According To Michael
By Stevan V. Nikolic
Second book of the “Michael Nicolau Series”, this novel follows thirty-three years in the life of Michael Nicolau. The story takes us on the long path of Michael’s soul-searching and understanding of circumstances that brought him to become a dishonored and homeless man living in the Bowery Mission, a New York City shelter.
Eager to vindicate himself and his actions, he speaks about his life for hours, day after day, to a social worker in the Bowery Mission. At the same time comic and tragic, villain and hero, Michael is wrestling with the concepts of truth, reality, hope, fate, love, and honor. In his words, truth and reality are just our personal perceptions of the things and conditions we see, hear or feel. Likewise, the whole idea of honor is very abstract and subject to cultural interpretations.
As the story unfolds, his social worker discovers many faces of Michael Nicolau: a boy that never grew up; incurable and passionate lover; master of manipulation and deception; lonely and misunderstood soul; tragic victim of his own dreams; heartless and selfish man. Which one is true and which one false? Are they all expressions of the one and the same personality?
By the end of his stay in the Bowery Mission, Michael realizes that there is a higher purpose in everything that happened to him in life, and he goes on into fulfilling his destiny.
Chapter One – THE ARRIVAL
Michael arrived to New York around seven o’clock in the evening on Wednesday. It was early March, and it was already dark when he walked out of the International Arrivals at JFK. It was cold and wet evening, with rain drizzling on the sidewalk in front of the airport terminal, filled with people pulling and carrying their luggage and walking in all directions.
Michael stopped under the glass canopy in front of the building entrance and lit a cigarette. He hadn’t smoked in more than twelve hours on the plane from Bucharest to Paris and then from Paris to New York, and he really needed a smoke.
He didn’t want to admit it to himself, but he was quite nervous. When he left New York three years ago, he was fifty years old, still married, had an apartment in Brooklyn, a functioning business, and lots of friends. And now upon his return, he was divorced and didn’t have a place to stay. His ex-wife, already grownup daughters, and many friends didn’t want to talk to him. He had no source of income and only two hundred and thirty dollars in his pocket.
However, he was glad to be back. The mess he made in Bucharest was becoming unsolvable and dangerous, and the only way out was to run away back to New York, put himself back in order and try to fix his problems from there.
He still didn’t know what he would do or how he would proceed, but he knew that he had only three days to find a solution. A room in the YMCA Hostel in Flushing, Queens was sixty dollars per night. He just had enough for three nights, and that is where he planned to stay until he figured out his next move. If he didn’t come up with anything, he would find himself out on the street. He really didn’t want that.
But at that moment, he was just tired and wanted to find the fastest and cheapest way to get to Flushing. He took the Air train to Jamaica Station, and from there he took a bus to Flushing. It was a long ride and he arrived at Flushing a little bit before nine. From the bus station to the YMCA was only a couple of blocks and he checked into the Hostel soon after.
The room was small but warm, with only one twin size bed, a table, dresser with a mirror and TV. The bathroom was outside at the end of the hallway. Michael unpacked his backpack. He had only two shirts, one sweater, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, and his laptop in there. Besides the clothing he was wearing – a black suit, black dress shirt, black shoes, socks, underwear, leather spring jacket and silk scarf, those were all the belongings he had.
He walked out to buy some food and toiletries at the pharmacy on Main Street. The rain was still drizzling, but it didn’t bother him. He looked at the people walking around. They were mostly Korean. Flushing was predominantly a Korean neighborhood with lots of ethnic stores and restaurants. Michael knew this area very well. Many years back, he lived there for a couple of years with his wife and kids. It was before they finally moved to Brooklyn.
Walking down the street brought memories back to him. He looked at the familiar storefronts, buildings, bakery on the corner of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue. He passed by the building where they used to live and could almost hear the voices of his daughters from the past talking to him. Melancholy took over him for a moment, but he knew it was a past that couldn’t come back. He should snap out of it and think about his present situation. Three days will pass fast and he had to find a way of surviving in New York, he thought.
He stopped by the subway station and bought a weekly train pass. He would have to move around a lot in those days and that was the best way of transportation in the city.
In the pharmacy he bought a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, deodorant, shaving cream and razor, and a large bag of potato chips. He was left with fifteen dollars after these purchases, so he decided to buy a small bottle of wine for five dollars to celebrate his return to New York. The rest he would keep for food for the following days. He had two packs of cigarettes already, so he was set – he thought. As long as he manages to find a solution in next couple of days.
Back in the hostel room, he took off his shoes, turned on the TV and sat on the bed. There was no cable, only basic channels, so he turned on the local ten-o’clock news. It had been a long time since he had watched NY local news; but he really couldn’t concentrate on the news. The sound of the TV was just an audio reminder of the fact of where he was. Like background noise.
