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Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Josefina Casals

Manhattan Maps

By Jacqueline Novak, exclusive fiction for Time Out New York

RECOMMENDED: The best new fiction in NYC

The relative smallness of the island of Manhattan itself ensures that when a love affair blooms and then rots within its bounds, the broken hearted will be assaulted with emotional triggers at every turn.

Like for Claire, there’s the particular noodle shop that used to be a café, where in 2011, one relevant He told her that friendship was their only future. Somewhere in the course of that conversation he had also mentioned, “my Dad said that when he first met you he found you a bit ornery.” This revelation about His father, whom she’d met once when, bothered her even more than His snipping of what she had felt was a taut romantic cord between them. They’d said goodnight with a hug that was full of holes. As her chest grazed his, she felt acutely aware of her breasts as embarrassing flesh he had essentially just told her possessed no pull on him.

He walked off looking utterly unaffected, adjusting the wool coat that she suddenly decided she’d hated all along. She looked up the word on her phone, and while walking in the direction of her apartment, she clicked through the links of synonyms, not because she didn’t know what “ornery” meant, but because suddenly so much seemed staked on its definition. She wanted to wade around in its waters a bit. Why would she care what this guy’s father thought? She wasn’t sure, but it seemed important.

Passing by that particular noodle shop, ever since, made her feel, frankly, ornery. Luckily, it only took ten to twenty strides to move through and out of range of the aura of the place, which seemed to extend only five or so feet beyond its awning, a small enough zone that she didn’t have to actively avoid the street.

Other memories managed to consume entire avenues, particularly if they involved a long wine-warmed walk with a romantic interest. Claire considered warning younger friends new to the City to avoid any tempting endless strolls with potential lovers. It would be wiser to quarantine any early romantic exchanges with emotionally high-risk prospects to specific venues they wouldn’t mind losing access to in the future, say, a restaurant with overpriced but under-seasoned fish, any small contained gangrenous properties that could be swiftly amputated from their New Yorks, if need be. But she held her tongue. She didn’t want to come off as emotionally cautious, even to her friends, but mostly to herself. She already possessed a slight frame and limp hair, and dressed fairly conservatively. If she didn’t bring emotional recklessness to her physical meekness, she feared it would swallow her whole like a small insignificant tear in space leading to an immense vacuum.

Lovely memories threatened to pain her more. She didn’t have any interest in stewing in them. Instead, the moment she sensed a warmly gold-tinged memory floating into the periphery of her consciousness, she edged around it. The pull of a fragrant memory, the kind that threw the lights up on a series of others, set off dread in Claire. If she let herself inhale it completely, she risked a specific emotion that she could not tolerate: the sudden apprehension of a quality of life she once possessed and hadn’t noticed she lost. Gross, forlorn. She would have none of it.

The memory of one goofy, long walk with another relevant He, all the way from the East Village through Murray Hill to Midtown had certainly ruined a good portion of 3rd Ave, and maybe even 2nd. This memory had heavy wet tentacles that slapped down far from its center, oblivious to the grid.

Walking together, shoulder to shoulder, pitched forward in the cold, this one Matt told Claire a long story about playing High School football, which completely shocked and delighted her, because he simply did not have the face of someone you’d expect to play that sport. His face in a helmet? No. At least that’s what she had told him, and it immediately sparked a shift in their dynamic. Acknowledging that he had a face at all, that she had noted it, and formed opinions on it – this created some kind of crude, simple intimacy. Best, its nonsensicality led him to demand an explanation – what about my face? —at which point she realized why she had really said it. Not because she believed football demanded a certain nose, but because she was looking for an excuse to reach up, extending her stiff, cold fingers just past the bunched cuff of her sleeve, to touch him. She ended up grazing his cheekbone with the rough cuff of her sleeve, creating a tiny bit of mutual embarrassment, a disruption of their rhythm. That rift became a doorway, offering one moment to move through it, and they did. Then they were somewhere else, where a kiss didn’t seem outrageously far off, but a mere logistical matter of distance, of choosing whose bottom lip would be the one enclosed by the other’s.

Despite the reputation, Manhattan does sleep, and while the relative desolation of entire avenues as early as 11:30PM isn’t something anyone likes to talk about, it is one of the city’s unexpected gifts. This unimpressive stretch of a silent, corporate Midtown East had provided Claire and Matt the best opportunity they’d get that night to make out in the street.

