Church and Store: A Walk Up 5th Avenue from Saint Patrick’s to the Apple Store

Walk Taken: March 13, 2012

Directions: Begin at the southeast corner of 5th Avenue and 51st St. You can take the 6 to the 51st St. stop and walk west from Lexington Avenue or take the B, D, or F to Rockefeller Center and walk east.

This route is pretty self-explanatory. It’s an iconic New York thoroughfare, and i was intrigued by the fact that it’s lined only with brand-name store fronts and old stone churches. Both imposing.

First Stop—Saint Patrick’s Cathedral

Begin at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, on the south east corner of 5th Avenue and 51st St. Cross the street for a better view.

$20. That was all Aura needed now to buy the Apple laptop that would allow her to build her music career. She was starting to get more gigs now—had just played a bar in Williamsburg that weekend—but she needed to be able to set up a website and send digital samples and the trusty Dell that had seen her through music school was no longer cutting it.  She’d spent the past months saving her tips (and foregoing beer), but today she thought she could do it. It was a beautiful day—70 degrees in mid-March! Tourists and Upper Eastsiders alike were bound to be in a good and generous mood. If she walked up 5th Ave stopping to play every few blocks, she was sure she could earn enough by the time she reached the Apple Store.

Aura sat her guitar case down on the steps of Saint Patrick’s and began to tune for her first song. Scaffolding surrounded the church entrance, and once she stepped under the low wood ceiling with its rows of yellow lights, the imposing spikes of the Cathedral’s face disappeared. She might have been on any scaffolding-ceilinged steps in the city. But Aura could not forger where she was. The Church, not Saint Patrick’s itself but the larger body it represented, had cast an invisible shadow on all of Aura’s 24 years of life.

It wasn’t the sort of shadow most of her friends complained of: Aura had never felt a moment’s guilt disobeying the Pope’s injunction against birth control. What had shamed her all her life had been the deeper injunctions—the-love-your-neighbors, the give-everything-you-haves. Because Aura’s parents had given everything they had. They had given their lives

They were remote figures to Aura, more like Saints on the wall than photos in a family album. They’d given birth to Aura in San Salvador, in 1987. But she’d only lived with them a month before they handed her off to her aunt and uncle, who had decided to flee north and escape the ongoing civil war. Her parents had chosen to stay, to continue their work helping the many refugees who had fled bomb-burnt villages and calling for an end to government-sanctioned atrocities. In a world where mere charity work could get you shot as a potential guerilla, it was a dangerous choice. But they felt called by Christ to stay and work until this hell on earth had become a heaven. Then one day in 1989, they disappeared from their home and were never heard from again. Which was as good as saying they were abducted and killed.

Aura had only been two when it happened. She could remember no home but on Long Island and no family but her aunt and uncle, but she also could not remember a time when she did not know her parents’ story. Their legend haunted her, made her feel like the orphaned child at the beginning of a tale, marked by her parents’ sacrifice for a special destiny. The thought had come to her when she opened her mouth to receive her first Communion. The wafer seemed to stick to her tongue—for hours afterwards she could feel its pressure.

“Tía,” she’d asked, after the service. “What can I do? What would my parents want me to do?”

Her aunt had bent down and placed her hands on Aura’s shoulders. She remembered the way her dark curls floated just above the shoulders of her lavender dress.

“Your parents sent you with us because they wanted you to have a chance at your own life. All you have to do is follow your dreams.”

Aura remembered then collapsing against the lovely purple of her aunt’s dress in something like relief, and being shocked at how the fabric, which looked like a cloud at sunrise, itched her cheek. As Aura grew and learned more about the politics behind the war, part of her still itched at the strangeness of it all—that she should honor her parents’ death by following her dreams in the country that had funded the conflict that had killed them. But she didn’t scratch too much. Following her dreams was so much easier than what the child in the epic would have done—find a way to avenge her parents’ murder and create the heaven on earth that they had died for. How would she even begin?

Still, in the invisible shadow of Saint Patrick’s spires, Aura played the one thing she had of her mother’s—a song of protest she had written to the tune of an old Salvadorean lullaby.

Vencerémos y vivirémos en solidaridad y paz,” Aura sang. “We will win, and we will live, in solidarity and peace.” Strangely, it was a balding businessman who first dropped five dollars into her case as he hurried passed. But she was grateful of the excuse to find another spot.

Second Stop—Saint Thomas Episcopal Church

Cross the street and continue north until you reach Saint Thomas Episcopal Church, on the northwest corner of 53rd Street and 5rdth Ave.

The next place she ended up stopping was also a church, only because it was the only place she could sit. The rows of stores with their brilliant window displays had no wide steps or stoops—they wanted you to enter in, not hang around outside. And anyway they were too distracting, too much of a performance in their own right. So she sat down on the steps of Saint Thomas, out of the way of the main entrance, in front of a locked wooden door. It was odd to look across to the Fendi store and know that worship was going on behind her. But she forgot these contradictions in the relief of playing her own music again. Her songs were of universal, young person themes—new love found and lost—sung to a fusion of the Latin rhythms of her childhood and the folk influence of the America singer-songwriters she had fallen in love with as a teen.

Despite the weather, many pedestrians still rushed by bent over smartphones or bouncing along to iPods. One family, though, meandered. They were all four in jeans and white t-shirts, I Heart New York sweatshirts swung around their waists. It was a little frightening when they semi-circled around her, until the shortest, a young, freckled boy, opened his gap-toothed mouth and asked, “Are you famous?”

The innocent expectation of the question made Aura laugh.

“Not yet,” she winked.

Then the mother opened her fanny pack and handed each family member a dollar bill, which they took turns depositing in her guitar case. That made $9. She was almost halfway to her goal!

Then a figure stirred in the corner beside Aura. How had she not seen her there, leaning against the church wall? She was an old woman, wrapped in a gray cloth almost as wrinkled as her skin. And she held out her hand tremblingly to the family.

“Please!” she moaned.

The mother’s smile closed into a firm pucker. “Come on, Jimmy,” she said, tugging her youngest along behind her. The husband and daughter followed out of sight.

Aura looked guiltily at the woman, whose hand was still outstretched in expectation. Surely the church will take care of her, she thought. No, there was nothing she could do. She could maybe spare a dollar, maybe. But there were many more in need of dollars out of sight. With her guitar, she packed away the question of what Jesus and her parents would have done and slammed the lid down on both.

Third Stop—Trump Tower

Continue north until you reach 56th St. then cross 5th Avenue to Trump Tower.

5th Avenue was not the street for music. She should have just headed to the Park. It was not a place designed for loitering. There was another church where she might have sat, but the sermon title on the reader board read, “A Witness in Blood.” Aura shivered. She’d have better luck with tourists outside Trump Tower anyway, she decided, crossing the street. There weren’t any steps, but she could lean against one of the potted bushes that fenced its entrance from the street.

She had modest success—a dime here, a quarter there. After two songs she was up to $13.29. She was about to begin a third but, why was that little girl still standing there? She’d noticed her halfway through her second song: short, tan, with two dark braids hanging down over her pink blouse and a Mini Mouse backpack drooping from her back. She kept pacing back and forth beside the gold-framed entrance and darting her head from side to side. Had she lost her parents? Aura was about to go over and offer help, at least the use of her cell phone, when the girl suddenly stopped, planted her feet a hip’s width apart, took a breath so deep her cheeks puffed out, and pulled a recorder from her backpack. She put the recorder to her lips and blew, one note after the next in a slow and steady line. “Twin-kle twin-lke litt-le star.” It sounded like a dirge. Aura looked up at her eyes. They trembled at the edges, as if she might cry.

The girl finished her song, and then looked down at her feet. Suddenly, she smacked her recorder against her forehead. She reached back into her backpack and pulled out a Yankees cap that looked much too large for her head. This she placed on the ground in front of her, then raised the recorder to play again. “Twin-kle twin-kle litt-le star.”

Aura packed up her case and dropped one of her dollars into the child’s cap, not daring to look her in the eyes again.

Fourth Stop–Pulitzer Fountain

Keep walking north until you reach 58th St. Cross the street and sit on the steps of the Pulitzer Fountain.

Aura sat down on the steps of a dead fountain, on a lonely square of park cut off from its Central headquarters by a bustling 59th St. It was the perfect place to finish raising her money. Across the street stood the glass cube that marked the entrance to the subterranean Apple store. In its center a white apple brightened in the dusk.

But it was hard to concentrate. Aura found herself repeating verses and fudging chords. That little girl had shaken her. Why had she needed to play when it gave her so little joy? A dare perhaps? Yes, a dare! But no, then there would have been a gaggle of girls giggling off to the side. She should go back. Ask her what was wrong. She’d been a coward to drop her a dollar and hurry on as if the child were a homeless person crouched behind a sign. It hadn’t even taken her that long to earn the dollar back. Now she was up to $15. Yes, she should go back.

Then she saw a small shape crossing the street towards her, clutching a recorder to her chest. Suddenly, it seemed, she stood before her, looking down at her pink-laced shoes and biting her lower lip with buckteeth.

“Sorry,” she whispered.

“Sorry?” Aura asked.

“Sorry. I didn’t want to take your spot again. A man in a suit told me to play in the park.” Something in Aura’s chest pulled her to her knees. She placed her arms lightly on the child’s shoulders.

“It’s all right,” she said. “You can have my spot if you want. But what’s wrong? You don’t seem to like playing.”

The child was young enough that all she needed was a sympathetic tilt of voice to break down and sob into Aura’s shoulder.

“It’s my daddy. He was fired. He’s not lazy, or anything, but Mommy thinks it’s cause he tried to start a union, and he hasn’t gotten work in three months and we’re almost out of money and now they want to kick us out of our apartment, and I don’t know how else to help.”

Aura gently patted the child’s back as her words rushed out faster and faster over her sobs, but she looked up to heaven and rolled her eyes. Clearly, God was one huge troll, and the world was his web-forum. That would explain the trick he played on Abraham and Isaac, the creation of the platypus, a child doing all she could for her family when Aura was across the street from her goal. It did occur to Aura that someone besides God might be trolling her. But why would a scam artist send a child after a street musician, and how would they have known to include that bit about the union, when Aura’s parents had lost much more than a home for following their beliefs.

Slowly, Aura lifted her arms from the child’s back and reached into her purse, where she kept the envelope with her laptop money. To this, she added the $15 in the case and pressed the envelope into the child’s hands.

