By Shieva Salehnia
They say what breaks your heart open also opens your eyes, and in that moment, you have the chance to grow, to become the person you have always wanted to be. But it’s hard to let go, to give in to the breaking.
I turned 30 years old in Brooklyn. Three years from the Midwest, and my living situation was a fancy dorm room high above the sidewalk and casting a shadow on the Kings’ County jail.
That birthday, I was turning a corner, I knew that much, but it took much longer to feel the shift around the bend. The years since I had moved from the Midwest were like a second adolescence, equally as awkward and demoralizing as the first one.
The first week I lived in New York, I met my friend Kristen at the beach. Kristen had lived in New York for ten years at that point, and had spent her first summer living on the tarred roof of an apartment building in Brooklyn. She was a grass-roots organizer a couple of years older and wiser than me, and she had met all of her friends at an anarchist warehouse in Brooklyn or while working at a now-defunct bourgeois, small vegan cafe chain in the city. When she invited me to the beach, I was eager to have fun and to start a new chapter with a familiar face and to meet new people.
I had taken the train down to Flatbush and caught a bus over to Rockaway. At the time, I didn’t realize that while Rockaway Beach itself is only a short stretch of land, the whole of the Rockaway peninsula is a full days’ walk from end to end. I got dropped off about 25 minutes from where I was supposed to find Kristen in the not-so-public part of the Rockaway.
New York City is not known for its beaches but they are as plentiful and beautiful as in any other coastal town. In one hour, you can go from the Financial District to Rockaway Beach, Queens, where the air is always clear and dunes make for convenient but terrifying hills to pee in. Long Island is one of the most tick-ridden places in the nation and it is not just a tick, it is a tick that will give you lyme disease, which is serious business and will make your hair fall out.
They section off portions of Rockaway Beach every year to help the ecosystem rehabilitate itself from the pressure of sun umbrellas, party blankets, and cigarette butts left behind after the sun has set. The trash cans out at the end of the boardwalk are made of metal mesh, and even if you pick up all of the tiny scraps of plastic you see on the sand, they just fly out of the trash anyway, back to the sea.
You see freighter ships carry tons of all the stuff that fills our apartments, the plastic things we’ve ordered from Amazon, ultimately finding a home in the corner of an office or the back of a closet somewhere. Once you’re out at the beach, and you feel the air, heavy with perspiration from the sea. Your skin feels weighted down by it, and you’re tired so much more quickly under its weight and the pressure of the sun’s insistent glare. That first week in New York, I didn’t know how exhausting a day at the beach can really be, despite having traveled to a number of beaches in my short lifetime.
When I reached the end of the boardwalk at Rockaway, I kept walking on the sand at the place it meets the waves and is packed down, cold and wet from the weight of the Atlantic Ocean.
Kristen’s friends were welcoming, and I was grateful for the laughter they brought along with vodka and fruit juice to drink. Two hours into our visit, running back and forth from the water to the hot sand to the dunes to pee amongst the beach grass, two men in t-shirts and shorts passed by with backpacks hanging off of their shoulders and offered us juice in plastic grenades with colorful caps.
The heat and the vodka had slowed me down, and the men had started walking away by the time one of Kristen’s friends explained to me that the juice had some kind of booze in it, likely rum. I wanted in, and Kristen quickly called out, her friends joining, Hey man! We’ll take one!
Five dollars and another hour on the beach blanket, my vision was in a slow, lazy swirl as we walked back through the dune trail, past soccer fields, a firehouse and a horse stable, and to the bus stop at the off-turn of Rockaway Boulevard that would take us back into the city. The bus was crowded but I managed to get a seat near the window. I nodded off just long enough to feel the reel of my head dipping back as the bus driver hit the brakes with finality at the end of his route. It was 6 pm by the time we reached Flatbush Junction and I hopped onto the A train to go north to downtown Brooklyn.
