GM - Story #3

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Chapter 21

A cool, misty rain fell over the city obscuring the view across 59th street into Central Park. The normally green and lively hub of outdoor activity seemed muted by the dullness of the day. Only the orange-yellow blur of taxis whizzing in and out of Columbus Circle provided any life to the scene, like vibrant splashes of watercolor on a charcoal canvas.

Greyson moved chunks of salmon back and forth across his plate. A caper rolled off the top of the lightly peppered bright pink strip and down into the bed of lettuce next to the fish. The fork made a high-pitched scraping sound as it strafed the porcelain. He looked up at his lunch date awkwardly. The distance that had grown between them seemed impossible to overcome.

And yet, Cidalia Gaudin sat patiently, quietly staring at him, trying to figure him out. He seemed so different to her, even from just the last time she had seen him. She recounted the weeks and totaled at least six since they had last spoken. He looked healthier than she remembered, filled out and with better color in his face - such a nicer, more attractive version of himself. The new, rounder Greyson carried himself with more energy, a brighter smile and a sense of purpose that she hadn’t seen in years. He looked more handsome than when she first met him in class at NYU and instantly liked him.

Greyson knew the distance stemmed from the length of time they had gone without seeing each other. He didn’t think his drunken come-on to her back on the rainy, dreary evening in February would have pissed her off enough to cause her to avoid him. But then, his memory of the evening lacked certain clarity and detail. He had already apologized within the first few minutes of the lunch date and she waved it off as if it required no further commentary.

Neither Greyson nor Cidalia sought an explanation behind the six-week separation. But both wondered.

While she tried not to fixate, Cidalia couldn’t figure it out in her mind. One minute they were meeting in bars and clubs on a weekly basis and the next minute he disappeared. She knew that she could have called him but couldn’t figure out why he had stopped calling her. What bothered her most was that he had obviously changed for the better and only after a mere six weeks. He seemed happier in this new life that didn’t involve her. It was as if she were the party girl he had left behind when he decided to be more serious in his life. And yet, Cidalia knew she was no party girl. She wanted a more settled life too. She wondered if Greyson had moved on and left her behind.

A girlfriend?” she thought.

Greyson couldn’t place the reason for the distance either. He assumed she was mad at him for his drunken behavior. Looking back at himself as if witnessing a dream or a fuzzy recording from one of the city’s overhead security cameras, he felt ashamed.

He hadn’t noticed the time pass. So much had happened to him and around him since he had last seen her. He never intended to keep his distance. But yet, the distance simply wedged itself into his available time, like a small air pocket that slowly expanded until generating a wide gap.

Cidalia’s quiet, tentative participation in the conversation felt like he had shared a table with a stranger at an airport, rather than an intimate lunch with a close friend. Maybe they had just faded away from each other. Maybe she was one of those friends who only connected in the momentum of the existing social life. Once the situation dissipated, so too did the friendship – like the phenomenon when a “good friend” crosses over and becomes an “old friend”.

A boyfriend?” Greyson asked himself.

Cidalia crossed her legs and picked bits of tuna from her sandwich.

“So what are you doing today,” she asked in a blandly disinterested tone.

“I am giving someone a ride from New Jersey to New York in the car,” he replied.

Cidalia took a bite of her tuna sandwich and sipped a diet coke.

Giving someone a ride?” she thought. “Sounds like a ‘blow-off’ line.

She wanted to relax and shoot the breeze with him, but her newfound insecurity around him left her guarded and emotionally cautious.

“I see,” she finally replied. “Who?”

“Just some guy,” he replied, realizing how cagey he sounded. “A guy who doesn’t have a car of his own and needs me to help him out.”

Cidalia shrugged.

Sounds weird,” she thought to herself. She watched him chop up his salmon salad into tiny pieces for a few minutes and decided to make better use of the time she had already invested in lunch with Greyson.

“How come I haven’t heard from you in so long?” she asked, finally unable to hold back.

