Wagner in the Park



Riverside Dr & W 96th St, New York, NY 10025

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

The dark woman hated me because I listened to Wagner without guilt or regret. She said that she could never understand how I could enjoy the work of such a fierce anti-Semite. I told her that was not a problem; I had learned to separate the music from the composer, and, besides, Wagner pretty much hated everybody. She said that was untrue, that you could not dissociate art from the artist, that Wagner’s music would always be tainted with his Nazi affections, that I was a poor Jew for listening to his so-called operas, and that she considered this a character flaw, and a serious one at that. I told her that Wagner wasn’t a Nazi, he couldn’t be, actually, as he died many years before the founding of the party, but might have been had the Nazis been around. And yes, I was a poor Jew, but that had nothing to do with Wagner, and we should leave him out of it.

I did not understand my infatuation with her. We had been working together at a dusty second-hand bookshop where I was slumming until I could find more lucrative employment. I felt better about myself that I was working, even if it was only a few days a week, and for just slightly above the minimum wage. It was a strange place, resembling a prison for the over-educated. There was something poetically just about Ph.D. candidates imprisoned working the cash register or reshelving wayward books, not being able to stop and read them, something quite sinister about this class of torment. We had to entertain ourselves in covert ways. A crazy man who we called “the mayor” would burst in on occasion carrying an old wood tennis racket and scream, “Revolution,” and babble verses of Marx and Lenin. Every day we all looked forward to his entrance, though he would be inevitably escorted out of the store by the manager, who failed to see the humor in the situation.

I tried to understand my desire. I suspected, after thinking it over a bit, that I liked the dark woman because she never smiled. I thought that this indicated a melancholy disposition that at the time I found irresistibly seductive. The first time I saw her I had forgotten my glasses and could only detect the outline of her figure. She had thick dark hair that spread over her shoulders, big dark eyes, and always wore dark clothes. Her complexion was poor and, when I stood close, I noticed that she had black hairs on her fingers and the beginnings of a faint mustache at the corners of her mouth. Normally, these features would freak me out, but there was something about the dark woman, so that they did not arrest her appeal, but in fact served to deepen it, it a way that I considered, at the time, as having some kind of occult significance.

She had been working there for many months though she informed me she was on the verge of quitting. I beat her to it, deciding that my paltry wage was akin to exploitation. Influenced by the mayor I even tried to incite an insurrection among my co-workers, scribbling the outlines of a future manifesto on the wall of the bathroom stall, but I have notoriously bad handwriting. My highly formed rhetoric in favor of higher wages and medical benefits went unheeded, though I had the last laugh through my repeated pilfering. Finally, I had enough, and decided my very progressive soul was at stake. On my last day at work she came over to me and said she’d be sorry to see me go, and I remembered that she had not spoken to me for the first few weeks I’d been there. I reminded her of this and she said she didn’t like to get to know people until she knew if they’d be around. I asked her if he was being ironic. She said she didn’t understand the question. “My apartment’s rent-controlled” I told her. “I’m not going anywhere.” We made plans to spend a day together the following week.

I sensed in her manner a sort of shy interest, in her crooked eyes, in the way she turned her silver rings when we spoke. During one of the conversations I forced upon her we discovered that our ancestors came from the same city in the Ukraine, and I wondered if she was perhaps a distant cousin of mine, and if my implausible attraction to her was rooted in the magnetism of common blood. I kept these theories secret, not wanting to lose the upper hand, which I had thought I had gained, despite the fact that she gave no indication that she desired me except for her occasional sarcastic comment while we should have been dutifully at work. I spent many nights picturing her naked, my hands caught in her thick hair, my tongue running along the hairs of her body. I imagined that a dim light would make her slightly oily face shine radiantly, perhaps mystically, and I wondered if her uncanny beauty would be altered under certain conditions—of light, water, gravity—if it was something that was hidden and only visible through a special lens, only pronounced by a certain rare ink. I saw her face casting off light; I saw her naked and wet, her hair dripping over her slight shoulders, the tiny droplets clinging desperately to her olive skin as the rolled down her as I imagined well-formed breasts; I saw her above me with sealed eyes, moaning with evident pleasure. I was impressed by the specificity of these visions, and easily fell asleep.

The day we agreed to meet was disappointingly cloudy and unseasonably cold, as if the fledgling spring had reconsidered and turned back. Across the river I could see the grayness of New Jersey. She wore black, as usual, said hello without gesture, and sat beside me against the low stone wall of the park, glancing at the book in my hands.

“Céline” she muttered. “You’re so cool.”

“Stolen” I said. “My final revenge against those degenerate capitalist exploiters.”

She didn’t seem to be listening and uttered, “such the hipster” and tossed her mane over her shoulder with the backs of both her hands.

“Not really.” I said. “Just a bit. I’m interested in his use of ellipsis” I added. “Dot dot dot.”

