by HOLLI CARRELL
I moved to New York City because there was nothing to do but move to New York City. A girl like me from Utah romanticizes about this sort of thing when she’s fifteen — sees herself smoking off a fire escape somewhere artistic, like the West Village, with nothing else but a punchbowl and a wad of cash in her back pocket. I hadn’t been to New York in six years — since I was seventeen and staying in Midtown with my mother, hailing cabs to Ellen’s Stardust, and venturing no further than 59th street. My mantra: If it isn’t going to work out in New York it isn’t going to work out anywhere.
I agree to sublet my childhood best friend’s apartment in Washington Heights. I pay for three months up front because she says it will be “just right” and I’m all for easy acclimation. She and her husband and their three-month baby are boarding the party plane to Brooklyn. Their apartment is filled to overflow with U-haul boxes that feel like Greco-Roman ruins of the cardboard variety. When I arrive, we go grocery shopping. I haven’t had anything to eat since the Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich in Denver, when I wasn’t even hungry, just wanting to fill myself full after traveling with so much lightness. I’ve sold everything except the suitcase with me; a crate of journals back home underneath my parents’ stairs.
My hosts weave me through the neighborhood, drawing my attention to the best cheap pizza, a cluster of aging Dominican men playing dominoes, a dead pigeon in the gutter. I’m surprised by the amount of trash on the street. “Don’t go east of Broadway,” my friend tells me, pointing. “I mean you can, but it’s probably not a good idea.” We pass a Bodega owner yelling at a schoolboy. I can’t understand his Spanish or the rest of the noise suddenly against me on the sidewalk, bottlenecking. I’ve noticed we’re the only Caucasians on the block and I feel guilty for noticing, but also disoriented — sticky with humidity and neighborhood eyes. I knew it would be like this but not like this. I feel certain everyone hates me on sight for spreading my flavor of white gentrification. I enclose my futon bed in a pillaring crescent wall of boxes that night. I don’t sleep, but keep my eyes shut tight.
My friends depart for Brooklyn and I sweep up the moving dust accumulating to the floor and blackening my feet. I am glad they are gone with their shared togetherness. I leave the neighborhood early — while sidewalk vendors lazily unload fruit crates from vans — and litter downtown cafes with crisp resumes I have kept pressed in a green folder from college.
I sit on benches along Central Park West in the afternoon, eating bagels and consuming paper cups full of sludgy convenience coffee — the burnt the better. I like to sit in Washington Square Park with my headphones on but no music playing; listening to student’s quarrels and the combined amplification of the living. I stay where things are easier until sunset, and then ride the A-train home past 168th. I try to not hate myself for my discomfort; for knowing, at any given moment, the dominating demographic of my fellow car passengers; for being raised in a whitewashed Anglo-dominant environment.
I get hired at a trendy coffee shop in SoHo. The manager tells me to dress cool. My co-workers are interesting and creative but far too familiar. I realize I am content sunbathing in the landscape of my solitude, feeding for days off random interactions with strangers: a shop owner telling me he likes my haircut; a homeless woman on the platform who stares into my eyes and smiles. I keep carrying around my navy blue trench coat, some adult security blanket, even though it’s nearly June.
My parents call often, worried. This is what this is all about I want to say. I came to the city to be alone, to dig! I recognize the hilarity — sandwiching yourself between eight million others for desolation — all the while anticipating a hand on your shoulder in the subway, steadying.
My one bedroom apartment is too large for the zero furniture I own and the vast, echoing tumor-like chamber of nullity I feel spreading on occasion from pole to pole in my body. In the evening, I turn off the lights and with a cup of wine in my hand, dance to Otis Redding’s “Lonely and Blue” — the outside street lamp bathing holy orange light through the white sheet drapes. Below my apartment is a pumping gym. Men stand outside in ripped t-shirts watching younger versions of themselves across the street, calling to teenaged women reclined in windowsills. I’m lucky if I average five hours of sleep a night — especially on the weekends, when the block DJ hooks up his stuff and blasts merengue at volumes I didn’t know possible; when the building’s little boys play soccer in the lobby, designating either end of each wall as goalposts.
Some mornings as I lay awake, everything lifts and I feel gloriously present, listening to the constant array of thumps as if each beat were my very own heartbeat, a reminder against the wall of my chest: You’re here; We’re here; You’re here; We’re here. Connected.
On the first terrifically suffocating evening of the summer, I open my screenless window and am visited by a German cockroach two inches long, plodding across my hardwood. I’m unable to squash it, send it down the toilet, or throw it out the window (where it might land on an innocent neck) so I trap it in a Tupperware container and punch holes in the plastic for ventilation. I resolve to buy a glass aquarium at a bric-a-brac store the next morning, pave the bottom with leaves and my leftover dinner scraps. I can make it work for the both of us.
When I wake up the poor creature is curled on its back: shrunken, dead. I can only think to leave the apartment.
At the front door, I intersect paths with an elderly Dominican woman who I’ve gathered, in passing, is my neighbor. She wears a long burgundy skirt and holds a sack of laundry and a bushel of roses. Stacks of golden bracelets circumnavigate her wrists. Her face is disarmingly alert and for the first time in two months she turns, looks at me, and speaks. I have no idea what she’s saying. She laughs, places a finger to her lips, hands me a rose only partially wilted, then leaves. I re-enter my apartment, put the flower in water, flush the cockroach, and stare in the mirror. Only time can arrange my expression.
Holli Carrell is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in Manhattan. You can find her website here.
Photographs by the author.
“Collapsing Into Night”- The Underground Youth (mp3)