“I came in like a wrecking ball…” I was slumped in the backseat with my luggage, singing along to the faint emissions of the radio as the cab climbed the Queensboro Bridge out of Manhattan en route to La Guardia. I fantasized of a million wrecking balls destroying the city behind me so I would never be able to return. Not even in my memories. I fought back tears and tried to distract myself with the changing scenery. It was late in the evening when we escaped the steel behemoth sliced through with blazing sun, crossed the East River and descended into street level shade. Queens was gritty and gaudy and pulsing with life. While I was ready to be leaving New York, I was struck with regret that only on my journey home was I privy to a glimpse into its unpolished soul. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” He meant driving into Manhattan of course. Leaving it was another thing entirely, especially if one were fleeing a claustrophobic hotel room all wrong-headed on pricey cocktails and danger. “You, you wre-eh-eck me.”
It could have been the Triborough Bridge.
I grew up in a small Midwestern town living vicariously through 1970’s & 80’s children’s books set in New York City. Books about school kids who take buses and subways by themselves or who spend nights in museums. But each time I visit I am always a bit sad that it does not inspire in me a marvelous reverie. The New York City of my reality has never lived up to the New York City of my imagination, of my expectations. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies is the problem. Mind you, I don’t dislike New York. Quite the opposite. It feels too comfortable to provoke exhilaration. Too familiar to be disorienting. Too everything to be anything terribly unique. Possibly something in me is broken. Perhaps it is perfectly logical, my disappointment. I accept without debate that this city is the penultimate specimen of human existence, a microcosm of our “condition,” that the entire rest of the world could break off and fall into space forever and still anyone could get a pretty accurate understanding of Homo sapiens from New York City. Certainly my ambivalence is justified. The working title for Annie Hall was Anhedonia.
We sat in Central Park atop a stone bench with a frozen pond to our backs, watching people watch tumblers and buskers and each other. Someone under a bridge was singing an aria, a homeless woman or a ghost, I wasn’t sure. I told him I wasn’t sure why I was here. In New York. I suggested he was fundamentally unhappy, impossible to satisfy. He spoke of Molière’s Le Misanthrope, of the cheerful optimist who accepts life as it is and of the misanthrope who believes things could be better. That, in fact, the unhappy man is an idealist, whereas the happy man is a cynic. There we were, a couple of misanthropes out for an afternoon of recreational people watching. The story of Molière’s protagonist made me feel better about being sad in New York, but I still didn’t know why I was there. We got up, and he gathered a snowball. I panicked and implored him not to. But rather than hurling it at me, he turned around and threw it into the pond with a splash. “Thin ice,” he confirmed, smiling widely, eyes too aglitter. I surveyed the hole in the pond. It really was.
Before I got into the town car for the airport I left a letter at the front desk of the hotel. It was a town car, not a cab. The doorman had put me in a town car. It was a love letter signed, “I still hate you.” It was just a regular letter and not a love letter, no more than the Triborough is the Queensboro or a town car is a cab. Different details, same obligatory journey to an inevitable destination. In it I let him know that I had been able to get the Guggenheim tickets and apologized for all the crying.
They began at the Modern restaurant at MoMA, the tears. Delayed flights, no sleep and a lack of hot water at our charming vintage hotel would have in reality been enough to make me cry. I’d held back stoically. After finishing the better part of lunch and a build-your-own G&T, I excused myself to use the gender neutral washroom. I was delighted by the concept, glad we can all agree gender is a construct – why make life more complicated than necessary? Moments later it became obvious no amount of enlightened thinking could to transform the blood on the tissue into an outdated opinion. It’s a good thing I pack my purse for the apocalypse; slim chance the fellow in the next stall would have been of much help. I haven’t had a period in a year and now I get one in a gender neutral bathroom. In New York. On holiday. With him. Him who is a him and me a her, nothing neutral about it. The nefarious heterosexual agenda blocked in the court of biology. I returned to the table and wept. I apologized. “Crying is beautiful,” he said comfortingly. So I continued to cry. The room had emptied of the lunch crowd, and the waitstaff looked on brazenly, even smiling when I caught their eyes, as if they were watching a performance, a scene in a foreign film: a married man, a foreigner, buys an unmarried American woman a $200 lunch, and she sobs. She sobs so much she puts on her sunglasses before leaving. No one knows all the reasons she is sobbing. Secretly she is worried she may not have picked the correct combination of bitters and tonic and is perhaps crying about that too.
