He is thirty-five, wears Hai Karate aftershave, drives a maroon 1970 El Dorado, and sits too close to me on the piano bench.
For the first fifteen minutes of every piano lesson, Vic Giovanni details his sexual exploits, claiming numerous rendezvous with many Hollywood actresses. He doesn’t use words like hump or screw or other words I know, but boink, buff, bang (his favorite), ball, boff, bleep, and just about anything beginning with the letter b. Every actress he has either boinked or banged.
In case you haven’t already noticed, Vic Giovanni talks in 1960s lingo, but for the early seventies, he’s already behind the times. Think Sammy Davis, Jr. in a Nehru jacket and love beads, a cigarette in one hand, and a scotch on the rocks in the other. You dig?
I introduce Vic Giovanni to my older brother, a Woodstock alumnus, and a true child of the sixties.
“Hey, man, what’s happening?” says Vic Giovanni, grabbing his hand for a contrived soul handshake. My brother rolls his eyes behind Vic Giovanni’s back. I tell my brother about all the women Vic Giovanni has boinked and banged, and my brother tells me Vic Giovanni is a big, fat liar, and I am stupid to believe anything he says.
“It’s true!” I argue, and my brother asks me to name somebody Vic Giovanni has boinked, so I tell him about a beautiful actress whose television show I watch every week. We look up her age in the Information Please Almanac, and I realize that if Vic Giovanni boinked this actress when he said he boinked this actress, he did it when she was seven-and-a-half years old. That’s the moment when I really hope my brother is right and Vic Giovanni is a big, fat liar.
So I start feeding Vic Giovanni the names of actresses from the Information Please Almanac—all kinds of actresses. “Banged her,” he says about one. “Boffed her good,” he says of another one. So I start giving him the names of dead actresses. “Oh, man, I boffed her through the roof,” he says. Then I give him the names of any famous woman I find in the World Book Encyclopedia. Within a few weeks I learn that my piano teacher has banged, boffed, and boinked everyone from Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, to Helen Hayes, the First Lady of the American Theater.
The funny thing is, despite this weekly musical Kinsey report, Vic Giovanni is one helluva piano teacher.
“I’m gonna teach you to play rock ‘n’ roll and you’re gonna do it good and you’re gonna like doing it good,” he declares in a way that makes me wonder if this eloquent wordage is how he woos his chicks. It’s a lot different than my lessons with my first piano teacher, Hadassah Rosenblatt, a Brooklyn housewife who quietly sipped hot tea from a glass wrapped in a shredded napkin, while my fingers awkwardly butchered the “Volga Boat Song.”
But that was seven years ago, and now, at age fifteen, I am ready to bang.
For the next eight weeks, I memorize every chord, one per week.
“E flat minor seven,” barks Vic Giovanni, and my fingers fly to the chord.
“A flat six!” I’m already on it.
“C flat minor.” Easy.
And then, one day, after all the chords are covered, Vic Giovanni arrives with an electronic synthesizer.
“You’re ready,” he says, and with the touch of a button I am banging, no, pounding the piano keys of our family’s mahogany Hardman Peck with the accompaniment of an array of pulsating rhythmic sounds to “Honky Tonk Women,” “Let It Be,” and “Proud Mary,” as well as the entire musical score of Fiddler on the Roof for the benefit of my parents.
News of my new-found talent finds its way to my high school. Stuart Socolov, president of our community’s local Jewish teen youth group, and a fellow Vic Giovanni disciple, stops me in the school hallway.
“Hey, I heard, like, you can really play piano! That is, like, so far-out!” spouts Stuart Socolov in pure Giovanni-speak.
And I think to myself, Yeah, like, wow, get away from me, but Stuart Socolov wants to hook me into going to another one of those Jewish social mixers. I mumble no and try to walk around him, but Stuart Socolov keeps after me.
“It’ll be, like, so cool, man,” he says.
Yeah, right! This isn’t a Saturday night party that all the cool kids go to; this is a Saturday night Jewish mixer. No wonder I’m invited.
Stuart Socolov reads my mind. “There’s nothing religious going on, if you catch my drift,” he whispers, and he winks. And I wink back like I have the slightest clue what his drift is.
My parents drive me to the mixer. I can tell it is the proudest moment of their lives and with good reason. I have finally ventured out of my room, and our house, on a Saturday night. They wave goodbye, excited and tearful, hoping I won’t throw up, much like my first day of kindergarten. I stand in the deserted parking lot of the rented Knights of Columbus banquet hall in my brushed denim blue jeans with bell bottoms as wide as Texas, a blue flowered shirt with elephant lapels spread open under my mutton chop sideburns, and a purple sweater vest which covers my one-hundred-thirty-pound physique (up ten pounds from the year before).
