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such great heights

they will see us waving from such great heights

come down now, they'll say

but everything looks perfect from far away

come down now, but we'll stay

-the postal service

 

I'm settled in the backseat of a stranger’s black Toyota sedan, looking out the foggy window and watching leftover rain drip and stretch across the glass. I’ve been dreading this moment since I booked my plane ticket for this trip. Ridesharing goes against everything I learned growing up as a child in the 90s. We were taught that getting into cars with strangers is the very worst thing and that we should never do it. And in proper millennial fashion, we ignored our parents and invented ridesharing. It sets off every internal alarm, but I do it anyway. I guess convenience overrides fear. 

Traveling gives me anxiety. Actually- that’s not true. Impending travel gives me anxiety. Once the travel starts, I’m fine. But from the moment I book the trip until the moment it begins, I’m a mess. I’m what my therapist calls a catastrophizer. Worst possible scenarios play over and over in my mind. Loud and intrusive. Eventually, a made-up version of my future reality feels inevitable, and I regret having made plans to ever leave the safety of my house. Because now, I’m going to die. And it’s all my fault. The simmering thought of taking an Uber, alone in New York City, had me convinced for weeks that I would surely end up dead in Central Park and on an episode of Dateline. My sweet children, destined to grow up without their mother. Instead, I’m riding in a Camry, un-murdered, berating myself for being such a constant idiot.

See psycho? Anxiety is a liar. You’re fine.

I dig my phone out of my Kavu crossbody bag and type, “On my way to youuuuu!” followed by a black heart/sparkle emoji combo and hit send.

“Yayyyyy! So excited to squeeze you!” Anne texts back. I heart react and look back out the window.

Anne and I lived in San Diego at the same time. She originally came from Orange County and now she lives here in New York. When we found out that Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service were touring together for the twentieth anniversary of their Transatlanticism and Give Up albums, we bought nosebleed seats at Madison Square Garden, and I carved out 36 hours to make this trip. 

A lingering storm kept my plane circling above the city for half an hour before we finally landed at LaGuardia, with the sun. It’s dark now and still a little bit rainy. The iconic city skyline fills the driver’s windshield as we cross the East River. I try to snap a backseat picture to send my husband, but all I get is a hazy, rain-dripped blur. I decide to send a selfie instead, snap one, and delete it immediately. Traveling has not been kind to my face or hair today. Not that my husband would care. We joke that he would find me beautiful even if wrapped in a potato sack. The last time I came to New York was when we eloped, nearly thirteen years ago. We flew from San Diego to La Guardia just a few days after Christmas and rang in 2011 from outside the Days Inn hotel on Broadway and 96th. We had planned to countdown in Times Square and watch the ball drop, but the massive crowd threatened a panic attack, so we slipped back down to the trains just as the NYPD placed barricades around station entrances. We grabbed some pizza on our way to our hotel and accidentally met Anthony Michael Hall waiting in line behind him. I got so flustered that I left my wallet sitting on the counter and had to walk back in to get it with my face on fire. Mr. Hall watched me, fully amused by my painful existence.

We did all the Big Apple things. The Empire State Building, Times Square, Top of the Rock, The Statue of Liberty, Chinatown, Central Park, The MET, MOMA, and The Museum of Natural History. But we deviated from the typical tourist routine with a stop at the New York State Building to secure a marriage license. “Marry You” by Bruno Mars lived in my head all week long.

It's a beautiful night, we're looking for something dumb to do. Hey baby, I think I wanna marry you.

My Oleg Cassini princess ballgown came with us from California. I had hoped there would be a place to hang it on the plane, but there was not. Instead, I rolled it up into a ball, smashed it into an overhead bin, and hoped a stray piece of tulle didn’t get snapped up in the latch when I slammed it shut. My husband’s tux came from a shop we found on Broadway, two nights before we got married. We met our officiant and photographer in Vanderbilt Hall and executed a guerilla-style ceremony in full formal wedding attire at Grand Central Station for under four hundred dollars.

I text Anne a screenshot of my location to show her how close I am.

“Perfect, I just grabbed dinner,” she texts back.

