Sunday Stories: “A Sign”

A Sign
by Jessie Male

I was sent a sign once.

I was 25 and I was going through what I would later classify as “the great existential crisis of 2009.” I had been living in New York City for four years since graduating from Oberlin College and I had applied to graduate school. I was going to study writing. I had been accepted to Hunter College, where my sister had attended and my mother before her, and Emerson College, in Boston, in addition to several other universities I could neither afford nor commit to living. Arizona? No. Boston? Perhaps.

Boston. New York. New York. Boston. To classify this as an existential crisis might appear as a melodramatic sentiment, but I was never one known for being able to make up my mind. Choosing anything from a restaurant to the color of my bedroom brought stomach pains and sweats, the knowledge once the decision was made, you could never go back. Hunter had given me two weeks to tell them my answer, and since then I had stopped eating and couldn’t sleep. I called in sick from work so I could sit in Central Park, pondering my options. I spoke to my mother several times a day, asking again and again what school she thought I should go to.

“Hunter,” she’d say.

Really?” I’d reply.

“Emerson,” she’d say.

“Are you serious?!” I’d respond.

Finally she suggested I ditch the idea of becoming a writer and go work in a tollbooth, because I clearly needed consistency to function.

I decided to ask an old professor whose work I admired what she thought I should do. I sat in her office and listened as she said: “The best thing you could do for your work is to separate from your family. Give yourself some distance.” She had gotten her graduate degree at the University of Alabama, and then went on to head the nonfiction department at a large New York university. Clearly she had done something right. If not Alabama, then maybe Boston was the answer.

But I was a New Yorker. This was an unequivocal fact.  I knew this like I knew the birthmarks scattered across my body—one, in the center of my left hand, which slowly faded with time; another, directly in line with my pubic bone; another, on my right shoulder (my mother told me they were beauty marks and said the more you had the more beautiful you were). So much of my existence had been mapped across the five boroughs, from Eddie’s Sweet Shop in Kew Gardens, where I used to get ice cream sundaes with my father, to my high school, off Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx. I kissed boys in this city, and later, men: one, on the front steps of the main post office; another at Webster Hall; another outside Pete’s Candy Store and in the back seat of a cab, all the way to my first apartment, in Crown Heights.

Not long before applying to graduate school I had ended a three-year relationship that had gone on two years too long. Afterwards, I did all the things I was supposed to do. I deleted phone numbers; put pictures in a box; the tee shirts I had slept in I gave to goodwill. Yet there he was, every time I crossed the 59th street Bridge, which I did fairly often when traveling from my parent’s home in Queens back to South Harlem. I’d stare up at Trump World Tower, a large phallic-shaped building that dominated the skyline, and try to find the apartment he shared with his parents. It had been all the way up on the 56th floor. So many times I had stood at those windows, tinted black, and looked one way towards the East River and the other way towards the Empire State Building.

Perhaps Boston would be a change I need.

Twice I took the Bolt Bus for the four-hour trip up I 95 into Boston. And twice I took it back. I remember how it felt, the last time, as the bus slowly bumped towards the George Washington Bridge. It was a clear night, so clear I thought I could see stars. Then I realized it was just the city, all lit up, as if fireworks had exploded and the sparks remained.

And yet, Hunter asked for an answer I still could not give. I could always come back, I told myself. The city was not going anywhere.

A friend from college—an old lover with an affinity for baking—finally suggested he come over and, together, we would make pro/con list. A decision would be made, once and for all.  “We’ll have some cookie time with Nathan,” he said. This act, he added, would be on the pro list, along with the names of a dozen of my closest friends, a strong dance community, and access to my parent’s laundry.

“Nathan,” I told him, “one day you are going to meet a woman, and things will change. There won’t be cookie time. Your girlfriend won’t allow it.”

I often thought about the three months Nathan and I had spent together, beginning in December of my senior year in college. The first time I had seen him he was barefoot, performing jetes in the snow. Allegedly his roommates had stolen all his shoes, a collection of 21 Converse sneakers in 19 colors (“all made in the USA by union labor”). I brought him back to my off-campus house after a party, where we drank peppermint tea out of Mason jars. When we kissed we did so awkwardly. His mouth was so much bigger than mine. In fact, everything about Nathan was so much bigger—rather than standing eye-to-eye we stood eye-to-belly button. In my room he laid me down on the bed and started to take off my clothes, then his own. His image was fuzzy, like a camera out of focus.

“Why are you wearing a sweater underneath your sweater?” I asked him.

“No,” he said. “That’s my body hair.”

I learned to love the soft down that covered him, literally, from head to toe, the way I loved other things about him: his double jointed hips which made him limbo champion; the way he danced naked on a bed in a Cleveland Airport Marriott, when both our flights were cancelled due to snow; the penis puppet show he performed for me in my parent’s basement. But it was what it was. Nathan left to study abroad during the spring semester; I graduated in June. I moved back to New York and he was paid $30,000 to travel around the world and study bread making.

I never thought I would see him again. Nathan hated New York City.

“The people are not very nice,” he said. “New York,” he said, “will steal your soul.”

“But Nathan,” I told him. “I’m a New Yorker.”

“Exactly,” he said. “You can be a little mean.”

Throughout the years, Nathan and I wrote each other letters, and though mine were always postmarked within a 10 mile radius, Nathan’s came from all over: Florence; Mumbai; Jerusalem. He wrote:

Tell our story

  if only to make me feel famous.

