Not Weird About Brooklyn
September 18, 2013 | by Helen Rubinstein
I had to put my leather loveseat up on Craigslist three times before someone answered the ad, and then that someone, in all of New York City, was the guy my closest friend had been sleeping with a few months earlier. I’d never met him, but I knew that he’d once had to leave her house late at night to go take some kind of medication, and that he got really, really sweaty during sex. Also that he didn’t have Internet access at home, kissed exclusively in chaste little pecks, and had two alarmingly close friends who were women. He and Marie were both writing novels about angels. They’d met at the university where they both taught writing and had both earned MFAs in fiction (at different times), and after they’d written together at a coffee shop one winter afternoon, they relocated to his kitchen table for what Marie called “the download”: a pre-hookup conversation about family and spirituality that lasted for hours.
Comfy, well-loved small couch/loveseat, I’d posted. Has a tear in one of the cushions (see photo) but otherwise in good condition. VERY comfortable. Free if you can help me carry it down from my third-floor apartment (it’s not too heavy). Should fit in the back of an SUV; we’ve done it before. I’d taken the pictures haphazardly, in a spasm of sudden anxiety (couldn’t possibly start packing before I made some space in the apartment!), and now, as I considered the coincidence of Eytan having been the first person to respond, I wondered whether the fact that there had been books in the photos (a copy of Anne Applebaum’s Gulag and a notebook lay beside the cushion-rip for scale; Eating Animals, Revolutionary Road, and The Lost Origins of the Essay were strewn in the foreground) had somehow limited my audience. It seemed typical of New York that the person to answer my ad at last would be someone of my precise demographic, as if the ad’s imagery and syntax (was it the semicolon?) could communicate only with people exactly like me.
Because I was moving away in nine days, such New York typicalities were aggressively making themselves known. I recognized the reaction as a defense mechanism, a sort of mental packing-up, but still it freaked me out. For years I’d rolled my eyes at those gullible plebes and out-of-touch patricians who called New Yorkers busy (I’d never worked full-time!) or the city expensive (I’d saved money while making $24K a year!) or the life there hard (my job was a scenic ten-minute bike ride away!)—but then, in July, my first subway trip after a long vacation had subjected me to just such a stereotype, producing the unpleasant and unshakeable sensation of acting in a bad SNL skit about riding the subway. Pressed to my left was a woman putting on makeup and violently sneezing, while on my right another woman dozed, her head periodically thunking my shoulder and then jerking away. It was the first time I’d allowed myself to feel disdain toward the city, or relief about leaving, and it felt like betrayal. As I’d confessed to Marie one night that spring, when the move first became a possibility, I’d always thought of my friends who left New York as the ones who had failed.
Now I called Marie to confirm that Eytan was Eytan and to ask whether we could meet in Red Hook a little later that afternoon—she and I had plans to knock out another item on my NYC bucket list, a last swim at the neighborhood’s public pool followed by food from the ball park’s food vendors. How crazy is that, we agreed about Eytan being the only person in the world to want my couch; “It’s like Craigslist is better than OKCupid,” I remember I said. She talked me through contingencies: if Eytan mentioned where he taught writing, I would say I had a friend who taught there too; it would be cool if I got a chance to check out his expression if Marie’s name came up, but I shouldn’t push it, and wouldn’t let on that I’d heard of him before. The one thing we definitely didn’t want, Marie said, was for him to have any idea we’d ever had this conversation.
