During an unguarded moment, she’d wondered what it would be like to live with a man. Dawn to dusk, day after day, the presumption of shared confidences. The thoughts induced a panicked state.
So when Akira reached across the bed and laced his fingers through hers, his large thumb stroking circles on Cadence’s palm, her heart raced. “Move in with me,” he said in an unusual high pitched voice. “Please.”
Cadence withdrew her hand. “I’m sorry,” she said with an involuntary laugh, thinking it would be kinder to crush any stubborn hope. “This was never that kind of relationship.”
Akira’s face fell. “But Cadence, I love you,” he said. “I thought you felt the same way about me.”
Taking slow breaths, she stared at the white wall space above his head. There was nothing left to say.
Akira didn’t think so. Face flushed, he sat up in bed and waited. The silence lengthened. Finally, he stood and packed the few clothes left at her place.
On his way out, Akira’s words bounced a staccato rhythm off her brick walls. “Cadence, I swear,” he said through clenched teeth. “If you keep pushing people away, you’re going to die a lonely death.”
Lonely death. Kodokushi.
Akira told her about the Japanese phenomenon. His uncle, a hermit in Kanagawa, was found three years after his passing. Cadence had long concluded everyone faced death alone.
Back rigid, she blinked after the apartment door slammed shut. It was her first long-term relationship. And it had lasted the whole of six months.
For several minutes, Cadence stood still. Then her frail figure moved through the loft, cleaning monochrome spaces that already sparkled. Closets were emptied and re-arranged. Stacks of unread magazines lined up in alphabetical order. In the living room, she stood on a chair and dusted the large, framed picture of her parents. Even in the frozen moment, they only had eyes for each other.
The doorbell startled her and Cadence almost fell off the chair. Akira must have come back, she thought. The third chime, loud and insistent, dragged her feet towards the door. A peek through the peephole revealed someone else. A stranger dressed in a postal service uniform. Relieved, Cadence pulled her mass of wild red hair into a loose bun and opened the door.
“Hello,” he said. “Are you Cadence Bertonelli?”
Her fingers curled around the door edge. “Yes. How may I help you?”
“You have registered mail.” The mail carrier unclipped a little machine from his belt and pointed it in her direction. As Cadence signed for the envelope, she was conscious of his eyes on her red, chapped hand. She fought the urge to hide it in the folds of her dress.
The letter was from the Bertonelli Concert Hall Foundation. It said the concert hall was being closed for good. The historical building had lost its long-drawn battle with yet another over-priced, downtown Toronto condo complex. Built over fifty years ago with an endowment from her grandfather, the concert hall was the major landmark of Cadence’s childhood. Both her parents performed there as singers and pianists.
The second paragraph quickened her breath.
“Given the circumstances, we understand a visit may be too difficult for you. However, we wanted to offer this final opportunity.”
She sank against the wall.
Cadence was ten, the last time she visited Bertonelli Hall. And for twenty years, despite the therapeutic benefits of facing her past highlighted by each therapist, she’d stayed away. One therapist, a leader in verbal shock therapy, spent several $200 dollars sessions calling Cadence names. “Snivelling coward” was his favourite. Anger from a sense of self-preservation was meant to propel her down a recovery path. It didn’t work since it was hard to be shocked by an accepted truth.
She had counted on the building standing for another half-a-century, for when she was ready. No such luck. Cadence picked up the phone. Akira’s mocking voice echoed in her head. You think you can do this?
After several deep breaths, Cadence dialed the number provided. The perky voice at the other end said she could be at the hall in two hours. “Do you want to meet me there?” she asked.
Cadence began to sweat. Two hours. One hundred and twenty minutes. Seven thousand and two hundred seconds. Her life had changed in one second. It became hard to breathe.
Akira’s voice grew louder. Admit it Cadence. You’re a coward. Dammit, admit it!
Her jaw clenched. “Yes, please,” she said.
Over the next hour, Cadence stood by the bathroom sink, washing throbbing hands until they bled and everything became numb.
Each time she took a mental kicking and screaming trip down memory lane, Cadence was reminded there were no such thing as the good old days. Her mind often tried to trick her with visions of herself laughing in those detested starched lace pinafores. In the images, no matter how big her smile was, her eyes were empty.
If she had to describe the years spent with her parents with one single word, it would be forgotten. She had the misfortune of being born to two people who gave everything they had to themselves and to their music. There was little left over for her.
Cadence’s earliest memories were filled with long periods of waiting in wet clothes because she was too afraid to leave her bed. Waiting until angry voices on the other side of the wall stopped. Waiting to be loved.
