May 26, 2016
The View Behind: This Is Your Life, Until It Isn’t
The apartment didn’t technically have an outdoor space, but the roof of the building beside it came to rest exactly underneath its window, and so that was where we all hung out when it was warm. The roof was large enough to set up deck chairs, lie down on long summer afternoons, and have raucous parties where only by some miracle did none of us ever fall over the edge. One night, looking down Flatbush’s long diagonal out toward the city, where the skyline reared up asking for attention, we noticed new lights at the end of the island, a spiderweb so tenuous and fragile it looked as though you could knock it over with a thought. It just barely emerged out of the tangle and canopy of buildings surrounding it. It was the new Freedom Tower, pushing into the sky, as if trying to outdo our borrowed memories of the old towers falling. The lights at its top were still taller than the rest of the structure, and I said it looked like one of the Yip Yips from The Muppets. We sat there making yip yip noises into the night, over the edge of the roof, at a building that didn’t yet exist.
None of us quite existed yet either. My closest friends and I had all moved to Brooklyn in a disorganized trickle, an unintended mass migration. For a few years we all lived within fifteen or so blocks of one another, and our corner of the city became a sort of permanent summer camp. Many people who move to New York as late adolescents or young adults grow up watching sitcoms about New York; these tend to center on a group of friends who serve as a chosen family. In depicting city life, the sitcom abandons the traditional family unit, and centers itself on (ostensibly) platonic friend groups. Friendship is more tenuous than romance, unconnected either to ritual or to promises—to be friends with someone binds you to no particular narratives or intimacies. Even in the cheesy shows about jerks who lived in apartments they could never afford and told stupid jokes and waited for laughter, there was some seed of why we had chosen to be here—the idea that there was something better, something stranger and more unhinged, than the one-two-right-left forward step of school, marriage, children, house, those closing systems in which our geometry would forever imitate that of our parents.
There were two bars across the street from each other, Sharlene’s and Flatbush Farm, and in the late afternoons most days we’d end up variously congregated in one of them. I’d rush the six blocks from my house to a friend’s apartment if the gossip was too good to send via text. We’d spend long Sundays telling stories about whatever almost-nothing had happened to us the night before. One friend and I wrote an ongoing email correspondence that almost hit 100 messages each day, becoming unreadable in its volume. We joked about how one day someone would collect and publish our letters. We were always talking about some kind of imagined posterity, understanding ourselves through the patently absurd notion that we might one day be important to strangers. In reality, what was best about our tiny world was that no one who wasn’t us could possibly have cared about it. We spoke our own language, in which banalities were elevated to myth and prominence, where something as tiny as a text message could become the size of a tectonic plate. When we were at our smallest, when we had nothing else in the world to tell us we mattered, we made one another into the size of mountains.
I know many people who have had versions of this same group of friends, or have one now. Whenever I see their friendships documented on social media, a tiny hook under my stomach pulls roughly forward. It makes me wonder if I should unknit all my better choices and try to live forever on a narrow vertical, never aging from that lattice of apartments, from those uncertainties, holding my breath forever in a beginning. I long to return to the time when everyone I loved stood together on the starting line, in a briefly available closeness spurred by the fact that nothing had happened to us yet, that we were the things that were going to happen to one another.
The merciful thing is that it all changed at once and without any formal ending. One couple broke up, another got engaged. People got better jobs, moved into better apartments, began dating seriously and letting those people became the new center of their lives. We moved in with these new partners, moved to Manhattan, left New York entirely, got jobs, grew up. It was all in the space of less than two years, but it felt the way it does when you find yourself in a once-familiar neighborhood and, in the course of the days or weeks since you were last there, it has transformed. New York does this in the same way that people do; there are no warnings for change and no pre-made agreements for loss. One day you wake up and the thing you loved isn’t there anymore. A new city blooms overnight, constantly remaking itself, thriving in its complete lack of obligation to you.
I still sometimes go back to those bars and street corners, bodegas and subway stops, where that tenuous, floating family found itself. But it feels like visiting an echo instead of a living place, watching my own memories play out on a projector over the top of the real location. I remain friends with most of the people from that group, but our friendships occasionally feel like quotations. We have outgrown accumulating dramatic secrets in order to unburden them to one another, sitting in high chairs at a bar in the late afternoon, eyes shining with our own heady mistakes. I am at once proud of my friends that we no longer need one another like we once did, and sad to no longer be needed. As we get older and veer toward the successes and certainties we once dreamt up together, sitting on stoops in the summer and making the day mean something by imposing words on it, we learn that those successes and those certainties come with losses, and that the losses themselves are sometimes the triumphs.
During the last summer I lived in Brooklyn, but before I knew I’d be leaving, on a night not long before the friends who lived there broke up and moved out of their apartment, we sat out on the roof again and looked out toward the Yip Yip building. I tried to make that same joke, but it didn’t work. The building didn’t look like a Yip Yip anymore. Somebody pointed out that the Freedom Tower was finished. We’d watched it go up in the years we’d spent sitting too close to the edge of this roof. It felt like we should say something, make some grand statement about the passing of time, about the small, dumb things that anchor us to our lives until one day they aren’t there anymore. But then it seemed silly to try to say it, and we sat there gossiping about people we knew until it got cold and we went inside. I wouldn’t ever sit on that roof again, but I didn’t know that as I climbed awkwardly in through the window and passed into the kitchen, leaving the view behind.
Illustration by Sarah Lutkenhaus
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