I’ll Be Around
By Daniel Reiser
When I met Ayesha outside the Chinese restaurant I had to lean against a tree to stay still. It had been about a month since we last talked but over a year since we last met in person, and I couldn’t help hoping that my appearance would somehow be more impressive. At UChicago, Sandra told me that she had forgotten how tall I was, and during lunch Steve remarked that I was talking a lot more than usual. This was still in the back of my mind, these hopes that she would like me even more, that all my lingering, or rather imprinted, high school feelings for her would be rewarded. And I knew all of this. So I felt some relief when she crossed the street and we dove into a hug after a sunny “Hey!”, holding each other for long enough that I felt sure that we were equally excited to see each other.
“Oh!” I exclaimed as we hugged. “It’s been so long!”
“You’re sad? Why?”
“Oh no, I said it’s been so long. It’s good to see you again.”
“I know,” she said, smiling.
“There’s no way I’d be sad,” I said, patting her shoulder without thinking about it. I walked into the restaurant, peering around the room for a server until one came up. “Hi, table for two?”
“Inside or outside?”
I looked at Ayesha.
“I’m fine either way.”
“Inside,” I said. The restaurant looked fancy despite its modest size. The room was filled with tables surrounded by plush red chairs, with a bar and wall-dependent benches practically irrelevant to the brightly surrounded tables.
“This is the first time I’ve sat inside since the pandemic,” said Ayesha, removing her mask. “It almost feels weird.” I smiled, doing the same.
“Yeah, but now it feels kinda normal. To me, at least.” I took off my flannel. “I almost went to Spumoni Gardens yesterday, by the way, since I was at Coney Island.”
“Oh, I miss that.” Ayesha had spent all of high school badgering me to visit the pizza shop but I had, as I did today, been waiting for an explicit invite. Though it never came, she had made it clear that she wanted me to eat well.
“Mhm. And I would’ve gone, but some of my friends didn’t want to go that far and just wanted Taco Bell,” and I laid out the time and setting, how we had gone as six but functionally as three and how it became a little picnic on the beach with Jyothi and Lindsey. An unexpected gem was the combative scene within the Taco Bell as I waited for the orders, watching separate men square off with a lady behind the counter, exchanging aggressive goodbyes in retaliation for missing or late orders. “I just didn’t think Taco Bell was that high stakes.”
“Well, that’s Brooklyn.” We paused, considering whether Coney Island could be called part of Brooklyn. “At least that’s Coney Island.”
A server appeared from the right, leaving menus on the table. I turned the drink menu perpendicular to us, joining Ayesha in some mock amazement as we considered them. “I can’t imagine paying over a hundred dollars for a drink.”
“Yeah, well I guess we look the part. Y’know, this reminds me of the time we went to dinner at that other Chinese place with María. Remember, they handed you the drink menu first?”
She leaned back. “Oh yeah! That was a while ago! I think it was the boots I was wearing, with the high heels that did it.” She tucked her hair behind an ear. “Don’t need them anymore, apparently.” We folded the drink menus up and browsed the lunch menu, with her pausing to comment on her interest in the lunch special as I flipped back and forth between pages. I settled on a few small items to order, closing it with satisfaction and looking toward Ayesha. She mused about finding out whether the soup was vegetarian or not before offering it to me.
“Oh I’m good, I don’t want to eat meat,” I said.
She paused. “Right! You told me this.”
“Did I? Yeah, I did. Oh, also,” I said, reaching into my pocket. I scrolled through my camera roll, landing on a photo of last night’s dinner in portrait mode. “Check this out.” I presented my phone to her. “Japanese fried rice.”
“Woah,” she said, leaning in. “Looks good.”
“Thanks,” I said, laughing a bit. “I wanted to show it off, so I’ve already sent a few photos of this to some people.” This would be the first time I would avoid mentioning Sara’s name.
“Looks like a lot. Was it for yourself?”
“Oh, yeah. I make a lot of food for dinner, enough that I usually have leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch. And I’ve only cooked for people… three times. Twice for one other person, but that wasn’t really an issue since I usually cook enough for two so that just meant I had less leftovers. And once for four people,” I said, barely looking at Ayesha as I remembered. “I had some friends over and cooked some gnocchi with mushrooms and caramelized onions and shallots, a big salad, and a chickpea stew. It went pretty well, mostly. I was working with all four spots on the stove,” I began waving my hands over the table to lay out the mental stovetop, “so the stew ended up being a bit under-salted. But the rest went well. And it worked in two ways. One, I fed my friends some hot food. Which was probably better than dining hall food.” Ayesha nodded. “And two, I proved that I could make edible vegetarian food. Which I wasn’t so sure I could do for them.”
“That reminds me,” she said. “There was this night last year when I—
“I think you told me last year, when we were hanging out with Aneesa, how you made a lot of little things—
“Oh, I know! Yeah, freshman year me and my friends, we rented out a kitchen and bought a lot of stuff, like baguettes and some cheese and apples. I took on way too much though. They did the appetizers, like all these little things on bread, but I said I would do all the main courses. And the thing was, we didn’t even have sharp knives. It was all these dull butter knives in the kitchen so we had to cut the baguette with scissors. And I ended up chopping so many red peppers with these knives that at the end my hands were literally covered with blisters.” She looked at her hands with pride. “It was totally worth it though. I felt like such an adult after everything was done.”
