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Quotes in this story attributed to Walt Whitman appear in Walt Whitman: A Gay Life by Gary Schmidgall, currently available from Dutton. Said quotes have been slightly fictionalized for the purpose of this story. Reproduced portions of Otello were written by Giuseppe Verdi.
"Do you think it would help if I got a sex change?"
"Help what? Our relationship?" Timothy giggled. "I really doubt it."
"No, stupid," said Matt, smacking him with a pillow. "My singing voice."
It was the kind of conversation men could enjoy after sex, at least so long as they were not concerned with fruitless concepts like "afterglow" or "ambiance." It was during the end of a long, pleasant afternoon, at the end of a chilly fall. The recently repaired heating system was bleating out a mild and relaxing temperature, and the two of them were half-tangled in the simple, cotton sheets that Matt preferred. There was no posing for the fictional camera, there was no looking deep into one another's eyes, or cooing out professions of attraction and beauty, although they were both beautiful, and aware of it. There was simply light, random, laughing conversation.
"Ah," said Timothy, softly, pondering his partner's question. "Ah."
There was a moment before Matt propped himself onto one elbow and asked, "Is that all you've got to say? Ah?"
"Oh, you wanted an answer." Timothy feigned surprise. "Mmmm... I would have to say that I really doubt it."
"Matt, I don't think the quality of a singing voice is proportional to the amount of estrogen in the bloodstream. Otherwise, all of the pretty women,... well, not pretty women, I don't guess..." He trailed off, confused. "How do you tell if a woman has a lot of estrogen?"
"I don't know, I think if she has big breasts."
"Yes, that's probably it. So if estrogen helped one's singing voice, than the women with the biggest breasts would be the best singers. And that's simply not true."
"Not at all?"
"Not at all. Remember that skinny little crow we saw at the Met in August? She was like the invisible girl, and she sang like her world was on fire."
"Yeah." Less of a giggle from Matt this time, and more of a chuckle. "She was really good."
There was a long, contented silence before Matt began again, "But maybe it's because of other factors."
"I mean, maybe estrogen is the starting point, but there are other factors, like training, or never having smoked."
"Bullshit. Besides, what about the tenors? The world's best tenors are all burly men, hairy as hell. Not a drop of estrogen in their bodies."
"They sure do have big tits, though. Hey, what about eunuchs?"
"I don't think they have much estrogen."
"Probably not. Aren't they supposed to sing well?"
"I don't know about well. I thought that they sang mezzo-soprano, but I don't know that their lack of testicles guaranteed that they would do so well. And I think they had to have it done before puberty."
There was a long silence before Matt asked, "So, what do you want to do tonight, big boy?"
"I was thinking we should go rent some movies, have Chinese delivered, and stay here all night," came the reply.
"Sounds nice, but I was kind of thinking about going out."
An only slightly hesitant sigh from Timothy. "Well, there's a Shaw performance that I've been wanting to see."
"What's that about?"
"It's about a respectable woman that is fought over by her husband and a young man."
"Sounds like the opposite of My Fair Lady."
"Well, you know. Discussions of respectability and all that."
"I guess. Crystal Underwood is playing the lead role. You like her."
"When did I see her?"
"In Henry V, at Keplar Hall, two years ago. She played Katherine. You said she swam with perfect grace."
"Oh, yes... She was good. I was kinda thinking about the opera, though."
"Matt, don't you think we're a little opera-ed out?"
"Not really..." Matt sounded dreamy, half-asleep. It wasn't a good sign.
"It's just that we've been to either the opera or a poetry reading more than four nights a week, for the past two months. I'd like to do something else. And this looks like a really good play."
"Well, let's go see Candida tomorrow night, or something, OK? I kinda had my heart set on a nice trip to the opera."
"What did you want to see?"
"La Forza Del Destino."
"Again? Are you sure we can even get tickets?"
"Don't give me that, it's a Sunday night, and if you recall, we're a gold-level donor at the house where it's playing. We'll get tickets."
"Well, look, you go ahead and go then."
