Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Proposal Story

“So when did you know she was the One,” asked my friend and co-conspirator on our way to procure an engagement ring.

“Is this really the time for ‘philosophical’ questions?” I thought. I was preoccupied by our lateness. And besides, finding such a decisive moment in my relationship is like chasing the horizon. It recedes with each step toward it and mockingly approaches when I retreat. Even if I were to undertake such a task and trace the events of our relationship in search of such a moment, I would eventually arrive at the day that met and still not have an answer. This limit, the day that we met, would confront me like a mountain range, or an ocean, or a glacial canyon, or even the edge of an imagined flat Earth, beyond which I would surmise lies the truth, the moment when I knew she was the one. The insistence in my friend’s eyes told me that her question was not rhetorical, so I gave an equally philosophical answer, one that I had given before. “I guess I always knew.”

“From the first moment you met her?” Her eyes widened incredulously.

“Well, no, not exactly.” The memory of the small smoky dance floor of the no-longer-existing SoMa (“South of Market”) Bar and Lounge returned. While I was there one night in the spring of 2005, I approached a shapely silhouette and silently propositioned her to dance with me to the alluring baseline, rather than just scooting up behind. “It’s just that you always know,” I continued, “from the beginning, if someone has the potential.”

I hadn’t answered the question, deliberately, mainly because I couldn’t answer it. Was it our first encounter, our first kiss, or our first confession of love? Or was it an unremarkable moment that could only ever be identified as “a moment passed”? Or perhaps my “philosophical” response was accurate for reasons that I could not begin to understand. Was the entire serendipitous sequence of events that comprised my life a prelude to every moment that is yet to come, including my asking the-subject-of-my-deepest-affection for her hand? In short, are the circumstances of my life fate (which I must presume to even believe in the One) or chance?

Nonetheless, there was a distinct and memorable point in our relationship when I began to plan. During the fall of 2007, after recently confronting the dramatic consequences of our brief cohabitation, I walked into a tiny jewelry store in Chinatown, and was willingly seduced into purchasing a ring, allegedly for her, actually for me. Well, not actually for me, because it was most definitely a lady’s ring—an oval cut stone flanked by two trillion cut stones set on a thin white gold band with a filigree design. It was pretty enough, for me. But for the-subject-of-my-deepest-affection it was as tacky as the little red box that housed it. Even in the jewelry store, I found the stones too dark. Also, the filigree design was distracting, and the setting itself was too intricate for my unrefined tastes.

Nonetheless, the purchased ring served a purpose. Like trying on a new pair of shoes before buying them, I tried on the idea of engagement. For months, with the ring buried in my wallet, I would play a game with myself, imagining the contexts of its conspicuousness—the attention it would draw adorning her slender fingers and providing an accent to the rich complexion of her skin; the feel of it against my fingertips while we held hands; the casual incorporation into her daily attire. I would daydream the possible scenarios of its exchange, the proposal itself. Would I be on one knee? Would I write her a poem? Would she be surprised? Would it be public or private? Would it be a good story to tell, or would only the two of us smile while remembering it? Would she like the ring primarily because she found it beautiful or because of what it represented? Would she say yes?

By the following summer, I had decided that I would give her a sapphire. It had taken me nine months to translate her simple preference for a stone-other-than-a-diamond into a concrete gem. I considered black pearls, emeralds, amethysts, and rubies. I still don’t know exactly why I chose a sapphire. It did, though, have the happy coincidence of also being her birth stone. Through my extensive research I learned that there are sapphire mines in Montana, where the beautiful and rare Yogo Sapphires are found. As soon as I had the chance, I would rent a car, drive to those mines in Montana, and stay until I had removed from the earth with my own hands the perfect stone that symbolized my love—cerulean and brilliant, organic and rough, ready to be fashioned into a gem. I would have their experienced stone cutters sculpt my find into an elegant cushion, emerald, or round-cut shape. I could see the ring already: a single sapphire in a simple solitaire setting fashioned from a white metal to help the blue spring off the hand in the absence of glittering diamonds. What a story it would be, chronicling the trek to Montana, detailing the tedious process of sifting through piles of gravel, and the triumphant moment of its discovery, pulled from the rabble and treasured like the meaning of life. But whether it was fate or circumstance, the “chance” that I awaited never arrived. How could I disappear for potentially a week or two and have my plan not be discovered?

