(Loneliness & loss in the Big Apple)
Leonard wore mist like a shroud.
The rain, sore feet or possibly a combination of both, swayed him to view Central Park as a separate entity from the city fused to its borders. Lilly, his wife, took the park’s vastness entirely in her stride. It didn’t faze her at all, nothing ever did. He’d thought many times this had been the catalyst to their marital discord: her intransigence versus his compliance.
As usual, Lilly had decided where to go first on the trip: “Let’s catch a cab to Columbus Circle, and then we’ll walk up through the park.”
“Fine,” replied Leonard. “Let’s go.”
* * *
Leonard didn’t mind the rain. He felt it made a city come alive: drenched buildings oozing infinite secrets through their walls. Reach your hand to them and touch; feel the damp: a gift from the city.
He’d indulged in Washington Square, the night before. Flying into La Guardia after ten, neither of them wanted to waste a fraction of the evening, so they walked down Fifth Avenue to the square, to check out the chess players. Naturally, they’d disappeared hours ago; now only a single figure sat slumped on a bench near the monument. Dark hair frazzled, he raised his eyebrows and gestured with his hand to the couple. Glancing, Leonard noticed a birthmark with coarse white hairs protruding, at the base of the man’s thumb. He briefly nodded before dispelling him, as he turned to his wife.
“Searching For Bobby Fischer, Lil. Remember the movie? You liked it. Think they shot it here.”
“Yeah, So? Let’s go to that pub your architect friend told you about.”
“ Jekyll and Hyde’s?”
“Didn’t he say there were like two of them in the Village, and one up near Central Park?”
“Think so. Maybe we’ll find one if we keep walking. NYU’s round here somewhere, I think.”
“You’re the college guy. You tell me.” Lilly walked on briskly. She turned her head to see Leonard pressing the palm of each hand against the monument, his forehead almost touching. “For God’s sake! What’re you doing now?”
“It feels cold; I like it. Kind of looks like the Arc-de-Triumph.”
“Course it’s cold. It’s raining, and I’m wet! Let’s get to this pub before someone mugs us or I freeze.”
Leonard stepped back slightly and rubbed his hands together. “Hey Lil, When Harry Met Sally, right? You know, Meg Ryan drops off Billy Crystal at the beginning—right here, by the monument.”
“Leonard, we’re going. I’m not kidding.”
* * *
Ten-thirty in the morning rain, and Columbus Circle buzzed. Leonard had wanted to take the subway, but Lilly said she didn’t want to get lost and end up in the Bronx.
“You can’t end up in the Bronx on this line, Lil. Maybe Harlem, but not the Bronx.” He offered a smile, but she looked through Leonard as if he wasn’t there, like she was focusing on something behind him. Leonard had long felt he didn’t have the fight to push any more. He’d studied the subway system before the trip, but there was no way Lilly would allow him to state his case, even on the most mundane things like city directions. She’d claimed the “directions” job a long time ago, and to Leonard it wasn’t worth trying to regain that ground.
Lilly got out of the taxi, her curly blonde hair now wet and hanging like rat’s tails. The bottoms of her jeans were still damp from splashing through puddles in the Village, the night before. She was across the road and heading to the park before Leonard had paid. As he caught up to her, she murmured, “Big Apple. How about it?” almost under her breath. For the briefest moment, her blue eyes almost sparkled, lighting up her round, pretty face.
Leonard was taken aback. How about it, he thought, rolling those words around in his mind, trying to find a place where they’d fit in his wife’s vocal repertoire. The phrase seemed alien coming out of her mouth; it didn’t suit her.
That had been one of the reasons for choosing New York. Geoff, or the “architect friend,” as Lilly usually referred to him, had suggested the city because, in his opinion, the place was one of the few locations in the world that really was larger than life. “If she isn’t impressed with Manhattan, she’ll never be impressed by anything,” Geoff had said.
“She sure as heck isn’t impressed with me anymore,” Leonard replied. “Very much doubt if she ever was.”
“Give it a shot. This could be the starting point, some kind of catalyst.”
“Six years of marriage. I don’t know which is worse—the silence, or her insipid attitude.”
“She wasn’t always like this, was she?” Geoff asked.
“You’ve known her since you came to her big piano recital, a few days before our wedding. She wore the same stone face playing Rachmaninoff, as she did when we gave our vows. Did you ever once see her get really excited about anything?”
“But you’re okay together most of the time, just the two of you. You communicate?”
“We haven’t had a real conversation... perhaps not even this year. I hope this trip changes things at least a little—better had—it was our last fifteen hundred dollars.”
“If it doesn’t?”
“What would be the point of staying married to someone I can’t relate to, and she can’t relate to me? And why should I live in seclusion when I’m married? I could do that being single.”
