THE REFLECTIONS OF THE FROG PRINCE IN THE HALL OF MIRRORS, PART IV

Not wanting to go home, he walked south on 2nd Avenue. A north wind had kicked in, scouring out the remaining summer dampness, bringing with it a scent of the Canadian forests. Despite the sun still high in the evening sky, the buildings cast a premature dusk across everything. Like oil calming a stormy sea his glasses quelled the cosmic flux in the faces around him. In the distance the numbers of “attractive” figures seemed countless. But as they drew near, they separated like chaff from the kernels, those with undisturbed, calm features from those with features consumed by a vortex right under their noses. Lao Tzu said the realization of beauty lead to the recognition of ugly. For a courtesan like his mother the concept of ugly must have been revealed daily. Those seeking her must have desired her healing hands upon their own ugliness. Still he had never detected that kind of tension between his parents.
After turning west on St. Mark’s, he came to 5th Avenue. A middle-aged man carrying a large department store clothing box under his arm, stepped out under the awning of a high-end apartment building. His black flannel trousers were tied at the ankles. He wore white silk socks and brown sandal slippers. When the strange man turned south Francis followed him. In Washington Square Park Francis sat on a bench just west of the Arch not far from where the stranger took a seat. Groups of young people were hanging out. Because of the chilly evening air the young men shuffled about with hands stuffed deep into pockets. From time to time members of one group broke off and visited other groups sitting further off. Streams of familiar music emanated from various corners, held together by the beating of drums. The repetitious beat was reiterated in the foot-to-foot sidestep of young women, arms folded, trying to stay warm. All around him the conversation tripped from lip to lip, like the froth on cresting waves. He felt old. He had missed all this. After graduating from high school he had gone straight to work.
The sharp report of high heels on the pavement broke his reverie. He looked up and saw a tall woman passing whose dress and style seemed cast from another era. She had long hair, nearly to her shoulders, which curled under and was wearing a long beige coat over her shoulders, her arms free beneath the folds. In the fingers of one hand she held an unlit cigarette. She was an incongruous vision in this place where kids were hanging out in blue jeans and sweat shirts. She seemed to have stepped out of an ancient time, one that belonged to his parents. To see her better he removed his glasses. Despite her maturity, she appeared to be no older than he was. For some reason, like his mother this morning, she was distortion-free, her skin lovely and simply adorned. She approached the bench where the man with white socks was sitting and stopped. The man in the white socks was sitting sideways, legs crossed, his back to Francis. He looked up. After a brief conversation the odd man stood up and walked over to a group of kids near the fountain. He looked like a prominent sheik or an elegant Brahmin. His white socks collected the last of the evening’s light. When he returned, she was gone. Francis hadn’t seen her go. Like the balls set in motion on a pool table, an outside force had energized the scene; yet to all appearances nothing had changed.
In the dining room at home, where the family photographs were on display, he had always been fascinated by his parent’s wedding picture. What set it apart from the others, aside from the subject, was the special bamboo frame etched with narrow leaves. It was a relic from a distant past. World War II had ended. His mother and father are standing in a Japanese tea garden. In her silk kimono his mother harkens back to another era, while his father in his white naval uniform, hat in hand, proudly displays the trademarks of a youthful conqueror, an invincible smile. His thin frame gave him a boyish air, much younger in appearance than she with her powdered white pallor. She stood heels together like an exquisite doll made of porcelain, her features of the most delicate workmanship, proof that his father had left the small world of Brooklyn a young man and returned a worldly one. At some point during the Pacific campaigns he crossed a shadow line and became the man who, one day on shore leave, reached out to embrace something alien to his parochial view.
All his life Francis had drifted into other people’s lives, become part of their lives, without ever offering them the possibilities that might change them. He was always what they wanted, and without any effort on his part. No, his own meticulous care over his appearance, parting his hair with conscious effort, always making sure his hair was not too short, shaving every other day, the choice of his casual wear and jewelry set him among those who sought to please others.
He got up and walked over to 6th Avenue and bought a sausage sandwich. The night had finally come. He walked on, swiftly sidestepping the pedestrians. Young lovers held each other tightly, their arms over shoulders and around waists as if conserving heat on this cool evening. The incandescent street lights glowed eerily in the darkness created by his glasses. At Sheridan Square he descended the stairs and caught the northbound train.
Keep moving, keep moving, the chill air provided the necessity but not the meaning. Keep moving, keep fluid. Somehow he had to bring order to the chaos. The train came into the 42nd Street station. Forty-second Street, where the doll man had come in search of the Goddess. The platform was crowded. Musicians were playing at different ends of the platform, strings and horns and the echoing of flutes. Instead of taking the Queens-bound train he emerged on the north side of 42nd Street. and wandered west, the direction the doll man had taken on his own quest. Through his dark glasses the glow from window displays and marquees merged into an incandescent strata above the street. Between the luminous buildings rose interminable muddled clouds forming a single unreal world of twilight, like a steam room lit somewhere by a bare light bulb.
