So this is the last chapter. I feel like making excuses, but I won't. Last chapters are hard. Oh, and I spellchecked it in word perfect, but I usually also do it in document manager, and it won't let me this time, so . . . not that double-triple spellchecking has prevented disasters in the past, anyway.
I'm with the band. No, really
Chapter seventeen: All's fair in love and music
The world was not yet light: it smelled of something like the dry plants of the hillsides in late summer: and it felt like rough velvet against Levi's face and neck. He opened his eyes: the world was Innocente's bed and Innocente wedged in as close to Levi as he could be without interweaving their very molecules. Which sounded to Levi like a good idea. He placed his hands on Inno's shoulders and gave a little shove, but instead of rolling over to give Levi better access, Innocente dug in tighter, resisting any move. Levi took this as a challenge. He suspected Inno wasn't nearly as fast asleep as his relaxed face and slow breathing would suggest. He wanted to get Innocente sprawled out on his back: he wanted to spread himself out on Innocente, to investigate him, to see what he might have missed in last week's expeditions: to discover everything.
Well, not everything. That would be a lifetime's work.
Levi struggled and twisted partway out of Inno's grasp, enough to arch around and dive into Innocente's armpit and strategically lick him there, which had the effect he was hoping for: the sudden sensation shocked Inno out of pretending to be asleep and caused him to flail backwards on to the mattress. Levi took immediate advantage of Inno's offbalance moment and climbed on top of him. running his hands all over the richly-textured skin, noting the way that the dim light burnished away the warm highlights in the dark color, leaving only a soft, velvety shadow behind. Levi leaned forward and nuzzled again, licking Inno's neck. He looked up into his face. His eyes were still closed, but he wasn't pretending to breathe like a sleeping man anymore. Levi nipped him gently, preparing to move upwards and claim a kiss. Inno shuddered and his eyes slowly opened, and kept opening till they were wider than Levi had ever seen them. "Levi --" he breathed.
"Mmm," Levi agreed, closing in for the kiss. Not bad at all: the man didn't even have morning mouth. Too good to be true. He was almost drinking him, running his tongue over every surface of Innocente's mouth, now supporting himself on his hands, his groin splayed flat against Innocente's belly, where he could feel both their penises trapped between them. He ground down, humming. He was where he wanted to be.
For a moment.
Then he was flipped on his back, their positions completely reversed. "My turn," Inno said, his accent flavoring the words with so much more meaning, his grin almost dangerous but way too friendly to be menacing.
"Okay," Levi choked. "Anything you want."
"Almost anything," Levi said. "I don't think you want anything I would say no to."
For a second it looked like the mood would be ruined: Innocente bit his lip and opened his mouth as if to remind Levi that there was something Innocente wanted that Levi wasn't prepared to do --yet -- but instead, he caught his breath and leaned in to kiss and nuzzle the way that Levi had been doing moments later. And grind. And run just the calloused tips of his fingertips all along Levi's sides until Levi was gasping and writhing. "Damn, Inno," he said, marveling at his own coherency.
"Just turnabout from Sunday," Innocente said. "Remember?"He breathed across Levi's neck. Wall-eyed, Levi thrashed and when he looked back at Inno's face, it was farther south, gazing upwards with a bit lip and a suggestion of a smirk, as if he was almost overwhelmed with what he could do to Levi but also much too entertained.
"Remember?" Inno asked again, tasting Levi's belly in almost exactly the same way that Levi had licked across Inno's abdomen the weekend before.
"Yeah," Levi said.
"I," Inno nipped gently and moved a bit further down, "liked it," nuzzling Levi's pubic hair, "and so," rubbing his cheek against Levi's erection, "I thought," kissing the tip, "you would," licking it, "too," and now he couldn't speak because his mouth was full of Levi, but he could hum in a really disturbing way, and he did, and Levi thought he wouldn't last, but of course, Inno pulled off. And laid the palm of his hand flat against Levi's penis, looking up at Levi with that mischevious smile again, causing Levi to twitch dangerously.