Eytan was explaining himself to my landlord’s mother when I made it downstairs to let him in. “Here is she,” Doris announced from the plastic porch chair where she passed her spring, summer, and fall days, sometimes with a mug of milky tea or the bulky cordless phone, but usually just with her tiny old-person feet up on another chair in front of her. Her housedress was squashed around the squashes of her torso, and her hair was loose, drying from a shower, so that the long gray roots and brown scalp showed. This summer she seemed closer to senility than she’d seemed for the previous three, or maybe it was only that, because I was moving away, there was no longer need to maintain a formal distance between us. I’d already known that she was the only vegetarian left in her family (seven children, sixteen polite grandchildren, all in Brooklyn or Canada and all with the lilt of British Guyana in their English: unlike my relatives, who confused Iowa with Wyoming and Ohio, Doris kept wondering why I was moving to Ottawa). I’d already known that she prayed to the sun every morning, and it was already normal for her to insist I accept from her stacks of cold roti wrapped in oil-stained paper towels and tinfoil. But this summer she also pressed on me Ziploc bags of browning banana rounds and mealy apple slices (she brought them home from “church”), and one morning, after announcing that “Today is my god’s birthday,” she’d pulled me into her bedroom to show me her altar, a shuttered shelf at the top of the basement stairs where dollar bills were Scotch taped to Technicolor prints of Hindu gods. I loved Doris the way I loved Brooklyn—loyally, condescendingly, a little bit fanatically—even if she was too much a watch-guard sometimes, too much invested in my comings and goings, the way she now nodded appraisingly at Eytan, hands folded in her lap, then jutted her chin toward my apartment: “Go.”
Eytan looked exactly as he’d looked in the Facebook photo I’d creeped several months earlier: string-beany, fair-haired. It was rare enough for me to see baggy jeans on tall skinny young white men that his registered as a potential statement, derivative of a new-agey ashram fantasy, a nostalgia for bygone skateboarding days, or perhaps a meta-hip anti-hipness. Upstairs, he asked where I was moving and why, and, enthusiastic about my Iowa-writing future, told me about his MFA in fiction. Oh really? I answered coolly, but I couldn’t bring myself to share that I also had an MFA in fiction, or ask, as I would have asked any actual stranger, whether he knew any of the people I knew who’d gotten MFAs where he had, and what he was doing now. Instead I offered him his choice of literary magazines from the stack I needed to get rid of, and blathered about how glad I was for the couch to be going to a good home. I’d well-loved the thing through nearly all my seven years in the city, and the only reason I wasn’t dragging it to Iowa (but I didn’t tell this part to Eytan) was because I’d vowed to bring only the furniture I wouldn’t feel bad about owning on the morning I woke up thirty, just a few months away: ripped couches older than me didn’t qualify. Moving to Iowa was an excuse to force something real from that artificial boundary, even if getting a second MFA (greedy!) basically negated whatever meaning thirty was supposed to carry. Even if excising ripped couches from my life was not exactly a sign of anything real.
A few hours later, I’d be sitting with Marie on Red Hook’s waterfront pier, savoring a last sunset over the Statue of Liberty, along with two exquisite cookies from the bakery I’d first visited on an August afternoon seven years earlier—“monster oatmeal,” “chocolate cloud.” This was after a swim in the huge public pool, after we’d changed out of our suits in the cavernous women’s locker room with its Whitmanesque horde of bodies. We’d split a loroco-flower pupusa, seated across a picnic table from an old guy who’d only smiled, showing gaps in his teeth, when we asked if the space was free; and then, on the pier, we’d observed a stranger swiftly distract his white-haired toddler after a tearful fall. Maybe that was what triggered it, or maybe it was Eytan’s appearance that afternoon, or the vaguely romantic situation in which we found ourselves; or maybe this was simply our default mode, the subject our imaginations drifted to when they were idle, I don’t know—but soon enough we had lapsed into our most familiar, ever-alluring, essentially reprehensible conversation: The One About Being Single.
Was it that we were just tonguing our pain like the tender gap in an eight-year-old’s gums where she’s waiting for a grown-up tooth to come in? Were we making ourselves feel any better, reminding each other that, in the midst of the many friends’ relationships I liked to refer to as terminal, we weren’t as alone as we felt? Were those conversations actually productive, as when we picked apart the ways we’d been left behind, the former best friends who’d forgotten what it was like not to live with a partner, to subject yourself to embarrassing and depressing dates with strangers sifted through online—? The unstated question, of course, was always which one of us will go first, and its subtext please don’t forget this, don’t leave me behind.
Or were they counterproductive, our conversations about being single, cementing in us an identity—the single woman, age thirty; prototype Sex and the City—we claimed to be desperate to escape? It had snuck up on me, in just the last year, the potential for singlehood to become central to my interactions with the world, and it felt insidious. Don’t write about it, Marie and I agreed. If you did you’d become the woman who wrote about it, your record forever tarnished, a Hillary among Obamas, credibility undone.
