Helen Campbell, a native of the New York metropolitan area, lives in Germany and teaches for the European branch of the University of Maryland. She has published two novels, one of which, Turnip Blues, was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. A former musician, she studied violin and viola in Philadelphia, and performed professionally for many years.
Romance with a Double Bassist
The Philadelphia School of Music…a few years back
The day I asked him why he’d learned the double bass, he shrugged and eased the canvas cover off his massive instrument. “It’s simple, Zoog. The sound drives girls crazy.”
“Crazy?” I snorted, watching him pull out the instrument’s endpin and grind the tip into the floor of the practice room. “How?”
“Here, just listen.” He drew the bow across the lowest string until I felt the floor vibrating under my feet--and the flesh on my thighs along with it. “See how it makes your butt shake?” he said, reaching over and patting me through my gauze gypsy skirt. “Admit it, you like how it feels. Just like the rest of the girls.”
I recoiled. Alain, afterall, was my boyfriend--and I assumed the only butt he’d want shaking within arm’s length would be mine. We were classically trained musicians, too, both in our third year of conservatory, and steeped in the symphonies of Mozart, Brahms, and Tschaikovsky--not the kind of music that conjured images of rippling buttocks. “Is that all you think about when you play?” I asked. “Butts?”
“Not always,” he said, dusting off his instrument with a chamois cloth. “Mostly at my gigs.”
He was talking about The Almond Joys, the garage band he’d started in high school--piano, traps, sax, guitar, and bass. The Joys worked the circuit of weddings, bar mitzvahs, and proms, and played mostly polkas, the Beatles, and Ellington medlies. The money was meager, but quivering butts, it appeared, were their own compensation.
I thrust out my tongue. “You’re a pig.”
He laughed, pushed his glasses up his nose, and then carefully laid his instrument on its side on the floor. “Jesus, Zoog, lighten up! Don’t you know when I’m pulling your leg?”
“No,” I sniffed, determined to punish him. “And that wasn’t funny.”
Unchastened, he threw himself down in a chair. “C’mon, let’s be friends, ” he said, holding out his arms. “No hard feelings? Okay? Cherie?”
I paused and considered my options: to either walk out or to yield to his charm. He helped me decide in his favor by making the one simple gesture I couldn’t resist: his smirk. I had to admire his timing. He knew how I relished the shape of his mouth with its corners turned naturally upward, like Flipper the dolphin—and he easily leveraged me with it. I sighed, flicked the lights off, and straddled him octopus-style in the chair. Practice room sex was routine at the school.
“Now, that’s my girl,” he whispered, fidgeting with his belt buckle. “Always a tigress.”
I nipped at his neck to prove it, and anchored my ankles around the back of the chair. But my knee somehow bumped the tail pin of his bass--and knocked it over with a crash.
“Shit!” he screamed, pushing me off him, and turning the lights back on. The bass lay face-down on the floor. “What did you do?”
“I’m sorry…” I whispered, panicked. “I didn’t mean—“
“Goddam, Zoog!” He fell to his knees and turned the bass over gently. “I just got a new bridge, too—three hundred bucks!”
I trembled, recalling a similar scene from my childhood, when I’d tossed rocks from my brother’s tree fort and accidentally struck the paper boy, Billy Scroggins. “I…I think it’s okay, Alain. Really.”
“I’m not so sure,” he answered, pulling the instrument across his lap and running his thumbnail around the glued seams. “There might be a hairline crack.”
Billy’s wound had required half-a-dozen stitches and my mother had conniptions from the news. “I don’t see any cracks,” I said, purposely not looking. “It didn’t fall far enough…a foot, maybe?”
“And I’ve got that big gig with the Joys on Friday,” he groaned, adjusting the bridge and peeking through the instrument’s f-holes. “It’s the ‘Miss Philadelphia’ pagaent, remember?”
I tried not to think about the beating I’d got from my mother when Billy’s dad called to complain—or the fact that Alain’s paegant would have an abundance of butts. “Sweetie, just try playing it. Please.”
He stood up and played a scale slowly. “The wood’s buzzing somewhere…can’t you hear it?”
