So that very afternoon, fortified with three snifters of Uncle Ethan’s brandy, I marched across the porch, rang Sebastian’s bell, and informed him that I wanted to sign up for voice lessons. He appeared shocked, at first, but his three o’clock appointment had cancelled, and—to my utter amazement—he immediately ushered me into the same conservatory where I had watched his life unfold for decades. The room seemed so much smaller from the inside, but I found myself thinking, I’m really standing in Sebastian’s conservatory, really touching his music stand. On the far side of the room stood a glass coffee table topped with a vase of fresh irises and a plush sofa that likely folded into a bed.
“So what kind of music would you like to sing?” asked Sebastian.
I stared at him blankly.
“Miss Cabot,” said Sebastian. "Are you all right?"
Somehow I managed to collect myself. "I’m fine, really,” I said. "It’s just…well…I was hoping to have the other kind of lessons...The kind that Bonnie and Hortensia used to have..."
A surge of intensity swept across Sebastian’s features, as though all of his facial muscles had tightened simultaneously, and I’ll confess I found the look magnetic—although, in hindsight, I now recognize that this may have been an expression of dismay, or a sentiment even worse. Yet the expression quickly melted back into a smile.
“Certainly,” said Sebastian, matter-of-fact. “That’s fine. Of course, the rate for that sort of specialized lesson is higher. Much higher.”
“I see,” I said.
But I didn’t see at all.
In all those years, you understand, it had never entered my naïve head that Sebastian was charging these women to make use of his sofa bed. Never in my wildest nightmares could I have imagined being so insulted—even Marcy and Aaron’s wedding announcement paled in comparison. As I hurried through the foyer, I caught sight of Alice Carrano carrying a stack of fresh towels up the stairs, and I had half a mind to tell her what sort of voice lessons her husband had been offering. But I didn’t. Not then.
No, I bided my time. And the following Tuesday, after making certain that Alice Carrano was still home, I waited until Sarah Vaughan hit the high notes in “If You Could See Me Now,” and then I jammed the plug of Aunt Hannah’s sewing machine into the socket. As I had hoped, the music died instantly—replaced briefly by the loud moans of the enormous peroxide blonde. After that, everything developed exactly as I’d imagined it: the pounding on the conservatory door, Alice’s shouting, the obese woman storming down the front steps with a face as red as a toy wagon.
Or everything had developed almost as I’d imagined it. In my fantasy, Alice walked out on Sebastian and I dropped in next door to comfort him. What actually happened, I was totally unprepared for: The singing lessons stopped, and after a few weeks, I realized that Alice Carrano was living alone in #172A. I didn’t dare ask her where Sebastian had gone—didn’t dare ask her anything at all. And then last Friday, a moving van pulled up and carted off their things. I remember watching the men hauling the piano down the steps and thinking how badly my life had turned out...
So that’s how both halves of #172 came to be vacant simultaneously.
I do hope this context is somewhat helpful to you. Other than this history, it’s a rather ordinary house. You’ll find you get your best sunlight in the morning, especially in the downstairs parlor. And the washing machine sometimes needs a good slap on the side to shift if from rinse to spin; I’m sorry I won’t be here to you show you the exact spot, but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it. All it takes it time and patience.