I’ve known Anne for seventeen years. It seems impossible, but I did the math. We met in our twenties, waiting tables at The Fish Market in downtown San Diego — a sprawling chaotic seafood restaurant overlooking the bay. She was one of my trainers when I started. I was struck by her. She radiated confidence, a trait I lacked but longed for. On our first shift together, I sat in adoration while we folded red linen napkins, and she detailed her recent exit from a dysfunctional relationship. Confident and independent, everything I was not. I was intimidated by her, but I wanted to be her friend. Anne obliged and took me under her wing. I’m still not sure why. She barely knew me. But she still hyped me up to management when a floor supervisor position opened up. A position that allowed us to sit together at table sixteen every Thursday afternoon and do server checkouts while the real managers held their weekly meetings behind closed doors. We babysat the floor staff and gossiped while we ate tuna melts with bacon and avocado and dipped our French fries in chocolate mousse. We made lattes with six espresso shots each and hoped our hearts could take it. Work became secondary on Thursday afternoons as we laid a foundation of friendship. Anne and I fell in love at table 16. Not romantic and not platonic, but a third kind of messy love that manifested in lots of public affection, but never behind closed doors.

I glance down at my phone to watch my location dot move through Central Park. I look back out my borrowed window to see high stone walls that separate the street from the park foliage and am again relieved that I’m not tomorrow’s Jane Doe discarded like trash on the other side of it. We turn left onto Central Park West, then right, and my driver slows to a stop.

“Here,” he mumbles as he shifts the car into park.

It’s the first and only word he says to me during the 30-minute trip from the airport. He nodded and smiled as I checked his face and license plate against the Uber app, but said nothing. He gets out of the car and goes to the trunk while I open my door and step out onto the sidewalk. In an instant, everything feels familiar even though it really isn’t. It’s weird how New York City is that way, even more than other big cities. I don’t think any place in America is more distinct. The streets feel like I’ve walked them before. I expect Carrie Bradshaw to appear stumbling down the sidewalk on her way home, tipsy and giggling. Manolo Blahniks in one hand, the other hooked around the elbow of this season’s boyfriend. I search for numbers on the dark buildings. They all look the same and I’m unsure if Anne’s is to the left or right. My driver sets my suitcase down beside me, I thank him, and he nods as he leaves. Truly a man of no words. I didn't try to start any conversations either. Small talk is excruciating and I avoid it when I can. Maybe he feels the same. I tip the maximum suggested and rate him five stars, mostly for the simple fact that I arrived alive. I feign confidence as I head to my right, pulling my carry-on roller behind me. I scan the brownstones for Anne's address, still pretending I know where I am. 128, 130, 132…oops, wrong way. I turn around hoping no real New Yorker notices my misdirection, exposing me as an out-of-towner. I count back down and find the one that I think is hers. I don’t see a number, but the marked buildings on either side give me confidence. 

“I think I’m here,” I text.

“Coming to get you,” she shoots back.

Years before we eloped in New York, on my twenty-fourth birthday, my husband proposed to me at Disneyland. He got down on one knee in front of the Rainforest Cafe and presented a shiny turquoise Robbins Brothers box that held my dream engagement ring inside - a delicate Tacori wedding band with a full carat Emerald cut diamond in it. It was gorgeous. Just like that, we were on track to live happily ever after. We planned a big wedding, put down deposits, and I picked out the dress. And then my feet got cold. And colder. And colder. I struggled for months, with the concept of marriage, and whether or not I was cut out for it. I stayed but I was panicking inside. I didn’t feel ready to be married and didn’t know if I ever would be. It's true that love isn't enough. Anne let me sit on her loveseat after work some nights and cry, spilling my swirling thoughts about getting married or not getting married. Thoughts that felt too sad and terrible to say out loud anywhere else. 

Anne appears at the bottom of the steps inside the building and pushes through two glass doors to greet me. She’s the same. Perfect auburn ringlets still rest on freckle-marked skin left exposed by her signature oversized sweatshirt, hanging off one shoulder. She sees me and smiles, her eyes sparkling. She throws her arms around me and squeezes tight, as promised. It’s a familiar embrace. Safe. I didn’t know I missed her so much. 

“You’re here!” She squeals.

“I’m here!” I sing back.

She squeezes me tight again before letting go and takes my suitcase from me.

“Here, let me have this. It’s just a little climb,” she says. I follow her through the two glass doors, and we head up the stairs.

Anne caught me during my quarter-life crisis. After I left my fiancé and became the most insane version of myself, Anne loved me anyway. I was…a lot. And oblivious to the fact. And in the depths of my own chaos, I thought I could be a hero and save my friend Tyler from our tiny hometown in Missouri where he was drowning himself in bottles of cough syrup and beer. He was a combat veteran and his universal addiction to whatever drug passed through his hands had been cemented firm long before he ever thought about joining the army. His new reality, in the wake of active combat in Iraq, was a brain on fire desperate for any substance that might cool it off. I scooped him up and brought him to San Diego. I had just left my fiancé and was technically homeless, but I was committed to our shared delusion that we could solve all our problems together. Anne welcomed us both into her tiny studio in Banker’s Hill, against the advice of every single one of her friends, and let us invade her cozy little space until we got ourselves straightened out.

