Beechers MagazineMaria is one of my oldest stories. It’s one that taught me a good lesson in submitting, mainly about submitting and revision. I wrote this story in the spring of 2009. Submissions were about to close for most magazines, and I shot it off to AGNI on a lark. I’d been reading a biography of Maria Callas in researching opera for my failed novel Barcelona, the writing of which is well-known to my friends and detailed in something-of-a-parody here at Passages North in their Writers on Writing series, and I wanted to write a fictive account of the most important relationship of her life. When the rejection came, it was one of those higher tier form rejections that came with the line, “This is not our customary rejection. We hope you’ll keep us in mind.” Well, of course I’d keep them in mind. What aspiring short story writer wouldn’t like work in an esteemed literary journal. And hey, I thought, if it came close there, it will definitely get published somewhere else, right? Wrong! I sent it out to maybe ten or fifteen more magazines and they all came back with form rejections. Still, they were all top venues, competition there is fierce, you have to punch your weight. So maybe I’ll move it to a tier where the competition is less intense, which I did, and I got another personal rejection. Dear Jason, it read, we are very sorry that we can’t use “A Secret Son” [which is what the story was called at that time]. Our staff was fond of the work and are unanimous that you’re a fine writer. Maybe the next one. Also, sorry to have kept you waiting. And with this encouragement I proceeded to send it to another fifteen to twenty magazines without thinking that maybe it wasn’t a matter of playing the odds, maybe it was a matter of polishing the story, going back and editing. I’m pretty sure the story was rejected by every major magazine that exists before it dawned on me that maybe the writing was good but not quite there yet (and maybe, of course, there just aren’t that many people interested in the opera).

In any case, after a year and a half of no luck, I finally did what I maybe should have done after the first round of rejections and I went back and reviewed what I had. And I sort of cringed. It was promising, but it wasn’t there. I had really only started to take writing seriously in 2008, so by the time I went back to review this piece in 2011 I’d grown and I recognized a lot of bad habits in that early version. So I sat down with the basic outline in my head, highlighted a few turns of phrase, maybe a paragraph here or there from that draft and re-wrote it for the most part without consulting “A Secret Son.” The result was “La Divina.” It was a version I felt better about, but again it was met with rejection at the first handful of venues I sent it to. This time, I wasn’t going to force it. I sat down and rewrote once more, mainly because I liked the piece. I titled it “Maria” and this time around, it found a home. I’m not sure what makes me assign one story to the trashcan and refuse to give up on another. At the same time, I think what makes the final version work is that I’d forgotten everything I’d learned from Maria Callas’s biography by then. She had become an entirely fictional character so that, although what you read below retains the names of people who existed, it is decidedly removed from who they really were. Since I was calling it fiction, and it wasn’t reportage or journalism, I felt no compunction to the truth. In any case, I’ve always liked this story. I was happy to have it appear in Beecher’s Magazine, issue 4. I hope you like it too:



Jason M. Jones


For that man, she gave up the only thing she ever wanted as much as the stage—for that man, the one who isn’t here. The room is filled with his scent—two dozen, long-stemmed roses—but Ari never arrives.

Maria rolls to one side of the bed.

“Bruna,” she moans.

They’re in Paris. Ari owns an apartment a few blocks away, but he’s busy.

“Yes, miss?”

Bruna is faithful. Bruna is here.

“Has Ari come? Did he come while I slept?”

But she knows the answer already.

“He sent flowers,” Bruna says.

But he always sends flowers. He sends flowers when she performs Norma and La Forza del Destino. He sends flowers for Traviata and Tosca, but right then, she’d prefer his presence. His warm soft skin and gentle hands are more comforting than flowers.

“I feel sick,” she says.

But it isn’t sick exactly. It’s more an emptiness.

Bruna holds a glass of water to her lips.

“Drink,” she says.

And though she does as Bruna tells her, after two sips, she feels nauseated.

“You see where this puts us,” Ari had said. “You’re still a married woman. Think about what this would do to your career, to your reputation.” And she’d relented, even though she wasn’t deceived. He was worried about his career, his reputation.

When she first met Ari, she’d tried to avoid his advances. She sent gifts back unopened, refused to come to the phone when he called. But he was persistent, and during a cruise aboard his yacht—an event she acquiesced to under the assurance he’d behave—she gave in.

“The world’s other famous Greek!” he calls her—with him, of course, being the first. She’d fallen in love and got pregnant, and they agreed they wouldn’t have the child. But now the procedure is over, and she doesn’t give a damn about career or reputation.

