Robert looks up, confused.
I hold up my hand. “An idea is forming in my brain.”
His expression clears in understanding. “No, Buttercup.”
“He’s exactly what you’re describing,” I insist. “You’ve never heard him, but trust me—he is.”
“He plays guitar. Honey, I know you’re enamored, but—”
“It’s not that, I swear. And he’s not just some busker hanging out on the street. He’s gifted, Robert. Listening to him play is like watching Luis onstage. I feel the notes. I know I’m not . . .” I search for words, flushing. Trying to tell Robert how to do his job is dangerous; he may be my uncle, but he’s been a brilliant musician for much longer.
“I’m not a trained musician like you are,” I say carefully, “but I feel like classical guitar might work here. It’s gentle, and soft, yes, but has the passion and—the vibrancy you mention? It has that. If we’re changing the sound entirely by bringing in Ramón, why not change it this way, too? Have a guitar sing with Ramón, instead of a violin?”
Robert stares at me, speechless.
“Just come with me once.” I grow dizzy from the awareness that I might be convincing him. “Once. That’s all it will take. I know it.”
There’s something almost comical about seeing the impeccable Robert Okai walk into a subway station the following Monday. As he descends into the shadows of the stairs, it occurs to me that since I’ve lived in New York, I’ve never ridden with him in anything other than a town car or a cab. He grew up in the dusty streets of western Africa, playing on the world’s most battered violin and wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and sandals, but it’s impossible to imagine him in any other state than he is today: wrapped in a long wool coat, blue cashmere scarf, black tailored pants, and polished shoes. It’s safe to say I look slightly less polished in my purple cast and fuzzy pink cardigan.
But he isn’t snobby; he dives right into the crowd. He isn’t squeamish about the grime on the handrail or the puddle of filthy water at the bottom of the first flight of stairs. It’s more that Robert gives off the sense that his humble beginnings could never deny who he was meant to become: an exceptionally talented maestro.
As for me, my heart is hammering wildly beneath my breastbone, and I have both fists wrapped around the strap of my bag to keep them from trembling. Not only is Robert coming with me to listen to Calvin play, but it will be obvious to Calvin that I’ve brought someone here specifically to watch him play, thereby making it apparent that I have watched him in the past, maybe many times in the past, and thought about how someone else should join me.
Also, I really don’t want to be wrong about this. Robert’s esteem means everything to me. If he doesn’t agree about Calvin’s talent, I know deep down it will tarnish something within me about Calvin in particular, and my own creative compass in general.
But my nerves may be wasted: other than the screech of the train or the occasional burst of an announcement audible on the stairs, the station is mostly silent. In the past several months, Calvin has been here every Monday night. Has he abruptly changed his routine in one week?
My stomach drops. Sometime, weeks ago, it stopped occurring to me that Calvin might eventually move on from the busking gig. It’s one of those unintentionally selfish assumptions I’m always shocked to find myself making: I just imagined he would be here forever—or at least until I stopped wanting to see him every day. The prospect of never seeing him again sends a cold shiver of panic down my arms.
But as we turn the corner to go down the last flight, the iconic, seductive opening notes of “El Porompompero” drift up, and Robert pauses, his foot caught midair.
As always, the song begins slowly, flirtatiously, and Robert’s pace picks up. Calvin’s feet come into view—then legs, hips, and guitar, then torso and chest and neck and head—and the rhythm increases, the music taking off in an addicting swirl; Calvin alternately strums his guitar and gently slaps it like a drum.
I watch Robert as he listens. In any audience, Robert is a fascinating mix of wildly effusive praise and stern critique, and the only sign I have that he’s mesmerized—for he’s looking down at the floor, as if working out some complicated mental logic problem—is the tiny tap of his index finger in time with the music.
Moving my eyes up just the smallest bit, I catch the quickened rise and fall of his breath in his chest. For my part, I can barely breathe. We’re here, watching Calvin together, and the enormity of the proposition—Consider him for your production—and the fact that he is indeed considering him hit me in a dizzy haze.
Desperate to contribute something, my emotional brain immediately sprints to shelter: I could be saving Robert!
My logical brain holds up a hand: Don’t get ahead of yourself, Holland.
Calvin’s eyes are closed, his head bent chin-to-chest. I watch him sway, lost to the music he’s making. Would his posture change if he had any awareness that the composer of It Possessed Him was standing only four feet away?
Calvin usually takes a small break between pieces, tuning his guitar under the apparent impression that he’s in a bubble. With a final flourish of fingers over strings, he stops, pauses, and then inhales, wearing an expression of bliss as he looks up.
But he’s never in a bubble, and we’re standing right there. His breath catches, and his eyes widen. He’s not looking at me.