(Originally Published in Upstreet, Richmond, Massachusetts, USA, Issue 13, July 2017)
That summer, we listened to every recording of the Concerto in D we could get our hands on. There was this slightly scratched LP of the Rabin at the library. Despite the skip – at the worst possible point in the Adagio – we all agreed Rabin’s was The One. Cal tried to disagree, but Kent and I won that round because it was clear that Cal was just being contrary, and not calling the shots as he liked to think he did.
If you’re asking me now did I ever think then that one day there’d be no Kent, and only a smorzando Cal, and that I would become this star Paganini soloist, I have to say no, not really The thought didn’t cross my mind. My life as an artist in the world now feels like the only one I’ve ever known. Back then, we were just three greenhorns in The Academy: Kent the bassist and well, you know about Cal. In bed, Kent and I only talked about Cal – yes, sad – and we were both positively, absolutely certain Cal would end up where I did. I even said I’d be happy with an orchestral career, because Kent and I became lovers only because we neither one could be Cal’s. Not that we would have admitted it at the time. The real reason Kent is dead is less about AIDS and more about who he couldn’t be. Kent wasn’t promiscuous by nature, but he took Cal’s dismissal much harder than I did and that destroyed him. The day after Cal dismissed us, Kent gave up pretending to be bi-sexual – well, he did sleep with me after all – and then, well, he didn’t even show up to studio anymore and fucked so many guys we lost count. Late seventies. We didn’t know about AIDS, you know?
How badly was I in love with Cal? Badly enough, but not so badly that I took to heart his dismissal of Kent and myself as artists. He was just jealous when he found out we were lovers. Yes, I know I said we only were because we couldn’t be Cal’s lover, but Cal was complicated, as you obviously must know, if you’ve been researching his life and work as long as you say you have. Cal needed us both to worship him completely.
Right, the Rabin. Cal dismissed everything else until we heard the Rabin. I was obsessed with Paganini – what violinist isn’t? – and was exceptionally so because of my late aunt’s obsession. Yes, yes, the music teacher aunt back home in Malaysia who adopted me, paid for my studies and life. You know more than enough about my background by now, the parents who abandoned me because I was a freak, etc., but anyway, we’re here to talk about Cal, not me, right? Heroin, you say? Overdose? I’m surprised. Drink, yes, drugs, not in a million years I wouldn’t have thought. Oh, maybe a little weed, nothing more. We drank, Cal and Kent and I. Every bartender in Manhattan knew Cal by name because he tipped a bundle.
Bought most of our rounds too which burned Kent who was from some farm in South Dakota, and dead broke. It was easier for me being “the girl.” What does it matter if I ever slept with Cal, you don’t really want to know that, do you? No, I will not answer the question because it’s impertinent. And unnecessary. You write your biography, god knows why you are, but I won’t contribute to more gossip. You don’t believe Cal was asexual? Well, that’s your choice. I can’t tell you for sure because Cal hasn’t been in my orbit for a very long while, but trust me, I’m 98.9999% certain he’s asexual. Of course I know he wanted to fuck me, eventually, everyone did, just to know what it would be like, which was why he was so jealous of Kent who simply took me at face value. I think that’s why Kent was . . .what was that? I’m the only violinist who knew Cal who’ll talk to you? Are you really surprised? The man was a monster. Brilliant maybe, but a monster. He destroyed more careers than he nurtured, and I know all those evil, unforgivable things he said about me, telling the world what I am, which was humiliating, horrible. Heartbreaking. It was such a breach of trust. He knew I wasn’t ready for disclosure then. But what I did know, even back then, was that he couldn’t rein me in, even though he came pretty close. His betrayal ensured he never would.
It was all about reining. He had this trick with the bow. I hear it became his teaching method – what’s that twittering thing everyone says now, hash tag? – his tag I suppose. It made me laugh but intimidated Kent. He’d sneak in behind you in the practice room and you’d never hear him enter. Right in the middle of the trickiest passage, the one he knew you were having trouble with, he’d stick his bow right across the bridge and whisper in your ear, you suck. I’m right, aren’t I, except that he did it to his students to their face. And then groped. Suck, grope, suck, grope. Good syncopation. He destroyed himself as a teacher in the academy, but heroin, I have no idea where that came from. Yes, yes, of course that’s how Cal found out, he groped me too. We were young. Oversexed. The young are always oversexed and live below the belt.
Right, about the Rabin. Kent looked a little like a young Michael Rabin. That high Paganini forehead. Like those early Sherlock Holmes illustrations before actors shanghaied the face. Kent was sweet. Look, I have this photo of the two of us, didn’t he have a kind face? Bassists are sweet, they give strings a good name. Not like violinists.
