After I got arrested for smoking pot around the corner from school, my parents decided it would be good for me to spend a week in New York, visiting my older cousin Jessica. My parents had known for a while that I was a stoner, and they’d been getting on me about my grades and how I don’t do sports any more and all that.
I guess that at Thanksgiving my cousin had said something to my parents about how she wanted to show me around the city, and it would be a good influence on me. My parents nodded and I thought that would be the end of it. But then, toward the end of the school year—about a month after the arrest—my dad comes into my room. He has this look on his face like he’s about to tell me something great—“Son, I have great news!” I hate that look because there’s this expectation that I’ll love whatever he says, and if I don’t I worry that I’m letting him down. So, he tells me that I’m not grounded anymore, and I can start using the car again and skateboarding in the park after school—so long as he and Mom can trust that I won’t be smoking pot ever or hanging out with people who do ever—and they feel that I’ve done a very good job of doing my homework and taking care of household responsibilities, blah blah.
And then he says: “And as an added treat, your mother and I have decided that you can go visit your cousin Jessica in New York City, for a week, after school ends.” It’s just me who’s going; my little bro, Josh, is going to stay here—he has chess camp. But I didn’t sign up for any camp this summer. My plan was to hang out and skateboard, and maybe take a drawing class. I’m leaving for New York in two weeks, my dad tells me. It’s been arranged with Jessica and she’s planning all sorts of “cultural activities” for us to do in the city.
At school, everybody’s talking about their summer plans, what beaches their families are going to, which camp, whatever. Trips to Europe if they’re lucky.
“I’m going up to New York,” I tell my buds at lunch, “to hang out with my older cousin Jessica.”
“Jessica,” they scream, rolling their eyes and falling off the benches. They demand to see a picture of her. I bring up her Facebook page on my smartphone. They’re like, “She’s so hot,” and I’m like, “Dude, she’s my cousin. Shut up.” But, I dunno if she’s hot or whatever; I mean, she’s really cool. Like, Jessica always brings me art magazines that you can’t find in the bookstores here and tells me about exhibits she’s been to in the city, and then she doesn’t just ask me about school in the way everybody else does that really bothers me. She asks me because she actually wants to know what I think about it. Her questions are specific. Not, “how’s school going,” because she knows it sucks, but: “Are there any classes you really like this year?” It’s just, like—she’s easier to talk to, easier than other people in our family.
Our family. See, here’s the thing, here’s why it’s such a big deal that I’m a fuck-up. There’s my mom’s side of the family—that’s the side Jessica’s on—where they’re all writers and professors. Then my dad’s a neurologist and his parents were teachers. Everybody’s really into school and books. They talk about politics at the dinner table and get into these serious debates about, like, health care reform.
My mom and dad adopted me from Serbia when I was a baby. People can’t usually tell I’m adopted just by looking at us. But inside, I feel totally different. I don’t know who my real parents were, but I don’t think they were smart like my adopted parents and their families are. Maybe my parents were musicians or artists. Or they were poor workers, maybe. I know I’m lucky that I was adopted so I didn’t have to grow up in an orphanage and I get to live in America and I have everything I could ever want or need. I know that. But I just don’t really feel like I belong with my family.
I’ve been to New York plenty of times, ‘cause my mom grew up in Manhattan and she went to Columbia for grad school, so we’ve gone up to get to know her “roots.” I’ve seen the building where her family lived in the East Village, and it’s sort of crumbly and ugly but my mom says that now it’s really expensive to live there because the neighborhood’s become really sophisticated. There are lots of fancy-looking restaurants and pet stores and juice bars, and my mom kept looking at the menus and saying, “So pricey!” I thought Jessica would probably live in a neighborhood like that. But when I got off the bus at Port Authority, she hugged me and said we were going to Brooklyn.
“How was the ride up here?” she asked me while we waited for the A train. Jessica’s hair is kind of curly and long, and somewhere between blonde and brown. She was wearing a dress and I could tell she didn’t have on a bra. I was trying not to look.
“The ride was fine,” I said. “I slept, mostly.”
It was super-hot in the subway station, and sweat started running down my forehead as we stood waiting. Jessica started telling me the plan for the week as we boarded the train. She said she wanted to orient me first so I wouldn’t get lost all the time. We sat under the map on the train and she pointed out all the places I would need to know, me hoping I would remember them. I was still a little stoned from the joint I had smoked in the backyard that morning, while my parents were out grocery shopping. Here was Jessica’s apartment in Brooklyn, and here was the house where she babysat, and here was Union Square, and here was Port Authority. Uptown was Columbia, where my mom went. Downtown was Mom’s old apartment. Not too difficult.
