New York Stories

I had an idea about New York. It’s a strange thing, a story I told myself on the walk home this evening, a rumination on people that both overlapped and never met, and feelings that could never have happened concurrently, even if they wanted to, but somehow did. Anyway, I liked it, and now it’s sitting there in my brain, waiting to be told. So I’m going to tell you.

First, let me start by explaining that this story is not going to be very fulfilling to you. I’m sorry, but that’s just the truth. Because it’s my story, and it’s very small, but also because it’s all nestled together like little matryoshka dolls in my head. Actually, a better way of explaining what I’m seeing would be to tell you to imagine the pages in an expensive art book, the old type with three color printing and tissue paper between each plate. Look at these beautiful illustrations, so richly colored – those velvety blues, and luscious reds! Handle the pages oh so gently. Now let the sheet of tissue softly float back to protect the art, then take a moment to marvel at the change. The memory is still there, still lovely and still, but a layer of sepia and smoke keeps it just out of reach of your fingertips, allows you to worship the idea of it without getting it greasy. Welcome to my New York.

My mother was born in Queens, to my grandmother, a native New Yorker, and my grandfather, a Nebraska farm boy turned U.S. Marine. Mum only lived in NYC for a year before her family moved to Pennsylvania, then Georgia, and eventually North Carolina. To my knowledge, she’s never even been back to her mother’s hometown; she certainly carries no mannerisms that would allow people to guess her geographic origin story. When I was growing up, people always mentioned that I was lacking an accent, and I did my best to cultivate this non-accent, to make it mine. I’d explain that my father was from North Carolina, but my mother was from New York, and the two cancelled each other out. I believed that I had no accent until I moved to New Orleans, where people started mentioning my Southern drawl. It is still one of the first things that many people mention about me. I hate it with a passion. Not the accent, just the fact that it seems to mean something to people. Many men seem to find it sexy. I typically find those men repulsive.

In college, I enrolled in a work-study program that allowed students to work a set number of hours to pay for a portion of their room and board at the school. As luck would have it, my work-study job was actually in the work-study office, helping other students find jobs. It was a little like being a matchmaker, and I enjoyed it. One of the perks of working there was a boy who came by the office weekly to turn in his timesheet and flirt with me. His name was Josh, and he was an Italian immigrant who had grown up in New York City. Eventually he disappeared to spend a year tramping in Italy, working in a vineyard, but when he came back, we dated for a few weeks. He was so warm and genuine, so full of life, and I was simultaneously entranced and unnerved. It didn’t work out, but that part didn’t really matter. We remained friends.

Among the other interesting men I dated in college, there was a Quebecois named Alex. We saw each other for a few months in freshman year, and remained friends until he quite literally disappeared at some point in my junior year. He told his friends he was going home for the weekend, then never came back, ignoring all phone calls and letters. This was before Facebook, so we wondered if he was dead. It became an obsession for me, and I worried about him for years, until sometime around 2005 or so, I placed a classified ad on Craigslist in every town listed for Quebec. He wrote me a bemused email, and mystery answered, I stopped caring so much about Alex. What I never told him (or anyone, for that matter, until now), was that one of the reasons I found him so important was that I also had a crush on one of his friends, let’s call him Joe.

I will always remember Joe the way he was when I first met him, lounging at the smoker’s tables outside of Monroe Hall. It is twilight, and his face melts into shadow, his outline clearly delineated in the yellow florescent glow flooding out of the dormitory’s glassed-in foyer. He had a husky voice, and a terrible New Jersey accent, both accentuated by his propensity to talk about three times louder than necessary. He wore an interestingly awful hat. Was it a Kangol? I think so. He had piercings, and dated a beautiful girl who scared me, and since he scared me, too, I never actually talked to him. He was beloved to me, though, and a part of my circle of friends, and he still is, in a distant kind of way.

After Hurricane Katrina, I lost my mind. I did not know it then. Really I don’t think I started to understand exactly how far I’d unraveled until a year or so ago, and only now, as I fixate on seemingly unrelated points, am I understanding how this all connects. Or could connect. Does it connect? Do we care? Flip the page. Examine the illustration. See all the fine detail. Here and there it’s odd, it seems like maybe the printing was incomplete. What’s missing here? Don’t worry, let the tissue paper settle, and voila! See, the image is whole again. Where were we?

