CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: The One Man Show – Harlem
THREE YEARS EARLIER.
It was probably the nicest fall morning that Leyland could recall since he arrived in New York. Truthfully though, he felt each day was unavoidably better than the last. But this was different. Seventy-two degrees. No humidity. There was a special feeling in the air, a smell in the breeze. It was perfect. He was preparing himself for a book signing that morning even though he told his agent on numerous occasions how he hated Tuesday signings. For some reason or another, all the perverts and stalkers and nutcases seemed to come out on Tuesdays.
Leyland was right there when it happened. He was at the Downtown Dunkin’ Donuts at Church and Murray, shaking some sugar into his coffee when he heard it. The coffee rippled menacingly. The low rumbling was the kind of noise that instantly indicated something was wrong. Outside, people screamed. A few cars banged into one another, their drivers justly distracted. There was a stream of conversation unlike any Manhattan had ever heard. Word got around fast. The North Tower had been hit.
Fifty minutes later, he was unrecognizable amongst the masses crowding the streets and sidewalks for a good look. But five minutes after that, Leyland stood out like Cleopatra’s Needle, the sixty-eight foot tall Egyptian obelisk in Central Park, as hordes of people ran as fast and as far away from the falling South Tower as they could. Yet he remained standing. He anchored himself to the blacktop, watching the second building come down, swallowing itself up into its own dust and dirt. He didn’t run. He didn’t panic. As the mess of everything that once was blew towards him, he contemplated what it all meant, even considering the possibility that he may have made a mistake when he decided to come to New York.
Amidst everything, he reached out and caught a paper in his hand. The paper was just one of millions, maybe billions that were within the World Trade Center’s walls. Most were probably incinerated. But this one piece of paper flew from somewhere within the South Tower right towards him. As the chaos enveloped him, Leyland read what was on it. It was an email, sent the night before and printed out at 8:43 that morning:
From: Yolanda Higgins [email@example.com]
Sent: September-10-01 11:56 PM
To: Rondell Greene
I’m so sorry for everything that happened this afternoon. You must know I never meant what I said to you. If you still want me to, I’ll wait for you at the One Man Show after work tomorrow. I’ll be there at 7:00.
Leyland didn’t know why the email had been printed, but he could only assume that Rondell Greene would not have lived to make his seven o’clock date with Yolanda Higgins. Although Leyland was not the intended recipient of the message, he was quite possibly the only living person who was aware of its existence.
Obviously, the book signing had been cancelled, though there were no notices sent. It was one of the things about that morning: there had been far less communication on purpose, for much of the information that New Yorkers would normally have emailed, instant-messaged, telephoned or printed posters for had no need to be sent or received. It was all understood in a unique way on that Tuesday. Like most, Leyland returned home much later than usual. It was impossible to catch a cab or ride a bus. Most people did not want to go into the subway stations. He ran like a crazy person out of Downtown, across Midtown, through Central Park and into Morningside Heights. He looked back every minute or so, but the smoke was consuming everything behind him. It was as though he was running to avoid being wiped from existence too. He’d lost his cell phone somewhere along the way. Television and electronics stores were crowded with people, both inside and on the sidewalks, somberly watching the flickering screens in the front windows. He’d never seen so many people crying. And yet the sky remained startlingly blue that day.
Once at home, he called Kate and Jesse and his family in Seattle to let them all know he was safe. But after that, even before showering the thick grime away, he pulled out his phone book and looked up the One Man Show. It was in Harlem, maybe a half-hour’s walk from his apartment.
Tom’s Restaurant was open, its television sets were crowded with patrons. Kate and Jesse were at their usual table, waiting for Leyland to arrive. He pressed his hand against the window when he saw them. The glass seemed to bend more than it should have. Leyland went inside, but he only sat with them for a few minutes. He was shaken, but there was a strength about him that needed to keep moving.
“Where are you going?” Kate asked when he got up from the table. She didn’t want to tell him how much she needed him at that moment.
“What the hell for?”
Leyland pulled the folded email out of his pocket and showed it to them.
