Imagine – a short story

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The cab from Newark was magical! The driver could have doubled for Samuel L. Jackson. He politely welcomed us to his city before asking if we minded some music. We grinned in amazement as Bizet filled the air around us. I was like a child, pointing out Shea Stadium and signs for Hoboken and Queens. We held hands tightly as the first skyscrapers loomed. We were here for a week and very much in love.

Emma’s book was selling well back home. This was the second visit to a potential publisher for the American version. There was another reason but Emma didn’t know it yet. I had a plan. I could see different versions in my mind but they all ended with me on one knee and Emma throwing her arms around me and saying yes!

It was early on Saturday evening when we checked into the W. After a quick shower we launched ourselves into the bustle and headed for Times Square. The late summer sunshine had given way to a hot and sticky evening. We strolled for an hour or two, arm in arm around the biggest film set in the world. Tourists smiling and pointing, locals going somewhere quickly. It was intoxicating, everywhere buzzed and fizzed with exciting possibilities. Was this the place to ask my question? We gazed at the giant screen towering over our heads. I took a deep breath and pulled Emma closer. My heart was pounding. I had rehearsed this a thousand times. I looked down, straight into those beautiful, sparkling eyes.
‘Food! I must have food and a very large drink now or I will expire!’
I have to say, this threw me, but she had a point. I must have visibly deflated.
‘Are you OK?’
‘Yes, great, just hungry. Come on, let’s find somewhere.’

We headed east with a vague idea of finding a restaurant from the guidebook. As the streets grew quieter we turned a corner and there it was. A tiny Italian with a dozen tables – perfect! The waiter gestured at the full tables and shrugged. A swift handshake and I was five dollars lighter but the proud owner of the table in the corner.

‘What happened there?’ asked Emma, delighted with our new vantage point.
‘Just a bit of good old-fashioned corruption. It’s amazing what you pick up from films.’

In seconds the waiter flourished menus, martinis, water and bread. The very second that our choice was made he was back to take the order. Whether it was the infectious atmosphere or the second bottle of Chianti I’m not sure, but the evening passed in a blur of animated conversation. We were excited about the book and the endless possibilities it offered. We talked about the future, the past, our families. Emma put her hand on mine.

‘I love you so very much’ she said, just slightly slurred. I leaned across the table and kissed her. She giggled and stared deep into my eyes. Go for it! I cleared my throat nervously; pulse quickening again.
‘You know I love you too. In fact I …..’
‘Oh my god! I think that’s Billy Joel!’
‘At the booth in the back. No, don’t look now. Yes it is. Look now, quick.’

I half turned in my seat just as the waiter arrived and blocked the view. He and Emma had what seemed like an endless conversation about desserts before she settled on just coffee. I nodded that I would have the same. I composed myself and tried again.

‘As I was saying.’
‘Sorry darling, I need the loo. Back in a tick.’

As Emma disappeared through the door at the back the candle flickered and gave up. I knew how it felt! I slumped in my seat. This was not as easy as I thought it would be. Besides, what if she said no? That could put a real dampener on the week. Maybe we should be a bit more sober before I ask her? Emma returned as the coffee was being poured. She looked extremely pleased with herself but didn’t speak until the waiter left.

‘Look what I’ve got.’

She was clutching a napkin in her hands. Turning it, she showed me one corner. I stared at the scrawl before my eyes focused properly. “To my dear friends Emma and Fran. Keep the faith, Love Billy Joel.” My jaw dropped.

‘You didn’t?’
‘Not just like that. The woman he was with came into the ladies. We got chatting so I asked her. She asked him et voila!’

She smiled and waved towards the back of the room. I turned in time to see her new friend wave back.

‘And it gets better! Look at this.’
She pointed to the other corner of the napkin, which had the name and address of the restaurant printed on. Sure enough we were on Fifty Second Street – one of my favourite songs by the man himself. This triggered the game of coming up with song titles based on a theme. Me first.

‘Forty Ninth Street bridge song’
‘Walking on Madison.’
‘Good one, Chelsea morning.’
‘Cheat, that’s in London.’
‘There’s one hear as well.’

We paid the bill and stumbled out into the night, still laughing and trying to think of song titles. The debate about whether Emma could have China Girl on the basis that there was a China town took us all the way back to the hotel. A couple of drinks in the bar ensured that we voted Sunday to be a day of rest rather than doing the tourist thing.