Yes, before the storm I was in a tumultuous un-relationship with a musician. He was my second love, the one that I couldn’t quite let get away after the first one cut ties and ran. This one, Luke, was sensitive, magical even. I knew the sound of his horn out of all the others playing on Frenchmen Street. You could have loosed me like some kind of musical bloodhound, and my ears would tug my heart in a straight line to wherever he was playing. It was torture. Maybe it’s why I don’t go out too much, even now, so many years later. We weren’t together, but after Katrina, everyone was clinging to whatever flotsam and jetsam they could find, and he allowed me to use him as a lifeline. I was living in Chicago at the time, but traveled to New Jersey to pick up some things he’d rescued from my house. While I was there, he wrote and played his horn and began a romance with another singer, a singer who actually had the guts to sing on stage with her own band. I was devastated all over again, and it was with swollen eyes and a voice that couldn’t stop breaking that I took the train into New York for the day to meet Josh. It was my first visit to my mom’s hometown.

I met my friend Brandy at the train station, and she took me to The Cloisters, then to the spot where I’d arranged to meet Josh. We hadn’t seen each other in years, but with his customary warmth, he immediately rushed to hug me, then linked arms and proudly showed me around his city. We looked at the empty spot where the Twin Towers had stood, then walked to a little Halal restaurant he knew a few blocks away that had a buffet lunch for less than $5. He was so full of sunshine, and even in a city so big, he made friends like it was no trouble at all. I traveled happily in his wake, feeling renewed by his optimism and positivity. We looked out over the harbor at the Statue of Liberty, so tiny in the distance. We stood in Times Square. We watched the ice skaters floating by in Rockefeller Plaza, that ridiculous Christmas tree blazing in the background. We joked about emptying a bag of Skittles on the ice, and had a nice, mean laugh, my favorite. Before it was time to catch my train back to New Jersey, we had one last coffee. I wish I…

Josh died a few years later, and I didn’t find out about it for months. His friends planted a tree for him out in Prospect Park.

About a month after the last time I saw Josh alive, I woke up one morning in Chicago in my post-Katrina apartment and decided it was time to move back to New Orleans. I re-enrolled in my Masters program, and on the very first day of classes, I met yet another New Yorker, Dan, from Long Island. We started dating a year later, and were together for almost eight years. But before that started, something else happened. Joe came to town.

Joe’s call was out of the blue. He was going on a road trip, and planned to come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Could he stay with me? My first thought was to wonder how he even remembered who I was, but I quickly decided that it was probably just a fluke. He remembered seeing me around in college, found out I was still in the area through mutual friends, and took a chance that I’d have a place for him to camp out while he was in town. How was he to realize that I’d never say no? There was no way that he could have guessed that I’d had a crush on him for years, especially since my foolproof plan for not embarrassing myself in front of outgoing people is/was/will always be to avoid them at all costs. To put it lightly, I was terrified and intrigued. Who was this person now? Could we be in the same room without me melting into the floor?

It ended up being a great visit. Joe was in town for a weekend, and was the perfect houseguest. We went to the first parade of the season, traipsed around the French Quarter, went to see live music, and had a pretty great time together. By the time the night was over, I realized that my instincts had always been dead on. Joe was not only intriguing and frightening and cool, he was solid, kind, and fun to be around. I felt at ease around him, which is a very high mark of achievement. Joe also met Dan, which I weirdly needed to have happen. In some small way, I wanted Joe’s nod of approval. They got along, the weekend ended, Joe went home, and eventually things started up with Dan.

When Dan and I had dated for two or three years, we moved to Chicago together. The move didn’t work out for him, and eventually he had to move back to New Orleans, but for the next three years or so, I lived in Chicago and he traveled back and forth between the cities. One night, I was on the Clark Street bus on my way home, and looking through Facebook. I’d been trying to call Josh for a few months, off and on, and wasn’t having much luck, but he was always in Italy for long stretches, or off on some adventure. I figured that maybe he’d changed his number, or was away again, but then I had a flash of inspiration to look for him online. I searched for his name, and a memorial page popped up, complete with his picture. I’d like to say that I started sobbing, but what really happened was that the warmth got sucked straight out of me, like all the feeling in my chest was gone. I stared at his beautiful face and wondered what cruel joke this was. When I got home, I started writing frantic messages to the page admins – where was Josh?  The call came the next afternoon. A very nice guy who’d had six months longer than I had to come to terms with the situation explained to me that they’d been out partying, Josh had gone to sleep on the couch, and he just hadn’t woken up. It was an accidental overdose. The most alive person I ever knew, dead. I wish I could put two tissue pages over this. I don’t really want to see it.

