The day after I turned thirty-three, I tripped on the sidewalk on Nostrand Avenue, a block from my apartment in Brooklyn, and broke both my arms.
It wasn’t a truly serious injury, at least as far the recovery went. Technically, I didn’t even break my arms. I fractured the radial head of my right elbow and the schaphoid bone of my left wrist—both common injuries that heal relatively fast. It hurt a lot for a couple of days, and the casts and splints and slings were inconvenient for a few months. But the only long-term effect is that I’m not supposed to do push-ups anymore, which I don’t consider a huge loss from my life.
And yet. When I think about it now, the injury divides the near decade I spent in New York into before, and after. Before I broke my arms. After I broke my arms. I say it like that, too, when I talk about my time in the city.
Before I broke my arms, I had what plenty of people would consider to be a pretty great New York life. I arrived in Brooklyn seven years earlier with a van full of stuff and vague ambitions of becoming a magazine editor. I knew no one and had no real idea of how I might get a job when I moved into a literal closet in an apartment I would share with two other girls.
But the girls became my friends, my temp job was replaced with a real job, and seven years later, I was the editor of a well-known fashion news website, living in my very own apartment where the closets were for clothes and not for sleeping. I could go to museums and the farmers’ market on weekends, and, thanks to my press credentials, I got invited to lots of fancy parties. I once had a glass of champagne with Leonardo DiCaprio.
But after I broke my arms, I decided to leave all of that, to leave New York City for good.
* * *
A week after I broke my arms, I was in a busy medical office in Park Slope. My doctor showed me my x-rays. On film, the breaks looked less dramatic than I expected: two small smudges, slightly darker than the surrounding areas. I could barely see what she was talking about. The dark spots looked like shadows on the moon’s surface, not the distinct, black-and-white fissure lines I had envisioned.
My best friend, Grace, took notes as the doctor talked. Grace had flown in from Northern California, where she was an organic farmer, to take care of me for a week while I got my final x-rays and made a recovery plan.
When I first met her more than a decade ago, we were both living in D.C. She volunteered at the museum where I was the editor of the members’ magazine, and I frequently shopped at the clothing boutique she managed. She had long, hippie hair and arty tattoos—a contrast to my blow-dried bob and bright red manicure—but we liked each other right away. Neither of us ever had much patience for small talk, and our first real conversation was after a screening of Me and You and Everyone We Know hosted by the museum. We discussed the peculiarities of Miranda July’s scatological humor. Grace was seven years older than I, and she gave off a confidence, a sense of wellness in her own skin, that I aspired to.
After we both left D.C., we wrote long, earnest letters about the books we were reading and the men we were loving and all the things we wanted to do with our lives. Grace wanted to feed people beautiful, nourishing food. I wanted to inspire them with beautiful, nourishing stories. She sent me a red Marimekko-print umbrella when I was broke and interning at a publishing house in San Francisco. I sent her Smartwool socks and bourbon when she was broke and apprenticing on a farm in Minnesota. If both of us happened to be broke at the same time, we recommended books the other could check out of the local library. When I moved to New York and eventually became too busy to write letters, we talked on the phone instead, hanging up only when one of our devices threatened to die. Grace was on a plane forty-eight hours after hearing about my accident.
* * *
It took her a good portion of the morning to get me ready for this appointment, though by now, on the last day of her week here, Grace was a pro at dressing me. It’s best not to go at it from the front, she had discovered. The trick was for me to sit on the edge of the bed, feet flat on the ground, and for her to sit behind me, on her knees. That way, she could start with my right arm, which was the one that had the broken elbow and the L-shaped cast. She’d stretch the arm opening of my shirt just enough to ease it over the awkward “thumbs up!” placement of my casted hand, and then slip it along the length of my arm, following the bend in my elbow, until the shoulder seam was in the correct position. Once the right sleeve was securely in place, Grace would ease the neck-hole over my head, careful not to stretch the fabric any more than necessary, and then I’d raise my left arm straight up in the air, Statue of Liberty style, and Grace would shimmy the sleeve over my fat forearm splint. The shirt would fall into its proper place, and then we’d start on the bottoms.
The arrangement had been that she could come to New York if I could pay for everything—an excellent deal for me, since I was wearing the osteopathic equivalent of a straightjacket and could do almost nothing without help. I’d never before considered what it would be like to lose the use of both arms, but I was quickly learning to appreciate all the things I needed at least one working appendage to accomplish. For example:
Turning on the bedside lamp
Charging my cell phone
Taking off my pajamas
Making my bed
Putting toothpaste on my toothbrush
Brushing my teeth
Turning on the shower
Drying off after the shower
Brushing my hair
Putting on makeup
Buttoning my pants
Getting a drink of water
Using a fork
Turning the doorknob
Locking the door to my apartment behind me
Holding a coffee
Swiping my metro card
And that’s just the first hour of the day.
