I rose somewhere near dark. The last rays of sunlight bent around the building and into my eyes as I groggily sat up in bed in the abandoned room that was once the Director's wife's studio. The day's first gulps of air never agree with me, so I started coughing. As consciousness filtered in, the first sense to return was sight -- a blurry mess glad that the light was not so harsh as to upset the headache now in full bloom. The next was smell, the overwhelmingly pungent bouquet of decaying catshit from a litter box that seemed to have been neglected for some time. I rose tentatively, still in the clothes I put on the previous morning and the coughing started in earnest -- a pulminary Vesuvius that rattled my chest and sent hot chunks of phlegm flying from my throat. I put my hand to my head and stumbled out into the light where the Director stepped out to greet me.
"Fuck, you startled us," the Director said. "I didn't know you were still here."
"Yeah, sorry," I rasped. "When you disappeared I just found the nearest horizontal surface and passed out. There was no way I could face the world today."
"Haley said she heard someone coughing, but I thought you were gone, and there's no way someone could have gotten in here."
"Sorry," I said.
"Nah, shit, that's all right," he answered. "I forgot that bed was in there. I'm glad you found a better place to sleep."
I squinted, clearing the groggy hangover sleep out of my head. When I reopened my eyes the headache erupted in earnest. Haley came around, looking tired, but smiling, and gave me a big hug. The Director announced that he was heading out for cigarettes and I asked him to get me a cup of coffee, then asked Haley for some ibuprofen. I downed four of them with cranberry juice, then stepped into the bathroom to clean my teeth. Haley was waiting in the living room, curled into a chair. She was already looking better. Tired, but better. The tears were gone, and though she was still pale, the color was starting to come back just a bit. The Director returned and I grabbed the coffee, lit up a smoke, and let the day begin.
After an hour of conversation and coffee the headache settled down, but it was replaced by nausea. I wasn't ready for anything harder than more coffee and I knew a bit of food would set things right. I excused myself to the Irish Rogue, where the Director told me we'd meet up shortly. I feebly attempted to eat a Shepherd's Pie, but didn't get very far. I ordered food to take back with me, correctly assuming that neither the Director nor Haley had eaten properly all day. I painfully hobbled back to the loft, after drinking a few too many coffees. I got upstairs and complained that I wasn't feeling very steady. Haley ran out to thank me effusively for her bacon cheeseburger and offered me an ativan, which managed to finally set me right. I cleaned up the kitchen, threw out the beer bottles from earlier in the day, and started to feel human again.
Later in the night, I was back in the game, though still living on seltzer water. Haley, the Director, and I were sitting around discussing Christmas. It's a holiday the Director and I despise. Haley was uncertain whether she'd be going to visit family in New Hampshire or stay put, but given her obvious frailty, smart money was against her going anywhere. The Director proposed a proper orphans' Christmas. We'd round up whoever was left in Hell's Kitchen, bring them up to the loft, and have a right drunken blowout, without Christmas music, images of fat men with an unusual affection for children, or that damn infant.
Then the familiar, dreaded chirp of Haley's cel phone went off. The mood flattened as she opened up the box. She read the message. Though her expression changed from the easy weariness of recovery, it was no longer gripped with fear so much as aggravation. The Director got his protective back up. "What the fuck," she said. "He's saying I stole his check book and if I don't call him in five minutes he's gonna call the police." The Director started getting angry and I urged everyone to calm down.
"What should I do," Haley said. Her confidence was slipping, obviously intimidated by the threat.
"Well, the last thing he should do is call the cops," I said.
"The way he's been harassing you," the Director agreed, "all you need to do is show them those text messages and voice mails and he'd be slapped with a harassment charge." It seemed right, but it didn't calm Haley down any. I stood up and again repeated my urge for calm. I lit a cigarette and started pacing, letting the gears in my head come to life and worked towards a solution. Her phone started ringing again, then again, then again, every time the voicemail was reached. The Director told her to turn it off. I paced through the Director's office, regarding the medical cabinets stocked with props and toys, memorabilia from his years of creative endeavor. I stepped out, lighting another cigarette with the butt of my last and handed my phone to Haley. "Dial Deb's number for me," I said, "and let me talk to her." The phone rang through to voicemail and I asked her to call me back.
