UNTOLD THE STORY
by a fresh morning fog. We discover a beautiful woman walking home. It looks as though
she's been up all night and whatever might have happened, it has changed her deeply.
Alexandra "Alex" Buchanan had had an ongoing love affair with Manhattan since she was six years old and her grandmother took her to her first ART GALLERY in SoHo. As they'd perused sleek walls adorned with the works of Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall, her dreams had been forged. Alex never forgot the magic of that trip - or the words her grandmother had uttered as they'd stood on the observation deck of the EMPIRE STATE BUILDING and marveled at the city below: "This is what you are."
She'd made New York her home and in a few hours she would be attending the grand opening of her art gallery, The Interim. Alex had worked toward this moment her entire life, encountering plenty of hurdles along the way, but never doubting her dream. The one thing Alex hadn't expected was opening-night jitters. But there was no time to dwell. In fifteen minutes, she was meeting her best friend, Sophie, at the gallery, for a celebratory drink.
Taking a final look in the mirror, Alex smiled. The dress was exquisite. A friend hoping to make his mark in the fashion world had designed it for her. He'd chosen ivory satin and created a masterpiece with a square neckline and A-line lapels that tapered to a fitted waist. "Thank you, Andre," she whispered.
She considered hailing a cab, but her gallery was an easy walk, even in four-inch heels. She set off at a brisk pace, enjoying the shop windows and crowded cafes. It wasn't until she reached Broadway that she noticed the man behind her, keeping pace, watching her. She got an impression of a well-cut suit, dark hair and striking features before she lost sight of him. Alex was used to attention from the opposite sex, but something about him unnerved her. Wishing she'd taken a cab, she quickened her pace.
Five minutes later, Alex entered the E.V. Haughwout BUILDING at Broadway and Broome. It was a historic structure with cast-iron facings and architectural details that never ceased to inspire. She took the elevator to the second floor and let herself into the gallery. The scents of patchouli and sandalwood greeted her and a sense of pride swept through her. Alex had designed everything, from the gleaming oak floors to the textured walls and track lighting, while preserving the original brick. The lower level was dedicated to paintings: oils, watercolors and acrylics. Modular seating and a bar at the rear were perfect for events.
A spiral staircase ushered visitors to the second level where muraled walls, tropical plants and pendant lighting delighted the senses. Display cases contained a treasure trove of Mambilla figurines, Gabonese masks, Yombe sculptures, and bronzes. The effect was one of sophistication and intrigue while allowing the eye - and the mind - to focus on the art.
The caterer had delivered the food and Alex went to work arranging platters on the buffet table. For music, she chose Tabu Ley Rochereau's Voice of Lightness. She was pouring herself a glass of Malbec when the buzzer sounded. She unlocked the door and Sophie beamed a thousand-watt smile. "You look fabulous! That dress! And those shoes!"
Grinning, Alex threw her arms around her. "You, too."
A Brooklynite, Sophie was lovely and smart and the best friend Alex ever had.
"You're going to knock it out of the park tonight."
Alex poured while Sophie chatted away and her nerves began to unwind. They strolled to the window, looking out over Broadway. On the street below, Alex caught a glimpse of the man who'd followed her earlier. "Did you see that guy?"
"The one in that killer Armani?"
But he'd disappeared in the crowd. "He was following me earlier."
Sophie sobered. "Be careful, Alex. You never know about people, even if they do have good taste in clothes."
An hour later, the gallery brimmed with art enthusiasts, artists, bloggers, and, much to Alex's delight, buyers. She was speaking to a collector from Parsippany when she spotted the man who'd followed her earlier. Excusing herself, she went to confront him. The man watched her approach, his expression inscrutable. He stood over six feet tall, mid-thirties, with the athletic build of a runner and a face not soon forgotten. Sophie had been right about the Armani; this man definitely wore it well.
"Jack Megason." His eyes sparked with interest as he extended his hand. "Your gallery is magnificent."
"I'm sure it's an oversight, but your name wasn't on the invitation list." Her voice remained amicable, but she didn't accept his hand.
His mouth curved. "I saw the Times story." He handed her his card.
Alex read. Jack Megason, owner Megason Fine Art, Boston.
"The art world is small. I'm surprised we haven't met."
"Had I known you were so beautiful, I'd have made the effort."
His undeniable charisma prompted her to extend her hand.
His grip was assured, but not overpowering.
"How's the opening going?"
He held on to her hand an instant too long, but the contact wasn't unpleasant. He leaned close and whispered, "I saw the art critic from the New Yorker earlier."
"Now you're making me nervous."
