Tuesday, June 7, 2016

THE TRUE REWARD OF A LIE by Peter Nolan Smith


The flight from Bangkok via Taipei and Anchorage to JFK lasted almost 36 hours. I wished the trip had taken even longer, however we landed on time ending the longest Sunday of my life. The immigration officer asked how long I had been out of the country.

"Seven years." All of it in Thailand.

"Welcome back."

He stamped my passport and I entered the USA without any idea when I might see my wife and daughter again. The 12:05AM Skytrain to Brooklyn carried few passengers, mostly airport workers coming off the late-shift. They spoke my language. This had been my city for 27 years. It should have felt like home.

My friend, Andrew, had promised a soft landing. His Fort Greene brownstone was comfortable. His wife was willing to accept a guest for longer than three days. His daughter was the same age as my daughter. I went to sleep dreaming of rice paddies.

Over the next week I fought off the lingering effects of international jet lag and slowly connected with friends. They bought me lunch and dinner. Several lent money. They had heard about my arrest in Thailand. I didn't say too much about my girlfriend's pregnancy or leaving Angie's mom. I was a hard sell as it was and I needed money for my families.

I visited several galleries with my Jean-Michel Basquiat sketch, except now was not the time to sell anything. Everyone was broke.

April grew warmer with the sun and one afternoon I wandered over to the East Village. I almost rang the bell of my old apartment. Someone else lived there now and I wanted to see the change, but instead I walked down to the basketball courts of Tompkins Square Park.

No one was playing hoop.

My friend JD had said the games died several months after my departure. I stood underneath the baskets. No one in the park knew my name. The East village belonged to the young bankers of Wall Street and I headed down to the F train stop at 1st Avenue.

It was early evening. The sun still had another hour to set. The light glazed everyone with unearthly silver. Couples kissed on the sidewalks. Singles prowled the bars in search of a hook-up. They were young. Life had gone on without me. One person is nothing to a city of millions, especially a ghost of the past.

I was about to enter the subway, when I spotted a familiar face. Thomas was speaking on a cellphone. I decided to wait for him to turn my way, thinking maybe he wouldn't recognize me. Seven years was a long time, although we went back over more than twenty, although we weren't really friends in the beginning.

Thomas was a neighborhood real estate developer and I was a pseudo-intellectual seeking to stop the gentrification of the Lower East Side. Our conversations were more arguments and we almost came to blows over the sale of a 2nd Avenue variety store, whose closure he viewed as progress.

I bought my underwear there.

Afterwards a store opened selling tee-shirts for $30.

Several years later at a Christmas dinner for Ornette Coleman, we pigpiled on a TV News producer extolling the networks’ sense of truth. Thomas said that all TV News was lies. I called it propaganda. We recognized that we weren't that far apart and occasionally met for drinks. I even introduced him to his girlfriend.

I was too poor for Cara's tastes.

Then and even more so now.

Thomas clicked off the cellphone and slipped the mobile into his well-tailored suit. Times were tough in the USA, but he appeared prosperous.

For a second he seemed to look through me, then his eyes lit with recognition.

"Good to see you. When did you return from Thailand?" He took off the imported sunglasses to examine me better. "You have changed. How long has it been?"

"Seven years. How's Cara?" I wondered if they were still together. Her olive-skinned beauty possessed an Iberian love of laughter.

“As lovely and difficult as ever. Up in the country right now. I bought a farmhouse on 250 acres along the Walkill River. My property was the second largest in New Paltz after a New Age commune’s pig farm. She'd love to see you."

"And me her."

"Well then I bought a building on North Moore Street and redid the top three floors. 7200 square-feet. I'm having a house-warming this Thursday. You should come. Is your family with you?"

"No," I explained they were staying behind without mentioning about my deportation.

The story was over for the moment. I was trying to start a new chapter. I showed Thomas a few photos. He casually excused himself by tapping his platinum Pate-Philippe.

"I've got to run, but here's my card. Bring a friend if you like."

"You want me to bring anything?"

"No, just don't be late or else you'll miss the lobster."

Thomas turned just in time to avoid a collision with a beautiful brunette. They knew each other. He didn’t introduce me. They walked away, speaking in whispers. After several steps she started crying and laid her head on Thomas’ shoulder.

It looked bad, but I couldn’t tell Cara about Thomas having a mistress without proof and I tailed them for several blocks.

They entered the brasserie Balthazaar, where the maitre de greeted Thomas like he was the new owner. I could have been jealous of his new loft, high-paying job, house in the country, fiancée, and the tears of his mistress, except I had learned long ago the envy of other people's triumphs was best suited to those who had lost all hope of achieving their own dreams and planned on attending the housewarming with a Maine native's appetite for lobster.

That Thursday Andrew accompanied me across the river from Brooklyn. He was an architect and I thought maybe Thomas could give him work. My house warming gift of a 19th Century iron was out of place in the loft on North Moore Street.

A Clifford Still hung over the river rock fireplace. Tropical flower bouquets sprouted from the corners of the enormous living room. A liveried bartender tended a well-stocked bar, while wild salmon and thin-shell lobster overwhelmed a long table. The display of wealth was well-mannered as the whisper of Cara’s silver sheath gliding across the teakwood floor.