Matt hesitated for a second, amazed at what he was hearing. He drew himself up with his hands and sat, facing Timothy with an expression of shock. "What, without you?"
"Sure. Look, I've just seen it one to many times, and I wanted to go see Candida."
"Is this Candida's last night, or something? Because if that's it..."
"No, it runs for two more weeks, so you'll have plenty of opportunity. I'm just a little burned out on opera houses, that's all. I'll go with you next time."
Matt's mouth was still open, a frustrated, stupid look on his face. He thought for a while, then said, "How about a rock concert, then?"
"No, look, Matt, it's not that serious. You want to see the opera, go see the opera. We don't have to..."
"You're right, though, babe, we have been there too much recently. I don't think I want to go tonight, after all. Let's see a rock concert. At a bar, some club or something where we can get some drinks. What's playing at The Tempe?"
The Tempe was Timothy's favorite venue, but neither of them liked the band playing there, so, after consulting the Voice, Matt got to choose the show. That was nothing unusual. He chose a band billing themselves as "Celtic Pop," and he and Timothy showered, dressed, and walked from their Park Avenue apartment to the subway station. (Timothy didn't believe in taking cabs before dark. He said that he lived too much of an isolationist lifestyle as it was.)
They entered the club, picked up beers, and sat down, waving away swingers periodically. Timothy was having difficulty enjoying himself. For one thing, he didn't think much of the recent Irish-Celtic influence in American pop culture: he found it a particularly pretentious fad. (He himself was entirely of English stock.) For another thing, he didn't think the band was that good. The lead singer, a woman supported by four male instrumentalists, was a strict graduate of the Sarah McLoughlin/Lorena McKennit school: she held her notes for far too long, sacrificed clarity in an attempt to find angst, and inserted Celtic words that she surely knew her audience would not understand. But after a while, armed with several bottles of brain lubricant, he felt himself sliding into the music. The guitarists were excellent, as was the keyboardist, and although he didn't like the singing, he had to admit that the band's members meshed together perfectly; the keyboard seemed to be singing to the subconscious the same song that the singer sang to the conscious. The drummer was the perfect accompaniment to the band; he pounded out a complicated rhythm without once adding a narcissistic flourish.
By the end of the first song, the singer had completely penetrated Matt. He was floating freely in a sea of ether; the music thrummed in his bones and ran jumpy laps up and down his spine. The music moved in and out of his soul like a shaft, teaching him things, making him wonder if his body was jittering with the energy pulsing through it. To him, the concert was everything that rock and roll aspired to, and so rarely reached.
"Did you like it?" He asked Timothy, around one in the morning, during the cab ride home.
"Oh, yeah, they were good."
"But... You had some problems with them."
"Well, it wasn't much lyrically, you know?"
"You didn't think so?"
"But the vocals, you loved them, right?"
Timothy was very horny, and growing frustrated. He was unable to clearly think how to navigate through the conversation and steer them to an erotic conclusion. "The vocals were great," he said. Then, "I'm glad we did this. It was a good idea."
"Yeah." Matt stared out the window for a little while. "I know you get tired of Irish stuff."
"Oh, yeah, well, it's not that serious."
"It's just that, you know, most everyone in America can claim some Irish descent."
"Sure, I know. It was a good band. The Celtic stuff worked well."
There was another pause before Matt said, "I want to take singing lessons." That shouldn't have surprised Timothy, but it did. He didn't hesitate, however.
"You don't think it's a bad idea?"
"Why would I?"
"Because I can't sing."
"Well, that's what the lessons are for, right?"
"You know what I mean. I mean, I'm a really bad singer. You've always thought so."
"Well, maybe that's not for me to judge."
"I was just concerned that you would think it was a waste of time."
Timothy tried to place his hands strategically, without being too overt. "Matt, if it makes you happy, it's never a waste of time."
"And a waste of money."
"Matt? In the seven years that we've lived together, how many times have I bothered you about money?"
"Never, I don't guess."