When we got to Jessica’s neighborhood, I tried to act cool but I was a little freaked out. There were no trees or nice stores, just enormous warehouses that Jessica said were “converted lofts” and some crummy little shops with misspelled signs. I did like the graffiti on the sides of the warehouses. Jessica noticed me gazing up at it and she smiled and said, “Just wait. You’ll see so much more.”
Jessica’s roommates were in the kitchen making dinner when we arrived. Someone handed me a bottle of beer and said, “Welcome to Brooklyn.” I don’t like beer that much, but I sipped on it just to be polite. We ate in the living room, which had beaten-up couches, some black-and-white photos and abstract paintings on the wall and a record player. Someone put on a jazz record. The roommates asked me some questions about what it’s like in the suburbs where I live, but then they got giggly from the wine they were drinking and decided to finish the food quickly and go to a party somewhere nearby. Jessica said I should come but I said I was tired. I went to sleep on the couch with a fan on full-blast in front of me, and I heard them all come in really late, like 3am.
“You must be Adam.”
I opened my eyes and saw a really tall dude, who I thought looked around 45-years-old because he had a serious beard, standing over me. His accent sounded foreign. He was wearing boxers and smoking a cigarette.
“I’m Rene,” he said. “You want some coffee?”
I said, “No thanks, man,” and he shrugged and went away and started doing stuff in the kitchen. After I went to the bathroom I knocked on Jessica’s door but she didn’t answer. The room was empty and the bedcovers were thrown everywhere.
“Jessica went to yoga,” said Rene from the kitchen. I nodded and sat down in the living room, just looking around, wondering if I should take a shower and if I could use Jessica’s towel or what I was supposed to do. Rene came with his coffee and a glass of orange juice for me, and sat down on a chair facing me, with his legs crossed.
“So,” he said. “You’re visiting New York.” I nodded, and he told me a story about when he had first visited New York and how he fell in love with it and decided he had to move here. It was the only place he felt at home, he said. In Paris, where he was from, people were snobby and racist, but in New York everyone mixed and spoke their mind and did whatever they wanted, and he felt free. He lit another cigarette while he talked. I drank my orange juice. Rene said he’d heard I was an artist and that he was going to take me to his friend’s studio that afternoon so I could see what it’s like to be a professional painter. I said that sounded good. Jessica came home, all sweaty and still not wearing a bra, and stood behind Rene with her arms around him. He leaned back and she bent down to kiss him. They kissed for a while. I’d never seen anyone kiss like that, in real life.
The thing I learned about being an artist in New York City is that you have to make a lot of money, somehow. Rene’s friend Don told me that art is all about dealing with rich people and convincing them to help you. He told me this while he was painting, and Rene and I were sitting on some crates in his Manhattan studio, watching him. Rene was drinking a beer and he offered me one but I said no. Don has spiky brown hair and a scraggly beard, and he was wearing a long-sleeved plaid shirt and jeans with holes in the knees. His technique is to throw splotches of black paint on a naked canvas and then drag plants through it to generate “a connection with the earth” and then he uses some weird chemical to make everything glossy and swirly. On top of that he paints really bright roses. Don says he sells a painting for $5,000, which is probably a lot of money. He’s pretty famous, I think.
When we met Jessica for lunch she was really excited because an agent had said good things about her book proposal.
“He fucking loves it!” she screamed at Rene as we walked up to her outside a café in Chelsea, near Don’s studio. Rene hugged her and they kissed, and he put his arm around her. Then Jessica spent the entire lunch talking about how the agent told her there was a “very good shot” of selling it.
At one point she leaned over her sandwich toward me, across the table, and explained why all this was so important.
“The agent helps you get an advance,” she explained. “So you can stop slaving away at stupid jobs—like babysitting,” here she rolled her eyes, “and get some money to write the book.”
That made sense to me. I mean, if I had a lot of money, I’d definitely buy an apartment in Brooklyn and spend all my time drawing and painting. Or, maybe, I’d go to San Francisco. Out there you can open a marijuana dispensary in public, in the middle of the city.
