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Authors: Elyse Douglas

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BOOK: Chistmas Ever After
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He barked a laugh, yanked the car into gear, and shot away. As soon as the taxi plunged into traffic, it seemed to Jennifer like a great battle of nerves, will and testosterone was in play. Cars darted from lane to lane, weaving, breaking, charging. Tail lights flashed; horns wailed in fear or warning or ego wounding, as a silver gray Buick Regal cut off a sleek red Porsche. In sudden defense, a forward taxi just managed a chaotic swerving maneuver to keep from slamming into both, but skidded into a bloated lane of buses and trucks, whose drivers welcomed him with clenched fists, angry cries and blasting air horns. A truck whipped into the left lane, brazenly, rupturing traffic and slinging water from its daring muscular wheels, in a remarkable display of oafish power.

The frenzied movement was disorienting and electrifying, like a kind of three-dimensional video game, with lasers, bells and whistles. Jennifer sat on the edge of her seat, eyes wide and alert, not recalling Lance ever describing a New York quite like this. They raced by monumental billboards that seemed to shout out their messages in bold letters and glossy images, to see the hottest Broadway shows and the newest hang-on-to-your-seat movies—or to stay at the savviest hotels.

Jennifer’s cab driver seemed oblivious to it all, as he chanted, hoarsely, along with a CD in some mid-Eastern language, while fighting the cars and the road for survival and superiority.

When she saw the New York skyline looming in the distance, blazing against the heavy charcoal sky, her spirits lifted considerably. She’d seen pictures and movies, but nothing could compare to the stupendous live vision before her. It was magical. She felt a girlish excitement.

After they abruptly turned off the FDR Drive, she noticed shops, restaurants and office buildings, all decorated for Christmas: blinking white lights; extravagant wreaths with red ribbons; star bursts; and window displays. She was amazed by the sheer size of the city—the broad sidewalks and avenues, the buildings, close and towering.
She could already feel a restless fervor as she looked out into the crowds of rushing people and the glare of lights.

When they approached The Plaza Hotel, Jennifer took in the 19-story structure and felt herself lift up. It looked like a castle out of a storybook; an opulent-looking French chateau! The taxi turned onto Central Park South, past horse-drawn carriages and Central Park, then turned left and rolled up to the entrance. She took in the glazed brick façade and saw doormen dressed in long red Edwardian coats standing by, as couples and families entered through the revolving doors with their designer shopping bags.

A doorman approached, tall and imposing, and opened her door, smiling. “Welcome to The Palace Hotel!” he said, cheerfully.

Jennifer nodded meekly, then stepped out into a gentle snowfall that had begun to blanket the ground. Her cab driver reached into the trunk and tugged out her suitcase and handed it to the doorman. In a kind of hazy exhilaration, Jennifer paid the cab driver and turned toward the doorman, who led her up the red carpeted stairs, through the revolving doors into a resplendent marble lobby.

She saw expensive boutiques and shops, and crowds of lively children and well-dressed couples. She especially noticed the women. She thought they looked brittle and snobbish, even self-adoring, as they checked themselves out in the gilded framed mirrors and walked with calculated flair, as if a TV camera were following them. Even the young girls had a kind of stylized irritation, with their Bambi eyelashes and pouty mouths, as they ignored their parents, brothers and everyone else.

The men looked wan and milky. Thin, for sure, and elegantly dressed, but too self-assured and aloof for her taste.

Jennifer tried for a worldly, straight-backed dignity as she walked toward the front desk, but from the expressions of people who looked back at her as she passed, she was sure she had “Small Town Girl” written all over her face.

A middle-aged woman, dressed in gold and white and delineated with refinement,
greeted her. “Good evening, my name is Eleanor,” the woman said, pleasantly. “How can I help you?”

Jennifer said she had a reservation and quietly gave her name. A moment later, Eleanor nodded in agreement and began entering information into the computer.

“Yes, Ms. Taylor, you’ll be in one of the Fairmont Deluxe rooms. That room has a king-sized bed and a city view. I think you’ll be very comfortable.”

Jennifer managed a modest smile. “Thank you, I’m sure I will be. Can you tell me who made this reservation, please?”

