On the coldest day in decades, the cloudless sky ocean blue, I was alone, and heartbroken, outside the station on the New York bound platform, in a barrage of minus three degree wind gusts, instead of inside basking in the warmth of the waiting area. Moments ago, a carving wind, slicing through my layers, cut me to the bone.
A sad, pale man shuffled by me after my purge subsided. This man, unshaven with dirt and grease smeared on his face, was wrapped in a torn, buttonless navy peacoat. An oil-stained, maroon, and black ski cap was pulled down over his ears. His dark, green sweatshirt and sweatpants were discolored and dirty. The gray crustiness of his unshaven face contradicted the sharp, feral blue glint in his eyes.
He approached a woman, a few yards from me, wearing a pink wool cap with a matching scarf, and a black down coat. High cheek bones and turquoise hair jutted out from the cap, and her hands were in her coat pockets. She had air buds in her ears. The sad, pale man began to speak to her. She turned away.
The incomprehensible guttural sounds announcing the inevitable delay of my train paused my outlandish hysterics. Tilting my head back, eyes skyward, a warm tear fought against the cold blast of arctic air.
The crisp blue sky and white clouds overhead reminded me of my daughter Juliet as a young girl. Merging clouds and leafless branches and blue sky in our minds, she and I, while holding hands walking to and from her grade school, created mystical animals, scenes and characters, elves, Centaurus, angels, dragons, and fairies along with mystical beasts, castles and buttresses.
Juliet had her grandmother’s exact same smile. My mom passed away seven months before Juliet was born. Transported in my thoughts, I just felt Juliet’s little fingers wiggling in her wool mittens as they did whenever we reshaped our real world into imaginary realms as we walked to her elementary school in the morning.
This memory kicked off another outburst. It was a blessing that no one was around to witness this unchecked display of gross histrionics. Watching a stranger cry makes people feel uncomfortable. Watching not only a stranger, but a grown African American man cry in public, excluding disasters and funerals, is akin to seeing a family of dodos jaunt happily along these eastbound railroad tracks.
It never happens.
My daughter, Juliet, had called me last Thursday to have lunch with her this Saturday. She told me Frank insisted that she and I should talk.
Frank is African American, a converted Catholic, and even though he wouldn’t express these words himself, a self-proclaimed Saint. Frank is Juliet’s third husband.
Her first husband, Oscar, was laid off from a big time pharmaceutical. Light-skinned, medium height, shaved head, people said he looked honest, too honest. Oscar looked at the world with eyes that couldn’t hold falsehood. After losing his job, he drank heavily. He caught Juliet in their bedroom with two men, entangled in sweat, semen, vaginal fluid, unresolved impulses, regretless, six months after his layoff. Joblessness and her infidelity sent him down a dark road. He drank heavily. He was a slobbering drunk. Weeping and moaning without end. He died a year later from throat cancer.
Her second husband was a professional athlete. They got married Christmas day after meeting in a casino. On Valentine’s Day, the marriage was annulled with a nondisclosure agreement woven into the legalese.
While still in my brownstone this morning, I had looked out of my window while the biting wind coerced small trees to lean, and a blue recycle bin to bounce and dance, to roll up and down the sidewalk. I didn’t want to meet Juliet today. It wasn’t the blustery weather. It was because of Frank.
I hate that man.
He’s six feet, six inches tall, less the one percent body fat, deep-wood brown, chiseled features, a goatee, green eyes. The biggest, big-headed clown in the universe.
Juliet swears I am distant because of his religious convictions since I’m Black Muslim, and he a Christian, and also because his complexion is much darker than hers. Neither is the case. I’ve always respected people’s chosen spiritual philosophies, and I am not one to judge a person by their shade, color, gender, or race or any such nonsense. I don’t like Frank for one reason and one reason only – he’s a charlatan.
He has told me boldfaced lies, right to my face, without even the least hesitation knowing that I knew he was lying.
“No, old man, I wasn’t anywhere near Eddie’s Bar last night. You must be getting loopy in your old age niggah. And blind to boot.”
“I sent you a Happy Birthday e-card. Did you get it?”
“No, Juliet never told me you called.”
He has borrowed money from me repeatedly and hasn’t paid me back. He texted me last week, “pops pleez hit me up. need $300. thx.”
I responded, inquiring about when he planned on paying back the $500 I’d loaned him two months ago.
