It is night. There are no stars in this city, but I imagine that if there were they would be hanging close, fingers-lengths above. Instead, the streetlight draws close, and the shadows thicken, and every midtown storefront is become a tableaux of glaring, bright-lit luxury. Night is full of watchers, people who bend close to the edges of circles of light, so as to see without being seen, to murmur and mutter and call from their corners while I walk past with my hands in my pockets and my eyes tracing the edges of the buildings where they cut into the sky, this tracery of a city. I am waiting, and it is a palpable thing, a living creature that breathes in my chest. The air is cold and hard, but not so much as to be utterly unpleasant, and I find my feet, banished by closing time from most of their usual haunts, pointed towards Grand Central Station.
I haven’t been lost in a long time. Living in a grid-based city for my entire life, I have learned to navigate every corner of every neighborhood. The map is traced easy somewhere on the back of my mind. Perhaps my veins and arteries have rearranged themselves to trace out city streets, blood flowing towards or away from my heart depending on the direction of traffic. I have been known to wear through shoes in a matter of months, and my feet are hard from walking. I know these sidewalks, know the undulations of the way New York lives, know with metronomic certainty where I am, where I am going. But I am heavy, weighed by sandbags tied close around my constant motion, full of fog. I am missing a limb, a fragment of self. But the stars, sometimes, make me remember what it is to feel whole.
I like that you can go places in the city that never empty out, that spend the darkest hours awake with you, that are always running: for a train, for a dinner. For nothing in particular, but simply for the thrill of wind, for the slipstream motion of rushing through time. We gather, us citizens of the darkest hours, in the oldest places, places that have seen other late-night wakers, other hurriers and biders of time. Grand Central Station has seen so many million footprints, has worn so many million faces on so many thousand days. These constellations have watched unwavering as all of us pass in quiet awe beneath them, counting seconds and stairs, turning quarters and pulling at loose threads in our pockets. It is comforting to know this, as much as it is comforting to feel the warmed air wrap soft against my skin, to live again, if only for a few moments, in the light.
I haven’t been lost in a long time. But I haven’t known where I am, either. I have been pulling apart charts and maps and sentences, living in between letters and small patches of ink, as though I might carve myself back into being. Perhaps I am only my shadow, wandered away from myself as I sleep. Perhaps I am sleeping still, for this shadow-self is certain only of her haplessness, of the things that slip eager between her fingers, running in slippery curtains like silk, trailing past in ticking seconds. I am reassured by the bronze around the high windows, still frames for the flat night, by the arc of the green ceiling, by the echoing cacophony I have swathed myself in. I am reassured that lostness is not uncommon, and that this is, still, a place known. And yet a place undiscovered, a place of unknown faces, strange languages. Downstairs, the restaurants are closing, and the people waiting for their trains grow weary, their eyelids full of the promise of sleep, not yet fulfilled. I will not sleep for hours yet, and when I do the night will turn from friendship into a foreign thing, heavy and close, suffocating, beating, with the waiting, in the hollows of my lungs. But it is pleasant to be lost here, for a moment, for a sliver of an hour, where nobody can see it in my face, and the stars, above, are singing in words we do not understand, about their cousins high above, made invisible by the blinding light of the city, leaning close.
Written by Esther Mathieu
Artwork by Abigail Jennings