“Well, this is New York and if you’re not to the point you gotta move it or lose it.”
I am in my room, cleaning my windows as I overhear the girl I live with speak to her partner over the phone. Scrub, scrub, scrub, wiping dirt that has not been lifted from ages past, perhaps never touched by a tenants hands, I think. I am standing by my window while the radiator heats my groin and the breeze from the night air cools my midriff. I did not exactly choose to move here for any appeal to the eluding notion of New York City (even its bald name offends me, in all its tawdriness). I did not want to spend my time here because of any hustle or name-building. This was simply the city nearest to my family’s residence accessible through public transit and offering the prospect of a job.
I think about this and the interminable pressure while here to snatch up opportunities as quickly as humanly possible. In a way, it makes sense: a metropolis of millions of people where you’re bound not to see the same person twice. Most people my age move here because they want something: I am precisely the opposite, desiring little or nothing.
I didn’t want to make a giant name for myself. I did not want to play at hugeness. I wanted simply to be small, very small, and lost within someone. That is the nature I know so dear to me: lost, utterly lost in the matrix of my beloved.
The morning starts with hope, and I run around my block listening to 1970s French pop. It is a cool morning at 49 degrees and in my shorts I am a scarecrow in the car window reflections. I return home in enough time to prepare for an ESL lesson I have – through pretension – claimed I have the ability to teach. On the train, I highlight phrases I think my client should know. I have lowballed my price, out of attractiveness and something like storgē: at $25 an hour, I am clearly not following this city’s culture. The client, a man I met a year and a half ago on the train, after we both made unusually long eye contact on one another, is from Colombia, is a merchandise designer and interested in having physical relations with men. He mistakes me for the latter at the end of the session, squeezing the back of my neck as we leave the cafe, and I have to break it to him dearly that I would so very much like to teach him English. My fee and a free breakfast pleases me, though I do not feel comfortable about the situation as whole.
I spend the rest of the day putting up flyers for learning Russian in Park Slope, a neighborhood that screams privilege, often through the children of the residents. Surely this neighborhood would liberally throw $40 an hour for a cad like myself to talk about Cyrillic; until I realize people in this neighborhood are too efficient to be taking fanciful classes in Slavic languages from advertisements in Thai restaurants. I return home to eat lunch and head out again, this time with the intention of sitting in a cafe to finally do what I have been intending to do for four months: deactivate my Facebook account. But I am pulled in three different directions: seriously look at jobs, pay a renewal fee for a set of yoga classes that are in suspension, or go to a language learning session where I can perhaps hawk my services in fake ESL. I decide on the yoga classes, though, not exactly one would say decide: I walk up to the building, and, seeing I am already there, wander in.
“Are you hear for the 4PM class?”
I really wasn’t.
We set up the account. $28 for a late activation fee to access the ten classes that were suspended (I should have charged $30). I think, though: this was still a good investment. Upstairs, I change, and head downstairs in my skimpy gym clothing.
“You got a haircut!”
It is the young man behind the desk who remembered me from nearly half a year ago, the last time I was there. He is a cute guy of sorts; he is either very friendly or must have taken a liking to me. I am somewhat blind to either prospect.
Downstairs, a tall man in good shape emerges from the yoga room and retrieves water from the fountain; seeing I am waiting behind him he looks at me and smiles, and apologizes in a barely audible voice. He is a good-looking man in the face, and could range anywhere between 30-45, depending on his level of fitness. The natural impulse of chitchat long ago had be let from me: I think not even to look back at him warmly before entering the room to start the session.
It is a good session; it has been well over three months since a yoga class, and I fare well. In crow pose, the tall man falls twice but catches himself both times; he is behind me so that he can see me from the side. We end class lying on our backs in the dark, and I am wondering meaningful thoughts I now don’t remember. Returning our equipment, we are in the zen zone where surrounding people are of no importance for regard; that we could all be like this in public spaces is a blessing and a curse.
As head for the locker room, a rival yogi, a lithe young man with an unsavory bun of dreads atop his crown, appears from the locker area in front of me and catches the tall man’s gaze. I walk upstairs and contemplate my white fallowness.
