Bone on Bone
by Jai Clare
I fell in love with a pianist, with his dextrous fingers across the keyboard. Long fingers, knuckles firm and resolute under the lights, but flexible and floating like liquid across the keys. I watch him smiling to the bassist and the sax player. He has a long nose, broad mouth, and when he smiles he shows all his teeth. I think that sexy in a man.
His hair is dark, his shirt white, his jacket black.
I follow the quartet around the country, up greasy deserted highways, to strange clubs in blocked off streets. I sit at the bar, a normal girl, falling in love, fingering peanuts, ignoring the barman, and tapping my foot. I had discovered the quartet by accident. One night, wandering through a deserted town, I pulled over and walked into a bar and there they were.
I know their music. I know their van. I know all their haunts, and where they sleep at night.
The pianist is called Nels.
I buy them drinks; sometimes I do take my eyes from the pianist. They know me now, too.
At night I dream of his fingers on my body: those knuckles, the strength, the long long fingers, pressing, playing. I dream of his fingers in my mouth, touching my ivory teeth, outlining my lips.
His playing mesmerizes me, and I am nowhere, everywhere, floating. I’m around, I fill in the spaces between the players, between the notes, I hover above his shoulder trying to guess which note he will play next; how he reads these notes; they are like books to him, unopened books, unused words. On Night in Tangiers he is magician, wizard, I cannot believe where he takes me. He touches the keys and out flows a narrative. His narratives create such emotions in me: one minute I am ecstatic and rushing along in the groove, the next I am sullen, bashful. His fingers create the notes, the notes create emotions, the emotions turn me on. I cannot stop wanting him. With every note he plays—his fingers sweet, strong fluid, mercurial fingers—he makes me want him more. I am in love with his talent, with what he can do. I hear him and I am beyond everything, I am above beyond; it’s like mixing with butterflies and angels, swooning with colours deep inside my head.
The streets are cold and wet. I stand in rats’ alley, waiting for him. He’s no famous musician, just a small-time jazzman with fingers that make me crazy.
Rain drips on my head, runs down my neck and soaks my shirt. I am still watching. Music makes me crazy. I am humming A Love Supreme, Coltrane, which Nels’s band does so brilliantly. I am alone. There aren’t thousands of screaming teenagers, just this old one. Then the lights go out in the B&B. I say goodbye to the rats and slink away.
One night between sets he speaks to me. In a voice like melted chocolate, he asks for my name. His touch on my arm makes me lie. I invent someone who has never existed.
As Serena of Beckenham I rent a hotel room, where I wait for him to visit me. I am sure he will. The sun rises. I sleep.
I am from nowhere and everywhere. I lack history. I lack passports and pensions and things that tie me to the ground. I have a real name, I have a real life but it is hidden inside me. I am no longer me.
That night at the club I go in and pretend I don’t know him. He is busy. The club smells of beer, of a hundred stomping feet and sweaty players. I could vanish now and he wouldn’t know who I was. I buy a hovering stranger a beer, watching the pianist watching me as he checks his keyboard; he had been smiling broadly.
I could live in a small house by the common, or a high flat overlooking the railway; I could be a social worker, a banker, a balloonist or a trapeze artist. His smile has wiped my name from within me.
Call me Serena, call me Pianissimo, call me Allegra.
Nels is playing, and just looking at him makes my skin pulsate. I am inspired; I can feel the shape of my fingers, the very skin along the bone of my nose, the muscle, the fat; everything pulsates, freckles dance, muscle pushes against skin. Soon the skin will break and I will burst. I want to reach out and touch him as he plays, to feel his fingers as he creates those notes. I sit on my stool, twiddling round and round, feeling the bubble gum under the plastic seating. The seat is red and squeaks like a kitten.
People are watching me. I am alone. My chin juts into the air; the air smells unwashed, fetid, like morning breath. The air settles on me like dust and we all smell as one.
Old men walk past on tiptoes, bellies in like drill sergeants. But they are old men and will always be so, were probably born so. Notes punctuate the air; emphatic sax, stabbing beats.
I am heightened and vain, wrapping strands of my muddy-coloured hair around my stumpy fingers. I am comfortable with my body, which I could share with the world if needed. My lust for him makes me generous. I chat to people around me, over the music, under the music and between the music. A man sits beside me, his fingers yellow, his mouth small, and his hair smelling of hay.
“You look very friendly.”
“Oh I am. Very friendly.”
“Enjoying the music?”
I nod and look at the pianist. His hands are still as he watches me. Then it comes to his turn to play. Sinew and bone dissemble and the piano keys move as if played by liquid as his fingers skitter across them. He smiles freely.
A circle of men around me. It doesn’t matter if I am attractive or not. I am open and they are like dogs.
“Need a drink?”
“I always need a drink.” They fetch me drinks, they knock against me, they brush against me. Between the music, the banter flows.
“You’re not from round here.”
“I could be.”
“I’ve never seen you before.”
“Neither have I.”
We laugh. We have pain and history and desire, friends and lost loves and offspring hidden in beds not of our choosing, but none of it matters in this darkened room with my hair stinking of beer and hope. Smoke drifts. The sax drifts. Only the pianist is strong. I cannot take my eyes from him. Someone coughs, the sax stutters, the men laugh, and in a far corner a woman leans back over the top of her chair and kisses a man.
