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James Leland walked through Central Park towards his E 91st Street apartment trying to erase the events of the previous night’s Bachelor party. The short nap at his cousin Saul’s house had not been nearly as recuperative as it should have. He wondered why he had not dreamt of the incident. After all, weren’t people who behaved idiotically supposed to taunt themselves repeatedly with their own mistakes?
The winter sun felt hotter on his skin than it should, reminding him of last summer’s intense heat wave. He glanced at his watch: 6:55 a.m. Too early for the sun to be shining so brightly. He removed the gold Rolex from his hand and studied its digitized numbers. 6:55 clicked into 6:56. He shook the watch and glanced up at the sun again, covering his eyes from the intense bright light. He thought of his cousin, Stevie probably fiddled with it, to make me miss the wedding. That’s just the kind of thing he’d do. He remembered the cell-phone in his pant pocket and reached for it. 6:56. He returned it to his pocket.
The hot sun felt good and, despite its searing heat, brought a momentary smile to his face. Within seconds the smile faded as he remembered the previous night. He cringed at his own cowardice and tried but failed in re-imagining the events of the bachelor party. Harassed by the memory, he now tried to look ahead into the future, past the wedding.
The lush greenery of Central Park always made him happy. He imagined what it would be like to be out of the city, settled in suburbia somewhere. Before Gwen, the suburbs had always reminded him of Green Lawn Cemetery, tracts and tracts of green with white picket fences little whitewashed sepulchers. But now, the congestion in the city, sky-tearing buildings jutted up against each other, parked cars glued together by muddied snowfall – well, the airy spaces of the suburbs didn’t seem so bad. He glanced about the park, taking in the wideness of nature. As he looked about, his eyes fixed upon a group of sixteen or seventeen rats scurrying agitatedly from one side of the path to another. James was no stranger to rats. As a New Yorker who traveled by subway at least twice a day, he had seen more than his share of them. On railroad tracks, in alleys when he went on a hardcore crime story, in dumpsters behind grocery and take-out stores. But those rats had always seemed strangely calm and purposeful. This group before his eyes seemed at their wits’ end. Some kid disturbed their nest, James said to himself. Or maybe they ended up here when the city bulldozed that old building on 93rd. Or maybe it’s some big rat-feud. He thought he remembered seeing a special on the Discovery channel about rat wars, but he wasn’t quite sure.
He turned aside from the path where the rats were scurrying about in their dumb-founded way and took another route. The rats left his mind and his thoughts fell on Gwen again. True, he had not defended Gwen against the mockery and anti-religious jeers of his family. But did that really matter? Gwen hadn’t been present. His family, hateful though they were that he had fallen so hard for a “Jamaican religious nut,” as Stevie had called her, weren’t the type to be openly impolite to her. They would keep their mouth shut for as long as the marriage lasted. But still, something vague and threatening nagged at him: his distrust of himself. He had the vague feeling that he himself could not be trusted. He searched his mind and asked himself aloud, “Now, why can’t I be trusted? Do I think my love for her will wane simply because my family dislikes her? That’s how kids behave, teenagers in love. Not me.” He sighed and rubbed his forehead. He could tell he was trying to convince himself and to give himself some peace from his own morbid introspection on that matter, he changed to a new question: “Or is it that I don’t trust myself to keep the truth about tonight to myself?”
That question was immediately answerable: Gwen had two major traits that made the wedding --indeed, the whole marriage-- improbable. Gwen had a way of rooting the truth out of him. And Gwen never forgot a slight or an insult: If she found out about how much his male cousins had mocked her, she would not tolerate-- let alone relate– to them ever. Gwen was well-liked by most which made her especially incapable of dealing with those few people who disliked her. He imagined Gwen stewing –in much the same way he was now doing– about “all those people in your family who smiled at me and yet hated me all along. All those people in your family. Even Steve.” Yes, she would repeat it over and over day by day end on end forever. He knew that well enough.
The caw of several birds knocked him from his thoughts. He looked up and immediately overhead saw several black birds flying westward. The sky seemed overcast now although no cloud sailed across the sky. He pulled his coat closer and wrapped his scarf about his shoulders. He could hear a rumble in the sky, a small hush at first, but then it increased. Turning around, he was surprised to see what looked like an army of sparrows. They spread across the sky like an invading troop. The park got colder and darker.
