“This is it then. The last hour.”
“Alex, stop making everything sound sinister.”
Their laughter echoed in the darkness like bubbling water. Below them, myriad small houses formed a sea of purple and warm, yellow lights. Hundreds of acres covered with houses and olive trees. The night was painted with the faintest tinge of blue while the morning breeze carried an invigorating saltiness as it danced with the fumes of their cigarettes. It was the last hour.
“Do you think Dad will wake up soon?”
“I don’t know. Why would he?”
“Well, he’s such an early bird. Especially before travels.”
“I wouldn’t worry. He had too much wine last night. It was quite the farewell party, even the Mayor was wasted.”
Natalie’s smile was timid, almost invisible. Her lips barely moved. Her cheekbones were swollen with life as always; it was her eyes that smiled. Something shimmered in the irises, blue and bright as ice. Alex looked deep into his sister’s eyes and watches her smile.
“What? Oh, come on, not again! It’s not as if you won’t visit us for Christmas.”
“Still … I can’t believe this is our last sunrise.”
“Alex, do you ever have second thoughts? About leaving Greece, I mean.”
There was a rustling noise and, only seconds later a nightingale soared across the sky. Athens looked vast, yet beautifully nested and contained between the dark red mountains, a sleeping child. If it weren’t for the changing colors of the sky, time might have suspended entirely.
“No, I don’t. I’ll miss you and Mom. And Dad I suppose, sometimes. But I just have to see the world through the top of the Empire State Building. So much to live …”
“Stop. You tire me with your poetic ‘big fish in a little pond’ crap.”
Alex raised his eyebrow before they both burst out laughing. “What will I do in New York without my sassy voice of reason?”
“You will learn. And then you’ll become amazing at whatever you do, Alex. You really will.”
For a second, there was a strange silence, hissing softly into their ears. The birds and the motorbikes and even the wind stopped.
“Isn’t it weird?”
“This last hour, before dawn. No matter how much we distract ourselves during the day, no matter how lost and confused we are when we twirl around bed at night, this hour changes everything. It’s like … everything suddenly makes sense. Like a jigsaw falling into place. Maybe you should write a book about that when you become all rich and famous in America. The last hour. The first beams of sunlight.”
* * *
The smell of freshly brewed coffee and lavender detergent. Gentle steps on the wooden floor and a voice drifting in from the sidewalk, shrill and perfectly monotonous. Icy light flickering on the yellow walls.
“Morning! I thought you’d never wake up. It’s already 7:40, you know.”
Alex knows he should panic. He should jump out of bed, feverishly get dressed, grab a scarf and head to work. He should probably skip breakfast or order a bagel from a truck down at Spring Street. He might even have to take a taxi, in case the next 6 train arrives late.
Alex calmly looks at Erol’s face instead. His long, dark eyebrows arch sharply, an omnipresent look of curiosity about them. Below them a pair of the most inquisitive, yet soothing eyes. Dark on the outside, gray like a sea on a winter day, and near the pupil a light warm brown. A chestnut tinge, almost golden. Chiseled, angular face, and a jaw just a bit too strong. Alex could feel the warmth of his breath flirting with the top of his lip for a few seconds before they kiss.
“If I end up losing my job, it will probably be because of you.” Alex says smiling.
“And if anyone fires you, it will probably be because they’re insane.”
They kiss again, softly this time. The shrill-voiced man is still talking outside, but he seems more monotonous; more and more distant as the seconds go by. The sound of an ambulance siren, two minutes later, is their only reminder that it’s just another cold October morning in New York City.
“OK, it’s ten to eight. I really should go.”
Alex puts on his clothes, grabs a pea jacket and a grey scarf from the closet. He runs to the bathroom and briefly shuffles his hair, until messy becomes simply disheveled.
“Oh, I forgot to mention. Your dad called a few minutes ago.”
“Don’t worry, of course I didn’t answer. It went straight to voicemail. Just don’t forget to call him later or he’ll leave a billion messages and it will all sound Greek to me.”
“If only you’d let me teach you some.” Alex laughs as he wraps the scarf around his neck, opens the door and walks down the staircase, jumping over the last two stairs.
The autumn wind is unexpectedly strong, yet Mercer Street buzzes all the same. A cab is parked at the corner of Broome Street, and Alex runs against the cold wind and gets in.
“Madison Square Park, as fast as you can?”
