Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Abandonment (Ch. 15)

It was the day after my seventeenth birthday, summer of '76. We had sold our house, driven cross country to Los Angeles, and rented a place on La Cienega before my father made this declaration:
"Frances, we're getting a divorce. I've had it."
My mother and I learned eventually, through Uncle Harry, that my father had been involved with another woman, a Swedish masseuse, during the years I took lessons in New York. The affair began when Kris, the Swede, had strutted into Kransberg's Furniture to purchase a highboy, and offered each of the Kransberg men a massage for a discounted price on the piece. My father lowered himself onto a LaZBoy recliner, and succumbed. After the massage, Kris got the highboy, wholesale.

I imagine that my father must have felt somewhat conflicted about dropping us off in Los Angeles like two duffel bags. The moment we arrived in the smog-filled, sprawling metropolis, he must have missed his sweetheart, Kris, who probably plied and tugged his body like a lump of dough. My father begged to be let out of the prison that was his marriage, to be relieved of the ball and chain that was his violinist daughter, to finally start a new chapter and, borrowing a line from Frank Sinatra: "To do it his way."

My mother called him crazy, told him that he was exhausted, over-wrought from retirement, the relocation, the sale of our house. At the time she knew nothing of the extra-marital affair. My father responded by pounding his chest like a penitent Jew at Yom Kippur. Our small living room on La Cienega had turned into a Wailing Wall. I covered my ears hoping the neighbors would be spared.
"Forgive me, forgive me, Frances! I waited all these years. I waited till Marjorie finished high-school and turned seventeen. She's gonna take care of you from now on. I can't go on pretending—"
My fifty-five year-old mother slumped to her knees on the brown shag carpet, sobbing. An eternity seemed to pass before she found strength to respond.
"You're sick! Cruel! Mixed-up in the head, John. We've been married thirty-seven years. No, wait." Her lips moved frantically as she counted. "We've been together over forty years. I was thirteen, you were fifteen—I'd walk all the way from Derby Street in Salem to Cabot Street in Beverly just to be with you—remember? The Willows. Forest River Park. Our parents, may they rest in peace, never knew from a divorce in the Old Country! It's a shande, a disgrace. You can't abandon Margie and me at a time like this in a foreign city. Oh God, why, why, why are we here?"

I threw my arms around my mother. Her shoulders convulsed with grief.
"Please, please," my mother barely caught her breath. "At least stay for Margie. Our baby just turned seventeen. She needs us both. I'll be good. A good wife—"
"Mum, it'll be OK," I cried. The man standing at the door was a stranger; he meant nothing to me now. "Shhh! Really, let him go," I pleaded. "Can't you see? Daddy doesn't want to be with us."
She reached for my father; hands out-stretched. "I thought—I really thought, John, that we were to begin life anew." Her voice broke between sobs. "But as a family."
Moments later, he stepped out the door. The man that had been my father was gone.

♭♩ ♬♮♬ ♯♪♮♩ ♯♬ ♮♩ ♫ ♯♪♭♩

About a month after my father's grand finale, I sat in the backseat of the car while my mother drove to Jascha Heifetz' house in Beverly Hills. It was a deliciously warm afternoon. I rolled open the window of our Oldsmobile to catch a breeze and feel the sun on my face. My father had left the car to my mother, along with a six figure check from the sale of our New England home. She cried the whole way, through stop signs and traffic lights. "Your father will return, precious dolly. I know he will. Almost forty years of marriage. You don't just throw it all away. He'll come back. He will." A few miles later. "Won't he?"

I alternated between chewing my nails and practicing the scales mentally in the car.
G Flat; yes, six flats. E Flat, the relative minor. Starting in first position and immediately to third, all the way up and down three octaves. I had worked diligently on the bloody scales, for I had to make it into the masterclass, had to. I dressed for the audition in the manner that Claire Hodgkins, his former assistant, had suggested: skirt slightly below the knees, about two inches, blouse with 3/4 sleeve, hair loosely tied back, eye-glasses replaced with contact lenses. Jascha Heifetz would not accept a female that looked like a male, especially a bespectacled one into the class. Light mascara and lip gloss had been dabbed but not coated. I wore flat-heeled and well-polished shoes.