“I don’t understand,” Jesse said. “You’re going to meet this girl? Why?”
“I don’t know really. I just think I need to. To make sure she’s okay.”
None of them were big believers in fate, and on any other day this would have seemed like extremely bizarre behavior, even for Leyland. But on September Eleventh, the air was thick with inexplicable decisions and unquestioned actions.
“I saw the towers fall. They were falling right in front of me. I’m not going to let this madness be only reason for getting out of bed this morning. Today has to have been for something.”
With that, he headed to the mysterious One Man Show café. He didn’t know Harlem even had cafés, but there it was, right between a laundromat and a fried chicken restaurant. It was an odd little place. Like many other businesses in Manhattan, it had an innocuous façade, a feeling of anonymity poured out onto the strangely tidy sidewalk. The One Man Show was a wholly different world inserted deep within the ghetto’s intricate latticework of gangsters and prostitutes and garbage and drugs and fake storefronts and stolen taxicabs and ignorant travelers. Inside, there was not a soul in view, but he could hear the din of a television from one of the back rooms. He followed it. There must have been twenty people crammed into that tiny manager’s office, each one smelled worse than the last. They watched the television without a word but still did not hear Leyland enter. He knocked on the door frame and waved the email that he never once let go of.
“Does anyone here know a Yolanda?”
Every head in the room turned to him. They didn’t seem to comprehend what the stranger was saying. “I’m looking for Yolanda Higgins. Is she here? Does anybody know her?” He would have believed he was talking a different language if the big man who looked like a hound dog hadn’t expunged himself from the crowd and approached Leyland.
The man explained to Leyland that Yolanda Higgins was a regular patron at the One Man Show café. No one had seen her, but it wasn’t really a surprise considering how many plans would be changing without notice on that day. So many patterns shifting. The man’s big eyes were extremely wet, and Leyland could tell that even underneath a day’s worth of tears, his eyes were always that wet. Without warning, the man threw his arms around him. It was unexpected, but Leyland didn’t fight it.
When he finally relaxed his grip, the man said, “I don’t know if Yolanda will show up tonight, but you’re welcome to stay if you want to.” He returned to the back room, rejoining his associates. “There’s coffee and beer behind the counter too if you’d like,” he added. “Help yourself.”
Leyland stood in the same spot for another few minutes, trying to make sense of everything that had happened. He had been preparing for his book signing only a few hours ago and now suddenly he was standing in a Harlem café while the city teetered on the brink of ruin. He knew he should have run back to the coffee shop to be with Kate and Jesse, but he stayed there instead. He poured himself a glass of water, realizing then just how thirsty he was. He sat down at a small table for two and he made the decision that he was not going to wait for whoever Yolanda Higgins might have been. Instead, he chose to write. Starting on the back of the filth-ridden email, he soon moved on to some napkins and scrap paper he found behind the counter. The remains of the towers still smoldered as Leyland wrote about everything he never thought he knew.
Leyland had written the entire first draft of The Manhattanite inside the One Man Show. After a couple of months, he had really started to abhor that café, but he knew he would never get any real work done at the coffee shop, since everyone in his life knew that they could find him there. Besides, the One Man Show had surprisingly better coffee than anywhere in Morningside Heights.
He hadn’t seen the big man with the sad, wet eyes since the first time he entered the café. He supposed that he never actually worked there. That day felt like such an incredibly long time ago. It was almost as though Leyland had imagined everything that happened on the day of the attacks, but the One Man Show had an ability to generate its own strange illusions at times. There was no other place in Manhattan quite like it. The nondescript Harlem café seemed to lure the city’s most blatantly volatile visionaries. Bohemian bull-shitters who had been talking about change since the Sixties but had yet to act on any of their complex, albeit completely delirious, talk of revolution. Leyland knew that if any of them had ever intended to change their worlds, they would have been down in the Village fifty years ago, rather than hiding in a dusty coffee shop in Harlem. Still, Leyland sat among them. He drank their coffee and used their toilet. But he was not really one of them. They paid him no attention either. They were far too busy trying to transform the world with their wasted ideas.
