...of riding the subway up from downtown (maybe Astor Place or 14th Street?) from some awful play I've gone to with Charlie, or from a small movie theatre with Joey, up to the 103rd street stop, where I would alight, along with several tired looking mothers with their children, a playful couple laughing together and holding hands, and some assorted men with flat-brimmed hats and fur-lined, hooded sweatshirts swinging plastic take-out bags, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU stamped in red.
I would perhaps help an abeulita with her grocery cart or a mother with her stroller up the subway stairs. As I reach the top of the stairs, a woman would be asking for a subway swipe at the turn-style, her eyebrows knit up in a plea, so I would swipe her through. If you have an unlimited, why wouldn't you? A drunk couple would be shouting at each other, their slurred words drowned in the din of the departing train below, the subway officer at the ticket booth shouting over them as she gave directions to two sisters and their crying children.
I would lope up the stairs into the cool dark of the East Harlem after midnight, the stars and streetlights shining brightly in the chilly velvet sky. The taqueria right across the block would be bumping with urban youth seeking late-night snacks. Several taxis would scream by, slowing down hopefully as they approached me, but I would ignore them as I shoved my hands into my pockets, and started up the Lexington Avenue Hill. The tallest hill in Manhattan south of 125th street, it seemed, was right at my doorstep.
I would speed-walk to the top, and jaywalk across 102nd street. I would hurry by the sketchy gas station (read: drug front) and the neat white houses with the lights always on and the decorative door wreaths we are sure are brothels. Lexington Pizza on the corner of 101st and Lexington is dark, all the curling black metal chairs stacked on the tables. I like it best when I come home, and the corner is still full of lights, and couples laughing over pizza together behind the shining windows. When I come home and Lexington Pizza is dark, it feels late. The street feels more deserted then.
I would cut across the street--I live on the south side of 101st--and walk down the middle of the pavement, looking over my shoulder for the always-feared phantom rapist I'm positive is close on my heels. I cross up onto the sidewalk, once I'm passed the vacant house, and there's a rustling in the trashcan. My heart is in my throat. A rat pops out and looks at me. I pause a second, but he scurries back into the garbage. A man and his dog walk ahead of me on the sidewalk, and then they round the corner onto Park Avenue. I am past the stoop with the toucan mosaic decorating the front, I am almost to my front door. I bound up the white-washed stone steps, reaching into my pocket for my keys. I race to open the door before the phantoms of the night get to me. I push open the first of our doors, and pause in the foyer, pushing the door behind me and catching my breath. Safe. I open up the thick oak door that is our interior front door, peeping through the window to see if anyone is awake, looking for the lumps of roommates on the sofas and the blue glow of the television, and then I push open the warm oak wood, step in the door, and I am home, enveloped in the high ceilings, the dark corners, the peeling paint, and the hissing radiators of CasaBlanca.
I would automatically drop my keys and purse on the dining room table, check my mail pile, and head to the kitchen--perhaps Sean has made cookies. I make sure the kitchen door to the backyard is locked (a roommate is prone to states of inebriation, and, in such, leaving the backdoor wide open), raid the refrigerator briefly to examine my late plate, and then bound up the steps to bed. My room is on the third floor (the second, if we're counting European style), and it is bright, warm, and beautiful. It is haphazard, put together with old volunteer castoffs left in the house, lots of postcards and unframed photos, and a lot of command strips. But it is a cozy little nest. I can see (and faintly hear) the elevated train tracks right across the avenue from me from my window. I throw myself onto my giant, fluffy bed, and stare up at the ceiling, letting all the adrenaline of the journey back home course out of my blood, as my heart slows from a pounding to lighter beat, and my muscles relax into the covers.
This is home. This is New York.
My heart is aches for it so hard I feel it twist my chest into a million knots. My friend accuses me of wishing for the past. I know that these happy habits of being are now memory. But can't I have them back again? If I go back to New York, will the city feel the same? Will it feel warm and comfortable, in a way that I can wrap around me like a blanket? Will it feel metallic, bright, hard to the touch, exciting friction forming as we push against each other? Cannot I not simply return, and find all these beloved moments again in a new way? Will the city be a the same old partner, a comfortable relationship to slip back into, or a new partner, a new lover to push against, pull at, with whom to dance the back-and-forth of relationship?
Is this longing for a past that is now wrapped away in rosy hues, or is it a longing for some future way of being I can find again?
I cannot stamp out this longing for the city: for late nights and quiet mornings, loud with the presence of God before the noise of the city drowns us, for subways roaring by us as we lean against the subway walls and talk until our train comes, for late nights waiting for the E train, my head throbbing from exhaustion, for cursing at the scaffolding creating bottlenecks in sidewalk traffic, for Brooklyn Bridge and 7th street, and picnics in Tompkins Square Park.
It feels not like the past, but like the present--other and distant--calling.