[Names are whatever I want them to be]
I spent much of my youth with a group of boys, which explains why I was such a surly kid. Following church one Sunday afternoon, where the message had been “Good Ideas vs. God Ideas” (your wisdom or God’s wisdom), a group of us gathered at a buddy’s place to hang out and be teenage boys.
From a tall tree in that friend’s backyard, a zip line had been attached that shot across the yard to a patch of grass a dozen or so yards off. This bright summer day, the boys were taking turns riding, but there was a hold out: Dylan. No matter how much the other boys badgered him, Dylan wouldn’t ride the line.
“I don’t think it’s safe,” he protested.
“Well, maybe that’s a good idea,” a kid named Chet intoned, “but is it a God idea?”
It says something about Christian youth that, even as a joke, that line still worked: Dylan climbed the tree. I surmise the jumping off spot for the zip line must have been roughly three stories, though details are fuzzy: let’s say at least 25 feet. By the point Dylan was stepping up to the ledge, at least four or five other boys had already ridden the line.
Effectively goaded, Dylan stepped out of the tree, putting all of his faith in the strength of the line, and immediately dropped. The line snapped. He hit the ground like a rock.
There is an art to jumping out of a tree, and Dylan apparently had forgotten it: Instead of bending his legs and rolling with the momentum, he locked his knees and came straight down on his feet. Following that fall, Dylan spent the next few weeks in a wheelchair, though nothing was broken, only bruised.
When Dylan hit the ground, he went fetal, writhing in pain. The rest of us were frozen in a mixture of shock and awe until Chet broke the silence with the soundest theological statement I’ve ever heard:
“Maybe it was a God idea.”
I met Sophie the way all New Yorkers meet: outside a Williamsburg coffee shop after attending an independent movie premiere. This short film, about the Manson Family, had been created by a friend and his theater troupe. At 30 minutes, it was an artfully shot re-enactment of rape and murder, a feel good romp if ever there was one.
Sophie, not part of the troupe but involved in theater, had a role in the film. The post-screening party was being hosted at a nearby Starbucks that also served alcohol. When the only two people I knew were otherwise engaged, I wound up outside conversing with a group that included Sophie and another woman, Amy.
With the party unwinding, Sophie, Amy, and I, joined by some guy named Stan, continued our night at Rosemary’s around the corner. As tends to happen with the male of the species, once in a booth, Stan brashly hijacked the conversation and soon the ladies and I were communicating telepathically to make our escape.
After telling Stan we were calling it a night, the three of us regrouped outside and Sophie suggested that we prolong the night back at her Greenpoint apartment. Though late, her place was just past McCarren Park, so we hoofed it. Along the way, spurred by the admission of my Kansas youth, we turned to the topic of climbing trees, as you do.
“Everyone climbs trees in Kansas,” I probably said, because this is factually accurate.
“I never have,” Sophie admitted. Since alcohol was involved, her confession became a challenge.
The London Planetrees lining the park weren’t as sturdy as the cottonwoods I had grown up with, but they’d do. Showing surprising dexterity, I scurried up one and straddled the lowest hanging limb. Proud that I could still get up a tree in my 30s, I jumped out with ease, a height of maybe eight feet. It was Sophie’s turn, now.
We selected a suitable option and with a little assistance from Amy and I, Sophie scampered up the tree’s white tree trunk. As she settled into the nook between its three branching limbs, her expression was a mixture of relief and mild terror.
Reveling in the glorious absurdity of our endeavor, I neglected to mention the most important part of climbing a tree: the dismount. Leaving Sophie in her perch, Amy and I chatted a few feet away when, in our peripheral, we saw Sophie come sailing down.
The art of jumping out of a tree is best learned when you’re a child and your body is made out of rubber. You might start by cautiously sliding your ass along the trunk until you’re on the ground with a scratched up back, or maybe you just take a haphazard leap and limp off the impact. Eventually, having done it enough times, you develop a second nature for it.
Having never climbed a tree in her youth, Sophie wasn’t practiced in this particular skill. Landing firmly on her ankles, she crumbled to the ground. Amy and I raced to her side and helped her up. Attempting to put weight on her right foot, Sophie yelped in pain.
“I think I broke my foot,” she fretted.
Imbued with the confidence of manhood and alcohol, I replied, “I doubt it. You probably just bruised your ankle.”
Though she was in evident pain – just how much, I didn’t realize at the time – we continued walking to Sophie’s apartment, she directing from the rear. Once there, we poured more drinks while Sophie elevated her leg. Removing her boot proved a struggle as her foot had ballooned inside. Now a discolored rainbow, I nonetheless surmised with my expert medical opinion that it was a minor injury. With enough ice, she’d be fine in a day or two.
A little later, I passed out on the couch while the two women talked. In the morning, Amy urged Sophie to see a doctor, but she was reluctant and I was still confident that it was unnecessary. However, since Sophie was struggling to walk and Amy had to go to work, I volunteered to hang out for the day. It was Friday morning, I didn’t work again until Saturday afternoon.
We whiled away the hours conversing and watching television on her couch. We ordered Chinese food for lunch. When the dog needed to go out, I walked him. There was such an easy, natural tempo to our conversation that we never hit a lull, whether we talked family, politics, or art. We delved into our pasts, those dark passages that few others ever saw. The sun rose and fell across her apartment’s bay windows.
