Any politician or New York resident could tell you that there are two New Yorks: “The City,” and “Upstate.” Of course, there is a chorus of protestation any time you break it down that way — what does that make the five boroughs? what does that make the adjoining towns? (don’t you dare call them suburbs) — but this is how it feels, and this is how we drive it, separated at a seam, like an ax successfully splitting a piece of wood.
Is where we do work. This was true before, and this is true now. We hunch over our computers and read articles for the first time in weeks, abruptly falling back into familiar cramming and procrastination patterns. I step into another me – one that had been brewing since our brush with New York in North Carolina, staying with a friend from another life. I begin comparing myself to other people. I look at various ex’s Instagrams. I use the internet and watch YouTube and TV and it feels strange how quickly these coping mechanisms overtake me again. This is bad, and I know it, and I do it anyway. “We have to do a free write,” I say abruptly, to make myself stop, even though we are both more tired than ever, and this is certainly not going to happen.
But this is the way of living here. Intensity. Overdrive. A backpack in the face. Everyone subtly scoping one another on the subway. Being seen, but not addressed. Seeing, but not addressing. Subject. Object. Subjective object. Neurons fire faster here, and self is bounced off others, over and over, pinging like the texts on everyone’s glowing screens, swiped on and off around the train car. I feel watched. I feel not accomplished enough. I feel inadequate. I feel nervous. I feel like I need to keep moving. For the first time in weeks, we are not clocked as the visitors, maybe because everyone is. I want to retreat to the bubble of the car, where we can compare burps and make crude jokes and believe in what will be as long as we are patient. But this brush with our other life is important, and we are leading a double life, and we must check in on the life we’ve left behind.
But we’ve proclaimed to anyone who will listen that we will not, we repeat, will not, enter Brooklyn. That is our rule. The rule to keep our respective sanities marginally intact as we pass so close to where we’ve slept most frequently in the last two and four years. We pass so close it feels like a sharp knife giving us a paper cut. But we do not enter Brooklyn. Instead, we relegate ourselves to Manhattan. A place that I feel both drawn to and repulsed by as soon as we arrive. A place that feels like a wool sweater – cozy and prickly and itchy.
And the truth is that I’ve missed it.
We get off at Grand Street and cross Second Ave in front of all the cyclists in the tentative sun, the temperate air, and I remember how free it can feel, here in the most expensive city. No one cares who you are, where you’re from, if you’re stayin or goin. We eat sushi and walk to a bar and we hug our friends, and the bartender never once cracks a smile, never says an extra word. We are told the time has flown, told the goings on of everyone back home, but time, for us, does not fly. It drives five to seven miles over the speed limit. And so much feels still present, unrepeatable. So we hit highlights, listen, take a four-pack and wish we had something to give back, but we have nothing though we’ve been everywhere. We go home and watch reality TV and fall asleep with peppermint tea growing cold in our cups.
Perhaps most importantly we are reminded that caring for one another is our priority. We are reminded to be gentle. We are reminded to listen. And we are reminded that we are being listened to.
Is a completely different world. We return to the state as if we couldn’t leave if we tried, pulled like magnets back to the place we occasionally call home. The opening parenthesis is a bridge across the water, like a well-designed Disneyland moat. We reach the Adirondacks, a place that sounds named by someone with wealth who wanted a getaway, and find a series of turnoffs to ranger stations that don’t exist. We realize this state park doesn’t have ranger stations, maybe not even rangers, a fact that for some reason fills me with dismay.
Because this is still a getaway, not a forest. Even though it’s the first day of the season that the campgrounds are open, the clientele is fish enthusiasts and retirees with American flags, ex-military in hunting camo and a family with a cooler of Smirnoffs and a baby that is absolutely not here for the camping. The person working at the entry booth looks blankly at us when we ask him where some good hikes are. We get a clip art map that is not to scale and has a watermark for a geocaching website.
We drive to a small holiday town and buy a hatchet. We listen to the tale of a “fish this big” and nod enthusiastically, ignoring the cliche. We collect flowers and come back with wood to splinter into kindling. We see a bald eagle on our hike the park attendant told us was “not that bad”. It seems strange but maybe fitting to see one here. It’s the same routine we’ve repeated our whole trip east and north, only this park has a deck chair namesake, so we are meant to feel at leisure.
On to Buffalo, where we stay in an empty house, floating through like phantoms, reading signs above storefronts that make us laugh: KEGS rendered in fluttering sequins, WASHINGTOWN D.C. above a laundromat, LIQUOR in neon, playfully upside down.
My Brooklyn life comes rudely knocking and won’t go away. Things to deal with back in my apartment, the one I haven’t thought about in what feels like forever. It’s like that life knew I was still in New York – it still had access to me and could lasso me around the neck just to give a little squeeze of a reminder, a playful shortness of breath. It clings like the stale wisps of smoke that have worked their way into the stuffing of the mattress and comforters of the apartment we stay in. As a treat, we listen to music from this decade and watch a movie that makes us uncomfortable and bellow “ALEXA” into TV remotes with special names that don’t answer us. Everything is funny, and we sleep in the bed of a guardian angel who has driven the way before us, fairy lights and lingering weed enveloping us in a blackout curtain den.
The closing parenthesis is Niagara Falls. We reluctantly pay $10 for parking, and when we return to the car, the sandwich board announces it now costs $25. It’s unclear if the Canadian side works this way, but this feels poignantly American. We marvel at the ferocious rush of water and the matching stream of people speaking languages other than English, but we are very quickly over it. We drive up to the booth and tell the border guard that we have no alcohol, no weapons. We forgo the convoluted story about where we’re from and where we’re going, and this time, we don’t get to give our standard “it’s complicated” answer. From Buffalo, to Detroit. Visiting family. Have a great day.