This is the first in a two part series. You can read the second part here.
Dances With Something
by LUCY MORRIS
For a long time I had a theory that if the three central components of your daily life are your job, friends, and romantic preoccupations, you are allowed to fuck up at one of the three at a time. If you are happy with your community and how you spend your days, it’s okay to act impulsively in love. If your relationships of all kinds are fairly stable, you are permitted some imprudence with work.
I am not by nature a reckless person. But I found that recklessness can be learned, and it’s useful to experiment with it from time to time, to see what it’s like, to see what might happen.
If you’re interested in parting with some portion of your sense of responsibility, there is no better place to do so than this. The trains run forever; you can stay out all night. If you are low on money, you can eat Trader Joe’s samples for dinner. I went with a friend to an absinthe tasting-combo-singles event to get buzzed for free one summer evening, although neither of us was actually single and we were also underage. I plus-oned to open bar parties and wandered into Chelsea gallery openings to snack on hors d'oeuvres and to feel, however briefly, a thrilling proximity to prosperity. But if the opposite of consumption is what you’re after, that’s also possible: it’s amazingly easy to seamlessly disappear from someone’s life here, and this, too, was something I saw fit to try, vanishing off other people’s personal grids, vacating any common ground we might have once shared — coffee shops, subway stations, whole neighborhoods — leaving behind no evidence that I had ever been there at all.
I did this for the reason I did many things in New York: to see if I could. Has there ever been worse reasoning? But when you find yourself, for instance, at a hotel rooftop party you’ve snuck into, leaning over the railing, your face looming out over the city with the sense that all eight million inhabitants are in your field of vision, and there is a drink in your hand and a friend by your side, it is difficult to see any kind of consequences. You think that if a city can belong to you — and in moments like this, that’s how it appears — then anything, any wish or ambition or person, can also be yours.
Each time I moved to a new neighborhood here, the first thing I did was extricate my sneakers and shorts from their boxes and go running. I didn’t run particularly fast, nor for any duration — just enough to stake out the pieces of Brooklyn and then Manhattan that I could identify as mine, even though the unacknowledged end of that thought was always for now. Although I always left, the routes of those runs remain indelible, occupying space in my memory I’d rather reserve for the Russian vocabulary my job requires, some real knowledge of American history, or my myriad Internet passwords.
These paths — up and down 86th Street and later Eastern Parkway, around Alphabet City and along the East River — are emblematic of all the time I have spent in New York, busily accumulating an array of urban knowledge that will be entirely useless anywhere else: mental maps of cafes and library branches in the event of a Wi-Fi emergency, express versus local train stops, tiny triangular city parks ideal for spontaneous sit-downs to call your parents, recalibrate. The legend in my mind denotes the grocery stores with the cheapest canned beans and pasta, the streets most pleasant to walk down at different hours of the day, the bars with the very best happy hour deals. Somewhere up there, too, I keep a mental schedule of regular free museum hours, monthly dance parties and a variety of other events that, more often than not, I didn’t actually attend.
During my first several summers here, I went frequently to the Forever 21 in Union Square, both because it was heavily air-conditioned and to try to superficially recreate myself. This was a practice I continued for years, accruing a range of unwearable rompers and crop tops and earrings so long they got caught in my hair. I stopped doing this at around the same time that I started going to bars, which I soon found offer another venue for camping beneath an air vent and temporarily reinventing yourself. The problems with this latter practice are well established but they are also less tangible — at the very least, they take up no space in your closet.
As I pack now, dumping drawers onto my bed for sifting, culling a crate of shoes, I see a collection not of things I necessarily loved but rather of trends that were: skinny jeans, pointy-toed flats, off-the-shoulder jersey dresses, above-the-knee boots, lace tops, high-waisted skirts, neon blouses, boat shoes. In these garments — a dress I recall being impatiently unzipped by someone else’s hands, a torn t-shirt advertising some once beloved band, a necklace I nervously fastened in advance of a job interview — I see vague glimpses of the person I was when I wore them.