He was back in New York with no money and nobody to turn to for help. In his mind it was still better than remaining back in Bucharest. Back there it was just a matter of time until he ended up in the jail or dead. He was too deep in trouble, and the only solution was to run away. But now he had to think and act fast if he didn’t want to find himself on the street. He had to find a place to stay and a source of income.
Michael opened the wine bottle. He was lucky that it was a screw top. If it had been a cork he would have had a hard time opening it. He poured wine in the small plastic cup that he had found on the desk in the hotel room, looked into his image in the mirror on the dresser across the bed, and raised the cup up saying to himself:
“Salute Michael. Welcome back to New York.”
He wasn’t happy with what he was seeing in the mirror. His hair and beard were grayer than before. He was seeing wrinkles on his face that were not there just a year ago. He looked older and troubled. The once constant glitter in his eyes that was almost his trademark for many years, was now completely gone. He was a tired and defeated man. In the past few months he lost quite a bit of weight, and for a normally six-foot-tall slim man, he now looked like a shadow of himself.
Michael took a small black Moleskine notebook from his backpack and started looking through it. In there were written all his contacts for the last few years – all his friends, business associates and relatives. He went slowly from one name to another down the list. To most of the people on the list he owed something, a favor or money, so he couldn’t call them to ask for anything. The rest were still close friends of his ex-wife and those he couldn’t call either.
He was thinking about his past and the many people he met while living in New York. He really never knew how to maintain and nourish friendships. Most of his friends he would call only when he needed something, and then he would not call them again until the next time he needed a favor. People were noticing that and often commented to him about his bad habit. He knew the importance of always keeping doors open behind him in any type of relationship, but somehow he always managed to shut the doors, and lose any opportunity to renew or come back to a given association or friendship. So, after twenty years of life in New York, the list of people that he could potentially turn to for help was really very short.
He selected a couple of names of people with whom he might have some chance and copied their phone numbers on a piece of paper. He will call them tomorrow, he thought.
Michael was tired but he couldn’t sleep. After he finished the bottle of wine, sleep finally took over him.
He was woken up by the noise of the garbage truck early in the morning. He went to the bathroom, and took a long shower. He got dressed, put his laptop in the backpack, and walked out onto the street.
It was a wet and cloudy Thursday morning, cold, with no sun. Michael stopped by McDonald’s and bought coffee to drink on the train.
He decided to go to the Barnes and Noble bookstore on Union Square. They had free Wi-Fi there and he needed to check his mail and look on Craigslist for potential employment opportunities. He didn’t really know if he would find anything. The last time he worked for somebody else, was almost fifteen years ago. Since then he was always self-employed. And he wasn’t a young man anymore. For most of the positions that he could potentially apply for he would be either overqualified or too old.
It was around eight when Michael made it to Union Square. It was just then when he realized that Barnes and Noble opened at ten, and that he would have to walk around till then. He could go to Starbucks and sit there, but that would mean spending an extra two dollars for the coffee. So he decided to walk.
He walked uptown Broadway to 23rd street, then crossed to Park Avenue, and back down to Union square. In two hours he had made several circles already. He was looking at busy people passing by him. They were all going somewhere. Rushing to get to work or to school, or back home from work. It seemed to him that he was the only one walking aimlessly, slowly, waiting for time to pass. He felt like everybody passing by him knew that.
Up until three years ago he was one of those busy people rushing around New York with a purpose. Now everything changed, he thought. He was a homeless man with a few bucks in his pocket and with no visible perspective. Only God knew how he would get out of this position that he brought himself to.
He stopped in front of Barnes and Noble ten minutes before ten. A few people were already there waiting for the doors to open. Some of them were early customers who wanted to buy a book or a magazine, or just have a cup of coffee in the cozy bookstore café. Others were homeless people, unshaven and smelly, who wanted to use the facilities or hide in some corner trying to rest and warm up while pretending they were looking for a book.
Michael knew that the only thing making him different than these homeless men were two more paid nights in the YMCA Hostel and a few dollars in his pocket.
Michael entered the store and went to the third floor café. He was one of the first people arriving there, so he was able to pick a table next to the window overlooking Union Square. It was a good spot to spend the next few hours. He could organize himself, make some kind of plan, do research online, and figure out his options.
Just brewed dark roast coffee smelled inviting. He bought a small coffee and a glazed donut. This would be his only food for the whole day, he thought. He couldn’t afford more, if he was to eat something the next two days.
He logged into Craigslist but couldn’t find any jobs there that looked promising. But that wasn’t the only problem. Being self-employed for so many years didn’t give him many employment references. He didn’t know who he would put as a reference even if he did find a position to apply for.
Michael looked at his G oogle email account. There were several unpleasant emails from his, now former, business associates in Bucharest. By now, they realized that something went wrong and that he disappeared. He was sure that they were already in panic and looking for him in his apartment and office. If nothing else, he was at least saved from their wrath. He knew that he was in a tight corner when they brought that nasty looking loan-shark to his Bucharest apartment two days ago.