I introduced her to Andrew. She kissed me on both cheeks and fingered the diamond solitaire hanging from the platinum chain around her elegant neck. Thomas had bought the D-Flawless diamond for an engagement ring and she sensed my concern.

“Don’t worry, we’re still engaged and better yet I’ll persuade Thomas to buy me something extra special at Christmas. But enough about diamonds, I want you to meet someone."<

“A friend?” I had offended hundreds of people during my twenty-five years in New York and prayed this introduction wasn't an attempted reconciliation.

“Only time will tell.”

Andrew excused himself, seeing two friends. Manhattan's upper crust was a small world.

Cara led me across the room and unexpectedly introduced the brunette from the other day.

"This is Tatiana. She works in film and I've been telling her all about you."

"Like what?” I feared the worst.

“Your diving off a cliff at Lake Minnewaska.” Tatiana’s accent bespoke good schools.

"I didn't dive, I jumped." The crystalline waters had been irresistible.

"From a hundred feet." My friends tended to exaggerate my stories and I smiled guiltily. "More like fifty feet, but it was high."

"Cara says me you're a writer." Tatiana’s clothes were worth more than my earnings last year.

I spieled out my latest novel’s outline, after which she arched a plucked eyebrow accusingly, "You’ve pitched that story before."

Before I could plead my innocence, Thomas joined us.

"So you two have met."

Tatiana glared in fear Cara and Thomas expected a liaison to birth from this encounter and departed to a gaggle of admirers. Winking conspiratorially Cara left for the kitchen and Thomas asked, "What did you think of Tatiana?"

"She is a goddess, but the other day I thought she was your mistress."

“Mistress?” He sneaked a peep into the kitchen, where his fiancée overlorded the help. "Cara would kill me, if she ever caught me with another woman."

"Why was she crying?"

"She bought her loft at the top of the curve and lost nearly 20% of value with the sub-prime crash. She's fucked like a lot of people."

"Guess we all can't be as lucky as you."

"We make our own luck. Like maybe you and her?”

Tatiana stood in the gentle light of the billiard room. Her devotees were obviously rich.

"She looks like she’s hunting for a millionaire.

"You underestimate what you have to offer."

"Those men drive BMWs to the Hamptons. I'm a penniless failed writer, who sells diamonds for a living." I didn't even mention Mem as an obstacle. She was half a world away.

"When we first met, you didn't care anything about money!"

"That crazy poet might have lost a little of his pride.” I refrained from confessing my setback in Thailand. Desperation didn't sell well in this city.

"I haven't seen any twenty-year olds dive off the cliff at Lake Minnewaska."

"I jumped."

"Dive sounds better."

"But it isn't the truth."

"People want to hear the truth as much as they want to tell it.” Thomas lifted his finger, as if to signal time-out. "You think I got where I am, because I told the truth?"

I examined the luxurious loft.

"Hard work maybe?"

"Shit, hard work is overrated! Maybe that's not true, because you can’t grab the ring, if you’re not in position, but the business, the loft, and the country house all hinged on a lie told in the right place at the right time.” Thomas eyed the distance of the nearest guest. None of them needed to hear what he had to say and I was good at keeping secrets as long as I didn’t drink too much.

“Almost sounds like a deal with the Devil.”

“And I would have taken his offer. Ten years ago I got into a tight spot. I owed the bank $650,000.”

"Ouch!" I was losing sleep over a five-figure debt incurred in Thailand.

"My only asset was that loft on 16th Street worth maybe $450,000. I told the bank I would sell it. They agreed to this deal, because my bankruptcy got them nothing. Unfortunately the best offer was for $650,000."

"Unfortunately?" I earned barely $30,000 last year. Everyone thought that was a fortune in Thailand and it was, until the police turned off my website.

"$650,000 settled my debt, but left me with nothing." He grabbed two champagne glasses from a passing waiter. "I had grown comfortable with the good life, so I decided to not tell the bank about the extra $200,000.”

"The lie?" We clinked glasses and sipped at the champagne. It was vintage.

"Not the important one.” Thomas wagged his finger impatiently. “My beautiful plan fell apart, because the loft board somehow informed the bank about the sale.”

"They demanded why I was giving them $450,000, when the sale was for $650,000." His eyes narrowed, as if he were trying to remember his exact words. "I said that a sale for $450,000 would lower the value of the other lofts in the building and never be approved by the board, so I lied about the $650,000.”

"And they believed you?"

"Yes, I had never lied to them before.” Thomas had done what he had to do. “That $200,000 bought a small property, which I flipped and soon was back in the money. I haven’t told anyone this. Not even Cara."

"So why did you tell me?" Too many grand families in America had sanitized the origins of their wealth, whether it be smuggling of opium, running whiskey or insider trading for me to regard Thomas as a criminal.

"Just so you understand the true reward of lying." He shurgged and said, "I have to see to my other guests."