“Here,” she said. “It’s almost $1,500. That will cover rent for one month, won’t it?”

“But…” the child stammered. She looked almost fearful. She blinked and clutched the envelope so hard it wrinkled around her fingers.

But Aura was already crossing the street.

Last Stop—Apple Store

Cross from the west to east side of 5th avenue. Don’t sit on the steps in front of the Apple Store entrance.

The apple was even brighter now. It cast two reflections on the glass walls surrounding it, and Aura wanted nothing more than to pick up a rock, hurl it through the glass, and shatter the effect. Instead, she kicked hard against the concrete at her feet. It would have been better, she thought bitterly, if her parents had kept her with them in El Salvador. Then she would have been martyred a total innocent and gone straight to heaven. As it was, she was unfit both for the world they wanted to create and the world they had spirited her away to.

Aura sat down on the low steps in front of the store’s entrance and leaned her head against her knees. A good Christian would have been glad to give the money. A good capitalist wouldn’t have given it at all. Aura, to her shame, was neither.

“Hey, Miss,” a voice muscled its way into her head. “Miss, you can’t sit here.”

She looked up. It was a large man in a dark suit. The skin of his neck bulged over the edge of his collar. “Oh, am I getting in the way of shoppers?”

“Yes, you’re getting in the way of shoppers,” he matched her mocking tone. “Now move!”

Aura moved.


Off the Rails: A Walk Along the First Two Thirds of the New York High Line

Walk Taken: February 28, 2012

Directions: Take the A, C, E, or L to 8th Avenue and 14th Street. There are many access points to the High Line, but to begin at the south most point, walk east on 14th Street until you reach 10th Avenue, then walk south to Ganesvoort Street. The entrance is on the northeast corner of 10th Avenue and Ganesvsoort.

The New York High Line is a public park built on an abandoned railway line. The line was originally built in the 1930s to bring freight to the factories of the meat-packing district without endangering anyone at street level. As trucks began to replace trains for industrial transport, the High Line fell into disuse; the last train, carrying frozen turkeys, ran in 1980. In the late 90s, a group of concerned citizens formed Friends of the High Line to save the structure from demolition. The first section of the High Line opened as a public park in 2009. Currently, pedestrians can follow the raised track from Ganesvoort to 30th Street. The final stretch, from 30th to 34th, is still under construction.

First Stop—Above the Ganesvoort Entrance

Climb the stairs at the North West corner of 10th Avenue and Gansevoort St. Once you reach the top, head towards the river and turn left until you reach an L-shaped bench.

The setting sun warmed Tomás’ back as he supported his foot on the bench and bent forward to retie his sneakers. It whitened the gray, bare branches of the trees and made him hope for spring. He glanced over his shoulders to watch it burn above the Hudson, and just as quickly had to glance away.

“Are you ready yet?” his girlfriend, Jhumpa, asked behind him. She had finished stretching and now jogged in place. “I want get to the end of the High Line before the sun sets.”

It was sad, really, that it had taken the two of them until an hour from sunset to get themselves outside, and on the first truly beautiful day since October. But it was so rare that the two of them shared a day off—he busy with freelance photography gigs when he wasn’t on call to tutor Mrs. Gleason’s kids through their exclusive gradeschool, her with dance classes or auditions or her ever-shifting shift at the café—that it was no surprise they’d had a hard time getting out of bed.  But now three cups of coffee and the setting sun was making Jhumpa anxious to spend her energy before she could relax into the night. Tomás had to honor that.

“Ready,” Tomás said, and set off.

Second Stop—First Flowers

Walk about three yards until you come to the plot of earth on your right. Stop when you see a pink flowering bush.

Tomás only got about three yards before he discovered the flowers. They were little fuchsia kernels on thin brown twigs, popping open into pale pink blossoms. They were the first flowers he had seen growing wild since winter began, and he couldn’t help stopping to stoop towards them.

“Look, Jhumpa!” he said. “Spring is coming.”

Jhumpa did not stop jogging in place beside him. “They’re pretty, Tom. Now, let’s go. We’re running out of time.”

“We’re always running out of time,” he mumbled, as he fell in pace beside her.

Jhumpa either didn’t hear him or pretended not to, and Tomás felt guilty for airing yet again his constant grievance. He’d had different dreams when he and Jhumpa decided to move to the city together after graduation. It seemed so romantic—two Minnesota sweethearts off to make it big. The books and movies had lied when they’d shown young, struggling artists in love, with time to hold hands in parks or make out on bridges or play footsie in cafes. In real life, such luxuries were only for the rich. He and Jhumpa were only reliably in the same room between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m., and more often than not they were too tired or too drunk to make love.

Now Jhumpa’s steady footbeats on the pavement sounded like the ticking of a clock: thud, thud, thud, thud. His legs burned to keep time. But it grew harder and harder to strain forward as they passed a row of wooden seats, built reclining like beach chairs. Almost all of them were filled with couples basking in the last warmth of the sun: two middle aged men in Norwegian sweaters cuddled side by side; a white haired man and woman bent over the same New York Times; a young girl in denim and leather straddled her first love and dove in for a kiss. Tomás saw one chair still empty, and beside it grew another of those early flowering bushes. He wanted nothing more than to scoop Jhumpa up and carry her over to relax in the setting sun. But she was already speeding ahead of him under the shadow of an overpass.

Third Stop—Chelsea Market Public Art

Continue straight; the Chelsea Market Public Art windows are in the second tunnel on your left.

Once inside, Tomás was forced to let her gain more ground. He was staring through a wall of colored squares. Through wasn’t quite the preposition for it, but the word he needed was slightly more transparent than at. The squares were of thick glass, and they ran the spectrum from brownish red to grayish blue. The dark tones evoked a build up of pollution, reminding him that the High Line had once been a railway, built above the city to safely deliver goods to factories. And now the once commercial line had been reclaimed, first by nature then by art, as a place of rest. It seemed such a waste to rush his way along.

The windows didn’t let through much more than light, but through one square the setting sun burned a bright pink spot. Tomás couldn’t help himself; he pulled his iPhone from his sweatpant pocket and snuck a quick photo. Click!

“Tomás!” Jhumpa must have doubled back at the sound, because there she was, still jogging in place behind him. Thud, thud, thud, thud. “We promised no work today!”

“This isn’t work,” he said, holding up his phone. “I can’t use any photos I take on this.”

“That doesn’t matter! As soon as your brain’s in photo mode, I can’t reach you!

“But that’s not fair! We’re doing something physical, aren’t we? That’s your thing.”

Jhumpa had a habit of laughing once through her nose when she was angry. “That’s not what you said this morning.”

“That’s,” Tomás’ cheeks burned. “That’s different. I mean, you’re a dancer, that’s your thing. And now we’re exercising, so isn’t that work for you?”

“I can’t believe this! We’ve been saying we wanted to jog the High Line since we moved here!”

“Will you stand still, damnit? I can barely hear!”

“What’s there to hear?” If anything, she jogged harder, so that her words came out in gasps. “We get one day to spend together, and we’re wasting it arguing! If that’s what we’re going to do, then—”

“Then what?” Tomás heard his question echo in the shadow of the overpass. Jhumpa’s thudding stopped. They stared at each other, still and silent but for their breathing. Then they bolted forward, together, away from the answer.

Fourth Stop—Grass-Covered Roof

Continue straight until you come to a white building with a grass roof; it will be on your right.

Then what? Then what? The question repeated in his mind to the rhythm of their jogging feet. He tried to remember why he had fallen in love with Jhumpa. He knew it was more than her gold-brown skin and dancer’s body. But all he could think of now, with bitterness, was how obedient she was to her business. Jhumpa couldn’t relax until she’d completed every task, and once every task was completed, a new one usually emerged. If he were being fair, he knew that he was just as frustrating. His response to stress was to deny it until it was almost too late, and then finish everything in a burst of energy. For every morning she’d refuse to skip class and join him for an impromptu brunch, there was a night she’d have to spend alone because Tomás had wasted his day off and had to enter a photo contest by 10 a.m. the next day. Tomás hated to admit it, but perhaps the business of self-establishment would be easier alone?

“¡Ayúdame, por favor! Please, help!” A throaty cry shattered his thoughts. He turned towards the voice and saw a short, wide woman whitening her knuckles on the metal rail that protected the High Line walkers from the street below. Her back was to him; he could see her black and gray streaked bun tilt downwards as her eyes looked up. Tomás followed her gaze, and immediately understood the source of her distress.

About a foot from the railing rose a tall white building. It must have been used for some sort of art installation. On the level with the High Line was a balcony that had been filled with upright pieces of driftwood, and the roof of the house had been planted with grass. It was on top of that roof that a little tow-haired boy stood, looking down at the driftwood spikes below him, his mouth trembling. It wasn’t hard to understand what had happened—the driftwood forest and grassy roof must have seemed an irresistible playground, and the height the boy had scaled with ease in his excitement rose in terror now that the moment had come to climb down.

But even as Tomás saw the boy, he saw with a pulse of pride that Jhumpa was jumping the gap between the High Line and the balcony. He walked slowly up to the distraught woman and touched her gently on the arm.

“Don’t worry,” he said gently, in Spanish. He could tell from the way her cries rolled off her tongue which language she had felt most comfortable shouting in, and he had spent enough summers at his grandmother’s farm near Quito to be nearly bilingual. “Look, my girlfriend is going to get him down. She’s very athletic. It will be all right.”

“Oh, oh,” she turned towards him. Her eyes stared wide and smooth with tears, contrasting with her wrinkled face. “Oh, thank you!” With every word her voice lost volume, until the words began to tumble out in an almost whisper. “Oh, thank you. I don’t know what I’ll do if he gets hurt. Are you sure he’ll be all right? His mother will kill me. I told her I could still look after him, even after I hurt my knee, but I have no other way to work, and my own grandchildren to take care of. Oh, do you think he’ll be all right? He’s a good boy, mostly, you know. But when he gets an idea, he doesn’t understand the word ‘No.’”

Tomás could only stand with her and listen, and keep his warm hand on her shoulder. “It will be all right,” he soothed. “It will be all right.”

And it was all right, because Jhumpa had climbed over to the balcony, and was standing with her arms outstretched for the boy to jump into. She held him steady as he climbed over the balcony railing. Then they all took a breath when he jumped the gap, and landed safely. Tomás helped him back over the rail, and he ran, chastened, into his nanny’s waiting embrace.