Ahead of him, at the end of the block where the brilliant confusion of Broadway finally weakens, on the corner of 8th Ave, he saw a beacon of glowing orange, towering at least a foot and half above the crowd. It drew him toward it, as if he was a wayward ship lost at sea. Beneath it, an animated group of young women conversed, turbulently throwing out their arms toward the various points of the compass, but above them, with apparent disinterest, stood this beacon of serenity drawing him through the pedestrian traffic. She was a woman, a very tall woman, a giant woman gazing toward some far-off place to which only her thoughts were tethered. As she drew him into her calm of reserve, her features became more distinct. She was clearly visible above the others, in a brilliant orange, plastic raincoat with large white buttons. Even at a distance her face was clear, her lips bright red, an uneven line around her mouth, as if not much interest had been taken in the application of the makeup. Her hair was long, wild and black, in sharp contrast to her white stockings below. She was six feet tall and more, with thin shoulders hunched forward to disguise her height. Her friends were dressed to kill. He couldn’t see their faces, only hers, clearly glowing in the lurid light, a singular eddy of isolated nervousness in a social whirlpool. The same impetuous drive that took him to Anita’s after all these years now carried him directly toward her. He was outside of himself, watching while he strode on. The words of the Tao surged in his ears, like the mysterious sounds that once streamed through his conch shells when he listened to them as a kid. The words crashed against an obdurate remnant deep inside of him that was resisting this new impulse. Turn back. Go back to the way things were. But the waves of rebellion carried him forward, embrace what you fear, embrace what you loathe. . . As he closed in an isotropic thrill shot through him. For the first time in his life he was the predator. Still she didn’t notice him. Her face was radiant with clarity. The simplicity of her features was dazzling, a still pond of clarity where the bottom stood out clearly to its very depths. The group continued gesticulating. There was still time, turn back, the old way pleaded. But she was tall and thin and her makeup failed to hide her acne. He was locked in, there was no turning back.
“Who are you?”
She was visibly startled. He had arrived like a stone crashing through her placid waters. It wasn’t the kind of come-on she had ever envisioned. Her arms were crossed, one hand holding a cigarette close to her mouth. She looked down at him from on high, the clouds of smoke drifting up from her cigarette. Her eyes bulged wide and her mouth paused in open wonder. Several black teeth between her vibrant red lips amazed him. Then the smoke from her cigarette drifted into her eyes and she coughed. But the other women looked at each other, smiled as if to say, “Wow, who is this dude, with the dark shades, and why is he talking to her?”
“Hey,” said a blond, her hair wrapped in a purple bandeau, the rest of her in stretch jeans and a short black leather jacket. “My name’s Jane.”
But Jane was wrapped in the chaotic circles of the storm, her features, like those of her friends, in gross disorder. He didn’t care who she was. But the sight of her simply confirmed his choice: the tall one, upon whose features he found peace.
“Yeah, hi, but I’m asking what your name is?” he said, directing his attention to the tall one.
He was helpless beneath her, unable to take his gaze off her. He wanted to reach up and take hold of her, as if she could calm the seas around him.
“She’s shy, just hanging out with us.” Jane was insistent.
“Well that’s nice, Jane. . . but what is your name,” he repeated to the tall one, almost pleadingly.
Somewhere near Jane’s nose a whirlpool was drawing in the other features on her face. Rivulets of eyeliner were melting into the vortex. He had spent his entire life, assuming by a process of unconscious selection, that those he noticed were beautiful?
In the lurid light, already a block removed from Times Square, the jostling crowd was shifting their course around this annoying pool of stalled humanity. He was mystified by his own confidence. A look of distrust appeared on the tall woman’s face. Another woman, this time a red head in luminous pink tights, chewing gum, with lips the color of plums that ran like ink down into her evolving cleavage, spoke up.
“Hey, leave her alone. She’s not your type.”
Francis persisted.
“So what’s your name? Mine’s Francis.”
This broke the small crowd up. Jane found his name humorous. Everyone was laughing.
“Sarah. I’m Sarah,” she said, unbuttoning her coat, to reveal a starched white dress.
Her voice broke through the laughter of her friends like chimes on the wind, a clearly audible tintinnabulation that silenced even the sounds of passing cars. Around her neck dangled a laminated name tag.
“Sarah. Say that again,” he pleaded.
“Let’s not push it.” She, too, was chewing gum.
By now she had gotten hold of herself. Still mortified by the attention, still distrustful of this suitor, she didn’t want to come off looking idiotic before her friends, who closed in around him.
“So what’s the deal, Francis,” asked plum lips. “Are you really coming on to Sarah?”
She conveyed these words like weapons of war.
“I mean,” she added teasingly, “no one wants to be hurt.” Was she pouting her lips?
“Who’s hurting whom?” he asked; “I’m being straight here.”
“Are you sure, Francis?” came a voice at his side. “I’m Dee. Maybe there’s room for two,” she added taking his arm.
Several other women who had participated in the laughter grew impatient. They hadn’t come to stand all night on 8th Avenue while some dude from nowhere scammed them, no doubt put up to this by his friends hiding out there somewhere.
“You have friends, Francis?” asked Jane, sidling up to him and looking up with wide and innocent admiration belied only by a cocky smile, yawning with a darkness that grew out of the depths of her throat.
“So, where are you from,” asked Dee, reaching up with her fingers to the back of his neck.
As they all closed in, Sarah, as if out of habit, stood quietly by the side.
“Queens.”
“So you live alone, got your own place?”
“Nope.” His eyes never left Sarah.
“‘Cause we were just discussing where we should go. Bett wants to go downtown to the village, but she’s a hippie, you know, free love and all.”
“Fuck you,” said a woman in bell bottoms with a small heart tattooed on her cheek. Her cheeks grew larger and larger like elastic soap bubbles. “You don’t want to listen to music at CBILs?”
“But the rest of us, Francis, we’re hard-working, you know. We should save our money.”
