Our man sits in the window seat of the airplane. He is looking out the window where the yellow and orange and red lights of New York City have just appeared through a hole in the clouds. Thick carpet of tiny, illuminated beads, divided by thick black rivers, thin black highways and, over all of it, a dome of ambient light through which the plane is now dipping. The announcements come over the loudspeaker but because our man has not leaned his seat back or used the traytable, he has nothing to do. It has been a long time since he has been here, in this seat, on this plane, returning and he does something vaguely anticipatory with his hands then sets them each flat over a thigh. There is a copper nail set in the corner of our man’s mouth and our man pinches it out, spins it around his fingers, then taps the window with it once.
He is thinking of her, there below him, and he thinks the things that returning lovers do: will she look the same, be the same? Will she feel the same, her skin against my skin? They had met at a party thrown by one of his associates, held on the roof of a hotel in Meatpacking. She had been dancing and he dancing as well and they had danced in a slowly enclosing circle until finally they had arrived at each other. She had looked him in his eyes—something few people did anymore—then folded her arms up against her sides and set herself against his chest in the perfect pose to be embraced. And he had embraced her and they had slowdanced like that for a long time, twirling gently together even as the base and party around them thundered. “Hey,” She had said finally. “Hey,” had been his reply. And she is down there, sleeping maybe, and he will be there soon as well. Soon.
He is the third person off the plane, behind a fat man and an elderly woman, both of whom he passes while climbing the jetway. He comes out of the gate to an abandoned terminal and walks towards the ground transportation. He carries no luggage and his shoes make no noise as he crosses the laminated floor. He comes to the down escalator and steps aboard and brushes his the long strands of his hair down over his eyes. It is cut all the same length and parted in a single line in the front—different then it had been the last time he was here. He wears also a beard and black jeans, a black T-Shirt, a green army jacket.
The driver, when he sees our man descending towards him, nods and comes forward, correcting his black tie and buttoning his black suit jacket. Our man steps from the escalator and walks past him without a word and the driver falls into step behind him. They go out through the slow-revolving doors and through the waiting taxis and into the carpark. Our man stops to allow the driver to pass and he leads him to the car, which sits nose-out in the last handicap parking space on the first floor. A slim-faced Cadillac Fleetwood Limousine in black chrome with black wings, black interior. The driver opens the backdoor and our man slides in. The old leather of the seats sighs as it accepts his weight. They pull off and our man lies back, sprawling the length of the long seat and setting his hands behind his head. After awhile, the driver holds up a card to the window and our man sits up to take it but doesn’t read it. He uses the toe of his sneaker to lift the switch that raises the window.
They take 278 through Queens towards Manhattan. The only other cars on the highway are taxis making the same trip as they. Our man looks out through the tinted windows and the darkened city seems to sit up in anticipation as they pass. They cross the East River then descend the FDR, exiting at Ninety-Sixth Street, come to Central Park and turn south, passing the just-budding spring trees, raisin-black and waving in the night.
It was in a hotel room where they had first made love. They had snuck in, he leading the way through a backdoor he knew would lead them into a service area. They had taken the service elevator to the top floor and he had unlocked the door to one of the suites there. Their tour had revealed a huge bathroom with a glass-enclosed shower that looked out over the whole of the city below. “You don’t mind?” She had asked and pointed at the shower. He had waited in the living room, sitting in a gold-stitched armchair and looked down at the city. Same view she’s having, he had thought. From the shower. From the shower. And he had taken a chance then and gone back into the bathroom. There she had been, water from the dual-heads spilling down her shoulders, her long black hair a slowly spreading cape down her gently muscled back. She had turned just as he had been working off his socks, one foot raised, hopping slightly, his jeans only just slipping down, and she had laughed at him there and he’d thought it had been lost but she had folded her arms up against her sides just as she had done the first night they’d met and he’d embraced her in the shower and they’d gone after to the bed and made love high over the city and afterwards laid naked and wet atop those exquisite, touching each other softly until long after sunset.
The car comes into the Grand Army Plaza, just south of the south corner of the Park. In the center of this plaza, rising golden and resplendent from the center of some gardens is a monument to General William Tecumseh Sherman. He is depicted mounted; his horse lead by the angel of victory, and it is in the shadow of this soldier that our man leans, waiting. He is watching the Plaza Hotel, whose façade glows yellow even now so early in the morning and from out of the revolving doors of the Plaza, a man in a suit and bathrobe comes. Even at this distance, our man can see this man nod, the lights of the building overhand flashing once across the bald circle at the man’s crown. The robed man sets off for the park. Our man follows.
