I’m lying in bed listening to Katie get ready for work in the other room, ice clinking in her glass as she sets it down on the coffee table. Light filters through the window onto the bed, and I hear a horn honk in the street below. It’s 8:08, and I’m not moving. Don’t have to. I’d go back to sleep just for the sake of going back to sleep, but I actually feel rested. It’s the first morning in almost five years that I slept all night long and didn’t have to get up and worry about children.
At home, I know my boys are probably sitting at the eat-in table, drinking orange juice and eating eggs and bacon with Mimi. They have on striped pajamas, both suffering from extreme bedhead. Will is talking about Spiderman. Ben is eating only the fatty parts of the bacon and leaving the crunchy parts in his bowl. Beyond breakfast, I have no clue what their plan is for the day. I left no instructions because I think they need a breather from me just as much as I need a breather from them.
When I’m home, we always have a schedule. I learned early in Will’s life that he can usually roll with just about anything as long as you let him know it’s coming. So we have charts and calendars and morning talks and night-time talks--all to make sure everyone is on the same page. The reality is that I would love to have more spontaneity in our life as a family, but with a husband who is gone all the time (and could always leave any minute when he IS home), the only way I stay sane is to have a routine.
Today, there is nothing on the schedule for me either. Blank slate. No obligations. No appointments. Just me and the city. So as I listen to Katie leave for work, it’s an exercise in being uncomfortable, this letting go of the need to plan. Right now, my priority is a long shower followed by a short walk up 8th Ave for a Jamba Juice. My next priority will be to find the closest clothing store to buy a jacket.
Last night, Katie filled me in about tonight’s events--the “reason” I came to NY in the first place. She works for a non-profit that provides tutoring and mentoring for low-income preschool children. We’ll be setting up for an event in the early evening, and I’ll find out then what my job (as a volunteer) will be. Five authors will be signing books and speaking throughout the course of the night as part of a massive push for their capital campaign. One of the authors is Amy Sedaris--like Strangers with Candy Amy Sedaris. I own her cookbook and envy her clothes. I’m more star-struck by her than I would be if I saw Brangelina walking down the street with Will and Jada. I mean, her brother is THE David Sedaris, and she’s best friends with Stephen Colbert. I hope that lots of fundraising occurs at this event, but good God, my goal is just to get her to sign my cookbook.
So, after I shower and pack my day bag, I head toward 8th Ave for an Orange Berry Blitz. We don’t have Jamba Juice in Charleston, which is probably a good thing for our bank account. I’m not a coffee drinker, but I could lay some mad money down on smoothies. I actually contact their corporate headquarters via email approximately once a month, asking them to open a store in SC, preferably somewhere near my neighborhood. No luck so far.
As soon as I step out onto 16th and round the corner onto 8th, I am reminded why NYC is one of my favorite places on earth. And by “reminded,” I mean slapped upside the head by NYC at its best. A petite man, not much bigger than me, is walking toward me. If I don’t move out of the way, he’ll run into me because he is entranced by whatever is playing on his ipod. So much so, that he’s having a personal mosh-pit-for-one in the middle of the sidewalk. The tiny dog he’s carrying does not enjoy his dancing. Either that, or he’s offended by the man’s outfit--cut-off jean shorts, bleached and full of holes, a tight purple shirt that reads “I’m with Jane,” and a brown and black fur vest. His sunglasses are also purple. With sparkles. Oh, and his shoes? Naturally, neon yellow Nikes with white swooshes.
As Jane’s friend dances by, I notice there are drugstores on every corner, several little restaurants and luckily a Gap, not far from the Jamba. Drugstore, drugstore, breakfast specials, Gap, sex shop. Wait, what? Right. The windows are covered with plain paper, but the door has several flyers advertising “auditions” for an all-male revue. I peek inside the open door. Yep, definitely a sex shop. And not the kind you go to looking for penis pasta and edible undies to give to your bestie for her bachelorette party. I’m talking stuff-your-college-boyfriend’s-roommates-haven’t-even-heard-about sex shop. Right here next to CVS and the Gap.
