Home – parts 1 and 2

I wished I had some curtains, just so I could tear myself away from my view of this new, dazzling, alien city. I wished I had brought a frayed cushion for the sofa that seemed too big, or a dirty lampshade to dim my bare bulb. My feet echoed on the cheap wooden floor, tapping a hollow rhythm as I wondered around my apartment. After running my tired eyes over every nook and cranny of the room, I focused them on the box marked ‘URGENT’. I pulled off the thick brown tape and started unpacking, pulling out kitchen utensils, a book, shampoo and a phone charger until the functional basics of life lay scattered as if a mini hurricane had formed itself in my new living room. I stopped, taking stock of my progress, and then stooped again. A towel, soap, pots and pans. I looked at the clock on my phone and saw that it was just past five in the evening, but to me it was the early hours of the morning. My muscles ached from the plane journey and I realised that I was hungry. The fleecy jacket I had worn on the plane hung on the solitary hook by the front door and I pulled it on as I headed out, down two flights of clanging metal stairs and onto the street. I breathed in, letting the pulsing heartbeat of the Big Apple seep into me. I knew from my taxi journey that there was a 7-11 at the end of the block, so I started to walk, feet slapping lazily on the smooth concrete. I felt myself blend in with the locals and the tourists, I heard the brief snippet of ‘yes, I’m walking up East 12th’ and I experienced the elation which came when I realised that I was too, that I was part of that man’s New Yorker world. I reached the supermarket, suddenly very aware that I may have to pay for my pasta with a credit card, as I didn’t have so much as a dollar on me. As I signed my name, chip and PIN had obviously not come to the world’s second largest economy, the cashier looked at me quizzically.
‘You enjoying your holiday ma’am?’ he asked in his light drawl. I smiled; I obviously didn’t blend in as much as I had thought. I told him that I’d just moved in up the road, to which he smiled slightly and said that he would see me soon.
Once I had eaten and washed out the pot to put into the rubbish when I got around to buying a bin bag, I realised just how alone I was. I was not expected to turn up for work for a week, and with it being a Monday I would not have much opportunity to meet many people until the weekend. Of course, a few of my university friends were over here too, but these were girls I had not seen for three years and with whom I had never really been close. I sighed. The book beside me did not seem all that appealing and my laptop was buried in the cardboard box mountain stacked against the wall. I decided that, on my first day in New York, it was not too early for an early night.
My body clock woke me at three-oh-seven the next morning. I cursed myself silently for not having stayed up as late as possible and then lay perfectly still. I listened. Back in my pebble-dashed London street, set in with the urban sprawl that characterised most cities, it would have been silent at this time in the morning; but here the metropolis was very much alive. A police car screeched past as the front door of the downstairs flat opened and shut. A television gave out the booming headlines of America’s beloved CNN. I relaxed. I was not yet homesick, I wondered if I ever would be. For now, it was fantastic to be away. The light from the streetlamp cast the shadow of my little person-width balcony railings through the white curtains and onto the floor. The rest of the room was a fuzzy dark grey but I could just about make out some details, like some art-deco decoration at the top of my wardrobe. I had no idea how I had been so lucky getting this flat in Manhattan when I had expected to be in Queens. I had no idea how I had been offered my dream job at the New York Times with just a few years experience in a backroom at the BBC. It seemed surreal, but I was not complaining. I was grinning ear to ear into the darkness. I must have dosed again until five o’clock but then I finally decided I had had enough. I pulled my tired body out of the warm bed and was hit by solid cold air. I shivered, huddling into myself, and scuttled towards my suitcase and into the bathroom. Once ready, I hunted down my emergency tea-bag supply. I was very grateful for the warmth my brew provided as it took me a good ten minutes to find the thermostat and turn up the heating. I had not realised how cold New York would be in October. Through the thin walls I heard the city’s volume increasing as the taxis sped past, ferrying people to offices in Lower Manhattan. I longed to be a tourist for a few days, to ponder the grid-map of the city and to see all the iconic sites; but I knew I had more to do than that. I had a life to make. I needed to go shopping, to buy fairy liquid and a sponge, all the little things I had never really noticed living at home with Mum. New York may be glamorous, but I was still just a typical girl living alone for the first time.  A sense of apprehension crawled over me, displacing my earlier excitement. I felt very, very young.
I went out for breakfast, sitting at a little deli on 2nd Ave. I briefly considered ordering a Tropicana, even though I had never liked it, just because of an old advert for it that showed clips of breakfasting New Yorkers. Moving on, I went back to the supermarket and stocked up on essentials, thanking God I would soon be earning some money. The apartment had warmed up a little while I was out and the television had obviously been connected as I was greeted by the slightly alarming voice of an angry talk show host. I quickly flicked to the news, my journalistic instinct kicking in. Having watched the headlines several times over I made a start on the unpacking. I had been putting it off since I had got up but it was surprisingly satisfying finding places for all my clothes in the wardrobe, arranging them just how I had at home. I placed a few photographs on the dressing table and was cheered even more by the faces of family and friends. Treasured and tattered paper backs spread themselves all over the flat, followed swiftly by knickknacks and homeliness. It was far from perfect of course – and I was exhausted – but having put the few empty boxes outside I felt myself relax. It was good to be reminded that by moving away, I hadn’t left everything behind.
