Construction Literary Magazine

Spring 2018

Sandhogs

Sandhogs
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel via Unsplash.

Every day, workers descend into the earth and blast through the ground that envelops them. What they do is inherently destabilizing: they move dirt and crush rocks, shifting the city’s foundation beneath us. They steer a giant drill that bores a subway tunnel below Second Avenue, moving inch by inch down the blocks from 96th Street to 59th. In pictures Nicholas once showed me on a blog he followed, the machinery looked like a dentist’s drill gone nuclear.

I wonder if they’re creating a new fault line down there. If one day the ground I’m standing on will rip away from the rest of Manhattan and float into the East River. I wonder what kind of water would rise up in the gap between Second Avenue and Third. River water, or something oily and subterranean? If the people down below would have time to get out.

They’re called sandhogs, the construction workers who are building the subway tunnel. When they emerge from their shifts, their boots are streaked with wet, muddy clay. Nicholas once told me that the sandhogs work around the clock. I worry that their blasting could make the neighborhood fall in on itself while we’re all asleep.

I notice the shaking most in the evenings, when the neighbors aren’t arguing and my TV is turned down, when there isn’t a car alarm going off somewhere nearby. It’s not like an earthquake, not like the ones in movies, anyway. Well, maybe a small magnitude. The dishes don’t rattle in the cabinet, and I’m not afraid of the tall Ikea bookcase toppling over and crushing me where I sit on the couch. I just feel the floor, or maybe it’s the walls, or maybe both, moving around me, their structures temporarily shifting. For a moment, the world simply isn’t still.

It comes in spurts. My building’s super, Randy, told me that the blasting work that rocked the neighborhood has moved down into the seventies and eighties now. That the tremors we feel now come mostly from pile driving, when the sandhogs are pushing steel stakes the height of my building deep into the ground somewhere. Randy, who always tells me that he used to work in construction, insists that the drilling isn’t causing any damage to the neighborhood.

But I don’t know if I believe him. Part of the basement has been sealed off, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s been damaged somehow by the construction, even though my building’s half a block from the avenue. I picture cracks in the foundation. I picture the building crumbling from the basement down, our dust cloud a fraction the size of the ones on 9/11, which was nearly ten years ago now. I can’t help thinking that we’re due for another catastrophe.

* * *

Nicholas once told me that he decided to be a journalist that day.  He was only twenty at the time, and was far away from New York, at Wash U. in St. Louis, but changed the course of his life because of what happened to the towers ten years ago and how reporters covered the attacks. Nicholas said he admired how they kept the public informed without causing more panic than the terrorism had already inspired. He stopped trying to write fiction and enrolled in journalism classes instead. He began to aspire to travel the world.  

Sometimes, when Nicholas talked, he could sound like a study-abroad brochure. Once, when I told him that, he said to stop trying to DMS him.

DSM,” I corrected.

“Exactly,” he responded.

* * *

I’m supposed to take care of myself so I can be in good mental shape to help others. At least, that’s what my supervising therapist, Claire, tells me. I’m supposed to treat myself to something nice on a regular basis. Once a week is our goal. It’s the same sort of advice I give my own clients.

I’ve tried meeting friends at a bar every Friday night. I envisioned a group of us having a regular place as if we were on a sitcom, laugh tracks and all. That worked for a few weeks, but inevitably our lives got in the way. Shari would have a work thing, or one of Dina’s clients would reschedule, or one of mine would, and it began to peter out.

Then I tried joining the gym at the 92nd Street Y since it’s in the neighborhood. I halfheartedly went to a series of Monday night yoga classes, but couldn’t get my breathing right. Couldn’t deepen into the stretches. Then, it got cold, and I didn’t want to walk the three blocks in my leggings.

Book clubs weren’t my thing, either. I didn’t like sitting in a stranger’s living room with a glass of wine I didn’t want. I ended up skipping most of the art classes I paid two hundred bucks for. When Claire suggested joining a Meetup group, I laughed.

So now my thing is my nails. I go on Tuesdays because that’s my short day, when my appointments don’t start until evening. Tuesdays are the best day to get them done because the salon isn’t packed with women prepping for the weekend or for the workweek.

