These stories are dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, with gratitude for his courage.
A student with too much time on his hands had made her a stack of illegal recordings. It was Saturday night, and her husband was out. He had, in middle age, come out as a gay man, and he went out to the bars to create a new social group for himself. She flipped through the disks: lots of jazz, some sound tracks. There was a disk of an Austrian orchestra performing a Bruckner symphony. Both sides of her family came from Austria. She lay down, feeling tense and exhausted from the changes in her life. She listened to the music. She was a harpsichordist favoring Bach and composers from the French Classical Era, yet the middle European ethos of this music felt familiar and gave her comfort.
[a few years later]
Her fortieth birthday was approaching, and she wanted to celebrate. Using her connections, she arranged for a harpsichord recital in an art gallery in New York City. The Austrian orchestra whose recordings she enjoyed was performing in New York at the same time. She bought a ticket to the performance and made travel arrangements.
There was a snowstorm the weekend she flew to New York City. She barely made it into the city in time to hear the concert. What she heard at the concert from this orchestra made her once again realize how much musicality cannot be captured on recordings. The live performance by this orchestra enlivened her, and she played her own concert a few days later feeling awakened.
She wanted to express her gratitude, so she wrote the orchestra a thank you note and sent it across the ocean.
Three weeks later, a letter arrived.
Dear Frau Anna Ebner,
We thank you for writing to us and are touched that a fellow Austrian living in the U.S.A. would travel to hear us. We recently recorded the Austrian composer Anton Webern’s arrangements of Bach that I have enclosed for your enjoyment.
Stefan Haselbock, Concert Master
She enjoyed the recording. She herself had recorded some French music the year before and thought she may send them a copy of her work. She got out the recording to listen to it again.
She reread the liner notes. The recording was dedicated to her husband. The year after he came out as a gay man, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He wanted to die at home, so she made the necessary arrangements. A week later the doorbell rang.
“I am his lover,” the young man said, “I would like to be a part of this.”
She let him in, and they sat at the kitchen table, dividing duties, making up a schedule. She gave him a key to the house.
Four months later, her husband died. The hospital bed was returned; everyone left. There was so much extra time in each day. One of her wealthy students suggested she make a recording and offered to finance it.
She sent her recording to Austria with a note thanking them for the Webern.
Nine months later, a letter arrived.
Dear Frau Ebner,
Thank you for the recording. My mother was a harpsichordist, and because of this, I have a fondness for the instrument.
We will be performing in the United States again soon. Will you be there? Maybe we could greet each other in person.
Dear Herr Haselbock,
I regret to say that I am not able to hear you in person this year -- maybe next year. I am happy that you enjoyed the
She decided that the following year she would try to arrange a performance in New York City at the same time they were performing there.
Dear Herr Haselbock,
This year I will be in New York the same weekend that you will be, playing a small noonday recital at a church, and I plan to hear you perform that evening.
If you still wish to meet in person, please let me know. I will print my email address at the bottom of this letter for your convenience.
Dear Frau Ebner,
I am please to learn that you will be in New York when we are there and will come to hear us. I would like to hear you, too! When and where are you playing?
Dear Herr Haselbock,
Thank you for your interest. I will give you the information, but please do not go out of your way. The concert is a modest, noonday affair.
She pasted the information for the concert on the bottom of the email and sent it off.
The morning after she arrived in New York, she dressed for the concert, had breakfast, and walked to the church where she was performing.
She had played there before and knew the instrument. After touching up the tuning, she ran through the program. She found a corner in the narthex to sit in before the concert. She had a snack and read the newspaper.
“Excuse me,” a man said, “is this the place to hear the harpsichord recital?”
Noting the accent, she looked up, “Herr Haselbock?”
“Frau Ebner!” She stood, and they shook hands. “Yes,” he said, “I can see you are of Austrian heritage. I am glad to be here.”
“It is a modest performance.”
“I am looking forward to it.”
The modest program was modestly attended. A few people greeted her afterwards and asked questions.
“I have to get back for a rehearsal,” he said after others had left, “but maybe you can come to the stage door after the concert.”
