Two Americans in their early twenties, members of a Baroque orchestra, lived in Basel. They hated Switzerland, but their particular talents earned them a living there. He played cor anglais. She played viola da gamba, a choice she’d made, she crowed, because she liked something big between her legs. A dinner guest, a happy spectator of her outrageousness, prodded her, “Cello’s bigger, no?”
“What, are you trying to kill me?” she lashed back. She flipped a hand at her boyfriend (cor anglais), “Highboy here is bad enough, rips me apart almost, and you’d be surprised how often he’s overcome by lust.” Gangly Highboy’s chin sank to his chest, and his gaze skittered over the grandiose carpet (odd lot) of golden laurel crowns and Napoleonic bees. He laughed in a soft bass. Shook his head. Viola continued, “He’s huge. Not huge like me.” She plumped an imaginary train of princess hair. “I’m just gorgeous and wonderful and full of life and spectacularly huge. But he’s huge in a—well, you know what I mean.”
“You’re huge in a couple of ways,” Highboy said.
She stood up without rising much. She was about as tall as Highboy seated. She proffered unwieldy breasts on her fingertips. “You mean these?” He smiled. Viola’s head fell to one side. “Poor Highboy. And poor me! I have to get them cut off. Because I can hardly play anymore. I try to do staccato passages and it’s like—I don’t know—trying to jog in the ocean.” She demonstrated how her breasts inhibited bowing. “I get this rash right here. And Highboy, you remember when we did that Cavalli tit music? That’s what we called it—“tit music”—the way it made me look. There was some ninety-year-old in the front row. I really thought he was going to have a heart attack. He was totally staring.”
“He was blind,” Highboy said.
“Was not. That white stuff was cataracts. I’m sure he could make out shapes at least.”
Smiling and shaking their heads at her extravagance, the guests went off, and Viola lay in bed pouting, refusing to speak, because, she said, Highboy didn’t love her anymore. In annoyance, she hissed about their guests, “They think they’re so great, and I’m some . . . vulgar . . . fishwife. I’m from New Orleans! I’m no fishwife.”
Viola and Highboy had been going out for three and a half years. A year or so ago Highboy started thinking about bringing the relationship to a close. He was tired of the scenes. There were always scenes. Whenever they tried to eat in a restaurant, there were scenes. After sitting down, Viola would frown and announce she had a bad vibe or the light was wrong. It wasn’t unusual for them to walk out of four restaurants before finding one Viola could abide.
Docile as he appeared, Highboy was growing frustrated about being pulled along in Viola’s turbulent wake. He had a hard time formulating this even to himself. Again and again, like a musical phrase needing practice, he said in his shyly blundering voice, “I think I’m getting pissy. I don’t like that.” Repetition gave the remark a kind of obbligato sense over time, and it managed to sum up all his unhappiness with Viola. But he was a slow-mover, and wonderful sex kept him with her.
He had his own half lived-in ground floor apartment, which Viola seldom visited. When she did, she fussed. She took the eggs out of their carton and lined them up in the refrigerator’s egg tray. “You’re unbelievable, Highboy. What do you think this bumpy thing is for?” In her heart, she was more hausfrau than fish-wife.
They were rehearsing a patched-together concert version of l’Oca del Cairo for performance at a small church. The director stopped the orchestra at a phrase the players insisted on exaggerating. They kept making the subtle error of trying to play the effect of the music rather than the notes. It was a bit Broadway, the director said snidely. He was more than annoyed. Folding his arms in a great pique, he was about to rebuke them at length. Viola stood up. She didn’t answer when he drawled her name. She seemed in a trance. She set her instrument down carefully, then shouted, “I can’t stand this anymore.” Her voice echoed strangely in the church. She didn’t look at anyone. Her eyes rolled up in her head, and she roared in agony.
The guest singers stared, and the members of the orchestra looked at their feet. Viola walked out. Behind her the silent players shifted in their seats, and the resonant bellies of the string instruments gobbled uncertainly in the transept. Embarrassed and furious, the director glared at Highboy, who’d resolved to do nothing. The director took the tip of his plastic baton and knocked the cork pommel softly between his closed eyes. “Looks like some of us are a bit tense,” he sneered at the group. “Anyone else at the breaking point?” No one said anything.
Viola waited until the orchestra restarted. The crass appoggiatura was played rapidly this time, less a whine than a sigh. Highboy, she could hear, wasn’t coming after her. In tears, she ran off.
“Why didn’t you come?” she pleaded later.
“It’s not responsible, Viola,” Highboy said. “Why don’t you tell me what it was about? Was it about us?”