I tried a few different places before I settled on Angel Nails. The other salons, up on Third Avenue or Madison, were always packed with chatty Upper East Side women who all had the same plastic surgery noses. The salons all looked alike, sparkling with too-bright overheads and gleaming rows of polish.  Angel Nails is clean enough, but what I like best about it is that it’s tucked under some scaffolding and is so small you can take two steps down Second Avenue and miss it. Angel Nails. Nicholas would have laughed at that. Would have taken the opportunity to say that he wasn’t going to Patrick Swayze me if he died first.

When Lucy, the owner, asks if I have a boyfriend, I just shake my head.

“Single,” Lucy says, biting her lip as she opens the cash register. “Why no boyfriend?”

“I had one, but,” I shrug.

At that point, one of the women will say something in Korean or Chinese, and Lucy will either laugh or change the subject. Or, if I’m lucky, the phone will ring, tinkling Jingle Bells even though it’s July.

That’s usually when Moon smiles up at me from rubbing the old polish off my toenails. I know that’s not her real name, but it’s what she goes by here. When Moon smiles, her lips stay together. You only catch a glimpse of her teeth when she talks, and she doesn’t say much.

She taps my right foot, a sign to stick it back in the tub of warm water. I rest my foot on the speckled bottom. It’s scratchy, almost granular, like the floor of a swimming pool.

“Where are you from?” I ask, my voice low. Lucy and one of the manicurists now have their heads bent over a pile of receipts.

Moon shakes a hair out of her eyes, or maybe she’s shaking her head. A gesture of refusal. She taps my right knee, and I lift my leg out of the water. Instead of making eye contact, I watch the drops falling from my heel.

“China,” she whispers.

“What part?” I ask.

Nicholas had done some reporting from China. He’d spent two weeks writing about a new massive city south of Mongolia that lay completely empty while cities along the coast were overcrowded. He’d showed me pictures of newly-constructed apartment buildings that had no tenants. Stadiums built for tens of thousands that have never hosted a game. At night, he said, the buildings were dark, but you could feel their bulk looming as you walked down the deserted streets.

“Sichuan,” she finally mumbles.

Later, after work, I look it up on a map. Sichuan is a province in the middle of China, nowhere near the haunted cities Nicholas had studied. Can a city have ghosts if it’s never been inhabited?

I zoom out of the map and draw lines with my finger from China and across a few Stans, to where Nicholas went. My index finger trails over the flat laptop screen, but I imagine ripples over mountain ranges. A dip over the Caspian Sea, then a curve down through Turkey.

Nicholas once talked about taking me in a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia. It’s like a desert, he said, a desert with abandoned cities of its own, entire villages dug into the rock and caves. Except, of course, people had actually dwelled there once. I fall asleep imagining myself as a cave wife, cooking in a rock-walled room.

* * *

The rest of my week is calm. Friday, there’s a no-show followed by a last-minute cancellation, so I spend an hour and a half helping the admin organize files before my last appointment. I’ve been at this practice for nearly two years now, seeing patients with a mix of issues. They come to our clinic because we offer services on a sliding scale, and because we’re located in a nondescript office building off Columbus Circle, one of the hubs where it feels like half the city’s subway lines meet.  

Between the swarms of tourists and the masses of commuters, no one in this area pays too much attention to anyone else. This part of Midtown, like Times Square, isn’t so much a neighborhood as a destination. A place people go to and then leave.

Saturday, I wake up haunted. I’ve been dreaming of abandoned cities. Not abandoned. Cities that have never been lived in. I dream of the ground beneath me trembling, evaporating into dust. I dream of a shadow floating away from a desert cave city, and decide in my waking that it’s Nicholas. That maybe he’s dead.

After Googling him on my phone to ensure that he’s still alive, I lie tangled in the sheets for a while. My cat, Anderson Cooper, wanders in and meows at me. Nicholas named him that because his fur is the same gleaming silver-white as the TV personality’s hair.

I should get up and feed the cat, but I can’t. Instead, I pull his white bulk towards me and stroke his ears as he squirms in my grip. Anderson Cooper eventually kicks off my chest and runs away, leaving a thin scar below my collarbone.

He gallops into the living room, clawing at the couch in spite. I roll onto my side and look out the window at the parking garage across the street, at the new luxury apartment tower on the corner.