After grabbing a jacket at the Gap, I walk a little further up 8th, passing sex shop after porn store after quickie depot, mixed in with all kinds of mundane storefronts. I rethink my plan to just wander and decide to make some phone calls. After spending some time googling, I track down my college thesis director, Susan. She lives outside of the city, but her (ex-?)partner has a place in Chelsea, so I’m hoping to catch her while I’m here.
Susan and I could not possibly come from different places in life. I am 29, from Missouri and Oklahoma, raised in a “Christian home,” and straight. She is older (with beautiful gray hair), definitely a New York girl, raised Jewish but a practicing Zen Buddhist, and gay. There are very few people in this world that I love more than Susan. Ours is a friendship based on mutual respect and complete honesty. As my professor and mentor, she was one of the first people to ever read any of my personal writing and guided me through the year-long project that ended up being my 234-page thesis. I love her because she criticizes honestly and lovingly and carefully, whether the criticism is of my writing or me. She asks questions, and she listens to my answers without judgment.
One of the last times we hung out was right before I finished grad school. She made me hot cocoa at her apartment, boiling the soy milk on the stove while her dog, Anakin, lay at my feet. She put on some music, something old and comfortable, and paid me the highest compliment anyone has ever paid me. “Leia, I have never thought of you as a sad person, but you understand sorrow, and that is just one of the reasons you are a great writer.”
Susan was the first person that made me believe I could actually do something with my writing, that it wasn’t just “for me.” After grad school, I moved to SC, and she moved back to NY. We email enough to keep up with each other, and every email I receive from her is another push, another reminder that time is passing, and I still haven’t done anything with my writing. My heart sinks into my stomach, but I also feel encouraged. She always asks how the boys are doing, what they’re into, and she never ends an email without asking, “So are you writing any these days?”
When I finally track down a good number and hear her voice, I almost cry. We talk for a few minutes before establishing that we will miss each other. She has a flight to catch early in the morning and isn’t yet in the city, and I have the event tonight. It isn’t going to happen this time, but I promise that I’ll give her better notice next time.
Next, I call Rachel, my best friend from high school. Our junior and senior years, Rachel practically lived with me. After high school, I went to TX for college, and Rachel disappeared somewhere in the middle of Georgia. We saw each other serendipitously once in college, and then I lost her again. I tried all the numbers I had for her multiple times, hoping at the very least to track her down when I got married. When I did find her, it was of course, through Facebook. A couple nights after we friended each other, I gave her my phone number and she called. We talked for hours, and if it hadn’t been for the heat on my ear from my cell phone, I would have sworn she was lying in bed beside me just like when we were in high school. Instead of gabbing about the boys we loved and the girls we hated, we were talking about my kids and her job.
She doesn’t answer when I call but calls back almost immediately. She’s late for work at the furniture store because she picked up an extra job, organizing flowers for a wedding. She talks quickly, and we agree that I’ll head over to the West Village, so we can chat while she’s at work. Hanging up, I pull out my tiny subway map and head up to catch the closest train.
It took me about five minutes the first time I came to NYC to fall in love with the subway. I know this sounds crazy to a lot of people, but growing up in Oklahoma, we drove everywhere because there was no public transportation. I love everything about the subway. Swiping my Metrocard and pushing through the turnstiles, the grating noises of the train brakes bouncing off the tile mosaics, the posters for Broadway shows and new TV shows, the rats that race across the tracks, the millions of tiny black dots all over the concrete where people have spit out their gum, the stink. I love the dirty people, the people in pressed suits and high heels, the people with their heads buried in their books, the people falling asleep with their headphones in, the mariachi bands moving from car to car, the street musicians playing Aerosmith on their violins.
My favorite thing is sitting in the orange bucket seats and watching the lights move on the display, counting down the stops until I reach where I’m going, watching as the car empties and then fills up again. I love watching tourists (yes, I know I am one, but I’ve never been this kind) open up their giant maps, almost falling over when the train lurches and then realizing they needed to get off at the last stop. And I love that no matter where I’m going, I can play the NY version of Where’s Waldo? and I ALWAYS find someone wearing a Yankees cap.
