Photo: Kamira / Shutterstock.com
The first time I was in New York, I was fifteen, my brother was eighteen, and we had two suitcases plus four unexpected hours before a flight. We left our bags in this girl Megan’s hotel room—a camp friend of his, long story—and skip-stepped with her into Manhattan on a sunny June day. She was staying in Midtown, which I only know now because the first thing I took a picture of on my hot pink point-and-shoot camera was Radio City Music Hall. Home of the Rockettes. I was a dancer, 5’9” and still growing, so this was the kind of thing I cared about.
We stopped in a souvenir shop so I could buy a t-shirt that said “I <3 New York,” because it was somewhat of a status symbol back home in suburban Iowa. All the theatre kids who’d been to the big apple wore them when they weren’t wearing shirts that said Aeropostale or American Eagle or Abercrombie & Fitch.
Megan and my brother were too cool for t-shirts, but they bought steel-toned souvenir lighters even though neither of them smoked. Next I wanted to see Broadway, Times Square, and Central Park, but when they realized their Zippos hadn’t come with lighter fluid, suddenly the only thing that mattered to them was finding somewhere to buy it. We tried a convenience store, then entered an underground labyrinth through an Anthropologie, exiting forty-five minutes later through a Banana Republic.
You think you’re cool, I thought at Megan. Because you’re staying here for a week.
You’re such a pushover, I thought at my brother. You’re probably following her around because you like her.
At Megan again: You’re ruining my trip.
“We don’t want to look like tourists,” she said after I’d taken photos of a cathedral, a horse-drawn carriage, a fruit stand, the American Girl Doll store, and a person dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Once again I thought in her direction: We are tourists.
They finally found their lighter fluid and proceeded to spill it all over their shoes. “Well, I’ll do this later,” Megan said, and then we ate slices of pizza as big as our faces.
It was finally my turn to take the lead, but I didn’t know how to get us where I wanted to go, so we just kept wandering around with me at the head. This was 2010, before smartphones, or at least before teens like us had phones that connected to the internet. The hand-me-down flip phone I carried had run out of juice, because the battery usually lasted for a week, and I’d expected to be home by now so I hadn’t packed a charger. Manhattan is a grid, sure, but that only helps if you know where you are going, if you have a map.
I dragged Megan and my brother into the multi-story Capezio dancewear store where I snapped a picture of my reflection in a ballerina-shaped mirror. The flash covers my face, but not my lime-green long-sleeved shirt with a white cami peeking out the bottom. Outside I took pictures of the signs for Mama Mia!, Wicked, The Late Show, the Lego Store, and M&M World, but the only other place they agreed to go inside was Godiva, where we each got a free truffle.
When I finally spotted a street sign that said Broadway, I took a picture of it against the backdrop of a construction façade before we got our bags from Megan’s and she helped my brother hail a cab.
I moved to New York eight years later and had the profoundest sense of déjà vu walking around Rockefeller Center. I’ve been here, I thought in one spot, but not here a block over. Must have walked right past the building that is now my office. Now I know the way to Times Square and avoid it by heart. The city never sleeps, never waits, but it never leaves either, and if someday it sinks into the ocean it will just become the new Atlantis, buzzing 24-7 with bioluminescent aquatic life.
On a balmy day in April 2019, I strode past Radio City for at least the umpteenth time, 6-feet tall with no more dreams of dancing, on my way to meet a boy for a date in a coffee shop I have never been able to find again.
Emily Polson is a Pushcart-nominated writer whose work has appeared in HAD, Salt Hill Journal, Capsule Stories, Wizards in Space, and elsewhere. She earned a BFA in creative writing from Belhaven University. Originally from Iowa, she now lives in Brooklyn and works as an editor at Scribner. You can find her on Twitter @emilycpolson.