It was the kind of parking space your rearrange your day around. West 79th Street, off the park, just three doors down from Margaritte’s apartment. I craned my head left and right as I parallel parked and rethought my plans.
I had anticipated double parking and running up the three flights in the hope that I could drop off Maximillian without getting into an argument with Margaritte and get back to my car before it got towed. Now I saw myself spending the time I would have spent looking for a space in that used bookstore on Columbus, and the money I would have eventually paid for a lot buying a nice bottle of wine when I met Arielle at La Fortuna, right around the corner. And in between I had the afternoon to myself, alone.
My sense of urgency only grew as these thoughts ran through my head. A legal parking space was no reason to take my time.
I was around the car and leaning in the back seat in no time, pulling the squirming Maximillian out of his car seat and trying to haul him and his diaper bag out onto my shoulders for the run up Margaritte’s stairs so that I could get out of there before she got angry that I was not the boy’s father. The boy, my brother’s kid, was just verbal enough to think he was Adam, moving through the world labeling whatever he saw. It was cute, but Uncle Phil had been on the Westside Highway – “Philly: car! Philly: car! Philly: truck! Philly: car!” a little too long for cute.
As I heaved backwards against his weight, Max threw himself suddenly forward and to the left and I was sent staggering in a semi-circle, clutching him, spinning the diaper bag out like a weapon, whirling directly into the path of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. He was wearing a white fisherman’s sweater and had a black messenger bag over his shoulder, but that saffron cape was draped over the sweater and he had those familiar glasses. He did not seem to mind my intrusion, and waited patiently for me to gather my balance and my nephew and step back towards the car and clear his path. He smiled slightly and, nodding, continued down 79th Street.
For a moment it was very quiet; I half expected Max to call out “Philly: wise man!” but he seemed content now to bury his head in my shoulder and suck his thumb, which is how Margaritte found us, snuggled together on the sidewalk a few doors from her building, staring at a man’s receding saffron robe.
“I should have known it would be you,” she said, her French accent as thick as Inspector Clouseau’s. She was in a skin-tight black jogging outfit, standing with her legs spread and her hands on her hips, her pit bull Derrida on a short leash next to her. She was angry, as usual.
“Why would his father’s visitation rights involve his father? So much better for the boy to spend time with Uncle Philip.”
“Hi Margaritte. Sorry we’re late.”
“Did he even see his father?”
“Of course, they were over last night. You know how Marley is on weekends, and I was happy to come in -”
“They? Don’t tell me that he shared his weekend with Max, the weekend he made me go to court to be forced to give him, don’t tell me he spent that weekend with some young… Please tell me it was not that clingy slut Veronica.”
“It was not Veronica.”
“Another girl already? Is this one at least old enough to vote?”
Were you? I wanted to ask, but instead said. “Listen, Max has had rice cereal and bananas about two hours ago and didn’t sleep in the car at all, so he’ll want a bottle and a nap in a little while.”
“I was just going for a run,” she said. I turned to look towards the park. The Dalai Lama was gone, apparently having reached the corner and turned.
Max hugged my neck. I thought of offering to baby sit for another hour while she ran, and if she had held out a moment longer, I would have, but spoke first: “My jogging stroller is in the hall,” she turned and stepped back towards the door of her basement apartment. “I will need a minute to get it ready. You are earlier than last time.”
“Everything in here is clean,” I handed her the diaper bag, which she hooked over the handles of the stroller. “Max, is everything in here clean?” I held him up so that his diaper was in front of my nose. “Smells OK. Good work, kid.”
Max pointed at my face. “Philly: glasses. Philly: nose. Philly: bald,” in rapid succession.
“Philly has to go, young man. Give me a kiss.” He hugged my neck once again, then buried his face in his mother’s shoulder as I passed him off to Margaritte.
“Why must he say your name along with everything else he says?”
“That’s just from the car ride. He’ll be saying ‘Mommy: sky’ and ‘Mommy: tree’ as soon as he has had a nap.”
“No, all week long it is only ‘Philly.'”
“Well, maybe you should teach him to say ‘cheese steak.'”
She smiled and I saw what my brother must have seen that kept him in Lyon an extra six months.
“You should have been the father,” she said.
“Got to go,” I said.
Turning away from her I glanced once up the street. The Dalai Lama was gone, but my delicious parking space was still there. I headed for Columbus Avenue.