They met at the stage door and walked to his hotel, talking about the concert and the audience.
“Have you ever performed in Europe?”
“Only in the UK.”
“Not the Continent?”
“If I could arrange something in Austria, would you come?”
“Yes, if my schedule permits.”
“What looks good?”
“I don’t have anything for October yet.”
“Let me see what I can do. I will email you when I return.”
An email arrived a week later.
Dear Frau Ebner,
There is a cultural exchange organization that I am a member of. We would like to sponsor you for a concert in October. Can you come?
Dear Herr Haselbock,
Thank you for this opportunity. Would it be possible for me to arrive on a Thursday and leave the following Monday? For accommodations, I simply like to be within walking distance of the performance site. I look forward to hearing from you.
Dear Frau Ebner,
These requests are not a problem. I will be in touch with the details. Stefan Haselbock
In October she flew form her city in the Midwest to Austria. He was waiting at the airport for her.
“Herr Haselbock! It is good to be here.”
“How was your flight?”
He escorted her through the airport to his car.
“While we drive, we can review the plan for the weekend.”
The next day she rehearsed in the morning, and he had a rehearsal in the afternoon. Their plan was to meet at the stage door after his evening concert. They walked a few blocks, talking about the highlights of the concert.
“Frau Ebner, let me walk you back to where you are staying.”
“Herr Haselbock, I can find my own way. You have a family to get home to.”
“My son is with his mother this weekend.” They walked in silence for a few steps.”
“I’m sorry,” she said after a half a block.
“Well, Frau Ebner, I should also say sorry. You are here alone. I remember the dedication on your cd. How did he die? No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t ask.”
“Herr Haselbock, I think we are becoming friends; you may ask me what you wish.”
“Then please call me Stefan.”
“If you will call me Anna. He died of cancer. It all went quite quickly.”
“Did he die at home?”
“Yes. A friend of his helped, and we had nurses.”
“How long ago?”
“Thank you.” They walked the rest of the way in silence.
“Thank you for the walk to my room.”
They smiled and clasped hands.
“Tomorrow’s plan: a walk in the woods.”
He picked her up from practicing at 11:00, and they drove to a place outside the city.
“I live so near, but I never get here – too little time.”
The weather was pleasant, and they talked about the things new friends talk about. They discovered that they were both only children. He was ten years older than she. They talked about his son, a budding violinist.
For lunch they stopped in a sunny spot, spread out a cloth, and got out the lunches they had each packed for themselves. She eyed his lentil soup, dark bread, and two apples.
“My housekeeper makes the best lentil soup.”
“Makes things easier.”
“You eat such a healthy diet.”
“I need to.”
“Four years ago the doctor found some cancer. It was found early, so things may be okay. But I have my son, and I want to do what I can to maintain my health.”
“What kind of cancer?”
“I don’t know the English. It is for men, a small thing—“
“If it was caught early, you probably had the surgery.”
“Was that before or after your marriage ended?”
“It is what ended it.” She looked up, waiting for more. “Well, I can tell you as we are now friends. She was already unhappy. She said I was married to the orchestra. I thought she knew what it would be like—“
“She did, Stefan; she just didn’t know how hard it would be to endure year after year.”
“I never thought of that. Well, maybe. Then the surgery happened. Very painful, and well, can ruin things –“
“Well, yes. But I was back with the orchestra within a week. To be there was the best pain medicine. Maybe you know what I mean.”
“And she said I had not been a husband, and now I was not even a man.”
She reached out and touched his arm and shook her head, “I’m sorry.”
He looked at her for a few moments, “Is there more to your story than just your husband’s death?”
She nodded and gave him a few details. They sat in silence.
“Do you see anyone now?”
She laughed, “Stefan, I am a middle aged woman with a broken heart. No one stands in line for that. And you?”
“No, no. I too have a broken heart and a broken body, and I would not want to disappoint another woman with the life that I lead as a musician.”
“It is not easy – maybe not even possible – for a non-musician to understand.”
“I had an idea last night.”
“We make a good pair.”
