Leaving New York
That July Fourth was hotter than Mars. We traveled as a gang, impervious to the smoke and intermittent explosions from cherry bombs people tossed into the air from their fire escapes. My hair was long and wild, and stuck to my neck. Chris was there, and his sister, who wore her hair up in a knee-high sock, just like Madonna in that movie.
It was dark when we arrived at the Pitt Street pool. We squeezed in, one by one, through a hole in the chain link, shaking our limbs like stray dogs, giddy, losing each other in the crowd of kids from the projects. We slipped out of our sneakers, peeled off our clothes to our underwear, and jumped into the water screaming with the cold chlorinated shock of it. Our heads bobbed on the surface as we waded, the clouds of firecracker smoke floating in a layer that hung just above our noses.
We had a knack for filling up gray areas with half-baked schemes. We designed things: clothes, food, haircuts. We jerry-rigged everything. It didn’t matter, we lived for the odd moment, the expressive gesture. Sometimes in the winter I’d skip work and take the A train to Far Rockaway to be alone on the beach. I’d pick my way through twisted clothes hangers and cigarette butts, tampon inserters pale as nematodes, discarded food containers like seashells that dotted the sandy expanse between the boardwalk and the ocean. Between the crashing of the waves, the sound of sirens in the distance. The place was rancid. On a gray day it felt like a location for a movie about a drug deal gone wrong.
Different from the pristine beaches out east. They had dunes. In the summer I waited tables out there at the place where Chris’s sister was chef. She got me that job before the plague hit. It was like running a marathon. After closing, she’d grill us steaks. I ate one every night and lost weight anyway.
We stayed in a house steps from the ocean that Chris’s sister leased. She packed us in to meet the monthly rent. The walls were hung with driftwood, dried starfish, and fake lobster traps. There were strict rules about not trailing in sand, but no one paid attention. Sand was everywhere, in our beds, in our teeth, in our hair. Like so many beach houses, it had a swimming pool. I always thought it was strange to swim in a pool at the beach. Maybe people don’t like salt water or are afraid of being swept away in a riptide. Or maybe they have an image of themselves tanned in a Speedo, holding a cocktail poolside. We threw parties. All summer long, boys with perfect bodies lounged naked and dove into the pool. We made tuna salad and had pizzas delivered. People had random sex and no one was careful. I slept off my hangovers wrapped in a blanket on the beach.
I remember all the cars. Ray’s succession of used Alfas that made animal noises and inspired the envy of other drivers. Before the Alfas, there was a crap-green metallic Dodge Dart that wouldn’t start in the cold. People were always breaking into it to steal the radio, but we had no radio, so we would leave it parked unlocked. Sometimes we’d find someone sleeping in the back seat. Then there was Paul’s banged-up cream-colored Porsche that he bought for three thousand dollars. I thought that was a lot of money. Early on weekday mornings, Ray would pick up Paul on Avenue D and they’d drive up the FDR to their construction gig. After work, they’d zoom back downtown for pints. They worked on personal projects together, but Ray had the special talent. He built furniture from discarded cardboard boxes and glue, ingenious contraptions that belonged in the design museum. He helped Paul build an iridescent Plexi counter for Daryl’s shop. She was putting out her own line of denim vests and plastic rain hoodies, jerseys with snaps down the front that made you look pregnant, and faux-leather jeans for tall skinny girls. I couldn’t afford any of it, but none of her clothes looked good on me so I didn’t care.
Sometimes, in the dead of night, I’d creep home to the apartment of a friend-of-a-friend near Streit’s Matzos. I didn’t have a key. The buzzer was broken so I’d climb up the gate and dive in through the second-floor window like everybody else. One time, I found Paul’s brother in the loft bed naked. We ended up talking through the night. I was pricked by his freckled skin covered in orange stubble, and he explained that he shaved his entire body to race bicycles. At the time, I thought it had to do with reducing wind drag. Ray raced bicycles, as did his father back in Dublin. He used to shave his body too, but he stopped when he gave up bicycles to drive Alfas.
