Alessandro faced the mirror. Rich, ebony curls framed his face, his flesh a fresh olive tone nearer to divinity than to daily doings. He smiled, grinned, flexed his lips in all manners of purses and pouts until he was certain all was perfect. He leaned back from the porcelain sink hung to the poorly tiled wall and frowned; right on his baby blue silk shirt, where it had touched the side of the sink, was a small wet blotch. He flicked it uselessly. Then he smudged his thumb across it in an attempt to dry the stain, but in effect only made it more noticeable.
His pout deepened a notch, and then a notch more as he stared, and almost one more notch before the door burst open and he flashed his most dashing smile and bared his moon-white teeth to the passerby who took no notice of him walked his way to the stall.
Alessandro just glared at the empty space left behind.
He huffed a shallow sigh, re-gathering his composition, and then strode out of the bathroom with a steadfast look somewhere between confidence and criticism from the obvious insult of being ignored.
He was Alessandro! How could he be ignored?
He passed a red-headed girl with glasses, who in trying not to drop her textbooks, looked up at him; and he smiled, mostly at his reflection in her two lenses, and kept walking. Someone of her status might perhaps admire someone of his, and fantasize, and dream, but he had no doubt in his mind that if ever they should meet once more, in ten years, it would be she sweeping the stage before he walked out to the curtains and sang away the souls of all who heard him.
He found his classroom at one of the endless aisles in the music building and entered it with as much flare as a firecracker. Heads turned, of course, but he looked not to them and just smiled in their general directions before taking his seat and crossing one leg over the other comfortably. There was no use in carrying textbooks or notebooks, he felt, when he knew all there was to learn already.
Class participation was rote: Give a few answers to those around him to make them think they knew more than they actually did, and then answer as skillfully as any before they moved onto vocal practice. Of course Alessandro allowed the other students to perform first; the best should always perform last, he believed, and besides, he felt more content to wait for his chance to dazzle and mesmerize than he felt to sit through substandard attempts at excellence.
More importantly, there were only thirteen more days until graduation–and then Greece, Italy, France–but mostly Italy. It was in his blood, his soul, that last frontier of voice to be conquered and captured and called his own.
Italy came. Italy went. Alessandro remained.
He slapped the end of his professor’s pointer against the board, enunciating as he droned on about vocal ranges and voice types. By all standards his pointer was unusually long and unusually thin and unusually lustrous, nothing at all akin to the laser pens of his colleagues, and in many ways it was the last hope he held to the world. Slacks and cotton shirts aside, he still played Mozart and Bach and sang in the car on his way to work every day weekday morning, but his dreams had been broken long ago. With his pointer in hand, however, he felt a similar new attachment to music, as if its similarity to a conductor’s baton reinforced the image of music teachers conducting future musicians, through whom his name would eternally be known.
Until their own broken dreams gripped by them the throats and dragged them down the dark alleys and back ways of mediocrity and asinine assumptions of glory and grandeur.
“Class dismissed,” he said and watched expressionless as his students returned their books to their bags, their pens to their pockets, and one by one filed through the open door. Except for one.
The boy, black-haired and perhaps as eager as he had once been, came to the front of the room and licked his lips for a second. Then, looking off to the side, he said, “Professor Alvato, my grandmother got tickets to Ferrara’s concert next week, and…”
“And you want to be excused for the exam?” Of course, in his day, Alessandro wouldn’t have asked to be excused–he’d just have gone (his talent afforded him a high enough grade to skip classes and cut corners here and there as needed), especially for the likes of a singer as renowned as Ferrara. She was relatively new on the scene, all things considered, and had made her rise as he had made his fall. In part, he felt resent. In part, he felt awe, and had purchased tickets to her following show on account of that very fact (his resent would be no match for the regret he’d feel for missing such an opportunity, he quickly assumed).
“Of course,” he said absently. “Speak with me after class tomorrow and we’ll schedule an alternate exam date.”
The child thanked him with vibrant elation and ran off for lunch or another class or whatever fine arts majors did these days. Alessandro just drifted into his desk chair, letting his pointed fall from twenty degrees north of east to due south, and sat there, and then sat there some more.
Days came. Days went. Alessandro waited.
The night of the concert called his fancy and feeling unusually light that day he treated himself to a fine dinner at a gourmet Italian restaurant a few hours before showtime. At first he wondered why he’d bothered to pay extra for a backstage pass, but after a few wines, he decided it was just another opportunity not to be overpassed.
He hailed a taxi from one end of town to the other and took his seat solemnly in the concert hall. He listened to the opening acts, the opera, the orchestra, waited with his face skewed from resting on his open palm until applause unlike any other welcomed Ferrara onto the stage and her heavenly voice and pristine pitch and unmatched melodies dazzled and mesmerized the one who, years before, had thought himself immune to such musical maladies as these.
