An Instant of Paradise

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IsolationByNeriakBy Gaither Stewart, Senior Editor.

[“Isolation” by Neriak.] [Editorial preface: We live in a time when it seems that most “whites” believe that we have arrived at a “post racial” period. We have not, and particularly in terms of our social institutions we have not. Part of the ongoing racial problem is that “whites” experience one world while those who are not white experience another. Conversations about race are rarely able to bridge that gulf as people, white people in particular, are not even aware that there is a gulf in perception or experience. Social institutions, such as the “criminal justice system,” back and uphold “whites” (and those with economic resources).  This short story by Gaither Stewart demonstrates this reality. It was written at a different time; prompted by a different murder of an unarmed black man by police; but what it presents is still terribly true. This piece holds up a mirror. Such is the power and responsibility of art. The question is can can we see who is in the mirror?]

[F]riday afternoons when Thomas got home at a decent hour he called on the intercom and I went down the hall to their apartment for drinks. Sometimes when he worked late Teresa knocked on my door and asked me to come on down and keep her company. Later we might go out to dinner, the three of us. Or we just talked and listened to music. Sometimes on Saturdays he took his car and we drove down the Jersey shore or up the Hudson Valley or to Connecticut. Once we went out to The Hamptons where they were looking for a vacation house.
We were a threesome that late winter. Our friendship lasted exactly three months. A lucky number, Teresa said of the three of us. The perfect number.

Thomas Milton was an investment banker. After a Masters at Harvard Business School, he’d returned to New York to a major firm and at 32 years old had already made $100 million, or close to it. Thomas was tall, good-looking, charming and Jamaican. His beautiful photo model wife, Teresa, was Dominican, and rich in her own right. The Miltons had just bought and were remodeling a penthouse in a nearby Central Park West apartment building and would soon be moving from the cooperative.

Inevitably we ended up talking about what I was calling in those days the great American divider—the color line. I had just returned after many years abroad. I felt like a foreigner. I wanted to understand. Not that Thomas and Teresa initiated our discussions … they said race didn’t matter. No, it was I, the white liberal expatriate for whom race does matter, who turned everyday conversations into social studies.

Thomas said soon after we met they were black and basta … and that the situation was immutable. I think they were embarrassed at my endless talk about race. He said that anyhow people in general were racists and that’s just the way things are.

Yet with each racial affront encountered, with each new racist attack reported on TV, with each new case of police humiliation, I returned to the attack. Relentless, I forced them to participate. How long, I asked piously, this chasm between whites and blacks? Why the fears? Why the silence? I often asked that winter why race had to change our relationship? Change everything? And deprive me of what I above all needed—their respect.

One evening after a number of cocktails in the sprawling salon of their big 10th floor apartment I asked them point blank what it was like being black here in the city. Thomas, I believe, knew that what I really wanted was to get inside their black skins. I wanted to feel the deepest sense of their blackness. I also wanted to understand how they saw me. In retrospect I wonder if maybe it was about me all the time.

And there was another aspect—despite our friendship I would have wanted to explore the mysteries of Teresa’s sexuality.

But whatever my egotistical needs and fantasies, both of them, for me, were heroes.

“I can’t tell you … I don’t know,” Teresa said recklessly, fingering the long thin bone hanging from a chain around her long neck. “I don’t even feel black. In the Dominican Republic they say that money whitens.” When she flashed her perfect model’s smile, it was easy to forget her color. She always insisted on that—she just didn’t feel black.

Later I remembered how Thomas stared at her in that moment but didn’t so much as acknowledge her words. At length, as if he had considered and decided to reveal a secret, he said in his precise New England accent, “It’s above all lonely. I think that’s it. At least for me. I sometimes just feel lonely in the world. And loneliness is not a rare thing—for blacks. But usually I don’t think about it. I’m too busy … and too rich. But most of us stay busy, at something.”

When he got up and turned down the volume of the stereo and I became aware that we’d been listening to Mozart, I had that involuntary reflex of “you mean they love Mozart?” And inwardly I reddened.

As if reading my mind he added in a bantering tone, “Or we dance and sing and make a lot of noise to forget the solitude. We’re all artists, you know. In no time at all you can go from solitude to desperation to excellence—in something. Dominicans play baseball and Kenyans win all the marathons and blacks are 80% of the NBA, which seems to confirm racist theories that we’re different—they say we have more ‘fast – twitch’ muscle fiber than whites.

“On the other hand, I make lots of money in the white man’s world, which disproves that we’re genetically dumber.”