A photo of Cal? No, none. He hated being photographed. His family’s all gone, that’s why you can’t find anyone, and there weren’t a lot of other relatives, I don’t believe. He was still marginally in my orbit when his parents and sister died. I even called to offer condolences. You know what he said? No one will write their obituaries. Can you imagine that? I mean, I knew there was no love lost, etc., that he burned through his trust fund, etc., that his sister once tried to strangle him, etc. I mean I know they were all kind of mad, Mayflower shreds he called them. Made me think of that poem about petals and black boughs, you know the one I mean? However bad things got with my parents, I would never, ever say such a thing. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t know music. All they saw was this monster, despite my talent. What was it Jesus said on the cross? For they know not what they do? Cal must have been a horrible child. I’m sure he always knew exactly what he was doing. He told me once that when his sister was thirteen – she was a couple of years older than him I think – he snuck into her bedroom one night and cut off her hair.
Why am I telling you all these things about him? You’re the one who’s asking and writing this silly, silly book, when Darling, you know you could be doing one about me instead. That will sell. No one wants to know about Cal anymore.
Right, the Rabin record incident. He broke the LP in half. Kent was horrified, said, the library will fine me because it had been his turn to borrow. We took turns and kept the album out with us constantly. We were young. Petulant. The young are always petulant and mad about power and lust. Anyway, Cal laughed at Kent, called him a cowardly hick or something equally obnoxious. He was drunk, and we had just told him about us. Then, Cal slapped my face and Kent hit him, and there I was, two boys fighting over me, and oh, I can tell you it was exhilarating. Glorious. Laughable, don’t you think? Cal threatened to amputate Kent’s left hand. Some night, when you least expect it, and then he opened this cupboard and wouldn’t you know he actually owned a surgical saw. Kent was terrified. I admit I was too, even though I tried to fluff things over, laugh it off. Etc. Be the girl. But then, Cal said Kent and I were no-talent wannabes, and that all we’d ever be good enough for was Mantovani’s orchestra, and maybe not even that. That we had no soul, were not artists, that we didn’t know how lucky we were he spent any time with us because he was headed for greatness and we were privileged to catch a little stardust, nothing else.
So childish, don’t you think?
Whose idea was it to tell Cal about us? I don’t know, I might have said something to Kent. Kent was terrified of Cal finding out so I think I just wanted to come clean. I adored Kent.
That’s not what Kent’s brother says? What does that ignoramus say, I never did like the guy. He really was the hick. At the funeral, he said I killed Kent. Murdered him. Can you imagine? Said Kent was devastated by my breaking up with him and would never otherwise have committed suicide. What a joke. Kent died of AIDS, we all know that. And he was gay, dumped me, even though I was the reason he could finally come out. Is that my fault? Don’t listen to that loser of a brother. He doesn’t know anything.
Cal says Kent didn’t die of AIDS? Is he serious? Cal just can’t admit Kent was in love with him he’s such a homophobe. Look, if you’re going to write a bunch of lies, this interview is over. I agreed to talk about Cal. Kent’s history. You writers are all the same. Those who can’t fuck, write.
I am not shouting.
Okay, that’s more like it. I don’t like going so far off topic.
Why did Cal have such power over us? Let me think about that a minute, can you? All these questions, honestly. They’re giving me a headache
Okay, so I suppose we were his first acolytes, masochistic enough to worship him. All megalomaniacs do that somehow, draw people to them who scrape and fawn and suck in the air they breathe. The bullies in the sandbox. The leaders of cults. The dictators who commit genocide. You’re either victim or slave if you end up in their orbit. Nothing in between unless you manage to escape.
Time for cocktails, yes? I’ll have Marianna make us some.
Okay, so I know Cal got this brief bump in the ratings because of Jezebella Oh. Another Asian chick with a bow and a schtick. At her last concert, you could see right through her dress I swear she wasn’t wearing underwear. What do you mean the photo that went viral was doctored? Who could be bothered to do such a thing? I’m sure she’s frigid as the Antarctic because she orgasms all over the strings, can’t you hear? So melodramatic. And Jezebella! Did he name her that? What did he do, keep her chained in his apartment? They say he found her in the hotel bars, hooking. She won’t last. His puppets never do and the word is she’s with that Johnny-come-lately conductor in Ohio so she’s already left Cal.
Did I ever study with Cal? Are you insane? Would I still be here if I had? Every one of his supernovas burnt out fast, you know that. It was a kind of talent Cal had, I guess, to prep them, dress them, prop them up and then toss them onto the pyre. Brides for Paganini. So Jezebella was the last, the widow.