A couple of years later, Dan’s job sent him on assignment to New York, where he had a hotel room and the entire larger-than-life city at his fingertips. The museums, the shops, the architecture, the restaurants, a person can live in NYC for their entire life and never really need to leave. Comedy clubs, seedy dives, FASHION, specialty cinemas (get your mind out of the gutter), so many foreign languages being spoken, fantastic Chinese food, ohmygodBAGELSANDSCHMEAR, history overlapping and rubbed raw in places, it’s THE CITY. The one. The one with $5 Halal buffets.

He bought groceries and ate in his hotel room. He watched TV. Sometimes he splurged and bought a sub from a place down the street. He had to save money, he said. Our relationship had been dying, but this behavior hurt me in a way I couldn’t express. I had traveled long in other people’s wakes, I had stayed out of rooms just to avoid uncomfortable truths, I had stopped music all-together just to keep from hearing one specific horn. I could not stand watching him let New York City go to waste.

I came up to visit Dan and do the sightseeing that I’d wished he’d do. We visited the Empire State Building, the Met, Central Park, St. John the Divine, Times Square, and a host of other places. I walked 17 miles in flip flops one day. While there, I also made plans to meet up with Joe for a drink, since he’d moved to New York not long after college.

The bar wasn’t too far away from my hotel, and I had fun navigating the neighborhood on my own. Neither of us was familiar with the place, but it turned out to be western themed, with country music on the jukebox and plenty of whiskey at the bar. As it turns out, we both appreciate a good bourbon, and since the prices were surprisingly cheap for New York, we lingered for a few hours, sipping our drinks and having a long, interesting conversation. He was showing his age; his eyes were tired. But as he got talking, the rambunctious personality crept back. I was surprised at how much we had in common, and how much I respected the man he’d grown into. We were both thoughtful, but in different ways. Joe commanded a level of passion that I found impossible to show. He was a warrior. He was a controlled flame, waiting to envelope his enemies. Next to him, I was a fledgling monk, a placid little pool. Maybe my depths were disarming, but then again, maybe not. Many days, I came close to drowning inside myself. I wondered if he worried about burning up before he had made his mark.

As the night wore on, I told Joe about Josh, alive and working the grape vines somewhere in Italy, dead on someone’s couch, now a plaque on a tree in some park. Joe urged me to visit the park the next day. I said I would, but in the end, it never happened. I drank too much that night, a reaction to having to go back to share a hotel room with the man who didn’t want to see the city, coupled with the weird challenge of getting to share a private, completely platonic moment with a guy I’d been crushing on since I was 17, as well as a nice strong dose of sorrow for the man who’d never get to leave New York again. My hangover the next day was exquisite, to say the least.

Joe walked me back towards the hotel, and gave me a big bear hug goodbye. In memory, I pressed a little closer than I should have, but I don’t think he noticed. As he ambled off to find a cab, I started to cross the street to the hotel, then realized that I was in the city that never sleeps – I should get a slice of pizza. Instead, just a block away, I happened across an all night Halal buffet – $10.

Times change.

A Life Built On Caution

In yoga class, our teachers speak of being calm and centered. We’re told to close our eyes, breathe deeply, empty our minds of stray thoughts, focus on the now. For awhile there, I could fool myself into thinking that I was doing it properly. Surely no one could really shed all of the layers, sink so far into themselves that they could fall through and out the other side. Giving way to that is like coming to terms with allowing space to reach down and pluck you up into the sky. To fall up into that vast airlessness with joy? Insane. Impossible. Why think on it?

So I took those breaths, felt my diaphragm expand, explored the thrumming of my heart in my rib cage, tried to quiet the moths-in-a-jar brain, sought to expel the never-ending question: “What do you want out of life? What do you want out of life? What do you want out of life? What do you want…?” In the end, though, I always lost the battle. The questions, the worry, the sadness – everything fell back into place the moment I opened my eyes. The moths threatened to fly me where I wouldn’t let myself float – but being dragged is not the same as volunteering. At times I felt like I was watching myself go mad by the inch.

