Home – finished and edited

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 from the airport 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 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 somewhere 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 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 and Dad. New York may have been 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 had 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 when I returned. 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 a little more relaxed. 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, carrying backs of cleaning stuff, I resolved to actually do something for a change, rather than watching television all evening.
It was not until half past seven, after I had made 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 a kind of 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 a 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, stranded as I was between these two states.
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 raucous people 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 on my drink 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-red 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 sparkling 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.  For the first time in years, I completely lost track of time sitting at that bar. It must have been half past midnight when the sole barman told us that he needed to shut up shop. We stumbled out – she had insisted on buying me several more drinks and I was feeling slightly wobbly. It was only then, as we hailed separate taxis and exchanged phone numbers, that we realised we did not know each other’s names. ‘Jo’ I said, holding my hand out jokingly, ‘Jo Hansen.’
‘Jo’ she repeated, swilling the word round in her mouth as if testing it for size and pumping my arm up and down. ‘Well Jo, I’m Ruby.’ And she shook my hand again.
I woke up in a foggy blur the next morning, gasping for water. Clearly, I had had too much to drink the night before. I lay still for a while as my vision cleared and then had to get up to satisfy my thirst. Although I felt pretty awful I could not help being oddly pleased with myself. I had done something that I had never thought I would do. I’d gone out, alone, in New York, and actually talked to someone. No one at home would ever believe me. I sent a quick email to my parents – artfully failing to mention that I had a hangover – and found some aspirin. Right, I told myself, time to get on with it. I made sure I looked presentable and headed out the door.
As I was aimlessly wandering the village, half-heartedly looking for a shop in which to buy a recorder in case I had to do interviews at work, my mobile rang. The first notes of its tune scared me a little, as no one had called me since I’d landed and I’d almost forgotten my ring tone. I had no idea who on earth could be calling me and the screen showed the rather unhelpful words ‘unknown number’. I answered wearily.
‘Hey Jo, it’s Ruby. How’s your head today?’ she carried on without waiting for an answer, ‘Listen, I was just thinking that you are going to be alone for lunch, so why don’t I meet you somewhere? They won’t miss me here at work if I disappear for a couple of hours. In fact they might be quite happy about it.’ She laughed.
I was shocked, both by her can-do attitude and the fact that she              had thought of me at all. It seemed she was determined to break me out of my shell. Hey, I thought, why not?
I met her near her office on Park Avenue – having negotiated the metro system with miraculous success – where we found a little restaurant and settled down. As we waited for our food she moaned good-naturedly about her office, her boss and her co-workers. It was obvious though that she was the kind of person who got on with everyone. As she chatted away I began to worry. In three days I was going to be working and I had no idea what I was going to do. By some ridiculous luck I had secured my dream job which had seemed great at home but here in New York I realised that I was at immense risk of throwing it all away just by not having a clue what I was doing. What was I thinking?
‘Hello? Jo? Anybody there?’ Ruby asked and I realised that I hadn’t been listening at all. I tried to shrug off my sudden nervousness and just enjoy someone else’s company.
When I got home I went into panic mode. I had so much preparation to do and not much time. I turned off the television as soon as I had watched the news and grabbed the thick leaflet that would soon become my bible. It lay out, clearly and precisely, the New York Times’ writing style – from when to hyphenate compound words to its views on international privacy laws. There was a lot to take in. I read and read, turning the pages with one hand while I scribbled down notes with the other. It took hours to process everything and I was terrified that I would forget it all and revert to the Wimbledon Guardian’s non-existent style guide that was engrained in me from the Saturday job I had had years before. I could feel my nerves setting in for the long-run, a familiar feeling of being strangled seized hold of my innards. I flung away my pen and twisted my hands together, stretching forward to release some tension. I pulled myself up from my position on the sofa and stretched again. I went over to the computer to check Facebook, willing my best friend to have sent me a message that would calm me down. Of course, she hadn’t because she didn’t know that I was nervous. I could hardly expect her to guess, especially as I’d been so optimistic during our internet calls. I let out a forced sigh. Ok, Jo, I thought, just calm down.
I knew that the only way to stop my mind whirring itself into an uncontrollable frenzy was to write, so that’s what I did. I made up headlines for current news. I wrote opinion articles on anything I could think of – from books I had read to UN resolutions. I even attempted to write a couple of poems but that was just a step too far and I went back to what I knew. I blared some upbeat tunes through my headphones and typed for hours. When I next looked at the clock it was already late, so I helped myself to a generous slice of cake and settled down to watch sitcom marathons into the early hours. Writing had burst me out of my New York bubble. Colours and sounds lost their surreal edge and I began to feel easy, comfortable. I began to see my little apartment as home.
For some people home will forever be where they spent their early childhood. For others, it will be where their parents live. For those who live abroad home can represent an entire country, but for me the concept of home was simple. My home was anywhere where I felt I could just be myself and that was what I had finally found. Slouched on that sofa under the cheap throw I had taken to using as a blanket, I glanced out the window and smiled. I belonged on East 12th Street.
