Ice-Cream-Filled Martini Olives
by Karen Hildebrand
illustration by David Wilson
IT’S 10 DEGREES in Manhattan and my breath billows in cartoon talk bubbles that dampen the cashmere pashmina wrapped around my neck up to my ears. This could be the Middle East: All the women wear a shapeless western version of a burqa, only their eyes peering out. I wear the lilac wool blanket coat I bought secondhand in San Francisco. In a mass of black-cloaked commuters, I stand out like neon.
Winter in New York is relentless. Every day I check the temperature. Still 30. Sometimes sunny, sometimes not, but always cold. A week of 40, then back to 30, sometimes 20. 60, 70, maybe 80 days. Why would I look forward to 40 when the only difference that brings is a shorter heavy wool coat? What I want is 50 and fun vintage: short black jacket with white piping and fake sheepskin collar. But by then, we’re in danger of jumping directly into 80, with bare legs and arms all white and scaly.
I live where anything goes. I can wear the cocktail dresses and spike heels that I’ve adored since playing dress-up at age six, only now, my feet hurt. What I’d give for the smooth skin of my 20s. To to have 50s skin when it’s in the 80s is the worst of all the numbers. I’m living upside-down and twisted, ice cream inside a martini olive. Braless with gray roots, the heels of my Italian boots worn down to cheap white plastic. Winter is out of control.
Faulty wiring, smoking in bed, forgetting the grease on the stove. Eight million of us faulty beings stacked on top of each other, breathing fire. My first months in New York were spent in a Harlem sublet. One night, seven fire trucks parked outside and extended their ladders to the building next door. I packed up my two cats in their carriers, grabbed my purse and laptop, put on my purple coat, and went down to the lobby at 3 a.m. The only other residents there were an Indian couple with two kids. No alarm sounded. In San Francisco, if a fire were blazing in the building next door, the entire block would be evacuated. I had begun pushing the buzzers to all the apartments in the building when the super came out and said, “Everything’s OK. It’s the building next door. You can go back upstairs.” When I got back up to my door, I heard my neighbor talking on the phone saying, “There’s a crazy woman down in the lobby ringing buzzers and shouting, ‘fire.’”
How Did This Happen?
I came to New York with a sketchy plan to redefine myself, to see what would shift in my less-than-compelling job and under-committed love life. Things happened. I can’t say it was boring. My career geared up the way I hoped it might. I turned 53. My cat died. I turned 54. My boyfriend died. I was never under-committed about that cat. Men don’t look at me. There is tremendous freedom in this, but I’m insecure about what it means for my future. I spend a lot of time alone, and I find I prefer it that way.
After Harlem, I found a tiny place in the West Village. Stationed at my notebook com- puter at the kitchen window the first week there, I could admire a view of the building next door, where, at least, the windows were bricked over to spare me from staring at a mir- ror image of my solitary self; an inflatable bed on the floor, sleeping bag spread over it; a white card table with a shiny red folding chair to sit on; the sound of toilets flushing above and next to me, and a woman’s loud orgasm two nights in a row. Ten boxes in transit from San Francisco with dishes, linens, files of bank statements and half-written stories, a few pieces of art—I left behind camping equipment, watercolor paper, a French easel, a handmade cherry queen-sized bed, my grandmother’s chest of drawers, a commercial-grade upright vacuum.
An apartment so empty it echoed, the glowing oak floors with the double brown border and eggshell white walls, perfectly sterile. With a long shopping list and a limited budget, it would be a while before this would be much of a home. I almost preferred it at that stage, the stage where you live within well-defined limits. The stage where for dinner you decide against a jar of spaghetti sauce because you have nothing to heat it in, and opt instead for a bowl of hot split pea soup at Joe Jr’s on Sixth Avenue. The stage where you’re ecstatic about a Salvation Army find of matching stainless for four.
New York City is often depicted darkly in movies, but in truth, it never gets dark. I leave the curtains open at night and pretend I’m bathed in moonlight. Hard to believe I’m thinking of the same moon that used to rise, yellow and lazy, over Potrero Hill, while I gazed out of my floor-to-ceiling tree-house window. It’s the same moon, the same me. And oddly, I feel safe here on the streets of New York City—safer than I have almost anywhere else.
Except for the ghosts. They’re everywhere. Standing just outside my peripheral vision while I wait for the subway: I grind them between my teeth and they crunch under my boots. All that I do reminds me of something else. My past and my imagined past. I’ve been in this narrow hallway before. As I lay in bed with a migraine on a gray day, I’m reminded of my first semester at college. I laid in the dorm feeling sorry for myself, listening to laughter and loud voices in the next room, watching a crack of light under the door.
Call it karma, call it habit, life repeats itself. Eight hundred multiple selves look back at me in the mirror. The same expression as in a photo of me at five, but now with the beginnings of jowls and crinkly lines around my eyes. I can see the child in many of the people around me. Maybe we’re all still children playing dress-up with ghosts riding our shoulders.
Be Here Now
Then, before I know it, it’s late summer. New Yorkers go away during August, the way Europeans do. In San Francisco the weather is just beginning to be summer-like. There, I could avoid the tendency to treat the month like vacation. In fact, when I lived in San Francisco I didn’t feel the need to take a vacation. There was nowhere I wanted to get away to. Conversely, the New York energy is exhausting. When the weekend arrives, I sleep.
And travel to San Francisco in my dreams. I close my eyes with a firm decision to stick it out in New York another year and voila, in the morning I wake with San Francisco light in my head. My cat looks like a wrung-out dishrag in the sticky morning heat, and I consider that I might look the same to her as we lay side by side in my wrecked bed. We’re shipwrecked, stranded on the island of Manhattan, and this is another day that we must forage for our survival.
My favorite San Francisco expatriate calls me from Baltimore. I tell him that I can’t believe that, after two years, I still vacillate between San Francisco and New York, and can’t find what I want in either. “Why can’t I just pick one, make a commitment, and get on with it?” He says he’s always found my ambivalence to be part of my charm, but that he, on the other hand, has made a clean break with the past. “That was then, this is now,” he says.
Meanwhile I wander higgledy-piggledy up and down the avenues, picking up a black silk ’40s dress here, catching a play there that’s so perfectly drawn I hang on every word, and afterward discovering a jazz combo playing be- hind a café I didn’t know existed. Is it enough to simply be a witness? Why am I living on the same block as my writerly heroes decades after they’re gone? Am I too late for the show?
Last night at a bar, a man asked me whether I like New York or San Francisco better. I smiled. “That’s a difficult question to answer.” He laughed and said he knew exactly what I meant. It took him four years after moving from Australia to adjust. Outside at Columbus Circle, the fountains were finally back in operation, and the sunset reflected pink off a building in the distance—an ornate tower with parapets surrounded by glass towers. The sight was stunning, and I thought once again, I live in an amazing place.
Karen Hildebrand is a NYC based writer and editor. Her poetry chapbook, One Foot Out the Door, is available at onefootoutthedoor.blogspot.com.