I leave quietly, get on the train in the direction of Grand Central for the language event, and, upon reaching 42nd, sharply U-turn to the downtown bound platform. I am in no mood to speak any language, let alone English. The train ride home I think about visiting a cafe to finally work on that job prospect: then coming home to eat dinner: then about nothing, tired. I am spoiling as I sit; I wonder if I have ADD. I am noticeably calm, at the same time. Home I make myself a sandwich, my roommate helps me remove my air conditioner, and I am set to cleaning the window, contemplating my path.
I am lost, it seems, but not in the world of my beloved. They had let their breath go at some point, and the wind has no warmth as I wipe the panes left, right, and back again.
I have taken refuge in a Starbucks temporarily. It’s the only Starbucks in the area that does not close soon. I am in Lower Manhattan, a bastion of sorts for old-school New York grunge, waiting time to pass so that I may go to the Alumni Event not entirely alone.
The week has zoomed by and so has the year. I find it hard to accept that a year has passed since the last PhoenixPhest event that my school hosted. The last was not frequented by any close friends, but by some who I would eventually become acquaintances with. I had met a certain young man named A— W—, who disappeared from New York as quickly as I befriended him. One year older than I, he seemed a perfectionist, restless, and extremely attentive to standards of politeness. Meditating now on this, I see myself reflected in him; yet I wonder if his dissatisfaction with life and his career somehow linked to the same impulse that constricted him to utmost grace in any social interaction.
I had met a woman that I had known from a Russian class I took – a Bulgarian woman that charmed me yet put me on guard. And yet meeting her boyfriend – a rather strapping Latino who worked for Google – was even more bewildering. I could not put my finger on what it was: a certain intrigue played in both their eyes when they looked at me, the reason for which I could not discern either from my being a lively stranger or my being myself.
There was someone older than I – maybe by two or three years – who worked teaching English in Lebanon or some Middle Eastern country – who seemed resolved at some loss, presumably time. He was not excited; there seemed to be an internal bracing against his surroundings, and that fight against disappointment I could sense.
And then there was a host of other characters: a girl we had derided for simpleness who turned out to work an extremely cushy, well-paying job; an acquaintance (I had mistakenly referred to her as a friend, only for her to move away without any notice) that had at the very end of it decided to apply to med school. She seemed visibly troubled at that last event: obvious insecurity playing about her face as she told me her decision, having tried a number of different jobs throughout her years in New York. And what? Where was my giant realization that would catapult me to a new life, to success and stability? Am I doomed to attend these events as I slowly become the odd-one-out: the older and older alumnus that seems more and more out of place?
…But with the disintegration that is “the community” after so long a time spent with others, people seemed to be over the idea of mystery. This too perhaps was encouraged by the milieu that made “oversharing” not over-anything, and pushed the notion of keeping some things private into the category of unusual and perhaps backward.
It turns out that Maggie was quite open with me in her description of her friendship with Lane, addressing the very real fact that her correspondence could be considered flirting. This connection was confirmed by Anson about a year earlier, when he recounted his inklings to their closeness when visiting the city. Since then Maggie had left leaving Lane the last man standing in Chicagoland, at least from our original band of misfits. With this blanket fraying and the years pummeling our youth and excitement out of us, there was little reason to not discuss something by now in her mind was mundane. The discrepancy between her perspective in sharing this and mine was not jarring, but nevertheless stuck out at me. May it be, in truth, that there was engendered a hidden romance between these two friends? Lane, over this past summer, alluded to it as well. He would have to back off out of respect for his friendship with her; Maggie, for her own best friend, his ex-lover. My youthful self sprang back into action through the revival of emotions: curiosity, perhaps a weird jealousy. I was not the third wheel by any means – a role I played with excellence and not any sparing number of times – but I always seemed to be around other friends who at one point or another coupled and shared the same mind that I was, simpering, oblivious to.
They had kept a correspondence with Maggie’s departure, though I was unaware as to how frequently they saw each other even before she left. I had wholly removed myself from the picture, both with intention (in the moment of leaving) and without (in the long run, my loneliness getting the better of me). The idea of “community” played an inordinately large part in my life in comparison with my friends, though I had never realized this until obliterating it nearly in its entirety. Fall out of touch for a year or so, and then see what happens. A friend of mine, Michaela, polarizing though who I seemed to regard quite favorably, warned me as if an omen to say I would never have the same relationship with my friends if I ever were to move back. Michaela is a smart lass but I admit her pronouncement smacked more of her own relationships than my own. Nevertheless, still paralyzed by fear for my financial wellbeing I could not see myself jumping across the country again to take a minimum-wage job with no apartment in tow. And my bed? Where would I sleep? Poor sleep hygiene kept me exhausted from thinking properly and kept my mind on loop, replaying meaningful encounters with friends and strangers alike, searching for moments that fulfilled my happiness and moments I had missed a crucial point of connection.