“I’ve been busy,” he replied, as if that would be the extent of his answer, but Cidalia’s gaze beaconed for elaboration. “I’ve been working.”

“You haven’t passed me a single referral in months,” Cidalia snapped as if making a counter argument during a cross examination in court.

“No, I know,” Greyson stumbled over his words. “I haven’t worked with anyone since Latrell Hawkins got shot.”

“I was really sorry about that,” she softened slightly at the memory of Greyson’s critically injured client. “So what work are you doing then?”

“At the moment, I’m working more of a day job,” he replied tentatively. “I just started as a driver. I have my uncle’s car and this client who needs rides everywhere he goes. It’s a good gig for me.”

“Who’s the client?

“He’s nobody really,” Greyson answered, immediately adding detail to come across more forthcoming. “Not a show-biz guy. I guess you’d say that he’s more of an executive. It’s the person I have to pick up today.”

“What kind of executive? Like a corporate CEO guy?”

“More of a motivational speaker guy,”

“Oh,” Cidalia stopped to picture Tony Robbins riding around in the back of Greyson’s Town Car. “That’s different.”

“Not my usual gig,” he smiled and poked a chunk of salmon into his mouth.

They looked at each other a few minutes longer. The friendship teetered. Cidalia pushed through and allowed a tiny smile to peek out. Greyson caught her eyes and loosened. He had always thought she had the cutest little face with thin wisps of blond hair in her eyes and a little doll’s nose.

“So, you’re a limo driver like your Uncle was?” she teased him. “Do you wear a little black hat?”

He smiled back at her and thought of opening to her about his involvement with Henry’s newly formed non-profit organization, Cael’s team of shadow guardians and Jaio, the possible second coming of the son of God. But the words sounded silly to him in his head and he couldn’t bring himself to express them.

Henry and Gina had no problem sharing stories of their association with the new Messiah and their belief in his teachings. But he just couldn’t do it. Even after several enlightening conversations with Jaio and the surprisingly rewarding participation with the early morning homeless helpers, he still couldn’t bring himself to the level of evangelism that they had achieved.

He ran down in his mind all the events that had transpired in the past six weeks.

With his lead client, Latrell Hawkins, incapacitated and his pipeline of talent dwindling, providing transport for Jaio to and from the airport had morphed into, essentially, a full-time job. Henry payed him by check from the non-profit fund he had begun to amass through his contacts and backers.

During their car rides, Jaio spent considerable time on a cell phone that Henry provided him. He looked anachronistic in Greyson’s rearview mirror in his odd frock with his iPhone pressed to his cheek, exchanging logistics and plans with Henry. Oftentimes, he reviewed schedules with Gina, who served as an Administrative Assistant or junior Business Manager to Henry. Other times, Henry would accompany Jaio to meetings at universities, churches and community centers, discussing ways to position Jaio’s message to maximize its appeal and gain support from influential theologians and community leaders.

Greyson generally listened to the radio and stayed out of Jaio’s business. But, between calls, Jaio would seek to engage him in dialog.

“I saw you at the back of the room,” he would ask. “What did you think?”

But Greyson’s years of celebrity had taught him to answer questions without revealing any content.

“Very interesting,” he would reply. “Good stuff. The crowd really seemed to respond to you.”

Greyson had heard Henry and Gina on the phone with his sister debating a national launch of Jaio and his message to the print and digital media. The discussions, not exactly “heated”, had factions pushing for and against national exposure. But ultimately, the discussion migrated away from whether to reach out to the press, but rather when the timing would be right.

Greyson knew that coverage in the media of Jaio’s presence in the US could explode at any moment. It felt like the electrically charged tension in the air just before a thunderstorm over the Hudson River.

