It might have been different had I arrived in the summer.
The city is a different island in the summertime, open, clear-skied and brilliant blue to the edges. Even the mucky shore-water out at Rockaway lightens itself, can almost be seen through if you open your eyes before a wave breaks and pulls you into the swirl. Summer here is dresses and sleeves shorter, legs leaner, drinks clinking earlier in the day, the days themselves longer, stretching out like Amsterdam, an avenue of sunlight, headed toward whatever comes next. Had I arrived here in the summer, I might have walked that line for longer, gotten far enough away. But I arrived late in the fall. The season of contracted light, of colors leaching. I arrived tilted away from the sun, and by the time winter came I had forgotten what it felt like to be warm. Forgotten sun slicking down my shoulders, sweat pooling in the creases of my skin, that ribbon of salt and water to be washed off in cool showers, before it wraps around you all over again.
There is a girl in Sheep Meadow, she’s sitting on the edge of a checkered blanket, feet bare and tucked beneath her. She looks expectant, waiting. The group of young men she sits with talk fast, easy, conversations bouncing over invisible nets, a volley and return of words, punctuated by laughter and exclamation. She is part of this, but to the side, a decoration. Unknown, but invited. Knowing the boy in the middle the longest – three, four days now, since they started talking at the laundromat, she not knowing how to get the coins to load, and he, extracting her newness, offering a thin line of friendship and his number – Come! It’s just some friends and some food in the park. They’ll all love your accent, darling. His boyfriend duly playing the part, asking her to say particular words over and again. Clapping at her vowels, rolling off the picnic blanket in a kind of mocking kindness before pouring warm white wine into her plastic cup – Ching Ching, darling! – and telling her his own stories of the day and his life. There can be such quick intimacy to strangers. She discovers he is a hairdresser for that famous actress, and no he can’t share any secrets, but yes, that rumor really is true – it’s always true, darling! and she sips at her warm wine, smiling at her life, here, right now, in this fading light. She brought cantaloupe, diced in a plastic cup, and purple grapes, and a oversize bag of potato chips. Someone made brownies, set them out in the middle of the blanket as an offer, the residue under her fingernails now, she picks at the chocolate with her teeth, unable to say, perhaps not even knowing, how much she craves the taste of something home-made. Someone turns up music through a tinny phone speaker, Stevie Wonder becomes their soundtrack as the group passes around a joint, the weed packed tight into a ceramic cigarette. Flimsy disguise, barely a nod, as the distinctive smell wafts to other blankets, other picnics in this dusky park.
She got lost on the way here, mixed up her lakes, but she knows she’ll find her way home. It’s always easier to find your way back, but there’s something thrilling about getting lost she thinks, as she stands up and begins to dance to the familiar music, joining her new friends in their loose-limbed celebration. She can taste the weed in the back of her throat, feel her tongue go thick with it, and she’s happier than she might have ever been, with her new friends whose names she can’t remember, and their stories, and her welcoming. She hitches her flowing dress into the seams of her underwear, exposes her thighs and dances the sun all the way down the sky, twirling with him, and him, and by herself, in all this open space that she could never have imagined existed until now.
When, one by one, her new friends peel themselves away, heading off to clubs and bars and other people’s parties, she kisses them on both cheeks with each farewell, laughs and promises to come see their show, or be there next Thursday or Wednesday for dinner. Soon, she will be the only one left, and the night is pushing down on her skin, so she says goodbye herself, hugs her oldest new friend and then hugs him again as Isn’t She Lovely serenades her out and away from the meadow. Once she’s out of site, she starts to run, arms open, pulling her dress free of where she has hitched it. As it comes loose, her finger slices through the fine fabric below her hip, causing a jagged hole that she will later paste with clear nail polish, trying to prevent the tear in her dress from spreading. She will come to love this flaw and this memory of running and the high sweetness of harmonicas chasing her home. It is a hot summer night, and she emerges from the park breathless and dizzy from the wine and the weed and the newness of her life. The sky is inky now, and it seems to make everything heavier, closer somehow. This is the first time she understands that happiness has its own weight, too. That you can be thick with it, no different from sadness. She stands on the liminal in this moment, as wide awake as she has ever been, and sure this feeling is endless, a wide open breach into possibility.
She makes it to her neighborhood, feels for the first time that she fits in this place. Belongs. And I think, perhaps, had I arrived in summer, this girl would have been me.
~ Alice, What We Have Left
I was saturated with wine and Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler when I wrote this.
The girl, of course, is me 😉