“Where’s Ferrucio?” she asks.

“He’s taking care of the dogs, miss.”

And that’s good, since they’re her babies now.


Norma is the first opera she performs when she returns to the stage after convalescing. Norma—the pagan priestess with whom she feels a newfound affinity. Maria has played her before. She knows the notes and libretto. Each word is infused in her memory, and she throws herself into rehearsals, subsuming her pain in the role.

During this time, she thinks of Ari and his absence, but more often, she thinks of the child and a different kind of absence. Over the first week, she meets with her director to discuss ideas. “I trust your interpretation,” he tells her. “You know Norma far better than I do. I may have suggestions, but mostly, I’ll leave her in your hands.”

She counts her steps on stage. She has never had good eyesight, and counting steps from one spot to the next ensures she won’t trip and fall. She finds the spot where the theater’s acoustics resonate best and structures her performance around it. She delivers arias from that particular place and revels in the sound of her voice filling the room.

She sends Ari an invitation to opening night but doesn’t hear back. She hopes he’ll surprise her and show up unannounced. She hears the orchestra strike up but has time before she heads out, since Norma herself doesn’t make an entrance for twenty minutes.

Before she goes on, the director stops by her dressing room to infuse her ego with the praise necessary to sing in front of a packed theater. “You’ll be great,” he says. “You’ve never been better.” And though Maria suspects he’d say this even if he didn’t mean it, she also knows it’s true.

Norma, the priestess who falls in love with the wrong man and suffers. Norma, who rather than sacrificing her children, chooses to bid them farewell, entrusting them to another woman’s care while she and Pollione consign themselves to a pyre’s flames.

Maria walks to the stage and stands at the side, waiting to make her entrance, twelve steps on a broad diagonal to the acoustically-resonant perch from which she’ll deliver her first aria. She gives a quick glance toward the balcony, notes the empty box, and though she’s hurt he hasn’t shown, she shrugs it off. The fans who’ve gathered have read of her hospital stay. They’ve accepted the explanation—exhaustion. And they’ve turned out to see whether her voice is exhausted as well.

As she enters, the spotlight holds her up for the audience. They search for signs of age, but Maria casts her large brown eyes at them, gazing into their midst, defiant. She asks without words who among them could look on her beauty and not find it transformative. For Maria, on stage, exudes beauty. She becomes the priestess, fragile for her vulnerability, frightening for her power. The crowd applauds, but as she opens her throat, revealing her first notes, the forceful sound quiets them. The set dissolves. She no longer stands with a chorus. Rather, she’s present with the Druid people in their scared forest. She wears the outfit of a high priestess—white robes with a crimson sash—and she listens as they implore her to call down their Gods’ wrath on the Romans. Norma thinks of her lover Pollione, a Roman consul, forbidden. She thinks of her children, their safety.

The Druids are outraged. They wish to drive the Romans out, but Norma reminds them of Rome’s strength. She counsels patience. She assures them Rome will fall but not at their hands. And with this, her voice rings out. She sings to the goddess—Casta Diva—to temper their hearts and grant them peace.

Casta Diva—it’s one of opera’s most difficult arias. This is the test, and the crowds waits, tense and attentive, to see if she fails. Aficionados prick their ears for pitch and control, and Maria delivers each note with grace, throwing them into fits of rapture. Tears well in their eyes. She sustains her tones before releasing herself in accelerated flourishes, climbing the scales with eloquence. Had a claque been hired by a rival soprano to boo her, she’d have converted them, the plangent tide streaming from her throat ethereal, seamless, a far more valuable currency than the pittance they’d earn for tossing catcalls.

Maria ascends higher and higher with such intensity that once she reaches its climax and hits the high C they all assumed she’d transpose to B-flat, she dispels their fears she might be washed up. She no longer controls the high D that once wowed her audiences, but her performance is masterful. The applause goes on for ten minutes, and shouts of “brava” ricochet from the rafters.


Ari doesn’t appear until the fourth night, and though she convinces herself to stop hoping, she keeps a seat reserved. Maria expects the seat to remain empty. She expects this run to end without his attending, so she’s surprised when she sweeps on stage and discovers him sitting alone in the box. His eyes are big, gleaming. A smile, almost a smirk, spreads across his face, satisfied he has surprised her.

