Barney’s first out-of-body experience came when he jumped into the public fountain in the middle of Lincoln Center. Lydia the sorceress smiled at the edge of the sequinned waters. It was seven days before Christmas, and the new cold weather was making the serpentine living around New York’s upper west side streets more acute and more immediate.
Barney and Lydia had just come out of a production of “The Nutcracker” at the New York State Theater. The two formed a geometric bond in virgin-wool winter coats with the same subtle zigzag hemming. But the wool whose announced duty was to keep Barney warm was now instead freezing him with renegade fountain water.
Stepping boldly through the water, Barney kicked up droplets that went into half-lives as flying sequins before softening back into the ground. He didn’t stop kicking water even as a New York City police officer came up.
“Sir. Out of that fountain, sir.”
“Yes sir,” said Barney. He untied one shoe after another and threw them both out of the water before he got out of the fountain himself.
“You cannot do this in a public fountain.”
“I am sorry, sir. I will never do this again, sir.”
“You cannot do this.”
“I understand this, sir. I cannot do this again, sir. But if you look at where I am pointing, there is a beautiful woman standing near us that makes me do all sorts of strange things so that she will now always remember me.”
The officer looked at Lydia the sorceress, who smiled at the policeman and waved a hand up to him. The policeman waved a hand back, and he looked at his hand as if it were acting on its own. Then the officer looked into Barney’s eyes to see what kind of brain lay behind those stupid brown irises.
“The beautiful woman will leave you,” said the officer, “if this is the best you can do for her.”
“I know that, sir. I will try to do more sane, more impressive and yet more imaginative things for the beautiful woman in the future.”
The police officer nodded as if that was all he wanted from Barney. Then he walked away.
“Woe,” said Lydia.
“Why did you do this? Jumping into the fountain like this.”
“I wanted to do something that would help tag this Nutcracker day as a remembrance,”
“So you think I’m going to remember this day now that you’ve decorated it all up like this?”
“I hope so, Lydia. Because I don’t want to jump into this fountain again.”
As Barney found his soaking shoes, and pulled them onto his wretched feet, it occurred to him that he had never jumped into a public fountain for a woman. In fact, he had never jumped into anything for anyone.
Barney and Lydia had first met less than a year from that day at an assortment dinner party for single people at an Upper West Side apartment. The assortment included an invitation to Barney, the bank loan officer and one to Lydia the physician’s assistant who worked in a Bronx Hospital’s emergency room. The party was built around a five course dinner, with all the courses being slowly distributed so that each of the ten guests – divided into five single women and five single men – would have plenty of time to talk and get to know each other.
From the very beginning, Barney was watching Lydia because he was fascinated by her looks. It wasn’t just that she was good looking, although there was plenty of that on her. She was twenty-six years old, and she was borrowing all the youth that God lent 26-year-olds with maximum effect. She was greatly blond and healthy looking, with strong cheekbones and even white teeth that proclaimed a smile that had seen things New Yorkers usually don’t look at. Barney began to see there were many beaches and ocean water in that smile.
Then, when she spoke at length for the first time, he was grabbed by the world of a Bronx Hospital emergency room. Lydia’s hospital was located near Fort Apache, the police precinct area that was so rife with shootings that it had earned a reputation in Hollywood action movies. Lydia had treated a man that day who was shot in the chest, and because there was so much to work with this guy, she held his heart and squeezed its beating life song to keep him pulsating through the exploratory surgery.
Barney was chewing on something as he heard this crisis in the ER. It was an oyster he was chewing, which was very much now resembling a little heart. He found himself just masticating this sea bug with a cardiac tempo as Lydia talked onwards. He spent the rest of the party making up things about himself that might make Lydia think about him as he was thinking about her. Then, when the party broke at about midnight, he asked if he could escort her home.
Lydia said that he could take her home, yes.
She lived in a three-story walk-up apartment on the Upper East Side off the East River. They had taken a taxi through Central Park to get there. At her door, he bowed to her, feeling that it would help her remember him. He spent the day at his bank mostly thinking things about her.
He had tried to make their first date as casual as possible. The Dance Theater of Harlem had been awarded a Broadway theater to stage a world premiere ballet, and Barney had acquired two tickets from a broker at three times the box-office seat price. On the phone, he told Lydia that a principal of the company had left him the tickets. She sounded as if she believed it.