After lunch we headed back to Brooklyn. Both Rene and Jessica seemed not to want to spend much time in the city. “We’ll show you the real New York,” said Jessica, at least twice. The heat was making me sleepy, and everything seemed to go by in a blur: blobs of multi-colored crowds, wearing bright-colored sunglasses (even in the subway) and holding shimmery iPhones.
When Jessica and Rene went to work, I was given keys to the apartment, a subway map, a list of museums, and the advice “not to, like, wander around and get lost, or do anything stupid, or buy drugs on a corner,” and was told to text Jessica sometime in the afternoon so she wouldn’t be worried about me. I had some cash from my parents. I said I would go to the Museum of Modern Art.
But when I got there, I felt hungry. So I ate a hot dog. Then, I felt like taking a walk. The map showed that Central Park was not too far away. There was plenty of time to go to the museum later. It took me about twenty minutes to walk there. I passed by a lot of fancy jewelry stores.
Tons of tourists were in the park, and it was like ten degrees cooler ‘cause of the trees. I sat on a bench and pulled out my sketchpad to draw the scenery.
On a bench across from me, a girl with long, dark hair was bent over her lap and her arm was moving. It occurred to me that she was also drawing. Her head stayed down for a long time and her body moved up and down as she breathed deeply. I looked back at the tree I had been drawing and then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the girl’s head lift. When I glanced back at her I saw that she had been looking at me. Our eyes met and then she quickly turned her head back toward her lap. I kept drawing but she was still capturing my attention, and her head lifted again, a few times, in my direction.
The girl closed her sketchbook and stood up and came over and sat down next to me, pretty close. I was shocked by how pretty her smile was and how many freckles she had and I got a little nervous. A lot of girls at school try to be my girlfriend or whatever and they’re okay—but I had never felt really nervous like that, the way this girl made me feel right away, around any of the chicks at school. Actually, to be honest, she kind of gave me a boner, with all those freckles and that crazy long hair.
“I’m drawing you,” she said, “Because you have an aura of foreign lands surrounding you, like you’ve been places, and you don’t even know that you’ve been there, but those places are inside you, and it radiates outward.” I swear, that’s really what she said. I glanced at her drawing and it showed a very abstract outline of a guy who kind of looked like me, sitting on a bench, with squiggly lines coming out of his head. I guess the lines were my aura.
She was staring at me in this intense way and I liked it and we started talking. Her name was Talia and she was home from college for the summer and was going to spend every day drawing people in parks because, she said, “people in New York are the most interesting thing in the world.” I showed her my drawing of the trees and she held up the sketchbook and stared at it, and I just watched her body moving up and down with her breath as she stretched out her arms to provide a full view of my drawing, and I could tell she was really looking at it carefully with a lot of thought. I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking about how Talia is a great name for this girl because it sounds mythological and she almost looks more like a creature than a human, with curly brown hair like a goddess’s mane and splotchy freckles covering her face and arms.
Talia wanted to show me some cool places so we started walking toward downtown. I told her about Jessica and the loft in Brooklyn and she nodded like she understood. We walked really far and I felt like, for the first time, I was actually seeing New York City, but it changed so much from the park to Midtown to Union Square and then to the Village that it was like going through several cities within an hour. In the Village we went into a bar and Talia knew the bartender so we got beers, and I drank one even though I didn’t really want to. Talia drank hers quickly and told me about studying art at the college she goes to in, I think, Ohio, and how she’s learning about “postmodernism” which is something like a response to media culture and a way of critiquing society and I said that I had recently discovered I was an artist and was teaching myself how to draw and she got really excited and said it was so great that I was self-taught and then she told me a story about an artist from New York named Bas-kee-at who became really famous even though he never went to art school.
“Do you want to go to some amazing galleries?” she asked me. I said yes. I had to go to the bathroom, first, because of the beer. In the bathroom I looked in the mirror and I had literally the hugest pimple you can possibly imagine right in the middle of my forehead. I was like, shit, this is so embarrassing, and so I started trying to pop it even though I know you’re not supposed to do that, especially when your skin is dirty, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t believe that Talia was looking at me that whole time with that pimple on my face. Suddenly the door opened and Talia came in. I tried to pretend I wasn’t doing anything and grabbed a paper towel and put it on my forehead and said something about sweat. She went and stood by the window and lit a cigarette.
“Are you allowed to smoke in here?” I asked.