“Thanks, but I like Sarah.”
“Oh come on. . ,” they pleaded, their hands on his shoulders.
“Besides, like I said, I don’t have my own place,” he added, hoping to end all this.
“So, maybe you’re roommates wouldn’t mind some fast moving company.”
“My roommates! You mean my parents. They would mind!”
Again laughter issued from the group, this time more raucous than before.
“Old guy like you still living with your parents, how lame.”
And again the noises of the street were silenced by the voice of the luminous beacon on their outskirts.
“Leave him alone.”
They looked up at Sarah within the following silence, a silence that presages the next movement in a symphony. Her friends nodded, stepped aside and let her back into the group.
“Wherever we go,” she said to him, “you can come if you want. But let’s keep it simple.”
“You are some slick guy, Francis,” admitted Jane, the cutting edge of her humor completely rounded now. “You just came into our lives like a UFO, the masked man.”
Sarah held out her hand and he took it. They were following Bett back along 42nd to Broadway. He didn’t know where they were going nor did he care. The novelty of this experience was feeding energy directly to his feet, where he felt a dream-like spring in his gait. Had he willed it, he could have flown. Only her hand inside his, her long fingers curled around his thumb, helped tame his circuitry, siphoned off the excess electricity of which she must have been aware.
“So, why are you wearing shades?”
They were approaching the subway station he had just left. With her partially hidden white uniform, shoes, and stockings, she gambled along on her long legs, completely out of place on the street. Her unbuttoned orange, plastic coat gave her the appearance of a winged spirit out of Hieronymus Bosch. Despite his excitement he could barely keep up.
“My eyes hurt.”
“You’re kidding?”
“No, I was over at the Eye, Ear and Nose clinic on 14th today.”
“What did they say?”
“Nothing, just gave me these shades.”
She stopped short and nearly yanked his arm off.
“That’s all?”
“Come on,” cried the others. “Train’s coming!”
She was looking down at him.
“We better go,” he said.
They went through the turnstile.
“I feel like I’m back in high school,” he added. “Like I’m starting all over.”
“My friends never seem to grow older. . ,” she said, “But I haven’t been so lucky.” Her fingers smelled of nicotine.
The women filled the car with their raucous conversation. As long as he kept his eyes on Sarah it all made sense.
“Do they hurt?”
“What?”
“Your eyes. The way you’re staring at me freaks me out, like you’re some kind of a crazy. You’re not crazy, are you?”
“God, I’m sorry. No, it’s just that when I’m looking at you, my eyes don’t hurt, I mean I know that sounds stupid, you know like full of shit, but hey, that’s why I am staring at you.”
“You are crazy,” she said, pushing a bubble the color of her coat through her lips. “Nobody,” she added, retrieving the bubble with her tongue, “says stuff like that to me, except maybe some old guy in a hospital bed.”
The train pulled into the Christopher Street station. The young women walked ahead of them, shaking their heads, tresses akimbo, arms pointing, voices shouting, a gang of women heading down Grove. In contrast to the NYU kids they were definitely cut from foreign fabric, glamorous but without the air of scholastic coolness.
The club was a dark cavernous space filled with the noise of recorded music and people talking loudly. Groups formed and disintegrated as people felt their way about looking for friends. Everyone was drinking beer from bottles. No one collided, no one fell. Her friends disappeared into the darkness. He asked her what she wanted and she answered domestic as she unwrapped another bubblegum square.
“You want one,” she asked.
He nodded no.
With bottles in hand, they stood watching the shadows drifting around them. After a few minutes he pointed to a quieter corner near the back where a small light illuminated the access to the rest room hallway. She nodded. So they walked back.
“You come here often?” he asked her.
“Not really. When I do go down here I usually go next door.”
“What’s next door?”
She cocked her head.
“A whole different world.”
A teenage band stepped onto the dimly lit stage. Without an introduction, more like a “yeah!” they leaped body and soul into a strident song. From where they stood they could only see the rocker heads, appearing and disappearing above the movements of the audience. But the music reverberated along the walls and floor. The giant amplifiers guarded the stage like demons at the gates of hell.
“What can you see with those things, anything?”
“You,” he asserted, “nothing else matters.”
She laughed.
“Me?” Her voice opened up some new channel of exploration. “Why me?”
“You’re. . . I like you, Sarah. . . Does it matter why?”
In spite of her self-consciousness, a calming influence continued emanating from her, like the remnants of a supernova scattering the basis of new creations into the night, impressing an order on the chaos around her. In her presence there was nothing to fear. She was who she was, and more, much more not yet revealed, in total contrast to everyone else who shielded their emptiness beneath glossy waxed faces. She was changing before his eyes and her voice was the life-giving stream that carried him into these discoveries. Perhaps she wasn’t even aware of her power, only saw herself as others saw her.
“My friends think you’re beautiful.”
“Do you?” he asked.
“I’m not telling you what I think.”
“I’ve never stalked a woman before.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“You mean like I’m worth stalking.”
“Yes. Did I scare you?”
“You are one intense dude, Francis. . . Actually I don’t know why I come here with them. I’ve known them all my life. I guess I’m afraid of being alone.”
“Me too. But I’ve always believed I would come upon a perfect place somewhere. I never thought of it as a person. You’re a nurse?”
“How did you ever guess,” she replied sardonically.
“How do you become a nurse?” he shouted. He realized they were both shouting, the music enclosing them in sound.