“No, I don’t.” I picked up the waste basket I’d overturned at the same time as the bass. My beating had been with the back of my mother’s hairbrush. “Really, Sweetie, your bass sounds fine.”
He seized the canvas carrying case, slid the bass inside and zipped it closed. “I’m taking it over to the shop right now,” he said, heading out the door. “See you around.”
I started crying. My mother wouldn’t talk to me for a week after Billy got home from the emergency room. “Stop acting like this, Alain. I said I was sorry!”
But by then he was halfway down the hall, one arm draped around the instrument’s neck, the other threaded through a handle on the front of the canvas bag. He carried it tenderly, like someone who’d fainted. A wife, perhaps. Or an identical twin.
I’d known Alain from counterpoint class the first year of conservatory. It’s a difficult course. Each week for three hours, we analyzed Bach fugues, then tried our hand writing our own. I was only a violinist; the talent and patience required evaded me. Sorry, but this sounds like “I’m a Little Tea Pot”, wrote Dr. Archibald, the teacher, above one of my homework assignments. See me after class.
Alain, in contrast, excelled at the subject. His aptitude cowed me at first, then annoyed me; he never stopped talking in class. Back in high school, I would have put tacks on his chair—but now, in this grown-up environment, all I could do was yawn loudly whenever he answered a question. He and the teacher were friends, no surprise. At lunchtime, they’d sit at a table discussing Bach Three-Part Inventions, marking the score with felt-tip pens, like a pair of learned scholars.
But what made me seethe even more was the fact Alain’s gifts stretched beyond writing counterpoint. He played principal bass in the conservatory orchestra, spent his summers on scholarship at Tanglewood with Ozawa, and subbed in the Philadelphia Orchestra. This gave him high-ranking status at school which I envied. And worse, he looked better than most of the males in my classes—not too tall, but well-muscled and dark, with a head of black ringlets and geometrically-aligned teeth. His status and looks were no draw for me, though; I thought he was cocky and hated him. The day Dr. Archibald played my best fugue for the class on his upright piano, I heard Alain snicker. And out in the street, he looked down at the pavement whenever we passed one another. It felt like contempt, and I wouldn’t abide his behavior. My brothers would most likely tell me he needed a beating. I made up my mind to deliver one—not with my fists, but with words.
“A-zou-lay…that’s a weird name,” I said to him just before orchestral rehearsal as he was tuning his instrument. “What is it, anyway? Klingon?”
He looked at me for the first time and answered without smiling. “French.”
“Really?” I tilted my head to one side, and moved closer. “Then you know how to speak French? In addition to everything else you do so… perfectly?”
“Bien sur,” he shrugged, tightening his bow. “Et vous?”
I feigned a yawn. “No, I never liked the way it sounds. In fact, I hated it in high school.” I thought of my teacher, Miss Crispin, who’d sent nasty notes to my mother, decrying my lack of cooperation.
“Tant pis,” he shrugged. “You’re wrong. It’s a beautiful language. Especially the way the pied-noirs speak it.”
“The what?” The word, to me, sounded like “penis”.
“Pied-noirs. The French Algerians. Like my family.”
I frowned. “You’re Algerian?” All I could think of was blistering desert and photos of Albert Camus, with his slicked hair, open trench coat, and dangling cigarette. I’d struggled through l’Etranger in Miss Crispin’s class, and failed the reading comprehension test. Probably Azoulay loved every sentence.
“Jewish Algerian,” he said. “My family’s lived there for centuries, in Oran, on the Mediterranean. That’s where I was born.”
So he’s a Jew, I thought to myself with a pleasant shiver. I’d grown up with parents who spoke that word only in whispers, without explanation. Here was a chance to learn more, and I seized it; his beating could wait for a few minutes. “What are you doing here in Philadelphia?”
Alain shrugged. “You ever see the movie ‘The Battle of Algiers’?”
“No,” I frowned. I’d never liked questions aimed at testing my fund of knowledge, and especially coming from him, the counterpoint genius.