What the hell’s happening today? James thought. Once, on an autumn visit to Cape Cod, he had been overjoyed to see a gathering of terns as they prepared for their winter migration. They had blanketed the ground, arranged and re-arranged themselves, then suddenly taken to the skies. How wonderful that was, James thought as he remembered. Birds of a feather flock together. Wonder where these birds came from?
“I’ll be strong,” James said aloud to himself and scratched the back of his hand. “I must be. Gwen can’t handle the Truth. So she won’t hear it from me, no matter how much she digs.”
In the past, he had not been good at lying to her. Not for long anyway. But lying was a skill that could be developed. Yet, he had to admit it, even if he did manage to develop the gift of lying through his teeth, Gwen would probably pick up on the feelings of the family sooner or later. His family wasn’t going to change. They were New York liberals with a strong anti-religion streak. And, although they would’ve hated to admit it, although they were black they didn’t much like dark-skinned blacks, blacks they considered stereotypical or too far down on the social rung. This led James to the inevitable thought: If he and Gwen married, his family would make their lives a living hell. He winced as the next thought approached because he realized how truly selfish it was: Gwen will make my life hell, too.
James glanced at his Rolex again. As he did so, he noticed a small black zit on his hand. He shrugged. All he needed on his wedding day, a zit. He could just imagine Gwen joking about him creating a blackhead on his ring hand as a “symbolic way” of avoiding the marriage. The boil seemed to be oozing. Yellow-white pus mixed with blood ran along the edges of his hand. It reminded him of the skin of some of the AIDS sufferers he had recently interviewed. He had allowed one of them to kiss his cheek. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea, James thought. Then reminded himself that a mere peck on the cheek was not likely to transmit the HIV infection. And yet, ...I wish I hadn’t done it. Having nothing but the designer tissues from his bachelor party in his coat pocket, he used them to wipe the back of his hand.
The sky was darker now, even as daylight dawned. James wondered if Gwen was up yet. She probably hadn’t slept. Not because today was their wedding day, but because she had been so jealous of the bachelor party in the first place.
He could imagine her asking, “So, what happened at the bachelor party last night? A girl jumped out of the cake, right? Was she pretty? Of course she was pretty, she jumped out of a cake. You didn’t sleep with her, did you? I know how guys are: one last great you-know-what before the big commitment.”
He imagined himself teasing her with a non-committal smile. Of course he had not slept with the woman. White women weren’t his type.
But Gwen was insecure and she would probably come back with, “Go ahead, if you did, you can tell me. You were drunk and it’s not as if you could help it. Was she black or white?”
And what would he say then? “Yes, there was a girl. She was blonde and white, so blonde and white she seemed to sparkle, gleamed pure and sexy and spotless like sunlight on newly falling snow, but I missed you... gold, brass, brown. And you were all I wanted.”
James imagined stroking Gwen’s thighs, breast, face and then steering her mind away from the party. But she was a born conversationalist, always demanding he tell her everything that happened in his day, although he continually told her that he was shy and laconic and hated conversations. She would nag him. Because the bachelor party wasn’t what she was really interested in. What she really wanted to know was what the family thought of her and did they say how wonderfully blessed he was to be marrying such a great gal.
A black man in a grey overcoat was approaching James on the path. He was not the kind of guy James would generally associate with, and James felt his pulse race when the man eyed him so directly. Maybe he’s gonna rob me, James thought. But the man had not made any kind of dangerous move. Besides, despite the darkening sky, morning had already dawned. When the man veered towards him, James wondered if they had met, perhaps on one of his news stories, perhaps in Gwen’s church.
The first words the man said as he neared James was, “Tell me Bro, is it me or is there something funny happening?”
All I need, James said to himself, a crack-addict. “You mean the birds?” he asked the stranger.
“Man, I mean everything!” the man replied. “And what’s with all those dead fish on the Hudson?”
James, who was at a loss because he hadn’t listened to the radio all morning, said, “What fish on the Hudson?”
