It could be a sound, a scent, a photo. Music. Memories flood. At unexpected times.
As an occasional professional fundraiser, I get acceptance into a world that I don’t live in, and I don’t come from. Yes, there are beautiful homes, and cars. Shoes to glance at. Amazing jewelry – new or heirloom – I wonder. It is a world I have great respect for. I see the dedication of time – the sacrifice it takes – to maintain that. I hear their thoughts about ‘legacy’. It usually comes when children are grown, educated, getting married. Before they become grandparents. It’s a time when ‘how will we be remembered’ is all important. A time when their contribution to a cause will be life changing for people they will almost never meet.
They depend on someone like me to make the right partnerships for their interests. Do they want a naming opportunity, where their family name will be emblazoned on a building or a brick in a wall? Sometimes they want anonymity completely. My work, moreso years ago than today, took me to meetings in beautiful lunch clubs (used to be men’s clubs), and the occasional trip for a particularly important planned giving opportunity.
Today I do little of that. But the other day, as I sat in my home office, working in slippers with my cat by my side, I saw the first flakes of snow falling. And a story about the concert series at The Rainbow Room. So attuned to sensory cues, it only took that visual, a snippet of music, and the memories flooded.
A cold winter’s night. In New York City. Early dinner. Top of the world at Rockefeller Center. The Rainbow Room. Round parquet dance floor with small dinner tables surrounding it. Floor to ceiling windows. A grand piano. We’ve stepped into a movie.
So quiet so early. I wonder if they are really open. It’s only 5 o’clock. We’re seated to one side. The candle is lit in this always dim-to-dark room. Our napkins are gingerly laid in our laps. It’s business, but we’ve let ourselves have time for enjoying a little bit of the town, as I obliged the request. “Surely we can have dinner in a nice place; and maybe Radio City?” “Thank you, whatever you like. Yes, we should have some time off.”
He selects the wine. We wait for it to be served. I feel some motion in the room and I look out the window where skyscraper tops meet my eye. I see that it’s snowing. But it wasn’t snowing on the ride over. It was cold. But not cold enough for snow. When our waiter comes back with the wine he comments on our conversation. “Yes, it’s snow. But it’s only snowing up here – on the 65th floor. If you took the elevator down right now it would not be snowing at all at ground level. The snow evaporates on its way down to the street.” Even more special, we have a private snowstorm, and I wonder if it was ordered for the occasion.
There is another couple in the distance, across the dance floor. They lean in to each other across the small cocktail table. She’s wearing winter white. He’s almost imperceptible in the dark, except for the sparkle from his cuff link, when it catches the light reflecting off the crystal chandelier.
It’s the 90s. I work too hard. Travel too infrequently. Relax in elegant settings so rarely.
My meal is selected for me. I think nothing of it. I am doing nothing; responsible for nothing. I make no decisions, or recommendations. I absorb. My shoulders come down and I settle in. I could be in Paris, or Istanbul, or Shanghai, I think. But I’m only in New York. On the 65th floor. In the snow.
While we wait, a dark man enters towards the piano. He is wearing tuxedo and tails with a white crisp shirt. His hair is as black as the black of his suit. He skillfully moves the piano bench without making a sound. He slips in front of it and does that little flourish to kick out the tails, and sits down. He has no sheet music. He simply sits. Still.
I feel a little dizzy by it all. And then I realize that the floor is rotating – the very slowest rotating floor I’ve ever seen. One that the waiter can comfortably walk across to serve the food. And I wonder if he ever loses a table. But then he just has to count “four tables to the left of the piano” and it would be right where he left it.
The piano man’s fingers are placed on the keyboard and he flutters out some pleasant notes, and then begins to play – quietly, ever so subtly. He closes his eyes. I find I’m soon closing mine, too.
I sigh, and catch myself, wondering if that was loud enough to hear. My dinner partner and I exchange looks and words as our minds compete to find the memory box first. What is the tune being played for us? Pretty soon, one of us comes up with it – it is the theme from Prince of Tides. From the movie by that name whose closing scene was filmed right where we are. I know so many versions of that music. But the piano makes me think of Lori Line. And it is so beautiful. There comes a moment when ‘something’ is called for – applause? a smile? a laugh? a tear? – we look at each other again. And he asks. Would you like to dance? I wonder if the man with the cuff link across the room can see the spark(le) from this man’s eye. Yes, yes, that would be what one should do, I think – and say.
He formally takes my hands, in proper position, and we dance. I breathe in the cologne, close to me now, the scent I’ve smelled so many times across a board room, driving to a meeting, passing me by. We dance slowly, in proper cadence and position. Until the moment when he pulls me closer and wraps his arms around me, like a woman my age might dance with a man my age. It is all right I tell myself. It is, just about, perfect, I say over and over in my mind.
The piano player plays the long form, and it goes on and on. I wonder if he’s doing that just for us. Yet, as it comes to a close, we both know that it was much too short. Much too brief. Much too quickly did the door open and close.
Our dinner is waiting for us and we notice that the waiter has quietly placed covers on our food and refilled our wine. As we walk to the table he comes by to uncover what we are here for – to eat. A quick glance up at me, a not-quite smile. He does not look at the gentleman at all. My napkin is placed once again in my lap. And I pick up my fork.
We eat quietly, as if something very special has happened here on this night of work, with a little time off for pleasure. I drink more wine and notice the couple across the floor has left. And it’s not snowing anymore. I can’t see the spires on the tops of the buildings. It’s all misty and foggy now.
The pianist has finished playing something else that was lovely, I’m sure. And taken his break. The floor no longer turns. It is only 7 o’clock.
The gentleman pays the bill though I don’t see a bill presented or payment made. We walk across the dance(d) floor. My coat is placed on my shoulders as we walk to our waiting elevator for two. My ears pop as we go slowly from 65 to ground. We say nothing. He looks down. I pull on my leather gloves. He does the same. I see the sparkle of his cufflink, and notice the lines on his face. Suddenly he looks very tired. His cologne surrounds me. I breathe it in very deeply. In a moment the doors open to a blast of cold winter air.
The Prince of Tides was released on Christmas Day in 1991
It starred Barbara Streisand and Nick Nolte
The movie was based on a novel by Pat Conroy published in 1986