His retort, “the hell with you old man. use the money to get you some depends. you r getting senile. i’d feel sorry for you if you weren’t a jackass. FU. Regards, Your Loving Son in Law.”
In addition, rumors always circulated about his having on-going, inappropriate relationships with women working at the school, the wives of staff, and even with some coed on his track team.
These are just a few reasons for my, shall we say, reserved attitude toward this idiot.
My tears have stopped. Both platforms are empty. My feet have started to feel numb. I stomp to get them to warm up. I begin doing toe raises to get the blood circulating. I can’t go inside to the waiting area, not in my condition.
I felt slimy mucus across my upper lips. Slipping off a glove and unzipping my down coat, I reached into the inner pocket for the package of tissues that Emily always urged me to keep there, “Just in case. It’s winter. You never know.”
I met Emily at a “Meet-up” discussing the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Marquez fan base is loosely divided into two camps: One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Tine of Cholera. She happens to be a Solitude-ite, and I am a devout Cholera-ist – not quite Red Sox fans versus Yankees fans, but there can be an undercurrent of tension. Anyway, after the discussion, Emily extracted enough conversation from me (I’m not nearly as loquacious as some) to fill almost an hour of our “quick cup of coffee.”
I talked, though it felt like senseless babble to me, about my past, education, my family, my struggles after my wife passed, my attraction to her, and my feelings toward my son-in-law.
“Maybe you’re just jealous of the fact that your daughter listens to him and doesn’t listen to you, as you put it, ever.”
Standing out in the cold and feeling like I did, I knew I needed Emily’s lucidity right now.
I was going to use the “train was late” as my excuse just to hear her voice. I dialed. When the call went straight to her voicemail, I felt more acutely alone. Duke Ellington created a haunting melody to a tune called “Solitude.” The song played in my head, deeply stark, compelling, and sad as interpreted by Billie Holiday on her album titled the same.
The phone vibrated in my hand. I looked at the picture ID and saw a photo of my daughter sitting on a swing set in a park. This is one of my favorite photos of her taken when she was in fifth or sixth grade. Her brother— the eldest—is seen blurrily in the background running to an unknown destination. His mouth is open in a war-like cry, which was one of his favorite pastimes—indiscreet hollering.
In the pic, my daughter, in denim coveralls and a pink sweater, has a huge smile on her face overflowing with childlike happiness, beaming with unabated joy and a tinge of pride. Her black full hair frames her light brown face in such a way that her eyes whisper to you, “Hey, you want me to tell you a secret. Promise you won’t tell.”
I accepted the call. Trying my best to cover my tensions, I intoned, “Hey.”
“Frank says that maybe you want to say something to Rasheed.”
Rasheed is my grandson. He is eleven years old. Rasheed is Oscar’s son.
Why was it Frank’s idea? Why couldn’t it have been her idea? Could I have talked to my grandson if Frank hadn’t been around?
“Okay,” I heard myself say. My free hand trembled.
Less than thirty minutes ago, in what used to be Juliet’s and my favorite café, my daughter, whom I love more than anything, sits across from me, silent, with the same look in her eyes that is captured in my favorite photo.
After our coffees arrive and hollow small talk fades, the waitress gives us our toasted Cranberry muffins on white plates with globs of butter melting on top. Juliet, her chin at an authoritative angle, swallows a bite of her muffin, then tells me, “Frank doesn’t think it proper that Rasheed and you visit together in New York, because you’re living with a woman who isn’t divorced.”
My jaw drops. She goes on.
“Dad, we both think that you’re sending the wrong message to Rasheed. He’s young. He’s impressionable.” This from the woman who met her second husband in a casino in Las Vegas and married him the next morning.
Under the rattle and buzz in my throbbing mind, the sounds of the café, the mumble of conversation, the clanking of silverware, the “ker-ching” of the cash register, fade and vanish. A maniacal silence imposes itself onto my brain, into my body.
A streak of sunshine lashes across Juliet’s face, disjoining it, dismembering it, or maybe, my disbelief renders her facial expressions and words as cubist surrealism.
“Where do you expect us to go?”
“You, he, and Frank could get together and do stuff down here. Great male bonding.”
My ears begin to ring.
“Frank put you up to this?”
“He brought it up and I can see his point.”
Now I am having an out-of-body experience. I see her blue sweater, but at the same time I see nothing at all. I hear other people talking and leading normal lives, but I cannot hear anything my daughter says after the words “. . . I can see his point.”