While I waited, nonetheless, summer impatiently matured into fall, and I continued to scour the internet with disappointing results. Between online photographs and jewelry stores, I had viewed easily over a thousand rings and stones. My eye had sharpened considerably. At a glance I could gauge color quality, carat size, and often price. But then one restless afternoon, almost a year to the day since my stroll through Chinatown, a ray of hope that I had not encountered before emerged from the rabble of Google like a patch of sky winking through the rain clouds—GemsNY and the charming jeweler, Vishnu.

“Vishnu?” I initially thought, “like the Hindu god?” Were the Fates mocking the seriousness of my project? Or was divine guidance making itself known? Or was this merely another coincidence, and any attempt to extract meaning was an unfortunate consequence of reading too much Derrida on too little sleep?

As a wholesaler, GemsNY did not have a store. The address wasn’t even on their website. I could order loose stones online, or call them. Though I tried to maintain the skeptical stance that had sharpened my eye, the voice that answered the phone sounded disarmingly sincere. I discerned a patience in his salesmanship that was completely absent from individuals I encountered in the retail market. In fact, he encouraged me to explore the Manhattan diamond district before scheduling an appointment so that I would have a better sense of the excellent stone quality and prices that they offer. Was this place real? Or was Vishnu just the front man of another scam destined to end in disappointment? I told Vishnu that I had done my research, and then asked him to set aside eight stones selected from his online inventory for me to see.

On the morning of my appointment, I still had my doubts, but what did I have to lose, I thought. My co-conspirator and I stood before the painfully plain building on 48th street. On either sides of the entrance were glittering display windows, full of jewelry of all sorts. The building we were about to enter was a stone rectangular entryway with a simple glass door, adorned with little more than the street number. The doorman in lobby waved us to the elevators beyond him without even asking our names. We got off at the fourth floor and meandered to the end of a narrow winding hallway, passing the identical doors of what I assumed were other wholesalers. A few moments later, we were standing in the tiny lobby of the family business, GemsNY. A smiling and young, cocoa-complected Indian man approached and greeted us. “Hello. I am Vishnu.” He was mortal after all.

He ushered us into his office, making small talk and waving away our apologies for our lateness. Then he extracted from a drawer the eight stones I had requested—three oval-cuts, two cushion-cuts, an emerald-cut, a square-cut, and a round-cut, each one a slightly different shade of blue. Though they were all beautiful, the brilliance of the round-cut immediately set it apart, and that is what I ultimately chose.

Within a week it was set and the following Sunday I was sitting in a sunlit study with the father of the-subject-of-my-deepest-affection.

“So what is it you wanted to speak to me about?” His Ghanaian accent massaged the hospitality that projected from his warm and suspiciously prescient smile.

“Well, I’ll be direct,” deciding that brevity would lend me confidence. “I am very fond of your daughter. I love her. And I would like your blessing to ask for her hand in marriage.”

His smile grew broader and he said, “Well, you have my blessing! Welcome to the family.” I stood up and hugged him. “I will tell my wife, but I assume you want us to keep this a secret until you ask—“

“Yes, please.”

The afternoon that followed seemed impossibly long since I weighed every moment as potentially THE moment. Right before dinner, which the mother of the-subject-of-my-deepest-affection assured me would be “special,” I approached the-subject-of-my-deepest-affection and suggested we take a walk.

“Why?” she asked simply.