"No," Inno said, pulling his hand off. The air felt cold and empty after the warm mouth and heavy hand.
"Umf," Levi said. He had meant it about Inno doing what he wanted, but Inno was apparently going to make it hard for Levi to continue his laissez-faire attitude. He wanted to demand action as Innocente sat their smiling at him, but he forced himself to be patient, and even to endure it when Inno recommenced the lightest touches -- stimulating, almost irritating, but never enough. He grimaced and grunted and groaned, and writhed as much as Inno seemed to want him to, but he didn't presume to tell Inno what to do. Finally Innocente gave in and closed in on him, situating himself in imitation of Levi's posture an eon before, stretched out over Levi's body, and now thrusting, one hand slid between them to keep their erections together. It was a simple thing, almost innocent now, as they rocked together to the finish.
Drenched and weak, Levi drifted back towards sleep. Inno slid off and let his compact little body splay out. It was completely light now. The contrast between the creamy sheets and Inno's coffee-colored skin was reminiscent of something delicious and dessert-like. And suddenly he was hungry. "Is it okay if I make breakfast?" he asked Innocente sleepily.
Just as sleepily, Inno answered, "You don't have to ask. I would be grateful."
Another few minutes passed while Levi gained the energy to stand. As he pulled himself to sitting, he was bumped by Inno bolting upwards.
"Oh merde, what time is it?" Inno said, whirling around.
"Your clock's on this side of the bed," Levi said. "It's nine."
"We have to hurry, I'm sorry." He bounded out of the bed and pulled the sliding closet door open.
"What? What do we have to hurry for?"
"I promised Laurent to meet with him at ten today. Can you be ready to go by then? I'm sorry, but I think we will get on better in privacy."
"Sure," Levi said morosely. They hadn't said anything about exclusivity, even though Innocente had certainly sounded like he wanted Levi to devote his life to him. It could be anything, he thought. But he remembered how Laurent had looked at Inno yesterday and more to the point, how he had looked at Levi. Whatever Innocente had in mind, Laurent had in mind to possess Inno and dispossess Levi.
So there was no time to make an elaborate breakfast with an embedded seductive message, and Levi just made food while Inno showered and dressed. He ate in kid of a hurry, and showered, dressed, and started out the door while Innocente kept making apologetic noises. Laurent arrived before Levi was completely gone. At the door, Inno stopped him and said, "Come back around one, but call just before you arrive, so I can be sure to be done and we can go somewhere together."
The look Laurent gave Levi was disturbingly puzzling. It was triumphant. What could lead him to be triumphant if his rival -- since he seemed to think of Levi in that way -- was clearly leaving only for a few hours, no duffle in hand? And Levi thought it must be obvious that they had been engaging in sex at some time since the night before. In fact he thought that strangers on the street would see it written on his face: I've been lovingly rubbed off by the sexiest guitarist ever to land on the shores of California. And I'm seriously considering throwing away the tatters of my career for the chance of waking up every morning just like this.
It was a pleasant enough three hours. Levi set aside all his insecurities with Innocente and all his surmises about Laurent's motivations, and just focused on a bookstore ramble and some other tourist behavior. Easy to take up a few hours in a University town, really. he even got a souvenir of sorts. It would make Innocente feel really good.
By the time Levi was ready to return he was so set on seeing Innocente again that he clean forgot to call until he was on the stairs to the apartment. He dialed, and then noticed that that persistent song -- "C'est toi" -- was playing again, but it was a different version, just Innocente and his guitar. What a voice. And even through the door Levi could discern that it was being sung in Wolof, not French.
But was he seriously serenading Laurent with this most intimate version of this song, hours after fucking Levi? Levi was aware of a surge of bile coming up into his throat as the song cut off, Inno picked up the phone, saying, "come on in," and the door opened.