She gave me a look like she didn’t care. She probably thought she seemed really cool standing there smoking. It’s kind of gross, I think, smoking cigarettes.
The gallery wasn’t far away. While we were walking there I got a text from Jessica saying that she was finished babysitting and was going to yoga and how was the museum. I didn’t write back because I wasn’t sure what to say. Talia knew the photographer at the gallery and they kissed each other on the cheeks. He shook my hand. I don’t remember his name because it was Japanese or something. The guy looked like he was probably around thirty and wore a black t-shirt and jeans. I kind of wondered how Talia knew someone so much older than her but I didn’t ask.
The sort of photography I like is usually just simple portraits of people or candid shots that depict normal human life, like people cooking or sitting or making weird faces. This guy does something called conceptual photography and there were generally no people in it. I guess he did interesting things with the lighting and some of the shapes were, um, intriguing, but honestly I didn’t like it very much. Talia was cooing over him and saying how the photos moved her and asking lots of questions, and he—the Japanese photographer—was answering them very carefully and thoughtfully. I was getting bored. I texted Jessica saying I was at an art gallery and she replied immediately asking which one. I didn’t feel like writing back.
In the corner of the gallery there was this older black man wearing suspenders and a bowtie, with a flattop. He reminded me of a grown-up version of Carlton in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He looked interesting so I stood next to him while he examined one of the photos. He wasn’t moving, just looking.
“What do you think?” I tried to make my voice sound deeper.
I thought he hadn’t heard me. Then he moved his head a little and I saw he was considering his reply.
The man sighed, a really long sigh. Then he turned to look at me, just twisting his head around over his shoulder. “You an artist?” he asked me. He was older than I had thought; the skin under his eyes was puffy and blemished.
I was surprised. How did he know? I told him I was. He said he would show me some real art. Then everything happened really fast. I looked at Talia and she was flirting with the Japanese photographer who was way too old for her, giggling and twirling her hair and moving her hips around. I yelled “bye” at her as I flew out the door behind the older black man who was moving very swiftly. He walked as if he were in a big hurry without looking back even to see if I was still following him, for about six blocks, turning once or twice. Then we entered an old building with fire escapes on the front with laundry hanging to dry, walked up two flights of stairs and into a dingy-looking, but not exactly dirty, apartment and then I stood in the middle of it with my mouth open, because all over the place, covering every single wall, was the most amazing display of photos of naked girls—no, naked women—that I’ve ever seen. The women were topless, doing handstands, legs splayed, butts in the air, gaping at the camera with wide, open eyes. There were close-ups of hairy vaginas underneath twisty bellies, close-ups of hairless vaginas between skinny thighs, hands massaging enormous breasts, tongues licking flat breasts with protruding nipples, hot-pink-haired women making weird faces at the camera while pushing the fingers of one hand into a vagina and the fingers of another hand into a mouth. Naked women covered the walls of the apartment. They surrounded me. I couldn’t speak. A late afternoon breeze floated through the open window, and the place felt magical, like a hidden cave on the side of a mountain.
The man went to a little corner table, where he opened a bottle of some kind of alcohol and poured himself a glass. He asked me if I wanted some and when I hesitated, he told me it was scotch. I’d never had any before but I said yes, and to my surprise, I liked it. He sat on the couch and crossed his legs and looked at me standing in the middle of the small apartment gaping at his photos on the wall and sipping on my scotch-on-the-rocks. The photos were erotic but I didn’t get a boner. I wasn’t thinking, oh, these chicks are so hot, blah blah. I was looking at how he had used light to accentuate certain parts of the body, and the expressions on the women’s faces, and the scenery.
Then he starts rolling a joint, and I’m like, yeah. He starts telling me about how his work isn’t pornography—it’s art. He points out his creative use of lighting and explains that there are Surrealist ideas about freedom and desire and modernity behind all of his photos. He didn’t call them photos, either; he called them “images.” He said all of this really slowly and then brought the joint to his lips, closing his eyes as he lit it. Smoke curled out of his mouth and swirled around the apartment. Soon he held it out to me, and I sat down on the couch and took it, and we both stared at the walls. Or rather, we stared at the naked women on the walls.