"Well, OK. If the market crashes and I become a pauper, we can discuss the expense of your singing lessons. Until then, you have access to the checking account, and I don't want to hear about money."
* * *
Singing lessons were a disaster. Instructor after instructor told Matt what he really already knew; he could not sing, he would never be able to sing, and by attempting to sing he was making a mockery of his instructor's fees. Eventually, he was able to find an unscrupulous teacher that told him that his voice would improve, with lessons, but time proved the man a liar, and Matt was back to hopelessly croaking out arias in the shower when no one was around.
His depression grew daily. He was attending the opera more and more often, staying late to grab a glimpse of the lead performers, utilizing his beau's bank account to make massive donations to the smaller opera houses, and thus gain access to the stage and performers after hours. He would grill anyone that would sit still on technique and form, tape record everything that he was allowed to record, and play the tapes over and over. His name, in the small-budget New York opera scene, had become synonymous with money, but even those who benefited from his interest were beginning to view him as an obsessive creep.
One day, while he and Timothy were eating, Matt pulled out the following article and read it:
"'The voice is a curious organ, and follows the general health for good or evil. The body must be vigorous and sound, before the voice can be so. Excess, habitual intoxication, voluptuousness, bad blood, starvation, dyspepsia, a sunken chest, ect., ect., are all obstacles in the way of fine vocal utterance. Fat, gluttony, swilling beer, gin, soda, coffee, or tea - these make the voice thick and put phlegm in the throat. Drink water only.' Then, again: 'Drinking brandy, gin, beer, is generally fatal to the perfection of voice; -- meanness of mind the same. Masturbation and inordinate going with women rot the voice.'"
"That's weird," said Timothy, half-listening. "Who wrote it?"
"Really? Whitman? He wrote about voice?"
"Oh, yes. Before Leaves of Grass, he was a cultural critic, and wrote about the opera. He published a series of articles giving advice to opera singers."
"He was heavily involved in the art, and considered a great authority on it."
"How 'bout that."
"So I've decided that that's what I've been doing wrong."
"What's what you've been doing wrong about what?"
"Whitman's article. It's proving that my lifestyle is interfering with my voice."
Timothy lost a few beats before asking, "You're going to only drink water?"
"I'm going to only drink water, and I'm going to stop having sex."
More beats lost, before: "Are you out of your FUCKING mind?"
"Oh. So you're going to be like that, are you? That's rather selfish."
"Matt, this makes NO FUCKING SENSE. Do you mean to tell me that you're going to become celibate because of the instructions a POET gave to would-be divas a hundred and fifty years ago?"
"Why shouldn't I? I want to sing. Here, I have instructions what one needs to do to..."
"Matt, sex doesn't have anything to do with your voice."
"So you're an expert now?"
"For Christ's sake, Matt, welcome to the twenty-first century. We know better than that shit now..."
"Why should we know better? Because we no longer see sex as a sin, because we believe it good, and therefore choose to believe it healthy? The medical facts haven't changed since Whitman's time."
"MATT. They were wrong about the medical facts. They were wrong..."
"We don't really have any reason to believe that, Timothy. True, they arrived at their conclusions about sex because of the ethics of the time, but we do the same thing, now. Science blows and changes with the ethics of the people. Five hundred years ago, people thought that the Romans were fools to take baths..."
"And to drink lead..."
"You see? That proves my point. We don't know. We're just guessing."
"So, OK, in defiance of medical progress, you're going to go by the guess of Walt Whitman?"
"What, you no longer have respect for Whitman?"
"I respect your poetry, too, but I'm sure as hell not going to you for medical advice."
"Timothy, this is something I have to try. Don't you understand?" Matt's eyes now searched pleadingly for Timothy's, then flicked away, finding Timothy's eyes too hot a resting place. "Either he was right, or he was wrong, but I have to try. I have to."
Timothy looked down into his hands.
"Jesus, Timothy, I mean, it's not like we can't have SEX. I mean, I said that, but all I meant was that I just can't have orgasms."
There was a snort.