I ride around on the Subway, getting on and off in random places just to get back on going a different direction. At one stop, I barely miss the E train, so I sit on a wooden bench beside a man and his daughter. I ask him how old she is, and she’s two, just had a birthday last week. He cradles her in his arms as she drifts off to sleep, that kind of sleep that only children have, where the flickering fluorescent bulbs and the sound of distant trains become a nightlight and a lullaby.
We talk while we wait. He has lived in New York City his whole life. In Queens. Came into Manhattan to pick up his daughter from his ex-wife. He wants to know why I’m here, and I tell him I’m visiting my sister-in-law. He says it’s nice to get a break, and I probably deserve it. People always talk about how rude New Yorkers are, but I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t willing to help when I needed it or smile when I smiled first.
I get off the train and walk the few blocks to Rachel’s furniture store. She warned me on the phone that it’s an odd configuration and kind of difficult to figure out where the door is. Just as I’m about to call her, she pops her head out of the indistinguishable door and motions me in.
Rachel is beautiful. She’s tall with dark, curly hair and green eyes like a cat. She’s exactly how I remember her, except grown up in a belted dress and leggings with a pair of flats. Her job at this upscale (and when I say upscale I’m talking hundreds of thousands of dollars for a one-of-a-kind Dutch couch) is to guide high-profile clients (i.e. Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw) to pieces that they just can’t live without. Rachel fits the part completely and elegantly. Even with my memories of us making t-shirts to wear to Friday night football games and road-tripping to the Ozarks to go canoeing with my cousin and his cute friends, this other life of hers totally makes sense. She’s dating a musician. She was working for an organic florist but fell into this job because a friend of a friend of a friend...it all makes perfect sense.
We chat for a couple of hours because she doesn’t have any appointments (which makes me feel very important because I got in here without one) and when I stand to leave, I have this overwhelming urge to scream. Like a high-pitched girl scream, accompanied by lots of jumping up and down and hugging. I have lived away from the life that was connected to Rachel for so long, and being with her for just a few hours is like putting on my high school soccer sweatpants, the ones I was supposed to turn back in when the season was over but didn’t because they’re so damn comfortable.
Rachel has a busy weekend ahead of her, and we probably won’t get to meet up again, so it’s quick kisses and a lingering hug. We promise it won’t be so long between visits, and I believe us.
Back on the street, I head to Chinatown. Even though I had Chinese for dinner last night, I want more, and I want to order it from someone who doesn’t speak English. From a restaurant with mismatched chairs and creepy fish tanks. I want the sidewalk outside to be lined with stinky fish and fresh fruits and vegetables. And I want a fortune cookie.
I get off the train in Little Italy just so I can take an extra-long walk. At the first sight of dead fish, I stop an older Chinese woman pushing a baby in a stroller and ask her where I should eat. She stares at me like--well, like I’m speaking English--and I clarify with motions. “Eat?” (Hand to mouth.) “Restaurant?” (Not sure why, but making motions like I’m standing in a house.) “You eat? Where?” (Pointing at her and her surroundings, probably rudely, in hindsight.)
I think I see a glimmer in her eye, but it’s immediately gone as she makes wild motions, swinging her arms in circles. I translate this as “Look around, stupid white lady. There are fourteen restaurants that I can see from here.” So much for trying to get a local’s take. I find a younger guy, selling fruit at one of the stands. He speaks English and tells me he always grabs lunch at a place one block over. Graciously I thank him and move in the right direction.
It’s 12:30, and the place is bustling with the lunch crowd. The hostess finds me a falling-apart two-seater in the back of the restaurant. I can hear sizzling from behind the swinging doors to the kitchen, along with the clanging of silverware and dishes. Several tables are seated with parties of ten or more people, dressed in suits, out for an office lunch. Other tables are seated with couples or groups of what look to be college students, chatting loudly, laughing constantly. I am alone, and it is wonderful.