The weekend passed quietly. I spent the days finishing the shopping I had to do to get everything a flat needs, like tea towels and hand wash, and ironing my clothes for the    week. I made sure, one last time, that I had set my alarm properly and that I knew which metro station I had to change lines at. I was, to all intents and purposes, ready. Ruby dragged me out on Saturday night to dinner with a group of her friends, who were all as delightfully eccentric as she was. She had obviously realised that I would not socialise without being forced to, so she took it upon herself to include me in her antics, which was just what I needed. On Sunday I was rudely awoken by a call from my parents, which, although welcome, was not pleasant at seven in the morning. My Mum had never been good at remembering which way the time zones went and was convinced that she had called at the very reasonable time of five o’clock in the evening. I assured her that this was not the case. She was unperturbed and proceeded to tell me all about their new dog, leaving me time to wake up before she launched a barrage of questions. Yes, I always locked the door at night. No, I was not lonely. Yes, I had met some nice people. No, I didn’t need anything. And so it went on. I briefly spoke to my Dad, whose primary concern was for the state of my bank balance. Sometimes I wondered if my parents were convinced that they had raised me so appallingly that I would never be able to look after myself, such was their level of trust in me. I finally got them off the phone by making up something about the doorbell. I did not have a doorbell, but I had been standing there in my pyjamas for half an hour and sometimes a little white lie comes in handy.
As soon as I was ready I headed out and caught a taxi to Central Park. From now on, I was going to be working my socks off so I thought I would visit the place I had been itching to visit. For some reason, of all the amazing attractions that the city offered, the park appealed to me the most. It didn’t disappoint. There was something both magical and headily real about the place – where boys preformed skateboarding tricks while rich doctors from the Upper East Side strode along the paths discussing the latest story from the Whitehouse. What was most striking, though, was how completely different it was from the rest of the city. If you kept your eyes level, you could have been anywhere. But tilt your head towards the sky and you would catch glimpses of soaring skyscrapers. I followed the paths for hours, enjoying watching the world go by. This was one of my secret pastimes. I loved the small snippets of other people’s lives I could witness just by being somewhere, sometime. I loved the characters I could create in my head from a frown, a word, a laugh. As I walked the day wore on and the crowds gathered and swelled like a rough sea. The air was somewhere between fresh and cold. Sounds carried far in the stillness, so that I could be walking past a dense thicket and hear the squeal of a motorbike. I continued to walk, losing myself in the tangle of paths that led me in broken circles through the green and brown. The watery sunlight mellowed into an orange glow and the temperature began to fall. The autumnal dusk did not last long but slipped quickly into early evening and I found myself suddenly alone under a street lamp. It was time to go home.
When I unlocked my front door a wave of tiredness and cold swept over me and it dawned on me that I had been walking for more than four hours. After dinner – I had somehow forgotten lunch and my stomach had begun to growl loudly on the metro – I treated myself to a long bath. The warm water relaxed me so much that it was all I could do to crawl into bed. I do not even remember falling asleep.
My trusty alarm clock squawked into life at quarter to six, exactly three seconds after I had closed my eyes – or so it seemed. I prised open one eye, then the other, and then it hit me that it was Monday and I had been waiting for this day since I was thirteen years old. Adrenalin kicked in pretty quickly and I jumped out of bed. I was not sure if I was shivering from the cold or from complete terror, so I decided on the former and got on with it. In the shower I sung as loudly as my lungs would allow in an effort to drown out my niggling doubts. It took me far too long to choose an outfit, but I settled on a navy trouser-suit. My next challenge was doing something with my hair. Up or down? I asked myself. Although I liked how the locks fell around my shoulders, I knew the look would not last and I pinned it up in what I hoped was both an elegant and trendy loose bun. I was not really an expert in such matters but at least I looked presentable. That was the main thing. I sprinted out the door and across the road into Starbucks, which was humming with a caffeinated Monday morning rush. I ordered my breakfast, grabbed a couple of snacks and practically ran down the road, so desperate was I not to be late. Inevitably, the metro ran perfectly and I ended up being twenty minutes early and completely flustered. Thankfully I had some time to compose myself. I leant against the bicycle rails outside the revolving doors and looked up at the skyscraper that was to be my office. From my position it seemed as if the rows of windows went on forever until they disappeared at a vanishing point. I could just imagine the Editor in his swanky wood-panelled, burnished steel-fitted office looking out and planning world domination. Oh shut up, I told myself.  My nerves and the unusual presence of caffeine in my body were making my imagination run wild. I focused again so that I was firmly holding on to my senses and waited another few minutes. As the minute hand edged towards ten to I artfully unclipped the strap on my handbag and turned it into a smart clutch. I stood up and straightened my jacket. I heard my phone beep. It was a text from Ruby, wishing me good luck. With the resulting smile on my face, I took a deep breath, let it out steadily and strode briskly towards the doors. My high-heel shoes clattered on the marble floor as I approached the reception. Jo Hansen was finally where she was meant to be.

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