The light, measured breathing seemed to come from across the living room, carried on the faintest of breezes. Had I left the window open this morning? I know I had opened it to fill the bird feeder, but I was sure I closed it. I lived on the tenth floor. What could have entered from outside and now waited across the room watching me? Was the handyman here fixing something? I called out.
"Phil, is that you?"
No answer. Phil was a kind young man with a rumored sketchy past who always smelled of fresh plaster and paint. Being blind from birth I rely on my hearing and sense of smell for survival, on the street, at work and at home. I listened. The breathing had stopped. I waited and strained to pick it up again. Had it been real, or was it stress induced, as the young team of interns at the Manhattan Eye and Ear Infirmary claimed during my most recent visit? The doctors who had advised my worried parents over fifty years ago were long gone. The new team that was treating my potential hearing loss seemed like mere babes in the wood. Their cavalier attitude was certainly disrespectful. Didn't they realize what hearing loss would do to a man without sight? With that thought, there was a loud knock on the door behind me and a joyful, drunken voice sang out.
"Open the door, Richard. Open the door and let me in!"
It was my across the hall boozer of a neighbor, London, who thought that my being blind meant that I was always in need of company. I said nothing and tried to concentrate on the other presence in the room. Had the breathing really stopped? Had it been there at all? London refused to give up, and in his best, slurred Dean Martin voice, (it was good I admit), he shouted loudly,
"Come on, Richard, open up dat door!"
I had no choice. I opened the door and quickly pulled London inside.
"Look around the room, London what do you see?"
I held him by the linen lapels and felt him lean to the left, then the right, to look past me as he said, "I see a blind, paranoid, old queen who needs a drink!"
I released him and he stumbled past me into the room, headed straight for my bar. I walked the six steps to the window half expecting something to grab at me and snarl. But the window was only open an inch or two, the October Manhattan breeze cooling my fingertips on the sill. Maybe I really was paranoid. Maybe I needed a drink. I gave in.
"London, you are right. I'll have whatever you're having and make mine a double!"
London Frankel was the only gay Jewish alcoholic I had ever met. He was also the only male milliner I knew. Besides teaching to full classes at F.I.T., he ran his own design shop and was always shoving a new creation onto my head for testing purposes. The fact that I couldn't see myself was a big plus for him. He would tug and poke, tilt and scrunch, muttering all the while, then whip the hat off my head and demand that I get gussied up so he could take his "favorite model" to dinner. That night was a little different as he was already drunk and I was scared that there was someone or something hiding in my home. I closed the window tightly and crossed the seven steps needed to arrive at the old leather Eames recliner. The most comfortable chair ever made, in my opinion. As a boy I curled up in it whenever my father was at his painting studio. Both my parents were artists and their crushing disappointment at having a sightless child was not lost on me even as a toddler struggling to make sense of my small dark world.
I listened to London splashing what I suspected was my best vodka over a tumbler of ice and caught the whiff of citrus as he twisted a lemon peel into it.
"You need lemons!" he announced as he placed the stinging cold glass in my hand.
"We'll stop at Fairway for a bag of Meyers after dinner."
There was a long silence as I took my first swallow of the luscious aromatic liquid, and I knew he was examining me closely. Otherwise he would still be talking. I took another mouthful. I heard him place his drink on the glass coffee table.
"Okay, Richard, have you got a bug up your ass about something?"
"Of course not. It's just that right before you came, I could have sworn there was someone or something right here in the room with me. I could hear breathing."
"Oh, for God's sake Richard, have you been listening to late night cable movies?"
I heard him stand and march toward the bedroom as he made an announcement.
"I am now searching the entire apartment for you. Nothing in the bedroom."
His voice got smaller and farther away. I could barely hear him, suddenly he shouted.
"Oh My God!"
I gripped the chair arms and called out.
"What? What is it?"
"How do you keep your closets so neat? You can't even see!"
I drained my vodka rocks, felt my heart pounding and made a decision.
"I can't take this London, I need to go out."
He replied, "There's nothing in the little boy's room either. I'll be right out!"
The bathroom door banged shut. I could hear that plain as day. It was all the other smaller and quieter sounds of life around me that I was so afraid of losing. Going deaf was not an option. I could not let that happen. I had chosen to ignore the signs, until an incident at work brought me unwanted attention. My duties as a simultaneous translator at the U.N. require me to decipher overlapping conversations through headphones and respond in French, Romansh and English. I somehow missed a retort by an angry Alsatian delegate, the room went silent as the entire free world (literally) stopped and likely stared up at me in my glass booth. A Swiss translator came to my rescue and lessened my humiliation somewhat. That was a month ago.