For the most part that person was very young. By that I mean the kind of young where it is possible to be so happy — say, on speedy late night train rides over the Manhattan Bridge with the city shining before or ahead — that you suddenly find yourself in the realm of the sad, the good feeling flushing over you unexpectedly beginning to curdle.
The currency of much of this period was whatever we could trade in: discounted meals at the Greenwich Village restaurant where someone worked, free drinks at the Brooklyn bar someone else presided over, a spare desk at a Soho office when a boss was out of town. We cut each other's bangs, passed around clothes we no longer wanted, shared prescription pills, proofread each other’s cover letters. I cooked many dinners in exchange for company, and appeared on just as many other doorsteps with bottles of cheap wine for friends taking their turn at the stove.
Friends now seems entirely too insufficient a word for the people with whom I’ve spent these years. Catherine and I met often for dinner, wandering around Manhattan hunting for the right restaurant, the search mainly a pretext for prolonging the pleasure of each other’s company. Sarah had a spare set of my keys and came to stay a few nights during a period when I was re-learning how to sleep alone. One long spring, I had Jeanne over for dinner every Monday, and after we ate we’d linger for hours in my living room, facing each other from opposite ends of the big purple couch, evading whatever it was we were then evading. I met Zara at Botanica many Tuesdays after work; at some point when my employer became erratic about paying, she offered to lend me money, and I didn’t take it but the gesture sat with me for a long time. On a January evening in the middle of a breakup I took a taxi I couldn’t afford to Williamsburg, because I couldn’t bear to cry on the L, but I also couldn’t afford, I felt, not to be sitting in Jen and Tag’s living room eating pizza, waiting for what was wrong to right itself.
We hand-delivered pints of soup for throats that hurt and handles of gin for hearts that did. These were the people I listed as emergency contacts, to whom I was connected by constant phone calls and emails, offering and receiving advice when it was merited, consolation when it was called for, and a host of other forms of help and encouragement along the way.
Some nights we danced for hours. “Do you like zees?” a Turkish marine asked me on the roof of Brass Monkey one memorable night as we all turned our twisting bodies to watch a couple having cinematic sex in a window of The Standard. I locked eyes with the friend I’d come with. There was already someone whose bed I could stumble into at the end of the night if I wanted, but half the reason we were out was to stall the fact of that, to instead be around people with whom all gestures were insignificant, to lose ourselves, together, in crowds of those entirely unlike us. “Not really,” I told the marine, and a few hours later the bed I stumbled into was my own, my friend safely asleep on the floor next to me.
Some afternoons following those sorts of nights we’d get sleepily stoned in Prospect Park and lay out on blankets, mindlessly chewing on chives and other plants I insisted I could identify from a foraging tour I’d once taken there. There was no shortage of things to do together: forays to the Met, afternoons at cafes, outdoor movies. But, in truth, the very best times I had in New York were at kitchen tables in apartments across the boroughs, scarfing down pasta and greens with my friends.
The most worthwhile things I did here were always the ones I was unaware of even participating in. I barely remember the concerts or parties I declared were going to be “incredible,” the art exhibits or author readings I proclaimed “life-changing,” or even the minor triumphs of early adulthood — locating a good doctor, deciphering tax documents, learning when and how to quit a job. In the end, these achievements all paled in comparison to establishing relationships of the kind that allow you to learn, for a second and more perfect time, what it means to be family.
It’s true that I likely could have done this anywhere, with other groups of people, but the fact was that I didn’t, I chose New York, and it is for this reason, not the presence of relatives here nor my familiarity with its grids and operations, that the city has ascended past other places I have lived and, almost without me noticing, rendered itself home.
You can read the second part of Dances With Something here.
Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording and a writer living in New York for the moment. This is the first in a two part series. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Brighton Beach. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
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