The sweet phrasing; a jumble of notes. I close my eyes, lost again. How easily I am lost and transported like scent. Floating. That piano again. It is as if touching the keys the pianist touches some black and white ivory in me. I clench inwards. Tingle. Desire is a torturer. It stabs me. How can this longing be real, and if he touches me will I liquefy? Eyes closed, I touch him, I smell him. Each note he plays is tattooed into my flesh. I am in his fingers like bone. Bone on bone. Chords dazzle, they tease, running up and down my body, and the air is suddenly wind-fresh.
The man beside me touches me. His touch, on my thigh, is deliberate and bold. I turn round. He presses against me, runs his fingers down my arse. If a lover were standing next to me, he would look the lover in the eye while touching me. He is impertinent. I let him. Again he runs his fingers down my back, down my arse, as if following the contour of a river down a map. I am excited by this seedy encounter, but I move away, I walk into the glare of lights. The band plays: piano notes, not as good as before, but hypnotizing. I turn to look. His fingers are like eddies over the keyboards, his eyes closed. He is hovering in the music and for once I cannot join him. I feel the other man’s touch still contouring my back.
It’s night. Wind is screaming outside. Leaves run like children down the road. Taxis splutter. The air is full of acrid smoke from the chemical factory over the way, in the distant sodium-lit glare. I close the window and wait. The hotel I have booked is opposite theirs, and I have made sure they saw me entering the building.
I am waiting, and planning all the things I will tell him about myself: I will show him my moles, the scars on my knees. I will tell him about falling from swings as a child. I will tell him how I want to live in New York and drive taxis, how I see angels when I am sick.
Only with him will I become solid. I will say my favourite colour is indigo, my favourite word "frazzle," I dream of ravines and white water, and of owning clubs in slick city streets. I will tell him how I like to drive fast cars round abandoned rural airports, drive them so fast I almost defy gravity. My friends tell me I have a talent for melodrama. But I will tell him all: the history, the lowdown, my dreams, other lovers who leave me dry, other men I have loved and lost.
He visits me dry and shiny from a gig. His lack of sweat is part of his charm. He removes his jacket. His white shirt is almost pristine. The hotel room is vibrant blue. A picture of a man smiling at us on the wall.
I take his jacket and fold it. The music in my head wraps around him and he is playing. As I touch him, I can see and hear him playing, the notes are vibrant, the notes dance and I am thrown up into the firmament.
I take him to the bed, I touch his lips, they part sweetly as if expecting chocolate. His shirt unbuttoned, his chest white, his face is intent and serious but his lips smile. That I want him so much is like a power surge through his body.
He sleeps now.
Days pass in a white hotel bed: crumbs on the sheets, spunk stains vanishing each afternoon. We are hidden in the bed, like exiles. He doesn’t play his piano. He is engrossed in my visions of angels, in my favourite words and colours that I wrap round his head like tinsel. He loves what stories I give him of a world he cannot imagine.
It is easy to divert him, beguile him, even. Now when he should be practising, or turning up for rehearsals, he is instead flexing his fingers on me. He plays me sublime and I am created whole from notes in his hands. “Your body is soft,” he says, “whereas the piano is hard. You are more pliable than ivory.”
Hidden deep in white sheets we play, while the light changes outside.
When we sleep together he hums.
We are almost too perfect.
Finally we leave for another grimy town, and another dark hotel back room where a handful of serious enthusiastic people come to hear them play. I distract him. My presence, instead of enlivening, suppresses him. It’s as if by walking around the room, passing from bar to bar, catching the eye of others, my dark hair flashing red under the lights, I inhibit him. His playing is stiff, like his fingers are stuck together with glue. He plays; they clap. I clap; I am vociferous in my appreciation. He plays again. He gets into the groove, he finds the groove; oh look at him smile. I adore his smile. It fills his face. Eyes closed. The room is with him.
So quiet apart from the sax and the bass and the piano. Drums come in. We’re hypnotized and teased; we wait for the next notes to take us away. Someone coughs. A man in a red jacket shuffles away. I look at my nails for dirt, and then he plays again and the notes are exquisite diamonds. Suddenly he looks at me and loses it. The notes wither away from him like falling leaves. The keys are closed, the narratives gone. He presses fingers to bone.
He comes to me. “I was crap tonight,” he says. I comfort him. “Tomorrow you will be better,” I say.
At the next gig he is lacklustre. People leave, straying away to other gigs, other bars. I sit at the front still breathing in the sax and its snake-like notes whizzing up my spine. The bass awes me and the drums inspire me.
The pianist is quiet. The chords he discovers in his keys are dull and mundane. I feel sorry for him.
In cheap hotel rooms, finally I tell him my name. In cheap hotel rooms we dream and plan futures. I touch him and he is full of life. I take his fingers and make them sing. Bone on bone, flesh touching me. When he’s inside me I touch music; I have stolen his music.
He tries to play. He hangs out with his band and smiles and says, “Today, I will be amazing.” But his fingers clunk and the notes trip over one another. The piano is alien to him. So now, he avoids the band and stays with me. He knows that when we touch his music returns. Without me he is empty and lifeless.
I go to gigs now without him, but feverish with Nel’s music within me. I watch sax players and am transformed. I hear piano players playing chords that Nels should be playing, discovering his stories, sending me places I love to go, while Nels sits inside and watches the leaves twist a path down the damp streets, and waits for me.
I am in love with a pianist; without his piano what is he?
Jai Clare lives in the UK. Her fiction has appeared in, amongst others, The London Magazine, The Barcelona Review, Zoetrope All-Story EXTRA, Pindeldyboz, Night Train, Cadenza. She’s still trying to get novels right enough to be published. (2004)