I was 25, a few months away from turning 26, and teaching at a school in Manhattan. And even though I liked my job, for it allowed me to connect with so many people, I found myself in a state of apathy, not caring to push myself to learn more and take on new opportunities. The once ambitious, idealistic, and curious girl I had known myself to be had vanished. I had imagined myself living a life of adventure around the world, but fear had prevented me from taking risks. And I found myself living paycheck to paycheck in a dilapidated building in a rougher part of Brooklyn. I couldn’t even find the courage to meet new people. Knowing I had to change something, I started small, and dragged my 25 year old self to my first date in years.
One date turned into 3 and before I knew it, we were dating for months. He was older than me by five years. He had a comfortable life in the then up-and-coming hipster neighborhood. When he told me he was a Software Engineer, it wasn’t that I didn’t believe him, I just hadn’t met anyone that had that job. Even though I didn’t know what he did for living, I knew that it paid well and most importantly that he loved it. He had the skills and creative energy to create things for himself, other people, and with like-minded friends. As months went on, I found myself wanting that for myself. But I had no idea where I could even begin searching, let alone did I know what I was out to find.
One day, standing in the kitchen I found myself day dreaming about being a Director of an Animation studio; I imagined listening to my son speak about his creatively fearless mother, who was once an English teacher. As natural it felt to envision this, I felt like I had to interrupt myself. Where did this image even come from? And where had it been living for all these years? Flashback years before when I was like any other lost 18 year old, confronted with the choice of university majors. Miles down inside me I wanted to study art and design. I couldn’t do it even admit it, for I couldn’t justify following a creative path. I was told to pursue something practical and lucrative. Then, I did what seemed like the only logical thing to do, I suppressed the idea.
A year after that first date I found myself breaking down in front of him. Admitting my fear and mainly that I was exhausted of standing still. I unfolded what I could see myself doing. How my past in teaching combined with my creativity could make magic, if the right people saw it. With his encouragement, I scrounged up every bit of courage I could uncover in the depth of doubt living within and applied to a design & technology graduate program at NYU. For the first time, written in my personal statement, I revealed my desire to use my creativity to contribute to the world.
To leave teaching, a place that became a home, allowing me to connect with hundreds of people, terrified me. I was brought back to feeling like I was standing at the edge of high dive at a summer pool. The comfort was that I knew, or I hoped at least, water was at the end of the fall. I just needed to take that plunge. Blindly step off into the air and let the journey take me.
Four months after applying, and two years after that first date, I was accepted into graduate school. A year into the program I still felt like I was falling from the high dive, but with confidence and excitement. Eventually getting an internship that turned into a full-time job. Three years after deciding to climb up that high dive, and five years after that first date, I have a life that’s constantly filled with creativity, new ideas, and people to share them with. That day dream I had years before now serves as a reminder that we never really know where one decision or one person could take us.
I love people watching, but I hate watching people miss the bus. There's something about the bus that makes everyone feel like the next one won't ever come. As if it only appears when you're standing at the stop in a certain magical position.
I awake around 5:14am every morning. The odd minutes reassure me that my chances of waking up to the awful sounds of an island are higher. I spend about 45 minutes pressing coffee grounds I still need to pitch in for, shoving breakfast-like food in my dry mouth, banging unnecessary metal objects together as I prepare my backpack. I can leave my apartment by 6:05 and make the 6:23 limited bus to the high school. I'll still make it to work 30 minutes before half my team and often 45 before my supervisor. I'm an overly punctual person.
This may be my response to the countless soccer games and school dances I was late to and then forgotten at. The time my parents got the wrong location for Saturday soccer practice and I sat for 3 hours waiting on bleachers. A strange way to spend Halloween morning as a ten year old. Or the time I kept the principal at junior high past midnight calling my mom, pre-cellphone age to come pick me up. That's when I stopped relying on people.
I knew my parents, more so, my mom wasn't irresponsible. She was a worn, under-appreciated insomniac. Her sleepless behavior rubbed off on me. I would wake up in the middle of the night, walk in the depth of darkness down the stairs, navigate to the garage where I'd find my mom smoking her Salem Lights and drinking camel-colored coffee in her ripped aqua nurse scrubs. She would pass a sugary smile as if she anticipated my nocturnal arrival and invite me into the stuffed garage. When she wasn't looking, I'd reach my short arms up, grab her coffee and take sips. It was like having the juiciness of moist cake ooze on my tongue. Flashforward age 14 where I'm drinking coffee regularly with my grandparents. Dropping cubes of sugar into my cup.
My coffee taste has evolved since. I'm able to chug a cup of black coffee before tying up my Timberland boots. I walk down the three flights of stairs out of my apartment. Holding my red bomber, I pry my apartment building open. Most mornings it's like stepping onto a film set of an autumn day. As if I'm upside down, I'm standing on the moon from softly-lit lampposts looking down at an ocean. Even in the midnight purple backdrop of dawn, the orange leaves glisten in contrast as if painted on a white canvas. Walking into the darkness of day feels like I’m escaping something. Yet in this working class Brooklyn neighborhood, time doesn’t alter the bustling of these streets. The traffic’s almost identical when I eventually reside back to my apartment after dark, leaving before light.