The wheels make a swooshing sound against the asphalt, and in no time the car has already turned onto Broadway. Even in daytime, a few neon signs shine bright, fluorescent lights. City cars rush everywhere around, occasionally complaining with a loud honk. Alex checks his phone, and is not surprised to see a text. He knows who sent it before he even opens it.
“Hi Gigi, I called earlier but you didn’t pick up. Call me when you see this. Dad.”
Alex gets off the cab at the corner of his building, which is lofty and covered in dark glass. Its walls are divided into small squares, like a giant Rubik’s Cube. A crimson poster covers half of one side, with gaudy retro letters reading “The Big Apple.” His watch points exactly 8:09 as he walks through the iron door. He stops walking, stands in the lobby and smiles contentedly. What’s better than being only fashionably late?
“Oh Alex! Hello dear. I guess that makes two of us being late?”
It is hard to explain, but Sydney Lane’s voice has something raspy yet incredibly piercing in it. Her thick, dirty blonde locks frame her round face; her pouty lips are covered in dark red lipstick. Few eyes were as stony and aloof as hers.
“Well the last time I remember being late in my life was quite the scandalous story. Appointment with my college dean back in Northeastern, and I showed up still drunk and wearing cheerleader clothes. Hilarious, isn’t it?” Her cackle is consuming.
“It is, Sydney. Do you mind sharing the details once we get up? We’re somewhat late already.”
“Oh right. Yes Alex, dear, we must. To the seventh floor then.”
They walk into the elevator as Alex presses the button for the seventh floor twice. As soon as the doors close, a deep, woody musk hampers the air. Sydney Lane lets out an extensive sigh and then presses her body against the elevator glass.
“So Alex, are you seeing anyone these days?” she says as soon as they reach the second floor.
“Still single”. Alex rushes to respond and then exhales, imitating Sydney’s deep sigh almost perfectly.
Seconds later, the door opens sharply, and a tall, lanky man with glasses is waiting by the door. His eyebrows are thick as curved snowdrifts.
“Oh there she is! Mrs. Sydney Lane.”
“Great job on that piece about vegetarianism as rebellion. Hilarious. Joe and I were laughing all morning. Follow me, Sydney; I have some good news for you. Good morning, Alex.”
Alex nods back at his boss with a clumsy gesture. Smile next time, Alex. You know you can be charming if you want to.
He walks past the reception area and turns right. There it is, his office. A few square feet of creative space, a nest enclosed by tall, plastic partitions. A picture of Natalie’s invisible smile and a bigger frame with Mom and Dad; a green desk lamp with the light still on from last night. At the corner, an abandoned sunflower stares at the desk like a defeated athlete.
Maybe, sometime soon, Alex will put a picture of Erol on the desk.
Alex sits down on his worn blue suede chair and picks up the pink Post-it glued to the center of his desk. The handwriting is cursive, and jumbled together.
800 words on school-bus driver union strike, due next Friday. Make it funny. Could be in next week’s edition.
P.S. Your dad called, again.
Alex walks to an unoccupied cubicle. He pours some hot coffee into a mug, pulls his cell phone out of his pocket. He dials the number and doesn’t need to wait more than just a brief moment.
“I have been calling you all morning. What happened?”
“I had to leave the house early to run errands. And I’ve started working on a new article already, Dad.”
Dad’s deep breaths blend with Sydney Lane’s loud cackle; they synchronize perfectly.
“How are things back? How is Natalie?”
“Good. Peaceful, as always.” Dad exhales one of his long, austere pauses; the ones that expect nothing but silence. “Natalie misses you a lot, you know. She had her first art exhibition today”.
“Oh she did! How was it?”
“Good, I guess. She can do better. How are things there, big boy?”
“You know, a lot of work. Barely any sleep.”
“Any luck with girls yet?”
Alex pauses. “Still fooling around a little bit. There’s been a few, I guess.”
“Keep ‘em coming, son. Keep ‘em coming.”
Dad’s throaty voice resonates. Deep and commanding, yet so soothingly familiar. Reminiscing soft morning breezes.
“Good. Gigi I got to go. Take care, alright?”
Alex hangs up. He walks quickly back to his cubicle, coffee in hand. He straightens his keyboard, and wipes his computer screen with a towel. He briefly plays with his wavy hair, frivolous as a teenager. But he is still fixated on the phone. Secretly, and only for a few moments he hopes the phone will ring, his father’s name once again flashing on the screen.