I remember everyone drinking vodka straight from the bottle. It was a thing. People stood outside bodegas sipping from crumpled brown paper bags, bundled against the freezing wind, or sweating profusely in grimy t-shirts. The weather constantly changed but danger was a permanent feeling. Before I met Ray, I heard the story about him being mugged on Havemeyer Street. People talked about it for months. I imagined his blue eyes blazing as he chased the mugger with the pole he pulled out of a dumpster, all brute force and adrenaline. In another version of the story, it was his friend who was mugged, and Ray saved him by brandishing a signpost he pulled out of the ground. Someone else said that the mugger had a knife, while another person said there were two muggers but no knife. In yet another version of the story, Ray pretended to have a gun.
Sometimes, I hung out with Chris. We’d meet up with an Italian guy he liked—or was he Greek? The one Chris thought was in publishing. I figured he wanted an in with him. We’d hang out at the hotel bar across from the opera, and I’d pretend to ignore the two men flirting. I stood around and sipped my drink until someone made a decision about where to go next. The Italian guy never paid for anything. Sometimes, he’d invite a bunch of us over to his borrowed West Village apartment, paid for by the man who brought Batman to television. He’d pontificate about zombie movies while divvying up lines of coke. Eventually, Chris figured out the guy never worked in publishing. He lived in a single room in a building near Columbia with no locks on the doors. Chris told me his real name but I don’t remember it.
When Chris was at Downstate doing his medical residency, he lived in an overheated apartment in Fort Greene. No one knew where the thermostat was so it was too hot all the time regardless of the weather. He’d call me and say ‘Come visit me in Cairo.’ After that, he moved to a walk-up in Yorkville. Years later, when I worked at the museum, I’d walk by it without realizing it, as if it was from a parallel universe. But sometimes, I’d stare at the front door and think of Chris and his boyfriend Ed, and the time I passed out on the floor in the bathroom of the Thai restaurant after eating soft-shell crab, and how Ed saved my life. We were a large group that night. Ray was there, I’d only just met him. I opened my eyes to see Daryl straddling me, her loud stream of piss having roused me from my anaphylactic coma. ‘What did you take?’ she asked as she tugged on the roll of toilet paper. I figured she was used to asking that question. ‘Garlic bread,’ I said, gasping for air, ‘and half a beer.’ She stepped over me and zipped up her skinny jeans while I kept my cheek flat on the cold tile to keep from passing out again.
Minutes later, or maybe it was seconds, Chris lifted me off the floor and carried me out through the restaurant while everyone watched, and out onto the street where Ed was waiting in his car. It was like a scene from a movie, very dramatic. His sister was yelling at the kitchen staff: ‘What did you put in the sauce?’ Ed’s car was an old blue Chevy that pre-dated seat belts. He ran every red light on Second Avenue while Chris cradled me in the back seat and whispered ‘Breathe!’ He carried me like a baby into the emergency room and shouted ‘I have a woman in shock!’ ‘What did you eat?’ asked the ER doctor before he shot me full of Benadryl. I was fine instantly.
Someone lent us their apartment for the night. Ray called the next morning to find out if I was still alive, and to ask me out on a date. Months later we eloped so he could get a green card. Everyone was so angry with us for eloping. We moved into an SRO in Chelsea, a single room with a shared bathroom off Eighth Avenue. Fifth floor walk-up, no air conditioning. We had a sink but no hotplate.
On Thursdays, Fridays, and weekend nights we’d look down from our fifth-floor window at the endless row of yellow cabs ferrying people back and forth from the clubs and music venues further downtown. One of our neighbors was a Korean War vet named Ernie. He had a bad leg and was always asking me to help him with domestic tasks. Once, when I was adjusting his TV antenna, he tried to stick his hand into the crack of my ass. On the ground floor there was a guy named Stu who was recovering from hepatitis and kept a pet tarantula in a small aquarium. He fed it a steady diet of crunchy store-bought bugs that he kept in plastic take-out tubs. Stu’s room was very clean but had a strange odor like a doctor’s office. When he was feeling better, Ray and I brought him lasagna from the place on the corner. The sub-basement was occupied by two Moroccan brothers. At one point they brought their mom over to live with them, all of them in two rooms. They actually had a hotplate, and the smell of their mom’s cooking always made us hungry. The brothers sold nitrous oxide and ecstasy out of their candy store on the corner of Eighth Avenue, as well as rubbers, gum, cough drops, Q-Tips, and NyQuil. I bought several packages of Benadryl from them in case of future soft-shell crab attacks.
