There’s no clear indicator on the approach, only an amiguous “Space Ninety 8” painted above the door. As you get closer, however, another sign reveals itself, like a restaurant trying to hide its “C” grade behind a potted plant or glamour shots of feral cats. “Urban Outfitters” it reads, as small and quiet as it can so as to not draw attention to itself, but big enough that you are reminded as you step through its doorway that, yes, indeed, you are walking into an Urban Outfitters and, more importantly, you are walking into an Urban Outfitters in Williamsburg.
Ten degrees has made all the difference. I lock my house with a silver key, not wearing gloves and not needing to. I walk down my street with its barren trees, listening to the provincial sound of my boots against the concrete. In a few months they will sit abandoned in the back of my closet, banished in favor of less sturdy things, strapier and feminine.
Spring is a smell: wet pavement and trees about to fulfill promises. It’s the sound of skateboards traveling over buckled concrete, attached to boys in baggy jeans, shirts rippling away from their backs. Bicycles carry pretty girls with their long hair and heavy coats; their giggles come and go like a fire siren, loud and blaring and then immediately gone. Cars pass with their windows down. Rap music. Pop music. The man in the burgundy Subaru is back, screaming show tunes out his window while he makes circles around Bedford Avenue.
I check the branches overhead, looking for telltale green buds to confirm my hope that we have reached a clearing in the weather. Just two hours ago I was planning my escape to Nicaragua or Mexico – any place that only required a duffle bag filled with shorts and sunblock. But I can’t leave the city now, not after putting up with two months of garbage. This is the pay off, today and on.
The park is covered with developing grass, remarkable amounts of green poking through intensely saturated dirt. Prickly brown pods litter the ground beneath trees I don’t know the names of. Oak, maybe. The pods sit on the dirt and wait to be swallowed whole or decomposed. We used to crush these underfoot as children, making them explode into a fibrous mess. “Itching powder,” we called it, and would jam it down the backs of our enemies in fits of nasty laughter.
Provoked birds fly overhead in an intense flapping of wings, the sound of rustling taffeta or falling stacks of paper, traveling together on an unseen path, riding currents I cannot feel.
Old Polish men congregate around green benches, talking in their voices that sound like tapes being played in reverse, warbled and hugging to consonants. Baseball bats connect with white leather balls with that dense aluminum ping. Sickly pale faces crane their necks towards the sun, praying for their greenish translucence to be alleviated. Lovers walk down sidewalks holding hands, coming up for air.
Sammy was alone and she was dancing half-naked in front of a full-length mirror they had purchased together. It was technically his because he bought it with his money. She bought the television. He bought the grey couch and the kitchen table. The mattress was the one he had at his old apartment, the apartment with the rusty sink and the refrigerator that never seemed to get cold enough to keep the vegetables fresh for more than two days.
It was six in the evening in the center of winter and it was miserably dark outside, the sky just this impossibly depressing, inky thing and not the source of joy it was during the summers full of evening heat and possibility.
Department of Eagles played loudly from some corner of the living room, filling her hallway with “No One Does It Like You.”
But I tried so hard.
I tried so hard.
I tried so hard.
It was and had been on loop for the better part of thirty-seven minutes. She danced what she intended to be an attempt at ballet even though she had never been properly trained. When Sammy was a child she took classes but quit after being scolded for dancing to “Under the Sea” with her fist closed tightly around a pink rhinestone. It had fallen off of her ballet slipper and she had placed it on the floor next to her until she saw the girl with the brown hair eyeing it suspiciously. When it was Sammy’s turn to spin around the room to the voice of a singing lobster, she did it while protecting that stupid plastic thing and she cried when the teacher told her she couldn’t do that and she might break her hand if she fell. She wasn’t in trouble but she felt like she was and she sobbed deeply and her chest heaved within her leotard and she was thankful when she got chickenpox the next week. She never went to ballet class again.
Sammy was alone in the apartment for the first time in months. Carl was away on some work trip, probably flirting with foreign girls and feeling the invigorating power of lust. People needed that, Sammy knew. It made you feel worthwhile. It affirmed things that you should have already known without the validation of a person who wanted to kiss you, have sex with you, date you. None of that mattered. At the end of the day, all you were left with was you. They had been together for years and still all Sammy had was herself.
No one does it like you.
No one does it like you.
The song had started again and Sammy watched her arms move with an unknowing grace. She looked at a face that was older now but oddly more beautiful. She leaned and stretched and her toes bent in limited, unqualified ways. She was alone and she breathed and she danced alone.
It had been too long and she had been consumed by this – by them, by this house, by the expectations people placed on the chronological order of monogamy. She wanted disorder. She wanted chaos and groping, grasping, desperate love all over again. The frantic hands filled with newness. It had died living in this house because of the control. The rent that was due every thirty days and the bills that they split in half.
She was tired of him and she was tired of the her that she had become as a result. She was tired of not wearing that dress he didn’t like and not wearing her retainer to bed at night and negotiating what concerts were worth spending the money on. She was sick of listening to his music even though it was good – even though it was better than her music, which had was now a three-year-old archive of her single life, back when she dutifully searched for music that moved her personally. His soundtrack had become her soundtrack and these songs were doomed to be only memories of him. But she would always have this memory – this moment of temporary levity, like that part of the day where the sun burns off the marine layer, that particular moment when light supersedes fog. She would remember a moment that she had not lived in some time, dancing freely to a song that was hers because he hadn’t beaten her to it.
