“Miss? Excuse me, Miss?”
My head jerked away from the window to look into the deeply black eyes of our shuttle driver who was navigating through a river of honking vehicles, most of whom didn’t seem to understand how traffic lights work.
“Miss, you should walk. It is only three blocks from here. Three blocks and to the left.”
He began pulling the shuttle over to a dirty curb and the British couple next to me shuffled awkwardly as I tried to crawl over them to get to the door. When I reached the trunk, the driver already had my suitcase out.
“It will take me all night to get to the Port Authority with this traffic. You will not make it by six o’clock. But you go three blocks, back to Times Square, and then left, okay?”
I had already begun weaving through the crowds when I heard the shuttle honk its way back into the flow of traffic, its captain plunging the vehicle forward confidently from the helm.
Several blocks up, Times Square rose out of the garden of tall buildings and noisy streets. Everything was colorful. Everything smelled. And the Square, dazzling as I suppose it was, didn’t differ greatly from the surrounding blocks. I was too preoccupied trying not to be crushed by the wall of humans to feel the pang of disappointment at the underwhelmingness of Times Square. I had expected it anyway.
New York City was never on the top of my destinations list. Mostly because I figured the New York City in my mind – the one shaped by the crooning tones of Sinatra and the daydreams of Hollywood writers – didn’t actually exist in real life. It was the same assumption that kept me away from Paris, led me into Rome with the lowest of expectations, and muttered a disgruntled “I told you so” on the plane back from London. I’ve dreamed of visiting a thousand places, but I typically only go to the ones I’ve never heard of before. Things never look the way you expect them to. And once you’ve been there, once you’ve seen it, the dream is replaced by the reality, no matter how much grayer the reality might be. There’s no going back.
The Port Authority was right where the shuttle driver had said it would be. My phone buzzed in my back pocket.
“Hey Sam,” I said, stepping into the dark, dirty entrance of the Port Authority to avoid the excess noise from the street. “I’m here. Where are you?”
“I’m still at work,” he said. I could hear his usual smile over the phone. Sam always smiles. “If you meet me in lobby I can take you up and show you around my office before we go.”
My suitcase felt heavy in my hand – I had taken the wheels off to make it fit the regulation carry-on size.
“How far is your office, Sam?” I asked, hesitantly. Walk more? No thank you.
“Right across the street. Do you see the Times building?”
“Yeah.” It was hard to miss.
“That’s where I work.”
My jaw dropped as I pushed open a door and stumbled onto the sidewalk again under the shadow of the skyscraper which thrust out its chest into the golden afternoon still visible above the tops of the buildings. The New York Times Tower is supposed to be the most significant piece of new architecture in the skyline, reaching 52 floors.
The lobby was spotless and immaculate, and empty except for the columns of elevators, an electrical art display, and two symmetrical security desks positioned on either side of the floor. I could see Sam waiting as I walked up to the glass doors.
“Hey,” he said with his big grin. Sam is a friend from high school, although we’re much better friends now than we ever were when we were teens. He and I met through our Speech and Debate League back when kids still drank SoBes and flip phones were cool. The summer before our senior year, we met up at a friend’s birthday party. We sat on the ground watching Disneyland’s summer-night firework display with our buddy, Evan, and the three of us decided to start a club for losers. Not that we were losers, exactly. We just definitely weren’t the kids who won tournaments and paraded around with lots of friends. We weren’t success stories.
But senior year was kind to us all and we never needed to assemble the Losers Club. It wasn’t until halfway through college that we reconnected. I was on my way to Prague and they were both neck-deep in university work, but we stayed in touch. Once every few months we’d do a group-call and make sure everyone was still alive and well. When Sam took a semester abroad in Oxford, I went out to visit.
He looked different now, standing in the lobby of the fifth tallest building in New York, an ID tag hanging off his shirt, proving that he belonged there.
“You look like Ms. Frizzle,” he said, taking my suitcase and walking up to the security desk. “They’ll need to see your ID.”
I am channeling a slightly more wind-tossed and wild look these days. I had also just gotten off a plane. I handed over my drivers license to the man behind the desk.
The elevator let us out on the 44th floor and I got the full tour. The view was phenomenal, but my favorite part was hearing people talk to Sam in polite, ‘office’ voices. He’s someone to impress, someone to admire – I could tell just by the way they’d say hello. He was definitely someone here.
People will always be more magnificent than buildings.
We grabbed a slice of pizza on the way to the bus. I struggled to keep up with Sam’s New York Stride. And then we waited between some Afghani street vendors and the High Line to get on our bus to Buffalo.