It comes as a surprise to no one that I couldn’t save Tyler from himself after all. Because that isn’t how addiction or recovery works. And I had no business saving anyone. I was my own mess. It all ended badly, and Tyler went back to Missouri, unsaved. And after he left, I was free. I had walked away from an almost marriage right into a sticky web of complicated commitment I was absolutely unqualified to navigate. 

I was finally untethered and I could do whatever I wanted.

Every night after work was a new adventure with Anne. We were single ladies looking for nothing except a good time, and maybe a little bit of trouble. We drank Dirty Shirleys at The Cherry Bomb that were 95% vanilla vodka and almost nothing else. We took off our bras and threw them on the karaoke stage at The Brass Rail. We ate mushrooms and walked around downtown San Diego, stopping in the middle of the road to admire liquid street art and squelchy stoplights that morphed into flowers as we watched them. Once she surprised me with tickets to Jenny and Johnny at The Casbah, so close to the stage we could have reached out and touched them. We partied and made bad decisions and loved each other endlessly through all the mistakes unhealed 20-somethings make when they are trying to rinse away sad childhoods with sex and alcohol. Anne was exactly what I needed in the summer of 2008. A messy friend who loved me, without judgment.

Life moved forward, as it tends to do. Anne and I never lost touch completely, but it was never the same as it was that summer. We went in different directions. I moved to LA, and she got a boyfriend. I moved back to San Diego when I realized all alone in my sixth-floor studio apartment that I did want to get married after all. After we eloped and my husband and I moved to Missouri again and had two kids. When I’d visit San Diego, Anne and I would meet for lunch, stroll through the OB farmer's market, or see a concert if we timed it right. Two hours here and then two hours a couple of years later, not nearly enough to really know each other anymore. Then, she moved to New York. Now we follow each other on Instagram and chat occasionally through our DMs.

We get to Anne’s door on the third floor, and I can’t breathe.

“Oh my god, you do this every day?!” I huff, trying to catch my breath.

“Yep! It can suck, but I’m used to it.”

She unlocks her door, I follow her in, and she sets my suitcase down. Her apartment is bigger than I expected it to be. The high ceilings help. Strategically stacked houseplants thrive in the corner by tall windows that overlook fire escapes on brownstone buildings a street over. I watch Anne pull two plates from a cupboard in the tiny kitchen and place them next to a grease-stained brown paper bag.

“This is such a cute place! I love it!”

“Thanks,” and she takes a small moment before she says, “I love it too.”

We make plates of takeout Thai and eat standing up in the kitchen. We take sporadic bites that interrupt stories about my kids, her post-pandemic life in New York, and what our mutual friends in San Diego are doing now. Our words float back and forth to each other without effort as we take turns filling each other in on the facts of our lives. I tell her to never move into a fixer-upper unless she plans for an inevitable mental breakdown because the rooms are never functional at the same time, and you can never settle in. She tells me to never move into a New York City apartment during a pandemic unless I accept that the rent will definitely double after said pandemic is over.

We finish eating, move to the couch, and continue on talking about being forty-ish instead of twenty-ish. We have glasses of water because neither of us drinks much alcohol anymore. We compare the Middle American Trump Era experience to the New York City one. I tell her about how I was afraid to leave my house after Trump won in 2016. She tells me about the parties in the streets the day Biden won in 2020. I tell her about my mom-life crisis that cracked me open and spilled a swamp of anxious depression into every corner of my life. We talk about unpacking the dusty boxes of trauma we ignored in our twenties only to find them in our thirties perfectly preserved, waiting to be processed. She tells me about her whirlwind trip to Greece, where she met Drew. She says he was the love of her life. And that they tried to stretch themselves between San Diego and New York but couldn’t so, she moved to New York, four months before the pandemic hit. I tell her how I started to write a book about Tyler and our time in San Diego. And how I had to stop writing and find a therapist when I got to the part about his suicide. I told her how it sent me into a sea of fresh, guilty grief I couldn’t swim out of alone, even though he had been gone for ten years.

“Grief waits for you,” she says.

She tells me how one day, Drew felt something lodged in his throat, like a stuck pill he couldn’t swallow down. And how he made an appointment to get it checked. Her voice cracks when she says that it was stage four esophageal cancer. She tells me about the awful treatments and how crushing it was to be the kind of caregiver she needed to be for him. And how he started to feel better and looked forward to running marathons again. She tells me how she found this apartment, their dream apartment, and how difficult it was to get him up the three flights of stairs just to look at it. She tells me how they had so much hope that he would get better, but that he died instead, eight short months after his diagnosis. And now she lives in New York all alone.

She cries.

And I cry too. 

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