Despite all this, forgetting to contact Lance to once and for all ask when Maggie’s birthday was (she wrote me every year for my birthday), I was happy to still be in the loop in some regard. I had expressed regret for my shortcomings with her best friend, on whom I had made an egregious first impression in the depth of my intellectual experimentation on what it meant to be “polite.” Maggie countered with confidence that some people just clique with others, and, though this is quite true, it resonated that Tara, her friend, had quite poor judgments about me for one reason or another. Anson at one point described her characterization of me as somewhat of a “mush;” that I lacked confidence and drive. Acting in accordance with our gendered relations – a lens slowly turning into anathema in the current generation – this proved reasonable; Tara sought womanliness in her self and manliness in the opposite sex. It was no small surprise, then, when Maggie had relayed an underlying cynicism in Tara’s perspective on love and relationships in the past years, namely, an abatement in her desire to have children – a course unquestioned of someone who in the past so revered the role of wife and mother. Yes, people were changing, and though I was clinging to my role as a charming youth as if life depended on it, people were slowly shedding their personas that so markedly identified them as the vibrant characters that they were in the past. In the course of knowing Anson, he had shifted from troubled self-tormented youth, to an athletic, hopeful young man with faith in some sort of God; to a disillusioned lover and rejected philosopher, now to something even more stark. Anson spoke with emotion when I met him: emotion albeit stifled, but eking out of his eyes and pauses in conversation. It was a brief encounter that was not yet tinged by the turbid hollowness that I seemed to exude when too long with him: memories of my own emptiness in the apartment we shared still needed to die, and it was only a matter of time in an encounter this soon with him for them to creep into my behavior. We waited outside a French eatery on a narrow tree-lined street in Williamsburg, shaded from the blistering wealth of spoiled girls that tramped around a few blocks closer to the L train. He had disappeared for about four and half months: no small amount in my calendar and rarer than gatherings with a certain friend of mine who didn’t even live in the city. He rose to embrace me and subsequently lifted his arm in the same act of vulnerability that was so characteristic of him, though I noticed immediately on his forearm was a tattoo of a sperm whale.
He had relayed to me over text that he had engaged in a brief romantic relationship and soon fell out of it and into a depression. He then in the same message sprang on me that he was moving to Colorado next month. I suppose this must have been the same effect that I had given to my friends four year earlier; I was remorseful for the pang I felt now. I was careful to note the timing he laid out in his story, repeated at least twice, which did not share the same dates. First he had mentioned he had started dating a woman in late June or early July: this was unsatisfactory (I had reached out to him mid-May with no response). He then later over the course of dinner with others said he met her in May; this was considerably different in my mind and I wondered if he amended the timeline from his first retelling (Anson is no fool, quite lucid in his ability to detect suspicions from insecure fellows like myself). He had everything, he said: a girlfriend, an apartment on his own, a dog, a job, etc. Yet he was unhappy and realized his need to move away in the middle of brushing his teeth with his lover one morning. He had bought a car, as well, a purchase which to me was unfathomable. He was able not only to do this, but save enough money to both live on his own in Greenpoint and move away without a job. I do not know where the idea of six-figures came in at some point during the last year or so: but it was little secret that he was doing well. I abided by my friend to not let my want of funds taint this relationship, as it had started to do so while we lived under the same roof last year. The discrepancy, particularly the idea that he was able to buy a car, was unnerving.