I paused as I tried to measure whether her question was born of suspicion or genuine curiosity. If she was suspicious, I would dismiss the suggestion as a passing whim, an impulsive way to spend our idle time before dinner and an efficient means of staving off the boredom to which it seemed we were slowly succumbing. If she was merely curious then I would press the issue, alluding to the freshness of the fall air, the alluring quality of the long shadows at this time of day, and the unique opportunity to pass by the Japanese maple at the end of the block that had recently exploded into phoenix red. That is where I would propose to her I thought. I will ask her on bended knee by the trunk of that beautiful tree, beneath that crimson umbrella, dramatic against the cerulean sky.

But before I could respond, she asked again. “Why?” and continued, “It’s too cold for a walk, and dinner is too soon anyway.”

“You’re right,” is all I said, and left it at that.

The following day, we returned to New York together. My housemate was absent. It was nearly six o’clock so we began to cook—thick pan-seared tuna steaks, sautéed broccoli and mushrooms, and Jasmine rice. I set the table in the dining room and poured us each a glass of water.

When half of our dinner was eaten, a compulsion suddenly arose in me like sneeze, with nothing left to do but breathe deeply and let it out. She asked me about a poem that she saw me secretly composing. Where was circumstance to ‘save’ me now, I thought. After a slight hesitation, aware that this was THE moment, I confessed.

“The poem I was writing is not finished, but it is to tell you how I feel about you.” She stopped chewing. I leaned confidently across the table, extending my hands, palms up, but her hands were in her lap. She swallowed the remaining food in her mouth. I closed one hand over the other. “I care for you very much, and I wonder would you do me the honor of being my wife?”

A few silent seconds passed. “Are you serious?” she squeaked.

“Yes, very serious. In fact, I have a ring.” I pulled the little black box from my pocket, opened it, and presented the ring to her. She glanced at it for two seconds before her face contorted into what seemed like a grimace and the backs of her hands sprang from her lap to catch the tears that leapt from her crinkled eyelids.

“Is that a ‘yes’?”

“Yes, Yes!”

Thursday, July 17, 2008

William the Bad

A long night of unsupervised activity culminated in William, four years old, standing with his arm cocked to toss the plastic spoon in his hand into the whirling blades of a floor box fan. Standing only a short distance away, I saw the entire scene develop, but was intrigued into inactivity by a moment’s hesitation, his hesitation. For a few seconds he was just standing there. Was he weighing his motivation against the possibility of punishment, I thought? And if so, let me grant him his reflective moment. But as we know, it only lasted a few seconds, just long enough to leave me out of position, like the effects of a well-executed stutter step. The noise was the worst part. The spoon broke immediately, disposable anyway, and was ejected through the back, and the blades continued to cool the room in their endless cycle, apparently unperturbed. But perception is always more influential than fact and that is not how William’s act was perceived—as simply a broken spoon and a loud noise. The crowd of adults that were busying themselves cleaning the room all stared in brief surprise. His mother stared at him threateningly, and as he retreated from her gaze she marched him into a corner. The fear in his eyes seemed punishment enough, at least for now, and perhaps understanding this, his mother simply sat him on a chair and forbid him to move. Everyone ignored his crying.

“William is soooooooo bad!” the conversation began a few hours later. “Did you see him throw the spoon into the fan?”

“Yes I did,” some said. “No, but I heard it,” said others.

“What do you mean ‘bad’?” I asked

“Just that. He is BAD!” one shot back in an authoritative air laced with the ardor of communicating truth.

Others laughed, and offered support. “Did you see him shaking salt into the lemonade?”

More laughter. “I saw him completely whack his sister with those Styrofoam noodles.”

More laughter. “I saw him stuffing cashews into the noodle,” offered another.

“Into the green one right?” asked another.


“And he was stomping food into the carpet.” More laughter.

“He is sooooo bad!”

Again I retorted, “What do you mean ‘bad’?”

“What you don’t agree? How would you describe his behavior?”

“I think William needs much closer supervision.”

“Yes, BAD!” one shot back. More laughter.

“Is that what you mean? He requires effort? Then your son is ‘bad’ too,” I added, addressing the only parents in the room with regard to their utterly adorable 10-month old.

“Well, no, all children require effort,” someone responded.

