It’s 9PM on Christmas Eve and you arrive at Tae’s door with a six-pack of Guinness, a phone charger, and a pair of fleece-lined pajamas. Her studio is a third-story walk-up, located halfway between a billiards bar and a 24-hour bodega on the Lower East Side. From the outside, it has the kind of dense granite façade that could almost require a doorman, but inside, the stairs creak, and the peeling paint on the banister has gathered in a pool of pastel green on the landing.
“Hope you don’t mind, but I got bored waiting,” Tae says, motioning to the bottle of scotch on the counter when you open the door. She is wearing a pair of checker-print shorts and a loose-fitting sweater that reaches her thigh. Her long hair is tied up in a bun, and she fixes you with a look that suggests neither excitement nor displeasure at your presence. “Glasses are in the cabinet. Knock yourself out.”
Tae is a friend of a friend. You’ve seen each other on a handful of occasions and get along fine but until now have never hung out on your own. Had it not been for Christmas, and the unhappy fact that you are both alone, you would hardly have any reason to see her now. But there are few emotions more compelling than misery, in a city – bewitched by winter mirth – that is even less forgiving during the holidays.
“Thanks,” you say as you step inside, setting down your bag and shoes by the door. Her apartment is small in a way that suggests closeness and a sincere lack of belongings. The front door opens directly into the kitchen; her fridge, upon a quick scan of its contents, doesn’t have enough ingredients to make an omelet.
“I’m not much of a cook,” Tae says, intuiting your response before you can speak. You think about taking each bottle of beer out of the cardboard sheath and giving it its own place on the shelf, but decide against it. There is an unassuming, no-nonsense charm about Tae. She grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis and moved to Manhattan after college. When you asked her a few months ago why she chose New York, she said that she was tired of constantly fielding questions from people who had never met an Asian person before.
“It was like having to represent all Asian people, everywhere, all the time,” she told you, at a birthday dinner for a mutual friend at Fontana’s in the fall. “This may sound really fucking idealistic but I just thought I’d find more people here like me.”
It sounded so much like a dozen other “Why New York?” stories you’d heard that you could practically fill in the rest of the details yourself: daughter of Korean immigrants, only Asian American in her high school class, full ride to state college. In reality, your own story is pretty similar, having grown up the only son of a Puerto Rican mother in Cincinnati. But the reason why you came to New York is far more naïve, and you were thankful in that moment that Tae didn’t think to ask.
“I only applied for jobs here, and when I got one, I bought a one-way ticket and never looked back,” Tae said. The lights at Fontana’s dimmed in anticipation of the post-dinner crowd. You and Tae were crowded at the end of a long table. Outside of the host, you didn’t recognize anyone else at the restaurant. Tae propped both her elbows up and looked lazily at the ceiling. She wasn’t self-conscious about not wearing any make-up, but you noticed her features right away. There was a terse directness to the way she spoke; having spent so long being questioned, she didn’t seem to care what other people thought of her.
“I wanted to stop pretending to be someone I wasn’t,” she said, staring straight into your eyes. She stretched her arm out across the table and took your hand in hers. “I just wanted to be.”
“Sorry the trains took forever,” you say, as you close the fridge and open a beer.
“It’s a holiday for Christ’s sake,” she says. “It’s a miracle they run at all.”
Inside Tae’s studio, it is remarkably warm despite the weather. You are still wearing your coat, which is not warm enough for December, but too warm for the kitchen, so you take it off and place it in Tae’s outstretched arms, who slumps it, along with her sweater, over the lip of the couch.
“Shall I give you the grand tour?”
Out past the kitchen is a small bathroom. In front of you, a black leather couch and a coffee table. And directly to your left, Tae’s bedroom. She props the door open and you poke your head into the unlit room. In the dark, you can see the outline of a wardrobe, a made bed, an old window screen she repurposed to hold jewelry. The bed is piled with pillows that nearly enclose it on four sides like a sandbox. You feel a knot in the pit of your stomach, like looking at something you shouldn’t see.