That’s rough, I thought (or maybe said), nodding.
“I can’t go vegan though. I love cheese too much. I come home and my parents have filled the fridge with all my favorite stuff, especially goat cheese, they know how much I love goat cheese.” She shook her head. “It’s just so good.”
I laughed and recognized the rhythm of our conversation. Her earnestness, the way she never stopped to apologize for talking too much, the confidence behind her words that she would never admit to. And behind that was a joy in talking to people that I felt grateful to bask in.
Our food soon arrived and I made some expressions of slight disapproval at the portions I was being served. “Maybe it was ‘cause I ordered from the appetizer section. Or was that dim sum?”
“Isn’t dim sum a lot of tiny dishes?”
“Right, at least one of these is dim sum. Still tiny though.” We were interrupted by the arrival of the third and final of my dishes, pumpkin bean cakes, which, though I had expected pumpkin and bean to be mixed together in a cake, was three cakes shaped and colored like miniature pumpkins. I resisted for a second, then snapped a photo, “for the memories, y’know?”
“Ooh, I’ll do that too,” she said, drawing her phone up to snap a photo of all of our dishes. “Wait, you have Instagram?”
“Yeah, I don’t take it seriously enough to post this though. And I barely follow anyone. It’s kinda arbitrary at this point.”
“Neither do I. Look!” She thrust her phone at me. “Zero posts. Nothing. I’ll follow you now though.”
I thanked her. “It’s not much for me either though. I have two posts. One,” I said, showing the photo of Jyothi and the overturned boxed wine, “was a joke for like three people—remember the stoop by Claremont? Across from the dorms?—and the other was my cat.” I described an attempt to help move furniture into storage, which meandered from Ayesha relating Sam’s being snuck into the dorm to Mission Impossible, to some pretty uninformed discussion of Barnard policy on dorm visitors. Ayesha compared the rules to Brown security, where all you needed to roam freely was any card that swiped you through gates or doors. As we bounced from topic to topic, I began, with Ayesha’s permission, to eat some broccoli that she was struggling to finish, giving her one of my pumpkins, which I had found to be much sweeter than expected. She complained more about the difficulty of eating rice with chopsticks, which were the only utensils we had been given and had prompted an “uh-oh” expression on her face when she first saw them.
As we were wrapping up, she mentioned that her mom was asking her to find a specific kind of burger buns. “She wants something with like only three ingredients. Not the kind that comes with a huge list.” She elaborated on the request, how her mom had suddenly decided to eat only healthy bread, and that she was hoping to find some in a bakery nearby.
“Do you have any time to spare, though? Like, to walk in Central Park or something?” As our conversation was tying itself up, I had become the slightest bit nervous again, hoping that our encounter would not be brushed off. Hoping that my stupid dream might have another chance, or that we’d at least catch up for a few more hours.
“Yeah, sure! It’s been so long since I went out in New York.” By this time we had paid the check and just left the restaurant. “I’ve barely gone outside since I got here on Monday. I went out yesterday to get groceries. That was it.” We talked more, looking around for a certain bakery which, according to Google Maps, was almost adjacent to the shop. Finding only a deli/buffet in its place, we concluded that the bakery had closed down and we headed to the park, accompanied by Ayesha’s commentary on her continual surprise with how much she had (shamefully) lost her sense of how to navigate the city.
Reflecting on this part of the day, as we walked through the park before settling down, I start to lose memory of discrete dialogue. I’m sure that some of this absence is because Ayesha spent a lot of time remarking on how strange and also fun it was to be back in the city, which wasn’t exactly new to me. She would later say, as we walked to the subway, that being away at Brown just reminded her of how great NYC is. She promptly considered texting her friends just to let them know how great NYC is in addition to having routinely mentioned it while on campus. This didn’t bore me, since it really was a good day, weather-wise and for reminiscing. More immediately though, I was just enjoying her company.
Going on a walk for fun is usually a strange thing to me. It’s great for catching up or getting to know people, but it always seems odd (oddly mundane?) to say “let’s go for a walk.” It’s probably my impatience with the absence of a set destination and with moving slowly. While I was with Ayesha I was noticing how nice it was to be catching up, to be, after more than a year physically apart, hanging out together, but I was also a little unsettled. Where is this going? I thought. I wish it hadn’t been so long. The “where is this going” anxiety was totally self-imposed, and probably a problem since I’ve already established to myself that I should be focusing on the present more, but it itches. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed the mundanity—admiring dogs together or sharing the desire to just pick up one of the ducklings we saw in the pond.
As we meandered through the more sheltered paths in the park, we came to a steep rock, maybe 12 feet tall, and spotted two men sitting on top of it. I looked at Ayesha. “Wanna go up there?”
“Like this,” I said, climbing up the side. I smiled down at her. “Come on.”