And make things up

  which are nice about me.

And then one day he called. He had gotten a job, in New York City in fact, and would be moving in a week.

My existential crisis began in the third week of February, and by the time Nathan met me it was already the middle of March. He biked from Dumbo, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and up to Columbia University, where I was working in the Earth and Environmental Engineering department, as a program coordinator for the colloid and surfactant king of America. I was working long hours, helping to organize the world’s greatest acronym, the ICSCS ACS IACIS 2009 Colloid and Surface Science Symposium, a six-day conference being held at the university. The event maintained the nickname “The Colloid Olympics.” “Anybody who is anybody in surface and colloid science will be there,” my boss liked to say. In truth, I had been employed at Columbia for over a year and I was still unclear as to what a colloid was. I knew that fog was a colloid, and toothpaste, but I couldn’t quite grasp the correlation.

The basket of Nathan’s bike contained a bag of flour, brown sugar, chocolate disks and cooking oil. “Do you have any ingredients?” Nathan asked me earlier, and all I could do was laugh. I was my mother’s daughter after all, and the only things in my kitchen cabinets were the menus of every restaurant willing to deliver above 110th street.

We walked out the entrance on 116th street and Amsterdam Avenue, started down 115th street, 114th, 113th, 112th. I loved this part of the city, the vastness of the space, so different than other parts of Manhattan. In the distance I could see The Hungarian Pastry Shop, where my father used to get danishes when a student at Columbia’s Teacher’s College, and the bright red lights of the V & T Pizza Shop. It was past seven and the sky, a light grey, matched the exterior of St. John the Divine. If I sat on the fire escape of my apartment, I could see the tip of the Gothic cathedral. In the distance it looked quite beautiful but up close it was dark and brooding, enormous.

For a moment, we stood in front of the steps of the church. Nathan and his bicycle were on my right side, closest to the street. To better protect me, he told me later. In case a car crashed onto the sidewalk.

I saw her first, or maybe he did, a small hunched woman with haggard jeans and hair that appeared to have been rubbed with a helium balloon. She came towards us, all quick-like, and pushed her palm hard against my shoulder. Apparently I said, “You hit me,” and she said, “Fuck you, bitch,” but that was Nathan’s version of the events. By the time he pulled me to my feet, the small woman had run away.

“Are you ok?” he asked. I looked down, searching for stab wounds.

“I think I’m ok,” I said.

“Are you ok?” asked two women who had been walking in front of us.

“I think so,” I said.

“Did you know her?” they asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

Nathan and I walked a few steps forward.

I looked up at him. “Nathan,” I said. “Something smells.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t smell anything.”

He and I took two more steps forward.

“Nathan,” I said. “Something definitely smells.”

“No,” he said, and kept walking. I quickened my pace to catch up.

“Nathan,” I said louder. “It smells like shit.”

“No,” he said, again.

We took two more steps forward.

“It definitely smells like shit,” I said, even louder this time. People walking past us turned and stared.

He knelt down to my level.

“It does smell like shit,” he said.

“Nathan!” I cried. “I smell like shit. I smell like shit, Nathan.”

I looked down at my dress and at the bright yellow scarf I had recently bought. (“Yellow is a natural mood stabilizer,” the saleswoman had said.) The scarf was covered with brown smears. I could only assume my dress, black as the sky, was covered as well. “She hit me with human shit, Nathan!”

And how people gasped, as I stood there hysterical, on the sidewalk between 112th street and 111th. Nathan looked on, helpless. He wanted to hug me, I told myself, but how could he, when I was covered in human feces?

We walked down 110th street, past Morningside Park.

“You’ll write about this one day,” Nathan told me.

“Never,” I cried to him.

Left two blocks and then over, into my apartment building and up four flights. I walked directly into the bathroom.

“Avoid mirrors!” Nathan yelled.

“Get me a paper bag,” I said.

I unwound my scarf, pulled off my dress. The tank top underneath seemed unscathed but I put it in the bag too, just in case. I turned on the water, so hot that it burned. I stood under the shower for a long time. I could still feel the woman’s hand against my shoulder, remembered the crazy in her eyes. I turned the water hotter, washed my hair again and again.

I got out of the shower, wrapped myself in my robe and walked into the living room. Nathan had ordered Thai food and the take out bags were already on the kitchen table. He was going to the door.

“Are you leaving?” I asked.

“The chocolate chips were unsweetened,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

“Ok,” I said, and ran my fingers through my hair. There were brown flecks stuck to my hand. I turned around and went back to the bathroom.

Later, we sat next to each other on my couch, a purple velvet number I had picked up on a street corner near Prospect Park. The apartment smelled like chocolate and peanut oil and steam. We each held pens in our hands. There was a piece of paper between us.

“Well,” Nathan said, “it’s a sign if I ever saw one. I guess you’re moving to Boston.”

I looked up at him. “Are you kidding me?” I asked. “I’m staying in New York. This shit would never happen in Boston.”

Jessie Male is a writer and teacher living in Manhattan. She is the co-editor and co-founder of the website and performance series Bad Date Great Story. Her nonfiction has appeared in xoJane, Nerve, and Dance Magazine. 

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1 comment

  1. Yes! This is New York. The author has really captured both the nature of the City and of those who actually want to live there.