From the novel Crossroads Blues
By Israfel Sivad
From the observation deck of The Empire State Building, 86 stories above the teeming mass of humans gawking and mumbling and screaming and shouting and talking and walking and running, the streets and lights of New York City spread like veins and cells, a spiderwebbed body, many-headed like the Hydra, covered in eyes like Mithra, animate in its grandeur, breathing as a spreading amoeba, breeding with itself, consuming the flies, the demons: Beelzebub – their lord, their savior. To one side, the shores of New Jersey are visible. On the other side, Brooklyn spreads out across the East River. Queens is in the distance, one skyscraper rising, phallus-like out of the duplex plane. The flat and pointed roofs of the buildings that, from the ground, rise so high, blocking the sky, encasing their victims in alleys and walkways, lie a multitude of feet below, a mini-metropolis from heaven’s perch. Unlike anywhere else in the city, the sky expands and shines with the radiance of stars, a seeming reflection in the water’s above the firmament. Manhattan’s grid of streets and avenues is a Euclidean map with one imperfection: Broadway, the defect built into the mosque, slices across the mathematical precision, scarring the earth. At the end of the island, the Twin Towers rise, glittering, glorious boxes dwarfing the financial district, a brother and a sister, fraternal lovers giving birth to all that lies beneath, morphing from SoHo and the Village into Midtown’s masculine monument, falling off to the demure Chrysler Building, descending back into Harlem, Washington Heights, and the river that borders the Bronx.
“Do you ever feel like you’re living the skyline?” Michelle asks.
Andrew pauses for a moment to think about her question. He stares out through the grates in the fence that encloses the observation deck, that discourages the suicidal from plunging from the dream of infinity to the reality of quantified concrete below. He’s distracted by a vision of the fall, the wind, the freedom, the thought of death being so close. Milton’s Lucifer. He blinks and looks back at the skyline spreading out all around him. He – in the midst of it all, in one of the anchors – gazes across the gulfs and ridges that have framed the aspirations of so many actors, brokers, musicians, writers, bankers, lawyers, painters, directors, models, entrepreneurs, immigrants from every continent on the globe, dreamers the world over – artists all. “I’m living the skyline right now,” he says.
“Really? Look at it. Are you sure you’re living everything that that horizon promised you before you showed up here?”
The warmth of the alcohol consumed with Charlie in Midtown and with Michelle at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge colors Andrew’s thoughts and feelings. Over the course of the subway ride, while waiting downstairs in line, the mellowness of its glow in his bloodstream has faded, but it has given way to a subtler sort of contentment. He exhales thoughtfully, “Maybe not everything, but pretty close. Think about it. I’ve been here for a year, and today I spent my lunch hour talking to an old friend about being in a show that I wrote, that one of my friends is producing and directing. Over the course of that conversation, I finally figured out how to start my screenplay. Tomorrow, I’m going to begin writing it. I live in a rundown, railroad apartment with a gay actor in one of the hippest neighborhoods in the world. My bedroom window has a perfect view of the same skyline you’re talking about. It’s a little after ten o’clock on a Friday night, and I’ve already been at two bars tonight, talking about things that interest me, putting together a schedule for that same show. And now, here I am, standing mildly drunk on top of the Empire State Building, surrounded by tourists, with you asking me whether or not I’m living my fantasy. Look at the city all around you. This is the skyline. This is my dream.”
Michelle isn’t so sure. Her forehead and eyebrows crease in a way that one of her ex-boyfriend’s found irresistible. She purses her lips and stares through that same grate without the thought of the fall. She feels the swirling presence of the tourists around her filling the landing they’re standing on. She hears the laughs and shouts of playing children excited to reach the heights that, previously, only their fantasies had imagined. She says, “I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I’ve found the skyline, and other times, well, New York is New York, you know.”
“I’m not sure if I do know. What do you mean?”