“Oh, God! Are you pretending you don’t know?”
“Viola, I don’t know.”
“So you think I’m insane. Great! I’m imagining things. Why does no one ever, ever believe me?”
“It isn’t that.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know ‘cause you won’t tell me.”
“I have to tell you your own feelings about that girl?”
She didn’t resent his involuntary hint of a smile, but she screamed at the top of her lungs. The next door neighbor, elderly Frau Veinzoepfli, came knocking. She was more exasperated than usual about the noise.
Highboy was awed by Viola’s sensitivity. Now that the thought was planted in his mind, he considered Flute. She was pallid, skinny, spoke in a small, breathy voice with the repressed calm of a mystic nun. He had little to go on except the luster of her bashful smiles and one golden stroll down the center aisle during which their shoulders had touched. Viola could read his feelings better than he could himself.
Viola had pointed the way, and he was able to forge the beginning of a love affair out of promising material he would have overlooked. It took him one week. During that time Viola was brooding. She said it was nerves about breast reduction surgery or about her probation with the orchestra, the result of walking out of rehearsal. Apropos of nothing, she asked, “Well, can she take getting fucked by the killer cock?” Happy illumination wobbled across Highboy’s ugly face. Viola herself answered and trailed off, “Okay. She can. Wouldn’t have thought it, really.” She turned away.
Highboy left Viola’s apartment in the early evening. After an hour, Viola also left and made her way to his apartment. She’d tried this once before, prompted by curiosity as sinewy as a dream’s. Highboy hadn’t been at home. What she’d discovered was an angle. Highboy’s apartment was on the narrow ell of an old manufactory’s courtyard. Green plastic recycling bins were wheeled to block the entrance to the ell. Beyond these Highboy’s two windows were dirty, barred and shaded. But a thumbtack had lost its grip, and a corner of the brown paisley cloth covering one of the windows had fallen away. Standing at a certain angle Viola had a grime-blurred view of Highboy’s futon.
When she stood there this time, she saw Flute on the futon, her ass in the air. Flute’s back sloped forward into a swirl of blondish hair. Pale, red-blotched and surprisingly furry, Highboy swung into view behind her. His mouth drifted down to the crescent shadow of the double globus raised toward him. His face vanished with an energetic motion of his jaw. The swirl of hair stirred when Flute turned her head. Like a well-behaved Hollywood camera, Viola briefly changed focused to the window’s soot and relic spatters of liquid.
Highboy drew himself up and appeared to say something. Flute writhed onto her back, picked at the hair sticking in the corner of her mouth and answered. She laid a hand on Highboy’s chest with solemn fastidiousness. Highboy folded her thighs back atop her and eased forward with his bony hips. The genital detail was fleeting and indistinct.
Whether she wanted to be noticed or was racked by jealousy or grief was indistinct to Viola: she made a sound. It was a soft sung vowel, an “Ah!” really too soft to be heard, so she repeated it more loudly.
The tone was musical but not clearly human. An echo in the ell made the sound hard to pinpoint. Even after an eighth or ninth loud repetition, Flute and Highboy appeared unlikely to notice any time soon. Then they did hear. Viola could tell each had heard, although they didn’t stop what they were doing. After a moment, she sang out again. Highboy’s upper body slipped to the side. His hips kept moving idly for a moment, and the lovers listened, linked. They looked toward the window. Viola moved away. She pushed past the recycling bins, which made a terrible grinding sound. She jogged out of the courtyard. She wasn’t sure whether she’d been seen.
Highboy wasn’t concealing the love affair, but he delicately tried to downplay his happiness. Viola said she wanted him to remain part of her life. She fixed dinner for him one night and asked, “Sometimes those prudish girls are just total sluts when they get going. She could probably take an I-beam, huh? I bet she likes you to go down on her, doesn’t she?”
“Viola,” Highboy groaned, smiling and frowning.
“No, maybe I was too dainty. I had a hard time. It was like sitting on a fire hydrant. I bet she likes it doggie style.”
Highboy was startled by what appeared to be insight. He hadn’t seen Viola outside his apartment that evening and had forgotten about the strange sound. “I don’t think we should talk like this,” he rumbled.
The second time Viola sang her song outside the window, she watched Highboy holding a tennis racket. Flute’s ass was raised again, reddened by the playful slapping of the racket strings. Highboy fell to his knees on the futon and gently turned Flute over. She curled herself around his thighs and cuddled them abjectly. When they heard the sound, Highboy stood. Curled around his ankles now, Flute looked up at the window. Again Viola pushed through the recycling bins and ran off.