"Please," Matt's voice sounded hollow, but it could have easily been a cultivated hollow. "Please."
"You have to do something for me," Timothy said, after a long time.
"You have to see an analyst."
"You think I'm crazy."
"Oh, don't start that bullshit, Matt..."
"But you said I was crazy. You said I was out of my fucking mind."
"I was upset."
"You're not upset now?"
"Are you going to the therapist," Timothy was almost spitting, "Or do you intend to sit here and fuck with me?"
Matt threw his napkin down, in a ridiculous act of defiance, and left the table.
* * *
The psychologist's (not a psychiatrist, Timothy didn't believe in drugs) office was lavish and ultra-modern, a cathedral to an uncertain science and unquestionable fashion. The magazines were all up-to-date. Matt didn't notice; he had a book.
Dr. Makower came out of his office, walked his previous client to the door, and greeted Matt, taking him down a long, narrow hallway to an incredible office, furnished delicately with statuettes and vases that screamed their value.
"What are you reading?" asked the doctor.
"A Stranger to Heaven and Earth."
"Oh. What's that?"
"I see." The doctor gave no indication of whether or not he knew who Anna Ahkmatova was. "You have your choice of the chair or the couch, it doesn't matter to me."
Dr. Makower sat behind his large oak desk, and watched Matt fluctuate indecisively for a moment before settling in the chair on the desk's other side. "So," the doctor asked, after a moment, "What brings you here?"
"My boyfriend wanted me to come."
"OK. What would you like to talk about?" The doctor spoke quite slowly, enunciating carefully, as though speaking to a small child. Matt, irritated by this, took a closer look at him. He was less than 5'7" (pitifully short in Matt's estimation), and wore thick, ugly glasses over his impeccable Italian suit. He had curly, dark hair and a curly mustache, like a picturebook Gypsy or Jew.
"Don't you want to know why my boyfriend wanted me to come?" Matt asked.
"Only if that's what you want to talk about."
Matt sighed. He'd been in the office less than a minute, and it seemed he was already playing a game he barely understood. "So, what do you know?"
"About you? Only what you've put on your application, and that's very scanty as far as relevant details go. Age, weight, that sort of thing. Social Security number, although I doubt that will come up in therapy."
"So, have you talked to him?"
"My boyfriend. Timothy."
"He's paying for all this, you know."
"I didn't, and it would be illegal for me to discuss it with him."
"Come on, doctor."
"Are you accusing me of a felony, Matt? One directly pertaining to my profession?"
"Ever smoked pot?"
"If so, never a felonious amount, and that doesn't directly pertain to my profession. My job isn't to analyze myself."
"Ever dropped acid?"
"OK. I haven't."
"Why not, doc?"
"Honestly? Because no one has ever come up to me and said, 'Hey, Phil, wanna drop some acid?' Just like no one has ever come up to me and said, 'Hey, Phil, wanna spend two hundred and fifteen dollars an hour of my money to ask a shrink if he's ever dropped acid?'"
After a moment, Matt replied, "You talk really slow to be billing at two-fifteen an hour."
"You haven't given me anything interesting to say, yet. Why are you here, Matt?"
Matt hesitated before responding, then moved to the leather couch and lied down. "I want to sing arias."
"That's opera, right?"
"Usually. Certainly, in my case."
"And what's the problem?"
"I can't sing. I mean, I have yet to be able to produce a satisfactory sound, or even a sound that singing instructors even consider promising."
"So you're depressed."
"Nope. Depression, apparently, is the normal reaction to such a thing. I'm determined. I'm determined to find a way to sing."
For a long time, nothing was said, before Matt popped back in with, "That's all you're going to say? I see?"
"I didn't think you were finished."
"What else did you want me to say?"
"Only what you're interested in. But you haven't finished telling me why your boyfriend wants you here. Which you don't have to do, if you don't want to."
"Fine, fine, whatever. I'm not sure. I mean, he thinks I'm obsessing, he probably has thought so for a while. But he insisted on my coming to you..."
"Insisted? How do you mean?"