Nicholas and I used to lie here like this on slow weekend mornings, sitting up just enough to watch people walk up the block. We’d guess where they were going.

“Hey,” Nicholas would nudge me with his foot. “What’s up with that woman’s cart? Do you see that pole sticking up out of it?”

I’d track the woman in question down the street, pretending to stare at the lumpy bags in her cart through binoculars. “Looks like she’s got a twelve-pack of paper towels, a bag full of produce, and a mop. What’s she doing with that combo?” I’d ask.

Nicholas would lie back against the two pillows he always propped under his head. I curled up beside him with my head on one lumpy pillow and my legs wound around his. “Hmm.” He’d stroke his chin and exaggerate thinking. Maybe she’s planning to throw tomatoes at a standup comic she really hates?”

“So why the cleaning supplies?”

“Then she’ll clean up afterwards?”

We’d laugh and pick another target. We were like snipers, aiming wild stories from my fifth-floor window instead of weapons.

Or, we’d lie back and listen to the sounds drifting up from the street through the open window and try to guess what was happening. If it was early enough, we’d hope that the singer would pass by below. He’d stride up the block, belting gospel songs I usually couldn’t identify, but which Nicholas never failed to recognize. The singer’s voice bounded between buildings, reverberating from one side of the block to the next. His voice was loud for so early in the day, but it was so bright that it never bothered us.

I’ve slept in too late now to hear him. Nicholas and I always woke up early, even if we didn’t have anywhere to be. Since he left, I’ve started sleeping later and later on weekends, like I’m twenty again, instead of thirty-two.

Right now, it’s probably nighttime where Nicholas is. I hope he hasn’t been killed or kidnapped or fallen in love.

When Nicholas left, he told me it was because he couldn’t stand to be in New York anymore. He wanted to be near the action his colleagues were reporting on: the uprisings cropping up all over the Middle East, not stuck in an office covering human interest pieces and finishing articles his coworkers in the field had drafted. “I can’t stay here anymore,” he told me. “This place is dragging me down.”

“But we’ll still be together, right?” I’d asked, pawing at his elbow. “We can make long-distance work.”

“You’re a part of my life in New York,” Nicholas responded. “I’ve got to cut all my ties.”

“I’ll come with you.”

He shook his head, the light catching in his pupils so I couldn’t quite read his expression. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to be completely on my own right now.”

I kicked his shin as I tried to scoot closer to him, as if clinging would keep him here. “You’re going to the other end of the world to get away from me.”

Anderson Cooper brushed against Nicholas’s legs. Nicholas ignored the cat. “No, it’s not that. I’ve got to do this for my career. I can’t have anything connecting me to this place.”

I stood up and looked down at him. He was trying not to squirm against the couch. Clearly, this was not how he’d planned his big breakup speech to go. “So I’m just a part of this place for you, is that it? You’re going to find some exotic woman in a burqa who won’t hold you down?”

“Yes,” Nicholas started to say, before correcting himself. “No.”

* * *

Saturday evening, I have plans to visit my old friend Jen in Brooklyn. She and her husband Steve live in a brownstone they bought during the recession. They’ve been slowly renovating it, room by room, ever since.

When I come in, they’re redoing the entry hall. A drop cloth covers the parquet floor, and I follow Jen’s path between jars of paint. Steve hollers hello at me from the top of a ladder. Jen takes me through the house, showing me the latest: new cornices and the spot in the basement where they’re going to knock a wall out to make a playroom for the perfect kids they’re going to have.

After dinner, I stick around for a couple of drinks. Steve joins us at the new kitchen island. I shift back and forth on the modern barstool, slouching against its low, curved back. They ask if I’ve met anyone. I shake my head.

“It’s because you still haven’t tried, have you?” Jen asks, gently, setting her wine glass down to squeeze my shoulder. What she’s said would hurt if she wasn’t an old friend.

“It’s been, what? Almost a year since Nicholas left?” Steve says. “You’ve got to get back on the horse.”

“I know,” I say. He’s right.

After another drink, I tell Jen and Steve that I’m thinking of opening a spa one day, a spa that would offer massages and manicures on a sliding scale, with free champagne and a resident therapist. “It’d be the ultimate treatment,” I tell them.

Steve asks if there’d be a Xanax bar.

