If there’s anything the city reminds you of, it’s that you will remain a child forever. You are just a kid when your father takes you up I-95, running the gauntlet of post-modern industrial wasteland, to see the Yankees play for the first time. Your father was born in Orange, and you stay not far from there, in Jersey City, shacked up in a rectory with your great uncle, a priest whose body looks like a reed pulled from the mouth of a saxophone, all wooden and narrow.
The next day, the city sounds like sound must sound to a newborn. It hums and screams, shrieks itself into a silence stung through with paranoia, ecstasy, the singsong moan of both the sick and coming. Your ears will never be wide enough to take it all in and appreciate, to practice what a trained musician can do with a song – listen to it over and over, each time singling out the treble pitted above the bass, the snap of the snare from the slap of the bass. In this sense, you know that the city is something beyond jazz. It is discord without melody and melody without continuation, an arpeggio that dances to another octave just when you figured it for the middle C.
The House that Ruth Built still stands in this summer, and your father forks over eight bucks for you, your brother, your mother, and himself, and you climb through the back entrance under the train-rattling of Jerome Ave into the bleachers, where the bleacher creatures gather, World Series pins in hats, watermelon bursting like horny boys under the long skirt of sun, a pizza delivered to the first row, the stadium opening up, the lens cap pulled quick and free from the lens, a hand taken from your eyes, the light blinding, and the sound. You stand amidst the bum rush to take it all in. You lose your mother’s hand. Your mother and father are not for long. They are an eternity packaged within the framework of years. But for now, they are here. And your mother, though near-Boston-bred, lets her hair pour out under the blue brim of New York, and, years later, when you learn how color operates, you understand how the dirt-brown of her hair found a heaven in your eyesight, back-dropped by grass so green it leaves a stain on your retina. In other words, why the moment is unforgettable. And will forever be.
You and your brother stick little chubs of fingers into gloves, sit waiting for a homerun. Your mother leans over the right field fence like you will want a lover to do later. Mother’s eyes water from wind and joy as she screams Paulie! at the right fielder. Her Boston comes out, and she catches some sidelong glare from hometown fans, wondering why this woman has donned herself in white and blue, jeans cropped to reveal a long scar running from foot to ankle from when she fell for stories off a beam while working construction, and still drawls her vowels like a Massachusetts woman.
Breathe, now. Take a bite of your hot dog. Sip your Coke. Listen to the crack of cowhide on wood, the zip of air sealing up behind a fastball. This is where you first learned how a place can breed a mentality, how structure informs emotion. Not in the stadium, no, not the sprawled out dilation of people becoming less people and more speck – grain of color, speckled salt on a piece of meat. No. In the bleachers, amongst people who figured eight dollars to be a reasonable price to watch men wear belts and jog round dirt. In 1998, when the Yankees were a team of knuckleheads and no-names, before the money came. Brosius, Williams, Posada, Paulie, and Tino. And then Chuck Knoblauch, who could not throw from second to first, his mind jigging up and teetering, his throws sailing far and wide, into the sea of fans. This was a team you could get behind, who existed in a place no one has ever been able to pin down and say, that’s what New York is.
You are older now, but say now what you learned then, even if you couldn’t put it into words. That the paradox of the city is in the fact that it is built by the invisible and lived in by the visible, that you can walk into a contradiction and be expected to live as you were before. The House that Ruth Built was first built on a great sprawl of land that used to sprout tobacco. Now, there are places where the sun never reaches. You know this. But your mother in this baseball cathedral is a kind of sun. When you pile back into the car, sunburnt and sweating, you say one day in the city was enough. You say you are tired. You say you will wait before you return. But you watch the way your mother gazes out the window as the city departs and becomes replaced by rest stops, the stacks of refineries, the trees alongside the highway that don’t seem natural or real at all, and you watch the light leave her eyes until her eyelids follow and she is asleep. And you wish you were back, because there, in that place of so many people doing so many things, in that song of joy and sorrow, your mother was a kind of phosphorescence, a thing burning of its own accord. So yes, we are not eternal. But there are places that seem as if they are caught in a forever. You know they aren’t. But simple seeming is enough.