Maria falters. She pauses and turns. Her shoulders dip as she pirouettes to face Pollione,  only he isn’t Pollione but the actor playing him. Ari sits watching. His presence makes her transformation difficult. She has trouble losing herself. He pulls her off stage into the box, but she forces her way back. She can’t let him interrupt. She has to become Norma, and to do this, she makes him Pollione. She sees no conflict in another Pollione, the tenor, sharing the stage. She can superimpose Ari’s visage on his. She has never had problems with make believe.

Maria walks through the recitative and reaches that first aria. The past few nights, she has flirted with perfection, wooing the crowd, but with Ari here, she pushes herself. Even though he has no ear for opera, she wants to impress him, to move this audience to such heights they can’t deny her talent.

She begins her prayer.

“Chaste goddess,” she sings, “temper their hearts.”

Goddess of love, she means, give me his.

His presence sets her nerves to hum. Her arms swing, but the tightness in her body makes the motion stilted, inhibited. She unleashes the first of her flourishes, once more climbing the scales, but as she exerts herself, her voice cracks, and she stops.

The audience sits in stunned silence. This is the moment her detractors are waiting for, a moment to vindicate their clucking tongues. She’s past her prime, they’ll say. She isn’t what she was. She senses collapse, weakening knees, her legs failing. She knows most sopranos would press on, pretend it hadn’t happened. But the audience isn’t deceived. They’ve heard, and they’ll speak of it later.

She doesn’t glance at Ari. She doesn’t look to the other actors. She no longer pretends she’s Norma, but stands exposed. She’s naked and alone. Yet, before the crowd has a chance to jeer, she raises a hand and indicates the conductor should start again. This is a bold move. It’s rare a singer has such audacity. If she fails and misses the note, she’ll be ridiculed. But Maria doesn’t hesitate.

In that instant, she relinquishes her hold on the world—Ari, memories of the child she’d wanted. The world fades, and she becomes voice alone—not Norma, not herself. She sings as if song and air were indistinct, song as breathing, song as life. She mutes her mind, carried on impulse, guided by instinct. Her lungs and throat—the only organs that matter. She channels the essence of musicality, and as she hits and sustains that high C, it resonates, shaking through her bones and skin. Shouts erupt, and the crowd has risen to their feet, the applause creating a small quake.


She and Ari spend the early summer sailing on his boat. They stop in ports along the way to stock supplies or pick up friends. Maria loves the sea, the Mediterranean, its aquamarine hue, the freedom it offers. Ari conducts business by phone, skipping off here and there when his contacts need a face, but Maria doesn’t fret at his absences. She knows he’ll return.

The yacht has eighteen cabins for guests, and they entertain frequently. Maria brings her dogs, and they keep her company, though fearing the water and rush of air, they’re confined to the cabin.

During the first week out, they dock at Skorpios, and Ari’s sister Artemis boards with friends. Their guests have all seen Maria on stage. They admire her work and glow with excitement in her presence. Maria has always liked Artemis, and they greet one another as she boards, quick snippets of conversation, catching up. Maria and Ari hold parties on the canopied decks during the evenings, cocktails, champagne, hors d’oeuvres, dinners in the dining salon. Late at night, she and Ari take walks around the decks hand-in-hand.

“My divorce from Batista went through,” she says, one evening. “I’m free now.”

He grunts and nods and looks out at the ocean. He helped her secure this separation, but it doesn’t seem to interest him now. Over the past few nights, he has become distant. His eyes gaze off into the dark waters. She hopes to bring him back with talk of a future together. But he hardly hears her. She decides it’s best not to try again, not now. Instead, she rubs his arms and looks into his face. Ari has a commanding face—a wide nose, thick eyebrows, a full head of salt and pepper hair slicked straight back. She sees for the first time how he’s aging. She notes the lines on his face. His jowls have become heavy, loose. She sees the stress etched across his eyes.

“What is it?” she says. “What’s wrong?”

He shakes his head.

“It’s nothing,” he says. He looks down at the rail. “Tax trouble. It’s complicated. Terribly uninteresting.”

They stand in silence. She stares at him, and Ari stares at the sea. She hasn’t been able to erase her association of Ari with Pollione. She’s noticed how he wakes at night when he thinks she’s sleeping, how he goes into his study and makes calls, and these calls distress her. America. It’s up when they’re not, and he has to keep long hours. Yet, intuition tells her he’s hiding something. She thinks of Pollione, his reticence, his fear of revealing he loves another woman, the fear of Norma’s retribution. Maria still harbors hopes Ari will ask her to marry him, but this hesitance, his lack of interest, it frightens her. She stands and stares and looks down at her hands. She’s getting older, and her hands are getting older too. She doesn’t have time to wait, and yet, waiting is all she can do.