"Okay," I said, drawing deeply on my cigarette, "we need someone that you both know to call this guy and tell him to knock it off. He needs to be told to quit with the harassing messages, and he needs to be told that calling the police is the last thing he wants to do, based on his own behavior." I took another drag and a delicious thought popped into mind. "Besides," I said, "what the fuck does he think the police are gonna do? Can you imagine being the beat cop answering the phone at the precinct? 'My girlfriend stole my checkbook,'" I whined. "He'd hold the phone out a mile! 'You what? Buddy, we got a fucking transit strike on and you're worried about your checkbook?' Please."
That livened the mood and defused what, really, was tension over a very stupid threat. Blood ran back into Haley's face as the Director picked up the joke and took it home. "Hey, guys, listen to this! Lemme put it on speaker. This guy's girlfriend took his checkbook! Let's get our guys off that homicide, here's a case that really matters!"
I asked Haley to think about who she could call that could mediate the situation and to let me talk to them. After some consideration she arrived at her friend Dylan, whom I'd never met, but who, apparently, was a friend to both of them. I laid out the situation: I didn't know this fellow, but I did know that he's been leaving a steady stream of increasingly threatening messages. It got so bad that we needed to go into the apartment and grab her stuff, because his behavior was such that she was afraid for her safety if she'd have to face him alone. Now, clearly they were both upset, and yes, they needed to talk, but it wasn't going to happen for as long as he kept up this barrage of threatening text messages and harassing phone calls. That behavior wasn't constructive, and wouldn't get either of them closer to resolving what had to be dealt with. Dylan impressed me with his reasonable, logical response, and agreed with my line of thought. He'd call the guy and tell him to lay off. What was good about drafting Dylan for the job is that he seemed far enough removed from the situation that he was able to consider both of their stories, and while Haley didn't get into the really ugly bits, that made him better able to approach it with a mediator's neutrality.
The phone was hung up and we waited. By now I was ready for a scotch, and so was everyone else.
Things weren't looking very good for the transit union. At the end of the second day of the strike, the public patience had run out, and the political heat was picking up. Mayor Bloomberg characterized the strikers as thugs; Governor Pataki condemned their illegal action, citing a law that prohibits transit employees from striking. Fines were piling up: a million dollars a day for the union, two days pay for every day off the job for the individual strikers. To keep the pressure high, a judge summonned Roger Toussaint, the union's president, and other key union leaders to court, hinting that he would find them in contempt of the law and throw them into jail if the union didn't get back to work. While the union had carried out its threat, it was clearly running out of gas. Nobody wanted the headline, "New Yorkers Can't Visit Families At Christmas Because Trains Are Shut Down." Furthermore, no one wanted to suffer the economic fallout of a week before Christmas where no one can spend the money that businesses need. It was clear that something had to break the impasse.
Dylan rang back after most of an hour to report his conversation with the ex. Unfortunately, my phone's a piece of shit, which means that to hear what the other person is saying, it needs to be on speakerphone. So I listened to Dylan's report. He said that he persuaded the ex to knock off the messages, but that in return Haley needed to get in touch with him and explain what was going on. Whether it was a phone call or even an email, it was something she needed to do sooner than later. He insinuated that the messages were being sent to get her attention, to get her to call him, that he felt in the dark. I watched the Director's face go red when this was said. He stormed off into his office and I heard him kick something.
If I was ignorant to the full details of the situation, then Dylan was even moreso. That said, I did not share his sympathy for the ex. He didn't witness the shaking panic of a woman who truly believed she was in serious danger. He didn't see the blood drain from her face every time she saw his name on the caller ID. However, I couldn't hold any of that against him. The Director teases me that I think I'm Mr. Spock with my constant pursuit of calm and logic, but in this moment, listening carefully to the call, I found it hard to disagree with where Dylan was coming from. I would probably have said the same things, if I had known both parties and been only armed with the knowledge he had of the circumstances. What was made clear, above all, was that Haley had to write him, and soon.
