It was the summer in the city of New York when I began my disintegration. There’s something that has to be said about the city, the putrid carcass desperately clutching at her foothold between the frothing Hudson and East River. At best, she leaves you with only a physical reminder in your lungs and in the bloated eyes following your yellow reflection. At worst, she crawls inside your ear and sits in the center of the fleshy maze that is your brain, giving off her stink.
I was lying flat on the piss-soaked mattress I stumbled upon in a backalley four years ago when the city was still a timid dream and watching the last tendrils of the sun creep back from the streaked window facing west. I felt my breathing deliberately slow down to a halt to catch the final whispers of the softly ticking clock before 6pm struck. It was a rare moment the two 20-something-year-olds, with whom my bed shares a thin, peeling wall, and their thundering voices were not in concert with the shrill, silly laughs of some college girl. I could even hear the scampering of the brown mice living between the floors and the rattling of the water pipes to Mrs. Rodriguez’s shower.
Those moments—the moments when time was stalled, and morning and night were in limbo, and people rushing to and fro were all fixed—I called them the Surfacing Seconds. Like the massive creatures rising from their cold depths, the entire city of New York and her millions of souls took a collective breath, suspended the air within themselves until it became too stifling, much like the hot steam rising from her pores, and then released the tension in a torrent.
The clock rattled on its spindly legs. Time resumed. I pulled the thick polyester standard issue black pants up over the blue button down, but they quickly dropped low on my hips. I was on the last hole of my belt . . . belt hole? The fleshy tongue fumbling around for the right curves and edges felt foreign to my mouth. I bit down hard on the intruder. It wriggled out . . . notch? No, no—damn it, no—that’s a . . .um, metaphor, I think. Right? The offensive belt was flung aside and landed only three feet away with a thwack after crashing into the wall.
My head was like this all summer. Some days it was just an annoying itch in between my ears that I might be able to reach with a long stick jammed in my ear, but on the true New York summer days, days where the pavement melted rubber flip flops and the red double decker buses shimmered dreamily as they barreled your way, it was like being boiled to a gray mush. I told myself I just needed some food, which would also solve the belt problem. And a fan and a hat. A hat would have been nice. One of those with the brims that go all the way around would have been really nice.
After jamming the chipped safety glasses in my front pocket and setting my conductor’s hat rakishly over one eye, I gave my bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen a last look over with a single sweeping glance. Amid the greys and browns, my father’s gold watch leaped up to my eye as it glinted in the sun. My hand hesitated momentarily but batted the nostalgia down before it reached to grab the burning item and thrust it deep into my itchy polyester pant pocket. My plan was to sell it to the pawnbroker who already took most of my possessions in exchange for some cash to tide me over till my next paycheck.
Without bothering to lock the door, I left for Van Cortlandt and 242 St for my night shift on the 1. I lost my key weeks ago after a hobo tried to grab me at the end of an exhausting shift. Plus, the only thing worth anything was then in my pocket. I waved to Mrs. Rodriguez’s door three doors down, as I knew she was sitting comfortably in her garish wrapper next to her peephole with her favorite soap on in the background. Another reason why I didn’t bother locking up: Mrs. Rodriguez couldn’t be floor seven’s notorious gossiping watchdog without knowing the coming and going of every deliveryman, Girl Scout, and lodger.
After weeks of being squeezed by the stifling heat, the city finally felt some respite as the sun disappeared over the Hudson and the night brought a cool sea breeze that blew through the crevices between the steel giants. The quality of the night along with the wheezing of my lungs after hobbling down just seven flights of stairs led me to break out the disused bike that was chained to the pole for so long it looked as if the two had fused together. From Washington Heights, I gave myself thirty minutes to reach the tracks while taking the scenic route along the Harlem River.
My mind wandered during that trip; it meandered and dawdled and scuttled until it settled upon the heavy weight rhythmically banging against my right leg. Despite all of my attempts to stop the memory from creeping in, it flooded my head with its extraordinary detail and emotion. It was a few weeks after I dropped out of Columbia in my second year, unbeknownst to my father, and started crashing with a friend. He soon found out and ventured from his lofty palace down to the city to berate me with his Bible verses and single parent guilt while I played the defensive with my French philosophers and imitations of a poor man. Needless to say, we never had any contact after that. At least not until a lawyer showed up looking out of place so far up the island carrying the poor sap’s will and signature gold watch.
I shook my head in the wind to clear out the thoughts, let out a big yelp that was drowned out by the car horns, and buried my chest down to pump faster, harder, until the wind in my ears and the rasping emptiness in the back of my throat all but drowned out the lingering memories into white static.
It was nearing complete darkness when I reached the tracks. After doing the usual routine—check the breakers in the cab, change the side signs, look out for graffiti, and repeat nine more times—we, the train and I, finally started moving down to our pre-departure spot. Without even thinking, the CR mantra rolled off my tongue: "This is _______. The next stop on this 1 to South Ferry is ________. Stand clear of the closing doors, please." Then began the mad rush to journey up and down the island with time to spare for bathroom breaks before we do it all again while accounting for door holders, confused tourist groups, and surges of fur-clad divas emerging from Lincoln Center.