The second time Leyland came to the One Man Show he brought his writing pad with him, continuing right where he’d left off on the flimsy napkins. Kate and Jesse didn’t understand the sudden fury with which he had decided to write, but they did not question it. They knew better than to question anything he wished to embark upon. The scratching of pencil on paper was the only sound that would carry him through the story he wanted to tell. He wasn’t at the café to amuse anyone but himself. This new book was not meant for anyone else. It was not for recognition’s sake, not to make a name for himself. That had already been accomplished. And he was not writing for the purpose of saying something profound and prolific to entertain the masses. It was just for him. It might have all seemed very righteous and noble, but that was exactly where Leyland’s biggest flaw lay. He thought only of himself any more. The truth was that for the first time since coming to New York, Leyland Mueller was beginning to lose direction. The falling towers had shaken something loose deep inside of him. His girlfriends no longer served any purpose, and he gave them nothing more in return that was of any greater consequence than a night or two of guilt-free sex. And most of the time, it was nearly impossible to find someone who desired anything more than that.
But on one mild December day, just as Leyland’s writing was hitting a wall, he felt a pair of eyes watching him. There was a girl seated across the room. She sat just like everyone else around her, but while the crowd remained unnoticed in an unremarkable flurry of being, this particular girl was so still that he was convinced she must have been there just for him. Amidst a room full of idiots oblivious to the two of them, they had been exposed to one another.
Her eyes were extraordinary. Her eyes were not the same as any of the other girls Leyland had known. Her eyes were not forgettable. To him, this was the most important staring contest he had ever been a part of. If a blink could result in losing her, even for just a microsecond, he did not want to risk it.
And then he blinked. And she was gone.
She was gone.
Leyland didn’t know why, but he expected the girl to show up again the following day. He awoke the next morning with the feeling he must have imagined it all, but he was clever enough to know he hadn’t. He sat at the small, round table for two, exactly where he had always sat. Just like at the coffee shop with Kate and Jesse and even Patrick; he was particular in that kind of way. He watched the door, waiting for her. Daring her to enter. But it was his current girlfriend, Daisy, who had shown up first that morning. She had fire in her eyes. She hated that café more than he did. Daisy came to the table, but she did not sit down; it was obvious she was not planning on sticking around long. It didn’t really matter to Leyland just what it was she was angry about, but the safest guess would have been that he had said something insensitive to her the night before. Barely listening, he bit his upper lip in response to whatever accusations were being thrown his way. He had heard it said somewhere that to bite one’s upper lip was a sign that one was hiding something. Whatever the case may have been, Daisy eventually slammed her hands down on the table and charged back out of the café. She bumped into someone on her way out the door.
That someone came and sat down across from Leyland. It was the girl from the day before, but he did not notice, already having gotten back to his writing pad.
“I don’t even want to know what that was all about,” she said to him comically.
Leyland looked up into those glorious eyes of hers. They exchanged momentary and awkward greetings before proper introductions were made. “My name’s Leyland,” he said. “Leyland Mueller.”
And she followed with, “Rachel Ponzini. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
Leyland bit his lower lip a little. He had heard it said somewhere that to bite one’s lower lip was an indication of nervousness, which was an emotion that never came to him too often. So, suffice it to say that biting his upper lip was a far more natural reaction for him.
“Leyland,” she mused. “That’s an interesting name.”
“It was my great-grandfather’s.”
Many of the One Man Show’s patrons stopped and took notice of Leyland and Rachel sitting with each other at the small, round table for two. They looked on, noticing them both for the first time. Individually they could have vanished into their own little worlds, but together they were simply unavoidable.
“Don’t do that,” Rachel told him.
“Don’t do what?”
“Don’t put your pencil down.” She pushed the pencil and paper towards Leyland, who reactively gathered them back up. “I’ve seen you in here many times before, always writing whatever it is you’re writing. And you keep to yourself so perfectly. You don’t care at all about these squabbling fools around you.”