“Well, I hope the trip draws you both together. Once loneliness enters the confines of a marriage, the isolation has a way of evolving, manifesting itself in all kinds of ways. At least try to enjoy the city—and each other. And don’t forget the Chrysler Building. If you look up at it from across the street, it reflects in that glass high-rise. Almost looks like there’s two of them.”
Trailing through the leaves, Leonard stayed a few steps behind his wife; he felt comfortable there. Nothing had been said between them during the walk. He didn’t mind the silence as much as he used to, it was comforting like a blanket around him, something to shield him from any snide remarks Lilly might send his way. He noticed the mist rolling in. The rain was getting heavier, also. Not that it mattered; they’d both reached saturation point, but thanks to a Christmas present from Leonard’s parents, LL Bean partially shielded them from the elemental barrage. He pulled the yellow coat around his frame, zipping it at the front, and brushed his receding hair back with his hands.
“So where are we heading exactly?” Lilly said suddenly. Leonard felt a little surprised. Usually an open-ended question from Lilly meant she would answer it herself.
He decided to jump in. “I always wanted to walk around the lake where all the people jog. They shot Marathon Man there, with Hoffman.”
“Hoffman,” repeated Lilly. “You mean Philip Seymour?”
“No,” quipped Leonard, “Abbie.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass Leonard! I was joking.”
When they got to the lake, the mist was thickening. Leonard followed a jogger with his eyes, studying the tempo of her short, brisk steps. As she passed, he reached out with a smile but she made no response. Any possible connection was lost: she mercilessly forced herself on, splashing through the puddles and fallen leaves. Swaying slightly, he kept watching, any hope for connection now faint within him. Pushing herself onwards, the jogger became a distant speck. Leonard turned away, finally releasing her.
Looking heavenward, he realized that low clouds had fully cloaked the park; the city entirely gone, shrouded in mist. It seemed to get quieter, too. Listening for the hum of traffic from Fifth Avenue, he heard only rain blitzing the lake’s surface; infinite ripples fighting for precedence. And for the slightest moment, Lilly had vanished, too: only raindrops driving through the fog; cold hands, numb cheeks, rushing wind through naked branches. Alone, detached. Complete.
He looked at Lilly.
“We’re done here now, right? We need to move on.”
In front of them, the clouds had lifted, and Leonard could see the city skyline again. “That fancy hotel. The Plaza, right? That’s right by the park, isn’t it? Lets go there.”
“I doubt they’ll let us in, Lil, soaking wet and all.”
“What’re they going to say? ‘You can’t come inside, you’ll drip?’”
Walking up the steps of The Plaza, Leonard kept an eye on the bellman, who quickly glanced at them both while engaging two ladies.
They walked through the lobby and across to a restaurant. Around the corner to the left, a long hall gave way to expensive boutiques selling Rolex watches, and silk ties. At the end, a marble stairway leading to upper floors.
“Let’s check and see if we can get upstairs,” Lilly half whispered. She quickly bypassed the boutiques and rushed to the stairs, climbing two steps at a time.
“We’ll get caught,” Leonard cried after her.
“So, we get caught.”
Begrudgingly, Leonard followed. At the top of the stairs was a large hallway. On one side, he saw doors he figured might lead to conference rooms, and at the very end, an ebony-colored grand piano. By the look on Lilly’s face, she’d seen the piano, too. She took off down the hall to take a closer look. Leonard played “catch up” again.
“It’s a Steinway!” Lilly said.
“You’re not going to...”
“How many times do I get to play on a Steinway?”
“But what if people hear you?”
Lilly made no response. She quickly eased herself into position, and lifted the lid.
Leonard could tell by the look on Lilly’s face that she was going to make it count. Delicately, she touched a single note, sending a perfect “Middle C” into the air. Then she was off: The third movement of Moonlight Sonata was her most recent “party piece,” and she’d perfected it with grace. The sound filled every crevice of the long hallway.
Leonard felt uncomfortable, looking nervously to the other end of the hall, watching for hotel staff to dash up the stairs with clenched fists. After a few minutes, he relaxed. The music lapped over him, and for a moment he saw the hint of a smile on Lilly’s lips. Glancing up, she caught his eye and quickly turned away, her smile fading.
Any momentary peace that Leonard felt melted away.
He leaned against a large door behind him. Turning, he pondered, then decided to try it. It opened with a push of two fingers. Walking inside, Leonard saw before him a huge banqueting room, empty except for a stack of chairs in the far corner of the room. Large windows to his right looked out over the fountain at the hotel’s front, and on the far side by the chairs, more windows vaguely displaying the park through the fog.