They come down a paved path that breaks off into a smaller tributary that leads them down to the edge of a pond. The robed man sits on a bench that is shielded from the main path above by pussy willow bushes. Our man sits as well and is the first to speak.
“You all still stay at the Plaza?”
The man doesn’t answer. He is bent over and is rubbing his hands together to warm them and he sits up and reties the belt of his bathrobe then hunches back over and squeezes his hands into his lap. “Once you’re in the Plaza, you’re always in it. So you’re back?”
“Here I sit.”
“Yes, here you sit. For better or for worse. We’ll hope for better.” He pauses. “Some of them said it was pointless for you to come back.”
Our man clucks his tongue.
“They said it wasn’t worth it. The city’s changed.”
“Cities never change.”
“True, but the people within them do.”
The robed man eyes our man from the corners of his eyes. “You will find that they have.”
There is another pause and the robed man leans back and fingers one of the branches of the pussy willow shrubs behind, pinching and crushing one of the buds between the tips of his pointer and middle fingers. “Yes,” he says absently.
“Good.” Our man has removed the nail from his mouth and he spins it around his fingers. “I’m just looking forward to being home.”
“I imagine you are.”
“It’s been cold. It’s cold out there.” Our man sweeps his arm out before them to denote everywhere that isn’t Manhattan.
“Been cold here too.”
“The big thaw?”
“We’ll see tomorrow.”
“Yes. Yes, we will.” The man has stood and is brushing the back of his robe and pants. He begins back up the path the way they’d come. “We’ll see ya.”
Soon, he is gone into the gloom under the naked trees, the dim phosphorescence of the pathway lights. Our man remains, watching the black water of the pond before him.
He remembers her bringing him here. To show him the ducks, they swimming in formation and bobbing their heads underwater and rising so crystal droplets poured over their back. “Like marbles,” she had said and laughed and gathered up her long back hair to rake over his face the way she did. It had been summer then and they’d walked north through the zoo to watch the snow leopards. “Animals,” she had said. “I really like animals.” He had agreed that animals were something and had held her close to him from behind, his arms wrapped around her in playful restraint.
The driver pilots the car down Park Ave then The Bowery, into Chinatown, the city and its streets empty, only the occasional garbage truck, news van. They park under a streetlamp hung with an over-sized Pan Chang knot of red plastic and our man gets out of the car and goes into a window-fronted restaurant, the only place lit. At the front, a wall-sized fishtank illuminated blue from its bottom and bobbing with the pale white ovals of half-dead fish. Past this, a rostrum and cashregister behind which sits a fat woman. Our man nods to her and continues on up the linoleum floor, past lowbacked booths until he selects one and sits. The waiter serves him without speaking, bringing a bowl of wonton soup, another of dumplings, a plate of duck tongues and vegetables and a bowl of rice. Our man is looking off into the middle distance as this food arrives, he is thinking of nothing now. He eats meticulously, spooning the tongues over the rice, lifting the dumplings so as not to break them, sucking down the soup until the bowl is all but dry.
It is only after the plates have been removed that the waiter speaks. He is a tall, thin man with hair brushed back into wisps, black except at the temples. He stands very close to edge of the table, towering over it and holding the checkpad palmed in the bowl of his hand. “You haven’t been around.”
“Been gone.” Our man is looking again into the middle distance.
“It’s good you’re back.”
“Been too long.”
“Sometimes a man must go.”
“And sometimes he has’ta come back.” Our man has looked up.
The waiter glances towards the kitchen. He rotates the checkpad in his hand. “That is all there is. The going. The returning.”
“Sometimes things remain.”
“But not frequently?”
The waiter thinks a moment. “Yes, to remain is very rare. Yes.”
Our man waits a moment. “Thank you.”
“They said yes as well.”
“Yes, I know.” The waiter is writing upside down on the checkpad. He tears the paper away and holds it down an inch off the top of the table then releases it so that is flutters down to the table, sliding just under the base of our man’s coffee mug. “You go home now? Tonight?”
“Yes.” Our man takes up the paper and looks at it and sets it down again. “I’m looking forward to finally being home.”
The waiter nods and walks back towards the kitchen. Our man sips the end of his coffee and picks up the nail which he has set atop the porcelain chopstick holder and places it again in the corner of his mouth then scoots himself along the bench and stands and takes up the check and walks towards the door. He hands the check to the fat woman but hands no money with it. She nods to him and he to her. The bell dings as he opens the door.
