A PLACE OF SHADOWS
© 2019 Paula Robinson Rossouw
Catherine took an unsteady step back onto the pavement.
She thought about putting on her coat, but it was heavy with rain. Dirt marked the white wool where she had covered the woman lying in the road. The right lapel and shoulder were streaked with the stranger’s blood.
Catherine tilted her umbrella to shield herself from curious eyes and made her way through the crowd that still lingered, even though the ambulance was long gone. All she wanted was to blend back into the multitude of umbrellas battling an unseasonal October wind on Central Park South, to be just another New Yorker in the evening rush hour. She shivered in her thin black cocktail dress and fell in step with the throng.
Her cell phone rang, and this time she answered.
“Catherine! Where are you?” The French accent was stronger than usual, a sure sign that he was irate.
“A woman got hit by a car, Serge.”
“And you stopped to look.”
“I stopped to help. It was terrible—”
“A nice glass of Champagne and you’ll be fine, chérie.” The line went dead.
A few minutes later, Catherine saw Serge at the top of the Plaza’s red carpeted steps, arms rigid, his upper body tilted forward. She waved to him. He responded with upturned palms and an expression that she knew only too well. She tensed and put her hand to her hair. Its wetness surprised her. She twisted her coat inside out—its hem dragging through a puddle—ran the last few feet of pavement and up the stairs, rising on tiptoe to kiss him on the lips.
Serge’s style, like everything that he did, was carefully measured to achieve maximum effect. Tonight, it was a midnight-blue tailored suit that accentuated his stature, a pristine white shirt and the golden yellow of Catherine’s favourite tie. The one that she’d often tugged at in expectation, feeling its silky knot beneath fingers clumsy with haste.
“You look terrible!” Hostility coiled in the brown of his eyes. “What happened to your coat?” He grabbed it from her. “I gave this to you. Look at it. It’s ruined!”
“The woman— ”
“Always the bleeding heart, aren’t you, chérie? I hope she appreciated it.” Serge took Catherine’s elbow and led her through the revolving door. “We’re in the Champagne Bar. I’m expecting my client at any moment. How long will it take you to get cleaned up?” He didn’t wait for an answer but crossed the foyer and tossed the coat at a bellman. “Get rid of this!”
The young man looked flummoxed, and Catherine hurried over to reclaim it.
The Plaza felt odd to her tonight, like a sweater pulled on back-to-front. She passed the bustling Palm Court and tried to think of happier times. Of afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches and the sound of her mother’s laugh rising above the piano. Of her first bite into a petit four and the unexpected bitterness of the dark chocolate glaze that had made her face pucker. She could almost hear her mother’s voice, “Don’t finish it if you don’t like it, sweetheart.” But Catherine had sat on the edge of the big chair, her feet dangling midair and, between nibbles of the pastry, had licked the sweetness of the orange flower perched on top. Her father had patted her head. “That’s my girl, Katie!”
Catherine went into the ladies’ room and stopped short. The young woman staring back at her from the mirror didn’t look anything like the elegant one who’d left the art gallery two hours ago. Long blonde hair clung in wet clumps to a pale face. Mascara streaked the cheeks below blue eyes.
I look like I was the one who got hit by that car.
The woman who'd lain inert in the road hadn’t resembled a victim at all. She’d reminded Catherine of a princess from The Arabian Nights asleep in the imaginary softness of a bed, her dark hair fanning out on a asphalt pillow.
Catherine’s first impression of the woman was a flash of shimmering purple fabric—the colour of African violets in full bloom—billowing around slim legs as their owner bolted across Catherine’s path, jostling her umbrella.
Seconds later, a man running after the woman almost collided with Catherine.
A horn blared. Someone cried out. There was a dull thud.
As Catherine stepped off the curb, she saw the man bending over the purple coat lying limp over legs curled up in the foetal position.
“Someone call 911!” he yelled.
The driver was shouting to him that he hadn’t seen the woman. That she’d run out in front of him. That he’d tried to stop. Catherine had to press her phone to her ear to hear the emergency operator’s questions.
