In the summer of 2007, I visited Manhattan for a week. I stayed at a friend’s apartment while he was out of town. I walked the streets of the village and called every person I even faintly knew to see if they would see me. I was struggling with being in a strange city by myself.
I walked the streets and marveled at the throngs of insiders that scuttled to get to work, or the ones walking their dogs. I didn’t have a job yet, so I studied the people on the streets. I was so absorbed, I almost smacked into Alec Baldwin in SoHo.
Then I focused on woman in front of me whose high heels clicked hastily on the pavement. She was sort of faux Sex in the City (possibly from Jersey). She went into a restaurant where there was a group of other women wearing dresses and very impractical shoes. They greeted each other and went to go find a table. When I looked around everyone seemed to be in groups or couples and I was the only person in the vicinity that was alone. It was then I found myself wondering if the day would ever come when I had friends that I would hurry to meet at a restaurant, if I would ever look at someone in a crowd and recognize them, if New York would ever in any way feel like home.
I thought I got my answer when I was riding the A train the other night. I had taken the A to go meet my co-workers at a tapas bar in the Village. Yes, I was late, and yes, I had to kind of hurry, and yes I consider them friends, but that’s just part of the story. After some drinks and then a pizza and beer interlude with a subgroup of them, I got on the A train back to Brooklyn. The train was crowded but I found a seat. Since it was Thursday, no one had thrown up on the train. (It should be a well-documented fact that someone always throws up on the A train on Friday and Saturday nights). So I hugged my purse to me and was floating off into a sleepy torpor for a couple of stops. Then I heard the doors open and people move around. I opened my eyes.
“Hi,” I heard.
I looked up and my friend Julia was standing in front of me holding a shopping bag with two dozen roses. She’s one of my Teaching Fellow friends who goes to grad school with me. After class, we’ve started shopping at stores by the college and having leisurely conversations that somehow feel spiritual (maybe in part because she does yoga?).
“Hey,” I said, sitting upright. I remembered walking behind the woman in high heels. Then, maybe because of the drinks I had, the last two years of teaching, and grad school, and parties, and marriages and children of the Teaching Fellows in our cohort drizzled back to me in droplets.
“If you want to fall asleep, don’t feel like you have to talk to me or entertain me or anything,” she said.
But I perked up and chatted with her anyway. And then right before my stop, I said, “Running into you makes me feel like I live in New York.”
“Don’t you feel you live here?” she asked me.
I cobbled together some answer, but it wasn’t right. Feeling that you belong somewhere isn’t so much about knowing people, or recognizing them. I mean, in that case, I would have had this epiphany weeks ago, when I saw the principal of my school on the train platform. I was giddy and taken aback when I saw her.
“It’s sort of like a celebrity sighting,” I told her.
She laughed. “It’s because you’re seeing me out of context,” she said
But my mind doesn’t work in that kind of linear way.
I actually got my answer when I was out today with two friends. We walked the length of Prospect Park to get to a concert. Around 10th street, I relived a field trip I took with my students on a blistering hot day, where we hiked through the park and saved the day by finding a playground and ice cream. When my friends and I got to the band shell, the line to get in snaked beyond our line of vision. So we left and went to see Midnight in Paris.
In the women’s bathroom at the movie theater, I remembered my students again. I was washing my hands and almost went to look under the stalls for the little feet of the only girl in my class. On field trips, she and I were the only ones that went to the women’s bathroom. All the boys were usually in the men’s room with my paraprofessional, who is also a guy. My only girl always took a long time to zip her pants back up. I would wait for her to finally walk out of a stall and made sure she washed her hands.
It was strange to go to the bathroom and not have to wait for her. I don’t know how many field trips we’ve been on in the two years I taught her and the boys in my class. It couldn’t have been more than ten trips altogether. But somehow those children have become part of the fabric of my life here. It made me sad that I won’t be teaching her or those boys next year.
The main character in Midnight in Paris gets into a car and travels back in time. While I don’t believe I have that power, I do think that I might live several lives at once. There is a life I live in present time where I’m an individual, and another life that I live with other people, and a life that’s coiled in my memory. And when those three lives intersect, I’m home.