Into the Birth Canal
June 25, 2016
I haven’t seen the skyline since going underground at Jamaica Station, but I can feel the weight of Midtown overhead. A high school couple sits across from me, their interlaced fingers forming a brown and white zipper between their knees. They make me intensely optimistic about the future. She shuts her eyes and grimaces cutely as his lips pass from her forehead down the bridge of her nose to her own expectant mouth. It’s a display I would normally loathe, but I remind myself that modesty always plays second fiddle to first love, and now I am unable to look away. With Spirits in my ears, I smile and absorb the affection they’re filling the air with.
I meet Oscar at his apartment in the East Village, which is “Oh, that’s trendy” according to every person who asks him what neighborhood he lives in. He opens all the windows, hands me a Brooklyn lager. We celebrate the virtues of Summer Fridays. A text message takes us to a beer garden in Gowanus then to a shuffleboard club around the block. The cheapest beer they have on tap is served in a mason jar. No one is surprised by this. I lunge with the tang like a gladiator and always end up in the kitchen. I put a chalky hand on Jeff’s shoulder and he tells me marriage changes nothing for our generation.
Oscar and I sip bourbon in a basement then sling back beers at the bar from Crocodile Dundee. He destroys me at Big Buck Hunter in the periphery of a bachelorette party. Collapsing into a booth, we argue about the necessity of the Resurrection and the merits of religious pageantry. Our voices crescendo in a way only those of nearly functional-alcoholic attorneys’ can. I lose count of how many times I’ve slapped the table and for that I am grateful. We are turned away from the Blind Barber because we’re both wearing shorts.
On Saturday morning, Oscar slips into the shower while I climb out onto his fire escape still in my boxers, stretch my limbs towards the sky, let out a lion’s yawn. The morning is golden and swells with possibility. Below me, spandex-covered college girls jog past a man and a woman, thin and gorgeous and with just the right amount of tattoos, who greet each other with a hug that is something more. I sit down on the steps, nurse a cup of coffee, and pretend to ponder a brunch locale as The Underdog drifts out of the window. I am in the opening credits of a romantic comedy.
We hang our full bellies over the edge of the fountain at Washington Square Park, watch the kids splash around and a homeless man shower. I am every bead of water in his beard. Oscar and I say almost nothing. Each time the wind pushes the mist against our cheeks, I melt further into the warm cement beneath me. I am almost positive I am alive right now. It is impossible to find a frozen margarita at Pier A, so we settle down with gin. Below the sagging canopy of a park that Jeff’s firm designed, we press our backs into the weeping stone wall and I forget I am in the middle of the city I’ve come to visit. At McSorley’s, Oscar and I stare slack-jawed at all the wishbones balanced on the light fixture. We both drown in an admiration and an immense sadness that we try to verbalize for the next twenty minutes.
After a stand-up show at the Redgrave, we circle around Greenwich Village looking for a place to eat while riffing tirelessly on the filthiest joke from the act. Oscar orders enough tapas for both of us, but when the waiter sets down our pitcher of sangria, I order another for good measure. Our purple lips thirst for something more than careerism. The world is too much for children raised with the promise of everything. We were led out of Egypt but have no idea what land has been saved for us.
At a dive in the West Village located in what could be a 1980s crack house, I order my second Old Fashioned—this one, sans cherry. A balding twenty-something in a salmon-colored Deep-V tells me how tired he is of women who don’t don painted nails, high heels, and designer handbags—who don’t “try hard enough.” I swallow my vomit and remind myself that human beings are multifaceted. My cocktail arrives with two cherries. We lose Deep-V during our retreat to a Nolita watering hole. We talk about how two in our crowd—newlyweds, essentially—met randomly crossing paths on bridge at their alma mater. Randomly. On a bridge. For a moment, I am unable to breathe. Serendipity is not something I can ever live up to.
It’s Memorial Day’s Eve. The sun cascades over the water at Prospect Park. We are splayed across blankets thrown against the side of a hill, the ground hard like worn asphalt. We smoke boudin, ribs, chicken hearts—nourish the longing stomachs of these Louisiana expatriates. They complain about the city and how broke it makes them, which has always been the fashionable thing to do. I drink Modelo out of a plastic cup and tease my ex-girlfriend’s little sister about her family’s proclivity for Chacos. When she smiles, her eyes get bright and the freckles on her face arrange themselves in way that is familiar and heart wrenching. These boroughs are big, but the world is so small. We share our game of bean bag toss with a Filipino kid. He sells single cigarettes on busy street corners. “Never stop chasing paper,” he tells us. I dig another handful of boiled peanuts from a damp Ziploc covered in grass clippings as Two Princes blares out of the Bluetooth boom box. We all throw our heads back and sing. Jeff removes his shirt and his friend follows suit. They hug for a photograph in front of the lake, their white skin and brave tufts of chest hair repelling the afternoon rays. When a young boy returns our football with a pass rarely seen outside of varsity athletics, everyone claps. This is America in all the best ways.
