by Frances Badalamenti
We fly to New York for the first time in three years.
It was exactly three years ago this summer that we had been back. And then I came back home to Portland and came apart. That was when I left the job at the college. It was also when my first book was about to be published. I wasn’t the same again.
I know that I keep coming back to this and it’s because I still struggle with understanding what exactly happened to me. If you were okay one day and then not okay the next–you’d keep coming back to it too.
So I arrive in New York an entirely different person than I was three years ago.
We rent an Airbnb, a studio apartment in the basement of a narrow rowhouse in the West Village. It was built in the 1860’s, we read in the house manual. Live like a local, it says. There is nothing much to it–it has a queen-sized bed, a small twin-sized pullout couch for Lucien and a well-appointed kitchenette for basics. There are low tin ceilings and weathered hardwood floors.
Two windows look out to street level. It’s pretty quiet–quiet for New York City.
Before settling in after a long day of travel, I walk down the block to a deli for breakfast supplies: a few cups of Greek yogurt, way too-expensive sugary granola, some waxy fruit, oat milk creamer and a small jar of honey for my tea. It has always amazed me what you can get at these delis. They only take cash.
On my way back, I pass Leroy Street and like a flash, I recall being completely obsessed with a barista who once had a summer sublet down that block. It was decades ago. I was twenty, maybe twenty-one.
I had met him during one of my bartending shifts–my early days behind the bar on the Jersey side of the Hudson. I remember that it was a Sunday. He was alone, waiting for a train and the bar was empty. We chatted a bit. He told me where he worked, it was at a café in Soho. He was tall and skinny with bright blue eyes and dark hair shaved into a buzz cut. He wore jeans cut off at the knees and a ratty concert t-shirt. I don’t remember the band. I had never seen anyone like him before.
I told him I’d stop by the coffee shop some time.
It was deep summer and downtown Manhattan was bathed in that glorious blue evening light when a girlfriend and I dropped by his café. I don’t remember if we drove in or took the PATH train. I do remember that we turned onto West Broadway and there he was, out front, hauling a large bag of trash onto to the street.
He seemed happy see me or at least that’s how I remember it. They were about to close, but we could still order coffees, he told us. We ordered cappuccinos and sat out front on a bench. I must have had that nervous feeling in my stomach. After some time, he came out and invited us out with a few of his coworkers, they would be done with work soon.
We all walked together to a small basement club somewhere off Houston Street, not that far away. I remember it was really dark and a DJ was tucked away in a corner spinning ambient techno music. This was the nineties.
I remember feeling embarrassed by the clothing that my friend wore, like she was too Jersey or something. I was too Jersey too, but she was way more Jersey than me. We danced a little, she and I, while the barista sat on a couch, drinking and talking to his friends.
He invited us back to his apartment, the one on Leroy Street.
I remember that my friend and I sat shoulder to shoulder on the floor with our backs against the wall. There wasn’t much furniture. I remember that there was a clawfoot bathtub in the kitchen. His roommate went to a fancy liberal arts college upstate and I remember feeling jealous of her. She seemed smarter than me and was an earthy kind of pretty that comes with the comfort and ease of wealth. She told us that one of them would bathe in the tub while the other would cook dinner and they would chat to each other. I remember wanting that kind of benign intimacy with someone.
We ended up spending the night together, but that was as far as it went. It was back when you still wrote your number on a scrap of paper–I gave him mine, but he didn’t give me his. A few weeks later, I stopped by the café one pretending that I had a job interview nearby. I think we made plans to go to a museum together but then he called me the night before to cancel.
He left a message but he never left a number.
Three years later, we ran into each other at a restaurant and hooked up again. He was a corporate coffee executive by that point, and I worked at a stock photo agency in Union Square. Again, it never amounted to anything–he seemed so interested in the moment and then he would just be gone.
The way that I felt about him, the severity of the crush, that feeling lasted for many years.
“He’s a Pisces,” a friend of mine said to me.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means he’s a floating cloud,” she said.
I thought for sure we’d run into each other in another three years, but we never did. Sometimes I look him up online; he’s still a coffee executive. Sometimes he comes to Portland for coffee events and I wonder what it would be like if we ran into each other again.
I head back to the apartment. Drew and Lucien are flipping channels, looking for something to watch on the television. They land on Family Feud. I unpack the groceries and feel good that we will have something to eat in the morning. I put the fruit in a plastic salad bowl. No matter where we are, I always make sure we have fruit in a bowl.
I take a hot shower. Drying myself, I notice that the towel smells like urine. I don’t think it’s actually urine–it think it’s mildew. Later, I read a comment on the Airbnb page that says the pillows smell like other people’s heads.
A friend of mine told me recently that she stopped renting apartments on Airbnb. There were pubes imbedded in the bar of soap the last time she did. Never again, she said.
Drew and Lucien love the place; they admire the old-world charm. I wake in the middle of the night feeling like I am crawling out of my skin. I take my pajama top and coil it around my face so I don’t smell the musky sheets and the pillows that smell like someone else’s head.
We spend the week visiting with friends and family, a whirlwind trip.
It’s hot out and we walk many miles around the city, depleted but satisfied by the end of the day. I wake up each morning before Drew and Lucien and I wander around the West Village. I like seeing people out with their dogs, getting their morning coffees, shuffling off to work. I wonder what people think I am doing.
