Critic Jasper Phelps falls gracelessly in love, to the amusement of his peers and partner.
Summary: Written for the prompt(s): A forty-five year-old classical music critic falls for a seventeen year-old piano player hailed as a prodigy.
He was playing Beethoven’s Sonata No. 13 in C minor, Pathetique.
Playing it? I should say living it, for while technically perfect—or as near to as a mere mortal can get—it wasn’t his skill which impressed, so much as the pathos with which he played. With which he conveyed. The natural poignancy of the piece was amplified by the sense that this young man, this Arthur Pagan, knew whereof he played.
And observing him—admiring him as I did, from my third row center seat, I fell deeply and irrevocably in love . . . though I did not realize this until later that night.
Shall I paint for you, then, a picture? The picture young Mr. Pagan made, arched in concentration over the piano—then leaning back from it, his fingers moving so smoothly, so adeptly at their craft? Shall I illustrate the nobility and sensitivity of his profile? The long, lean lines of his tightly-strung body—like a lyre—as he played? The passion on his lovely face, simultaneously that of Christ on his Cross and Ganymede in the arms of Zeus?
I fear I shall not do him justice. I am no poet.
After this . . . superlative debut performance, I and a few other members of the ever-loyal press were taken backstage to meet Mr. Pagan. I could barely contain myself, excitement warring with impatience to be home, writing my article for the Times. But no, I told myself sternly. Such churlishness in the face of what must surely be a sensitive and sparkling young man will not do—it simply will not do!
Promxiity, it turns out, had the power to make me twice the fool I felt, for Mr. Pagan—Arthur, if I may be so bold in my private thoughts—was even more lovely than his passion had painted him. Pale, but for hectic roses at each perfect cheekbone, an aquiline nose, large eyes as dark as they were deep, thick, wavy shoulder-length hair as dark as the shadow under a raven’s wing, and a mouth that would move a saint to sodomy—ye gods, but he was the most beautiful being I’d ever laid eyes on!
He shook hands with my peers, coming last to me, as I had hung back to catch my breath, as it were, from the hammer-blow that had been being so near to a fallen angel.
I regarded his outstretched hand. It was indeed a pianist’s hand, long and motile, with graceful fingers and short, neatly-trimmed nails. I reached for and clasped it. It was cool and dry, unlike my own.
“And you’d be Jasper Phelps from the Times, is that right?” Arthur asked in a soft, genteel tenor, the pink tip of his tongue darting out briefly to wet those sin-perfect lips. Then he was smiling, flashing even white teeth at me, his sloe eyes both welcoming and intelligent. “I get the Times just to read your articles. I’ve been a fan since I was fourteen.”
“Ah. Ah-ha-ha. That’s too kind of you, Mr. Pagan,” I stammered, flushing awfully. Arthur clasped my hand a bit longer than necessary, his eyes holding mine.
“Please,” he said, his voice infinitesimally lower than it had been. “Call me Arthur.”
“Er—right! Yes, I shall!” I freed my hand quickly, looking away. At Diane Contos of the Post. She was sneering at me, as usual, and I sneered right back. The others—Oscar Lynch of the Record and Petra Danilova of the News were smirking in a most undignified fashion. At what I couldn’t then imagine. “And you must call me Jasper.”
“Jasper,” Arthur said, smiling a little wider. Just the sound of my name on those lips and I nearly fell to my knees. “Well, Jasper—Mr. Lynch, Ms. Contos, Ms. Danilova—I can only hope I’ve lived up to your high standards for performances tonight.”
Oscar opened his bass-like mouth to say something no doubt as pretentious as it was ill-informed and I jumped to cut him off, lest young Arthur become worried that his performance had been less than . . . superb.
“Fear not, dear Arthur . . . you were magnificent,” I said rather loudly to cover Oscar’s surely asinine comment. “Simply astounding.”
“Well, thank you, Mr.—Jasper.” That smile warmed as Arthur met my gaze again. “And if you have any questions for me, any of you, I’d be happy to answer them now.”
I was certain I had a million questions, and not one of them fit to print.
That night, when I got back to the penthouse, Louis was waiting up for me in bed, reading a magazine and wearing the pout that, at twenty, had been adorable, but now, at twenty-four, was patently ridiculous.
“Where were you? It’s after midnight,” he said, watching me get undressed. I didn’t answer him till the last article of clothing had been hung up and my shoes placed neatly in the closet.
“After the performance, Arthur was kind enough to take questions from the press. Then, one question led to another, led to another, and before any of us knew it, it was midnight. But Arthur was so witty and self-effacing that the time fairly flew!”
“Arthur?” Louis’ blond brows shot up and he put aside his magazine, crossing his arms over his chest. “You mean that brat you’re going to review for Sunday’s edition?”