"Don't be. He was smiling." He crossed to one of the oil paintings. "That's a stunning Malangatana Ngwenya."
"You know your art."
"His work is primal and violent." He turned to her. "I hear you have Mambilla figurines."
Alex motioned toward the staircase. "They're upstairs if you'd like to see them."
She was keenly aware of his proximity as they started up the staircase. The scent of his aftershave - a rousing mix of bergamot and musk - tantalized her senses. They reached the second level where the lush palms and dim lighting lent the room an intimate ambiance.
Jack made a sound of pleasure in his throat upon spotting the Gabonese masks. "It's an amazing collection."
"I understand you have a rare Dogon statue."
She gave him a sharp look. "That wasn't in the Times article."
"Artforum did a piece as well," he said.
"It's not on display." But there was nothing she loved more than to share a beautiful piece of art, so she ceded. "This way." She took him to the storage room, unlocked the door and flipped on the light. It was a small space, dimly lit and jammed with paintings and less noteworthy pieces. She'd tucked the Dogon into a display case.
"It's a Niongom." Jack came up beside her and they admired the statue. "Fifteenth century. Exceptionally fine aged. Where did you get it?"
"The Dogon tribe believes it promotes fertility." He gazed at her intently. "I think it speaks to the dangers of love."
For an instant Alex couldn't look away. Her senses seemed heightened. The soukous throbbed in her ears. The richness of the wine heated her tongue. The conversation from downstairs faded away. He was standing so close she could smell the mint on his breath. Her intellectual side sensed danger, but the more adventurous part of her knew he didn't pose a threat.
Movement in the corner startled her. Adrenaline tore through her when a man emerged from the shadows. He had brown hair and a sturdy build. "Don't make a sound," he said, his voice deadly calm.
Never taking his eyes from them, he produced a handgun and used it to shatter the glass case. The statue teetered. Without thinking, Alex lunged forward and caught it. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jack charge the man and tackle him to the floor. The weapon skittered across the floor. She watched, stunned, as Jack flipped
the man onto his stomach, pulled his arms behind his back and cuffed him.
"Call 911," he growled.
Alex didn't argue.
It was three AM when the last police officer left the gallery.
The would-be thief had been arrested and both Alex and Jack gave statements. They were sitting near the buffet table, decompressing.
"Your hands are still shaking," Jack said.
"It's not every day that you experience your first armed robbery."
He surprised her by chuckling. "I think that's the most exciting opening your guests will ever attend."
She couldn't help it; she laughed, too.
Rising, he poured two glasses of wine and handed one to her. "This'll help."
"He was after the Dogon?" she asked.
Jack nodded. "His name is Trevor Battistoli. International art thief. The FBI has been after him for years."
"I'm an art security specialist. I've been working with the FBI."
He grimaced. "I'm sorry I misrepresented myself, but I needed
to maintain my cover."
"That's why you were following me."
That's why I was following him."
She thought of the gun and shivered. Jack noticed and set his hand on hers. "I know it's late, but would you like to grab a cup of coffee? I know the chef over at Balthazar. He's used to me coming by late." He smiled. "I could give you some pointers on security."
She smiled. "In light of what happened, I think that's an offer
I can't refuse."
Twenty minutes later, they were seated at a bistro table, looking out at Spring Street. Over cappuccinos they talked and laughed until the window turned gray with dawn.
"I'd like you to have a new alarm system installed," Jack said.
"Security cameras. I can hook you up with a reputable company."
"I appreciate that."
"Alex." He reached out and took her hand. "I have to confess... our being here isn't about the gallery or art or security systems. It's about you and my hope that you'll have dinner with me tonight."
She smiled. "I'd like that."
"Unfortunately, I have a meeting in an hour." Rising, he came around to her chair and brushed his lips against her cheek. "Can I get you a cab?"
Alex rose. "Dawn is lovely in New York. I think I'll walk."
Like most little girls, I grew up watching fairy tales and dreaming of my own Prince Charming. Even as I got older and became more realistic, I held onto the belief that I'd one day find Mr. Right. But unlike many of my friends, who let their single status define, even haunt, them, I focused on things I could control: surviving my third year of law school at NYU, passing the bar, and going to work as a district attorney to fulfill my passion to right wrongs in my native BROOKLYN. I was open to having a relationship but not desperate for one, and felt that if I stayed on my path, the right guy would eventually join me. There was certainly no need to panic, and even less reason to settle. So for years, that's exactly what I did. I had my share of boyfriends, but found myself drawn to relationships I knew wouldn't last for one reason or another. When they wouldn't commit, I was secretly relieved. When they wanted to commit, I found reasons to end things. And so I turned thirty alone.