Who could tell if she was kidding? For all I knew, she was the hipster, in her black frock and silver rings. She said that she wanted to be a writer, but hadn’t written anything yet (or wouldn’t tell me if she did); it was she who drank her coffee black and full of unrefined sugar, was always nursing a cup at work; she who stole torn copies of tracts long out-of-print by French philosophers and symbolist poets. Her parents were divorced, she hated her father, and she pointed to a house across the street and said that a colony of Buddhists lived there. She would never look you in the eye, her face forever pitched at an awkward angle. She never smiled. I ached for her.

I needed a plan, that much was clear. She was not inexperienced and it was obvious that poetic allusions and Shakespearean sonnets committed to memory were not going to impress her. I sensed that a forward or audacious approach might backfire with the dark woman, as she seemed to be suspicious by nature and not at all forgiving. Still, she had consented to spending some time with me, and that could be taken as an indicator of her favor, of the possibility of amorous intent. The ultimate destination was my apartment, where I had a bottle of Chilean cabernet waiting and a newly purchased box of condoms in a drawer by the bed. But I couldn’t venture an outright move. I decided to play it safe, to be subtle, seemingly disinterested, though allowing the occasional double entendre and flirtatious glance. Such a tactic I believed would let passion build up on her side. I would react to her certain advances. All I had to do was wait.

Of course, it should have been a tip off that she decided to meet me in a park, rather than, say, a restaurant or a bar. The lack of furniture made me nervous and for a moment I wished that I smoked. There was the wall I was leaning on and the obvious allure of nature in the city, but these were to my overanxious mind only mildly satisfactory alternatives. Moreover, this setting had too many diversions. Birds, squirrels, passersby, children, changes in weather. A closed quiet space would be much more suitable for the kind of thing I had in mind. I concluded, then, that this was an examination, and I was being judged on how I dealt with the inopportune situation.

I had hoped that I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this pre-coital nonsense, that we would meet here at the appointed time and could then, after exchanging a few pleasantries and stating our disappointment about the weather, just withdraw to my apartment and get things going, so to speak. That’s how I pictured it happening. But clearly I was not the one in charge.

She had grown up in the neighborhood and continued to point out particular buildings on the street that overlooked us and told me what influence they had over her childhood. I wasn’t surprised when she told me it was unhappy and I nodded my head and told her that mine was unhappy too. She said that she used to come to this park when she was growing up, to take refuge from her parents’ frequent fights, repeated that her parents were divorced, her father was a schmuck, her mom was crazy and her step-mother was a bitch. She did a lot of drugs in high school and went to college in Oregon where she became a vegan and shacked up with some guy named Ulandt for three years until, she said, rather cryptically to my ears, they could do so no longer. They still loved each other but it just couldn’t work out. With serious eyes I said that was sad, and moved a bit closer. I asked her why not, and she just turned away and said she didn’t want to talk about that.

A group of kids were playing in a small playground near their mothers to our right and she said that she didn’t understand children. I thought this might have been an effect of her unhappy childhood, and replied that I didn’t like them much either. “If I ever have kids” I said, “I don’t want to have them until they’re thirty and they’re rich.” She pointed to a tree stump near the park. There were faces carved into the trunk. I agreed that it was pretty interesting.

She asked me what I intended to do, now that I had left the bookstore, and I said that I wasn’t really sure but I suppose I could always wait tabled and by the way I hoped that I too would get some work done on my Gesamkunstwerk (but that is another story altogether) and hopefully find a better paying job. I meant this but in the few days since I quit had done little of either, spending my days in bed thinking about her. I did not think it would be prudent to tell her this. I said that I had been listening to music and she asked me what and I ran off a litany of obscure bands that I remembered from college and added Wagner.

“I don’t believe you” she said.

“Seriously. I developed a fondness for him when I was an undergraduate romantic. I turned off the lights and listened to opera with while fading on over-the-counter cold remedies and weeping sometimes. It was a very good year.”

“That’s sick” she said, and I thought she was joking.

“Well” I said, “that accounts for the drugs.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I admit it was a bit pretentious, but, you know, such things are bound to happen when you’re off in some expensive liberal arts college. As you well know.”


“I don’t know. I liked it. It was pretentious, but I liked it and I still do.”

“I don’t understand you” she continued. “You sit around and read Céline, you talk about Wagner. Who do you think you are?”

“Is this an ontological question?” I asked.

“What about your ancestors?”

“My ancestors” I said. “What about them?”

“How do you think they would feel?”

“I don’t know. I never knew them.”

“Funny” she said.

“It’s true. Besides” I added, “they’re dead.”

“That’s not the point” the dark woman said.

“What is the point?” I asked, getting a bit annoyed. I just wanted her to shut up with her disputation and get her back to my apartment. I could show her the mark of my ancestors. I stared at her straight on as she spoke, to signal sympathy, sincerity, and romantic leanings.

“The point is” she began, now appearing a bit upset, “that you . . . that by your behavior you are betraying your people.”

