My mother’s last remaining sibling is dying, and quickly, it now seems. I received the call last night from my mom and exchanged emails this morning with my cousin but didn’t really have time to think about it until the subway ride in from Brooklyn to Grand Central this morning.She is walking, still, and planning a trip to the San Diego beach in June (it keeps Eros alive, my uncle once told me with a wink, and in a case of too-much-information to share with a niece) but one eye won’t quite open and her speech isn’t coming out correctly and the body of my aunt Stana seems to be collapsing, her skin folding over itself, in response to the cancer.
When I was seven years old, we moved from Cleveland to New York City. I remember when my parents announced the decision to me and my two sisters. We were eating dinner at the aluminum kitchen table of our suburban home. Their tone was excitingly conspiratorial. They told us not to tell anyone just yet, not until plans were settled. The aspects of the move that might have troubled me—leaving relatives, friends, my bedroom, and my school—paled in comparison to the fact that I had been entrusted with a secret.
I knew enough from Facebook to recognize the muddy maroon Jeep with the top off when it ran the long red light at North and Main. I was about to turn right when zoom, straight through with a lead foot. I honked loudly and repeatedly until a freckled arm raised a middle finger through the open roof, so I broke New York’s latest traffic law and thumb-punched a text: “Its me u idiot pull over.”
Seen on a topographic map, the town of Port Jervis, New York, appears to be guaranteed some drama. It is situated at the point where New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania come together at the banks of the Delaware River, where the riverbed takes a radical turn to the southwest (as if it had suddenly decided to avoid New Jersey), deepens to eighty feet, and begins to take on the grandeur that will come to it fully in the Water Gap some ten miles farther south. But whatever Port Jervis once was—a railroad and logging hub, a transport center for the produce from local farms—it no longer is. The town center seems exhausted and weakened to such a point that no expectation or promise could safely settle on it again.
In the Upper Bay of New York’s harbor, there is a new urban island under construction. Technically, this project is a work of rejuvenation or, as professionals say, adaptive re-use. A military installation since colonial times, Governors Island hosted a U.S. Army base until the mid-1960s. Then the Coast Guard took over, operating there until 1997, when the federal government deeded the island to the City and State of New York. Good timing. The subsequent fifteen years saw New York City’s most radical re-invention since the invention of the elevator.
Buckminster: Profiles of Available Buildings, Governors Island
We see the first one in Bellport, eight o’clock at night, and we don’t know what it is. We’re driving along a two-lane highway on the south shore when we come upon it: a caravan of cars idling in the shoulder, taillights scarlet in the dark. “Should I be driving in that lane?” my husband says. Seeing no construction signs, we drive on. We pass a mile of cars. Then we see the gas station at the head of the line. It’s been three days since Sandy hit.
I don’t think I understood the idea of a “love-hate relationship” until I moved to New York City. Over the years I have become one of those obnoxious people who talk constantly of leaving New York while at the same time shutting down all possible escape routes. Having grown up in a small town, I can tell you that this flavor of self-delusion is not unique to New York City, but perhaps it happens in greater numbers here, simply because New York is host to so many outsiders — outsiders who eventually become insiders.
I have been painting chairs this summer. It is my second summer visiting my boyfriend at his country house in the Catskills, though it’s not only my boyfriend’s house. The house belongs to him and his wife. I am here because his wife is dead. She passed away two and a half years ago, and her death sometimes feels as blunt and brutal as the undeniable fact that the phrase “passed away” is trying to soften. I didn’t know her, but she was a powerful woman who died too young and left behind an adolescent son and a husband of twenty years.