Near the end of Stephen Ornofsky’s performance the audience is laughing so hard, Stephen has to wait several seconds for the laughter to subside before he can say anything else, and as he waits, he is aware he has never before connected so profoundly with an audience, a kind of super joy.
A charming fellow of thirty-four, with short brown hair and wire-frame glasses, Stephen’s show of ever-changing songs and stories has been the Thursday night attraction at McCarthy’s pub in the coastal town of Melody for seven years now.
“As some of you know,” says Stephen when the laughter finally dies down, “I was in therapy for a year when I was a teenager. I was suffering from a crippling psychological disorder known as Being A Teenager.”
Stephen takes the microphone off the stand and crosses the little stage to a high stool where he sits and looks out at the audience, the pub filled to capacity.
“Fortunately I had a wonderful therapist, and what he loved more than anything was interpreting dreams. And being the kind of person I am, I very much wanted to please him. And because I didn’t think my actual dreams were all that interesting, I started making up dreams, really wild ones, and my therapist just loved them and said they were really helping us get to the bottom of my issues.”
The crowd roars with laughter.
“But then I started feeling guilty about misleading my therapist, so I said to him, ‘You know the dreams I’ve been telling you lately? I didn’t actually have those dreams. I made them up.’ And my therapist said, “It doesn’t matter. They still give us valuable information.’ And I said, ‘But they aren’t really about me.’ And he said, ‘Of course they are. Only you can make up those particular dreams, just as only you can have the dreams you actually have. And just as you made up those dreams, Stephen, you can make up your future life. You really can.’”
Stephen crosses the stage, puts the microphone back on the stand, and straps on his guitar.
“So I decided what I really wanted in my future life was a Thursday night gig at McCarthy’s where I sing songs for my friends and tell them stories I think they’ll enjoy. And my dream came true, and this song is for you.
I give to you, you give to me
We plant the seeds to keep the garden growing
You give to him, he gives to her,
she gives to me, I give to you,
we keep the spirit flowing
So now when those night winds blow
I want you to know I will always love you
I want you to know I will always love you
A good many people wait around after the show to give Stephen a hug or shake his hand, and one of those people is a woman in her mid-thirties visiting from Los Angeles named Nina Zubinsky. Stephen met Nina for the first time a few days ago, and when he found out she was a studio musician, a guitarist, Stephen asked her if she’d like to get together with him and play music. Thinking Stephen might be interested in her romantically, Nina made sure to tell him she was a lesbian, something Stephen never would have guessed.
Tall and slender, Nina has short curly brown hair, dark green eyes, and wears wire-frame glasses. She is dressed identically to Stephen in a black corduroy sports jacket, pale pink dress shirt, black corduroy trousers, and red running shoes.
When Nina’s father Abe, who is one of Stephen’s guitar students, finishes giving Stephen a hug, Nina shakes Stephen’s hand and says, “I am now officially in awe of you and would very much like to play music with you.”
“I’m thrilled,” says Stephen, ferociously attracted to her despite the aforementioned lesbian information. “Your father has my number.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” she says, seeming reluctant to let go of his hand. “You blew my mind. You really did.”
Stephen gets home around midnight to the lovely old house he shares with Maya Johansen, an elderly woman confined to a wheelchair and for whom Stephen is the primary caregiver. To Stephen’s surprise and delight, he finds Maya’s other caregiver, Celia Flores, a beautiful middle-aged Mexican woman, reading by the fire in the living room.
Dressed in a dark blue nightgown, Celia has loosed her long black hair from its workaday bun and removed her copious makeup, which is how Stephen prefers her. She is usually asleep when Stephen gets home from his Thursday night gig—Celia lives with Maya and Stephen from Thursday to Sunday every week—and Stephen guesses she stayed up to talk to him about Maya.
Stephen’s dogs Hortensio, a large black mutt, and Moose, a small brown Chihuahua, are in their beds by the woodstove, and they both briefly open their eyes to look at Stephen and confirm what their ears and noses told them. He’s home.
“How was your show, Esteban?” asks Celia, her Spanish accent quite strong.
“Went well,” says Stephen, flopping down on the sofa. “How was your evening?”
“Okay,” she says, putting down her book. “One day I’ll go to your show again. I’ll ask Josephine to come for a few hours so I can go. I don’t think Maya will ever go again. She so tired at night now. She wants to go to bed earlier and earlier.”
“She told me yesterday she doesn’t think she’ll live another year,” says Stephen, who has lived with Maya for nine years now.
“I don’t like to think about her going,” says Celia, looking at Stephen. “I love my days here with you and Maya.”
Stephen wants to say Then keep coming here after she’s gone, but he knows that’s not possible. This is Celia’s job and she and her husband depend on the income.
Celia smiles. “Maybe you’ll make a million dollars from a song you write and I can be your cook and housekeeper.”
“Nothing would make me happier,” says Stephen, a familiar sorrow taking hold as his performance high fades away and he feels alone in the world with no partner to share his bed and know his deepest feelings.
“Time for me to sleep,” says Celia, getting up from her armchair. “Hasta la mañana.”
