Green Hills Literary Lantern

My Other Guitarist

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maiara, the high-strung singer in Nathan's Advanced Brazilian Combo class, had skipped the last meeting because of a fight with their teacher. As Nathan remembered how dull the class had been without her, he hoped she would be back this time.   

Insecure about his musical abilities, Nathan always arrived early in order to warm up alone. First, he rolled up the cuffs of the fashionably dark, charcoal shirt he wore for this class. Forty, slim and dark-haired, he imagined that his Jewish profile made him look Latin.  His vanity satisfied, he set about tuning his guitar.  Before this class, he used to tune his guitar with an old-fashioned fork, but when he began studying with Carlos, who shamed his students into technical perfection, he switched to an electronic tuning fork with a red light that turned green when a string had been tightened just right.

Once the guitar was ready, he adjusted the volume on the amplifier low enough so that his musical errors would not attract too much attention, but loud enough so that Carlos could not reprimand him for “hiding back there in the corner.”  He then played a few scales and ran through the tunes his teacher had assigned them the previous week.  If his nails didn’t feel right, he would spend a moment smoothing them with the nail file he kept tucked in his guitar case.

The group had been playing together for three years, during which Carlos had driven Nathan hard to come up to the level of the other musicians. As an amateur, he was the weak link in a group that consisted of advanced players and professionals. The young percussionist and the horn player had just gotten their first gigs. The pianist, a retired physicist, played for Sunday brunch in a local eatery and was now promoting himself with home-made CDs. As for Maiara, she had her own band and sang regularly throughout the Bay Area.

Lithe, in her mid-twenties, and the only “real” Brazilian in the class, Maiara was the most professionally successful of the group and also the most anxiety-ridden.  This term she had started coming later and later to class, as though to shorten an already painful experience.  Unable to read music, she sang intuitively and would get a pained, startled expression when Carlos began discussing technical points with the musicians in the band.  The last time she’d attended class, two weeks before, Carlos had become impatient with what he called her “rushing.”

“I don’t like this rushing you do,” Carlos said and, grabbing the sheet of music with the tune of the day on it, he held it up close to her face.  “Look Maiara.  This”—he stabbed the page with an aggressive finger—“is called a rest sign.  That’s what you’re supposed to do here.  Rest.  You can even breathe.  Remember, breathing?”  He was a small, stout man with a dark beard and a ferociously powerful teaching personality.

She gave Carlos a pathetic, frightened look.

“Listen here,” the teacher went on.  “How about you save the rushing for getting to class on time and drop the Brazilian it's-cool-to-be-late shit.  We’re in America now.”

Her lip quivered but she retained her composure.  The explosion came later that session when she had difficulty hitting the high notes in “Beijo Partido”—“Broken Kiss”—and asked to sing the tune in a lower key. Carlos became incensed.  “We’re not going to change key for a couple of notes.  Just try.  Try till you hit it.”  At which point she whined in Portuguese, “Carlos, năo posso, impossivel!”  Carlos insisted until she left the room in angry tears.  It was after that incident that she skipped class.

Nathan sat filing his finger nails, hoping she would appear, and then, miraculously, she did.

“You’re early.  I thought maybe you wouldn’t be back,” Nathan said.

“I will not let him shame me.  I will do what I need to do to get where I am going.  He is a good teacher even if a pain in the ass.  Besides, last time he embarrassed me, so today he will be sweet.”

Maiara hadn’t mastered English contractions and spoke with the precision of high heels clicking on a wooden floor.  She had a beautiful, slightly nasal accent that made Nathan think of women in slinky dresses dancing in the moonlight and aerial photos of the Rio beach with Sugarloaf Mountain in the background.  Of Bebel Gilberto humming in a minor key, accompanied by guitar and exotic percussion sounds.  Of black beans and salt cod.

“Also,” she continued, “he was right about my rushing the rests, just like he is right about you ‘hiding in the corner.’”  She stopped and smiled.

“I keep on thinking I’ll quit,” Nathan said.  “This Brazilian thing of plucking the chords is ruining my fingernails.  Why can’t they just strum, like the rest of the world?” 

