Diana Oliva, 2009
Charlie Without Violins
I have a theory about Charlie. I have many theories, but the most prevalent one involves him being a man who is followed by muffled violins and maybe the Air soundtrack from the Virgin Suicides. It’s not so much a hypothesis about existence as much as it is a dream. It begins with him arriving in San Francisco in summer and taking off his shoes as soon as he gets out of the airport. He exhales a very thin breath and plucks his hand in the air, snapping quietly until he considers assertion in hailing a taxi. He carries his navy-blue sports bag across the busy street, the warm cement touching his naked feet. The taxi-driver inevitably has a warm-brown beard with streaks of white, and a curled moustache. Charlie insists on keeping his bag next to him instead of putting it in the trunk, and discusses the minor frustrations of flying with the driver.
“The last time I went on a plane,” the driver might say, “I wasn’t very comfortable. There wasn’t enough room for my legs. The flight was long and the movie they played was awful.”
Charlie speaks, “They showed Moulin Rouge. I hate that movie.” He’ll reject, naturally, something that I would. He’ll continue to snap and twitch nervously, but he won’t explain to the driver his mild case of ADHD. The drive between the airport and my front door will take an hour in the perpetually idiotic traffic. In some versions, he finds the time excessive and becomes frustrated, but the way I like it best is when it seems as if no time has transpired at all for him or for me. He arrives at my home and pushes the door. It opens as if it weren’t locked, as if I had no reason to ever lock my door. His bag falls off his arm making a dry bump sound muffled on the carpet. The door is left open; I am at the top of the stairs, playing the piano.
His weight on the stairs is pleasurable; it makes a quiet creaking noise. There is a sound of a dog barking somewhere. There is a sound of paper floating outside, gasping past a window as the wind picks up. Somewhere a radio buzzes. A bee pushes at my window, and it makes little beating noises when it can’t get in. Waiting for Charlie isn’t a problem for me, in this version. I know he’ll be at the top of the stairs, because he always arrives there no matter how long it takes. Someone is splashing in a pool somewhere.
The door swoons open and Charlie leans his lanky body on the frame, pressing his hands on the opposite edges to relieve some tension. His skin is peeling as it did our last summer, with a mild sunburn. It reflects in the dimmest of light, and as he walks toward me my eyes water. His arms are bare, his teeth are exposed. The piano music, in the best version, doesn’t stop playing when I leave the keys. The adagio arpeggios live inside the ear like shadows inside the rooms of my house.
If I throw myself up in the air, Charlie exuberantly catches me. He pushes his lips against my skin like the bee pushing itself against the window. It’s a light tap, a series of light taps. I feel as if the kisses inside my cheeks. Every bright cell contains pieces of his still, nervous osculation. I am made of his moments, there being nothing outside of the imaginary violins accompanying his presence. Who cares how it really happens, if this is the way it could.
Charlie was a physicist who I knew by chance in college. By chance I mean we took one class together our first semester but we happened to eat lunch at the same time and started eating at the same table on a regular basis. After two years at Tristan Music Conservatory School in San Francisco, he dropped out and applied to MIT for three years in a row until he got in. But for three months, he stayed on my couch when he couldn’t live in the dorms due to being un-enrolled.
My apartment was just a place he came home and slept at, and his interactions with me were few and unromantic. I didn’t expect to exploit the situation, though I did entertain notions of an isolation-induced affair. Maybe one day, a fantastic disaster would occur, like a freak blizzard or a flooding of all roads below our hill. Unable to escape, we would be forced to stare at each other for hours, no television and possibly no radio. If we were lucky all the electricity would fail, and we would have to stay up with candlelight. It would last for days, and the cold nights would induce us to sleep next to each other in order to maintain our rather subjective body temperatures. Somehow, the bodies pressed against each other would induce a long-tempered passion in Charlie to well-up and surface.
“Olivia,” he might say, “You are the subject of my deepest fantasies.”
Then I would respond, “Of course,” and in a low susurration, imitating a Bond-film villainess, “Mr. Dollwood, you know so little of what I know so much. I was born a high-school lover. I read men like sheet music.”
The scenario itself was so absurd and unlikely that I took a special delight in adding more fantasy to it. “I’m also a trillionaire,” he’d add. “And I want to spend a portion of my fortune in your education. It’s the least I can do.”
“No, no,” I’d insist. “All I want is your heart.”
He’d spread out his fingers on my hips. Later, he would sleep back to back with me, accidentally kicking my thighs and calves in the middle of the night. He’d cough and snap compulsively, waking me up in the middle of the night with his infallible quirks. I would listen pensively, humming the praises of Charlie’s crisp, congenial existence in my sleep. The nerve I could have had, if ever in those months we lived together, to ask him to sleep next to me (not with me!) just to know the precise rhythm of his sleeping lungs, chest rising to a cold, innocent beat.
“Hey Ollie, I’m going to the market. You need food?” was a normal question he asked me once.