My heart pounds, echoing, making me aware that all my insides are gone. Time and sound and images dangle and twist and mutate before my senses and my reasoning. This moment isn’t real. This moment is a poorly edited film, the synch off, jumps and blips in the reel, sound, and images conflicting.
I try to explain to her. “Juju, he and I never, never, never go to my place in Brooklyn. I drive down. We catch a train to the city, visit Oscar’s mother, gallivant around the city and that’s it.”
I tried to reason that Emily and Rasheed have never even met. I plead, “Okay, from now on I will be certain to never take him to my place. And you know that when he stays overnight, we both crash at Oscar’s mother. You know that.”
“Dad,” she placed a hand gently on top of mine. “It’s for the best. Rasheed won’t know the difference.”
There are two passions in human beings which are responsible for the worst calamities, atrocities, and human on human cruelties in the long history of our species. One is historically depicted in the story of how Galileo was persecuted by religious leaders when he published his findings that the solar system was heliocentric. I call this the passion of the inflamed righteous imbecile. The other is captured in the events leading to my being severed from my grandson, by my puffed-up ass of a son-in-law.
Frank had itched to be a writer. About the second or third year of their marriage, knowing I taught graduate writing at Brooklyn College and had been published a few times, he must have gotten a certain notion. Thus, it was only natural that when the literary bug bit him, he consulted with me about getting a book published by a “respectable” (his words) publisher.
He bounced his ideas off me. They were far from profound. His book was going to be an autobiography about his life as a somewhat well-known track and field athlete in high school and college who was injured after qualifying for the Olympic team.
“Pops. It’s a Modern Tragedy.”
Frank let me read bits and pieces.
He had blown many opportunities due to excessive partying and a hot temper. He lightly touches upon these missed chances, these blunders, and focuses instead on institutional racism and the commercialism of college athletics. This is all fine and dandy, but the meat of his story, in my humble opinion, is his struggle between his discipline, the rigors of his training, and his hedonistic nature. His partying and womanizing. His self-destructive rage. There’s something universal about such conflicts.
Within a year he completed a three-hundred page plus manuscript, a nod to his determination. All along I had tried to coax him to focus more upon the story of his personal demons; his need to get high before meets, his affairs with faculty, faculty wives, and women track and field athletes; his need to lash out against his coaches and mentors and often loved ones. I wanted him to explore the root cause or causes of these impulses. If he didn’t find anything, the exploration in itself would have been compelling.
He flatly refused my advice.
“What the fuck do you know?”
Six months ago, he vehemently started practicing Catholicism again, claiming he was touched by light, and an angel spoke to him in a dream. About two months ago, his umpteenth attempt at being published failed. The book still remains unpublished.
Of course, I am to blame.
This morning he tells me through my daughter that I can’t see my grandson anymore. For many, revenge, the second of the aforementioned human maladies, is a dish best served cold.
In Juliet’s childhood, I knew the key to my daughter’s enigmatic gazes. I knew all her secret codes because I knew the mechanisms of her developing mind. In those years, the key was her need to know more. She had an insatiable hunger for knowledge and understanding. She read constantly. We talked and explored the arts, literature, politics, religion, and whatever. You name it. I absolutely loved her as my daughter, and also because she was a blossoming thinker, philosopher, and intellectual.
As Juliet sits before me, sipping her soy chai, her eyes still maintained the mysterious unreachable gaze. In the past, I could fathom, or at least fancied I knew the meaning behind her stare. I felt I could unlock her puzzle. Watching her recite to me the reasons why I could no longer take my grandson to New York, I feel impaled.
For what I knew of her was lost, gone forever. She was no longer my little girl cheering with me at Yankee games. She was no longer my daughter laughing with me at the antics of Bugs Bunny or the Marx Brothers or Sanford and Son. She was no longer the child who loved me with all her heart. Now, she was a grown woman capable of unflinchingly laying down such ridiculously transparent ground rules that prevented me from seeing my grandson.
“Frank says it would be best, from now on, if you met Rasheed here and didn’t take him to New York.”
“How do you feel about all this?”
Cramming a half crumbling slab of muffin in her mouth, she said, “I have to do what’s best for my son.” She picked up her napkin and held it in front of her mouth as she chewed.
I sat still and quiet. She finished her food and waved for the check. I reached into my pocket, and she motioned her hand, No.
