He had been in the city a week or two before I got there. This played on my mind more than I would have liked. Had he ridden in this subway car? Had he stood on this street corner, trying to work out uptown from down? Had he thought of me, travelling through the redwoods on the west coast, while he was here navigating the east?
Before I arrived in New York City, I hadn’t quite found my feet on this solo trip through the American states. I had first landed in California at a point in time earlier than when I had left Australia. By that night I had been awake for thirty-six hours and was drunk, lying on the rooftop of a stranger’s house, watching the fog settle over the San Francisco skyline. I had met a guy, a charming but erratic Californian, who was upfront about his desire to bed me. He had the drawcard of rooftop access from a townhouse in the Mission District. American dive bars provided the lubricant of $5 beers and $2 shots.
I wound my way up the west coast to see Portland, Oregon and then further north to Seattle, Washington. I flew over Lake Michigan at dawn to land in Montreal, Canada and later took a bus, extremely hungover, to Toronto. To ensure I could experience ‘Murica in all its glory, by the 4th of July I was in Boston. I had met many, many people. But I was lonely, and unhappily so. I was haemorrhaging money and eating food that left me constipated. I was here and he was always there, with not an ocean between us but rather lakes so great and vast that the difference seemed moot. And did I ever cross his mind?
I boarded a train headed to New York.
New York City, trash city, rats and sewers city. No matter how clean, how fresh you feel before you leave the house, by the end of the summer day you’re a sweaty, grimy, chafed-thigh mess.
I may not have had Didion-esque golden curtains blowing in an afternoon breeze but I did have mid-morning electrical storms waking me with bolts of white and blue from my muggy sleep-ins. My window provided a view of the next door building’s walls and pigeons congregated on the ledge, thudding into the glass if they miscalculated their landings.
I was never asleep before 3am.
I had been falling in love with a different man in each city I arrived in, caught up in the subtle power they exerted in being foreign, new, with possibilities uncharted. Of course, it wasn’t ‘love’ – most of these men were staff at hostels, just doing their job being kind to me as I checked in. Perhaps the constant shifting in altitude as I flew from place to place had exacerbated my hormones or maybe my body was extra susceptible to these American male pheromones.
In New York, it was different. Not intentionally, on my part. But this felt like it could be a city where it was comfortable to be alone. Even best to be alone.
Alone, but also crushed within a sea of bodies whenever attempting to cross Manhattan streets.
In the East Village, a friend and I tried our luck by adopting a ‘stumble-upon’ method – pick a bar, any bar, and buy a drink. Drink that drink (don’t forget to tip) and if it isn’t feeling like the right fit, just leave. In the first bar, the urinals were visible from nearly any angle in the room. In the second, we were ‘shushed’ by the bartender, who pointed to a large sign above the bar proclaiming the space as a ‘quiet haven’. (We later discovered it used to be bartended by people pretending to be monks). In the third, we drank and drank and drank because it was dark enough and dingy enough and there was the potential for Tinder dates to come by that way. The female DJ had just proposed to her girlfriend, and played a selection of eighties disco in celebration.
Grace’s date that night was a 40-year-old father of three. My only potential date made plans to meet me the next day at Coney Island, but twenty-four hours later disappeared into the Internet ether.
After this particularly heavy night of glass-half-full whiskey drinking I messaged a boy back home, a recent distraction from the other boy. It was not eloquent. “I’m in New York, drunk and alone. Do you think we could fuck when I get back?” I woke up to the reply the next morning. “Have fun in NYC!”
He’s much kinder than I make him out to be.
During my fortnight in New York, I spent every day catching the L train back and forth—Brooklyn and Manhattan, Jefferson and 14th. One day’s entertainment was a family of three playing Hungarian folk ballads on accordions. Another’s was a man seated beside me, typing the filthiest email I’ve ever seen to what I hope was a consenting partner.
On that first day in this new city, at that moment when the train picks up speed to hurtle down the tunnel between Bedford and 1st and everything rattles and you cement your feet a little more firmly to the train floor, at that moment he left my thoughts. I had my own New York City to navigate.
Of course there were times when the city broke me. Outside a bank in Alphabet City, after my card had been declined due to suspected fraudulent activity. When I needed to pop the worst blister I’ve ever experienced, a product of my constant schlepping from street to street. And when I avoided eye contact with the many, many men and women asking for spare change, asking for anything that I could spare, for anything, please.
I’ve never felt guiltier than when bestowed with a “God bless you” by someone with nowhere but a stoop to sleep on, when I’m more concerned about keeping my dollar bills in my wallet to leave as tips for the tequila shots I’ll soon be ordering.
I cried in public just the once, outside a McDonald’s in midtown, as it began to rain and I felt truly, utterly out of my depth in this city that didn’t need me here, didn’t care if I flourished or just disappeared. I stood beside a tower of trash bags and watched everyone on those double decker sightseeing buses squirming into their free ponchos and everyone else on the street ducking into a Starbucks, and I cried for ten minutes and then went and ordered my own Oprah-endorsed caramel Frappuccino—plenty of cream on top, please.
The barista re-branded me ‘Kaitlin’ for that day.
The effects of New York remain with me in subtle, mostly unconscious ways. Sometimes I wake thinking I can sense the cinnamon aftertaste of fireball whiskey lingering in my mouth. My Tinder profile pings with the occasional new match 16,682km away. I walk down the sidewalk and find myself deferring to the right.
I know I probably didn’t (and don’t) cross his mind very often. But as I crossed oceans, lakes, borders and states—alone, sometimes tired, a lot of the time pretty anxious—he crossed my mind less and less. Leaving New York behind on a train, rolling past wide plains somewhere in Ohio or Indiana at sunrise—the fog stretching and dissolving as the ground began to heat up, Amish children beside me whispering in Pennsylvanian Dutch—I realised I was lonely, but I was enjoying myself.
Hayley Stockall is the managing editor of literary collective Stilts. She tweets @hayleystockall.