At the cafe, I was already disturbed by the possibility that there were walnuts in my bear claw. It was a huge tangle of pastry with enough sugar glazing to keep it stuck to the plate, little cubes of apple tucked into the folds and fingers, with one curlicue darker and harder than the others. Between my thumb and forefinger I held it to the light, trying to determine whether it was burnt sugar or walnut when my brother sat down at the little table across from me. I jumped slightly.
“I need to borrow $100,” he said.
Nicollette, the young woman he was currently madly in love with, stood behind him, facing the other way. She leaned her butt back against his shoulders and read from a slim paperback. I took a deep breath to recover from the combination of shock at his appearance and embarrassment at having been found critically examining a pastry.
“Dropping off your son went fine. You’re welcome.”
“I know. I called Margaritte. I’m not completely checked out.”
“How did that go?”
“I can still charm her. And thank you,” he squeezed my forearm and smiled with that warmth that let me know she was not the only one he could charm. I reached for my wallet.
“What do you need the hundred for?”
“Sex and drugs and rock and roll.”
I glanced up at Nicollette. She reached back and lazily slapped at his shoulder, a gesture that made her seem even younger than she was.
“I just need it to live in this crazy city for a few days. I’ll get paid this week.” Jules was in the film industry, mostly a glorified gopher, but his name had appeared in the credits as a second grip or greenman on some interesting low budget films. Work was erratic and he aspired to someday live paycheck to paycheck. At least I aspired for him. He picked up one of the papers I was grading, and read from the notes I had written at the bottom:
‘A greater focus on specific details would help you clarify your thesis.’ I don’t doubt it.”
Nicollette turned and leaned down so that each forearm leaned on one of Jules’s shoulders and her book was out in front. She placed her chin on his thinning curls and continued reading.
“Society of the Spectacle,” I said. “I like a book I can understand just by reading the title.”
She pursed her lips and continued reading.
“You and Arielle are meeting for dinner?” Jules asked.
“That’s the plan. I just wanted to knock off this one set of papers, then I have the afternoon free.”
Nicollette pursed her lips again.
“I am so looking forward to being alone. How did you find me anyway?”
He picked up another paper from the pile. “‘Your main idea is a good start, but needs to be developed further. Think about what specific details from the novel support it.’ You aren’t that hard to figure out.”
I reached for my wallet and pulled out five twenties.
“Suddenly, this feels like a bargain. Have a good day.”
He folded the bills in half and slipped them into his shirt pocket as he stood up, Nicollette’s arms undraping themselves from his shoulder as she dropped the book into an enormous leather bag that hung from her elbow.
“Take Arielle someplace nice tonight. You two could use some romance.”
“You think so?”
He smiled again as he turned to walk out. “You really aren’t that hard to figure out.”
The Past Lives Bookstore on Broadway is laid out in a series of concentric rectangles. Once you get past the books that they are really pushing from the tables in the front, you are in a regular maze of shelves that surround the cash registers in the center of the store. I once brought my son Jimmy here and he immediately became a giggling disembodied voice, always one aisle away as I frantically cut around corners calling out in a hoarse stage whisper while contemplating running to the door and ordering the guard to lock the place to prevent kidnapping.
But it can be a lovely place to be alone. There are a few chairs, to tease you mostly. I have never found one that didn’t have a young woman with the granny glasses curled up with Anais Nin, or a gentleman with a pipe reading Arthur Schlesinger.
Sitting on the floor has gotten harder as forty and supple knees have become bittersweet memories, but I persevere. I have a book from the music section, The Punk Rock Politics of Rock, when I settle myself gently onto the floor, leaning my back against the poetry shelf – there is less traffic in poetry and the salespeople never ask you to move. I can see the feet of people in the next aisle, sneakers and loafers and open toed high heels that show off bright toe cleavage. I am just getting nostalgic for safety-pin jewelry when my eye catches a pair of sneakered feet walk by in the next aisle. I see them under the bottom shelf, and recognize the saffron robe that is flowing behind them. The coincidence seems impossible.
I cannot sit up quite quickly enough, but as I finally stretch up on tip-toes to get a view above the shelf, I see that solidly squarish head and those straightforward wire-rimmed glasses turn the corner into Art and Photography. What are the odds that the Dalai Lama is shopping for used books? Why would the world’s most revered holy man be following me? I dropped Johnny Rotten and dashed around the corner and into an empty aisle of discounted art books. It was only three or four strides long and I got to the end of that aisle, glanced left into “Automotive” and saw nothing, turned right towards “Self-Help and Spirituality” and bumped into my ex-wife, Harriet, my nose banging into her shoulder blade.