When I pass Leroy Street, I try to remember where that summer sublet was, but I don’t remember. It was a long time ago that I sat with my back to the wall, wondering if the barista was going to be my boyfriend. It was a long time ago when all I pined about was having a boyfriend.
One morning towards the end of our visit, the three of us get on City Bikes and ride across town to the East Village to get breakfast at Veselka. When we sit down, Lucien seems uncomfortable, unsettled. He only wants a fruit cup. I have a feeling he’s exhausted and that his stomach isn’t right. I am exhausted and my stomach isn’t right either, but I feel a lot of joy in my heart about seeing my people. You know who your people are when it feels like yesterday that you saw them last even though it’s been three years.
I get a message on my phone saying that I didn’t put my City Bike back in the dock correctly, so Drew leaves the restaurant to go fix my mistake. He seems annoyed with me, like what a dumb move, but I decide not to care. When you live with someone for over twenty years, you get to decide when and when not to care.
I figure that I do so much for him, this is the least he can do for me.
We decide to let Lucien walk around Manhattan alone for the first time. He wants to check out a few thrift shops and will walk back to the apartment by himself. I give him a set of keys. I am a little nervous, but excited for him. I can’t recall the first time I walked New York City streets alone. I was definitely much older than fourteen, his age. I would always go with a gaggle of friends, maybe a boyfriend, but never alone–not until I got my first job in Manhattan. I had to have been nineteen then.
Lucien leaves Veselka and Drew and I make plans to go to an art exhibit in Chelsea. But after we pay the check and get onto the street, I decide that I’d rather go to The Whitney Museum.
“I’ll go to the MOMA,” Drew says. There’s an exhibit there that he’s been talking about all week that doesn’t interest me.
“You sure?” I ask.
“Yeah, that’s fine, hon.”
I feel a sense of relief and freedom, probably what Lucien felt walking off into the East Village by himself, away from his annoying parents. I like the idea of us all doing our own thing for a few hours, since we’ve been together nonstop for days.
The sun is starting to heat up the streets and I look forward to spending a few hours alone in a cool museum, stopping when I want to stop to look at a painting, not having to wait for anyone. I tell people all the time that going to museums alone is one of my favorite things in life.
Drew and I split off at Union Square. He goes down into the subway station and I make my way west, towards the river.
When I lived and worked in New York City as a young woman in my twenties, I didn’t have a partner or a family. And with that, I had a lot of freedom and a lot less stability. And now I have traded my freedom for stability. It’s what I didn’t have as a child or as a young adult.
When I was out of college and working, I struggled to pay rent, to pay bills, to eat well. I didn’t have stability. But I had freedom.
We get to choose, I think. We get to decide between stability or freedom. And maybe we are lucky enough to have both. I’m not there yet, I think. Maybe someday I will be able to have both. For now, I am choosing stability.
I spend a few hours alone with the art. I feel a deep well of emotion sitting with the abstract expressionists. The women who gave up the stability of family life for freedom to make art during a time when most women had no choice but to choose stability and family life over freedom. They made beautiful art, but the art is full of struggle, I can see it, I can feel it.
Is this because they didn’t have stability? I think to myself. When I didn’t have stability, I had so much struggle.
I sit on a bench near a large wall of windows, in a spot of sun, overlooking Manhattan. I look at my phone and can see that Lucien is now back at the Airbnb. He’s probably tired. We all are, the three of us–me, Drew, Lucien. I have dragged them back here, my husband and my son, to the place that I have always considered home. I have made them sit through long dinners with my family, with my good friends–I want them to know this part of me, the part that was once free.
The part of me that struggled.
Lucien is older now and for the first time, he can see his mother in her former life–as a woman in her twenties who spent many nights alone wondering if she would ever find a partner, whether she would ever marry, if she would have a child.
“I used to work up there,” I tell Lucien, as we walk past the building where I worked in the Flatiron district.
“Oh yeah,” he says.
“I used to come here for cappuccinos when I was around your age,” I tell him when we walk by an old café in the West Village that has never changed.
“That’s cool,” he says.
He acts like he doesn’t care, but I know that he does, that he will. He might have to choose between freedom and stability.
I can feel that this is a convergence of my old life of freedom and my new life of stability. Someday, maybe I will go back to my life of freedom, I think. Maybe it’s when Lucien is out of the house, launched, secure in his own life, stable and free. I can rent a small, one-bedroom walkup in Manhattan or Brooklyn with a pullout couch for when Lucien visits.
I could go to museums alone. Maybe I will have more success as a writer. I could support myself and with that, I will be awarded freedom.
I wouldn’t leave Drew, I think to myself.
I could see us on different coastlines, he at the beach, surfing in the mornings and me in the city, looking at art and working on my writing. A couple that lives between coastlines. We could have both freedom and stability.
We would really appreciate each other, I think.
But for now, we return home to Portland. We return to the clean sheets and towels, to the organic food, to me waking up each morning and feeding the pets, to me tending to the home.
I have created this home and I am choosing this life of stability.
For now, at least.
Frances Badalamenti is the author of the novels I Don’t Blame You and Salad Days. Some of her shorter work can be found at The New Yorker, The Believer Magazine, BOMB Magazine and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she teaches writing workshops and mentors writers.