“Then it would not be Brazilian guitar.  It would not be beautiful.  Let me see,” she said and came up to him.

She took the fingers of his right hand into her thin, delicate palm and examined them.

“They are very pathetic.”

Nathan sighed and took his hand back.

“I should ask Fabricio what he does for his nails.  Fabricio—you know—my other guitarist.” 

Nathan did know.  She often referred to the guitarist in her other band, the one that accompanied her on gigs.  He had the impression that Fabricio ran the band.

“You think he does something special?”

“They all do.  Brazilian guitarists, I mean.  They have tricks.  Also, for the pick thing.”

She was referring to the juggling act Brazilian guitarists do with the guitar pick, scarfing it away for comping when the whole hand is used for chords, then producing it for solos.  Nathan sometimes missed coming in on time for his solo because he was fumbling with his pick.  Once he had even dropped it, incurring Carlos’s impatient mockery.

Nathan wanted to hear about her other guitarist’s trick for the pick, but at that moment Carlos walked in, followed by the other instrumentalists.

“Ah, you’re on time I see.”  He bowed to Maiara.

She bowed back.

The class began.  They were rehearsing for the Jazz Place’s end-of-term concert, which was scheduled for a couple of weeks down the line.  On the agenda were a few well-known Brazilian tunes as well as an impossibly difficult song Carlos had written himself. Carlos was, as she had predicted, in a more upbeat mood, and the two hours passed without incident.  Nathan performed passably well, retaining control over his pick and adjusting his amplifier just right when the turn for his solo came.  However, he reflected that it might behoove him to learn more about Maiara’s other guitarist.   When the class ended, he approached her.

“So what does he do then, your other guitarist, about the pick?”

“I don’t know.  He pulls it out of his sleeve or something.  My other guitarist—it’s like he’s a magician.”

“Your other guitarist,” said Carlos, who had overheard them, “has no soul.  Let me add, if you don’t mind, that your whole band has no soul.  They play like they’re bored.  Maiara, it’s time for you to dump them and play with these guys.”  He gestured toward his students, beaming.  “These guys know how to play!”

Maiara smiled pleasantly as she packed up her music.  It was not the first time Carlos had encouraged her to dump her band for the group that had formed under his direction.  “Yes, they are getting very good,” she said.  “Even Nathan.” 

“Maiara, now I’m being serious,” Carlos said.  “Your band is really going nowhere.  This band cooks.”

She frowned.  “Năo dá  para, Carlos.    I’ve been with my guys too long.”

“It is possible, Maiara.  You're being sentimental.” 

“I do not know.  Maybe you are right . . .  Anyway, I must go.  Ate logo.”  She zipped up her tote and nodding nervously to the instrumentalists, who were all very quiet, she left.

Nathan drove home with the wheels turning in his brain.  Maiara had said “Maybe you’re right,” opening the door to the possibility that maybe, one day, she would take the class on as her band.  He wondered, did the band belong to the singer?  Or the singer to the band?  Was it like the relationship you have with your cat—you think the cat belongs to you but it’s really the other way around?

As he meandered up toward his home in the Berkeley hills, Nathan felt overcome by that ineffable feeling Brazilians call saudade—pronounced, so beautifully, “sau-da-ji”—a mixture of loneliness and missing, a kind of nostalgia for whatever person, place or dream is gone or not realized.  He mulled over his disappointments.  Once upon a time he had hoped to be a “big” photographer like Ansel Adams or Edward Steichen.  Now his work doing portraits and weddings left him little time for his own, more artistic shooting.  He had come to hate the weddings especially—the hype, the corniness, the quest for perfection in everything, the vanity of the bride.   He wanted to take photos like the ones Avedon took for himself late in life—portraits that revealed people’s imperfections, the depth of their wrinkles, the size of their pores, the bitterness in their eyes.  He wanted to capture the bride’s pimples, the groom furtively looking at another woman.  Sometimes he did, but these were pictures he could neither sell to his clients nor circulate as part of his artist’s portfolio.

