You find yourself thinking of an essay by Zadie Smith called Joy, that you were once listening to on Audible on a train, thinking about a man who isn’t your man. That’s okay. You’re in a hotel room in Boston, you’ve got two separate beds, they didn’t have any more king size beds. They did, they gave you one with a king size bed at first, but you switched, told them it was too close to the street and on the ground floor, traffic. Actually, you were scared someone might tap on your window, break your window, steal your things, smother you in your sleep. That time on a Romanian train going from Bucharest to your hometown, someone proposed to their girlfriend and she said yes and you texted all of your friends like you knew those people personally. It wasn’t excitement, you reckon, it was more along the lines of how peculiar it was that you were listening to Zadie Smith talk about the distinction between joy and happiness while someone did this. Also, why on earth would you want to propose in this smelly pit of a train. When you think about a train proposal you think you wouldn’t do it on the aisle, on your knees, you’d do it quietly, where your seats are, squeezing hands and locking eyes, mouthing flushed I love yous. And it wouldn’t be like Will you marry me, but rather like Should we do this. Joy doesn’t fit into everyday life. Feeling dizzy with joy to the point of losing your mind has nothing on fighting over who does the laundry. That’s happiness. You’re anxious to go home, you regret texting all of your friends.
It’s funny how you’re always embarrassed/feel ridiculous for living in the same town you were born in almost 24 years ago. But then you read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood on an American train and she’s been living in the same city she was born in. Except it’s Toronto, things probably happen in Toronto. You’ve been places though. Portugal was nice. You felt happy there. He says you romanticize it too much, you weren’t happier than you are now, you fought on Christmas night, don’t you remember? He slept on the couch. You don’t really get the whole sleeping on the couch thing, but okay. You do remember eating a crap ton of Pastel de nata and the overall warmth of the pavement and the streets and the air and the disgusting smell of Francesinha that you grew to love, the ocean and the angry seagulls you could hear through your kitchen air vent. The empty streets at Christmas time, when you walked aimlessly and all the restaurants you liked were closed, because the Portuguese like to be with their families a lot. And it was warm and weirdly depressing. You did like it. You did feel like you were happier. Although sad because you’d just cut your hair really short and for the first time regretted it, also because you injured your knee somehow and you had constant health anxiety attacks. But he kept them down. He bought you sour candy and massaged your feet. He ran out to buy tiny gifts and texted you instructions on how to kill some weird looking bug you found in the kitchen cabinet.
Scotland was nice, but lonely. Suddenly the idea of a one and only person to be with forever was inside you again and you thought he wasn’t it. It hadn’t been there since your first kiss ever probably, with a boy who liked to bring you SO many flowers. It was nothing spectacular, but he was good at kissing, right amount of tongue, you thought then, smelled nice. Sure, you got interrupted by his mother calling, but resumed right away. But now you were afraid to even think something was not right. He won’t say it was lonely, because he likes it when it’s just you two. Going to the gym in the morning, working, reading in cafes, going to the Sunday market in Stockbridge and never buying anything, wandering around wishing you both lived there, wishing you had tiny Scottish babies in cute little school uniforms, wishing you had money to live in Stockbridge and grocery shop at Waitrose. He would ask why you care so much about not being around many people and you wouldn’t know what to answer.
When you applied for the American visa they asked him to list the last 5 countries he’d been in. He’d been with you in all of them. Except one, because you had to be somewhere else, feeling guilty for flirting with someone else. You posted a photo of you wearing one of your mom’s old t-shirts. It ends just below your ass and your legs are bare in the photo. You don’t know why you did it. You do know why you did it.
Amsterdam was the nicest, you think. Mostly because you were very in love. You rented the small wooden upper floor of a narrow building owned by a lady named Elske. You remember her name because you thought it was a pretty alliteration: Elske Elf studio. It had a kettle that you found comforting and bedspreads that you found comforting and you cooked chicken wings in a pan and you still have a photo of him sleeping in the low low bed one morning, face turned to the side, hair still long and black. You had long blond hair then and it would always get tangled because of the heavy wind and you had to use half a bottle of conditioner to get it untangled. You remember taking a bike trip to the sea, your legs were so tired, he kept lying you were close, you smiled, hands gripping the handlebar tight, knowing he was lying. When you got to the beach you had a beef and cheese sandwich and sat in a small restaurant facing the sea. You can’t even remember the taste of meat now. You can’t remember the feeling of long hair low on your back.
