My Cello

 

ⓒ 2002

 

A private and peaceful man, I could not have known that my life would end so viciously. Nor would I know, until my death, how easily life had come for me, and that murder would be its affirmation.

 

So as Eric stabbed me time and again, so many times that I wondered whether monotony would finally exhaust him, I found it ludicrous that my life should cling to itself so resiliently. It seemed incomprehensible that I should lie there in defeated horror as my own chef’s knife plunged repeatedly into me, or that I would be so cognizant as to feel death arriving in distinct and deliberate stages: the violent hissing of my punctured lung; the furious convulsing of my perforated heart; the solitary breaking of each rib beneath Eric’s blows, like the intolerable plunking of a child’s finger on a lone piano key.

 

The rank, metallic smell of my blood.

 

Yes. My death was fiercely tactile. So tactile that even in the savage chaos of my demise, the shocking intimacy of my homicide struck me as terminably erotic. An enduring parting of ways.

 

Our last act.

 

#

 

One paradox of murder is the wish to prolong the violent, final moments of one's life even as one begs it all to end. Perhaps I say this because my murder was swift. If it had been prolonged and lingering, like the brutal beating of Matthew Shepard in the Wyoming twilight, or the backwoods torture and drowning of Emmett Till, my observation would undoubtedly differ. But because my end came as it did, in a spectacular explosion of rage and lunacy, I envy those who are given what becomes most precious as life is taken away: time.

 

Still, God granted me a favor. He slowed the pace so I could see things in frames. I’m sure you know what I mean. You find yourself in the middle of something horrific when suddenly, everything slows. Before my killing, I considered this kind of slow motion as an altered state of divine intervention, an ingenious fail-safe by the Almighty to rescue us from premature tragedy, where split-seconds are handed to us one by one, in great spaces of thought, so that solutions and their execution unfold in a ballet of effortless grace. But now that I am no longer of earth, I see more this dragging-out-of-time as God’s poignant farewell, his last gesture to let us live out our final moments in supreme and unclouded awareness.

 

Which is why there was no mistaking the fierce gratification on Eric’s face, or his hot, terrible lust that seemed contrary and congruent at once. If he had not been windmilling his arms so ferociously, like a wind-up toy gone mad, I might have expected him to arrest his fury and kiss me, as he often did during our arguments. So as I lay dazed and dying in my own carnage, the insistent feel of his erection seemed oddly reassuring. Familiar. A reminder of better times even as its macabre impression fixed me in my pitiless end.

 

You must understand when I say, then, that anyone who believes murder to be purely a violent act and not also a sexual one—well, he hasn’t killed, has he?

 

Or been killed.

 

My one consolation, then and now, is that I was glad it was Eric. I know this sounds bizarre—you might say deluded and masochistic. But I assure you that murder is more intimate than you can possibly imagine. And if it was my destiny to be killed by another’s hand, as clearly it was, then certainly I preferred Eric to a stranger. Far better my lover than someone random and meaningless, wouldn’t you agree?

 

Out of all my regrets (and when one dies one remembers them all) perhaps what I mourn most is his taking of my hand. This is when I understood how much Eric hated and loved me. He could have gone on thrusting that blade into me and I would have had no recourse but to accept his brutal rampage as a sudden, inarticulate moment of rage that, once receded, would morph into a horror to outstrip my own. But when he held down my hand and sawed it off, hacking and chopping away as I lay blood-soaked and shuddering in shock, I knew then that his crime was not merely violent, or carnal, or even, more exaltedly, sentimental: it was, above all else, larceny.

 

#

 

I had oddly imperfect hands, you see. My right—the one Eric severed—was conspicuously larger than my left, and was by far the strongest and most dexterous of the two. When I learned to play the cello, I held the neck in my right hand, which so assailed my instructor that it doomed any relationship between us. After months of contentious effort I found another teacher, a gregarious man named Russ who cared little for didactic conventions.

 

“Stroke!” he would shout with unfettered exuberance. “Hold your cello the way you hold a woman—with a sure but gentle grip.” Then he would explode into laughter. “Not that you know anything about holding a woman! But maybe the cello will help. Playing it requires subtle, controlled strength. Play until you can play no more; it’s the only way you will build your stamina.”

 

And so it was at the age of fifteen, under Russ’s zealous tutelage, that I fell in love with my cello. At the time I didn’t know it was love; I knew only that its deep, haunting resonance entranced me, and the vibrations of its thick, cylindrical strings stirred me in the most sublime of ways, so that while other boys were abandoning themselves to the ribald joy of masturbation, I was finding rapture in my cello. Taking its smooth, curvaceous shape between my legs and bowing reverently to its neck, its rich, musky fragrance as carnal as the cords quivering robustly beneath my fingers, I would submerge to depths I could not see, ascend to heights I could not bear, and succumb, in a spinning collapse, to waves I could not contain.