“I got my BS in nursing after two years at Lehman. . . In a way I’m better off than my friends. They work as secretaries and receptionists for companies they don’t care about. . .”
Her voice disappeared inside a wave of electronic feedback emanating from the stage. In his frustration he reached for her hand, and pulled himself closer to her lips. She shouted into his ear. Just the simple touch of her fingers at one end and the arcing chain of her words completing the circuit excited him like a school boy on his first date.
“I said, they’re looking for guys,” she laughed with gusto. A moment later, while looking down at his hand which she held in hers, she asked, “You really live with your parents?”
“Yeah, you?”
“Sure. . , so we have something common, ” she added looking at his face. “How old are you?”
“Does it matter?”
“No.”
“I’m thirty two,” he said. “You?”
“Twenty five.” She let go of his hands putting hers behind her back against the wall. “You don’t look it,” she added.
“I take after my mother, she looks much younger than she is,” he shouted. “She’s Japanese.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Japan.”
“Sarah, have you ever felt you were drifting, like a leaf on the water, the wind pushing you this way and that way, the waves moving you around, you know what I mean?”
“In the flow.”
“Exactly. Like we’re all in the current . . . I’d like to meet your parents.”
“You’re moving fast, Francis. Maybe too fast. The other chicks would be sleeping with you by now. I’m much slower. To be honest I’m not used to the attention.”
Leaning over he whispered, “I’m not even asking for a kiss.”
“Are you looking for one?” She removed the her cigarette and gum from her mouth.
“Yeah.”
She closed her eyes as he reached forward and upward with his hand to find her face in the dark room. Someone near them opened the door into the men’s room where the lurid red light escaped as if from a furnace. With it came a draft of disinfectants from the urinals, the sweetness camouflaging the odor of urine. For a moment his senses were confused. A drunken fear came over him again, a part of him wildly objecting. Look at her teeth! Feel her rough skin! The idea of beauty, harvested from a century of advertising models, besieged him. He squeezed his eyes shut with such violence, pain shot through his eyelids, lacerating the inner darkness with bolts of lightning that seemed to shatter the stony core of these reflexive beliefs. Even as he was reaching over to her with one hand, he suddenly and violently punched the wall with the other, startling her. Before he had a chance to redeem himself, she began moving away from him. But he grabbed her, pulling her face down toward his, and kissed her then. For a moment he was swimming against a resisting current, imagined himself struggling against the seaweed drifting in on the waves, wrapping around him, then his tongue was free and he realized her tongue was against his, both moving frantically around each other. He could taste the tobacco on her lips and the sweetness of the bubble gum. He felt the gaps in her teeth. Each revelation on this new level intensified his interest and his fervor. He tightened his grip on her, while she remained passive, indulging him; then, she took her hands and gently pushed him away reminding him of where he was.
“And I haven’t even seen your eyes,” she added, pulling another cigarette from her purse as she ignited her lighter.
He saw her etched against the wall. He wondered at the changes in her since they had met. Slowly, one precious word at a time, she was revealing herself, looming larger in the process. And she seemed unaware of this beauty of hers that was casting more and more light into his universe.
“You know better than to smoke,” he said with a domestic firmness.
“No lectures please, I get plenty of lectures from my father. My mom died of lung cancer.”
“I’m sorry…”
“She died in my senior year of high school. Actually I started smoking when I was living in France.”
“France?” he shouted, incredulous.
She reached down and put her fingers on his lips.
“Jesus, I’ve never been out of the country. I mean I’ve been as far west as the Hudson River. I’m no adventurer. Like I’ve been upstate, if you know what I mean.”
Had he not gone to the county fair with Estelle and her kids he wouldn’t be standing here. A melancholy sound of steel strings cut through the darkness in the club. He leaned back against the wall. The air around him was charged by Sarah’s proximity. He turned toward her the way a leaf turns toward the sun. The air, charged with unseen messages, made words unnecessary and sight secondary. Even though he probably didn’t need the glasses in the dark, he still was afraid of the possibility of a visual meltdown.
“You want another beer?” he asked.
“No. I have an early shift tomorrow.”
He nodded toward her friends.
“I’ll let them know I’m going.”
Hunched over, she carefully threaded her way through the crowd until she found their table, bearing its arsenal of spent beer bottles. When she returned she took his hand and led him through the door. Outside the sudden exposure to the cool night air and comparatively quiet sounds of the street were comforting.
Beneath the street light, she paused to light another cigarette, her shadow twisted like a character in a children’s book illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. Then she turned to him, her bright plastic raincoat suspended on her shoulders in a continental fashion, the pendant wings of an exotic moth. With both hands she removed his glasses. She looked into his eyes. He saw her clearly, the green eyes, the long earlobes with large loop earrings, the freckles and pitted surface of her skin, her hair a marvel of knots and tangles. Several of her teeth were missing, several were black, a cigarette dangled from her bright lips.
“Your eyes are beautiful,” she said, gently touching his eyelids with her warm fingertips. The kinesic energy from her fingers filled him with excitement and yearning.
“They’re a reflection of what I see,” he stated foolishly.
Then he remembered what she had said inside.
“So what’s next door?”
“We’re not ready to go there, Francis.”
She replaced the glasses, her head cocked back, one eye squinting from the smoke.
On Christopher, before descending the stairs to the PATH, she turned to thank him.
“I’m going with you.”
“No, you’re staying here.”
“No, I’m taking you home.”
“But you live in Queens, you won’t get home until who knows when.”