“Michael, everything that you owed us, you now owe to him, and he wants it back in forty eight hours,” they told him. One look at this man was enough for Michael to realize that the line was crossed, and if he didn’t want to end up in the gutter on the outskirts of Bucharest, he had to run.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make. Three years ago, when he left New York and went to Bucharest, he intended to stay there and never return . He had a small apartment there, a cat, a twenty- four year old girlfriend, and friends that he liked to hang out with in neighborhood café bars. If not for the disastrous book publishing business that he started there, the source of all his troubles, life in Bucharest would have been quite pleasant.
And now he was sitting in the Barnes and Noble café trying to figure out what to do next. He looked one more time through his Moleskine note book, but besides two names that he picked last night he couldn’t call anybody else.
One of them was Jack Rothstein. He was a banker, working in the New York o ffice of the Deutsche Bank on Park Avenue. Michael knew him and his partner, Mark, from the Grolier Club, where Michael was a member for many years. Michael thought that they both still liked him. He use to borrow small sums of money from Jack , but he would always return it, so he thought, if nothing else, he was in good standing with them. Also, he never showed any prejudice towards two gay people living together, as many other members of the club had. Michael always thought that both of them respected that.
The other one was David Elliot. He was a marketing executive living in Greenwich, Connecticut. Michael knew him from the Masonic Lodge. For almost twenty years they were both members of the Lafayette Lodge No. 30 in the Grand Lodge of New York. Michael left Freemasonry abruptly in 2008, but he thought that David still liked him and that he would be willing to help. Years back, David lost a lot of money i n the stock market, and Michael was one of many friends who helped him get back on his feet and restart his business. He hoped that David remembered that.
Michael decided to send an email to Jack explaining his situation instead of calling him. He wasn’t sure if Jack’s old number still worked.
He wrote a short email telling Jack that he had been in Romania for three years, where he lost all of his money in a failed business venture, that he came back to New York and that he was looking for a place to stay for a while, a job, and maybe a small loan to put himself back together. He didn’t want to go too much into details. He wasn’t sure, if Jack and Mark were still in touch with his ex-wife, and she was the last person in the world he would want to share his troubles with now.
He sent the email. As he was sending it, he was thinking how sad his situation was. He had in his Gmail contact list, over seven thousand addresses of family members, friends, business associates, acquaintances, and many others, that he had come across or gotten to know over many years of living in New York. And now, out of all these people, he could only ask two for help. He was asking himself what kind of person was he that went through life like the elephant through the china shop, leaving just damage behind. How was it possible that he could not maintain any of his relationships with the people around him?
Michael walked out of Barnes and Noble around one o’clock in the afternoon. He lit up a cigarette while looking for a phone booth to call David.
“Hello David,” he said. “This is Michael. How are you?”
“Hi Michael. W hat a surprise. I haven’t heard from you in a long time. How are you doing?”
“I am back in New York and not very good. It is the reason I’m calling you. I’m not sure how much you know about my ventures lately, but I spent the last three years in Romania, trying to do a publishing business there, and I lost all my money in those investments, and now, I’m back in New York and not in very good shape. I am looking for a job and for a place to stay. Also, I am out of money and I was going to ask you for small loan of a few hundred dollars, to help me until I put myself back together. I’m really in bad shape, my friend, and there are not too many people I can turn to for a help.”
“I am sorry to hear this Michael. I wish I could help you. But things are not very good for me lately as well. Business is not good, my wife hasn’t been working for a year, and I myself keep borrowing money, left and right in order to pay my bills. It is not easy. My monthly expenses are really high. So, tough luck when it comes to money. But a friend of mine is opening a new marketing company, and he may need writers. I can give you his phone number. You can call him and mention my name. This is as much as I can do. Really sorry, bro.”
“David, I’m embarrassed to say this, but really, anything would help. I am down to my last ten bucks and have two more nights in the YMCA paid. If I don’t do something, I’ll be on the street next. I really need immediate help, if you know what I mean.”
“Sorry Michael, but I can’t do anything. I could ask some of the other Brothers from our Lodge, but you didn’t leave on good terms. I will ask anyway. Did you talk to your ex-wife?
“No, David, don’t spread this. I don’t want others to know about my situation. Especially not my ex-wife. Can you give me your friend’s number, please?”
David gave him a phone number, and said, “I am really sorry Michael. I have to take another call now. Good luck to you.” H e hung up.
Michael spent the rest of the afternoon walking around. He went all the way up Park Avenue to 96th street, then across to Central Park, through it to the West side, and down Broadway back to Union Square. He wasn’t tired, but his backpack felt heavier after a while. Its weight made him feel uncomfortable.
