The Operagoer

Rachel Taube


Two men stood outside a window. Above them stretched the monstrous sky, below them 15 stories of air; they were separated from the latter only by a thin wooden plank, from the former by some wire. The men dipped their brushes into their buckets of used water, and the long midnight-blue poles, sturdy painters’ tools, moved up and down, washing away the winter’s accumulated muck—the particles left over after the snow melts and the wind has carried dirty taxi air high above. The dark, glass monument reflected the sun and the clouds like a perfectly flat pond at night.

On the ground, Sean felt dizzy just looking up at them. Their heads, too, must spin when they peeked towards the tip of the skyscraper. Couldn’t they look up until they started to tilt backwards? They’d extend a foot back to catch themselves and step right off the end of the wooden plank, and their stomachs would turn...

When the muscles in his neck started to pinch and strain, Sean let his head fall. He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to roll the soreness out. He ran both hands through the hair at the back of his neck, up to his face, and pushed at his eyelids with the heels of his palms, feeling the soft, unsettling resistance of his eyeballs in their sockets.

With a last glance skyward, white spots still dancing before his eyes, he continued along the sidewalk. He was heading generally toward the opera house, but occasionally he turned in a street too early so that his way would bring him through alleys that he hadn't seen before.

He reached the opera house early, but a crowd had already gathered before the front doors. He climbed slowly, step by step, as the people in front of him filed through the doors. A young couple rustled past him and an elderly gentleman grumbled behind, treading on Sean’s heels every other step. Finally reaching the door, Sean showed his ticket, and was ushered up a grand set of red-carpeted stairs. He entered a corridor that led up and up, where a series of staircases reached one floor, then curled up dizzily to another, and finally spat him out on the highest level of the opera house.

Another usher glanced at his ticket and pointed him around the circular landing, where a third usher shined a flashlight and pointed him to the lowest level of the mezzanine. The steps down the mezzanine were steep, so that he had to hold the edges of the chairs beside him, and climb down one step at a time. He reached the lowest level, and felt his stomach lurch, as it always did, as he recognized that the railing, a bronze metal cylinder stretching the length of the mezzanine, reached no higher than his upper thigh. He had to grab the chair next to him to keep his head from spinning. Glancing again at his ticket, he asked the people at the end of the row to stand, and he looked away from the railing as he passed them, letting his fingers graze the chill metal so he was sure to keep his balance.

He found his seat and glanced around. The couple next to him was chattering about the grand chandelier in the center of the house, glittering with crystal. Behind him, a small child asked his mother when the show would start, and she tried to distract him by pointing out the sculptures on the domed ceiling—two huge, kneeling, curly-haired Greeks bowed towards the stage, and gilded doves and olive branches graced the air behind them.

The lights lowered, and the performance began. Angelotti ran on stage, panting as he searched for a place to hide in the pews, and Cavaradossi feigned adding details to his Madonna. Sean had to lean forward uncomfortably to see the stage past that bronze railing. He held his head positioned just above the railing, clutching it tightly in his hand.

He let his mind be absorbed by the music, the costumes, the sniffling sacristan and the jealous eponymous mistress. By the third act, as Cavaradossi's romanza was washing over him and minutes before Tosca, undeceived and heartbroken, would jump to her death, he let his eyes wander the opera house. His hand still rested on the banister; his face was so close to it that the sharp smell of the cold metal filled his nostrils.

How easy it would be, he thought, to roll over this low, gleaming railing. He imagined leaning forward and sideways to slide his whole body over it. He would feel the chill bronze through his thin shirt and against his palms and neck. Momentum would bring him to the top of the rounded railing, legs reaching out along it, elbows drawn to his sides, muscles taut through his biceps and thighs, and the chill bronze against him. And for a brief moment, like at the top of a jump when you seem to pause before falling, everything would be clear, and alright.           

Then momentum would push, and he would begin to tip. Fingers would curl automatically around the metal, slipping helplessly, his elbows would be pulled in like magnets to the cold cylinder, and he would feel the chill bronze slide against his inner arms, against his bent leg and warm stomach. Then suddenly he would slide too far, he would roll from his precarious perch and tumble against the mezzanine; one outstretched arm would graze the bronze for the last time.

The fall would be very quick. He would barely have a second or two to feel his stomach lurch, his arms and cheeks pulled back by the air. The chairs would fly up to meet his face—and crack his eye socket and his cheek and his ribs and his skull. 

He thought for a moment of the people below him. Those in the mezzanine might see him fall, but the people directly below would be watching the actors and letting the music fill their heads.

These well-dressed operagoers, perhaps a woman in a ruffled periwinkle dress holding a black purse on her lap, would barely have time to look up, perhaps no time at all, if those above could even gasp or cry out. The woman in the periwinkle dress might very well be killed if he were to fall on her. Her neck might snap under his weight, and her poor husband, broad-shouldered under his suit jacket, would wish he had forgotten their anniversary this year, too. Yes, it would be a shame about the periwinkle-clad woman.

The real horror, though, would be if he jumped and didn’t die. What if he fell, split his face open, and lived? He would have to live with a scarred jumble of a visage, or wear a mask to cover his horrendous disfigurement. Or if he fell and broke his back—he would be confined to a wheel chair, perhaps hooked to a machine that would breathe for him, and his co-workers would come and pity him and offer flowers. They would whisper to each other curiously, wondering what made him do it, that quiet operagoer and slow worker, and he would know they were whispering just until they opened his hospital door to visit him, and again as soon as it clicked behind them on their way out. Perhaps the husband of the dead periwinkle woman would come to see him, to yell at him and to cry or to smash in the other side of his face so even the mask would be useless.

The railing in front of him, scratched in some places from wear, glittered dully. He moved his hand along the chill bronze, then let his fingers and palm rest until his body heat had warmed a small patch, and sharp metal fumes filled his head.