It’s amazing to me how quickly this quirky city apartment feels more like home than most places I’ve recently been. Its odd shape draws me in – the long hallway down to the kitchen, the separate bedrooms and living rooms separated by the gear room in between, with its shelves of climbing paraphernalia, woodworking tools, and the awkward hunk of log abandoned on the floor. B. shows me all the oddities of his home of almost two and a half years. The light in the bathroom has a pull-string dangling from the ceiling (hard to find in the dark, if you don’t know where to reach). The faucet in the kitchen drips incessantly unless you push the handle a little to the right. There’s a leak in the ceiling in the gear room, a quarter-full rectangular tub situated underneath to catch the water which plips and plops, falling at a regular rhythm. The Neflix sometimes doesn’t work, unless you unplug and replug the tv cable. Some things I discover myself over the next couple days… the floorboard by the living room door which sinks and squeals loudly when stepped on, the strangely hidden button by the table that turns on the kitchen light (I fumbled around in the dark for an embarrassingly long time), the way you only have to twist the shower knob a smidgen or else the water becomes too hot.
It’s funny how knowing all these things makes me feel like a piece of the house is mine, like I belong there. I try to know it the way I wish people knew me – knowing my oddities and loving me because of them and not in spite of them. This little apartment has character. And B. lives here, so of course I like it. It looks like it’s been lived in by two young bachelors… which of course, it has. There’s random stuff everywhere, and the slight mess makes me feel even more comfortable in it. No one felt like they had to clean up for me. I like that even more. B’s fabled rip-off Dr. Pepper collection sits on the shelf, alongside the “Best Mustache” award from the Chicken Race and his medical award. An eclectic mix of knickknacks for a well-rounded, dedicated, silly person.
I’m given a blow-up mattress on the floor with green and white plaid sheets, surprisingly comfortable. I make the little living room mine, and at night it is so very dark and so very quiet I can hardly believe I’m in the city, and I sleep well. I don’t take sleeping well for granted anymore. In the mornings, I boil water in the electric kettle and drink tea standing by the window with the diamond grate, looking out at the untouched snow of the postage-stamp backyard. The honey I wanted to use is so old it crystallized in the cupboard. That makes me smile.
The next few days are a mix of explorations on my own and walking around the city with B. We climb at Brooklyn Boulders, an edgy bouldering gym with bright bubble graffiti art splashed across the walls. The grades are soft, although the walls are high, and it feels good to climb ‘harder’ than I usually do at home. B. and I walk all over the city, making my legs sore for days. We see Brooklyn and Manhattan and all the things someone is supposed to see when they’re in New York. We go to a tea shop with a million different wonderful smells to choose from and leave with steaming to-go cups – B. splits his pair of gloves so we can each wear one on the hand that has to stay out in the cold, holding the tea.
I feel lost in this city without him, much like I feel internally lost most of the time. I stick so close to him in crowds that sometimes he turns around to check I’m there and doesn’t see me, because I’m right next to his elbow. We cross the Brooklyn Bridge, and we can’t help but talk about what it would be like to climb up its arching pipes, clipping in to the strong cables. We visit the new World Trade Center building, and the 911 memorial, waterfall hole falling into waterfall hole, out of sight, seeming to fall into eternity, names punched out of metal which I run my fingertips along, feeling the weight of this place and the ghosts living in the words, remembrance, although I have no memory of the event myself (It’s just one of those things you feel like you remember, because how could you not).
We ride the Staten Island Ferry, see the Statue of Liberty, looking magnificent yet smaller than I expected, trying to stand in patches of sun as the wind blows skin-numbing cold. I like seeing the city all at once, the skyline lining up the chaos in an ordered picture, water rushing blue and white foaming down below, stirring inside feelings of freedom. We talk about life, and long stretches of silence between conversations are more comfortable once we talk about what’s really been burdening our hearts through the past month since we last saw each other. There is no judgement between us. We just ask questions and listen and be. We eat bagels and pizza and Ethiopian food with moist floppy pancake bread and drink honey mead wine that I’m surprised I actually like. We visit Times Square for a few hot seconds at night, just so I can be ‘overwhelmed for a minute and then leave’ as B. says. I spin around looking at all the people and the towering screens that light up the sky like false white daylight. I spin and I spin and I am definitely overwhelmed. “Are you New-Yorked?” asks B. Yes. I am definitely New-Yorked.
We return home and he tries to introduce me to adult cartoons by watching Futurama, which is mildly funny in places, I do have to admit. Or we just sit and talk. He wears fuzzy fleece PJ pants that are covered with pictures of Olaf and say ‘I like warm hugs,’ because he does, and it makes me laugh. He works late shifts and I fall asleep with the light on, until he comes home and turns it off, and I fall asleep again knowing he got back safely. (He insists on biking through the New York traffic and night and snow. He’s wonderfully insane. And everyone in NY bikes and drives too fast, in my opinion.) Or I stay up and we talk about ice climbing and crampons and ice axes and I get to play with his gear, or he eats his midnight dinner and I drink tea and we talk about random things. He does things like texting me to make sure I’m not hopelessly lost on the subway, and I do things like texting him to remind him to ride safe. He’s like the older brother I magically get to have without having to grow up with all the teasing. He’s like the older brother I miss all year and wish he lives closer by. He’s the older brother for whom I use cities I’ve never been to and climbing gyms that aren’t mine as excuses to come see him.
