Distant big brakes squealed, slowing tons of metal to a safe stop. The subway was not quite second nature, not quite new. Celeste puzzled at the map on the wall at the airport, a straight line representing each stop, but did the train actually move like that? One big straight line? This map was more of a symbol, she decided. She only needed to count the stops and who cares what direction it goes.
She swiped her metro card and tugged her old rolling suitcase behind her. This suitcase was in ok shape, the zippers still held all the contents securely inside. But the wheel covers had broken off, leaving exposed inner wheels. They still rolled, it still zipped, but sometimes Celeste felt jealous of other travelers whose suitcases could glide in any direction as they swiftly went to their destinations. Hers just followed behind her, like a petulant child, led by the hand somewhere they didn’t want to go.
The machine didn’t accept the card. Celeste felt her face burning, because now everyone knew she wasn’t a New Yorker, because a New Yorker wouldn’t make such a rookie mistake. The attendant showed her which way to put her card, so she rotated it and still got it wrong. Celeste laughed at herself and the discomfort of doing new things. The attendant left to speak to a colleague and Celeste felt relieved to sort out her embarrassment and not-knowing in private.
Finally, she oriented the card in the appropriate New York way and walked through the turnstile. As her faithful, slowly dying suitcase came behind her, its handle became stuck, literally locked in place by the turnstile that had followed the one she walked through.
“Oh my god,” thought Celeste.
She tried to wiggle the handle around the turnstile. No go. She tried to maneuver the turnstile, like her desire to free the suitcase would magically unlock the device so that she could go free. Celeste was not in a rush. The attendant was still busy and now far away.
A man rounded the corner.
“Excuse me! Sir? My suitcase is literally locked into the turnstile. Do you think you could go through this specific one so I can get it out?”
He looked annoyed.
But he did it anyway. The suitcase was free and the man had dashed away down the steps to his train.
Once on board, Celeste felt happy and settled, excited about trains and excited about her trip. It’s nice to feel the novelty of traveling. She looked next to her. A mysterious puddle sloshed gently with each curve of the train. Celeste tried not to look at it too much. But even the puddle felt novel, like yes, this is what happens when you take the train in New York. Of course there’s a puddle in a seat. Is it pee? Is it water? Celeste felt a little nauseated thinking it might be pee so she stopped looking at it again and focused out the window.
There was dance music playing, which felt like the appropriate vibe for a train into the city at night. Soon Celeste realized it wasn’t coming from the train, but a fellow passenger. Somewhere concealed on his body was a very loud speaker. She appreciated his audacity. He felt so strongly about his choice in music that he desired to share it with everyone on board. He wore a surgical mask that lit up with the beat. Celeste imagined everyone on board dancing, but on the outside, she politely tapped her foot. She wasn’t from here, she wanted to blend in.
The next morning, Celeste awoke from her sweet little nest on the floor of her sister’s living room. The floors of the brownstone apartment were severely slanted, a result of the old building settling and settling, slowly trying to return itself back into the earth. There was a noticeable incline (or decline) from one end of each room to the next. It was charming.
A steep staircase led to the roof of the building, thoughtfully maintained by the landlord to maximize all space this plot of land had to offer. On the roof, Celeste meditated and journaled, like she did every morning back home. She thought about the boy she met here a few months prior, back when the summer heat stifled and the evening thunderstorms threatened to cancel nights out at the bars. This trip, she told him she was here. Everyone in her life who knew about him had asked, and Celeste insisted that, no, she wasn’t going to New York for him, things weren’t like that with him anymore, anyways. She was here to explore and visit her sister and step on Fall colored leaves in big city parks. She kept checking her phone anyway. He lived only blocks away and she could feel the radius of closeness like an invisible magnet drawing them together.
True to the intention of her trip, she spent the day wandering around the botanic gardens solo. Celeste opened her eyes as widely as possible to drink in the distinct vibe of this land on this day as this body. She zoomed out in her mind - this massive garden held in the container of a city. But isn’t a city held in the container of an even more massive garden, too? A human-made river ran under a low-set, human-made bridge. Celeste sat on the edge of the bridge and allowed the small river to kindly wash over the tips of her boots.
On her walk back to her sister’s apartment, Celeste kept looking for the boy she wasn’t there to see. He really could be nearby at any time, this was his turf after all. Silly, she thought, to feel this magnet, to hope for an encounter, and he won’t even text me back. Let it go, let it go.
That evening, Celeste and her sister met up with a friend to drink wine outside and pay money for it. As they waited for a table on the sidewalk, who should walk by but the boy? Celeste knew. Somehow she had known all day, and yet, she felt massively unprepared for this encounter. Politely, he stopped and said all the things you’re supposed to say, like, hi, hello, yes I’m just out for a walk, hope you’re having a good day. His cool demeanor felt odd to Celeste because, wow, what are the chances? How is this not a bigger moment to him? She noted that he hardly made eye contact, that he seemed quick to get away, and that hurt her feelings at first. It hurt because the fantasy she had created in her mind, of what their next encounter would be like, was instantly shattered by reality. He was awkward and cold. She hadn’t planned on that.
That night, she lay on the floor, at an incline, and stared up at the ceiling. Even with all the lights off, a New York apartment is never fully dark. Her heart hurt and she felt grateful. At last this bubble of anticipation and curiosity had popped. Celeste had bumped roughly back to earth, but at least she was on the ground again. She zoomed out and held the novelty in her mind. This is what it’s like to be 28 and in love and in New York. There are puddles on the subway and gardens in cities and boys who grow your heart.