On the subway home, the Q into Manhattan and then the 6 to 96th Street, I make lists of how much money I have saved up. I guess how much I’d need to open a spa: rent would be relatively cheap on Second Avenue, supplies, staff, certifications. I think of hiring Moon one day.

* * *

Sunday morning, the singer wakes me up. I wait for his voice to pass, then rise, feed Anderson Cooper, and pull my running clothes out from the bottom drawer, where they’ve been languishing untouched for months.

At the corner of my block and Second, I have to wait for a concrete mixer to pass before I can cross the avenue. As I wait, a couple of sandhogs emerge from one of the trailers that’s been set up beside an entrance to the tunnel. A fence covered in green tarp separates us. If it didn’t, I’d shout over to ask how things are looking down there. If the sandhogs ever feel like the ground is going to crumble around them.

The mixer gets out of the way. I dart between jersey barricades and jaywalk as a lone truck barrels down the avenue towards me. He hits his brakes, so I slow my pace because I can. On the other side of the crosswalk, I laugh and sprint up the hill, until the truck driver and the sandhogs can’t see me anymore.

Nicholas would have told me how stupid that was, how unnecessarily risky. You could have just waited for the light to change, he’d say. It would only have cost you another thirty seconds. I recall the flat-eyed look he’d give me when I’d done something wrong. Something he deemed stupid. I walk the rest of the way from Third Avenue to the park.

Most runners entering Central Park from the Upper East Side make a loop around the reservoir. The track around the water makes you feel like you own the view of the skyline, at least for the moment. But I’m not interested in crowding behind moms in Lululemon leggings and high schoolers who will judge how quickly I get out of breath. I don’t want to try to catch the eye of investment bankers who make more in a year than I’ll ever make in my lifetime. I don’t care about seeing spires. So I head up East Drive towards the north end of the park instead.

I’m nearly alone. A pair of cyclists stream past me, their spandex bright against the morning. The air around me is thick—it must be ninety percent humidity already.  I have to stop to walk every few minutes, but the air rushing down my lungs feels good. So does the twinge beneath my right ribcage. My quads clench and start to burn. I feel like I’m inhabiting my body for the first time in months. Maybe Nicholas wouldn’t have left if I’d been a runner like him.

He probably can’t go for runs wherever he is now. It looks like he’s reporting on the anti-Assad uprising in Syria from the Turkish border. I wonder if he’s found a woman to take in a hot air balloon over Cappadocia.

As I alternate between running and walking, I think about what I would tell myself if I was my own patient. That I need to move on. That it’s okay to grieve a relationship, but that now it’s gone too far. That I need to develop other, healthier, relationships. That the only way to move on is to stop wallowing in the past.

But I’m not wallowing anymore, not exactly. The past just rises up sometimes, swarming around me when I least expect it. I didn’t go on this run to conjure Nicholas, but here he is, memory running alongside me through the park. We pass Lasker Pool now, and turn off East Drive, crossing in front of the Harlem Meer.

I stop for a water break and watch a pair of little kids feed breadcrumbs to overweight ducks. After a minute, I start running again. My throat closes up with moisture. There’s no one around, so I spit into the grass beside me. I pretend it’s memories of Nicholas that I’m spitting out. Maybe Claire’s right. I do need to take care of myself.

* * *

I make self-care my mission for the rest of July and into August. I go grocery shopping on Sunday afternoons, and cook dinners on Sunday nights that I can reheat during the week. I make plans with friends. I go for runs a few days a week, when it’s not too hot, and clean my apartment. One night, I even throw the last of Nicholas’s old tee shirts away.

The summer passes by, and I find myself happy, just a young person enjoying life in the city—even the sweat and closeness of strangers on the hot subway. Even the smell of garbage piled high on the sidewalks. I take the A train to the Rockaways every Saturday and spend afternoons lying in the sand.

When I’m being good to myself, I’m better at my job—I can feel it. Because I’m not wallowing, I can listen to my clients in a clearer way. Part of the job is getting out of my head and into theirs. When they talk about their partners, I don’t picture Nicholas’s face anymore.

Claire tells me I’m making progress. “You’ve gotten yourself out of the mud,” she says one day. I picture sandhogs leaving the tunnel for the last time, sleek subway cars gliding beneath Second Avenue. Their work done.

