skyscrapers

The building was at the corner of a block, and John’s apartment was at the top of the building, up a flight of stairs that steepened almost comically as they reached the door at the top. The apartment stretched over the whole truncated top floor in a shape like a wide-mouthed pac-man, a narrow kitchen with a movie-credits view down Flatbush bisecting the bedroom and the kitchen.

But the real feature of the place, and the reason it became the stage set for most of our twenties, was the roof. If you have ever had even one single romantic feeling about New York, the place in the songs and the movies-- it was like that. The view stretched clear across to the river where Manhattan’s skyline stood up in lights, hazy in the summer afternoon heat and sharp as knives in the clear cold winter air. On New Years, we’d come out there with too many drinks and watch fireworks go up from every direction, in a staggered round of brightness, standing in the middle of a million someone elses’ celebrations. At parties we would at sit at the rim of the lights, just outside of the raucousness, against the wall that stuck the living room and the sky together. We’d show up in twos and threes and fours on a weekday afternoon, ferrying ourselves up the street from Sharlene’s, to climb the steep stairs and watch the skyline slide down the sloped back of Brooklyn toward the river. 

Out in the distance, the new World Trade tower - the “Freedom Tower” - was being built. In the first year we sat out on the roof it was just a string of lights and a high scaffold, on all night. Over time the construction progressed visibly. In those days it was unbelievable that time passed at all, or that passing time left any visible mark. One sets up one’s idea of a place, anchors one’s life to certain ideas and signposts, that this will be like this and that will be like that, and the certainty of these circumstances offers familiarity even when nothing else is firmly one’s own. But those things shift beneath us, misplace themselves, and turn into something else before we even have time to get used to our assumptions. By the time I had figured out what signposts bounded my idea of New York, those signposts had vanished, transformed into something new, something for someone else to lose. 

We watched the tower go up into the skyline, stretching its claw of lights into the sky, and when we didn’t have anything else to talk about we would talk about it, pointing out that, half-built, with lights extending in two prongs beyond its structure, it looked like a yip-yip from The Muppets. We’d sit there making yip yip yip nooope noooope noises at it across the rooftops along Flatbush in the dark, while the summer melted into fall and one year strained into the next and we pretended nothing had changed or was changing, that nothing was as visibly different as the building that went up month by month in front of us. So much of what we did in those days, sitting on that roof, was to imagine our future. The subject of our conversations and the texture of our friendship was about ourselves in the future tense. All of life still felt as though it was not there yet, the place before you choose which of the doors to open. 

It’s cold and I’m late. In January, Thomas’ office moved to the new World Trade tower. I put off visiting him for more than two months. He would send me photos of the view and invite me to visit and I would say yes and then not do it. Now I’m picking my way through a maze of streets that all seem to lead to entrances back into the mall. I haven’t been to this part of the city since long before the building was finished, back when all this was a makeshift waterfront, a construction site surrounded by tourists with cameras. It’s not that different now. Everything still feels temporary, as though the city is perpetually awaiting some more permanent version, something on which we can all agree. It’s the same way we are all awaiting some more permanent version of ourselves, sitting on that rooftop staring at the construction lights and imagining future selves who would arrive written in heavy permanent ink, happy and good enough. We made up stories about what we would become and ignored the fact that we were there already. We all move through a handful of temporary selves like ships arriving and departing in a harbor. I reach the clean edge of the street where the building stands crashed into the pavement like a spaceship, and Thomas comes out to greet me in the cold with his wide-open face. 

The lobby is pure white, the color of absence, and offers the vast, swallowing sense of a cathedral, its grandness underlining one’s own insignificance. In my worst heart I am a congregant, a follower, a kool-aid drinker. I respond to anything on a large scale, and this cathedral to nationalism sings in a perfect choral mode. Early cathedrals were built in a frenzy of innovating faith, in a time when god was a start-up and belief was an excuse to aspire to something grander than oneself. It’s easy to teach this kind of religious art in a secular key, because there’s something most of us want from a cathedral, even if we don’t want anything to do with god. One of the nagging qualities of depression, at least in my experience, is the sense that everything is very small and entirely known, that when you scrub off the exaggeration and pretty language, nothing is bigger than paperwork and the only honest room is a DMV office. That the world, in fact, is merely a series of DMV offices. Cathedrals offer precisely the opposite of this dragging, ground-scraping emotion, the opposite of the flattened version of oneself unable to get out of bed. They pull their inhabitants up with them, aspiration as a resting state. The disappearing ceiling promises a blanket of meaning overlaid atop the practiced world. Here in this glowing-white lobby, the ceiling reaches four or five times the height of a normal building, and I feel important, rendered beautiful, heels clicking across marble toward the elevator, the kind of place that makes you feel like you matter simply because you have managed to put your body here, the same transformation a city like New York promises. 