Inno was all smiles for Levi. Laurent, behind him, sitting on one of the stools from the kitchen bar counter, looked -- astonished. As if he never expected to see Levi return.
"So glad you're back," Innocente said, reaching up to pull Levi's face down for a kiss, pulling him into the apartment. "I could hardly concentrate with you gone. I don't know how I'm going to manage classes until you find a way to move up here."
There was so much in that. Inno wanted Levi, Levi knew that. But there was more: Inno had thought about what Levi had said, had accepted his terms, and was on to the next thing, which was assuming that things would work out for them. Levi himself wasn't secure enough to actually assume that, but he was really quite willing to hope for it.
Inno's breath lasted longer than Levi's, and Levi was gasping by the time Inno was ready to break the kiss. Pulled by Inno further into the room, Levi's feet got tangled and he nearly stumbled. He looked down at his feet to right them, and when he looked up, he saw Laurent, furious, his face pinched and red, scowling at Levi. And as Laurent turned his face to Inno, a miraculous transformation: all of a sudden,. he was all peaches and cream and smiles again. "Well," he said, sliding off the stool and preparing to gather his things -- sheet music, mainly, it looked like to Levi, though the saxophone was also present and why hadn't he noticed Laurent bringing all this stuff when he arrived this morning? "Well, I must be going. We have a gig tonight, of course. I'll talk to you during the week, when both of us are less busy."
"Inno has classes and study groups all week," Levi blurted.
"But it appears that you keep him more busy than that, on the weekends," Laurent said. "I hope you don't block his progress."
Speechless, Levi watched Laurent leave. Inno chuckled. "Don't worry," he said. "He's just angry because I won't join his band. What do you want to do now? Have you had lunch?"
"Lunch sounds marvelous," Levi said.
Lunch was Mexican and Levi was amused to see that Inno had already learned to ask for his food "muy picoso" -- very hot.
"What?" asked Inno.
"I just love watching you eat. You enjoy your food so much, and you still have perfect table manners."
"You don't even know. I have four kinds of perfect table manners, and I know when to use each one. This is a long ways from the most formal I can be."
"I don't doubt it. Your family is very upper class, isn't it? Did you eat a formal dinner every night?"
"Not quite. Because I was a musician from a very young age, I got to wander off and eat street food most of the time. Nobody could complain because it's a family legacy. Even after I was chosen to study law, I still retained the freedom of a musician."
"Do you still?"
"Except that my time will be dominated by my studies, yes. I am well trusted."
Levi thoughtfully chewed his pozole for a moment.
"Laurent was right about something."
Inno set down his fork. "Now what?"
"We won't be able to do this every weekend. You won't be able to afford the time for me to come and make out with you all day."
Inno frowned. "Not all day, but --"
"I really need to get a closer job. I need to be around enough that we won't mind it when you have to study all weekend or something."
"Thank you. I was afraid you were arguing for spending less time with me."
"No, I don't want to spend less time with you," Levi said, grinning.
After lunch they went looking for a jacket for Inno. Notwithstanding the famous late-summer September heat in the afternoons, it was already getting a lot colder in the evenings. The swing in temperatures from the afternoon highs to the late-night lows was as wide as the variation between seasons. "I do like shopping with you," Innocente said. "I wish you would be my attache -- I'm not pushing, believe me, I listened to what you said. But still."
"I still don't understand why you thought I was auditioning for a job and I thought I was having a friendly visit," Levi said.
"I'm just as puzzled. Ava said all I had to do was ask you to do that and you'd understand everything. She was so definite on the subject."
Levi stopped in his tracks. "That explains everything. My sister thinks she's an expert on me. She thinks she knows me better than I do myself. I understand she does her job very well. She can organized the feathers off twenty different bands at a time and get them all to their venues on time and even get them all their favorite brand of soda, but when it comes to me . . . she's just weird. So she told you 'invite him to show you around Berkeley, and he'll stay with you forever?' Like that?"