Afterwards he waded through the onlookers and made his way backstage. He mingled with the musicians, picked the thoughts of producers, and carried conversations with the newscasters and cameramen until, as if an afterthought, he caught the star’s dressing room out of the corner of his eyes and, still feeling worn with wine, tried the knob.
It opened. Alessandro was surprised. Then he slipped inside.
He did so with such elegance, and the door had been oiled so well, that the singer never noticed him come inside or shut the door behind him. She was at her vanity, the mirror angled in such a way to capture every inch of her face but none of his presence. Ferrara pulled a brush through her hair, once, twice, once more, twice more, and Alessandro simply watched in his own silence, mesmerization.
Then his mouth slowly opened, soundlessly, and his eyes widened as he watched the legend pull back her brown hair, revealing locks of red underneath, and after setting the hairpiece aside, grabbed a slender pair of glasses from nearby and slid them onto her perfect face.
The thud on the door that he made as he stumbled back in surprise alerted the singer and she spun toward him, but instead of calling for security as he might in better mind have imagined she would, she simply smiled and grinned.
“Alessandro Alvato,” she said, rising to her feet. “Don’t tell me it’s really you.”
He flashed a poorly dashing smile and nodded awkwardly. “Have we met?”
Ferrara laughed, the sound light and airy, one note shy of girlish giggling. “I’m not surprised you don’t remember me,” she said, taking a step forward. “I sat behind you every day when we were in school–and forgive me,” she blushed, “if I admit that I dropped my books every time I saw you coming down the hall.”
He remembered then: He saw her every day, but never once stopped to help.
“Margaret Thompson,” she said, crossing the space between them in a single bound with her hand extended. He grasped it lightly, felt as if he held onto little else than a feather, and shook hers softly before retracting his. “Ferrara’s my stage name,” she said, as if taking note of the confusion on his face. “It’s where I was discovered. You don’t remember that either, do you?” She frowned, shaking her head ever so slightly. “It was the last time I ever saw your name on a program.”
Yes. He could recall that, too, now, though not all of it needed much trying: Of course it had been his last performance, the first he did in Italy wherein he performed first, not last. That spot had gone to one “Em Thompson,” he recalled the emcee saying as she received a standing ovation while he’d received only applause; always the best last, he supposed. He hadn’t felt much course in pursuing music after that; obviously his talent had waned and been overshadowed. He could be nothing past that, and refused to even try.
“You stopped singing,” Margaret said at last and raised a hand to her lips. “Alessandro, how could you…? You were the best!”
He shrugged, the wine waning. “You were better.”
She shook her head and laughed. “We could’ve both been stars–the world is certainly big enough for the both of us, I’m sure.” She smiled, sweeping around to stand slightly before and beside him, brandishing her arms in a great arc. “Imagine the headlines: ‘Alessandro and Ferrara!’ The crowds–the chaos–the clamor and–”
He sighed and shoved her aside, lightly. “It’s gone,” he said. “Dreams are meant for sleeping, I’ve learned, and nothing more.” He raised an eyebrow, to prove a point, but realised instantly it’d been taken as a taunt.
“Then sing for me, Alessandro. Prove to me that all that greatness has gone and that the Alessandro of my memories has truly passed from excellence to cowardice.”
He clenched his fist, his fury indented upon sudden pride, and he puffed his chest with a great breath of air and moved his mouth to– He stopped, grinning, not a sound emerged.
Margaret smiled. “At least I tried.” Then her face darkened, only minutely. “That’s something more than I can say of you.”
Alessandro crossed his arms. “So it is a challenge then after all, is it?”
“I simply don’t believe I’m a good enough reason to have given up your claim to glory. As I said, imagine the headlines. We’d be international.”
“You already are.”
“Then we would be interstellar.”
Alessandro laughed, but said little else than that.
“In any case,” Margaret said, returning to her vanity to start removing her makeup; “I’m famished. Care to join me for dinner, catch up on old times?”
“I already ate,” he said, standing his ground.
“So eat some more?” She laughed again, one note shy of giggling. “Certainly you don’t have to watch your figure anymore, or do you?”
He said nothing.
“In that case, I’ll personally ensure that the tab be paid in full. If neither food nor friendship can draw your presence, certainly money will.”
He’d lost his focus and taken a step forward. “Friendship? I don’t even remember you and you call us friends?”
She sighed and turned toward him, her freckles revealed. “Alessandro, do you not understand? We were always there for you–we all knew you amongst all of us could make it the farthest. You were our idol, or at least mine, and that feeling of being–what to call it?–your entourage, or perhaps paparazzi, was the best thing I recall in school. Trying to guess what color you’d wear to perform, or how many days you could go without trimming your hair, or…” She stopped talking, shaking her head. “It’s a shame you never noticed how much we loved you.”
He scratched an imaginary itch and looked sideways, but now no matter he turned he was fully reflected in the mirror and couldn’t escape it. What he saw stunned him, sullied him, and sent a cold shiver down his spine.
“The offer for dinner still stands,” she said.
Ferrara came. Margaret went. Alessandro followed.