That July Fourth was hotter than Mars. We traveled as a gang, impervious, walking through smoke as cherry bombs, tossed into the air from fire escapes, exploded all around us. My hair was long and wild, sweaty and sticking to my neck. Your sister had her hair tied up with a knee-high sock like Madonna. I remember her metallic eyeshadow from that shop on West Broadway.
It was already dark when we arrived at the pool on Pitt Street. We squeezed, one by one, through a hole in the chain link. Shaking our limbs like stray dogs, we wandered, giddy, losing each other in the crowd of kids from the projects. We slipped off our sneakers, peeled our clothes to our underwear and jumped into the water, screaming with the cold chlorinated shock of it. Our heads bobbed on the surface as we waded through the clouds of firecracker smoke floating just above our noses.
We had a knack for filling up the gray areas with half-baked schemes. We designed clothes, food, haircuts, often badly. It didn’t matter. We lived for the odd moment, the expressive gesture. Sometimes in the winter I’d skip classes or work to be alone on the beach. I’d take the A train to Rockaway. On a gray day, it was morbid, like a scene in a movie about a drug deal gone wrong. I’d pick my way across the sandy expanse from the boardwalk to the water, past twisted hangers and cigarette butts, tampon inserters pink and pale as nematodes, discarded food containers weathered like seashells. Between the crashing of the waves I could hear the constant sound of sirens in the distance.
The beach out east was a different story. It was pristine. You had to take a subway, then a train and a shuttle, then a ferry to get there. It took hours. There were dunes. All those summers waiting tables on the beach. Your sister got me that job right before the plague hit. On weekends, the customers were really rude. Every night I ate a huge steak cooked up in the kitchen after closing and lost weight anyway.
We stayed in a house steps from the ocean. Your sister had to pack us in to meet the rent. The walls were hung with driftwood, dried starfish and lobster traps. There were strict rules about trailing in sand, but no one paid attention. Sand was everywhere, in our beds, in our teeth, in our hair. Like so many beach houses, it had a swimming pool. I always thought it strange to have a pool at the beach. Maybe people don’t like salt water, or are afraid of being swept away in a riptide. Or maybe they have an image of themselves, tan in a Speedo, holding a cocktail poolside. It’s true that all summer long, boys with perfect bodies lounged naked and dove into the pool. We threw parties. We made tuna salad and arranged to have pizzas delivered. No one was careful. I would sleep off my hangovers on the beach the next day wrapped in a blanket like a mummy.
I remember all the cars. Ray’s succession of used Alfas that made animal sounds and inspired the envy of other drivers. Before the Alfas, there was a crap-green metallic Dodge that wouldn’t start in the cold. People were always breaking into cars to steal radios. No radio, we would leave it parked unlocked. Paul's banged-up cream Porsche he bought for three thousand dollars. I thought that was a lot of money. Early on weekday mornings, Ray would meet Paul on Avenue D and they’d zoom up the FDR to their construction gig. After work, they’d zoom back downtown for pints. They worked on personal projects, sometimes together. Ray built furniture out of discarded cardboard and glue, thick heavy chairs that looked like they belonged in a museum design store. He helped Paul build an iridescent counter for Daryl's new shop. She had her own line of denim vests and plastic rain hoodies, jerseys with snaps down the front that made you look pregnant, and faux-leather jeans for tall skinny girls. I couldn’t afford any of it, but none of her clothes looked good on me anyway.
I don’t know what we did to pass the time. We stayed out late. Sometimes, in the dead of night, I’d creep home to the apartment of a friend-of-a-friend near Streit's Matzos. I didn’t have a key and the buzzer never worked, so I’d climb the gate and dive in through the second-floor window like everybody else. I once found Greg in the loft bed, naked and awake in the dark. I was pricked by his freckled skin covered in orange stubble. He told me he shaved his body in order to race bicycles. I thought it was to reduce wind drag. In the end, I didn’t sleep with him. Ray raced bicycles, as did his father back in Dublin. He also shaved his body, but stopped after he gave up racing bicycles and started driving Alfas.
