For one second, I drift away.
A kaleidoscope of memories gushes into my mind. Fragments of my life pierce my brain from the inside, like sparkling, colored glass shards. I feel that my heart is an old, decrepit train that has finally come to a screeching halt.
Thundering applause propels me back into reality.
I open my eyes.
I’m standing on the broad stage of the Shanghai Palace of Arts, overlooking an ocean of glowing faces and clapping hands. Smartphones flash in ecstatic frenzy, capturing my imposing figure from a variety of angles. I smile benevolently and wave to the crowd. It roars triumphantly in response.
The announcer, a tall, good-looking girl wearing a white blouse and a gray mini-skirt, speaks into the microphone, her voice trembling with excitement:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are so honored and so thrilled to have the international master pianist, Shlomo Horshan, perform for us here, at our own Shanghai Palace of Arts! Please show him, once again, your unwavering support and love!”
The hall erupts in standing ovation. I bow deeply, a radiant smile slathered over my full lips. I wave again and retire backstage.
A veritable horde of my worshippers invades the narrow corridor leading to my V.I.P. dressing room. A spasmodically breathing girl in denim shorts sticks a wreath of wet flowers onto my chest, shaking her head in exaltation, her ponytail bouncing rhythmically.
“Mr. Horshan! Sir!” She pronounces my name and the English words with apparent difficulty. “I’m ... a big ... fan! Nanshen! Nanshen!”
The last word means “god”, with an emphasis on the masculine gender. I smile, lowering my head modestly. I glance at her small, yet shapely breasts. I fish out my iPhone from the side pocket of my concert trousers.
“Add me on WeChat.” I tap the phone and hold out my WeChat code to the girl. She emits a rapturous shriek and quickly covers her mouth. Then she frantically scans the code with her own phone, engraved in a cover representing a cute, cartoony giant panda.
A stern-looking Western lady, donning a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, looks at me attentively.
“May I have a word with you, Mr. Horshan?” Her husky voice reminds me of some Hollywood actress.
We enter the V.I.P. room. A small coffee machine hums cozily. I grab a tiny smoked salmon sandwich from a glass table and swallow it greedily. I’m always hungry after a show.
“Mr. Horshan, I’m Serena Bloedtraum, a musical critic for the expat magazine Shanghai Life. Quick question: are you related to Tal Horshan?”
“The wacky Israeli astrophysicist who has read too many science fiction books and thinks he is inventing interstellar travel?” I wiggle my eyebrows. “That’s my Dad.”
She is visibly impressed by that.
“Your family is uniquely gifted, Mr. Horshan. I have to say that tonight’s performance was ... phenomenal.”
“Uh-hm.” My mouth is now stuffed with a shattered, crispy cheese empanada. It’s delicious. I point at the sofa.
“Please, Ms. Bloedtraum.”
She stares at me, her mouth slightly open. I methodically chew on the empanada, thinking of her soft, rosy lips and that space between them. I smile at my own thoughts, swallow the empanada with force and reach for a piece of foie gras terrine.
“Your interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30 is remarkable,” Serena says, crossing her legs and adjusting her tweed skirt. “Frankly, I haven’t heard anything comparable since Claudio Arrau.”
“You are flattering me.” I put the foie gras into my mouth. It’s melting slowly. I think of the goose that was kept in a cage and force-fed to produce this dish. I imagine the goose must be proud of ending up in the stomach of a famous pianist. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to understand the sublime beauty of that piece without the master’s keen insight.”
“It was spiritual.” Serena leans forward. “When you started playing the theme of the last movement, before the variations, it was like ... going back in time.” She closes her eyes. “I imagined myself a little girl ... back in the South German village I grew up in. There is a little Catholic church ... and the sounds of an organ. It plays those touching, divine harmonies ... and there is peace in my soul. Complete peace.”
I carefully wipe my mouth with a soft napkin and approach her. My knee touches her knee. She makes a weak gesture, which sends a wave of heat through my body.
Like a vulture, my mouth lunges at hers. Prying her lips with force, my tongue plunges into her mouth, seeking to devour her will, bring it under my control. My right hand fumbles with the hooks at the back of her bra, while the left one dives under her skirt.
The attractive announcer enters the V.I.P. room. I swiftly disengage myself from Serena, who covers her face and runs out.
The announcer frowns.
“Something wrong, Mr. Horshan?”
“No, no, nothing at all. Just a fan who wanted an autograph. You know how it is.” I laugh and shake my head scornfully.
She comes closer. She looks very pretty in the bright light from the tacky golden chandelier dangling from the ceiling. Her snow-white blouse is only half-tucked into her skirt.
“What’s your name?” A heart-warming smile appears on my face.
She smiles back.
“Wang Xuerong. But you can call me Lisa.”
“Wang Xuerong is okay for me,” I tell her in Chinese. “Which rong is this? The rong of rongyu?”
“You know Chinese!”
I’m used to this reaction. Every time I utilize it to my advantage, putting up the same spectacle.
“I’ve been living in Shanghai for almost seven years now, Xuerong.” I try to put as much noble humility into my voice as I can. “I actually think it’s disrespectful to live in a country without knowing the first thing about its culture and traditions. Can you believe it – most foreigners don’t even know the difference between, say, Tang and Ming dynasties. They have never even heard of Zhuangzi or read the Dream of the Red Chamber.”
I can see the fascination in her eyes. She looks even prettier when she is excited.
