The Four Temperaments

The Four Temperaments


Oscar Kornblatt was in love. Never mind that he was gray-haired, soft around the middle and, despite his wife Ruth's patient ironing, always wearing a rumpled shirt. Forget all that. In his mind's eye, Oscar was Prince Siegfried, young, limber and lithe, as he waltzed Ginny Valentine, his exquisite swan, across the vast stage of his imagination.

Oscar's Swan Lake image of himself and Ginny was not as far-fetched as it may have seemed, for he was a violinist with the New York City Ballet and Ginny Valentine was a dancer in the corps. From the shadowed nether world of the orchestra pit, he could sense her moving across the floorboards of the stage above. And, sometimes, if the angle was just right, he could even see her, just the merest glimpse. Ginny never stayed in one place for long, and Oscar did have to pay attention to the score, after all. But those moments when she came skittering into his field of vision were blessed, and late at night, Iying in bed as Ruth dreamed peacefully beside him, he thought about them and he smiled.

Ginny had been dancing with the company for a little more than a year. Oscar had been playing with the orchestra for nearly twenty-five. He had thought that by this time, he would be indifferent to the surge of eager young things who washed up on the gritty sands of the corps de ballet every year, each as bright and as innocuous as a bit of colored sea glass.

His reaction to these girls had nonetheless undergone a transformation over the years. In the beginning, he had despised them. He was in his early thirties then, old enough to realize that the flame of youthful brilliance would not be his, young enough still to feel embittered by that fact. He hadn't wanted the job with the ballet orchestra anyway, but by then he and his wife had two sons to support. The struggle of trying to assemble one ill-fated string quartet after another was wearing him down. And then there was Ruth. Ruth, who had patiently endured their first apartment, a dark basement on East Sixth Street, and, later, the burned-out buildings that lined the block of their apartment building on West 122nd Street. But when she became pregnant for the third—and Oscar prayed final—time, even he could see that enough was enough. The job was offered and he grudgingly took it.

Ruth, Oscar and the boys moved into a large, comfortable apartment on West End Avenue, an affordable option in the days before the Manhattan real estate boom. It had neither the grandeur of Riverside Drive—vistas that opened seamlessly onto an expanse of the rippling, dark waters of the Hudson River—nor the romance of Central Park West, with its lacy backdrop of flowering trees and shrubs, but it was nevertheless a big step up in the world. At least materially. The family was delighted: the boys went racing in their socks across the smooth, sun-checkered floors and spent hot, happy afternoons in Riverside Park. Ruth joined the local synagogue and befriended the owners of the small neighborhood shops. But Oscar, although outwardly cheerful, seethed within. He had become a breadwinner, not an artist. Secretly, he was mortified, pushed into the narrow world of conventional respectability. A world in which the hot star of genius, and all its urgent, unpredictable heat, was forever snuffed out.

He took out his resentment not on his family, or at least not much, but on the dancers, the skinny, silly girls for whom the audiences sat mesmerized, applauded and threw armloads of expensive, useless flowers. For these Philistines—and Oscar also lumped the dancers into this category—the music was just so much backdrop, part of the decor. Oh, he had heard the dancers talk about the music, how it inspired them, moved them, whatever. But he could see that it was all a sham, a poor cover for their own monumental narcissism that pranced onstage shouting, "Look at me! Look at me!" though of course they never actually said word. He observed, more than once, the way they upstaged each other, intruding on one another's musical cues, anticipating a rival's exit from the stage and starting just a beat too soon. They gloated when another dancer was injured or ill. All this would have been comical in Oscar's eyes had it not been so naked.

Generally, there was very little personal contact between the dancers and the musicians. But, once in a while, the score called for a difficult musical solo and the musician who performed it would be called onto the stage during the applause. Oscar had watched this happen—though fortunately not to him—and found something both heartbreaking and pathetic about seeing the two performers up there together. There was the ballerina—arms filled with roses, resplendent in the scanty costume that revealed her sweat-soaked limbs—holding the musician by the hand. The musician would shuffle toward the front of the stage, a shaggy trained bear, a portent of death in his ill-fitting, dark suit, while she—all light and silver and air—held out the unspoken promise of immortality to the fatuous, cheering audience.