Eleanor nosed closer to the computer monitor. “Let’s see… Yes…the reservation was made by a Frances Wintergreen.”

Jennifer closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, Eleanor was looking at her, inquisitively.

“Is everything okay, Ms. Taylor?”

“Yes. It’s just been a rather unusual day.”

Eleanor finished processing the reservation, presented Jennifer with her room key and a glossy brochure filled with information about the restaurants, bars and boutiques. A friendly bellhop indicated toward the elevators, gripped the handle of her suitcase and led her toward them.

Once upstairs, the bellhop swiped her room card and stepped aside. Jennifer entered and froze. Her astonished eyes took in a spacious luxury of rose and gold. There were silk wall coverings, a sparkling antique crystal chandelier and a marble fireplace. There was an oak lounge table with matching chairs, a large oak writing desk with claw feet and a generous refreshment center. Jennifer stood motionless as the bellhop parked her bag by the bed and parted the rose-colored drapes. Beyond the towering windows, the city beckoned like shimmering jewelry.

She was still half-frozen when she tipped the bellhop. After he’d shut the door behind her, she stood, puzzled and transfixed, lost in a dozing daydream. She stood in the silence of anticipation, wondering what to do next. She turned toward the bed, a splendorous thing, and considered a nap. What if she slept through the night? Would her adventure come to her in dreams?
Maybe from down the chimney of the non-working fireplace? Perhaps a spirit—a Christmas spirit—would appear and drag her off through the window and out over the city, similar to what had happened to Scrooge in Charles Dickens’
A Christmas Carol

She felt a chill. The cold inside tightened her. She ventured to the window and stared out, watching the lazy snowfall, hearing the murmur of city sounds: car horns, church bells, sirens.

She felt oddly displaced. The quiet seemed pregnant with mysterious personal potential. It was as if, with a little effort—perhaps a wave of her hand or a word uttered with the right emphasis and inflexion—she could break through that personal wall of silence and enter into a new wonder, like a child parting a scented bush to discover a secret emerald pond.

She drifted away from the window, back to the center of the room. She nervously dismissed the feeling as light-headedness. She hadn’t eaten since morning. She dialed room service and ordered a turkey club and coffee.

The temptation of the bed was too overpowering. She stretched out and closed her eyes, allowing her entire body to sink into the luscious quilted bedspread. After several deep breaths, she began to relax. There were no visions, no revelations. No adventure.

When the food arrived, she asked for the bill but was informed that everything was taken care of. She ate voraciously. A turkey club had never tasted so good and the coffee refreshed and warmed her. As she took the last swallow of coffee, she rose from the table, feeling a subtle nudge—an urgency.

“It’s time to see New York,” she said aloud.

She reached for her black woolen coat, red cap and leather gloves and left the room. Downstairs, she walked purposefully through the lobby toward the revolving doors, scarcely aware of her surroundings, the people or the sounds. That odd silence had returned, vital and throbbing. She shrugged it off, as she emerged from the hotel at twilight, to see the streets and sidewalks thick with people, the air alive with playfulness, as if a great treasure hunt was going on. She strolled by Bergdorf Goodman, Prada, Trump Tower and Tiffany & Company, passing sidewalk Santas ringing bells; hearing Christmas carols waft out of the stores onto the streets; watching the snow cover the streets, cars and people like a sugary icing.

Twenty minutes later, Jennifer crossed Fifth Avenue and started back toward her hotel, suddenly feeling a peculiar impulse to see F.A.O. Schwartz. As she approached, she saw him: a boy, no more than 6 years old, dressed in a navy down bubble jacket, red ski cap and forest green gloves. He weaved his way through the crowds, like an expert, like a little football player dodging tackles. There was a puckish energy about him, a bit of a swagger in his walk. To her surprise, he moved toward her.

When he was 20 feet away, he stopped and called out her name in a loud clear voice. Certain that he was calling for another Jennifer, she ignored him and progressed on, looking toward the little plaza in front of F.A.O. Schwartz, which was teeming with shoppers and tourists.

