The Unbearable Highness of Being
*Publisher’s Note: This journal and the quotes therein are currently being investigated for authenticity.*
Readers, friends, known admirers, they often ask me about the titles.
“How do you manage to fit so much mystery and metaphor into such a svelte little figure?”
“Years of rigorous training,” I tell them as I sign their posters and pat their heads. Despite what some beatniks may tell you, the title is the only part of the story that actually matters and so I feel it appropriate to peel back the curtain and reveal some of my tricks.
In this example, The Unbearable Highness of Being, as it were – I’ve faithfully satisfied the two most important rules of Title Design. The first being to always imbue the title with some witty reference to global current events. Her Highness, Our Queen, may she rest in peace. The second being to leverage effective titles from the past whenever possible, as this not only acknowledges the giants of our history but also saves on fuel costs. And imitation is the highest form of flattery, and of course the student eventually becomes the master, and, naturally, a word that’s grand is worth two you can shush. So with all of that said, I’ll get out of your way now. Enjoy.
I remember when my dad would toss, and eventually catch, me. The toddler me. This was at that developmental middle ground where I was big enough to actually experience and remember things while still being small enough to toss. And there, at the apex of my trajectory, I would hang in a paused contemplation, overwhelmed with the feeling that I was the highest I had ever been. Maybe not in empirical data, but just relative to how not high my toddler self usually was. In the comparison between my usual, expected levels of height and my height at that dad-toss-apex, I was the highest ever.
And floating there, while my vertical speed sacrificed itself to oppose gravity – I felt no boyish thrill, no incredible rush at exploring new dimensions. I looked at the walls from confusing, foreign angles. I studied the ceiling’s vaulted detail. I was terrified.
Fast forward a bit, some stuff happened, a couple of business deals went sideways, and now the adult me (slender and athletic but probably too large to toss) was going on a trip. I was set to combat the rigor and dread of heights in a new place.
I was going to New York.
My uber driver showed up while the dark, early morning street was empty, besides me. His name was George, and he saved the day. Saved the morning. He played Frank Sinatra on the radio just in case I had forgotten where I was flying to. George was a baritone, coincidently with a New York accent. I used to not be able to tell the difference between Chicago and NY accents but if you listen closely you can hear gunshots in the background when Chicagoans speak. The New Yorkers just try to sell you stuff.
We got to LAX and George dropped me off, told me to “have a great weekend now.” Inside the airport, I got a sneak preview of what would likely be the main thing that I saw all weekend: lots of pale men wearing well padded blazers on their shoulders and little white chiclets in their ears, walking and talking with purpose.
An hour later, we boarded and then got the green light, taking off over the ocean. The water was smooth and blue, skies clear and in a giving mood, providing full spectacle of the mountains and shores that outline Los Angeles. I kept looking down at a steepening angle and the landscape of the planet continued to unfurl further into the background while a big airfoil remained locked in my foreground. I thought of the silly scale of the planet, the unfathomable and unreachable size of the Earth, the ridges and edges that are just shadows up here but constitute entire universes down there – and how easily one nifty invention shrinks it all.
Oh how I make a mockery of your size, vast Earth! How I saddle your broad shoulders and make you small!
A dozen states later, I stared out my window again while we were crossing over Manhattan, headed for JFK. As we flew over Central Park I got my first glimpse of the skyline – the Financial District bursting out of the ground like the concrete arm of some subterranean monster. The image was so foreign to me, vaguely unsettling. Life here extends so far into the vertical. What do they have against the ground, these city people? Why are they running from it? I absolutely love the ground.
Back at sea level, I swapped the wings for wheels and after an hour of traffic I got dropped off near my HQ, the easternmost portion of the Upper East Side. New York is big but when you add up all the space and divide by the population you end up with everything being really small: grocery stores, stoves, bathrooms. One time in a job interview, in order to gauge my talent for estimation and critical thinking, I was asked “how many cash registers are there in New York City?” Feeling deeply offended at being asked such a ridiculous question, I callously stood up and left the room, never breaking eye contact with my interrogator. Never did get a callback for that bank heist gig.
