Bartenders were pouring drinks into glasses, releasing a strong miasma of liquor into the air. Behind them, a mirror covered the wall. Coming from the booths, chatter and laughter danced along brick walls.
I looked around for Jay. He was nowhere in sight, so I took a seat at the bar.
“He’s in the other room, talking with Oliver,” one of the bartenders said. “What’ll be?”
“The same as my cousin.”
He put a bottle of Corona on the bar. I took a long sip, and then I began to slowly peel off the label.
A few moments later, Jay came out through a double door. His tie was undone and his white shirt, all plastered around his body, had its sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His face was swollen, and a rugged beard went all the way up from his Adam’s apple to his cheekbones, close to his eyes. It was as if he were trying to choke himself to death with his own facial hair. We shook hands.
“What? You’re a king now?” Jay shouted as he took a seat next to me. He pointed at my hands. I smiled sheepishly and looked down and noticed that I still had my gloves on. I took them off.
“Sorry,” I muttered. We shook hands again.
It felt strange sitting there at the bar, with Jay staring out at me like a doctor inspecting a newborn baby. “Did you go to the bank?” he asked.
“Let’s hope things are going to change,” Jay said.
“Yeah, let’s hope.”
He eyed me sullenly. “What’s with this thing your father told me about? You’re going to Paris?”
“I’m leaving tonight,” I said.
He glanced at the bartender and raised his hand in the air. “Give me another beer.”
“I have to see her,” I said staring at people’s shapes quivering across the mirror’s cold surface.
He looked back at me and eyed me with a profound mime, his face contorted into a web of wrinkles, as if he wished to see through my skull and into my brain. Finally, he said, “I know, Chris, I know…” Then he took a long drink from his beer. He put the bottle down on the bar and shook his head violently. “I miss her too. Don’t think that I don’t.”
“Maybe I can make her come back.”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he put the bottle to his mouth and tilted his head back. In a matter of seconds, he gulped away what was left of the beer. “You’re different,” he said. “You’re not like us. You want…” He stared out at me and smiled. “You want the perfect ending. Something that doesn’t exist.” He began to tap his fingers against the bar. Stronger and faster, and it felt as if it was never going to end. Stronger and stronger and stronger, until, all of a sudden, he stopped and looked back at me. “You know, Amber’s not the person you think…” He shook his head pathetically. “Trust me, cousin, you don’t want to…” He scratched his cheek.
Thinking back at this moment, after having played it again and again inside my mind so many times, I’m certain that if he would have finished the sentence, if he would have had the courage to say what we all wanted to say, what we all thought when we felt that we could truly hate Amber, I wouldn’t have left for Paris.
I walked out of the bar and, instantly, the night, cold and bitter, seeped into my body. I felt the need to walk, to just walk for a couple of hours. So I began wandering the streets as if I were a lunatic searching for an absurd form of redemption. The stars shined hard against the dark sky, and the moon, lusterless and dead, had been reduced to a thin nail clipping.
A blistering wind blew off from every direction, and the quiet light that came from lamps and enclosed the grey skin of the sidewalk couldn’t stop darkness from wrapping itself around glass and concrete and flesh in what resembled a tight and desperate embrace. I could feel the harsh air painfully playing inside my lungs. It hurt to even blink.
For a city that never sleeps, New York seemed the coldest and most desolate place to be in.
As I made my way through the freezing air that bit my cheeks and neck, it felt as if time had stopped specifically so that I could gather all the memories of Amber I could find.
We never perceive the passage of time in the same mechanical manner the ticking of a watch implies. For us time is subjective, a sinuous river, sometimes viscous, almost grinding to a halt as we zigzag our way among pedestrians wearing heavy jackets, and sometimes fast and turbulent, leading our lives with indescribable fury.
