By Dori Avila
The violin wails as Iosif Kotek runs the bow across the strings. Lazily, at first, then with increasing impatience. You sit by the window of this cottage overlooking the gentle rippling of lake Léman, and he plays. He is too young to stay still and cherish simple moments like this. Not that you’re old, but those fifteen years between you weigh enough to make the difference between your quiet reflection and his nervous fiddling with the violin.
So Iosif plays, stringing one note after another in no particular order, alternating between maddening high pitches and plaintive low rumbles, staccati following legati in ways that should not even be possible. He teases the instrument so mercilessly that you wonder if perhaps he is teasing you too. Testing whether you will pay attention to him and forsake the soothing landscape of the Swiss Alps where the last snows linger.
Giving in, you tear your gaze from the window and glance at him. Iosif does not stop playing and grins at you. He is curled up on the armchair, like a cat: ‘kotik’ in Russian, the pet name you’ve given him so similar to his last name that it is nearly a joke. His spectacles have slid down his nose and cannot hide the playfulness of his eyes. He still has a boyish look despite the moustache he so proudly has grown, to tell the world he is no longer a shy, fumbling conservatory student. He is twenty-three now, a violinist, and should be taken seriously.
You watch him play, your breath catching with the eerie beauty of his fingers on the violin. You really ought to fetch that painter from the town one day. This is how you would like to remember him, forever. But a painting would not capture the music. This legato, for example, is one you know you will never forget, just as that painter would never forget the stroke for a drifting cloud. Iosif has been playing in D major all afternoon. He must be happy, despite his boredom. He goes up the scale briskly, descends just as swiftly and ascends again with a glorious and unnecessary flourish, stretching the limits of the chords with such ardour that you cannot hold back a gasp.
You feel alive, all of a sudden! More alive than you’ve felt in months. Certainly more alive than in the bleak Moscow days of your short-lived, disastrous marriage. More alive than when you fled to this forgotten little village of Switzerland. And more alive, unbelievably, than three days ago when you found Iosif with his violin on your doorstep, eager and forgiving.
“Do that again,” you say breathlessly. Iosif still has his arm outstretched after his extravagant finish. He looks puzzled. “Play it again!” you beg, and rush to your desk to jot down the notes he went through.
“Petya, I don’t remember, I was not being serious,” he says with a hint of panic in his voice. You notice fleetingly that he called you Petya instead of the manly Pyotr he prefers using, and at any other moment you would smile, but you cannot help feeling a little irritated at this setback.
“Of course you remember,” you say sharply and hum the beginning of the tune as you write down the notes. It is devilishly good, how did he come up with it? Iosif follows your lead and soon finds it again, stretching the legato over the D major, losing himself in the high pitches like the virtuoso boy he was when you first met him. He does not play it exactly as before, but it matters not, it is enough for you to reconstruct it.
“I thought you were writing that piano sonata,” he says as he walks over to your desk. You hear his steps drawing closer only faintly; the sounds of the orchestra swirl in your head as they echo the theme of the soloist.
“Nonsense, nonsense,” you mutter. The damned sonata that resisted you for weeks is irrelevant now. “A violin concerto, for you.”
When you look up, he is beaming as if you’d said you’d marry him, and you blush as if he’d said yes.
* * * * *
“Staccato, not pizzicato,” you remind him with a frown, a little agitated that he is not following what you have written on the sheet.
“Pizzicato works better here,” he says stubbornly and plays the passage as if to prove his point. “Just listen,” he insists and leans closer to you to play.
So you listen.
He is right, it does go better with the mood of the movement. He is leaning so close you can smell the faint scent of his shaving soap on his cheek, the one against which the violin rests, and you’re overwhelmed with the urge to stroke it with your finger. You don’t, of course. Not now. Later, perhaps.
You smile to signal your approval and scratch out the staccato from your manuscript. He continues playing and you hum the part of the orchestra softly, beating the measure with your pen against the desk. You are so eager in your tapping that it leaves little ink spots all over the paper, and over your fingers, but you hardly notice. Your eyes are on him. He is sweating slightly. One of the droplets crowning his forehead slides down towards his ear, into his neck, and disappears into the collar of his unbuttoned shirt. What could be more perfect than this? Music, Iosif, and this droplet of sweat slowly sliding down his body.