Before hanging up, they wished each other well. Dylan offered to be an ear to her as she went forward, but said he would not be the intermediary between them. She had to communicate with him herself. She thanked him profusely for doing what he did and assured him that she wouldn't dream of making him the go-between. She hung up the phone and handed it back to me. I asked if she was okay and she nodded, a hint of tears within her eyes. She closed them, folded her legs beneath her and took a long belt on her scotch. After a deep breath she walked over to the computer to do what had to be done.
The hours crept towards midnight as our sense of time grew more and more tenuous. One of Haley's friends popped by for moral support and was talking to the Director in the living room. I walked past the office and Haley motioned me in. She was distraught, tired, angry, but I couldn't tell whether or not she'd been crying. I sat down beside her at the computer.
"Look at this," she said, motioning towards the screen. "Look at his response to me."
It's not my place to divulge the details of what he said, but I can say that it was petty, venal, and narcissicistic. I understand the mechanics of a breakup, and that one of the first tools to leave the garage is empathy for the former partner. But this thing seemed beyond the pale. I clicked open her original message. It was calm and generous, though stated in no uncertain terms that they were through, and they were through because of what she had to endure in those last weeks with him. She did dance too far around her relationship with the Director, but I wasn't going to tell her so at that moment.
She lit a cigarette and looked at me imploringly. "Why does it have to always be like this," she said. "How come life is always kicking me in the ribs?"
I took her hand and looked her in the eye. "Because that's how life works," I offered, which isn't a very sympathetic thing to say, but is the honest truth. "Because that's the order of things. But you've been through the worst of it. You've been so unbelievably strong this week, Haley, and I can see that you're coming out of it well. You just need to hold onto that strength, and I know you can do it. And you know you've got everyone in this place pulling for you."
"I know," she said. "It's just, I mean, you read what I wrote. Did it deserve that reply?"
"No," I answered. "But he's hurt and he wants to hurt you. The thing is -- and I'm going to say something very cold, and very blunt, but I know you can handle it -- when I read that email, I saw that he didn't care about you, so much as he cared about the idea he had of you. You're not the kind of woman that's gonna whelp puppies and move to the burbs, and that's what he seems to want. You're putting it behind you now, and you just need to stay strong until it's done. I know you can do it."
She closed her eyes and her face darkened with sadness.
"Listen," I said, "forget about this shit. It's all you can think about at this moment, but, Haley, you've got your life in front of you. You're in a place where you're gonna rebuild everything from the ground up. You're gonna live on your terms. Who do you want to be?"
"Who do I want to be," she said. "I want to be under lights. I want to stand up on that stage and make something that matters. I want," she said, her expression brightening, "to be surrounded by creative people doing great things. I want to be a part of the process, see how it all works, contribute something. I want to make great theater. I want to be behind the scenes, figure out how it all ticks, and put the clock in motion. I want to be a voice."
"Okay," I said, "Now tell me, specifically, as specifically as you can, what you want the next year of your life to be. How are you gonna get under those lights? You're gonna move here to Hell's Kitchen, get your own place, then what?"
"I'll get my own place. I'm gonna work with him, and I'm gonna learn everything I can. I'm gonna meet new people, I'm gonna be where I always wanted to be. I'm gonna be behind the scenes. Not some stupid TV studio doing stuff that doesn't matter, but really a part of it. I'm gonna do what I always wanted to do." She paused, then said, "I'm gonna be under those lights."
"All right," I said, "now I want you to close your eyes, and I want you to remember, specifically, everything you just told me." I paused as she put her head down and clamped her eyes shut. "Remember everything you just told me and hold it. Hold it like a medallion. And I want you to hold that medallion close to you, and everytime the shit comes down, whether its a message from your ex, or a bill collector you can't pay, or an asshole at the bar, I want you to pull out that medallion and recognize that they don't matter, because you have this goal, this picture of your life. And on the other side, when you're standing on that soundstage watching how things happen, I want you to pull it out and recognize that you've done it, that you've gotten where you wanted to be and you did it deliberately, through the force of your own will."
Her face was transformed, swelling now with joy as her huge smile burst across her face. She looked at me happily and gave me a strong, lingering hug.
Later that night, before I turned in, the Director and I were standing in the kitchen. He asked about the conversation in his office.
"I gave her a weapon tonight," I said. "But she made it for herself. However it went, I think she's gonna be fine."