Rendezvous in Rockefeller Center
by Neal Gillen
After lunch with an investment banker, Jack Clark walked for almost two hours around midtown Manhattan stopping at Brooks Brothers and Paul Stuart where he purchased a few shirts and ties to be shipped home to Charleston. As he made his way up Madison Avenue, he discovered that Crouch & Fitzgerald, the venerable leather goods store, had closed. He always had enjoyed looking over their latest line of luggage. Leather luggage has gone the way of the typewriter, he thought. He looked at his watch as he continued up the avenue — he still had another hour before his rendezvous with Emily Janis.
At the rectory behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 50th Street he glanced up at the darkening sky. It looked like snow was coming. His hands were cold and his feet were hurting. He shivered as he walked west on 50th Street past the cathedral. He paused and looked across the street and thought about going into Saks Fifth Avenue to kill more time. He decided to stop somewhere to rest and get his thoughts together.
Why not, it’s as good a place as any, he thought as he made his way up the steps of the cathedral on Fifth Avenue. The warm blast of air hit him as someone pushed through the inner door. Jack walked up the center aisle and found an empty pew a few hundred feet from the altar where a priest was conducting the afternoon Mass. He shuffled sideways along the pew bench to one of the cathedral’s supporting pillars. There, he took off his overcoat before sitting down. New York City fatigued him. He always overdid it, walking everywhere and using the subway rather than a taxi. He loosened his shoe laces, leaned into the side of the pew, closed his eyes and thought about Emily and their year together working within blocks of each other in midtown Manhattan as they both struggled to make their way. He remembered a tall, vivacious, red head with lightly freckled, smooth creamy skin. She was all the things he wasn’t — confident, totally focused, knew what she wanted in life and quick to let him know how she felt about things. Jack smiled recalling everything about her. Before he nodded off, he reminded himself that he was still not sure what he really wanted. Maybe, after all these years it was Emily.
He was awakened by the vibration of his cell phone. Grasping it from his pocket he pushed in the green button and listened. “Jack, where are you?”
Looking quickly at the time on his phone he winced and shook his head in disappointment. He was 15 minutes late. “I’m sorry, I can be there in 10 minutes,” he whispered.
“I can’t hear a word you’re saying. Where are you?”
Raising his voice slightly, he said, “I’m close by — sorry, Emily, I fell asleep in church.”
“Church? You, in church, are you losing it?”
“No, it was cold and I was tired — I guess more tired than I realized.”
“I’m cold too. I’m waiting in the promenade leading to the ice skating rink in Rockefeller Plaza.”
Only half awake, he tied his shoe laces, struggled to his feet, picked up his coat, and made his way through the tourists to one of the side altars, where he slipped a five dollar bill into the slot and lit a candle. Pausing before he put on his coat, he tried to think of what to say to her. He looked forward to catching up with Emily. He hoped it wouldn’t be awkward at first. Taking in the cold air on the top of the cathedral steps, he shook his head a few times and shrugged his shoulders back and forth to fully revive himself.
As he walked across Fifth Avenue at 50th Street, he thought of the last time he had seen Emily. She had worked in the American Airlines ticket office on 49th Street directly across from the skating rink. He wondered what she looked like and whether it was a good idea to be meeting her after all these years. A classmate and pal from Fordham, Carl Rheine, with whom he had recently reconnected, had run into Emily a few years ago. Carl and Emily had stopped for coffee and she had asked about Jack. Through Carl, they made contact on the Internet.
He was curious about what had become of her, and tried without success to learn about her on the Internet, where he also had a low profile, not using a social or business network likeFacebook or Linkedin. He presumed that their conversation would start where they had left off in the spring of 1965. Still, her call to him in the cathedral sounded like the same old Emily — a little pushy — one of the reasons he felt threatened back when they were involved.
Entering the promenade leading to the Plaza, he walked on the right side of the raised Channel Garden that divided the promenade, glancing through the crowd walking towards him looking for a woman in her 60s. He was almost at the skating rink when he heard her voice. “Jack, over here.”
He turned. Emily was on the other side of the promenade. He probably would have walked right by her. He barely recognized her. She looked like a woman in her 40’s. He smiled as he approached her. She opened her arms and they hugged. He pushed back and looked at her in wonderment. Her cream colored skin had few wrinkles aside from the crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes and a few lines spreading out from the corners of her mouth. Her hair, not as red as it once was, had faint lines of grey. “Emily, you’ve aged well.”
“So have you, Jack.”
Jack still had his great shock of hair, now a brownish gray, and his thin sinewy frame. His faced was tanned, but lined from too much time in the sun. She put her arm inside his and looked up at him. “We have a lot of catching up to do, if you want to do that.”