“Think about the city. No matter what you do, you can never get on top of it. Sure, there are people, who, for a moment, think they might have beaten it, but sure enough, the city will come along and spin their whole world upside down. I guess the skyline means different things to different people.”
“What does it mean to you?”
“Fame. That’s what it meant when I showed up as a little, lost freshman at NYU. I guess it’s never really changed.”
“Well, you never know. You might be becoming that.”
“Fame isn’t so important to me anymore. All I really care about is getting by and having a chance to do the best I can with the things that are important to me.”
“You know, sometimes I wonder who out of all the people I know here is going to wind up famous. Next to me, you’re in the lead, girl.”
Michelle laughs a laugh that ends in a smile that radiates through her face, crawls up her cheeks, creases her eyes, shines an aura that reaches out and tickles the inside of Andrew’s stomach. She spins her head to send her wavy hair tumbling back over her shoulder. With her hair out of the way, her profile is sharp. Framed by the lights in the distance, she’s a poster, an album cover, a frozen moment embodying Andrew’s dreams. She is his skyline. He’s inspired. He says, “Think about it, Michelle. In, what, four days? You’re going to be riding an elevator up in one of those towers to something like the 90th floor…”
“Something like that. Can you imagine what the city will look like from up there?”
“Tell me that’s not living the skyline.”
Michelle’s smile spreads even farther. “Yeah, maybe that is something.”
“You know, I think it’s in Mao II, Don DeLillo says something about the World Trade Center being the hermaphroditic god of the city.” The two pieces – the rook and the bishop – glow in leopard print dress. Off the bishop’s crown, a thousand points of light, Jacob’s ladder, penetrate heaven.
“I can see that. I guess the one with the antenna is the male part?”
“Something like that.”
“A god, huh?”
“It makes sense. If you think about it, ancient people worshipped the gods of the earth, deities that were place-specific. They lived in their cities. There’s definitely something very primal about New York. In the subway, it feels alive to me, and the World Trade Center is kind of like New York’s monument to itself.”
“More so than the Empire State?”
“Well, the World Trade is more directly connected to our mythology.”
“And what’s that?”
“Money.” Andrew smiles contagiously. Michelle is infected. “Our Bible is The Wealth of Nations. Our faceless god: The Invisible Hand. The Twin Towers are our idol. You’ve been in the city long enough to know that.”
Michelle nods. She stops suddenly. She tilts her head to the side. Her eyebrows crease again. Her gaze cuts through the night, slicing the air, dissecting the words hidden in it. “I don’t know,” she says, “The Empire State is an idol – New York’s hard-on. I think a hermaphrodite is a little more than that.”
“In what way?”
“Well, I remember this acid trip when I was a freshman. We went down to the World Trade Center to lie down and stare up at the lights. I can still see its shape kind of stepping out of the night and flying off above me, its foundation seeming to reach out beneath and support me… Anyways. When I was down there, I remember thinking about the same thing you were just talking about, how the city feels kind of alive, especially in the subways, and I remember thinking about how the World Trade Center starts down there underground and winds up going up – God knows how many feet, I don’t, and how many thousands and thousands of people go in and out, underneath, and all around it every day. I could feel it, you know…”
“I can imagine.”
“The electricity was coursing though me. Being down there, for a second, it was like the whole city shot through me. I could feel the souls of ten million people refined into one single point, one place – the forms of those two buildings I was staring at. At that moment, I knew that the energy of those buildings, the mental energy of designing them, the physical energy of building them, the psychic energy that’s contained in them, and the spiritual energy of the dreams directed towards them has made them into something much more than simply the physical shapes that we see. They have a presence that, now that you mention it, must be something like what people felt when they first came to believe in god…” Michelle laughs at the intensity of her monologue. “I don’t know. I guess I was tripping pretty hard, but I’ll be honest, ever since then, anytime I pray, I picture myself praying to the force that I felt surging out of the Twin Towers that night.”
“That’s pretty intense, Michelle. Now you’re making me feel like a real ass for making my joke about capitalism.”
