Friday, November 29, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 29

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

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I haven't thought about Evan Kegans in years but for some reason his unmistakeable face drifted through my dream just before I woke up an hour before dawn. Whatever context there may have been evaporated with the first awareness of my surroundings, different from my dream's and in no way connected, the suspension of belief. Rather than try to figure out what the dream was or even what it meant, I considered why him, why now, as I slowly padded down to the kitchen, aware that Stephen was sleeping in the other room and I didn't want to wake him.

The kitchen was cold and it took forever to get the coffee going but there it was, still, the memory of a face, a shadow in some remote corner of my mind. Evan Kegans. I thought of those stories I'd read where distant friends reached out as they died and wondered. He was a year older than me but I had no way of getting in touch with him.

Firing up the internet (which also seemed sluggish in the cold), I found few hits on his name, nothing current, most of them probably not even him, certainly no listing of a phone or address. He had gone to Paris – that was the plan – one of those composerly exiles though too late to study with Boulanger like generations had before him.

It had been a bold move, I thought, giving up a good faculty position to live the life of a free-lance starving musician in the City of Light. Bohemian, indeed! Did it pay off? Since I'd never heard of him afterward, no, I guess it didn't, in that sense.

I felt too uncomfortable applying for his old job when he left and so ended up at Selwyn-Morgan instead. Already married with two small children, it wasn't like I could do the same thing, running away to Paris (that's what it felt like). Besides, I would have preferred London: at least there, I had a shot at understanding the language.

But at the time, Evan could pull it off, if anyone could. His big dream, he said over a bit of whiskey at the Corless, our last visit to New York together – going off to Paris and absorbing everything he could, sponge-like. I remember he soaked up his whiskey well enough.

But what chance, I asked, trying to sound both naïve and realistic, did an American otherwise unknown – and already thirty – have in a land where musical nationalism was very strong?

Absorb, yes, then come back to New York, yes – but who was being naïve to think he could be, like Chopin or Meyerbeer or even Stravinsky, a foreigner at the Paris forefront?

His argument had been simple. It was during the 1970s when academe was the perfect haven for a composer – how else could one make a living? But in the '80s, that was beginning to change: it was a simple law of something-or-other as conservatories turned out more composers than there were positions where they could teach. Soon, the idea of moving upward from one school to another would be more difficult – and everybody wanted to be closer to the Northeast, didn't they?

Perhaps it was supply-and-demand or a finite container unable to accommodate infinite material (would it overflow or explode?). If he couldn't make it outside these ivy-covered minds, what was the sense of walling himself up inside?

It was not an invitation to join him – we were competitive enough to realize that would never work – but a challenge to go and do likewise, whether I chose New York or London or Buenos Aires.

He had gotten his paperwork together, arranged for a place to stay through a friend of a cousin, an artist, brushed up on his graduate-level French and disappeared into a jet.

In a few years, the occasional card or letter had trickled to a stop. Things were going well, then not so well. He was working in the Paris office of an American publisher. He had stopped composing.

He worked occasionally as a music critic for an English-language newspaper. He'd met someone. They were very happy. I never heard back from my last letter. That was maybe twenty years ago.

It's not that he failed – I couldn't look at it that way – but that he found another way to be happy since teaching in a good college didn't work for him.

Would I have done any better – or different? Might I have become the successful composer I had dreamed of being when he couldn't?

Lord, suspend Thou my unbelief.

"Did you sleep well?" Stephen shuffled into the kitchen looking the worse for wear on a cold not-yet-winter morning. He had draped a heavy blanket around himself, letting it trail behind in protest to the inhuman chilliness of the house.

"You look like you've been miles away," he said, pouring himself some much-needed coffee.

"Paris, actually," I said, still staring out the window. "An old friend – from half my life ago," but then broke it off, not sure where to go from there. Stephen was now the age we – Evan and I – had been then.

When I'd gotten back from New York the day Evan left, it had not been a pleasant evening. Stephen, a baby then, was giving his mother a hard time and she took it out on me for being away the whole day. I had forgotten to bring back a souvenir for Millie, so she pouted all through dinner.

I thought of all the music I could have written not for lack of inspiration but for lack of the peace and quiet to write it in. Domesticity was a compromise I had been unprepared for, as if teaching hadn't demanded enough of me. Evan, recently divorced – which may have had as much to do with his leaving the country as his dream – could make his move unburdened.

If I said I would give up teaching and announced we were going to Paris because of some childhood dream, I would have pronounced myself silly if not insane. Stupid, unrealistic. But I also thought myself, that night at least, cowardly. Teaching was important to me but composing was what I wanted to do.

Wouldn't following on the courage of Evan's coattails have been what I needed to realize my dream? Instead, I stayed in Academia and still gave up composing: what was the difference if Evan had ultimately done the same, regardless?

Did Evan think he had made a mistake? Was that why he stopped writing to me – or had something happened? Did he think I had made the right decision – for me, at least – to stay behind (regardless)? It's not that I thought whether he'd succeeded (though if he were happy, isn't that good enough? – what was the point of fame if you weren't happy?) or even failed (not knowing what had or hadn't happened to him).

By the time I felt glad to have landed a better-paying position at Selwyn-Morgan, still within reasonable driving of distance of New York City, I had largely forgotten Evan and the risk he took. He was now that friend who'd gone to Paris as other friends began leaving Academia behind for whatever reasons: New York, Los Angeles – one even went to Abilene, Texas (why, I had no idea).