The city is fast, bold, bright. On. Everyone’s in a rush. Pedestrians jump into streets with reckless abandon. Taxi drivers work on clearances verging on the millimeter. Construction workers look like they’re at their breaking point. New York seems to clash with the core tenets of my life: a laid back easygoingness punctuated by brief periods of graceful problem solving. I typed my notes on location but didn’t dare form any complete sentences until I was back in the safe confines of suburbia. If I tried to write anything in Manhattan I think I’d have caps lock on the entire time, trying to fit in.
I’ve had this recurring dream for a while. I have to get somewhere, usually various levels of some generic building in order to win a really prestigious scavenger hunt. Scavenger hunts are important to me. And so my dream self seeks out elevators to alter my position on the Z axis. The rides up are fine, maybe slightly claustrophobic but that’s a fear for a different journal. The rides down are what cause issues.
The elevators fall, each time. I walk into them calm, eager perhaps, ready to solve life’s riddles. I patiently punch in numero uno and take a deep breath. Then my toes get light, heels lighter, my spine lengthens a bit, and I fall, free fall, for 100 stories – my stomach churning that deathly, deathly churn the entire time. Just before the ground floor, the elevator gods take pity on me and turn the counterweights back on. We land gently, but it’s hell for a ride.
Naturally my dream self, now horrified but still undeterred in the face of true scavenger success, vows to never again ride an elevator. So for the rest of the dream I search high and low (mainly low) for less dramatic means of elevation: rolling hills or wide staircases or preferably just an entire building made out of gentle wheelchair ramps. A parking structure would seem to be an ideal solution but I’m convinced that they’re junk when it comes to earthquakes. My dreams always take place near transform faults.
I was staying in New York with my legal counsel, Hannah. She moved here a couple months ago and I’ve just been swamped with lawsuits ever since, told her it was probably best if we met up and discussed all of it in person. Yesterday I showed up outside of her building, bags in hand, raving about how dicey these New Yorkers get at crosswalks. My luggage must have looked heavy, legs weary, because as she unlocked the door, she opened with:
“Soooo I am on the 6th floor…”
“Could be worse.”
“Yeah but, there’s no elevator.”
I looked at her and perked up, my legs now rejuvenated, my mind at ease. I was swaddled in relief. Even in Manhattan’s hurricane of heights, I could still find shelter.
“You’re the woman of my dreams.”
She looked back at me with a sideways glance, still holding the door open, and just sort of brushed off my comment.
Hannah was on the clock this Friday, leaving me free to adventure around the city while she subpoenaed and depositioned her way through the day, all from the safety of a 6th floor couch. I decided to go to the Met, about a 15 minute walk from her place.
Leading up to this trip, I had been checking the weather forecast every day, sometimes hourly. LA had just finished its own heat wave and I happen to know that NYC heat is an even more hellish and humid monster. Fortunately, according to all of the people that I eavesdropped on during my morning walk, my arrival in the city had brought on the beginning of fall. Crisp, chilly air was now blowing through the avenues and alleys, everyone on the sidewalks seeking out sunny spots whereas just last week they ran to the shade. Manhattan had ended her tortuous and sticky late summer just to make me feel welcomed.
I passed an empty schoolyard on my trek to the museum, as well as a couple of pubescent buildings, steel and concrete structures with external elevators clinging to their faces to facilitate more growth. One was significantly further along than the other, already showing some signs of facial hair, and an eager high school basketball coach was stationed near its foundation, wondering if this lanky building could play center for his team.
The Met is huge. Maybe the biggest building on Earth that Boeing doesn’t own. I grabbed two maps from the entrance area, one to read now and then one to read later after I lost the first one. It’s an excellent map. I couldn’t begin to describe anything that I saw inside of the museum, art wise, since I know nothing about art. I will instead recount the woodworking that I found around the facility. The most noticeable and ubiquitous were the floors.
There are, I don’t know, between 500 and 1,000 rooms at the Met, varying in size. The smallest rooms could fit maybe a pontoon boat, or at least a really extravagant raft. The biggest rooms could well be boat factories. But many of these rooms have wood floors, mainly white oak and ash but some softwoods crept in there too – pine boards installed in a herringbone pattern, worn down by feet over time. The simple man inside of me was pleased with this timeless, reserved choice, this efficient and functional use of the taxpayer’s dollar. Yet the craftsman in me was still irked, cynical in regards to the quality of NYC’s museum floor team, because every single plank of wood at the Met creaked like the floorboards of a drunk, old pirate ship. I lived the cringey death of a superfluous character in a slasher film with each step that I took. And when there were other people in an exhibit with me? Just imagine the embarrassment, the absolute mortification, of squeaking past some birkenstocked NYC hippy while he contemplated the deeper meanings of an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus.