“Who cares?”
So he followed her, this tall, winged victory, down into the station, his hands in his pockets, whistling unconsciously.
“That’s one of my dad’s favorite old songs,” she said passing through the turnstile.
“What song?” he asked, stuck without a pass.
“ That one,” she said, returning to the turnstile and paying his way. “Stairway To Heaven.”
People stared at them, the giant woman with the wild black hair sitting beside her small companion in the dark shades. A group of kids sat opposite them, loudly fooling around as the train pulled out of the station. Among them sat a quiet couple who leaned heavily on each other, caressing and kissing, ignoring the comments of their voluble peers. He realized he didn’t know where Sarah lived.
“Bayonne,” she stated flatly.
“Oh yeah. . .” Everything around him, the kids across from the them, the dull plastic seats, the fiberglass paneling, even the barely illuminated tunnel walls just beyond the windows possessed a novelty. “I never knew where that was?”
“In Jersey. . ,” she emphasized, chewing her gum defiantly, her arms folded across her chest. “I warned you.”
“Look, I’ve never been west of the Hudson, and you’ve been to France. I’ve got some catching up to do. You grew up in Bayonne?”
“Most of my life. My father works for the MTA.. He’s a mechanic at the Hoboken depot,” she said. “I told you it was a long way for nothing.”
“I love trains,” he said, ignoring her comment. “I used to have a train set that had all the good stuff, you know, the accessories, little houses, stores, tunnels, the works, used to set them up on the holidays around the tree, using white cotton for snow.”
“So you celebrate Christmas.”
“Well, yeah, I was raised a Catholic. When my mom came here she converted. I can’t imagine my old man becoming Shinto. . . You know it’s funny about your father working for public transportation. My old man drove a cab.”
Her energy seemed to rise from her depths, burst free from her lips and pop. Words floated in the air like pearls in a world without gravity. Each word resonated with the value of its birthplace, somewhere, he was sure, near her heart. When she stretched out her crossed legs they reached half way across the aisle to the other side. He discovered a silver diadem partially buried beneath the unruly waves of black hair, revealed in glints of reflected light.
“So,” she said, a bit sardonically, blowing another pink bubble and letting it pop, “we all grew up in the business of getting people someplace.”
“Yeah, and I work for the airlines, at La Guardia. So I’ve inherited the family trust. You trust me, don’t you. . .
“We’ll see where it all goes, Francis,” she said, letting go of his hand. She fiddled with one of the big white buttons on her coat.
“Okay, so tell me about France.”
She cocked her head to the side and stared at him for a moment, her jaw working the gum, before retaking his hand.
“There’s nothing to it,” she said, as another bubble the color of her coat appeared. She collapsed it. “I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted out of Hudson County. . .”
“Where’s that?”
“A fine transport expert,” she laughed. “That’s where I live. Bayonne’s in Hudson County.”
Her strong voice was full of direction. Silk ribbons the color of the rainbow emanated from her lips. It was beyond belief, really, that he could see these things. But then he saw the convulsions caused by the standards of beauty so prevalent around him, so why not ribbons of silk? If he was crazy, so what? He had never been so happy in his life.
“I wanted to do something really different. My daddy worried naturally. But he wanted me to be happy. Why I chose France, I’m not sure, maybe it was romantic, like chasing after the Abelard of Henry Adams.”
“I don’t know either of them.”
“Imagine a culture where towns vied with one another to build the largest cathedrals in the world, churches with colored glass. The one at Beauvais finally collapsed, ending centuries of madness. And I had always identified with those forlorn lovers in Victor Hugo. They were always male, but who isn’t subject to the pain of rejection. . . But I told daddy I wanted to go to France to study nursing.”
“All the way to France to learn that?” piped Francis, not knowing what else to say, having never heard of Beauvais.
“Exactly what my daddy wondered,” she laughed, pushing the wad of gum forward through the gap in her teeth, then retrieving it. “It was true though, I mean the part about wanting to be a nurse. During the last few years of my mom’s illness, I took care of her at home. In the hospital, I helped the nurses – that’s when I decided I wanted to become a nurse. They were my mother’s guardian angels.”
The girl across the way had her legs over her boyfriends legs, her arms around his neck. They hardly moved, hardly heard their boisterous friends who jumped up, stood by the door, sat down again, over and over.
“Whether daddy believed me or not I don’t know. I think he knew I needed time away. So he cashed in my mom’s life insurance and gave me free rein. My mom would have been pleased. She was always saying, you’re only young once, you’re only young once. . . My dad, he really loved her. It’s so hard to see someone else’s passion when we’re seeking it ourselves. But his generosity was proof somehow.”
Her words rose up like a richly embroidered rug out of the Arabian nights carrying him upward, empowering him, though he was barely hanging on by his fingers nails.
“ What airline?” she asked, interrupting his thoughts.
“What?” he replied, startled.
“Where do you work?”
“North Star.”
“That’s cool. So why haven’t you traveled. Isn’t that one of the perks?”
“Everybody asks me that.”
“Yeah, why?” she repeated, looking at him curiously.
“I don’t know. I’ve lacked the motivation,” he said with embarrassment.
She studied the back of his hand, her fingers gently touching the tops of the hairs. They became extension of her lips, silent words unfurling through the sensation of touch. He laughed, a bit giddy. His scalp tingled.
“My parents met in Japan at the end of the war. They were married there.”
She stilled her hand and held on to his with both of hers, as if holding a balloon on a windy day.