“Haven’t we had some nice conversations? We have some things in common –“
“Stefan, we live thousands of miles apart. I am a foreigner.”
She began to pick up things from their lunch.
“It is so easy to stay in touch these days. And we will be back in North America in March – New York and Toronto. Have you been to Toronto?”
“And maybe you could come to perform here again. Your family comes from Tyrol, no? We could make a day trip there.”
She began folding the cloth.
“I’m jumping ahead, aren’t I?”
“Yes,” she said, laughing. She looked around to see if there was anything else to clean up.
“Anna, I’m sorry. What is the word? Presuming?”
“Well, Stefan, you are presuming,” and then she put her arms around him, “but I would like to take this adventure with you.”
The next morning she attended a Catholic Mass near her pension. It was all in German, and she decided that she should brush up on her language skills. She went back to her room after to have some lunch and prepare herself for her concert.
She walked to the performance site, ran through the program, and then went to sit outside in the autumn sun. She had a snack and began reading a local newspaper. A shadow crossed the newspaper.
“Stefan,” she said, extending her hand, “Come keep me company.”
“Anna,” and he bent down to kiss her check. The talked about his concert the night before and her decision to brush up on her German skills.
“What time do you need to go in for your concert?”
“Oh, I have twenty minutes. I was thinking about our time yesterday. You said they caught the cancer early. Is it okay now?”
“They check my blood three times a year, and, so far, the numbers have been good.”
“Are you ever afraid?”
“Sometimes, especially as a father.”
“Are you and your son close?”
“We are. I try to be careful because I don’t want him to feel distance from his mother.”
“Do you have a picture?”
Out of his wallet he produced a recent picture of himself with a young man about seventeen, both playing the violin.
“Yes, we practice together once a week.”
She looked at her watch.
“I’d better go in.”
She ended the concert with a triumphant fugue by Bach. There were polite greetings after the concert, and then it was time to go.
The warm October day had turned into a crisp evening, and he offered her his arm as they walked back to her pension. They talked about her concert and other pieces in her repertoire. He suggested that they perform together some time.
“I was thinking about that last night. I’ve always wanted to do the Biber sonatas. They work well with piano or harpsichord.”
“You play piano, too?”
“Oh, sure, and some organ, but, in the end, my main instrument is harpsichord.”
“You know, I make up a lot of answers to that question to satisfy people, but I’ll tell you the truth: I really don’t know why harpsichord is my main instrument. I don’t love listening to harpsichord music any more than I love listening to orchestral or chamber music. For me, harpsichord is like the angel sent down the ladder for Jacob to wrestle with.”
“Wrestle? Not dance?”
“Oh, it is all sweetness and light for you? Why did you choose violin?”
“My father played violin.”
“This is where I am an American, and you are a European.”
“You don’t hear that in America – ‘My father played violin, so I play violin.’ Both of my parents come from farming families. Would I be a harpsichord soloist if I had been born in Europe?”
He frowned, “Maybe we have big differences.”
“Oh, Stefan, it is always a trapeze act.”
“Trapeze is what they do in a circus.” She released his arm and held her hands in the air, “One person leaps through the air with the hope of catching on to the other.” They had arrived at her door. “Thank you, Stefan. I’ll see you tomorrow morning for a ride to the airport?”
“That’s the plan.”
When he picked her up the next morning to take her to the airport, he handed her a typed sheet of paper with home address, various phone numbers, and a concert schedule for the next six months. He chattered on about how this could all work, and she listened, taking in the sights of his city for the last time.
He parked the car and walked her into the airport and kissed her goodbye.
It began. There were the daily emails: Where are you? What are you playing? How are you? Every other Sunday, he called her.
She continued to study German and was able to add more and more of it to their conversations and letters. She also planned trips and concerts: New York and Toronto in March, October in Austria.
The phone rang very early one Saturday morning in February.
“Stefan! Are you okay? You are calling on a Saturday.”
“My stand partner says he hears America in my playing.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“I didn’t ask. We need a plan.”
“Do you have a plan?”
