New York I Love You; or, Wisdom Under Duress
There are always friendly faces or short-lived past lovers passing in and out of my field of vision. I let them go. I don’t plan on staying long anywhere. ¶ I am beginning to see a trend. The first man I loved with a decade on me once remarked, “You’re very wise.” Another, regarding me from across a narrower gap of years, consoled me: “When you get older, you stop feeling as much.” I took it to heart. Not everything means anything. More often than not, it means nothing at all. These days it takes me less and less time to arrive here.
Between destinations on the L train I said “I feel this city has broken me like a wild horse.” He, the latter lover, said maybe that is a good thing. A horse ought to be put to work. Roaming free contributes to nothing. Perhaps I am beginning to agree. I still could not help tossing and turning every night I spent in his bed, despite his kind effort to hold me still.
A portrait of this past winter that has changed me so disconcertingly: Fielding advances, cigarette between my teeth, calculated posturing on Houston Street, slouched under the wet snowfall – “No, it’s not, it’s hail,” I hear someone protest. I grimace, to myself alone, "Everything here is so... iconic." The iconic structures that had, surprisingly quickly, devolved to my eye into a dull concrete backdrop are all obscured in the fog. My stomach sinks with anxiety pangs, as has become custom. "Every iconic thing might as well be invisible to the underprivileged’s eye anyway," I tell no-one.
There are always friendly faces or short-lived past lovers passing in and out of my field of vision. I let them go. I don’t plan on staying long anywhere.
"When you have stood still in the same spot for too long, you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump, and pray."
— Renata Adler, Speedboat
I initially left New York frightened of this encroaching cynicism. I sensed instability at the core, the impending threat of radiation fanning out to contaminate every thing. Not unlike how they say a dog can smell cancer in the body. An abstract malaise had come to preoccupy me as I have seen it consume countless others surviving in this pressure-cooker. For some it manifests as desperation; for others, a gut resistance to settling down. I am not the only one. It has become a recurring subject of discussion among my fellow Brooklynites: the dreaded perpetual looking ahead to the next incoming fixation, unending panicked search for some absolution, and each time, finding none, moving along at a frenetic pace to see if it could be found in someone else to siphon.
Now and again, pacing my North Brooklyn neighborhood in some instinctual craze, I would mistake what turned out to be my own reflection in a pane of glass for a frowning stranger, wearing skepticism in her brow as a pathetic excuse for armor. One exercise in futility after another. I, too, perched in vain on tip-toes atop the pinpoint spire of one of many unfathomable heights. Just another one of six million lightning rods watching the storm roll in.
Come the solstice I had fallen out of love with the things that until recently I was certain defined me. Not things per se, but people, ways of thinking, or the expected sequences of adult life. To call this period anything resembling reinvention would be fatuous. I am fortunate to be young enough that any change qualifies still as “growth.” But I am growing not straight up but askew, becoming ever more hostile to consistency and routine. The most marvellously stimulating things tend to happen when I deviate from my regularly scheduled patterns of existence.
One afternoon after a storm, for instance, unsteadily treading Broadway’s sidewalks thick caked with snow where the bridge imposes over the East River, I came upon a figure all in white. A butcher. In his arms, flopping impotently over his shoulder, was a pig’s decapitated carcass wrapped in plastic. It dwarfed the man considerably. The air was freezing cold. He wore no coat. He looked straight ahead the way one does to endure such a chore. I was struck with morbid amusement at the sight of the dead thing and his occupation with it. It occurred to me how instantaneously this person passing in and out of my presence became a caricature. I objectified him as “a butcher” as naturally as I recognized his companion as “a dead animal.” But I digress.
This butcher carried the bloody thing down the street in broad daylight and into the front door of the boutique grocer I frequented. (An adage comes to mind: something about not wanting to see how the sausage is made.) I cannot recall having witnessed such a thing before. It seemed an image reserved for absurd early-risers. A bout of insomnia taught me years ago that the early-morning city is a very different place than the city of my experience.
Behold the gears that keep the city turning in its controlled-manic rhythm: bakers making their deliveries before sunrise; city sanitation workers sweeping sidewalks before the suits descend upon them; first pots of coffee brewing, jaws slouching agape to expel smug yawns. Everything I take for granted by the time afternoon sees me slinking out of my apartment, throwing shade from behind my shades lest anyone interfere, is set in motion long before I exist to the outside world on any given day. I hold in inordinately high esteem those who abide routine, such that I feel sights like our dear butcher are a gift that must be earned.
The orangered blood against the white of his uniform against the snow-logged streets made me hungry, for something.