“My brothers and sisters and I sent them to Japan for their fiftieth wedding anniversary. There’s a photo in our dining room – that’s where we keep the family pictures – of my parents standing in the garden of the Silver Pavilion in the hills outside Kyoto. The surrounding evergreens are melting into the mountain air. Behind them, a two-story pavilion rises up and in front of it a mound of sand. My mother calls it the Moon Facing Height.”
“You speak like a poet. Are you a poet?”
“No, why?”
“No one would say evergreen melting into mountain air. No one would say half the things you say.”
“I’ve never thought of myself as a poet. Usually I don’t say much. You can ask my friends. In a way I feel as if I have been there, at the Silver Pavilion,” he added. “If you were to look at my father you would never know he had been a gunner on the USS Missouri, saw action in the Pacific, saw Tojo, the emperor when he came aboard to sign the surrender. And MacArthur.”
“That’s wonderful!” she said, her jaw going slack, excited by the idea. “How did he meet your mother?”
He hesitated.
“She was a geisha.”
“A geisha!”
She brought both hands up to her lips, like a child unable to hide her awe.
“Yeah, crazy isn’t it?” he said embarrassed by the notoriety of his mother’s former life.
His parents had lived a storybook life. The closest he ever came to the fantastic was the jetway, where he stopped, as if the yearning of others who desired to see the world, was enough.
“I don’t think her life was easy. She never talks about it. On the other hand,” he added wanting to move away from the aura of his parents, “when I’m listening to you I see your words flowing from your lips on colorful, silk ribbons.”
Her tongue wedged the wad of bubble gum through one of the openings in her teeth producing another perfect pink sphere. With the same precision she deflated it, resumed chewing, nodding her head all along.
“Nope, people don’t talk like that, Francis. It’s hard to believe you and yet. . . in medieval painting a lot of the saints talk with ribbons, it’s kind of like bubble speech in comics.”
“Did you learn that in Paris?”
“In museums. There are examples of this in the illuminated manuscripts at the Morgan Library. . .” she stated, looking at him critically. “I didn’t stay in Paris very long.”
“What about the nursing school?”
“I didn’t go to school. I wandered around, met different people. Went to Bayonne in the south of France…”
“You’re kidding, there’s a Bayonne over there?”
“Yeah, that’s where the bayonet got it’s name, believe that?
“I’m beginning to believe anything.”
“For awhile I lived in a commune outside St. Gaudens. I started accepting myself. I even auditioned for a cirque as a giant lady, but there were plenty of tall women, much taller than me, who could actually do crazy things 20 feet in the air! And they were beautiful. . .”
“And you’re not! I know a thing or two about beauty.”
“I’ve nice legs.”
He had to laugh.
“What about French? You speak French?”
“Oui, mon monsieur mysterieux, je parle francais tres bien…”
The tone and intonation of her voice, her melodic stream of consciousness, carried the breath of her personality into the air, like a heady perfume, casting a scent of far-off places; her voice was more effective than any jetway, for she had found the means to convert the internal flywheel of her desires into a conveyance for her dreams. Who would know looking at her, that through her lips, where lay an irregular crenellation of darkened teeth, came this worldly scent?
“When I came home, my daddy was hurt. He had sent me away out of love for me and I return smoking like mom. He was shocked by my careless appearance,” she said. Extending her arms out hands open, “Voila. Instead of attending school, I’d learned how to be myself, and. . , anyway, he forgave me and here I am.”
“Will I meet your dad?”
The flash of a light bulb went off followed by the rowdy laughter of the kids. The young Romeo looked up at his friends. He shook his head disdainfully while his Juliet smiled with eyes half closed. Another picture was taken of them before their faces disappeared again behind their ardor.
Francis followed Sarah out of the PATH terminal, the corners of her rigid coat maintaining its strict semblance of wings. They entered an open area where cars were moving in every direction. In the wake of her long, but quiet stride, her white shoes cushioned with cloud-like heels, he crossed a wide street that curved off dramatically and found himself at last, at rest at a bus stop.
“Where are we?” he asked, breathing heavily.
“Journal Square. . . Jersey City.”
“So!” he shouted exuberantly, “I finally made it across the river!” His voice was carried into the four corners on the crisp night air.
“Under,” she corrected him, quietly.
“Yeah. So, I have always thought of this side of the river as being one big industrial park, factories, refineries. . . ”
“Sometimes Francis, I can’t tell if you’re fucking with me or not.”
“Actually,” he smiled, taking her hand, “I’m waking from a long sleep. It’s like I’ve been living under a rock, or in a deep well, like a toad in a fairy tale.”
He took a deep breath. The passing cars seemed to be pushing layers of atmosphere before them. He thought of his mother, a Japanese war bride, landing in the Los Angeles port of San Pedro, traveling cross-country alone on a train. What did she think when she first saw the Empire State building rocketing upward on the skyline against the laws of gravity?
A bus appeared from around the bend and stopped in front of them. Once inside, he stared out the window, darkened by his glasses to an almost obsidian blackness. He could see her dim reflection and beyond her in the distance dense concentrations of light, like the stars near the center of a galaxy.
“Was your mother really a geisha?” she asked, pulling him in from the darkness. “I can’t imagine what she looks like? I’ve always imagined geishas, in white robes, trussed up with a back bows, serving tea. I imagine them as healers, perhaps a bit romantic.”