"Something like that. She said that you would read the subtext. Those were her words"
"Excuse me, but I don't think of you as being a man who deals much in subtext, so . . ."
"And see, there is your problem. I was dealing in subtext the entire time, and until recently you were only reading the most obvious thing."
"But the most obvious thing wasn't false," Levi said. "You totally wanted to jump my bones."
"I wish people wouldn't use that phrase. It sounds so ghoulish."
"Would you prefer I said you wanted to fuck me?"
"Such vulgar words from a schoolteacher. But yes, that's blunt but not disgusting."
They walked out into the late afternoon. Inno had a glint in his eye. Levi smirked. It was going to be a long, wonderful night. And he didn't have to leave until late the next night. He didn't care whether he slept tonight at all.
Inno looked at Levi and the glint turned into a laser, He closed the six inch distance between them and seized him in a posture as if they were going to waltz. He began to sing -- of course -- that song, in Wolof again. Levi shied away, much to Inno's displeasure.
"What?" Innocente asked.
"It's just -- just pretty intense for a public place."
Inno frowned. "What? We're in California. In Berkeley. On Telegraph Avenue. I have had a lifetime of hiding, and we don't have to hide here."
"It's not that --" Levi began, but was cut off by Inno's phone playing the other version of the song. Inno grimaced and took the call, maintaining a loose grip on Levi's waist as they continued up the street. "Non. . .non . . . oui . . . j'ai dit, non. La réponse est la même. Toujours. Je ne vais pas te parler de cette plus. Adieu. Non. Adieu."
Levi wondered if it was Laurent that Inno was talking to: the answer is the same. I'm not talking to you about this anymore.
"My aunt," Inno said, making a face as he put his phone away. "I have been very strictly raised to respect my elders, but she is only four years older than me and she apparently cannot be convinced unless I am very rude to her."
Levi was composing the question when Inno answered: "She wants me to marry the sister of her college friend. It is absurd."
"You have the same ringtone for everyone?" Levi asked. "I heard that one when Laurent called you last night."
"Not everyone," said Innocente. "Yours is different."
"Yours is the Wolof version. Because only in my mother tongue can I truly express how frustrating, how confusing, how fascinating, how --"
"Oh," Levi said. Something was nagging at his brain. What was it? Laurent. Laurent was angry that Levi had come back, but there was more: something Laurent had said. About the hazards of not communicating. And that look of triumph as Levi went out the door this morning, as if he was seeing Levi retreat forever. And. . .
"Inno, did Laurent ever have your phone last week?"
"Sure he did. I had him hold it on Monday in case you called while I was in the shower."
"You had Laurent hold your phone?"
"Of course. I wasn't going to get ready to go with him to hear his band until after you called, so he said he'd listen for you while I showered."
"That was kind of him." Levi said, trying not to sound sarcastic. He wasn't going to say anything to Inno about his suspicions unless and until they were confirmed, and maybe not then. It didn't matter in the long run if Laurent had sabotaged Inno's phone, unless there was any chance the man was really crazy and violent, and not just weirdly scheming and jealous. Because for now, Levi and Innocente understood each other, and Levi was going to be in Inno's bed again in minutes.
Levi didn't think about Laurent until the next morning, when he passed by Laurent's door on his way to pick up an emergency carton of eggs and a basket of strawberries. Laurent was loitering about outside, as he often seemed to do, a cigarette in one hand and a sheaf of sheet music in the other, a pen stuck behind his ear. As Levi came to pass him, he set the cigarette in a precarious balance on his lower lip and took the pen in hand to make notations on the sheet music. He looked up.
"You're still here," Laurent said, his cigarette somehow clinging to his lip as he spoke. "I can't think why."
"Because I stuck around," Levi said simply. "I had to fix Innocente's phone, though."
Laurent narrowed his eyes. "Pity. You should have left it."
"Why? Innocente likes to talk to me."
