I transfer to the F at Jay Street Metrotech. I see, watch and stare at a morbidly obese woman who can’t fit through the turn-style although she tries and tries, angling herself sideways and to and fro. She’s dressed all pink bubble gum, all white candy. She determined but perplexed, apparently unwilling to accept that she can’t fit through. For a few moments, the station clerk watches, but soon steps from her booth and tells the woman to use the emergency exit, and she does.
After I get on the F, heading to Avenue X, I search my memory for other times I’ve seen a subway emergency exit used in need. Besides images of people with strollers and bikes, and the occasional arrestee, just one impression stands out, that of EMS carrying out an old grey man on a gurney at Park Place Station. Oxygen mask. Chest bare.
I am tapping my pen, listening to the band Crystal Castles over one earbud, when I spot a man sitting on a pillow down at the end of the subway car. A pretty curly haired brunette, wearing a vintage dress, worn combat boots, and a leather jacket, is seated diagonally across from him. She’s reading a book and eating a sandwich, but looks up, walks over and gives him a dollar, then returns to her seat and finishes her lunch.
The man’s got a suitcase with him. His skin is oily. His cheeks are rubbery, round, red. The pillow draws me in. I’ve never seen a person sitting on one while riding the subway. Another man is seated opposite him who has his own pillow tucked besides him. His arms are folded. Eyes closed. He’s got something on his belt that looks like keys but in the sunlight of the Ditmas Avenue platform I see that it’s a bottle opener.
The curly haired brunette leaves at Ditmas, and the man she gave the dollar to starts snapping his fingers at tourists who’ve just boarded. “Thank God I’m not homeless!” he says. His companion keeps eye-closed-quiet. The tourists ignore the man, and when an orthodox Jewish family gets on at 18th Avenue, he shouts: “Rabbi, Rabbi! You have some money for the homeless! Hey Jew, you have some money for me! Thought not! You see!”
“I see,” I tell myself. I see a broken man who feels we owe him more than we’ve already given him in our taxes and tolerance. He bothers me because he’s a nasty fuck in front of their little boy.
Avenue X 1:33 pm.
I get off the train and walk down from the elevated platform to Shell Road. I see a homeless man lying on the ground, and another who’s just finished pissing on a trestle. I cross the street to McDonald Avenue and enter the Psychic Shop as I promised myself I would. Inside is red curtained sunlight. Two men are eating lunch. I tell them I’m here for a reading. They have me wait and step through the curtains, and a woman comes out and greets me, introducing herself as Mama. Her accent’s Roma, Gypsy. She’s about my age, maybe a little older. She has loose dyed blonde hair, crooked teeth and wears a yellow flowered dress comfortably.
Mama has me sit with her at a velvet-clothed table. I pay her $30. She gives me a choice of readings. I chose Tarot Cards. She has me cut the cards three times, then shuffles and begins to lay them out before us: an angel blowing a trumpet, a knight on a horse, a woman cradling a lion’s head. She studies me then draws a card with an image of a burning tower, and others with the words “temperance” and “judgment.”
Mama sets her eyes on mine and says, “You wear a smile, but you’re looking for something, searching for a change.” She folds her arms. “Yes, you wear a smile like a clown, but you’re not happy.” She purses her lips, then asks, “Was there someone in your past whose name starts with A?” and I say, “Arianna.”
So it begins.
“You have regrets over this girl Adrianna,” Mama asks, and I say, “Yes, Arianna,” helping her along. She asks why, and I say, “I should’ve told her.”
Mama considers her words then says, “You know, if you still love her, you won’t be able to move on.”
I say nothing, but tell myself, I have.
Mama draws an ace of cups then a card of a man wearing a cloak, and asks me what I do. I tell her I’m a lawyer, then she asks me if I’m married, and I think she’s not the best observer since I’m wearing my ring.
She touches the cloaked man and asks why I have regrets about Arianna, and I try to explain, “It’s about courage. I’ve had a problem with courage.”
Mama reads me again and asks me to choose a card. I do: a blindfolded woman holding a sword in each hand. She takes it, places it by the cloaked man, and says Arianna still thinks of me, and she may. We’re still friends and colleagues. We even see each from time to time, and after hesitating, I tell Moma about when Arianna was honored for her work in defending the indigent. That night, as she accepted her award, Arianna spoke with her usual humility and humor, uncomfortable with being praised for just doing the best she could, and because she knew she hadn’t done anything alone.
“And afterwards we were going out for cocktails,” I tell Moma, “Arianna was looking for me, but she couldn’t see me in the crowd. And as I got closer to her I was so struck by her expression that I stopped. She was unguarded, expecting, and maybe even a little sad, and I felt I saw in her that same longing I’ve carried in me about her and us.”
I hear my own words, and I’m not surprised when Mama asks me if I’m troubled in my marriage. I tell her no, and try to explain, “I’m truly grateful I’ve had the chance and courage to be with and in love my wife, Marie, but Arianna is, was….”