By then I’d begun to recognize the waves of his irony. His love of beauty and perfection clashed ridiculously with his boasts of noise and song and dance. There on an antique corner table was his Proust, with a multi – colored bookmark protruding. There was his Oscar Wilde. There was his Mozart. And his perfect dry martinis. I saw it almost daily, his search for beauty—in dress, speech, gestures, life style. He hated vulgarity of any kind and I saw his disappointment when things around him proved to be ugly.

“But what do we care, Teresa, baby,” he said. “We’re in our own heaven. Paradise on earth. No one has more than we do. The best of two worlds.”

“Which two worlds?” I asked.

“This New York and … the real world out there.”

He laughed maliciously and poured another round of martinis. “Like Teresa, I too often forget. I mean, people don’t just sit around thinking about what color or what race they are. But at the same time I also forget that whites don’t forget that I’m black…! Do you?”

He slapped his leg and laughed now as if it were a joke on the world.

“No. Well, maybe sometimes,” I said, ashamed of his insinuation.

“Many taxis still pass me up though,” he added.

“Not me,” Teresa said, participating in the joke. “Taxis always stop for me. Even at night.”

“Especially at night I would bet,” I said, looking from her long beautiful legs to her low décolleté, her graceful arms and long slim fingers. She was gorgeous. What did she care about color? It was all in her favor.
Her whole family seemed to have beaten the color line. They were rich and refined. They’d always lived at good Upper West Side addresses since they came to the United States. They all spoke English. They’d always spoken English. Teresa and her younger sister went to the best schools, dressed in high fashion and frequented beautiful people. They didn’t so much beat the color line as rise above it.
Yet Teresa was uneasy. As if out of place too. Thomas said she was just superstitious. “She has a big mouth,” he said, touching her hand and smiling. “She says things are great but she sees bad omens everywhere. She’s so insecure. I’m by nature positive. We’re really living a wonderful American dream.”

“That’s exactly why I’m insecure. The dream! It’s too good. I don’t mind the way white men look at me—like I was a whore because I’m a black model … but it makes me nervous.”

“The crazy thing is,” he said, “our dream is a white dream. We’re above racial suffering. Because we’re rich. We can live here, we can buy an apartment on Central Park West or rent a house in the Hamptons because we’re rich. And also because we can sell ourselves. We charm people.”

It was true. It was not only their wealth. They lived and behaved like white blacks. They didn’t march across the Brooklyn Bridge with black protesters against the “Nazi Mayor.” They were handsome. Chic. Successful. Just as good New Yorkers should be. Even native African Americans mistrusted them. Thomas and Teresa were socially mobile in a way that black sports stars could never be.

Yet they were lonely.

One evening when Teresa kicked us out of their apartment just to be alone—and, Thomas said, to engage in a little sorcery, he and I went out for drinks. There were people in the down elevator. In an instant, as if substantiating what we’d been saying, two well – dressed, middle-aged women looked us over, smiled politely, and tightened their grip on their handbags. Thomas looked at me and grinned.

Another day I was riding with him on the West Side Highway in his new SUV. As we approached the George Washington Bridge, I was admiring the panels and tinkering with the stereo when we heard one short squeal of a siren behind us and saw the flashing lights. After checking carefully his driver license and car papers, the cops wanted to search the car. When Thomas said “no,” one cop said, “OK, come along to the police station.”

“For what?” Thomas asked.

“For going too slow. We clocked you at only 22 miles an hour.”

“OK,” Thomas said, “search the car.”

The car was so new that the cops found only operation manuals, an area road map which the officer examined carefully and, in a leather attaché case laying on the back seat, two apples and a set of family photos.

“OK, I’ll let you go this time,” the cop said, looking gravely at me. “But watch your speed.”

As we drove off, Thomas grinned and said, “Again DWB. Driving while black!”

Late one warm Saturday morning he and I were sitting in front of the lake in Central Park, lazily throwing breadcrumbs to the ducks and watching the kids in the rowboats. Several families and couples were spreading food and gear on the grass for picnics. Whites toward the summit of the rise behind us, blacks nearer the lakefront.

“Always that demarcation,” Thomas the white Black said. “You know, like I was saying, the problem of this century, like last century, is what nobody wants to talk about—race. It’s true, we blacks don’t either. In television they talk about everything—gay rights, single mothers, school reforms, child abuse, gun controls, drugs, and even police controls. But it always stops short of serious talk about race. It’s just too embarrassing!

“But the papers and TV are full of reports about police brutality against blacks!”