The day dawned warm, sunny and just a little hungover. We ventured north and west. Our trusted guidebook told us to ‘do brunch’ and even told us where to do it! Emma demolished the largest pile of pancakes and syrup I had seen. I was rewarded by the best scrambled eggs I had ever tasted. A gallon each of orange juice coffee and we were ready to face the world again. We strolled the half block to Central Park. We sat on a bench to consult the guidebook before deciding to just wander in a generally anti-clockwise loop. It wasn’t long before Emma gripped my hand tightly.

‘This is where Dustin Hoffman runs in Marathon Man’ she said excitedly. I knew what was coming. I was top dog at song titles but when it came to films there would be only one winner.
‘Come on then. Films made here!’
‘Marathon Man.’
‘You can’t have that, I just said it.’
‘Yes, but that was before we started.’
‘Cheat. OK. One Fine Day.’
‘What was that?’
‘Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney. Come on, stop playing for time.’
‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’
‘Barefoot in the park.’
‘When Harry met Sally.’
‘Sleepless in Seatle.’
‘Sneaky one! ‘


Again this kept us going longer than it should before I gave in and demanded ice cream. Emma wanted to see Strawberry Fields. Five minutes later we were sitting on a bench next to the “Imagine” memorial with ice cream round our mouths! We sat and watched the squirrels. I put my arm around Emma’s shoulders and she rested her head against my arm. We talked about how peaceful the garden was and what we were doing when we heard that Lennon had been killed; how we should live for today and always do what you really want to do. Then it was so obvious! This is where I should propose. Again the quickening heart rate, the sweaty palms. I started into my speech about owing it to ourselves to be happy. I was on quite a roll! I swivelled on the bench, ready to drop to one knee. ‘Take picture please!’

‘Of course. Fran you do it, I’m useless at taking pictures.’
The Japanese teenager smiled and bowed, handing me the tiny camera.
‘But. I was….’

It was no good of course. He was already proudly standing to attention with his girlfriend next to the mosaic. I stood on the bench to make sure I got the word ‘Imagine’ in the shot. My new friend was very happy as I handed back the camera, but Emma suddenly wanted to be artistic director.
‘Why not lie down on the sign and take the shot from above?’
‘Please?’ enquired the puzzled teenager.
Emma demonstrated.
‘Aah! Please!’
The excited couple dropped to the pavement, chattering in Japanese. Emma began to stand.
‘You too please!’
‘OK, you’re on.’
So, instead of becoming the happiest man in the world, here I was, perched on a bench trying to take a picture of my intended lying on the floor with a couple of Japanese teenagers. After several poses, bowing and handshaking they disappeared towards the tee shirt stall and I prepared myself to start again.
‘Come on Fran, I need the loo.’
I gave in!

Late on Sunday evening I hatched a plan. I hadn’t considered buying an engagement ring but the film game triggered a mad romantic impulse! I managed to convince Emma that she should buy a new outfit for her meeting on Tuesday. If you’d met Emma you would know that this was not difficult! We agreed to spend the whole of Monday afternoon on separate shopping expeditions and meet back at the hotel for dinner.
She kissed me before launching herself into Bloomingdales. I watched her disappear into the throng before scurrying towards Fifth Avenue and Tiffany’s. It was too late to eat breakfast outside but there were plenty of diamonds inside. I made a quick circuit of the imposing ground floor, before homing in on my prey. Fifteen minutes later I needed a stiff drink! A whole month’s salary was now sitting in a tiny box. I said a quiet prayer that it would fit before hurrying to the nearest bar.

As Emma’s meeting was scheduled for breakfast time the following morning we decided on a quiet meal in the hotel and an early night. After dinner, she insisted on modelling the new suit that occupied one of several expensive looking bags. I lay on the bed flicking through the TV channels as Emma changed in the bathroom.

‘You look fantastic,’ I smiled as she emerged. She did her best catwalk pose and twirl.
‘Do you think I look like a successful international author?’
‘I think you look incredible.’ My pulse quickened slightly as she looked at me.
‘What about this?’
She slipped off the jacket and unbuttoned the white silk shirt. Pulse through the roof!
‘Fantastic, but make sure that if you do that tomorrow you get a good deal!’
‘Don’t worry, this is for your eyes only.’

I clicked off the TV as she dropped to the bed and kissed my neck. Making love to Emma was better than anything I had ever known in my life but this was another level, deeper, more intense. This was the waves crashing on the beach, fireworks, orchestra, the whole bit. We collapsed on the bed, my arms around Emma’s shoulders, her head on my chest. As our breathing returned to normal, I stretched out my left arm and quietly slid open the bedside drawer. My fingers closed around the tiny black case. I kissed the top of her head, breathing in the gentle perfume.