“Yeah. I like the idea of New York’s god being a hermaphrodite, too.”
“It fits the city better than this monstrosity of masculinity that we’re standing on.”
“You don’t think New York’s masculine?”
“Not entirely. London is masculine. Paris is feminine. New York is a hermaphrodite.”
“Some of the most ancient conceptions of God are as a hermaphrodite.”
“As they should still be.”
“I figured you’d want God to be a woman.”
“Because you’re a woman…”
“You forget. Women are more giving than men. I don’t have to own all of God. Only men need that. Besides, if God’s a woman, who would I make love to when I die?”
“You could try angels.”
“Why settle for second best?”
Andrew pauses to think about what Michelle has said. He stares at the curve of her lips. They tremble ever so slightly, as they always do when she’s made a point after a few drinks. He has to agree with her. He nods. He laughs. “I’d expect that from you,” he says.
Looking into Michelle’s eyes, he whispers, “You’re a perfectionist. That’s what’ll make you famous.” Michelle shakes her head proudly. They start walking around the perimeter of the landing, Michelle next to the fence. They walk slowly, gazing out at the expanse of the city as they go.
“Okay, perfectionist. If you could choose the perfect way to die, what would that be?” Andrew asks.
“That’s a pretty morbid question,” Michelle says.
“I know, but you’re the one who wants to make love to God, so just answer it.”
“Do you think about this sort of stuff a lot?”
“Every once in a while,” Andrew laughs. “Answer the question.”
Michelle thinks for a moment. The wind blows her hair. She gives herself a hug. “Nuclear explosion, right in the epicenter.”
“That’s original. Why?”
“So that I can see something that nobody else ever gets to see. The splitting of the atom, and all that… It’s probably the closest any living person ever gets to seeing God, right? That way if there’s no God after I die, I won’t die disappointed. How about you?”
“Ripped apart by wolves.”
“That’s gruesome. Why would you want that?”
“So that I’m fighting to stay alive until the very last minute…”
They pass Brooklyn. They pause for a moment to point out their neighborhood to each other (“Right there. There’s the Williamsburg Bridge. That’s Queens. There’s Brooklyn. That’s right where Greenpoint is.”) They start walking again, brushing shoulders every once in a while, the invisible shields that they have on the streets, the ones that somehow manage to always keep urbanites at a constant distance from their neighbors, disappearing. Andrew cocks his head to the side. He asks, “But who says God would be the best?”
“The best at what?”
“I can’t imagine that anybody could be better.”
“What about the devil?”
“I don’t believe in him.”
“Neither do I, but as long as we’re speaking mythically, if I were you, I’d take Lucifer. Seems to me he’d know a little bit more about the whole thing.”
“Hmmm… You could be right about that. No. Maybe if I was younger – still in my rock star phase – I’d want the devil, but at twenty-four, I’ll take God.”
“Sensuality of course.”
“Lucifer seems extremely sensual.”
“Not the way I see him.”
“Maybe you just don’t know him like I do.”
“All right. Now, you’re scaring me.” Michelle laughs. Along with her, Andrew laughs at himself. They’ve strolled half-way around the building, spun half a rotation atop the unmoved mover at the center of their world, reached the summer solstice of their journey. To their left side, the lights of Times Square, the eternally vigilant, virulent, beating heart of the city that never sleeps, shine the white glow of daylight in night – the sun imprisoned on earth. The monstrous advertisements in the pulsing atrium of capitalism are visible even from their distance.
“Can you imagine what New York would look like after a war,” Michelle says, “The depth of the rubble from all these buildings?”
“It’s mind boggling,” Andrew says.
In front of them, a little to the right, the Chrysler Building, decorated in a pleated skirt of lights, rises to the Empire State’s shoulder.
“See, even Midtown has a feminine part,” Michelle says, nodding at the Chrysler.
Andrew looks. “I never thought of it that way.”
