I rushed to meet my sister Siobhan for a drink. We were convening at Astor Bar, one of our favorite places in the city. It was in a central location, it was close to Siobhan’s job and it was also right around the corner from where 2 of my cousins lived, so it was a great “let’s meet there” spot. Especially if it was early in the evening. After 10:30, there would be a line down the block, so we avoided it then, but to start off a night? It was perfect. Astor Bar was the O’Malley-family jumping-off point.
I was dressed up, I remember. Long tight skirt, high heels – and I was hurrying, as quickly as I could, across 4th Street. I was late.
And I only remember how warm it was because, in my hurrying, I started sweating, and my powder dissolved off my face, which bummed me out. I stopped in an empty doorway, popping out my compact, checking out the damage, and thinking: “Ah well. Tonight is too hot for powder then.”
Strange. The things that remain.
Astor Bar had an upstairs bar with a big window, looking out on Bleecker Street. There was also a downstairs bar, shadowy, rather decrepit with peeling ceilings, and cavernous red leather booths, extremely atmospheric and dark. The upstairs bar, though, was the good meeting-spot because you had a view of all the comings and goings up and down Bleecker – with 2 tables in the window, high bar stools – and then room for about 6 or 7 stools at the small curved bar. As I hurried past this window, I saw Siobhan, in a sun dress with a pleated skirt, sitting at one of the tables in the window.
Then, in the next moment, as I entered, 5,000 things happened at once. Each thing clear, distinct, set apart, and remembered perfectly, like a flickering newsreel, the images burned on celluloid. Clarity of memory is a blessing and a curse.
I pulled the door open.
In a flash second, I saw a guy sitting at the bar with a couple of other people. My eyes just quickly glanced over him, and I saw that it was a guy I had met at a party the year before. That night there had been an instantaneous and powerful meeting of the minds between the two of us, a recognition, a strange and unmistakable feeling of: “Wow … I already know you … you’re like me …” We took a walk through Soho together at 3 in the morning, talking, laughing, the world was our playground, we could have kept talking forever.
I probably don’t even need to explain that I fell completely in love with him within 10 minutes of talking to him at that first party. But, truth be told, our behavior that first night was not really the behavior of two mature adults meeting one another. It was more along the lines of babies reaching out to each other from separate shopping carts in the aisles at grocery stores … or the sudden intimacy between romping dogs at Washington Square Park … Recognition. Oh. You. You are like me. I know you. We are the same.
On September 9, I had not seen him since that night a year earlier, and then suddenly – there he was. Perched on a bar stool at Astor Bar.
So what did I do? I behaved like a total jackass.
Reminds me of this quote from Nancy Lemann, one of my favorite authors:
It is always remarkable when someone sees your soul to a better degree than you see it yourself. You could count the people who see your soul on one hand. Others might know you but they would forget; their knowledge of you was like a weak and undisciplined thing. But that wasn’t so with him. He didn’t forget. It stuck in his mind. He had seen a kindred soul. he had seen it long ago. She only saw it now. But she was stricken with it. Suddenly she had identified him. There was the man she loved. As a result, she proceeded dementedly to behave as if the opposite were true.
I was so thrilled to see this man again that I “proceeded dementedly to behave as if the opposite were true.”
I completely ignored him, blithely pretending that I hadn’t seen him. I was a terrible actress in that moment, although I thought I would win an Oscar for how much I DIDN’T KNOW HE WAS THERE. I swept by his crowd and went straight for Siobhan, pretending to be oblivious – and yet inside I was thinking, insanely: It’s him, it’s him …
Siobhan and I greeted each other, big hug, and I hissed at her, like an outlaw, “So and so is here. But don’t. Look. Now.” I didn’t know how to be casual and just say to him like a normal person, “Hi! How are you?”
There will always be those people with whom it is impossible to be casual.
As I stalked by him, I felt him see me. His entire posture changed. He sat up poker-straight, his head turned my way. It was like a moment on the Discovery Channel. Animals in the wild, alert, ears turned up and out.
I knew he had seen me, and yet I made this elaborate pretense that I was oblivious to his presence. I was acting like an ASS and I could not stop it.
It continues to be strange to me that this entire dance of awareness and avoidance would be so technicolor-vivid to me even now. I remember the body language, the pauses, how he tilted his head. And not only that first moment, but the whole rest of the night at Astor Bar …. I remember exchanges we had word for word. The entire night is preserved perfectly in my memory, a fly drowned in amber. A lost world.
It would be the last time (for a long long time) that I would be in a group of people and be able to talk about everyday things, movies, archaeology, theatre, life, poetry. Two days later and all interest in anything other than THAT would vanish for a long long time.
And so the conversation we had the night of September 9th stands out for me, a museum exhibit of a world long vanished.
