An Excerpt from 'The Metropolis Case': The City as a Landscape and as a Room

NEW YORK CITY, 1979. If Maria, as she entered her second year at Juilliard, rarely had the sense that her move to New York was a dream from which at any moment she might be shaken awake, she continued to have doubts. Linda, for one, seemed so much happier than she was, and the same could be said of many of the other students, who while clearly devoted to their practice regimens, managed to find time for friendship and dating in a way that still felt largely beyond her. As often as she craved having more friends or — a much keener desire — a boyfriend, the singer in her would belittle such wants or needs as childish or irrelevant, or at best subordinate to the more important ones dictated by her art.

Linda encouraged her to take chances, to talk to guys instead of just watching from a distance, as they liked to do in the school cafeteria over lunch or tea. While Maria’s stock response was that she was too busy or too “stressed” from work, the truth — which she admitted only to herself, at least at first, and only late at night, as if it were a secret even to her — was that she was very much attracted to certain guys and — again, in secret — was not above paging through the student face book to figure out exactly who they were. Coincidentally or not, almost every one of them was a brass player; these were guys who tended to swagger through the cafeteria looking hungover but unrepentant, like they had just rolled out of bed after sleeping in their clothes, which may have been true, given rumors of whiskey-fueled jam sessions in smoky jazz clubs, but which Maria also liked to consider because it seemed to make the strict adherence to her own training somehow more tolerable. And while she would have had no problem walking up to one of them and singing an aria, the thought of having a conversation — of being “normal” for just a few minutes — petrified her, so for a long time she did nothing at all, and resigned herself to playing out these meetings in her fantasies.

One night at school, as she walked by a rehearsal room, she noticed the muffled strains of a trumpet and, peering through the window, spotted one of the brass players just as he was emptying his spit valve onto the wooden floor. This particular guy had already caught her attention, and was at or near the top of her list: an unabashedly beer-bellied trumpet player, he was at least seven inches shorter than she was and had a full, bushy beard that in a certain light looked almost red. His name was Richie Barrett, and — as much as she would have preferred not to spend the time thinking about him — she liked his sleepy and somewhat disdainful eyes; that he was black added to the sense of curiosity and transgression as she thought about what it would be like to meet him, and possibly more. On the verge of walking away, she found the courage to push open the unlocked door and walk through as though — or so she told herself — she were taking the stage.

He didn’t even look up. “Sorry — I still have seventeen minutes.”

“I just wanted to tell you,” Maria declared with an expression halfway between a grimace and a smirk, “that other people, who might not like the idea of wading through your drool, use these floors.”

“What? A little spit never hurt anyone,” he said and dipped his finger in the puddle, then raised the finger into the air with a grin, as if to offer it to her. “Want some?”

In response, Maria cleared her own throat and disgorged a fairly sizable ball of phlegm, which landed at her feet. “You first.”

Laughing, Richie left the room and returned a few seconds later with a stack of paper towels, half of which he handed to Maria, and together they kneeled to mop up. “I don’t know if we’ve officially met.” He held out his free hand for her to shake. “Richie Barrett.”

She felt dazed from the apparent success of her entrance and resisted the temptation to take a bow and leave. “Maria Sheehan,” she replied, and liked the weight of his hand in hers. “Second-year soprano.”

“I know.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, let’s see, that you’re a hot-shit soprano who almost got kicked out for punching Judy Caswell.”

“So not true,” Maria objected, employing one of Linda’s expressions. “I tapped her on the shoulder when she tried to step in front of me during a scene rehearsal. She tripped and hurt her toe, and the whole thing got blown way out of proportion. And I didn’t almost get kicked out for it, either. Anna saw the whole thing.” Everyone in the school referred to “Anna,” so there was no need to explain the reference.

Richie nodded. “Well, between you and me, I think Judy Caswell’s kind of a bitch.”

“Between you and me,” Maria said, lowering her voice to what she liked to think was its most sultry tone, something she had also practiced in front of the bathroom mirror, “the top of her range isn’t bad, but her middle sounds like a dying cow.”

“Can I quote you on that?” Richie responded as he stepped around Maria and blocked the door so that — when she did not move out of the way — only inches remained between them.

Maria felt seasick with physical longing. “Unless you want to die,” she said, “you better move.”

“Maybe I want to die.”

Moving closer, she tilted her head down. “Maybe you want to kiss me?”

“I think a cup of coffee would be more appropriate,” he said and pulled back just slightly. “I hate to play the stereotype.”

Maria stepped back. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean, we only met five seconds ago and you’re already hot and heavy? You don’t think that has anything to do with the fact that I’m black?”

“I never thought of it exactly like that,” Maria admitted, as she tried to decide if he was insulted or not, or if she was insulted or not. “I see your point, but I can tell you that of all the black guys at this school, you’re the first one I’ve ever wanted to kiss.”

Richie ’s smile contained a mix of wry skepticism and intelligence.

“So what do you have against black guys?”

“Oh, fuck you,” she said and laughed a bit uneasily.

“If you say so,” he said and inched closer to her, so that she now was in a position to kiss him again.

“You’re sending very mixed signals,” she whispered.

He looked at his watch and then reached behind her, locked the door, and then pulled a cord to close the blind on the small door window facing the hallway. “We only have fourteen minutes.”

They kissed for a few seconds as Maria, gripped by something magnetic and propulsive, leaned into him. She loved how sturdy he felt on his feet and the sight of her own blue hand against the russet folds of his neck added to the excitement, as did his beard — softer than she expected — when it brushed against her face. She knew what she wanted and decided there was no point pretending; he was obviously thinking the same thing. After a furious removal of shirts and unbuttoning of pants, Maria was on the floor, and for once remembered her experience with Joey Finn with appreciation as — with Richie ’s hairy gut spread out over her — she wrapped her hand around his dick to help guide him into her, where after a few seconds she found it very much to her liking. As he began slowly to move, she dug her hands into his back and in an urgent whisper reminded him that time was at a premium; he responded in kind, pushing to allegro for a few minutes before a molto vivace finale that left her pleasantly numb and transparent, after which she reluctantly watched her body reappear from somewhere else.

Excerpted from The Metropolis Case: A Novel. (Amazon; Indiebound.) Copyright @ 2010 by Matthew Gallaway. Reprinted by Permission of Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.