Meanwhile, my friends endlessly set me up on blind dates. My sister insisted that I worked too much and needed to do something about the growing circles under my eyes. And my mother reminded me with increasing frequency that my window for having children was closing, emailing me depressing articles about premature ovarian failure. I insisted that I was fine and in no hurry, but could feel myself caving to the mounting pressure and tiring of my role as dutiful bridesmaid and platonic third wheel. Then, right after I broke down and signed up for an on-line dating service, I bumped into a tall, dark, strikingly handsome man with Bradley Cooper-like hair at La Colombe, my regular coffee shop in SoHo. He was also charming, I discovered, when the barista mistakenly gave him my skim latte and me his café americano.
"You must be Evan?" I said, handing him his cup. He nodded and smiled, and within minutes of casual banter, invited me to dinner.
Three nights later, I donned my favorite little black dress, hailed a cab to the Village, and walked into the dreamy, candlelit back garden at La Lanterna. When our eyes met, Evans's face lit up in that adoring way men look at women in movies, a look I didn't think existed outside of Hollywood. As I approached the table, he stood and pulled out my chair, his manners as beautiful as his green eyes and custom suit. When he ordered an expensive bottle of champagne, he raised his glass and said,
"To chance meetings. And mixing up coffee orders."
I laughed, checking the "funny" box, as we began our first-date conversation. A fellow lawyer and aspiring politician, Evan was intelligent, driven and successful. Check, check, check. He was well-read, had great taste in music, owned a summer home in the Hamptons, spoke lovingly of his mother, and never once glanced in the direction of the supermodel seated one table over. By the end of the night, every box was checked, including boxes I had never even thought to consider. In a word, he was perfect.
After dinner, he walked me home, kissed me goodnight on the steps of my brownstone, and promised to call the next day. He kept his word - and called me every day after that. Very quickly, we became a couple, falling into a satisfying, fulfilling routine. I left clothes at his place; we spent Sunday mornings reading the paper in bed; and we started planning vacations and holidays together. Our relationship seemed idyllic: passionate enough to keep me from being bored, but also stable and mature. It didn't take long for me to become consumed by our momentum. My friends adored him, and my mother seemed prouder of my ability to land Evan than any of my professional achievements. She held her breath, praying for the ring to arrive on my finger, mentally planning my WEDDING, and naming her future grandchildren. I told her not to jinx it, but was secretly as excited as she was. Evan thrilled me, made me feel both lucky and loved. On the anniversary of the day we met, he popped the question at our coffee shop, then threw a surprise celebration with all our friends and family at the site of our first date. He thought of everything. He was becoming my everything.
But then came the changes, the shift subtle, almost imperceptible at first. It started with Evan having opinions on what I wore to dinner and which topics of conversation were "appropriate". When some of his social plans interfered with my caseload, he suggested that I scale back, consider working in private practice as he did. He knew of a small firm in GREENWICH where I could work part-time after we married. He remarked that DA work was dangerous, too dangerous for the mother of his children. I reluctantly agreed to consider his points both because I loved Evan and because I trusted his opinions as much as my own. But I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that the more I fell in love with Evan, with us, the less I liked myself.
One night, I couldn't ignore it anymore. We were watching golf on television, one of Evan's favorite pastimes, when I happened to glance at his laptop, noticing a draft of our wedding announcement.
Words like prestigious and prominent jumped off of the glowing screen. I told Evan I didn't like the complacent tone; he said that it was necessary for inclusion in the New York Times. I argued that such announcements were pretentious - and for that matter, so were his wedding plans for a grand affair at THE PLAZA. Couldn't we have a smaller, more intimate ceremony? He shook his head, insisting that he couldn't possibly scale his guest list to fewer than three hundred.
I confided in my mother, but she reminded me that nobody was perfect and that I needed to embrace compromise. I started to feel more isolated from my loved ones than I ever had when I was single. Then, one evening, about a month before our wedding, while I was preparing for an arraignment the following day, Evan insisted that he needed me to come to an art gallery opening with him, that some "very important" people from Goldman Sachs would be there and he needed to make a "proper showing." I looked at my fiancé with his exquisite smile and gorgeous hair, and something inside me broke. I went to the opening, but later that night, back at Evan's place, I told him that I couldn't continue to put his dreams ahead of my own. I told him that I didn't want to give up my job and move to Greenwich, that I was still several years away from wanting children. Maybe more.
"That's way too long," he said decisively. "You know I want children by thirty-five. We've talked about this."