Tae takes a seat on the sofa in the living room and props her legs up on a chair. As she slides down, her shirt rides up to reveal a band of tawny skin just above the waist. She doesn’t offer you a seat and you don’t want to appear impatient, so you sit down, gingerly, like you are submerging into hot water.
“What shall we watch?” she asks, as she places a laptop on the coffee table and takes a sip from one of your beers. You decide on a James Bond movie she has already seen (“Like I need an excuse to watch Daniel Craig”). She smiles, and you notice for the first time that one of her teeth is chipped. You suspect it might be a point of embarrassment, the same reason she used to introduce herself as Tyra and not Tae when she was younger, so you say nothing. You shift your weight on the couch but still arrange yourself next to her like two pieces on a chess board—adjoining squares incapable of touch.
The week before when you called it was unseasonably warm, so you were at Bryant Park with your phone out and no gloves. You were doing the thing you always do when you get bad news: walk. You made it to Midtown from Harlem already and only stopped there to use the bathroom. Inside the park, there were dozens of holiday shops selling scented candles, knit scarves, picture frames, New York kitsch. The ice rink was lit up, and couples were bracing against each other and laughing, skating around the outer ring near the wall.
You forgot when you had even exchanged numbers with Tae, so when she picked up the phone, you were both a little surprised. You skipped the small talk and told her that you and Raquel had broken up. You said that your plan to spend the holidays with her family in Westchester had fallen through, and that it was too late now to buy a ticket to Cincinnati. It all came out much calmer than you expected, like you were narrating the plot to a story. You didn’t really know why you were telling her any of this. Your lips were moving but it felt like you were watching yourself talking into the phone from somewhere else.
Tae had never met Raquel, and there weren’t many people you knew in the city to begin with. You could almost hear the gears turning in her head, trying to figure out how to respond. The last time you saw her at Fontana’s, Tae was wearing a white blouse with the collar undone, a braid of hair wrapped across her neck. You pictured her now, her eyes skimming the menu, the camber of her lips, the way her hand slid over yours at the restaurant. All at once, you asked her what she was doing for Christmas. For a moment, the receiver was cold.
“Bring a change of clothes,” she said, finally. “You can spend the night.”
By the time you’re close enough to touch, James Bond is tied to a wooden chair in the middle of a large, empty room. He had escaped from a train chase only to be captured by a group of men and brought to an abandoned warehouse. As he is being held inside, you feel yourself sinking into the leather plush of the couch. You glance at Tae out of the corner of your eye and forget for a minute what it is you're doing there. Tae is on her second beer and you trade in yours for a glass of scotch. There is a part of you that is anxious, worried for his fate, even though after so many movies you can predict the ending before it happens.
When Tae sits up abruptly on the couch and cranes her neck toward you, you think that this is the moment she is going to kiss you. You have been preparing yourself for this, in spite of the fact that you have been sitting in near silence for a half-hour and still haven’t made contact with any part of her. You turn toward her instinctively, like a flower facing the sun, steadying your arm against the back of the couch. But instead she leans in to your ear, like she is about to tell you a secret.
“I should tell you now that my bedroom is like a college dorm,” Tae says, as matter-of-factly as reciting a grocery list. “The walls are so thin that I can hear everything that my next-door-neighbor does, and vice-versa.” A grin appears across her face, and you realize that it is meant more for your peace of mind than her own.
You think of your own apartment then, the two-bedroom you share with three other guys in Harlem, like boarders, and how you were too embarrassed to ever let Raquel see it. It was the only place you could afford when you moved to New York six months ago. There is no heat in your room and when it rains you have to put buckets underneath the ceiling to catch water. But you figured you would be spending most of your time at Raquel’s anyway, so you didn’t really think much about it. You remember Raquel’s apartment in Chelsea with the marble counters and the hard-wood floors, the queen-sized bed with a headboard, the fridge full of organic produce.
