Leontyne Price is amazing. Sally feels herself rising out of her seat on the balcony at the Met, her heart lifting, pumping strangely in counterpoint to the sublime crescendo of Price’s song. Art is physical, Sally thinks, and yet she has not moved, other than the rhythm of her breathing and a strange clutching in her chest. Rowland smiles and sways next to her, holds her hand, with her, yet pulled towards the robed beauty on the stage below. Price’s voice fills the entire hall, the story of Aida’s imminent death tearing at the souls of all in attendance, the listeners borne up, then easing down as her soprano fades to a reedy silence.
Sally’s heart keeps skipping wildly, and she clutches the chair in front of her. The night is over but she can’t get up. “Let’s sit a minute,” she thinks. Rowland seems to hear. He watches with a bemused expression as the operagoers file out. Their row empties out on either side of them. She does not have to squinch into her seat, or God forbid, stand up, to let anyone pass.
She feels light again and Rowland leads her to the bar, where they take two martinis to the bench by the long lit windows. He downs his quickly, then goes for the car, saying some words which Sally nods to. She sips her martini and distinctly feels she must not have a cigarette. Her heart has forbidden it. A little bird in the center of her chest has asked for reprieve.
She does not remember the ride home, finds herself in bed, staring at the ceiling, Rowland breathing softly next to her. The little bird is breathing too, with barely a flutter. She does not remember closing her eyes, and in the morning she forgets the night, the flurry, the crescendo.
Sally lies facedown in the surf. That was not a dive. Sally does not dive. The water is shallow, the beach is steep, the tide pulls back, she is in sand now, her face—“Sally!” Rowland cries out. “Dear God, Sally!” He runs to her, feeling sloppy, and joins some strangers turning her over. She never wets her hair and here she is, sand and salt water clinging to half her face and head. Her bad ear stayed dry, thank goodness. Is she conscious? Why is he thinking about her ear? Someone has brought over a lifeguard. “Sally, Sally, wake up.” Her head rests on his thigh, he is kneeling in the sand, she opens her eyes and looks up at him.
The next time she opens her eyes, she is in a hospital bed. Her lungs crave nicotine, but she knows that is all over. A doctor comes in with Rowland, who looks both sheepish and determined. She doesn’t like doctors making decisions for her, he knows that. She isn’t any good at self-treatment, but she already knows the diagnosis.
A little box inside her chest, not tin as one might imagine in an old cuckoo clock, but utilitarian plastic, with gears that remind one of elaborate sea creatures. The little bird of her heart is getting help. Her father had had a pacemaker, but not until his eighties—she is barely 62. What a nuisance. The incision is small and neat and will stop aching soon. She must cut back on martinis and no more smoking. She saw it all coming; she was just confused by Leontyne Price. The heart soars, and nearly breaks, the little bird barely lands upright. How strange it will be to go to the opera with a well-regulated heart.