“I think it was a little more than that. . . But there’s a picture of her from those days. The white face, the long silk gown, it’s her wedding picture, she’s standing next to my father in his navy uniform.”
“She must be a very interesting woman.”
“After I was born she attended night classes at The BE READY Business school, taught herself English along the way. How my folks ever communicated in the early days is beyond me.”
But having said this he realized if words had the power of touch and the process was reversed then two disparate bodies lacking a cultural connection could communicate with means others than words. It wouldn’t matter if one was from Brooklyn the other from Japan, or Bayonne even.
“She’s a stenographer in the New York City criminal courts. She’ll retire in a few years.”
“Are you the youngest?” her lips pursed, the last word inflated in a pink bubble which collapsed as she inhaled.
“How did you know?” he marveled.
The bus pulled over to the curb in front of a boarded kiosk, a residential area that reminded him of Astoria. She took off down the boulevard, crossed at the light and entered a darkened street.
She gave up the embarrassment of her height, throwing her arms and legs out, pigeon-toed, knees bent, all to speed her home. The pale brick house had square columns in front but was otherwise unimposing, a small front yard with a birdbath. She mounted the steps two at a time and was already opening the door by the time he reached the top level. He thought, is she running away from me, but then she turned toward him and smiled.
When they entered the house her father was sitting in the small living room reading a book with a dictionary beside him on a side table. He greeted her absently before looking up. When he saw Francis, he sat straight up, stared at them over the rim of his glasses. He had an unkempt short white beard and a crew cut that blended well with his bald head.
“This is Francis, Dad”
“Francis. Nice to met you, Francis.”
He got up and walked awkwardly over to greet the young man, removing his glasses. They shook hands. He was taller than she was. Francis had entered a house of giants! Even the décor was appropriate, enormous chairs with large padded arms and cushions and a sofa into which he could disappear.
“Francis wanted to take me home.”
“A gentleman.” he laughed.
“I don’t know about that, sir,” Francis replied awkwardly. Then too quickly, he added, “Seems we’re all in the same line of business.”
“Oh? And what might that be?”
“Transportation,” replied Francis, lamely.
“I told him you worked for the MTA,” she said, kicking off her shoes and picking them up.
“Call me, Frank.”
“He works for North Star,” continued Sarah, removing her plastic raincoat, “at La Guardia.”
All in white, she now exemplified her trade. She untangled the diadem from her hair.
“I see what you mean,” said Frank, shrugging his shoulders. “You want a beer, Francis?”
“Yeah thanks, Frank,” answered Francis gratefully. “What about you, Sarah?”
“Nope, I’m going up to change. My feet are killing me,” she said, striding off defiantly, taking the stairway, two steps at a time. “He likes Led Zeppelin, daddy,” she called down as her voice disappeared upstairs.
“A Page and Plant fan. They were really different from anything I had heard before. I saw them at the Fillmore in. . . ‘69. . . more than thirty years ago!”
Francis followed her father into the kitchen. The house was immaculately clean, not an article out of place. Opening the refrigerator Frank removed two bottles of beer. At the cupboard he took out a glass.
“Young people like to drink out of the bottles, but I like a glass. You want a glass?”
“Yeah.” A moment later Francis offered, “I was whistling Stairway To Heaven.”
“Oh yeah, one of their popular songs.”
Returning into the living room Frank sat in his chair by the little table. Francis studied the sofa, then chose one of the arm chairs into which he sank, his elbows angled upward on the padded arms. They drank in silence. Bookcases lined the living room walls. He had never seen so many books. There they all stood, standing at attention, the thin with the fat, paperbacks with hardcover, those with jackets, those without, row after row, like the guardians of the place.
“Place is so tidy.”
“I do my best. Sarah’s the cook, otherwise we would all die of starvation.
“Where’s your TV?”
“TV? I don’t know, maybe in the garage. Now Francis, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s with the sun glasses? Prescription?”
“My eyes have been troubling me. The eye doctor gave me these to protect them from the light.”
“Nothing serious, I hope.”
“I’ve turned a corner.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” added Frank. “So where do you work, out on the runway?”
“I’m a boarding officer.”
“Sounds like a good job. Good pension?”
“I suppose.”
After a few moments Frank attempted another round of conversation.
“So where did you folks meet up?”
“Near the Port Authority. . . She was with her friends.”
“Another transportation link,” the older man mused.
“She’s beautiful.”
“I think so,” said Frank, studying Francis intently, then adding, “they say love is blind.”
“I’m not blind.”
“I can’t imagine how you can see anything with those glasses. It must be dark as hell in here.”
Frank looked at him, his eyes pinched together quizzically. Francis felt foolish. To prove his sincerity he removed the glasses for a moment.
“Are you Chinese?”
“I’m American.”
“Yeah, I know that, but what is your heritage?”
“Japanese, my mother’s Japanese. My father’s Italian, like you.”
“I’m Irish, actually. And Christ was a Jew but they call him Christian. It’s all the same isn’t it?”
He slid the dark glasses back in place.
“I can tell you this, Frank, Sarah’s different, she makes me feel real.”
He stumbled along, helplessly as if walking sideways on a stony hill.
“So it’s a question of reality, is it?”
“Until tonight,” continued Francis, regaining his step, “I didn’t feel anything.”
Her father took a deep breath.
“I’m questioning the wisdom of offering you that beer,” said Frank amused. “We used to call it ‘finding yourself.’”
“Oh yeah. Well, I’ve had it easy. I’ve never had to search for anything. Until recently. . .”