“What people?”

“The Jews.”

“I don’t see what the Jews have to do with this.”

“Everything” she said. “You are betraying your heritage.”

“How so?”

“Because you listen to Wagner.”

“Because of Wagner.”

“Yes.” She proceeded to inform me of my moral flaw, and I said that was silly, and she said that I was a bad Jew and I agreed and said that may be so but it is my life, after all, and if I want to be a bad Jew it is my business and besides many Jews before me liked Wagner (Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein came to mind, in fact, the guy who conducted the premiere of Parsifal at Bayreuth was a Jew as well, in fact Wagner himself picked him to do it, and I added that I was sure I could come up with a more extensive list given some time to research it, and that Wagner was now even performed in Israel), and that I was in good company.

“That does not excuse your behavior.”

“Look” I said, not much interested in a lecture on my social responsibilities or music criticism by the dark woman. “I really don’t think my listening to Wagner has all the cosmic significance you suggest. To be sure, it is quite beautiful stuff and be it as it may that he was a bit of an asshole does not mean that we should ban his music or burn his CD’s. So why don’t we get some coffee. Or, better, some wine? I think I can use a drink right now.” After all, there was this bottle of wine waiting for us in my room, and despite its dangers, her anger felt somehow inciting. I had not considered her in such a state in my previous meditations, and was now sorry and a bit surprised that I hadn’t, for was not beauty heightened at times of anger? Yes, I thought, I’ve located the spot, this is her Achilles’ heel. I thought of Isolde and the love-potion. I decided, though, that this park was not the optimum locale for a scuffle, and was about to suggest that we retire to my apartment when she preempted me: “Well” she said suddenly, staring at her watch, which she wore on a leather cord around her neck, “I’ve got to get to work.”

“You work today?” I asked.

“I’m filling in for someone.”

“Who?” I said. She looked at me cruelly, and I knew it was best not to press the issue. “I’m just curious, that’s all.”

We began to walk back towards the street. I knew it was time for my move and, a bit worried that she was actually serious about the Wagner thing, which would be a shame, really, as I had always had this fantasy about making love to the overwhelming Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, I touched the small of her back with my left hand, which, admittedly, isn’t the more subtle of the two, and she turned to look at me and said, with hostile black eyes, “What are you doing?”

“Nothing” I said, and removed my arm.

As we walked out of the park, as if in revenge, I tried to whistle the prelude to Tristan, for I had always found it exquisitely beautiful and I thought that the melody might make her reconsider or would gently taunt her, but there was no note which I could grab hold of so I ended up sounding a bit foolish.

She left me at the intersection saying I’ll see you without looking back and strolled off.

As I walked home I noticed a crowd of people by where the children were playing. One of them was sobbing while the others looked on with cold faces, not unlike the faces carved into the trunk. I walked on, in no hurry to get back to my room, now that I was alone and without chance of adventure. I decided to continue through the park, on the off chance that I might run into a pretty girl who would strike up a conversation with me and would be more inclined to listen to Wagner.

I strolled along among the odd squirrels that stared warily at me and then turned to climb halfway up a tree. It seemed exorbitantly silly that a mere mention of a controversial nineteenth century operatic composer would destroy any chance of an intimate encounter. A squirrel turned and, still halfway up the trunk, was studying me with its black, distrustful eyes.

“What do you think of that?” I asked him. He looked at me with black eyes, not so different in color, I reflected, than those of the dark woman. I walked a bit closer to the tree and the creature did not move but continued to look at me with reproach.

“Is that a good reason to cut short a love affair?” I asked. Don’t you think that she should at least give it a listen? Who is she to give me a hard time because of my taste in classical music, this woman who reads Dostoevski, not exactly a goody-goody liberal when it came to Jews, and lived with a guy named Ulandt? What kind of name is Ulandt anyway? Do you think for a minute he was of the Levantine persuasion? And what the hell does she mean that they ‘loved each other but could do so no longer’? So who is the greater criminal, then? Me, who listens to Tristan und Isolde, and not the whole thing, mind you, but just the good parts, particularly that sublime Prelude, which is probably one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, by gentile or Jew? Or her, self-proclaimed defender of the Jewish race, who gallivants with good Prince fucking Ulandt of Sweden? I, at least, make no grand claims. I” I told the squirrel, “I am at least somewhat honest.”

The squirrel continued to stare at me with unflinching eyes. I kicked the base of the tree so it would go away.

I returned home pissed off, discontent by the notion that I was rejected because of an affinity toward romantic opera, wondering if I should call her or if she would call me. I did not listen to Wagner when I was cozy in my apartment nor could I get back into reading the book I had carried faithfully all afternoon. I did have my pride to consider. Fuck it, I thought. She isn’t even that pretty. I decided to stop in at the bookstore in a few days, ostensibly to pick up my final paycheck. When I did, she greeted me coolly.

“Are you angry at me?” I asked.

“No” she said, and turned away to deal with a customer.

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