You’ve come to New York City to get away. You heard about the Gates, and the fact that they’re being taken down in two days, and you think, Why not? Why not go to Central Park, take a look at these Gates, and escape this hell for the weekend? It sounds like a good plan, so you set out to make it happen. It’s the first thing you’ve been able to make yourself do in quite a while.
A few of your classmates were planning to drive up to New York anyway, so you catch a ride with them. Your university is several hours away from the City, and you spend the entire ride curled up in the backseat silently writing letters to a certain someone, letters that you’ll never send. This makes you sad, but you can’t stop. There’s too much to say, too much to feel, and you cannot keep it all in. It doesn’t help that every song on the radio reminds you of him.
When you finally arrive in the City, it is dark, and going to see the Gates doesn’t make sense. You decide to wait for morning. So now you have the whole night to kill, because it’s late, but it isn’t that late. You take the subway to Times Square, where there will surely be something going on, something to occupy your mind.
And there is. Unfortunately, it isn’t what you expected.
As you look around, taking in the sights and sounds and smells, you’re engulfed by a sense of nostalgia. The present mixes, merges with the past. With memories of your last trip to the City, just over a month ago at Christmastime, when he still loved you. The billboard of his favorite movie star still looms over the intersection of 42nd and Broadway, and you remember stopping in the middle of the street to take a picture of it for him. A taxi nearly hit you and the driver cursed angrily in some foreign language, but it was worth it just to see that smile you love. Then you pass Radio City Music Hall, and you remember falling asleep during the first and only show you ever watched there, and you remember him laughing when you told him that. That’s so like you, he’d said, and he kissed your blushing cheek. You close your eyes now, trying to black out that beautiful, painful memory, and you sigh deeply to release the pressure that has built up in your chest. In doing so, you inhale the scent of honey roasted peanuts from the street vendor on the corner, and your face contorts into the very image of heartbreak as you recall sharing a bag of them with him at a baseball game not long ago.
Clearly this is not going to work. Times Square is not the place for you. You need to get away.
You walk three blocks east to Fifth Avenue and head north toward Tiffany’s. The store windows provide less distractions this late at night than they do during the day, but it’s better than nothing. The gaudy jewelry and designer gowns carry no associations to him, to that shadowy phantom in your mind. Away from the brightness and cheery excitement of Times Square, you start to feel better.
Until you reach Rockefeller Center. Then the cloak of relief that had begun to enfold you starts to slip away again. Tonight there are couples skating on the ice rink, as there are probably always couples skating on the rink. They are holding hands and laughing, and it is cold but they are not. You know that they do not feel the chill of the wind in their bones, nor in their hearts, the way that you do. They push and they pull, they slip and they fall, but they never let go, and that keeps them warm. You remember a time when you were warm too. So warm, so insulated in fact, that you thought you might burn. The sparks were flying, it was only a matter of time before they started a fire.
Or so you’d thought. But you were wrong. And now you are cold. And you do not feel like skating alone.
You realize this isn’t going to work either, so you give up. You go back to your hostel and take a hot shower and tuck yourself into bed. You aren’t tired, but sleep is the safest place for you to be.
You wake up cold still. The sun has not yet risen, but the heater is broken and the blankets are thin and there’s no warm body in the bed next to you, no arms holding you close. And you know there’s no way you’re going to fall back asleep. So you get up, and you get your journal, and you start writing letters again. He’ll never read them, but that doesn’t really matter. Writing isn’t always for the audience.
Before you know it, it’s almost noon, and you’ve run out of paper. You figure now is as good a time as any to do what you supposedly came to do: go see the Gates.
The walk to Central Park is long but pleasant. The sun has surely risen by now, though you cannot tell because a grayness pervades. It has covered everything, the City and the Park and yourself. With each step you take, you feel yourself melting away, fading into the background, fading into the shades and tints around you. In a way, that’s comforting, that reminder of your insignificance, relative to the greater scheme of things. But at the same time it only makes you wonder, once again, why you’re so insignificant to him now.
Then suddenly you’re there, at Central Park, and you’re surprised. You see the Gates, and they are orange. In a grayscale world, they are bright orange. The brightest orange you’ve ever seen. Finding Nemo orange. Very very orange.
And they’re tall. Sixteen-feet tall, according to the official website, which you checked out before you left campus. Seventy-five hundred rectangular arches, all sixteen-feet tall, with “saffron-colored” fabric hanging from their tops, wind through the park like some “saffron-colored” river. As you get closer, you realize they’re pretty simple in design, for all the money and hype that went into them, and you know now what they are, but you have no idea what they’re about. The Gates are temporary “in order to endow the works of art with a feeling of urgency to be seen, and the love and tenderness brought by the fact that they will not last,” according to Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the artists who designed them. You’re not sure you get it.
You wonder if anyone else does. You look around, and there are people everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Even more people than when you were there at Christmas and New Year’s, and it was pretty crowded then. Today everyone is smiling and posing for pictures and talking and eating giant soft pretzels with too much salt. You’re surrounded by this sea of life, and it’s sublime, and it makes you feel more defunct than ever.