Ray and I had a landline with an answering machine, which we constantly fed tiny cassette tapes. The tapes quickly filled up with words, and we were always erasing them to make room for new recordings since we could never find replacement tapes. If we forgot to turn the machine off before we picked up the phone, it would record our conversation. One day, a friend called and the machine inexplicably played back a conversation it taped of me talking frankly with the man she’d been pursuing. She called me the following day, her voice trembling with rage as she performed my half of the conversation before hanging up. I guess it wasn’t very nice, what I’d said. I remember thinking it was time to buy a new answering machine.
We argued a lot. We fought in public parks. I don’t know anymore what the fights were about. We broke up and cried, and fell in love again and cried, then broke up again. We went out to dinner and didn’t speak to each other. We dragged ourselves to the same bar over and over and argued over pints and Irish whiskeys. One of us always walked out. We brought our fights onto the street. In the summer months, people leaned out of their windows to watch us fight, their television screens flickering behind them.
In the mornings on weekdays, I rode the subway to City College. I was doing my Masters in painting and Ray was enrolled in the architecture program. That was when Ray started seeing someone else on the sly, a girl he met in a charrette. They did things I wasn’t really any good at, like clubbing and recreational drugs. Once I found limes and tonic in our tiny refrigerator, and another time I found a bra on the desk she’d left for me to see. It was a cheap bra. I opened our refrigerator and took out the tub of leftover sour cream and onion dip and took it down onto the street to where Ray parked his Alfa, and emptied it onto the windshield.
I spent the rest of the summer riding on the back of someone’s motorcycle, one of Ray’s friends. I’d strap on the helmet and get on the back of the bike and he’d drive all day, for miles. I learned to lean and shift my weight on turns. We rode the bike on the ferry to Staten Island, and drove across the Bayonne Bridge to New Jersey. We drove from Brooklyn to Queens over the Kosciuszko Bridge. We drove to Bear Mountain and back without stopping. We drove across bridges I’d never heard of with names I can’t remember.
Ray dropped out of City College around the time I graduated. It was just as the economy tanked. I had an MFA in painting, relatively useless at that juncture, but only a small amount of student debt. One of our professors threw a party in their loft on Bond Street. Adjunct faculty and graduating students all piled in to drink warm gin and beer, and eat cheese and crackers. Our professor said ‘Don’t worry about the economy, just keep doing your work.’ In addition to cheese and crackers, she served us miniature carrots and pre-cut celery arranged in sunburst patterns gathered around bowls of sour cream and onion dip.
I visited Ray once at his place on Third Avenue after we split up. It was above a Turkish restaurant, and that night, much like our room in Chelsea, it was inundated with aromas of grilling meat. Ray brought out a gun to show me. It was wrapped in a striped tea towel and tied with bakery string. He said he’d been hiding it for someone in the wall, and made me promise never to tell anyone. A year later, he went back to Ireland. I never asked him to whom he owed money, or how much he owed. For a long time, people, banks, and collection agencies tried to track him down through our old landline. I’d come home to threatening messages and hang-ups. By then I had a new answering machine that didn’t use tiny cassette tapes, and it was easier to screen calls.
Before Ray left the country, we met for lunch at a fancy restaurant in Chelsea. We ordered salads and a ridiculously expensive bottle of wine. We drank the wine and filled up on bread, and he apologized for everything. I didn’t want to cry, but I wanted to cry. He said leaving New York is never easy. Afterwards, we stood on the street in front of the restaurant and said our goodbyes. I never saw him again.