The villain in the Bond movie is shouting something now, and you tilt your head to try to make out the words. Tae slides the coffee table back and gives you a firm look, like she means business. You’re still weighing the pros and cons of being there, when she starts in abruptly.
“It can make situations like these uncomfortable,” Tae says. She motions to her bedroom and then again to the couch where you both are still sitting. “So we’re just going to have sex out here.”
You don’t know if you’ve feigned surprise or are genuinely caught unaware. The scotch has a strong effect on you, and it takes you a minute to process what she said. You are still wearing your bewilderment plainly on your face, and Tae seizes on it immediately.
“Well, honestly, what did you expect?” she asks, placing her hands on her hips. “You really didn’t think we were going to fuck?”
You lament, for a moment, the days before college, when just going over to a girl’s house was an accomplishment. You had to make up some excuse to your mom – that basketball practice ran late or that you had to meet for a group project – and at best you could do it once a month, so that she didn’t start to get suspicious. The girls you liked in high school lived in ranch houses in the suburbs, away from the petty crime and the projects, and drove their dad’s SUVs to school. They liked to ask you questions, like whether or not you knew how to salsa, and how to pronounce words for them in Spanish. You liked them because they wore lip gloss in flavors like cherry and root beer, and had parents who always seemed to work late.
You spent hours with them, applying all your wit and charm to look enticing, hoping it might lead somewhere. And then, there were the times when you were actually alone with a girl, your mind racing the whole time. Maybe she hadn’t started talking about another guy yet, but she hadn’t shown you any special interest either. Your eyes kept shifting around the room, taking in the antique Armoires, the gilded-edged rugs, the silk blinds.
You asked yourself the question are we going to do something with such monotony you could have sworn you were keeping time. If you were lucky, you might make out on the couch until you heard the sound of a car pulling into the drive, and then start in on grammar drills like you were one of her tutors. Your clothes stayed on and the cushions hardly budged; there was a certain thrill to it, a perverse sense of denial.
You are not prudish about sex, despite the fact that you grew up in a Catholic household and for a long time believed you would save it for marriage. At Ohio State, half the girls never considered sleeping with you because you’re brown, and the other half came on so strong you could have sworn you were Mario Lopez. But even now, you sometimes feel like you have to be more complicit than you are. Most of your friends wouldn’t think twice about sleeping with a girl they had just met. But you knew early on that you were too meek to be a lady-killer. More often than not, you have to act the part, like a tough guy on a soap opera. Something always holds you back.
Tae is shuffling around the living room now, converting the leather couch into a single horizontal slab, like a dark plank in the sea of her apartment. She is ferrying bedding and pillows from her bedroom, the corners of the sheets dragging along the floor. Not only is Tae’s bedroom not soundproof, you realize, but neither is the rest of her apartment. With the movie off, you can hear Christmas music pouring in clearly from the bodega downstairs, the melodies of Nat King Cole and Doris Day, one after the other, in the dimly-lit room.
You used to watch holiday movies with your mom on Christmas Eve in Cincinnati – Rudolph and Charlie Brown and the Snow Miser on primetime network marathons. It was never anything special, but even in college, you would never miss coming home for the holidays. The two of you would eat empanadas on plastic trays, on the lumpy green futon in the living room with the space heater wedged between you. The TV antenna was broken a lot, so sometimes the shows would come in fuzzy or in black and white or with the sound turned off. It hardly mattered how many times you’d seen them, it felt like you could watch those movies forever.
“What does it matter if we don’t have a tree,” your mom used to say, “or that the kids in the movies always have two parents?” She’d sometimes say it in English, too, for emphasis. “I know that you’re going to figure it out,” she said. "With a wife and kids, what it means to be a family.”