The man yanked off his suit jacket and the left cuff snagged on his watch. He ripped at it, turning the sleeve inside-out, and covered the woman tenderly. His shirt was drenched and clung to his torso as if he’d been out in the rain for quite some time.
Catherine took off her coat and crouched down beside them. “Take this. It’s dry—” Her breath caught in her throat as he lifted his jacket. The woman’s hands were resting protectively around the vast swell of her belly and her knees were drawn up as if to safeguard her unborn child. As Catherine tucked her coat’s hem around a bare foot, she noticed a shoe lying a few feet away in the road.
“The ambulance will be here soon,” she said with a calm that she didn’t feel. She held her umbrella over the couple, the ground cold and hard against her knees.
The man wiped rain from the woman’s cheeks. His fingers were long like a pianist’s and he had a well-worn platinum band on his ring finger. His right hand moved in a slow circular motion over the bulge beneath Catherine’s coat. He leaned over his wife and spoke to her in an accent that Catherine couldn’t place. It was American, but with the singsong lilt of another land. The wind snatched away most of his words, but the few that Catherine caught made her blink back tears and look away. The crowd pressed closer.
The pealing ring of an old-fashioned telephone grew steadily in volume. It took Catherine a few seconds to realise that it was her phone in the pocket of the coat draped over the woman. The man didn’t seem to notice.
The sound of a siren rose in the distance and the his head jerked up. His eyes fixed Catherine’s for a second. Everything around her seemed to blur, grow suddenly hushed.
The man looked away again and the effect vanished.
The siren was drawing closer.
The man leaned over his wife and Catherine thought that he was about to lift her in his arms, but he laid his cheek against hers and closed his eyes. He didn’t open them, even when the paramedics came alongside with a stretcher. Catherine touched his shoulder tentatively. His muscles tensed.
“Let them help her.”
He slid backwards as far as the car’s front tyre. Catherine held the umbrella over him, the rain trickling down the back of her neck. He answered the paramedics’ questions in monosyllables. Each time they blocked his view, he shifted his position so that he could still see his wife. Catherine studied his face as if she were about to paint it. The strong jawline, the laughter lines around the eyes, the way the mouth—
His head hit the umbrella as he jumped up, knocking it out of Catherine’s hand. The paramedics were wheeling the stretcher towards the ambulance and he almost ran into them as they eased it into the cramped interior. He leapt in after it and one of the men tried to stop him.
“You can’t come. You’ll have to—”
“I’m not leaving her,” his tone was menacing. He knelt down and felt underneath the blanket for her hand.
A police officer was called over to help. He seemed on the point of climbing in and strong-arming the man out when Catherine suggested getting a taxi instead. The officer went to hail one. When he returned, the man still refused to budge.
“You can follow the ambulance to the hospital,” Catherine called.
He turned at the sound of her voice and his eyes focused on something behind her. He looked down at his wife again and bent to kiss her forehead.
“Don’t let anything happen to her,” he said to the paramedics.
Catherine had to run to keep pace with his strides, her arm stretched high to hold the umbrella over him.
“Don’t forget this.” She pushed his jacket through the taxi door as he was pulling it shut behind him.
The siren filled the air and the taxi lurched forward. Catherine watched the two vehicles disappear down the street and turn the corner. She stood in the rain with her coat in one hand and her umbrella held to one side, as if still sheltering him. Her limbs felt weak and her right arm was shaking. She lowered the umbrella. An officer was speaking to her, but she found it difficult to focus on his questions.
Elias Jones’s hands gripped the backrest of the taxi’s front seat. He didn’t take his eyes off the ambulance as it weaved its way through the traffic.
“Come on,” he muttered under his breath each time it slowed or stopped.
As they pulled up to Lennox Hill Hospital’s emergency room, he threw a wad of bills on the seat by the driver. He was out of the taxi before it came to a stop, leaving the door swinging open.
In his hurry to complete the forms that the receptionist handed him, words merged into each other as he read them. He scribbled, his handwriting straying below lines and out of boxes. He jerked the health insurance card from his wallet, spilling coins onto the countertop as he did. He left them there.