It was Mama who always came. Her tinkling laugh and tight hugs made Cadence forget the dull ache in her rumbling stomach.
“I’m not a very good mother, am I?” Mama often asked with wet eyes. At first, Cadence didn’t have the words to answer. By the time she did, Mama had stopped asking the question.
At age ten, Cadence knew she and her father were competing for her mother’s attention. Mama was their fair, slender, green-eyed sun. They were the parched red moons revolving around her. Their identical dark brown eyes waged countless wars as they courted their sun. Papa often emerged the winner. He knew how to make Mama smile.
On the best of days, it had been the two of them. Mama wasn’t too concerned if she didn’t make it to school because of a sudden headache. “You can always catch up with school work tomorrow,” she said. Her body held tight, Cadence soaked in the scented warmth.
One morning, Cadence woke up and found Mama at the kitchen table. Clad in a floral housecoat, eyes closed, painted fingers wrapped around her Mother’s Day mug, Mama inhaled thick coffee fumes.
Mama’s dark ringed eyes opened at the slip-slap sounds of Cadence’s worn bunny slippers. She had poured herself a glass of orange juice from the fridge. Mama’s lips curled into a soft smile when she sat on the opposite chair.
Cadence had tried to smile back, but her eyes were drawn to the large bruise on the side of Mama’s neck. It looked like an upside down heart. She’d often wondered how her father decided which part of Mama’s body to hit.
Eeenie meenie minie moe, catch and tug a woman by her hair.
They sat in silence until Cadence covered a large yawn. A guilty look flitted across Mama’s face. “I guess we kept you up with our…” she said before dropping her gaze.
Cadence took a sip of orange juice and swished it around her mouth.
“It’s my fault too,” Mama said in a soft voice. “Your father is like an orchid. His talent needs special care. And I don’t know when to stop pushing him. Cadence, one day, you’ll find a passionate man who’ll make you just as crazy as your father makes me.”
She had stared into her mother’s eyes and promised herself the terrible thing called passion would never be a part of her life.
A wave of memories dragged her mind slip sliding further down the lane. Her collection of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, lined up in pairs against the wall, waiting as she had waited.
Eeenie meenie minie moe, my mother told me to pick the best, if only she had showed me how.
When Cadence arrived at the concert hall for her final tour, she discovered the perky voice from the telephone belonged to a square-jawed brunette. “I’m Paula,” the woman said with a vigorous hand shake. “It’s so nice to meet you. I was the first recipient of the Bertonelli’s Scholar Award at Acadia.”
Under her breath, Cadence mumbled something she hoped served as an appropriate response. She preferred to give away family money in anonymity. Acadia had insisted on attaching a name. She’d agreed knowing large sums of money dumped into willing laps created kinder memories.
As they made their way across the empty parking lot, Paula kept up a steady chatter. She didn’t seem to mind Cadence’s silence. Minutes later, she stopped in front of the oak doors. Cadence broke out in a sweat as the large key turned. At first glance, the front foyer was dark and empty. After Paula flicked a switch, the shadows retreated.
At the base of the stairs, Paula glanced at her. “I’ll wait here for you,” she said. “I’m sure you want to spend some time alone.”
Nodding, Cadence headed for the steps. As her hand rested on the polished walnut handrail, everything peeled away. She watched in awe as the dazzling cascade chandeliers lit up stained glass windows. The musty smell gave way to the scent of fresh roses. All around her, the room swelled with the sound of polite laughter.
Cadence was ten again. It was the opening night of the Toronto opera season and Mama was singing in Pagliacci. As they took the stairs, one at a time, Mama wrapped Cadence’s hand in the coolness of her long, silk glove.
In the dressing room, Cadence sat at her usual spot. She watched her mother change into a long shimmering white gown. Mama’s golden hair was piled and held down by her favorite turquoise comb.
After Mama covered the heart-shaped bruise with her special cream, she placed a plate of chocolate-chip cookies and a cup of juice on Cadence’s little table. “I’ll be back as soon as we’re done,” she said, giving Cadence an air-kiss above her cheek. She was careful not to reach for her. Mama’s bright eyes were already faraway.
Even in the room, Cadence felt the thundering sound of applause at the end of the performance. Time passed and she still waited. Even though she had been told never to leave the room, Cadence went looking for her parents. Her cookies were long gone.
Steps away from the red velvet stage curtains, Cadence heard Mama’s voice. She was crying. Her hand rested on the curtain. “I can’t send her to your sister,” Mama said. “Please, let’s take her with us.”