A centerpiece of these conversations was speculation about whether it was just blind chance, bad luck, that we’d not yet partnered up, or whether there was something in us that prevented long-term attachment, something we might control, as had occurred to me for the first time the previous winter, when a married friend asked, Well, why aren’t you married? (Typical dick move from someone who’s lost her memory of being unpartnered, Marie and I agreed … and yet.) We referred to the literature, Wikipedia entries on limerence, articles in The New York Times (“Sometimes, It’s Not You”) and The Atlantic (“The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough”) that made us feel better or worse; we compared the different kinds of in love we’d felt (mine were like worship, hers like nurturing or motherhood, but maybe respect, appreciation, or plain affection were acceptable in-betweens). Still, I didn’t have the courage to tell Marie the truth—that I did think it might be our fault, that I harbored a secret theory in which friends who partnered up were of two kinds: either they had a strong, unshakeable sense of self, which persisted, untouched, through romantic formation; or else they just didn’t care that much about their selfhood: they were old-fashioned and un-New-York-ish, content just to love and be loved in return. Marie and I, I figured, were stuck in an ugly in-between—we paid too much attention to ourselves, and yet could not quite see who we were.
When it got dark, we wandered to a newish, open-air, industrial-chic corner bar, one I’d only ever admired in passing. This wasn’t my very favorite bar, which was nearby, and the favorite bar of a thousand other young Brooklynites too (but Sunny’s had been my favorite bar first, I maintained, since back when it offered free bowls of honey-mustard pretzels and was still considered far enough from public transport that the crowd was not even half young and hip: being at Sunny’s felt like being on an old ship at sea, I liked to say). The cocktail menu at this other place reminded Marie of a Portlandia episode I hadn’t seen. Each drink was thirteen dollars, but I felt none of my habitual guilt or worry about the indulgence, because I was leaving. It was like the night, the week before, when I’d limped out of a torturously long Chinatown bus ride from Boston and allowed myself to take a cab home, even though I was opposed to cabs (corrupt industry, awful worker welfare, too expensive, global warming). That night, I’d been safe in knowing that this cab could not open up a “can of cabs”: no unwise pattern would gain a foothold from this single transgression. I had no more future in New York, and so I could let myself go.
The lists that Marie and I began to write when our drinks arrived had the same feel. One hundred qualities you wanted in a partner: the ridiculous, the impossible, the unbendable—all of our ideas, Marie said, must be included. We did it because an older friend had told Marie that she’d made such a list once, in her early thirties, and had met her husband nearly immediately after. Once, I would have been skeptical, or at least superstitious about writing down such a thing, but now, certain that leaving New York was a sentence to singlehood anyway, I figured why the hell not.
No picky eaters, I began. Not a writer (?). Not anti-memoir. Not weird about Brooklyn (too much affection/too much opposition). Not consumerist. Foreign or not intimidated by/overly amused by foreignness. Not neurotic about vegetable chopping. Not whiny about physical ailments. Humor = tragedy. Good hands. Not risk-averse. Hope over fear. Very good sense of direction. Prefers B.O. to deo. Doesn’t hit snooze. Not too gullible about social movements, but more so than me.
In fact that whole evening was a kind of capitulation: I was giving in to the cost of the drinks, to the trope of the single woman in New York, even to the kind of close friendship that too often makes me squeamish. I could give in, because I had “nine days left to live,” as I liked to say—I was no longer really there. Marie and I read selections from our lists aloud to each other (some items, like No picky eaters, I didn’t share: I didn’t want to have to explain that I associated picky eating with sexual unease) and we sipped on our fancy drinks (I remember only that they were poured over hand-cut ice), and then, just as I was sliding into a bittersweet sort of bliss, just as I was beginning to feel that peculiar satisfaction that comes with leaving behind something you’ve truly loved, Marie said, “I’m so glad we got to have this Red Hook day.” She added benignly, “I haven’t really gotten to explore Red Hook much before.”