“Hello, Philip,” she said, as if she had been waiting for me. She had that expressionless smile she had worn throughout our marriage and divorce.
“How are you, Harriet?” My voice was muffled slightly as I rubbed my nose.
“You look well.”
“You as well. You’ve changed your hair.”
“No, you just never noticed what it looked like when we were married.” Her smile did not change.
“What brings you here?” I asked.
“It’s before Christmas.” No change in that smile.
“Well, Harriet, it was great to see you.”
“What brings you to the self-help aisle?”
“The Dalai Lama,” I answer, my own serene smile flashing back at her.
“The spiritual leader of Tibet? He was just here. He turned into the Food and Wine aisle.”
She continued to smile, looking right into my eyes, as she always did. “I thought you were into jazz now?”
“I saw you were reading that book on punk rock,” she pointed at the aisle I had been sitting in. “And I remember the last time I saw you – in that coffee shop on Barrow Street – you told me you were listening mostly to jazz.”
I remembered the meeting, even more strained than this because Arielle and the kids were there. She asked about my Tower Records bag and told Jimmy that we had seen Patti Smith throw up in an alley across the street from CBGB’s. He was in third grade at the time and had a girl named Patty Smith in his class, so the story confused him a bit. I believed her story – I might have said I was listening to jazz. It sounded like what I would say.
We walked back towards poetry. She picked the Sex Pistols up off the floor and brushed it off, but held it close to her chest with both arms.
“Does your brother still live with that French girl on 79th Street?”
“No, they had a kid, so he moved out. He is still my brother.”
“I’m dating a man on that block and I wondered why I hadn’t seen him.”
“You’re dating someone on that block? How’s that going?
“Go ahead and sound surprised. You thought I would never date…that I would wait for you to divorce Arielle and come running back to me.”
My mouth hung open, struggling to find a response, and Harriet leaned forward, kissed me a little roughly on the cheek, and turned to leave.
“Good to see you, Philip,” she said. “Hope that Dalai Lama fixation clears up.” And she was gone.
I walked quickly down Broadway and cut towards the park to try to get the day back for myself. I walked towards the interior of the park, at each fork taking the direction with the fewest people, though in fact in most cases both paths were deserted, covered with wet brown leaves. I was coming up behind the Wollman Skating Rink when I saw Margaritte sitting on a park bench snuggling with Max and a handsome dark skinned man who, while nuzzling my ex-sister-in-law’s neck, was twirling a red cow on a string and letting Max laugh and try to catch it. It was the perfect family photo and I felt a little lonely for a moment, missing Jimmy and Marisa and Arielle. I remembered an afternoon in Prospect Park, by the old zoo. I stood frozen for a moment and then jogged left and went down a path that cut behind their bench, confident that they were so wrapped up in themselves that they would miss me, but I kept looking back over my shoulder expecting Max to call out “Philly: lover!” at any moment.
I was looking back when I heard a commotion in front of me and was distracted by a small crowd. What I noticed first was a nun and a woman in a burka standing together watching something. They were not together, I realized — only seemed so because of the strange way in which their outfits both matched and contrasted. Then my eye was drawn beyond them to a group of teenagers horsing around in front of a fountain.
The tall, dark-skinned boy in the middle of the group was Reggie McKenzie, the bane of my 3rd period class. He was holding another kid’s hat high out of reach while the boy, slight and pockmarked, was jumping and laughing but unable to reach it. There were two girls with them, both taller than the hatless boy, but only as high as Reggie’s shoulders. One was reaching up and slapping Reggie’s arms and crying as she begged for the return of the hat. Reggie was holding her worst blows off with his free hand. The other girl was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down her cheeks, though she too was urging Reggie to return the boy’s hat. Though at first I confused the real tears and the laughing tears, the high pitched anger in the one girl’s voice cut through the general din and made me stop and watch. Sensing my presence before he really saw me, Reggie worked me into the scene.
“You want me to let go of the hat? I’ll let go of the hat. I’ll give it to this white guy-” He turned slightly and moved as if to scale the hat towards me like a Frisbee. Seeing that he knew who I was he froze, allowing the angry girl to get in one good slap to his face before she turned to look at me herself.
We were twenty feet apart and out of school, but Reggie snapped to full height and glared at me anyway.
“Hi, Reggie. How are you?”
“Fine.” This was a much more powerful response than I got in school, and I recognized its association with the shock of seeing me on the street. I sensed it would not last.
