Niall’s Irish Pub, 52nd Street – Tuesday, 4:30 p.m.
“That’s a lot,” Ernesto said with a soft exhale of breath. I could tell he had something to say but he was allowing a moment of silence out of respect for my situation. I fiddled with the Ironman toy he carried around with him, which had previously been leaning against my beer glass like the sherif of a dirty town.
“But you know,” he finally began, “You’ve already done this.” He scratched the stubble on his face and continued in an even tone. “You’ve served your time at The Sun. You’ve learned all you can. Other people will need a chance to do what you’ve done, and you need a chance to move on. And it doesn’t have to be doing what everyone else does. You get to choose your own life. And you’re certainly too different a person to let other people’s ideas of what your life should be dictate how you live it.”
We were both quiet for a moment. It was my turn to say something. This was, after all, the talk I’d been expecting (hoping?) to have all day (summer?).
Disappointing people is one of my larger fears, even to the extent that if the barman suggests I might like the New England Pale Ale, doggone it, that’s what I get. And I tell him I like it.
Now imagine that on a major-life-decisions scale.
I wanted to tell him (Ernesto, not the barman) that I know, that all this makes sense in my head, but I didn’t. I just made Ironman lean against the sweaty glass with his head in his hands.
“I’ve got to go, Mary,” he said (Ernesto, not Ironman). “But let’s meet up again when I’m back in San Diego.”
He paid for the bill and then stepped into the restroom to change into his new sweater before heading off to catch his Broadway play. I stuffed my things back into my bag, the stem of my umbrella popping up unexpectedly for the eightieth time. He chuckled at me (Ernesto, not the umbrella) and gave me a hug ‘goodbye.’
“Take care of yourself, Mary York,” he called before the door shut him onto the street, leaving behind nothing but the tinkle of the doorway bell. I knew two years was a lot longer than the time that lay between us now, but just the tiniest bit of anxiety splashed around in my stomach next to the small seed of hope Ernesto had planted. Good advice from a friend is a treasure, but the presence of a friend is priceless. And when, in this crazy world, would I see this one again?
Rite Aid, Manhattan – Tuesday, 3:00 p.m.
“Where have you been, Mary York?” I dropped hand sanitizer and some Haribos sweet and sour peaches onto the checkout counter before looking up, the afternoon glare from the window blurring my vision slightly.
“Ernesto!” I blubbered excitedly when I saw him todder up to the front of the short check-out line. “I talked to the most incredible woman!”
“You mean this whole time you’ve been talking?” he asked me skeptically as he surveyed the aisles of the drugstore for any trace of a human matching the description of an ‘incredible woman.’
“She’s a publicist in the city and she gave me all her contact information and said she can help me get in touch with people about my writing!” I went on, enthusiastically. ”She had all this great advice!”
“I mean, she thought I lived in the city because I said I’d been turned around since I got here – you know how I get lost – but I couldn’t back out of the conversation once we started.”
I signed the receipt and put away my card.
“Maybe I could live in New York…Maybe I need to scrap my plan and just move here. I’ve been rethinking the whole thing anyway.”
I grabbed the plastic bag from the counter and stuffed the receipt inside. Ernesto was staring me down.
“What plan, Mary?”
I brushed him off and hurried outside, trading the sanctuary of the air-conditioned drugstore for a humid whoosh of cars, humans and leaky air vents.
“I’ll tell you when we get to the pub!” I called over my shoulder as we rushed headlong into the flow of New Yorkers, a rare breed of creatures who neither see nor care about any other moving objects around them.
Our plan was to find a department store where we could purchase some cheap clothing. He had a Broadway play to attend and I had a dinner date with an old family friend. He didn’t feel comfortable going in a T-shirt and I didn’t feel comfortable going in shorts. So there we were, at the foot of a two-story, glass-walled H&M.
“Ten minutes, ten dollars. And don’t let that umbrella of yours hurt anyone,” he said, before disappearing into the racks of clothing.
A New York department store. Now this was an experience. And I had thought Central Park was a jungle. I shuffled through jeans on sale and looked at some black slacks. Part of me wanted to buy something snappy and practical, something distinguished and forward. Something I could wear to work or to university classes. That was what I had always wanted, right? That was the plan. That’s what I had told everyone. Finish the degree. Get the teaching credential. Live long and prosper.
