their six hundred years of hard work with a son who played the piano.” At this, I would laugh and remind him that the heavens had not rewarded them with a son who could sing. To which my father would reply, “They did not work quite hard enough.”
I don’t know which story is true, how he ended up studying piano at the conservatory at McGill, what it was that took him to Canada. Silvia says it was a scholarship, but my father said it was his mother, that she wanted him to go far away so that he would never be lured back to the sea. He left his sunny home and went to the cold of Montreal, where he lived happily among the Canadians and their accented French that “ka-klunked,” he said, “like broken sewing machines.” He loved hockey and beer and mowing the grass. He swore roughly, wore ragged hems. And he was a genius. No one gave sound to Bach like my father.
When he and my mother moved to Santa Monica in the seventies, it was a quiet, bohemian town without designer boutiques, nail spas, or fusion cafes. They replaced the doorbell with a rusted iron knocker and welcomed the breeze that came through the balcony, amusing the curtains in their second floor bedroom. Diverte la aria, my mother said, which sounded magical when I was small and she told me the story of finding the perfect home. I loved the house then, and I love it now. Leaving for college confused my heart, as I wanted to escape my mother but hated to abandon my bedroom and its view of her backyard garden, with basil and oregano crowding against a crumbling stone birdbath and the tangling vines of her tomatoes.
When my mother enters the house, she drops her purse in the entrance hall while I carry her suitcases to her room. This has evolved to our homecoming routine. As I put her largest bag on her bed, I picture her in the living room, sitting on the piano bench, eyes closed, recollecting my father. She rarely mentions him, and when she does, it’s never with sadness. She has gone on with her life, gone on with her work, too easily, some colleagues say. But I’ve seen her at the piano, head resting against the music stand as she moves her fingertips softly down the keys as though tracing the line of my father’s forearm. I often try to imagine what she was like before she met him. “It doesn’t matter,” she told me once. “I don’t remember.”
How would it feel to yearn for another person? I thought when I found my husband, Jack, that I’d discovered the same magic that enveloped my parents. The kindness, which Silvia claims she learned from my father. But, instead, it turned out just as Borge said it would, and by the time Jack died, I’d become anxious for his absence.
I return downstairs and move quickly past the living room to the kitchen where I reach into a cabinet for a glass. As I put my hand on the knob at the sink, I hear my mother’s voice. “What do you think?” she says, storming the room as though to conquer the kitchen. “Risotto tonight? I think so.”
I’m about to tell her that I’d love to eat risotto, when my cell phone rings. I flip my purse to dump my wallet, keys, a block of rosin, a Moleskine notebook, and other relics of my life onto the table and search through them for my phone. The lighted number on the display shows a 434 area code, meaning the caller is Portia, my thirteen-year-old stepdaughter who hasn’t spoken to me since this time last year, when she was suspended from school in New Hampshire. She has never called me, has never sent me an email, and she told her teachers when she arrived at school that I had died.
My hand shakes as I put the phone to my ear. “What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I need you to find my mother,” Portia says.
“Is something wrong?”
“I’m in a cab on my way to Logan, so yeah, genius, something’s wrong. I need to talk to my mother.”
“Does the school know you’ve left?”
“No, but the desire to vacate was mutual. You’ll get the official call tomorrow.”
She has been expelled again, and again she’ll tell me nothing. I find the schools, visit the headmasters, pay the bills, and still I know nothing. Portia keeps rules about stepmothers, rules she shared with me the day I moved into her house in Charleston. I have no jurisdiction, she told me – and those were the words she used, “no jurisdiction.” She’s obligated to do nothing I ask her, unless she wants to anyway, and she will not refer to me as her “stepmother.” I’m her father’s wife, nothing more.
“You seem to have a plan,” I say. “Where are you going?”
“Escaping the morons. You and that idiot school.”
“To London to live with Mom.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this plan, though this is the farthest Portia has ever gone in executing it. Her mother, Sigrid, wanders Europe, photographing local rock bands and moving in with musicians. She left Jack immediately after her daughter’s birth and got a job with a British music magazine. It happened that quickly. She came home from the hospital, packed her things, and left. I asked Jack many times what had happened, why his first marriage had fallen apart, but all he would tell me was that Sig was irresponsible, crazy and unreliable. He never told me how they’d met or what had gone wrong, so I knew nothing about Sig except that she’d disappeared after her daughter was born and didn’t reemerge until Portia had started second grade.