My mother lurched along Sunset Blvd; drivers honked and swore. "Yo! Dudette. Step on it, will ya?" "Let's see," she said, ignoring the rude gestures and comments while holding notebook paper up to the windshield. "This says: Turn right on North Beverly Drive to Coldwater Canyon. Right on Lindacrest which becomes Lloydcrest. Up the winding hill to 1520 Gilcrest Drive." I was beginning to feel carsick from the sudden starts and stops. "Almost there."
She tapped her foot from gas pedal to brake, gas pedal, brake.
"Look, dolly. The wooden security gate!"
My mother announced our names into the intercom; I folded my hands prayer-like: calm down, calm down, calm down.

At the audition, I tossed whatever scales Heifetz requested with uncharacteristic ease. To my surprise, it felt as if we were engaged in a game of ping-pong, his favorite leisure activity. Heifetz served a key and I returned the scale. He inquired as to what else I had prepared, and I replied with the Vieuxtemps Fifth Concerto. Ayke Agus, a beautiful Indonesian woman, accompanied me at the piano. Heifetz tapped against his desk with a TV antennae for us to stop right before the cadenza.
"Marjorie Kransberg, Marjorie Kransberg," I heard him say, slowly at first, then faster, as if recalling my initial audition from years back. I was thirteen at that time and had failed the scale test.
"Is that your name?"
I nodded apologetically. "Yes."
"That's rather a mouthful, I would say."
 And I found myself wondering: Why did I have to get stuck with such a crummy, polysyllabic name? Kransberg, the name of our ancestral village in the Ukraine, was bad enough; worse, it reminded me of my father and all the other cantankerous Kransbergs.
"Do you have a middle name? Most people do."
"Jill." My tongue rested against my front teeth.
"Marjorie Jill Kransberg," he said, accenting the Jill. "An even bigger mouthful."
I agreed whole-heartedly.

"Well, Ayke? What's your verdict?"
I glanced at her from the corner of my eye.
She smiled up at me, then at him, and nodded. Her voice was soft and kind. "I thought Marjorie's audition went very well, Mr. Heifetz."
There was an awkward silence as he fidgeted with the antennae and gazed out the expansive window. After clearing his throat, he said matter-of-factly, "You will begin in the fall."
I nodded. Ayke nodded. Heifetz nodded.
"Well, since we all seem to be in agreement here— Ayke, you may inform her mother."
"Shall I bring Marjorie's mother into the studio, Mr. Heifetz?"
"No, Ayke. You may not."
"Yes, Mr. Heifetz."
She raised herself from the piano bench, and stepped gracefully out of the studio.

While I went to pack away my violin, he edged near. "Who, may I ask, have you studied with—recently, that is?"
I gazed up at him, trying to read the piercing blue eyes. Had he noticed a marked improvement in my playing from my prior audition, because, if so, it was the result of Erick Friedman, his protégé's teaching.
"Erick Friedman," I stated, and loosened my bow hairs.
"Erick Friedman," I repeated, thinking Mr. Heifetz must not have heard.
 "I don't know the name," he said.

Class party at Heifetz' beach house in Malibu

I was to become enlightened at the first session of the Heifetz Masterclass. Mr. Heifetz entered the room without fanfare at the Thornton School of Music at U.S.C, took a seat behind his large desk, and, after wishing us all a good morning, had the students introduce themselves to one another: Jacqueline Brand, Sherry Kloss, Tony Sen, Christian Bor,  Daniel Mason, Barbara Nord, and Stacey Phelps. Mr. Heifetz then made an attempt to ease our jitters by espousing his philosophical views about teaching. He said that he hoped to inspire the class to learn and never stop learning, for that was, in his opinion, the goal of every dedicated teacher. The students, lined in a row against the wall, listened with rapt attention. Mr. Heifetz concluded his brief introductory remarks by urging us to remember that each and every human being is, indeed, a member of the animal kingdom.

Perhaps that explains everything.