The shower curtain in his apartment was designed as a subway map. My boyfriend's apartment in the East Village was full of this artsy stuff – the sleek black couches, the astro-turfed balcony, the mugs with no handles and the clock with no hands. When I moved in, my boyfriend and his Parson's roommates had a garlic-grater and an almond-cracker but no can opener. They had thumb-tacked a cheese-tasting guide over their espresso machine. They bought organic toilet paper that choked the pipes and a $100 bamboo-scented candle which only served to cover the smell of the imported cheeses molding in the sub-zero.
We smoked cigarettes with long-handled filters off the balcony, and drank Belgian beer in handle-less mugs, looking down on the small dogs walked by tall women in long skirts. We all were just kids, that summer in New York, with time to kill and money to spend, cooped in the heat of an apartment in the long months of the city.
And the shower was the only place to get away from it. The curtain mapped routes with long, bold lines and I traced them with soapy fingers, memorizing escape. Aaron's apartment was on 2nd Ave in the East Village, right by Astor Place, off the L or the 4,5,6. The L was a thick, ash-gray line and ran waist-high on the curtain; the 4,5,6 ran from head-to-toe like the city's vertabrae. 3rd Avenue and Astor Place were equal walking distances from his apartment, but I liked Astor Place better. It reminded me of Berkeley: the street kids, the sweaty-urine smell, the three for $10 knock-off sunglass stalls. I liked the free smoothie samples and popsicle stand on the corner, the muggy chaos, the grime that layered the street, slicking it with old vomit and spilled engine oil.
Aaron, however, liked 3rd Avenue. The Starbucks was right there, he said, and he loved drinking his mocha browsing through the artsy bookstore next door. It was air-conditioned and clean. The sidewalks were bigger and unfreckled by old chewing gum, they weren't clogged by kids jangling change in empty paper cups and he liked stopping into Crunch Fitness on the way home to say hi to his trainer or pick up a protein shake.
It was the fight between Astor Place and 3rd Avenue ended us. It was hot in August and we had run out of things to do in the apartment; we had smoked cigarettes on the balcony until our lungs burned, set off the smoke detector trying to scramble eggs, and tried, half-heartedly to have sex until we both realized that the sweat wasn't worth it. So reluctantly, we packed a picnic basket to go to the park. I layered Lunchables into two Frisbees and Aaron packed in bran muffins and Italian salami from the care package his mom sent him every Friday. I wore a blue sundress. When Aaron said I looked pretty, I pecked him on the cheek. We held hands till the split between 2nd and Astor Place, when I started to veer right, “The stop is right there”
He let go, “No, it's faster to go to 3rd, take the L to the NRQW.”
“Transfer? On a Tuesday afternoon? It'll be so crowded at Union Square.” I pulled his wrist towards Astor Place.
“So? It's more crowded on this street anyway,” he pointed to the bums and the popsicle man pushing his cart. “You can't be serious, Aaron, getting on at Astor Place will drop us off at Hunter and then it's like two blocks!”
It went on like this for a while, standing there holding wrists, half a block from our apartment. Finally, after twenty minutes of arguing, when we both realized it really wasn't subways we were arguing about, when the chocolate melted in brown pools onto the Frisbee and my wrist slipped with sweat, I said I really needed to take a shower and we went home.
The water was cool against the shower curtain and the subway map streamed with humidity. The city looked like it was melting. I ran my finger along the green line from Astor Place, passing Union Square, Grand Central, up all along those New York landmarks to Hunter. Just a couple of blocks west and we'd have been at the park, laid out on the grass, feeding each other squares of melted chocolate. He would have said he loved me and I might have believed him, seeing the blue of his eyes against the green of Central Park, seeing us making it work after so many years apart, him in New York, me 3,000 miles away in California. He could have said it then and I would have believed him. But he didn't and I traced the route then, with soapy fingers, standing naked in his shower from Astor Place to the airport.
A couple of weeks later, I took the subway by myself. I knew it didn't make sense to get to JFK by starting at Astor and transferring to the ACE at Fulton. But I wanted that route. Aaron said he'd pay for my cab but I wanted to take the subway. I wanted to roll my suitcases in one hand and hold a dripping popsicle in the other. To hand out the last sweaty dollar bill to the street kid on the corner of 2nd and Astor. To swipe my Metrocard and run down the stairs, three at a time, banging my Birkenstocks against the brick. And I didn't want any more of his money and felt like I didn't need any more of his help. So he took me as far as Astor Place, saying again that I was being ridiculous and he didn't give a shit about the fifty buck cab ride, that he wanted me to be safe.
I tried not to cry and he tried to pass off the wetness on his face as sweat as we realized that, after three years, we were breaking up at a filthy subway station in ninety degree heat arguing about a cab ride. We both looked away from each other as I said, too loudly, that I heard my train underground. He asked again if I didn't want help to JFK. I said that I could manage and that I knew he didn't like riding the subway. He looked down, bouncing his Marc Jacobs sneakers against the pavement as if testing for the train's vibrations and said that we know each other too well to argue with that.
And, with that, I took the subway to the airport and a plane back to California. I haven't been back to New York or heard from him since. It has been six months. We figured it was better that way, that we knew each other too well to only talk sometimes. And I've tried my hardest not to think about him or how much in love we used to be. But, sometimes, when I can't bury it all and I think about the city and Aaron and the three years we were together, I think about the subway and its underground course through the city. I think about the labyrinth carved under the sidewalks, the tangle of lines and colors and numbers incised like veins into the city and need go outside, to remind myself of California and press my ear to the sidewalk, hoping for nothing but the rumbles of the San Andreas fault.
words: Adrienne Johnson, California (more & mail)
image: Jeff Crouch, Texas (more)