“All the fish on the Hudson!” the man answered, as if James should be ashamed to be so clueless. “And in the Atlantic too. I keep thinking of them fishermen and wondering if they’ll make it in.”
“Make it in?” James asked. “Make it in from where?”
“You ain’t heard, have you?” the man asked. “Well, last time I looked –I had to turn the TV off I really just couldn’t take it– there was these ships offshore, see. And they can hardly move to get into dock. They can’t get through, can’t pass the floating dead fish. It’s like all the fishes in the sea just kinda died and floated to the top. The water’s all slimy and bloody with fish. From what I hear the Coast Guard’s sending planes and copters to rescue them.”
“Must smell like hell,” James answered, not knowing what to say to someone he deemed drug-crazed.
“Ah,” the guy in the overcoat said, “I see you don’t believe me.”
“I didn’t say that,” James answered, eyeing the ugly oozing boil on the man’s forehead.
“But you don’t. No matter. When you get home, turn on your set and watch.” He glanced up at the sky. “The birds are also falling from the sky too. Some of them are even attacking folks. For no reason.”
James tried not to roll his eyes, but he reminded himself that if there was a good news story on the air, he might as well look it up and see how the competition was handling it. “I’ll do that,” James said. “I don’t usually turn on the TV in the day, but yeah, when I get home, I’ll do it.”
“You better,” the man said. “It’s either the end of the world or some of them terrorists have gone and poisoned American waters. Maybe the Russians bombed us or something.”
“Maybe,” James said, bidding the man goodbye and continued walking home. He wondered what Gwen would think of the conversation. She’d probably give him a lecture on the book of Revelations. God, he said to himself, I wish she weren’t so damn religious.
As soon he thought of Gwen, his mind went back on the party. The thing just would not leave his mind. He imagined Gwen asking repeatedly, in that nagging way she sometimes had, “What happened at the party? You haven’t really said.”
And he imagined himself saying, “Oh, let’s see. We drank and talked about how free they’d be and how unfree I’d be and that there were more women for them now that I wasn’t around. And I told them it wasn’t as if I had that much action when I was single, anyway. What with medical school and all that studying.”
And of course, all that was a lie. The cousins and brothers, led by Steve, had turned the entire party into a kangaroo court meant to show James the terrible mistake he was making. They had gone into details. Her activities with the pro-lifers on Saturday mornings, her friendship with the tongue-talking evangelical Right-Ringer, her picketing against the death penalty, her insistence on slipping Jesus and the Bible into every conversation, her future dark-skinned children, her friendships with ignorant old black ladies. To them, Gwen’s life would be a story where layers and allusions and complications only brought down a family which had down quite a bit to raise itself up. They had argued that Gwen had no real sense of how important the Leland family was. The Lelands had Medical and legal practices; they worked in the media and in politics. And if she did get some idea of the family’s importance, Steve had sneered, she would only use them for her own flaky purposes. That, Steve said, was the way ignorant black women like Gwen were.
And when Steve had said that, James, to his regret –he regretted it then, he regretted it now– did not say, “Steve, you don’t know Gwen.” No, James had just sat there during the entire lacerating episode, sat there like the bullied child he used to be, sat there being lectured and warned and “cared for” by people who “knew better.”
If only he had defended Gwen, he rebuked himself, then maybe he could respect himself. But he hadn’t. And the thought of his cowardice and wimpy behavior ate at him.
The thought rose in his heart: And yet, we can redeem ourselves for past errors. I could tell her the truth. She would understand. She’d be mad for a couple of days, but we’d grow as a family and she’d forget soon enough.
He shook his head. No, Gwen was forgiving, but she tended to get hurt permanently. She still talked about the time one of his colleagues at the broadcast studio accidentally slammed the door in her face. An event that happened a year ago and she still welled up in tears about it, repeating always: “I was overweight and black and in poor clothes and he thought I wasn’t important. But when he saw you with me, he changed his tune.”
He imagined Gwen hearing him recount the night’s actual events, saw her eyes well up with tears, her face freeze in permanent hurt, the look of betrayal which she would wear on her face for weeks, months, the coldness of future Thanksgiving dinners and New Year Eve’s, saw a permanent dilemma: Gwen could not live with his family and --this truly terrified him-- he could not live without them. And he could not live on pins and needles between them both.