Certain mysterious sensations I’ve experienced escape my capacity for language. I greet each abstract sensory episode with reluctant familiarity. These occur when I am in an altered mental or physical state – nauseous, feverish; too stoned, or drunk, with a case of the swirls; or, paralyzed in the disconcerting limbo between consciousness and sleep. External or internal repetition of any word or sound overpowers me with unease. And: With eyes open or closed, when under the influence of any one of aforementioned altered states, my mind’s eye is audience to terrible looping of patterns of shapes of unreal colors parading through absolute blackness. The episodes are accompanied by a full-body disturbance akin to vertigo. I get the impression of being at once trapped and infinite, the terror of having been extracted from self-deception of a linear timeline.
Thematic sequencing of life’s events is, I think, a form of self-deception. I do not respond appropriately to the passage of time, or else there is a delay during which I am unable to perceive happenings honestly. Happenings happened months ago stay vibrant and fresh in my mind as if they just happened yesterday, and so I come in and out of peoples’ lives in hot spurts. Meanwhile the present days blur together. Frantic, reactionary living.
“Man lives in illusory infinitude… Those who are fascinated by the idea of progress do not suspect that everything moving forward is at the same time bringing the end nearer and that joyous watchwords like ‘forward’ and ‘farther’ are the lascivious voice of death urging us to hasten to it.”
— Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Earlier in this most oppressive winter I awoke qualmished and exceptionally hungover. The New York City Marathon’s barricades complicated my path to the boxcar diner I intended to eat at. I had tired of looking at this man, yet another encroaching ego, slick jetblack hair in elegant contrast against his milky skin, smiling suggestively (I never did give him the satisfaction) from beneath my bedsheets. His features looked drawn on his face with ink. I was repulsed by his classic beauty. He was an artist I had been assigned to write about some years ago. Coincidentally we’d met again outside a dive on the Lower East Side.
“Same shit, different city,” I had taken a liking to saying.
Over cocktails and charcuterie, at the usual place: I, like a ravenous urchin, sank my teeth into one succulent fig after another. My eyes glassed in perverse delight at the sight as their pink innards gushed forth. The artist stepped out for a phone call to his coke dealer. His polite proposition to share came cheerily as if he were suggesting we play checkers. I declined.
People behave differently when they know they are being watched.
Anyway, the diner. I was treated to tea and biscuits and gravy and eggs, perfectly runny inside, and his affable and precisely charming banter. I, with my concentrated scowl, having stirred awfully by the nauseating grey light of dawn, may have still been sauced from the night before. He managed to make me laugh despite myself. I felt nothing. I thought what a horrendously classic New York City archetype I was inhabiting in that moment: straight out of Manhattan. I do and do not like the dissociative impression that I am in a movie. In fact, I lamented (aloud, I think), “We could very well be in a damned Woody Allen film right now.” I did feel somehow satisfied not to be the smarmy protagonist, but the one-dimensional, hysteric yet desirable female object who refused to let the poor, eager hero enjoy her sans-impertinence. (Alas, I am no Hemingway girl.)
I will condescend to make the following observations. A man enchanted and feeling deprived of affection can interpret (read: mistaken) most anything, even blatant derision, for flirtation. Sarcasm is the plebeian foreplay of this Age of Anxiety. “No” doesn’t mean “No” until the second or third time, at best. It is considered good manners to play along long enough so as not to bruise your pursuer’s ego. The problem is, the longer you leave them wanting, the more adeptly they will disguise physical desire as virtuous sentiment. Anything, really, to trick you into their clutches so they can get you out of their system. It is never really about you. Never believe it is about you. It is a most insidious form of sexual objectification. These are not conditions of conduct that I endorse. Just another familiar annoyance we are conditioned to overlook.
The Marathon mess blocked access from the diner to the nearest subway. I acquiesced. Once back in my apartment, he looked pleased with himself. I took care in deflating him.
“You mean all that – the night out, the brunch, my witty conversation – that wasn’t special to you?” He sounded more impressed than disappointed.
“I’m just not emotionally available right now,” I said, in bad faith.
“That’s a relief. I thought it was my face and body and personality.” It was neither.
It was not that he was not thoroughly enchanting; it was not that any one of the men I’d met that oppressive season were not “worthy.” As if I have that much self-esteem to spare. I am beyond enchantment. I warm to no one who is willing. What capacity for devotion I have in me is spent on willfully unaccomodating lovers. This is not unheard of. Unrequited desire is a useful defense mechanism for those in rehabilitation from the grand conclusion of a once nebulous intimacy. The self-protection paradox rides you until you fall, gasping, “Was there ever anything more.”
It is for the best. My brain might atrophy without these biannual crises, Reset buttons like dangling carrots before me to keep my momentum up and my gaze fixed ahead. Just like any treat, too much romantic optimism and its indulgence will sicken you, fatten you, weaken your will. Now, when a man tells me that I move too fast, I interpret it as non du père, a scolding against overindulgence.
“Substitution can increase longing even more than deprivation.”
— Alissa Nutting, “It’s No Substitute For The Sun,” New York Times.