Atop the creaky floors, the Met has beautiful, custom made wood benches strewn throughout the exhibits. To me, they were the exhibits. Amongst my favorites were these 24 inch wide oak slab examples hiding in the kimono display room, as well as several split-top pine benches with nifty joinery sitting outside the Euro sculpture section. Visitors and security guards at the Met seemed to be cool with people taking pictures of the artwork, but if you dared photograph the benches that people were sitting on, everyone lost their minds. I cleared out several rooms, sent a few middle aged moms running, as I bent to document the finer details of the museum’s seating options. Alas, a true reporter like myself never lets public perception get in his way.
My favorite section of the Met was a large carpeted room lined with black and whites – mid-century photographs taken by German photographers. Many of the stills showed oddly shaped industrial buildings scattered throughout the blank plains of post war Europe. A couple others were of vaguely mechanical looking machined parts, playfully arranged and expertly shot. The pictures left me wrestling with my own relationship to photography.
Photographs are quiet. They can’t speak. Maybe they gently nudge the viewer towards subconscious thoughts, perhaps they evoke technical conversations about apertures and focal lengths. But the art itself is mute.
I want so badly for it to speak! For it to write out its story for me to read, for it to convert itself to my base language of words. That’s what writing is, converting. Taking the other senses and turning them back into sound, aloud or mental sound. Sight and touch and smell and taste turned into idealized words. But the photo’s grace is in its silence, its refusal to convert, its delicate serenity. It retains a hushed countenance to nurture your projection. It takes sight and preserves it into the infinite, but for your eyes only.
After 4 hours I figured that I had gotten my money’s worth so I departed my museum haven and headed back to HQ. It was 3PM, meaning that the empty schoolyard that I walked by this morning had disappeared and been replaced with a scene of absolute chaos. Children, everywhere.
Children chasing after dogs. Children spilling ice cream. Children hugging mom’s legs. Swinging on swings. Playing basketball. Falling down. Asking for playdates. Blowing bubbles. Tagging each other. Tying their shoes. Yelling (so much yelling). Crying (so much crying). Children, everywhere.
Don’t they know how weird it is? How weird they are? Learning words and numbers and letters and colors and mommy and daddy and sisters and brothers and learning all of the little things that little kids learn…here?
What do the cafeterias sound like for them, these city kids, these urban youths? Do they sound the same? Are the kids here more self-sufficient? More cynical? Do they look both directions before crossing one-way streets? Do they know about driveways?
All of these questions took up great amounts of psychic energy, leaving precious little space for the needs of the moment, so I actually walked past HQ, making it all the way to the East River before realizing my error and rerouting. I told Hannah that I was around the block and she agreed to buzz me in this one time so that I could live out my Seinfeld fantasies.
Upstairs she was still on the couch, working away with her glasses on and her keyboard click click clicking – resolving the legal needs of the most prestigious of clientele. I sat down on the other end. For the most part she remained focused but during leaner moments she would burrow her feet between my own and the cushions, looking over to find me staring off into the distance.
“What are you looking at?”
I’d be silent for a few moments, maybe stumble upon some unwieldy words trying to find a proper description. There were so many things to look at in the city, such a high resolution of detail, that my mind would often recalibrate to a lower stable state, empty and thoughtless and at rest. But that isn’t really a compelling answer for legal consultants, so I would quickly switch some small part of my brain back on and say “oh, I’m thinking about…hmm…photographs.”
5:24PM came around and she put the corporations away, said we should venture down and out and underground. But first, as is customary with women, there was a 20 minute discussion about whether to wear the skirt or the jeans. I told her we should both wear black pants. That way people would know that she was my consigliere.
She led us through crosswalks and under scaffolds, down dirty staircases and into tiled subway stations, navigating with her Nordic instincts and intimate knowledge of the North Star. I asked her if she learned all of this stuff during her time on the sailing team.
“It was the sailing club, actually.”
“That’s so much worse.”
“You take pictures of benches.”
We eventually emerged above ground again, popped into a Buddhism museum. There we stared at a large, glowing flower thing for quite some time and then rang a huge gong. A museum worker broke in:
“Sir, try to not ring the gong while it’s submerged in the water.”
