It’s an old fashioned kind of a place, a grand hotel although I doubt that it still has those kinds of amenities in this egalitarian day and age. But its lovely, very festive in winter, a gigantic Christmas tree decorated in the lobby, red and gold this year. Oversize boughs of holly and multitudes of poinsettia everywhere, train sets and nutcrackers, every surface lit and decorated.
Except in the little upscale pastry shop in one corner of the lobby. That always looks the same in every season, pretty brass lamps at every table, wooden walls, bent wood chairs with velvet cushions. We have been there many times, both when the kids were little and when we’ve had people visit from out of town, the view on Union Square is beautiful any time of year. We used to take the kids downtown in Winter to see the lights, the menorah, the tree, the skaters, the department store windows and they would get pastries and hot chocolate as a treat afterwards.
I hadn’t been inside there for years but have walked by it many times. Still, I’m not sure why I looked up this time, hurrying as I was to get to BART with my packages before the rush hour kicked in.
As soon as I saw her, I stopped. Pedestrians behind me had to walk around, I was rooted to the ground. She was sitting at the table in the center of front window. My cousin Marise had died a little over a year before, of an overdose they said, probably accidental. Yet there she was, serenely sipping from a beautiful tea cup and gazing out at the Square. Of course, I have had this experience before, of seeing someone who is deceased, I think many people have. I “saw” my father for years after his death but it was always in motion, he would be walking with his back to me, I recognized his camel hair jacket and at first I would pursue him until I got close enough to see that it was someone completely other, just a man in a similar coat, not really like my Dad at all. Other times he would be lost in a crowd and as I approached, he disappeared.
This was different. Marise has/had a very distinct face. She has the rounded cheeks of my Great Aunt, they’re like the Gabor sisters had and that side of the family came from around there. Her eyes were warm and brown, a bit too close together to make her a perfect beauty but she had lovely dark eyebrows and eyelashes to frame them and she was small and graceful, slender. She had a remarkably sweet smile, her small mouth stretching to its limits. I hadn’t seen her in years when I heard she died. She had contracted breast cancer several years before but had seemingly beat it. I did speak with her then and she sounded very upbeat. We used to have huge salads together in West Hollywood when I lived there, it was half-way between my place in Silverlake and hers in Westwood and we would compare horror stories about our craziest relatives, roasting them with what we thought was great wit and yukking it up over our iced tea and eventual gooey desserts. I couldn’t believe that she would kill herself but I knew that she felt more comfortable with pills than the average camper.
And yet here she was, looking pale and elegant as she always did. Her brow serene, as they say. She was wearing more conservative clothes than I had seen her in, a grey-blue print dress with long sleeves, pearl earrings, even a little toque on her perfectly groomed and layered chin-length hair. She looked just as elegant when we had met and she wore jeans and a sweater, she just had that air of calm and beauty about her.
I was staring at her, trying to make the image click back into whoever it actually was but every time I looked away and then back, even every time I blinked, there was Marise. She was just observing the people walking about, with a mildly content look on her face, that face which had always been so responsive and animated.
Without realizing it, I began inching closer and closer. Finally, when I was about six feet away on the diagonal, I screwed up my courage and knocked softly on the glass between us.
She slowly shifted her gaze to me and I looked into those beautiful, familiar eyes. I smiled, I began to tear up, I was about to shout and walk back to the roundabout doors when I saw that she had looked right at me, and then a little past, and then back to where she had been gazing before. It was as if she hadn’t really heard me at all, or as if there had been some other slight noise in that direction. She hadn’t looked through me, she simply hadn’t seen me. It was as if it was I who wasn’t there, instead of her. A ghost? A mirage?
I began to feel the chill of the day through my coat, scarves, gloves.
I picked up my parcels and moved on again, hurrying now and not wanting to look back.