All is preserved. Especially that moment when I first walked in, saw him, ignored him, he saw me, and I walked by, pretending to not see him. How he sat up straight and watched me pass, how I leant in to my sister and hissed at her “That’s him, that’s him…”, how I could feel him watching me like a hawk, waiting for an “in”.
Finally, he could no longer stand the wait, and he yelled – yes, YELLED – across the space at me – causing a dead silence to descend over the bar:
“WHY ARE YOU IGNORING ME?”
I still laugh when I remember that.
Why do I laugh? Because in that loud unafraid moment, he called me on my bullshit. He didn’t let me get away with the charade of “Oh my God, I didn’t see you when I first came in! You’re here?? Wow, what a coincidence!!” He KNEW I was ignoring him, and he YELLED that at me across the bar.
That’s why I fell for the guy in a matter of 10 minutes. That’s why he was unique. He understood me without knowing me. And believe me, that never happens.
So I continued to be an asshole, looked over at him and feigned surprise.
“Hi there! Wow! You’re here??”
He stared at me with excitement, adrenaline and deep scorn. He stated, “You walked right by me.”
“Oh … sorry … I didn’t see you …” Lame.
I knew he had busted me, and I knew that he knew I knew … and it all was hilarious and beautiful. I loved that he had busted me. It made me feel safe. He knew I was acting like a jackass, and that the reason why I didn’t say Hi to him right away was because I was having a “riot of feeling” – but judging from his posture change, and his behavior the rest of the night, he also experienced a “riot of feeling” at the sight of my face … and so he saw that I was afraid, that I was protecting myself for a second … and he busted me on it, with humor.
It seemed like everything was going to be okay.
This is how it was. I walked away from Astor Bar later, coming home at about 2 o’clock in the morning, thinking to myself, “Wow. Everything’s going to be okay, I think.”
That’s what I thought as September 9th turned into September 10th.
Our two groups merged – Siobhan and I going over to sit at the bar with him and his small group of friends. We sat and talked, all of us, in that beautiful way that happens sometimes, rarely: vigorous, up, down, people interjecting, fights breaking out, random bursts of laughter, blurting inappropriate statements, one person rising to the forefront with everyone else listening, someone else chiming in fluidly with their interpretation, either adding or detracting … It went on and on and on and on and on.
The conversation would have stood out in my memory even if the world hadn’t exploded two days later.
At one point, Siobhan and I were being entertained by one member of the group, a guy we still laugh about to this day. All he needed to do was light his cigarette, and we would burst out laughing. And with my lunatic peripheral vision (on overdrive that night), I saw that my crush was sitting down the bar, watching us. Not speaking, not joining in, just watching the two of us talk to his friend. And suddenly my crush exclaimed to the person sitting next to him, “Are those two women the most gorgeous women you’ve ever seen in your life?”
I don’t say this to be vain. I just say this because it happened. It is one of the many things that I remember.
When he and I said goodbye to each other, we had a repeat of our good-bye on the night we first met, only it was deeper and a bit more tormented. He hugged me like he never wanted to let me go, and he kept saying my name into my neck. It was a spectacle. I had to pry him off of me. I knew he was dating someone else. His response to me brought with it an ache, as well as a confirmation that I hadn’t just made UP what I felt on that first night. But still, such encounters make one feel one’s loneliness in a palpable way. He and I had one more encounter, the following year, where all of this came out into the open. That last night was the entrance of the Really Really Bad Time For Me, exacerbated by the grief and rage of what had happened to my city, my country … I could not process anything else and after that last encounter, I descended into a Dark Bad Time that lasted years. In many ways, I will never be the same again. You don’t bounce back from everything. But for now, we are left with the fizzy hilarity of the group experience at the Astor Bar, where the loneliness I felt was a bittersweet twinge as opposed to a Gavel Rap from a Judge after handing down a Life Sentence.
Afterwards, Siobhan and I walked through the warm night to our respective subways, still laughing and laughing about certain moments over the course of the night. We had cried off our eye makeup with laughter.
I emailed my crush first thing that morning and wrote, “Just wanted you to know how great it was to see you again. Makes me feel good to know that there are people like you on this planet.”
I thought, and I meant it: “It’s not about getting a response. He should know that I think he makes the world a better place just by being in it … regardless. People should say this stuff to each other when they have the chance.”
My friend David has often observed to me that my life operates “like a literary conceit.” Writing out these events makes me understand why he says that. My crush did not respond, but a week later, smoke still rising from downtown, he reached out, just checking in to make sure I – and the people I loved – were okay. Siobhan worked in the building next to the towers, and had to run from the collapsing buildings, and was then missing for 6 hours until she arrived at my cousin’s apartment way uptown later that afternoon. Those were crazy days with almost no cell phone service. I heard from people I hadn’t heard from since I was a child. I told him we all were okay, although Siobhan being out of touch for so long – when we all knew where she worked – was so awful I still couldn’t think about it. I asked him if he was okay. He said yes, at least physically. He told me that the guy who had been making Siobhan and me laugh so hard at Astor Bar was a trader at the NYSE, and he, like Siobhan, made it out in the nick of time. The two of them may very well have been running away from the collapse on the same street. New York is a huge city but it is also a very small town.