These were details that were relayed over the course of dinner. Thomas, the friend of ours who visited New York for work a considerable amount over the year, had brought his girlfriend, an artist and woman of the age of thirty-one. Anson’s girlfriend was thirty-seven, he said, ten years older than him. He said that now was the time to move; he stated with a frankness that soon he was to be thirty, and at that I noticed the girlfriend’s face drop. It was a weird predicament to be in: we were no longer “young,” as it was, because we were already adults and fast leaving our twenties. Maggie, too, had rebuked herself for not following her own fanciful timelines: widowed from a wealthy man by thirty. I was one year older than Anson and two years older than Thomas, though I was considerably poorer than both of them and with no clear direction to what the next five years of my life was going to hold. I had been obsessed with fleeting beauty and possibility and it left me gravely depressed while I was still young. Anson’s eye, shifting to the left of my own, saw the fine line that ran to my cheekbone like the trace of teardrop and I felt I was doomed. He, too, mentioned wrinkles; he was still quite youthful-looking, it was no doubt, but something about his age started to weigh on his mind, and he began to almost reluctantly confide in me an unhappiness with his circumstance in needlessly philosophical terms. After this somewhat disquieting confession he left me abruptly and I was immediately disheartened. We had been waiting for our trains in the station and stopped short where we were to part ways, still talking. The courteous thing to do was to wait until the rumble of a train met our ears, but he hurried off before that with the excuse to walk his dog. The abruptness – really, quite a shoddy escape from my presence – offended me, and I signaled to him from across the platform (from which we were to inevitably gaze at each other, dumbly) an imaginary watch and the mime of chatter with my hand. “We still had time to talk” I mouthed, with a shrug to punctuate my message with confusion. I looked away from him and stood watching the the end of my own platform, erect from indignation and false pride as I leaned against a bearing. If he wanted to be impersonal, I thought, if I was too annoying for him, then I won’t be groveling to meet his eyes; no. I turned at the last moment when the train wiped his form out of view in a gesture I perhaps thought had some meaning; though who knows what it meant as I glanced what seemed like him looking at me. I could not text him with anything plaintive: he had, in effect, paid for my whole meal save the eleven dollars I had in cash to contribute.
Time passes. Tick, tick, tick.
I don’t recognize myself in the mirror very much. I see someone older who looks tired.
The answer to my existence is love, but I don’t know how to work out the problem to get there.
Maybe we will all have respite in heaven, where everyone will be as beautiful as they can be forever.
It was not Faith but Genna, her partner, who invited me to attend a training on how to use a drug known colloquially as Narcan that stops an opioid overdose. Genna had invited a group of her friends through email; not seeing that I had much of anything to do that day (most like so many other days that I seem to let slip by unfilled), I decided to attend. I have no business with drugs, but, knowing others that have, and, viewing this as a good experience to learn from, decided to attend.
It was a beautiful sunny day outside – low seventies – and I held my breath before buzzing into the Harm Reduction Center. The center was dimly lit with wooden floors that looked as if they had not been changed since the building’s erection more than fifty years ago and not cleaned frequently since. A man with dreads to the length of his hindside asked pardon as he passed by and I walked through the main hall where later I would learn from our instructor that those under the influence (or those about to engage in the influence) were welcome to “hang out.” Faith arose from the couch and greeted me brightly, giving me a hug. We stood in the middle of the room as we conversed about her plans – she was to finally attend law school, and she decided on Fordham. I gave her a heartfelt congratulations because I knew the feeling of being up in the air for too long and how fulfilling it was to have a sense of grounding. She offered me the chance to be referred to for a tutoring position at Kaplan, which I thought as a good opportunity. Afterwards we were led up concrete steps into a large office space upstairs and then into an even dimmer room. The setting was as depressing as the situations that were described to us; the room filled with light-skinned, short-haired, polite women in glasses offering store-bought snacks was in sharp contrast. We went around the room and introduced ourselves, our positions, and our pronouns, not in that order. I was intrigued at information on pronouns; surely this had been a introduction from Faith’s partner and not from Faith. We had previously went around and introduced ourselves with our pronouns at Faith and Genna’s apartment, and it seemed just once someone had used a pronoun that I had not counted as standard English (“they,” a pronoun near and dear to me, was thrown around a couple of times).