“Mr. Horshan –”
“Call me Shlomo.” I gesture her to sit down on the sofa. When she does, I quickly pour a glass of champagne and hand it to her. She sips it.
“Thank you,” she says, her eyes glistening. “You are a very interesting person, Mr. Hor ... Shlomo. I actually study medieval Chinese poetry.”
“Yes, yes.” I sit down near her, putting my hand on the back of the sofa, ready to hug her shoulders at any time. The scenario is unfolding with predictable accuracy. “Hua jian yi hu jiu ... Lovely verse. But –” I swallow hard and lower my head, in a masterful display of subdued desire. I continue in a raspy, broken voice, as if overcome by deep feeling: “– not as lovely as you are.”
I raise my head and look her in the eyes, letting that sink in. I should have chosen the acting career when I had the chance.
She looks uncomfortable. She puts her glass of champagne back on the table.
“That’s ... very sweet of you. I ... I think I need to leave.”
“Oh, no.” The hurt on my face is genuine. My pride is wounded, and that stings. I pull out a trump card that has worked many times before. “Xuerong ... I’m sorry if I sound blunt ... too direct ... But that’s just me, that’s how I am ... When I feel something – I speak out!” I make a cutting gesture with my right hand, to emphasize my brutal, manly honesty, while my left hand is gently squeezing her shoulder. “Xuerong...” I put on a pleading mien of misunderstood innocence. “You can’t imagine how lonely I am. It’s so hard to find a soul that feels what I feel. It’s not about the physical stuff – it’s about a union of souls ... Arthur Schopenhauer writes that love is the manifestation of the will to live, serving the natural purpose of the preservation of species ... When I saw you today, preparing to announce for my concert, you had that profound, intense expression –”
“I ate spicy Hunan food yesterday, so I had diarrhea this morning,” she explains readily.
I’m somewhat taken aback by that statement, but the train is already rolling on the rails, and can’t be stopped. I quickly recover:
“You see – I don’t mind all those things ... of the body. What matters is the spirit ... I saw how you were listening to my music ... You really understood it. You are a spiritual person, Xuerong ... and I just can’t ... I can’t...” It’s time to move on to the stage of uncontrolled, unbridled passion. I shake my head, as though doubting the reality of what is happening. Then I tighten my grip on her shoulder, encircle her in my arms, close my eyes, and prepare to land a romantic, tasteful kiss on her lips.
She pushes me away and gets up.
“Mr. Horshan! I’m sorry, but that’s not ... That’s not what I want. I have a boyfriend.”
A nauseating wave of angry, dark disappointment flows into my chest. It’s time to change the strategy on the spot.
I produce a lopsided, quirky grin and proceed with good-natured humor:
“Aww, those boyfriends ... You know, my classmate in Israel used to say: ‘a boyfriend is just a wall, and I’m an air hammer’. Haha! It sounds funnier in Hebrew: haver ze rak kir, ve ani –”
“I’m sorry.” Xuerong interrupts. “You are a great musician, Mr. Horshan. You are amazing. And you deserve real, big love. You will have it. There are so many women –”
I feel my self-control loosening drastically, like a giant aircraft plunging down, ready to become a pile of deformed metal and disfigured bodies.
“Yeah, yeah, alright, just get out of here!”
I can physically sense the ugliness of my own face. Xuerong disappears behind the door. I poor myself a glass of champagne and gulp it down. I grab the bottle and drink directly from it, until there is nothing left. I turn off the light, lie down on the sofa, and close my eyes.
Somebody knocks on the door.
“Come in!” I yell.
I can hear the door creaking.
“Hello?” The voice is feeble and shaky. I flip on the light switch and sit up. A nerdy-looking youth is standing in the middle of the room.
“Who are you? What do you want?” I look at him with impatient irritation. He has a sickly, sallow complexion, and his face is generously camouflaged by acne. He exudes a steady smell of dirty socks and badly digested, cheap vinegar-soaked Guilin-style rice noodles.
“I’m so sorry, sir. I’m collecting the evidence of the near death experience for the paper, at the Jiaotong University.” The overdose of definite articles in that sentence is grating. I roll my eyes.
“What? Near death? What are you talking about?”
He looks at me with respectful fear.
“I’m suh ... sorry,” he stutters. “Are you Mr. Shlomo Horshan?”
“Yes, I am. I don’t understand ... Are you a fan? Do you want a free CD or something? Wait, I had one with my recent Brahms recital here somewhere...”
“No, no,” he speaks hurriedly and smiles. “I don’t want Bolamusi. I like Xiaobang.”
“I’ve got a Chopin one too.” I smile back. “All the Etudes, op. 25. Man, the one with the sixths in both hands is a real bitch.”
He comes closer. I find his permanent grin strange and off-putting.
“You don’t understand, Mr. Horshan,” he says politely. “I’m not interested in the piano, in the music. I’m interested in the near death.”
My smile vanishes.
“Yeah, well, and I’m interested in the women with the long legs and the round buttocks.” I frown. “What near death? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Yes!” He squeaks jubilantly. “The hell! That’s exact, sir. The hell. Near death. But what happens after the death? What? Do you think ... what?”
“Okay, look. Why don’t you go and ... relax somewhere?”
He shakes his head so violently that I begin to wonder whether it could actually fall off his scrawny, sausage-like neck.
“I can’t relax!” He exclaims, comically beating himself on his concave chest. “You are near the death ... And you need to think of what the death –”
Suddenly, without the slightest warning, my heart stops.