I stood up to find my cashmere topcoat and realized I was still wearing it. London was at my side a moment later, hand on my shoulder.
"How about Cuban/Chinese? Or, we could go to Tony's for calamari salad, my treat."
"I don't care, London, let's just go."
He handed me my cane as I fumbled for my keys. At the elevator London placed his cool palm on my forehead.
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"I honestly don't know."
The elevator door slid open and he gently guided me in.
"Well, we are going to fix it, whatever it is!"
The elevator stopped on the sixth floor where I could smell Mrs. Patterson's old Corgi. London held the door for her to drag the ancient dog inside. Apparently it wasn't Mrs. P. holding the leash. The elevator filled with the smell of the crusty old dog.
"Look who's walking dogs now!" London teased. "Richard, its Phil the painter!"
As far as anyone knew, Phil the painter was straight, but that didn't stop London from nurturing a huge crush on the young man. The wig maker for the Metropolitan Opera who lived on the fourth floor once told me that Phil looked like Saint Matthew from a Caravaggio painting in Rome. That meant nothing to me of course, but I took it to mean that Phil was attractive.
"How on earth do you tolerate that smell?" London asked.
"It beats the smell of the monkey on the twelfth floor. Besides she's a good tipper." Phil replied.
We hit the lobby. I heard Phil's lighter snap open and he lit a cigarette. A "Gitane", the Gypsy Lady. A scent I knew well from the cafeteria at the U.N. The corgi's nails clattered over the marble floor as it dragged Phil outside. We stepped into the crisp evening air and said our goodbyes to Phil.
London mused, "I wonder if those dogs live so long because of those short fucking legs?"
We walked slowly uptown arm in arm and decided on Tony's first, and maybe Cuban/Chinese later. I was certain that others out that evening assumed we were a gay couple getting on in years. Not true. Gay? Yes. Older? Yes. Lovers? No. After a couple of disastrous assignations in my youth, I avoided romance of all kinds. As profligate as London was, he respected my choice and we remained close friends. We walked slowly up Broadway, the street sounds swirling around us. I counted at least four boom boxes producing a mélange of soul music that came and went. A Puerto Rican woman was shouting obscenities that I was sure she would regret in the morning. Car doors slammed. High heels clipped across the sidewalk like a snare drum. With London as my guide I took a deep breath to relax and allowed my mind to wander. Had I really heard something in my apartment? Am I going deaf as the doctors suggested? I only half listened to London's long story about an absurd restroom encounter with Liza Minnelli and we finally arrived at Tony's, welcomed by a blast of warm, garlic scented air as the door swung open. As usual, I could hear the chaos of a hockey game from the TV above the bar. London took my coat and cane and I settled onto a stool as a wave of cheap aftershave rolled down the bar followed by Anthony himself, Tony's dim but decent son. The hockey referee blew his whistle, stopping the action and allowing Anthony time to greet us.
"Don't tell me, let me guess, two calamari salads, two glasses of Pinot Grigio, am I right?"
London replied in his best W.C. Fields voice, "Yes indeed, my boy, just uncork the Pinot and set it here, we are celebrating this evening!"
"Oh yeah? You got a birthday or what?"
London switched to his normal voice and added, "We are celebrating our freedom from things that go bump in the night!"
From the TV the whistle blew and the game resumed. A headache was growing behind my left ear and I realized I was straining too much to hear everything. The breathing I had heard in my apartment seemed so real it was still giving me chills. Would it be there when I got home? I forced the sound from my head as Anthony placed our food before us.
The salads were perfect, just the right texture, with an exquisite balance of garlic, lemon, and oil. I made up my mind to try and enjoy the evening. Just eat, drink and listen to London's jokes and gossip. The bottle of wine was dispatched eventually and I heard the double clink of two plates being placed in front of us.
"Cannoli on the house, gentlemen!"
To Anthony's delight, the Rangers had shut out the Philadelphia Flyers.
While continuing our leisurely pace up Broadway to 96th street, London must have greeted at least a half dozen people. I only knew one. It was Ronald, the tall black man with the crippling speech impediment, on his way to his night shift in the lobby of our building. A year ago while I waited for a taxi to get through heavy snow and pick me up, Ronald had confided a painful piece of his personal history. He had been beaten by his own parents for not speaking clearly. Apparently I was one of the precious few who had little trouble understanding him.