Yes, my parents are happy. Probably doing high-fives in the car. Happy that I am joining. Happy that I am socializing. Happy that I will not end up like some loser atop a university bell tower with a rifle.
The bruising rhythm of The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” hits me full force as I step inside. The hall is dark; some couples are dancing and other couples are making out in the corners.
Stuart Socolov finds me. He has his arm around Anat, the rabbi’s daughter. “Mingle,” he says, and I walk around and try not to bump into anyone dancing or making out. The music stops and “Alone Again, Naturally,” sung by Gilbert O’ Sullivan, comes on and all the make-out couples start to slow dance, and I know this is my cue to get off the dance floor.
I wander downstairs to the basement. There’s an old piano in the corner, and I sit down and start to play “Close to You,” part of my Carpenters’ repertoire, the only songs I can play by heart. Someone sits down next to me. She is tall, with glasses and braces and long, thick, curly hair, and the most beautiful mezzo-soprano voice I have ever heard. Her name is Lorna Gold and she is in the eighth grade, two years younger than me. Years later she will tell me that at that very moment she knew she was in love, because I was the first boy she could make eye contact with and not tower over while sitting next to each other on a piano bench.
I continue to play and Lorna Gold continues to sing. For a brief moment in time, we’re the Richard and Karen Carpenter of the south shore of Long Island. Stuart Socolov and the rabbi’s daughter find us sitting together and start singing that dopey song that starts with the two of us k-i-s-s-i-n-g in a tree, and ends with some stuff about love, marriage, and a baby carriage.
“Shut up,” I say, embarrassed, and Lorna Gold giggles and moves closer to me on the piano bench.
Lorna Gold follows me around the Knights of Columbus hall the entire night, trying to get me to slow dance with her. She is an eager six-foot-tall puppy dog—the little sister I never wanted.
“You wait,” she says. “Someday I’m going to be rich and famous and beautiful, and then, you’ll be sorry.”
A few weeks later the youth group organizes an outdoor picnic at a local park and I spend most of the afternoon trying to avoid Lorna Gold, who wants to tie her leg to mine for a three-legged-race, even though I don’t see any three-legged-race on the agenda.
“C’mon,” says Stuart Socolov, grabbing my arm, “I want to show you something.” He pulls me deeper into the woods. “Where are we going?” I ask, and he just says, “C’mon, c’mon.” I can barely hear the sounds of the other kids and I’m starting to get a little nervous, because although Stuart Socolov is my friend, he’s not a best friend or anything like that. How well do I actually know him? At this point I’m not sure I want to be out in the woods with him, too far to scream for help.
We reach a tiny shack and Stuart Socolov opens the door and pushes me inside. It’s dark and I can barely make out the shadows of a group of people sitting in a circle. Then the smell hits my nostrils. A bong is passed from person to person. Stuart tugs at my arm and someone makes room for us in the circle.
My eyes adjust to the shadowy figures who inhale deeply and lovingly: Bill Patterson, National Merit Scholar; Laurie Petrie, Five-Time Honor Roll Champ; Ellen Patimkin, President of Future Young Librarians of Long Island. I’m not sitting here with the long-haired stoners from my school who stumble through the halls and sleep through class and always forget their gym uniforms, but with a shack full of overachievers, all of whom broke fourteen hundred on their PSATs—except for me, who squeaked by with one thousand, a fact no one needs to know. And everyone kind of looks at me with that amazed look that says, You get high? (the emphasis on you), and I look right back at them with that look that says, Yeah, I get high, (the emphasis on I), knowing full well that I’ve never done this before.
So I take my seat next to Margery Rothblum, a petite girl with braces and a blonde Afro whom everyone’s nicknamed Golda, because she’s always absent on all the Jewish holidays, even the ones nobody has ever heard of, and she says, “Hi, how you doin’?” like we’re in the lunch line at school, then she passes me the bong. I take a deep breath and watch the bubbles in the bong churn, careful to hold, exhale slowly, and not cough like a first-time moron, something I learned from an Elliott Gould movie.
One hour later Stuart Socolov and I stagger out of the shack and back toward the woods, giggling about nothing. When we emerge from the clearing I see Lorna Gold facing us, her hands folded across her chest.
“Hi, Lorna,” says Stuart Socolov, collapsing into hysterical laughter.
Lorna looks at me, this sad expression on her face. She knows and this wave of shame rushes over me. Suddenly I feel like Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park. I am a bad, bad, naughty boy. Lorna turns and runs back to the picnic, and I start to run after her, but Stuart Socolov stops me.
“What do you care what she thinks?” he says, and I shrug and say, “Yeah, who cares what she thinks?” But I do.