“Oh, is it bad for the gong?”
“I don’t know. I just work here.”
Back outside, it had now turned cold and breezy and I thought of throwing in an IToldYouSo in regards to the skirt discussion from earlier but I wised up. Along those same lines, whenever women are clearly cold and I’m only wearing a t-shirt, I have a bad habit of making the uncomfortable joke of offering them my nonexistent jacket. We all have our vices. I’ve pulled this move on Hannah several times and each time she momentarily considers a pivot into criminal law and then tells me to shut up.
This instance was different though because now, as we walked through the cold winds of New York, I was indeed wearing a jacket – perfectly prepared for the night’s climate and also for righting the wrongs of my past. She was shivering while we waited at a streetlight.
“Do you want my jacket?”
She picked an Italian restaurant for dinner, seeking refuge inside of its warm walls. Of course, it was fully booked and they sat us outside. This was actually the first time we had ever had dinner together. I just came all of this way on a good notion and with my fingers crossed. She threatened to sit at 90 degrees from me at our little outdoor table but I told her that it would be terribly inappropriate considering our professional relationship. She relented and we had to stare straight at each other the whole time. Square deal for me.
During the commute back home she still wouldn’t accept my clothing, instead opting to hold onto my arm like it was the last source of warmth on the planet.
“How are you always so warm?” She would ask, genuinely confused.
“Years of rigorous training.”
On the subway, a demon child kept staring at us from across the car, small and pale and himself perfectly tossable. He was ominously licking a chocolate popsicle, wearing most of it on his shirt, and he had these huge black eyes jetting out of his head like a possessed little lemur. He never blinked. He saw everything.
“Are you seeing this kid?”
“He’s freaking me out.”
“Don’t make eye contact…”
“This is exactly why I want to start that no-child airline, to stay away from these bug eyed little youths.”
“We’re on the subway.”
“We’ll have subways too.”
We survived the train ride, finally getting back to HQ. Hannah opened the curtains and was staring out of her bedroom window into a night interrupted by brick silhouettes and a thousand yellow windows off in the distance.
“I always think about the windows, like at night…how each window has a person inside of it.”
“It’s kind of overwhelming. Like they each have their own little life in there, just doing their own thing.”
We made up stories for what lives certain windows must have been shielding. I found one with a bright green hue that contained our nation’s greatest DDR player. Hannah spotted a red one – the mayor’s mistress. She then turned on some string lights that were wrapped around her fire escape railing, adding more yellow to the night sky. After a few minutes the remote control glitched out and she couldn’t get them to stop blinking.
“I’m gonna have to go out there.”
“I have to take the battery out of the light. Unless you want to?”
“I’d rather die.”
“You wouldn’t go on the fire escape?”
“I have a strict no fire escape policy.”
“But what if I wanted you to?”
I felt the beginnings of the churning feeling again. That weightless spine, those floaty heels. I didn’t want to go on that fire escape. There were a million reasons to not want to go on that fire escape. The shoddy welds, the tetanus inducing railings. My paralyzing fear of heights. But how entranced we are in the face of the prodding female! What mountains we can move at her behest!
So I apprehensively walked out into the kitchen to fetch my shoes, because anything worth doing is worth doing in proper footwear. I returned to her room to see the twinkling lights now off, betraying the whole remote charade as an effective ruse. She wore a sly smirk.
“Were you actually gonna go out there?”
I walked towards the fire escape and closed the curtains, erasing our window’s glow from the block’s spectator games. A fresh breeze was coming through the screen, making the bottoms of the curtains dance on the window sill. I turned off the lamp and put my watch on her nightstand.
“Let’s not talk about it.”
I’m not big on itineraries. More of a go with the flow type person. But I did feel the need to contribute one must-see to our weekend ledger: a reunion with Columbia University. The campus and I had a brief summer fling when I was 17, alone and in the city for the first time. I wanted to go back. Hannah obliged.
Columbia is the lone place of respite in Manhattan. Central Park is lush and green but it still feels weird, overly juxtaposed. There’s something untrustworthy about it. Columbia is true. It has a campus. Flat ground. Wide sidewalks. Places to breathe. The dorm buildings extend to twice the height of traditional campus housings, but they’re still little babies compared to the rogue skyscrapers looming nearby. It’s no wonder we fell in love.
