On a warm night in May I went out to do karaoke at a tiny bar downtown. Because it was a weeknight I left early, just past midnight. It was too early and too nice out to justify taking a cab. A limo sprouting bachelorettes from its roof passed me, trailing squeals that echoed in the traffickless late-night street, and when they paused at a stoplight I laughed to hear the squeals abruptly dwindle. The city seemed half-deserted but in a cozy, shrunken way: unimpeachably safe. I decided I would walk to the L and take it to Williamsburg, where my bike was parked. I walked up Grand and turned right at Bowery.
I walked past boarded-up storefronts and glass-fronted new high-rises with chic restaurants in their ground levels. Below Houston there were snoozing homeless men and women lying under piles of filthy blankets under the scaffolding; across the street from them there were clean-cut, spray-tanned young people smoking cigarettes outside a club’s velvet rope. One homeless man sat up under his blankets as I walked by and started shouting incoherently; I pushed my earbuds in deeper and turned up the volume on my iPod. It was playing Lou Reed, singing about cheap, cheap downtown dirt.
Peering in a glass-fronted restaurant’s window, I thought about how the people inside the restaurant probably had totally different maps of the city in their heads than I do, and then I started thinking about how different – not inaccurate, exactly – my own mental map of the city had been when I first moved here, on a warm May day almost exactly eight years earlier.
That was the summer I lived on 3rd Street between First and Second Avenues. My first commute had been to a restaurant on the corner of Bleecker and Lafayette, which I somehow did not realize was a five minute walk away from my apartment, so I took the F train one stop to get there, from Second Avenue to Broadway Lafayette, emerging from the train right outside the restaurant’s front door. I had lived in New York for about a week and a half and it was my first day of work as a hostess. I walked up out of the subway and saw, standing on that corner, the one person I knew in New York besides my roommates: the guy I’d had an overdramatic unrequited crush on at Kenyon, the one who would eventually inspire me to tattoo a broken heart on my hipbone. He was just standing there. Who knows what he was up to? Just living in New York, I guess. When he saw me the look in his eyes was very clearly like “Oh shit.” I gave him a wincing smile and said “Hi?” and then hurriedly walked through the door and into the restaurant, where I spent the day failing to absorb anything the girl who was training me said.
So that corner ended up belonging to him, on my mental map. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I spent the next few years expecting to run into that guy around that and every corner, but it never happened until years after I stopped looking, when I passed him on the street in Park Slope, looking sunburned and fat.
In the weeks that followed I built my map up piecemeal. Landmarks got flagged: places to get slices of pizza, bars that didn’t card. I was transferred from the restaurant on Bleecker to a sister business, a steak house near Herald Square, and my map grew accordingly. I went to the H&M near the steak house to buy more all-black work outfits. I sat in the little park in the middle of Broadway across the street from Macy’s and ate stolen rolls and smoked cigarettes. I was unhappy in my uneventful hostessing job; they paid me well and fed me and all I had to do was stand there for hours, smiling at the businessmen who came in for long, highly calorific lunches. So I quit after a few months to work as a shot girl at a dive on Third Avenue.
This job, at least, I could obviously walk to from my apartment. This became less of a consolation when, a few weeks in, I started having these visceral freak-outs during the walk over – I’d get nauseous and my heart would start pounding uncontrollably. It felt like stage fright; it was a sort of stage fright, I guess, because it usually went away as soon as I got to the bar and started performing.
Some girls would probably have been able to handle the constant onslaught of drunken misbehavior better than I did. I was trying to prove something to myself about how I was able to handle it, I guess.”
I walked around with my tray of test-tube shots, trying to provoke the crowd into sucking down hits of neon-colored liquid. “Only if you do one with us,” was a common enough response to my shot-pushing come-on that I would secretly reserve an area of the tray for my special shots, which were watered-down enough that I could do twenty of them over the course of my shift. I still got drunk every night I worked there. Some girls would probably have been able to handle the constant onslaught of drunken misbehavior better than I did. I was trying to prove something to myself about how I was able to handle it, I guess. There was a bouncer whom I could summon to eject the guys who tried to touch me, but most of the time it didn’t seem worth bothering him. I hardly ever think about this now, but when I do I think it’s bizarre that I worked there. I think I did it because I felt like, as long as I look a way that attracts this kind of attention I might as well make some money off it. I didn’t even make that much money.
