The day I gave up on New York, I would be late to work, but no one knew that but an overweight black labrador named Nathan. It was 2010, and jobs were as scarce as ever. The only leisure I could afford was music and beer. I had holes in the bottoms of my shoes and paid half of my $800 rent in small bills.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I used my college degree to take Nathan out for a shit and a pee, after which I would accompany his owners, the three daughters of a Park Slope rabbi, to their after-school piano lessons.
My other job was to work for $2/hour plus tips at a Greek diner on 4th Avenue, wearing a blue polo shirt that was too small for me, trying not to get yelled at by the owner’s balding sons for mistaking platters for baskets and spooning rice pudding directly from the serving tray into my mouth.
I justified my under-employment by recording spikes of activity on the sidewalks of Prospect Heights, good or bad, in a notebook. Car accidents, people tripping or fighting on Washington Avenue, the inability to pay my tab at the bagel and coffee place across the street. I was always hungry.
When I walked into their apartment that day, Nathan was lying on his side under the dining room table. To his left, a large pile of bright yellow plastic gathered on the rug.
Nathan had committed many acts of vandalism inside the Rothstein apartment, so I was not surprised. Knocked over trash, ripped up throw pillows, and once, the chewed body of a silverfish that I at first thought was chocolate. Nathan was a depressed dog, which neither the rabbi or the psychoanalyst who paid me to walk him seemed to notice.
The little girls noticed, though. Mina, seven, and Lisa, ten, would take their slim ankled, designer-shoed feet and kick him lightly in the stomach when he would give up playing with them after a couple minutes. “Nathan!” they would screech. “What is your deal?”
At first, I had defended him. “Let him be,” I used to say, patting him on the back. “He’s tired.”
When I was new at the job, new to Brooklyn, Nathan was still excited about my strange smell. I let him lead me through the brownstone-lined blocks in whatever direction he pleased. We always ended at the park, where he trotted, dragging his tongue, rupturing our path in a sudden upward motion toward circles of pigeons, whipping his body through the rustle of their wings, snapping at their flight. I used to laugh at these surges, looking around at fellow walkers to share in my amusement. No one laughed with me. I would bend and rub him behind his ears, under his chin.
While Nathan lay under the table, I squatted to examine which product he had pulled out of the trash, and noticed moist cubes of a brown, sponge-like substance still intact. Among the rippled teeth marks and drool on the wrapper, an image of a rodent lay glassy-eyed on its back, its feet in the air.
“D-Con Bait Pellets,” it read. Rat poison.
“Holy shit, Nathan,” I called to him. “Holy shit!”
Nathan raised his head from the floor at the sound of his name. I crouched next to him, my hand on the hillside of his black belly, and dialed the girls’ mother.
Her name was Rachel. She was the head of a loving, intelligent, understanding family. I often wished I could work as Rachel’s assistant, or perhaps be one of her patients. She would ask me all the right questions after she handed me a check. How was I, how did I like Brooklyn, was I making friends. We spoke of books, and writing, and relationships. But then I would have to leave for my second job, or it would be time for their dinner. I was not a part of their family, and I was not old or rich enough to be their friend.
“Hello, Lara,” Rachel said when she picked up the phone. I could hear the sound of her heels vibrate as they hit the pavement.
“Rachel,” I said. “Nathan got into the rat poison.”
“Oh, my God,” she said.
“What do I do?”
“Is he alive?”
“Yes. He seems fine right now.” This was true, aside from the reflective puddling in his brown eyes, almost as if he were about to shed tears. But maybe he had always looked like that.
Rachel took a sharp breath. “Take him on a walk as usual. Take him to get the girls. I’ll call the vet and meet you wherever you are to pick him up.”
“Okay.” I felt his nose. Dry, steady air.
“How much did he eat?”
I straightened and strode to the pile. Nathan let out a long, quiet sigh. “Almost all of it.”
I said nothing. I took him on a walk, as usual.