Fragments of a wild and bizarre beauty would appear and disappear fast, never settling for more than what felt as a second. My mind couldn’t put together all the glints that my past kept throwing at me. But then the incessant moan of the city night faded away into silence, and my mind began to weave an intricate web of memories. What had started off as a waffling and erratic cocktail of images, condensed to such a degree that I could barely discern Amber’s face, had now grown into a fascinating and yet frightening labyrinth.
I took pleasure in building Amber, piece by piece, until my mind contained a fully fleshed version of a thin and gracious young woman, a white dress sculpted around her body and her black hair falling down to her waist.
It was a two year old memory, but it felt as real as the people I was walking around with.
We were at my father’s restaurant. I was watching her from afar. She was thin, but there was still flesh underneath her rigid dress, there were still thighs and hips and breasts, all tailored together with delicate mastery.
Love at first sight is not complicated. In our dreams we build a woman, we give her life from our own life, and then we have to wait. Through trial and error we try to find that nameless ghost that’s haunting our most lonely of nights. And I felt as if I had found what I was looking for. Finally, my ghost had a name and a face.
On the stage, surrounded by people clapping and cheering, a band was playing a vivacious jazz song. In front of them, his back against the crowd, a painter was drawing on a canvas. I tried to keep my eyes on that strange symbiosis, I tried to listen to the music, to gently shake my head with the rhythm, but I couldn’t.
I tried to look the other way. My eyes would dart around for a while, but then I would glance back at her, hoping to find her again among all those nicely dressed strangers. It was all a miraculous occurrence that carried with it the faint perfume of hope. It was destiny, I thought, but I didn’t feel the need to rush for the sake of going and talk to her. We had all the time in the world. We had spent twenty years apart, oblivious to each other’s existence, and now it seemed to me that it was destiny for us to spend the rest of our lives together, as some sort of compensation.
In all honesty, all I wanted was to go up to her and press one finger against her skin, to see if she was real or not. To see if it burned or if it could make me happy or destroy me. But I just stood there, constantly making sure there was a safe distance between us, a no man’s land I wasn’t willing to cross. There was far too great a promise on the other side; of love and happiness, or maybe of a terrible agony, one that all the morphine in the world couldn’t kill.
Maybe I’m being melodramatic, but then and there I perceived everything around me in such an amplified way, and my veins were filled with a strange, bitter sweet excitement, as if I were ready to embark on a strange and perilous odyssey.
I don’t know how, but Amber had noticed me as well. She walked over to where I was standing. “Don’t you think it’s time we met?” she asked.
I could tell by her smile that she knew who I was.
“I’m Amber,” she said, extending her hand. “Jay’s girlfriend.”
“I know, I know.”
She laughed, an odd happy shriek, as if I had said something funny. She grabbed my hand. “Come,” she said and began to lead me through the crowd. We moved cautiously, bumping dancers, keeping our heads lowered, and making our way toward a table where Jay and one of his friends, Jack, were playing cards.
Little clouds of smoke rose from the cigar that rested between my cousin’s fingers. He looked at me and puffed another smoke ghost through his nostrils. “Looks like you’ve found yourself a muse,” he said, peering up at me.
I noticed that Amber was still holding my hand. I pulled away and sat down next to him.
“How long were you going to stand there?” He did a quick gesture toward the dancing ring.
“Don’t you know it’s rude to stare?” Jack asked.
“He wasn’t staring at you,” my cousin said with a grin.
“You’re drunk,” I said.
“Nobody’s drunk,” he replied quickly. “We’re playing poker.” He waved the hand with the cards, some of which fell on the table. “We’re having fun.”
“Jesus Christ!” Jack exclaimed, giving my cousin a disgusted look. “Could you be more careful with those?”
I smiled and leaned back in the chair. “You’re not drunk. You’re just having fun.”
My cousin took a long drink from his glass. “You should loosen up a bit,” he said, shaking his finger at me.
“He’s like a grumpy old man,” Jack said.
I shook my head and tried to laugh it off. I glanced over to Amber. She was laughing.