When he had left, she had said that she would wait for him. They had said their goodbyes in the alley behind the hotel in which they’d first made love, where our man had been put up before he could depart. He had tried to twirl her as he had on the dancefloor of the nightclub but she wouldn’t let him. Little marbles of water had squeezed themselves from her eyes. “They’re animals,” she had said. “All of them.” But he hadn’t said anything, only brushed his then-beardless cheek against hers, trying to memorize its texture, its softness.
The car rises up the Manhattan Bridge, the island falling away behind, Brooklyn appearing before them.
They had communicated via an associate, messages sent to a dropbox on Division Street. Her notes had been long, written meticulously in her neat text, black curves on the white pages that reminded him of her hair when arranged on bedsheeting. Then, as all correspondence does when unaccompanied by visits, theirs had begun to slacken and her notes came with failing frequency until they came not at all and he was left, out in the cold, alone and wondering with nothing to keep him warm. And it is for this warmth that he has returned, if not for all of it then at least for a piece.
At the townhouse in Clinton Hill, across from the Saint James Towers, the driver pilots the car to the far side of the street and double parks. Both men look across at the building, one of a whole row of red sandstone houses, each with wrought iron railings rising up stoops to paneled doors, windows lined with gardenboxes, contained within cages of wrought iron window guards.
This house is the house that holds her—the woman of our man—and, because all images repeat, she is in the shower, washing the stark white suds of shampoo from the fanned-out strand of her jet-black hair. The water runs over her gently muscled back and, all of a sudden, goosebumps rise on her skin and she runs her fingers over them, trying to smooth what can’t be smoothed. See her there, turning towards the bathroom door but finding no one there.
“Yeah, yeah,” our man says and leans up and off the rear seat to take a wrapped package that the driver has held up to the division window and gets out of the car.
Now, she has cut off the water and she steps out and dries herself and wraps herself in the towel.
He is crossing the street as she walks slowly up the hall and descends to the first floor, her feet bare against the prickling carpet of the staircase.
He is climbing the stoop steps slowly, almost daintily, as she is crossing the living room and readjusting her towel so that a thin sliver of her pale body can be seen for just a moment.
He is arriving at the door, as she is arriving at the couch, pausing for just a moment, before sitting.
The man that sits there on the couch watching television wears a suit but has removed the tie. His face is blank and does not change as she sits but his hand rises then falls to enclose the flesh of her exposed thigh. This man’s face is bare as our man’s face had been, his hair coiffed fashionably as our man’s hair had been. He is our man but not our man. He is the repetition of him: the man who stepped forward to fill the role vacated by our man when he left.
See our man now, framed in silhouette before the door. He stands with his legs apart and the package held behind him in both hands like a box of chocolates poised for the surprise. If he cared to look, he could see through the window the scene arrange on the couch but he does care to look: he already knows what is there. Instead, he is looking at the doorbell, now raising his finger, extending it, depressing that glowing orange circle. He is tearing off the sealed top of the package, removing from it the Beretta. He is leaning over the railing, extending it to the length of his arm so the tip of the barrel passes through the bars of the windowguard. Both man and woman have looked up at the toning of the bell but he doesn’t wait for them to rise. The pistol explodes into life. The bullets stream through the soon-to-blossom buds of the white aster and red chrysanthemum in the gardenbox. The windowglass caves in jagged holes. The far wall of the living room ripples with the concussion of bullets, spewing forth a rain of brickdust, which swirls over the humans before it.
He squeezes the trigger until there is nothing left in the gun to squeeze out.
When it’s done, he leans back and lowers the gun. The sound has been enormous, filling the front of the townhouse and washing over the street and lot of the government housing behind, but our man moves slowly, almost lethargic in the reverberations, reaching casually into the package again and taking from it a hammer. He pinches the nail from his lip and sets it at the center of the door and hammers it there then raises the smoking, empty pistol and sets it on the nail by its fingerguard so that it hangs body down, bright chrome against black wood, then he turns and descends the stairs and walks to the car.
The driver has gotten out and stands at the open door. He holds out a hand, which accepts the hammer, offered up by our man as he bends to enter the car. The leather squeaks as he falls into it, accepting his weight just as it had accepted it at the airport. The driver installs himself at his post and they pull off to head slowly down the street, passing through the cones of yellow light cast by the streetlamps, which paint the cab of the limousine a warm gold, throwing deep shadows over the eyes of our man.
They turn right at Greene and right again at Clinton and continue, going through streets silent again, past the houses of the sleeping, the living, the loving, all playing the roles to which they were appointed, the posts at which they remain. They turn left at DeKalb and go past closed stores and a hospital and a Falafel cart always open. They turn towards the river, passing again over the bridge, and Manhattan rises once more to accept them.
[This story is inspired by the film for The Weeknd’s “Pretty”]