When you move up the corridor from DC to New York for college, it takes you a long time to figure out what kind of power a gate can hold, to realize that, contained within the gates of your private college in the Bronx is neither the infinite nor the real, that a gate limits horizontal access, gives its enclosed inhabits the notion that they must go up before reaching out, and says that those shut off have neither the tools nor the ability to go up at all. You learn this later, as most people learn things. You don’t take the time to learn the history of your new home, to understand that much of life is simply a history of your body intruding upon other spaces, that otherness is a construct that allows you to feel safer about your perceived notion of self, so that what is different will always remain so, unless you like it, in which case you make it yours. So you buy a pair of purple pants from the Dr. Jay’s on Fordham Road. You cover Biz Markie on the piano in your dorm. You have no interest in anything other than being the first to comfortably inhabit this new space. You are surrounded by people who are trying that same thing – to, quite simply, inhabit. To find comfort in the new. In the law of social interaction, you understand that the first to claim comfort is the person people will most likely draw themselves toward and linger around, since your comfort (especially as a white man) is their first sense of sameness in this new place, these friends of yours who are so used to being surrounded by the ease of white folks. And you, too.
When your longtime high school girlfriend breaks up with you over Skype, you pretend to kill yourself to piss her off and then close the computer and listen to The Postal Service with your roommate for a very long time. His girlfriend breaks up with him weeks later, and you run through the length of Give Up hundreds of times in your room together, the hum of the fan going. That Halloween, you dress up as a priest. That Halloween, you dress up as a penguin. You go down to the village in the rain to watch the parade. When you leave the Bronx on the way down, you and your friends refer to your destination as the city, as if the Bronx is simply a nesting place, a kind of rest where no other life resides. At the parade, still just 18, you feel directionless, drifting, a void unable to be filled. You catch yourself staring, first at a near-naked gay man, then through him, then for minutes on end at a drop of rain shimmering on a pole alongside the street. You stare like this for a long time, unaware of how the world moves around you. When you look up, your friends are gone, and you text them on your flip phone and walk the blocks you’ll later come to know until you are upstairs at a buffet-style deli, watching them eat. You have been doing this for a long time, forgetting yourself. Surrounded by buildings, enclosed by a dark mellowed with soft squares of light, it becomes worse. It’s not claustrophobia, no, there’s no fear. It’s that the city, in all of its all-of-it-ness, gives you a haven safe and careless enough to let you be sad. To swallow you up without your knowing. You like this, your sadness. You like that no one stops you. You like the frustrated glances you get from people who bump into you because you don’t see them. You like the challenge of making yourself feel alone in a sea of struggling others. You like how it isn’t a challenge.
Years later, you think of that Halloween. You have just loaded up your gear backstage at a small venue on Ludlow. It’s your band’s first show, and you need a cigarette, so you slip out of the shotgun basement, up the stairs, and outside. It’s raining and your friends are inside and you don’t have a flip phone anymore. The city is a dissected animal, a bloody mess of people moving amongst fixed structures. You stand under an awning and watch it all. You think of being in this same neighborhood years before, how you didn’t know Ludlow from Stanton, what Houston even was. It’s all old to you now, and it’s only been so soon. You have time, so you burn another and walk around the block, let yourself get wet, stroll past the bar where your friend once was seduced by a woman thirty years his elder, and for some reason this makes you sad. Not that it happened, no, and not that you remember, no, but that it exists in this space and that this space has the magic capacity to remind you. And you think of this sprawl of city you inhabit, and how it’s peppered by this power, that, even in this grand construction of architecture and personhood, small fragments of you are still living as ghosts. Your band plays sad songs, so you let yourself get sad. You ignore the where are you texts and burn another one, and you slip into it as easily as you did years ago, and it feels just as safe. You thought the city would expand outward into a kind of infinity, as it did when you were a child. But no, you know, as you walk back toward Ludlow, that the city will make it impossible to let things go.