“See it if you have the chance,” he said. And with that, he returned to his instrument, shaking the floor as he tore through a difficult passage of Mahler.
I knew I should be angry: he’d dismissed me before I could blacken his eyes with invectives. But something else had happened that I couldn’t put a name to. Then.
As a rule, I avoided the school lunch room. I’d never liked the food--meatloaf, steamed carrots, and jello—but less so, its snide conversations. The room was acoustically lively, so slander could spread like contagion from table to table, up walls, through heating vents, over transoms, and into upstairs classrooms. No reputation was safe in this sector.
Students did not freeely mix at the tables since instrument partisanship was the rule. This meant that string, brass, and wind players had their own corners, as did singers, composers and pianists. No survey was needed to show that the string players’ end of the room was the most pathogenic. Its occupants sniped at each other’s appearance and sexual preferences, but most of the time at their playing. That noontime, I heard someone graciously say, You hear him scrape through the Franck Sonata in class last week? Sounded just like a wet fart.
Still, this was the place to get updates. And I wanted to hear more about Alain.
I chose the best table for savagery. Lizzie, its turtle-faced doyenne, had privy to everyone’s secrets, and wickedly shared them. Everyone curried her favor, but feared her, including myself and her pals around the table. I couldn’t conceive how she’d built such a power base. She played lackluster viola, and weighed close to two hundred pounds, in spite of chain smoking and access to dexedrine diet pills. Still, men seemed to covet her boobs. She bragged of her seedy couplings with most of the males, gay and straight, in the building--and not just her classmates. The others included the piano tuner, the security guard, a Mormon missionary who’d stumbled unwittingly into her practice room, and even Dr. Archibald. I’d secretly scoffed at these tales. But at Christmas, she’d brought to the lunchroom a duffel bag of unwashed mens’ briefs--snatched, post-encounter, from her somnolent conquests. Presumably.
“What do you know about Azoulay?” I asked her, tearing open a package of moon pie.
Lizzie snickered, her reptilian eyes darting around the table. “He’s not as great a bass player as he thinks he is, if that’s what you mean. But he does have a cute little ass, even with the pickle shoved up it.”
“Not to me,” groaned Carl, a gay cellist, helping himself without asking to half my pie. “Azoulay’s a nudnik. You see that little cart he rigged up to drag his bass around? I swear he made it from a baby stroller. His baby stroller, probably.”
“I heard he still lives at home with his parents, in some row house off Castor and Cottman,” said Frances, one of the school’s much-maligned violinists. “His father’s supposed to drive an ice cream truck…can you imagine?”
Joanne, another cellist, clucked her tongue in revulsion. “Yeah, but that doesn’t stop him from thinking he’s hot shit. You see all that sucking up he does with Archibald?”
“Sucking off is more likely,” sneered Carl, devouring the rest of my pie and looking around the room. “Aren’t they usually here at lunch before they head to the toilet together? For dessert?”
Lizzie laughed, then started coughing and poked him in the ribs. “All right, Carl, Azoulay’s an…azzhole,” she gasped, phlegm rattling in her throat. “But everyone knows he’s not gay. A virgin for sure. And I think he likes you, Zoog. You see him staring at you in rehearsal?”
“Bullshit,” I said, moving out of the trajectory of her cough and trying to hide my embarrassment. “He’s in love with his bass. And himself. And anyway, he’s too short.”
She reached for her cigarettes as her cough settled down. “Doesn’t matter, Sweetie. From what I can see of his crotch from my seat, he’s got size where it counts.”
“Lizzie, you’re evil!” giggled Frances. “You and your ‘dick tracer’ game!”
Carl yawned and helped himself to one of Lizzie’s Marlboros. “What of it? He plays the bass, for chrissakes. And you ladies know what that means: de facto brain-damaged.”
Brain-damaged, no. But bassists are certainly odd, and it just stands to reason. They’ve chosen to study a muscial instrument that’s poorly designed, oversized, and acoustically flawed. It’s a question of physics. The lengths of bass strings are too long for its soundbox. This defect produces a thin, nasal tone in the instrument’s upper registers, and a muffled, bumpy sound in its lower ones. These boys work for years just to make one note sing, but get tepid applause, if at all. Little wonder they smoke copious dope.