What money I did make, though, I stuffed into a boxy green purse and brought home, where even at 4 am Claudine lay on her futon on the floor reading something serious in the center of a ring of dirty coffee cups and ashtrays around her bed. I leaned over her and shook out the contents of the green purse, showering her with sticky dollar bills and saying, “We’re rich! We’re rich!”
Claudine and I had met at Shakespeare day camp the summer after fourth grade but we didn’t become close until the summer before seventh grade, when we met again in musical theater day camp. Obviously we had in common that we were weirdos. At eleven I was much hammier than Claudine, more of a grinning, pageanty wanna-be child star. Claudine had very little interest in gunning for the leading parts in the camp’s recitals; her voice was ragged and her acting style was, in retrospect, avant-garde – Brechtian or something; anyway, it wasn’t what the camp counselors were looking for. She had an uncontrollable halo of gold ringlets, the kind you can pull down and then release while making a “sproing!” sound, and a wardrobe of cutoffs and Converse and inherited tie-dye at a time when most people I knew wore matched outfits from the juniors’ department of Sears or oversize Looney Tunes T-shirts. Her house was a wood smoke–smelling Hobbit mansion filled with gorgeous old furniture and piles upon piles of books. We spent time in her mom’s art studio and occasionally caught glimpses of her dad, an enormously tall man with a beard that met his mass of head-hair in a wide, frizzy lion’s mane. The first time I spent the night there, I stayed up till dawn reading Steven King’s Carrie and then was too deliciously frightened to sleep, so I just lay there smelling the old house and listening to it creak and settle.
The wall of Claudine’s attic bedroom was covered with an ornate mural featuring strange fairies engaged in various strange activities, painted in her idiosyncratic, wobbly style. At the time I thought that I was a better drawer than Claudine in much the same way I thought I was a better actress: I could make smooth lines and realistic-looking faces, I could say my lines the same way the character did in the movie. I was not and am still not better than Claudine at anything.
In seventh grade we went to the same school for the first time. We were partners whenever a project called for partners; we ‘went out’ with a pair of best friends, and we co-wrote a romance novel titled Moonlight on Three Mile Island in a speckled composition book that we passed back and forth in school all day. We balled up tinfoil into the shape of an alien head and invented a religion devoted to worshipping this god, who we called ‘Merv’. We saluted each other by wiggling our fingers underneath our faces in a way that was meant to imitate a squid: “All hail (wiggle wiggle) Claudine (wiggle wiggle) demi-goddess of the underworld.” Every few days Claudine would introduce me to some new strange thing that would change my life – she lent me books and made me mix tapes, she even recorded new songs off the radio and played them back to me over the phone. I remember hearing Nirvana for the first time this way. The best thing about our two-person subculture was that while obviously we were not cool by anyone else’s standard, we seemed enormously cool to each other. When this period eventually ended it was because Claudine had become cool in the outer world, too.
She started hanging out with the prettiest girl in our grade, one of those preternaturally voluptuous middle-schoolers whose bodies basically give them no option but to go out with high-school boys and smoke cigarettes.”
The first step towards Claudine’s becoming cool was that she became bad. A duller light suffused the Hobbit house now, making what had been cozy clutter seem chaotic and awry. Soon Claudine’s perfect pale calves were crisscrossed with thin, white razor lines that were meticulous in a way that her schoolwork was not. She picked physical fights and threw herself on the ground in an ecstasy of fake convulsions. She started hanging out with Janna Karapowski, the prettiest girl in our grade, one of those preternaturally voluptuous middle-schoolers whose bodies basically give them no option but to go out with high-school boys and smoke cigarettes, and also with a pack of girls who were drama geeks in a different way than we were, whose drama geekness involved lace gloves and clove cigarettes and ornate eyeliner.
I was still a little bit too much of a kid, or I was trying too hard, or my family life was too stable and normal – a little of everything, I guess. By the end of eighth grade we had become so distant that at one point Claudine handed me an invitation to a party Janna Karapowski was throwing, the kind of party where you sensed that parental presence would be minimal, and while handing it to me said, “But, you know, it would probably be better if you didn’t come.”