“I’m sorry, Nanna,” he sniffled into her tummy. The woman rocked him back and forth, tears falling freely from her eyes, repeating, “Don’t you dare do that again,” and, “Gracias a Dios,” over and over in the same trembling voice.

Last Stop—25th Street Theater

Continue straight until you are above 25th Street. On your right, you will see a large wooden bench in front of a framed pane of glass that overlooks the street. Sit down in front of the screen for a while. You can then either exit at 25th St. or continue along the High Line.

Tomás and Jhumpa ran on, but now Tomás found it was easier to keep up with her. Every jog brought them closer together, until his hand brushed hers. Then she grabbed it and squeezed it tight, and didn’t let it go. Their pace slowed in unison until their run became a walk. A large rectangle of glass, like a transparent movie screen, emerged on their right and, without saying anything, they climbed onto the wooden bench that faced it.

“You were amazing,” he said, once they had settled with their arms around each other. “The way you just leapt up there and got that kid down.”

“And you,” she said, “the way you comforted that woman. You have the most amazing, calming presence.”

‘You’re so brave, decisive—“ and then their mouths found better things to do than speak.

Finally, Jhumpa pulled away, gently. “You could have told me before we left, you know, that you just wanted to stroll,” she said. “You know how I get when I psych myself up for a jog. Nothing better stand between me and my endorphins.”

“And you know me,” he smiled. “I want to want to jog, until I actually have to do it.”

She rested his head on his shoulder and they looked through the glass at the passing cars. For a moment, the bustle of the city was a film reeled for their leisure. They sat there, watching, until the night-time cold urged them to move on.

Old Masters: A Frank Mason Walking Tour of Little Italy

Walk Taken: November 5, 2011

Directions: Take the A, C, E, N, Q, R, J, Z, 6, 2, or 1 train to Canal Street. Walk East along Canal Street until you get to Mulberry Street. Walk North on Mulberry Street until you reach the Mulberry Street Bar. It will be on the right-hand side of the Street.

This walk was inspired by the life and art of Frank Mason (1921 – 2009), a realist artist who taught at the Art Students League for over 50 years. He also lived and worked in Little Italy, where many of his paintings can still be found in bars, cafes, and churches. Here he is in a 1978 self-portrait.

First Stop—Mulberry Street Bar

 Start at the Mulberry Street Bar at 1761/2   Mulberry Street, between Broome and Grand.

Until she saw the painting, Gertie thought she’d made a mistake. It was supposed to be a mostly safe adventure, to stroll down Mulberry Street one more time. But the walk so far had depressed her: the dust-dulled reds of the restaurant awnings, the speakers blaring arias to empty streets, the souvenir shops that displayed sweatshirts with tasteless slogans like, “I’m the boss.” Little Italy was a cheap theme park of its former self, and the Mare Chiaro Tavern was no different. Faded photographs in the windows and bright TVs above the bar, it lured in tourists with the glamour of its past and kept them there by being a comforting copy of the bar back home. Even the name had changed, from Mare Chiaro to plain old Mulberry Street. Gertie would have walked right out except that opposite the door, veiled behind reflected neon, hung the bar as she remembered it.

She recognized the white tablecloths, the old-world faces, the shadows cast on dark wood walls by lights that didn’t vibrate. And she liked the painting’s bartender. He was an older man in a long white apron over large black boots. His graying hair had receded behind the curve of his head, and many years of hospitality had carved themselves into his bones. The artist had caught him poised to take an order—standing behind a round man in a fedora, hand outstretched to tap him on the shoulder—but paused to let the man watch his team score a goal.

“Can I, uhhh, help you with anything?” asked the present bartender. She was a young woman with ballooning cheeks and hair pulled tight into a high, bleached ponytail. Her mouth dimpled downward in a constant frown, and her shirt veed so low that it revealed a dimple of a different sort.

“Oh no,” Gertie heard the sigh in her own voice, “I’m just remembering. This was the first place my husband took me to when we started going steady.”

“Awwww, that’s so sweet!” The dimples curved upwards now. “Will he be joining you here tonight?”

“Not in body, no. He passed away two years ago.” Gertie had to admit she took some pleasure in wiping the dimples from the woman’s face. Her lips stretched into a creaseless O.

“God, I’m so sorry. What a thing to say.”

“It’s all right, dear, there’s no way you could have known,” Gertie said, to be polite. Though really, when an 85-year-old woman was standing alone in a bar on a Saturday evening “remembering,” you could make an educated guess.

“Well,” the girl looked down and began to peal up the corner of a cardboard coaster, “Would you, uuh, like me to take your picture or anything?”

Gertie did not like pictures of herself; all she saw now was the empty space beside her. But social victory lay in treating the graceless with as much grace as one could muster, so she said, “Oh, that would be lovely, thank you. In front of that painting please.”

Yet this time, as she stood before the painting while the bartender squinted at her screenless camera, she imagined she was one with those oil figures. Besides being the only woman, she would not have looked an anachronism in her long brown coat and wool beret, gray hair curling out from under its lip. She imagined the old bartender was poised behind her, and she could feel the heat of his body and smell the beer and garlic on his breath.

“Oh, it’s a film camera!” the young bartender exclaimed in a moment of Proustian enlightenment. “I haven’t seen one of these since grade school!” As she held the viewfinder to her eye, Gertie settled deeper into the painting. They were both, now, relics behind glass.

Until the camera lowered. Gertie almost stumbled as she reached to take it. Suddenly she felt very cold.

The bartender must have seen the quivering backwards look Gertie gave the painting then, because she said, “You know, if you like that painting, there are more by the same artist in the café next door.”

“Oh, oh really? Oh, thank you!” Gertie was surprised by how much her voice trembled, how fast her heart beat, how her fingers tingled with warmth. Why was she so hard on this bartender? Clearly, she was a thoughtful, kind young woman; she just needed a better wardrobe.

“Here,” she said, taking at $10 from her wallet as she headed towards the door.

“Oh—“ the bartender’s mouth opened wide and dimpleless again. “That’s all right, you didn’t order anything.”

“I insist,” and she winked. “Use it to buy yourself a nice button-up blouse.”  She almost giggled when she stepped onto the street.

Second Stop—Cafe Roma

Turn right when you exit the bar and turn right again on Broome Street. The Café entrance will be the first door you come to.

Gertie stepped into the café and felt herself exhale. With its forest-green walls, marble-topped tables, and small chairs backed with silver curls, it answered the beating of her heart. It reminded her of Mr. Calvino’s ice cream shop, where she had met her friends in the Connecticut town of her childhood.

Then there were the paintings. She had thought the first might have been an aberration—what current artist combined the rich tones and realistic but expressive brushwork of the old masters? Yet here were Italian landscapes of a style and quality that could have hung in the nineteenth century European wing of any great museum.

She sat down under one of these, and heard herself gasp. Under a canopy of trees and columns, a young couple sat sharing lunch over a picnic blanket. The figures were small beside the trees and ruins; their faces featureless. And yet she could see in them herself and Frank, on their honeymoon in Italy. One day they really had picnicked under ruined columns. They had been so much larger than she expected—like giant tree trunks or narrow cliffs. Impossible to imagine them built by other humans. She had reached over the blanket and squeezed Frank’s hand, glad to have a companion in her smallness.

And now she was alone. Once again the coldness of it waved through her, and she wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. Why did Frank have to strand her in this foreign century, with its neon advertisements, ugly art, divorced children, granddaughters with live-in boyfriends, and all of these bills she had never learned to pay? When he had been alive, the changes had seemed remote, somehow. After all, she had followed him around the globe for his mining company job, creating New England living rooms in places as remote as Australia and Suriname. The 21st century seemed like just another foreign country they were visiting together. Outside, the natives could do as they pleased, but inside their apartment there was hot tea in the china pot and Mother’s braided rug under Father’s mahogany table.

Gertie was afraid she must have let off a whimper, because the waitress leaned towards her with a knitted brow. “Are you all right, Ma’am? May I take your order?”

This woman was almost too elegant for her job, with black hair fluffed back into a bun and a jacket that turned her shoulders into angles.  Gertie did not want to look foolish in front of her. “Oh, I haven’t had a chance to look over the menu yet,” she said. The woman nodded and clicked away on the tiled floor. She had the feline poise of a film noir fatale. Gertie didn’t trust her.

She picked up the menu, more to distract herself from tears than because she had any interest in ordering. Caffeine made her heart race, and sugar had long since ceased to thrill her tongue. Then she turned it over.

“The paintings displayed here in Café Roma are scenes painted in Italy by Frank Mason,” she read. Frank? He shared her husband’s name! And they had both died in the same year—2009. A sob balled in Gertie’s throat. She had to leave before she began to cry. But where could she go? Tonight would be the first time she would stay in a hotel alone, and she hoped to be too tired when she reached it to notice the largeness of the bed. Blinking, Gertie read the rest of the menu’s small biography. Frank Mason had lived in Little Italy for 50 years, the menu said. And another of his paintings hung in Old Saint Patrick’s, on the corner of Prince and Mott. There! She would see the other painting!

Quickly, before the waitress pounced, she darted for the door.

Third Stop—Flags Over Broome Street

Turn right after exiting the café and look up.

Just as she pushed out onto the street, something in her pocket began to bounce and wail. Gertie jumped and shrieked. She began to shake her coat, and the unnatural heaviness of the right side reminded her—it was only a cell phone. Gertie hadn’t wanted it, but Shelby had insisted she borrow it for her New York journey. “So I know you’re OK,” Shelby had said, and Gertie, who forced her children to phone and wake her up even when their planes landed at 4 a.m., couldn’t refuse.

Slowly, Gertie lifted it out of her pocket with her thumb and forefinger and held it away from her, as if its flip concealed sharp teeth. Then she used the thumb and forefinger of her other hand to cautiously open it.

“Yes?” she held the receiver an inch from her mouth.

“Hello, Mrs. Bertram? This is Shelby.”

“What?”  Gertie gave up and lifted the phone up to—but not touching—her ear. At 85 it was a little silly to fear a brain tumor, but if Gertie was to die, she wanted it to be from a good, old-fashioned disease.

“This is Shelby.”

“Oh, hello Shelby.”

“Did you find the bar Ok?”