“I guess, if the World Trade Center is New York’s hermaphroditic god, then the Empire State and the Chrysler Building are the city’s king and queen.”
“And the rest of the skyline is pawns.”
“Maybe it’s a giant chess game: Midtown versus Downtown.”
“The spiritual versus the temporal. God’s kingdom versus man’s.”
“You’re taking it too far again.”
“Oh, come on, Michelle. Can’t you see it? The financial district is powered by the faceless god. Midtown is the custodian of the riches. It’s the church and the state lined up to do battle once and for all, to determine who will rule mankind – God or Caesar, papal doctrine or human law, the stock market or hard cash, theoretical economics or practical business? And the war is being fought all across New York City, with the lower classes as cannon fodder – you and me, moving back and forth, captured by opposing sides, sent back to the front with a new suit, a different face, making one wealthier to spite the other until it all spins back around.”
Michelle grabs Andrew’s arm. Her fingers are a shock. Andrew’s excitement rises. She bursts in excitedly, joking, “Maybe it’s not a chess game. Maybe they’re really working together, the hermaphrodite, the king, and the queen. The posture of the game is just an act to keep us from rising up and going to war with both of them.”
“Yes. Yes. The financiers and the entrepreneurs, the church and the state determining our American Dream: a new opiate for the masses. You’re probably right about that. Capitalist scum… ‘They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers. Gonna win, yeah we’re takin over. Come on!’ Worldwide revolution of the proletariat! That’s what I’m calling for, and it’s going to start right here in Gotham, with me and you, Catwoman, robbing the Chase Manhattan Bank in Times Square.”
Michelle shakes her head. “What the hell are you talking about, robbing a bank?”
“The one I’m going to start writing tomorrow. I didn’t tell you about it yet?”
“It’s about this writer – me – who needs to come up with an idea that’s going to sell, so he comes up with an idea about a writer who needs to come up with an idea that’s going to sell so he comes up with a plot for a bank robbery, but as the original writer’s writing the story, he realizes that the robbery could work. So he gets the help of this friend of his who runs a theater company – that’s you – and they enlist the help of a bunch of actors – that’s Michael and Carey for starters – and they do the whole thing like a play, with a stage manager and a director and everybody having their roles. We still need to figure out all those parts, plus how to rob the bank…”
“That’s a really cool idea. I can’t believe you never told me about it before.”
“I wasn’t sure if you’d be in to robbing a bank. Besides, you might steal the plot and take all the money for yourself.”
“Andrew, I don’t write. I direct. Somebody else has to give me the words, and I make sure that people see them right.”
Michelle’s arm is still wrapped around Andrew’s. Her hand is resting on his thin bicep. His face is turned to hers. She’s smiling. Her lips are soft and pliable. Her glassy eyes sparkle with a scintillation of heaven. She blinks. Her eyelashes hold together for a moment and pull apart. Her halo expands to encompass his still liquored brain. It contracts and pulls him down towards her. He closes his eyes. She closes hers and reaches up on tippy-toes.
They know the future, the next moment, perfectly.
Their tingling lips meet. Their mouths open. Their heads spin and lock. Andrew caresses Michelle’s cheek, his palm cupping her chin. Michelle runs her fingers down Andrew’s arm, up his back, nestling the tips into his hair. Their tongues extend to wrap around one another’s, tasting each other’s breath, merging two bodies into one in the simplest, the purest, of pleasurable practices.
Above them, the Empire State blinks. Beyond them, New York glitters. Around them, children laugh and couples nuzzle. Inside of them, a seed shoots out roots planted in the other’s stomach.
Shared, conjoined, they step back, Andrew’s hands resting on Michelle’s arms, Michelle’s fingers at Andrew’s waist. In awe, they gaze into one another’s once familiar, now brand-new eyes.
“How come that’s never happened before?” Andrew asks.
“Because we’ve never been together on top of the Empire State Building before,” Michelle answers.