“Part of one, but I need to talk with you.”
“Where will you stay?”
“Well,” he said, “I think you should stay with me.”
She still didn’t say anything.
“I haven’t been in the same bedroom with someone in over seven years.”
“Almost that long for me, too.”
“Stefan, I’m afraid.”
“I’m afraid, too.”
They didn’t say anything.
“How about a plan?” he said.
“We’ll make our own way.”
March came in like a lamb that year, and the daffodils and forsythia bloomed in Central Park earlier than usual. She arrived in New York on Friday. Once at the hotel, she picked up the keys and went to the room. There was a note on the door:
AE – at lunch – SH
She took a pen out of her purse and crossed out the note and wrote, “I’m here” She went in the room and began setting things out for the next few days. The doorknob clicked.
They spent the better half of that afternoon walking through Central Park. About 4:00, they made their way to Broadway where they bought some take out food at a deli and sat outside of Lincoln Center to eat and watch the people go by.
Back at the hotel, he changed for his concert while she read the newspaper. She would see him back stage after the concert.
He was waiting for her.
“I found out that there is a reception I should attend. Would you like to join me?”
She met many other orchestra members at the reception and shook hands with various patrons. She had to practice in the morning, so they left the reception early.
“You do well at receptions,” he said as they walked to the elevator.
“My husband was the director of our city’s art museum, so I had to attend a lot of events like this.”
“Art museum director? He must have left you well situated.”
“I wasn’t the only one in the will.”
“Oh, yes. I’m sorry.”
“It has all worked out.”
”You must have been an asset to your husband.”
“Well, I wasn’t the ornament that would have been really helpful but being a harpsichord soloist was exotic enough to be interesting.”
“The beautiful woman on an influential man’s arm.”
He touched her hair, which she always wore pinned up, brown and silver strands straying at the side.
He heard the alarm go off and watched her get up. She made tea, got out some crackers, and sat with her prayer book open while she ate and drank. Then she came over to his side of the bed. He reached out his hand.
“Stefan. Did you sleep?”
“Yes. I’m going to get dressed and take a walk. I’ll bring a newspaper back with me. Do you want anything?”
“No, I’ll order breakfast for up here.”
The next days were a whirlwind – her rehearsal, his concert, another reception. After church Sunday morning, the each parted for their separate performances. Monday morning they boarded a plane for Toronto where they would each rehearse and perform again.
Tuesday night was their fifth and final night together.
“I want to know the woman I love.”
It would be almost seven months until they saw each other in person. Their plan was the same, except that now he called every week.
That spring and summer he was unusually busy with concerts and touring and recording. His son’s professional career was also beginning, and he spent time with this as well.
Her spring and summer were busy in different ways. Her mother was ill and needed attention. Her husband’s young lover also began calling, wanting to know more about their life together.
“Well, Stefan, at least all these things make the time go faster,” she told him on the phone as they planned her next trip to visit him in Austria.
The plan was similar to the year before – time for practicing and performing and also hearing his orchestra. She would stay two days longer this time, so they could travel to Tyrol and see the part of the country her family was from. She arrived on a Thursday afternoon, and he was available to pick her up at the airport. This time she stayed with him at his flat.
The phone rang as they were finishing lunch on Friday, and she began cleaning up the kitchen while he went to answer it.
“Yes?” When he didn’t answer, she turned toward him, “Stefan?”
“That was the doctor. The results from the blood test I had last week just came in. The number is so high that they immediately want to do more tests. I told him I could do it Wednesday because of our trip.”
She thought for a moment.
“No. Please call him back. Please tell him you will be available on Monday for the tests. I want to go with you.”
From Friday afternoon until Monday morning, they were never completely apart. She sat back stage during his rehearsals and concerts; he went with her while she prepared for hers. He joined her on her morning walks. They went to church together on Sunday morning.
The first test on Monday was early, and he was not to eat before hand. She packed food for the both of them.
There were only scans and ultra-sounds ordered. The doctor said that the numbers from the blood test were grim enough, and he wanted to avoid unnecessary pain and invasion.