He took in the shape of her head. Round like the ripple from a raindrop with a flawlessly pointed chin. Her complexion was almost golden under the soft lights of the café. Her brown hair curled around elfish ears, shaped like tiny crescent moons. Perfectly pouty pink lips that shone like wet paint. The scratching of lead on paper was a strangely complementary sound to the sincerity in Rachel’s voice. But it was her eyes that really captured his attention. They were like tiny wet mirrored balls of energy. They were brown. They were olive. They were black. And they were brown again. The color of Rachel’s eyes changed so rapidly, that it was impossible to distinguish the dominant one. Her pupils were at once dilated and infinitesimal. Leyland could see himself in there too. And there was a thin, squiggly blood vessel on the bottom of her right eyeball, just above the lip of her eyelid. Rachel had just enough imperfections to make her seem as though she was someone Leyland had known his whole life.
“Do you know what a group of playwrights is called, Leyland?”
He didn’t know what the right answer was because he really had no idea what she was asking.
“It’s called a plot. A plot of playwrights.”
“How do you know that?” he asked.
“I know all the inane group nouns used for identifying gatherings of the like.”
How peculiar, he thought. This brilliant girl seemed as though she might be full of trivial information. Rachel pointed to the opposite corner from where they sat, towards a congregation of egocentric dramatists. They were obnoxiously reading screenplays out loud to one another. “A condescension of actors,” she called them. Without so much as twitching her eyes, she motioned towards the front of the café where a group of turtlenecked intellectuals sipped water as though it were red wine and used words like henceforth and dichotomy. She pronounced, “A wrangle of philosophers.” And she worked her way around the rest of the room, “A brow of scholars…an illusion of painters,” all the while keeping her attention focused on Leyland.
“That information seems rather unnecessary. Where in the world would you have learned all of this?” he inquired, not really caring if she was telling him the truth or not. He didn’t believe for a second that someone like Rachel could have been from Manhattan.
“I live and breathe. I take in everything around me, and I can separate the weak from the strong. I see powerful minds being used recklessly, and I see the weak ones that will rise above. I see you. You are an undiscovered star in an exhaustively explored solar system. And I see something in those eyes of yours that I’ve never imagined before.”
Leyland stopped. “I have no idea what you just said.”
“Yes you do.”
He looked back down at his writing pad. The last sentence he’d scribbled on the page was: “Everything was possible. There was nothing in this city that I hadn’t already imagined.”
“I love your accent,” he told her. “Where are you from?”
“Where is that, Europe? I’m getting a Switzerland vibe.”
“Long Island, actually.”
“Ah. Close enough.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing. What’s wrong with Long Island?”
“If I have to explain it to you…” he started, but then decided to finish with, “At least it’s better than Jersey.”
He’d never before felt what he was feeling now. It was intoxicating. He was relatively certain she liked him, but he still did not really know anything about her. He knew that she hated these transparently erroneous revolutionists around him. He knew she liked to use big words like that too. And he knew that her eyes were the key to discovering everything else about her that he didn’t know.
“Would you like me to buy you a coffee?” Rachel asked him. “Because it’s obvious you weren’t planning on offering.”
Leyland apologized. He didn’t want to tell her that her very presence seemed to make all common sense disappear. It sounded too corny, even just in his head. Instead, he requested, “A regular coffee, please. With sugar.”
“All right then.” Rachel got up from her seat, and walked over to the counter. At the same time, those around them returned to life, as though the show they had been so focused on was now taking an intermission.
But when Rachel returned to the table, the patrons of the café once again began to take notice of the couple. She brushed her curls away from her mouth as she sipped her coffee. Leyland could tell exactly how much sugar she used by the expression on her face after every sip. He thanked her for the coffee. “But don’t think I’m going to start expecting special treatment,” he added.
“I hope you don’t think me strange,” she said. “And I’m not being presumptuous. I don’t believe myself to be anything other than what I am. I know all about the importance of benevolence.” She took another bitter sip of coffee.