It was winter and she danced and Sammy felt the love melting away like the snow in their backyard – full and abundant and alarmingly pure at first and dissolving over the course of its short life, layer by layer, unnoticed until the sad brown earth revealed itself in muddy rough patches.
Olivia’s wrists ached under the weight of a five-pound apple pie, a treat her mother had taught her to make when she was still small and could be taught things. She wished her parents had pushed her harder during those malleable years – force-feeding her Spanish and French lessons, throwing her in front of a piano or a guitar or anything that she could use to channel her occasional malaise. Instead she had turned twenty-five and was just another useless, ignorant American, speaking English and going to concerts, not performing in them, making pies for holiday parties she didn’t really want to go to anyway.
As an adult she had found herself more reluctant in the acquisition of new knowledge. Knowing too much made her feel small and insignificant; the more she knew about one singular topic, more subtopics would spring up around them like relentless weeds begging to be pulled, though when those were pulled new ones just grew up in their place. Knowledge was an infinite void. Stella never felt satisfied because there could be no satisfaction in the infinite.
Olivia should have taken a car. Her pack was heavy with two bottles of wine and a festive homemade trail mix of dried cherries and pistachios, less obvious shades of the holiday season. Instead, she was left to awkwardly negotiate the pie in her hands with the subway turnstile, onto a platform filled with the only other idiots in New York City willing to endure a similar hassle.
The voice of the robotic subway announcer – a sexless woman always telling Olivia when her Manhattan bound train was arriving – echoed around the filthy tiled halls, absorbed into nothing and no one the same way her apartment did.
She had been in her place five months already and hadn’t bothered to invest in any furniture save for a mattress, two forks, and a knife. She had nested before, inspired by a boy and the concept of home. She knew what it was like to spend weekends at flea markets, finding trinkets that accurately expressed her personality in brass and porcelain. “I’m like this,” the chandelier in her dining room proudly stated, shining down over the faces of her beautiful friends in a beautiful kaleidoscope of light. That time was beautiful. Their apartment was beautiful. They were beautiful and then they were over.
Olivia found an apartment far enough away from that place so she never had to walk past it. He didn’t live there anymore but she couldn’t be bothered reliving times that had already passed. There was no point in looking back; life was about charging relentlessly forward. Forward and away. Inventing new parts of yourself so you could forget about the old.
Her new place was not as beautiful as the last, in part because she couldn’t afford what they had been able to afford as a couple, but also because she just didn’t care. It was a newer building, without crown molding or high ceilings. Her neighbors were twenty-somethings who dressed like people who didn’t understand aesthetics. It felt a bit like a prefabricated cave with that fake wooden flooring that gave underfoot. An apartment was just an apartment. It lacked all of the things that Olivia had always associated with home and that was precisely the point; if it was perfect, if she made it perfect, she would get attached, and when the day came that she had to leave it, it would be that much more difficult.
When she moved, she vowed not to repeat the mistakes of her past. Everything was temporary and everyone was transient. Everything about New York City was a constant reminder of that fact: the internationals who came and went, the weather that changed by the hour, the constant flood of new things that indicated a forcing out of the old. She knew all of this and she spent her time and money accordingly: sparsely and with a hesitant hand.
I don’t what possesses the MTA to grant advertisers the right to plaster their visual fury on the walls of my subways, but I hope it’s a lucrative venture. Someone better be profiting from the raping of my eyeballs, because it sure as hell isn’t me. Between full-size posters of open-heart surgery and macro shots of black lung, by the time I get from Point A to Point B, I am ready to gouge my eyes out.
Strangely enough, the most terrifying posters are usually the ones annotated in Spanish. I don’t know if it’s just that I am unable to give the grotesque photographs context, thereby nullifying their visual potency or what, but the few times I have really wanted to wretch, this has been the case.
The other day I had the pleasure of sitting across from a poster featuring the pulverized face of a man, sporting some gnarly gash on his forehead and a mélange of attractive bruises. He looked like he’d either fallen off of a building or been subjected to a three-day gangbang.
I go to the first line, attempting to pull some of my rudimentary knowledge of Spanish out of the recesses of my high school brain. “Dos tragos antes te hubieres marchado.” Nope. I got nothing. There’s no mention of el bano or el gato; if you ever need to talk about restrooms or cats, I’m your girl. Thankfully, I am able to work more easily with the second line: “Beber en exceso es peligroso.” I sound the letters out in a moronic hooked-on-phonics pace in my head that would have put the tenth grade version of me to shame. Drinking in excess is dangerous…I get that much, but what the hell was this guy supposed to be drinking? Forty shots of Absinthe? Fifteen flaming margaritas?
I think the real story here isn’t that Senior Boozehound knocked back two too many beers, but that he started his morning off with a fifth of tequila, chased that with a trip to Las Vegas, accidentally smoked a mysterious white powder, smacked a stripper’s ass in the champagne room and got thrown in jail for any one of the subsequent idiotic things he did over the course of that night. Because that, mi amigo, would be truly peligroso.