I hear the swift foot steps of a young woman coming up behind me. It’s a funny harmony with my shuffling boots as the bass. I stir up a scenario in my head: Her apartment was broken into the night before. She picked up her daughter from public elementary school, took the bus, talked listlessly about their days. Reaching their three bedroom apartment, shared with her brother’s son, they find two men have broken in. Her nephew’s tied up in her bedroom, pleading for his life. The men tie up the woman and her daughter. They threaten her and her daughter’s lives unless she follows their specific orders. That’s where I come in. I’m never labeled the target, but I get in the way and time’s running out. She’s picking up her pace behind me to build up the momentum to knock me down, pull my backpack off and finish it off by kicking in my face. Her heel swoops into my right nostril, rips it open, bloods pours down and soaks into my freshly ironed khakis. I tense my shoulders mustering this scenario, slowing down my pace as she passes me in a slow jog toward the bus turning the corner. I switch from thinking she’s a victimized criminal to cheering for her. Oh, please bus driver notice her! Please bus, stop for her! Her nephew and daughter are tied up with shoelaces. Shoelaces, a funny touch. Her heels slap the cement faster and faster, approaching the illuminated bus. I pick up the pace. Maybe if we run together the bus will stop. I am, after all, a federal volunteer.
The bus driver goes past the stop ten feet. He notices her and jerks the bus back in his reigns. Oh, thank heavens. I give the morning sky a grin. Not even half way down my block and this morning’s already getting weird. Now a man’s sprinting toward me. It must be the nephew escaping from the shoe laces. Worst fabricated scenario, it’s one of the criminals coming to finish off the unsuccessful victimized mother. I bounce back to the autumn setting. He’s running for the bus.
I quicken my pace, pumping my arms toward him and then realize that’s the opposite of helping. I'm sufficiently agile; I shuffle backward toward the bus. This man has to be wondering what this white girl in high-waisted khakis and a bright red jacket is doing walking backward before dawn. I stop and wave toward the bus, but the woman is still rummaging through her bag for her metro card, blocking the bus driver from sight. The bus drives away. The lit street returns to darkness.
Tilting my head forward, slowing my pace, I make a face of defeat. I wonder if the man has the ability to hear thoughts and wonders why I keep making up scenarios about passing neighbors. The thought escapes as his silohette becomes a man. Timidly, I lift my head and show a half smile. He smiles back.
Missing a bus is a forgivable sin, but missing a plane is inexcusable. I spent nearly a year secretly having midnight cigarettes in alleys, our fingers frozen in a V. Matt would call at 1am as I was climbing onto my top bunkbed, "Hey Kace, werna herva cig?" He'd ask in his whiny voice, talking in our own language. At parties, our distinct way of pronouncing vocalic sounds would force people out of our conversation faster than the smell of fire in a high-rise. I admired his inability to care how that made people feel. I eventually learned about his inability to care for people in general. For I was the only breathing human in Chicago he went out of his way for, and I reminded him of that any chance I had.
"Kace, waterye dowayne?"
"Nert merch, Mert"
"Kace, werena hurva cig?"
He'd say my name any chance he got and the way he said it electrified me. Five years later, I force myself to remember the sweet sound of absolute love. Absolute oblivion of the progression to insanity. Every thought was his voice. Every image was his face.
I compromised more than my mind those two years. I compromised my values. My core value inplanted from my father. Don't be late!
My phone reading 1am. I would spend thirty seconds envisioning myself finally declining his relentless control over me. By a minute, I was already rustling through piles of my clothes, convincing my roommate and self that I really wanted a cigarette on the icy sidewalk outside our dorms. Lateness, I thought, showed my indifference. I'd rush down the stairs then slow my pace when walking toward him, trying to appear collected, my insides in a racket ball match.
"Kace, you're late". You can say my name all day, a tulip with feeble petals in his presence.
He referred to me as his night friend. Looking back this loosely translates to you're not good enough for me. Rather than being bothered by this title I took ownership. Nights without a 40 in my hand, I would painfully stay awake smoking cigarettes outside hoping he'd be too. 'Kace never sleeps' he'd announce on stoops outside of parties. Laying in my bunk bed wide awake, ignoring all calls unless his, I'd crawl down and sneak out into the empty air of my dorm. Matt sitting on a flower box crumbling daisies with his fingers, showing a well-rested smile. With layers of powder covering the dark patches under my eyes, I'd convince myself and him that these meetings would lead somewhere. Still, many of our arguments centered around the absurdity, the inhumanity, of needing other people. 'Why do you need to see me? Why do we have to smoke cigs together?', my hope crumbling like the daisies.
By May of our freshman year, I became a pro at being discrete about my soul-grasping love for him. I'd encourage him to date girls, ask about them, drip hints about my drunk rondevous with strangers like melting chocolate, causing him to call me at 9pm when people could actually see us to discuss how no other girl can talk to him like I could. 'Oh, Matt, give her a chance', trying a hand at manipulation.
By July, my ticket to Massachussetts was booked to stay with his family. 'We're best friends. I love you' became the norm in conversations. I was no longer his night friend.
I awoke August 17th, nerves spilling out of my pores. Anxiously, I threw countless clothes into an over-sized suitcase while smoking cigarettes and dying my hair darker, held up in white towel. Our flight was scheduled at 6, so we'd arrive in Providence later that night.
At 3, I paced the length of my lofted apartment, sipping Miller Lite. Three mutual friends propped up behind my counter watching me like the Chimpmunks.
"Are you going to come back married?" Sean asked flipping his hair and ashing his cigarette.
"Shut up" I said smiling, which calmed the screaming inside my head.
"Where is he? Isn't your flight at 6?"
"Yeah, I think he's on his way" I responded as my phone began to ring. I hung up the phone seconds later. "He's on his way."
It's 430, an hour after he said. His lateness bought me time to compose my nerves. It was calming knowing we'd be going somewhere together, away from all the noise of fortune telling. This was true until 15 minutes pass and I'm suddenly frazzeled. Where the hell is he? Convinced at this point that we'll never leave. Good, I could drink a forty at this point and smoke a pack of Parliament Lights.
Five on the dot. My phone rings. He's downstairs.
"Okay" I exhale "here I go"
"She's getting married!" Sean shrieks.
"Here I go" I say as my lips quiver.
I stood next to my luggage at the corner of my block, looking like I'd be gone for three weeks. Cars beeped, drivers shouted, pedestrians dodged them. The light turned green, cars moved and there he stood next to his duffo bag dragging a cigarette, wearing a blue baseball cap. The racket ball game settled within me, a smile drew upon my face. He's so good.
"Hey" it was all he had to say with that smile.
He decided we take a cab rather than the train. Our flight was in a little under an hour. We stood on the opposite side of the city as the airport. We got into a yellow and red cab. His politeness toward the husky, white haired cab driver was shocking as he engaged in small talk.
We were driving along Lake Shore Drive. Back to back traffic, forty minutes until take off. Matt turned his body to the right and laid his head on my lap. This was the exact reason I wanted to go on this trip together. Countless eyes on the highway; he was unphased.
"What's with the baseball cap?" I asked trying to ease my nerves again.
"It's my travel hat"
"Your travel hat?" I asked laughing.
"Yeah" he responded matter-of-factly, "I wear it when I travel" the perfect example why I love you.
"Kace, did you dye your hair?" I nodded "I like it" he said, his sea green eyes peering up at me, locking into mine.
It was 5:53 we arrived at Ohare Airport. Still calm, soaking up every moment. The driver popped the trunk and Matt aggresively threw out our luggage and we began sprinting toward the gate. The memory of us finding out we missed our flight has vanished from my memory. Yet, I remember standing on the sidewalk for departure passengers with our luggage as Matt paced back and forth, arguing with his mom on the phone. I merely watched. Every step he took lightened dark spaces within me.
"Kace, why aren't you freaking out!" He suddenly shouted. The only way I could answer was:
"Because you are" If the plane crashed I would've been happy plummeting to the ocean with him.
I lowered my face, forcing my chin to double and glanced wide-eyed in the distance. He smiled.
We cut our losses and re-booked our flight for the following morning at 730. My grandma lived five minutes from the airport. We decided to spend the night there. A hundred feet away, we noticed a red and yellow cab. It was the same cab we took there. He graciously pulled up to us. The three of us exchanged a look of laughing defeat.
This part I remember vividly: It resides as one of my last memories of my grandma driving her Lincoln Mercury.
We brought our bags inside, walked up the flight of stairs to her apartment. She sat propped up on a decorative wooden chair in her night gown. Unphased by the fact I secretly planned to fly to a boy's house states away; phased by how comfortable I stood in his presence.
"I'm Karalyn's grandmother. I'm an old lady, ya know"
"I'm Matt" he said bringing up his hand to shake with hers, "it's truly a pleasure, Karalyn talks very highly of you and I'm so happy to meet you."
We went downstairs. The basement served as a common area for the tenants my grandma housed. It had a full bar filled with ancient bottles of bourbon and gin. I remember sitting around drinking Kiddy Cocktails and spinning into my sister on the billard green stools. It was time we pour those bottles of alcohol that laid like fossils for over thirty years. We drank and drank vodka and 7-Up in dusty, plastic cups. Three drinks in a cigarette is essential. We snuck outside. Standing on my grandma's astro-turf patio, shivering in the darkness of the summer night, lighting our cigarettes, we glowed together.
"I'm kinda glad we missed the flight" I spitted out surprisingly confident.
"Me too, Kace, me too" he said, kissing my cheek. Those words confirmed the payoff of the past year without sleep. On the stiff couch in my grandma's basement, embraced in his thick arms, I slept.
That night I finally caught my breath, but my progress declined two months later. Without warning, he vanished for weeks. Finding out from his roommates that 'It's all too much. He's tired', my life came into focus. I laid in my queen sized bed cuddled up against a ghost night. Tiptoeing in the darkness of my loft. No garage, meant my mom was nowhere to be found, only the dirty smell of cigarettes to remind me. I rewrote the story in my mind, imagining I was strong enough to admit my exhaustion before he did. I would never be late again.