‘The last year has been incredible, the best of my life.’
‘It just keeps getting better, even this week. We never stop laughing, our careers are flying, it’s all perfect. It’s so perfect; I never want it to end. I want to be with you for the rest of my life. I want us to have little Emmas and little Frans. I want to sit on a beach when we’re eighty and make stupid lists of songs and films. I want to wake up every morning and watch you sleeping. I want to hold your hand when it thunders. I’ll even get rid of spiders from the bath – unless they’re really big, you’ll still have to deal with them obviously. What I’m trying to say Emma is; will you marry me?’

No reply. Had I blown it? I gently brushed the hair away from Emma’s face. It was then that I realised she was fast asleep. Had she heard anything of what I had been saying? I watched her sleep for almost half an hour before gently dropping the ring back into the drawer. I would try again tomorrow, once the meeting was out of the way. I flicked off the light and fell into a deep sleep.

We arrived at the editor’s office at 7.25 for a “power breakfast meeting”. Emma was wearing the new suit with an equally new and expensive yellow raincoat draped over her arm. The meeting would last a couple of hours. I was to be given a grand tour of the offices before being settled with coffee and newspapers. As Emma was ushered into the office she turned to me.
‘Wish me luck!’
‘You don’t need luck. Knock ‘em dead.’ I kissed her and she was gone.

She was on the 92nd floor when the first plane hit. No trace has ever been found. It’s like she was never there. That’s why I keep hoping and walking the streets of lower Manhattan. Maybe she got out and lost her memory. It happens, so they say. Who ‘they’ are I’m not sure. I’m not sure of anything any more. I wander from street to street, building to building. Searching but not finding. A bright yellow coat glimpsed on a street corner; a flash of blonde entering the subway. I chase after her of course. ‘Emma, wait. It’s me!’ Then she’s gone.
Only yesterday, afternoon rush hour, I spotted her on the Brooklyn Bridge. I pushed through the crowds and caught her arm. At least I thought I did. The wrong woman stared straight through me as if I wasn’t there like only a stranger in a big city can.

It’s getting cold now. I pull the collar of my jacket up, useless against the icy wind, but still I keep walking. I head north through the maze of crowded streets towards Bowery. That’s the thing about this city – people. There are always crowds of people. Here it’s mainly office workers wrapped up warm and heading for home. I pass bars crowded with young professionals. Some are brightly lit and vibrant, others dark and smoky. All look inviting. We’ll go for a drink later tonight I tell myself. I’ll find her and we’ll sit in a bar with a big window seat and I’ll tell her all my news and she’ll get her memory back and we’ll laugh and hold on to each other and make plans and talk about babies and football and music and where we want to go tomorrow and we’ll get drunk, very drunk and she’ll have a cry and tell me how she’s glad that we’re back together and I’ll laugh and tell her I nearly stopped looking.

I push on through Union Square and onto Broadway. Emma loves the theatre, the lights and the excitement. That’s where she’ll be. My step quickens in time with my heartbeat. I pass the Flatiron and think of the time we took photographs here all that time ago. I count the blocks as I go; twelve to Macy’s. The hours we had spent in there or rather Emma had. I would leave her to it and grab a coffee, content to watch the world go by. Now there’s no contentment, just the numbing cold.

Ten more blocks and I’m crossing 42nd Street and into Times Square. No matter how many times I take this route, I’m always amazed by this place. Just like that first time, I stand in the shadows and look up. Everywhere bright, dancing neon, huge screens that scream ‘sell, sell, sell’. Of course there are people. Everywhere people. The theatres are starting to empty like streams into a river. The river swirls and drains into the subway. I join the torrent, scanning faces, walking against the tide. Time after time I plunge back in. Each yellow coat dashes my hopes, each blonde swirling and sinking.

Eventually the flood subsides and becomes a trickle. It is 4 am. I begin the long walk back to where it started. By six I am searching the streets of the financial district. Every few minutes I check my pocket. The ring is still there. I just need to find her and tell her everything I said in the hotel while she slept. Then I can rest. We can both rest, together. There was nothing I could do; I know that. You see I was on the 91st floor. There was a thump and a tearing noise. I started to fall through dust. Then it was quiet. I remember sitting in the road. There were people running everywhere, sirens, dust and debris. Nobody saw me. I just sat and watched, clutching the ring. When it got dark I stood and walked away. I started my search for Emma. I’m still searching.

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