 

Russ must have been aware of my arousal as I played, a condition that only intensified as my skill improved. I suppose he accorded me a man’s respect by indulging my erotic love for my instrument. But one afternoon as I lost myself in the swells of Vivaldi’s “Nulla in Mundo Pax Sincera,” I remembered him as I was about to let go. Flushed and gasping, I opened my eyes to him standing directly before me, his face a stamp of determination, his eyes searing mine. I stared blearily at him, fighting the pleasure damming within me. He hauled me off the stool. His strong fingers gripped my hair and he kissed me—hard.

 

As he crushed himself to me, his breath spicy and warm, I released myself in a dizzying flood, because it was all so taboo and so wonderful, and the smell of his mouth was as mesmerizing as the smell of my cello, and after that it was all a wild mess.

 

#

We didn’t talk about it.

 

We did our best to return to our routine. But things had changed. Russ had grown curt and silent. He brooded. I played on, trying to bring him back, but he only further withdrew. Finally, he discontinued our lessons, something about cutting back on his student load. I was hurt but not surprised. Instead, I used the time to compose a piece of music, a dreamy, enthralling epic that I called “Rapture of the Strings.” It was months before I could play it well, and when I mastered it I went to him.

 

He stood at the studio door. “What is it?”

 

“I wrote a composition.”

 

He glared.

 

“I’d like to play it for you.” I edged my way inside. I removed my cello from its case and seated myself. I began to play, tenderly, letting the tone and tempo warm me and take me to places only I knew. The melody was rich and resplendent, and playing it for him magnified the splendor of each note and phrase. The music became more than what it had been when it was just my cello and me, unfurling in a flourish all its own. Its momentum spurred me. The chords behind the melody reverberated in my bones, coursing through me and saturating every cell. I lashed at the strings and rocked to the rapturous wail. A deep, lush wave rumbled and rolled. It propelled me. It plummeted and swooped and barreled, cresting, and at the precise instant it began to curl I stopped. I clutched my cello and leaned breathlessly against it, fighting infinity to hold back, and when at last I could go on I blasted into the final measures, my face damp and fingers throbbing until, in a final explosion of will, I ended with several thunderous strokes.

 

The rest is a blur.

 

We promised to tell no one. I was his first—as he was mine—and he was married. And I had just turned sixteen. But our secrecy made our lust all the more fierce, and our time together all the more timeless, and underlying everything was our music, our glorious, rapacious music.

 

#

 

I considered Russ an aberration. Our passion was so enmeshed with our art that I did not see us as homosexual or gay or whatever term you might use. It’s just what Russ and I were.

 

It wasn’t until I stood before Michelangelo’s The David during a senior high school trip abroad that I came to terms with how deeply men moved me. Who could know that a slab of marble shaped into the likeness of a man could be so magnificent, so irresistibly masculine? My eyes coursed over the figure and its every bone and muscle: the ribs tucked beneath the brawny, juvenile arms; the muscular, shapely calves; the lean flank of its powerful hips. I gazed longingly at the flaccid, uncircumcised penis draped in perfect repose, its tip like a bud about to bloom. How elegant his scrota! Framed in soft, floral swirls of pubic hair, the chiseled genitalia appeared to me succulent and edible.

 

The alabastrine statue seemed on the verge of life, and as I stood spellbound before it, I wanted more than anything—more, even, than to play my cello—to lie nude with it and trail my fingers along its virile form. My gaze traveled to the handsome, callow face that bore the subtle stress of a distant anxiety, to the gray-sculpted eyes that saw a future beyond any my own could imagine.

 

Then I became aware of his right hand. It was larger than his left. In fact, the entire right arm was enormous, like an oversized limb that might topple the monument at any moment. Its disproportionate asymmetry captivated me. I stared at my own right hand. Spreading my fingers wide, I took in every ridge and mound. Playing the cello had made them strong and agile. I curled my hand into a tight fist and watched my veins swell, then returned my gaze to The David. His right hand was crooked against his thigh; his left, poised at his shoulder and holding a sling. As I admired the powerfully wrought fingers and intricate detail of his fingernails, I realized that my hands now tied me to a manifestation of genius that encapsulated everything I could become. They represented the thrill of all my imminent discoveries. And they embodied, in their own familiar individuality, the ineffable magnificence of men.

 

#

 

It was my hands that drew Eric to me. I felt him staring at them as I pulled out my wallet one day at the supermarket check-out stand. His eyes blazed a trail up my arm and down again as I slipped some change into my pocket. I glanced at him, annoyed. Our eyes met—and a jolt passed between us that completely disarmed me.