The question remaining is this: does the bass make them odd or do only odd boys choose the bass? I would opt for the latter. This small group of misfits adheres to a two-part delusion: 1) it takes real balls to play the bass and 2) all other instruments suck. Beliefs such as these serve a purpose, of course. Consider the perils of getting your bass from your house, to the subway, to school, and then up and down steps. How else could you justify living the life of a furniture mover? And these boys do it gladly. I’ve seen them on buses and trollies, with facial expressions befitting Siddhartha, while weathering curses from knife-yielding punks and old ladies for blocking the aisles.
Perhaps it’s these ordeals that build group cohesion. And theirs is a secretive circle; I call them the musical Freemasons. In class, in rehearsal, on stage, in the street, they speak just to each other, most likely in code or some unwritten language. Outsiders know nothing about them, and that includes Lizzie the Lizard. Whatever she’d gleaned she’d passed on the first week of the term, disappointing her listeners: that Alain played best, but had never been laid: that Ryan, a former novitiate priest, had been tossed out of his order for drug use; that Dave (nicknamed “Goat”) neither showered nor shaved nor wore skivvies; that Phil was decidedly gay, but stayed closeted, just like his school principal father; that Tony had never learned cursive nor how to use a kleenex; that Skip combined watching the Flintstones with boinking his high-school-aged girlfriend, along with her sister.
True or not, I’d avoided these boys just as much as I’d shunned the jocks in my high school. But there was something about Azoulay. Je ne sais quoi.
“Did you check out ‘The Battle of Algiers’ yet?” Azoulay asked as I walked past him to my seat in counterpoint class.
I stopped, surprised. He’d actually initiated contact. “No,” I answered, unsure if he was mocking me. “I’m not aware that it’s playing around here.”
“Probably not.” He tilted his head back and peered at me from under his glasses. “But I know they show it at Penn every year. Maybe you can catch it next time.”
“Why don’t you just tell me what it’s about?” I said, still suspicious, but curious. “I mean, if it’s so… interesting.”
He opened his notebook of counterpoint exercises and began working on them. “Meet me in the lunchroom after class. I’d be glad to tell you.”
And he did, at our own separate table, as Lizzie and Carl made faces I tried to ignore. It took him an hour to finish a detailed synopsis—first of the film, and then of how the war in Algeria disrupted his life. His father, a cop in Oran at the time, had gunned down an Arab for stealing, which set off a neighborhood blood feud. This left his family with only two choices: immediate exile or death. They fled overnight to Marseille, and with help from American relatives, made it to Philly. The first couple years here were grim. His parents took menial jobs since they couldn’t speak English: his father selling ice cream from a truck, and his mother cleaning other peoples’ houses. In time, they’d saved enough money to buy a tiny row house--and eventually, a plywood bass for Alain on his Bar Mitzvah.
As he spoke, my opinion of him started shifting—from finding him rude, to enjoying his story, to actually liking his character. The lunch room assassins had got him all wrong. Alain was hardly a snob or a nudnik, just wondrously different--and better than that, downright dazzling to look at. The boys I’d grown up with—pale, freckled, and straight-haired—had never once quickened my pulse. But that day it doubled, then tripled, especially after he asked me along on a gig with The Joys, at a Polish Club.
From then on, we sought out each other in any enclosure available—practice rooms, photo booths, alcoves, my dorm room, garages, the rear of his father’s ice cream truck. We only crawled back in our clothes when the time came to practice our instruments. Around him I lost all control. He could beckon me anywhere, anytime, simply by smirking and speaking French. I’d turn into a tigress.
But people started talking, and not kindly. Music school romances were the stuff of jeers and potshots, and new couples could expect to be harrassed or shunned. Jealousy was certainly a factor. Another was the joyless rule espoused by staff and teachers: that music school, like boot camp, wasn’t supposed to be a happy place. And happy people would be punished—for their own good.