It was almost dusk and the progression of the day had brought us together, our legs touching as I argued with myself whether or not I should kiss her. It seemed a foregone conclusion, but I’d been wrong before.
Glancing at me sideways, Sophie inquired, “So… is it wrong to fuck a cripple?”
Friday became Saturday. I made a few half-hearted efforts to exit throughout the morning, eventually leaving some time after noon to return to my Bed-Stuy apartment and get ready for work.
In my absence, a worried Amy returned and brought Sophie to urgent care. That night at work, I received a text:
My foot is broken.
I’d been in Brooklyn for eight months.
New York City couldn’t possibly live up to my fantasies, to the extended nine year tease I had put myself through; and yet, in many ways, it somehow did. Every free afternoon, I walked the borough, barely scratching Brooklyn’s 97 square miles. There was art and music and the quintessential melting pot of diverse residents. My first full weekend in the city, I saw Spoon play a rollicking concert in Central Park while the sun set over the treetops. Purely cinematic.
Shortly after my arrival, I attended a rooftop party at my apartment and met a young French photographer studying in the city for the semester. We had a brief, caustic affair and then she returned to Paris. Meanwhile, I served tables in Park Slope, one of the many neighborhoods in Brooklyn where the locals will proudly tell you how it had once been a much different, rougher neighborhood. Now, their dog walkers make six figures a year.
Naturally, New York tried to kick my ass. That’s what it does. It’s impatient and unkind, expensive and exclusive, unimpressed by anything you’ve ever done. The city doesn’t need you or want you, thank you very much; although, it’ll gladly have another meal.
And this is the easy version of New York City. Most everyone will report with nostalgia how much harder – and better – this city used to be. Nothing will ever be greater than the past.
Sophie’s broken foot complicated matters. She could no longer continue her theater internship, her main reason for being in the city. A job was out of the question and she was essentially immobile, Brooklyn being hostile to the hobbled. When not working, I was invariably with her.
After a few weeks, we attempted a visit to my apartment, a fourth floor walk-up. Our collective restiveness induced Sophie to push herself – and her foot – sooner than she should have. Every time Sophie thought her cast could come off, a new complication extended her recovery. As the weeks turned into months, my guilt grew exponentially, her every grimace a reminder that I had played an active role in her agony.
Sophie was immensely frustrated by her lack of mobility and her inability to take advantage of New York City’s lucrative theater network. She sought other avenues for pursuing her artistic ambitions. Having no great affinity for the city, no reason to chain herself to New York, she figured “why not?” and applied to numerous graduate schools, most of them in England where she had spent much of her childhood.
Though we were simpatico on most every level, our nights occasionally flipped from romantic to adversarial seemingly on a dime. We shared ideals, but some conversational tangents could splinter us, as tends to happen with any two headstrong people. Scotch might have been a factor.
Everything between us felt emotionally charged, whether discussing our pasts or our ill-defined futures, during physical intimacy or a heated argument. She challenged me, as a writer, as a thinker, as a man. She could infuriate me – and I her – but conversations with her never ended without me questioning my assumptions, and that’s a rare talent.
She was just as talented as a writer. Every grad school she applied to, most of them prestigious, accepted her. She had her pick of the litter. She was to be in England by September.
At the end of July, not even three months after we met, and less than a week after having her cast removed, Sophie flew to Washington to spend time with family before her next journey.
I don’t suppose either one of us thought we were built for the long-term. We’d both been nomads. So much of the fire between us was in the immediacy, the sense that neither one of us had ever known permanence – maybe we never would – but at least for a few hours together the outside world’s beckoning wasn’t so loud.
I would have taken more time with her, but she couldn’t stay. New York City wasn’t where she belonged; it wasn’t where she was going to make her mark. And she’ll make her mark. She’s a resolute woman, audacious in her convictions. She was always going to jump; I can’t wait to see her land.
Like few others, Sophie’s voice continues to ring in my ears. It’s the voice of my conflicting internal monologue, challenging my opinions and making me step back from my preconceptions. It’s telling me to listen more, speak less. I’m still debating with Sophie in my head, and she’s still winning.
The Final Reel
For the final week of 10 Cities/10 Years, as my first year in New York City came to an end, I hit the road with Emily. She was moving back west, from Boston to Los Angeles, after graduating from nursing school. Our route this time took us through Kansas where we spent a night with my family before continuing to see her brother in Flagstaff and on to Long Beach.
I stayed with Emily’s family for a couple days and revisited Costa Mesa where I met up with Selene who’d recently moved back home. After all the cities, all my experiences over the past decade, it felt like the pieces were being reset with the project’s conclusion. Maybe there would be nothing to show for the effort. No matter, that’s life.
On the last Saturday of August, I returned to New York to be alone.
There’s one detail I left out of Dylan’s story. Another kid didn’t ride the zip line that day: Me. I was just as scared as he was; more so, because not even God could get me up that tree. No one ever called me a particularly adventurous child, which is why I’m sure it surprised more than a few people when I embarked on this journey.
Ten years of constant uncertain, of impending financial ruin and personal angst – of being out on a limb – and I am no less afraid than when I set out. Anxiety still roils my gut when I enter an unfamiliar social situation, whether it be a new job or a packed bar. The self-doubts, the fear, it never abates.
I live with that fear every day, and I always will. It’s my main reason for climbing trees: so I’ll have to jump.
Read from the beginning