Over dinner Viola commented to Highboy, “I had this idea that she likes to get punished. Spanked, I bet. She carries her shoulders all sort of hunched. She probably thinks she deserves it, because of that big lie of hers of acting all nice and up tight when she’s really a slut. I mean that in a nice way, of course.”
Highboy was amazed. He responded angrily as far as he was able. His gaze hunkered down in Viola’s table setting of thrift shop Victorian German silver, as grandiose as the carpet fragment. “I don’t think we should talk about this stuff,” he rumbled. “You think about it too much. It’s not healthy. It’s not making us happy.”
“You don’t know what makes me happy. Maybe I’m the virginal, saintly one, and she’s the whore. Who was the saint who got her tits cut off with giant hedge clippers? I’m a lot like her, I’d say.”
“Viola, I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s not making us happy.”
Viola shrugged and simpered at her plate. “I’m not upset about it,” she confided to the table.
In a strange way, she wasn’t. Though she’d rarely experienced such pain in her life, as a musician, she couldn’t help but love her peculiar song. The one note song had come to stand for the whole experience. And it was so unlike the flashy capriccio of her ordinary conversation, of her ordinary life.
After the performance of l’Oca del Cairo, Viola underwent the breast reduction surgery. The result was pure delight. She felt free and beautiful. And after she’d healed, she was able to play without any awkward period of adjustment as she’d feared.
She invited Highboy and Flute over for dinner. Her shyness alone was a little extravagant on that occasion. Eyelids batted, and her mouth seemed to struggle against great weight to form the smallest of smiles. She made the usual tumbling flourish of her hand, gesturing toward the liquor bottles. “Please, Highboy,” she said in a grand whisper. Her “hugeness” had been compressed somehow. She sighed and touched her décolletage, but her hand flew away as if burned. She shivered. Her guests were alarmed. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I’m still not used to this.” Her hand made an arabesque in front of her chest. “Not used to the not-ness.” Both Flute and Highboy made a show of sober compassion.
While Highboy and Flute examined an eccentric pornographic internet site on his laptop, Viola fussed in the kitchen. She was making a French veal stew that had to cook a long time. “We’re going to have time to get really plastered,” she explained when she came out. She plucked at Highboy’s sleeve and made as if to go into the bedroom. “Can I talk to you a second?”
“Please,” Flute said when Highboy looked at her for permission. Politely, her gaze returned to the picture of a man whose scrotum was thumb-tacked to a block of wood.
In the bedroom Viola stood with her back to Highboy. He was suspicious. At last it dawned on him that she was crying. “Viola!” he said, full of concern.
“I feel so ugly,” she turned. “I feel like no one will ever want to have sex with me again.”
“It must be—”
“How can you understand? Can you imagine having half your dick cut off?”
“No. But Viola, you’re more attractive than ever. Other people think so, too. That’s partly what you said you wanted.”
“I’m sorry,” she pouted. “It’s just that with you and Flute . . .” She raised her shirt and complained, “Do you think they’re all right?”
“Amazingly good. But I said so already.”
She shook her chest, so her breasts wobbled slightly. She stuck out her lower lip uncertainly. “I don’t know. I wish I could be sure it was you just didn’t love me anymore and not that it was like you were turned off by me now.”
Highboy laughed admiringly and said, “You’re so twisted. I do still love you.”
Slyly Viola went, “Aha! So you do think I’m disgusting—I wish you could kiss me,” she finished, looking down at her breasts. She dropped her shirt and left the room.
A moment later Highboy heard little shrieks as both girls exclaimed about something on the laptop. When he came out, however, they were gone.
“We’re in here,” Viola called from the kitchen. “You have to stay out. We’re talking. Go beat off. Look what we left on the computer for you.” Viola’s expression changed. Her gaze fell from the ceiling to Flute, who was standing just in front of her in the tiny kitchen, and she went on in a whisper, “No, I had to junk all these great clothes. I knew about that, the practical shit, but not that I would feel so different, like I had to have a new personality to go with—I mean, you and I are like the same size now, so—I don’t know. Do I seem more like you?”
Flute’s chin shot up in a peculiarly uncontrolled way when she laughed. She held her hands clasped in loose prayer in front of her own breasts and shrugged by drawing her shoulders together tightly. “I think you look great. Please, don’t worry.”
“Just—I feel so unattractive. I can’t be huge anymore! You’ll have to teach me how to be.”
“I couldn’t teach you,” Flute said shyly. The pot burped steam, which startled her. “Should I turn this down?”
