Two memories flashed me on the subway this morning after physiotherapy. Must’ve been the e-stim for my back pain; excess voltage rushing up my spine to tickle the hippocampus and to shake it down for loose change.
The first memory was discovering the long scar that runs diagonally across your rear. You claimed you didn’t know where it came from. Mr Taylor, a professional in these matters, said it was likely to get bigger in the summer, and shrink in the winter. I became convinced that you sounded different depending on whether it was warm or wet outside. You assured me the only thing that could alter your voice was the way I touched you.
I am on all fours in the second memory. Your loudest foot is in my hand, and I’m slowly working it up and down, trying to hit the sweet spot that could make you switch from silence – as if you were holding your breath in a felt-lined room – to making a capacious, reverberant sigh, like a wooden door opening into a large cathedral. Up, down, loud, quiet. Small, big, open, closed. Open again – wide. It was like travelling from my modest living room to the nave of Notre Dame cathedral, or a deep, desert ravine. Do you remember that?
Do you remember how I could reach down and put my fingers underneath you, in that place that nobody knew about, and push up from behind, to make you gasp softly?
I promised I’d tell you about C.
Everyone warned me I would get into trouble. I ignored the advice, of course. I was lust-sick and didn’t believe it because C was so gentle. We would spend innocent afternoons making fart sounds, or goofing around like drunken kazoo players. C didn’t want to be touched to begin with. ‘Go slow. Let’s talk about the shape your mouth is going to make. Then we can start with a little buzzing on the lips.’ C had this warm voice that would slay me. Said it was all down to that subtle conical figure. After a few sessions of what we cutely nicknamed ‘tonguing,’ things started to get more physical. I sensed that communicating with C might become complex, so the insistence on routine was reassuring, if a little eccentric. C was small and light in my arms, and liked to be held in exactly the same way each time. This made me feel as if we had been together for years, like a couple happily set in our ways after decades of attentiveness to one another. As if we had already learned what worked, what was needed, what we could do without.
When we kissed, C never wanted to stop. My cheek muscles would ache so badly that I couldn’t work my lips. I’d have to break off, which left a strange buzzing sensation around my mouth and a metal tang on my tongue. I liked it, that feeling of meeting someone and all you want to do is fuck each other until you’re sore and stupid and sweating with happy exhaustion. Before long, however, C stopped listening to what I was saying when I begged off out of tiredness or pain. Just a self-deprecating mumble about ‘being demanding.’ That was an understatement. If a few days passed between seeing each other, C would become distant and refuse to pick up from the same place we’d reached. I’d have to sit through a lecture about the importance of getting our ‘embouchure’ right.
C came from Cleveland, Ohio, which led some to assume that using the word ‘embouchure’ was an affectation. I have nothing against Cleveland, or against affectation, and knew ‘embouchure’ to be technically correct. C, a through-and-through Midwesterner, was entitled to use it coming from a large hard-working family who all played in school marching bands, orchestras and jazz groups. When you’re competing for attention with so many brothers, sisters and cousins, you learn to be assertive. C was certainly that, earning at home the nickname ‘King,’ which they had made into a tattoo, along with the family name, in the style of an old-fashioned 1950s trademark: ‘KING – HN White, Cleveland, Ohio.’
There were days with C when it felt like we were gliding across an infinite plane of gold. And days when, for no discernable reason, C would make this sinister buzzing sound, like a swarm of angry bees. Or withering and sarcastic ‘thrrrp’ noises. I found those belittling. It’s not like I wasn’t aware of my failings but C knew where the music conservatoire was if it was a tender-lipped virtuoso lover boy they were looking for.