Life went on like this for a few days, an unbelievable blur of unpacking and studying metro routes and trying to find my way from my flat to the various places I would soon need to be. As I began to get used to the sight of hundreds of canary-coloured taxis and the shops that literally never shut, I still could not get my head around other things. In New York, you could hardly see the sky and there was no such thing as a deserted street. There were just so many people. So many people, but no one to talk to. By Thursday, I was decidedly bored of my own company.  A lot of my girlfriends would have solved this problem by heading out to a bar and meeting new people, but that constituted as my idea of hell. The thought of the person next to me turning around and chatting away was not one I relished. I’d always been shy when it came to strangers, so much so that my more outgoing friends had given up on dragging me to house parties and the like. This was probably a good thing, seeing as I had spent a lot of time standing alone in the quietest corner I could find. I much preferred the television as a form on entertainment. But here I was living a new life. No one here knew that I was the boring one. No one, in fact, knew my name.  This realisation surged through me like a much needed coffee on a Monday morning.  As I unlocked my front door that afternoon I resolved to actually do something, rather than watching television all evening.
It was not until half past seven, after I had made myself a sandwich to sustain me, that I realised that all my decent clothes were still in cardboard boxes. I looked longingly at the sofa. No, I told myself, just get on with it. And I did. I unpacked everything I had yet to in an organised frenzy. My loneliness seemed to force me out of my laziness, which was no bad thing. I eventually found a dress and a pair of tights, which were somewhat miraculously followed by a decent pair of shoes and a matching cardigan. I threw the whole thing on and tried to do something with my limp hair. I snatched a look in the mirror and was pleasantly surprised. My cardigan fitted well, I hadn’t yet destroyed it in the washing machine, and for once I didn’t look pale. I smiled at myself, until I was beaming with stupidity and glee. Fantasies of meeting an handsome-looking New Yorker who would whisk me off into my own fairytale played out in my mind’s eye. On impulse I applied some lip gloss – something I rarely did – and headed out the door before my nagging nerves could stop me. At the top of the stairs I screeched to a halt. Somehow, even though I had been nipping in and out of the apartment all week, I had not taken in the urban beauty of my own street. In the navy darkness the restaurants glowed with suave warmth, the street lamps cast small pockets of light down onto the milling people and behind each curtained window shadows betrayed snapshots of a hundred lives.  I rushed down to hail a passing taxi and before I knew it I was off, making my way through the streets in my yellow cocoon.  I decided to head to the Times Square area, praying that in the city that never sleeps people went out without any regard for the days of the week. Sitting in the back of the taxi, I completely lost my bearings. I let my mind wonder and stared, transfixed, out of the window until I was taken by surprise when we rounded one last corner and delved into the kaleidoscope of Times Square. I stood on the pavement and – in one of those surreal moments when your life feels like a cheesy movie – slowly turned around on the spot to take everything in. Everywhere, adverts flashed in a rainbow of electric light. As I walked past a screen I was bathed in the red of a Coca-Cola ad. Next a human-sized virtual iPhone caught my eye. There were too many places to look. Even more interesting than the square itself, however, were the people in it. It was immediately obvious who was a tourist and who was a local, whose faces bore a look of joyful bewilderment and who hardly blinked. I wondered what I looked like to the casual observer.
I found a bar that seemed popular and decided I’d try it. I stood outside the door for a while as people rushed in and piled out in an endless flood. Every cell in my body was screaming that this just wasn’t me – that I should be back in my apartment watching some trashy nineties sitcom. It took a bucket load of self control to walk into the pumping music. Once inside, I realised that it was not as loud or as packed as I had thought. I weaved between groups of people laughing and seated myself at the bar. I fingered a discarded coaster as I read the chalkboard menu. I placed an order with a very young-looking waitress and sipped away as I observed the room. I hadn’t been there long when I caught sight of another girl who looked about my age sitting by herself near the window. She was stunningly beautiful, with thick copper hair and pale skin that seemed almost translucent. She had on a gorgeous navy dress, the kind one normally sees being worn by a famous actress on a red carpet, but she seemed unaware of the attention she was receiving. Every couple of minutes she looked at her watch before glancing at the door. Eventually, she heaved a sigh and came over to the bar and plonked down on the stool next to me, where she ordered a vodka. Once she had her drink in hand she turned to me and raised an eyebrow.
‘What’s a pretty girl like you doing on your own in a bar?’ she asked in a thick Irish accent, which temporarily threw me off guard. Not only had I not expected anyone to talk to me, let alone her, I had not expected her to – like me – come from across the pond.
‘I’ve just moved over he              re.’ I told her. I saw a flicker of surprise as she recognised my London accent and then she beamed. ‘I could ask the same of you.’ I said, encouraged by her smile.
‘I believe I’ve been well and truly stood up.’ She said, glancing again at her watch and rolling her eyes. ‘Honey, your glass is empty, let me get you another.’ And before I knew it she had ordered another vodka, this time for me. This was hardly my usual tipple, but I went with it. After all, the girl had just been stood up, I couldn’t refuse her kindness.
As the waiter poured my drink, I asked her what she was doing in New York.
‘Well, honey,’ she said, ‘I don’t really know. You see, I just had to get away from –’ she paused, ‘well that’s another story – and where better to come than the Big Apple?’ she pointed in the vague direction of the window, as if that would demonstrate her point. ‘I’ve been doing odd jobs for – oh, what – a couple of years now. Nothing special.’
I felt the most boring person in the world as I told her about my newspaper job, how it was my dream come true. She smiled, the truest smile I had ever seen, and told me how she wished that she had a dream but she could never keep her mind on one thing for more than half a second. This I could well believe, as she seemed to have completely forgotten about her unfortunate dating experience. Even though I already liked her, I could not help feeling jealous – of her beauty, her elegance and her carefree nature.

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