“Don’t go!” I shrieked without thinking. He stared at me baffled for a moment until I realized what I had said. “I mean, how’s that song you’ve been writing?”
“It’s great, I mean, as good as I get. There’s a reason I’m switching schools. My violin’s crap. But I was going to the market…”
“Yes. Bring back bread, any form of it. Croissants, bagels, loaves, English muffins, whatever.” I walked up the stairs and leaned carefully over the banister while reciting the different breads he could bring. “Pita.”
“Word,” he departed. He left some coffee in a teacup on my table. I lifted it to find a moist little pool of condensation, another Dollwood-print. I regarded it and whispered to myself a barely intelligible song I’d written on the piano: “And if my heart had wings, I’d tie it up with strings, so I could I reel it out and reel you in!”
He returned three hours later with no bread but three different boxes of cereal. “I couldn’t make up my mind,” he told me. “So I got all of them.”
“And the bread?”
“Oh yeah,” he said, snapping his fingers gracefully. “I forgot.”
Charlie, though forgetful, distracted, twitchy, and stubborn to most people, was and has always been for me these things but more. He was whimsical, childlike, energetic, and tenacious. I have been very aware of both his states: Charlie-with- and Charlie-without-violins. Charlie-without-violins left hair in the drain, clothes in the drier, and post-it-notes on everything. Charlie-with-violins also left hair in the drain, but it formed a pattern, swirled like a cloud and stuck like warm chocolate to the bottom of my soap. His clothes was a welcome surprise of a pre-warmed drier. I could stick my hands in and feel his corduroy jacket’s long sleeves, surmising that his lanky white arms filled them in perfectly. The post-it-notes left me wondering if he was a poet.
Before 18/3, or
Face applying next year.”
I traced the letters with my fingers. He startled me with his ghost-like presence, appearing at the bathroom door while my electric-toothbrush hung off my lip, vibrating against my teeth. I turned off the water.
“Hi Charlie,” I said, foam still frothing at the corners of my lips.
“I have to go pee.”
“Yeah, let me get out of your way. I’m sorry.”
“No prob. I can wait.”
“Well, where are you transferring to?”
“What if they reject you?
“I’ll just apply again. They can’t reject me forever. No one who really cares about anything gives up after getting rejected anyway. I’m going to go to this school.”
I stood in the steam, stunned by the pale glow of anticipation. What if I took the same tone, what if I refused to take no for an answer? I wanted to follow him for the rest of his life, applying again and again every year, submitting new material. I’d flood him with essays, recommendations, scores from arbitrary and possibly unrelated tests. Stories, poems, songs, pictures, flowers discovered in jungles and named after him. I’d invest great portions of my life and money to break him down. After all, there was a possibility it was as he said, They can’t reject me forever. ‘They’ being in my case the united front of the Charles Victor Dollwood Committee. Maybe I could impress a variety of trustees, his parents and friends, until ‘they’ had no choice but to let me love him. Maybe I could argue the snapping, strapping Charlie into being the subject of beautiful things. If only he would let me.
The theories followed Charlie’s presence as long as I knew him in college. His reaction combined two facets of a person beloved by a person he loves not: sympathy and feigned ignorance. He didn’t address the obvious things, like a dinner I took three hours preparing, or the song I wrote him, Etude of an Empty House. He simply took them, gracefully, like a child takes candy offered him without consideration for the giver. There was a simple, unforgivable pleasure I delighted in—watching the lack of curiosity as he discovered something I had left him. He didn’t think too much, he just moved. The cup of coffee that was warm at 10, just as I was leaving for class, woke him up only as I made it out the door. I would listen carefully, before mounting my bike, for the tinkling of the spoon mixing in his sugar and milk. The metallic stirring noise assuaged me in knowing that behind this ada-esque fantasy was a man who drank coffee to shake the sleep off.
Eventually, after many days of going to class, remaining estranged from even my closest friends, playing music for hours on end to relieve the retrospectively uncomplicated, youthful sentiments of isolation, I came home to a place without a fantasy. Charlie was trapping his scattered things in his navy-blue sports bag, combing his hair nervously with his fingers, and trying to get a tie on. I looked on, my eyes perceiving the situation casually as I stood in the doorway.
“I’m moving to Massachusetts,” he said, grabbing a stray sock from underneath the couch cushions.
“There?” I questioned stupidly.
“I’m going to go give these guys a piece of my mind.”
“They didn’t let you in?”
“Not yet. They’ll come around. They think they didn’t let me in, they think they sent me a rejection letter.”
“What are you going to do about me?” I blurted, conflating fantasy and reality inadvertently. He ignored my question and continued to search underneath tables and seat-cushions for long-lost possessions. He found a Canadian quarter and a watch that needed new batteries. He found his I-pod headphones and old music theory notes. Slowly, the silence expected of one forgetting a question passed.
“Ollie I’ll miss you. You’re a real kick in the pants.”
“—I found my 16-sided dice! Do you have any idea how long it’s been?”
