A trip down memory lane.
By Anna Patchefsky
The first shipment of Emma Straub’s This Time Tomorrow arrives at Philadelphia’s Head House Books sometime in the middle of the summer with a familiar thud. Unlike the other boxes filled with Big Five-published Indie-Bestsellers, this one brands a message: “Do Not Open Before Release Day.” I attempt to maneuver the box behind the counter, a book lover’s purgatory. It’s a geometric puzzle I don’t have the arm strength to complete.
After a couple days, This Time Tomorrow takes its rightful place on the new releases table. All books can be returned except for those with an author’s signature. The copies of the books behind the counter are all signed. Their fate is stamped: There’s no going back.
Finally ringing up my employee discounted copy, I flitter past a trifecta of epigraphs and begin reading. This Time Tomorrow is a story of do-overs: of rewriting, editing and revising the relationships and past we don’t yet have the retrospect to appreciate. Alice Stern, Straub’s quasi-avatar, searches for a new start away from the eternal sterility of the hospital where her science-fiction-writing father lays dying. She celebrates her fortieth birthday and, in a fit of forgetfulness, falls asleep at her childhood home in Upper West Side’s Pomander Walk. Alice arises to find herself transported back to her 16th birthday. As she moves around the fantastically designed apartment adorned by ’90s pop culture relics, she is enamored by her father’s youth just as much as her own. Alice’s Pomander Walk is home to debauched nights, messy bedrooms, and breakfast cereal father-daughter grumblings.
For the past 102 years, Pomander Walk has stood as a private co-op complex nestled between 94th and 95th. The sliver of Tudor-esque private homes is visible yet inaccessible to commuters passing through the nearby transit hub. Yet, as Alice’s time machine, Straub unlocks the residential fantasy for those who cannot afford a down payment of their own.
On a recent evening, I wandered down to Pomander Walk, tired of late nights at Butler and taking Straub’s advice: “The way you spend your days is the way you spend your life.” I can spend my life wandering purposefully.
Its block slopes downward, the Hansel and Gretel decor sitting opposite to beckoning golden arches like an architectural oxymoron. Through Pomander Walk’s locked gates is another lifetime. The walk itself consists of a narrow courtyard lined by two rows of buildings facing each other. Flora and fauna decorate its central lamp-lit path; fairies seem to whisper in the laid brick, exposing the portals of New York.
How can one enter this place without purchasing one of the million dollar apartments listed on Curbed? My finger hovers over the intercom. Will someone let me into this slice of paradise? Lost in the whimsy of a New York I don’t yet know, I lower my finger, put my coat back on, and decide to return to Broadway and 116th.
I don’t know where my copy of This Time Tomorrow is. It’s lost in the lineage of friends and mothers of friends and sisters of mothers of friends who love that the book’s romance is metropolitan—entirely enmeshed in the landscape of the city. Alice finds herself revisiting the secret haunts that make New York an intimate home worth traveling back to. What isn’t a love letter to New York? Come remember. Let’s be nostalgic together for a place you are still learning about, the book whispers to its reader.
Alice returns to the present with a newfound appreciation for the relationships that have slipped past her. She imagines a graph which plots on one axis how much people’s personalities shift after high school, and on the other, how many miles away from home they end up.
My data point requires me to take the I-95 or the Northeast Corridor every time I travel home. And everytime I embark on that journey, finding myself back in Philadelphia, I make the same memory-induced trek Alice does.
I return home frustrated that I don’t have all my memories. I see myself as the plothole in my parents’ aging and my sister’s waning youth. But then I’ll come back to the present, returning to the Upper West Side, knowing just where I’ll be tomorrow: waiting for an elevator that I should not take, greeting my doorman, and still recommending This Time Tomorrow to whoever might benefit from a stroll through Pomander Walk.