I feel like it’s a good sign that I was so busy on Monday I didn’t remember it was my 8th anniversary of living in New York. Running around Manhattan with friends on what I decided would be my day off, it only occurred to me the following day when I saw someone else wrote about their own anniversary. But New York, please know that I never truly forget about you, that I am perhaps always out celebrating you, the place where I became the person I always wanted to be. You are my first love, my forever love, but I’m sure you won’t be my last.
I had been thinking for a few weeks what I would write in honor of our time together, but two experiences in particular happened to unravel in the last 10 days. I feel telling their stories together will do you justice in all of your stunning highs and blistering lows. If living here has taught me anything, it’s that with every sparkle there are also bits of broken glass. And yet when the light hits those shards, they somehow sparkle anew.
On Friday, July 20 I am putting on the nude party heels I like to wear with my orange romper, the one I hardly ever get to wear because I often simply don’t have the occasion. I walk to the end of the block and realize the subway would be impossible on such stilts and decide instead to take a cab down Studio 123 Bowery near Grand Street. Up several tall flights of stairs, I am attending the launch party for a photography book of male nudes. Strangely unerotic, the pictures are tacked to a brick wall painted white.
I am chatting with the host, who introduces me to his friend, W. Are you an artist person, too? I ask. And indeed she is. In fact, she is a drag king and soon we are in a lengthy conversation about gender and drag and New York, walking around looking at work and chatting chatting chatting. She has been performing her drag persona, a 1970s-era game show host of sorts who pats the sweat off his face with an extra large red lace thong. The host of the party then introduces us to two Venezuelan gentlemen, one a fashion designer and one an interior designer, and soon we are laughing and talking about Big Dick Energy, who has it (Beyoncé) and who doesn’t (Jay Z). And we are having such a good time, that we all decide to go out for dinner together.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor isn’t far, and I’ve never been there, so I suggest it, everyone approves and we go. We find, however, that there’s a 40 minute wait once we arrive, so we put our names in, go next door to Apotheke, a cocktail bar made to look like a 19th century, you know...apothecary. We sip drinks made with duck fat or smoked pineapple or dandelion root, and before we know it our time is up (and maybe a little passed). So we walk the few steps over to Nom Wah and are seated immediately--close enough to closing time, it managed to clear out a bit before we arrived. First opened in 1920, it looks like a deliciously older diner with red and chrome accents and beige walls.
We settle into a booth and we put our faith in W to order for all of us. We dig into turnip cakes and bok choy and shu mai, all of which W has expertly ordered in Chinese. Our laughter echoes through the restaurant and we talk about pegging and if Oprah is a top or a power bottom and where you can get the best Venezuelan arepas in town (it’s in the Rockaways, apparently). How serendipitous that four such people should enter each other’s lives on such a Friday evening?
Exiting the restaurant, we part ways, not before watching some older teenagers making a rap video in the street. They invite me to be in it and I make my way to the lens, throwing up my middle fingers as they’ve instructed me to do. I feel like I’m always doing it internally (and, often, externally) anyway. You know, like a lady.
On Tuesday, July 31, I am headed downtown early so I can have lunch before a meeting at 12:30. I get on the Q train at 86th Street, and there’s a young woman sitting across from me diagonally. I watch a man perhaps twice her age see her and sit down next to her and begin talking to her. She has her headphones in, her arms crossed in front of her. She is not interested and is quite possibly annoyed. And yet he keeps chatting away, turning his body toward her. At the next stop, more people get on and he moves closer to her to make room. Oh no, I think to myself. She is visibly uncomfortable. I hate that he is doing this to her, I hate that he doesn’t get the hint, and I’m angry for any woman who has ever had to uncomfortably endure a man’s advances no matter where she is, whether it’s on the train, walking home, in a bar, or what have you.
By the time the train leaves 63rd Street, I have had enough. Somehow in my anger and, frankly, fear, I have devised a plan in my head to get her away from him. Right before the train is supposed to arrive at 57th Street, I walk over to where she is sitting. What’s supposed to happen is that I start talking to her but, good ol’ MTA, the train stops in the tunnel just before 57th Street. I notice my leg is starting to shake and I stand near her just holding on to the rail. I’m worried that if I don’t, I will fall over. And then the station’s tiles begin to reveal themselves and I turn to her.
“Excuse me, didn’t you go to school with my little sister?” She looks at me in a swift beat and she understands.
“Yes!” I say.
“Your sister is Emma?”
“Yes! I’m getting lunch, do you want to come? And, you know, get off the train?”
“Yeah!” she says, and what ends up being a perfectly choreographed moment we leave the car and the doors close behind us. My leg is still shaking.
She thanks me. It’s so easy to tell guys off when it’s your friends, but when it’s me I feel stuck, she says. I understand. I understand too well. I am shaking for every time I had to steel myself to walk back to a train in the dark in a neighborhood that’s a little too quiet, every time a man hit on me at a bar and touched me without asking, every time my friends told me they were too scared to move, to fight back, to leave. Whatever I did on the train, I did it for her and I did it for them and I did it for myself. And she was fine, but I was a mess because I was thinking about all of this when the doors finally closed behind us and I started to cry in the dingy 57th Street NQR Station. There are so many times when we can’t help and so many times when something goes so horribly wrong because no one was there. What would have happened? Would he have followed her off the train? Would he have tried to get her number and not left until she relented? Would he have touched her? I tried not to think about it.
She hugged me and we took the next train together. She just graduated high school and hopes to study linguistics and filmmaking when she starts college in the fall. She’s curious about being a film translator. She hugs me before she gets off the train at Union Square and tells me to stay in touch on Instagram. “Yes!” I say, smiling and waving before my train continues on to Prince Street. “Go be awesome!” And she went off into her future, one I hope is nothing but bright.