I felt empty even thinking it.
A stack of pants came crashing off a shelf and I bent down to scoop them up before someone judged me for not knowing how to walk in a straight line.
The pants, I noticed, were $9.99. Definitely in my price range. Time was ticking and my companion is nothing if not punctual. Several semesters of meeting deadlines with him at the college newspaper followed by years of him showing up precisely when needed had led me to believe that Ernesto may in fact be the White Rabbit (which would make me clueless Alice, and frankly, that fits pretty well too). I grabbed a pair and tried them on for kicks.
Well, one can never have enough jeans, and I don’t have any right now, I reasoned as I walked away from the slacks.
The girls in front of me had racked up more than $600 at the register before they opened a second line. By the time I met Ernesto by the front door, ten minutes had gone out to pasture. But he had spent more than $10 on his sweater, so we called it even.
“We could compete on those reality shows,” he said. “We’d be awesome.”
We would be awesome, I thought as my umbrella stem popped up under my arm with a shink. And, at this rate, cheap TV shows sounded a lot better than my plan anyway.
The Met, 5th Avenue – Tuesday, 12:00 p.m.
“Is there a real dead person in here?” I asked as we stared down at the canoe-shaped mummy box. Our clothes were still damp from the walk over. My umbrella had ceased to function and then nearly popped an old man in the face when we were safely inside the museum (“It keeps doing that,” I tried to tell him as I stuffed it back down into my bag, but I don’t think he understood English. He just stared at me with a terrified expression).
“Of course there’s a real dead person down there, Mary York,” Ernesto chortled. “They don’t keep fake dead people in The Met. This is a world-class establishment.”
We had just found our way out of the costume exhibit, which was a special display of Japanese runway clothing and communist-era dress uniforms. We were happy to be back among the dead. Hieroglyphics and crusted pottery lined hall after hall. We wove between the awed visitors, muttering things about Egyptian Macklemore’s and pigmy hippos and taking pictures of Ironman with papyrus people. I kept a tight grip on my umbrella stem. The last thing I wanted to do was set off an alarm or break a four-thousand year-old chamber pot.
Finally, we came to a room encased in glass that jutted into the park, allowing a soft, natural light to spill into the high-vaulted chamber. A pond had been fashioned in the center and a pyramid rose out of the water at one end. We stood there for a moment, taking in the view with breathless silence.
“I’ve seen bigger,” I finally said, shattering the moment into a thousand ridiculous pieces.
“I bet you have,” Ernesto said with a snort.
“No really, in Madrid,” I pushed back as we walked alongside the pond to the line leading into the ancient assemblage of brick. The third little piggy really went to town on this thing. “It was bigger and cooler because it was outside on the edge of this cliff and when the sun went down you could see the reflection in the water.”
I must have drifted off into my travels because when I looked up, Ernesto was several feet ahead of me.
“Should we go in?” he asked. “Is it worth it?”
I don’t know what it was about that question, but the thought of my plan – of living in the same city for five more years of education, spending money I don’t have on a degree I’m still not sure about, for a job I don’t know if I want anymore – that thought felt like a bucket of cold water. I grimmaced. Is it worth it? I felt foolish even thinking those things about my decent, practical plan.
“Let’s wait till we can do one that’s still in Egypt,” I suggested.
We spent the next three hours getting lost in Parisian apartments, medieval armor, armless statues and a bunch of weird, unexplainable hats.
“If you were riding into battle, Mary,” Ernesto would ask me as we walked into a new exhibit, “Which of these banners would you choose to go with you?”
Then we’d both stare for a while before offering up our answers. The blue and white one with the two-headed lion, duh.
-If you could use this French drawing room for any purpose, what would it be?
-If you could have one of these statues in your garden, which would you choose?
-If you could pick one of these helmets… except obviously not the gold, dragon-spined one because it would weigh a ton and you’d die. I wouldn’t let you pick that one.
These questions are my favorite. Hypothetical. The answer doesn’t really matter.
Life doesn’t work that way.
“I need to sit,” I said finally. “I need to sit and consume a food of some sort. Want lunch?”
“Yeah, you’ve been awfully quiet,” Ernesto said. “And you still haven’t told me what your plans are for this semester. We never got around to it at the bagel shop.”
