Prairie Schooner, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2003.
In the crowded backstage, Ian's life passes before him as if he is drowning. Here he sees not the life he has lived but its absence, people he does not know, ease he does not have. Pressing through the congratulating swarm, he hears Richard defer graciously to the talent of others who have made everything possible. Richard has learned. At Julliard, he used to take praise of others as stolen from him, and their collaborations mixed envy with friendship.
"Ian, I'm so glad you could make it. Let me introduce you to Han," a famous violinist, "and Yokio," a famous conductor. These soon see that Ian is no one they need and drift off. Richard finds Ian again and grasps his shoulder, "There's someone I want you to meet," pushing him through the crowd, "Incredibly talented." His student introduced, Richard leaves. Ian guesses the protégé knows they have been brought together to occupy each other out of the way.
Their conversation peters out, he waves to Richard and leaves.
The backstage scene burns in Ian, brilliant and leaping like living flame that lights first this moment then that, fresh and searing. When the ancients described hell's fires, they could have been imagining this, pain at once so intimate it feels involuntary, so great it seems not in the mind but outward and infinite, flames never consumed as long as the soul is alive to feel them. Like hell's flames, they feel to Ian just and impossible to escape though he cannot identify what he has done or omitted to deserve them. Careers in music begin early. He was supposed to compose and be known, as Richard is known. Richard has mastered something he has not and, not mastering it, he has failed his calling. He will never succeed in his life's work.
The highways he drives flee the city, through Victorian suburbs, smaller roads, trees and newer houses, darkness, to a straggling village, once a mill town, whose buildings stand empty. In the discouraged business district, blind glass faces out from stores for rent. At the corner, an antiques shop is stocked with junk from lives like his.
He stops near the bridge and walks to the parapet. Pale gleams shine where water rushes over rocks. Along the nearby highway, the sounds of cars press tight forward, trail behind.
Does life really recapitulate in drowning? Can a few gasping minutes condense years of struggle? Can ten breaths of animal resistance crush into one all his waiting for rebuff and getting it. Nothing to show for the years of learning and work. Time after time the form answer, grant denied, unfelt regrets, prize not won. Can one night compress his last frenzy of hope into a single capsule?
He has conned Elizabeth. He has no gift to give.
Oh God, what was I born for?
Like intercourse, whose meaning does not yield to description of who touched whom where, despair remains opaque to outward scrutiny. Our story is not a textbook on the anatomy of pain. Enough to know that Ian burned. Richard backstage, said nothing about the real party after the common crush, when the chosen go off for a drink together. Ian's pain backstage, striking a match to self-knowledge, has left him charred and without skin. His life, air itself, tortures like fire.
Our species survives by not knowing how little chance we have when we go out to meet monsters, a stone in one hand, kidding our puny selves we will bring down beasts and eat their meat. Not a feat to undertake alone, but bent over the river parapet, Ian is alone.