* * *
Mercer Street is unusually empty for an early evening. The buildings all around Alex pulse neon blood into a lifeless hour. He struggles for a few seconds, unlocking the painfully difficult door to his building. A flickering light greets him as soon as he opens the apartment’s door. It emits a peculiar warmth. Erol stands by the door, his eyebrows as curious as always.
“I’ve been waiting all day for this. Alex, today is your first year anniversary.”
Alex hesitates in confusion. “But … but we started dating in December.”
“You are forgetting about your other partner. Today is your first year anniversary with New York City.”
“Oh my God, you’re right, it is!”
Erol touches Alex’s palm tenderly, presses it with both hands.
“I know she can be quite busy sometimes, so I made you dinner myself. The sesame chicken is, I daresay, delicious.”
He knows there are few things he could say that will not sound cliché. His hand dives into Erol’s thick black hair. Their lips meet once again, taste bittersweet as plum wine.
“Let’s open the champagne before it gets cold.”
“You do it. I’ll get it all over the place.”
“No, no, no. It’s your anniversary. You just get to clean afterwards.”
Alex pops the champagne bottle open, spilling just a little bit at the table.
“I can’t wait for your second year in New York. You know we’ve never been to my favorite place in town yet? Nolita, you’re gonna love it there.”
“Can’t wait. I haven’t even been to the Statue of Liberty yet, my family is bugging me about it.”
“There’s also this amazing restaurant by Hudson River Park. I don’t think I’ve ever had better Italian. Next weekend, after my concert?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Erol breathes out a word but then hesitates. The candle light flickers, playing with their eyes.
“Alex, I … I have a question to ask. It’s been on my mind for a few days. It’s about that text from your dad that I read accidentally.”
“I don’t know if this is important, or intimate in any way. It’s just been bugging me.”
“What is it, Erol?”
“… Why does he keep calling you Gigi?”
Alex’s laugh floats through the air, bouncing to the yellow walls and echoing down the living room.
“Oh, my Dad is weird. Well, you know how he loves French music, right?”
“That might be the only thing we have in common.”
“So there is this old French song, called Gigi L’Amoroso. He used to listen to it all the time when I was young. Always said I reminded him of the song, though my French is too terrible to ever understand why.”
Erol’s inquisitive eyes smile warmly. He gets up and walks to the piano. His masculine hands make a cracking sound as he stretches them. A moment of silence and then he starts playing, his fingers sliding on the ivory keys. “Gigi L’Amoroso. We used to practice this at my high school conservatory. It’s quite a lovely story. Charming young man from a village in Napoli, all the women are madly in love with him. The greatest Italian lover since man discovered fire.”
The melody is vivid, staccato and simple. There is a certain melancholy to it, fragile as icicles.
“So one day, Gigi meets some Hollywood producer and leaves for great America. Everyone gathers on the village square with a lump on their throat to wave goodbye to beloved Gigi.”
The melody gets slower and quieter. The pauses between the notes allow the music to transcend, reverberate.
“Years later, the village sees Gigi again, crying in the shadow. He has returned from America, defeated. But what do Americans know except ‘le Rock et le Twist.’ Oh what were you thinking, Gigi? That’s not for you; you are Giuseppe Fabrizio Luca Santini. And you are Napoletano. The entire village gathers again and they celebrate his return with a big feast. And Gigi is, again, a happy man.”
The melody speeds up again, explodes in a frantic staccato. Erol’s hands move up and down the keys skillfully, his curious eyes now fixated on his art. Faster and faster and faster until the music finally erupts in a brassy harmony.
And there he is, clear, in front of Alex’s eyes. Dad’s tall frame, much younger; his hair still a faint dark brown. He holds Alex’s back with his thick, protective arms, as the melody resonates in the background. Dad hiding his tears when Alex gives his valedictorian speech, Dad proudly smiling when Alex takes his first girl to prom. Dad playing the song’s last few notes while Natalie and Alex sit by the fireplace.
Alex misses it. He needs it all back.
“Are you still there?” Erol asks. “Anyway, that’s the song! To be honest it’s kind of childish for my taste.”
The last notes still reverberate in the hall. Outside the window, the cold neon signs are wavering. There is no sea of purple and warm, yellow lights. No nightingale soars across the sky.
Alex touches Erol’s broad shoulders and looks straight into his hazel eyes.
“Do you want to stay up and watch the sunrise with me? The last hour.”
Contact Nikolaos Efstathiou at