So now he funneled his creativity into music.  His life sometimes felt like a botched experiment, and maybe that was why he felt an affinity for the culture of Brazil, that land of broken dreams.  Nathan felt he himself was like Brazil, full of natural resources and talent, soul and skill, and yet unable to make good in a big way because of corrupt government.  He wryly drew a parallel between Brazil’s history of dictatorship and the loss of control entailed by family life.  

The class met during the dinner hour, and he arrived home to find the usual bedtime chaos. Becky, his wife, gave him a plate of cold food and returned to the kitchen with that slightly sour expression she had on “music night,” when she had both to cook and clean up.  Their older daughter, Lisa, on the verge of adolescence, was able to put herself to bed without any help, but she was often yelling down the stairs about her younger sisters, high-energy twins, who at the age of six, used the house as their circus ring and any available human being as an audience.

“Mom, the twins are bothering me!” Lisa would scream down the stairs, and then one of them would have to go investigate. It was the same thing every night.

The twins had been an accident.  With Nathan being a self-employed photographer and Becky working part-time as a consultant for the Water Board (doing what exactly, Nathan had never understood, except that it involved disseminating propaganda about the quality of the water they drank), one child had seemed sufficient.  Space was an issue as well.  Their house had three bedrooms, one of which Nathan used for his photography business.  When Becky became pregnant, they’d initially hoped for a girl, so that another bedroom wouldn’t be needed—Lisa could share her room with the new baby.  That plan was shelved when Becky was found to have twins.

Seven years later they hadn’t solved their housing dilemma, although they ran over their options time and time again.  There didn’t seem to be any solution.  Nathan’s earnings wouldn’t support his renting a commercial space somewhere or building an office in the backyard. If he hadn’t had chronic shoulder problems from hauling heavy photographic equipment around, he might have considered building something himself.

They’d started with the twins sleeping between them in the king-size bed.  Six years later, the twins were still in their bed, and Nathan and Becky were using sleeping bags on cots on either side.  The girls did their homework in bed and played with their Barbie dolls there, too.  Some of their toys lived in a permanent heap by the footboard.  If Nathan and Becky wanted to have sex—and the only time they could was when they were both home during the day—they would do it on the living room couch since it seemed perverse to do it in the bed the twins had taken over.  Not that they had sex very much anymore, anyway.  And when they did, it often felt, to Nathan, like an almost unconscious activity, something—like brushing your teeth or your morning bowl of cereal—that was so familiar that you barely registered the sensation while doing it.  It was like they were both made of air and their love-making was air moving against air, interrupted by a couple of sharp moments of pleasure.

“How was class?” Becky asked as she dried the pots and pans and Nathan ate his cold dinner at the kitchen table.

“Good,” Nathan said.  “Carlos seems to think we’re ready to do gigs.”

“Really?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.  

“Yes, really,” he answered.

“I see,” she said and swiveled back toward the sink.

She wasn’t very interested, not being a musical person.

“I think it could be a blast,” he said.

“What?” she asked.

“Doing gigs—or a gig, anyway.”

“I suppose,” she said.  “It wouldn’t work very well with our schedule for you to be up till all hours.”  Becky ran a punctual ship.  She and Nathan had to rise by six-thirty in order to get the girls to school on time. 

“Well, if it was on the weekend . . .”

“I would imagine,” she said, in that driving, sensible way of hers, “that the established bands get the weekends and the new bands get the weekday nights.”

“You really have a way of shooting a guy down.”

“I’m not trying to shoot you down.  I’m just looking at the logistics of the situation.”

Nathan realized he should have kept his fantasy a secret and finished his dinner in silence.

When he got into the cot on the left side of the bed that night, he reflected that Becky was being controlling.  It wouldn’t really make that much of a difference to her or the kids if he wasn’t there in the evening.  True, he wouldn’t be there to do kitchen duty, but Lisa was old enough to help.  Otherwise, the family system worked very well without him.  The twins were in their own world, playing, bathing, and sleeping together.  They hardly fought, the way siblings are supposed to, as though saving all their perversities to aggravate their older sister.  Lisa, for her part, formed another dyad with her mother, keeping her company as she made dinner, asking her for help with her homework.  The  family thus consisted of two self-sufficient pairs of females.