"I just don't think this is going to work," I blurted out, instantly relieved.
"Don't be silly."
"Yes. Silly. I mean, I think I'm a pretty good catch."
"Did you really just say you're a catch?"
"That didn't come out properly," he insisted in his best campaigning voice. "What I meant was that we're a perfect couple."
I told him he was right. He was a catch. He was perfect - and was everything I had ever wanted. But all of that still didn't make us perfect together. At least not anymore.
"This is ridiculous," Evan said. "We're getting married."
I leaned across the table and placed my hands over his. "I'm sorry. I can't marry you."
He tried to argue through the night, doing his best to convince me that it was all just cold feet and last-minute jitters. He told me that if I didn't marry him, I'd regret it forever and likely end up alone.
"Maybe so," I said, finally. "But I'm okay with that."
Then I quietly slipped off my gorgeous ring, placed it next to him, and walked out the door.
As I stepped out of Evan's apartment, I thought about all the people in my life, how many would see this turn of events as tragic. They would see me as alone again, back to square one. They'd believe I had made the biggest mistake of my life and had ruined my best chance for happiness. But I also knew that for everything they claimed I had lost, I had regained something far more important: the type of well-being I could only get by living on my own terms. Starting over was scary, but I was determined to find my passion again, the thing that I had hoped to find in another but realized only comes from within.
I took a deep breath, and started to walk home in the early-morning calm. The city streets were mostly quiet, windows still darkened, shops yet to open, save for my favorite corner fruit stand. The summer sun was beginning its lazy ascent over the East River, bringing with it the promise of a new day. New York felt light, peaceful. And for the first time in a long time, so did I.
Her phone rang at two in the morning, as the party was winding down. A gruff voice she'd never heard before said only her first name.
She stepped outside, leaving the clatter of voices and music behind. The party was for a film she'd produced, and the response at the festival showing had been excellent. But her attention was focused on the voice in her ear. "Mr. Hargreaves," she guessed. "I've been hoping you'd call."
The voice laughed, a low, gravelly rumble. "Yes, from your twenty phone messages, I had that impression."
His tone was surprisingly friendly, for a ghost. Even at the height of his career, Max Hargreaves had never been known for his people skills. He was mercurial, quick to anger, a difficult perfectionist; he was also widely considered the top film director of his generation - until the day he disappeared. Some said he went to Mexico, others, France. No one had seen or spoken to him in seventeen years.
From the day she saw his first film, she loved his work. The BLACK-AND-WHITE love triangle among three college students; the uncanny horror film set in a country house; the poignant, presumably autobiographical story of his mother who'd died when he was young. His work was at once warm and cerebral, each shot exquisitely framed, cinema that was both intensely moving and high art. She'd never been able to understand how a person capable of producing such beauty could one day just stop.
She'd moved to New York two years earlier to take a job at an independent film company in SOHO . On her first day, her boss asked her what her dream project would be, and she said, "A new Max Hargreaves."
Her boss laughed dismissively. "Good luck with that one."
She raised her chin; she didn't like being dismissed. From that day forward, she made it her mission to locate Hargreaves. She interviewed his family, combed through newspaper archives and online databases, made calls and sent text messages, emails and Facebook requests. At last, her pursuit paid off. An actor in California named Henry Lime, who'd appeared in that first black-and-white film, wrote in an email, I shouldn't give you this, but here's the number I have.
She started calling and kept on calling. And now here he was, the enigma in person, saying her name.
"I was hoping we could talk."
"Meet me at the Omega Diner on 10th Street."
"Now?" she said, but he'd already hung up.
She hailed a CAB and headed downtown. As she passed through Times Square, the lights danced and jittered, neon pixels ever-hectic, ads and news tickers swiveling into the night.
On 10th Street, things were quieter and darker. The Omega Diner was a holdover from a more bohemian era. Artists and writers used to gather there to debate ideas while nursing endless cups of coffee. Now it had become a relic, a museum of itself, sandwiched between upscale shops and cafés. The booths were cracked green vinyl, and the menu behind the counter hadn't been updated in decades. The single waitress didn't look up when she came in. It was a place out of time, one the city had forgotten.
In the back sat an old man wearing a blue ski jacket, though the weather was warm. Sliding in opposite him, she ordered coffee. The waitress brought him a slice of pie, which he wolfed down, the blueberry filling staining his mouth. Her instincts told her not to rush him. When he finished, he raised the plate and licked it clean of crumbs.
"You're much more beautiful than I expected," he finally said.
"And you look a lot worse than I expected," she answered.