Have you ever noticed that the gestures and expressions of beautiful women carry with them a certain echo of grace, in a way that their whole being is radiant and requires only quiet contemplation from our part?
Women of rare beauty are aware that they have been granted something that can’t be forced, or invented, or surgically grafted, and act accordingly. That grace, oddly passionate and sometimes perverse, takes a long time to master.
But Amber was different. She was aware of the effect she had on people, no doubt about it, but she was acting in such a strange way; there was a certain warmth in her gestures, in her gentle smile – as if she meant to assure people that they could stare at her for as long as they’d like without her minding. And it was infectious, her smile. No matter your mood.
We sat there for a few hours, talking and playing cards and drinking, while the band played their instruments. Their repertoire had changed from wild and crazy to slow and suave tunes; notes floated around us, giving the place a lazy, melancholic undertone.
“So, what do you do? You know, for a living.” Amber’s voice shattered the incessant chatter of people and the nostalgic melody.
“Nothing,” Jay said, and he and Jack laughed.
“Nothing?” She looked over to him and wrinkled her eyebrows.
“Nothing at all.” Jack chuckled.
I gave them a bitter smile.
“Yeah, yeah,” my cousin said and turned over to Amber. “He’s a writer.”
“A writer?” Amber looked at me with interest. “What do you write?”
“Short bios about himself. 140 characters or less,” Jack said.
“All sorts of stories. But I haven’t found my voice yet.”
“You’re a writer or a singer?” my cousin asked. “What do you need a voice for? Do you want me to lend you mine?”
“I’ve never met a real writer before,” Amber said. “When do I get to read some of your stuff?”
“I don’t know. When I’ll have something worth reading, I guess.”
“What’s wrong with what you have so far?”
“It’s not me.”
She gave me a suspicious look. “What do you mean?”
“All great writers write like themselves,” I said. “I don’t. At least, not yet. I write like a bunch of other people.”
Jay gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder. “Come on, you’re killing us.”
“Write like yourself then,” Amber said and stood up. “I’m sure you have a story to tell. Something that only you can write about. You just have to find it.” She looked around. “Maybe you need to live it first.” She walked over to Jay and kissed him on the lips.
I got home, had something to eat, drank two glasses of red wine, and then I packed my bags. When I pulled my luggage out in the hallway, I noticed that it was too early to be leaving for the airport, so I headed back into the living room and turned on the stereo.
I selected my favorite song, an upbeat performance by the band that used to play at my father’s restaurant. Life began to blare out of the speakers; ripple after ripple of loud music. I turned up the volume, clenched my fists and jolted in the middle of the living room, my feet sliding across the rug.
Whenever I hear the intricate murmur of a saxophone, I end up thinking about Amber. It’s an uncontrollable process.
When she and my cousin were engaged, they used to live in a penthouse that overlooked Central Park. There were a lot of flowers; in the living room, gamboling on the walls, or on the terrace, cooking in the sunlight.
I used to visit them so often that in time I became some sort of furniture – an extension to the couch on which I sat.
For reasons unknown to me, my cousin was rarely home. So in the afternoons that I went there, I would enter the living room and explore the surrounding air, trying to capture Jay’s voice; if I heard him talking, I would shout my name just so they would know it was me – someone who didn’t want to bother or be bothered. Of course, whenever my cousin was home, the rest of the day lost its importance.
When he was away, I would pretend Jay was the one I was looking for, ask Amber for a cup of coffee or a glass of water, and sit on the couch for as long as I could. I tried my best not to talk to her. I would answer quickly to any of her questions. Somehow I think she considered me rude.
But she didn’t know that all I wanted was to see her take care of the flowers. It was a moment that depended on a lot of meager circumstances. Sometimes she didn’t feel like it, other times I arrived a few minutes too late.
She talked with the flowers, she caressed their leaves, as if wishing to sculpt them into perfection, she sprinkled them with water, and every one of her gestures carried with it a sort of nostalgic beauty which stirred in me a strange faint, the same way it happens when you stare at a point on a wall for too long.
