Perhaps If I had grown up in Michigan I would have fallen in love with the New York City skyline, the tops of buildings glimpsed in small square segments from a plane. But I lived commuting-distance from Manhattan, in a suburb where the stone walls of colonial pastures lined the road to the train station. And so I met the city from the ground up: the smooth blue of the Hudson to the raised tracks over Harlem, only then to the skyscrapers in the distance.
Before I learned the names of the stops on Metro-North I marked the entrance to the city with the sighting of the giant, painted blue letters that spelled “New York College of Podiatric Medicine.” I did not know what “podiatric” meant, and so I imagined that the school taught some sort of futuristic medical practice, something to do with “pods,” sleek and silver like the rest of the city.
The ritual of city-going, reserved for weekends when rain cancelled muddy soccer practice, always began in Grand Central Station. I would stand with my mother under the bright green ceiling in the main concourse, and look for the twin cherubim figures who represented my astrological sign; my mother remembered where they were but I insisted on finding them myself, every time. No matter how many times we did this I could not memorize their exact location on the ceiling; I lost them, always, in the crowd of rushing tourists.
We ate lunch at the Oyster Bar, a bowl of clam chowder and a salad between the two of us, me mostly consuming the crackers from packets piled on the counter. And then we went to the Met.
I thought it must have been the biggest building in the world. The typeface on the exhibition advertisements that hung between columns looked larger than the blue letters of the New York College of Podiatric Medicine. The lobby reminded me of Grand Central Station—the customer service desk in its center like the station’s giant clock—only better, for gleaming staircases stretched from it to infinite heights. At a time in my life when I lost so many dolls that my mother stopped letting me take them out of the house, I kept every round “M” pin I received at the museum’s entrance. I wore them like Girl Scout badges, three or four on my collar, whenever I visited the museum.
My mother had studied art history in college, and so she walked slowly through the museum, examining each painting carefully, with what seemed to me like secret, mystical knowledge. I never wanted to listen to her explanations, and so I ran through each room three or four times while she completed her tour; if she understood the artwork, I got to know the physical layout of the museum, its staircases and nooks and crannies.
The place with the best nooks and crannies, of course, was the Egyptian wing, just to the right of the main lobby. I insisted on visiting it every time we went to the museum—no matter what new collection of photography or medieval manuscripts my mother wanted to see. Each time I thought I had found a new tomb passage; I placed my hands on the cold stone walls and spread my legs so that each foot touched the wall. I traced my fingers in the grooves between the stones, convinced that I might discover a trapped door.
Most of all, I loved the room of the exhibit that holds a free-standing temple on a marble platform, behind a clear, coin-filled pool. Something about the texture of the floor made footsteps sound soft and soothing there, perfectly tuned against rustling water. Sunbeams fell through the skylights in even planes, and I would sweep my hands through them, watching my palms grow bright.
Maybe I liked the exhibit because my mother knew nothing about Egyptian art. I imagined myself as an expert—my elementary school did a unit on Egyptian history and I bought picture books and kits (“Make Your Own Mini Mummy!”) at the museum’s gift shop. When my younger cousin visited from New Jersey, I begged my mom to let me give her a tour of the Egyptian wing. I cried when my cousin wanted to go to the Toys “R” Us in Times Square instead.
Not long after, I watched When Harry Met Sally with my father. I didn’t really understand the movie and my mother shooed me out of the living room when Meg Ryan faked her orgasm, but my parents wanted me to see the scene that takes place in the Egyptian wing. I think they thought I would love the reference to my favorite place, but I didn’t; I imagined it as my place and I was angry that someone else found it special enough to put in a movie. I thought I had discovered its romantic potential, too—I once saw a couple kissing beside the water.
As I grew older school field trips made me realize that I could not be the lone appreciator of the Egyptian wing in the Met Museum. In tenth grade my world history teacher packed sixty of us in a bus and through those giant columns; he wanted us to view the new Byzantine artifacts, but everyone raced toward the mummies the second he let us go.
Around the same time, I stopped strolling through the Egyptian wing on every visit; I saw new collections reviewed in The New Yorker and learned to walk through the museum as slowly as my mother.
Once, the summer before my junior year of high school, we visited the museum on the last day of the Alexander McQueen fashion exhibit, the one that drew six-hour lines. It was the hottest day of the summer, too, the kind of day where pavement seems to roll in waves under the sunlight and the whole city smells like hot dogs. The line, which normally stretched outside of the building, had been moved into the air-conditioned building. It snaked around the entire museum, across continents, through centuries. I had brought a book in preparation for the six hours but I quickly put it in my bag; I saw things I had never known the museum held, a real zen garden and large white Buddhas that held my stare, sparkling gold trombones in glass cases, small rooms meant to mimic the chambers of medieval Cathedrals. The line weaved and wound so much that afterward, I could not remember where I had seen anything—my memory of it felt like the memory of a location in a dream, a set in a movie I had seen long ago. To do this day, no matter how many times I search the East Asian wing, I cannot find the zen garden. I look for it every time, as I once searched for the twins on the ceiling of Grand Central. I realized that I did not know the museum at all.
Over spring break this year, I visited the Met with a few friends, one of whom grew up in Wisconsin and had never been to the museum before. She took photos of every turquoise hippo and crocodile-falcon god in the Egyptian wing, and I finally got to give my tour. I remembered none of my elementary Egyptian history, but I showed her every passage in every tomb; I could still feel my way through the exhibit blind, hand against cold stones.
Another friend of mine, who also grew up in a suburb of the city, had visited the museum many times before. But when I mentioned the room to her, she frowned at me—she had never seen it. She didn’t even remember the scene in When Harry Met Sally. It’s the most beautiful place, I promised, and it’s just down this hallway, just here. She had a sore ankle and I told her she could sit down there, beside the fountain. I told my other friend that she must enter the tomb.
We arrived in the room, heard the soft sound of water, but the tomb had been closed off—someone had reserved the space for a private event, set up round pink tables on the tomb’s marble platform. Aproned waiters arranged centerpieces and silverware, their hands passing through planes of light.