“Then say what you mean. I feel as though saying he’s ‘bad’ doesn’t communicate anything useful. I’m not saying William’s behavior wasn’t problematic but I feel like you all are so busy being adults, you can’t understand William.” I contemplated listing the connotations of ‘bad’ and showing their imprecision—inferior, unpleasant, unfortunate, decayed, injured, ashamed, disobedient, morally offensive, worthless. Even the most relevant to a child’s behavior, ‘disobedient,’ lacks precision, for who was William disobeying by throwing the spoon? Even if he was instructed to ‘be good,’ what does ‘good’ behavior look like, smiling and still? In William’s case, what is the difference between curiosity and mischief, or being strong-willed and stubborn? Is it a matter of scale of perspective?

“Ok, tell me this,” another asked. “Of all the children at the dinner, if you had to take one home to babysit for the night, wouldn’t you choose any of the others over William?”

“Not necessarily.”

“I feel like your response is not really because of the imprecision of the word ‘bad.’ Were you called ‘bad’ as a child?”

In the telling silence that followed, I blinked furiously, trying to wipe away with my eyelids the images that the insightful question had resurrected. I was called ‘bad’ as a child. I was stubborn, mischievous, short-tempered, confrontational, and probably many other things that made me a burdensome charge. It wasn’t, however, the word itself that so strongly affected me. It was the attitude towards me that those who believed it adopted. But in that moment, that wasn’t the argument I wanted to make; I read it as a weak appeal to their sympathy. An appeal that if mishandled could have been hurtful.

Someone was approaching me with a hug, but on my corneas between blinks burned the frustration of vulnerability and I stopped the approach at arms length.

“I don’t need a hug!” I said angrily. “Don’t insult me with a simplistic reduction of my argument to the bias of my point of view.”

That ended the conversation. Nothing more was said of William the Bad.

Later, the-subject-of-my-deepest-affection told me that had I invoked my experience, my case would have been stronger. Rather than hearing the final question as a challenge to my claim to objective truth, I could have heard it as an appeal to the irreducibly specific, subjectively true nature of perspective.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Little Red Box

The little red box was tacky—heart-shaped and candy red and coated in the bristly quasi-softness of imitation velvet. It was too tacky to be the box for a ring, the ring. And even if the thought of such contents motivated its acquisition, I had no pretensions of this box serving that purpose. But it did serve a purpose. Like trying on a new pair of shoes before purchase, getting used to the feel of them on your feet, accounting for their unfamiliarity and stiffness yet projecting into the possibility of their inconspicuousness, their naturalness, I would finger the little red box alone in my room trying on the idea of its use. Holding it under a lamp in the palm of my hand, I would open it with my thumb, straining slightly against the stiff springs of its hinge and imagine an inhabitant half buried in the pursed lips of the cushion within. It would not be a diamond; that had been specified. Yet if that were the case, what would it be—jade, sapphire, amber, pearl? Would it be faceted—round, princess, oval, marquis—or rough? Would it be set traditionally, or something as unorthodox as the stone, and in what material—in gold, platinum, hemp? Into the white underside of the lid, I asked these questions of the little red box. And into the fabric of its silent response I would weave the daydream of the scene of exchange—the context, the question. Before the response, however, I would close the lid with a snap, stopping short of uncertainty.

I played this game with myself for months. And each time I was always sure to hide the box afterwards where only I could reach or would care to look—that is until the day I moved out of my apartment and the subject of my contemplation helped me pack. Carelessly I left it out, meaning to take it with me like everything else. We entered my room, her on my heels, and in the few seconds it took for me to notice my oversight and snatch the little red box from the surface of my dresser—perhaps had I removed it more casually it may have gone unnoticed—the tranquility of ignorance with regard to my secret that previously characterized her expression was replaced by the fire of curiosity.