I remember when Ray was mugged on Havemeyer Street. It was back when Williamsburg was still Williamsburg. I can imagine his blue eyes blazing as he chased the mugger with a pole he pulled out of a dumpster. He was all brute force and adrenaline. In another version of the story, it was a friend who was mugged, and Ray saved him by brandishing a signpost he pulled out of the ground. Someone else suggested that the mugger had a knife, while another person said there were two muggers and no knife. In yet another version, Ray pretended to have a gun.
We argued a lot. I’m sure you remember. We fought in public parks. I don’t know anymore what the fights were about. We broke up and cried, and fell in love again and cried. We went out to dinner and didn’t speak to each other. We went to the same bar over and over again and yelled at each other over whiskeys. One of us always walked out. We brought our fights onto the street where people leaning out of their windows could watch, their televisions flickering behind them.
I remember everyone drinking vodka straight from the bottle. People stood around outside bodegas sipping from crumpled brown paper bags, bundled against the freezing wind, or sweating profusely in grimy t-shirts. The weather constantly changed but danger was a permanent feeling.
We’d meet up with that Italian guy you knew—or was he Greek? The one you thought was in publishing. I knew you wanted an “in” with him. We’d hang at the bar at the hotel across from the opera, and you’d flirt while I stood around and sipped my drink. He never paid for anything. Sometimes, he’d invite a bunch of us for pizza at that borrowed West Village apartment, paid for by the man who brought Batman to television. He’d pontificate about zombie movies while divvying up lines of coke. Eventually, you found out he never worked in publishing. You told me his real name (I don't remember it). He lived in a room. It was in a building near Columbia with no locks on the doors.
Do you remember that Egyptian woman who snuck us into her client’s apartment on the Upper East Side? The apartment with all the blue chip art. Schnabels and Chias and Clementes and Lichtensteins. I sat on a white patent leather couch shaped like a foot while she made phone calls in Italian and French. Every other word was “la pazza” or “merdique.” The central air was off and my thighs stuck to the fake leather. You said you thought maybe she wasn't a nice person.
Your overheated apartment in Fort Greene where you lived while you did your medical residency. You’d call me up and say, “Come visit me in Cairo.” Later on, you had that walk-up in Yorkville with the bad carpeting. I used to pass it when I worked at the museum. I'd stare at the front door and think of you and Ed, and the soft-shell crab, and how I passed out on the floor in the bathroom of the Thai restaurant. We were a large group that night. Ray was there. I’d only met him once before. I opened my eyes to see Daryl straddling me, her loud stream of piss rousing me from my anaphylactic coma. “What did you take?” she asked as she tugged on the roll of toilet paper. She’d asked that question before. “Garlic bread,” I said. I gasped for air. “Garlic bread and a beer.” She stepped over me, zipped up her skinny jeans, and went back to our table. My cheek flat on the cold tile kept me from passing out again.
I remember your sister yelling at the kitchen staff, “What did you put in the sauce?” You carried me out of the bathroom through the restaurant and out to the street. I guess everyone left and went home. Ed’s car was an old blue Chevy with no seat belts. He ran all the red lights on Second Avenue while you held me in the back seat and whispered into my ear, “Breathe!” You carried me like a baby into the emergency room and shouted, “I have a woman in shock!” The ER doctor took over. “What did you eat?” he asked before he shot me full of Benadryl. I was fine almost immediately. Someone, I think it was your friend who wasn’t in publishing, lent us an apartment for the night.
