For that man, she’d given up the only thing she’d ever wanted as much as the stage. For that man, the one who isn’t here.

Maria rolls to the side of the bed.

“Bruna,” she moans. “Bruna?”

The room is filled with his scent—two dozen, long-stemmed roses—but Ari never arrives. They’re in Paris. He owns an apartment a few short blocks away, but he’s busy.


“Yes, miss.”

Bruna is here. Bruna is faithful.

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

“He sent flowers,” Bruna says.

But he always sends flowers. He sends flowers for Norma and Lucia, for Tosca and Traviata. But right now, she’d prefer his presence—his large, gentle hands and warm, soft skin more comforting than roses.

“I feel sick,” she says.

But it’s not 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, she feels nauseated.

“You see where this puts us,” Ari had argued. “You’re a married woman. Think about what this would do to your career, your reputation.” And she’d relented, 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’d sent gifts back unopened, refused to come to the phone when he called. But he was persistent, and during a cruise aboard his boat—an event she’d acquiesced to with assurances 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 fell pregnant, and they’d agreed they wouldn’t have the child. But now the procedure is over, and she finds she doesn’t give a damn about career or reputation.

“Where’s Ferrucio,” she asks Bruna.

“He’s taking care of the dogs.”

Which is good, because they’re her babies now.

Norma is the first performance she gives when she returns to the stage. Maria has played it before. She knows the libretto, the notes, each word infused in memory, as deeply etched as anything, and she throws herself into rehearsal, subsuming her pain in the role.

During this time, she thinks of Ari, his absence. But more often, she thinks of the child, a different absence. Over the first week, she meets her director, discusses ideas.

“I trust your interpretation,” he tells her. “For me, you are Norma. You know her far better than I ever will. I may have suggestions, but mostly, I’ll leave her in your hands.”

She counts her steps on stage. She’s never had good eyes, and counting steps ensures a measure of grace. She finds the spots where the theater’s acoustics resonate and structures her performance around them. She delivers arias from there and revels in the sound filling the hall.

She sends Ari an invitation to opening night, but doesn’t hear back. She hopes he’ll surprise her, show up unannounced. She hears the orchestra strike up, but has time before she heads out. Before she goes on, the director stops by her dressing room. “You’ll be great,” he says. “You’ve never sung better.” And though Maria’s sure he’d say this even if he didn’t mean it, she knows it’s true. She is Norma—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 women’s care while she and her lover Pollione consign themselves to a pyre’s flames.

Maria walks to the stage and stands in the wings, waiting to make her entrance. Twelve steps on a broad diagonal to the 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. Her fans have read of her hospital stay. They’ve accepted the explanation—exhaustion. And they’ve turned out tonight to see if her voice is exhausted too.

As she enters, the spotlight holds her up. In the audience, her fans search for signs of age, but Maria casts her large brown eyes at them, gazing into their midst, defiant. Maria exudes beauty. The crowd applauds, but as she opens her throat, revealing the first notes, the sound quiets them. The set dissolves. She no longer stands with the chorus. Rather, she’s present with the druid people in their forest. She wears the outfit of high priestess—white robes, 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 from their lands, but Norma reminds them of Rome’s strength. She advises patience. She assures them Rome will fall, but not at their hands. With this, her voice rings out. She sings to the goddess—Casta Diva—to temper their hearts, grant them peace, fortitude.

“Casta Diva” is one of opera’s most difficult arias, and the crowd waits, tense, attentive, to see if she fails. They prick their ears for pitch, control. And Maria delivers with grace, throwing them into fits of rapture. Tears well in their eyes. She releases herself in accelerated flourishes, climbing higher with eloquence, the plangent tide streaming forth from her throat ethereal, seamless. Maria ascends with such intensity that once she reaches the climax and hits the high C they all assumed she’d transpose to B-flat for her first performances back, she dispels fears she might be washed up. She no longer controls the high D that once wowed audiences, but her performance is masterful. The applause goes on for five minutes and shouts of “Brava!” ricochet from the rafters.

Ari doesn’t appear until her fourth performance, and though she’s convinced herself to stop hoping, she’s kept a seat reserved. She’s expected this run to end without his attending, so she’s surprised when she sweeps onstage and discovers him sitting alone in the box. His eyes are big, gleaming. A smile, almost a smirk, rides his face, satisfied he’s surprised her.

