This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.
About 3:00 am, my arm falls asleep. It becomes painful enough that I feel nibbles at the surface of my consciousness. The air-conditioning is raging in room. I roll over in the huge, crispy sheets of the hotel bed and encounter one of the many chiclet-shaped pillows surrounding me. There is light filtering through the curtains, forming a stripe right over my belly button. A sliver of day-bright not-night is just visible beyond the thick glass. Sounds filter through despite everything. Muted yells, angry horns blaring, clanking. I imagine metal giants roaming slowly between the skyscrapers. The pins and needles in my arm subside. Now, I am sharply awake and fully aware of my location. This is my first night in the city. I have been waiting and now here I am in a chain hotel with my mother’s soft snore next to me. I am in the middle of Times Square, New York City.
My mother tells it another way. She says that she startled awake, sat upright in bed, and started shaking. She awoke thinking that there was someone else in the room. She remembers looking up from her bed to see and a shadowy figure in the corner. This was New York. It was scary. Upon closer inspection, that figure was not the mythical mugger of her dreams, but not quite her daughter, either. She told me that she looked across the room and saw her little girl in moment very few parents get to witness up close. She saw me falling in love. Her baby was already out there. My back was to her, but nonetheless, she remembers a glimmer in my eyes. She didn’t need words to know that I would be moving to the city as soon as I could figure out how.
We ate bagels. I remember going to see Cats on Broadway. Her love of Jewish rye bread and Reuben sandwiches led us after the show to a loud deli where everyone seemed to be brighter than we were, exuding light, running late. Where we came from there is nowhere to be at the midnight hour except bed. This was not our home town where night clearly delineated a time for rest. Here, the streets were never empty. If it never really got dark outside why stop making plans. There was just more time here. 24 hours contained so much more. Here was constant noise, movement, smells, sensations. I felt itchy just sitting. I wanted to be launched directly into the bloodstream of this city and inhabit the organism from the inside. I wanted nothing more than to buy a new pair of high heels and walk until they were worn through. Pain seemed worth it. This was the city and everything had a dark side that sharpened the contrast. I needed to accrue a patina of grime, learn to hum a melody of irreverence, feel the friction of subversion. I was lusting after freedom. The euphoria inherent to becoming. In the city, I wasn’t just me, I was on my way to being something else. I could walk with sunglasses on and with just the right amount of strut, feel I had a place to go. If I got bored, I could turn a corner and in two blocks listen to a new language. I was ready to forget I knew English. If I was unhappy with my day, I could go out on the street and walk into a busy crowd of people who knew nothing about me. I was ready to disappear, shape-shift, wander and pretend. I had found the secret of invisibility right in the center of this massive, motley, mess.
Long story short, I got an apartment. It was on the top floor of a six-story building. No elevator. The superintendent was Puerto Rican, a detail I learned when I went out on the roof and came face to face with a gigantic Pit Bull named “Spike”. She spoke to me in Spanish, telling me that Spike was a sweet baby, switching to English to say that the guy on the third floor was crazy, and then seamlessly switching between languages she wished me goodnight and called Spike in to the hallway. The place was a disgusting excuse for a home owned by a notorious slum lord. It was constantly a fight to get the heat to work, the water to run, the exterminator to show. Three bedrooms for a fortune. But, we filled them to bursting with dream-drunk friends from back home. A few filmmakers, a dancer, several writers, predictably a rotating cast of band members. I loved that in five years there was never one silent moment. Food cooking, political arguments, guitars being tuned, lights adjusted for photo shoot, laughing behind one of the bedroom doors, barking dogs, clinking glasses, sighs in the quiet mornings, the rare muffled sound of a sob.
I don’t remember crying when I left home. I was too impatient for contemplation. But, my mom did. I knew I would see her soon. And I did. She tried to be brave when she saw the place. My first apartment. My declaration of independence. It was beautiful, unassailable, without flaw! I heard later from my Dad that tears streamed down her face, reflecting the streetlamps in the cab headed uptown. Of course, she hated that I lived in this place. After all that rearing! She couldn’t begin to prepare me from the guy wearing two overcoats in July, the drag queen on the fifth floor, the four kids from Ukraine that went came in looking rough as we went out for the day. She hoped on the triple-locked metal front doors. I didn’t tell her about the night I came home too drunk to figure out how to open them and fell asleep in the hall. I didn’t blame her for some of her gripes. I could barely stomach walking past the rows of trash cans; some standing neatly, others turned over and erupting with assaulting smells. And though I pretended it was all cool, the skittering of the critters at night did bother me. Really…you just don’t want to know what those rats actually looked like.
The important thing is that she let me go. I think she must have remembered how she came to the United States one summer, a young girl from Sweden who applied via mail to work in the National Parks and who took a train from New York out to Montana. I think she must have remembered my Dad going to Vietnam in his twenties while she was pregnant and living in a new country and scared. I can’t imagine the pang of loss she must have felt as she held her tongue and let me revel in my newfound identity. I was working three jobs at a time and auditioning at night. I was getting proposed to by my boss at the restaurant who was looking for a wife to take home to Pakistan. I was dancing at the Limelight with a girl who had a shaved head and was wearing a tutu. I was standing on the roof of my building, amazed that I could look at that same view that captured by heart, any time that I wanted!
God, she was a good human.
So, there was no hesitation when the call came. I loved my new, difficult life and my freedom in the city, but when darkness descended on us, I starting packing my bags before I got off the phone. It was time for me to be the one to think past the present to the future. It was my turn to learn how to let go. It was my turn to figure out where strength comes from when you’ve run to empty. Our world that had encompassed the lights of the city and the sunsets of Colorado became the small, spare, sphere of a daughter caring for her mother. In those last days, I started to see beyond your physical body. You didn’t need it anymore. You became the motes of light in the morning kitchen at my sister’s house when her kids were born, the moon glow on the lawn on a summer night when I decided to leave a bad relationship, and you dance on, immortal, when I remember the first time I saw those city lights.