Cael and Ruben, along with their network of guardians, including their source in DesMoines, had confirmed the elimination of the US terrorist cell and saw no immediate evidence of any further threats from abroad. But Cael always had a nervous adrenaline-fueled edge, darting his eyes back and forth, in and out of the crowds and up and down the surrounding buildings. Prone to disappearing and reappearing at odd, unexpected times, he was like a completely unpredictable ghost.

Henry did not share the same paranoia. While he had yet to execute the national PR campaign, he also took little effort to keep Jaio’s presence under wraps. This only complicated Cael’s mission to be present for Jaio without being seen.

“Word will get out beyond the audience we can control, and soon.” Henry counseled Gina and Jaio during a car ride to a youth ministry in south Jersey. “And when it does, this whole program will go nuclear. But for now, there is no need to rush that process. Let the world pull us out of our shell naturally, but don’t resist the recognition when it happens. Can you believe how far we have come in just under a single quarter?”

Cael remained silent in the presence of the team. And yet, he never lost his eye-line to Jaio in public, even when he could not be seen in his shadow or his perch. When he did ride in the car, he always sat closer to the window, with Jaio in the middle of the seat. He typically spent ride time on his small iPad, communicating with his resources and Henry’s mercenaries to confirm security profiles for each event.

Trips to the airport expanded into rides to meetings across the five boroughs and eventually into Connecticut and New Jersey. The evenings, when Jaio was in town, consisted of increasingly deep and lengthy discussions about life and human nature. And in the mornings, Greyson accompanied Jaio onto the streets to help what amounted to the world’s cast offs and sickly undesirables.

Gina tried to draw him into the ground floor of the non-profit corporation that Henry was building with his network of influential contacts and deep pockets. But he couldn’t go around hawking for the new Jesus the way they did. As much as he liked, admired and respected Jaio, he didn’t feel their passion to galvanize the people around him. And, as much as he and Jaio had spent quality time together in his apartment and engaged in interesting philosophical conversations that resonated with him, he couldn’t take the faith leap needed to truly believe Jaio could be the son of God. Despite his participation with Jaio, a part of him still scoffed at his sister’s bleeding-heart charity project.

When he transported Jaio to local events, Greyson typically waited in the car at the bottom level of some parking garage or far around the corner from whatever venue Jaio visited. He passed the time playing Bubble Breaker and Candy Crush on his iPhone until Jaio concluded his business.

For a few of the meetings, he stood in the back listening. Henry conducted most of the business speak. But when Jaio professed his mission to reach out to people across the world and encourage a new culture of community and togetherness, Greyson found himself nodding along in agreement with his charismatic and virtually irrefutable message.

“Yes, evil exists,” Jaio told one group of community leaders. “We have to stand together against oppressive and destructive behavior. The aggregate power of the billions of good people in this world far exceeds the strength of the relatively small number of truly evil people. But not all who commit evil acts are evil to the core. Some are simply misled, confused or manipulated. We need to identify these individuals, understand them and help them.

“We can save those people, prevent them from the negative influence that drives them to their evil behavior. As easily as they are manipulated toward evil, they can be shown the better path. But we can’t just communicate and spread our message. With the amount of poverty and despair in this world, we need the more fortunate members of society to commit to taking action in helping the less fortunate find their path to success and happiness in their lives. Happy people are less likely to subscribe to a manifest of hate and destruction.

“This is a long-term phenomenon. It will happen as we build schools and roads, encourage successful business and industry and support stabile governments in areas where poverty and unrest exist. Life is not perfect in more stabilized societies such as the United States, but the presence of social order and more shared prosperity makes these more civilized places much safer and more peaceful. These efforts will be disrupted by people who fear change or who have been manipulated into acts of hatred and destruction. But a concerted effort to facilitate order and spark shared prosperity must be a priority for all to make this world a better place.”

At one point, he was asked how he would seek to solve the conflict in Israel over the disputed Gaza strip.

“If the leaders of these groups truly want to secure peace and security for their kin,” he said. “They should consider working together to rebuild a shared space. This is easier said than done and can only be attempted if the stakeholders truly value life over death and peace over revenge.