That Halloween long ago, after the long train ride back up to the Bronx from the city, you still have to show an ID to walk back into the enclosure that is your school. You are soaking wet and dripping and forever white. You don’t think it’s funny then, that, despite all that, in the middle of a Bronx that chatters its teeth while asleep, you have the ability to say I belong. No, you take it for granted.
During your senior year of college, you accompany the girl who used to be your girlfriend as she takes large format photos of the Bronx for her senior photography exhibit. You have fun these weekend afternoons. You like that she calls you her assistant, and you feel, for a time, forgiven. You walk almost everywhere, sometimes shouldering her bag that carries the stand, the camera, the hood, the trigger, the everything. You go to many of the Bronx’s tall street-side staircases and, as she sets up the camera – a process that seems to take hours – you begin to think of what this city used to be, how it was all rock-hilled and tree-filled.
You like watching her step under the hood, contain herself in this world inside a city inside a world. You know that under the hood, through the viewfinder, the world is upside down and gridded and strangely crystallized. You wonder what it must be like to find perfection in an upside-down world. But you like watching this happen. You step back and watch the city watch her. People walk past, behind her, and she doesn’t see. They stop for a second, either to check out her ass or try to ascertain why a dark hooded figure is standing stock-still in the middle of their street. To you, this is the picture: the girl in the city searching for perfection under the hood, engulfed by the entirety of what she doesn’t photograph, and the movement, the movement forever bustling above and behind her, all while she attempts to still something down.
You see empty swimming pools iced over in winter. You see sun cutting all Pythagorian across a basketball hoop. You see stairs, stairs, stairs. You see a verdant green ocean of foliage behind an apartment building. You see a tree astride a house that looks like a spirit conjured from someone’s lungs, their open mouth. You see how the city interrupts such human plans. You see the great jutting power of nature. You see what it means to pay homage to your periphery. You see that shadow has a personality. You see that you are controlled by as many things you let yourself be controlled by, and that it’s okay. It’s alright to let yourself be controlled. You see that to give up does not mean to surrender yourself. You see that being yourself in this city can be a kind of supplication, a state of grace.
You see a playground beyond the state of ruination. She climbs up a ledge, peeks through a hole in the construction-cardboard-get-up, and says we need the camera. You prop the stand on bricks, and hold it still with your hands. When the photo is developed, you see why the need was there. In the background is Manhattan, then the gulf of space that must be the Harlem River, then, in the foreground, is a playground so long abandoned. Closest to the camera sits a teddy bear, some kind of doll, near a bench missing its horizontal beams. You see how the playground is beyond play, but how it still sits in the midst of other things being, how the playground neither is not isn’t, how it’s not fulfilling its purpose, but how it still is a playground. And then you see the city that surrounds it, and you imagine all the people, the millions of them, all is-ing and isn’t-ing, finding something or nothing or some half of something in the midst of this wreckage and build-up and future and past and movement and stagnation and height and burrowing. You see all of this. You see it good and clear, in the large format print, in what used to be upside down and is now, by some act of magic, right side up. You see it all, and you remember all the people walking past as she clambered up the ledge to peek through the hole, all of them wondering why she was doing that at all.
Some nights, you walk. Your first apartment after college is in East Harlem, in the 130s, and one of your best friends lives on 107th. You learn quickly that Manhattan operates at the rate of 20 city blocks to a mile, and you and your roommate debate about whether it’s faster to take the local train to her apartment or, simply, to walk. You have cigarettes and you enjoy the leisure of being aboveground, moving slowly through the neighborhood. He prefers the train. So you hardly travel there together, and, soon, it’s just you traveling. You know, while walking, that this is the kind of walk you’ll long for forever, because it encompasses so much of life. It is the walk you take near-stoned, after eating too much ice cream you did not know was vegan. It is the walk you take the night your first story is published. It is the walk you take when you are broken up with. It is the walk you take when you fall in love again and again, with sameness and difference, with depression and ecstasy, the falling, the being caught, the falling further, through security. It is the walk you take where you think about how fluid love is, how much and how quickly it can change, and it is the walk you take where you learn how to question yourself, listening to Cass McComb’s County Line on repeat, the cherry of your cigarette a soft hushing comet burning in your hand. Your roommate, when he does travel the distance, gets to the apartment first, but he doesn’t love like you do. No one does.
