How to Fall in Love with New York City in Four Hours Even if You Hated It the Whole Rest of the Stupid-Long, Stupid-Hot Summer
The entire thing was my fault. Really. I couldn’t even blame anyone else, because, objectively, I did it to myself.
What happened first was that I did not clean my room. The clothes just piled on the ground, creeping steadily over every last inch of floor space. That was my first mistake.
I had no excuse for the state of my little room; it wasn’t like I was too busy to clean or anything. It was summer in New York City and I had long days filled with very few activities. My life was cyclical: Sticky subway rides every morning, sunscreen leaking out of my pores and trickling down my neck. Wide-awake nights tossing and sweating without air conditioning; murky, feverish dreams when I finally fell asleep; and then morning again, with monotony ahead, and the city closing in.
Small-town girl moves to big city, never looks back. This had always been my plan, and I was doing a practice run over the summer in a cozy sublease in Morningside Heights. I entered the summer optimistically: I would be living with my best friend of 10 years, interning for a lovely theater company in the East Village. It was more perfect than I could have hoped. New York is a city that is obnoxiously overwhelming and I am a person who is obnoxiously overwhelming; I had thought this would make us eminently compatible.
It took me only a few weeks to learn that living in this city is not at all the same as visiting it. That the buzzy thrill of so many sights to see every moment of every day wears off when you are no longer a guest here for the kicks but merely a person trying to exist.
In this tiny, cramped metropolis, everyone is going somewhere to do something. Everything in New York has a purpose. I felt like I was going nowhere, ever, except in circles. I am sorry, I wanted to say to everyone I passed. You are very important and I do not matter, and I am sorry I am here, in your way.
“I think I might be too narcissistic for this city,” I told my friend Natasha over the phone one day with a sigh. “I just feel so inconsequential here.” At school, at home, I am used to existing within a small-enough cosmos that I am afforded a small but persistent presence.
I like to matter. At least a little bit.
The next mistake I made on that day I totally messed up and it was entirely my fault — floor full of sweated-through t-shirts and the rest of me full of pulsing resentment for the looming structures outside my window — was that I left a glass Tupperware container sitting precariously on the edge of the bed. I don’t know why the Tupperware container was in my bedroom, but, seeing as the floor was occupied, I guess it needed somewhere to sit.
I tried to get past the doorway but couldn’t because a massive pile of clothes blocked my way, so I decided to leap dramatically across the room onto the bed. The heft of my landing turned the bed into a kind of seesaw, which flung the Tupperware container across the room, onto the floor, and into a million pieces.
What happened next was that I cleaned the shards of glass up, but, because shards of glass are clear and tiny, I missed a few spots. Which was probably my least culpable blunder of the whole debacle, except that I immediately compounded my guilt by walking around the room barefoot, willfully ignoring rule number one of my mother’s shattered glass protocol. Sure enough, it was not long before I felt a sharp pain in my foot. I had stepped on a tiny shard; a shard so tiny I did not, upon inspection, believe it was still involved with the foot, and so instead of picking it out — my final, fated choice — went to sleep.
When I left my bed the next morning, I discovered that the shard of glass was indeed involved with the foot, and had remained involved for long enough that a thin layer of skin had sealed the wound shut during the night.
At this point, things got messy. I picked away at the congealed bits of skin and then Emily, aforementioned best-friend-slash-summer-roommate who had suffered 10 years too many of my bullshit, lent me tweezers. This act was incredibly generous, considering my next step was to insert the tweezers into my foot. It took us about an hour of prodding and whining and zooming in on iPhone pictures of the wound site to realize that the shard was in there for good.
We were late; it was Saturday, and we’d had a plan for the morning, because in New York you always need a plan (plus six changes of clothes in a backpack you carry with you because God help you if you have to go home in the middle of the day), because if you do not have a plan (and six changes of clothes), you will feel as though you have squandered the cultural bounty available to you.
Lest we lose any more of the day, we set out toward the subway. As we walked — I swore I could feel the shard making its way deeper into my foot with every step — I called my aunt, who is a doctor.
The piece of glass is so tiny, I told her, and it will not leave my foot. Will I die?
My aunt has two young children who were no doubt at that moment consuming 90 percent of her attention. She also has a sense of humor.