I drink my hot tea and eat my beef with broccoli slowly, deliberately, while I read Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala. It’s a fictional account of a few months in the life of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country. Having spent time in Sierra Leone and other West African nations (in my previous pre-husband, pre-children life), the story is strikingly similar to those I heard from my West African friends. I am so entrenched in the story of Agu that I don’t notice when the waiter drops off my ticket with a fortune cookie and a few delicately sliced orange wedges. At a particularly heart-wrenching point in the story, I close the book and look up to see that the place has started clearing out, and my waiter is watching me from across the restaurant. I smile at him, placing my book in my bag, and removing my wallet. He crosses quickly and nods, asking, “Is good book?”
I smile, not realizing he’s asking a question and then recover. “Oh, yes. Yes, it’s a very good book.” I glance at this name tag which reads “Peter.” While Peter is gone with my credit card, I open my fortune cookie, and it reads, “A cynic is only a frustrated optimist.” This is perhaps the most poignant thing a cookie has ever said to me, but I still add the proverbial “in bed” to give myself a little chuckle. Peter returns my card and bows slightly saying, “Have nice day, ma’am.” I look at my watch and realize I need to head uptown to make sure I get to the event space on time.
I’ve timed my commute perfectly and when I walk into the lobby, a group of people is gathered for a short meeting. Katie motions me over and introduces me. We move through the building as Katie’s boss points out the bathrooms, the room where we can change, and the space where the authors will set up their book tables. Already, someone has placed easels with poster-sized versions of their book covers next to each table. I make a mental note that I must finagle my way into this area sometime during the night for a glimpse of Miss Amy in all her glory.
The rest of the late afternoon is spent setting up displays, organizing papers, and placing centerpieces and informational pamphlets at the tables. The monotony is invigorating. And I’m not being sarcastic. I am Henry Ford’s dream.
When I was in kindergarten, my teacher would find projects for me while the other kids were learning letters and colors and shapes. While the rest of the class anxiously held their hands in the air to say “purple,” I sat on the side of the room alphabetizing files. Envelopes to stuff and lick? I’m your girl. Shelving food at a food bank? It’s like heroin to me. There’s just something about the mixture of doing something productive while being able to shut off my brain that equals pure bliss.
About half an hour before the guests arrive, we all change into our evening attire. I’ve brought the typical little black dress and black heels. I so rarely wear anything but t-shirts and jeans that I feel a little awkward. I check my hair and make-up in the mirror, and I pause to stare. I’ll be the first to admit to vanity. I spent many hours in high school and college gawking at myself in the mirror, turning my face left and right, subtle smiles followed by giant grins. I would turn in circles slowly, inspecting every inch of my body, standing up straight, slumping, flexing my muscles and looking for signs of cellulite on the backs of my thighs. My current self would like to punch that self in the face.
Recently, my mom digitally converted 8,000 pictures from my childhood and gave them to me on CD, giving me ample time to look over my many “looks” over the years. Chubby legs and cheeks of babydom. The HAIR in elementary school. I mean, seriously, my bangs could have stopped a bullet. And middle school. Oh, middle school. You’ve got the XL baggy shirts (during my “I developed faster than everyone else and want to hide my boobs” phase). Next, you have the baggy jeans and tabasco red one-stars (during my “I’m going to mourn the loss of Kurt Cobain as if he was a close personal friend” phase), which coincided with my “I think I’m starting to like this whole boob thing” phase where you can see my father’s face getting angrier and angrier in direct proportion to the tightness of my shirts.
In high school and college, I thought I was fat. The whole time. I never dieted because I really like food, but I thought about it all the time. I would see a pair of jeans on someone and think “I could never pull that off with these ham hock thighs!” (This might be a result of the fact that a boy told me I had porkchop legs when I was in eighth grade. When I weighed 103 pounds.)
