Manhattan is a city that exists as its own world. It is a neon hub that can spin tales of unthinkable crimes, unveiled corruption, and such love stories. Manhattan will keep your secrets, for she has seen everything already. A city that will never break your heart; instead, when someone else does, she’ll offer you shelter in the shadows of her skyscrapers.
I had only the hours in one day last summer to say farewell to a man who had managed to delve inside of me quite nicely. A man who belonged to someone else. In such circumstances where a full and complete relationship cannot be, the mind is forced into alternate feelings. It is a duality I wish upon no one. The wonderful pure state of knowing someone has feelings for you joined to the saddest reality that the two parties must not consummate those feelings. With a dull ache in my chest and enough apprehension to wake sleeping butterflies in my stomach, I traveled into Manhattan because it was the only place to say goodbye to a man visiting from far away.
When I informed him that I had arranged a private tour of the Empire State Building, he emailed me back, “You will be my Empire in the State of New York for a day.”
I stood in the lobby of the Empire State Building surrounded by a public relations committee of three men, until the man I wanted to be surrounded by, walked in.
I put my hand up in a gesture that was both a hello and a signal for him to stay back, please.
We walked toward each other and he greeted me with a kiss on the neck. Cruel, unfair delight.
No camera—cluttered tourists poured out of the elevators onto the 86th floor—the Empire State Building wasn’t actually open yet, it was just for us. And we could be us on this day, I thought. No one would tell. I think there may have been a few rattling’s from gift shop workers preparing to sell the Big Apple in every incarnation imaginable, but other than the readying for commerce, it was quiet above the city. If only my heart were as calm. We walked the square of the observatory where Hollywood plot lines had culminated, creating our own dialogue. I knew I could keep my eyes fixed on this most famous view if it got difficult. We made small talk. How do you like that? More than one thousand feet above Manhattan, during our last chance to see each other and we didn’t dare touch any truths. Too early in the morning for that, I suppose. I felt uncommonly shy in his presence. Time had already begun to greedily count away our minutes.
A boat was waiting for us at Chelsea Piers, captained by a wise man who knew far more than he let on. He made us smile with comfortable conversation and I believe he shared our excitement about sailing around Manhattan Island. Eventually we left our affable guide at the wheel and sat together on the bow. We were alone again but for the glorious city before us.
For me, I was grateful to have this day, and perhaps we did squander most of it speaking of simple things, nothings, but Manhattan took care of that. There was so much to see and imagine from this vessel; the city intervened generously. A tourist cruise line went by nearly spilling over with passengers on a similar, but less intimate, sightseeing excursion. We had no cameras—the only tangible reminders of this day would be all that our memories could hold.
I remember wishing the weather were cooler, I have often thought that bad things happen during summertime; the heat foreshadows better than any novelist.
We sailed up to the Statue of Liberty and as she looked down at us, I got her history all wrong.
What can you do?
We visited every New York landmark, on this boat, our boat. We saw a lone bagpiper practicing on the deck of a building. Everything seemed remarkable to me. We came up close to the Twin Towers. They were beautiful, glistening in the midday sun. Spectacular really. I had never seen them from this vantage point. Such dignity, such fame. We gazed at them as the boat heaved and dipped in the current. In a handful of days they would be gone. Their legend relegated to film, print, and images of the mind. I wouldn’t have wanted to say goodbye to these towers on that day. I would have cried for their death and felt less celebratory than I did watching them in awe from the boat.
Our day did not end beautifully. No violins, no wilting roses. There couldn’t be. On a Manhattan street there were many long embraces, broken and then continued again, and then again. I buried my head in his chest while a doorman unsuccessfully called a cab for him. And when that cab finally arrived I managed to turn and walk away. I kept walking until I became another person in the crowd.
I had hoped to hear from him the next day. Foolish expectation, I know. How could he contact me? What could be said? It would always be unfinished and there were no words to tidy up something that should never have been started. I tried to imagine what he was feeling. I tried to put that day in its own lovely little box and tuck it away for safekeeping.
In the midst of my melancholy, something far greater occurred that forced the entire world to mourn for the most independent city. On that day that stopped a world, my sadness fell away and was replaced by much more. Between telephone calls, news reports, and somber conversations, I noticed his name among others piled into my e-mail queue. I was hoping for his wisdom, his feelings, something I could wrap around myself and use to help me understand it all.
I opened his message. Only a few words. He could give me no more.
“The view we shared on the boat back from Liberty Island has changed forever.”
For some time, the thought of that view was all my memory could hold.