nyc travelogue: a gathering of angels

I meet M. outside of the department store he now manages. A huge, gleaming three-story building. He leads me inside, all high ceilings and showrooms. Chandeliers. On every table, a bowl of decorative spheres. He chats with his staff easily and they clearly adore him. It is so good to see him so much at ease. 

Before arriving, I call him on my way down 3rd Avenue, to warn him. “I am terribly hot and grimy. And I’m not dressed for anything too fancy.”

“Oh please, you know me. We’re not doing anything fancy.”

“Well, and I want to be able to hug you - it’s been a decade after all - but I need to warn you that I’m kind of gross.”

He laughs. “See you soon.”

He looks exactly like he did ten years ago, except perhaps for a little gray in his beard. He lets me hug him, grime and all. 

He’s picked out a spot a couple blocks away - a nondescript bar with a pool table in the back. The air conditioning blasts us as we enter. We sit side by side at the bar, order beers. 

We talk about high school and the friends we had in common. Go through the list of names and provide updates where we have them. One, a dermatologist with a private practice in Connecticut. One moved to Atlanta after his divorce. Another, still in Boston, teaching philosophy. 

We order buffalo wings and waffle fries.

And of course, we talk about S. 

A long battle with cystic fibrosis left S. fragile by her twenties, and after a double-lung, living donor transplant surgery, we lost her. She was 28.

M. tells me this story:

There was this fundraiser her family had, for some of the costs of all the medical bills and the surgery, especially. Up in Rye, I think. This was right before she was leaving for that hospital. We came back in a cab together from the train station. When we were on the sidewalk, I leaned in to hug her. She was leaving the next day for California. 

He puts down his beer, rubs his temples with his fingers. Outside, the sky has darkened, and then opens suddenly, and now people are rushing around, ducking under awnings, holding shopping bags up over their heads against the downpour.  

As I went over to hug her, I saw this flash of light out of the corner of my eye. I looked away for a second, and then back at her, and I swear to god. I swear to god, when I looked back at her, there was this halo - this glowing ring of light - right over her head. 

We are both crying now, tipsy and tired, and we’re wiping at our eyes with the backs of our hands. Plates of food arrive and we reach over them for napkins. 

I can’t believe she’s gone. She’s been gone so long. Where did all that time go?

It’s still raining hard. We drink more beer and we eat for a moment in silence. 

He asks me about the kids, about M. I ask about his partner and their new apartment. 

By the time we run out of things to say, the rain has stopped. He walks me to my car. We hug and I wonder briefly if there is any configuration of light hovering above us. I look up, but only see the gray concrete of the parking lot.