Leyland leaned towards Rachel, and fixed his eyes on hers. “You don’t need to justify yourself. I was just a little stunned, is all.”
Rachel watched him as he reached into his bag and pulled out the most unremarkable pencil he could find. He sharpened it with a small pocketknife and the shavings drifted onto the tabletop. Being with Rachel was as comfortable a feeling as he’d never known before. He didn’t suffer from an obligation to entertain her. He didn’t expect anything from her. He was simply with her, and that was enough. Still, he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to tell Kate and Jesse, since it was obvious this was going to be more than a one-night stand.
“You must like writing a lot,” she asked him, although it really was more of an observation than a question.
“It’s pretty much my only talent.”
“What do you write?”
“Have you ever heard of a book called BLANC?”
“I saw a movie called BLANC. Wasn’t that Scottie Pippen?”
Rachel gave him a look, as though Leyland was personally responsible for all of Hollywood’s poor casting decisions.
“Obviously,” he said, “it was not my choice.”
“Let me ask you this though: have you ever written anything important?”
“Important? I’ve had five novels published!”
“But what else? Is there anything you’re proud of?”
He thought about what Rachel might have wanted to hear. “Mostly just love letters to girlfriends.” He glanced up at her with a transparent spark in his eyes.
She smiled, knowing she had just the right answer for him in return. “But don’t you need to know about love in order to write a love letter?”
The scratching of pencil on paper intensified as Leyland continued, “I’ve come here every day for three months now. I thought I had something important to say the day the towers fell. But I realize now that I never really had a reason to come here until yesterday, when I saw you across the room. And I just realized that all of the shit I thought was worth writing about is really not very important at all. I’ve never really had anything to say until this moment.” He blew the bits of lead off his paper and shaved his blunted pencil some more.
The afternoon sun was breaking through the window behind him, and from inside his shadowy silhouette Rachel could still see the glimmer in his eyes. The anticipation on his lips.
“Did you know you have a freckle on your right eyelid?” he asked her. “I notice it every time you blink.”
“I didn’t know that,” she whispered truthfully.
Leyland excused himself, and he took his coffee cup to the counter for a refill.
When he returned, Rachel was drawing in his writing pad. He glanced over as he sat back down. It was a sketch of a cat, but one of its eyes appeared circular, while the other was drawn as an ‘X’:
He had to ask, “What is this?”
“This is a cat that is both alive and dead. You see, one of his eyes is marked with an ‘X’, the universal cartoon symbol for death.”
“But I don’t under–”
“It’s a paradox, Leyland. An experiment conducted in the Thirties proved that something, in this case a cat, could simultaneously be both alive and dead. The scientist, Schrödinger, placed his kitty cat in a box with a canister of cyanide connected to a radioactive device. If an atom in this device decayed, a detector would trigger a tiny hammer to smash the glass canister open and the cat would die.”
Leyland took a closer look at the picture. “I don’t think I get it.”
“Suppose that there is a fifty-fifty chance of this happening. Clearly when the box is opened the cat would be either alive or dead. But is the cat alive or dead prior to the opening of the box?” Rachel took another long sip of coffee, giving him a moment to contemplate the conundrum. “Because radioactive decay occurs at the quantum level, where events are purely random and foreseeable only in a statistical sense, there is no way to know for sure what had happened to the cat unless the box was opened. The cat’s entire existence is reduced to a statistic. A decimal point is all that keeps Schrödinger’s cat alive.”
He sat back in awe. Leyland could barely begin to comprehend everything that must have been in her mind, and he realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would never know all the answers. Just sitting across from this girl was almost more than he could bear. His coffee was already cold. And it was exhilarating. “You’re not really from Long Island, are you?”
Rachel didn’t waste time answering the question. “I had read about all of this years ago,” she told him instead. “I find it stimulating how there can be so much going on that we have absolutely no control over. It’s all circumstantial consequence.”
A lock of curly brown hair fell across her face. She smelled of jasmine. She blinked. As perfect as that freckle was, Leyland would have been satisfied if he never had to see it again in his life. It would mean that he’d be looking into her eyes that much more.