She accompanied him to every test
The tests were completed by 11:30, and they were to meet the doctor at 1:00 for the results. Over tea and coffee, they ate the lunch she had prepared.
“Are you hungry?”
“Eat anyway,” she replied, touching his hair.
The doctor shook his head. The cancer was everywhere except the brain. The doctor gave him three to six months to live, with the shorter time frame being the more likely scenario. Exhaustion would be the first symptom followed by nausea and then pain.
“I don’t have any appointments in here until mid-afternoon. Please feel free to stay in here awhile; I will make sure no one disturbs you,” and he left.
They had been sitting side by side on the couch. Now she turned toward him.
“Anna, I’m sorry.”
“I think we need a plan”
They had a day and a half. First, they looked at a calendar. He would come to the States for a weekend in early November. She would meet them in London in early December. That was all they felt safe in planning as far as dates were concerned. He would call her twice a week. Then he called the manager of the orchestra. He and his son practiced together once a week; he would tell him then.
Planning did not take very much time, and they had a full day and a half. They walked all over the city, and he showed her places from his past. The looked at photo albums, old school papers, letters from dead relatives. They played duets on the piano and listened to music, drove once again to the woods. They spread out a cloth in the sun and lay on their backs watching the clouds float by. They ate together, bathed together, and only slept a few hours.
“I can sleep on the plane.”
“Are you tired?”
“What is it that you are afraid of?”
“I’m afraid of life being over. I think, ‘That’s all. Can’t go back and correct anything. Can’t add anything. What have I done? What haven’t I done?’ I think how I disappointed – you could even say I abandoned – my wife, created a broken home for my son. For what? Was it worth it? I fall in love with you. You know, I was even beginning to have thoughts of asking you to move here. You are like a day in June – the sort of day you walk outside without a jacket on and feel nothing, free to feel the air go in and out of your lungs, free to see what is around you, to hear what is around you because there is no struggle. And what is your reward for being this gift? Watching another man you love die? The words ‘not enough’ end every thought and memory I have—“
“Stefan,” she clasped his shoulders, “Stefan, ‘not enough’ are two of the devil’s favorite words.”
He put his head to her chest and cried.
At the airport the next morning, they bid farewell.
She let go of his hands and walked away. Then she stopped. There was so much noise. Everyone was moving so quickly.
“Stefan?” she called, looking back. She couldn’t see him. There were so many people. “Stefan?”
“What, Anna?” He hadn’t been that far away. He looked down at her. She put her hand on his chest and then walked away.
Three and a half weeks later, she met him at the airport in her small, Mid-Western city. They took a city bus to her house.
“I never saw neighborhoods like this on tour,” he said, watching out the window, “and I did always want to see the inside of an American home.”
She lived in a small house in a working class neighborhood that she bought after her husband’s death. The modest price of the home freed her up to make more authentic artistic decisions, and it was a relief, too, not to have to maintain the art museum director’s home anymore.
She opened the door for him. “I’m glad you’re here, Stefan.”
She showed him around her neighborhood. The nausea had begun, so she cooked him soup, cut up bananas in yogurt, and made him tea. They spent the evening looking at photo albums.
On Saturday morning, they got up while it was still dark. She made oatmeal and tea for both of them and read Morning Prayer out loud. Then they walked fifteen minutes East to watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan. Then they took an hour-long bus ride to a Western suburb to the apartment of her mother and ninety-nine year old maternal grandmother.
They knew about him and also of his illness. He brought his violin and played some Austrian folk songs. The conversation was both in English and German. After a lunch, there was picture taking: Anna and Stefan on the couch, another picture with her grandmother between them. Then they called a neighbor from across the hall who took a picture of the four of them together.
He napped most of the way home on the bus, and she rested on her side, facing him and watching him.
At his request, they repeated their visit to the lake to watch the sun rise.
It was Sunday. She attended a small Episcopal church in her neighborhood. From time to time, she helped out by playing the organ or piano. Some times, a couple of parishioners would help her bring her harpsichord to the church.