"Because you're a waste of his time."
"You're a boring little man: you play no instrument, you don't sing, and you cling to him like a barnacle and yet you'd choose your dull little career over one of the finest and most interesting musicians in the world today. You're not even especially cute, and you certainly do nothing to make yourself more attractive."
Levi thought for a moment. This was another time when the less he said, the better things would be. But -- "Are you going to keep trying to sabotage Innocente's plans with me? Because I don't think it will get you what you want. Even if you did manage to wreck the relationship Innocente wants."
Laurent shrugged. "All's fair in love and music, I think. I make no promises."
"Inno made no promises to you."
"But he loves music, and eventually he will be unable to stay away from it."
Levi shook his head. "You're going about this all wrong. You shouldn't worry about me: I won't ever get in his way, I promise you. But it's his decision that he's not going to go full-time pro for you or anybody. He wouldn't do it for Forestiere, and those are his friends and family. "
"Friends and family are not the most likely bandmates," Laurent said.
"They looked likely all summer when I was touring with them," Levi said.
"You toured with them?"
"My dull little career," Levi said. "I was there for the children."
Laurent rolled his eyes.
"I have to buy eggs and strawberries," Levi said. "If you interfere with me again, I'll tell him about the phone stunt and you'll never play with Inno. If you leave me alone, I'll leave you alone and maybe he'll play some gigs with you when his workload is light. Maybe even record a track or two with you, I don't know. But he surely won't if he knows you tried to keep him from having me. He wants me."
Levi walked away without hearing Laurent's answer. The last thing he wanted was any more conversation like that.
When Levi was approaching the checkout stand his phone rang. "Inno," he said. "What's up?"
"Nothing much. But could you get extra whipping cream? I'm doing the laundry tonight after you leave."
"What does that have to do with . . . oh," Levi said, turning back to the dairy case where he had seen both the spray cans and glass quarts of organic cream. He was about to ask Innocente which he wanted and decided to just get some of both. After all, Inno had said extra, and they still had hours before Levi had to hit the road again.
When he got back to the checkout stand the bagger, a young woman no more than twenty with more metal in her face than Inno had in his favorite guitar, asked him about his ringtone. "That was cool. I never heard it before," she said.
"My lover sang it," Levi said. "He put it on my phone last night."
Levi had been working in the same classroom with Polly for almost two months. By now he was doing a number of odd jobs, including all the bilingual testing for the school. The students were sent to him in Polly's classroom by twos and threes and they sat down in the back of the classroom where Levi was the teacher of record. It was not the worst thing he could imagine doing, and he didn't resent the drives back and forth to Berkeley as much as he could, but it was tiring. And sometimes he couldn't go, and it would be two weeks between times seeing the diminutive guitar-playing future African diplomat. Not, as he said, ideal.
It was Thursday night, and he logged on to his computer, hoping to chat with Inno a while before bed and planning to dourly check his exasperatingly unproductive emails. First he checked his phone messages. There was one that could be from a school district somewhere, but it was such a bad connection that the whole message was garbled. Levi listened to it four times before he gave up, having only divined that the person who left the message was probably named Andy and that there was a six and a four in the phone number he was supposed to call. He turned miserably to the computer, and passed the sorry tale on to Inno in chat. Inno wasn't online, but when he got on again he would be able to read it and answer it as if it were email.
Speaking of email -- webmail took a long time to come up. There were two pages of new emails. One and a half pages of it was all "November Updates" and "Genuine Pfizer." There were several spam-looking emails about job offers, but he had to painstakingly look at each one to make sure. And the first ones were all spam. The last one, though . . .
"I got an appointment with the Richmond school district," Levi typed into the chat box.
"How far is that from me?" Inno answered after a bit.
"I could walk to work if I was a fanatic," Levi typed. "But I probably won't. Because I would rather spend more time with you."
"That's nice to know," Inno typed.
"You know," Levi typed. "C'est toi."