“Hasta la mañana,” says Stephen, rousing his dogs and ushering them out to the garden where they pee and Stephen imagines Celia is his wife waiting for him to come to bed.
Nina calls the next morning while Stephen is doing the breakfast dishes and they arrange for him to come to Nina’s father’s house for some guitar playing and lunch.
Abe Zubinsky is sixty-two, a former movie sound engineer in Los Angeles who worked on dozens of Hollywood blockbusters and is now the owner of Studio Z, a small recording studio Abe built adjacent to his house overlooking the Pacific Ocean a couple miles south of Melody.
Abe moved here ten years ago with his second wife Carol, an interior designer. Six months after they arrived, Carol returned to Los Angeles and filed for divorce because, as she is fond of telling people, “I felt like we’d been exiled to Siberia and Abe thought we’d landed in heaven.”
Following a tour of Abe’s spectacular house and the surrounding meadows filled with purple and white wild iris, Stephen and Nina get situated in Abe’s state-of-the-art recording studio, and to humor her father, Nina acquiesces to Abe placing several microphones in the performance room to record the session.
“Something for me to listen to on long winter nights,” says Abe, getting his volumes set. “Two of my favorite people playing music together.”
“You can stay, Pops,” says Nina, tuning her father’s fine old guitar.
“I’ve got a bunch of calls to make,” says Abe, leaving the control room. “Carry on.”
Stephen and Nina are dressed identically again—black cotton T-shirts and baggy blue trousers—and Stephen says, “I assume you are aware of our uncanny tendency to dress alike, and not just alike but exactly alike?”
“I am aware and find it mildly unnerving,” she says, playing a lightning fast melodic run of notes up and down the neck of her guitar that makes Stephen’s jaw drop. “I’m what’s known in the vernacular as an L.L. Bean dyke, and you apparently shop there, too.”
“No, I get my clothes at garage sales,” says Stephen, playing an elegant chord on his small teak guitar, “though Celia recently knitted me a beautiful wool sweater.”
“Celia being?” asks Nina, searching for the elegant chord Stephen just played and quickly finding it. “Nice.”
“Celia is Maya’s other caregiver,” says Stephen, tuning his guitar. “She lives with us from Thursday evening until Sunday morning. An incarnate angel.”
“I was raised by an incarnate angel named Celia,” says Nina, figuring out four more equally elegant chords to go with Stephen’s initial elegant chord. “Celia Maria Gomez. My parents being otherwise engaged on movie sets around the globe, Pops doing sound, Moms a cinematographer, and they rarely worked on the same film.”
“Moms was not Carol,” says Stephen, having met the hyper-perky Carol a couple times before she fled Siberia and returned to Los Angeles.
“No, thank all the gods of all religions,” says Nina, playing the five elegant chords again. “Carol didn’t infiltrate my father’s life until I’d made my escape to the lesbian enclave in Echo Park where I live to this day.”
“Would you mind teaching me those chords you just played?” says Stephen, awed by Nina’s facility on the guitar.
She plays the chords again a few times and Stephen imitates her until he has them memorized.
“Best guitar lesson I’ve ever had,” he says, playing the chords again and again.
“You’re self-taught,” she observes. “Whereas I had excellent teachers from the age of eight and graduated champion hot chick guitarist from the Berklee jazz factory. Yet you’re every bit as good as I am and easily seventy jillion times more original.”
“Nonsense,’ says Stephen, playing the five chords again in a steady rhythm and singing in his smoky tenor, “These chords put me in a melancholy mood, but that don’t mean I’m sad.”
“Hey melancholy is my middle name,” sings Nina to those same five chords, “but that don’t mean I’m bad.”
“Melancholy’s my name, too,” he sings, changing the third and fifth chords, “though I’m not always blue.”
“And I am really digging this song,” she sings, “making it up with you.”
They stop playing and smile shyly at each other.
“Not what I expected,” she says, shaking her head. “Thought you’d play a song from your show and I’d noodle along. Studio work. But no.”
“Speaking of noodling,” says Stephen, thrilled by her playing, “here’s a little something I came up with you might be inclined to noodleize to.”
“Play on, Ornofsky,” she says, feeling a glimmer of something she hasn’t felt since she was fourteen—sexual attraction to a male.
Stephen swings into a Gypsy groove with a run of jazzy chords full of surprising twists and turns, and when Nina has listened to the run three times through she begins to solo with a few choice notes, playing more and more notes with each iteration of the chord sequence until her solo grows complex and majestic and at last she takes over playing the run of chords and Stephen rips off a dazzling solo that ends on the last chord Nina plays.
Mutually astounded, Nina gawks at Stephen and says, “I’m not religious but I’m praying fervently my father’s recording equipment captured that amazing thing we just played.”
“I’ll pray for that, too,” says Stephen, looking into her eyes. “But it doesn’t matter, Nina.”
“It doesn’t?” she says, terrified to be falling in love with him. “Then what does?”
“What matters is we made that together,” he says, grinning at her. “And we’ll always know we did.”