The Empire State Building Loves Me



Neighborhood: All Over, Central Park, Midtown, Union Square

The Empire State Building Loves Me
Photo by Bjorn Hermans

The day before my birthday was beautiful. It was one of those clear summer days in New York that somehow evades the typical humidity and the sun’s unbearable heat. Instead of roasting everything beneath it, the sun proudly showcased New York’s beauty. The pink and purple flowers on the High Line unfurled themselves towards the sky in euphoria and their exaggerated hues shone bright on firm petals. The fountain at Washington Square Park glistened as fully dressed toddlers waddled into the water with arms outstretched, mystified by the sparkling surface. Central Park’s typically mossy appearance was transformed into an electric shade of green that made the landscape look like it had been photoshopped to perfection. Along with endless sunshine, the day before my birthday was full of hearty laughter, family and friends, and too much sangria. Unfortunately, the happiness would wane throughout the next day until there was only a sliver left.

The waning began first thing in the morning when I woke up at 6:30 a.m., fell to the bathroom floor, and vomited. Happy Birthday, I thought to myself as I hugged the toilet bowl: my white ceramic savior.

My long, bare legs wrapped around its base and I praised the bathroom tiles for their coolness. Giorgia, my best friend who was in the city for the weekend, woke up to the sound of the previous night catching up with me and came into the bathroom to pull my hair back.

“Don’t look,” I protested, shaking my head, which was half in the toilet bowl and half resting on the rim. “I’m disgusting.” An exclamation that made her laugh and rub my back. “You’re not disgusting,” she said. It was sweet of her to lie.

Vomiting on the morning of my birthday was the first tug of the thread that would eventually unravel the previous day’s happiness in its entirety. This tug was a sign: my birthday would not be like the day before. The sun would not showcase New York’s beauty; no, the sun would have no part in the festivities. Instead, it would rain from noon to midnight and New York would tug relentlessly on the thread until my birthday was a tangled mess of rain, vomit, and birthday cake.

The wretchedness started at 6:30 am then restarted when I woke up six hours later, to a text from my father that read, “Getting restless.” I was the reason for my family’s restlessness, and to make up for my tardiness, I threw on whatever clothes were piled on my apartment floor and ran to meet up with my family for brunch. I thought if I could survive brunch and go through the motions of being a regular, non-hungover person, I might cut the snagged thread from earlier that morning. I only managed to pull it harder. Once at the trendy Manhattan restaurant, I sat at the table trying not to vomit while natural light flooded the room and sent my brain into a series of internal explosions. My head throbbed as I tried to remember the joy of the prior evening, but I drew blanks. I could not remember the sunshine, sangria, or laughter. I could only remember my white ceramic savior from earlier that morning and the snagged thread.

We left brunch, most of us full, one of us nauseous, and spent twenty minutes at The Strand bookstore to momentarily escape the torrential downpour. Some invisible force pulled the thread harder as my dad received an urgent email that he was obligated to tend to. Unfortunately, he had to leave the bookstore and hail a cab back to his hotel. Moments later, my mother grew from tired to disinterested so she too pulled the thread and hailed a cab to go to the hotel and rest.

The group had dwindled down from my family of six, to a tired huddle of four, then down to two when my brother and his girlfriend left to nap before dinner. Giorgia and I stood in front of The Strand as globs of rain smacked against the pavement. My phone vibrated and the screen illuminated with a text from an ex-fling. “He’s in the city and wants to get coffee,” I said in a monotone voice, trying to mask my excitement as I relayed the text to Giorgia. I thought the text meant that he had missed me, and maybe he wanted to start seeing each other again. I should have known better. Giorgia looked at me with raised eyebrows that questioned why I wanted to see the man who I had in previous months described as self-interested, careless, and inconsiderate. “We can do whatever you want,” she said, “it’s your birthday.” A mild warning I should have heeded.

Against Giorgia’s better judgment, we left the bookstore to meet up with the ex-fling. I was peering up from the rim of my mug when he walked in and he looked great—his tall lanky body reminded me of what a miracle it was that we managed to tangle ourselves together and fit comfortably in a twin-sized bed. The thought of that bed made me miss his dorm room that smelled vaguely of body odor and cologne. It made me miss the way he ran his long, skinny fingers through my curly hair. Maybe he wouldn’t pull the thread after all. Maybe he could help sew my birthday back together.

