September 2, 2009 by The Citron Review
The colors of choice in New York are the least bright or colorful. After applying this red lipstick, I see that it has one fatal drawback: my lips are now scarlet and may attract attention and this would disturb me from my contentment of going by unnoticed. Lately I’ve been getting into gray.
I’m on a mission (pick up Grace from the fertility clinic) and this is not a good time to be eyeballed. It’s getting colder outside. My girlfriend is selling her eggs. These two things combined—the impending season when the streets of Manhattan will be lubricated with dirty snow, and the fact that Grace has gobbled down hormones and vend yoke to pay off student loans—really pisses me off.
I’ve had an electric energy ever since I left Phillips Family Practice and would prefer to avoid eye contact and elbow bumping on a crowded train, so like a soldier, I march up the island from Union Square to East 38th. As I walk, I remember the time Grace theorized that Manhattan was an alien spaceship that hadn’t taken off. You see, it’s still chained to the ground, she said. It keeps filling up with systems upon systems, people on top of people, with a giant conveyor belt rolling food in and garbage out. I told her that the analogy was nonsense. “Let’s call it ‘New Yuck’,” I said, and she replied that someday we’d feel beneath our feet a great rumble: the giant spaceship taking off.
This September marked the fourth year since I uprooted from the town of Battle Creek, Michigan to Portland, Maine, a tranquil oceanfront city where I had suffered little discomfort, saved a good sum of money and experienced nothing that would qualify as either anxiety or ambition. In Portland, my days were pleasantly unsurprising. The people focused little on work and a lot on leisure, farmer’s markets, and things like parades. In the fat of summer the Atlantic sea breeze would seep through my open window and replace my slumber with a cool embrace. The sun moved across my bedroom floor, baking it like bread before my bare feet touched it; my alertness ripened slowly and steadily during the descent from my attic-based bedroom down to the mud-colored kitchen with uneven shelves, where I brewed coffee and polka-dotted my cereal with Maine blueberries. I remember that each morning I began with the feeling that I had just been given a giant high five by the world in which I lived. Then I moved to New York City.
In Maine, all the pine-tree license plates and rest-stop billboards say things like The Way Life Should Be and Vacationland, which Maine is. The state motto is Dirigo, which means direct, which Maine’s not, because you can’t live there like that in the suburbs nowadays, with direction. With force or intensity. In Portland, it’s not so much about dirigo—it’s about acquiescence. It’s about comfortably settling into the Dr. Seuss world around you and watching uncomplicated days glide by like little clouds. Unless you decided to act out, like I did. Pack up and put yourself on I-95, which might hurt a little because tearing yourself out of a nap always hurts, always just a little.
Since moving to Manhattan, I like to believe I’ve become a proficient emissary of bullshit. A baloney detector. During my solo expeditions about the city, I listen in on subway conversations or cellphone monologues outside at ATM machines. I can spot a professional dogwalker who hates dogs, a nanny who wants children of her own. I always search for glimpses of the golden truth wherever I go, but up until this point, the most I’ve been able to come up with are ugly nuggets of mistakes. I’ve felt the ground rumble a million times since I moved here, I told Grace. It’s called the subway.
The high-rise is shaped like a Lego, and through the ground-level set of double doors a black-clad Hasidic couple plows their baby stroller past me. They hail a cab outside the smog-stained brick building and buzz off, never to be encountered again. The elevator takes me up its shaft and opens to a shiny lobby: a very clean and very fancy NYU lab. I walk to the check-in desk where a receptionist is chatting with a coworker. Her hair is three shades of a blonde and stiff as a helmet. She dresses nothing at all like the women I encounter at Phillips’ (too-tight-apple-bottom jeans, airbrushed nails, snappy as Hungry Hungry Hippos™ dry demeanor). This receptionist wears a silk scarf with gold anchors and life preservers on it and droops like a garter snake around the nape of her neck. Her perfume permeates the air between us with a scent of baby powder and Grammy’s medicine cabinet. I smell like an Everything Bagel.
“I’m here to pick up my friend,” I say, standing in front of her in my hoodie sweatshirt, gripping a bag of Dunkin Donuts breakfast. Pretty gross. Pretty unflattering when you’re juxtaposed to crisper attire like that, attire higher up in the responsible-citizenwear hierarchy. I look like the Unibomber, or a gym shoe. I am a worn-out gym shoe and you are a business-casual pump. I wait on her for our eyes to lock, but she’s not seeing me. It will be The Battle of the Shoes.
“Her name is Grace,” I say and the receptionist directs me with the flick of her wrist to a flight of shiny hardwood stairs that fall from the ceiling like an M.C. Escher sketch. I skip up every other one until I reach another lobby where I sit down, unwrap my bagel and wait for Grace.
A nurse sauntering down the hall whisper-yells “Hhhhhey. Hey you,” to fetch my attention. When I look up she mouths, You can’t eat in here, lifts her hands up to mouth-level then chomps down on an imaginary hamburger. After tossing breakfast in the trashcan, the pungent smell of burnt garlic floods my nostrils, the waiting room. My stomach growls. I wait.
I wonder if my mom would be proud or peeved at me for assisting Grace with her egg harvest. When I was growing up, I helped Mom serve egg salad and tuna sandwiches to former meth addicts Mom’d hired to rake leaves in the backyard and powerwash the siding on our house. I’d passed presents under the Christmas tree to recovering alcoholics from her “Mission Possible” construction crew. Mom always admired Troublemakers and Underdogs. She rooted for those who paved their own paths and made their own plans, especially if their path was paved with the intention of escaping injustice or some kind of shit show. I just don’t know if Grace’s current economic crisis was a shit show or an extravagant dream, if her method of payment for her Master’s of Fine Arts qualified as a survival technique or soul selling.
I know what it feels like to be completely lost in an indifferent city. Everything that was once familiar becomes shattered. You move about in a shyly aggressive manor, juggle apprehension and adrenaline. Small tasks become burdensome, streets are landscapes peppered with emotional landmines. Nothing is what it is. Once you’ve experienced this kind of anxiety, it’s quite easy to see it in others.
I recognize this grief when the nurse comes out of a set of swinging doors with Grace treading softly behind her. Grace’s face is overcast, she looks like shit, but she’s dressed and surprisingly lucid. We hug, board the elevator, I hail us a cab, we get in and give the driver the best route to her apartment deep in Brooklyn.
“Are you in pain?” I ask.
“Not really. I dunno. Just crampy,” she whispers. It won’t occur to me for months that this isn’t the typical thing for a girl to do on a gray Friday in America when she’s pretty and in her prime, but I do comprehend that it’s days like these that the sanctuary of one’s bedroom is fully realized.
We merge onto the smooth tube of Fredrick Douglas Boulevard, whirl a bend then our cab whips down the Brooklyn Bridge like a roller coaster cart when Grace slides an envelope from her bag: $8,000 and she’s not telling her parents. She’s created a separate bank account for it and the ones that will follow. I ask her if she’s okay, like mentally. She says yeah, sort of. Make sure you take the weekend off, relax. She says she just plans on watching Fargo and not doing homework. I tell her how it’s pretty fucked up that we have to pay an arm and a leg for higher education, and we both note the slightly awkward pun. The sun implies the time of the day when not a soul in the city is dwelling on yesterday or thinking of tomorrow. We look out the window and ride the rest of the way home in quiet.
Mira Ptacin is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program in creative writing, where she was editor-at-large of their literary magazine, Lumina. She currently resides in Manhattan where she hosts “Freerange Readings,” a monthly nonfiction reading series at Cornelia Street Cafe. This is an excerpt from her memoir, which is about the uterus and the American Dream.