The gaunt 26 year old was busking on the main concourse of the Grand Central Station; the cheerful notes of his trombone caressing the spirits of the urban warriors. Harry, on his way home, paused midstride, arrested by this pale waiflike beauty. The busker’s tight blond ponytail emphasized his narrow face; cheeks bellowing rhythmically. His eyes were clenched shut as if he could not bear to look upon the heartless world - the world his thick lips were blowing away. Harry tapped his fingers on an imaginary table, as was his wont when scheming.
The riff concluded, Nikolai wearily opened his eyes and almost immediately caught a beaming Harry striding purposefully towards him.
“That was intense,” Harry gushed as he came close, never breaking eye contact. He pulled out a tenner and held it in front of Nikolai.
Another prick, making a prank video for Youtube, thought Nikolai. Still, he gingerly reached out, half expecting the note to be withdrawn at the last second. It wasn’t.
“Thank you,” he mumbled, being habitually wary of over-friendly suits.
“I’m Harry,” he said extending his hand.
Harry placed the accent somewhere in Eastern Europe. “I’m having a party this Friday. I would like you to come and play.”
Harry had a way of leaning in when talking and the way he stressed the word Play, sent Nikolai’s mind racing. He shimmied up his sagging trousers with one hand. The belt was already at the last notch.
“What kind of party?” he said, retreating just a wee bit.
“Oh, you know. People from work. Celebrating a win. Nothing too crazy.”
Nikolai shifted his weight to the other leg as he pondered what else to ask.
“What do I get?”
“Listen, let’s do coffee tomorrow and discuss. Here’s my card. Send me a Whatsapp.” He thrust a card in Nikolai’s hand and was gone.
Nikolai waited a few seconds and then pulled out the ten-dollar bill to examine it. It looked reassuringly worn. Then the card. Harry Leibowitz. Attorney at Law. Rosenthal & Caplan.
They exchanged messages and agreed to meet at 4pm, the following day, at a cafe, just off Bryant Park. Nikolai was there thirty minutes early. It would be awkward to go inside and not order anything, so he just shuffled on the sidewalk till it was almost time. Harry waltzed in at 4.14, grinning, wearing a sharp navy suit. He was in his early 30s, tall, dapper, with a full head of dark hair. Square jaw, smile on demand and a deep gravelly voice. He was a solid 8 out of 10, perhaps even worthy of an 8.5.
“Did you order yet?” he said pulling out the chair across from Nikolai, without a sign of apology.
But Harry was already waving to get the attention of the waitress.
“So where are you from? What do you do? Tell me.” The smile never left his face.
“Romania. I came to study. Philosophy and History,” came the staccato response.
“Ohh okay. I thought you were a musician.”
“I play in a band, to pay for college,” he said diffidently.
Their drinks arrived. An Americano for Harry and a Lemongrass-Ginger Infusion for Nikolai. While waiting for Harry, Nikolai had studied the menu in great detail and was captivated by this exotic tea. It was more expensive than the coffees. Just then Harry’s phone rang and he turned away to answer it. Nikolai caught snippets of it.
“Yeaah. Slot the schmuck for tomorrow afternoon. Hmm. WHY on earth would you do that? You’d better be. No, leave that on my desk. If Mr Caplan calls...Ohhh. What did you tell him? Good. I’ll be there in 10.”
Just as well, since Nikolai couldn’t think of any small talk. He was more fascinated with the swirling ginger flecks in his tea, dancing to an inaudible tune, different from the tippy tap of Harry’s fingers. When Harry resurfaced, the smile was gone.
“Two hours, two hundred bucks and an uber home. Deal?” he declared, easing out of the chair.
“I’ll WhatsApp you the address,” he said, dropping a twenty on the table and turning to walk away.
Abruptly he turned back, compressed his lips, squinted and said, “Ummmmm. And wear a clean shirt.”
Nikolai relaxed when Harry was gone. He was thrilled. Two hundred dollars would be very handy. Quick mental math told him that after the tip, he could still squeeze out enough for a sandwich, from the change on the twenty. He could now properly savour the tea.
Friday rolled around and Nikolai rang the bell at the posh Upper East Side apartment at 6pm. The party was to start at 6.30pm. The door was opened by a slender brunette in a simple black dress, wearing a smile like sunshine. She did not have a head-turning variety of good looks but a warm pleasing aura, like a cookie and a hug on a winter night.
“You must be Nikolai,” she gleamed, pointing absentmindedly at the trombone case.
“Uhh yes. Sorry. Am I...too early?”
“Noooo, not at all. Please come in. I’m Sara Caplan, Harry’s girlfriend. He’s told me all about you.”
Nikolai followed her in silence. The apartment was dimly lit and smelled of leather and lilies. The back wall was all glass and he was entranced by the twinkling lights of the Upper West Side across Central Park.
“You can set up yourself in that corner. Hope that is okay.”