“Can I make a suggestion?” Rachel asked.
“I think it’s time we got out of here.”
And they did.
When they emerged from the 110th Street Station they were only a few blocks away from Leyland’s apartment. Rachel led the way there, as if she had already learned everything there was to know about the man from somewhere deep within his eyes. But it was probably just the alcohol. They had stopped for some red wine after leaving the cafe, but ended up downing the bottle in Marcus Garvey Park. It was freezing, but the unusually mild New York winter meant they would not have to lie in snow, and the wine kept their bodies warm. On the crisp grass and beneath the setting sun, they held each other. They talked, but not about their dreams, because they were both living their dreams. And not about their desires, since nothing else mattered to them in that moment. Rachel didn’t speak of her past, and she didn’t ask Leyland about his.
They spoke of their lives; what they were doing today, not yesterday or tomorrow. Rachel liked slow music and fast movies. Leyland enjoyed just the opposite. White wine was Rachel’s favorite, while he had no preference either way. And it really didn’t matter why they’d opted for red.
In the distance between two old tenement buildings, they could see the tallest of skyscrapers peeking out from midtown. They agreed to go to the top of the Empire State Building together one day, since neither of them had never done so before. Leyland hadn’t because to him there was nothing worse than feeling like a tourist, and Rachel hadn’t due to her demophobia. She said she hated being in the middle of large crowds because she disliked the feeling of going unnoticed.
The setting sun directly behind the bare trees made their branches appear smaller, thinner than they actually were. Leyland wondered why they had never met before they did, and he knew that Rachel would have an answer for his query even before she responded with a single, eloquent word. She intimated that they were along the same lines as the cat in the box: their lives were nothing more than random percentages of possibility. Of course, it was just as he thought she would put it.
And Leyland worried where he could hope to find a love like hers again, when she inevitably left him. He had never once considered that a lasting love could ever be, so how could he possibly expect to ever find it?
Rachel didn’t pretend to want a tour of the apartment. His other women played those kinds of games; where they acted as if they were there for an actual visit, and not just the sex. Rachel wasn’t one for games, or concealing her intentions. There wasn’t anything ambiguous about her. You knew if Rachel liked you or if she did not. You knew when Rachel wanted sex, and also when she’d had enough.
Leyland woke up and felt the still-lingering heat of her body next to his. He tried to pretend for an instant that he didn’t know where he was, that he was somehow misplaced in space and time. But he was quick to shake those silly thoughts from his head when he realized that he didn’t want to miss out on a single second of Rachel. And he decided then that when he saw her next, he would tell her he loved her.
The note was waiting for him on the refrigerator, pinned beneath a Calvin and Hobbes magnet. Rachel knew he would find it there as he had already explained to her that the first thing he did every morning was go to the fridge for a swig of chocolate milk. He had no idea what time Rachel left that morning, he simply woke and she was gone. The note was written with one of his pencils, torn from a page of his writing pad and folded in half. He noticed it immediately. Drawn on the front was another picture of Rachel’s famous cat. He couldn’t tell if the cat was alive or dead. Inside, she had written the following for him:
In my experiences, I’ve found you only ever hurt the ones you love. The only roses that you watch die are the most beautiful ones. But even if everyone everywhere left everyone else forever, I’d still never leave you.
Leyland planned on going to the coffee shop to meet Kate and Jesse for breakfast. He would boast about Rachel and hoped the two of them would be just as excited about his new relationship as he was. But Jesse wasn’t there that morning and Kate was too busy complaining about her upcoming wedding to whoever this Gene Schneider person was. Leyland considered telling her that marrying Gene could end up being a mistake, but he was still too distracted by thoughts of Rachel.
Later, he passed the park where he and Rachel had shared the bottle of red wine the night before. Where they had dreamed of going to the top of the city together one day. The cork was still there, resting upon a wilted dandelion. Leyland knew that if the World Trade Center had not fallen that one day months before, he would not have ever found himself in Harlem meeting the last girl he would ever love.