“Yes, yes thank you. I gave the cab driver the directions you printed for me.”

It was Shelby who had made the visit possible. She was one of the waitresses in the dining room at Bay Breeze Manor in Mystic, Connecticut, where Gertie and Frank had finally settled and where Gertie now lived alone. Shelby, like her granddaughter, lived with her boyfriend. She still had an Obama08 bumper sticker stuck to her used car, and she was paying her way through a graduate program in women’s studies. But Gertie forgave her all that because Shelby was one of the few young people who knew how to carry on a conversation, who could wait their turn and speak clearly when it came. So when pasta night had set Gertie to thinking of her first date in Little Italy, Shelby had been the waitress she’d flagged over to tell. And when she’d said, wistfully, that she’d like to stroll Mulberry Street one more time, Shelby had taken her at her word, acting as her Virgil through the frightening Inferno of online booking.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Shelby asked now.

“No, no—oh wait! Are you near a computer.”

“Yep. I’ve been studying all day.”

“There’s a painting I want to see, by Frank Mason, on Prince and Mott. Can you tell me how to get there?”

“Sure, where are you now?”

“The corner of Mulberry and,” she peered at the white letters of the green street sign, “Broome.”

“Sure thing, just a second, Ok. You just turn right on Broome. The next street is Mott. You turn left on Mott till you get to Prince. Got it?”

“Yes, yes, that sounds simple enough.”

Gertie looked down the street she was supposed to walk. In the misty glow of the street lights, the American and Italian flags seemed themselves to furl out of an impressionist painting. Impressionism was the last evolution of art Gertie could understand. And they said it was a reaction against the photograph, an attempt to steal back visual art from the harsh snap of total reproduction.

“Well, I’ll let you go. I’ll see you at the train station tomorrow.”

“Goodbye, thank you!” But as grateful as Gertie was for Shelby’s help, she was even more grateful when she heard the liberating beep of an ended call, permission to stuff the dreaded phone back into the oblivion of her pocket.

Fourth Stop—Outside Old Saint Patrick’s

Continue right on Broome Street and turn left at Mott. Continue walking North on Mott until you reach Prince street. The church is on the Northwest corner of Mott and Prince.

Gertie followed Shelby’s instructions —or so she thought. But she grew increasingly nervous as the Italian flags gave way to Chinese laundries and the Chinese laundries gave way to small, dimly lit restaurants. The restaurants and their customers looked young and sleek, dressed in beige awnings and tight pants. The farther she walked, the less Gertie believed she would find a church in this world of exposed brick and metal counters. Had she missed it? Had she turned too soon? But there it was—a solid block of gray stone that had plunked itself down in lower Manhattan and refused to get up again.

She was surprised by its ancient simplicity. No carvings adorned the façade. No tiny details tamed its size. Fluorescent floodlights lit the front in green, separating it further from the golden-brown café-restaurants.

People were leaving the church in smatterings—shaking hands with the priest at the door then moving to stand with groups of three or four in the small courtyard. She had come at the end of something then. That was lucky. Gertie thought it rude to enter a church during a service, and she had been afraid the building would be closed altogether on a Saturday night.

The next woman to shake the priest’s hand, Gertie noticed, did not cluster. Instead, she went to stand off to the side of the door. She was an old woman, like Gertie, though unlike Gertie she leaned heavily on a wooden cane. She had thick gray eyebrows and a square, wrinkled face. Gertie watched as her gray lips puckered into a deep frown and she seemed to lean her sadness on her cane.  She looked so much like Gertie felt that she couldn’t help but walk up to her and ask, “Ma’am, are you all right?”

The old woman swiveled her head slowly. “Oh, yes. I’m just thinking how small the crowd is tonight. When I was a girl, you could hardly find a pew for the Saturday evening masses. But, well, I’m sure you remember, back then people really believed. People today say they do, but they never come.”

“Well,” Gertie said. “You’ll have the last laugh.”

The woman’s lips twitched once, then broke open against the force of a resounding, “Ha!” “I like you’re style. I’m Bea,” she said, straightening her back and holding out a shaking hand. “You can’t be from around here; I would know you if you were.”

“My name is Gertie Bertram. I’ve only been to Little Italy once before, for a first date over sixty years ago.” She took Bea’s hand. It was so soft with wrinkles and bent with arthritis that it made Gertie’s weak grip feel strong. “I just wanted to see the painting of the resurrection, by Frank Mason, if that’s all right.”

“Oh, of course! Frank, he was a good man. I remember teaming up with him to stop that freeway they wanted to route through the neighborhood. He didn’t grow up here, but he still loved it enough to fight for it. Follow me, I’ll show it to you.”

“Oh, was your husband a city councilmember or something?” Gertie asked as they walked towards the entrance.

“No,” Bea winked at her, “My husband was a doctor. I was the councilmember.”

Last Stop—The “Resurrection of Christ”

Enter the church; the painting is above the altar.

Bea led her all the way down the center aisle and ushered her into the front pew. If the outside of the church was plain, the inside was a cacophony of gold. And at its center was Frank Mason’s painting.

It was not the comfort Gertie had hoped for. Yes, the Christ was as fully realized as any by Rembrandt or Raphael; his muscles bulged and his drapery fell in the familiar pattern. But unlike the scene in the bar or the Italian pastorals, this painting was not of any time. This Christ floated above a stone coffin against a blue-gray sky. He could have emerged just as easily from a monument in Central Park as from a tomb in the hills of first century Palestine. Gertie wanted the promise of resurrection. Instead she imagined the disorientation of waking up in a strange bed for the first time after a move.

“You don’t like it?” Bea asked. She must have seen Gertie’s face sink.

“It’s just, his other paintings are so concrete. This one could be happening anytime, anywhere.”

Bea smiled. “And that’s what I like about it. Jesus is rising for everyone, anytime, anywhere. Even,” she sighed, “if they don’t appreciate it. Oh, just a minute.”

Gertie watched in awe as Bea removed a black-framed mirror from her pocket. But it wasn’t a mirror at all—it was one of those fancy phones that her son used to send emails to his boss on vacation. And the shaky hands that had felt so weak to her were moving across the screen and making letters appear.

“I’m sorry,” Bea met her eyes when she had finished. “That was my daughter. She wants to know if I’m joining the family for dinner tonight. She gets quite panicked if I don’t respond as soon as possible. But that’s the price I pay for living on my own.”

“You can write with that?” Gertie knew her mouth and eyes were wide with a rude wonder, but she couldn’t help herself. This woman, who moments ago had been a peer, an ally against the strangeness of the future, was now strange herself. She seemed larger all of a sudden, both older and younger. A figure outside time.

“Oh, yes. It’s the easiest way for my children to reach me, and I like to keep up with city politics.  Everything happens on twitter now.”

“Can I tell you something?” Gertie blurted out. “Something I’ve never told anyone?” It had been such a long time since she’d spoken to someone she could hold in awe, someone who embodied for her that schoolmarm mix of witch and Saint.

“All right,” Bea pursed her eyebrows but held her gaze.

“It’s just, my late husband and I, we met in college in the city. He was in Business School at Columbia and I was studying Russian at Barnard. He proposed to me the summer before my senior year. Anyway, that fall I wrote a paper in Russian about Anna Karenina. My professor didn’t like my argument. She thought I was too hard on Anna. But she said my command of the language was the best she’d ever seen. She offered to introduce me to a gentleman in the State Department, you know, because they needed people who spoke Russian. Of course, I explained I was engaged and that was that. I never told anyone about it.”

“And do you regret it?” Bea asked. There was no judgment in the question. Her voice was flatly curious, as if she’d been asking Gertie if she wanted cream with her tea.

“No! Of course not! Frank and I had a lovely life together! It’s only,” her voice grew softer suddenly. She felt like a child confessing a guilty secret to a wise adult. “It’s only, if I’d been the other kind of woman, you know, who had a job when it wasn’t proper. If I’d been one of those women who helped change the world into what it is, would I feel less alone, now? At the end?”

Every wrinkle in Bea’s face seemed to tremble. “No,” she whispered gently, “No.” She turned her head upwards, and Gertie saw she looked at the painted Christ, stepping from the tomb and looking out into eternity. “Sooner or later,” she said, “we all get left behind.”

Suspension: A Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall Park

Walk Taken: August 26, 2011

Directions: To access the bridge from the Brooklyn side, You can take the A and C to High Street, the 2 and 3 to Clark Street, or the 2, 3, 4, N, or R to Borough Hall. This page has helpful instructions for walking from various subways.

I don’t have much in the way of an introduction to this piece, except to say that the the bridge really is beautiful and its history really is fascinating. Also, construction equipment on the bridge really was secured prior to the forecasted arrival of Hurricane Irene, which was later downgraded to a tropical storm.

First Stop—Rush Hour

Take the A /C Subway line to the High Street stop. Exit the station at Cadman Plaza East. When you exit, double back away from the bridge, so that the street is on your left, until you come to a cross walk. Cross to the pedestrian entrance and turn left to begin walking across the bridge.

Ric’s blood was rushing. It had been for a week now, partly because fall was arriving and New York was rousing itself from its summer siesta to greet it, partly because there’d been pressure at work to get ahead of schedule in case the hurricane swirling up the coast, due to hit t sometime Saturday, shut down transit into the next work week, and mostly because he had to think about all this while playing host to his Spanish cousin Araceli, who wanted only to wander around the city at Midwestern-grandma-in-Time-Square pace and drink a lot of cheap wine, and this would have been fine, except she seemed to think that as her host, he should do it too.

For example, now she was insisting that he walk her across the Brooklyn Bridge on his way to work that Friday morning. Even after she refused to wake up before 7:30, to leave before she’d brewed and sipped her espresso, and to run fast enough to make the train that paused, doors-open, as they entered the station.

So here they were, crossing the street onto the pedestrian walkway at 8:45 Friday morning, giving them exactly 30 minutes to cross the damn thing if he wanted to catch the train down to Wall Street and make it into the office to start his boss’s coffee brewing before he arrived at 9:25 sharp. And his cousin was taking out that ridiculously expensive camera her parents bought her, even though she was, at twenty-nine, five years older than he was and had spent the past three months camped out in some square in Barcelona with a bunch of other unemployed, anarchist hippies protesting the government for not giving them jobs. Even worse, she’d used her parents’ camera to photograph the protests for some communal blog.