At the ballet, the skin and the legs of the corps made him think about Lydia without clothes on. This idea was practically overwhelming to him. He silently counted to one thousand so that he might breathe as he usually did, one inhale and one exhale at a time.
Because time was then moving so quickly in New York, six months had passed like six days. The time was filled with outstanding performing arts and semi-dark dinners in bistros over linen tablecloths. At one of these dinners Lydia revealed that while she changed from a girl into a woman growing up in California. she had worked as a lifeguard. Barney took a long drink to put as much thought into his next question as possible.
Then he asked: “Did you save anyone’s life?”
“Several,” she said.
He took another long drink to keep himself from reacting too sharply. In fact, he was such a poor swimmer he could not swim the length of most pools, except little bunny pools. Barney didn’t blame himself for that, because his mother couldn’t even swim that far. He blamed everything that he didn’t succeed in on his mother’s lack of an example.
But even if he couldn’t swim, he had prided himself on taking sailplane lessons, and not everyone could stomach a flight in the air without any engine or fuel, as if the vehicle were a giant paper airplane. He started to write a letter about this to Lydia, that she was a fish, but he was a bird. Somehow, though, when he finished the letter, it looked too manic to send to any decent human being.
He decided to prove that he was like a bird in front of her. Their next date was to be in Lakewood, New Jersey, the home of one of America’s oldest skydiving schools. The content of the date would be him making his first jump out of a plane, while Lydia would sit up with the pilot, watching him jump out.
The school was very traditionalist and safe. While other schools were already allowing beginners to experience long free falls in new jumps called the “tandem” and the “accelerated freefall,” the Lakewood school was holding back and simply offering the military-style “static line” jump. This is where a static line on the plane would pull open the novice’s chute as soon as he jumped out, making the leap a no brainer.
At his training, Barney began to fear that he would change his mind about jumping at the last second, with the hatch door opened in from of him, his legs dangling over the hatch, and everyone in the plane including Lydia watching him
“I want you to make sure I jump out of that plane,” he told his trainer.
“I don’t do that,” said the trainer, and then he looked into Barney’s eyes. “Unless the student specifically tells me to do that.”
“I am specifically telling you to do that,” said Barney, locking into the guy’s eyes.
The flight up was all rockiness and noise. Barney was squatted on the stripped fuselage floor of the old DC-3 with four other jumpers. Lydia sat with the pilot, and she was smiling back at him with that clean white smile she must have shared with people she had saved when she was a lifeguard.
Barney was so terrified that he insisted that he be the first to jump out of the plane, so that he could just get the terror over with before he could change his mind. But to show a little bravado in front of Lydia, he patted the boot of a younger jumper who was next behind him, a gesture meant to show encouragement to a younger man.
Then the trainer patted Barney’s butt, the signal for Barney to crawl to the open hatch.
“Be aggressive,” the guy yelled, because the noise was overwhelming.
“Watch me,” he shouted to Lydia through the noise.
The fall from the plane was the strangest episode Barney had ever endured. At once, all the color of the world was taken away from him. The scenery was replaced with a gray monotone that sped by him on all sides. There was no feeling of falling, but instead he felt he felt was dashing sideways, going like a jet.
The parachute opened and seemed to pull him up like a mother cat pulling up her kitten by its furry neck. Two handles dangled down to him, and then he remembered these were his steering toggles, that he would have to pull until he straightened himself out before his landing target.
At first he wanted to pull his tennis shoes off with his hands, but the toggles were so bonded to him that he finally kicked one shoe after another off with his alternate foot, and the shoes fell 3,000 feet.
“What are you doing now?” said the jumpmaster watching him from the ground, over his radio. “Why are you kicking your shoes off?”
“Just the shoes,” said Barney, as if anyone could hear him. “That was for Lydia to remember this.”
When he landed, the ground practically killed his unshorn feet, and the jumpmaster’s shouting at him almost killed his ears.
“You could have broken both feet,” the guy said. “You should have broken both feet.”
When Barney caught up with Lydia, he had not found his shoes, so he hopped from one foot to the other. “Remember when I kicked my shoes up in that fountain?” he asked her.
“How could I forget?”
“Good,” said Barney. He knew he would remember her just doing nothing but watching.