For years, Oscar had made it a point of honor to ignore the dancers, not bothering to learn their names or pretending not to know them if he somehow did; refusing to acknowledge them if he saw them in the halls or elevators of the theater. But, little by little, his sense of injury began to subside. His third son, Benjamin, was born; the two older boys, Gabriel and William, thrived. Ruth seemed happy, happier than he had seen her in a long time. She began singing again; true, it was only in the shower, but the rich, ripe sound of her powerful contralto filled him with wistful and sweet memories of their courtship in the mosquito-filled, lilac dusks at Tanglewood. He received professional recognition, such as it was, and the attention acted as balm to his touchy ego. He stopped hating the dancers. He no longer needed to.

It was during these years that he discovered that he was even occasionally attracted to one of them, though his interest never lighted upon the green girls of the corps. Instead, he was drawn to the older dancer, the established star whose hunger for fame had peaked into a gracious and perhaps even complacent acceptance of her exalted stature. Clarissa Castille was such a dancer: beautiful, poised and intelligent as far as her limited education permitted. She had studied piano for some years and could actually talk about music apart from how it related to her dancing. She was happily married, as was Oscar, so an affair was not a real option for either of them. Anyway, Oscar didn't want to have an affair. He loved Ruth, loved the life he had with her. But he couldn't deny that he also enjoyed, immensely, the hint of flirtation that laced the postperformance dinners he shared with Clarissa. He derived great pleasure from gazing at her expressive brown eyes, the intricately coiffed black hair that revealed her long, elegant neck, and the way she shifted and twisted the rings—of amber, garnet, opal, turquoise—around her lovely fingers. When she left the company to have a child, he was genuinely sorry.

There were two others like her over the years, women with whom he formed congenial though never constraining bonds of friendship. Then this phase too began to pass. His sons grew up, he and Ruth grew older. He watched as the two elder boys married. He moved up through the ranks of the orchestra. Though outwardly pleased, he remained fundamentally detached from the change in status. His youthful dreams had mercifully faded; he was no longer consumed by the desire to shine. Instead, he was grateful for the ongoing good fortune of his life—the joy of playing, and being transported by, his music. The love of his wife and sons. He relished the palpable, reassuring pleasures of the flesh: good food, good wine, a comfortable home, vacations in New England and, every so often, Europe. He took no more notice of the young dancers who buzzed around the theater than a gardener did of the bees.

It was into this bucolic landscape that Ginny Valentine burst, sudden and shocking as a sharp silver tack that lodged without warning in his naked foot.

One day after rehearsal was over, he was carefully putting his instrument back in its case when he heard behind him a high, clear voice that sounded faintly southern, though he couldn't have said whether its cadences emerged from Georgia or Texas. "Mr. Kornblatt," it said as he turned around, "do you think I could speak to you for a minute?" There was Ginny, in a red V-necked leotard and red tights. Even Oscar, who generally took little notice of such things, was surprised by this costume. Weren't they all supposed to wear black and pink?

"Why, of course, Miss . . . ?" he said.

"Valentine. But just call me Ginny."

"Ginny, then," he said. "What can I do for you?" He knew he sounded insincere, even patronizing, but, really, it was hard to take any of them, particularly a very young one outfitted like this, too seriously.

"It's about the music," she said.

"The music?"

"Yes, the Stravinsky. I think you're playing it too slowly."

"Do you, Miss Valentine?" he said, the patronizing tone now laced with the metallic edge of annoyance.

"Ginny," she said, flashing a smile filled with large, white, slightly protruding teeth. If she was aware of how she had offended him, she gave no sign. "I think it lags. Especially in the second movement."

"I've been playing that piece for more years than-" he began.

"That's just the point," she interrupted. "Maybe you need to think about it in a new way. It seems to me just a little bit stale."