“Not every black in New York gets beaten nearly to death like Rodney King. Nor sodomized with a broomstick. They’re the exceptions—the blacks you read about everyday shot down in ambushes, by mistake, out of fear, out of prejudice. Subtler things create the unbridgeable distance between the races.”

“Well, of course good cops are hard to find. Some probably had to choose between being gangsters or policemen.”

“I don’t believe they’re a special category either. Who are those vicious cops anyway? Berserk killers? Or Ku Klux Klanners? Nazis? No! They’re just citizens in uniform. Out there to protect us. Yet they’re our enemy. And they make you wonder about equality. What equality? For whom? is the question.

“Men die on the streets. Men die in the gas chambers. The terrible thing for society is that you never know what you kill when you kill a man.”

On normal Sundays well-informed liberal New Yorkers comment calmly on the sordid Saturday night tragedies among the outcasts and the have-nots up in the Bronx or over in Astoria or out in the hinterlands of New Jersey. We’re so used to them. Tsk tsk, we say over the Sunday morning newscast and The New York Times. We shake our heads in astonishment and disbelief and regret and pity and have another bloody mary, put on Mozart, and discuss the day’s outing in the country.
Then arrives the weekend that changes your life.

It was about 2 a.m. on Saturday night in early spring. I was watching a late-night baseball game from Los Angeles and was rubbing my eyes and reeling from advertising fatigue when several sharp barks, hacking sounds, echoed down the corridor to my door. By the time I realized they were shots, unlatched the door and stepped into the hall, maybe ten seconds had elapsed.

About forty yards down the hall a heavyset man in dark clothes turned toward me, a black object in his hands.

“Get back in there,” he yelled in a hoarse, adrenaline-filled voice. “Go back in your apartment.”

I froze. I didn’t move while his attention shifted back to the open door before him from which emerged another beefy man dressed similarly in nondescript clothes.

“Oh God oh God he’s dead,” the second man shouted in that same excited tone. “Get an ambulance. Quick. He’s dead. We killed him. Maybe her too.”

Other doors were opening. Soon men and women in pajamas, gowns, and robes were standing uneasily in the hall. An elevator door opened near the men with the guns and a startled night concierge stepped out and looked from one of the men to the other.

Only in that moment did I come to realize that it was Thomas’s apartment. What was going on? No one is brave in the face of a gun but they’d said he was dead. Maybe Teresa too. The man was no longer paying attention to me. The other people were gathering closer. I walked down the corridor until I was about ten paces from the man with the gun. I was in shock. Somehow I knew.

“OK, OK, I told you to get back inside. Just stop there.”

“You can’t kill us all,” a woman’s voice said from behind him causing him to whirl around.

“Who are you?” someone else asked.

“Mobsters?” another said.

“Police!” the first man yelled. “Operation Condor.”

“What’s that?”

“Narcotics officers,” the man said more quietly. “Undercover. You people had drug traffickers right here in your building.”

“Operation Condor!” a dark-skinned man nearer me exclaimed. “That was the name of Pinochet’s death squads in Chile. Are you New York police? How can you be called by that name?”

“He had a gun in his hand,” one of the men hollered.

“It looked like a gun,” the other shouted. “He threatened us.”

At the first hearing, the two off-duty police officers of Operation Condor claimed that they’d believed they’d found a high-level drug dealer. They’d had a tip that evening that he was in a Columbus Avenue bar with a beautiful broad. And Thomas was the only black in the lounge. It had to be him. They’d followed him home.

Testimony showed that on that evening the couple had dined at Teresa’s parents on Riverside Drive, after which they’d gone for drinks at their favorite lounge on nearby Columbus Avenue. The Puerto Rican concierge said that Mr. And Mrs. Milton had gotten home at about 1:30 a.m.

According to Teresa’s deposition they were drinking coffee in their kitchen and Thomas was showing her papers on a deal he was working on when the doorbell rang. In one hand his briefcase chock full of charts and documents and in the other a black calculator, he opened the door.

“Drop it!” one of the cops in the corridor shouted at the startled Thomas. “Drop it, now!”

Drop what? Thomas was probably thinking as Teresa ran into the room confusing the cops. Nearly immediately the shots exploded in the corridor.

She was shot up pretty bad. Beautiful Teresa would never again walk the boards of Manhattan fashion shows or pose for the chic model agencies. A nurse at the Presbyterian Hospital told me that a bullet had shattered her left hip. She would be lucky if she learned to walk decently again.

