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One Lucky Boy!

by William Wesley

The Cello

"How will we know him?" I asked as the charter buses began pulling into the high school's parking lot.

"They'll call our name when he signs in," my mom replied. "But he should be easy enough to spot."

True. He should stick out like a super-sized sore thumb. After all, the reason we were housing a student for the annual Tri-State Music Festival was because the Band & Orchestra Boosters had put in a request for a host family with an extra-long bed. And since my brother Weed was now playing basketball for the University of Iowa, we had an empty twin bed that filled the bill.

So we had volunteered to house "Kohl, David, cello." I wasn't particularly crazy about the idea of sharing my bedroom with a stranger, but the music festival kept everybody so busy that I probably wouldn't see much of him, and I could stand it for the two nights he'd be staying with us.

Besides, I'd be doing a lot of running around myself: I played trombone in both the band and the orchestra, and that meant rehearsals morning and afternoon, plus concerts tomorrow night and the next. We'd also probably be spending a lot of time showing the out-of-towners how to find the auditorium or the cafeteria or the john.

As each bus pulled up, the driver hopped down to open up the baggage compartment and began hauling out overnight bags and instrument cases while a motley crew of students started filing out. Finally, from the last bus, he emerged - at least, it had to be him. All I could actually see was a cello case held aloft, with extremely long legs emerging from behind it. When he put the instrument down and got in line to meet his host family, he was way taller than anyone else - six foot seven or eight, about the same as Weed and at least a couple of inches taller than me.

That's where the resemblance ended, however. Where my brother was a power forward and built like it, this dude was skinny. He had really wide shoulders, but no meat on them or anywhere else. When he turned sideways he practically disappeared, like the playing cards in "Alice in Wonderland," painting the roses red.

He finally got to the front of the line, and when the lady from the booster club checked his name against the roster of host families and called out, "Farley!", my mom was already headed in that direction.

"David? I'm Sharon Farley, and this is Nathan," my mom said as she shook his outstretched hand. I checked him out in the process. He was as gangly as a newborn giraffe - with a mop of frizzy pale blond hair sticking out from under his Bulls cap. His face was long and thin, too, but it was broken up by a really wide smile, and I couldn't help smiling back.

"Come on and I'll show you the band and orchestra room, David," I said. "You can leave your cello there while we go home to drop your bag off and get some lunch."

"That's OK," David said as he picked up the case again. "I'll just take it with me."

"You don't want to lug that thing all over town!" mom interjected. "Besides, we'll be coming right back here for the afternoon rehearsals."

"I know, but I really can't leave it," he said, slightly embarrassed. "If something happened to it while I wasn't around, my parents would throw at fit – and so would the insurance company."

I raised my eyebrows. "Insurance company! What is that thing, anyway - a Stradivarius?"

He grinned again. "I wish! But it IS expensive enough to be insured. And I swore a blood oath to my folks that I'd always keep it with me when I have it away from home."

"Well, I guess we can fit both you and a cello in the back seat," mom said. "Let's get going!" So off we went - three people, one bag and a cello.

My mother missed her calling - she should have been an investigative reporter. While we drove home to ditch his bag, and later, as we inhaled burgers and fries at the Big Boy, she found out everything about David except his email password and his blood type. Turns out he was 18 and a senior, like me. He had an older brother and sister who both played the violin, and his parents had graduated from one of the big Eastern music schools before coming back home to take over the family business - a feed store, of all things.

I mostly listened as mom extracted his likes and dislikes, his girlfriend status (unattached, also like me), his college plans. Everything about his life seemed to be music, music, music. All along, I suspected he was from another planet, and I was convinced of it when he revealed that he even played chamber music with his family!

And yet, weird as he was, I couldn't help liking this hyperextended ALF. He seemed so comfortable, one of those people you feel like you've known forever instead of just an hour or two. And he seemed comfortable with himself, too. I envied the fact that he seemed to know exactly what he wanted out of life, while I was pretty much clueless.

Finally, the meal - and the inquisition - ended, and it was time to head back to school for rehearsals.

As David and I uncoiled ourselves from the booth, a little old lady sitting nearby looked up ... up ... up at us. Her eyes brightened, and I knew what was coming before she even opened her mouth. Sure enough, out it popped: "Do you boys play basketball?"

I'd heard it at least a thousand times from a thousand smiling little old ladies, and I knew he had, too. But David answered with a smile. "No, ma'am," he said as he picked up his instrument case. "I play the cello."

* * *

Did he ever, as I discovered that afternoon when we had our first orchestra rehearsal. It was the usual chaos, with kids crawling over one another to figure out where they sat, chattering away, kicking over mutes, knocking music off the stands and creating a low-level din that continued even as we played. One of the pieces on the program was "The Carnival of the Animals," and the guest conductor looked like he wished he could put us all in cages.

That is, until we got to "The Swan."