Maria falters. She pauses, 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 transformation difficult. He pulls her offstage into his 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 this. She can superimpose Ari’s face onto the actor. She’s never had a problem pretending.

Maria walks though the recitative and reaches “Casta Diva.” The past few nights she’s flirted with perfection, but with Ari here, she pushes herself. Even though he has no ear for opera, for music she wants to impress him, wants to move the audience to heights they’ve never reached. She begins her prayer.

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

Goddess of love, she means, grant me his.

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

The audience sits in stunned silence. This is the moment her detractors were waiting for, a moment to vindicate clucking tongues. She’s past her prime. She isn’t what she was. She never was any good. She senses collapse, weakening knees, legs failing. She knows most sopranos would press on, pretend it hadn’t happened. But the audience isn’t deceived. They’ve heard. She doesn’t look at Ari or the other actors. She’s no longer Norma. She stands exposed, naked, alone. Before the crowd has a chance to jeer, she raises a hand, indicating the conductor should start again. This is bold. It’s rare a singer shows such audacity. If she fails and misses again, it’s over. But she isn’t just any singer, and she doesn’t hesitate.

In that instant, she relinquishes her hold on the world—Ari, memories of the child she’d wanted and didn’t have. The world fades, becomes voice alone. She sings as if the 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 are the only organs that matter. She channels the essence and hits and sustains that high C, resonant, shaking through her bones, her skin. Shouts erupt, the crowd has risen to their feet. The applause creates a vast quake in the auditorium.        

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

The yacht has eighteen cabins and they’re often full. Maria brings her dogs, and they keep her company when Ari’s gone, though fearing the water and rush of air, they’re confined to her quarters.

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

“My divorce from Batista went through,” she says. “I’m a free woman.”

He nods. He helped secure this separation, but it doesn’t seem to interest him now. He’s become distant. His eyes gaze off into the dark waters. She hopes to bring him back, to talk of a future together. But he hardly hears. She decides it’s best to let the matter rest for now. She rubs his arms and looks at him. He has a commanding face—wide nose, thick eyebrows, full head of salt and pepper hair slicked back. She sees how he’s aging. She notes the lines on his face. His jowls are heavy, loose. She sees the stress in his eyes. 

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

He shakes his head.

 “Nothing,” he says. He looks down at the rail. “Tax troubles. Complicated. Uninteresting.”

They stand in silence. She stares at him, and he stares at the sea. She hasn’t been able to ease the association: Ari and Pollione. She’s noticed how he wakes at night when he thinks she’s sleeping, how he goes into his study and makes calls. America. It’s up when they’re not, and he keeps long hours. Intuition tells her he’s hiding something, not just taxes. She thinks of Pollione, his reticence, his fear of revealing he loves another. Maria harbors hopes Ari will marry her, but this hesitance, his lack of interest, frightens her. She stands and looks at her hands. She’s getting older. Her hands, they’re getting older. She doesn’t have time to wait, yet waiting is all she can do.

Maria doesn’t discover his betrayal until she reads about it in the newspaper:


It says this in big block text on the front page. The article feels like a slap in the face. He didn’t even call to tell her himself.

She finds it difficult to move. She sits on the floor and parts her lips to unleash a shriek. Ari has taken what she believed hers and given it to someone else. She feels ridiculous, embarrassed, embittered, jilted. She thirsts for vengeance but has no means to achieve it. She’d kept hoping she was wrong. Having her suspicions confirmed intensifies the pain. Her throat is tight, but she won’t cry. She won’t allow this indulgence.

Ari and Jackie had been photographed together. They’d been linked in the gossip columns, and Ari would defend Jackie whenever a guest levelled criticism at her. Still, whenever Maria questioned him, he’d assured her it was nothing, political ties. Now this.

“Ferrucio,” Maria calls.

Ferrucio enters, sees the shredded newspaper at her feet. She hadn’t realized she’d done this, but when she spots it, she says: “Ferrucio, go to the store. Buy more. Buy as many as you can.”

Ferrucio leaves. When he returns, Maria continues tearing. The sound of shredding paper soothes her. In her mind, she’s rending Ari’s flesh, Jackie’s hair. She tosses the shreds off the balcony, watches them flutter to the street below. As she shreds the final one, she walks to the window and sees someone perched on a tree branch with a camera, his face obscured by the lens, his body obscured by the leaves.

