Late nineties. Autumn.
I remember sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floor in my Harlem apartment, the British roommate making messy curry in the kitchen, the Italian roommate leaving his Naired hair in the bathtub, the pretty blond roommate who was always gone. I typed short stories on a 20-pound laptop. The protagonist was a rich, skinny white guy who looked mixed and his girlfriend was scrumptiously chubby and chic like Nigella Lawson.
That was a strange apartment. My little half-bath sink in the closet. My window against the air shaft. I found it after Jackie told me to check out “this guy Craig’s list.” Six hundred a month. Glass doors and hardwood floors stacked with floppy disks and magazines, and a gas stove at the back where Beatrice and I made a Thanksgiving turkey that year, leaving the apartment to walk through Manhattan’s white/colored borderland neighborhoods for hours, a cool day, working up appetites, then sitting at the round table and eating everything, a bit of everything: mashed potatoes, green beans, turkey, stuffing, gravy. Maybe we bought pumpkin pie.
I’m trying to remember why I didn’t want to go home to California that year The wet pacific coast, rugged with ochre cliffs and soft with winter fog, was usually a comfort. I remember smoking Marlboro Lights out the window and cold, dry air floating in through Morningside Park trees. I burned bright with righteous anxiety, crying, “I can’t go back there!” and exhaling smoke. I’m sure now, twenty years later, it was about dieting. I was dieting, but wasn’t thin enough. I think that was the fall I ate coffee and an Atkins bar for breakfast, green salad and cold cuts for lunch, and chicken breast and broccoli for dinner. When I was ready to jump, I bought a vegan cookie or some dried mango. I jogged alone on the park’s snowy trails, no headphones back then, just the sound of my crunching feet, huffing breath, and the muffling snow flakes heaped on cars and benches. Either I couldn’t go home as fat as I was, or I couldn’t bear how they looked at me.
That was the fall me, Jackie, and Beatrice all had that long knit duster, mine was gray or lavender, and we wore them constantly. Me and Bea wore a large, Jacks wore a small. I remember getting off the bus in GAP jeans, I want to say a size 14, and black boots and that duster, and feeling how the city parted for me, the urban water peeling back to applaud my strut. My long drink of water in the Big City strut. Like Carrie when she collects her Last Single Girl copy of Vogue -- one less Vogue in New York -- with a downturned hat, upturned collar, and bottle-brown hair a glossy veil down her shoulder. We all wore that duster, and I remember being proud that I wore their size. That was the fall Jacks and I smoked weed and each ate a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream without a speckle of regret.
I’m trying to remember if I dated that autumn, or only dreamed of being thin enough to not gross out a man. There was Bryan the elevator guy. Like a very boring Aaron Rodgers, or Ed Norton, but I had a crush on him. White, brown hair, blue eyes, with a dull, mumbling personality. I couldn’t conceive of dating him really. He was deep blue collar and I was one of the girls who carried ostrich skin bags and wore heels and rode to the twenty third floor.
Had Liam and I kissed by then? At that bar, the Salty Something or other, right near the Skratcher, down in the East single-digits it must have been… I still have the note taped into an old journal: Liam called. The tape is crumbling but it holds. We met, me and Liam, and had cold beers on a cold night, the leaves just past their jeweled peak. Suddenly his face was out of focus, so close to mine, and his tongue was in my mouth. And after a moment I thought, “Liam is kissing me!” His tongue was soft. Or maybe a little aggressive. I didn’t have enough experience to tell. But I remember sitting on a blue bench, with his pale face and cropped dirty blond hair, and the beer’s hoppy taste electric on his breath, and his bartender’s hand on my leg. I thought it meant we might be boyfriend and girlfriend. It meant a cute guy liked me. I thought, “I’m almost thin enough not to freak a guy out.”
That was the autumn I often slept on Bea’s linoleum dorm floor, drunk and full of 3AM pizza. During the week we crowded onto Jackies’ fire escape and drank hot tea, smoked cigarettes, and looked at and listened to the apartments across the way, their windows slices of talkative gold in the night. We heard Ode to Joy at Lincoln Center, the fountains and gushy Chagalls shimmering. We must have been 18, 19. Of all my autumns, that one I remember best. Meaning most clearly, and most fondly. I’m not sure I was happy, but I’d thrown my arms around New York like a kid hugging a mountain, and felt I’d caught a prize.