When I refused to show her what I was hiding, she unsuccessfully tried to wrestle it from my pocket. Over the next three weeks the secret contents of the little red box became the preferred currency for the most trivial of exchanges—recipes of well-made dinners, the responsibility of washing the dishes, the privilege of choosing the rented movie—each of which I opted to do without. After each proposal I changed the hiding place, assuming her curiosity, if tested, would outweigh my caution.

But finally, one warm summer night, she asked me more tenderly than ever before to tell her what was in the little red box. It occurred to me that I could show her its interior while still keeping my secret. The contents that I guarded were simply a series of intentions, which like the air, though tangible is invisible.

So I reached over her shoulder to extract the box from it most recent hiding place and offered it to her to open. My sudden acquiescence and the proximity of the hiding place made her suspicious, and she said as much, simultaneously suggesting that the pursuit of a secret is more enjoyable than its discovery; but she opened the box nonetheless. Obviously disappointed by its emptiness, but perhaps relieved that her persistence hadn’t ruined a romantic moment, she accused me of having removed the contents and orchestrating this scene to derail her curiosity.

Am I so transparent?

Thursday, January 10, 2008


The change was like noticing that you have grown, so subtle that it went unnoticed but dramatic when brought to your attention.

As we spoke on the phone late one night, she casually made reference to our distant future. Consoling me over the recent sale of my car, she said, “Don’t worry. We’ll have another car one day.”

Perhaps it was my sleepiness that lowered my guard. But instead of hearing the plural pronoun—embroidered into the fabric of the future tense—instead of hearing it like a bad cell phone connection, I registered it but responded as if it were as innocuous as an apostrophe collapsing two words into an efficient contraction. This sleepy concession, however, surprised me. When had I stopped fighting? When had I stopped being afraid of the echoes of a simple consolation such as this? How long before I could easily concede references to our home, or to our children, and their implications?

Merely weeks ago I would have teased her over such unguarded word choice, parroting the phrase with the inflexion of a question, emphasis on the conspicuous pronoun. And she might have done the same, both of us, in this way, guarding our independence and vulnerability. In fact, it had become some kind of game that we’d play, speaking circuitously to maintain an ambiguity about the possibility of our futures together. We’d both diligently serve as both player and referee, despite all the signs suggesting that our long term intentions were the same.