What had Madeleine given up to become a wife and mother? What dream of hers had been traded on the exchange? A painter who figured she would work on a canvas in the spare room while the children slept or, later, were at school, she might have envied Evan his courage.

As it was, she had stopped painting long before the children were school aged except to do a little sketching now and then. She always smiled when somebody would see these and say, "Wow, you should become an artist."

Stephen picked at one of the breakfast pastries from the cupboard and cautiously tested the coffee. He showed only mild interest in what I'd been saying, then assuming I would go no further, went to check his e-mail on the computer. What was going through his mind was equally hard to figure out, so I chose not to press him on anything. Perhaps the caution was mutual. Though in the past he had been quick to accuse me of general disinterest, he was quite good at withdrawing into a private world of his own that invited no curiosity.

We stared out the windows, watching the sky lighten gradually over the back yard. There were still some dramatic clouds just above the trees but otherwise it looked like a sunny day ahead. Somehow that made me feel better, like a host who, through no effort of his own, had scored bonus points with a guest during a less than successful visit.

In many ways, we were more similar than we might have been willing to consider. Most of the time, when he was growing up, I often wondered where Stephen "got that" as if a personality trait was an item one picked off the shelf going through a grocery store, taking this one from me, that one from Madeleine, this one – isn't that the way my father used to say something?

"If you want, we can go down to the village and grab some breakfast," I suggested.

"No, that's okay. Do you have some eggs? Fried eggs and toast is fine for me, nothing fancy." He didn't look over at me as he spoke. "What do you normally do for meals? I know Mom was always the cook in the family."

We'd been through this his last visit. Leo was the "chef" in their relationship (yet his mother was just a cook): how did I ever get along on my own? How would he get along, now, having to learn how to cook – perhaps even look after himself on his own?

I started to explain about Evan Kegans and how we almost went to Paris or maybe London, someplace that wasn't where he'd grown up, certainly not in beautiful downtown Pembrick on the edge of the campus of Selwyn-Morgan. This surprised him and he worked hard to disguise his obvious disappointment.

"If Evan had gotten this bug up his ass a couple of years earlier, we might have done that – it would have been more of a possibility, then – before you were born."

"You mean, I could've grown up in Paris?"

"Well, given the risk, it might not have been as easy as it sounds. If it hadn't worked out, living as a poor hippy ex-pat in a garret might not have been the same. Then, too, we might have tried not to have a second child if we couldn't afford it, you see." I paused. Yes, it's possible he might have been different as a result of that risk; it hadn't occurred to me before but, yes, it's also possible he might not exist at all.

"So you mean, I kept you from going to Paris...?" His tone expressed the realization that perhaps that was the reason we had not always gotten along: I resented him.

"No, but admittedly having a newborn son would have been one of many deciding factors. What I had here was predictable – safe. I couldn't see throwing it away on a whim." (Do not, I told myself, use the expression "the devil you know versus the devil you don't.")

"You mean, like 'the devil you know...'?"

Yes, we were more alike than we bargained for, both capable of wounding the other.

"I could have stayed at Cheatham College and you thought I was miserable before? Or I could've left Selwyn-Morgan after a few years and struck out in another path. But there are responsibilities one has..."

"Duties," he responded flatly, interrupting me, his coffee cup suspended before his lips.

"Yes, it was not just me, what I wanted to do. Perhaps that was why I spent so much time holed up in my study composing, trying to make something of what I always wanted to be when I grew up – still do, for that matter. Not because I wanted fame and fortune which wouldn't have hurt, but because fame and fortune might have gotten us out of Selwyn-Morgan and into a better... I don't know, situation?" I shrugged my shoulders. This may be the first time I admitted to my son that my career hadn't been a success – but it didn't seem to sink in.

"I liked teaching – I just didn't like what teaching had become, ultimately." Then I told him something else I'd probably never told him: when was the last time I remembered this, myself?

"When I was still in grad school and hadn't even started looking for a job, yet, one of the women who lived in my building said she was thinking about moving to Australia. There were lots of colleges there and they were looking for all kinds of teachers. It was still, even in the 1970s, a bit of a new frontier especially for artists from the American Northeast looking for someplace to go that wasn't California. The only reason I didn't consider it seriously was because I couldn't imagine myself in California, much less some place like the Great Unwashed Outback, even if I could find something in Sydney or maybe Victoria."

He laughed.

"The point is, had I made the decision to do that – and I looked at books in the library about colleges there, read up on the lifestyle, even talked to a recruiter Helen had introduced me to – had I gone to the University of New South Wales, I would never have met your mother and you would never have been born – at least as you are, whether or not that's a good thing..."

Again, he laughed.

"And your friend Helen – did she go to the University of New South Wales?"

"Ironically, no. She got a job in Iowa through a professor of hers, a very enviable position for a person just off the doctoral mill, and she married an ancient history professor – well, a professor of ancient history though he was older than her. The last I heard was she was still there – he died a few years ago, I think – she might have retired already but she had no children to play 'what if...?' with, you see."

"Hmm." He sipped his coffee (perhaps it was too cold now; I offered to heat it up). "It's really cold this morning, isn't it? Is it always like this, here?"

"No – sometimes it's summer. Officially, it was colder a few days ago, but tomorrow is supposedly the next 'coldest day of the season so far.' We haven't had any snow, yet, if that's what you're worried about."

He laughed.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

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