I had a good idea of my biggest problem, the thing I’d need to change to open a path to every other thing that needed fixing. I’d known for years. But my life was nothing if not built on caution. So many missed chances, all to avoid confrontation.

Back during my undergrad days, I went to a music festival with a big group of friends. Someone suggested that we scale a fence to sneak in – a move that meant a fortune in savings for broke college students. One by one, each friend shimmied over, then stood on the other side, waiting for me, the last man across. With one hand clutching the chain link and both feet safely planted on the grass, I realized I just couldn’t do it. What if someone caught us? What if I got my dress caught in the fence and had to be cut down by firemen? What if a cop came up just as I was climbing, and took me to jail? What if I fell to my death and then my friends got arrested for trespassing and my mom had to come identify my body, but while my friends were in Orleans Parish Prison one of them got shanked and…you get the picture. In the end, the friends got tired of waiting and pooled together to buy my ticket.

Years went by. The festival was just one tiny swell in a sea of avoidance. No confrontation for me, please. I’ll do almost anything to get out of getting a stern talking to, or having to give one. Still, I knew that this would lead to my downfall. Words must be said. Left to their own devices, they become moths. They create their own dank wind, and push you around in it. They must be freed. I knew that parts of my life needed to be adjusted – conversations must be had. I was only sipping at life, while I yearned to breathe it in freely. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. The moths became frantic.

Then something happened. Someone happened. It wasn’t all at once – there were years of glimpses, hours of overheard conversations, not just a few minutes of idle daydreams. He was just a person that I admired, innocently, from afar. He was a creator, a man of brooding intensity. He had a way with words that intimidated me. I stood outside, looking at him through the fence, hoping (with little faith) that maybe he’d notice me and climb over to my side. It took awhile, but one day I caught him gazing back at me through the wire mesh. Grinning, he held up a pair of wire cutters.

In most stories, this moment of recognition would be the death knell. After all, real life is never as good as fantasy. Men held high in estimation soon crumble beneath the stark lens of reality. But not here. Not in my story. Because once he entered my realm, once my mind finally had permission to encounter him from all dimensions, not as a symbol, but a flesh and blood man, things fell into place. He was even better from up close. Next to him, I found I could breathe again.

We were friends, and nothing more. But still, I felt the moths start to straggle away, one by one. I gingerly explored this new feeling of empty fullness. From the first true conversation, there was never another day where my brain got snagged in a loop of “What do you want out of life?” I was becoming free. I was terrified. I was ecstatic. Only one (large) puzzle piece remained. How would I find the courage to finally take a chance?

Here I’ll be honest, though it pains me to say it. For awhile, I thought I’d have to give up on this new hope. I was so scared to make a move that I almost didn’t make one. After almost eight years in a relationship, especially one where your significant other professes to adore you, heart and soul, not being able to return the feeling is still just a small problem. There are other things to consider – so many. Shared movie collections, bank accounts, bill payments, furniture…I had grown accustomed to being taken care of, and I didn’t have faith that I knew how to take care of myself anymore. I had been made to feel small, less, and my once wild nature had long since stopped raging, laying limp at the bottom of its cage. A life without passion was draining my soul dry, but I was almost willing to let it happen, just to avoid confrontation.

Before, I was resigned to living a lie to save myself from having to make my partner upset. It seemed messy. Why not put it off? I kept telling myself that maybe I’d change my mind, that maybe I just didn’t understand what “love” meant. Maybe this was all there was, and my dreamer’s heart was just inventing new ways to cause itself grief. Then there were the other issues – my credit is shot, my debt is insurmountable, my career aspirations are not panning out, apartments are expensive, the city is dangerous, what will my parents say, I’m getting old – what about children, and so on, and so on. And now we’re years down the path, and I’m fading away, and he hasn’t seen me or talked to me or laughed at my jokes or heard me cry at night after he falls asleep for years on end.

Without intending it, my new friendship blossomed into more. For awhile I endeavored to avoid him, especially when I knew in my heart that I was too weak and broken for change, that I’d never make a move, and I’d end up breaking myself and my friend in one fell swoop. Nothing untoward occurred. There were no whispered secrets, no stolen kisses, nothing at all that would lead anyone – especially me – to realize that we were becoming our own new entity. Then one night, there was a concert. Conversation. Laughter. Not-so-secret tears. A smile that made his eyes glow like tidal pools, bathed in the light of a full moon. He became my beacon, calling me home. Later, he called me beautiful. How could I explain that it was because I was reflecting him? I told him to wait. I was on my way.

