A spooky, beautiful essay from past contributor Kate Erickson on the power of travel, happenstance horror, accidental reveries, and becoming a New Yorker.
I hated the dogs— two wobbly, stubborn labs I had not expected to be walking every weekend when I took my sublet. I was cursing at the animals when Joan recognized the American in my accent and crossed Thornhill Square.
“I just knew you were the girl in Nancy’s extra room,” Joan said when she reached me. Her voice fluted at a fragile register. I pitied weak voices. “And then of course, the dogs.”
I waved my hand as if I could clear the London fog like cigarette smoke. I sighed.
“That’s me.” I was flat, almost rude. “The girl in Nancy’s room.”
While I interned at a publishing company, I was living in florally redone servant’s quarters on the top floor of Nancy’s home. Nancy wanted to dress me in her clothes, introduce me to ‘people of good influence.’ She had mentioned Joan.
“We live just down the way,” Joan said. “Here four years now.”
We were at the edge of the park, near the gate and the intersection. Joan faced the green, I the road. The dogs were finally peeing. Aside from those streams hitting the mud, the square was entirely silent. Not only silent, still.
Then a BOOM, deep and unnatural. The lowest, loudest sound I have ever heard. A sound that ends things.
There would have been a quick, mechanical shriek beforehand, brakes, but I heard just the immediate collision of Jeep Wrangler into side of motorcycle. And while over
Joan’s shoulder I should have witnessed what I heard, the exact moment of accident, I saw only the biker, contorted beside his bike, and skipping bits of glass. It happened that fast. The Jeep, dented, was suddenly beside Joan and I, and then the driver was out, cradling his arm.
“He had a stop sign,” the driver said. “He was speeding. He didn’t stop.”
The motorcycle had flung pulverized pieces of itself across the two streets. The biker still had not moved. Joan pressed her terrier’s leash into my palm. Then she was squatting beside the unmoving man. She touched the side of his helmet and spoke close to his ear. He screamed, guttural, gagging. He screamed again, and again. He moved his right arm from the shoulder, back and forth, with a stiff elbow. The hand flopped from the wrist.
“We are getting you help,” Joan said, still soprano, but like a slap. “Good, but breathe.”
“Thornhill is the through, Bridgeman has the stop,” the driver said.
After the ambulance dismissed Joan, she told me her best college friend had almost died in a motorcycle crash when they were nineteen.
“Do you baby sit?” She asked. “I have children. Would you like a cup of tea?”
Before London I had walked across Spain. Halfway across, right when I felt really alone, I had met another American, a soft-spoken guy who matched my pace for the remaining two weeks. In London I had been the weird, entertaining child at work, and then I had met Joan. We had witnessed an accident, and it had transported Joan back to my age, parallel circumstances. It had yanked me out of my hateful loneliness.
Two months and a hundred cups of tea later, I carried a parent/guardian photo ID issued by the kids’ school. I picked Joan’s daughters up every day. I walked them to dance class. I ate pizza with them instead of four courses with Nancy.
My internship ended. I was moving back to the States, and I was broke. Over Thanksgiving dinner, Joan offered me their Connecticut house. She called my freeloading house sitting. “We really do need someone to watch over it,” she said. True. Joan was remodeling from abroad, so the north wing was tarped over, unlockable. I weighed the option.
Moving to coastal Connecticut without a car might feel isolating. Changing bedrooms when they stained the floors would be a pain. Where would I find work?
“Sure,” I said, scooping more cranberries. “I can be a watchdog.”
Joan and I were changed strangers. I moved to Connecticut because I couldn’t snub magic.
On January third, jiggling keys in my loose fist, I walked from the Southport train station up Harbor Road. Around the swooping drive, I dragged a suitcase with six months of clothes and an emergency bag of rice. The house—undraped, unpainted, minimally decorated—echoed. I cranked the heat. On January fourth, I got a job at a café across the water, in Fairfield. Five days a week, I started walking three miles round trip to make buffalo chicken wraps and lattes. The walk included a bridge and a highway. I made no friends.
I internet-stalked every high school acquaintance who had moved to New York City. Separately, to draw the socializing across as many weekends as possible, I coerced brunch dates from all of them. Taylor, who mothered me into buying a winter coat. Jeffrey, who maybe thought we were dating. Brittany, who bullied me into meeting at her favorite West Village restaurant, impossible to find.
When Brittany and I entered the little place on Carmine, I was momentarily blind. Those places love year-round Christmas lights. While we couldn’t see, Brittany and I unwound our scarves.
“Hey,” Brittany said. “That guy…”
Though spots of black I saw decorative buoys and vintage street signs. I struggled for color balance.
“He’s staring at…” Brittany trailed the way you do when the object of your gossip is six inches away.
I focused on the host in front of us. My sight immediately sobered. The host’s eyes took me to café con leches and hot mesetas. No, wait. What? Holy God. I had last seen that face in Spain, in front of the Cathedral of Santiago. The host was my soft-spoken walking partner.
“Ben!” I threw my arms as I do to tiny cousins or grand vistas.
“Do you know each other? How do you know each other?” Brittany said. I was invincible.
Six months later, Ben offered me an open room—which was actually an open basement where we would build walls. Uninsulated, because we were on a budget. The other four bedrooms held tobacco-chewing, partially employed, twenty-something guys. They had a history of bedbugs. But Ben and I had walked across Spain! I had found him again in the West Village! I was a sucker for the option born of magic.
I moved in. We built walls. Ben got me a job at the restaurant. I freelanced a little, applied to grad school, welcomed my brothers to the city, was rejected from grad school, kept working at the restaurant. Killed mice, jumped on the Metro North drunk, tried to wear weird clothes, lost my glasses in the Hudson. I weighed applying to grad school again. I moved to a third-floor bedroom in Park Slope, hosted soup nights, played street ball on a holiday. I made friends with people who eventually moved away. I kept working at the restaurant, told myself grad school would be this fall. Just over two years disappeared.
Everything was fine, but only fine. My usual chapter break was six months, and I had been in the same city for four times that. Where were the convenient and obvious indicators for change?
I was sitting on my rooftop with another kid from the restaurant. He was nearing his one-year anniversary in New York, so he told me the story of his move. He was living in LA, he was in a rut, his car was eating all his money. He took a drive to think things through. He blew a tire. Within hours he had sold the car and called his friends on the other coast. He had asked the universe for assurance, and coincidence told him he was special.
“Yeah, me too,” I said. “Same sort of thing.”
Because we live in New York, we recognize some guy from a soap shop in Chelsea when we are pacing the Stillwell-bound D platform at Atlantic-Pacific. We witness life-altering events with strangers. Not only are we one of millions, but also magic is not so rare that it demands upheaval. Comforted by the constant, small magics, eventually we grow a pair.
Just before my three-year mark, I quit the restaurant. I decided grad school could screw itself, and I made stir-fry from my bag of emergency rice. I told the kid he should toast his one-year anniversary, because I knew he’d be that vain and naïve for only so long. And boom, that fast, I became a New Yorker.