At night, when the construction makes the apartment reverberate with a dull thud, I’m able to see the noise as a sign of progress, not destruction.

* * *

My appointments today start at five PM and end at nine. Around one, I wander over to the salon to get a mani-pedi. I’ll eat a late lunch afterwards, then head down to the clinic with plenty of time to review my notes from last Tuesday’s sessions. On Tuesdays, I have a recovering alcoholic, a bulimic, a man who occasionally shoplifts, and a woman who hasn’t spoken to her mother in so long that she can’t remember why.

As always, Moon does my pedicure. There are politics at work here that I don’t understand. No matter how busy or slow the salon is, Moon only ever works on people’s feet. She doesn’t chitchat with customers the way Lucy and a few of the other women do.

When Moon’s done, I beam as I thank her and say how good my toes look, as if it’s the most important thing in my day. Lucy helps me shuffle to a manicure table. I look over her shoulder at the narrow sliver of street that’s visible through the section of window that’s not blocked by scaffolding.

I turn my attention to Lucy. She starts her usual badgering about whether I have a boyfriend yet. It doesn’t upset me anymore. Instead, I tell her the truth: I’ve made a profile on a dating website. Lucy tells me to meet someone in person instead of on a screen, and I laugh when she does.

* * *

As my nails are drying, my hands and legs pinned under the heat of the UV lamps, I watch Moon give another regular a pedicure. I’ve seen this client before, a woman who’ll tell anyone who will listen that she’s only temporarily renting in the neighborhood while her brownstone in the seventies off Park is being gutted. She keeps her Louis Vuitton handbag on her lap while Moon massages her feet.

Watching Moon hypnotizes me. She wipes a hair out of her face with the inside of her elbow and straightens up on the stool while the woman shifts one foot back into the tub and lifts the other out.

Claire would say I’m fixating on Moon. I’m not fixating, exactly. Not romantically. Getting pedicures from Moon, and manicures from Lucy, is just the closest I’ve let myself be to another person since Nicholas left. I feel like these salon visits are helping me trust that other people can touch me without either of us being singed.

Moon begins cutting the woman’s nails. A stray fragment flies into the tub, but the customer is too busy reading on her phone to notice.

* * *

The floor rolls under our feet. That’s how it feels: like the linoleum has turned to waves, surging towards a shore I can’t see. I grip the edge of one of the UV lamps, smearing my nails. I need to right myself. Am I having a seizure?

No. The rest of the salon is shaking, too. The bottles of polish slide forward in their display. An oversized poster of a woman’s foot rattles for an instant, and I worry that the round wall clock beside it is going to shatter. Has a bomb gone off somewhere? Maybe there’s been an accident underground.

Then everything calms. Outside, the scaffolding is still upright.

Moon’s customer is yelling. Water has splashed out of the tub. That’s what I stare at first: the water that’s covered the woman’s flip-flops and the tops of Moon’s sneakers. Lucy tosses towels to Moon, who’s wrapping one around the woman’s foot.

Moon’s not patting the foot dry—she’s applying pressure. As she replaces the towel with a clean one, I see the gash underneath the customer’s big toe. It’s deep, but not wide. There’s more blood than you’d expect a toe to have.

The woman shouts. “You stabbed me! You goddamn idiot.” She turns to Lucy and points at Moon, who’s staring at the bloody towel in her lap. “She stabbed me with the nail scissors. You’ve got to fire her.”

“Ma’am,” I say, “I think something happened. Did you feel the shaking?”

The woman glares at me like I’ve taken the wrong side. “I don’t care. I’m going to need a fucking tetanus shot now.” For the first time, she eyes the gouge. “Maybe stitches. And you’re going to pay for it,” she tells Lucy. Then she calls someone. Lucy does too.

I stay seated. Maybe the street’s going to collapse in on itself right now. I imagine reporters—Nicholas’s colleagues—swarming the scene where my neighborhood used to be.

Later, we’ll learn that the earthquake originated in Virginia and could be felt as far north as Toronto. Later, we’ll learn that the tremors cracked the Washington Monument. That no one was killed.

But for now, nobody knows anything. All I know is the blood seeping from the woman’s toe onto the white towel Moon’s clamping around it. All I know is that I can’t get the image out of my head of the sandhogs beneath us, drowning in the dirt.