To my surprise, breaking up was quite easy. I’d expected some form of heartache, but it turns out that when you’ve spent the last five plus years alone inside of a faulty relationship, the pain has already come and gone. The Man took it badly, and it did hurt to see him in pain and know that I’d caused it. He was still dear to me, in a way, despite the issues plaguing our relationship. For me, though, once the words were out, the hard part was over. However, for a few days, he questioned my decision, promised change, asked me to reconsider, and I was frightened I’d give in. I struggled to hold my ground. I mulled over the thought that I should stop fighting the current and just go back to the bleak existence I knew, rather than taking a gamble and crossing the fence for good.

Had I not had a prize to keep my eye on, this promise of love as it actually exists, not just as I’d mistakenly come to define it, I might have sunk back into old habits. Throughout it all, my friend – my lover – stood resolutely by, took it all in, gave me courage without saying a word to influence my decision. And somewhere in there, as I packed up my boxes and emptied my bank account and prepared to move into my new life, I realized that I was breathing deeply. I was focusing on the now. And what now was telling me was that I was not small, after all. I was not less. I was much, much more.

There is not much so satisfying as the sound of chain link as it snaps under the pressure of two sharp blades.


A Deflowering, From A To Z

This post was written in answer to today’s Daily Post prompt, to create a memoir that is 26 sentences long, in which the first sentence begins with “A” and each sentence thereafter begins with the next letter of the alphabet.

After high school, I decided it was time to lose my virginity. But there was a problem – I wanted my first time to be special, and not embarrassing, as I’d heard the case could be. Choosing the right man was a problem, and in the end, I still didn’t get it right.

During my freshman year of college, I met a college junior who was seven years my senior (he had been in the armed forces, and was in school under the G.I. Bill, which pays for American servicemen & women to get their college degrees). Everything is blurry about how we met, honestly. Forgetting must be a safety mechanism in my mind, but I think that I might have met him playing pool at The Boot, a little bar that’s basically on the Tulane campus. Girls and guys used to head there right after classes on Friday afternoon for 3-for-1 Happy Hour, and you could get in at 18 (though you weren’t supposed to drink).

Honestly, the entire beginning of our relationship – we dated for most of a school year – kind of eludes me. I also don’t remember there being anything “special” about that first time, except that he kind of chuckled after it was over and there was blood on the sheets. Just because he was older and experienced didn’t make him any more of a gentleman, I discovered then.

Keeping my status as a non-virgin a secret was an interesting side-effect of the situation. Like many things about my life – tattoos, drinking, and other experimentation – sex was not something that I could readily speak with my parents about. My life effectively became my own when I had big secrets that I couldn’t share with my parents, and this was probably the biggest of those secrets.

Never did I expect the relationship with my first “serious” boyfriend to go the way it did; we broke up after he accused me of cheating on him over the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. Of course, that was untrue, and as I later learned, most likely his favorite technique to end relationships. Prior to the official end, I had gone on to find out more about what it really meant to be sexually active, including an introduction to health problems, suspicious behavior, and genuinely piggish behavior – I had always heard that once a man got what he wanted out of you, his tune would change, but this was my unfortunate introduction to that sad sometimes-truth.

Quite the opposite of what you might expect from this story, I went on to have fulfilling, loving relationships with people who actually cared for – and about – me. Respecting their privacy (and my own, to a point) is important here, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say that my education was pretty thorough, and today I feel good about my experiences in youth. Thankfully, I wasn’t ever too crazy or irresponsible (although obviously your opinion might differ depending on your view of sexual activity) and I always insisted that every partner get tested at the health clinic with me at the beginning of a relationship.

Unfortunately, I made the wrong choice and selected the wrong man for the beginning of a journey that should have been bright and good from the start. Very luckily for me, that first foray didn’t make me feel bad about myself or set me on a course to look for more guys to treat me badly – instead, it made me wise to some of the tricks that might be pulled and opinions that might be held. When I met The Man, I felt like I’d hit the jackpot in coming so far –  from the first guy who just wanted to collect a “prize,” all the way to a guy who’d do literally anything it took to make me happy and safe. “X marks the spot,” I thought.

Yet if I could go back, would my choice be different? Zeroes will be zeroes, but virgins still have to be deflowered sometime.