I didn’t give Louis the satisfaction of flinching. Instead, I drew myself up like the dignified man I was. “If by ‘brat’ you mean Arthur Pagan, then yes, that would be the brat in question.”
Louis searched my face for long moments then snorted, going back to his magazine. “He’s seventeen, isn’t he?”
This time, since Louis was no longer looking, I did allow myself to flinch. “You bring that up because—?”
Those smug blue eyes ticked to mine briefly before going back to the glossy color photos of People. “And you’re . . . forty-five, right?”
“In six weeks and three days, yes. Your point being? And there is a point, I’m hoping?”
“You know what my point is, Jasper.” Those eyes ticked to mine again, knowing and sly. “You chase after this one and you’ll wind up in prison.”
Shocked, I froze in the midst of sliding into bed. In the meantime, Louis sighed and closed his magazine. Then he turned out his bedside lamp and rolled onto his side. “Good night, Jasper.”
“Wait just a moment—what do you mean by that remark, sir?” I demanded, at last slipping between the sheets. They were cool and soft, though warmer as I inched closer to Louis. He glanced over his shoulder at me, smiling that smug smile.
“I mean, Jasper-darling, that I love you very much, but you’re as transparent as glass. You want that damn kid. I know the signs.” Louis held up a hand when I began to protest. “I remember them from when I was the young prodigy making the classical music circuit and you were chasing after me. Main difference between me and your precious Arthur being that I was eighteen when you began pursuing me. And he’s still very much seventeen. If his parents decided to press charges—or he did—you could go to prison.” Snorting, Louis turned back to face his lamp and yawned. “And the only thing that would be more ruinous for your already damaged reputation than an affair with yet another prodigy young enough to be your son, would be if such an affair—or attempt at an affair became publicized due to charges being pressed.
“So take my advice, Jasper, my love.” Louis yawned again. “Let this kite fly. Arthur Pagan is off limits.”
Red about the face and stock-still in bed, I leaned back in the piles of pillows.
“You think you know everything, don’t you?” I hissed, angrily, turning out my lamp and inching as far away from Louis in our bed as I dared. I didn’t want to wake up on the floor with a broken arm. “You think you have me figured out, do you?”
“Oh, I know I do,” Louis laughed sleepily. “Good night, Jasper.”
I huffed, thinking that were I laying abed with Arthur, this conversation wouldn’t be transpiring. No, Arthur would be sweet and pliant in my arms, and I’d play his body like the Stradivarius it was until the skies fell. That would be the main difference Louis had alluded to. Arthur was still fresh, still pure, still . . . malleable, in the way that only the young are. The way Louis had been, once upon a time, before fame and privilege had made him jaded.
“One day, not too far in the future,” I said quietly, “Arthur will turn eighteen. What will you have to say, then, hmm?”
There was no answer from Louis for so long, I thought he’d fallen asleep. And I was glad of it, for I hadn’t meant to say what I’d said aloud. But then Louis sighed and mumbled: “When that day comes, Jasper, feel free to pursue him to your heart’s content. And when he makes it plain that he doesn’t, at seventeen, want a forty-five year-old, failed violinist-turned-music critic dogging his steps . . . I’ll be right where I always am, waiting to pick up the pieces. Just like I always do. Sweet dreams.”
Shocked once more into silence, I lay there till long after Louis’ breathing evened out and became soft snores. And I thought of Arthur . . . he was so special—the most special person I’d ever had the honor of meeting. And he was so sweet and humble . . . not like Kane Henreid, or Guy Cantore . . . or Louis Scharfman.
No, Arthur was different, and once he was mine . . . once he was mine, I’d be different, too. Better than I was with Louis, and better than I had been with the others.
I’d be more than a failed-violinist and a music critic . . . I’d be . . . special, too.
I would help guide and shape young Arthur’s career and he would bring his warmth, and sweet naivete and optimism into my life and I would be . . . renewed.
And all the naysayers—namely the one in my bed, and the ones who called themselves my peers—could eat their hearts out.
Shall I paint you another picture? A picture of the days I imagined spent with Arthur by my side? And the nights spent in my bed, guiding and teaching him skills he’d not have learned at conservatory? Of Sunday mornings spent in bed sharing the Times between us, with afternoons spent lingering over brunch at the local patisserie, and evenings spent listening to him play Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. . . .
My heart sighed.
He will be mine,I promised myself drowsily. In less than one year, he will be mine, and all my dreams will at last come true. . . .
In my mind’s eye, Arthur smiled and beckoned me nearer with his warmth and interest. I let myself be drawn by his dark, dark eyes, and reached for him. I fell into his eyes—into love—as into the blackest chasm, and I did not fear the falling, for I knew at bottom waited my Arthur, and the love he would come to bear for me in time.
If I was patient.
Six months, one week, and six days, I thought—my very last before my eyes closed and sleep took me.
My dreams were, indeed, sweet.