The train was air conditioned beyond necessity as I rode back into civilization. Swaddled in the double layered cotton-knit shirt I was wearing, the sunburn and the rum punch I had dehydrated me enough to lull me to sleep against the subway pole next to my seat. My forehead rested against the cold metal and I was comforted by the cool. When I heard a clatter of people get on the train halfway through my planned route, I decided to stay seated in case my dehydration was to get the best of me and I were to have a dizzy spell. I closed my eyes as a young girl and her mother shuffled into the train car, the girl holding a dolly in front of her chest like a shield. Her mother pushed her little body against the bottom half of the subway pole, securing the girl between her end of her torso and her thighs. The woman dropped several bags at her feet, and she and her daughter looked at me as they both grabbed the pole. I closed my eyes and prayed for the next 15 minutes to pass quickly over the next seven subway stops. I drifted…
The conductor’s muffled call over the com system interrupted my sleep. 42nd Street, Times Square… I overslept. I overslept 23 minutes of transit time. And the little girl and her dolly were nowhere to be seen. I bashfully pulled myself from my seat onto the bright, white-tiled platform and pulled my cell phone out to check my transit app for information.
I turned around and I dragged myself back home to Joralemon Street and the dorms. My skin was burned from the hot sun of the afternoon and I was more dehydrated than I thought possible. I took a cold shower and rubbed aloe into my still-warm shoulders.
What I learned that day was a small piece of what I would learn in years to come: Every day feels like five days in New York City.
Part of it is that everything is hard in New York. The morning commute is exhausting. Whether or not you have the energy to travel home after a long day, you have to find a way to get across the goddamn East River or the greater of the borough of Brooklyn to get there.
We don’t need history lessons to learn about slums, blight, historical brownstones, criminal wealth — they are three feet away from our front steps or a subway ride away. The Stonewall Inn is still a great place to get a cheap drink. You see how gentrification has changed the corner where Biggie grew up to be a fancy “casual” restaurant where they only make 10 burgers a night.
All of that was exciting for me before I moved to New York and for the first few years I lived here, sitting in the cushioned comforts of a security-manned building adjacent to the most expensive neighborhood in Brooklyn, and dating friends-of-friends who couldn’t have been worse choices for me.
Everything that had once mattered to me seemed to be so insignificant in the shadows of the buildings lining the lower Manhattan skyline.
Growing into young adulthood in the Midwest, I used to care so much about being respected for my opinions about music, and I especially wanted men to know that I had a good taste in music. It was a point of power for me, something to lord over people. Dating musicians, I could keep up with them and their friends on the best Bob Dylan records and my favorite Rolling Stones songs. And I like Sabbath, and Sade.
Then again, none of those men gave me anything I didn’t already have budding within myself. And none of them broke anything within me that I hadn’t already tried breaking myself. None of them wrote me songs or poems or none of that either — except one. One, long ago, in what feels like another lifetime. 14 years ago.
When I was younger, I fell in love with two guys, and though I dated one for years, I let part of myself stay with the other.
The man I dated for years, Arman, who benefited from the support and love and sex and clothes and life experiences he never would have had if not for me — you’re welcome. Now he’s married with a baby and why not? I’m not in his way anymore, to stop him from having that traditional life.
And I guess I’m welcome, too. I learned a lot about love and life from him, and he was patient with me, even when I didn’t give him the same courtesy. But he’s welcome even more…
We lost our virginities to each other. He was living in an old house with a few of his friends at the time, and I was still living with my parents. We had spent the prior six months laying in his twin bed, in his small bedroom on the ground floor at the front of the house, while I cried, while I faked my first orgasm, while he read me passages from Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.
Eventually, I decided I was ready and I trusted him. Who could ask for anything more? I remember his roommates were in the house’s living room at the time, and they were listening to Jimmy Eat World, reliving the good ol’ days of 2001. This guy, though, my boyfriend at the time, remembers that we, he and I, were listening to Thelonious Monk or this great Miles Davis record he had. It doesn’t matter that his memory makes the situation seem cooler than it actually was. I will always associate Jimmy Eat World with losing my virginity.
He wrote me a song once, a diddy that still gets stuck in my head, a snippet, an earworm, a morsel just big enough to savor. Lady Day, Marvin Gaye/Let me hold you like a baby, baby
And then, there was the other guy.
In my mind, I have to call the feeling I had for this other guy, man, person, Bijan, who had been in my life since I was young — he was a “crush” — because what else could it have been besides my own imagination getting the best of me. I imagined him as the real McCoy: a heart of gold with a genius mind. In reality, he was just as lost and confused as I was. You can like a human being, on one hand, but on the other, in a fantasy, the only surprises are the ones of your own psyche.