This teenage walk on the wild side is still fresh on my mind several days later when Vic Giovanni shows up for a lesson direct from an extramarital motel tryst. Sweaty and disheveled, he quietly regales me with another tale of debauchery, complete with a lengthy recitation of the post-coital menu: bagels and lox, “with a schmear of creamed cheese.”
My mother calls me into the den after my lesson.
“I want you to listen and I want you to listen good,” she says with a look that means, I know-that-you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know-that-I know what’s going on, but you don’t know how I know what’s going on.
“Your father and I are paying good money for you to play the piano for thirty minutes,” she continues, her teeth clenched together in her I-mean-business tone. “And from now on I expect you to play that piano for thirty minutes. Do you understand?”
I shake my head that I understand that I know-she-knows-that-I-know what I think she’s heard. The next week, when Vic Giovanni sits next to me on the piano stool and starts to tell me about his boinking and banging, I interrupt and tell him that I should get back to practicing my latest chick-charming opus, “Sugar, Sugar.” Vic Giovanni looks hurt, like I have interrupted our sex lesson with actual piano playing.
The following semester, when I am a junior, I will stop taking piano lessons so I can study for the SATs. Vic Giovanni says he understands, but he doesn’t, and he promises he will keep in touch and stop by the house, but he never does, not once. Just before graduation, my brother and I are stopped at a traffic signal when Vic Giovanni pulls up next to us in his brand new 1974 gold El Dorado. I start to roll down my window, but the light changes and Vic Giovanni takes off, flashing me the peace sign. I look over at my brother and he rolls his eyes.
Lorna Gold envisions herself as my savior that last semester of high school, the Kim Novak to my Frank Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm. She doesn’t ever mention the clubhouse incident in the woods again, but I know what she’s thinking. “Geez, it was just a bong!” I want to say. “Nothing more.” Like I’m this doomed drug addict destined to live my life on the Bowery, washing car windshields for spare change. And I know, I just know, that if I ever came clean to Lorna Gold about a few early morning tokes in Stuart Socolov’s Volvo before first period homeroom, or the couple of puffs behind the Massapequa Community Center to celebrate Simchat Torah, she’d fold her arms across her chest with that look that says I knew it!
We often pass each other in the school corridor, a gaggle of giggling sophomores at her side. She waves and calls my name, a little too forced, with a look of expectation, and I wave back, sometimes. Lorna Gold signs my yearbook, a little heart underneath her name. We promise to keep in touch, to write, call, whatever, but when I move three thousand miles away, the communication becomes an obligation and soon ceases to exist.
And then, years later, I receive her note. Lorna Gold is coming to town to sing. At first I think it’s some kind of amateur recital, but then I open the Los Angeles Times and there it is: “IN CONCERT: LORNA GOLD.”
I’m surrounded by hundreds of people and Lorna Gold enters stage left: sleek, confident, coiffed, and I think to myself, Hmm, well whaddya know? And her voice, that angelic voice, envelopes the sound of opera. It’s German opera so I don’t understand a word of it, but it’s enchanting nonetheless.
Someday I’m going to be rich and famous and beautiful, and then, you’ll be sorry.
I visit Lorna Gold backstage and she thanks me for my roses. “They’re gorgeous,” she says, “I can’t wait to show them to my husband.”
She stands before me, this once gangly, awkward teenager with big glasses, frizzy hair, and melodious voice, and I’m transported back two decades to that moment in the Knights of Columbus banquet hall where I confidently banged Vic Giovanni’s well-taught chords and Lorna Gold harmoniously warbled Burt Bacharach. Only now there’s that slight twinge of regret, that boy, if I’d only known then…
So I tell Lorna Gold how wonderful she looks, but she doesn’t offer a reflexive so do you reply, not at first. She smiles, and we hug, and it might be my imagination but I could swear that as an admiring group of well-wishers surround us, she gently prods me back into the crowd. And I realize in that instant that Lorna Gold doesn’t need to hear my platitudes about beauty and talent, however earnest and sincere. No, she doesn’t need any of that, and with good reason.
Lorna Gold has done just fine.
I haven’t played the piano for years. My parents eventually sold our family home and the mahogany Hardman Peck. But I do own a keyboard with seventy-six keys and it gets the job done. Recently I unpacked a box from storage with all the sheet music from my teenage years, so I dabble a bit, adding some bass and a hint of percussion. I even found my handwritten list of chords.
There’s one song I’m working on. It’s an early seventies chick-magnet tune sung by the late Ronnie Dyson, called “If You Let Me Make Love to You, Then Why Can’t I Touch You?”
Groovy title, huh?
Vic Giovanni would be proud.