Only when my foot hits the bottom stair do I become conscious that I have been running. I stop in my tracks, only to realise next that such a sudden stop probably looks more suspicious than if I had continued running. I take that one last step onto the sidewalk and lean against a railing, feigning nonchalance. Sweat flows from my forehead and under my arms like blood from a deep gash. I try to right my blurry vision by fixing my gaze on one object at a time and trying to identify it. If I can do this I might be able to figure out what to do next. Before me I see a car, a red car. I notice that both of my hands are clutching the railing in front of my building – oh God, the building where I live. It’s cold. It must still be early. I look left – east, towards the park – and right – west, towards Broadway, Astor Place, crowds of people. I know where I am now. I can hear something; the boom of an airplane’s engine is only a growl by the time it reaches my ears. I look up and watch the monster pad its way across the sky. The white trail it leaves behind makes me uneasy again.
Oh, fuck1 me, oh God, I’m in trouble.
And all at once the contents of my stomach empties onto the sidewalk. It doesn’t feel as though I’ve thrown up, but more like someone has hit ‘eject’ and my stomach performs its function automatically – automatically and completely, expelling with it every bit of fluid and semi fluid matter inside me, expelling any feeling of safety, exorcising every happy thought. What I see on the sidewalk has no connection to myself. It isn’t me, it isn’t mine.
My heart beats as if it’s constantly on the verge of exploding, its critical mass creating pressure in my chest that I’m not sure I can bear. I feel suspended somewhere outside of time, as if in stepping out of my apartment I inadvertently wandered into limbo. I find myself thinking ‘oh God, oh God’, and feeling the impulse to reach up and out, to scream for help, to beg someone to save me. But I can’t let myself do this now. I never believed in absolution before, nor salvation, de-burdening and having everything washed away. I have always believed in honesty, responsibility, personal accountability. This happened, I did it and nothing can undo it, no one could excuse and erase it. I never had time for God, so how can I expect God to have time for me, having sinned, having done something so wrong, how can I expect to reach out my arms and ask someone to allow me to feel better about myself, about what I’ve done?
I’m not ready to draw attention to myself. Not yet. So I follow the airplane and walk east into the park, away from the sick and the scene of it all.
I do not cry as I walk. I have no right. I am not the victim. I did it. I did it. I will have to face it, but – oh God help me, please, oh God – I’m just not ready yet. Today the sky is so clear with fat storybook clouds that almost invite me to leave myself, leave this city, this planet. It’s okay if I just go to the park for a moment, just to collect my thoughts, just quickly to figure out what to do.
When was the last time I really looked at the sky, at the clouds? Will this be the last time?
Although my apartment is only a block away from Tompkins Square Park I suspect that it is taking me longer than usual to reach it. But I can neither feel time nor my own legs. I can see pollen in the air around me, glowing in the sun. I can focus my attention on one single particle. I seems sentient – it knows me, knows what I am. I can feel its ego-less recognition. It circles my head. It moves forward at the same pace at which I am walking. Then it leaps ahead. Finally it stops and falls, equally disinterested in my innocence and my guilt. Suddenly it is clear to me that the pain I feel is sorrow only for myself, for my own life which is now ending, and I am more determined than before not to cry.
I cross Avenue A and enter the park. The sound of bells nearby reminds me of Hare Krishnas and I smile. I pass the stone gazebo on my left. I don’t have to read the inscriptions – Temperance, Charity, Faith and Hope, each etched into one side – I know them all already. I walk further, into the centre of the park, step off the path and onto the grass, locating a soft spot near enough to one of the park’s great elms and lie down to look at the sky.
‘What do you see?’ A voice startles me. I forgot that there was anyone else alive in the city. How long have I been looking up at the sky, and how long has this person been looking at me? Do they know? Is it over? I don’t know what else to do, where I can hide in a world with such a big sky, and so I reply:
‘An elephant’s rib.’
‘For making the elephant’s wife?’ It’s a man’s voice. Yes, I can see him now, coming into focus. He’s squatting down at my left. His voice is soft and calm. I want to be as calm as this voice. A breeze picks up, carrying a smell that I can’t identify. As if he can feel me begging for it he speaks again.
‘I never went in for that either,’ he says, sitting, confident that he has been invited to do so. The clouds move and shift subtly across the sky, and I feel panic and despair as they disintegrate out of one form and a joyful reassurance as they assume another. I experience this fluctuation a thousand times before he speaks again.
‘Do you see the butterfly?’
‘Look, there, do you see it?’
‘I don’t, but I’ll keep looking.’
He sits, I lie. I see a baseball bat, a top hat, a window. He sees a woman’s face, a bathtub, a potato. I tell him that the potato is cheating and doesn’t count. He laughs.