At 23, I got married and weighed 118 pounds. I gained eight pounds the first year we were married, ten pounds with the first baby, and well, with the second baby, gawd...it’s like I’m back in high school. I so want to not be obsessed with weight, but it’s almost like an innate need to not accept me as me. The more I talk to other women--whether it’s the teenagers in our church youth group, moms at playdates, or my mom’s friends--it’s like we’re hard-wired to be unhappy with ourselves. No matter how much I tell myself to stop and how well I intellectually understand the insanity of obsessing over weight, I still don’t stop. Since I had children, it’s reached a different level of insanity because not only do I obsess, but I get angry. I go on mental tirades. “I WANT MY BODY BACK! WHAT THE HELL IS THIS FLAP? HOW COULD I POSSIBLY GET MORE STRETCH MARKS?” It’s so damn tiring.
My current self sometimes wants to punch my current self in the face. So, my legs are shaved, and I’m in a black dress, and I feel like I look decent enough to meet Amy Sedaris. When I come out of the dressing room, the whole place looks fabulous. All of our monotonous work has paid off. The lighting is low. Soft music plays over the speakers. The bartenders are in place, and people are starting to filter in slowly at the front door. Right before we changed clothes, we were given instructions about our specific duties. Get this--my job for the night is to restock Amy’s table with cookbooks and make sure she never has an empty glass. I’m not shitting you. How ridiculously fantastic is that? Then, I see her.
She’s in low-cut but very 1950's housewife kelly green dress embroidered with two cherries at the bottom edge, and...is she wearing a petticoat? I can’t tell, but I’m not going to lean down to check under her skirt. All of a sudden, I feel a heat flash, and my pits go sweaty. My throat is dry, and my mind is completely blank. As I move to introduce myself (after the more official people have already done so), I can’t think of one clever thing to say. I pride myself on being able to make a good first impression. At least in my mind, I think most people have to think, “She seems nice enough, perhaps even interesting enough to approach later for further conversation.” I’m pretty sure Amy took one look at my sweaty pits and cottonmouth and thought, “What a freaking loser. Maybe she’ll get me a drink.”
The night started off slowly, as people were arriving fashionably late, so I was left to sit next to Amy to try to make small talk. Despite my inability to act like a human being, Amy was unbelievably gracious, asking me about my personal life. When I told her I was a mom and Air Force wife, her jaw dropped. “NO! You’re a mom! I would have never guessed you were over twenty-one, twenty-three tops. Two boys? I bet they keep you busy! And you’re husband is a pilot? Thank him for his service please. I bet that’s tough...”
This is the same conversation I had with the man sitting beside me on the plane from Charleston to NYC, except he was a carpet salesman, and this is Amy Sedaris. She’s freakishly normal. To throw more normal in my face, she starts talking about TV shows she likes. “Have you seen that Friday Night Lights? I don’t miss an episode!” I think I’m falling in love.
As the night progresses, Amy’s table stays the busiest of the five tables. I meet the other authors, all very nice people. However, none of them posed in high heels with their dresses tucked into their pantyhose for the covers of their books, so I’m not that impressed. I refill the book table as Amy signs book after book after book for women who are conspicuously drunk for so early in the night and for men who start with “this is for my sister” almost every time. I only get her a wine refill once after she quips, “Don’t get me liquored up, or I’ll REALLY offend people. We need their money!”
Before she is whisked away to speak, she signs a cookbook for me and one for my mom, as I tell her it’s the perfect gift for someone who is willing to watch my children for four days while I wander around NYC meeting famous people.
The night finishes well with $700,000 raised. I spend the last part of the night leaning against a wall, hiding my shoeless feet behind a speaker. I haven’t worn heels for longer than an hour in years, let alone for five hours while bending down repeatedly to pick up boxes of books. My feet hate me. When the crowd clears out, we all quickly change back into our jeans and running shoes and feast on the leftovers from the night. It’s nearly 11:00, and although I’m a night owl who rarely goes to bed before 1:00, I’m almost never outside my house past 9:00.
Katie and one of her friends ask if I want to go grab a drink before heading home, and I’m probably a little too anxious. Why yes, an overpriced vodka tonic with lime is exactly what I need before I go to bed and sleep as long as I want to. Thanks for asking.
Katie has to work in the morning, so as we ride home, I’m overwhelmed by the thought that I have another whole day ahead of me of doing whatever I want, whenever I want. It’s an embarrassment of riches.