After lunch I asked him if he were Catholic. There had been a discussion of morality (of course, but also of the aesthetic immorality of flat lighting.) “No. My family is, but I’ve not even been baptized,” he confided. I was genuinely stunned. Up to this point, I’d lived my whole life convinced I was the only actually existing non-Catholic Catholic who had not been baptized. “Well,” I said, exquisitely relieved, “I guess we’re going to spend eternity together in hell anyway then…” and smiled. We looked at tacky souvenirs being hawked along the streets and wandered toward the park, where a large protest against Venezuela was occurring. I didn’t know why they were protesting. They seemed happy.
The tears late that night were worse, angry tears. He’d accused me of being indecisive so I made a decision then and there to leave for a drink. The hotel room and the hotel itself, while appropriately intimate, lacked space enough for the both of us and our confusion and frustration, which it seemed at the time the whole of Manhattan could not contain. Rather than arguing about what we were really arguing about (about what? about “it” was all he could get out) we argued over the thermostat. I was too cold, he was too hot, I wanted to turn up the heat, he kept getting up and turning it off, he was going on about the laws of physics and I about roasting chickens. The temperature in the room had nothing more to do with the thermostat than thin ice had to do with the pond.
I’d inexplicably developed an obsession with Grand Central Terminal during my hours in the city. Movies portray it as intimidating, dangerous, chaotic. A narrative device that swallows up innocent tourists and allows hunted criminals to escape scot-free. A place where people and things disappear in the blink of an eye. I felt a perverse sense of security here. Sometimes in the middle of the night, while my jet-lagged companion slept, I would go out for a cigarette and be drawn down Vanderbilt Avenue like sailor to a siren. Maybe it was the possibility of escape it offered. Maybe it was the constellations on the ceiling, assuming I knew where I was going, happy to guide me there. Maybe it was its sheer size, allowing me to take deep breaths. Maybe it was just the word, “Terminal.” Even now, back in Chicago, I cannot shake the urge to wander down to Vanderbilt Avenue each time I step out for a cigarette. And I can’t. And it’s killing me. … So when I threw on my coat, having firmly decided to flee the climate crisis in room 1067, he followed me to Grand Central Terminal.
Inside the Campbell Apartment, a dark wood paneled bar with thick velvet couches nestled under the station, I cried again. It doesn’t matter why. It is the oldest story in the book. I accused him of using me between thick gulps of a $20 Delmonico which he was paying for. I know, and this knowledge made me cry too. Neither of us, sitting at a little table in a dark corner, were saints. I cried because I wanted to be angels, because we were after all. I cried because I still didn’t know why I was in New York. I cried because the ice was too thin and the room too cold. I cried because around us trains were departing in all directions while we were stuck on a Houellebecqian platform loaded down with our idealist baggage and non-Catholic Catholic guilt, unable to agree upon a shared destination. Most likely it was just PMS, the tears.
We left the bar and went in search of pizza. For a moment I was truly happy, New York happy, thinking a $20 cocktail and a 99 cent slice of pizza was the absolute perfect meal, and absolutely most perfect in New York. For a moment I felt dizzy with the city, the ink black night and orange grease-stained plates and eerie fog rising from manhole covers and gin-induced glamour.
Back at the hotel, with the lights off, I still wept. He got up to use the bathroom. It was locked. We were locked out of our own bathroom. I sat up laughing in bed while a workman with enough keys on his belt to open every room in Manhattan liberated us. We went back to bed. I asked him to tell me a story, but he had no stories. I assured myself that once I left New York I could crawl out of all these metaphors and see the situation for what it really was and drifted off to sleep.
I didn’t cry at all the following day after he left for a meeting with clients. May as well live, said the lady in a neighboring hotel. According to Truman Capote, nothing very bad could happen to a person at Tiffany’s, so I began my morning there, wandering aimlessly through rooms of diamonds and pearls and china and Art Deco sumptuousness. I glanced at the men sitting at what looked like bank managers’ desks, consulting with salespeople about engagement rings. They all looked a bit mortified. They’d decided to become saints and were looking like they too could use a $20 cocktail. I felt sad for them. One day they were going to be in a strange city with a strange woman who would cry and ruin all their fun, no matter which rings they eventually decided upon after laborious consultation. But the creamy vertical displays of delicate necklaces and earrings were divine. And the woman at a counter who answered the clerk’s inquiry, “Special occasion? In need of replacement?” with, “No, no. It’s just time for a new ring.” She was divine. It was true, nothing bad could happen to a person in here. Not even to a Communist. “You aren’t American,” he’d joked the first night, “You are a Communist.” It was funny because he was a French Capitalist.
