For the tenth time in as many minutes, Danica lowered her head to the keys of her electric piano. From under the curtain of her long black hair, she raised her voice in a mock sob, “Why is it so hot.”
We were sitting in the living room of our apartment on St. Marks Place, me on the futon, Danica at her keyboard, both of us positioned in front of the feeble A/C unit we’d balanced in the window overlooking 2nd Avenue. I was scrolling through the Actor’s Equity website, looking for auditions to attend. But it was the dead of summer, and nothing, nothing at all, was happening in New York. If you were an actor and you were in the city in July, it meant you were either enjoying margaritas at sidewalk restaurants every night after performing in a Broadway show, or it meant that you hadn’t gotten any summer stock gigs and were stuck, like me, working at a job a friend of your mother’s friend had found you, spritzing perfume on shoppers at Bloomingdales.
Danica, who had years ago stopped auditioning for theater in favor of being a singer/songwriter/Heartland Brewery hostess, started pounding out a melody she’d been writing and re-writing for the past year. To the melody, she sang the lyrics, “Ooh, sweat, it just keeps dripping down my butt crack, ooh yeah, sweat in my butt crack…”
I looked up from my computer to tell Danica she was disgusting when a mouse scuttled out from behind the radiator. I gasped and lifted my feet from the floor—I couldn’t help it, I had never before seen a rodent anywhere but in a pet store—as the mouse darted along the wall and disappeared into our non-working fireplace.
“Mickey!” Danica yelled after the vanished mouse. “It’s been so long, where ya been, buddy?”
Danica had lived in that apartment with a rotating set of roommates since leaving the Marymount Manhattan dorms as a sophomore four years before. Though the bedrooms had actually been built to be used as closets—flimsy sliding doors and all—a two-bedroom apartment for $1800 a month on St. Marks and 2nd Avenue was still, inarguably, a bargain. The apartment wasn’t rent controlled, but Danica had decided it ought to be. When the lease renewal forms were slid under the front door once a year to notify Danica that the rent would be increasing by fifteen or twenty percent, she would summarily rip the forms up and throw the scraps into the trashcan. Danica had always been sure to pay the rent on time and never complain about the condition of the apartment. In exchange, the landlord kept the rent fixed at $1800 a month.
“You knew we had a mouse?” I asked Danica, my feet still lifted from the floor.
She waved away my question, saying that this was New York, we lived above one of the oldest burger joints in the city, and if I didn’t want mice, I should move home to Maryland and teach dance at the studio where she and I’d met when we were eleven.
I finally lowered my feet and walked to the bathroom to take a shower. I edged myself into the narrow space between the bathroom door and the toilet bowl, then reached to turn on the standup shower. There was no lip to keep the shower from drenching the bathroom floor, and the tile had begun to crack and collapse downward from years of ignored water damage.
As I waited for the water to warm up, I leaned on the sink and looked at my face in the mirror. I was twenty-three, I had lived in New York for not quite one year, and already, I was looking a little pinched around the mouth. There was a hardness to my eyes that I was sure hadn’t been there before. I knew I was young—very young. But still, a year of hurtling myself through the streets of New York had taken a toll, and I looked different than I had when I arrived. I rested my hands on the sink, leaning closer to the mirror to examine my face, and, with a lurch, the sink came away from the wall completely.
“Danica!” I yelled, but she didn’t hear me. She’d begun singing her song about butt sweat again.
The next morning, I was pouring myself a bowl of cereal when I saw two mice run across our dark kitchen from the refrigerator to the stove. Again, I gasped. After telling Danica that we didn’t just have one mouse, but two (“Well, Mickey doesn’t go anywhere without Minnie,” she replied), I went out to buy four glue traps to set throughout the apartment and steel wool to stuff in any crevices I could find in the floors and walls.
