For all my life, my family was connected to the ocean’s residue—the sea glass washed up with algae, the decaying ports of Spanish sailors.
We spoke quietly, not disturbing seagulls or elephant seals.
My mother and I talked about the future, my plans for college, her plans for retirement, always including a ranch near the ocean or a lake. We wondered about leaving our paradise, this fairytale where we each grew up. We didn’t know that separation was only a few years away.
But while we slept, encased in a landscape others dreamed of, time was passing and change was on its way. Waves cooed us through the early hours of the morning, until the light started to beam through trees, and the birds would sing us awake. Wind chimes caught breezes. Our front door clicked closed.
Years later I moved to an island for schooling.
Next my father came, two years after me, and then weeks after, my mother with our dog.
There isn’t much relevant about the island, other than it was a mass of concrete and metal. It could have been Tokyo, Alcatraz, or even Los Angeles, and not much would change. It was an island, close to the water, but blooming with unnatural creation. It was difficult to grapple with.
Before my parents arrived, it was my duty to find them a new living space. I was given a price range and a few descriptions that I knew couldn’t be attainted, spacious, particularly. I decided on a new home close to trees. I remember staring up the side of the building, looking at the worn, rosy bricks that I could almost hear choking out their dusty stories. Some curtains waved at me from an open window and I entered.
The doorman was quick to act awake. He gruffly asked who I was. I told him a possible tenant. His expression softened.
“There’seh lobby and some elevators,” he said with a shrug, “that’sah ’bout it if you’re looking for amenities.”
It became clear that his gruffness came from his accent rather than his temperament. I nodded and glanced around the corner from his desk. There was a man mopping a closet-sized space designated for mail. Some of the mailboxes had their shiny brass finish wearing thin. Others were left ajar.
“How long has this building been here?” I asked.
“I’yah . . . don’t know.” The doorman looked around as if there was a manufactured date on a wall. “We have a fallout shelter, if that helps.”
It did, vaguely. The building itself had an ageless architecture to untrained eyes. Straight lines, no evident flourishes, and old windows that had to be slammed shut to close. It was easy to walk past, especially if you were walking towards the park with its trembling trees.
The superintendent was a gruff Irishman named John. I requested his help with hanging curtains. While he worked on the ladder, he made small talk with me about the amenities of the building.
“And, we’re looking to put in a gym,” he said with a salesman smirk that seemed to be conscious of its irony, “Trying to make it a bit more modern.”
I asked him the age of the building and he proudly told me it was built in 1929. Toward the end of the 1920s, skyscrapers were just beginning to perforate horizons, and this thirteen-story building was residue of that time. I wondered briefly if his pride was related to the building or his own recollection.
“The owners came in in 1970,” he volunteered, shaking a bit on the ladder like a skyscraper on weak foundation.
“What are they like?”
“Ah,” he started, “Friendly, wonderful people. They come every once in a while to stay for a week or so. Always doing something, you know, traveling.”
He chuckled, “They’re remarkable, old, in their eighties. They go to the gym together!”
We marveled for a while until the curtains were hung. The bare room became more uncomfortable, like nudity covered with a dishtowel. John looked around the room, made a quip about it turning into a home soon enough, and left.
It was just me and the curtains as the sun started to go down. I wasn’t afraid of the dark, but the only light was a florescent bulb in the kitchen that left me unsettled until my stomach growled, an ideal escape.
I went to the lobby, seeing the doorman. “Any food recommendations?” I asked.
He sent me to a small, mostly clean diner, where I ordered fries and fruit salad to go. I toted the paper bag to the park and ate in front of jealous dogs and birds.
When I came back to the building, there was a new man standing by the entrance. He was much older but stood very tall and proud. He had a small dog that saw me and started yapping as viciously as an animated stuffed animal could. The old man chuckled and apologized.
“You’re both cute enough to get away with it,” I said, leaning over to pet the animal.
“After my heart!” the old man barked. He left after a chuckle.
The doorman nodded at me. “Was that the owner?” I asked.
He snorted. “No, he’s the mayor of this place! He’s good friends with the owner. Lives on the ninth floor. Knows everybody. Mr. Erikson.”
In the weeks while the apartment was mine and mine alone, I made myself home. I lay on the wooden floor and stared at the walls’ white molding with my cheek squished against a textbook’s page. The windows were opened and birds alternated with helicopters flying over in an airspace where the natural and the urban seemed to be at war.
“Hellooo?” a little voice piped. There was a brown haired girl peeking into the front door, one of the roughly seventy residents in the building.
“Are you living here now?” she asked.
I said I was in an excited voice reserved for those under seven years old, and asked her name.
“Flora,” she mumbled in a rehearsed way, “and I’m five.”
She stayed and chatted with me for at least an hour, showing me how she learned to do cartwheels. Her family lived across the hall, and her mother was from France. Every Friday Flora went to a dance class where she learned how to count to a rhythm. There were two other girls who lived on the floor, but they were seven years old and didn’t like to be with the younger girl. I felt familiar pity when I realized it, and became keener on being her friend. As it got later, I heard a woman calling out for Flora, and we said our goodbyes. The next few days, she would occasionally slide a picture of stick figures playing with dolls or balls with stars and rainbows around their heads.
A few days later, I saw Mr. Erikson again. I was in the lobby asking John the superintendent about the laundry room, and he scurried out without much other than a curt smile and wave.
John’s face scrunched in a sad way. I kept an absent smile on my face.
“Is he okay?”
I learned then about John’s penchant for sharing news. He explained quietly, quickly, that Mr. Erikson’s wife was ill. She was a top-notch interior designer, but she had stayed in her apartment more and more as she became sick. Mr. Erikson didn’t normally let on about the situation, John explained. He was a private man.
I said goodbye to John and walked to the park. I was thinking about Mrs. Erikson and felt pity roll down my throat. The sun was going down as I approached the reservoir. It was named after a famed politician’s wife, who jogged around the reservoir daily. I pictured Mrs. Erikson similarly adorned, adored, fashionable, and regal. I wondered if she jogged around the reservoir before she became ill.
By the water, the quietness surprised me. It was like a community pool in the fall rather than the ocean waves I had grown up with. I wondered if it was similar enough to be comfortable for my family, or if it would seem hopelessly inauthentic. The residents of their new home would prove to be a genuine, from little five-year-old Flora who lived with her native French mother, to Mr. Erikson and his wife.
I wondered, and still today do, about what the space between Fifth Avenue and Madison means for us. It was different than the homes I was accustomed to: private worlds that acted as personal islands. The building had a character of its own, developed from decades of inhabitants, an independence residents respected as reverent spectators. We existed in our small domains like cubicles in a colony. The city, the apartment, would go on without us. Within the building, I saw ghosts; of the residents from before, residents who still lived in the building but seemed to dwell silently between walls. Yet the hall that became my last stretch home had the most impressive impressions, the sense that this floor, this place, was more than a home, but a sanctuary, an incubator for growing dreams and ambitions.
Stick figures and flowers were drawn with crayon on the baseboards. There were marbles scattered in a corner. It smelled like glue, construction paper, and sugary drinks. Little voices were singing and playing, and this place became a home.