I took a cab, a real one, to the Guggenheim to see the Italian Futurist exhibit. He’d procured tickets from a client’s wife who worked there, but he was now unable to go, so I went alone. I was sorry he missed it. He was naturally prone to boyish exhilaration brought on by feats of modern engineering and aerial views of a metropolis. The previous day we’d gone to the top of the Empire State Building, where he lingered over exhibits detailing its construction and celebrating the financiers who made it all possible, perhaps feeling a place in their legacy. He financed spectacular constructions himself. I paused before the photographs of wide-armed workmen and impossible amounts of steel. “It looks like Stalinist propaganda, no?” I said and strode off in search of King Kong. Outside, I made him point out the Brooklyn Bridge to me and took his photo with the Statue of Liberty in the background. The French and their Liberté… Such a romantic notion, so much suffering in its pursuit. He worried that I was not impressed as we surveyed the city below. Surely he could forgive a girl from Chicago for failing to find novelty in tall buildings. I watched ant-sized ice-skaters while he read the names off corporate headquarters as if crafting an ode to the free-market.
Point 1. of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto: “We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.” The Futurists, like all artistic movements co-opted by brutish politicians, get a bad rap. But I found the ethos appealing as an antidote to the prevailing Zeitgeist, to our culture of Xanax and Internet voyeurism and flat lighting and entire lives synced to smartphones. We live in fear of the unplanned and of emotions. I envied these artists who not only believed things could be better but were enraptured rather than depressed by the fact. It all felt so impossible, here in the future.
There was an entire room of the exhibit devoted to a Diaghilev ballet starring no performers which boasted a stunning dress rehearsal but never opened due to a labor dispute. Is that not the best story you’ve ever heard? I’d recently seen a performance of Le Sacre du Printemps, which caused a bona fide riot at the Paris Opera House when it premiered. I felt a new kinship with Diaghilev, so eager to sink time and energy into futile passions. Perhaps after my death an entire room at the Guggenheim will be devoted to my doomed affairs which, in retrospect, were beautiful and radical ideas thwarted only by the tyranny of others’ quaint expectations.
I returned to Midtown. It was a sunny robin’s egg blue afternoon. School children lined up outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the pale stone buildings of the Upper East Side with all the same green awnings had an anxiolytic effect, much appreciated in spite of myself. I bought some hazelnut bread and kefir at a market where the woman on line in front of me, aged, in fur and too-large sunglasses indoors bought $50 worth of tulips, and this made me happy even though I am a Communist. I walked on, past the circus of feathered pony carriages amassed outside the Plaza Hotel and the Bergdorf’s where I once used the restrooms to change into opera attire after a day of sightseeing (La Bohème at the Met, I cried, like in the movie,) and down to the New York Public Library.
The women’s restroom on the upper floor of the New York Public Library was the first and only glimpse I got into the heart of New York’s dog-eat-dog world of ambitious dreamers. It was like being backstage at a Miss Universe Pageant but for modern day Sylvia Plaths. Someone should really devote a think piece to it. I’ve never seen so many intelligent young women try so hard to appear as if they’re not trying so hard in my life, and I lived a year in a woman’s dorm at Northwestern. I felt miscast in my motorcycle boots and beret and metallic black eye-shadow. Where was I, Amherst or Manhattan? In what universe does a Midwest girl go to NYC and feel like too much of a badass? I wanted to climb atop the counter and make a speech: “Ladies! (nothing too gender neutral happening in here) You are all divine gardens, go cultivate yourselves!” … In the glorious Rose Reading Room I read Shklovsky’s A Hunt for Optimism and composed the letter. I wasn’t crying, but when I glanced up, I found the woman seated next to me at the mile long wooden table staring at me, brazenly. She didn’t pretend not to be and smiled when I met her eyes. I smiled back, unsure of what all this smiling was about.
Back at the hotel, I had an appropriately priced drink, gathered my luggage and left the letter at the hotel desk. I smoked one last cigarette, one last excuse to stroll down to Grand Central, before informing the hotel doorman of my destination. He could call a cab or put me in a town car for $40. I had $60 for cab fare, so I took the town car. Before ascending the bridge out of Manhattan, we passed a diner called “Moonstruck.” It seemed like something I’d make up in a fit of third rate poetic license, but it was real. And then that fucking song came on the radio. “Don’t you ever say I just walked away…” New York, you have to be kidding. The view of the city disappeared behind me while the entire weight of it settled into my heart. I’d left the letter at the hotel addressed to him, to be delivered upon his return, thankful for the Guggenheim tickets, apologetic for the tears, some Hollywood movie line about him making it impossible for me to hate him and I really hated him, some Italian Futurist nonsense about singing the love of danger. But it occurred to me it could just as easily have been a letter written to New York.
It could have been signed, “Love.”