You see, Evan is getting married and we decided that we couldn’t miss this excuse to get the Losers Club back in the same place one last time.
So it was Buffalo or bust, and despite having just come back from the Sierras the evening before (and pulling an all-nighter to pack and shower before hopping on a plane) I was excited. Jittery, even?
“It’s just like a rom-com, Sam,” I said several times. “Old friends reuniting at a wedding.”
“It’s probably good that you didn’t sleep last night,” said Sam, unable to relate to my vein of pop-culture references. “You’ll be able to sleep better on the bus.”
A third person joined our party – a friend of the Groom’s family. We greeted each other and shared introductory information. We joked about how much my feet had swelled on the plane ride over (or maybe it was the week of hiking in the Sierras just before). We Googled items on the street food cart that we didn’t recognize. And we waited for our bus to arrive.
Public transportation in Europe is flawless. It’s organized, timely, dare I say ‘almost comfortable?’ Not so in the States. When our bus finally arrived (an hour late), no one sat in the seats they had reserved, resulting in a chaotic search for space. Sam and I got split up. He found an aisle seat halfway back and I shared one-third of a seat with a very large woman who didn’t fit entirely in hers (she did, however, have a very fluffy blanket that kept falling into my lap, which -given how high the AC was cranked up- was actually sort of nice). But at the 2 a.m. rest stop, she bought a bag of sour cream and onion chips and between the crunching and the aroma, sleep became a lost cause.
We arrived in Buffalo around 5 a.m. and the Best Man picked us up. He excitedly described the wedding adventures up to that point as we drove through dark, deserted streets.
“This feels like a rom-com,” I said again as we pulled into a quaint apartment complex where the newlyweds would be living. “You know, like ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ or basically anything in the early 2000’s with Hugh Grant.”
The guys nodded but I’m pretty sure they don’t even know who Hugh Grant is. We were all so tired at that point, we’d become extremely agreeable, especially as the prospect of sleeping in horizontal positions became a closer reality.
“Guys on the floor,” the Best Man told us as we walked into the livingroom. Several members of the Groom’s family were already crashed on couches. It was a tiny, one-room apartment, but even in the dark I could see some of the pretty picture frames and artistic mirrors. A well-feathered nest.
“Mary, there’s a mattress for you on the floor of the bedroom,” Josh whispered to me as Sam flumped onto something soft on the floor and our third friend walked into something solid in the dark with an “Oohf!” I peered into the dark room. Evan’s parents, who I’ve known since I was a freshman in highschool, were sleeping on the bed and a mattress and sleeping bag were stretched out on the floor beneath the dresser. The room was dark. It was after 5 in the morning. I couldn’t exactly say, ‘hello there, don’t mind me. I’m just going to sleep on your floor here.’ So for a moment I just stood in the doorway. Then, seven days of sleeping on Sierran rocks, a night on a plane, and a night on a bus all hit me at once like a brick to the back of the head. I crawled into the sleeping bag without brushing my teeth or using the bathroom, and without a further thought to the awkwardness of the sleeping arrangements. The Queen of England could have been in that room and I just don’t think I’d have cared.
The Mother-of-the-Groom woke me up around 8:30 the next morning. Her cheery face and blonde curls were blurry as I tried to focus my morning-vision.
“Don’t get up,” she told me. A bright blue dress hugged her neatly and she held a purse in one hand. “Sam is driving us over to the church now, so you go ahead and get ready at your own pace. He’ll come back for the rest of you later.”
I was still too tired to be embarrassed about any part of crashing at the Groom’s family’s place for this shindig. A real mattress? I’d have eaten every left-over bagel in New York to re-sleep those last three hours.
The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate. -Douglas Englebart
She insisted I wait a few more minutes before getting up and I heard the wedding party filing out of the apartment in a flurry of keys, cameras and half-buttoned jackets.
When the sounds closed behind the front door and disappeared down the stairwell, I got up and started making myself look like a human again. The family friend was sitting at the kitchen table nibbling at pieces of donut from a large, pink box. We joked about ties and heels and the fact that my ankles had gotten worse on the bus. The pressure in my toes was extraordinary, but I really just couldn’t handle looking like I’d been attacked by a colony of bees with a fetish for feet.
“Unbelievable,” I said several times as we rotated between the many mirrors in the house. “My first wedding in years and I have fat ankles.”
It was a pretty place. The Bride had done a wonderful job making the space look homey and inviting.
“The Best Man says she’s really sweet,” said Sam as he drove us to the church. Evan had gotten engaged so quickly, we hadn’t even known they’d been dating, and because I was in Europe and Sam was working in New York, neither of us had gotten to meet her.