Hannah liked it too, skipping along enthusiastically while I showed her my old dorm, the cafeteria, the gazebo where I made friends from Brazil. The campus was pretty lively, with wool-jacketed professors strolling along, tourists raiding the bookstore, tan athletes wearing Columbia Rowing shorts over huge legs. We explored the north side of campus, strewn with less grass and more brick. A tour group was huddled around a planter box, their charismatic guide standing on top of it to profess that:
“COLUMBIA boasts students and faculty hailing from over seventeen thousand countries and seven planets [‘And if you know anyone from Neptune, give them our number!’ *wink wink*], making it by far the most diverse campus on Earth. Which reminds me, study abroad options…”
We rounded the corner and saw the group, these awkward high schoolers with their souvenirs and innocent faces, these naive parents thinking an Ivy League might just suit their kiddos. I immediately understood the opportunity. We were handed a chance at immortality. I straightened my posture, ran a hand through my hair, acting cool and comfortable and just like my usual, mysterious self. Hannah carried on with an elegant, soft gait, walking past these juveniles like they didn’t exist, whispering some biting and insightful legal advice into my ear.
If we pulled off the act just perfectly – if we convinced them that we weren’t just passers through but students ourselves – all of these high schoolers would give up. They’d spend their autumns researching responsible safety schools knowing they could never measure up to our impeccable examples of young adulthood. We’d be frozen in time, preserved as our peak selves for generations of Thanksgiving dinner conversations, cited as the very images of perfection that caused wide eyed kids to lose hope.
Next we were supposed to head south to Brooklyn. Hannah loves Brooklyn.
“There’s this great bagel shop! And a cute park next to it. Oh and the vintage stores. Plus this store that’s like a Japanese Ikea.”
“We could go to the pier. There’s a pier right on the water where we ca-”
The subway ride down was crowded, uncomfortable. Standing room only for some sections, “STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS” playing on repeat at each stop. Sardines, I believe, are the natural comparison for these situations. My mood soured. Hannah could tell so she threw me some jesting life rafts.
“City life! How fun! What an experience!”
I forced a smile. Then one of the sardines spoke up, thinking it was his moment. He had a high pitched, mousey voice. It sounded like he was wheezing when he spoke. Assuredly asthmatic.
“Yeww know wut this reeeeeeeminds me of?”
The collective car remained silent, the universal sound of transportive melancholy. The general gloom of having to live amongst this many people.
“Crans!!!! It reeeeeeeminds me of crans!!!!”
I lifted my head up, looking for the culprit.
“Weir a box of crans!!! In a box!! Wut color wood yew be?!?”
I clenched my teeth together behind pursed lips, stared directly into the soul of the most wretched person to ever live.
Hannah intervened about two seconds before red steam would have started coming out of my ears.
“We’re the next stop.”
We emerged from the subway station and for a moment I didn’t see a single person. The entire sidewalk was empty. Charming brick buildings only took up a few degrees of the view. There was so much sky.
“I love Brooklyn,” I happily proclaimed.
Brooklyn was indeed better, at least in the beginning. It’s like one part Manhattan and one part Venice but mixed with some tonic water, lemon garnish on top. Easier to get down. We headed straight for the great bagel shop, Bagel World as it were, and the line out the door seemed to substantiate Hannah’s claims as to its quality. The menu was way too extensive, written in chalk along three walls of the shop and listing each ingredient of their 30 different bagel offerings.
“What do you get?”
“Easy. Salted bagel but no butter, with avocado & pepper on top, & then I add a squeeze of lemon juice.”
“.....well what should I get?”
“As your legal counsel, the turkey club.”
I turned to the cashier, a man who spoke quickly and with almost 0 intonation.
“I’ll have the turkey club.”
“The turkey club.”
I freaked out. I wasn’t built for these speeds. It came out on a bagel anyway. Hannah maneuvered to the nearby park, found us a bench in the shade. Every fourth person that walked past us was carrying a tennis racket, the other three holding dog leashes. Kids were swinging on swings but there were fewer of them here than at the school yesterday. They were quieter too, better behaved.
“This is definitely more of a place to raise a family. Manhattan is too much.”
“It’s just what people say.”
I sat up from the backrest, looked Hannah in the eyes.
“If you go on maternity leave, I’m doomed. You don’t understand, these plaintiffs, they're ruthless! You can’t do this to me.”