On our way back the island, the F train is running on the C track but making only E stops. The subway system is both a work of art and maddeningly complex in a way that Kafka could not even have imagined. Getting to Brooklyn always feels impossible, but all rails lead to Manhattan.
We nibble on Slavic appetizers as a plaid-clad crooner from Seattle sings folk songs. I’m in the mood for a Dylan standard I know Oscar would appreciate, but it will be another week before I can put my finger on what I should have requested (Boots of Spanish Leather). The waitress covers my cocktail with spritzes of rose water then gives my shocked face the same treatment. “It’s good for the skin,” she tells me. After the sugar cube burns itself out over Oscar’s glass of absinthe, “That’s it,” she says. “It looked like you were expecting more.”
The rain falls in sheets outside the plate glass windows of a bordello-chic tiki bar. We trade a pound of flesh for the one punch bowl they serve that doesn’t contain rum. “We don’t like rum,” we explain to the waitress. “Good choice of bar, then,” she replies. I tip well for ribbings like this. “It’s probably because there are lots of rums you haven’t tried,” she adds. Oscar from the three-point line: “There are also lots of foodborne illnesses.” This gets a laugh so hard it earns us samples from two bottles that were shelved when we were still in grade school. We take off our shirts and stay close to the buildings as we walk seven blocks through the downpour. We are turned away from the Blind Barber because they’ll be closing soon, which is code for, “You’re wet and half-naked.”
By 11:30 AM on Monday morning, a small Asian woman is digging her elbow into my right shoulder blade. “Y’okay?” she asks. “Yes,” I say. This call and response repeats itself each time she feels my spine bow in pain. A wind-instrumentation of The Sound of Silence falls from the tinny overhead speaker but cannot drown out who-I-am-convinced-is Woody Allen in the next stall complaining about how hot the stones are. The stones are hot. My hour is up. When I hand the man at the register my credit card, he cautions me. “But there will be tax.”
Oscar and I sit at a rooftop bar on 39th Street and go back and forth about whether I should write a novel. I confess that it may be the one true art I am capable of, but he seems more concerned about whether I will base a character on him. Through the amber fishbowl bottom of my pint glass, I inhale the architectural vernacular that surrounds us. I pine for a bedroom window in the tallest tower. This city hums. I point this out to Oscar, who is now incapable of not hearing it.
On a street corner near Schiller, a young woman shouts to her friends that she told her parents she will never marry a doctor. I touch the back of her elbow as I pass by, spin around, walk backwards, interject, “So you should marry a lawyer, is what you’re saying?” She has olive skin and dark hair and I instantly want to spend the rest of my life with her, even more so after she cracks a smile and calls back, “So you can lie to me every day of our life?” I could invite her to have drinks with us, but what’s the point? I could never be more in love with her than I am now.
An NYU law student from Kensington sits next to me in 17B. She wears a pixie cut, lose jeans, and a floral scarf that runs endless laps around her collarbone. I tell her about the bars in the Big Easy, about the London Stone, about what it’s like to practice law in these United States. She touches my shoulder each time I make her laugh. Over the course of three hours, we never lower the armrest. Finally, she asks, “How was your trip?”
I tell her all of the above. I tell her that subway cars tearing through narrow tunnels makes me feel born again. I tell her that there’s a subtle love lurking beneath how people from all corners of the globe are equally angry at one another for not walking fast enough. I tell her that the size of the buildings and the scale and the sprawl simultaneously establishes my insignificance and what human beings are capable of. I tell her that John Lennon was right—that New York City is Ancient Rome itself, and that I’ve always wanted to walk with the Romans.
And then I tell her I spent the last four days doing the exact same things I do in New Orleans but for way more money and with a few less friends. I tell her that, in my appreciation, it’s hip to be a New Yorker and not to want to be. I tell her I’d love to move here so I can tell other people they shouldn’t—that I’ve spent my whole life wanting to be a member of clubs I’m too cool for. I tell her, I want to live in all places in order to prove to myself that the pulsing, blue map dot has so little to do with what matters. I tell her it’s about people. And moments. And that it always has been. But that living with uncertainty makes wisdom so much less satisfying.