It's just another walking mall now. But back then, it was a magnet. We all were drawn to its sidewalk cafes, itinerant artists sketching on a concrete wall, a busker dancing to a small portable radio or a psychic in flaming pink veils telling your future at ten dollars a pop. Anything could happen on 'The Road' and did. For one thing, it was the big matchmaker. A woman would look a lot more glamorous to a curious guy walking about, while she was shopping in an exotic Hindu store or trying on Kiehl's cosmetics at a chi-chi boutique. Soon enough they were laughing over frozen Margaritas at a hot spot as blasé beauties and Euro glitz ambled by in their pastel Italian sandals.
The Road was so much brighter than other places. Yet, when I abandoned my loft there ten years ago, I hoped never to return. Most of my best friends had died. How could young, vibrant, smiling people be here today and gone tomorrow? What a prosaic statement. There are no words to describe what I felt when it finally became too much for me. I felt like the ocean, which roared by my windows day and night, was about to engulf me. I couldn't breathe. My breath came in little spurts, only enough to keep a little oxygen in my pathetic lungs. One night I woke up screaming. Long, bony hands were trying to pull me down. It was Dante's Inferno; it was a place of no return.
My eyes popped open as I scanned the silent studio. Neon lights from a restaurant in the courtyard below fell bleakly on cans of paint and rolls of canvas in the room. A flimsy curtain waved in the night's balmy breeze. It looked like it always had, except it was now a prison. It was the gate to hell and perdition. I hadn't seen the face that went with the horribly gray, cold hands of the dream, but I imagined it to belong to a very evil man, like I had seen in drawings for Milton's Paradise Lost. There was no going back to sleep, besides, the waiters below were clattering dishes and glassware as they threw short sentences at each other which I could not identify.
"I can't do that," Serge, the desk clerk in the hotel lobby said as I tried to get a refund on my month's rent the next morning. "But it's only the 6th of the month," I said, hating the desperation in my voice. "I just can't stay here anymore. I will go crazy!" From the clerk's face, I knew this was not the right track to take. There were enough crazies in this building and most of them were carted off to the psych ward or the morgue. The clerk had a true poker face. I guess you had to if you managed a building where 911 calls were as common as tenant turnover. There was no getting around Serge.
I walked away in a huff, pushing the thick glass doors open into the chokingly hot July morning. Maybe I could hole out at a friend's condo for a couple of weeks. He was on a train tour of the country, which would last 30 days and had been gone about a week. His place was just down the street, right on the ocean and his kitchen was always well stocked. Besides, I had painted all his walls with tropical scenes some months back, so he owed me. Grabbing a café con leche at a local Cuban joint, I walked aimlessly on the Road, letting the rich, creamy caffeine tingle my system to a semblance of life. Why had I stayed here so long? Jacques jumped out the window, Margie was a vegetable in the hospital voted number one by funeral directors. Fannie was run over by a car as she sat on the beach after getting off the graveyard shift.
Jason had died of AIDS. Many fell victim to HIV, this place being a hotbed of clubs, nightlife and all the vices that go with it. Many went more slowly. Some led a productive life. But Jason had gone fast. He had befriended me when I was a struggling painter, fresh down from the Midwest. He hooked me up with a studio and introduced me to friends. He even got me a show at a cool gallery down a little arty street called 'the Way.' The last time I saw Jason, I was walking home from a chat with friends. The summer night was dark and velvety. Palmetto bugs crawled slowly on the sidewalks overgrown with vines and bushes. The thick branches of an unruly ficus tree hung low. You had to duck your head walking past it.
Suddenly there was Jason, face glowing from a distant street lamp. His eyes had a strange brightness and his words halting, heavy. I couldn't tell you what he said. We hugged in parting. His face was hot. He had a high fever. I walked numbly, shuddering as blood tingled in my veins. I felt life draining, draining out. But it wasn't my life. It was his. Then it hit me. It washed over me like the ocean's waves when trade winds are particularly strong. Why had I not noticed before? Hardly a month would go as another tragedy hit the Road. Why did I continue to live in this place, where the grim reaper had a field day? So here I was, ten years later, walking the Road once again. There was no reason. I just decided to hop a train and here I was. I allowed streams of shoppers to envelop me as I ambled by well manicured plants and flowers, sparkling fountains, familiar, mingled scents of incense, perfume and espresso coffees.