I was actually glad to have to get out of the apartment and go to work at Bloomingdales that day. I reported to Lois—the friend of my mom’s friend—who had proclaimed me “an absolute doll” and hired me after a one-minute interview earlier that summer. It was my duty to stand in the Bloomingdales fragrance department, offer a spritz of the daily featured fragrance to the passing ladies, and coerce them into walking with me to where Lois stood behind her counter, ready to make a sale. These ladies—Orthodox mamas, ambassadors’ wives, executives in power suits, nannies with strollers, nurses in scrubs—all loved playing hard to get. They’d dismiss me with a wave of their hand or simply pretend not to see me. Then, as if recognizing an old friend, they’d do a double take, say hello, and thrust out their wrist for me to spray. When they reached into their purses to show me pictures of their single daughters or granddaughters, I knew I had guaranteed Lois would be making a sale.
I was only working two or three shifts a week at Bloomingdales, there were no auditions to attend, and the dance studios around the city were over-crowded with middle school students from Kansas and Illinois. I couldn’t find much to do, so I set about focusing on my future with James, who I had been dating for almost a year. James and I were both unemployed for the first time since we’d met, and in the harsh heat of those summer months, we became each other’s creative outlet. Every night, after somehow keeping busy during the day without actually doing much of anything at all, I’d ride the R train for thirty-minutes from my stop at 8th Street in Manhattan to the Steinway stop in Queens. I’d get to James’s apartment around ten, he’d open the door for me, his green eyes wide, a fixed grin on his face, as though he were trying to place who I was and why I was at his doorstep. I assumed that look was a result of his inherent shyness, a quality that was at constant odds with the theatrical displays of emotion I’d come to expect at all hellos and goodbyes. James was soft-spoken and good with a pun; his skin smelled like vanilla and honey, and his apartment always looked freshly bleached. When we had dinner at his family’s house in Connecticut, they asked how my family was doing and called me “Bri,” which I loved; he was a great cuddler, big or little spoon, and, I had a feeling, was going to be a great dad. I kept myself occupied by imagining what the cabinetry and light fixtures would look like in the house we’d own in the Hudson Valley as soon as I booked a Broadway show and James got realistic, stopped pursuing performing, and got a real job.
When I arrived at his apartment every night, we’d make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watch an episode or two of The Golden Girls on DVD. James would then discard his shyness and initiate some Olympic-level marathon sex. Eventually, we’d fall asleep. After journaling and eating a bowl of cereal in the morning, I’d get on the R train and head back down to the East Village.
The morning after I set down those four glue traps to catch Mickey and Minnie, I came back to my apartment from James’s and found that Mickey and Minnie had friends. There was a mouse in each trap, each still alive, squirming and squealing, their black eyes accusatory and watchful.
Danica wasn’t in the apartment, so I assumed she’d woken up, seen the trapped mice, and left them there. Summoning all my will power, I refrained from gasping and lifting my feet from the floor (though I couldn’t keep myself from walking around on tip-toe). I grabbed the broom and dustpan from under the sink, keeping my eyes on the mice as if they might spring at my face from their glue traps. I then scooped the mice into a trash bag, each mouse letting out a noise that sounded an awful lot like “Wheeeeeee!” as they plunged to the bottom. Trying not to think about their tiny teeth gnashing away at each other in the bag, I ran out the door, down the rotting concrete steps, through the rusted metal gate, and hurled the bag into the can on the sidewalk in front of my building.
St. Marks Place smelled like baking urine and compost on the best of days, but mixed with the incense from the head shops and the raw fish from the Japanese restaurants on a July day when the heat index was over one-hundred and twenty, the odor was dizzying. I hopped from the sidewalk to avoid the vendors with their cheap sunglasses and imitation-designer bags, circumvented a gaggle of teenagers who looked to be high schoolers attending an NYU summer program and already drunk at eleven in the morning, shook my head no to a man offering coke and weed in front of the video store, and ducked into the St. Marks Market to buy twelve more mouse traps to place around my apartment.
When I came back to St. Marks from James’s apartment the morning after that, every one of the twelve traps were full. One mouse had gotten his back legs caught in a glue trap and had then tried to drag himself along the wall, only to have his head severed in the nearby snap trap. One mouse had chewed off his own leg to get free of the glue, then dragged himself to another glue trap where he and the mouse already occupying that trap had gnawed on one another until death stilled their efforts. To say I shrieked like a little girl while I swept that carnage into a trash bag would be giving myself credit: I actually wept.