Tae finishes adjusting the sofa bed and lies down sideways on it, her head propped up on a pillow. She stares at you now with a look that suggests both self-assuredness and impatience, like she’s the swim team captain and you’re the last person to get in the pool. Your response comes off more puzzled than excited. Still looking at the white wall behind her that used to be a backrest, there is a part of you that wonders what she sees in you.
She motions you over with a flourish of her legs. It has already been a week since Raquel called to break it off, but it seems to hit you all at once. You want to have sex at this moment the same way you did when you first lost your virginity – to prove in some stupid, insignificant way that you are wanted.
Raquel was the first girl you met in college. She was in your freshmen English seminar, and you talked after class about Sandra Cisneros and Junot Diaz, and how you wished that there were more Hispanic writers in the mainstream. Before you met her, you didn’t think there was such a thing as a bookish Latina – her in the horn-rimmed glasses, a Bel Canto novel tucked under her arm. But at the same time, she could pull off a crop top and leggings, sing along to every verse of Selena. One minute she was talking power to the people and the next about the best wine pairings with cheese. She made it look so effortless, having a foot in each world.
It was a quality unlike anything you’d ever known, and yet, you had spent your whole life trying to find it. That’s when you knew. You courted her for months, didn’t give up even when she told you she had a boyfriend back home in New York who could bench-press you in his sleep. You started getting meals with her after class. You surprised her just because, left flowers for her when she came back from break. You wrote messages on slips of paper that you left underneath her door, starting off with just a few words, gradually ballooning into letters, hot and fast as confessions.
She was different from the girls you used to like in high school. She made you her grandma’s pollo guisado recipe in the tiny kitchen in her dorm room. She talked like you did, in two tongues, hardly aware when one ended and the other began. The first time you made love, she pressed her hips into you and arched her back, bracing her arms against your shoulders. You wanted to say something, how invincible you felt in that moment, but her eyes were closed and her body tensed, her limbs softly easing into yours.
“I don’t really like kissing,” Tae says, as you touch your lips to hers. “You’d be surprised how many people have no idea what they’re doing.” She has a calm kind of detachment, like she knows what she wants but has little riding on the outcome. You are still waiting for a sign that anything you’re doing isn’t wrong. She reaches her hands down the length of your torso and undoes the buckle on your belt. You concede, and only when you close your eyes again do you realize that you’re still thinking about Raquel.
On weekends, you and Raquel used to drive out to watch movies in Cedar Park. It was forty minutes from Columbus, but felt exactly like the white neighborhoods you sometimes visited in high school with its verandas and fountains, the paved carriageways lined with plants. Raquel had grown up in Westchester and found the whole area comforting. It always surprised you a little bit, to know that someone like her could still call a place like that home.
You let yourself dream sometimes about settling down in New York with her, of buying a brownstone in Brooklyn with a front yard and a wrought-iron fence. You had never been to New York, but at the Regal in Cedar Park they sometimes showed movies like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail. You agonized over how the streets looked, wanted to know them intimately, like New York was a place you belonged. You thought about how these perfect strangers, in spite of all the chaos and spectacle of the city, had managed to fall in love, and how one day you would go to New York with Raquel and fall in love too.
Tae pulls her shirt over her head and climbs on top of you. She is wearing a black bra with a clasp at the front that holds her small frame in place. She is holding you now through the thin layer of your boxers and you reach for her too, starting with her waist, along the softness of her stomach, and settle on the smooth recess just beneath her chest. You touch her body for the first time, as if navigating a new city.
“Do you have a condom?” she asks, as you slide your hand inside the ridge of her bra. You make a mental note of the items in your bag by the door and shake your head. You fantasize for a moment about how your kids might look, cocoa skinned and almond eyed, if Tae were pregnant with your child.
“Sometimes I don’t even know why I try,” Tae sighs, twisting herself off of you and wrangling up her bra straps. “My friends keep telling me not to bother with hopeless men.”
