Queens Plaza. The train lurched and hissed, shrill roar, metal colliding cinematically against metal; hardly anybody even looked up from their phones. Michael sank a bit further into his coat, his scarf lifting up and around his mouth. He’d found an edge seat, snaking his left arm through the metal bars, gloved palm holding one for support. He closed his eyes, heavy exhale, and felt himself begin drifting under.
The secret to sleeping on trains, aside from never telling your mother, is embracing the commotion. Periodic lurches, electronic voices announcing stop numbers and closing doors, the shuffling of feet, sighing negotiation of personal space, whirr, hiss, beginnings and endings. Welcome it all, bizarre lullaby, and you might find some rest in the midst of all the everything.
It was a kind of sleep he’d only just recently discovered. All the sounds and colors of the outside world stuck around, blending together and around him. He was, again, five years old, submerging in the swimming pool and looking up at the world just beneath the surface. There was his sister’s laugh, his grandmother calling from the porch. Don’t make waves so big, all the water’s splashing out of the pool. Neon styrofoam noodles floating apathetically in the periphery. ‘Grandma, Michael won’t come up from underwater!’
‘Oh, honey, he’ll come up soon enough.’ And he would. He’d reemerge, face breaking the surface and eyes watching the shapes find their hard edges again. Gone with the fog, the faraway proximity, the lifting without pressing his bones against the earth.
The tabletop was a mess. Plates stained with marinara, wine corks, glasses filled to varying degrees, a bowl of olive oil and cracked pepper, tiny chips of bread crust, a lilting aluminum tray of cinnamon apples, a slice of carrot cake still wrapped in plastic. Around all of this, paying none of it any mind, the four of them traded stories, hypotheses, playful jabs, gentle sentiments, laughter, and wine. More wine.
The night before, he’d combined the ingredients for the marinara. Four diced tomatoes, teaspoon of minced garlic, salt and pepper and basil and oregano. In the morning, before he pulled on his running shoes and jolted his mind and body to life, he turned the crock pot to low. After work, pasta boiling inches from sizzling hamburger, he started worrying over how it all might go. In his wildest imaginings, 29 never involved so much feeling like a child playing an adult.
But here he was, and here they were, and he suddenly saw the moment with sparkling clarity. This night, the wine and pasta and laughter, was the first time all of this felt like home. Never mind all the things he still needed –– wine glasses, placemats, cutlery, a toaster, a microwave –– because it all came together. They showed up, and everything came together.
The following morning, he remembered the night already with a warm glow. What a thing it is to be young and hungry and in love with our friends.
‘Over there, that’s the coffee shop where I sang ‘With Arms Wide Open’ and made Robbie laugh. I didn’t realize it was the same one until about a week into my move here. I walked in, a little lonely, and realized that I’d already made a memory there with somebody I love.
‘Here’s the spot in the park I began running, breaths shallow, on the morning my Grandma passed away. I ran seven miles and didn’t feel an inch closer to my family, so I jumped onto the train, took the elevator up to my apartment, then sank into my couch and cried.
‘Right there, by the water, is where I had my first kiss in New York City. It was warmer, then, and there was the sun, the water, and the wind. He didn’t know it, but, in that moment, I was letting a lot of old things go.
‘Oh my goodness, this is the café where I told the first guy I kind of dated in the city that I didn’t think we made sense. I told him, after my last heartbreak, I was going to engage in the act of listening to my intuition. It took the waiter twenty minutes, after that, to bring us our check.
‘And see that empty storefront? There was an art installation there, just a few weeks ago, and my mom and sister and I went. My mom and I had an emotional moment trying to draw one another, and, now that I think about it, that’s a lot of what trying to love somebody is.
‘There’s the spot on the pier where Lisa got all quiet and just kind of absorbed New York City from far away. I sneaked behind her and took photos, partly so she’d have new photos of herself, but mostly so we’d never forget being there together.
‘And there, and here, and, if we had time, I could show you this, but we’ve got to get there, then there, and maybe there, if we’re feeling it, and what’s this here.’
On one hand, the city offered him no shortage of things to write about. Every day, everywhere he wandered, there were inspiring things, heartbreaking things, funny and startling and cynical things. On the sidewalk, spray-paint graffiti told him he was loved. To his left, a woman shouted her indignation at a cab driver, shaking her fist and letting him know she was reporting him. ‘I’m reporting you,’ he retorted. By the grocery store, a child chased a few pigeons into flight, then shrieked in fear, scuttling behind his mother.
On the other, the city was a pickpocket, a charming thief who tucked away not only a person’s coins, but their time. Here, Michael found, the days and weeks whisked right through the cracks of his fingers. It felt only days he ago he had set his things, crammed into boxes, onto his apartment floor. How to set up a life. But it had been nearly five months.
And so he wrote down the images, throwing strands of pasta against the wall and seeing what might stick. What it felt like to see his best friend walking on campus after months, and the ways even small brushes with love had changed what he was looking for, the time the dog on the train pressed its face against a homeless man’s palm and made him cry. He wrote it all, pulling blurs from the periphery and working to etch the golden edges.