I stop suddenly conscious at how seriously I’m taking this, talking to this stranger.
Mama folds her arms again. “So you say you’ve moved on. You’re married and have a career, but you’re missing something.”
Aren’t we all? I almost say.
Don’t we all?
Mama tells me it’s time for my free question, and I ask without irony, “What will make me happy?”
Mama leans in close and presses her fingers on the blindfolded woman. “Let go of her,” she says. “You both have regrets. If you weren’t married you’d come to each other. But you won’t be happy until you stop regretting your past.”
My reading is over. I gather my Ipod, pen and pad. As I stand to leave, Mama tells me that I have too much responsibility, and though I only came out of curiosity she can help me. I tell Mama she has, thank her and ask if I can give her a tip. She says yes, and I give her extra $10.
On Avenue X, I have a beer and slice at Knapp Pizza II, then continue walking under the blue sky, thinking how psychics can only give us back what we share. And though the encounter has me feeling strangely grateful, I also resent being reminded to handle my past with care.
Suddenly there’s Gravesend Cemetery.
I stop. I feel the cool air hardly move. A Korean mom and son walk by me.
The cemetery is small, surround by a black iron gate. A black garbage bag hangs outside its locked entrance. A pair of black sneakers is tucked near its bars. Just inside there’s a sign dated 1938, stating English Quakers settled Gravesend in 1643. To get a better view, maybe even get inside, I walk up to Van Sicklen, hook a left at the First Korean Church of Brooklyn, and then another left at Village Road. Along the way, I pass two Korean men sitting on the church’s steps, one’s in a suit, the other’s smoking.
On the other side of the cemetery, the gate is also locked, so I look through the bars as best I can. There’s litter and leaves. Most of the headstones are in disrepair, weather worn, illegible, but I’m able to read those of Nellie O. Lewis, Died November 3, 1927, Age 65 years, In Loving Memory, and Albert Cooper, Died December 20, 1898, Gone But Not Forgotten In Remembrance Of His Wife.
I sit on a nearby hydrant and stare out at the graves and grass, and turn my thoughts to regret and Mama’s admonition, questioning if I’ve held onto my memories of Arianna too hard, too long. Be it the memory of the first day of law school when we met and went to lunch; or our study groups in the library and arguments in class; or that spring day in Nashville when we made it to the finals of Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Competition and celebrated that evening at the remake of the Parthenon; or when we traveled across country after the bar exam; or that afternoon a few years later in Manhattan when she watched me give one of my finest summations in a trial against the NYPD and later that evening sitting next to her at a bar when she told me that her boyfriend (now husband) had been jealous when I took her to Mark’s wedding in Niagara Falls. I remember Arianna waiting for me to finally say it, to talk about the elephant that had always been in our room, but before I could muster the courage my trial partner was back, talking about our win, and I let the moment pass.
You’re interested in people, passionate about them, invested and involved with them. You care, care about those who need the most help, walking not talking, always guided by your innate sense of clear-eyed right and wrong.
You’re not perfect. You’re quick to anger, but also to laugh.
You rush to judgment, but with the best intentions.
You’re a leader who always encouraged me to do more, to be better, flirting with me to take on responsibilities I’d just as soon duck, like become VP of our law school’s moot court board. When I asked, “Are you serious?” you promised it would be fine and we’d have fun together, and you were right, and in our time together, I was so struck by your passion, intelligence and decency, I found I wanted be someone you loved.
Problem was that person wasn’t me.
I look over my shoulder at the elevated tracks. The air still barely moves. It’s time to head home, and I walk from Gravesend, my thoughts unresolved about Arianna’s continued presence in my life.
Back on the train at Ditmas Avenue an African American couple gets on, and we all look unable not to stare. The man’s striking, in his 20s, deep blacked skinned and ripped. But what’s “Wow” about him is that he’s dressed entirely in pink: pink shorts, pink t-shirt, pink sneakers with fluffy poodle dolls attached to them, and a pink baseball cap with a decal of Animal from the Muppet Show. He’s outlandish, audacious, and I smile at being reminded that the extraordinary is supposed to be memorable, supposed to last. It is, and it’s that simple.
So “Yes,” Mama, I do cherish my memories of Arianna, and I suffered for it. But my suffering came from looking to those memories with a desire to change that past. I couldn’t change it. But I could change and accept what these memories could do for me, which was show me whom I should love and the imperative of acting on love.
The subway moves jolting my pen.
So for me it’s not a matter of letting go, and it’s clear we don’t let go easily. The graves I saw today are a testament to that. And it doesn’t matter that they were broken, forgotten, left to the care of strangers. We’re finite. We fail. But it’s clear to me now, I’ve kept this regret, because like the words In Loving Memory and Gone But Not Forgotten require I’ve made a promise, or prayer, to hold onto that out of the ordinary girl I fell in love with, and she lives in the Heaven of my memory.