You wonder, sometimes, why Iosif stays. Why he came to Switzerland at all. You could understand why he would want to be near you when he was a student, and you had much to teach. But he is a musician now, like you. You have convinced yourself that it must be the music. Does he like your music so much that he overlooks the scandal of your failed marriage? You are flawed and useless. Yet here he is, playing for you. Is it possible that he looks past your music, sees the man you are, and does not recoil in disgust? Having him so near swells your chest with hope, like the euphoric chords of a first movement.
The part of you that is still paying attention to the music corrects absent-mindedly, “You are one octave too low,” and he growls in frustration.
“Pyotr Ilyich, this is too difficult!” he protests, baring his teeth a little.
“But you can do it, kotik,” you say gently. You know he can.
Your faces are so close you can feel his shortened breath on your cheek. You could kiss him, if you wanted. Iosif looks at you, as if struck by the same thought. His gaze slide across your lips slowly. Challengingly. You don’t dare to, of course, so he does it. He presses his mouth to yours, soft and salty, and you forget about octaves and pens and pizzicati.
* * * * *
This is the part you’ve dreaded and avoided since you first realised you were in love with him. Iosif undresses you, looks at you, examines you. You feel old, obscenely old, and wish there was more to your body than this embarrassing fat belly and your trembling hands stained with ink. He is so beautiful, so breathtakingly handsome as he leans over you that you are ashamed he should waste his time with you. How can he possibly want you? It is mortifying.
“Forget this,” you mumble, and try to sit up, “I’m too old for you…”
He laughs. “Don’t be silly. I’ve wanted this for so long, since I was your foolish little student.”
Your wife also laughed, on your wedding night. A sad, hysteric laugh when it became clear you could not feel aroused for her. Horrifying. Revolting. You should have fled right then. But you stayed. Two terrible months where all music was stifled and silenced and it all became so maddeningly quiet that you tried to die. It didn’t work.
“Petya, look at me,” Iosif insists, and holds your face in his hands. His eyes are kind. Young. Full of passion, for you. For you! And maybe you shouldn’t be thinking of the concerto right now, but how can you not, when he runs his mouth on you like this? A crescendo? A coda! A grand finale deafeningly loud as your bodies blend in consonance.
* * * * *
Is it Iosif’s presence that makes you write faster than ever? It has to be.
He sits by you as you compose, plays as you write, amends difficult passages with a dedication that leaves you breathless. This would have never been possible without him. You are not a violinist, and if you were alone you would never suspect the secrets that linger under the chords. Those that Iosif draws out so effortlessly. “Could you go higher here?” you suggest sometimes, and he shakes his head and frowns, but somehow manages, and you marvel when violin impossibles become possible after all.
You work hand in hand, forehead on forehead and lips on lips for three beautiful, exhilarating weeks. You would probably work even faster, if you did not pause so often to give in to your passion, but even on the bed the music still flows – tremolo, vibrante – when you lie with Iosif in your arms and the melody on your lips. And to think you once told yourself, foolishly, that you would regret this! You’ve had dalliances before, of course, but never like this, not in this continuous intimacy so obvious that your brother has fled the cottage long ago to give you “some privacy for your concerto”. An euphemism that would have made you blush any other time but that only makes you laugh now. Bless your brother for being so understanding.
Iosif is andante with the bow, invigorating when he improvises, infuriating when he strays from your directions. His music soothes you, his hands sweep you to a frenzy. And he is patient, too, when you scold and grumble because of the measures resisting to be written.
“The second movement will not do!” you thunder in frustration and crumple the music sheets into balls. He says nothing, remains tight-lipped as the tempest passes. You storm out to clear your head, and when you return you see he has picked up the sheets, pressed them down and laid them under a book to make them straight again. Ashamed of your outburst, you sit and compose the missing movement in a single day to earn his forgiveness.