“What are you doing with your camera?” he asked. “You can’t even see anything from here.” It was true—the iconic double-arch of the bridge was around the corner and out of sight.  It looked to Ric as if he were stepping onto a highway.

“Ya,” she said. “I’m just getting ready! You said we’re in such a rush!”

Ari didn’t look anything like the typical Spanish beauty. (When she’d met him and his work buddies for happy hour the night before, he had seen the disappointment in his male colleagues as they refused to lean in to her two-cheek kiss.) She was short and lumpy, with gray-brown hair cut tight around her ears and two permanent wrinkles already branching from her eyes. The skin of her face was rough and yellowish from too many un-sunscreened summers at the family flat in Malaga, and her every sentence began with a glottal stop, followed by a stream of barely consonanted words crescendoeing up and away.

And that was good, thought Ric. Her plainness warded off the glamour that might have swarmed about her if she’d been sleek and tan with large black curls. He could see her for who she was—a woman clinging to youth’s ideals even as youth worked its best to shake her off.  He had made the right choice to join Hessler & Brandt’s communications department; he had grown up.

“I don’t see what you’re so worried about anyway,” Ari went on. “Don’t you work for your father?”

Second Stop—Between Sea and Sky

Walk straight along the pedestrian walkway until you come to the place where the concrete gives way to wood. Stop here to look forward and admire the double arches.

“I don’t work for my father!” he speed-walked ahead, glad they were fighting because if there was one thing Ari would speed up for, it was an argument.

“It’s your father’s company, isn’t it?” She didn’t have his long legs, and her head bobbled up and down as she jerked herself forward with short, swift strides.

“My father works in accounting; he told me about an opening in communications. Which I applied for to the head of the communications department, who chose me. She wouldn’t have hired me if I weren’t qualified.”

“Lots of people are qualified. The question is—would they have looked at your resume if your father hadn’t pointed it out?”

And Ric knew the answer. The answer was no. He’d sent out enough resumes in the year since graduation to know that much.

But what business did Ari have quoting his inner voice in a bad mood? “It doesn’t matter,” he snapped at his cousin. “They looked at my resume and they hired me.”

“And that’s why you work twice as hard as everyone there and freak out about coming in five minutes late, because you don’t doubt for a second that you deserve to be there.”

It wasn’t fair; his cousin was a master at sarcasm in English, whereas he still hadn’t figured out how to be sarcastic in Spanish. Whenever he tried, Ari just asked him why he was speaking with such an American accent. It was true that there was something flat and staccato about sarcasm that seemed to him at odds with the flow of Spanish, but then why was his cousin so damn good at it?

“You’re just saying all this because I work for a ‘corporation.’ If I worked this hard for a non-profit…”

“Shuuuush!” The hush was all “u” when she said it, giving it a tone more of wonder than command. He was going to tell her not to “shuuush” him when he was making a point, but suddenly her warm, chubby hand was pressed against his mouth and her other hand was pointing up.

He followed the point of her short, wide index, and saw that wonder was, in fact, appropriate. The brick archway of the bridge was rising above them as they stood at the border between concrete path and wooden walkway. The suspension cables crisscrossed over the sky between the gothic arches, forming black-outlined diamonds of blue that reminded him of a church window. A large, off-white canvas was tied up to the sides of the walkway like a mainsail furled along a boom. They stepped over the line from concrete to wood in silence, and there was something about standing on unpolished wood, suspended between sea and sky, that made him feel as if he had entered a separate, almost sacred, space—somewhere between a ship and a cathedral.

“¡Es increíble!” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed, surprised to mean it, “it is.”

Third Stop—An Adult Under Thirty

Continue walking until you have passed through the narrow corridor created by the suspension cables. Stop here for unobstructed views of New York harbor on your left and Mid Manhattan on your right.

His feet slowed their forward march. Speed was impossible anyway. On the center of the bridge, the pedestrian lane was closed off as workers in orange vests moved past lifting sheets of corrugated tin, and everyone—Brooklyn-and-Manhattan-bound tourists, commuters dragging their bikes behind them—was forced to squeeze past each other on the same strip of wood. Somehow, he didn’t mind. It was as if someone had laid a large sponge against his shoulders and sucked the rush out.

His father had left Catholicism behind when he’d left Franco’s Spain back in 1968 for University and Freedom in the United States, but by the time Ric had been old enough for trans-Atlantic flights, Franco had been dead twenty years, so there had been no reason not to obey Abuela’s summons back for Christmas. Sitting through his first Mass, uncomfortable in the starch of his suit and bored by the drowsy tones of a language he could not understand, six-year-old Ric had reached into his mother’s purse for his Gameboy. But mid-reach, his hand could go no further. It squirmed and strained, and then held still. The hand that had stopped it was nothing but soft skin sagging over trembling bone; it should not have impeded his young hand’s foreward movement, but it had.

Aquí no!” his grandmother whispered harshly in his ear. But it wasn’t her command of “Not here,” that made him sit back and listen; it was the unexplainable, even miraculous, strength of her grip. Even today, atheist that he was, he found himself turning off his cell phone if he happened into a church for any reason, and it was the same now. It felt sacrilegious somehow to check his phone for the time, or to speed around his fellow travelers.

Why? Wasn’t this bridge, which twenty-seven people had died to build, as much a tribute to work, to capitalist work, as the job he had to get to? Weren’t the construction workers who moved beside him, securing construction equipment against the pending hurricane, proof of the importance of rolling up sleeves and getting jobs done.

As if on cue, Ari then decided to do the one thing that annoyed him the most about her. She jerked up to the first worker she could find who looked remotely Mediterranean or Latino and asked him, in Spanish, what he was doing.

And the man gave her the answer he had always feared and hoped she would receive for her constant Spanish profiling. He turned around, looked her right in the eye, and said, “My family’s lived here for 200 years. I don’t speak any foreign language so young.” It was funny, because he was speaking in perfect Latin. Ric knew, he’d minored in classics in undergrad, following a love affair begun when his abuela gave him no choice but to listen in Mass.

But he was so joyfully surprised at the answer that he made a mistake just as grave as his cousin’s—“Then why are you working here?” he blurted out, also in Latin, but that didn’t stop him from immediately sucking his lips between his teeth and staring at his shoes.

‘My cousin’s very sorry,” Ari cut in, in English now. “He hates offending people.”

But the worker just shrugged. He was a head shorter than Ric, with chin-length black hair and a lean, young face that seemed too small for his broad shoulders and thick arms.

He answered, in English this time, “Don’t worry, I don’t offend easily. Just like playing with people’s expectations.”

Ari hardly gave his answer time to sit. All it had done was to confirm her suspicion that offense was something, like the infallibility of markets, that you only believed in if you spent too much time in the United States. “My cousin just wants to know, you see, because he minored in Classics, and now he’s working a job he won’t admit he hates.”

“Well, that’s not my story. I started building things when I was a kid; made myself a tree house, and pretty soon the parents on the block were paying me to build them for my friends, too. I did home repairs to make spending money in high school. Then I got out of college as the recession hit and all of the esoteric publications I might have worked for were only taking unpaid interns. So, I thought, I’ve always liked building things, and things will always need to be built.”

Ric looked up, “Wait, you graduated in 2009?”

He nodded.

“So did I. I spent two years interning in the communications departments of various nonprofits before giving up and going to work for my Dad’s investment firm.”

“Man, that’s rough. You should think about a trade, really. Right now, we’re getting all this equipment secured before the hurricane, it feels like we’re doing something really necessary.”

“It’s not necessary, Ed,” a tall black man in an orange vest shouted out as he passed. “Come to Jamaica sometime; I’ll show you a real hurricane—none of this category-one bullshit.”

“I’m from SoCal,” he yelled back. “We don’t do weather.”

The man snorted, “So why don’t you go back?” But he smiled afterwards, to make it clear he liked having SoCal boy around.

“Ed” turned back to them and shrugged. “Anyway,” he said, without malice, “It feels more necessary than investment banking.”

Ari had a rare expression on her face. Her lips were pressed shut and her eyes seemed to lean over her nose. It was the expression she used when she heard something she thought was really worth listening to. Only when she was sure he had finished speaking did she blink and relax her mouth to speak. “Congratulations,” she said, holding out her hand. “You’re the first adult under thirty I’ve met.” There was no sarcasm in her voice.

Ed shrugged again. “You should talk to my girlfriend about that,” he said. “She seems to believe no grown man is allowed to own an X-box.” But he accepted Ari’s handshake. He was standing with his back to the water, which stretched beyond him, past Staten Island, to the place where its blue disappeared into the blue of the sky. But he was looking up towards midtown, and Ric followed his gaze. A slate cloud sagged over the city, and the buildings seemed huddled around the Empire State Building as if its point could pierce through to the light. Ric knew the cloud had nothing to do with the hurricane—in fact, the hurricane was coming from the now-clear South—but there was something ominous about Manhattan’s darkness, something Ric feared to enter.

“Anyway, salvate!” Ed bid them farewell in Latin., then turned back to join his partners in their work. Literally, he had wished good health, but the word was only an accent away from the Spanish for “Save yourself!”

“Come on,” Ari said. “Don’t you have to go?” And Ric realized that he was standing still, staring at the city and trying to understand why it filled him with dread.

Fourth Stop—Back on the Highway

Walk the rest of the way across the bridge and under the second set of double arches. Pause when the first green highway signs become visible on the other side.

There was a real disappointment in walking through the second pair of arches, off the wooden planks, and back onto the concrete of the walk towards City Hall. It was the end of the vacation, the exit from the fair.

“So that’s adulthood,” Ric finally said, to distract himself from the heaviness resettling on his shoulders. “Getting paid to do something necessary?”

“Getting paid to do something necessary that you love,” Ari said after a moment’s thought

And Ric nodded. That was what was magic in the bridge. It was clearly necessary—millions of commuters, of friends and families separated by the East River—had made it so. And it was beautiful enough that he could believe its builders had loved it. Hadn’t Ari read to him from her guidebook how its designer had died from Tetanus after his foot was crushed on site, how his son had taken over until he was crippled by the bends while digging the foundations underwater, and then how his wife had stepped up to relay his instructions to the crew. Two generations had given themselves to the bridge, nurtured it like child and grandchild.

