New York, New York
On the choice to stay.
By Zibia Bardin
Three days of rain this week and I can’t stop thinking about the pavements I grew up watching. The plastic rain cover, the one wheel of the stroller that pulled crazily to the left: I learned to tell where I was by the type of pavement I was looking at. Each one has its own type of gray, its own type of speckles or not-speckles, its own shapes—big gray squares like the ones by Cadman Plaza Park or little hexagons like in Washington Square.
A therapist once told me to keep track of the different kinds of gray I encountered. “Watch the sky,” she said. “You’ll find that each gray is really very different from the last.” She had an office on 11th Street and a maroon leather couch, and for a long time I knew that room very well. Sometimes I see a plant like the one she had in her office and am momentarily stunned and feel I might do something erratic, but then I become fascinated by something else, like a bug, and it passes.
That room feels like a different life now. On my way home for Rosh Hashanah, I pass by it. The doorway is the same, the little green awning, the buzzer with her name on it. I am certain that there was a time I stood under that awning in my father’s old raincoat, my hands cold on the umbrella, waiting to be let in, but I couldn’t tell you why I would remember such a banal thing as that and then I begin to feel as though it may not be a memory at all, but a fragment of some old dream.
I’m becoming a Russian doll of this city. Every day I form a new layer, the way water moves to make a puddle.
I don’t remember deciding to stay—I remember sitting on my couch one night and writing the Barnard supplements, and I remember sometime in junior year I was sent a Barnard pin or I got a hold of one somehow, and I remember pinning it to my bra strap and wearing it under my clothes. I remember my acceptance letter, a confetti of tiny Bs on the page. To me it seemed like freedom. A tiny door, a new rabbit hole to fall into. I biked down the West Side Highway and felt the first taste of my new life in the wind moving through the roots of my hair.
One day in August, before all of that, I took the bike path along the Hudson all the way up to 116th Street. Barnard’s campus was closed. I sat on Low Steps, apathetic, eating one of the fruit roll-up things from Garden of Eden, 17 years old in every direction. I had no idea then what this place would come to mean to me.
Still, sometimes I get jealous of my friends in New Jersey, Ohio, Connecticut, California. I know they’re changing, some of them even got a driver’s license. Other times I get jealous of my friends here, how they’re so far from home. They don’t know that the restaurant on the corner has closed, or that their neighbor’s kid just got into college. I know these things because I constantly find myself in neighborhoods from before. It’s a tiny grief but somehow it adds up.
All of this can be explained to my friends but it hardly matters what the explanation is, and a lot of the time it’s not worth explaining. Here’s this diner exactly like all the other diners except this was the one I went to after prom—nothing special happened here at all on that night, we sat down, I think you had an omelette, I asked what stop we were taking the 3 to, you said Hoyt, we sat in silence, a group of squash players we knew came in, you said hello, I did not, the church across the street sat there and stared at us, you laughed at something I said, some cruel comment about some vulnerable someone as I was prone to making at the time, and somehow I still have to concede that the love I had for you, that place, that time, was real. And it is by virtue of that fact that I find myself provoked by corners and restaurants and delis, the very color of the sidewalks.
And now I’m not that much older and walking with people I have come to love but wouldn’t have recognized then and I pass that diner on my way to something else, and this whole thing, the memory of your face, the church, all those years of absentminded glances which have conditioned me to recognize that stupid awning with an immediacy I wish I could transfer to something else, happens in an instant and then is gone. The night whirs on. I have to keep going.
Melancholic on Low Steps, 19 this time, I call home. My dad picks up. He points to the ledge I’m sitting beneath and says, “Do you know what happened there?” I say yes, that’s where you proposed to mom. I ask him if they had talked about marriage before. He says, “Well, I can’t tell you that story.” I ask him why. He says, “Because your mother behaved badly, and she wouldn’t want me to tell you about it.” I say, “But you forgave her?” And he sighs and smiles and then says “yes, over and over again.”
Maybe those of us who stayed are doing the same thing. Forgiving the city of its callouses. Forgiving the corners and sidewalks, forgiving the diners, forgiving the 3 train for carrying us to so many parties, only for you to live in a different state now. Yes, over and over again.