There’s something almost pathologically beautiful about the New York subways. Why, for one thing, are the cars fitted with windows? It makes little sense, from a practical standpoint—either the trains will be in motion through dark tunnels, or they will be at a station, and their doors will open. Yet, I’m truly grateful to whoever decided they needed windows, because the twisting curves of light as our train makes its turns are hauntingly lovely. On the straightaways, if you stare out into the tubes for long enough, your eyes will start to adjust to the movement of shadows in the tunnels. You can see the disused train platforms flicker by, other passages splitting off from your own track at strange angles. People live there. Other things, too. Giant alligators and other monsters, assuredly. There are meant to be miles of tunnels—some with tracks, others not—that simply sit under the city, not used for anything anymore. Just waiting.
Katie tells me later that there’s a whole community of “sewerers”–people who go spelunking in sewers and abandoned buildings. It isn’t exactly safe, obviously, but I’m fascinated, partially by her magnificent prescience.
And then she asks me, in almost the same breath, why I am going to India by way of half the cities in the continent.
Katie is an old friend I met up with in Central Park today, and will be traveling with to London the day after tomorrow. It’s a stupid plan, not least because Central Park is not somewhere you meet people—it’s somewhere you get lost. A few years ago, some artists had pulled brilliant orange banners over half the paths in this place. She and I tried meeting then, too, and we failed most spectacularly. Over time, I’ve come to mean this literally—in memory, our utter failure really seems to have taken on the air of spectacle. Something about the banners twisting and waving in the wind gave everything that day the sense of being part of a vast and beautiful carnival conspiracy, in which we played lead parts.
Today is gray, however, tinged with a kind of drab soggy whiteness, and I find Katie lodged halfway up a tree. From this you might infer that she has retained her sense of child-like wonder, that she is lithe and athletic and youthfully beautiful, and that she climbs through life much like she climbs through trees. And while it is true that she has a sense of energy about her, it is not that kind, and I’m genuinely perplexed as to what she’s doing in a tree, anyway. I help her down, and after brief and almost painfully formal pleasantries, she suggests sushi and sake. I mention my concerns about flirting with alcoholism, which she dismisses: “If you were an alcoholic,” she intones, “you wouldn’t tell me you thought you had a problem.” So we go to a nearby sushi hut and place an order for sake. (This is indicative of the kind of energy she more commonly possesses.)
The place is stuffed with more people than I usually see all day. They’re laughing and ordering, or hungrily consuming the delicately prepared fish on their plates. I’m struck at once by how much I feel like I’m at home—or rather, I’m struck by how little different feeling alienated in a different city is from feeling alienated in the one where you live.
I want to ask K how she can deal with living somewhere surrounded by so much life, even scurrying as it does on the vast concrete turtle. Instead, we smile and sip sake, talk about some recent movie or another and, later, Nicomachean Virtue ethics, which she loves and I don’t.
“You can’t sort people. You can’t provide some sort of criteria that divides good people who you hug from the bad people who you stab.”
“It’s not about that. It’s explicitly not about that. He’s talking about the shape of your soul.”
“How am I supposed to figure that out? Cut someone open?”
“I suppose…” she says, “He was Alexander’s teacher.”
We giggle over the fish, thinking of Alexander the Great slaughtering his way through Europe and Asia, looking inside each victim to find a single good person. And if he did, what then?
It’s nearly two in the morning when we finally stumble out. The drippingly cold wind buffets us towards the subway station, and again I think of piles of soggy leaves, only this time I realize I think of myself getting blown around. As we enter the tunnel, I finally ask her how she can live here.
“It’s not so bad, though it’s worse in the summer.”
“No, I mean, that restaurant held more people than the state of Colorado. We’re about to climb onto a tube car with its very own blood alcohol content.”
“It’s not so bad.” She stops for a moment, swiping her card at the turnstile. I slide my thinner paper pass through. “Everyone has their story.”
But how do you deal with all those stories floating around? I want to ask, but do not.
“Aren’t you going to India?” She continues, “You’ll have to find some way of dealing with people.”
“I like people—“ which is true enough “—they’re just overwhelming. And it’ll be different there, I’ll be with family.”
“Yes,” she says, “Because that makes it so much easier.”
Part of the answer is easy. I am going to India to bury my grandmother, who I never knew. I am going there because my mother needs help in this task, and because she needs me to meet her family, who I have not seen since I was six.
This is why my mother wishes me to go to India, which she still calls home and I never have.
I am going to find stories that will make it more a home to me than it is, or at least make less a exotic enchantments and tech support. I am going to speak to people whose voices I have not heard, and cannot, except by going there.
Some part of me does not want to do these things, which is why I find myself traveling everywhere I can before I arrive where I’m meant to be. Another part of me feels like I’m just building a drawn-out, one-woman funeral procession, and not for my grandmother.
There’s a scene in Marjane Sastrapi’s Persepolis where she returns home to Iran after an extended absence, and the line of people greeting her stretches across a facing page spread. It’s beautifully drawn, and I always remember the pages as folding out and out to emphasize the effect, although I am told this is not the case.
When I arrive in Bangalore, I worry that I will be ensnared with blood, that I will be required to leave a part of my heart there, even if it is foreign and does not belong. I worry only a little that this will kill me. I worry more that perhaps I will feel that it does belong, and so will scamper behind me, and will get dirty and I’ll have to put it back in, which sounds distinctly unpleasant. (This last part I do not tell Katie, because at that moment, just before sleep, I am not so ready to voice it.)
We slip past the hostel desk clerk and go up to the room where I’m staying. A thumping bass is coming from some secure, undisclosed location, and like a cacophonous industrial lullaby, it whisks us quickly off to sleep.