September 10 was a Monday. I had gotten no sleep because of the romping the night before. But I felt wide awake, alert, my mind swirling with images, bursting out laughter from the shenanigans of the night before. My journal entry for that day is barely controlled hysteria and joy. “I’m happy, God, I’m so happy right now!”
Just 5 days before, my roommate Jen and I had moved into a new apartment. Our landline was not hooked up yet, our TV was not hooked up yet … and all of this ended up being a huge problem once the events of that month unfolded. It took us a month and a half to finally get a phone, because of the chaos in the city. On that Monday, when I returned home from work, our entire kitchen was still in boxes. We had barely unpacked.
All windows opens. Cross-breeze.
My heart was still singing from my hours-long evening in the presence of a man who seemed to get me, seemed to enjoy me. Those were dark years for me when I subsisted on crumbs.
Jen was there, arranging her room, getting accustomed to her new space. We both had bedrooms facing East. The gleaming World Trade Center towers were visible above the Hoboken skyline. I could see them from my bedroom, and they looked different from minute to minute, since they reflected the ever-changing sky.
(photo I took of our view from my bedroom. I took this photo on September 10th.)
Jen and I ended up laying down on her bed, our feet dangling off the sides, looking out at the Manhattan skyline. And I told her the entire story of the night before. “You’re never gonna guess who I ran into last night …”
Being a wonderful friend, she asked me 598 questions, and we talked about it to our hearts content. She had me re-enact certain moments so she could get the full picture. Great fun.
But it makes me uneasy to remember it now.
It was about 10 pm, and Jen said that she was afraid she was going to have trouble getting to sleep that night because it was a new place and all. And would I mind reading out loud to her? Maybe that would help her go to sleep.
She had never asked such a thing before. It was a strangely intimate request. I love reading out loud but wasn’t sure what I should read. She said, “Just pick out a book you like – I don’t care …”
I was so excited. I went into my room where, of course, the first thing I had organized had been all my books. I thought: “Hmmm. what do I want to read to her … what do I want to read to her…”
Out of nowhere, I picked out Paul Zindel’s The Pigman, one of my favorite books ever written. I first read it in 8th grade but its charm and humor has never palled. It was one of those life-saving books I read at an all-important time, when everything seems dark and grim (re: junior high) and that book, about 2 freakish outsider kids who befriend a weird little old man who collects china pigs, made me realize I wasn’t alone. That there were other freaks like me out there, that life could be beautiful, that you could have a possibility of joy in life.
That is what The Pigman is about.
Maybe I pulled that book off the shelf that night because of the clear dovetail between the book and my feelings about my crush, and what that crush unleashed in me. There is definitely a connection. It all feels like the same experience, in my memory.
Jen and I curled up on her bed, the summery night wind blowing through the dark window, and I read a couple of chapters out loud to her.
Such a strange and intimate thing to do.
We never did it again. That was the only time.
And The Pigman ended up not being the best choice because it is laugh-out-loud funny at times, and I could barely get through it. Jen kept guffawing like a mad woman, instead of falling asleep. I kept being unable to go on, and so my laughter would make her start to laugh, and the whole thing disintegrated into a guffaw-fest.
As I read it, with tears of laughter in my own eyes, I kept interrupting myself and saying to Jen, “God, I haven’t read this in years … this is so fun …” I remember reading it in Ireland in a B&B when I was 14 and laughing so loudly that my mother had to come down and tell me to be quiet.
I got through about three chapters. Things started to quiet down.
Jen finally murmured, “Okay. I think I can fall asleep now.”
I tiptoed out of her room, turned the light off, and went into my new room.
There was something heightened and very tight in my heart. Sometimes I get too excited. My experience of things is so intense I can’t bear it. I can’t sleep. I lie in bed, going over and over and over things that excite me, obsessively.
And that’s what I did that night, after writing in my journal feverishly about the Astor Bar meeting with my love-at-first-sight friend, my crush that I could not have, but loved anyway.
I lay in bed, for hours, the darkness in front of my eyeballs, re-living that moment when I first walked into Astor Bar … and he sat up straight in his chair … and he followed me with his eyes … and his voice boomed across the bar, “WHY ARE YOU IGNORING ME…” It was on eternal replay … I didn’t know why it pleased me so much, but it had some intense and perfect aesthetic which I found so satisfying.
The other replay in my mind as I lay in bed on the night of September 10th was the entirety of the book The Pigman and how much I had enjoyed sharing that book with Jen in our new windy apartment staring out at the Manhattan skyline.
I thought to myself over and over in the darkness, as I slipped off into oblivion: I really must read that book again someday …