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.
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.
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.”
“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. 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…” 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 all that he wanted to say, to utter out loud all the thoughts that raced through his mind when he felt he 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.
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 just 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 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.
What we call 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 wait. Through trial and error we try to find the 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.
But what could ever be more irresistible than the promise of something beautiful?
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. 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. 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?”
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 as she led 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. “How long were you going to stand there?” He did a quick gesture toward the dancing ring.
I noticed that Amber was still holding my hand. I pulled away and sat down next to him.
“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. “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.
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?”
“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.
A heartbreaking portrayal of ambition, treachery, and deception, Jazz tells the story of Chris Sommers, a young aspiring writer from New York, who travels to Paris in the hopes of meeting Amber, a mysterious and beautiful woman he has always been irresistibly drawn to.
Chris is soon thrust into a world where everyone seems to be playing a dangerous and corrupt game. Anything is permissible, and even secrets that have been locked away inside the most hidden drawers of the soul will slowly resurface.