Walking around that city, especially if you have nowhere to be, can make you feel like every day is a postcard you are writing from vacation. Dear everyone, Had a nice morning. Saw a woman wearing platform heels and a Kentucky Derby hat, a pregnant pigeon, a famous, tousled Jewish writer, his hands in his pockets. Probably swing by the Brooklyn Museum later. Hope you’re well.
This is my life, you think. Even the hard parts: I can’t believe this is my life.
My apartment in Prospect Heights had a staircase to the roof surrounded by other gray rooftops, but you could see the museum column for column, and off in the distance to the other side, a LEGO version of Manhattan. You could bring beer up there and there was a little wooden, handmade bench where you could sit and listen to the constant ocean of traffic on Washington Avenue and see the colors change on the Empire State Building.
Nathan was still walking, which was surprising for two reasons: one, that he had eaten poison, and two, this was about the time when we both got tired.
As our routine had burrowed into the days, Nathan had stopped getting up to greet me. A couple weak wags of his bony tail, and a robotic spring to the door when I took the leash off its hook. I had become a ticket out of the apartment, and nothing more.
He would do his business and then, on a whim, decide that the walk was over. Just as he used to make a spontaneous run for the birds, he would suddenly lay down in the middle of the sidewalk next to busy streets, blocking passersby. I would bend to him like the old days, the warm weight of his shit in a plastic bag against my thigh, and put my fingers around his collar to lift him up.
I would have to yank him up by the leash, dragging him by his claws.
“Come on, Nathan,” I would plead. “You think I want to be doing this? This is for you,” I would whisper. “Let’s just get home.”
The day Nathan ate rat poison, I said his name, but I was speaking to both of us. When I spoke of home to him, I spoke of his lavish rug under the dark oak table, the full bowl of food he eschewed for rat poison. Do you know how good you have it?
I never told the Rothsteins about Nathan’s piles of trash. I should have told them.
“My poor baby,” Rachel said, when she called me again to check on him. “Lara.”
“Don’t tell the girls. Don’t tell them anything.”
We took a right outside the building, toward the park. He went no slower than usual, sniffing at the spindly trees he had sniffed a thousand times before. When I ushered him through a crosswalk, away from the park toward 7th Ave, he took four small steps and stopped.
Nathan stiffened and hunched his back. I held my breath.
Instead of collapsing, Nathan pushed out three long pieces of shit successively, compact and stained red. Blood. His insides were coming out.
I knew how he felt. I’d get off work and take the subway across the bridge, holding a pint of cheap gin in a soda water bottle. I would meet college acquaintances at bars in the East Village to watch them take their clothes off or tell jokes on small stages, muttering “cunts” under my breath at the proud-footed models who passed by, on their way somewhere else we weren’t allowed. We took breaks in the unisex bathrooms surrounded by gallery receptionists and Connecticut summer camp directors doing coke off of iPhone screens.
We were all young and idiotic and weak, pushing against all fractions of this city: its past, which we had absorbed and romanticized; its present, perfumed and confused and hostile; and its future, which was unfolding over old buildings in clean metal slats, shutting us out.
Then I’d go home with someone and wake up at sunrise as if I’d been drowning, gurgling, next to an alien. The subway ride home from a one-night stand in New York is nausea in the form of a city. Lost in throbbing intestines with no end, puking everything you bought with your rent money into platform trashcans.
After one of these nights, I skipped work in the morning and decided to find the Chelsea Hotel. I walked up and down 3rd Ave on a day in a late winter, kicking ice chunks and soaking my boots in dirty puddles, stepping out of the way of busier people. When I saw the hanging sign and the wire balconies, I rejoiced. I took a large sip of Gatorade, swishing the neon liquid around to wash out the vomit, and thought of all those who had probably stood where I stood, trying to wash the taste of last night out of their mouths. Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Dylan Thomas, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell. Their ghosts comforted me. Told me it was all right to fuck up, to feel lost.