Given that Nathan was the fifth wheel, would it matter if he absented himself to do gigs, if he even, one day, went on the road?  Of course, if he went on the road, he would lose the income he made on weekends doing weddings.  Well then, he could focus on his portrait business, which was more flexible. 

He imagined the band beginning in restaurants and then eventually “arriving” at famous clubs, like Yoshi’s.  Eventually they would travel to L.A. and New York.  He saw himself on the road, sharing a cheap motel room with the other guys in the band—not much worse as a sleeping situation than what he had at home—and knowing that Maiara was in the room next door.  He saw himself in relationship to her alternately as brother, business manager, best friend, demon lover.

Tunes ran through his head.  He loved the samba beat and the way that things and feelings, like “heart” and “sadness,” that had only one or two syllables in English—as though that was all they deserved—had three syllables in Portuguese.  Tristeza, coraçăo, beleza, esperança—these are words full of the exotic, lisping fullness of endless yearning.  Dreams of places faraway—of the rainforest and the rolling pampas, of decaying, colonial cities with picturesque churches—that was what was needed to leaven a life like Nathan’s. 

He decided he wouldn’t invite his wife to the recital and fell asleep.

The next class was the last one before the concert.  Nathan arrived early and found Maiara at the piano, trying to pick out the tune for “Beijo Partido.”  She stood up abruptly when Nathan walked in.

"I can’t read music or play by ear,” she said.  “It’s embarrassing.”

“But you’ve got a beautiful voice,” he said.

“I am a disaster in this class,” she said.

“No, I’m the disaster in the class,” Nathan said.

She laughed.  “But we are both making progress, right?  Look, I have something for you.”  She went over to her handbag and took out a sheet of brown paper, which she handed him.  “From my other guitarist,” she said.

It was sandpaper.

“Oh,” he said.  He knew that some guitarists prefer sandpaper to commercial emery boards.

“This is five-hundred-grit sandpaper, the finest there is.  My other guitarist says it’s the best for fingernails.”

“Thanks.  How much do I owe him?”

“Nothing.  He has tons of it, actually.  He once went to the 3M factory and bought a case to last his whole life.  Tear off a little piece and try it.”

Nathan obeyed.  “It works really well,” he said, staring at his nails as he filed them.  “That was very kind of him.”

“He is being nice because he is afraid I am going to dump him.”

Nathan looked up at her.

“What would you do?” she asked.

His heart beat loudly.  “I can’t say,” he said.  “I haven’t heard your other band.”

“Carlos is right,” she said.  “They are totally boring.”

“But are we good enough yet to do gigs?” he asked.

“If Carlos says we are, then we are.”

The percussionist walked in right then.  “I think we are,” he said.  “At least we’re ready for Saturday night, right?”

They always did a ra-ra thing before a recital.

They had a fine class that day.  Maiara was able to hit the high notes of “Beijo Partido,” Nathan maintained control of his pick, and everyone kept time.  Carlos was glowing by the end of class.  “You guys are world-class,” he exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air for emphasis.  “You guys are ready for the big time.”  Nathan left with his head spinning from the flattery.

Walking out of the building at the same time as Maiara, he reminded her to thank her other guitarist for the sandpaper.

“Fabricio is coming to the recital.  You can thank him yourself and ask him for guitar tips at the party,” she said, referring to the reception that would follow their playing.

“He's coming?  But why?” said Nathan, panicking at the idea of a professional, Brazilian-born guitarist hearing him play.

“He wants to meet the competition—to meet my other guitarist.”

“Your other guitarist?”

“You, silly.  Because to him, you are my other guitarist, don’t you see?”  Maiara laughed, enjoying her own joke.

“I’m not amused,” he said.  They had reached the sidewalk and stood in a cold December wind.

“We will see how tough you are, what your stage nerve is.”  She smiled and, turning her back, set off down the street.