Even though you’re headed straight into the heart of Central Park, all you can think about is how much you don’t want to be here. But you don’t really want to be anywhere. You don’t want to go to the Bethesda Terrace or the Angel of the Waters Fountain, you don’t want to go back to the university, and you don’t want to go home. So what difference does it make, you wonder. If you don’t want to go or be anywhere, you may as well be here. You don’t seem to care one way or the other, and neither does anyone else.
You figure all the people here probably have their own problems anyway, their own stuff to worry about. Like that man on the bench. He’s forty-something, wearing a snappy business suit and shiny shoes, and it’s the middle of the day, but for some reason he’s not at work. You wonder why. He looks upset, sitting there with his back at a perfect right angle to his thighs, which are at a perfect right angle to his lower legs. He’s staring straight ahead, but as people pass in front of him, it becomes clear to you that he sees nothing. Whatever it is, it’s big. Maybe he got fired. Maybe he was told his job performance was lacking, so he’s been staying late and working hard to try to salvage his career, but it didn’t work and today he got sacked. Maybe that’s why he’s sitting there rigid as a board.
Or maybe he’s having an affair. And maybe that stocky woman in the hideous purple jogging suit is his wife, who’s been tailing him ever since he left their Fifth Avenue apartment this morning. She cooked him breakfast and served it to him with today’s copy of the New York Times, and when he was done eating she kissed him goodbye and closed the door behind him. Then she changed into less conspicuous clothes and has been tailing him ever since. She’s sure he’s meeting up with some no-good, stick-skinny floozy he met after work when he went out drinking with the boys. She thinks that’s why he’s been staying out late, that’s why he’s been so tired when he comes home. Too tired even to–
Your thoughts are interrupted by someone bumping into you. Like two billiard balls in the textbook example of an elastic collision, you and the stranger go flying in opposite directions. You stop in front of a park sign, startled but unharmed, and he sails into another passerby. Forgetting you, he bows his head to the second victim and mumbles “Sol-ly! I sol-ly,” as the woman hurries away. You hear his accent, you see the slant of his eyes, and you watch as he roams the walkways with no apparent destination in mind. You guess that he’s an immigrant, new to this country and this city, new and alone and lost. You wonder what he’s doing in Central Park. You wonder what he thinks of these strange Americans and their orange Gates.
You look around and here’s a little girl eating ice cream with her nanny, and there’s a dog peeing on the grass. There’s a couple rollerblading down the street and a man asleep at the base of a tree. There’s a cop, and an Arab, and a mom with triplets, and a painter. There’s a guy in a Yankees cap and a guy in a Red Sox cap and even a guy in a Jesus Is My Homeboy cap. There are so many people, so many stories, so many reasons for being here. Perhaps similar to your own. Perhaps worse.
You reach the Terrace and the Fountain, but you keep walking. You don’t know where you’re going anymore, or why. You’re just moving for the sake of moving. And that’s okay.
Then you pass the Met, and you see the girl in the darkened window, and you wonder why she’s here. She’s young, like you, and small, like you, and she’s come a long way by herself, like you. She has brown hair, the same length as your own, and brown eyes, the same size and shape as yours. But her face carries on it a sadness, a weariness of existence that yours surely would not possess. You are surrounded by light and life, by a vastness of space and people, and you have no reason to be sad. She, on the other hand, is alone, the only image visible on the darkness of the window. You tell yourself that there can be no connection between yourself and this girl, this lonely, shadowy form.
Her small, full lips press against one another, as if she has recognized something troubling and is trying to steel herself against it. You wonder what it might be. You wonder if she too has lost a love, and in doing so, lost part of herself. You wonder if she also feels a desperate need to get away, to escape, even if only for a weekend, to someplace foreign. Someplace without expectations, without obligations, and most importantly, without associations: nothing linked to the love or its loss.
And then you think, maybe it has nothing to do with where you are. Maybe what you want to escape isn’t a place at all. Maybe what you want to escape is yourself.
Yes, this is it. This is what you’ve been on the verge of all along. That cliff you felt like you were about to tumble down into, this is it. But now you’ve got a foothold. Now there’s a chance for you to keep your balance.
You know you can’t figure it all out right now, but maybe you’re not supposed to. Not to worry though, because you will someday.
Someday, one day, you’ll wake up and the sun will be shining, or maybe it’ll be raining, who knows, it doesn’t really matter, because either way, on that day you’ll wake up and you’ll be happy, and you’ll understand that everything was meant to be, everything happened for a reason, every little thing added up to some larger equation you couldn’t see until just then. And even then you won’t totally understand, just like you might know that a red light plus a blue light plus a green light makes a white light, but that doesn’t mean you understand how every molecule affects every other, or how your retina processes those lights and then ships that information to your brain. But it doesn’t matter. It’s enough to see the light and to know that it’s white, just like it’s enough to know that you were born and you were loved and you gave your love and he took it. And he gave love back, for a time, and then he stopped, but that’s okay too, because you know that you had it once and you’ll have it again, someday, maybe on that day that is sunny or raining or whatever it is. You know all that, even if you don’t understand it. And you don’t have to understand it, because you’re happy. You’re happy, and that’s enough.
So yes, someday you’ll wake up, and all that will happen, and everything will be okay. For now, don’t worry. Just look at the Gates, look at those bright orange Gates, and smile. Because like them, nothing lasts.