Story by Jabril Faraj
Illustration by Rashid Faraj
I let out a sigh as I reached for the door handle. It had been a long day. What was I saying? I hadn’t had a “short” day in, oh, more than five years or so; it was starting to wear on me.
Around me, everything was just peachy. I lived in a nice flat by myself in lower Manhattan and had, almost in spite of myself, learned to cook and found time to work out on a regular basis. Even my job at a large, international consulting firm, though it hadn’t really interested or challenged me for quite some time, wasn’t anything to complain about.
But I wasn’t happy, either. Maybe that’s what I was doing here. There had been a point when I enjoyed my own company but more and more I had taken to seeking out anonymity in the mob, drinking heavily and disappearing into the maw of numbness they provided.
As I ducked out of the cab, the warm breeze of early summer hit my face. I straightened myself up, showing my full six-foot frame, displaying myself as a lion before the hunt. Though, on this night, all I was hunting for was a good gin martini and a warm seat at the bar.
I climbed up the hotel steps, which felt like they would have been more appropriate on the Lincoln Memorial, and greeted the doorman with a nod.
“Good evening, sir,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, deftly opening the door with one hand and inviting me in with the other.
I crossed the threshold into the lobby and was instantly taken aback by the unassuming beauty it projected effortlessly. How breathtaking, I thought, what a shame that I’m sure more people don’t stop to appreciate it.
The double-sided marble staircase framed the lower level perfectly, rising out of the floor below yet, at the same time, creating the very chasm that stood between. Between the copper-topped bannisters and the steps you could almost see yourself in, I nearly missed the entryway’s crown jewel: a massive, crystal chandelier that sparkled spectacularly. This was the closest to a starry sky you could get in New York.
I found myself walking forward, up the stairs, still admiring my little room of magnificence, my little ray of light. At some point, however, the shimmer of the crystal began to blend with the glow that radiated from the entrance to the Grand Ballroom. Now at the top of the steps, I stood alone, my destination before me.
I gazed over the sea of people, all finely dressed and finely mannered. They stunk of sophistication. “Fake” was in the air, insincerity permeating every conversation, every look, every self-serving compliment. I wondered if I was the only one here who could feel it.
With that, I stepped inside, into the belly of the proverbial beast. People use that phrase often, however, it is rarely so apt to describe the situation as it was on this night. Bankers, lawyers, congressmen and others whose occupations were delightfully ambiguous – you didn’t want to know – were all here.
These people had one thing in common: they had done whatever it took to get where they were and they weren’t going to let anyone take it from them. They would bite your head off in a second. But this is what I was used to. They knew me and I even cared to know a few of them.
That’s when I heard it. From across the room, the sound of that familiar bellow:
“Well, if it isn’t Daniel fucking Byrd!”
Senator Max Fallwell was what many would call a character and I’d be inclined to agree. A good-looking, white-haired man of sixty-five he’d been class clown in high school, ladies man in college and faithfully-married, bombastic president-in-training ever since.
I extended my hand. “Max, it’s been a while.”
“Nonsense,” he dismissed the assertion with a wave of his hand. “We were at that gallery opening, what… two months ago? There are staff members I don’t see for two months.”
We talked for a couple more minutes about The Hamptons, his golf game and their new house in Hyannis Port. I filled him in on my latest professional exploits but I didn’t feel the need to bore him so we left it at that and I continued on.
I enjoyed the man’s company, what could I say? But when it came down to it, I guess we just didn’t see eye-to-eye on some things. I suppose that’s why I’d stayed in consulting instead of going the staffer, lobbyist or elected route – I’d seriously thought about all – because I couldn’t handle toying with people’s lives like that. And I couldn’t understand how those doing the “toying” were okay with it, either.
I continued on to my left, eyes searching for the closest bar. It didn’t take me long to spot and I was on a beeline. Please don’t let me run into anyone else before I can get something in a glass. Preferably something strong; it would have to get me through the whole night with these people.
I weaved through the line waiting in front of the bar and propped my elbow on the counter. It didn’t take long for the bartender to come over. He wasn’t quite what you thought of when you heard “bartender”, though – this guy was clean-cut, proper and well dressed.
“What would you like, sir?” he said.
“Tanqueray martini. Extra dry, up with three Bleu Cheese olives.”
“Right away, sir.”
As he prepared my order, I couldn’t help but think back to the saying about the martini I’d often repeated to friends. I believe it was Dean Martin who said: “Martinis are like breasts – one is too few, two is perfect and three is just weird.” It was a phrase to which I often adhered but had absolutely no intention of respecting tonight. Gin was my anesthetic for the hypocrisy I would have to endure and I wasn’t going to spare any.
The barman skewered the final olive and, after topping it off, slid the glass across the counter. I took a quick, careful sip and then scooped it up. As I turned back around, I couldn’t help surveying the crowd. Spotting the Senator again, I noticed that his wife, Jane, had joined him. To the left of them was Leah Taylor, the New Yorker’s film critic, with three or four of the usual suspects from that group – other prestigious journalists, they were fascinating people but, at times, got dangerously close to “self-important”; more so than even for my taste.
As I scanned further to the left, I saw a group of marketing executives talking about, well, let’s be honest, probably the latest and greatest campaign they’d seen. I detested their feigned creativity. Next to them, some Wall Street bankers were doing a bang-up job of drawing attention to themselves, Red Bull vodkas in hand. With them you really never knew what could happen. Then came Mark Whitcomb and the few of the other big lawyers in town, a circle of fellow consultants making polite small talk and a couple of artists teasing the edges of the crowd with their presence.
My eyes finally fell back near where I’d started and landed happenstance slightly to the right of the room’s middle. As I raised my glass to take another sip, my view came to rest on two piercingly brown eyes staring back at me. I didn’t know these eyes and that surprised me; the presence of a stranger was as intriguing as it was unforeseen.
I pulled my frame-of-view back, revealing a perfect nose and prominent, yet delicate, eyebrows. As my gaze retreated even further, my attention was drawn to her fair, smooth complexion, which was interrupted only by the playful smile that adorned her pursed lips. She was staring back at me over her half-drank cocktail, golden-brown hair flowing behind her.
She stood with an air of confidence that would have been hard to come by were it not genuine. The denizens of high society, they’d developed mannerisms that effectively masked their insecurity but they were no match for this woman: stripped bare, comfortable in her own skin and unabashedly unapologetic about it.
Suddenly, we were sitting in a nice restaurant trading life stories and family histories over duck and a bottle of wine. Then, we were in a coffee shop, laughing, eyes twinkling with the hope of possibility. From the coffee shop, I saw summer walks on the pier at sunset and nights on the porch at my place.
The leaves changed and Thanksgiving with families came and went. Fall changed to winter and winter to spring until I found myself standing right back where I’d started, her eyes still locked with mine. As I came back to my senses, I found myself wondering many things and, yet, one thing. What was her name?
I had to know her name. This woman needed to be described, spoken into being, because she wasn’t real to me yet. Catherine? Elena, maybe? My head raced with anticipation. I was walking forward, now, determined to solve this most important puzzle. I couldn’t help smiling a bit and, in return, received a flash of recognition.
As I came to a stop in front of her, I extended my hand.
“My name’s Daniel. I couldn’t help but notice you’re new here.”
“You seem to be the only one who did,” she said, the corners of her mouth curling up even further.
“What’s your name?” I coolly played off both the courage it had taken me to ask the question and the anticipation with which I awaited the answer.
It seemed like hours I waited but must have only been seconds. Her answer came easily.
“Oh, I’m sorry, my name’s…”