Sam pulled into the lot of a McDonald’s.
“Quick cup of coffee before we go to the church?” he asked. We all agreed with typical morning moans that only come from a decaffeinated mind.
“What time does the service start?” the family friend asked from the back seat.
“10:30,” said Sam, casually navigating us toward the Drive-Thru. “I think.”
“You think?” I asked him. The family-friend raised an eyebrow. “Can we double-check?”
“Yeah, maybe that’s a good idea,” Sam said, reluctantly stopping the car. “Anyone have an invite?”
We scrambled around for a minute, checking purses and pockets. The friend finally pulled up the online registry and a small hiss slithered out from between his teeth. He looked at us with a pained expression.
“It’s at ten o’clock.”
I groaned loudly and Sam screeched the car out of the lot and down the road.
“Can we make it there in six minutes?” I asked.
“If we hit all the lights right,” said Sam.
“I cannot believe we’re going to be late for this wedding,” said the family-friend in the back seat.
“We won’t be,” Sam promised us, calmly swerving down a neighborhood lane, his usual smile glazed with a definition expression of concern. “We won’t be late.”
We weren’t, but it was close. I did my best impersonation of a Renée Zellweger sigh-of-relief as we walked through the tiny front doors of the rustic little chapel. She, at least, could rock chubby ankles.
Most of the church was occupied by the Bride’s family – Evan is a California boy and, except for a few university friends, we were his only pals from back home. We slipped in quietly and monopolized one of the many empty pews on the Groom’s side of the church. (“We have the whole place!” Sam whispered with amusement and triumph).
Just like it had seemed strange to see Sam at his glamorous new place of work, it was strange to see Evan standing at the end of the church, face beaming as his bride floated down the aisle. When I met him, he still had braces.
The ceremony was short – 23 minutes, to be exact. It was over before ten-thirty.
“We’d have missed the whole thing if we had stopped this morning,” Sam said as we stood in the breakfast line at the reception. “Can you imagine coming all this way and missing the wedding for a cup of coffee?”
I snorted. McDonald’s coffee, no less.
We sampled the yogurt parfaits and the DIY waffle bar. Some of Evan’s college buddies let us join their circle and we talked about bits and pieces of life.
At some point, Evan and his wife came over to greet us and then Evan circled back around to us again later.
“Thanks for coming guys,” he said, checking his watch to make sure he didn’t miss the grand exit to the getaway car of which he was fifty percent.
“We wouldn’t miss this,” said Sam. “We probably won’t all be together again until the next wedding. And by the way, did you know that Mary has caught four wedding bouquets?”
“Really?” Evan looked at me with an impressed lip-curl.
“Not that it’s done me much good,” I quipped. “You’re the first one to officially graduate out of the Losers Club.”
“Getting married will do that?” he asked as a flower girl bounded up to us, handing out ribboned wands for us to wave at the departing newlyweds.
“Yes,” Sam confirmed with his usual smile. “We’ll send you your certificate later.”
I couldn’t help but feel like maybe we’d all graduated and just didn’t know it. And also like maybe we’d all always be honorary members anyway. Life doesn’t really have winners and losers. Just people who will fly across the country for you, who will show you off to their co-workers, who will let you sleep in their house on the night of their own wedding.
When the newlywed car drove away, Evan’s bride stuck her head out the window and waved back to us. I heard a couple behind me say, “She is the sweetest.” And I believe it.
We spent the afternoon driving up to Niagra Falls (the American side), and then driving back. I was much more impressed with the original Buffalo wings we got in town than I was with the falls. Underwhelming. It was one of those expectation things again.
Nine hours later, Sam and I were walking through puddles colored with neon reflections of New York City. The sun hadn’t risen yet and we were stiff from the bus ride. Just another night without a bed. I’m getting used to this.
The city surprised me in the wee hours of that Sunday morning. Thoughts of a couch to crash on for a few hours kept me walking. Breakfast. Church. All good things were visible in the Near Future.
But the Now is what took my breath away. New York City is a strange fellow in the dark blue of the pre-dawn hours. Mysterious. Enchanting. He leans against a lamppost with his fedora cocked over his eyes, hands in his pockets. And he grins, daring you to go down one more street, drink in one more curb-side song. And we do. Because he is very persuasive.
“I don’t think life is going to be what I expected it to be,” I told Sam when the train dropped us off in Brooklyn. “I think there’s going to be a difference between the life I dreamed of when I was younger and the life I’m really going to meet. It won’t be Sinatra, and it won’t be Hugh Grant. But I’m ready to be surprised.”
Sam didn’t say anything, but not even the New York night could hide his usual smile.