In the summer of 2005, many queers whom I would eventually call close friends made a mediocre migration from California to New York City. They left the Bay Area for myriad reasons. Sexual and romantic claustrophobia were high on the list: “Lesbian drama, the feeling of having your shit everywhere, stalker exes, violence.” Creative claustrophobia, too: “No anonymity, no way to travel, explore, get lost.” “Angry tweakers everywhere” was another reason. Yet another was that the old hippies were sobering up, their happiness now a cartoonish, dangerous lie.Yet another: The old hippies were sobering up, their happiness now a cartoonish, dangerous lie. Also, “the tech boom.” And the weather: the fog, the dampness, and the mold—that “there was no such thing as a hot summer night.”
As for why they left Los Angeles—well, why not leave? The small queer scene in LA certainly and occasionally aspired to significant dysfunction, and not everyone felt nurtured by their close proximity to “the industry.” But the weather stayed perfect; the horizon golden, wide, and holy; the produce colorful, cheap, and infinite. The only reason to leave Los Angeles, really, was the traffic and perhaps its existential effects—the suffocation of being stuck in a car by yourself on a route you know very well with no other options.
I came to New York by way of LA, where I had lived a (mostly) heterosexual life up until about six months prior, when I fell in love for the first time, entered my first queer relationship with Cleo, and came out to my family and friends, in short order. My auto-didactic queer education kicked in immediately: it was as if I had been sitting around my whole life waiting for this launch of self. Like Sarah Schulman says in Rat Bohemia, a major constellation in my lesbian learning: “Coming out is not the end of insanity, you know. It is only the beginning.” This rang true; I felt both happier and crazier than I’d ever felt before. I needed to get away from everyone who had known me forever, including Cleo, to really enter into my book of revelations.
My friend Rochelle and I decided to head east in a Dodge van that needed to be dropped off in Pittsburgh. We picked it up in downtown LA, packed all of our belongings into it (we were warned we would never afford anything again), then trekked it over to the DMV for some paper maps and a recommended route for the cross-country drive. We had official reasons for leaving too: Rochelle was moving to New York to be in a band. I was moving to New York to be a writer.
For Rochelle, this was a new and wide open venture. She had never been to New York before, and so could easily project her entire fantasy of the future onto this place. Up until that point, she hadn’t yet sung in front of an audience. But she believed that once she got there, she would find her nerve, and she was right.
I had been to New York twice before, once with my best friend Maryan and another time with my ex-boyfriend. We drank small bottles of champagne and fell asleep in Central Park, got off the subway with all the models at Prince Street, roamed the stone corridors of the Met, and saw Stevie Wonder at a nightclub, so I knew to be intimidated by what lay ahead. Still, though, I believed that something would happen to me when I left where I was from—that it would give me the boldness I needed to write the things I wanted to write.
We drove through the Midwest: Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio. It was August, and on the radio we kept hearing about a hurricane named Katrina and something called the Superdome. I couldn’t make much sense of it. The stations went from news reports that seemed to be in another language, to country, to pop, and back to country.
Rochelle and I became friends in junior high, drifted apart, then came back together when I started dating Cleo (we had all met as teenagers and they had remained friends). In the interim, we had missed a lot of each other’s stories, and we had a lot to catch up on. Rochelle told me about the first time she had sex with a woman. It was like “Boooosh,” she said, her hands coming apart. “Mind blown.” I tried to smile, but doing so was hard because I knew the only woman she’d had sex with was Cleo, who was not moving to NYC with me, but had made a half promise to join when she could, which was good enough for me at the time. This adrenal-fatiguing world, where exes were also best friends who sometimes acted like jealous girlfriends, was new to me. I thought that I needed to get stronger if I wanted to be queerly liberated, which I did.
We approached the Manhattan skyline at 5 in the morning. “This is a thing,” I said. My body filled with homesickness, terror, hunger. “It’s like Working Girl!” Rochelle said. And we sang “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon. I felt better for a second. Maybe I would be okay.
Like many other arrivals, Rochelle and I landed in Williamsburg. Specifically on Hooper Street at the corner of Broadway and the JMZ train, in a big slum building with a brown Star of David tiled into the foyer floor. Outside, garbage was piled to heights I hadn’t thought possible, on a night so humid it certainly felt like the stuff of myth.
Years later, in the summer of 2007, I was still living on Hooper Street with Rochelle.
On a Sunday, at 11 a.m., I came out of the organic sandwich shop on Havemeyer, tofu salad on spelt in one hand and a small coffee in the other, ready for action. I squinted into the admonishing sun, my quondam enemy: It’s almost noon, and you’re only getting breakfast now? Before I could respond with the old adage about all the writing you do when you’re not writing, or sleeping, I heard a human voice. “Misha!”
It was Jen, who was, of course, originally from San Francisco, and was otherwise known as the Ambassador, or the Mayor (every lesbian village has one). She was wearing a kiddy cap with her dark hair poking out on all sides. It was always comforting and amusing to run into Jen, like a reminder that I was part of a family (however dysfunctional). It took me a long time to arrive at that comfort level. The first time I met her, I hadn’t felt so at ease. It was when I moved to New York, maybe even in the first week, when Cleo had come to visit me for the first time since I’d moved. At this time, every New York restaurant was fetishizing Southern comfort food, so we ended up eating biscuits and gravy at a place called Old Devil Moon in the East Village with Jen and some other queers. Our friend Ingrid was a waiter there and kept our coffee cups warm and brimming.
