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Giselle Arbre was fat again. In the wake of her second pregnancy, the high cheekbones that had poked, defined and startling, out the front of her face were still softened by the bit of baby weight that had collected sneakily and frustratingly in the hollows of her cheeks.
Last time Giselle had ballooned in this fashion, she’d considered a clothing line, but settled on a fragrance instead. Pure Elegance, it was called, and Giselle had never worn it. She’d smelled it once when her agent had given her a sample of the finished product. It was flowery and a little obnoxious like so many other fragrances were— the kind you wouldn’t want anyone to be wearing on an elevator, or a train.
But that was last time— everybody was doing fragrances, clothes, “household” lines. Giselle wanted to do something else. She wanted to be a pop star.
As Giselle finished relating all of this to Gage over the phone with an airy sort of mysticism threaded through her voice, the intercom buzzed, rousing Gage from his dull state of half-slumber. He rubbed vigorously at his eyes and yawned into the receiver.
There was a pause, and Giselle spoke again.
“I think music is just…so great. And I love all kinds, you know…Nickelback, Carrie Underwood, Yanni—”
“Ms. Arbre,” Gage stopped her, his thumb and index finger pressing down on his closed lids as he marveled at the fact that people still listened to Yanni (that they ever listened to Yanni, really). “Ms. Arbre, why don’t you and what’s-his-face—”
“Your agent, sweetheart. You and—”
Gage could hardly keep the sigh in— that huge sigh that he heard inside his head in nearly all his phone conversations with all his clients.
“You and…Remy will, uh…The two of you should come to my office and talk to me in person. How’s Thursday?”
“Hmm…” The faint electronic beeping of Giselle’s IntelliSight was audible over the line, and Gage could just picture her wishfully sifting through the blank virtual pages of the tiny calendar that appeared before her eye.
“Okay,” she said finally, decidedly chipper about the huge openings in her schedule.
“Noon okay?” Gage found himself talking like he did to his nephew Myekaalh.
“Hmm. Well…” she murmured thoughtfully. After another careful pause (during which there was no beeping of optitronic gadgetry), she said that Yes, noon on Thursday would be fine, but that things could change and could she call Gage if her schedule became filled.
“Yes, Ms. Arbre,” he replied, tension seemingly radiating from somewhere in his chest and echoing all the way to the tips of his curling toes.
He hung up and sat staring at the loud pattern of the carpeting in his office until the intercom buzzed again, its metallic, percussive shriek conveying a sense of urgency of which very few things R.T. said over the intercom were worthy. Gage slapped the cluster of buttons impatiently with an open palm, nearly sending the small, boxy thing sliding out from under his hand and off the edge of his desk.
“What?” he snapped at it, the one corner of his palm just barely keeping the stiff button down.
“Your wife,” said the accented voice that crackled and hissed from the speaker.
“What about her?”
“She called a minute ago to remind you about the opera. It’s tonight.”
There was a pause, and the crackling came back through the speaker.
“What opera are you seeing?”
“What-- ? Oh, um…I don’t know. I guess we have a subscription, or something. That’s really all Jenny’s…thing."
"Perhaps it's the one with...oh, what's her name? You know the one..." Gage was quite certain that he didn't know.
"She was a stuntperson, or a body double, or--" Gage shoved his swivel chair (one of the big, black cushiony types that you'd see in a dark study or a law firm and that made Gage feel very small) away from the big, glass-top desk, strode across the screaming carpet and flung open the door, fixing his almost-perpetual glare on R.T., whose face was still propped on the heel of one hand as he hovered over the intercom and moved the fingers on his other hand (which wore an optitronic glove) to virtually navigate the screen that appeared before his vision.
"I will not have an entire conversation over the intercom, R.T. If you can't handle the temptation of those buttons, you can unplug that thing and give me all my messages in person."
R.T. shrank a little into the back cushion of his long-legged chair at the reception desk, lowering his head a bit under the assault of Gage's reprimand and muttering something along the lines of an apology as he adjusted his optitronic glove and blinked behind the lens that displayed R.T.'s stream of instant messaging just two inches from his left eye.
"And how many times have I told you not to mess around with that crap while you're here? For God's sake--" Gage reached out to wrench the knock-off IntelliSight from R.T.'s face by the molded plastic that curled around the young man's left ear and along the side of his face to bring the lens up to his eye. R.T. simply swatted Gage's outstretched hand with a light sigh.
"Mr. Gage," he said, shaking his head. "Oh, Mr. Gage..."
"Oh Mr. Gage what?"
"This," he said, pursing his lips and raising an eyebrow as he focused again on the tiny screen before his eye, "is not crap. It's practically art. But"-- he stopped Gage before the older man could let loose what he'd just opened his mouth to say-- "for you, sir, I will shut it down, which doesn't entail ripping it off my face."
Gage was still glaring as he growled at his personal assistant. "You and your...your artsy friends are completely ridiculous."
"Don't call me 'hon'!"
"Don't call me ridiculous. And don't forget about the opera. Wifey's gonna flip a s***."