The Road hade not changed much, I thought. None of the shops or restaurants had the same names, but they were just as eclectic and exotic as they had been then. The place was still crawling with beautiful people. The new fad was four-inch heels with micro straps. Euros were still wearing pastels, still crowding boutiques, still drinking frozen concoctions in tony cafes. Blood rose to my face as I neared the old hotel. Maybe I should not be here, not today. My body moved as if drawn by an unseen force. I turned to corner. The hotel looked quite ordinary. It certainly didn't look sinister. They had done a major renovation. There was no hint of the old, weary atmosphere I had known. It now seemed like a non-place, with no memories, no past. Turning around, I continued walking east, toward the ocean and its cooling breeze. Gazing at a large digital display of electronics in a local shop, I thought of friends I had lost.
A flower vendor protected by a large straw hat suddenly reached toward me with a long stemmed dark red rose. I brushed by her, annoyed at the intrusion into my reverie. A thorn grazed my hand and I tried to stop the little trickle of blood with saliva. The hands of the flower vendor were tan, knobby, with protruding joints. The nightmare flashed back. My throat tightened, hardly able to breathe. Oh, God, I thought, I'm trapped.
"Greta," a familiar voice came from behind. It was Serge, the pokerfaced desk clerk. He was dressed in a stiff, starched white shirt and black pants. A waiter, I thought.
"Hi Serge," I said coolly, remembering how he held back my rent at the hotel. He held a black portfolio under his arm.
"Where have you been?" he said. "I moved to the mainland," I said. I didn't care to elaborate. It was none of his business, anyway.
"You see this uniform," he said, pointing with one hand down his front. "I wait tables at Chici's." What did I care what this guy did? "The tips are okay, but I'm doing a little business on the side."
I definitely didn't want to know this.
"I'm getting into art," he said, zipping open the black portfolio. All I needed now is a door-to-door salesman named Serge. With energy that greed infuses in some people, he began flipping carefully shrink-wrapped prints, each with a double mat. They were about eight by ten inches, a good standard size. They could easily be framed. I knew a few things about art, after all, though I hadn't painted in the last few years. I pretended to look at the usual beach scenes; palm trees, flamingos and sunsets - a big sell in this seaside Mecca.
"Look," I said as sweat poured down my back from the hot sun, "I've got to go. It's been nice seeing you."
"Wait," he said. "Here's one you might like." He pulled out a cardboard from a side pocket. It was no print. It was not shrink-wrapped and had some dark fingerprints on the back. He flipped it over.
Then I saw it. It was done in dark tones, like night. It was the kind a real artist would paint. It had no commercial value at all. It was Jason. There was no mistaking that beautiful, youthful, sensitive face. He was looking straight at me. He had looked at me like that the last time I saw him, under that ficus tree. But in the painting – probably done in tempera – a cowl covered his head. Images from the Inferno and Paradise Lost rushed, crowded my brain. Did the hands in my nightmare belong to Jason, my friend? How could that be? Did the devil come as a beautiful young man, a dear friend? No, that didn't make sense. And what about Serge? He didn't fit in this equation at all.
"Where did you get this?" I asked, trying to seem casual. Serge may have had a poker face, but he knew a royal flush when he saw it.
"This is an original," he said glibly. "You can have it for $100."
"Serge, where did you get it?" I said. The last thing I wanted was to buy this painting. I had the urge to grab it and rip it up. Serge was getting impatient. Maybe he was late for his shift at Chici's.
"Look, I've got to go," he said. "Here's my number. Better call soon, because I'll sell it to the first taker." He handed me a white business card with black, raised letters. Holding the little card I watched him disappear into the crowd. I walked a few steps to a long, concrete bench where people were sitting. Children were playing on a patch of grass nearby. I looked down at my hands. There was a smudge of blood on the white card between my fingers.