Her parents had told me on the phone that she was badly wounded but I didn’t know how bad until I got to the hospital and saw the results of the destruction of that one bullet.

Before the shooting Teresa was one of those who thought that things in general were ever so much better. If she hardly saw the chasm separating the races, she nonetheless feared some divine intervention that would end their dream. She tried to ignore reality.

“Now I feel like a black,” was the first thing she said to me when I was permitted to see her.

“You look beautiful,” I lied.

“My former beauty! Being rich doesn’t help me here. For doctors and nurses, I’m Dominican—and black. I’m what’s written on that chart at the end of the bed. No more than that. I’m classified. Thomas was right.”

She lay there in a white bed in a white room, her face haggard and drained even of its negritude. Her room looked out toward the river not far away to the west. On a table near the window was a tall vase of yellow flowers. Her favorite color, I remembered, when she lived in sunshine.

“You didn’t really know him … or us,” she said at length. “And you thought I was so independent, so self-sufficient. But no, I always lived in his light. In his warmth. Thomas burned. In a Jamaican sun. He burned … and lived in light. Now it’s over.”

“What’s over? You’re going to be all right. You’ll see.”

“Everything’s over. Happiness. Our paradise. It will never come back.”

“You’ll have it again.”

“Now I know. There’s more pain here than happiness.”

“Teresa, you’ll find your way back.”

“No. Our time ran out. Our paradise ended. I was afraid it couldn’t last. Thomas said I was just superstitious. Mysterious things seemed to threaten us. I was afraid of the pigeons cooing on the roof over us. A bad omen. One of those Dominican fuku’s that mean that someone is going to die. That’s the reason I wanted to move.”

Automatically she stroked the bone amulet she still wore around her thin neck. The way she lifted it in that moment and stared at it with eyes filled with redness reminded me of the sudden illogical fear she showed the day the three of us drove up the Hudson Valley to Bear Mountain. We’d parked around a lake and started out walking. Teresa hung back. She didn’t trust that day. She continually peered upwards at the mysterious stratocumulus clouds rolling around the winter skies and casting strange shards of light earthwards. “He’s up there!” she said. She had a distant look in her eyes. We walked more slowly now, Teresa as reluctant as a mule. At length, she said, “The devil in Carnival always cracks a whip. And he has many horns and piranhas’ teeth.” Thomas took her arm, looked at me, winked, and said, “Come on. Let’s take a little walk in the woods. The three of us.” I didn’t know he was teasing her. I started when she almost shouted, “Are you crazy! Never. We’ve already gone too far. Not one step in those fucking woods.”

On the way home she explained—she was terrified of forests. So unlimited and mysterious, with inside a strange light that is neither day nor night. As a child she’d seen strange visions in that forest light. The black caves and dark castles in the forests, the sudden lakes and cascades, demons everywhere, and you can’t find your way out again. Labyrinths terrified her. The forest, she said, was like destiny—unpredictable, dangerous and terrifying. Who wants to know it?

“Things somehow go on, Teresa,” I said.

“But I don’t want to. They killed Thomas, they killed my walk, they killed me too.” She lay there, for the first time so alone. Sudden solitude. “He said I saw bad omens everywhere. He called me bruja…. But in the end all my sorcery was useless.”

Superstition was her charm, Thomas always said. Their life together was like Cinderella at the ball. If they left too late the beauty around them would vanish. But she didn’t want to lose an instant of paradise. Employing her amulets, her exorcisms, her chicken bones and arcane rites on their balcony, she hung on in fear and trepidation, and in the night she proclaimed that she didn’t feel black. Yet, obsessed by her evil spirits, in her world the demons outnumbered the saints.

She was looking out the window, the look of a cornered animal in her eyes. We were silent while she collected her courage. For the next moments the only sound was the low Latin music coming from a tiny radio on her table and sirens from the streets below.

“There’s a merengue song I sometimes sang to Thomas. Did you know he was studying Spanish … for me? He liked to sing it with me—Buscando visa para un sueño. Searching for a visa to a dream. Searching for a visa, the reason for being, searching for a visa … for no return.”

 

The End

Senior Editor Gaither Stewart serves as Cyrano’s Rome-based correspondent. His latest novel is The Fifth Sun.  His widely acclaimed espionage novels, The Trojan Spy and Lily Pad Roll, focusing on America’s stealth efforts to encircle and dismember Russia, are part of the Europe Trilogy, to be completed in 2015 with the third volume, Time of Exile, currently in preparation by Punto Press. 

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