“You screwed Azoulay yet?” asked Lizzie in the crowded basement locker room. A nearby clump of trumpet players started laughing.
Cunt, I thought, twirling the dial on my padlock. And a lousy violist. But I didn’t dare counterattack. Loathsome Lizzie had everyone’s ear, and could make me and Alain the school laughingstocks. “C’mon, Liz,” I said, attempting a playful tone, and hoping she’d die at the hands of a serial killer who’d keep her panties for casual display. “I want you to break him in first.”
“Yeah, Liz,” said one of the trumpet players, mimicking me in falsetto. “Aren’t you the virgin surgeon around here?”
“What makes you think I haven’t already done him?” Lizzie threw back at both of us.
I turned and rummaged in my locker for my counterpoint notebook. “Well, you haven’t exactly shown us your duffel bag collection with his skivvies.”
“Bass players usually don’t wear any,” she sneered. “At least in my experience. But maybe you already know.”
Lizzie, unfortunately, wasn’t the only saboteur. My teacher, Nathan Scheckfenster, was another. “What’s this I’ve been hearing about you and that bass player?” he asked in my lesson, lifting my chin with his finger.
I flushed and looked away. “It’s nothing.”
He folded his arms on his chest. “Look, Honey, I don’t give a damn what you do in your spare time. But I sure as hell hope you keep practicing your Mozart.”
“Of course,” I said, trying to think of ways to change the subject. “That’s all I’ve got plannned this weekend.”
But his lecture wasn’t over. “You damn well better, Kiddo. These are the most important years of your life. Spend them upright with your fiddle, you hear? Not on your back with the boys.”
“Okay, you’ve made your point,” I said, tuning my instrument loudly enough to drown out his voice.
He grabbed my elbow, forcing me to stop. “And if I hear anything more about this, you and I might have to part company. Nu?”
And lastly, there was my father. “What are you doing with that guy?” he asked over breakfast one morning during my spring break. “Are you planning to marry him?”
“Why are you asking me that?” I said, surprised and embarrassed, nearly choking on my yogurt. My father rarely spoke to me directly. And never about boys.
He reached for the butter and slathered a chunk on his bagel. “Because your mommy and I need to know. And you need to know we’re not happy about the idea. It was bad enough when you went off with that…Scheckfenster.”
“You guys just don’t like Jews,” I said sullenly, getting up from the table and heading down the hall. “Admit it.”
“It doesn’t matter how we feel,” he shouted after me. “You’ll never fit in with them. Your boyfriend will always choose his tribe over you.”
But he was wrong. The biggest obstacle wasn’t Alain’s family, or even a person. It was his instrument. I’d hesitate saying he loved it; what he felt toward his bass was more potent than that. He’d enter a vortex whenever he practiced, in which his sensorium shut out all things except rhythm and pitch. From then on, he’d fail to respond to not only my voice, but to smoke alarms, thunder claps, gun fire, screams. This worried me greatly. I’d had a psychology course, where I’d learned about dissociation. But Alain just laughed when I showed him the pertinent pages in the textbook. He labeled his trances as just me getting into my bass.
With effort, I managed to shrug off these episodes--but not his other bass-related habit. This one, called “bass talk”, consisted of monologues, solely about bass minutia. I still can recall his long lectures concerning:
1. the best brand of strings, stools, and carrying cases
2. instructions for cleaning the wood, fixing cracks, and adjusting the bridge
3. how Bach sounded better on bass than on cello
4. how Mahler and Wagner had written spectacular parts for the bass and didn’t I want to hear him play them right now?
I found all his musings fatiguing. No strategies, blunt or polite, could distract him—not changing the subject, nor dozing, nor sneezing, nor leaving the room.
Yet what secretly bothered me most wasn’t bass talk—but, rather, his talent. He played a lot better than I did, and both of us knew it. And then there was counterpoint class. Out of pity, he’d finish my homework assignments, which brought my grade up to an “A”. The fact that I ghost-wrote his English term papers, including a critical essay on Chekhov, didn’t make me feel equally competent. But worst were the gigs that he got and I didn’t. The contractors loved him and offered him everything—musicals, opera, ballet, and political fundraising dinners. I’d stay at home, meanwhile, and practice my Mozart or knit him a scarf while awaiting his call. When he’d tell me how much fun he’d had on stage.