Are you serious? She had a miscarriage? What did he do, impale her that fucking stallion? No I will not tell you if I slept with him, what does it matter? Yes, of course I’ve seen him naked. Before Kent and I started fucking we’d do these naked picnics up at Cal’s lake house while blasting the Rabin on that portable gramophone of his. Oh, Cal had everything! An Aston Martin like Bond’s. Champagne buckets he brought everywhere filled with two bottles. A platinum cigarette holder, you know the one, in all those photographs of me from those days? He sent me ten dozen white roses for my first Academy recital with a note that said, hear you again in a decade. Of course, a decade later we weren’t on speaking terms and Kent was dead. And I already had my first recording. It still sells, you know.
What do you mean he’s still doing his Brides of Paganini series? Cal’s finished, especially if he’s on heroin. Oh, he’s not on heroin anymore? I thought you said . . . oh that was five years ago? You told me? Really? When? I’m sure I don’t recall.
Yes, he gave me the Stradivarius. How? Had it delivered. It was shortly after my Berlin performance, the one about which you wrote that lovely, lovely review. So honest. It was the day the Wall came down and I was watching the news on television and the doorbell rings and it’s this messenger service with the box and a single white rose. No message. Of course it was him, besides I recognized the Stradivarius right away as his. He’d already stopped performing by then, hell, he was too drunk and missed more appearances than he made. No, I didn’t know he made it through AA. Good for him, I guess. What do you mean don’t I care? He doesn’t let anyone care, does he? Did he ask you to tell me that?
He told you I was Paganini’s best concubine? What is he, the pimp?
Did I love Kent? What kind of question is that? Kent and I were – what is it the young all say now – fuck buddies? We were young. Ignited. The young are always ignited, desperate to explode. The trouble with Cal was that he was always putting a flame to our desperation. He grabbed Kent’s bass once, in the midst of one of our endless arguments, put his fist against its back, and threatened to punch a hole in it unless I sucked Kent’s cock in front of him. What did I do? I sucked Kent off, of course, and the next thing we knew Cal was coming all over the bass and you should have heard Kent shriek. Next to him, a banshee was sotto voce.
The last time I saw Cal? To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember. One of his last concerts probably, which would have been years ago. Yes, I went to his concerts and no, of course he didn’t know. The man had talent. Once upon a time, he had more than mere talent, he occupied that indefinable space between the angels and us. Okay, maybe devils, not angels. But that’s almost too clichéd for Cal, like it was for Paganini. Devils were angels once, and the rest of us, we’re just human.
Cal says we met last year? He’s delusional. I haven’t seen him for years. Decades.
Who was I to Cal? Darling, surely you know the answer to that one. I’m the one who got away. No, there’s not much more to say about that. I got away. Let me repeat that. I got away. No, it’s not true I once tried to sever his hand. Surely you don’t believe his lies? The man is a monster and he’ll say anything to make himself seem like some misunderstood genius. It is not true I broke Kent’s heart, is that what Cal says? No, I did not try to seduce Cal, is that also what he says? Is that why you keep asking me all these silly questions? Darling, you know me. You’ve interviewed me, what, at least half a dozen times by now. I mean that’s why I said I’d talk to you about Cal for your book, even though it’s such a pointless thing to be writing, you do know that, don’t you? It is time to set the record straight, to refute all those lies he’s told about me, not that anyone has listened to him for a long, long while.
Come on, be honest. I won’t tell. You’re not really writing a book about him, are you?
Darling? You’ve gone awfully quiet. Marianna makes a mean martini, don’t you think? Come, come, stop pouting. I didn’t mean what I said about writers and fucking. You know me, I’m not really mean, not like Cal.
Last thoughts? Are you leaving already? Marianna can make us more cocktails, and if you like, I’ll order some food from that great Italian trattoria round the corner, you know the one. You’re having dinner with Cal? Does the man still eat? I’ve heard tell he’s a wraith of his former self.
Oh, you’re bringing him dinner. What are you, his butler?
Now, now, don’t be petulant, we’re all too old for that by now. Okay, last thoughts, if that’s what you insist.
Hang on, I’m thinking. I do think, you know.
The Concerto. Paganini meant for it to be heard in E flat, not D, as I’m sure you know. It’s the difference between genius and terror. Cal’s no devil, any more than Paganini was. They’re both just terrified, except that Paganini was extraordinary, while Cal, well Cal just gave into the terror. No one will write his obituary but they will write mine.
You make sure you tell him that.
(Originally Published in Upstreet, Richmond, Massachusetts, USA, Issue 13, July 2017)
Xu Xi is the author of thirteen books, including five novels, six collections of short fiction & essays and most recently Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories, released June 15, 2018 by Signal 8 Press; the memoir Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy for a City (2017), as part of Penguin’s Hong Kong series for the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. She is also editor of four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English. Forthcoming from Nebraska University Press in March 2019 is an essay collection This Fish Is Fowl.