The following day, I set down twelve more traps and caught twelve more mice: a total of twenty-eight mice within sixty hours. Only after I found two more mice canoodling under the down comforter in my bed did I call James and tell him I was going to stay with him until my landlord sorted out the mouse situation on St. Marks Place.
I had planned on staying with James for only a week while my landlord boarded up the cracks and crannies through which we assumed the mice were entering the apartment. But, as it turned out, there were holes behind the living room radiator and kitchen stove that two grown men could have fit through together, and the landlord was unwilling to board them up until Danica and I signed a lease renewal that would increase our rent from $1,800 to $2,700 a month.
“He just says this stuff,” Danica said. “He won’t actually do it.”
So we ignored the landlord and both stayed at our respective boyfriends’ apartments for the two weeks that followed. Then we were served with an eviction notice, and I told James I would be staying with him for just a few more weeks while I found a place of my own.
Living with James while we were both unemployed in the heat of a New York summer was perhaps not the wisest idea. I had never lived with a boyfriend before, even temporarily. And with James, as with anyone I had ever lived with, I sucked as a roommate. I ate all of his food but never grocery shopped myself. I did my dishes, but only when I felt like getting around to them. I didn’t once offer to contribute to the rent, though he was living off unemployment, and I expected attention as soon as I walked in the door and pouted if he was otherwise occupied. Yet somehow, it all felt so grown up.
By the time August rolled around, I hadn’t found an apartment, the occasional shift at Bloomingdales was still my only job, and passive aggression became the competitive sport at which James and I excelled. I could feel how much he resented my mooching off of him, and somehow, the more he resented me, the quieter he got; the quieter he got, the more I felt sure we must be truly in love. Eliciting a strong reaction from James in any circumstance was nearly impossible, so the fact that I was getting him worked up, even silently worked up, by exhibiting the depths of my selfishness made me feel as though, finally, after a year of dating, I knew he really cared.
While staying in Queens, I realized there was a good chance that I would become just like James. I told myself I was fine with turning into James, as long as James turned into the person I wanted him to be. He was three years my senior, and though he’d done films and national tours and high-paying regional gigs, James had never been in a Broadway show. He had a blue-collar mentality about life as an actor: you took what work you could get when you could get it. The goal was employment, nothing more. I wanted to think the way James did about the life I was trying to lead, but I couldn’t help believing that, in reality, not all jobs were equal. I was both hopeful and afraid that I’d lose my own manic drive just by being in such close proximity to James’s levelheaded calm. But I quietly judged him for not being more ambitious, and I not-so-quietly made suggestions about agents he should really contact, or acting classes he should really take, or choreographers he should really assist. I also found myself pointing out how much he loved children, and advising him to go back to school to get a Masters in education.
“I feel like you’d be so happy just running a daycare center or something,” I said to James one night as he sat at his desk checking email. James inhaled deeply. He then exhaled through his nostrils, but didn’t look away from his computer screen.
“I mean, you love kids, so…” I muttered. I was laying on his bed in my underwear, sweating and bloated with peanut butter and jelly, reading Eat, Pray, Love. I was tired. I was bored. I was drenched and uncomfortable. I wanted to have sex and go to sleep.
“I feel like you don’t even want me here,” I said, assuming he’d come over and lie down on top of me and tell me that wasn’t so.
Instead, James turned to me, his soft green eyes suddenly cold. “I never asked you to move in,” he said. “And you never asked me if it was ok.”
My heart started thumping and I realized, of course, that he was right. I huffed and raised myself from his bed, glad that something, anything, dramatic was happening. I put on my shorts and flip-flops, stuffed some clothes into my backpack, and grabbed my face wash and toothbrush.
“You could have at least bought more Kashi when you finished the box,” James said quietly from his desk.
“Well, I’m going now, so you can enjoy all the Kashi you want,” I said, opening his front door then slamming it shut behind me. I waited outside the door and counted to ten. Then to twenty. James didn’t come after me. So I walked out into the thick August air and headed toward a friend’s apartment ten blocks away, hoping I could stay on his couch for a while, rent-free.