David was first cello in the festival orchestra, and since he was my temporary roommate, I watched with extra interest as he curled himself around the instrument and began to play the famous melody. After a few bars, though, I realized I'd stopped breathing. I'd never heard anyone play like that! Then I noticed that the incessant chatter around me had stopped, too. Kids were sitting forward, listening silently to the haunting music that poured forth from his cello.

"It was fantastic!" I gushed as I described the scene to my parents at dinner. David even blushed a little.

He surprised me after dinner, when I asked him if he wanted to watch a video or fool around on the computer or something. I expected him to say he had to practice or do his music theory homework. But instead, he replied, "How about a game of one-on-one?"

Out in the driveway, I got another surprise when he peeled off his shirt and got ready to play. He was board thin, all right - but his chest and stomach looked hard as ceramic tile, and they were covered with a golden fleece that was so fluffy and fine it could have been cotton candy. God, he was a hairy dude!

Once we started to play, I quickly discovered David was no pushover. Those lanky legs were nimble, and he wasn't the least bit awkward. (I should have realized that he'd have to be coordinated to play the cello the way he did.) He didn't have the moves I did, but his long arms blocked more than one shot.

I eventually beat him - after all, I was used to playing against my brother - but not without a struggle. For one thing, I kept daydreaming: I'd find myself watching his long spidery fingers holding the basketball with one hand, or the blond fuzz that was now soaked with sweat and clinging to his chest, and ZIP! he was past me, laying up an easy basket.

We were both lathered by the time we headed in to shower and get ready for bed.

"Why don't you play on the varsity?" I asked as I started to peel off my sweaty clothes. "With a little work, you could be really good!"

"I don't know. I used to play a lot," he replied. "But it was a question of priorities - I had to choose whether I was going to spend my time practicing basketball or practicing the cello."

"Priorities, huh?" I laughed. "Well, you certainly are dedicated!"

"You don't understand," he said with unusual seriousness. "I like basketball. It's just that I love playing the cello - I love it more than anything."

Then he looked up and asked me, "Don't you have anything like that, Nathan?"

I returned his gaze. I'll never know what I intended to say in reply, but what came out was: "Your eyes ... they're violet!" When I realized how idiotic that sounded, I lamely added: "I mean ... Violet eyes are pretty unusual, aren't they?"

"Geez, I dunno," he shrugged. "My dad has 'em, and so did Elizabeth Taylor. I never thought much about it." Then he turned around, grabbed a towel and headed into the bathroom for a shower.

While he was showering, I brushed my teeth. I kept thinking about his question: Did I have anything that I really, truly loved? Basketball? Not really. I loved the game, but not the way he was obviously talking about, not the way my brother did. Certainly not girls - I could never quite figure out what all the fuss was about. And while I was involved in just about every school activity and did well enough in all my classes, I had no idea what I wanted to study in college, let alone what kind of career to pursue. Sometimes I felt like I was just a whirlwind of activity with a vacuum in the middle.

I was working myself into a Grade A funk when I caught a glimpse of David in the mirror as he stepped out of the shower. ‘Whooaaa, Nelly!' I exclaimed - fortunately, not out loud. He was impressive all over.

After we hopped in our beds, we gabbed about nothing in particular. I finally switched off the light and tried to get to sleep, but images from throughout the day - mostly of David - kept popping into my head.

When I did drift off, I had weird dreams. David was in them, and so was his cello, and those violet eyes were staring at me as he questioned me, but I couldn't understand what he was asking. It was something about priorities.

The next morning was devoted to each individual school's band and orchestra playing audition numbers, so I didn't see much of David. But we hooked up at lunchtime and were headed toward the cafeteria when a bunch of my buddies hollered, "Hey, Nathan ... you and your extremely tall friend want to go downtown?"

That sounded like a lot more fun than cafeteria food, and we had a long break before afternoon rehearsals, so before you knew it we had piled into one of their cars, packed with a gaggle of guys - and of course, one cello.

"Going downtown" to my buddies meant heading down from the high school, which stands high on the limestone bluff overlooking the Mississippi, to the riverfront and checking out the babes getting on and off the riverboat casino that had become our main visitor attraction.

They wouldn't let us on the gambling boat, of course - you had to be 21 for that. But that didn't stop us from getting lunch in the adjacent snack bar and making lewd comments about any female in sight.

I'd done this many times before. As we sat at the counter, however, I realized just how juvenile my friends were acting - and how much less interesting they were than my temporary roommate.

As for David, he laughed at some of the more creative comments, but I noticed he didn't make any himself. At one point, he gave me a secret smile, as if he knew just what was going through my head.

Finally, I hopped off my stool and announced, "Sorry, guys, but David and I have got to get back to rehearsals." They offered to drive us, but I told them we'd walk.

Once we were outside, David looked at me - then up at the school high above us and finally at his cello case - and said, "Are you really planning to walk up there?"

"Trust me," I grinned. We'd only gone a couple of blocks when I turned into a short street that dead-ended at the base of the bluff. "Voila!" I proclaimed with a wave of my hand. "Our ride awaits!"

David stared at the green-and-white contraption in front of us. "What IS it?"