Flute frowned dutifully over the burner dials and bent to make sure the correct flame decreased. When she straightened, she saw that Viola had lifted her shirt and was holding an ancient Polaroid camera in one hand and a bottle marked cerfeuil in the other. Shaking the bottle, - Viola asked her, “More? You like?” It wasn’t exactly clear Viola was talking about the cerfeuil and not her breasts, which had also shaken, so both girls howled with laughter. Viola couldn’t keep up with her own changes of subject. “No, I meant the—you know.” She took a breath and tried looking down at her breasts. “But this is what I’ve been doing all day. Me and my cell phone. I have to take pictures, because I can’t tell from the mirror.” She’d moved on to the antique Polaroid now because she thought the effect might be more painterly, grand.
Flute shook a lot of cerfeuil into the stew. The pot lid she was holding dribbled onto the stove as she glanced repeatedly at Viola’s breasts. “I think they’re beautiful,” she admired. “I hope I’m not messing your stew up. I never know how much to put in.”
“Fuck it. Are they OK in profile?”
“Really nice. Want me to take a picture?”
“Maybe profile. That’s hard to see. Here—no, wait. Let’s compare. I think you’re bigger than me now.”
“You think?” Flute doubted that. She took the camera, which was a big load for her. It dangled from her hand and made her skinny forearm look even skinnier. She tugged up her own embroidered t-shirt. She tried to act blasé about going along, but the whole thing was demented in a way she loved.
“Don’t cup your shoulders like that. That makes them look bigger,” Viola ordered.
The two stood shoulder to shoulder. Flute had to bend her knees so they were even. She made an effort to stick her chest out exactly as much as Viola was doing.
“You’ve got this pert, pointy thing going on,” Viola commented.
“No, that’s just my shirt pressing down on top.” Flute lifted her shirt higher.
“That’s about right.”
Flute held the camera out in front of them. “This is so heavy. I don’t know how it works. Maybe you should—”
“No. Your arm’s longer. Just press the button and it’ll flash, I think.” The polaroid picture buzzed out of the camera like a lolling tongue, and Viola whispered accusingly at the machine, “You wolf! Let’s just hope the film works. The box must’ve been a thousand years old. Thrift shop.”
A moment later they leaned over the darkening photograph with a pen. “To the hunk with the HUGE pecker,” they inscribed it.
“We have a present for you!” Flute announced when they emerged from the kitchen.
“No! After dinner.” Viola held up her hand like Frau Veinzoepfli when the old woman could bear no more excuses about the noise.
With ill-contained excitement, Flute gently head-butted Highboy’s shoulder.
They drank several glasses of brandy after dinner. The photograph was at last revealed. Flushed and groggy-looking, Highboy gazed at it and muttered, “This is so cool. This is so cool.” The three of them installed themselves on the bed in the bedroom to listen to a tape of a harpsichordist friend playing Frescobaldi. Viola, nestled in her heap of brocade pillows, raised her shirt again. “The problem with the flash—it washes out the color. It’s worse than the cell phone.”
“Doesn’t matter with me. I don’t have any color,” Flute said.
“Yes you do!” Viola peered under the other’s shirt.
“No!” Flute lifted her shirt up.
The two girls lay on the pillows arm in arm. Highboy compared the photograph to what he was seeing in real life. He let his eyelids droop somewhat, and all three were quiet as if listening to the Frescobaldi. Then Highboy drowsily lay his head between the two girls’ hips. It was Flute’s serve, in a manner of speaking, so she plucked at Highboy’s t-shirt and whispered, like a child playing by herself, “Let’s see what color he is.”
Given their ensemble instincts, clothes rapidly came off, and the three played together. Flute embraced Viola’s leg, kissing the inner thigh, while down below Highboy marked the pulse. The gamba dropped out. For quite a while Viola watched the other two. It was heartbreaking, yet sweet. Without thinking, she opened her mouth and sang the note, very softly. Then again more loudly. Flute’s eyes opened. A moment later the sense of it reached Highboy, who stopped.
Both recognized the note long before they remembered it. Slowly, slowly, like a theme liable to become important later, the memory sketched itself on their faces, first one, then the other. A wonderful shock rippled between them when they caught one another’s eye. Innocently, Viola sang her note once more. Flute raised herself a little on her hands, giving Highboy a quick pelvic squeeze, so he’d remain inside her as she pulled herself higher in the bed. Viola was idly stroking Flute’s hair. She hadn’t really heard her own song. With a kind of bodily agreement, Highboy and Flute fell upon her and covered her breasts with kisses. They even kissed the fine short scars underneath. Viola was lost in delight, unable to tell, as with great music, whether someone had engineered this or if it had simply come about.