The few times I have gotten the courage to tell a girlfriend about my feelings for this guy, I spoke about him as the childish friend who I’d lost contact with. Only in my head did I propose to him every night, and think of him alternately as my secret confidant and lover. It was true that we’d lost contact. The few phone calls I had had with Bijan were strained — one call I’d made to him to ask about his sexual health, not for his sake as much as mine. He’d fucked me with his uncircumcised and unprotected penis three nights before, and the thought of having contracted gonorrhea made my eyes swim.
The other phone calls, we ended up talking about his roommate’s incontinent dog or if he had gone to visit his folks recently.
As a code for how I felt about my crush, I gave him several playlists — Bright Eyes and Bob Dylan, whose songs I had first connected with because they sang about loving brown women, a rare thing even if I later realized they did it in a minstrelsy kind of way.
I put “Spanish Harlem Incident” on one playlist for him because it’s a song about ol’ Bobby begging a woman to save him, as is often the case in his most aching songs. This time, the gal is a “gypsy” whose “temperature is too hot for taming.” Her flaming feet, burning up the street…
My crush was eventually realized in a haze of snorted Adderall and Molly, a few light beers I drank to stay hydrated. He laughed at the neosoul Bilal song I put on after we had decided to kiss, and, embarrassed that he thought my selection was stupid, I changed the song.
And then, I was on top of him, naked, in the darkness of his ground-floor bedroom. And then we were standing on the lawn in front of his porch, still high, and he was holding me in his arms as we watched the sunrise together and swore we would take it all to the grave.
I let part of myself fall in love with this guy who, I would find out, was even more repressed and scared than I was. And I let myself fall over and over again in my mind. Torture. My underdeveloped brain was desperate for validation and male attention.
Even in my imagination, the version I had of him cracked and peeled away quickly if I thought on it too long, like the skin of a snake to reveal slick scales underneath.
My crush never once gave me a playlist in return. I’ll be glad to never see him again because I see now, and perhaps with healthy cognitive dissonance, that those playlists, those love songs were songs I wanted to be about me, I wanted them to be for me.
I didn’t want love, I wanted to be a muse, a point of reference, a flash of energy and excitement. I didn’t want to be a real person with real problems. I still don’t, even with the celestial, higher-self advice I try to take and dispense.
But what good would I be to anyone if I hadn’t started to grow and choose to keep growing and if I give up now.
They say what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. But what about those songs that break you open again and again to listen to them? The songs you play on repeat to finally convince yourself to let go of the facade of “It’s ok” and “I’ll survive”, to get to the meat of “oh shit, I’m scared” and “oh no, what have I done?” You listen to cry and exorcise demons. And you have to put the record away. Some songs never lose their ability to make you cry.
I love ballads for that exact reason — because I am a sap who loves romance and melancholy. Those are the main reasons why I love Joni Mitchell’s music, and Nina Simone’s music, and Sabbath and Sade.
Sometimes love is lasting whether it’s active or not. The years pass, and the miles pass, and you get farther away from the need to be something special to someone else. You see how you need to be special in your own eyes and you see how you are special, and you hold onto that feeling a little more every time you feel it.
Sometimes, you are just so tired of dealing with the own voices inside of your head that the dormant love you had for a person seems like the little sunshine on a cloudy day, and when they text back you feel a little better about having to deal with the rest of your life.
The night I turned 30, only two years ago now, I ate at a cash-only barbeque counter and had a drink at what the locals might’ve called a honky-tonk if the bar was located somewhere besides next to the East River in yuppie Williamsburg. I don’t remember what songs the band at the bar played that night.
Before New York, I used to be sensitive to what music would be playing in a given space, and I would want to be in control of the stereo, or I would ask people to change the radio station in their cars. But now I just lamely accept the pop music blasting from every taxi’s radio and the harmless crush I’ve developed on Rihanna.
The ringing in my ears every night from tinnitus started to make me less aware of the din of voices in a crowded restaurant and the ricochets of thin plastic wheels from an old woman’s utility cart against chipped asphalt.
There are songs that I sing to myself that are mine, to me. Wagon Wheel, This Must Be the Place, You Can’t Hurry Love, or really, if I may be so bold, any Holland-Dozier-Holland song.
Things matter to me now in a way that is a perfect reminder to stay grounded, or at least try to for as long as you can in this moment before it slips away.
Savor each instant like a tongue full of good red wine, right before you swallow it, shared in good company or with the thought of good friends. And those are the relationships worth savoring, not with some guy in some place — the relationships that are friendships, with yourself and other people, and whatever they may be beyond that.