Maria doesn’t discover his betrayal until she reads about it in the newspaper. “Greek Shipping Magnate Marries American Icon.” It says this in big block text on the front page. The article feels like a slap in the face. Ari hasn’t even phoned to tell her himself, and Maria finds it difficult to move. She sits on the floor, shattered, and slowly parts her lips to unleash a high-pitched shriek. Ari has taken what she believed he’d give to her and given it to someone else, and Maria feels ridiculous, embarrassed, jilted. She thirsts for vengeance, but has no means to achieve it. She’d kept hoping she was wrong all this time, and having her suspicions confirmed intensifies the pain. Her throat is tight, but she refuses to cry. She won’t allow this indulgence, but her piercing scream lasts upward of two minutes.

Ari and Jackie—they’ve been photographed having dinner. They’ve been linked in the papers, and Ari would defend Jackie whenever a guest levied criticism or spoke ill of the woman. Still, when Maria had questioned him, he assured her it was nothing. Just business. Now this.

“Ferrucio,” Maria calls.

Ferrucio enters the room. He sees the shredded newspaper at her feet. She hasn’t even realized she’d done this, but once she spots it, she has an idea.

“Buy more,” she instructs him. “As many as you can.”

Ferrucio leaves, and when he returns, Maria continues tearing. The sound of shredding soothes her, the pull and tear. In her mind, she’s rending Ari’s flesh, ripping Jackie’s hair from her scalp. She tosses the shreds from her balcony, watching them flutter into the trees and down to the street, but this only relieves her for a short time. As she shreds the final one, she walks to the window and sees someone perched on a branch with a camera. His face is obscured by the lens, a glass eye, his body obscured by leaves. These men, they refuse to leave her alone, even now.

She goes inside and shuts the balcony doors and closes the curtains. She decides she won’t see him again, vows she won’t let Ari near her, but two months go by, and he shows up at her door unannounced.

“Maria,” he mutters, his voice deep, weak. “Maria.”

He says it again. She hears contrition in the word, an apology in her name. She considers blocking him out, but his weariness, the sight of his robust figure hovering in the doorframe—it invokes her sympathies, softens her stance. She steps aside, tells him to sit. So many thoughts run through her head, things she wants to say. She wants to ask why he chose Jackie, but as he sits, gazing down at the floor, she already knows. His troubles, the taxes. He assumed she could help, assumed since she has political clout, she could make them go away, but she hasn’t.

“She’s cold,” he says.

This is the closest approximation of an apology Maria expects. They embrace. As angry as she’s been, she’s glad to have him home. She’s often dreamt of revenge, but she lets it go. She believes his choosing Jackie is punishment enough, and there’s no need to make him suffer any further.


Maria tries to move on. Ari visits from time to time, and they talk and enjoy each other’s presence and sometimes make love. They write one another, she and Ari—letters full of affection. They ease into friendship, though the friendship never quite takes, and hints appear of a rekindling of the love they once shared. This, she has learned, is the course most great romantic attachments take. They don’t end like operas, with murder or suicide, but settle into a mutual admiration, sexual appetites fading, passions cooling, drama muted. There is, she notes, an evolution rather than a definitive end.

She returns from her tours, tired, defeated. She needs rest, but her mind won’t oblige. She still thinks of Ari. She yearns for him, loves him. And though his most recent missives assure her he’s in fine shape, during recent years he’s begun to have heart trouble. She hears rumors his health is declining, and when Ari is admitted to the hospital, Jackie locks her out, instructs the staff to stop her from visiting.

Maria grows enraged, inconsolable. She calls down curses on Jackie’s head.

“How dare she!” Maria says, shouting into an empty room. “Who does she think she is?” she says, knowing too well that Jackie has this right.

Still, Maria has a friend whose mother is receiving treatment on the same floor, and she enlists her friend to check in and gather information. His room is private, family only. But the friend mills about, peeks through cracks in the door when nurses exit. “It’s not good,” she says. “You need to prepare yourself.”

He’s bloated, the friend tells her. He’s pale and sickly and hardly ever conscious.

Maria paces. She sits and gets up and paces some more. She feels helpless. He’d want her there, she’s sure of that, but he can’t speak for himself. She remembers he failed her. She recalls how he wasn’t there when she’d needed him most, but she doesn’t care. Maria has always been strong, stronger than him, and in her strength, she forgives him.