"Well, I asked him to do something for me, and he responded by asking me to come here."
"What did you ask him to do?"
"I was coming to that."
"I'm sorry. Go ahead."
"I told him that, in order to become an ariaist, I'd have to stop having sex."
Dr. Makower, too, felt the need to pause while pondering this.
"I mean," Matt finished, "Stop having orgasms."
"And what brought you to that conclusion?"
"A series of articles by Walt Whitman, on how to train one's voice."
"More 'ah's and 'I see's, huh. Lovely."
"And you consider Walt Whitman an authority..."
"In his time, everyone considered him an authority."
"Very well. So, because you no longer want to have orgasms in order to improve your singing voice, your boyfriend asked you to see me."
"That's right. So, I guess you think that's wrong, or what?"
"What's wrong? How do you mean?"
"I mean, to want to stop having orgasms. I mean, isn't celibacy a perfectly viable option?"
"Since the word viable comes from the verb vie, and you are now living with celibacy, it is almost tautologically a viable option."
"That's not what I mean. Doesn't society recognize the validity of celibacy as an appropriate lifestyle anymore?"
"I'm not a sociologist, Matt. Or rather, I do have a Doctorate of Sociology, but I'm not a practicing sociologist, and I'm not very interested in how society views your decisions. I'm more interested in how you view them."
"I thought that you wanted to talk about whatever I wanted to talk about."
"I say that to all my clients, Matt. But since you're the type of person that likes to come into a therapist's office just to shoot the shit and moralize, I'm revoking the offer in your case."
"Indeed. Matt, I want you to tell me about your relationship with your boyfriend. What's his name?"
"His name's on the application."
"Very well. Tell me about Timothy."
"What about him?"
"Start at the beginning. How did you meet?"
The moment Matt had dreaded had arrived. He took his time, forming thoughts, wriggling on the couch, still stalling as much as he could. "I was on the F train, on my way to a cheap little dive of a club that I hung out at some nights. So I'm listening to my Discman, like everyone else on the train, and I'm listening to Otello... Do you know it?"
"Otello? It's by Verdi, right?"
"That's right. So I'm listening to Otello, and the big number, Salce, starts..."
"That means willow, right?"
"No, no, you're missing the point. Have you ever heard the aria?"
"I'm sure I have."
"OK, so look, when an Italian points to a tree, and says, salce, he means willow. But when the ariaist sings, salce, salce, salce, she's not talking about a tree, she's not even talking about her character, she's singing herself, she's singing her own identity, she's singing salce because no other word, in any language, could say what she's feeling, and of course if she doesn't understand this it doesn't matter what she sings, she's wasting her fucking time. When she's singing salce, she's sawing back and forth, you can hear it in the word even when it's not sung, she's sawing back and forth between passion and loneliness, between Eros and Thanatos, between what she wants and where she is, she's screaming and she's warbling, she is the light in the darkness and she is the darkness and she is nothing but the sound saal-ce, saaal-ce, Saaaaal-CE! Sedea chinando sul sen la testa!, and there's no other way to express it, and it stretches across the dimensions, trapping her in amber, ramming through the listener's every pore."
Dr. Makower was silent, his face betraying no emotion. After a moment, Matt continued with his story: "So I'm on the train, and I start to sing, in Italian. Which is good, because all of a sudden I have more elbow room..."
"May I hear you?"
"Hear me sing?"
Matt sang a few bars. "That's enough, thank you," said Dr. Makower. "I think I have the idea."
"OK. So now I'm singing, and not really paying attention to what's going on around me, and a couple of tourists are staring at me but almost everyone is looking away. But there's one guy staring at me, and he doesn't look like a tourist. He also looks very wealthy and stone-cold sober, which was kind of strange, too. And he's starting to make me nervous, but I push it out of my head and finish the aria, and am singing the next number as I step off the train. And he follows me. And he follows me into this shitty little dive, where everyone else is in blue jeans, and buys me a drink."
"And the rest, as they say..."
"Whatever, doc. I feel tired. Can I go now?"