Cleo liked to tell people our story: that we met in junior high, then came back together in our early twenties, then became girlfriends. When she got to the part when I was still with my hipster boyfriend in a band, Jen turned to me. “Oh, Jesus. Sounds like Cleo saved your life!” Everyone burst out laughing. It was very true and also very embarrassing. I didn’t want anyone to know about formerly straight, miserable me.
Now, here was Jen crouched down next to a bright blue bike, definitely new and likely an impulse Internet buy.
“Hey,” she said. She picked up her lock, jamming and unjamming the U-shaped bar into the part that’s supposed to click into place. Then she threw it all back down on the ground.
“Hey,” she said again, looking up at me, remembering that she had just called me over. “This is driving me nuts! Would you mind watching my bike while I go and get my girlfriend a sandwich? I just want to get my girlfriend a sandwich.”
“Why do you keep saying ‘my girlfriend?’ I know Jackie.”
“Because I don’t remember who knows what about me. Fucking lock. This lock is broken, it’s too small or something. But I just bought it.” As if to demonstrate, she fruitlessly knocked the two parts into each other again. Again, they repelled one another. “Are you on your way somewhere?”
“Yeah, but I’ll wait. I’m going to meet Maria and Shawn for coffee, but… Here, give me the lock,” I said to her reluctantly.
“Thanks!” She scurried into the General Store. I turned the U around the opposite way and it fit. I rolled my eyes and put all my stuff down on the sidewalk. I moved the bike to a slimmer street sign pole so that it actually locked. I waited. I unwrapped my sandwich and took a couple of bites. When did I become good with a bicycle lock?
“How’d you do that?” She said, looking at the bike with her arms outstretched in dismay.
“You were putting the U in the wrong way.”
“But how did you get it to fit around that pole?”
“I didn’t. I moved it to the street sign.” She looked at the other pole and back to her bike, her face scrunched up in disbelief. “Are you sure?”
“What do you mean am I sure, dude?”
“Huh,” she said. “So, you’re going to meet Maria and Shawn?”
“Yes.” I picked up my belongings.
“What are you guys doing?” she asked, distractedly looking at a guy passing by with ratty jeans and no shirt. “God, I hate hipsters.”
“I’m just meeting them for a second. I have to go home soon.”
“Why?” She asked.
“Because I have my writing group in a few hours and I have to prepare,” I responded.
“Who’s in your writing group?”
“No one you know.” I said, surprised by my confidence, and just as quickly wishing Cleo, who is now my kind-of ex, was there to witness it.
“Really?” She seemed irritated.
“Are you going to Heather 1’s birthday karaoke thing?” She asked.
We know three Heathers, like in the movie. So we referred to them by their numbers, which were assigned according to how long they each had lived here.
“Yes, later, much later.” I said.
“I might miss it. I’m kinda relieved. The idea of singing with her gives me anxiety. She has perfect pitch and she’s just very serious about that shit.”
“I guess so.” I recalled being in a car with Heather upstate, her operatic rendition of PJ Harvey in my ear. “She has perfect pitch?” I didn’t feel compelled to believe the status quo on this one.
“Oh, totally. And she doesn’t let anyone forget it, you know? And I don’t even know what pitch is.”
I laughed. “So, is Jackie, your girlfriend, staying with you?”
“Until she gets a sublet. It’s like all of a sudden, we are living together, you know? Makes everything feel really un-special. Sitting around watching TV from here until eternity. I mean, we are just getting to know each other. I hardly know myself. How can I get to know someone else, you know?”
“Well, there’s something you do know about yourself.” I was the one spitting out sage advice.
“True.” She looked into the distance. “I just don’t know how people do it. I would love to sit down with Maria and Shawn and just pick their brain. They are always so affectionate and all over each other. How do you maintain that kind of energy for one person? Is it just the kind of people they are or the kind of relationship they have or what is it? Do you know?”
“Maybe I will ask them when I see them, if I ever get to see them again!”
“All right, you gotta go. I should probably get going too.”
“But to answer your question, I think they don’t really operate like that normally either. It was new for both of them to be so into someone and move in right away. But they also fight sometimes.” And never have sex, I thought to myself, but didn’t say out loud.
“What do they fight about?”
“Jen, I have to go!”
“Okay, okay. See you later at the Metropolitan, maybe.”
I ate my sandwich as I walked, feeling impressed with my new talents. Being gay was the gift that keeps on giving, I thought. Cleo would think that’s funny.
But am I becoming butch? Cleo has accused me of changing too much. She said it hurts her feelings that I cut my hair short and stopped wearing the little heels I used to wear. She especially hates this one bomber jacket I have now, thinks that I should have given it to her, obviously. She said it’s kind of single white female of me, except for the part that I’m white and she’s black, and we have sex, or used to, which makes it doubly gross on my part.
After Oslo, I went home and wrote a story for my writing group about running into the lesbian ambassador on my way to meet Maria and Shawn. I call up Cleo in California to read it to her, even though we are on a break and I kind of hate her at this point.
“You make Jen sound like a rat,” she says. “I think you’ve been watching too much Seinfeld. I think you should come home.”