After a number of years, I returned to the city for a short visit. I had a little money in my pocket and a little vacation time saved, and it seemed like the appropriate moment for a trip. I was excited to observe the old neighborhood and walk the usual streets, my heart no longer broken with the grief of departure.
The old neighborhood was entirely new, and the usual streets were unusual. The corner deli was a bank, and the coffee shop was a different, cleaner coffee shop, sterile and bright. The junk boutique I had loved was now an insurance office.
“When did the boutique close?” I asked a man entering the office.
“This was a boutique? I thought it was a juice bar.”
I had missed two whole real-estate revolutions. How long had I actually been gone? I fingered the tiny beaded bracelet I had purchased from a glass case at the front of the boutique, remembered how it had been badly tangled with a bulky set of clip-on earrings.
Something about the air was not as I remembered it. There was a different smell to proceedings. It wasn’t a bad smell, just a different texture, up and down the avenue. I sat on a bench and waited for a waft of the food and sewage and vegetation that would whisk me back in time, but the wind carried ideas and flavors unfamiliar to me. Or was it that the wind carried no flavor at all? It was a blank sort of sensation that settled in my bones. That night, I fell asleep on top of the sheets on a bed in a brand of hotel where you can accumulate points all over the world.
I spent the morning at the museum and the afternoon at the park. At dinner with my old friend Nonny, we talked about jobs and television and changing times. None of this tempered the fact that Nonny was no longer Nonny.
“What do you mean you don’t recognize me?” Nonny cried, grabbing my shoulders, outside the restaurant, on the street.
“Well you look just the same,” she said, and I noticed something about the shape of her jaw, the uptick of her lip as she spoke, not Nonny-like at all. Had her hair always formed a widow’s peak at the top of her forehead?
“Did you do something to your face?” I asked.
“What!” she said, tilting her head back and howling with laughter, and not ever answering my question. She ate shellfish by the bowl, despite the shellfish allergy I was so sure she had indicated in the past.
In the past, Nonny and I would go see movies after dinner with our friend Charlie, and that’s what we did that night. The old movie theater, of course, had been foreclosed, sold and plowed to the ground, and so we took the bus across town to a brand new cinema. My chest tightened and heaved with each jolt of traffic, and I clutched the backs of the seats to steady myself. You see, I could handle the world not being as it was, so long as Charlie was still Charlie.
He stood a good few inches taller and slimmer, the face and hair of someone else entirely, not the someone I had so dearly loved. He was waving at us from the corner in an exaggerated, Charlie-less way. He bought popcorn and soda and hugged me in the nook of his arm, a ritual we had never practiced before, but it felt familiar, despite being new.
“How did you spend your day?” Charlie asked me, sitting in the dark, watching the trailers. Nonny flung popcorn into her mouth.
“I took a trip up to the museum, and then the park.”
Charlie and Nonny exchanged a look.
“Which museum?” Charlie asked. “Which park?”
It was a fair question, considering, as they explained, that the parks and museums were long gone. First the parks were replaced with museums, and then the museums with parks, and then everyone threw their hands up in the air and settled on building three large vending machines.
“It just goes to show,” Nonny said, without saying what it showed, or how, or to whom. A grave expression settling around her mouth, along with several unpopped kernels.
I could have sworn that I had seen the new exhibition at the museum just that very morning, the one with portrait photography, and then a walk through the fall foliage, but perhaps that was a different day, a different year, my mistake. The city was out of sorts, but, then again, so was I. Out of sorts and out of place.
“Are you okay?” Charlie asked.
“Everything feels strange,” I said.
“Not everything!” he said, putting an arm around Nonny and kissing her on the cheek, then the mouth, then pulling her into his lap and unbuttoning her blouse.
I laughed so I would not cry. Who were these people?
The movie was a comedy, a farce where characters kept opening doors they shouldn’t have opened, ending up in the wrong rooms at the wrong times. One person died at the very beginning, and then everything that came next was charming and harmless.
“Should we go for a drink?” Nonny asked as the lights came up. She was still in Charlie’s lap, her legs around his shoulders and over the back of his seat.
“Yes, let’s!” Charlie said.
“Why not,” I said, agreeing with these two strangers.
We walked down the street arm in arm, singing a song that resembled a dirge.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Charlie asked me, over the rim of his beer.
“Talk about what?”
“I still think about it, you know. The day you left.”
I sipped my cocktail. For the life of me, I could not remember. I could not remember ever leaving at all. I could not remember arriving, either. Perhaps I had taken a train. That sounded right, so I allowed it to be true.
“Did I make a scene?” I asked Charlie. “When I left?”
“Oh, well, you know,” Charlie laughed, “everyone makes a scene when things draw to a close.”
Nonny smiled. “I haven’t forgotten that day,” she said solemnly, and they raised their glasses. Confused, I followed their lead and raised mine, too.
Outside, the pavement buckled over roots of trees, wet with rain and smelling of early spring. I sort of remembered this. Other things, too. The feeling of turning that particular corner down a particular street. The view of the summer sunset at the root of the avenue. The first smell of snow wafting down along the edges of the subway platform, the first flurries falling through a sidewalk grate, and down onto the tracks. I clutched these familiar things to my chest. The skyline still glowed, and the money was still tight, and Charlie still loved someone else. There were chimes from a distant cathedral. I recognized a bar or two, and then the song changed. I knew that this time, once I departed the city, I would not soon return.
This piece is part of Culture Trip’s original fiction project on the theme of arrivals and departures in London, New York City and Hong Kong.