Oscar looked at her, hardly able to believe his ears. To walk up to a seasoned musician, a well-respected violinist, and blithely tell him that you thought his playing lagged and had grown stale! She was either brazen or monumentally stupid. He could have her fired for saying such a thing. In fact, he would do that, he would speak to Erik Holtz, Ballet Master in Chief, and he would have her fired tomorrow. No, today, in fact. But before he could tell her as much, he heard her saying, "Look, are you busy now? Maybe we could have a cup of coffee or something. So I could tell you what I mean?"

It was only then that he really saw her: glossy, light brown hair parted in the center of a pale, smooth forehead beneath which were closely set, gray-green eyes. Ears as intricate and fine as nautilus shells revealed by her tightly bound bun. Luminous white teeth. Her arms were the merest ribbons; her legs, steel. She pinned him with a look at once so hopeful and warm, so eager and intense, that he found himself saying, "You go change. I'll wait here.

They went to one of the Upper West Side's once-ubiquitous and now disappearing coffee shops: Formica tables, leatherette seats, tiny boxes of cereal lining the upper shelves and plastic-coated menus that went on for pages. Ginny still wore the red leotard, only she had added a pair of jeans and a black crocheted shawl. Her pointe shoes peeped out like an improbable pair of rabbit ears from the large, ungainly bag that she—like the rest of them—hoisted over her delicate shoulder. At the base of her throat was a small, curved scar. Oscar found his eyes drawn to it; it seemed to wink with the movements of her throat as she spoke or swallowed. He wished he could reach over and put his finger—gently, so gently—upon it.

The waitress appeared. Oscar ordered black coffee, and despite Ruth's nagging concern over his weight, a glazed doughnut. Ginny's lips moved slightly as she scanned the menu. She settled finally on waffles with strawberries and whipped cream and a side order of bacon.

"Tell me about the music," he said when their orders arrived. He took a small bite of the doughnut, conscious of wanting to make it last, at least most of the way through her meal. But he needn't have worried; she fairly inhaled her food, consuming it with quick, eager bites that she washed down with large gulps of milk.

"It gets bogged down when you play it too slowly," she said. "I think he meant it to sound more energetic, more excited, you know?"

"He?" asked Oscar. The ordinary doughnut was suddenly rendered light, sweet, delicious; even the ersatz black coffee was a wonderful counterpoint to its sweetness.

"Stravinsky," she said, matter-of-factly. Her glazed lips shone with maple syrup. Oscar wasn't even surprised that she presumed to know the composer's thoughts.

They spent over an hour in the coffee shop, talking not only about the Stravinsky score, but also about Ravel, Bach, Tchaikovsky and Hindemith. She knew nothing about theory or terminology, but she had a bright, quirky way of looking at things that Oscar found appealing. And her appetite! He had never seen a dancer—nor anyone else—eat with such abandon. She licked her fingers, the back of her spoon, the end of her straw. Oscar wondered what such a girl would be like in bed and then hoped she couldn't tell what he was thinking. Fortunately, she just kept right on talking, about her dancing, now. Her eyes shone the way Joan of Arc's must have. Even Clarissa had never looked so possessed and it made Oscar uneasy. To change the subject, he asked about her accent, which seemed to grow increasingly southern as she spoke. She told him about the small Louisiana town where she had grown up and the ballet lessons she had taken in New Orleans. And what about that name; surely Valentine was something she had invented, like so many of them, for the stage? But it turned out he was wrong.

"My mother met my father at a Valentine's Day dance in Atlanta. She'd gone there with her church group for the weekend. He told her he was the son of the minister at the First Baptist Church. That his daddy was a big deal in the community. Guess that won her over."

"But it wasn't true?"

"Not a word. She went back home with a phony name and address on a piece of memo paper. Oh, and with me too—though she didn't know it yet." There was a noisy pause as Ginny drained her glass through her straw.

"So you never knew him?" Oscar asked.

"Only what Mama told me. She said he seemed so sincere. Genuine. And handsome too. She picked Valentine as a way of remembering him. For a long time, she really did think he'd come back."

"She must have been devastated when he didn't," Oscar said, not really knowing how she would have felt.