“Yes, yes I do. How much time do you have?”
“A drink or two, maybe — it depends on how you feel.”
He found her presence uplifting — felt his energy returning. “Let’s go down to the restaurant and look at the skaters while we talk,” he suggested.
“That certainly works for me. Like old times. We spent a lot of my coffee breaks there, if I remember correctly.”
“Yes, we did. Coffee was a lot cheaper then,” he said.
“You always were a cheapskate,” she replied laughing.
“I was on a tight budget.”
As they walked around the Plaza towards the steps leading down to the Rock Centre Café, he stopped to look up at the statue of Atlas.
“Whenever I came by to see you I would stop and look up at that statue.” He shrugged and tears formed in his eyes. “I had so much going on: school, working at the Waldorf, and then you. I felt like Atlas struggling to hold the world on his shoulders. I had a hard time handling it all. The fact is I didn’t. I simply didn’t know how to deal with it.”
“Oh, the world on your shoulders,” she said in a feigned sympathetic tone. “Well, it’s probably too late to go into all of that.” She patted him on the back. “Come on, let’s go downstairs before it starts snowing. We can talk about what went right in our lives.”
He slipped the young hostess a ten-dollar bill and asked for a table at the window looking out at the skating rink. When they sat down, Jack moved about in his chair looking around the room and then out at the skaters gliding by the window. “They’re having so much fun. Look at that woman in the red scarf being teased by that boy and girl in their teens.”
Emily smiled. “Those kids are good skaters. It looks like she’s having a hard time keeping up with them.”
Jack turned back to Emily and nodded.
“Good move on the table — this is such a great view — we can see the whole rink. So, let me ask you, when did you start tipping to get a decent table?”
She hadn’t changed, Jack thought, letting her comment hang in the air. Just then, a young waiter approached the table. “Welcome to the Rock Café, I’m Cole. What will it be, an early dinner or a drink, sir?”
Jack looked up at Cole and smiled thinking that he was about Cole’s age when he was seeing Emily. “Drinks, please. What would you like, Emily?”
“A dry Sherry would be fine.”
“We have Dry Sack,” Cole said.
“That’s perfect,” Emily said.
Jack nodded. “Make that two, Cole.”
She sat back and smiled. “You know, Jack, you look like an old Charleston preppie right out of the Brooks Brothers fall catalogue.”
“In Charleston, we’d say the Ben Silver catalogue — that’s the local preppie store.”
“Well, whatever store you shop at, it favors you. You’re a well turned out gentleman.”
“Thanks, and, I’ll make note of your beautiful hair. I always liked it long.”
She raised her hands to her shoulders and flicked her hair back. “It’s a hassle at times, but look at you. Guys your age would kill to have your hair, Jack — kill to have any hair.”
As they briefly laughed, she said, “I see you stopped drinking Scotch.”
“I don’t drink hard liquor that much, mainly wine and some of the micro-brewed beers. A good dry Sherry like Dry Sack reminds me of Scotch. Sometimes I drink it on the rocks after dinner.”
Cole set the long-stemmed, tulip shaped glasses of Sherry on the table. They smiled at each other as they sniffed the Sherry’s bouquet before sipping it. “The Sherry warms me up inside as you once did, Jack.”
“Flattery. So out of character, Emily.” Why did I say that, he thought? Holding up his hand, he apologized before she could say anything.
She pushed her hands down on the chair’s armrests, and inhaled deeply through her nose. “I saw a lot of good things in you, Jack. You worked hard in school, paid your way by working at the Waldorf, but you were drifting at times. You had the drive, but you needed direction. If you remember, I often encouraged you, even flattered you.”
“I know. I know. All work, but no direction. I was always tired.”
“What about me? I worked all day at the reservation counter and then it was off to the Belasco Theatre to hand out programs five nights a week in addition to squeezing in an acting class or two at Stella Adler’s.”
“To be honest, I was only thinking about myself. No one was ever that good to me, aside from Mother.”
“That’s nice to hear after all these years.”
“I mean that. I was floored when Carl Rheine told me last month he had bumped into you a few years ago and that you had asked about me.”
“I must admit that I was surprised to hear from you. Carl had told me that he hadn’t seen or heard from you in years.”
“I hadn’t seen him in over 30 years. Carl was raising money for Fordham and sent me an e-mail. He mentioned you and passed on your e-mail address.”
“I always liked Carl. I gave him my business card.” She paused and smiled. “I wonder how many times I got him free tickets to the same show at the Belasco for his different dates.”