“You have to take care of them,” she would say, moving back and forth, from one garland of lilacs to another. “They feel everything.”
It was always such a bizarre and quiet moment that I wouldn’t have minded if it had lasted forever. On the contrary, I would have accepted this situation, I would have spent the rest of my days watching Amber take care of the flowers with nothing more than solemn contemplation on my part.
One day she changed the meaning of my visits, giving them a new purpose and new frights. It was her birthday, and I had no idea what present to buy her, so I brought her one of my stories.
“You’re the first to read it,” I said.
Amber looked startled. “Oh, thank you.” She kissed me on the cheek. “Then I have to read it now,” she said, tugging at my arm.
“Now? You wanna’ read his God damn story now?” Jay asked.
“Of course,” she said calmly.
Her voice had a strange effect on him. He glanced down at the floor for a moment, as if ashamed, and then he shook his head and said, “Fine.”
I looked around at all those faces surrounding us, all of them living and breathing in this confused silence. At the back of the living room, the band from my father’s restaurant were setting up their instruments.
I followed Amber into my cousin’s office. We stood there for a few minutes while she read my story. The band had started playing. At one point Jacques, the saxophone player, performed an intricate solo, but it all reached me vaguely, the same way reality gets absorbed into a dream.
I was watching Amber’s every gesture, trying to decipher whether she was enjoying my story or not. But I couldn’t. When she finished reading, she folded the papers in half and placed them on her lap. She looked up at me. ”This is good,” she said. “I loved it.”
I spent the rest of the night watching her as she walked around, exchanging pleasantries with her guests, wanting nothing more than to sit down with her somewhere and talk for a few hours. About anything, about everything, about nothing. I would glance around the room at all the handsome, well-dressed, surgically enhanced people with the desire to engage them in all sorts of meaningless conversation. I was feeling friendly and giddy and a bit drunk.
At one point I noticed William, the painter. He was holding a cocktail glass in his hand and was looking down at it, as if trying to comprehend the reason for all these strangers being here.
My cousin and Amber used to keep him as some sort of pet. During the day he had to cook and run errands, and during the night he would play the piano while me, Amber, and my cousin sipped cocktails on the terrace. He slept on a mattress in a room with no windows that used to be a closet. We never went there, in his private space, where he used to paint whenever he had the time.
“Having fun?” I asked him as I walked over to where he was standing.
“More or less,” he said, staring emptily through the crowd. He glanced back at me. “I heard about your present. I didn’t know you were a writer.” He leaned closer. “Is it hard? You know, writing.”
He looked at me with a dazed and confused mime on his face. “What’d you mean?”
“Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not. It depends on your mood, I guess.”
“Do you think I can become a writer?”
“I bet I can,” he said, smiling to himself.
A waiter passed by, and he put his glass on his tray. “You know, it took me just six months to learn the violin,” he said and played at an invisible instrument for a few seconds. “I bet I can learn to write in half that time.”
The band was now playing at a frantic pace and most of the guests were engaged in a sort of careless swagger. Amber was seated on a couch, talking with Jay and some of his friends.
I turned my back on William and blended with the crowd. My body bent, my chest trembling like a drum. I couldn’t even feel my own heartbeat. I pursed my lips and twisted my feet on the floor.
This was life, this was freedom.
In the cold glare of the afternoon sun, Paris exhaled a certain vibe. I could feel it vibrate inside my veins, the chaos and anxiety of a bustling metropolis, but most of all, I could feel life.
As I sat in the backseat of the cab that was taking me to my hotel, I looked around at billboards resting on top of brick buildings, at buses, at people rubbing life back into their numb hands, and for a while, didn’t think about Amber.
When I got to my hotel room, I went out on the balcony. It wasn’t as cold as in New York, so I stood there for a while, listening to the city’s chaotic symphony – the sonic wallow of car engines invading a labyrinth of cobblestone streets and old buildings that decomposed in a golden mist of light.