She disappeared somewhere as Nikolai unpacked and then returned a few minutes later.
“Harry’s delayed at work but he should be here soon. Would you like something to eat? Come, come try my quiche. Tell me how it is.”
In the bright kitchen light, Nikolai saw she wore no make-up. She didn’t need to.
“This is very good. Thank you,” he said, while still chewing the first bite.
“Really? I’m so glad you like it. It is my mother’s recipe. Harry doesn’t like quiche much.”
Sara buzzed around the kitchen with practised efficiency, organizing platters of canapes while Nikolai ate heartily. She was about to lift a big heaped casserole when Nikolai leapt up. “Let me get that.”
“Oh you are so kind,” she said touching his shoulder.
He placed it in the hot oven for her. Then she made tea for both of them and they chatted, sitting on the kitchen bar stools. Talking to her was effortless. She had a charming way of throwing her head back when she laughed, her wavy hair dancing around her neck.
“What’s your full name?”
“Nikolai Garfunkel,” he smiled sheepishly.
“Noooo. Seriously? Are you like...related?” Sara’s eyes dilated with delight.
“Well he’s of Romanian origin too but I don’t think we are related. In old German, Garfunkel means diamond, so I guess our ancestors must’ve cut or polished some stones.”
“Isn’t that something! I must tell Daddy. He knows many artists.”
"Is he a musician too?"
"He was a pianist and a good one too but had to give it up for law school. He now runs a law firm. He's the Caplan of Rosenthal & Caplan."
“What about you? Do you play any instrument?"
“Badly, yes.” She rolled her eyes. “I learnt the clarinet when I was young but I’ve always wanted to play the trombone. My mother was an accomplished trombonist.” Her voice trailed off as she stared blankly at her hands.
"She was?" said Nikolai softly
Sara sighed, "We lost her to breast cancer. I was still in high school."
"Oh, I'm so, so sorry Sara. I didn't mean to..."
"No, I know. But, someday I plan to take trombone lessons," she said trying to dispel the awkward heaviness.
“Do you. Want to try, now?” he asked hesitatingly.
Her face lit up, “I shouldn’t, should I?”
“I have a spare unused mouthpiece. Still in the wrapping.”
Just then the doorbell rang. Sara thrust her lower lip out in mock conspiratorial sadness, patted his hand and tore away to open the door. The first of the guests had arrived. Nikolai took his spot and opened with, ‘How deep is your love’ by the Bee Gees. As the evening wore on, the crowd swelled. Some of them clapped for the first couple of songs but then they got busy in their animated conversations. Sara floated around the room, from group to group, like a butterfly, checking on everyone. At the conclusion of each song, no matter where she was in the room, she would turn to Nikolai, raise her hands and clap gently. Nikolai would shyly nod back and mouth a silent thank you.
Harry burst on the scene around 8pm, back-slapping and high-fiving the guests as he walked through, with his big Hollywood grin. He winked an acknowledgement in Nikolai’s direction as he undid his necktie. He kissed Sara a hello and whispered something in her ear. Nikolai saw her deflate and retreat into the bedroom, only to emerge a few minutes later wearing a bracelet and a crimson lipstick.
Later, as Nikolai took a short break, Sara came up to him with a mug, her spark missing.
“Here’s some mint tea for you,” she said kindly.
“Ohh, Thank you. You didn’t have to. I’ve brought my water.”
She smiled and turned to leave. “Is there a song I can play for you?”
It took her by surprise. “No. I don’t. Or hang on. Can you do Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’?”
Nikolai smiled, “I know I can do that on the piano but I’ll give it a shot, for you.”
Colour returned to her cheeks and Nikolai launched into it with tremendous gusto, eyes clenched, swaying to the beat. Conversations froze and people turned to look. Some started tapping their feet while Harry tapped his fingers as he observed Sara gazing at Nikolai. He chuckled inwardly.
Nikolai had been playing for nearly two and a half hours when Harry marched up, waving two hundred dollar bills. Nikolai saw him but continued playing. Harry rolled the notes and thrust them in Nikolai’s jacket pocket.
“You are better than I thought. And nice shirt by the way”
Then he called out to Sara, “Honey, Nikolai is leaving. Please call him an Uber. I can’t find my phone.”
Sara dutifully appeared with her phone while Harry fiddled with the music system, to replace Nikolai.
“I’ve packed some quiche for you to take and some apple strudel. You must tell me how it is.”
“I already know it will be delicious,” he said, looking into her eyes.
Sara smiled shyly and handed him her phone. “Here, you can enter your address.”
“And you can take my number, just in case the ride doesn’t show up,” she added.
While pretending to peruse the music compilations, Harry surveyed their reflection in the glass panel.
This was going better than expected. The tiresome bleeding heart seemed really enamoured with the tramp. Give it a few weeks and she'll want to break up with me.
“Patience! Patience, Harry boy,” he muttered to himself. “You’ll still make partner, without disappointing the boss.”