Gage slammed the door to his office behind him before retreating back behind the expansive desk to slump down in the black leather chair. It smelled like an orange peel (it had always smelled like an orange peel) and was oddly soothing. The cell phone in his pocket suddenly vibrated against his leg, and he twisted in the chair to grope for it. The tiny readout on the side of the earpiece told him in glowing blue letters that it was Kraft Hospital. S***, he thought.
"Mr....LIAM GAGE," said the automated voice with false warmth. "According to the data sent to...KRAFT HOSPITAL...by your monitoring implant, your...HEART...is experiencing...STRESS. If you require emergency medical assistance, say 'Yes'. If not, say 'No'. For more options, say 'More'."
"I'm sorry. I didn't quite--"
"Thank-you. Have a nice--"
"Yeah, f*** you." Gage tossed the earpiece onto his desk, and finally released the sigh that had returned and settled in his chest, his lungs, his throat. He would have to watch his temper a little better.
"How was work today? R.T. said you were on an important business call when I called this afternoon."
Gage snorted, leafing through the pages of his program. "Just another model who wants to be the next...I don't know, whatever the hell kind of bulls*** people are buying into now. I'll probably have to pitch-correct the recording like crazy."
"Well...she knows you can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. And you know a model-turned-singer these days can sell."
"Jenny..." Gage shook his head, tightly rolling the glossy program in his hands.
"Look, Liam--" She paused momentarily as they let another couple edge past them to the neighboring seats. They were six rows from the stage, at the front of which the giant red curtain remained drawn and still as operagoers milled about and found their seats.
"You and I know," Jenny continued quietly, "that the business is no longer set up for or by musicians."
"What about me, huh?"
"You're a dinosaur," she replied simply. "Oh, you know what I mean, stop that." She patted his arm when he began to pout at her suggestion that his musical background was only an antiquated concept of the foundation needed to work in the music industry. Even so, he knew she had a point.
"It's not like you're selling your soul by making a little cash, honey. I mean, think about it-- you've kept up the recording studio and your own label in the face of a business that...that doesn't ever stand still. You've...morphed, really, in a way that some of your friends couldn't. And who could blame you for changing your style a little?"
After another minute or two, the lights began to dim, and the white screen rose from the front edge of the pit, in the exact spot where a conductor's head and arms used to emerge above the orchestra pit's walls. In the silence of the packed theater, Gage heard a faint whirring from the pit-- from behind the screen-- and the silhouette of a conductor stepping up onto the podium appeared through the screen. The shadow gave a quick, crisp cue to the empty pit and the overture began.
The virtual orchestra and its projected image of a conductor raced through a pop-rock medley of the themes from "Der Rosenkavalier". The opera was not "Der Rosenkavalier" but, rather, "The Flower Boy", and only used little bits and pieces of Strauss's melodies to fuel the operatic adaptation's bass-heavy renditions.
To his surprise, Gage did know who one of the starts of the opera was. She'd been in a few movies-- the film section in the San Francisco WebChronicle had called her the, "new Julia Roberts". She had a pretty face; that was all he knew. All of the parts, as usual, were pre-recorded, and mostly models and film actors were filling opera roles now. They all had such nice faces...
Gage and his wife rode the elevator to their fifteenth-floor apartment. Jenny thought of "The Flower Boy", and Gage thought of his father.
"Are you sure you want to major in music?" Tom Gage had said to his son as they drove to Chicago, where Liam would start his freshman year.
Liam laughed. "Isn't it a little late to be asking me that?" Tom sighed a deep sigh. He gave no reply, and instead gazed pensively through the bug-splattered windshield.
"I worry," he said several minutes later, breaking the silence that had settled in the car. "I worry that...that I've let you wander down some...path-- some path that'll leave you poor, and--and disappointed, and...I don't know-- living in a refridgerator box."
"Dad," Liam laughed off Tom's concern, closing his eyes in the brightness of a day-old sun whose light cut across the horizon before the bright orange ball sank below it. "Dad, don't worry about me. I'll be fine. And, you know-- I picked my major, so don't, like...feel bad, or whatever."
"What'll you do if you can't do what you want to do? What if there's no work?"
"I'm not, like...selling out, if that's what you mean."
"Dad, I think you just missed our exit."
Ding. The elevator door slid open, and Jenny was talking at Gage about opera. He felt like he had just picked up the receiver of a phone and had entered a conversation he hadn't been aware of before.
"...gone bankrupt, nearly, I heard. I mean, really-- live music? An actual orchestra? And the singers are nobodies. I think it's admirable of them to make a go of it in this day and age, but--"
"Who?" The two of them arrived at their apartment door.
"The Lyric. In Chicago."
"What's the matter with it?"
Jenny sighed impatiently as she rummaged in her purse for the key. "They've stuck to the old performance traditions, hardly made a cent in the past few years. I think it's admirable, sure, but...."
Gage's eyebrows furrowed as he watched her unlock the door. "But what?"
Jenny looked at him as she twisted the knob. "Nobody cares anymore," she replied.