I went back inside and fell asleep fast. It was nine in the evening when I woke up. I took a shower and then I went out on the streets. I knew where I had to go. It was a restaurant in the 1st Arondisment, which meant it had to be close by, but since I had never acquired the sense of orientation required to fully understand a map, I hailed a cab.
“Oui, oui, monsieur,” the driver said and smiled when I told him the address.
We passed art galleries and exclusivist shops and bars and pubs and banks and glass covered telephone posts, and scooters and bicycles neatly parked against the sidewalk, and people sitting at small tables sipping wine, and all the buildings looked alike, rigid and old, as if carved out of miniature mountains.
The driver didn’t seem to like traffic lights. Whenever we had to stop, he would mumble something in French and rub the bridge of his nose in an exasperated manner. It was a busy and narrow, one-way street, so his frustration was somewhat natural. We passed a turnaround with a fountain in the middle, and after a few more minutes we turned right on a much wider, two-lane street. We turned left, and the Seine was to our right, sublime and quiet, the moon’s shadow dancing across its surface. Massive trees stood on each side of the street, and people sold paintings and souvenirs in small, wooden booths. We turned left once more, and after a few more minutes of excruciating progress on another narrow, one-way street the cab stopped in front of a cobblestone alley.
The driver turned around in his seat and smiled. He waved his hand toward the alley. I paid for the fare and stepped out of the cab.
It was a very narrow alley, maybe less than five feet wide, and the buildings surrounding it, dull and old, made for an almost peaceful atmosphere.
I walked for a while and found the restaurant I was looking for. I went inside, and a tall brunette wearing a black, sober dress greeted me.
“Bonsoir, monsieur,” the woman said with a broad smile.
“I’m sorry,” I said and spread my hands in an apologetic shrug, “I don’t speak French.”
“Good evening, then.”
“Good evening. Do you have tables for one?”
“Of course, sir. Right this way.”
I was seated at a small table from where I could see the entire restaurant. At the bar, a group of men wearing white shirts and silk ties were laughing and talking energetically. One of them was performing some sort of strange pantomime. He grabbed and threw, pulled invisible strings, punched and yelled, and all the other men were nodding and laughing. At the tables close to the windows sat a few couples, holding hands and talking in low, whispering voices.
Hopefully the menu was both in French and English, and even though I wasn’t hungry, I ordered some food and a glass of wine, so people wouldn’t think I was one of those alcoholics who go to restaurants all by themselves and drink steadily for a few hours until they end up talking with the bottle or worse.
After I finished eating, I saw that the hostess who had greeted me was at the bar, talking with the man who had performed that bizarre pantomime. There seemed to be some flirting going on; he was smiling wickedly while her fingers were strolling across his tie and shirt.
I raised my hand in the air, hoping she would notice me. The man did, and he laughed, grabbed the woman by the elbow, and whispered to her ear. She turned around and walked over to my table.
“What can I do for you, sir?”
“I have a question for you.”
I glanced around the restaurant and, for the first time, noticed that there were a lot of flowers resting on built-in shelves in the walls; a rainbow of flowers fluttering in the warm breeze of the air conditioner. I must have been smiling like an idiot, like I always do when a specific detail intrigues me, a detail I didn’t notice before, because when I looked up, the hostess was glaring me suspiciously.
“The flowers,” I said.
She gave me a nervous, almost concerned smile. “Well, what’d you want to ask me?”
I shook my head. “Never mind,” I said and stood up. “I found my answer.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “Aha.”
“You must think I’m crazy or something,” I said. “But I’m not.” I held out my hand. “My name is Chris Sommers.”
She looked down at my hand as if it was holding out a gun.
“I’m a friend of Amber’s,” I said. “She works here, right?”