“Look, genius,” my stepdaughter growls with impatience, “I need you to find Mom. I called her cell and it’s been disconnected.”
“Okay. I will. Do you have a plane ticket?”
“No. Mom’ll take care of it. Call me when you find her.”
I hear silence at the end of the line but keep the phone to my ear as I wonder what to do next. We exist, Portia and me, in this domestic limbo, wanting to be rid of each other but lacking the means to do so. Legally, I’m her guardian, which I’d thought would be temporary. I’d expected Sig to take custody of her daughter when Jack died, but she disappeared after his funeral, and I have no idea where she is. Meanwhile, Portia remains at boarding school, where she has been since Jack became ill, and I negotiate with the headmasters to keep her in.
Before Silvia can begin her interrogation, I look up at her and ask, “Do you remember Sig’s last husband? The British guy?”
She pinches her bottom lip as she thinks. “Was it Colin? Colin Weaver. Or Deaver. Colin Deaver.”
“Thanks.” I march from the kitchen, pushing gently past her, and head for my office. She follows me down the hall, asking, “What are you doing? What has that terrible girl done? What does she need from you?” I ignore her questions, because I know how she feels: that I should have abdicated responsibility for Portia long ago, turned over her trust fund to her mother and been done with the whole family forever. I can’t discuss this with Silvia, not because I love Portia, but because I don’t. I don’t want her, and I’m angry with myself for letting Jack haunt me through his daughter, and at Sig for ignoring her, and now Portia has no one, certainly not me. All I give her is somewhere to sleep, somewhere far from here, and a place to send her bills.
“Maman, I don’t have time to argue with you about this. I have to find Sig.” I flip through the “S” pages in my address book, looking for clues to her whereabouts. A dozen phone numbers surround the word “Sigrid,” accompanied by several men’s names, her former lovers and husbands, all scratched out. I find Colin Deaver among my scribbles and punch his number into my office phone.
“Who are you calling?” my mother asks. “Colin Deaver? It is the middle of the night over there.”
I continue to listen to the buzzing on the other end of the line. I know what time it is in London. I don’t care. A thirteen year-old with a credit card is on her way to Logan, and my mind has assembled all sorts of scenarios that would result in Portia being featured on the eleven o’clock news.
“Colin,” I say when I hear his rusty voice, “sorry to call so late, but it’s an emergency. It’s Mathilde Gaudin. You may have heard of me. I was married to Sig’s ex-husband, Jack. Well, I’ve got to find her. Sig, I mean. Her daughter’s in trouble.”
He clears his throat. “Not a problem. But I don’t know where she is. She came back through London a couple of months ago for a job. I haven’t seen her since.”
“Do you know how to reach her?”
He gives me the same number I have for her in my book, the same number Portia has tried, the one that has been disconnected. I thank him, apologize again, and hang up.
I have only one option left, and it terrifies me as much as being locked inside a car trunk: buy Portia a plane ticket and fly her here to California. I can call Sig’s other exes in the morning. Someone will know where to find her. Grabbing my keyboard, I bring up Expedia on my browser and search for flights. I try American, Continental, Orbitz, and Jet Blue but find nothing leaving Logan tonight. I return to the American Airlines site and make a reservation for 11:10 tomorrow morning and then go to Hilton.com to book a room at their Logan location. After I have typed in my credit card number and received confirmation, I throw my face into my hands. The enormity of what’s to follow overwhelms me. I worry about Portia spending the night alone in an airport hotel, about her coming to Santa Monica tomorrow to share my home, about searching the globe for her mother who doesn’t want to be found, as well as the lecture I’ll receive this evening from Silvia, not only about my solitude, but also my inability to extricate myself from Portia, Sigrid, and their never-ending mess. But first, I need to call the headmaster and find out how the hell he let my stepdaughter escape his school in a taxicab.
I hear my mother grind out the words, “She is coming here.”
“Yes,” I tell her without lifting my head, “she is coming.”
* * *