He closed the door behind him. Lilly was on to Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, but the sound was now slightly muffled. He walked to the center, and stopped. He couldn’t remember ever being in a room so large, yet so empty. The slight sound of rain splashing on the windows mixed with Lilly’s repertoire.
To the left of the chairs was another large door. He walked over and decided to try his luck. Again, it opened at a push. Leonard found himself in another room twice the size of the previous one, though poorly lit. Closing the door behind him he no longer heard Lilly’s playing, only the sound of rain outside beating down onto the street. The room was completely empty, except for an object sitting on the carpet, in the center. When he got closer, he saw that it was a silver tray with plaited bread. Leaning over, he reached his hand down and touched it. It looked perfect, but the bread was rock-hard.
He walked over to the window to take a look at the park, noticing for the first time gold sconces on the walls. He could make out a few figures down below, and the tops of the trees swallowed in fog. As he wiped condensation from the window to get a better view, he heard the sound of footsteps coming from behind the far wall. Turning, he noticed a door in the far corner of the room. The footsteps got louder as the door opened and a figure walked through. Thinking it to be a hotel employee, Leonard couldn’t quite make out in the light whether it was a man or woman. The person closed the door, stood for a brief moment, and then walked slowly to the room’s center.
Leonard thought he should say something. “I’m sorry,” he offered. “I just wandered in. I’ll be on my way.”
The figure made no acknowledgment, but kept walking. Leonard saw now that it was a waiter. A sense of familiarity sparked within him as the man stopped by the silver tray, knelt down and picked it up. He held it in front of him at waist height, looked over to Leonard and proceeded to walk over. Both men faced each other, the tray of bread between them.
Leonard noticed a birthmark at the base of the man’s right thumb, its white hairs inciting recognition of the figure from Washington Square, the night before. He was loftier than Leonard had initially thought, a good head over Leonard’s average height. His face was gaunt, and the darkish hair, once disheveled, was now brushed neatly back. He had a small, thin mustache, which almost looked penciled on. Though he wasn’t good with ages, Leonard figured he must be on the wrong side of sixty.
The man offered a blank expression, suggesting no recollection of their prior encounter. Leonard felt the silence between them seep into his skin. He searched hard for something to say, but nothing came. Finally, as he pushed to mumble more apologies, the man spoke.
“Everything in order Sir?”
“Fine. Just fine.” Leonard wasn’t sure how to react. He looked down at the bread. “Strange place to leave it, you know, by itself in the middle of the room. Not even on a chair, or anything. Just on the floor.”
The man continued looking straight at Leonard, his expression unchanged. “Still,” offered Leonard, “A nice silver tray. Someone will be missing it, no doubt.”
The man said nothing.
“Of course, I imagine this doesn’t happen often in a hotel like this, things being left out. I’m sure everything’s accounted for.”
“Ship-shape, Sir. We pride ourselves on having everything in its place.”
“I’m sure that’s the case. Exactly the case.” Leonard felt his mouth getting dry. His top lip was sticking to his teeth. He pushed his tongue around his mouth, and tried to draw more saliva. For a moment he almost believed he could smell the bread, that fresh oven-baked smell, but he knew it couldn’t be. He looked down, and thought he saw steam rising off the plait. “Of course, it must be interesting working in a hotel, speaking to all kinds of people,” Leonard nervously offered.
“I haven’t conversed with a soul in eons, Sir. I prefer it that way.”
Leonard looked into the man’s eyes, noticing they were glazed.
“You’ll be staying with us long, Sir?”
“No. Like I said, we’re... no, not long. Just in New York for a few days; first time in the city. Yourself, have you been here long?”
“I’m always here, Sir.”
“Ah, a New Yorker, then. It’s good to meet a real New Yorker.” Leonard felt a drop of sweat roll down the middle of his back. He looked again in the man’s eyes. He couldn’t remember seeing him blink. Leonard searched for more words. “Of course, we came for the time of year, the leaves changing on the trees in the park. Though it’s a pity about the mist, hard to see anything.”
“I never let nature’s changes affect me, Sir. I am the city; the city is me.”
Leonard shuddered. He glanced down at the bread again, now noticing green mold in the creases of the plait. He didn’t remember seeing it before. There was now a putrid smell, more like rotting meat than anything moldy bread might conjure. The sound of rain seemed to have gotten louder, too, vibrating inside his head.
“You’ll be dining alone tonight Sir, I think.”
“I... I guess. I don’t know.”
“I wouldn’t venture out this evening. Not the weather for it.”
“Should I reserve a place here for you for dinner Sir? If I might be so bold, I know just the table. A quiet, solitary spot. Would suit you quite well, if I may say so.”