I thanked her for her honesty. I stood up and put on my several layers. With each layer I felt hotter. Either because the layers were too thick in an open-fireplace heated tearoom, or because my hidden anger was burning from within outward. Or both.
I nodded to her and tried to call her name. I wanted to ask her why? I wanted to know what I’d done to deserve this. I wanted to know when and why she hated me with such a visceral consumption.
The only thing I uttered was a word.
She looked up at me while she sipped her drink. She took a long slurp and put the cup back on the table. She stood and bundled up. Her expression never changed. I looked into her eyes, enigmatic. She never spoke another word. When she nodded her head toward the restroom, I sat motionless. This woman. This stranger. I waited until I heard the restroom door lock. Hurrying into my other layers, I walked out the door and back out into the cold.
In the cab ride to the station, the radio was playing “Prelude in E minor” by Frédéric Chopin.
My mind was fragmented.
When did she change? I can’t say for sure. Why? I can’t say that for sure either. I once loved her, and she once loved me. But now?
These consuming thoughts in the cab swayed between the reality that I didn’t feel like saying goodbye to her, on the one hand, and how much I still loved her and always would love her. My logic was searching for a point of departure, a cause, the equation, the crack in the bridge.
The irrational part of my mind repeated the phrase, over and over again, “It just really do be like that sometimes, partner.”
The bitter pill, the teeth that ripped out a mouthful of raw flesh from my thumping heart was that she did not care for me any longer. This realization was unsettling.
On the platform, I waited to hear Rasheed’s voice on my cell. I moved closer to the waiting room’s entrance to lessen the swooshing backwashed roar of the hounding wind.
After a few moments, an excited, “Hey Grandpa,” startled me. His voice has a different pitch but the same undertones as his mother.
After talking to Rasheed about the upcoming Miami Heat vs. the Knicks game on Sunday, I promised him I could get tickets to see the 76er’s play in a few weeks. I suggested since he was closer to Philly, going to a game there would give us more time to hang.
“I like that, Grandpa. We could have a new adventure in a new city. I could tell Richie that I’d been to Philly to see a game since he always brags about seeing the Celtics in Boston. That’d be cool.”
“I’m glad you like it.” I swallowed hard.
“Grandpa, can we see the Liberty Bell?”
He felt elated. I, on the other hand, felt that I had cheated him out of something better.
“Of course, little man, we can see the Liberty Bell.”
He told me about his plans to see a game in the afternoon and going to a party at his friend’s house later. I barely heard any of this. I felt guilty. Also, I felt responsible. Somehow, I was certain that this new thing was my fault, all my doing.
I said, “Great” in response to his happy pitch and not to any particular words. I told him I’d see him in two weeks for the game. As he hung up, he said he loved me. I swore to cherish that love because, in the future, that love may turn into something else.
Punching “End call” on my screen, I wiped away fresh tears with the back of my rough wool gloves. The scratchiness of the wool lingered on my eyelid and cheek longer than expected.
The Converse guy I had seen was now standing in the doorway counting change in his hands. I guessed he’d been inside panhandling where it was warmer, and since he hadn’t sufficient funds, he was going to begin his venture on the platform.
Being the only one on the platform, he zeroed his sharp blue eyes on me. He was walking towards me when far-off I heard the clang, clang of a bell and the boom of a horn. The train was coming, finally.
The phone vibrated in my hand again. It was Emily. I didn’t pick up. I needed to spend more time whirling in chaos before settling back into the lucid. I felt maybe I needed to firm up some ideas in my own head before having her guide me to a higher level of clarity. Maybe, I just wanted to call her back from the warmth inside the train.
The actual reason I didn’t answer her call was that I was ashamed. I felt powerless. I was useless.
Instead of answering, I took off a glove and reached for the dollar bill in my pocket to give to the Converse man heading toward me. Converse man hastened his steps in my direction.
However, as he came closer, he fixed his gaze upon me and then he stopped. He paused momentarily in the midst of a decision. As the wind roared in my ears, as my heart pounded, whatever he saw, felt, or intuitively picked up from me, he seemed to sense that I, for whatever reason, was in a space much more dire than he.
He smiled at me the same unsure smile he gets from those who intended to avoid eye contact with him, but who nonetheless mistakenly meet his gaze. Then Converse man nodded and proceeded walking down the stairs leading to the other platform.
I watched him descend. My train pulled into the station. The doors hissed open. A swarm of heat wrapped around me.
“Please watch your step while boarding the train.”