“That’s not, I’m not, no. Not for a very long time. No. I was just saying-”
“Not for a very, very long time.”
Next up on her itinerary was some Brooklyn thrift store, so we researched the best route to get there. It was going to take close to an hour.
“Are there multiple of these things with the same name? Because it says it’s gonna take forever.”
“Let me see.”
“Yeah, that’s right. That’s the one in Williamsburg, in Brooklyn.”
“Why does it say we have to go to Manhattan to get there?”
“Oh, that’s–no that makes sense. Sometimes you have to do that because not all of the trains run through Brooklyn.”
My heels started lifting. Oh urban centers and your confusing logistics. Public transportation, the disconcerting feeling of depending on others. Those unreliable train operators! The fickle bus drivers! Give me a car and I’d conquer these narrow streets, a plane and I’d tame the globe! But on foot I was meek, ill-prepared. I acquiesced to my fate, signing off on the very beginning of my end.
Back on the subway and it was crowded, again. I held onto the bar and let my face go blank, staring off into the sardines. I daydreamed of hearing leaf blowers on hungover mornings. Street sweeping parking tickets. Flamboyant little road cyclists blocking my lane. I daydreamed of all the beautiful little snippets of suburbia that I took for granted but never would again. Hannah caught me.
“What are you thinking about?”
I quickly swapped out my blank face for a more attractive one, forcing a smile.
“Oh, just, you know… road cyclists.”
We got to the thrift store and the journey tested me. By now my 6th hour in public, engulfed in hustle and bustle. My feet had grown tired. My head was aching. I was breaking down. Hannah could tell that I was even more quiet than I usually am and tried to revive me.
“Do you still love Brooklyn?”
She knows when I lie but mostly lets me get away with it, the advantages of attorney-client privilege. I still forced myself to shape up in this moment, attempting to conceal my cascading grumpiness – the soft and doughy core of my true character.
“It’s really neat.”
She patted me on the head. Good boy.
The thrift shop was sort of cool. Obviously I found it way too packed. I was one of three men inside the store amongst 97 women. When we would pass each other on the narrow aisles my fellow bros and I would throw each other little peace signs at our waists to show solidarity, our version of the motorcycle wave. I felt sort of ashamed doing it but I couldn’t control my arm. Completely involuntary.
The cool part of the store was the front section, decorated with all the vintage books and records. They had a full selection of 9x12 prints of classic book covers and we combed through them looking for notables. To Kill A Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, assorted Shakespeares. Hannah pulled out Catcher in the Rye.
“Have you ever read this?”
I shook my head and immediately regretted it, exacerbating my secret headache.
“Seems like something that you would.”
Hannah reads more than I do, and much more quickly too. I send her bits and pieces of these stories and she gives her opinion on my long passages in what seems like milliseconds. If she thinks it’s junk or just barely skims it she’ll call it “interesting.” On the other hand, if she finds it simultaneously heart wrenching and thrilling, thought provoking and the master work of a true savant, she’ll call it “good.”
I kept sifting through the prints until I found deliverance: a light green cover showcasing a knight errant and his squire – Don Quixote in his full glory. I blindly reached my arm out to alert Hannah, never moving my eyes from this masterpiece. She turned and saw my radiating joy.
“I still love Brooklyn,” I declared.
We carried on into the store that was like a Japanese Ikea a couple of blocks away, and that proved to be an accurate description. I looked at veneered wood housewares for a while, took pictures of the most exceptional examples. Yet the restorative properties of wood could only mend me for so long. My feet felt sore again, my head on the verge of explosion. I was ready to reveal the cracks in my hardened facade.
“Can we go home?” I pleaded while struggling to keep my eyes open and my mouth closed, fighting off a yawn.
“Are you tired?” She asked while grabbing onto my forearm.
I nodded, still covering up the yawn.
“I can see that you’re yawning. You look like you’re about to give birth through your mouth.”
Our journey home was long and taxing. We got onto the subway in Brooklyn, on a straight shot back to Manhattan, when Hannah’s phone died. For me, the situation was now critical, stuck in deep sea with no guide back to safety. What use was her North Star if we had no sail? If we were stuck underground? There are no legible maps in these tunnels, just some Hulu ads and transients playing the hang drum.
“Can I use your phone?”
“Please don’t drop it.”
“Whoa it’s so small!”