"That, my friend, is the elevator which will whisk us to the heights!"

Actually, it was an incline railway - a leftover from the Victorian era. It had been built by some banker who got tired of driving his buggy up and down the hillside for lunch, and it had two small counterbalanced cars, one at the top and one at the bottom, which would pass each other halfway up. Nowadays it was mostly ridden by tourists or by kids on bicycles who didn't feel like pedaling up and down the bluff - such as the girl who was just getting off with her bike as we approached.

"Is it safe?" he asked dubiously as I climbed onboard.

"Oh, sure. It's a national landmark. But it only runs every 15 minutes, so we'll have a little wait."

"Well, in that case ..." He clambered on after me, plopped down on one of the green seats -- and proceeded to take out his cello!

" ‘There is nothing like music to fill the moment with substance,' " he quoted as he plunked and diddled and did the things that string players do. "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I read that on the back of a T-shirt."

Then he began to play.

I'm sure if any tourists had come along about then, they'd have had plenty of material for "You won't believe what I saw in Iowa" postcards. But none did, and it was just David and I in this wooden car. David and I and the cello.

The music he played this time was nothing like "The Swan." It was lean and muscular and agile - just like David. I watched his fuzzy head as it leaned into the instrument and his wrist as it propelled the bow across the strings, and I realized after a while that I was no longer listening to the music - I was living it. The music was pulsing in my veins, my heart beating in tempo.

He never looked at me; he seemed totally absorbed in his instrument. And yet it was as if there was a direct link between his brain and mine, and I knew - KNEW - that he was playing every note especially for me.

Finally, the music stopped, and he looked up at me with those penetrating violet eyes. And then I did something I could never have imagined. I leaned over and kissed him. Right on the mouth.

His eyes opened even wider, and I felt my heart give a lurch. Then, the next second, I realized that the lurch was the elevator starting upward.

I pulled back in horror, wishing the earth would swallow me up. David took a deep breath, but all he said was, "Wow! You must really like Bach!"

I found something very interesting to watch outside the elevator car as it made its way up the bluff.

* * *

The rest of the day was a nightmare. I couldn't believe I had kissed a guy. Why had I done it? Was I gay? Temporarily insane? What must he think of me? Would he tell anyone? The thoughts tumbled through my brain. Why? Why? And with it, the even more terrifying realization that I'd like to do it again.

I had no idea how that night's band concert went. All I could think about was how I was ever going to face him when we got home.

Eventually, though, I had to when it came time to go to bed. David was silent and serious-looking, standing there in his underwear as I tried to apologize and asked if he could just forget it ever happened.

"I don't think I can do that, Nathan," he replied, looking at me with those violet eyes that now seemed like a winter frost. "I don't know if I can ever forget it."

Then the corners of his mouth gave a twitch and he moved toward me, adding: "But you know what they say. ‘Don't get mad, get even.' " And with that, he pulled me to him and gave me a kiss like the one I'd given him that afternoon, except longer! This time it was MY eyes that popped open, and the lurch I felt was definitely not the elevator.

"There!" he said as he released me. "Now we're even."

"Oh not we're not!" I muttered as I made a flying tackle and drove him back onto his bed. For the next several minutes, there was nothing but a sea of arms and legs and mouths. I didn't think about what I was doing or why - that part of my brain was shut down. But boy, could I feel!

Gradually, the play became more serious and intense. Finally, the inevitable happened and we both collapsed back onto the bed, exhausted. I curled up in those long arms, loving the feeling of being encapsulated by someone bigger than I was, and gave little kisses to whatever part of him presented itself as he stroked and hugged.

"I never knew," I whispered. "I never knew."

I never knew what life was all about.

* * *

The orchestra concert the next night was great, mainly because of David. The conductor had him take a solo bow, and the musicians onstage applauded just as hard as the audience.

And then the festival was over.

Too soon, the buses pulled up in the parking lot, and the visitors started climbing on for the trip home. I stood in the corner of the lot and watched as David went up the steps, his cello in front of him. He looked back at me intently for a minute, but there was no wave. Nothing. Then I turned around and started walking to the student lot where I'd parked. I looked back once and saw the buses driving off, then looked away and kept walking.

The lot was practically empty. I had never felt so alone.

Suddenly, two arms wrapped themselves around me from behind - two very long, fuzzy arms.

"I got off the bus," David said as I whirled around to hug and kiss him, not caring if any concert stragglers happened to see us. "I couldn't go - not yet."

"I love you, David," I whispered, holding him tight so he couldn't ever get away and laying a wet one on his lips. Then the realization hit me: He was empty-handed!

"Where's your cello?"

"On the bus," he said.

"But what about ..."

"It'll be all right. I texted my parents, and they'll get it."

"But ..."

"Sometimes you just have to choose what it is you love the most," he said softly as he nuzzled my ear and pulled me even closer. "It's a question of priorities."

"Priorities again, huh? Well, here's my priority!" I said, then whispered in his ear. He didn't answer, just squeezed me tighter as we walked into the night.

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