Yes, he knew Gwen well enough; she wouldn’t forget the incident. She’d feel betrayed. Therefore, if he were to live in a peaceful marriage, the truth about the party would have to die with him. He would have to tell his family to say nothing more about his decision and he would have to keep his mouth shut because the truth would lead to all hell breaking loose.
It was just then that he caught something at the edge of his mind, something that had been dancing around just beyond reach but which he now saw in the glaring light of insight: he was thinking of leaving Gwen at the altar. It was the strangest realization, something only a cad would think of. And to say that he was truly surprised to claim the thought as his would be an understatement.
He stepped out of the park and walked along the street towards his apartment. Whether it was his journalistic skills or plain old common sense, James could sense discomfort and anxiety in the faces of the pedestrians near him. People were talking animatedly into their cell phones. Others stared nervously at the sky. Still others were racing towards subways and hailing cabs. By the time he stepped into his apartment, he was convinced that something newsworthy was happening.
The clock on his VCR read 7:30 a.m. when he entered. He turned on the television and the radio. His television was tuned to one of the local stations, his own. The picture on the screen was of floating fish. The camera pulled away in a long-shot pan of the Staten Island Bay. For as far as the eye could see, dead fish. A DJ on the radio mentioned the words global disaster which made James click through all the stations, local, regional and international. Yes, it was true. All the oceans, lakes, rivers, and seas were bloodied and impassible because of dead fish.
It was during this time that the phone rang. James did not answer it. Instead, he raced to quickly turn off the answering machine. The caller could be calling for only two reasons: either his family was calling to ask him to check out the disaster. Or it was Gwen. The station wouldn’t call him on his wedding day, although they probably would’ve liked an extra reporter on the scene. He suspected the caller was Gwen calling to talk about the disaster or merely to wake him up, to tell him their pre-wedding picture had been sent to the Times Society column. And of course, she would want to find out how the night went, and to ask him, yet again, if he really really did love her and was he sure didn’t want to re-think going through with the marriage and it was all right with her if he changed his mind.
The phone pleaded through eight rings and then stopped. It rang again, another five rings, then nothing. Then again, three more rings. At last it gave up. James neither wanted to hear Gwen voice or to remember how much he loved her. He wanted to think and hearing Gwen’s voice would only confuse him. This is not the sort of marriage I’d planned for, he told himself. How could the family hate someone he loved so much?
James glanced about his apartment and suddenly realized the apartment itself wasn’t safe. Some friend-enemy, family-foe, would probably dropping by soon enough to get him dressed. He picked up a postcard and a ball-point pen. He told himself he would walk over to Central Park and think it over. Because calling the wedding off would be stupid and unkind. But even so he kept wondering what the actual means would be to call it off...if indeed he did call it off.
Before exiting the apartment, he thought of leaving a note tacked on the inside of his door, just in case anyone from the wedding party came looking for him. But he decided a note would be too committal either way, entirely calling off the wedding or upholding it. So he rolled his wedding tuxedo into a Bloomie’s shopping bag. Perhaps, he said to himself, while I’m in the park...who knows? God might give me some sign and I might change my mind, return home and suit up. And even if I don’t have time, I can always put on the tuxedo in St Thomas’s.
And so, he closed the door behind him and walked towards Central Park again. This time to think. He did not consider himself particularly religious. Like his family, he had shied away from Christianity as too stereotypically black. But Gwen had turned him around somewhat. He could just hear her in his mind saying, “Don’t you see? It’s the end days?” Of course it wasn’t, but certainly the coming of the end of time couldn’t be more welcome at that time. Certainly, love and the seriousness of life should clarify matters for him! And yet, here were fish floating in the sea and birds gathering ahead and he didn’t feel compelled to come clean and challenge his cowardice.