His brief sensation of skydiving – it only lasted three or four seconds before the parachute opened – gave him a sense of buoyancy that stayed with him, even as he walked around the streets of New York days later. With this new buoyancy, he decided one day to just walk in on Lydia at her apartment on one of her days off with a gift for her. He had not done that ever before.
When he buzzed her apartment, her voice came down to him on the intercom in a unique questioning form: “Yes?”
“It’s Barney,” he said. “I thought I’d surprise you.”
“Barney. I have company.”
“I’m being just a messenger today, with an exquisite gift for you from Barney, the Barney who does well with company.”
She buzzed him inside without comment.
When he knocked on her door, she opened up in shorts that were too short and little child’s feet that were too bright and shining. Behind her stood a young man in jeans, T-shirt and wearing only socks.
“What is that you’ve got?” she said.
“It’s a little fish tank I got for you, with a very live trout in it from Balducci’s.”
“Is it a pet?”
“No. You fish it out and eat it like a fish. You’re a fish, and I’m a bird.”
“Barney, this is Phil. Phil works at the ER with me.”
Barney’s noticed that Phil’s dark brown hair was severely ruffled. Then he noticed that Lydia’s light blond hair was just as ruffled, as if they had put their heads in the same ruffling machine.
“Sorry to have interrupted you,” said Barney, turning away.
“Not at all,” said Lydia. “Thank you for the trout.”
As Barney walked away on the party streets of the Upper East Side, he decided that Lydia was above all a physical woman, and that she would surely find physical commiseration with a man with whom she shared crucial physical tasks in the ER. In contrast, Barney was not very physical with her at all.
This was because even on the surface, the emergency-room and lifeguard world that Lydia represented was so overwhelming that he was yet hesitant to go below the surface of that world. He was afraid of being too overwhelmed by her.
He kept walking up and down Lexington and Third Avenue until he could form a new idea about Lydia. Pretty soon he decided that only the armor of traditional marriage could gird him with the protection he felt he needed to emerge into a physical relationship with her.
For his proposal, he chose a fish restaurant named Oskar’s on the Upper East Side. There were three advantages to inviting her to a fish restaurant for this development. He often thought of Lydia as a fish, a kind of mermaid wearing an OR gown in her hospital, and he thought he was bringing her into her element at Oskar’s. Also fish had a religious connotation for Barney, to give him strength. Finally, Barney liked to eat fish, especially bass in a good basil sauce.
He ordered his cocktail with a clam juice mix, a couple of clams on the half shell and the cold bass with the house sauce. He was so fished up that his words with Lydia’s circled around each other like two goldfish in an aquarium. Even this he blamed on Lydia, that she was finally using her sorceress powers to convert him from being a bird into a fish, as Circe had changed the soldiers of Odysseus into pigs just to play with him.
“Lydia, I would like you to marry me. Would you marry me?”
At these words – which came out of nowhere, with nothing leading to them – Lydia choked on her drink.
“You are very eccentric, Barney.”
“But I’m only eccentric around you.”
“Well?” she said.
“I’m really very conservative at the bank. It’s only you who makes me wacky, jumping into fountains and out of planes.”
“You are too allergic to me. I’m a bad perfume for you”
“No. It’s because you are such a sorceress putting your spell on me.”
“Obviously marrying me puts you at risk.”
“It’s an interesting way of saying no, Lydia.”
They didn’t talk again about anything important for the rest of the dinner. When they got outside, Barney suggested they walk off the dinner up Lexington Avenue before getting into a cab.
As they walked, the convoys of cabs on Lexington Avenue lit them up with perennial pairs of lamps perched extremely brightly on each grill. The powerful lights then caught a tear that was running down Lydia’s cheek. Barney was so baffled about this tear that he started humming instead of risking talking to her.
He stayed away from Lydia for months after that. As time kept separating them, Barney finally came around to the conclusion that he had delivered to Lydia a genuine marriage proposal, and she had answered back with a rejection that was just as genuine. Then he decided that she had not just rejected him from her own volition, but that she was just part of a centrifugal force of an American population of women who were marrying at a later age than ever.
But then he had to reject this conclusion when he received an invitation to attend a wedding reception for Lydia and a young doctor she worked with.
He attended the reception drunk. He was so drunk that he couldn’t even get his words right when he wished Lydia well in her marriage.
“Are you all right?” Lydia asked him, quietly.