Ray called the next morning. We eventually eloped so he could get a green card and ended up living in an SRO on 21st Street off Eighth Avenue. Everyone was angry with us. Our room was on the fifth floor, no air conditioning. We had a sink but no hotplate. On Thursdays, Fridays and weekend nights we’d look down onto an endless row of yellow cabs ferrying people back and forth. Our neighbor to the left was Ernie, a Korean War vet with a bad leg. Once, when he asked me to help him with his TV antenna, Ernie tried to stick his hand into the crack of my ass. On the ground floor there was Stu who was recovering from hepatitis. He had a pet tarantula in an aquarium tank and fed it store-bought bugs that he kept in plastic Chinese take-out tubs. His room was very clean but had a strange smell, like a doctor’s office. When Stu was feeling better, we brought him lasagna from the place on Seventh Avenue. Two Moroccan brothers lived in the sub-basement. They had a hotplate, and the smell of their cooking always made us hungry. The brothers sold nitrous oxide and ecstasy to the club kids out of their candy store on the corner of Eighth Avenue, as well as rubbers, gum, cough drops, Q-Tips, and Nyquil. I bought several packages of Benadryl from them in case of future soft-shell crab attacks.
We had a landline and an answering machine. We fed it tiny cassette tapes that quickly filled up with words. We could never find replacement tapes and had to manually erase them to make room for new recordings. Sometimes, if we forgot to turn off the machine before we picked up the phone, it would record the conversation. One day, my best friend called when I wasn’t home, and the machine inexplicably played a taped conversation of me talking frankly with the man she’d been pursuing. My friend called again the following morning. She must have been stewing all night, because her voice was trembling with anger as she performed my half of the conversation. I guess it wasn’t very nice, what I’d said. She hung up when I tried to apologize. It was the beginning of the end, or maybe the end of the middle of our friendship. I remember thinking it was time to buy a new answering machine.
In the morning on weekdays, I rode the subway to City College. I was doing my Masters in painting and Ray was enrolled in the architecture program. Ray started seeing a girl he met in a charrette. They went clubbing, did recreational drugs and drank gin. I found limes and tonic in our tiny refrigerator, and a bra on the desk. It was a cheap bra, I noted. Also in our refrigerator was a large tub of sour cream and onion dip left from a recent party. I took it downstairs and out to the street to where Ray’s Alfa was parked, and emptied it onto the windshield. I spent the rest of the summer riding on the back of someone’s motorcycle. That’s all I really wanted to do. It was one of Ray’s friends. I’d strap on a helmet and get on the bike and we’d drive. I learned to lean and shift my weight. We took the ferry to Staten Island and drove across the Bayonne Bridge to New Jersey. We drove from Brooklyn to Queens over the Kosciuszko Bridge. We drove to Bear Mountain and back without stopping. We drove across bridges I’d never heard of with names I can’t remember.
Ray dropped out of City College around the time I graduated. It was just as the economy tanked. A professor in the art department threw a party in their loft on Bond Street. Piles of adjunct faculty and graduating students all drinking gin and beer. The professor said, “Don’t worry, just keep doing your work.” The party food included miniature carrots and pre-cut celery arranged in sunburst patterns on plates, and potato chips gathered around bowls of sour cream and onion dip.
The last time I visited Ray, he brought out a gun to show me. It was wrapped in a striped tea towel and tied with bakery string. He'd been hiding it for someone in the wall of his apartment. He made me promise never to tell anyone. A few years later, he left the country. I never asked who he owed or how much. For a while, people would try to track him down through me. I’d come home to threatening messages from creditors and hang-ups. By then I had a new answering machine that didn’t use tiny cassette tapes. It was much easier to screen calls.
Before he left, Ray and I had lunch at a trendy restaurant in Chelsea. We ordered grilled octopus, the cheapest salad on the menu, and an expensive bottle of wine. He apologized for everything. We filled up on bread. I didn’t want to cry, but I also wanted to cry. Like you said, leaving New York is never easy. We stood on the street in front of the restaurant and said our goodbyes. I never saw him again.
I don’t regret leaving. Maybe I’ll feel something when I’m far away, in some desert absorbing the sun and wind. Maybe I’ll feel guilty. Maybe I’ll feel relieved. You probably think I’m exaggerating when I tell you the city we loved is long gone. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I think I’m right. I don't know how to say this in a way that’s convincing, but I swear to you, even as things are unraveling here and there and everywhere, even as I remember the places and people we lost, I'm not at all sad to be leaving New York. Not at all.