Then ninth grade came and I went to the magnet public high school, which, thanks to her grades, was not an option for Claudine, who went to Quaker private school. At the Quaker school she was not forced to take math or wear shoes. She became friends with troubled people, and watched as small and incredibly large tragedies befell them. Nothing very bad happened to Claudine, but the consequences her friends suffered made her kinder, or seemed to. Claudine came back into my life toward the end of high school, just pulled up in my parents’ driveway one day in one of her father’s junkyard cars, which looked cool but reeked of motor oil so badly that you had to drive around with all the windows open, even in winter. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed her. My other friends’ idea of fun was renting romantic comedies and watching them while gorging on treats from the bulk bins of Safeway; Claudine would take me to some party where there were twenty-year-olds and beer. My parents, understandably, hated her.
So they were unthrilled to learn, a few years later, that I planned to move in with Claudine, in New York. Through my years of school in Ohio we had maintained a correspondence, e-mailing and even sometimes calling each other on the phone. Before every school break people who were driving to points East would send out all-student e-mails offering up the free seats in their cars in exchange for gas money, and so I would get rides to stay with Phillip at Sarah Lawrence or with Claudine in the East Village, in the cramped two-bedroom she shared with two other girls, one of whom lived in the living room. This was the roommate I replaced when Claudine called to ask if I wanted to move in.
That summer was unbearably hot and we had only fans to cool our tiny, airless apartment. Once I came home late at night and, peering past the open door of Claudine’s bedroom, was scandalized to see sleeping Claudine sprawled naked on her mattress on the floor, a pile of pale curves that stunned me with their pink vulnerability. I considered myself lucky not to have caught a similar glimpse of her boyfriend.
Arnie habitually wore a porkpie hat and he had a goatee and disproportionately thick calves from his off-and-on pedicabbing gig. By biking cartloads of tourists through midtown he earned enough money to keep himself in plastic-wrapped honey bun pastries (the only thing I ever saw him consume besides coffee) and pouches of rolling tobacco and baggies of cheap, seedy pot. It was not, of course, enough money to pay rent anywhere. Though many of his friends were college students, he himself was not one. He was twenty-four, which seemed old to us but not, I guess, to the older women whose hospitality he had enjoyed before Claudine became his girlfriend. He was also friends with a coterie of old-school East Village eccentrics, publishers of alternative magazines, and operators of art theaters who clung to the relics of the neighborhood they’d known even as its rents became stratospheric and its dive bars and zine shops became fancy restaurants and baby boutiques. He was working on a novel, and Claudine spent a lot of her time helping him to edit it, crouching over the typewritten pages with an expression of intense focus. I read some of the pages, too, fresh from the typewriter that Arnie kept in Claudine’s room. It was innovative the way he played with syntax and grammar, I guess. His work was post-structural, post-punctuational. I felt bad for not understanding the appeal of what I knew must be great work. I didn’t think that Claudine, the smartest person I knew, would be wasting her time on crap. At night I lay in bed and tried not to hear the noises coming from her room for what seemed like hours on end.
Arnie’s ministrations made Claudine swollen and dowdy. She wore her glasses more and stayed inside, chain-smoking. Our apartment was colonized by Arnie’s books and the furniture he dragged in off the sidewalk; the butts of his cigarettes stayed where he extinguished them on the lip of the bathtub. Eventually, I moved out, but not without telling Claudine exactly what I thought she was doing wrong. Just like in eighth grade, we took a hiatus from our friendship, reuniting later on terms that, though never formally negotiated, were subtly different than they had been before I alienated her.
We don’t have mutual friends anymore and sometimes these dinners are full of easy intimacy and intense teenagerish simpatico-ness, and sometimes they are as awkward as first dates.”
The other night I rode my bike to Greenpoint to meet Claudine for dinner. We don’t have mutual friends anymore and we rarely have much in common with each others’ friends and boyfriends, so we meet for these dinners every once in a while, saying each time at the end that we won’t let so much time pass before the next one. Sometimes these dinners are full of easy intimacy and intense teenagerish simpatico-ness, and sometimes they are as awkward as first dates, for reasons I’ve never quite been able to figure out.