My small phone instructed us to switch trains at 14th Street and 6th Ave, so we hopped off the L train and looked for signs of the Q, our ticket home. I thrilled myself on the idea of the Q train, its holy qualities. All we had to do was get to its track and hop on and I’d be well again. Hannah held my phone firmly out in front of her, searching for signs of my now-favorite letter.
“It’s weird. There aren’t signs for Q, but the phone says it’s here.”
“Maybe we missed it, it says it’s thi-”
And I stopped myself mid discovery, realizing that things were starting to spiral out of control. Google Maps explicitly had us switching to the Q train here at 6th Ave, but it didn’t exist. Further research revealed that the Q only runs on 2nd.
The subway was hot, the temperature of a fairly miserable graduation ceremony. My forehead was clammy. Doubt crept in for the first time. We were lost, chasing ghosts, and it seemed inevitable that we would be stuck down here in the tunnels forever, sleeping amongst mutant ninja turtles, scavenging trash cans for food. Hannah was not as easily deterred.
“We just need to get back to Union Square [a few blocks away], and we can figure it out. All the lines connect at Union Square.”
“I need to be at sea level.”
“Perfect! Let’s go up and walk, get some fresh air.”
We summited the stairs and walked east. My head felt clearer. Union Square, of course! What an excellent idea. Hannah found the subway entrance at the center of a congregation of 40 plastic folding tables, each topped with its own unique display of swap meet debris. I saw no obvious footpath through them and so instead brute forced my way towards destiny, toppling over a handful of tattered bowler hats and an entire table of Dallas Cowboys throw blankets. I felt 0 remorse, even less compassion. Nothing would stand in the way of my desperate quest for the Q train. Hannah followed in the trail of my wreckage, apologizing fervently, covering her face in mortification. She had to jog a little to catch up to me, hustling to match the pace of my short, angry strides. I tapped my debit card outside of the turnstile and watched it turn green, aggressively hip checking the bar like it had just stolen the puck from my hockey teammate.
“Q Train! Come to papa!”
I looked around for signs while Hannah shook her head and reconsidered all of the life decisions that had brought her here.
“Soooooo do you know where we go? My feet are killing me…”
“Your mini phone says it’s this way.”
We searched around for a few minutes, eventually finding the Q signs and following them religiously. They brought us further underground, deeper into the inferno, my back now fully sweating, my brain basically mush.
“This is it!” Hannah said as we parked ourselves alongside the tracks. The letter Q was plastered everywhere. We just needed the train to show up. Hannah kept looking at symbols and times on my phone while I searched for any strand of resolve, eventually falling over and leaning on her while she rested against a pillar. We stood like that for minutes.
“It’s weird that no train has come.”
It was 6:02PM. The subway platform was packed and eventually a train came on the opposite side, most of the crowd getting in. We noticed that no one was waiting for our side.
I sprang to action, confirming that these Q letters were indeed Qs. You never know with Qs, such a strange letter. Then I saw it, the poster marking our fate, New York cruelly taunting my suburban novice. It was taped to the other side of Hannah’s pillar.
‘WEEKEND NOTICE - Q TRAIN. INTERRUPTED SERVICE. THE Q TRAIN WILL NOT SERVE THIS STATION ON WEEKENDS AFTER 5:45PM. USE ALT ROUTES.’
This fooking city and its caps lock. I pointed the sign out to Hannah and then lost all composure, hiding away even deeper inside of myself. I got into that mood where I’m so silent that I actively suppress noise. Hannah could feel my forced muteness, the foul energy inside of me, my intense disappointment with the world. I ran off in an unknown direction but she still saw something in me worth preserving.
“Wait, just wait. We can figure it ou-.” But I interrupted her.
“I’m going upstair,” my voice trailing off before I could make ‘stair’ plural, just sitting right there on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I was being kind of an asshole too.
I stormed out of the Union Square subway station just as aggressively as I had stormed in, hip checking the same turnstile with the same bravado, just now in the opposite direction. I had no plan, I just had to get to air, had to find some way of surviving this moment. We broke ground and I looked for any sign of a taxi or even an ambulance. A MedEvac would have been great. You won New York, you won. I didn’t even care anymore. I just wanted to go home. Hannah asked where I was wandering off to. I didn’t answer for a moment but then I summoned the entirety of my self-control and, as calmly as I could, told her I didn’t know.