While I found a place to live, I continued working at Bloomingdales until, one day, there was a press event for Broadway’s The Drowsy Chaperone during my shift. While the Tony Award winner Beth Leavel sang on an elevated platform in a corner of the crowded department store, I looked around and realized I was the only one paying attention to her. Beth Leavel, too, must have realized halfway through her song that the gay boy with slicked black hair in the ill-fitting suit was the only person who, at that moment, gave a shit that she was who she was. She winked at me, kept singing her song, and there, in Bloomingdales, holding a bottle of the featured daily fragrance, I began to cry, something I seemed to be doing a lot of that summer. When Lois asked if everything was all right, I said the fragrances had been irritating my eyes, and I gave her my two-week notice.
August turned to September, and Danica and I moved all our stuff out of the St. Marks Place apartment. She went to a three bedroom in Brooklyn; I went to a four bedroom in Queens. James and I didn’t break up—we got along beautifully as soon as I moved out of his space—but, in a sense, Danica and I did break up, at least temporarily. We blamed each other for the loss of our perfectly located apartment—if only she had signed the lease renewal earlier, if only I hadn’t insisted on complaining about the mice—but it was more than that. Living on St. Marks Place had been everything we’d always thought New York would be. It was noisy, it was filthy, there was always something to dodge on the street, always something to distract from the fact that the things we wanted were not being handed to us as easily as we had hoped. As long as we’d lived there, in the middle of everything, we’d felt we would never actually have to grow up. Crumbling bathrooms, closet-sized bedrooms, mouse droppings on every surface, tattoo parlors and head shops and Asian restaurants open at all hours just outside our front door: what did it matter if she was a hostess and I was a perfume spritzer?
But we left Manhattan that September, headed for the outer boroughs, and started giving the answers that everyone gives: we couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan, we said; I had so much space in Queens, I bragged; she just loved the vibe in Brooklyn, she insisted; Astoria was so convenient to midtown, I told everyone (though why that seemed a plus, I’m still unsure). But what we meant was that we had lived on St. Marks Place, and because we’d had mice, because the bathroom had collapsed, because we weren’t quite as young as we’d been when we moved in, St. Marks Place and Manhattan and hostessing and perfume spritzing were simply no longer enough.
I felt about James the way that I felt about New York. I had been operating under the assumption that because I was me, and because James loved me, and because I deserved to have exactly what I wanted when I wanted it, I was free to take from James without giving anything back in return. My brother and sister would probably interject here if they could and suggest that I’ve always been something of a princess: accustomed to special treatment from my mom because I had been a sick baby; used to getting away with exorbitant charges on my dad’s credit card because, generally, I was such a mensch; habituated to getting out of trouble simply by affecting a frightened stare or remorseful sulk. I expected the same lenience from James that I’d always received from my family. But, of course, it didn’t—and couldn’t—really work that way.
When James and I were breaking up two years later for reasons that had everything and nothing to do with my relentless self-righteous entitlement, I said to him, indignantly, “This is just who I am. I want to do what I want to do.” “Yes,” James replied in his sweet, gentle way. “But it’s not only that. You want me to want to do what you want to do. And I can’t always do that.”
Now, walking down St. Marks Place, I find that some of the tattoo parlors have closed to make room for a Chipotle and a Pinkberry, and that a gleaming electric gate has replaced the rusted iron one that once stood in front of Danica’s and my building. The drug dealers and NYU kids are still there, as are the scents of urine and incense and sushi-to-go. But I’m not a part of it anymore, and I’m not sure I ever was. I wanted St. Marks Place to be enough for me, and I wanted the mere fact of my presence to be enough to leave some lasting dent on the street. But instead, the minute I moved out, I had become just another stratum of the city, a layer covered over and forgotten as though I had never been.
I wish I could go back to that first year in New York. I wish I could try it again, and this time expect less and give more. I would go through the motions of that year and this time really believe that St. Marks Place and New York, and even James, were more than enough for me, just as they were, without my having to change a thing about them. And I guess I could try—at least for a minute or two at a time—to want to do what someone else wanted me to do.