On Match.com, Ken’s moniker was “Dull.” He wrote that among his favorite things were office carpeting, spam, and waiting rooms.
“I bet he lives in one of those storage units off the highway,” my friend Meg said as she read over my shoulder.
My own profile was styled after Nancy Drew. Hair color? Titian. Hobbies? Motor boating, driving too fast, psychological methodology. Meg’s said that she was lookin’ fast in her faded jeans. Hobbies? Sundown.
Meg and I had both recently ended long relationships—the sort of relationships that once would have ended in marriage and children but now ended in U-Hauls, a roommate, and an over-priced apartment on the Lower East Side. “You’re sisters, right?” strangers asked, sure of the answer before we gave it. “Yes!” we’d cry, even though we weren’t. We were best friends—siblings who’d chosen each other—an impossible gift.
“Let’s write to Dull,” I said.
We decided to regale him with all the boring things we loved: cork. Taupe. Slightly warm tap water. Meg loved anything from a hospital cafeteria. He wrote back. My favorite food is day-old carrots from a warming tray. I told him I was athletic, an extreme decoupager. It’s not as easy as people imagine, I wrote. You have to really want it.
I was happy whenever I saw his name in my Match inbox. I didn’t bother answering anyone else. And Meg didn’t answer anyone else either. She was in love with a man who was, for whatever New York reason, unattainable. Once, the man had almost kissed her in a cab—but then he’d turned away, just, she said, as she closed her eyes and lifted her chin.
2001 was supposed to be a kind of break-year for me, the sort that high school students take the year before college. During my break year, I’d figure out what I wanted in my newly single life. I worried I was too old, which was just on this side of thirty, but I’d always wanted to live in New York. It was summer, and I loved the way the Lower East Side felt, especially in the evenings, in those hours when New York metamorphosizes from a city of busy commerce into a place of pleasure: men set-up card tables in front of their shops, drank beer, and women talked on stoops. Children danced on the sidewalk.
I was teaching a load of English composition courses in Flushing at one of those schools advertised on subway placards that showed smiling moms and dads in business casual boasting of how they’d finally been able to afford a better life for their children. That was the bait: The American dream.
To live my American dream, I woke up at five most days, left my apartment, got a cup of sweet coffee with hot milk at the corner bodega, boarded the F at Delancey and then transferred to the 7 at forty-second. From there, I made the hour-long commute out to Flushing. On the train, I sometimes slept, sometimes read, but mostly, I corrected student essays.
One of my students, Crystal, always wrote about cats. She rescued strays, getting them chipped and neutered. She compared and contrasted indoor and outdoor cats, and she wrote a how-to guide on luring a lost cat home. She even illustrated the top sheet of her essays with drawings of cats. The only tragedy of Crystal’s beautiful, cat-filled life, it seemed, was that her boyfriend didn’t like cats. This detail always came in the last paragraph, and I could never bring myself to run a pen over the words, to write “unnecessary.”
I wrote to Dull about Crystal. I told him about the long breaks I had between morning and evening sessions, when I would wander Flushing, exploring. It’s like being on vacation, I wrote. I ate sushi and tried different bubble teas. Sometimes I walked to the Magic Castle. The Magic Castle sold nothing but kawaii merchandise—those docile anthropomorphic creatures like Hello Kitty and Babu the Blue Bear. They sold pencil cases and stuffed toys and key chains and stationary. They sold slippers and t-shirts and shower curtains. Whatever they sold, the kawaii creatures peeked out at me.
I didn’t tell Dull that I wondered what I was doing with my life as I sat in my windowless, air-conditioned classroom and made lesson plans—when I began to understand that a break year meant not really being at home anywhere.
September came, and then, sadly, inevitably, as it does every year, September 11th. I have fragments: an empty classroom, a sheet of paper floating to the floor, and that evening, the subway ride across the shining East River, and in that perfect golden hour, the sight of destruction. How silent we all were on that train, how polite. And then I am up on the rooftop of our building on the Lower East Side with Meg, watching the last of the commuters on the Brooklyn Bridge, listening to sirens, the dense black plumes of smoke in the background.
On television, Mayor Giuliani insisted: Go shopping. Instead, I slept. Or cried.
We made sure Dull was all right. He was, but for months, there were no jokes.
I’d been in Flushing when it happened, but Meg worked downtown, and she saw it. She’d seen the whole thing, standing amid a crowd strangers, their hands over their mouths, the horror of not being able to change what they were witnessing.
It grew colder, got dark earlier.
The fires burned into December.
One day, at a café on the Lower East Side, we met Dull—or Ken. He took dance lessons not far from where we lived—the hustle and tango. Ken’s hair was a mass of shining black curls. He had the sort of glasses that always make me think of my grandfather the dentist: black-framed, no joking glasses, but all we did with Ken was laugh. He had the sort of smile that begins slowly, that begins with the eyes. He was getting his PhD. He taught classes in film. He lived uptown. And he had a car—a long gray sedan, he said in Dull fashion, in which he listened to white noise instead of music.
By that time, Ken would have figured out that Meg and I weren’t contacting him for any other reason than to be entertained by his beautiful humor, and he seemed happy to oblige us. He regaled us with tales of Dull, of how he’d taken the most boring vacation imaginable, to Des Moines, Iowa, where he stayed in an airport hotel and spent all his time watching CNN.