"Certainly." Dr. Makower shoved some papers around on his desk for a minute or two, then said, "I want you to take a test, the MMPI. It stands for Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. It's a very extensive personality test, with several hundred multiple-choice questions. It costs very little, and saves us a lot of time, directing me to areas of interest."
"My receptionist will set up an appointment for the testing. And I'll see you next week." The doctor rose, to walk Matt out.
* * *
Matt's MMPI scores told Makower appallingly little. He was not prone to violence, depression, or drug abuse. There were no signs of a chemical imbalance, latent or active. He was intelligent, lazy, bored and romantic, but no test was required to determine that much.
When he greeted Matt for his second appointment, the patient was reading a different book. Makower asked him what it was, and Matt replied, "Art in the Light of Conscience."
"A big fan of the Acemists, are you?" the doctor asked.
Matt looked up in surprise. The Acemists were a group of six poets living in Russia before the Revolution. Anna Ahkmatova was one, as was Marina Tsvetaeva, the author of Art in the Light of Conscience. But Matt didn't think there were more than a handful of New Yorkers, other than literature professors, that knew what an Acemist was,.
"Sure, I guess so. I mean, I read a bunch of stuff. I'm just reading through the Acemists right now."
"Ah." They were in the office, and Matt arranged himself on the couch with very little enthusiasm. When he was finished, Makower began, "What is it, exactly, that you do, Matt?"
"I don't do anything. You know that. It's on my application."
"I know that you don't have to work for a living, yes. But you must do something, nonetheless. Do you play an instrument?"
"I'm not interested in conventional instruments. I mean, they're fine, and all, a wonderful art form, but they're exterior to the body, and therefore unable to express emotion perfectly, as the voice can."
There was a long pause before Makower asked, "You seem a little down today, Matt."
"I'm sorry, I'm not down at all. I didn't sleep very well last night. There was some sort of commotion downstairs, and it kept waking me."
"Why are you apologizing?"
"You don't have to tell me that your sorry that you seem down. You're allowed to seem down, or be down, whenever the need strikes you."
"Well, shit, now we know what an analyst gets paid for, don't we? Look, I'm fine, all right?"
"OK, Matt. So, you don't play, but you must spend your time somehow, and I'm guessing that it's in some sort of creative pursuit. Do you write?"
"No... Not really. I mean, I've written, but not recently."
"What sort of things did you write, and when did you write them?"
"Well, I feel cheesy saying it, but I mostly wrote love poetry. Strange stuff, so it wasn't always understood by the people I gave it to, but Timothy always got it. Here's the thing, though, I mean, it was love poetry. It might have been strange, but... Well, I'm still in love with Timothy, but that doesn't mean I can spend the rest of our years together coming up with love poems for him. Eventually I will burn out, and wind up writing the same old shit over and over again."
"I understand. And you've never felt inspired to write anything but love poetry?"
"Well, I don't know about all that. I mean, I've written a science fiction story or two. I mean, actually I guess I've written some notes for science fiction stories. But they were really good notes. I'm real proud of them. Quality stuff."
"Why haven't you turned them into stories?"
"Why? I mean, I've already written the notes. The ideas are all complete. Why should I turn them into prose, where they'll lose their vigor, and I won't get half as much enjoyment out of them? I have some sketches for them too, of the characters. Quality stuff, I don't mind telling you."
"What about them? Oh, you mean should I turn them into comic books. No, no, the stories are far too sophisticated for that. Complicated stuff, for adults."
"Adults read comic books too, now..."
"There are some very adult comic books, and I don't mean sexual ones. Comic books are being recognized more and more as a legitimate art form."
"That's nice, and all, but why would I really want to write comic books, anyway?"
"Then what do you do, Matt? I mean, who are you? You come into my office, and you don't present yourself as anything other than a kept man and a self-absorbed brat. Surely you think of yourself in terms more sophisticated than the facade you've presented me with."