The green, metallic sheen of the signs announcing the entrances to FDR Drive and Park Row appeared on the horizon. Unless they turned to look back, there was no sign of the bridge. Once again, they might have been walking on a highway.

“When we get to the park,” he said, “I want to show you something.”

“You won’t be late?” Ari asked.

“This is worth it!” He tried to sound joyfully reckless. Ari squinted at him in concern.

“If you think there’s time,” she said.

Last Stop—The Fountain

Continue walking until you get to the entrance to City Hall Park. Cross the street towards the park and turn left. Walk along the park gate past the City Hall entrance and turn into the next opening in the gate. Walk straight into the park and then take your first left towards a fountain surrounded by four lampposts.

It was not as spectacular as he remembered it. But then, he and his boyfriend had discovered it at dusk. He had been surprised by the live flame in the four lampposts that surrounded the fountain, by the way its reflection flickered in the white-blue jets of water and the night-blue pool beneath. It had been the Friday gay marriage was legalized, and, high on one victory, Cam had suggested they try for another and camp out near City Hall with the group protesting Bloomberg’s budget cuts. Cam had studied to be a teacher, and he desperately needed the new-teacher hiring freeze to end so he could go back to his school in Queens and prove to kids like him that there was a way out and it did get better.  At the time, Ric was waiting on a city grant to turn his museum internship into a paying job. They had believed that they could fight and win it all, eternal love and necessary work—adulthood. The unexpected beauty of that fountain had seemed like a promise.

“The future is yours!” cried the flames.

“You will not disappoint yourselves,” the water reassured.

Of course that wasn’t what happened. The hiring freeze did not end and the grant did not come through. Cam had gotten a teaching job in Mississippi and Ric had sent his resume to his father’s firm.  Those two decisions had split them apart for good. The fountain appeared sheepish in the daylight. It shot no jets of water from its center, and Ric had to squint to see the vibration of the flames inside their dusty glass covers.

“Ric?” Ari said gently. He was not used to hearing the tremble of a question in her voice.

“I know it’s not much now; we’ll have to come back at night, so you can see. It’s a perfect harmony of fire and water.”

“Ric, it’s 9:30,” she said.

“I thought you didn’t approve of my job?”

Ari sighed. “I don’t think you approve of your job. But it’s not my place really…”

Ric’s phone rang. He lifted it from his pocket. His boss’s name flashed across the screen.

So this was it. He stared at the fountain, willing the sky to darken to, the water to shoot up, and the flames to burn brighter than the dust containing them. He could do it. His boss would fire him, and he could go back to the moment before he had disappointed himself.

“Ric, are you going to answer?” Her voice was soft.

He held his phone in front of his face. What would happen if he threw it into the water?

Suddenly, he felt it pulled up and out of his hand.

“Yes,” Ari answered. “This is his cousin. We went to buy a flashlight, you know, because the hurricane’s coming this weekend, and our friend said the hardware stores were running out. Yes, we got the last one! But the line’s longer than we planned for. He’ll be there by 10, definitely. Oh, we can pick up some batteries for you, but he’s paying now.—we’ll have to get back in line. Ok, he’ll be there by 10:15 then. Great, bye!” She finished the call. “It’s going to be all right,” she said to him.

Ric felt the hot weight of the phone slide back into his hand.


In Which Those Who Wander Are Lost: A Hike up the Ski Trails of Jay Peak in Northern Vermont

Walk Taken: August 2, 2011

Directions: Drive to 1144 Access Road in Jay, Vermont 05859. Park and walk towards the Tram Haus Lodge. Walk past the lodge facing up the mountain and find the left-most trail that begins near the “Magic Carpet” ski lift.

Jay Peak Trail MapWhile most of my stories will be set in New York, I had the chance to visit Vermont earlier this August and took the opportunity to be inspired by a truly rural walk. This walk follows ski trails up the mountain. Therefore, all the trail signs are intended to get you down the mountain and don’t really help you with the ascent. I recommend getting a map from the gift shop, on which all the trails are clearly labeled.

First Stop—Beginning to Climb

Start at the base of thFoot of the Traile mountain next to the gondola and begin ascending along Queen’s Highway, a gravel-lined ski run that rises to the left.

A gust of rain threatened to keep the Olson family in the rental van as they pulled in to the Jay Peak parking lot. It was the first summer in family-reunion history that the adults had decided the children were old enough to hike the ski trails up the mountain instead of riding the gondola up and strolling down, and 13-year-old Lena, cozy in the nook of a window seat, wished the rain would stay and spare her this particular right of passage. But a fast wind blew the clouds onwards, and as soon as the rain stopped spitting at the windshield, her mother turned off the engine, and up the hill it was. Lena supposed it was only fair. Her mother, Kirsten Pinker, née Olson, had waited patiently until just the right year to finally get a decent workout during her yearly gym-free visit to her mother’s cabin in Northern Vermont.  This year Pierre and Jean-Luc, her brother Max’s twin boys, were 10 years old and eager to impress a pantheon of real and imaginary heroes from Jacques Cousteau to Frodo Baggins, and as for Lena, once so stubborn in her wants and not wants, a change had come over her since she had started middle school, and now all that had once burst out of her lay reservoir-still behind the dam of her lips.

Lena herself was hardly conscious of the change, and even though her legs ached to look up the tree-darkened mountain, she never once thought that two years ago she would have stamped and cried her way into the tram if her parents had suggested such a hike. She was too busy listening to her father and her Aunt Juliette discuss politics. Her mother was already far ahead, and Lena had abandoned her cousins on their quest up Mount Doom to destroy the mood ring she had lent them for the game, leaving them defenseless against her Uncle Max’s cameo appearances as orcs, goblins, and giant spiders. Time was when Lena lived for make-believe and thought adult conversations boring, but recently she had discovered that all games of pretend ended with the same happy ending, while each eavesdropped conversation revealed a new secret about her once-familiar world.

“I don’t know why I keep trying to convince our mother-in-law that global warming is real,” her father was saying.

“I understand; every time she goes on a rant against government spending, I have to stop myself from reminding her that Max and I chose to stay and raise our children in France in large part because of the health care. Of course, there was my family, and my band, and he already had a job, which is a hard thing for a foreigner to get in Paris. But she’d have a much better chance of having her son and grandsons on her side of the pond if this country had a better social safety net!”

Politics were one of Lena’s new discoveries, acquired during her seventhgrade’s civics unit, and it changed everything she had once believed about the people around her. That her grandmother—who had taught her how see the way the sun turned trees to gold and had placed a copy of Les Misérables on her dresser table exactly the summer when she was beginning to look out from her own imagination towards the wider world—was against the Kyoto Protocol and universal healthcare shocked her nearly as much as the initial discovery that the instinctual values of Lena’s own heart could be translated into political beliefs.

Aunt Juliette was the only adult who had not disappointed her. She had already loved her for her velvety French accent and dark-brown, silken hair, for being the only one, besides her father, who listened to her violin playing as if Lena were a real musician and not a gifted child, for the fact that, unlike her own father, she had not given up her art and still sang weekly in bars and cafes, and because, when her father brought out his guitar to accompany her on summer nights, his face regained the wide smile and deep dimples of Lena’s earliest memories. And now she loved her more, because everything Juliette said about politics matched Lena’s childhood image of her as free-spirited and compassionate.

Even now she climbed the hill in a wide-brimmed lilac hat, with a cream scarf blowing around her neck, so much more graceful than her corporate-lawyer mother, still straining ahead on vacation in a t-shirt and baseball cap

“She didn’t used to be like this you know, when I first married Max,” Juliette was saying. “She was much more open to other points of view. It’s that stupid program she’s always watching—Fox News?”

“Well, she’s lonely, I suppose,” her father answered. “She used to have Kirsten and Max’s father to keep her company, but now it’s just her in that cottage all day…”

“Hé, Lena,” Jean Luc called from up a dirt path that shot up off the gentle gravel slope they’d been following. “We’re pretending Pierre just got bit by a poison spider. Can you come be an elf queen and heal him?”

Lena sighed, leaving her father and her aunt to their adult secrets so she could pretend to be a child who still enjoyed pretending.

Second Stop—Shaded Secrets

When you get to a dirt path that heads steeply to the right off Queen’s Highway, take it and follow it until you come to a fork beside a sign that says “Queen’s Highway.” Take a right and go straight until you reach a small trail that shoots left through a field of purple flowers. This is Taxi. Follow it until you come to a large tree that juts four-like out of the right side of the path.

Lena was relieved when her cousinly duties were dispensed. Even as she had shaken her hair out of its ponytail so it hung around her shoulders and raised her voice to an ethereal pitch, she had kept glancing over her shoulder to make sure there were no other families with teenagers hiking the same trails. She even blushed a bit when her father and Juliette passed, ashamed to be caught by the most sophisticated member of her family in the act of make-believe. But the pair were so deep in conversation that they didn’t seem to notice.

“Now,” she said, once she had rubbed a “healing” leaf over her cousin’s “bite,” “I think those to travelers way up there”—she pointed to the distant shapes of her mother and Uncle Max, who had paused to split a power bar and consult the trail map—“have answers that will help you on your quest.  If you hurry, you might catch them!” Her cousins raced ahead, and she was free to catch up to her father and aunt and listen to their conversation in peace.

When she found them, they were sitting on a tree that called to the child in her to be climbed. It grew straight out of the hillside, creating a perfect chair between the two thick branches that shot up from its sideways trunk. And as she watched their faces so close in conversation that her father’s head dipped below the brim of her aunt’s hat, she was relieved to know that adults together could still take advantage of perfect trees.

“The children have gone?” asked Juliette.

“Yes,” her father answered. “I heard them run by. We’re all alone.”

They were too absorbed in the secret they were about to share to turn and see Leena standing down-trail. Lena stood still and turned her right ear—the ear less damaged by violin playing—towards them. She waited for their lips to move again and speak some truth that would change her understanding of the world. But their lips did not move. Instead, they met. She waited for them to break apart, waited to have miss-seen a French -cheek kiss. Instead, they pressed closer together until her father’s upper lip disappeared into Juliette’s mouth and Juliette wrapped her arms around her father’s back and her father’s hands tossed aside the purple hat to sink into Juliette’s silk hair, and Lena turned slowly forward and crept quietly past along the leftmost edge of the trail.

Third Stop—Strawberries Before The Storm

Keep walking straight along Taxi until it grows dramatically steeper. It has now turned into the run called Angel’s Wiggle. Rest in the grass on the right side of this incline, where wild strawberries grow.