“Okay, as soon as we find food, I’ll tell you,” I promised.
“Then let’s do it!” (Ernesto is a bit of an enthusiast). “Let’s go to like an Irish pub or something. Hang on, I’ll find us a good one.”
He pulled out his phone and I looked around the exhibit we were in. Someone at the end of the room was making an inappropriate joke about a statue (his girlfriend didn’t seem to be appreciating it). An elderly couple was sitting on a lone bench. A flash – people are always trying to take pictures of things they can’t capture.
If we must take impossible pictures, I’d rather take pictures of people’s thoughts. I wish I could see how a person feels in all the color and vibrancy of our deepest emotions.
For a moment, standing among artifacts that have been lost in time, I felt like the costume department that allowed someone to display a montage of Communist Propaganda films alongside dynasty-themed runway dresses so that when people came by they wouldn’t think, “Gosh, the Met really needs to get its act together. Look at all this blank space!” But maybe there are some things worse than blank space?
“Okay,” said Ernesto, coming back to me with a satisfied smile, “The lady said the quickest way out of here is down the hall and then a left turn at the statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa.”
Finally. Some straightforward instructions.
H&H Bagel, 2nd Avenue – Tuesday, 10:00 a.m.
Rain pooled in golden, early-morning puddles around my bare ankles as I splashed through dirty gutters. Of all the days to wear shorts in New York City, this must be the worst. It had been hot and I was tired of walking around the muggy streets of the late-summer city in jeans. Locals gave my bare legs and sandaled feet shoddy glances as they hurried past with umbrellas.
My own umbrella, which my friend had forced me to take before leaving her house that morning (because New Yorkers can sense when it is going to rain), had a popping problem. As in, the stem would pop up when I had it folded away neatly. So far, it hadn’t done anything more serious than startle me several times in succession on the train, but I had a bad feeling about this.
I waited under the awning of H&H Bagel for several minutes, watching the streets whir past in a blur of wet color. Taxis. Girls in yoga pants. Tank-sleeved workers hauling produce off a truck. Flowers lifting up their silky petals towards the falling rain as their florist shuffled pots around. I could get used to this city.
Ernesto was late. This, being uncharacteristic of him, I could forgive. But as ten o’clock became ten-thirty, I felt myself getting antsy.
Ernesto is one of my best friends. We have been dabbling in each other’s schemes and dreams since college. Saying ‘goodbye’ as I left for Europe was hard, but we had pizza and that made it easier. He was the one who helped me set up my first blog. At some point, I’ll probably ask him to help me with this one (how come it doesn’t email me notifications, Ernie??).
We hadn’t planned to both be in New York City at the same time, but we were. So we picked a time and place and here I was.
Here I was in the complete mess that is myself. The last week had been a tough one. Like, not from the outside. A week hiking in the mountains followed by a trip to New York for a wedding – that’s the life. It’s all the other stuff that makes me feel like . . . Well, like my umbrella – ready to pop my top at any moment. It’s the age-old questions like, “What is my purpose now?” – “Where do I go next?” – “What do I do with this life I’ve been given?” And the thing about good friends is that they’re apt to answer boldly those questions we timidly skirt. Tell Ernesto that I had lost confidence in myself, in my purpose – that I was back at community college? He’d have something to say about that, I knew. And I didn’t want to disappoint him. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I came back from Europe promising people that I had a plan, that I was moving forward. I promised myself that I was moving forward.
Sometime between stepping onto the tarmac in San Diego and standing on this sidewalk in New York City, I realized that I was lost. But at this point, it was just easier to pretend that I still had a plan.
At the end of the sidewalk I could hear the slushy sound of wet footsteps.
“Mary York!” called out a voice I recognized immediately.
We both ran, dropping our umbrellas in the process, and met in the middle of that New York City sidewalk, with a hug and a spin that would make the best in Hollywood smile (and more than one patron in the bagel shop grin at us sheepishly). We were soaked in seconds, shivering with laughter and chills.
Two years, a long summer and a thousand questions slipped from my mind for those few, beautiful seconds. It was just us, a glistening street, and the looming adventure stretching before our feet – the adventure that is a day with a good friend.
“It has been too long, Mary York,” Ernesto said as we walked into the bagel shop to start our morning. “You’ll have to tell me everything.”