The instructor handed out sheets to fill out our personal information on which included more facets of identity that I would have liked to divulge; fortunately (in accordance with this age’s unrelenting spirit of respecting privacy that I can never gauge as too far or just on the mark), an option was available that declined comment (more directly labeled as “choose not to answer”). Faith was sitting to my right and as we filled out the forms my curiosity piqued: was the time I had seen her in the men’s bathroom in I-House a fluke? She had crossed a line through the box that was labeled “Lesbian;” evidently, my zealousness in the moment I passed her then, at 1AM one night in late winter, the only time i had ever felt a mote of spite to a spirit so unrelentingly buoyant, was in vain. What then had it meant? Was it just play? Not even Bisexual; she had, as it were, crossed over completely.
Genna sat across from her. I could read Genna and then I couldn’t. She was of a similar background to me: she was entirely of Italian heritage and had a vowel-laden surname to prove it. Brought up on the east coast, another trait of similarity. Bits and pieces of intimate details connected us: one time at a party, in explaining a family recipe, I accidentally used the phrase chop meat to describe what I suppose is commonly referred to as “ground beef;” no one knew what I was talking about save her, and the scene both embarrassed and elated me. In ways that are perhaps overtly personal, I could identify her, too, by her looks: very curly brown hair, brown eyes, a prominent but not obtrusive nose, a strong jaw. I could see that she was Italian by looking at her, and though from no where near my where family was from (very few people, as I could tell, shared the same wild and bewildered look in my father’s eyes save grainy images of Rasputin, which disqualified my theory to begin with, and a youth I had met in high school whose last name was Potenza), she must have had the same behaviors and perspectives that were ingrained in me – those that had repeated years and years over and had not eroded from the very recent jump over the pond two generations ago.
There were other things that I couldn’t always understand with Genna, however, though I counted this as a result of different places of development. She was the same age as I (twenty-eight), although in a greater place of maturity that I could neither describe as emotional nor social (my emotional maturity seemed to have slightly declined, as a result of being around so many stony-minded Russian influencers that were less than fain to throw open настежь their emotive states in public even from a particularly touching encounter with someone). She seemed to simply be more grounded, but as a result less reactive, and, as a consequence, presented fewer opportunities for connection to my usually haphazard and emotionally-fueled communicative behavior. She provided emotional responses during the presentation, sighs or utterances of vexation at the injustices of “the system” that worked unseen to repress minorities, explained our instructor. We continued on and I asked for clarification on the number of minutes to wait between administering breaths through a breath mask on the potential overdoser (five seconds after two sharp first breaths), and felt I had done my part by paying attention and learning what to do. Faith asked for clarification on those protected the Good Samaritan Law (whether the informer or the person in need of help) and I appreciated this as I had the same question but, needlessly, thought it foolish to ask. And then we left; Faith said that we should go rollerskating soon, and gave me a hug. I was happy for her; I wish I could contribute to our lives more fully, with the same gusto I had in our dormitory where the threat to my diaphanous affections was still looming.
The Frieze Art fair was cold. I had packed a jacket into my gym bag that I had received from an alumni event from my college, and though the sun was shining, the event was indoors and with air conditioning. Daichi informed me through text that he was still at his workplace (it was a Saturday) and if could I “plz” get a coffee or something while I wait (the plz was suspect for irony). I replied I would meet him at the Guggenheim and, miraculously, he was sitting on the concrete entrance among tourists when I arrived.
Daichi stood and with more confidence than usual (though still with the hedged calculation he has in every action), offered an embrace, a helping of assorted nuts he packed, and, finally, an inquiry into whether or not the varicose veins that stripe my right nostril were stitches (I had developed these, for one reason or another, a few years ago).
In my eyes, Daichi was still in essence the same as when I first got to know him, but he had changed drastically with subtle things I ascribed a weird importance to. Daichi was curiously reticent on family life in college; he now gratuitously offers views of his nephews on his phone. He similarly scrolled through his iPhone calendar and presented me a rare glimpse into how he makes what he does: short explanations of the work meetings he attends. His calendar was freckled with dots indicating an event for the day.
He had started to keep a tally of events with which he had “success”: and added, with the same wry look he always had when discussing intimate matters, that he had success yesterday. We prattled about jobs; Daichi, evidently enamored by southeast Asia, suggested I move there where English is highly valued and the cost of living is a fragment of it is elsewhere. We arrived after swinging around the bend to Randall’s Island and approached the white tent.