You wonder why she doesn't have any condoms herself but quickly forget it. You decide to overlook this slight, in the same way you choose to ignore comments about your accent or the way cops seem to single you out for routine stops in your neighborhood in Cincinnati after dark. Your mind goes blank, and all you can hear is the sound of “Silver Bells” filling the silence in the room.
“The bodega should sell them,” you suddenly say out loud.
Lying on your back, you map out the proposed journey in your head. You put on your jacket and walk the three flights downstairs. The cold air stings your face and the lights of the East Village are just visible in the distance. A decade ago you’d run the risk of getting mugged or worse, but now there’s just empty chatter and the dull glow of the bodega’s red and yellow awning on the corner.
You slip through the clear plastic curtains and scan the aisles. The area behind the counter sells cigarettes, toiletries, and lottery tickets, and there is a fridge full of popsicles by the front. You glance over the packages, craning your neck so as not to appear anxious, and eventually settle on a bright red package that claims to be made for “His and Her Pleasure.” For minutes after, you stare intently at a shelf of Famous Amos and Wrigley’s, like you came in for something else.
When you set the condoms on the counter, the man who rings you up laughs so hard you think that you picked up a box of Tampons by mistake. When you look up, you realize that he is the same cashier, dressed in a beater and Levi’s, who sold you the six-pack of Guinness less than an hour ago.
“Fues rápido, vato,” he says, shooting you a wide grin. “What, was she just up there naked like that, waiting for you?”
When you buzz in and walk back upstairs, you set the box of condoms down at the foot of the sofa. You take off your shirt and lie down on the couch, but something feels different. The living room is bare and unfamiliar again and you are full of doubt. You imagine Raquel, who loved making out to Amelie, who wanted you to touch her so slowly it nearly killed you, and realize how little you actually know about Tae. Out of the corner of your eye, you see the laptop on the coffee table. You think about James Bond, trapped somewhere in that warehouse, and suddenly worry if he will ever make it out.
“What’s wrong?” Tae asks you, with a mix of concern and frustration, and you know that you can’t tell her the things that would probably make you less of a man in her eyes.
You are staring hard at your reflection in the bathroom mirror. You look at the thin scar along your right eye, the shiny blackness of your hair, the flush of red in your cheeks. Those parts are all yours, and yet nothing feels quite right, like you are standing in a fun house. The floor is fitted with white and black checkered tiles; the hand towel matches the gray of the rug. You look at the drain in the sink. You see a rubber stopper in the water and pull it up until it empties, just to make sure it still works.
For a long time, you think about leaving, about not saying a word to Tae and taking off right through the front door. You want to walk as far away as you can, to disappear completely. You are just about ready to go when something catches your eye. Against the far wall of the shower is a vinyl curtain fashioned out of a subway map. The island of Manhattan is blown up in the center, but you can still make out the other boroughs – the inlet of Staten Island, the conjoined twins of Queens and Brooklyn, the bulbous crown of the Bronx – each with its crisscross of colored subway lines leading into and away from the city.
You remember the dog-eared map you used to carry around with you everywhere you went, and how it was only native New Yorkers, you were told, who could understand the conductors when they announced service changes over the intercom. You pore over the curtain like a relic, tracing with your finger your route from Harlem to the Lower East Side. The vinyl is smooth, and seems to embody the antithesis of an actual train’s path, swooping gracefully, unerringly from one stop to the next.
As you wind your finger down the map, you stop at Union Square, where you used to transfer to the L to go across town. You think about how many nights you had made that trip, taking the train to 8th Avenue, and then walking the six blocks to Raquel’s apartment. When you arrived in New York, it was the middle of the summer, when the whole of the city seemed to shift outdoors. There was something so novel about it – businessmen walking out of work at 3PM, elevated subway cars strewn with beach chairs and sand buckets – that you couldn’t let yourself think about how distant you and Raquel had grown.