I froze. For having lived in the city two years longer than Marie, I suddenly felt infinitely older—shriveled, dried up, and half-dead. Because, along with subway dozers, Craigslist postings that reached only my immediate peers, and watching yet another acquaintance’s eyes widen with recognition at the idea of the Saturn return (at a party once, my explanation of the concept had made a stranger cry), here was another typical New York thing I definitely would not miss. It was the way someone could send a totally legit email to five or ten friends that asked, Anyone want to go explore some neighborhood this weekend? Am thinking Long Island City or Jackson Heights, but open to other ideas; the way home-tourism (did this include your downstairs landlord’s bedroom?) was so acceptable, so widely craved, even lauded. You’d come back and tell your friends about the braided smoked cheese you’d found at a bodega, calling it “an Armenian sort of string cheese”; or you’d brag about the assortment of Russian candies at the little grocery that was catty-corner from “your” block (mine), where I bought bags of frozen cherry vareniki made in Ukraine and by-the-pound marinated peppers and eggplant so good I couldn’t not refer to them as crack. Here in Red Hook, the neighborhood where my personal New York mythology had begun (a story for another time), the idea of exploring repulsed me.
Maybe it was because I’d taught at city schools for five years by then, and so interacted more than most of my friends with born-and-bred Brooklynites: their exoticism had ceased to enthrall me, or, at least, peeping it from the last stop on the Q train felt far less acceptable than via the scads of writing assignments that littered my apartment’s carpeted floor. Maybe it was because, on the eve of my departure, I needed Red Hook, and all the other semi-exotic pockets of Brooklyn, to become not-exotic, normalized, so that I’d be able to claim them for my own when I was far away. Or maybe it’s this thing that occurred to me, sitting across from Marie that evening, for the first time: that although we tell ourselves our aversion to the hipsterization of bars like Sunny’s, neighborhoods like Red Hook, is because we oppose gentrification, we’re so moral and high-minded, actually it might be more simply because we hate ourselves. After all, we go to Sunny’s to get away, we go swimming in the Red Hook pool to get away, we go to Coney Island and Brighton Beach to get away, we go to that good Thai place in Queens to get away, we ride our bikes to the Rockaways to get away, we get on a shuttle bus to the Korean Spa Castle to get away, we subway out to the last Jewish deli in the Bronx to get away, we go to the East Village shvitz to get the fuck away. For young “white” people in my generation, being in New York might be mostly (and impossibly) about escaping ourselves.
Like the theory about our being to blame for our own singlehood, like the hunch about picky eaters, this was a revelation I wouldn’t share with Marie that night, not only because it might hurt her feelings, but also because we were too old. It was a thing I’d noticed, among friends: the closer we got to thirty, the less honest we were with each other, the more tactful and restrained. Many times I’d wished Marie or whoever would just be straight with me, responding, after yet another detail-filled recounting of some pseudo-romance, not Do you think he might…? or Do you think you might…? but He’s not into you, and You really have trust issues, H. But this wasn’t a thing you could demand of a friend, or at least it wasn’t a thing I felt comfortable asking of mine: I needed them too badly to risk hurt feelings or loss. So I replied that I was glad we’d had this day, too—I was.
Especially because I hadn’t been as good a friend to Marie, that afternoon, as I’d hoped to be. Eytan and I had been navigating the couch down the narrow stairwell when I first heard, then saw, the sweat pattering from the tip of his nose onto the leather armrest, and remembered how Marie had described lying underneath him, the first time they’d hooked up, and being subjected to a wash of perspiration that both disgusted her and made her feel bad for feeling disgusted. I couldn’t ask Eytan if he knew Marie, wouldn’t dare utter her name in his presence, and the reason this felt so impossible had something to do with how Marie’s story of that awkward evening (she’d assumed he was wearing a condom; he’d assumed that since she was on birth control it was okay not to) had in a way become mine.