 

He followed me outside. “Let me carry your groceries.”

 

I turned. “Excuse me?”

 

He stepped forward and took my bags. “I want to see your hands.”

 

“Look, I don’t even know y—”

 

“Let me look at them.”

 

I stood unmoving, not wanting to give in, the frankness of his gaze compelling me.

 

He set down the bags. He took my wrists and pulled me to him. He gazed at my hands and forearms, then began gently kneading them. He made light circles against my pulse; traced his finger along the cleft of muscle up to my elbow. My knees felt weak.

 

“You have incredible hands,” he said, turning them over. “Especially this one.” A large, purple vein bulged from my right forefinger to my bicep. His index finger followed its path, and when it reached my upper arm he raised his brown eyes to mine. “Where do you live?”

 

I was not in the habit of picking up men—certainly not in a grocery store parking lot, or any parking lot, for that matter. I dated discreetly, largely because Idiligently avoided messy complications that would disrupt my otherwise pleasant life. But looking into his probing eyes as he cradled my arm, I saw absolutely no reason to refuse him.

 

Why is it that some of our most intimate relationships are with those who turn out to be the most cruel? What gruesome irony gives madmen the mystifying ability to charm their way into our guarded lives?

 

The moment Eric entered my home and closed the door, I was lost. The way he took me with quiet confidence, the way his eyes never left mine, the way he pulled back to gaze at me, kissing and loving my hand before guiding it back to him, made me want more of him even before we were through.

 

#

 

My first mistake, apart from falling hopelessly under his spell, was to play my cello for him. We were lying together on the floor when he spied it in the corner.

 

“You play that?”

 

I turned my head to it. “Um-hum.”

 

“What got you to take that up?”

 

His pejorative tone roused my defenses. “It’s hard to explain unless you’ve played.”

 

His face darkened. He glanced at the cello.

 

I was sorry I had patronized him and wanted to make up for it. “Would you like me to play for you?”

 

He didn’t answer.

 

But the thought spurred me. In all my years of music, I had only played for myself and Russ. Music had always been my private sojourn; it almost felt like sacrilege—delicious sacrilege—to play for someone else. I rose and spun the chair to the center of the room. I pulled my cello to me and embraced its voluptuous frame. I thought about what to play and shivered, thinking I could not endure something as exquisite as a bossa nova. Feeling suddenly gamey, I launched into a sprightly rendition of “Fiddler on the Roof.” I hadn’t played it in a while, and as my bow skipped across the strings I remembered how much fun it was. When I finished, I burst out laughing.

 

Eric was sitting up and watching me. “Play something else.”

 

I chose a Coltrane-inspired “My Favorite Things,” even though it was a winter tune and this was summer. I played it in D minor, which gave the melody an evocative, lingering tone that captured its clutching promise. I looked into Eric’s eyes as I laid into the chords, feeling the moan of the song reaching for him. I had never paid much attention to the way my body moved as I played, and as I worked through the piece under the relish of Eric’s gaze, I indulged myself in the vanity of wondering which transfixed him most: the ripple of my muscles in time to the song’s rhythmic leaps? Or the long sweep of my body as the music took us away? His eyes glimmered as the morning air grazed my skin, as the cool floor kissed the underside of my feet. The edge of the chair dug into my crotch as I laid into each stroke, letting the music roll and rumble as a tremor rose with it. My feet began to twitch. My loins began to dance. And when the reverberations came, they took me in a sustained and luscious gush.

 

Sour warmth filled the air. I crushed my cheek against the neck of my cello and suppressed a moan.

 

For a while Eric was still. Then he stood, left the room, and came back with a towel. He took the bow from my hand and eased me to the floor. He knelt over me and cleaned me off, then leaned back on his heels. “Is it always like that?”

 

I was spent and muggy. “Sometimes.”

 

He gave a small, sad smile. “Lucky you.”

 

I gazed at him.

 

He crawled on top of me, his eyes shimmering in envy. “If I had that, I’d never leave it.”

 

I smiled drowsily.

 

A cloud passed over his face. “You won’t leave me, will you?”

 

The melancholy in his tone stirred me; at the time, I didn’t know enough. I smiled again, feeling warm and wanted. “Why would I do that?”