The crowds held steady until 10:00, disappeared all together, and the fun began. On those runs, runs where it was just the train and myself flying down tracks of darkness and flashing lights and screeches and turns while safely enclosed in a silent box giving off a comfortable flicker of yellow light, I was reminded again of why I left everything and to go underground. I tell those who ask me why I decided to become a subway conductor that works the night shift of all things that I like the rhythm of the tracks. I like the thought that underneath a city of mayhem, I was a part of an orderly world that was dependable and accountable. That’s what I told them and myself.
I didn’t tell them that I first went underground in order to escape the weight of the entire city crushing my idea of existence, the sweaty palms and strange elbows crowding me, and the feeling of suffocating every time I crossed the road in fear of being crushed like an ant. I didn’t tell them how I immediately fell in love with the breathing of the subway, because they wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t understand how sometimes time halted to a stop and the only thing that moved was the train hurtling through a space, a yawning void studded with flashing stars of blue and red and green and yellow, carrying me with it into somewhere and nowhere. They wouldn’t understand how time sped up, rushing towards us in a dizzying whirl of lights as we remained motionless, and turned upside down, making time meaningless and taking us into the future, past . . . who cared?
For a moment everything became so clear. My hunger was there but only a faint buzzing in the background and my head had a form, a shape, a purpose.
For a moment I felt alive, really alive. Most people are only living: they inhale and exhale without feeling the beauty of a chest full of air, their hearts contract and relax without realizing that their life is a sheet of music and the beats have an end; but I felt it, every quiver of my muscles, every signal in my brain, and saw it, them. The waves swelling, pounding, then retreating to hurl themselves again. And again. And again, with their seemingly infinite energy locked in a cycle with the winds and sun.
Maybe it will all be just fine. If I disappear because the hunger got too bad and my head led me to wander off the GW bridge, there will be an effect, a ripple in the wake of my splash. They would need someone else to drive the 1 every night, Mrs. Rodriguez would fret about the moving men and the new inhabitant of 7D, the two college boys next door would miss the two sharp raps from the adjacent room telling them to shut up, the pawnbroker would think of my shuffling feet whenever he sells my priceless junk, and somehow the flowerless marble tombstone would feel it. He would know, somehow. I fingered the gold watch, watching it glitter as the lights from the tunnels and the oncoming platform pulled it in and out of darkness.
Maybe it will all be just fine.
Something white floated in the corner of my vision. Surrender. Purity. Empty. With perfect hindsight vision, after the accident I thought that the immediate thought that came into my head when I saw the billowing fabric meant something.
Maybe I could’ve saved her.
Maybe it could’ve meant something.
But it didn’t. I thought of the white flag triumphantly waving against the black that brings a brief moment of respite with an end to the endless struggle, until you are pulled under. I thought of simultaneously losing all hope and faith in foolish notions is and filling oneself with peace, a gentle peace that slips one to sleep, like the calm after a cry. The white flag is the moment between dying and death.
She was my white flag.
And then she lept and the gold watch crashed to the floor silently as the train was brought to a screeching halt by the emergency brakes. My brain grew mushy again and only remembered flashes of light and bursts of sound. I looked under the fourth car—I don’t remember how I got there—and heard the screams of the drunks straggling home. Her face was beautiful, like abstract art. Dark liquid trickled out of her nose, her mouth, her ears and I swore I saw her brain, not grey and mushy like mine but pink and fleshy and warm.
Then she was on a stretcher with emergency personnel swarming the site. People were asking me questions in a room. They offered water. Do you have anyone you’d like to call, they asked. I shook my head in all directions that early morning.
Somehow the sun rose and people starting to start their days again, buzzing and humming and whistling, not knowing or caring that underneath them was a pool of blood. The sun rose and I was walking along the Harlem again, this time without a bike and my hat. It must have fallen off. The sun rose and threw its happiness onto the oblivious river, reminding me of the watch. I clutched my pocket and drew a deep sigh of a relief as I felt its heavy weight.
It laid in my palm like a bird with broken wings, crushed and dejected. Strings of obscenities rushed through my mouth as I clenched myself down, my knees digging into my stomach to ease the pain and my hands holding my head together. I couldn’t breathe from the emotions flooding my lungs, rising and choking me. It was my lost father, my food, my savior. It was the anger that came from almost finding redemption before it being ripped away. It was the realization that the girl in white was too alive and craved the white flag too much to continue the struggle for the next breath. It was the emptiness of life, the indifference of the stone men and women skirting the manic by the side of the river.
I launched it into the air where it sliced through the summer humidity cleanly, a forgotten fragment of the sun, before it splashed noiselessly into the river, sending tiny ripples radiating outwards until the wind tousled it into random wavelets rolling aimlessly.