My opportunities for ill-gained money were petty. No millionairess married a pauper. Career women in New York had little patience for common men and I walked into the billiard room, where Andrew spoke with several agitated men on how to best exact revenge from the perpetrators of banking crisis. A balding man in his fifties ventured with a grim grin, "We should confiscate their yachts."

"Who? The government. They'll only waste it on propping up Wall Street," a tall man in an exquisitely black Italian suit countered with what I deemed to be the voice of reason, until he added, "Better to let everyone fend for themselves."

"We do that and we'll have anarchy within a year." A third man with a frail goatee entered the fray. They had all been watching too much business news and Andrew asked me, "Can you come up with a solution?"

"Yes, have international write-off day. All debts canceled. Nothing belongs to any other than what they hold in their hands." I had written a script about this. HEAVEN ABOVE, which had been rejected by several studios. Now might be a better time for such a tale.

"Anarchy is a solution. Things will be better."

The tall man in the black suit tsked, as if the White House had granted him the concession for selling foreclosed houses in Florida to the Chinese.

"But not this year." Gas would hit $5 this summer. The wars would go on without surrender or victory. I was broke. "So in the meanwhile let's drink champagne. Morituri te salutant."

"Those who are about to die, salute you." Andrew had studied Latin too, but the rest of the men's faces betrayed they thought I was mad and I wandered away onto the terrace to stare at the few stars dotting soft black sky.

None would have been visible, if the Trade Towers were standing.

Someone put on U2's NEW YORK and a lump choked my throat. I had been born in Boston, yet loved this city and cried like a baby, until the paean-turned-dirge was replaced by Joni Mitchell's CARRIE. Something about her high-pitched soprano dispelled my sorrow, though not as much as the sight of Tatiana in the doorway with two champagne glasses.

"I just got something caught in my eyes."

She had the decency to buy my lie.

"There's a lot of that going around and there will for quite some time." She regarded me, almost as if someone had shed a revealing light about me to which I wasn't privy. "I just hope this crisis isn't forever."

"It's not the end of the world," I told my story of giving blood with a madman on 9/11. "If the insane can recover, then so can the sane. It only takes more time."

"How long do you know Thomas?" Her eyes were steely sapphires.

"We go back," I answered, not wanting to reveal my age.

"He thinks a lot of you." She obviously valued his opinion.

"It wasn't always that way. One time we got into an argument."

"Over a girl?"

"No, intrinsic value."

"Intrinsic value?" She frowned with disappointment.

"This old variety store in the East Village sold every necessity. The landlord upped the rent and it was replaced by a tee-shirt shop, which Thomas considered the natural course of economic evolution. I argued that no one had taken into consideration the intrinsic value of what the store gave the neighborhood. It got a little heated and people had to hold us back."

"Over a shop selling tee-shirts?"

"Yeah." Neither the tee-shirt shop nor a Blockbusters had succeeded in the space.

"You are sure it wasn’t over a woman?"

"No." My soul-kissing his ex-girlfriend had been a joke.

"Men are stupid." She sneered, as if her half of the species was the only worthy cause for a fight.

"We were never friends, until I introduced him to Cara. They were meant for each other like Adam and Eve or Romeo and Juliet. I guess that's was my intrinsic value."

"Everyone has some." Her shadowed profile belonged in a museum and I almost reached out to make sure she was flesh, but she moved to the right like a mirage vanishing from a desert road, only she stopped a pace away and said, "I can't stay here any longer. You mind escorting me to a cab? It’s just a cab ride. Nothing else."

"I can deal with nothing else." Her beauty canceled out her heartlessness.

Her suitors couldn’t hide their puzzlement of her departure with me. I had no intention of solving the mystery, for it was never good to question the unexpected, especially if the end result was simply a handshake.

I waved good-bye to Andrew.

I had keys and this was going nowhere.

After all I was a married man.

After the elevator door closed, Cara lovingly embraced Thomas. “I didn't suspect that they would leave together.”

"I sort of cheated."

"You tell her he was the heir to a family fortune?"

"No, I said that he had the biggest____" Thomas whispered the rest of his confession into Cara's ear. She laughed raucously and several of the guests turned their heads with knitted brows of disapproval. Cara couldn't care less about what these gringos thought. "And does he?"

"Maybe." Thomas cocked his head to the side, as if it might be the truth.

"Why would you tell such a lie?"

"Because he looked so lonely without his family and I never repaid him for making me a happy man."

"Really?" Like every woman Cara had heard too many lies to believe a single word said by any man.

"Of course, but I still don't understand why he introduced us. It wasn't like he and I were good friends."

Cara pinched his cheek. "I told him to.”

"Why?" Thomas asked with all ignorance a man can possess about a woman's wiles. Cara could have hurt his feeling, but she really did love him. "Because you had big feet. Big feet, big shoes. Big shoes____”

"I get the picture.” Thomas stared down at his shoes. They didn't seem big.

"Would it have mattered, if they weren't big?"

"Of course not, my love.” They didn’t have to say another word on the subject. Both of them were happy with the way they were and no one could blame them. After all theirs was a perfect world and that was no lie.

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