The elevator is frosted glass and so fast it makes my ears pop and it wobbles with speed and I hate it. In 1988, the week before they left New York for California, my parents and their two best friends had dinner at Windows on the World, the restaurant in the old World Trade Center building. My mom claims - erroneously - that this is the only night of her life when she’s ever really been drunk. It was their last night out as New Yorkers, their big gesture at the place. Maybe they chose it simply because they could - my parents’ financial situation changed drastically with the job that took them to California, and it may have just been that it was something that had never before been available to them. Whatever the reason, they chose the distant, whole-cloth postcard view as a goodbye, a thing to hold in memory. The New York one hundred and six floors below them had become a very different city than the one in which they had each arrived. It was blossoming into prosperity and slick bright surfaces, coming out of the shadows and offering itself to families. It was a city in the process of reselling itself to the world, turning again new, unknowable to the people who had learned themselves alongside it. A few days later they packed up a car and drove across the country and for them New York froze in that moment in time -- they had left, which is the only way to render something static and permanent. When we came back to visit, they would point what was wrong with the new place, what was gone, what was no longer where they had left it. It was as though the real place was still there and simply being kept from them. The visible ongoing of time was not possible, could only be refused. 

The view from Thomas’ office lobby is familiar from old photos. New York harbor stretches out, blinded into a sunstruck slate color by the winter afternoon brightness, an image with the color contrast off. Down below us is the oldest part of the city and its first coastline, the place where sailors arrived to a green world, where The East India Trading Company sailed in carrying tea and violence, where my grandparents arrived under the milky green arm of a statue taking up a whole island. In the view below the office’s kitchen, two smaller skyscrapers frame a seawall, its center hinge opening to endless water. The beginning of this city’s history is the boundary of the world, a place selecting itself out of all the possible nothing beyond, choosing a visible certainly over an infinite future. 

The other side of the view stares out at the Empire State Building, where a long line of brown-ish grey buildings in the setting winter sun throw up a fortress wall and cut the island into uptown and downtown. Within this view is nearly everything I’ve ever done as an adult, every significant love or loss, every address and every long night, every argument on a street corner, every room in an apartment and bed against a wall and coffee in a new neighborhood and walk home with last night’s hair late in the morning, every nervous party where I changed my outfit in a bathroom, every home of a student I tutored through test scores and college applications, every subway stop where I waited above the stairs to send one more text before there was wifi in the stations. If I focus I can pick out the bar where Thomas and I went on our first date, and the block where Brazenhead was in the days before everyone knew about it, when it was the clubhouse of a few scrappy writer kids to whom I barely speak anymore, and further uptown, east along the arm of the park, the hospital where I was born. From this high, the changes in the city seem immaterial; all of it is happening at once, from my first unsteady years here to my parents in their twenties before they knew each other, to the old days of the harbor when all of this was farmland, before anyone imagined buildings could be so tall, before we could ride an elevator to stand in the sky. 

The lights start to come on as afternoon turns into evening. Down on the Brooklyn Bridge, rush hour clogs the lanes with cars, red brake-lights coloring in a line across the landscape. Out past the cars somewhere is the roof of an apartment where no one I know lives anymore, from where I once watched this building ascend lights into the sky. My version of the history of this city is the history of my own life in it; we learn to keep time by our own movements. From up here it all seems comprehensible at once, a single clear document unrolled across a table. It seemed that way on the roof, too, watching the windows come on as Brooklyn got dark in summer, charting the progress of the skyscraper across the water, building our future out of words and the long diagonal of Flatbush to the river. From this high up it’s easy to connect the person who pulled her knees to her chest and looked out at a building being built, half-dressed in a wet summer humidity when every part of her life was a temporary fix, with myself, now, standing here in tall shoes and a wedding ring. It’s easy to pull the story into one thread, the building a foreshadowing, already containing the germ of this cannonballing future. It’s easy to think of it in the register of a cathedral, a larger story carrying me along safe in a fast current, a line from my parents in a restaurant, to me on a roof, to me now, a dozen apartments and a hundred street corners dotted through the map below. 

One night late in the summer, a few months before John moved out of the apartment, we sat on the roof and somebody pointed out that the building was finished. We felt strangely accomplished, although we had done nothing at all, as though it wouldn’t have happened without us. This event in which we were not included seemed momentous. That might have been the last night I ever sat on that roof; I don’t know because I didn’t know it would be important to keep track of it, because we do not notice change until it has already happened to us. The building is finished now. I know; I’ve been to its sixty-fourth floor. Thomas and I come back out through the singing lobby and then we’re on the street again in the tunnels of surrounding tall buildings, squeaking around in the maze, and all the silent cohesion disappears. Our lives are small and scurrying and noisy. We build a history out of these dashes for the subway and waiting at stoplights, these fast walks through the cold, these stuttered conversations, these daily unmagnificent things. What we collect in pieces is too large to be seen as a whole, and too small to make a mark on a map. It does not knit up into a neatly concluding story, or light up in the skyline in an aspiring angle. The story as a thrown-wide map, where all the narratives strands can be gathered into a neat handful, appears only after enough time has passed that it has become unreal, distant as the grid of a city from sixty-four floors in the sky.