We are driving in from the country, out where we go to school, a little town in a valley and a school on the hill. We come in from the west, over the Bridge with the sun sliding around the tip of lower Manhattan, mocking the Lady’s little torch, basking in its own reflection off the river. It’s autumn, an evening when winds blow a chill but still the days are mild enough to hang out in the familiarity of t-shirts. Evelyn—from Virginia—is driving us in her silver station wagon. That would be me and the girl from Queens, a real priss, anyway.
We take the upper level of the bridge—my favorite way to come upon the city, the earth’s skyline sloping south, all that red brick, those towers, the expanse of buildings to the sea, through the gleam, beyond the horizon.
We dump our bags at my dad’s on the West Side. After pizza, we find the subway and descend downtown. We step onto the platform as the train is readying to leave. The door slams shut on an old man’s grocery bag, crushing whatever’s inside. The conductor is screaming at him, now what did you go and do that for, huh? He says, why do you do something so dumb?
Holding up everyone else, he groans. He says, you know there’s a train right behind this one. But there’s not. Every time the conductor says that, you can bet the farm he’s lying. He won’t open the door; the old man’s eyes plead, indifferent. Trying to help—the old man or themselves—riders on the other side start prying for the door to move. Fingers bleed out from the inside like worms out of the soil, rushing to the surface after a spring’s first downpour. The conductor finally opens and shuts the door very slightly, enough only to let the old man reclaim his tattered and soot-smeared bag, but refuses to give him space enough to slide in. We wait 25 minutes for the next train while the old man sorts the broken contents of his bag into the trash.
Downtown I start talking to this girl, not because she is cute, but because I can, because the girls I’m with push me up on her. She’s there alone and after we talk a while she pops a gum in her mouth, hands me the wrapper.
The next day—Saturday—I call the number she scrawled down on the gum paper.
She is staying at a hostel, but is allowed short incoming calls. I call her up and say she should come out with us, I don’t know where we’d be going, but she could come anyway and we’d probably go to the diner by the end of it.
The diner turns us out into the twilight, the sun beginning its daily ascent. The four of us walk cross-town when the girl from the hostel I’d just met pulls up her skirt and down her underpants and follows with smiling eyes a glistening trail of sunlight from her feet to the curb.
That is when I learn she’s been on a trip, has been tripping since Friday and long before that, four years straight, she confesses. Isn’t really a confession, no guilt, just a passing thought: four years. What the world provides her sober is not enough, so she makes her own from what she can get her hands on, in her mouth. She seems normal, totally in control but that’s a bit what frightens me and so when we get back to the brightening brownstone I tell the priss to tell her to leave. The priss asks, how could anyone live like that? So dishonest and out of control, she says, and because of that, because I wish to live the same but realize I never can, I put her out. Nobody’s perfect, I want to say, nothing’s ever perfect; that’s reality. But I’m reining mine in, or trying to.
On nights like these, when I feel I’m so in control I’m so completely out of it I just want to leap 10 stories from the roof, run face-first into the hardest city wall just to know something, to feel. Not to get hurt but just to feel pain—feel—know it’s impossible not to feel. Take a risk uncalculated, or one calculated to fail.
I moved back here for that girl with the gum; not for her, but because of her, because if she can take what’s there and make it work for her, then…
Instead I’ll contemplate a smoke when it’s not what I need, try sleep when I’m not tired, take to bed the idea that reality is always perfect, even when it’s not.