She had arranged for the two of them to play on this particular Sunday. They arrived early to run through one of the Biber sonatas that they both enjoyed. The piano wasn’t very good and not well maintained. They both laughed when he tried to tune to it and proceeded to rehearse anyway. They played this piece for the prelude, and he played some unaccompanied solos by Bach during communion.
After the service, she lead him into the basement for coffee hour. She was one of the younger members of the congregation. They knew of her foreign love and the “current situation”, as they referred to it. At coffee hour, the older women fussed over him, and the men offered hand shakes. She had never really noticed his accent until then.
They napped in the afternoon and took one more walk by the lake. In the evening, they played four hand arrangements of Brahms symphonies on the piano.
“You have a nice life here.”
“I can see now what a change it would have been for you to move.”
“I thought about that.”
“Would you have?”
“Come to live with you? Maybe. What was harder to imagine than the change was wondering what I would do with my independence and solitude.”
“I think two people who have managed an international love affair could have figured something out.”
“Could have—“ and they were silent. She shook her head and cried for the first time.
Three weeks later, she flew to London to meet him. Her flight arrived three hours earlier than his. She waited by the gate for his airplane. All the orchestra members filed out; he was one of the last ones. In three weeks he had gone from looking tired to looking sick.
Another orchestra member offered to carry his bag, so that with one hand, he could carry his violin, leaving the other hand free to hold hers.
It was Friday. The orchestra would rehearse on Saturday and perform Saturday and Sunday evening. She had no performance of her own. She planned on accompanying him to his rehearsal and concerts, sitting backstage. He had relinquished the role of concertmaster and now sat on the last stand of the first violins.
They went to the reception after the Saturday night performance, sitting near the entrance, sipping tea.
They went to church Sunday morning, sitting in the back pew. When the usher came to beckon them to communion, she shook her head. The usher’s eyes went past her to her companion. Nodding, he moved on.
He came to her right after Sunday’s performance ended saying that it would be better if they didn’t attend the reception.
When they entered their room, he immediately went into the bathroom and began wretching. She followed, wetting a washcloth and pressing it to his forehead. She gave him a glass of water to rinse out his mouth. They sat together on the bathroom floor, leaning against the wall.
“We need to make a plan.”
They dispensed with letters and talked on the phone each day for five to ten minutes.
In late December, the phone rang. It was his son.
“Frau Ebner, it is time.”
He had spent a large amount of money to arrange for her to fly on the spur of the moment. When she questioned this, he said, “I have only my son, and he will be well provided for.” She accepted.
Within thirty-six hours, she was in Austria. A member of the orchestra picked her up and took her to him.
She took his hand and held it to her face.
“Anna. Thank you for coming.”
“It was part of the plan. Thank you for waiting.”
“Also part of the plan.”
“We need a plan, and I’ve come up with one.”
She pushed the hair off of his forehead. “What is it?”
“You must take very good care of the woman I love.”
“Yes, Stefan. Yes, I will.”
“I’m glad you are here, Anna.”
She laid her head on his chest, and a little while later he died.
Two weeks after she returned home, the priest from her church called.
“Anna, are you busy?”
“Can you walk over to the church? I don’t think this will take long.”
She walked to the church. In the sanctuary was a large crate, partially opened to reveal a harpsichord. There was also an envelope and a small box.
This was my mother’s harpsichord. When I visited your church, I saw that it would fit nicely and probably sound good, too.
There are some artifacts in the box for you and some legal documents for the transfer of money. I want you to be able to travel to hear the orchestra and to be able to visit my son.
If someone would have told me that the twists and turns of my life would have lead me to love a woman on a different continent, I would have dismissed the thought. You were a gift from God sent to me at the end of my life.
Please stay in touch with my son, and every day, beautiful Anna, take care of the woman I love.
In the box was his mother’s copy of the Well-Tempered Clavier and pictures – of him, of his son, and of his orchestra.
Nine months later, her second recording was completed – selections from the Well-Tempered Clavier performed on his mother’s harpsichord in her church.
“This recording is dedicated to violinist Stefan Haselbock in fulfillment of his last request.”