They both laughed at that. “I don’t know how many great performances I saw because of you. Watching Inadmissible Evidence and The Killing of Sister George over and over was worth it to me because I got to take you home after the show.”
“It’s really good to see you again after such a long time — a life time for some,” Emily said.
“I feel the same way, Emily.”
“So tell me, Jack. What was it that I did wrong? Can you tell me?”
He paused and looked out at the skaters as he tried to formulate a response, reminded that she always asked the hard questions he was not willing to answer. “You never did anything wrong. At that stage of my life I was scared and unsure — like a frightened rabbit.”
“You were always so tense.”
“No, no, you were the tense one, Emily. You had all the energy and the direction and were intent on becoming an actor or a writer. If I was tense, it was because you were always so wired.”
“Well, yeah. Maybe I should’ve said forward. You’re the one who moved the relationship. I mean I was in your office picking up some tickets for the hotel concierge, and the next thing I know we’re having a drink.”
“Now, hold on a minute. If I remember it correctly, you came into my office the next day and tied me up for almost 20 minutes with a bogus itinerary for a non-existent hotel guest.”
He eased into a smile. “You’re right about that, but you sort of flirted with me the day before.”
“I joked about your Waldorf uniform, the cut-away coat and striped pants you were wearing. I wouldn’t call that flirting.”
“Well, it got my attention. I took it that you were interested.”
“I guess I was. You were polite and not insistent like most of the businessmen who stopped by.”
“Those were wonderful times. You made me feel better about myself. I mean, I couldn’t believe I was dating such an attractive person – more importantly a wonderful person who really cared about me.”
“I loved you, Jack.”
He closed his eyes and moved his upper teeth back and forth over his lower lip. “I know, and I loved you.”
“Then, tell me, Jack, why’d you walk away? Why?”
He lowered his head and then looked up struggling for the right words. He took a deep breath and swallowed hard. “I was selfish, and, well, confused. You know, I was unsure of myself, the unknown. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.”
She didn’t respond, instead, looked intently out on the skating rink.
He bit his lower lip and moved his head downward to his shoulder. “I was too callow. All I know is that I didn’t want to get tied down. I just wasn’t ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“Marriage and all the responsibility that comes with it. I felt like I had to get on with my life. I was scared, Emily. I thought I had to run off somewhere and find myself. I guess I still don’t know why.”
“Your life? She looked at him quizzically. “What about mine? You never said goodbye. You never sent a note. And, when I’d call your apartment, your mother, always nicely, mind you, would tell me you were out and that she’d leave you a message. The same thing at the Waldorf, after a while they told me you didn’t work there anymore.”
“The Waldorf people were telling the truth. I left right after I stopped seeing you.”
“What about your mother?”
Jack swirled his Sherry glass as he cleared his throat. “It pained her. She really liked you and tried to convince me to call you. ‘She loves you and you love her,’ she’d say. ‘Please call her, you’ll regret it if you don’t.’”
Emily closed her eyes and dropped her head slightly. “So, where’d you work after you left the Waldorf?”
“The Sherry-Netherland on 59th and Fifth. It was only for a few months until I finished college.”
“And after that?”
“The Navy. I went to OCS in Newport, Rhode Island about a month after I got my degree. When I got my commission, I was sent to the Supply Corp training school in Athens, Georgia.”
“Where’d they send you after that?”
“Initially to San Diego. I was stationed there when Mother had her heart attack. I was lost when I got back to San Diego after her funeral. I put in for Vietnam when President Johnson announced the troop buildup in late 1966.”
“Vietnam? How long were you there?”
“Two years. I did consecutive tours. I came back in early 1969 and spent my final year at the Naval Station in Charleston, South Carolina.”
“Did you see any combat?”
He winced and nodded his head. “I got stranded at a Marine outpost called Khe Sanh in January of 1968. I was sent up there for a few days to determine how we could supply ammunition, mainly artillery and mortar shells, more efficiently. Well, I got stuck there for over two months.”
“What was that like?”
“It’s hard to talk about. It was hell. We were sitting ducks. We shelled them and they shelled us. They attacked us constantly. We lost a lot of good men. We never should’ve been there in the first place.”
“What’d you mean by that?”
“Some know-it-all generals thought it was a strategic outpost. It didn’t mean jack shit strategically. It was a blood bath, and then, we abandoned it.”
“Abandoned? Were you wounded?”
“Shrapnel wounds and hearing problems, but I got out of there in one piece.”
“Did you think about staying in the Navy?”
