Okay, so the trip did not go entirely as planned.
I am laying here semi-dejectedly on the bed in my office with my left arm wrapped in a dirty cast and the rest of my body as riddled with bruises as a month old apple which a mob of neighborhood boys have used in lieu of a baseball for their twilight games.
As you may or may not recall, the idea was for me to return to New York—a place I deserted in my late 20’s with my tail between my legs—as a victorious survivor of abuse and addiction to acknowledge these last 15, hard won years of my “good” life with a yoga photo shoot and several other celebratory activities.
I’d seen to every detail, obsessively packing and re-packing my bags, mapping out every second of every hour of the brief two and a half days I was to be in the city, making lists of people to see, places to eat, times to meditate, poses to strike. It is safe to say not one minute passed in the last four months that was not in some way colored by my speculations about this trip.
Too bad renting a bike and riding around Central Park was at the top of the list. Just three hours after arriving in Manhattan I’d taken an epic dive from my two wheeled perch and was being loaded into an ambulance bound for St. Luke’s ER.
The x-rays told the whole story: there was a diabolical gap between the two halves of what should be a single bone in my left elbow.
Five hours later the nice ER people loaded me (dressed only in a pair of ripped and bloodied leggings and a surgical gown) and my broken bike into a van, and I stared out the window at the warm New York night with sheets of tears washing over my face, clutching my arm miserably as we lurched through traffic on the way to my hotel.
After securing the bike in the boiler room of the Comfort Inn—I still had to figure out a way to return it to the rental place—I reluctantly emailed the photographer to cancel the shoot and collapsed in bed. I slept fitfully, my arm seeming to float in a cloud of pain somewhere above my body, and when I woke at five am, unable to will myself back into unconsciousness, I continued to lay there, listening glumly to the sound of raindrops smattering against my window.
Dawn came and I wondered what to do with myself with the roughly 24 hours I had left. There were the practical matters; getting the bike where it belonged and picking up my ID from the bike shop, cancelling my train reservations to Philly where I was supposed to go the next day, booking a new flight back home to Chicago, making doctors appointments, and somehow most overwhelmingly, changing my clothes and washing my hair.
But there were also spiritual matters. Was there any way I could salvage some shred of positivity from this whole debacle?
I reflected on my original purpose.
It was true that the photo shoot had been the spectacular highlight of my imaginings—after all, what yogi wouldn’t want to work with Robert Sturman in the greatest city in the world? (Yes, I know, that’s up for debate, but it’s my favorite city no matter how many times people turn up their noses at its various shortcomings.)
It had seemed so poetic that I was to play and be strong and healthy in front of an eagle eyed camera lens, given my besmirched and drug addled egress all those years ago, but surely that wasn’t the only way to honor myself.
I limped out of bed and dug a Kind Bar from my purse, gnawing on it as I rifled through my suitcase with my foot, trying to find a shirt that would fit over my cast. Then I went to the bathroom and ran a bath, frowning because I hate baths but I couldn’t figure out how to keep my arm dry in the shower. I stepped in and rubbed a scrap of soap gingerly over the wounds I could reach, wincing as the soap repeatedly slipped out of my hand—even though it was the left arm I’d broken, my right hand was in pretty bad shape too, and I would discover things as simple as holding a pen were excruciating.
After I made myself presentable, I went downstairs to get the bike sorted out.
The man at the front desk was as helpful as he could be, but he was swamped with foreigners trying to check in and no one at any car service was willing to send a car big enough to fit my bike. I sighed and decided, what the hell, I would walk the damn thing back across town myself. It’s not like I had anywhere else to be.
Draping my jacket over my shoulder and flipping my hood onto my head since it was still raining, I wrestled the bike out the door. On the street, I immediately felt overwhelmed. How was I going to do this? It was at least a 45 minute walk and I ached from head to toe.
I rested my injured hands on the handlebars and mumbled, “Just put one foot in front of the other. You’ll be fine.”
My mind raged with images of running down this very same street over a decade ago. It was the week my boyfriend and I had been evicted from my apartment around the corner, and we had been squatting on the rooftop of my building because we couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.
Every now and then, we crept down off the filthy tar roof to try and find food—sitting in some restaurant or other, wolfing down as much as we could, and then slipping out before the bill came.
The day I was remembering, Terrence and I had been eating at my local diner. Terrence left first, telling me to meet him down on the dock, and I snuck out a few minutes later. The waiter could tell we were suspicious, and I saw him tailing me moments after I got outside.
He chased me all the way down to the river and only gave up when I slipped into a port-o-potty and quietly shut the door.
I can still recall the chemical stench of the plastic booth as it baked on that hot July day , its thin green walls eerily illuminated by the sun, and me, standing with my hand on the lock, trembling, terrified I would be discovered.
Somehow I’d gotten myself out of that public toilet and back onto this street 15 years later, not only not homeless or on drugs, but respectable: a mom, a teacher, a yogi, a writer.
Someone who had a hotel room to go back to. Who had money in my pocket to buy any sort of food I wanted. Who could afford a cab–unless the cargo happened to include a bike, in which case, evidently, I was on my own.
I rearranged my hands on the handle bars and began my pilgrimage across town. I was in no hurry, and for once, I could let the memories in.
They came fast and furious; good and bad. My old deli, where I used to buy flowers. The two dollar movie theatre. The corner I met my drug dealer Gordo, commenting to myself every time to no one’s amusement that I was “waiting for Gordo.” (Samuel Beckett fans, holler at me.)
By the time I got to the bike rental place I had the weird sensation that this was simply another run of the mill day in New York. Not a special trip, nothing conciliatory, no bad no good—it just was. I realized that this was the simplicity I had robbed myself of in my youth. The act of walking down the street on an innocent errand, considering the rest of the day like a normal person, not worrying about scoring or cops or what I’d done wrong to make my boyfriend punish me and how I was going to fix it.
When I got to the bike shop only to find it locked up tight, all I could do was laugh. This, after all, was a regular person’s problem. One that could be solved without humiliation and shame. As were all the other problems I’d incurred over the last 24 hours.
After about an hour of standing in the rain, I finally got a hold of the shop owner, who rushed apologetically over, unlocked the door and returned my id.
I spent the rest of the day taking cabs wherever the mood struck me, having bites to eat at long abandoned haunts, letting myself be in the city without pretense or fear.
It was wonderful.
By evening, I ended up back in my old neighborhood; Hell’s Kitchen, and I wandered around aimlessly, enjoying my freedom, my ease. Ah yes, this is what I had felt like before all the bad things happened; free. And here I was again. It wasn’t gone forever. It was here again, right now.
After I ate dinner and roamed the streets to my satisfaction, I made one last stop. My former apartment on 47th Street. The place that symbolized all the successes and all the massive failures of my urban days. I loved it so intensely before I got sick, and I shit on it so thoroughly afterwards.
I plopped down on the stoop, my dear dear stoop, where I had smoked so many cigarettes, where so many “me’s” had come and gone. I gazed up at the sky and across the street at the ivy covered buildings, absorbing the smell of home—the only home I ever made all by myself.
I knew this was the whole reason I had come—just to sit here.
The photo shoot was unimportant. The broken arm, well, if I hadn’t broken it, would I have taken the time to sit quietly all by myself? I don’t know.
But sitting there was the thing, and as I cradled my left wrist in my right hand, I smiled out at nothing in particular. And soon enough I heard the words I’d waited so long to hear, a soft whisper drifting out from between my own lips.
“I forgive you.” Out loud. “I forgive you.”
And I was able to walk off easily into the night.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: photocheil at Flickr