In the evening he went to McDonald’s to take a break and check his email. He ordered coffee. It was 99 cents, half price of the coffee at Barnes and Noble. It is true that Barnes and Noble’s café was a much cozier and comfortable place, but McDonald’s had Wi-Fi, too.
There was no answer from Jack. This wasn’t good. Michael knew Jack well enough to know that he was very diligent when it came to correspondence. He never left his mail unanswered, regardless of how frivolous or unimportant they were. Was it possible that Jack would ignore him and his plea for help? Not even answer it with a yes or no; just ignore it?
When Michael walked out of McDonald’s, it was already nine in the evening. It was chilly for March, but still pleasant. Union Square was all lit up by the lights from the surrounding stores . People were walking in all directions across Union Square. There were so many beautiful young women passing by. Michael could not help but notice them. He was standing in the middle of the plateau on the square smoking a cigarette and watching girls pass by.
He was thinking of times passed when he was the one walking across Union Square to the clubs and restaurants. He was wondering if times like that will ever return.
Michael returned to Flushing to his h ostel room. The first day back in New York wasn’t very successful. He felt like he wanted to drink something, to forget the situation he was in, but he didn’t have enough money. If he bought wine again, he would be left without any money, and he couldn’t do that.
He was looking at the TV screen without really watching the program. His mind was blocked. He wanted desperately to find a solution. Yes, so far it worked out. He was able to escape from Bucharest, but what now? Nothing was coming to his mind. It was making him nervous. What if, he doesn’t figure out anything? What would he do next?
He couldn’t sit in the room. He needed a smoke. So he went out and walked around Flushing desperately trying to come up with an idea.
His Romanian prepaid mobile phone rang. He still had some money on it, so it was still working. It was his girlfriend from Bucharest calling. He answered.
“Hi Eliza, my love, how are you?”
“Not good, Michael. I miss you. You didn’t call. You made me worried. I couldn’t sleep. Are you already in New York?”
“Yes, I am in New York. I wasn’t sure how much money I had on my phone. That is why I didn’t call. I was going to write you a long email tonight.”
“Michael, when I came back from work last night, Volodya was in front of my building with two other scary looking men sitting in a car and waiting. They put me in the back seat and they drove to your place. They were parked there for two hours waiting for you. He was asking about your whereabouts and threatening me. I told him that you went to New York and that you are coming back in a week, but he didn’t believe me. He was saying that you would never travel anywhere without me. The man sitting next to me in the back smacked me in the face with his fist and told me that if I didn’t tell them where you really were that they would rape me and then slash me with a knife. It was only when I started crying that Volodya opened the side door and they kicked me out. I still have a black eye and my cheek is swollen. I am afraid, Michael. My father was very angry when he saw me and I couldn’t tell him the truth about what happened and why. These men are dangerous, Michael. I am afraid that they are going to show up again .”
“Please, don’t worry Eliza. I will call Volodya and talk to him. They will not show up any more. And have patience, my love. As soon as I settle here, I will send you a ticket to come and be with me. It will be before the end of the month, I promise you that. I love you so much and I miss you.”
“Oh, Michael, I need you next to me. I am used to sleeping in your bed with you. Please, rush with whatever it is that you have to do. I want to be next to you. I need your arms around me. I love you, Michael.”
“I love you, too, Eliza. Everything will be ok. You will see. Don’t worry. I have to stop now. I think that I am running out of money. Good night my love and sleep well. Kisses.”
“I love you. Kisses, Michael.”
Michael pressed the stop button on his phone. He was upset that Volodya got to Eliza. He felt guilty for what had happened. His hands were shaking. He wanted to scream. But all he did was light up another cigarette. He felt helpless. He really loved Eliza, yet he left her there, knowing full well that Volodya would try to get to him through her. It was not like he had a choice. He didn’t have any money. Even the money that helped him to run away to New York, he took from Volodya under false pretenses. That probably made Volodya even angrier realizing that his money enabled Michael to disappear. He must have felt really stupid. And the story about settling in New York and sending her an airplane ticket soon was a lie. There was no way that he would be able to settle down by the end of the month and have enough money to get her a ticket. It could only happen by some miracle or if he robbed a bank – and didn’t get caught.
It wasn’t like Michael was lying on purpose, like he wanted to deceive her. He really wanted to bring her to New York. The problem was that he didn’t know himself, how and when. He never told her that there was nothing waiting for him in New York anymore . That he would have to start from the beginning, just as he did twenty-five years ago, when he first came to New York. Even worse . Then he had a place to stay, and he had a job right away. Now he had neither.
He was lying about calling Volodya too. He knew it would not be good. By calling him and asking him to leave Eliza alone, it would just show that he cared about her, and they would go after her even more. The only chance was to ignore Volodya completely. They would calm down after a while, he knew that.