He laughed. “No, I had had it with the bureaucracy. Three forms for this and that signed and countersigned. It was all a big pain in the ass. I decided to stay in Charleston. I liked everything about the place. It has a nice easy pace, none of the rat race of New York. I sort of bummed around: went to cooking school, worked in hotels in and around Charleston, and tended bar.”
She leaned forward, put her elbow on the table, cupped her chin with her hand and looked up at him. “Did you ever settle down with someone?”
He shook his head. “I never could. Too selfish, I guess, and fearful of being controlled by someone.”
She leaned back in her chair. “You mean not willing to share yourself, to compromise.” He listened to her talk about commitment and reflected on his many relationships. It began to concern him that she was controlling the conversation, finding out all about him and his many shortcomings played out over four decades. He wanted to know something about her, if she would let him.
“Yeah, you’re right about that — unwilling to share with some of the women that I’ve known over the years. Now, I’m just a lonely old bastard, and unlike all my friends I have no children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews to visit. No little league games, none of that good wholesome American family stuff. That’s why I don’t go to college reunions. What am I going to do, show pictures of my ex-girlfriends?”
She looked out at the skaters and turned back to him. “But you look like you’ve done all right.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, but it was just luck. I was seeing a woman who was a successful account manager for Merrill-Lynch. She was at this conference in Charleston. I joined her at the hotel reception, where we bumped into this guy from Washington, a young lawyer. He told us about auctions that a government agency, the FCC, was running for frequency spectrums.”
“What was that all about?”
“I didn’t know at the time. She did all the follow-up research. I was working as a bartender and had about $30,000 stashed away in cash that I wanted to invest. I put up $25,000 and she put up $25,000 and, as luck would have it, we were awarded a frequency allocation in an area south of Boston that included Rhode Island and parts of Connecticut.”
“I really wasn’t sure at the time, but it turned out to be frequencies for cell phones.”
Her eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yeah, really. It’s a long story, but I eventually sold my share of the frequency allocation to Verizon for stock.”
“What about you girlfriend? I mean, what’d she do?”
“She sold out early. You know how brokers are. They’re always in for the quick capital gain. As I said, I really wasn’t sure what I had. Cell phones were just beginning to take off. Hell, I didn’t even have one until after I had sold out to Verizon.”
“So what do you do with all your money?”
“I count it,” he said laughing. “No, I give some of it away to charitable causes. It’s pretty much invested in various funds.”
Thinking about his aimless life style and his falling into money, she couldn’t contain her feelings any longer. “Did you ever stop and think about me? What had happened to me after you walked away? Whatever became of me?”
Picking up his glass, he nodded his head. He finished his Sherry and paused. “I did —probably at least once a day for many years. Then, once a week for many years, and then, maybe once a month or so. I always come around to thinking about you.”
“What do you think about when you think about me?”
“I think about what might have been. I think about how I screwed up, screwed up royally.”
“Why’d you want to see me again? You could’ve ignored Carl’s message. Why’re you here?”
“I’m not sure. I guess to complete the circle, to express my regrets about missing out on you.”
She didn’t react at first. She reached into her purse and pulled out a tissue, sniffled, and brushed away tears from the corners of her eyes.
Jack looked around the café and stared out at the skaters. He felt trapped. He was worried about the expected snow delaying his flight back to Charleston in the morning. His mind was fumbling for something to say so he could walk away from her without making her feel any worse than she apparently already did.”
“I didn’t ask about you. Did you ever marry and have a family?”
She swallowed hard before she spoke. “I had a little girl, but I never married her father.”
He was puzzled. “Why not?”
“Because he’d walked out on me.”
Jack stared at her, wordless for a moment. “I guess you fell for another guy just like me.”
She closed her eyes and shook her head before she turned towards the window and stared in silence at the skaters.
“Are you all right, Emily?”
She turned and looked at him. “When we first sat down, you noticed the tall woman out there, the one with the red scarf?”
“Yes, the one having a time of it with the teen-agers.”
“Yes, that one.”
“She’s very pretty.”
She sat back in her seat, folded her arms, and looked at him with an expressionless face. “Yes, she is. That’s your daughter and those are your grandchildren.”
Jack’s jaw dropped. His mouth agape, he froze looking at Emily before turning to the window as large flakes of snow began to fall from the sky.
Neal P. Gillen is a New York City native and a Navy veteran. He was a member of the Naval Security Group serving in 1955-58 as a radio intercept operator of Russian and Chinese naval vessels in Guam and Okinawa and in Naples, Italy and Scarborough, England. He received his BS degree with honors in 1961 from New York University and his JD degree in 1964 from the Georgetown University Law Center. He is the author of eight novels, one memoir, and a book of short stories, and serves on the board of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD.