1. THE SUBWAY
The 4 train is barreling down Lexington Avenue and I can see the reflection of my face in the glass of the subway door. I'm not pretty. My mind is wandering to when I first moved to New York from Tennessee, twelve years ago. I was twenty-one, fresh out of college, and ready to take on the world. In my first week in the city, I vividly remember squeezing myself onto a packed subway car similar to this one, with a sweat inducing lack of air conditioning. There were a million hands, arms and bags stretching between poles, doors and ceiling, like a Twister board on the move, yet no one was touching anybody else. New Yorkers have this uncanny ability to live in this huge metropolis of millions, and yet never violate the space of a stranger. It's an unwritten rule.
I had sardined myself next to a lady in a dark blue polyester suit jacket, skirt and running shoes. Very Working Girl. She was staring off into the train doors with a glazed look that was a mixture of boredom and acceptance, the reflection of her face next to mine. I was all smiles and newbie excitement. Slowly, dully and with no emotion, her lips parted. "I been riding this train for fifteen years," she said to no one in particular, her eyes never moving. I glanced away from her reflection, creased my brow and assured myself that I would never become her.
And now, here I am twelve years later staring at my own reflection, the corners of my lips resting softly somewhere down near my toes. My boyfriend, David, is talking non-stop about our upcoming wedding. We are on a packed express train on our way to City Hall to apply for our Marriage License, and he's ticking off the items on our to-do list. His lips are moving and his hands are fluttering about excitedly, like a kid who just had too many Pixy Stix. I'm leaning on the back of a seat, between the pole and the door with my hands stuffed in the pockets of my jeans and he's practically dancing on the tips of his toes in front of me, "surfing" hands-free. He refuses to touch any surface on the train. Ever.
"And then we have to look at that spot in Central Park again, remember?" he started. "Not the one where Tony and Jill got married. That was awful. All those screaming kids, right? I mean, how could they? That's why I don't trust wedding planners. Didn't they check that space at all beforehand? And I know you don't want a religious ceremony, but do you really trust that online preacher license thing? Can you really get ordained online? I mean, yeah, it would be great for Marcos to marry us, but is it legal? Really? Because I don't wanna run into problems with our taxes later, you know? God knows we don't wanna get audited. But we can talk about that later. I mean, there's so much more we have to decide." He paused for effect. "I think I really wanna wear white. Can I wear white? Is that crazy? I mean, I know we're not virgins and all, but do you really think that matters these days? Besides, hello, we're gay! All rules out the window, right? HA! My mother is freaking. I mean, she's way too excited about this already, but she is gonna get worse. Total control. She'll want total control over this thing. But I promise you, babe, I'm not letting her anywhere near it. It's just you and me against the world! It's gonna KILL me, but I'm gonna pull this off all by myself. Just you wait! OH! And..."
And I'm staring at his face and I can hear what he's saying, but I don't think I can listen anymore. My heart is racing and all I can feel is the bump, bump, whack of the tracks below my feet as the snippets of graffiti on the tunnel walls race by. The beads of perspiration start to trickle down my forehead. My stomach is rising up to meet my throat, I can feel my back get prickly with sweat and I'm about to ruin another shirt. The train pulls to a stop at 14th Street and I instinctively shift to one side of the door as the city begins to move all around me. David is still talking. It's as if he has taken control over all of the oxygen in the subway car, and I'm on life support. "Next stop, Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall," the pre-recorded voice speaks out, jarring me back to reality.
The doors chime to warn they are closing and I step off the train, backwards, as they shut in front of me. David, in a panic, rushes forward with his hands pressed to the glass door. "Oh, my god! Oh, my god! What happened?!" he screams through the glass. "It's the next stop! Oh, my god! Don't panic. It's OK! Get the next train and I'll wait for you!"
"I'm breaking up with you," I say, almost to myself.
"Wait?! What?! I can't, I... I can't hear you."
"I'M BREAKING UP WITH YOU," I scream, and repeat. "I'm breaking up with you. I'm sorry."
The car is pulling away and suddenly David is no longer speaking. His hands are still pressed to the glass. His face is white and pale and frightened and... gone, to Brooklyn Bridge/ City Hall, without me.
I take another step back and feel faint. I can't breathe. I need air. The thick heat of the tunnel is pressing down on me as I bound up the steps two by two to Union Square Park and grab the nearest free bench. There's a homeless man to my left with his entire world of belongings strapped to a wire shopping cart, like a Grand Canyon mule made of blue plastic and metal and string. He is the "King of the Magpies," and he collects every shiny object in his path. To my right, a tourist is eating an overpriced street pretzel.
I pull my phone from my pocket and stare at it numbly, knowing there is only one call I can make. There's only one person who can make me feel better right now.
The phone rings, and I get her voicemail. "Hey Mom, it's me, Derek. I'm coming home."
The next few weeks are a blur of activity. Breaking up with David is one thing, but breaking up with New York is an entirely new level of heartache. New York is like the coolest girl in school, and you just want to be her friend. Now I'm ditching her for someone else, somewhere else, and she's not happy. Neither am I. The next few weeks are spent crying, partying and packing, in that order. Oh, and I have to quit my job.
I work part-time as an instructor at a theatre workshop space that caters to privileged kids from Long Island and wannabe actresses from Iowa with big dreams and fat wallets. I work mainly with the kids, leading classes in improvisational techniques and basic monologues. It's less about Shakespeare and more about Shake 'n Bake commercials. We call it "schmacting." There are lots of jazz hands and mimed glass walls. The rest of my time is devoted to auditioning. I've booked a few voiceovers and the occasional corporate video, but in twelve years of working my ass off, my big break hasn't arrived. The closest I ever came to fame was a walk-on in a rap music video. I wasn't supposed have any lines, but at the last minute I improvised a character out of thin air. The director loved it, but the "artist" hated it. I could tell by the subtle way he kept kicking his boot into the door of the rented Mercedes SL on set. Needless to say, my brilliance ended up on the cutting room floor.
At first I try to sell as much as I can, and then I realize that New York is a city of givers and takers. I'm supposed to give and someone else is supposed to take everything I own off my hands, for free. I end up listing all my furniture on Craigslist as a "Come and Get it!" I don't make a dime. In a way, it's freeing and terrifying all at once. I question myself constantly. What am I doing? I had everything. Well, kind of. Work was actually fun, I had a career goal, great friends, and a man who loved me, until I literally stepped out of his life.
We still haven't spoken. I mean, I can't. He's tried and I just can't. What am I supposed to say? "Sorry I said I would marry you and I told you I loved you, and I really probably do, but there was just this voice in my head that said run now or forever hold your peace?" I know it seems cold and heartless, but I tell myself that nothing I can say to him will make it any better, so it's better to say nothing at all. It's a lie, but it makes me feel better. Will it make him feel any better? Probably not. Part of me just wants him to hate me so I won't have to deal with the mess I created. I have this terrible habit of running away, and here I go again.
I've booked my flight to Tennessee. I've only spoken to Mom once since my freak out on the subway. She called to ask me why I left her a voicemail, when I should know that "nobody leaves voicemails anymore. Why didn't you write me on Facebook? And besides, you know I can't remember the damn password for my cell phone messages. I had to get the guy at the store to help me again." Already I'm having second thoughts about this being the right move for me. But I know I need to go somewhere, so it may as well be back home. I just need a stress-free existence for a while. I need to figure out my life and just relax, while eating my mom's chicken fried steak and homemade biscuits. I can hang out with my friends from high school and I can start jogging regularly, again! I used to jog three times a week, but for some reason I just stopped when David and I got together. I'm not fat at all, considering the amount of vodka I have consumed in the years I've lived here, but the fact that I could never really afford a huge trip to the grocery store has helped to keep my weight down. That and the pace of life in New York City.
I take the six boxes that contain what's left of my life and head down the elevator. Thankfully, there is a shipping center just across the street. There's a lot of door propping with feet and boxes and I'm sweating like crazy by the time I get everything over there. I am only now realizing that most of my friends in New York, with the exception of David, are mainly acquaintances, and the rest are just so extremely busy that they don't even have time to give me a proper send off. Thanks, guys. I tried to call Marcos, but he didn't answer. I'm pretty sure David got custody of him in the divorce. A million forms and too many dollars later, the boxed remnants of my life are heading down to Tennessee, via the Memphis sorting hub.
I walk back into my building and climb out the window. Over and up the fire escape and I am face to face with the Chrysler Building. The taxis are honking below and I can see the sun setting over the West Side. Good-bye, New York. It's been fun.
Excerpt from Home is a Fire (XXVII Media) by Jordan Nasser.
JORDAN NASSER is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and previously worked as the global head of digital for the international fashion retailer H&M. Then, much like his character Derek, Jordan decided to take a risk and change his life, so he left the workplace to write Home Is a Fire. He now lives in Stockholm.