He called to her again. His voice was so loud and penetrating that she turned toward its source, searching diligently. She saw him standing firmly near the stairs, his hands in his pockets, staring at her with a kind of mysterious eagerness. She didn’t quite know what to make of him. She was surprised at the sudden warmth she felt, and the strange familiarity in his face and eyes, as if he might have wandered in and out of her life either in the distant past or in a recently forgotten dream. She found him at once endearing, guarded and restless. As he stared, she became more aware of her loneliness—a loneliness so thoroughly embedded in her gut that she felt a throbbing, aching pain. A raw evening wind whipped her face. She grimaced.

Jennifer glanced about to see if this child was speaking to someone else, but no one else had responded. No one seemed to notice him or her. The bustling crowds pressed on, ignoring them. Jennifer studied this kid for a moment, calculating the distance between them. She started toward him.

He pivoted, descended the stairs, and hustled off north. Puzzled, Jennifer stopped. The boy whirled around and motioned, with his little gloved hand, for her to follow him. Reluctantly, she did, but with uncertain steps. Waves of people passed, bumped and jarred her. Falling snow blurred buildings and muffled city sounds. She edged around elbows, backs and shoulders and felt like a salmon swimming upstream, throwing darting glances ahead, to keep the boy in her vision.

She followed the boy across Fifth Avenue until they came to the edge of Central Park South. Then, just as she was gaining on him, the kid dashed away into the white snowy haze of the park, down a winding path and out of sight.

Jennifer stopped, bewildered. As she was catching her breath, that deep silence returned, as though someone were flipping switches, turning off the sound all around her. She turned in place, confused and frightened. Suddenly, she plunged into the center of that silence, as if falling through the thin ice of a frozen lake and sinking down into a black abyss.

Things began to slow down, like exhausted windup toys: people, cars, and horse-drawn carriages. Jennifer had the queer feeling that she, herself, was losing definition, was slightly out of focus—a nebulous sketch.

Twilight descended in a cool blue glow, back-lighting the flecks of snow and creating an eerie world of vague shadows and flickering images. The sky began to move; gray and burgundy clouds lowered and boiled through the Central Park trees, in a wind that came in cold punching bursts, scattering old newspapers, leaves and snow.

Jennifer stood mesmerized, staring helplessly. The ground began a slow rotation, scraping, rattling, as if she were on a revolving stage. Before her she saw a kind of open doorway, golden, shimmering and inviting. A gentle hand seemed to nudge her toward it. As she passed through, she witnessed a storm of images, like pieces of things in a wind storm, blowing, soaring and scattering. Time appeared to be rewinding itself, spinning wildly, as she looked out into a liquid world of fleeting visions of the 19
century. Buildings and structures appeared, and then crumbled into a dusty blue light. New ones shot up grand and tall, street scenes appeared like moving montages, and people went hurtling by like tumbling gymnasts, across an empty street. She heard church bells, muffled voices, sirens and the sounds of bombs and rifle fire. She was petrified and fascinated.

Then suddenly, everything stopped and fell into a deafening silence. Gradually, a new reality began to take shape: the sounds of clattering coaches; horses’ galloping hooves and neighing; the blur of human voices; the vague, shadowy outlines of buildings and people. Her nose was assaulted by the sharp odor of horse droppings, and she sneezed.

Then suddenly, in front of her, a group of women approached. They wore lavish dresses and gripped dark umbrellas, staring at her strangely, indignantly, obviously spurning her. She was amazed at the clarity of detail: a long gown of royal-blue satin, an emerald gown trimmed with velvet and lace, a beautifully tailored gown of dark blue twill and cream-colored flannel. Their hats stood six inches high or more, with large brims and shallow crowns, made of burgundy or dark green felt, with dramatic plumes and feathers.

Her attention was pulled away to the street. A bright yellow carriage with shiny black fenders passed, followed by magnificently enameled coaches drawn by sleek black prancing horses and driven by proud liveried men with top hats and polished boots. She saw carriages of all sorts, a dray wagon, hired two-wheeled
hackneys and horsecars all competing for the right-of-way, just as her taxi had done, traveling from the airport. Pedestrians seemed to bully their way through the intersections, taking their lives into their hands, some pausing to look back at her, with dark, curious eyes.

BOOK: Chistmas Ever After
4.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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