He liked being drunk then. It changed the story of Lydia’s marriage from being written in rigid print to having a narration in a fluid script. He decided in the next weeks to be drunk more often, even at work, until one day when the bank was full of people at lunch time he took of his shoes and threw them at the customer line-up.
Barney made an effort to explain to his bank manager that in his movies Spencer Tracy would arrive on his set with an alcoholic glow, and that it even helped Tracy’s performances. He was told he was fired before the thought could even settle in.
Barney stayed drunk for a while in his apartment until he ran out of money. Then he went to Southern California to live with his brother, who was also involved in banking but as a mortgage broker.
Barney soon learned that a broker’s life was totally different from a direct lender’s fate. In everything except they were both lenders. But his brother did not feel especially close to either banks or property owners. He had found that as soon as he got his broker’s commission, he had time to escape from his deals that would leave both banks and former property owners in the lurch and dealing with both sides of a foreclosure.
Barney began to feel his adrenaline surge at this outlaw quality of the west.
He soon got his broker’s license and started making money with impossible deals and riding away from them like a bank robber on horseback. The foreclosed property owners would try to find him to do him harm and his lenders would try to stick him with chargebacks, but he would always escape from them and find new property owners and new lenders for him to do business. There were plenty of people being defrauded in Southern California at the time, like it was.
Barney soon got rich on his commissions while he made more families homeless. Then he decided to buy a house himself, in a town called Surf City. The sound of “Surf City” somehow reminded him of Lydia and of her physicality.
Barney married a local woman fifteen years younger than him named “Courtney,” and she had two daughters with him. They were living and thriving there for five years when following a dream he had one night he put Lydia’s name under the Search icon of his Facebook page. Because Lydia had a rare last name, he found her immediately.
There was no mention of Lydia’s marriage. She was photographed at a table with a young man who resembled a bit the doctor she had married. Barney assumed there was a divorce, and that the young man she sat with was her son from her marriage.
“Do you remember me, the man who walked all over Manhattan with you?” he wrote in a message to Lydia, after he sent her an invitation to be his Facebook friend.
A week letter, there was still no answer to his message or his friendship invitation. He wondered if he had made a mistake with her, although the Facebook face looked so much like Lydia, and even better.
“Are you the Lydia for whom I once jumped out of a plane in your honor?” he wrote to her in a second message. “If so, I sent you a Facebook invitation to be my friend, if you’d like.”
Another week went by without hearing from her. He was almost at the end of his wits when finally he saw on his screen a message from her.
“Yes, I am that Lydia that watched you jump out of a plane. Yes, I got your invite. I would write longer but I am busy texting.”
Immediately he wrote back another message to her.
“I have used up all my Facebook invitations for you to be my friend, Lydia. You will have to now invite me to be your friend so we can be Facebook friends. We can’t let this chance slip by us now, can we?”
Even a month later, he heard nothing more from Lydia. He started shaking his head wherever he went.
Finally his wife asked why he was shaking his head all the time, and acting so strangely for the past month.
“Courtney, in New York, I knew a woman named Lydia. I think of her as a sorceress, because she has enormous powers over me. I thought living in California three thousand miles away from her would reduce her powers over me, but I just have found her on Facebook and she is at it again.”
“At what again?”
“Lydia is exercising her powers over me again, Courtney. Don’t you see that?”
“What do these powers do on you?”
“They destroy me.”
“They destroy you?”
At this point, Barney could do nothing more than to lie on the bed and put a pillow over his head.
“How does she destroy you?” Courtney asked.
“I don’t know. Anyway she can.”
“Through a surrogate?”
“Sure. A sorceress like that can do anything to destroy me.”
“Interesting,” said Courtney.
He would not talk anymore, so Courtney let him sleep. Finally she called her mother.
“Mother, I have news. I’m getting a divorce from Barney.”
“You are?” said her mother. She didn’t sound too surprised. Divorces were even more common in that part of the state than foreclosures.
“So Mother, the reason I am calling you is that we need to look now for a good lawyer. I mean an authentic shark that swims with other sharks. Mother, I want to find someone who will destroy Barney.”
About the author: Chris Sharp has had three previous short stories published in Kalkion. A graduate of California State University at Fresno, his present book, “Dangerous Learning: The New Schooling in California” is being distributed by Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Borders.
Image Courtesy: Flickr