[Image Credit: Sienna Browne, “Broken”]
Move to New York City. In an average day, you can walk past more people there than the entire population of your hometown. You can walk from elevators padded with people to sidewalks teeming with people to subway cars pulsating with still more of them. Unlike in your hometown, no one will expect you to stop and chat.
At work, you can send an email instead of walking two rows over. You can bring your own lunch and eat it at your desk. When your coworkers start chatting about things like the subway construction or the Portuguese man o’ war seen washed up on a Jersey Shore beach that weekend, you can put on your noise-cancelling headphones.
In the evening, returning to your 300-square-foot apartment, you can stand in the middle and be a step and a stretch away from each wall. You can tread the parquet flooring and press your palm against each wall and say here is a boundary, and here, and here, and here. You can feel comforted that in a city with so many potential places to be, where each evening presents an array of possibilities fanned out like a limitless roulette wheel, the spin that leads to the other side of this particular apartment door is the only one that belongs to you alone.
You can scroll through the hundreds of restaurants that deliver to your door and click your mouse to add gulab jamun to your order of aloo poori without having to guess at the pronunciation of either. You can open your door to a box of snacks from FreshDirect.com and used books with spidery notes penciled in the margins from Amazon.com and capsules of omega-3 and B12 from Drugstore.com. You can imagine yourself as an angle that just needs the right supplement to blend in to a world of straight lines.
On your TV, you can watch the local news to see what’s happening outside your door: A climate protest blocking Brooklyn Bridge traffic. A prestigious violinist playing at the Kennedy Center. An interview with a Brighton Beach lifeguard who spotted three more Portuguese men o’ war, far off-course from their home in the tropics. The segment cuts to stock footage of the creature, a diaphanous bubble trembling on the ocean surface, as delicate as a piece of avant-garde blown glass, while the newscaster’s voice warns that even a dead man o’ war can deliver an excruciating sting. You can turn off the TV and stare at your reflection barely visible in the blackened screen, like someone deep below water.
You can start responding to more and more of your text messages with “Sorry, this week is CRAZY, but let’s plan something soon!” None of your friends will question it because so many weeks in this city are in fact wildly unstable. Only some will follow up, and then those responses will start to drop off, too. You can step off the social wheel for weeks and then months at a time while your friends’ other activities and obligations come swirling in to fill the hole you left. You can let yourself be surprised, but only a little, by how easy it was to disappear completely.
You may find that you still need to leave your apartment on occasion. Don’t worry—this will not undo your progress. As you stand in a tight circle of subway commuters all gripping the same pole for balance, you can follow their cue and keep your eyes cast downward or just over each other’s foreheads, like participants in a maypole dance that has come to an abrupt and impassive end. You can think to yourself that just being in the proximity of so many thousands of people on a daily basis counts for something. As if companionship is a muscle that can be passively stimulated with the jostling of a subway car. But later, you will struggle to remember details of anyone you saw that day. You can realize that drowning in people is just another path toward becoming a ghost.
If you’ve done everything right, you can keep up your disappearance for as long as you want to. Or even longer.
Eventually, when you’re ready, you can go outside. You can start walking with no real destination in mind. You can grab a newspaper at the corner bodega and end up at the pub you used to frequent, the one that never seems to have more than two patrons at a time but mysteriously stays in business. The bartender will remember you and know by the angle of your splayed newspaper whether to put down her book and refill your whiskey.
You can read the front-page story about how a total of seven area beaches have now been closed due to the growing number of Portuguese men o’ war washing ashore, alarming beach patrols and generating grave theories from biologists and climatologists. When the bartender shudders and says that she hates jellyfish, you can decide not to correct her by telling her that a man o’ war isn’t a jellyfish, really. Each man o’ war is actually a colony of organisms all working in harmony, all depending on the functions of the others to survive. When you pay your tab and she invites you to her band’s gig that weekend, you can tell her you’ll try your best to make it, and mean it.
You can walk home among the anonymous faces drifting down the sidewalk and look up at the spattering of illuminated windows punctuating the skyline. You can think about the Portuguese man o’ war propelled by restless winds to this city’s inhospitable shores. The man o’ war is a carnivore, its buoyant translucent sail hung with long streamers of tentacles that entangle and paralyze its prey. Its sting can be deadly to humans. It is also beautiful to look at—tinged with pastel hues and studded with venom. You can imagine what it must feel like, floating above the ocean depths on a balloon of gas, like a held breath.
Kelsey Rexroat is an editor and freelance writer in San Francisco by way of New York. She has previously written fiction and nonfiction for The Cortland Review, The Atlantic, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.