I felt like I should be asking him questions—like what’s his name, how long has he lived here, who are all these women—but instead I was enjoying the quiet in the apartment and the sounds coming from the street below. There was a lot of chattering in Chinese, and cars honking, and dogs barking. For the first time since arriving in New York, I thought maybe I could live in this city. Just to be alone in an apartment with my art on the walls, surrounded by the sounds of daily life. I sat there quietly and thought about what my buds at school would say when I told them about Talia and this man and his photos. Then again I thought, maybe I wouldn’t tell them at all. I kind of drifted away, and to be honest I was sort of making a little plan for myself, for the summer. Like maybe I would get really serious about drawing and start researching art schools in New York, and I would try not to smoke pot before school at least until I had taken the SATs or maybe even until I was accepted to college.
“You from here?” the man asked me with a slight crinkle in his brow.
I shook my head. He suggested we go for a walk.
“The Williamsburg Bridge is probably my favorite place in New York City,” the man with the bowtie said as he walked beside me. He told me it was it was built in 1903 and at first it was too short and they had to make it longer. It was the second suspension bridge ever built—the Brooklyn Bridge, which we could see over the river, was the first—and both were a complete feat of engineering and took the smartest men of the time to make happen. But, while he was telling me these things, I was thinking about how the beauty of the bridge is really just the way people use it, how they make it colorful and unique at every moment of the day. There was graffiti covering the rafters above our heads and the ground below our feet. The sun was setting as we crossed over. I could see all of Manhattan, up to Harlem. Down below I could hear cars passing, and a train going through periodically. It was loud but also very soothing.
The bridge was filled with people. Very religious Jews, wearing black clothing (they must have been very hot) and with curly tufts of hair around their ears, walked by, pushing baby strollers. Bicycles passed us on all sides, going really fast, or maybe it just seemed fast because I was stoned and we seemed to be walking really slowly. Sweaty joggers. Groups of kids my age, laughing and pushing each other. Couples holding hands. Women wearing little dresses that revealed sunburnt cleavage—enormous headphones clamping their hair down. I glanced over at my mysterious guide. Did he see these women and immediately wonder what they would look like without clothes?
The man strode calmly, smiling and nodding as I craned my neck up at the graffiti and around me at the view and the people everywhere.
“New York City would be nothing without its bridges,” he said to the sky.
My cousin was texting me. I told her I was with a friend. The air was finally cool and I felt like I could walk forever, just staring at everyone.
When we got to the middle of the bridge, the man stopped and turned and nodded to me. I thought he was going to tell me his name, finally, and explain why he’d invited me to hang out with him, or maybe give me his phone number so I could call him to ask advice about being an artist.
“Well,” he said. “Off you go, then.” And he turned around and headed back toward Manhattan.
I realized that he had not left me alone. There, on this platform in the exact middle of the bridge, facing the train tracks that cut down the center below, was a girl—a woman?—about my cousin’s age, hovering over a large piece of cardboard. She was throwing paint onto it with a long, medium-width paintbrush. Her hair was loose and falling over her face and shoulders. She was facing back toward the city, away from where I stood, and I leaned against the other railing to watch her.
It was becoming night, the sky was streaked with pink and the island I’d just come from was lighting up, building by building. I don’t know how long I stood there, with the train passing underneath and the bicycles whirring by, my phone vibrating in my pocket as it received text messages, the last effects of the pot coursing through my veins, a light breeze raising the hair on my arms, my stomach rumbling a bit, my ears catching snippets of conversations from passersby. I watched the girl reach for more paint and then splatter the cardboard with blue and magenta and black. Every so often she leaned back and tilted her head, examining her work before reaching for more paint. I watched her and wondered if Talia was making out with the Japanese photographer, maybe in a low-lit bar. I thought about the man with the bowtie, who was probably back in his apartment, rolling another joint and staring at his photographs on the wall. I thought of the hot-pink-haired woman he photographed fingering another woman, and I remembered exactly the expression on the woman’s face in the photo. I thought about my brother Josh and my buds at school and how they would probably never understand the story of my trip to New York, the converted loft and the art gallery and now this girl on the bridge. Out of the corners of my eyes I saw the river, dark and solemn, and I felt calm.
At one point the girl stopped painting and pulled something out of a purse. She stood against the railing, now facing me, and began rolling a cigarette, noticing that I was watching her. I knew that she was wondering how long I’d been there. She lit up, and we stood there for a minute, contemplating each other. Then she took a step forward like she was going to talk to me. A train came through underneath us and, amidst the rumbling, I smiled at her, turned, and headed down the bridge, toward Brooklyn.