It was hard to walk softly; the path was grass growing between large stones. Jumping between them would have made too much noise, but Lena wasn’t sure her strategy of scrambling up and down, and half-tripping on hidden pebbles, was much quieter. She didn’t dare look back; if they saw her, she didn’t want to know. And if they asked her anything later, she would pretend she hadn’t seen.

It was obvious that this was a secret affair. And who knew how long it had been a secret? That wide smile on her father’s face when Juliette sang to his guitar was not a new thing. So as long as it stayed secret, Lena thought, nothing would change. But if it became known? Her parents might have to divorce. Then her father might run off to Paris and play in Juliette’s band, and her mother and Uncle Max might move back in with Grandma, and she and her cousins would be stuck in the woods with two telecommuting parents—always running up hill for Blackberry reception—and a grandma nodding in agreement to everything said too loudly on Fox News.

In the distance, Lena heard the laughter of young voices. The path before her rose into a steep hill, and halfway up, in the grass beside the thin trail, her cousins scooted around on their bottoms with their legs outstretched, lowering their heads between their legs until their foreheads seemed to touch the ground, then shooting up triumphant with little red balls in their raised hands. The laughter came after they dropped the balls into their open mouths.

It occurred to Lena that her cousins now lived in a different world than she did. She felt as if her new world swirled above her like a hurricane seen from space, and if she got too close, it might invade her cousins’ sun. She stopped.

But Pierre called to her. “Hé Lena! Fraises de bois!

He held one out to her, slightly smashed by his fingers, and because it would be even worse to explain her hesitance, she came forward, panted up the hill towards him and let him roll the berry onto her fingers. She lifted the small, sweet, sun-warmed ball onto her tongue. “Très bon,” she smiled graciously, drawing on her years of playing make believe. It was easier, now, to be an elfin queen accepting the heart-felt gift of a humble subject than it was to be herself.

“Lena!” her mother called from the top of the hill, where she was doing lunges as she waited, “Have you seen your father and your aunt?”

“Yes,” Lena yelled back. “They stopped to pick flowers for Grandma to press; they said to go ahead without us.”  And, as she pinched another strawberry into her mouth, she pretended this was true.

“Well, I hope they hurry,” Uncle Max said, pointing to a dark shadow spreading over the countryside below them. “That cloud’s pretty big, and it’s heading our way. Come on, kids, let’s keep moving.”

“Yeah, we’ve got to go,” said Jean Luc. Out of his pocket he pulled Lena’s ring. It didn’t seem to reflect her mood at all—it glowed blue for calm.  “We’ve got to destroy this before the shadow reaches us!”

Fourth Stop—Fenced-Off

Continue up Angel’s Wiggle. At the top, turn right on Northway, then left on Catwalk, then cut right along Green Beret. When Green Beret joins Vermonter, turn up the hill and walk straight until you reach a line of wood fence built to protects skiers from the downhill slope to your right.

Lena was jealous that her cousins’ imagined peril gave them the real adrenaline needed to sprint the rest of the way up one ski run and then start up the next. She herself felt something like adrenaline flapping about inside her stomach, but it didn’t power her legs. Instead it flew headwards to chirp at her in her own voice: God, it’s so steep! Is that a rain drop? Seriously, how does Mom hike this fast! What if she gets impatient and goes back to look for them? Ugh, my legs hurt! What if they get struck by lightning and it’s my fault because I didn’t say where they were because I didn’t want my parents to get divorced? Is it normal for a 13-year-old to pant this much?

“Wait, turn back,” Uncle Max called to her mother. “The trail we want starts here.”

Her mother jogged back to where Max stood at the head of a path that seemed to lead straight up into the sky. She bent over his outstretched map. “Yes, I see, this must be Green Beret, then we turn onto the ridge and take Vermonter to the tram house.” She looked up. “Do you think Ed and Juliette will find the trail?”

“Do you really want to go back for them?” There was something about his question that sounded more like a warning—the “Are you sure you want another one?” her mother gave her every time she reached for one of Grandma’s cookies.

“No!” Her mother sounded angry. Did she know? Thunder mumbled in the distance. “Anyway, it’s more important to get the kids up to the tram house before the storm reaches us.”

“Do we have to climb that?” Jean-Luc whined, his game forgotten at the prospect of hiking up a black-diamond run.

“Papa!” Pierre raised his arms towards his father in a universal demand.

“Come on, kids, you’ve done so well today. Just a little more to go! And if you go as fast as you can and don’t whine, we’ll stop for ice cream on our way back to Grandma’s.”

“Come on, Pierre, crème glacée!” exclaimed Jean-Luc. He grabbed his brother’s hand and together they ran at the hillside. Lena plodded behind them, still tired and still afraid.

Finally they turned on to the upper ridge. The path still rose steeply ahead of them, but this was the final path, the one promising the tram house at its end.

The clouds had reached them now; the only blue sky blowing ribbon-like away to the South. Lena kept looking back down the trail, hoping to see the purple dot of Juliette’s hat.

“Shit!” a male voice called. But it wasn’t coming from down the trail. It came from the untamed slope of rocks and sprouting fir trees blocked off behind a wooden fence, warning winter skiers not to descend too soon.

Lena looked between the planks to see two figures halfway down the slope. One of them wore a purple hat.

“It’s them!” she pointed.

“Edward! Juliette!” her mother yelled. “What are you doing down there?”

“We thought this was the trail, but it’s not a trail at all!” Juliette yelled. “And Edward just twisted his foot.”

The rain chose that moment to fall.

“Max, take the kids up to the tram house,” her mother ordered. Her voice was loud but flat, her thin lips pursed and her cheekbones at attention. The last thing Lena saw, before Uncle Max pulled her onwards, was her mother poised at the top of the fence, the gray line of her sports-bra already showing through her rain-soaked shirt.

Last Stop—A Tram House is Not a Home

Walk straight on Vermonter until you reach the tram house. At this point you may either take the tram back down or follow a map down the mountain.

Lena had never really been afraid of thunderstorms. Only afraid enough, as her cousins were now, to count the seconds between the booms and flashes and exclaim with anxious glee, “It’s getting closer!”

But as she sat now in the tram house, looking out down the rain-grayed trail for any sign of purple, she was more than frightened. Dread pounded in her stomach with every boom and terror jumped in her chest with every purple flash. Just one of those flashes could take away everyone she had, and leave her alone with ghosts she did not understand.

‘There they are!” Jean-Luc yelled. It was because she had been looking for purple that she had not seen them. Three dark figures inched upwards, seeming to lean upon the rain. Juliette’s hat was blue with water now, and it flopped on both sides of her head like ears on a donkey. Her scarf was a thin and dirty rag around her neck. It was her mother who looked like a woman in a movie. Her soaked-through t-shirt clung to every muscle in her torso; two tendrils of hair, bronze in the rain, had escaped her ponytail and blew in the wind around her face. And the line of her eyes looked straight ahead, never jerked or wavered despite the fully grown man she hoisted on her back. Juliette stood at her side, giving her an arm when she needed it, pushing at her father’s back to keep him in place, but her frantic gestures seemed more to try to help than to be truly useful.

Finally, the trio fell into the doorway. Suddenly both of her parents were on the ground, and her mother was bending over her father’s foot and looking at it with a gentleness that surprised Lena, only he refused to meet her gaze, so that Lena wasn’t sure if she admired or pitied her mother more. Juliette was standing beside her husband, but not too close, wringing out her hat and staring at the shape of the puddle it made on the cement floor. Max fiddled uselessly with his Blackberry. And Lena watched them all, aware that none of them were watching her.

Only Pierre and Jean Luc did not seem to understand what had changed. They had reached the top of the mountain, and were now intent on finishing their game. Out of the corner of her eye, Lena saw Pierre run to the tram platform and hold her mood ring over the concrete ledge.

“Come on!” Jean-Luc urged, “destroy it!” And Pierre actually let it fall.

Lena almost yelled at them about the importance of possessing a mood ring at Westchester Middle School, but then let out her breath. Of all the things she had lost today, it was the only one she could replace.

This is Not a Love Story: An Unromantic Stroll Around Prospect Park Lake

Walk Taken: July 19, 2011

Directions: Take the Q or the B train to the Parkside Avenue stop.

My first story is based on a walk I took around the Prospect Park Lake at the beginning of this unbearable heatwave. As I walked and wrote, the humidity was a major source of inspiration (and perspiration!) for me.

Since this is my first post, I’m going to explain how this works. Each story consists of five parts, or stops, on a particular walk. The directions posted in italics at the beginning of each post explain where to begin each walk and how to move from one stop to the next.

Happy Walking!

First Stop—The Gazebo

Enter Prospect Park at the corner of Ocean and Parkside Avenues. Once in the park, cross the street at the stoplight and follow the subsequent path left to a wooden gazebo by the side of the lake.

She caught him in the act of putting on his shirt. He was standing with his naked back towards her—the morning’s humidity lining the bulge of his muscles in silver against the dark of his skin. He dressed as if he were alone, as if there were no homeless man curled up on the gazebo bench beside his backpack, and Gloria walked closer, secure in the power of his back curving up into the t-shirt bunched around his head. For a moment she saw not her friend of ten-odd years, but the M.I.T. bound soccer star her younger cousin Norma had made eyes at during her graduation party.

Then Carl shrugged into his shirt, turned around so she could see its Star Wars logo, pinched his glasses onto his thin nose, and Gloria saw once again the scrawny boy with glasses too big for his face who had stuck his tongue out at her when he won the third-grade spelling bee. Gloria had never let him win again.

“I can’t believe you actually went running in this heat,” she said.

“I can’t believe you could stay asleep in it,” he replied. It was their way of saying hello when they met for their weekly morning walks around the lake, and on some days they would keep the ribbing up until they said goodbye. But today his face grew strangely serious. Usually, the corners of his lips twitched upwards, and the corners of his eyes wrinkled towards a wink. But now the line of his lips was straight, and the skin around his eyes was smooth. It was his running face, his programming face. “May I escort you around the lake this fine morning?” he asked. And he held out his arm.

Gloria waited for his face to break, but he was stubborn in his stillness. Gloria shifted her feet; finally, she forced sniffed a laugh out her nose. Then, he allowed his lips to curve, and the tightness in Gloria’s shoulders left.