We finally split up senior year, shortly after I’d kicked his bass over. He called me that evening with news I was out of the dog house; the repairman found nothing except a small scratch he’d removed with 600-grit sand paper. I’m glad that’s the only damage you caused, he said. Next time, be more careful. My instant reaction to this was choleric—but after I’d calmed down, and tried to explain how it seemed he cared more for his bass than he did for my feelings, I knew he’d heard only white noise from my end. The next day I wrote him a letter announcing my plans to break up and move forward. Alain, offended, stopped talking to me. It was brutal.
But in June, the school lunchroom buzzed with the news: Alain had just won the Pittsbugh Symphony audition. His career was now launched, and to a very high level.
I never congratulated him. And our last glimpse of each other was out on the sidewalk, just before he left. He crossed the street to avoid me.
Thirty years passed, during which my life moved out of music. Law, its successor, was not an improvement, but pleased both my parents. I joined a large city practice, sued multiple parties, made money, fell out with my law partners, rethought my values, and moved overseas for a teaching position. Music, now distant, became my most comforting memory.
But then came the phone call—my mother reporting that Nathan Sheckfenster had died. The cause was blunt trauma brought on when a car ran him down as he jogged across an intersection in Boca Raton. I hung up and sobbed at my keyboard, and made up my mind to do something respectful. My mother had mentioned that Scheckfenster’s students were planning a memorial concert in Philadelphia that weekend. I decided to go.
“Zoog, I would have recognized you a mile away!” said a woman inside the school foyer the day of the concert. She was sneaking a cigarette.
I knew from the voice she was Lizzie—but just barely. Her face had been surgically altered, most likely a full-facial transplant. The rest of her carcass looked just as it had in the lunchroom. I held out my hand, unwilling to embrace her. “So. We meet once again.”
“Yeah, but not under the best circumstances.” She looked over her shoulder and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Poor old Scheck. Did you hear his wife had him cremated? And she scattered his ashes in Newark, on the street where he was born? It’s gang territory these days!”
“No,” I shuddered, thinking of pieces of Scheck stuck in sidewalk cracks or blowing over fences.
“Well, she was always a bitch on wheels,” Lizzie scowled, then resumed her normal speaking volume. “Anyway, is it true you’re a lawyer? The original Miss Goody-Two-Shoes?”
I opted for neutrality. “Yes”.
“Funny, I got out of music, too.” She tossed the match on the floor. “It’s almost twenty-five years I’ve been a financial planner. The best decision I ever made.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said, accepting the business card she pressed into my hand. I could toss it later in the street. “Not many people get to do what they really want.”
She laughed and blew smoke toward the ceiling. “Yeah. Unless, of course, you’re Alain Azoulay.”
“Azoulay?” My jaw muscles tensed. “Isn’t he still in Pittsburgh?”
“Wow, Counselor, are you out of the loop! That was years ago,” she said. “He’s got a whole new gig these days. I heard about it from Carl, remember him?”
“Of course. What’s he up to?” I asked, trying to mask my excitement at hearing Alain’s name.
“Carl? Oh, he plays in some shitty orchestra in Antwerp. Last chair. And he’s stoned all the time. But he ran into Azoulay in France a couple years ago. That’s where he’s living with his bass and a couple cats he’s potty-trained. Divorced, of course.”
I liked hearing that. “What’s he doing with himself?”
“Ha, you’ll love this part, Honey: he’s formed a group with some gypsy jazz guitarist that everyone calls the new Django. Carl says they’re famous all over Europe. He caught their act in a nightclub in Paris.” She ground out her cigarette underfoot. “Figures, doesn’t it? I always said Azoulay thought he was too good for America.”
The lights dimmed in the foyer. It was time for the concert to start. “Catch me at the end of the show,” Liz said, running off to greet another aging classmate. “Just promise me you’ll watch him on youtube! He’s still hot!”