‘Do you live around here?’
I look at him, trying to understand the question. His eyes are very blue.
‘What?’ I squeak. His smile is generous towards my confusion.
‘Where do you live?’
Yes, of course, I understand now. ‘There, on 9th.’
‘Café Gigi’s is on your street, right?’
‘I live above it.’
‘Do they give you a discount?’
‘No, I mean yes, sort of.’ Deep breath. ‘They give me free coffee sometimes.’
‘Would you like to have a coffee now?’
Oh God, oh God. I can’t get up. I can’t stand up and leave this spot. I’ve been safe here so far. If I stand and walk someone will see me, someone who has found out will see me and take me away from him. But if I don’t go he might leave me and have coffee with someone who has never done anything bad in her whole life, someone who could live a thousand years and say, I’ve always been nothing but good. I can’t let him leave me. I couldn’t stand it.
I take another deep breath. I’m not ready to go yet. I turn on my side to face him and ask, ‘Where do you live?’
‘3rd between B and C. It’s an interesting place that my friend built.’
‘What’s that?’ Genuine curiosity slows my banging heart. ‘Is it a house?’
‘Yeah. He inherited the plot from an uncle or something and built a little house there. It’s great; we’ve got a front yard with a hammock and a great stone Buddha.’ As he talks he slides down into a half-laying position mirroring me, and props up his head, his chin in his palm. He bites his fingernails. His short, dishevelled hair makes him look like a newborn kitten. His arms, and, yes, his torso as well, are slender yet not without muscle tone. I want him to pin me down and make love to me with abandon, bringing time to a standstill, destroying everything but our bodies and our sky and our storybook clouds.
How can I feel like this, how can I want sex with this stranger? Didn’t something bad happen today? I can’t remember.
My breathing is closer to normal now. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Joseph.’ He lifts his eyebrows inquiring the same of me.
‘Do you like that name?’
‘Yeah, I do.’
‘Then that’s what you should call me.’ And so it is agreed between us. He stands up first and offers me his hands which I take gratefully. Touching him for the first time drains something out of me and I feel empty, like a baby who knows nothing, and in knowing nothing simply feels and experiences.
‘So, should we try our luck at Gigi’s? Or I could go to Café Pick-Me-Up and get a couple of coffees to go and we could have them here?’
I look around. Some kids are taking bottles out of trash cans and throwing them at each other, ignoring a woman shouting at them to knock it off. A group of homeless men slouch and wilt on two benches as two suited men walk past pretending not to see them. I’m relieved that I don’t know any of these people.
Beyond the park buildings stand like four solid brick walls trapping us inside. I strain to think of anywhere I’d like to go; at this moment it feels impossible to escape the sensation of being surrounded by four walls.
‘Tivoli,’ I finally respond. Joseph’s mouth forms a sort of question mark. ‘It’s a little town in the Catskills, near Woodstock. There’s a café there, The Hatter, next to a little stream where ducks and geese make their nests. They have blues bands playing at night and really great pancakes during the day.’
Josephs listens with his eyes closed as if he’s trying to picture it. ‘Sounds perfect. I’m starving, actually.’
I notice then that I’m hungry, too, as though I haven’t eaten for days. But this feels a shade worse than hunger – it burns. I also notice a sour taste in my mouth. I must have bad breath, but if Joseph has noticed he doesn’t show it. I lean back away from him just in case.
‘So, how do we get there?’
‘The Adirondack Trailways bus from Penn station.’
‘Well, if we’re going to run away together I’ll have to go back home and get some money. Don’t worry, my roommates’ll be there. I’m not going to take you back to an empty house.’
I know what my mouth tastes like, and shards of memories of my morning come up to the surface of my mind. Looking up into Joseph’s blue eyes I manage to brush them away. I just want to have this for a little while longer. My ears start to ring, but this is something I can ignore.
‘Don’t worry about getting money. This one’s on me. Really, you’re doing me a favour by coming with me. And I think you’ll really like this place.’
‘Are you sure?’
The three hundred seventy-two dollars and fifty-eight cents in my pocket should be plenty. ‘Yes, I’m sure.’
We take leave of the park and head west on St. Mark’s.
‘I haven’t been Upstate yet.’ He sounds giddy, and puts a little bounce in his step as if to punctuate his sentence.
‘How long have you been in New York?’
‘I moved here from Arizona about a month ago to try to be a writer. Not that you can’t be a writer in Arizona, or anywhere else really, but, I don’t know…It’s a cliché but I do think there’s something…inspiring about New York.’
I think that what he’s experiencing is a common placebo effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I don’t tell him so.
‘What about you, where are you from?’