Fuck, Nathan thought, what have I gotten myself into.

The following week was ridden with twice the usual dread and excitement. Setting up in the laundry room to escape his family, Nathan practiced late every night, playing his Yamaha silent guitar hooked up to headphones.  At eleven o’clock Becky would appear at the entrance of the laundry room and he would take off his headphones and give her a questioning look.

“It’s bedtime,” she’d say.

“I’m going to play a little longer,” he’d say.

“Okay, but you’ll be tired tomorrow.”

The night before the recital she appeared at the usual time.  When he took off his headphones he heard her say something different.

“Maybe I should have gotten a babysitter.”

“For—?”

“For tomorrow night.  So I could come hear you play.”

“But you don’t like Brazilian music,” Nathan said.

“That’s not exactly true.  I like the melodies—it’s just the language.  It’s irritating not to know what the songs mean.”

“That’s my point,” Nathan said.  “Why would you want to get a babysitter in order to spend an evening being irritated?”

Shrugging, she walked out.  Nathan sighed with relief.

The next night Nathan met his group at the Jazz Place an hour before their scheduled appearance in order to warm up in one of the classrooms.  Wearing his charcoal shirt and a pair of two-toned, black and brown oxfords, he felt snazzy and stage-ready.  Maiara looked fabulous in a strapless, slinky dress made of a sparkly, nude-colored fabric. Nathan went over to her and, talking his scarf off, draped it over her shoulders.

“You look cold,” he said.  “Take this while we’re waiting.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Obigado,” he said.

It was their turn to go on before long.  The band played beautifully, with Maiara and Nathan both at their best. When Nathan had a moment to coast, he couldn’t help scanning the audience wondering which man was the other guitarist.  There were two men who could fit the part—Latin-looking men with dark hair and intense, piercing gazes.  He might have become unraveled by this guessing game had the exhilaration of performing not carried him to a place of absolute joy, nimbleness and grace.  It was the most fun he’d ever had without taking his clothes off.

After their last number they retreated to the practice room where Carlos congratulated them effusively. 

When all the classes had performed, the audience area was cleared of chairs, folding tables were brought out, and in ten minutes drinks and snacks made available.  The crowd was huge and vociferous, the wine abundant.  Maiara took Nathan by the hand.  “Come with me, let’s find Fabricio.”

The man in question was standing against a wall, with his arms crossed, as though waiting for him.  He was short and ordinary-looking, with a face aged by late hours and life on the road.   Maiara led Nathan up to Fabricio and, still holding Nathan’s hand, passed her other arm through Fabricio’s. 

“Fine job,” Fabricio said to Nathan. 

“Thank you,” Nathan said.  “And I’d love to hear you play some time.”

“Yes, you should invite him to one of our gigs,” Fabricio said to Maiara.

“Oh, no,” she said.

“Why not?” Nathan asked.

“Just not.  Listen, Nathan, this is your chance to ask Fabricio about his tricks.”

At that moment Carlos appeared.  “I’m going to snatch this lady for a moment,” he said, and Nathan watched as his teacher steered the singer away from him and across the room.

“And what is it you wish to ask?” Fabricio asked.

“About the pick—how do you—”

“Little pockets, that’s the solution.”

“Little pockets?”

Fabricio showed him a tiny pocket he’d sewn above the knee of his jean.  It was just the size for a guitar pick. 

“Watch me,” he said.  He grabbed a nearby chair and sitting down asked Nathan for a pick.  Nathan handed him one of the several that were always clicking around in his pocket.  Fabricio put it in the pocket, then made the motions of playing an imaginary guitar, stopping, snatching the pick out of the pocket, then playing again.  He finished the pantomime and stood back up.

“Wow,” Nathan said.  “Cool.”

“Next question?” Fabricio smiled.

“Uhm . . . about nails—”

“Yes, very important question.”

“Thanks for the sandpaper, by the way—”

“You’re welcome.”

“—Sometimes mine get so cracked I can’t file them properly.”

“You can use fake ones.”

