“The Boys”

performance-20-minutes-261x300Robert lay staring into semi darkness as objects slowly bled in and out of focus, restless fragments of memory sculpted by moonlight that  filtered through the bedroom curtains.

Not long ago, when he would awake on restless nights like this, his thoughts thick with confusion,  he would roll on his side, gently touching Arthur’s arm or placing his leg over Arthur’s while he slept, so that for just a moment he could feel tethered to the world through the warmth and solidness of Arthur’s body.  Instead, he now turned on his side, drew the blankets around himself remembering the familiar smell of Arthur’s cigarettes, the dried white roses and cup of tea that he kept constant on his nightstand. He thought about getting out of bed and turning on the lamps, or reaching for the sleeping pills that would send him back to sleep, but he could not abandon Arthur. Instead,  he lay still, filling the emptiness with these fragments of memory.

A hush fell over the room as the light in the small auditorium began to dim. The curtain opened slowly to the left revealing a grand piano illuminated only by a small light hanging over its’ keys. The bench had been covered in pale blue silk the color of the summer sea; a matching oriental shawl had been carefully draped over the crook of the piano’s black enameled surface, cascading like falling water, into a pool of fabric as it reached the ground. Then another piano became apparent at center stage and a third to its left as the curtain opened to its’ full span. There are six pianos in all, each covered similarly in the finest silks. The pianos seemed to be rising from water, like broken pieces of a ships hull. Arthur and Robert had deliberately set out to break the boundaries of a conventional recital and before even playing a note, they created beauty of such innovation that the astonished audience rose to their feet and broke into applause.

The applause continued as Robert and Arthur stepped onto the stage and walked toward the pianos. Their faces fell into smiles. They stood for a moment and bowed, low, seating themselves on separate benches. In the hushed glow of the keyboard lights, they seemed as if they were floating in moonlight anchored only by the salvaged pieces of a ship. There were no more than fifty in attendance, a modest draw for a debut at the New School, but the enthusiasm of the crowd, gave the room the feeling of a true salon. There was a sense of community among the loyal audience of young and freethinking intellectuals assembled from the avant-garde worlds of music and art. They were poets, critics, students, artists and bohemians, ready to sit back and share the thrill of something new. At stake was nothing less than a revolution in music –- the overthrow of the genteel tradition of the European classics. Everyone was held in the perfection of the scene. They had decided to play a program of John Cage’s music with each piano prepared differently by the placement of various objects on the strings inside their sound boxes. It would be the first ever all prepared piano concert.

Arthur and Robert sat still with their eyes closed. Arthur tried to imagine the sound of the piano being played, the notes drifting out from the soundboard. He could feel his lip begin to quiver. He tried to tell himself that this performance was no different from the morning rehearsal, but he knew it wasn’t true. He opened his eyes and swallowed. His heart started pounding. A surge of fear rose within him like water from a well. The room grew darker. A storm hovered, waiting. He waned to jump up from the piano and head directly for the safety of the street, to leave before the destruction began. Instead he sat motionless.

Even before he opened his eyes and turned to look toward Arthur, Robert sensed what was happening. He registered a nearly imperceptible change in Arthur’s breathing, noticeable only to him. In those seconds of waiting and silence, an unexplainable intimacy existed between them, a bond that had no natural borders. Robert’s stare held steady on Arthur’s face. His eyes flickered with recognition.

Arthur was helplessly searching Robert’s face, noticing the corners of Robert’s eyes wrinkle; he found the half-smile forming on Robert’s lips in an expression of affection that suggested to him words of reassurance. Robert held still and waited. The sight of Arthur sitting helplessly, his face moist with perspiration, his trembling fingers suspended above the keyboard for those brief terrifying seconds, inspired Robert’s deepest compassion.

The panic spiked then left almost as swiftly as it had arrived. It felt as if Robert had extended his hand, taken his own in his and placed him on the path to safety. The color returned to Arthur’s face. He had been through this tempest of emotions many times, still each time the symptoms took him by surprise. Later, when he was in a better state of mind, he would reflect upon these events and find in himself both gratitude and shame. He would realize that Robert could be the hinge that allows his life to swing wide open. Without him his chances would be wasted. He wished he could shrink inside the simple happiness of his childhood — to be small again, to sit beside his father on the edge of the piano bench, brushing his leg against the fabric of his father’s trousers and loose himself in song while his father plays through the evening.

Robert fixed his gaze on Arthur for several more breaths. Then a single breath seemed to form between them and with its’ exhalation they began to play.The music started softly, reaching out into the silence. Then sounds were conjured with searing intensity, seemingly from nowhere. Notes slammed out with explosive fury, following Arthur and Robert as they travel from piano to piano. Not only are the sounds coming from the objects placed on the strings, but Arthur and Robert seemed to be pulling them out with surgical precision from deeply within the strings. The instruments were being played the very edge of their possibilities as if the artists were ripping them apart with dissonant chords. Then, just as surprisingly, there were contrasting moments of restraint as if Robert and Arthur were searching for the restorative glue that might mend the musical shards.

They finished to ovations. The following day, The New York Times described them as “the idols of the city’s intellectual audience.” Word about them would pass from mouth to mouth. They had seized the moment in a city full of pianists.

For all their lives together, Robert was Arthur’s protector. He kept him safe from everyone, even at the end, when the final indignities of illness swallowed him. Robert helped him die, served him the morphine-based death cocktail that dispatched him to eternity. Seconds before, as they stood together at this precipice, Arthur joked. “Robert,” he said calmly, “There are going to be a lot of flowers on my grave. Take the best of the white roses and place them on the graves beside mine.  “And Robert,” he continued his face breaking into its final smile, “be sure to say that the flowers are a gift from Arthur Gold.”