When his name was called, Elias tripped over someone’s outstretched leg as he crossed the room. A nurse informed him that his wife was in the O.R. She led him down corridors that all looked alike, turning left and right until he lost track of where they were.
A woman ran towards them with a screaming toddler in her arms.
A low wail came from a room as they passed an abandoned stretcher with a brown patch of blood on its wrinkled sheet.
Elias lowered his eyes and kept them fixed on the shiny floors.
“You can wait in here,” the nurse said as she opened a door to a small, windowless room with a large box of tissues set on a table between two rows of chairs. “It may be a while.”
The room felt hot and airless. Elias dropped his jacket on one of the chairs and sat on the edge of the seat. His body ached all over. He got up again and began to pace. He heard footsteps approaching down the corridor and the sound of a conversation. He watched the door, but the voices faded. He went back to pacing.
He could see Selma running, glancing back at him over her shoulder with tears in her eyes. Her long legs moving gracefully away from him. Her purple coat flapping in the wind. The red soles of her shoes as she was lifted from the ground and thrown through the air.
No! His arms reached out to catch her. No!
The squeak and whine of wheels on linoleum made Elias stop pacing. A foreign woman was speaking. He opened the door and looked out. An old man with a bald head and tubes trailing from his arms was being wheeled past. He imagined Selma in the old man’s place, covered in a thin blue cotton blanket, being rushed down corridors under bright lights, to a sharp knife.
Elias let the door glide shut. He rested his forehead against it and took a deep breath. He could smell Lysol. He sat down and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyelids.
Don’t think of her like that. Remember how she was.
Catherine wiped the mascara from her cheeks, blew her nose and pulled her hair into a makeshift bun without looking in the ladies’ room mirror.
“You know how important this evening is for me,” Serge had said this morning as he slid the bed sheet slowly from her body. “I need you to look the part.”
The liquid black line that she drew above her lashes wavered, an artist’s reluctance to paint over an existing canvas. She reapplied lipstick. Vermillion red, the colour that Serge liked best on her. She adjusted the straps of her dress and tugged at its hemline.
At the door, Catherine bumped into a housekeeper carrying an armful of towels. The woman dropped one and it unrolled in a splay of white. Catherine bent to pick it up. It was still warm from the dryer. She held onto it for a second before handing it back then walked briskly in the direction of the Champagne Bar.
She reminded herself of Serge’s words, “You’re my greatest asset, chérie. You put men at ease. I swear they invest more with me because of your charm over dinner.” But, as Catherine crossed the foyer, she pictured the evening ahead. It stretched out like the tedium of Miss Phelps’s classes, the art teacher at college who’d insisted that painting left handed would make Catherine a better artist.
At the doors to the hotel lobby, Catherine paused. Someone gave a forced laugh in the bar. Others joined in. She tried to remember the greeting in Farsi that she’d learnt for Serge’s new client from Paris. When it didn’t come, she searched for something light and amusing to say instead for her entrance. The man was a high-net-worth individual looking to invest in the US markets. Amongst other businesses, he ran an exclusive members’ club in Paris, although Serge hadn’t shared the details. They’d been introduced a few weeks ago by Serge’s business partner in the film production company he co-owned in France.
Maybe they won’t discuss investment opportunities all evening. Perhaps this client will talk about Paris, Catherine thought hopefully.
A man came through the lobby door and held it open for Catherine. The sound of laughter from the bar was loud now.
“Are you going in?” he asked.
“No. But thank you.”
It had occurred to her that, at some strategic point over dinner, Serge was bound to interject his story of driving past an old lady at a bus stop in the rain, taking her home and carrying her groceries up five steep flights of stairs. “Catherine and I both have a tendency to get sidetracked by these things,” he would segue to Catherine’s late arrival and look at her, expecting an elaborate account of the accident.
She bit down on her bottom lip at the thought.
I don’t want to be your soubrette. Not this evening, Serge.
Catherine switched off her phone, crossed the foyer to the revolving door and ran down the red carpeted steps.
✧ ✧ ✧
The moment Catherine walked into the emergency room, she regretted her decision to go to the hospital. The receptionist shuffled paperwork as Catherine made a halting request for information about the victim of the Central Park South traffic accident.