She smiled and grabbed my hand. “Rose.” She looked around the restaurant, laughed, and then she glanced back at me. “The flowers, now I get it. Amber loves flowers.” She scratched her wrist. “She’s not here though.”
“I’ve come here from New York and I would like to meet her but I don’t know where she lives so if you could help me I would be…” I ran out of breath before I could finish my plea.
The woman waved at the man from the bar, who was now standing in the middle of the restaurant, talking with two of the customers.
He came toward us with one of those arrogant strides, when you shake your shoulders one at a time. When he reached us, he smiled politely without trying too much. There was something about his face, either the arrogance or something else I couldn’t quite place, that reminded me of my cousin.
He rubbed his hands together. “What can I do for you?”
“He’s friends with Amber,” Rose explained.
“Chris Sommers,” I said.
He stared at my chest for a while. “David Witter,” he finally said.
We shook hands, but he didn’t bother to add much pressure to his grip. I always take that as a sign of disrespect. You either shake hands like a man or not at all.
“He wants to know where Amber lives,” Rose added.
David shrugged. “If he doesn’t know, maybe it’s not his business to know.”
His reaction made me feel as if I were irrelevant at best, maybe even invisible.
“David, don’t be rude,” Rose said.
He gave her a poisonous glance but his anger quickly dissolved into a placid expression. He looked at me and scratched his chin. His glare was intense, menacing, and untrusting at the same time. I did not like him. “Okay, okay. I can take him on my way home if he wants,” he replied.
“That would be great,” I said and pulled my coat of the back of the chair. I followed him through a maze of halls and doors. He swung open a double door, and we entered the kitchen. There was something friendly about that room. It probably had to do with all that organized chaos; a steamy atmosphere redolent of grease and spices in which a small army of men dressed in white were handling sharp tools and frying pans with profound mastery.
A small, black-haired man noticed us. His creased face formed a vague smile. “You leaving, David?” the man asked as he pressed a paper napkin against his burning forehead.
David smiled. We left the kitchen through another double door and then passed through what seemed as an endless hallway, until we found ourselves in front of a metal door. He pulled a key out of his pocket and unlocked it. He gave it a gentle push and it swung open.
I followed him into an alley. “You the owner?”
Without stopping he said, “The guy in the kitchen.” He turned left into a wider alley, and I followed. “He’s the owner.”
We reached his car, a black Mercedes, and David took a look at his watch. Still staring at it, he said, “I’m the manager.” He looked up at me and frowned. “It’s almost midnight. You sure you want to go to Amber’s place?”
“You can come by the restaurant tomorrow and see her.”
“I have to see her now.”
We were speeding along a two-lane boulevard. Stretching off on both sides were four story brick buildings that reminded me of Brooklyn. They soon dissolved into small, decrepit apartment buildings, and the shops and pubs disappeared almost entirely. This made me feel not as much as if I’d travelled back in time, but more as if I’d travelled in a part of Paris that wasn’t meant to be seen, some terrible secret hidden away in the most sinister of manners.
The car stopped in front of a yellowish building, rusted iron bars covering its windows. The window frames were half-eaten as well and large chunks of plaster had fallen off. Beside the front door, a couple of kids, no more than seventeen, were talking and smoking.
“This is the place,” David said.
There was a moment of silence – then he leaned over and opened the door on my side of the car. I glanced at him and shook my head. I thought it was some sort of joke. “This is it?”
“What’d you expect?” He looked over to me and grunted. “Second floor, first door on the right.”
After David left, I stood on the sidewalk for a while, trying to decide whether this was real or not. I decided it wasn’t, but somehow I found myself climbing the stairs all the way up to the door David had indicated and stopping there, with my hand against the wood, like a doctor trying to find a heartbeat; some sign of life, a murmur, a voice. But there was nothing of the sorts, so I decided to go back to the hotel.
I left the building and made my way toward the main street hoping to find a taxi. Someone shouted my name. I turned around and saw Amber standing on the balcony and glaring down on me with a shy, little smile on her face.