They came to a stop next to the glass storefront of a dark, empty, Lysol’d PAX Wholesome Foods that filled out the corner of the base of one massive stupid building. Just inside the glass window, you could see the one item they had left out overnight, a basket of individually plastic-wrapped apples, atop a wire stand, a reminder of the shifty, glaring midtown workday, whose participants were at the moment, elsewhere and asleep. There, in that vacancy they could press against each other like two rodents, without anyone around to push by and interrupt her idea of herself, or destroy the conjured sense that they were in the midst of something nuanced and meaningful.

Later, that stroll took on significance in her narrative with that particular Matt, whom she later referred to as Matt the Third, as she had already endured significant relationships with two Matts in recent years. While at the time that night felt like a beginning, it was actually just the start of the End, and this perspective cast a pale pink arrow of dénouement over the entire East side. She found herself hoping to have relationships with at least another two new Matts, and soon. That way, she could refer to the first new one as Matt III, erasing this previous Matt III from her history. Assuming that affair might fail, she thought ideally she would end up with Matt IV, the true Matt, whom she would simply call Matt, collapsing all the others to a single particle, and then discarding it.

It still felt cruel to Claire, the fact that on a day like today, a Tuesday, the most distinctly arbitrary day of the calendar week, New York rubbed her nose in the shit that constituted her past decisions. She’s working a bad job when she suddenly realizes that her lunch break options have placed her squarely inside that same PAX Wholesome Foods, the one where she thought she and Matt III were making “real progress.” She had even used that term in a text message to a friend later that night. Suffering the shrill 11AM sun, which warms her place in line, she uses her fingernail to unwrap a granny smith from its plastic, because she’s making healthier choices these days. It’s mealy, but tart enough to make up for it. As she takes a bite, and heads back to the unfamiliar office, she doesn’t glance at the spot where she had kissed Matt III (there still hadn’t been another.) She walks past the memory of her old self with disdain, purposely ignoring her, that asshole with the glassy, happy eyes who no doubt laughed too loudly that night, who probably didn’t look as pretty as she thought she did when she raked her fingers through her bangs, sweeping them to the side. That was before she figured out the right hair product for her texture. It turned out her hair was not “very fine.” It was thick, but she just didn’t have a lot of it. She couldn’t use pomades. Claire finds herself shaking her head, grimacing, as she tosses the apple in the trash. Someone hears her grunt and perceives her disgust as directed at a and apple, but in fact, she is thinking about how those overly greased bangs must have stuck to her forward in flat pieces.

Some areas of the city housed multiple memories, and she never knew which she’d find herself walking into. Passing through certain neighborhoods, it was like looking at the gestalt drawing of the old crone, buried in the young woman’s neck. It shifted, suddenly.

The tangled branching of the streets in the West Village was starting to have this effect on her. In the summer, it reminded her of the July she had looked after her friend’s vacant apartment, when she stayed inside during a heat wave, and read all of the Malcolm Glad well’s left stacked on the nightstand. Even though she had the apartment to herself, she spent all her time shut in the bedroom, the one room with the AC. Her friend’s two humongous cats weighed down the sheet, keeping it from billowing up from the force of the box fan that supplemented the half-dead window unit with the red, glowing Clean Filter light. That was the Summer when she thought she wanted to get a graduate degree at NYU, and ten of the application PDF’s lived on her computer’s desktop, from every late night when she’d drunkenly clicked “apply,” triggering an automatic download.

In the winter, the same neighborhood reminded her of something simpler, just the feeling of being insecure about her body, the sensation of wearing tights under jeans, and the smell of polyurethane wood floors. She had taken a dance class at a little studio there a few winters before, and the legitimate ballerinas who used such classes to “stay limber” were permanently stationed in the coffee shop next door. Even though it was cold, Claire would get an iced coffee there after class to quench her thirst, and the dancers, who slouched in such a way that they each took up at least three seats, sat in front of their untouched, buttered bagels, joking crassly about people from their dancer world.

This was a good sign, though, the doubling of impressions about the West Village. It suggested a kind possibility that New York only starts out as an adhesive surface, where every corner catches your experiences and relentlessly presents them back to you next time you pass. Maybe after you live there long enough, the stickiness wears down to a dull matte and new traumas can’t attach themselves. Eventually, the collective memory of the city absorbs those of the individual’s like seasoning, the mixture will quicken, and the island will finally hold itself before her, under her, not as a reflection, but as a heavy, trustworthy thing in itself. Then Claire will walk aimlessly. She will navigate Manhattan absentmindedly, as if in a conversation with a friend, someone she trusts not to bring up something that could sting.
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