A Year in New York
by Kelly Shetron
In the early dawn of January, before the year began unfolding with any real velocity, I left the suburbs of Philadelphia and drove up the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the New Jersey Turnpike, over the Goethals Bridge, through Staten Island, over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and into Brooklyn and stayed. At 27, I was maybe a little too old to come to New York for an internship—but I needed a change. This is my year in New York.
I move into an apartment in a squat, brown-faced building on Nostrand Avenue with an all-green bathroom: green toilet, green tub, green sink, green floor, green walls. That first afternoon, I leave my brown-green home to buy peanut M&Ms and toothpaste from two boys at the bodega on the corner. Everything is new and strange: the people, sidewalks, buildings; the network of underground trains slithering under the streets like snakes. The unfamiliarity gives me a rush. To do the mundane here feels like an accomplishment. There’s no one showing me the way, but there’s nothing stopping me, either. It’s all at my fingertips.
I make a friend, Allegra, who invites me to an art show in a narrow building wedged between other narrow buildings on a narrow street. Inside, the show is a collection of photos arranged on the floor under a layer of clear plastic. We stand looking down, lifting our faces to drink free wine from flimsy cups. Allegra and I talk about our internships and our weird roommates and how we don’t have enough money and about this city. It is not what we expected. You think it is supposed to feel some New York way, but the feeling doesn’t come. There is all this expectation, but then you get to the art show and the photos are on the floor and we flash cabernet-stained smiles at strangers who look away.
The boyfriend I left at home comes to New York, catching me off guard. We had broken up. This is not a romance novel, but we do walk to an empty French restaurant and sit across from each other at a wobbly table. The wallpaper is green and red, and the light is yellow like a Hopper painting. It doesn’t feel like the time to make plans, so we don’t. For a moment, we live free of the past and future, the feeling of possibility opening us like flowers.
When my sister comes to visit, we go to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the guard waves us in for free. We’re nearly alone in the still-new, still-cold spring, walking over the greening grass, running our fingers over silky tulip petals of red, orange, and yellow. We are suspended in a nest of green hidden in a world of concrete gray. A Japanese cherry tree has blossomed early and we stand underneath it looking up at the pink-streaked blue.
My sublet ends, and I move to Queens to stay with Allegra. The streets in my new neighborhood are lined with trees whose roots push up against the sidewalks til they pucker. I commute on the 7, a train that runs on an elevated subway line. On a short stretch between Court Square and Queensboro Plaza, it slinks along the East River parallel to Manhattan, and at night I look out a soot-streaked window at the skyline. The window becomes a sort of transparent mirror, my shadowy reflection imposed over the distant buildings. I see myself and the city in a single frame, and I pass through it, or it through me, like a ghost.
One of the house cats pees on all my clothes while I’m away. I throw everything in the wash, and Allegra mixes gin and lime with honey water, and we sit at our table talking about life and work and how it doesn’t feel like summer at all, not really. It’s hard to believe we’ve been in this city, treading water, for six months. We don’t know if our internships will become full-time jobs, or where our next sublet will be and how we can afford it, or when this constant motion will take us somewhere.
I work part time as a receptionist at a quiet center for massage. Behind the reception desk one day, as I run a client’s credit card through a little machine with glowing buttons, my lungs stop working. My heart beats like a humming bird. My arms and fingertips tingle. I turn to one of the massage therapists, my friend, and say, I think I’m having a heart attack. He is calm. He tells me I am not having a heart attack. He tells me to breathe. He says, “Imagine all the space in the universe, and how there’s room for everything.” I breathe. After some time, the anxiety attack ebbs. Only later do I understand all the ways in which I am not alone.
Ben, who visited in the spring, becomes my boyfriend again. He gets a job in New York and we talk about living together. I try to imagine being in this fractured place with a partner. It has been eight months and I can still count the times I’ve been to Manhattan on my fingers. I barely understand what it means to live or thrive in this place. Something in me is more scared to figure it out together than to do it alone. What if we can’t?
I get a job. My new co-workers invite me to happy hour, and I wait for them at the bar. The bartender keeps drifting away as the man to my left tries to talk to him, so he turns to me instead. He is Tom, a retired cop, who grew up in Brooklyn. He is kind and gentle and there is something about him. I ask him about his life. I ask him about 9/11. He tells me about the sound from that day that haunts him: the locating devices on firefighters’ uniforms that beeped all night from under the rubble, echoing across the interminable expanse of trauma and wreck. He looks down and his eyes move back and forth, scanning over memories. “It was bad,” he says again and again, unable to say more. My co-workers never show, and, walking home, I feel like my insides are flooding. How are we all so small, and complex, and isolated, with courage to show these parts of ourselves to the world?
On moving day, Ben and I drive a U-Haul through the boroughs, reading clearance signs as we enter tunnels and rumble through bridges, checking that we’ll make it through. At the end of the day, our new apartment is full of our boxes. I look at him, calm and present, and I remember how we fit, and how it can be simple to just do one thing, and then another.
I am frantic about making our apartment feel like home. We need an area rug, I demand; it can’t wait. Ben and I go to the clearance section in the basement of ABC Carpet and I find the perfect one: it’s geometric and blue and green and yellow and it is just right. Ben negotiates with the salesman, and we get a deal. It is the biggest tiny victory. We take it home and unroll it across our floor and feel like kings.
One year in, and still, I use a subway map everywhere I go. Maybe the thing that’s disorienting about the subway, and New York, is you go in some place and then emerge somewhere totally different, barely knowing where you’ve been. Our movements are like constellations: imaginary networks. The touchpoints, the moments that are tangible, are not just subway stops or corners or bars; they’re connections. They’re the strangers and friends who become home.
Kelly Shetron is a Brooklyn-based storyteller who still uses a subway map. She is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Storytelling, and her work has appeared in Freerange Nonfiction and The Rumpus. Find her on Twitter @kellyshetron. She wants to hear your story.