City Gaze

A Russian grocery stands where it has stood for the past four years: across from the Rite Aid pharmacy and within walking distance of every house that my father has chosen for this family. I enter this place only with my mother, and we buy many things together. I swing around with a plastic basket and she hurries ahead of me, expertly snatching up sunflower seeds, raw walnuts, pickled gherkins, strawberry rugelach, and the secret thrill of watching men in sunglasses exist peripherally but perpetually at the door. My mother just calls them the Soviets – a casual reminder of a not-so-long ago history – but I have laughed and named these men already, leaving them to languish in the romantic confines of my imagination. Marco is big-boned and stands with steady confidence, and I like to keep him with me for the fine slope of his shoulders and the way he turns his wrists outward. His partner, Tomas, is lankier and less careful with his body, but his lips are cruel and his knees are straight. He is the one who watches me when I watch him, the two of us as silent as the loaves of unsliced bread on the counter. When I wander by the grocery, too intimidated to enter alone but too uneasy to return home, it is his eyes that never fail to catch mine.

Beyond this corner of 108th and 63rd, I have cultivated three versions of my domestic self for three laundromats. The first laundromat is the farthest away. It is manned by an old Chinese man with a tremble in his skinny arms and a weary stride that reminds me too much of my mother. I go to him with messy hair and a cart full of pilling sweaters, stained jeans, and v-neck shirts. He trades me quarters with the utmost care and doesn’t look at the new rips in my coat. The second laundromat is closer to Tomas and the frosted windows of the popular hair salon, which means that I wear my heeled boots and toss skirts and lacy underwear into the washer. The Korean proprietor glances at my straightened back and mauve lipstick, sliding efficient and no-nonsense quarters into a detergent cup. I always wonder how old she thinks I am. The third laundromat is nearly too close to home, but it runs twenty-four hours a day and parts its doors obligingly on late, urgent evenings. On those nights, the whirr of the machines is a numbing relief from the disjointed shouts at home. The Latina owner leaves me a chair at the green folding table, saying nothing when she watches me tuck myself just barely out of sight. There is a fourth laundromat some distance away, but I have never needed to brave the horde of teenage boys who gather there. They keep to themselves with a defiant and unabashed pride, a pride which betrays too much intimacy for me to interrupt.

The men in this neighborhood are more inescapable. Accompanied either by their shadows or by their wives and children, they wear tall ushankas and walk in metal-tipped boots that know how to assert a thudding existence upon the concrete sidewalk. Sometimes they watch me as I go by, their fingers twisting cigarettes that dwindle slowly to softly smoking stubs. They hold ruthless court by the outdoors fruit stands, where I am not too scared to exist, and follow me into that store where I buy coffee and syrup and bottles of bleach. I have become very good at being followed. Or perhaps I should say – and there is a difference – that I have become very good at taking them with me.

One man has strong eyebrows and a thick sweater that peeks out from underneath the tall collar of his coat. The sweater is avocado green, which means that it is richness and satiation and capable hands that twist the two halves of the fruit apart to get at the meat. I close my eyes and imagine some nebulous man in that avocado sweater sprawled next to me on a sofa, his eyes tender and his mouth laughing at the seed pit in his hand. Perhaps he has a funny mouth, or dimpled cheeks, or some other joyous quirk that infuses life into his disembodied self. But of course, it doesn’t quite matter. The avocado sweater is the touchstone around which all else revolves in this imagined existence, where I can sink into an intimacy that doesn’t bite me back.

The woman next to him looks as dangerous as I am, which is to say that I liked her dark berry lipstick and carefully-rounded nails. Her eyes are green or blue or hazel or brown (she is too far away) but her blush is a skillful swipe of 03 Dusky Rose. I place her not next to me on a sofa, but across in an armchair, her body reclining comfortably against some plush throw. Smiling and tequila-flushed, she moves her lips in a conversation that buzzes faintly but pleasantly in my mind. I keep her cheekbones and a pot of her cream blush nestled next to her friend’s avocado sweater.

Another man, this one striding straight past me for the glass doors of TD Bank, makes the mistake of removing his gloves. The fine silver stitching on his gloves catches the gray afternoon light and gleams like the scales of a fish. I don’t need to close my eyes to see a man pulling on those leather gloves by our shared coat rack or feel the phantom warmth of his hands caressing my cheek. By the time that he disappears into the bank, I have lived this moment twice over – the second time with a hint of nostalgia, for you are only wildly alive in the first – and safely taken him and his gloves into my memory. There, he resides with avocado sweaters, painted cheekbones, bright red scarves, cream turtlenecks, and squares of sunlight on windy streets. I like to fall in love during the winter, and they are perfectly dressed.

I used to spin out my years in these imagined realities, pushing past the restrictions of a seventeen-year-old life to hover somewhere in the undefined twenties. It is a hopeful future, sour and delicious, rich on the tongue and heavy in the heart with all of the love that it promises. New York has that way of aging you beyond your years and making you feel as if you are only waiting for your body to catch up. The ambiguous future, if nothing else, will hold a home that I have created for myself beyond the chronic angers of my family. Inside this home, this still-yet-beating place, a man in an avocado sweater or a pair of gloves will breathe and sleep and laugh in twitterpated love.

It is a painful thing to love your family when you are not quite sure whether any of you have learned to love each other correctly. My older sister has renounced filial piety in all of its forms, my younger sister wants only the superficial loveliness of familial affection, my father speaks a language that my mother has forbidden me from understanding, and my mother loves so deeply that she cannot see the hurt that she inflicts from it. Between the five of us, loss can always find more room.

So here I am, deriving comfort, safety, and pleasure from the unfamiliar and the strange. How wonderful it is to find somebody whose fury I do not know, whose hatreds do not touch me, whose petty and jealous frustrations do not surface stubbornly around me. In these few blocks around my father’s house, I have made love for myself without meeting a single person.

Though I am a collector, there are some nights that even I don’t dare touch. These are nights when I feel the quiet of the moving bodies around me, a colorless and lost space that tells me I’d be better off not knowing them or the stories woven into their clothing. These are crimson silk shirts a touch too tight, dull cufflinks pushed rudely through buttonholes, peculiar bulges in jackets and pant pockets. These are the footsteps that keep pace with me when I walk, following me through dark streets where the tall streetlights keep a mute and useless vigil.

But even on these nights, I feel a senseless draw. When a man steps forward and touches my arm to ask for directions to the Congregation of Georgian Jews, I relish the radiating warmth of his skin and move closer. He is tall, almost bear-like in his demeanor, and he takes long, unhurried steps as we walk together in the direction of the congregation. We trade polite talk until I realize with a flash of alarm that we are also walking in the direction of my house. Suddenly, there is no heavy winter jacket to lay next to an avocado sweater. There is only the stink of his cologne, the uncomfortable boldness of his words, and the dreadful reminder that there are some stories I don’t need to invent. As we finally approach the nine men standing outside the congregation, it is almost anticlimactic when he clasps my hand in thanks and leaves me shivering with life in the evening cold.

Now it is back to the house, back to my father, back to my mother, back to my sisters, and back to the plates still lying broken by the fridge. The pinkish glow of my neighbor’s peony lamp illuminates the dusty concrete beneath me and sets me softly ablaze. Bathed in light, I bow my head against the wind and clench my hands closed. We are in the dead of winter, and I am perfectly dressed.

 A firm believer in texting three big hearts at once, Valerie Yang was born and raised in Queens, New York. Her hidden talents include romanticizing everything, oversleeping, and reading the mint leaves in mojitos. Drop her a line at valerie.yang@yale.edu.

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