Jessica remains the city. She's the bustle, the edge, fast traffic and noise, culture-consciousness and all kinds of shoes I've never heard of. She's work and working out, one day vacations and OK what's next? She's the Mac store and Urban Outfitters, and Donna Karan and Miss Sixty. Jessica is the exclusive lounge on the observation deck of a skyscraper and the trendy nightclub in a basement on Ludlow Street. She's beautiful at dawn and at sunset, and a bit overwheming at all times in between.
Anna is deep green grass and moonlight. Even and pale, bright, with a dark side she never shows but you always know is there. Warm with cool breezes, soft on bare skin and delicate to the touch, beautiful every evening in late August after seven, when every time you see her you know you only have a few hours left before tomorrow comes and takes her away.
Eleanor is always the rain. Light rain on leaves and pavement. Misty and diffused, beautiful but sad, beautiful because sad, an infinity of grays never reaching black or white. She's a row of shops closed early on Sunday afternoon, a slate colored boulevard infrequently dotted by bright red umbrellas, the weak seduction of aging first editions and petrichor.
They are beautiful, my women, and they are with me every day.
It wasn't always so. In elementary school I held hands with Krista Brinley, whose name sounded enough like Christie Brinkley's that when I told grownups she was my girlfriend they confused the two and smiled at my sophisticated tastes. "Bit tall for you, isn't she?" they'd say, and tousle my strawberry-blonde. They were right, of course, but I felt tall enough on my yellow Schwinn, and unabashedly timed my ramp-jumping displays to coincide with Krista's mother's pulling up by the house to drop her off for a few hours so we could play. "I left him to be with you," she whispered to me from the second highest crotch in the crabapple tree. I occupied the first, and beamed from it with pride. Whoever he was, and whatever level of committment she imagined between them, I was obviously better, and so she moved on. No hard feelings, we thought, best to be quick about it; recess is too short. I told her I liked her liked her, and we had the summer. In second grade, though, I met Janel, and that was that.
I was bolder still some years later, under cover of darkness in the back of a Greyhound bus somewhere between Washington DC and Colonial Williamsburg, trading furtive glances with and parceling out resting-head-on-shoulder time between Trisha and Nicole. All in plain sight meant all above-board, no harm done to any who are willing to share; Mr. Durante taught us in World History class that Marx was a very smart man and that Communism could work in small enough numbers. Not what I was thinking about at the time, to be sure; I thought rather of the Washington Monument, and how Nicole's thumb had hooked on to one of my belt-loops. Redistricting sent us to different high schools; I've forgotten what they look like. One of them, I think, lives in Kansas.
In high school I traveled, without leaving home. Tara's family was Swedish; I called her "Helsinki" in my little black book, which was neither black nor little, and not so much a book as the inside pocket of a confidential Trapper-Keeper folder. The key to my secret social life went down beneath the metric-to-english conversion charts and measurement tables. Two liquid barrels = one hogshead, twelve dozen = one gross, Rachel = Rotterdam, Sara = Krakow. I had a Glasgow, a Moscow, a London, one Rome and one Florence. I even had a Budapest. After showering I would write their code names into the fogged mirror in my bathroom, in order of my preference, believing that any I failed to inscribe there would soon stop liking and forget me. After graduation, I stopped writing, and time has since justified my belief. To be fair, though, Rachel wasn't really Rotterdam, and Sara wasn't Krakow. I never knew a Rachel or Sara in high school. But someone was definitely Rotterdam.
It wasn't very long after I left Dublin (who was also half Berlin) that I met Anna. Two years younger and two inches shorter, brunette, on the inspiring side of curvy, as Christian as ambrosia salad at a family reunion in a public park. She was a walker, by which I mean only that she liked to take walks, and for the three months before I went to college we went on many together, some during the day, but the best at night. There was a miniature golf course she knew of, an ice cream stand, a deserted playground from which we could watch the sun go down and an isolated clearing in the woods not far off.
Wrapped in a towel, standing before my wall-size mirror, I wrote "Anna" into the fog, and underlined it. That was eight years ago.
"You're coming home when?" she asked. This was yesterday.
"Sometime in August, I think," I replied into my cell phone, the fourth I have owned in as many years. I'm not happy with my service, but I understand they're all more or less awful, and I haven't the energy to weasel out of my committment just to wind up unhappy with someone else. "Is that OK for you?"
"Just come home whenever it's convenient, and I'll figure something out."
"Did you want me to come down, or--"
"No, I'll come up."
"I can't believe I haven't seen you in a year."
"I can't believe I've known you for eight years."
"That's insane, eight years."
"I promise I won't try to seduce you."
"You don't need to promise."
"Can you believe it's been eight years?"
There's a park in Chicago not far from the waterfront, close to where I'll be staying. Under the overpass, across Lake Shore Drive. Deep green grass. My plane gets in to O'Hare at around seven. I'll catch the blue line, drop off my bags. Then we'll go for a walk.
"Do I really get to see you for two whole days?" I asked.
