My dad was helping me, his oldest daughter, carry a stuffed duffel bag up a dirty Chinatown staircase, in a dirty Chinatown building, with no-longer-usable brooms on the landings and cigarette butts on the sills. We could hear babies crying though the walls, drowning out television sets. He asked if I was sure I would be O.K. here. I said I would be.
I’d moved to New York to, you know, move to New York. The reason I tacked on to the decision was an unpaid internship, but it could have been anything, or it could have been nothing. Toronto had become stifling. I’d felt for some time that I wasn’t growing there. I didn’t know what would be different in New York—only that it would be. I heard it was a city for people who knew how to be alone with other people, and that sounded about right.
For a month, I had been sleeping on a white suede couch in a huge loft in the middle of the carnival of St. Marks Place where a guy I kind of knew in high school lived with three roommates. Three of the four were involved in financing. They had five TVs in the apartment and three kinds of peanut butter at all times. One of them tried to have sex with me, and when he realized, finally, that I wouldn’t, become markedly colder.
A few weeks after arriving, I was telling someone at some bar about how hard it was to find a decent place to live, for a price I could afford. A young man with salt and pepper hair looked up from his book and told me he needed someone to take his place while he went to Israel for a few months. It was a one and a half bedroom, railroad style, on Forsyth Street across from the soccer park that used to be a sunken basketball court that was never used for basketball. His roommate still paid his share, but wasn’t living there right now, he was in Vienna. It was almost completely unfurnished, he warned me, but it was $600 a month. I said I’d take it.
Coincidentally, my dad was passing through New York on the weekend of my move. The night before, we’d eaten good food and drunk great wine, talking the whole time, laughing and saying how nice it was to see the other. It had, by no means, always been like this. Especially after the divorce, when he was so quick to re-involve himself with someone, I had shut a certain door inside, and kept it closed for a number of years. But I got tired with the effort, and I’m not sure how or when, but these days, things were nice.
He paid for the cab ride between the St. Marks loft and the Chinatown apartment, which, from the outside, appeared to be crumbling. The inside, it turned out, was the same.
I’d never lived alone. I didn’t know many people here. I barely knew what I was doing here. I was silent as we took the three flights of stairs. We dropped my bags off in the empty, florescent white kitchen, and left. We were supposed to be seeing a play in an hour.
Outside, on the street, I couldn’t look at my dad. I was holding my coat shut by wrapping my own arms around myself when he asked again, “are you sure you’re O.K. here?”
That’s when I cried.
Then he put his arms around me, with my arms still around myself, and I cried on my dad’s shoulder. I didn’t stop.
In another cab, on the way to his hotel, with me on one side, and my dad on the other, I said, “Dad, sometimes, I feel really raw. Like I’m a bunch of exposed nerves.”
He had no idea.
We talked about old, hidden things, lying on the bed in his dark hotel room, curtains closed, the air conditioner hum isolating us. Each time I found a word to put to a feeling that I’d never tried to describe out loud, something loosened, until finally, I was pummeled and exhausted, like after a good run or a hot bath.
We saw the play, one-man, one-act. By the time it was done, my lids were dropping and my mind, so tightly coiled and spinning earlier, was comfortable mush.
In a cab on Forsyth, my dad asked if I was sure I’d be O.K. No, not sure, not certain, but I was tired now and knew, at least, I’d sleep.
Babies and TV sets were still crying out when I got onto the mattress on the floor of the living room. Everything went on and on around me, but there was a new stillness now, at least for the night.