He plays it at once when you give it to him, flawlessly, with a beautiful smile on his lips.
* * * * *
“It is finished, my dear kotik,” you tell him one afternoon after you’ve bolded the last double bar.
Iosif leans over you and rests his chin on your shoulder, his freshly shaven face against your faint stubble. He kisses your cheek. “Thank you,” he whispers.
You take his hand and return the kiss, your eyes never leaving his. You’ve never been so in love. “No, thank you,” you say hoarsely. “You’ve made me alive again.”
He smiles sweetly, perhaps a little condescendingly. He probably does not know what you mean. He knows you tried to die, but thinks it was a half-hearted attempt. But why dwell on this now? It is long past, and he has reminded you what music should be like.
You pick up your pen and dip it in the ink to write ‘Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’ and ‘Violin Concerto in D major’ on the blank page. You begin writing ‘To Iosif Kotek’ in nice, large letters, but Iosif suddenly grabs your hand. The f of his name sinks down the page in an unbecoming ink smudge.
“Pyotr, what are you doing?” he says in a strangled voice you’ve never heard before, “Don’t write that.”
You stare at him, bewildered. “Why ever not? It is yours, of course. For you, to play.”
“People will know,” he stammers, red and shy like he hasn’t been in years. “It is too much. If you write this, they will know. They will know when they hear me play.”
“They will know what? That I love you?” you say bitterly. You are getting angry. How can he be like this, after all these weeks? He does not answer, and has the audacity of looking angry himself. Over what, you cannot fathom. “You will not play it, then?”
“No, never,” he says wavering between a stubborn scowl and a sorrowful look. So young still. And you, foolish old man. You loved him too much. You thought he would love you with the same intensity. You composed this for him, with him, and now he says he will never play it in public. A hundred stabs on your chest (or on your flaccid belly?) would not feel this painful.
“I am still starting my violinist career, I have a reputation to think of,” he adds, as if this excused him in any way. So he is ashamed. Of you. Of the passion you’ve shared, of every kiss, of every touch. Maybe even of the music. Some measures of the first movement are outright ridiculous, aren’t they, with those wailing high pitches. You suspected it, but still left them in, thinking he approved.
And he is right, of course, the concerto has your love for him scrawled and sprawled across the scores, and to unsympathetic ears every musical note could become a disgusting confession of the unspeakable pleasures you’ve shared. Did hiding in this Swiss cottage delude you into thinking that the rest of the world had vanished? After all, Geneva is only a few hours away. Scandal could and would attain the both of you. Young Iosif Kotek, squandering his promising career in a questionable association with depraved Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who could not even consummate his marriage.
“I think it would be best if you left,” you say coldly, amazed at your own detachment. Five minutes earlier you would have never thought this possible. You feel a little nauseous.
“There is no need to quarrel over this,” he says as he steps closer and touches your arm. “Don’t take it to heart, Petya…”
“Don’t call me that, you silly boy!” you growl as you stand to full height. You are slightly taller than him, just slightly, but it is enough. He cowers, not having expected your outburst. “It must all be over between us, if you cannot understand why I take it to heart. Do you know me so little? You’ve betrayed me! Go now, someone else will play this in your stead, someone worthy.”
Worthier than Iosif, who has composed by your side for more than a month? Your reaction is slightly melodramatic, but the pain is too raw to search for more measured words. You’ve always lived in absolutes, after all. Major or minor, and this is definitely a thundering minor. With booming descents to drown in your disenchantment.
You turn from him briskly, not wanting him to see the devastation he’s left you in. With trembling hands, you start preparing a new blank page with no dedication on it and hear him trashing about in the next room as he gathers his belongings.
The door closes after him very softly, surprisingly. You had expected a crashing denouement, not this unbecoming silence.
Dori Avila was born in Panama in 1984 and has been writing stories since she was a child. In 1997, she was awarded Honorable Mention for the Literary Prize Diana Moran in Panama. Dori pursued a career in Science and has lived in Canada, Scotland and Switzerland before settling back in Panama to work on historical fiction.