He buckled his bag across his shoulders with a loud snap. “Listen O-face I have to catch the first bus out of here. Can you drive me to the station?”
“Let me get my keys.” I spoke as if I had no reason not to, but I instinctively wanted to delay the departure as long as possible. I fumbled around in my purse quietly in the doorway, until the time I could buy was used up.
I waited with him at the station, where he bought a magazine and two packets of gum. It was a desperately short hour-and-a-half, where I sat across from him on the benches. He had his legs crossed, the right leg above the left, and that right leg twitched nervously in constant beat to his snapping. The twitches were written in sixteenth notes, the snaps in half notes. His magazine was in one hand, a copy of Rolling Stone. He studied it intensely, as did I. The cover amused me, as it had a famous guitarist taking a bite out of his own instrument. Daniel Glover, it read, Creature of The Year. This month’s issue included a poster and a chance to fly to Tokyo to see Daniel Glover in person. He bore a striking likeness to Charlie.
“You know I never expected my first time saying ‘I love you’ would happen in the middle of an empty bus-station.”
He did not look up.
“I love you. I love you in an awful way. For no reason at all.”
The benches squeaked under his constant oscillating. The magazine vibrated slowly in his hand.
“If you love me I want to never die. I have no reason to die if you love me. I’ve got no reason to stop living. I could live a thousand lives to love you as thoroughly as possible.”
The snapping stopped, and then continued. There was no response as he turned the page.
“I simply love you, the way most people don’t. I am not trite, I am not flagrant, I am honest. There’s nothing I can do to individualize something so simple and so true: I love you in the most human, sincere way. I dare you to speak, if there are any words you have against or for love.”
Charlie turned the page.
“It must be great for you, to get on your bus and remain unchanged. I do not resent any of your privilege. We were put on this earth to feel this feeling, described over and over again in countless, unintelligible ways. Our miserable time on this miserable world is punctuated with periods of longing, and it’s all that a person can do to risk their pride, self-esteem, and sanity to love someone just a little bit more. Nothing’s worth anything unless you care enough to look like an idiot,”
“Sorry,” he said, looking up with his stark green eyes. He didn’t speak, he just locked eyes with me.
“I was saying, we have a purpose here, a social responsibility—”
He observed a respective silence. “Why?”
“Why do you—say that? Why do you love? Me?
“Why do you tell people your name is Charlie?”
He read his magazine and dropped out of the conversation for an uncomfortably long amount of time. It was vaguely humiliating, knowing that he could take so long in forming words when I needed them now. He began, unrelated. “It’s just not there.”
“What else did you want to tell me?”
“Your bus is pulling up.”
“O, come on.”
“I can’t believe you like Glover. He’s such a terrible musician.”
“Ha, yeah,” he said amiably, watching his bus pull up. He lifted his bag and ascended some steps onto to the platform, and after another short period of time, he left. He waved and smashed his face against the window, distorting his cheeks humorously. I looked on with melting features, minding myself that something real had just escaped me. My hand extended as if there was something to catch, but all I could do was reach.
Later on he would write me postcards, from as far as Peru and Russia. He made his way across the world searching for excellent new foods and music. He learned various strange instruments, including the euphonium and the sitar. He sent back teas and occasionally pictures. His face, as the years progressed, became bearded and more complexly-surfaced. There was a depth that came to his appearance, completely separate from the naked-faced youth I idolized in my early twenties. The jaw-line slacked, the eyes got smaller, and seven years later he graduated from MIT.
Carefully, I stepped around his letters, his postcards, his souvenirs like dried herbs and pictures. I watched them slip in through the mail slot in my door every couple of months, and then I hid them in a drawer, away from my sight. They came less and less often, until I stopped receiving anything altogether. I wondered, occasionally, if I could watch him forget me, if there was a moment when he realized there was a gap in his mind, spanning anywhere between three months and two years. Something would be missing, but when he tried to reassemble the images of who or what, the outline and definition would be swallowed like chalk in a watercolour painting.
I have a theory about Charlie. He is a normal man, he is asleep on a flat mattress right now in a white house in Massachusetts, and the most he will be for me is an interesting story. There is no great return, and his years have bested him of his ephemeral virtues. But it suits me, not because I am a lonely or foolish person, but because I am an honest person, to imagine another Charlie, a Charlie-with-violins, with a soft baritone voice, with smooth brown hair and glowing egg-shell skin. I am honest, because I can make a most simple existence of drinking coffee alone and hearing my apartment’s foundation settle and creak as it ages, with the addition of a little fantasy. I can pour a cup of coffee out and leave it on the table, where he might have left it. I can sleep at ease, imagining that the rustling of evening gowns and purses outside could be the shuffling of Charlie on the couch. And it’s amazing sometimes, that I can come home in the afternoons to find the still, unstirred cup on the counter, and not drink it because I think it’s still too hot. It never disappears, I just pour it out each afternoon and refill each morning, revelling in his absence, where he was, filling in the outline of his Charlie-shaped place.