In the midst of a separation leading up to a divorce, I was sitting by myself in Central Park with a steaming plate of fragrant kebab from thehalalguys, and all I wanted to do was talk to my (ex-)husband. So I called him—yes, it’s that kind of a divorce. We still call each other and help each other out. We’re friends on Facebook and I am respectfully packing his stuff and neatly keeping it aside to be shipped to him.
The separation has been easier than expected, nevertheless, it’s been a tough year. My husband and I realised, early in 2015, that we were just friends and room mates, had been for a while, and it was time for us to move on. In June last year, I applied for a writer’s residency in the US and he applied for a job in Islamabad. He left in July. I left in August. I spent two months in the US, travelling from Vermont to Rhode Island to New York. I walked around Boston for a day, New York City for two, Providence for a week. I met up with old friends, made quite a few new ones and sadly said goodbye to my status as a married woman. I took pictures everywhere I went and did my best to see ‘the sights’ wherever I was. My trip to New York was bittersweet—my husband and I had planned a trip together several years ago.
The two days I spent in New York were with a friend, someone who had travelled with me from Rochester to NYC by bus. We pulled up at the Port Authority terminal at eight in the evening, and walked down to Times Square from there, dragging our respective bags along behind us. It was my first visit to New York city in twenty-seven years. The last time I had been there had been with my parents and siblings, en route to Disney World and Washington. I don’t remember much of that trip, except that the airline had lost our luggage, and we were all washing more clothes than I would have liked on holiday.
This time, I wasn’t staying at an anonymous hotel. My friend’s cousin had a swanky apartment between 37th Street and 1st Avenue, and she was kind enough to offer us a bed for the three nights we would be in the city. We walked into an ostentatious lobby with a concierge, crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and large oil portraits lining the halls towards the elevator bank. I was a little overwhelmed until I walked into the apartment. It was tiny. The ‘swanky’ apartment had one living room, one bedroom, a kitchenette and a bathroom. The whole apartment was the size of my living room back in Karachi. I was stunned. There were great views from the building (which we saw the next morning. It was past ten when we got to the apartment), but there was barely enough room for the four of us (my friend, myself, and my two hosts) to bunk in the apartment. There was certainly no hope for privacy.
I never asked (and I never will), but I’m still wondering how much my hosts (a young couple starting a new life together) paid in rent, and how the hell they could afford an apartment, small as it was, in such an upmarket building. None of my business.
When I finally did get over the size and the feeling that I was in a college dorm, I was grateful to have a place to stay. New York was expensive, and I had other things to think about, like going to see an opera the next night (The Bonfire of the Vanities at El Museo del Barrio in the Upper East side of Manhattan) or checking out the museums — things that I would never have done had I been there with my husband.
When my friend and I left that first morning, we headed out towards the Brooklyn Bridge Park, where, we were told with some reliability, there was a great art exhibition in progress. The exhibition, it turned out, was over, but we had taken the ferry to get to the park, which was an adventure in itself, because once we were out on the water and sailing towards Brooklyn Bridge, New York City shimmered against the sunlight behind us, a skyline that has probably been in more movies and TV shows than any other city in the world.
On my way home from New York two days later, my friend stopped at several gift stores to buy presents for her family, and I was surrounded by the I heart NY logo and silhouettes of this famous skyline. The silhouette doesn’t do justice to the feeling of being a tiny ant amidst towering skyscrapers, which is a feeling I got while floating alongside the coast on the ferry. Nor does it capture the exhilaration (as a tourist and someone who was there for two days) of walking the streets. I did that for two days and I loved it. I walked from the East River Ferry terminal on 34th Street to Lexington and 45th, where my friend and I had lunch at a fancy ‘urban food court’. I don’t recall what it was called, but it was a cramped space with several food stalls, a place where we could pick and choose the kind of food we wanted.
From Lexington, we walked to the New York Public Library, where we got to see exquisite prints by women and elaborate murals on the walls and ceilings.
We walked from the library to the Rockefeller Center and from there to the MoMA. It was a Friday afternoon, entry to the museum was free, and we bustled along with a huge crowd of students and tourists to gaze amazingly at works by Gaugin, Juan Gris, Mondrian, Picasso and Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Nights — an unexpected treat. We had no idea that the MoMA had acquired the painting, and if my friend hadn’t caught a glimpse in between the hordes of bodies thronging the galleries, we may have missed it altogether.
Even with the press of people standing in front of the painting, the electricity of van Gogh’s strokes was palpable. It was as powerful a feeling as I had the next day, when I walked through the galleries of the Met and stood in the presence of greatness. Artists long gone have left their mark, and like the skyscrapers that cleave through the sky of the city, the works of these artists make me feel small, insignificant. Two steps away from Starry Nights was one of Jackson Pollock’s largest paintings, One: Number 31. It seemed like a natural pairing, van Gogh’s frustrated, impatient and bold strokes creating a dense texture and unique abstraction of a simple night sky, and Pollock’s deliberate and patient drip painting that is so carefully plotted and yet somehow mimics the frenzy of van Gogh’s work.
The MoMA is inspirational, and it will be my lasting regret that I had less than two hours and barely managed to scratch the surface of the second floor. We had tickets to an opera waiting for us, and the theater was at least an hour away. The MoMA is on W 53rd St, and we needed to travel to 104th Street. At six that evening, my friend and I boarded a bus and headed north.
I found out later that we were a few streets shy of Harlem, which I would have liked to see (who knows, I might just have come across the Harlem Globetrotters!). At the time, we got off to a light a drizzle barely visible in the yellow street lights, in front of a line of small shops and restaurants. One after another, there were tiny cafes offering Chinese, Indian, and fast food. We wanted tea at this point and some food before we entered the theater. Night had fallen and the shops were brightly lit, but the food didn’t look too appetizing, so we settled for tea. A friendly man in a grocery store was selling tea in paper cups for 75 cents. He was from Bangladesh, and when he found out that we were from Pakistan (‘Oh, same country!’), he gave us the tea for 50 cents apiece. I was delighted, more by his exclamation than his discount. Bangladesh was once East Pakistan (Pakistan was initially a non-contiguous country, divided into two wings with the entire width of India in between. Clearly, the British should never have been in charge of drawing borders on a world map), and the split was not amicable, so his friendliness was unexpected.
The entrance to the theater was around the block and we took our tea and bags of chips with us. The front lobby was under renovation and the building was partly hidden behind scaffolding. The rain had started to fall a little harder than before. In the short time before the opera started, my friend and I finished our tea and had a smoke just outside the glass doors of the museum.
Just across from the museum is Central Park, a dark slash of trees bathed in the soft glow of New York’s street lights. The street in front of the museum was empty and damp, peaceful, a stark contrast to the seething mass of humanity that obscures the sidewalks of the city by day. It was almost eight in the evening, and it felt like the first time since breakfast that I had slowed down. We had been on the move since we caught the ferry at ten in the morning, and had seen an incredible number of sights. We had tasted the foods and pounded the sidewalks, travelled by bus and through the subway. My sister had told me that the best way to blend in to New York was to walk very fast. I forgot to do that, no doubt looking like any tourist as I gazed left, right and up, up, up, in complete awe.
This was our first day in New York and it still wasn’t over.
But that’s going to be part II of this post, when I remember calling my ex-husband from Central Park, having wine and a pleasant conversation at one in the morning in a club in Grand Central Station, and sharing a smoke with a homeless man under a bridge by the East River. Until next week, then.