“It’ll just be for a little while,” Papa said. “Why are you being so unreasonable? We can’t drag a child across Europe. At Gioia’s place, she’ll have her cousins to play with.”
“No, Giovanni,” Mama said. “They don’t like her.”
Papa snorted. “How could they? You spoil her. This was why I told you I didn’t want children,” he said.
“You can’t be serious,” Mama said.
“But I am,” he insisted. “Our music was supposed to be our legacy.”
Mama sounded angry. “Cadence is now our legacy,” she said.
“Yours, Carmen,” Papa said. “Not mine.”
Cadence parted the curtains and ran on to the stage. “Mama, please don’t let him send me away!”
Cheeks flushed, Mama turned in her direction. “Cadence, calm down.” She began to make her way across the stage. To her. Cadence’s heart sang.
Papa lowered his voice. “Carmen, I’m leaving with the rest of the group,” he said.
“It’s your decision,” Papa said, and it was clear a choice was being offered.
Throwing up her hands, Mama began to walk back to him. “Giovanni, don’t be silly. Let’s…”
Cadence screamed at the top of lungs as she hurled herself at her mother. “Pick me!”
For the rest of her life, she would never forget the look on Mama’s face as she fell. Her arms flailed out beside her but she was too close to the edge of the stage. There was nothing to hold. Cadence’s feeble grasp on her mother’s dress was not enough. It was a fast fall down at least thirty stairs.
They were all screaming as Mama’s head made a sickening thud on the floor. Eyes opened, her neck rested at an odd angle. A pool of blood fanned out beneath her still figure and turned the upper bodice of her gown red.
Several people ran into the room at the same time. Cadence ran towards them. “He did it! He pushed Mama. He pushed her.”
There were loud gasps, muffled screams when they saw her mother’s body. One of the stern-faced women came and stood beside her. Cadence recognized the woman from the box office. She grabbed at her hand and began to sob. “He hurts Mama all the time,” she said. The words became easier. “He pushed her because she wasn’t going to let him send me away.”
Papa’s jaw dropped. “Cadence, you’re telling lies.”
Her lips curled back. “Tell them how she got the bruise on her neck,” she said.
Papa’s head whipped back as if he had been slapped. Even though his mouth was open, no sound came out.
One of the men stepped forward. “Mr. Bertonelli, I think it is best you come with us,” he said. Another man joined him.
Grim-faced, Papa shook his head. “Yes, we’ve had our share of fights. But I did not push her.”
They exchanged looks. “I will advise you save your explanation for the police,” one of the men said.
“I’m not leaving my wife.” As he moved towards Mama’s body, they grabbed his arms. “Don’t touch me!” As they dragged him away, he screamed Cadence’s name over and over again. “Tell the truth!”
She dug fingers deep into her ears until all she heard was the sound of her raspy breathing.
As Cadence sobbed herself to sleep in the first of many strange beds, Papa successfully hung himself with a bed sheet. Case closed. She became successful at handling hated looks of pity with marked indifference.
On her eighteenth birthday, Cadence moved into the loft apartment. Just before nightfall, in a steamy bathroom, her hand-washing ritual began.
Paula gave her a light tap on the arm. “Ms. Bertonelli, are you okay?”
The sound of Paula’s voice brought Cadence back. She couldn’t tell how long she’d been standing there. “He didn’t do it,” she said as her eyes focused on Paula’s face.
Paula frowned. “Who didn’t do what?”
“Papa didn’t kill Mama,” she said. “It was an accident.” Cadence moved closer to the younger woman. She needed Paula to listen, to understand. “Do you think the dead can forgive?”
“Oh,” Paula said. The perkiness was gone from her voice. “I don’t know,” she said in an apologetic tone.
They exchanged a stare until Paula sighed. Moving away, she glanced at the entryway. “I think you can use some fresh air.”
Fresh air? Cadence fought the urge to smack the patronizing smile off Paula’s face. Fresh air didn’t help with appeasing ghosts. She looked around for the last time and allowed herself to be led off the stage.
Behind them, her mother’s unmistakable soprano started out as a whisper. Instead of singing an aria, she sang Cadence’s favorite nursery rhyme.
The little robin grieves
When the snow is on the ground,
For the trees have no leaves,
And no berries can be found.
The air is cold, the worms are hid;
For robin here what can be done?
Let’s strow around some crumbs of bread,
And then he'll live till snow is gone.
Infused with raw emotion, the voice reached for Cadence. Even as she stepped out of the door, it enveloped her like a long, white glove.