“Name?” The woman didn’t look up.
“Are you a family member?”
“No. But I helped her husb—”
“We only give out information to family.” The receptionist rolled her chair slightly to the right. “Next! Can I help you?” She was addressing someone wheezing heavily behind Catherine. “Yes, you. Step aside, Miss. This is the E.R. Not a news desk.”
Uncertain of what to do next, Catherine headed back towards the sliding doors. A wave of exhaustion came over her. She slumped down on the far end of a row of seats, away from the cluster of people waiting to be treated.
Maybe I should stay. Just for a little while. In case he comes out.
She closed her eyes and pictured herself by a hospital bed reading out loud, her voice competing with the persistent sounds of hospital machinery.
The light is so bright. Fierce like the sun in the desert, but without its intense heat. I don’t want to open my eyes. I’m not sure that I can.
There are voices all around me, although it’s difficult to make out what they’re saying. The words are muffled as if spoken through masks.
The constant clatter of metal on metal is jarring. Footsteps come and go.
Music is playing in the background. Aretha Franklin. Chain of Fools.
I want to ask where I am, but my lips won’t move. The question stays trapped in my throat. The smell of rubbing alcohol makes me think of Mama cleaning my grazed knees when I was little and handing me a homemade Date Maamoul to stop my crying. What I wouldn’t give for its creamy sweetness now. My strength is ebbing. I want to sleep.
“What are you doing?” A man’s voice. Loud and reproachful.
A woman apologises.
Is that Elias? No, it’s not his voice. But it reminds me of him shouting; “Selma! Where are you going?” so loud that it rose above the traffic and the rain. I ran faster, my feet swollen in my shoes, my toes pressing against the leather of their pointed tips. My right shoulder brushed against something soft and pliable. An umbrella. I had the briefest impression of a white coat and a woman. It was like running through a pocket of warm air by the sea on a cool day. But my feet kept moving. Then something hard slammed into my left side. Perhaps I’m lying in the road now. And that’s a car stereo playing Aretha. But who are all these people, and what are they doing? Where’s Elias?
Somewhere off to my right, an alarm is going off.
For a second, another sound rises above the others. It’s like a cat crying. No, not a cat. A baby. My baby girl! I want to hold her. To look into her face. To feel the softness of her skin against mine. I rise. But I’m not standing. I’m floating. Several feet above an operating table. Masked figures are rushing an incubator through automated blue doors. I lunge forward. I can’t lose another baby.
“Clear!” The man’s voice shouts.
Something yanks me backwards like a taut rubber band being snapped. I am motionless on the table once more. Powerless to reach my child. It takes all of my strength to rise again. To follow her, arms outstretched.
But I get lost. There’s a sound in my ears like the ocean’s roar. I am running. Barefoot this time in a hospital gown.
The snapping sensation happens again and I am back in the operating theatre with people working frantically over me. There is blood everywhere. Several alarms are going off. I have to get away from here. From this noise and stench.
“Elias!” I yell.
The scene melts like a mirage and I am in a small room, standing over my husband, calling his name. But he doesn’t look up. His face is in his hands.
I sit on the chair next to him. “Elias, they’ve taken our daughter away. I can’t find her. Help me, please.”
I put my hand on his back. It is the oddest sensation. I’m suddenly inside Elias’s head, following his train of thought. He is not here in this room with me, but drifting back in time. He’s leaning on a yacht’s handrail, watching the sun sinking into the Mediterranean without a cloud for company. He glances over his shoulder and sees me in a dress of crimson chiffon arguing with a man about the just cause of the Palestinians. A saxophone strikes up a light note on the top deck and white gloved waiters with trays of hors d’oeuvres and Champagne weave their way amongst the guests.
“Elias!” I try to shake his shoulders now. “What good does this do? Thinking about the night we met when we must find our daughter!”
But nothing brings him back. I stroke his hair, mesmerised by his memories. It is strange to witness everything unfolding from his point of view—so different to my own recollection of that evening. I allow myself to drift with him for a while.
© 2019 Paula Robinson Rossouw