But this night, I didn’t play, and neither did she. I simply let the reference and its implications pass over me like the sleepiness to which I was slowly succumbing. And though this indicated a definite change, that night at least, it went unacknowledged, both of us still guarding our vulnerability.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Driving Maxine always makes me impatient. Perhaps it’s her—the six cylinders, the 275 horsepower, or the sound system whose clarity takes me away from the road. Or perhaps it’s me—a reckless young man, reinforcing the insurance company’s claims to atrocious rates. Either way, just as I’m approaching the bridge, I whip out from behind the tan corolla that has been doing the speed limit in front of me and triumphantly speed into the gradual incline of the open road of the bridge. Everyone is behind me. I turn up the music. The crosswinds are strong without the other cars to dampen them, but Maxine holds the road and I push her harder. When I reach the crest of the bridge, Maxine becomes airborne. Once we have severed our connection with the ground, the world becomes…strange. We’re not coming down. What happened to gravity? I frantically buckle my seatbelt. But then quickly calm down when I realize that I am dreaming. Though I know my life isn’t in danger, I still can’t reconcile the strangeness of these events with sense of mundanity. I sit upright and take in the view. The sun is setting to my right—the cerulean autumn sky is melting into oranges and reds, and a few clouds that are turning gray in silhouette stripe the horizon. In the air, however, the steering wheel no longer determines my direction. My head does, and Maxine is drifting off the bridge. Surprisingly, I know this. I straighten my head and Maxine resumes her trajectory above a lane. I keep peaking, however, at the slowly fading spectacle out of the corner of my eye, afraid to miss a moment. And due to my divided attention, Maxine finally does drift over the edge of the bridge. Before arriving at the other bank, I lose altitude and plunge into the river. In my rearview mirror I notice the rest of the traffic also raining into the river—a white Hummer, a long black limo, many SUVs, one red convertible with a woman’s equally red hair trailing toward the sky like a crashing meteor. Is it common to fall off this bridge? I swim out through the sunroof and guide Maxine slowly to the shore. She’s buoyant enough to lead with one hand, or am I’m just stronger in dreams. Should I be concerned about the engine? Everyone else does the same, so I dismiss my concerns. No one appears to be hurt. Once the wheels hit the sand, I drive Maxine onto the dry land. A tall, spindly, white woman with glasses that look too heavy for her nose greets us at the shore and directs us to a toll booth on the road. The mundanity of our situation is conveyed in the boredom of her tone. I follow the narrow dirt footpath to what looks like a lemonade-stand and present my soggy ticket. What ever happened to E-Z-pass?
“Five dollars!” demands a little boy with a surprisingly deep voice. This is a state employee? He couldn’t have been more than 12 years old.
“Huh!” I thought the toll was $4, I think to myself.
“Five dollars mister!” he repeats more insistently.
Before I can protest, a tall round-bellied man in a backwards Yankees cap returns behind the counter. He’s panting. Without missing a beat, “Four dollars sir!” he says in a voice almost identical to the boy’s.
I fix the little boy with a menacing look and fish four dollar bills, crumpled and wet, from my pocket.
“Oh!” the man begins puzzled. “You came outta the river?”
“Five dollars sir!”
“River animal preservation, River pollution prevention, Car washing, River bank maintenance—take your pick. But it’s five dollars.” The little boy sticks his tongue out at me. One would think I chose to fly off the bridge.
I find another crumpled, wet bill in my pocket, leave it on the counter, and step out of line, which by now winds all the way down to the riverbank. A little girl standing a few feet from the line shuffles to my side. She looks Native American, with almond skin, a cherubic round face, and straight, jet-black hair. I guess that she’s 6 years old. She is twirling her foot in ground, following her footwork with her eyes. I take one step back from her, finding the proximity uncomfortable.
“Can I help you?”
She faces me but doesn’t answer.
“Where are your parents?”
She shrugs her shoulders.
“Where do you live, where are you going?”
She meets my eyes and points vaguely over my shoulder. For a second I think she’s pointing at me rather than somewhere. I dismiss the thought and turn around to follow her finger in the direction of the continuing road.
I pause for a moment. “Are you stuck here?” I finally ask.
She nods.
“You should talk to the police at the toll booth.”
She shakes her head vigorously and grabs my hand imploringly.
“Ok, Ok. I’ll take you home.” Do I mean to my home or hers? She seems satisfied, but it’s not clear to me what she thinks I mean. “What’s your name?”
She relaxes and resumes her footwork. Then she mumbles into her chest, “Amber.”
“Amber, that’s a pretty name. My name is Amir. My car is this way.”
Standing next to my car is an attractive, ebony-black woman, with short hair. I make no attempt to hide my undressing glance. It’s my dream after all right? She has two bright-eyed children in tow, a boy and a girl, one white and blonde, one east Indian respectively, both about Amber’s age.
“D’you need a ride somewhere?” I offer.
“No. Do you?” She retorts.
Only then do I realize the car we’re standing beside isn’t Maxine. In fact, she’s nowhere in sight. Has she been stolen? My face must say it all, for I am speechless.
“Hop in. Tell me the story while we drive.”
Amber jumps in the back seat and begins playing with the other kids happily. As I walk around to the passenger side, I realize that she doesn’t know my name. Nor do I know hers. She hasn’t even asked me where I’m going. Does she care? Nor has she asked about Amber. Does she think she’s my daughter? And these other two children are clearly not ‘hers.’ Is this even her car? Was this Maxine’s fate, to be casually appropriated by a stranger? But as I watch Amber play, and settle into the passenger seat, the anesthetizing breath of mundanity fills my lungs and I exhale my fears.
I tell her what has happened to me since becoming airborne on the bridge. She listens in silence, eyes focused on the winding road. It’s dark now. I have no idea where we’re going. The kids have fallen asleep in a pile on the back seat.
“Well, I need to go home first,” speaking for the first time since we started driving. “But afterwards, I’ll help you any way you need except bear your children.”
I turn to her in surprise.
She glances away from the road and winks. “Just kidding,” she adds.
But I’m not sure what she is recanting—the obviously flirtatious proposition implied in helping me in any way, or the qualifier that she would not bear my children? I smile and decide not to ask for clarification.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