She goes inside and shuts the balcony doors and closes the curtains. She decides she’ll never see him again, won’t speak to him, but after two months go by, he shows up at her door.

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

She hears contrition in the word, an apology in her name. She considers locking him out, but his weariness, the sight of his robust figure hovering in the doorframe 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 knows. His troubles, the taxes. He’d assumed Jackie could help, but she hasn’t.

“She’s cold,” he says.

This is the closest approximation of an apology Maria expects. As angry as she’s been, she’s glad to have him back. She believes his choosing Jackie is punishment enough. There’s no need to make him suffer more.

Maria tries to move on. Ari visits from time to time, and they enjoy each other, make love. They write one another, letters full of affection. They ease into friendship, though the friendship never quite takes. This, she’s learned, is the course most great romances take. They don’t end like operas— murder, suicide—but settle into mutual admiration, sexual appetites fading, passions cooling. There is, she notes, an evolution, no definitive end.

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

 “How dare she!” Maria shouts to an empty room. “Who does she think she is?”

Maria has a friend whose mother is on the same floor, and she enlists her friend to gather information.

“It’s not good,” she says. “You need to prepare yourself.”

 Ari’s bloated, pale and sickly, hardly ever conscious.

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

She considers calling Jackie, appealing to their mutual love for him, but then she reads that Jackie’s off skiing, isn’t there. One morning she wakes, the dawn’s blue light seeping between slats in her blinds. The phone’s ringing. She picks it up.

“Maria,” a voice says. “You should come.”

She sits up.

“It’s Ari. He doesn’t have long. He’s asked for you.”

By the time Maria identifies the caller as Ari’s sister Artemis, the line’s gone dead.

Maria uses a back entrance, takes the hospital’s service elevator to Ari’s floor. Artemis ushers her in, bypassing Jackie’s blockade. Ari had asked Artemis to call. Ari’s a lump, more flesh than spirit, and when Maria sees him, the oxygen mask fixed over his nose and mouth, she gasps. Then she sees his eyes, Ari’s eyes, still fierce, though not as fierce, still yearning. She imagines even now he’s undressing her in his mind, stripping her undergarments away.

“Ari, it’s me…”

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

“Oh Ari,” she cries.

She watches his eyes, he watches hers. She gazes at the 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 or tearful parting. She’s surprised how calm he is, surprised she can hold herself together. Her mind moves to shared memories, not the child or Ari’s absence, but the boat, the parties, the people they entertained, getting caught in flagrante one night by Winston Churchill and his wife as they made love at the boat’s bar. She speaks to him now, whispers, sharing her thoughts. He smiles. Artemis looks in. “It’s time to go,” she says. Maria stands, kisses Ari’s hand, turns to leave.

Maria removes herself from the scene, leaves Paris before news of Ari’s passing hits the papers. She expects the press will seek her out, and she doesn’t want to be there, feeding their thirst for drama. She’s given them too much, both in life and on stage, and doesn’t wish to grant them any more. When she hears he’s dead, she’s in Key West, at a friend’s villa. She’s traveled here with Bruna and Ferrucio and the dogs. 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 mourning. As his mistress, it seems appropriate somehow to flout convention—no black veil, just the bright red glare of the sun rising and setting. She has no place in this loss, though she feels it whole and watches Jackie play the role again. The woman weeps, but her weeping is on repeat, a practiced widow’s gesture. And Maria spots the subterfuge. It should consume her, fill her with anger, but it doesn’t. She’s sorry for the choices they made—Ari turning away from the happiness Maria offered, Jackie accepting a loveless marriage. For what? Wealth? It does no good to ask. It’s finished, and Maria can move on, consigning that part of her life to sentiment.

She walks the beach, enjoys the sand. One afternoon, when she comes in, Bruna hands her a package. She turns it over—a box wrapped in brown paper, forwarded from Paris. She peels it open, revealing a row of envelopes, the letters she sent to Ari over the years. She sighs and heads for her veranda, flipping through with swift fingers. It doesn’t surprise her to see they’re arranged chronologically. But the sheer volume overwhelms her. This is all of it, everything they were, each nuance and insinuation, every argument and resolution, the things they said and didn’t, memories affixed to paper. She sits and reads, a warm glow suffusing her body, the sun’s glow, feverish, hypnotic. She’s enraptured, 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.