Moonlight & Roses

1.

My mother loved crooners—Andy Williams, Perry Como, Jerry Vale. Especially Jerry Vale. His voice has a curvature, a rounding of the Rs that made him sound more Midwestern than like a guy from the Bronx, and a higher pitch than the others that added yearning, and maybe hope.

I know she liked his looks. Short, with lustrous black hair and sparkling brown eyes, Jerry had a smile that covered the bottom half of his face, his teeth gleaming and strong. He looked nothing like my tall, stooped, blond, green-eyed father, whose dentures came out the minute he stepped inside the front door, who sang “Waltzing Matilda” when he sang at all.

My mother listened to Jerry Vale as she did housework—“The Impossible Dream” while scrubbing the bathroom, “Two Purple Shadows” as she washed windows, and always, she sang along, a clear, trilling soprano, trained in the church choir. She even accompanied Jerry in Italian—“Amore, Scusami,” “Al Di La”—note for note. She pronounced pasta as “paste-uh,” but Jerry guided her effortlessly through the language of romance.

His calm tenor confessed love of the most resonant, enduring kind, and enunciated it so slowly and clearly, his sincerity couldn’t be doubted. My mother, with her faraway blue eyes, wiped a rag slowly over the bathroom mirror as she and Jerry admonished their hearts to “Pretend You Don’t See Her,” to instead smile and pretend to be gay. When I mocked the songs—there were so many good lines to ridicule—my mother looked hurt, and usually said something on the order of, “Just wait, honey. Someday, you’ll see how true these songs are.”

That idea brought me up short later, when I was alone in my room. When had my mother picked the April rose that only grows in the early spring? Whose fingers had touched her silent heart and taught it how to sing? My father? His fingers were yellow with nicotine, and the rose bushes he planted in holes in our lawn all died before eking out a bloom.

With their absolutes and abstractions, Jerry’s songs glorified relationships I deemed unhealthy, songs in which the beloved was the singer’s reason to be living. While my mother swooned at the implied subservience—If they made me a king, I’d be but a slave to you. Your kiss is all I need to seal my fate. You’re my everything. Love me with every beat of your heart—I worried about the all-encompassing nature of this love, which seemed like a beast ready to swallow one’s life whole. In the songs Jerry sang, even a chance encounter ended with the lovers at first sight being in love—and staying together—forever.

The songs I listened to created more troubling particulars—romantics hiding behind bottles in dark cafes, or solitaries driving the snowy turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston as they bade goodbye to the moonlight ladies. Nobody’s love was undying or encompassing. Even the most buoyant tune conveyed love’s trepidation—The dizzy dancing way you feel gave way to love being just another show, from which your final responsibility was to leave ’em laughing when you go, and if you care, don’t let them know.

And gosh almighty, baby, yes indeed—sometimes the terms were laid out right up front: You and me will only see tonight.

 

2.

The flat truths and bleakness of the songs I loved, my mother found depressing. “What about the moonlight and roses?” she asked once, near tears, as we argued our conflicting soundtracks. I was, at most, sixteen, and if not completely inexperienced, then close enough—a fact I tried to hide with a knowing smirk.

She said my ideas about love were all wrong. Someone brought you the roses, arranged with ferns and baby’s breath in a crystal vase. You admired them in the moonlight streaming through the tall windows of your hotel room, in Paris maybe, listening to a tinkling piano from the next apartment, while you sipped champagne—with someone. Someone was the key to your happiness. Moonlight and roses simply set the stage.

I probably turned sarcastic, asked when she’d ever been to Paris, had roses delivered, sipped champagne in a hotel room? Maybe she said, Well, not Paris, but Stuttgart, that time your daddy and I went to a banquet there, and stayed overnight. And I would have snapped back, Oh, that time you fell on the stairs and broke your ankle? Was that because of champagne? I was under the impression that you were drinking bourbon that night

Her “someone” picked his nose at the dinner table, walked around the house in his boxer shorts, left his dirty socks balled up on the floor for her to pick up and throw in the hamper. He kept stacks of Penthouse and Playboy magazines on his bedside table, beside an ashtray filled with cigarette butts that she’d empty the next morning when she made their bed. He got angry with her over trifles, called her stupid when she did something wrong. Sometimes he introduced her as “my first wife.” When the other person looked puzzled, he’d explain, “It keeps her on her toes.”

I don’t know why I couldn’t let her have her fantasies. I’m not sure what I got out of making her feel sad, unless it was a tightening of my own precarious grip on a world that I’d barely tested—and that had barely tested me. She knew I laughed at her plastic flower arrangements, her treacly music, her bedside copies of The Daily Word, the musicals she watched open-mouthed on TV, weeping as couples sang their devotion. I laughed when she periodically broke into song, sometimes just a single line—Starlight looks well on us! Moonlight becomes you! Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars! So much moonlight you’d think my mother carried a beast inside her that yearned for lunar liberation.

 

3.

It’s a warm June evening, a full moon hanging above the blue spruce—the strawberry moon in this hemisphere, but the cold moon down below. Trees and bushes encircle our small backyard so that at night, it feels almost like a room with a wide door at either end, the occasional breaks in the foliage like windows onto the alley. I like just to sit out here and feel the night weighing in around me with all its mystery and substance, all its scents and secrets. Sometimes I hear small disturbances in the underbrush—rabbits, the neighborhood possum, an elusive groundhog the size of a small dog that’s lived around here for years. Sometimes I hear an occasional, abbreviated birdcall, as if some parent bird’s reassuring a nestling. Sometimes people walk down the alley, quietly talking, and I watch them, motionless and invisible in the shade of my neighbor’s hemlock hedge. The moon casts shadows that seem clearer cut than those in the day—a literal black and white demarcation on the grass.

But this night, my husband and I are dancing under the full moon. Blood on the Tracks plays from my iPhone—the same phone I used minutes earlier, to call him down from his study, to lure him into the backyard to see the moon. Damp grass cool against my bare feet, long cotton skirt swaying against my ankles, I’ve had way too much wine and my husband is cold sober. I’m not sure how one is supposed to dance to “Tangled Up in Blue,” but we give it a shot, holding hands and jouncing around the yard, laughing.

I like to think that whatever illusions we had about one another vanished years ago, victim of daily familiarity and perceptiveness. We’ve been together nearly forty years, married for most of it. Marriage is not a straight line, it’s a wheel. During one declension, my husband told me that if he had to make a choice between his work and me, he’d choose his work. He knows if the boat was sinking and I could only save one person, it would be our son. We have hurt one another deeply. We have helped one another vastly. He brings home champagne for special occasions. We’re the best of friends.

Only four of the twenty-nine rose bushes in our yard were here when we bought this house. As we twirl around the yard, I point out how the white and pink roses shimmer, almost phosphorescent in the moonlight. Their scent hangs lightly in the summer air.

The song ends and my husband says, “Let’s hear it again before I go back upstairs.” He’s working on a poem. Having hammered all day on a story that won’t give, I’m letting off a little steam. This time we slow dance, moving with awkward familiarity. “Stop trying to lead,” my husband says, as he does each time we dance. Of this song, Dylan remarked, “You’ve got yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very little you can’t imagine not happening.”

Charlotte Holmes

Charlotte Holmes’ new collection of stories, The Grass Labyrinth, received the Gold Medal for the Short Story from the Independent Publishers Association in 2017. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poems have appeared in many journals, including The Antioch Review, American Poetry Review, Epoch, Narrative, New Letters, The Sun, Grand Street, and The New Yorker. She lives in State College, Pennsylvania, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction writing at Penn State University and directs the creative writing program.