This was the first time I’d been to the northernmost tip of Brooklyn in a while and the first time I’d ever gotten there via bike. I’ve only been riding a bike since I moved to Clinton Hill. Greenpoint is one of the most eminently bikeable neighborhoods in New York, with its wide, bike-laned avenues and plethora of barely trafficked side streets. If I’d had a bike during the four years I’d lived there, my cumulative saved commuting time would probably add up to something spectacular: a month of my life, maybe two, unwasted. All the time I spent craning my neck and peering down Manhattan Avenue, hoping for a glimpse of the B61 – and then all the time I spent crammed onto the trundling bus, smelling strangers and being irritated by their cell phone conversations – could have been spent in healthy motion, with every part of my brain and body engaged in the project of getting to my destination. Why did no one tell me this? Why didn’t I figure it out on my own? This is one of the most painful things about getting older, especially getting older in the same place where you were young: the constant realizations that you could have been doing everything better all along, if only you’d known how to read the map more accurately.
I had some version of all these thoughts as I rode to the end of the island. The sun was low in the sky and the views of Manhattan and Long Island City were somehow more spectacular from the middle of the street than they’d ever been from the sidewalk.
From a distance I watched Claudine walk towards me as I clumsily locked my bike to the lamp post in front of the restaurant. She was looking quintessentially Claudiney in a skimpy old dress that revealed the tattoo of seaweed from Ernst Haeckel’s Art Forms in Nature on her upper chest. Her hair was haloed out around her face by the summer humidity even though the temperature was dropping. We went inside the restaurant, a Mexican dive, and sat down at a sticky table.
She asked how I’d been and I said everything had been really boring, then proceeded to talk about myself for the next twenty minutes. When I finally stopped talking she quietly told me that she was getting married.
Instead of feeling happy for her I wondered immediately why she hadn’t told me sooner, then answered my own question by asking her lots of second-guessy questions.
After dinner we walked across the Pulaski Bridge from Brooklyn to Queens, to see a show in Long Island City. We climbed the red metal staircase that leads to the walkway and were walking high above the muddy waterway below, with the traffic almost drowning us out and bikes coming up behind us every few minutes, shouting “On your left!” It finally occurred to me about halfway across the bridge to congratulate her.
Later, after the show, after we walked back across the bridge, when Claudine and I were saying good-bye outside the restaurant where I’d parked my bike, she said something about how in previous eras we would both have married the people we’d spent our early twenties living with, and how it was good that we hadn’t. I agreed with her but thought to myself that I didn’t know that it would have made much difference, ultimately, except that we would have had to pay for lawyers and divorces. I walked my bike with her for a few blocks, then turned off and rode down Freeman Street. She had done everything before I had, and I had followed her, using her example to gauge what might be possible. But I had made a mistake, probably, when I thought that one of us could mark a path for the other to follow.
Claudine wrote a play a few years ago that I remember well because I saw it three times, once at a dress rehearsal and twice during its official run, not out of a sense of friendly obligation but because I loved being in the world of the play and was trying to cement it in my mind. She performed in the play alongside another small-boned girl with childlike features clustered in the center of her face. This girl and Claudine played persecuted children, sisters on the run from some kind of tall, hairy monster. The dialogue was twisty and difficult, stylized and rhythmical, but not so far outside the realm of normal speech that the virtuosity called attention to itself. The sets and the costumes and even the expressions on the characters’ faces looked like the paintings on Claudine’s childhood bedroom wall. Claudine had had an imaginary world inside her as long as I’d known her and now here it was, made visible for an audience, who peered in, entranced.
On the last night I came to see the play I stood afterwards with the smokers on the sidewalk, waiting until Claudine came out, still in her stage make-up, looking outlandishly beautiful. For a moment I hesitated to approach her, the way one hesitates to approach an admired celebrity. It’s hard, sometimes, to love a person who you have to share with the world. They’re yours, for a moment, in a café or at your kitchen table, and then they’re on a stage and you are the same to them as anyone else in the theater, even if you’ve made a point of coming early and sitting in the front row.
From And the Heart Says Whatever.
Emily Gould grew up in Maryland and attended Kenyon College for two years before transferring to Eugene Lang in New York. She has written for The New York Times, The New York Observer and Jezebel.com, among other publications, and is a contributing editor at Technology Review. She has worked as an editor of Gawker.com, and as an associate editor at Hyperion Books. She lives in Brooklyn and writes at emilymagazine.com. Her essay collection And the Heart Says Whatever is published in eBook and her debut novel Friendship in hardback, paperback and eBook by Virago. Read more.
Author portrait © Lisa Corson