Grace did all of these things for me, plus the hundreds of other daily tasks I couldn’t manage on my own. And she was the perfect person for the job. Both methodical and whimsical, she could be counted on to handle the tedious administrative details of my injury—the prescriptions, the insurance forms—and also to suggest that perhaps a chocolate milkshake for breakfast would be excellent medicine for someone trying to load up on calcium.
* * *
I should have felt thankful for all that Grace was doing. How could I not feel thankful for all that Grace was doing? But gratitude stuck in my throat.
I was irritable with her, and when I wasn’t irritable, I was a weepy mess. Right there in the middle of the egg breakfast Grace made me on her last morning in New York, I dissolved into sobs so wrenching and inconsolable that she could do nothing but stand there blinking in surprise, hand on my shoulder, until I calmed down. Though we’d been friends for nearly a decade, she’d never seen me cry like this before. Neither of us knew what to say about it.
There was a new tension between us that week, a distance. A different kind of fracture. The conversation that had flowed since the day we met dammed up. For the first time in our relationship we were simply dealing with, rather than enjoying, each other. We found ways to kill the hours that didn’t require talking. We went to double-header movies, or Grace read aloud to me (I couldn’t hold a book). Though we both made an effort to be cheerful, we were relieved when each day was over and we could sink into the privacy of the night, me in my bedroom, my arms propped up on pillows, and Grace in the living room, her waist-length hair fanned out over the couch as she read herself to sleep.
* * *
This final x-ray reading was the last thing I needed to do in the city before I could leave for my mom’s house in Delaware, where I would stay until the cast on my right arm came off a few weeks later.
The doctor wanted to know how the fall happened, so I told her what I could remember. I could see the ground centimeters from my face, and I could feel the burn on my palms from where they scraped the ground, but I could not remember falling. I had been walking to my apartment from the A train, and then I was on the ground. Boom. I was vertical, and then I was horizontal; I was upright, and then I was flattened. It had happened too fast for my brain to record the sequence of events between.
My boot had caught in one of the steel trap doors embedded in the sidewalk, the kind used for merchandise delivery directly into the basements of street-level shops. This one was rusted out, the entryway to the basement of some long-abandoned establishment. The warped edge snagged the toe of my boot between the leather and the rubber sole, grasping me there, bringing me down in a hard, fast fall.
At first, lying there on the sidewalk, all I felt was embarrassment. I was in perfect view of the people waiting at the Nostrand Avenue bus stop, and the carryon suitcase I’d been dragging behind me after my birthday weekend upstate had landed several feet away on the sidewalk. I tried to get up but, as I rose to my knees, my backpack slid forward and banged the back of my head, knocking me off balance again.
People were kind. Someone retrieved my rolling suitcase from the curb. Someone else pulled me to my feet. Everyone asked if I was ok. “I’m totally fine,” I said, smiling my most assured smile. Somehow, it seemed crucial to convince these strangers that I wasn’t hurt—though, as I walked away, both my arms rang dully.
The real pain would set in after the adrenaline wore off in about twenty minutes, and then I would temporarily lose the ability to use either of my arms at all. I would use my nose to dial the car service stored in my phone contacts, and the driver who dropped me at the emergency room would have to fish the $20 fare out of my purse himself.
My doctor listened to the story sympathetically and promised that the fractures would heal just fine if I rested for a few weeks. She was young and cute, and, incidentally, she was a reader of my website. Before she said goodbye, she asked what I thought she should wear to a wedding she and her husband were attending in a few weeks.
* * *
I couldn’t name it then, but now, a few years later, I recognize the strain between Grace and me as the very specific tension of withholding between two people who do not normally hold back from each other. Grace had recognized for some time what I was refusing to admit to myself: that I was miserable in that glamorous New York life of mine. It was clear to her that whatever the upsides, the downsides had long since outpaced them. I started working at 7:30 in the morning and finished around 11:00 at night. The pay was shitty. I was never home to eat the food I got at the farmers’ market and was too tired to go to museums on the weekends. My friends outside of fashion all seemed to have left the city over the years, and spending time with people in the industry felt more like networking than hanging out. Suddenly, all I did was work.
The fancy parties were hardly a perk. The night I met Leonardo DiCaprio, I was at a party for Gatsby, that classic New York story of excess and emptiness. The irony wasn’t lost on me. All the big fashion editors were there to meet the movie’s stars and see the costumes. I was exhausted as usual, weighed down by the laptop I carried everywhere because the start-up I worked for was too cheap to provide desks or computers. As I slogged through several hours of interviews, all I could think about was the kale that was wilting in my refrigerator and the recipe I wanted to try that I wouldn’t get around to again this week.
* * *
My irritability, my weepiness, they were about so much more than my injury. This unexpected halt in my life was forcing me to confront a bottomless loneliness that I wanted very much to avoid acknowledging. It was loneliness born not from isolation, but from busyness. In a city that offers forever more, I had slowly allowed the things I cared about most to be crowded out. Unstructured time in museums, unrushed dinners with family and friends, uninterrupted hours to listen and to write—all the things that Grace and I had bonded over a decade ago—had been replaced by more. More people to meet, more things to see, more work to do.
