A few days ago I attended a friend’s opera recital. It was held at Concordia University in Irvine, a gem of a campus, situated high atop a hill that overlooked the best parts of Orange County (namely, Irvine). We – two friends and I – arrived an hour or so before sunset, just as the sky was beginning to turn a dreamy, reddish, orange, yellow – all the colors of a fire but because the air was cool, I thought of fresh-cut grapefruit instead. I parked. We walked, in our opera recital best, towards the university’s chapel, a small, simple structure in which Jesus, eyes ablaze, gazed lovingly at all who entered from his setting in a stained-glass window. The window was mounted behind a gleaming, black grand piano, standing where the altar would be. The colors were intensified by the setting sun shining in from behind, and I couldn’t help but think that one risked blindness if one were to look into his eyes, which were divided up into minute pains of glass. The artist had no doubt intended to add dimensionality to the Lord’s eyes, but the actual effect was that the eyes seemed to have no center – here, the Lord lacked focus; here, he was a dreamer, glassy-eyed in the holiest way possible. Patient.
I looked at the program: The Good Shepherd Chapel, it was.
“This chapel is gorgeous,” my friend remarked. She was Christian, but it didn’t stop her from nodding at the Good Shepherd and saying, “Except for Jesus there. He reminds me of Las Vegas for some reason.”
I nodded in assent, wondering what I would cover Jesus with if I were to be married at the Good Shepherd Chapel. I am not religious, but the Chapel’s large windows and simple wooden beams won me over in an instant.Aside from the stained-glass Jesus, there wasn’t anything to indicate that we were in a house of worship – except the pews, and the fact that it was a chapel. Still. I keep an open mind in terms of possible places to get married. Beautiful, shabby chic architecture and a setting sun, a cool breeze and a grassy knoll – I was in a wedding-fantasizing mood and in less than ten minutes my friend would start belting out romantic opera solos in German (not romantic when spoken, but very romantic when sung) and Italian (an Italian man could come up to me and say, “My house is being fumigated because of cockroaches,” and I would likely still fall in love with him), which would put me in the sort of trance that only a sharp rap on the head could take me out of.
I took my seat on the altar’s left side, awkwardly stepping over a stout, short woman in her sixties with short, spiky hair. She smiled at me as I sat down and strangely, I felt as though I were at a wedding. We were strangers, but our presence at the Chapel meant that we were there for the same reason. The rest of the guests had trickled in and the chapel doors closed – my friend emerged onstage, along with his handsome accompanist, and the music began.
Du meine Seele, du mein Herz,
Du meine Wonn’, o du mein Schmerz,
Du meine Welt, in der ich lebe,
Mein Himmel du, darein ich schwebe,
O du mein Grab, in das hinab
Ich ewig meinen Kummer gab.
His voice, strong and clear, flooded the chapel’s interior and I was certain I could see dust particles colliding with his vocal force. They hovered briefly overhead the elderly woman sitting next to me and were dispelled into the warm interior of the chapel. I looked down to study the woman’s hair. It was short and gray, gelled and combed forward so that it formed flat, tiny spikes, reminding me of a magnified photograph of shark skin I had once seen.
She was sitting primly with her pocketbook in her lap and a black and white printed shawl draped across her shoulders. Her skirt was black and white too, a messy zebra print, made of the light, crinkly material I often saw hanging at the racks at Ross or Kohl’s. It was a material preferred by a certain age group who, after years and years of ironing, decided to go ahead and buy clothes that were meant to be wrinkly. She was very clean – her cheeks, though wrinkled, shone pink and her eyes were bright. Her hands were perfectly manicured, as were her feet, which rested softly in a pair of sandals – sensible shoes. She wore no wedding band except for a large garnet ring on the middle finger of her left hand. The seat next to her remained empty.
Du bist die Ruh, du bist der Frieden,
Du bist vom Himmel mir beschieden.
Daß du mich liebst, macht mich mir wert,
Dein Blick hat mich vor mir verklärt,
Du hebst mich liebend über mich,
Mein guter Geist, mein beßres Ich!
We had, without intending to, sat in a row of singledom, for none of us were dating and while I would have liked to see some sort of progression beginning right to left from our young selves to the elderly woman sitting on my right, I knew that time flew as quickly as the sun was setting. Soon, the fiery gaze of the Good Shepherd had dimmed and it was intermission. I turned to the woman and smiled.
“How do you know Jason?” I asked. I assumed she was a music teacher – her clothes struck me as whimsical enough. Perhaps she was an old opera instructor, or piano teacher.
She turned to me, surprised to be addressed. “I’m a friend of his father’s,” she said, eyes bright, “I’ve been going to his father’s nutrition store for over fifteen years, and he invited me to come. I never knew Jason was so talented! His voice! It’s beautiful! It’s just beautiful!”
We chatted for a few minutes more before I excused myself to use the restroom.
“Do you think we can sit in the same seats?” she asked earnestly, “Do you think someone will come and take my spot?”
I assured her that the chapel was small and that everyone had arrived. “Everyone will probably take their same seat again. Don’t worry.”
She smiled, magnifying my assurance as massive kindness, and I saw that she felt she’d found a friend in me.
Intermission ended and we found our seats. She murmured something about how nice it was that the woman in front was not too tall (“I have a wonderful view of Jason’s face”)and when the man of the hour reemerged I settled back in my seat, preparing to enjoy the last set of songs.
But the woman had found her own voice during this half of Jason’s performance and, sitting ramrod straight, clasped her hands resolutely to her chest and said, over and over again, “Beautiful, just beautiful.” Several people turned to stare and I worried that Jason would cast a glare my way, or that the pianist would lose his place, but the woman lost steam a few exertions later and began to slump a little.
I watched her fall, just a few inches, from the height of appreciating beauty in others to the nadir of her day. I wondered if each day she reenacted this cycle, of waking up to make herself pretty for no one, of choosing her brightest prints and her most wrinkled, figure hiding fabrics and pedicure baring sandals so that she could go somewhere beautiful, somewhere with a view, where other people went to be married or sing Italian Opera or graduate or fall in love or worship God, only to return home, alone, nothing gained and really, nothing lost but just another day.
I was jumping to conclusions. Perhaps she was married and her husband was the sort of man who avoided situations such as this – in which he had to sit for long periods of time listening to songs he didn’t understand – at all costs. Or perhaps he had passed away and her children were in other states and…
Or perhaps there was no one at all.
The woman saddened and terrified me. Jason sang his last song and we stood up to applaud him, the woman doing so rather slowly so as to secure a place first for her pocket book. But when she clapped she did so ferociously and she turned to me, as though in camaraderie – her eyes beamed at me – “Wasn’t he just amazing! I am just thunderstruck!” she mouthed – and I could only nod and smile. My face turned to plaster and I was incapable of warmth just then.
A few moments later we found ourselves outside the chapel for refreshments. The sun was gone and the only source of light came from the chapel windows. The cool breeze had turned into a chill. Small votive candles cast a warm albeit dim glow upon the food and I found myself peering closely at a certain platter, deciphering whether its offerings were sweet or savory. Suddenly a familiar hand appeared (I had spent the better part of two hours studying it) and I looked up to see the woman, with her shawl wrapped snugly around her shoulders. The candlelight seemed to shine only upon her. She smiled shyly at me but her eyes were strong and bright.
“This is how it is,” they seemed to say to me, “There wasn’t ever anyone and there needn’t ever be.”
She filled her plate then, stepping back to let someone take her place at the table, she disappeared into the darkness.