Don't order the sesame beef at the Flying Dragon Chinese Restaurant and Take-Away in York. Or go ahead, but you take your chances. I took mine and had three straight days of unbelievable regret. Eleanor looked after me.
"It just doesn't feel right with him, anymore," she said, her eyes on one of the ducks waddling past our bench. The colors of the world were deep but not bright, freshened by the mist and reflecting the light of a sky that couldn't quite decide whether or not to rain. I'd met the man in question, briefly, over tea and toast a week before, and determined on the spot to come between them. Their body language suggested a weakness, mutual discomfort. Her eyes kept meeting mine across the table; he made me straight away for what I was. I flirted with her anyway, right in front of him. Absolutely not cricket.
"I don't know..." she went on, dragging a sandal through the gravel with her toes.
Of course I understood.
She was my first English rose, the real thing, in the flesh; pale skin, light blue eyes desperate to penetrate and connect, long hair a lock of which hung over her face. When I left I made sure to look back through the rain from the courtyard to the window of her room; she was there, with one hand on the glass.
We wrote with quill and ink, sealing the letters with wax , playing at Elizabeth and Darcy. In subsequent seasons I walked with her through the Temple of the Four Winds at Castle Howard, stood with her beneath the castle walls of Alnwyck, and held her close under the fireworks and snow on New Year's Eve in Edinburgh.
"You could move to England," she suggested once, her arm linked through mine, seeking balance atop the slick cobblestones of the Pantiles at Tunbridge Wells. The lighting and thunder were well past, but the storm had left her hair black and straight. The few light strands that formerly drifted across her face now clung severely to her cheek, white with cold.
We'd been together a week.
"I could," I quietly agreed.
"You will if you want to," she decided, and said nothing more.
My flight back to the states was delayed two hours because of the weather. I received a letter from her recently. She doesn't like to summarize her life several months at a time, and it seems I forgot her birthday. She went out of her way not to mention it. In point of fact I remembered, but didn't quite know what to do about it.
New York is a hell of a place to live in the summer. It's slightly better in the winter, probably best in autumn. One could make a convincing argument on behalf of spring.
I moved to the city four years ago. Landed at LaGuardia in Queens, took a cab to my apartment on the Lower East Side. I'd only come close to the city in movies. Crossing the Triboro bridge to see a skyline that extended to the edges of my peripheral vision, I came to the obvious conclusion that Muppets Take Manhattan didn't do it justice. The sun was going down behind the buildings, almost silhouetting them in the few remaining minutes of magic hour. Astounding.
It wasn't long before I picked up the New Yorker's Hatfield attitude to Jersey's McCoy and cracked wise about the sun touching down to finally and at long last set the weekend bridge and tunnel crowd ablaze. Twenty minutes to Brooklyn, twenty minutes to Hoboken, but you still think you need a passport to cross the Hudson. I don't remember how or when I formed this unfair conception of the so-called Garden State. It got in there somehow.
Every day, you wake up, and it's either too hot, too cold, too light, or too dark in your bedroom. The windows don't stay clean above a week and in less than a month everything inside looks like it's quietly losing a desperate battle against some insidious, creeping grime. If you have hardwood floors and a dishwasher you're living the high life. It cost you a fortune to walk in the door. It costs you another fortune every month. You pay it because that's what it costs.
Outside, a lump of shit or a stream of piss is never far away from your front door, regardless of temperature or season. Over time you develop a scatalogical sixth sense. Only tourists step in something they shouldn't. Their shoes are always white, they always have sunglasses that are too large for their faces, and I don't know why they won't put on the clothes they have in the their shopping bags instead of walking around wearing the Nebraskan camouflage they wore on the plane. Outsiders, anway. However you felt about the city when you woke up, you're proud to be a New Yorker when you encounter someone who isn't, and a part of you pities the poor sap who has to go back to anywhere else in the world with nothing but the pictures and postcards that don't tell the whole story.
It took me almost two years to find that feeling. Two years of being in the city every day, walking through the good neighborhoods that almost without warning turn into the bad, of searching and finding my movie theater, my coffee shop, my trendy nightclub in a basement on Ludlow Street. It wasn't easy. It just takes time. A lot of time, to make a real life for yourself in the city.
Occasionally, when time allows and I'm not too exhausted by the business of the day, I try and find my way to Central Park. It's refreshing, once in a while, to see the trees, clamber over the rocks, and feel the cool grass underfoot as the moon rises.
Rain cleans the place up a treat. Even in a light but decided drizzle, the streets are deserted, and the sound of the traffic is almost ashamedly, apologetically low. The rain brings peace and quiet to the city, covers it in a glistening veneer. Rain changes the place, makes things seem more beautiful and magical than they are.
They don't let you live in Central Park, though, and when it rains, you eventually have to go inside. You forget that during the driest of the dry spells, when the cabin fever sets in. Waking up every day in New York, there are times when you want to go places you can't stay. New York can be overwhelming.
But it's beautiful at dawn and at sunset, and the sun rises and sets every day.
I live in the city.>