She brainstorms, searching for some way to get in. She considers calling Jackie, appealing to their mutual love for him, but she reads that Jackie’s off skiing and isn’t there with him. One morning she wakes at five, the dawn’s blue light seeping between slats in her blinds. The phone has been ringing. She picks it up, and when she does, a voice rings out.

“Maria,” it says. “You should come.”

Maria sits up.

“It’s Ari,” the voice continues. “He doesn’t have long, and he’s asked for you.”

She searches her mind, but by the time Maria identifies the caller as Ari’s sister Artemis, the line has gone dead.

Maria uses a back entrance and takes the hospital’s service elevator to Ari’s floor to avoid cameras and camped-out press. Artemis ushers her in, bypassing Jackie’s blockade. Ari told Artemis to call. He didn’t ask the nurses, but wished to keep her visit quiet, subdued. Ari appears a lump, more flesh than spirit, and when Maria sees him, oxygen mask fixed firmly to his face, she gasps. This isn’t the man she knew. Then she sees his eyes. They’re Ari’s eyes, still fierce though not as fierce, still yearning. She imagines even now he’s undressing her, stripping her undergarments away. She wouldn’t put it past him, and this makes her smile. She takes a chair at his side.

“Ari,” she whispers. “It’s me.”

He’s warm, and she touches his hand, absorbing some small portion of his warmth.

“Oh Ari,” she whispers once more.

She watches his eyes and he watches hers, both of them holding the silence. She gazes at his heart monitor, the accordion that controls his breathing. She takes in the antiseptic scent. He doesn’t say a word, but seems lucid, and for the next few hours, she holds his hand, unmoving but moved. There’s no aria, no tearful parting. She’s surprised how calm she is, surprised she holds herself together. Her mind fades to shared memories—not of their child or Ari’s absence at that time, but the boat, their parties, the people they knew and entertained, getting caught in flagrante one night by the Churchills when they made love out at the boat’s bar. She speaks to him now. She whispers, sharing her thoughts, and he smiles and smiles again. Artemis looks in. “It’s time to go.” Maria stands and kisses Ari’s cheek and turns to leave.


Maria removes herself from the scene, leaving Paris before news of Ari’s passing hits the papers. She expects the press to seek her out and she doesn’t want to be there, feeding their thirst for drama. She has given them too much, both in life and on stage, and she doesn’t wish to grant them any more. When she hears he’s dead, she’s in Key West, staying at a friend’s beachside villa. She has traveled here with Bruna and Ferrucio and the dogs, and she spends her days sitting in the sun, swimming, walking the beach. Some days, she stays indoors.

She’s in mourning in a place that isn’t conducive to mourn—the sun, the sand, the sound of surf. She’d be racked with guilt if she’d been his wife, but as a mistress, it seems appropriate to flout convention—no black, no veil, just the bright red glare of rising and setting suns. She has no place in this loss, though she feels it whole and watches Jackie play the role well. The woman weeps but her weeping’s on repeat, a practiced widow’s gesture, and Maria, astute at acting, spots the subterfuge, the deceit. It should consume her, fill her with anger, but it doesn’t. She feels sorry for the choices they’ve made—Ari turning from the happiness Maria had offered, Jackie accepting a loveless marriage. And for what? Convenience? Wealth? It does no good to probe. It’s done, finished, and Maria can finally move on, consigning this part of her life to sentiment.

She walks the beach and enjoys the sand. One afternoon when she comes in, Bruna hands her a package. “What’s this?” she says. She turns it over—the box wrapped in brown paper, forwarded on from Paris. She peels opens the top, revealing a row of envelopes, correspondence, the letters she sent Ari over the years. She can’t help but loose a sigh.

She heads for the veranda, flipping through with swift fingers. It doesn’t surprise her they’re arranged chronologically. He wouldn’t have achieved what he had if he hadn’t been so thoroughly organized. But their sheer volume overwhelms her. This is all of it, everything they were. “What’s this?” she’d asked Bruna when she returned, and now she has an answer. This is everything—each nuance and insinuation, each argument and resolution, the things they said and didn’t, each memory affixed to paper. She sits, and as the day draws on, she plucks them up and reads. A warm glow suffuses her body, the sun’s glow, feverish, hypnotic, and she becomes enraptured. It feels as if she and Ari, like Norma and Pollione, have settled their differences, resigned themselves to fate, and hand-in-hand, walked into the fire, together.