“Mister, tell him to give Leon his hat!” The angry girl demanded.
“Reggie’s a good man,” I said. He’ll do the right thing.” And I moved to get around them.
“Here’s your hat. Who wants that shit.”
“Why can’t you stick up for yourself?” said the angry girl, slapping the boy on the shoulder, as he pulled the black baseball cap down deep over his ears. She put her arm through his elbow, and bent her head deep to one side to rest it on his shoulder.
Reggie stood to the side, his fists clenching and relaxing as they walked up the street past him.
“I got to go to work,” he called after them.
I sat on a park bench to let them get ahead of me. The people that had stopped to watch had moved away, drifting in various directions. The nun and the woman in the burka together, gesturing as they walked and talked. I watched them disappear under a bridge, and it occurred to me, for no apparent reason, that Arielle would arrive at the restaurant early and we could have a glass of wine before dinner.
Il Fortunata is a gentle restaurant: white tablecloths and hanging wooden light fixtures; waiters in black oxford shirts and chinos; wine bottles along the right wall, a dozen tables. I see Arielle right away, standing in the center of the restaurant: that crooked smile, salt and pepper hair shining above olive skin, that little black dress. She raises one arm towards me, as if we could reach out and hold hands from across that room. I also see that several tables are pushed together behind her, and that while smiling and reaching out to me, she is also talking to Harriet.
Harriet is, of course, also smiling. I stop to take in the scene. My mother-in-law is talking to my brother, Jules, and his girlfriend Nicollette is leaning across the table, deep in conversation with a man I recognize from when I saw him in the park, necking with Margaritte. She is clutching The Society of the Spectacle to her chest.
I focus on Arielle, whose smile I can now see is lightly frozen on her face, a genuine smile, genuinely puzzled.
“I don’t know what happened?” She says, her voice rising as if asking a question. “I got here a little early and Jules was here with Nicollette. I didn’t know what to tell them, so when my mother showed up with the Marissa and Jimmy -”
“I thought your mother was watching them back in Brooklyn?”
“So did I, but they came in to see a movie and they thought they were meeting us here for dinner.”
“They didn’t get that idea from me.”
“Maybe they got it from your brother?”
“I saw him in a coffee shop this afternoon. I might have let the name of the restaurant slip.” I touched her shoulder and she slumped towards me.
Arielle was leaning against me and I was thinking that I could lean down and kiss her anyway, despite the crowd, when I felt an arm on my shoulder.
“Have you met Roger?” Harriet was by my side, and the man in the bow tie next to her was taking my hand in a firm, manly grasp.
“Nice to finally meet you,” he said, crushing my knuckles together. “I have heard so much about you.”
“You have?” I looked at Harriet. She was smiling. “I have heard a lot about you, too.” Her smile broadened just a little.
“Hi Daddy!” My daughter’s voice, disembodied.
“Hi, Marissa. Where are you?”
“Under here. With Maxie.” I realized that the voice was coming from beneath the table. “I am the babysitter now.”
“Philly! Table! Philly! Chairs!”
“Maxie, don’t shout,” she shouted.
Reggie McKenzie walked by holding a tray of water glasses, tall and straight, a stride that was direct and efficient. He began distributing glasses to places at our table. When he looked up and noticed me staring at him, he looked through me, as if I was just another customer. A waiter was asking me about a drink, my mother in law was telling me about the movie, my brother was saying something about the money he owed me and my ears began to ring. I heard a siren outside and I looked out the large front window of the restaurant towards the street. There was a small group of people on the sidewalk, facing me in a semicircle. They were all looking intently and listening to a man who had his back to me. The man was bald and wore a saffron robe. He gestured with his right hand towards the park and turned to walk, the group moving with him out of the frame of the window, which, with the night’s darkness behind it, was transformed into a mirror, reflecting back at me a picture of myself, surrounded by family and friends.
John P. Loonam is the director of the Institute for Media and Writing at Bayard Rustin Educational Complex in New York. He is married and the father of two sons. Mr. Loonam’s work has appeared in Slow Trains, Antithesis Common, The Fifth Street Review, The Black River Review, Here’s Me Bus, Rubicon, The Mississippi Review, and The English Review. He has also been a regular contributor to the Mottola Theatre Project’s annual Cherry Picking Festival. His short story “Even Richard Nixon” was listed in storysouth‘s “Best of the Web” collection for 2006, and will be nominated by Slow Trains for a Pushcart Prize.