“But what if every other home built in the region belonged to a Jewish family and each home in between belonged to a Palestinian. At first there would be the opportunity for chaos and bloodshed, which is already the case today. But compare this to the late 50s and early 60s in America when the public schools started to integrate black and white students. The long-term results have helped to minimize the plight of the black community, education for black students improved and a relative peace was achieved. It is a constant evolution in society, but this step forward has helped progress that cultural maturity in the United States over the past 60 years.”

Everywhere they went, Jaio received thunderous applause. The crowds gathered around him afterward. People asked questions, thanked him and even just touched him and moved on. Greyson observed that the crowds grew larger and larger at each gathering.

“You must love yourself first and foremost,” Jaio told him one night as they shoveled hot Chinese food into their mouths at the table in the galley kitchen. “It is like a tidal wave. If you can find a way to love yourself, you can find the capacity to love another. And when you learn to love others, you learn how easy it is to become a positive contributor to influencing attitudes and collaborating with others to encourage peace and harmony to this world. If you embrace the simple concept that life is sacred, then you start to understand the meaning in this great existence that we all share.”

Greyson found himself in agreement with much of the Holy Man’s platform. A part of him even wanted to believe in the idea that God could empower a new agent to spread such messages of peace and harmony to his wicked and corrupt world. But he couldn’t bring himself to a point of emotional commitment to the movement and so remained a neutral participant in Jaio’s mission. He continued to rebuff Gina’s offers to join the organization that Henry sought to launch but agreed to remain around the fringe as Jaio’s designated driver.

“Why don’t you come take a seat at the front of the room?” Jaio had asked Greyson at an event just the day before his lunch with Cidalia. “Rather than sit in the back or wait outside.”

Greyson declined. Jaio persisted.

“You don’t completely believe that we can change the course of human behavior and bring more peace and order to our society?”

“I’m not sure people can change,” Greyson replied.

“You have changed.”

“Hardly.”

“You don’t believe you have changed?”

“My career crashed and burned,” Greyson replied. “My business went down the drain. I’m disconnected from my family. If I didn’t have money left over from the show, I’d be a bum on the streets taking cups of soup and free blankets from your volunteers. If I’ve changed, I’ve gone backwards, not forward.”

“Do you really believe this?” Jaio asked.

“Yup.” He replied.

“Tell me this,” Jaio peered deeply into his eyes. “Would you have been willing to help feed the homeless at four in the morning at this time last summer?”

Greyson fidgeted with his water glass. He realized that he had lost himself in thought for a long moment and recoiled from Cidalia. He thought about how the past six weeks had challenged him to embrace the greater purpose of supporting Jaio’s cause and Henry’s budding foundation. He missed waking up past noon, wasting the day playing video games and drinking himself to sleep at night. His new, more meaningful lifestyle exhausted him. And he knew the onslaught of publicity in the works would only raise the pressure. Could he handle it? Would he just fade out of the Jaio world and revert? He hadn’t figured it out yet. He hadn’t tried. But he felt the wave of self-discovery coming. And he dreaded it.

Cidalia’s presence flashed him back to the night he stumbled down 54th street with her and how she cared for him. He wished that he had held her hand, and that he hadn’t been such a self-centered drunk. And yet, there she was, still hanging on, giving him another chance. He felt the old comfortable feeling ebb. He realized that his reluctance to share his recent experience with her closed him off and distanced them from each other. She sat there, peering at him in search of the old Greyson. He had developed a new part of his life that he would have to extend to her if he wanted to move forward with her in his life.

Life is sacred,” he recalled Jaio’s words. “Learn to love yourself and you will learn to love others. That love will give you the happiness and fulfillment you need.”

He parsed his lips as if to open to Cidalia. But he felt his face go warm and his stomach knot. He couldn’t do it.

“I have to go,” he said, deflated. “I have to pick up my client.”

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