Nina is my friend L’s dog. She’s black and furry, a mix between a Rottweiler and a Chow. Her tongue is dark purple and it hangs out of her mouth when she pants. One weekend when L went away Nina came and stayed with me and my roommates in our apartment. She was a quiet dog but when we’d come back from a walk she’d be so excited that she’d run back and forth from the front door to the kitchen. When she’d reach the far end of the apartment she’d lose her grip and flop onto the floor and go sliding into the wall. She’d jump up again, her tail flipping back and forth. Then she’d gallop back towards the other end of the room and go careening into the wall on the other side.
Maybe you’ve heard this story already but I’m going to tell it again, because I love it.
I met N almost two years ago, on a cold and sunny San Francisco morning. It was Easter and my friend had invited some people over to his apartment for a boozy brunch. His place was a long, gray shotgun apartment, and when I arrived he led me down the long dark hall to the kitchen. N was standing there at the stove, her back to me, the a white apron tied across her back over a purple and orange sundress. As soon as I saw her, before she turned around, I felt like I knew her, and had for as long as I could remember.
Then she turned around and looked at me. I remember thinking it was ridiculous that we were shaking hands and trading names. It should have been a long hug and “How have you been?” I thought.
We stayed together the whole day, long after there was any polite reason to. After brunch fizzled out we all went to her place. And then we went to someone else’s apartment for a drink. And then we all went to a bar. And then her and I went to another bar. And then we went back to her place again.
I remember finally walking home that night at three in the morning. It had been cold in the afternoon sun, but I felt only a gentle softness in the air of the deserted Mission. We had been drinking since morning but I felt lucid and awake.
We’re two totally different people. She’s quiet and shy, when I’m spilling over with metered obnoxiousness. She’s direct and assertive where I’d sulk and retreat. She’s able to take care of herself where I’d let myself be put out and say nothing about it. But I understand her instincts, because they’re the same as my own. I can read the writing on her wall better than anyone else I’ve ever known. It’s like knowing what a song’s about before you know what the lyrics say. Or like how a dog knows its owner’s sad even through its color blindness and inability to speak.
When I decided to move I became an idiot. I decided to move the day after she left, without even knowing it. I was walking across the train tracks to the bus stop after work. The sky was a kind of blue half-dark. I could see a few sad little stars over the flat stretch of industrial rust by the bay. She hadn’t asked anything of me when she left, but I thought about what I would have done if she had. Would I have gone with her if she had wanted it?
“No,” I thought to myself. “That would be the stupidest and most reckless of all options.”
From that point all I could think about was moving, finding a way to make that stupid recklessness real. It was also at that moment that my eventual move stopped being just about her. I never would have moved without her, but I also wouldn’t have started off without some self-centered fixation on jumping into the dark holes on the opposite side of “sensible” and “safe.” That was my baggage and from that moment forward it was a shadow that followed along behind the body of the act as I put the pieces together.
I told her I had decided to move in a text message a few months later. It was at the end of some teasing exchanges where I’d baited her with barrage of cleverness and verbal ostentation. I didn’t want to tell her, but I couldn’t help myself, sending it as a self-reflexive cherry on top of the escalating teasing. It’s all fun and games until some guy you used to date tells you he’s moving across the country for you. It felt like dropping a little lead bar into a black hole when I hit the send button.
She didn’t respond. She stopped talking to me for almost two weeks. I was wracked with fear that I had sounded like a jackass. I sent her an email the next morning explaining what I had meant in less priggish language. And still, silence.
She finally called a couple of weeks later, drunk and angry. It was dark and I was waiting at the bus stop on the quiet grassy hill where I’d sometimes see raccoons sprinting across the road. When I saw her name on the phone display a flash of cold went through my stomach. My hands started sweating and my fingers felt swollen and metallic in the cold air. My blood pressure dropped and my head felt like it was detaching from my body and drifting away into the sky.
“Hello?” I said, already knowing who it was.
There was no small talk. “Fuck you,” she said. “Fuck you.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You’re so fucking selfish.”
When I read all of the emails we’d sent each other in the months leading up to that call, I see what she meant. When we met, we fell for each other quickly and recklessly. That’s an instinct we both share, the mutual recognition of which helped further our smiling fall. What I don’t have is a self-preservation instinct. I was twelve the first time someone punched me in the face, and I didn’t understand what was happening. The idea of hitting back or covering up didn’t occur to me. My instinct was to step closer and ask “Why?” And I got hit again.