C complained that I wasn’t emotionally supple enough to bend with changes in mood. I had friends in similar relationships who didn’t seem to have the same issues, if admittedly with more years on the clock. One particular pair had toured Europe and North America together, working the full range from stadiums with big names such as David Byrne to intimate venues backing up Lonnie Holley. Their relationship looked like a dream to me; what they created together sounded so pure, so unafraid to reach for transcendent moments of melodic lift and soaring dynamic range, that it was almost celestial. Goosebump stuff. According to C, I was ‘predictable’ and ‘dull-minded.’ Apparently, the way I spoke about you proved that I was only capable of relating to others in clear-cut, template ways. C once told me that I was an ape pushing buttons. Not long after I was promoted from laboratory animal to the position of dictator, C said I was fixated with controlling power dynamics. (Ironic given C’s ‘King’ nickname; I wasn’t the autocratic one in this relationship.) I found this accusation to be condescending and sanctimonious, ignorant of what you were capable of. C was a solipsist with no conception of what you could do, and really flew off the handle when I once tried to describe your metalwork kink. Being ‘prepared’ you called it. I liked that.
Then there was this whole performance around hygiene. I say ‘performance’ because who asks for a warm soapy bath and then, after being gently scrubbed insists on being covered in grease? And let’s not get into the weird places I was asked to push brushes into. (I came to dread hearing the phrase: ‘give me The Snake.’) C would become incandescent if I didn’t put things back on in the right order. I suspect there were issues here which might have benefited from professional help.
We began to drift apart. I went back on the apps. I wanted no commitment, no questions, just heavy-duty play. Passive or active pick-up, I didn’t care. I got into beautifully figured korina bodies, with oval necks. I liked sitting on a chair and having them sit across my lap, holding me around the neck. I wasn’t into any slap or popping stuff. I just wanted low action. Something so thick and deep, that it would leave blisters on my fingers and cause minor local earthquakes.
I ended up with BG, a sunny-looking short scale who was buzzy and high-toned and broke the C fever. We’re still in touch.
The pandemic was a blessing in disguise. C and I couldn’t meet like we used to because I started to get complaints from the neighbours. If this mess hadn’t happened during such an awful tragedy, it would be funny. There’s no polite way to put this but C could be so loud when we were together that the noise became intolerable, especially with everyone stuck at home. Not everyone likes the sound of free jazz in the morning. I took this as a sign.
An ex of mine liked to say: ‘the heart wants what the heart wants,’ which is fine if you’re the one whose heart is doing the wanting. What I would later learn is that the heart will also fuck over anyone that the heart needs to in order to get what the heart wants.
In musical notation, your initial is an abbreviation for ‘soft.’ ‘C’ is a note.
‘P’ suggests a way of touching, ‘C’ tells you where to put your body.
Even at the height of my relationship to G – we haven’t talked about that one, but you know we toured the world and were close for some years – it was your schematics, the way you looked and dressed for the world, that shaped my decisions and influenced how G and I worked together. I have come to realise that I see and hear the world through you. You’re almost like a Platonic essence, a shape that is impossible for me to imagine not existing in the universe. Like circles and squares. Or trees and wheels.
Last summer, during lockdown, you and I reconnected over Philip Glass’ ‘Solo Piano’ suite. I’d always loved that collection, but never knew how it worked from the inside. So, you patiently showed me. Day after day, slippery with sweat, we’d sit facing each other and go through the score page by page, beginning with the first ‘Metamorphosis’ piece. You’d hold my hands, show me where to put my fingers, patiently letting me make mistakes, practice my rusty Italian, teaching me all the things I’d forgotten about fingering and phrasing, posture, pedaling and – most fundamentally – pleasure. Every part of me, from where my toes touched your feet all the way up to where your voice entered my ears, became a part of you. Slowly we worked our way through each part of the ‘Metamorphosis’ until we reached the repetitive ecstasies of the ‘Mad Rush’ and ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra,’ which we would play over and over, laughing and crying. We’d do it fast and slow, loud and quiet. Growing small then big, then open, closed, and open again. Travelling from present day New York to Notre Dame, to a desert canyon, and into the deep space of our past.