You eat pineapple-fried rice with her and sit on the roof. One night, without telling her, you watch the moon slow-rise through the sky, settling to its place atop the stars minute by minute. It glows so bright and you see its rings of light moving away from its glistened orb as if it has a pulse. You realize, soon, how special it is to carve out a home in a place of forever-increasing density. You have your stillness here, watching the moon. And it does not matter if others are watching the moon or not. Nothing matters but the fact that you can find it, and watch it, peeking from behind buildings, as it climbs through the sky.
One day, she meets you at your teaching job in Queens, and you walk the length of the Queensborough Bridge, and then all the way up First Avenue. It takes hours, and you sweat through the denim of your jacket, but you pick up a couple of bottles of wine on the way back, and you climb back up to the roof and sit. Now, when you look back south from the elevated perspective, you can understand it all. You can know that it has length, and miles, and in those miles, people, and in those people, love or joy or sorrow, and in that sorrow, or joy, or love, a certain cause, and in that cause, another person, dead or alive, and in that person, a whole other spiritual cycle beginning again. You sit on the roof and realize this. You get drunk off wine and lick the sweat dry-salted upon your skin.
None of this prepares you for the future, though. Not the walk. Not the longer walk. Not the roof. Not the wine. Not the ever-increasing knowledge of what the city contains. You will fall in love with this friend. You will think that it will be easy, that it will be as simple and kind as a day on the roof doing nothing. Sometimes, you are stupid. Sometimes, you move through life without looking, even though you have looked so much. You will fall in love with this friend. You will feel bad about it. You will feel good. You will feel like lying to yourself and others. You will fall in love with everyone. You will not know what to expect. You will be surprised, forever, about what happens, and how. You know that the city measures itself at the rate of 20 city blocks to a mile. You used to think of love this way, as a distance to be traveled, something measurable. You know it’s not. That’s why you walked through the night to her apartment. Because some nights, under the watchful glow of so many different windows, and a moon saying hello between them, you felt the miles extending into a kind of endless distance, the buildings hovering to your right and left to corridor that same distance with the mathematics of symmetry, and you felt good about walking them. You think of love this way now. You feel a little better for it.
Some nights, you run. You wait until darkness falls like a speckled cloth over the city. You tie your left shoe first, then your right, then untie your left and right and start over. You clamber down your stoop, jog slow at first toward 5th Avenue, then south toward Central Park. In Central Park, at night, the city is burnt away by the light of matches placed along the road, and what is gorgeous about the day falls away to the outskirts of your vision. You become a shadow in a world of shadows, the white line of the road catching whatever light remains, and your feet remarking upon the smoothness of pavement, the patient upward glide and turn of the Harlem Hills, the faint hushing crunch of the cinder trailing in circles around the reservoir, a universe of electricity light-polluting the sky into a tender wound of orange and blue. You want there to be a word for feeling a sense of oneness with everything while at the same time forever knowing you will remain forever different from the world that surrounds you. You can find this feeling while running, while slipping into a moody rhythm at night, the city just another dark shape on the horizon.
In a few weeks you will run the New York City Marathon. You will stand shivering on the Verrazano as other runners pass a bottle to piss inside. The wind will sweep across the bridge and blow you sideways, and you won’t remember even running the first few miles, caught up fully in the long procession of bodies. You will find your rhythm somewhere in Brooklyn, begin clicking off six minute miles, twisting through streets that become more and more familiar. You will climb into the serene emptiness of the Queensborough Bridge, your footsteps echoing off the metal. You will see your father for the first time at Mile 18. He will catch a cab crosstown to see you again. He will leave the meter running, call you by your given name, and get back inside the cab with your brother to find you again, at the corner of the park you spent your miles running. You will borrow someone’s phone at the finish line and call him and he will find you once more, again. And you will hail a cab together, your body sun-dried and salty, cloaked in the cloak they gave you. You will arrive back at your apartment, sit down for a minute, drink a ginger ale, crave a Genesee. You will shower, change, and your father will drive you to the city you were born to go to your childhood friend’s father’s funeral. You will think of how he looked so much like your own father, and you will have to reach out your fingers to touch your father’s arms, just to make sure he’s alive, and still there.