We walk past a group of gutter punks sitting on the sidewalk. One of them – a girl who can’t be more than sixteen, with baby doll eyes and blond hair – holds a sign that says, ‘Need money fer BEER’.
We turn right and go north towards Washington Square. Outside of St Mark’s Church is a poster with a Renaissance-style image of Christ’s torso, showing the wounds on his chest and hands. The caption under the picture says ‘Original Body Piercing.’
‘Nice ad campaign. Do you think it works, think the alternative crowd sees it and says, “Wow, that guy’s just like me!”?’
‘Nope,’ I reply. And just then he reaches out and gives me a firm, warm hug. All the people and objects on the street become blocks of colour, and all the colours combine and the world melts away as I stand in his arms outside of St Mark’s Church. And again, arousal and guilt do battle in the lower part of my body.
When he releases me everything becomes realistic, like we’re walking through an excellent model of the city. Everything’s here – the bums, the punks, the checkered cabs, the avant-garde all in black, the urchins and the spoiled brats, the mommies and the Jamaican nannies, the smoke through the subway grates, the pigeons pecking at discarded nubs of Gray’s Papayas. I survey the scene around me, impressed at how very realistic it all is. I’m almost convinced.
‘I’m so glad I met you today,’ Joseph sighs.
I smile and close my eyes. A very thin tear rolls down my cheek while the whole morning replays in my head, from the moment I woke up to that second against the railing in front of my building. It feels like another life, but I know it is the same one. This is no escape. But still I have to agree.
‘I’m glad too.’
Joseph takes my hand again and laces his fingers with mine. We turn right on 2nd Avenue and midway down the block a barefoot dreadlocked kid sits on the sidewalk playing a familiar tune on an acoustic guitar. I squeeze Joseph’s hand and stop in front of the guitar player.
Well the first days are the hardest days
Don’t you worry anymore.
‘Cause when the life looks like easy street
There is danger at your door.
I start to hum along, then mumble the words, and eventually I’m singing with my full voice, lost in the nostalgic innocence, the clichéd hippie glee of a Grateful Dead tune crooned on the street in the summertime by a couple of kids with nothing to lose.
We sing two verses together before I notice that others have stopped to listen. I look around at the faces in the assembled crowd, my eyes moving a bit too quickly, making me nauseated and confused. The sun’s rays whip me with cruel lashes of heat and brightness. I try to take a few deep breaths. The air quality isn’t very good today.
Everyone is looking at me.
‘Are you okay?’ Joseph moves his head in front of mine, making me meet his gaze. Why couldn’t I have met you yesterday? I want to ask him. Everything would have been possible then. We could have fallen in love.
‘Fine. I’ll be fine. I’m just feeling…overwhelmed. Let’s keep going.’
I look straight ahead as we walk towards Cooper Square, but in my mind I’m trying to memorise Joseph – his duck egg blue eyes, his dishevelled hair, a hole in his grey shirt just above his heart. I replay everything he’s said to me and allow myself to be happy.
‘Your mother must be beautiful,’ I say to him.
‘You should tell her that someday.’
‘I don’t know,’ I shrug, knowing I’ll never get the chance.
We reach the subway station and take the chewing gum-speckled stairs down to the ticket gallery. I buy two one-ways with a $20 bill and leave the change in the machine. I hand one of the orange plastic fare cards to Joseph and he lets me go first through the turnstile. I love the platform at this station and take a second to appreciate its shape as we walk along it, a long, gentle curve, like the moon the night before it disappears from view.
‘I’m getting excited.’ Joseph’s grin looks like it might explode into a laugh.
I don’t have time to concur. As he speaks my attention turns towards the sound of the mechanisms in the turnstile rotating and clicking twice, followed by determined footsteps and the authoritative clanking of keys. I look in the direction of the noise and see two officers conferring. One looks up and I meet his eyes peering down the platform at me from under a blue hat. He looks down and speaks into his lapel. With this I turn to walk further down the platform. A dirty breeze rushes into the station along with dull rumbling and crashing noises. The officers start to take long, deliberate strides towards me.
‘What’s the matter?’ Josephs asks, following me. I have to find a way out. I can’t let them take me away from him. Not yet. So I keep walking, my tears leaving little spots on the platform.
‘I can’t go to Tivoli with you,’ I force myself to say. Just then two honks of a train’s horn precede the appearance of its headlights at the mouth of the tunnel. The officers have quickened their pace to a jog. There is nowhere left to go.
‘Well, I won’t go without you.’
‘Look away,’ I instruct. His calm blue eyes are an amazing last thing to see as I take two forbidden steps backwards, letting my body meet the headlights of the uptown Q train.