Every time you saw her, it was about how exciting the city was. It was why you put up with everything – the crowded trains, the long commute – like no sacrifice was too great. You were captivated by the fantasy of New York, and yet, at the same time, blinded from the reality: that you were not part of the life Raquel saw for herself in it. For months, you ignored the signs, found solace in the fact that she was as ignorant of your life in Cincinnati as you were of hers in New York. You should have known when she didn’t want you to move in with her that she was trying to hedge her bets. The whole time you lived in New York, you had none of your belongings at her place: not a scrap of clothing, not a toothbrush.
But it still doesn’t feel real to you yet. You think about Raquel coming back from Westchester after Christmas and you taking the train to meet her in Chelsea, just like you had before. You wonder if everything in her neighborhood – the dry cleaners, the Farmer’s Market, the Barnes & Noble – will suddenly become off-limits to you, how you might hardly be able to go anywhere in the city without thinking of her.
With your finger still on Union Square, you follow the path to Tae’s house, continuing down the Lexington Avenue line and stopping at Astor Place. You think about making the journey in reverse, following your finger up to Union Square, and going right past it, riding the train all the way back to Harlem. You measure the distance with your hands. You consider how far you’ve gone and how far you still have to go.
By the time you get out, Tae has moved all of the bedding back to her bedroom. She is lying down on the mattress, facing the window. Her bedroom looks different than you imagined it earlier: the dresser is teak and looks Victorian, there is an L-shaped desk in the corner decorated with seashells, and the window screen with jewelry is nowhere to be found. It’s like New York in a way. You wonder how long you have to be somewhere before you stop feeling like a complete stranger to a place.
Tae is not yet asleep; the blankets rise and fall irregularly with each breath. You draw back the covers and lie down next to her, your chest facing the ceiling. For a moment, you doubt whether or not you should be there, but Tae slouches toward you with her back, and you edge close to her, like a lover, forming a seal against your chest.
“I’ve thought about this for a while,” she says, her face still turned toward the window. “Even before I knew about you and Raquel.” Tae has never mentioned a boyfriend to you, so you guess that none of them worked out, but not for lack of trying. She lets out a deep breath and arches her back. You nod timidly, knowing it was what you thought you wanted too.
“You never did tell me why you moved to the city,” she says, and you’re not sure for a second if she really said it or you made it up in your mind. You close your eyes and steady your breathing, pretending to be asleep, but she turns around to face you.
“It’s a reminder for me,” she says. “New York has a way of disappointing you.” She is looking at you but her eyes seem to sail past yours to the door behind. “Every day is this series of bad dates and missed stops and delays. But it’s where I live, and sooner or later, you learn to live with it.” You think about why Tae first came to the city and whether or not she found what she was after.
“So what’s your reason?” Tae asks again. “Why did you decide to move here?” The ceiling fan whirrs overhead. You think about the small disappointments, the tiny failures that made up every day, and wonder why you endure them too.
“I wanted to fall in love,” you say, still staring at the wall in front of you.
You are both silent for a time, and your gaze shifts to the window by the side of the bed. Outside, the moon is shining bright against the night sky. You think about waking up on Christmas morning when you were a kid, how you used to will yourself to stay awake by counting stars from outside your bedroom window. Even long after you knew better, there was still a part of you that wanted to believe: the full stockings, the presents gathered around the stove. Christmas day, by comparison, always came as a letdown. You didn’t want to fall asleep because you liked the anticipation, the infinite possibilities of what might be.
Tae turns away from you now, and, instinctively, you stretch out your arms, nesting one under Tae’s neck and the other around her torso. You think about how sad it is that yours was the best company she had managed to find and yet how, in the months and years that would follow, there would probably be worse, men who smoked and drank, who gambled or picked fights. You wonder how long we let ourselves keep trying in spite of failure, to still believe in a fantasy that we know to be false.
You are lying beside Tae when she falls asleep. You try to count stars, but the light is too bright, and there are none that you can see outside the window anyway. You wrap your arms around her and close your eyes. Maybe you didn’t know any better then. Maybe you still don’t.