When you reach the city again, you don’t run for weeks. You walk slowly down the same streets. It hurts to go down stairs. You miss the park, the bruising softness of night. You miss knowing the city as a blur. You know there are things you will have to deal with when you slow down. Sometimes, you know, you wish you could keep running forever. When you were back home, your friends asked you, when are you coming back?, as if you were only just taking a break in New York, as if home is home and begs no replacement, as if you would be back in Washington soon, among the people who raised you. You did not have the heart to say never. You saw your father across the room in a suit and you imagined a coffin closing, if only for an instant. You deflected, said soon, turned away. You wanted to break out then, to shuffle into a jog, a sprint, a long run away, but your legs were too sore, so you stayed.
You sit in the room you spent the past years inside. The beauty of you is how it extends, how it can move seamlessly from the singular to the plural. You think of it again. You sit in the room you spent the past years inside. It’s July 4th, and your new roommate is gone, somewhere north of the city, and you walked the two miles from your new apartment to your old one, each step realizing how impossible each step would be to forget. You walked east on 145th and down St. Nicholas, east again on 135th, and down again on Malcolm X. You walked through little black kids popping off firecrackers, through cars light-beaming their way through the haze. You walked through so much color. You walked from the sound of one party into another, dwelling in the lush in-between where the songs corroded and clashed, where you didn’t know where or who you were, your skin a sheened blanket of electricity. You walked into smoke and came out on the other side smelling of Swisher Sweets and Black ‘n Mild’s. You walked east one more time on 130th. You arrived in the past, and then you left it. You leave it. You sit now in the room you spent the past inside. It’s empty. It’s dark. It feels so much bigger. You try to put it back with your mind, this space you carved out of the city, decorated with the light of past lives, a body sheathed in the shadow of the blinds, the morning sun softening the space between. You sit in the corner, look at what little city exists outside the window. You will have to walk back soon. You won’t be able to stay here forever. You know there is a room you have built in your mind, a room that is what life would be like if you didn’t fuck up, if you actually had the patience for someone else’s sadness, if you actually had meant the word love, if you actually had a penchant for keeping promises. You know this room is wide and kind, filled with the slant of sunshine. You know this room is not your life. You sit in the room you spent the past inside. It’s emptier than your open palm, and bigger, too. Someone else will live here soon. That is how the city works. Every space is worth filling. Your failure is someone else’s new life. This room will house another’s attempt at making it. You will have to leave soon. You are not supposed to be here. You are a used to, a once was, a shouldn’t be. You are just another. Outside, the kids scream and yell, dance round the gush of water spewing from a hydrant. They are soft and beautiful, bathed in light from windows and cars and lamps and eyes. You walk by them, and they move around you as you disappear.
Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He graduated from Fordham University, having earned the White & White Creative Writing Prize and a grant from the English department toward his graduate education.
He is the author of the chapbook This Cup of Absence (Anchor & Plume), a collaboration with Melissa Smyth, as well as two forthcoming books of poetry, Blood on Blood (Unknown Press), and In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (Civil Coping Mechanisms). His work has been nominated for both the Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes and has been published in such journals and magazines as Adirondack Review, Appalachian Heritage, BOAAT, Columbia Journal, Drunken Boat, Entropy, Fanzine, Forklift Ohio, Front Porch, Full Stop, Gigantic Sequins, The Millions, Post Road, Vol 1 Brooklyn, and more.
Image from: http://imgur.com/zxbY6