“No deal. I’m sorry, but what you ask is impossible,” I say.
I’m having an uncomfortable business dinner in a fancy French restaurant located in an old district of downtown Toronto. The restaurant is filled with people engrossed in each other, talking about their own worlds and their problems. I wonder at the fact that each human has his own story to tell; everyone has a past, a present and a future to look forward to. For me, the past is something I never want to dig into, my present is an open book to the public, and my future—I’ve never thought about it.
“Come on, Gibson, you’ve built half of Toronto, and you’re saying this hotel project is not possible? Have you suddenly decided you no longer want to make money?” Xavier Groston is a tall man in his late forties, a businessman who knows how to make the best out of the worst situation. That’s what makes him a god in the construction business on the American West Coast. To him, everything starts and ends with money and power; his advice to everyone: never give your heart to someone you are expecting something from—the chances are greater for failure.
“Mr. Groston, I understand your situation, but the property you are interested in has been given to the local community center. Every day, needy people go there to eat and sleep, to receive food and clothing donations. Now you want me to kick them out?”
I’m quite frustrated with this meeting. This business tycoon wants me to demolish the community center and its surroundings and build a five-star hotel on it. The man is either much too mercenary, or he’s drunk. I understand his aggressiveness; the property is a prime location for a hotel, and it would bring both of us money and more business. But this is not about money. Over the past five years, poor and homeless people have found a safe place at the community center, regardless of any religion, caste or creed. I confess that I’m not a religious person at all but this is something I can’t play with; even being an atheist, I still have some fragments of reverence. I gave my word to the mayor of Toronto and the people of the community that the property would be theirs to use. Now Mr. Groston is asking me to destroy my credibility and take back my so-called altruistic donation.
“I can offer you better properties, Mr. Groston, all around Ontario,” I say. “My agents know the province really well and I am sure they will come up with the best deal in town, which would be fruitful for both of us.” I try to distract this stubborn man, but he fails to acknowledge me.
“So you are refusing my proposition. You cannot relocate this center anywhere else?” Groston doesn’t seem to wish to end this meeting.
“Mr. Groston, as much as I intend to do business with you, I protect my own reputation as well. You may own half of the West Coast and millions of dollars’ worth of properties, but the Canadian market is quite different. That community center serves hundreds of people every day—not just providing food and shelter, but a venue for community and religious activities. In fact, without it, many poor people and senior citizens in the area would have no place to attend religious services. In America, it may be the almighty dollar that rules, but here in Canada we try to remember that communities are for the people that live in them, not merely for those who make money off them.” My empathic values with O Canada are finally coming out. “My property agents will call you tomorrow, to show you some of the finest properties in all of Ontario, but I’m afraid this one is not available.”
Mr. Xavier Groston finally leaves, agreeing to look at some other properties, though I know he still wants this one. I stand up with him and shake hands at his departure, then sit back down for a while, thinking about his proposal. It would make a lot of money, but sometimes other things are far more valuable. On that Canada Day five years back when some seniors had approached me about land for the center, I had only the huge property that I had purchased to build a five-star hotel. Out of nowhere, a sense of humanitarianism had emerged in me and I had donated the property. That land is still under my name; no one ever got a chance to get it changed. So legally, I could do as I liked with it, including building Groston’s hotel project. But people trust me and I don’t want to break their trust. I wouldn’t say that I’m an unpretentious person, but I am loyal to my work. Anything I do or commit to, I stick to it.
I look around the restaurant. This was one of the earliest construction projects that my company had done. It was an early nineteenth-century building, and I’m proud that we preserved its original beauty. It reminds me of an old restaurant in Marseille where I once had dinner with a client. Like that restaurant, this one features complete French architecture with lights embedded in the brick walls, and accented with antique furniture. The interior centers on the huge Swarovski chandelier, and one can see the perfection in the artwork that covers the ceiling—an early medieval-era handpainted work, displaying deceased kings and queens. The lights fixed on the walls give the impression of a castle’s lanterns, but are modern fixtures. The tables and chairs are made of old dark wood, most likely imported from France to provide the feel of a castle’s dining area. I look at my wine glass and close my eyes to concentrate on the music—a song of a man declaring his love to a woman.
How could a woman change a man’s heart like that?
I finally leave the restaurant, which is on the top floor. The building has six levels, each with a different kind of business, all earning well. That’s the reason they give me their rent on time, I think, and smile to myself. I look around for the elevator and get a glimpse of a fire door to the stairs. Somehow, my heart tells me to go down that way. But when I open the door, I notice that there are stairs going up to a higher level. I thought the restaurant was on the top floor. It has been a long time since I renovated this building—did it have stairway access to the roof? Even though it’s crazy to go out on a rooftop in snowy February weather, I go up the stairs anyway. Outside, there is a wonderful view of the Toronto night skyline. I notice that there’s a lot of junk piled on the rooftop, looking like no one has moved it for ages. I look out at the lakeshore on one side and the CN tower and more high-rises on the other. The view is worth standing in the cold, and I’m glad I came up.
As I stare out over the city, a sound catches my attention. It’s music, but not the music from the restaurant. It’s magical-sounding. I try to determine where it’s coming from. There is another building connected to this one, sharing the same wall. This is quite common in our city, similar to a semi-detached house. The barrier between my roof and theirs is low, and I climb over and jump down, getting my clothes wet. The music is getting clearer. I see a door and head toward it. It feels like it has not been opened for years; in fact, like no one has ever opened it at all. I struggle with the rusted knob and finally get it to turn and open the door. I am expecting another set of fire stairs, but instead there is a passage. There is nothing to the right or left and I follow the passage; or rather, I follow the magical music.
