There are some things I absolutely refuse to do again. The list is astoundingly short and may surprise you. I will never go to a Thai restaurant again. I will never go to the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival again.
Sometimes I like to play ridiculous games at parties. Truth or dare? Would you rather? Would you, if a gun was placed to your head? No dare, no scenario, no gun could compel me to return to Central Park. This is the item on my “no” list that is the hardest. I will never return to Central Park again.
Our goal was to visit the campus of yet another graduate program I had been accepted into. At the time I was still pretending that going back to school was an option for me. That graduate school would replace living in a punk house where roommates rotated out monthly, leaving behind odd art that depicted body parts and flies.
J and I had already gone on several adventures together, including the time I got us unbearably lost in a dangerous part of town only to find my GPS in my glove compartment later (I never told him that part of the story.) Yet, he still trusted me to plan and lead him on this trip into the city (that’s how Connecticut residents refer to New York, by the way.) That was a mistake on his part. After we emerged from the train and spent several minutes gazing into the art on the ceiling of Grand Central (something I still do to this day, no matter how many times I have emerged from the train,) I led us to the subway station. We quickly realized allowing me to do that was a mistake as we rode the subway lines back and forth through the city. I had put us a series of trains that consistently went in the wrong direction. You could consider it something of a bad joke if it wasn’t so hot and each trip cost us money.
My best friend was always patient with me no matter what. I would blow him off even though he made extravagant plans because I wanted to have sex with my shitty boyfriend. When we did finally hang out, my creepy roommate would join us while we watched movies, insert herself between us on the couch, and tell him she was a much better cook than I was while I let the frozen french fries burn. J was a cool kid.
But as we kept riding train after train even he began to grit his teeth. He eventually took over with grace, the responsibility transferring to him quietly. He always did everything very quietly, very conscientiously. He began to read the subway signs and even tried to explain them to me. They remain a foreign language to me to this day.
After he stepped in, we were at the university in what felt like minutes. The university was held in a large skyscraper. One of the reasons I hated the city were these colossal buildings. I felt suffocated when I looked up and couldn’t see the sky, buildings looming over me with mirrored windows I couldn’t see through. The feelings of suffocation were compounded by the feelings of being watched. Although, in reality, J and I were just one of millions on the streets. We could easily be lost in the crowds, gone forever, in a moment.
The feelings of suffocation increased when we entered the elevator. I’m sure the building housed several different businesses and organizations. Manhattan was a planet unto itself. Although it quite likely housed people from every country in the world, it created its own kind of culture: one of constant movement, overcrowding, coldness, one that consistently wore black. It was too much even for me, a girl who had allowed herself to become jaded too early, who canceled appointments with friends because feeling seen and validated was foreign and uncomfortable.
It was difficult picturing going to the university when I had to contend with the idea of daily crowds, the idea of pushing through them on sidewalks and congregating with them in elevators. But in reality we all knew I was not going to this graduate program, one in a series I had been accepted to but ultimately declined attending. I had difficulty staying in one place for long. I did not want anyone to learn my name, to hold the taste of it in their mouths. J was one of the only consistent people in my life, the one who stood by quietly and strongly while I pulled him in and pushed him away.
In the elevator I focused on my breathing, in and out and in and out, while the machinery climbed the floors. When we finally reached the offices of the university, I felt I could truly begin to breathe and took several mouthfuls of air. I looked around and took several long strides to the desk, which was managed by a burly man. I explained that I was here to explore the building because I had gotten into a graduate program. The man stared at us: a girl with a round, pale face (J still referred to me as moonface, a childhood nickname I hated), bedecked in black; a tall, rigid boy with beautiful blue eyes. The guard took his time eating us up before responding. He asked if I had scheduled a tour. I looked at J. What? This was before the Newtown school shooting, before we learned that we lived in a world where children could get shot and appropriate security measures had to be taken. We were from Connecticut. Who thought about this kind of shit?
The man was bewildered by this idea and laughed for several minutes. He explained that they did not let random people on their campus, and used his imagination to produce several potential dangerous scenarios. Bombs. Knives. Guns. Neither J nor I carried bags, neither of us had ever held weapons. We looked at each other quietly and I finally let my eyes meet the floor. It did not feel worth it to pursue, so we slowly left the building. As the elevator dropped my shame level rose.
We found a nearby pizza place and purchased slices larger than our heads. Yet another thing I was bad at—I had actually succeeded at selecting a bad NYC pizza restaurant. The dough was undercooked and flappy and unseasoned. I considered adding the salt of my tears. The whole day had ultimately been a waste, there was not even time to pursue any museums, and I had let one of the only people who believed in me down. He had been a gentleman and paid for everything—except he was so tired when we got to the pizza place he finally let me treat him.
For the first time in my life, I was quiet. I fiddled with the crust of the pizza, chugged a Vitamin Water, pretended to be intrigued by the crowds on the sidewalk J threw his half-eaten slice away and gestured to the door. I solemnly followed.
“Have you ever been to Central Park?” The sunshine of the late summer day played off of his dark hair and glimmered in his eyes. Despite being in his early 20s, he had a boyish grin that had enticed me to do any number of new things with him—acting as a passenger in a small plane he piloted, pushing my physical endurance on lengthy hikes that were beyond my abilities. It was always an adventure with J.
I shook my head no and was embarrassed by his question. Despite living in Connecticut for my whole life, I had only ventured into Manhattan on a school trip and to see a few punk shows. The city was still large and mysterious to me, an overwhelming gargantuan of iron and trash and crowded streets.
As he led me to the park, I mumbled apology after apology. I acknowledged that my flighty nature had led to an expensive, unproductive day. He gave me a look that told me to be quiet so I let the words die on my lips. I had trouble meeting his eyes in the landscape of iron and glass.
Despite the fact that J grew up in a small New England town and was homeschooled on good Christian values, he navigated the city with ease. I began to gaze up with him while he walked in front of me. He always seemed more worldly and knowledgeable than me. I felt like a child fumbling through her early 20s and I was. Here was a man who, on paper, had far fewer life experiences than me. But he was a man and he held all of the secrets to New York City.
I felt my body relax as we entered the first green space I had ever encountered in New York City. We crested a slope and I took in everything around me — the stretch of grass was covered with students laying on blankets, children toddling to their parents, large dogs sniffing the ground eagerly, taking in the scents of the city.
I stood, taking it all in. I couldn’t look at him directly, he shined brighter than the sun, his glasses, his rigid posture, the hands I sometimes ached to hold. He had accompanied me into the city, followed me up and down train lines, paid for them even. He listened to me prattle as we walked the paths of the park, my ideas on poetry, art, and life all certainly juvenile compared to his.
A bicyclist rushed down the path and almost careened into us and we had to move quickly. I fell against my friend, and looked into his eyes briefly. He met mine and held them, but I looked away.
We slowly walked through the park, pointing out the various oddities the city had to offer—musicians, street artists, and drug users. Perhaps I knew, even then, that I would not be attending the school housed in the skyscraper. I would stay home for another year, close to J. It would be one of the last years we were close to each other.
The day in question took place eight years ago as of this writing. I never went to graduate school in a city full of skyscrapers. J went to a graduate school in a southern city, a place I never made it to and probably never will—a place where he hiked, where he kayaked, where he kept his apartment pristine. A place where he picked up a gun and shot himself.
Years have gone by and I have only gone into the city with other men, men who never seem to live up to everything J was and could have been. Men who suggest taking shortcuts through the park, men who suggest romantic picnics in the park. But certain things belong to J and always will—Plath’s poetry, a Yale art gallery exhibit.
Central Park, a place I would like to remember him—a young man, glimmering in the sun.