When she left it was like slamming into the ground after that joyful fall. She was trying to get up and move on. I was still stuck on the ground quietly in pain and trying to manufacture another way to recreate the sensation of falling.
I hate writing this. It makes me feel ugly and weak.
I tried to explain my hedgehog logic to her. My reasons were all stout and low to the ground, they made practical sense. And they all served to point me towards the thing I had wanted to say all along. “I’m moving for you. I don’t want to have felt this and not stood up for it with everything I have,” I told her.
“Fine,” she said. “Come, I don’t care. Write about video games, make your movies, do whatever you want.”
“I will,” I said.
“Good. Come then.”
Leading up to that moment, I’d tried to be the together one. I fought to not let on how much I was feeling. I never asked her what she thought about the idea. I never included her in my own inner debate. And then I announced that I had made a decision, one that was invasive, made in her honor with no consultation in advance. I was moving for her, but at no point had I asked her to have a voice in that decision. I was afraid she’d say no. If she did, then I’d be left alone with an abstract idea of moving across the country. I liked being able to say that I was doing it for her. It made me feel less ugly and weak. I was romantic and brave, a swollen projection of my emaciated self (I lost almost twenty pounds in depression after she left).
When I finally got here, I was two people at once. I was still afraid of the “no” I superstitiously expected to find out there in ether. I ignored that fear, while my entire shape contorted around it. I was non-committal and breezy outwardly, while inwardly I was astir with the delusion that there would be something to cling to at the end of this new jump. Who wants to be the thing someone mid-leap clings to?
You know how this story ends: with a no that didn’t need saying, I’d crab-walked my way into it before I’d ever even asked a question.
A week before I left, we were chatting about the move. “I just want to toddle around with you,” she wrote.
“We’re gonna toddle, girl,” I replied.
I’ve never lived in a place like New York. I wake up every morning with a terrible sense of fear. I have to redefine myself every day to write, to earn my keep, and support myself. I don’t have the cyclical stability of a job and an office full of people in the same predicament. No one cares that I’m up in the morning. I also feel overwhelmed with some gravitational joy when I walk around the streets. People are everywhere, and they all seem to be heading straight towards me without even looking.
I can see the Empire State building reaching up out of the skyline, lit up in a new color every night. I go rambling down the shady cobblestone streets of the West Village, drink cheap whiskey in East Village bars that smell like ammonia and beer, ride the train to every random part of Brooklyn as if it were another continent. One night I saw Placido Domingo conduct Verdi, another I danced on a rooftop on St. Marks. I’ve dated an ex-beauty queen, gone ice-skating at the foot of skyscrapers, and woken up to see snow falling on the tar paper and chimneys on my sunken roof.
I feel lucky to be here. I don’t deserve to live in a place so densely filled with this much life, secretly ululating down the avenues. But I do. I’d wanted this for myself all along, to keep moving, to find a reason to not settle down and grow grass beneath my feet. I wanted to keep pushing against the outer lip of what I can do. I wasn’t brave enough to say that I wanted this for my own sake. So I said it was for someone else, and that spared me the terrible weight of having to look at myself without the warping hue of romance.
For the price of a city, I’ve managed to lose N. I loved her as if I were a child lost in an airport.
When she was in high school, she wrote “If you love something, let it go” in Spanish on her bedroom wall. The last time I saw her she held on to me longer than I was expecting. We had spent the late afternoon in the park with some of my friends, and then gone to a bar as the sun was setting. A few more friends were on their way to meet me. She had plans with her own friends in Brooklyn. We’d been having strange outbursts of bickering over the last month, passive aggressive fights I was starting to pick. I didn’t want to seem overly clingy in parting so I put my arms lightly around her when we were saying goodbye. I knew I’d been clinging and I forced myself to giver her only a light squeeze.
As I started to pull away she was still holding on. I didn’t understand. I stood there with my arms half around her shoulders as she pressed herself against me a few seconds longer.
I looked at her wondering if there was something she had to say. I felt my face warm a little. She lifted her head and looked at me.
“Goodbye,” she said.