 

#

 

But I did leave Eric, and my cello was central to the reasons why. Although not for what you might expect—his resentment over the time I spent practicing, my love of playing, that sort of thing. Eric wasn’t jealous of my cello; he was jealous of what it represented. To him it symbolized everything he lacked and would never have; it became the scapegoat for all the things in life that would remain forever beyond his reach. When we fought, which occurred with greater frequency, he would glance at my cello leaning silently on its endpin, as if it were to blame for whatever was going wrong between us. Then he would stare at my hands. His looks began to unnerve me. He seemed to have an odd and troubling fixation on the things that meant most to me; I began to sense in him a rising hostility that linked my hands and cello to some nameless conspiracy he believed was amassing irreversibly against him.

 

I loved Eric. At least it felt like love. When he was on, we were on. There was nothing like it. But his hair-trigger temper and random, brooding jealousies battered and exhausted me; there seemed no antidote for bypassing his infinite furies, past and future. Reluctantly, I finally came to accept that our relationship had become the very thing I had never wanted: complicated. Messy. And too much work.

 

I tried several times to call it off, but Eric pleaded with me to stay. Even then his seductiveness overpowered me: he would hold me with an urgency I found insufferably provocative, and talk to me in a way no other man could, and I would yield to him all over again.

 

At last, it became clear that a noble parting of ways was not going to work. So I rang up an old lover, Mark, who let me stay at his place. I ignored Eric’s calls. I changed my routine to avoid surprise appearances.

 

When enough time had passed, I called Eric to tell him I was seeing someone else.

 

For a long moment, he said nothing. Then: “Do you love him?”

 

I disliked lying, but my options were limited. “It’s too early to tell.”

 

Another pause. “Do you still love me?”

 

If I told the truth, I would never be rid of him. I closed my eyes. “No.”

 

I heard a garbled sob before the line went dead.

 

#

 

If you’re wondering how it happened—that is, what Eric and I were saying to each other before the killing started, or how could I not know that murdering me was what he had in mind when I did see him again—I can only tell you that all of us carry lethal seeds within us, and that each of us has the capacity to be truly dangerous. The only barrier between murder and the common man is inspiration: given the right—or wrong—circumstances, everyone can be motivated to kill.

 

Could I see that Eric was distraught when he appeared at my door? Sure. But he seemed to be holding up under the circumstances. He had his hands in his pockets, as if he wasn’t planning to stay long. I thought that a good sign. He asked if he could come in. Seeing his pained and handsome face, and hearing the grip of defeat in his voice, I wanted nothing more than to show him that I still cared.

 

He came inside and sat down. For a while neither of us spoke. We just looked at one another, feeling sad and sorry that things hadn’t worked out. He told me that he missed me. I didn’t know what to say to that. He sighed; I could hear the grief rattling in his throat. His eyes were glassy; his fists seemed to be grinding in their pockets.

 

I looked at him in genuine regret. “Eric, I—”

 

Suddenly he stood, turning and bowing his head. I could hear him weeping in small, soft gasps. After some time, he raised his eyes and looked around the room. He looked around very deliberately, as if cataloging all the memories that had formed there before leaving them one last time. His eyes reached my cello—and stopped. Instantly his body relaxed. The air around him grew cold, very cold. He pivoted to face me—and that’s when I knew that something was terribly, horribly wrong.

 

I rose to my feet, working to tamp my quickening fear. He wanted to know if I had ever loved him; the look on his face told me that whatever I said wouldn’t matter. I struggled not to cave in to my mounting dread. “Eric—”

 

But that was all I had time to say. His fist swung out of his pocket and slammed into my skull. It felt like a mallet. Everything after that went in and out of black. I felt him beating me in the head and face. Was dimly aware of being dragged across the floor. Heard the swift swipe of metal leaving its hold, the tramping of his boots as his body dropped heavily onto mine.

 

In the eerie quiet beyond us, I could hear him sobbing and grunting as the knife tore into me, making ugly, squishy sounds that told me I would not survive. And when I felt him taking my hand as the last of life left me, I vaguely told myself that perhaps it was fitting he should have it, because once I was gone only he would know its value, and once I was buried, what more of mine could he take that would make my murder worthy?

 

Except my cello.

 

And that he did not want.

 

#

 

Author’s Note: “My Cello” was inspired by an actual murder that took place in downtown Seattle in 2002. Initially, I was compelled to write “My Cello” not only because of the viciousness of the crime (among other brutalities, the killer stabbed his date more than 235 times and cut off one of his hands), but also because the murderer is someone I knew at the time. While the individuals and circumstances involved in the 2002 homicide bear no other resemblance to the characters and relationships in “My Cello,” both stories exemplify a tragic truth: that an estimated 80 percent of people who are murdered knew their killer

 

I hope “My Cello” shines more light on the stealthy way violence seeps our into lives, the complex of emotional forces that delay leaving relationships that become abusive, and the imperative of ending such relationships at the first signs of darkness, before the abuser has infiltrated our lives.