She hesitantly agreed, putting the second strap of her backpack over her shoulder. Watching her plot her steps, I held out a hand to help her up. She shot me a look that seemed to say “I don’t think you should be holding out your hand when I might bring both of us down,” before taking it anyway. I pulled her up and we ascended to a plateau tightly bordered by trees but still offering a better view than the ground. There were four or so other people scattered around, but there was enough space and quiet for us.
On the way there, perhaps initiated by the discussion of Brown’s lax security, I began telling stories of my relationship with partying and alcohol. Mentioning that I had gone to more parties by the second week of first semester than during all my time in high school got some wide eyes from her and the admission that she felt a bit of a moral imperative to be the mom of her friend group. I also mentioned learning a Spanish toast on my birthday and Oscar licking my neck that night (“Your bare skin?” “Yeah, we remind him of that a lot”), and the humor in getting hammered at the sandpit I had grown up close to. (“Eight shots?! I would be dead if I did that much!” “Yeah but you’re… small.”) She joined in, telling stories of similar intensity, not really drinking outside of parties, but having gotten a start on that during senior spring (“That’s when I sort of let go. Everyone started going out a lot… [I smiled] Oh yeah, you didn’t get that.”) Sitting on the rock, we continued the discussion, landing on my trip to Chicago.
“Fedé was in the frat?”
“Ah no, one of my friends here, at Columbia, has a close friend also at UChicago and he got me into the party. It was surprisingly responsible though, like no one was passed out—
[expression of surprise from Ayesha]
“and later in the night two of the older guys in the frat were constantly going around to make sure everyone had a group to leave in—
[very big expression of surprise from Ayesha]
“but there was still normal stuff going on, like they had lots of beer, a pong table and dancing, y’know? And this guy, Julian, was fussing over me a lot, like he wanted to make sure I had fun and all, but I told him, ‘You go to this school. I don’t. You also go to this frat and I don’t. You’re just going to know more people and have more fun. That’s fine. I’m having fun too.’ And then there was also the fact that I was basically sober. I smoked a bit but didn’t really feel anything.”
“Yeah, you really just go there to get drunk. That’s what I did last time I went. And that one was so weird. It was like the day after finals and our compact, it was only until that day, so there were technically no rules. So the frat threw a huge party and there were so many people packed into there. But I don’t go that much. And the music’s usually pretty bad.”
“What do you listen to? I don’t think I’ve asked.”
“Um, my music taste’s kind of eccentric. I listen to all kinds of stuff, like it really—it’s a lot.”
“You have earbuds?”
“Yeah, I do.” She rummaged in her bag, untangling cables. “I still haven’t bought an iPhone and I don’t plan to. People are always on me about it and now I don’t want to get one even more.”
“That’s fine. AirPods are kinda nice though.”
“Maybe I should get wireless headphones.”
She handed me an earbud, checked to make sure it was the right side, then returned it before opening her Spotify. We scrolled through it together and I noted some of The Strokes and Billy Idol, but there was a lot of 2000s pop/rap, reminding me of the playlist Sara had played when I stayed over the other week. Spending another night there had suddenly become less urgent.
“There’s a lot of indie music on here too,” said Ayesha. “But I also have some slow Italian music on here.”
“Like older-style stuff? Like ballads?”
“Yeah! They’re really good, I swear.” They were only ok.
We went through a lot of songs, Ayesha especially, since she would often skip to another one only halfway through the previous one as if she felt that she needed to remind me of who she was through her playlists. I wonder now if she was nervous. I added one song to my own list, “Washing Machine Heart” by Mitski (“She’s so smart. I remember her saying, ‘Sometimes I realize that instead of wanting to have something I might just want to be what it represents.’”) We sat side by side, listening to music together like this for hours, until Ayesha announced that she had to get home for dinner at six. (“I’m sorry, you are not getting home on time.” “Oh, that’s fine. I break rules all the time, my mom’s used to it now.”) We checked out her commute back on her phone and, since I was heading to 79th, decided to walk there together.
Our walk back was quieter, or at least I was, listening to her praise the city again. We noted closed shops, new ones, places we knew in the area that we visited often. She at least had plenty more appetite for the city. I had more for her.
As we approached the 79th street station, I asked, “Hey, do you want to do this again? Maybe even this week? I have basically nothing—well, I could get started on the research, but I still don’t have any set schedule.”
“Yeah, that sounds great!”
We hugged and I felt her pulling herself up into me. I smiled. “When does your internship start again?”
I checked the date on my watch. About two weeks from now. “Oh, that’s plenty of time.”
“Yeah, and then I’ll be working.”
“Is it eight hours? Like a normal work day?”
“Yeah, it’ll be online for most of it, but I’ll be coming into the office in Midtown once a week.”
“Nice. So you’ll be around.” We hugged again, tightly. “So, later this week?”
I stepped to enter the subway station, but then Ayesha reached out to me. Surprised, I reached back, held her hand for a second, then began to walk down the steps smiling. I looked up again to see her wave. I waved back and walked down the steps. Standing on the platform, I looked across to watch Ayesha enter. I don’t think she knew that she could have just looked across the terminal to find me, but her head was in her phone anyway. I was hoping to catch her eye again.