Sitting in the sunset in the middle of Central Park, the unfamiliar boy and I huddled together in the growing chill of late October, using the excuse of needing bodily warmth to search for some other, more abstract warmth of feeling. We had spent the whole day exploring the Met Museum, and afterwards walked around the park trying to tell each other everything about our lives in the span of just a few hours. My hand was trapped in his, but he still felt like a stranger in a strange city. My thoughts were not with him but with the turtles swimming in the rippling pond before us.
I had met the boy a few weeks ago during a copyediting shift at the student newspaper. It was my first month at New York University, so I was used to these rushed attempts at connection. My classmates and I introduced ourselves to each other with overbearing friendliness, most of us having left our homes, family and friends for the first time and eager to find people we could call upon to avoid long nights spent alone or sad solitary meals. The bustling city we found ourselves in amplified our loneliness. Most of the time, these failed attempts at friendship led to a string of saved numbers I would never call and names and faces I couldn’t match. Many more firsts followed these endless first introductions, and they weren’t necessary the good kind: the first time I felt homesick, what it felt like to be triggered by a song or phone call and to cry quietly under the sheets in fear of waking up a roommate, my first all-nighter, my first time blacking out from drinking.
Moving to New York from suburban New Zealand, I was excited to try everything American, including the candy. I tried Twizzlers for the first time, excited to finally eat something I had only seen on TV back where I grew up. I spat out the bright twisted candy immediately, feeling cheated by its name and color. I had thought it would taste like sweet fireworks of flavor, but was only met with rubbery disappointment.
This first date at Central Park was yet another first that let me down. It should have been perfect, in theory. I couldn’t dream up a more cliché attempt at romance than taking a stroll in one of the loveliest parks in the world and watching the colors of the sun melt across the sky and reflect in the water of the Turtle Pond. I was amused but perhaps not entirely surprised when the boy, who boasted about all the obscure poets he enjoyed reading, took out a notebook that he carried with him to jot down a few lines of poetry—because what else would a dream date do but write me into a poem?
In reality, I had been checking the time, wondering when I could go home without rudely declaring that I wanted to. I was tired of the forced conversation, of trying to convince myself I enjoyed his anecdotes and that this was the beginning of a successful college relationship. After seeing its name on a map earlier in the day, had suggested we sit by Turtle Pond, talking enthusiastically about his love for turtles as we made our way there. I think he mentioned a pet turtle named Hector, but maybe Hector is just the kind of boring elderly name I believed best suited a turtle because I really wasn’t listening. My enthusiasm for animals only extended to those with fur. More importantly, I was distracted by the unoriginality of the pond’s name, in light of the Belvedere Castle that sat majestically at its edge.
“There! Did you see that?” He yelled, pointing at a ripple in the water. I shook my head. “It was a turtle!”
I tried to smile back, but he saw me trying, I think.
He scribbled something down, angling the notebook away from me. It didn’t take too long for him to abandon his feigned embarrassment when I asked him to tell me what he had written about me. The few lines he wrote contained a metaphor, and I like metaphors, but his compared me to a turtle.
I remember telling myself that it was nice for him to even write about me, and to appreciate his poetic efforts, but as he talked on—probably something else about the shelled creatures—I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that the first poem I was potentially immortalized in compared me to a snapping turtle. What did he mean?
I avoided eye contact and looked out onto the water as we struggled to maintain our conversation. I wondered what made me a turtle and who had named the pond. I was angry about the name because it showed such little effort, and as someone who was terrible with names (I referred to people I vaguely recognized on campus as Cat Boy or That Korean Girl in conversations with my roommate), I expected better from others. Or maybe I was angry about something else. We were sitting there on a rock in the darkness long after everyone else had left. It seemed like we kept talking because we were waiting for the other person to say something we were looking for. Finally we rose to leave, my body stiff and numb from the cold.
For the longest time I filed him in my memory as the weird boy obsessed with turtles, remembering the way his face lit up when he talked about them. I refused to see him again after our date, which must have been confusing because I hadn’t outwardly expressed any discontent that night. I ignored his texts, avoided him on campus, and still have an unread Facebook message from what is now almost two years ago. Maybe he had been accurate to call me a turtle, and he had seen my shell, which encouraged me to retract back into its depths.
Despite my eagerness to come to New York, I was disillusioned my first few months living there. I spent more time in my room than out on the streets I had so romanticized, and which always seemed to disappoint with their dirty pavements. But I’m growing to love New York for what it is rather than for my fantasized idea of it. I tried another Twizzler recently and realized that although it still doesn’t fulfill my initial expectations, it isn’t all too bad. This is what New York is like for me: a Twizzler that doesn’t taste quite as good as it looks, but I think I can get used to.
I finally don’t mind the Turtle Pond and its unoriginal name, which after some research I learned was first populated when people released their pet turtles they could no longer keep. The abandoned turtles found their slice of paradise in the end. I think of them with a little more fondness now, the way they can retreat, unseen, into the pond and its pretense of green space even though they, too, are surrounded by a concrete landscape.
Su Young Lee is a junior at New York University, studying English literature and creative writing. Other than trying to read two books simultaneously, she spends most of her time dreaming up plots for elaborate fantasy novels but often ends up writing shorter memoir pieces instead.