“I mean, sure,” she joked warmly, in between shouted instructions to someone to stop chewing on something. “I guess if it seeps into your bloodstream and makes it all the way to your heart.” More mumbled instructions. “Then, yeah. I suppose it might kill you in, say, 10 to 15 years.”
I ended the call. It took approximately one minute for the tears to bubble out.
“I am being absurd,” I told Emily, who was laughing. “But I really do not want to die in 10 to 15 years.”
I was being absurd. I knew my aunt was kidding. But her words set off something inside of me. I needed to recalibrate my entire life plan! I had only 10 to 15 years left to accomplish something of value! Death was imminent and terrifying!
Emily rolled her eyes, but also offered me a hug, because she is the person I have called crying about absurd things for a decade, and she knows how I get. We changed our plans: after the Guggenheim, after brunch, we would stop by the Urgent Care on 86th Street.
Something happened after the phone call, after the prognosis. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that the rest of the morning was electric.
We flitted through the Guggenheim, inhaling the art while conducting incisive criticism of society and ourselves, chattering at double-speed. We passed Picassos; it sucked, we said, that he was so good at art, because he was a terrible person, but we couldn’t not feel what we felt when we stared at his painting, so what gives? We talked about the future and about how pencils are stupid writing implements when you’re left-handed and can the concept of consensual sex apply to animals? We spoke superficially and then sincerely; we said things we had never said before about bodies and feelings, thoughts that lived in deep places and hurt coming out. And then a minute later we passed a tiny sculpture of a tiny lady and Emily sighed and said that body standards were really just absurdly unrealistic these days, and we fell over laughing, once again buoyant.
Everything that day mattered so much; the dials turned all the way up on all of my feelings. Funny things were riotous. Anodyne observations became deadly serious. Repeat, all over again. Mixed in with occasional searing pangs of guilt, because if I had only cleaned my room, or worn shoes, or removed the shard when it happened, the clock inside me would not be ticking down every minute until 10 to 15 years was up — but then never mind, because we were laughing about pretentious baby names all over again.
When we got to urgent care, they put the two of us in a room to wait. We pretended to be annoyed as the morning stretched on and the doctor had not appeared, but we weren’t. I kept saying I was sorry Emily had to spend her day like this, but I wasn’t, and I knew she wasn’t either, because together we were plowing through the world at the highest possible intensity.
Everything was thrilling, fast, important. For once, we were keeping pace with the thrumming of the city around us. We were existing at the speed of New York.
When I tell people I don’t know about New York for me the way I used to know about New York for me, they say things about how I should give it time; how New York City is a place that can swallow you if you let it, but if you grow into it you will be big enough to eat the city up. You can eat and eat and there is always more to eat, and isn’t that beautiful?
Or, they tell me, just wait until you have a network. You won’t feel so lonely, then. Brace yourself against the parts of the city that intimidate you; you’ll stop noticing them, and it will be easier.
Except that I do not want to grow myself into someone who can eat the city. I do not want to network myself into significance or retreat into myself so I don’t have to see what I am scared of. If I have to stomp on people in order to matter, I think maybe I’d better stay back in Ohio.
New York City worked for me that day, though. High on existential dread and something else — purpose, perhaps? — I felt unassailable. Maybe it was the thrill of living at such an intensity, of fitting in. Or maybe it was something about walking down the sidewalk two-in-a-row so that no one could pass, intruding on other people’s lives with the volume of our giggles. Feeling a little bit significant, because we were here, together, with thoughts and feelings, and someday we would be gone, and that mattered.
In urgent care, after hours of waiting, the doctor finally came by. She numbed my foot and started to fish around.
I cried very hard and Emily held my hand and we couldn’t stop laughing, neither of us, even though my face was covered in snot and tears and sweat, because the shard of glass was literally so tiny and I was being absurd again.
After a few minutes, the doctor stood up and pulled down her mask. She was sorry, she said, but she couldn’t find the glass. Emily and I locked eyes, and then burst into a fresh batch of laughter.
The doctor said she thought the glass probably fell out while I was walking. So maybe it’s sitting in a corner of the Guggenheim, slowly disintegrating. Or maybe she’s wrong. Maybe it’s still inside me, climbing slowly through my veins, ticking down my mortal clock. I don’t like to think about that, though. Death gets me panicky, and I can only exist so intensely for a few hours at a time.
—Magazine writer Eliya O. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @eliyasmith.