In 1981, Amelia moved to New York City. Brooklyn. Specifically, Prospect Heights, where she rented a room in a rooming house on a street of four-story brownstones. Her room had ornate molding and a white marble fireplace veined in gray that had been bricked up. Her landlady told her never to go to up the street to the right, the neighborhood was dangerous.
She did walk right, one Sunday morning when the street was silent. The dangerous were surely still in bed, sleeping off Saturday night. The brownstones were even grander in their decay, five stories. Gentrification was crawling up the street behind her but hadn’t gotten here. She looked up the narrow face of a brownstone, and through the windows of the top floor she could see sky. There was no roof. It was magical, like a Magritte painting.
The door was heavy and peeling brown paint. She thought maybe people were living on the first floor. She was not a brave person, not really, and tended to do things she thought were brave on a kind of sheer nervous energy. Besides, the door would be locked, this wasn’t the part of New York where there were doormen. This is where the doormen went home to live.
The door was unlocked.
The hallway was dim, the wallpaper was old, ‘60s Jetson style patterns. The door to the apartment on the right was halfway open and there was a worn brown couch and rug, and an orange Hot Wheels track. She hesitated but went up, drawn by that sky.
The other doors were closed, but on the third floor she might have heard someone talking to someone. The fourth floor had a door open to a half-gutted apartment, construction debris and newspapers piled so they reached halfway to the ceiling. It smelled like mold and chemicals. People probably shouldn’t be living here. She paid $85 a week for a room, which was a lot of money for rent. Especially in a month with five Fridays.
This was stupid. But she would never walk right again, she knew. The stairs were sunlit and water damaged. She avoided the center of each step and tested her weight.
Someone had tried to tidy up the top floor, piling the brick and plaster in a corner. The walls were mostly gone, their footprints visible in the floorboards. The wide wood planks felt solid. It was a between space. Like she was a between woman. She loved New York. She loved the subway stations, the stairwells faintly smelling of urine. She loved the way that when the train approached the station, the napkins and bits of trash would lift in the displacement of air, and she would hold her breath and then after a pause, the train would come in, braking hard. But she didn’t feel part of it.
(Watch yourself on the subway stairs, that’s where you’ll get mugged because it’s harder to run. If someone attacks you on the street between the subway and home, crawl under a car, and if you can, snap off a car antenna. Make yourself not worth the trouble. But she had never had a problem because she was mousy and poor and not worth it.)
She went to one of the windows she had seen from the street. On the sidewalk she saw someone like herself, a foreshortened white woman in a blue jacket. The woman started to look up, a flash of reflection across her glasses, and Amelia stepped back.
She was out of synch. She had been out of synch in Ohio; queer, bookish. She was out of synch here; fearful, trying to remember to say “soda” instead of “pop.” What would happen if that Amelia, the one on the sidewalk, came up here?
She was foolish, someone on the street had looked a little like her but couldn’t be her, she was right here.
But the other Amelia was still there, and she looked as if she was about to step into the street.
Seriously, it wasn’t another Amelia, and they weren’t going to cross the street, try the door, come up the stairs. But Amelia couldn’t wait, couldn’t stand to stay there. She forgot being careful and pounded down the stairs. On the first floor, she saw the door start to slowly open, and blind with fear, she went into the apartment with the Hot Wheels.
If someone was in the back, past the kitchen, into the bedrooms, they didn’t come out to ask her what the hell she was doing there. They might, at any moment.
She couldn’t breathe. She heard faint steps on the stairwell and as soon as she no longer heard them, she eased the apartment door open, and went outside.
There was no one on the street except a guy smoking a cigarette. He belonged here. He gave a her a look that said she didn’t. She jogged across the street, walked briskly home to her room with its fireplace. It was usually a safe place but today it felt like the rest of New York, impermeable.
She saw the other Amelia three more times in New York. She thought maybe if she stood by the elevator of the office building where she worked, and was there when the other Amelia got off, she might sync up. But she was safe this way. She felt hard to notice, as if she was just at an angle to reality.
She left New York City spat out by economics and the constant sense of clawing against something that wouldn’t let her in. She got a job in a bank back in Ohio where the pressure was huge, but never on her, although it never felt as if Ohio fit quite like it used to after New York. Sarah said, “Nothing ever bothers you. I really admire that! How do you do that?”
But the server came so Amelia didn’t have to answer.
People didn’t notice when she left work at 5:00. She saw the other Amelia but she was always going in another direction.
That was lonely, but safe.
© 2023 Maureen McHugh