We finally arrived at the diner, but the strong, hot smell of frying oil was more than I could take and we decided to call it a night. We sunk into the back of a roomy Checker cab headed downtown and I recalled the first time I ate alone in that diner. The waiter had whispered in my ear that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were at the next table. The memory made me sad, not because John was gone, but because the waiter was sweet enough to let a blind person in on the thrilling proximity. Sad too was the new worry that I might lose the ability to hear whispered voices but still hear things that didn't really exist.
It had gotten quite a bit colder since we left the apartment and I realized we had both forgotten the lemons. Next time, I decided. London paid the cabbie and took my arm, but I stopped him at the corner to ask a favor.
"London, I need you to humor me for a moment."
"Humor is my middle name, sweetheart!"
"I want you to count up to our floor and look at my living room window."
"From down here?"
"Yes, can you see it?"
He counted slowly out loud like a vaudeville drunk.
"Okay, got it, now what?"
"Is it open or closed?"
"It's closed I think, what's the big fuss? For God's sake, you're not still thinking that Boo Radley is hiding up there are you?"
"No, not really."
"Well then instead of moping about and freezing out here let's go to my place for a cognac!"
The idea actually appealed to me, but I needed to sit down for a few minutes. Once inside, Ronald mumbled a good evening from behind his desk. His tiny transistor radio was playing Johnny Hartman's "Lush Life". In my opinion, he was the loveliest of all the baritone jazz singers. I unbuttoned my coat and settled on the sofa in the overheated lobby. I could hear London's Guccis on the marble floor as he ran and then slid up to the elevator like Gene Kelly, one of his many idols.
"Get up, Richard, the night is young!"
"You go on up, I want to hear the rest of this song."
The elevator door rumbled open and London sang out as it closed.
"Don't be long Toots!"
I lay my cane across my lap and smiled towards Ronald as he turned up the radio, Hartman's deep voice filling the room.
"Romance is mush, stifling those who strive.
I'll live a lush life in some small dive, and there I'll be,
While I rot with the rest of those whose lives are lonely too."
I was feeling better and about to get up when the elevator alarm went off, a shrill, earsplitting clatter. I heard Ronald's shoes scraping quickly toward the elevator and his hand slapping the call buttons. The alarm echoed painfully off the marble floors and walls. I heard him pull open the stairwell door and start pounding up the stairs, his footsteps growing faint as he climbed. The door slammed shut. The alarm blotted out everything. I covered my ears. I realized I was standing. Where was my cane? What was happening? Cold air brushed the back of my neck. Someone had opened the front door.
There was shouting.
"Move, damn it!"
Someone shoved past me, spinning me around and I fell to my knees. I tried to crawl across the lobby and out of harm's way. The alarm stopped. Silence.
What should I do? The cold air swept in again and someone gently spoke my name. The scent of paint reached me before Phil did.
"Richard, its Phil. Here's your cane. You are three steps from the sofa. Let me help you up."
Grateful for the assistance, I nervously asked Phil to sit with me and he did.
"Where is London? Why did the alarm go off?" What's happening?"
"Wait here a minute, I'm going to find out."
I felt Phil rise from the cushion next to me and I held tight to my cane, straining to sense what might be going on. There were several voices all talking at once, and maybe the squawk of a walkie-talkie, but I wasn't sure. The alarm was still echoing deep in my ears. The double glass doors must have been propped open, the cold air filled the lobby. Where on earth was London? Phil returned and put a hand on my right shoulder.
"It looks like the police came to get Mr. Import/Export in 1006 and there was a fight."
"Who? You mean Mr. Beramo?"
"Right, but London kind of got in the way. He's okay, they are bringing him down now."
I stood on very shaky legs and tapped my cane as I walked toward the elevator. I thought I would melt when I heard London's booming W.C. Fields voice.
"Unhand me you ruffians, the night is still young!"
London was in true form, what a relief! I moved a few steps toward his voice and bumped into a gurney. What had happened? London was lying on the gurney and grabbed my hand.
"Fear not, my dear it's merely a flesh wound."
"London, stop joking and tell me what happened!"
I stumbled alongside the gurney as the paramedics rolled London out to the street, still joking.
"Our chariot awaits, Richard, where shall we go?"
One of the paramedics took my arm and helped me up and into the ambulance. I had lost London's hand but found it again. With his touch, my fear of living in silence suddenly lifted. I had no concept of what it was like to see, and my life depended completely on the sounds around me, and if that were taken away, so be it. I could still touch, the most intimate form of contact there is, and I would learn to use it. What else could I do?