I guess that’s part of what it means to live in a place, too—to share a story with the other people who are there. In late spring, after I’d decided to move, when Marie said to me that she’d always need to live somewhere with the stimulation and stuff-to-do-ness of New York, I would mostly believe her—certainly she was someone capable of being busier, and more gracefully busy, than me, and I knew she’d once spent a summer being unhappily un-busy in Wisconsin—but I’d also wonder whether this wasn’t just one of those stories we tell ourselves to keep ourselves where we are, sort of like how Didion says “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” but in this case a story in order to die, to kill off the other lives we might lead, the same way that most people who give advice are forever saying Do exactly what I did. We have the conversations we want to have, say the things we want to be saying, and even as I write this, I am aware of how much it is the story I want to be telling: a story to shed my New York self, to leave it behind.
After the cocktails, Marie and I were hungry again, so we wandered to a nearby dive for a basket of fries. In the backyard, a handful of solitary-looking people in their forties or fifties were having some kind of meeting, standing and reciting poetry to one another. Marie and I had run out of things to say, so we listened in, trying to discern whether the poems were original or famed. In a way it felt perfect, exactly the sort of scene I might want to remember about Brooklyn: the relief of the evening after a hot day, the smell of someone else’s cigarette, the comforting familiarity of the unsteady backyard table with its umbrella-hole, plus the hushed reverence of literate people who believed themselves touched by some higher art. At the same time, I was acutely aware of how much I did not want to turn into those people. They brought to mind the handful of older women I stayed friends with mostly to remind myself of who I didn’t want to become: someone who anticipated trips to the grocery store aloud in conversation, someone whose denial of her own loneliness was expressed in a calendar marked with the minutest occasions—someone, in short, who pretended to be happy. This too, though, was a thing I hesitated to say aloud: I wasn’t sure I could avoid implicating Marie in their charade.
When we finished the fries, Marie asked me to orient her toward the bus stop she needed. In my experiments with online dating, I’d had to make newness to New York as much an automatic disqualifier as including in your “About Me” the platitude I love Brooklyn—the prospect of enduring any more best-coffee discoveries or bushy-tailed observations about the L train had become oppressive, suffocating—and now, hugging my friend goodnight, I marveled at the fact that I’d been able to feel so close to someone who still got disoriented on public transportation, who deigned to pull out her phone and double-check my directions against HopStop, the Idiot’s Guide to going anywhere. I climbed on my bike and stood to pedal uphill. It was the thing I knew I’d miss most about New York, and it is the thing I miss most: those nighttime rides through one tidily defined neighborhood after another. That evening I left the cobblestoned street where, in the 1960s, my grandfather had owned a dry-goods store, then passed the Red Hook Housing Projects, wove under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, crossed the Gowanus canal, pedaled up wide Ninth Street in Park Slope (past the apartment where I’d lived for my first three and a half years, past Smiley’s pizza, where clutches of newly minted adults were now ordering their own late-night slices), and finally into Prospect Park, where it was quiet and misty and cool, and an easy downhill to get home.
My theory about the incestuousness of New York’s Craigslist would at first seem to pan out: the next taker after Eytan was another guy in his late twenties with whom I’d turn out to have friends in common. But by the time the last of the Craigslisters showed up, on the night before I left, to claim my waterstained second sofa, I was no longer sure. She entered my apartment reeking of earnestly applied perfume and, after accepting the weak Dust Buster and perpetually slow wall clock I’d decided I could not turn thirty with, effused about how great it was to meet me, and how I had her number now, if I was ever back in the city. Then she sat down on the sofa we’d deposited at the foot of my landlord’s driveway, waiting for a van service to come pick her up. I returned to my apartment, now totally empty aside from the refrigerator and the vase of sunflower heads some friends had brought over. In the morning I’d give that stubby bouquet to Doris and she’d exclaim “Oh my god! So beautiful!” before squeezing me into her embrace and making me promise to call her when I got married. But first I laid a sheet and pillow on the bare floor, then peeked out the window at my last Craigslister, still sitting there on my old sofa. This was what I was leaving behind: that young woman outside, an empty room.
Helen Rubinstein’s essays and fiction have been published in The Collagist, Ninth Letter, Salt Hill, Slice, Witness, The Best Women’s Travel Writing Vol. 9, and elsewhere. She is an MFA student in nonfiction at the University of Iowa and a graduate of Brooklyn College’s MFA program in fiction.