“Part One: Via Separatiio” of The Conditions of Love


The Victrola sat on a nearby table. Its long arm rested in a metal clasp. Mr. Tabachnik lifted the arm, rubbed his thumb over the needle to clear away fuzz, then carefully shook the record from its paper sleeve and lowered the platter onto the platform. The needle made a dull scratchy sound. “Listen, Cisskala, you’ll hear for yourself, the greatest tenor who ever lived.”

We sat facing each other, our necks arched against tattered doilies.

Mr. T closed his eyes and insisted I shut mine: the street noises receded, and I tried to concentrate. I listened hard. Inside the music I heard weeping, anger, shame; then the dark, foreign power of Caruso’s voice invaded me. I recognized the truth when I heard it—not the words but its sound. Something heavy was being chased away off my chest and something else was unlocking. My foot stopped jiggling, the itch behind my knee where the scratchy nap of the upholstery pressed against my skin stopped itching, and I sank farther into the chair. Behind my eyes I saw a mountain range, pure and lonely, and I knew it was part of the truth too. A noise came out of my throat, a warm sound trying to blend with Caruso’s.

Mr. T’s head jerked off the doily, and he thrust an accusatory finger to his lips. My tongue froze; my mouth snapped shut. “You think this is Mr. Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, young lady!” I slunk down into my chair. Rigoletto! Mr. Tabachnik closed his eyes again and Caruso finished the aria. The needle went around and around in the last groove. Mr. Tabachnik stuck his feet into his bedroom slippers and shuffled to the record player, tousling my hair as he passed. Next was Caruso singing from Pagliacci. Such is the lesson that life teaches us, he said. A clown’s face can’t mask the sadness beneath.

When our listening hour ended, Mr. Tabachnik returned the records to their covers with the same care he’d used removing them. “Such beauty from such an instrument!” I should pay attention. In Caruso’s mouth each word was fondled and caressed. I might not understand Italian, but it didn’t matter because Enrico Caruso sang from the source of all languages, which was no less than the human heart.

This was how Mr. Tabachnik spoke when he wanted to convey the grandness of things: no less than the human heart. “Terrible things happen to people,” he said, the lines in his face deepening, “but from the terrible, beautiful can come.” That was opera, and Caruso was a genius of grief. Mr. Tabachnik placed a trembling hand on the crown of my head and bent to kiss me. Out of the ugly and terrible comes beauty. I shouldn’t forget it, he said.