By Sam Rauer
On my last subway ride to your apartment, you closed your eyes the whole time. I was fresh off the Chinatown bus in a dirty black winter jacket. I had french fry breath and smudged eyeliner. A backpack full of books and stapled paper. It wouldn’t be the first time we broke up, but it would be the last.
Look at me, look at me, I thought.
“Beware of the closing doors,” said the 2 train.
That was a lifetime ago. It’s December 4, 2014 – a Thursday. It’s late. The man opposite me is sleeping, legs spread wide. My jacket is made of something called vegan leather, and my purse is full of crumbs. I’m not thinking about the bills and deadlines fast approaching, but I am deciding what I’m going to eat. I scroll through the options in my mind. Pizza, Chinese, grilled cheese. I try to recall if I have bread.
I have a long way to go. I live in Brooklyn now.
Do you remember when I told you not to wear flip flops on the subway?
You were adamant about not letting the city change you. You were only a temporary guest, there to receive a B.A. When I escaped Boston to visit you, we rolled our eyes at club-bound women crawling into cabs. We stayed in at night to watch DVDs in bed. The next morning, you slipped into gym shorts and sandals for class.
“It isn’t like home,” I insisted. “Someone will step on your toes.”
In those early days, after we both had landed on a foreign coast for school, I wondered what would happen to us. I used to worry you’d meet a model and leave me stranded in New England, without a reason to ever visit New York.
I was so young back then. I didn’t realize how lucky I was. I didn’t know yet, didn’t appreciate, that I can be wherever I want.
I was early to my date tonight, a rare occurrence these days. The bar we went to smelled like perfume and dollar bills. It had the 90s R&B and flickering candlelight of the places where people here like to go.
You would have hated it.
My date, he smelled like snow and cigarettes. My laugh sounded fake as I stood there, swaying in my ankle boots.
I couldn’t tell the color of his eyes, but he told me I looked pretty.
You can’t even see me, I thought.
To be honest, I didn’t really care. I couldn’t see him either.
Have you ever fallen in love with a city?
The second city I ever loved was Paris, where I studied abroad and bought fresh flowers for my studio. Where I ate pastries covered in jam and met my Spanish boyfriend. Did I ever tell you about him? The one who only read nonfiction and wore tight, black jeans. Remember, we had agreed that we were on a “break”?
The first city I ever loved was New York. It felt nice to be here with you, in travel-sized doses, even when you eventually despised it. We walked to Prospect Park on my birthday, a humid July morning, waving at people on their stoops. I remember we played Go Fish in the grass, our faces dripping with sunscreen and sweat. We ate bodega sandwiches in paper wrappers and petted other people’s dogs. The whole city vibrated to the beat of music being played from car speakers. That same beat through all of Brooklyn, and us on a mission for shade.
I need to tell you something.
The first month I moved here, I puked on the subway.
My mouth tasted sour and dry, and I wanted to close my eyes. The couple beneath me was laughing at something on her phone and I tried to tell them that I needed to sit. I leaned over, pulled back my hair, and vomited.
“Goddammit,” I said to my crotch.
“This train is delayed due to a sick passenger,” said the Q train.
The first time we broke up, I slept for 14 hours. I woke up around noon and paced the length of my apartment, ignoring the dirty laundry staring at me by the door. I cried into my frying pan, cooking bacon. I thought about the jar in your freezer that held the bacon grease, so it wouldn’t clog the drain, and I feared that I’d never take a Fung Wah bus out of Boston again.
Remember, we had gotten into a fight about your rosacea? “It’s not a big deal,” I told you. “My face turns red when I drink. You know, the Asian glow.”
People looked at you differently, you thought, sensitive about your ruddy skin. I understood what you meant, but it made me angry.
“You’re still a white man,” I yelled.
I’m waiting for my transfer now. I’m on a sticky, wooden bench next to an empty McNuggets container. The station feels deserted and a rat the size of a toaster is wandering around freely. The next Brooklyn bound C train is seventeen minutes away.
The rat is scampering closer, sniffing a discarded gum wrapper on its way.
“Hello, rat. I live here, too,” I tell him.
We’re making eye contact. “I’m not afraid of you,” I say louder.
A bit farther down the track, I hear someone cough.
Looking back, I understand that we reminded each other of another time, an easier time, during a period of transition into new adult lives. My memories of you from home became intertwined with shiny reflections of another world. You were a place that felt authentically me, then you were a place that I was trying to become, until one day, you weren’t anymore.
After you left the city, I replaced you in the sea of bodies. You went back to the beaches where we came from, and for a while, I kept retracing our steps here.
New York slowly changed though. Our diner on Canal Street closed. I cycled through rooms and jobs and people, and the ghosts slowly faded. I learned how to make places my own.
One last thing.
Sometimes I still think about you. I hear the conductor’s voice and remember us running to catch the train. I feel the plastic seat under my summer dress while we ride uptown to the Met. I remember falling in love with a place, and with the person who I felt like when I was there. We weren’t fated to last all that, but I started out here with you.
I only see the flashes of you I want to hold onto. Even as they start to lose their rosy hue, I find some moments too sweet to bury. Did you know that nostalgia can be selfish? It’s mostly how you want it to seem.
I like to be reminded of when New York first seemed magic. In other words, I hope you are well.
The train is creeping up, looking like it’s pushing through swampy mud. I board and take a seat.
I’m alone in the subway car and it feels a little romantic. I’m watching the underground filth speed behind dark glass. Remember that Risky Business scene? It’s the part where they hook up on an elevated train, while Phil Collins pulses against a blurry Chicago backdrop. I can feel it coming in the air tonight. Oh, lord. I’m humming it out loud.
One thing I’ve always liked about New York is the ability to be anonymous. Surrounded by people, you can be whoever you want. It’s what makes the private moments feel so much like myself. I love an empty subway car at night.
“This train is running express,” the C train is saying. I put my headphones on. That means my stop is next.