Shuffle Underwater

One of the interesting things about submerging your head under water is the moment between your neck wetting and when you feel the liquid coursing into your ear canal. (I always imagine it like a flash flood — the desert after a rain. A clear blue day and suddenly, with a trickle and then a roar, all the cacti are washed away and the tumbleweeds go all soggy.)

My life is like water in my ears right now. For some reasons which don’t bear going into and some which do, it feels like, as my mother would say, “someone has upsot the apple cart.”  (The apple cart being me.) It’s restlessness and discomfort and exhaustion and exertion.

Nothing’s going my way. Everything’s harder than it should be, takes longer than it ought to. Just this afternoon I went for a walk in the park to cheer myself. I saw a huge leaf pile, and instead of walking around it, I thought it might do me good to skip through it. I hit a rock and twisted my ankle. You see what I mean.

It’s a tough time. But what makes it interesting is that I know I’m in it. I know the water’s about to trickle into my ear. Somehow I got lucky enough to be aware of how much fun I’m not having. And I can’t decide if that makes it more bearable or less.

I know it doesn’t make it any better. Yesterday, I was slouching down 42nd (not to Bethlehem, but Times Square, where there’s no room on the inn), scowling and feeling pretty tough.  That area of New York is always crowded and seems particularly prone to wanderers or little lost citizens who get in the way. I was not in the mood for packs of tourists. I was about a block away from my subway — I could see the glittering yellow circles, smell the grease on the turnstiles — when I slammed into a girl about my age, walking the opposite way. I was knocked a  little off balance and turned to scoff when I saw the crash had made her drop her purse and most of its contents had spilled on the sidewalk. She was frantically trying to scoop them up amid the tangle of feet, more treacherous than jungle vines, and people were starting to complain. Even from my haze of misery, I knew I should help.

I didn’t want to. I wanted to give myself a break. “I’m in my blue period!” I said to myself. “I don’t have the strength to do anything I don’t want to, and I shouldn’t have to pick up some chick’s lipstick that’s in a shade too kitsch to bear anyway.”

And as I walked away, I realized that acknowledgment doesn’t make things better or worse. But it does change who takes credit for things. And I wondered — what if every time you feel the ground shifting beneath, maybe, like in the old disaster movies, it’s just you moving your feet.

On Ennui

During one of the first dizzying months I lived in New York, I sliced my finger opening a bag of frozen peas. The fingertip wasn’t severed, but it was cut to the bone and I haven’t felt anything in it since.

Having been a resident almost a year now, I worry the numbness has spread.

It takes an enormous amount of effort to exist in this city. Just to be. You’re constantly jostled — the subways, the sidewalks, the office corridors. Always making space for someone else and fighting to keep enough room for yourself. I feel I’m always swiveling my hips to let someone pass. I haven’t approached a building square on in weeks.

It’s noise too. Sitting in my apartment, the one place I have the pleasure of no one else’s company, I look out the window and see my neighbors. I hear cars. Voices. Music. I’ve learned that everyone in New York is lonely, no matter how many friends you have. I’m lucky enough to have a huge and loving support system in the city (and I’m not counting the compression stockings my parents insist I wear on airplanes), but sometimes the pace — and the place — is overwhelming.

A good friend (a man who listens about my encounters with other guys,  that kind of good friend) told me that the key to living in New York is to find your church. Not a religious experience, but a ritual for you and you alone. To be done every week. He used to ride the G through Brooklyn to volunteer at a museum. He said this would counter my feelings of isolation.

So many people have tried to explain the loneliness in New York.  I don’t want to go much into the philosophy of this effect in America’s most-populated city. I’ll just tell you how it is for me.

I alternately crave putting my head in or taking my head out of an invisible vice. I waver between the two but neither mental containment nor expansion ever seems like the right thing.  I always feel like I’m posing for a picture.  My heart breaks when I make eye contact with someone I don’t know.

The thing about church is that, ultimately, it’s creating a connection between you and God. It’s a personal, private, solitary thing that can’t be shared with other humans. The definition of lonely. But how can my church — reading a book by the Hudson’s tidal waters in Astoria Park — satisfy me if there’s no deity on the other end of the line?

I guess in that case, it’s just me and the city.