I do spend a good bit of time alone. I feel the normal alone feelings well up in me as I navigate the subway by myself, getting lost and confused but always figuring it out, understanding more and more with each consecutive lesson from B. I visit the Brooklyn Public Library, which moves me with quotes etched in stone and surprises me with towering doors with gold figures from stories and legends, even books I loved growing up, like White Fang by Jack London. I walk in Prospects Park, boots slipping on snow, remembering treasured snows past, missing the people with whom I walked through enchanted forests hushed by freshly-fallen white. I visit the Brooklyn Art Library, which is actually a library of sketchbooks – I love art but hate not being able to touch it, experience its textures and assure myself it’s real, and so I love the quiet magnificence of this place, love turning the thick pages of the insides of people’s brilliant and wildly different and breathtaking and colorful and weird imaginations, painting and collage and fabric and embroidery and pop-up and flap books and poems and stories and just everything you can imagine and more. I want to stay forever, but leave as the light fades from the sky.
There are so many people in New York, as you could guess. There’s just this swimming rush of humanity all around, swirling and mixing, and truthfully it’s all kind of scary. But I start to become desensitized to it after a while, could see how you could get used to it out of necessity, become cold to it, indifferent. It amazes me how everyone, on the street, on the subway, barely see each other, not truly see each other in the truest sense of seeing. I thought it would be the opposite, so many people so close together, but I guess the sheer mass of all that humanity in one place robs people of the ability to appreciate the unknown hearts of everyone all around them. This is sad to me. But at least I can have eyes that see, because I’m only here for a little while.
I people-watch out of instinct. Part of it is the watcher in me, part of it is the writer. There’s the man on the subway that brings his sketchbook, looking at the paper with tilted head, adding small, deft strokes with a simple black pen. There’s the two college guys chattering about stick and poke tattoos and how they found out so and so is going out with so and so who lives in another state by snooping at a stranger’s phone, what a coincidence, what a small world. One of them is holding a copy of Kelly Link’s book of fantastical short stories. There’s the gaggle of middle school boys that hop into the car all a rush, talking loudly and gesturing, standing although there’s plenty of room to sit, and hopping off a few short stops later, just as loudly. There’s the toddler at the pizza shop with the tiny pink mittens taking tiny little bites, stepping uncertain in this big world, but with a hand to hold. There’s the kid at the library who’s been sitting there forever and looks like he will sit there forever, playing a video game on the computer, and the boy beside him messing with a Rubik’s cube. There’s the two guys in tigger onesies, complete with orange and black striped tails, on skis, walking (or skiing?) their dog in the park. There’s the guy that pops a bracelet on my hand in Central Park and then asks for money. There’s the couples taking pictures on Bow Bridge. There’s so many people.
B. and I go to The Cliffs, Brooklyn’s other climbing gym. It feels much more community-oriented, with a storm of team kid climbers and an after-work rush that fills up the space. A big lead cave arches to the right, and to the left, bouldering stretches on and on. I push myself to lead, but fall back to top rope as well. I have to take advantage of the moments when I can really trust the person on the other end of the rope. I run into T., and I can barely contain my excitement. She was my counselor on my very first New River Gorge Rock Week summer camp, one of the most transformative and joy-filled weeks of my life, and I haven’t seen her in a long time. I tap her shoulder. The sheer happiness on her face and the way she hugs me and won’t let me go overwhelm me. It’s a comfort and connection that I haven’t felt in a long time. Whenever I see T., she always makes me wonder how any person could be that happy to see me. And I think she makes everyone feel that way. I come back the next day and we climb together, talking a mile a minute between routes, filling in the gaps of the last few years of our lives. It’s amazing how it fills me up too. Despite it being the third day of climbing in a row, despite being sore, I climb the best that day out of all three. Crazy. Sometimes the best things defy logic.
Around the time I finally figure out the subway system, around the time I would finally feel comfortable enough to busk in its tunnels, around the time I am less unnerved at walking by myself through crowds and crossing lines of honking cars, around the time I know where the sugar is in the kitchen cabinet, it’s time to go. Barely two hours after we fall asleep, B. gets up at 4 am just to lock the door behind me and give me a hairy, shirtless hug as I slip into the night. I feel a pull deep in my chest as I go. Anyplace that gives me a piece of home is difficult to leave. Leaving B. is always difficult. Probably because it’s always unpredictable when I will see him again. But at least this time I know that I can now go to him instead of waiting for him to come to me.
The usual travel melancholy fills me up, and I try to sleep as I board the bus to Vermont, darkness sliding empty past my window.