I’m a busker. A good one if you like Spanish guitar, though far from the best in New York. If someone drops money into my guitar case his life may be transmuted forever.
I don’t know how they are chosen, but I know as soon as I see them. I saw Jennifer Brooks sitting at the Kaffee Klatsch across the street, blue skirt and white blouse, reading a paperback. She went there frequently, sometimes babysitting her niece, playing and laughing, often bringing a toy tea set to pour the tea into. But she was alone today, and she was the one.
I played my best buleria for her, and she put down her book until it was through. She crossed over while I was playing an easy solea and listened for another minute before dropping in a few bills.
In that moment I could see myself play through her eyes, a bearded man with unkempt hair and clothing that would be fine if not for its fading. My heart was her heart, and her deep regret weighed upon me for having chosen a mundane and selfish education in accounting. Her yearning beat within me to devote my life to missionary work in Central America, and now, having returned from the Peruvian mission for a visit to home, this guitarrista touched my soul.
Lisa and I were the closest of sisters growing up, and I was excited to see her and my two-year-old niece, since I’d only seen them once during my three year mission. I haled a taxi and gave him my suitcase to stow in the trunk. I didn’t recognize noticeable changes, but New York seemed foreign to me. Even my old neighborhood.
Lisa greeted me at the door with squeals of joy and pulled me into the living room, taking my suitcase upstairs, and there was my sweet niece, Sandra, on the couch. She was three times as big as last time I’d seen her.
“Hi, sweetie,” I said, and started toward her with a big grin, but her lower lip stuck out and she withdrew, fear in her eyes. “Oh, no,” I whispered. “She doesn’t remember me.” She was breaking my heart. I squatted and gave her what I hoped was a warmer smile. “It’s okay, Sandy. I’m your aunt Jen, and I love you very much. Come give me a hug, hon.”
Sandy tentatively slid off and hugged me, but she averted her eyes and climbed back onto the couch. Lisa came back downstairs and we moved to the kitchen to catch up. She told me how beautiful I was, slim and tanned, gushing about a guy she wanted to set me up with, but he was gone now.
“We’ve missed you so much,” said Lisa. She took my hand. “Sandy’s been asking about you every day for a week, and I can’t tell you how much I could use a sister to talk to.” Sandy had wriggled up on her lap and gazed at me.
“Is everything okay with you and Denny?” I asked.
“It’s okay. I’ve been really hard on him, though, and it’s taking its toll on both of us. You’ve always been like a mirror to me, showing what I’m doing wrong, even when you don’t say it. Remember when you told me how lucky I was to have him and chewed me to pieces about all my whining?”
“I keep repeating it to myself every day, but I believe it more when we chat, and you always calm me down.” I squeezed her hand. “I miss that.”
“I do, too,” I said. Talking to her had a way of keeping me centered, and sometimes off in foreign lands I felt a great uncertainty.
“But what you do is so important,” she said. “I’m so proud of you. I wish I’d had the courage to do it.”
I smiled. “It’s wonderful. I meet so many beautiful people, and they are so grateful for the help we give.”
“They’re lucky to have you. And who would be better?”
I was becoming uncomfortable with the praise, and something about it disconcerted me, as if her meaning went far deeper than either of us perceived.
“Thanks,” I said. “But what you do is important, too,” I glanced at Sandy to bring it home to her. “So so important.”
I had a sudden sense of having missed something, unable to think of anything else to say.
We spent a few days together, Denny helping a lot to give us girls some time to go out. It was a glorious time. It was almost like it was before I left, and the city began to feel familiar again.
The morning of my departure Lisa had to take Sandy to the doctors and then to kinderdance, so I packed and went to my old haunt, the Kaffee Klatsch, to pass the time journaling before cabbing to the airport. It was the perfect place for me. Peaceful solitude where I could remember my contentment. Remember?
The sound of an alegrias across the street perked me up. I grabbed my suitcase and rolled it across to listen before calling the cab. The music vibrated through my chest, bringing life I didn’t know I had. I was so captivated that it left me in stillness when he finished. I feigned a swoon and put a few dollars into his case. Then something strange and wonderful and terrifying happened.
I was two people. One dragging a suitcase to a country far away and another gripping a novel about a family of Hungarian refugees in Germany. I was also the guitarist, but I did not know him.
I didn’t understand these coexisting selves, but I knew them to be true, and a choice would mean a kind of death that I could only just fathom. Someone inside me cried, and I held on to those I loved the most, clutching my paperback to my chest and walking back to my Acura.
I was happy for her. It’s hard on a man like me, when the simple joy of busking interweaves with the eternal flux between peace and misery of many a soul’s gravest choice. I know how difficult her decision was, for I was once a physician.