“Please enter your password. Then press pound,” says the mechanical voice, timbre pitch programmed to connote gender. Can a machine or a recording be, or even sound, female?
The phone beeps with each number I type—*****.
“You have 7 saved voice messages,” the voice continues. “To listen to you messages press 1. To send a message, press 2. To change your personal options, press 4. To disconnect press star.”
I don’t have any new messages, but this call is simply to indulge in nostalgia. I press 1.
“First saved voice message.”
“Hi babe it’s me. I just got your message I figured you were on the bus and maybe you could chat for a bit. Umm, I’m in the talks now but we have a little break. But I figure that you’re probably sleeping. In fact I can picture right now, with your head against the window and your mouth is open and your sleeping on your hand and your fingers are all curled up, on your cheek, and your probably drooling a little, and your eyes are all sleepy and squinty. But umm, yeah, (laugh, laugh) if you’re on the bus later, umm, we should be done like after 11. Umm, gimme a call then, or I’ll try to call you when I’m finished. Okay? Byyee.”
“End of message. To erase this message, press 7. To send a reply message, press 8. To save it, press 9. To hear more options, press 0.”
“This message will be saved for—40 days. Next message.”
“Hi A***, it’s mommy. Gimme a call sometime. Okee doke. Byye.”
“End of message. To erase this message, press 7. To send a re—”
“This message will be saved for—40 days. Next message.”
Singing into the phone he says “When you cry, I do a dance for—wait, that’s not very nice. When you cry, I dry your tears with the back of my wrist. And when you sneeze, I cover your nose with the front of my wrist. And when you fart, I fan your fart with the front of my wrist. And when—(Laugh, Laugh) And when you laugh, I have to laugh with all my…twist. (laugh) And when you sleep, I hold your head with the inside of my wrist. (laugh, laugh) Yo man I was listening to one of your old messages, and wondering what kinda poems you have on love these days. It may need a little addition to the progromme. So gimme a call back mon. And uh, you know uh, let’s touch base. Alright. Peace.”
“End of message. To erase—”
“This message will be saved for—40 days. Next message.”
“Hello this is R*** and F*** calling to wish A*** a happy birthday. I imagine that you’re either having the preparty, the party, the dinner, the afterparty, or making love. And we expect that there will be lots of love in all stages. (laugh) Umm, A***’s birthday on our end has been marked by the first night of Boric Acid. We hope it works. Talk to you later. Bye bye.”
“End of message—”
“This message will be saved for—40 days. Next message.”
“Hi babe, it’s me. I’m just calling to say that I’m going to sleep and to see how your studying is going, ummm. I guess your still engrossed in your books that you didn’t hear your phone, which is ok. I’m just getting to bed now so if you get this give me a call back, ummm. Otherwise have a good night and I love you very much. Bye.”
“End of message. To erase this message, press 7—”
“This message will be saved for—40 days. Next message.
Singing loudly into the phone, “Cousin A***. What’s up big boyy. This is R**, callin’ from the west coast. Tryin’ to see where you at. How ya livin’. What’s goin’ on in your world. Get back at me, whenever you got the time. Drop a dime. Call me at ###-###-####. Alright little brotha. Stay blessed. And keep on doin’ what ya do. Yeah! Much love, to you.”
“End of message. To erase this message, press 7—”
“This message will be saved for—40 days. Next message.
“Hi A*** this is M********* calling to find out if you got there ok. And I was beginning to wonder that I gave you the wrong address or the, or was steering you the wrong way on the wrong side of the street or something. Oh I don’t know, umm, cuz I know there are galleries on the opposite side of the street too. So, I hope you found it. And you’ll tell me all about it when I see you on Monday night I guess. Bye now.”
“End of message—”
“This message will be saved for—40 days. End of messages. To listen to your messages press 1.”