"Look, you seem to be under the impression that I just sit around wishing that I was an artist. But the fact is, I am an artist. It's just that my art doesn't come out right just yet. But I'm working on it, and I will succeed. Whitman had more detailed instructions than just, 'don't come,' you know. And I'm following them to the letter. I've returned to one of my old singing instructors - he's not very good, but he treats my decisions with respect - and I have every faith in our ability to turn me into a competent singer."
"Well. I see. And how is Timothy handling himself?"
"How do you mean? I mean, maybe he's depressed. He acts like everything's OK, though. Bucks up well, and all. He's been real good about helping me kick caffeine. I don't drink it at all, now. He hasn't gotten pushy or weird or anything when we have sex, though I'm sure he's not enjoying it as much, cause there's so much that we either can't do, or have to be real careful about when we do it."
"And you? Are you adapting well to your new lifestyle?"
"Absolutely. I feel great."
"Matt, something struck me since our last session, about the story of your first encounter with Timothy. Presumably, he was following you around because of your singing, right?"
"Well, yes. Not because of my singing, exactly, no, but because I was singing at all, I guess."
"Have you ever discussed it with him?"
"I know what you're asking, you're wondering why he would have been attracted to a bad singer, and I don't know."
"Did he ever say?"
"He said that even though my voice was cracking and erratic - I think that's how he put it - he said that anyone could tell I was a good singer just by looking at my face. He said that I was totally enraptured, that the music was flowing through my face without hesitation, that it wasn't coming out of my mouth quite right, but there was no question that it burned within me."
"What do you think of that?"
"Well, it's kind of romantic bullshit, now, isn't it? I mean, I enjoyed hearing it and all, but it doesn't mean much, from my perspective anyway."
"Matt, you're obviously both intelligent and talented. And the music, whatever it may be, is flowing through you. Why do you feel it has to come out of you in the form of arias?"
"Have you ever read Jimmy Carter's poetry?"
"Yes. What about it?"
"Did you like it?"
"If you know who the Acemists were, you must know a lot about poetry, enough to know that Jimmy Carter's is some of the worst written."
"Like I say, I didn't care for it."
"OK. Well, Jimmy Carter's a diplomatic genius, and a good writer, to boot. But he's an essayist, not a poet. Every time he writes a poem, even though the 'music,' as you call it, is still flowing through him, something goes wrong and he winds up writing shit. If he could understand this, he'd be doing the world a favor."
"Is that how you feel about singing?"
"No, dammit, that's how I feel about everything else. I can't play an instrument, because it's wrong for me. I can't write science fiction stories, and I feel sure I can't write comic books. And even though my poetry is better than Jimmy Carter's, the fact remains, I'm not a poet."
"What are you, then, Matt?"
"I'm a singer," Matt concluded, with understated but obvious drama, "with somebody else's voice."
* * *
The call came to 911 came in just after midnight, in the middle of a thunderstorm. Operator Katz Cameron answered the call. Katz had seen a movie called The Rapture as a teenager, and whenever she answered the line, she did an unconscious imitation of the movie's star, Mimi Rogers.
"Nine-one-one. Do you have an emergency?"
"Yes. I need an ambulance to 341 B, Park Avenue, please."
"I'm sending one now. What's the nature of the emergency?"
"I've cut out my own testicles."
Katz, despite herself, blurted out, "WHAT? Why?"
"Why? Is that part of your training over there, to ask why? Do you really want to know my reasons for cutting out my balls? Is the ambulance on its way?"
"Yes, sir. It's already been dispatched. Will you be all right until it arrives?"
"I think so. I'm sitting in a tub of ice and water, and applying direct pressure. There really isn't as much blood as I was afraid there would be. I've been drinking pretty heavily, to kill the pain."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea, sir..."
"If you have a better one, I'd love to hear it."
"I'll put you in touch with a doctor, sir. Is your door unlocked?"
"That's good. Please hold the line. I'll put a doctor on." Katz's voice clicked off. Matt waited on the phone line, pulled his homemade tourniquet closer to his body, and listened to the rain sing Salce on the gutters above him.
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