The Existentialist Rag
Arthur comes into the club where you are playing the piano. He wears a dark silk suit and a very narrow tie; all he needs is the right hat and he could be a Vegas hit man. He's gorgeous and remote of expression, as always, so you pretend not to see him, laughing at the woman lying across the Steinway and adding a little trill to the ragtime improvisation you're playing.
The woman's name is Lena, and she loves you. She turns when Arthur comes up next to you, smiles at him with the same kind of fascination you feel. Whenever she glances at you, you know what she is thinking. She is your muse, but you only care about Arthur whenever he is present, can see no-one else. She knows you so well.
“Eames,” he says softly, a whisper in your ear. You never stop playing. “I need you. Come with me right now, please.”
You do. You follow him up a broad curving staircase, past beautifully dressed music-lovers and gamblers, through pale gold and cream hallways with impeccable artworks on the walls. The second story of the club hosts private rooms for the privileged members, and Arthur opens the door to one of these. He ushers you in before him, gentlemanly as always.
It fills you with pleasure when he takes you in his arms, and you laugh a little. You say “Impatient, I like that,” when he kisses you firmly. He strips you of your rich garments, fearless of damage to the fabric. It pleases you immensely when you hear your shirt seam rip. He wants you, and you can't be naked for him fast enough.
You reach for him, wanting him naked as well, but he tumbles you onto the bed beneath him. It's very distracting. You struggle a little, just so that you can feel him straddle you and pin your wrists above your head.
“I've been fearfully wicked since you've been away,” you tell him. It makes him growl a little, and a shiver curls your toes to hear it. “You'd better make sure I have something to remember you by when you leave next time.”
That is the last you are allowed to speak for quite a while.
Afterward, you can't remember when he got dressed, but he sits at the foot of the bed with his back to your debauched form. He is putting on his shoes, and you feel desperate for some word from him. You feel a fool, but you ask him your question anyway.
“Do you love me at all, Arthur?” You didn't mean it to come out so playful, when what you feel is plaintive. You almost sound mocking.
“Of course not,” he says, cruelly. You suddenly remember that he is always unkind, after. You wish you'd kept silent. He turns to you, angry.
“The most important thing for you to know about yourself, about this, is that it isn't real. You don't exist.”
This is patent nonsense, and melodramatic. You snort, but he grits his teeth and continues. “You're a projection. I need you because I can't help desiring something that wouldn't be good for me. It isn't about love.”
You find this all ridiculous, and infuriating. “Of course I exist, you prat! Look at me, Arthur, damn you,” and he finally meets your eyes. His are dark and hostile, but wet. He is trying not to cry.
“I love you,” you say softly. To your surprise he looks incredulous. “I do! Everyone knows it, Lena mocks me for the music I play when you're gone. If I'm not real, how is it that I feel so much? How can I have music fighting its way from my fingertips, trying to express the memory of your touch?” You want to make him understand, and you want to shake him for his doubt.
He laughs bitterly. “Every word you say is merely further proof that you aren't real. He does not subscribe to those kinds of sentiments. I don't even know if he can play an instrument.”
You don't want to know who “he” is. “Forget him, then. Stay, Arthur. Stay here with me, where I can assure you that you are wanted. Let me make music about you being beside me, rather than how it feels when you leave me behind.” You can't help but be aware of how theatrically you say this. It's odd, for you mean every word.
He shakes his head, merely annoyed, and before you can stop him he is at the door. Turning to look at you, he says “You sound like somebody in a film, Eames. You're saying what I want to hear, but I can't make it real enough to believe it.” And he goes.
You try to remember how you and he got to this place, how you began to love him, but it's all strangely vague in your mind. You dress and go downstairs, where Lena laughs at you with no rancor, and sings a soft sad song while you play your heart out on the keys.