Friday, September 28, 2007

On the 1

For 10:15pm on a Thursday, it is crowded on the uptown 1, but we all have a seat. I force myself to read to overcome the occasionally embarrassing urge to people watch. But will only gets you so far. Somebody bumps your foot. A Hispanic woman boards the train speaking loudly in Spanish to a fussing toddler in tow. An older woman gets on at 34th street and I relinquish my seat by the door. Half the train leaves at Time Square to catch the 2 or 3 express and I sit back down. Though it would save me time to do the same, I stay on. In this insomniac city, I can relax in the illusion that I don’t need to move till I’m there. I try to read again, but then a young woman’s shadow casts on my page as she leans over to read the map behind me. I try not to glance at her cleavage. An a capela group enters from another car to sing for what change we can spare. They’re talented, but all I have is a 20. A teenage boy next to me listens to his music through headphones loudly enough for me to discern lyrics. I like the song. A homeless man tries to pluck our heartstrings with an honest appeal to our humanity. I’m moved, but not $20 worth. And it continues like that, one distraction after another, until by 96th street, where everyone going local before 168th boards. I’m amused to recognize two passengers who got off at 42nd.

Finally, I close my book and permit myself a good look around, deciding that even if enlightenment comes in the next paragraph, I’ll need to reread it. There are the usual furtive glances, seeing without seeing, contrasted by the unwavering stare of the man in sunglasses. There are the elder riders who watch with the confidence of their age. And then there are always the few sleeping souls probably going all the way to the Bronx. This week, I’ve been drawn to parents, or rather parenting. I watch curiously as mothers, fathers, entertain and contain their charges. But the whole time, they maintain an alertness equal to their children’s obliviousness, meeting the eyes of all observers in turn. When they get to me I smile and look away. Yesterday I saw a little boy, no older than 4, slap his mother full out across the face—straight arm, long back swing, open palm—only to be met by a firm stare. When I felt her eyes about to meet mine, I looked away, afraid to acknowledge what I’d seen. But tonight, except for the toddler of the Hispanic woman, now sleeping in his mother’s lap, there are no children on the 1. Directly across from me an attractive middle-aged, brown-skinned Dominican woman appears to sleep on the muscular shoulder of a tall, black man. A gold wedding band glistens on her fist, tucked under her chin. With his opposite hand, the man fingers lazily through a thin paper back, The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. Sometimes I feel as though I recognize passengers, strangers who regularly ride the 1 like I do. But amidst 8 million people, I dismiss the thought as improbable. Aside from the ethnic tendencies of the subways going to different boroughs, are all the trains like this? It was a pretty typical ride for me anyway, at least until 125th street.

The subway car came to a slow stop at the elevated station at 125th. About a dozen cell phones emerge to take advantage of our stint above ground, Chocolats, Razrs, Sidekicks, Blackberry’s. My pocket vibrates with a message, but I ignore it. The buzz of one-sided conversations fills the car. But as the doors open, a crying woman stumbles into the train. No, not crying, bawling. She looks up long enough to find the nearest seat, right corner, where those sitting nearby scatter as if her pain is contagious. Silence follows in her wake as we stare. She is an attractive Latina, casually dressed—jeans and a pink tank top, white tapered coat, matching Nike's and modest make up. She bends over her knees and weeps. I look around at the other passengers. What can one do? The sleeping Dominican starts to approach her, but is pulled back by the tall black man. I look at him, surprised. My glance catches his attention, but her averts his eyes. Shouldn’t someone do something? As the train pulls out of 137th, her tears continue to hypnotize us, demanding our silence. Suddenly, as we approach 145th, she sits up, struggles to remove a ring from her finger and throws it the length of the subway car, only to chase it immediately. She retrieves it just as the doors open, and runs out.