It’s all the stuff of old photos, if you want to find it. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to come there without writing or painting or singing about it, but then you realize the stuff you’re supposed to write about feels good for about as long as Lou Reed’s longer songs. They have done so much for you, these ghosts, and you are too tired and broke to do anything for them, or anyone else. You realize you spent your last $3 on a Gatorade, and don’t have enough money on your MetroCard to get home.
I walked all the way from the Chelsea Hotel to Brooklyn. My feet were so cold I couldn’t feel them.
This isn’t interesting to anyone, I had thought. This is just hard.
After he finished, Nathan kept walking. I went at his rickety pace, letting him put his nose to everything he wanted. Other dogs. Random leaves. Hamburger wrappers.
If I were a dog, I wondered, what would I want to do on my last walk? I thought of Nathan’s desperate hunger, desperate and stupid enough to eat poison, and I thought of my own.
We passed a diner. I strapped Nathan to a parking meter and went inside.
When I emerged ten minutes later with a steaming, styrofoam box of chicken fingers, Nathan was still alive, sitting, watching a squirrel across the street.
I sat on a stoop and fed them to him one by one. He threw his head back to catch them fully in his mouth, like he was laughing.
“You want some barbeque sauce?”
First, I dipped the chicken in the maroon sauce for him, and then when it was all gone, I let Nathan dip his tongue into the plastic ramequin, licking it clean. His tail wagged as he did this, wiggling his backside.
Mina and Lisa were waiting, balanced side by side on the high curb of their elementary school. When they spotted Nathan and I, they leaped toward us, their puffy, camel colored boots making splatting sounds as they ran. Mina wore a vest covered in sequins, casting gold dots on her face and on her sister’s. Lisa had applied some sort of purple chapstick. Her lips and the surrounding skin were a glossy lavender blue.
“Nathan!” they cried. “Nathan, Nathan, Nathan!”
Nathan bowed his head, licking an anonymous dark circle on the ground.
As we walked, he lagged behind.
“What’s the matter with him?” Lisa asked.
I should tell them he’s dying, I thought. Not because I wanted them to be sad, but because maybe they could absorb it. Take it in to their little bodies and dissolve it, bleach it out with their light. They loved living there. They loved their life.
“He’s just tired,” I said.
Nathan stopped again. He let out another piece of shit, redder this time. The girls screamed in unison, putting fingers on their noses to keep out the non-existent smell. Then they skipped farther up the block, pulling each other’s hair.
Nathan lay down. Mina screeched from up the street, “Come on, you guys!”
“We have to keep going, Nathan,” I said, but I didn’t mean it. If he died right there on the sidewalk, between a No Parking sign and a trashcan, I would get the urge to lie down there with him. Rachel would come for Nathan in her van and have no idea what to do with my body, diminishing cellulite covered in holed leggings and a oversized sweater that belonged my older brother, belly swollen with processed food.
It’s not that I wanted to die, but now that Nathan would be gone, my usefulness had diminished. I could lie down and be swept up and replaced. That’s what I thought. I realize now you don’t have to be noticed or useful to live, but I didn’t know that then. I don’t think I could have accepted it. It was the magic-markered flatness in which young people see any sort of world, not just New York.
We discover that cities are an organism of which we are a part, not a setting for our individual lives, or an answer to our questions. What is it about you that makes life worth living? I was asking this, as people did in movies and songs, but the city itself had no answer. But part of me wishes it did. I wish I had stayed until I demanded the New York of “Rhapsody in Blue” unearth itself for me, which may have taken my whole life. But god, if it had happened, it would have been worth it.
The other part of me knows it already happened, the unearthing. It happened, undocumented, in moments that I had forgotten to be dissatisfied, when I had forgotten my fantasies. This part of me has learned that our lives, no matter where we are, do not build to a crescendo.
That day, I sat down next to Nathan on the curb and let him be, listening through the traffic for the air coming out of his nostrils, like he was sleeping. A few weeks later, instead of paying my rent, I would buy a ticket out of New York. Wake up, Nathan, I told him silently. And forget everything you knew before you fell asleep.
As far as I know, we would both survive.
Front page image by Thomas Leuthard.