This was your first time in America and you’re glad you saw New York together. He’s been wanting to see it since you first started dating. You feel silly and not yourself, giggly and affectionate like you haven’t been in the last year or so, hopeful and loving like a Netflix teen movie. Growing up you were obsessed with being in love, but never actually liked boys. Too pale, too much energy, eats too many Chipicaos, looks like he doesn’t wash his hands after peeing, cute but one time he hit your injured leg and broke your cast right on the spot your best friend drew a heart with your initials in it. There was one boy though, when you were about fourteen, but he liked your best friend. You danced together once and his breath smelled of lemongrass and resin and then later you found out another boy who liked you asked him to dance with you. You reckon now this other boy was actually a lot more beautiful than lemongrass boy, you remember him with black wavy hair and really big lips, small pearly teeth. He had the same name as your now-boyfriend. America makes you think of movies you watch when you have the flu. You always secretly wish you’d do a romcom marathon together. You’d never ask that though. You remember all of them before New York. Serendipity, You’ve Got Mail, Manhattan, you name it. You keep saying New York streets smell like both Christmas candy and summer skin, sweat, sunscreen, perfume. He keeps saying he doesn’t understand how you associate smells like that. It’s like no other city you’ve ever smelled. Speaking of Serendipity, it’s probably one of the stupidest movies in the history of stupid movies. Of course they’re all stupid, but this one is extra stupid. Two people risking their entire future for one night at the skating rink a billion years ago. And then there’s the whole I’m not telling you my name or phone number game. I’ll just write it inside this second hand book that I’ll sell and if it’s meant to be you’ll find it, make some babies with another woman in the meantime or whatever and don’t worry, no one ACTUALLY reads Love in The Time of Cholera, that’s not the point here. There’s your joy. There’s your happiness. Of course you know it’s stupid, but you want it. You’re stubborn to want it so bad despite its stupidity.
When you arrived in America the first thing that hit you was how different the toilets were. The lid has a missing part in the middle, like a half moon, and the water goes higher up than you are used to. You paid attention to this also because a colleague at work pointed it out so you just immediately looked the first time you peed at the airport. But it feels weird and uncomfortable. You don’t understand the system, it splashes everywhere and makes you extra anxious.
It feels weird to be here, where all life seems to begin, when yours is falling apart. Here, where everyone seems so sure as to where they’re going, when you just seem to have been standing still for the longest time now.
A friend tells you he likes the decadence of the city. You see no decadence in Manhattan, but say yes, you’re right. You go to Soho to see some galleries and stumble across a Joan Cornella exhibition and everyone is over the moon about it. You like him, but you’re weary of getting too excited about art. You go together to get a book signed, but he only signs it for him. Draws a penis face. You laugh. You tell him you’re not mad he forgot to say it’s for the both of you. You wonder what your drawing would’ve looked like. Vagina face? Also penis face? You find yourself often staring at people, going over full blown complicated imaginary details of their lives. You wonder what their house looks like, where they shop, what shampoo they use, what their hair smells like, if they have a dog. That lady looks like a retired big shot theater actress of some sort. The kind that has a house in Martha’s Vineyard and wears sunglasses indoors and hates artificial light. The kind that has a small yappy dog and an overflowing medicine cabinet and says things like “oh, you’re such a doll”. Hollow cheeks and blond hair. Reminds you of your godmother. Reminds you of your one year old birthday photos at your godmother’s house where they dressed you in this god awful red sparkling dress, sitting in front of a cake with one red kind of wavy candle in it. You think of your godmother now. You can’t remember her doing anything else but cry, smoke and dress in the most horrendous clothes ever known to man and tell you sad stories about her military husband who was a drunk, her mother who beat her way into adulthood, her two sisters, one is your grandma, and the things their mom did to them. Your mom is sweet. But you don’t have the bond you dreamed of. She didn’t even tell you what a period was before you cried hysterically when you first saw it. Not because she hated you, she’s just shy, you’d tell yourself. Shy. And you were that kid, the one who shares too much. The one who wanted sex advice when she discovered sex. The one who wanted to do compare and contrast with contraceptive methods. But again, shy.
Sitting now in your bed at home, in pain with a UTI, trying very hard not to think too much of it, not to let it pour all over again, the doctor visits, the cruel jokes, the insecurity, the not wanting to be touched, pleasured, helped, loved. Teenage-hood hated you and you hated it. You’re glad it’s over. You’re approaching 24, a few days from now. For your birthday you wish to be as determined as the people who ride the subway in New York. For your birthday you wish you could eat deli food on the way to work and feel completely sane. You scroll through photos and get to the ones on the ferry. You don’t even remember where you took it from exactly, but it went under the Brooklyn Bridge, and far ahead was the Statue of Liberty, and you were cold and he was holding his arm around you and really, you were happy. You were happy having oatmeal every morning by the high windows of the hotel and you were happy shopping for books until your legs went numb, and you were happy he was blissful and easy like an O’Hara poem. But it’s not all light and clarity in the morning, your avocados are not always ripe and ready to be mashed and slathered onto a not too hot, not too cold slice of toast, your love not as it was. You could not live in America and not because it reminds you of Meg Ryan’s face or whatever, but because this warm bubble you were in would break and you’d find fear looming everywhere, sloppiness and people wearing their shoes in bed like you saw on TV, huge oily slices of pepperoni pizza that you really enjoyed sniffing and imagining their taste, sweaty dreams of museums exploding like in The Goldfinch, electric fences so you wouldn’t jump off the bridge, too much food, way too much food even for a Romanian girl with a forever enormous appetite.
Last night you saw Definitely, Maybe with a friend. You wonder how come you hadn’t seen it, since you’re quite the hidden rom-com expert. You were disappointed Emily, the college sweetheart, was the mother. You thought she was the most boring of them, wished either the girl played by Rachel Weisz or the Jane Eyre girl would come around. It was Jane Eyre girl in the end and you and your friend looked at each other with satisfaction. I mean you felt bad for the college girl, she seemed like a good person.