Bitter like a Native

I still have some of Rupel’s early recordings but listening to them now makes my wrists itch.

He played unpretentious ragtime for his own pleasure, on an old baby grand with the varnish worn off, and nodded sadly when I told him I didn’t listen to the ethnic stuff. He told me he could play classical, only he didn’t want to, and I said it was fine if he couldn’t. He shrugged, because Rupel didn’t need to impress me, and when his mother showed me a tape of him, four years old, playing Tchaikovsky at a recital, he shrugged again.

I was a regular at an old music shop on Bayerbrent street where the proprietor smoked thin yellow roll-ups and gave credit to students. The place sold knock-down sheet music with the middle pages missing and I met Rupel there on his first visit. He was talking Clapton with the owner as I went up to the till and he asked me to settle their argument.

‘Little Wing, better than Layla right?’

I could have told him that I didn’t know, that I was a serious student of music, that I didn’t listen to the charts and then never spoken to him again.

‘Absolutely.’

He laughed and slapped my back, the first time a person had touched me since hugging my parents on the train platform before the start of the semester.

It was his hands that made me lie and I told him so a while later, the two of us splaylegged on the floor of his dank bedsit, Clapton turning, piano looming, half-filling the room. He looked at me sideways and opened his mouth, moving his lower jaw without making words. I knew he had luck with women, had seen them leaving sometimes when I went round in the morning, mascara streaked and enviably sated. I told him it wasn’t like that, that I appreciated the perfection of his hands for musical reasons. I told him he was lucky, that his dimensions, his digit span, was ideal. Showing him my own, I explained how they didn’t measure up. I could practice my entire life and he would still have the edge of 2mm length, 0.5mm width, 26mm reach. He choked on his drink and held up his hand to mine, his dark skin against my light, and said it couldn’t make a difference in the end. But for the rest of the night he kept glancing at his digits, flexing.

He played at a bar, for free drinks and tips that were folded into a pint glass on the piano lid, and he would always try to get me up to play a duet at the end of the night. We’d walk home tipsy and he’d list all the albums he needed to introduce to me, always more than we could get through, enough for a lifetime. After the first A side he’d fall asleep where he was sitting and I would lift the needle from the turntable, breaking the hiss into a more complete silence, and settle back down to watch the nocturnal shadow of his character twitch across his resting face.

His father was still alive but I never saw him at recitals. All Rupel would say about it was that his father was a practical man, a labourer, and he was busy a lot of the time. He wanted Rupel to be practical too, to work hard and get some callouses.

‘If you do,’ I told him, ‘give me your hands first. They’re beautiful hands, only good for art. They’re perfect. It would be a crime to waste them.’

He volunteered for the drama department’s christmas production so I did too, and throughout November our weekends were spent with sleeves rolled up, fitting together flimsy pieces of scenery, pausing occasionally so he could exchange flirtations with the cheap actresses. Lorlanny Linne slowed down work whenever she passed, and after she left Rupel would looked at me and winked.

‘Drama department: where the girls are all goers and the guys are all gay. This is the place to be.’

He was staring after her, watching her tidal hips, and his perfect hand was like a basking reptile on the plywood frame before me. He didn’t see me increase my grip on the hammer, and raise it.

I went to the show alone and left early. Rupel played from the orchestra pit and didn’t really expect me at the after-party.

I next saw him in January of the new year, his arm around Lorlanny Linne’s waist, their fingers entwined. They were heading out and would I like to go with them? He drank bitter like a native and explained his next project, she drank vodka tonic and couldn’t taste what I was adding. When she got ill he apologised, said we should try this again sometime. I said I’d like to get to know her, and smiled.

A few days later I saw him playing at the bar. She was there, and saw me before I could leave.

‘Isn’t he good?’ she said.

‘He has very perfect hands.’ I ordered her another drink.

‘That he does,’ she told me, showing teeth. ‘You don’t know the half of it.’

Rupel was chopping through an old showtune while Lorlanny sang tonelessly to herself. He looked over and grinned as she sang louder, but I don’t think he saw me.

These days I mostly do studio work on a session basis and I’m starting to get a name for myself in the industry. I never play to an audience, except Rupel’s mother, who I still visit as promised. I’m not much for ragtime myself but she likes to hear me play his old favourites, and I owe her so much. Him too of course. Whenever I visit she tells me the same stories about him, and she holds tight to my hands, so similar to her own, so dark. They’re beautiful hands, only good for art. They’re perfect. It would have been a crime to waste them.

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