“I think we can take the 4/5 train. I’ve taken it back from work before.”
“You want to take a train?!”
She giggled at my melodramatics.
“Yes. It goes right to my place.”
I rolled my eyes and then dropped my head towards the sidewalk while I considered my grim options. If I called an uber right then, which I of course fantasized about, I might as well have just taken it straight to the airport because I assumed Hannah would have never spoken to me again. Or I could get back on the subway and continue this savage torture, but in good company. I looked up and stared into her soul so that she’d understand the cruel war that was being waged inside of me.
“Ok,” I told her after a heavy sigh.
“Nice, nice so we…..have to go back in at Union Square.”
I drew in a deep mouthful of oxygen and then held my breath, diving down again. There were a few people ahead of us going down the stairs and so we waited behind them to pay at the turnstile. The machine shined green and pretty for each of them. I held my card out to tap through the machine, the same way I had a dozen times before. The lights flashed red.
‘RIDE LIMIT REACHED’ appeared on the screen. Each letter was 10 feet tall. I collapsed to the ground.
I tried to ball my eyes out but my ducts proved incapable, face remaining dry. Catharsis, yet another luxury deprived from me on this foul day! I wanted to pour myself out onto this dirty floor, to flow gently as tears do from the high ground to the low – to put my meager, useless mind away. Because I guess that’s my real fear, what I’m actually afraid of. It’s not skyscrapers or cliffs or even those shaky elevators. I’m afraid of being unprepared. Of not knowing what to do or not having the tools to do it with. Of being useless.
When I look down at precipitous falls, I don’t think I fear the splat awaiting me at their conclusion but rather the self loathing I’d feel on the way down, the scorn I’d give myself for not investing in a parachute, the contempt I’d harbor for allowing my mortal body to explore thin air without wings.
I carry a spool of rope in my backpack. I own 11 sets of pliers. I grab backup maps at museums. I actually read the safety card before every flight. I look both directions before crossing one-way streets.
Why, in this instance, did I fail to prepare! Why didn’t I memorize the subway map before we left? How could I trust that the heartless planet would pave my path home? Why didn’t I research weekend closures and construction detours, all the unforeseen curveballs life could throw at me? Why couldn’t I deal with them now, in the moment that they revealed themselves?
Hannah tucked her hair behind her ears and knelt down, picking up the pieces of me from the cement.
“When I was a camp counselor, we would always tell the kids when they had a blowup…
She helped me to my feet, fixed my hair.
“...we told them: ‘Stop. Drink some water. Have a snack. You’re gonna be alright.’...
She handed me her water bottle while she pulled out her debit card, swiping us both through the turnstile.
“...that’s probably the main thing I’ve learned, venturing around in the city…
She grabbed my arm and started walking us towards green signs numbered 4/5.
“...sometimes, you just have to take a beat.”
The 4/5 train was real. It actually existed. We rode it all the way back home with no transfers or issues to speak of. The 5 flights up to her apartment were my own rendition of the stairway to heaven. I broke into her door achy and out of breath and in bliss. I sat down on the couch and she tossed me a box of Wheat Thins to satisfy the second phase of her earlier prescription. Soon after, I rotated to the horizontal and began a delicate nap – one of those naps where the line between conscious and unconscious thoughts is especially flimsy. I tuned into the commotion when I heard Hannah’s roommate show up, remaining cozy in the corner while the two friends went over the events of the day.
“We went to Columbia, and it is so nice, and it has this really cool park nearby. I have to take you there one day.
“And then we went to Brooklyn and the bagel place.
“And then I wanted to show him-”
It was at this point that I think her roommate found me because, even with my eyes closed, I felt the rush of endorphins of being the center of attention. She saw me snoozing, appraised my adorable, boyish countenance, and let out a clear “Aww.”
Hannah then turned to me as well.
“I know. I know. Sweet boy,” she said.
They kept talking about thrift stores and subway snafus while I drifted deeper into my imagination. I thought of marathon swimmers, heart surgeons, wildland firefighters. People with really tiring jobs. People of consequence. I figured that this was how they felt at the end of a day’s work: spent and used up but victorious in a way. The world had thrown everything at them and they were still able to come out the other side. I’d like to believe that today I accomplished a little fraction of what they accomplish, that I know some hint of their glory. I’d like to believe that from now on, when they lie down to rest, they’ll think of me.