“Yeah, sure,” she said, taking his arm. “Escort away.”

Second Stop—On the Edge

The Ledge Follow a dirt path clockwise around the lake until you come to a lamppost next to a concrete-lined gravel overhang that rises above the water’s edge.

They stopped to watch a family of ducks lined up along a concrete edge that jutted out into the water. She was surprised by how gracefully their bodies curved on dry land, where you could see the thin curve of their feet complete the S their beaks began. These weren’t the springtime babies Gloria and Carl had seen following the mother on past walks, but almost adults with only an inch or two left to grow, and when the pair crunched forward onto the gravel, and the birds flap-splashed like feathered sea planes into the water, the smaller ducks were the ones to lead their mother out of the bright green algae scumming up the shallows into the white-blue, sky-reflecting distance.

“It’s too obvious of a metaphor,” Gloria said. “Birds ready to leave the nest.”

“I actually got a graduation card with a little owl flying out of a nest in a cap and gown,” Carl’s voice rose and his head began bobbing up and down in excited agreement. It was one of the things she would miss about him: how honest he was in his enthusiasm.

“So why does seeing the ducks take off like that still make me a little sad?” she asked.

Gloria had removed her arm from Carl’s after the first few paces; she didn’t want him to think she read anything into his joke about escorting her around the lake, and besides, the same moisture that fogged the air above the trees liked to seep into the cracks where skin touched skin. But now his slippery fingers found hers and squeezed.

The excitement drained from his voice as he said, “I’ll miss you.”

Gloria slid her hand from his and went to sit down on the ledge the ducks had evacuated. “Boston’s not that far away. You’ll be back for vacations, and I’ll come up on the Chinatown bus and visit you some weekend.”

“Maybe you could transfer to a Boston school after your first year at Hunter,” he said, sitting down besides her.

But she shook her head. “Even then it wouldn’t be the same.”

For so long they had been equals, rivals, enemies in a childish way as they raced each other for first place in elementary-school competitions, highest GPA when that began to matter, top scores on the Specialized High School Admissions Test. When they both won admission to Stuyvesant High School and found themselves alone together in a new world, they discovered they were less enemies than friends.

But then he had chosen numbers and she had chosen images. So while he had no trouble finding scholarships that would help reduce the burden of the loans he would likely pay back anyways, she was stuck admitting that it didn’t make sense to put herself $25,000 in debt to attend Yale or Rhode Island School of Design only to then try to make it as a starving artist. Internally, she was at peace with their diverging paths. After a lifetime of following the rubric that would supposedly set them up to fulfill their parents’ American Dream, each was finally branching off to follow dreams of his or her own. And anyway, Hunter’s art program was nothing to sneeze at. But it bothered her more than it should have the way that friends and family now looked at the two of them—as if Carl were swimming off into the clear, deep, sky-reflecting future while she stayed to float upon oily swirls of empty promise at the water’s edge. She’d even heard her Aunt Shirley whisper loudly to her mother at the graduation party, after one cup too many of uncle Darren’s rum punch, “It’s such a shame about Gloria. You should encourage her to move things to the next level with that Carl, if you know what I mean. At least he’s going places.”

Gloria stood. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s finish this before it gets any hotter.”

Third Stop—Sitting in a Tree

Continue left around the lake until you pass a “No Barbecue” sign. On your left you’ll see a dirt beach where a thick tree is silhouetted against the lake. Pause beside the tree looking out towards the water.

They spoke of everything but the future after that, as they walked past a wall of rushes and around the wide bottom curve of the lake. Gloria told him about the old man with the sagging belly who cornered her at the book store while she was shelving art history and kept yammering at her about his busted air conditioner. Carl told her of a classmate of theirs who had called his under-the-table tech-support business in a panic because the screen of the new laptop had gone blank. Had he tried pressing the increase-brightness key? Silence. Problem solved.

Then there were times when the path stretched through sun, and the thick air sat heavily on the ledge of their upper lips, preventing speech at all. In those moments they heard no other human voices, only the buzz of insects, the whisper of birds, and the beeps and thuds of a distance construction site, and they felt themselves alone together again.

The tree, for Gloria, interrupted the constant pressure of the heat. It was thick-trunked and deep brown against the bright lake, with three branches that reached up and joined leaves with an endless canopy of green and gold. It was one of those moments for her when she saw a painting ready for a canvas, as if God had drawn it out and given to only her the ability to see where it’s frame ended and the rest of the creation began. As she walked towards it she could imagine herself entering a two-dimensional image and discovering its depth. Then there was a new wonder to sitting down on one of the tree’s thick, flat roots to watch the tiny waves kiss the shore.

“You like this tree? Or did you just want to rest,” he asked, sitting besides her.

“It’s like a tree out of a painting,” she said.

“And would anything happen under this tree,” he asked, “in your painting?” He reached his arm around her, but it was heavy and wet with sweat.

“Please don’t,” she said. “It’s way too hot.”

Suddenly he was squatting in front of her, and his hands pressed down on her knees, and he was looking at her with his serious face, so that she felt like a goal net or a page of code.

“I love you,” his serious face said to her.

The wind died down, and, despite the shade, the clay-like air molded itself around their bodies, holding them in place.

“Me? But how? It’s too fast…”

“Fast? I’ve known you since elementary school—that’s most of our lives. How much more time do I need?”

“But why?” She felt as if her mouth had to fight the thick air just to open enough to let the question out, but Carl didn’t seem to have the same problem.

“Why? Because you’re smart, and you’ll never let me win a competition, but outside of that you’re always there to listen when I need you, and I think you’re so brave for following your passions instead of doing whatever would get you the best job. And I guess I knew all of that all along, but I only just realized it this year when you were all dressed up for the graduation party, and I realized that you’re so beautiful! So I was thinking, if you could at all like me back, maybe we could be together this summer and then maybe you could find a community college in Boston and…”

Up until that moment, Gloria had wanted few things more than to have a man tell her, in earnest, that she was beautiful. Not her father being kind, not the men outside the jerk-chicken joint being sleazy. But now, she felt the word like an extra burst of heat hardening the clay around her. She broke out the only way she could think—she stood and ran.

Fourth Stop—Water Lilies in Bloom

Follow the dWater Lilies irt path left through the trees. Turn right after the “Nature at Work” sign and right again to follow the dirt path along the water’s edge until it rejoins the concrete path. Follow the concrete path leftwards until you reach another dirt path with a wood border. Walk straight on this path and follow it when it veers right to the water’s edge. Stop facing the lily pads.

Running was to Carl’s advantage, not hers, and she knew it as her legs ached, her lungs hurt, her flip flops stumbled over rocks and roots, and the air fought every forward bend of her legs and punch of her arms. Behind her, she could hear Carl’s quiet breaths and the steady plod of his sneakers. He wasn’t running as fast as he could or he would have caught up by now. He didn’t want to lose her, but he would give her time to think, and for that she was grateful.

He was a good guy. That wasn’t the problem. Physical attraction wasn’t the problem either; she could get used to seeing the muscles stretch in his naked back the way they had in the gazebo that morning. And she wouldn’t feel inadequate physically. He said she was beautiful, and when she got over the fact that part of her would always see herself as four-eyed and flat-chested, she could see his point of view. Her skin had always shown gold in sunlight, and her dark hair had always framed her face in tight curls. But in the past year, the baby fat had left her belly and her cheeks so that her smaller breasts now echoed her rounded hips, and her glasses sat elegantly on high cheekbones.  She wouldn’t be bored with him, wouldn’t have to talk down to him or be afraid that he would talk down to her. So why did his words weigh on her so heavily that she was fighting the heavy air to flee them?

Could it be that to be called beautiful was to be defined all over again? And this time not for anything she had done, like make the honor roll. To accept being beautiful just as she was losing her status as “high achiever with bright future” felt like accepting Aunt Shirley’s vision of her worth in the world. For years her love of finding and making pictures had taken a back seat to her desire to fulfill that second definition. Now was not the time to be anyone else’s Gloria; now was the time to make herself into the Gloria she wanted to be.

She saw a flash of yellow through the trees. Even the algae’s rotting in this heat, she thought. But, following the path down towards a clearing at the water’s edge, she was halted by the truth. Tiny yellow flowers stood tiptoe on the lily pads that lined the shore. If this were a Romantic-era painting, she thought as Carl came up besides her, it would have been the perfect spot for two figures to meet in a kiss.

Carl looked from her to the lilies and seemed to see it too. His eyes were so wide they rose above his square glasses, and sweat streamed from their corners like tears. For a moment, Gloria felt a surge of power. Here he was, on his way to sure success, placing his happiness in the hands of his disappointing formal rival. And why shouldn’t I enjoy it? She thought. Why should he get to make me feel guilty just because he’s suddenly decided I’m beautiful? But then she remembered the little boy with the too-big glasses, and she was only sad.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m just not ready to be loved.”

Last Stop—Over Scummy Water

Keep walking left around the lake on the concrete path. Follow the path right into the trees and continue left on a dirt road. When you see a bridge to your right, turn towards it and stop at its center. To exit the park, continue across the bridge. When you see a picnic hut, turn left towards it and continue past it until you come to a set of stairs. Descend the stairs onto the street. Cross and exit onto Ocean Avenue

They walked the last leg through the trees in silence. The lake now was only a thin green ribbon of algae. Gloria tried to find an explanation she could offer out of everything she’d thought while running. It reminded her, uncannily, of searching a page of brainstorming for a thesis statement. When she found it, the feeling of triumph was the same too. They were out of the trees now, halfway over the bridge that led out of the shaded path and towards the park exit.

She paused and said, “I have to figure out how to really be myself before I can be somebody else’s.

“And there’s no chance we can figure it out together?” he asked.

“We’ve known each other too long. We’ll always see each other as who we were.  I can’t be held to that person now.”

“So,” he asked, “Can we still do this? Same time next week?”

“I’d like that, if you’re not mad…”

Finally, the line of his serious face curved upward into an eighth of a forced smile. “What could I expect?” he asked. “Since third grade you’ve never let me win.”

They leaned against the rail of the bridge and looked out. The lake here was covered in algae, but it was a lovely color for scum—the sea green of her favorite crayon in the Crayola box. It would have been another perfect place for a kiss, only it was so hot and their faces so wet with the work of forward motion, it would have been hard to tell saliva from sweat and lips from chin.