“Fake ones?”

“Yes, like the ladies use.  On your right hand only, of course.  All the big guitarists use fake nails.  Because it’s all about nails, isn’t it? . . .  Haven’t you googled yet ‘nails, guitar’?”

“No, it didn’t occur to me—”

“So many good products out there now.  Look.”  Fabricio extended the fingers of his right hand.   At the end of his bony, hairy, masculine hand were five extended and highly polished nails.  “Strong as steel.”

“Wow,” Nathan said again, for lack of anything better.

He was suddenly aware that Maiara and Carlos were arguing on the other side of the room.  He couldn’t hear what they were saying over the noise of the party, but their gesticulations suggested they were in combat again.

A moment later Maiara reappeared and addressed Fabricio in Portuguese.  Fabricio looked annoyed and was about to head toward Carlos when Maiara grabbed his arm to detain him. 

“Okay, I will contain myself,” he said, reverting to English.  “Though he meddles in what is not his business.”  He crossed his arms and looked down at the floor.

“What’s going on?” Nathan asked Maiara.

“I can’t bear it,” Maiara said.  “He’s nagging me again, to give up my band for you guys.”

“Oh,” Nathan said, truly startled.  “He’s serious?”  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Carlos circulating in the crowd, smiling at people as though nothing had happened.

“Fuck him,” Fabricio said again.  He looked at Maiara.  “And you, what do you want?”

Năo sei ainda.”

Fabricio threw his hands up in the air.  “You still don’t know?  And when will you know?”  He turned to Nathan.  “It would seem—how do you say?—that you are the man of the hour.  The lady lacks confidence in me.  Excuse me, I am going to find another Saturday night party.”  He nodded to both of them and made his way out.

Maiara watched Fabricio leave and burst into tears.  Nathan stood before her, startled and embarrassed.

“What was that about?” was all he could come up with.

Maiara responded with more crying. 

Then Carlos appeared, smiling.  “I guess we got rid of him, didn’t we?”

“How could you?  You have no right—” Maiara spluttered.

“My job is to tell the truth.  To bring out excellence—and to tell the truth.”

Maiara stopped crying and, sniffing, stared at Carlos like a little girl.

            “You really don’t think he’s any good, do you?” she asked him.

“No soul.  Nothing inside.  Tell me, truthfully, don’t you agree?”

“Yes, I agree,” Maiara said, shoulders drooping.

“Good.”  Carlos looked at Nathan.  “Well, we have our holiday break, then we start again middle of January, right?  And we'll get you guys some gigs.  I’m so proud of you.”  He embraced the now totally startled Nathan and, nodding to Maiara, headed back into the crowd.

“He’s insane,” Nathan said, “I signed up for a class, not to go out and do gigs.”

“But it is logical, no?” Maiara said, dry-eyed now and pulling her shoulders back and down in a business-like way that made her breasts advance ever so slightly toward Nathan.

“I suppose.”

“I am glad you see that.”  Maiara paused.  “So—I guess you are my guitarist now,” she said with an inquiring look.  “That is, if you want to be.”

Nathan looked down at the floor. He thought about sleeping on the floor next to the bed that his twin daughters now occupied, about taking pictures of brides who cried when they didn’t look perfect. He thought about his wife and how when they made love, it felt like they were both made of air.  He thought of Rio beach and Sugarloaf, of women dancing to a samba beat in the moonlight, of minor chords with strange variations.

“Yes,” Nathan said.  “I’d like it very much.  I’d like to be your guitarist.”

 

 

 

Jessica Levine is a scholar and translator. Her doctoral dissertation in English Literature, written at the University of California, Berkeley, was chosen by Routledge to be published in their Outstanding Dissertation Series and came out under the title, Delicate Pursuit: Literary Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton (2002).  She has also translated three books and numerous articles from French and Italian into English for The M.I.T. Press.

Jessica grew up in New York City and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two daughters they adopted in China.  She currently works as a hypnotherapist.  She writes short stories and is finishing a novel with the working title, The Geometry of Love.   In her spare time she studies jazz piano.