When we moved to New York we moved quickly, one after another, in what felt like years apart but was really week to week, our arrivals stacked together like holes in a belt. I don’t know where we came from. We were temp-to-perm assistants. We were broke. We were free — subsisting off of open bars and leftover lunches, crashing on one another’s couches, sleeping on mattresses hoisted above suitcases stuffed with clothes. We didn’t know much, but we knew our next apartment wouldn’t have mice. And we knew how to go and go and go, working and drinking and sleeping around through hangovers, through head colds, through deaths in the family, through all the strangers underground. We spent the beginnings of our paychecks on vodka and the last of it on a therapist, who gathered that we drank more than we would ever say, because she knew how to read our early on-set wrinkles and our breath, and she knew that everything we said was either too true or not really true at all.
Some things never change. Those things don’t exist in New York.
I walk down Columbus Avenue with the dog pulling against the leash, racing past drunks and couples and the old man who lives downstairs. We blow through the intersection, the dog frantic now, practically sprinting forward and forward and forward through the city. We get to the pet store, and she tries to go in. It’s one in the morning, I tell her. It’s not open. She wags her tail, an act of naïveté or defiance.
(Three years ago I ran down Avenue A drunk and bewildered and reaching out for everything and anything and waiting for someone to watch me fall. By the time I hit 8th Street, he was there, of course. I was running to him in some sped-up tragicomedic scene playing out in the movie of my head.)
The wind picks up and the dog’s ears blow back slightly. She whines and paws at the pet store. I gently tug at her, and then use a bit more force to try and yank her away.
The kids at the bar smile. They are outside, waving around cigarettes and hunting down cabs. One of them approaches the dog, already on his knees. She ignores him, desperate to go inside the pet store. The guy could be my age, but from the crowd at the bar, I assume he’s younger. His jeans are tight and torn. He pets the dog’s head and scrambles away, his cigarette stuck against his bottom lip, his tail between his legs. The dog looks away.
We begin the slow walk home, across the avenue, to our apartment. She will eventually lie down on the corner of my bed, her head pressed up against my ankles, the same happy-sad expression on her soft, sleeping face.
It was always cold in the house I grew up in. I didn’t realize it for years. I wore heavy hooded sweatshirts and socks, always socks, up until it warmed up in May. The water used take forever to get warm, and I’d do anything to avoid washing my hands with a plank of bar soap under the cold water.
The house was too big to heat well. A two-story wall of windows faced out into the backyard, and the winter seemed to creep in through the glass. The family room’s old, scratched leather couch felt like ice. The fireplace was rarely lit, except for special occasions or when my father came home early from work. The draft came down the chimney next to the couch, so I would curl up on one end with a too-small knit blanket and watch hours of tv until my mom sent me upstairs my for bath.
I remember watching an old Bugs Bunny short when he gets into a cauldron of hot water and dips one toe slowly in, and then gently eases the rest of himself into the boiling pot. I sat on the toilet waiting for the water to get so hot I’d burn my toes. Then I’d fold myself into the bath like Bugs Bunny and let the water creep up to my chin. After half an hour, my mom would climb up the stairs and pound on the door, saying I’d run the well dry. I didn’t care. I didn’t really understand what a well was, and even if I did I would have stayed there, my ankles turning pink under the faucet, the room steaming up so the wall paper curled at the edges. Then I dropped a bar of soap in and let the bath turn translucent. I dipped my head under and the water whooshed into my ears, drowning all the sounds but the churn of water flooding in and out of the tub.
After, I wrapped myself in three towels. Always three — one wrapped around my body and tucked under my arms, one spread over my shoulders, and the third swept up so my hair didn’t drip. And then the door would open, and the cold air rushed into the bathroom, and the steam poured out. I’d stay warm for just a few more moments longer until the cold house enveloped me again.
Some people, if they say something enough times, begin to believe it. Not me. The more I repeat myself, the more I see through my own lies. I was never a good liar.
I saw a therapist when I was in college who, after three semesters of unloading my problems on him, told me I was my own worst enemy. He said I was standing in the way of my own happiness, and there was nothing he could do to help me. I obsessed that for years until a friend told me she saw that same therapist and gave her the same speech. He had been a therapist for twenty years. I wonder if he told everyone that. I wonder if you tell enough people something enough times, everyone starts to believe it.
No, standing in the way of my happiness was a group of tourists. They meandered slowly down Columbus Avenue three abreast, gawking at the museum to their left and the menu of the Pizzeria Uno Chicago Grill to their right. A tangled dog walker approached from the cross walk, two aging retrievers pulling in his wake. Across the avenue, the green market vendors wrapped up their unsold produce and organic chicken. The scent of warm, rotting berries mingled with fresh dog shit. That group of tourists stopped in front of the bodega, allowing themselves to be counted by a man with what sounded to me like a German accent. I wove through the roadblock. There must have been at least fifteen, all of them sweating and smiling feebly.
One of them had his shoes off. He leaned against the glass window of the bodega and wiped his brow. His shoes, tied neatly together, dangled on either side of his shoulder.
here was something else my therapist said in college, but I had forgotten it. He didn’t dispense much advice, which was okay. He was in his forties or fifties — it was hard for me to measure middle age when I was barely twenty — and went barefoot in his office. I respected that about him, at least more than I respected the degrees or piles of paperwork I had to fill out before each session. His bare feet was a badge of authenticity that alleviated how clinical and foolish the hour felt. I was depressed, but I was also staring at a grown man’s bunions.
When I asked my friend if he had taken his shoes off during her therapy sessions, she said she didn’t remember.
Wait — I remember when he had said. He told me to stop doing drugs. No, not exactly. He said something like: “Of course you’re depressed. You’re fucking high all the time.” And just like that, I didn’t feel depressed anymore. But I still got high. I got high every single day because I was in college and I was bored and had no idea what to do with myself except smoke pot. I listened to music and drank, too. But mostly I got high on a couch with a rotating cast of roommates, classmates and friends. No one, I had instructed, should ever wear any shoes or socks when they’re smoking with me.
This should be like riding a bike. But it’s really more like diet and exercise. It’s a lifestyle. Blogging is just as tiring, time-consuming and self-indulgent.
I go back and read through old posts and remember that person. Or, I remember the feelings, but not the agony and anxiety and razor-sharp reflexes that led me to the corner of the room. My heart was always in my throat. My lungs were always full of heat and sweat and New York subway air.
Then the goodness came through me and I softened. We all do. Everything unclenches and the edges all blur just enough to look less threatening. It’s a careful assumption, just sweet enough to wrap around all the paper cut needles in the haystacks.
No one prepares you for this. You think that often, mailing bills or having your wisdom teeth ripped out at the dentist. You think it at night, your partner sleeping, the glow of the city seeping under your curtain. Little pockets of time disappear every day. You think about this, your tongue running up and down the holes in your gums, the roof of your mouth, your uneven incisors. After a while, the money stops coming in. The darkness isn’t dark enough. You stay awake waiting, for what, you don’t know.
Posted in City, Clocks
Tagged insomnia, time
Are you drunk?, she asked. I was lying down. I said I wasn’t. The truth was, I liked her advice more after a few drinks. I liked calling people and listening when I came home from happy hour. Like I was saying. I could hear music in the background. You’re not supposed to go to bed mad at each other, my grandmother told me. She winced in pain when she said it. I could hear it over the phone, the hum of violins behind it. She’s not allowed to drink anymore. No more scotch, no more wine. If you go to sleep mad, you’ll wake up with a bad back. She was silent for a moment. I turned on my side. The ruins of the stress on an old mattress run deep.