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The Tribal Knot

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Tribal Knot

And We Shall Be Changed: New York City, September 2001

from The Kenyon Review

Friday, September 7

           We’re at the breakfast table, the cat Leila curled on the chair between us. Donald has almost finished his bagel, but I’m still groggy--the second cup of coffee hasn’t yet kicked in--and I’m staring at the living room window, admiring, in a bleary sort of way, the white gauze curtain we recently draped across the top. I look around the room, studying the few possessions we brought with us from North Carolina: the theater posters, my grandmother’s afghan, the painting of a long-necked woman standing beside a peacock. I fantasize about planting something in the clay pots our landlords left behind, still filled with soil, on the tiny Juliet balcony.

           The white curtain softens the view of high-rise offices and gives the illusion of privacy, although I know the office workers across the street can see us because we can see them. White is impractical, of course, what with the exhaust fumes from the Sixth Avenue buses and the steam from the ancient radiator, but the sheer curtain allows for at least a touch of light. Light is what I’ve missed most since we moved to the city three years ago. Although sun shines on much of New York--Central Park is sun-flooded, as is much of the Village, and the light scattering across the Hudson can hurt your eyes--, here in midtown, in the canyon of skyscrapers, sun peeks through our apartment shyly, for an hour a day at most.

           When the first signs of light appear, I get up from my writing desk and move to the green rug where Leila is already stretched out. I lie beside her on my back, kick off my shoes, let the brightness pour over my face, my feet. Some days I think of my family and friends in North Carolina, the house we sold so that we could afford a furnished sublet here, the hundred-year oaks that shaded our yard, the lost garden and its changing light. But most days I just say thank you to no one in particular, for this city, for the miracle of millions of toilets flushing all at once, for cheap, abundant flowers and unidentifiable produce on street corners, for the rich broth of languages I hear on my walks, for the public library where the check-out clerk stands on a stool, a dwarf with thalidomide sprouts for arms and a scar down the side of her face, who stamps whatever book I bring to her without asking any questions. New York is a great place to be noticed or not to be noticed, to find yourself or lose yourself, depending on what you need. A few years ago, walking in Central Park, I saw what looked like several small paddle boats floating in the south pond. They turned out to be part of an installation entitled “A-Z Deserted Islands.” The artist had anchored them so that they maintained a comfortable distance from each other without ever touching. The boats seemed to me then and seem to me now to be the perfect metaphor for New York City. Isolation is what makes living here possible. An island can be a refuge, like those islands in the middle of an intersection that keep you safe until the traffic clears....

And We Shall Be Changed: New York City, September 2001
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