"My mama was class valedictorian and had a full scholarship to Randolph-Macon. She gave it up to stay home and have me. I don't think 'devastated' would have been the way she would have described it."

Oscar felt foolish.

"And Ginny is from ... ?" he asked, looking for a diversion.

"Virginia," she said, looking suddenly shy. "For my grandmother. Though everyone thought it was kind of an odd choice, considering I was a bastard and all."

"No one really thinks that way anymore, do they?" Oscar said gently.

"Where I grew up, they did," she said.

By the time they rose to leave, the spring afternoon had deepened to a soft violet evening and Oscar was in love. He walked home feeling buoyant and terrified. He thought of Clarissa for the first time in years. Ginny was nothing like the elegant, cultivated sort of woman he usually liked, which was precisely what made her company so compelling and so unsettling. You're headed for trouble, Oscar, he thought as he let himself into the apartment. Ruth was not yet home and there was something poignant about the way darkness filled the rooms. He sat for a long while on the sofa, looking but not seeing out of the living room window. He was frightened, yes, but not so frightened that he wouldn't follow whatever he was feeling—this urge—a little farther along the path. Wherever it might take him.

"Oscar, you startled me!" Ruth said when she walked in some time later. "Why are you sitting here in the dark?"

After that first meeting, things followed a fairly predictable course: more meetings in coffee shops, dinners after the performance. But even in that insulated world of the ballet company, where gossip, and especially romantic gossip, was as necessary as air, Oscar and Ginny provoked no talk, no speculation of any kind. Oscar was of course glad, but also disappointed to realize that he was past the age of creating scandal.

He began to appear at rehearsals he was not required to attend, just to see more of her. From the unfamiliar vantage point of the back of the darkened theater, he watched raptly as Ginny moved through the intricate patterns of the ballet. While she never danced alone, she always seemed to stand out. There was an expansiveness to her movements, a breadth of arms and legs that he didn't see in the others. Her arabesques were clearer and sharper, her ports de bras filled with longing. He saw something ferocious in the way she danced, something fearless and even dangerous that knew no boundaries. Unlike many of the dancers, she didn't mark the steps during the rehearsals, but executed them full out. Though Oscar still had little regard for ballet, he had to admit that Ginny had something special, something that would, if she knew how to cultivate it, lift her out of the ranks and into the burning isolation and resplendent joy of the limelight.

She told Oscar how when she first had started dancing to live music, she kept anticipating her cues and charging out onstage ahead of time because she was so exhilarated. "Erik wasn't even angry about it," she said, laughing a little at the memory. "He said that he liked how eager I was."

"Have you ever had stage fright?" Oscar asked.

"Never," she said, and Oscar believed it.

He euen had the audacity to bring her home to dinner. Ruth was her lovely, welcoming self, making sure Ginny's plate was filled with pot roast, buttered noodles and challah bread; for dessert, she had baked a glazed apple tart. Ginny ate and Ruth beamed. It was a successful evening, or so Oscar had thought. But Iying in bed that night with his wife, Oscar was aware of Ruth's wakeful, fixed concentration on some unseen point on the ceiling.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Ben," she said.

"What's the matter with Ben? Did he call?" Their youngest son was a wanderer, a pilgrim whose feet had touched the streets of Paris, Bangkok, Moscow, Glasgow, Buenos Aires, Nairobi. He had barely finished college and ever since had taken whatever work was available—taxi driver, waiter, bartender—until he earned enough to set off again.

"No, he didn't," she said. "But I was thinking: we should introduce him to Ginny."

"Ben and Ginny?" said Oscar, trying to keep the incredulity—and anger—out of his voice. When he thought of the girls his peripatetic son had brought home, like the daughter of an impoverished Italian nobleman whose thick sheaf of pale hair, black sunglasses and wetly painted red mouth vied with the cool, chiseled beauties on the silver screens that illuminated Oscar's own youth, he knew that Ben would find nothing appealing in Ginny. Besides, he wanted this one for himself.

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Excerpted from The Four Temperaments by Yona Zeldis McDonough. Copyright © 2002 by Yona Zeldis McDonough. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.