They sat looking at each other for a moment.
“She was standing on the sidewalk, I mean I spotted her from way off.”
“We tend to be tall, though her mother wasn’t a tall woman by any means.”
“I mean by finding her I’ve became myself. I woke up!”
“You do have the gift of gab, Francis,” chuckled Frank, absently flipping through the pages of the book he had been reading.
“That’s just it. I’m not known for my gab. I’m just the opposite, that is, until now. Because of her… She brings out the best in me.”
Smiling as he shook his head, her father rose up from his chair and disappeared into the kitchen. He returned with two more beers.
“Sarah’s mother would be looking at me with a questioning eye right now, but seeing that you and I have good taste when it comes to women. . . ”
“I’m sorry about your loss.”
“She did the same for me,” he said after a brief pause.
“Did what?”
“Brought out the best in me. There is no explaining that, is there?”
“No.”
“But there is a difference.”
“What’s that?” asked Francis.
“The test of time. I knew Sarah’s mother thirty years; and you’ve known Sarah a single evening.”
Sarah came downstairs. She was wearing loose jeans and a baggy t-shirt that looked like it might have been her night shirt. She wore flip flops that must have been a size twelve. Her toe nails were painted orange, the color of her raincoat. Her face was scrubbed clean, no makeup, like a kid’s, a skin pitted like a ripe fig after the yellow jackets have eaten. He had never imagined a woman like this, having never had to imagine any since they were always there for him, made-up and ready to go, just the way he was. Estelle always made him wait until she was out of the bathroom before letting him see her in the morning. Sarah returned from the kitchen with a beer which she drank from the bottle. She dropped into the matching chair Francis sat in, but unlike him her head was well above the back edge. She watched him curiously as he cautiously removed his glasses.
“I asked him how he could see anything inside here?” reiterated Frank.
The doll man had talked about a standard. It clouded one’s eyes. But now the scrim had been removed. He was free to see her through his own eyes, not through the eyes of the advertisers and the movie moguls, who stood before their palaces of deception, marquees ablaze, inveigling everyone to come and see, for the price of a dollar, the most beautiful women of all. It was like eliminating the hands of the clock; without them one could live each day as an eternity.
“Still seeing diamonds and pearls?” she asked seriously.
He nodded yes, smiling like an idiot. She laughed.
“I’m hungry,” she said, sprawling. “Anybody else?”
“He looks hungry,” emphasized her father, jerking his head toward their guest.
She got up and signaled Francis back into the kitchen where she raided the refrigerator, pulling out cheese, a bean dip and a bowl of potato salad. From the bread box she removed a loaf of bread. Before sitting down at the kitchen table, he asked where the bathroom was. In the dark he stood hesitantly at the sink. When he switched on the light and looked into the mirror, his face was normal.
Next morning, he arrived at work early, despite the long trek from New Jersey and after only a few hours of sleep. He was changing into the extra uniform he kept in his locker when Murphy entered the bathroom. The younger man broke into a wide smile.
“You are up shit’s creek, man!”
“What are you talking about?”
“When you see Estelle. . .”
“Oh, yeah.”
Francis adjusted his tie, enjoying the peace he found in the mirror. It wasn’t the same face. It was but it wasn’t. His hair was thinning. He could lose it.
“But don’t worry, we’ve arranged things. . ,” interrupted Murphy.
He studied the young man’s face, behind his own in the mirror. He had never really noticed the glasses. Murphy’s eyes looked huge, like those of a large beetle, but combined with his smile he had a winning face.
“What do you mean?” queried Francis.
Murphy turned to the stall behind them and pointed to the door. Someone had placed a series of strips on which there was an ink engraving. Francis approached the door and read the strips, one underneath the other.
In Honor of
FRANCIS SALVEZZA
Taoist
Who gave his life in his quest for balance
When in fact
Estelle Escalera
Was already fully balanced
Francis laughed.
“By the way,” he added as they left the men’s room, “I heard you’re a follower of Confucius.”
In the hallway he saw her approaching with her friend, the woman whose name he could never remember. The heavy woman was strutting with a lively buoyancy, her hair was literally flowing behind her. Estelle, of course, was impeccably dressed, her features, no longer marred by cyclonic vortexing, bore the determined features of the county DA about to clamp down on her prey.
“My infatuation with Confucius is over. I saw the light,” said Murphy. “I discovered that my teacher in Eastern Studies is actually a follower of Descartes. Well, this is where I leave you,” he nodded quickly. “Good luck.” And with that he turned a corner and disappeared.
“I knew it,” she said, stopping before him, defiantly maintaining her distance.
The other woman stopped, then seeing the look in Estelle’s eyes, smiled awkwardly and moved on.
“Don’t get any ideas, Marie, just because he two-times me.”
“How do you know I two-timed you?”
She expelled a burst of air to convey her disgust.
“By the look in your eyes. You have finally fallen in love. Even your mother called me.”
“My mother?”
“The first time she ever called me. She wanted to know where her son was. So you weren’t at home and you weren’t with me!”
Her face was lovely, architecturally perfect, beyond any established standard. Yet it was over. She was proof of his freedom, proof that the standard the doll man revealed had been dismissed.
“I’m sorry, Stell.”
“Is it somebody in the Terminal?”
“No. Nobody around here.”
“Good. I’d have a hard time being polite.”
And with that she kissed him goodbye and walked off without looking back, her hips moving like the armatures of a locomotive.

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