The very secret truth that I could not yet admit, even to myself, was that I was glad I had broken both my arms. I sustained pretty much the only injury that could have forced me to stop working, and my relief at the excuse to rest was so overwhelming that it terrified me. At the end of the day, what did I have? I could recommend a good sale on dresses to my doctor. I could tell a story about that one time I was in the same room as Leonardo DiCaprio. It didn’t seem like a lot.
I had spent a decade building a life I didn’t want. It was a defeat so private and humiliating that I couldn’t stand for it to be witnessed, even by my most intimate friend.
* * *
Grace and I decided to walk home from the doctor’s office. It was a clear fall day after several days of rain, and we strolled slowly through Park Slope, up the long hill to my apartment in Crown Heights. People were coming home from work by now, striding purposefully along the sidewalk. Bars had opened their doors, ready for happy hour. We were out of sync with the flow of traffic, moving too slowly, the pair of us taking up too much space on the sidewalk.
When we got home, Grace suggested I take a bath. After several days of washcloth showers, I needed one. She undressed me, secured black plastic bags around both casts, and gently held onto my naked waist as I lifted first one leg, then the other, over the lip and into the slippery tub. I sank slowly down into the warm water, my arms lifted cactus-like beside my head, careful not to lean too far forward or back and risk toppling over. When I was seated, I stretched my legs out to their full length and eased back against the white tub, tensing until the heat from my skin warmed the ceramic. Then, finally, I rested my heavy arms, which were straining under the extra weight of the casts, along the sides of the tub.
Grace lit a candle and turned off the lights, asking respectfully if I wanted her help to wash off. I nodded. We both knew I needed her to do it for me. She lathered a washcloth with the linden-scented soap I like and began to gently rub my back. She washed in between my toes, the bottoms of my feet, and my legs. Then she began on my shoulders, my arms—the parts not covered by plastic bags—and my underarms. I tried to help by leaning forwards and backwards, lifting one appendage, then the other. Careful not to wet my hair, she rubbed the back of my neck and behind my ears, where my skin was becoming grimy and oily without daily showers. “Do you want me to wash your boobs?” she asked. I looked down at my breasts, small and firm, rising in slight mounds over the curve of my belly, gleaming white in the candlelight. My body looked soft and terribly vulnerable compared to the black plastic stumps of my arms, pinned by their own weight to the sides of the tub. I nodded. She ran the washcloth over my chest quickly and gently, and then she left me to float there in the privacy of the quiet, dark bathroom.
Earlier in the doctor’s office, Grace had said nothing when I had insisted I needed to go back to work earlier than recommended. And though it must have been frustrating for her, she listened supportively for several more months as I hemmed and hawed, before I gathered the nerve to walk away. A year later, when I finally left New York without much of a plan but with a sense of freedom I hadn’t felt in a decade, she didn’t say “I told you so.”
But there in the candlelit bathroom, that future was not yet imaginable. There was only the tedious misery of confusion. I closed my eyes and felt my weightlessness in the warm water, alone with my inexplicable, bone-deep sadness, watching the flickering shadows and listening to the sigh of the bubbles.
As I always did when I took a bath in that third-floor apartment, I eventually began to calculate the weight of fifty gallons of water plus my body divided by all the empty space beneath me. Usually, I would be unable to help imagining the tub crashing through the ceiling into the bathroom below me, the weight and momentum of it all collapsing that ceiling, and crashing again into the first floor bathroom. Since the apartments are all laid out identically, with identical bathtubs, I would collect an additional tub every time I fell to a new floor. Finally, I would land in the basement storage area in a super-coffin of three white bathtubs. My neighbors would rush to survey the damage and find me naked and dead, sprawled unromantically atop a heap of gleaming white broken ceramic. It would be the absolute worst way to go.
But that night I resisted the image, searching instead for the reassurance of solid ground. I tried to picture the final solid layer of the city, the true bottom of New York. I imagined the tub in the apartment below mine, hovering in the air just ten feet below me. In my mind, the absurdly good-looking couple who lived there was washing each other’s hair. In the bathroom below them, the toddler on the first floor scooted around on his belly, dive-bombing a plastic boat into the deep end. Below him, the dank basement of the building would be cloaked in semi-darkness as always, the concrete floor a buffer between the building and the circulatory system of New York. I kept going, below the street, sinking through the layers of water system, subway tunnels, abandoned railroads, sewer pipes, and power lines that support the city as they cross and weave, braid and knot below ground. They burrow deep, 160 stories in some places, half again the height of the World Trade Center towers, straight down into the earth.
I dove for the floor of this mess, the bedrock that supports it all, but it eluded me. I saw instead the architecture of the city, suddenly unstable and trembling, streets and apartment buildings and skyscrapers balancing on a perforated foundation, as the whole city of New York bounced precariously on a sponge.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT/Flickr Creative Commons, Peter Burkel