I had a certain relish walking closer to Daichi than other people: Daichi’s curious lack of physical cues enabled this, and the crowded public space allowed it. Men and women up and down the aisles looked at him, then me, then whoever else was next behind us, in the same assessment they have of art and networking opportunities. Daichi looked in the mirror we passed and after we both instinctually groomed our hair said his face looked very fat compared to mine.
Everything was peachy keen until for some reason my mood changed considerably and I saw a volunteer for the fair who was someone I had dated a few years ago. I felt I was losing my grip with reality that this person right in front of me was less real then their memory nearly two years ago. My heart was still pining from the loss but I kept the cell number with a dull hope that I might muster the courage to reenact the date with a different outcome.
I had the curious sense that life, society, and progress was speeding ahead of me while I stood still in the same joys and biases I had five years ago. Daichi one day posed a fateful question to me that left me speechless; the question of what have I learned from my experiences.
In truth I could not answer because I didn’t feel like I had learned anything. It seemed that learning simply shut off after college. I had been burned and burned twice and my life was slowly turning into a hellfire. I was too skittish to make it out and would rather abide by the flames than leap for my safety.
Two people I had run into from a former place of employment were there. The General Consul – a man extremely bright in intellect and disposition – approached me after I stood like a carved Indian with my hand outstretched in greeting. “Anthony, is that right?” I forgot the inconvenient fact that, again, life kept moving after my presence had faded and that we are doomed to be forgotten by those other than ourselves.
I had similarly forgotten his name.
How’s it going?
Nick, as it came to me in a curse of staircase wit, was similar to how I remembered him, in that he first drew attention to what was most important to him (his curly-haired daughter a few feet away observing some sculpture) and returned straightaway to the topic of work. “How do you like it? Are you happy there?” I hadn’t realized that this question was something that was so basic and yet out of place. I felt I had soiled my reputation in my past job through an increasingly surly countenance and a similarly declining contentment that so characterized my success at the onset. I simply had been left there too long, didn’t have an out, and felt unhappy, poor, and slowing down as if a mechanism had been overdue for a checkup.
I looked off onto the blank wall while answering in the affirmative, unaware of what I was even looking at. It’s a good fit, I’m so glad I’m there. Well, good seeing you, he said, in the same matter-of-fact way he had with greetings, and disappeared.
This wasn’t two strikes, but one “ball:” being struck by the pitch and missing the mound completely. I felt disoriented for the rest of the trip. I was suspicious of if his first glance across the room was feigned oblivion of my presence; similarly, I was unsure if this was the second time I was ignored.
In the end, near the entrance, Daichi’s friend, Gabrielus, a Lithuanian with a London accent who works in consulting, drew my attention to the shoddiness of the neon work in one of the pieces. “I simply can’t stand that,” he said; you need to have good craftmanship before we start talking about ideas. I had lobbed the suggestion of intention of poor construction and this was his thesis, sound, in details. That was the devil for him but mine was still roaming around in black by the entrance. I made sure to stand tall and look as carefree and successful as I managed in my Zara-print shirt: at last I turned around from the neon and no one was there for me to avoid.
We exited the the wrong way, and so we needed to walk around the entirety of the tent to reach the opposite end for our bags in the coat check. Gabrielus spoke about the reasoning for having it on Randall’s Island: Daichi brought up exclusivity, Gabrielus cited cost of ripping up and replanting lawn in Central Park: details I never would have considered. I walk back in the tent, rigid-backed and clench-fisted half from the cold and half from determination to look powerful. The devil is standing in black skinny jeans while I feign observation of an artwork. A teaching fellow from my old employment passes by and I smile at her: greeting her brightly, making to throw my voice so that it reaches to where the volunteers are standing; she reciprocates in kind. Good, I think; something successful. The date had ended in the worst possible way: a request that I leave out of what seemed boredom. I spent two hours wandering around outside, oblivious to my surroundings.
Daichi is still at the coat check and my heart, curiously, is pounding; with each movement I believe I will be seen, I turn my body nearly the other way. At last we have our bags and it is over. I am deflated in the evening coolness as we walk back to our buses.
On the bus Daichi asks to see my hand, not to kiss or shake but to measure the length of my fingers and the ratio between ring and index. Satisfied with my results he loosens his grip and I withdraw to look out the window. The weeds pass as we approach the bridge and under the grey haze the skyline looks as if it might be that of a different city.