Leonard didn’t answer. He felt almost dizzy. He glanced out of the window to see the trees, any movement that would remind him of the world outside. The windows were completely drenched with condensation; all he saw were the dim reflections of the sconces on the wall. He looked down at the bread. The mold had now devoured most of the plait. He noticed three small maggots squirming in a hole they’d eaten into.
Looking at Leonard, the waiter’s mouth slowly broke into a smile. His lips parted, revealing yellowish teeth. Slowly, the man pushed the tip of his tongue past his teeth and out of his mouth. The tongue was yellowy-white and thin; the tip was red. Its end quivered, as if seeking a pathway. The red tip moved slowly over the top row of teeth, while the man’s eyes focused on Leonard. It then started moving down to his chin.
Leonard’s eyes bulged.
The tongue stopped for a moment, as the man raised his eyebrows a little and opened his mouth wider. The tongue then moved along its way. It traveled down, slowly down by the knot in the man’s necktie, past his breast pocket and silver tie clip, before reaching the bread where the tip quivered first over the green mold, and finally rested in the maggots’ hole. The man’s mouth was now fully open, the base of his tongue filling it, pressing against his teeth.
Leonard felt a raindrop slowly run down his neck. It broke his gaze on the tongue, and he glanced into the depths of the room. It seemed even darker now, but he could make out drops of rain falling through the darkness, onto the carpet. Water splashed onto Leonard’s forehead, trickling down the bridge of his nose. He wiped both eyes, hoping the pestilence before him would disappear. The carpet seemed to thud with the force of rain, as if crying out against the deluge.
The tip of the man’s tongue now slowly left the hole in the bread, the three maggots crawling up its shank. The tongue journeyed back into the mouth, moving past the necktie and chin, until the maggots and tip withdrew behind the lips and teeth. The man closed his mouth. The smile on the lips came back for an instant, then faded.
Leonard gasped, his mouth wide open.
The man moved his chin to one side. “Everything ship-shape and in order, Sir. So important to know one’s place.”
Leonard closed his mouth. He tried to breathe, but the room offered little air. He glanced around, the rain appearing to have stopped. The sconces on the walls now seemed lost in darkness. He consciously set about trying to shift each foot. As he turned to face the door he’d entered through, he noticed the bread now back to its former state, plaited, and nothing more than stale. He moved towards the door.
“Dinner for one tonight then, Sir. I’ll make the arrangements.”
Leonard didn’t answer. He walked over and reached for the door in front of him, opening it before moving briskly through into the other empty room. Halfway across the floor he heard the door shut behind him. He glanced around quickly while still walking, but no one followed. Approaching the door in front of him, he swung it open, and walked into the corridor, taking a deep breath.
The Steinway was silent. Lilly was nowhere in sight. Leonard ran down the hall to the stairway, descending three steps at a time. Quickly glancing into the boutiques, he didn’t see his wife.
As he passed through the hotel’s front lobby, the bellman moved in front of him. “Mr. Ross?”
Leonard hesitated, then stopped. “Yes.”
“Excuse me Sir, I believe I have something from your wife. Mrs. Lillian Ross?”
“She asked me to give you this letter.”
It was presented to Leonard in a white-gloved hand. The letter was more so a note, written on a pad. It was folded in two, and had no envelope.
“Oh, thank you. How did you know it was me?”
“The raincoat, Sir. She said you had on a yellow one. It’s an LL Bean, isn’t it? Have one myself, just like it.”
“Yes. Yes it is. Well, I’d better be... Thank you for your help. Much appreciated.”
“Not at all, Sir. Everything ship-shape and in order.”
Leonard froze for a second, then proceeded through the front door, not looking back. He briskly walked around the corner onto Central Park South, and crossed the road to the park side. He opened the note, trying to shield it from the now precipitous drizzle. It had obviously been written in a hurry:
I’ve gone back to the hotel. This trip isn’t working out, and I don’t see any point carrying on. I’ll wait till six—it’s after four now. If you’re not there then, I’ll get a taxi, go back on the next flight and take my things from the apartment. You can pick up my key from Joan next door. It’s up to you.
PS. I tried harder than you think.
She hadn’t signed her name, she’d merely written it in capitals.
Leonard looked at his watch. It was approaching quarter of five. If he wanted to, he knew he’d have enough time to make it to the hotel by taxi. He looked at the path in front of him, leading into the park. It was muddy, with leaves and broken twigs lining the edges.
As he crossed back over the road, the drizzle turned to heavy rain. Putting up his hood, he headed towards Eighth Avenue. It had been a long day, and he was hungry and thirsty. He remembered one of the Jekyll and Hyde’s pubs was nearby.
The wind picked up, releasing the last leaves from the tops of the trees. Leonard disappeared into the swirling mist.
That night he dined alone.