The sound of the music is so warm and comforting that I realize I am not feeling cold anymore. I take a few more steps and what I see freezes me, just like the weather outside. There are no doors, no stairs in this piece of architecture. It’s nothing but a spiral passage leading down to ground level. I look down to the bottom and my heart comes into my throat. A girl is dancing to the music. From here on the sixth level I can’t see her face clearly, but the way she moves takes my breath away. I feel as if the dance and the music are casting a spell on me. The girl is lost in her dance, not caring about anyone watching her. I see the shadows of other people dancing with her, but since the light is on her, I am unable to see more than shadowy figures. For the first time in my life, I feel my soul is pulling me…toward her.
I start walking down that spiral passage. The music becomes clearer and melts in my ears, in my body, in my soul. I have never heard of anything like this. How can mere humans create such a heartwarming composition? I am on the second-to-last level and able to see her more clearly. She is dancing like an angel, something truly celestial. She seems to be dressed for a masquerade, in an ankle-length pink chiffon dress with a mask over her eyes. It seems like she is not carrying any weight; she is a light dove borne away by the wind. Then, I see one shadow lifting her up in the air and she swirls around with the lights and music. It is impossible to take in. I can still see the shadows dancing with her, but I don’t see any physical dancers except her. Did I drink too much tonight? I think to myself. Why can’t I see the other people? Surely they must be behind the lights.
I feel I must see the girl more closely, meet her, let her know how amazing she is when she dances. It is very unlike me, chasing after a girl. From within, my subconscious is yelling not to go against my assuetude. I ignore it and keep moving. Why can’t I take my eyes off her? This has never happened to me before. Or perhaps, I have never seen anyone like her. The intensity of the music augments my fascination. Under the colorful lights, she moves like a flower in the wind, flying like rainbow colors after a beautiful rain. I realize I’ve now reached her level, and I see that she is dancing alone.
Where did the other people go, whose shadows I saw from the top?
I look back to her, admiring her body and all her movements. The violins behind me accelerate, and so does her body. She moves round and round with the music, unaware of my presence until all of a sudden, she crashes against me. I hold her by her waist tightly to give her support. The music stops, and so does her dance. She is trying to catch her breath, her breasts moving and touching my chest as the air fills her lungs. Our eyes meet. Under the pink mask, her big eyes, darker than ebony, catch my attention. She looks at me as if she is looking directly through my soul. The madness in her eyes rips my existence and peels off my flesh and bone to search my soul. The darkness in them draws me to let her devour my presence, insanely and willingly.
I haven’t been dancing, but my heart is keeping pace with hers. Her lips are rose pink and I deeply feel the urge to kiss them, to find out if they are actually as soft as they look. Her fragrance is diffusing in me like a drug, slowly and venomously. Never have I scented such a perfume, one that could take me to another world where there is no pain, where only pleasure exists.
I want to touch her skin, but its softness and tenderness scares me in a way I have never experienced. Instead of touching her, I raise my hand to take the mask off of her beautiful face, wondering if it is as perfect underneath as it looks. She backs off and releases herself from my grip. The lights grow dimmer. The music fades. It is just me and her, staring at each other in consternation. I watch her stepping back, but cannot follow her; it’s as if my feet are frozen to the ground and I cannot move at all. I see her pick up her bag and look back at me, and then she leaves me in the darkness that she has cast on me with her one last look.
I stand there numb, not sure for how long.
What was that?
Where are the others who were dancing with her? Where was the music coming from, when there is no sound system here? Where was the light coming from, when there is only one light fixture behind me? There is certainly no one else here now. What I saw from above was either my imagination, or a hallucination. I wonder if the girl was real too, or just a part of my wild imaginings.
No, Gibson, you didn’t imagine this woman. You are far too practical. Women come to you. You don’t go after them and you do not imagine things.
I rush out of the spiral structure to catch my breath. Inside my body, my heart is skipping from one place to another. I feel like I have caught a really high fever. My body is trembling, and I can’t even stand properly on my own feet. I lean on one of the bike stands that are fixed at the corner of the walkway. A cold rain is falling, and I realize I will definitely catch a fever if I stand here much longer.
I turn around to look back, and I’m flabbergasted. There is no spiral structure behind me. It twists my mind completely, wondering where I saw that beautiful girl, and where I came out from. All the practical solutions are coming to my mind now. I had a phone with a camera; why didn’t I video her while she was dancing?
I had never seen such an alluring woman in my entire life. A refinement that surpasses all levels of beauty and grace. An artistic existence so pure that even the angels would envy it. How could someone make your heart beat so fast, without even touching, without even kissing, without even making love? The urge to see her again is unexplainable.
I haven’t hesitated to talk to people my entire life but this woman struck me mute, as by a lightning bolt from above. I have never felt so helpless. Thinking of her as I head toward home, my heart calls out William Wordsworth’s poem:
She was a phantom of delight
When first she gleamed upon my sight;
A lovely Apparition, sent
To be a moment’s ornament;
Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair;
Like Twilight’s, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful Dawn;
A dancing Shape, an Image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and way-lay.