He looked heavenward and hoped that something, anything, Someone, might push him towards the events in the Fifth Avenue church, events of which he was supposed to be a major player. As he walked through the park with the tuxedo folded in the Bloomingdale’s bag, he conceived the wild hope that some poor kid from the Bronx or a real crackhead from Harlem would mug him and leave him lying bloodied and weak and half-dead in the Central Park dirt. A mugging would be his salvation. It would free from making a decision and he would be given more time to work through his family’s objections. But no mugger showed up. Nor did his cousin Saul,who was pretty cool and brave about most things, miraculously appear, returning from the hospital through the park. Nor did James call him.
The morning had gotten colder and no sun was visible in the dark sky. The air smelled fresh, despite the deepening blue of the sky. The cool March air made him remember Gwen’s favorite phrase, “I would rather walk fifty miles in one direction than up one flight of stairs.” He thought of everything she ever said and wondered how he would live without her. He tried to place himself far into the future in a life without her. He wondered if he would sink back into himself again of if her “work” on him would be self-sustaining. She had dragged him out of his shell. The seed of change she had planted within him was herself: without her, he would be his reserved snobby self again. He might even turn into his father, he mused. And the thought displeased him greatly.
He heard church bells –church bells seemed to be ringing from every corner-- and looked at his Rolex: ten o’clock. Time had flown. The wedding was due to start any minute now. People would start looking for him. Gwen too.
She would be annoyed, he thought, but not nervous. There was too much going on. In a half-hour she would be even more worried. Annoyed, angry, probably. And in an hour, she would become worried, send people over to his place, call the cops, demand NYPD put out an APB for a missing person who had left his bachelor party drunk at 4:30 in the morning and had never made it to his wedding. Jamie never drinks, she would say, I just know something terrible has happened. And depending on the kind of desk captain at the precinct telephone desk, and if he wasn’t too harassed by stressed New Yorkers calling to ask about rats and nearby ch
And then her people would start planting the seed that maybe James had dumped her. She, of course, would not believe them and would try her best to see and understand why he would do such a thing. And she too would start hoping he had been killed and mugged. Anything, anything, rather than leave her alone, like her father had, leave her looking silly and rejected and unwanted.
As the blue-black sky turned black overhead, James listened to the cackling of birds about his head and watched the scampering rats. Yet another disaster. There had been so many of them lately. Why didn’t the Environmental Protection Agency get on the ball? He told himself not to waste his time thinking about the failures of the national government; He had done his best to pursue his calling to make the world a better place but the powers that be never listened anyway. Maybe Gwen was right and the world was going to hell in a hand-basket. He thought again of how Gwen would be when the truth came out. Yes, she would grieve and grieve and grieve, just as he would grieve. No, not as he would grieve. She would gnaw at the thought, turning it over and over in her mind until the thought grew into virtual memory, with her on the sidelines watching and wondering. He imagined her indulging in comfort-eating or quitting eating altogether. He imagined her turning in on herself.
Then he imagined himself missing her body scented in essential oils: vanilla and coconut. He would miss “Jamie” -- the James she had created and found that had been hidden in him all those years. Because Jamie would go, leaving only James. The family’s James. And strangely, as he considered this, he smiled inwardly that their grief would be alike: they would miss each other’s bodies and their warmth in the morning. And in their separate grieving, they would at least be together. He kept on in this vein and then the bells rang again: eleven o’clock. The bride was probably standing at the altar.
James sat on the park bench for the next three hours, the Bloomingdale’s bag beside him, scratching at boils that kept appearing on his skin. He watched as couples with young children sat staring at the sky numbed and stone-faced. He noticed especially the fathers pushing baby carriages while their mothers clung to crucifixes. And because he would not go home for fear of phone calls, congratulatory and otherwise, he went to a movie. The theater was strangely crowded for a midday showing. He could understand that. Solid silly old entertainment was a good escape from the religious nuts and the government pontificators. The movie was a love story he didn’t believe in, and a sci-fi- story he couldn’t follow because he didn’t quite believe it and his heart wasn’t into stories. Besides Gwen had knocked the ability to enjoy trivial stories out of him. And by the time he stepped outside and posted the postcard to Gwen -- a postcard with the non-explanatory comment, “I couldn’t marry you because I love you too much”-- many of the earth’s population, including Gwen, had disappeared and twilight had begun to shadow over the empire state.
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