“Oh my god…” I stammered. My eyes widened.

“What?” Giorgia responded, concerned.

“He has hickeys!” I shrieked. “You can see them from here!”

There I was, my boney butt aching from sitting on an unforgivingly trendy wooden stool, hoping that a spark could be rekindled between me and the man with whom I had shared so many intimacies. With the man who held my hand with gentle tenderness only months before, who never failed to tell me I was beautiful when I needed to hear it most. And he walked in with two fat, red hickeys on his neck.

“Alexa!” he said, extending the last letter of my name, proving his sincere excitement. The extended vowel mimicked his drawn out tug of the thread that made my heart ache. All I could think about was the girl who gave him the hickeys: what did she look like? How did he know her? Was it a one-time thing or are they dating now? My unspoken questions went unanswered, and somewhere in the ambient noise of the coffee shop I could hear the thread’s stitches loosen.

The ex-fling was great. He looked handsome, told funny jokes, and he was happy—he had marks on his neck to prove it. And I was fine. I was hungover, generally happy (though not at that moment), and I was with Giorgia (who was arguably the only reason I had to celebrate the day). After an hour of chatting, we decided to set down our coffee cups and share a cab back to Midtown. The ex-fling had places to go (and maybe more hickeys to get) and Giorgia and I had to get ready for dinner, so we parted ways on the corner of 34th and 8th.

Dinner was for a special occasion—a birthday. Just not my birthday. We were celebrating a family friend’s birthday, which was technically the next month but why not celebrate early? Because it was already somebody’s actual birthday. I thought to myself, bitterly. That’s why not. But I didn’t say anything. Instead, I smiled at these family friends (who felt more like strangers, especially the more they drank) and I pretended to be happy to share the day. Although, I felt like I had already shared it with the torrential downpour, my hangover, and my ex-fling. The cake appeared at the table and I sang happy birthday to someone else: another tug of the thread. I ate the pistachio frosting with scorn and scowled at the stringy mess that surrounded me. I was starting to hate my birthday.

Dinner ended while I sat on a leather booth, tangled in a long, messy train of unraveled happiness, mulling over the evening. We ate overpriced, unappealing Korean barbecue; I spent the whole night at “the kids’ table”; I hardly spoke to my parents, who were seated at “the adult table.” By the time we walked out of the restaurant they had already gotten in a cab to go back to their hotel. My mom closed the door and the thread was caught, half in the cab and half in my heart. Both parents waved goodbye from the cab’s foggy window. Maybe they weren’t waving; maybe they were just putting on their seatbelts. The cab drove into the storm, pulling the thread all the way from Midtown to Tribeca.

Giorgia and I walked home silently, arm in arm. My eyes were fixed on my wet high heels and my head bobbed slightly to the clack of my steps. There was no more thread to pull. I was an undone version of myself: deconstructed, wet, and on the verge of tears. Giorgia guided me through the throngs of pedestrians as I shielded my face and kept my head down. The rain stopped and so did Giorgia. “Look,” she said, staring off toward a Duane Reade and pointing upward. I turned my head to follow her extended finger. The Empire State Building. Its lights were glowing blue and had illuminated the fog that covered the very top of the building. It was as if the mist was a shattered cobalt and had formed a crystalline cloud around the monument. I started crying.

I couldn’t help but cry. I hated my ex-fling and his stupid hickeys. I hated that my parents left without saying goodbye. I hated New York. And the whole day the city told me it hated me too—by the vomiting, endless rain, and pistachio frosting from someone else’s birthday cake. This relentless city had the power to yank a snagged thread until there was nothing left. But when I saw the glow of the Empire State Building hovering over my tangled mess, I cried and apologized to Manhattan. I took back the hatred and bitterness because the gilded mist that spread over the skyline reminded me that I loved New York, and it loved me back. The city mended the snagged thread; only New York had the power to sew me back together.

Alexa Brahme was born and raised in San Diego, California. She currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee where she studies creative writing at Vanderbilt University.

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