Wanda believed she was a reincarnation of Mozart. She improvised regularly for ballet and modern dance classes in studios a few blocks north of Lincoln Center. These gigs paid quite well, and in cash. Plus for her it was easy. She could imitate any composer’s style, from Bach to Stravinsky. Her virtuosity was such that she could play the piano and read a paperback novel at the same time, but she could do this only during a ballet rehearsal. Her long, bony fingers played neat phrases of eight, sixteen, and thirty-two notes as the dancers sighed and grunted and threw sweat droplets onto the shiny hardwood floor.
She remembered Merce Cunningham’s calling out: ONE two three, FOUR FIVE six, SEVEN eight NINE, ten ELEVEN, then all repeated, and then again. The music would literally pour through her, much too quickly for any conscious control. And of course when you're accompanying dancers, you can't stop or even hesitate, or they’ll all fall down. Where, she wondered, was this stuff coming from? An alternate universe?
Anyway, Wanda was currently reading Oliver Sacks’ “An Anthropologist on Mars” hoping there were some possible answers in it. She imagined she might be an idiot savant. Or just an idiot. Duh!
In her emails she quizzed me about photography. What do you think of when you raise your camera? Is it film, or digital? Has anyone ever refused to be photographed because they feared you’d steal their soul?
I told her about an encounter I recently had with the philosophical writer Alice Koller, and the poor old woman’s paranoia about being spied on by the small planes that flew over her farmhouse in Vermont on their way to and from the airport. Alice, I wrote, wanted to pay me to take telephoto shots of these planes and make poster-sized enlargements of the numbers on their wings. She needed this documentation because nobody at the Federal Aviation Administration believed these pilots were spying on her. I told Alice she needed to find a photographer who specialized in aircraft.
“God, what a story,” Wanda emailed. “You do have a sense of humor. Don't you?”
Then she wrote it was so odd, this email correspondence of ours. “I don't even know what your voice sounds like, so when I read your posts, I guess I hear a male version of my own voice.”
She’d been on an emotional roller coaster since Friday, after an unexpected phone call from someone with whom she used to share her life. Luckily she had some houseguests, and they all went out for spaghetti dinner and a few straw-covered bottles of Chianti at Mario’s. She liked to surround herself with people, and regularly worked out like a madwoman at the gym, because she hoped it soon would put her on an even keel.
We finally agreed to meet. After several back-and-forth suggestions we settled on the huge fossilized Viking ship at the Museum of Natural History. I immediately noticed her teeth. Her two front ones were yellow and uneven, with a gap in between, and the bottom ones were bunched up. Which explained why she kept her mouth closed when she smiled. All the rest of what she earlier revealed in emails was true enough. She was extremely bright, funny, well-read, and knew all about music.
After some awkward wandering about the echoing marble floored galleries, we headed out and found a nice restaurant near West 57th Street. I had a piece of warm chocolate cake with a tiny scoop of ice cream, and she ordered a cup of tea, “with two bags, please.” When she poured in the cream, it instantly curdled into miniature cumulus clouds. I beckoned the waitress, but Wanda said it made no difference.
“This curdling,” I said, “is evidence of chaos subverting order.”
“Ha, ha, ha,” she said.
I pulled out my camera. She smiled self-consciously. I took a lot of shots. Afterward I walked her to the subway, said good bye.
Later the next day in the darkroom I unrolled the wet, dripping filmstrip from the stainless steel reel. I held it up to the overheads. All the frames were grossly underexposed, and unprintable. Just wispy transparent ghosts on the emulsion. I thought maybe my failure at the restaurant to set the f stop and shutter speed correctly was no accident.
Maybe deep down I didn’t actually want Wanda’s pictures to turn out.