He raised an eyebrow, but didn't seem offended. It was the truth, after all: his eyes were watery, and a grey beard crept down his neck in uneven patches. What had happened to him? His last film had won an Academy Award, although he'd never showed up to collect it, which was the first symptom of his retreat from the world. She remembered something else Henry Lime - who'd played one point of the love triangle in that first movie, the boy who tragically did not get the girl - had written in his email. You may be surprised by what you find, he'd warned her. You may not like it.
"So," Hargreaves said, "tell me what's so important that you
had to badger me with phone calls for weeks."
"I want you to make another film. And I want to produce it."
He grimaced, showing his blueberry-colored teeth. "You and everybody else."
She leaned forward, meeting his gaze. "I'm not everybody else." Up close, his skin was etched with fine red veins that crossed his face like a map of his sorrows over the years. She pressed on into the silence. "I've seen each of your films over and over. And you know what I've decided? That they're all the same film. You tell the same story over and over again, just from different directions."
"What story is that?"
"It's about love," she said. "A boy loses his girl to his best friend. A family in a beautiful house falls apart. A child misses his mother. They're all about searching for a lost love, hoping for its return."
For a long moment, Hargreaves said nothing, and she knew she'd struck a nerve. He stared down at the grimy linoleum, and she wondered if he was crying. But when he glanced up again, his eyes were steely. "If all my movies are the same, why would I need to make another one?"
"Because you still haven't found love yet," she said.
He considered this for a moment, but then shrugged. Raising one finger, he ordered another slice of pie, lemon meringue this time. The waitress brought it over, pouring more coffee for each of them. "Look, I appreciate your interest, but I'm retired. I said everything I have to say."
"Then why are you here?"
"I like pie," he said.
She smiled. They sat together companionably for a moment, drinking their coffee. Around them in the diner were small, middle-of- the-night commotions. A couple in another booth argued softly, the woman's eyes bright with tears. The waitress poured coffee for a man slumped against the counter, trying to wake up or sober up or both. It was just before four in the morning: past parties, before work. The quietest hour in New York. A time for invisible people.
She had to push him, to take a risk. "I think I know what you're scared of," she said. "You know how good your films are, and you're afraid you'll never make anything that good again. So you're hiding. From yourself more than anything."
Without warning, his hand whipped across the table and grasped her wrist, twisting hard. For an old man with battered features, he was strong, and his eyes were not friendly, but furious.
"You think you know what scares me?" he hissed. "You don't know anything."
She wasn't going to let him intimidate her. "Then prove me wrong."
Just as suddenly as he'd latched on, Hargreaves let go and leaned back against the booth. His hands, still on the table, trembled a little. Looking down at them, she saw the truth. Hargreaves had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania, which he'd hated, and had escaped to New York as soon as he could. One reason he'd hated the farm was a childhood accident in a threshing machine, which had injured his right hand, especially his little finger, which had stayed permanently crooked. She knew everything about Hargreaves, including this. The man across from her had elderly, age-spotted hands, but no injuries.
"You aren't him," she said softly. Disappointment coursed through her sharply. All her hard work, those two years of searching, and she was facing an imposter. Someone was playing a joke; someone wanted her to look a fool.
And then a different feeling came over her, one of understanding, and wonder. The man looked different to her now. Underneath the patchy beard, the veiny skin, she could see the strong chin and clear blue gaze of a man who'd once commanded the screen. He'd been handsome, sought-after by women, captured in camera flashes. In his greatest role, the part Hargreaves had given him, he'd played the man every woman hoped for: the sensitive and soulful one, the one who will love you forever, no matter your faults or choices, because to him, you were perfect and always would be.
"You're Henry Lime."
It was a guess, but he flushed, and she knew that she was right.
"You were never in California."
"Why would I be there," he said, gesturing around the Omega Diner, or the WEST VILLAGE, or maybe, more broadly, at New York itself, "when I could be here?"
"And you never knew where Hargreaves was, either."
He shook his head. He slid sideways in the booth, crab-like, preparing to leave.
Now she was the one who reached out and grabbed his wrist.
"Wait," she said.
The sun rose as she made her way home. All around her the city was coming to life, the sky lightening, the first early risers already headed to work, but none of it was as alive as what was inside her. In the diner, at the exact moment her quest had failed, she'd had another idea. She was going to make her own film - about New York and the movies and lost love and uncertain fame, and about Henry Lime, an invisible man desperate to be seen, an actor so keen for a role that he'd impersonate a ghost. As for Max Hargreaves, she'd keep looking. But for now, there were other stories to tell.