At night, I talked to Ken on the phone. I lay curled on my floor, the phone cradled against my ear, listening to his voice, letting him entertain me. Sometimes I closed my eyes. I felt halfway in love with Ken, maybe even all the way, but when it rained, the apartment was permeated with that grim smell. The smell stayed in my hair, in my clothes, and found it’s way into my dreams. I became obsessed with the rumors of rats who’d lost their homes that day, asking different people if they’d heard: “Do you know about the rats?” I asked. “People say they’re as big as pitbulls.” I imagined packs of rats snaking through darkened alleyways— a shadow reshaping itself.
Crystal took English Comp I with me, then II, probably realizing that another teacher might be less tolerant, but her writing was improving, so I never told her to change subjects. “Brighter days ahead,” I said, showing Meg Crystal’s essay. She’d drawn cats drinking out of water bowls, dangling from tree limbs, sleeping in the sunshine.
Meg held the paper, smiling. “I want a cat.”
I set it up. Crystal had a kitten for Meg. Gangsta, she called him. “Kittens shouldn’t be confused with gangsters,” Ken said when he came to pick us up—not in the gray sedan as we’d expected, but in a red sports car. When we got in, surprised, Ken told us to ignore it. It was just his midlife crisis car.
He told us he knew Queens pretty well. An ex-girlfriend lived there, and when he said her name, he said it in a way that made the last syllable float away. I looked out the car window. Though the day was bright, in my memory, it doesn’t want to be. It’s sharp and silvery, as if it’s just rained. Everything is one shade darker.
I repeated Crystal’s directions to Ken, but we couldn’t find the street. We drove in circles. Over the phone, Crystal gave me the directions again. We wanted an avenue, not a street. On the third call, she told us to meet her at The Pan American Hotel. “You can’t miss us. A big black SUV.” Meg and Ken and I swapped scenarios: Crystal wasn’t my student with a kitten, but really a mob boss’s girlfriend armed with a suitcase full of cash. The Pan American Hotel was probably an international smuggling front. Who knew what kind of kitten long con we were walking into?
We found the hotel, but we didn’t see a black SUV. We parked and got out, and because it was cold, Ken taught Meg and me how to do the hustle. I watched Meg and Ken dance, wondering if he were in love with her, if I were in love with him, but what I suspected was that he was in love with his ex-girlfriend, and that we were an excellent distraction for him. I danced with Ken next. “Do the hustle,” we sang, “doo doo doo doo do doo do—.” We laughed, spinning on the sidewalk.
A black SUV pulled up. “Miss Hahn?” Crystal called. She was used to seeing me in my work outfits, standing in front of a room alone or erasing a white board. She didn’t know this more accurate version of her teacher. Crystal’s boyfriend, the one who didn’t like cats, was driving. He seemed irritable to me, joyless in dark glasses. Crystal sat in the passenger’s seat holding a black kitten.
“Gangsta be good,” she whispered, and passed him to me. Gangsta was tiny, with a little pink nose and long whiskers. I handed him to Meg. We waved as Crystal pulled away. “I must change your name,” Meg said to Gangsta, and tucked him into her coat.
Back at home, Meg changed Gangsta’s name to Little Bear, and he lay curled in the crook of her arm. He’d taken to nursing her earlobe, and we laughed at his persistence in seeking that pleasure out.
I picked him up and sang: “You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night. Step into the sun, step into the light.”
A few months later, Meg decided to go back to her old city, and I decided to stay on and get my own apartment. I couldn’t imagine having a roommate who wasn’t Meg, so I got a kitten for company and called him Babu, a tribute to my time in Flushing.
The way busy people in big cities do, I lost track of Ken—not entirely by accident. Our relationship had no definition. It was unexpected, bloomed on a creative whim, and it was perfectly distracting, but when Meg left, there would be a question between us. I got a different job, made some new friends, but from time to time, I thought of Ken, and whenever I did, I smiled and promised myself I’d reach out.
A year passed, and I ran into him on the street. He said he’d landed a teaching job in California and was leaving the next week. I wanted to tell him that I already missed him, but I didn’t. I wanted to say, Weird running into you the week before you move. Instead, I stood on the street smiling at him in the sunshine, practically screaming: How fantastic!
For a while after that, I was a little mad. I thought he hadn’t been straight with me, but the feeling was fleeting. I hadn’t exactly been straight with him, either. The feeling that’s stayed is entirely different. It’s joy—joy for the pleasure of friendship, for the comfort of a best friend, for humor when it seems there will never be anything ever to laugh about again.
Whenever I think of the day we went to get Little Bear, I see Ken and Meg dancing, but they are not dancing in front of the Pan American Hotel. They are not dancing on that winter street with the sad and broken city just beyond view. They are not, as we all were, bravely attempting that shadowy walk out of the underworld. They are happier than that. They are doing the hustle in front of a sparkling magical castle, the sun high in the sky above them. Kawaii creatures jump and dance around them. I’ll even add a rainbow for good measure. They spin beneath a palm’s silvery leaves, beneath a cloudless blue sky.